The Dante Deception - Chapter Four

The Dante Deception – Chapter Four

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

February 1973
Moscow, U.S.S.R.

The river was frozen, its surface faceted with crystals and cracks. New-fallen snow blurred the outlines of bridges, street signs, cars, and lampposts. It would have been bearable but for the wind. His cheeks stung like open wounds. “Are we there yet?” Christof asked.

“Almost,” Sinclair said, glancing behind them.

“They’re not there, you know.”

“Doesn’t mean they won’t come back.”

“They’re not following us,” Christof said. Once Sinclair had shown him what to look for, the KGB men were easy to spot in their fedoras and blue raincoats. “I promise.”

Sinclair smiled and draped an arm around his shoulders. “I believe you.”

Across the river, a building rose impossibly high, with a gleaming metal spire and ornate pilasters on every side. Christof traced the spire with his eyes, wishing he could stop to draw it. They crossed the bridge and entered a residential neighborhood, some of the buildings almost pretty with their plaster decorations and faded pastel paint. Sinclair stopped in front of a seven-story pale brick building with no decorations, curves, or pilasters.

“Is that where we’re going?” Christof said. “It’s ugly.”

“Is that where we’re going?” Christof said. “It’s ugly.”

Sinclair tightened his grip on the leather portfolio in his right hand. “Don’t say things like that once we’re inside. We can’t afford to make this one angry.”

“Are you afraid of him?”

“A little.”

Christof couldn’t imagine Sinclair being scared of anyone. Everywhere they went, people scrambled to offer him a better seat or bigger room, even before they found out he was a baron. He looked the part—tall and well-dressed, with blond hair slicked back from his forehead. Deep-set eyes beneath pale brows gave him the look of a death’s head. The spell was broken the moment he smiled or laughed, which he did often. It made people want to keep pleasing him.

Somewhere behind them, a door slammed. Heavy footsteps beat against the pavement.

Sinclair’s arm stiffened across his shoulders. He tried to turn his head, but the baron’s gloved fingers bit into his shoulder. “Nyet,” Sinclair whispered.

They stood, frozen, until a car door closed and an engine started.

Sinclair’s eyes followed the black Zhiguli down the street. “If anyone asks, we’re looking for Pushkin.”

Sinclair’s eyes followed the black Zhiguli down the street. “If anyone asks, we’re looking for Pushkin.”

“He’s dead.”

“Just let me do the talking.”

“You’re afraid,” Christof said. “Why? What did you steal for—”

Gloved fingers spun him hard and gripped his jaw, just like his mother had. “Never say that word out loud, do you understand? Anyone hears you and we disappear into the Lubyanka.”

Christof’s cheeks burned with sudden anger, but not at Sinclair. Happiness had made him careless. “I’m s—sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.” Sinclair let him go and patted his cheek. “You and I will accomplish great things, my boy. I’m just trying to make sure we live long enough to do it. Remember, no more English until Lazovsky’s door closes behind us.”

Christof nodded and followed Sinclair into the building’s vestibule, stomping his feet to shake off the slush. The air was thick with fish and onions. At the end of the vestibule, an old woman sat at a desk. The dezhurnaya, Christof thought. He didn’t believe it the first time Sinclair told him about the old ladies who guarded elevators and spied on their neighbors for the KGB. Christof swallowed and felt the saliva catch in his dry throat.

Sinclair made for the elevator. “Dobry dyehn,” he said to the dezhurnaya.

Christof was afraid to look at her. She’ll get suspicious, he thought. She’ll call everyone in the building and ask where we go, what we say. He only knew one complete sentence in Russian, provided by Sinclair — “I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well right now” — but he couldn’t pronounce it the way a native would.

Christof was afraid to look at her. She’ll get suspicious, he thought. She’ll call everyone in the building and ask where we go, what we say. He only knew one complete sentence in Russian, provided by Sinclair — “I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well right now” — but he couldn’t pronounce it the way a native would.

The old woman shifted in her seat and muttered.

Sinclair shot back a cheerful reply.

When the elevator opened, Christof took a giant step forward. Sinclair made one more reply, then smiled at the old woman as the door closed.

He looked up at Sinclair. “What did she say?”

“She said it was unseasonably cold out.”

“What did you say?”

“I said it wasn’t nearly as cold as the winter of ʼ53.”

Christof smiled. Of course that’s what Sinclair would say.

When the elevator doors shuddered open, they stepped into the hallway. Metal sconces with flickering bulbs glowed in the dark passageway. A man in a fur cap emerged from the shadows. Christof flattened himself sideways as the man passed. Pockmarked cheeks, gray eyes, blond mustache, he thought, committing the man’s face to memory as they proceeded down the hall.

When the elevator doors shuddered open, they stepped into the hallway. Metal sconces with flickering bulbs glowed in the dark passageway. A man in a fur cap emerged from the shadows. Christof flattened himself sideways as the man passed. Pockmarked cheeks, gray eyes, blond mustache, he thought, committing the man’s face to memory as they proceeded down the hall.

Sinclair stopped in front of the very last door and raised his fist.

It opened before he knocked.

Dobro pažálovat’,” said a tall man with long black hair. His big nose and small eyes reminded Christof of a mole, or any underground rodent who relied on a sense other than sight. “Come in, come in, I’ve been waiting all day!”

Christof gulped and followed Sinclair inside.

“Mr. Lazovsky, it is a pleasure—” Sinclair began.

But Lazovsky wasn’t listening. He dropped to his knees beside the portfolio in Sinclair’s hand. “She’s finally here.”

“And worth the wait, I hope. Where do you want her?”

Lazovsky swept his arm across a sideboard. A book and two candlesticks crashed to the floor, one rolling in a lazy circle at Christof’s feet. Sinclair unzipped the portfolio and pulled out a bundle of canvas, tissue paper, and burlap. His long fingers peeled back one layer at a time. Christof caught a whiff of wood shavings, dry and fragrant, that reminded him of his mother’s coffin. “Mutti,” he whispered, before he could stop himself.

No one heard him.

Both Sinclair and Lazovsky were transfixed by the painting of a beautiful peasant woman standing at a well. Her left hand curled up to her cheek, while her right lay across the edge of the well. The way she stood, her left hip slightly turned… She knows, Christof thought. She knows you’re watching, but won’t look you in the eye.

Both Sinclair and Lazovsky were transfixed by the painting of a beautiful peasant woman standing at a well. Her left hand curled up to her cheek, while her right lay across the edge of the well. The way she stood, her left hip slightly turned… She knows, Christof thought. She knows you’re watching, but won’t look you in the eye.

Spasibo,” Lazovsky whispered. Christof looked up, surprised to see tears in the big man’s eyes. “You don’t understand what this means to me.”

Sinclair folded the burlap and tissue back into his portfolio and zipped it shut. “I understand that you wanted her badly enough to hire me.”

The Russian glanced sideways. “Do you think less of me because I would pay a man to steal rather than do it myself?”

“Technically speaking, you haven’t paid anyone yet.”

Lazovsky curled his lip. “Money is all you Westerners care about. You do not have a poet’s soul.” He held his hand over the painted girl’s face. “Not like my Elena.” His eyes drifted down to Christof. “What about him? Is this boy your son? Does he have a poet’s soul?”

“He has an artist’s soul.” Sinclair’s fingers squeezed his shoulder. “And yes, he is my son. Together, we are building an empire.”

Christof tucked his chin into his coat and smiled.

Sinclair was proud of him.

No one had ever been proud of him before.

No one had ever been proud of him before.

He knew Sinclair liked their arrangement—traveling through Europe, taking advantage of people who were stupid and rich. Sinclair would bring him paper, pen, ink, rubber, glue, wax, or anything else he needed. In return, he’d give Sinclair a document that proved they were the heirs to the forgotten safety deposit box of the fifth viscount’s wife’s cousin. But he never thought he’d be anyone’s son until now. He wanted to trap the moment under glass. I won’t disappoint you, he thought.

“An empire,” Lazovsky said, raising one thick eyebrow. “And here I thought yours had already crumbled.” He turned back to the painting and set one fat fingertip on the girl’s painted cheekbone.

Christof gasped.

“What?” Lazovsky said. “Are you jealous?”

Christof’s heart beat fast enough to burst. If Sinclair was afraid of this man, it was with good reason. But he couldn’t let him do that again. “Y—you shouldn’t touch her.”

“She’s mine. I paid for her.”

“Technically speaking—” Sinclair began.

“Let the boy speak. Let him tell me why I shouldn’t be allowed to touch what is mine.”

“Let the boy speak. Let him tell me why I shouldn’t be allowed to touch what is mine.”

The Russian’s eyes were so black Christof couldn’t tell where the pupil ended and the iris began. Sinclair always knows what to say, he thought. And so should his son. He swallowed the wave of nausea rising from his stomach. “W—when you touch her, the oil from your fingers changes the color of the pigment. If you keep doing it, she’ll get darker. She’ll stop glowing.”

Lazovsky’s face fell. “Is that so?”

“You can’t see anything after one touch. But decades from now, you will.”

“How do you know this? You are too young to be a painter.”

Sinclair forced a laugh and stepped in front of him. “Oh, he dabbles. Pen and ink, mostly. Children’s things.”

Christof frowned. “It’s not—”

“The boy is right, though. You should put her under glass if you want to touch her.”

The big man bent down to his eye level. “Thank you. You may call me Makar Draganovich.”

“Makar Draganovich,” he repeated.

“Or just Makar.” The Russian’s hand rumpled his hair.

Christof risked a smile.

Suddenly, a projectile whizzed past his head. An arrow slammed into the wall, its pointed tip the epicenter of a dozen fresh cracks in the plaster. A dark-haired little boy followed, shouting angrily in Russian.

Suddenly, a projectile whizzed past his head. An arrow slammed into the wall, its pointed tip the epicenter of a dozen fresh cracks in the plaster. A dark-haired little boy followed, shouting angrily in Russian.

Makar smiled at the newcomer. “What do you mean, you missed? I thought you were the best Cossack fighter who ever lived!”

The boy lowered his bow and glared at his father.

“You can try again tomorrow,” Makar said, picking up his son and holding him above the sideboard. “Valentin, look what our guests have brought.”

The boy’s eyebrows flew up. “Mamochka!”

“Yes,” Makar said softly. “Mamochka.”

“Valentin, if you so much as—” A second pair of footsteps hurried into the foyer. “Oh! Makar, you didn’t tell me you were expecting company.”

Christof turned. It was the girl in the painting. Or it would have been, if Corot had painted a young Russian hausfrau instead of a French peasant. She had long black hair, brown eyes, and glowing skin. Her lips were a perfect bow, her face a perfect heart. He gulped. Even the flush of her cheek, a vivid rose, was the same.

“Mama, someone painted you!” the other boy said.

“I don’t have time to sit for a painting,” she replied, plucking her son’s arrow from the wall. “I’m too busy cleaning up after you.” She put her hand on Makar’s arm. “Have you asked your friends to stay for supper? They are welcome here.” She glanced over her shoulder, dark eyes glistening with an unspoken invitation.

Christof looked up at Sinclair. He didn’t want to stay for dinner. He wanted to get as far away from this place as possible. Better to spend a quiet night in the Intourist hotel, sketching and scheming. But Sinclair wasn’t looking at him. He was staring at Makar’s wife with his mouth open, the way the wolf stared at Little Red Riding Hood in the cartoons.

…Sinclair wasn’t looking at him. He was staring at Makar’s wife with his mouth open, the way the wolf stared at Little Red Riding Hood in the cartoons.

“Of course we’ll stay,” Sinclair said. “So kind of you to offer.”

Christof cleared his throat. “Aren’t we supposed to—”

“No,” Sinclair said. “We’re not.”

“I see my husband hasn’t offered you a drink,” the woman said. “What can I bring you?”

“Anything you like.”

“Kir royale,” Christof said.

Makar laughed. “What are you teaching your son, Sinclair? He’ll have vodka, like the rest of us.” He flicked a forefinger against his throat and clicked his tongue.

The boy, Valentin, wriggled in his father’s grasp. Makar put him down and he ran to yank his arrow out of his mother’s hand. She gasped and held the hand to her mouth, sucking a drop of blood out of the fresh cut. “Valentin!” she called, but the boy had already gone.

“You see?” Makar said. “My boy is wild, but he is a warrior. Worthy of an empire.”

“You see?” Makar said. “My boy is wild, but he is a warrior. Worthy of an empire.”

Sinclair’s gaze followed the dark-haired woman as she walked into the next room. “Indeed.”

She pulled four glasses from a cabinet and retrieved a bottle of vodka. “Are you coming?” she called. “Or did you want to stand in the hallway all night?”

Christof stomped on Sinclair’s instep. “I’m afraid we—”

“Must let our host go first,” Sinclair said, a too-wide smile on his face. “After you.”

Makar nodded. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll make sure Elena prepares enough zakusi.”

Once Makar had gone, Christof glared up at Sinclair. “I don’t want to stay.”

“Of course you do. We haven’t been paid yet.”

He had no argument for that, but something told him more than money was at stake. Everyone in that apartment gave him a bad feeling, from the bear of a man to the devil of a child. Why couldn’t Sinclair feel it, too? “You have to stop staring at her. It’s going to make him angry.”

“It’s a tribute, really.”

“That boy was shooting at me. I want to go.”

“That boy was shooting at me. I want to go.”

Sinclair nodded and for a moment, he thought he’d won. “Do you know what Providence is, Christof?”

“I think so.”

“Then trust in it to keep us safe.”

“Why do we need to be kept safe?”

“Because that painting is a forgery.”

“What?” Christof hissed. “He’ll kill us if he finds out!”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“And now?”

Sinclair’s eyes followed Elena Lazovskaya as she bent over the dining room table with a tray of glasses. “An even better one.”

Christof swallowed, feeling a burn as potent as alcohol already building inside him.


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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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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