Not so much any more.
After some serious editing and revising, the book now ends with 53 chapters. Of course, it may get longer - we've been splitting some of the longer chapters down. Somehow, I don't think the last two chapters will get too much splitting, though. Too much, too continuous.
Anyway, hope you're enjoying the ride. Any comments are, of course, welcome. You like the new Backfire?
On the ground at Vnukovo, Mike was still goggling at the time. Seventy-three minutes. They hadn’t even changed time zones, which led to the pleased realization that, whatever happened, he wouldn’t have to deal with jet lag.
As they taxied toward their parking spot, well away from any commercial terminals, Vanner was already on a phone with - someone. Russian, by the sound of it. Made sense. He motioned Mike to wait. The plane stopped at their designated area. Mike could see the ground crew looking up, slack-jawed. He smiled.
“I need the card,” Vanner mouthed silently, hand over the mouthpiece.
Wordlessly, Mike handed over the Titanium card. He heard the words “fifty thousand rubles” and “two hours” before Vanner started reading off numbers.
The call was soon over.
“What was that about? And you do know the Russians are the number one credit card thieves after Nigeria, right?” asked Mike after reclaiming the card. No point in leaving temptation with Vanner.
“Soundproofing. While we were in the air I did some research, found a firm that does that kind of thing. They’ll come out to Vnukovo, do the job on site. Seems that they have some extra tiles, supposed to go in the first class section of the 747, that they‘re willing to give up on the cheap. And I wouldn‘t worry about them stealing the card; I hacked into their system before calling. They try to access it for anything besides this little transaction, it all blows up on them. Plus, a Brit owns the company; Bridgewater vouched for him.”
“Just don’t let them tear the plane apart. We might be leaving in a hurry,” warned Mike. “If they’re on board when we boogie, they come with us.”
“I’ll brief ‘em when they board,” assured Vanner. “Might have to promise a bonus, then.”
“That’s capitalism. What else?”
“I think Watson’s already arranged for refueling, through a separate cover account. Don‘t want Putin to know about our little surprise too soon, though I don‘t know what we can do about the crew. A security team might be a good idea.”
“Arrange it. You stay here, handle the bird with those two. Stay in touch.” By now Mike was the last one on board.
Mike snorted. “Or something.”
“He’s here?!” bellowed Putin into the phone. The vein in his forehead throbbed visibly.
“Yes, Minister. He and a team of Keldara, and some specialists, landed at Vnukovo a few minutes ago.”
“And in a fucking Backfire! Where did they get that?” The spittle reached across the meeting room table.
“Apparently, the Georgians are being very cooperative,” was his bland reply. Privately, he admired Jenkins’ balls at flying a former Russian plane into Moscow, especially a bomber.
“Did nobody know they were coming? Why wasn’t I informed?” The voice had turned to ice, and he even looked calmer. That meant trouble. Other experienced staff members quickly and quietly vanished, remembering places far away they needed to be that instant.
“Minister, I was just informed myself that they arrived, they were in the air less than an hour. It completely took us by surprise. With the search going on, communications have been somewhat chaotic,” said Chechnik, carefully ignoring the first question. It was fortunate that he’d chosen to call this report to the Prime Minister; if he’d been present, he doubted he’d survive the spittle.
“And we’re sure that Jenkins is here?” persisted Putin.
“Yes, Minister. Along with members of his command team, and a few Keldara warriors.”
“The warriors don’t matter,” said Putin, suddenly thoughtful. “Jenkins does. I want him followed - no! I want you with him at all times. Go and meet him.”
“But, Minister, someone has to coordinate the search -” Chechnik didn’t feel that he ought to mention that Jenkins had already imposed that condition, but to not protest wouldn’t be believable.
“No excuses, Chechnik! You have a deputy, yes? And he is capable of this? Or should I have him shot for incompetence as well?“ Chechnik didn’t see any point to replying. “You will take a homer and meet with the Kildar. I will know where the bastard is at all times, do you hear me?” The Or else was unsaid; the throbbing vein added its own punctuation to the threat.
“Yes, Minister. May I ask why?” A homing device. That was going to piss Jenkins off. Maybe he ought to warn him once out of earshot of Putin’s pet dogs
“No, you may not! Suffice it to say that I do not intend to let him interfere in Russian internal affairs again with impunity!” Putin allowed a horrible smile to cross his face. “I have special plans for that - that - cowboy!”
Cowboy. That was rich. Putin was a rodeo clown; Jenkins, a skilled operator. But he allowed none of that to color his tone.
“Yes, Minister,” Chechnik answered to a dead line.
This didn’t sound promising.
Gereshk and his men evaded the patrolling squads easily. They were ordered to search buildings, not vehicles, so the battered lorry passing through the city streets raised no alarms, even though one Geiger counter screamed when it passed by. It knew that a gamma source was nearby. The soldier holding it looked around quickly. All he saw were parked cars and one receding truck half a block away, so he hit it. Twice.
The alarm died away. He assumed that it was simply malfunctioning and chose not to say anything to his squad leader. They‘d already been chewed out for surging into a dentist’s office ready for a firefight. Even though Higher wouldn’t admit to it, they’d all heard of the other squad’s fate, and to a man had resolved that wouldn’t happen to them, no comrade! It wasn’t a game or exercise any longer.
The patrols in the Komsomolsky district were all moving from the center of the city towards the periphery, so Gereshk ended up closer to his enemy’s heart than when he began. He passed three more foot squads, and had even shadowed an army truck along an avenue for a while, before he settled on a new location. A small bakery off Khoromniy Tupik, with a ‘closed’ sign on the door, seemed to be the perfect safe house. For now. Unless the patrols began to double back, but no point in inviting Shai’tan‘s mischief.
The back door was only secured by a simple latch bar. A surreptitious knife raised it out of the way, the age-stiffened door was quickly forced and the bomb brought in. Nobody noticed another truck making a routine delivery.
The room to the rear was a storage room; fifty kilo bags of flour lined both concrete walls. Crockery, filled with starter culture, perched precariously above the sacks. The next room in was the kitchen. An ancient brick oven, still warm from its last use, stood in one corner, though no wood or coal was set up for the next day. So - nobody was expecting to bake tomorrow. Or they were simply lazy; that was always a possibility. They’d find out soon enough.
Large dough mixers and industrial-sized ovens crowded the space, so the bomb was left in the back. The front, lined with plate glass, was small and dark. There was plenty of bread for the men, if a bit stale. Between that and the leavings in the walkin, they could make a soup. That would settle the men down.
Gereshk felt secure once the lorry was moved, parked a block away. It was small, perhaps, but he didn’t have as many men any longer. The sturdy concrete walls would prevent any unwanted intrusions, and the relatively lightweight wooden roof was built to allow for adequate ventilation.
Wood, which stopped gamma radiation not at all.
The sedans the Russians had provided were roomy enough, if somewhat old. No matter, they would do. Mike would have preferred old, heavy Army trucks.
He wanted that high vantage point, able to see beyond the car immediately ahead. He could use them to bulldoze through traffic, if he had to. And, since Padrek and his Team had been left behind, if he needed to force an entry, well, three to five tons of rolling steel made one hell of an entry.
Anisa and Grez already had their systems up and running, getting a continuous feed from The Cave and Stella. “Anything, ladies?” asked Mike politely through the back window.
“Some details about the firefight earlier.” answered Grez. “Looks like the Russians pretty well got slaughtered. They’ve recovered thirteen bodies, only two of which weren’t Russians.”
“Any ID yet? Even tentative?”
“No. They’ve cut back dramatically with their radio chatter, almost as if they knew we were here and wanted us dependent on them. Either that or someone’s just being a fucking asshole. One or the other. I do have an address, though,” she finished sweetly.
“Sounds like a place to start.” He stepped away. “Let’s move them out!” He waved to the other four sedans. The Keldara drivers responded with single beeps on their horns.
The drivers provided with the cars were huddled together by the plane, hulked over by a patently unhappy Keldara warrior selected to guard them. They’d made the mistake of assuming that they would be doing the driving for the Keldara. Mike had quickly disabused them of that notion.
To prevent any unwanted distractions, he’d had all their cell phones and radios collected while Anisa and Grez swept the sedans for monitoring devices. It had only taken one would-be driver being hauled bodily from the wheel, turned upside-down, and shaken, before the other four produced their own devices poste haste. That one driver was now secured with rigger tape; Adams promised that he wouldn’t go anywhere, and that he might even keep his hair. Well, except for that one stripe.
He climbed into the limousine the Russians had provided, noting that it was a Mercedes and the driver had been replaced by Jitka, followed closely by Arensky, Adams, and Kat. RHIP. It was the nicest one, after all.
“I didn’t like that plane,” announced Kat. “It’s too noisy!”
“Vanner’s working on that,” assured Mike. “But yeah, it’s not a 550. Tolegen, you’re our WMD expert. What do you know about this particular design?”
Settling back into the seat, Arensky began to recite. “The RDS-46. A warhead, precisely, not a bomb. It was never designed to be dropped on a target by a plane, but rather delivered by an ICBM. The SS-6 Sapwood, it was called by the West, but it is properly the R-7 Semyorka.”
Even though he was impatient, Mike knew better than to interrupt the expert in full lecture mode. Sometimes, you had to bite the bullet. Besides, he’d be able to take it out on some poor muj bastard soon enough, he felt. They’d find the bomb, he was sure of it. Then they’d have to get out of the city without getting dead. That might be tougher. He tapped Jitka’s shoulder, and the impromptu caravan pulled out.
“Nominal yield is five megatons, achieved through the Teller-Ulam method where a small fission device is used to trigger a larger fusion explosion, which in turn triggers another fission reaction. Typically, a RDS-46 would have either an impact or altimeter trigger, depending on whether it was intended for a ground or air burst.”
Mike had to ask. “So it needs to be at an altitude to function?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” answered Arensky, not at all disturbed by the interruption. Intelligent questions, he could tolerate. After all, it allowed him to expound further. “Those are simply the most common triggers, and either one can be simulated on the ground. For example, hitting the detonator with a large sledgehammer would activate an impact trigger quite nicely.”
Mike gulped as Arensky continued. “Or, if you had the altimeter type, you could simply adjust the detonation setting. Say you knew you were two hundred feet above sea level; you’d just manually set the trigger to detonate below two hundred feet - it works on air pressure, you see - and it would detonate almost immediately. Even if you don’t know your altitude, you can simply dial it down until you found the proper setting.“
“And how would you know the setting was right? Is there a tone or a light or something?“
This wasn’t a smart question, and Arensky’s irritation showed. “No. It would explode. Once it was armed, of course. Either way would require a martyr, as well, so perhaps that’s not the method they would choose.”
“Or maybe exactly the method,” said Adams quietly. Mike nodded agreement.
“It would be quite simple to attach a timer, however, allowing for the perpetrator to escape. Radio triggers, or based on cellular phones, are also fairly easy to assemble. If any of these men had experience with IEDs, for example in Iraq, or Afghanistan, then they would likely be familiar with the set-up.”
“What kind of damage would a bomb like this do to Moscow?”
“Five megatons? Let me see…” He pulled out a calculator that looked like it was a refugee from the seventies and started punching furiously. A minute later, he looked up. “Assuming optimal yield, the fireball would be up to two kilometers across. Terrain, building density, those would alter the pattern, of course. Everything within that would be - should be - instantly vaporized. Everyone closer than about five kilometers would almost certainly be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation, even if they survive the blast effects and the thermal bloom. The proteins in the nerves simply cook and stop working. Quick, at least. Probably the best, as you’d be dead before the blast hit you. Those protected from the radiation would almost certainly perish from the thermal bloom. Horrible way to go. Oh, certainly there would be some scattered survivors - Hiroshima showed us that - but they would be very rare exceptions.”
“Buildings would be severely damaged, if not destroyed, up to thirteen kilometers away. And the thermal bloom would cause third-degree burns, or worse, within twenty-five kilometers. It depends on how direct the exposure was at the moment of detonation. Once the fireball and pulse hit those closest, they‘d be past caring anyway. It is those unfortunates in the twelve to twenty five kilometer ring that would suffer the most. The burns would be painful, but not immediately fatal. The radiation, too, would eventually kill them, but not swiftly. And they would almost certainly be caught in the firestorm, which could easily double the casualty rate even among those who might have survived initially. In short, Kildar, I would estimate the thought of this device going off as a Very Bad Thing.”
Mike blanched. “Fuck me running. I knew nukes were bad, but this is one motherfucking big bastard.”
“We’d better not be around when this goes off,” said Adams. “At least we’re lucky one way.”
“Lucky?” scoffed Mike, incredulous.
“Yeah. An airburst would fuck up the city even more when it went off. At least when a ground burst goes off -
“We’d better not let it go off,” retorted Mike. “How do you know so much?”
“I didn‘t sleep through all my briefings. Your thing is women, mine‘s nukes. I figured that I‘d better know all I could about them, cause sure as shit one fine day my Team would be sent off to try to get one back. Thought I got past that when I retired, guess I didn’t. But we have got to get this thing back, Mike. I can’t emphasize that enough.” With that, he leaned back and seemed to sleep immediately.
Mike knew better. He was simply getting his game face on, facing down his demons. He had them, just as Mike did. It didn’t help that one of Mike’s was sitting next to him, wiggling her ass, trying to get comfortable in full kit. He so didn’t need her here now.
“What can you do about disarming it?” he asked Arensky.
“Disarming? My dear Kildar, there is nothing I can do about that! Not once it’s armed, at least. Oh, I can dismantle the detonator assembly easily enough, but I haven’t the training to actually disarm it!”
“Fuck me twice. Chief?”
“You expect me to know how to pull the plug on a nuke? Keep dreaming, buddy! I studied them, yeah, but what they can do, not how to take one apart. All I know is don‘t cut the blue wire. The blue wire is a lie.” Adams laughed harshly.
“So where are we going?” asked Jitka over his shoulder. “We are approaching the center of Moscow, and I do now know these roads.”
Kat turned her tablet to face them. “A warehouse in the Komsomolsky District of the North-Eastern Administrative Okrug. Ulitsa Panteleevskaya. Belongs to a company called Delfa, but there’s nothing current in their database.”
“The company legit?”
“Yes. I think the building was simply picked out at random. Jitka, straight here, then the next left to the overpass. Then I‘ll tell you what exit to take.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, and turned his attention back to the road. Pedestrians beware!
“Grez said that some details were becoming available?”
Kat looked at the tablet. “Yes. It appears that a squad was doing a routine sweep, and almost literally stumbled across them.”
“Only the one posted outside who ran.”
“He’ll need to be available to question.” Whatever Mike was going to say next was lost as his phone trilled. He glanced at the display and snarled. “Chechnik,” he muttered.
“What?” he snapped, answering. As pissed as he was at Chechnik for his past decisions, he was twice as pissed at Putin. After all, Prime Minister and Puppet Master were very much alike.
“You are in Moscow now?” Rhetorical, but he’d answer it.
“Yes, you know that.” Time for word games, then. Pay attention.
“Yes, I did. I have been ordered to accompany you and give you every assistance you need.”
“I swear, Kildar, the order to accompany you came directly from Prime Minister Putin himself!”
“And why should I trust the word of a lying prick about another lying prick?”
“Please, Kildar! I have my orders! I can explain more - later.” There was a just-perceptible hesitation between the words. “I would be more convenient for us both.”
Mike relented, remembering the conditions he‘d imposed on Chechnik. “Well, if you’re with us, at least I’ll know you’re not screwing us over. Fine. Meet us - where was the warehouse, Kat?”
“42 Ulitsa Panteleevskaya.”
“You hear that, Colonel?” Let him wonder why he’d used his rank this time.
“I shall meet you there in twenty minutes,” came the reply.
“Make it an hour,” said Mike. “We want to look it over first.”
“Very well, Kildar. An hour then. I am sure I can find someone else to screw over, as you say, in that time. Perhaps a mother with small children.” Mike hung up.
“You trust him?” asked Kat.
“Not a bit. But there’s a saying: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. And I want Chechnik as close to us as possible. Once we find that nuke, he‘ll either keep us out of the line of fire, or make a good meat shield.”
Katrina seemed satisfied with that answer.
The warehouse was surrounded by a company of soldiers from the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, although it looked like they had been ordered not to enter the building. Someone had, though. Bloody heel marks showed where the bodies of some of their men had been dragged out.
Mike looked around for an officer, finally finding one with the three small silver stars of a senior lieutenant on his fatigues.
“Pardon me Senior Lieutenant…?” he asked in English, playing the part of the ignorant American.
“Chopiak. This is a crime scene; you will have to move along.”
“I think you are expecting us, Senior Lieutenant. Michael Jenkins, and the Tigers of the Mountains?”
A glimmer of recognition lit in Chopiak’s eyes. “The American specialist, yes? I was briefed by Colonel Chechnik himself!”
“Please, one minute. I get my Captain.” Switching to Russian, Chopiak yelled, “Pasha! Tell Captain Skipetroff the Ami and his lackeys are here!” A private dashed off.
Mike could see the fury in Kat’s eyes. In Georgian, he said, “Calm down. It can be useful to not admit we understand them. It‘s a trick the Russians used to use to their advantage; let‘s turn it around on them.”
“Lackeys!” she spat in the same language.
“It does seem we’re not entirely welcome, doesn’t it? Funny, that. You can accidentally spike that asshole‘s foot when you walk by, if you like.” Katrina smiled, sunshine on a rainy day. Apparently she approved of that, too.
An officer was approaching, obviously Skipetroff.
“Gospodin Jenkins? Captain Alexi Skipetroff, 2nd Guards,” he began in better-than-average English. “I was only quickly telled of your arrival. My Senior Lieutenant, he was briefcased by Colonel Chechnik. I was making sure of problems looting. The troops, they wish to expand their pay, you understand?”
“Thank you, Captain. Yes, we’re here to examine the scene. Will there be any problems with that?”
“No problems from my men, but the building is very unwell uplit.” Katrina tried not to giggle at the officer’s mistranslations as he tried to match English with the VIPs.
“You have some portable lights, perhaps?”
“None now, maybe some later. Difficulties dropping them here. The men, they are hunting overnighter. No food, no water, no rest. And now it is getting heavy with automobiles, making slow the trucks. Very badding fuck problem.”
Katrina was almost laughing now, and turned away to cover her amusement with a cough. Skipetroff looked on disapprovingly.
“You bringing girl here is bad idea. Very much blood. Take care not to up-Kuzma on the signs.”
“Of course not,” assured Mike, as the mangling continued. “She will not upchuck.”
“Good. Is a bad place for a pretty girl.” Without another word, Skipetroff returned to his men, saying, “Milenki! Follow the bitch with a shovel; when she pukes, make her clean it up!”
And on that note, the Keldara entered the warehouse.
Skipetroff wasn’t kidding. The entrance wall was liberally splattered with blood and bits of bodies, marking the impact of the Chechens’ rounds. Mike didn’t spare the luckless soldiers so much as a glance, however, passing through them to examine the other end.
“Vil, nobody gets in or out without my say-so.”
“Understood, Kildar.” A gesture, and Georgi Makanee and Nicolai Mahona positioned themselves at the door.
“Who has the Geiger?”
“I do, Kildar,” said Hadar. Their version was much smaller and considerably more advanced than the Russians’ issue.
“I want you up ahead. Sweep the area. We need to know if the bomb was here or if this is just Murphy fucking with us again. Dr. Arensky, please accompany Hadar and help interpret.” The two men moved forward.
“Anisa, did you bring your camera?”
“Of course, Kildar. You want pictures of the dead men uploaded and sent through our facial recognition programs?” she said tartly. The two muj bodies still lay where they fell, unlike the Russians, and, better still, their faces were untouched. It looked as though one had been shot in the back and the front - deliberate? Or just a friendly fire fuck-up? He looked more closely.
Ass and lower back. Yeah, that would make you jump right up, incoming fire be dammed. Sucked to be him.
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Ought to know better than to tell you your job.”
“Yes, you should,” she agreed, and began taking pictures. Definitely too much time in the Cave. The half-hour sleep she’d caught on the flight had only served to make her grumpier. Just great.
Mike walked back to the Russian bodies. “Chief? What do you think?”
“Stupid fuckers never had a chance,” said Adams, shaking his head and looking up from his examinations. “Doesn’t look like they came in ready at all. No NODs, hell, two of the silly shits still had their 74s on ‘safe’,” he said disgustedly. Taking a flashlight, he pointed to the far walls.
“See those shot patterns? They were firing blind from a south-eastern facing door. Sun behind them, out-fucking-lined them, just like being on the range. Didn’t give their eyes a chance to adjust. Bunched up like a bunch of sheep instead of spreading out and seeking cover. NCO shouldn’t known better, maybe he did. His body’s gone, but you see the blood pattern? He was targeted, not just shot at. Means he was seen as a threat by someone over there and deliberately taken out.”
“The muj weren’t much better,” he continued, shining the light on the entrance wall. “At least they knew what they were aiming at. And then there are those last three - or first three, you could say.” He pointed at the bodies closest to the door.
“See that? All shot in the back. Someone knew his tactics and sent a squad around to hit ‘em from the front door while they occupied them.”
“Perhaps someone who spent a couple years at MCTS, you’re thinking?”
“Could be,” admitted Adams. “Somebody knew his shit, at least.” He rolled over a body. “Pretty good grouping on this one, and three shots right through the target. Same blooding as from the NCO‘s missing body. So either this bunch has two leaders thinking, or one guy took ‘em both out.”
“Definitely better than your usual class of muj,” agreed Mike. “That means he was here, and the Russians spooked him.”
“I’d say he was trying to hunker down and let the sweep pass by, but something tipped them off,” Adams said, turning over another body. “And I think I found it.” Below the cooling corpse of Lavrenti, who would never get another blow job from Drysi, was the Russian Geiger counter, still clicking quietly.
“Kildar!” Hadar’s shout called them back across the warehouse. He and Arensky were examining the reading on their counter.
“What’ve we got, Doctor?”
“It was here, Kildar,” said Arensky. “And recently, too. Perhaps as little as two hours ago. The vestigial gamma decay regression function -”
“Was it damaged?” Mike asked hopefully, interrupting the technobabble. Getting it from Vanner was bad enough! If the firefight had hit the bomb and disabled it, they had all the time they needed.
“Probably not. The readings are consistent with a sealed casing. No hot spots, no fragments, no spalling.”
“Damn! Okay, then why didn’t the satellites pick it up? Was it too well shielded or something?”
“Not quite,” answered Grez, walking up to the group. “It was shielded, but not like you think. See the ceiling?” she asked, pointing up with her flashlight.
“Yeah? What about it?”
“I wondered the same thing, so went up and looked. The roof is covered with lead sheeting to make it waterproof. These old concrete roofs are prone to cracking, so are typically sealed with lead.”
“So the gamma rays got stopped cold.”
“Were blocked by the roof, yes. Loki’s hand was at work here,” she said.
“The Trickster favors nobody. Only the finger of Skadi shall reveal the truth among the lies, though it will bring pain to those it illuminates.” Kat’s voice, dreamy and ethereal, cut through the darkness. The Keldara froze as one, and Anisa and Grez made complicated gestures.
“Not now, Kat,” muttered Mike. “Grez, Anisa, stay with her until she comes out of it.”
“What was that about?” asked Adams quietly as the men walked away, leaving Katrina with the two women.
“She has these visions - had one while we were in the States, actually, and it scared the piss out of me, Jack and Stasia,” he said, memory returning of Kat’s warning. “She said, then, that Loki - he’s the Trickster, you know - would be coming for me, that I needed to be pure of heart when he did.”
“And you believe this shit?”
Mike shrugged. “Don’t know if I do, but she - they - sure as hell do. We just have to deal with it. You know enough about the Keldara to know just how Viking they really are in mind and spirit.” With a mental shake, he continued. “Okay. Keep ‘em working, get every scrap of information you can off the bodies. I’m going to talk to our helpful Captain Skipetroff, see if I can interview the one that got away.”
“Got it. Okay, Keldara! Stop gawking and get your asses back on task! Yevgenii, what the fuck do you think you’re doing with that stick? Didn‘t your mother raise you any better than that?”
Skipetroff was outside the door, stymied by Georgi and Nicolai, who were doing their best imitations of statues - immobile, impassive, and seemingly uncomprehending the vicious stream of curses the Guards captain was hurling at them. A stream which halted abruptly when Mike emerged.
“Jenkins, please move your men.”
“No. I need to talk to the survivor.”
“I am confirmed to be examination with you, not preparing to stand outside!” In Russian, he called to his men.
“No. Where’s the survivor? He’s supposed to be available for me.”
“You are guest here invited by yourself! If I am entering the building to want, then am I going!” Skipetroff pulled out his sidearm.
In a lightning move, Mike had the Yarygin Grach out of Skipetroff’s unresisting hands and pointed at the stunned captain. The now-empty hand clutched the air in frustration.
Switching to fluent Russian, Mike gave up the game and let the man have it. “Listen to me, you puffed-up, pompous, pathetic excuse for an officer! I am here at the direction of the President of the United States and the invitation of Prime Minister Putin himself! I am here to do a job, and unless you want to spend the rest of your career watching icicles grow in Vladivostok you will produce the man I need to speak with now! Do we have an understanding?” To emphasize his point, Mike cycled a round into the chamber.
“Da, da!” said the Russian.
“Good,” answered Mike, lowering the Grach. “You go get him. I’ll wait here. And when you bring him back, you can have your little toy back,” he said, waving the pistol.
Five minutes later, Skipetroff returned with a very nervous private.
“Don’t worry,” said Mike in Russian. “I just need to ask a few questions. Captain, your gun.” He handed the Grach back to Skipetroff, butt first.
Skipetroff raised the gun quickly, thumbed off the safety, and pulled the trigger. Much to his surprise, the barrel of the gun dropped to the ground, followed by the empty magazine, firing mechanism - the only parts left in his hand were the trigger, guard, and butt.
“Problem, Captain?” asked Mike innocently, dropping the main spring, bullets, and a few lock pins on the ground. “Get lost.” To the openly-grinning soldier, he said, “What’s your name, son?”
“Grisha. Grisha Aleksandrovich Pumpianski, 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, Company -”
“Grisha’ll do. What do you remember, Grisha?”
“Sergeant Feliks was leading the squad…”
In a very few minutes, the story - at least as much of it that the lucky soldier knew - was told. It was clear that he had no idea what had happened inside the building, or what had been found.
A man-shaped shadow, thrown by the fading afternoon sun, fell across them.
“Chechnik!” said Mike without looking up. “What rock did you crawl from under?”
Grisha jumped to his feet and saluted. This was a Colonel from the Security division. They made families disappear.
“As you were,” said Chechnik. “Kildar.”
“Nicolai!” Mike called. “Over here!” The Keldara trotted over. “Search this prick.”
Grisha looked shocked, and started to react, but Chechnik held up a restraining hand. “It’s quite all right.” He extended his arms.
Moments later, Nicolai handed Mike a cell phone. “That’s all, Kildar.”
“Smart, Chechnik,” said Mike unwillingly, pocketing the phone. “Mind if I hold on to this? No? Thanks.” Adams finally emerged from the warehouse.
“We’re about done here, and - where the fuck did he come from?”
“Putin’s whipping boy? He’s been sent out to make sure we don’t stick our noses where they don’t belong.”
“Can I shoot him?” asked Katrina, raising her M-4.
“No, Kat, not yet. We’re on his turf. It just wouldn’t be good manners.”
“Quite amusing,” said Chechnik to Mike. “It’s not me I’d be worried about.”
“What? You thought she was kidding? Redhead, Colonel. Un-fucking-predictable. So you best stay on her good side. Which means me, and my troops.”
The men and gear were quickly reloaded, and the tiny convoy pulled away. “Where to?” asked Jitka. He was clearly enjoying driving the Mercedes instead of a truck. He’d never sat in a car so comfortable! And the armored glass, and vehicular armor, he felt safe, even here in the center of Moscow. The dark-tinted windows gave the limo a dangerous appearance, and the traffic faded out of his way. Cars like that were VIP, military, or Bratva, and that meant men with guns.
“I don’t want to just drive in circles, but I don’t know my way around Moscow like I used to,” admitted Mike.
“May I suggest?” said Chechnik, calmer than Mike expected.
“You can suggest,” said Mike.
“There is a park nearby, Buman gardens. It is central enough for you to move from quickly, large enough to conceal all the vehicles. And the traffic should subside in a half hour or so.”
“May as well. Chief, when we get their, get the troops fed. Water, coffee or tea only. No beer.” He didn’t have to see Jitka’s face to know he was scowling, however briefly. Beer was like blood to the Keldara, but a situation like this, he needed his men totally straight. They could double up after.
Chechnik faced forward and guided Jitka through the traffic. Once stopped, the discussion resumed around a table outside. Tea was steaming in cups before them. The people wandering through the gardens would make eavesdropping more difficult, if they could get past Vil‘s perimeter.
“So what do we know?”
“The bomb’s here,” said Adams.
“It hasn’t been here long; the residual radiation was dissipating quickly,” added Arensky. “Not long enough to create a permanent footprint.”
“It was definitely Chechens,” said Anisa. “We have positive ID for both men, but neither were listed as known associates of any rebel group.”
“That means nothing,” Grez explained. “They could have been new recruits, or simply more cautious and discreet than most.”
“They’re being led by someone with experience,” continued Adams.
“And we know why the satellites didn’t pick up the bomb.”
“The roof. Chechnik, do you think you can get information from your assessor’s office, or whoever is in charge of building and development?”
“Perhaps. What are you thinking?”
“While we wait for another satellite pass, we should see what buildings used lead in their roofs. That might narrow down the search.”
“I will see what I can do. My phone, please?” Mike handed it over.
“Anisa, how long until we get another pass?”
“There’s one overhead now,” she answered. “We’ll have the data in just a few minutes.” Her fingers were flying over the tablet’s surface. “Need to allow time for the Russian filters to do their work.“ She looked at him as if asking to cut through the song-and-dance and simply steer the bird herself. He gave a minute shake of his head. Thank the gods she wasn’t one of the Mice; they’d have three or four birds parked in geosynchronous already. Wouldn’t that be a joy to explain?
“What are you doing? Instead of what you wanted,” he asked in Keldara.
“Seeing if there’s a back door into the Moscow City Planner’s mainframe,” she answered in Keldara.
Mike shook his head ruefully. “Tell me again why I’m bringing you into the twenty-first century?”
“To rule the world, of course,” said Grez easily.