Behind the Book
In recent years, a number of extremely dangerous world leaders have managed to increase their already considerable power. Some are busy tightening their grip on their countries like Recep Erdogan in Turkey or President Xi Jinping in China. Others, like Kim Jong-un in North Korea, already have uncontested control but are increasing their military capability. And finally, in a class by himself, is Vladimir Putin—a man who combines the dominance of the Kims with the military might of China.
For a while, I’ve been pondering what would happen if a modern dictator like Putin became physically or mentally ill. How far would he go to prevent the loss of his position? Would anyone in his inner circle have the courage to push back? And what would the rest of the world risk to rein him in?
Many of today’s dictators can’t just step down and trust that their replacement will protect them from the enemies they’ve made. Losing their edge—even for a moment—can be a matter of life or death. One moment of weakness and they could end up like Nicolae Ceausescu or Saddam Hussein.
Of all the world’s dictators, Vladimir Putin worries me the most. Credible reports suggest that he became obsessed with the gruesome videos of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, watching them over and over again. The older he gets, the more consumed he becomes with the idea that his reign might end with his body being dragged through the streets of Moscow.
With Putin as my inspiration, I started to scheme. If he became gravely ill, how would he continue to prevent his political opponents from rising up? How could he impede the foreign intelligence agencies looking to take advantage of his weakness? Who could he trust to protect him as he is transformed from de facto czar to wounded animal?
In my mind, there’s nothing someone like Vladimir Putin wouldn’t do to maintain his position—murder every Russian politician not loyal to him, go to war with America and NATO, or even use his nuclear arsenal.
Facing death on multiple fronts, he’d have nothing to lose.
The streets were overrun.
Despite his idiot advisors’ assurances, the president of Russia found himself watching protesters enter Red Square. Current estimates were that more than two hundred thousand people had joined together to shut down Moscow’s commercial districts and now a reckless few were marching on its seat of power.
The gray column of humanity was probably ten meters across and of indeterminate length, snaking out of sight in the steady rain. At its head was Roman Pasternak, clad in the red jacket and baseball cap he wore like a target, daring Russia’s security forces to move against him. Maxim Krupin squinted down at the scene but couldn’t make out anything but the vague shape of the man. There had been a time not long ago that his eyes would have been capable of taking in every detail, but no longer. The episodes of blurred vision were coming with increasing frequency, lasting hours now instead of minutes.
At his age, perhaps it was time to reconsider his opinion that glasses were a sign of frailty. Or perhaps not. He’d learned to exploit weakness and illness in others, but had suffered from neither since he was a child. He only availed himself of the medical system for injuries sustained during sports or hunting, the scars from which he wore proudly.
Men like Pasternak would never understand that control over Russia didn’t flow from economic growth or freedom or security. No, it flowed from the perception of power. Krupin’s own was unshakable of course, but it had become that way by providing his people with the illusion that they were the source. That he was nothing more than an instrument to carry out their will. A weapon to be wielded against a long list of carefully fabricated threats. The Americans. The Europeans. Gays. But most of all, the democratic forces seething just beneath the surface of their society.
In contrast to the willowy man organizing his followers below, Krupin was a bear of a man. Two hundred pounds of bulk hung on a six-foot frame. Still solid, but becoming less so every day. His black hair was thick on not only his head but across his broad chest and back. He was the soot-covered coal miner that had provided the heat and electricity so critical to Soviet domination. The factory worker who had built its machines and weapons. The farmer who had fed its hungry people. And, finally, the soldier who had made the world tremble.
He watched the people milling below and the security forces scrambling to maintain control. Predictably, most of the protesters were young—pampered university students or people involved in what had come to be called the new economy. Work that economists believed would be the future of the country but that produced nothing tangible. No military equipment, grand buildings, or massive public works. Just lines of computer code and an endless array of services to provide comfort to this new generation.
The pampered children marching solemnly through Red Square existed not for love of country but for love of themselves. They never spoke of the glory of Mother Russia, instead droning incessantly about their individual rights and the Western luxuries denied to them. But now the nature of the conversation was changing. In increasingly bold terms, they were defining themselves as the future of Russia. And relegating him to its past.
Krupin noted a series of dull flashes in his peripheral vision and braced himself for the wave of nausea that always immediately followed. Other than that, he didn’t react. There was still time before the disorientation and searing pain descended. That time would be shorter than it had been during the last episode, though. It always was.
In an act of defiance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, the protesters spread out beneath the tower where he was ensconced. And in response, he did nothing but stare through the dripping window at them.
His underlings were increasingly hesitant to move against the country’s fragmented, but growing, political opposition. Instead of crushing it, they relied on the state media’s ability to either ridicule it or to simply deny its existence. Anything more overt, they warned, could lead to a backlash that might careen out of control. The tide that for so long had risen and fallen only by the force of his gravity, could overwhelm him as it had Hussein, Gaddafi, and others.
The subtle loss of balance came even more quickly than Krupin expected, forcing him to turn away from the disturbing images filtering through the wet glass. The blinding headache would be next, starting as a nearly imperceptible pulse and growing to a level that was at the edge of his ability to tolerate. Then, finally, the confusion. That was the worst of it. For a man in his position, even a momentary lapse could be deadly.
He carefully lowered himself into a utilitarian chair behind an even more utilitarian desk. The tiny office was located in an uninhabited corner of the Kremlin that hadn’t been upgraded since the Soviet era. The clock on the wall had stopped functioning years ago, but the numbers reading out on his cell phone were unwavering. 11:59.
He pulled a folder from a stack at the desk’s edge and removed the band holding the cover closed. Its contents were meaningless, but they helped him hide the cracks in the façade that he’d worked so long to build.
The knock on the door came less than a minute later. Punctuality in others had always been one of the benefits of his near omnipotence within the borders of Russia.
The man who entered walked with a slight hunch that made him seem older than his sixty years. Soft eyes and white hair worn a bit too long normally would have suggested weakness to Krupin, but now hinted at a hidden wisdom that put him uncharacteristically ill at ease.
He looked up from the folder and examined his personal physician, being careful not to squint in an effort to focus. His visits were typically for the purpose of routine checkups or minor complaints. They were never reported to the media unless they involved an injury that could enhance his image, but neither were they kept secret.
Today was different.
Eduard Fedkin had never been called to that forgotten corner of the Kremlin and would be startled to find Russia’s leader there. Perhaps it was this surprise that had left him shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot. Or perhaps it was more.
“What news do you bring, Doctor?”
“Our tests, sir . . .” The man hesitated, but was unable to remain silent under the weight of Krupin’s stare. “They’ve uncovered an abnormality in your brain.”
A surge of adrenaline flooded Krupin, magnifying the growing pain in his head. His face, though, betrayed nothing.
“What kind of abnormality?”
“It’s likely that it’s the cause of the symptoms you’ve been experiencing.”
Krupin concentrated on keeping his voice even. “Is it cancer?”
“Our tests were only preliminary. They weren’t designed to determine that.”
At Krupin’s insistence, the exam had been done at his home with only equipment that could be transported in and out with complete secrecy.
“You must have formed some opinion.”
“Given that you’re only experiencing blurred vision and moderate headaches, my hope is that it’s benign and slow growing,” Fedkin said, choosing his words carefully.
Krupin hadn’t been entirely forthright about the intensity of his headaches, nor had he mentioned the mental confusion that always followed. Fedkin was one of the finest physicians in the country, but hardly a loyalist. As near as Russia’s intelligence services could discern, the man was largely non-political—one of the many Russian intellectuals who considered themselves above such pettiness. Still, information had to be carefully controlled.
“Obviously, we’ll need to perform a more thorough examination, sir. This needs to be done immediately.”
“I don’t think there’s any reason for hysterics,” Krupin said with calm he didn’t feel. “I’ll have my assistant find a convenient time in my schedule.”
Fedkin didn’t immediately move, instead staring down at Krupin as though he was trying to decide whether to try to argue his position. Instead, he turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
When the latch clicked, Krupin sagged over the desk, supporting his head in his hands and fighting back the nausea gripping him. Cheers erupted outside, loud enough to vibrate the walls, reminding him of the protesters clogging Moscow’s streets. Enemies to be sure but not his most dangerous. That distinction was held by the men closest to him. The men who knew his age and were quietly positioning themselves for what was to come next.
He fought to focus his mind, assessing the strength, vulnerabilities, and ambition of men who would be the most likely to move against him. This was his true gift. Not economics or geopolitics. Not even military strategy. No, he ruled the largest country in the world because he was as good as anyone in history at keeping enemies—both external and internal—off balance. He meted out information and disinformation, flattery and threats, rewards and punishments, all designed to create a web that trapped everyone who came in contact with it. Effective, but also extraordinarily difficult to maintain. Without constant tending, it would collapse almost overnight.
More cheers from outside, this time followed by the amplified voice of Roman Pasternak.
“Why are we here?”
Krupin lost his train of thought. Pasternak had not only marched his ragtag followers onto Red Square, but now he was going to make a speech? The very idea would have been laughable five years ago. Time, though, could be controlled by no man and neither could the changes it brought.
He started to stand, but then fell back in his seat. No. Pasternak was a threat, but not an immediate one. He would be dealt with in due course.
“Russia teeters in and out of recession year after year, dependent entirely on the value of things we can dig from the ground. Our teachers and other workers don’t get paid. Our infrastructure is collapsing . . .”
Krupin used a pencil to begin a list that only a few months ago he would have had no use for. The first name he added was that of Boris Utkin, his prime minister.
He was relatively young and technologically savvy, capable of connecting with the generation that held Krupin at arm’s length. A skilled politician, he feigned loyalty but always positioned himself in the middle ground—a bridge between the iron-fisted control of Krupin’s administration and the anarchy offered by the man outside shouting into his bullhorn.
“We have a motivated, educated populace, but what do we make? What do we invent? Innovation is the future and all we can do is strip our land of its wealth and sell it to more prosperous countries for table scraps.”
Grisha Azarov. The killer who had once worked so effectively for him. He had walked away from the power and wealth that Krupin had given him and was now living an anonymous life in Central America. Not a threat on his own, but unimaginably dangerous if recruited by others.
“Maxim Krupin is the wealthiest man in the world, doling out patronage to his inner circle while the rest of us starve.”
Tarben Chkalov. The most powerful of the oligarchs, a man too old and too well diversified internationally to fear Krupin anymore. He sought only stability and would back anyone who could provide it.
“Five percent of our economy is devoted to the military. For what? Expansion? Our adventures in Crimea and Ukraine have cost billions of rubles and left us bowed beneath the weight of international sanctions. Protection from invasion?” Pasternak’s amplified laugh was partially obscured by electronic feedback. “Who would want this country?”
Krupin let his pencil drop from numb fingers. The sensation of rage rising in him was familiar, but there was more. Something lurking behind it. Something alien.
“The president keeps our old people blinded with nationalism and memories of Soviet glory, but those days are over forever. And I say good riddance.”
It occurred to Krupin that he had forgotten to write the name of his most potent adversary: time. What did this abnormality in his brain mean for him? A slow decline into dementia and insanity? Invasive medical treatments that would leave only a husk of the man he was now? Would he rot while the weaklings around him maneuvered to be the first to thrust a knife into his back?
He thought of the meaningless people in the square, of the youth and vitality they wore so effortlessly. Of the millions of people who would continue their obscure lives while his own faded. Of a world that would cease to fear him and would be emboldened by that new found confidence.
“Russia has a proud history but we can’t stand at odds with the rest of the world any longer . . .”
The pain in his head continued to grow, pushing beyond anything he’d experienced before.
“We need to take our place in the world order, not to lose ourselves in an old man’s fantasy of dominating it.”
“Shut up!” Krupin screamed, terrified by how his voice was swallowed by the tiny office around him. He leapt to his feet, shouting again as he grabbed for the phone on the desk. “Shut up!”
East of Manassas, Virginia
MITCH Rapp slowed, letting Scott Coleman’s lead extend to ten feet.
They were running on a poorly defined dirt track that switchbacked up a mountain to the west of the one he’d built his house on. By design, it was late afternoon and they were in full sun. Temperatures were in the high eighties with humidity around the same level, covering Rapp in a film of perspiration that was beginning to soak through his shirt.
Coleman, on the other hand, looked like he’d just climbed out of a swimming pool. He was pouring so much sweat that the trail of mud he left behind him would be visible from space. His breathing was coming in random, wheezing gasps that made him sound like the soon-to-be victim in a slasher flick. On the brighter side, his pace was steady and he wasn’t tripping over the roots and loose rocks beneath his feet.
So, three quarters of the way to the summit, he was moving about as well as anybody could expect under the circumstances. Rapp wasn’t anybody, though. It was time to see what the former navy SEAL could do.
He crashed through some low branches to Coleman’s left, pulling back onto the trail a few feet ahead. After about a minute of matching his old friend’s pace, he started to slowly accelerate. Behind him, the rhythm of footfalls rose in defiance. Like they always did.
Coleman had just spent more than a year focused entirely on recovering from a run-in with Grisha Azarov, the nearly superhuman enforcer who worked for Russia’s president. Azarov had finally walked away from his country and employer, but unfortunately not in time to save Coleman a wrecked shoulder, a knife blade broken off in his ribs, and multiple gunshot wounds. The blood loss alone would have killed a man half his age, but the former SEAL managed to beat the odds and stay above ground.
That had turned out to be the easy part. When he’d finally been hoisted out of bed, it had taken him almost a month just to relearn how to walk. And then there was the mental side. Going from being stronger, tougher, and faster than almost everyone around him to someone who needed a motorized cart to navigate the grocery store had been a tough blow. Even worse was coming to terms with the fact that Azarov had torn through him like he wasn’t there. Coleman was still struggling to regain the confidence he’d always possessed in well-deserved abundance.
So it had been a surprise—of the rare good kind—when he’d showed up on Rapp’s doorstep and invited him on a trail run. It was good to see a hint of the old swagger. He’d been Rapp’s backup for a long time and the truth was that the year without him could have gone better. In this business, you were only as good as the people you surrounded yourself with.
Rapp glanced at the heart rate monitor strapped to his wrist. One sixty-five—a hard but comfortable pace that he could hold for around three hours before blowing up. Behind him, Coleman’s breathing was becoming desperate and his footfalls were losing their steady tempo. Stumbles, followed by awkward saves, were increasingly frequent as his thigh muscles began to give up. But no falls. Not yet.
They broke out of the trees and Rapp pushed the pace a little harder as the summit came into sight. Coleman tripped and went down on one hand, but managed to get back to his feet without losing momentum. He was running purely on determination and pride now, but that was okay. He had serious reserves of both.
One hundred and seventy-one beats per minute read out on Rapp’s monitor. Coleman was starting to wheeze, a sick whistle from deep in his
chest. Something caught in his throat and he started to choke, causing Rapp to hesitate for a moment. Then he started to sprint. If his old friend was going to drop dead, better now than in Afghanistan or Syria when people were counting on him.
Rapp slowed to a walk when he reached the top of the mountain, squinting as he scanned the rolling carpet of green below. He could see the gleaming dot that was his house to the east, surrounded by a few homes erected on similar widely spaced lots. His obscenely rich brother had bought the entire subdivision and sold the individual parcels for a dollar to Rapp’s colleagues, ensuring that his older sibling would always be surrounded by shooters loyal to him.
To the south of Rapp’s gate, a contemporary house of wood and blast-resistant glass was nearly finished. Whether its owner would survive the last hundred yards of this run to take occupancy, though, was an open question.
Fortunately, it was a question that didn’t take too long to answer. Coleman crested the hill, lurching toward Rapp and finally collapsing to the rocky ground. He managed to rise to all fours but didn’t stand, instead keeping his head down and concentrating on not throwing up. After about a minute, he regained enough control of his breathing to get out a single word.
Rapp glanced at his watch. “One hour, sixteen minutes, thirty-three seconds. Pick it up a little bit and you might qualify for the senior Olympics.”
In fact, the pace they’d sustained on the climb would have shaken off a third of active duty SEALs. Not too bad for an old sailor the doctors said would need a cane for the rest of his life.
Coleman managed to lift one hand off the ground and raise his middle finger. “What’s your best?”
Rapp considered telling the truth but quickly discarded the idea. The amount of work Coleman had put into his recovery and the progress he’d made was incredible. No point in discouraging him.
“Hour eleven forty.”
“What would Azarov have done?”
“How the hell would I know?”
“Don’t bullshit me, Mitch. You worked with him.”
Rapp had recruited Azarov to help him with an operation that he didn’t want to involve Coleman’s men in. The former SEAL understood Rapp’s rationale for using the man who had nearly killed him—it had been a straight up illegal action that he didn’t want to blow back on the men who had been so loyal to him over the years. But that didn’t make Coleman any less competitive.
“All he does these days is drink beer by his pool and surf with his girlfriend.”
Coleman pushed himself to his feet. “Okay, Mitch. If you won’t tell me that, at least you can stop lying to me about your real personal best.”
“Fine. Hour four flat.”
“Shit,” Coleman said, lowering himself onto a boulder and staring out over the landscape. “I’ll never be as fast as I was before. Too many years and too much mileage.”
“Fighting’s not just about running up hills, Scott. You know that. I’m more concerned about your head.”
Coleman nodded, not taking his eyes off the horizon. “Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Maybe too much.”
“I’m not afraid, if that’s what you’re wondering. When your number’s up, it’s up. And I’ve made peace with what Azarov did to me. He was a young guy pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs. An Olympic-level athlete with surprise on his side.”
A barely perceptible smile appeared at the edges of his mouth. “And he damn near took you out, too.”
It was a true statement. Rapp won his battle with the Russian but that win had ended with him getting blown off an oil rig with his hair literally on fire. Too many more wins like that might kill him. “It’s gonna get dark, Scott. And I want to take it easy on the way down. My knee’s bothering me.”
Coleman’s smile widened at the obvious lie.
And that was another thing that would be impossible to replace if he decided not to come back to active duty. They always knew what the other was thinking and could anticipate each other’s moves. They’d grown up in this business together and had a connection that Rapp doubted he could ever replicate with someone else.
“I’m okay with where I stand now,” Coleman said, looking up at him. “The question is, are you? You can’t be out there worrying about me leaving you hanging.”
Rapp’s cell phone rang and he pulled it out of a pocket in the back of his shirt. Claudia.
“What’s up?” he said, connecting the call.
“How’s Scott? You didn’t hurt him did you?”
Claudia Gould had recently gone from being the woman he was living with to being the woman he was living with who was also the logistics coordinator for Coleman’s company. Her late husband had been one of the top private contractors in the world before Stan Hurley tore his throat out. Not an ideal start to a relationship but it seemed to be working for both him and Coleman. She’d helped Rapp start living something that could pass for a life and she’d held SEAL Demolition and Salvage together while Coleman spent his days with personal trainers and physical therapists.
“He’s sitting right here.”
“Upright and under his own power?”
“Tell her you’re fine,” Rapp said, holding out the phone.
“I almost took him at the top, Claudia! Don’t let him tell you any different.”
Rapp frowned and put the phone back to his ear. “See?”
“Is he ready to come back to ops?”
“I think he’s ready to come back and run the whole thing. Ops and logistics.”
She switched to French as she always did when she was irritated.
“You can wish all you want, Mitch, but he’s not firing me. I’m running that side of the business now. And it’s a good thing for us, because it pays a lot better than the CIA.”
There was no winning this fight, he knew. Claudia had taken a lot of pressure off Coleman and he had precisely zero desire to go back to coordinating details. Besides, she was better at it—something Coleman was fully willing to admit. The problem for Rapp was getting used to having the woman he was sleeping with on the comm when things went south. Boundaries between their personal and professional relationship were complicated and still in flux.
“Now’s not the time to talk about this, Claudia. Scott and I are going to start down, but it might take a while. Go ahead and feed Anna if she’s hungry. We can do dinner when I get back.”
“Actually, you aren’t coming down and we’re not having dinner together. Look to the north.”
He turned and squinted into the horizon. It took a few seconds but he finally made out a small dot over the mountains.
“There’s a laptop on board with a full briefing. Be careful, okay?”
She disconnected the call and he put the phone away before pointing to the approaching chopper. “So what’s the story, Scott? Are you back or not?”
“NOT sleeping again, Grisha?”
Cara Hansen was lying next to him on the damp bed, naked and glistening in the glow of his phone. Normally, she would have pressed up against him but with the air conditioner off she opted to nudge him with a finger instead.
“Quit playing with that thing. There’s no signal and you’re wasting electricity.”
Azarov used the house’s internal network to shut off the lights in the upstairs master bedroom. He left them on to give the illusion that they were still sleeping there, though they’d abandoned it three days ago when the power had gone out across the region. The temperature was a good ten degrees cooler downstairs, but it wasn’t helping him sleep. The only thing that could do that was solid intelligence on why the grid was down and when it would be repaired.
“Sorry,” he said, darkening the screen. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I was barely dozing. Too hot to do anything else. I mean, who do I have to screw in this country to get a couple hours of A/C?”
Technically speaking, that would be him. He’d never mentioned to her that he had three massive Tesla batteries under the house that he was reluctant to tap for more than a trickle of current. It had been cloudy for days, making his solar roof all but useless and the supply of diesel for his generators was becoming unreliable.
The people in the little surf town he lived above had largely shrugged and moved on with their lives. They’d never come to rely on technology like he did. Despite his years living there, he’d never mastered locals’ cheerful fatalism.
“If you were to go to the gas station in the morning, that might be a good way to convince them to part with a little diesel.”
“Funny,” she said, poking him a little harder this time.
He was already struggling to remember how long they’d been together. Technically, the time could be measured in months, but in truth he’d loved her for years.
Originally from California, she was a surf instructor who’d worked part time for the company that maintained the subdivision where he lived. In the beginning, a relationship between them had been impossible. He’d been working as a problem solver for the president of Russia, a man who had an unparalleled gift for discovering what people cared about and then using it against them. So, while Azarov had passed up no opportunity to hire Cara for work around the house, he’d been forced to feign indifference to her presence.
He reached out and ran a hand through her damp hair. “You didn’t have air conditioning before you moved in with me. You’re getting soft.”
“Too much of the good life,” she said, rolling away in an attempt to escape the heat coming off his body.
Without the glow of his phone, the world was swallowed by darkness. Azarov stared in the direction of the windows, watching the vague outline of the flowers that Cara had planted on the other side of the glass. Beyond that was nothing but kilometer after kilometer of jungle dense enough to hide just about anything.
He had left the employ of the Russian government but it was unlikely that he was forgotten. Krupin had never agreed to release him and he wasn’t a man accustomed to being defied. Would he take notice of Costa Rica’s power failure? Perhaps use it to take revenge on Azarov for abandoning him and for failing to deal with Mitch Rapp? An example for anyone else who might dare challenge him?
Or maybe it was even worse. Maybe Krupin had charged his cyber warriors with attacking Costa Rica, a country completely unprepared for such an aggression. Would he cripple the country’s entire southwest to retaliate against a man who had spent years faithfully serving him?
No. That was just paranoia. While Krupin was a megalomaniac who required complete control over everyone and everything in his orbit, he was also eminently rational. Everything he did was in direct pursuit of his own survival and power. Krupin never lashed out in a way that didn’t objectively benefit him or that could blow back. At his core, Russia’s president was a man of calculation. A coward and a manipulator.
Besides, according to Azarov’s sources, he’d already been replaced with a man named Nikita Pushkin. By all reports, the younger man was quite gifted and in possession of the loyalty and sense of duty that Azarov had lost so long ago. All in all it seemed to be an improvement for everyone involved. This boy would be showered with everything he desired, Krupin would have a protector who would gladly die for him, and Azarov was free to explore the concept of happiness and perhaps even pursue it.
Next to him, Cara’s breathing evened out and deepened, but his mind was moving in too many directions to follow her into sleep. What if it was someone else? Someone who was associated with one of the many people he’d killed and had heard he was no longer under Krupin’s protection?
Unlikely. Powerful men, once dead, tended to garner very little loyalty. Their inner circles were generally more interested in fighting to fill the power vacuum left behind.
And that left America. Not Rapp, though. Azarov had helped him move against the Saudis and the CIA man had made it clear that he considered himself indebted. He could be trusted and Irene Kennedy wouldn’t act without his consent.
Scott Coleman and his team? It was his understanding that Coleman had largely healed and . . .
Azarov closed his eyes for a moment, trying to clear his mind. If he was intent on reviewing every enemy he’d made over the years, it was going to be a very long night.
When he opened his eyes again, he reactivated his phone’s screen and relaunched his security app. The perimeter alarms were still active, as were all emergency systems. His batteries still had more than eighty percent of their capacity. Satellite Internet was still technically online but so overloaded that it was all but useless.
Cara slapped lazily at him, hitting him in the chest. Her face was half buried in a pillow and he had to strain to make out what she was saying.
“If you’re going to play with that thing, do it somewhere else.”
It was unlikely that he was going to fall asleep anytime soon, so he got up and pulled on a pair of shorts. Cara attributed his restlessness to the heat and what she referred to as GRM—general Russian moodiness—but that was because she believed him to be a semi-retired energy consultant. And that’s the way it would stay. He couldn’t bear the thought of her knowing the things he’d done. Or of her being afraid. A woman like her should never have to feel anything but joy and security.
He padded toward the door, but stopped when she spoke again.
“You’re not sad again, are you, Grisha?”
“And you’re not tired of your girlfriend?”
He smiled. “Not yet.”
“Do you want me to take a swim with you? Would that make you feel better?”
“No. Just go back to sleep.”
The overcast skies from that day had cleared and the moon was bright enough for him to navigate the stairs to the second level kitchen. He considered opening the refrigerator but it was a waste of electricity and he didn’t want the interior light to go on. While he was probably paranoid, there was no reason to be careless.
Instead, he got a glass of water from the sink and walked to the bank of windows facing north. Through them, the mountains were just outlines against the stars. His distant neighbors were all in bed and the ones who still had power reserves weren’t wasting them on things like exterior lights.
He saw a flash that his mind—still under the influence of years of training—immediately recognized as a gunshot. It came from near a rocky knoll that he himself had scouted when he’d been deciding where to place his house. The distance was significant at seven hundred and fifty meters, but it was somewhat elevated and had the clearest line of sight to the structure.
The glass was theoretically bulletproof, but anyone good enough to be sent for him and to identify that vantage point would use a round capable of penetrating. Azarov dove to the floor, knowing that he had less than a second before the impact. He hit the concrete hard but then there was nothing. Just the muffled hum of insects.
Could he have been wrong? Might it have been someone lighting a cigarette? Turning on a flashlight?
He didn’t have time to consider either possibility before the deafening sound of automatic fire erupted from the base of his driveway. The glass in front of him spiderwebbed and then finally collapsed, raining down on him as he crawled toward the island in the middle of the kitchen.