Another prominent journalist is found murdered in Putin’s Russia, shot to death on the banks of the Techa River near the radioactive village of Metlino. Katarina Mironova, known around the world as Kato, could simply fade from the public eye, one more journalist killed during Putin’s war on the free press, one more statistic in a grim tally. But to Russian agent Alexei Volkovoy, Kato’s murder evokes far more emotion. It summons too many memories, haunts him in too many ways for him to allow her death go unavenged.
Volk's investigation takes him from Moscow to Mayak, the site of a nuclear reprocessing plant where a massive explosion occurred in 1958, then to Las Vegas. All the while the life he has known with his long-time lover, Valya, and his patron, the General, slowly unravels as details about his secret ties to Kato begin to emerge. Meanwhile, American contract agent Grayson Stone and shadowy French assassin Jean-Louis have secrets of their own to protect. Secrets born in the Afghan desert and the streets of Fallujah. Secrets about the tragic consequences of a nuclear alliance among venal Russian, American, and French politicians. Secrets the American and the French governments will pay anything to protect.
In the end, Volk becomes both the hunter and the hunted in the glittering neon jungle of Las Vegas. Equally at home in the snow-covered woods of the Ural mountains and the seamy alleyways of Industrial Boulevard, Volk tracks his prey across the world trying to learn the truth about the story Kato died trying to report.
About the Author
Brent Ghelfi is the author of VOLK'S GAME, nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best First Novel of 2007 and by and magazines for a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and the critically-acclaimed VOLK'S SHADOW and THE VENONA CABLE. His novels have been translated into eight languages and optioned for film. Brent Ghelfi is the author of VOLK'S GAME, nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best First Novel of 2007 and by and magazines for a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and the critically-acclaimed VOLK'S SHADOW and THE VENONA CABLE. His novels have been translated into eight languages and optioned for film. Brent Ghelfi is the author of VOLK'S GAME, nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best First Novel of 2007 and by and magazines for a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and the critically-acclaimed VOLK'S SHADOW and THE VENONA CABLE.His novels have been translated into eight languages and optioned for film.
Brent Ghelfi is the author of VOLK'S GAME, nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best First Novel of 2007 and by and magazines for a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and the critically-acclaimed VOLK'S SHADOW and THE VENONA CABLE.His novels have been translated into eight languages and optioned for film.
Brent Ghelfi is the author of VOLK'S GAME, nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best First Novel of 2007 and by Mystery News and Deadly Pleasures magazines for a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and the critically-acclaimed VOLK'S SHADOW and THE VENONA CABLE. His novels have been translated into eight languages and optioned for film.
Read an Excerpt
The Burning LakeA Volk Thriller
By Brent Ghelfi
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Brent Ghelfi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDead of winter in Moscow, darkening skies, the day fading to night behind storm clouds. The city crackles under layers of ice and wet-packed snow as I crunch along the pathways between the pines and silver birches in Victory Park. The park is nearly empty. My breath trails behind me in lonely streamers.
I have a sense that something evil is about to hatch. Another mass grave spilling bodies, maybe, one more reminder of Stalin's reign of terror. All these years later, the horror of those times should linger only in aged memories, yellowing documents, and sepia photographs. But rotted flesh and broken bones keep blooming from the soil to remind us that the past never ends.
A cold shiver passes through me. How many times in my life has a premonition of evil been followed by the real thing?
Ahead looms the obelisk atop Poklonnaya Hill, marking the spot where Napoleon gazed over the spiritual capital of Russia while he waited in vain for news of the Kremlin's surrender. Moscow burned on that long-ago night, engulfed in flames before Napoleon could occupy his prize. Now in the gathering darkness the first lights of the city provide only the illusion of warmth.
I find a bench overlooking the golden domes of an Orthodox church and settle in to wait.
Nightfall comes quickly. The cold drives away all but a few of the remaining visitors. Orbs of light from the streetlamps punch yellow holes in the darkness, growing progressively larger as they march up the hill toward my spot on the high ground.
A man appears in the lit cone beneath the farthest lamp, a wavering shadow that firms into a dark silhouette as he passes from one island of light to the next, head down, shoulders hunched against the chill wind spilling down the hills in waves broken by naked trees. His image hardens as he draws nearer, resolving itself into the stooped shape of one bent by time and hardship.
The pale smudge of his face hovers between the upturned collar of his overcoat and the brown fur of his sable hat. Saggy skin, downcast eyes, pink lips visible beneath his ragged mustache. His hands buried in his pockets, he lowers himself onto the bench next to me, groaning under his breath when the bench takes his weight. The sound seems to emanate from the cloud of steam in front of his mouth.
Neither of us speaks for a long time.
"The cold aches my bones," he says at last.
Ilya's voice is soft. No sharp edges or inflections. A prisoner's murmur, a low sound meant for one pair of ears, intended to fall softly from his lips to be borne away by the wind. The Gulag's hardest lessons are never forgotten.
I finger the note in my pocket, written in pencil on brown paper torn from a grocery bag and left with the counter man at Vadim's Café. Victory Park, the bench nearest the obelisk, tomorrow, 6 o'clock. Don't tell the General. The letters are crooked, blurry where his shaky hand smudged the writing. Signed Ilya, the same way he signed his samizdat manuscripts fifty years ago, risking death or imprisonment by attaching his name to forbidden literature.
He shifts his weight and sighs. "You've been away."
I sweep my gaze around the park, looking for moving shapes in the gloom, for a flicker of light from a camera lens or a cigarette, for anything that doesn't belong.
"America. Los Angeles, mostly. Chasing phantoms from the Soviet days."
On the trail of a decrypted World War II-era cable and the photo of a man who turned out to be my long missing father, a Cold War defector. I still don't know what to make of that episode, or whether I made the right decision in the end.
"It's warm there all the time," I add.
Ilya nods. The movement makes his coat rustle against the rime on the back of the bench. "We don't fit in places like that. Just as they aren't suited to here. Cold changes a person."
The sound of heavy footfalls and labored breathing carries to us before a woman appears on one of the paths, chugging toward us. Rumpled, bundled into several layers of clothing, old or injured by the looks of her tottering gait. She passes without a word or a glance.
A sliver of moon finds a gap in the clouds and brightens the evening gloom. I blow into my gloved hands to warm them, waiting for the woman to disappear around a bend in the path.
"Are you still writing?"
"Bah. Who is left to publish what I have to say? Worse, who will read it?"
"Novaya Gazeta might print it."
"Not since Anna and all the others. They are afraid, like everybody else. I don't blame them."
A nighthawk flits overhead, chasing the moon behind a claw-shaped cloud, blacking out the silver light. I think of Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in her apartment building. And of Magomad Yevloyev, another fierce Kremlin critic whom I got to know during my years on the border of Chechnya and Ingushetia, shot in the head while "resisting arrest." And Natalya Estemirova of the human rights group Memorial, abducted and killed outside her home in Grozny. So many others. One after another they disappear, beacons of light snuffed out by an ocean of darkness.
I turn up my collar. My nose and cheeks feel frozen. "How many dead journalists now?"
"Since Putin took power? Twenty-one. More if you count unexplained accidents. Shot, stabbed, beaten, poisoned, pushed out of windows. Who knows how many others have been bullied or harassed into silence?"
He drags a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to wipe his nose. The handkerchief looks old, red faded to pink from many washes
"And now one more. That's what I want to talk to you about."
The premonition of dread I felt before hardens into an acidic lump in the pit of my stomach.
He stands with a groan. Weakly stomps his feet against the frozen path, like a small child throwing a tantrum.
"Walk with me," he says, and I do, limping a bit as we wander slowly along the path toward the Orthodox Church, my stump grinding uncomfortably into the socket of my prosthesis. Sitting too long in cold weather does that now.
"Not only another journalist." Ilya's breath balloons from his mouth, lit like a mustard cloud by the overhead lamps. "Four were killed. Three of them students sent to a village called Metlino to study the geographic features there."
I try not to react, but his gaze sharpens as he reads something in my eyes or my posture.
"You know that place?" he says.
"I heard it mentioned not long ago. Metlino has interesting geography?"
He coughs for a long time, a wet, hacking sound, waving away my offer to thump his back to clear his lungs of phlegm. Icicles of condensation glisten like slivers of light in his gray mustache by the time the fit passes.
"Maybe the students were there for another reason."
"Metlino is near the site of a radiation explosion. It was one of many villages contaminated with the fallout when a nuclear plant called Mayak blew."
My fear hardens into near certainty. I don't have enough spit to swallow. My gaze drifts to the golden domes of the church. They remind me of the view I once had from the window of a room in the Astoria Hotel in St. Petersburg. A different dome threw golden rays through the parted drapes that night.
Ilya clears his throat. I realize he's been staring at me.
"Yes, so is always a good question." He offers a fatalistic Russian shrug. "Maybe I make too many connections these days. Think too much, allow events that don't really belong together to blend into something sinister in my mind."
He coughs again. Moist air billows in jaundiced clouds around his cupped hands. When the spasm ends he wipes his nose with the handkerchief.
"So these four, this journalist and these students, they made problems for someone. I don't know who, but he"—Ilya knits his shaggy eyebrows while he considers the word—"or she, maybe. More than ever they are women now, like Valya, yes? The point is that somebody didn't like them being there."
I stop. Turn a slow circle to make sure we are still alone in the night.
"Why should I care?"
He waits until my gaze catches and holds on his. "The three students? Who knows? Perhaps just the wrong place, wrong time? But the fourth victim, she is more important to Russia, and to you."
I know the name on his lips. But for some reason I need to hear him say it. I don't know why. I need to hear him say her name.
So I ask.
He wipes his nose, regarding me with an expression that borders on sympathy. His eyes are rheumy, red-lined, sad.
Her real name was Katarina Mironova, but she wrote under the nom de plume "Kato." She covered the second Chechen war as a correspondent for several Western news magazines. Later I learned that her byline appeared in Time, Newsweek, and The Economist, along with numerous daily newspapers around the world. But I didn't know any of those things the first time I met her a decade ago.
She was traveling with a mechanized Russian column that appeared in my binoculars as it wound along a muddy road clinging to the side of a mountain somewhere between the rubble of Grozny and the high village of Shatoi. I'd been on solitary patrol for more than a week, searching the steep-walled valleys and craggy redoubts for Chechen rebels. Shatoi being the birthplace of a rebel leader with hundreds of men under his command in those days, the region seemed as good a place as any to look.
I spied the convoy near dusk. Ten Russian GAZ Tigers—vehicles similar to American Humvees—interspersed along a line of armored personnel carriers, eight-wheeled Zils mounted with surface-to-surface artillery missiles, and MAZ heavy haulers with T-90 battle tanks on their back. Frozen clods of mud fountained into the air behind the tires and tracks. Soldiers huddled on top of the armor in clumps, like wrinkled boulders in their green slickers, seeking meager shelter from the cold and wet.
I scrabbled down the rough granite side of a ravine and waited in the middle of the road with my Kalashnikov at my side. I was dressed in a gray-and-white camouflage smock, and I had to unwind the woolen wrap on the lower half of my face to talk. Gaunt, tired, weathered by exposure and armed with enough weapons to fight the war by myself, I must have appeared as an unholy apparition to the major who climbed out of the lead Tiger to demand my papers and a password.
He listened while I established my bona fides, the two of us standing there at the head of his column in a muddy road darkened by the shadows thrown by the mountain ridges and scudding clouds. Then he retreated to the Tiger to use his radio.
When he returned, he saluted smartly and asked what I needed.
Food and provision, I told him, ticking through my list while his adjunct took notes. Exchanging few words, I gave him a sealed report with instructions to put it into the hands of his superiors. I knew they would see that it got to the General.
The sun melted into a blood-red pool behind the mountains while we talked, coloring the bottoms of the clouds a lighter shade of rose, dropping the temperature to bitter cold.
When we finished, the major ordered his men to bivouac there for the night.
I found a fire and warmed a tin of sardines, then squatted with my meal in the gloom outside the circle of firelight. Punched the blade of my combat knife through the lid of the sardines and a tin of condensed milk and ate with my fingers, using crusts of bread warmed by my body to scoop out the milk. By habit I ate slowly to fool my stomach into believing it was getting more than it was.
I saw the woman before she saw me. She didn't stand out because of her clothes. Knit cap with earflaps, a man's greatcoat hanging loosely from her shoulders, hard-shell outer pants tucked into fur-lined boots. What caught my eye was the graceful way she moved. Her first flowing step set her apart from all the others around the fire.
One of the men sitting near her cocked his head toward me and said something I couldn't hear. They talked for a few minutes while she studied me, her features indistinct in the firelight. After a moment of hesitation, she plucked a kebob off the rack over the fire and picked her way across the frozen mud between the rocks and the scrub brush. She stopped a few meters away and leaned against a boulder.
"You are spetsnaz, Special Forces?"
Backlit by the fire, still only a shape and, now that she was so close, a smell. Wood smoke and pine and lavender soap. Eyes that gleamed in the faint light of the moon and the stars peeking between the clouds, but I couldn't tell their color.
"Alpha Group?" she said, naming one of our counter-terrorism units. "Vympel?"
When I didn't respond she pushed away from the boulder and squatted near me, resting her haunches on her heels, elbows on her knees. The Chechen way. She handed me the kebob she'd carried from the fire.
"One of the men told me you didn't take any food. They have plenty for now. They restocked in Gudermes."
Our hands touched when I took the stick. Hers was warm, and when she withdrew it mine felt colder than it had a moment before.
She took off her cap and raked her fingers through shoulder-length hair, making a sound akin to a purr as the tension eased in her scalp. Black hair streaked with red highlights. Or maybe the reddish streaks were no more than reflected firelight. I couldn't be sure. Dark brows, straight nose, full lips. High cheekbones that shaped her face into an oval.
"My name is Katarina. People call me Kato."
I bit into the kebab. Onions and goat meat still hot from the flames. I licked my fingers. "Kato. Like Stalin's first wife."
A flash of pearly teeth when she smiled, nodded. "'Sweet and beautiful,' Stalin called her."
"So sweet I can smell you from here."
She pouted her lower lip. "Not beautiful?"
I didn't answer. My camouflage gear chafed my skin, which felt uncomfortably hot, although an icy wind blew off the mountains. The last time I'd been with a woman was six months before in Mozdok. A widow, her face etched with grief and despair. We each drew a measure of comfort from the other that night, but when we parted the next morning I think we both still carried the same scars and were haunted by the same demons that had pushed each of us into the arms of the other.
Kato shifted her weight from one heel to the other. A small, natural movement, as if she were swaying to the sound of music in her head. She didn't say anything more for a long time. Just studied the glowing stars and rocked on her heels and rubbed her hands together to stay warm. But each small shift brought her a little closer to me.
And closer to my pack, which leaned against a rock at my feet.
One of the soldiers approached from the fire and offered her more to eat. She looked at me and raised her brow. I shook my head, and she smiled at the soldier and said no. When he left, she angled her gaze toward me.
"Your name is Volk."
The major hadn't told her that. He wouldn't have dared. Most likely she'd overheard the soldiers talking. Speculating the way they tend to do when they know some small part of something they see. Pebbles crunched under her boots as she shifted her weight, advancing a few centimeters closer to my pack.
"Don't answer, then. But I hear stories. An assassin. Always alone. A patriot protecting mother Russia, true? But who do you think you're protecting her from? And who are you protecting her for?"
Firelight traced the line of her jaw. Eastern features, olive skin, eyes tilted up, still impossible to see their color.
"We just left a village near Shali," she said quietly. "Do you know that place? These troops and others executed a sweep, a zachistka."
Her face twisted when she said the word, an ugly one in this context, where it means that the people of the area were marched through a filter of interrogations, strip searches, and body-cavity probes. Sorted and sifted and examined. Treated with cruel indifference at best. Abused, tortured, killed and ransomed in the worst cases. Zachistka. Think of an enormous metal grater slicing through the soft cheese of human flesh.
"The village was surrounded and secured. The soldiers conducted house-to-house searches and ID checks. They arrested all the men aged fifteen to sixty and loaded them onto transports. I don't know where they took them."
Excerpted from The Burning Lake by Brent Ghelfi Copyright © 2011 by Brent Ghelfi. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Burning Lake is the fourth novel by this author featuring Alexei Volkovoy "Volk," a former Russian Army Colonel who does all the secret work for a Kremlin official by the name of "The General." Volk is ready to take on just about any kind of assignment including the Kremlin, the Russian Mob, Chechen rebels and anyone in between. In this thriller, it seems that twenty-one journalists have been killed in Russia since Putin took over the reins of power. And Ilya Jakobs, sort of an informer, has gotten in touch with Volk to impart some information about another dead newspaper reporter. Sadly, the victim is Katarina Mironova, known as Kato. Volk had met Kato some time before when she was covering the Chechen War and he was there with the Russian Special Forces and they became close. She gave him a notebook with a story in it for her editor and asked if he would deliver it as she was being watched. Each went about their own lives when the war was over and she became an investigative reporter for Epilogue, a newspaper that would publish the truth. She was in the town of Metlino, which is near the site of a radiation explosion. It was one of the villages that was contaminated by radiation fallout when a nuclear plant called Mayak blew up. She was in the process of investigating this huge problem when she was waylayed by people who do not want the world to know that there are people dying of radiation poisoning in this area and the Russian government is trying to keep it quiet. She is captured by these men and shot to death. After this we meet Grayson Stone in Las Vegas, who was once in the American military but was kicked out of the Army for disobeying a direct order but, was happy about this as he started his own company "Greystone Securities," investigating all sorts of murder and mayhem and also taking part in some pretty ugly things. He works for the CIA, FBI, NSA and just about anyone who will pay him big money to do the things that they won't do. He and his company have some meaning in this story as Volk saved Stone's life in Afghanistan in 2002. Back to Volk in Russia. He is so emotional when hearing about Kato's death that he vows to avenge her. He goes to Mayak, the site of the nuclear explosion that happened in 1968 to see where Kato died. His investigation also takes him to Las Vegas, where he meets up with Stone again. He learns through some of his contacts that Stone and a French assassin are the keepers of secrets about a tragic accident at sea and an unholy alliance between Russian, American and French politicians regarding processing nuclear waste. This book contained some really tough scenes of torture and pain but, the writing is so good that you will get past it. Things happen rapidly and you are sent from place to place so quickly that the horrible things that happen to people are very fleeting. The Russian underground is certainly not a bed of roses, and you get to hear some of the very brutal ways they treat their citizens and the problems with nuclear reprossessing and waste that flows into a lake so, even though the outside air is chilling, the lake is hot and flames are seen coming out of it and flying into the sky. It's sure not anyplace that you would want to visit. Quill Says: Extremely clever characters and an atmosphere of gloomy, depressing Moscow to some of the run-down areas of Las Vegas tend to make this novel compelling. A very complicated plot.
On a wintry night in Moscow, espionage agent Alexei "Volk" Volkovoy meets with gulag survivor Ilya Jacobs. The latter informs Volk that someone assassinated reporter Katarina "Kato" Mironova in a remote village in the Urals. Three students were also murdered. Although a reporter's life is perilous in Putin's Russia, Volk is indifferent to that aspect of Kato's life. Instead he feels her killing is personal as he and Kato were lovers during the second Chechen conflict. He resolves to uncover who killed her and why. The agent quickly learns Kato was digging into a story about a reservoir in the mountains containing holding liquid radioactive waste that exploded in 1958. The area became contaminated with radioactive waste. Before long the trail leads to Las Vegas. The latest Volk dark Russian thriller (see Volk's Shadow and The Venona Cable) is a great timely investigative tale. The story line is the usual frantic pace of a Volk tale as he connects the Stalin evil past and the dark Putin present. Fans will anticipate a showdown with the Frenchman, who is setting up the kill of Volk as Brent Ghelfi writes a tense thriller that captures the essence of 1950s and current Russia in this powerful entry. Harriet Klausner