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Alexei Bukharin rolled over onto his stomach and groaned into the pillow. His hand smacked the bedside table several times until he found the alarm and silenced it. One eye opened and saw the time. He lifted his head from the pillow. Who the hell had set the alarm for 0400?
“Sorry,” he heard Mai say. “I wanted to get up early to work out, but I got up before the alarm. I forgot to shut it off. Go back to sleep.”
He turned over and looked to where her voice came from. She had fastened some sort of bar to the moulding at the top of the door, and, dressed only in a tank top and panties, she did chin-ups his old Soviet Army sergeant would have wept to see. That brought him up on his elbows to get a better look at the flexing of her arms as she moved. And, damn, that got his blood moving as well, though not to his arms.
“Did you pack that contraption in our luggage?” he asked.
“No. Concierge got it for me.”
“You know there’s a fitness center here in the hotel?”
“Couldn’t do pull-ups there.”
He watched for a moment longer, his eyes centered on her breasts. “Come back to bed,” he said, “and I’ll make you forget chin-ups.”
Alexei saw the slight hitch in the otherwise rhythmic up and down motion. “I’m not finished,” she said.
“Mai, I’m awake, early, I might add, to the sight of my scantily clad wife doing pull-ups in front of me. I’m only human, and I will definitely make it worth your while.”
She lowered herself to the floor and let go the bar. All right, that was promising.
“I’m all sweaty,” she said.
“Come back to bed, and we’ll both be sweaty.”
“Terrell is across the suite in the other bedroom.”
“We’ll be quiet.” He smiled at her. “I’ll come up with an answer to every excuse.”
“That much is obvious. Worth my while, is it?”
She unhooked the bar from the door and closed it.
In Kavárna Praha you couldn’t tell if it were night or day outside. Down an alley and in the basement of a state-run department store, the windowless space was probably a firetrap, with the sole entrance and exit the staircase Mai tread. She took her time descending to give her eyes an opportunity to adjust from the bright sunshine of a spring day in Prague to the dim, smoke-laden atmosphere of the coffee house.
The coffee shop was octagonal with tables along six of the walls. A small stage took up one wall, and the counter was recessed beneath the stairs. The stage was bare now, but canned music played in the background, a popular West German singer named Sandra, called the German Madonna by some. In the middle of the cramped room, two women slow-danced, their hips grinding against each other, their mouths locked in an unending kiss.
The tables and chairs were all mismatched, a collection of antiques, eastern bloc utilitarian, and modern chrome and vinyl. Each table had two or three chairs, most of them empty this time of day. Old movie posters decorated the walls above the tables—Elvis from Blue Hawaii, Marilyn Monroe in the iconic white dress from The Seven Year Itch, the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still, among others. A crude mural of a rainbow graced the wall with the stage, but Mai sought one poster in particular—Charlton Heston in a chariot above the title Ben Hur.
Shadows from the scant lighting in the coffee house showed her the silhouette of a man seated at a table beneath the Ben Hur poster. Though it was a warm day and stifling inside this space, he wore his overcoat and had a hat tipped low over his face. The small lamp on the table where he sat cast a circle of light on his gloved hands, which held a thick book open to about the midway point.
Mai went to the barista and ordered an espresso, resisting the temptation to stare at the man beneath Ben Hur. This was the most risky of information exchange methods, face to face, but she’d cut her teeth on dead drops and pick-ups like this when she wasn’t yet sixteen. An exchange of passwords, and the man would hand the book to her and leave. Simple. Easy.
Moments later, tiny cup in hand she headed to his table, dodging to keep from colliding with the oblivious couple. She settled in the chair across from him, and when she did, he adjusted the shade on the lamp so the light glared in her eyes. She blinked but said nothing and checked the title on the book—The Willow Bends Low.
“I read that book in school,” she said, the wording precise. “I haven’t seen it in a long time.”
No response. The man’s hands closed the book and rested it on the table, his hands atop it.
“I’m supposed to meet Anton,” the man said.
An American, she noted, no regional accent.
“A problem with the police,” she said. “He gave me the password and sent me. Your money will be at the agreed-upon drop.” He said nothing, and she tried again, “I read that book in school. I haven’t seen it in a long time.”
His hand disappeared and reappeared so fast Mai almost didn’t catch it. She shoved her chair back, but the stream of pepper spray from the canister in his hand still caught her in the face.
“Fuck!” Mai said and heard his chair scrape against the concrete floor. Through her impaired vision she saw him heading for the stairs. Mai launched herself after him. Her arms grasped his waist and brought him to the floor. They toppled against the dancing couple, who began to shout at both of them.
The man, book in hand, swung his arm and hit Mai’s face. When he swung again, she grabbed the book with both hands, and they began a tug of war over it, Mai still half-blind. With one hand in a firm grip on the book, she drew her Beretta and pointed it where his head would be.
One of the women screamed, “Zavolat policii! Policii!”
The gun took the fight out of the man, and he released the book, scrambling to his feet. Mai heard his footsteps on the stairs but couldn’t see well enough to shoot. With all the shouting about calling the police, she decided she needed to be gone as well. She kept the gun out in case the man waited to ambush her in the alley, but he was no where to be seen. Gun holstered, book tucked under her arm, eyes and nose streaming, she headed for a busy street and hailed a taxi.
Edwin Terrell took a long draw on his cigar, selected the right number of chips, and tossed them to the center of the table. “Call,” he said.
Alexei Bukharin didn’t hear him. He was too busy staring at the clock.
“She’s fine, you know,” Terrell said. “And I called.”
Alexei lay his cards face-down on the table. “Take it,” he said, with a nod at the pile of chips.
Terrell scooped the chips toward him and began to count them. “She’s still fine,” he said. “You’re fretting like a babushka, Ice.”
“One of us should have gone with her,” he said, knocking the coal from his cigar and pushing the ashtray aside.
“Well, I couldn’t because whoever this mole is might know me, which is why I asked The Directorate for your assistance. Besides, this guy’s expecting one person, not a couple joined at the hip. Don’t give me the Ice Man look. You hover, and she notices. She knows what she’s doing, but you, apparently, have lost confidence in her.”
“Concern isn’t losing confidence, Snake.”
“I don’t doubt her.”
Bukharin rose and walked to the French doors to the balcony, which were open to keep cigar smoke from permeating the suite.
“She’s fully recovered, right?” Terrell asked. “You owe me twenty-three hundred, by the way.”
“Put it on my tab. Yes, she’s recovered.”
The CIA agent chuckled. “Yeah, I’d say so. You two couldn’t keep it quiet this morning.”
“Of course you had your ear against the door because having to be quiet made it a lot more intense.”
Terrell put his hand over his heart and gave a fake grimace of pain. “Hit me where it hurts, Ice. I’d have gladly made it a threesome and added to the intensity, or are you afraid she’d say yes to that?” he asked, grinning.
“Finish the cigar out here on the balcony so we don’t have to listen to a fifteen-minute lecture from her when she gets back.”
Terrell brought himself and his cigar to the balcony. “Good,” he said, “‘cause I was beginning to think she now carries your balls about in her pocket.”
Her sunglasses hid her streaming eyes, but there was nothing to be done about her running nose. The taxi driver had handed over a box of tissues and murmured something about not crying over a man because they weren’t worth it—at least that’s what Mai’s limited understanding of Czech told her.
When she reached the hotel, she headed straight for the lobby bathroom. Mai gave the attendant enough koruna to convince her to take a break, then she tucked the book in her waistband while she ran cold water in the sink and tried to wash capsaicin from her eyes and nose. She blew her nose on some paper towels and ventured a look in the mirror.
Not only were her eyes swollen almost shut and her nose a cherry red, but her right cheekbone sported a nasty bruise where the bastard had smacked her with the book. Alexei would hover for the next week, damn it. And Terrell would be pissed she couldn’t make a visual identification of the mole.
“That’s what you get for over-confidence,” she told her reflection.
If the CIA were going to be unhappy with her less than stellar performance, she might as well gain some advantage.
Mai locked herself in a bathroom stall, thankful for the European style where the stalls were little rooms with floor to ceiling doors. She lowered the seat and sat, taking the book from her waistband, and a small notepad and pen from her pocket. A piece of paper used as a bookmark she studied for a moment: a list of lines of numbers of two or three digits followed by a dash and another two or three-digit number. It had to be a simple cipher. The first number should be a page number, the second the number of letters to count to a letter to select.
To test that, she deciphered the first string of numbers and got a name—Guy Bartlow. In a few minutes, she had a list of six names, probably CIA assets in Europe. She and Alexei would have a day or two head start. By the time Terrell got back to Langely and got the list deciphered, The Directorate would have alerted the assets they’d almost gotten burned. That kind of thing made you grateful and beholden to your savior. There were times when “unofficial” help made the difference, and, well, leverage was a nicer word than extortion.
Before she left the bathroom, she rinsed her eyes again though she knew it was likely futile. Alexei would notice, and this new, touch-feely version of him was too good to be true. Mai left another tip for the attendant and donned her sunglasses, then left the loo and crossed the lobby to the elevators. She ducked inside one and hit the “close” button before anyone could join her. Then, she wished she’d grabbed some tissues. Her nose still ran like mad.
She paused before the door to the suite, key card in hand. If luck were on her side again, Alexei and Terrell would have grown bored and left to find something to do, and she would have time to try and reduce the swelling of her eyes. When she opened the door, she saw luck had abandoned her again. She stayed near the entrance to the suite, hoping to buy some time until she could excuse herself to the bathroom without either of them noticing her condition. The two men stood on the balcony, the French doors open. Terrell puffed on a cigar, and Mai saw Alexei make the slightest of moves to come to her but stopped.
Since her head injury the previous year, Alexei clung to her like a magnetic mine, and she’d managed to hurt his feelings, such as they were, by telling him he smothered her. This morning had been good, though, intense and a little rough and randy, which they both liked. She didn’t mind the great sex; rather, his recent declarations of affection left her disbelieving and angry he thought he could fool her.
“Fifteen hundred dollars a night,” she called out, “and you’re stinking it up with cheap cigars.”
“Hey, Baby, they’re Cubans,” Terrell replied.
“They’re still stinking it up. Here’s your book and code key,” she said.
Terrell tossed the cigar over the rail, and Mai winced, hoping some unsuspecting pedestrian didn’t get a nasty surprise. Terrell came toward her, and Alexei stayed back, closing the doors to the balcony.
“Hey, what the hell happened to you?” Terrell asked.
Mai shook her head at him, but Alexei had already heard. He pushed past Terrell to get to her side.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
“Nothing. I got the book.”
He frowned then removed her sunglasses, his expression moving through dismay to anger.
“It’s just pepper spray,” she said, angling the right side of her face away from him. To Terrell, she said, “Your mole didn’t buy the replacement for Anton bit. I had to fight for the book.”
Alexei took her by the chin and turned her head so he could see all her face. She jerked away. “I’m fine,” she said, glaring at him.
“That’s going to be quite the shiner, Baby,” Terrell said, with a grin. “So, what’s my mole look like?”
“Forget about that for now,” Alexei told him. “Mai, we need to get you to a hospital right away.”
“God, no. He smacked me with the book, that’s all.”
“No blows to the head, Mai, for at least another year.” His hand circled her arm, and she pulled away from him again.
“It was my face, not my head, and I don’t have any concussion symptoms. I not going to hospital.”
“The mole?” Terrell prompted.
She told them what happened, focusing on Terrell, so she wouldn’t have to acknowledge Alexei’s deepening scowl.
“Okay, so you had to mix it up with him,” Terrell said. “What does he look like?”
“It was a dim room, he wore sunglasses, a scarf, and a hat. He shined the lamp in my eyes. I never saw his face.”
“How tall was he?”
“I couldn’t tell.”
“Very eastern bloc, but he’s American.”
“Yeah, I knew that. Jewelry?”
“I didn’t see any. Snake, I was with him fifteen, thirty seconds, tops.”
“Well, shit, Mai. For a spy you didn’t spy much.”
“Terrell,” Alexei said, coming to stand by her again, “you heard her. She got gassed. Leave her alone.”
Mai turned on him. “I don’t need you to make excuses for me, Alexei,” she told him. She saw the smirk on Terrell’s face. “And you,” she said, turning to Terrell and shoving the book in his gut, “stop getting off on us when we fight.”
She left them standing there and got some satisfaction from slamming the door to the bedroom.
Terrell’s eyes narrowed at the closed door. When Alexei moved to follow her, Terrell held up a hand. “I’ve got this,” he said.
“No, you don’t,” Bukharin said.
“Look, she’s less pissed at me. I got this, and, trust me, if I have to I’ll put you on your commie ass.” He could tell the Russian wanted to take a swing at him. “All I’m gonna do is give her an ass-kicking. Figuratively. Take a walk, come back in twenty.”
“And leave you alone with her? Think again.”
Terrell went to the kitchenette and rummaged until he found a linen napkin. “You got trust issues with your own wife?” He opened the freezer and emptied half an ice tray onto the napkin.
“No, it’s you I don’t trust.”
“Ice, if I laid a hand on her and she didn’t want it, she’d break it. You know that.” He wrapped the ice in the napkin, tucked the book under his arm, and headed for the bedroom.
Terrell found her in the bathroom, bent over the sink to let a stream of water from the faucet flow over her eyes.
“Well, thanks for knocking,” she said. “What if I’d been on the toilet?”
“So? I’ve seen it all before. The water won’t do any good now. Go lay down.”
Mai straightened and dried her face on a towel. “I figured it would be Alexei,” she said.
“Oh, he’s fuming, but I wanted to come in and find out what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Didn’t you hear? Mai Fisher got her brain scrambled last year. I’m the new, less capable model.”
“Is that what you think?”
She nodded toward the outer area of the suite. “It’s what he thinks, and you voiced it, you prick.”
“I was joking.”
“Sure you were.”
“Go lay down.”
He held up his makeshift ice pack. “So I can ice your face.” He grinned and winked at her. “Different from what you got from Ice this morning. Come on. I promise you’ll feel better.”
She went to the bed, unclipping her gun and holster from her belt and putting the weapon on the night stand before she stretched out on the bed’s duvet. Terrell forced himself not to think of her naked on a bed. It would surprise her and piss her husband off thoroughly if either of them knew how often he thought of that one and only afternoon of validation sex a decade ago.
He sat on the side of the bed, using his hip to nudge her over, and it was a good thing they were both clothed. He eased the ice pack onto her eyes, then brushed her hair back.
“So, tell Uncle Snake why you still doubt yourself,” he said.
“I should have made that guy today,” she murmured.
“Look, you got the book and the key. The Agency brainiacs will decipher it, and we can figure out who had access to the info. It’ll take us a little longer, but it’s no biggie.”
“But I could have narrowed it down for you. I didn’t…”
“I didn’t react quick enough when I saw his hand move. My reflexes are still off.” He heard her soft sigh. “Of course, if he’d had a gun, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and maybe that’s what should…”
He pressed a chaste kiss on her mouth to stop her, moving away when he felt the slight parting of her lips. “Hey, no such talk,” he said. “You’ll upset my delicate sensibilities.” That got a slight smile from her. “And cut the Ice Man some slack.”
Her mouth turned down. “Why? Because he loves me?”
The sarcasm was thicker than his cigar smoke. “Actually, yeah, he does.”
“That just his guilt,” she said. “One day soon, he’ll feel trapped, and the schedule of nooners will resume.”
“Regardless, be nice to him. He’s so much easier to deal with when he’s getting some from you.”
The smile came again, not the one he’d become accustomed to from her—broad, bright, beaming. This, a mere upward tug of the corners of her mouth was all he could expect.
“All right,” he said, rising. “Leave the ice pack on for a half-hour or so, but expect to look like you’ve been on a three-day drunk for several more days. And thanks for nabbing the book.”
“I would say it was a pleasure doing business with you, but…”
“Catch you back across the pond, Baby. Remember what I said.”
“Yes, Uncle Snake,” she replied, and that made him laugh.
At the door Terrell stopped and turned back, for a brief glimpse and to indulge a memory.