Prague, Czechoslovak Soviet Republic
April 25, 1970
Smoke, the Americans sang, gets in your eyes. That line had always confused Nadia Ostrokhina. The song’s intent seemed amorous, but actual smoke, in actual eyes, hurt.
Take Nadia’s present surroundings, for example: She strained to think of a less romantic setting than this tiny Prague riverfront bar, its rough plaster walls yellow with tobacco stains and spilled beer. Tables clustered patrons too close. A chair swung in a vigorous argument could take out three men drinking before anyone noticed—and this was the kind of place where arguments started vigorous and grew worse. She hated places like this—no, she hated herself, in this place. She felt a combination of sick and elated, from drink and the emotional whiplash of her reunion with Van—but those feelings would not own her. Nadia had Hosts to smuggle, a world to save.
So she kept her thoughts light, pondering smoke, eyes: Prague river freight dockhands smoked more than the Politburo, and Nadia’s eyes had started watering the second she stepped through the door. She blinked only when she could not avoid it.
Perhaps Americans found tears romantic.
The man across the table did not seem to mind the smoke—or anything else. Nadia made herself small in her seat, to avoid jostling the broad-backed drinkers to either side of her. If she felt hemmed in, her companion should have been on the verge of claustrophobic collapse. Kazimir looked comfortable, though, damn him. Naturally. These were his people, and he’d chosen this venue.
She needed Kazimir for this operation. His people, and his alone, could get Nadia’s rescued Hosts out of the city without attracting the wrong kind of attention—which was to say, any attention—from the Flame or the Czech government or the Soviets or the Americans. Nadia and Kazimir had worked together before. She boxed in his gym. They’d broken bread and shared booze. But she did not like needing people. Kazimir was a criminal, and a nationalist, and at any moment he might abandon their relationship—might decide their business had grown costly, or that he would rather have one Russian dead than a business partner alive.
She opened her briefcase, withdrew a folder, and slid it across the table.
Kazimir looked down at the folder as if waiting for it to open of its own accord.
“I think you’ll find everything in order,” Nadia said. “As discussed.”
He pawed the folder toward him. Rustling paper sounded alien in this still blue air. A drinker at the bar slammed down his glass and called for more beer.
Kazimir opened the folder, and read.
That by itself wasn’t a bad sign. He shouldn’t need to read those pages—they’d agreed on everything beforehand. Then again, there were reasons to be cautious, after the raid. Kazimir wanted to review every stage, including this final step of payment: bank drafts on numbered Swiss accounts. Natural.
But still, he was frowning as he read.
Nadia reviewed her training, her exits, the gun in her handbag. She shouldn’t need any of that. The gun held eight rounds. The crowd was tight—she’d slalom past the tables, save the pistol for whoever tried to block the door, or for any gunmen who materialized among these apparently jovial drunks, and, with luck, she’d make it out of the meat grinder into the streets of Prague. Which these men knew better than she did.
No problem. She felt relaxed, loose, and dangerous. She had a reason to make it home, now.
All she had to do was survive until she got there.
Kazimir stood. His chair scraped the stone floor. There was so much of Kazimir that it took him a long time to reach his full height. His brow darkened like a storm god’s. The room hushed.
Hushed how? Who had stopped talking? Nadia kept her eyes on Kazimir, but she unfixed her focus, let her peripheral vision unfurl. Who had turned to face her, or him? Were they curious, or waiting for a cue to action? One man by the bar stood, and cheated toward the door.
She held her handbag close. She could leave the briefcase. Pop the bag open, draw the gun—
Two men stood up behind her.
The corner of her mouth curled up.
“We could have taken care of this in the ring,” she said.
Kazimir’s lips twitched. His eyes widened.
Then he collapsed back into his chair, laughing. He reached across the table and slapped her gently on the arm. “My friend! Your face! So serious. My God!”
She didn’t respond.
“All is arranged, of course! You know, always I am thinking: Russians, your people, too serious. Perhaps you are learning to laugh, the world is having less trouble, yes?”
She faked a smile and a laugh, and took one hand off her purse.
Kazimir, still chuckling, raised his hand and called, in Czech, for vodka. “You will bring us cargo, and we will get cargo to destination. Is always pleasure doing business, my friend.”
Nadia blinked. Her eyes burned. “Yes,” she said, and raised the vodka when it came. “Is always pleasure.”