A man wearing a brown wool pea coat entered the McDonalds by the front door. Rachel felt his gaze rake her but when she looked up, he stared at something in his hands that looked like a collection of coins.
The man with the brown coat appeared carrying a tray with two apple pie boxes and a cup of coffee. He moved slowly, clearly trying not to spill his coffee. After he passed three empty tables, Rachel look over at him warily.
He sat down at the booth next to hers and opened the first pie with methodical, slow movements. As though he felt her watching him, his eyes flicked to hers.
It was Viktor.
He shook his head slightly but didn’t speak. He fished his mobile phone out of an inside pocket and typed out a text message. She looked back at her table, heart pounding, terrified she’d give him away.
When her mobile buzzed, she didn’t jump. She felt proud of that. She pulled it closer and read the message: ‘Go out to your car and wait 5 min. I’ll join you.’
She took a deep breath and resisted looking at him or confirming the message in any way. She took a sip of her soda and then got her purse. No one looked at her when she rose and walked to the side door. Her skin crawled as she strode around to her car, but nothing moved that she could see. Just to be safe, she circled her car once and even checked underneath. Nothing.
She sat down and locked the doors, then fastened her seat belt. She started the motor, hoping it didn’t sound too loud, and tried to stay calm.
Viktor appeared in the same doorway the young man with the trash used. He strode to her passenger door and the car bounced as he got in. “Let’s go.”
“Just drive.” He wiped his face with one hand and she caught a whiff of gunpowder, the sharp acrid scent that could only mean one thing: Viktor fired a gun recently.
Her heart surged into her mouth and she put the car in gear. She pulled to a stop at the entrance to the street.
She followed his cryptic commands, ‘Turn left,’ ‘Go right at the next light,’ for what felt like an eternity. The streets widened and the houses retreated from the road, spacious lawns appearing like magic. She caught the distant odor of water and knew they approached the River. They crossed into the wealthy section of town, palatial waterfront estates with Lexus and Beamers in the driveway – if any cars were visible, that is.
“Turn in at the next driveway,” he ordered softly.
Her protest, predictably, elicited no response from her silent passenger. She slowed and turned into the driveway. A tall iron gate swung open slowly, like a bison moving out of the way. A camera eyed them from its perch on the stone wall that spread out from the gate to line the road. A small gatehouse appeared on her left, complete with a silent man hulking in the shadow. He nodded at Viktor and ignored her.
She swallowed. “Where are we going?”
“It’s okay. Just drive up to the house. You’re perfectly safe here.”
“Because I’m with you?” It came out accusatory-sounding, but she didn’t take it back.
He shrugged. “If you wish.”
“If I…” She trailed off. “You are the most exasperating person I know!”
It caught her off guard, the sound so out of place with recent events, that she had to concentrate to avoid running over a bush. For his part, he just flashed a twinkling eye at her and then stared at the house looming in front of them.
And boy, could it loom.
Three storeys tall, the brick edifice spread back from the driveway like wings. A square carport stood out over the turnaround in the driveway like at a motel, two lights on its front and two by the large oak door. Two men in black suits appeared and flanked the car, waiting for them to drive up. She pulled to a stop and unlocked the doors.
The man on her side opened her door. “Welcome, Miss Carmichael.” He held out his hand.
She realized he meant to let her hold onto him so she could alight from the car!
“Thank you,” she managed to mumble with fairly good grace. His hand felt warm against her skin and she shivered. He stepped back and let her move out of the way of the car door, then he closed the door.
“You can leave your car here for now,” Viktor interjected. “Follow me.”
She desperately wanted to ask where they were, but didn’t dare say anything in front of what were clearly two bodyguards.
But bodyguards for whom?
The massive front door opened onto a spacious entry hall floored in solid wood, something dark and highly polished. She wiped her feet on the mat just outside the door and stepped inside, feeling like the orphan Oliver. Another man, this time clad in a gorgeous beige suit and polished brown shoes, appeared.
His hair, black and curly, lay close to his head. His blue eyes crinkled as he smiled and she put his age at about forty. He wore a huge sapphire on the ring finger of his right hand and a plain gold wedding band on the left.
“This is the famous Rachel Carmichael,” he said with only a trace of a Russian accent. “Welcome to my home.”
“Raych, this is Aleksandr Chernoff. My father.”
The rumored head of the Russian mob in North America, Aleksandr Chernoff never appeared in the press. Wanted by four governments, not only the U.S. but Russia, Canada and England, he ran most of the Russian mob business in the English-speaking world and, some said, that in Russia as well. She felt her heart start to pound and then realized what Viktor said.
“Wait. Did you say father?”