February 27, 1970
Two twenty-seven in the morning, somewhere behind the Iron Curtain: Footsteps creaking on a wooden dock. Wispy tendrils of moonlit fog dancing on the river. A trench-coated figure lurking in the shadows. The muffled echo of a two-stroke marine engine, slowly growing louder.
Maybe I should light a cigarette, Josh thought. Just to complete the tableau.
Binoculars. Butterflies in the stomach. Beads of sweat on the brow.
Add a whiskey priest with a rotten tooth, and I could be in a Graham Greene novel.
Even the Vltava had gotten in the mood, shrouding itself much like Josh in his trench coat. At least the coat served a purpose; the fog was pure affectation. Half an hour ago he’d been able to see clear across the river. Now the dock was an island in a silvery sea.
Hell. They’d never discussed the possibility of pea soup. How would Dom find the dock? All their preparations, all their precautions to keep the Reds off-balance, and then in the end the river decided to throw them a curveball.
It was as though the Vltava were patiently erasing everything beyond the dock, to make him forget the outside world. He imagined this was how it felt to stand upon the banks of Lethe.
Well. Maybe it worked both ways. Maybe it would shroud them from their adversaries, too. Dom had insisted on this extraction route, after all, and he was the expert.
Somewhere on the water, still dozens of yards out, the two-stroke cut off in mid-putter. It became the faint creak of oarlocks and the swish of oars. Dom was zeroing in, despite the fog. Josh suppressed a shiver of admiration. Guys like Dom and Alestair, guys who’d been around a while, they knew their business. It made him eager for the day when he was the experienced partner—inspiring younger officers with his confidence, impressing them with his stories. Oh, did Alestair have stories . . .
“Antlers,” said a low voice on the water, closer than Josh had thought possible. Close enough to make him jump.
“Goggles.” A single word. Low, controlled, confident. It pleased Josh to no end that his voice didn’t crack. He sounded like he belonged here.
A pause for triangulation. The oarlocks changed their rhythm. The susurration of water against a wooden prow. The boat drew closer. Then, barely more than a whisper:
A creak. A splash. A boat hove into view, ghostly fingers of mist grasping at the gunwales. Dom stood in the prow like Charon himself.
The classicist in Josh wished he’d brought an obol to pay the ferryman. But, then again, how did it work when the ferryman retrieved somebody from the underworld? Ovid and Virgil were a little unclear on the matter of refunds. And anyway, Charon probably didn’t wear cable-knit turtlenecks.
Dom gave a single nod. Terse. Josh returned the gesture, and then he caught the loop of rope that came sailing through the fog. Calm. Cool. Like you belong here. Josh looped it around the bollards while Dom maneuvered the boat against the dock with barely a scrape. Then the senior officer crouched between the thwarts and pulled back a tarpaulin. His passenger sat up, blinking and looking more than a little uncomfortable.
ANCHISES: Maksim Sokolov.
“This is our stop, doctor.”
Dom whispered around the cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. Maybe the cigarette wasn’t such a silly idea after all.
He ushered the defector toward the dock, steadying him against the sway of the boat. Josh offered a hand. (Strong grip, he coached himself. Confident, steady, trustworthy.) Then he hauled Sokolov onto dry land.
“Easy, doc. I’ve got you,” he said. And he did. Recognition dawned, softening the Russian’s expression. Good. The more relaxed he remained, the better.
Dom said, “Vehicle?”
Josh tipped his head toward the shore, where a replica police car waited in the shadows. “All clear.”
Dom nodded. But rather than disembark so that Josh could release the lines and send the boat drifting downriver, he plucked the cigar from his mouth and tapped a dusting of ash along the keel and across the thwarts. For some reason it reminded Josh of a priest thumbing a cross on the forehead of an Ash Wednesday congregant.
Sokolov frowned. “Why is he doing that?”
Good question. It wasn’t part of the plan. “Dom?”
“Everyone has their superstitions. Gabe has his flask. This is mine.” Tap, tap, tap. “Kinda like my trademark.”
A board rattled underfoot. Josh caught himself fidgeting. Relax, he commanded himself. We built an hour of slack into the timeline. We can afford thirty seconds. Still . . .
As if reading Josh’s anxiety, Dom said, “I once made the mistake of not doing this. It cost me.” More quietly, he added, “Not just me.”
“And thus a ritual was born.”
Dom narrowed his eyes, shot Josh an unreadable glance. But it passed as quickly as it came. “Got it in one.”
Then he was out of the boat, cat-quick. Together they unlooped the lines from the bollards and tossed the coils...