You may have notice this book has two primary tracks. On the one hand you have the Mike & Kat Road Show; on the other you have Let’s Blow Up the Valley!
However, like all good books, it’s not that simple. The Mike & Kat Road Show has now combined with the Let’s Blow Up the Valley! track; more I can’t really say, as I really don’t intend to have any spoilers in these introductions.
But one of the things I tried to do was have a sub-plot: J and Katya’s Quest for Schwenke. Katya has encountered him twice: the first time, she was lucky and he decided he wanted out; the second time, they were simply crossing paths. Now, this third time, they’re nearly evenly matched.
In fact, when I think about it, this entire book is much more the dynamic, the conflict, between Schwenke and Katya than anything to do with Mike and the Keldara.
But let’s explore that topic another day, shall we?
One final item: you really ought to check out the FREEBIES page on this website if you haven’t already. It’s all legitimately free things, gifts from me to you, so take advantage of them! If you aren’t good at navigating, just click the button below and you can scoot over there and grab your swag.
Near the Georgia-Azerbaijan Border; A Road to Tbilisi; The Caravanserai; Tbilisi
Ibrahim was still dressed as a Russian Army Major. He and his men were stopped in Ikinzhi-Shikhly, a small Azerbaijani village about three kilometers south of the Georgian border on the M1. It wasn’t for a much-needed rest, though the men’s nerves were on edge, kept in check only by the reassuring presence of their leader. It was simply time to change uniforms again.
Their Army uniforms had served them well through Azerbaijan, speeding them through the scattered checkpoints. The two nations had experience a warming trend in their relations over the past few years, and the sight of Russian nationals, even those in uniform, raised no suspicion. More importantly it inspired no hostility from the Azerbaijani, whether military, militia, farmer, or peasant. Now, though, they were about to cross into Georgia, and the situation would change.
Not only were they getting closer and closer to the pit of vipers they were set to exterminate, but complicating the issue, Russia and Georgia had recently cooled a violent border conflict. Russian Army troops would not be a welcome sight at the Georgian border, no matter what their faked papers might say. As a consequence they donned the uniforms of the shadowy, officially outlawed paramilitary/political party, the Mkhedrioni.
The Mkhedrioni, ‘Horsemen’ or ‘Knights’, had been active in the early days of Georgian independence in the battles against the Ossetians and the Abkhazians in the early 1990’s. They had supported, sometimes brutally, then-President Shevardnadze as he consolidated his power in 1993, even being named the “Georgian Rescue Corps” for their actions. But their Russian-mafia-influenced methods had landed their leadership in prison, and their organization was outlawed in 1995.
They never quite disappeared, however, living in the fringes of Georgian society. While membership was still officially prohibited, there was a lingering fondness for them, especially in the northwest and central regions of the country. Even here, in the far southeast, they were likely to be ignored, if not actively supported. It was a perfect cover.
“Ibrahim, I have a question.”
This was from Faruq, a middle-aged man who had remained close to Ibrahim through the entire journey.
“Yes?” The smile on Ibrahim’s face was totally guileless, a man at peace with whatever he had to do next.
“Not to doubt your planning, Ibrahim, but it seems that we have taken overlong in our mission. Should we not be closer to our destination?”
“Shai’tan has laid traps for us, Faruq, and we must be cautious and circumspect to avoid them.”
The djinn-like desert blue eyes glinted.
“Surely now that we are on the cusp of victory, we can accelerate our progress?”
“Soon, Faruq, we shall strike a crippling blow upon the enemies of the Emirate. But we have not achieved victory yet; if we succumb to Shai’tan’s guiles, we may still fall short of our goals.”
“As you say, Ibrahim, so is it true. Yet I would be more than human if I did not admit to feeling some anxiety, an eagerness to complete our mission and return to the heart of the Emirate.” No such fear showed in his face, belying his words.
“What then do you suggest, Faruq?” asked Ibrahim in a dangerously reasonable tone.
Quietly, so as not to be heard by the others, Faruq answered, “Allow me to continue the mission, while you return to the Emir and stand by his side at this, his hour of greatest need.”
He smiled, as if genuinely offering a way out of the mission, a way without consequences or repercussions, revealing his feeling that he held this power.
“You would have the glory of the destruction of our enemies?” Ibrahim hissed. “Or are you planning to betray us to our enemies? It occurs to me that one like you, bringing information such as you have, would be welcomed, celebrated, by the forces of darkness!” With these few words, the battlefield turned. The next few would decide the man’s fate.
Backing away, Faruq‘s voice rose.
“No, Ibrahim, neither! I am loyal, I wish only to serve the Emir!”
“That is what you intend! You would betray your Emir, betray your faith, betray Allah!”
Ibrahim’s impassioned voice rose too, drawing the attention of the other men, exactly as he planned. They needed to witness the fate of the false warrior among them.
He dropped his hands to his sides briefly, then raised them again as if warding off a spectre, pushing Faruq away in spirit, faith, and a Brother of Allah. Exasperation, even disappointment, colored his face, not anger.
He pushed Faruq roughly on the shoulders.
“Go, I say!” he repeated, pushing him again.
Faruq, stumbling backward, fell. Laughter, barely suppressed, echoed from the men he had only moments before he called his brothers.
“You’re mad!” he screeched from the ground. adrenalin flooding his veins, masking the too-rapid beating of his heart.
“A madman am I?” howled Ibrahim, giving proof to Faruq’s words. “I am but a loyal son of Allah, enraged by deceit and lies! Go! You have no more place here!”
Ibrahim dropped his arms dramatically, waving them at the ground before him.
“Go in peace, while you are yet able. Allah’s punishment shall surely follow you along the path you have chosen. No man may outrun Allah‘s wrath.”
Scrambling to his feet, Faruq continued to back away, more calmly now, forced though it sounded.
“Listen to me!” he cried to the men, now gathered in a loose circle.
“The Emir never trusted Ibrahim fully and with good reason! Look! Hear what he is saying! Wahid!” he said, turning to one of the older warriors. “You have known me for years! Have I ever -”
Faruq had passed every test of the Emir.
Pain, he had endured stoically, and deprivation, and hunger, and thirst. He had proven his loyalty, and his worthiness, to the Emir on repeated occasions. He had earned privileges, food, women, for his deeds. He had even proven his ultimate loyalty by inflicting death on several of these women at the Emir’s order, though he had grown fond of many.
For these reasons, he had been chosen as Ibrahim’s minder.
But the pain he had endured, and inflicted, was as nothing compared to what he felt now. He was interrupted by a massive spasm as his limbs were seized by excruciating pain. The muscles in his arms and legs contracted violently, repeatedly, ripping tendons, exploding joints, wrenching a most unmanly scream from his throat.
The human body is a magnificent machine. Faced with unendurable pain, the brain attempts to block it by releasing as many endorphins as possible. The chemical flooded his system, allowing him a chance to breathe and gasp out, “What is happening?”
The man who had murdered him spoke. There were no bullets, no razors, no red-hot pokers or pliers to peel away the skin.
“Shai’tan is claiming you. You have turned your back on the faith, Allah can no longer protect you,” said Ibrahim, quietly. “The wages of sin, Faruq.”
Ibrahim’s lying hands made a double pass at the ground, palms down. A sign, usually used by the mullahs, of a final judgment that brokered no argument.
“I – have – not – sinned!” Faruq managed to squeeze out. His breathing was shallow now, painful. The endorphins had done their best, but the other drugs in his system took over. His skin felt as though fiery needles were poking him. He lacked the knowledge, but it was as the stings of a million fire ants. His heart beat faster, and faster still, beyond the limits of human endurance.
His capillaries constricted, arching his body off the ground. His eyes flared red as the fragile vessels within burst, and tears of blood dripped from the corners of his eyes. With shocking quickness, his vision faded to blackness.
“I – cannot – see!”
His eyes, constricted by the muscles around them, burst.
The men watching, mesmerized, vomited. The judgment of Allah!
“As greed has blinded you, so too has Shai’tan. Soon you shall burn forevermore.”
“What – have – you – done?”
Ibrahim leaned close to the dying man’s ears.
“Eliminated a problem,” whispered Schwenke. “No more.”
These last words went unheard. The cocktail he had created for him proved even more efficient than he had dared to hope, as the fatty tissues liquefied. Schwenke stepped back, almost daintily, as Faruq’s body seemed to collapse on itself. The pyretic bacteria, encouraged by the chemicals injected with them, produced enough internal heat to set the liquefying puddle ablaze.
Ibrahim, the djinn-eyed, the devout, the chosen one of Allah, stood silently and watched the execution of Allah’s wrath.
Inwardly, Schwenke smiled. The overwhelming smells of burning pork reminded him of how long it had been since he was last able to indulge himself.
Eggs, and bacon, he thought. Perhaps a woman, no, two, afterward. A mother and daughter. To protect the other, each would do much to please him before he killed them. The only question, the only troubling thought, would be who to kill first.
The ‘pass’ between Bezta and Georgia was hardly more than a farmer’s track. Unpaved and almost certainly abandoned, it followed the path of a river through a meandering valley until turning abruptly south, and upwards, a couple kilometers from the Georgian border. The good news was there was no border patrol or, for that matter, marked border. Only their GPS informed them of the crossing.
Katya and J ended up spending the night in the village of Oktomberi, in a boarding house that reminded Cottontail of Yakov’s brothel in Alerrso, down to the fleas and bedbugs. She started scratching as soon as she saw the room. When morning came, she was eager to depart as quickly as possible.
The struggle for the Keldara to return to the Valley, and the battle, were picked up in snatches along the road. But the news that Schwenke wasn’t among the dead, and his bomb was still missing, stopped them completely. Katya had never seen that look on J’s face before, a mix of fear and respect. But for whom?
J grabbed the sat phone and immediately made direct contact with Vanner, his Intel counterpart.
“No clue,” answered Vanner. “He could be anywhere. We’re trying to figure out if he’s gone to ground, ran away, or is planning something else.”
“I may have some insight into that,” supplied J. “We’re on our way back. When we return, I think we’ll need to discuss the situation.”
“Agreed. Any idea when you’ll get here?”
“Tomorrow, I would think,” said J, vaguely.
“Good enough. See you soon.”
“Tomorrow? We could get there by midnight!” insisted Cottontail. “I can take over, if you’re tired,” she offered.
“I have my reasons, padawan.” And he refused to say anything else for a long time.
She played with her nails and the valves set into her palms. She was determined that her little tricks would work flawlessly when needed. Closing her eyes, she tried to feel for an up-link but received only static. She shut down before the migraine had a chance to gain any strength.
It wasn’t until they had arrived in Tbilisi that he spoke again. “We are not going back to the Valley tonight,” he said, pulling into a hotel parking lot.
“Why not?” asked Cottontail. “Pardon me, Master, but it sounded like you would be able to help them, that you have an idea.”
“I do,” replied J. “But it will wait.”
He smiled, as if to apologize for being cryptic, but said nothing more.
“Master, I am uneasy at this,” admitted Cottontail.
“In what way?”
She hesitated, gathering her thoughts. “I have had no home, no family.”
“We have discussed your childhood in the orphanage, yes.”
“And my life since leaving there has not been easy.”
“None would dispute that,” agreed J.
“I have been beaten, raped, shot at, and sold.”
“Again, all unpleasant.”
“In all that time, few people have ever cared what happened to me, whether I lived or died. I was a moneymaker, or a place for their dick, or worse. Entertainment and a slave. But now…”
She looked down at her God-dammed too-big breasts. That’s where the trouble started, their too-early development. No, the trouble started with the orphan master, the man who raped her when she was just a child. She shook her head to clear it, and looked back up at J, eyes almost wet. Sad. Yes, oh so sad now. The anger she carried with her was fading. What was replacing it?
“But now people do,” she finally finished. “No, wait. Not people. You.”
“I do?” asked J blandly. She could tell, though, that she’d hit something deep in him. It resonated in the tight confines of the BMW.
“I believe you do,” replied Katya.
“Perhaps,” admitted J. His eyes twinkled.
“And Stasia,” she continued.
“Only as long as you don’t interfere with the harem.”
“The Kildar? Are you sure? Or does he simply see you as a useful tool?”
It was a test, she was sure, but she was long past the point where such barbs would derail her thoughts.
“I have thought on this much, Master. If I was simply a tool for him, I could have been replaced long ago. He’s told me of his willingness to do so often enough. I‘m not even unique for my little ‘toys‘,” she added, somewhat bitterly, referring to the extensive bio-enhancements she had received. She flicked her hardened nails against the window.
“Then why has he kept you?”
“I think, no, I know, he has told me so. He and I are somewhat alike, that he sees some of himself in me. We should repel each other, but we don‘t. If he asked me into his bed, asked, mind you, I just might say yes. Not before, I wasn‘t ready. Even though he‘s good at it and treated me well, it brought up too many memories. Even after the harem arrived, and Stasia, he always allowed me the choice, the chance to say ‘no‘. Without ever getting angry. Why?”
She smiled crookedly and looked far off into the distance.
“He’s also called you a sociopathic bitch,” commented J, testing her again.
“And I agree!” responded Katy, her smile straightening. “That doesn’t mean he disapproves. Besides, he knows I bite!”
“This is all very interesting, padawan, but it has been a long day. I would like to take a shower and get some sleep. The point, please.”
“The point, Master, is that I have found a home, and I want to protect it.” When he smiled broadly, she reacted. “It’s not funny! I – I want to have a home!”
“I wasn’t laughing, padawan. In truth, I am pleased at your progress. From an abused teen who was unwilling to trust or care about anyone, angry at the world and anyone or anything that reminded her of her past, to a young woman who has made emotional connections.”
“Then why won’t you help them?!” snapped Katya.
“I didn’t say that I would not help them, padawan. But my idea cannot be executed yet.”
“Oh,” said Katya in a much smaller voice.
“Now. Are you going to check us in, or shall I?”
“The Cave, Kseniya.”
“Where are you?”
“Tbilisi. Are we still receiving satellite feeds?”
“Yes, we are. Anisa thinks that she’ll be able to hold the feeds, as well; she’s hacked a backdoor into the NSA’s servers.”
“Are any of them capable of gamma radiation scans?”
“Let me check. Three, yes. Two are currently in position to sweep the Chechnya region. We ought to be receiving those signals; I wonder why we aren‘t?” He heard her shuffling papers, then, “Yes, we did request it, days ago. This doesn’t make any sense!”
“Does their range include Georgia? And Azerbaijan?”
He heard typing, and muted conversation, but nothing clearly. Perhaps it was time to have his ears checked.
“Ye-es, barely. Why?”
“Can you download those feeds to my computer? I‘ll keep the encrypted satellite links up for some time.”
“Yes, but I’ll need to know -”
“Thank you. I’ll expect it shortly.” And he hung up.
Looking troubled, Kseniya called Grez over.
“What’s going on?”
“J just called and requested gamma radiation scans of Georgia and Azerbaijan but didn’t explain why.”
Grez’s decision was instantaneous.
“Give it to him.”
Over the normal chaos of the Cave, a tone sounded.
“New data,” said Anisa. “New source.”
“Drop it to my station,” commanded Grez. The usual bureaucratese, ‘National Technical Means’, et cetera, was in the header.
“What is it from?”
“Tell me later. Let’s see what we’ve got.” She tapped a few icons, scanning and sanitizing the data of any virus, traps, malware, Trojans; all the nasty bits of software she was still learning about. The Mice had upgraded the security so that it was generally automatic, with only a few point and click options. Now. What was this?
It was only a few seconds before Grez’s quick eyes spotted the entry.
“Got you!” she exclaimed, jumping up. The normally unflappable Intel Sergeant practically sprinted from the Cave.
“What did she see?” asked Kira, back from the mission and at her usual post.
“I’m not sure,” admitted Anisa. “But let’s see if we can figure it out.”
“The man’s a genius,” said Vanner, shaking his head, alternating between wonderment and bewilderment.
“He’s still a freak,” muttered Adams, rubbing his ass and still refusing a seat.
“Who else would have thought Schwenke would go through Azerbaijan?”
The disparate pieces of the puzzle, the gamma scan request and the overflight that picked up the little convoy, had come together clearly for Vanner. But he’d had to fold and spindle the data to get a result which would be as clear to the others as it was to him.
“Did we dump this data on J yet?”
“Not yet. As soon as I get back to the Cave, I will,” admitted Grez. “I thought you should know first.”
“We know where he was yesterday. So what?” asked Adams, acerbically. “How does that help us today?”
“Ass-Boy, sometimes you amaze me,” commented Mike. “We know what he’s driving. We know from this sequence what direction he was heading, and we can approximate his speed. We’re pretty sure he’s headed here, which limits his choice of routes.”
“If we can pick him up again, we’ll be able to lock in on him, maybe even intercept him,” added Vanner.
“I wonder if Captain Cheal is still available?” suggested Grez. “She’s going to be our best real-time asset, and she’s not limited by orbital constraints. Or egos.”
She stood from the table. “I’ll take care of it.”
“If you get her, make sure J gets that feed, too!” called Vanner as she left the room.
“I still say, so what? Lots of data, no results. You get too much going on, you‘re going to burn out someone‘s brain. Have any of you been down there lately? They‘re making cruder jokes than I do when I‘m drunk! And you don‘t want to hear the puns they‘re coming up with. You don‘t take some pressure off them, you‘re going to start losing operators, if not entire shifts.”
“That’s a point,” admitted Mike. “You have some thoughts on that, Pat?”
“Actually, yeah. If I can write a program to combine -”
Mike waved him off. “I don’t need the details. We’re not just whistling in the dark, right?”
“No, not at all. I wish Mouse was here, or even God-Boy to de-bug, but I’ve done it before.” Vanner started tapping on his tablet.
“Good. Dave, what’s the status of the cleanup from Orkin?”