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Six months later
In another era, the neglected building on the south bank of the Cumberland River might have been quaint and inviting. Happy, even. But no more.
Empty, broken flower boxes hung beneath windows that had been painted black and boarded up from the inside. The thin scraps of what had once been red-and-white awnings flapped in the humid June breeze, clinging to the building's past like ghosts who whispered of the dangers that awaited. Only fools would willingly fail to heed their warning, but Vlad had already proven himself a fool. And even as his mind berated his body for its weakness, his skin prickled in anticipation of the sweet relief he knew he would find once he knocked on the door.
The man sitting next to him in the passenger seat of his car berated him for another reason entirely. "Let me get this straight," Colton said, adding some whiny twang to his voice. "I don't hear from you for three months, and when you finally call, it's for this? So we can sit here while you mutter to yourself in Russian?"
"It has not been three months," Vlad protested. It had actually been four.
In the first several weeks after Mack's wedding-after Elena told him she was leaving and wanted to end their marriage-Vlad deluded himself that he could still be part of the book club. But every minute with the guys was more painful than the last. Their happiness was salt to a wound, and when he finally told them that he and Elena were getting a divorce, their earnest offers to help were even worse. He couldn't stand to spend one more minute making up excuses and lies. Couldn't stand to watch his friends live the life he always dreamed of, knowing he would never have the same. Couldn't stand to be reminded that his belief that he could build a real marriage with Elena was nothing more than a delusional fantasy. The manuals had filled him with nothing but false hope that Elena could ever see him as the romance hero of her dreams. That she could ever love him like the romance heroine of his. He knew the truth now. Happy ever afters were for other men.
All Vlad had left was hockey.
And now, for first time in twenty-five years, the Nashville Vipers had made it to the conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. One more win, and they'd be in the championship series. Vlad had never hit harder, skated better, or scored more goals than he had in the past six months.
He couldn't risk losing now. What would be left of his life?
"I curse the day I told you about this place," Colton said. "I thought I was doing you a favor, cheering you up and shit. I didn't know you'd become an addict."
Vlad clenched the steering wheel. "I'm not an addict."
"Really? Then what the fuck are we doing here?"
"I need it. For the game tonight. I need it." Even to Vlad, his voice sounded small and weak, powerless to the pull of his desire.
"No, you don't. It's a dumb superstition."
"I swore the last time that I would never come again, and look what happened. We lost the game."
"So that's why you finally called me? So I can get you back in with my membership?"
Vlad stared ahead at the gloomy façade. "Since I started coming here, I have played like a beast. I cannot risk it again."
"This is the last time, Vlad," Colton said, throwing open his door. "I'm not coming here again with you."
Vlad followed closely behind as Colton marched toward the door of the building, his feet crunching on gravel and shattered glass.
"I mean it," Colton said, spinning and poking Vlad in the chest. "You can't just disappear on us for months and then call me up for a favor like nothing ever happened. The guys and I deserve better than that."
The weight of regret and guilt tugged Vlad's gaze to the dirty, broken concrete beneath his feet. "I know. You are right. I am sorry."
"We miss you, man. And we're worried about you. I know the divorce is hitting you hard, but that's what we're here for. To help you fix things."
"There is nothing to fix," Vlad said, meeting Colton's gaze again. "I told you before. She is leaving, and there is nothing I can do to stop her."
"How do you know if you won't let us try?"
"Enough!" Vlad barked.
Colton blinked, shock coloring his expression at the unfamiliar bite to Vlad's tone. He never raised his voice with his friends. Never.
Vlad swore under his breath and dragged his hand across the whiskers that had already begun to sprout along his jaw even though he'd shaved just a few hours ago. "I know you are trying to help, but Elena has made her decision. She is going back to Russia to be a journalist like her father. There is nothing I can do about that."
Colton regarded him silently for a moment before acknowledging Vlad's words with a simple nod. Then he turned around and resumed walking.
A single window in the center of the door was blocked by a small wooden shutter. Colton knocked three times in quick succession and then twice more. A moment passed, and someone from inside knocked once. Colton followed with two more knocks. The shutter slid open, and a pair of dark eyes peered out.
"Coin," a voice said.
Colton held up the round silver disc that proved his membership in this clandestine club. The shutter closed with a snap and was followed by the sound of heavy locks turning. The door opened, bringing a burst of cold air and a sour smell.
Colton slipped into the darkness, Vlad closely behind. As soon as they were inside, the door slammed shut behind them.
"Back again so soon?" The stern voice that demanded their coins now mocked them. Vlad clenched a fist, but Colton stepped between them.
"Our money no good for you or something?" Colton snapped.
The man, a scrawny little cuss who made up for his slight build with an attitude that would've gotten him knocked on his ass on the ice, just smirked and pointed. "Wait inside. He'll be with you shortly."
Vlad and Colton walked down a short hallway that ended with a slight ramp, where a thick black tarp hung low to the ground. Vlad pushed the curtain aside. When he walked through, bright lights automatically turned on, momentarily blinding him. But after blinking a couple of times, he adjusted to the light, and his mouth began to water.
The inner room was as sterile and pristine as the outer entryway was disgusting and dirty. Stainless-steel refrigerators lined an entire wall, and matching countertops were lined up classroom-style through the center of the room.
Atop each table, a line of platters displayed the source of his weakness. The names were scribbled on tiny chalkboards, an alphabetic smorgasbord of the world's greatest delights. €delost. Burrata. Fontina. Passendale.
So much cheese. Cheese from everywhere in the world, made from original recipes without the fillers and artificial flavors and preservatives that could irritate his stomach. Cheese that he couldn't get anywhere else. Underground, black-market cheese that tortured his dreams as darkly as the memory of what Elena said to him before bursting into tears. I'm sorry. I can't give you what you want.
Only one person could give him what he wanted anymore. A tall, dangerous man who now smirked darkly at him from across the shiny room. "Knew you'd be back."
So did Vlad. Deep down, he always knew he'd be back because this was all he had left. Hockey and this dirty, secret cheese shop.
He should have known better than to tempt Fate.
Of all the mistakes Elena Konnikova had made in her life, and there had been so, so many, this would probably count among the top five.
Because this-meeting a source in the middle of the night without telling anyone where she would be-was exactly how her father had disappeared.
But what choice did she have? She was running out of time. She would graduate from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in less than a month, and after that, she would return to Russia. This might be her last chance. So if a creepy, abandoned building was the only place her source felt safe meeting her, then that is where Elena would meet her.
Go where they're comfortable. It was one of the many lessons Elena had learned from her father. Indirectly, of course. He never taught her anything on purpose, because he never wanted her to follow in his journalism footsteps. But if that's what he'd wanted, he shouldn't have been so good at his job.
There was a time when Elena would have been happy to oblige him. A time when she made some hasty decisions that created a ripple effect until it eventually caused a tsunami of damage to people she cared about most. But time had clarified things. Opened her eyes to something that pain and selfishness had blinded her to.
Her father was a hero.
And all that pain and selfishness that had once driven her to flee both the country and the profession that had stolen her father from her had been replaced by a determination to make things right. Though Elena could never change the mistake she'd made the night he disappeared or any of the mistakes she'd made since then, she owed it to everyone to attempt to try to undo whatever damage she'd inflicted. And she was going to start by finishing the story that had most likely gotten her father killed. It wouldn't bring him back, but it would at least give his disappearance, and everything that happened afterward, some kind of meaning.
Now, finally, after years of frustration and of working in secret, Elena had the one thing her father apparently never did.
An inside source.
The decaying Chicago warehouse where they were supposed to meet was four blocks away from where Elena had the Uber driver stop. Make it hard for people to follow you. Another lesson she'd learned from her father. Maybe he was paranoid, but he had to be as a journalist in Russia, where reporters who refused to trot out state propaganda sometimes mysteriously fell out of windows. Or vanished from train stations in the middle of the night, like him.
Elena kept her head down as she walked along the cracked sidewalk. Half the streetlamps were broken, casting her steps in alternating dark and light shadows. Gravel scattered across shards of glass and pockmarked concrete in the alley behind the warehouse where honest blue-collar workers once earned a decent living making car parts before greedy corporations shuttered the plant and sent the jobs overseas. Nearly every window in the four-story brick structure was now shattered as surely as the promise of a better life. Americans liked to tell themselves that in their land of the free, nothing but hard work was needed to succeed, but places like this proved otherwise. There were oligarchs here, too, just like in Russia. No matter what flag they flew on their front porch, men with money would always care more about their own fortunes than the lives of the people who actually did the work.
Shivering in the late-night chill, Elena pulled her phone from her pocket to check the time. It was five minutes after eleven. Marta was late. Concern inched its way up Elena's spine. Marta's boss kept all of his employees on a tight leash. If Marta didn't show up by midnight for her job as a waitress at the strip club, he wouldn't hesitate to fire her or worse. And Elena had learned enough to know how bad or worse could be. Marta's boss was a monster, just like all the others. But Marta had had enough. She didn't just want out. She wanted to make him pay. Elena was going to make sure he did, and not just for Marta and all the other women he'd victimized, but for her father too.
It had taken years for Elena to figure out what he'd been investigating when he disappeared-a sex-trafficking ring run by a notorious but mysterious Russian mob boss who was known only as Strazh. In English, it translated to guardian, but there was nothing noble or protective about him. Among his many criminal enterprises, he was rumored to be involved in a chain of strip clubs in America that were nothing but fronts for luring desperate young women from Russia and Ukraine with promises of big money and lavish lifestyles. But when they arrived, the women found themselves trapped in a nightmare.
It was clear from the notes her father left behind that he'd gotten close to unmasking Strazh's real identity. And they'd killed him for it.
A skittering noise made Elena whip around. Marta had appeared out of nowhere. She wore a dark green hoodie high over her hair and a threadbare pair of jeans.
"I was worried," Elena breathed, speaking quietly in Russian. "I thought you'd changed your mind or-"
Marta rushed forward. "I don't have much time."
"I know. You're sure they didn't follow you?"
Marta nodded quickly and shoved her hand into her coat pocket. Her every motion was a frantic display of anxiety and fear, but the look in her eyes was resolute and determined. She handed Elena a tiny scrap of paper that looked like the torn edge of a pastry bag, the kind you'd get at a coffee shop with a bagel or muffin. A four-digit number and a name were scribbled hastily in pencil.
Nikolei 1122. Elena looked up. "What is this?"
"I don't know." Marta's eyes darted around as if looking for them. "I overheard him say it on the phone last night. I wouldn't have thought anything of it, but he-" Marta swallowed deeply.
"He what?" Elena prodded.
"He got very mad when he realized I had heard him. He grabbed my arm and shoved me and told me to get back to work."
Bile stung the back of her throat. This was what Elena feared most-that someone else would get hurt. "You're not safe, Marta. You have to let me help you get out of here."
"And go where?"
They'd had this argument a thousand times. "A shelter. The FBI. Anywhere would be safer."
Marta shook her head, much more slowly this time, as if the weight of reality had turned her muscles to lead. "Not until this is over."
"But I'm not going to be here much longer. A few months at the most. As soon as my divorce is final, my visa will be invalid. What happens when I go back to Russia?"