Five years ago
Nikolai’s world was blood. It ran in crimson rivers before his eyes. He could feel its thick, sticky wetness on his skin and clothes as he ran, roaring, into the prison guards beyond his cell door. His gory handcuffs hung from one wrist, and he swung them like a mace, tearing more flesh, creating more blood. He didn’t care how many there were. He wanted more to fight, more to kill.
“Bring him down, now!”
Although the order penetrated his ears and his understanding, it didn’t slow him up. One of the guards, too close to shoot him, tried to hit him with the butt of his gun instead. Nikolai snatched it from him, felled him with a much more brutal blow of his own, and kicked him into his fellows. He increased his speed. He didn’t really know why—he was in hell, and wherever he ran to would still be hell. All he could do was kill and fight and yell his way along passages of prison guards and police, forcing his way through with as much violence as he could wreak.
Gunfire exploded in his head as he wielded the cuffs and his feet, using his whole body as a battering ram when necessary. But then there was no one to fight now, only guns firing where he couldn’t reach them, so all he could do was run. His body jerked sometimes, as if he’d been shot, but he didn’t feel the bullets, didn’t care. They didn’t slow him up.
Blood ran into his eyes, dripped from his body. He only wanted more.
“Draw him toward the door!” yelled the commander, his voice penetrating the chaos, as daylight began to pierce the dark, red mists through which Nikolai ran. “Units both sides! We’ve got him!”
Have you fuck.
It was his first conscious thought for a long time. They’d actually opened the heavy prison door to be sure he went in that direction. They thought it was a trap. He charged right through, jerking, swinging his cuffs and his fists, kicking, spinning, beating, breaking his way through bodies to fresh air.
Although the noise deafened him, none of it—not his own roars or the gunshots or yells of agony filling his ears from every direction—could drown out the screaming in his head. Even then, in the midst of the blood-madness, he knew it was the kind of screaming that went on forever.
As soon as she entered the bar, Jen knew she’d struck gold.
Not that every hair on her body didn’t rise up in alarm, or every brain cell shriek warnings that this place was neither safe nor healthy. It was gloomy to the point of darkness, the floor was dirty, and it reeked of something even more unpleasant than the stale alcohol and smoke expected of an isolated Russian pub on the Zavrekestan border.
Almost worse than the smell were the patrons. They were the sort of people who didn’t just look villainous, they radiated it. Most of them were men. The few women present were obvious whores—although none the less dangerous for that—apart from one huge woman built like an all-in wrestler. Jen doubted anyone would be foolish enough to wrestle with her. Like everyone else in the place, she looked as if she’d kick your head in for a sandwich; and like all the others, she watched Jen’s progress toward the bar.
Not exactly comfortable drinking companions, and yet Jen’s spirits rose as soon as she walked in. This, at last, was the sort of place to find information about the man she was looking for. Her guide had been right about that, although he’d warned her against going inside—before he’d given her reluctant directions and left her at the Russian border. No way was Jen staying outside, not after coming this far.
In fact, feeling all eyes upon her, she rather regretted now the safe blue jeans and leather jacket she wore. She should have slain them all in her boldest Saturday night dance attire—what Nell called her “hooker gear.” At least she’d have looked a bit more upmarket than the real hookers. She held on to this bravado as she arrived at the counter, took comfort in the secret knowledge that if she really needed protection, a gun nestled in her shoulder bag.
“Vodka, pazhalsta,” she ordered from the glowering barman. Without taking his gaze off her, he uncorked an unlabelled bottle and poured the contents into a large tumbler. He kept pouring until the glass was full. Jen tried to stop her eyes from popping. She reached for the purse in her shoulder bag, but before she’d even unzipped it, a hand the size of a shovel on the end of a hairy, muscled arm reached across her to the barman with a banknote.
Jen glanced at the huge, bald owner of the shovel hand, who was smiling at her. At least she took it as a smile. For the first time, her heart really quailed, and she had to remind herself this was for Nell, her dearest friend who was undoubtedly in trouble.
“Spasibo,” she said with a cordial nod to the bald man. She put her purse away and gripped the bag tightly. The scary man’s grin broadened. Almost imperceptibly, he shifted his barstool closer to Jen and spoke in rapid Russian.
“Sorry,” Jen said. “I only speak English.” Which wasn’t strictly true—she’d learned Russian in order to study Soviet research for her doctoral thesis—but she’d discovered that certain locals regarded her as less of a threat and dropped more information if they believed she was a bumbling tourist out of her depth who didn’t even speak their language.
“English?” the man repeated. “Why you come here?”
Jen sipped the vodka and only just managed to squash the gasp as it burned like acid down her throat. Her companion smiled wolfishly and knocked half of his own glassful down in one.
If I did that, I’d be blind for three days. Aloud, she said casually, “Looking for someone.”
At which point the barman, who’d been watching and listening with interest, walked away. Clearly he didn’t want to help. Her villainous companion, however, asked, “Who?”
Jen looked him in the eye. “Rodion Kosar.”
The bald man’s eyes flickered. “Never heard of him.”
Untrue. Her spirits soared. “Tall man,” she said, watching his every expression. “Young, blond, tattoos all the way up his arms.”
Her drinking companion shook his head.
Jen almost laughed. She was a psychologist and had rarely come across a more obvious untruth. And, recognising instinctively that this was no place to show weakness, she looked him right in the eye and accused him. “Liar.”
The bald man threw back his head and roared with laughter. Then, sobering with bewildering speed, he said, “What you want with him?”
“None of your business,” Jen said bravely. Then, remembering she needed a carrot in this negotiation, she stroked her bag. “But I’ll make it worth your while if you tell me where he is.”
The bald man gazed into her eyes. It was unclear whether he was trying to stare her down, read her mind, or just happened to be focused there. Whatever, his muddy eyes made her shiver, and not in a good way.
With another of his sudden changes, he shifted on his stool and stood up. “Come,” he said, and took her arm, walking toward the door.
Yes! She’d taken a chance, but it was working. This bastard knew where Rodion Kosar was and would tell her for the right money. And since she was pretty sure Kosar led the way to Nell, she knew she was one step closer to her goal.
The man was huge, and she had to hurry to keep up with his deceptive, slouchy stride. The cool night air blasted her—it was midsummer, yet for some reason, it seemed much colder here than in the city of Zavrek across the border—but after the stuffy stench of the bar, the fresh breeze felt like a blessed relief to Jen.
“So, where is he?” she asked her new friend.
He didn’t answer, just pushed her hard against the pub wall and shoved his body against her.
For an instant, she felt only shock, before outrage took over.
“Get off me!” Jen raged, clouting his back with her one free hand. It made no difference. He didn’t even answer, just grunted as he rubbed his erection against her, and her whole body screamed with fear and revulsion.
With one hand, he reached between their bodies for the fastening of his trousers. With the other, he took hold of her throat in a grip so hard she could barely breathe.
Oh Jesus Christ, how could I have got this so wrong? He’s going to rape me and rob me and very probably murder me. If he knows where Kosar is, he’s got no intention of telling me…
One thing was good. Although his left hand was well on the way to choking her, while he fumbled at his own trousers, the rest of her body now had breathing space. She used it with fury, slashing upward with her knee between his legs.
Bull’s-eye, she thought with grim satisfaction. Up until now, her strength had been so puny against his that this really took him by surprise. As he doubled up with the unexpected agony, releasing her throat, she punched him in the head and shoved him with all her might. He staggered back—not far, but enough for her to grab inside her bag for the tiny pistol she’d managed to buy illegally in Zavrek.
However, the sight of her firearm did not have quite the expected effect on her attacker. Straightening, more furious now than pained, he glared at her and her little gun, and then threw back his head and laughed.
Before she could even panic about that, he charged at her.
He was a criminal psychopath. She could not reason with or fight him. She had no choice if she was to survive. She squeezed the trigger.
The horrendous noise seemed to blur her vision, throw everything into slow motion. The huge man froze, staring at her, and for a horrific moment, she thought she’d missed him or that he really was impervious to bullets. After all, Zavrekestan was just over the border, and that was one weird country…
Then he crumpled and fell at her feet like a baby who hadn’t quite learned to walk.
She flattened herself against the wall, sidestepping to avoid his body.
Shit. Shit and shit and shit. Now what the hell do I do? She clutched her hair in one shaking hand, staring down at the still figure. Fuck, I’ve just killed a man. With a gun I’m not supposed to own.
Easing herself away from the body, she stared at the gun, wondering wildly if she should ditch it. Wipe her fingerprints off it, drop it on the body, and run.
But all those people in the bar had seen her leave with him. She stood out like a sore thumb. And they must have heard the shot. She had only moments before they came charging out to investigate and discovered her standing over their friend’s body with a gun…
Self-defence, she reasoned with herself. Self-defence, reasonable force. All right, so she’d killed him, but no force less than killing was really going to stop him raping and murdering her.
So I’m in the clear…
At home, maybe. This was rural Russia. A lawless, no-go border region where places like this were allowed to exist.
“I’m toast,” she whispered.
“Nonsense,” a man’s bracing voice said in English. “If you had to shoot the bastard, this is the best place to have done it.”
Jen whipped around to face the voice—which was deep, a little husky, and spoke with a faint but definite Russian accent. Or perhaps Zavreki; Jen couldn’t always tell the difference.
The voice’s owner stood just outside the pub door, regarding her from inside a dark hoodie. He seemed tall, and when he walked toward her, his movements were loose and easy, those of a young man. But Jen had learned a lot in the last half hour. Basically, this place operated on different rules from the ones she was used to. All the brains, effrontery, and psychological knowledge in the world couldn’t save her from these people. They would rather harm her than not.
She backed away as he advanced, gripping the little gun convulsively. She really didn’t want to have to use it again. Maybe she could just edge away to her car and drive like hell away from here. She needed more than her own wits to find Nell. She needed the British embassy to gain the cooperation of the Zavreki police, and maybe the Russians too. So she couldn’t wait around to face a murder charge, even in self-defence, could she?
She edged back from the approaching man, her gaze flickering to where her hired car waited several yards away like the Promised Land. The man, however, surprised her by stepping over the body before turning his back on her and crouching down to examine the man she’d shot. She glimpsed the newcomer’s hands, pale in the moonlight which gleamed down from the cloudless night sky, as he turned the body and ripped open the dead man’s shirt. Jen didn’t need to look away. She couldn’t see past him to the wound.
The newcomer in the hoodie flexed his long fingers on both hands, then shoved up his sleeves and seemed to do something with the body—perhaps straighten the clothes he’d just disarranged, it was hard to tell, for Jen’s attention was riveted now to the newcomer’s wrists and arms.
Tattoos. She couldn’t make out the designs, just splashes of colour, but undoubtedly they were tattoos. She could see brightness snaking up the paleness of his skin and disappearing into the sleeves of his hoodie.
Kosar. This had to be Rodion Kosar himself. He must have been here all the time, listening to her conversation with the bald man. She wished like hell she’d known that before she’d tried to get useless information from the poor bastard she’d just killed. She shuddered, then refocused on the man in the hoodie, from whom weird a sound was emanating—a cross between a hiss and a groan. His back was rigid. He gave another, almost inaudible grunt, and she stepped forward in instinctive concern more than alarm. But then he only breathed deeply and rose to his feet before turning to face her.
“You want Kosar,” he said casually. “I’ll take you.”
Jen closed her mouth. “Oh no. That’s what he said.” She jerked her head at the body behind him.
“Well, you’ve still got the gun,” he pointed out. “Come on. You can drive.”
Jen swallowed. Her gaze flickered down to the body. “What about him?”
“He’ll be fine.”
Jen stared. “I shot him! And I doubt he’s going to heaven.”
“He’s not going anywhere yet. But he’ll live.”
“He will?” He was an utterly vile human being, and yet Jen couldn’t prevent the upsurge of relief at the possibility that she hadn’t killed him.
But her new friend didn’t wait to discuss the matter further. He strode straight toward her hired car, and Jen hurried after him. So long as Kosar hadn’t actually harmed Nell, Jen thought she was safe with him. He was a murderer, a gangster, a political dissident, a drug dealer. But he was the best sex Nell had ever had, by Nell’s own admission, and Nell had last been seen in his company. Even Nell—despite once engaging herself to the unspeakably dull Gordon—was not that poor a judge of character. She would not like Jen to die; Jen just had to make Kosar understand that.
As she fished the car keys from her bag, still clumsily holding on to the gun, she had another thought. If he was here, Nell could be too. Was he taking her away from her friend?
“I lied,” she said. “I don’t want Kosar. I want a friend of his. A British friend.”
Teeth gleamed within the hoodie. “We all want her,” he observed. “But she isn’t here, if that’s what you’re imagining. This isn’t the place, you may have noticed, for nice British girls.”
It really was Kosar, she thought triumphantly. She’d found him all by herself, and now she was, surely, on her way to Nell.
“Is she all right?” Jen blurted.
“Last I heard. You want to put the safety catch on that nifty little cannon before you shoot one of us too.”
Clumsily, Jen obeyed, although she wasn’t yet prepared to put the pistol away in her bag. She unlocked the car and got in. He folded his long person into the passenger seat, and as she closed her door, she got her first true glimpse of him by the car’s internal light.
And that was enough to fizz her stomach. He was indeed good-looking enough to turn Nell’s or any other red-blooded woman’s knees to jelly. Cheekbones, Nell had said—he had those, sharp, and hollowed beneath. Although the hood hid his hair, his eyebrows and the faint beard shadowing his jaw were dark rather than blond, but Nell had never said he was a natural blond. Besides, the man was in hiding. He was liable to dye his hair or his eyebrows or anything else that might give him away.
Don’t go there!
Hastily shifting her attention back to the car ignition, she fitted the key and turned it. Only then did she realise her mistake. Her inexperience of the underworld was showing. She couldn’t drive and point a gun at him. She should have made him drive.
Surreptitiously, she peered at him from under the curtain of her hair.
He winked. “I could have had the gun off you several times already if I’d really wanted to. You’ve trusted me this far, so you might as well put it away and drive. It’ll be more comfortable for both of us.”
She drew in her breath. He was right, of course. But although she did place the gun in her bag, she laid the open bag at her feet on the side away from him. The quirk of his lips might have acknowledged that, but he didn’t speak.
She started the car. “No one’s come out to check on the gunshot. Is that place soundproofed or something?”
“Doesn’t need to be. No one in there ever sees or hears anything.”
Jen’s stomach twisted as she realised afresh how close she’d come to being murdered, probably without anyone ever knowing. “Will they help him?” she asked, easing the car across the bumpy waste ground that served as the car park.
Her companion reached up and switched off the internal light. “Don’t worry about him. He’ll be fine. Finer than he deserves.” As they approached the mud road, he pointed left, and like an automaton, Jen obeyed. It was the way she’d come in.
She cast another glance at him. “Would you have let him rape me? Kill me?”
“I hadn’t made up my mind.”
She shivered. “Fuck.” Oh no, Nell should so not be with this man…
“Hey.” Unexpectedly, his voice was softer. “Nothing happened to anyone. We’re all alive.” Even more unexpected, he touched her temple, almost a caress, and she was too stunned even to jerk away. His fingers were rough in texture, yet they felt good on her skin for that instant, curiously comforting, soothing.
And as his fingers fell away just as casually, she realised he was right. She was in some kind of shock because of the attack and the fact that she’d shot someone. But in fact she’d suffered no worse than a slightly bruised throat, and the bastard she’d shot must have been tough as old nails. No one would concern themselves with his injuries. In the circumstances, things really were as fine as they could be.
She took a deep, reviving breath. “Where are we going?”
“Nell’s in Zavrekestan?”
“Oh yes.” He sounded vague, but more as if he were thinking of something else than because he wasn’t sure. For some reason—perhaps just because she wanted to—she believed him.
“Then why hasn’t she been in touch with her family?” Jen demanded. “Her aunt and uncle haven’t heard from her in a month. Neither has her father or any of her friends.”
“I believe she lost her phone.”
Jen glared at him. “Did you take it from her?”
He grinned, throwing up both hands, and suddenly he looked a lot less threatening, a lot less alien. In fact, he had a bloody good smile, and if she wasn’t scared shitless for herself as well as Nell, she might have paid attention to the butterflies gambolling around her stomach in response to it.
“Acquit me,” he said. “The Zavreki secret police took it.”
Jen wanted to close her eyes, only the horrible road took up all her attention. “How the hell did she get involved with the secret police?”
“Keeping bad company. Turn right and drive along this road until I say.”
“Bad company?” Jen retorted, turning onto the blessedly surfaced road. “You mean you?”
“Then what the hell happened?”
“Nothing much in the end. She escaped.”
“So why didn’t she get in touch after that?”
“Too difficult, I imagine. There was her injury.” Jen swerved the car involuntarily and had to straighten it while her companion went on quite casually. “And then she really needs to keep hidden now her—er—associations are in the open.”
“Injury?” Jen pounced as soon as she could speak. “What injury, for God’s sake?”
“It’s fine now.”
“I knew she was in trouble!”
Beside her, she sensed him turn his head to look at her in the darkness. “So you came all the way out here to rescue her?”
“That was the plan,” Jen said bitterly. When she’d made it, the hardest part had seemed to be extracting leave of absence from her annoying boss—an almost criminally naive assumption. “I never realised this place was so…so alien. It never entered my head I’d have to shoot someone!”
“Yes, it did, or you wouldn’t have brought the gun. You’re doing remarkably well, considering. Only you’re drawing attention to people who don’t really want it.”
“I need to know Nell’s all right,” Jen said stubbornly.
“You must be a very good friend.”
Now it was Jen’s turn to glance at him. Although his voice had remained casual, there was no trace of mockery. In the poor light from their own headlights, it was impossible to make out his expression, but his eyes did seem to be pointing at her. Dark, glittering eyes, she remembered.
“Hasn’t she mentioned me?” Jen asked, trying not to be hurt.
“What’s your name?”
“Jenna Hunt. Jen.”
His teeth gleamed briefly. “Jenna Hunt. Pretty name.”
Which hardly answered the question. However, since he settled his head back on the seat rest as if he planned to sleep, she didn’t pursue it. Instead, she drove on in silence along the long, straight road that led to the Zavrekestan border.
For at least half an hour, her companion barely moved, until without warning he said, “Turn left.”
Startled, Jen jumped and peered ahead. “There is no left turn.”
“’Course there is.” He moved so fast, she’d no time to fend him off. Reaching over, he grabbed the steering wheel and wrenched it around. The car bumped off the road between trees that lashed at the windows and the roof, and bounced so hard that Jen resigned herself to death or at least serious injury.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she raged. “You’ll kill us both!”
“Whatever happened to trust? There, now you do it.”
Releasing the wheel, he sat back, and Jen realised the car was bouncing far less, and no obvious trees, bushes, ditches, or lakes blocked her way. In fact, they seemed to be on some kind of worn track.
“Is this a shortcut?” Jen demanded. “Because it’s not actually much farther along the main road to the border.”
“I don’t do official borders.”
“Oh shit, am I entering Zavrekestan illegally?”
“Yeah, but since you’ve already entered legally once, I don’t see your problem.”
Jen closed her mouth. After a few moments, she said, “How the hell does Nell put up with you?” Nell, who had never in her life, so far as Jen knew, broken the smallest, least important law. She’d never even had a parking ticket.
The man beside her said, “Very well, considering. Switch off the headlights.”
“What? Don’t be an ass—I won’t be able to see anything!”
“Neither will the border patrols. Those of them who aren’t already paid to look the other way. No point in making things unnecessarily difficult for them.” Before she could object or even reason, he reached over her again and flicked the switch. The road plunged into darkness. “You’ll feel the difference if you go off the track,” he soothed. “Just drive as slowly as you need to.”
At least he peered out the windows to check. Occasionally he even reached over and grasped the steering wheel to adjust it. Once, his fingers touched the heel of her hand by accident, and the unexpected frisson twisted all the way up her arm.
It wasn’t really pitch-dark. The sky was clear, and the light from the moon and the stars winking between the trees did allow her to see most things as the time ticked by. And then he flicked the headlights on again.
“We’ll be safe now.”
“When can I come off this bloody road?” she demanded.
“In about five minutes.”
He was right. He even told her which way to go before he lay back against the headrest once more and closed his eyes.
When she could no longer keep her own eyes open, she pulled into a lay-by, and, no longer caring enough to consider the threat he presented, she fell into exhausted sleep.