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Authors: Marie Treanor

Smoke and Mirrors

BOOK: Smoke and Mirrors
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Smoke and Mirrors

The Gifted, Book 1

Marie Treanor

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

All Rights Reserved © 2012 by Marie Treanor

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without
the written permission of the publisher.

DEDICATION

To my editor, Linda, and proofreader Toni, who make me sit up and pay attention.

And, as always, for my husband and kids.

Prologue

Fourteen years ago…

The Russian captain ran from the village as if all the fiends in hell were after him—instead of just one unarmed boy. He stumbled and slipped his desperate way through the snow, trying to reach his horse, any horse that would get him away from here. The dying screams of his men still rang in his ears; the stink of their burning flesh clogged his nostrils and churned his stomach. If it hadn’t been fire, he’d have coped better, but his greatest fear—maybe even his
only
fear—had always been death by burning.

He still couldn’t quite believe the boy had killed them all. Just by looking. There must be money in this, if only he could stay alive long enough to find the way to it. Visions of the last hour flashed back in front of his eyes—tracking enemy survivors of the battle on horseback, because it was the easiest way to travel in these dense woods; the trail of blood his troop had followed here, bright, shocking scarlet against the pristine whiteness of the snow; the wounded separatist soldier, dragged from his house with his wife and the boy clinging to him; the sight of the once awful wound healing and closing before his eyes; his own gun shooting the soldier; the screams of the women; one of his men seizing a young girl of the family, grabbing for her skirt—just before he burst into flames.

There had been a barrage of shooting then. The soldier’s wife, the boy’s mother, had fallen beside her husband as the Russian soldiers began the rampage of looting, raping, and killing that was all the fun they ever got out of this shitty little war. Only that hadn’t happened either, because of the boy.

With a roar that had somehow terrified those hardest and most brutal of soldiers—the captain included—the boy had charged up the street. The Russians had burst into flames on either side of him. Sparks had seemed to fly from the boy’s eyes. No one could touch him. No one even had time to shoot him. In seconds, the Russian soldiers had been fleeing in panic, their captain very soon at their head, but the boy had kept on coming and the men kept burning. It was spectacular, terrifying, splendid. But he couldn’t let it go on.

He turned, levelled his gun, and for an instant, he stared at the boy over the space of several yards and two dead, still-burning bodies. He was only about fourteen years old but tall for his age and good-looking to boot, even panting for breath, his smoke-grimed face contorted in grief and fury.

It was a pity; there
had
to be money in whatever the boy was doing, and in whatever had healed his father’s first injury. But right now, it was the boy or the captain. So, his hand shaking like an alcoholic’s on the morning after, the captain fired.

At first, he thought he’d missed altogether. The boy didn’t even cry out, just made an odd grunting sound in the back of his throat as he staggered back. Blood oozed from his thigh. But it didn’t stop him. He didn’t even fall, just lurched at the captain.

Why the hell had he only shot him in the leg? Just for some imaginary future profit? With an inarticulate, strangled cry, the captain staggered around and went back to running, expecting every moment to feel the flames bursting out under his skin, licking over his flesh…

Finally, he caught the reins of a frightened, skittish horse and hauled himself into the saddle. The boy
still
followed, limping and bloody, and the captain actually sobbed with fear. But he didn’t burn up. Sobbing for breath—and surely pain—the boy hurled himself at the captain’s leg, trying to pull him off the horse. The captain kicked him, and he fell back, blood pouring from his cheek. But the boy came at him again, and the captain finally understood. Whatever power had burned the others, the boy had run out of it. He had no weapons, only his fists to fight with. And the captain’s were bigger.

He leaned from the saddle as the boy ran at him for the second time, and punched him. The boy didn’t fall, merely swung with the punch, then lashed out fast enough to catch the captain’s chin before he stumbled back. The captain wheeled the nervous horse around, pointed him away from the village, and yet held him in check a moment longer.

He glanced back at the boy. So young, so angry. So fucking, amazingly lethal. “I’ll remember you,” he said softly.

The boy stared back, tears pouring down his grimy cheeks. “I know.”

Chapter One

Consorting with criminals in the middle of the night had never been part of her career plan. Yet here she was, approaching the desk of Edinburgh’s Gayfield Square police station at half past two in the morning.

That would have been disconcerting enough, even without her unexpected diversion en route, to the office of the mysterious Mr. Derryn. The whole night had become strangely unreal.

“I’m Nell Black,” she told the young policeman who seemed reluctant to look up from the football pages of his newspaper. Clearly, he was inured to the racket made by a rowdy group of drunks behind him. He glanced up at last without much interest, did a double take, and sat up straight.

“Yes, miss?” he said, much more brightly.

Apparently, the extra effort with makeup made a difference after all. “I’m a translator, here to see Detective Sergeant Lamont?”

The young policeman reached for his phone with alacrity, and less than a minute later, Nell was being led through a security door and along a maze of corridors and stairs. A plainclothes man in shirtsleeves with a tie dangling out of his crumpled trouser pocket strode out of a room at the end of one passage and hurried toward them with his hand held out. Somewhere in his late thirties, Nell guessed. His hair receded, greying slightly at the temples. He looked serious, harassed, and not someone you should mess with, however hard you were.

There was no avoiding the handshake, so she got it over with as quickly as she civilly could, which appeared to suit the brisk policeman well enough.

“Miss Black? Thanks for coming.” He jerked his head dismissively at the young copper who effaced himself, though not without a backward glance at Nell.

“I’m Craig Lamont,” the sergeant said, ushering her toward the room he’d just left. “And very glad to see you. I was beginning to think you weren’t available after all.”

“Sorry, I was out late,” Nell apologised, and Lamont cast her a more piercing glance. “I wasn’t drinking,” she said hastily; damned if she’d lose her first job through that kind of misapprehension. “What exactly is it you want me to do?”

“We’re interviewing a suspect in a rather nasty arson case. At least two people are dead, and this bloke was caught bolting out of the building. He claims not to speak any English and is refusing to talk to us without a translator. You guys are thin on the ground.”

“There must be lots of Russian speakers in Edinburgh,” she objected—stupidly. One should never look gift horses in the mouth, and God knew she needed the job.

“Well, that’s the crux of the matter,” Lamont said ruefully. “We have Russian translators we can use, but none of them know Zavreki.”

“Ah.”

“Exactly. Frankly, I’d never even heard of Zavrekestan. Thought he was having us on, but it’s a real country, right enough. One of the ex-Soviet breakaway republics.” He gave a quick, deprecating grin as he said it, as though proud of his research and yet aware he must be teaching his grandmother to suck eggs. “Do they really have their own language?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s similar to Russian, yet too different to be simply a dialect. On the other hand, if your man’s from Zavrekestan, I’d be very surprised if he didn’t speak Russian as well as we speak English.”

“I wondered about that. I have this feeling he’s wasting our time—probably didn’t expect us to find someone.”

“God bless Mother,” Nell murmured.

Lamont stopped outside the door she’d first seen him exiting. “I take it you’ve never sat in on a police interview before?”

Nell shook her head.

“It will all be recorded,” Lamont said briskly. “All I need you to do is translate what I say to our man and what he says back to me. Be as clear and as accurate as possible. I’ll name you and your job for the benefit of the tape before we begin.”

He laid his hand on the doorknob and paused. “For what it’s worth, he seems to me to be hiding signs of agitation, but there’s no hint of violence about him. There’ll be two police officers present at all times.”

Nell nodded gratefully. She was a writer, a translator, a desk woman. These days, at least, her criminals all came in books. Like her spies. Until tonight.
Focus, Nell.

“What’s his name?” she asked, more because she felt she should than because she really wanted to know.

“Kolnikov,” Lamont replied, extracting a pad from his pocket. “R. Kolnikov.”

She lifted her gaze to Lamont’s face. “What does the ‘R’ stand for?”

He glanced at the pad. “Razz, apparently.” He opened the door and went in.

Razz Kolnikov? Really? The bastard was guilty
and
laughing at them. It seemed the mysterious Mr. Derryn might be right.

Nell followed Sergeant Lamont inside, to where a group of people sat around a rather bashed-up table, ornamented only by a crushed packet of cigarettes. Lamont clearly felt time was of the essence, because even as he pulled a chair forward for Nell, he was speaking, combining the social politeness of introductions with naming those present for the police recording.

His police colleague, seated beside him, was a young detective constable called Livingstone. The suspect’s solicitor on the opposite side of the table was Gregor Gallini. Nell’s chair was squashed in at the end of the table, with Gallini on one side and Lamont on the other.

The suspect himself, Kolnikov, lounged next to his lawyer. Nell found herself in no hurry to face him. Instead, she concentrated on sitting down and arranging her coat and bag, giving quick smiles and nods to everyone else as they were introduced. Her first impression of the suspect, gained from half glances and glimpses from the corner of her eye, was of long legs in blue jeans, a sloppy grey sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to the elbow to reveal colourful tattoos among the golden hairs on his forearms. And a sort of shimmering light—burning amber and gold—like an aura.

Nell didn’t believe in auras, largely because she’d never taken to the sort of people who talked about them. Therefore, she’d always felt slightly ashamed of the fact that she occasionally imagined different coloured outlines around some people, usually from exactly this kind of half glance. When she looked properly, the “aura” had always gone. Imagination combined with nerves, of course, and tonight she had an excuse for both.

“And Nell Black, translator,” Lamont finished, “present at the request of Mr. Kolnikov.”

“What are her qualifications?” Gallini demanded at once. “She must be fluent in Zavreki.”

“I am,” Nell said mildly. She reached into her bag and brought out copies of her degrees and diplomas. Although she was aware of Kolnikov’s gaze upon her, she passed the documents to the solicitor, who pushed them nearer to his client so that they could both view them. In the belief she would now have a free, if brief moment to examine the suspect, she lifted her gaze to his face. Mistake.

It was a bit like falling out of a tree when she was a kid: a sense of dizziness, followed swiftly by a thud that sucked all the air out of her lungs. Not because he was particularly good-looking—although he was, all straight, sharp lines and shaggy blond hair—but because his hard, intense blue eyes were staring right at her, as if he could see into every corner of her existence. She prayed he couldn’t.

At least there was no “aura” now.

His lips separated, and he spoke in Zavreki. “How come?”

The words were brief, without emphasis, and yet they threw her. Perhaps it was his voice, quiet and deep as dark velvet, that made her shiver.

“How come what?” she demanded.

“How come you speak my language?”

“My mother came from Zavrekestan.”

He picked up the packet of cigarettes from the table. “And they say you can never escape,” he said flippantly.

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” he observed, placing a cigarette between his lips. His hands were large but slender, his fingers long and oddly elegant compared to the rest of his flung-together if attractive appearance. He wore no rings, no wristwatch. And the tattoos licking down his forearms to his wrists were flames. Bizarre. Though no reason to arrest someone for arson.

“I’ve told you, there’s no smoking in here, Mr. Kolnikov,” Lamont said impatiently. “Can we get on? I take it you’re happy to have Miss Black as your translator?” He fixed Nell with his gaze, and she almost jumped with the realization that her job had now begun.

Hastily, she translated Lamont’s words, and Kolnikov threw the cigarette down on the table. “Hit me.”

Nell translated that as, “He agrees.”

Both the policemen fixed their attention on Kolnikov, although it was to Nell, presumably, that he addressed his words.

“Ask him what he was doing in the burning warehouse in Abbeyhill tonight at five minutes to eleven.”

Nell translated without expression, although she felt a chill run through her bones.

Kolnikov shrugged. “If that’s when I met the police, I was running out of the warehouse before I burned to death. I only went in because it was on fire and I heard someone calling for help.”

Lamont and his sidekick both looked sceptical. “Was that not dangerously reckless? Could he not just have called the fire brigade?”

The solicitor seemed about to intervene, then waved one hand as if it wasn’t worth the fuss.

Kolnikov answered. “What can I say? I’m a good citizen. And I did.”

“Did what?” Lamont demanded.

Kolnikov’s hand closed around the cigarette. “Call the fire brigade.”

“We can check on that, you know,” Detective Constable Livingstone warned.

Kolnikov said nothing, just looked at him.

“Did you know who was in the warehouse?” Lamont asked.

When Nell translated, Kolnikov shook his head.

“For the tape, please,” Livingstone intoned.

While Nell translated, Kolnikov’s hard, impenetrable blue eyes came back into focus on her face.

“No,” he said.

Something twisted inside her. It seemed likely he was looking at her to avoid the policemen; and yet, just for a moment, she imagined his eyes weren’t impenetrable at all but in pain, almost—desperate. Then his lashes came down, thick and concealing.

Perhaps Lamont caught that instant too. Or perhaps he just scented weakness or lies. At any rate, he leaned forward to ram his point home. “Two people died in that blaze, Mr. Kolnikov. Burned to death so that their own mothers wouldn’t recognise them. Did you start the fire?”

Nell translated, trying desperately to keep any emotion from her voice. Her cold lips seemed reluctant to say the words, but at least her brain kept working.

Kolnikov’s gaze flickered to hers and then on to Lamont. “No.”

“At least one of the victims seems to’ve been Russian,” Lamont said casually. “We found the remains of a damaged passport. Is that just coincidence?”

“I suppose it must be.”

Lamont sat back. Kolnikov didn’t move, except for the slow play of his fingers on the cigarette, turning it over and over and tapping it occasionally on the table. There was nothing quick or nervous about it, and yet it looked to Nell as if his hands were shaking.

Kolnikov was a lot more bothered than he wanted anyone to think.

“So what were you doing in Abbeyhill?” Lamont asked. However he asked the questions, his attention was always on his suspect, looking, Nell was sure, for signs that Kolnikov understood before the translation, and for any tiny signals that might betray him before he was ready.

“I was on my way home,” Kolnikov answered.

“Which is where?” Livingstone asked.

“The Royal Hotel in Leith.”

Nell knew it. Despite its grandiose name, it wasn’t an impressive establishment. It catered largely for the homeless and for passing trade who wanted very cheap rooms.

“And where were you coming from?” Livingstone asked.

“Deacon Brodie’s bar,” the answer came back.

“Wasn’t Abbeyhill a bit out of your way?” Livingstone enquired.

“I got lost,” Kolnikov replied.

“Okay.” Livingstone obviously decided to let that one go. “Did you have much to drink in the bar?”

“A whisky and a pint of heavy,” Kolnikov said in heavily accented English. The funny thing was, the Scots intonation came through. Nell only just stopped herself from smiling, and from the sudden twitch of Lamont’s severe lips, she rather thought he had the same problem.

“Anyone who’d remember seeing you there?” Livingstone asked.

Kolnikov shrugged. “I spoke to a couple of people. Don’t know their names, though. I played chess with one.”

The translation of that managed to surprise the cops, but before they could ask any more, Kolnikov added, “One of the barmaids might remember me. I asked her for a drink on her next night off.”

“Did she say yes?” Livingstone asked.

Kolnikov smiled. “Actually, she did.”

“So when did you leave the bar?”

“Before eleven. Maybe half past ten.”

Lamont said abruptly, “Ask him if he knows what was in the warehouse.”

Kolnikov shook his head. “There were a lot of cardboard boxes on the stairs. Everywhere I looked.”

“Some of it was heroin. The female victim threw a bag of it through the window to attract attention.”

“Shit,” said Kolnikov. Anyone might have had that reaction. There was no way to tell if he cared any more than he would for a stranger.

“We also found guns,” Lamont went on. “Regular gangster’s paradise. We really don’t like that.”

Kolnikov let her say all of it before he answered mildly enough, “No one would.”

Lamont fired the questions quick and curt now, barely giving Nell time to translate the replies before he snapped out the next.

“Ever taken heroin, Mr. Kolnikov?”

“Once, when I was sixteen. In Zavrekestan. Never since.”

“Do you own a firearm?”

“No.”

“Have you ever?”

“No.”

“What are you doing in Scotland?”

“I’m travelling. Seeing the world.”

“Would you consent to your clothes and skin being tested for deposits?”

“No,” said Gallini, as if he’d just woken up.

“Yes,” said Kolnikov, then glanced at his solicitor and shrugged. “I don’t care. What are you looking for?” he added.

BOOK: Smoke and Mirrors
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