Welcome back! If I remember correctly, the ‘split path’ of the novel is about to converge again.
Wait, I hear you saying. You don’t know?
I sort of do. But I haven’t sat down and read The Kildaran in a while, and I’m resisting the urge to read ahead, as it were. I don’t want to spoil anything for myself or be tempted to write too much in some of my intros. Plus this is not easy sledding!
This is the third or fourth time I’ve edited this particular book, and while I know I’ve improved as a writer there’s only so much you can do when editing before you start in on major surgery. Given that the book was generally positively received, and even more so after the ending revised last year (and THAT was major surgery!), I don’t want to change too much. I’m tightening things up, tweaking it, removing bits which don’t move the story forward.
So strap in.
Chapter 26 has Stasia getting a little bit frisky, if you’ve been waiting for something along those lines.
Oh – before you get into this story. If you like Sherlock Holmes, my pair of Sherlock stories is Free today (May 2). You can get them by clicking on the button below.
ALSO, my cover for A Quiet Revolution is up for Cover of the Month. Please go vote for it! Consider it a contribution in recognition of the pleasure you’ve gotten out of the chapters to date.
Thanks, and now, on with the story! Big chunk today, roughly 12,000 words.
Utta, Russia; The Caravanserai; Groznyy
It was decided Katya would arrive in Utta first, an hour before J arrived as Abdul Hamid on the bus. She should have sufficient time to find the café, reconnoiter, and leave for a nearby ‘hide’ well before J appeared. She wore a clean but not stylish dress, giving her the look of a semi-successful professional woman. A bank clerk, perhaps, or a low-level manager. To complete the illusion she hadbusiness cards that read, “Katsarina Kapitskaya, Software Developer, TELMA.”
They even carried a phone number which, if called, would eventually route back to the Cave. The Four Blind Mice had hacked into a defunct telecomm company’s abandoned routers; now, that number would ring to a computerized voicemail system which would back up Cottontail’s card.
She left at nine. The battered old car had seen better days. It didn’t have shock absorbers, she thought, as much as shock transmitters. In only a few kilometers her ass was as sore as she had ever been, and that included the worst tricks she’d turned.
“If they make me sit on a wooden chair in the café, they’re going to eat the table,” she muttered as she hit another pothole. At least the heat worked.
Three hours later she crawled into Utta, parked the Lada a few blocks from the Wandering Wolf, and stretched. Her back and shoulders ached now, as much from the effort of wrenching the recalcitrant steering wheel as the pummeling the road had given her, and she allowed a few minutes to recover before setting off.
Looking around, she said, “What a shithole.”
Utta had seen better days, probably shortly before being burned to the ground, or given the current conditions perhaps after as well. The few buildings were weathered and worn, battered and poorly maintained at best. One, the sign proclaiming it to be a branch of Inkombank, was a gutted concrete shell. A couple cars prowled desultorily along the road, most of the few people she saw choosing to walk rather than risk the pothole slalom of what obviously passed for their main street.
The Wandering Wolf had seen better days, too, but there was a neon sign for Baltika beer in the window and the appetizing smell of grilling meat wafted through an open window. Realizing she was ready to eat she pulled at the door which opened with a creak.
The interior was sparse but clean. Three small round tables stood before her, a pair of booths to the left and right, and the obligatory bar, with a half-dozen high-backed chairs, toward the back. A grainy television was showing a soccer match, FC Khimik against Sparta. She asked the lone barkeep slash waiter, idly wiping a tray with a towel as he watched the game, “What’s the score?”
“Spartak is kicking the shit out of those Khimik pussies. It’s six nil.”
“Fucking Khimik. Think they’ll get relegated?” she asked, dropping onto a chair with an appreciative sigh. Battered or not, they were more comfortable than the Lada.
“They’ve won one match this season, what do you think?”
“You like those fucks?”
She shrugged and took off her coat.
“Don’t personally care about them one way or another, but my company’s one of their sponsors. The better they play, the more business we get.”
“Sorry to hear that. Who’s your company?”
“TELMA. We do software.”
“Never heard of you.”
She shrugged again, to much greater effect. The blouse she wore was tight and just slightly translucent. It was her plan to be remembered for her tits instead of any questions she might ask.
“Doesn’t look like you have much use for our product here,” she laughed.
“Not really,” he agreed. “What can I get you?”
“Bottle of water, and something to eat. What’s cooking? I smelled it outside.”
“Boris is grilling venison. Shot it myself.”
“I’ll take that, a small steak.”
She shuddered inwardly.
“No, I have to get back on the road after lunch,” she explained. He yelled the order back to the kitchen, brought her water, and returned to the game. She swiveled in the chair, looking around. One old woman sat in a booth, nursing a cup of a hot drink; other than her, the place was empty.
“Lunch rush?” she asked.
“Ha. Since the battery factory closed, this place has gone to hell. Don’t know why I keep coming to work, it hardly pays to stay open.”
“Because your mother would thrash you if you closed down, Yevgeni,” croaked the other customer.
“Drink your tea, Baba Matya, and mind your own business!” said Yevgeni. “My great-aunt,” he said apologetically.
“I had one just like her,” lied Katya convincingly. “Thought she knew everything and poked her nose in everywhere.”
“That’s her in a nutshell.” He held out a hand. “Yevgeni.”
She took it and said, “Katsarina. Pleased to meet you.”
They chatted harmlessly for a few minutes as Boris – “My cousin, he can’t do anything else, so what else could I do?” – cooked her meal. It arrived, and after she took a bite and pronounced herself satisfied, Yevgeni left her to her meal. It was surprisingly good, in fact, but she paid it little attention, as she examined the interior minutely though discretely. Using the bio-enhancements in her eyes, she was able to zoom in on the few suspicious-looking details. However, they all proved to be harmless: natural features in the wood, an exposed bolt and washer, or, in one case, a squashed fly. Soon enough, she was convinced that the café had been chosen not because it was prepped and loaded with monitoring gear but because it was totally lacking such gear.
She pulled a wallet from her bag.
“What do I owe you?”
“Thirteen rubles,” he said.
Feigning clumsiness, she dropped the wallet on the floor, placing a micro camera under the bar and, incidentally, giving Yevgeni a good view of her ass.
“Good thing I didn’t have that drink,” she joked, handing him a twenty-ruble bill.
“No, thanks,” she said as he went to give her back the change. “I’ll just write it off as a business lunch. Can I get a receipt?”
That got him turned around again, and she palmed another transmitter. “Restroom?”
“Outside, around back,” he grunted.
She went out, waited in the reeking outhouse briefly, then returned, planting the bug on the door lintel, facing in.
“All set,” he said. “I made it look like it was a twenty-ruble meal, with a four-ruble tip.”
“Thank you, that’s easier to explain,” she replied, pocketing the slip. “Dasvidanya,” she said, walking out.
Once out of easy sight, she hurried back to the car. Once inside she pulled out a disposable cell phone and sent J a text: “Looks clean. Planted on door, under bar.”
Then she went to find her hide.
Abdul Hamid got off the bus, late, he was not at all surprised, cursing the Allah-damned bastard who had sold him a ticket next to the toilet. Hoisting the backpack, he made his way down the street, looking in the mostly empty store fronts. Finally, he was at the café and, feeling the chill, entered.
It was almost crowded now, at half past one. He made his way through the tables, placing his pack on the only vacant one, and caught the waiter’s attention. “Hot tea with honey, and do you have any lamb?”
“Lamb? No. Venison, I have.”
“Could you make a kebab, or two?”
“Might take a few minutes.”
“I can wait.”
“I’ll bring it to you when they’re done,” he was told. He sat at the table he had selected, the empty chair facing the door, rummaged through the pack until he found a battered edition of the Qur’an, which he opened at a bookmark. The tea and kebabs were dropped off ten minutes later. “Allah’s blessings,” he said to the waiter.
“Whatever,” and he walked off.
He closed his eyes and moved his lips in prayer, then began eating. The venison kebabs were burnt, the vegetables seemed wilted, and the tea weak. Typical treatment by the infidels, but he couldn’t afford to get angry, not here, not in public. When he finished, he paid his bill before asking, “Please, will you make two more? They were rather good,” he lied.
He returned to his table to read more. Eventually the second order arrived, and he set the book aside.
A large man, dark, straight hair, long beard, dark complexion, approached the table.
He looked up. “Yes?”
“The waiter said you have salt, and adzhika that I can borrow?”
“I have salt, but I do not use adzhika, I don’t like it,” he replied, completing the signal.
The man sat down. “Abdul Hamid?”
“I must be,” he said with a disarming smile.
“You have something for me?”
“In my pack, under the table.” He pushed it over with a foot. “For the glory of Allah.”
“Inshallah,” came the reply. The pack was lifted, and the other man departed. Abdul Hamid finished the kebabs, paid again, and followed the other outside three minutes later. Two minutes after that he was in Katya’s hide and washing the dye from his face.
“Are we tracking?”
“Yes, very clear so far. He’s not moving very quickly.” The receiver looked like a common laptop with a truncated keyboard. Instead of the common QWERTY layout, it had only a track pad, two mouse buttons, and a numeric keypad.
“See? He’s only about half a kilometer away, and he’s not moving.”
“The package isn’t moving,” J clarified, wiping his face with a towel. “Did you get any shots from the cameras?”
“Already uploaded to the Valley,” she said. “Two good front facial, and one side. They should be able to get a match from that.”
“Good work. Pack it up. Remember, we don’t have much range with this.”
“You’re driving,” insisted Katya.
“A high priority request from Cottontail,” said Kseniya, opening the file attached to the message. “The next link in the chain. They’re following him but want us to run down the face.”
She imported the image to their facial recognition software and started the program.
“We might not have him in our database,” said Vanner. “Patch it through to CIA and Russian Intel. Verify receipt and make sure they get right on it.”
He turned to Anisa. “Any changes in activity at Kassab’s location?”
She shook her head. “No, they’re still waiting. I don’t think they’re happy, though.”
“There have been a large number of punishment details, for one. We’re picked up lots of quick fights; not even fights, just sharp words for no reason at all. They seem to be on edge.”
“Something’s gone wrong, and their timetable is off. Whatever was supposed to go down has been delayed, and they’re uneasy.”
“That fits with the urgency and lack of subtlety in trying to acquire the tritium. At a guess, I’d say that the warheads they snatched have bad detonators, maybe even most of them, so they couldn’t deploy. And that means we might just have a little breathing room.” He smiled. “Good work, ladies. Inform Cottontail that we’re processing her request.”
“Shut the fuck up, Nangle.”
“Just sayin’, Corp. At least you have someone to go back to the barracks to; all I have to look forward to is Puzzo’s snores.”
“Dude, if Kwan wasn’t running our asses off, I’d never be able to sleep.”
The griping couldn’t be heard outside of their foxhole, dug into the side of a hill. Bravo was war-gaming with the Keldara, playing the role of the defending force, after a busy week of drilling on probable routes, preset defensive positions, and coordinating with the mortar forces. Now, they got to play.
Sivula’s squad was dug into a north-facing hillside, overlooking a track along a small stream. They were responsible for holding the location against, quote, “an unknown number of hostile forces penetrating from the east,” unquote. The path, about a hundred meters below them, was the least-obstructed route past the hill, so he had set a single man at the military crest of the hill, keeping the eastern approach under observation. Two more were up-slope, under cover. He had kept Privates Nangle and Puzzo with him to man the SAW, while he stayed in radio contact with the mortar forces. At his word, they would drop simulated Willie Pete rounds all along the path that would, if real, blind and burn anyone unlucky enough to be there.
“Hey, Corp, can I ask you a question?”
“How did you bag her so quick, anyway? Near as I can figure, you was either unconscious or asleep pretty much from when we jumped to when she hit your bed.”
“That’s his charm, he’s best when he’s not talking,” added Puzzo.
“You can both shut up and watch the path,” returned Sivula. “Not that it’s any of your business, but it was anything but quick. I met Jessia on the last deployment, and we stayed in touch.”
“I’ll bet you stayed in touch,” said Nangle.
“Enough,” said Sivula, warningly. “Seriously.”
“Sorry.” At least he sounded contrite, though Sivula knew that wouldn’t take him long to start up again.
“Still, how the fuck -”
No, not long at all.
“Deal with it, Pavel,” growled Chief Adams over the radio. “At least we’re inside, and all we have to do is watch these ragheads.”
Pavel’s team occupied a flat across the road from Kassab’s townhouse. Each of the ten men took turns watching the presumed Chechens trudge around the building, smoke cigarettes, and bitch, loudly, whenever they were together. Everyone except Braon, who, as team sniper, had his own routine. Cottontail had wired the house to a fare-thee-well; none of ‘em could piss without a Keldara knowing it. But the constant tedium of the routine, and the fact that they couldn’t be really active, was wearing on them. Adams was afraid that they’d start fighting each other just to relieve the boredom. At least they’d brought an Xbox; at any given time, two or three would be playing. The current favorite was Medal of Honor.
“I don’t want to deal with it, Chief. I want to kill them.”
“Soon enough, Pavel. Soon enough.”
I hope, he added as a mental reservation.
J didn’t complain about the sprung shocks, but Katya could tell he was feeling every bounce.
The target had finally stopped pissing around in Utta after an hour, heading east out of town before turning gradually south. Even though they had to stay within a mile, they didn’t have any problems, nor were they really worried about being spotted. The engineer which had laid out the road had apparently never heard of a straight line. The tarmac twisted and curved around, seemingly at random. It wasn’t at all clear where they were heading. They were making pretty good time, though.
He turned west onto the R263, then north again on an unnamed dirt road several kilometers on.
“Katya, are we transmitting our route back?”
“Yes, and I have it stored in the Garmin as well.”
“I think we’re getting close.”
Sure enough, minutes later the signal came to a relative stop. They pulled parallel to the trace on the road. There was a faint automobile track leading off into the woods to the right.
“What’s around here?”
“The details are poor,” admitted Katya. “There seems to be a lake to our west, called the Kek-Usn, but I don’t see any named town closer than twenty kilometers,” she added, zooming out.
He let up on the brake. “Mark the spot, then see if this road leads anywhere.”
“Should we call in?”
“As soon as we’re back on a – oof! – road,” he said, hitting a particularly steep hole. “I hope it’s soon.”
Kseniya knocked on Vanner’s door.
“What’ve you got?”
“We have a solid hit. Bursuk Gereshk, age thirty-four, another known follower of Inarov. Dropped out of sight five months ago. He’s suspected in multiple kidnappings, three bombings, and one attack on a Russian convoy.”
“Is he our mastermind?”
“Probably not. He has experience, yes, but not planning. All execution of others‘ plans. Some training in the Moscow Military School, now the Military Commanders Training School, before being dismissed in his second year.”
“Well, it‘s one step closer. Pass this back to Cottontail ASAP. Then pull everything we can get on Inarov. I‘ve got a feeling about him. I think that he‘s the one we need to bring down.”
Kseniya looked uncertain. “I don‘t know.”
“He‘s always made a splash with his actions. Every other action he‘s orchestrated, he‘s been online announcing his genius, or in a video, or in a statement to al-Jazeera, and we‘ve heard nothing.”
“Nothing‘s happened yet,” countered Vanner.
“But something has. The convoy being taken down? That was as clean an action as we‘ve ever seen.”
“Mmm. What else?”
“It seems to be a very elaborate plan. He’s usually been a point A to point B type of guy. ‘You surrender or I kill hostages’ type. We don’t know what the end game will be, yet, but this is a lot of work.”
`“You said we don’t know the end game yet. What if we do? What if he’s looking to establish his Emirate in one step?”
“It’s an awfully big leap,” she disagreed. “Even if that is the goal, he’s had some help creating the structure to support it.”
“Okay, I’ll buy that.”
“Finally, he’s broke. I don’t just mean money, though he doesn’t have much of that left, either. In the eyes of the Chechens, he’s not much more than a common criminal any longer. Bombing the medical clinic in Mozdok didn’t go over well at all.”
“Again, if he’s desperate, if he’s against the wall, he’s probably willing to take greater risks.”