“Any word yet?”
“No. Chechnik told us that the ‘order fulfilled’ email went out yesterday -”
“Yes. It was intercepted, but they weren’t able to track it all the way back to a source. Last confirmed hit was a server in Indonesia, and it was rerouted from there.”
“So something went out. Wonder when we’ll see any action?”
Grez wondered too, but didn’t say so. “As soon as they move, we’ll know.”
Akilah bint Najat, called by her Russian neighbors Akeela Najatova, was not, strictly speaking, part of the Chechen rebellion. She wasn’t even a particularly devout Muslim, her family being far too Russified to return to generations-old practices. She occasionally attended service at the mosque, not with any regularity or enthusiasm. She knew, too, that her family wasn’t seen in a particularly good light by the more intense Muslims in her neighborhood. It didn’t bother her. She had a good job as a teacher; she had her own apartment; any day, she expected her boyfriend to ask to marry her.
A few of the neighborhood boys had gone off to fight for the Chechens in their ill-fated rebellions. Nobody talked about them much. Old, weathered posters warned against helping the rebels. It made sense a few years ago, she supposed, when it seemed the news was full of bombs exploding and men fighting. That was the past, though. Ancient history, almost. So when she was offered a thousand rubles for running an errand, well, she didn’t see the harm. It was enough for that month‘s rent, after all. And she knew the guy who asked her, at least slightly, from the mosque. Her boyfriend, in the car with her, hadn’t objected, so what could happen?
The packet she picked up was securely wrapped. She couldn’t begin to guess at its contents, but she put it in the back of the Lada Kalina so she wouldn’t have to hold it on the drive out of town.
“Target is moving.”
“Understood. Follow and report.”
The meeting place was thirty kilometers from town. It took Osip nearly an hour to navigate the badly maintained roads. They were forced to detour around a flooded bridge, adding two kilometers to the route and, incidentally, losing the Russians that were trailing them. Finally they arrived at an old house, set off the road a few hundred meters. He shut off the engine, and was presently approached by a group of five men, three carrying guns at the ready.
“Who is this?” demanded the leader.
Akilah lowered her window. “He’s my boyfriend, Osip Mandelstam. It’s his car. How else was I to deliver your package, Abdul Hakim?”
“Where is the package?” said Abdul Hakim, more mildly.
She twisted around to the back. “Right here.” She held it up for him to see. “And the rest of my money?”
“We have it in the house,” he answered, gesturing to the others. They lowered their guns. “Come, we’ll get it.”
“There was a detour, Petya took the wrong turning. When we changed direction, they were gone.”
The controller growled, “Do you have any idea what will happen to you if you don’t recover the target?”
“I understand.” The team leader shivered; Siberia was cold. “We’ll reacquire them.”
“We’ll dispatch teams to possible target locations. Out.”
Stella walked into Vanner’s office - a closet at one point, it had the benefit of a door, and just enough space for two chairs and a few shelves on the wall. His monitor was the only moving object in the room; it was on a telescoping, swiveling arm, so he could adjust it to any position he needed.
“Let me guess. Lost ‘em.”
“The Russians, yes. Us -”
“Not so much. What do we have?”
She sat, took the keyboard from his hands, and typed quickly. “We are receiving a live feed from an American reconnaissance satellite. It will be in proper orbit for another twenty minutes, then there’s an hour gap before the next one can be re-tasked for coverage.” While she talked, a picture of the house and the car popped up on the screen. “This is a visible light only image-capable satellite. The follow-on has infrared capabilities, though we‘re not supposed to know that. You can thank Mouse when she comes back.”
“Not much. We can send Cottontail to examine the site, but she can’t possibly get there in less than an hour either.”
“No, ask J instead. She has good instincts, but he has the experience. What else?”
“We have the cell phone numbers of the two couriers. If either one makes a call, we can pick it up.”
“No. These phones are old by American standards. There aren‘t enough towers in the area to tap for triangulation, either.”
“Do what you can. Make sure Pavel‘s team is kept in the loop.”
The bodies were dragged further into the house. As Abdul Hakim dropped Akilah’s body atop her infidel boyfriend’s, he spit on her. “Whore.”
They had thought themselves so clever, coming together. When Abdul Hakim’s men lowered their weapons, they had relaxed their guard further, easily agreeing to come to the house. What they couldn’t know was there was a pair of warriors hidden just inside the door, knives ready. They jumped as soon as Akilah cleared the door, driving a knife to the hilt between her breasts. Her eyes widened in shock and she collapsed to the floor. Osip was warned slightly by her fall, but he couldn’t react quickly enough. The other knife was in his gut and turning, twisting, before being viciously yanked out. He fell forward, grabbing at the man who stabbed him and bringing him to the ground with him. Akilah was gasping, tugging at the knife in her chest, and he fell near her, one hand over his own wound and the other clutching his assailant’s knife hand. Adrenalin surged, briefly burning away the pain, and he managed to drive the knife backward. He heard voices shouting behind him but couldn’t make out the words over the pounding of his heart in his ears. Shots rang out, driving through both him and the attacker, and they both dropped, limp, to the floor.
“Do you see what happens to unbelievers, bitch?” whispered Abdul Hakim harshly, holding her hair so she could see Osip‘s body. “He shall serve me in Paradise. So shall you, whore. Too busy to believe, to listen to the words of the Prophet. Where is your school now? Where is your apartment? I shall have glory in Paradise for working the will of Allah on Earth. You? You shall have nothing!” Her eyes glazed, her breathing stopped, her hands fell to her sides. He dropped her head and stood. “Drag this garbage inside.”
“He is a martyr to Allah. We’ll burn this building to the ground with the bodies inside.”
The house was liberally doused with kerosene, and a flare tossed in the open door, igniting it immediately. In seconds, the first room was entirely ablaze and spreading quickly.
Abdul Hakim, his men, and the package were piled into a pair of older Ladas and drove sedately away.
“There’s not much left.” J was calling in to the Intel office, talking to Greznya. “A full forensics team might be able to do something, but not for a while. It’s still burning away. I can’t get too close to it. The boyfriend’s car is still here, which suggests they were either fully involved and left together, or -” He didn‘t have to finish the sentence. “No sign that they were forced out of the car, no sign of the package they received either.”
“What is your next move?”
“I’ll try to get a copy of the police report, when and if one is written. Law enforcement is a little sketchy out here, which is good and bad. And Katya is searching the girl’s apartment now. I’ll have that for the next check. I should clear out, though. Sooner or later, someone’s going to notice this.”
“Understood, J.” She hung up, turning to the satellite view. It showed the hugely bright spot of the burning house and the road leading away.
“I can’t believe we missed them completely!” muttered Vanner.
“Maybe not,” replied Grez, staring at the image. “Stella, can we enhance this any here?”
“Bring up the resolution on the road.”
“There’s nothing on it,” she objected, but the image shifted to zoom in on the roadway.
“Can you increase the differential in colors?”
“How do you mean, Grez?”
Vanner came over. “I think I know what she’s going for. Stella, what she wants is, can we focus down on a narrow range of temperatures, then make those smaller differences stand out? Instead of changing color for every ten degrees, say, can we have a shift for every degree?” As Stella began entering the programming, he turned to Grez. “Tire tracks?”
“Exactly,” she agreed. “The tires will be warmer than the road surface. The satellite should be able to pick them up.”
“What if there have been other cars on that road since the tangoes left?”
“From what J said, the fire is still burning. That suggests that nobody has driven past it since it was set or perhaps only very recently, since no fire response units are on scene yet. Even if cars have gone by, we may still be able to pick out the proper tracks.”
“The drive leading to the building. The tracks on that roadway could only have been made by the target car, or cars. That gives a baseline for us to compare the main road. We can disregard any tracks that don’t match -”
“- because they’ll be warmer and show up a different temperature! Genius! I married a genius, Stella, did you know that?”
“Yes.” The scene had shifted to the road and drive and, sure enough, there were faint blue tracks running from the house and turning south down the road. The only other tracks were comparatively hot, from the north, stopping at the end of the drive - J’s car. “That’s them!” crowed Vanner. “How far can we follow them?”
“Working on it. If the All-Father smiles on us, we may have gotten the car in view before it leaves the range.”
Bzzzzzzt. Bzzzzzzt. Bzzzzzzt. Bzz -
“This had better be important or you will be bound for duty cleaning Chernobyl in the morning.”
“Colonel, this is Lieutenant Senkovsky. The Kildar’s people just called us.”
Chechnik’s heart stopped. “Yes?”
“They have located the shipment but are about to lose tracking and request that we resume following, but-”
His heart beat again. “But what? Lieutenant, this is good news! So what is the ‘but’?”
“Sir. They said, quote, ‘Don’t fuck it up again,’ unquote. Sir.”