The Russian Bride: New Excerpt

The Russian Bride by Ed Kovacs is a military thriller about Major Kit Bennings, an intelligence agent working at the Moscow embassy who's caught up in a Russian mob's terrorist scheme (available April 14, 2015).

Major Kit Bennings is an elite military intelligence agent working undercover in Moscow. When he is blackmailed and compromised by a brutal mafia don and former KGB general, he knows that his military career, if not his life, will soon be over. With little to lose, he goes rogue in the hope of saving his kidnapped sister and stopping a deadly scheme directed against America.

Yulana Petkova is a gorgeous woman, devoted mother, and Russian weapons engineer. And maybe more. Spy? Mob assassin? The shotgun marriage to stranger Kit Bennings takes her on a life-or-death hopscotch from Moscow to Los Angeles, from secret US military bases to Las Vegas, where she uses her wiles at every turn to carry out her own hidden agenda.

Hunted by killers from both Russia and the United States, Bennings struggles to stop the mobster's brilliant deception—a theft designed to go unnoticed—that will make the mafia kingpin the richest man in the world, while decimating the very heart of America's economic and intelligence institutions.

Chapter 1

The big sky hung low. Charcoal-hued cumulus clouds crowded the airspace above Interstate 80 east of Evanston, Wyoming, like they were moving in for a takedown. The weather made Irene Shanks’s ankles hurt even more than the walking did.

“Rain coming soon,” said Irene, without even glancing up. At seventy-eight years old, she didn’t need a barometer; the swelling in her joints told her everything she needed to know about the weather forecast. She loosely held the L-rods favored by most dowsers as she hobbled her grid pattern over the hard soil.

“Will we have to stop?” asked Lily Bain, the pretty, blue-eyed blond woman who had shown up unannounced two days earlier on the doorstep of Irene’s Tucson home with a lucrative proposition to come to the Salt Lake City area for a quick dowsing job.

“No, this shouldn’t take long at all. Locating buried cables is child’s play for me. Howard, my deceased husband, taught me how to find buried cables over forty years ago.”

Lily and her partner Dennis had flown Irene first-class to Salt Lake City, put her in a nice hotel to rest, and then set out early this morning for the drive east on the interstate into Wyoming. Irene wasn’t sure exactly where they were now, but back in Tucson she had map-dowsed the couple’s Wyoming property using a pendulum. She had marked an area on a large-scale map they had provided her of a two-acre-sized plot where she felt the buried cable would most likely be found. And since the homemade map contained no reference that identified the actual location, Irene wondered if they were really treasure hunters trying to disguise their true intent.

They had all arrived from Salt Lake City in a rented four-wheel-drive GMC Yukon about thirty minutes earlier. Irene had set to work quickly and found the area that corresponded with the points she had marked on the map. She was now carefully walking a grid pattern on the desolate, gently sloping land, letting a moisture-laden prestorm breeze rich with ozone blow wayward strands of silver hair into her eyes.

Irene looked up. The foreground roller-coaster horizon didn’t reveal much perspective; she knew they were close to I-80 and civilization—at least truck-stop civilization—but the view only suggested that they stood in the middle of nowhere. Something nagged at her as she slowly covered more ground; it wasn’t the approaching storm bothering her, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Can I ask what you two are going to do out here in the boondocks that you’re worried about the location of this cable?” asked Irene.

“We haven’t decided that exactly,” said Dennis, smiling. At thirty-four years old he stood six feet three, and even with a long-sleeved shirt covering his torso, one could see that he clearly was no stranger to the weight room. The bulk contrasted with a babyish face and pale skin featuring perennially rosy cheeks. His golden hair was combed back and made darker by using some kind of cream or gel. “But since the county has misplaced the maps showing where the cable is located, we want to know where not to dig or build something.”

“I mean, you’ll have to construct some kind of real road just to drive in here and…”

“It’s amazing that you dowsed a water well for the Tucson water utility,” said Lily, gently changing the subject. Only in her mid-twenties, Lily was slender, her ghost-white skin freckled out from the nose, and her smile was completely sweet. Irene thought of it as a “cutie-pie smile.” Lily had explained away her slight accent as the result of spending her high school years in Prague, where her businessman father had been working. Lily’s limp, straight hair was not cut fashionably, making Dennis appear to be the vain one of the young couple.

“But I got a call from the Tucson water company telling me I was wrong,” protested Irene.

Dennis and Lily suddenly looked aghast. “Wrong?”

A smile came to Irene’s lips, since she knew she had them going. “The water utility executive told me they drilled on the spot I had marked, and that they found water at exactly one hundred forty-three feet deep, just like I told them. But he said they were getting two hundred and two gallons a minute from the well, not two hundred and one, like I had said.” Nothing wrong with a little bragging from a seventy-eight-year-old, thought Irene.

Dennis visibly relaxed and, smiling again, flicked his cigarette. “Sounds like your late husband, Howard, taught you well.”

Suddenly, Irene’s L-rods, made from pot metal similar to coat hangers, pointed sharply to the ground. “Found it. Could you mark it, sweetheart?” Irene asked Lily.

Irene reached into a nylon pouch slung across her chest, retrieved a small pink plastic surveyor’s flag on a metal rod, and gave it to Lily, who inserted it into the ground under Irene’s L-rods. Irene concentrated her efforts on this area now, and soon a line of pink surveyor’s flags bifurcated part of the property.

“That’s good enough,” called out Dennis as he crossed toward the Yukon. “You have earned your money, Irene. We can easily determine the path of the cable now. Come here before the rain starts.”

“I thought you wanted to know how deep it’s buried.”

“Oh, yes, of course! Sorry.”

Irene handed her L-rods to Lily and then removed from her pouch a quartz crystal on a silver chain. She stood over one of the pink flags and held out the pendulum in her right hand. “Right for yes, left for no, thank you,” whispered Irene, with her eyes closed. Then in a normal voice she said, “Is the cable buried between one and ten feet deep?”

Lily watched with obvious interest as the crystal quickly spun left. The young woman squinted, looking more closely, as if trying to catch Irene manipulating the movement of the stone.

“Is the cable buried between ten and twenty feet deep?”

This time the crystal spun to the right. “I’m going to go with a hunch,” Irene said to Lily as she grasped the crystal to make it still again. “Is the cable buried at fifteen feet deep?”

The pendulum spun wildly to the right. “Fifteen feet deep it is, then. Seems awfully deep for a cable,” said Irene, shaking her head as she put the pendulum away.

“Let’s go. The rain is almost here,” said Lily.

As Lily gently took Irene’s arm and helped her walk the twenty yards to the SUV, Dennis opened the rear doors, retrieved a large black plastic tarp, and spread it onto the ground next to the rear of the Yukon.

“Can you stand on the tarp and use your dowsing rods to see if there’s something there?” asked Lily.

“What am I looking for?”

“Just tell me if you get any sense of something. This will only take a moment, and then we are finished.”

Irene thought the request a bit odd, but the size of the tarp was so small, it would indeed only take a moment. She held out the L-rods and slowly stepped onto the black tarp.

“I know dowsers who can locate crashed airplane sites, dowsers who find gold, silver … and buried treasure.”

“We just wanted you to find the cable, I promise you that,” assured Dennis.

She had no real reason to doubt him. But after taking a few short steps, she stopped. “I almost feel like Howard is trying to warn me about—”

Irene turned to face Lily and saw the sweet young lady holding a handgun that was pointed right at her. There was a black tube attached to the end of the gun barrel, and Irene heard several very soft sounds come from the gun before her world went black as the tarp.

The seventy-eight-year-old fell perfectly onto the center of the plastic sheet. Her swollen ankles would never bother her again.

“Did you hear what she said? She said her dead husband was trying to warn her, and that was exactly when I pulled my weapon.”

“Just a coincidence,” said Dennis, sizing up the fresh corpse, the easy smile gone from his face. “How deep did she say the cable was?”

“Fifteen feet.”

“That sounds right. This old babushka must weigh a hundred kilos,” he said disdainfully.

And with that, Dennis rolled her up into the tarp, and he and Lily grunted as they lifted Irene’s body into the back of the Yukon.

Dennis closed the doors and then barked commands in Russian into a two-way radio. Lily crossed over to the pink surveyor’s flags and replaced them all with small chunks of broken concrete painted to match the brown earth.

In less than a minute, a Ford F-350 pickup towing a backhoe on a trailer and carrying three men appeared over a slight rise and drove up to the Yukon.

“Get the camouflage netting up first,” yelled Dennis, speaking in his native tongue of Russian to the workers. “Dig down to exactly fourteen feet. We work in between passes of the spy satellites.”


Chapter 2

The Bennings family home sat on a hillock just off narrow and winding Carbon Canyon Road in Chino Hills, California. Chino Hills was once a rustic ranch community in the southwest corner of San Bernardino County that went somewhat upscale with the influx of moneyed Chinese American and Chinese immigrant householders, and it’s part of the smog-choked Los Angeles megalopolis that consumes a good chunk of Southern California. When the traffic gods are smiling, the drive to downtown L.A. only takes forty minutes.

Thirty-one-year-old Staci Bennings sat in her late father’s airy home office on a pleasant spring morning, but her view out the windows was of a muddy brownish gray pall clinging to the horizon like a judgment that couldn’t be expunged. To be sure, there was blue sky, but Staci would have to crane her neck at least 45 degrees to see it. She appeared to be lost in thought, staring out the windows.

The home office was decorated with all kinds of aviation memorabilia: models of commercial jets painted in the old TWA paint scheme occupied bookcase shelves; an airline captain’s hat sat next to a U.S. Air Force officer’s hat; and the control wheel from a 747 rested on the desk next to the PC where Staci sat. She shifted her gaze to the computer monitor, clicked on a different Web page, and twisted her troubled countenance into an angry scowl. Tall, slender, and very capable, Staci was the kind of person who usually wore a smile, not a frown; the sour look on her high-cheekboned, elegant face was like a clanging alarm, and her mood was not due to the dirty air tainting the skyline.

“From the look on your face, this is not good,” said Staci’s mother, Gina, weakly. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

Staci clicked on yet another Web page, then locked her gaze on her mother. “It’s called identity theft, Mom. Some thief has hacked your life; the bank accounts are drained, your credit cards are maxed, new credit lines have been opened … I mean, wow, this is not good. I was just thinking about what I need to do first.”

In frustration, Staci blew air from her mouth upward, causing some of the bangs of her shoulder-length brown hair highlighted with blond to flutter.

“New credit lines? Oh, my lord…” Gina Bennings put a hand on her chest and swayed slightly.

“Mom, sit down,” said Staci, springing to her feet and crossing quickly to Gina. She eased her into a chair. “It’s a mess right now, but I can take care of it. Don’t worry, the banks, the credit card companies will make good on the money. I promise.”

Gina Bennings had been an Italian fashion model thirty-eight years ago when she married her late husband, Tommy, an American citizen and commercial airline pilot. She gave up her catwalk career in Milan to be a wife and mother, giving birth to and raising three children in Southern California. But when her husband and youngest son died in a plane crash four years ago, she snapped. She had a nervous breakdown from which she never fully recovered. She also physically let herself go to seed, and she looked older than her age of sixty. Gina couldn’t even take good care of herself anymore, so Staci had been living with her and attending to her needs while at the same time stepping in to help run the family aviation business.

“We should call Kit.”

“He’s overseas, Mom. I’ll tell him the next time he calls.”

“Where is he stationed now?”

“I’ve told you a hundred times: he’s doing one of those things he can’t talk about.”

“Kit can help. We need a man in the house. Why doesn’t he move home, anyway?”

“Don’t worry, I can take care of this,” said Staci, running her hand through her mom’s unkempt gray hair and then giving her a gentle kiss on top of the head.

“Staci, someone has stolen all of our money. Please call Kit.”

Staci checked her chronograph: 8:00 A.M. Pacific Time meant it was 7:00 P.M. in Moscow. The timing was probably okay. Kit would be calling in a few hours, anyway, as he did every day without fail since the plane crash that left him as the sole “man of the house.” She knew she was only to call him if there was an emergency, using the encrypted satellite phone, or sat phone, he had given her. As she thought about it, she figured this qualified, even if her brother was involved in some kind of black ops. Having spent several years in the army herself, including a stint in Iraq, she knew better than to ever ask her brother what he really did.

Staci could take care of the damage control well enough with all of the financial institutions; it would be a time-consuming mess, but she’d do it and do it well. She took no offense at her mom’s insistence on notifying her big brother. A day never went by that Gina didn’t ask Kit to please move back home and live with her and Staci. An extremely close-knit family had been torn apart the day her dad and younger brother died in that crash. Selfishly, a part of Staci would like Kit to come home, too, and help ease the burden of being Gina’s sole caregiver.

Yes, the view from the window was murky; sometimes you needed help to remember to look up and find the blue sky.

“You’re right, Mom. I’ll call Kit.”

Staci knew that Kit had friends at the NSA, National Security Agency, and those freaky geeks could do virtually anything in the digital world they wanted to. Congressional oversight? Court orders? Search warrants? The politicians wanted people to believe that all of the snooping was legal and about terrorism, but oversight was a gray area at best, and Washington power politics was a constant exercise in abuse of power. The more spying that was allowed in the name of “keeping Americans safe,” the more risk every citizen ran of becoming a target in the crosshairs of a government agency or employee or politician with an agenda; it happened frequently, regardless of what the politicians or the press led the public to believe.

But the flip side of the coin for Staci was that Kit’s cyber-warrior pals would indeed abuse the system to find the jerk who did this, and then make them pay. So she crossed to the desk and dialed a number into the sat phone.

*   *   *

Just back from a long workday, Major Kit Bennings stood at the foot of his bed and, with no wasted movement, changed out of the civilian clothes—slacks, dress shirt, and tie—that he usually wore while on duty as an assistant defense attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. He could faintly hear his roommates arguing over a game of cards in the main room of their shared apartment off Voykova Street in the Golovinsky District.

His three roomies were army personnel posted to the embassy. Careful scheduling assured that at least one of them was always present in the ground-floor corner apartment, thus preventing agents of the Russian intelligence agencies from ever gaining surreptitious access and bugging the place, as they did at most American government workers’ living quarters in Moscow. Bennings turned up the volume on his digital music player, and the chords of “Boom Boom” by legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker filled his room and masked the indistinct chatter of his roomies.

Bennings’s quarters were a safe room within a safe house; from the exterior, no one could see the bricked-up windows and floors and walls lined with lead. Or the trapdoor leading to a secret tunnel down below.

Kit sat heavily at a small vanity. Recent stress and fatigue lines and dark circles had become fixtures under his thirty-five-year-old brown eyes, indicating a need for more sleep and relaxation. In a preventative effort to fight off the enervating migraines that sometimes plagued him, he used reflexology on himself and dug his right thumb hard into a pressure point on his hand. He winced from the sharp pain but then pressed harder. Then he released and pressed again. Sixty seconds of sharp pain from pressure-point stimulation was far superior to three days of debilitating agony from a migraine. Army doctors had prescribed Imitrex, Zolmitriptan nasal spray, and other medications, but they didn’t help, and instead, infused him with crippling fatigue. So Bennings had come to rely on acupuncture and acupressure to fight off the debilitating migraines.

“Massage” finished, he ran a hand through short-cropped, brown hair as coarse as steel wool and scratched his head vigorously, as if trying to wake up his brain. Tall without being too tall, fit without drawing attention to the fact, Kit had a narrow face, slightly crooked nose, and strong chin highlighting a visage that could blend in easily in Latin America, the Middle East, the West, Russia, or most anywhere, excluding Africa or Asia. And he had often done just that in the years he had spent conducting dangerous operations for a secret army unit originally designated ISA—Intelligence Support Activity. This secret detachment of fearless, highly-trained soldiers went out and gathered intelligence in harm’s way before the boys from Delta or DEV GRU—SEAL Team Six—went in to do their dirty business, although ISA had their share of “shooters,” too.

Sometimes, as during the raid to kill Bin Laden, ISA operatives worked hand-in-hand with Six or Delta or DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency agents or officers from the CIA’s SAD, Special Activities Division. The ISA folks made for some of the spookiest spooks, and while ISA wasn’t even their official name anymore, it didn’t matter: they were referred to by those in the know, usually in whispers, as simply, the Activity.

Kit Bennings felt tremendous pride in having achieved so much success as a member of the Activity. But tonight he was tired, and that could be seen in his most striking feature, his eyes. Even though brown is the most common color of all, his eyes simply … simmered. Not with rage but with intensity and luminosity. He could accuse, judge, and sentence a suspect in one brief glance. They cut like a diamond saw. Were they eagle eyes? Hawk eyes? They were the eyes of a predator, for sure, and when he directed them with intent upon a person, it was like having the red dot of a weapon’s laser pointing at your vitals.

Since his eyes could be a giveaway, a red flag to the opposition, he had to remember to smile to soften his gaze; or he had to look away to stay unnoticed by others, since his hard countenance was so physically intimidating. He could imply a malevolence in his stare that made men, even hard men, think twice about trying something.

In the past, friendly acquaintances who didn’t know the true nature of his work had felt reassured by simply being in Bennings’s presence, within the aura of his confident physicality, not knowing he was usually involved in something that could get himself and everyone around him killed.

After delivering a final scratch to his scalp, he slid open a drawer in the vanity and silently calculated: within a month, this Moscow duty would be over. The sacrifice on his part to pull off the counterintelligence operation could stop, and he seriously looked forward to that day. He wanted to get back to L.A. to see his mom and sister. He was worried about them; he was always worried about them since the demise of his dad and brother.

He let out an audible sigh, as if signaling some kind of transition, an acquiescence to the next phase of the evening’s activities, and then with delicate precision that belied his large hands and powerful forearms, he popped in green contact lenses, applied eyeliner, and tugged on a shaggy, dirty-blond wig. Then he crossed to an antique armoire and found the rest of tonight’s costume. He squeezed into tight black jeans and pulled on a slim-fit Maroon 5 T-shirt. Completing the transformation into some kind of quasi-goth hipster, he draped a red shoulder bag over his shoulder and lifted the trapdoor, ready to climb down to a dim netherworld, when his encrypted sat phone rang softly.

He checked the caller ID and then quickly answered. “Staci, is everything okay?” Bennings immediately felt a little self-conscious, standing there in front of a full-length mirror looking very nonmilitary; it was like his sister wasn’t calling on a phone from thousands of miles away but had just walked in on him while he was pretending to be Iggy Pop.

After apologizing for the call, she quickly filled him in about the identity theft. “I’m so sorry to interrupt anything, but Mom insisted, and I…”

“I’m glad you called, that’s why I gave you the phone. Listen, I’m busy right now, but you remember my friend Jen Huffman, right?”

“Yes. How is she?”

“Ask her that yourself when she calls you. Tell her everything, give her whatever she needs. Trust her like she’s one of the family, because that’s what she is.”

“Sounds great.”

“She’s a magician with this kind of stuff. We’ll make everything right, I promise.”

Staci exhaled audibly. “I have to say that’s a big relief.”

“Give the phone to Mom, and I’ll say hi to her real quick.”

“She’s fallen asleep in the chair.”

Kit bit his lip. “At eight o’clock in the morning?”

“I’ll tell her you said you love her.”

“I do love her. And I love you too, Staci. And say hello to that fiancé of yours.”

“His name is Blanchard. When are you going to start using it?”

“Maybe when he’s my brother-in-law. But what kind of first name is Blanchard?” asked Kit, smiling.

“What kind of first name is Kitman?”

“I shortened it to Kit, remember? But if you shorten Blanchard, you get Blanch. ‘Hey everybody, meet Blanch. Great guy with a woman’s name from a Tennessee Williams play!’ Got to go, Sis,” said Kit with a smile to his voice.

“Stay safe, big Brother.”

*   *   *

The tunnel ran between Bennings’s five-story walk-up concrete-block apartment building to an identical building next door. Identical, in fact, to thousands of other apartment buildings in Moscow. At two feet deep by three feet wide, the crude underground passageway had taken engineers six months to secretly build, the same six months that Bennings had to spend in the Pentagon’s Defense Attaché System training program.

Bennings manually pulled himself along the tunnel while lying on a flat cart that rolled on small sections of plastic rail. The four- or five-times-a-week ritual was an exercise in blind faith and total surrender. He hated it. Undercover operators don’t generally remain successful due to blind faith and total surrender.

He climbed up through the trapdoor into a ground-floor apartment of his neighboring building, a unit decorated in goth musician chic and that faced away from his real apartment. Hidden timers controlled the lights, TV, and water usage, to give the appearance to any utility snoops that someone actually lived there. But to be extra careful, Bennings grabbed his Fender Stratocaster, the same electric guitar he had played as a so-so lead guitarist in a high school blues band called Chord on Blue. He plugged into a small Marshall amp, sank into the secondhand sofa, turned up the volume, and started playing a bad rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Cold Shot.”

Thirty seconds into the song, the old lady who lived next door began pounding on the wall. He turned the volume down and finished up the tune. Practicing his blues guitar licks for only three minutes wasn’t improving his shoddy musicianship, but it helped establish with certainty that a human being lived in the apartment, and in Moscow, this was no small thing. Bennings also simply loved to play, and even three minutes a day, even a frustrating three minutes of wrong notes and missed chords, helped to lighten his mood.

He switched off the amp. After checking concealed security cameras that showed the hallway outside the apartment door to be empty, he slid on a pair of very dark sunglasses, adopted a slack posture, and with a bouncy walking gait unlike his own, disappeared into the night.

Copyright © 2015 Ed Kovacs.

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Ed Kovacs is the author of the critically acclaimed Cliff St. James series. Using various pen names, he has worked professionally around the world as a screenwriter (eight of his screenplays have been produced) television writer, journalist, comedy writer, and media consultant. He is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, American Legion Post 299, the International Thriller Writers association, and Mystery Writers of America.