Fifteen years ago
Oleg was big and not very bright. He’d been kept at primary school for an extra year, much to Roza’s despair. For whatever reason, Oleg seemed to hate her. He picked on her every day because she was the smallest in class, calling her vile names and making fun of the way she spoke, the way she dressed, whatever she did or didn’t do.
And he was about to start again as Roza made her way to the school gate. Her friends who were walking with her went quiet and fell back. They all knew, all wanted to avoid it. Roza hated having to pass him alone, but she understood they were as afraid as she was. It didn’t help that he wouldn’t dare behave this way if her brother, Alexei, was still at the school, but Oleg had worked out already that she never told Alexei what happened. If she had, Alexei would have flattened Oleg. She wanted Alexei to flatten him almost as much as she wanted to hit his big, stupid face herself. Just to make him stop. But he never did, and she never told. Because she was ashamed and hurt to be so reviled by another child. Because she felt there was even greater shame in telling, in getting someone else to fight her battles.
And so she passed every school day in fear and misery. And everyone else assumed she didn’t care. Apart from Oleg. Although he didn’t know much else, he knew exactly what he did to her.
“Here she comes, little miss ugly,” Oleg began. “In her stupid dress with her frumpy hair.”
As usual, she didn’t grace it with an answer, just kept her head down and walked right past. They were just words. But then he grabbed her pigtail on the way past. “Oink, oink,” he sneered, and the boys behind him laughed. They were only ever mean when he was.
“Stupid piggy daughter of stupid piggy farmers,” he went on. She tried to pull away. Her foot struck something hard—Oleg’s boot—and she tripped and fell heavily on the slushy wet ground, scraping her face on ice. Tears sprang into her eyes, and yet she barely felt the pain. Her ears were singing. She felt her heart, or something inside her, would burst at the needlessness, the unfairness of all this. It wasn’t right.
“Piggy in the mud!” Oleg cried with triumph, and, breathing deeply, she got slowly to her feet.
I don’t have to put up with this.
Afterward, she was never sure where the thought came from. But at the time it entered her head, it seemed like a blinding light on the road to Damascus, so much so that she said it aloud.
“I don’t have to put up with this!”
Oleg roared with laughter. So did his acolytes, because, after all, she was small for her age, just about half his size. Hatred rose up from her toes, filling her, consuming her.
“Dare!” she cried as he waved his huge fist in her face. “Just dare!”
Somewhere, she knew he would. He’d been getting away with more and more, and now he really would hurt her badly if he could.
“You can’t!” she yelled, and from nowhere, the hatred seemed to have a power of its own, shimmering the air in front of her. She wanted to push Oleg over with it, but she wasn’t quite sure how. Instead, she just held on to the air. Oleg took a swing. His fist stopped as if it hit a brick wall, six inches from her chest.
The boys behind laughed uproariously, assuming it was part of his act, pretending to hit her. Roza knew better. This was her doing. At last, she was controlling the situation, and it felt good.
Oleg stared at her, tried again, one fist after the other, one at her stomach, one at her face. Neither reached her. In fury, he hurled himself at her and landed on his backside a foot behind where he’d started.
Roza lifted her chin and began to walk. Oleg ran after her, screaming and shouting, trying to kick and hit, but she just smiled and strolled on. All the children left in the playground ran after her, laughing now with pure glee, not at Roza.
I have a gift, she thought, thrilled beyond simply getting herself out of trouble. I have control. With this, I can do anything…
Derryn, clearly, had lost his marbles.
Will watched the surveillance on his computer as they brought her in. Roza Varenka, the village nobody who’d suddenly become the number one target for British Intelligence. According to Derryn, who got to decide these things.
The girl held her head high, perhaps trying to bolster her own courage as she walked into the dreaded headquarters of the Zavrekestan secret police between her two bulky minders. Although she’d changed her jet-black hair from the careless, unstyled length tied behind her head to a rather chic bob, she was still easily recognisable from the village photograph Will had seen first—the undoubtedly beautiful shape of her face, the fragile bone structure that looked liable to snap, big, oddly tragic dark eyes. Petite in build, the tiny size of her waist seemed to lend her the illusion of an hourglass figure.
In all, she was a lovely, professional-looking young woman. And yet even in her smart black skirt suit, here, she looked like a child, small and helpless in the lion’s den. She wasn’t, of course. She was twenty-five years old and, according to Derryn, one of the most dangerous women in the world. Which was why Derryn wanted her for British Intelligence. Or dead so no one else could have her.
Her head shifted minutely, taking in her surroundings, her gaze flickering around the walls, finding the cameras. For an instant, she glanced directly at his, and for some reason, Will’s breath caught. He sat forward, staring more closely at the screen, but she’d already moved on, looking straight ahead as she walked out of his vision.
He switched cameras, saw her enter the lift. Again, she clocked the camera and slid her eyes back to her elegant black shoes. Interesting.
She wasn’t dangerous. Or at least, not in the way Will thought of as dangerous: lethal women who’d slide a knife between your ribs for the price of a fix or a Gucci bag, or shoot you for king and country or whatever cause filled their deluded souls. Of course, he’d been in Zavrekestan long enough to know people here could present dangers no one in the rest of the world would ever think of—therein lay her interest to Derryn—but this girl was no killer. Unless she was a bloody good actress. But what really intrigued Will was that while she might have been uncertain and nervous, she didn’t look frightened.
He sat back, a faint smile flickering on his lips. Perhaps this mission, his last in this godforsaken country, wasn’t beneath him after all.
They’d grabbed her as she’d walked the short distance between her shared apartment and her beaten-up old car. Suits, dark glasses, looking like Zavrekestan’s answer to the Men in Black, they’d simply planted themselves in front of her.
“Roza Petrovna Varenka?” one of them said coldly.
It was the moment every citizen dreaded. Roza was no different. Her throat went dry. She nodded.
“Come with us, please.”
“Will I be late for work?” Roza asked, playing for time, just to get her mind working again.
The man smiled thinly. “Lily Simonova will understand.”
Any hopes she’d harboured of being on a merely routine checklist evaporated with his words. They knew she worked for Lily, leader of the Democratic Opposition. This was it. And beautifully timed too, so that she’d miss the morning’s press conference with the international media. If Lily was attacked there…
She dragged in her breath along with her fearful thoughts. “Where are we going?”
They were very good, didn’t even touch her as they hustled her along the road to an anonymous black car. Nor did they trouble to answer her questions. It was part of the fear campaign, adding to the detainee’s sense of isolation, disorientation, and sheer anxiety.
Roza refused to show any of these things as they drove the short distance across the city to the secret police’s public headquarters. At least it was the public building and not one of the many anonymous, soundproofed detention centres everyone knew were scattered around the country.
As silent as her guards, she got out of the car and walked between them up the steps and into the most dreaded building in the city. How many citizens had walked through these doors like this and never walked out again?
Her heart thudded.
I’m here through choice. I can leave whenever I want. I’m here through choice. I am.
She took in her surroundings as she walked: the wide foyer, the armed guards, the stairs, the cameras. For the first time ever, she wished she had her brother’s gift of telepathy, so that she could tell him, tell anyone where she was…
Not that it would make any difference. No one but the president himself had any authority over these guys, and she could be dead before Lily took his place. If Lily ever took his place.
Don’t go there. Into the lift, count the floors, spot the camera…there. One, two… Counting the floors was guesswork, because there was no display to indicate where you were. Even the control keys had no numbers or letters.
The lift doors opened, and Roza tried not to drag her feet as she followed her guard down the long, silent corridor. It was brightly lit, but with bare, unshaded bulbs. It felt like a modern dungeon. A prison, full of locked, heavy iron doors.
Her guard seemed to pick one at random, opening the door and standing aside for her to enter in front of him. Panic threatened.
I can leave whenever I like.
Forcing herself, she put one foot in front of the other, but even so, she stumbled, felt her blood ice up as her guard caught her elbow to keep her upright.
The room was bare, like a cell, only there was nowhere to sleep. An empty, scratched wooden table, with two rickety chairs on one side, one opposite. Another equally uncomfortable-looking chair stood by the door. The second guard sat in it, while his friend
pulled the door shut with a clang and walked back along the corridor. His even footsteps echoed. A fresh surge of panic washed over Roza.
“Sit,” said the guard from his chair.
Roza sat. She could leave whenever she liked, but somehow that didn’t stop her knees from shaking. She tried not to watch the door with too much anxiety—there was a camera in here too, pointing right at her from the corner of the ceiling. Who would they send? Some nameless, experienced interrogator? The two young nobodies who’d come to the village for Nikolai Svastianov in August? Major Suvakin himself, believed to be the commander of the city’s secret police since the unexpected death of Colonel Girosky two months ago? Whoever came would be a guide to her chances, to the severity of the situation.
Perhaps they’d just make her wait. And wait.
Footsteps she refused to acknowledge with so much as a glance toward the door. They passed by in any case and faded back to silence. More footsteps, growing louder, several pairs this time. Guards and a prisoner, perhaps… But no, this time they stopped outside the door, which creaked as it swung open. Roza turned her head slowly. Two men entered, one after the other.
Her guard snapped to attention with such alacrity that her heart sank. These guys were important all right.
The first entrant, a greying yet distinguished man around forty years old, came straight over and sat down opposite Roza. He opened a file without looking at her. The man behind him, younger, curly black hair, no jacket, nodded curtly to her guard on his way past, and the guard sat back down. Before Roza could look away, the younger man’s gaze swept over her with all the force of a breaking wave in a stormy sea. Cold, hard; no sympathy there. Those sorts of eyes had seen too much already.
Hastily, she glanced back at the first man. Could this be Major Suvakin, himself? She’d seen no photographs—she doubted there were any—but he was clearly a lot more than a grunt. Without warning, he lifted his gaze to her face, closed the file and handed it to the younger man, who sat beside him. Roza held the older man’s gaze, bracing herself for the first question.
“Roza Petrovna,” stated the younger one, taking her by surprise.
Roza’s eyes flew to him instead. But with no real idea whether or not she was supposed to respond to him, she said nothing, just inclined her head.
“Perhaps you have some idea why you were brought here.” His voice was deep, curiously soft in timbre, but clipped, the voice of a man who got things done, who’d learned not to care for the pain and tragedy left in his wake. A perfect drone for Suvakin and President Kortoy.
“None,” Roza said firmly.
His dark eyes stared into hers—like knives thrusting deep into her mind and heart, churning her stomach with dread and something she couldn’t begin to analyse. She could leave whenever she wanted; she wanted very badly right now. But she couldn’t give in to that; she had a job to do which wasn’t yet done. So she held his gaze and wished the other man would intervene. Suvakin. Surely her position with Lily would have brought the commander himself? But if the older man was Major Suvakin, why was he leaving her to the underling’s questioning?
Because the underling had the scariest eyes she’d ever looked into. Opaque, fathomless, pitiless.
He said, “It’s come to our attention that the life of your employer, Lily Simonova, may be in danger.”
Roza’s lips fell apart. She became aware of it when her interrogator’s gaze flickered down to them, then back to her eyes.
“That appears to surprise you,” he observed.
“It surprises me that it concerns you,” Roza retorted, and then bit her lip. Her interrogator took that in too, and she forced herself to stop. She would not look anxious to these bastards. She could leave. She could.
All her life, she’d been told to mind her damned tongue. Now would have been a really good time to start.
But her interrogator didn’t look angry. On the contrary, his lips quirked upward at one side. He might have been amused. “Everything concerns us. How long have you worked for Lily Simonova?”
He must have known that already. “About four weeks,” she answered.
“What did you do before that?”
“I worked on my brother’s farm, helped keep house for him.”
“Sounds idyllic,” her tormentor said smoothly. “Why did you stop?”
Roza shrugged. “I wasn’t needed. I wanted to earn my own money.”
“Why Lily Simonova?”
“She offered me a job.”
“Then you didn’t approach her?”
Baffled by this angle of approach, Roza could see no reason not to be truthful. “We have mutual friends. I heard there was a vacancy and applied.”
“Mutual friends,” he repeated. “Would that be Rodion Kosar? Nikolai Svastianov?”
Her heart thudded. Of everyone she knew, he’d picked on two of the most notorious dissidents in the country—or out of it. Was this about them?
“No. Why should you think so?” she countered.
“You come from the same village that shelters them.”
“My cousin is Lily’s personal assistant.”
“She’s a very distant cousin.”
Jesus, they were thorough. “She was the only person I knew in the city when I first came.”
The dark eyes bored into hers. She couldn’t imagine them softening for anyone or anything.
“When did you last see Rodion Kosar?”
Whatever this was about, they were trying to trip her up, and Rodion’s name, generally, was guaranteed to send sense out of the window. She had to force herself to concentrate, to work out what they knew, and what she should know, and what would not incriminate herself or Rodion.
So she took a moment to get her thoughts in order. “Two months ago. Before I left the village. Why?”
“Before that. He left the country. What do they have to do with this threat to Lily?”
“I was hoping you would tell me.”
Her lips parted without permission. Again his gaze flickered, observing. Roza’s stomach twisted; those eyes disturbed her in ways she didn’t recognise. She just knew she had to keep him away from Rodion and Nikolai, prevent him hunting them again.
“They wish Lily well,” she said quickly. “They’re old friends. Before he healed the president, Nikolai healed Lily of a similar…ailment.”
“Then you believe in this faith healing nonsense?”
“Don’t you?” she retorted. “If you weren’t in the room the day Nikolai cured the president, your commander was.” Shit. She should stop talking. She’d said too much.
The steady eyes gave nothing away. “And you know this how?”
“Nikolai told me,” she said brazenly.
“Before he left the country,” her interrogator said.
He sat back in his seat. “Our intelligence says Kosar and Svastianov have little reason to love Lily Simonova. That they and the old radical wing of the party feel betrayed by her.”
Roza shrugged, implying that was beyond her knowledge as well as her interest.
“And you, Roza Petrovna,” he said, almost in a drawl, soft and somehow insolent. “How do you feel about Lily’s betrayal?”
“Lily never betrayed me!”
“She betrayed Kosar. Took his money and let him and other dissidents go to prison without a fight.”
“Kosar went to prison in Russia for robbing a bank,” she said flatly. “Allegedly.”
“You should know,” her interrogator allowed.
Roza wasn’t fooled. She narrowed her eyes. “Why should I know? I’ve never been to Russia, never left Zavrekestan.”
“You’re Kosar’s lover, aren’t you? Or were. I don’t know which.”
Warm blood seeped into her neck and her face. Because she’d longed for it to be true for so long that it was part of her. A childish crush on a man she’d turned out to know no better than the bastard sitting opposite her now, observing her embarrassment with clinical interest.
“Neither,” she said, her voice harsher and tighter than she liked. She tried to adjust it, lifting her chin in defiance. “Although it’s none of your business.”
“It is if you’re about to kill Lily for him.”
She stared at him. From nowhere, laughter surged up, exploding in a breathy squawk. She shoved back her chair, springing to her feet. “You’re insane. Why should I—or Rodion—do your dirty work for you?”
Oh Jesus, was that what this was about? Not checking up on Lily’s very odd security chief at all, but trying to recruit her? With threats of pinning assassination on her anyway? Shit, why didn’t she just keep her mouth zipped?
The guard by the door jumped to his feet when she did. The older man in the suit, whom she’d almost forgotten about, stood also. The younger remained where he was, merely tilting his head to hold her gaze.
Two words, not angry or even particularly harsh, and yet they chilled her blood, reminded her exactly who held all the cards here. And who had no power whatsoever.
I do! I can leave whenever I like.
I’ll have to go into hiding, though, and be bugger all use to Lily or anyone else…but I can leave…
Roza sat. The man opposite showed no pleasure in his little victory. He showed no expression at all. After a few moments, when meeting his gaze became increasingly difficult, he glanced away from her to the older man, who, without a word, turned and walked to the door. The guard followed him out of the room and closed the door.
Oh shit. Her throat went dry with dread.
She’d got this all wrong. This man was the boss, Suvakin, and she was alone with him.
He sat very still, just watching her. Her every nerve shrieked with warning, even as she forced herself not to look away. She no longer knew what the danger was, or where it would come from.
“So,” he said at last. “Now it’s just you and me.”
She curled her lip and looked straight at the camera in the far corner of the ceiling. “Really?”
Again came that upward quirk at one side of his mouth. He held a mobile phone in one hand. Dropping his gaze to it, he pressed a key. “Really,” he said.
There was no handy flashing light on the camera. She’d no way of knowing if he could control it from his mobile phone, let alone if he’d switched it off.
She glanced from the camera back to the man she was sure now was Major Suvakin. “It makes no difference to what I’ll say.”
He stirred. “But it might make a difference to what I say.”
Her heart thudded.
“Suvakin is troubled. His conscience isn’t comfortable with his work.” Nikolai’s opinion from the memorable day he’d healed President Kortoy, saving the old bastard’s life before escaping with his own. In the euphoria of his boosted healing power, Nikolai had seen every ailment in that crowded room, from minor infections to spirits in pain. Although Suvakin—if this was Suvakin—didn’t look as if he suffered much from the latter, Roza had every reason to trust Nikolai’s judgement.
Did she have an opportunity here to help the cause and her poor country?
As evenly as she could, she said, “You want to change sides?” She wasn’t quite sure why she wanted it to be true. More than the cause seemed to be churning her up.
Suvakin—if he was Suvakin—said, “I work for Zavrekestan, not for an individual. If Lily Simonova wins tomorrow’s election, we’ll all take our orders from her.”
“If she gives you any.” Lily had sworn to disband the hated secret police as soon as she won the presidency.
He inclined his head. But it couldn’t be said he looked worried. Was he currying favour with Lily? Or did he just not want the blame if anything happened to her?
Roza licked her dry lips and returned to the most important point. “What do you think is going to happen to Lily? You can’t really think I’d hurt her.”
He sat back. So far as she could see, both his hands were in his trouser pockets, along with his phone. “It would be in both our interests to keep her alive.”
“Everyone’s interests,” Roza said firmly.
“You don’t believe that any more than I do.”
She couldn’t prevent the frown flickering across her brow. Her friends were radicals, which had made her cynical of even Opposition politicians. But she believed in Lily. She wanted to believe in Lily. But, scarily, he seemed to see her doubts as well as her loyalties. “What do you want of me?”
He leaned his head to one side, apparently considering her. Then, in one quick, silent movement, he stood. “Come on.”
She jumped to her feet in alarm. “Where?”
He didn’t answer. The mobile phone was out again. With his other hand, he pulled open the heavy cell door and held it, gazing directly at her. He thought she didn’t have a choice.
She didn’t. She should risk everything to bring a player like Suvakin to the cause…to try. But she was floundering in the dark, in ignorance.
Swallowing, she crossed the room and walked past him into the empty, silent corridor. It seemed when he dismissed his men, he dismissed them. Now no one, no one except Suvakin, if that was really who this man was, would know her whereabouts.
She jumped as cool fingers closed around her wrist, urging her forward, farther along the corridor. Her heart galloped. She couldn’t be dragged deeper inside this building to disappear.
I can leave. I should leave now.
Just as soon as he let go of her. She needed to get back to Lily. Maybe she could try to save Suvakin another day.
His fingers loosened, but only to slide up her forearm, gripping her elbow instead. The display of his phone made no sense to her. He didn’t look at any of the cameras in the corridor as he strode along fast enough to make her trot to keep up with him. Her stomach was churning with dread, but at least she knew now she had to get out, back to Lily in time for the press conference, to be there to counter whatever threat it was Suvakin had heard about.
If it was true. She couldn’t believe anything he said. But open press conferences were always a risk. She’d always needed to be there…
Let go of me. Please let go, just for an instant, that’s all I’ll need… Oh shit.
He’d pushed open a door at the end of the corridor, revealing a dank, dark stone staircase, which he pulled her down. Visions of dungeons full of emaciated, tortured beings flashed through her mind.
It doesn’t matter. When he leaves me there, I can get out. I can take them with me. If there are any alive here…
She had to concentrate on her footing, on not stumbling and falling down the stairs. They passed a landing without pause and then another, and her heart sank further. Dungeon it is.
But the door he opened at the bottom let in a bolt of sunlight that blinded her as he dragged her through. Screwing up her eyes, she saw she was in a car park. A few anonymous black cars were parked beneath cameras, and a pale green one, the same make as her own—presumably for the secret policemen who wanted to remain secret.
It was to the green car he strode, still gripping her elbow—not painfully, but strongly enough to discourage her from struggling. But he’d let her go in order to get in, and then…
He opened the driver’s door. “Get in. Passenger seat.” And damn him, he still held on to her, as she climbed in, leaned in with her, still holding her arm as she stumbled over the gear lever and into the passenger seat. It steadied her, but left her no room to act. She’d no idea which was his motive. Habit, probably.
And then he was in the seat beside her, and her arm was free, tingling and cold from the pressure of his fingers. In silence, he started the car and drove unhurriedly out of a back gate.
He drove in silence. Although she divided her attention between her watch, the road, and his face, his expression told her nothing. Her stomach roiled. They were staying in the city centre, it seemed, but that could mean anything.
Without warning, his eyes left the road and looked at her. Then, returning his gaze to the road, he said, “Where is it you imagine we’re going?”
What did she have to lose at this point? “One of those secret buildings where no one hears the screams.”
“That,” he said, “would be rather a waste.”
She stared at his expressionless face. He was really quite handsome in his own dark way. If you ignored the broken nose and the cold, unforgiving eyes. His features were strong and attractive, even if they had that lean and hungry look that made her nervous in a man of his position. He had no reason and no likelihood of being hungry. Ever. Unlike so many of their countrymen. His hands on the wheel were large and strong, the fingertips tapering with unexpected elegance, more like a musician’s than an assassin’s, a torturer’s.
But then, a commander of the secret police would have little need to do his own killing, or his own torturing. Or, she reflected suddenly, his own driving of prisoners.
“A waste?” she repeated with heavy sarcasm. “Then you think the world would benefit from hearing me scream?”
His breath hissed. The unlikely thought entered her head that it might have signified laughter. “I can’t speak for the world,” he said obscurely. His hand moved to the gear lever, changing down to turn right. “We’re going to Lily Simonova’s press conference where, together, we’re going to hunt out any threats.”