Dark Trade

By: Miranda Kavi

The Gunrunner Series, Book 1

Chapter 1

Sophia’s heels clicked on the shiny marble floor as she crossed from the stifling Houston heat into the mercifully cool air of the newest downtown high-rise. She was stopped by a burly security guard, and upon giving her name and company, she was directed to the visitors’ side of the lobby. She scanned the expansive space until she located her superiors clad in expensive suits.

“Sophia, I’m glad you could make it on time,” Ms. Relder said.

Sophia smiled politely at the only female executive in the company, straining to hide her irritation at the implication that she would be anything but timely.

“This is a very important meeting for us,” Ms. Relder said.

“I understand. I’m glad I could be of assistance,” Sophia answered, smooth as butter. Eight years in HR at a major oil and gas company had taught her a few things about dealing with the Ms. Relder’s of the world. She would not let the woman get under her skin. Sophia seated herself on one of the low profile black leather couches that rimmed the cavernous space. She undraped her best suit jacket from her arm—the one she had picked up from the dry cleaners only an hour ago—and shrugged into it, smoothing it out.

The executives had called her yesterday evening and instructed her to attend this meeting with their Russian business partners. She’d studied in Russia for several years and was fluent in the language. They planned to parade her as their “Russian friendly” employee in front of their new partners. Sophia thought it was a silly tactic to pull a lowly HR manager into an important meeting, but she didn’t object.

A couple of the male board members acknowledged her existence with a quick nod. The vice president of operations moved his eyes up and down her body before returning to the hushed huddle of dark suits. He always did that. All blond, curvy women were merely placed on earth for him to gawk at.

She tuned out her superiors and took advantage of the opportunity to scan the lobby. It was oppressive; rectangular steel lights hung from the ceiling, reflecting light on the gray and black marble floors. A row of desks manned by guards split the rest of the lobby from the elevator bank. It was a lot of security for an office building, even for an oil company.

A tall, slim, dark haired woman approached them. “Red Bluff International, I presume?” she said. Her voice carried a hint of an eastern European accent. “I’m Catherine, executive assistant to Mr. Alvang.”

“Yes, ma’am. Don Leed, VP of operations.” The ogler stood to shake her hand, buttoning his jacket as he did so. “So very nice to meet you.”

She shook his hand and then scanned the rest of the group. “Please come with me. Mr. Alvang is waiting in the conference room.”

They followed her to an elevator bank. The security guards stepped aside to let them pass. She swiped a card in a little box in front of the elevator bank. The doors slid open, and they followed her into the mirrored elevator. She swiped the card again, then punched another button.

Sophia’s stomach plummeted as the elevator shot up. She glanced around at her bosses. They were throwing each other nervous glances. It made her nervous, too. If ever she was out of place, this was it. She gripped her handbag a little tighter.

The elevator stopped, and they were ushered into a glass-walled room with a commanding view of the Skyline District. Two men were already seated at a large oval table.

“Welcome!” The tall man stood up, shaking hands with each of them. He shook Sophia’s hand, too. “I’m Mr. Alvang,” he said. “Have we met?”

“No. I’m Sophia Latrude.”

“It’s a pleasure,” he said.

Don piped in. “Sophia is from our HR team. She is very knowledgeable on Russia. She spent many years there.”

Mr. Alvang smiled. “You chose a bad day to come, young woman,” he said in Russian. His smile remained, but his eyes were strangely stern. “Perhaps you are feeling ill?” he said, still speaking in Russian.

Sophia removed her hand from his. “What?” she answered in Russian. “I am quite well, thank you.”

He leaned forward. “Ugly business today.” Then he turned away from her.

She stared after him, watching him return to his seat. His lips settled into a grim line as he appraised them across the table.

Ms. Relder tapped Sophia’s arm. “Sit. What are you doing?” she hissed.

Sophia was still standing in the middle of the room while everyone had already settled at the table. She took a deep, shaky breath and then sat next to Ms. Relder.

Don Leed leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. In front of the men on the other side of the table, he employed the good old boy talk. “Well, gentlemen, you called us here, and here we are. How can we help you?”