Counting the days by the meals she received, Alex guessed she’d been held approximately three days. As if being held captive wasn’t enough, she’d not seen or heard from Zakharov since that initial meeting and that set her imagination into overdrive. What did he want from her? Was she to be used as bait to capture Erik again or did he have something far more nefarious in store? Restlessly she paced the perimeter of the room; the windows were barred, the door to the hallway was locked, and the heat was provided by a large radiator-like…thing in the room. The dresser and armoire were empty of all but two extra sets of clothing; these were folded and placed in the drawers so no hangers would be needed. The small night stand was simple and didn’t have anything beyond four legs and the top. Even the bathroom was designed so that the plumbing was inside the wall instead of in the room. She refused to simply accept her fate, however, and so after breakfast Alex started in the bathroom and began to search every possible inch of the room in hopes of finding something she could use that had been overlooked. After nearly forty-five minutes, she was rewarded for her diligence with a small scrap of hope in the guise of a pair of fingernail clippers. Small and mostly harmless, it was at least something and it served to buoy her spirits and persuade her to continue in her search.
Fearing her small weapon would be found too easily if she placed it in her pocket or under her pillow, Alex placed the cool metal item inside her bra beneath a breast. Hopefully it would not be found there. She returned to the bedroom and started her search with the armoire in the corner. Finding it empty, she looked to see how much space was underneath, beside, and behind it and decided it would have to be moved. But how to do so without the noise alerting the guards that were surely posted just beyond her door? Alex glared at the piece of furniture as if waiting for it to cooperate and tried to remember the last time her family had used a moving company. She remembered the truck, the hand carts, the furniture dollies…and the anti-scuff pads. That’s it! She had to refrain from cheering as she pondered what to use. Deciding to return to that later, she continued to thoroughly search the remainder of the bedroom. The bed was made of slats with no boxed springs, the mattress was inflatable, and the bed frame was bolted to the floor. It seems Zakharov had planned this well in advance.
The dresser proved just as devoid of anything helpful as the bed. Even after pulling out all the drawers, Alex still found nothing that could be of use. Replacing the drawers, she was returning the spare sets of clothing when she realized that the slightly padded cups of the bras Zakharov provided were very similar to the scuff protectors the movers had used. She only hoped she could get them separated and, once she did, that there was something under or behind the armoire to make going through all this trouble worth it. Hearing a key being inserted into the lock, Alex unhurriedly slid the drawer closed and leaned against the dresser to wait on whoever deigned to visit her.
“Ms. Roberts, how are you today?” Zakharov’s friendly smile and tone turned Alex’s stomach. How could he act so kind and polite when there was a true monster beneath the handsome façade?
“Hmmm, let me think, Zakharov. Oh yes, I’m still a prisoner so I’m doing pretty shitty, actually.” The sarcasm in her voice was so thick one could actually bottle it as it hung in the air between them.
“Don’t be that way, my dear.” He stepped aside so the maid could bring the lunch tray but his eyes, cold and hard, never left hers. “I have a present for you. You’ll be released from this villa in two days.”
“Released? Why do I feel there’s a catch involved in all this?”
“A catch? You wound me, Ms. Roberts. You shall be released from the villa and into the care of Nikolai Vlascenko, a business associate of mine. He will instruct you as to your duties once you are in his…care.” Zakharov’s smile was as cold as his eyes and Alex could feel the fear pooling in the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know what kind of business the two men shared. “I’d advise you to eat, my dear. You will need your strength.” Her captor smirked and bowed mockingly before leaving the room and relocking the door.
Her appetite had fled the moment the Russian had entered the room but she forced herself to eat some of what was on the plate. Frowning at the array of finger foods on the disposable paper place – no utensils were allowed and a plate could be broken and made sharp – Alex realized she had less than two days to escape the villa. Standing to gaze through the bars of the window, she also had to overcome the fact that she was in Russia at the very height of winter and didn’t have an overcoat. If she fled without some plan on obtaining proper outerwear, she’d succumb to hypothermia very quickly. ‘Why couldn’t he have taken me somewhere warm?’ She grumbled to herself as she watched the snow falling.
The maid knocked once, turned the key in the lock, and entered to gather the tray. Alex watched in confusion as she bustled about the room. Normally the room was dusted and the bed sheets changed every other day but all had been done the previous day. She was about to turn to look back out the window when the elderly maid caught her attention and motioned for Alex to join her in the bathroom. Intrigued now, she entered the bathroom and looked around for the maid but she’d disappeared.
“Hello?” Alex kept her voice low, not knowing if the room was monitored in any way. The linen shelves swung open to reveal a passageway and the maid stepped out, closed the door, and showed Alex how to operate the latch. Grasping the wrinkled hands in hers, Alex knew the maid couldn’t understand but had to ask anyway. “Why?”
“Vlascenko…” Shaking her head, the maid reclaimed her hands to open the first three buttons of her uniform. Pulling aside the stiff fabric, she revealed what appeared to be a small brand on the swell of her left breast. Pointing to it, the maid repeated the name. She, too, had been in the unknown man’s care at one time. Buttoning her starched shirt once more, she pointed to Alex then the shelving and placed both hands under her tilted cheek to simulate sleep. Alex nodded in understanding then, frowning, wrapped her arms around her body and gave an exaggerated shiver. The maid patted her arm and simply nodded so she had to hope something was being arranged.
Leaving the bathroom, the elderly woman picked up the tray and headed for the door when Alex placed a light hand on her shoulder. “What’s your name?” At the woman’s confused frown, she gestured to herself and gave her name then pointed to the maid.
“Katya. Katya Ivanova.” Then, with the barest of curtsies, the maid bustled out the door and turned the key in the lock. Alex watched her leave and then moved to the bed to wait until nightfall and her chance to escape.
The twin engine plane touched down on the small, primitive runway and was met by two men in suits by a black car of undeterminable make. Erik shook his head as he exited the plane and wondered why they didn’t just write “CIA” on the side if they were going to be so damn obvious. They were to be his contacts in this godforsaken country and provide him with the equipment he’d need to remove the Zakharov problem once and for all. The Agency had given Erik the mission in order to justify to themselves the use of their contacts to ease his entry into the country. Carrying his one bag, he greeted the two men cordially before they all got in the car to leave the small airport behind.
The ride to the nondescript building that served as the CIA’s safe house was quiet. None of the occupants fully trusted the security and integrity of the vehicle; its very mobility made it difficult to keep swept clean of listening devices of all sorts. The black car pulled up to a warehouse and, after some obviously prearranged conversation, the doors slid open wide enough to let the car through. As soon as it was clear, the doors slid shut and were locked securely behind them. Parking the car over a recessed area that reminded Erik of a mechanic’s garage, the agents motioned for the masked man to follow them into the office. He glanced back just before entering the small room to see several men going over the vehicle with a variety of electronic devices. The driver continued to lead them through a variety of rooms, all but the first being secured behind card readers and keypads, until they arrived at the armory.
“Mr. Devereaux, welcome to Kirov. I’m Agent Wallace, your primary contact. Agent Todd will be working with us behind the scenes.” Erik shook both the agents’ hands and took the proffered chair, waiting for the other man to continue. Wallace opened a folder that was on the small table and glanced over it to refresh his memory of the facts. “I received little by way of information on this mission. I assume it was hastily arranged due to extenuating circumstances?” At Erik’s curt nod, he continued. “Stanislav Zakharov owns a villa just outside Kirov. It’s heavily guarded but there are no electronic monitoring systems that we’re aware of. Three days ago, they received a shipment from a private plane at the airfield transported in a coffin. Zakharov himself was on the plane and his car followed the cargo truck into the compound.” Wallace closed the folder and leaned back in his chair. “Usually, coffin transport means he’s bringing in another girl for his buyers, the primary one being Nikolai Vlascenko. Is the girl your primary target?”
“Yes. Her name is Alexandra Roberts…”
“Roberts? Any relation to the physicist couple that died almost a decade ago?”
“They were her parents.” Erik’s glare at the interruption seemed to sufficiently intimidate Agent Todd. “Zakharov, under the command of European Electronics, was tasked to recruit or eliminate Samuel Roberts, Alexandra’s twin brother. Knowing he was living on borrowed time once he’d refused, Roberts mailed the information he’d discovered to his sister shortly before he was murdered. She was placed in protective custody until Zakharov and his partner, a former Agent named Christine Daaé, could be apprehended or neutralized.”
“Who was crazy enough to put himself in Zakharov’s cross hairs to protect this girl?” Wallace chuckled until he caught the flash of danger in Erik’s strange golden eyes.
“She was placed in my custody. Daaé had been neutralized and Zakharov, who’d been shot by one of his own people, was placed in a federal prison hospital but escaped sometime around New Year’s Day. He wasn’t free long before he came after us both.”
“I see,” Wallace looked down at the file then back at Erik with a slight frown. “The file states that you’re no longer with the Agency. Why were you involved at all, Mr. Devereaux?”
“Several reasons,” Erik sighed and ran his hand along the edge of the flesh toned mask. He’d worn it for too long and the adhesive was beginning to irritate his skin. “Alexandra was placed in my custody as I knew how Zakharov’s partner operated. I trained her for the Agency and worked with her before she betrayed her oath and turned traitor. As for Zakharov…years ago, there were hopes that the slave trade could be dealt a critical blow by removing his father. My mission at the time had been to neutralize him at the earliest opportunity.”
“Very well, what do you need from us?”
“Transportation, equipment, and information. I need a map of the villa and the compound, the exits and how many guards normally watch them, their schedules for deliveries and shift changes. As for equipment, I was unable to bring my weapons so will need at least two hand guns (Beretta 9mm is preferable), a sniper rifle, some throwing knives, night-vision goggles, and arctic clothing for starters. And finally, a small car or motorcycle in order to get Alexandra away from there to safety.”
“When did you want to get started?”
As the sun began to set, Erik prepared to retrieve his Alexandra and permanently remove Zakharov as a threat. Dressed in the body hugging black neoprene suit, complete with gloves and black mask, he joined Agents Wallace and Todd in the Armory to gather the gear he’d need for his mission. Wallace looked up and recognition flickered in his eyes even as the color rushed from his face.
“Le Fantôme.” The words came out as little more than a whisper.
“Oui, messieurs,” gracefully executing a mocking bow, Erik smirked at the senior agent’s awe and fear. “Did you acquire all I requested?”
Two cases were placed on the table and opened for his approval. One contained the winter gear he’d need to stave off hypothermia while the other contained his weapons and ammunition. Silently, Erik checked each weapon before loading it and placing it in the appropriate holster. More knives than Wallace thought it possible to conceal disappeared into hidden sheaths leaving only the sniper rifle in the case and a thin loop of rope at the masked man’s waist.
“Agent Todd will remain here to coordinate a secondary entry should it become necessary. I’ll accompany you to the villa but will remain with the car to watch the gate and alert you to any traffic. Are you sure you don’t want someone to enter the compound with you?”
“I work best alone, Agent Wallace.”
“Very well. The last scheduled delivery is at 2200 hours and guards change shifts at 0100. A midnight entry should give you time to retrieve the female and neutralize the target before fresh guards are in place.” With a nod, Erik accompanied the CIA agent to a small, dark blue vehicle of unknown make. Wallace assured him it was a common car in the area and should draw little to no attention to them. Satisfied, he leaned back in the seat for a few moments’ rest before embarking on his most important mission ever.