State of the Union - Brad Thor

Also by Brad Thor

Path of the Assassin

The Lions of Lucerne

Chapter 1

ZVENIGOROD, RUSSIA

THREE WEEKS PRIOR

W inter has come too early this year,” Sergei Stavropol complained as he threw his long overcoat onto a chair near the door. He was the last of the four men to arrive. “I think this will be one of the coldest we have seen in a long time.” Crossing over to the bar, he withdrew a decanter of brandy and filled a delicate crystal snifter. He was an enormous man with dark hair and a large nose that bore evidence of having been broken many times. At six-foot-three inches tall and two hundred seventy-five pounds, he was bigger than any of the other men in the room, but it was his dark, penetrating eyes which drew all of the attention and which had long ago earned him his nickname. Though he hated theRasputin moniker, he found that it instilled in his enemies and those who would oppose him a certain degree of fear, and therefore he had allowed it to stick. His salt and pepper–colored hair was trimmed in a military-style crew cut. His skin was severely pockmarked and his left eye drooped slightly due to a grenade that had exploded in his face as he was pushing one of his men out of danger’s way. While he was twice as brave as his assembled colleagues, he was easily less than half as refined, and as if to demonstrate that very fact, he downed his brandy in one long swallow.

The men around the table smiled at their friend’s behavior. Stavropol was as constant as the northern star. In over forty years, nothing had changed him—not money, not power, not even the knowledge that he would go down in history as one of the greatest soldiers Mother Russia had ever produced. In combat, he had saved the life of each man in the room, some more than once, but they had not gathered in this remote wooded area forty miles west of Moscow to relive the past. On the contrary, the four men seated around the worn oak table were there to shape the future.

Outside, a breath of icy wind blew across the gravel driveway of the centuries-old hunting lodge. From its stone chimney, tendrils of grey smoke could be seen only for an instant before being sucked upward into an ever-darkening sky. As the cold wind pressed itself against the formidable structure, it moaned deeply.

Stavropol, the group’s leader, walked over to the fireplace and spent several moments prodding the glowing embers with an iron poker as he pretended to search for the appropriate words to say. It was an empty gesture. He knew exactly what he was going to say. Spontaneity was not one of his attributes. It led to mistakes and mistakes were the harbingers of failure. Stavropol had rehearsed this moment in his mind for years. His raw determination was equaled only by his capacity for cold, detached calculation.

After a sufficient show of introspection, he raised himself to his full height, turned to his colleagues and said, “It pleases me to see you all here. We have waited many long years for this. Today we embark upon a new and glorious chapter in the history of not only our beloved Russia, but of the world. Fifteen years ago we—”

“Were much younger,” interrupted one of the men.

It was Valentin Primovich, the plodder, the worrier. He had always been the weakest link. Stavropol fixed him with a steady look. He had anticipated the possibility of dissension in the ranks, but not straight away. Unconsciously, his hand tightened