The earpiece crackled, and the voice asked the question for a second time. Sitting at the bar, the man in the leather jacket sipped his drink and smiled. Directly in front of him was a mirror, and his reflection stared back with no small measure of confidence—and an abundance of resolve.
“An American died for this treaty, Dmitri; let’s make sure his sacrifice counts,” the Ukrainian breathed. “Besides, it’s a little late to back out now.” His tone suggested a smooth, experienced disposition, but the reality went much deeper than that, touching instead on the spiritual. He stared at the glass in his hand. “How do you drink this stuff?”
Again, the wireless device sounded deep within his ear. “It’s an acquired taste, Oleg.” Dmitri Yaroslav enunciated carefully. He had trained himself to use that name only. “Was it expensive?”
The Ukrainian frowned. “Twenty hryvnia,” he answered. “Why?”
“Cheap stuff,” Dmitri snorted. “Drink it slowly. The alcohol content is probably more than you’re used to.”
“Don’t make fun,” Oleg warned. “When this is all over, I’ll buy you a round.”
“Ya viddayu perevahu pivo, tavarisch,” Dmitri shot back. I prefer beer. A case officer with Ukraine’s security services, Yaroslav was a native of Kiev, and his accent confirmed it. “Is Pyotr in place?”
“He’s in a booth,” Oleg replied, “nursing a whiskey.”
Dmitri’s voice rose slightly. “And our other friends?”
The frown gave way to a smile. “They’re close.”
“Very well,” Yaroslav sighed. “Now stay sharp—your contacts are just coming in.”
“So I see.”
The conversation ceased. Boris Isakov has arrived, the Ukrainian thought silently, with a bit of eye candy on his arm, it would seem.
The Ukrainian stared ahead. He never turned, but his eyes followed three men and a woman as they entered the bar. Each man was turned out in a dark suit; the woman wore a short, black skirt, split on one side with a scalloped neckline. She was clearly proud of her long legs—among her other ample assets—and Oleg allowed himself a moment to take in her beauty.
He identified her instantly, having seen her photograph during the morning briefing. Nadia Kolvec was Boris’s consort and technical associate, serving as the Russian’s number one. And Nadia wasn’t just a pretty face; she was suspected in the deaths of two Ukrainian police officers. Dmitri recognized her as well. He was growing nervous, but kept his emotions in check.
The group of four began the long walk from the entrance to Oleg’s stool. Two of the men peeled off, taking positions at each end of the bar. Boris moved casually to Oleg’s three o’clock, awkwardly close. A tactical consideration, the Ukrainian mused; most shooters were right-handed, and Boris must have felt that planting himself there would give him an advantage, should gun-play break out.
“Oleg Kerensky?” Boris muttered. He sounded perturbed, upset that Oleg hadn’t spoken first.
“Oleg Avarysius Kerensky.” He never looked up, but scrutinized the woman’s features as she found a seat. The bartender instinctively stayed away. “Boris Isakov?”
A grunt; there would be very little in the way of pleasantries. “Are you ready to do business?”
“What’s your hurry?” Kerensky paused for effect. “I am ready to consider doing business,” he answered. “And what of you? Did you bring the sale item?” Merchandise sounded so cliché, and trite terminology was something the Ukrainian wanted to avoid.
“Possibly,” Isakov hedged. “Are you armed?”
Oleg laughed softly, and then lowered his voice. “Of course I’m armed; I have a Glock on my right hip. And we all know your men are carrying.”
Boris raised an eyebrow. His precautions would do him little good; Kerensky might, under ideal circumstances—circumstances that favored him—draw a bead before the Russian could pin his shooting arm.
“Let’s keep things civil, Boris,” Oleg advised. An admiring glance went to the lady, but he displayed more interest than he really felt. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
“Nadia Kolvec, my chief of staff,” Isakov answered smugly. “You may look, Oleg Avarysius Kerensky—just don’t touch.”
The Ukrainian’s eyes bored into Nadia’s. He wore a four day-growth of beard and drew a hand across his chin. “You have property I covet, Boris. But I have no interest in your woman.”
“A pity.” Nadia was not one for wasting words, and Oleg saw her smile. She liked what she saw, and if conditions were different, she would have enjoyed this handsome foreigner.
Game on, Kerensky decided.
For the first time Oleg turned his face toward the Russian mafia boss. “Shall we commence the transaction?”
“Now who is in a hurry?” There was an edge in his voice, but Isakov seemed to relax. “I require more confirmation. How do I know you are who you say you are?”
Oleg heaved a sigh. “Let me put your concerns at ease, Pan Isakov. You received a promise of payment—a back channel pledge of reward. You came here expecting to find Oleg Kerensky, and here I am. I was told to meet with Boris Isakov, and here you are. For my part I represent the Polish government, and they are very eager to know your employer.”
“But you’re Ukrainian,” Boris deflected.
“That is correct.”
“And you don’t like Russians, do you, Kerensky?”
An odd statement, Oleg thought. He gave Isakov an icy stare. “They have not been kind to my family, no.”
Boris’s eyes narrowed. “Why is Dobrogost so interested in what I have to sell?” He was fishing.
Oleg shrugged and wore a tired look. “His role in this has been withheld from me.”
That much was probably true, Boris considered. Damning evidence of any kind would be compartmentalized, and not even the messenger would be privy to the details. But Isakov wasn’t through yet.
“And why send a Ukrainian to broker the deal?”
“So many questions, tavarisch.” Oleg allowed his gaze to fall on the woman’s legs. Nadia Kolvec was undeniably beautiful. “Why hire a Russian to fence the sale item? And why here, on Ukrainian soil?”
The turnabout was unexpected, but Boris was quick to answer. “Probably so that no one party has the advantage.”
Oleg nodded. “A fair assumption.” Easy now, he cautioned himself. “And how do you know I’m Ukrainian?”
“Your accent. You are from Kiev.” That was also true, but there was so much more to Oleg than met the ear.
“I was born not far from here,” he answered truthfully. “If that is not enough, I can tell you more—my village, the names of the schools I attended. Anything you like—but I should warn you. Your resistance to this arbitration is embarrassing the lady.”
Boris reddened, but Oleg’s prodding had the desired effect. For all his protestations, Isakov was being drawn in to this charade. The Russian turned to his left and nodded, bringing one of his associates from the far end of the bar. As he approached, the man retrieved something from his coat pocket.
“A padlock storage device,” Oleg observed. “You take security very seriously, my Russian friend.”
“All in the name of protection,” Boris answered. “Do you know what’s on this drive?”
He shrugged it off. “Does it matter what I know?”
Isakov pursed his lips. “It would matter to me—if my life was on the line.”
There was an interested light in Nadia Kolvec’ eyes. “I think Gospodin Kerensky knows exactlywhat’s on the drive.” She smiled, and the intensity behind it was more than alarming. “Don’t you, Oleg?”
“Steady,” Dmitri’s voice whispered in Kerensky’s ear. “Something just happened—don’t let them put you on the defensive.”
The Ukrainian kept his cool and decided honesty was the best policy. “Details of the new Polish defense shield,” Oleg answered quietly. “Firewall protocols for the software; I am no expert in this new digital age, but in the wrong hands, the warheads of SMOOTH STONE could be rendered inert—”
“—allowing my country to decimate anyone who stands in our way,” Boris announced.
Oleg smiled again. “Are you a patriot, Boris Isakov?”
“More like a venture capitalist,” the Russian replied. “If I were a patriot, I wouldn’t be selling it back.” He turned the drive over in his hands. “But this seems a fool’s errand. The Poles could just as easily reconfigure the codes and protect the missiles’ integrity.”
“They already have.” Kerensky smiled broadly, the dimple in his left cheek barely visible beneath the stubble.
“So what’s the point of all this?” Boris asked.
Nadia stirred atop the barstool, crossing her legs and allowing the hem of her skirt to ride higher. “To entrap those who stole the codes,” she purred. From her clutch she withdrew a revolver and leveled it at the Ukrainian’s chest. “Put the drive away, Boris.”
“That’s not very friendly,” Oleg said evenly. The pistol was close enough that she wouldn’t miss. “And I thought the two of us were getting on so well.”
Nadia continued to stare but said nothing. She reached out, squeezing Oleg’s thighs.
“What’s going on?” Dmitri’s voice came again. “I don’t like this.”
“Looking for something, Pana Kolvec?” Oleg asked.
“Firearms,” she answered. Her hand moved forward.
“Easy, Nadia,” Kerensky’s voice nearly caught in his throat. “You won’t find any there.”
Smiling wickedly, she ignored Oleg’s warning and tightened her grip. “Look closely, Boris.” Her palm lingered before grasping Oleg’s Glock. She worked it free and laid it in her lap. “Don’t you recognize him?”
He was confused, but Isakov trusted the woman’s judgment. A hand went into his jacket, and the bodyguards assumed a more defensive posture.
“This is the champion of Poland’s agreement with the west,” Nadia continued. “The American Marine turned diplomat—Captain Neill, is it?”
“If you say so,” Kerensky smiled
“You’re sure—an American?” Boris asked. “His command of the language—”
Nadia sighed heavily. “Try watching the news, Boris. He’s a bit scruffy—but it’s definitely him.” She lowered herself slowly to the floor, eyeing the four corners of the bar. “I think it’s time we leave.”
Boris’s own sidearm was on full display now. “There’s an exit in the rear—”
“—and we’ll take Capitan Neill with us,” Nadia licked her lips, “to ensure a safe departure.” The revolver was still pointed at Neill’s chest. “There’s a price on his head in Moscow.”
“On my head?” The Marine feigned surprise. “I’m flattered—but I think I like it right here. Besides, my friends would hate to see me go.”
Boris and his men traded glances, their heads turning in every direction. “He’s not bluffing, Nadia.”
At this hour, the bar was filled with the criminal element. Drug dealers, thieves and prostitutes. And the setting was becoming more fluid. From the shadows of the darkly lit room, Isakov saw movement. Pyotr Stanislaw—a lieutenant in the Polish Army—rose slowly from his table and edged out onto the floor. On the opposite end, more men stood, concealing their flanks, arms hanging loosely at their sides.
There was a wild look in Nadia Kolvec’ eyes. She kept them on Neill and seemed frozen. Etched on her face was a cold determination; a boiling anger intent on recovering control. This was not what she and Boris had planned. The reward was out of the question now, but escape was still a possibility. As the bar’s ‘patrons’ circled closer, she decided it was time to change the circumstances.
It was time for a distraction.
“Da svedanya, Capitan.”
The .38’s report was much louder than expected, but it did the trick. The first round struck Neill center mass. The second went high, over his shoulder, striking the far wall. Neill fell back and landed on the bar room floor. Nadia thought to fire again, but Boris grabbed her arm and pulled her away. His henchmen brought up machine pistols—one held an Uzi—and began to fire into the air, inciting chaos.There were screams and the clattering of chairs as customers began a frantic search for cover...