Russia, Tuesday, July 20

The day promised to be the most memorable in Captain Ivan "Bull" Volkov's life. It was another four hours before he needed to start getting ready. The award ceremony for thirty years of military service was at eleven a.m. He was going to be honored with the Saint George Medal for his service to Spetsnaz and the Russian Federation, but it was his meeting afterward that made his heart race. Ivan practiced his words over and over in front of the dresser mirror. "My beautiful Anya, it’s been five years since we met. You have made me the happiest man in all of Russia. I want us to spend the rest of our lives together. Will you marry me?” When he was happy with his proposal, he wrote it down and put in parentheses, don’t forget to kneel.

The magnificent ring sat on the dresser by his bed. From the time he woke until he got up to get dressed, he looked at the sparkling diamond seven times. It had cost most of his savings to buy, but all that mattered was that she loved it. The jeweler told him the three-quarter-carat pear-shaped setting was unique. The stone was almost flawless. How could he give the most beautiful woman in the world anything less than a nearly perfect diamond?

He had pressed his uniform before going to bed. Anya wanted to come to his apartment and help him get ready, but he made an excuse that he wasn't feeling good and needed to go to sleep early. He wanted to practice his proposal, and he couldn't do that with her there.

His apartment had three rooms. The living room and kitchen were separated by a counter, leaving barely enough room for a couple of chairs and access to the stove and refrigerator. The bedroom was small, with a double bed and a dresser. Ivan had to squeeze between the two to get to the bathroom. There was a time when the walls in the apartment were barren, but Anya had changed that with art, pictures, and photos of their happiest moments together.

He took his time showering and shaving, then he made eggs and fried potatoes for breakfast. He ground beans and scooped them into his old-fashioned coffeepot. Anya insisted a person couldn't have good coffee without a percolator and fresh coffee beans. He knew she was right, but somehow his coffee wasn't nearly as good as hers.

Ivan started getting dressed a half hour before it was time to leave. He put on his jacket and picked up the last item to complete his military uniform, the red Spetsnaz beret. He stood in front of the mirror and placed it on his head. I won’t be wearing this anymore now that I’m retired.  He picked up the ring and smiled before putting it in his pocket. Then he reread the written proposal he had practiced a hundred times once more before leaving the apartment.

Ivan’s trip to GRU headquarters in Khodinka took three hours by car. Anya lived forty kilometers away in Chentsy. He'd wanted to pick her up and go together even though it was a half hour out of the way, but she refused to have him worry about her on his special day. 

It was a warm, sunny morning. Ivan arrived at ten thirty and had a special parking pass for the lot across from the building. He stood on top of the GRU entrance steps watching for Anya. He hoped she was able to find parking nearby. His heart jumped when he saw her. She wore the yellow dress he loved but only saw her in on special occasions. As she walked toward him, the rays of sunlight made her glow like an angel.

At five feet, eight inches tall, Anya was half a foot shorter than Ivan. Her stunning green eyes and shoulder-length black hair against her bright-colored dress only enhanced her beauty. She was a full-figured woman who wore modest yet alluring clothes.

Anya ran up the steps and kissed him. "You're so handsome. I love the way you look in uniform. We should go to Hermitage Garden afterward and take pictures. It's so pretty this time of year and only twenty minutes away."

Ivan laughed. "I can't believe you said that because I already had plans to go there."

He had spent two weeks considering where he was going to propose. He wanted the location to be meaningful, and he wanted to be in uniform. After weeks of searching, he'd finally found the perfect spot. He'd never been to Hermitage Garden but read about it while searching the internet for romantic places. When Ivan had read about the romantic legends associated with the enormous silver stone heart in the center of the garden, he knew this would be the place he’d propose to Anya. He read stories of couples coming back year after year to renew their love. Supposedly couples who were engaged standing at the center of the heart remained forever in love until the day they died.

Ivan didn't want Anya ever to leave him, and he wanted their romance to be part of the silver heart legend.

Anya straightened his tie. "When have you been there before? With another girlfriend maybe?"

Ivan stumbled over his words. "No, never… I, um, saw something about it on the computer. I know you love flowers and there're beautiful gardens all around a big stone heart at the center. But I guess you already know that. Sounds like you've been there before.” He grinned. "With a boyfriend maybe?"

She tried to look serious, but Bull knew when she was being coy. "Maybe and maybe not."

"I don't care about your past or mine. What matters is the future."

Anya tilted her head with a smirk. "What are you saying, Ivan?"

He looked at his watch. "I think I've said too much. I need to go inside." He sighed and lifted her hands to kiss them. "I’m sorry you can’t come in. I’ll meet you right here as soon as the ceremony is over.”

They strolled to the entrance doors and hugged before he went inside. Anya waved as he walked away. "I'll be here waiting to see your medal."

He walked through the doors and into a lobby that was in need of renovation. He knew why the elite top-secret agency wanted to keep a low profile with a shabby-looking building and he also knew it was nicknamed the Aquarium because the people outside the building were watched like fish by the people inside.

The ceremony room was on the second floor. He had been there only a handful of times in the last thirty years. The first time was at his graduation and acceptance into Spetsnaz forces. There were thirty candidates that day and standing room only. Then when he was promoted to captain, but most recently last year for an intelligence briefing. The room was large, with rows of seats that led down a steep descent to a brightly lit platform with a lectern at the center. Ivan stood in the back of the room waiting for the other military officers and civilians to take their seats before walking to his.

It was a private ceremony for immediate family only. The GRU security wouldn't allow more than four guests for each candidate unless they had prior clearance.

The only person who came to the ceremony or cared about Bull Volkov had to wait outside the building because she wasn't a blood relative.

Bull had no family, his parents having died when he was a baby. He had lived with his grandmother until she passed away when he was seventeen. With no place to go, he'd joined the Russian military and trained hard to become part of Spetsnaz’s elite soldiering force, and it had been his life ever since.

The room held about two hundred people, but only the first two rows were filled with family and guests. Bull shook the hands of the other three candidates before taking his seat on the left side of the podium. He had worked with all of them on numerous missions and considered them to be the best of the best. Six commanding officers sat behind the lectern. Each one had commanded one or more of his missions. He respected them, and they always treated him with respect in return. There was no reason for Bull to be nervous and he didn't think he was, so why was he wiping his palms rhythmically on his trousers?

The applause given to the first two candidates was followed by silence when Ivan received his medal. He didn’t care, because the only person who mattered would be waiting outside.

When the ceremony was over, the others mingled with family members and officers, but Ivan wanted to leave and quickly walked toward the exit.

"Hey, Bull, can I speak to you a moment?"

Ivan spun around. Bull was the name he was known by in Spetsnaz. He immediately saluted General Orlov.

"At ease, Bull. Would you please follow me back to my office? I have something to discuss with you."

He looked at the door. Anya’s waiting, but I can’t disrespect the general, even if he’s no longer my commander. "Um…sure."

There was a lot of small talk in the corridor and elevator. Ivan told the general about his proposal plans at Hermitage Garden and that he wanted to retire on a farm with his beloved Anya.

There was a long corridor between the elevator and their destination. The office was deceiving from the entrance. Ivan wasn't sure, but he thought the size could be compared to the building's lobby.

Ivan got an uneasy feeling after entering the room. What could be so important that he takes me to his office?

The general walked behind the massive desk and sat in a large red leather chair. "Please, sit. You have my permission to speak freely; this discussion will not be recorded. I'll try not to take much of your time."

Ivan sat on the edge of the chair. "How can I help you, sir?"

"I have some disturbing news. Your comrade, Major Yuri Petrov, has gone rogue and stolen top-secret property belonging to the Russian Federation. We need to get it back."

Ivan's eyes widened. He and Yuri had been on many missions together. I always thought Yuri had a shady side…especially after the ten million in missing diamonds on the Afghanistan mission. I had my suspicions when they were never recovered, but he always had my back.  I can't believe he'd go against the federation. Why is Orlov telling me this?

“Are you sure, sir? Yuri is eccentric, yes, but he has always served the federation with honor. Why are you telling me?”

The general nodded. "Yes, he had an excellent service record, but we're certain the culprit is Major Petrov, and we need you to stop him and get our property back."

Ivan put up his palms. "I've retired, sir."

The general leaned forward. "I know, Bull, but if the information he stole becomes public, it could cause worldwide chaos, and Russia will be at the center of it. You know Major Petrov better than anyone. The federation needs your service one more time."

Bull looked at the floor and clenched his fist. What the hell did Yuri do? I can't believe this. They want me to kill him and take back what he stole. He was my comrade and saved my ass more than once. They have to find someone else.

"I'm sorry, sir. I already told you I have plans to get married and buy a home. I need to be here with my fiancée to plan our wedding. My papers are in and approved; I can't help you."

The general fell back into his chair. "I know, Bull, and we would like to help you with your future. There will be six hundred thousand rubles for you when you accept the mission and another six hundred thousand when you return with the federation’s property. This should help with your down payment of a new home, no? Listen, Bull, I wouldn't be asking if this wasn't an urgent matter. The federation needs assurance that this mission won't fail, and you are a huge part of that assurance."

Ivan stood. "Thank you for the offer, sir, but Yuri was my comrade and saved my life more times than I can count. I can’t be the one to kill him. You have to find someone else."

The general just stared at him for an awkward moment before standing up and offering his hand. "Your country needs your service one more time, but we'll talk again. Congratulations on your upcoming engagement today.  Hermitage Garden, is it? It's beautiful there this time of year and an excellent location to make your proposal."

Ivan acknowledged his handshake, then saluted before taking long strides to the door. What did he mean we’ll talk again?

Ivan's anger escalated with each step he took on his trek down the long corridor. How can they ask me to do this on the day I retire? What could Yuri have taken that has the GRU intelligence so worried? The money would help us buy a home but not at the cost of having to kill a comrade. The federation will survive if I don't accept this mission. I'm not going to feel guilty about saying no.

Anya was waiting by the entrance and ran to Ivan when he exited. "Wow, that's a big medal. Kinda makes the other ones look small. Where have you been?  I saw the other men and their families leave fifteen minutes ago."

"The general wanted to talk to me."

Anya kissed him. "Sounds important."

He put his arm around her and headed down the steps. "It wasn’t, but I didn't want to be rude. Come on, let's go to the garden. I have something to show you.

They decided to leave both cars and take the bus to Hermitage Garden. It would take an additional ten minutes, but there would be no need to waste time trying to find parking.

Ivan was sweating, and he knew it wasn't just from the heat of the afternoon. He wanted his proposal to be perfect, and the thought of having Anya as his wife forever made his heart race.

The bus dropped them off at the breathtaking entrance to the park. Blossoms and flowers in a variety of bright colors and types stretched across the horizon, but there was also an abundance of people to share in the splendor.

He took her hand and weaved through the crowd. "I think it's this way.”

Anya laughed. "Ivan, what's going on? I've never seen you this nervous."

When they arrived, it was as if the stone heart was waiting for them. No one stood on it, only around it. He pulled Anya to the center and took out his handwritten note, then got down on one knee. Anya looked at him and then at the crowd gathering around them. He waited for her to look into his eyes before reciting his proposal. She began to cry when he showed her the ring. Not a sound was made by the surrounding audience until she said the words, "Yes, of course I'll marry you.” There was loud applause, which made Anya's face turn red, but the only thing Ivan cared about was the word yes.

They embraced with a long kiss. The cheering didn't stop until they walked off the heart. It was a magnificent place to spend the afternoon. Anya couldn't stop looking at her ring, which made Ivan sigh with relief. Everything was perfect, just the way he had pictured it. Except maybe for the crowd and the applause.

Anya handed numerous people her cell phone during the afternoon, and they were all happy to capture their special moment with photographs.

Ivan looked at his watch. "It's three. We should start heading back. We have dinner reservations."

Anya pointed to the ice cream vendor. "Okay, but I'd love a cup of vanilla with chocolate syrup before we go."

"Of course. Look, there's a vacant bench by the bus stop. Wait there. I'll be right back."

Ivan's body was weightless as he took long strides toward the ice cream stand. He got in line with four people ahead of him. This day was the best he could remember, and he wanted to get back to Anya, but it seemed like the people in front of him couldn't make up their minds about what they wanted. He was next when he heard a yelp followed by the echo of his name from behind, and to his horror, Anya was being dragged by two men in black suits into a black van. She struggled to turn around while repeating the shrieking screams for Bull.

Anya! Oh my God, Anya. He ran as fast as he could, but it was too late. He stood in the middle of the street, recording into memory every detail of the vehicle driving away, ignoring the car horns behind him.

When he could no longer see the van, he took out a notepad and wrote down the license plate number and make and model of the vehicle. He tried to recall the men, but they were the same build and both in black suits, except one was bald, and the other had long blond hair in a ponytail. He flipped the pad shut and looked around at the people who were watching him. One person yelled out, "I called the police. They'll be here soon." Bull frowned. The police are not going to help me. They can only slow me down with a lot of stupid questions. Think, Bull! Lose the emotions. Who would do this and why?

It didn't take long for him to figure out who'd taken Anya. The only other person who knew he and Anya were here was General Orlov. Bull didn't wait for the bus. He ran back to GRU headquarters. They would kidnap my Anya to blackmail me? What the hell did Yuri steal? I have to see the general. He can't do this.

Bull was only a few blocks from GRU when his phone rang. He was breathing heavily and bent over to catch his breath while looking at the unknown number. "This is Captain Volkov."

The voice on the other end was unfamiliar and cold. "A briefing package and plane ticket are in your car. Call back at this number when you reach the airport. You'll then receive further instruction."

"Where is Anya?"

"If you follow directions and do as I say, you will see your woman again. If not, she will die."

Bull's blood boiled inside. "If you harm her, I will find you and kill you."

The phone disconnected. "Hello, hello? Do you hear me? I'll kill you, bastard."

He tried to think, but emotions clouded his thoughts. It had all happened too fast. People walked around him as he slowly headed to his car. What choice do I have? I have to take this mission, or Anya could die. I knew what GRU was capable of. How did I not see this coming?

Unable to find another alternative, he made up his mind to complete the mission as fast as he could.

There was a manila envelope on the driver's seat. Bull jumped in the car and pulled out the contents. He looked at the airline ticket, one way to the United States, PHL. Philadelphia International Airport. The flight took off at four a.m. Wednesday and, with the seven-hour time difference, would arrive at nine p.m. Tuesday. He looked through the packet at photos of Yuri's family in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, but it was the paper titled "Mission" that he studied. It read: You are to retrieve a package containing two hundred white boxes of pills called the miracle drug. Each box has a value of thirty million dollars. All are to be returned. Major Yuri Petrov and all associated with the theft and distribution of the pills must be terminated.

Bull dropped his chin to his chest and closed his eyes, recalling another mission involving drugs. It was top secret. The only other person besides him and Yuri who'd known about it was General Orlov. The mission had required obtaining chemistry papers from a Dr. Smirnov before killing him and delivering the drug formula to a castle in Scotland. Yuri had said the castle was the location of a secret society of people who ran the world. Bull had told Yuri he was crazy, but if he believed what he said, then what was even crazier was stealing from them.

Bull shook his head. "I'm a sorry comrade, but they aren't giving me a choice."