The Eighth Sister (Charles Jenkins, #1)
Zarina Kazakova stepped to the glass doors of Belyy Dom, the Russian White House, and peered out at the leaden sky threatening to suffocate Moscow. It was not if the sky would unleash the first flurry of snow, but when. Meteorologists had forecast evening temperatures below zero, and as much as six to eight inches. Zarina sighed at the thought of another difficult winter as she forced her fingers into the soft fur of her mittens. Bogdan, one of the guards, stood near a metal detector with his body angled to peer out at the cloud layer darkening by the minute. “Pokhozhe, chto eto budet dolgaya zima, Zarina.”
“When is it not a long winter?” Zarina replied in Russian. She intended her question to be rhetorical, and Bogdan, a true Muscovite, did not bother to answer it. They both knew “long” did not accurately describe Russian winters; “oppressive” more readily came to mind.
“Do you have plans this evening?” Bogdan asked. He wore his somber green-gray military uniform beneath his equally somber wool coat. His peaked cap sat square on his head.
“I always have plans,” Zarina said, being purposefully vague and hoping to discourage Bogdan before he got started. In her early sixties, she had her mother’s genes—just a sprinkle of gray in her auburn hair and skin as smooth as a woman half her age. Her mother had emphasized good living to be the key to a Russian woman keeping her looks, the one thing she truly possessed and thus needed to carefully guard. Zarina dressed impeccably, and she had never undertaken two of Russia’s national pastimes—smoking and drinking excessively, especially vodka. She’d also been single since her divorce, and it seemed every man in Belyy Dom knew of it.
Bogdan smiled. “You’re dressed as if to go out.”
Indeed. Her heavy winter coat and rabbit-skin collar matched the fur of her ushanka, which she pulled snug on her head, the earflaps lowered to protect against the anticipated wind and cold.
“Can I only dress this way for a date?” Zarina asked. “Hmm?” She pulled the muffler over her mouth, not interested in Bogdan’s response, and moved toward the door. “Dobroy nochi.”
“Spokoynoy nochi,” Bogdan replied, wishing her a peaceful night as he pushed open the door for her. Zarina stepped into a gusting wind hurtling up the Moskva River with the fury of an approaching freight train. Tonight’s storm would be fierce.
She navigated the concrete steps and hurried across the courtyard, head down. After passing through the ornate gate, she stepped onto Krasnopresnenskaya Nab, marching along the bank of the river to her bus stop at the corner of Glubokiy Pereulok. The deafening roar of buses and the blare of horns in Moscow’s twenty-first century “Putinstan” echoed above the wind, commuters scurrying to get home before the first flurry of snow. At the bend in the Moskva River, the Hotel Ukraina, a hulking mass of Stalinesque excess, dominated Zarina’s view. Stalin had commissioned seven such buildings following the Second World War to glorify the Soviet state and to impress the West, which was busy building skyscrapers. The persistent rumor was the dictator had also similarly designed each of the seven to confuse American bombers, if they were ever to fly into Moscow. Given the paranoid propensity of Russian leaders, Zarina believed the rumor.
Preposterously Russian, each building was grossly overbuilt, with a stout base rising to a spire adorned with a red star, and infused with Greek, French, Chinese, and Italian architectural influences. Zarina wondered what Stalin’s reaction would have been to learn that the Hotel Ukraina had become the Radisson Royal Hotel, a symbol of western capitalism.
Hissing air brakes and the smell of petrol refocused Zarina’s attention, and she shoved and squeezed her way through the folding doors of her bus; chivalry had long since given way in Russia to self-preservation. Remarkably, she found an empty seat at the back of the bus and removed her gloves and hat so she didn’t overheat. The humid, stale air had condensed on the windows and held the pungent smell of body odor, poorly masked by strong perfumes and colognes.
The bus wound its way along the Moskva River, already filling with chunks of floating ice, another harbinger of the wicked winter to come. Thirty minutes after Zarina boarded, the bus reached her stop in front of the supermarket on Filevsky Bulvar. She crossed the bleak park, listening to the spindling tree limbs click and clack with each wind gust. Soviet-era apartment buildings stood like sentries around the park, grotesque concrete blocks with tiny windows and tagged with graffiti. Zarina pushed open the brown metal door to a Spartan lobby. The light fixtures had long ago been stolen—along with the marble floor and brass stair railing. Russians had interpreted capitalism to mean: “Steal what you can sell.” Attempts to replenish the buildings had only led to more thefts.
Zarina rode the elevator to the twelfth floor and stepped into a hallway as drab and bare as the lobby. She undid the four locks to what had once been her parents’ apartment, wiped the soles of her boots on the mat so as not to mark the oak floor, inlaid with an intricate geometric design, and hung her coat and hat on the rack before she stepped into the living area.
“We were beginning to wonder if you were coming home, Ms. Kazakova.”
The man’s voice startled her, and Zarina screamed. He did not react. He sat on her couch, his legs crossed. A quick assessment of his uncreased gray slacks, black turtleneck, and long leather jacket, and Zarina concluded he was police, possibly FSB—the Russian counterintelligence agency and successor organization to the KGB. A second man, hidden in her kitchen, emerged into the hall behind her, preventing retreat—not that she contemplated it. He was as square and thick as a refrigerator.
“Please, sit,” the man on the couch said. On the coffee table beside his ushanka and fur-lined leather gloves was a bottle of Zarina’s best vodka, which she saved for guests, and the two crystal glasses she’d inherited from her mother. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, noticing her eyes shift to the table, “but Stolichnaya is almost impossible to afford on a government salary. I’m wondering how it is that a secretary in the ministry of defense can afford such a luxury?”
“It was a gift,” Zarina said, trying not to sound nervous. “Take it with you and leave. I do not drink.”
“Don’t be so hasty. Please. Come. Sit. Allow me to make introductions.”
Zarina remained standing, uncertain what to do. She’d long contemplated the possibility of this day, and had hoped it would never come.
“No? Well then, I am Federov, Viktor Nikolayevich.” He gestured to the refrigerator. “And this is Volkov, Arkady Otochestovich.”
Federov’s formal introductions did not bode well, nor did the fact that he did not bother to show Zarina his FSB credentials. Zarina felt weak in the knees but mustered defiance. “I have many friends in the ministry of defense.” She checked her watch. “One will be here at any moment, a guard.”
“Had,” Federov said.
“You said ‘have.’ I think you meant the past tense, which is ‘had.’ And no one is coming, Ms. Kazakova. We have watched your apartment for several weeks, and no one has yet to come. Why is that? You are single and very good-looking.” Federov reached for and poured himself a shot of vodka. He looked up at her with hardened, dark eyes. “May I?”
“What is it you want?” she asked.
He sat back, glass in hand. “Right to the business. Good. I like that. No wasting of time. Very well.” He raised the glass. “Za tvoyo zdarovye!” He drank, then set the glass down on the table. “Tell me, what do you know of the seven sisters?”
The question perplexed her. “Are you mad?”
Federov smiled. “Let us assume I am not. What do you know of them?”
“I am not a tour guide, and I am not here to amuse you. Buy a book if you want to know. I’m sure there are many.”
“Oh,” Federov said, uncrossing his legs. “You think I am referring to Stalin’s seven buildings. A reasonable mistake. No. I do not wish to know of buildings. I wish to know of the seven sisters, of which you are one, who have spied for the Americans for almost four decades.”
Zarina felt a trickle of sweat roll down her back. The room had become as warm and as humid as the bus. She had never heard the term “the seven sisters” for anything but the buildings. Were there six others like her?
“Is it hot in here?” Federov asked Volkov. “I was a bit cold, though the vodka does help.” He redirected his attention to her. After a long moment, he said, “You see, Ms. Kazakova, the other two women also claimed they, too, did not know of the seven sisters, and do you want to know something?”
A pause. Was he expecting Zarina to answer? No words came to her. Six others like her. My God.
“I believe them.” Federov sat back. “Arkady can be very convincing. I would also like to believe that you, too, do not know the identities of the others, but I cannot leave here without similar assurances. We all have bosses to answer to, don’t we?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Zarina said. “You’ve made a mistake. I am a secretary in the ministry of defense and have been for almost forty years. My credentials have been checked and approved dozens of times. You can confirm this.”
“You deny the existence of the seven sisters?” Federov asked.
“As you have defined them, I certainly do.”
Federov picked up his gloves and hat from the table and stood. He looked grave. “To me, it is a sad song I do not wish to hear. To Arkady, your denial is music to his ears.”