Hey, I know, it’s Tuesday, not Sunday, but I started thinking this way: it’s been a long week and everyone needs a little pick-me-up, so why not go ahead and post another chapter?
Am I right?
And this is the last chance for you to give feedback on the cover; specifically, what’s in the deep background. I’ll reveal what it is in the next post.
Oh, yes. Pay attention to this site; there’s going to be another post this week you’ll be interested in.
Tbilisi; The Caravanserai
The secure phone beeped. That meant a call from someone important enough to have the ability to call the number, a very short list indeed. And that meant that he couldn‘t just ignore it, despite the other demands on his time.
“So how do I get to Alersso from Tbilisi?”
The voice crackled and snapped. A land line, and not a good one, which suggested it probably originated in Tbilisi like the caller said.
It certainly wasn’t secure. He heard the phone slam into something hard once, twice, and the worst of the static cleared.
“I said, Mike, how do I get to Alersso from Tbilisi?”
“Pierson? You’re in Tbilisi? I thought you were still overseeing a delivery?” He wouldn’t talk about nukes over an open line.
“It wouldn’t make much sense for me to ask directions otherwise, would it?” he responded acerbically. “Sorry, I‘m running on caffeine right now and it’s pretty well worn off. Yeah, the delivery went smoothly, so I figured, what the hell? After all, you invited me, and how often do I get a chance to get away?”
“I’ll have a chopper there in a half-hour to pick you up.”
“I made it this far on my own. You don’t have to –” Mike interrupted him.
“Four-hour drive on typical third-world roads in a rental that’s had the odometer clock over who knows how many times on minimal maintenance, then doing the pothole slalom on unfamiliar roads against locals? Or a half-hour in the air. Your choice.”
“Ah. Chopper, please. Half an hour‘s just long enough for a power nap.”
Nap? Not likely.
“Thought so. Listen for call sign Dragon. And I‘ll arrange for the grand tour, plus a suitable room and personal attendant.”
Which Valkyrie had the duty? He’d get Vanner to sweep the room, make sure all the bugs were their own.
“Dragon? It’s not that crazy pi—”
But Mike had already hung up.
“Kacey! Need you!” he snapped over the intercom.
A moment later he heard, “Go, Kildar.”
“Two items. Need a VIP pick-up at TIA, grand tour, anything he wants to see.”
“Easy. What else?”
“Anechka. How’s she doing on flight training?”
“Coming along nicely. Why?”
“I have an idea…”
The PA blared almost continuously.
If it was quieter, and in English, and undistorted, it might be tolerable, or at least comprehensible.
This PA failed on all three counts. For a brand-new terminal they certainly seemed to have skimped on the sound system.
Pierson shrugged. He’d been in worse before, he’d be in worse again. Newark came immediately to mind.
Finally, Pierson heard his name, he thought, but failed to understand any other part of the announcement. This was his signal to find someone who might be able to translate. He struggled with his bags until he found an airport worker who at least seemed to understand a modicum of English, mixed with bad Russian.
Berlitz, he thought. If I’m going to spend any time dealing with Mike, I need Georgian.
“Pierson? My name was called?” He pointed to the ceiling-mounted speakers which were continuing their blattering.
The worker gabbled something in, what, Georgian?
Definitely Berlitz. Don’t care if I ever get out here again, at least it’ll get me out of the office for a while.
“Meenya zavoot Pierson.” God, what a mash-up.
“Pierson! Da!” He pounded his chest, nodding vigorously.
Another gabble and a nod from his chosen interpreter.
Pierson shook his head.
“Nyet, nyet.” He did his best to look confused, not particularly difficult under the circumstances. “I can’t follow you, I don’t speak Georgian. Uh…govoreet pa-russki?”
Using the international standard of making oneself understood, the worker slowed down his speech, increased his volume, and added gestures.
Pierson thought he caught a couple words. There were some Slavic cognates in there he could almost understand.
“Chastnikh terminalov?” He repeated it as best he could. Private terminal? “Where? Gdyeh?”
“Da!” The worker pointed down a long corridor, rattling off another long string of syllables. Good enough.
“Spasiba.” Thank you.
He smiled and turned in the new direction.
Oh, sure, one word. Great.
Five minutes later Pierson reached the end. Literally. All that was ahead of him was a door inscribed in the curiously fluid Georgian script. He was sure it said something like, “Intruders will be killed and eaten,” or something similar, but he pushed it open anyway.
Squatting outside was the single evilest-looking Hind he’d ever laid eyes on. Black from nose to tail, with a snarling dragon’s head on the front, he knew it at once even before the helmeted crewman walked over. The flight suit looked standard, down to the nametag that read, ‘Bathlick’, though the shoulder patch, a dragon in full flight, raining flame below, certainly wasn’t.
Crewwoman. The voice was a dead giveaway; any curves were hidden beneath the suit.
“Captain Kacey Bathlick, late of the USMC and currently playing chauffeur for the Kildar,” she said, pushing the visor back and extending her hand.
He shook the proffered hand.
“Pleased to finally meet you, Captain. And this is the famous Dragon?”
“The one and only,” she said proudly. “Any more luggage?”
He gestured to his one bag.
“Just the bag and the briefcase.”
“Let’s get you aboard, sir. This way. Careful of the rotors.”
He climbed up and in and strapped down while Captain Bathlick expertly secured the bags.
“You’ve done this before, sir?” Bathlick dropped into the co-pilot’s seat and put on her headset. He did the same, then nodded, yawning.
“You’re not flying tonight, Captain? Is it, ah, Wilson?” he asked, dredging her usual co-pilot’s name from his memory. He’d noticed a slight whirring as the powerful turbines fired.
“No, Tammy has her own bird. Valkyrie.”
Pierson was confused; this seemed to be his usual state in this country.
“Then who’s starting… Did the Kildar hire more pilots?”
“Sort of,” said Kacey as he settled into his seat. “You may want to secure yourself a little more tightly, sir.”
Tightening the five-point harness again, he said, “Why? The weather a problem?”
“No. But Anechka’s a little nervous tonight. It’s her first night flight.”
“Anechka?” The name staggered off his tongue. Definitely a local.
“Anechka Devlich, my pilot-in-training. I thought, what better opportunity?”
Kacey smiled at Pierson, who had paled.
“Don’t worry, sir. I’ll be right behind her. She’s quite promising. Barf bags are on your right. You said you wanted to see the sights up close?”
“Mother of God…”
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Pierson greeted Mike with a snarl as he tried to flatten his hair, surely grayer than when he arrived in Tbilisi, back down from the helmet. His bags landed at his feet.
“Good to see you too, Bob,” said Mike, grinning widely. “How’d Anechka do?”
“You knew about this?”
“You think Kacey wouldn’t tell me? I didn’t realize how far along her training was until very recently,” he said, throwing a knowing look at Kacey who looked off innocently. “She’s almost ready to solo.”
“I need a drink. What day is it? And where the fuck am I, exactly?”
“Two days before the weddings,” answered Mike, shaking his head at the jet lag and the effects of the short flight to the Valley. “And how about a beer? I warn you, though, you’ll never look at a Budweiser the same way again.”
“I’ve had Mountain Tiger,” Pierson responded.
“Not like this,” Mike insisted. “There’s a barrel left from the party we can tap; the others are reserved for the weddings, and even I won’t cross Mother Lenka.”
Pierson gave him the eye. Unperturbed, Mike continued.
“Girls, get Colonel Pierson’s bags. Bob, this is Herja and Reginleif, though we call them Harry and Reggie. They’ll be taking care of you during your stay.”
He said it with a completely straight face. Let Pierson figure out what he meant. He knew some stories had to have made it back to OSOL.
Let’s see how a man stuck behind a desk for a few years deals with it.
One very large stein of Mother Griffina’s brew later and Pierson was ready to take care of business. Mostly.
He waved away an offer of a refill from one of ‘his’ girls, he couldn’t remember which one. The names hadn’t stuck well enough in his sleep-deprived mind, and Mike’s harem had appeared. It looked like they were wearing feathers, and he tried desperately not to stare as they made their manners.
“Learning to belly-dance,“ Mike explained after they cleared out.
That didn’t help his mental state any as Pierson mused.
Mike was getting married? Must be a hell of a woman to get him away from all this! Then there was the background music. Quiet, familiar, but out of reach of his memory in his current jet-lagged state.
He shook off his wandering thoughts.
“Where’s Major Hughes?” Bob asked, redirecting the conversation as he dipped a meat-filled bun into a spiced meat gravy.
Mike finessed the question, knowing that Stasia had plans for Jack tonight.
“He’s on liaison duties right now. Probably well tied up. Should I call for him?”
“Screwing the harem manager again?” nodded Pierson. “Figured.”
Mike‘s jaw dropped. “You knew about that?”
“Hell yes. You think that your girls blocked all the data dumps from our eyes in the sky? Fragged all the drives? Filled the servers with porn?”
“Yes. They‘re damned good at what they do.”
“You’re right. Nothing’s left on any hard drive anywhere I know of. I just happened to have it live on my monitor. Nice car, by the way.”
Pierson didn’t mention the news chopper which had film that never made the six-o’clock news, and never would. The only copy was on a memory stick in his briefcase and he was rather looking forward to showing it to the Major at some point during his visit.
“Good to hear. Anisa would’ve been really pissed if she’d missed one.”
“Who moved first? Miss Rakovich or Hughes? It’s slightly important.”
“Stasia, though I’ll admit I forced the issue. Yeah, he’s with her now.” He nodded past his left shoulder. “And he might be tied up right now, though more likely she is.”
“And you don’t mind?” he mumbled around another bite. The food here was fantastic!
He didn’t notice the hand dab a napkin at the stray drop of gravy rolling down his more-than-five-o‘clock shadow.
Messy, but good.
The hand returned to its mate, kneading his shoulders. He relaxed back into them.
“I told her all along she’s a free agent. I’m really glad she’s finally found someone else who can take care of her and handle her needs.”
There was a note in his voice that Pierson immediately picked up on. The background music finally came into focus, singing, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango? Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening me.”
He gazed at Mike with sudden suspicion.
“What’s going on, Mike?”
“Later. What’s in the briefcase?”
Accepting the change of subject, Pierson put the case on the desk.
“A little bit of paperwork to finish off,” he said, opening and removing a sheaf of papers. “The finding approved you and the Tigers for recovering two dozen weapons, twenty-two at ten per, and the others at twenty per, for a total of two hundred sixty million.”
“They wouldn’t authorize payment on the twenty-fifth, though, on the grounds –”
Mike waved it off. “Oh, I won’t argue the point. Figured in the end it was enlightened self-interest as much as anything else. Still. That’s a lot of scratch, Bob. Do my bank accounts good, after the dent the girls put in it.”
“It is. All of it non-taxable, of course. And now you get to sign for it. In triplicate.” He said the last with certain relish.
“What’s this bullshit?”
“Since the money went missing in Iraq, the new administration’s really tightened up procedures, or at least made more paperwork for me.”
“Great,” muttered Mike, picking up a pen. “Where? And my current name‘s good enough?”
“Down there, and yes, it is,” pointed Pierson. “Oh, and the President wanted me to express his sincere appreciation of –”
“Yeah, whatever,” interrupted Mike.
Pierson stopped the signing. “Okay, Mike, we need to talk. Privately.”
“You’re not in my chain of command, Bob,” he replied, but smiled weakly. A subtle cough from the massaging Valkyrie drew his attention.
“Go ahead, Reggie. Unpack his bag, prepare his room. We’ll be fine, and I’ll buzz if we need you.”
He waited until she cleared the nook, then placed a small device on the table and turned it on. All the lights flashed green then stayed a steady emerald color. No active listening devices in the area or on Pierson, and now any which happened to be trained on them would pick up so much static. Trust only went so far.
“Fine. Go ahead.”
“You know how close you came to being blown? And why I borrowed the Mice, and the Mules, and Lasko, even though you had your own op in play?”
Mike looked puzzled.
“No, nobody said anything to me.”
“At least they maintained OpSec, then,” muttered Pierson. “Here.“
He filled Mike’s glass with Elijah Craig.
“You’re going to need this.“ He waited until Mike took a solid slug before beginning.
“So, there was a Major, you might remember her from Florida…”
Mike finished half the bottle before Pierson finished his brief. He looked at the pictures and intel Pierson had brought with him and reluctantly pushed it away.
He reached for the bottle and took a long pull.
“Yeah. It was that bad.”
The next day one of the Fathers came up to the Serai, announced the next day would be the Festival of Balar, and asked if the Kildar would do them the honor of attending?
Purely a formality, of course.
Everyone knew Mike was getting married after the contests, preceded by the first wedding.
Moonrise was to be the end of Mike‘s bachelorhood. It was perfectly fitting for this Festival, and had been insisted on by the womenfolk, revealing Mother Lenka’s hand as Priestess all over that decision.
Mike had zero input, even as Kildar. Not even on his traditional wear. The harem took over and insisted he would look his best. After all, he was their Kildar too and they would allow nothing to mar anyone else‘s opinion of the event.
They stubbornly dismissed his attempts to wear anything comfortable. The girls had had a great time fitting him out for it and made it a game of teasing him to no end. He’d put a stop to it by the expedient of ordering all of them to his room for one last bang, as it were.
Stasia stayed the night with him too, coaching the harem in case they were called to share his bed with his new wife. Thinking of any circumstance under which Kat would invite the harem to their bed made Mike giggle more than a little bit.
Morning finally arrived and his bed? Well, he was lucky Stasia had already ordered a new one to replace this one, or perhaps she’d planned it, seeing as she’d been most insistent. It seemed there was a tradition with the Keldara that his bed be as virgin as his wife on the night of their honeymoon. He could sleep in it, alone, but no other until the Kildaran allowed it. In any case, his old bed was more than a little broken by the next morning.
He smiled slightly as the fractured frame was removed. The Keldara would repair it, of course, and it would end up in the serai somewhere, or perhaps down in the Families’ homes. The Devlich home, he didn’t doubt, being the Family of the Kildaran. It would certainly boost someone’s status. Stasia’s insistence nobody share his bed, even for the single night remaining before the ceremony, combined with her belief that Kat was still virgin told him that the little minx hadn’t told anyone.
They’d all assumed that someone else had been the woman screaming in his bed the night of his bachelor party. Everyone had been rightly snookered. Few remembered what had gone on that night with any clarity. He was certain it was due, at least in part, to the efforts of Elena and Catrina. He’d bet they made the rounds, dropping misleading suggestions and veiled hints.
He knew they were in on the plan as they’d beamed nearly as much as Katrina the morning after his party.
The Chief? Not so much. Said he felt like he’d been bronco busted in the nuts and had no idea what had happened after the start of the party.
The man never learned, but Mike was glad to have him around. He’d be needed again sometime in the future. For sure. The men would need him and the hookers in the Serai would surely miss him if ever he left.
Mike had abandoned him up at the serai, staring glumly at the twelve boxes his Hog had finally arrived in. The Chief had looked like he was going to cry or kill someone at the condition of the parts, flip a coin and make a bet. No wonder his ex had let it go so cheaply.
He finally made his way down the hill for the tree-felling and flower picking ceremony. He waved off offers and requests to help girls find the right flowers. Even though he was getting married, the girls of the Valley were getting more forward in their advances towards him, ever since he’d ordered the end of the Rites of the Kildar.
He guessed, also, more than a few had seen what Catrina and Elena did to him during the party. Or someone had and word had spread, perhaps even egged on by Catrina and Elena. He’d just let it be added to the legend of the Kildar.
He’d neither confirm nor deny.
Preliminaries started after he arrived. He was on time, though he wouldn’t’ve missed it for anything. This time he wanted to see the event firsthand rather than participate, to burn it into his memory. There was the other wedding to attend to the next day. So and early night was foremost in