“I really like your weapons,” said Martin Gnoji.
Karen smiled and leaned towards him as though to share a secret.
“They’re not really mine,” she stage-whispered.
Gnoji let his eyes drop to her artfully arranged cleavage.
“They look real to me,” he said, and tipped his head back and laughed. It was an ugly laugh. Louder than necessary, even in a noisy room, full of chattering idiots and a jazz band. Colonel Varatchevsky knew what he was doing. She had seen men behave this way many times. Beautiful women did. All women did.
It did not bother her. She was in control, although she was not trying to sell him anything. He might well leave her gallery tonight having purchased some artefact, or painting or even one of the exquisite and ancient weapons which were the object of the evening’s exhibit. Many of her guests would. But Martin Gnoji was not merely Karen Warat’s guest or customer.
He was Colonel Ekaterina Varatchevsky’s target.
A waiter appeared bearing a sliver tray crowded with champagne flutes, chilled coconut water, and a couple of designer beers of impressive obscurity. Karen took a champagne for herself and one for the owner of the fourteenth largest biotech firm in the United States. The glasses appeared to be identical but were not. The drink she carefully lifted from the tray for herself was in fact apple juice and the crystal flute in which it sparkled had been delicately etched with a small identifying mark. A two-headed eagle from the old imperial Russian coat of arms.
Colonel Varatchevsky’s idea of a useful joke.
A hundred and fifty people crammed the small two-storey gallery now, and most had thrown themselves at the complimentary drinks as soon as they’d cleared the velvet rope. An unusually warm day and an open bar made for a lively evening and a quantifiably greater number of commissions. For every crate of Bollinger she laid on, the gallery would make 1.4 additional sales. The math had long been proven. A crate of Bollinger was expensive, of course. But the fine wares of the Warat Gallery were even more immoderately priced.
The largesse was already working. The early buzz of conversation had climbed up into something just short of a roar, as the increasingly tipsy guests spoke in louder voices to be heard over each. The band, a kicking little four-piece from Brooklyn, specialised in riffing on iconic TV show tunes of the 1960s and 70s. They picked up the tempo as the room start to take off. Gilligan’s Island segued to Mission Impossible and a few red dots, denoting a confirmed sale, appeared next to a number of paintings, an Etruscan shield and a sixteenth-century Kris dagger from Surabaya. Most of the serious offers, she knew, would come over the next hour as she worked the room. The largest sales would be made in private the following week.
Karen Warat, as she was known, admired and even loved just a little by the gallery full of glitterati, would do well out of this evening. She would look after the small and very select stable of artists she had gathered to herself over recent years. The critics and media mavens, who had enjoyed a private showing earlier in the day, would not to be so gauche as to openly fawn, but their carefully restrained praise would add another layer of significance to the reputation of The Warat Gallery, enabling the well regarded owner to further her reach, her consequence and her power within the city’s art world; all of this done with the intent of drawing men like the braying, breast-ogling Martin Gnoji into her circle, and into the targeting reticule of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Federation, whom the woman known as Karen Warat, served with great distinction at the rank of full colonel.
Karen linked her arm through Gnoji’s, drawing him away from the small circle of vulture capitalists and merchant wankers with whom he’d been talking. One of them tried to complain about the wifi reception, but another glass of champagne put paid to that. Ekaterina, or Karin, as she was in her secret heart, where she imagined she could still hear her mother and father calling her by the name, said, “Come with me, Martin, there’s a young lady you simply must meet, one of my artists. I think you’ll like her very much.”
And because Martin Gnoji was a little a drunk, and Karen Warat was both very beautiful and possessed of a strangely irresistible force of will, he did as he was told. The man whose private company had just developed a working prototype for an implant which could accurately measure an individual’s calorie intake, and who had set all of America’s tech giants against each other in a frenzied bidding war for an exclusive license to the technology, allowed himself to be led into Colonel ‘Karin’ Varatchevksy’s honey trap like a gormless teenager.
Karin did not know why Moscow had deemed Gnoji and his invention a suitable target. The implant was a consumer technology with few military or security applications that she could imagine. Perhaps the targeting order had come from the GRU’s Economic Security Department, perhaps from the Science and Engineering Service. The precise origin of her tasking was irrelevant. Moscow did not often directly reach out to her, one of their prime assets in the US, not after the disastrous exposure of the SVR’s deep cover operations in the Anna Chapman case. When they did, however, she knew her orders to be matters of the highest import to state security.
They negotiated the shoals and eddies of the slowly moving crowd, the small conversational knots of privileged guests, and the ever-changing groups of admirers which gathered around this or that objet d’art. Karin-as-Karen kept up a smooth line of small talk, leaning in close to Gnoji to impart some diabolical titbit of gossip or scandal as the object of her gentle slanders came into view.
“That’s His Honour, Judge Herbert, who sat on that Apple and Xaomi thing,” she whispered. “You know, don’t you, that the auditor he put into Apple was the boy he used to share reciprocal hand jobs with under the desk in the law library when they were both at Northwestern?”
Gnoji loved it of course, not least because of the perceptible lensing effect which chased them through the gallery. Everywhere they went, heads turned to follow. All except one, Karin noticed. A striking young woman, with an even more striking facial tattoo. She looked an exotic mix of races in her black leather pant suit, a child of some imperial misadventure perhaps. Indochinese and African-American, thought Karin Varatchevsky, whose own lineage was nearly pure White Russian with a leavening of Nordic genes to account for her naturally blonde hair colour. The woman seemed engrossed in her screen, which was odd, given it was a merely a static image. The champagne she was most definitely not drinking had gone flat. And unlike most of the other guests, she seemed so deeply invested in not noticing her host that Karin’s own attention was inevitably drawn to her.
“Oh Martin, you absolutely have to meet Jon Maberry,” Karen trilled by way of delaying their passage across the room. “Jon runs a charming little money mine up in Vermont, don’t you darling. I remember him telling me all about you and your diet gadget before it was on HuffPo.”
Jon Maberry had done nothing of the sort, but he was not about to pass up an introduction to the man sitting between converging tsunamis of Apple and Google money. He had been fiddling with his iPhone, looking as though he was having trouble with it, but he put the device away as soon as Karen introduced Gnoji.
“Look at this guy!” smiled Maberry, showing off at least twenty grand worth of dental work. “Hottest woman in the city on his arm, hottest tech in the world in his back pocket.”
Gnoji beamed happily, hamming it up by patting his pants and crying out with mock panic, “Oh noes! It must have fallen out on the way here.”
Karin let the rich white men enjoy their mutual self regard while she discreetly observed the woman who was discreetly trying to remain unobserved in turn. Unlike the tattooed girl, Colonel Varatchevksy’s trade craft was extremely well-honed. She only needed to keep the American agent within her peripheral vision for a few moments to be certain she was no art student or goss-blogger playing out of her league. There was the issue of her fascination with the lock screen. But more telling was the Hello Kitty purse she had tucked under one arm. It seemed rather heavy for such a childish affectation; undoubtedly because of the handgun she’d tucked away inside. Karin caught only the merest glimpse of the pistol grip poking up out of the purse, but that was enough.
“Oh, you boys,” she scoffed at some slightly off colour joke Gnoji and Maberry had just traded between each other like a note passed in class. “Jon, I’m sure you and Martin will get up to all sorts of capers and hijinks, but I simply must introduce him to Cally.”
“Is she hot? Why not introduce me to Cally? I thought I was your favourite?” grinned Maberry.
“You are my favourite, Jon,” Karen said. “But Martin adores her Nantucket series, don’t you Martin?”
“Those cool fucking paintings of the old flintlocks? Hells yeah. I’d buy them all! I like art when I can tell what it is.”
“I’ll bet you do,” smiled Karen, her eyes twinkling with good cheer. “Come along.”
She linked arms with him again, letting her hip brush against his as they threaded through the crowd. Gnoji pushed his own hip back into hers so strongly that she had to adjust her step or be shunted into a table full of finger food. She rubbed a hand up his arm, certain that if she looked down she would see the effect she was having on him.
She did not look down.
“Cally!” she called out over the crowd, waving and drawing the attention of a tall woman in her mid twenties, with a spectacular mane of black hair. Her eyes were large and they widened in obvious delight when they found the gallery owner who had done so much to advance her career.
“Hi Karen! Hello… you,” she grinned goofily and innocently at Gnoji, refusing to stare at the bulge in his pants as plainly as the girl with the facial tattoo had refused to look at Varatchevsky.
Karen felt the pressure on her hip fall away as Gnoji was drawn into the orbit of this new and exotically beautiful creature. She would normally have been pleased. The fly had landed in the middle of her web, but her internal alarms were singing loudly. She did not know where the Asian girl had come from. She had no idea which agency had sent her. But she was certain one of them had placed the woman inside the gallery, probably at short notice. She wasn’t very good at her job, indicating a rushed and poorly resourced effort on behalf of American counter-intelligence.
Unless she was private security for one of the one-percenters gadding about, drinking too much champagne and contemplating a vanity purchase. Unlikely, thought Karin. There was private security here tonight, but all of them had checked in with her own people. They had to, to get their weapons past the front door.
No, this girl was doing government work and doing it poorly.
She sensed Cally straining to keep a smile fixed on her face. Martin Gnoji had quickly moved the conversation from her exquisitely detailed pen and ink drawings of flintlock muskets onto a topic where he felt more confident; the fascinating fellow who was Martin Gnoji.
A fool's tongue runs before his feet, she thought in her native language.
“Martin was just telling me earlier how your work had caught his eye, Cally,” Karen Warat said, taking Gnoji’s empty drink and deftly replacing it with a fresh glass of Bollinger.
“Fuck yeah,” said Gnoji. “They’re sexy fucking drawings, Cal.”
Cally’s smile was still strained, but at its edges there was the genuine pleasure of every artist who has just been paid a compliment for their work. Karen had taught her well, and she didn’t immediately implore him to buy one. That tawdry exchange would fall to the gallery owner.
“Now you two stay right here,” Karen said. “I’m not running away. But I do have to love you and leave you for just a moment.”
The sudden fright in Cally’s wide brown eyes was matched only by the expression of rat cunning that crossed Gnoji’s face. He would be thinking, Karin knew, that a poor young artist was no match for a master of the universe like him. He would be thinking that the twelve billion dollars Business Insider had just valued him at made him the most interesting and irresistible plate of man meat in New York. It was exactly as Karin had planned. And when he reached peak-tumescence she would whip away the delicious and unobtainable young artist, switching her out for an even more apparently unobtainable prize.
No. Not herself.
Another trained artist. An entrapment savant.
But the presence of the tattooed counter-intel officer had queered that move, at least momentarily. Karin slipped away from Gnoji and Cally with practised grace. She smiled and exchanged brief pleasantries with nearly everyone she passed, but did not allow herself to be drawn into conversation. She gave the impression of a woman diligently about the business of ensuring all her guests were properly looked after. As she crossed the room, her phone buzzed. A BlackBerry, the latest model. She opened the image file attached to the message she had just received, a picture of an Egyptian dagger with a price and consignment number.
It was a prearranged signal that her cover had been blown and she was ordered to exfiltrate the city as quickly as possible. The unusually high price of the artefact told her that American security officials were already en route. The consignment number was an encoded address; a safe house.
Colonel Ekaterina Varatchevsky maintained her poise and stayed in character as she parsed the crowd, seeking out those facial tattoos, and scanning for any support the spy catcher might have. It was possible, even likely, that her pursuers had put the woman into the scene because she was so conspicuous. She would draw the eye away from other, better camouflaged operators. Karen smiled a passing hello at the Judge she had defamed to Gnoji a few minutes earlier. If the tattooed and slightly inept agent was a decoy, that spoke to an adversary with more finesse than the FBI. It might mean she had come to attention of Clearance or even Echelon.
She veered off the path she had been taking, headed for her office in which a small go-bag waited inside the safe. If the Office of Special Clearances and Records had her in the scope she would not have time to collect even a basic escape kit. She would simply have to move quickly and pray to evade the initial sweep. At least she could be thankful she had almost certainly not come to the attention of Echelon. She knew of a whole FSB network liquidated by just one of their operators, a woman who had disappeared nine cell members without ever appearing on the threat detectors herself.
Karin was sweating now – but only lightly, the thinnest sheen making her forehead shine under the gallery’s LEDs, and most of her guests were red faced and mopping at their brows already. It was a warm night and the old building’s A/C struggled with the body heat of the crowd. She weaved around a stand displaying a nearly complete set of armour from an officer of the Eastern Han Dynasty, but found her way blocked by a knot of revellers who were so deeply engrossed in discussing that week’s House of Cards episode that they did not even notice her.
They did notice the first scream, however. Everyone did.