The previous time the Bukharins had caught me, I had been taken to the interrogation room. I fully expected that to happen again, and it did. As before, they ignored my request to use the restroom.

What I didn’t expect was that this time, Dmitri Bukharin would tell Yelena to go home and follow along with his guards.

“What happened to the chair?” asked the guard holding my left arm after we entered the room.

“I think I saw it out in the hall,” said the guard on my right. He retrieved the chair and they pushed me down onto it, not bothering to bolt it to the floor again. They attached the handcuffs to the back of the chair, almost dislocating my left shoulder in the process.

Dmitri pursed his lips for a moment, then spoke in English. “Well, Mr. CIA Assassin, if you were sent to kill me tonight, you did a very poor job of it.” He chuckled.

“The night is still young,” I said, with as much bluster as I could manage. I needed to give him something to think about, something that would make him leave me alone for a minute. “But I wasn’t sent to kill you. My assignment is to kill one of your clients.”

“Why break in here then?” he asked.

“Because you know where your client is, and I don’t.”

“And the name of this client who is destined to die at your hands?”

“Kazem Jamshidi. Since stealing the information didn’t work, the CIA would be willing to pay you for his location.”

Dmitri emitted a sharp bark of laughter. “You are doubly a fool, Mr. CIA Assassin. First, because Jamshidi can afford better protection than your President. And second, because I do not know Jamshidi’s location. You have come here for nothing.”

“I see,” I said. “Well, if you just have your men undo these cuffs, I’ll be on my way then.”

Dmitri chuckled. “I like you, Mr. CIA Assassin. I will enjoy seeing how long you can maintain your sense of humor before dying.” In Russian, he said to one of his guards, “Bring me a coat-hanger.”

I didn’t know what kind of killing torture required a coat-hanger, and I had no desire to find out. “Listen, the CIA will pay to get me back alive. Let me give you a phone number to—”

“The CIA can offer me nothing that Jamshidi can’t.”

Getting myself sold to Jamshidi wasn’t the worst option available. It would give me a chance to let my talent work so I could escape. If I were really lucky, I might even get the location of Jamshidi’s lab. But, of course, I couldn’t let it seem like that was what I wanted.

I shook my head. “You gain nothing by turning me over to Jamshidi except the CIA’s attention on your own operations. Whatever he pays you won’t be worth it.”

Dmitri stared at me and scratched his temple. After a long pause, he said, “You may have noticed that I speak English pretty well.”

“Yes,” I said, caught a little off guard by the change of subject.

“The post-communist generation learn English because it is the language of opportunity. I learned it earlier because it is the language of Hollywood.”

“I see.” I didn’t.

“My father had bootleg videocassettes of many American movies when I was a boy, and I used to watch them over and over. And your request not to be turned over to Jamshidi reminded me of Disney movie Song of the South.” He leaned forward and said in a sing-song voice, “Oh, please don’t throw me in that briar patch.” He continued in his normal tone, “You are playing the part of Br’er Rabbit. For some reason, you want to be sent to Jamshidi. Maybe you have a tracker installed in your body.”

“Or maybe I’m smart enough to pretend to play the part of Br’er Rabbit so you’ll turn me back to the CIA,” I said. Dmitri was obviously a thinking man — if I made things complicated enough, maybe he would take time to do his thinking elsewhere.

The guard returned with a simple wire coat-hanger and handed it to Dmitri, who unwound the top of it.

“Get his hands,” Dmitri said. One of the guards unchained the handcuffs from the back of the chair, then uncuffed my left hand.

“Before you start with the torture and killing,” I said, “can I at least go to the bathroom?”

The guards forced my hands in front of me and reattached the left handcuff, then used a chain to fasten the cuffs to the crossbar on the chair’s front legs. I could move my hands a bit, but could not raise them more than six inches above my lap.

“When you kill me,” I said, trying to keep my rising desperation out of my voice, “my sphincter muscles will relax and I’ll mess up this lovely room of yours. I wouldn’t want to stink up the place.”

Dmitri squeezed the hook part of the hanger, narrowing it to about a half inch.

I ran out of things to say.

With practiced precision, Dmitri straightened out the major bends in the hangar.


* * *


When I was eleven years old, my appendix ruptured. Because we had no car, my mother called 911. The pain I felt while waiting for the ambulance was the worst of my life.

In an attempt to distract me from the pain, my mother asked me to recite the Vice Presidents of the United States. “John Adams,” she said, to get me started.

I didn’t have a photographic memory, but my mother discovered early in my childhood that I was very good at memorizing things. When homeschooling me, she helped me develop that talent by giving me lists, like vocabulary words or state birds or elements of the periodic table, to memorize. When I was ten, I even memorized the first 1000 digits of pi.

So, lying in my bed while the ambulance was on its way, I recited the Vice Presidents of the United States, followed by the capital cities of Europe and the plays of Shakespeare in chronological order. And by concentrating my mind on something other than my physical pain, I was able to bear it.

That memory training came in handy in other ways once I started working for the CIA. My Russian accent might be terrible, and the grammar didn’t come naturally, but I memorized large amounts of phonetically spelled vocabulary without too much trouble. And, of course, I had memorized the authentication protocol sheet I used with Edward.

I found it rather ironic that people could forget me within a minute, yet if I concentrated I could still remember lists of useless information I learned as a child.

But even useless information had its uses, as my appendicitis experience proved.


* * *


“We will start with the pinkie of your left hand,” said Dmitri.

In my mind, I began to recite the list of Vice Presidents of the United States. John Adams. Thomas Jefferson. Aaron Burr. I could even imagine my mother sitting across from me at our kitchen table, as she checked off each name after I said it.

The lights dimmed, then went out. Pitch darkness filled the room.

I didn’t make a sound, although if they forgot me, I wasn’t sure I could explain my way out of being handcuffed to their torture chair.

Dmitri swore and said in Russian, “Check if it’s just this room.”

Someone opened the door, and no light came in. “Another blackout,” said one of the guards.

“Everyone stay where you are,” said Dmitri. “The diesel generator will kick in after thirty seconds.”

So I didn’t have a minute. My talent couldn’t save me. And even if I could reach the lockpicks in my waistband, the lights would be back on before I could get them out.

Not caring if the chains made a sound, I reached out toward the place where Dmitri had been holding the hanger. I felt thick wire, and I snagged the hook with a finger.

Dmitri yelped.

Pushing as hard as I could with my feet, I tipped the chair back. The hanger came free of Dmitri’s grasp. Despite holding my head forward as I fell, when the chair hit the ground my head whipped back and smacked against the concrete. Bright sparks seemed to explode before my eyes.

Shouts in Russian sounded around me. The chair jerked beneath me as someone bumped into it.

By feel alone, I jammed the tip of the coat-hanger wire into the right handcuff keyhole and twisted. The cuff unlocked, and I pulled my right hand out.

“Get the lights back on.” Dmitri’s voice was more distant. He’d probably backed toward the door.

Right hand freed, I made quick work of the left handcuff. I rolled off the chair to one side, smashing into the legs of a guard. He toppled to the floor.

“Grab him,” Dmitri ordered.

The fallen guard’s hands grappled me, but my hands found what I was feeling for: the guard’s gun. I pulled it out of his holster and shot him in the torso — even in complete darkness, it was hard to miss with the muzzle pressed against the target. He grunted and let go of me.

A small square of white light appeared — a cell phone screen. I fired at it. I missed, but its owner turned it off.

One of the guards fired his gun and it hit the wall behind me. The brief flash revealed his position, but the darkness was so disorienting that I couldn’t be sure I could aim the gun properly. Besides, if I fired the flash from my gun would give them a target again.

“Fool,” said Dmitri, “you’re more likely to hit one of us than him. Wait for the generator.”

Years of counting off seconds gave me a pretty good sense of time, even in confusing circumstances. The thirty seconds were almost up, if they weren’t gone already. I couldn’t come up with a plan for surviving once the lights came on, so I decided I would try to make my death count for something by shooting Dmitri. I aimed my gun in the general direction of his voice and waited for the chance to pull the trigger.

The silent seconds stretched out in the darkness.

I started to think my time sense had been knocked out of whack by the bump on my head, because it felt like at least forty-five seconds since the blackout began, and the backup generator still hadn’t kicked in.

Then one of the guards said, “There must be something wrong with the generator.”

“Just wait,” said Dmitri. “Sometimes it takes longer.”

I held my breath. How long had it been since I fired the gun? It felt like twenty seconds, but I couldn’t be sure.

Every additional second brought them closer to forgetting me.

Finally they did.

“The generator must be down,” said Dmitri. “I guess we’ll have to feel our way out.”

The man I had shot moaned, then said, “Don’t leave me.”

I realized his gunshot wound was physical evidence that I had been there. Would they start looking for whoever had fired the shot?

“I have little use for a guard so clumsy he accidentally shoots himself when the lights go out,” said Dmitri. “But Ivan can call an ambulance.”

A square of light lit up Ivan’s face as he dialed.

I pressed myself against the wall, my eyes half-closed so they wouldn’t reflect the light, still not letting myself breathe. My good luck with the power outage and backup generator failure would be wiped out if one of them spotted me now.

Ivan moved out into the hall, taking the cell phone light with him. I didn’t breathe until all but the man I’d shot had left the room.

It took over forty minutes of creeping around in the dark, and then in the light as power came back on, but eventually I descended the narrow stairs into the pulsing beat of the music. I nodded to the guards at the bottom, as if I had just come from a meeting and had every right to be there, and they nodded back.

I wondered if Yelena had given me up for dead when they took me away, or if she would still be waiting at the rendezvous spot, a café down the street from Klub Kosmos.

She waved from her seat at a table when I entered. “I am sorry,” she said as I sat down. “Silent alarm go off in Dmitri’s office warning of unauthorized access to records room. I go with them, in case I can help you, but too many.”

“I understand.”

She shook her head. “Your talent is very strange. First they are talking about who could have broken in, then—” She snapped her fingers. “ — they are talking about playing at cards with guard in records room. Until they see him handcuff to door. But you escape. That is impressive.”

“Truth is, I got lucky. If not for the blackout, I’d be dead. And then it turned out their backup generator …” My voice faltered as I noticed her smirk. I was so accustomed to working alone that the possibility of help hadn’t occurred to me. I sat there and stared at her, mouth agape.

“You owe me one,” she said. “Two, maybe. I think if they not see you, maybe easier to escape.”

“You think good,” I said. Then, remembering, I said, “I found out who bought your sisters.”

She leaned forward. “Who?”


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