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“Nope. And Alcott and Teppler say we’re clean, too.” The second pair of CIA operatives were in a chase car that had followed them at a distance, hoping to spot anyone else tracking the delivery van.

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Erin asked.

“Possibly.” Banich looked unconvinced. “But maybe the FIS isn’t tailing us because they’re here already, waiting.”

He sighed. “This is your last chance to back out, McKenna. Nobody could blame you for not wanting to stick your head into a buzz saw.”

“No.” Erin shook her head fiercely, fighting the doubts and fears that were starting to creep in. What if the Russians were out there waiting for her? Images of arrest, torture, and imprisonment flashed through her mind. She could feel her heartbeat starting to speed up.

“All right,” Banich said flatly. He swung away from her and opened the blinds covering one of the van’s rear windows just long enough for a quick look outside. “It’s still clear. So let’s do it.”

Moving fast now, he popped the doors open, dropped lightly onto the street, and turned to help her down. Erin suspected the sudden burst of speed came because he wanted to hurry things along before he changed his own mind about letting her do this.

The CIA agent checked his watch. “It’s five fifty-eight. Remember, if Soloviev doesn’t show by five after, come right back here. No hanging around. Clear?”

She didn’t answer him. Instead, acting on a long-restrained impulse, she leaned forward and kissed him. Then she turned and loped away, running toward the convent.

Alex Banich stood watching her leave with a stunned expression on his face.

The Novodevichy Convent, the New Convent of the Virgin, loomed ahead of her — a massive, imposing complex surrounded by a crenelated wall and twelve towers. Buildings, some topped by golden Russian Orthodox domes and crosses, lofted above the walls. “Whatever you do, don’t go inside the convent,” Banich had told her. “We’d lose contact right away.”

Now Erin could see why he’d been so insistent. Radio signals from her wire wouldn’t stand a chance of penetrating walls built to withstand cannon shot and siege engines. The exterior of the convent, which was founded in 1524, looked more like a fortress or prison than a place of worship. Some of the tsars had used it as a kind of gilded prison, she knew, a cage to hold noblewomen they considered too dangerous or too influential. She only hoped that wasn’t a bad omen for her.

Water sparkled close by, lit by the sun rising behind her. After looping around a collection of stadiums, arenas, and swimming pools originally expanded for the 1980 Summer Olympics, the Moscow River flowed north past the convent grounds.

Erin found Valentin Soloviev standing near the main entrance — an arched passageway flanked by thick columns. Dressed in running shorts and a sweatshirt himself, the Russian colonel looked subtly different than he had in uniform, less rigid and slightly less imposing. He seemed to be watching a pair of bearded, somewhat bedraggled artists at work. Or were they plainclothes security men only pretending to be artists? Her steps faltered in sudden doubt.

She knew that the Novodevichy was a favorite subject and gathering place for Moscow’s street painters, but the gates were still shut this early in the morning. She slowed to a walk and drew closer. From what she could see of their easels, the two men were working on twin watercolors of the convent at sunrise. Their brushes moved in swift, sure strokes, laying down pale colors across white emptiness.

Erin felt a surge of relief as her first fears faded. Either the FIS had agents who were also gifted artists, or these guys were exactly what they appeared to be — starving students trying to squeeze out a few extra rubles by painting one of Moscow’s most famous landmarks.

Soloviev heard her footsteps and looked round. He smiled, but she noticed the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. They were still wary. When he spoke, he spoke in Russian. “You made it! I’m glad.”

She answered in the same language, consciously trying to damp down her American accent. “You sound surprised. Why?”

The colonel shrugged. “I thought you might be busy. I’m sure you have a great deal of work to do these days.” He glanced toward the two artists and nodded toward the street behind her. “Shall we run, then?”

She noticed he was being careful not to use any names. “Certainly. If you think you can keep up with me, that is.”

Soloviev smiled again, for real this time. He led the way out of the arched passage and turned right, heading toward the river. She matched his stride easily.

They ran in silence for a few minutes before swinging onto; a street that paralleled the river. The pale brown towers of the Ukraina Hotel rose in the distance. There were very few cars or trucks on the road. Gasoline rationing and restrictions on private use saw to that.

At last Erin couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer. “Well, Colonel? You’re calling the shots here. Why did you want to see me?”

Soloviev turned his head toward her and she could see amusement dancing in his gray eyes. He arched an eyebrow. “Do I need a reason, Miss McKenna? Beyond the simple desire for your company?”

“Yes, you do.” Erin knew that many men considered her attractive, but she couldn’t see a man like Soloviev risking his career for lust, or even for love. Besides, she suspected the handsome, aristocratic colonel didn’t have any trouble finding suitably beautiful Russian women to meet his needs — women who were considerably safer to pursue.

“Fair enough.” He nodded and his face grew more serious. “Very well, I have such a reason.”

She waited for him to go on, running steadily by his side.

Finally Soloviev seemed to come to a decision. Still running, he changed direction, turning into a small park below the convent’s western wall. A gravel path wound around two fishponds and a fragrant garden. He stopped beside a park bench and pivoted to face her squarely. “I know you have shown great trust in coming here this morning, Miss McKenna. After all, I could easily be some kind of agent provocateur, correct?”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Erin admitted.

“That is understandable.” The Russian officer shrugged. “Some of my countrymen have a deserved reputation for such trickery. I do not.”

He looked closely at her. “But you must also understand how dangerous this is for me. If one word of what I tell you reaches the wrong ears… whiitt.”

He pulled one hand across his throat in a fast, slashing motion. His eyes were suddenly bleak. “This is not melodrama. I know that such things happen. I know it all too well.”

Erin felt her brain kick into overdrive. Smells, sights, and sounds were all magnified as her senses came fully alive. It was a familiar sensation — one she always felt whenever the critical clue to a particularly complicated puzzle came within her grasp. Oh, her fears were still there, she realized. Everything Soloviev was saying might still be window dressing, part of a plan orchestrated by Russian counterintelligence to entrap her. But her instincts said that was less and less likely.

She spread her hands. “I can only promise to do my best, Colonel.”

Some of the bleakness faded. “I can only accept that.” He sat down on the bench, facing the river.

Erin did the same thing, noticing the faint white blob that was Banich’s delivery van parked several blocks down the street. She hoped the wire was still working.

“The French want us to intervene against Poland,” Soloviev said abruptly. “They’ve sent a high-ranking delegation to negotiate directly with Marshal Kaminov and the rest of our Military Council.”

Erin shivered suddenly. Despite the sunlight, the day felt colder. Russian involvement in the war had been one of Washington’s nightmare scenarios from day one. Neither the United States or Great Britain could possibly ship troops into Poland fast enough to fend off the Franco-German attack from the west and a Russian avalanche from the east. She took a deep breath and asked, “Have Kaminov and the others agreed to this proposal?”



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