She’s always followed orders. Now she wants out.
The price of freedom may be her life.
Release date: Septembre 5, 2020
Moscow, 1986. Soviet spy Sofiya Litvinova longs to end her days exclusively working sexpionage missions. But when she’s dispatched to Stockholm to deploy her honey-trap tactics against a suspected Russian traitor, she has no choice but to comply. Until the assignment goes awry after the diplomat pegs her as KGB during the attempted seduction.
With her cover blown and life in danger, Sofiya agrees to help the man carry out his own covert mission while secretly reporting to her superiors. But when his dangerous blackmail agenda coincides with a devastating explosion in Chernobyl, her hopes for deliverance vanish in a cloud of radioactive dust and political powerplays.
Can Sofiya escape the agency’s deadly clutches before she becomes expendable?
Sofiya Viktorovna Litvinova awoke with a start, her eyes popping open. It took her a few moments to realise someone was pounding on the door. Pushing her tangled dark hair out of her face, she grimaced at the bad taste in her mouth. Glancing at the alarm clock on the bedside table, she had to blink several times to make out the time: it was four in the morning.
Struggling to get out of bed without tripping on the bedsheets, she left the warmth behind and groaned when her bare feet touched the cold concrete floor. Sitting up, she noticed from her bedroom window that snow was falling outside. Though it was almost the end of February, spring was still a long way away in the Soviet capital.
The furious drumming continued; she wrapped herself in a blanket to hide her nudity before crossing through the bedroom. Entering the small kitchen, which doubled as a living room with a couch and a bookshelf, she flicked the single ceiling lamp on. The drumming only stopped when she opened the front door.
In the doorway was a short-legged forty-something man with sharp features and calculating dark eyes. He was dressed in a crisp uniform, impeccable despite the early hour.
Mikhaïl Alexandrovitch Serov set foot in the doorway without asking permission.
“Pack your bags, my little bird. We’re going to Sweden.” Entering the flat further like he owned the place, the black-haired man moved to the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water.
Sofiya, who still had the door handle in her hand, blinked back her surprise. Serov was her superior at the Komitet Gossoudarstvennoï Bezopasnosti—the KGB, and when she was in the field, he acted as her liaison officer. But this week, he was supposed to be on leave—and so was she. Closing the front door, the young woman turned back to him, a puzzled expression marring her delicate face.
Serov seemed to notice her outfit—or lack thereof—for the first time. Without bothering to hide it, he gave her slim figure an appreciative glance before continuing, “We have a new mission.”
“No one to charm this time, I hope?” she asked, though she feared she already knew the answer.
Serov’s twisted thin-lipped smile was all the answer she needed. “They are sending you, little bird, aren’t they?”
The FCD—the First Chief Directorate—had singled her out when she was only a teenager. With her long legs, blossoming curves, and wide green eyes, they’d known right away that they could put her looks to good use. She hadn’t disappointed, growing up to become a very alluring woman. She had lean, toned limbs and curves in all the right places, a long slender neck, and an oval face with delicate features. Her deep green eyes shone above high cheekbones and a charmingly innocent smile that could brighten even the gloomiest of days.
As the youngest daughter of two farmers living in the outskirts of Moscow, joining the service was the best future that the fifteen-year-old girl could have hoped for. Her mother had been thrilled at the prospect of having one mouth less to feed. Better still, her sweet daughter would be serving the nation with warm clothes on her back and a full belly—courtesy of the Motherland. No, Yelena Litvinova could not have dreamt of a better future for her baby girl.
Little did the old woman know that after a rigorous—at times torturous—training, Sofiya would join the flock of ravens and swallows at Directorate K: the secret Counter-Intelligence Department of the FCD. Behind the innocent bird monikers hid the most deceitful spies the Soviet Union had on offer. Polyglots, cultured, and natural-born liars, the agents of Directorate K were trained to blend in and adapt to the most demanding of surroundings, be it a palace’s dining hall or a prison cell. Versatile, charming, and masters of disguise, they used everything and everyone to reach their goals, be that an innocent mark or their own bodies.
Her mother had gotten it partially right: her daughter’s belly was full most of the time. But she rarely had clothes on her back when she performed her duties for the Motherland.
Sofiya leaned back against the front door. “I’m supposed to be on leave,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“As am I,” Serov replied. “But our presence has been requested.”
What’s new? she thought bitterly. At thirty-four years old, she’d spent nearly a third of her life infiltrating foreign networks to gain information and ensure the safety of Soviet embassies all over the world. By now, she knew days off were a rare commodity.
“What’s the mission?” she asked, moving to the bedroom.
“Things are tense between Moscow and Stockholm right now. The FCD has been asked to take a closer look at our embassy employees and their allegiance.”
Sofiya frowned as she reached for the suitcase she kept under her bed, ready to leave at all times. “I thought Sweden was neutral.”
“It is,” Serov confirmed, “But they’re a little ticked about some of our submarines darting a little too close to their coast or something.”
Serov’s voice was too loud for him to be speaking from the kitchen, and Sofiya turned to look over her shoulder; she found him leaning against the bedroom doorframe.
“Our embassy is only twenty minutes away from the Americans. And our little investigation has revealed some irregularities.” He sighed. “Moscow wants us to take a closer look at one of the diplomats.”
Sofiya moved to the wardrobe. “Why don’t they just eliminate him?” She pulled out a pair of fresh underwear and her grey-brown uniform. “Or is it no longer the standard response?”
Serov gave no intention of moving or averting his gaze. “He’s from the Nomenklatura.”
Sofiya was no prude, and she’d done worse with her body than strip in front of a man, but she was loath to give Serov a free show. The blanket only came off after she’d pulled on her panties and bra. The shorter man’s lustful gaze followed her every move.
“I thought the time of the Tsars was over,” she said, stepping into her pencil skirt, which fell just below her knees.
“Except that he has connections and money—a lot of it. He was born into it.” Serov smiled an appreciative smile when she bent down to tie her boots. “The Motherland wishes that this fortune stays within its confine rather than fall into the wrong hands.”
“Perish the thought,” she muttered as she reached for her cap.
They were in Serov’s car less than five minutes later, northbound to the FCD offices where they would be presented with a full briefing.
Sofiya should have relished this opportunity to cross the Iron Curtain, but she was in a foul mood at having seen yet another day off cancelled. She knew she was expected to feel pride at doing her duty for her nation and her comrades, but, deep down, she felt used. Nowadays, it seemed that no matter how pretty she looked or how nicely she dressed, she always felt dirty. Truth was, she hadn’t felt really clean in years, despite lathering up with a good many bars of soap when she got back from a mission.
On her way out of the briefing, she yielded to her only pleasure in this dreary life and headed to her favourite bar. She pushed the door open and saw that the place was almost empty. Aside from the bartender behind the counter, there were only two men seated at a table by the window.
Sofiya headed for the bar where wooden stools butted up against the brass foot rail of the high counter. She climbed on one, crossed her bare legs, and put her cap on the tin counter.
The bartender, a balding man with a thick belly, faced her with a warm smile. “Comrade Litvinova. The usual?” he asked, knowing better than to question her reason for being here.
It was only ten in the morning, but she already wanted to wash the day away; it had begun with Serov entering her apartment, and his lascivious gaze when he’d watched her get dressed. A cold shiver ran down her spine at the memory. She hated the man. She’d hated him since the first time he’d tried getting between her legs—and she’d said no—eight years earlier.
Serov was a pervert, but she knew how to handle men like him. She knew how to handle all types of men; the FCD had taught her that. It was all about understanding their deepest needs and desires—and then giving them exactly that.
Her superior liked his whores to be young and shy; she had found out one night as she trailed him through dark streets. Though she was already twenty-six when he was assigned to her, he’d have enjoyed taking her to bed—if she’d agreed to play the frightened little bird for him, which she hadn’t. It was with a show of confidence and without breaking his gaze that she’d turned him off. Her attitude and words had been neither childlike nor shy, and he’d soon gotten the message.
For the time being, Serov was her superior, but she’d long since learned that things changed quickly in their line of work. And who knows, maybe one day she’d get the order to slit his throat.
Sofiya looked at the bottles and upside-down glasses in the racks above the bartender’s head, and the very visible laminated governmental notice that informed her that alcohol consumption was forbidden in the mornings. “The usual,” she confirmed.
The bartender’s smile widened, and he fetched a label-less bottle from under the counter. “One very strong glass of water, neat—coming right up.”
When Mikhaïl Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party the year before, one of his first actions had been to curtail the consumption of alcohol in the entire Soviet Union. The prices of beer, wine, and vodka went up, and shops were only allowed to sell alcohol between 2 pm and 7 pm.
Funnily enough, that did little to stop the drinking. If you knew where to go, you could still purchase alcohol at all hours, including at “drunk corners” and from cab drivers—not to mention the frequent appearance of bootlegged surrogate alcohol and home-made booze. But Sofiya was a traditionalist, and she liked drinking her vodka pure—no matter the hour.
The midday sun was high in the sky when both FCD officers arrived at the military airfield. Their ride, a twin-engine cargo aircraft, was ready and waiting for them on the tarmac.
With her suitcase in one hand and her uniform cap in the other, Sofiya looked at the plane with some trepidation. The faded off-white paint and numerous scratches and bumps made it look like something Aeroflot put in production in the early forties. Serov hadn’t seemed to mind, and he’d climbed the steps without pause. Trusting that her government knew what it was doing and had its agents’ safety at heart, the young woman followed him inside.
She found her superior seated in the left-hand row, pouring himself a drink from a miniature bottle. He’d packed several bottles, she noted, but gave no sign of wanting to share one with her. Serov was aware of her penchant for stiff drinks, and she supposed he wanted her sober to discuss the mission; a good thing she’d stopped at the bar on the way, then.
The pilot entered the cabin and locked the airplane door behind himself. Without a glance in their direction, he moved to the flight deck. Looking around, Sofiya noted that they were the only passengers in the twenty-seater. The intercom buzzed to life an instant later, and a gruff voice announced, “Prepare for take-off, please.”
She fastened her seatbelt and let her gaze wander outside. The right propeller whirred to life in front of her eyes, and she felt the plane start to move. In the distance, the countryside zipped by at increasing speed and was soon replaced by a sea of grey clouds.
“Did you read the file?” Serov asked once he’d finished his drink.
“Of course,” Sofiya replied, annoyed he’d asked. She may not like this mission or having to work with him, but she was still a professional. And she would give this assignment her best, as she always did.
“Glad to hear,” the man said, opening a second miniature. “Let’s hope you will not forget where you are this time.”
Staring at the cloudy skies, she clenched her teeth to avoid saying something she might regret later. Once, she’d made a mistake. Once. But it looked like Serov would use every opportunity he could to remind her of that lapse in judgment.
It had happened two years ago when she’d been wrapping up a job in eastern Switzerland. She was ready to board a train to head back home when an overzealous guard asked her for her credentials. Her cover was that of a college student from Winterthur visiting Zurich, and she had the documentation to match. Only when she’d given it to him, she spoke in German, momentarily forgetting that the locals only spoke Swiss German. Though both languages had similarities, they could hardly be mistaken for each other, something she’d learned the third year of her formation. Had she been sober, she would never have made such a blunder. But she’d allowed herself two shots of a local brew to celebrate the end of a successful assignment. It took her a lot of sweet-talking and a quickie in the men’s room with the guard to get out of that train station without handcuffs. Now, it was a black mark on her ledger, and that ordeal served her as a reminder to stay off the booze while on a mission.
“Also, nowadays, people who are caught drunk at work or in public will be prosecuted,” Serov reminded her as if he guessed at her thoughts. “And we wouldn’t want that, now; would we?”
Things change, she remembered, as she clenched the fingers in her lap into fists, and men like Serov sometimes die in tragic accidents.
In the back of a flower-delivery van, Sofiya was dressed to the nines. She had swept her brown hair up in a bun and adorned her slender neck with a thick pearl necklace. A long emerald-green dress with a deep cleavage hung close to her shapely hips.
She checked her makeup one last time in her pocket mirror before turning the ceiling lamp off.
“It’s about time,” muttered Serov from behind the wheel.
“Beauty cannot be rushed,” she explained, as she placed the compact back in her purse.
The driver looked at her reflection in the rear-view mirror. “Got everything?”
“Of course.” She turned her back to him and moved to the back door. “See you at the rendezvous point.”
With that, she left the van and crossed the street to a nearby building. In the cover of darkness, she pushed open a small wrought-iron gate and crossed through a courtyard unseen. Even in the dim light, she could see that the Östermalm domain facing her was imposing. There was no one around, and she sneaked to the backdoor that had been used all day for deliveries. At precisely ten o’clock, she knocked three times on the large wooden door. A dark-skinned man in a waiter’s uniform opened and ushered her in. Without a word, he led her through the larder and into a small corridor that opened into the reception hall.
Serov had spent the last two days organising everything. For all his sleaziness, Sofiya had to admit that when on a mission, he was efficient. While she’d brushed up on her Swedish at the hotel, he’d procured them with a means of transportation and greased enough hands to ensure she’d make it to her target without question.
The house she was in—which many would call a small palace—belonged to a local nobleman, Lars de Cointreau. He was the descendant of a French Marquis, and he liked to flaunt his title at every opportunity. To that effect, he frequently hosted eccentric parties to which most of the Stockholmian upper crust was invited. Tonight, the guest list included the Russian ambassador, his chief of staff, and their target.
The reception hall was impressive: a vaulted ceiling embellished with scalloped edging, plaster medallions, and custom mouldings loomed over a glossy hardwood floor. Four large marble columns lined the room on both sides.
Sofiya acted like she’d just returned from a trip to the restroom and moved like she belonged here as much as any other guest. Entering the hall, she discovered that next to each column stood a caged animal. The closest one held a jet-black panther that seemed to want to be here as much as the Soviet secret agent did.
With her head held high and her shoulders tucked back, she mingled with the other guests. The results of years of posture training were in full display when she reached for a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. She brought it to her lips with grace and a delicate arching of her hand—a gesture not unlike that of a seasoned ballerina. Beauty could easily catch the attention of men, but she knew it took something more to ensnare them. And she’d spent years perfecting that something more.
Moving to another marble column, she discovered, at its feet, a white tiger. The caged animal was nervous, roaming left and right as much as it could within the confined space. It was obvious the poor beast wanted out, and it would have gladly sunk its teeth into the first fat bourgeois it found.
A man got a little too close to the cage, and the tiger roared in his direction. The two women by his side giggled in delight. Disgusted, Sofiya thought the two tarts in fluffy dresses looked like ostriches and could have benefited from having their own cages.
Moving forward, she kept looking for the face of the man she was after: he had short-cropped blond hair, high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and hard-set lips. She had memorised the photograph she’d been given down to the last freckle, but the diplomat was nowhere to be found. It didn’t help that a lot of the local Scandinavian guests shared many of the Slavic traits she was looking for.
It was the eyes that she recognised first—calculating, icy blue pupils that felt like a cold street on a winter morning. Viktor Petrov, Counsellor at the Soviet embassy to the Kingdom of Sweden, stepped into her field of vision, and she took an instant to assess her target. The uprightness with which the tall, athletic man walked was impossible to miss, and evidence of his aristocratic ancestry shone in his every move. Dressed in a dark blue suit with fine white lines, the thirty-nine-year-old diplomat stood out from the crowd with his height and allure.
Sofiya aimed for the red panda caged to the man’s right. Timing her steps so that their paths were sure to cross, she missed a step midway and tripped on purpose.
As intended, Petrov caught her with ease, and she clung to his rescuing arms more than was necessary. Through the rich fabric of his suit, she felt strong muscles undulate beneath her fingers as he helped her find her balance.
“Förlåt mig,” she said, in flawless Swedish. “Two drinks, and I cannot walk straight anymore.” Still half in his embrace, she looked up to thank him and found a face unlike what she expected. There was no smile on the man’s lips, no warmth to his features. It was as if he’d caught her more out of reflex than out of any real interest.
Well, thought Sofiya, this will be more difficult than I thought.
Untangling herself, she blinked her coal-circled, moist green eyes at him. “Malin Waldenström,” she said, reaching out a delicate hand to him. “And whom might you be?”
His voice was deep and cold, as he replied, “Viktor Petrov—but you already knew that.”
She blinked her incomprehension at him, lowering her hand when it became obvious that he had no intention of shaking it.
“You can drop the act; I know what you are,” he continued in Russian, sotto voce. “With your tight-fitting dress and swan-like face that would drive any lesser man crazy, what are you, Directorate K?”
Sofiya swallowed thickly and fought not to let her mask slip. Who the hell was this man, she wondered, and how could he have seen through her so quickly? Or had he been warned that someone from Moscow was coming?
“I’m loyal to the Motherland and the cause,” Counsellor Petrov continued. “If there’s a leak at the embassy, it’s not coming from me. Now go home, little swallow.”
The demeaning nickname and the acerbic tone with which it was said grated on her nerves, but she fought not to let that show. Giving up on any plans to seduce her mark, she quickly switched tactics and reverted to her native language, too.
“Fine, you know why I’m here. Then also know this: I will not go home empty-handed.” Inching closer to him, she whispered in his ear, “Give me something, or I’ll stick to you like a second shadow.”
When next she crossed his gaze, she seemed to catch a hint of challenge in Petrov’s light-blue eyes.
“You know what it’ll be like,” she continued. “Wiretaps, photographs — I’ll have my eyes on you like a satellite in the sky, just like that new MIR station they launched yesterday.”
“I am, and have always been, loyal to my country.” Petrov looked down his nose at her, contempt dripping from his every pore. “If they want proof, tell your superiors that I have devised a way to activate plan TJ–9; that ought to do it.”
The code-word meant nothing to her, but Sofiya committed it to memory.
“I believe this concludes our little discussion,” he said, before reverting to Swedish. “God kväll, fru Waldenström.”
Before she had time to reply, Petrov had already stepped away to join a group of men massed in front of the white tiger. Sofiya had no choice but to let him go. Before leaving, she reached for another glass of champagne, which she downed in one go. TJ–9 better mean something to her superiors, or she’d be walking home empty-handed.