Framed Excerpt

Sunday, January 29. 8:00 p.m. Lyubinsk, Russia.

“An hour outside a metropolis of twelve million people, and we end up in the middle of nowhere.”

Fatianova hated leaving Moscow for any reason. Moscow provided excitement. The metro and the Bolshoi. The Danilovsky Market and Café Pushkin. Gorky Park and the White Garden spa.

Lyubinsk stank of fish and onions.

They passed through the sprawling farms, empty of workers this time of the evening; then skirted the fisheries, with their long docks, floating cages interconnected with netting, and rank stench. She tried to cover her nose with her sleeve. It helped a bit.

Pavel turned down an unpaved road. He slowed to thirty kilometers an hour.

“It’s about eight kilometers to the facility,” Fyodor Petrov said. “We’ve passed the worst of it.”

Until we go back, she thought.

The sun had set an hour ago. Lyubinsk after dark became downright eerie. The snow flurries didn’t help. The slushy track seemed threatening in the jouncing headlights. The windshield wipers barely worked, forcing Pavel to lean forward to see. He slowed again.

The facility came into sight. The ugly cement building rose three stories, smack in the center of an icy mess of mud and gravel. A second, much smaller building sat behind it, also unadorned cement. The trees had been cut back, preventing anyone from approaching unobserved, and a ten-foot-high barbed wire fence surrounded the complex. Pavel hopped out and propped open the deliberately unlocked gate, then drove the van straight up to the small building, parking in front of it like he had every right to be there.

Fyodor opened his laptop and typed in a few commands. A grid showing nine views of the facility and its surroundings popped up, then went black as he pressed a few buttons. “The codes I got are good. The exterior cameras are disabled. Working on the interior ones now.”

“Hurry up.” Fatianova tapped her long nails on her trousers, leaning away from Konstantin. He smelled almost as bad as the rotting fish.

Fyodor closed the laptop. “Cameras inside this building are down. We have maybe fifteen minutes before they bother to come check.”

They all exited the van. Fatianova turned up her fur collar against the cold as Pavel walked to the door and tried the handle.

“It’s unlocked.” He pulled it open, peering in before gesturing to Konstantin, who drew a submachine gun from under his long coat.

Fatianova shivered. She hated guns; had since the GRU stormed her family home and killed her parents right in front of her eyes. They hadn’t been dissidents, as the KGB claimed. Just poor factory floor workers committing the occasional petty theft to make ends meet.

The door opened into some sort of tunnel. Age and calcium pitted the cement walls. The low ceiling seemed to be half wooden beams, half exposed cabling. Every ten feet, an oxidized steel door barred entry into whatever was hidden there. About halfway down the tunnel, one of these doors stood ajar.

“The guard should be on a smoke break,” Fyodor said. The tunnel echoed his words.

“Shut up,” Fatianova whispered. “We don’t know who else might be here.”

“No one’s here,” the man insisted. “Just like the gate guard conveniently went to take a piss. None of the guards here have been paid in five months. It was easy to bribe them.”

“No one better show up,” Konstantin said. “Or they’re dead.”

Her group made its way down to the reddish steel security door and the men hauled it further open. When Fatianova stepped over the threshold, she nearly stumbled and fell before scrambling over rubble and pipes that had fallen onto the floor, or been abandoned there.

“Here,” Konstantin said. He turned left, stepping over a black tarp and crowbar to a banded wooden shipping crate. Pavel picked up the crowbar. At a nod from Fatianova, he pried the top open and shoved the lid back.

She looked down at the oversized red-and-silver suitcase nestled on a bed of industrial packing material. Excellent. Fingering the clasps before pulling them open, she eased the lid up, calculating and recalculating in her head how rich this simple suitcase would make her.

“Hurry, Fatya,” Fyodor said.

“I’ll take all the time I want; do you hear me? This isn’t a box of marbles. And don’t call me that.” She shot him a glare before inspecting the contents meticulously. “Everything looks good.”

Fyodor gave a sharp nod and gestured to Pavel. “Go get the cart. Quick, now.”

He was gone and back in less than five minutes with a heavy-duty padded cargo dolly. Fatianova snapped the suitcase closed. Konstantin closed the crate and the three men lifted it onto the dolly.

“Slowly,” she hissed. “Be careful. Very, very careful.”

They obeyed. She was, after all, the expert. The only one who knew how to handle the dangerous contents of the suitcase.

“It’s got to be worth millions of rubles,” Konstantin said. “While you’re only paying us a couple thousand.”

Closer to a billion rubles. Fatianova kept silent.

Fyodor sneered. “I’m paying you six thousand rubles to steal something you couldn’t possibly understand or sell. Count yourself lucky.”

“What are you going to do with it? Use it?”

“None of your business. But if it’ll shut up your yapping, I intend to take it to America and sell it. They’re rolling in money there. They can afford to pay.”

“How do you plan to get it across the border? You can’t exactly check it at the airport as though it were a regular suitcase.”

Fyodor cast him an impatient look. “We’re taking it to Kamchatka. I have someone who can get us into Canada, and from there to Massachusetts. Are you done asking stupid questions?”

Konstantin shrugged. “Sure. Whatever you say. You’re the boss.”

I’m the boss. She had no choice, for the moment, but to let Fyodor think he was the one in charge. She needed his contacts. Soon enough, though, he would cease to be useful to her. Fatianova locked down the safety straps on the dolly, double- and triple-checking to ensure the container wouldn’t shift even a little bit.

“Lift it over the rubble,” she ordered. “Keep it smooth and slow. Steady, you clods!”

She watched them like a hawk. She had no desire to die. The group inched its way back to the van, where she supervised loading the suitcase, dolly and all, and secured the whole thing inside.

The snow had stopped while they were inside the building, leaving the landscape dark and bleak. Her heart began to thud and her breath came in excited spurts as Konstantin snapped the doors closed. She had it!

“If you tell anyone about tonight, I’ll hunt you both down and carve your hearts out,” she said. “Tell me you understand.”

“Yeah, sure,” Konstantin said. “Give us our six thousand, and we’re gone.”

“Fyodor, give them what they’re owed,” she ordered.

The muffled report of a silenced gun caused her to flinch. She turned in time to see Pavel collapse. Fyodor turned the weapon onto Konstantin, who froze in the process of unslinging his submachine gun.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he snarled.

Fatianova knew she should just let Fyodor shoot him, but why shouldn’t she have a little fun after the anxiety of transporting the suitcase?

Slipping her knife from under her long coat, she moved well into his personal space, smiling into his eyes. A cat-with-a-canary, you’re-an-idiot kind of smile.

“I’m killing you, you dimwit.”

Uncertainty touched his eyes, which then widened as she slipped her knife between his ribs and twisted.