ALEX LOOKED AROUND reflexively, checking for tails or suspicious individuals, as he reached the playground a few blocks from the house. No one who didn’t belong in the area was obvious. If they were out there, they were good enough at their work to stay hidden. Which meant he didn’t have to kill anyone today. Relief trickled into his awareness. He wondered idly if he did something like that in front of Dawn, would she remember it? Would it traumatize her or was she too young to register such violence? He supposed babies and murder didn’t mix. He pushed the stroller deeper into the park.
The sheer normalcy of this place was a shock to his system. After the past year, it was hard to believe that this other world existed...filled with people who were so clueless. So naive. So completely unaware of the dangerous, parallel world that existed alongside this boring, safe, average existence of theirs. Spies and criminals, watchers and killers, were out here. Wolves among the lambs. And he was one of the biggest and baddest wolves now.
Dawn squealed, jerking his attention back to her. She wasn’t old enough to play on the climbing fort or swing in the swings, but she smiled up at the sunshine and waved her arms excitedly whenever other children laughed or shouted nearby. She would undoubtedly spend many happy childhood hours here.
He silently vowed to make sure her life was nothing like his. He’d spent his youth in a virtual boot camp being turned into a future master spy by Peter Koronov. He only hoped that Dawn would never learn to hate him the way he hated his father when he bothered to feel anything at all for the man.
Although after the past year, he was starting to wonder if Peter had been holding back more than Alex realized as a kid. Was it possible that his father wasn’t quite the villain he’d always painted him to be in his own mind?
He reached into the stroller and adjusted Dawn’s hoodie sweatshirt up a little higher around her ears. She smiled up at him and his heart melted at the trust in her dark eyes. He smiled back at her.
His phone rang and he fished it out of his pocket. The unidentified caller’s number was long and began with a foreign exit code and the country code number for the United States. His jaw clenched. Only one person could be calling him from overseas. He knew better than to ignore the call.
“Hello, Peter,” he said grimly.
“Son. How are you doing after your training?”
“Fine. Why are you calling me?”
“To thank you at long last.”
“For what?” Alex asked with long-suffering patience. He’d learned long ago that the best way to get rid of Peter was to play along and not fight him. Peter made people pay when they pushed back against him.
“I was able to warn the foreign minister and president of our country to expect that call from the American president last spring.”
Our country? Russia was not his country. But Peter steadfastly refused to acknowledge that. The man was convinced that, one day, the prodigal son would come home to Mother Russia. Never, Alex silently swore to himself.
Alex turned the rest of his father’s comment over in his mind. His father must have won a lot of political points for being first to warn the Russian leadership that the Americans had discovered the Russian shenanigans in Zaghastan last year. Competition was fierce between Russia’s FSB, military intelligence and a few other assorted secret agencies to see who brought in the best information first.
“They asked me to pass on their thanks to you, my son.”
Peter had given him credit for delivering that intel? What the hell? Was his father pretending to his bosses that Alex was an active FSB asset?
Deep unease rippled down his spine, an unpleasant reminder of how dangerous a man his father was. What game was Peter playing at now?
His father was speaking again. “I hear you have accepted long-term employment with Doctors Unlimited.”
Alex looked around the park in panic. How in the world did his father know that? He’d only officially been assigned to the aid organization a few days ago, and he’d been in various CIA training facilities and out of sight before that.
Not that it should surprise him that there were moles inside the CIA. But still. It was alarming to receive incontrovertible proof of it. Was Doctors Unlimited itself penetrated? He’d thought that was what Peter had wanted him to do. Was getting inside D.U. a test, then? Any intel Alex passed on to his father would be vetted against intel from the other mole in the organization?
It was a neat way to trap him. Alex would have no choice but to pass on real information. Which would constitute treason. Which would make him dead meat if the U.S. government found out. Which meant Alex would have no choice but to throw in his hat with the FSB and accept his father’s protection and patronage.
Peter must be desperate if he was showing his cards this openly.
In the millisecond it took all of this to pass through his mind, the sun passed behind a cloud, casting the park in an abruptly dim and shadowed light. “Your intel is correct, Father. I did take a job with Doctors Unlimited.”
“You will get me that list of employee names and where the organization’s members are posted abroad, yes?”
He thought fast. Was it worth endangering the lives of dozens of doctors, nurses and translators to throw his old man off the scent? He answered smoothly, “Of course. Because of all my training, I haven’t had an opportunity to get the list. But D.U. is open for business in its repaired offices now. I should be able to get you the list quite easily.”
Who in D.U. was the mole? To whom did he dare talk about his dilemma? If he gave a false list of staffers and their postings to hot spots around the world—ostensibly to render medical aid and unofficially to observe and gather intelligence—his father would know him for the traitor to Mother Russia that he was. Not that the United States of America trusted him any farther than Uncle Sam could throw him.
But if he gave away the real list, his colleagues’ lives could be in terrible danger.
“I shall await the list with great eagerness, Alexei.”
He’d bet. The damned list potentially represented his first step down the slippery slope to treason. And the bastard couldn’t wait to push him the rest of the way down that hill.
He disconnected the phone call, careful not to show any physical or facial reaction to the call. Knowing his old man, Peter was watching him on a satellite this very minute for a reaction. Too tense to sit still for long, though, he stood and pushed the pram a lap around the paved path outlining the park. He nodded and smiled at a few mothers with strollers and an elderly man with a pair of hairy little dogs that looked like mops.
Leisurely, he headed back toward the condo.
As if they’d been monitoring his phone calls, a new call vibrated his phone on cue, this time his boss, André Fortinay. The man had put his life on the line for him, Katie and Dawn last year, and had supposedly been a big advocate of bringing Alex all the way into the CIA fold, but did he dare trust the man?
He took the call. “Hello, André. How are you today?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Good. What can I do for you, sir?”
“Any chance you could come into the office in the next day or two? I’d like to talk over possible postings for you. We have too few doctors and too many crises around the globe where people are desperately in need of medical care.”
Not to mention he was a trauma surgeon who could handle the sorts of terrible combat wounds that few physicians were trained to treat. The same sorts of wounds he’d spent the past year learning how to inflict.
“What’s a good time for you, André?”
“Now, if you’re not busy.”
“I’ve got the baby with me.”
“Bring her along.”
“I can be there in, say, a half hour?”
Alex flagged down a cab and pulled up in front of the D.U. office—a restored mansion on embassy row—in more like twenty minutes. However, it took him nearly ten minutes to get past a phalanx of cooing secretaries and nurses with Dawn to André’s door. He left the baby and a bottle with the man’s secretary. She was in transports of ecstasy at getting to feed Dawn. He stepped inside Fortinay’s office and threw a harried look at his boss.
“Now you know why your old man used you as a cover,” André observed dryly. “Nobody can resist a cute baby.”
Alex scowled and dropped into the chair in front of his boss’s desk.
“Adapting to parenthood all right?” the man asked.
“Dawn’s great. Family life is...relaxing.” When he wasn’t quietly flipped out over whether or not any of it was real, that was.
“So. Let’s talk about what you’ll do and where you’ll go next.”