The Dante Deception - Chapter Five

The Dante Deception – Chapter Five

In The Dante Deception, The Natalie Brandon Series by Jenni0 Comments

April 1973
Moscow, U.S.S.R.

Stepan Lazovsky put on his overcoat, slipping the second button through the first hole. He fastened three more lopsided buttons on the way to the stairwell. In exactly two minutes, Vakhan Zyuganov would walk past the rear entrance to the General Staff building. They’d greet each other with surprise and shake hands. Stepan would ask the other man if he wanted a ride.

Vakhan would accept.

After a brief conversation, Vakhan would be deposited on Kalinin Prospekt. Stepan would make his usual stop at the cafeteria near the Voyentorg to pick up a ready-made meal for supper. His driver had already been paid to set the radio to static in case the other man was bugged.

Stepan looked at his watch. Be on time, he pleaded. Be alone and bring me what I want.

On the ground floor, he stopped near the front door. He looked down at the top button of his coat, hanging free, and the second button lodged in the wrong buttonhole. “Idiot,” he grumbled, setting to work with a calculated lack of dexterity. The ruse bothered him. He was a general, not a spy, and imprecision in any form made him grind his teeth.

While his fingers adjusted the buttons, his eyes scanned the street through a small plate-glass window. The rumbling black Volga was there, his driver standing ready to open the door. He wished he’d told the man to wait in the car. Now any miscalculation in timing would result in behavior outside his established pattern, the first thing the KGB would look for.

He wished he’d told the man to wait in the car. Now any miscalculation in timing would result in behavior outside his established pattern, the first thing the KGB would look for.

Stepan fumbled with his coat until he saw Vakhan’s blond head, then he burst through the door onto the street. “Vakhan Pavlovich!”

His quarry stopped short. “Stepan Danilovich!”

“I haven’t seen you in years, it seems! How are you?”

“I’m well.” Vakhan blinked twice, the signal he hadn’t been followed. “How are you?”

“Can’t complain,” Stepan lied. “Say, do you want a ride? I’m on my way around the corner. We can catch up for a few minutes.”

As soon as they were both seated, the driver turned a knob and the bleak crunch of static filled the cab. Stepan let the smile fall from his face. “Tell me you found her.”

Vakhan shook his head. “She’s not in Moscow, Leningrad, Novgorod, Voronezh, or Smolensk.”

“Not above the ground, you mean.”

“Not above, not below, not anywhere in between.”

The glimmer of hope that had warmed him all day vanished. “Is that all you know?”

The glimmer of hope that had warmed him all day vanished. “Is that all you know?”

“It’s not easy to find one woman in a country of 248 million.”

“That’s why I asked for your help.”

“And I narrowed the scope of your search considerably.” Vakhan paused. “Are you sure she’s still alive?”

Stepan looked at the neon sign above the Arbatskaya metro station – The Soviet Union Is the Source of Peace. It wasn’t true. Any loyalty the Party had earned defending the motherland against the Third Reich vanished when they tossed his brother from the army back into prison. The vory v zakone had no tolerance for the convicts who accepted the government’s offer to fight the fascists. The criminal underworld prided itself on giving no help to the government, any government, not even in wartime. But Stalin sent them from the front lines back to prison, knowing full well what would happen to them. His brother had died in his cell, beaten faceless with a pipe, and Stepan had transferred his loyalty from the Party to his brother’s widow and fatherless child.

He brought them to live in his apartment, a reward from Khrushchev for his distinguished military career. He raised Makar as his own, teaching him to gather wild mushrooms at his dacha in Zhukova, then holding the boy’s hand at his mother’s burial.

Later, when Makar took steps to ingratiate himself with the vory leadership, Stepan provided the information about army supply shipments he needed to get their attention. When Makar moved against them, Stepan supplied the weapons and safe houses. In the end, after Makar killed the men who participated in his father’s murder, the vory allowed him to take his place. It would never have been permitted before the war, but many of the younger men had chosen to forgo the old ways, settling down with the wives and children that had been forbidden to their fathers and grandfathers. They overlooked Makar’s wife, Elena, as the cost of peace in the underworld.

Until the day she went missing.

Then all hell broke loose.

At first, they thought she’d been kidnapped. The son of a collaborator, Makar knew his position among the vory had never been stable. But when no ransom demand arrived, Stepan began to suspect. There was nothing for anyone to gain. Elena was simply gone.

…when no ransom demand arrived, Stepan began to suspect. There was nothing for anyone to gain. Elena was simply gone.

“Is she alive?” Stepan repeated. “I don’t know. It’s just a feeling.”

“Maybe she went east, to the Urals. Or south, to the Crimea.” Vakhan raised an eyebrow. “Is there anything you can give me to go on?”

Stepan realized how little he knew of Elena—where her family came from, or whether she had relatives outside the country. Without a permit to live anywhere but Moscow, she should have been at the mercy of the vory, the only secure channel to acquire a forged identification card and residence permit. But he’d already reached out to them with no luck. Vakhan was the first deputy to the Ministry of the Interior. If he couldn’t find her, what were they left to conclude?

Stepan leaned his head against the glass. “East, south…try them all. Someone will talk.”

“What if they don’t?”

He thought of the horrible things he’d seen on the march to Berlin—living bodies sliced open, oil or gasoline poured inside, and all of it set on fire. “We’ll make them talk.”

Vakhan placed a warm palm on Stepan’s arm. “I don’t want to say this, but you’re a friend, so I feel I must. Is it possible she doesn’t want to be found?”

“She married my nephew and gave him a son. I don’t care what she wants.”

“She married my nephew and gave him a son. I don’t care what she wants.”

Vakhan said nothing.

A moment later, the car stopped in front of a gray three-story building. The night stretched before him, endless and cold, and Stepan knew it might last for the rest of his life. “Please continue the search and keep me informed,” he said. “If you find yourself without dinner plans, call me at home. I’ll take you to the Armed Forces Officers’ Club.”

“I will.” Vakhan smiled. “Thank you.”

They shook hands when they got out of the car. Stepan unbuttoned his coat and re-fastened the buttons correctly. Vakhan was a good man, but not the right one for the job. He wasn’t ruthless enough.

They had to find Elena soon.

Makar was losing the ability to make decisions. He’d already authorized the capture and torture of three other vory leaders, hoping they had news of Elena. They didn’t. A shipment of produce from Nizhny-Novgorod had arrived by train and Makar let it rot because finding his wife was more important than feeding the men in Butyrka. The vory were criminals, true, but their connections allowed them to bring food into prisons and work camps that the government ignored. Men would starve unless certain procedures were followed.

And then there was Valentin.

Stepan sighed as he entered the unmarked building and made his way to the basement. Here, the military’s elite lined up for ready-made meals that weren’t available to the public. Caviar, expensive cuts of meat, fresh fruit, and Georgian wine were all available to the upper echelons at the expense of the masses. Tonight’s meal was Valentin’s favorite—lamb shashlik marinated in lemon juice with potato salad, bread, and fruit soup. Stepan couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Valentin laugh like a regular child. He had every reason to be angry, but…

There was something about the boy that frightened him.

There was something about the boy that frightened him.

It started before Elena went missing, but had worsened over the long, lonely winter. He began finding toys dismembered for parts that were then sharpened and used to impale moths or spiders. Rat poison went missing from the kitchen a day before a neighbor’s cat was found dead. Sometimes there were thin, sharp wires stretched across doorways at ankle level. When confronted, Valentin met Stepan’s gaze with vacant eyes, biding his time until he was dismissed.

A light push against his back moved him forward in line. Stepan placed his order and watched the kitchen staff box it up. As the attendant handed him a plain brown shopping bag, a cold feeling stirred in his gut.

Elena wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be. Neither the vory nor the bureaucracy had found a body.

She hadn’t been kidnapped because no one had asked for a ransom.

Maybe she was ill.

But illness didn’t confer residence permits for other cities.

Stepan left the cafeteria and walked back up to street level. His driver opened the car door and he slid inside, the bag of food warming his lap. A sudden flash of memory played like a filmstrip in his mind. A week after Elena went missing, he’d reached into the flatware drawer for a spoon to stir his tea. Something long and sharp stabbed him under his fingernail, leaving wooden splinters in the nail bed.

A week after Elena went missing, he’d reached into the flatware drawer for a spoon to stir his tea. Something long and sharp stabbed him under his fingernail, leaving wooden splinters in the nail bed.

Now he realized what it had been.

A shashlik skewer, thinned and sharpened, and placed there intentionally.

His fingers clenched the top of the brown bag.

Elena, he thought. What have you done?


Stay tuned for the next few chapters…


The Dante Deception: A Natalie Brandon Thriller by Jenni WiltzCan’t get enough? I posted character photos, a playlist, a reading list, and more on the book page!

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Jenni

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a series of Natalie Brandon thrillers. To find out when new books are released, click here to sign up for my mailing list.

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