The sound of an angry voice had Carey Madigan glancing toward the outer doorway of the curator’s office.
“Let’s see that lying, useless bastard try to dodge me now.” The words were spoken in clipped Russian, the tone cold and unyielding and held an authoritative tone.
It had been quite a while since she had last heard the language spoken, her contacts in Moscow often communicating in English, but the translation came to her as if it had only been yesterday. The man’s tone conveyed his grievance, while the often angry sounding language added more to the fury in his voice.
Heavy footfalls slowed, and she watched cautiously, her breath catching in her throat as the door swung open. Three very large men, all wearing identical foreboding expressions entered, the skin above their noses scrunched up into a deep scowl, their ice cold stares settling on her.
Her body tensed in fear, warning her. She froze in place as one would do when faced with a wild animal. She recognized the type of men they were, cold blooded killers who tortured and killed people for fun and sport.
She shivered under their collective attention.
They looked so out of place among the dark stained bookcases that lined the south wall of the office, filled with titles such as The World’s Most Elusive Treasures, How to Preserve Ivory-Inlaid Artifacts, The Kremlin’s Inventory and Russian Glassworks. Several Degrees—hers included—hung proudly on the walls along with photographs of the museum’s curator opening recent exhibits and framed newspaper articles praising Hamilton Museum and Gardens.
She forced herself to smile brightly, careful to keep her eyes void of the fear surging beneath the surface that demanded she run. She wanted to draw the least amount of attention to herself and denied the relief she knew she would feel by escaping from their calculating gazes. There was no way to deny that each of the large bulky men were Russian. She spotted it on their bone structures immediately, in the way they moved and stood. And not just any Russian, she had a sick feeling these men worked for the Bratva—the brotherhood, a faction of the mafiya.
One of the men, large and overbearing, appearing to be in his late thirties, leaned a hip against one of the four filing cabinets in the room, his bulk threatening to topple the heavy-duty metal case. It lifted slightly as it took the brunt of his weight, leaning to one side toward the large green-leafed potted plant sitting beside her desk.
Standing, she took a few steps toward the three men.
“Can I help you?” she asked, willing her voice not to quiver. Her heart pounded hard in her chest. She kept a blinding smile plastered to her face and her voice light and upbeat. Hopefully they would dismiss her as a threat and think nothing of her, allowing her slip away unnoticed and sound the alarm.
How had they managed to bypass security and make it to the third floor offices without being spotted and asked to return the main floor where the exhibits were displayed? Hamilton’s wasn’t the most secure museum in the world, but certain precautions were taken to protect the artifacts, some worth millions of dollars.
The museum should be shut and locked down, since the five o’clock closing time had long since passed. The sun was slowly setting, another end to a long summer day, the sky an array of red and purple hues. Despite the always stuffy office, she was ice cold with the realization that she and her boss, Brian Nichols, were all alone inside the museum.
First one in, last one out. Usually she loved her job but right at that moment she wished she was anywhere but here. She couldn’t recall how many of the museum’s skeleton staff remained on-site overnight.
The Man in Charge, who seemed to be in his late thirties with a permanent scowl attached to his forehead, gave her body a once over, obvious appreciation in his gaze before he turned his back on her. Feeling violated from his appraisal, she tried not to squirm as her skin crawled while she fought to regulate her breathing.
He pounded his fist on the door to her boss’s office, with such force it made the door shake. He wore a brilliant Armani navy blue suit with white pinstripes which had obviously been tailored specially for him.
What did they want with Brian? Her gaze flicked over to the other two men in the room who strangely seemed to surround her. The office felt as if it was closing in around her. She tried to shake off the feeling of unease creeping up her spine.
She sat back at her desk with slow, deliberate movements as if she had all the time in the world and pretended to survey the porcelain vase she’d been studying through the magnifying glass before the interruption. Her job required her to examine each antique for any signs of a forgery or degradation before the museum considered it for purchase. Unable to concentrate with them being so close, she watched them out of the corner of her eye, not daring to take her attention from what she considered to be a deadly snake. The scent of man infiltrated her nostrils along with something that suspiciously smelled liked cordite. She cautiously checked out each man and her breathing hitched as she spotted the conspicuous bulge under the expensive suit jackets.
What the hell were they doing here?
Brian Nichols opened the connecting door between her office and his. She could see that he was ready to snap at her for disturbing his peace, but stopped, mouth open, mid-word when he caught the three men in his vision. His face lost all blood, his eyes becoming wider and there was a desperate glint in them. Brian looked like someone had walked over his grave. The Man in Charge glared hard at Brian who fidgeted nervously under the scrutiny, his frightened gaze going to each of the four occupants in the room, never once settling on anyone for more than a few seconds.
“I want to know what happened, Brian,” the Man in Charge said in Russian before glancing over at her. She feigned disinterest, her face remaining impassive as she studied the vase under the magnifying glass, looking at the individual brush stokes that were used to create the fine piece of art, trying desperately to make herself as small as possible.
“Mikhail,” Brian said, addressing the Man in Charge. “I need some time to work out the wrinkle.”
“The wrinkle. Is that what you call it? You don’t seem to understand the predicament you are in, Brian. Where is—” He glanced at her. She could feel his eyes boring into her, burning her skin. She fought every instinct inside her that told her to flee. It would certainly do her no good. Maybe even make matters worse for herself if she did so.
“Who is she?” he asked Brian.
Brian stepped in front of her, effectively blocking her from Mikhail’s view which she was immediately thankful for. “She’s nobody, just my assistant. I’ll send her away.”
His assistant, my ass. He would be lost without her and they both knew it. It was the main reason Brian despised her—that and the fact she wouldn’t sleep with him. He turned and faced her, his eyes imploring her not to argue. That look was almost her undoing. Brian was a self-assured, arrogant pig who believed the sun rose and set on him. He must be in an enormous amount of trouble if he was silently begging her to understand and comply.
She swallowed hard and nodded. She carefully picked up the vase she was working on. At no point would it ever occur to her to leave it behind. Not just for security reasons but also because it was an amazing piece of history and art. She was responsible for the vase and would do anything to ensure its safety.
“Can I get you anything before I leave?” she asked, playing the part of a good assistant.
“No, thank you. Have a good night,” Brian said, almost choking on the words in an effort to appear calm and in control. He failed.
“You too,” she said, although she didn’t believe he would, and if the look in his eyes said anything, it was that he doubted it too.
She nodded to the men and with unhurried steps made her way to the outer office door. She forced herself to move slowly and breathe evenly, not wanting them to realize she was dubious of them. If they suspected she might sound the alarm, they’d detain her and then she and Brian were both screwed.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” Mikhail asked.
Carey stopped, her hand closing around the doorknob. Ice ran through her veins and she turned to look at the big man. She made a point of appearing as though she was conscientiously trying to make a connection, not hurrying the process. She shook her head.
“Sorry, I don’t believe so,” she replied before exiting the office.
Once the door was closed, she didn’t hesitate and rushed down the hallway as fast as she could, balancing precariously in three-inch heels while holding onto the expensive vase. She almost tripped as her stiletto heel caught a ragged area of the carpet. She swore softly. The board of directors had promised to have the old carpet replaced months ago. They hadn’t, and it almost cost them a three hundred and eighty-thousand dollar vase.
Hamilton Museum was an old Georgian mansion built in the mid 1760s by a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson, and it had changed hands many times over the years. Situated near Colonial Village, overlooking Rock Creek Park, it had been converted into a museum in the early 1900s after the last heir, Gloria Hamilton-West, had passed on. The building was on the National Register of Historic Places. The mansion had originally been built as a modest five bedroom, two-storey brownstone but over the years had been expanded to sixteen rooms including formal and informal dining, a tea-room, pavilion, and foyer. Another level had to be added to accommodate the additions.
The museum itself boasted the most comprehensive collection of Russian antiquities outside of Russia. It also had a high level of eighteenth and nineteenth century French art and collectables along with several Ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts. Recently they had showcased a collection of women’s fashion over the years, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She’d worked there as assistant curator since she had returned to the United States.
Moving quickly past the marble busts of the museum’s previous curators—most likely pompous asses like Brian—she turned a corner and entered the closest office which belonged to their French art expert, Pierre D’Artimo. The office was almost identical to her own except his polished desk was devoid of clutter and a neatly printed to-do list lay atop of the in-tray. The heavy maroon curtains were closed, casting the clean office in darkness. She switched on the small light attached to the wall beside the desk, the one Pierre used to examine his finds.
She gently placed the vase down on the desk, glad to be rid of it for the moment. Her palms were beginning to sweat and she feared dropping the thing. Lifting up the handset on the telephone, she dialed the extension for the security office. She would have started dialing on her cell but it was locked away in the drawer of her desk since staff were not permitted to take it with them around the museum. The phone line rang, but no one was there.
Great time to take a bathroom break, Milo. He was Hamilton’s head of security. She dialed again. Come on, pick up….
The phone rang again. She could have dialed the museum’s information line to get Milo’s personal number but she couldn’t for the life of her remember his last name. It was something Italian, she knew that much.
She cursed herself for not taking much interest in the people around her. She’d been consumed by her work for too long. Milo had flirted with her from time to time but she had made it very clear she wasn’t interested in him. She wasn’t looking for a date and kept to herself. She had been doing that since Moscow. Milo probably assumed she was a snob, which suited her just fine.
She slammed down the phone in frustration, feeling slightly better by the angry action. It was short lived as she heard the raised voices coming through the wall. The Man in Charge, Mikhail, was screaming at Brian. She could just make out some words.
“Where…the ship…had better…now.”
She didn’t like the sound of that, and what ship? Opening the office door, she slammed into Milo’s chest since she’d stepped out without looking. He grabbed her arms to steady her. She bit off a scream when she recognized the baby faced features belonging to the head of security. He certainly didn’t seem the type you’d trust to guard over several million dollars’ worth of antiquities.
“Carey, what’s going on?” he asked, before looking past her toward the curator’s office at the end of the next corridor, where the screaming was still going on.
At this time of evening when the museum was closed and all had gone home, the place could be quite eerie. Any sounds made echoed through the rooms. There had been several instances where she had been scared to the bone and had practically ran to her car to escape the evil clutches of the innocent mansion.
There would only be a handful of guards on shift, the others having gone home after scanning all incoming visitors with metal detectors and watching them for any suspicious actions. In all her time at the museum, there had never been any incidents…until now.
“Milo, do you have a radio or your cell on you?” she asked as the yelling became louder, more insistent. She didn’t like to think what could happen to Brian if they left him unattended for much longer. The Russian was losing patience more quickly than the Titanic took on water. That was if he’d had any to begin with.
Milo nodded. “Sure. Have to. It’s procedure.”
“Good, call for help.” She stepped past him, continuing towards the curator’s office. Milo was already speaking on the phone to the other members of security. She heard a loud pop sound and her heart stopped and her blood ran cold, her steps faltering. Milo, a few steps behind, almost ran into the back of her, unprepared for her sudden halt. Salty tears burned her eyes. These were not the type of people to mess around. The pop sound could only mean one thing and deep down she knew what that thing was.
“You’d better call 911 while you’re at it,” she told Milo.
She turned the corner into the main corridor that led to the staircase descending to the lower levels and hurried over to the curator’s office and opened the door, knowing full well what she would find in there. The room was empty, a harsh smell assaulted her nose, and her gaze immediately fell upon the lifeless body of Brian Nichols. Her brain shut down as she tried to deal with the situation. Her body working on autopilot, she took in the redecorating, Russian style. Brian’s brains were splattered against the wall and blood pooled around his head. His fingers were bent at difficult angles and the smell of cordite was overpowering. Death hung in the air and she almost gagged. She forced herself to move across the room, assessing the havoc. The filing cabinets and desk drawers sat open, papers haphazardly strewn about.
Someone was looking for something.
A loud intake of breath told her Milo had joined her in the doorway. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “What the fuck happened here?”
Carey had the sick feeling she knew exactly what happened. She had seen this kind of depravity before, years ago, back in Russia.