“Her name is Yelena Semyonova,” said Edward Strong, after I confirmed the photo was the same woman I had encountered in Barcelona two days earlier. I sat across from Edward’s desk in his office at Langley.

Edward was my CIA handler. No one ever told me why he was assigned to me, but my guess was it had something to do with the fact that he suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Medication had slowed the progress of his memory loss, but he was capable of forgetting people who lacked my talent. Maybe his bosses figured he could handle forgetting me better than someone with a good memory.

He was only two years away from mandatory retirement, and I wondered who they would get to replace him.

“She probably drove to Paris,” Edward said, “because she took a flight to Kiev out of Charles de Gaulle yesterday.”

“So she gave me her real first name?” I asked. “That wasn’t very professional.” I did it all the time, but that didn’t matter because nobody remembered. I wanted her to be a professional, because being taken down like that by an amateur made me feel stupid.

“Hmm.” With arthritic fingers, Edward paged through her file. “We’ve got kind of a good news/bad news scenario here. The good news is she’s not with the Russian SVR.”

“Ukrainian?” If so, I felt a bit better about letting her get away with the prototype, as the current Ukrainian government was pro-American.

“No. She used to be in the SVR, but she quit eleven months ago. The bad news is that we suspect she now works for one of the Russian syndicates.”

I winced. “I should have anticipated she would—”

“Everyone makes mistakes, son,” Edward said. “But there’s more bad news: the syndicate she works for has been hired by this man.” He handed over a photo of a bald, morbidly obese man. The photo was very grainy, as if shot from a great distance and then blown up to 8 x 10. “Kazem Jamshidi. Iranian citizen, made most of his billions in oil. We used to think he was relatively harmless, just trying to make Iran into the Silicon Valley of quantum computing so they’ll have something to export when the oil runs out.”

Used to think?” I asked.

“From what we can tell, he’s trying to build a quantum supercomputer that can predict the future. Accurately. The implications are tremendous — he could take over the stock market, give our enemies warning of our military plans. We haven’t even thought everything he could do.”

I thought about it. In the hands of an enemy, such a supercomputer would seriously compromise our national security.

“And he’s hired the Russian mafia to steal technology to help build it?” I asked.

“Not just steal. They’ve kidnapped quantum physicists and engineers from around the globe — although they’ve steered clear of Americans and Western Europeans, probably to avoid riling us up. We’re pretty sure they’ve assassinated key people in the industry, too.”

“So,” I said, “how do we stop him?”

Edward grinned at me. “That’s my boy! Your file said you were enthusiastic, but it’s nice to see it for myself.” His smile faltered. “I mean, I guess I have seen it for myself, before, but …”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said. “I’m used to people forgetting.”

“Right.” He gave me a brief nod. “We know Jamshidi’s built an underground lab somewhere in the Iranian desert, but we don’t know where it is. We’d love to trace a locator beacon to his lab. And you can help set that up.”


“With this.” He pulled a circuit board out of an anti-static envelope and slid it across his desk to me.

It looked awfully familiar. “That’s the InterQuan prototype,” I said. “How did you get it?”

“No, it’s a GPS tracker and locator beacon built based on the pictures our source at InterQuan sent us. You see, we don’t think Yelena has had time to transfer the prototype to Jamshidi’s people. So, we need you to catch up with her and switch this for the real prototype. Your talent can make it so she won’t remember the switch, right?”

I nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem, if I can find her and she still has the prototype.”

“Uh-hmm.” He gave me an appraising look. “I like the can-do attitude, but I really don’t like sending you into the field like this without any kind of backup.”

Smiling, I said, “We’ve discussed this before. If I ever have to go radio silent for a minute, my backup will forget me.”

“Right, of course. Sorry for bringing up an old subject.”

“No problem, I appreciate the concern for my well-being. Don’t worry about me — I’m used to getting myself out of tough situations.”

A woman knocked at the door and brought in a manila envelope for Edward.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“The documents you requested,” she said.

“Ah, thanks.” He opened it and leafed through the contents. “Quite satisfactory.”

As she walked out, he said, “Okay, son, there’s a seat booked on a plane to Moscow this afternoon.” He handed me an itinerary, a credit card, and a passport.

I flipped the passport open to find my name was Bob Daniels. The passport photo was a Polaroid we had taken earlier and developed in my presence.

“Moscow?” I said. “I thought she was in Kiev.”

“She left for Moscow this morning.” He handed me Yelena’s folder. “Here’s something to read on the flight.”

* * *

The first time the CIA tried to book me on a flight, a few months after I joined, they ran headlong into the weirdness of my talent. The airlines all used computers to track reservations, so any details about my ticket would vanish.

So they tried booking me under an alias, figuring that the computers wouldn’t know it was me. Those reservations disappeared as quickly as the first.

“It’s no use,” I told Edward as he hung up the phone after talking to the travel office. “There’s no way I can fly anywhere, which means I won’t be able to carry out any missions.”

“Nonsense, my boy,” he said. “Someone with your talents was born for a job like this. We just need to figure out the limitations on what is affected and work around those.”

After some trial and error experimentation, we found a way: use an existing reservation made for someone else and informing that person his trip had been postponed. It meant creating new identity documents for me for every trip, but that was no obstacle for the CIA.

* * *

While on the plane — one of the new supersonic intercontinental jets — I perused Yelena’s file.

Yelena Semyonova was born seventeen days after I was. Even though her parents could remember her, that didn’t stop her father from leaving like mine had. Her mother had remarried, though, when Yelena was eight. She had twin half-sisters — Ekaterina and Oksana — nine years younger than her. Apparently her mother had been a figure-skating fan.

She majored in world politics at Lomonosov Moscow State University, but was recruited by the SVR and left before graduating.

According to the information the CIA had collected, Yelena was on track as a career agent for the SVR until a family crisis intervened. Her mother and step-father had divorced when she was a teenager, with full custody of the twins given to the mother. But after a dispute with their mother last year, the sixteen-year-old twins had run off to live with their father.

Yelena requested various government departments to return the girls to the legal custody of their mother, but nothing happened. She had resigned from the SVR, and that’s where the CIA information on her ran out, except for a note that she frequented a Moscow night club owned by the Bukharin syndicate.

I was a little disappointed by Yelena after reading the dossier. I could understand that she might get disillusioned by her government when they refused to help return her sisters, so her resignation didn’t bother me. But working for the Russian mafia? Surely she had other options.

Then again, if the CIA hadn’t hired me, I might have continued with my life of crime. So who was I to cast stones?

I put the folder back in my carry-on and slid it under the seat in front of me. Then I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes, and remembered the kiss. I daydreamed about getting her to kiss me again — before I stole the prototype from her, of course.

* * *

Idle daydreams are not a good basis for operational planning. So my actual plan involved locating the prototype and stealing it without even bumping into Yelena, let alone kissing her.

After landing in Moscow, I had a taxi take me to the apartment building that was her last known address, in case she hadn’t moved after resigning from the SVR. The building was in a low-rent district, and the intercom at the door wasn’t working. I walked up seven flights of stairs to apartment 73.

I knocked on the door. If she answered, I would be a befuddled American tourist who had come to the wrong address. I’d apologize and go wait outside the building until she left.

But the twenty-something Russian woman who answered the door was not Yelena, so I went with Plan B.

“Is Yelena here?” I asked in my atrociously accented Russian.

“She doesn’t live here any more,” she said.

“I am a friend of Yelena. I was an American exchange student at the university with her.” I had rehearsed these lines on the flight over. My vocabulary was good, but I couldn’t get the grammar right without practice. “Could you give me her new address or phone number?”

She looked me over head to toe, and apparently decided I wasn’t to be trusted with that information. “No,” she said. Maybe she was overprotective, or maybe she was just a good judge of character.

“Sorry to bother you,” I said, and walked away. I heard the door close behind me.

I stopped and counted to sixty, then returned and knocked on the door again. She answered.

“Is Polina here?” I asked.

She frowned, shaking her head. “You have the wrong apartment.”

I scratched the back of my right ear. “Sorry, my mistake.” I started to turn as if to leave, then said, “Can I use your phone to call Polina and get the right address?”

She looked me over head to toe. This time, the verdict was different. “Just for a minute.”

“Thank you,” I said.

She showed me to the phone on an end table in her living room. I dialed a random number. The phone call itself didn’t matter. But it gave me the chance to surreptitiously stick a penny-sized electronic bug onto the bottom of her telephone.

Someone answered my call. I said, “Sorry, wrong number,” and hung up.

“Thank you,” I said to the woman, and I left.

Once I got to the stairwell, I sat down and took out a pad of paper and a pen.

Writing in Russian takes me a while, even if I’m just copying Cyrillic characters off the web browser on my cell phone. With the aid of an online translation program, after five minutes I managed to write the following message:

Warn Yelena not to trust the Iranians.

I knocked on the door for the third time. But instead of waiting for the woman to answer, I left a folded sheet of paper on the ground and then ran.

Sitting back in the stairwell, I pulled out my cell phone. It had been modified to record the transmissions from the bug I’d put on the woman’s phone. I listened through my wireless earbuds, and as I had hoped, she made a phone call.

Yelena’s voice answered.

As the woman passed on the warning I had left, an audio analyzer in the cell phone decoded the phone number she had dialed. I wrote it down, then called Edward’s direct line at Langley.

“Strong here,” he said.

“There is a file folder labeled ‘Nat Morgan’ in the back of your bottom desk drawer on the right,” I said.

“What? Who is this?”

“Just look for the file folder.”

It always took Edward a few minutes to get his bearings.

“How do I know you’re really Nat?” he said, as usual.

“We have an authentication protocol,” I said. “It’s on a bright yellow sheet of paper.”

He riffled through the folder. “Batman,” he said.

If his word was a superhero, mine needed to be a classical composer starting with the same letter. “Beethoven.” Starting with a different letter would mean I was under duress — he would pretend the authentication had worked, but would know something was wrong.

“Okay, son. Why’d you call in?”

“You up-to-date on my mission now?”

“Have you found Yelena Semyonova?”

“Not yet, but I have a number for her I need you to trace.” I gave him the number.

“Um,” he said. “Can I put you on hold while I get someone to track this down?”

“No, you’ll forget the whole conversation,” I said. “But you can conference someone in.”

“Right, good idea.”

Fifteen minutes later, I had the billing address for the cell phone Yelena was using.

* * *

One taxi ride later, I stood at the entrance to Yelena’s new apartment building. This was a more upscale place, with a nicely decorated lobby and a doorman — her life of crime must be paying pretty well.

I asked the doorman to ring Yelena’s apartment. She was there, so I walked out and stood across the street to wait for her to leave.

Darkness had fallen by the time I spotted her coming out the glass doors of her building. She paused on the curb and scanned the street. She looked right past me without showing any sign of recognition, of course.

Yelena was every bit as beautiful as I remembered. She wore a silver-sequined top and black miniskirt, which meant she was probably headed to Klub Kosmos, run by the Bukharin syndicate.

She might have the prototype in her purse, ready to hand it over to Jamshidi. I had hoped my warning about the Iranians might delay her. If I followed her to the club, I just might be able to swap out the prototype there, but if she didn’t have it with her I would miss a chance to burglarize her apartment.

She hailed a cab and I jaywalked across the street in time to hear her tell the cabbie to take her to the Hard Rock Cafe. That gave me time. I’d search her apartment first, and if I didn’t find anything I’d track her down at the Hard Rock.

I sauntered over to the doorman and pulled a hundred ruble note out of my wallet. “I want to surprise a friend,” I said in stilted Russian.

He shook his head.

I pulled out two more notes. This time the head shake was slower in coming. Another two notes earned me another shake, so I started to walk away.

“Okay,” he said.

I handed him the money and he opened the door for me.

Sometimes it was easier just to ignore my talent and use the standard methods. I smiled as I rode up the elevator, thinking about how the doorman would puzzle over the five hundred rubles when he found them in his wallet later.

My lockpicks got me into Yelena’s apartment. To my surprise, there was hardly any furniture. She certainly hadn’t spent much money decorating the place. But I couldn’t complain, as it made my job easier.

I started in the master bedroom. A systematic search of the closet and dresser revealed nothing unusual. Lifting up a rug, I spotted the faint outlines of a trap door in the floorboards. I pried it open and found a box of bullets and an empty holster. No sign of the prototype, but wherever Yelena was going, she was armed.

Behind me, I heard the unmistakable click of a revolver being cocked.

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