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Hard to Get
by Jeffery Deaver
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt

 

“So, Lessing. . . . Doctor Lessing, right?”

“Well, technically, I guess. Ph.D. in poli sci. I sometimes say ‘Doctor’ when I try to book a table at Le Grand Toque but it never works.”

The lean, balding man Lessing was sitting across from just stared blankly. He reminded himself: No. No jokes. Not with him.

“So. There’s a situation. You’ve been attached to CEE for two years now?”

His question really wasn’t. Spies—especially someone at the level of the director—know all of the answers. But it was a way to ease into a discussion of the “situation,” Lessing assumed.

“Yessir. And before the Central and Eastern Europe desk—”

“You were on Russia.”

“Yes.”

“And before that you were a professor.”

  1. Lessing.

The director looked down at an open folder and read. The papers were marked with the words “Top Secret.” You’d think somebody would have come up with an esoteric classification system like X-1 or ClassCon A. But why get fancy? Those two words made the case just fine.

Albert Lessing looked out the window and could see—overlaid on the view of autumn trees in Northern Virginia—his own reflection. The thirty-eight-year-old, pale of complexion, was a bit under six feet, a bit under his ideal weight, his mother was quick to point out. He’d been told he was handsome in a minor-league baseball shortstop sort of way. Whatever that meant.

The view was impressive. Lessing’s office, shared by four other analysts, was several floors below this one, and in a different wing. You opened the door via an old-fashioned combination dial, like a safe. Again, nothing esoteric.

The director had absorbed what he needed to and looked up. “Now, Tony Kauffman’s been injured. You know him?”

“No.” The Central Intelligence Agency employed over 20,000 people, which was larger than the town in Illinois where Albert Lessing grew up. “Heard the name. CS?”

“Right.”

Clandestine Services. Undercover spies. Lessing was an intelligence analyst—it was his division that took the intel that people like Kauffman and the local assets whom he ran would send to headquarters here for dissection.

“He’ll live, but he’ll be out of commission for a while. Ran off the road on the Autobahn near Munich.”

“Was it . . .?”

“No, a real accident. Deer.”

So, the Russian SVR—the foreign-intelligence successor to the KGB—or another spy agency or a stateless terrorist cell hadn’t tried to kill him.

The director continued, “For the past eight months Kauffman’s been putting together an op to take down the Cincinnati Network. Or at least put a dent in it. You familiar?”

“Not too much,” Lessing says. “Just that the U.S. is the target. Some bigwig in Moscow put it together a year ago.”

“Rostikov,” the director muttered, with a twitch of lip. The expression suggested he and this Rostikov were longtime adversaries . . . and that the Russian was winning the game.

The director explained that the Cincinnati Network was an agent-in-place operation. The Russians scoured Web sites and blogs for disaffected U.S. citizens and foreign nationals and recruited them. The people they targeted weren’t traditional assets—agents who’d send the Russians classified information, à la Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen. Named after the city because the original controller was based in Ohio, before he slipped out of the country, the operation represented a subtler approach to the post–Cold War Cold War. The traitors’ assignments were to do whatever they could to destabilize the country, through legal or quasi-legal means. “Basically, lobbying, writing papers or articles for social media and traditional press to undermine democratic values and influence our elections.”

Agents with the Cincinnati Network were believed responsible for getting Ku Klux Klan members into several state senates, he told Lessing, thumping the file folder angrily. They inflamed tempers at Black Lives Matter rallies. They encouraged anti-immigrant riots and supported university officials who turned blind eyes toward student rape and sexual assault.

“Now, Tony Kauffman was injured on his way to southwestern Poland. He’d found out from a deep source that one of Rostikov’s men and his brother will be in town there in two days. A hunting trip. Deer season.” The director gave a laugh. “Ironic, no? Deer . . . He’d found out where the men’ll be staying. Kauffman was going to stay in a hotel nearby, and hang out in their bar, and somehow make contact.”

“He’d be a dangle.”

“Exactly. His cover was just the sort of guy they’d want for the Cincinnati Network.”

Lessing nodded, impressed. “So Rostikov would fly in from Russia and bang, rendition.”

“No. For one thing, Rostikov never gets into the field. Too risky. But it wouldn’t matter anyway; we can’t kidnap anybody on Polish soil. Warsaw’s very clear on that. Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, we would work a snatch. But not in Poland. No, we would’ve been happy if Rostikov’s man just recruited Kauffman. We’d run him as a double. We figure we could keep the op open for a year before they caught on. We could penetrate enough of the network to bring down thirty, forty percent of it.”

The director looked Lessing over carefully. “Now, you’ve probably guessed what you’re doing here?”

Lessing had not—until that question. The implication stunned him. “You want me to take over.”

His heart began to pound.

“Kaufmann’s cover is he’s a professor at Potomac University and moonlights for a think tank in D.C. He’s already published some anti-American op-ed pieces in the papers and on some fringe blogs. You’ve been a professor and written plenty of academic pieces. And I’ve read your reports here. You can put sentences together. And you’re fluent in Polish and Russian.”

After a pause, Lessing said in a somber voice, “I’d be NOC.”

“That you would. Can’t get around it.”

This was the most dangerous form of clandestine work. Official Cover meant you were attached to a government organization, most likely the State Department. But instead of doing what your job title suggested, like Agricultural Attaché, you were really a spy. With OC operations, you worked largely within the embassy and had the security forces watching over you most of the time. In a Non-Official Cover op, you were on your own. No armed marines in obvious view, discouraging anyone taking a pot shot at you if your cover was blown.

And NOCs had no diplomatic immunity.

Which meant once arrested, you could be “tried” at midnight and shot at dawn, with or without a blindfold.

“So?”

Lessing thought about his sedate life here. His cubicle. His tiny house. His two goldfish, one named after a philosopher, the other after a writer.

But then he thought of two other names: James Bond. Jason Bourne.

“I’m in.”

The director stood and shook Lessing’s hand. “Welcome to Clandestine Services.

 

Two days later, Albert Lessing was landing at Prague airport.

Well, technically, according to his passport, credit cards, and other documents, he wasn’t Al Lessing at all, but Peter Crenshaw.

Crenshaw was a talented professor at Potomac University in Washington, and a skilled writer of position papers and research pieces for a prestigious (though completely fictional) think tank. But he was having some hard times. He was twice divorced, and being taken to the cleaners by not one but both ex-wives. He was an alcoholic.

In other words, a perfect bait for Rostikov’s agent.

The plane landed and Lessing disembarked. He approached Czech passport control, uneasy. His first time fooling an official about his identity. He’d arduously memorized his fake name and details of his
life, prepared for questions. But
the young officer simply stamped the document and nodded him into
the country.

After he’d gathered his suitcase and exited through the green nothing-to-declare door at Customs, he was met by a local officer. Stan Smiles was former Delta Force, who’d moved on to Military Intelligence and then joined the CIA. He was OC, attached to the embassy in the Czech Republic as an economic-development liaison, but in fact he ran clandestine agents and local assets throughout Eastern Europe. Though they’d never met, Lessing felt he knew the man well, since Smiles had been the source of terabytes of solid intel that Lessing had spent many long hours analyzing.

Smiles was about what you’d expect: a lean, grizzled man with a crew cut. He was in his mid forties. Lessing noted that he never, well, smiled, maybe because that expression had been retired, due to his name. He was, however, endlessly enthusiastic. Lessing’s impression was that whatever he did, running spies or attending soccer games or eating borscht, he loved doing it.

“Here we go.” Smiles nodded at a large sedan, a make of car that Lessing wasn’t familiar with. Inside was a sullen, dark-complexioned man. Smiles tossed Lessing’s bag into the trunk and they got in, then sped away from the airport.

“This is Vlad.”

“Hi. How you doing?”

Vlad said nothing. He just drove.

Smiles asked, “What’d you think of the boss?”

“The director?” Lessing wondered if this was a test. He cast a glance at Vlad, who spotted his eye in the mirror. In a light Slavic accent, he muttered, “I got higher clearance than you two put together.”

Smiles said, “He doesn’t, but it’s high enough.”

Lessing said, “To be honest. I was surprised he called me. I’m pretty junior.”

“Don’t be offended, but you’d probably be his last choice. There’s an art to clandestine work. People train for years and only then do they get a plum assignment like this. But the Cincinnati Network is a thorn in his side. When Kauffman broadsided Bambi, the director just about had a stroke.”

“Good, I didn’t feel enough pressure, Stan.”

“Ah, nonsense. Sometimes it’s better to have a fresh mind. Before you get all jaded and start overthinking everything. Now we’ll be at the border in about three hours, and Kostka is about five miles past that.”

Lessing said, “Any border-crossing issue?”

Poland and the Czech Republic were both European Union. But with immigration problems plaguing Europe and the Mediterranean states, some countries were reinstating border controls.

“Not here. Not yet.” Smiles continued, “Now, we’ve confirmed that Boris Bukharin, Rostikov’s number one, got to Kostka this morning. His brother knows what Boris does but isn’t a player. He runs an import business.”

“In Poland to hunt.”

“That’s right. They’re staying at the Chopin Lodge downtown, though it isn’t much of a downtown. The whole town’s about five thousand people.” He looked out the window and said softly, “Peter.”

Lessing fired back with, “Yes?”

“What’s your second wife’s name again?”

“Andi. Short for Andrea. She lives at one oh seven South Maple Drive in Cary, North Carolina. I know because I send checks there in the amount of three thousand, forty one fifty a month.”

Smiles nodded. “Good.” Then he dug into his briefcase and displayed pictures of Boris Bukharin and his brother. Lessing studied them.

Then, turning further in the front seat, he looked over Lessing carefully. “Now, I know you’re sharp and, yeah, you’ve got a good command of cover. Don’t you think, Vlad?”

“Oh, he is star.”

“But there’s one thing you can’t memorize. What I said earlier: the art of spying.”

“Art.”

“Yes. And in this op, the most important tactic is playing hard to get.”

“Go on.”

“You’ve pretty much got what they’re looking for, for the Cincinnati Network. But they’re going to be—”

“Suspicious because it’s too much like what they want.”

“Exactly. We’ve really kept a lid on the fact that we know Bukharin’ll be in Kostka. Rostikov and Moscow won’t be expecting us to make a move here. But these people’re naturally suspicious—it’s kept them alive and successful for years. These are the heirs to the KGB, the NKVD, the GRU. The best spy soldiers in
the world. They’ll be intrigued with you, they’ll be tempted. But at the first sign that you’re interested, their shields go up, Scotty.”

“Play hard to get. Okay.”

“Once he gets the hang of it, it won’t be that hard, will it, Vlad?”

“Is piece of cake, Mr. Star.”

“You’ve got our numbers memorized.”

Lessing spouted them back.

“Good. Oh, one more thing: at Langley, the suicide pill? Which one did they give you? In your tooth?”

“What?”

A moment passed. Vlad said, “Is messing with you.”

Smiles laughed, sat back, and began to text.

Lessing wondered if the two men could hear his heart beating.

After a winding, three-hour drive through farmland, hills, and forest they arrived at Kostka, a medium-sized town filled with blocky, dirty-white concrete buildings from the Soviet era and, fewer, some charming Bavarian-style wooden and stucco structures.

“We’ll drop you off here. Before the CCTVs can pick us up. If anybody asks, you took a car service from Prague. It’s longer than flying into Krakow but a popular trip. Prague is the new Paris and a lot of travelers to western Poland stop there first for the sights and restaurants.”

Smiles pointed. “There’s your hotel.” It was an American chain. “Why’re you staying there?”

“I don’t speak Polish and I was afraid I couldn’t be understood at a local place.”

“Good.”

“Now, across the street is the Chopin, where Bukharin and his brother will be. See it? Just hang out in the restaurant.”

Lessing regarded the sign. Pstrąg Pływanie.

It meant Swimming Trout in Polish.

As opposed to what? The Walking Trout? The Jogging Trout?

“Good luck.”

He climbed out and took his suitcase from the trunk. Then started up the sidewalk.

Smiles called, “Hey, Albert?”

Lessing just kept walking.

Vlad shouted, “Good job, Mr. Star.”

The car sped away.

The panic didn’t hit until he glanced back and saw the sedan vanish down the road. He thought: What the hell am I doing?

 

Lessing’s confidence didn’t return when he walked into the neat but well-worn lobby of the hotel. The desk clerk, in a suit, was on the phone and continued to speak to the person on the other end as he looked Lessing over suspiciously. It was not a glance but an examination, as if Lessing were a job applicant. The gaunt, sandy-haired man finally hung up. “Tak?”

“I . . . I’m sorry. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, I suppose I can.”

“Do you have a room for two days?”

“Let me look.”

Lessing knew there was a room, since Smiles had called. The hotel was nearly empty. “Only one left. It is the most expensive, but that is all we have.”

“Fine. I’ll take it.”

“Passport.” The man held his hand out, took the booklet, read it carefully, and flipped the pages. Then read it again. Lessing had traveled internationally and had never seen a hotel clerk pay such attention. He made a copy and dropped the booklet on the counter. He made a show of searching for the registration sheet.

A round-headed employee, about twenty or so, walked into the lobby from the back room. He was in dark slacks and white shirt and narrow, floral tie.

The manager turned to him and snapped, in Polish, “What are you wearing? That tie! You know what I tell you? Do you want to be fired? Do you want to end up on the street, meeting men like your sister?”

Lessing forced himself to offer no reaction to the cruel words, since Peter Crenshaw didn’t speak the language.

The boy said, “It is all that I have clean.”

“I will accept no excuses. Go buy a more respectable tie. A solid color.”

“I . . . I cannot afford one.”

A scowl. “Wear that for today, but if you show up in it again, or one like it, you will lose your job.”

“Yessir. I’m sorry.” The blushing boy continued on his mission, vanishing into the restaurant.

The manager turned back to Lessing. “Such an attitude today’s youth have! The things he just said to me!”

“Is that right?”

“Yes, it is right.” He offered the registration sheet to Lessing and pointed out where to sign.

Lessing filled out the form, signed it, and handed it back, prepaying the two nights with cash in Polish zlotys.

The man took the sheet and reviewed it carefully. Lessing had an absurd thought: He was back in school and about to get a C-minus grade for his penmanship.

Handing over keys, the manager said, “The dining room is open from eighteen hundred hours to twenty-three hundred.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be eating someplace else.”

A sigh of disappointment—as a potential source of revenue vanished. He shrugged, pointed out the elevator, and, without another word, turned away and began to type at the computer behind the desk.

As he pressed the Up button, Lessing glanced back at the front desk and he noted that the manager was jotting something on his registration card.

What did it say? Lessing wondered. He had an idea: “At breakfast seat this guest by the kitchen and make sure his coffee is tepid.” Or maybe: “Make up his room at five a.m.”

 

By the time he got to the Swimming Trout restaurant and lounge at seven that evening, Lessing had cast aside his concerns. The room at his hotel was not bad and it featured a mini bar stocked with a half-dozen tiny bottles of liquor and snacks. He’d cracked open some bison-grass vodka, mixed it with orange soda, and drank it down as he ate a packet of nuts, then slept off some of the jet lag.

A shower, a shave, fresh clothing . . . and he was ready to spy.

The bar of the restaurant was large and woody and dark. There were photos of wildlife on the walls and, though smoking was prohibited, the place smelled of tobacco, and the glass in the picture frames was tinted yellow.

As soon as he entered, Lessing had spotted Bukharin and his brother, along with two other men—apparently hunters (they wouldn’t be SVR; Smiles would have reported if there were other agents in the area). They were at a round table in the center of the place, drinking vodka and beer.

Most of the people in the bar were sturdy men, and a few women, still tinted with the remnants of summer tans. Not everyone had bathed recently. Slim, pale Albert Lessing stood out, and he momentarily drew the attention of the husky denizens here. But the conversations—about the day’s hunt, or past years’, or a fishing trip—resumed immediately.

He said to the huge, balding bartender, “Uhm. Please, a wódka i piso.”

The man roared. “Piso! You want piso!” In thickly accented English.

Several others, include Bukharin, turned.

The man said in Polish to the others, “He ordered piso! That’s English for pee.”

The others laughed.

Lessing was blushing.

In English again, the bartender said, “Ah, I make no offense. You asked for vodka and pee.”

As Lessing had intended, the man had mistaken piso for piss. He wanted to draw attention to himself.

“I’m sorry, I mean—wódka i pivo.”

“Yes, yes! And I will give you that. And it will be on me, because you have been a good man of humor.”

The glasses banged hard onto the scarred oak bar. Lessing lifted the shot glass to his benefactor and tossed down the burning vodka. Then sipped the beer.

His phone rang—it was the alarm, not a call. He looked at the screen, grimaced, and shut the tone off, then pretended to have a conversation. “Yes, I got your e-mail. Why should I answer?” He gestured for another vodka then tossed it down and said, “How could you ask for that? . . . You think I’m made out of money? . . . Yes, because you spent it on Jake! Right? . . . No, he’s not just a friend. You’re sleeping with him. . . . It’s not a terrible thing to say if it’s true. . . .”

He tried not to overact. Closing his eyes briefly. “Lawyer’s bill? Why should I pay your goddamn lawyer’s bill? We’re divorced . . . I don’t owe you anything except alimony. And even that you don’t deserve. . . . Another wódka! . . . I’m in Poland on business, that’s where I am. . . . Oh, because I work for a living.” He tossed back one more drink. Poor Peter Crenshaw was, of course, an alcoholic. “And if you think . . . hello? Goddamnit!” He disconnected and drew back the phone to fling it into the wall.

Bukharin and the men at the table leaned away from the trajectory. Then Lessing controlled himself and put it away. Another hit of beer and he sat back at the bar, shoulders slumped.

A moment later, he felt a shadow over him and turned to see Bukharin, leaning against the bar. “You are American, Mr. Piso.”

“Yeah, yeah, very funny.”

“Ha, I joke. Who has not made mistaken words sometimes, in a different language? Once, in London, by mistake I told a girl she had nice breasts.”

“What did you want to say?”

“Tits.”

Lessing had to laugh.

“I am Boris.”

“Peter.”

“Your ex-wife, did I hear?”

“Yep. You have one?”

“I have a present wife but I have ex-girlfriends. I am knowing how things go.”

“And she cheated on me. Then sued me for divorce.”

Bukharin frowned. “Your . . .” He gestured low on Lessing’s torso. “It works okay?”

“What? Oh, that works fine. No, her complaint was that I wasn’t rich enough for her. She married a professor. What’d she think, I was a real-estate magnate?”

He said to the bartender, in Polish, “Another bottle.” Then to Lessing: “You are here for the hunt?”

“Hunt? No, no. I’m writing a paper on economics and development. American companies want to partner with Polish ones. We need to—we’ve screwed up our economy so badly.”

Bukharin cracked open the fifth of vodka. He refilled Lessing’s glass.

He had to play drunk. He didn’t have to be drunk. Still, here he was making a connection with his target. He couldn’t risk the man growing suspicious. He tossed down the fiery drink. Bukharin took a swig directly from the bottle.

“So, you’re all hunters?”

“Yes, yes. And it was a good day. Five stags between us. You hunt in America?”

“No. I’ve always wanted to.”

Maybe they’d invite him out tomorrow. Hell, the only time he’d fired a gun was at CIA training. The only animal he’d ever killed was a squirrel and the weapon had been a ’98 Honda Accord.

Bukharin was saying something. Lessing wasn’t sure what it was. The entire room was swimming.

Ha, the Swimming Trout.

No, the Drunk Trout.

Lessing held his glass up. Bukharin filled it but said, “Ah, be careful with Polish vodka, Peter. It can be very dangerous if you aren’t used to it.”

“I survived five years with that bitch.” He tapped the phone in his pocket. “I’m not afraid of a little vodka.”

And he threw up on Bukharin’s shoes.

 

The next day Lessing awoke late in the morning with a hangover that seemed to be a creature in itself. A Frankenstein’s monster. A Dracula. An orc.

He lay in bed until one o’clock and finally made a call to Smiles. They went through the encryption procedures and then had their conversation. Lessing reported he’d made contact with Rostikov’s man—Boris Bukharin—and had given away a bit about himself, but not too much.

“Definitely played hard to get.”

Without explaining how.

The incident last night had not, in fact, seemed to jeopardize the mission. Bukharin had taken things well; he had the attitude of a man who was no stranger to heavy drinking. He’d cleaned himself up and seemed genuinely pleased by Lessing’s embarrassed offer to buy him dinner tomorrow to make up for the faux pas. He would have to see, though; tomorrow they were venturing farther out into the countryside and might not be back until the day after; they were taking camping equipment with them, just in case.

Lessing told Smiles only the latter part of their conversation and added that Lessing would be in the Swimming Trout bar from seven till closing tonight just in case the men returned.

Lessing spent the afternoon wandering the chill streets of Kostka, to get some exercise, then returned, showered, and changed clothes. As he was leaving the hotel he noted again the cynical gaze of the manager and wondered once more what he had written on the registration sheet. Across the lobby was the young skinny boy who’d been berated by the man yesterday for his flowery tie. He was carrying some trash bags out a side door.

Lessing stepped outside and joined him. “Hello.”

“Hello.”

“You speak English.”

“Yes, I watch the shows. We study in school, but we also watch your TV. And Sky from England. We learn more of how people really talk, doing that.”

Lessing looked around. “Your boss doesn’t like me.”

“And he doesn’t like me. And I am his nephew.”

“Really?”

“Yes. He doesn’t like many people, in the family or out of the family. He is strange. Rec . . . rec . . .”

“Recluse. He keeps to himself?”

“Yes, yes.”

“And suspicious?”

“Of everything and everyone.”

Lessing’s voice lowered. “Can I ask a favor?”

“What?”

“I saw him write something on my registration card. I’m thinking he changed the room rate to a higher fee.”

“Oh, Uncle Stav would do that. Yes, I would think he might.”

Lessing dug into his pocket and handed him a hundred dollars’ worth of zlotys.

“Oh, my. Oh. Well, I will look.”

“Could you do me a favor? Could you take a picture of the sheet with your phone and send it to me? Only if it’s safe to do that, though. So you won’t get caught.”

“Yes, yes. And if he is going to cheat you, then we can send it to the police, get him put in jail. The family would like that.”

Lessing smiled. He typed the young man’s number into his phone and called so they would have each other’s.

Lessing said goodnight and headed off to the restaurant, reminding himself that there would be no vodka tonight.

No piso either.

 

A new bartender was on duty at the Drunken Trout, as Lessing had dubbed the place.

She was an attractive blond woman with narrow cheekbones and arching brows.

Tak?”

“Coca-Cola.”

“With rum or with whiskey?”

“With ice.”

Present were a few hunters, along with two middle-aged couples, both Polish, he could tell from their conversation, and—at the bar—an elderly drunk man and a woman in her thirties, in a business suit, sipping wine, lost on her computer.

Lessing began reading a day-old edition of the International New York Times.

By nine p.m., Bukharin and his brother had not shown. Lessing assumed they were spending the night in the countryside, after all, and he decided to have dinner here. It was early by his biological clock, but he was hungry. Thinking wryly: Hadn’t been much in the mood for supper last night. Staying firmly in cover, he struggled to ask the bartender if he could have dinner at a table here, in the bar, rather than in the restaurant proper. She frowned, cocking her head.

The woman patron at the end of the bar looked up. “You are wanting a table?” she asked in accented English.

“I do. . . . But that’s not what I asked for, I’m assuming.”

“No, you asked for a piece of steel.”

She turned to the bartender and spoke in Polish.

The bartender said, “Ah, yes. You can be sitting anywhere you are liking. Here there will be a menu.” She pushed one toward him.

“Steel?” he asked the customer.

She replied, “Stal is steel; stół is table.”

“So a steel table is a stal stół.”

She laughed. “It would be stół ze stali. But yes, that is much what you said.”

Lessing thanked her. She smiled and turned back to her computer. Then grimaced. Lessing could just see the screen. He noted that a box read, in Polish: Cannot find server.

In Polish she asked the bartender if the Internet had gone out. The answer was: “I’m surprised you could get a signal at all this time of night. When everyone is home, it overloads the servers. People are on Facebook or YouTube or looking at dirty movies.” The women laughed and the customer glanced Lessing’s way. He noticed and glanced back, but kept a neutral expression on his face.

She said nothing about the off-color comment but gestured to the Dell laptop and said to him, “The Internet is out.”

Lessing tapped the newspaper. “You know, this’s a revolutionary new idea. You don’t need a server. You don’t even need batteries.”

“Ah.” She laughed and gave another smile, revealing a row of perfect white teeth. “You should make a patent for it. Become a billionaire. Move to Silicone Valley.”

Lessing struggled not to laugh at the word choice. He held up the menu. “Can I ask you to help translate? I’ll pay for it with stock options in my battery-free computer company.”

She gestured to the stool next to hers. He walked to it and sat. He revised upward his assessment of her age, seeing wrinkles around the blue eyes and her full lips. She was not model beautiful but had an earthy sensuality about her—the near-Asian Slavic face and voluptuous figure.

Silicone Valley . . .

“I am Alexandra.”

“Peter.”

She was a sales representative for a housewares company, based in Warsaw. This part of the country was her territory. Lessing explained what he did. Alexandra wasn’t too familiar with position papers and think tanks, but she had enjoyed her years at University, in Gdańsk, and asked him about that side of his career and how he liked teaching.

He told her about life on campus and described Potomac University, which he’d been to a number of times and could describe from memory.

“It must be beautiful this time of year.

“Yes, it is. Autumn term is my favorite.”

Her daughter would be starting school in Warsaw next year, she told him. And showed a picture of a pretty blonde, dressed in a dark blue school uniform.

At the reference to the girl, Lessing glanced at her left hand, and she noticed. “My husband is no longer my husband.”

“We’re in the same boat.”

“Boat?”

Forgetting idioms didn’t always translate.

“I’m divorced too.”

“Oh, boat. Like Titanic.”

She kept a straight face for a moment and then they both laughed.

Lessing was in no mood to drink but recalled that he was an alcoholic. He needed to stay in character. But no vodka. He ordered white wine. He gestured for Alexandra’s glass to be refilled.

“Ah, with this wine, you have paid for my menu translation services now. It is a better arrangement, as I suspect your company will not do well.”

They clinked glasses and she pulled the menu closer and translated the dishes for him.

Everything seemed heavy and was served in sauce with starchy sides.

He shrugged. “Thanks, but fact is, I’m not that hungry.”

“You don’t want anything?” Alexandra asked.

“Well, I do.” And on impulse he leaned forward, hesitating just a moment to gauge whether or not he had license. Her eyes lowered and she leaned into him.

Lessing kissed her. She kissed back.

He nodded toward the door. She nodded back. He paid for the drinks and they donned their coats. They stepped outside into the brisk autumn evening air. She slipped her arm through his and they strode toward the hotel.

And why not?

He was James Bond, he was Jason Bourne.

He was a spy.

 

The sun rose through a notch in the hills to the east of Kostka and shot into Lessing’s bedroom, striking him and Alexandra directly on their faces. They both stirred.

He stumbled from the bed, snagged his Jockeys and pulled them on, a T-shirt too, and then returned to bed, sliding under the blankets so that he could lie against her warm body. She eased closer yet.

Lessing replayed the passionate evening in detail, then once again. Then his thoughts returned to his assignment and he was wondering if he’d hear from Bukharin today. Would he have to go back to the Trout tonight? He was aware of Alexandra stirring, stretching, reaching to the bedside table to check her phone, and then settling back against him.

“Peter?” she whispered.

“Yes. You thinking about breakfast?” His eyes were still closed.

She didn’t answer him. Instead, she said, “Peter. I wasn’t honest with you. . . .”



# # #

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Hard to Get by Jeffery Deaver. Copyright © 2017 with permission of the author.

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