February 26, 1970
Maksim Sokolov was a Host.
Gabe rubbed at his temples, trying to soothe away the volatile mix of hangover, stress, and elemental excitation that gripped his skull. Their defector was a Host, and now Gabe had to worry about far more than just the KGB trying to foil his plans. Did the Flame know there was a Host free and running around Prague? Just what he needed—a bunch of megalomaniacal witches interfering with his exfiltration op.
And then there was the Ice.
Gabe gripped the Moskvich’s steering wheel, hands squeaking against the cheap rubber. Alestair, Morozova, and whoever else the Ice had lurking around Prague were all ready to toss each and every Host into cold storage. Alestair certainly presented a challenge. He was far more observant than he let on. Though MI6 had helped facilitate their work with Sokolov, they weren’t involved in the actual exfiltration; these sorts of missions needed all the secrecy they could get. Sure, it always looked good for British-American relations if they could pull off a win together. But too often, the Brits only managed to gum up the works.
Now Gabe had a whole new reason to keep Alestair in the dark. The minute that swaggering prick found out what Sokolov really was . . . Gabe grimaced. Would Alestair really endanger a major win for the West just to help out his little secret society? Alestair had acted like gathering all the Hosts under Ice protection was a matter of life and death. But this was life and death, too, this mundane world of rocket science and political maneuvering and nuclear stockpiles. America needed Sokolov. The Brits needed America to have him. Surely Alestair would see that. He wouldn’t risk his country’s standing—and more importantly, his own standing within his country—over one Host.
That left the question, then, of Morozova. The woman had readily sent that poor student girl into Ice custody. True, Morozova hadn’t known what the Ice would do with her, but Gabe couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t consign Sokolov to deep freeze, thinking there was no other way to keep him out of the Flame’s grasp. Bad enough that he was trying to whisk away another Host, away from her protection and the Ice’s. That alone would bring out her claws. But as a KaGeBeznik, determined to prevent Soviet citizens from defecting at all costs . . .
That settled it, then. Gabe didn’t want to leave Sokolov vulnerable to the Flame, that much he was sure of. But he couldn’t count on the Ice to help him. The only Ice agents he knew were Morozova, Ostrokhina, and Alestair. If Tanya found out that Sokolov was a Host, it was as good as marching right up to the Soviet embassy and announcing the man’s plans to defect. It would end in a bullet in the back of Sokolov’s head, and another one in the shambling corpse of Gabe’s career.
Gabe took a deep breath and turned toward Josh. “How’re we looking?”
Josh glanced toward the far corner of the Hotel International Praha, but there were still no signs of their scout. “Waiting.”
Gabe smiled and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Already he felt lighter, having made up his mind. The defector’s status as a Host was just another secret for him to keep. And Gabe was damned good at keeping secrets.
He hoped Maksim Sokolov would prove just as good.
“Here we are.” Josh closed the newspaper he’d been pretending to scan and folded it up. “He’s walking out now, heading toward the corner . . .”
Gabe fixed his eyes on the person strolling along the sidewalk in front of the hotel, catty-corner from the parking lot where they sat partially obscured from view by a hulking construction truck. Their scout was dressed like every other man in Prague these days: black turtleneck, dark plaid flared trousers. He had the hollow-cheeked, suspicious stare of the Czechs, but his US embassy paycheck was sure to lift his spirits. He leaned against the streetlamp, paused, then pulled a cigarette from the pack in his pocket. Lit it.
“Come on,” Gabe muttered.
The man closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the post. Tapped the cigarette twice. Then took a slow drag.
“Excellent. Just two guards, south side. We’re set.”
One good day. That was all Gabe needed to keep the defector’s identity hidden. Then he wouldn’t have to worry about the Ice, the Flame, or even the KGB. Gabe could hold out for just one day. Hell, even the hitchhiker was behaving itself. This would be a piece of cake.
Gabe slid out of the car and turned toward Josh as he did the same. “It’s your show now.”
Joshua Toms straightened his corduroy blazer and pushed his way toward the registration table in the foyer of the Hotel International Praha. Excitement crackled through him, fortifying, like a good shot of whiskey. His show. Today, at the conference proper, was his show.
He flashed a quick smile toward Gabe. It felt so good to be on the same page again, working together like a well-oiled machine. Spring was blowing into...