Another triple dose of The Kildaran!
Yup. Three chapters, all bundled up and cleaned up for you.
You’re really starting to feel the split paths this book is taking; you have one chapter at the headquarters of the plotters, one chapter following Mike’s Great American Tour, and one chapter as the Keldara try to gather intelligence. The rest of the book is generally like that. I tried to write it that way to demonstrate the parallel events. Now, that did mean there are some significantly long chapters in the current iteration; that may just change. It depends, and we’ll see, won’t we?
No sexy bits, but there is a rather graphic murder in the final chapter. Just warning you.
No big self-promo bit this week, but if you want a chance to win my other books (four of ’em, paperback, and AUTOGRAPHED), click the next button!
Somewhere in Chechnya; Moscow; The Caravanserai; Groznyy
“So, Ibrahim, how soon will we take our next steps?”
Giku Inarov sounded impatient, and with good reason. Nearly five weeks had passed since the weapons had been acquired, nearly five weeks of work and toil, and it seemed they were no closer to dispatching them than when they started.
“Excellency, we are having great difficulty with the devices themselves. The weapons are well-crafted, and sturdy, but they have suffered from a lack of maintenance. We are having to replace many of the tritium triggers, as these have degraded most quickly. Your men work tirelessly, but it takes time to obtain sufficient supplies.”
And replace those sickened by radiation.
“And you did not anticipate this problem?” demanded Inarov. “It is imperative our conquest of the Emirate begin as planned!”
“So it shall, Excellency, so it shall. All your teams are in place, secure in their assigned locations. They only await the weapons to proceed.”
“How much longer, then?”
“I expect to receive sufficient tritium within two weeks to finish -”
“Unacceptable!” roared the Emir.
“Allah has decreed the date to complete His work, and you shall not fail! The punishment for failure will be severe,” he warned.
Ibrahim answered thoughtfully, “There is another possibility, Excellency, but one which I have been reluctant to explore.”
“Will it be faster?”
“Yes, Excellency, but -”
“Then do it immediately!”
“Excellency, please, let me explain!” Ibrahim allowed a pleading note to enter his voice, satisfying the Emir’s ego.
“Very well. You may explain.”
“Thank you, Excellency. Each warhead contains a certain amount of tritium, all of which must be of sufficient quality to ensure detonation. However, not all of the tritium in each warhead is bad. We could take the material, separate out the bad, and use the remainder to arm a few warheads, enough, perhaps, for our purposes.”
At the cost of how many more fatal cases of radiation sickness? Best use those least needed in the coming weeks. Most disposable. Yes.
“Why have you not done so?” boomed Inarov.
“As I said, Excellency, only some warheads will be made functional in this manner. All the remainder will be totally useless until their triggers are replaced. I regret to say I do not know how much tritium this will yield nor how many triggers we will be able to repair in this manner. We may have enough to work Allah’s will; we may not.”
“Allah shall provide, Ibrahim. Do not let your faith waver.”
He hesitated for a moment, then continued. “There is one other difficulty. Separating the ‘good’ tritium from the ‘bad’ tritium, while possible under these conditions, is dangerous to the men who perform the task. They will be exposed to radiation.”
Best to put the idea in his head rather than allow someone else to undermine my position.
“Again, I regret that I do not know. Certainly enough to make them sick for a while; possibly enough to kill them.”
Inarov said, indifferently, “They shall be martyrs, no less than a man who dies in direct combat. Do it.”
“At once, Excellency. Allah’s work be done.”
Schwenke left to give the necessary orders.
Must not lose control. Must not lose control. Must not lose control…
The guards in the corridor, seeing the fury in Ibrahim’s eyes, cleared out of the way, almost pitying the infidel who incited such wrath.
Chechnik turned to the speaker, a young Lieutenant.
“There have been some unusual purchases made near Chechnya.”
“Andrei, it is late. I have been here all day, and I am tired. A little more detail would be nice.”
“Sorry, Colonel. Let me show you.”
He moved to a computer and called up a map of the Caucasus, with several cities highlighted. “See? An arc, running from Roston-na-Donu, to Volgograd, to Astrachan, and some towns between.”
“Very pretty, Lieutenant. What has been purchased?”
That got Chechnik’s attention. “Tritium? How much?”
“Never more than a few grams at any one location, but if these are all connected there is nearly half a kilo being purchased.”
That much was enough for dozens of nuclear warheads.
“Have any orders been delivered yet?”
“No sir. All the sources have been complying with the Prime Minister’s order to delay shipment as long as possible.”
“Very good, Andrei! Let’s see who comes to pick it up. Allow the largest single order to be completed; where is it?”
“Vsyo Khemik, in Volgograd. Twenty grams.”
“Ensure the shop is under constant observation, and a team is prepared to follow whoever retrieves it.” He picked up a phone. “I need to pass this along.”
“No, Andrei. The Kildar.”
Vanner hung up the phone.
“We’ve got something!” he called to Stella.
“What is it?”
“Russian intel has picked up on a bunch of suspicious sales orders for tritium. Chechnik’s sending us the data. He’s also getting agents in place to track a single order back to the source.”
“What if they lose the tango?”
“That’s why I’ve gotten their communications freqs,” replied Vanner.
“We’ll be able to listen in on everything they say. If they lose tracking, we may be able to take over the electronic end. Besides, you still have the overrides that Mouse hacked out of the NSA.” He grinned. “We may just have caught our first break.”
“Do we tell the Kildar?”
“Not yet. Not until we have something more solid.”
“Pat?” Grez spoke up.
“Look at the hits,” she said, pointing to the map. “See?”
“Possibly. It wouldn’t hurt to check.” Stella was looking on in confusion at the verbal shorthand, so Grez explained.
“All the data points, when taken together, describe an arc. It’s possible that they are all a similar distance from the source of the orders.”
“I see it now. And the source could be in northern Chechnya, wouldn’t it?”
“Bingo,” said Vanner. “We’ll still wait on the agents’ track, but I think we need to get some assets on the ground in that area. Contact J on his encrypted link and let him know. Time for Cottontail to hit the road. Hippety-hop,” he said with a smile.
“I hate this,” bitched Katya.
They had just gotten the request to move again, this time to the city of Elista.
“There are many things an agent must tolerate,” reminded J. “Sudden movement is but one of them.”
“I know,” she replied, still grumpy. “I wish they would make up their minds, though! It takes time to move, time to build a cover, time to learn the city, time which we never have!”
“All the penalty we incur for having controls. The Kildar has better than most, though. They have a point, a purpose, in asking us to transfer our operations, unlike too many I can recall.”
“And what is that purpose? They don’t share, just tell!”
“Child, remember what I taught you about need-to-know.”
“If I don’t know it, I can’t reveal it,” she parroted back.
“Ah, you do remember. Good.” J looked around the small flat that had served as their base. “I see nothing remaining. Ready?”
Katya picked up her battered bag. “Ready.”
“Destination or travel?“
“Elista is a city of one hundred thousand and capital of the Republic of Kalmykia. It is currently experiencing considerable reconstruction, courtesy of the President of the Republic, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, so imported workers, even tourists, are fairly common. I leave first and take the fourteen-eleven bus. You will follow on the seventeen-forty. I will wait for you inside the Golden Temple, the Buddhist temple outside the city.”
“Very good. Safe travel, padawan.”
In the end, they took the Metro.
Neither Katrina or Stasia had ever ridden a subway, Mike rationalized. Plus, it kept them more anonymous than being chauffeured around DC in a government-tagged SUV. He bought SmarTrip cards for each, showed them how to use them, and then led them into Farragut West, Major Hughes in tow.
Katrina was amazed. Trains, she was barely familiar with. But the sleek Metro trains, windows showing the crowded passengers, whooshing to a stop at the platform, these were totally beyond her ken.
Stasia, by contrast, was terrified. She clutched Mike’s arm fiercely, trusting him to guide her through what seemed to her an endless sea of humanity. The enclosed, underground nature of the station helped her somewhat, though.
“This is how many people get back and forth to work in DC,” Mike explained in Georgian as they moved to find a place in the car. “Katrina, grab that pole and brace yourself,” he instructed. “Stasia, you hold on to me, I’ll keep us upright.”
The train started with a slight lurch, sending Katrina bouncing off Mike.
“Whoa! Hold on, there!” Soon enough, Katrina was shifting easily with the movement of the train.
“How far are we going?” she asked.
“Only a couple stops. I thought we’d start at the Mall.”
“But I don’t want to go shopping!”
Mike just smiled.
“This is the Mall.”
Mike had led them out the Metro exit up into the National Mall. Ahead of them were the Natural History and American History Museums. To the right, the Castle of the Smithsonian. And to their left, the brilliant white obelisk of the Washington Monument gleamed in the spring sunshine.
“Ladies, shall we walk?” Taking one on each arm, he turned to the west and the Monument.
“What is that?”
“That is the Washington Monument, erected to honor the memory of one of my country’s founding fathers. He was -”
“I know, he chopped down the cherry tree!”
Mike had to laugh.
“That’s one of the stories about him, yeah. Not true, maybe, but a good story. He was the military leader who led the American colonies in their revolution against Britain. Later, he was elected our first President. ‘First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.’” He grinned. “Want to go up?”
“We can go in? Up? There?”
“Yep. Great view.”
Major Hughes cleared his throat. “I don’t know if we can get in just yet. I don’t think they open until nine.”
Mike looked at him. He didn’t like throwing his influence around for no good reason, but how often did he get to DC? And this was a pretty innocuous favor to ask.
“You mean to say nothing could be arranged?”
“Would it help if you said that I asked?”
“So I’m asking.”
“Give me a minute.”
Sure enough, a few quick whispered conversations on his secure cellphone later, Jack was walking with them toward the underground entrance. They didn’t linger, but rather were directed quickly by a National Park Ranger to the elevator, taking a quick glance at the bas relief of Washington mounted above the door. The Ranger was polite; it was DC, and she was used to giving VIPs access at odd times, though perhaps with a little more notice than today. She’d been ordered to let them in; she did so. Orders didn’t say anything about babysitting them. That probably explained why she wasn’t as verbose as Rangers tended to be.
“How high are we going?” asked Stasia as the door slid shut.
“The Monument is five hundred fifty-five feet tall, about a hundred seventy meters. I don’t know how close to the top we’ll actually be, but it’s at least five hundred,” answered Mike.
“Is it safe?” she asked nervously.
“Safe as houses,” answered Jack. “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ve been up here dozens of times in all kinds of weather, and it’s just like being on the ground.”
“With a better view,” added Mike.
The elevator stopped, the door opened, and they stepped into a small, stone-walled room. Four small pairs of windows, one on each steeply sloped wall, let in light. Another Park Ranger smiled as they looked around.
“We open to the public in an hour, so take your time,” he said, and walked to a discreet distance from them and took his station. Katrina dashed to the closest set, trailed by the others.
“What is that?” she said, pointing.
Mike peered over her shoulder and answered. “We’re looking north, here. The large green circle is the Ellipse, then the White House, flanked by the Treasury and what’s to the left?”
The Ranger replied, “The Executive Office Building. Not many people know that one.”
“Thanks. Then, we have Lafayette Square and our hotel a little further on.”
She rushed off to the right. “That’s the Capitol!” she exclaimed.
“Exactly,” said the Ranger.
“Bunch of Congresscritters,” added Mike. The Ranger shrugged with a slight smile.
“The Smithsonian is off to the right, over there. And somewhere off to the left is the National Archives building. That’s where the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are kept. We’ll take a walk over there later today.”
“Okay!” she said, and off she went again to the south windows.
“Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin,” he said before she could ask.
“What are the flowers? They look like the ones around the Monument,” she asked instead. Mike looked out with her. The Tidal Basin was ringed with trees bearing thousands of pale pink flowers.
The Ranger came to his rescue again.
“It’s the Cherry Blossoms, miss. Sakuras.” Her face must have shown confusion, because he added, “It’s an annual spring event in Washington. The cherry trees, which were a gift from Japan to the United States in the nineteenth century, bloom, reminding us of the enduring friendship between our two countries.”
It was obviously a question he was used to answering.
“We will go see them, yes Michael?” Mike didn’t think that refusing would be wise; from Stasia’s look, she agreed.
“Of course we can.” He walked to the final windows. “Take a look over here,” he called.
Before them stretched the Reflecting Pool, from the new World War II Memorial at the near end to the Lincoln Memorial at the opposite.
“From this monument to the first great President we can see down to the memorial for another great man, Abraham Lincoln, though not without his flaws. He did what he had to, though, when it had to be done, and that is truly the test, the ultimate measure of a man. He’s the one who defended the Union when the easy course would have been to let it fracture. He’s the one who forged a single nation instead of a multitude of small ones. He’s the one who made this country worth defending, proving it was an ideal worthy of sacrifice.”
He abruptly cut off, as if feeling he had revealed too much. He heard again the lyrics, resonating in his ears, reminding him of too many close calls. Syria. The nameless key in the Bahamas. Paris.
Forcing a smile, he said, “Let’s get moving, ladies. We’ve interfered with the routine enough, I’m sure.”
“I’m beat,” said Mike, hours later.
They saw the cherry blossoms, and Stasia and Katrina were enraptured, strolling through the white and pink flowers. Stasia took photos, lots of photos. Photos of Mike, despite his best efforts to dodge. Photos of Katrina. Photos of Mike and Katrina. Photos of flowers. Photos of Mike didn’t know what else.
A fair walk along the bank of the Potomac brought them down to the Lincoln Memorial. They lingered for a while, hushed, letting Mike stand at the statue’s feet, wrapped in his own thoughts. Mercifully, Stasia kept her photography quiet.
They walked along the Reflecting Pool, past the Monument, to the Smithsonian. There, they spent the bulk of the day poking into ‘America’s Attic.’ Lunch was bits and pieces gathered along the way.
Mike had suggested a regular lunch, but Stasia had protested, saying she had planned a proper dinner for them, and not to eat too much. He did persuade them to steer clear of the hot dog carts, though. Time enough at the ballgame; that was the proper order of things. By the time they emerged from Air & Space, thoroughly impressed, it was nearly five, and Stasia was impatient to return. The Archives would have to wait.
Tonight, Katrina wasn’t around to help him shower. Stasia was, though, and her ministrations certainly took the edge off. When asked about Katrina, all Stasia would reply was, “She had to prepare,” and said nothing more. Eventually they were both dressed, well, but not as elaborately as the previous night, and left the suite.
“Katrina?” he asked, but she just guided him downstairs to the hotel restaurant without a word. There, the maitre’d led them to a private dining room. A table was set for two. Stasia stopped at the door, saying, “She awaits, Michael.”
And she turned away.
Mike sat down at the elaborately set table. A figure appeared at the door; he half rose before he realized it was simply a waiter, bearing a glass of scotch. Elijah Craig, as it happened. Sipping the Craig, he waited a few more moments and another figure appeared. He rose again; this time it was Katrina, dressed in, were those kitchen whites?
“Are you ready for dinner, Kildar?” she asked formally.
“Will you be joining me?”