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Authors: Lisa Marie Rice

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Dangerous Secrets

BOOK: Dangerous Secrets
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Dangerous Secrets
Lisa Marie Rice

A very grateful nod to my editor, May Chen,
and my agent, Ethan Ellenberg

Contents

Prologue
Iceman’s mission was over. So why was he still here,…

One
At first light, as agreed, the pilot was waiting, alone,…

Two
A date. She, Charity Prewitt, was actually going out on…

Three
John Di Stefano held up a bottle of Coke and…

Four
To Nick Ames.

Five
I’m going to sleep with this man, Charity thought in…

Six
Yes!

Seven
Vassily stared into the fire, listening to the silence of…

Eight
Nick followed Charity back to her house, staring at the…

Nine
“More?” Nick whispered into Charity’s ear Sunday night. From behind…

Ten
Charity would never forget the sight till the end of…

Eleven
The snow plows had already cleared the roads, so driving…

Twelve
Late Monday morning, Nick rapped his knuckles on the steel…

Thirteen
She was thinking about him—mooning over him, really—when all of…

Fourteen
The instant Nick walked up the granite steps and walked…

Fifteen
“So, what are we doing here, Nick? And why couldn’t…

Sixteen
It went smoothly. And fast.

Seventeen
Charity raised her left hand and admired her wedding ring…

Eighteen
I buried my husband today.

Nineteen
Charity lifted her head when she heard a car drive…

Twenty
Charity opened the door just as Vassily was lifting his…

Twenty-One
“Excellent,” Vassily said, pale eyes glittering. “I knew I could…

Twenty-Two
The one good thing about being angry—really, truly angry, as…

Twenty-Three
“My dear Arkady,” Vassily said, coming toward him. “My dear,…

Epilogue
Jacob Franklin Ireland was in a big hurry.

Parker’s Ridge, Vermont
November 28

Iceman’s mission was over. So why was he still here, on a frozen hilltop, watching a burial in the valley below?

It was cold, even for November. The undertakers’ assistants found it hard to break the frozen ground for the large mahogany and brass coffin lying on the grass a few feet away. The sound of their shovels rang like steel and carried easily in the bright, cold air. A few people stamped their feet on the snowy ground, trying to warm up, then looked around uneasily. It wasn’t done to look uncomfortable at a burial, so they surreptitiously rubbed their arms and huddled miserably in their winter coats, hoping it would be over soon.

Iceman was in his hiding place two hundred feet up the wooded hillside, watching through the Steiner 8 x 30 tactical binoculars he’d kept from his Delta days.

He didn’t stamp his feet and he didn’t huddle. The cold didn’t bother him. Heat didn’t bother him. And he didn’t care about what the onlookers felt.

He was there for the widow.

She stood apart, pale and stiff, bareheaded, dressed in black. She didn’t seem to notice the cold. She didn’t fidget, she didn’t move. She just stood, small and straight, watching dry-eyed as the assistants laboriously dug. It seemed to take forever.

The undertakers’ breath rose in white plumes of vapor and their breathing grew harsh, like workhorses pulling a heavy load. Finally it was over, and there was a coffin-shaped hole in the ground.

As if by an unspoken signal, the onlookers gathered around the widow. An elderly gentleman dressed in a black cashmere overcoat briefly cupped her elbow and bent down to her. She shook her head and he stepped back.

The pastor, a young, pasty-faced man, opened his heavy Bible and read from a page that had been marked beforehand with a long white silk bookmark. He read slowly and solemnly while his nose turned bright red.

At last he came to the end of the passage, closed the Bible, and bowed his head. Everyone else bowed their head, too, except the widow, who continued to stare stiffly ahead. The elderly elegantly dressed lady with the elderly gentleman tried to walk toward the widow, but stopped when her companion laid a hand on her arm. He looked at her and shook his head. She looked confused, then stepped back.

The assistants had placed inch-thick ropes under the coffin which had been maneuvered over the gaping hole, and were slowly, laboriously easing it down. The coffin was huge, heavy. The assistants grunted with the strain, the sound car
rying up the hillside. Finally, the coffin reached the bottom and the assistants stepped back respectfully.

The preacher spoke to the widow and she moved for the first time, bending gracefully to grab a handful of earth. She walked to the rim of the hole in the ground, threw a handful of earth onto the coffin, then looked blindly up.

Iceman stepped back sharply. It wasn’t that he was frightened of being seen. He was a master of camouflage and had chosen his lookout wisely and well. There wasn’t a chance in hell he’d be spotted. What hit him like a punch to the stomach was the raw, naked pain on the widow’s face.

A lovely face. A face he’d kissed more times than he could count.

Stop that
, Iceman told himself.
Think of the mission.

He lifted the powerful binoculars again and the graveside scene sprang back into focus.

The quiet ceremony was over. The onlookers were slowly moving away, grateful to get back to warmth and life and away from the cold hand of death hovering over the scene. The widow was the last to leave, on the arm of the elderly gentleman.

Suddenly the widow stiffened and stopped. She whirled around and ran back to the grave, where the grave diggers were already shoveling dirt over the coffin. The widow stopped just at the edge of the hole and the tears that were coming freely now streamed silver over her face. She knelt in the dirt and slipped her wedding ring off. She brought it to her lips, kissed it, and reached down to place it gently on the coffin lid, her hand lingering for a long moment, as if she couldn’t bear to break this last contact.

The elderly gentleman walked slowly back to her. When she showed no sign of standing, he cupped her shoulders,
urging her to her feet. She stood and allowed herself to be led away, stopping just once to turn and gently blow a last kiss behind her.

It was a heartbreaking scene and Iceman felt his heart grow heavy with sorrow, then he shook himself.

Foolishness,
he told himself impatiently as he started taking precautions to erase all traces of his presence from the underbrush.

He had to leave, right
now.
He had no business being here at all. The mission was over, for him at least.

Still, it wasn’t every day a man got to watch his own funeral.

Krasnoyarsk Nuclear Power Plant
Russia
Ten days earlier
November 18

At first light, as agreed, the pilot was waiting, alone, at the bottom of the rolling stairs. It was an undeclared flight with a plane that didn’t officially exist and no copilot would be welcome. The fewer people involved, the better.

They were on a runway on the far side of the military airport, which had been decommissioned when the Soviets lost power. A pilot and a nuclear engineer.

They had only been told first names, Lyosha and Edik. Both names were false, but it didn’t matter.

The nuclear engineer, whose real name was Arkady Sergeyevitch Andreyev, knew the only thing about the pilot that was necessary—that he was a
zek,
a former guest of the Russian Gulag. They were members of that very exclusive
club—men who didn’t die in the Russian Bear’s cruel embrace.

The two men didn’t shake hands. But when the pilot stretched out his hand to help Arkady maneuver the hand truck to shift the heavy container from the van to a loading pallet, Arkady saw what he expected to see—a barbed-wire tattoo around the pilot’s wrist.

Former prisoners had their experience in hell etched into their skins, not just their souls. Arkady was covered in tattoos, from the stars on his knees that meant he bowed to no man, to the crosses that were a symbol of the years in the Gulag. He wore them proudly.

The only part of his skin that was clear was a large, shiny scarred patch over his heart where once had been the tattoo of the distinctive, goateed Tatar features of Lenin. Soviet prison guards were a superstitious lot and would never shoot the holy image of Lenin.

The day the camp fell, he’d stolen a soldering iron from the deserted guards’ barracks and burned the head of Lenin off himself. He hadn’t even felt the pain, he had been so happy to rid his body of that monstrous image.

The two men, Arkady and the pilot, silently noted each other’s tattoos. Nothing more had to be said. They were members of the Bratva, the Brotherhood. That was all they had to know.

The heavy lead container was lifted into the cargo bay of the Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft, where the pilot carefully strapped it to the bulkhead. Inside the lead container was a large lead-lined canister filled with cesium 137, enough for a very powerful dirty bomb. Enough material to close down the city center of London, or New York, or Paris, or Rome,
or Berlin, or Washington, D.C. Wipe it off the face of the earth as a viable city, turn it into deserted concrete canyons forbidden to humans or any other life-form for ten thousand years.

The pilot closed the cargo bay door and entered the small cabin where Arkady had observed the stowage of the container.

“Is everything all right?” the pilot asked quietly.

Arkady knew exactly what he meant. He wasn’t offended. This was a dangerous business.

Though he was a superbly well-trained and careful nuclear engineer, and had taken all the necessary precautions, the pilot couldn’t know that.

Instead of answering, Arkady opened his briefcase and extracted a small Geiger counter. He switched it on, walked to the cargo bay, and waved it over the container. They both listened to the welcome sound of soft, gentle ticking. The Geiger counter was picking up on the ambient radiation, higher than normal in the area surrounding a nuclear power plant, but nothing more than that.

The pilot nodded, satisfied, and without a word made his way to the cockpit. Arkady walked down the steps onto the tarmac. There was one thing more to take care of before takeoff.

Telling the Vor that the first stage was successful.

If this trip proved successful, there were many more such trips in the future. His Vor, an already powerful and rich man, would become one of the most powerful men in the history of the world.

Arkady opened the green cell phone. He had three of them, one for each stage of his long journey. Three brand-new cell
phones, onetime use only. He dialed a long number, connecting to a remote mansion in the northern state of Vermont, in the United States.

The cell phone was unencrypted. If there was one thing guaranteed to catch the attention of America’s frighteningly powerful electronic surveillance agency, the NSA, it was an encrypted cell phone message to the United States. So there was no encryption and no nonsense about packages on their way or delivery times.

The NSA’s endless banks of supercomputers, trolling daily and tirelessly through a terabyte of data spanning the globe, was trip wired with a number of key words,
package
and
delivery
being two of them, that would have immediately picked up on those words.

The Vor’s money had bought the services of one of the junior NSA officers and the Vor had the list of words. The Vor thought of everything.

No packages, no deliveries. Their code was the weather.

The cell phone at the other end was picked up immediately. It, too, was a one-off, to be destroyed after the message. Arkady had memorized each of the Vor’s one-off cell phone numbers, though they were twelve digits each.

A laughable exercise. Child’s play. In Kolyma, numbers had kept him sane. He’d memorized pi to the thirteenth decimal, prime numbers up to the first five hundred, and had perfected in his head a risk calculation method the Vor used to this day.

The Vor himself, a literary genius, had memorized every word of Pushkin’s
Queen of Spades.
Vassily Worontzoff, the greatest man in the world. The man who’d saved his life and, perhaps more important, his sanity in Kolyma. His Vor.

“Slushayu.” I’m listening.
The Vor’s deep voice, with its cultivated Muscovite accent, reassured Arkady at the deepest possible level that all was right in his world.

“Greetings,” he replied, looking up at the black clouds roiling in the sky. A fierce Siberian wind was blowing, and the temperature was well below freezing. He huddled more deeply into the sheepskin jacket the Vor had bought him. “I just thought you might like to know that the weather here is perfect. Sunny skies. Very warm weather.”

“Excellent,” the Vor replied. “Stay safe, my friend.”

Content that this enormously important project was off to a good start, Arkady removed the cell phone’s SIM card, threw it into the woods, where it disappeared into the dense undergrowth with a whisper of rustling leaves, and crushed the plastic casing of the phone beneath his heavy boot.

Arkady trotted back up the steps, sat down in the leather seat, buckled up, and made himself comfortable. This was the first stage of what was going to be a long journey.

The cabin was quiet and comfortable. The pilot had chosen well. The Tu-154 could take off from the gravel runway of the abandoned military airfield and could fly above the rest of Russian air traffic.

They were in the lower reaches of Siberia, the largest uninhabited land mass in the world. They would reach their destination—a remote airfield near Odessa—in about twelve hours, stopping only once to refuel. Then, to Budva, in Montenegro, by bus. From there, a ship would be waiting to take him and his cargo to Canada. The final leg would be a truck crossing into the United States, into Vermont.

The pilot quietly announced that they would be taking off in one minute. Exactly sixty seconds later, the sleek plane taxied, then lifted, heading west.

Parker’s Ridge, Vermont
November 18

The man with the shattered hands and the shattered soul used his stylus to punch the Off button on his cell phone. He still had the use of his index finger and thumb, but only as a pincer. The zealous prison guards who had taken a hammer to his hands had been thorough. He could use the stylus to tap out letters on a keyboard or a number pad. He could feed himself. He could pick up a glass of vodka.

It was enough.

Vassily Worontzoff glanced outside the big picture window of his study, noting the wind whipping the big leafless oak tree’s branches into a frenzy. Though it was only early afternoon, the sky was almost black. The forecast was for snow during the night and for the temperatures to dip well below zero. The forecaster had stated all of this in the somber tones of a man announcing certain disaster.

Vassily would have laughed if he had still been capable of laughter. How weak the Americans were! How easily they despaired! He was a survivor of Kolyma, the Soviet Union’s cruelest prison camp, where the prisoners had to work the gold mines in temperatures as low as minus ninety degrees Fahrenheit.

It had been so cold that tears froze on the cheeks. They fell with a merry tinkle to the hard frozen earth in crystals which belied the hell the prisoners lived in. The zeks called this “the whisper of the stars.”

How many tears he’d shed when he’d lost his beloved Katya. How the stars had whispered.

He’d written a poem about it, in ink made from burnt shoe leather on a piece of intact shirt, donated by a zek who, im
probably, was being released. It had been published back in Moscow. When word filtered back from five thousand miles away that the zek Vassily Worontzoff had written a poem about Kolyma, the guards had gone into a frenzy of cruelty. They’d shattered his hands, thinking a writer without hands couldn’t write.

Foolish, foolish men.

So much had changed since then.

If the guards who’d tormented him weren’t dead of vodka poisoning, they were living on the equivalent of fifty dollars a month in some rathole back in Russia. And he—he was already rich beyond their comprehension and about to become one of the most powerful men on earth, able to switch great cities off like a light.

Able to be with his beloved Katya.

He’d lost her in Kolyma but he’d found her again in this small, pretty American backwater, with its birch trees and larches, so like the woods around the dacha they’d had outside Moscow.

Charity, she was called now. Charity Prewitt. Absurd Yankee name. He hated calling her Charity. She was Katya. His Katya, though she didn’t realize it yet.

But soon this charade would be over and she would be with him again.

He was the Vor. Immensely powerful.

So powerful he could bring Katya back from the dead.

Parker’s Ridge

“Read any good books lately?”

The pretty young woman stacking books and sorting papers in the Parker’s Ridge County Library turned around
in surprise. It was closing time and the library wasn’t overwhelmed with people at the best of times. By closing time it was always deserted. Nick Ireland should know. He’d been staking it out for a week.

“Oh! Hello, Mr. Ames.” Her cheeks pinked with pleasure at seeing him. “Did you need something else?” She checked the big old-fashioned clock on the wall. “We’re closing up, but I can stay on for another quarter of an hour if you need anything.”

He’d been in that morning and she’d been charmingly helpful to him. Or, rather, to Nicholas Ames, stockbroker, retired from the Wall Street rat race after several years of very lucky investments paid off big, now looking to start his own investment firm. Son of Keith and Amanda Ames, investment banker and family lawyer, respectively, both tragically dead at a young age. Nicholas Ames was thirty-four years old, a Capricorn, divorced after a short-lived starter marriage in his twenties, collector of vintage wines, affable, harmless, all-round good guy.

Not a word of that was true. Not one word.

They were alone in the library, which pleased him and annoyed him at the same time. It pleased him because he’d have Charity Prewitt’s undivided attention. It annoyed him because…because.

Because through the huge library windows she looked like a lovely little lamb staked out for the predators. It had been dark for an hour up here in this frozen northern state. In the well-lit library, Charity Prewitt had been showcased against the darkness of the evening. One very pretty young woman all alone in an enclosed space. It screamed out to any passing scumbag—
come and get me!

Nothing scumbags liked better than to eat up lovely young
women. If there was one thing Nick knew with every fiber of his being, it was that the world was full of scumbags. He’d been fighting them all his life.

She was smiling up at him, much,
much
prettier than the photographs in the file he’d studied.

“No, thank you, Miss Prewitt,” he answered, keeping his deep, naturally rough voice gentle. “I don’t need to do any more research. You were very helpful this morning.”

Her head tilted, the soft dark-blond hair brushing her right shoulder. “Did you have a good day, then?”

“Yes, I did, a very good day. Thank you for asking. I saw three factories, a promising new Web design start-up, and an old-economy sawmill that has some very innovative ideas about using recycled wood chips. All in all, very satisfactory.”

Actually, it had been a shitty day, just one of many shitty days on this mission. A total waste of time spent in the surveillance van with two smelly men and jack shit to show for it except for one cryptic call to Worontzoff about a friend staying safe.

Nick smiled the satisfaction he didn’t feel. “So. It’s closing time now, isn’t it?”

She smiled back. “Why, yes. We close at six. But as I said, if you need something—”

“Well, to tell you the truth…” Nick looked down at his shoes shyly, as if working up the courage to ask. Man, he loved looking down at those shoes. They were three-hundred-dollar Italian imports, worlds away from his usual comfortable but battered combat boots that dated back to his army days.

Being Nicholas Ames, very successful businessman, was great because he got to dress the part and Uncle Sam had to
foot the bill. He had an entire wardrobe to fit those magnificent shoes. Who knew if he’d get to keep any of it? Maybe the two Armanis that had been specially tailored for his broad shoulders.

And even better was dealing with this librarian, Charity Prewitt, one of the prettiest women he’d ever seen. Small, curvy, classy with large eyes the color of the sea at dawn.

Nick looked up from contemplating his black shiny wingtips and smiled into her beautiful gray eyes. “Actually, I was hoping that I could invite you out to dinner to thank you for your help. If I hadn’t done this preliminary research here, with your able help, my day wouldn’t have been half as productive. Asking you out to dinner is the least I can do to show you my appreciation.”

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