In Moscow, the truth can be a dangerous commodity.
Ottawa bureaucrat–turned-diplomat Charlie Hillier is back. Having barely survived his first posting in Havana, Charlie is eager to put what he learned there to good use. And it isn’t long before he's thrust into a fresh case a technical writer from Toronto in a Moscow jail on dubious drug charges. Charlie has barely put a dent in the brick wall that is the Russian legal system when the jailed man turns up dead, the official explanation: suicide. And just when evidence to the contrary is discovered, the body is “accidentally” cremated by the authorities.
Undeterred by bureaucratic stonewalling and determined to help the victim’s sister get to the bottom of her brother’s death, Charlie follows the sparse clues available. But what he uncovers brings them both far too close to powers more dangerous than they could have imagined. Suddenly, getting at the truth is less important than getting out of Russia in one piece.
About the Author
Nick Wilkshire is a lawyer and author based in Ottawa. The Moscow Code is the second book in his new Foreign Affairs series featuring consular officer and amateur sleuth Charlie Hillier.
Read an Excerpt
What am I doing here?
That was the predominant question in Charlie Hillier’s mind as he sat alone in the beating heart of a city of twelve million people. Roused from his introspection by the arrival of a server, he smiled as she deposited an elegant cup and saucer on the little patio table and the delicious aroma of fresh coffee filled his nose. It was late September and the days of eating outdoors would soon be gone, but no one seemed to notice on this glorious Saturday afternoon, when the unfiltered sun was still strong enough to ward off the chill of autumn.
All the restaurants and shops along the Arbat were bustling, and Charlie was well-placed to take in the passing crowd during a well-deserved respite from an afternoon spent touring the Kremlin. He had visited the armoury and a museum, then taken a guided tour of the grounds before ending up at the beautifully restored GUM shopping mall on the other side of Red Square. Formerly a state department store selling workers’ necessities, it now housed the most exclusive shops in Moscow, the windows of which Charlie could only peruse long enough for reality to kick in, and the prospect of spending two months’ salary on a coat had him moving on.
Sipping the rich coffee, he watched as a svelte amazon in stilettos glided by, marvelling at her ability to navigate the cobblestones on four-inch heels as though padding barefoot over the softest berber. He turned at the sound of laughter from a nearby table, where two women sat smoking over empty cups no one around him seemed to be eating much of anything, which explained why everyone seemed so tall and thin. The women could both be fashion models, but so could half the people out on the Arbat. If there was one thing Charlie had realized after a few weeks in Moscow, it was that beautiful women were as ubiquitous here as their cellphones and cigarettes.
As he breathed in the potent mixture of Marlboros, perfume, and coffee, all tinged with the hint of gasoline that permeated everything in central Moscow, Charlie fought the instinct to reach into his pocket for a Cohiba, a holdover from the past two years, which he had spent in Havana. He had a sudden longing for the smell of the ocean, too warm, pungent, and ever-present as it had been on that quirky little island. But that was the past. Moscow was home now.
His transition to his new posting had been pretty smooth. Since arriving in mid-August, he had quickly settled into his apartment near the Moscow River and found a shortcut that reduced his walking commute to the Canadian Embassy on Starokonyushenny from twenty to fifteen minutes. It was just as well that he had sold his car to a colleague before coming to Moscow, from what he had seen of the traffic here. As for the subway, he had taken it in the evening a few times, but the constant streams emerging from every Metro station along his daily route were enough to convince him to avoid it during rush hour; he had heard that eight million Muscovites rode it every day, and he could believe it. The embassy itself was located in a quiet street in the diplomatic quarter, and though the staff seemed to like the location, the former aristocratic residence was not well suited to a modern office layout, nor big enough to accommodate the ever-increasing complement of Canada-based personnel coming to Moscow each year.
Still, though his office was cramped and musty, and the wall plaster was a web of fissures, there was a certain character to the old building that Charlie found endearing. Unfortunately he seemed to be alone in that opinion, if the number of complaints on file was any indication, and it wasn’t even winter yet. He supposed that was when the reality of his first Russian winter would sink in to remind him that Moscow was a hardship posting, though for different reasons. For now, as he sat sipping his espresso and watching the endless parade of statuesque blondes on the defile of the Arbat in the bright fall sunshine, Charlie wasn’t feeling too hard done by.
Glancing at his watch, he directed his thoughts to the night ahead. It had been a few days since he’d received the email from an old high school buddy who was in town on business and suggesting a get-together. It had sounded like a good idea at first, but Charlie found himself questioning the wisdom of agreeing to the outing now that it was imminent. It had been more than twenty years since he had last seen Shawn Mercer, and it wasn’t as though they had been best friends, even back then. On the other hand, he had no other plans. And how often was he going to bump into a fellow Newfoundlander in Moscow?
From the brief email exchange, it sounded like Mercer was an executive of some sort with a Calgary-based oil company, married with kids. It seemed at odds with Charlie’s recollection of Mercer the party animal, but he supposed that people change. It occurred to him that he would have to gloss over, if not completely avoid, the topic of his own failed experiment in marriage, a thought that brought a frown to his face. But just as a gloom had begun to descend on him, it was dispersed by a cloud of Chanel that preceded a stunning brunette in a canary-yellow minidress and matching platform sandals. As she sauntered by Charlie’s table, she cast a fleeting smile that he could have sworn was directed at him. Hope springs eternal.
Picking up his newspaper, Charlie glanced at the image of a familiar face under the caption “The Duma’s Mr. Clean.” Even as a newcomer to Moscow, Charlie had heard plenty about Pavel Zhukov, the popular former Federal Security Service agent–turned-politician, and his highly public campaign to clean up politics in the Russian legislature. One look at the crooked grin, though, and Charlie had to wonder if the guy was legit. But that was the Russian contradiction, and not just in politics the shadier you were, the more you were revered, at least from what Charlie had seen so far. His last-minute cross-posting, direct from Havana to Moscow do not pass go, do not stop in Ottawa meant that the usual pre-posting briefings and cultural and language training hadn’t begun until his arrival, and he was only now starting to get a sense of the city and how things worked here. Fortunately it had been a quiet summer at the embassy, and the new ambassador wouldn’t arrive until Monday. Charlie didn’t know much about her, other than the fact that she had been in communications and was a close friend of the Foreign Affairs deputy minister, which he figured could be good or bad. He would try his best to make a good first impression and hope that what he had learned on his last posting would take care of the rest.
Considering that he had been destined for a boring headquarters position in consular policy, Charlie felt lucky to be posted anywhere at all. There was a general shortage of qualified consular personnel, but the sudden illness of the previous candidate for the Moscow job had been a lucky break. Being a much bigger operation, here there would be half a dozen people doing the work that Charlie and his Havana colleague, Drew Landon, had shared in Cuba. He wasn’t entirely sure what area he would be asked to focus on, but Charlie was hoping for less administrative work and more consular. For now, he was content to try to fill in the considerable gaps in his knowledge of the mysterious and sprawling old city he would call home for the next two years or more. As for his former home, though there was little in Ottawa for him anymore, he had been buoyed to discover just a week ago that he would be returning in mid-October for a conference. Fall was his favourite time of year, and he hoped he wouldn’t be too late for the colours of Gatineau Park.
Abandoning his half-hearted perusal of the newspaper, Charlie stretched and stifled a yawn, drained after the long walk around the Kremlin. Looking at his watch, he decided he had plenty of time to head back to his apartment for a quick nap before meeting Mercer at seven. He felt a creeping unease as he weaved his way back toward the river, but wrote it off as fatigue and the gathering of clouds in the near distance. By the time he reached the now-familiar Obydensky Lane, the sun was gone, swallowed whole by an immense cloud dark enough to portend turbulent weather ahead.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Foreign affairs capers set in Moscow I have experience of working in embassies and there are some lovely touches and tongue in cheek moments which made me smile. This time he’s in Russia and after the last episode when he got into one bit of trouble after another in Havana, the thought he was now off to Russia made me excited and nervous at the same time. Charlie Charlie Charlie I thought. What is going to happen to you? Well I was not disappointed as a fun and fascinating insight follows. There is a real mystery here but kept light with deftness of touch and a real sense of place which is very well evoked. I’ve never been to Russia but there’s a lot of detail and a unique view from a diplomat’s eyes that intrigued me right from the start. Charlie is one entertaining diplomat and the various strands of the plot and story come together nicely with intrigue and humour along the way. Moscow is the perfect setting for the diplomatic issues and mystery which follows and the diplomatic world is a fun one through which gives a very unique mystery tour. Really enjoyable and a Hillier triumph once again. Havana now Moscow – where will we end up next? I can’t wait to find out!
In Nick Wilkshire’s second A Foreign Affairs Mystery series, following the events of the first book in the series (Escape to Havana), Canadian consular officer Charlie Hillier is two months into a new diplomatic posting in Moscow. He’s still finding his footing, but is on his way to settling into the new job when a chance encounter and a night of clubbing with an old acquaintance lands them both a temporary stay in a Russian jail cell. While waiting to be released (thanks to his diplomatic status), Hillier meets Steve Liepa, a fellow Canadian claiming to be held in jail on trumped-up drug charges. After promising to look into Liepa’s case, Hillier finds himself stymied by authorities in getting answers. Then Liepa is reported to have committed suicide, and Charlie’s work takes on a different dimension when he meets Liepa’s sister Sophie, a surgeon, who examines the body and claims that her brother was murdered. This sets off a chain reaction of events starting with the “accidental” cremation of the body by the Russians. When Charlie’s further investigation finds more bodies piling up, he and Sophie work together to uncover what really happened to her brother. Hopscotching across Europe from Moscow to Berlin and France, Charlie finds himself wanted in questioning for the death of one potential witness while both he and Sophie find themselves fending off kidnapping and murder attempts. The Moscow Code is a highly energetic read with a brisk storytelling pace that gives readers little time to relax. Charlie Hillier has his foibles, but he is an immensely likable character. The fast sense of camaraderie between Charlie and Sophie feels natural rather than forced, and readers will quickly find themselves attached to the pair. Nick Wilkshire has done what might have seemed impossible—he makes diplomatic work seem fast-paced, exciting, and a little unnerving. I can’t wait to see what he and Charlie Hillier do next.