osef picked at his nails with his knife, stupefied with boredom. Despite all his contacts, his skills with explosives, interrogation, and small arms, he was still forced to babysit the vor's worthless son.
Sasha Cherchenko was engrossed in his tablet, sunken face eerily lit by the screen's glare. Mute, pathetic, junkie waste of skin. Heir to an empire worth billions. His very existence offended Josef, who had fought for every bite of food and breath of air he took, for his entire fucking life.
The silence grated. Josef got up to stretch, and circled Sasha from behind. He was watching a lecture on the tablet. A pretty young woman was talking. Josef abruptly recognized her and froze, startled.
That was Svetlana Ardova, daughter of that hellbitch Sonia, who had fucked Josef over. He had not seen pictures of the girl in years. Abducted at twelve, doomed for death by organ harvesting.
The camera zoomed close. Big, tilted hazel eyes, lush mouth, glossy hair. A sweet treat. The media had glommed on to that avidly after her spectacular rescue years ago. She was prettier now. He licked his lips.
Svetlana indicated a screen, where a photo was projected. Sonia's striking face stared out. Words, scribbled on the picture, in Cyrillic. Josef lunged for Sasha's tablet, yanking the headphones off him, ignoring Sasha's startled yelp of protest. He hit the volume, maxed it.
“. . . book will be dedicated to my parents' memory,” Svetlana's voice blared. Josef dragged the cursor, let the last few seconds of video run again. He froze the frame when Sonia's image appeared.
The scribble read, The Sword of Cain. The rest was trimmed away but for a couple of numbers. His ears roared. After six years, a place to begin the search again. Someone to squeeze, until she popped.
Sasha croaked, in his hoarse, halting voice, trying to tug the tablet back. Josef struck him, sending him sprawling across the coffee table. He ignored the young man's scratchy whimpering as he dialed his boss.
“Yes,” drawled Pavel Cherchenko's gravelly voice.
“We have a lead.” Josef's voice shook with excitement. He waited a beat to calm it. “The Sword of Cain, written on one of Sonia's photos. Svetlana displayed a slide, in a lecture online. I can fly to Portland today.”
The vor grunted. “And my sons? Who watches them?”
Sasha whimpered. Josef smacked the back of his head. “They have Andrei and Aleksei to guard them.”
A long, teeth-grinding pause ensued. “Go to Portland,” the vor said.
The video was playing again. “. . . only one heart is healed, only one life saved, it will have been worth it. Thank you.”
The room erupted in applause. Svetlana stood in the spotlight, challenging him with her eyes. Such a delicate thing. Ripe to be conquered, ravaged. Punished, for all of Sonia's sins.
Oh, yes. Let the pretty little daughter pay and pay.
Two days later
am Petrie leaned against the wall, arms folded. He stared into the dance floor, careful not to meet anyone's eyes. He wasn't here for chitchat. Against every last lingering instinct for self-preservation, he was at another no-holds-barred McCloud Crowd wedding, trolling for a chance to scope out the elusive Svetlana Ardova. She of the big, tragic eyes, the high, pointed tits. And the obscure, inexplicable prejudice against him.
It was almost two years since that kiss in Bruno's studio. But that event had transformed his schoolboy crush into a full-out obsession.
Which was why he'd snookered himself into accepting the invitation to Aaro and Nina's wedding. Nina's pregnancy had derailed it last year, but their twins, Julia and Oksana, were six months old now, so wedding plans had finally gone forward, and the gang was all there. Great food and booze and music. Squealing kids. Everyone dancing, having a good time, being curious about shit that was not their business. While he lurked in the corner, hot-eyed. Staring at Sveti like a panting perv-weasel. It was humbling. He'd locked up many specimens of the kind of obsessed asshole he was now, and rejoiced to see them off the streets.
Sveti was talking to a bevy of hotties in evening gowns, all holding stringed instruments. The Venus Ensemble, aka the eye candy orchestra. Trafficked from Eastern European conservatories, lured by promises of green cards, subsequently embroiled in a deadly scheme involving mind-control drugs and other crazy shit that Sam still didn't quite believe. Kev McCloud had saved them from an unspeakable fate, and the news coverage had given the group awesome publicity. They'd formed a hot string ensemble and were making money hand over fist.
Hurray. Chalk one up for the good guys.
The Venus Ensemble were stunners, yes, but Sveti blew them away. She was the smallest, even in killer heels, but so perfect. Vivid, in that crimson dress. His eyes hurt from the hyperstimulation. Tilted hazel eyes over Slavic cheekbones. Full, soft red lips calculated to invoke impure thoughts, and a regal attitude that instantly rebuked said impure thoughts. High, perfect tits. Taut nipples. The sight made his hands tingle. Her hair was twisted into a complicated knot. It looked great, but he liked it better loose. His fingers clenched, remembering that silken floss. He wanted to kiss the heart-shaped port-wine birthmark on her neck. Trace its borders. Study it like a map.
He sidled closer. She was talking in Russian or some dialect thereof. It turned him on, hearing her speak her native language. Then again, it turned him on to hear her talk at all, period.
Aw, fuck it. Even her sullen silences turned him on.
He wrenched his gaze away and stared out at swaying couples. There was Sveti's date, Josh Cattrellâtall, prosperous, and flushed with champagne. Might or might not be the reason Sveti blew off Sam's phone calls, texts, e-mails. Any comparisons between Josh and Sam would not be in Sam's favor at the moment. He'd been too lazy and rebellious to cut his hair lately, and had resorted to yanking his brown mane into a ponytail. He'd shaved last week, for the psych eval, but the shrink's conclusion had pissed him off so much, he hadn't bothered since. And he was too thin for his suit, everywhere but the shoulders, which strained at the seams as a result of obsessive workouts. His face looked grim and sunken when he caught it reflected in glass.
Nah, he didn't stack up well next to Cattrell's stylish haircut, fresh shave, charming dimples, fake tan. The perfectly cut suit.
Empty-headed dickface. Sam hated him on sight.
Sveti had known Cattrell since she was thirteen. He'd briefly shared her imprisonment, before they'd been rescued from the organ thieves. Most episodes involving McClouds and their pals had an off-the-charts weird factor. Weird usually turned him off, but not when Sveti was involved. It was wrist-thick iron cables, yanking him in.
Josh Cattrell was an ass-bite, flashing his overly whitened teeth at every babe he saw. Sam watched him punch the number of one of the catering staff into his smartphone, whisper in her ear, pat her ass.
piece of shit was his competition?
The guy turned without missing a beat and held out his arms to Sveti. He pulled her onto the dance floor and dropped his hand to her hip, like he hadn't just been fondling another woman's booty. The singer crooned a slow tune as the hand crept lower.
Fuck this shit. Fuck it into lightless oblivion.
The feeling built like steam, hot and dangerous. He didn't recognize it, or have a strategy for dealing with it. He played it cool with the ladies, as a long string of disgruntled would-be girlfriends would attest. He'd heard plenty about his “commitment issues” over the years. “Man slut” was another phrase they tossed around.
Out, out, out. Get your deranged, unhinged ass out before you do something pointless and stupid. Just fuck off. NOW.
Sveti was too young for him, anyway. Josh was closer to her in age. Not a lot closer, though. Maybe five years younger than Sam's thirty-three. Maybe only four. Four fucking measly years.
He barreled into someone on his way to the coatroom and mumbled an apology, but the person grabbed his arm. “Hey, Sam.”
It took a few moments to place the guy. Tall, tanned, closely shorn dark hair. It was the nose that finally pegged him. “Oh. Miles.”
The man partly responsible for derailing Sam's career as homicide detective. Not that he held any grudges. Miles had just been trying to keep himself and his girlfriend alive. But Sam's involvement in Miles' bizarre adventures, however slight, had not helped his career prospects.
“I've, uh, been meaning to talk to you,” Miles said.
Not. Miles had been busy rolling around on sugar sand beaches with his adoring bride on their protracted, well-deserved honeymoon.
The weirdness of their tale had made the higher-ups nervous and uncomfortable. Which made people want to blame someone. Punish someone. Step right up, Sam. At the ready.
The woo-woo factor had sealed his doom. They'd put him away. Using the excuse of last year's gunshot wound and the psych evaluations that followed. PTSD, the shrinks said, but that was bullshit. His symptoms weren't that bad. Sure, he was twitchy and depressed, but so were a lot of people who were out there working. That diagnosis had far more to do with some discreet phone calls from his father to various local politicians who were tight with the police commissioner.
He pushed on past the guy. “Gotta go, Miles. See you around.”
Miles grabbed his arm. “Wait. I just wanted to say, uh, that I appreciate your giving me that heads-up, back when I was fighting for our lives. I haven't said that to you directly, being out of town so long, and I've been wanting to. And you, uh . . . weren't at our wedding.”
“Yeah.” He'd been in the hospital. Gut shot. Miles looked just too fucking relaxed, tanned, and sexually fulfilled. Choffing all those ripe mangoes, boinking his true love on all those beaches. It stuck in Sam's craw. “Where have you guys been?” he asked, just to torture himself.
Miles had the grace to look sheepish. “Bali, most recently. We rented this tree house, in a banyan jungle.”
“Sweet,” Petrie said.
“Pretty much. We only came back because Lara, well . . . we're expecting.” His large Adam's apple bobbed nervously. “So we wanted to settle into the house. Get ready for the new arrival.”
“Great.” Sam coughed it out like a hair ball. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Miles said. “We're really excited. But if there was anyone I could talk to, you know, to explain how things really wentâ”
“God, no. Thanks, but no,” he said hastily.
“Okay.” Miles looked downcast. “Just wish I could help. So what are you doing with yourself these days, anyhow? Still on medical leave?”
Wow, where to begin. Loafing like a slob, when he wasn't sprinting through the park as if flesh-eating zombies were chasing him. Day trading. Reading Sveti's anti-trafficking blog. Watching the flesh-crawling adventures she sometimes live-streamed on her viral v-log, following every peep of her Twitter feed. Watching her TED talk, about her own personal journey into anti-trafficking activism. On his computer, tablet, smartphone. Obsessively. Or staring at her Facebook photo gallery. Not that she'd friended him. He'd hacked her account.
“I've been evaluating my options,” he hedged.
“I hear you're getting pressure to join the family business. Some big hedge fund, right?”
Sam was startled. He'd mentioned it in passing to Kev, weeks back. Now here was Miles spouting it back at him. He hadn't thought they were so interested in his life. Hell, he himself wasn't that interested in his life. “Yeah, some,” he admitted. “I'd rather slit my own throat.”
Miles' eyebrow went up. “Why? Do you suck at it?”
“No, I'm good at it. But just because you're good at something doesn't mean you should be doing it.” He'd gotten dangerously skilled lately at high-tech stalking, for instance.
“I hear you. I've got a few unspeakable skills myself these days.”
Miles sounded like he was veering toward the issue of his purported psychic powers, about which Sam really did not want to hear. He turned to go, then jerked back into the niche in the hall that led to the bathrooms. A phalanx of blood-chilling femininity was advancing down the corridor. Tam and Becca were frogmarching a struggling, squawking Sveti straight toward them.
“You . . . shut . . .
” Tam snarled. “I'm not letting you do this!”
“I have shut up for years! I am done shutting up!” Sveti lapsed into some Slavic language or other, her voice shrilly impassioned.
“No, you are not,” Becca said in response to Sveti's tirade. “He would kill you if you did that. Calm down, Sveti. Keep it together.”
“I will not be gagged, not again! I am
of this. . . .”
Her voice swelled in volume and then faded as the three women proceeded past the niche without noticing them.
Miles peered around the corner. “Weird,” he said, in a wondering voice. “I've never seen Sveti freak out. Wonder what set her off.”
He took off in pursuit, and after a second, Sam did, too. Anything that could drive Sveti into a hot frenzy had something to teach him.
It didn't take investigative skills to find the door. Sveti and Tam were bellowing at each other, Becca in between, bleating desperate entreaties to calm down. The two men slunk into the parlor. Nina and Aaro had rented a lavish nineteenth-century timber baron's mansion for their reception, and Tam flipped on a wall sconce fashioned of stained glass that lit the ornately decorated room with a dim glow like firelight.
“. . . expect me to be silent while that man smirks in my face? He did business with Zhoglo! And heroin dealers, and meth cooks, and the filthy scum who traffic women and children for slave labor and organs and sex! And I'm supposed to sip my champagne and make nice?”
“I expect you to keep your head!” Tam yelled back. “Why this overwhelming need to attract attention from people who would kill you for an insult? You've already gotten death threats! What more do youâ”
“Death threats?” Sam's voice was sharp. “From whom?”
The three women swiveled their heads to glare at the intruders.
“Piss off, Sam,” Tam said, with a flap of her hand. “We're busy, and we didn't ask for your input. The man is everything that you say, of course. He's also the groom's father, so you have no businessâ”
“They were fools to invite me to an event where a piece of filthy mafiya scum is on the guest list!”
“They didn't invite him!” Becca yelled. “He crashed, Sveti, with four big, armed thugs escorting him! So unless you want this party, full of your friends and their young children, to turn into a dangerous brawl at best and a shootout at worst, you will stick a fucking sock in it!”
Sveti hid her face. He saw a flash of her shaking mouth, painted slut red. The gloss had worn off, but the matte stain lingered.
She caught his glance. “What are you looking at?” she snapped.
“Nothing,” he said. “So Oleg Arbatov crashed the wedding? That's special.” And typical. This crowd liked to keep things interesting.
“He walked in twenty minutes ago,” Becca said. “Nick about had a heart attack. Aaro's trying to psi-bully him into leaving. Nina's working the charm angle. He wants to spend quality time with the twins. He's sick of being put off. Benevolent old Grandpa Oleg.”
Sveti shot Sam a look that was bright with challenge. “You're a cop,” she said. “Arrest the corrupt old goat. Throw him in jail.”
“I'm not currently representing the law,” Sam pointed out.
“Can't you do a citizen's arrest?” Miles asked innocently.
“You know how the system works,” Sam said. “If I don't have evidence that's admissible in court, what's the point? If you want to provoke him into cutting your throat in front of witnesses, that would work. I could arrest him then. Your move, man. Feel free.”
“Shut up, Petrie.” Sveti's voice quivered. “You're useless.”
“Call me Sam. And what's this about death threats?”
“None of your goddamn business!”
Sam turned his gaze on Tam. “Death threats from whom?”
Tam rolled her eyes. “If she wants you to know, she'll tell you. Otherwise, fuck off.”
They turned at the small voice. Rachel, Tam's adopted daughter. She held Becca's little girl Sofia by the hand. Rachel was tall, pretty, a mop of black curls. Starting to bud.