This is a monster chapter.
Get comfortable. This is gonna take a while to get through.
Seriously, this chapter is massive. Think 90 minutes to read aloud, 14,000 words massive. So massive it just crashed my computer.
And if you’re also a Cassidy fan, two dates to remember:
July 20 – on Amazon, you can get any of the first four books in the series FREE to celebrate Neilsday.
August 15 – release day for Triumph’s Ashes, which you can pre-order below.
Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Various Roads in Georgia; A Hunter’s Track near The Valley
“Where is he?”
It was near dawn. Cottontail had cat-napped all night, but J had been busy online. He showed no inclination toward moving, however, which was sorely trying her extremely limited tolerance.
“We’ve been here all night, surely you’ve traced him by now?”
She wasn’t sure he even blinked as the image changed again, giving his face deep shadows. Another flicker and the shadows moved, but still his face was immobile.
The bland admission infuriated her. She knew she was pushing, but her sleep had been restless, broken by unpleasant flashbacks and nightmares. People she was beginning to think of as friends died in those dreams.
“Then why aren’t we on our way to fuck him over?”
“Backup? He’s one man!”
“Who escaped both of us in the past.”
“But there are two of us!”
“Think, Padawan. Surely the blonde hair hasn’t affected your brain!”
That slowed her. Sarcasm from J was a sure sign. Either she had missed something obvious or she was pushing him too far. Steadying her breathing, she reviewed the exercise of the previous day, added the facts they knew, and only then spoke.
“He’s coming to the Valley with a nuclear weapon. Yield, unknown. Detonation range, also unknown. Likely path, known.”
J nodded and turned back to the tablet.
“And how is he bringing it?”
Oh! “Master, I forgot.”
“An agent cannot afford to let her emotions override her intellect. This was one of your first lessons.”
“Yes, Master. No excuse.” Embarrassed, and a bit angry with herself, she blushed to the tips of her ears.
“Explain what you missed.”
Tap, slide, scroll, tap, tap.
“He cannot be alone, because he is part of a small convoy of multiple vehicles.”
“So at least one driver per vehicle. What else?”
“He’s bringing a nuclear weapon, which will weigh more than one man can reasonably move.”
“False logic, padawan. Not only can a weapon be made small; think ‘suitcase nuke’ -”
She interrupted. “But, Master, we know what was taken from the Russians! There was nothing so small!”
“True, and logical. But what is logic?”
“A way of going wrong with confidence,” she repeated dutifully. He’d drilled this concept into her from the start of her training.
He was continuing.
“Also, we don‘t know if he acquired one from another source. A small weapon would be lost in the signature of the larger and would thereby be virtually invisible to our scans. I regard this as unlikely, though.”
“It is an unnecessary complication. Think. In your encounters with Schwenke, has he ever made the plan more difficult than absolutely necessary?”
She considered this. “No.”
“Nor I. There is another consideration. You assume he would choose to remove the weapon from the vehicle. What is one constant characteristic of Schwenke?”
“People are tools, and therefore disposable; material objects even more so.”
“Precisely. He probably intends to detonate it in place in the transport vehicle. What other evidence exists to show Schwenke is not alone?”
“I am unsure. Other than what visual intel we have gathered, and the fact that vehicles do not customarily drive themselves…” She almost allowed her voice to stray into sarcasm but held back. Just.
He looked disappointed.
“You told me the answer already. ‘People are tools’, and why would he deprive himself of tools?”
She mentally kicked herself. Too easy, too obvious. Her anger, her worry, her desire to get, wait. Home? Was that the word? Really? Yes, home, was blinding her. Perhaps another tack.
“Master, you said ‘backup’. When will this backup be ready? How far from us? How many can we call on? And how will we use them?”
He permitted the change of subject.
“In fact, padawan, it should be available to us,” he ostentatiously consulted his chronograph. “Now.” He cracked a smile.
Cottontail wanted to scream but choked it back. She settled for sticking out her tongue. “Then should I prepare to depart?”
“You should already be prepared, but yes.”
As always, having her failures pointed out angered her, but again she refrained from cursing aloud.
“Yes, Master. Immediately!”
“Got ‘em!” Kira Makanee’s voice rang through the Cave. She’d just come back on duty after returning from the ‘Rockpile’ mission and was taking the missing nukes personally.
“Where?” Stella was running the Cave at the moment, Grez finally having crashed after twenty-eight straight hours.
She zoomed in the map on her station.
“Here, just past Norio, bypassing Tbilisi on the M9.” The main screen shimmered and then reflected the data on her console.
“Probable route?” asked Stella, looking at the giant LCD.
“He’s stayed on the major roads,” said Kira, tapping on a few keys. “This is a composite view of their route.”
Made of point sources spread across two full days, it traced the route of the little convoy back through Georgia, Azerbaijan, and into Russia.
“Sneaky bastard, isn’t he? Out in the open but gone around the long way. While we were looking north, he went east.”
“Yep. But we’ve got him now, and we won’t lose him again.” Kira called up yet another screen.
“This is Captain Cheal’s live feed. She just came on station, replacing Captain Steckino, and has legs for another six hours of observation. I hope we don‘t need it that long; he‘s already far too close for my comfort!”
“We’ve got to get this upstairs.”
“Done. And sent to J, as well.” She paused. “That’s odd. It looks like he’s receiving the raw data, though what good it will do him without our programs boggles the mind.”
“Good girl! Now it’s up to our boys to nail him. Let‘s show those Rangers what Tigers can do!” She slammed her hand down on a button that would alert the troops in their bays. She winced when she realized how little sleep they’d had since returning. They were warriors, no, soldiers now, which was more dangerous, and they’d deal. She’d suggest some strong coffee before moving out.
“Kira. I’m going to personally update the Kildar. Do not disturb Grez for at least two more hours, and no, I don’t care what she told you. Keep sending updates to the Op room and J, especially if there are any radical changes. Make sure J’s tablet IFF is working and has the current FOF cues; we will not have another blue on blue!”
“Yes, ma’am!“ Kira turned to execute the orders, then turned back. “One thing more?“
“Don’t forget Dragon; she hasn’t fed lately.”
“What’s the plan?”
Mike looked a little bleary-eyed. The look he shot the others ensured any comments about sleeping partners and his current condition were unwelcome. Even the Chief shut up in the face of that glare. For now.
“Best estimate, based on their route history, is this.” Nielson called a detailed map of the area roads onto the display. A bright red line snaked around the M9, up the M3, and then turned east onto the Tilaneti Road. Occasional green dots showed where a positive, matching gamma reading had been made. “Even though the ZIL has serious off-road capability, the GAZ-23s are, essentially, souped-up sedans. They’ve stuck to good roads the entire route we’ve been able to reconstruct, and I suspect it’s an attempt to keep their force intact and minimize breakdowns. No doubt they‘re trying not to leave a vehicle behind before the mission is accomplished.”
“That’s what they’ve done; what do you think they’ll do?” snapped Mike.
“I was getting there, Kildar,” said Nielson, placatingly.
“Sorry. Bad night.” Bad dreams.
“What’s the matter, didn’t you get laid last night? I know the harem’s missed you,” ribbed Adams. Water, duck. It hadn’t even been a minute. But it was an old game which helped them both prepare; it also focused Mike’s anger on the Chief rather than the other personnel.
“Fuck off,” muttered Mike. Adams raised an eyebrow.
“That’s the best you’ve got? You’re not even trying.”
“In any case,” interceded Nielson quickly before things escalated. “I think our best option is to place Pavel’s team here.”
He highlighted a point about halfway between Alerrso and Bukhrala, about a fifteen kilometers south of the Valley proper.
“It’s close enough so we can provide solid support if Schwenke somehow manages to elude or break through, but distant enough to keep our people safe in case he prematurely detonates.”
“Weasel words,” said Vanner. “Rough on the town, too, if the nuke goes off. I think we ought to take him out here,” and he pointed to another location.
“Yes, it’s closer to Zhinvali, which is a much bigger town, but look at the terrain. A winding mountain road, sparsely inhabited, steep inclines to either side? He’ll be trapped. And if he sets off the nuke there, so what? A few mountain goats get killed.”
“The problem I see is it’s a good fifty klicks away from here, at least an hour to get there, plus time to set the ambush, and we’re going to be on minus minutes,” countered Nielson. “If we’re closer to the Valley, we have a better chance of being set.”
“They’re averaging thirty kilometers an hour,” retorted Vanner. “There’s plenty of time to catch them farther away. We can use both birds to bunny hop a short platoon forward, and he‘ll never hear or see a thing.”
“Look,” interrupted Adams, “Why don’t we just get Dragon to hose them down with a few hundred rounds, followed by a shitload of rockets?”
“Because I’ve already dumped one bird after a nuclear blast!” snapped Kacey, who was sitting in.
“In case you haven’t noticed, Chief,” added Mike, “Those Hind-Js aren’t cheap.”
“So? We have a couple hundred mil coming in, we can afford a fucking fleet of them!”
“That’s not the point! The point is I’m not riding a dead bird into mountains! I‘m not taking passengers along for the ride, I‘m not gonna dump a bird, and I’m not going to lose friends and maybe more! Not gonna happen!”
“Shut it!” The pitched contralto cut through the Op room.
All heads turned to Katrina.
“Thank you,” she said much more quietly. “I assume that you wanted to hear my opinion, since you invited me to this meeting?”
“You just sort of showed up,” muttered Adams.
Overriding the Chief, Kat continued.
“I agree with Vanner. And the Colonel. And Kacey. And Michael. And even the Chief.” Seeing the baffled looks, she raised her hand, ticking points off one finger at a time.
“Vanner: We need to intercept them as far from here as possible. Colonel: We don’t have enough time to set a proper ambush there. Chief: An aerial assault will maximize our chances of success. Kacey: I wouldn’t want to crash land in the mountains either. Michael: We don’t want to replace any equipment we don’t have to. I propose we call OSOL and see if we can get a Predator up here to do the job.”
They sat dumbfounded for a moment. Katrina smiled serenely. Stella snuck a wink at her which was returned as Kat brushed her hair back behind her ears before looking innocently around the table again.
“Fuck me, why didn’t I think of that?” was Adams’ comment.
“Got me, Chief. I didn’t think of it either,” admitted Vanner.
“I’ll call OSOL,” said Nielson, leaving the room.
Mike just sat back and smiled proudly. “That was impressive.”
Tammy whispered to Kacey, “When did she become a Captain Jack fan? I thought they just streamed porn?”
“No, that’s just you and the Chief. Speaking of which, when you going to take a run at him? Oof!” Whatever else she was going to say was lost to the elbow planted firmly in her side.
“Won’t work,” said Nielson, returning a few minutes later.
“Why not?” asked Mike.
“Too far away to make it here in the time constraints. They‘re all looking over here.” He pointed to the map. ”They were so sure that was the only route, too. Boss.”
When the Kildar looked up, he continued. “When this is all over, you really need to have a little chat with some alphabet soup agencies. If we’d had the gamma scans from the beginning, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
“Fuck! And, yeah, boot to ass time. Guaranteed.”
“It was a good idea,” consoled Kacey, trying to calm both Katrina and the Kildar.
“Right, then,” said Mike. “We go with Dave’s plan. Roll Pavel and his team, set up the assault. Kacey, I want you close enough to be on site quickly, but you don‘t have to stay airborne. Coordinate with Captain Cheal to keep them under observation. Direct feed to you, filtered feed to the ground pounders. Primary consideration, I want to know where he, and the fucking nuke, is at all times.”
“Got it, Kildar.”
“They’ll be rolling in ten minutes,” said Nielson. “Stella got the men up and fed as soon as she got the data. Nice work, by the way.” She nodded in acknowledgement. He turned to the two pilots. “What are you two still doing here? Grab the ready vehicle and shag ass to the flight line!”
They shagged ass.
“Chief, I want you to have two more teams on ready status. Pick ‘em.”
“Probably Vil and Yosif. They‘re the most flexible and had the best trucks on the way back.” He unconsciously rubbed his ass and the small of his back.
“Whoever. Vanner, I want those expensive toys of yours dialed up so high they scream if a mouse farts. If time allows, run a full check from the inner perimeter outward. Lasko, fuck!” He shook his head, remembering too late Lasko was unavailable. “Just when you need him!”
“What about the Mice?” someone squeaked.
“I thought Creata was still away? Wait, how would we know until it was too late?” Neilsen waited for the chuckles to die, then said, “Got it. So, no Mice, no Shota, no Lasko. Hmm. Kildar? One option is to alert the trainers and DI with the Rams, get them in position to guard the serai?”
“Works. Let them earn some pay the hard way. The Gurkhas will eat it up if they get a chance to fight. If not, well, good training.”
“Okay, people, I think we have a plan.”
As everyone filed out of the room, Mike put his hand on his fiancées shoulder. “Kat.”
“Kildar? Something wrong?”
He looked oddly at her. “Kildar? Since when do you call me Kildar again?”
“It just feels right, here and now.”
He dismissed the cold that grabbed his soul. “I need to ask you something, as trainee Priestess. You can bring in Mother Lenka, if you want, after. What do you know about dreams?”
“Where is he?” They were in the BMW, and Katya was driving.
“On the M9, about to merge with the M3,” replied J, looking at his laptop.
“He’s just ahead of us?” The car surged forward, engine roaring in the cold mountain air.
“It is too soon for us to catch him,” counseled J.
“Slow down, and take the next exit. That one,” he said as they almost passed it, then grabbed the ‘oh fuck me’ handle as she made two emergency brake-assisted J-turns. They ended up on the exit, only slightly after its intended entrance.
“Is that where Schwenke is going?”
“No, it’s where we are going.” He played with the onboard GPS. “Follow the directions, Padawan.”
She looked over the projected route. “That takes us almost to Akhmeti!”
“Yes, again you show your powers of observation.” The road they were on now was narrower and had more curves. Disconcerting curves. Curves where one side dropped sharply off to nothing, without even a guardrail between them. His grip tightened imperceptibly.
“But that’s not where the Kildar thinks Schwenke is going! Have we been taken off the duty?”
“Not at all; in fact, we haven’t been contacted in several hours.” He continued conversationally. “This is market day, you know. And this road is an untaxed road, which most of the locals use.”
“Then why?” She wove through two carts being pulled by no-longer placid and bored mules. J just saw wide eyes in faces wrapped against the wind and cold. He nodded and shrugged. Not likely any would remember details after trying to restrain their mules.
“All will be revealed,” said J unhelpfully. He dialed his phone. “One moment.”
When the call was answered, he said simply, “Now,” and hung up.
“A little surprise for Kurt,” he said before Katya could ask.
“I hope it’s slow and painful.”
A few moments later, she simply had to ask. “Master? What sort of surprise?”
“Would it be a surprise if you knew?”
“I’m not Schwenke! And it’s not as if I’m going to tell him!”
“Just drive, Katya. And please watch out for those -”
“Oops?” She smiled. J found himself smiling back. He liked her; she was full of surprises –
Then again, maybe he should just pray they arrive in one piece.
The ZIL-E was maxed out, rumbling along in the far-right lane at nearly fifty KPH. If new, it would have been able to hit sixty-five, but time hadn’t been entirely kind to it. Nor had the clandestinely-done maintenance acheived more than restore them to running condition. The four GAZ-23 escorts formed a protective bubble around it, one each positioned to the front and the rear, and the other two covering the left side of the vehicle. Curious motorists passed constantly, peering at the ungainly six-wheeled beast. The nervous mujahideen fingered their hidden AK’s.
Despite their disguises, they were unused to hiding in plain sight. More than one had begun to raise a weapon, only to have another slam it back down. The only warning voiced was, “Ibrahim forbids.” But that was more than enough to keep them in line, for now. It didn’t make them any less nervous, though. In fact, it did the opposite, granting them time to dwell on the news they’d received.
Although Ibrahim had forbade use of the radios, word of Tahan’s defeat, his almost utter destruction, had reached them over a cell phone. In sentences made more difficult to understand by the mountainous terrain the few surviving fighters were traversing the details of the debacle were given before the signal was lost for good.
From one car to another the word spread, even into the ZIL-E.
They were surprised when Ibrahim didn’t object to the calls, or even react to the news in any visible way. His face remained placid.
“It is of no importance,” he reassured the men with him in the ZIL-E; not surprisingly, as close as they were, Ibrahim refused to leave sight of the weapon.
“Tahan and his men are glorious martyrs to Allah, and Allah shall reward them in kind! They have weakened the infidel, allowing our true mission to proceed unhindered! Let us praise Allah and remember Tahan as a true son of the jihad!” He lowered his head, and the others, excepting the driver, followed suit.
Perfect. Fucking stupid Keldara will be busy ‘sanitizing’ the battlefield, confident that they succeeded in defeating the threat. They don’t know what a threat is, but they’ll learn.
His hidden musings were interrupted by the blare of cars’ horns and a screech of ripping metal. The massive ZIL-E shuddered, then seemed to jump. The driver disengaged the drive, then applied the brakes. Behind them, two crumpled shapes were stopping traffic.
“Idiot!” barked Ibrahim at the hapless driver. “What did you do?”
“I did nothing, I swear it!” answered Gamal.
“Then what happened?”
“I do not know! Perhaps one of the other drivers can tell you!”
“It appears that two of our drivers will be answering to Allah,” said one of the other fighters, peering at the two wrecks. “We are missing two cars.”
What could have happened? wondered Schwenke. Realizing the potential for disaster here, he said, “Gamal! Get us moving!”
“But the others -”
“They will follow when they see us moving.”
“No, the men in the wrecks!”
“Allah shall watch out for them,” said Ibrahim.
In fact, he ought to be talking to them right about now, though Schwenke after a single glance in the mirrors revealed the carnage.
“We cannot delay. This is surely a trap laid by Shai’tan. Only our speed can help us escape. Now drive! We cannot afford to deal with the local police, now when we are so close to our objective!”
“Yes, Ibrahim!” The diesels rumbled back to life, and, vibrating a bit, they resumed their travel North.
Witnesses later would generally agree that the accident was entirely the fault of an older model tan Mercedes. The female driver of the Mercedes apparently overtook the odd army vehicles in the middle lane before slamming into the front car and speeding away without another glance. The driver of the impacted GAZ hit the brakes and instinctively swerved away from the impact, into the side of the ZIL-E, before disappearing under one of the oversized wheels and being spit out the side.
The second GAZ’s roof, and the heads of the occupants, was sheared off by the first GAZ spinning out from under the wheels.
There were no survivors, and so nobody to answer questions about the interesting collection of forged papers and military hardware the inspectors eventually dug out of the wrecks.
J’s contact ditched the Mercedes in Tbilisi, where it was quickly stripped down to parts which hit the black market in hours. Of course, she‘d get a cut of that, too, as the mechanics were all cousins of one sort or another. The five thousand Georgian Lari, about two years’ average salary, was already in her bank account.
Female drivers indeed!
“Something’s happened,” reported Kira, still on shift.
“Show me.” Grez had returned to the Cave after a few hours’ sleep, but she was the grumpier for it, even more so for missing the meeting.
“Here. All five vehicles, heading north, then,” she shifted screens, “Only three.”
“Did the other two pull over? Take a different road?”
“I think they’re still on the M3. See the traffic backed up?”
“If I focus in for details…” The picture wavered and changed. “Those look like they used to be GAZ-23s.”
“Can we get some sort of confirmation?”
“I’ll see what I can pull out of the Patruli’s database, though I doubt they‘ve reached the scene yet, not the way the traffic‘s backed up.”
“Too bad they fired the National Police a few years ago; with all the corruption, I’ll be they’d be easier to tap into.”
“The Mice have dug a pretty good tunnel,” amended Kira. “It’s not a question of getting in as much as the Patruli aren’t good at putting data in the system. At least, not as good as we are,” she added with a smile.
“Oh.” Grez thought for a moment. “What about J?”
“What about J?”
“He must have contacts in the Patruli. He is our HumInt guy, after all.”
“I can ask,” said Kira doubtfully. She’d been following his updates; they’d been few and shy on any information. All take and no give.
“No, I’ll ask him. Do we know where he is?” Grez reached for a secure phone.
“Last I knew, he was in Tbilisi.”
“Where are we?” asked Cottontail. A large lake was visible on the left, stretching off into the northwest. “Big lake. Wonder why I’ve never been here?”
“That’s called the Tbilisi Sea. It’s a reservoir, and it means we’re getting close to our destination.”
“I still can’t understand why we’re here and where -”
“Wait one, please,” J interrupted as his mobile rang. “J.”
“No, not any longer.” A short silence.
“Yes, a few contacts.” A much longer pause.
“I’ll make some calls. You should hear from someone shortly.”
“Of course, it will be the public line. This is my private line; please keep it that way. Thank you.” He paused again as his tablet downloaded images and smiled.
“Yes, nasty looking. Good-bye.”
Nothing was more frustrating than hearing one half of a conversation, but she’d never quite dared to bug any of J’s devices.
Still, she had other methods.
“What was that?”
“Indirect confirmation that Kurt’s gotten a little surprise.”
“That does it!” Cottontail pulled sharply to the side of the road and stopped. “I’m not driving another fucking meter until you tell me what’s going on, what you’ve arranged, where we’re going, and why! I am so sick and tired of your ‘mysterious all-knowing master spy’ bullshit, I can’t even begin to tell you!”
J looked at her with resignation and, was that respect? Something, at least.
“I knew this day would come soon,” he agreed, explaining nothing.
“Stuff the cryptic shit! Damn you, J, this is my life you’re playing with! I know you care more than Kurt does, but right now I feel like a fucking puppet and you’re the puppeteer! What‘s your excuse?”
“I think you’ve cut your strings,” said J. Before she could erupt again, he continued, holding up the smart phone.
“Fair enough. I arranged for one of my contacts to create a little ‘accident’ for Kurt to whittle down his forces somewhat. The call was from Grez, asking first if we were still in Tbilisi, second if I had contacts in the Patruli, third explaining that Kurt’s little group seemed to lose a pair of vehicles, and fourth asking me to have one of my contacts forward their information to her.”
He shifted in the seat. “I believe that answers your first question, ‘what‘s going on‘, and your second, ‘what have you arranged‘. Now then, as to where we are going: we are positioning ourselves to intercept Kurt before he reaches the Valley and incinerates it. And, finally, I think you can deduce the ‘why’, but I shall elaborate. If you start the car again. Time is rather short.”
With white-clenched knuckles, Cottontail resumed driving.
“As we discussed last night, Kurt is nothing if not devious. The obvious must be dismissed from our consideration immediately.”
“I know that -” began Cottontail.
“Since this is the last chance I have to explain things to you, please do me the courtesy of not interrupting.”
“Last?” The word shook her visibly.
“You’re interrupting.” He waited a few seconds before continuing. “Better. Having correctly concluded that he would not approach from the North, or West, and positioned ourselves for interception from the South or East, why would he now take the obvious route?”
“Because it is easier? Or the only one available?”
“How much time have you spent with the mortar teams?” The apparent non sequitur threw Cottontail for a moment before she replied.
“A definite lapse. You should always take full advantage of the knowledge and abilities of the people around you. Always walk around, talk to people, old, new, visitors, merchants, city folk, villagers and the farmers and hunters too. If you have your own militia, definitely talk to them. Ask lots of questions, without being obvious. I’ve taught you that much already. And most of all, listen. Listen to their stories, their fears, their dreams and let those create new questions to ask. Wisdom comes from always learning. You will never know it all. Never, my dear Katya. Not ever. And yes, someday it will likely kill you, or someone you care about, and there won’t be a damn thing you can do about it. But you should know enough about yourself to know what you don’t. What you are lacking most and how to rectify that fact. Be sure to do so when you have the chance. Before it is too late.”
“But what would mortar layers know of our jobs?”
“Specifically? Nothing. But they have all lived in this Valley all their lives, as have their parents and grandparents and back and back. They heard more about the Valley as an infant than most others have learned in their lives. Take Jessia Mahona. Very intelligent young woman, very thoughtful and deliberate in her actions. Thinks through all the possibilities, then acts on the most likely to create success, without dismissing the others.”
“I know Jessia’s marrying the American,” said Cottontail.
“That, too. But we were discussing the Valley, and alternate entry and exit points. You never know when it might be important to have a back door. She mentioned a disused road running into the Valley from the East.”
“The Pankisi Gorge track? That’s so heavily seeded with Vanner’s sensors that -”
“No, not that overused way. This is a road that parallels the Ilto River from Akhmeta north, past a number of small towns and ends deep in the Caucasus.”
“So, there’s a little western spur that extends right into the heart of the Valley, here.” He pointed to his laptop and Katya stole a quick glance. “It’s so overgrown you can’t see it from the ground. According to Jessia it was another smuggler’s track.”
“And you think Schwenke knows about it? Are you completely nuts? Perhaps one or two of the Elders, or Lasko. Did Lasko tell her?”
“I submit it is the least obvious possible route, and therefore the one that will most likely be overlooked.”
“Jessia didn’t tell Schwenke too, did she? How the fuck would he find out?”
“He’s spent at least the last eight months in place, plotting this. You don’t think he did his research? Where was he for a year? During the little war we just had, how easy would it have been for him to enter the Gorge and talk to people? I’m not saying he knows, but we can’t assume he doesn’t. We can‘t afford to.”
“What do we do about it? There are only two of us, you may have noticed.”
“That, I’m still working on,” J admitted. “In any case, this will be your last mission with me.”
“I’m not ready!”
“You don’t know it all? You certainly acted that way a few minutes ago.”
“I was angry, frustrated!”
“And rightfully so. No, Katya. It is time for you to end your apprenticeship.”
“No longer your master. J. You may call me J now.”
“I don’t know if I can do this without you.”
“Do not fear failure, Katya. Remember what I taught you: fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
Katya joined her voice to his. “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
“I remember. Mas – I mean, J, I have always wanted to ask where you learned this?”
“From a very wise man. Frank Herbert taught it to me, and to many others.”
“It is calming.”
“That is the purpose. Now. We have to figure out how to stop him.”
“We’re sure that he’ll take this road?”
“No. But, knowing the Kildar, the other, more obvious roads will be totally inaccessible.”
“What if we…?” She started pitching her ideas and smiled as J, her former Master, smiled back at her. They were partners now. Perhaps unequal partners, but she knew he would no longer treat her as an inferior. It was time to show what she had learned, and how devious she could be.
Best of all, there was a true bastard to be killed at the end of this, and she wasn’t going to miss it for anything.
“Pavel reports that the ambush is in place,” said Adams, driving the Expedition. He flatly refused to let any of the Keldara drive.
“Good work! That was faster than I hoped! Do we still have a lock on Schwenke?” asked Mike. They were driving to an OP overlooking the planned ambush.
“Yeah, Captain Cheal’s locked on tighter than a virgin’s pussy. You know what that’s like, right? You haven‘t forgotten yet?”
“Fuck you, Ass-Boy.”
“That’s more like it. Damn, you’ve been in a funk all day. I ain’t good at all that touchy-feely bullshit, but if you want to talk about it?“ The Chief let the offer hang.
“Not really, and sure as fuck not during an op,” answered Mike. “Thanks, though.”
The Expedition ghosted to a silent stop.
Pavel’s chosen location was at a natural chokepoint in the Alerrso road, where the two mountainsides came together. The narrow river that flowed down the Valley had carved a ragged gorge here, which the original settlers had widened a bit, mostly to get at the river rock for construction.
Modern road-building crews, faced with the task of either chiseling away the mountainside and blowing up what they couldn’t chip away, or keeping in the river’s floodplain and risking the spring floods, had chosen a third option: tunneling.
The steepness of the mountain slopes posed a significant avalanche risk, as proven at least once each winter, and the jumbled piles along the river showed the near-constant accumulation of tumbling rocks. The river was too wild yet too unimportant to dam for control, so every spring floodwaters would race through the Valley floor and scour away everything within a hundred meters of the usual banks. Lower down the Valley, the plain widened, and the road was able to cling to a relatively ‘safe’ edge. Further up the valley, toward Alerrso, the mountainsides shallowed, making it practical to build. But at this one spot, neither was a viable option.
A short tunnel had been built to get past the gorge. It was roughly two hundred meters long and had proven quite durable. Padrek had argued passionately that simply dropping both ends of the tunnel, sealing in the attacking force, would pose a lower risk to everyone involved. It might even contain a nuclear blast.
“We have backhoes,” he had mentioned more than once. “We can clear the road.”
He was overruled. This one road was the main link to Tbilisi, the airport, the industries, all the things the growing population of the Valley depended on. There were two other roads, but one was totally unusable by vehicles, and the other involved a detour of over sixty kilometers through very difficult terrain, probably too difficult for any heavy trucks to pass.
The plan was simplicity itself: wait for the ZIL-E to clear the tunnel, then blast it and everyone riding aboard to Hell. The critical concern was to prevent the nuke from detonating. The words ‘Deadman’s switch’ had been brought up repeatedly. While there was nothing they could do about a true Deadman’s switch, they could try to prevent any immediate activation. To that end both Braon and Manos were in God perches, one on either side of the road, to ensure at least one would have a shot into the cabin of the ZIL-E.
Nobody believed that Schwenke would trust the detonation commands to anyone else, so he was the primary target. Once he was taken down, the rest of the team would open up with everything they had, taking no prisoners. The concussive blast should disorient any survivors for the short remainder of their lives.
If Pavel needed backup, Vil and Yosif were in position five hundred meters back. And Kacey was sitting in the middle of the road two kilometers away, rotors turning idly, loaded for bear. The Dragon was hungry.
“You think this will work?” asked Adams.
“It’s as good as we can do for now,” admitted Mike. “I wish we’d had more time, so we didn’t need to allow them into the Valley at all, but we didn’t.” He shrugged. “This will have to work.”
The radio interrupted the conversation. “Kildar, Keldara Base.”
“Patching through from Victorian Lady.” There was a hiss of static, then Captain Cheal’s voice rang through the SUV. “Kildar, do you read?”
“Go ahead, Victorian Lady.”
“Target vehicles have bypassed the road. Repeat, target vehicles have bypassed the road.”
“Fuck me!“ Mike sat straight up. His tone changed back to cool professionalism when he thumbed the mike to life. “Do you have a heading?”
Turning to Adams, he said, “Contact the Cave, get me an updated feed, now!” The former SEAL nodded and grabbed his sat phone.
“Continuing east on Tilaneti road, according to your maps.”
“Roger, Victorian Lady. Maintain observation. Out.” He thumbed off the radio. “Fuck!”
“Back to the barn, Chief. We need to figure out what this asshole is trying to do, and we’d better work fast.” The SUV shot gravel from its tires as Adams threw it into a sharp turn.
“What about Pavel?” Adams said between gritted teeth. Potholes at speed. Again. Dammit.
“Leave ‘em, in case he tries to double back.”
“Vil? Yosif? Dragon?”
Mike was already on the radio. “Dragon, Dragon, Dragon. Dust-off, I repeat, immediate dust-off. We’re coming through and coming through hot.”
“Understood.” From the tone of Kacey’s voice, it was clear she didn’t understand at all, but he could hear the whine of the turbines spooling up. “Dust-off in twenty seconds.”
“Guess that takes care of Dragon.”
“Kildar to Team Vil, Team Yosif. Mission is scrubbed, repeat, mission is scrubbed. Fall back to base. Over.”
“Roger, wilco,” answered Yosif.
“Moving,” came Vil’s simpler reply.
“And where the fuck is J? I really need to pick his brains on this jackoff! Hey, Chief?”
“You have my permission to miss the fucking potholes!”
They stopped a kilometer past the turn for the smuggler’s track and concealed the car before hiking back along the verge of the gravel road, loaded with equipment. Some, Katya didn’t remember packing at all. Now it was priceless, no matter how heavy. Somebody was gonna get screwed, and it wasn’t going to be her.
“No complaints about carrying our gear?” inquired J.
“No. I understand why. If Schwenke notices the car, we’re screwed. And we need the equipment to fuck him over, sideways, and upside-down, then bury him sorry and sore. Then blow up the grave. Just to be sure.”
“How shall we ‘fuck’ him, then?”
“Well, I was hoping you might have some ideas that are, perhaps, a little more subtle than mine. I tend to be more, ah, direct. Bloody.”
This earned her an arched eyebrow and an, “Oh?”
“I’m afraid I’m thinking along the lines of Semtex and big guns,” she admitted. “That or screaming for help.”
“Help would be useful,” J agreed. “I think it’s time to check in.”
“How the fuck does he do it?” marveled the Chief.
“He’s a master spy, didn’t you know? And he‘s kept Katya in check; that‘s proof enough for me.”
Mike and Adams were back at the caravanserai, headed for Ops.
“What do we do now?”
“He asked for support, we get him support.” Mike thought for a moment. “It’s too bad we left Pavel tied down at the ambush site; they’d be perfect in those hills. It can’t be helped, but after the Mules, nobody does chaos better.”
“I think Oleg,” suggested Adams. “Sometimes, you just need a bigger hammer, and he‘ll pound them flatter than shit.”
“Pat, how’s the sensor coverage in that sector?”
“Pretty poor,” he admitted. “I knew about the track, and so the end of it’s pretty well seeded, but beyond that, not much. It’s simply too distant and not a major threat axis.”
“Isn’t that where Lasko released the tiger?” asked Grez.
“I think it is,” said Vanner, thoughtfully. “Wonder if it’s still there?”
“Didn’t you put a tracking collar on it?” asked Grez mildly. The question, innocuous to the others, was like a slap to his head.
“We did!” Vanner’s fingers flew over his keyboard. “Let’s see now. Yes, there he is.” A flashing icon appeared on the screen. “He’s not moving. He might be sleeping.”
“That’s probably a good thing,” said Mike. “Don’t need a tiger eating J, and I really don’t want Cottontail killing it!” The thought of Cottontail fighting a tiger brought a ripple of laughter to the room, despite the tension.
Adams said, “She’d probably tame it and want to keep it as her pet kitty. Bet none of the other girls would try to get in her room then. She’d have to take down the IEDs, though. Come to think of it, a pet tiger might be a good thing.”
“Okay, so we back J’s play and be ready if he calls in a team. Agreed?”
A general murmur of assent swept the room.
“Good. One medic team and one sniper team in Valkyrie, they secure the LZ. Then the Dragon can feast after Oleg pounds some sorry-ass nails.”
“Pardon my impudence, Ibrahim, but was that not the road which leads to our enemies?”
“That is one road,” admitted Ibrahim.
“Should we not have turned?”
“Remember, Mus’ad, we battle not against mortals but the wiles of Shai’tan himself! Surely you have not forgotten your Qur’an? ‘I will lie in wait for them on thy straight way: Then I will assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left.’ Can it be any clearer? We cannot take the straight way, we must use cunning of our own to avoid Shai’tan’s snares!”
“Yes, Ibrahim, I remember.”
“Then have faith! Remember, too, that Allah promised that Shai’tan cannot defeat the faithful. ‘My servants, no authority shalt thou have over them’.” Ibrahim smiled broadly. “If you put your trust in Allah, and in his faithful servant, we shall certainly prevail!”
Fifteen minutes later, Ibrahim spoke again. “Now, turn left.” The traffic light turned yellow as the ZIL-E lumbered through, and red before the final GAZ-23 passed under it. Suddenly a Patruli car flipped on its lights, accelerating after the GAZ.
The tension, news, fears, and lack of direct leadership, partnered with the enforced radio silence, suddenly rose to bite Ibrahim’s faithful ass. The driver saw flashing lights and panicked, swerving around the ZIL before flooring it. The modified Skoda followed easily.
Ibrahim looked on in disbelief as the speeding GAZ tried desperately to evade the pursuing Skoda. One of the passengers leaned out the rear windows, firing his AK wildly. Some of the rounds struck the nose of the ZIL, others flew off to parts unknown. None hit the police.
It did make them call for backup. This went from a pleasant interlude in a boring day to pure panic. They no longer carried more than sidearms; they had rifles, yes, but they were stored in the trunk.
The two cars disappeared into the traffic, the police hanging back but easily pacing the GAZ. You can’t outrun radio, after all.
“What do I do, Ibrahim?” asked Gamal, clutching the steering wheel and looking like he wished he was anyplace but here.
“Continue the mission. His faith was weak, and Shai’tan shall claim him. His weakness will distract Shai’tan, lower the barriers between us and our destination. Drive on. I shall tell you when next to turn.” The sounds of an AK ripping off a clip sounded faintly over the traffic.
“A report just came in, a Patruli car is in pursuit of a car matching the description of the GAZ-23s,” Anisa reported.
“Where?” Stella pounced.
“South of Chart’ala.”
“Tell the local Patruli station we have backup en route!“ Grez called, already out the door, running. Either she’d forgotten she could just pick up a phone or she’d opted to be closer to the action in Ops.
“We need to get Dragon airborne to support the Patruli!” she spat, bursting into the command room.
“Dragon, Dragon, Dragon! Dust-off, now, now, now! Will fill you in shortly!!” Mike turned back to Grez. “Explain why I just sent our best force projector away? And where am I sending her?”
“Tell her, oh, let me!” Grez snatched the radio from Mike’s unresisting hand. “Dragon, Grez. Head east to Chart’ala. Contact local Patruli on frequency eighteen, they’ll coordinate with you. Over.”
“Understand, vector Chart’ala, coordinate Patruli on freq eighteen. Dragon out.”
Turning back to Mike and the others, Grez explained.
“One of Schwenke’s cars opened fire on a Patruli vehicle. They’re in pursuit and calling for backup. If we can get on-site, we might be able to capture one or two alive and suck them dry.”
“Gotcha. Okay, good instincts. How does this change our plans here?”
“If Dragon’s off Chechen-hunting, we need Valkyrie up in her place.”
“She’s already standing by,” added Katrina, sitting in again. “In case we need a medical evacuation.”
“Good. Make sure her cannon’s loaded.”
“On it.” Katrina stood and dashed from the room.
“Well, that ought to scratch one GAZ. Wait.” Mike realized what just happened.
“Goddammit, Katrina, you’re not flying with Valkyrie! Oh, fuck. Someone call the flight line, tell Wilson that Kat is not to board Valkyrie. She can help load out, but that’s all!”
“She’s gonna make you pay, Kildar,” said Vanner.
“Ouch!” He forgot about Grez.
Rarely had Schwenke had a plan begin so smoothly and end so disastrously. In fact, the last time it had happened was the kidnapping of that Martina person. Come to think of it, that was the first time that bitch had interfered with his plans.
It was maddening. Had he been a normal man, he would have long ago pulled out all his own hair. Instead, he just wanted to kill someone.
Someone with cold blue eyes. Flaring blonde hair. Big breasts. Muscular legs. Recalling her appearance brought him to the operation she’d blown in Bermuda and angered him more.
Back turned to his men, lost in his thoughts, Schwenke didn’t notice the whispered conversations.
“I tell you, Faruq was right!” insisted Mus’ad. “It’s not Shai’tan we have to worry about, it’s Ibrahim!”
“But he’s the Emir’s favorite!” retorted Gamal. “He planned and executed the capture of the weapons! He brought in the infidels to rearm them! And he’s joined us out here in the field! What further proof do you need? He puts himself at risk as by our sides! You‘ve all seen his scars; he‘s done his part, and more, for the Jihad! I trust him!”
A third man spoke. “But why? What success has he brought?”
Glancing fearfully into the back, where Ibrahim was still distracted, Mus’ad replied, “Exactly! He brought disaster upon us, not success! How many men survived the attack on that cursed valley? That was almost half our total force!”
“It’s enabled us to get here,” insisted Gamal.
“Where is here? And what ‘us’? We were twenty men when we left the Emir; now we are seven!” The third man shook his head. “No, Mus’ad’s right. We need to end this foolishness before it destroys us all.”
It had taken Ethan McCown months to get inside the organization of the would-be Emir. Now it looked like it was finally going to pay off. He had received the ‘withdraw’ message from his controls, issued at the behest of something called a Michael Jenkins, but he’d convinced his superiors he was more useful remaining in place. Perhaps it was simply he didn’t wish to see his efforts and sacrifices tossed away on the whim of some unknown player.
When he’d heard about the target chosen by Ibrahim for his personal attention, he knew he’d been right. He hadn’t been able to report in, dammitall, but he figured somewhere along the line an opportunity would arise to sow a little havoc. It looked like he was right again. Now was the chance, now was the time. The men were frantic, almost ready to panic.
He just about had them convinced, all except that stupid driver. It was time to turn up the pressure, and –
“Miserable fucking cockroaches!” He didn’t know what surprised him more, the bellow of fury, the cursing, or the fact it was in English. He looked up to see Ibrahim raging down on the little group, a short, discolored knife in each hand.
“Betray me! Think you can stop me!” A hand slashed out, cutting a thin line along Mus’ad’s arm.
Nothing fatal, or even particularly disabling, thought McCown. Amateurish.
Another fast slash with the other knife, and Gamal’s cheek was scored.
“Nobody can stop me! I am smarter than you all, faster!”
“Not as fast as me, motherfucker!” McCown answered in English, trying for surprise. He easily blocked the attack, batting the knife aside and drawing his concealed pistol. Neither man noticed the ZIL slowing as Gamal pulled to the side of the road.
“Big bad secret agent needs a gun? Aww, what’s the matter, afraid of a little knife?” came the counter in perfect English.
“Afraid? No. I don’t need to take you alive.” He shot but missed as Ibrahim dropped and rolled.
“You’re a quick little weasel, aren’t you?”
“Hmm. An American, the atrocious accent is unmistakable. CIA?” Ibrahim was back up in a crouch. Mus’ad was trying, vainly, to staunch the bleeding of his arm
“Not bad, not bad.” McCown was down in a classic shooter’s stance, both hands on the extended gun, rotating to match Ibrahim’s movements. “Who the hell are you? Really.”
“You don’t know who I am?” laughed Ibrahim. “Oh, this is too good!” McCown couldn’t believe his eyes, as Ibrahim fell backwards onto his ass from laughing so hard, dropping the knife to clatter on the metal deck.
“I don’t actually need you to tell me,” said McCown. “In the end, forensics should be able to figure it out. That takes time, and paperwork.”
Behind him, Gamal was quietly spasming in his seat. Shot? Maybe. Poisoned? More likely. He’d seen the way the Emir’s man went down. ‘Wrath of Allah’ his Harvard-educated ass. Who knew what else this prick had? Best just to shoot him and be done with it.
“Very well,” the prostrate man sputtered, still laughing. “A name for a name. You first.”
“I have the gun, I make the rules. You first.”
He forgot the first rule when you have the gun and the upper hand: Shoot. Don’t talk, shoot. He’d seen that Eastwood movie over two dozen times. He should have remembered.
“Oh, fine. Be that way.” He stood with some difficulty, shaking with inner laughter that didn‘t reach his eyes.
“My name is Kurt Schwenke, late of the East German Stasi.” He bowed, slightly. “And you are?”
“Shut the fuck up. Schwenke? You’ve been disappeared forever!”
“Ah-ah-ah! A name for a name.” Schwenke waggled a finger at him.
“Not that it will matter to you. Ethan McCown, CIA, senior agent for Chechnya.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Agent McCown.” Lightning-quick, a knife appeared in Schwenke’s hand. He whipped it through the air, and it embedded itself in McCown’s right shoulder. “Not yours,” he grated harshly.
“Idiot!” said McCown. “Goodbye, Schwenke.” He tightened his finger on the trigger…
Only to see the gun fall from his suddenly nerveless fingers.
“You really should have shot first, then asked your questions. Even a corpse can give up secrets. I’d have gone for a spinal shot, myself. Debilitating and painful, but not immediately fatal. You might even have lived. Unlike that remarkable stuff, curare. Almost instantaneous interruption of the nervous system. Does the CIA still use curare?” asked Schwenke, conversationally.
McCown’s knees buckled.
“Curare acts to block the transmission of acetylcholine in muscles and nerves, preventing their function,” he continued, lecturing. “Very fast-acting, especially concentrated as it is on my knife. I do tend to overkill, but it‘s such a bother prepping the blades if I must use them more than once.”
McCown fell to his side on the floor.
“I’m afraid, Agent McCown, that you won’t be bringing me back to Langley.” He noted McCown’s frantic eye movements. “Oh, the others? Don’t worry, they won’t be helping you.”
Schwenke walked over, turned McCown to face the front. “Gamal? Concentrated tetanus toxin. Poor fellow. I think the muscle spasms broke his spine. And Mus’ad? Nothing fancy.” He turned McCown’s head that direction. “Warfarin. Rat poison. Prevents clotting. Nasty way to go, bleeding out like that. Even a paper cut can be fatal, I‘ve found.”
McCown’s breathing was labored now.
“I’m afraid, Agent McCown, that it’s the end of the mission for you. Pity. If you’d been a little more patient, you might have been able to actually stop the nuke.”
Schwenke’s maniacal laughter rang in his ears as his vision faded to black.
The Skoda, sirens blaring and lights flashing, held position two hundred meters behind the fleeing GAZ, awaiting backup. They were only moving at fifty KPH, for whatever reason; they could easily have overtaken their prey, but orders were orders.
“Patruli Unit Thirteen, this is Dragon Flight, over.” The unfamiliar woman’s voice came over their issue radio. Woman? Horrendous accent, too.
“Dragon Flight, this is Unit Thirteen, go ahead.” The senior patrolman answered the call.
“Report position, please.” At least she was polite, whoever she was. And what was a ‘Dragon Flight’?
“Ah, pursuit has passed through village of Chart’ala, headed north on the Akhmeta road.”
“Very little traffic.” None now. He tapped the driver to slow; they’d crept back inside the hundred meter ‘safe’ zone.
“Description of target vehicle?”
“Black four-door sedan, body style suggests early sixties: rounded, wide, tall. Be advised, shots have been fired by occupants of the vehicle. AK-47 by the sound of it, though they haven‘t hit anything they aimed at yet.”
He heard a very unladylike snort. “Advisory noted. Stay clear, Thirteen. The Dragon is hungry. Out.”
Turning to his partner, the senior officer said, “What was that about?”
“I think perhaps that,” answered the younger man, pointing forward while standing on the brakes.
An ominous black shape was swooping in over the trees. Painted matte black, with a ferocious-looking dragon’s mouth, the shape quickly resolvied itself into a helicopter, long and lean. It pivoted in midair, settling to face the oncoming GAZ, revealing the stubby, armament-loaded wings in all their menacing glory. The nose cannon tracked onto the GAZ, while an amplified voice spoke in Russian.
“Attention, followers of the Emir!”
A line of fire erupted from the nose, smashing into the pavement in front of the GAZ.
“A Hind, I think,” said the senior patrolman, laughing.
Showing unexpected maneuverability, the GAZ swerved around and, tires smoking, accelerated south down the road.
The junior officer didn’t need any encouragement. He dropped the Skoda into reverse and backed swiftly off the road before the sedan could get anywhere near them.
“Very good,” said his senior.
“You don’t want to do this!” boomed the voice from the chopper.
The sedan kept accelerating away.
“Stupid fuckers,” the two Patruli heard, before the speakers started blaring music.
“Alice Cooper,” commented the older, appreciatively, as the new voice said, “Yes, yes, I know you’re hungry. And here comes dinner.” Followed by a driving guitar.
The Hind quickly outpaced the overmatched GAZ.
“Last chance!” came the voice over the music.
The driver of the GAZ, showing more courage than brains, reversed direction again, directly at the Hind.
“Allahu Akbar!” he screamed.
“Oh, this is just not on,” said Kacey in her cockpit. With a flick of her thumb, the Dragon roared.
A stream of rounds erupted from the forward cannon, pounding into and through the GAZ. There wasn’t a hope in hell of anyone surviving the metal maelstrom the interior of the car became. A single tire rolled down the road a distance before toppling over.
“Patruli Thirteen, sorry about the mess. Dragon, out.”
The two patrolmen looked first at the ruined car, various human and mechanical fluids seeping out, then each other.
“You’re doing the paperwork on this,” said the senior.
“They got away?”
“Not so much.”
“They’re not talking?”
“No, not that either, though they’re definitely not saying anything.”
“It doesn’t work too well, sending the Dragon after small prey. Correction, small, stupid, fanatical prey.”
“Oh, fuck. Any survivors?”
“No. But the good news is, she’s on her way back to base.”
“That’s good news?”
“Well, she can’t shoot anyone else if she’s on the ground.”
“You sure about that?”
Schwenke, still stopped, dropped the bodies out the passenger door and off the side of the road.
“Ibrahim? What happened to them?” asked one fedayeen, climbing out of the last GAZ.
“They tried to steal the weapon and use it on the last village,” Schwenke lied smoothly. “Even among the Faithful, Shai’tan is always willing to work his evil ways.”
“Do we – are we enough for the plan to succeed?” asked another.
“Allah’s Blessings will always follow the Faithful,” said Schwenke, appealing to their fundamental faith.
“Remember, these are not even People of the Book we are fighting. No, these are pagans, true infidels! Surely, if we are to spread Allah’s Word to the Dar Al Harb, then this is the ideal beginning? And who better to accomplish this than we few, who have been so sorely tested and tried in reaching this point?”
Of the four men, he thought he read doubt on three.
“We have journeyed far, my brothers,” he said, mildly. “The final leg is still ahead, and it is the most dangerous. If you wish to return to the Emir, I will not hold you back.”
Eyes flicked back and forth nervously. Was it a trick?
“Allah shall guide your footsteps, brethren. If Allah moves you to go, you shall go, and with my blessing. If He moves you to stay with me on our Holy Quest, you shall stay. Inshallah.” As Allah Wills.
Two men moved slowly to the GAZ.
“A safe journey to you, Ha’in, Qel’zeb. May Allah defend the right.”
At the soft words, the third man broke away to join the other two.
“You see, Mukhlis? Allah moves men to the places they belong.” With a hearty clasp of his shoulder, Schwenke climbed into the ZIL. “Come. We have some kilometers to go.”
Mukhlis took the passenger’s seat while Schwenke started the engines. Surreptitiously, he reached under the dashboard and depressed a button.
“What will happen to the others?” asked Mukhlis.
“Inshallah, they shall return safely to the Emir and report our success.” Schwenke’s smile was totally genuine. It would indeed take the will of Allah for them to return in one piece; the button he had pressed activated a timed explosive under the GAZ’s front seat. In a half-hour, there wouldn’t be enough left of Ha’in, Qel’zeb and Akhmafah to fill a gallon bucket.
“Inshallah,” agreed Mukhlis. “Glory to Allah and His Prophet.”
“Keldara Base, Victorian Lady.”
“Go, Victorian Lady.”
“Targets have divided. Zulu India Lima continuing north, Golf Alpha Zulu has turned south.”
“Understood. Can you track both?”
“Getting good resolution, from this altitude, until they’re about twenty kilometers apart. Then you’ll have to choose one or the other.”
“Roger, Victorian Lady. Will get back to you. Out.”
“What does J think?” asked Grez.
“He’s not answering his phone, and he never took the radio implant,” said Nielson.
“Can’t we transmit over Cottontail’s link?” asked Adams.
“She’s just out of range. We are receiving, barely, but we can’t boost our signal enough to get to her without burning out her implants,” replied Vanner. “I didn’t think of putting that kind of booster in the sensor packs; they’re already crowded enough.”
“He and Katya are probably in their hide,” added Mike. “Been there, done that. Once you find a hide you’re satisfied with, you don’t do anything to disturb it. If he’s even carrying the mobile, it’s undoubtedly turned off.” He looked at Katrina. “Junior man rule. You first.”
“Junior man? Just because I am youngest?”
Nielson explained. “Junior man rule refers to asking the, ah, least experienced member of a team their opinion first, so they’re not influenced by the thoughts of those older and more experienced.”
“Nice finesse job,” whispered Vanner to Adams.
“Yeah, I didn’t know how he’d get around saying ‘lowest ranking’,” agreed the Chief.
“In that case I think we must concentrate on the ZIL. The GAZ is heading in the wrong direction.”
“ZIL. Call it a hunch.”
“I concur. Analysis of images taken from the U-2V indicate –“
“Jeez, Pat, you been giving her lessons in bureaucratese?” complained Mike.
Blushing, Grez said, “I was simply trying to be precise. Very well. The fact that they’re going South is irrelevant; there are many routes to the Valley. We did not see them transfer anything large enough to be a weapon into the car.”
“Better,” grinned Mike. “Pat?”
“I agree with my wife,” he said, and shut up. She leaned into him, the unspoken message, Isn‘t he wonderful, clear to all.
“Smart man,” said Mike, openly laughing now. “Ass-Boy?”
“Qays told us that the nuke was put on a ZIL. I say track the ZIL.”
“ZIL. I looked at specs for the GAZ, and for the two bombs which are still out there? The GAZ isn’t big enough to carry either one.”
“Okay, the ZIL it is. Still wish we could just send the Dragon out to feed one more time.”
“We could have her take out the GAZ. We know she can do that. I‘d bet she‘d even sleep with you for the chance to splatter some more jihadists across the gene pool.”
“Bite me, Chief! I‘m right here, remember?” Kacey glared at Adams.
Water, duck. “Anytime, anywhere.”
There was a knock on the doorframe.
“Hey, Jack. Just in time.”
“For what?” asked Jack, sitting down.
“For this. Dismissed.”
After everyone except Katrina and Jack had left, Mike said to Hughes, “Have a good nap?”
“Eventually,” he admitted. Mike could see the hickey the shirt collar barely concealed.
“Why aren’t you out there with J? And Cottontail?”
“Because for this they’re the best team for the job.”
“But I thought you were a SEAL? You were an expert in ‘covert infiltration‘?” she asked, stumbling a little over the words.
“Different skills. I could get into any place, any time, just about, and take it down if that was the mission. But that’s not what we need here. Schwenke’s coming to us. I did my best, laying an ambush which would’ve hammered his ass flat without risking the Valley, and it didn’t work. He outsmarted me. So I’m letting J have his shot at him.” He shrugged.
“What about me?” asked Hughes.
“Stay back with Nielson. This area can be pretty rough if you don’t know your way around.”
He faced Katrina.
“Besides, if J calls for help, I’m riding along. I think Culcanar could use some fresh meat.” He patted the Family axe that had been lent to him.
His feral grin was answered by hers.
They were right. J’s mobile was turned off. He had brought a tablet with him to the hide, one of the hardened ones modified for the Mules. The electronic signature was so minimal he judged it worth the risk of detection to have updated intel. Now he tapped Katya on her shoulder. She turned away from the track, twenty meters away and five meters down, to look.
“Coming,” he said, pointing at the tablet. It showed their location, and another icon representing the ZIL.
She tapped her ear. “I hear it.”
Their plan was simple. A low-powered IED was emplaced under a large chunk of granite hidden by the shrubbery that overgrew the track, about ten meters past their hide. When the ZIL passed over Katya would detonate it, hopefully driving the rock up into the transmission or engine and disabling it. The explosion shouldn’t be heard over the noise of the engines, making it seem like a genuine accident.
When they dismounted to investigate, Katya would open fire with an FN P90, a compact but powerful weapon designed for special forces. It should clear away the crew quickly.
Not subtle, but effective. After the IED went off, subtlety went out the window. Speed and superior firepower would carry the day.
If they didn’t get out to investigate, well, that was where J came into play. He had changed his appearance again and now resembled a local. He would circle around the stopped vehicle, approaching it from the East, away from the Valley. Between the direction and the disguise, he thought he’d be able to either get into the cabin or get the crew out. Either way, they’d then meet his P90.
And if all else failed, and Schwenke managed to detonate the nuke? They were over twenty kilometers, and two significant ridgelines, distant. There shouldn’t be any direct blast effects on the Valley, though it might be rough on the tigers that had been moved to this area.
Now J could hear the grumbling diesels, and the crunching bushes as the vehicle bulled its way towards them. He tapped Katya on the shoulder, nodded, gave her a quick smile, and slipped off into the woods to take his position.
Cottontail concentrated on the approaching behemoth. The pad showed it still half a kilometer distant, yet it sounded far closer. It must be gigantic.
Don’t fuck up, she thought.
You fuck up, you won’t get paid. She grinned wryly at that. She couldn’t even pretend to herself that the money mattered, any longer. Mouse had taken her pay, what she hadn’t spent, and turned it into a nice pile of more money. Far more than enough to live in comfort for several years. Or to take her own revenge on those who’d wronged her.
Fuck up, and you won’t live to regret it. No, that didn’t matter either. She had long ago resigned herself – no, accepted – no, embraced – the role she played for the Kildar. The hit girl. The infiltrator. And, sometimes, oh so rarely, she was able to exorcise some demons.
She flexed her poison-loaded fingernails. When originally installed, they had been loaded with a derivative of cobra venom; deadly, but an antidote did exist. Soon after Dr. Arensky had arrived she had convinced him to create a new, faster-acting toxin. He had complied willingly enough, though with the warning not to ever scratch herself.
“There is no antidote for what I gave you,” he had told her. She thought he had lied, perhaps, but it certainly meant there wasn’t anything easily available.
She hoped she’d be able to introduce Kurt to her new little surprise.
The noises were much louder now. Only a few more seconds.
So why the fuck are you here?
To kill Schwenke? To close the chapter?
No. She was here because –
She gasped involuntarily when it finally smashed its way into view. She’d seen the downloads and studied what little information was available on the ZIL-E 167, but nothing could prepare her for her first sight of it.
Thirty feet long, ten feet tall, ten feet wide, riding on six five-foot-tall tires, the green behemoth dwarfed even the trees along the track. The high-mounted windshield extended across the whole front, with a cabin stretching the entire length of the body. A short ladder led up to the driver’s door, and three large windows opened along the side. The engine was obviously mounted at the rear; she could see the vents cut into the sides and the massive exhaust stacks belching black diesel smoke. As it passed her, she saw another door in the rear, fully tall enough for a man to walk through upright.
She belatedly remembered her duty, and when the rear axle was passing she pushed the button. The muffled crump! of the device was barely audible to her over the roaring engines. The horrible grinding of the transmission, however, was sweet music.
Almost instantly, it stopped. Cottontail held her P90 at the ready. Her thumb flipped the safety to ‘OFF’.
“This old bitch finally had enough, I suppose,” said Schwenke. “The transmission’s gone.” He stood. So close!
“I’m going to look at the engines. Perhaps it’s something I can fix. You go look underneath, perhaps we hit a rock.”
And, in case there’s anyone watching us, they’ll target you first.
“Ibrahim, I do not like this. Shai’tan has certainly cursed us!”
“Get out and look!” snapped Schwenke. “Now!”
“Y-y-yes, Ibrahim,” said Mukhlis, unlatching the passenger’s door and dropping heavily to the ground.
Schwenke had no intention of checking the engine. He’d heard enough terminal transmissions to know this one was never going to move again. Instead, he removed a set of keys from under his shirt and began unlocking the case that contained the weapon.
Cottontail could see the shadow of a man walking around in the cabin through the windows and heard another on the ground underneath the truck. She didn’t know how many more were inside and couldn’t take the chance of warning them. It was up to J now.
Mamuka Kurkumuli was a farmer who had managed to survive the short but nasty Russian-Georgian war without losing his land. Wearing a faded, handmade shirt and battered blue jeans, he heard the loud diesel engines pass his property and had come to investigate.
“Ghmert’i Ch’emi!” My God!
He’d never seen anything like it! It even dwarfed the new fire engine over in Alerrso, the one the foreigner had bought.
“Stop right there!” called a voice harshly in Russian.
He stopped. Too many Russian soldiers had given him the same command for him to disobey it now.
“Hello!” he answered in his friendliest voice. “That’s quite a machine you have there!”
“Who are you? What do you want?” He could see the speaker now, leaning out a door set into the back of the vehicle.
Shit! One of those damn blackass Chechens! And he was carrying a rifle, too! They were the ones to worry about; at least Russians could usually be bought off with a bottle and a meal, but the real hard-core Chechens, the ones who made it this far South, weren’t supposed to drink, and never ate anything that wasn’t, shit, what was the term? Halal, that’s right.
“I am Mamuka Kurkumuli, and you are on my land. I heard your machine and came to see.” He held up his hands in what he hoped was a non-threatening gesture.
“Do you know anything about transmissions?”
Mamuka had to laugh. “My tractor belonged to my grandfather. I have torn it down and rebuilt it at least a dozen times. What do you think?”
“You might be useful,” the Chechen acknowledged. “My associate is underneath, examining it. You go look too.”
“At once!” And Mamuka practically ran to the odd machine.
“Back here,” said another, younger, frightened voice in the darkness.
“Hold on, let my eyes adjust,” protested Mamuka, peering between the massive wheels. Gradually, he could make out a figure, looking up, up, into a shattered transmission casing. Gingerly, he made his way towards the other man.
“What did you hit?” The enormous casing was completely split, the sweet-smelling, reddish transmission fluid dripping slowly into a puddle on the ground.
The man shook his head.
“No idea. Can it be fixed? It’s very important that we get, uh, where we’re going,” he finished lamely.
Ignoring the obvious gaffe, Mamuka said, “It can be. Do you see any pieces on the ground? I’d hate to weld it closed incomplete.”
The man knelt. “I don’t see any.”
His next words were cut off as J quickly whipped a garrote around his neck and pulled. His trachea was crushed instantly, then the rough wire dug through the jugular. Blood erupted, adding to the red pool. The unmistakable odor of sphincters relaxing in death added to the sweet and coppery smells.
After a moment, checking to see that there was no blood on his clothes, Mamuka stepped out from under the machine.
“I can fix it,” Mamuka agreed. “But I need my tools. I’ll be back in –”
“No!” The command was harsh, peremptory. “We have some tools in here. You can use these.”
“Saves me a walk home,” he said happily. “Can I come see what you have? It’ll be easier than trying to describe them to you.”
The Chechen lowered his rifle.
“Come up,” he granted, grudgingly.
Mamuka scrambled up the ladder and into the truck. A narrow corridor passed between two engines before opening into the main cabin. A large wooden box sat along one side, cover partially ajar.
“What’s that?” he asked curiously, taking a step toward it.
“None of your business,” snapped the Chechen, moving between Mamuka and the box. “Toolbox is forward.”
“Right.” Properly chastened, Mamuka lowered his eyes and shuffled carefully past.
“Wow, what a view. Must be amazing, driving this!” he exclaimed when he reached the front. Leaning on the door, he extended a single finger down the outside panel.
“The tools are there,” the Chechen gestured with the rifle. “Get them and get to work.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Mamuka agreed, picking up the meter-long box.
Walking past, J swung the heavy box into the rifle, knocking it out of the Chechen’s hands.
“Is that you, Kurt?” J chided. “I didn’t recognize you under the stench. Very effective disguise, that. Nobody can get close enough to see you because they can’t stand the smell.” J had dropped into a ready position, hidden knife drawn.
“I should have known,” spat Schwenke. “The Kildar’s pet agent. Tired of playing with your hooker? Think you can still run with the big dogs?” Two knives had materialized in Schwenke’s hands, and he circled clockwise toward the box.
J slashed out. “Not so quick, Kurt! Stay away from the bomb.”
“Or what? Your girlfriend will get me?” Kurt laughed maniacally. “Where is the little bitch, anyway? Shitting her pants?”
“You know,” said J, conversationally, “She may be young, but she’s shown more courage the past few days than I believe you have ever shown.”
J kept himself between Schwenke and the bomb. He could see the frustration building in Kurt’s eyes.
“What’s wrong, Kurt? You want the bomb? You think blowing yourself up will be adequate revenge?” He shook his head. “Such a limited imagination.”
“You think I really care about the Keldara? Ha! No, I just want to take out your whore! Where is she, J? I want her to see you die.” Schwenke, mongoose-fast, dashed in and jabbed at J. Only a desperate move stopped the blade, deflecting it into a joint between two wall panels. Schwenke tried to wrest it loose, giving J an opening. His knife darted out and connected with Schwenke’s side, but he ducked away too quickly for the knife to penetrate deeply.
The broken blade of Kurt’s knife protruded from the wall.
“Now the odds are even,” said J. “Feel good?” He nodded at the wound in the sociopath’s side.
Schwenke threw the broken handle away and tossed the remaining knife to his right hand.
“Even? You wish!” He started backing toward the front of the ZIL. J followed, cautiously. It wouldn’t do to get too close, but whatever he was going for couldn’t be good.
“Giving up already, Kurt? I’m sure the Kildar would let you live. Well, perhaps not. You have been quite a pain in his ass.”
“Good! Tell you what, J, why don’t you give me that little bitch and we’ll call it even? That’s all I want, really. I have no grudge against you personally. I‘m a professional; let‘s swap. You give me the girl, I‘ll give you the nuke, we call it even and I do a fade like I always do.”
“Will you now,” said J, just as reasonably. “No, no deal. And I don’t think I want to just give up Katya. I’ve spent too long training her to simply walk away.”
“Bad tradecraft, J. I am surprised.” Kurt was still inching closer to the front.
J shrugged. “Perhaps. Why don’t you stop right there, Kurt?”
“Or what? You’ll throw your little knife at me? Then what, J?”
“I won’t miss,” said J, grimly.
“No,” agreed Kurt, “You probably won’t. But I might have a few surprises left.” Without warning he dove to the side, grabbed something and threw from the floor. J spotted the tiny knife and dove as well. The blade whicked through the space he had just vacated, barely nicking his left shoulder. The blade was very sharp and spinning just right to slice through the thin peasant’s clothing he was wearing. If he’d been wearing a heavier coat, it wouldn’t have mattered. The cut barely broke the skin as it was, a quarter centimeter long and only a millimeter deep.
“Bad move, Kurt!” he called, rising back to his feet.
“I think not,” answered Schwenke cockily. “Flip me the bird with your left hand, and I’ll give up.”
“That’s it? That was your best shot?”
“You know you want to do it, J. Just show a little emotion for once.”
“Why not?” said J and raised his left arm. “Goodbye, Kurt.” He clenched his fist, then his arm dropped to his side.
“Yes, J, goodbye.”
J looked at his rebellious arm.
“What was on that?”
“Oh, come now J. Surely you can reason it out.”
J thought for a moment, then calmly said, “Curare.” He did some mental calculation and made his decision. He only spent a moment in regret. He should have taken the tools, ducked back under the vehicle, then lured Schwenke down to ‘help’. Then Katya could have taken him out with ease. Ah well. If wishes were fishes and all that.
“Very good! It only just cut you, but it is more –”
Whatever Schwenke said after that was lost. Forcing his resisting legs into action, J turned and ran for the rear door. Reaching it at full speed, he burst through and flew a half-dozen meters, crashing into the undergrowth behind the ZIL.
Schwenke appeared in the door. “What a pity. I wanted to watch you die, face-to-face, so I could tell the bitch what it looked like.”
Cottontail was moving from her hide even before J hit the ground, before any conscious decision could be made. She simply reacted on a deep, emotional level she didn’t know existed, the combat drugs already triggered and pumping into her system.
“Bastard!” The shriek split the woods. Birds that had settled back to their perches scattered to the winds, adding their cries to her battle roar.
“Ah, Katya Ivanova. I knew you were around here somewhere,” said Schwenke, dropping lightly to the ground as Cottontail stormed out of the hide.
“Come to say goodbye to your master? Better hurry. He-is-dying,” he sing-songed.
“Fuck you Schwenke!”
She tore out of the woods at her full enhanced speed. Lithely, he stepped to one side, avoiding the charge and the all-too-well-remembered fingernails. Like a picador taunting a bull, he simply stepped away from every attack, weathering the brief though intense rush her combat drugs gave her.
“I told J I had a few surprises still,” he said as she gathered herself for another run. “Those marvelous reactions of yours? It’s amazing what you can find on the black market, even state-of-the art pharmaceuticals.”
“Just wait until I sink my claws into you,” she said, panting. The drugs seemed to slow time and boosted her reactions, but they had a terrible cost.
“Oh yes, your lovely fingernails.” He reached under his robe, pulling out a small, empty syringe.
“Anti-venom. Cobra-specific, though I was promised that it would be mildly effective against most others.” He smiled coldly. “Go ahead. Take your best shot.”
He spread his arms wide.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” And she charged in one more time, aiming for his heart.
Schwenke didn’t try to stop her. He simply moved his arms so she couldn’t reach his face or neck. He forgot she was once a whore and whores fought dirty.
He forgot his balls.
With a last burst of her enhanced speed, she changed her attack, lowering her hands and grabbing hard. She twisted her hand, nails parting the fabric of his pants as if they were so much rotting cloth. Her fingernails sank deep into his groin, injectied their poison, then closed. Flesh tore. Her hand twisted again. Flesh parted. Blood spurted.
Cottontail hit the ground, rolled, and popped to her feet behind Schwenke who was down on his knees, hands clenched over his genitals, howling. At least where they ought to be.
“Missing something?” She held up a hand, glistening redly. “And it’s not cobra venom any longer, Kurt. I’m afraid that little cocktail won’t do you any good at all.”
She threw the contents of her hand as far as possible into the woods. Let the insects consume that putrid flesh.
He moaned, octaves higher than normal. “Bitch!” he spat, falling over.
She smiled. “You know it.” She looked into the eyes of the dying killer and saw emotion.
Hatred. Utter, total hatred.
At least she had given him something, one true emotion.
Staying well away from him, she hurried to J’s side.
He was curled into a near-fetal position, semi-paralyzed.
“Valkyrie,” he whispered, fighting to breathe. Katya didn’t know if he was calling for help, or thought she was come to take him to Valhalla. She cleansed her hands on a remaining patch of snow, then moved down and closer until she could cradle his head on her lap, tears falling unashamedly onto him. She couldn’t lose him. Now she knew why she was here, why she had turned so frantic when she saw J fling himself out of the truck.
It was him.
The first man who had unequivocally treated her as a person. The first man who had offered her respect. The first man who hadn’t looked on her as a tool or a toy. Who had taken her, broken as she was, made her whole again, and given her more than revenge. Given her purpose, and the tools to do the job.
The first man that she truly loved.
“Medic,” she whispered. “Medic. Medic. Medic! MEDIC! MEDIC!!!” She was screaming to the heavens by the last and kept screaming long after her voice had given out.
Every second of the encounter had been picked up and transmitted back to a rapt audience in the Cave. Orders were given and the Keldara moving even as Katya’s battle raged. Tammy and Naida, with Kira and Mist aboard, were in the air and screaming for the track. All that slowed her approach was the narrowness of the LZ and she solved that by simply chopping through the overhang with the rotor. D’Allaird would bitch, but the Valkyrie was needed.
Valkyrie settled in heavily. Mist and Kara jumped out before the rotors hardly began to slow and were at J’s side.
“What did he use?”
“I don’t know,” managed Katya, hoarsely. “He can barely breathe, he can’t move, but there’s only a scratch!”
Kara and Mist exchanged a single look.
“Curare,” said Mist. “It’s listed as Herr Schwenke’s favorite from his days with the Stasi.”
“Auto-doc,” replied Kara.
The two easily lifted J and trotted him to the helicopter, where he was swiftly attached to the auto-doc. An oxygen mask was put over his mouth and nose and the machine began rhythmically compressing his chest, forcing air in and out of his lungs.
Katya stood, waiting for the Team to take control of the bomb.
“Where’s Schwenke?” was the first question asked by Piatras. She looked around. There was a large bloody patch, and an impression of a body, but no body.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I was watching J.”
“He can’t have gone far,” said Oleg, softly. “We’ll find him.”
But they never did.
Schwenke regained consciousness much, much later. How much later, he didn’t know, but it was dark, with just a hint of light where he lay in the cave‘s entrance. He was surrounded by an unfamiliar musky odor, a close, animal scent.
He could barely move. Whatever toxin that miserable bitch had pumped him with was painful, slow to disperse, and very, very effective. If he hadn’t had a final dose of his black-market booster, he wouldn’t have made it away from the track and into the woods, much less to, well, wherever he was.
Funny. He didn’t remember finding a cave.
He remembered staggering through trees that seemed to reach out for him, then collapsing. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he crawled for a while.
Still. If it was dark, then he was probably safe. He had access to a few hidden bank accounts. All he had to do was get into a town. Then a phone. Then Sweden. There, they could fix him up good as new.
Gingerly, he checked his injury. Oh, that slut was going to pay. Hormone therapy the rest of his life, it looked like.
Fine, fine. He’d deal with that later. There had to be a compatible DNA donor somewhere. He’d paid enough already. Worst case, he could change.
He shivered. It wasn’t that cold. It was fairly warm in this cave. Must be the blood loss and the drugs in his system battling each other.
This had been closer than he wanted to admit. She was far, far more skilled than the last time they met. Still. His plans were afoot to ensure no matter what happened to him he would be revenged upon that dammed Kildar.
He shivered again, more strongly. A cold sweat erupted from his brow. What was going on here?
Two large, green eyes popped open two meters from him. They rose from near the ground, stopping a meter above the ground and staring at him unblinkingly. Now, he could hear a faint chuffing, as if a large animal was breathing. A gentle pad-pad-pad, and he could see the outline of a large, furry head.
The tiger, unhurriedly, began to feed. It started on the legs, where it had left off. It ignored the screams, and feeble wriggling, of its meal. Though it was a little confused; surely the spine had been bitten through?
No matter. It crunched down to get at the tasty marrow inside the long bones. Dinner was dinner. Even if it did taste a little funny.