Gertrude Verbanski sat on the edge of the bed and stared unseeing at the gun cradled in her hands. It was a nice piece, a Heckler & Koch Mark 23 with a nifty suppressor. Not one that she would have chosen for everyday use but, in the right hands, an accurate and deadly weapon.

The right hands.

Shivering slightly in the overheated luxury of her Central Minsk hotel room, the KGB agent drew her bare legs up, leaned slowly to the side until her temple and shoulder were against the headboard and pillows, and thought of those hands, the ones that had explored her body just a short half hour before. The wide palms, soft in the middle and firm and fleshy at the base of the thumbs. Long fingers, delicately tapered, almost like a woman's but with lightly calloused tips, the fingernails cut close, the edges rimmed with dust and gun oil and smelling faintly of cigar smoke.

The hands that had wrapped around her forearms, her upper arms, her ankles and waist as they grappled in the lethal dance of hand-to-hand combat. Hands and fingers that pushed and squeezed and pinched, finding a new vulnerable spot again and again each time Gertrude had broken out of their grasp. Nobody was that fast with their hands. Nobody.

Except John Casey.


As they first circled one another, grabbing and breaking holds, sizing up and assessing strengths and weaknesses, Gertrude thought to herself, without a trace of ego, This one will be easy. It was obvious. A big, lumbering bear of a man, the look on his face, for some reason, making it personal. His outdated hatred of communists, well-documented in the KGB file that Gertrude had read before setting out on this mission, would impair his judgment, cloud his mind. That, and she was a girl. Men always pulled their punches with women, even if they didn't think they did. So Gertrude figured ten minutes, tops, she'd have another kill to her credit, wrap up this mission, and be on her way back to Moscow to see what other jobs her bosses had lined up for her.

But she couldn't have been more wrong.


When he finally committed and lunged towards her, Gertrude gauged his trajectory and placed her feet at a 45 degree angle, left side of her body a bit forward, leaned towards the spot where the impact would hit, and squatted slightly around the center of gravity in her hips, preparing to fold up and roll the bigger agent over her body and into the wall behind her. A quick stab to a kidney or the liver with a Rosewell blade she had palmed and was holding out of sight behind her thigh should take him by surprise, and with any luck, he'd hit his thick skull on the exposed water pipes and knock himself out, saving her a lot of unnecessary exertion and wasted time. At the very least, he might suffer a deep cut from the rusted, ragged edges of the lead joins and start bleeding out from both wounds. A concussion at that point would just be a bonus.

But much to her surprise, Casey twisted his body mid-leap and got behind her, sort of upside down, circled her waist in a tight bear hug and flipped through to a somersault, turning them into a human bowling ball and knocking over a small table and its cheap, gaudy lamp before they came to a stop, tangled together on the floor. Gertrude could feel a sense of rage and panic bubble in her stomach as she realized that, during their roll, he had exchanged his long legs for his arms and his strong thighs were clamped around her waist, his ankles hooked in front over hers. He had managed to capture both of her slim wrists in one hand and quickly crooked the other elbow snugly around her throat, lying on his back and whispering low and breathily into her ear.

"Give up yet, Commie?"

"Never!" she hissed in return, and used her core muscles to wrench his legs open with a twist, enough to allow her to turn towards one side. Pulling her feet together as hard as she could, she managed to free them and quickly jerked her knees towards her chest, which gave her room to bend both elbows and drive them into Casey's lower abdomen as hard as she could.

She had to give the man credit. A blow like that had left many a man Gertrude had fought curled up in the fetal position with tears and vomit running down his cheeks. This one seemed to absorb the blow, only releasing a slight whoosh of air from pursed lips, but it did loosen his grip, and Gertrude quickly put some distance between them and got to her feet once more. But by the time she was back in position, so was he.

The KGB agent tried everything she could think of to take this man down and none of it was working. She realized she had underestimated him about eight minutes in when, a fraction of a second too late, Gertrude caught a glimpse of his bunched fist traveling towards her midsection. It was coming at her so fast, she didn't have time to completely prepare her abdominal muscles, and she saw a few stars when the punch landed full force, driving her backwards and up into the air, a look of surprise and awe widening her eyes and forming her mouth into a small "O".

As her body fell, time seemed to slow down and Gertrude could clearly see Casey's expression. It terrified her. Hatred had been replaced by nothing at all, and she knew that she was about to die. She would hit the floor, stunned. He would pull a knife out of a hiding spot or retrieve his gun that had spun out of reach early in their fight or, judging from the emptiness in his eyes, just take her life with his bare hands. And there was nothing she could do about it.

Then a strange thing happened. He came for her again, but this time, instead of launching a killing attack, Casey grabbed the front of Gertrude's shirt at her breastbone and stopped her fall. He jerked her body roughly to one side so she dropped unharmed to the surface of the bed, then let go as she tried to orient herself once more.

Before Gertrude could sit up, he was on her, but something was different, and when she raised a hand to claw at his face, she was astonished to see her fingers caress his cheek as if they had a life of their own. And even more astonishing was the fact that Casey's hands, instead of choking the life out of her or snapping her neck, were caressing her face too, smoothing back her sweat-soaked hair and making sure she was safe on the thin mattress.

When she looked into his eyes this time, Gertrude saw a tenderness that she hadn't known since she was a young girl in her mother's arms. Their lips met midway in a feverish kiss and the spy marveled at the gentle but insistent pressure as Casey waited for her consent to continue. With one part of her mind as a curious onlooker, wondering why she was kissing this man instead of using her sudden and unexpected advantage to kill him, Gertrude broke contact and gasped out, "Yes, yes, John, yes!" before reaching for the lower edge of his black shirt and helping him to tug it over his head.


The knife wound had been a glancing blow, serious enough to rip a jagged fissure over an older scar, but it hadn't bled much after all, and Gertrude bandaged it up quickly and efficiently using a small med kit she had brought with her on the mission. Lingering a little longer than she needed to, she used the pretext of smoothing out the tape to run her hands over Casey's skin one last time, tracing the outlines of muscle and scar lightly with a fingertip and her eyes until she inadvertently hit a ticklish rib.

"Hey!" her patient exclaimed, a tone of playful amusement apparent as he twisted his torso around to look at her. "Careful, there. I might have to fight back again."

But when he turned and placed his hands on Gertrude's hips, instead of the retaliatory tickling she expected, he kissed her with a tender passion that reached past the spy part of her all the way to the woman inside. And after they dressed and Casey had gone, she sat and lightly touched the gun he had left with her, under protest, as her prize. She looked at it without looking, this thing he had touched with his strong, quick, sure hands.

The way he touched her body. The way he touched her heart.