The two Ladas were abandoned in Elista, keys in the ignition. It was a good-sized city, and two more nondescript cars wouldn’t be noticed for days, if they weren‘t stolen in the meantime, further muddying the trail. Allah guarded his faithful. Abdul Hakim took the package of tritium and shoved it into a backpack, where it was buried among textbooks and notebooks filled with real notes from the local university. He would make his way out of town alone first, while the others would gradually follow in their own time.
The Russian agents following, who had managed not to lose them again, faced a difficult choice. There were only four agents on location at the moment, and the suspects had gone in six different directions upon leaving the cars. They split up, each agent following a group, assuming that they would be teamed up to provide better protection of the tritium. The two solo suspects were allowed to disappear.
Murphy struck the Russians again.
J was suitably disguised as a Russian Muslim. He had typically worn clothes and shoes with broken heels. He and Cottontail had listened to all the Russian SpecOps transmissions, finally moving close enough to hear the conversation directly through a shotgun mike. The decision to follow groups left two to them. When they picked their targets, he drew a recent recruit and, he soon discovered, not a particularly committed one. His first stop was a bar, where he dropped three glasses of vodka in quick succession. J bought the fourth, striking up a conversation.
“You look like a man who really needs a drink,” he started, laying down his money. “Bring him another, and the same for me,” he said to the bartender. When the drinks arrived, J passed his hand quickly over one as he handed it over.
“I am. Thanks for the drink, uh -”
“Isra’il. My friends call me Isha,” supplied J smoothly.
“Mika’il. Thanks.” He knocked back this drink as quickly as the other three.
It didn’t seem that he was going to offer any more, so J pressed a bit. “I’ve had a day like you wouldn’t believe. Wake up this morning, late for work, the twice-damned supervisor docks me a half-day’s pay - Half a day! And I was only ten minutes late! Then the lousy computer eats the rest of the report I was typing up, and I said I’ve had it! What is that fat prick going to do, dock the rest of the day? Let him, and Allah curse his bones!”
“Allah defend you, Isha, it does sound like you’ve had a bad day.” Mika’il turned to look at him. “But mine’s worse.”
“Prophet’s Beard, it’s the truth.” He looked around, lowered his voice. “I saw three people die today.”
“Balls, I say! Unless you’re a doctor, or police,” and J looked him up and down, “And I doubt you are.”
“No, I’m a student. I swear, I watched three people die - be killed, actually.” Then he told J about the set-up, the surprise assault, the fire - assisted by J’s little compound in his drink, of course.
“Where is this package now? It has to be pretty valuable.”
“Priceless for Allah’s tasks. I don’t know exactly where, but Abdul Hakim took it with him.”
“Alone? Isn‘t that taking a big risk?”
“For you, or me, maybe. But not for him. He planned it all.” Mika’il shivered. “Ice water in his blood. No, it’s safe with him.”
J relaxed. Cottontail was trailing him. “One more drink, Mika’il, and I think it’s time you go home.” He got another drink, added another little supplement, and watched it be downed. “Come. Let’s get you home.” J helped steer him out of the bar and down the road. A very few blocks on, he was barely on his feet, leaning heavily on J, complaining of blurred vision and a sudden headache. “It’s only the drink,” laughed J. “Here, we’ll stop for a moment,” and he guided him into the half-sunken basement entry to a building. Mika’il collapsed into an almost-seated position, slumping forward, muttering. Quickly he quieted, then his breathing slowed, then stopped.
J left casually. One less loose end.
Katya didn’t know where her target was going, exactly. She guessed that he was going to be headed out of the city, but she didn’t know how, or where, or even when. So she couldn’t wait ahead of him on his route and try to pick him up, or allow herself to be picked up. She didn’t think that she would be able to follow him unobserved the whole route; she was good, and getting better, but he was actually displaying some tactical sense and clearing his tail periodically. That left brazen. She could do brazen.
Walking on the other side of the road, she watched him enter a small park. This might be her best shot. She hurried across the road and closed the gap swiftly.
“You!” she called angrily, waving. “Ai! You!”
He turned and looked, pointing at himself.
“Yes, you miserable dick! What the fuck do you think you’re doing, ignoring me?” she continued. “I’ve been following you for ten minutes, ever since I saw you! Why haven’t you called me? Or come over? Or - oh, shit!” She stopped. She was only a few meters away. “You’re not Nicolai!”
“No,” he answered coldly. “I’m not.” And he prepared to walk away.
She hurried over, putting a hand on his arm, holding him gently. “I’m so sorry! You look just like - from a distance - I didn’t mean -” She allowed her voice to trail off, dropping her eyes as he stared at her. “I beg your pardon. I meant no offence.”
“He must be a fool to leave you behind,” he said, appeased by her apparent modesty. “What’s your name?”
“I am Abdul Hamid, and you are very beautiful. I would like to know you better, Kamilah.”
“I - I - I don’t know what to say. I’m so embarrassed,” she replied. “I’m not usually like this. He seemed so nice, so kind, and then he - !”
“I would walk you home,” he said, “and you can tell me of this Nicolai.”
“Oh! That’s not - I mean, you don’t have to!”
“You need someone to walk you home to keep you from chasing down every man on the street.” He took her arm in his firmly. “Now, lead.”
She hadn’t counted on this jerk wanting to walk her home, for fuck’s sake! Where was she going to take him? They’d rented a flat, and it was minimally furnished, but there’s no way anyone would believe she’d lived there for long. And what if J showed up? He could play Nicolai, she supposed, but she’d have to get hold of him somehow before then. Fuck! The black box was in the flat! They’d arrived ahead of their Keldara backups, so she couldn’t even call for support! Well, then, it was time to fake it.
“Yes,” is all she said, as she walked along the street.
She spun “Kamilah’s” story out of whole cloth, feigning reluctance and hesitation to keep him interested and inquisitive. By the time they reached the flat, he acted ready to kill the evil Nicolai who took advantage of the poor, naïve, innocent girl.
She stopped at the door to the block of flats. “Thank you for walking me home,” she said, shyly.
“It was my duty to see you safely home,” he replied gravely. “But I worry that Nicolai will be waiting for you in your flat. I should come up with you.”
“No,” she protested, “It is not proper. I’ve learned that, if nothing else.” She pretended to have an inspiration and pulled out her mobile. “I know! I will call my brother; he lives nearby. He can check the flat for me.” Before he could object, she had dialed J. “Hello, Ivan? It’s Kamilah. I’m at the flat, but I’m worried about Nicolai being there. Could you come over? No, I don’t really think he’ll be there, but Abdul Hamid does. He’s my new friend. I’ll tell you all about him when you get here. See you shortly, then. Bye!” She hung up.
“He’ll be here in a couple minutes.” Time to hook this fish. “Perhaps we could meet later?”
“I would like that, if your brother does not object.”
“He won’t. Can I call you later? We’ll talk, figure out where to meet.” He gave her his mobile number, and she returned it with her sunniest smile. “Thank you so much!” She giggled nervously. “You’re nothing like Nicolai.”
“I hope not.” He looked around. “I should wait until your brother arrives.”
Damn. “Of course!” She leaned against the doorpost, hoping that J would interpret the play correctly.
J strode around the corner just a few moments later. “Ivan!” she called.
“Kamilah! And this must be your friend,” he said, closing the distance and holding out his hand. “Thank you for watching over my little sister. I hope she wasn’t any trouble?” he said as he shook hands, clapping his left hand against Abdul Hamid’s shoulder.
“None at all,” he said, then suddenly his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the ground.
“What did you?” said Katya. “I just needed an excuse to ditch him outside. I couldn’t bring him up to the flat!”
“He has the tritium. He knows the next link in the chain,” answered J, taking his shoulders. “Now help me get him inside!”
Between them they got his unconscious body upstairs to the flat. Dumping him unceremoniously on the floor, Katya said, “Now what? When he wakes, he’ll wonder too much, have too many questions.”
“Heed no fear, O student.” J went to his supplies and rummaged briefly, coming out with a syringe and a bottle of brownish liquid. “I had Dr. Arensky make this for me before we left. It’s based on the waste of the L. acidophilus bacteria, he said, but very, very effective. One dose and your friend here will tell us everything we need to know and remember none of it.”
“And what do we do with him afterward, O Master?” asked Katya sarcastically.
“That depends on what information he gives us,” answered J, and said nothing more.
In very little time their prisoner was seemingly awake and answering questions.
“You have the tritium?”
“I don’t know.”
“The package that was picked up today. Do you have it?”
“Yes. In my backpack.”
J picked up the pack and looked through. “Is this it?” he asked, holding up a small, heavy parcel, wrapped in butcher‘s paper and tied with string.
“Who is it for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fuck!” interjected Katya.
“Quiet!” hissed J. “He is in a very suggestive state right now.” Returning to a normal voice, he asked, “What are you to do with the tritium?”
“I am to bring it to a man in Utta, tomorrow.”
“Where are you meeting him?”
“A café, the Wandering Wolf.”
“I am to be there by two. He will meet me between then and four.”
“Do you know him?”
“Does he know you?”
“I don’t know.”
“How will you know him?”
“He will walk to my table and ask to borrow the salt and the adzhika. I am to give him the salt and say that I do not like adzhika.”
“And then what?”
“He will sit down. I am to pass him the package, and he will get up and leave. After I finish, I will leave as well and come home to wait.”
“Wait for what?”
J stepped away, gesturing for Katya to follow. When he judged they were out of earshot, he spoke. “Amateurish. But we can use this.”
“I become Abdul Hamid. Plus a few other little tricks.” He walked back to the uninterested courier. “Would you like to do the honors?”
Katya grinned wolfishly.
After moving the body, J examined the parcel more closely, taking the plain wrapper and string off carefully, revealing a heavy box of a gray, slightly lustrous metal.
“Is that the tritium?” asked Katya.
“No. If I had to guess, I’d say this is lead. Tritium is radioactive, you know.”
“Should we be this close then?”
“We should be safe, especially if this is lead.” He put the box down. “I don’t think I’ll open it to check, though.”
“What is your plan? What do you need me to do?”
“I’m going to make the meet tomorrow in Utta. You’re going to track us on this,” he said, pulling out what looked like a mobile phone.
“Vanner gave me a number of these transmitters,” and he pulled out a plastic bag with a half-dozen small black discs scattered along the bottom seam. “They’re RFID homing bugs. As long as we’re within a mile with the base unit, each one will beam a signal back.”
“How will we conceal it? We can’t put it inside, can we?”
“No, the lead will block the signal. The tritium is mixed with uranium, making a compound called uranium tritide, and would destroy the bug in short order as well. I think we’ll try two, one on the inside of the wrapper, and one on the bottom of the box. Even when the wrap is thrown away, we might be able to track the other.”
“We need to stay close, then.”
J nodded. “How’s your driving?”