Good to see you again! I knew I could count on you coming back for another taste!
As I go through the manuscript, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well, overall, its held up. Yes, some of the political references are dated, but overall the story still works. And, at this point, most of the revisions I’m making are minor tweaks: removing and changing punctuation, dividing (or combining) paragraphs, purging repetitive bits. Nothing that really impacts the story, just the flow.
Like last week, this week you have a couple chapter to enjoy; they were both quite short, so bonus time for you!
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Okay, sales pitch is over. Enjoy your chapters!
The Next Day
“Office of Strategic Operations Liaison, Colonel Pierson speaking, how may I help you sir or madam?”
“Scrambled. Hold one. Walker!”
Another voice came on the line.
“This is going Ultra. I want you off this line, recorders shut down and the record of this call wiped. Now.”
“Sir, yes sir!”
There was a distinct click.
“Sorry, Mike. New bells and whistles. Go ahead.”
“Bob, we’ll take the mission. But we need lots and lots of support or this is going to be a no-go.”
“That’s what I told NCA, and his exact words were, ‘I don’t care. I was told he was the best, and you will personally ensure he gets whatever he wants.’”
“Nice to know I’m appreciated,” Mike said with a chuckle, then he turned serious. “Ready?”
“First, we need better intel. I’m getting a string running, but it’ll take time to generate anything useful. Anything you have, we want. Don’t worry about any processing or pre-processing. My intel section will want the raw data to see what they can mine from it themselves.”
“Done. You want me to coordinate directly, or through you?”
“Directly. I’ll have Vanner call you. You could do me a favor.”
“He’s been tabbed, unofficially, as a CW3. He doesn’t care one way or another, won’t wear the rank, barely remembers to use it. I want it official, not just something I did at his bachelor party.”
“Not gonna ask. Okay… Next?”
“Not so fast. We want all the Russians’ take, as well. Overheads. Names. Planning. Everything about this convoy, from soup to nuts, from the officer in charge down to the grunt filling the gas tanks. If there‘s a leak on their end, we need to find it before I put any Keldara asses on the line.”
“There might be some issues with that.”
“Not if you want this done, there won’t be! Bob, if these weapons were anywhere in Russia except Chechnya, in anyone’s hands except the Chechens, I would have told you to fuck off and not thought twice.”
He continued angrily.
“If the damn Russians put any, any, obstacles in my way, if they interfere even once, I swear to you I will walk away and let them deal with their own problems! Don’t tell me there are any issues with getting me the intel I need! You need me to pull this one off. Vlad needs me to pull this one off. What I don‘t need is to be jerked off. Do we have an understanding?”
“Feel better now?”
Mike smiled ruefully. “Yeah, some.”
“What I was going to say was, there may be some issues but we will get it to you. Right, intel. What else?”
“Home guard. Someone to watch the store while we’re haring after these nukes. Preferably the same company that was here last time; they’re familiar with the Keldara and at least some of the terrain. But I want them here soonest. They couldn’t take advantage of our infrastructure, didn’t have a chance to learn our patrol routes, weren’t able to fully integrate with the Keldara. Since we have more lead time, though -”
“Makes sense. I think it was Bravo Company, 1st/75th, but I’ll check that and their availability.”
“It’s not a deal-breaker if Bravo isn’t available, it would just be smoother. They know the territory, they know the Keldara, and they know the rules.”
“Full entry and overflight permission from the Russians for the whole operation area. We can’t fuck around with passports and customs and ritual dick-beating. When we need to move, we’ll need to move fast. I especially don’t want to give Putin a single opportunity to fuck us over again. It’s not like we were good buddies last time we met. Oh, and off the record?“
“Yeah?“ said Pierson warily.
“I told Lasko to miss by at least three inches.“
“I really, really didn’t need to know that, Mike.“
“In any case. If we get good intel, we may have to act quickly; we can’t lose time. Plus it will close off a potential security issue: if we have to be cleared through customs, then some guard will be on the phone to his cousin in Groznyy minutes later.”
“Stickier, but it’ll get done too. You mentioned overflight?”
“We’re trying to line up chartered cargo and passenger flights. We’d be deploying out of Tbilisi, if we move that way. We also have the two Hind-Js, so we‘d need support for them. Refueling, mostly, but they will be armed. Dragon and Valkyrie will be piloting if we use the choppers.”
“Do you need any extra mechanical support?”
“No, we have a good ground crew we’ll be taking along.”
Mike was somewhat hesitant but brought up his final point.
“This could well end up being too big for us to handle. I don’t want to say that, but it’s the truth. This has to be the major thrust of the rebels, and with this number of weapons, I expect security to be massive. We might not have the manpower to take it down.”
“Okay, I can see that.”
“The other problem is if they’ve dispersed the weapons. Again, it’s a question of bodies. I only have a hundred twenty, more or less. Concentrated, it’s a pretty good force, but if we have to break up into penny packets we risk being defeated in detail. I won’t do that to the Keldara. And if we stay concentrated, and hit one target at a time, we risk losing the other weapons if they get the alarm out.”
“What are you asking for, Mike? We can’t commit any forces to hostile action on behalf of Russia, not even on Russian soil.”
“No, but the Russians can. If I tell you we can’t do it, or we need to do multiple, simultaneous strikes, then I need to know the Russians will commit their own military to this.”
“I can’t guarantee the quality of their forces.”
“If they’re smart, they’ll send their very best, but that’s their problem. If we find the nukes, we’ll recover what we can and steer the Russians to the rest. A couple brigades, even of their crappy conscripts, will go a long way toward taking them out of commission.”
“Quantity does have a quality all its own.”
“I’ll start the wheels turning. What else?”
“That’s about it for now. I’ll have Vanner call you shortly to set up the initial intel exchange and arrange further dumps.”
“Good enough. Out.”
Mike set the satellite phone down. They were committed now.
The Valley; The Caravanserai Intel Office; Tbilisi, Georgia; Moscow, Russia
The tiger silently stalked across the snowy mountainside. She was carrying the carcass of an eighty-pound deer which wasn’t quite as quick as it needed to be. She had fed well, first, before starting back to her den.
Others needed food, too.
“I knew that he was still around!” exclaimed Braon.
“Shut up, you young fool!” snapped Lasko. “And it’s a female, idiot.”
Lasko Ferani was the oldest member of the Mountain Tigers. Somewhere in his fifties, he was as weathered as the mountains he roamed. He was also magic with a sniper rifle, and today he was trying to teach some of the younger Keldara his gifts. Braon and Manos were with him, having shown some potential at Disney. He was spotting for them, and they were supposed to be following his orders, not looking off on their own.
“I see it too,” added Manos.
“And so did I, but you were supposed to be looking at the target, not searching for a tiger!”
“I wonder if it’s the same one Sion said he saw?” mused Braon. Sion Kulcyanov had been Lasko’s spotter until he caught a bullet on the Pankisi Gorge mission.
“No, it’s not. He’s much -“
He caught himself abruptly. His little tiger hunt wasn’t exactly classified, but it wasn’t general knowledge, either.
“If you don’t pay attention to your target, you can ask him in Valhalla!” Lasko slapped the back of his head.
“Now! Target! Right…”
The intel section was packed. The first of the raw data had come in, and every one of Vanner’s girls was in the room, folding, spindling and mutilating the information in hopes of finding a thread to follow. Vanner, Grez, and Stella were in a corner, trying to put a plan together.
“Where do we start?” asked Grez.
“They can’t have planned this in a vacuum,” replied Vanner. “We look for any hints of increased training activity in the past three months. I don’t think it’s worth looking any further back; they wouldn’t have been able to hold the trained force together longer than that.”
“The usual cues?”
“Yeah. Missing food shipments. Above-normal deliveries. Large, private ammo purchases, probably in Europe, maybe down towards the ‘stans. And don’t forget to check for any trouble spots that have quieted down. The first thing they’d do is wipe out any competition.”
“Any ideas where?”
Vanner shook his head.
“Not at any of their usual facilities, I think. In the first place, the Russians have shut all of them down pretty hard in the past year. In the second place, even before then, they were too well-known to be used for an op like this. This was professional, not just a raid by some ragheads. It was way too well coordinated. They‘d need a single, strong personality leading them.”
“Maybe we should be looking at who could have planned this,” added Stella. “If this is outside their normal activity, then they must have brought in outside help.”
“Probably,” agreed Grez. “But not certainly. Just because we didn’t know about it doesn’t mean they had to import talent.”
“No, Stella’s right. Sadim was their best military guy, Bukara wasn’t bad either, and we both know where they are. I can’t think of anyone else in the rebel forces who had Soviet training who hasn’t been accounted for, one way or another.”
“We need a list of free agents, then, ones who have disappeared in the past, what? Six months? Year?”
“I’d lean toward year. Inarov did a pretty good purge of his advisors after his little Taliban house-call, so it has to be later than that.”
Grez was thoughtful for a moment before broaching the subject they were all considering.
“What about Schwenke?”
Vanner shrugged. “Doesn’t seem like his style, but the timing is about right. We’d have to ask J if he’s heard anything. Where is he, anyway?”
“He should be back later today, I heard,” said Stella. “He and Katya are in Tbilisi for something.”
A man and a woman walked down the street in Tbilisi, across from the American Embassy, carefully observed by the Marines on duty outside the gate. The man was holding the woman’s arm, the woman leaning on a walking stick. He was just a little taller, and quite a bit younger-looking. A man and his mother out for a walk, thought one guard.
“Don’t look at them,” whispered J, his lips barely moving. “Tell me what you see.”
“How do I tell you what I see if I cannot look?” demanded Katya.
“Observe, young one,” said J. “You can see more than you think you can, but you must know how to look at them without looking at them.”
“Yes, O master, but you speak in riddles.”
“Think. If we were out for a walk, would you be looking straight ahead? Or would you turn you head and look at me when you talk?”
Katya looked at him, saying, “I would look at you.”
“But you know what I look like. Let your eyes wander when you face me and tell me what you see then.”
Katya looked forward before replying.
“Two guards. They look bored. Security fence doesn’t look electrified, but concertina wire on top. Concrete barricades in a zig-zag pattern to stop suicide trucks.”
“Good. But you missed the cameras on either side of the gate.” J shook his head. “Still, not bad at all.”
They walked around the corner, out of sight of the embassy. J stood up and dropped the walking stick. “You can let go of my arm now. We need to return to the caravanserai.”
J smiled. “They need us, of course.”
Colonel Erkin Chechnik was not having a good day.
One of the ranking officers in a Russian intelligence agency, with his area of expertise the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, and additional duties in Chechen-Ingushetia and Ossetia. He’d been considerably less busy the past months. Largely, he reflected, due to the Georgian Mountain Infantry (or whatever Mike “Jenkins” was calling his Keldara retainers) purely kicking the daylights out of the Chechens’ best forces.
Of course, it had come at a cost. At the direction of then-President Putin, Chechnik had deliberately withheld information from Jenkins. It was a cold-blooded decision, weighing the lives of a sometimes-helpful sometimes-ally against burning their sources within the Islamic terrorist networks. The source’s value won out, and more Keldara had died as a result.
After the action, it had been made abundantly clear to Chechnik that the only thing stopping the Kildar retaliating was the formerly warm relationship he had had with Chechnik.
He stayed away from Georgia, and the Keldara, and especially the Kildar, ever since, despite his professional feeling that he was making a mistake, that the Kildar was a source of information and a potential problem-solver worth cultivating.
Considering the latest disaster, though, he wasn’t being given a choice.
He rang the Kildar personally.
“Keldara House, Irina speaking, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”
“Please connect me to the Kildar.”
“Whom may I say is calling?”
A moment later, a familiar male voice came on the line.
“Fuck you,” followed by a sharp click.
He rang again.
“Keldara House, Irina speaking, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”
“The Kildar, please.”
“The Kildar does not wish to speak with you, Colonel.”
“It is urgent that I do so.”
“Colonel, he has instructed me not to take your call -”
“I must speak with him!”
“ – and I have been further instructed to tell you, quote, It will be a cold day in hell before I talk to you again, you miserable, duplicitous, lying sack of cow shit, unquote. Good day, Colonel.”
And a click.
Unfortunately, he thought, I can’t leave it at that. He had been directed by Prime Minister Putin himself, not a half-hour ago, to “make it right” between himself and the Kildar.
It had almost been worth seeing the look on the Prime Minister’s face and hear him choking on his own words, ordering him to “Seek the help of the bastard Ami in Georgia and his lackeys. If nothing else, they’ll do it for money.” Which showed what Putin didn’t know about the personality of the Kildar.
This hijacking of nuclear arms, although it was the dammed Army’s fault, was being laid at his desk, and if he had any hope of continuing his career, he had better fix it. Since the Americans had already contracted to the Kildar, that meant he had to deal with the Kildar, too, or risk going behind his back.
Which would not lead to a long and happy life. Chechnik knew that Mike had a nuke in his caravanserai, a nuke that the Russians had given him, a nuke that was supposed to have gone to the US as part of the cover story from the last op. Chechnik also knew that Mike would have no hesitation about using that nuke on him, if he ever got in his way again.
Option A, do nothing, and plan to spend the rest of his life “counting snowflakes in Siberia,” as Vlad had so delicately put it.
Option B, try to recover the nukes on his own, risk failure and, if he was lucky, Siberia, or if he was unlucky, being blown to plasma; or
Option C, try to reason with Mike.
“Yevgeni, get me on a flight to Tbilisi, as soon as possible, and arrange for a car and driver,” he said to his aide.
“Make sure it’s a local driver, and a good car. I’ll be going deep into the country, and the roads there I wouldn‘t wish on a Chechen.”
“Yes, Colonel. How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know. If I’m fortunate, I’ll come back alive.” There were rumors, supported by some very odd shipping manifests, of a torture room somewhere in the basement.
No matter. He had to go. As he dropped the official orders in the shredded, he imagined Putin’s tie caught instead. The image brought a bit of warmth to him.
If only for a short while.