1 Chapter 1

Somewhere in Georgia

“I can’t believe Mr. Alexander sent us to the Deep South.” Vincent stared morosely out the window of the car, sweeping his blond hair back with one hand. His bright blue eyes were hooded, as if he saw something other than the view. Nikoloz knew that his partner must have mixed feelings about returning to the place of his birth. Vincent pretended that his family was from Denver, and had worked hard to erase all traces of his accent. He guarded the truth as if it were a dragon’s hoard. And yet he had relatives somewhere in this Deep South—relatives that Nikoloz had yet to meet.

The two T.H.R.U.S.T. agents drove along a two-lane highway somewhere near Savannah. Moss-draped trees shaded the road, and the afternoon sun sent shafts down between the branches. They passed the occasional small farm. Nikoloz whipped the car around yet another tractor puttering along at little better than walking speed. “I do not understand why you call it Deep. Nor what is so bad about the South, other than the heat.”

“Just trust me, partner. If you’d grown up down here, you’d have done anything to get out, the same way I did.”

“We have many agricultural areas in the Soviet Union. Farmers are respected, the people of the land.”

Vincent heaved a sigh. “It’s not the farmers. It’s all the damn rednecks.”

“I look forward to meeting a redneck, then.” Nikoloz turned onto a smaller road. “I believe our destination is just ahead.”

“Yes, the thriving metropolis of Carroll’s Parrish. I think they actually have a traffic light.”

“I will be happy if they have an air-conditioned building.” Nikoloz pulled his damp handkerchief out of his pocket and swiped at the back of his neck. “Should it be this hot at this time of year?”

“It’s not the heat: it’s the humidity.”

“I am afraid I do not understand the reference.”

“Never mind. Just get used to hearing it. Damn, but I wish we were back in San Francisco.”

“I, too, prefer city life, my friend. But Dr. Yarborough has chosen to reside in this small town, and it is Dr. Yarborough we have been sent to assist.”

The renowned chemist had recently contacted the international organization employing the two agents. He’d come up with a new type of truth serum, and was worried that it might fall into the wrong hands. They’d be guarding the doctor while the man completed the final stages of his work. Nikoloz was looking forward to seeing the area where his partner grew up—though Vincent would sooner take a bullet than divulge the actual location of his birth.

He and Vincent arrived at the town, and Nikoloz looked around with interest as they drove to the restaurant Dr. Yarborough had chosen for their initial meeting. One main street—it had three traffic lights—fronted with small businesses. There was a statue, presumably some local hero, at the courthouse. The majority of the vehicles parked along the street were the sort known as “pick-up” trucks. A row of overall-clad men standing on the sidewalk stared at them as they drove past the Feed-N-Seed.

“Rednecks, I presume,” Nikoloz muttered, studying the men covertly. They were all well over average size—the smallest would easily meet Vincent’s height. Half of them wore no shirt beneath the overalls. They stared at the passing car with identical expressions of suspicion.

The Parrish Plate sat at the corner of Main Street and Pine Boulevard. Nikoloz pulled into the small parking lot. “It does not appear that there are many patrons of this restaurant,” he noted. Four cars besides their own sat in front of the building, and one of those might belong to the doctor, though he and Vincent had arrived before their appointed time.

“ Too late for lunch and too early for dinner.”

They entered the restaurant, and Nikoloz paused for a moment to analyze the situation—and to enjoy the air conditioning. The place was a small neighborhood diner, with several booths by the windows and a few tables at the back. Three of the booths were occupied, but each contained more than one person, so were not likely to be Dr. Yarborough. A middle-aged woman approached them, holding several menus. A badge pinned to her dress read “Millie.”

“Hey, y’all,” she said. “Y’aunt a booth ‘er table?”

Nikoloz glanced at his partner. Vincent winced and pinched the bridge of his nose, but said nothing. Nikoloz took a guess at the woman’s meaning. “A table in the rear, please.”

They sat with their backs to the wall, facing the door. Millie handed them the menus. “Y’all want tea or Coke?”

Vincent elbowed Nikoloz. “Tea will be sweet. I’ll have a Coke, please, Millie.”

“What is ‘y’all’?” Nikoloz requested coffee, and studied the menu. “And why are there no healthy choices?”

“Welcome to the Deep South, partner. Everybody is ‘y’all’ or ‘honey,’ and everything’s deep fried or covered in sugar…or both.”

Nikoloz raised an eyebrow. “Is anyone in the Deep South healthy?”

Millie returned with their drinks. “That’s a cute accent,” she said, handing Nikoloz a small pitcher of cream “Where was you born, honey?”

“In Georgia.”

“Y’all are joshing me. That ain’t no Georgia accent.”

“Not this Georgia. It is in the Ukraine.”

She just stared blankly.

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