City Of A Thousand Spies – First Chapter

Chapter 1

AS SOON AS NIGHT FALLS, darkness becomes your weapon. Use it, or you’ll find it used against you.

She scrambled up the steep incline, repeating the words to herself like a mantra, like a prayer she was trying to believe in, willing them to produce the effect she needed. Invisibility. Concealment.

When Conor had offered this advice—his face solemn, as if reciting a piece of ancient wisdom—she’d tried to match his mood, but ended up annoying him with an ill-timed giggle. Kate wasn’t laughing now. The situation was more frightening than anything she’d prepared for, and her strategy was unraveling.

Instead of heading for the summit she should have taken the last side trail to slip back along a different route. She’d realized her mistake a few minutes earlier, when the forested mountainside began dropping away. It seemed as though the unseen hand of an artist was rubbing at the scenery, thinning the composition. The higher she climbed, the fewer the trees. Eventually, there would be none. She would emerge like wild game flushed from its cover—a solid, unobstructed target.

It was too late to double back now, but with the cloud cover of a March evening speeding its arrival, the weapon she’d been waiting for finally appeared. Darkness. It poured over the mountain, an inky tide arriving exactly on time. Within a shrinking sphere of visibility Kate paused to listen for a sign of pursuit.

Earlier, she’d been able to detect it—a distant thump of booted feet on the trail, more vibration than sound. Methodical. Relentless. The beat of it in the ground under her feet had unnerved her, but its absence was worse.

Pebbles from eroding stone shifted beneath her feet. She cringed at the rattle echoing through the otherwise silent forest. Scrambling up the final steep section of rock, she pulled herself onto an outcrop of ledge and stood motionless on the summit. At the corner of her eye something shivered in a thicket of evergreens, and she spun to face it. A bird? A rustle of wind? Something else? Kate focused on the indistinct shape of the trees, but the movement had subsided.

She relaxed and took a long breath, wiping the sweat from her forehead, but when she turned he was right there, his dark figure filling the space in front of her, extinguishing what light remained. She screamed and reflexively took a step away, then felt herself toppling back over the ledge. A hand shot out and yanked her forward. She heard him grunt as one of her windmilling arms connected with his chin. Off-balance himself, he slammed her onto the ground and fell on top of her. Kate landed hard, flat on her back, and felt the air explode from her lungs like a shot being fired.

In one fluid movement the figure rolled away and up onto his knees, then loomed so close she could feel his breath on her face.

“Kate? Are you all right? Did I hurt you?”

Trying to speak, she managed only an urgent hiccup and lay still, struggling not to panic at the clenched paralysis of her lungs.

“Damn. Sorry, love.” Conor’s dark eyes flashed, wide and startled. “The wind’s knocked out of you. Try to relax. It won’t last long.”

It felt like hours, though it was probably no more than a few seconds before her diaphragm relaxed and Kate sucked a gulp of air past the pain in her chest. He waited until her breathing grew less desperate, and then in a manner more clinical than either one of them was used to, he slipped his hands beneath her fleece jacket, watching her face while he probed her ribs.

Once satisfied she wasn’t seriously injured, Conor gave her a cheerful smile. “No bones broken.”

Kate pushed his hands away and sat up. “No thanks to you. What the hell was that, anyway? You told me this was a chase exercise. You were supposed to be behind me—chasing. You told me to evade and listen for signs of pursuit.”

“I also told you to stay alert—and I did chase you, but then I peeled away to the right and got ahead of you.” Conor smiled. “I didn’t think it was going to work so well.”

“You’re proud of yourself! For knocking me senseless!”

“Ah, go on, you know that’s not true.” His face sobered. “Listen, I’m sorry, but this is what it’s like—and anyway, can I remind you that all this ‘getting a jump start’ business was your idea.”

“I know, I know.” Kate scowled. “I should have seen you. I was just distracted by something in that tree over there.”

“Sure that was me as well. I threw a stone into it, and you stood staring like you thought it would get up and walk away. That’s something to remember. You need to be able to look at more than one thing at a time.”

“Okay, I want this lesson to be over now.”

“But, you were the one who—”

“Over!”

“Right so.” He ducked his head, hiding a grin as he shrugged a backpack from his shoulders. After pulling out a thermos and several plastic containers, he removed a small lantern clipped to the side of the pack. Turning it on, he placed it on the rock between them.

“What’s all this?” Kate peered down at the display.

“Candlelight supper, courtesy of Chef Abigail. It’s a long walk down and it’s already dark, so we might as well eat first.”

“My God, you’re a genius.” She leaned over to reward him with a kiss, running her fingers through his tousled black hair. “It was worth it, just for this.”

“Well, let’s see if you still think so by the time we get home.”

He had a point. Table Rock, far from the highest mountain peak in Vermont, was not a difficult hike in daylight, but it was a precarious descent in the dark, even when wearing headlamps, and after reaching the parking lot they still had an hour’s drive ahead of them. It was after nine o’clock when Conor turned the truck onto the driveway of the Rembrandt Inn.

Since purchasing the property six years earlier Kate had continued the tradition of closing the hotel for the months of March and April—the state’s least photogenic period in the calendar year and a dormant time for tourism. Famous for playing cruel tricks with its weather patterns, Vermont served as a sort of proving ground in early spring in a way that even the heartiest natives found challenging. As a transplant from New York Kate had experienced her share of soul-testing moments, but she’d learned to cope and to appreciate anything that helped remind her why she’d fallen in love with the place. Like right now, for example. With a pale moon hanging in the sky over its roof and the porch light shining, the inn looked particularly charming as they pulled up in front of it.

Her legs sore and her back stiffening, Kate gathered her strength before sliding from the passenger seat while Conor stood holding the door for her, his face unreadable. He could be good at that trick—projecting a blank slate without visible effort. She’d first seen that polite, impenetrable mask when he showed up on an April evening almost a year ago, an emigrant Irishman burdened with a stash of secrets he was determined to keep hidden.

He’d arrived with an unconventional résumé—a farmer who’d stopped farming, a professional violinist who’d stopped playing. Once settled under her roof he’d begun applying himself to both again, and before the end of that year Kate had poked her way through all his cautious evasions and given up secrets of her own—and they’d discovered others together that neither could have imagined.

They’d suffered and healed together during that time as well, and now Conor’s opaque facades were less effective with her. He couldn’t often fool her—he didn’t often try—but tonight Kate knew he was trying to hide his distress. His mission for the evening had been to stalk and terrify her. He’d done it well and had banged her up in the process, but any heartfelt apologies would defeat the ostensible purpose of the exercise—to prepare her for more of the same—as well as his unacknowledged objective, which was to put her off the project altogether.

Prodded by rebellious instinct, Kate shook off her weariness. She reached into the bed of the truck to lift the heavy backpack, but this effort to prove her resilience was too much for Conor. She wasn’t surprised when he stepped forward to take it from her.

“Hot shower?” he said, casually throwing the pack over his shoulder.

She gave his hand a squeeze. “I like the way you think.”

CONOR KNEW IT WAS COMING; he could see it in the set of her chin. An argument was on the way, and twenty minutes together in her spacious, walk-in shower had postponed, but not preempted, it. While toweling off, he watched Kate with guarded suspicion.

Wrapped in a blue silk robe, she stood at the bathroom sink staring at her reflection and shedding water from her toothbrush with rhythmic taps against the porcelain. A “fate motif” worthy of Beethoven. It sent him scuttering into the adjoining bedroom in search of escape, but he’d mistimed the strike. She waited until they were lying in bed together, her head on his shoulder, one hand trailing over his chest.

Very clever, he thought. Attack when I’m most vulnerable.

It wasn’t hard to put him off-balance in this room anyway. He’d been occupying the master suite for a while now, but during his first six months at the inn he’d stayed in a guest room down the hall. He occasionally felt nostalgic for its more modest proportions.

Not that Kate’s room wasn’t comfortable. Despite its size it was warm and intimate, its best feature an expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows offering a view of the pasture sloping down from the inn and the outline of Lake Rembrandt in the distance. Opposite the windows hung a set of three small canvases, miniatures of the landscape surrounding his farm in Ireland. Kate had painted them during their stay the previous fall, the result of an artistic rebirth after many years of creative paralysis. She’d unveiled them as a gift, saying it was to help him feel more at home in the space they now shared. It was exactly the right touch, helping to remind Conor that some things from his past life remained intact.

Kate’s hand slid away and he pulled his attention back to her, steeling himself.

“I know you don’t want me to do this, but you need to get on board. I think it’s important for me to go through with it,” she said.

“Why?” Conor kept his tone neutral, wary of aggravating her, but when she lifted her head, her eyes were sleepy and reassuring.

“It isn’t because I want to do what you do. I’m not planning to be Frank Murdoch’s latest unconventional recruit, but he’s offered to have me trained as if I were, and if I don’t accept it I might not get another chance. I can’t always go with you, I know that; but at least you won’t have to hide what you’re doing from me. It wouldn’t be good for either of us. Besides, if he knows I might be around, Frank may assign the dangerous jobs to someone else.”

Conor gave a derisive snort. “You put entirely too much trust in him. Frank Murdoch will do as he pleases. He’s an MI6 officer.”

“So are you,” Kate said softly.

“Non-official cover agent,” he insisted. He was an Irishman, contracted to work for the British Secret Intelligence Service. It was important to keep the boundaries clear.

“I stand corrected. Anyway, that’s one reason. The other involves something I don’t think you’ve given much consideration—that I might not be any safer at home. The last six months are proof enough of that, and you won’t always be around to protect me. I suppose you’d want to surround me with bodyguards and high-tech security, but I can’t live like that. I need to learn how to protect myself.”

Conor had actually given a great deal of consideration to the issue of Kate’s safety, but she was correct in thinking most of it involved armed men and surveillance cameras. A recent threat to her life had been eliminated decisively, but given her unique background there was no guarantee it would be the last. The skills he’d learned at the Fort Monckton training site during his own MI6 initiation had served him well, and the modified program Frank suggested for Kate would likely do the same.

Conor couldn’t argue with the logic of giving her the tools to defend herself. It was the idea of her ever needing to use them that terrified him. But maybe his fear was a sort of poetic justice. This debate—which he was losing and probably deserved to—wouldn’t even be happening if he’d left Frank’s bargain on the table and walked away.

Even now, he wasn’t sure why he’d decided to remain an undercover agent. Was it because the offer came linked with a chance to rebuild his musical career? Or was it because he couldn’t resist the adrenaline rush of performance, the compulsion for total mastery of everything he was good at?

The compulsive instinct felt closer to a truth he wanted to shield from Kate, but for months she’d lobbied him for inclusion in the covert side of his life. Although he didn’t entirely understand her motivation, his resistance was crumbling. The Prague assignment might be dangerous—as usual, Frank was being coy about the details, including a departure date—but if Conor was being honest, he didn’t want her to stay home either. His mission included an opportunity to play in front of an audience again, to step onto a concert stage, tuck the violin beneath his chin, and fill the hall with sound. The prospect generated a certain amount of panic, but his anticipation was stronger and he couldn’t imagine experiencing something so momentous without her.

Kate propped herself on one hand to look at him and Conor moved restlessly on his back, preparing for the coup de grâce. Meeting the gaze of her expressive blue eyes always spelled defeat, partly because she employed the tactic without realizing it. She had no idea how magnificent she was, how beautiful, in a mood of earnest determination.

She hooked a finger under his jaw and turned his head to face her. “We can’t stay on opposite sides on this. Please. I need you to trust me. I need your support.”

“I do. You have it. I promise.” Conor sighed. “Ah, Kate. You’re going to be good at this, you know.”

“Really? I’m not so sure. I made a fool of myself tonight.”

“No, you didn’t. Far from it.” He sat up, giving her a kiss, and drew her down with him as he lay back. “You did well. Sorry for not saying so earlier. I did lose you for a while when it got dark.” Conor still remembered the anxiety he’d felt when he realized he’d lost track of her. “You melted away from me like a ghost. It was a bit unnerving. I didn’t think you were paying attention when I told you how to do that.”

“I’m always paying attention to you.”

She snuggled against him and a minute later was asleep—he could tell by the weight of her arm stretched across his stomach. In slumber, the laws of gravity seemed to double for Kate. She slept hard, and woke with a slow, seductive drowsiness, while he tended to bolt awake as though touched by a live current.

She also slept silently, which sometimes alarmed him. To ease his anxiety, he liked to have a hand resting on her somewhere, just as he did now, his palm flat against the warmth of her back. Once he felt the rise and fall of her breathing, he let his fingers wander through the dark copper curls of her hair, still damp from the shower. With his lips against her forehead, he whispered a promise:

“I’m always on your side. From this day forward, for better or worse …”

Noiselessly, she slept on, which was probably just as well. She wasn’t ready to hear those lines yet, but he was.