There was such an amazing response last week to the prologue that I figured there’d be rioting if I didn’t put up Chapter One this week.
There is one thing that I, as an author, dislike about writing in a series.
You HAVE to write your books in such a manner that a new reader, when picking up a book that isn’t the first, can get enough information quickly enough to know who’s who, while still not boring them to tears.
As I’ve written more, I like to think I’ve gotten better at it.
But it’s still a bunch of exposition and flashbacks,
Still, there you have it. It’s got to happen. What do you think? Is it better to get it done in one big dose, or spread the pain over several chapters?
The Valley of the Keldara, Georgia
It had been a good few years, Mike reflected, looking out over the Valley.
Mike Harmon, aka Mike Jenkins, aka Ghost, and currently the Kildar, was sitting in his office. Not young any longer, he kept in reasonable shape, though it wasn’t immediately apparent by the insidious thickening of his waist he fought daily. Average face, brown eyes, brown hair, with slight changes of manner or dress he could pass as a native in just about any country.
Formerly a SEAL team member, he was now the owner of a valley in Georgia, with a population of “retainers” called the Keldara. Daria Koroleva, a young Ukrainian woman he had rescued and, as it turned out, a damned fine administrative assistant, had announced that “someone important” was coming up to see him. Although there weren’t any VIPs in the Valley that he knew of at the moment Mike had come in off his balcony to wait; it was March, after all, and still what he called ‘brisk’ and what most normal people called ‘ridiculously cold.‘ Not having much to do at the moment but wait, he was taking the time to look back. And perhaps face a few ghosts.
After preventing the VX shipment from decimating Disney and Orlando, the Keldara had stayed in the Bahamas a few weeks well-deserved R&R, while the late Juan Gonzales’ yacht, rechristened Sudden Stop, had been refurbished.
Gutted, was more like it, taking full advantage of the crew sent over from Little Creek. They had been supposed to return home, but a liberal allotment of good food, beautiful women, great beer, and generous undocumented bonuses persuaded them to stay on to oversee the work. And, also, forget what they did when they finally departed. Luxurious, oh yeah, it was all that. But anyone who wanted to tangle with a nice, soft target like a rich man’s yacht was supposed to be would be sorry, sore, and sorely disappointed afterward.
SOCOM had mentioned, somewhat diffidently, that the yacht should be turned over for proper disposal, but a quick call to Bob Pierson at OSOL had quashed that. The Keldara enjoyed the sunshine before beginning the crossing back across the Atlantic, through the Med, and on to the Black Sea port of Sochi where it moored. The customs inspection, though hardly rigorous, had missed every major modification, so he knew that it would pass even a more-than-casual glance. That was good. No point in keeping an ace up his sleeve if wearing a tank top.
They had kept the five cigarette-style boats “borrowed” from a government impound, although not all traveled back with them. One was given, as promised, to Randy Holterman, the Keldara’s boat instructor, who went off shaking his head at his quarter-million dollar “tip.” And two were left behind in Islamorda, with Captain Don and the original “Too Late,“ to be cared for and chartered out. The remaining two had been ferried back to Sochi as well, where he maintained them for training and generally blasting across the Black Sea for the fun of it.
Britney had returned to SOCOM, and her role as liaison to the DEA. She had been promoted to Captain after the VX mess and had really risen in prominence in a very small community. She and Mike had continued to stay in touch, tied together by their experience in Syria. After she had visited the Valley, he made one of his rare trips to the States to visit her. Their connection was good for both of them, healing wounds old and new. They had helped each other heal and had parted as friends.
That winter, the first full winter he had experienced here, had almost been fun. For the first time in memory, the Valley of the Keldara wasn’t cut off from outside as soon as the snow flew. Oh, there was snow – meters of snow, actually – but there was electricity, and training, and Mike had been right – some of the valley slopes made perfect ski runs, though getting back up the mountain had been a bitch without a lift system.
Maybe next year. That was on the wish list.
The Keldara had at first been stunned by the idea of skiing for pleasure – survival was the usual order of business in winter, not recreation – but it had been integrated into their cold weather training, and quite a number had come to enjoy it. Gennadi Mahona’s crop selection had provided an ample bounty that year, enough food so not a single Family went hungry, even allowing some to be stored away as an emergency supply.
Winter ops had been limited, but Master Chief Charles Adams had been positively devilish in the training missions he devised. That’d earned him several new nicknames. Of course, not one was mentionable in polite company…
Spring came and the patrolling expanded in scope, ranging far out from the Valley proper. Small bands of Chechens, survivors of the debacle in Pankisi the previous fall, roamed the eastern mountains at will, raiding farms, stealing food, raping, pillaging, and burning.
It had seemed prudent to extend their control beyond the Keldara‘s traditional reach, to bring as many of the people into the Five Valleys as wished to move. As a result, the population of the area had nearly doubled, and while they weren’t strictly Keldara, they were still tough, mountain farmers.
There was an ugly clash with a multinational corporation, GenetixSeeds. Their usual modus operandi was to find an isolated, socially backward area and ‘donate‘ -read, infected – other valleys with their own hybrid bastard versions of local seeds. This led to several problems:
The local plants were quickly snuffed out as the more vigorous strain overwhelmed them.
The hybrids turned out sterile, unable to reproduce in the wild, ensuring that the ‘beneficiaries’ of the donation would be forced to buy more seed or starve.
Finally, representatives of the company had appeared to collect thousands in ‘licensing fees;’ for the use of their hybrids.
They played dirty.
The Kildar played dirtier.
Enter the Tigers.
No, sorry, have to clear this land. Kildar says. Flamethrowers? That’s to ensure that it’s completely clear. It’s a security issue. Sorry, can’t go into any more details. Need to know, dontcha know.
Fees? For what?
Funny, you say you sent people out here? Never saw ‘em. You sure they went to the right place? There are all sorts of bandits out here, you have to be very careful on the roads, you know.
The backhoe operators got plenty of practice.
The Kildar had even donated seed from the Keldara’s stocks, paid the farmers for their losses.
The ‘discussion’ between OSOL and GenetixSeeds’ representatives, while still classified, had been copied to Mike. Vanner, Nielson, Adams and Mike laughed for nearly an hour.
Of course, Vadim Tyurin, the local administrator slash cop slash judge slash all government functionary had complained, but a few hundred extra euros had gone a long way to quell that problem. He’d gratefully accepted as reserve officers the worst-wounded from the Keldara’s epic battle against the Chechens. They filled a role as firemen, too, as the cash-strapped government of Georgia couldn’t even begin to fill the role. Mike paid them a small salary, which salved their pride; Vadim got trusted, reliable men who would support him; and the Families were shown that wounded warriors still had a valuable role. Everyone won.
Mike had even signed off on ordering a used Dutch fire engine, something he’d learned by reading one of the innumerable pieces of paper that needed his signature. He’d learned the hard way to at least glance at the documents he signed; Vanner had a wish list of equipment a mile long, and Stasia! She’d gotten way too familiar with the uses of his AmEx Titanium!
Patrick Vanner, his intel expert, married Greznya Mahona in a tradition-laced ceremony that spring. Given Vanner’s fascination with the roots of the Keldara culture, Mike wasn’t sure what thrilled him more, marrying Grez or observing the ceremony.
The planting of food crops had expanded further, taking full advantage of the new tractors and their attachments. They’d added acres of the tiger berry bushes, the secret ingredient in the local beer. Mountain Tiger beer, while maybe not the best-known or least expensive brand, was almost certainly the most sought-after, at least in the US and UK.
Gurum, the brewery manager, and Bob Thomas, the distributor, had worked hard over the winter to figure the optimal levels to balance quantity and profit, but it looked like they would need more capacity in short order. Chatham Aviation, Mike’s charter company of choice, now carried Mountain Tiger as their only beer aboard their planes. They believed in serving their clients only the best, especially those who could afford their admittedly pricey services.
Mother Lenka couldn’t stop laughing whenever she thought of it, since the beer they exported was considered inferior, at best, in the village. It was perfect for the barbarians, however.
There hadn’t been much organized Chechen activity. Not a shock, considering the dent the Keldara had put into their forces. The surviving bandits had quickly learned not to screw with the farms under the protection of the Keldara, so combat ops had dropped sharply. Worrying that the routine patrols would quickly dull the finely-honed combat edge, he resolved to add new training to their routine.
In addition to basic militia training for the new residents, using captured Chechen weapons, he had also recalled Don Meller, one of their trainers and a construction expert, and had him create another dam. This one was much cruder, just dropping the top of a hill into a ravine and doing a concrete coating, but it made for a hellaciously deep dive training area. Team Yosif had turned out to be pretty skilled at it – “ducks to water” rolled through his mind, making him smile – and it had kept Mike busy, too working on passing on his dirty SEAL tricks to the new water pups.
In addition, he had had Meller supervise the building of a small clinic and laboratory for the resident doctor and microbiologist, Dr. Tolegen Arensky, who nearly drove him bat-shit, with his over-the-shoulder suggestions and changes. It seemed that every day there was a new addition or deletion, or another unexpected requirement, or, well, the list went on and on. But Mike had cautioned him to treat this particular microbiologist with kid gloves, and Meller had. He’d earned every penny of the sizeable bonus Mike gave him, too.
In the fall, J and Katya Ivanova, the HumInt side of his intelligence staff, went off for a few weeks as a “favor” to Sheik Otryad in Uzbekistan, taking Shota and his Team of heavies with them, supposedly as backup. He didn‘t ask, but it was surely an odd request. A heavy weapons team just didn‘t mesh with the way J worked or the image Mike had of the man.
J was a master spy, who could blend seamlessly into any population he cared to observe, a skill that still made Mike somewhat uneasy. He was the best at what he did, though. And Katya, Cottontail, was his student. A former hooker, the blonde, blue-eyed, barely out of teenage girl was also the deadliest, stone cold sociopath Mike had ever encountered. Initially rented from the local pimp for the imported trainers during the first phases of training, she had been instrumental in the success of many of the Keldara’s hairier missions. She had been fitted with bio-enhancing drugs and poison-dispensing fingernails for a previous mission by the US government, and had been put entirely into intel, much to the harem’s relief. And Mike’s, too. Although he had stopped bedding her long before, he’d obtained and inoculated himself and his command staff with the anti-toxin. Just in case.
J had taken her under his wing, and he had to admit there had been some positive changes since. Mike wondered what the favor for the sheik had been about, since there hadn’t been a change in the government, nothing that Vanner could pick up, nothing in the news, but he was a man who paid his debts. He owed Otryad a large one for the ‘gift‘ of Anastasia, Mike‘s harem manager, so he felt easy letting the two go along, taking Shota and his team and little else. The sheik had said that all equipment would be provided after J’s assessment of the mission.
It was like an itch he shouldn’t scratch at times, but all had come home healthy and happy as frogs in a pond. Even Shota, who didn’t brag, but smiled wider than the tiger who’d caught the big game hunter.
Vanner had added a new quirk to his burgeoning intel team in the fall as well. They were called the Four Blind Mice. Led by Creata, nicknamed ‘Mouse’ for her demure attitude and diminutive stature, they were as expert a pack of crackers Mike had ever encountered. Hardware, software, smart technology, or blasting powder and an iron safe, it didn’t matter, if there was data needed, they could get it. He was still a little uneasy at the ‘updates’ Mouse had received at the Virginia facility – it felt way too much like he was turning her into a Borg – but she seemed to adjust to it well. And, hell, at this point he couldn’t get Vanner to give up his Mice anyway.
Not without bloodshed.
Of course, there was the ugly clash between the Russians and Georgians as well. The Chechens had, for years, used the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia as a base and staging ground with virtually no opposition.
This had been greatly reduced by Mike’s operation the previous year, and Russia had been anxious to finally extinguish the smouldering fire such a safe haven represented. President Svaskili of Georgia, however, had different ideas, not because he supported the Chechens. Nor was he a coward; he‘d even visited Mike during the height of the crisis, just to be closer to the front.
Corrupt, yes, but also a patriot, he had believed that, if he allowed Russian forces to enter his country for any reason, he would be totally unable to get them to withdraw afterward. He had therefore refused permission for the Russian forces to penetrate Georgian territory, even with Georgian military observers to ensure the destruction only of the invasive Chechens. Prime Minister Putin, the prick, had pushed in anyway. Tensions had risen, and there had been several ugly incidents between Russian and Georgian troops.
Since this was taking place less than an hour’s helicopter flight from the Valley, Mike had acted after several Spetnaz teams had been spotted within a few miles.
He had managed to come face-to-face with Putin, insisting that the Russian troops, who had now completed their mission and exterminated their targets, be pulled back across the border. Putin, predictably, and as Svaskili had feared, had refused, seeing an opportunity to regain control of Georgia. Mike made a subtle hand gesture.
One well-placed round from Lasko had convinced Putin of the error of his ways and that he needed a change of pants. This had done nothing to endear Mike to him, but Mike could live with that, although Lasko had bitched unmercifully for weeks afterward that he could just have easily solved the ‘Putin Problem’ permanently.
Then there were the kids, the children from the Rite of Kardane. Lots of kids, most of them still babbling and crawling, but a few beginning to toddle around, and he could see snatches of himself all about: eyes here, hair there, a way one moved, or sat or… He had to admit to being uneasy at the thought of so many pieces of him running around. Kids were kids, though, and as the days and weeks and now months passed, it really made the Valley feel more welcoming, that he was much more of the Keldara no matter what the future held.
And now another winter had passed. Father Kulcyanov was still holding on, despite a bout with pneumonia that Dr. Arensky had just managed to turn back, and Mike was hoping that he’d make it through one more festival of Balar. There was a new President back in the States. It wasn’t the brass-plated bitch from hell he had feared – she was secretary of state! This other guy, Mike had no clue about. Although he recalled a dinner a few months back, right after the election. There were Stasia, Katrina (one of the Keldara, and the original poster girl for Mountain Tiger Beer), Vanner, Grez, and Amelia Weston, the wife of a high-ranking General, and had met Mike and Stasia before the Pankisi mission. She had taken up the standing offer to come visit Anastasia, and the talk had turned inevitably to the election and what it might mean for him and the Keldara. A new president might mean that he would be needed less, or at least asked for less.
Katrina was saying, “I heard that there was a new President. He’s not from the same club as the last one, is he? Will this affect us here, in the Valley?“
Stasia coughed into her teacup in surprise, but Amelia picked up the question smoothly.
“Oh, no, my dear. Washington doesn‘t usually work like that. Yes, the parties are different, the ideologies. But the reality of the world, that doesn’t change just because we change leaders! Every new president spends many, many days in consultation with his predecessor, bringing in advisors and trying to get a handle on the extraordinary amount of problems he’s just inherited. The General and I were at one dinner President Cliff held for the new man. They were discussing, or perhaps I should say hinting, at which world problems and briefings they just can’t gloss over or change without major repercussions. After the Georgia-Russia event was settled, and how was that here?”
Mike had answered. “We didn’t see much of it, although it has finally put paid to the bandits that had been raiding the area.”
“I’m so glad to hear that!” Amelia exclaimed before continuing. “Mike, you actually came up at this briefing, in a sideways reference. Not by name, but as a ‘Friend in strange places.’ Before the President-Elect could ask any questions that couldn’t be answered cleanly, or at least not so openly, Cliff said, now, how did he put it? Oh, yes. ‘You have friends at OSOL who can help you in sticky situations. Like the Georgian one. They know people you really want to keep on their good side. People that can get you gifts like this one.’ Then, oh, this was too much! He pulled out a photo of your gift from the Syria mission. The poor man! I thought he would need to leave the table, if you get my drift.” She smiled merrily. “Dinner was pleasantly quiet after that, though the President-Elect did drink a bit more than was polite.”
“So, the new President will respect Michael?“ asked Katrina quietly.
“I certainly think so,“ answered Amelia. “Certainly, your Colonel Pierson will do what he can.“
“That’s good. I would hate to kill him, just so they left Mike alone and only called on him sometimes.” Mike nearly coughed out his coffee at that, but she wasn’t done. “We have problems enough in and around the valley, though that is changing too.“
Fortunately, Stasia took the situation in hand. “Katrina,“ she said in Keldara, “You do NOT threaten to kill the president, even if you are not serious. Have you forgotten your lessons about the Secret Service?
“No, Mistress, I haven’t forgotten.”
“They are well-trained, almost as well-trained as our Tigers, and utterly dedicated to their profession. You would be lucky to survive an encounter with them.“
“Who said I would be there?“ Katrina’s usual fire, never suppressed for long, roared back. “I thought that Katya would be perfect for a mission like this.“
Vanner and Mike simply sat and watched the exchange with slack jaws. Was this really Katrina talking about killing a President, even if he wasn’t the right party? It was Katrina, after all, so who really knew? Mike wondered what had possessed him to acquiesce to Stasia’s request to invite Katrina. Greznya, though, simply added in English, “You really don’t want to go there.” Then they all noticed Amelia, who was silently laughing.
When she finally caught her breath, she had said, “Oh, dear. I wish you’d been around in the Nixon years, dear! Lots of Rye to reap back then. Mostly chaff no one would have missed. Care for another scone?”
That had been an interesting dinner.
One positive from the election, though. At least it had freed up the former president to finally travel to Georgia and drop in for the long-promised “steak and beer.” That had been a kick! The Service guys had looked like they were ready to shit themselves when they unassed the chopper, facing a well-armed local militia run by a merc! That had been worth waiting for by itself!
Over the three-day visit the new Nannies – they weren’t, really, they were Swedish professional women, professional in every sense, escorts, bodyguards, cooks, maids, secretaries, and his two non-Keldara batmen, who he couldn’t think of as butlers, had really smoothed things over, with Stasia’s able guidance.
They’d had, what, seven other high-level visits in the past year? All lower on Mike’s personal hierarchy, but all were much, much more stressful. The one presidential visit? Easy, relaxing. Just what he needed.
All thanks to Stasia’s planning; that, and a serious abuse of his Titanium Agent’s AmEx card. The twelve ‘nannies’, all gorgeous, of course, tall, blonde, eyes that were like blue ice, had come to the Valley after intensive training at, oh hell, he couldn’t remember how many ‘academies’ and ‘classes’ they had gone to.
He wasn’t sure, but he thought Stasia had taken some liberties in renaming them. They were, let’s see if he could remember them all: Eir, Geirdriful, Goll, Gondul, Herja, Hildr, Kara, Mist, Olrun, Reginleif, Sigrun, and Skogul. But these were all names of Valkyries from Norse mythology, so the odds of them all carrying a name like that was, well, minuscule. In any case, that’s what they answered to.
His thoughts turned to the upcoming Festival of Balar. Maybe Oleg could keep the Ondah again. Of course, this year Shota might just give everyone a shock…
There was a knock on the door. It wasn’t Daria; he knew her knock. He knew both butlers’; not theirs, either. Kurosawa, especially, he knew. Bridgewater, the Brit, was less likely to intrude on his thoughts and privacy. Kurosawa knew no such boundary. On the other hand, the man was a genius with acupuncture herbs, just what his damaged joints needed.
Nor was it timid, or retiring, the knock of someone worried about disturbing him. No, this was a courtesy knock, as if the person had every right to enter Mike’s sanctuary and was simply honoring the formality.
The door swung open, revealing a young woman in Keldara dress, obviously the finest she had. Kurosawa, short and round, could be seen, resigned, behind her. Her red hair flowed down under her kerchief, blue eyes flashing, as she stood in the doorway with one hand on her hips. “I am the Kildaran and I have come to claim my rights.”
“Oh, fuck,” Mike muttered.