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When a former Russian advisor stands accused of murdering a female citizen in Cuba, Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov is dispatched to the former Soviet Union's one-time ally on a criminal investigation/diplomatic mission. With a watchful KGB agent on his tail, Rostnikov must grapple with his cunning Cuban counterpart, as well as a perplexing murder scenario.
Iliana Ivanova adjusted her backpack, looked down Rusakovskaya Street, and went over her plan for robbing the bald-headed businessman who waited next to her for the bus.
It was a warm May afternoon, and there was no one else at the bus stop on Rusakovskaya Street but Iliana and the man, who wore glasses and carried an ancient briefcase. The man did his best to avoid eye contact with the girl. He shifted his briefcase from hand to hand, looked at his watch, examined the clear late-morning sky, and looked down the broad street trying to conjure up a bus.
Most Muscovites who were working were already at their jobs. Those who had no jobs were hustling the streets, standing in lines for food, brooding in their apartments, or going mad in the parks. Sokolniki Park was directly behind the bus stop. That was where Iliana Ivanova, who was known to herself and her friends as the Yellow Angel, planned to take the man. The park was vast—a fifteen-hundred-acre forest of ancient trees and clearings with restaurants and cafés, which were hardly ever open now.
The Yellow Angel was only a bit nervous. She had pulled off the same plan almost two dozen times since leaving Tbilisi six months ago, and not once—well, not counting the fat Armenian in Grozny—had any victim shown the slightest suspicion. The reasons were obvious. The Yellow Angel was almost nineteen but she looked no more than sixteen. She was thin with large breasts, a clear-skinned face with pink cheeks, and shoulder-length naturally blond hair. Her brown eyes were large and sincere. Dressed in jeans and a clean shirt, she looked like a schoolgirl, an impression she emphasized by the large book she always carried under her arm. The book was something about economics. She had tried to read it once when she was sick and recuperating in the shack of a widower outside of Petrov, before she came to Moscow and found Anatoli. The widower who had taken her in was probably fifty, Iliana had played the virgin for him, hating his farm smell, the coarseness of his palms, the little brown mole next to his nose.
She had managed to keep the man out of her bed for all but two nights by feigning sickness. When she left, Iliana had sorely wanted to smash his stupid potato face, but she contented herself with simply stealing what she could carry.
Tbilisi had been fine for most of her life. When she was fourteen, Iliana had moved out of the apartment on Chavchavadze Avenue she shared with her parents and younger brother. She had moved in with a dull-witted nineteen-year-old boy who worked in the Vlodima glove factory in Miskheta and gave her whatever she wanted that he could afford, which was very little. In return, she gave him a baby. Three weeks after the baby had come the Yellow Angel took the baby to her mother, who welcomed it and slammed the door on her daughter.
Iliana worked in Tbilisi with a gang called the Golden Lepers. Then the Soviet Union came apart, Georgia declared independence, people were shooting and killing each other on the streets. Less than a day's drive away in Azerbaijan and Armenia, there was even more fighting and killing. Some of the Golden Lepers joined the battle without knowing what it was about, and two of them died shouting support for Gorbachev's old buddy Shevardnadze. Most of the Lepers, including Iliana, took advantage of the chaos to loot and rob.
She had done well. As bait for Golden Leper robberies, she simply joined in when she had lured a victim into an alleyway or behind the Iveria Hotel or into the bushes near the fountain in Victory Park.
Then Illya had been caught—fleeing with a stolen wallet, he had run into the arms of a soldier. Then Illya talked, quickly, about all the Golden Lepers, including Iliana, to whom he had proclaimed eternal love unto death.
And so Iliana had gone to her mother's house, insisted on kissing her son good-bye, and then headed out of Tbilisi, into the countryside and toward the north. Since then, she had been required to take on the sole responsibility for luring and robbing her victims, which sometimes made her a bit nervous, but she also had no one to share with, which pleased her. All her victims had been eager to believe she was a beautiful, semi-innocent child they had been fortunate enough to encounter at a moment of her greatest financial need. The man at the bus stop would be no different.
What she didn't like about Moscow was that it could be cold, very cold. Warm winds blew across the south slopes of the Caucasus Mountains from the Black Sea to the west or from the Caspian Sea to the east. It seldom snowed in Tbilisi, and when it did, the snow barely clung to the streets. Here, in Moscow, winter had been brutal. Six months ago, Iliana would have been determined to head someplace warmer when the winter came again, but now she had a family, people who respected and appreciated her.
Cars sped by them toward the heart of Moscow. The Yellow Angel was only vaguely aware of them, though a police car would have registered immediately. She watched the bald businessman, who finally had no choice but to make eye contact, if only for an instant. Iliana smiled sweetly and did not flinch. In spite of the chill air, she let her coat open innocently as she shifted the book to her other hand. Beneath the cloth coat she wore a white skirt and a knit sweater. The man adjusted his glasses and looked away in the direction from which the bus should have appeared.
"Late," said Iliana with a smile of resignation.
The businessman made a grunting sound and checked his watch.
The man was a bit larger than Anatoli, and definitely heavier, but he did not look like a man who knew or welcomed violence. Iliana's fingers played with the smooth handle of the knife in her pocket. It was a folding fishing knife, which she always made a point of opening slowly in front of her victims. It was encouraging to watch them suck in air or freeze like frightened weasels when the blade clicked. This one would be no different. It wasn't that she would ever use the knife. Threatening to cry rape was more effective, since that was the direction the victims' thoughts had probably been running.
"I'm going to be late for the Polytechnic," she said with a deep sigh. "I'm already late."
"So am I," said the man, looking at his watch again.
"Late for school?" asked Iliana.
"No," the man said. With a slight laugh he turned to the girl and adjusted his glasses. "Late for work. The hospital. I'm a doctor. Not far from the Polytechnic."
"I don't think the bus is coming," she said, shaking her head. "Strikes. No fuel. No parts. The Czechs, Bulgarians, even the other Commonwealth countries treat Russia like ..."
She shook her head in disgust.
The bald man grunted again and shook his head in agreement.
"My name is Katerina," Iliana said, tossing her hair back and holding out her hand.
The man glanced around to see if anyone was watching and stepped forward to shake the girl's warm hand.
"You have strong hands," he said, stepping back again.
"Training," she said. "I want to be a cosmonaut, but the way things are ..."
"There will be cosmonauts again," the bald man said. "Even women cosmonauts. They'll sell advertising space to Coca-Cola and keep sending rockets to burn up in the sun. Only now the Americans will pay for it. They will send pretty girls up so they can sell their pictures to American and French magazines."
"There is a tahksee stand on the other side of the park," Iliana said. "Maybe we could share a ride. You said you work near the Polytech?"
The bald man looked at Iliana now and adjusted his glasses yet again. Then he looked forlornly once more down Rusakovskaya.
"You have money for a cab?" the man asked.
Iliana shifted her backpack and pulled a worn wallet from the front pocket of her coat. She opened it to reveal bills, not too many, but enough to show the man she could pay. There were more rubles, some deutsche marks, French francs, and six American dollars in her backpack, but she kept them hidden from her victims, who might well have wondered where a schoolgirl got so much money.
"My father told me to take a cab if the bus didn't come," she said, returning the wallet to her pocket. "If I miss another day, they'll throw me out. Girls are barely tolerated at the Polytech."
The bald man ran his tongue over his teeth and made a decision.
"All right," he said.
"Good," said the girl. "Let's hurry."
"I can't run," said the man. "My heart."
"We'll walk," said Iliana, moving into step next to the man. "Your name is ...?"
It was always good to know the name of the victim, in order to use it—to threaten to tear it away from the one who bore it, to make him think that she would scream it to the police, the newspapers, the man's wife, mother, or lover.
"Yevgeny Odom, Dr. Yevgeny Odom," the man said, looking straight ahead and moving briskly.
"Here, we go this way," Iliana said cheerfully, patting the knife in her pocket.
"I know," Yevgeny Odom said.
"You live close by?" asked Iliana as they entered the park on the gray concrete path.
They were still too close to the street for the Yellow Angel to make her move. She had learned from experience in ... what was the town? No matter. She had learned to be patient, to be sure no one could see or hear, to pick the right hour. Late morning was perfect. The only ones who might stumble onto her committing a crime would be some old babushka with a child or a gray grandfather with arthritic knees.
"Tired already?" she said, looking back down the path.
A little farther. She had to get this soft one with the bad heart a little farther into the park. She could get him behind some bushes with a sexual suggestion, make him go to his knees, show him the blade so that he would be happy to turn over his watch and his money. It would be fast. She would warn him that if she were caught she would deny the robbery, claim that she had run from the bald man when he made sexual advances, thrown her behind the bushes, demanded that she do obscene things. She would also take the man's shoes and stuff them into her backpack.
Iliana knew enough about the police to be sure that her claims of sexual assault would not be believed, but her carefully selected victims would not know this, and she was sure that they would prefer to take the loss, hide their shame, and go along with their lives, which were difficult enough without dealing with underpaid and surly policemen.
"Why are you stopping?" asked Iliana.
"I live there," Odom said, pointing over the tops of the trees toward a group of apartment buildings. "I have a car. We can drive. I don't think I can make it to the cab stop."
"You have a ..."
"There's no place to park where I work, and it costs too much for gas." Odom was panting. "My manifold is ..."
"Fine," said the Yellow Angel with a soft smile. To get to the apartments they would have to leave the path and go into the trees. "I'll pay for gas."
Odom nodded and started off the path and onto the grass.
"This way," he said.
She followed him and was pleased that he was leading her into a dark copse of birch trees. The birds were noisy. The path was well behind them.
"Stop," she said and stepped in front of the man.
"What?" asked Odom, trying to catch his breath.
"This is far enough," she said, dropping the backpack and the economics book to the ground.
The man blinked, then looked around as if to see whether anyone else might have stumbled into this secluded spot to witness the girl's strange behavior.
"You're a prostitute, aren't you?" the man panted.
Iliana shook her head slowly as she removed the knife from her pocket, careful to keep a few feet between her and the frightened man. Everything was going perfectly.
Crows—huge, fat, gray-black, and ugly, perhaps two or three—went wild in a tree above them. Neither man nor girl looked up.
"What are you doing?" asked Odom, holding his briefcase in front of him like a shield and taking a step back.
"Not what I am doing," said Iliana. "What you are doing. You are giving me your wallet and your watch. Now, quick."
She lifted her knife toward Odom's face. The man took another step backward and almost tripped.
"Quick," she whispered, looking toward the path beyond the trees.
Odom was sweating through his gray suit now. He pulled out his wallet, handed it to Iliana, who pocketed it in her coat, and then removed his watch and handed it over.
"The briefcase," said Iliana. "There are valuables in it."
"I ... yes," said Odom.
"Open it," she said, holding the point of the knife inches from Odom's nose.
Odom gulped, and Iliana, her heart pounding, tried not to laugh. The man looked like a cartoon character. He removed his glasses and placed them in his coat pocket. This seemed funny to Iliana. She would enjoy telling this whole adventure to Anatoli and the others as soon as she could.
As Odom opened his briefcase, Iliana said, "Just dump it out and drop it. Then take off your shoes."
The man stopped with his hand inside the briefcase. He looked at the girl.
"Now, Kola," the man said. "You are free."
"What?" asked Iliana. "What is it? What do you have? Hurry up," she commanded, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
"Only this," said the bald man. He leaped at her with a black metallic blur.
Iliana did not understand what happened next. It was a rush of heat and pain. Something snapped in her wrist as the black object hit her, and she dropped the knife.
She screamed in pain and stumbled backward. The bald man had dropped his briefcase and was advancing on her in a half crouch. He was smiling horribly and making a rough sound like a hungry dog.
"No, wait, stop," Iliana cried, holding up her unbroken arm to protect herself. The raging man in the gray suit was pounding her with his fists.
Iliana went to the ground and tried to curl into a ball.
"Please," she said, and the blows ceased. "I'm not a thief. I'm hungry. I wasn't going to hurt you. I've never done anything like this before, nothing, ever. My god, you broke my arm. But it will be fine, fine. I'll tell you what. Let's go behind the bushes. I'll take off my clothes."
She struggled with her unbroken arm to pull down her sweater. The pain was screaming with electricity.
She breathed heavily, tasted dry leaves in her mouth, opened her eye to see a blue-green beetle calmly munching on a blade of grass.
The bald man was panting wildly now as he again raised the metal bar.
"Don't hit my face," she pleaded, looking up at the man from her knees. It was like she was praying.
"I won't hit your face," Odom said, breathing deeply.
"I've never done anything like this be—"
"I don't care," said Odom. "Be quiet. Shh."
Iliana looked up. The bald man had the fingers of his left hand to his lips. In his right hand was the black thing, which Iliana could now see was a piece of metal pipe. There was blood on the pipe. Her blood.
"My father ..." Iliana tried.
"Quiet," said the man, leaning down over her and whispering. "Sh. Sh. Yevgeny is sleeping."
Iliana went quiet, spat out something, a leaf, a piece of grass, the beetle.
"You don't go to the Polytechnic. You're a runaway," the man said.
"Yes," Iliana said.
"How old are you?"
"Fifteen," she lied.
"You made it very easy for him," the bald man said. "You were not very smart. Do you know what park you are in?"
"No, I ..."
"Sokolniki Park, the park of the falconers. The Czar's huntsmen trained their falcons here. They swooped down on command, snatched birds in flight, and brought them back to their masters."
"I've never ..." Iliana began and then stopped.
"You are going to do what I tell you," the man said. "You will do it exactly as I say, with enthusiasm and a perfect imitation of good cheer. You understand?"
"Yes," said Iliana.
The pipe suddenly swooped down, making the sound of the rushing wind through its hollow center. It came down across her back as she tried to turn away. The pain was hot and wet. She screamed.
"No screaming," said the man. "No screaming or you die."
Iliana bit into her cheek to stifle her scream. She wished for the gunfire in the streets of Tbilisi, prayed that Anatoli or one of the others had followed her, vowed that if she lived through this she would never again work alone, never.
"No screams," she said softly.
"Good," said the man. "Then we begin."
Excerpted from Hard Currency by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1995 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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