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A "masterful" and "riveting" thriller about a female CIA agent whose extraordinary facial recognition powers lead her into the dangerous heart of the Soviet Union—and the path of a killer who shouldn’t exist (Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author).
She never forgets a face.
He never forgets his prey.
It is 1990 when Melvina Donleavy arrives in Soviet Belarus on her first undercover mission with the CIA, alongside three fellow agents—none of whom know she is playing two roles. To the prying eyes of the KGB, she is merely a secretary; to her CIA minders, she is the only one who can stop the flow of nuclear weapons from the crumbling Soviet Union into the Middle East.
For Mel has a secret; she is a “super recognizer,” someone who never forgets a face. But no training could prepare her for the reality of life undercover, and for the streets of Minsk, where women have been disappearing. Soviet law enforcement is firm: murder is a capitalist disease. But could a serial killer be at work? Especially if he knew no one was watching? As Mel searches for answers, she catches the eye of an entirely different kind of threat: the elusive and petrifying “Black Wolf,” head of the KGB.
Filled with insider details from the author’s own time working under the direction of the U.S. Department of Defense, Black Wolf is a riveting new spy thriller from an Edgar-nominated crime writer, and a biting exploration of the divide between two nations, two masterminds, and two roles played by a woman pushed to her breaking point, where she’ll learn that you can only ever trust one person: yourself.
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Who can carry the incineration of a universe?
31 Iyul' 1990
Tuesday, July 31, 1990
Minsk Oblast, Byelorussia
The man was so happy, he thought his heart would shatter.
This surge of elation brought to mind the poem that every schoolchild grew up reciting:
There, the birch in silence
Slumbers all day long…
But at night. At night, with the warm summer breezes, the birch groves came alive, their topmost branches whipping carelessly in all directions. As did the tall, slender pines that stretched on formidably, lining both sides of the road like restless armies facing each other before a battle. The luminous shale road cut through the forest in an unbroken line—a white scar gouged into the land, shining pale and lustrous beneath a three-quarter moon.
The night air, as balmy, and as dense, as an evening spent on a Georgian holiday beach. The sky, for a few hours a shade blacker than black, punctured by a million pinpricks of light, bathed in the vaporous light of the Milky Way.
The man had rolled down all the windows of his car to let in the breezes, but soon, overcome by his senses, he killed the engine and stepped out of the blue Lada. He stood in ecstasy, the poem inviting back so many memories of his childhood. The savory smell of shashlik roasting on an open fire, the clink of a metal spoon against glass as the small dollop of jam was stirred into his tea, the meaty slap of fish against the surface of the lake as they leapt to catch bottle flies. The lazy, hours-long hunt for mushrooms. Delighted, he shivered and hugged himself and laughed out loud.
He had another ten kilometers to go before he could rest, and so he climbed into the driver's seat, started the engine, and continued on his northeast journey. As he drove, he listened for any noise from his passenger in the backseat. It had been quiet for the past twenty minutes, but he glanced in his rearview mirror all the same, checking for movement. There was none.
He smiled and began to hum a song he'd heard on the radio. "You Will Come Back to Me" by the Russian star Tamara Miansarova. A bit saccharine, but far better than listening to the Red Army Choir butcher another Western rock melody. He sang along, loudly, extravagantly, appreciating his own warm baritone, which had charmed so many women. So many women…
He was tempted to turn off his headlights and let the reflective glow from the road guide him. It would feel like flying. But it would not do to veer off, to get stuck in a boggy rut or, worse, hit a fox or wolf or the occasional elk that ventured out at night.
Checking the backseat again, he once more admired the ingenuity of his handiwork. The simplicity, the subtlety, of his methods. He had been a student of Western history. In particular, American Colonial history, that all-too-familiar swamp of superstitious dread and cultlike devotion to the ruling magistrates. That culture of opportunistic accusations, as during the Salem witch trials, where the remnants of medieval British law held strong: guilty until proven innocent. But even with debtors' prisons and oppressive religious rulings, outright torture had been outlawed. However, like good apparatchiks, the black-coated judges and their willing constables found a cunning way around the ban. They devised the Bow.
Economically, it only involved two lengths of rope. A prisoner was laid prone on the ground, belly down. The first length of rope tied his hands behind his back. One end of the second bound his ankles, the knees then bent backward at a sharp angle; the other was formed into a slip noose and secured around his neck. The prisoner was forced to bow his back to keep the noose from tightening. Eventually, no matter how strong, the muscles in his back would give out. His head would drop, the noose would tighten, and, unless he revealed what the magistrates wanted to hear, he would strangle himself.
He would strangle himself.
Technically, by the letter of the law, the jurists would not be responsible. Their consciences could remain clear. Ingenious, really.
The woman lying contorted in the backseat had been a famous gymnast as a teenager. But since, she had become doughy and overweight, continuing to eat as though she were still lithe and active, in training for the Soviet Olympics. She had remained quite strong, though, and had held out longer than any who had come before. Almost four minutes. A record!
She'd also not cried or begged as the others had. Instead, she had spat and raged and sworn at him. A fighter till the very end. It had added immeasurably to the piquancy of their shared experience, accounting, perhaps, for his heightened exhilaration now.
He saw the turnoff to his dacha. For the briefest moment he thought to keep driving the dozen or so kilometers on to Khatyn. Now abandoned, it'd been the town where as a boy he'd dreamed about serving as a policeman. He'd imagined having a new uniform, and a warm woolen coat, with boots of good leather. But the war had started, and German soldiers were soon thick as flies across the countryside. In 1942, not yet twenty, he'd joined the Resistance instead.
There was something delicious about the thought of performing his planting at the official park at Khatyn. To return in the fall to watch scores of respectful visitors laying flowers on the war memorials, and then stooping to harvest the fruits of his labors. But there was no guarantee that he could return when the park was open in September. The fall would be a very busy time for him.
Momentous events were taking place. The Byelorussian Soviet Republic would soon declare its sovereignty, and full independence from the Soviet Union would follow within a year's time. Of that he was certain.
So he turned and drove around the dacha slowly, skirting the broad sweep of the lawn, thick with fibrous grasses and wildflowers, and pulling into the deeper shadows at the back of the house. He parked, his headlights illuminating a stand of birch trees. They'd been tall even when he was a boy. Opening one of the rear doors, he pulled a pocketknife from his coat and deftly cut the ropes binding the woman, gently pulling them from her stiffening limbs. He dragged her from the backseat and, with some effort, across the dirt, until he felt his shoes sink into the softened, spongy earth under the sheltering trees.
He retrieved a shovel from the trunk of his car and, removing his coat, began to dig. A trench a few feet deep would suit his purposes. He soon began to sweat, but the predawn breeze was pleasant, and he hummed quietly to pass the time. When he was satisfied, he stripped the woman until she was naked, her cool skin pearlescent in the headlights, and settled her in. Then he stroked her, running his callused fingers over her contours, kneading her mounds of flesh and marveling at their velvety texture.
"Moya ledyanaya printsessa," he whispered, laying his body over hers, sinking his teeth into her until he tasted the bright tang of blood. My Ice Princess.
But it wasn't until, in a building frenzy, he had packed her mouth and the tight recess between her legs with dirt that he could obtain an erection and gain release.
When he had finished, he rested for a bit, and then stood and shoveled the earth back over her form. She would rest beneath the surface, her body providing the necessary nutrients for the mushrooms to grow. He only ever planted the luscious ones. The others—the skinny, harping, bold-faced ones—he threw away like the trash that they were.
Later, he'd sprinkle on barn hay and horse manure for carbon and nitrogen. Then the spores would grow thick and fragrant. In a few weeks he'd return to harvest them, along with the many others growing in the grove behind the well-seasoned dacha—at least twenty-six patches of them. He'd cook them in soups and stews and his personal specialty, made in vast quantities: draniki, mushroom-stuffed potato pancakes. After all, what good was plucking the bounty of the earth if you couldn't share it with friends and colleagues?
Finally finishing, depleted, he entered his summer home, where he stripped and washed and fell heavily upon the bed that had once been shared by his parents and his grandparents before them.
He smiled in the dark, remembering the Tamara song. "You Will Come Back to Me."
Yes, you will, he thought. Again. And again. And again.
Thursday, August 2, 1990
The small group of Americans arrived at Minsk-2 airport through a thick blanket of gray clouds and rain. The airport sat within a vast tract of silver birch forests about twenty miles east of the capital city. From a distance, the building had looked impressive, modern. Inside was a different story.
Melvina Donleavy stood at the baggage carousel a few feet apart from her three travel companions, taking in the crumbling masonry and cracked marble, the dangling and exposed wires, and long stretches of dark hallways. It had been pointed out by Dan Hatton, their team leader, that lightbulbs, among many other things, were in short supply.
The passage through immigration had gone relatively smoothly. The guard processing Mel's paperwork scrutinized her closely, matching her face—pale, with wide-spaced dark eyes and a slightly elfin chin—to her passport photo. She knew that in photographs she often looked startled, like a forest animal caught in the road. She was tall and slender but, despite her appearance of fragility, surprisingly strong, as her physical fitness test instructors, first at Quantico and then at the Farm, had discovered. Her mother, a college drama teacher, would often say that Mel had the outward demeanor of an Ophelia but the stealth, and secretiveness, of a Hamlet. At twenty-six years old, she was the youngest in her party.
The guard's gaze kept returning to a space above her head. It wasn't until her passport had been stamped and she had moved away from the window that Mel noticed that large, tilted mirrors had been placed over every cubicle, allowing the guards to scrutinize the backsides of travelers. Perhaps looking for some aging babushka smuggling in a black-market chicken.
A braying laugh from Dan snagged her attention. Dan was ostensibly her boss, but she knew that, of the four Americans, all sent by the Central Intelligence Agency, she had the highest security clearance. So high, in fact, that Dan was completely unaware that she'd been handpicked by the CIA's deputy director of clandestine operations on direct orders from a select Senate committee back in Washington. What the others did know was that this was her first mission, as she'd only just completed her Agency training. Mel couldn't—and for purposes of her cover story, wouldn't—hide it: she was, by turns, nervous and exhilarated. Nervous because there was as yet so much unknown, and exhilarated for the same reason. As was customary in Agency protocol, she'd spent a few weeks stateside prior to their trip getting to know her colleagues. And though they'd been friendly, and reasonably open, the other three already had years of experience as foreign field agents. She knew they'd be watching her, saving their final assessment of her reliability for after their mission was completed.
She'd been warned by her trainers that, at some point, the goals of her mission might conflict with those of the other three, and that she might cause friction within the team. But under no circumstances was she to reveal her true mission to anyone. She would share that only with her American intermediary, who she'd been told would contact her shortly. It was this intermediary who would smuggle any intelligence she gathered out of Byelorussia and back to the States.
Her two other colleagues—Julie Reznik and Ben Franklin (born Benjamin Worthingham Franklin, according to his passport)—smiled indulgently at Dan's jokes. But she caught Ben throwing her a weary look and the slightest shrug.
He soon broke away and sauntered over, rolling his shoulders to ease the cramps in his back. It had been a long series of flights: DC to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Moscow, Moscow to Minsk, with delays in between. It was now early morning, and there were few travelers at the airport. But the Byelorussians who had gathered to collect their baggage all gawked unabashedly at Ben. They'd probably only ever seen a Black person on TV, when the Communist state–run news propaganda ran images of impoverished, diseased Africans, or riotous African Americans hell-bent on destroying their own cities in the decadent West.
Mel had witnessed how Ben's immigration guard looked suspiciously from his passport to Ben and back again. But then he'd frowned and asked incredulously, "Like American president?"
Ben had barely suppressed a grin and answered, "Sure."
The baggage carousel lurched into action for a few seconds and then stopped again.
"More bad jokes?" Mel asked now, chucking her chin at Dan.
Ben adopted a rigid, military posture. "What is difference between Russian pessimist and Russian optimist? Russian pessimist says, 'Things can't get any worse.' And Russian optimist says, 'Oh, yes they can.'"
Mel snorted. "At least he's stopped with the Chernobyl jokes."
The carousel started up again, but as soon as the battered suitcases and boxes began moving, the overhead lights went out, plunging them into darkness. Ever resourceful, Ben dug a flashlight out of his backpack, and soon the four Americans were trudging toward customs, wheeling their bags behind them.
Dan directed the group to the shorter line for those with diplomatic status, which was also populated by a few German and Swiss businessmen with special visas. But it was still a full twenty minutes before two guards took up their post and started slowly and methodically inspecting every piece of luggage.
"God, it stinks in here," Julie muttered to Mel, who'd been studying the line ahead, impatiently shifting from one foot to the other.
Julie had sharp, Mediterranean features, a full figure—what some people would call Rubenesque—and a dry, stoic demeanor. But she could cut through corrugated iron with one caustic look. Grabbing a handful of her thick, curly black hair, she brought it to her nose, grimaced, and said, "Oh, God."
In Mel's experience, every foreign place had a unique smell. Bombay, cumin and stale sweat. Frankfurt, sausage and wet concrete. Rio, sunscreen and motor exhaust. "How do you say 'fermenting cabbage and disinfectant' in Russian?" she asked.
"Kvasheniye kapusty i dezinfitsiruyusheye sredstvo."
Mel shook her head. "I'm not even going to try that one."
Her three companions all spoke Russian, Julie being the most fluent. Ben and Dan were fairly conversant. Mel could only speak a few phrases. Just enough to find the toilet or hail a taxi. But, with the exception of Julie, they were all to feign ignorance of the language. People were more inclined to speak their minds if they thought they couldn't be understood.
Dan and Ben were processed through quickly. When Mel finally approached the inspection station, a long table behind which the two unsmiling guards stood, her suitcase had already been completely emptied—clothes, shoes, and underwear spread out for everyone to see. Her cosmetics bag had been opened and the older of the two guards was pawing through it. He upended the bag, noisily spilling out its contents.
Irritated, Mel took in a sharp breath, preparing to say something, but Julie closed her fingers gently around her arm. "Good opportunity to practice self-restraint," she whispered. Noting that Mel was young and used to speaking her mind, this had been one of Julie's favorite pieces of advice in their earlier talks. "To the Soviets," she had said, "nothing screams Western exceptionalism more than a blatant show of impatience."
Mel nodded, keeping her expression a careful blank.
The guard unwrapped a cardboard tube and looked through it as if it were a tiny telescope. Pulling on the blue string, he eased out the cotton cylinder and held it hanging in front of his face. He turned to his younger partner, who shrugged.
"What is this?" he asked Mel in Russian.
Mel turned to Julie in disbelief. "He's kidding, right?"
Julie responded quietly, but the guard still looked perplexed.
"Shto?" he asked loudly. What?
Julie grinned wickedly and, now matching his blaring tone, began a long-winded explanation of what the cotton cylinder was for, and where it was applied.
When the guard looked back at Mel, she nodded, gave him a practiced innocent look, and added a visual aid to clarify: a forefinger thrust forcibly upward.
The man dropped the tampon as though it had caught fire, shoved everything back into the suitcase, and motioned for Mel to move along.
"So much for the glorious Revolution liberating women," Julie said as Mel grabbed her bag. "Wait till they find out American condoms are ribbed."
In the main lobby, the group was met by an unsmiling, portly man wearing a terrible haircut and even worse shoes, holding a sign on which was printed in archaic-looking letters: HATTON PARTY + 3. Standing next to him was a harried-looking woman who rushed forward to shake everyone's hands, welcoming them in heavily accented English, letting them know that her name was Elena and she would be accompanying them to their hotel.
The cover story for the team was that they were on a fact-finding mission on behalf of the US State Department, which was considering offering American financial support to the newly sovereign—although still technically Soviet—republic of Byelorussia. Dan and Ben were posing as accountants, protective of the American dime, Julie as their official translator. Their true job was to report back to the Department about the realities of the fracturing Soviet Union. And what threats would be posed by this new republic, which would be the gateway to Western Europe.
There had been clandestine Agency forays into Byelorussia all throughout the Cold War, but this was the first time an official American delegation would circumvent the centralized politburo in Moscow. They had been invited by the newly declared Byelorussian Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been unthinkable only a year ago, before the warming effects of glasnost and the destruction of the Berlin Wall shattered Soviet control. But now Byelorussia needed money, and Uncle Sam was determined to help fill their coffers before other countries, like Iran, stepped in. The country that controlled the purse strings helped control the further proliferation of military weapons.
Mel's cover was that she was simply Dan's secretary. Therefore, the least prioritized and, more importantly, the least scrutinized member of the team. Internally, she'd been introduced to her three team members as an "independent observer." Meaning, as far as the other members of the group were concerned, she was to report on the reporters. This was not uncommon, but usually left to more experienced agents. The fact that she was so young and on her first mission did not immediately endear her to her team.
So it had taken Mel weeks of concentrated effort to win over her colleagues before their arrival. With Ben, his open, relaxed nature made it easy to strike up a conversation. She was a good listener, and a few well-placed questions revealed their common interests: reading, traveling, and psychology, especially as it related to true crime. They'd spent some deliciously dark hours after dinner discussing the possible motivations of the Zodiac Killer, John Wayne Gacy, and David Berkowitz, among others, hours that, for Mel, felt effortless. And, as he'd spent time stationed with the army in Germany, he was familiar with that country's own spectacular serial killers.
Mel also formed a quick attachment with Julie, after encouraging Julie's inclination to take on a protective role. This was a relief, as Mel's experience with police officers, through her father, a thirty-year veteran sheriff in Madison, Wisconsin, was that women in the force were often very competitive. When you were constantly being hit over the head by machismo, it was easier to punch down. But Julie seemed eager to play the role of big sister, and with half a dozen clandestine missions to Eastern Europe in her file, she was the most experienced of them all at maneuvering through Communist Bloc countries. Mel planned to stay close to her side, absorbing as much knowledge as possible as quickly as possible.
Dan was a harder read. He wasn't unfriendly, but he held himself slightly aloof, especially with her. Tall and slender, his hair worn longer than most men with the Agency, he dressed in expensive but rumpled suits and well-worn loafers. In his midthirties, he looked to Mel like the perennial Ivy League poly sci graduate from a wealthy family who'd joined the intelligence service out of boredom at the thought of doing real State Department work.
And even though he was constantly telling jokes, Mel quickly understood they were both a mask and a barrier to more intimate, unguarded conversation. Only through continual chatter during her training had she gathered that he'd been in some dangerous hot zones, and more than once, which would explain his cautious nature in relaxing his guard around an inexperienced, untried agent.
The success of her mission relied on the goodwill and cooperation of all three, and she intended to continue cultivating both, even as she was vigilant in hiding her true mission. When, at the end of a long day, she'd expressed worry about that balance to one of her Agency trainers, he'd sighed and snapped, "You took theater, right? Make it work!"
She was the only child of Walter Donleavy, taught to be fiercely independent and outspoken. But she tamped down her natural inclination to defend herself and absorbed the rebuke. "Understood, sir."
Elena, having at last gathered the group and all their luggage, was ushering them out of the airport and into a waiting van—the portly man abandoning his sign to climb ponderously into the driver's seat. From the passenger seat, she gave a running commentary on all the points of interest they'd see as they approached Minsk. Their driver's name, she explained, almost as an afterthought, was Anton. He would be their driver for the duration of their stay.
"Unfortunately, Anton does not speak very good English," Elena said, frowning, as though it reflected poorly on her. "But he is excellent driver."
Ben gave Mel a subtle nudge. It was impossible that anyone would be assigned to foreign visitors without being fluent in several languages, including English. With his heavy brow, ham fists, and the bunched muscles Mel suspected hid under his stout build, Anton was most assuredly KGB.
As they entered Minsk from the northeast, Elena described in detail each notable building or park they passed.
"Here, as you can see," she said, pointing to a vivid redbrick building, "is the Red Church. Very famous."
A few minutes later: "Here is Victory Square…Here is Government House…Here is post office…Here is GUM, largest department store in Minsk, which you all must go and experience for yourself…"
To Mel, the dichotomy between the grandiose buildings and the somber, at times threadbare, pedestrians—the steep morning shadows engulfing the long lines of people waiting noiselessly to gain entrance into the state-run stores—was depressing. It worked to dampen her initial enthusiasm for being in an exotic, and until recently forbidden, country, despite Elena's rehearsed lauding of the city.
When Elena announced the KGB headquarters, a Western European–style four-story building in yellowish stone, Dan pointed and said, "That's the tallest building in Minsk."
When no one took the bait, he added, "'And why is that, Dan? Every building in this part of town is four stories.' Well, since you asked, it's because from the top floor you can see all the way to Siberia."
Elena stiffened visibly. But when Mel looked at Anton, he was smiling.
At last, Elena escorted them into the Planeta Hotel—a graying ten-story building, fronted along the roofline by a large blue sign—taking their passports and handing them personally to the manager. Their passports would be held until the group was driven back to the airport at the end of the trip. They were also all given rooms on different floors, in order to separate them, making it easier to monitor their movements. Mel had been briefed: their phones would be tapped, their rooms bugged, and the mirrors would be two-way.
As they waited for the elevator, Elena explained that the Planeta was of the highest order.
"It was built for party officials, high-ranking military, and only best athletes," she said emphatically.
"Part spy novel, part serial-killer novel, Black Wolf is masterful, a riveting tale and a powerful depiction of the collapse of the Soviet Union as seen through the eyes of Melvina Donleavy, a uniquely talented CIA recruit who deserves a series of her own."—Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of House on Fire
- “An intelligent, propulsive spy thriller . . . Kent draws on her own experience working for the U.S. Department of Defense to create an utterly convincing espionage novel full of tradecraft. Readers will eagerly await Mel’s further adventures.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- “Kathleen Kent slays it with her new thriller Black Wolf, a propulsive page-turner chock full of juicy spy game goodies: intrigue, serial murder, nuclear secrets, passion, and of course, survival of the fittest. A young, gifted CIA recruit with a “superpower” —the ability to recognize faces—is sent on a top-secret mission into Belarus. What could go wrong? I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Welcome to the high-stakes world of Melvina Donleavy—a riveting, rich, and relevant heroine destined to take the suspense book world by storm. Simply masterful.”—Lisa Barr, New York Times bestselling author of Woman on Fire
- "A gritty depiction of the spy game during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Perfect for fans of The Americans."—Alma Katsu, author of Red Widow
- “Tension builds quickly here, and Minsk’s KGB controlled streets, long hidden from Western visitors, create an atmosphere of dangerous alienation.”—Booklist
- “Based on real-life people and events in the gritty Belorussia of this era . . . the characters and their experiences are well drawn and complex. At the same time, the story moves well; the tensions are high; the climax action-packed. Kent brings her gift for building strong and complex female characters to Mel. A well-crafted spy novel married to a serial killer mystery equals lots of dark drama.”—Kirkus Reviews
- "Black Wolf is a riveting read. A razor-sharp, whip-smart, beautifully written thriller set in the chaotic days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it combines the research and plotting of Frederick Forsythe with the gruesome chills of Thomas Harris. Part espionage tale, part serial killer mystery, Black Wolf is a wholly original page turner of the first order. Highly recommended."—Christopher Reich, New York Times bestselling author of Once a Thief
- "What makes Black Wolf such a memorable thriller is the brilliant authenticity that swings off the pages, no doubt from the author’s time under the US Department of Defense. The spycraft is both exciting and tense, glimmering with a smooth but edgy prose that keeps on coiling with bouts of nervous energy from all the dangers spies face behind enemy lines."—Best Thriller Books
- Praise for The Pledge:
- "A police procedural like none you’ve ever read. . . The incredibly talented Kathleen Kent has created a haunting, dark, and original character. Do not miss this!"—Hank Phillippi Ryan, bestselling author of Her Perfect Life
- “Strong women, sharp dialogue, and a vulnerable, kick-ass heroine combine for another satisfying adventure.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Thrilling … Kent does a fine job weaving the various plot strands into a satisfying and action-packed whole.”
- “Riveting.”—The Washington Post
- On Sale
- Feb 14, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books