Sunday, February 28
Glittering white lay all around. Over the old snow, a new, clean layer of soft flakes had fallen fifteen minutes earlier. Fifteen minutes earlier, everything had still been possible. The world had looked beautiful, the future flickering somewhere in the distance: brighter, freer, more peaceful. A future worth risking everything, worth going all‑in, worth trying to make a break for it.
Fifteen minutes earlier, a light, downy snowfall had spread a thin feather blanket over the old snow. Then it had ceased, as suddenly as it had begun, followed by rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. Hardly any days all winter had been this beautiful.
Now each moment saw more red encroaching on the white, spreading, gaining ground, creeping forward through the crystals, staining them as it went. Some of the red had flown farther, a shrieking, bright crimson spattering the snow.
Natalia Smirnova stared with brown eyes at the red-flecked snow, seeing nothing. Thinking nothing. Hoping nothing. Fearing nothing.
Ten minutes earlier, Natalia had hoped and feared more than ever before in her life. With trembling hands, she had stuffed money into her authentic Louis Vuitton handbag, anxiously listening for even the tiniest rustling from outside. She had tried to steady her nerves, assuring herself that everything was fine. She had a plan. But at the same time, she had known that no plan was ever perfect. An intricate edifice carefully constructed over months can collapse at the barest nudge.
The purse had also contained a passport and plane ticket to Moscow. She wasn’t taking anything else. At the Moscow airport, her brother would be waiting with a rental car, ready to drive her hundreds of miles to a dacha only a few people knew about. There, her mother would be waiting with three-year-old Olga, the daughter she hadn’t seen in more than a year. Would her little girl even remember her? But no matter. A month or two hiding out in the countryside would give them time to get to know each other again. While they waited until she believed they were safe. While they waited for the world to forget about Natalia Smirnova.
Natalia had stifled the nagging voice in her head that insisted no one would forget her at all. That they wouldn’t allow her to disappear. She had assured herself that she wasn’t so important that they couldn’t simply find someone to replace her if need be. And going to the effort of tracking her down would be too much bother anyway.
In this line of work, people disappeared now and then, usually taking some money along with them. That was just one of the risks of doing business—an unavoidable loss like the spoiled fruit a grocery store had to throw out.
Natalia hadn’t counted the money. She’d simply stuffed as much of it as she could into her bag. Some of the bills had gotten crumpled, but that didn’t matter. A crumpled five-hundred-euro bill was worth just as much as a crisp one. You could still buy three months of food with it, maybe four if you were really careful. You could still use it to buy a person’s silence for long enough. For lots of people, five hundred euros was the price of a secret.
Natalia Smirnova, age twenty, lay facedown, her cheek in the cold snow. Not feeling the prickling of the ice against her skin. Not feeling the frigid chill of thirteen below on her bare earlobes.
The man had sung about a woman named Natalia to her in a gruff voice, off-key. Natalia hadn’t liked the song. The Natalia in it was from Ukraine, but she was from Russia. On the other hand, she had liked the man who sang and stroked her hair. She’d just tried not to listen to the words. Fortunately, that had been easy. She’d known some Finnish, under-standing much more than she could speak, but when she stopped trying and let her mind relax, the foreign words ran together, losing their meaning and becoming nothing more than combinations of sounds falling out of the man’s mouth as he hummed sweetly against Natalia’s neck.
Five minutes earlier, Natalia had been thinking about that man and his slightly clumsy hands. Would he miss her? Maybe a bit. Maybe just a little bit. But not enough, because he had never loved her, not really. If he had loved her, really loved her, he would have solved Natalia’s problems for her, as he’d promised to do so many times. Now Natalia had to solve her problems for herself.
Two minutes earlier, Natalia had snapped her handbag shut, which bulged with cash. Quickly, she’d tidied up and then glanced at herself in the front hall mirror. Bleached blond hair, brown eyes, thin eyebrows, and shining red lips. She had been pale, with dark circles under her eyes from staying up too late. She had just been leaving. In her mouth, she had tasted freedom and fear, both of which had a metallic tang.
Two minutes earlier, she had looked her reflection in the eye and raised her chin. This was her chance to make a break, and she was taking it.
That’s when Natalia heard the key turning in the lock. She had frozen in place, straining her ears. One set of footsteps, then another, and a third. The Troika. The Troika were coming through the door.
All she could do was run.
One minute earlier, Natalia had charged through the kitchen toward the patio door. She’d fumbled with the lock. Her hands had been shaking too much to get the door unlatched. Then, by some miracle, it had given way, and Natalia had run across the snow-covered terrace into the garden. Her leather boots had sunk in the fresh snow, but she’d pressed on without looking back. She hadn’t heard anything. She had thought for a moment that she might make it after all, that she might escape, that she might actually win.
Thirty seconds earlier, a pistol fitted with a silencer had fired with a dull snap, and a bullet had pierced the back of Natalia Smirnova’s coat and skin, barely missing her spine and ripping through her internal organs and, finally, the handle of her Louis Vuitton bag, which she had been clutching to her chest. She had fallen forward into the pure, untouched snow.
The red puddle under Natalia continued to spread, consuming the snow all around. The red was still voracious and warm, but it cooled with each second that passed. One set of slow, heavy footfalls approached Natalia Smirnova as she lay in the snow. But she did not hear.