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Love Is For Tomorrow Redux

 

LOVE IS FOR TOMORROW

REDUX

 

 

 

 

 

MICHAEL KARNER

 

LOVE IS FOR TOMORROW REDUX

by Michael Karner

is the free Director’s Cut version of

LOVE IS FOR TOMORROW.

It is published here in its original form

in extra-length. Included are deleted scenes

and additional storylines that create

a completely different novel on its own.

If you are looking for the trimmed-down, finalized and

re-written version, please be sure to purchase the novel

LOVE IS FOR TOMORROW.

Copyright © 2016 Michael Karner

AuthorLife LTD

Castletown Road, W14 9HQ,

London, United Kingdom

 

 

***ONE***

The women here would be his end.

Antoine was in for the kill. He had the target in his grasp, could feel her skin for the first time in his palm and her hair rise in the gaps of her evening dress in the chilly night breeze.

Deniz turned and looked into his eyes. Her brown eyes were framed in charcoal with a skin the color of cinnamon and a smell of sweetened rose petals.

“You wear Chanel,” Antoine said. “Coco Noir.”

She raised an eyebrow, a dark brush in a landscape untouched by age and harm. So unlike him. She was natural beauty. He was the work of physicians.

It reminded him on what noir meant. A genre of crime literature featuring tough cynical characters and bleak settings, also suggestive of danger or violence.

“How did you know about Noir?” Deniz asked.

“It’s the one I know best,” Antoine said.

And it meant black.

“That’s a nice suit,” she said, reclining from touching it at the last moment.

Black diamonds graced the buttons and lapel.

He took her hand and let her feel the fine textured surface on his chest.

“Swiss custom tailored,” Antoine said. “Its nanotechnology imitates certain plant leaves, preventing dirt and water from clinging onto it. Or blood. The latest and lightest materials make it bulletproof. Wanna try?”

“Now you are just bragging,” Deniz said.

“Not this time. There is only one like it.”

Her fingers brushed over the strange texture.

“Like the man wearing it?” she said.

Antoine smiled and shook his head. “More like the man who gave it to me.”

Deniz returned his smile. “You must have a special sort of friends.”

“I seem to attract the special sort,” he said.

“Who is he then?” Deniz asked.

Antoine paused and thought of the man all the world knew as Jacque.

“My rival.”

“Mr. Springer.”

The waitress had something unexpected for him. Antoine noticed in the way her sashaying hips faltered. Her reluctance to deliver something that wasn’t part of her job caused her to tense. Her arms were tense, trying to hide something from everyone else in the bar. It wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t used to it and someone had probably tipped her to do the delivery, rather than recruiting her. This had the handwriting of the agency all over it. Antoine kept his arm around Deniz to lead her back to the conversation with her friends. A distraction, that was all he needed.

“Excuse me,” Gülcan the waitress said. She bent over, revealing the ear-piece she was carrying on a plate. Antoine didn’t excuse her, but followed her movements as she laid the earphone down in front of his table.

“A friend said you would be interested in hearing the daily special.”

He regarded the phone for a moment, then looked around Reina club at the people next to him.

“I thought the daily special were the fashion models,” he uttered under his hand. “And I was just getting to know one.”

It was a breezy evening on Istanbul’s riverside, the pink and blue neon lights bleeding out from Reina club into the water. Its source came from an area with white leather and crystal glass furnishings seated literally on top of the river with the open night sky overhead. Secluded from the pounding dance music inside, the chill-out lounge tracks in the open were flowing like the river’s current. Waves licking against the bateaus were accompanied with the flavor of algae brought up by the wind. Most of the time it was covered by the smell of cigars and pipe tobacco. Shishas were in constant struggle with designer perfumes worn by the ladies in his proximity. If the women were out to look their best today, they were definitely doing a good job.

His fingers played with the earphone device for a moment.

“It is urgent mister,” the waitress said. She leant down closer to him to whisper. “It is your wife.”

Antoine shook his head.

“I highly doubt that.”

“The person said, I should tell you it’s your wife,” Gülcan said, this time louder.

“See, that’s a difference,” Antoine said.

Deniz flinched in his embrace.

“You have a wife?”

He kept his body contact with her, leaving her no chance to slip away.

“If I did, she wouldn’t know it,” he said and put the speaker into his ear.

A lie he told himself. He wore no ring on his finger. Destinee was gone, a memory that stayed with him like poison. He took the ring only for certain occasions, his lucky ring.

In his hand he could feel Deniz’ back relax.

Through the speaker set the voice of a young woman talked to him. It was pleasant for him to hear it.

“Antoine.”

“Daily special?” he said.

“The day wouldn’t be special without me,” the woman said.

“True, Priya,” he said and took a sip of his Raki. “Nice of you to join.”

He felt Deniz’ glances on him as she moved closer on the couch.

“Your vacation?” Priya Patel asked. “If it’s as enjoyable as I think it is.”

“Up until now,” he said.

He tried to forgive her about pretending to be his wife. She didn’t know any better. Only a few people knew about Destinee and his destiny.

“Looks good from where I can see it,” the female agent answered. “Top spots, hard drinks and beautiful ladies as always with you, Antoine.”

He looked around, scanning the scene for what she referred to.

“Jealous? I don’t see any.”

Her chuckle over the speakers could steal a smile from him.

“But I can,” she said.

Antoine imagined Priya had hacked into the club’s security system and had a camera pointed at him right as he spoke.

“I felt a woman had me in her sights the whole time,” he said.

“Mhm and she’s looking into your eyes right now,” she played along the part.

He closed both his eyes and drew a grimace.

“What about now?”

“Now I can only see your dark circles around your eyes,” she said. “You look like you didn’t have much time to sleep the last nights. Can’t shake that off.”

As he opened them, his eyes would be glinting in the night vision pict-feed of the camera again.

“I had too much time to think,” he replied, becoming sincere.

He could feel Deniz’ arm slung around his.

“Who is trying to steal you away from me?” she said.

“Always those annoying office people,” he said. “Who else is listening by the way?” he asked Priya.

“Even Jacque is here,” Priya said.

“God,” Antoine said. “I guess it was his idea to call me. Is he still pissed that I messed up his last date or that I’m wearing his suit? He wouldn’t need it anyway.” He switched to German to keep the conversation private. “Jacque, you won’t believe who I have sitting next to me here. Turkish supermodel, long hair, dark, brown eyes, long eyelashes, full lips and hot body. It took me two hours around here to find one like her who wasn’t a prostitute.”

He heard Jacque laugh.

Deniz’ face turned to him with a jerk that let her hair fly and her eyes bore through him.

“I can speak German,” she said.

Learning never stopped.

“Well then I don’t have to tell you anymore how beautiful you are later,” Antoine said.

Antoine grabbed his glass and poured the rest of his drink in one go. He needed more the way events were unfolding. He took a glance around his company and knew he would have to leave soon.

The agency wouldn’t be calling him if it wasn’t important.

“What do you do for a living?” Deniz asked.

It wasn’t exactly the perfect time to ask, but so, it never really was.

“One could say I’m an expert in human anatomy with a PhD in combat,” Antoine said.

He earned a laugh.

“That could come in handy at times,” she said. “So what is it that you spend your days with?”

“Honestly, recovering from my nights, but to explain that would definitely push the time frame of this evening,” he said.

“Well I got time for you to show me,” Deniz said, staring at him. “Till morning.”

Antoine turned away from her with a sigh.

“Priya, I don’t even know what day is today,” he told her.

“It’s working day, Antoine,” Priya said. “The president of the United States is up for a visit to Turkey. There was a bombing in a border town.”

Antoine felt a lump build up in his throat. He watched over to Deniz and saw the promise of fondness vanish before his eyes. His mind was filled with memories of all too familiar scenarios like this as Priya kept going.

“The Turkish Secret Service is on the way to the bomb-site, we intercepted messages,” she said. “According to date and time it couldn’t be any better than this.”

It could be better. War always caught up with him. He couldn’t outrun it, to a point where it didn’t have the impact on him it used to have. He had resigned from running away and chosen to walk right at it.

“If you leave now you can make it in time to check it out,” Priya said. “We assume the President’s visit has something to do with the bombing.”

“Like I’ve nothing better to do than sit around and wait for nothing,” he said.

“Antoine,” another woman addressed him.

It was Rose Appiah, Head of the UN Intelligence and Tactics. Her voice was full of authority, but this time it surprised even him to hear a softer tone coming from her.

“I beg you to come back. I know it’s your special time of the year.”

He cringed hearing his boss begging him. He imagined Priya and Jacque wondering why she had to do it. There were things he couldn’t share with the two, even if they were closer to him than Rose.

“Rose, I didn’t know you were in on this,” he said.

“A large chair alone doesn’t make a queen,” his boss said.

Antoine frowned. “Yeah.” Old African proverb. “I know.”

He knew that feeling when forces were mobilized. The Army and Delta Force were his past and his presence. It would never change. It would never end. Again it was time to take up arms and fight.

Antoine took out his phone and switched it on. It had been dormant far shorter than he had wished to. After punching in his pin and booting, a flood of messages reached him. He dismissed all of them and shifted directly through to get online.

 

 

***TWO***

He kept the pictures on his phone under the table and hidden from Deniz. It wouldn’t be long before everyone would see them. They were already showing it on the news. He could see the life feed of the bombing aftermath on the news site, amateurishly filmed in a tumult of screaming and running people. Chaos. The headlines were inciting fear. Reyhanli, a Turkish border town to the Syrian border was hit by an unexpected explosion. Estimations lay at half a dozen civilian casualties. The bomb makers were of unknown origin, but with only four days to the US president’s visit, the guesses were high.

Antoine knew the president was coming. It was why he had decided on Turkey for vacation in the first place, to stay close to things. He had just hoped it would pass.

Antoine smelled the soft hint of grapefruit, bergamot, rose and jasmine over his shoulder. Deniz was leaning close to him.

“Found something interesting?” she said.

He shut off his screen and put the phone away.

“Actually no,” he said. “I’m sorry, it is some kind of bad habit. A lot of wise men would tell you not to watch the news.”

He didn’t want her to associate him with the events that would soon pop up in the news. She would find it out maybe soon enough. To confirm his expectations, TV screens were turned into life at the bar.

The people anticipated a Galatasaray soccer game. This team was like a religion, its blue and yellow colored flags spread out even over the ceilings of the Grand Bazaar. The activation of breaking news brought a murmur through Reina club’s audience.

“Ah, what did I just say?” Antoine said. “Anyway.” He turned to his earphone. “Priya, would you be a real sweetheart and organize a ride to Reyhanli? Provide me with an ETA. I need to see this first hand.”

“You can take one of Jacque’s jets to Hatay,” Priya said. “You will find the standard mission gear in a crate, but there’s no gun on board. You need to source one yourself.”

“I love it when people forget something important to pack”, Antoine said.

Antoine scanned the environment for a solution. He stopped as he saw a policeman walking inside, joining the crowd in front of the screen over the bar.

“Don’t worry, I got this,” he said.

Jacque chimed in. “That’s one of my newer jets so you better take care.”

“Understood,” Antoine said.

“No holes in the furniture and don’t get any dirt on the seats,” Jacque said.

“Don’t worry, it’s not like I have been backpacking the last two weeks through the Riviera. I come fresh out of the shower,” Antoine said.

“I’m speaking of when you come back,” Jacque said.

“Well let’s hope I don’t break a sweat then.”

Antoine dismissed it with a smirk and got up.

“Going to get me another lychee mojito?” Deniz said.

“No.”

She followed him a step behind and was only now seeing the attack on the news.

“Going to take a closer look at that”, Antoine said to Deniz. “Can you tell me what happened?”

He wanted her eyes glued to the screen and occupied while he approached the policeman.

The officer contacted his colleagues by radio and stood with his back to him facing the newscast. His hand and elbow were lifted up to his ear. Underneath, Antoine saw the officer’s CZ-75. The loop of the holster was open.

Antoine bumped into the policeman and took out the officer’s gun in one go.

“Excuse me,” Antoine said. “Strong cocktail.”

He let his gun disappear behind his back and under the jacket of his suit.

Deniz took Antoine’s arm.

“I’m sorry for my friend,” she said in Turkish.

The man scrutinized Antoine. Police forces in Istanbul were always on edge, patrols in cars fully armed and waiting for the go around the clock. An armored truck with dozer blades and a water cannon parked on Tarlabasi boulevard. The bombing laid their nerves bare.

“Not a problem,” the policeman said. He nodded to the screen. “Compared to this.”

“I feel an urge to thank you,” Antoine said.

He didn’t break his stare with the officer.

“For handing me your weapon on a plate,” he thought.

They both nodded to each other.

“You’re welcome,” the policeman replied.

He turned back to the television and his unit’s radio chatter.

Deniz looked at him and forced a comforting smile. Antoine had his hands crossed behind his back. He felt the reassuring bulge of the gun under his suit. Armed and ready. If only she knew.

Antoine turned to his colleague in his earpiece.

“Priya, quick update.”

He walked back past his seat from where he had come from, leaving money for the drinks on the table. There was no time to take leave from the acquaintances he had made.

“Scratch that last part from the list, got a gun,” he said.

“I saw it,” Priya said. “Are you trying to impress me?”

“I wouldn’t be here if I wanted to do that,” he said.

He winked at Deniz who was returning to her friends.

He laid his arms around her and drew her in for an embrace. Her hair felt comfortable against his face.

“What’s that for?” she said.

“For the night,” Antoine said. “I told you I’m going to take a closer look.”

Deniz pointed at herself. “You might miss your chance to take a closer look at me then.”

“I wouldn’t want you to miss that for all in the world,” Antoine said.

“Is that a promise for something?” she said.

“Later you might think of it as a warning,” he said.

“Warn me from what?”

“Me,” Antoine said. “I will be seeing you.”

“You don’t have my number,” Deniz said. “And you don’t even know my name.”

Antoine halted a second, in which he could see she was waiting for him to ask. He had to hide a smile not to grant her the wish.

“Trust me, I’m good at this.”

He scudded over the dark wood panels. The orange glow of fitted floor lamps illuminated his face as if walking over embers. He had time to check his new gun when he hurried down the steps to the jetty.

One of the boats waiting at anchor to pick up guests came to him as soon as he waved it over. Axantha II was written in wooden letters on the yacht’s stern. Antoine concealed the gun behind his back and jumped over the railing before the ship’s master could berth. When the agency called, it had one advantage. They spared no effort and expense to get him back into the field.

“I forgot I have a plane to catch,” Antoine answered the curious eyes of the man. He turned back to the rear of the boat, as the ship’s master steered them away from the kais, watching Reina club and Deniz disappear.

Every city felt different, while the flashing streetlights passed by and the road markings disappeared beneath the 1955 Chevrolet luxury cab he had rented for a small fortune. It was the small things that made a difference, the view of mountains in the background in Hong Kong, or the vast expansion of either water or sand in Dubai.

Istanbul had Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. After crossing Galata Bridge the Sultan’s monuments stretched out at Bosporus’ riverside. They resembled buildings of the Arabian Nights. The “Holy Wisdom” on top of the hill and the Blue Mosque with its six minarets only separated by the lavishly lit fountain on Sultanahmet square with the backdrop of the Marmara Sea. Through the open window Antoine felt the wind on his face and tasted salt on his lips. Traveling.

Traveling was his thing. The only people who travelled more than him were pilots, stewardesses, and air marshals, even though he could give them a run for their money. He was constantly on the move, rushing through old buildings left and right that mirrored on the surface of the river.

From the back seat of his Chevrolet he observed the crowds of people. He listened to their laughter and banter as he rushed past and absorbed music from bars and passing cars. Smells of shish kebab, shisha bars and shops offering Turkish delight from the bazaar left and right of the street intruded his nose. Roasted meat and spices from the first, sweet smoke that tasted of apple on his tongue from the second. Looking outside there was little difference from the day. Only the lights touched everything in an orange gloom. It gave back warmth in the darkness of the night. Red and blue carpet patterns and a golden brass shine of antiquities let people crowd together inside the shops. A souvenir from here would be the right thing for A.J. and Destinee.

“Gentleman,” he said to the driver. “Stop here at the bazaar and wait for me. I will be back in a minute.”

The driver halted as he was told. He blocked the narrow street leading through the old town. It forced other cars to move onto the tram lines.

Antoine got into the shop. Small gifts and lucky charms were everywhere.

He chose a fridge magnet made of stone with the Hagia Sophia on it for Destinee. The co-existence of Christianity and Islam together in one building would pique her interest. As well as the meaning of its name “Holy Wisdom”. Istanbul was one of the few cities they hadn’t visited together on their tour through Europe. She would appreciate the small present. It would be harder for A.J. He was about to turn eight. Antoine hadn’t seen him since he was three.

He pointed at a blue half transparent glass-made amulet.

“What are those?” Antoine said.

“It is the evil eye,” the shop owner said.

Antoine took the amulet in his hand.

“Keeps evils and bad luck away,” the man said. “It protects from the bad things in this world.”

“What bad things have you seen?” Antoine asked himself.

He enclosed it in his fist. “I take it.”

He returned to the 1955 Chevrolet cab. Antoine observed the people behind him on the sidewalk, reflections on the car paint and windows and the chrome bumper bar.

Cars had to slow down and honked. The tram was approaching with a bell. His driver didn’t lose composure. He waited till he was seated and strapped.

Antoine could see the driver’s eyes in the mirror staring at him when he drove away.

Vacation was over, he had to accept that. It meant back to work now and that meant constantly being on the move and staying aware in sleepless nights.

Istanbul gave the impression that everyone was on vacation. That’s what made it dangerous. It let him believe he was safe even when he was not. Hatay would be different. There the danger would be obvious.

The memories crawled back faster than he could handle, especially while on the way to the airport. It brought a distant memory of returning home to his family. Not this time.

Walking over the landing field, he saw Jacque’s jet prepared by ground personnel. The boarding crew turned halfway on the steps to the cockpit to give him a salute.

It was a good life serving Jacque Tir as private chauffeurs and following him to all destinations for his business meetings. They would mistake him for one of Jacque’s business partners.

The doors opened up as he approached the stairs. The stewardess wore a skirt uniform and her hair bound together under an aviator hat.

“Welcome aboard Mr. Springer,” she said. The name tag on her chest said Marlene. “I hope you will help yourself to a comfortable time with us.”

“Definitely,” Antoine said. “It could be my last.”

 

 

***THREE***

Her inviting gesture made way to a living room style interior. The passenger cabin was arranged to house a small group of people travelling with maximum comfort. Antoine could see why Jacque wanted no damage on the furniture. It consisted of cream-colored cow leather seats, a carpeted floor, with a laptop and a swivel armchair by the window. He heard the cabin door close behind him with a clack. He would be alone on this flight. That would make things easier or maybe not.

A closed casquet was stowed underneath the seat. Antoine suspected it would contain the mission gear Priya had mentioned. The agency always came up with something new.

The engines started into a constant background thrum. Marlene took his attention back on her.

“Something to drink for you, sir?”

She held a tray with small aperitifs.

Antoine glanced over it and saw it included nothing he would enjoy now. He took a glass nonetheless and knocked it back. It would help with the sleep.

“Give me a Jaegermeister. I’m starving.”

Marlene went to the back of the airplane and opened the mini-bar.

He let himself fall into the seat and adjusted his backrest to a laid back position. For a moment he savored the comfort he felt in his tense back muscles. This had Jacque written all over it.

The reasons why he had needed this time out so badly showed in his health again.

This was the time, the transition from one spot to the place of action, where the last preparations should be made. Intel gathering, mental focus, stress alleviation.

He turned to the computer and put in the earpiece lying at the side of it on the table. All information he would get would be confidential. As much as Jacque wouldn’t know what exactly he was doing, the plane crew didn’t suspect him of being a secret agent.

Everything he would learn he would have to keep for himself. The logo of the United Nations Intelligence and Tactics lit up on the screen. He entered his operator username followed by an eight digit password. He had difficulties remembering it instantly. It had been too long, but not really too long since he last used it.

When he opened his laptop, the world he had turned away from showed its ugly face. A world map lit up with hotspots and agents on missions and their designations. After having switched off his phone for a couple of days, the agency had to bring him up to date. He knew they would find him sooner or later. They found everyone.

Smith was in an operation in Israel. Parts of Ukraine were threatened to be overrun or augmented by Russia, with Nate Kovacs on site. Syria lit up in the Middle East, as a bridgehead for a Saudi Arabian pipeline connecting their supplies with America and Europe. Silas Jericho was there, all colleagues from his close section.

Simulations and military strengths showed before Antoine’s eyes. A lot had changed in the three weeks he had gone off the radar. The world was a powder keg and one spark would be enough to produce a chain reaction. Once frontlines were clearly drawn borders of opposing sides, but now, everything was blurred and possible. Secrecy, lies and deception hid in all societies man had originally created to feel protected.

There was another incoming message on the web-portal from Priya.

“Because of the conflict happening in Crimea all of Russia is spied on,” she said. “Several outposts are listening. I hacked the NSA listening center in Vienna that absorbs everything coming in from the east. Listen to this. Two supposedly russian agents, both female.”

The voice changed to another woman’s and to another language, but one Antoine was fluent in.

“The product will be picked up in ten days,” the woman said in Russian. “You should join me at Orwell’s place in seven days, with payment in full.”

“Thank you for your help,” a woman answered. It was another voice, less authoritative and younger.

“A promise is a promise,” the first one said. “Once you get the praise for stopping this, you definitely get a promotion. Maybe even reach the level I had. We will celebrate on our victory day.”

The intercept ended. No names mentioned, no specification of the product. Just riddles and question marks.

“Not enough details,” Antoine said.

“Wait for it.” Priya took the word again. “Jericho is in Idlib, Syria infiltrating the al-Nusra front. He tapped a phone of one of the Khorasan members. We revealed a link between the two calls that gives me a headache. The voice prints of one participant are matching. One of the persons is involved in both. Here is the intercept.”

The second conversation was held in English, with both parties having accents of Russian and Arabic origin.

“She doesn’t know it’s a real attack,” the female voice said. “Thinks it’s fake. She is young and naive. She needs my help to stage a fake attack on the Kremlin so that she can stop it and get praise and recognition.”

“Can you handle the weapon?” the member of the Khorasan group said.

“I handled nuclear before,” the female agent said. “Remember Alex Luchenko, the FSB spy killed in London.”

“This one is made from radioactive waste dumped off the Somali coast, put together and sent back to the West where it came from. You can bring it on your own soil?” the man said.

“I hate Russia,” she said. “The spy-swap lost me my life and everything I built up in the West.”

The man didn’t respond to it.

“It will come via flight to Germany, Berlin,” he said. “You know when, you know the man bringing it to you.”

The intercept ended.

“She doesn’t know it’s a real attack,” Antoine repeated. “That means one agent is tricking the other into believing it will be prevented, while the bomb is coming from the Khorasan with the intention to attack Moscow.”

“And we have only seven days to intercept the money payment or ten to pick up the bomb before one of the agents does,” Priya said. “We will work on it full time until you arrive in Hatay. Maybe we find out more. For now, get your mind clear and get back into the zone. There’s another bomb waiting for you. Welcome back to the real world Antoine.”

He dismissed it by closing the laptop.

“For this one I’m already too late,” he said to himself.

Antoine reached down under his seat and opened the casket.

All the gear was ready, special glasses and Priya’s toy, a quadrocopter drone, stored neatly in foam padding. This wasn’t what counted as the real world for most people. It was a world of high-tech and billions to save nations and lives and it always left him in awe to see what could be achieved if money was in the hands of the right people.

Antoine carefully took out the glasses and put it on. A head-up display was switched on, showing Priya’s face through a webcam.

“Christmas came early this year,” she said. “See all these new toys of ours?”

Antoine glanced down at the drone in the casket. The intelligent display in his glasses recognized the model and supplied him with manufacturer’s information and instructions for use. For pivotable rotors made the small vehicle highly maneuverable and easy to fly. Its base housed a high definition cam with night vision and infrared functions.

Antoine looked at it and was sunken in thoughts. This was just an unarmed spy drone. But he saw predator drones flash up before his eyes, which he had seen in Afghanistan during their first deployment. An invention that had caused kids to fear the blue sky and feel save in a hazy grey weather when the drones couldn’t fly.

He looked up to Marlene and the camera in his glasses recognized the stewardess’ face, name, age, occupation and nationality.

“I need some time alone now,” he said. “Take a nap.”

She came closer and put the glass of Jaegermeister on his table.

“Of course,” Marlene said. “Here is your night cap.”

He drank it as the jet’s engines started through and he issued a silent toast to the take-off and his life. Might a plane bring him home one day.

It was the last time to be able to close an eye among all the pressure and get half an hour of sleep, before descending into the unknown. It was uncertain when the next opportunity would be. There was always the chance that he would fall into a sleep he would never awake from.

This time he did, when the plane touched down in Hatay still deep in the night.

Being alone on missions had changed him. Priya’s voice in his earpiece was a small comfort, but he was the one out there, aiming for the next transport.

It let him know what he was made of. It was said the environment changed a man, but what really changed a man the most was himself. The road markings chased his trail again, getting sucked under the car’s tires kilometer after kilometer. It was when they stopped that Antoine had reason to concern.

The border town appeared in a dusty valley of rocks and dry vegetation. An amalgamation of rusty barriers and run-down ruins was left there to be forsaken.

Once again he was reminded on Afghanistan. It was all about survival out there. Everything had regressed back to simplicity. The cab driver chose an unlit byroad to let Antoine go on his way. Shortly later the car disappeared back into the night. That was when he realized the whole town had gone dark.

He hated missions like that. Antoine started with nothing and had to make something out of it. From each day he began from anew. New surroundings with no orientation yet. That was why he had Priya.

He sent out the quadrocopter drone as instructed in the manual in his glasses and connected with her. The UAV was out of his sight soon. He put his trust in Priya’s flying abilities to give him an overview on the situation ahead of him on the ground.

The bulletproof suit felt tight on him. It had turned into a second skin over the time. Half was luxury, half practical. He activated the inbuilt cooling system, knowing he was back in the perspiration causing business again.

Antoine adopted the aerial view of the drone’s camera in his goggles. The UAV hovered above him in the sky like a bird.

“Well, where are we here,” he said. “Still awake Priya? Would you be so kind and help me out here. Tell me what you see.”

“I follow you like a thread follows the needle,” she said. “Looks like whole of Reyhanli is suffering from a power outage.”

“From the bombing?” Antoine asked.

“Most unlikely.”

“Then someone didn’t pay their bills,” he said.

Engine noises stirred him up and yanked his head to the left.

Antoine melted with the shadows. A truck rushed past him, then another on the main road. They were followed by several cargo carriers in consecutive order. Antoine could make them out as military vehicles, all headed towards the border. The use of minimal light made it difficult to spot any details.

Antoine cowered behind a wall until the last passed by.

“Looks like an army convoy heading to Syria,” he informed Priya.

“Weapons and even soldiers maybe,” his colleague said. “That’s why they produced the power outage. I’ve seen this happening in various places before. It’s when you want to hide something happening from the eyes of the public.”

“I concur,” Rose said. “War has no eyes.”

 

 

***FOUR***

She was back in the game since Antoine entered the hot zone but this was the first time that she spoke.

“It’s what the CIA calls a rat line, a back channel highway into Syria. Authorized in early 2012 by the US in cooperation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and is used to that day to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya to the rebel opposition in Syria. Many of those receiving the weapons are jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, like the al-Nusra branch or the Khorasan group.”

“How could the Congress authorize this?” Antoine said.

“It didn’t,” Rose said. “The involvement of the MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. There exists a recognized exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress. Even though there were front companies set up in Libya under the cover of Australian entities with American ex-soldiers who managed procurement and shipping, the operation ended for the US with the resignation of the former CIA director. Remember Benghazi, the American consulate being attacked? The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms. Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms after the attack, which left the Turks operating alone and the United States no longer in control of what they were relaying to the jihadists. Within weeks, forty portable surface-to-air missile launcher were in the hands of Syrian rebels. And it didn’t end here. When it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war and Turkey would be cut-off from the deal, its national intelligence agency, the MIT and the Gendarmerie were beginning to work with al-Nusra on developing a chemical warfare capability. Soon after, fighters were arrested in Turkey with chemicals that could be used to produce sarin gas. The charges were dropped.”

Antoine shook his head. “Guess they were just carrying anti-freeze with them, right? We all know that excuse.”

Antoine moved on, his suit already taking on enough from the dust caked buildings and rusty cars that lay on his way. The air condition system in his suit was working, counteracting a day of sunshine collected on concrete.

His smart glasses recognized faces, buildings and streets, feeding him with persons’ backgrounds, buildings’ information and street names. The darkness however made recognition difficult. Priya marked sites for him from her UAV and satellite view.

“I can see the bomb site,” he said. “Or better, what’s missing.” He didn’t need light or the quadrocopter’s night vision to spot it. It was simply a missing spot, a black hole against the night sky where something should be, but was not. The infrastructure led to it like arteries to a torn out heart. Cut cables and open pipelines leaked out fluids on the street. The street, or what was left of it, was simply ripped open resembling an earthquake site. Concussions on asphalt were visible like on smashed glass.

“That was intricate work,” he said. “This is where I didn’t want to be when it happened. How does this look from up at you?”

“A crater like from a meteor crash,” Priya said. “All is blackened and burnt.”

Car wrecks lay torn open, some shredded in half. Antoine passed one turned on its back, bodywork deformed and burnt out. The buildings adjoining the crater stood half in ruins, their jagged roofs assembled to a crown around the epicenter.

Antoine could see the aftermath of death and fire. Blackened asphalt and washed out blood remained after an early attempt to clear the bombing site. The victims had been transported away. At least twenty must have been caught in the blast.

A signal from Priya brought Antoine’s eyes up.

“Unidentified contacts ahead.”

A yellow police line was strapped around the crime scene and Antoine could already hear police radio from behind. With bated breath he crossed the line and stepped into the remnants of the bomb blast.

“Identity confirmed, at least some of them are National Intelligence Organization, the MIT.”

A squad of policemen patrolled through the outskirts of the ruin, flashlight beams scanning the black bowels of the building. Another team of forensics was busy in the epicenter, collecting evidence. Priya could see them through the quadrocopter drone, where the roof was blown off or any structure missing at all. A hired caterpillar and workers cleared away the rubble blocking their investigation.

Antoine watched them from a high position, crouched behind an old piano. The smell of old wood still clung to it, but as soon as he turned away, the stale scent of cement returned to his senses. Like on a construction site, the building’s structure was ripped open and bled out the tang of old cement mixed with stone and the rusty aroma of iron bars cracked open like twigs. The workers passed underneath without an urge to look around. They were weary and still sweating under the helmets. A balding secret service officer stood in the middle of the works and ordered the caterpillar around. Petrol stank oozed from the machine out of the exhaust pipes that were blackened by soot. Time let grime crawl into everything. It bedecked the driver’s face in streaks and formed above the neck mixed with pearls of sweat. It got absorbed by the skin till it clogged pores like a plugged drainage.

The secret service agent shouted commands.

“I can’t understand what they are saying,” Antoine said.

The caterpillar set in motion with a loud noise of its revving engine and churning tracks. His shield bit away chunks of brick and mortar walls like a hungry behemoth. The ground shook under Antoine and let his knees shake. He had to move before the caterpillar would take away a supporting wall.

“What the hell are they doing?” Antoine asked himself.

He could feel whirled up dust clogging his throat that had coated the ground and furnishings a second before.

“Sorry Antoine,” Priya said. “The drone’s microphone isn’t working.”

Antoine shook his head. “You and your tech. Let’s stick to the tried and true. I’m moving close within earshot.”

The MIT officer lit another cigarette in the middle of the ruin. He looked around the bombed building, acknowledging the structure of various levels. He could see through the tear of material, resembling a hollowed out carcass. The explosion had turned everything around him in a radius of twenty meters to dust. This and the death toll it had claimed was tragic enough, but it looked like he would have to turn more to dust to save a lot of men. Whatever he was doing, Antoine had no doubt he couldn’t let the building be allowed to stand.

Another agent came to the officer. He handed him what looked like splinter fragments of the bomb enclosed in a foil, evidence.

The senior asked him something, his annoyance visibly not diminished after finally having found something. They raised their voices above the noise of the caterpillar.

Antoine was close enough to hear, but Turkish wasn’t one of the languages he got to learn yet.

“What are they saying?” he whispered into his microphone.

“Nothing of importance yet,” Rose said.

Antoine caught sight of how the junior agent gave the evidence to his superior. Then another phrase in Turkish.

“He wants to know what to do with it,” Rose said.

The older agent shrugged while studying the bomb splinters in his fingers.

“He says, you know what you should do with it,” Rose said, translating one-to-one. “Gather all evidence you can find.”

The senior jugged the bag back to his subordinate with some more words.

“And then let it disappear,” Rose said.

The meaning let Antoine blink.

“They are here to destroy the evidence.” Rose spoke out exactly what was on Antoine’s mind.

From the look of the junior’s face, the younger agent was equally surprised. He asked his superior something.

“He wants to know if they shouldn’t investigate the bomb pieces to confirm the origin of the bomb and the attack,” Rose said.

The senior agent looked at his younger colleague, about to give him a lecture.

“We already know who built the bomb,” Rose said. “He is saying the government already knows who built the bomb. And soon the whole world will know who built the bomb. This is all that needs to be known, not more, not less. Antoine, can you get closer to the source, the signal is getting too weak.”

Antoine obliged and ventured forward to the next cover. Only a couple steps and a wall broken down at waist-height separated him from the pair.

The older agent placed himself closer to his subordinate. Antoine could only hear them speak between the lapses of background noise.

“Listen. Our country is the only turntable for the weapon moving,” Rose translated what he was saying. “They can’t come through Jordan, the terrain in the south is wide open with Syrians all over it. They can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side. We need the support of the Americans back. When Syria wins the war, the rebels are just as likely to turn on us – where else can they go? And then we will have thousands of radicals in our own backyard.”

Antoine reclined from the dialogue he overheard. It was as much as he had feared. He heard noises from the search party coming near him, so he had to look for another way.

“Antoine,” Priya warned him. “Four are coming to your direction from nine o’clock, you should move!”

“Thanks for the warning eagle-eye, I’m on my way,” Antoine said.

He was already on the move, jumping down one floor through a broken off ceiling. Beneath, the caterpillar was rumbling relentlessly. The walls shook, dust streaming from its bitten off edges.

Antoine found himself on the same level with the two agents. He had made it out of the search parties’ radius but was now on the other side of the crater. He knew he needed to get back.

“Secure the evidence, Antoine,” Rose said. “Failing that, we need more information about the origin of the attack. Look what more you can find or hear.”

“I’m on it,” he replied.

He scanned his new surroundings. Right through the crater would leave him without cover but around its edges were debris and equipment the housebreakers had left.

Antoine wondered where Priya’s UAV would be at the moment. He lost it through the noise of the housebreaking and the dark night sky.

“Priya, coast is clear on my three?” he asked.

A couple seconds, then: “Clear.”

He took a shot and crouched low, taking cover behind a portable toilet. The torchlight cones from the first floor on his left were moving down towards him. He would evade them by keeping right.

Antoine hugged the toilet wall and spun around its corner.

He was halfway when the flush right next to him got activated. He heard movement from inside the bathroom stall.

Antoine swore. “One in the toilet.”

The lock clanked open and the door opened. Antoine had to decide in a split-second whether to take the threat out or leave it in his back. He was too close to get away. The torchlight caught up on him. Antoine darted inside.

He met the yellow helmeted housebreaker head on, right as he wiped his hands into the sides of his blue overall.

Facial recognition kicked in in Antoine’s glasses, searching database information for identity and the housebreaking company of the man in front of him. Antoine didn’t wait to find out.

“Antoine, what’s going on here?” Priya said.

“Comfort break,” he said.

 

 

***FIVE***

Antoine’s and the man’s eyes locked. He kicked out against the man’s solar plexus. The kick pushed his opponent back from where he came from, sending him reeling against the toilet seat. Antoine followed him right after into the bathroom stall. The scent of stale piss and sanitizers washed against him as he stepped onto the wet floor. He nearly slipped. The door closed shut behind them.

The man tried to get up.

All happened in a blur, but Antoine could see the white in his counterpart’s eyes, testifying fear. Antoine launched his knee into the man’s torso. There was barely enough space to finish the move. It sent the worker back colliding with the toilet lever, activating the flush.

“Antoine, the search party is coming,” Priya said. “They are onto you.”

The man kicked out with both his feet, taking Antoine off balance. He tumbled back, trying to hold onto something, anything to not get blown out of the toilet. Antoine aimed for a handle in the plastic wall, but grabbed the toilet paper instead, rolling it off while he fell. He crashed against the door and bounced off, the automated lock holding. He tried to get up, the walls feeling reassuring against his heels. The man stormed at him to push him through the door. Antoine took him head on and slung his arm around the man’s neck. He got a hold, pulling it tight with his other hand. The man grunted. Antoine squeezed his biceps, then lifted the man in the choke-hold off the ground. Antoine pulled tighter, feeling the man’s throat crushed against his forearm. The man let out a gurgling sound, thrashing against Antoine’s elbow. He knew that feeling. He got him. Three more seconds. The strikes got weaker and weaker. The man’s body went limp, losing conscious. Antoine let the worker sink back on the toilet seat, out cold. The flush was still dabbling resembling a soothing creek. He took a deep breath while adjusting his suit. He noticed an unpleasant wetness around the ankles and on his elbows. Sweat was smeared over his breast.

“What’s the situation out there?” he asked.

“Four men have you surrounded,” Priya said. “They are closing in on the bathroom stall.”

He sighed and saw the worker’s helmet lying in a puddle on the ground. Antoine picked up the helmet and put it on the man’s head, covering his face.

“I might have to borrow this,” he said to himself.

Antoine unzipped the blue worker’s overall and stripped the body of it. He put the overall on, over his suit. He heard a knock on the door as he closed his zip and put on the helmet.

“I could use some phrases now, Rose,” he spoke into his microphone.

Rose told him to repeat after her the words for “occupied” and “coming soon”.

“They are still not leaving,” Priya said.

Antoine drew his gun and put it into his overall’s pocket.

“How are they positioned?” Antoine asked.

“Two to your right and two to the left, two meters from the door,” Priya said. “One of the agents is joining them from the front.”

“Which one?” Antoine said.

“He is carrying the evidence in his left hand,” Priya said.

“Orders?” Antoine asked.

“Use non-lethal force at all cost,” Rose said.

With only one magazine shy of being out of ammo and not being set on inciting an international crisis, he agreed.

“Tell me when he is two meters from the door,” Antoine said.

He grabbed the door handle and put his other hand on the lock, waiting for Priya’s signal.

“Now.”

He pushed the door open and took two steps outside. He looked around and found himself confronted by four policemen and the young agent.

Chances were those men would not know all the faces of the housebreakers they had hired. It would be a big company, probably with ties to the upper MIT echelon and they would keep a number of no name workers in rotation for jobs like this to keep suspicion of reoccurring events at a minimum. Still his cover was for from bulletproof. He had only a couple of seconds until they would recognize the incongruous shoes and find the body the overall belonged to in the bathroom stall.

Antoine rushed forward and pushed himself from the ground, taking full momentum. He was at the agent before the man could draw his gun, or bring his hands up. Antoine threw a superman punch at his face, fist outstretched in mid-air, resembling the iconic superhero’s flight pose. He touched down on the ground and followed up with an elbow, feeling a nose break. The agent’s head snapped back. He let go of the pack that was in his hand to cover his face. Antoine bent down and picked it up, falling into a shoulder roll. He got the evidence. He had lost his helmet in the process but he got the evidence. Behind him the agent was trying to stop the bleeding from his nose, screaming. The policemen couldn’t open fire as long as he was right in the middle of them. Antoine ducked and ran as flashlights and shouts came directed at him.

“Priya, you won’t believe it but I’m in deep trouble right now,” he said.

“I believe you,” Priya said. “I’m going to guide you through the building.”

Antoine reached the building ruins. He had no time to inspect what he had in his hand. He would have time for it later. It was bombing evidence. He had everything he needed fallen into his hands, by chance and luck. Now all he had to do was get out of here.

“Follow the corridor to your left and then…wait!” Priya said.

He grabbed a pillar and pulled himself forward, leaving finger prints in the dust behind. Around the next corner, a panel hit him square across the jaw and sent him crashing into a working desk.

Antoine blinked, coming to as he was already on the ground. His vision was trying to focus on the cracked glass of his goggles under the fog of teary eyes. The taste of the blow lingered bitter and stale in his mouth, making him feel like his jaw had been dislocated and he had bit into rock-hard wood. Blood was filling up in his mouth. His face throbbed and a tingling pain in his head gave him nausea.

Figures approached from all directions, looming over him. His glasses tried to make sense of the emerging threats, failing to cope with its own internal damages and the blinding flashlights aimed at him. He was caught. The light cones aimed at him were replaced by kicks coming in from all sides. He curled up and coughed hard as he felt the impacts against his back and forearms.

He lost the bag, but found a grip around his gun, putting off the safety as he turned around.

His goggles were broken and flickered with false data streams, failing to make any sense of the faces appearing over him.

The young agent and two police officers held him at gunpoint, their faces tense. He could hear the safeties of their guns switch to off. They were screaming at him in a language he didn’t understand.

Another shout echoed through the night that silenced all the others. Antoine looked up, struggling to decide on which threat to point his gun first.

He saw the crowd around him part as the senior MIT agent from before approached. He ordered them to stand back, his own weapon still in his holster.

The younger agent came to the group and picked up the bomb evidence, blood dripping out of his nose and adding to Antoine’s own stains he had left on the floor.

“You are retained by the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati,” the old agent said. “Identify yourself.”

Antoine remained silent and drew a slight grimace, not set on telling them even if he wanted to. They wouldn’t even know about the UNIT.

“Fine,” the agent said. “You’re not talking. That’s fine. Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

“I propose you overthink your next actions wisely,” Antoine said. He felt tingling in his face now that the senses were coming back and felt up his swelling cheekbone. It felt like soft jelly, tissue filled with blood. Every word he spoke was accompanied by stinging pain and strained sinews down his cheek. “We are not alone. You are being watched. So whatever you do, you should think about not overstepping the borders of your rights and the consequences it has on the politics of our countries really hard.”

He lowered his gun, taking away the threat he had made.

The young agent came up from behind and hit him over the back of his head. Antoine’s eyes instantly went black.

 

 

***SIX***

He fell on his knees and was able to catch the fall with his hands before his face would meet the ground. He felt a yank at his ear and the earpiece ripped out. Antoine had his eyes still clenched together when he heard the crunch of a boot crushing the earpiece on the floor. His kneecaps throbbed as if hit by a hammer. Scratches covered his palms from the filthy ground.

“So who’s watching now?” the young agent asked.

He grabbed Antoine’s arm and caught it in an armbar that made his elbow protest. He felt how his fingers went loose and lost hold of his gun. His opponent must have realized it was the same gun the Turkish authorities were using, as he took it up.

Antoine rose his gaze to the sky. “I said watched, not listening.” He stood up back on his feet, steadying himself and wiped spit from his lips before facing the junior agent. “Don’t you ever listen?”

The quadrocopter drone was over them, hovering. Even a good shot would have had trouble taking it out of the sky and the MIT was set to not fire any gunshots here, that much Antoine had learned.

“That thing,” the young agent said, looking at the UAV, “would fit nicely into our museum.”

“The MIT Museum of Espionage?” Antoine said. “Yes, I definitely thought you are missing one last time I visited.”

It left the agent speechless for a second. The agency’s museum was not allowed for public and its existence only revealed once. Antoine knew that and he intended to bluff.

“Then you’re lucky. Without your drone, you most probably would be a dead man by now,” the junior agent said.

“With or without your badge, you would have joined me,” Antoine said.

“Enough,” the senior agent said. “I’m sure we are all on the same side here. You look American. Then you would know it would be in both our countries’ interest if we worked together in this case.”

Antoine nodded. “CIA.”

This was his only way out.

The older agent offered him his hand. “Agent Sahin, MIT.”

Antoine took it. Sahin squeezed it and didn’t let go for a while.

“And agent Celik, also MIT,” he said, looking over to the younger agent. “You two are much alike. Young, ambitious. Fighting over scraps of metal like two young dogs. Even when we both need it for the same cause.”

Antoine kept silence.

Sahin formed his eyes to slits and took a long draw from his cigarette. “Well then, it looks like we have a common understanding. You are free to leave and will forget what you saw here.”

“Tell me what I saw here,” Antoine said, tearing himself free from the grip Celik had on him. “For one, I cannot make any sense of it. A bomb which remains are being destroyed by authorities to make an investigation impossible? Does this mean this bomb was ordered by your own government, making you claim it was a Syrian attack. Four days before the US president visits your president, it will be leverage to allow sanctions and support against Syria. Your government wants to take part in the covert war to support the rebels and doesn’t even hold back from killing its own civilians. It should make you overthink on whose side you are on and how much country and loyalty really mean, mister Sahin.”

“You lack imagination,” Sahin said. “It’s your own country which has the same interests, mister …?”

“Nieda,” Antoine said, an unspoken warning hanging over the name.

“Alright, mister… Nieda,” Sahin said, chuckling at the clever last name Antoine assigned himself – German for “never here“. He glanced at the drone above their heads which blinked its red lights periodically and kept moving in a random figure to discourage anyone from shooting at it. “It’s time for you and your… shadow to leave now. I hope the next time the CIA comes into Turkey…,” he paused to take a puff of his cigarette, “it will come more informed. It’s bad politics when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

“Who do you tell that?” Antoine said, turning on his heels. Walking out of the building he called back in fluent Turkish, “Mister Sahin may you have a restful night,” a Turkish good night saying and then to Mr. Celik, “Good night.”

Antoine left the bomb site, his weapon gone and the communication with Priya and Rose cut. The cops and housebreakers behind lost no time in razing the whole spot. He walked up to the border to Syria, beginning imminent at the south end of the city. He left the last house behind and stood there for a moment, staring out into the desert. His cheek was already a dark red bruise.

“Asked the wrong questions?” a voice said.

An old man sat in a rocking chair, outside his house on his veranda, listening to a muted radio.

“You speak English?” Antoine said.

“Worse,” the old man answered. “I teach English. Want to go there?” he asked, after surveying Antoine for a long while.

Antoine looked back, not ready to give an answer. “I think no one wants to go there. Some just must.”

His thoughts were with Jericho and the intercept he snatched from the Khorasan group.

“You must be a reporter, sniffing around here,” the old man assumed.

Antoine shrugged.

“This power blackout must mess up your plans,” the man said.

“Actually I’m quite comfortable working in the dark,” Antoine said.

“And still I’m here, listening to the news with my old battery radio,” the man said. “About things that I saw happening in front of my nose.”

“What are they saying?” Antoine wanted to know.

“Syrian terror attack,” the man said, not believing it himself. “Not what I saw, that’s for sure.”

“What did you see?” Antoine asked.

“I can only tell you what I didn’t see,” the man said. “A Syrian terror attack. This looks staged. We are not stupid. We share our history with our Syrian brothers, share our homes and trade. The war brought refugees to our town. The incident will drive a wedge between our communities.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Antoine said.

“Don’t be sorry,” the old man said. “I am just pleading you to do your work properly.”

“I will try to work clean and leave no dirt behind,” Antoine said.

“For the world stage, all is separated clearly in black and white, but here everything is blurred lines,” the man said. “It doesn’t mean a thing on which side of the border you’re on.”

“Why?” Antoine asked.

“Because you can’t be protected or saved by your own government anymore,” the man said.

“Boy, don’t I know that,” Antoine thought to himself.

The old man inclined his head to the border. “From over there, refugees came a couple of weeks ago. I saw the wounds. Chemical weapons. They blame the regime. And now we had bombs in our own town. And they blame the regime.”

“Who do you blame?” Antoine asked.

“It’s a terrible act of cowards, but what is even more terrible is that this is one of the easiest ways to blame someone for something,” the man answered. “They want to flare hatred for someone else in us, and use this hatred. Once they have a scapegoat, no one thinks that it could have been someone else. Like the own side you’re on, for example.” The old man came to a chilling conclusion.

“I’ll keep that in mind for my work,” Antoine nodded.

He turned, torn between the scene of the destroyed buildings and the images going through his mind when he looked over to the other country.

Antoine remembered another old African proverb Rose had told him.

“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.”

The covert war was raging behind the horizon, with several western countries trying to bring down the Russian backed Syrian regime by supporting the rebels, al-Nusra, Chechens and other foreign Mujaheddin.

Whoever was behind today’s bombing, it would serve the cause of the West to warrant more drastic sanctions. The same went for the use of chemical weapons. But this would have to rest for now. Priya’s drone hovered over Antoine’s head like a dog pulling impatiently on the leash. It was time to go back, meet at the headquarters in Vienna and regroup with his team.

In a world full of lies and deception, a word between two men still counted and Antoine’s life rested on it. He had to leave or would suffer the consequences.

The bombing was a thing of the past and couldn’t be prevented anymore. What was of more importance was the call between the two Russian agents and the Khorasan. The next attack might be imminent and at stake and Antoine had a feeling there was a far greater scheme behind it.

Antoine looked up to the drone and spoke silently, wishing that his colleague could read the words from his lips.

“Priya, I don’t know if you can hear me right now. Anyway, we have to leave from here. At least for a while. Looks like something is going to happen soon, so I’ll go there to find out what. Whatever this Orwell’s place is, I’m coming home, Priya. Let’s go. Drinks on me.”

 

 

***SEVEN***

She felt the embrace of water on her skin, salt itching on wounds that hadn’t healed off fully, but cooling her body from the sun-baked world above. She felt it on her whole body, because it was warm enough to get out of the tight wetsuit and dive into this world in as few swimwear as possible. Cold compressed air made her throat feel dry with every breath she took, leaving the sound of her respirator and rise of bubbles the only thing that disturbed this tranquility.

Fish passed by her in a swarm that surrounded her as she swam in open water. Her fins acted as extension to her legs as she porpoised through them while resembling the motions of a mermaid. Air bubbles tingled against her cheeks from the scooter that pulled her through the underwater landscape. Her shape was clad in the incident sunlight that plunged into the deep and gave a bluish cast to the coral reef below her. She felt like flying, free as a bird.

The mood still reminded her on the time when she used to go snorkeling as a kid on the Indian Pacific coast, looking for mussels in attempt to find pearls. Except so much had changed.

Priya smiled despite her teeth being sunk into the mouthpiece and tasting the salt of the sea. She could see herself as a young girl again, when her parents took time off to go on vacation with her and spend hours at the beach with her. These were the childhood memories she cherished the most, when compared to now everything had seemed peaceful and at ease.

Priya lifted her head and returned to the surface, a net of stirring waves made glittering through the sunlight. Through the water surface she could already make out the silhouette of the boat waiting for her at anchor. As soon as she came to the surface the ambient sound of seabirds and the clapping of waves against the boat’s prow filled her ears. Drops of water ran from Priya’s diving goggles like from a windshield on a rainy day. She took off the goggles, sensing the after-tingle from where they had left an imprint around her eyes and nose. The boat was a mid-sized yacht held in classical white. Its name White Star was written in crested blue letters beneath the fenders, also when it was more known as the Bikini Queen. It still possessed that smell of something new, comparable to a new car. Its shiny look blinded the beholder’s eye, almost like anything that Jacque touched.

Priya gripped the ladder on the yacht’s stern and pulled herself up. The weight of the compressed air tanks around her back became noticeable again and the scooter now a dead weight straining on her arm. She hoisted it up with a grunt of effort and stowed it beneath the seats.

Priya went up the stairs to the deck in her bikini after leaving everything else behind and opened her wet hair. It still took her a few moments to absorb the atmosphere of being alone on a luxurious yacht with the man who had made this all possible for her.

She found him on the sun deck, his dark skin glistening with lotion and pearls of sweat that crested his shaven head. He was in his Bermudas, legs up on the table with his frame leaned back. As far as Priya could see he acknowledged her only briefly through his round shades. It prompted her unconsciously to place herself right in front of him, hands propped against her hips. The expression on his face betrayed his relaxed body language as he sunk his eyes into the screen of his tablet, scrolling over financial reports.

“So how are the scooters going?” he said.

“Underwater good, above the surface they kill me,” she said. “I want lighter material. I know one company which produces it.”

“Okay, I’ll buy it,” he said. “The company I mean of course. We might have some use for it in the future.”

“Erm, thanks,” Priya said. “Are you mad someone is making more money than you?”

A few wrinkles carved itself over Jacque’s forehead.

Jacque had formerly been from Iran, a man named Jaleel Tir, before relocating to Austria. Jacque made it simpler and was more fitting to his lifestyle. He was extremely wealthy, knowing contacts from around the world. For him there was nothing money couldn’t buy. Priya knew his estimated worth was one point two billion, but he had actually more hidden in offshore accounts and had good businesses running. Still he was a man who didn’t want to get his hands dirty. From what she had gathered, Jacque went to Seven Oaks with Rose and joined the agency because of her, even if he hated the spy world from a personal vendetta.

The US CIA killed his father in his own country. Jacque’s family still managed to hold on to some of the land and mines they owned, though not all of them legally.

“It’s not about the money, honey,” Jacque said, still not looking up. “It’s about the process.”

He had shares in businesses that lost a lot of money and he couldn’t see who gained.

“There has to be a winner and a loser in trade businesses,” he murmured, shaking his head. “If I lost, I want to know who won.”

“Where I come from, we have a saying,” Priya said.

Priya leaned over to a bucket filled with ice and helped herself to a glass of champagne that was cooled inside. Moet had a taste she was still new to.

“Indulge me,” Jacque said.

“There are three uncertainties,” Priya said. “Women, wind and wealth.”

Jacque couldn’t disagree.

“Maybe you should join me for a swim and I help you chill down,” she suggested. “Or test out the scooters yourself. It’s beautiful down there and I saw lots of lobsters.”

“Lobsters?” Jacque said. “No, no. You can go swimming, I need to take care of this first. But pick up a few lobsters next time you go down.”

“Sure thing, then I will charge the scooter and make a few changes to the software,” she said.

She smiled and drank the champagne, admiring Jacque self-control to treat her as a part of the family and never make advances towards her. It could have been different.

Priya owed Jacque a lot. He funded her education after spotting her talent and took her under his wing. This was before the tsunami devastated everything. Then, when the disaster struck at her home, he funded the repair of her town and saved Priya’s sister. Since then she found herself totally in his debt, but he never made claims to get anything back. Priya’s father died when she was still a schoolgirl and Jacque filled that role ever since. Without his support she wouldn’t have been able to turn into the person she was now. And she was determined to use her skills for good. She had come to Vienna for a conference at the UN. Jacque was already there and it was the first time she met Antoine, who lost no time in approaching her and offering her a job. She tried to price herself out of it, as she thought she would know what Antoine really was about. Then Jacque came, offered her a blank check and told her: “You now work for me.” The rest was history. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without Jacque.

Priya stepped onto the side rail of the sun deck and watched the horizon, the sandy brown coast and mountains of Montenegro studded with the orange roofs of mountain villages. Below her glittered the sea in turquoise and white waves. She stretched her body with her arms over her head and stood on the tips of her toes. Her hair reached down to her arched back and she exhaled to calm herself.

Everyone had to cope with his own inner demons. Antoine hit the punching bag, Priya went swimming to face her fears.

The memories always came back. She was a girl, fifteen years from now on a bridge in Mumbai, two days after the tsunami had struck. The rubble on the street was still not cleared away. People were buried alive in the ruins all around. The shouts of dogs and rescuers echoed from far places all over the horizon. Everything she could see was destroyed as if the whole world was leveled. It was worst in the slums. Nothing could withstand the forces of nature. Corrugated-iron shacks were ripped away in seconds by masses of brown water and formed a grey pulp that reminded her on the porridge she used to eat when her mum was still alive. It was two days ago on that day that this wasn’t true anymore. In contrast to the thousands of people who were still missing under the rubble, Priya could be sure she was dead. She had seen with her own eyes the last breath her mum had taken before the grey porridge filled her mouth and took her down under a crushing moving mass. Like magma shifting under the earth and solidifying to stone one day. She knew her whole family was down there now, cemented into the slum. She had tried to cope with the grief and managed a day and a half till her tears ran dry. Still she sobbed when she stood on that bridge. Rust and flaking coating were in her hands from gripping the handrail. She saw the water beneath her, just like now on the yacht. She had always thought about the splash she would have made, if not something remarkable had happened.

She was stopped by someone who told her how lucky she was that at least they found her sister alive. That was the only thing preventing her from committing suicide and it was brought to her at the latest time possible. Priya lost her faith the day the typhoon hit but she believed in angels. Still it could never take away her fear, that part of her old self would complete what she had initially set out to do.

She opened her eyes again and looked down. Water used to be her fear, but she had overcome it by spending a lot of time on it, to a point where she began to love water sports. It was never suppressing one’s fear, but accepting and coping with it.

She took the plunge and closed her eyes. A heartbeat later her body entered the water with a splash.

 

 

***EIGHT***

Jacque was still crunching the numbers when his phone rang. It was Antoine’s number.

“Jacque Tir’s open water residence, what can I do for you?”

“Jacque,” he heard Antoine say. “Don’t act as if you’re your own butler, unless you want your own butler to act as if he were you.”

“Who knows what he’s doing when I’m not home,” Jacque said. “But a small role change, that would be something one day, don’t you think? Put a common man into the shoes of a billionaire and you will see if he gets blisters from walking my walk.”

“If you’re looking for applicants, I’m sure I would be doing fine in your shoes,” Antoine said.

“I don’t know, if your feet are as big as your mouth, you might not fit in,” Jacque said. “What can I do for you buddy?”

“I can’t reach Priya so I figured she might be out with you?” Antoine said.

“Mhm,” Jacque made and tilted his head to look where their colleague was. “What do you want from her? As far as I can remember she told me she needed a rest from your continuous advances.”

Jacque chuckled. He enjoyed letting Antoine roast like a smoked salmon.

“Oh did she?” Antoine said. “Well then you can relay a message from me instead of letting me talk to her directly. I wanted to spare you from the embarrassment, but tell her the pictures she sent me turned out pretty nice.”

Jacque raised an eyebrow. “Which pictures?”

“Ah, I really don’t want to bother you with such trifles, you have better things to do,” Antoine said.

“No, I’m not bothered by anything right now. Tell me. Which pictures?” Jacque wanted to know.

“From my Turkey vacation and the new friends I have made there,” Antoine said. “Priya put in a lot of effort to get the names of the MIT agents she pictured with the UAV. The whole report was already lying on my desk when I arrived.”

Jacque was only half listening, expecting that he had to put Priya on the phone soon.

“Yeah I guess one of Rose’s assistants brought the files to you after Priya sent them.”

“Right,” Antoine said. “So, speaking of Priya, do you know where she is?”

Jacque stretched his head back, seeing her swim in the sea. “Yep. Swimming.”

Antoine made a sound Jacque wasn’t sure how to interpret. It sounded like he was choking on his coffee.

“Swimming? Okay could you please put her on the phone for me?” Antoine said.

“Will try,” Jacque said and called out for Priya to join them. He let Antoine wait for a good minute.

Jacque smiled at Priya as he watched her ascending the stairs, one hand gripped around the rail while she rubbed her hair with a towel. Her face, shoulders and thighs were tanned, much more than was wished in her culture, but it was something she had given up to fight against by now.

She saw Jacque offering her the phone, patiently waiting for her to dry.

“Who is it?” Priya wanted to know.

“Ah, just Antoine,” he said, mocking her.

She smirked and took the phone out of his hands, pacing away several steps while she talked.

Priya talked with a lowered voice and Jacque could even see from behind that she was blushing and kept smiling from Antoine’s compliments. She put a flick of her hair back in place behind her ear like she always did when she was nervous.

“Antoine,” Jacque called out. “Please be so kind, stop the flirting and put yourself on speaker, would you?”

Priya turned shocked, her mouth opened in a how-do-you-know kind of fashion.

“What? I can see you smile and blush from here,” Jacque chuckled. “He can do it on the mission radio, but I’m not gonna let him waste my private phone bill money like this.”

Priya replied with a denying gesture, turning on the phone speakers.

“Jacque already warned me about your tries of approaching me,” Priya said.

“Oh did he?” Antoine asked. “What did he say?”

“He told me that you two are having a competition with the boys of our WhatsApp group,” Priya said.

“Inofficially maybe,” Antoine said.

“You once dated a supermodel and wanted to bring her to a secluded place in a rooftop bar, but Jacque knew about it and bought the whole bar to make it so crowded you didn’t have any place left to sit. That sounds very official for me,” Priya said.

“He has to go back to such measures because he is hampering himself with going after gold diggers to the extent that he sponsored campaigns and endorsements for favors,” Antoine said. “I don’t even have to sabotage that, he is doing it all by himself.”

“Never open a door you can’t lock again, Antoine,” Jacque warned him.

“How come I never see you in a relationship with your acquaintances?” Yu asked.

“It’s… just not easy,” Antoine said. “With a job like this and… you are the person I want to talk the least about it.”

“I don’t think that’s the reason,” she said.

“Maybe not,” Antoine said. His voice got serious. Jacque noticed it too. It was something Antoine didn’t want to talk about, when Jacque asked him the last time his reaction was the same. Antoine liked to flirt around to keep up with Jacque, Kovacs and the other boys, but somehow it seemed to never lead to anything. “But I’m going to tell you the real reason why I call you. Any leads about the FSB intercept? Or the bombing in Turkey?”

“No, nothing,” Priya said. “But we’re working on it. The president of the United States expressed his condolence to the families of the victims and the people of Turkey. They strengthened their bond in a common fight against terror and the regime and apparently, for more oil.”

“That was what we expected,” Antoine said. “Okay, then when will you be back here?”

“Tomorrow. We’ll see each other at the HQ,” she said.

Jacque felt she was trying to sound as professional as possible and hide her feelings about it.

“See you then,” Antoine said. “And take care of Jacque.”

“Bye.”

Jacque let his head sink back, acting to have overheard the snide remark and instead slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke from his cigar.

“What was that about?” Priya asked. “Am I not supposed to talk with him about women?”

“I don’t know, you better not mention it in his presence,” Jacque said. “I gave him so much advice that hair grew on my tongue. He just won’t listen. A man’s servant can live for a hundred years but the slave of a woman dies in six months.”

“Old Persian proverb?” Priya asked.

Jacque shook his head. “Life experience.”

Priya wrapped herself in her towel when she brought back the phone. The sun was beginning to set.

“So tell me about that financial story,” she said, taking a seat opposite of him and crossing her legs.

“Want to know how it is possible to lose that much money?” Jacque asked her.

“I would like to hear how you can make that much money,” Priya said.

“Well those two things are intertwined with each other of course,” Jacque said. “When I lost, someone else won. In this world generous people have no money and those with money are not generous. It’s like a fight between sharks. For a better taste of our story’s sake, I’ll tell you the only possibility to win such a sum from point of view of the winner. Because there is only one way. First, let’s go back a couple years from now. Imagine you are a poor kid growing up in the slums.”

“I can imagine that pretty lively,” Priya said. “It hasn’t been that long ago for myself.”

“Right,” Jacque said. “That’s why I used it as an example. So, to continue, you are this poor kid with no opportunities on life. One day a man knocks onto your door and you let him in because chances are slim and you haven’t got many other options. Street mentality, you take what you can. Only that this man offers you a deal that surpasses all the small criminal, messenger, drug dealer and gangster coups you were offered before. He offers you a big deal, a great deal actually. The deal of your life. You are going to work for him and he promises he makes you a millionaire in ten years. This sounds doable, right and his credibility rises because he offers you a job for ten years. Then he tells you what to do. He tells you to go out and have fun for five and provides you with enough money to support your whole family. He tells you to live the life you always dreamt of but could never afford. During these years, you have to learn, go to university and get a degree. Then, after the fifth year he demands from you to pay your due. You get sent to a bank to work there and learn what you have to know. You infiltrate the bank and take part in money deals and keep your ears open to leak any information about big money deals you can get. I’m talking huge international money transactions. See, all they have to do is having your boy sitting there in this position, get to know about the big deals and then buy against it in the stock market. This is called a whale. He is the one that gets compromised once the deal gets public. He gets to jail and serves five years. Meanwhile the company initially recruiting him made billions of dollars. You see the pattern here? The five years serving in prison are simply the second half of his employment time. It’s all calculated and it’s worth it, that’s why you can convince people to do it. After the prison time the whale gets free and can spend his fortune on his own island where he can live good for the rest of his life.”

“You know who’s the whale?” Priya asked. “You can hack into the whale’s bank account, track back continuous transactions reaching back to five years ago and you can get to the company standing behind it.”

“Priya, I’m sure you gonna crack this as soon as you get back,” Jacque told her. “Your next job for now is just bringing up some lobsters.”

 

 

***NINE***

A friend of his had given him the position to have a second official job next to his teaching activities in the Strategy, Innovation and Management Control Master Program. Both were a cover for his alter ego. He used the SIMC, a dynamic and dedicated group of graduate students from around the world as a talent pool to recruit future spies and Lanz’s company for a reasonable alibi income.

Adapt, learn and lead. Those were the tenets on which the company was founded and those words surfaced repeatedly every time a great decision had to be made, just like now. Adapt, be flexible, have backup plans. Learn, quick reflection, responsiveness and predictive actions over a maintained timeframe. Lead, be a step ahead, teach, which he hated. By teaching he leveled the playing field so he had to think ahead again to be in front. Still those tenets were known to Antoine and they were close to his heart. They were the tenets he had learnt in the Delta Force first and saw implemented in business now. It led to efficiency. It was the four hour work week embodied, to live like a millionaire without being one. The whole company ran like a clock work. Consultants, instructors, preachers of his philosophy all pulling on the same string. In the course of only three years, millions were made by a few others on board.

Their CEO Lanz walked up and down the room holding his speech, while Antoine was making himself comfortable in his chair. He could follow occurrences from a safe distance, while directing his resources to the real life dangers of the agency. The perils of the business world seemed unreal compared to bullets flying around on the front line.

Antoine let his hand slack from where he had hidden the bruise in his face. It was a violet hematoma by now, covered by a layer of makeup powder and a sparring session of combat sports as an excuse.

A lot would work in the change management firm without him, if he was honest. He was only a placeholder, a decoy, but one who brought in a substantial amount of cash. Mostly through Jacque and his subsidiaries.

Lanz had talked to each one of the partners present and was now addressing Antoine.

“How do you think next two quarters will go?” he said. “And what amount of your forecast do you think you are going to get?”

Antoine applied the company’s philosophy to himself. He would learn what Lanz had wanted to hear, would lead the discussion and then adapt the numbers to make him happy. His receivables were dependent on Jacque, so he would have to talk to him.

“I am confident that we will be able to win business in these sectors and therefore…” His phone went off on vibrate. He looked at the name displayed.

“Speaking of the devil,” he thought to himself.

“It’s Mr. Tir.” There was murmur in the round. It wasn’t everyday for the company that a billionaire called directly. “I’ve got to take this.”

Lanz’s eyes lit up. “Yes, yes, of course.”

“I’m sure you can commence the board meeting without me,” Antoine said while getting up from his seat that was getting far too uncomfortable over the last hour. “Fred will take notes for me. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He forced a fake smile, in his head thinking, “hopefully never.”

He was on his way out of the room when he picked up the phone.

“Yes, Jenaab Tir?” A term in Persian used for a person deserving additional respect.

“Oh, why so formal?” Jacque said.

“Ah, you know, formal procedure has to be kept, I’m just leaving a board meeting.”

He went past his secretary and entered his office, where he was in private. This phone call was more important than his company’s board meeting he was attending. Most of the company’s partners’ clients were small-medium enterprises. Through Jacque, Antoine was dealing with multinational corporations. He could allow himself a couple of minutes to slip from the meeting and let the talks continue without him.

“So, how can I help you?” Antoine asked.

“I wondered what wine goes well with lobster?” Jacque said.

Somehow Antoine had a feeling that the phone call had nothing to do with what wine goes well with the lobster. No matter how serious Jacque’s voice seemed to be.

“Jacque, you know I left a board meeting to answer this call,” Antoine answered with a sigh, disguising the pleasure of being relieved.

“I will send the company a request to hire you next month,” Jacque said. “How does Hawaii or Tahiti sound?”

“Okay, that’s next quarter’s billing done,” Antoine said. “How are you making the lobster? Are you grilling, boiling or stir-frying it? Are you pairing it with cream-sauce, tomato sauce or black bean sauce?”

“Mediterranean, cognac sauce,” Jacque said. A short pause followed, in which Antoine imagined Jacque eyeing the seafood in his pot.

“I just killed a lobster,” Jacque said, sounding proud of himself.

“I just killed a cleric,” Antoine thought.

His mind was taken back to the mission before he came to Istanbul. It was in Mombasa, Kenya, on the open street, out of a car drive-by. The same street already two terror suspects had been executed before, between corrugated iron sheet huts and mud. This time it was a cleric. He had foretold his own death. He knew it was coming and had no fear. Until the moment he faced Antoine, teeth clenched and gun blazing in his hand. It wasn’t clean, a messy affair in a messy place.

His white gown soaked with blood over multiple entry wounds, red blood flowing resembling a river, like the Masai had pierced a cow’s carotid.

“It was weird seeing its claws stop moving as I hit it with a mallet,” Jacque said. “I had no problems seeing it stop moving. But I am going to enjoy my meal. I enjoyed the kill.”

“Is this the first lobster you have killed?” Antoine asked.

“Yes.”

“Hmm, amateur,” Antoine said. “But to be fair, I have never killed a lobster either.”

The cleric fell, into the mud, his robe soiling brown as the puddle splashed beneath his weight, turning into a soup of sludge and blood.

“Go with red wine,” Antoine said.

“Alright,” Jacque said. There was an awkward silence. “So you came to consult my steel mill in Kenya, stayed for a couple of days and did you know a Muslim cleric was killed just before you left?”

“Really?” Antoine asked. It was hard to act surprised. He was the one who pulled the trigger.

“It’s just funny,” Jacque said. “Because a month ago, when you left to Yemen, you also happened to stay a couple days extra for… sightseeing. And a couple of bodies ended up being discovered just after you left.”

“Hm, weird,” Antoine said. “It’s a shame people keep dying. If you are worried about my safety, you don’t need to. I can take care of myself.”

“Okay, can I ask you if you were in a mission after consulting?” Jacque said.

“Yes.”

“So you were on a mission,” Jacque assumed.

“No,” Antoine said. “But you can ask.”

“Okay, now I’m asking directly,” Jacque said. “Just because, as you know, doubt is the key to knowledge. Were you on a mission?”

Silence. Antoine couldn’t talk about it.

“That is answer enough,” Jacque said. “A wolf’s repentance died a long time ago, huh? Is your conscience clear?”

“I am confident the conscience of my superiors is clear,” Antoine said.

“Do I need to ask Rose?” Jacque said.

“You know what, Rose knows about all the nuances of red wine,” Antoine said. “But I’m sure, both she and I will agree, you should take a Chardonnay.”

“Okay. And this is the best for lobster?” Jacque said.

“No, but it will remind Priya of me,” Antoine said. “Erm, Jacque, while we’re at it, what Priya left on my desk turned out to be really helpful. Remind me again, how did you say you met her?”

“I never did,” Jacque said, proud of himself for not falling into Antoine’s trap.

Priya had a particular set of skills that made her very good at her job, so Jacque had to hire her.

She hacked Jacque’s company. There were ITT bachelors in IT with exchange in Hong Kong. One task there in pure Chinese fashion was to hack into an organization. Priya chose the one that belonged to Jacque. He traced her and forced a meeting – donated two millions to get the computer department to have his name and meet all the students. He spent a week long having his ass kissed by staff and politicians but it was the private student groups that Jacque was interested in. There were some good talents, some he hired on the spot for financial trading algorithms, but the meeting with Priya was different. He invited her to Ozone, one hundred eighteen floors up with the view on Hong Kong island and the harbor. Jacque could remember like it was yesterday, both had pink drinks. His was Rose champagne, hers a strawberry milkshake. They small talked for ten minutes and then Jacque brought out his question.

“So you almost hacked my system,” he asked.

“Which one is yours?” she replied.

“Banking limited.”

“Oh yeah, I have,” she answered.

She then proceeded to tell him private information. Jacque thought she only got as far as the corporate firewall.[* *]There she failed, but she told him she only had thirty minutes and couldn’t use any tools. After this she went home and tried again. Then she told him she took the liberty in correcting a draft he had saved. Jacque often wrote things drunk like Hemingway and made sure to edit sober. He was dumbfounded to find the draft finished and edited. He knew he would misspell things in this state but he had never imagined to find his document like this. He checked physical and electronic security and found no trace.

When he asked her, she began explaining. He was baffled, but even more by the fact that she got out without leaving a trace.

“I have a gift for that,” she told him.

With that he knew he needed her on his team. Jacque then proceeded to inquire about areas of her past, her present and her ambitions and plans for the future. He admired how much family meant to her. Jacque thought maybe she would find it in his team.

“But if you really want to know about Priya,” Jacque said, answering Antoine’s question to him. “I made a strategic investment in talent many years ago and it’s still paying off.”

“Is everything just a matter of numbers and return of investment to you?” Antoine asked.

“Even love is like an investment,” Jacque said. “You put your time, attention and emotion into it, hoping to someday receive it back with interest.”

Antoine heard steps coming down close to Jacque.

“Aw Jacque, so sentimental,” Priya said.

“Ah Priya, yes we were just talking about you and your gift,” Jacque said. “Be so kind and get a Chardonnay from the wine rack.”

“Hmm, Chardonnay? Reminds me of someone,” she said with a big grin on her face.

Antoine had heard the exchange and smiled.

“See, what did I tell you?” he said to Jacque.

Antoine hung up and directed his attention to the window in his office. It was getting late and he had to get back home for the first time after his trip, having only found time to get his suit repaired from his private armorer. When he checked back at his office at the agency and got the report Priya sent him, it was time again to attend to the company board meeting.

Imagining Jacque with Priya eating lobster on his yacht for dinner didn’t help lift his mood. He had to get out of here, not only because it was A.J.’s birthday.

“Rachel,” Antoine said while walking out of his office. “Can you leave a note on Lanz’s desk saying that we got a job for the second quarter from Mister Tir. And I don’t recommend you to stay so long, you should go home.”

 

 

***TEN***

Antoine left the company building and got in his R8 Spyder, heading straight to his house. It felt good to be in his own car again, racing through streets he was familiar with and knowing where he was without the help of GPS, satellite view or Priya’s coordination over his speaker set. He compared it to normal people’s life, the grey working days of people who lived in safe distance life far from the edge. Just a normal day in the office. This must be from what he drifted away since he started in the Army. He changed the music in his car to a smoother track, something that made him more thoughtful. Except that this wasn’t a normal day on the way home and there was nothing like that for him. The edges to the darkness were sharp where the blinding white of streetlamps cut out. This was the capital of spies. Some might say to never feel alone was a blessing, but Antoine never felt alone and for him it was surely a curse. Shadows crept in the mirrors and slipped onto the back seat behind Antoine. They were always there.

He turned into his driveway, hiding the black Audi in the shade of his garage. A platform elevated in his driveway, its surface covered with gravel like a Japanese Zen garden. The platform lifted high enough to reach up over the car acting as a roof. He drove into the garage and the ground level sank, lowering the car below ground. Only the wave shapes of raked gravel remained and left no trace of a garage or a car behind. The garden had swallowed it and stayed calm and untouched like before.

The house was new architecture and built during the last two years, two cubes artistically placed on one another with a big window front into the back garden. It should have been a new home for a new beginning to leave things behind. It was no coincidence that the grey structure reminded him of a bunker.

He deactivated the alarm when he came closer over the steps of his front yard and unlocked the door. His shoes touched the floor and he slipped out of them, leaning his back against the closing door. He let the keys fall onto a small table. The atmosphere awaiting him was just the same as when he left. Modern, classy, but spartan and tidied up with no things lying around other than what was necessary to survive or invoke a certain desired feeling. It was almost as if it was not a place to live or spend the rest of his life, just another means to withdraw, recreate and find sleep. You couldn’t plan for years with a dangerous life like this.

Antoine slid his feet over the floor and let himself fall onto the couch. He turned on music and TV, both at once, not intending to concentrate on any and let his head sag back. It hadn’t always been like this. On the walls, bins and shelves were remnants of another life. Pictures that were like portals to the past or another place on this planet, his son’s being the most hurtful one.

He went over to the bar and took out a whiskey glass together with a bottle of Glenfiddich 15 year old single malt. He returned to the couch, putting the glass and bottle on the table and pouring himself a full glass, relaxing his other hand. His fingers were crooked, always tense and his knuckles tingling from the punch he had thrown at the MIT agent in Turkey. It was hard to relax. He didn’t take a seat for long and instead got up and paced slowly around his living room.

He took a first sip. The spirit started burning in his throat, slowly going down into his stomach. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, not putting the glass down.

Antoine took his phone out and looked at the display, running over names and numbers. He stopped at one. Destinee. His college love, wife, mother of his child. Till death did them part.

His fingers glided over the display, to take the call. She wouldn’t know his number. Antoine had played it through in his head many times. It almost felt like another lifetime when he last spoke to her. She wouldn’t even know him anymore like this time in Paris he last faced her. And then the agents came.

He would be at a loss for words, afraid to put her at danger and hanging in the line speechless, freaking her out. That’s why he decided to let it be and not make her life any harder than it already was. It was his son’s birthday today. A.J. would turn eight. That was that special time of the year. Everything was made worse in it. He was spying on his own family, trying to get connected through online communities, video games, buying art from Destinee, drinking his father’s whiskey. He just couldn’t go back to seeing them in person.

There had been a time when his room was full of pictures and reminders of them. They were gone now, for their own good. He wore no ring on his finger. Both the ring that symbolized the love they had sworn each other and the ring from Westpoint he earned with blood and sweat were gone. It was better to stay gone for all of them. If they found out who he was, they would at best turn insane and at worst turn up dead.

He took a look into the nicely colored scotch, thoughts already focused on taking the next sip.

Antoine led the glass to his lip but stopped when it touched.

He let his hand down, placing the glass as far away from him as possible. The tip of his index finger drew circles following the rim of the glass while waiting. He glanced down at his scotch and swayed it to let the liquor cling on the glass.

Time turned him into a collector of memories only. He looked over to the wall were paintings were hung up in frames. Destinee’s art was the only connection he could keep. He made sure to get her paintings and attend the auctions every couple of months to support her. They were dark and depressing but turning brighter since Paris. Maybe he had rekindled hope in her that he was alive.

Antoine continued the walk along the gallery of pictures till he had emptied his glass. No company for today. Just thoughts for his family.

Antoine had a brother and sister. The sister was the last born and despite being a girl, she would play with her brothers video games and sports. He would still communicate with her there, in the animosity of the internet, separated by miles and in shape of another persona, an avatar.

His brother died of drug overdose shortly after Antoine dropped out of the Delta Force. He was then stationed in Brussels under the DEA, but as they found out some of the money from drugs was used to fund terrorist activities the mission belonged to the CIA and then even went over to the NSA when they thought the threat could be against the United States. A typical mess of department trouble after nine eleven.

In Brussels with Destinee and A.J., he wanted to escape this old life and build a new one in peace. But things came different than expected. Destinee’s love for art increased and she was working at museums and fell in love with surrealism – Rene Magritte the painter was Belgian and one of the fathers of that genre. Her love for art continued till today.

At first Antoine and the team there were undercover working their way up as part of conference runners at the European Parliament and commission to find out more about various drug lords. Rose helped run some of the missions and involved Jacque for off-book financing of the drugs. Later the MI5 had to spy for Jacque a little in return.

They used radio transmitters that were covered in sugar solutions so people would take them as pills. Have a few mixed up in with normal pills and then you could track out the routes and drop points and people involved. It was the biggest bust of drugs in Western Europe.

After the mission was deemed a success and the tracking was ongoing – the busts had not been made yet – there was the need for drugs specialists working undercover in Mexico. That’s when Antoine became a victim of his own success. The nightmares were haunting him to this day.

 

 

***ELEVEN***

Antoine woke up ten minutes before the alarm. It was a reaction of a habit for years and conditioning of his body clock. It was a Saturday but he was about to get to work again.

He followed his morning routine first like it was just another weekday. It didn’t matter. Getting up to train was hard every day, but it was only a battle of willpower, a fight against himself.

Looks were done to perfection, even before five minutes past six. He went to the kitchen and made himself coffee. Then he would proceed to the gym.

Like Priya swam, Antoine worked out to clear his mind. He went jogging along the river at Kaiserwasser, at a time when most of the city was still asleep. Vienna DC tower was in sight on the other side of its shore. Dew hang in the air and clung to Antoine’s skin, mixed with a cooling layer of sweat. He would wash it off in a cold shower before burying it under a layer of facial crèmes and beauty products, fanatic to preserve the face staring back at him in the mirror. And still he hated mirrors for what he saw in it. Not only for the black imprint the MIT had left as its mark.

DC tower was showing itself in its greatest image. Were it cold blurred shapes swallowed by the dark yesterday night, did it stand out at dawn. Its glass-surface mirrored the rising sun over the modern city center on an island in the middle of the Danube, its facing skewed like pure quartz.

The road to it was swallowed by a subterranean complex of parking spaces, traffic circles and tunnels, leaving the ground level in theory free for pedestrians. On that day though, like most of the time, it was a desolate canyon between the new and partly still vacant buildings. For Antoine it offered free lanes for snipers from the ambient towers and no people to witness a shot, should there ever be any.

The UNIT agency had rented five of the sixty floors, situated at the relative top, adjacent and partly merging with the sky lofts.

To get there, Antoine had to first pass the deep-level garage elevator, which brought him to the lobby.

The concierge, a female in her early thirties dressed in a blouse, jacket and a knee-long shirt awaited him. The rugged, beaten look made people nervous who weren’t used to violence. It raised the concierge’s interest in him even more.

“Welcome Mr. Springer,” she said, fixing her pinned-up hair in place while waiting behind the counter. “I hope you had a good night.”

“As always,” Antoine replied.”Good morning, Nina.” He went past her with a movement of his eyebrows that left her wondering what it implied.

The elevator was at ground-floor, planned to bring guests to the accommodations of the Sol Mélia group hotel in the lower levels. Antoine wouldn’t have time to have breakfast there today. He didn’t want to leave his colleagues waiting. He entered the elevator, finding time to adjust his tie and cufflinks and darting a glance at Nina that raised a quiet smile just before the doors shut close.

He was alone in the elevator and it was a long way up.

The time he reached floor fifty-nine, Mini Thorsell was already waiting for him. Antoine had to get past the security guard first, a man named Brown, then confirm his identity via retina scan to enter the UNIT headquarters. Two chaste metal doors slid open silently. He stepped in over the black mirroring floor. The walls were kept in a sterile white, new but marvellous, which made the corridors look like they would never end.

He knew about twenty colleagues were in their premises at work right now, even with no visible clue to tell. Security personnel, communication officers, informants and spies, weapon specialists and engineers, patrons and backers.

Mini strode towards Antoine with rolled up sleeves of her blouse. She was despite her name, a tall Swedish blonde who had represented Sweden in Vancouver 2008 in Biathlon. Her military background and shooting skills had earned her a spot in the new Tactics department of the UNIT.

“Antoine,” she welcomed him. “Glad to see you back in one piece.” She saw his face. “Well, at least for the most part. I should really teach you how to fight better.” She consulted her watch and puckered her lips. “But the dame is waiting. We should get to her right away.”

“You should never keep a lady waiting,” Antoine said.

“Not at all,” Mini said, slightly blushing.

Being professional at work did not apply to Antoine and Mini.

Antoine stretched an arm out and led Mini down the hallway.

“Why are you always saying you’re glad to see me in one piece?” Antoine wanted to know, while they were striding past Johnson, acknowledging him with court nods. Despite the corridor was very wide, there wasn’t much space left between Mini and Antoine. It was as if it was always a struggle of who made it through the door first.

“Because I have a feeling,” Mini said, stopping in front of the meeting room to let Antoine go first, “that one day I won’t be able to say this to you anymore.”

Antoine stopped to detect some humor in Mini’s eyes, but he couldn’t find any.

“Well then make sure we enjoy now,” Antoine said.

He heard someone clear his throat. Ramses Bekkend held the door already open. The dame was waiting inside and like Mini said, you never wanted to leave her waiting.

Rose stood at the end of a long table, impassive, her body framed in incident light coming through the whole window front behind her. The glare made Antoine blink and he averted his gaze to the other occupants of the room. Priya was attending with dark, thick rimmed eyeglasses and her hair tied together. Several other colleagues and security officers from Rose had taken seats around the table. Johnson, Bekkend, Kovacs, Jericho, Mini and Smith among them with which Antoine had already seen action before. It showed how much the agency had grown in the last three years in Vienna from Rose stepping onto Antoine’s doormat and hiring him for a comeback job. Like a deer starving for food he had taken the bait.

“Good morning Antoine,” Antoine heard her say. He still couldn’t read her facial expression, but imagined that she had spent the time waiting for him staring out of the window front. One could get lost in mind for hours over that view. It was like the office suddenly fell off a cliff, two hundred meters above the ground with nothing to hold on once you reached that point. “Now that we are all here, let’s begin.”

Antoine took a seat opposite of Priya, while Bekkend sat down at the other end of the table, opposite of Rose.

Jacque Tir got connected via video conference call.

A certain unspoken hierarchy existed in the way the places were arranged, that reminded Antoine with Rose and Jacque like queen and king on a royal table. The comparison wasn’t that far off. Jacque provided the currency while Rose allocated the mind. She had the know-how and was the head of the spy agency.

Jacque and her went to Seven Oaks together and met there before Rose adopted a career at the MI5. She was the best and brightest but passed over for other less qualified males to get promotions. And then later for more beautiful candidates.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when she had to lead a very delicate mission in Afghanistan. The superior in charge was at a meet and greet and was rushed back, but by then she had successfully saved the day. However, he got the praise nationally and internally and she was left with nothing but a handshake.

Antoine had the feeling that this still lingered inside her and spurred her on to incredible working hours and dedication.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” Rose began in her distinct British accent. “The world is in great shape again.” Her tone of voice suggested that she was being sarcastic even to people that wouldn’t have known her. “Apparently peace does not make a good ruler.”

She activated the screen on the wall with a swipe of her hand.

“There has been a change in private military and weapons policies that make the purchase of certain weapons and placement of Academi mandatory in certain conditions. In case some of you don’t know, this is the now the biggest private military company previously known as Xe Services LLC, Blackwater USA and Blackwater Worldwide. We have to observe how this will change things in the Middle East. Smith, Mini and Bekkend, this is a job for you. Kovacs will head back to Crimea and investigate the Russian invasion backgrounds and how far they are willing to go. Meanwhile it looks like Assad is gaining ground back against the rebels in Syria through Russian money and weapon support.”

The screen showed an image of a drone-picture taken over the bomb site in Reyhanli the night Antoine was there. Policemen and workers were captured doing their work what looked like gathering evidence when for everyone in the room it was known they were doing the opposite. “The West is counteracting and getting more eager in its intents. We have what appears to be a false flag bombing in Turkey. Involved persons we could identify are these two officers of the Turkish Secret Service MIT, agent Sahin and agent Celik.” She touched on two figures on the picture and images of their profiles showed up, name, age, rank, record, national insurance number, medical records, rendered personality profile with character traits and possibility of aggressive behavior. “Antoine already could get acquainted with them.”

“It was a real pleasure,” Antoine said to Priya.

“Antoine, do you have anything to add to this information?” Rose asked.

“Other than Celik’s medical record needs to be updated? No,” Antoine said.

“We think this conspiracy has to do with the US president coming soon to Turkey, where the Turkish government will request more support and a justification for an open war on Syria,” Rose said. “But our hands are tied on this matter. We had to bail Antoine out in exchange from getting off the case, otherwise our agency might become compromised. Under other circumstances I would stand fully behind the idea to go against this scheme, but we have another matter that actually requires more attention and is something that still can and must be prevented to happen. For the Turkish-Syrian crisis we just have to hope that it isn’t enough reason to convince America and the world.”

The screen went black after Rose tapped it, which resulted on her getting undivided attention.

“What gives me more reasons to worry is the intercepted FSB message Jericho got from the Khorasan,” she said, replaying the conversation.

“The product will be picked up in ten days,” the unknown female from the recording said. “You should join me at Orwell’s place in seven days, with payment in full.”

“Thank you for your help.”

“A promise is a promise. Once you get the praise for stopping this, you definitely get a promotion. Maybe even reach the level I had. We will celebrate on our victory day.”

Rose ended it and turned to them.

“This is an imminent threat as we have to assume that we are dealing with powerful parties,” she said. “A collaboration between agents of the FSB can draw on immense resources, so we have an issue: how do we stop a superpower at its game? We have no lead up to date on the two agents on the phone, or what they are up to. We only know it will happen in the next days and that it will take place in a destination codenamed Orwell’s Place. I want to make it a full priority to chase this case. Every hunch and every lead we can get, we will take. We have to prevent an attack on Moscow. Oh and one last thing. There is a conference at the UN here during the next couple days discussing nuclear and chemical disarming and the use of drone missile strikes to name only a few. I want Antoine and Jacque to go there and make use of your contacts among the Russians, while Priya will be working on revealing the persons behind the intercepted message.”

Jacque made a face, that didn’t go by unnoticed by Rose.

“What is that face, Jacque?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I just lost a sum of money and it will hurt when some of those people ask me about it.”

“That’s regrettable,” Rose said. “But you will overcome it. The rich always complain. Would you be able to make the thing?”

“Yeah, I’ll be back in Vienna tomorrow,” Jacque said. “And by the way, I would like to meet you in person.”

Rose nodded. Antoine detected a slight guilt in Rose’s demeanor. He knew she hadn’t formally informed Jacque what kind of operations the Tactics department really undertook. “I always have time for meeting with my friends. That would be all. Good luck gentlemen and let’s get to work. Always remember, I’m easily satisfied with the very best.”

As soon as Jacque’s screen went black as he signed out of the conference, Rose looked at Antoine.

“Did anyone have a talk with Jacque?”

Despite the question being addressed across the room, Antoine knew it was directed at him.

“Rose,” Kovacs said. “I don’t believe Jacque has my number. But if I remember correctly, Priya just did came back from his boat. I’m sure they must have exchanged some words.”

Priya shot Kovacs a glance. He was being diplomatic as ever.

“I’m just saying,” Kovacs said, holding his hands up.

Antoine was again applying the LLA method in his mind. Learn, lead, adapt.

He learned that Rose was pissed. Time to lead the conversation.

“I may have received a call from Jacque,” he said. “He was asking about lobster. More specifically about what wine for lobster.”

“And?” Rose asked. All eyes were set on him.

“I recommended Chardonnay.”

“So it was you,” Priya said.

“Who recommended the Chardonnay,” Antoine said, turning to her. “Can you imagine, Jacque accuses me of increasing the death rate of countries I visit. He has two cases and that’s a trend.” He addressed Rose. “Someone needs to tell him there is a difference between correlation and causation.”

“Did he ask you if we are running assassinations?” Rose said.

“He did,” Antoine said. “But I told him nothing.”

Rose sighed. “Truth is like fire, it can’t be hidden under dry leaves.”

 

 

***TWELVE***

Antoine pulled the trigger, the weight modified to one fourth of the original pull weight, safety built inside the gun’s trigger itself. A Glock 19, seventeen rounds nine millimeter Parabellum. Improved and modified in its fourth generation.

Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you seek peace, prepare for war.

The bullet’s load ignited with a drumbeat, exploding with a fire burst deep in the gun’s chamber. It accelerated the Parabellum tip, projecting it out through the muzzle in another compressed fireball, while the slide slid back and ejected a heated brass hull. The compensator worked to stabilize the gun and keep it in its aim. The hand formed grip held steady in his hand, an extended beaver’s tail keeping it prepped against Antoine’s thumb. Antoine held it in a two handed grip, bodyweight slightly turned forward to stand against the recoil. There wasn’t even a hint of a problem. Antoine kept his eyes lined up over the iron sights, exchanged from the original plastic visors, before he pulled the trigger again. Too much wear and tear would destroy them when firing with drawing from the holster. Another boom, then another and another sending home bullets against the target one by one. Once he had found the right flow, it was easy. He accelerated his rhythm, intensifying the thunderclaps till the magazine ran dry. A dull sound stayed in his ears even behind the ear guards, as a cloud of gun powder filled smoke lifted.

It was good, but it wasn’t the same as before. Over the last four years he fought to catch up with his old self, before the incident.

He looked over to Mini who had finished the drill in the same split second than him. She smiled even before she laid down her pistol on the preparation desk, knowing that Antoine was watching her from the side. Antoine pressed the release button at the side of his grip and the empty magazine slid out, faster through additional weights.

“Let’s see who’s better this time, shall we?” he said.

Mini raised an eyebrow in anticipation as she activated the calculation program. The screen showed the targets and their kill-hits on both shooting lanes. Mini had beaten Antoine with greater accuracy and precision in the same amount of time.

Mini took off her ear guards and wore them around her neck.

“Looks like I got the calmer hands,” she said.

Antoine came closer to her, taking on of her hands as if examining it, but only taking advantage of it by taking her hand between his owns.

“Seems like it,” he said while looking into her eyes. “At least in practice. But how can you handle yourself when things get more serious?” He felt how she got nervous.

“Antoine, let it be,” Rose interrupted them. “You’re giving even me goosebumps.”

Antoine held off his hands as if he weren’t guilty and took some distance. “That was the intention. It’s called on-hand training, but if you say so… you are like a sister to us.”

Rose glanced at him, not falling that easy for the compliment.

“I know you wanted to say mother,” she said. “But even then I would feel flattered.” She pointed to the shooting targets. “Impressive results.”

Mini clacked with her tongue. “We keep pushing each other up.”

“Do we?” Antoine asked artificially. He cleared his throat and awaited the reaction of both women. He realized what was first intended as a joke was actually the truth. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been doing this for the last four years. I’ve never been on a better level during the whole time.” He turned to Mini. “It’s just that Mini is catching up and catching up fast.”

She exhaled and built herself up to full height in front of him.

Rose took a step towards them and grabbed them each at the shoulders. “I think it’s time to tell you something.” She stopped to think about how to best wrap it in words. “Let me draw a picture for you,” Rose began. “I’m always fearing my work will never be valued. But kids are sitting at home, playing video games and they dream of becoming these god-like characters.” She looked Mini and Antoine into their eyes. “You are them. You are what you attempted to become in your whole life and if these kids would know your name and learn about what you did one day, they would say: “I want to be like them and do what they are doing.” Never forget that. You are all that stands between the superpowers and their goals and the world has had enough of being juggled by those power blocs. It hasn’t been like this all the time. When I started with the MI5 there was the Cold War to win. We fought for freedom in serving our country. But times have changed. There is no freedom in the West. Instead there is control, surveillance and betrayal. Everyone who serves them isn’t supporting freedom or the rights of our citizens, whether they know it or not, they are supporting companies. The so called War on Terror and War on Drugs is a war on every one of us. I’m glad I jumped off that train. I took my gap year, revived old connections I made through the secret service and travelled the world, seeing what was really going on. I could build my own opinions now. And I learned I could follow them through to the conclusion. All we needed was a globally independent spy agency, free of any affiliation to countries.”

She looked at the two.

“To make a difference. That’s how the idea for the UNIT was born. Following the example of the Special Operations Executive in 1940, to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.”

Antoine nodded.

“Agents,” he said. “That is all we are. Not soldiers. We can do espionage, but once we reveal the enemy, we need someone to fight him. We are going to need more bodies. If something goes wrong, we don’t have the resources to speed up recruiting. We need to draw bodies from other sources. We need a fighting force.”

“A private military company or mercenary force like Academi?” Rose said. “I don’t want to go there. I’m afraid of them taking us over. No, that’s exactly what I wanted to avoid. The ones with the biggest guns tend to be always the ones calling the shots.”

“No, maybe I know a better solution,” Antoine said. “I have still have contacts in the military. They won’t know my number but I can contact them and introduce myself to them. They are all US Special Forces personnel, my old squad mates. Delta Force, some active, some not. If I was going to need a really big favor, like tremendously huge, I would call them. Even though it won’t be easy and I would have some explaining to do, maybe they can work for us.”

Rose nodded and left without saying anything further. Antoine and Mini stared at her till she reached the door, her footsteps echoing behind. Priya was coming her way and walked past her towards Antoine.

“Why do you think she acted like this?” Mini wanted to know. Antoine knew her longer than herself, but even he hadn’t seen her like this.

“Maybe she has a feeling on what is awaiting us,” he said.

“What happened?” Priya said.

“Are you afraid, Priya?” Antoine asked her.

“Of what exactly?” She shook her head. “We’re going to trip on the FSB’s and Khorasan group’s toes. Let’s face it, they could wipe us from the map if they find out.”

“When we find out who the Russian agents are, we can get support,” Antoine said. “Maybe the CIA is on their heels too. Maybe they work together with them. We don’t know. But until then, yes, we are alone. And it’s going to be a tough ride. But that’s what we are here for.”

Priya nodded and Antoine stepped forward to hold her arms.

“Listen, I know you’re not having a good feeling about this, it feels hopeless to chase someone we don’t know yet, but just do your job, find out with whom we are dealing with and things will settle down.”

Antoine knew he was also trying to calm himself and he wasn’t sure if he could believe his own words.

“Think about the innocent lives that will be erased when we just stand by and watch,” he said.

“I’m afraid that things won’t go that way,” Priya told him. “We are chasing shadows in the dark, but when they are revealed, they might be even scarier than we are imagining now. This reminds me of the monsters and ghosts that I was afraid as a kid the most. Not the ones that were frightening to look at, but those that were shrouded. You couldn’t see their faces, only where they were going. You felt their presence wherever they had gone, heard their steps, but you were always too slow behind. And then, at the end they would wait for you to catch up and you realized they were playing with you the whole time.”

“At which end?” Antoine asked.

“The end of the nightmare,” Priya answered. “It was never supposed that you catch them, they just wanted to be caught to shatter all your illusions that you could fight them. When they revealed their faces at last, you finally knew that those were the most evil that were ever created and that it was too late for you to be saved.”

“You are fun,” Antoine said.

“No Antoine, this feels the same,” Priya said. “Like a fight that cannot be won. It’s really depressing, we have to use all our effort to achieve something, and when we finally get it, it will only get worse. There’s no reward waiting for us on the other side of that hill. We will just be at the end of our rope. The more you know, the more dangerous it becomes for you.”

“Just find them,” Antoine said. “Let’s think about winning later.”

Priya looked inward and wiped a drop of sweat from her brow. A small smile showed the flicker of hope Antoine had ignited in her.

“You are right,” she said. “Better a hundred enemies outside the house than one inside. Alright. I wanted to talk with you about the voices in the intercept, but looks like you need a shower first. Come meet me in my office in ten minutes.”

“I always hoped you would say that,” Antoine said.

She snorted and shook her head.

Priya’s room was her private chamber, Antoine reckoned after entering. She hadn’t liked the idea of letting him in very often before and seemed even more reserved when she and Antoine were on their own.

Priya used to meditate daily in a spiritual ease. She kept meditating and doing yoga with incense burning. No longer was it to the gods that could not protect her family. Now it was just to add a means of pushing out desire and finding a will to live. She would do yoga then simulated combat to keep her martial arts sharp. This one hour spent was her time, the rest was split between Jacque, the UNIT and her independent IT research.

Antoine paced in the middle of her office, keeping a respectful distance to the machinery parts that were stored here for development, repair or what seemed like being out of action for an eternal time.

“Now I can see the whole scale of you being a tech-nut,” Antoine said.

The quadrocopter drone sat on a desk to the left of the room, in front of a writing tablet where Priya had scribbled programming codes on the wall. They hurt Antoine’s eyes after longer inspection. Being no smarter than before, he averted his gaze and directed his attention to Priya.

“Every dog is a tiger in his own street,” she said back over her shoulder.

She was leaning over her high desk and laptop. Antoine wondered if that was one of the reasons she kept that good figure.

“To be honest, I always thought of you as a tiger,” he said. “But maybe more of a tiger cub.”

He joined her and watched her fingers opening and controlling programs on the screen. Antoine stared at her flick of hair that had loosened from behind her ear in the hope she would start explaining to him what she was doing.

“Just a moment,” she began.

“How did you get into this?” Antoine said.

“The time I was a little child, my uncle got a job at yahoo and supported the whole extended family with remittees from the states,” she said. “He sent old computers and coding books back home. In India we say learning is a treasure no thief can touch.”

“You know I am a thief,” Antoine said. “What do you think I can touch?”

“Well, you have to find out for yourself,” Priya said. “While most girls in Europe where reading picture books of Thomas the tank engine, I was reading object oriented programming. The only pictures I knew were nodes of trees searches, class structures and symbols for more gates. My parents didn’t understand me or it, but they knew my uncle was good at it and supported me. Still it required a huge sacrifice from my side and the support from my uncle to send me to school. I had the chance to go to boarding school while my twin sister had to stay at home, so I took it and made the best out of it.”

“That best of you,”Antoine said. “What exactly is Jacque using it for?”

“Oh, I’m working for him on multiple projects,” Priya said, “leading multiple development teams. Some in agile software, most in a new age waterfall model as I don’t have time to handle too many agile software on the side.”

“Of course,” Antoine said, without understanding anything she just told him.

“But for today, agency work comes first,” Priya said. “You said you wanted to find our enemies. With the material we got from the intercepted message, we are going to run a voiceprint identification.”

“Why are we doing this only now?” Antoine wanted to know.

“Rose was in possession of a data archive with voice signatures of a large part of agents from the most important agencies all over the world, as well as the world’s most known terrorists. She got this from her time with the MI5, a kind of parting gift I imagine.”

“A parting gift she choose and took without asking I guess,” Antoine said. “No wonder, after all they did to her career.”

“The problem was this list was outdated and flawed,” Priya told him. “What we want is a current list of active and inactive operatives of the FSB.”

“Couldn’t you just hack into the NSA’s archives and acquire them from there?” Antoine asked.

Priya shook her head.

“It would be too much risk and effort,” she said. “This list is probably one of the most guarded top secret devices in the world. And it’s fragmented and stored in different hidden locations. It would have taken me weeks or months to locate and extract the fragments. There is information stored about identities, fingerprints and voice prints of operatives, which would have made us a target of all overnight if I would have stolen it.”

“So?” Antoine was curious.

“So Rose simply asked for it,” Priya replied. “She asked one of her old contacts at MI5 for an update.”

“And they handed it to her, just like that yeah?” Antoine said.

“I don’t know how she got it,” Priya said. “But we got it this morning and it’s on my laptop. I had to run the usual checks first to make sure it’s clean.”

“Rose must have given them something in exchange,” Antoine said. “But honestly I can’t think of anything in our possession that would be even remotely as valuable as that what she received. I wonder how many secrets she had to share for this.”

He felt the most uncomfortable about his own secret and that it would bring Destinee and A.J. into trouble if it would come out.

“Well, it’s too late to worry about that now,” Priya said.

 

 

***THIRTEEN***

“Okay, let’s start the voice check and see if we can find our perfect match. We are scanning each voiceprint bar in the database and compare them with the voices from the message.”

Priya was explaining what Antoine could see on her laptop as graphs of overtones produced by the speakers’ vocal cords. Antoine knew individual formats were determined by size of vocal cavities such as throat, nasal and oral cavities and the shape, length and tension of vocal cords. Another factor was the manner in which the speech muscles, lips, teeth, tongue and jaw muscles were used during speech. Intelligible speech was developed by the learning process of imitating others in the environment. It was unlikely that two individuals would develop the same pattern given all the different variables.

Mobile phone and speech recognition apps providers had been recording and storing millions of user’s vocal fingerprint for years, which was the reason most agency operatives used hacked devices to keep each biometric identifier on the phone instead of sending it back to the provider.

“How long will it take?” Antoine asked.

“A second per voiceprint,” Priya said.

“So only two seconds?” said Antoine. “That’s fast.”

“No, per voiceprint in the database,” Priya told him. “There are about five hundred thousand voiceprints.”

“One million seconds? That’s how many hours?” Antoine tried to calculate in his head to get a better grasp.

“Got it?” Priya asked.

“Erm, no. Sorry. Got distracted,” Antoine said.

“That’s about five days tops,” Priya said. “So follow the river and you will get to the sea.”

Antoine let out a sigh and pushed himself away from the desk.

“I have to make an appointment with my contact at the UN.”

“Who is she?” Priya wanted to know.

Antoine stopped, wondering why Priya assumed it was a she.

“How do you know it’s a woman?” he asked. “Oh, who am I kidding. Her name is Kate. She can help introduce me to the UN crowd.”

He observed the reaction of his colleague and if there was something changing in Priya’s cool manner. “I arranged a date with her to push our investigation forward,” he said.

Priya rolled her eyes.

“Have fun.”

Antoine hesitated, but went after all. Something made him decide to not speak out what was on his mind and keep it for himself: “I will.”

The view over Vienna at night was aflame with orange lights. Antoine was one hundred-sixty meters above the ground. On top of a radio tower was a patio resembling a flying saucer and serving as a dining restaurant. The neatly decorated tables were in the style of a traditional Viennese cafe and didn’t give the impression of being at the top of a tower. The restaurant was rotating in slow circles to grant a three hundred sixty degrees view over the city. While Antoine was in his custom tailored suit with a bowtie, Kate’s body was covered sparsely in a red evening dress. Antoine could see in an instant that it was reserved for special occasions. Her job at the UN didn’t allow her for much spare time and on the events she was invited to, fashion like this would be frowned upon. Being South-African, she enjoyed the freedom of wearing what she felt like once in a while.

“This is tonight’s best outfit,” Antoine said after they chinked glasses, acting as if he was observing everyone who was present.

“Oh, thank you Antoine,” Kate said. A smile escaped her red lips.

“And I know why you choose it today,” he said.

“Oh yes, why?” she wanted to know.

Antoine leant back and put his hands behind his head with a knowing smile.

“If I didn’t know better I would say it has to do with your biological cycle,” he answered.

She laughed and gave him a jab against the shoulder.

“But let’s not get into that too much,” Antoine jested. “Let me distract you by talking about your work first, okay, to cool down a little. I know it’s been a long time since we last saw each other. So, what’s going on these days?”

“That depends,” Kate said, raising her eyebrows promising. “On what you want to hear.”

Antoine pursed his lips. “I think most of the time you know what I want to hear,” he stopped and watched her reaction, not sure what to say. “But this time I need you to tell me about your professional side.”

She took a fork full of steak and put it slowly in her mouth, tasting it and thinking about what she would tell him first. The steak was medium rare, with a soft pink core coated by a hard crispy top and four fingers high. Its bottom was a thin slice of sandwich bread, soaking up blood like a sponge. Its top was a layer made of prosciutto and melted cheese.

“Well, there are a lot of new issues we are running into that we didn’t have to deal with only a couple years ago,” Kate said.

“I can imagine,” Antoine said.

Kate grinned at him. “But I’m not allowed to talk with you about this.”

Antoine used the pause for him to also take a bite for himself and washed it down with a swig of wine.

“I’m sure there are a lot of things you are not allowed to do, but you do them anyway, Kate,” Antoine said, grabbing her hand.

She laid down her fork and led her other hand up to her hair. She began slowly playing with her curls.

“That is true,” Kate said and cocked her head to the side. “For instance the crisis in Syria. The US secretary of the state and president are pressing to dispose of all of Assad’s chemical weapons, if need be by force.”

Antoine could feel that he had her. She was trying to give him what he wanted, if it was only to impress him a little.

“Yes, but they have no evidence that he was the bad boy using them,” Antoine said.

Kate nodded and got quieter while she gently tossed the drink in her glass. “Exactly. Everyone knows by now that they are warmongering. The same secretary of the state that was protesting against the Vietnam war when he was about to get called up, is now advising to start the bombing. Interesting what a shift into a save position of power can cause.”

“It is, right?” Antoine said.

She glanced at him.

“Wasn’t it the same in Iraq before?” Kate said, leaning forward to get closer to him. “Where were the weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the war?”

“Sometimes it just seems they aren’t looking in the right places,” Antoine said. He shifted his feet so that he was brushing against Kate’s crossed legs under the table. “This has become a repeating method and let me tell you, it works.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Kate told him, reclining and moving her own feet out of Antoine’s reach. “The state secretary claims there will be only surgical strikes and drone attacks, and no boots on the ground. But you can fool someone only so many times. This is another debate for the UN Security Council: how far are drone attacks allowed to go? We are in a time where cases occur, where proclaimed criminals on foreign soil are executed by drone strikes without chance of a trial, often based solely on suspicion or tips from unreliable informants.”

“We all know it won’t stay at that in Syria if the US gets their green light,” Antoine replied, trying to get another body contact to her by stretching his legs.

“With a veto from Russia and China, I can’t see it happen this time,” Kate said and managed to move out of the way like a game of play tag. “But China has also gotten into the crossfire lately. There are accusations that a Chinese high tech company had designed their equipment to facilitate spying. They are among the world’s largest telecommunications gear, planning to expand their operations in the US. It was founded by a former Chinese military engineer. Also a cyber-attack has been reported on an US water facility plant. Reports have been heard that one of these companies had built their first man portable stealth-suits, enabling a practical invisibility for the wearer. The UN has to discuss what that means for global security and if this technology should be legal.”

Antoine thought about that. “I could get up to a lot of nonsense if I were invisible. What about the Russians?” he asked. “They seem to be having a lot of expansion endeavours lately. Backing Assad to prevent the Saudi pipeline from being built through Syria, getting their breakthrough on Crimea and apparently not knowing when to stop.”

“They know when to stop,” Kate said. “US and European leaders attempted to turn Ukraine into a NATO bastion on Russia’s border. For Russia, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president was the final straw. Russia responded by taking Crimea, which it feared would otherwise host a NATO naval base. Russia’s goal is to destabilize Ukraine until it abandons its efforts to join the West.”

Kate considered him for a moment, not sure if she was supposed to speak about it. “I can already see me regretting having told you this.”

Antoine leaned closer. “Now I’m intrigued.”

 

 

***FOURTEEN***

She sighed. “There is a new woman, a femme-fatale visiting the conference, typical oligarch descendant. She seems to have made a lot of money recently and her influence is staggering.”

“And she is Russian?” Antoine wanted to know.

Antoine took also Kate’s other hand into his and enclosed them.

“Kate, you know I’m only asking out of a professional point of view for my change consultant firm,” he said. “Do you think it’s possible for you to introduce me to her?”

“I can see what I can do,” she said. “As I saw from the welcome dinner we always have at the Hofburg, she likes fancy parties.”

“Then we might actually gel,” he said.

Antoine stretched out his hand and touched Kate’s chin to lift her face up. Their eyes were staring at each other.

“What is her name?” he asked.

She hesitated. “Olga Kovalenko.”

Antoine got up and reached for Kate’s hands.

“Kate, let’s get up and join me outside,” he said. “I feel like taking a walk in deadly heights and taking in some fresh air.”

She left the napkin behind and followed him on the terrace. A breeze blew through her hair as she stepped outside. The visibility of the night view was clear cut like a crystal.

Kate leant on the veranda and looked down.

A fall from this height would turn a man into sludge.

“I’ve got dessert at home,” Antoine told her.

“Then we should get down quick,” Kate said.

“Funny you say that.” Antoine wore a smirk on his face he couldn’t hide. “Do you have good shoes?”

“Yes, why?” Kate wanted to know.

“Close your eyes,” he demanded.

She did and Antoine led her to step up on a chair, then on top of a table.

He held her close from behind.

“Now you can open them,” he whispered in her ear. “Like in the Titanic.”

He was standing with her on the tabletop, the abyss gaping up to them.

“On top of the world,” he said. “And we didn’t even jump yet.”

“Very funny,” she said.

He didn’t smile this time, even though Kate’s reaction was priceless. His face was tense and focused. He took a deep breath before he pressed Kate’s body tight against his own and made a jump forward.

They fell for a split second into the night. Antoine couldn’t hear if she screamed or if she just closed her eyes and spoke a last prayer. The parachute from Antoine’s backpack opened and pulled against gravity, trying to brake their fall with nothing but strings and a chute. The way down was faster than anyone would feel comfortable with. Antoine’s own gut wrenched, as he clinched his arms around Kate’s waist. His muscles and sinews protested as he felt a hot surge driving through his limbs. Whatever he did, he had to hold on and couldn’t let her fall. The height was doable for a base-jump, but the chute wasn’t designed for two people and it was in general not advisable to take a second passenger without a harness jumping from a building. Antoine could feel the straps tearing at him while he could see the cars on the parking lot coming closer. He used the last moments to steer away to an unoccupied spot and bent his knees, anticipating their impact.

“Brace!” he breathed into Kate’s ear.

They touched down and toppled, falling square over one another. Their parachute sank slowly above their heads and covered them like under bed sheets. Antoine felt over Kate’s legs to see if she was okay. Kate was panting and shaking from laughter and excitement, not able to hold herself.

Antoine looked into her glinting eyes. She had tears in them.

“I just died,” she said.

“That wasn’t bad for the first time,” he said. “Nevertheless, how do you think about getting up for dessert? Also the cops will be on our heels soon.”

He pushed himself up and helped Kate back on her feet, then folded the chute and crammed it into his car. He opened the door for Kate and walked around to the driver’s side, while he speed dialed on his phone.

By the time he got in his seat and started the engine, Jacque picked up the phone on the other end of the line.

“Jacque on field service, what can I do?”

“Jacque, I just tested our new base-jump chutes,” Antoine said.

“And?” Jacque said.

“I’m thrilled to say it was a good investment,” Antoine said. “With the new fibre they work like a charm. You can even do a jump with a second passenger and lower altitude than DC tower.”

“Glad to hear, but help me out here. Shouldn’t you find out some things from our UN insiders, instead of jumping from buildings?” Jacque asked. “I’m on a date at the Opera House with my contact right now, enjoying good old Don Giovanni.”

Antoine hit the accelerator, causing a wheelspin before darting out into the night.

“Don’t worry, that was part of our date.”

He could hear Jacque pausing for a second on his phone.

“I see.”

Antoine drove her to Lassallestreet and halted at red lights on the canal. A police car pulled up next to him in second lane.

They kept looking at him and his company.

“Are you ready for a ride you won’t forget?” Antoine said to Kate.

She smiled, knowing what was coming next.

“Yes.”

He revved the engine. The police officers looked disappointed.

With a push on a button, Antoine hid the license plates behind foldable covers.

He revved again, the policemen getting ready to turn on their blue light and chase them.

The traffic lights were still red.

Antoine kicked the accelerator. Like on a signal, the blue police lights lit up in his rear window, just a second before the traffic lights switched to green.

Antoine was already past the junction, pulling right. They drove along Danube canal, on the ring street, evading trams on the multi laned boulevard and racing over the rails no one else used.

Antoine brought them past Schwarzenbergplatz, a second police car now in their wake. The huge fountain of a well sprayed up into the city’s night air, all guarded by the half-ring monument of pillars with the statue of a soviet occupation soldier looming over the place.

They raced past the Opera house, its halls now fallen silent in the deepest nights, but its majestic veneer illuminated through the whole night. Then past Museums quarter, leaving museums and theaters left and right from them behind in the blink of an eye. Antoine banked hard right and barely made the curve with wheels squealing. Black smoke rose from burnt rubber on the tram rails. They drove towards the Hofburg Palace. Antoine reached back and released his base jump chute out of the window. It unfolded in mid-air in front of their chasers and covered a police cars windscreen. The car pulled over and grinded to a premature halt, bumping over the sidewalk.

The Hofburg’s garden came closer with relentless speed.

Antoine pulled left, drifting from the oncoming lane to the outmost right. They rushed past the Parliament, then pulled the handbrake full stop, propelling them in a one hundred eighty degree turn on the opposite lane. Antoine felt his tires spinning and looking for grip on the tram rails. They stuck to the road and brought them forward. Antoine got off the road into the driveway of the Parliament’s arrival, a small ridge that brought them up to first floor level to the main entrance. He left it again through the exit, a curved ramp downwards that spat them back outside onto the ring street, passing the remaining police car that followed them now in the wrong direction. Antoine could see it turn in the rear mirror and stop the whole traffic in doing so.

They headed back into the city, to Kate’s place. She got out of the car and punched the code into her garage panel. The door opened slowly and Antoine rolled in and killed the lights.

Antoine’s plan was to go to the UN the next day and let Kate introduce him to Olga.

He felt out of place at the conference, knowing secrets and being able to stare behind the lies representatives of different countries wore on their faces, when at the same time at danger by the constant threat of looming bodyguards.

His injuries had healed and left no trace in his face, but he was still a person that drew looks through his appearance. Those eyes that had seen more than one life could handle, this walk that a lone hyena adopted in the prairie on the look for a certain victim in a flock of grazers. The sparkle of eight hundred black diamonds on his suit, that showed everyone this was not a bodyguard or servant. And if he was no bodyguard, what exactly was he?

They managed to intercept Olga before the conference started. Even though Kate seemed reluctant to let Antoine go away with her, she did her part.

Olga stood out from the crowd like a gem in a sandbox, shiny and extravagant. He wouldn’t have needed Kate’s guidance to find her, but he was depending on her connections to give him access to the UN and introduce them each other.

Antoine walked over to where Olga was standing and occupied a spot beside her.

“Did I give you permission to stand here?” he asked.

 

 

***FIFTEEN***

“Oh, yes, of course you can stand here,” Olga said, quickly dismissing and ignoring him.

“Erm, no, I was asking you if I gave you permission to stand here,” Antoine said. “This is my place, you are standing on my property.”

“Really?” Olga said. “What is your name?”

“You don’t need to know my name, just my permission,” he said.

“Maybe because I don’t really want to know it,” she said.

“Come on, what else are you going to say when it’s time to call it out loud?” Antoine said.

“How about I call you prick for annoying me,” she said.

“That’s a fitting word, if that is what you need right now,” he said.

“I need a cigarette right now,” she said, pulling out a smoke and putting it between her lips. “You got a lighter?”

“Yes, wait it’s right here,” he said, fumbling in his pocket. “Erm no, on a second thought, because this is a non-smoking area.” He grabbed the cigarette and pulled it from her lips, keeping it.

“I’m going to kill you,” she said.

“No you’re not,” he said.

“I need that smoke,” she said.

“See if you light that smoke we two will take a nice shower under that fire sprinkler and you should know I’m too shy for that,” he said.

“I think you don’t know with whom you are conversing here,” she said.

“Nope,” he said.

“Give me the cigarette or I’ll kill you.”

Antoine shrugged and threw the smoke away over his shoulders into the crowd standing behind him.

“I’m not afraid of dying by the hands of women like you,” he said. “So, how are you planning to kill me?”

“How about I rip your heart out?” she said.

“Oh, that’s not how I imagined, but at least you will have something pulsating of me in your hand,” he said.

“Yes, you would like that,” she said.

“No, you would like that,” he said. “If you excuse me now, I have more important things to do. I will be at a bar tonight called Ostklub. You look Russian, so you will feel that you are in good hands there. You should come or you may miss the chance.”

Next stop later that night was Ost Klub.

Antoine entered the building through stairs that led down into the cellar-like agglomeration of various former bars, all broken through their walls and connected now to one underground-level club. It was filled with clouds of smoke and crowds of people past midnight. He shoved himself past along a red wall with black saloon doors to the bar. The ceiling hung low in old brick-stone vaults, enclosing the halls and corridors. Antoine propped himself against the bar’s thick oak wood counter and ordered a drink from the bartender while observing the scene. Live bands were playing simultaneously on different stages modern Eastern Europe music, such as Russkaja. Ost Klub was intended to tie musically on Vienna’s historical role to form a bridge between Orient and Occident. It wasn’t only musical history in Vienna that East met West.

Antoine was wondering if Olga would be coming to a locality that was clearly below her usual standard, when, as a Russian, she was used to visit clubs in Moscow which charged an entry fee of up to ten thousand dollars. If she would come, he knew his entrance hooked her. He scanned around, spotting her sitting on a corner couch, surrounded by four female friends.

As soon as he received his drink from the bartender he went over to the table and joined her.

“Keeping my company, Antoine?” she asked. “There is no truth in feet. Take a seat, please.”

He took a seat close to her, but far enough away to get a view on her whole outfit and accessories. He kept his drink in his hand when he found out no spot was left on the cocktail table. It was filled with stacked glasses and empty to half-empty bottles. The Russians knew how to keep their drink. Olga was no exception.

“Celebrating something?” Antoine asked.

She wore her fringe down to her dark eyes and a tight collar around her neck.

“Ah, you know, you win some, you lose some,” she said, letting her head sink back and laughing tipsy. She touched him on the shoulder first and breast second. “Those are the surges of life. Honest work won’t let you live in the stone palace.”

He could see in her eyes that she had laid off all of her pretentious mantle and didn’t hold back to show her natural side, which was controlled by taking whatever she wanted.

“This is my last night here,” she said like a warning to make his time count. “I’m leaving for Barcelona tomorrow.”

“That’s a bad idea and you know it,” Antoine answered. “Cause I’m not done with you yet. I’m just getting started.”

Olga laughed and pulled out Antoine’s tie, drawing him closer to her.

“I have to get to work early tomorrow,” he said.

“What makes you think I’m going home with you tonight?” Olga said.

“Trust me, you’re not the first one to say this to me this week,” Antoine said.

She gave a pretentious smile. “Oh, but that’s too bad. The eye can see it, but the tooth can’t bite it. So what are you doing about it?” she asked provocatively. “Coming with me to Barcelona?”

It was a test to see if he was worth it, if he would pull out or go through with it to the end, if he had the power and freedom to do what he wanted in the instant of a single day with no time to plan, think, or make preparations. Absolute spontaneity.

He had to find out more about her.

Straightfaced, he nodded.

“Maybe.”

“I didn’t take you for a maybe-guy,” Olga said. “Maybe and somehow won’t make any good.”

“Well, I can never say no to Barcelona,” he said.

“Oh, it’s too good to be true – I’d like to drink honey with your lips.”

“And from whose body shall we drink it, yours or mine?”

 

 

***SIXTEEN***

“You’re late at work, what happened to you?” Rose wanted to know with a curious expression on her face.

“A woman happened,” Antoine replied. “And I didn’t get much sleep tonight.”

“Sorry to hear that,” she said.

“No, it was actually helpful,” he said. “My investigation is reaching deeper.”

“How can I understand that right?” Rose said.

Some hours back in the past he remembered Olga’s sweat cool and dry on his skin, while she danced in his arms in Ostklub.

“Your ego is like a baobab tree,” said Rose. “No single individual can embrace it.”

“Her name is Olga Kovalenko,” Antoine said. “She is a Russian representative at the UN conference. I got introduced to her by my contact at the UN, Kate, as she is a new aspiring woman in Russia. I was keeping my eyes and ears open for whatever I could get.”

“Not only for insider information I’m sure,” Rose said.

“Rose, this seems to be a high calibre woman,” he said. “She has come to great riches recently and still got this nothing to lose attitude. You know this saying: you win some, you lose some. Yes, that is her. I guess Jacque could learn something from her.”

“Antoine, the most beautiful fig may contain a worm,” Rose said, lying her head into her palm.

“Exactly,” Antoine said. “That’s why I need to stay close to her. I will need to take the rest of the day off to follow her to Barcelona.”

“You think you have a trace?” Rose said. “I hope you are able to assess the situation accordingly.”

“It’s the only trace I got,” Antoine said. “While we have to wait to identify the voices of the intercept, I can at least follow this one.”

“Well, let’s hope this is neither a waste of time, nor another vacation for you,” Rose said. “We don’t have much room for both, as the clock is ticking.”

“To be honest, I think I can get a lot out of her,” Antoine said. “It’s my gut telling me.”

Rose looked at him and considered their options. “Fine.”

“Right choice,” Antoine said. He nodded into the round and made to leave the office.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Jacque said, who was waiting within earshot. “Did she actually say: you win some, you lose some?”

“Yes,” Antoine said. “That were her exact words. Why?”

“Hm, interesting,” Jacque said. “You know, I for my part just lost some. Maybe she won.”

“Maybe,” Antoine said. “Either way, I’m going to find out.” He turned and left.

“You know, if you want a rose you must respect the thorn,” Jacque said on his way out. “Take care.”

Jacque was still left pondering. When Antoine was gone, he referred to Priya while tapping his chin. “Remember what I told you when we were in Montenegro?”

“The whale story?” Priya said.

Jacque nodded. “Exactly.”

“Whale?” Rose asked.

“A whale is a person that gets hired by a criminal organisation to infiltrate a bank and leak information which leads to insane wins and losses in stock trade,” Priya said.

“I know what a whale is,” Rose said. “I just wanted Jacque to continue.”

“Olga could be one of the beneficiaries, which would mean she has to do with said crime organisation and is maybe procuring weapons, men, bribe money,” Jacque said. “If this is true, it seems like our enemies are drawing on immense resources to finance their cause.”

“Money is sharper than the sword,” Rose said half to herself with a sigh. She looked to Jacque who met her gaze with the same concern.

“Priya, I want you to find out more about Olga,” Jacque said. “Take our latest gadgets. And if you can keep an eye on Antoine, make sure he doesn’t kill anybody, that would be great.”

“So you want me to spy on both?” Priya said.

“No, just keep your eyes on both,” Jacque said.

Priya looked at Rose, waiting for her approval. Rose nodded, which Priya took as a yes.

“Let’s go talk in my office,” Jacque said to Rose. “Looks like I have to raise what I’ve given birth to.”

Priya glanced at Bekkend, with a look that read like the parents were to discuss matters beyond their kids. Rose was the brain of the UNIT but Jacque was definitely the sugar daddy, a money machine behind it with an outlook that there was nothing money couldn’t buy.

Rose followed Jacque into his personal office. He opened his desk drawer and took out the box of Cuban cigars he stored there, before coming back to the sofa chairs where he sat down with Rose.

Most of his suits were custom-made suits from his personal tailor in Dubai, but at times it had to be a brand, he liked to chose Boss. Not that the material’s quality was superior, but he liked the fact that it said Boss.

He considered the cigar in his fingers for a while and smelled its scent.

With the music in the background and Jacque’s hesitation, Rose decided to start the conversation on the offensive.

“So how was your meeting?” Rose asked.

“What meeting?” Jacque said confused. Any thought that he had the upper hand was eroded.

“The one you had earlier today about acquiring Magna Steyr,” Rose said. “I assume you want to integrate it into your side of the business and open a weapons department?”

“I don’t know…,” Jacque said.

“The meeting at Cafe Alt Wien,” Rose said. “You know the cafe in the middle of town. You know how in 1933 Hitler, Trosky, Lenin and Churchhill used to meet there. If we would have been around back then, World War Two probably wouldn’t have broken out. You forget that I have people everywhere.”

“I was going to say, I don’t know how you know so much,” Jacque said.

“It’s my job to know,” said Rose. “When I say I have people everywhere, I do mean it. People who are hidden in plain sight, the second tier. Barkeepers, photographers, newsvendors, bakers. Remember Genevieve Chanelle, when she is not walking the runway, she works for me too.”

Jacque’s eyes sparkled. Genevieve was his favorite model.

Smoking cigars was a ritual for him, much like choosing a suit and dating models like her. It had to be appreciated. The degree of happiness from a certain luxury, or any achievement in life was related to the amount of work and dedication he put into before the outcome.

“Yes, well you know my intentions,” he said. “Maybe you can help clear some of my questions. I believed the UNIT was for intelligence gathering to support the UN and OSCE in making informed decisions. Since when was, what do you even call it, eliminating threats part of what you did and why does Antoine demand such a high wage? He has three different income streams that all indirectly have me lining his pockets. Look Rose, I have bankrolled the UNIT for the last three years and never asked any questions, only as a good favor for a very good friend. I can’t find a way to make the UNIT a subsidiary of my company and I don’t want to be a contract killer either. At least not without knowing anything about. I just want to know what’s going on. I think I deserve that much. Especially because I paid it out of my own pocket and we developed what you want for free.”

“What’s really going on, Jacque?” Rose asked. “Because you never really wanted to know.”

“Look, with the whale, the company lost a lot of money and I put a lot of my own finances into it as well,” he said.

“How much?” Rose said.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” he said.

“That bad?” she asked.

Jacque put the cigar between his teeth and ignited it with a silver lighter. He took two drags and exhaled.

“Worse.”

Rose knew that when the time came that Jacque didn’t tell her, she wasn’t in the position to ask. After all she believed in personal freedom. Ironic, working in an intelligence agency.

“You told me lighting a cigar with fifties makes it taste better,” Rose said. Jacque normally used burning banknotes to kindle the cigar’s tobacco. “What happened with it?”

“Those were the old days.”

“The old days,” Rose said. “That was us in debate club together.”

Rose couldn’t brighten Jacque’s face. There was a little pause, with the only sounds from the music in the background and the puff on the cigar.

Jacque’s mien was as unreadable as a stone for Rose.

As he leaned back and exhaled, staring at the ceiling, she pondered whether he was thinking about his bank irregularities or the Muslim cleric recently killed in Kenya.

Jacque sighed.

“Look, I’m coming clean,” he said. “In a week we have an AGM meeting in London in the Shard to discuss the future of the company. The management board is thinking about freezing the company bonus.”

Rose took a sip of her whiskey, realizing the gravity of the situation. Jacque funded the UNIT out of the bonus he got every year.

“So the new days, will be like…,” Jacque said, “worst case: no bonus, no funds.”

“We need this money to keep the UNIT somehow running,” Rose said. “And we won’t be able to have an influence on the UN peace keeping forces, if we cut back on our operations.”

“I know,” Jacque said. “Whether willingly or unwillingly, they hit our heart with this.”

“Look, Jacque, this is what we do,” Rose said. “In the missions, I will let you know what we do. You will be involved, if you have time. Total transparency. And for the money, you are very resourceful, I know you will find a way.”

“It’s funny,” Jacque said, looking at her face. “There are four things in life of which we have more than we think: faults, debts, years and enemies.”

 

 

***SEVENTEEN***

The plane touched down after two and a half hours flight. It was still early afternoon and Antoine was welcomed by the turquoise shine of the sea shore together with yellow sands and the modern complex of the newly built port. As far as Antoine knew about the progress of his team, Priya was hired by Jacque to check through Cypriot and Turkish bank accounts for irregularities for the whole week.

He got off Placa Catalunya, where the tourists and street artists met under sparse shadows and the cool breeze of the yard’s huge fountains. Flocks of pigeons rose up in the sky. They reminded him of peace, of what they fought for, even when the voices of the city disturbed him.

It was on his walk down on the pedestrian avenue strip called La Rambla that Antoine remembered the unnerving feeling he couldn’t get out of his head.

Anything Latin reminded Antoine of Mexico, the food, Latin music, the word Mexico, Spanish been spoken and tortillas and tapas bars on the street.

La Rambla was the street that connected everything. Newly arrivals to the beach and people leaving from hotels to the airport. It was bristling with tourists and beautiful women from all over the world, visiting one of the most renowned fashion capitals of the world.

Once again, he felt like back in the streets in Mexico and the paving stones beneath his soles felt like treading down hell. Among the crowd, someone offered him drugs. The nightmare from his past was becoming real again. He declined and shoved the dealer aside, striding away from him and melting back into the crowd. He hoped they would leave him alone, those phantoms chasing him in his dreams and by daylight. His shirt was wet under his armpits. He brushed over his forehead and his hand came back glistening with sweat.

Back in Mexico and his time in the CIA, all cartels dealt with the CIA for drug money. The cartels started putting people inside the CIA to know more. Antoine later found out that during the mission briefing someone at the CIA tipped off a rival drug gang to where the mission was supposed to be held. The informant didn’t know what was happening but just knew the CIA and not DEA was doing something so he thought that they were going to reinforce the gang and give them equipment to strengthen their position. They were already dominant so the informant thought the CIA wanted to have one clear winner and then it made negotiating easier. The gangs would have less funerals and families to support because their husbands died and that extra could go to the CIA.

The CIA was trying to do an undercover mission with Antoine to find a drug lord who escaped prison. He was one of the world’s most wanted men and the alleged head of a drug-running empire that span continents, reaching over the Atlantic to Europe. Antoine was pretty sure the drugs he got offered here on the streets were his.

They wanted to find the drug lord and topple his gang. They thought if they could have smaller gangs then the Mexican army could handle them and they could easier cut off the route of drugs flowing up. Operation Chokehold was reliant on finding him. Antoine’s face got bitter. It was the question who had gotten into the chokehold.

The walking street brought him down to the sea, a modern harbor, huge with masses of yachts lying at bay and restaurants held in futuristic architecture. It was introduced by a wide traffic circle with a tall monument of Christopher Columbus pointing to the sea and statues looking to the four winds.

Antoine passed some time under the shadows of a palm tree avenue, strolling slow as not to break a sweat. He was excited to reach the beach, this far reaching white strip of sand that led into a turquoise cool water.

The beach had something magical for Antoine. People who were born at the sea would not understand, but for him it was something special, a place he had only been able to see when his parents took him on holiday as a child once every few years. That’s why it was so relaxing for him, the smell of salt and seaweed and the fresh breeze of air stroking over the waves and bringing them into the bay brought back those memories. They were rare and long gone, but even with details having escaped from his grasp, the emotions were still there.

Antoine welcomed the breeze of the sea and the touch of the sand on his skin, the taste of salt on his lips. He felt like leaving everything behind and going into the sea, meeting the waves head on and submerging from the world above. Nothing could stop him.

He closed his eyes before breaching through the surface. He couldn’t see, only feel.

In Mexico, Antoine and the other CIA agents had been disguised as tourists. The idea was to go down, start making some local contacts and see how they could get into the system either as business men or working in the organization or as something else. They wanted a reassessment not done by corrupt Mexicans and the DEA who had an old perspective. This new team was assembled by a mix of Special Forces and drug specialists who worked in Indonesia, Afghanistan and Colombia and Antoine from the European branch along with one British agent he did the mission in Brussels with. The British agent was under CIA control but still reported back to Rose at MI5.

Days after they got into Mexico, the other gang attacked with massive civilian casualties. That sparked the crazy drug wars happening in Mexico up to this day.

The unit there hadn’t gotten a safe house or weapons, they were just there waiting for their handler and intelligence. They were literally sitting ducks. The gang attacked at night and was particularly brutal to the westerners because of the tip off. The night was filled with beatings, mutilations, deep cuts and extreme torture. It was the longest night Antoine had ever lived to see.

After a few days, the public executions and beheadings began. Antoine was shot once in the head and twice in the chest. He saw most of his unit being shot or beheaded before it was his turn. He was blindfolded and didn’t see one guy.

He didn’t know how he got back from Mexico to America, but he woke up in a hospital in San Antonio, Texas. They told him plastic surgeons from Venezuela had to be flown in to treat him. Later he could understand why.

Antoine came up to the surface and breathed in air. He opened his eyes to the blazing sun, reflected by glass fronted towers. Everything was white.

Antoine spent the whole afternoon swimming at the beach, before getting ready to meet Olga. Whenever he saw a mother taking a child to the sea and teaching it how to swim, he was thinking that Destinee and A.J. would be doing the same somewhere. He always had to convince himself that they were fine.

Olga awaited him back at La Rambla, on a small remote plaza with a fountain in the middle surrounded by cafes and bars called Placa Reial. The place looked like a laguna in the middle of desert brown buildings. It wasn’t only from the vibe with crystal clear water under palm trees, but also the fact that many travelers came here to moisten their throats with drinks or fill their noses and lungs with smoke. It was also a bazaar of most obscure products and services offered after sunset.

Olga and her group had reserved a whole room for them and their company, mostly bodyguards, but also other seemingly rich women, who were either heirs to wealthy magnates or had made it on their own under unknown circumstances, much like Olga.

The party hadn’t yet begun as Antoine had learned to know it from Ostklub. Catalonian conditions meant it was only time for dinner when the sun began to set, a slow start into what would be a long sleepless night. They got served Oysters with Spanish red wine for starters, followed by a pan of seafood Paella and Sangria thrown into the mix. Antoine forebode that this was only the beginning. He had seen lots of policemen patrolling the streets near la Rambla and lots of street dealers too, offering beer, marihuana and cocaine in the same breath.It was a nightlife town, knowing no rest every single day of the week. Nevertheless Antoine had a feeling it wouldn’t come to cheap things with Olga. She knew people and getting served Oysters and seafood in a private bar room was one sign of what was possible with her connections.

After a couple hours, the harder things started to show up. Crystal glasses were replaced by shot glasses, lined up in a row to get filled with Vodka. A shisha was brought and lit up in the middle of the table, filling the room with watermelon tobacco smoke as it got passed around.

“I didn’t think you would come,” Olga said.

“People often don’t expect what I’m gonna do,” Antoine said.

“Some could see this as crazy,” she said.

“Who knows, maybe I am,” he said.

“I find it interesting,” Olga said. “Why did you come?”

“Because I wanted to,” Antoine said. “I like an adventure.”

“Oh, me too,” she said.

“Tell me why,” Antoine said.

“Because, life would be boring without them, I guess,” she said.

“Exactly what I would say,” he said. “So we try to produce things we wouldn’t normally do, outside society’s norm or what might be allowed, to get that thrill.”

Olga looked at him, in a way that made him realize she understood every word he spoke.

“The way I see it, if this is everything and nothing follows afterwards, if we have only one life and this is all we got, why should we not do everything we wanted?” she said. “Life is short, but there is a lot to be done. Right now I’m still locked in a cage. I can’t do what I want to do, but I will break free.”

“One question,” Antoine said. “Do you know, how many days you will live?”

She shook her head.

“Twenty-eight thousand,” Antoine said. “That is the average life span. Now think how few days that is and how many we waste with doing things we don’t want to do and waiting for things we want.”

“Twenty-eight thousand,” Olga said. “That means, ten thousand are already spent.”

“Exactly,” Antoine said. “You see, even if there would be a guarantee to live through all of them, it is frightening to think how many we waste. Don’t wait for anything because once you pass twenty-thousand days, it will be too late. Any day that is not today could be too late. That’s the reason why I came here. The best day to start was yesterday. Today is the second best. And I want to help you break out of that cage.”

“How well you live makes a difference, not how long,” Olga said. “I’m not the one in the cage. The guards are on my side. Together, it’s cramped; apart, it’s boring.”

“I see,” Antoine said. It was a Russian saying for: “you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.” “I remember you didn’t have bodyguards in Vienna.”

“I got someone who takes care of me here,” Olga said. “But every woman is a rebel, and usually in wild revolt against herself.”

Antoine raised a vodka glass to the bodyguards.

“Who are you telling this. It takes a strong man to tame her.”

They emptied theirs in one go and threw them back over their shoulders against the wall in Russian fashion. They wouldn’t stay entirely sober tonight, but certainly could handle their drink.

Antoine noticed tattoos under the sleeves and collars of their shirts.

“Just out of curiosity…,” Antoine said.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” Olga said.

“Do you know their background?”

“They won’t hit you in the nose for asking,” she said.

“I’m not sure about that,” Antoine said.

“Dimitri,” Olga said to one. “What are those tattoos of yours?”

Antoine leant back and observed from afar. He could address Olga to ask questions. They would tell her everything.

Dimitri rolled up his sleeve.

“Head of a wolf,” he said.

“You all have the same?” Olga asked.

Da, most,” Dimitri said. “From the time when we served.”

“Served who?” Antoine said.

Dimitri broke out in laughter. “Russia.”

He emptied a shot glass with Antoine.

“You don’t serve Russia anymore?” Antoine asked.

The laughter on Dimitri’s face faded.

“You have guts to ask this, I will give you that much,” he said.

“Oh, you have no idea,” Antoine replied.

Dimitri became silent.

“Who are you working for now?” Antoine said.

Dimitri beckoned over the other men of the group.

“Same as before,” he said, then rose his glass and voice to his friends. “The strongest wins.”

“The strongest wins,” they returned.

They knocked back the Vodka.

 

 

***EIGHTEEN***

Situated directly at the beach and adjacent with at least three other night clubs, Opium club was a haven for international top DJs, firing up the crowd with nonstop laser shows, fog machines and their deafening arsenal of dance music. This was at the finest beach club the city had to offer, decorated with huge neon lights in the form of flower blossoms reminding on its name: Opium.

Antoine stood in line to get in first, over an entrance on top of the club’s roof, which was on the same level with the road and upstate. Leading down over stairs beneath it, the club itself was on same height with the sand beach. While waiting to get in, Antoine couldn’t shake off an old habit of him. His spy senses kicked in and outfitted him with an awareness no normal man would develop. He studied the geography, infrastructure and hidden passageways of the surroundings like in every other mission. The securities around the compound were either static or walking the same routes in long intervals. They looked professional and behaved well-mannered. Only two crowd entertainers were disguised as alien invaders, walking on stilts and wearing frightening masks and clawed gauntlets. They engaged the securities in a play battle with their shoulder mounted laser pointers. If Antoine were to get into the club unnoticed, without buying an entry ticket, he would use one of their disguises. But not today. This was not a mission, he was out to have fun and blow some money to make an unforgettable night with an unforgettable woman at his side and see what he could find out about her and her companions.

They walked down the red carpet laid out to the stairway into a realm of mirror walls and reflective white floors. International guests mingled on couches in the entrance hall and Antoine took Olga by her hand after talking to a few of them, leading her to the dance floor. It was a hall, a dark pit full to bursting point, with violet lights and dancers on tables that stood out from the crowd. Beneath them was a sea of ecstatic people, their hands surging like waves with Antoine and Olga in the thick of it. He used the crowd to get rid of her bodyguards and spend time with her alone.

After hours of dancing, Antoine, Olga and her friends sank down in the adjoining lounge, back in view of the shore under the violet shine of the opium plant lights. It was an open part, showing the night sky overhead and leading out onto a wooden gangplank leading along the whole beach, where guests from all clubs could mix with each other.

Dimitri and the rest of Olga’s bodyguards positioned themselves in a circle around their lounge, shielding visitors and unwanted eyes from what they were talking or doing. One of Olga’s friends pulled out a bag filled with white powder and began portioning it for shots. It was cocaine, a drug that could be produced by the kilogram for one thousand dollars in Mexico, brought over the border and sold in the streets of the United States for seventy five thousand dollars in its bulked up form. This wasn’t the cheap sort you could get at every corner around here that was impure. Antoine suspected it were expensive goods brought with them from the Russian mafia who had at least the connections to get it pure. Nevertheless it didn’t change much for Antoine. This was his nightmare taking on real form and coming back to him to haunt him. He got itchy palms and started sweating as soon as he came close to the drug.

Olga must have realized him getting uncomfortable. She laid a hand on his thigh and ran it down to his knee.

“Relax,” she told him. “We will have nothing but fun.”

“I’ve had enough of this stuff for a whole lifetime,” Antoine said.

Olga was impressed.

“Oh, an expert. Then show us how it’s done.”

“I will show you how I do it,” Antoine said and took a portion.

His fingers fumbled as he got hold of the bag. Frightful memories surfaced to his consciousness just through the simple touch and visual effect cocaine had left on him. His memory was marred from the time he was with the Mexican drug cartel, the time they forced him to become an addict to make sure he wasn’t something else than he pretended to be and the cruel, inhuman things they made him do when he was lost in the delirious state. He had committed crimes and sins that spit on human’s creation and would let him burn in hell. He had turned into a monster, more evil than some people he had killed because of their malefactions.

He trembled as he took Olga’s hand and drew a line over her skin, reaching from the back of her hand up to her elbow. The line led over rings, bracelets, club-stamp markings, like freshly fallen snow on a plain landscape.

He led her hand back toward her lips, but she resisted.

“No, you go first.”

Her friends giggled and couldn’t wait any longer. They had already sniffed their doses and started to feel euphoric. He understood exactly how they felt, a special kind of intense pleasure. Grandiosity about themselves helped them let all borders of social anxieties or shyness fall. They began coming closer and more intimate with each other than he had ever seen their cold and aloof characters before.

“Take it, Antoine,” they said.

Olga brought his hand from her face back to Antoine’s. He had the stuff the devil had made placed right in front of his nose. He had sworn to never take it. His body had recovered through intense intake of medicaments, but the nightmares that never ceased to haunt him were a damage no medicine could heal.

Antoine shivered. He could hear a rattle and the hiss of a tongue. The line of cocaine on Olga’s arm was a white snake, writhing.

“I nearly died of it twice,” he said. “Not sure if the second time I better should have.”

“Third time is a charm,” Olga said. “God likes trinity.”

“Take it,” she insisted and shoved it into his face.

He had to do what was necessary.

Antoine closed his eyes and focused mentally. His fists clenched and formed white around his knuckles. He didn’t even realize he had sniffed the whole one gram line, in one go. Only when he opened his eyes again, he was right in Olga’s space. Antoine let himself fall forward. Soft arms caught him. He had to embrace the euphoria and grandiosity, he persuaded himself. Do anything to stay distracted from reality.

Reality looked different. When taken over a longer period of time, the good turned into bad and the opposite became true. He felt the drug intoxicate his body, his heart rhythm changed, his body feeling hot and making him break a sweat. His breathing quickened and he felt nausea. Reality and illusion blurred and mixed as he wrestled with the monsters of his mind and Olga’s body, thrown front and back between fear and pleasure.

He heard the rasping of scales on plastic like sandpaper. He felt the flexing of muscle beneath so vast it could break a man’s spine or choke him in his sleep. He simply knew this because he had seen it and that was the reason why he refused to open his eyes. He didn’t want to see it, even though he knew exactly what it looked like. The thought of white skin, cold scales over a writhing body made him shudder. The flashing of two venomous teeth like claws, eyes like a cat and a hissing tongue let him bath in sweat, even though he had seen worse things. Cocaine let one see things different. But as this was his only chance, he had to face it. He forced himself to open his eyes, even though he knew they wouldn’t open. Still his vision cleared and he saw the white snake, right in front of his face. He was numb but he had to will himself to reach for his weapon or else it would overcome him. Only then he saw that the surface its scales were rasping against belonged to the grip of his gun. It was going to kill him whether he reached out to take it or not. What was it waiting for? Maybe the white snake was him, because it had his gun. Maybe he would be the death of himself or the death for many others if he drew it? He didn’t know what this meant. He only knew that he was about to lose his mind again.

 

 

***NINETEEN***

Antoine awoke with the sun already high up and the fan propelling in his room, projecting memories of rotor blades in his mind. The hotel room was a mess. Olga wasn’t around, probably attending that meeting with the bankers she was talking about the day before. He was curious how she managed to leave that early. Antoine got up and walked over to the bathroom sink, his face and hair a pale shadow of his yesterday’s self. Antoine went through a list in his mind of things he had found out. Olga was meeting with the bankers. Someone was close by who put Olga under protection for her stay in Barcelona. The bodyguards were probably Russian ex-military but had been secretive about their current employer.

It was time to get something to eat and spend the rest of the day at the beach to reflect before flying home and work on the information with his team. He was going to buy Olga a present to remember him before he left and to make sure they would meet again. Although he doubted that he had failed to leave a lasting impression.

The luxury bar’s name Priya was in to take some appetizers, dressed as a noble tourist lady travelling alone, was called Banker’s bar. Just the right place to rest from a morning of sightseeing in high heels under the burning Mediterranean sun, pretending to protect her face under the brim of a white hat and big shades of her sunglasses. In her Gucci purse, Priya stored a listening device, while she was checking updates from her phone linked to the voice recognition scan running at the headquarters. She had asked Jacque to keep an eye on it too and call her if one of the two agents could be identified. If nothing else, it didn’t hurt to monitor Olga together with her contacts and see with whom she had dealings to do.

Priya adjusted the sound reception dish of her device in the direction on the opposite side of the room, to a table where her target was meeting with several bankers. She identified them based on the topics they were discussing. Priya was listening to their conversation through her earpiece, looking like she was half listening to her I-pod and half to her ambience.

The bar was a polished, exhilarating place to meet, the ceiling fashioned from original and antiquated security boxes that hinted to the building’s former use as a bank.

Priya turned away as the bankers left the meeting and pulled out her phone, dialing for Jacque while looking terribly bored and poking her drink with a straw.

“Priya, darling, how is the rain in Spain?” Jacque replied.

“There’s no rain, Jacque,” Priya answered.

“Uh, you are supposed to answer: stays mainly in the plain,” Jacque said.

“Do I have to understand that?” she asked.

“Not if you haven’t heard of My Fair Lady,” he said.

“Well, I can at least say that I have to rain on your parade,” Priya said. “Antoine made contact with Olga and followed her around clubs and bars the whole night. He got closer to her. But he just gave her an opportunity to get away, at the most crucial phase. She’s meeting the bankers.”

“Where is Antoine?” Jacque said.

“I don’t know where he is,” Priya said. “Disappeared. I don’t know his medical condition. Last time I saw him tonight he was falling back to his old habit. The bad one.”

“Women?”

“Drugs, Jacque,” she said.

“Jesus.” Jacque said. “He has eaten so many snakes that he has become a viper. Find him and take care of him please. You have to get him back home. The only reason this man is still alive is because he can’t afford a funeral.”

Priya shrugged. “Yeah. Tell me as soon as there is a match with the voiceprints.”

“Will do,” Jacque said. He hesitated. “You know, a woman like Olga is like a shadow. As you chase her, she runs away and if you run away, she chases after you.”

“I’m afraid this might happen sooner than we want it to,” Priya said.

Priya finished her drink and followed Olga out of the bar. It was situated in the entry level of a bigger hotel chain building in a business district that was full with similar accommodations. After walking through the Gothic Quarter, Olga met with another woman at a coffee shop. Priya stayed for a while outside.

The walls were plastered with posters, around the triangle shaped plaza. A small children’s playground was in its middle outlined with a fence. A sculpture stood at one edge of the square. It was a high stone block, metallic cables climbing up on its side. On top sat a brass orb, with a lens looking down at the playing children. An art piece for symbolizing that there was always someone watching and freedom was an illusion.

Priya let her shoulders sag with a sigh and entered the coffee shop. She strode past the two women sitting at a table to the bathroom. She overheard them talking something, but it was in Russian. Priya stopped, as she heard the women Olga had met say a word that reminded her of something. It made her hold her breath and back run cold. She had listened to numerous voice recordings over the last few days, most of them subconscious as a background noise in her office, but they still had accompanied her day in and day out. Especially the intercepted call she had listened to until she learned it by heart. Olga’s acquaintance reminded her of one of them. She used the same phrase.

“Victory day.”

Priya grabbed into her handbag and activated the voice recorder. She suddenly got afraid. There was a good chance that if she was right the woman might be an agent and this would also make Olga more dangerous than expected. She was alone in the coffee shop with the two of them and couldn’t understand a single word. But she knew her job was to record it and keep recording as long as she could and then send it back to the UNIT.

The two women left and went in different directions, Olga supposedly to meet back with Antoine. Priya followed the other. As soon as they had left the coffee shop, Priya stopped the voice recording and sent it to the headquarters. She speed-dialed for Jacque, who was occupying the computers in her room. Her fingers were shaking. She breathed fast.

“Jacque, there is no time for questions, I am transmitting a voice-print to you,” she said with a whisper. She could not afford that the woman she was following was hearing a word from her. “Could you please run a comparison to the one from the phone call. The FSB agent.”

“All right, but this will slow the other progress down, shouldn’t we wait till the scan is finished?”

“No, do this now please!” Priya was pressed.

She hurried to keep up with the woman. Priya had had no time to check about other people accompanying the woman in safe distance, other bodyguards who were probably around. She terribly knew that she was venturing into the lion’s den, unprepared and without backup. Even if it would turn out that she had found the enemy, what then? What would she do then?

They returned to the square with the sculpture of illusive freedom and she saw its name written on a street sign. It was Plaça de George Orwell. Priya held her breath. There was no destination codenamed Orwell’s place from the intercept. This was it.

On a crossroads, the red light prompted them both to stop. The woman looked at Priya through her cold sunglasses, then onto the traffic. Priya’s fingers trembled. She reached inside her pocket and felt a metallic chip on the tip of her finger. She took it out, hiding it in between her fingers. Priya placed the tracker into her opposite’s handbag, her heart racing. She thought about the many things she hadn’t taken care of. The reflections in the passing cars, other bystanders watching her. But there was no time. She only had this one shot. If someone saw her she would be caught right here in the open street, or on her way back in a quiet alley. She turned and walked away from the woman, into the direction Olga had taken, through the Gothic Quarter down to the harbor.

In a promenade of palm trees with the jetties and yachts in the background, Olga met Antoine. Priya stopped as she came into view. She couldn’t interfere now without blowing his cover. It gave her time to observe the two, looking thrilled in a romantic spot that Priya would have liked to trade with Olga for everything in the world. Priya saw how Antoine gave her a present and kissed her gentleman-like on the cheek. It made her avert her gaze and think about what she was about to miss.

Her phone vibrated and stirred her. It was Jacque.

“Please don’t let it be her,” she sighed before answering.

“What’s news Jacque?” she asked.

“Good news,” he said. “You got her. It’s the FSB spy. Her name is Tanya Sharipova. She was part of the Russian-American spy-swap and was therefore cleared from the lists.”

Priya exhaled and let her head sag.

“Thank you Jacque. Good job.”

She looked up to Antoine and Olga, who were strolling down the promenade holding hands. She had the tough decision to make. She had to disrupt their peaceful moment, probably their relationship forever and tell Antoine to his face that the reason she was here was that the agency had found out Olga was meeting in Barcelona with Tanya. But first of all, she had to tell him that she needed his help, because they had the highly dangerous operative finally tracked down they were searching for the last week and Priya didn’t have the skills or the courage to confront her alone.

She lifted her phone to dial again and got Rose to call him.

Hotel Duquesa de Cardona was the last place they had seen the signal move. After that, it either meant that their target had lied down for a nap, or what was more plausible, had left the bag in a hotel room. Priya was hoping for herself that Tanya hadn’t detected her bug and was now spinning a trap for them, where the hunters would become the hunted.

The hotel wasn’t far off the sea promenade and port, a wide boulevard reaching in front of it alongside the beach. It was a boutique luxury hotel offering a penthouse terrace with pool and cocktail bar, as well as the view over the city’s harbor. There was a chance Tanya was already seeing them rushing down the main avenue, if she was already aware of her chasers. She would recognize Priya if she saw her another time. What Olga concerned, there was no guarantee that she didn’t warn Tanya that something was wrong once Antoine left.

“I still can’t believe you were spying on me,” Antoine said. “Is this what our trust has become? I thought there was a stronger bond between us, than to Rose or Jacque. We are the ones doing the dirty work while they are coordinating behind their laptops. We should trust one another like no one else. I was thinking about your loyalty a long time. I hoped it was different, but now I got proof. If you want trust get a dog, not a woman.”

“This is not distrust against you, it’s against Olga,” Priya said. “I thought you were developing a blind eye for her. The eyes do not see what the mind does not want.”

“I was getting her to open up,” Antoine said. “She was meeting with bankers relating to the whale and her contact, who put her under the protection of Russian ex-military bodyguards.”

“Tanya,” Priya said. “The ex-spy from the intercept. Which means Olga is actively involved.”

“We have to find out what they have planned,” Antoine said. “Were you observing me the whole time?”

“I was with you at Opium club if this is what you mean,” Priya said.

“Did you tell Rose?” he asked.

“No,” Priya said. “I didn’t tell her and I’m not going to. But promise me you don’t do drugs again.”

“You think I wanted to do this?” Antoine said. “No, I already made that promise to myself. But this was not a choice, same as in my past. Your cover is blown the second you pull out of a situation like this. I’m just thankful you didn’t tell anyone. They would lose their trust and withdraw me from the mission entirely. It’s already complicated enough as it is.”

“Are you fine?” Priya said. “I mean can you do your job?”

“I can,” he said.

“Our lives depend on it,” Priya said.

“Trust me,” Antoine said. “I’m functioning. The drugs won’t damage my performance now.”

Priya looked him over. “I believe you,” she said after a while. “It’s just… now we came to this. You told me I should find them and then we care about the rest. That’s what I did. I revealed the monsters, now we have to confront them.”

Antoine nodded. “Now we care about the rest,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Wait,” Priya said. “You mean now?”

Antoine made a gesture that should make it obvious that they would act now.

“Yes,” he said.

“But we have no order to strike,” Priya said.

“We have no order to stand back either,” Antoine said.

“Our job was intelligence gathering only,” Priya said. “I thought we would return to the headquarters, lay out everything we have learned and prepare a strike plan.”

“Well, I am the strike plan,” Antoine said. “This is what I do.”

“But…,” said Priya. “We have Tanya bugged and know her position. You gained Olga’s trust and can meet up with her again without her suspecting anything. We are only two people. We don’t know about Tanya’s backup. We could prepare and get them at a later time with much greater numbers.”

“Sounds good to me, but the only problem is we don’t know when this thing is going down and it could be too late if we wait,” Antoine said. “They said they will celebrate on the Russian Victory Day, which means on 9th May it will all be over. Now we have a chance to act. I will not sit here and watch it let it go pass. This is the second time in a row I’m getting close to something. I won’t be called back now.”

They entered Duquesa and the reception, but without knowing her identity, or even the name she had used at the hotel, they couldn’t hope for any information from the receptionist. Priya tried to describe her appearance and came up with a reason why they had to reach her, while Antoine kept the elevator and several escape routes in view. The receptionist caved in and gave them a hint.

They found Tanya in the public restrooms. She hadn’t expected them to come. Like a jolted deer, she turned around from the washbasins, seeing Antoine’s reflection in the mirror. Tanya went for a gun in her holster but Antoine was on her, hand to hand. He dashed forward and got hold of Tanya’s firing arm and pushed her against the sink. She lost balance and crashed with the back of her head against the mirror, leaving a crater like a meteor impact on the wall. Antoine jerked her hand around, forcing her to dance his dance with him. He dragged her in front of him, blocking her hand around the pistol. Another push brought them shoulder to shoulder, giving Antoine leverage over her. He drove her several steps across the room, streaking an open toilet door on their way that broke out of its hinges, and stopping her violently with the wall in her back. He got free from Tanya’s lock and punched his fist into her jaw, rocking her head backwards. Antoine positioned one of his legs between hers and threw her over his hip facedown against the toilet. He delivered a knee straight to her face which shattered the toilet tank behind and let her go of her gun eventually. Her head sagged forward, blood streaming out of her nose onto the water-repellent surface of the luxury toilet, forming drops like rain.

Priya closed the door behind them and blocked the handle, making it impossible to go in or out.

Antoine grabbed Tanya by her hair and pulled her back up to her feet.

“What are you planning?” Antoine spat, her head tilted sideways so that he was close to her ear.

Priya came over and secured the gun that slithered over the marble tile floor. She got to work in Tanya’s handbag hoping to find anything useful. Her phone would do.

She plugged Tanya’s smart phone to her UFED universal forensic extraction device. It got through the password lock and would copy all contact information, messages, stored photos, calling history, deleted and hidden files in less than two minutes.

Tanya panted, releasing a spray of fine blood droplets into Antoine’s face.

“You will get nothing out of me except blood and teeth,” she said, trying to fake a smile. “I’m not afraid of torture, but you are right now. You hoped it would go smoother, but let me tell you this might take some time. Time you don’t have.” She looked around, her head locked in place through Antoine’s grip around her hair like a man holding a dog on a leash. “No, not here. What do you want to do? Water-board me? You better think fast.”

“No, I’ve never been a fan of water-boarding,” Antoine replied.

He propped her up against the wall and followed through with another right punch, putting in all of his hip and bodyweight. His knuckles felt like hitting stone but they did more damage to the woman’s face than to themselves. Her lip split open and she got delirious, her knees sagging. Antoine kept her up before she could slide down and delivered a left punch to the liver. Tanya bent over in pain, gasping for air. She had watery eyes when she looked up, her face smeared with her own blood.

She tried to laugh. “Put up with it, Cossack, and you’ll be an ataman. You have no idea who you make enemies with,” she whispered.

Antoine looked down at her.

“Wrong. They say chose wisely, that’s why I chose you,” Antoine said. “I love picking on the weak. We got Olga and you compromised. We intercepted the call between you and the Khorasan group. We are everywhere you think yourself save and you don’t even know who we are. Tell me only one thing: is your mission foiled when I kill you both?”

She shook her head.

He grabbed her at the collar and strung his grip tighter around her neck.

“Then give me one reason to keep you alive,” Antoine said to her.

 

 

***TWENTY***

“I’m not telling you anything,” she told him. “Your time is running out. You rushed into this without preparation, not knowing who you are dealing with and now you are losing control.”

“We’ll see about that,” Antoine replied. “Who are you working for and what is it you are planning?”

They could hear footsteps coming from the hall, fistbumps against the door. Priya rushed over to keep holding it shut.

“These are my bodyguards,” Tanya said. “They didn’t hear from me in a while and are coming to see what’s wrong.”

If this was true, they wouldn’t get out of here alive.

“Damn, they’re here too early,” Priya said.

“Who are you?” Antoine shouted.

Tanya grinned at him, rekindling her hope with the noises from the neighboring room and her mouth closed.

“You are not getting anything from me,” she said.

“We will take her hostage,” Antoine said to Priya, while aiming his gun at Tanya. “You are coming with us.”

Tanya shook her head. “You can’t stop my doings when I’m dead,” she said. “If you shoot me, you lose.”

“Wrong, if I shoot, you lose everything and I lose a little,” Antoine said. “We still got Olga.”

“Olga knows nothing,” Tanya said. She listened to the heavy knocks on the door. Antoine could see it bulge, with Priya’s weight leaning against it. Tanya was looking at him. “They are coming to get me out and kill you.”

Antoine let go of her and leaving out his frustration, drove his open palm against her chin, jerking her head and shutting her brain off unconscious. She slumped down like a sack of meat, one arm around the toilet bowl, her head into the filling toilet pan.

Antoine swore. His chances of walking out with her by taking her hostage were gone.

He looked to Priya who was standing like frozen with him in the room. The fear of what would await them when the men managed to break in the door overshadowed the disdain witnessing Antoine’s methods had invoked in her. He had done what was necessary. Priya only had trouble yet with seeing it as what it was.

She looked down at her extraction device. The copying of Tanya’s data was finished. Priya unplugged the smart phone and put it back in Tanya’s bag.

“Priya, open the door on my sign,” Antoine said to her.

She hesitated and wasn’t sure if she heard right. “You want me to what?”

“There’s no window, Priya, we have to walk through that door,” he said.

“But we don’t know who is outside,” Priya said.

“Like in Turkey,” Antoine said. “I’m having enough with toilets. Are you ready?” he wanted to know.

“No,” Priya protested.

“Me neither,” Antoine said under his breath and walked back to get a longer distance between him and the door. “The thing is, we are never ready. But it doesn’t matter.” He started to run and a second before he would crash against the door, he told Priya to open: “Now!”

Priya unblocked the handle and ripped the door open.

A couple of bodies blocked their escape. Antoine could it only see as a blur as he crashed into them, but they were mostly hotel guests and staff that were coming to look what was all the trouble about. Antoine used his momentum to topple the first row of them, regain his footing and shuffle himself through the line. He saw bodyguards storm to them from the elevator. Priya was close on his heels clearing the way from bodies lying on the floor that were trying to hold on to her.

They ran out through the hotel hall, onto the palm boulevard.

Antoine stopped for a moment, looking in both directions.

“You have a ride, Priya?” he asked.

“No,” Priya panted, catching up with him.

They crossed the street halfway, stopping a taxi from full speed by hopping in front of it.

“Let’s get away from here,” Antoine shouted. “Hit the pedal!”

Two days later, the team was reunited at their headquarters. Vienna was a hub for all operations carried out all over Europe and always the most central base of return for whichever agent was sent on a mission.

Jacque was well rested that day, and had stayed in bed while getting served breakfast to the side of his bed this morning. There was only one constant, his laptop with key reports of main companies, private cash position, stocks, investment opportunities, his position in rich list official and unofficial to scan through. The whale banker had made him lose a lot of his fortune. He had just set up a hedge fund and that was embarrassing as it was really hurtful. With his declared money he was no longer in the top figure according to Forbes. He had a Montecristo Cigarillo like most of the days while lying in bed but this time it didn’t taste the same. His butler came in with fresh food and pressed orange and passion fruit juice which he would have to stir so that it mixed well. A mint tea would warm him up as he read his reports. The speed at which he ate depended entirely on the results he was reading.

The detour over Barcelona had given them enough time to finish the voice print scan.

It was mission time, briefing time, where all intelligence had been gathered and for the first time a plan could be mapped out on how they would proceed. Clear objectives, clear targets and even if they didn’t know which plan the other side was following, this would change when they got a hold of the key players.

“We have our targets tracked down,” Rose took the floor. She activated the ID pictures of the two spies that had participated in the intercepted phonecall. One of Olga Kovalenko, of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. The other of Tanya Sharipova, with a picture Priya had taken in Barcelona from her. “Tanya Sharipova, ex-FSB, Olga Kovalenko, active FSB agent. The voice prints provided positive with a seventy-nine chance of certainty. Moreover Antoine and Priya can confirm ID of the ex-FSB operative.”

“The same does not apply to her life signs,” Priya uttered with a glance to Antoine. “We don’t know about her status after we left her behind.”

“She will be fine,” Antoine said. “Ill weeds grow apace.”

“Upon interrogation in Duquesa hotel in Barcelona,” Rose continued and nodded to Priya and Antoine, “Priya could hack into Tanya’s phone. We made an inspection on her contacts, phone calls and messages from the past and could narrow our search down to one lynchpin that seemed the most potential contact.”

“I hacked into Tanya’s phone and got following messages back-dating to the last couple of weeks,” Priya said. “They were taking place between her and the White Minaret, the main broadcast station of al-Nusra in Syria. In the following message, Tanya was in direct contact with a Khorasan group member.” She played the record.

“She doesn’t know it’s a real attack,” Tanya said. “Thinks it’s fake. She is young and naive. She needs my help to stage a fake attack on the Kremlin so that she can stop it and get praise and recognition.”

“Can you handle the weapon?” the Khorasan said.

“I handled nuclear before,” Tanya said. “Remember Alex Luchenko, the FSB spy killed in London.”

“This one is made from radioactive waste dumped off the Somali coast, put together and sent back to the West where it came from. You can bring it on your own soil?” the Khorasan member said.

“I hate Russia,” Tanya said. “The spy-swap lost me my life and everything I built up in the West.”

The man didn’t respond to it.

“It will come via flight to Germany, Berlin,” he said. “You know when, you know the man bringing it to you.”

“This was the one we already knew,” Priya said. “Now with the call history we can say with certainty the other agent mentioned was Olga. We got another call, to a Russian arms dealer, named Yuri.”

She played it.

“Pick up the bomb from Berlin,” Tanya’s voice said. “Pick up the stealth suits and deliver them by the 5th.”

“Understood,” the man named Yuri said.

“Another thing,” Tanya said. “I have to warn you that the price for the suits is already set and don’t let the Chinese try to screw you over the price.”

Priya stopped the recording.

“We also found out how the bomb is getting into Europe,” Rose said.

A third picture surfaced on the screen, replacing the two previous target shots. Name, location, profession, education and career milestones showed up beside the profile. “Khosa, nuclear chemist at Hornboldt University in Berlin, born in Afghanistan, studied in London and moved to Berlin five years ago,” she said. “Very social, works to support the rebels in Syria, wanted to fight Assad, but can’t be there the whole time and with being that out of shape and being an easy target, figured out he doesn’t want to die. Therefore he uses his knowledge and connections to help them in special projects. Part of the university drive is to provide aid to the people on the ground. He makes many trips to donate the goods, brings medicine, chemicals, clothes, food. And what he brings back in return is al-Nusra’s bomb.” She looked into the round, seeing that everyone knew what was about to come. “We will pay him a visit.”

      

 

 

***TWENTY-ONE***

He stepped onto the doormat, looking at the sign that read “Khosa” and pressed the bell. He was inside the garden of a nice villa in the suburbs of Berlin, maybe a little too far off from the thick of the action for his liking. There was all the backup in town that he could wish for, that much Rose had made sure. They were now on Tanya’s list and had to reckon with hard resistance. Till Barcelona they had operated as the silent hunters, their enemies unaware of their existence. The torture in the hotel had changed things. They had stepped out from the shadow into the light and made themselves known. Their enemies knew they were about to find their scientist, it was just a matter of who got there first. Antoine had his Glock 19 holstered and carried it concealed under his jacket.

He shifted in the rain in front of the door and rang the bell again, standing a little offside to avoid getting shot right through the door if they suspected why he was here.

A woman opened the door only a gap. She was immensely beautiful, full blonde curls, light skin and blue eyes.

Things would turn messy if Khosa was at home, probably rummaging for a weapon right now to use the woman as a human shield later.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Hello. Are you Khosa’s wife?” Antoine asked.

She nodded.

“I’m a colleague of him from University,” Antoine said. “Springer.”

He offered her his hand, she grabbed it softly.

“My name is Esther.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said. He kept his voice low to keep their conversation between them and make it difficult for anyone eavesdropping. The less a potential man with a gun behind the door got to know, the more mistakes he was prone to make based on misinformation. “I just wanted to drop by and discuss some things for the next aid supply.” Antoine kept his ears sharpened for someone opening a window to climb out and flee or shoot him into his back. The pelting rain would make it difficult to filter out any abnormalities. “I got interested once he told me about what he’s doing at work and now I’m trying to get in with him, doing something good.” His fingers ached for the grip of his Glock and fondled the air above his holster but his voice was acting calm. “Is he at home?”

“Not yet, but I’m waiting for him,” she said. “He’s just coming back from Syria. Let’s talk inside a little, do you want to come in?”

The reply staggered Antoine. He had nearly forgotten that there was a chance he was talking to an honest person who didn’t know about Khosa’s involvement.

“Yes I would like to,” Antoine said.

Antoine saw the door shut before his nose. But the chance to be played by a good actor was bigger. He heard the lock opened from the inside and the door open. He stepped inside, rain dropping from the leather of his jacket, awaiting an assault from the left behind the door. She held his hand out to him to take the jacket from him.

“Thank you, very kind,” he said.

Esther gestured into the living room and invited him to go first. He entered, scanning it like he would raid a building full of terrorists.

Two children were playing on the carpet, a boy and a girl, in the wide room half parted with western classic and oriental colonial style influences. For a moment Antoine could see A.J. in the room. They took a seat around a big desk under a crystal chandelier, with the opening to the other room in his back. He laid his hand on his gun under the table for no one to see. A glass mirror was the only he had to watch his back.

“Can I offer you water?” Esther asked.

Antoine regarded his dripping wet hair in the large mirror on the wall, thinking for a moment that he had enough of it.

“Yes, that would be nice,” he said nonetheless.

She returned with a glass of water for each of them and looked at him while he took a sip with his left hand, the other one not leaving the grip of his weapon.

“I would be interested to hear about the recent trip,” Antoine said.

“Well I’m sure he has told the story,” Esther said.

She told him nonetheless. Antoine listened carefully and looked for signs of any inconsistencies with the article in the university newspaper Rose had given him. There were none. Esther was either well trained or didn’t know the truth. Antoine had to dig deeper and watch out for that one mistake that would give her away.

“Are you afraid for him?” Antoine asked after she told the story.

“He is doing what makes him happy,” she said.

It was time to mention terrorists.

“I guess I shouldn’t say that, but I heard al-Nusra uses hospitals as headquarters and the Americans had to give them food for it to be distributed, making it look like the aid comes from al-Nusra and America does nothing for the people. Don’t you think it’s a rather dangerous situation?”

“He is only trying to help,” Esther said. “It’s like doctors without borders. They are out of scope of terrorists or the government. Nationalities and borders don’t mean anything, just humanity.”

Antoine thought himself a master of disguise and blending, but he couldn’t detect any sign of her knowing.

“Well I could never do what he is doing,” he said.

“Have you been to Syria before?” she asked.

Antoine shook his head. “Only Turkey and Dubai. The typical vacations. But they are totally different. Did he take you with him one time?”

She shrugged. “No, that’s nothing for me. I prefer more the places like you said.”

He looked around. Pictures on the wall showed Esther with Khosa in several tourist places. Looking happy, relaxed. Like he had before he tore them down from his walls. Like every normal family had, if it hadn’t been destroyed by people who cared nothing for human lives.

“Yes, I guess we are not that adventurous,” he said. “But good that people like him exist. What would be the world without them, right?”

“Right,” Esther said. “I’m glad he is such a good role model for his kids.”

Her eyes were shining bright. Antoine could tell she was proud of her husband. The kids were playing on the floor.

Antoine felt more and more convinced that the wife didn’t know. Maybe even Khosa himself didn’t know what he was doing. It was unlikely but possible.

“I’m interested in hearing how you two met each other,” Antoine said. “And how your husband found his vocation.”

“How he found his vocation?” she repeated and shrugged with her shoulders. “It’s not a nice story to hear.”

Antoine kept staring at her, waiting for her to begin. She sent the kids to the next room and closed the door behind them. Antoine wondered what he would do when someone opened it from the other side. Throw himself into cover and blow his cover or remain on his seat and risk a bullet to his head. He tried to focus on the playing noise of the children and if they would hush if their dad came through the room with a gun in his hand.

“My husband was born in Afghanistan but grew up in Pakistan after fleeing his place of birth,” Esther said. “In the northwestern mountains in the capital of North Waziristan, a town called Miranshah, is where he grew up. Nine years ago a family celebration caused him to return to his former home. Close by there is an old historical fort built by the British in 1905, which is nowadays used by the Tochi Scouts of the Frontier Corps, but there are outside remains that aren’t in use and where children like to play. Like in the days of his childhood, he went there to have fun with his friends. When he was about to go back home to the family gathering, his home with all his family inside was wiped out in an instant. All gone in a huge fireball. The fort ruins saved his life from the shrapnel and bone splinters of his parents. Coming back to the site that was everything he had known in his early life, he wished he had died that day.”

“Who did this?” Antoine wanted to know, but already had a bad feeling.

“One of their own,” Esther told him. “The CIA was beginning to assign the first unmanned drone-strikes targeting alleged militants hiding in the town and surrounding foothills. They were paying informants recruited from the local population to find out where these militants were, and mark them with infrared or other devices. For every militant house, car or meeting point tagged, they were paid a bounty.”

“And there was one alleged militant in that family gathering that day?” Antoine asked.

Esther looked at him and had tears in her eyes. “No. Not one. The informant who had marked my husband’s house was a gambler, broke and always on the look for drugs. He needed the money. He gathered intelligence to find militants first, marked them and got paid. One hundred dollars per target. But the effort increased, it was becoming dangerous and the militants considered changing to another, safer area. The informant, having spent everything on drugs, couldn’t follow them. So he found out he could tag other buildings, places and homes, to get paid the same amount, without the danger and no means to investigate if he was right. The CIA isn’t interested in proving someone’s innocence first before they do a drone strike. No trial, just a swift and clean kill. He marked my husband’s home for a couple hundred dollars. Who could he blame? Revenge wouldn’t bring back his family. Now people there live day in day out under a sky full of drones, ever wondering who will be next. It’s like waiting under the executioner’s axe. But the killer’s the one least to blame. Some young man or woman sitting in a box miles away, on the other side of the globe with a joystick and screen in front of him, seeing the world through the eyes of a drone. He sees through infrared, from a high altitude that doesn’t even make it possible to distinguish between a man carrying a rifle or a shepherd’s crook. He waits for the signal from his operator, telling him when it is a hostile and when it’s a civilian. In case of doubt, it’s a hostile. Every civilian is a potential hostile. They try to weed out terrorists that are hostile to their country, but after the drone strike struck, the whole village will be hostile. One drone strike will do what terrorists couldn’t achieve in ten years in this community, when they tried to turn its citizens. The murderer maybe realizes this, after he watches through the drone’s camera the heat signs of blood and body parts of his victims fading into the background grey of the cold ground until they become one.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Antoine said. “Your husband must have bad feelings against the CIA.”

“He did have a hard time,” Esther said. “On one side, blaming Russia for their invasion of his home which forced him to leave Afghanistan. On the other side the Americans who killed his family. Now he is trying to help those who experience the same thing.” She tried to force a smile to her face.

“So, would you like to stay for dinner?” Esther asked him. “Wait here till he arrives and then we eat together?”

“When will his plane be arriving?” he said.

“Tegel airport at ten o’clock.”

“At ten? Thank you, but no, I won’t stay,” Antoine said. “That’s far too kind but I won’t bother you anymore.”

He rose from the table and got his jacket. Esther opened the door to the living room. Maybe they had waited that long and that was the sign. If so, then well played.

“I’m gonna leave,” he said, taking a look back at the children. Nothing happened. “Thank you for the water.”

He went out of the door, wishing Esther a nice evening, which he knew was not about to come anytime soon again.

Antoine pulled up the collar of his leather jacket and walked out into the rain. Esther gazed after him till he was back in his car in the scientist’s house’s driveway.

Antoine activated the speaker-phones as he reversed the BMW back on the street.

“How are you doing there, Rose?” he spoke into it.

“Establishing ourselves here in Berlin,” Rose said. “It’s not the nineteenth district detached house with garden and trees I’m used to but it will be enough for the time being.”

Antoine smiled. He knew she was used to her furnishings in very English nature with art and ornaments from around the world and former commonwealth colonies. She was a collector of things and the only thing collecting in the base they used in Berlin would be dust and paperwork.

“Khosa wasn’t home, but I had a talk with his wife,” he said. “I will intercept him in two hours when he arrives at Tegel airport from Damascus.”

“Right,” said Rose. “Very well, pick Khosa up from the airport, we will see you later.”

He was joining a highway, the guardrail guiding him up under white neon lights.

“I’m on the way.”

Antoine reached Tegel airport, leaving the car at the parking lot for the arrivals and hurried into the hall. He needed to be there first, before the Russians could intercept Khosa and he needed time to assess the situation and surroundings.

Everything seemed quiet in the waiting hall, but a nervousness filled the air, a nervousness of seeing relatives and friends again. He locked eyes with people who observed him. Tanya might have made his face known to the men working for her and he was sure he could expect a beating at best and a shootout at worst if they weren’t on a more important mission to pick up Khosa. He kept his fingers in motion to draw fast if necessary as he walked through the crowd. His eyes scanned the movements of hands under sleeves, in jackets, behind suitcases and newspapers.

The time of arrival had already passed fifteen minutes. No announcements showed up. No passengers coming out through the door in front of which taxi drivers and acquaintances lurked like a hungry crowd to pick at them.

The suspicious men looked unsettled. Their eye movements and contact to each other increased. But they had to follow the instructions. Pick Khosa up at the airport. It was what Antoine was here to foil.

“Priya, do me a favor and check the incoming flights from Damascus to Berlin,” Antoine said into his phone. “I got a feeling something isn’t right.”

All possible scenarios played in Antoine’s head. An accident, an airplane hijacking with a dirty bomb on board, or a mysterious disappearance like it happened in Malaysia only several weeks ago. The best, most destructive way to detonate a dirty bomb was in the troposphere, increasing the terrible effects from an explosion on ground level. It suddenly became very hot in his suit and he tried to breathe. The constant pressure and knowledge that the life of so many was hanging on a thread was too much. Sometimes he thought it was better to not know about it. He envied the people waiting careless for a plane to arrive. He would change their minds with them in an instant, but once you knew something, you couldn’t make it unknown again. Wishful thinking was useless. He focused on the task at hand. Here were the facts. If anything had gone wrong, it would go more and more downhill from there. He was surrounded by a bunch of hired guns which were ready to kill him if he or something else crossed their plans. If he got out of this, he still wouldn’t know where the bomb and Khosa had gone. Since nine eleven the scale in which terrorist attacks could be done had become terribly clear and the fear of anything like it happening again gripped the world to the marrow.

“Antoine,” Priya said.

“Yes?”

“Khosa’s flight was rerouted,” she said.

“What?”

“But apart from that everything seems right,” Priya said. “There were no deviations from procedure received.”

“How is that possible?” Antoine asked. “Where to?”

“Berlin has a second airport several kilometers away,” she said. “The plane already landed.”

Antoine swore. “I can’t make it in time. Who is close?”

“I will contact Kovacs,” she said. “He is on his way.”

“Thanks Priya. We must not let him get away.”

He put his phone away and walked back to the car. Several men got up and followed him with quick strides. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Khosa’s wife Esther had been lying to him but given her hospitality it was hard to believe.

 

 

***TWENTY-TWO***

Nate Kovacs was in the airport hall, waiting for the arrivals. The overhead board was showing the flight from Damascus on time, climbing up the rankings to the most actual arrival. He left his seat and the newspaper he had picked up behind and walked to the terminal exit. Private taxi and shuttle bus drivers waited with name tags on people to pick up. Kovacs took a place among them and observed the exit. He had to get Khosa before Tanya’s men could get a hold on him. For all he knew, they had the same information than him and were probably close by. Kovacs scanned through the people standing close to him. Passengers were flocking by from the next flight. The noise was loud from excited reunions and a general chatter between bystanders, scudding passengers and questioned personnel to get directions. Over the speakers incoming flights were announced and echoed time-displaced through the halls. He spotted Khosa, looking not far off from the profile picture he had seen during the briefing. The intel was up to date. He approached the scientist and reached out his hand to him.

“Mr. Khosa,” Kovacs said and shook his hand.

“Yes?” Khosa said.

“Tanya sends me,” Kovacs said. He didn’t need to fake a Russian accent. His Serbian descent was doing the job for him.

“Who?” Khosa said. “I don’t know anyone called Tanya. Who are you?”

“I’m here to pick up my package,” Kovacs said.

“You mean the art piece,” Khosa said. He had brought it in a special case.

“Yeah sure, whatever you call it,” Kovacs said and took it from him. “The least I can do now for you is to drive you home. I heard there’s a train strike.”

Khosa was hesitant, but then agreed. “Why not.”

He reluctantly looked around and followed him outside where the Mercedes was waiting. Kovac offered him a seat on the back seat and put the case with the bomb into the trunk.

Once Kovacs took a seat behind the driving wheel, the doors locked. The car rolled off from the airport street.

“Why are the doors locked?” Khosa asked.

“It’s safer for you,” Kovacs said.

“Where are you taking me to?” Khosa wanted to know, when leaving his seat at the back and clawing his fingers around the co-driver’s seat.

Kovacs looked back at him through the rear-view mirror. “Just for a talk.”

“Antoine,” Rose called him back. “We got a situation here.”

“I’m listening.”

“Two vans are pulling in on Khosa’s doorstep,” she said. “They don’t look like electricians. Priya is counting eight men closing in on the house from all sides.”

Antoine swore and hit the brake, taking a highway exit that was past his point of return.

“I’m heading back,” he said to Rose, hands gripping on the steering wheel. He clenched his teeth as the tires squealed. “Send me all the support you can give me and call 1-1-0.”

“Already done, Antoine.”

He hit the pedal and speeded back in the direction he came from. The traffic lights were in his favor, but not always. He had to slow down at a red light on a crossroads, change lanes and overtake a column of halting cars. Antoine barely made it over the crossroads before accelerating again. Still, it took him eight minutes to get back to the scientist’s house. Even if his gut feeling told him he wanted to crash right into the villa and meet the opposition head on to save Esther, he approached with a moderate tempo to raise no suspicion and attention. He halted at the sidewalk in front of the house, his Glock pulled out from under his jacket and crossed the street. The driveway leading up to the villa’s entrance was already empty again, tire tracks having churned through the grass on the lawn. The two vans were gone, but Antoine couldn’t say the same for all of the insurgents for sure.

Kovacs halted at an abandoned construction site, where no one was around in a distance of several hundred meters. It was full of cranes, caterpillars and scaffoldings and dug out underground levels. Rain the day before had turned the ground into mud and puddles and the standing water brought out odor from soil after rain, ground water and silicone. Water dropped onto plastic coverings and planks which covered the ground like bridges over the cratered landscape.

“Why here?” Khosa wanted to know.

“Because no one else is around,” Kovacs said.

He left the car, leaving Khosa inside behind and walked to the back of the Mercedes.

Kovacs checked the package in the trunk. It was not an art piece. Khosa stayed locked in the car, while Kovacs took out his counter to check the radiation. He took a picture to send to Rose together with the readings. It was obviously radioactive. He went back to Khosa.

“Can I have your phone please?” he asked Khosa.

“Why are you asking for my phone?” Khosa said.

“Can I have your phone. Please,” Kovacs repeated.

Khosa looked like he thought he didn’t have much of a choice. At least about that he was right.

“Fine,” he said. He handed Kovacs the phone.

“Why do you have a radioactive art piece to give me?” Kovacs asked him.

“Radioactive? This is what your uncle said you wanted. Don’t ask me.”

Kovacs sat there in silence. Then a phone call from Rose. She had a situation with Antoine only a couple minutes before.

Antoine ran up the stairs, a broken door swinging on its hinges. The lock was smashed and dented in by a crude room entering device like a battering ram. Antoine noticed the light sensors didn’t work when he approached the mansion. No alarm had been raised. That meant the power in the area had been cut off by rigging the breaker box.

Antoine clutched the pistol grip tight and entered the building. He had no flashlight with him and had to make do with what little he could see. His eyes took some time to adjust to the dark, being still accustomed to the light flashes of night traffic. He could hear police sirens from afar. The pungent sweet odor of chloroform hung in the air where the drinking glasses were dropped. Gun at the ready he returned to where he last had seen Esther. His breathing quickened and he had to steady his chest movement to hold the gun stable. Thoughts raced across his mind to play through what was going on. Maybe they were still there. It was possible they left someone behind to hold everyone up coming after them. A madman with a death-wish could hide behind curtains or the couch, behind a corner or the door, to cause a blood-bath among the first few police officers entering the house, and first of all, Antoine himself.

The living room was gloomy without the warm light and the mirror and crystal chandeliers played games with Antoine’s illusion. The glasses were spilled, water dripping from the edge of the table. A stool was overturned. Broken shards lay on the ground that crunched like nut-shells under his shoe-soles. A nightmare come true. He saw A.J. in front of him again, and his mum taken away. He blinked them away. There was also another smell. Male sweat, intense cologne, smokes. He swung his gun from left to right, covering the angles of the room. Without the fluorescent marked sights it would have been nearly impossible to see his own weapon in front of his face. He followed these marks with his lead eye and followed his surroundings with the other. Police Opel Sport Tourers arrived outside and cast their blue emergency lights into the house that ran from one side of the wall to the next. He dashed into the adjoining room, the one the children had been playing on the floor. The toys were turned over and trampled in a haste, not on purpose, but just because they must have gotten in the way. As Antoine looked over to the open bathroom door, he saw two black bags corded up on the floor, the size of a washing through. He froze as he saw the silhouettes of feet, shoulders and heads through the covering bags and nearly had to throw up. His gut clenched and he felt a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. His hackles rose and the chill wandered up his spine till it consumed the whole back of his head, in a tingling, throbbing feeling like cold needles sticking into his skin. He knew that feeling. It was when he saw something he didn’t want to see, something that grossed him out like it should not belong into a human’s thoughts, let alone experience.

They had killed the children, but in a way that reminded him of an incidence a couple of months ago. A man had been found inside his apartment in the UK, with all doors locked, no traces or signs of self-defense left, died of a medically natural death and found in that same kind of body bag that were used for the children. Conventional terrorists wouldn’t take the expenses to stage a murder or kill clean like that, they would leave the bodies exposed to inspire fear. This reeked of a secret agency or Special Forces standing behind it. There was no trace of Esther. Antoine suspected that they had taken her.

Antoine startled, as the door lock cracked open.

Police officers broke into the door, the light cones of their flashlights beaming through the interior. Antoine had to run, even though his legs refused to. He got up and turned for the garden exit.

“Halt!” one of the policemen shouted and followed him through the rooms.

He ran.

 

 

***TWENTY-THREE***

Kovacs checked nothing around was deep enough or spiked with metal parts, that Khosa could easily kill himself with when he heard the news. Even if everything terrible already happened, Kovacs had to choose his words carefully. He would try to get useful information beforehand, if Khosa lost his sense later. And he would lie to him about his wife, even if he already hated himself for even taking it into consideration.

“Alright, I’ve been lying to you,” said Kovacs. “I’m not Alex, Alex wanted to pick up your package. And now he is attacking your house.”

“What do you mean, attack?” Khosa said.

Kovacs didn’t respond. He could see Khosa was getting more and more agitated, his face turning with red spots.

“Hey, talk to me,” he shouted. “Hey!”

Kovacs closed the door behind him and left him bumping against the window. He could hear his muffled screams.

He went in front of the car and leant on the engine hood, took out a pack of cigarettes and called Rose.

“I can’t read him,” he said. “I’ve secured the bomb. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Where is he now?” Rose asked.

“He is in the car, I locked the doors,” he said.

“What do you mean, you just left him alone?” Rose said. “He could take a cyanide capsule.”

Kovacs shrugged. “We don’t need him anymore.”

“Bring him in, we need to find out more about the al-Nusra network, the Khorasan group and their ties to Tanya,” Rose said. “He might be fully involved or just a carrier but either way Khosa might have information we could use.”

Kovacs just stood in front of the car chain smoking, waiting for Khosa to shut up and more information from Rose, whatever would happen first.

Antoine broke through a scrub, then jumped up a fence, leaving it behind him in a second. There were times when the old obstacle course from military training proved handy. Street lights blinded him, so he averted his gaze from them to adjust his natural night sight to the darkness. He activated his headset. It had gotten loose and cold in comparison to the tip of his finger and he could hear the pounding of his own heart inside.

“Rose, they are gone, could you see anything from Esther?” he whispered. “The kids are dead.”

“My god,” Rose sighed. “They took one body with them. We lost their signatures in the traffic.”

Antoine rested his head in his palm while he kneeled behind a fence in a foreign garden. He could see the light turned on inside that house and silhouettes of a family through the window. A TV screen projected dancing reflections against the window pane. The father of the family stood up and turned to the window, looking out.

“I have no idea what’s going on here,” Antoine said.

“Me neither,” Rose said. “We have to get Khosa. They will establish contact with him if they keep Esther alive. And they will make demands. At least let’s hope they do.”

Antoine kept low and sneaked forward, to the beginning of the next garden. He had to get away soon, before the police found the dead bodies and started a manhunt on him. After that he would only have minutes left till a helicopter would search the area for him with an infrared Linescan reconnaissance equipment he could no longer hide from.

There was still the rented BMW 320i he had parked remotely from the scientist’s house. If he had followed his initial instinct and driven right in front of the door step, the cops would have it and find out who rented it. He had to retrieve it before they were able to close off the whole neighborhood and send in the crime scene investigators.

“Priya, am I right in assuming that you lost the package?” Antoine said.

“That is correct,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

“Use the drone to guide me out,” he said.

Not much had changed on the construction site. The wind had slowed slightly and the number of cigarette butts around Kovacs’ feet had increased. His pose and Khosa banging against the car had not changed.

Kovacs’ phone rang. It was Rose.

“Can we go now?” he said to himself.

“Well you can go home,” Rose said.

Kovacs detected depression in her voice.

“What happened?” he said.

“Wife’s missing, kids are dead, police are all over the place,” Rose said.

Kovacs looked at the cigarette pack. He was almost out. That meant he couldn’t stay here any longer.

There was silence on the phone for a while, only the noise of the lighter, when Kovacs lit another smoke.

“Bring him in,” Rose said.

Kovacs looked to the Mercedes with Khosa still banging against the window and furious about being held captive with no information for the last twenty minutes.

Kovacs drew a grimace with the cigarette in his mouth. “He won’t be thrilled to hear it.”

“Then don’t tell him,” Rose said.

Kovacs ended the phone call, put it back in and casually finished his cigarette. As he threw it away, it was the only cigarette butt that didn’t land next to his foot. A sign of frustration.

He opened the door, oblivious to Khosa cussing him out and let himself sink behind the steering wheel. He had hoped twenty minutes would have calmed him down. It didn’t. He sat down, put on the seat belt and started the engine, all the time ignoring everything Khosa was saying. He turned to Khosa and offered him one of his four remaining cigarettes.

“Do you smoke?” he said.

“No,” Khosa said. “Never have.”

Kovacs handed him one anyway. “You might wanna start now.”

They all met in the box, their safe house at Berlin west harbor. It was a freight container disguised as one for standard cargo transportation, with access only to Rose and Jacque. The agency held several such boxes, used as fallback stations in major cities all over the world. In case of Berlin it was a small base, housing fake IDs, disguises, food, shelter, survival gear and an armory to start a small war. They had come mostly for the latter.

Rose stood in the middle, revealing the walls stocked with guns and assault rifles. Every step they made sounded like clattering over a metal plankway that reminded Antoine on a prison complex in his past. Their voices echoed from the walls of the small chamber. The air was thick and stank of electronic cables and processors like in a server room. The smell of weapon oil and the metallic taste of ammunition around were more familiar to Antoine. Newly manufactured plastic grips and weapon housings gave off their own odor. Much like new toys, or the smell of a new car, it was something special. Antoine looked around. Laptop holdings were bolted directly into the ribbed walls. Everywhere flickered screens on the little spaces of walls that they had. Khosa looked like a child, lost in a surrounding that astounded him and which he didn’t understand.

A phone rang but it took Kovacs some time to realize it came from his pocket.

He fished it out. The display showed Esther’s name.

“It’s for you,” he said and gave it to Khosa.

“Put it on the speaker,” Rose said.

“No, I wanna talk in private with my wife,” Khosa said.

“Please, put it on the speaker,” Rose said again.

Khosa complied.

“Darling?”

A Russian voice answered, not a darling at all. “She’s with us.”

“Who’s there?” Khosa asked.

“You were supposed to give a package to Alex,” the voice said. “You didn’t. You broke a promise. We broke ours.”

“What promise?” Khosa said.

Antoine looked to Kovacs. From his looks he must have grown tired of questions during the last hour. For him it was just the same old. Still Antoine couldn’t stop thinking what he would do if this was his wife.

Next to him he heard a whisper, Rose talking to Priya.

“How do we find them?” she said.

The voice on the phone spoke again.

“Meet Alex, give Alex gift. Alex didn’t receive his gift.”

“Wait wait wait, I gave it to Alex,” Khosa said.

Kovacs saw Khosa looking at him, and just reached for another cigarette.

“I’m not Alex,” he whispered under his breath.

Kovacs lit the cigarette and took a drag.

Khosa’s jaw dropped. If expressions would speak, it would say “what the hell”.

Kovacs exhaled and put his finger to his lips.

“Cut the crap,” the voice on phone said. “Do I look like a damn idiot to you? I am Alex and I don’t have the gift. Can you get me the bomb or not?”

Khosa’s jaw just dropped further.

Kovacs with a cigarette in his hand was just nodding.

Khosa had to pull himself together.

“I’m really sorry for the misunderstanding,” he said. “Yes I will get it for you.”

“I want it in two hours, in the middle of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” Alex said.

Khosa nodded. “Just don’t hurt my…”

Before he could say “wife” they hung up.

In the long silence that followed, the air was tense, electrified and so thick you could cut it with a rusty butter knife. It was buzzing not only because of the booting of the computers around them.

Bekkend conducted a three hundred sixty degree scan of Khosa’s skull and facial features. On his face, the thin line of the scanner raced up and down as Bekkend orbited around him. He flipped open his laptop and got to work, powering all channels online. Antoine pulled out a city map and fixed it on a folding table normally used for camping, pinning it down and marking important locations with needles. It had been a while since he had last used one of these and the nostalgia invoked some memories. Nowadays they were used to zoomable touch screen maps, satellite or drone video feed pictures. It reminded him on the missions were he hadn’t have technology available and had to make do with what little they had.

Rose came to them and leant over the table. Kovacs, Smith, Mini, Bekkend and Priya where there. They regarded the map curiously.

“They issued an ultimatum…,” Rose said into the round, “we need a plan.” She moved figures and pins on the map over the square of the Jewish Memorial and showed them a 3D view of the site. “The Memorial of the Murdered Jews is a maze of rectangular parallel arranged stone blocks, making it a nightmare to have an overview over the whole square. Khosa will meet the Russians at the arranged location, in the middle of the square. He will carry the bomb they claimed, but it will be a mock-up. Same as him. We will disguise Antoine as Khosa. They are going to bring Esther forward. Antoine will leave as soon as Esther is with him, but not following the same way he came in. He should use the terrain and move in zig zag between the stone blocks to get out of their firing lanes… and ours. As soon as Antoine and Esther are out of the way, we will try to get ahold of the Russians. Kovacs, Bekkend, Mini, Smith will be on the ground and close by, but can interfere only after contact has been made. We have to assume that the Russians are making use of at least one sniper. Priya will stay here with me controlling the drone, with which we will try to locate him, while I coordinate our movements. The buildings around the square are low and provide bad angles on the stone block field, but there is a hot-air balloon to the south. We will put our own sniper, agent Smith there, who will give us long-range cover from that vantage. After six minutes from the beginning of the exchange, everyone will fall back to the getaway car, situated here along this street, with Kovacs waiting or take other transportation to get back to the box. We will regroup here at 03:00 AM. We don’t have much time for this. Any questions?”

There were none. In fact, there were a lot of questions going on in Khosa’s head right now, but none he dared to ask in the company of spies.

“If this is my wife being exchanged, I’m coming with you,” he said.

Antoine went down the aisle of never ending stone blocks, counting them silently but getting distracted and mixed up by the simple fact he was walking directly into the enemies’ guns. He didn’t have to count any longer. He could see silhouettes standing between the rows, first two, then three and four coming up from behind the stone blocks, like in the waves at a sea shore. The ground was curved as was the surface of the blocks. Resembling pieces on a checkerboard as he had to draw closer, like a pawn walking on a field in range of a dame. With the mask of Khosa on his face. He held no weapon in his hands. Except the bomb he was wearing of course, the mock up. It wasn’t a worthless piece of metal at all. Not as advanced and deadly as the real thing, but still loaded with enough explosives to blow out a couple of blocks of the memorial. He watched left and right as he went over the crossroads. Every lane was empty except the one he had chosen. Every stone stood like a tombstone on a war cemetery. Except these were not for soldiers. These were made for the victims who had been killed with no weapon in hand. Just like him, he thought, just like him.

His heartbeat drummed in his ears. His face underneath the mask itched.

Men appeared from behind the blocks.

“Hostile on the left,” he whispered. “He has an assault rifle. Another, right, assault rifle.”

There were faces he didn’t know, Russians, and one face he did know, as he drew closer. The face of Esther.

Khosa saw the negotiator at last. It was one of Olga’s bodyguards from Barcelona, Dimitri, one of the ex-special forces soldiers. He was the one looking most relaxed, the one who believed the situation under control. Or maybe, because he didn’t care about the outcome anymore and just wanted to see the world around him perish in flames.

“Contact center. Handgun. He has the hostage.”

Antoine nodded to him and carefully placed the bomb right in front of them like it was his own child. It was supposed to be his package he had brought from Khosa’s al-Nusra contacts or their middlemen. At the same time it was able to wipe them all out in a heartbeat. His breathing rose from giving it into the hands of those terrorists, even more than the muzzles of guns that were pointed at him and following his every step. This was one single nightmare. The worst that could happen wasn’t to die. It was to see the real dirty bomb that was back in the box go over into the hands of the terrorists and knowing that they would use it to claim a thousand more lives than only the life of Khosa’s children. For Khosa, it was already too late to be saved. He had been drawn too deep into it. All that counted now, was Khosa’s wife. Antoine took a step back and waited that they let Esther free. He smiled at her, as best as he could.

One of the Russians went forward to get the bomb, while the other holding Esther tightened his grip, not letting her go yet.

“What’s wrong?” Antoine asked. “You got everything you wanted.”

Dimitri nodded to his accomplice to let the wife go.

“You people never learn those things,” he said and raised his gun.

Dimitri pulled the trigger and evoked a bright bang with a muzzle flash accompanying it through the night, as he shot Esther in the face.

 

 

***TWENTY-FOUR***

Antoine gasped.

The killer used the opportunity to aim his weapon at him and fired again. A bullet hit Antoine in the chest even before he could close his eyes. His clothes ripped open somewhere on his torso close to vital organs where the bullet intruded. The force threw him back off his feet. He hit the floor hard, his head banging on the stone and air pressed out of his lungs. Several ribs had been broken without a doubt. Dimitri hadn’t aimed on his vital organs, which was intended at this range and his expertise. He didn’t want to kill the alleged scientist, but break him and take him with them. The possibility that the bomb was a scam was not beyond their minds.

His enemies stood for a split second. Then, a whiff of air passed Antoine overhead from a projectile fired from five hundred meters away. It penetrated another man’s throat and blew out the back of his spine, spraying Dimitri’s face with arterial blood. Neither the shot, nor the man made a sound as life left him. He simply toppled over, killed by a six point five millimeter round from a sniper rifle in steady hands and pressed firmly against Smith’s cheek. Antoine could imagine how he would see it from his high point up in the hot-air balloon as a gush of mosaic droplets against the back of the cold grey stone through his infrared visor.

“One down,” Smith breathed into his micro-bead.

Dimitri was the first to react. He didn’t wait to throw himself over behind a stone block. The other mercenary cleared the lane and disappeared behind the other side. He held his weapon around the corner and started plinking sustained bursts.

Antoine stirred on the ground and shoved himself with his elbows over the floor. The effort made his ribcage hurt from humping up. He slid with his shoe soles over the ground and tried to push himself away from the killers. Then he remembered the gun. He reached inside his jacket, under the Kevlar vest, where a pillow imitated the form of a belly. Dug in there, was his Glock 19 with all the trimmings. Antoine wasn’t what he appeared to be after all. He wasn’t a scientist.

Antoine contorted his face under the scientist’s mask. The latex over his skin couldn’t quite display the grimace he was drawing as he reached for the pistol’s grip and drew it out from his pouch. He lined up while lying still on his back, the weapon unlocked and showing the face of his enemy through the c-more sights attached to the Glock’s sledge. He pulled the trigger and sent a loud bang through the confined spaces of the labyrinth square. It sent the other mercenary down grunting, while letting him sink to his knees first before falling over.

Antoine got up and turned. He started running and sidestepped to bring a stone block between him and Dimitri. Right in time before two gunmen showed up out of their cover. Right in time before Mini opened fire on them and sent a hail of splintering masonry on everything cowering in the area.

Mini lay low on her belly, with her assault rifle prepped on a two-pod while she spit bullets on full auto. The stock of the gun hammered against her shoulder like a jackhammer, brass pelting down beside her and into her hair. The rifle didn’t make a loud bang like the older variants of the Russians. It was more a high pitched whirr, lacking in sheer power but making you half deaf in another intricate manner. Her Steyr A3 combined next generation technology but Mini had modified it even more to move outside the borders of what was legal according to the Geneva Convention. Their armorer had issued her with high-velocity ammunition that would cause hydrostatic shock in those unfortunate enough to be hit by it.

A mercenary came around the corner at Antoine, trying to storm him. He got stopped in his tracks as a high velocity round penetrated his stomach. He continued a couple of meters like a runner who had reached the finish line, clutching his stomach wound, before the projectile produced a hydraulic effect in his liquid-filled tissues, spreading out from his nerves to his brain like a shockwave. In his case it was luck that had spared him from dying of hemorrhaging. In Antoine’s case he would rather have the bullets coming in further away from his position.

The enemies were closing in. Several more of the mercenaries appeared and were trying to flank him. He had to fall back, but at the same time out of Mini’s firing lane and the alley his enemies were laying down fire.

Antoine pushed himself up and ran, a turn here then around another corner, changing lanes and directions. The ones trying to flank him met him in an adjacent corridor and Antoine had to jump back to where he had come from, still heading towards Mini. Something from far away cracked, a rifle shot coming from the roofs behind him. Before he could react, the bullet hit home and blew out a chunk of rock where his head had been only a split second before. He pulled in his head but was too late to avoid the splinters backwashing into his face and tearing his skin up like tiny shrapnel.

Antoine changed his route, running even faster. His lungs were burning and the broken rib throbbing against his organs made him cough.

Mini was keeping up with him wherever she could. She knew which lanes he was choosing, or more which ones she would have chosen. More often than not she was right. Folding up her weapon’s bipod, she moved from lane to lane, firing from the crouch to cover his retreat. As a tech-nut and ex-biathlete she was a trigger-finger and didn’t save on ammo. Her first magazine got low, but the change was so fast as it wouldn’t have happened. She ripped out the empty clip, which was attached upside down to two other full magazines, all stuck together with duct tape. She turned it, readjusted and hit home the new clip.

“This high-speed ammo is freaking me out,” Antoine cried over his speaker-set.

Despite the stress Mini smiled at the pretend-scientist’s form as he came closer, his facial mask ripped open and forming an expression of dread not even the real Khosa could have managed.

“Use grenades if you really have to, for Christ’s sake,” he told her.

Mini sent a fire-burst over his shoulder, just to drive him madder.

The two snipers engaged in a hide and seek game. Which side was able to find the other equivalent first by the help of infrared, muzzle-flashes and topography would win. Smith felt he was close to finding his enemy. He was somewhere on the building north of the square, on the roof of the US embassy. A bold move, but not bolder than his own.

Smith was inside the balloon’s cockpit, when he saw a muzzle flash. He took aim, slightly over the source. The crack-sound echoed over the square the six hundred meters to Smith’s position. He breathed out and calmed down, glad the sniper didn’t get him and he was still alive. He moved his finger over the trigger. Something made the balloon buckle. His aim was off and he had to look up to the balloon to see what was happening. The air vehicle was hit and the mechanisms seemed to be broken. Burning gas was streaming out and setting the balloon aflame.

Smith cursed and tried to repair the damage. The flames spread like wildfire and consumed the material in a ball of flame. He realized there was nothing he could do. He was going down, first slowly, then as the balloon folded and collapsed, down like a stone from a height higher than the surrounding rooftops. He tried to get closer to one of the buildings to land onto the rooftop, but the thing couldn’t be maneuvered anymore. He emitted a cry as he failed to grab an eaves gutter and fell down arms weaving. A wet bump ended his descend on the sidewalk, meters beside from where the burning balloon came down. The gas canister leaked liquid gas that ran out over the street and set the asphalt on fire. Alone, with injuries unknown and somewhere in this puddle Smith lay with his sniper rifle broken and just out of reach.

Kilometers away, in the box in Berlin’s west harbor, Rose guarding the case with the dirty bomb let her head sag into her hands.

She opened a channel to all outside personnel and took a deep breath before speaking into her micro-bead.

“All agents, we have a casualty, agent Smith is down. Status unknown. Casualty inflicted by hostile sniper.”

“Mission abort,” Antoine’s remark came back, panting, with close gunfire transmitted over his radio.

Rose recovered and exchanged a glance with Priya, who was manning the laptop and steering the drone.

“We will proceed as planned. Continue the mission! Get this bastard!” she told her.

Priya was hunched in front of her computer. She wore her thick-rimmed glasses and still had to squinny her eyes to absorb everything the drone camera was showing her on the small screen. It was like driving a tank, like seeing through small slits and windows while you maneuvered a machine that needed three hundred-sixty degree visuals to operate efficiently, let alone stay intact. Priya tried hard to keep flight mistakes to a minimum. Driving a car in the streets was one thing, sailing a yacht through the Croatian see another, but flying a drone through rural area on top of a gunfight was something completely different. The picture feed gave constant distortions and black outs from interferences of passing bullets and grenade explosions.

Mini was giving them hell with her launcher. Priya swooshed with the quadrocopter over the graveyard-like Memorial of Murdered Jews, bearing down on the enemy sniper. He was on top of the US embassy building, right in front of her nose. The marksman had tunnel vision, not seeing Priya’s drone while he aimed down at Antoine and Mini. Priya had to use which little time she had before her approach would be audible.

“Closer, closer, come on!” Priya whispered, pushing the joystick forward. She uncovered the safety trigger, with which to fire the one-shot dart-gun built on the underside of the quadrocopter. One shot, one chance with a tranquilizer to neutralize the enemy sniper and buy her friends more time.

The Russian stirred. He lifted his head, hidden under a crude bandana. He had heard something, the whirring of rotors like from a ventilation system, then lined up through his infrared scope. He saw the drone and Priya wasn’t close enough yet.

Beads of sweat formed on Priya’s temples. Priya yanked the joystick hard. The old sniper rifle, having seen service in Jugoslavia and Georgia, gave out a deafening bang and the screen flickered.

Dimitri abandoned his cover. He stepped onto the parapet of the stone block he was leaning against and became one with his surroundings. The suit he wore was equipped with technology to give back an image as if the suit and its wearer weren’t there. As long as the power stayed on and fed enough energy to the suit, he was practically invisible. He stepped onto the stone block and began running, a shape of distorted air turbulence, rain pelting off him, but not visible, almost like a black hole in the night. He leapt over the gap that formed the canyon between rows of stone blocks, one at first, then another and faster once he accustomed himself to the constant distance. He outpaced the mercenaries trying to flank Mini and Antoine’s position who combed through the square like hunters through a corn field.

The sniper shot grazed the metallics of the quadrocopter drone and let the camera black out for a second. Wouldn’t Priya have done an evasive maneuver, the bullet would have shot the drone out of the sky. She tried hard to regain her balance, lining up to get a hold on the reloading sniper.

“Avenge him, girl,” Rose said. “I believe in you. And Smith did too.”

Priya uttered a prayer and fired, releasing a micro-dart right into the sniper’s position. She squeezed her eyes together, waiting for the picture feed to go black and a screeching bang of failing electronics in her ears. But it didn’t come. The one-shot dart had penetrated the Russian’s neck, releasing narcotics into the bloodstream. The sniper’s vision faded and he gave one last shot with his finger cramping around the trigger before his head bumped against the rifle visor.

Antoine turned as he heard steps approaching. He was half deaf from the detonation of Mini’s grenades and the high pitched wail of her high velocity rounds, but he still recognized it on the last few meters. It was the sound of someone running full speed, with the high chance of imminent impact. He thought he had checked all approach ways from being clear and was taken by surprise they had made it that close without going through Mini’s defensive fire. Never in a million years would he thought someone was crazy enough to take the high road. It was a move he could have pulled off when he was pumped with drugs and had nothing to lose. No sane man would do this. Only a ghost.

He looked up and saw the ghost materialize in front of him. It appeared on top of Antoine’s cover like a spacecraft approaching out of hyperspace, the void that was making up his form collapsing and being filled out with visible matter. A matter that would soon turn into something very sensible. A futuristic looking suit, boots, limbs, a head, a gun, crashing out of the rain. A lightning strike illuminated Dimitri in its full height and Antoine’s mind realized he had to brace his body for inevitable collision. He raised his gun, but Dimitri was on him. He jumped down from the block on Antoine knee first and used his full momentum to simply run through him. Antoine felt the air pressed out of his lungs yet again, damaged ribs breaking more into the tissue of his organs. The barrel of a gun hit him over the temple and let him black out for a second, in which he collapsed and the attacker toppled over him. He came to, seeing stars but his weapon still in his grip and tried to fire into the body on top of him. He was too close and too entangled to actually be able to aim, each one in each others’ range that made it impossible to shoot another. Antoine fixed Dimitri’s arm against the ground and off-loaded his body over him. They both grabbed each other’s weapon arms and got to their feet, heads kept together. Antoine could taste the salty sweat of his opponent, his torn facemask rubbing off more and more from the stubble on Dimitri’s hair stubble. Parts of the mercenary’s gear came off while they both pressed on to get leverage over the other.

“Mr. Khosa,” Dimitri growled, “I didn’t expect you to lose your face in this meeting.”

 

 

***TWENTY-FIVE***

Antoine broke free from the grip and delivered a thrust with his forehead against the mercenary’s nose. Dimitri stumbled back. He shrugged it off well, but his vision was blurred from the sudden pain and tears in his eyes.

“Agent, aren’t we?” Dimitri said. “Trying to get in bed with the enemy.” Antoine could see it in the man’s face how the realization hit him he was the one who had tortured Tanya and got on their trace since. “Nice to meet you again at your funeral.”

They both raised their weapons and began shooting. Antoine’s first shots went wide, while he tried to duck for cover himself. Dimitri and he dived forward, trying to throw themselves flat, both into the same direction. They connected again, each putting out two, three shots while leading to a next clutch and pulling each other up on the other’s body.

Dimitri’s Chiappa Rhino revolver gleamed in the dark. Antoine could see it was highly modified up to unrecognizability.

“Your small Glock will make a nice backup after I break it out of your cold dead hands,” Dimitri said through gritted teeth.

Antoine got a hold down under Dimitri’s arm and slowly shifted his stance.

“When you’re Austrian, you should go Austrian,” he spat.

“Then I’ll bury you with the thousand Jews here,” Dimitri told him. “Your people and mine face off again in Berlin, isn’t that destiny? Tell me, how did it work out the last time?”

Antoine gritted his teeth and brought out every last ounce of energy left in his muscles. He could feel his biceps bulge and arteries coming out along his forearms and temples. He brought the arm wider around and got into a better position. Right when he could hear the distinct clack of Mini’s grenade launcher, he broke off and they scattered into different directions. The wall behind him exploded in a shower of stone bricks right into Dimitri’s back, sending them both down through the shockwave. Antoine could feel his eyes pressed shut and face distorted through the force. His mask ripped away entirely, blowing sand and grit into his nose, ears and mouth. Some bricks hit him hard against his Kevlar vest and into his sides, making him cough. He tried to get up, but his hands and legs gave in. Shock didn’t let him think of the possibility that he could have lost a limb or sustained a lethal injury that didn’t let his body function anymore in the way he wanted to. He had to repeat to get up after several failed attempts. The mind used to tell the body everything was fine when in reality it was not. This was the same with humans as it was with animals. When the time to die caught up unexpectedly, the thoughts weren’t accepting it, stubbornly holding on to the belief that it would go on. No one was ready to die. No one.

Antoine stumbled behind a safer stone block, realizing only now that Mini’s grenade had torn out a chunk of the block they had been fighting against. Dimitri had been even closer to the blast than Antoine. His body had absorbed most of the shockwave and unintentionally shielded Antoine. It was what Mini had counted on. She had gotten the enemy soldier. Blood trails were smeared over the floor, showing where the mercenary had clawed himself forward over the floor. He couldn’t have gotten far to meet his end.

Police sirens were wailing, far closer than Antoine had thought they would come. The shots and explosions had blinded their approach out to him and every other stuck in the firefight.

Rose’s warnings were coming back over the radio, sounding as if she had issued them for the last couple minutes.

“The police are here, leave! Get yourselves out of there!”

Mini stared at Antoine, her weapon still at the ready. She slung the assault rifle over her shoulder. Blue lights flashed from at least two directions at the border of the square. They couldn’t enter the memorial by car, the stone blocks acting like tank traps. Antoine saw how the cops abandoned their Opel Sport Tourers and slowly dared to advance, still calling for backup in face of the overwhelming firepower the agents would bring to bear.

“We have to go!” Mini urged.

Her irises were diluted, the white in her eyes bright and flashing. Antoine hadn’t realized before how beautiful she looked when taken by utter fear.

Antoine shook his head. “Flee through the park. I will hold them up.”

He broke eye contact, having no intention to remain in the shock that expressed itself in Mini’s face. She had grazes, bruises and lacerations all over her skin.

Antoine turned and made his way back inside the maze of the memorial.

Mini couldn’t let him sacrifice like this.

But Priya would hate him for this the most and never forgive him. She would be reminded on the last time she had seen her father go back to their flooded house in Mumbai to get everyone else out, if she was able to see him now.

“Go,” he told Mini. “Go!”

Mini was brought back into the depressing present. Smoke and blood was all around her.

She stayed for a split second in which she was on the fence whether to help him or not. She could see cops coming closer through the lanes of the square like a flood rising through the gullies. Mini made a few steps backwards, till she lost Antoine out of her eyes, then turned and ran towards the tree line. Tears clogged her vision and breathing, as they washed away the dust covering her cheeks in fine trails. The water running out of her nose was black from stone dust and inhaled lead. The air was heavy with it and its smell lingered all over the place, be it from components of ammunition or shed blood.

Antoine jogged onward into the middle of the square to lead the pursuers away from Mini. He slowed down when cops approached him from three sides, guns aimed at him. Antoine took a look at where the mercenary’s body was, but couldn’t find it. He let his pistol fall, raised his hands behind his neck and went down on his knees, breathing hard. Esther’s body along with four dead mercenaries lined the place when the policemen entered.

 

 

***TWENTY-SIX***

Khosa had been waiting in the van. Kovacs returned to him in a hurry and under fire. Bekkend turned to fetch the quadrocopter drone out of the sky, that Priya tried to land on top of the van. He caught it before it could crash onto the roof. Bullets zipped past him and punched into the sheet metal of the car. Some tore through. A spray of blood covered the windshield as Khosa got hit. He screamed out more in shock than in pain. The sight of his own blood let him go pale.

Bekkend started the ignition and hit the gas.

“He needs hospital treatment,” he said.

Kovacs shook his head. “No.” Not that he wasn’t right, but there was no time for that. “Smith first. We leave no man behind.”

All he could do was bandage him in the car, while Bekkend drove back to the place where Smith had fallen. Kovacs jumped out and carried the body inside the van. Carrying dead bodies. Just like in Paris, he thought. The back seats were soaked wet with blood.

Khosa knew he was dying. He used his last breath to speak.

“Please take care of my kids.”

Kovacs had to blink. They hadn’t told him about what had happened to them yet. “You will meet them soon, buddy.”

He closed the door shut and slumped back into his seat, Bekkend kicking the accelerator.

Kovacs didn’t dare to watch into the rear mirror. Death was right behind them. Two dead bodies on the back seat. He slapped Bekkend.

“You almost killed me twice,” he said.

He needed another smoke. Kovacs reached down to take his last cigarette, but his fingers fumbled into emptiness. All were gone. He crunched the pack and smashed it against the windshield.

Mini arrived at the box half an hour later. She had taken detours and lied low for a while to let a police patrol pass by before taking the escape car and heading to west harbor. She was the only one to return and her return marked the failure of the mission in undeniable clarity. They had lost two agents, one fallen down from a hot-air balloon, the other gone over into custody, the scientist shot and the hostage executed. It had a name, Priya was reminded as the ramp to the box opened and she stood with empty hands in the entry, and stared into the faces of those coming back. They all had names. They had lost too many lives that day, in an instant just gone. Their identities and the evidence of the operation had to be deleted now and all involvement of the agency denied. The bomb needed to be taken in hiding. The tragedy around it was sensible like a gas cloud that dried her throat and made her gag.

She shook her head in a telling motion as Priya approached her.

Priya broke out in tears, not recovering from this nightmare that seemed to repeat itself and always got worse. “What about Smith and Antoine?”

Mini was unable to answer.

A huge clump formed in her throat that made her swallow hard before it threatened to choke her. She left Priya by herself and went over to her colleagues.

Rose laid a hand on Mini’s shoulder when she intended to pass by without a word. She looked up into her boss’ eyes.

“I should at least have brought Antoine back,” Mini said, feeling the sudden need to apologize.

“You did well Mini,” Rose said. “There’s nothing you could do.”

Mini let her shoulders sag and exhaled with a sigh. She couldn’t keep her head up. Exhaustion was showing beside the sadness and melancholy of failure.

“Think about what was achieved today instead,” Rose tried to lift her up. “The bomb wasn’t given into the hands of the terrorists. You eliminated the mercenary opposition. You succeeded our mission. A pyrrhic victory, but a victory none the less.”

“Sometimes victories are bought at a higher price than defeat,” Priya said.

“This mission was unnecessary,” Mini said to Rose. “We already had the bomb secured. We could have just walked out of here.”

“It was done to save an innocent life,” Rose said. “That of Esther.”

“The wife of a possible terrorist,” Mini said.

“We don’t know that,” Rose said.

“We should have just let her,” Mini said.

“Remember what they did to her children,” Rose said. “We don’t know if Khosa was a terrorist or if he was just used as an unknowing transporter. He seemed he didn’t know about it. Life is made up full of decisions to take. I made that decision. It is me who is to blame. Me who all the lives lost are on. And to be honest I can be glad it isn’t one of yours too.”

Mini shook her head as to struggle against the realization.

“Is the drone still working?” she wanted to know.

Priya regarded her questioning.

“Bekkend brought it back in one piece,” she said. “Still recharging right now and in need of some repairs.”

“Well good that he brought it back at least,” Mini said. “Maybe we can try to get her up and running again. Wash the blood out of the car, resupply with ammunition, track down where they brought Antoine and fight him free. We have enough time if they bring him to the police authority first for interrogation. Before he gets into a cell.”

“You know we can’t do that, Mini,” Rose told her.

Priya’s eyes glowed at her and made her superior squint.

“Federal police.” Rose hated to tutor them. “He is a secret agent, he has to get out by himself.”

Priya’s teeth clenched involuntarily and her jaw muscles hardened.

“I can’t believe we abandon him like that,” she said.

“We have to leave the country,” Rose replied. “Bring the bomb back to safety.”

Priya looked away and withdrew herself into a corner. She let herself fall onto a taboret and blew the strands of hair on her forehead out of her sight.

Rose came to her after staring at her for a couple of heartbeats.

“Look,” she said, spreading her arms out to her but not comfortable with touching her in that situation.”I understand you are close to Antoine.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Priya said. “Since the day I lost my family, I’m so afraid of losing someone I care about and from that team especially Jacque, who is like a father to me and Antoine, who is…”

“Trust me, I know how it is to have no family,” Rose said. “Same as Antoine and Jacque.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Priya said.

Rose shrugged. “Well, not in the same way, but like Jacque it is the same way. You know that Christmas he spent at my home because there was trouble at his? Yeah, there was no home left when he came back. That spring his family was killed. Since then his only dream was to find the people who murdered them and his only fear was not living long enough to avenge them. Sometimes we have to put our dreams behind and do what is demanded from us. After all, it’s a selfish dream and Jacque realized he is of better use when he does something for others and use his money for good. Like for you and the UNIT. When he saw your talent he wanted to help. He was generous with his money towards me before. He then thought about how useful it would be to have an IT specialist. I really admire your intelligence, Priya. Don’t let it cloud by feelings. You are a machine and I mean that in the most positive way but sometimes even a machine needs to rest. We got Antoine out alive so there’s a good chance that you will see him again. The same can’t be said from everyone going on this mission.”

“This time it’s different Rose,” Priya said. “I know you don’t understand, because even I only now begin to understand.” She looked up at her. “Antoine is more important than anything for me. He is more than a brother.”

Rose let herself down on a stool in front of her.

“Jacque did a lot for me,” Priya said. “His only request was not to get involved with Antoine. But the moment we left him at the memorial, I realized we left behind more than you or Jacque could ever give me.”

“No,” Rose said, shaking her head. “You misunderstood. He meant you should never apply for a job at him.”

Priya looked at her. “Rose, are you kidding me?”

Kovacs found Mini outside, twenty paces away from their freight container. She stood with her back to him, facing the riverside and an old crane. Mini looked up to it, as if searching for a way to hang herself or plunge herself down from it head first on the shipping quays. Berlin west harbor had a nostalgic feel to it. With its brickstone administration building, tower and clock, it reminded him on a twentieth century guildhall. Mini didn’t look back to him when he was close enough for his approach to be heard. She stared into the muddy water with dark clouds mirroring on its surface, as Kovacs joined her. Kovacs laid his hand on Mini’s shoulder.

“That wouldn’t bring anyone back,” he told her, reading her thoughts.

He had seen the expression on men’s faces who had lost everything before. Sometimes in his own mien back then in Bosnia, sometimes in men he held a gun to their heads. He certainly had seen it in Antoine, when he met that woman in Paris that seemed so important to him.

“What are we going to do with the bodies?” Mini said. “Take them with us? Bury them? Or burn them to ashes? Dump them in the harbor?”

“All I know is Jacque is coming with his jet to fly us out,” he said. “Time for a day off for us. Hope he brought some of his cigars.”

“Is all you can think of now smoking?” Mini said. “It could have been one of us being left in the streets and all that would be smoking, would be the bullet holes left in our bodies.”

“That’s exactly the reason why I have to enjoy smoking now,” Kovacs said.

“It’s a non-smoking flight, Nate,” Mini said.

Kovacs frowned. “But, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of having a private jet?”

“Who the hell do you think you are, some kind of James Bond?” Antoine got asked, more in a shout than a question.

Spit was flying into his face. The room he was in had smelled of coffee and croissants in the morning, but they didn’t offer him any. Now it was more the scent of mouthwash, which Antoine was thankful for, as it could have been much worse.

Antoine closed his eyes against the incoming saliva gushing out of the policeman’s mouth, before another punch followed into his face.

It connected, of course, but at least he had known that it was coming. His eyes went black for a moment and his head snapped back. His skull hurt on two spots, the one where the punch had connected and a second where his brain smashed against at the back. There wasn’t much he could do, handcuffed and stuck in a chair, than wait and sit it out. They would get tired of this sooner or later. Hitting a man’s skull was comparable to hitting a wall.

The policeman who had thrown the punch reclined to nurse his swollen knuckles. As long as they wouldn’t find out about his broken rib he would be fine.

“Let it be,” the other, a chief commissar told him. He was leaning in the corner of the interrogation room, hands crossed and watching.

Antoine knew in an instant that this one was far more dangerous than the one throwing the punches. The dogs that didn’t bark possessed a deeper bite.

 

 

***TWENTY-SEVEN***

The commissar pushed himself from the wall and came closer. He spread his arms out and propped himself on the table in front of Antoine. White neon lights were blinding his red and swollen eyes as he looked up to the interrogator. He let the scientist’s latex face mask drop in front of him. Tiny droplets of blood dripped down on the table from Antoine’s forehead.

“Care to explain all of this?” the commissar asked.

Antoine moved his head from left to right, weary, his lips split and his throat dry.

“I really don’t.”

Antoine noticed the bully to his left shrug.

“I can imagine.”

“You fought a small war out there,” the commissar said, leaning closer.

“I didn’t start it,” Antoine said.

His opposite smiled a weak smile and decided to take a seat on the other side of the table. He crossed his hands again as he observed Antoine.

“Then tell us who did.”

Antoine regarded the slugger cop at his side for a moment, who looked down at him like he had taught him a lesson.

“I can’t say,” he repeated.

The commissar let out an affected sigh. “You have no ID, no public authority or permission to be here. You were wearing a Kevlar west, a latex face mask to obtain a false identity and an illegally modified handgun you had no permission to possess when we found you.” He leaned forward to stare into his eyes. “Found you amidst a score of dead bodies, when tonight in another part of the city there was a case of homicide on two kids in their home with their mother kidnapped. The same mother who was now found dead at the Jewish Memorial, whose husband you apparently tried to impersonate by wearing this mask and who by himself is missing. So if you want us to help you out of your mess, you have to give us a damn good reason, something so that we can find out what the hell exactly is happening here.”

Antoine blinked.

“Obviously I work for the CIA,” Antoine lied. “I am a secret agent on a secret mission.”

“Well then, I thank you for your service for a better and more secure world and you are free to leave,” the commissar said with dry sarcasm.

“The stout gentleman I was impersonating is mister Khosa, a nuclear chemist from Hornboldth University,” Antoine told him. “His wife and kids were killed by Russian mercenaries and terrorists working for a liaison of two spies of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. They have probably gone renegade. Their plan was to blackmail the nuclear chemist to get their hands on a portable dirty bomb he transported from contacts with the Khorasan group in Syria. The bomb should be detonated tonight at the US embassy in Berlin. You can’t tell me your government knew nothing about that threat against your country.”

The commissar made a severe face. “I had no such information.”

Antoine snorted. “I was behind these men since Turkey two weeks ago. There they bombed a consulate in a border town close to Syria, days before the US president arrived for talks. You can call my confidant from the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation MIT, a high ranking agent named Sahin. I’m sure his friend mister Celik would be most pleased to hear from me. Unfortunately I have to say the hospitality of the Germans left much to be desired, compared to the warm welcome I received by the Turks. They literally welcomed me with open arms.”

The commissar indicated his colleague to bring him a phone. He opened a laptop at the side of his table and searched for the number of said police station.

“And which name should I refer to mister Sahin?” he wanted to know.

Antoine leaned forward. “Mister Nieda.”

The commissar pulled back his sleeve and consulted his watch.

“It’s half past seven,” he murmured. “There should be at least someone awake by now.”

He took the phone from the slugger cop and dialed, leaving Antoine not out of his eyes.

“Hello? A wonderful morning to my colleagues in Turkey,” he said as soon as someone answered at the other end of the line. “My name is Kandt, chief commissar at the federal police in Berlin. I have a guest here that claims he is known by you, may you be so kind to forward me to Mister erm… Sahin? Yes, thank you, I’ll wait.”

The questioning room kept silent while they endured the time till Sahin answered the call.

“Mr. Sahin, commissar Kandt here, good day to you sir,” the commissar said. “You aren’t by any chance acquainted with a certain mister Nieda, who happened to be at yours about two weeks ago?”

There was a pause on the other side of the line.

“Yes, yes there was a mister Nieda,” Antoine heard commissar Sahin answer.

“And can you confirm that mister Nieda is an agent of the American CIA?” Kandt wanted to know.

Antoine imagined the bewilderment of the Turkish secret service agent in a moment like this. He remembered him, like a bad dream that brought sweat to him every other night. If Antoine would get caught, he would come clean with what really happened that night in Reyhanli.

“Yes,” Sahin said. Antoine heard him clear his throat. “May I ask to which circumstances I owe it to see him being associated with me?”

“You may,” Kandt said. “He prevented a terrorist attack on our capital. At least that is what he claims.”

“Then he did,” Sahin said. “Our work brought us close together. I stand behind everything he says.”

“Well, as an honorable man, I take your word for it. Thank you for your time mister Sahin, this is everything I needed to hear,” Kandt said, before handing the phone back to his colleague.

He scrutinized Antoine with deep probing eyes.

“So, mister Nieda,” he said. “According to our colleagues at the MIT everything you claimed was true and you are as innocent as Mother Mary. But you do know that we Germans master the German language and understand quite clearly what Nieda means?”

Antoine chuckled. It made his beaten face hurt. “I hoped I could live up to my name.”

Kandt regarded him suspiciously. “So that you have truly been never here? That we are clear, I need to know every detail from you about what happened here, before you and me can even think about letting you go.”

“You will get it,” Antoine assured. “Every little bit. But first, you can thank me for being still alive.”

He left the police administration before midday, with grey clouds hanging over the tops of the buildings. He had to hold onto the wall to find his way out, his head still spinning from the numerous concussions and he mending his hurting rib with the other hand. There was a strengthened attendance of police forces in the city. Ironic, Antoine found, only now after all threats had been neutralized. Jacque’s private jet would be flying them out, but he was late on time. He would have to make it out on his own, despite his injuries and wait till he could see his private doctor in Vienna.

The UNIT was back home, as far as something could be called home for people coming from all different corners of the world. The headquarters was their hub, center of strategic planning and area of recreation. This was home as good as it could get.

They had cut their fair share of losses, something that couldn’t be brought back, but there was also the feeling of sudden peace. The ultimatum they had been trying to decipher and counter over the last days had vanished in a mist of blood the time Mini shot a grenade against the wall in Dimitri’s back. They hadn’t realized it that moment, but now they slowly got accustomed to the missing of the constant pressure of a countdown. The clock ticking had stopped in their heads, like a bomb defused before detonation. The race was over, Turkey, Barcelona, Berlin. Tomorrow they would hand over the bomb and have it destroyed.

Rose was in her office, writing a handwritten letter to the parents and fiancée of Smith. She had personally cleared his locker and packed his belongings into a box, ready to ship to his bereaved people. She stared out of the window and got thinking. This mission had come as fast as it was gone again and tonight would be the first night that they could sleep calm again.

Tomorrow morning the normal course of events would set in again, starting with a morning routine she hadn’t gotten in a while. You could take a girl out of England but you could never take England out of a girl. Rose was still very British, since she moved there over forty years ago. A cup of earl grey tea to start the day and bread with Marmite if not a full English breakfast to fill her stomach. True to English fashion cooking was not her thing, although she was able to make a great toad in the pie. She would sit by the window and read the Guardian every morning before going to work.

But before that, she had to make good on an old promise. She needed to stay true to her word to help Antoine. After Smith’s death and Antoine going over into police custody, she didn’t want to break another promise.

Jaque was finally sunken in his own office seat, elbows propped on the high armrest, legs straightened and resting on his desk. He leant back to begin his old ritual, a cleansing of a fogged mind with tobacco and smoke. This time, it was more than usual. He pulled out a bottle of cognac from his locked desk drawer and poured himself a glass. He lifted it once it was full.

“To you, sniper-boy,” he said to himself. He swallowed before the glass reached his lips, then spent a second thinking of him, before he poured the drink down.

Jacque let himself settle back and took a draw from his cigar. He finished his drink and went out to say goodbye to Rose.

“Jacque, I wished you could stay here a little longer,” Rose said. “There’s still a lot of paperwork to be done.”

“Do I look like I am made of money? Sorry, I have to attend my company’s AGM meeting,” he said. “London. The Shard. I can’t stay here all the time, I’ve been sponsoring everything and expenses have been skyrocketing. You will have to delegate it to Bekkend.”

Rose nodded. “Alright. Make some money but don’t let money make you.”

“I will try,” Jacque said.

“There is one more thing,” Rose said. “We need to hack into the CIA.”

Jacque’s eyebrows rose. “The CIA? Why is that?”

“It’s an old promise,” Rose said.

“Something personal?” Jacque said.

“It’s business.”

“Business you say? I was already looking into the CIA for weapons contract issues, to be able to buy out the competition and stuff like that,” Jacque said.

“We need to do it again,” Rose said. “This time to search for a list of names.”

“What for?” Jacque asked.

“Set up a small private team for that issue, led by Bekkend. Relay the list to Priya. She should do the hacking,” Rose said. “Let them think they are looking for someone to recruit or a rogue agent.”

Jacque looked down onto the paper Rose had given him. There was one name of significance to Rose: Derek.

Priya was at a SIMC, Strategy, Innovation and Management Control conference. It was her time in the limelight, her time to shine with her IT knowledge, while she was hiding her bruises under a layer of makeup and the smell of gunpowder with perfume.

She had her laptop open and the presentation projected on the wall behind her in a university lecture hall of a hundred people listening to her every word. In a small window at the side of her screen, a message blinked. Intruder alert. The system at Vienna HQ had been hacked. She dismissed it with a smile. It was what she had taught Antoine to do and he was using his free time practicing the new skills. She hoped he was recovering soon from his injuries and didn’t have to use all his downtime with trying to hack the system.

Antoine sat up in his sickbed, writing the report of the last mission on his tablet.

He was in a private clinic, one of the few they were able to frequent without too many questions being raised and information trickling outside. Apart from the doctor he was the only one present. His treatment happened under official records. His arms were attached to infusions and data nodes clung to his upper body to record his vital signals.

“I think it should work now again,” Johnson said, with his face bowed down to the retina access-scan at the entrance of floor fifty-nine.

“Good,” Brown replied, who was standing watch and first had discovered the problem. “This modern crap has defects all too often.”

Something was wrong with the integrated circuits that distorted retina scans. Slight alterations made it impossible to match with the stored ones in the data-bank. Brown had found himself practically locked out on numerous occasions and had resorted to calling Johnson to come and open the door from the inside. Brown noted that it was happening especially on those occasions when something pressing was on plan and he had to go to the restrooms. He was shifting from one leg to another, keeping the display over the elevator doors in his eyes. Following guard procedure it was forbidden to leave his position, while his proxy was still working on the repairs. Damn the procedure, but it wouldn’t make that big a difference anyway anymore. It wasn’t worth it to let Rose catch them slacking down, especially after they had lost a member of their unit on the last mission.

The indicator over the elevator exit was rising constantly. Twenty, thirty levels passed, then forty. It didn’t happen all the time that it was used up to the fifties.

“Taking a long ride this one,” Brown murmured.

“What did you say?” Johnson asked, his nose still stuck inside the electronic entrails of the retina-scan device.

He had brought an insulated screwdriver for this and was a technician.

“The elevator,” Brown repeated, “is taking a long ride.”

He watched the display. Floor number fifty passed.

“Maybe we get a visit,” he said. “Get ready, just in case.”

“Uh huh,” Johnson said. He closed the covering of the retina-scanner and put on the screws to star tightening them with his screwdriver.

“Has Rose ordered sushi today again?” Brown asked.

Johnson didn’t answer. He was busy finishing his work. “I don’t know Brown, why don’t you ask her yourself?”

The elevator arrived. The two metal reflective doors slid open, revealing a form in blue uniform standing inside the passenger cabin. It was the janitor. He looked stiff and uncomfortable, like the long ride had nearly let him puke. Before Brown could fathom why he had gotten up the long way to them, a 0.45 ACP bullet hit him in the chest.

 

 

***TWENTY-EIGHT***

Muzzle flashes appeared all around the janitor’s silhouette. Left and right from him, two fully geared Special Forces soldiers emerged out of their cover from the cabin corners. Another form was crouched low behind the janitor’s body, using him as a human shield and pushing him steadily forward. Submachine-gun shots echoed through the confined elevator spaces and lightened out the hall like a chain of firecrackers. Johnson saw Brown going down and the retina-scanning device obliterate in a shower of sparks and slivers that tore open his hands. He let go and threw himself flat. The hall offered no cover. The distance between him and his attackers was ten paces maximum. They raked his colleague Brown with another salvo of fast-paced shots, literally nailing his twitching body against the wall. He wore body armor so they made sure they would shred it accordingly. Johnson grabbed for his weapon. His hand was slick from the blood and he was lying on his belly, on top of his gun holster with his body weight. His fingers slipped from the grip.

The intruder behind the janitor threw his human shield to the side and deposed it by a triplet-burst to the head. His two wingmen followed, wedge formation covering his careless advance. They opened fire on Johnson and hit his arms and legs. Johnson screamed out in pain. He couldn’t draw his weapon now for sure. He recoiled from the puddle he was lying in, realizing it wasn’t his own blood.

He looked up to the invader as he strode by like nothing had happened. They had no insignias but looked Russian on first glance. He could tell by their uniforms and gear. Spetsnaz.

Their commander stood in front of the unbreakable security door and looked at it like a figure from Arabian Nights in front of the treasure cave Sesame. He noticed the retina-scanning device.

Johnson’s mind raced. He couldn’t think clear anymore. There was nothing he could do, except hindering them from entering the cave. He must refuse them the key to the treasure they were after.

He raised his hand and looked at his fingers, knowing it would be the last thing he would see. Then, in a sea of blood that was rising in the palm of his hands, he saw a shard of glass standing out like a crag. He lifted his hand up to his eye, but had to hold it down with his other hand to stop it from shivering too much. He whined even before the edge of the shard touched his eye.

The commander turned and shot Johnson through the head. He slumped down heavily onto the shard of glass.

The squad leader held out a hand to his comrades.

“Explosives,” he demanded. He looked at the facility he was about to break open and into the camera recording him.

He raised the gun with which he had killed Johnson to the camera and pulled the trigger, putting the lens to splinters.

Rose was in her private room, sipping green tea out of her mug, when a shadow passed over the window front. She heard the shots at the same time and winced, though it could also have been a practice shooting. Some intuition told her it was not, which saved her life. A figure emerged on the window outside the building, dark, armored and draped in extensive rappeling gear. The soldier came in feet forward with his submachine gun firing from the hip and splintering the whole window front in a hail of shards. Rose let the mug fall and threw herself forward away from her desk. The projectiles punctured her seat, laptop and working place and covered her head in small slivers like crystal. She got up and crawled over the carpet forward as fast as she could, hearing the boots of the intruder thud on the floor behind her. The attacker swung his weapon around as Rose dashed through the exit of her office. Its first salvo missed, raking the wall beside her on her way out and punching through. The second went out through the hallway behind Rose, after she sidestepped behind the door frame. The wind blew through the broken window and swirled up paper sheets. The Spetsnaz had to stay back for a second to release from the rappeling rope before he could commence the chase. Rose used it to bolt.

She pushed the alert button on her phone and speed dialled the first number she stumbled upon. It was Jacque’s, she put it on speakers and let it ring through.

“What’s up now Rose? I’m on the way to the Shard meeting,” Jacque said.

“Security breach,” Rose said. “We have been compromised. We are under heavy attack.”

A door opened right to her from Bekkend’s office and she crashed right into the arms of the intruder. She realized in time it was Ramses Bekkend. They stumbled, catching their fall at the walls on different sides of the corridor.

“You got to be kidding me,” Jacque said.

Rose shoved herself forward, just one corner separating her from the security exit. A deafening detonation and a shockwave that tore through her body up from her shinbones, compressing the air in her lungs blew against her face. She was thrown back against the wall, her head sagging to the side in time to avoid a huge chunk of the security door that embedded itself in the wall above her. The hallway was filled with black smoke. A never ceasing ringing was in her ears that left her dizzy and struggling for balance as she tried to stand up.

“Jacque? Jacque, I need your help,” she said. “We have to get out of here.”

“I’m too old for this,” Jacque said. “Let me think. Let me think!”

Bekkend was close to Rose, somewhere behind in the dust, she could feel it.

“The safe room,” Jacque said.

They stumbled forward, now taking a new route. The only one Rose saw left.

“Follow me,” she shouted, coughing up hard.

Priya noticed the next alert on her desktop, blanking it out from the presentation and opening in it a private window. It was getting annoying and distractive from her lecture.

She opened it.

It read: “Master Alarm. HQ Security Breach.”

She opened a link to the security cameras, not stopping to speak to the students, until she saw the entry room camera was malfunctioning. She opened the video feed history and replayed the last minute. The images let her fall quiet for a second, losing the central theme of the lecture. All she could see was carnage and her colleagues Brown and Johnson shot down by unknown attackers.

She messaged Antoine and opened a link to Rose’s phone, finding the words to continue in her presentation as if nothing had happened. The SIMC students had no idea what was going on on her screen and in her mind. She had to put up a brave front and get her team through this.

Antoine saw the message from Priya on his tablet. His heartbeat increased, sending the beeps recording it into frenzy.

The doctor came rushing into his room, reacting to the drastic change of his health status.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

His face went pale seeing Antoine unplugging his body from the monitoring system. It left red marks on his scarred and bloodshot skin.

Antoine grabbed the infusion flask and pressed it together, pumping its content into his bloodstream.

His eyes met with the doctor’s.

“I have to leave.”

The doctor stood in awe, unable to prevent him from jumping out of bed.

“Mr. Springer, you are not in the right condition to leave medical care,” he said.

Antoine shot him a look that wouldn’t settle on a discussion.

“No one attacks home base.”

The doctor turned as Antoine rushed past him, getting his clothes.

“What? You mean… attacked?” He stammered. Antoine could read what was going through the doctor’s mind, the mind of a civilian protected by unseen forces every day of his whole life. How was this even possible, here in Vienna?

The reality was, it was and nowhere on the globe was it safe.

A hand that had seen blood and death nonetheless, held him in a firm grip in place.

“You can’t save them,” the doctor said. “Look at you. It’s too late. They have to make it on their own.”

Rose felt her phone vibrating in her hand. She checked the cracked display, incoming message from Priya.

“Three hostiles in the lobby.”

Rose entered the recreational room first, clinging onto mere hope that they wouldn’t find the attackers here. Rose went straight through to the bookshelf and pulled out one of the hundred titles.

A loud clack rang out and the bookcase broke away backwards, opening a gap through the library wall. She ushered Bekkend inside, through the hidden entrance into a windowless chamber filled out with armored walls and a ceiling filled with the sterile touch of neon lights overhead. The entrance closed behind them, revealing a fortified security door resembling the one that was used at the main entry.

“Welcome to the safe room,” she said, switching on its interior with a remote control.

“Jacque, I’m in.”

The tiles in the walls opened and revealed compartments all around them filled with equipment.

“Now we have to improvise,” she said.

Rose looked around the panels and found nothing even remotely useful to fend off the assault.

Her phone vibrated.

“Time runs out,” Priya’s message read. “Brace for door breach with explosives.”

Rose was standing in front of the door that was sealed shut to the rest of the headquarters.

She took out a couple of door breach bombs from the wall cases.

“But we have them too,” Rose said.

Bekkend shook his head.

“What are you planning to do with these?” he said. You can’t fight door breaches with door breaches, Rose. We are the ones not wanting them to get in, not the other way round. Has it been that long since you last came out from behind an office desk?”

Rose ignored him and got to work.

Jacque was responding on her phone.

“I know the structure of this building like the back of my hand,” Jacque said. “The room is a dead end, but the walls are thin there to the outside.”

“I trust your knowledge as an engineer,” Rose said.

She grabbed inside the compartments again and pulled out a pair of backpacks, throwing one of them into the hands of Bekkend.

“Do I really have to do all the thinking?” she asked. “Just put it on!”

Bekkend looked down at the pack in his hands. It was a base jump chute and he was holding exactly the same model that Antoine had tried out on his date with Kate. Everyone in the agency had heard about the story. Rose had never thought she would use it the same way with a fellow agent.

She looked around the room, imagining the outer layers and areal position the room was in compared to the building structure. She chose two spots on the wall opposite of the entrance a wingspan apart and planted the door breaches into the wall.

Bekkend wasn’t even finished putting on the base jump chute when Rose got the bad feeling of being inside a small room with explosives planned to set off on two different sides. Let alone having only one chute for two people, with no visibility on where to jump.

“Antoine told you he tested them before, right?” Bekkend wanted to know. “With another person. I mean I hope he wasn’t boasting.”

“Her name was Kate,” Rose said, knowing how much Antoine hated it when she referred to his dates as “another person“. She regretted saying it already the second Bekkend glared at her.

They were in this together, sharing a chute.

“Have you set the charges?” Jacque asked.

“Haven’t done this in a while,” Rose said.

“Let me walk you through this before you detonate,” he said.

“There is no time for this,” she said.

Rose pulled out the detonator for the explosives and urged Bekkend to take as many steps back from the wall as possible. Breaches were designed to direct the whole impact of the blast in one direction, but Rose didn’t want to imagine what happened when they got caught in a backwash from reinforced wall tiles.

They were jammed together on the other side of the room, with the door in their back. Through it, with only an arms length separating them from their enemies, they could hear the Spetsnaz leader giving the command to fire the explosives clung onto the secret entrance. They would have five seconds maximum. But they would need the run-up for the jump.

Rose punched the devices.

“Fire in the hole!”

They averted their gazes from the bright flash and instant blackening of carbonized tiles around the entry hole. The whole room shook resembling an earthquake, or a sphere getting tipped off from the top of the tower. Wind blew in immediately where the wall was reduced to dust which backwashed like cloud of gas into the room.

Rose didn’t have time to wait till the smoke cleared and dust began to settle to check if the detonation had been successful and they effectively had blown out all of the wall. She gave Bekkend a tap on the shoulder and they started to run. They would take the jump blindly.

Behind them, the recreational room’s bookshelf was blown into the chamber together with scrap parts of another security door, rattling the safe room’s equipment in its wall cases.

There was nothing to see, just blind faith and nowhere to go, except the way the explosion’s shockwave chose to take – which was outside, down from a skyscraper two hundred meters above the concrete ground.

The fog in front of Rose and Bekkend lifted and the ground fell down below them. They pushed themselves forward right in time from the edge, wall chunks crumbling down into the gaping abyss. They had to jump far to distance themselves from the skewed wall which was coming closer. If they grazed it the chute would have problems to open properly and this would be a short descent. Their chute lagged behind a second as it got dragged over the safe room’s floor.

 

 

***TWENTY-NINE***

It caught on and opened after a second of heart stopping free fall down the vertical glass surface of DC tower. Both were screaming at the top of their lungs. Rose held onto Bekkend with all her might. There hadn’t been time to link each other together, just muscle strains and tendons. The wind blew into the opening chute and decelerated their fall with a force that nearly tore off Rose’s arms. She gritted her teeth and held on. North wind carried them away off to the riverside.

Rose was beginning to struggle with her feet. She was clutching Bekkend’s body and facing him like a lover giving him a hug. He kept his head turned sideways not only to see where they were going but also to avoid becoming too intimate.

“Just to inform you, I’m not a good swimmer,” Rose cried.

“You’re telling me this now?” Bekkend replied.

She saw the Danube coming closer and closer and she already dreaded the feeling to get her clothes and shoes wet without even thinking about being caught in the stream and fighting for survival.

“Can’t we just steer around it and land on the riverbank?” she asked.

“That thing isn’t exactly Priya’s UAV,” Bekkend answered.

They passed the bars and lounges at the riverside, just flying overhead the guests and tents, crying out in loathing of their passed landing zone.

They touched into the black water, swallowed by wind and waves and plunging into it up through the top of their heads. The base jump chute covered them like a caressing blanket, drowning their attempts to keep themselves over water with frantic arm strokes.

Rose and Bekkend got pulled down by their wet soaked clothes and taken by the current down the river. Their bodies got washed ashore at the side of a jetty, catching them like driftwood. Bekkend put down a hand on top of the landing stage keeping Rose over water with his other. “We made it!” Bekkend yelled. “I can’t believe what you did, Ma’am!”

“Me neither!” Rose said, coughing up water while simultaneously choking nearly on her laughter. “That was my first jump. My baptism of fire.”

Rose’s hair was soaked and slick and she felt like a bathed mouse.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

They pulled themselves up the jetty, trying to get up from weak knees. The jump brought them out of weapons reach of the Russians. Rose pulled her clothes tighter against the sharp cold and got moving. Back up against the night sky, DC tower stood broken open and black smoke rising out of its blown out top level. Another imposing structure was now closer to them, a massive bridge housing a subway line over the Danube. It was their lifeline out of the dangerous area, to get away as far and fast as possible and go underground in the heart of a bustling metropolis.

“What now, you got a nice place to stay, boss?” Bekkend said.

They were trudging on the river promenade, draped in their soaked clothes like drunk and homeless, waiting for the next metro.

“Not mine, that’s for sure.”

“Miss Patel, one question.”

Priya put on her best smile to stand available for her SIMC students audience. She was waiting for a life sign of Rose. For the last two minutes she had been off the radar and left the area of camera surveillance.

“Yes?”

She checked the last remaining cameras that had not been destroyed yet. All the rooms she shifted through were devastated. Months of work were lost and the future of the agency uncertain with a blow dealt to its heart, ripping it out. That was how it felt for Priya, a hole in her chest that slowly filled with poisonous hatred as she stood by and only watched.

She had to find the men who did this and find out why. She checked the chamber in which she had last contact with Rose, the weapons chamber. The dust settled slowly and lifted a fog, revealing scorched walls and weapons scattered over a floor coated with shattered tiles. There was movement.

The Spetsnaz commander stood at the cliff that was the entire missing wall of the blown off safe room. He held onto cables and tiles from the armored racks and stared out into the night, a breeze gushing up into his face. One of the comrades came back to him from his tour through the office rooms.

“We found nothing,” he said.

He was holding a uranium detector in his hands.

“We searched the second floor, where they have more equipment and training grounds. The bomb is not here, even if they shielded it, which I doubt.”

The Spetsnaz commander screwed up his face and walked past his companion.

“Radek to squad,” he spoke into his micro-bead. “Form up in the lobby.” He turned to his follower. “Our time is running short.”

He took the uranium detector from him and buckled it on, then walked past the executed security guards. His team was ready and forming up behind him when he reached the elevator room. They entered the cabin, four men, fully armed. They left behind smoking corpses and perforated walls behind them when the metal doors closed, a whole storey leveled to the ground. Radek pushed the button and it went down.

Priya followed their every step through the security cameras in each room.

They passed the ground floor and went on to the various basements.

“They are drawing from a considerable generator and server room,” Radek told his men. The uranium detector began to deflect, first weakly then increasingly, when the elevator doors opened and they walked out into the basement floor.

“This is a room belonging to the agency we haven’t checked yet,” he said. “And it wouldn’t have struck our attention that this is where they could keep it.”

“Where did you get this information from?” one of his men asked.

Radek shot him a threatening look and continued to walk down the hallway.

“That’s where I would hide the bomb,” he said.

Overhead neon tubes flickered and got turned on.

Radek led them to a machine room, where the uranium detector was catching on the signal. He shot open the lock and broke in the door. A row of terminal boxes resembled two bookshelf lanes in a library.

Radek halted at the distribution panel at the end of the lane.

“But you don’t lock it inside a fuse box and hide it there,” Radek said. “If anyone wanted to sabotage that base, he would start with crippling its power from here. And then he would find it.”

He swung the detector across the room, against the wall where the corridor ended. It was a dead end, with the center and all that was leading together holding a fire suppression system. The hose was rolled up like the house of a snail.

“That’s why you hide it with an item the saboteur won’t touch,” he said. “That was made to counter the damage he did.”

Radek stepped in front of the fire tube and began entangling it from its mounting.

The Khorasan group’s dirty bomb appeared beneath layers of red hose, lying dormant in the basement of the tower.

“Hidden in plain sight,” Radek said. “Comrades, live for a century – learn for a century.”

 

 

***THIRTY***

“I want to talk to you for a second,” Priya said, prompting Antoine to depose the book he was reading.

They were in the recreation room in Jacque’s penthouse, a high ceiling chamber with a whole library filling a bookshelf behind the couch Antoine was sitting on.

The ladder attached to the bookcase that was in a place unusual than normal, told Priya Antoine had been looking for a special piece, far up in the seldom used parts of the library.

He stood up to her.

“About what?”

She still hesitated and had to look to the floor to find the right words, even though she had thought about it the whole flight from Berlin.

“You may have gotten the feeling,” she began, “that I sometimes acted somewhat standoffish in your presence.”

Antoine licked his lips.

“No,” he said, letting the hint of a smile shine through.

“Just know that I had my reasons to act this way,” Priya told him.

“Okay,” Antoine replied.

He was making it hard for her. He felt like wanting to pay her something back from all the time and give her a bitter taste of her own medicine.

“It had to do with something that I thought I understood the whole time, but only now recognized as having misunderstood since I first met you,” she said, tentatively coming closer.

She was putting one foot in front of the other like a ballerina walking over a beam, searching for the right phrase to express what was bothering her with each step. Antoine could see goosebumps on her arms rising when she was close, as if she was struggling to let something out of her body, but was afraid to do so.

“Go on,” Antoine told her. “Better late than never.”

She bit on her lip and was a second too slow to open up. Rose entered the room and she fell silent. They both looked at their boss.

“Want to know who attacked us?” she said.

There were no preparations to be made this time. There was no time to go back to DC tower and collect the remnants that hadn’t fallen to the Russians, if there were any left in a state still to be salvaged and used. Likewise it was a bad idea to stay in one place. The private clinic was off and was to be left as soon as the wounds were dressed and the blood had run off. They only took with them what they already carried. Hand weapons, one, two magazines each. Jacque’s butler got the car from his house and brought a laptop, passports and credit cards. A car from his many.

They were in a parking garage under Jacque’s penthouse in the first district by the Graben. It had four angels on the roof on top and was stretched over two floors. The interior held Persian furniture, carpets, shishas and oriental paintings, quotes from the Quran adorning the walls and the library Antoine and Priya had stayed in before. Antoine repeated some of the best quotes and took them with a heavy heart with him in his mind.

The butler chose the Maserati Gran Turismo MC for them and Antoine was thankful for that. When they would go down, they should go down with grace, in a golden coffin. And until that, they needed every strength and speed they could get.

Priya repeated the videos from the attack they were able to salvage. Kovacs stopped it at a close-up of one of the perpetrators.

“Looking familiar right?” he said. “Special Forces soldiers with no insignia, but looking very Russian. Same as those marching into Crimea and taking over Ukrainian millitary bases and airfields. However those here…” He indicated on the screen. “They have gone rogue.”

“I know those tattoos,” Antoine said. One soldier had his sleeve rolled up. Part of a wolf graced his upper arm.

“These are the same as the bodyguards in Barcelona had,” he said. “And the one we fought in Germany. I realized Olga didn’t have bodyguards when she was in Vienna earlier, only once she got to Barcelona. She said someone is taking care of her here. It was Tanya, who she met in Barcelona. These men are working for her.”

“Makes sense,” Priya said. “When I was at the SIMC lecture, I got an alarm that our system was hacked. I thought it was Antoine practicing at that time, but it wasn’t him. Seems they backtracked us after we hacked Tanya’s phone after her interrogation. It led them right to us.”

“They got the bomb now,” Rose said, following the video feed. “We have no idea where they are leaving with it. And we have lost Tanya’s signal. She probably destroyed her phone once she realized it was hacked.”

“Which means she is alive,” Antoine said. “Do we know anything about these ex-Spetsnaz? We should have some pointers by now.”

“If they take that wolf thing serious, I assume they are from a certain GRU Spetsnaz regiment,” Kovacs said. “Each regiment has its own mascot. There is one which has the wolf. The 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment. They have been active for the last twenty years, in the first and second Chechen war, Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, the South Ossetian war back in 2008 and now Crimea. Specialized on air landing operations, something to keep in mind.”

“So how do we get our bomb back and stop them from blowing up Moscow?” Rose said.

“Listen to Tanya’s phone call again,” Priya said.

Priya played the message from Tanya’s hacked phone again.

“She doesn’t know it’s a real attack,” Tanya said. “Thinks it’s fake. She is young and naive. She needs my help to stage a fake attack on the Kremlin so that she can stop it and get praise and recognition.”

“Can you handle the weapon?” the Khorasan member said.

“I handled nuclear before,” Tanya said. “Remember Alex Luchenko, the FSB spy killed in London.”

“This one is made from radioactive waste dumped off the Somali coast, put together and sent back to the West where it came from. You can bring it on your own soil?” the Khorasan said.

“I hate Russia,” Tanya said. “The spy-swap lost me my life and everything I built up in the West.”

“It will come via flight to Germany, Berlin,” he said. “You know when, you know the man bringing it to you.”

Then the other call, to the Russian arms dealer.

“Pick up the bomb from Berlin,” Tanya said. “Pick up the stealth suits and deliver them by the 5th.”

“Understood,” Yuri said.

“Another thing,” Tanya said. “I have to warn you that the price for the suits is already set and don’t let the Chinese try to screw you over the price.”

Priya crossed her arms in front of her chest.

“We don’t know enough about Yuri,” she said.

“Yet…,” Kovacs said. “I’m about to find out.”

“But we are close to Olga,” Priya said, while Antoine grew uneasy. Priya looked over to him. “Right?”

“Let me try something,” Antoine said. He opened an e-mail account on the laptop. The feminine username reaped raised eyebrows from Rose and Priya.

“It’s not mine,” Antoine said. “This is Olga’s private account. I memorized the password when we were in Barcelona.”

He clicked through the message entry, to an application that showed a map, with all places the account user had been in the last couple of weeks. It updated regularly, putting point after point across Europe.

“There,” he said. “Last checkpoint was an hour ago. She’s in Eastern Europe, moving south, down the Balkan. If we get her, we can get everything out of her she knows.”

Rose followed the waypoints of the recent hours.

“She is moving down the highway by car,” Rose said. “Any idea to which destination?”

“Wait a minute,” Antoine said. “She’s an old gambler. There is a poker tournament down in Montenegro this weekend she told me about.”

“Olga will meet with her friends in a casino in Montenegro,” Antoine told the others in the red lighted interior of Jacque’s car. “I have the exact address. If this doesn’t work, meanwhile Kovacs will try to get to Yuri, the weapons dealer.”

He handed Rose a card with all the details forward, who was sitting in the co-driver seat. She entered them into the GPS system.

“What resistance do you think can we expect from Olga?” Rose said.

“I doubt Tanya told her about the incident in Hotel Duquesa,” Antoine said. “Olga will not know I am a spy.”

“How so?” Rose asked.

“To tell her would mean to let her know there are agencies after them to stop them,” Antoine said. “Which would make Tanya lose credibility in claiming that the Kremlin bombing will be a faked attack. My estimation is there will be no initial resistance but if this fails, we still have our plan B.”

“And if that fails, the alphabet has twenty-four letters more,” Rose said.

 

 

***THIRTY-ONE***

Bekkend was bringing them already on the highway, controlling Jacque’s car with calm and ease. He evaded trucks and slower moving vehicles every second, making use of all lanes he got. They would drive the night through and hit the border to Montenegro the next day. Rose was next to him in the co-driver’s seat, following the coordinates of Olga’s route.

Priya leant her head against Antoine’s shoulder and tried to sleep. Antoine watched out of the window and couldn’t stop thinking about Olga. A solemn calm and silence manifested on the outside of him, but all of this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

They reached Montenegro in the course of the following afternoon. The sun and wind seemed still the same as when Priya had spent that day on the yacht with Jacque. Mostly red flowers and the breeze from the sea brought a scent of blossoms and salt water. But so many things had changed from that day. She thought to know that Antoine was off limits for her and it was a clear and easy road, to walk the same path with each other without ever touching each other. Now that the possibilities were open, it didn’t make things easier. This would be the perfect place for a vacation, just the two of them. The landscape and climate could tend to direct one’s feelings that way, but she reminded herself to not fall to any illusions. They were there to catch, torture, interrogate and most probably kill a woman Antoine had come romantically close to. It would end no different than in the washroom in Barcelona with Tanya, except that this had been a stranger. Priya couldn’t imagine which effects the trauma would have on Antoine’s psyche and to an extent on her own. She talked him into this, to practically get rid of his most current love interest when she was wishing to become his next. This wish seemed to drift further away with each passing hour, with each step coming closer to Olga. As they drew nearer to their goal, Antoine got colder and colder towards her. She was feeling he was still fighting his inner conflict to prepare himself for killing the one he had feelings for.

“Here would be a wonderful place to make a vacation, what do you think?” she asked him the same thought she had been forming in her mind before.

“Fabulous,” he said.

They were standing on a ridgeline only a couple of steps away from the road, where the car was parked in a wide-ranging curve. The doors were open and lights turned on, standing there in the evening sun in front and above the sea shore like in a picture from an automobile calendar. They had spent whole credit cards to buy clothes and dress up for the casino. It was in plain sight from the ridge and the reason why Antoine kept staring at it, taciturn.

“I remember being here just about a month ago,” Priya said to him. “On the yacht, sunbathing, diving, talking to you on the phone.”

She got his attention.

“Anything changed?” he wanted to know.

He had an eyebrow raised.

“Everything,” she said. “I would say everything has changed.”

They met up with Jacque when it was already evening. He had flown back directly from London and his AGM meeting at the Shard.

Rose and Bekkend joined them, dressed like they were ready attending a ballroom.

“That’s the casino,” Rose said, taking a look through small binoculars at it. “I acquired everything I could gather about the location on my phone and laptop. Current aerial pictures, layout plans, street connections and entrances. I will brief you soon. Do we know where Olga is most likely going to be?”

“The target person will be attending a high-stakes poker game,” Antoine said.

The others noticed how he had changed from using her name and referring to her as an object. Priya guessed it helped him getting emotionally detached from her, but wondered if he was only doing it to act like he wasn’t affected. “She is a gambler and likes to takes risks. The company in which she will be today will be the kind she likes to be seen with the most, high society, gold diggers and playboys, the young and rich. We want her to talk first. For this we’re going to have to isolate her. We are doing this best by letting her either win or lose.”

“You mean you want to partake in the game?” Jacque asked.

“Someone of us has to,” Antoine said. “Otherwise we have no power over the outcome. But it can’t be me. Rose? Jacque? Bekkend or Priya. This is up to you.”

“Wowowow, so we cannot just go in there and kidnap her?” Jacque asked.

“Unlikely in a casino,” Antoine said. “They have security facilities.”

“Unfortunately, Antoine is right,” Rose said. “Every guest is ordered to lay off any metallic hand weapons at the entrance room and has to walk through a metal detector. There are armed security guards in every room and exit. The players willing to win will have bodyguards waiting for them outside to escort them to their cars. The best way to get to her, is to become a remarkable game opponent of her, get close with her and isolate her right after the game.”

“So who shall play?” Priya asked.

“Well it looks like it’s going to be my money we’re playing with, so…,” Jacque said.

“No,” Rose cut him off. “That’s the reason you can’t play. It’s your money, you are too attached to it. There might be a time where we have to go full monty and I’m not sure you can do this with your own cash. But I could do it if I’m using yours.”

Jacque gave her a funny look. “Oh, I can see that!”

“You were just coming from the Shard,” she said. “How are we looking with our funds?”

“Bad news about that,” Jacque said.

“Bad time to tell me,” Rose said.

It was already after sunset when Antoine entered the casino. The red glow of a fireball vanishing beneath the sea was already gone. From the sand-colored facade of the building situated at the shore it had withdrawn over the steep mountains that followed in the back country. He arrived with a limousine shortly before Priya dropped Rose with the Maserati. He straightened himself in front of the entrance. The parking lot was cluttered with noble cars that would have done Jacque’s collection proud. Antoine adjusted his collar and bow tie, flattened his sleeves and the endings of his trousers. He looked sharp like he was touring from banquet to banquet, a businessman, only accustomed to company in the highest ranks. A trader of death. He nodded to the other guests that were arriving, a group of ladies that had to be helped up the stairs by their cavaliers because of their extensive dresses and high heeled shoes. They ignored the ushers waiting at the entrance. Antoine was in his role, snide and arrogant as a man for whom money was immaterial and who had nothing to lose in a night at the casino. It was only fitting. Money would become worthless that night. They would waste lives tonight and the outcome of who it would concern wasn’t clear yet. Money accumulated for years would be burned as if it was nothing, serving only as a means to an end, to lure their enemy out of safety and buy them their freedom with blood on their hands. Their enemy, he thought, the woman he was intrigued by and still had the desire to meet again.

Antoine walked down the red carpet of the entrance hall, walls, ceilings and pillars around him golden like a palace. It was a playground for the rich to revel in a feeling that was long gone and try to bring back with money what was lost forever.

He spotted Olga at the table in the main poker hall, in a red dress under a crystal chandelier that immersed it in a warm gloom the color of summer wine. A crystal glass was in her fingers that were adorned with more rings Antoine had ever seen on her. Her glimpse caught him and he tried to stop for a moment and managed an honest grin. He could see her joy in seeing him again and he couldn’t detect the hint of a surprise in her face as he stood before her. She didn’t know what he had gone through the last few days, which gave him pause.

“Want to sit beside me while I play?” she asked.

Olga drew from a long cigarette holder. A free seat to her left was on the round table of players. They were watched from a spectator stand made of dark wood in a half circle behind them. He felt like he entered an arena, for bread and circuses. All he could do for Olga to win was being at her side.

“You didn’t bring your own lucky charm?” he said.

He pulled out the chair and took a seat before kissing Olga on both sides on the cheek and staring into her eyes for a long time.

“You think I will need it?” she asked him.

He wasn’t sure how he should interpret it.

“I don’t believe in luck,” he said, thinking of his lucky ring he hadn’t used in months.

“Me neither,” she said. “But I believe in accident.”

Antoine shrugged and pointed on the card deck lying in the middle of the table.

“I believe this is all the accident there is.”

“And the rest?” Olga wanted to know. “Destiny? Kismet? Karma?”

Destinee.

Antoine shook his head and stroked with his fingers over the back of her hand.

“The rest lies in the hands of us all and the best wins every time.”

Olga drew her lips to a smile as she regarded him.

The other players took their places among the round. Antoine could see Rose approaching and getting offered a seat on the far right of Olga.

“Then let the best be us tonight,” Olga said.

She turned towards the stack in front of her and to the croupier who was taking the card deck to begin the cash game.

“Excuse me sir, would you like to order some drink?” a waiter asked Antoine.

“Yes, bring me one Whiskey Sour please,” he said.

Rose looked at him as the croupier shuffled the poker set. Antoine was feeling more uncomfortable since she had joined the round and he was caught in a room between the two, like poles on which he had to decide which side he would take. After all, he had to put on his poker face and play his own game, acting, bluffing and when the right time came, pounce.

 

 

***THIRTY-TWO***

The croupier handed out the cards, one at a time for each player, then another round. Antoine could see Olga’s cards as she revealed them to herself. He looked into the round to the other players. They all had gotten their cards and considered their stake for the first turn. The croupier let the person next to him begin with his turn, who had the mandatory amount of the small blind to wager. One of the others folded at that early stage, then another. The first round passed and three additional cards were revealed at the center of the table. These were the card pool any player could use in addition to his own hand. Astounded murmur went through the spectator seats, although all players kept silent. Antoine could see some shifting in their seats to get a better look onto the cards, but Antoine knew it were unconscious signs. Olga seemed relaxed and her expression unchanged. She had herself under control. Rose was a block of ice, her face tense and caught in wrinkles over her brows, but Antoine knew she was calculating and running numbers. The cards that were shown at this point were already an early indication on everyone’s chances. The possibilities of which kinds of sets could be gathered weren’t unknown. Olga and Rose both set their bets and shoved playing chips as stand-ins for cash into the middle of the table. The waiter brought Antoine’s drink and he immediately took a sip to moisten his throat.

The outcome was decided by the two last cards which were revealed in the table center. Olga and Rose both stayed in, together with a couple other opponents. The last round of setting the stakes determined who would win the round, separating the wheat from the chaff. It also gave them more insight into the characters of their opponents. Some were risky, others played safe, some bluffed more often than others while some bluffed only this one time when it counted. Those who really excelled changed their habits like a chameleon and became unpredictable. Antoine found a match in Olga who had been living after these tenets for their whole life just to survive. It wasn’t just an evening activity for them enjoyed once in a while to distract from their daily life jive, it was their way of life manifested into a game of cards.

Antoine observed the two main players with curiosity. Like in the real situation, one knew more than the other. Olga could get help by Antoine any moment that was essential. He knew Olga’s cards. The blink of an eye or a certain subtle gesture could give Rose all the signs she needed to decide her course. But they didn’t want to win. They were here to come second and ascertain to make Olga the winner. Rose regarded Antoine for any clues. She played with chips in her fingers, thinking about how much she would bet. Antoine didn’t know what was in her hand so the system was still flawed by a large margin. He signed her to bet a smaller amount than planned. Olga followed the stack of chips shoved into the center. She looked at Antoine who didn’t give away a blink. She payed off the missing amount in chips to close the round and let both their cards reveal.

Rose was first. Two kings and three tens. The spectators broke their silence now. Players shifted uneasy on their seats.

“Royal flush,” the croupier announced. “Two kings, three tens.”

Now it was on Olga to equalize and hopefully beat the set. She only needed a ten.

She revealed two queens.

“Royal flush,” the croupier said. “Two queens, three tens. Madame Appiah wins.”

Olga let out a cuss and punched the table edge with her palms. Antoine let down his head in face of her loss and his miscalculation with Rose. His boss took the staple of coins no less surprised, even if she didn’t show it. She let her emotions underneath her skin, opposed to Olga. But poker was the only game the winner had more reason to stay calm than the loser.

Olga had just lost a hundred thousand dollars equivalent of playing chips.

“It was close,” Antoine said with a calm voice.

She took a swig from her glass and tried to get her temper back in check. The next cards were already dealt and she focused for the next round. Rose was leading the field in chips by a large sum, with Olga set back far from her loss and the other players in various degrees in the middle depending at which stage they had folded. A quick win would be in order for Olga to level the field again. Antoine and Rose had the advantage now that they could help her, as soon as the other players were taken out, with a nest egg of playing chips to help Olga out when letting her win. But this was provided that both had good cards to get to the top two in each round.

Antoine watched the game in tense silence, sometimes consulting Olga, sometimes nodding to Rose, while the rounds passed. Glasses emptied and got renewed, stacks of chips changed their owners over the course of hours. The numbers of card combination possibilities reached endless values. Players got terminated by running out of luck and chips, and did so again after their re-buys were spent. It was a close call, but Rose and Olga both managed to stay in the game.

The midnight hours had long passed. The ranks around the table emptied and with their supporters also the ranks of the spectator stands. Smoke and dried sweat lingered on skin and clothes like a polluted layer, coloring eyes red as they changed from watching cards to the faces of the opponents. The last opponent besides Olga and Rose got eliminated with a round he couldn’t afford anymore and a hand that wasn’t enough to cut it.

He shoved his seat away from the tournament table and left frustrated.

His leftover cards got collected by the croupier.

“Madame Kovalenko and Madame Appiah are the last remaining contenders in this tournament,” the croupier announced.

Rose allowed herself to exhale and lean back for a short while, before the new cards got dealt. They had made it. Nothing could get in the way regarding on how the wanted the game to evolve anymore. The hard part had been done, the one in which they had to eliminate so many factors they had no influence about.

It was already late during the night. The game lasted into the early morning hours till a victor could be determined. It had turned into a duel that would last until one of the two would run out of money and chips.

Looking at the equal distribution of chips, Antoine knew that each round could be the last.

Olga revealed her two cards to herself and Antoine. It was a jack and a queen. Together with all five cards revealed on the table already it equaled to a double pair. Antoine could hear Olga sigh. It was the second lowest set existing.

Rose looked at her for a long and thoughtful while.

She took her chips pool and shoved it all towards the table center in one go.

“All in,” Rose said. Her throat had become hoarse from the smoke that lingered in the room under table lamps and fans.

“Madame Appiah, all in,” the croupier repeated.

Olga paused for a moment and consulted Antoine, who knew her odds.

He felt a lump in his throat that made him want to loosen his collar and bow tie. He nodded assuring.

Olga regarded her cards carefully. There was still a chance to win and it was all a question of courage, who was intimidated by the huge amount of money at stake and who wasn’t. Olga blew out smoke in a long breath that formed to a cloud rising to the ceiling of the room. It got swirled up by the fan like wisps of clouds. Antoine knew she hated nothing more than admitting she was intimidated by someone. She was used to have power over others.

“All in,” she said.

The spectators, the room and the croupier became quiet in an instant.

“Madame Kovalenko,” the croupier said in anticipation. “All in.”

She was the first to show her cards and reveal her double pair of jacks and queens.

“Madame Kovalenko has two jacks, two queens,” the croupier said. “Double pair.”

All eyes were directed at Rose now.

She considered her cards again. Then laid them away from her, unrevealed.

“Madame Appiah hands the victory to Madame Kovalenko,” the croupier spoke into the round. “We have a winner in this tournament, ladies and gentlemen, applause to Madame Kovalenko.”

Olga breathed out in relief. She turned to her friends in the spectator stands who were going crazy over thinking of ideas on how to celebrate the win and spend the price she had earned all of a sudden. It had been do or die, go big or go home. Olga thanked Antoine for being at her side as an advisor with a long lasting hug, while she reveled in the applause and tension that had been finally released in the poker room.

“Congratulations Olga,” Antoine said. “This was hard won, you earned it.”

“Believing in Kismet now?” she asked.

Antoine didn’t answer and just smiled, enjoying the last sip of his drink.

Rose interrupted them both by coming over and placing a hand over their shoulders. She reclined when she felt she couldn’t bring herself to touch a woman they had to eliminate.

“Miss Kovalenko,” she said. She had to reach out her hand though to congratulate her. “I would like to congratulate you to this impressive game.”

Olga allowed her to take her hand in a way a lady held it out to an admirer.”Thank you Miss Appiah, I have to return your compliment. It could have gone either way.”

Rose nodded. “I would like you to bestow the honor on me and join me in the private lounge for a drink, where we can also discuss the transaction of the trophy money.”

Olga looked at Antoine. “I would like to, but allow me to invite you on a drink.”

“Seems fair,” Rose said with a smile. She held out a hand. “Please.”

Antoine and Olga followed her into a dark room at the end of a long corridor and the other side of the building. Gloomy lights got turned on once they entered the private lounge, consisting of a couch, a heightened dance floor and an empty bar in the background.

“Please, take a seat,” Rose said.

She took a bottle of champagne that was already prepared out of an ice tray and began pouring them a drink for each one of them.

“If you could give me your banking information,” Rose said, “I can call my assistant to initiate the transfer while we touch glasses.”

Olga showed it to her on her smart phone.

Rose put down the three filled glasses on the table and took out her phone. Antoine knew from their plan that it would be Priya who was answering.

“Hello it’s Rose. Please initiate the transaction now to the following bank account,” Rose said over the phone and dictated the number given on Olga’s screen.

Then she handed them out their glasses.

“A toast on a gentlemen’s game, won by a lady,” Rose said as they chinked glasses. She halted before sipping the champagne. “Something seems to trouble your company, Olga.”

“I’m just curious,” Antoine said. “What were your cards in the last round?”

Rose grinned. “A good poker player never reveals her cards.”

Olga returned the toast.

“To a good poker player.”

They poured down the champagne and emptied their glasses in one go.

Olga used the opportunity to check on her phone her banking activities. She had a surprised look on her face.

Antoine exchanged a glance with Rose.

“There was no transaction,” Olga said.

 

 

***THIRTY-THREE***

“Maybe there was a mix up with the numbers, let me call again please,” Rose said.

Olga shook her head.

“No, the numbers were correct, but the transaction was not successful,” Olga said, standing up.

“I’m sorry, this must be a mistake,” Rose said. She grabbed her arm to let her stay in the place.

“No, come Antoine, it’s time to go,” Olga urged. “You can do the transaction without us, or this was your last game.”

She tore herself free and stepped out of the private lounge. Antoine followed her close on her heels.

“What are you going to do?” he wanted to know.

Olga was quickening her steps and Antoine had to break into a run to keep up with her.

“We are getting out of here,” she said. “This is a set up. Let’s get to the car.”

Rose swore as she was left behind alone on the couch. She got on the phone again.

Antoine kept up with Olga but he couldn’t hold her back now. There were bystanders and spectators that recognized the winner of the poker tournament. Everywhere they went, Olga was known and not only for her extraordinary dress and shoes. She had already drawn too much attention. Antoine needed to keep playing his part and stand by her side. Even if that meant as her only confidant.

She moved down the stairs, her quick steps echoing through the yard in front of the casino. She snatched the keys out of the hand of the concierge waiting down behind a desk.

“Have a good night Madame, I hope you had an unforgettable stay and come visiting us again soon,” he said nonetheless with a bow.

Olga went around the car to get to the driver’s seat while Antoine came later to open the door on the other side. Antoine stopped a moment to admire the beautiful beast of a car, a black Marussia.

Behind, Priya ran out of the hotel building, taking two steps at a time and jumping over the last few of them. Antoine could see her sprinting across the parking lot to Jacque’s Maserati Gran Turismo. She vanished out of his view, only visible as a figure in the rear mirror, constantly disappearing.

Olga hit the pedal and let the wheels spin. They accelerated out of the casino parking lot with screeching tires, smoke and the black trace of burnt rubber left behind. Priya wasn’t that far behind. Antoine saw Olga’s eyes light up from the rear mirror reflection as Priya started her engine. He could hear the Maserati’s high pitched roar of Priya taking pursuit even when Olga’s Marussia was screaming like a beast set free. Olga shifted gears and Antoine felt himself being pressed into the backrest of the race seat as she steered the car upwards onto a rising mountain road. Antoine tried to get a grip on his seat belt and fastened it.

Montenegro was famous for this. The street went up along canyons and red rocks that caught the first rays of the rising sun. Beside the street on the other side of the mountain slope, the ravine fell down into a couple of hundred meters, kept away only by the sharp edges of crash barriers and brick imitations of battlements crowning old castles. Olga raced on, sticking to the racing line and getting drawn out to the sides in each curve. Speed kept them pushed down to the asphalt, but the road wasn’t broad enough to hold two cars to meet head on in that way. They had to count on pure luck to not get caught by approaching cars. They had to count on the early morning hours and the sun in their back.

Olga installed the GPS device on top of her dashboard. She hit it to fix it in place in its holding and not get lost during that speed.

“Where are we going?” Antoine wanted to know.

“No destination,” Olga replied. “Just get away. We need the GPS to guide us through the road and keep us alive.”

Antoine ducked as he saw an overhanging rock formation coming closer fast that sped past only a couple of meters overhead the roof. They were swallowed by darkness, into the mountain in a tunnel formed like a tube that shot out the Marussia like a bullet through a gun barrel.

“Okay, never let it be said that women can’t drive,” Antoine said.

Olga watched back into the rear mirror to see the light cones chasing them.

They soon disappeared.

“Did I lose them?” Olga said after a while. Her voice was filled with paranoia, her eyeballs wide and glinting white from fear.

“I think so,” Antoine said.

Olga drove on in silence at high speed.

Antoine found it the best time to ask the questions that needed to be asked, but he had to present it to her carefully.

“Who did you piss off that they don’t wanna pay you your prize money and even chase you?” he said.

She turned her eyes away from the road and kept them locked at his. Antoine could feel his heartbeats in this moment when she looked at him, when they were united in a life and death situation. Nothing else mattered and Antoine could see in her eyes how wild the night would be with her if they made it through this, led by nothing but their instincts. Every heartbeat that passed was a heartbeat too long, knowing that this could be their last.

“This is not about the prize money,” she said.

Olga threw a glance into the rear mirror and slammed on the brakes. The seatbelt wrenched Antoine’s guts.

She turned to him. “I have not been honest with you and there are things about my life you don’t want to know…in fact if I tell you, I might have to kill you…and I like you too much for that.”

“What about trust?” Antoine said. “I think I’m the only one on your side in this now.”

Olga shook her head so that her hair whipped. “Not in this.”

Antoine didn’t let her out of his eyes, even as she looked away.

“Try me.”

Olga put in the gear and started driving on again. The sun rose in front of them over the craggy mountain chain, the first welcoming of the new day. Only now they realized how much time had passed during the night and how fast it went by. Almost like life, one could find it was nearly waste of time to sleep.

He heard a sigh coming from the woman next to him in the driver seat.

“You don’t know what I do,” Olga said.

Antoine had to stay in his role.

“You’re a nuclear specialist, that is why you were at the UN,” he said.

“I am a spy,” Olga said. “That is my cover.”

Antoine fell quiet and took a long breath.

“So things have gone wrong and I could be considered a traitor. The FSB could be after me,” she said. “My handler is gone and I…”

“Maybe I can help,” Antoine said.

Olga laughed weakly.

“This is not a change management thing. You can’t just walk in, give a little advice and expect everything to…”

“Let me show this to you,” Antoine said.

Antoine replayed a voice message recorded on his phone. Hearing Tanya’s voice talking with one of the Khorasan group silenced her.

Olga hit the brakes again. Her head yanked forth and back hard, while Antoine hit his forehead on the dashboard.

“What is this?” she asked.

“This is your handler betraying you,” Antoine said.

She looked like her whole world just had been turned upside down and was about to crumble.

He could see her reaching for her gun under her seat, but he laid his hand on her forearm in time, gently.

“Who are you?” she said.

“Hear me out,” he said.

Olga blew her messed up hair out of her view.

“I want to listen to that again,” she said.

Antoine pressed replay.

They could hear Tanya speak. “She doesn’t know it’s a real attack,” she said. “Thinks it’s fake. She is young and naive. She needs my help to stage a fake attack on the Kremlin so that she can stop it and get praise and recognition.”

“Can you handle the weapon?” the Khorasan member said.

“I handled nuclear before,” Tanya said. “Remember Alex Luchenko, the FSB spy killed in London.”

“This one is made from radioactive waste dumped off the Somali coast, put together and sent back to the West where it came from. You can bring it on your own soil?” the Khorasan said.

“I hate Russia,” Tanya said. “The spy-swap lost me my life and everything I built up in the West.”

The man didn’t respond to it.

“It will come via flight to Germany, Berlin,” he said. “You know when, you know the man bringing it to you.”

Antoine put the phone away.

“Okay, I also haven’t been fully honest,” he said. “And your handler Tanya is after me too. This would be a good time for us to work together…”

“This is bullshit,” Olga said. “I know Tanya.”

“Me too,” Antoine said. “When she was CIA.”

“She was never CIA, she was FSB,” Olga said. “She was a patriot.”

“And in 2010 she was exchanged,” Antoine said. “What happened there?”

“Bad leadership in the FSB gave her over,” she said.

“And she has been blacklisted and a mercenary since,” Antoine said.

Olga shook her head. “But she would never…”

Rose tried to reach Antoine through his earpiece.

“Antoine…what’s happening?”

He ignored it. This was not the time. He had done the hard part and got Olga to open up. He managed to do so delicately. Dropping the bomb that he was a spy and they should work together was challenging. He corrected himself, under normal circumstances it would be challenging. Telling Olga after what happened in Barcelona on top of the quick departure from the casino with her being spooked was borderline mission impossible. Antoine pondered whether Olga’s handling of her Marussia was due to it being hard to handle, her being under the influence of alcohol or trying to make sense of the information he just shared with her. Either way, the cliff to the left of the road was a concern for him.

Antoine listened to Olga ramble on about Mother Russia. She could talk. She went on about the changes that needed to be made within it, the betrayal of NATO, its invasion of Warsaw Pact countries and her personal rise to power. Her ties with Tanya. She even boasted about Tanya’s involvement with Alex Luchenko’s death, albeit indirectly. Olga admitted to the spy swap in Vienna being a fact being a fake and that the real spies were still deeply embedded. She shared all sorts of highly confidential information. She talked at length but said everything except what he wanted to hear: the location of the dirty bomb.

Antoine wanted to stop a catastrophe but had no clue where to go. He sat there, his life in Olga’s hands, with countless people’s lives in his.

Why was he doing this, he asked himself. For Destinee, the realization came. For Destinee and A.J. He needed to make the world a better place for them.

Antoine looked up to see two pairs of headlights in the distance approaching fast.

“Are we expecting company?” he said.

Olga turned her head to at them. Their engine sounds were like buzzing bees, high pitched and thrown off the walls of the rocky slope.

“They are no friends of mine,” she replied hitting the gas and speeding up even more.

The motor roar of the two cars had merged into one and from the adjacent road the two cars raced after them, drifting as they reached the junction and took on the chase. With the narrow roads coming up ahead and a series of tunnels, Antoine’s gut feeling was this was not going to end well.

 

 

***THIRTY-FOUR***

Priya didn’t see them until they were ahead, cutting her off from Olga and Antoine.

She caught up on Olga and her chasers. She was fixated on the red back lights in front of her and didn’t let go. She could learn from them and take advantage. When the brake lights lit up, she knew she would need to brake at the same point. When they disappeared behind a mountain shoulder, she knew which curve was coming next. The rest was dedicated to full throttle. Her hands were glued on the steering wheel, her knuckles turned white. She had to hold on while her body was pressed into the back of the racing seat. The Gran Turismo was low and made her feel every bump on the road. When she reached the crest of a hill, it threatened to take off from the ground. When she entered a tunnel, it felt like it got sucked underground. Whole tunnels raced past her like they were only shadows of trees.

Priya had the speakerphones activated and was in constant connection with Rose and Antoine.

“Dammit, where did those come from?” Priya could hear her boss speak over the boxes. She was on full volume to rise above the constant engine roar. “Are these Olga’s or Tanya’s men? The FSB? Antoine is not responding.”

Priya squinted. She didn’t have any time left to think about it or make decisions. Staying on track demanded from her one hundred percent. Any less and she would crash into rock at a speed that would guarantee a quick death, or get fishtailed off the road.

“You have to stop them, Priya,” she heard her boss again.

The passing of another long drawn curve made her clench her teeth as she got drawn out onto the oncoming lane, ignoring warning labels as if they were mere decorations.

“I’m on them,” she managed to say, even if her subconscious bristled against it.

“Okay… listen. I need you to tell me where the bomb is,” Priya heard Antoine say. “Speak fast.”

“I…I don’t know where the bomb is,” Olga said.

Priya punched the steering wheel and kicked down the pedal so hard she could feel her leg muscles strain. Her foot was shaking from exhaustion.

She didn’t like the idea to trust Olga at all, but she was not in the right place to decide. When she needed to focus on staying alive and handle the Maserati at neck breaking speed, all logic was laid aside. She was body, muscles and flesh and Rose was the mind commanding her. But she could still not lay aside her heart. She had feelings for Antoine she couldn’t ignore and the thought of losing him again tore her heart apart.

“Listen, there is a great chance that we’re not coming out of this alive,” she heard Antoine say to Olga.

“I can only tell you what I do know,” Olga said.

Priya wiped unfallen tears out of the corners of her eyes that gathered on her cheeks. Her vision blurred because of that and the surroundings racing past her and the tunnel vision that kept her aimed at one of Olga’s chasers’ red lights.

“On the 8th some separatists where going to get into the Kremlin,” Olga said.

The brake lights lit up in front of her and Priya braced without hitting the brake. She saw the car coming closer like a stationary wall and made ready for the deafening bang of tons of metal against metal at inhuman speed.

“I was going to stop them while they were planting a fake bomb,” Olga said.

Priya’s head got snapped forward as she crashed into the back of the car. Closing her eyes shut, she could only hear the dreaded bang. It was much worse than she had imagined and prepared for. The sound didn’t fully convey the intricate details going on outside. Those were lost in the ultimate destruction. Like a gunshot fired right to her ear, swallowing the sound of breaking backlights and deforming metal. It peeled off the whole stern of the other car, wheels resisting the sudden acceleration, sheet denting simultaneously in a dozen spots and varnish shredded off against crunching rock like sand paper.

Still they raced on. The demolished cars hadn’t lost their edge yet, only their aesthetics. Parts loosened and took off as they accelerated side by side, trying to get the upper hand. They exchanged blows that ripped off both of their side mirrors.

“That failed attack was going to give much needed sympathy to Russia after Crimea and promote me further up the ranks,” Olga said.

The mirror cases tumbled behind on the road like thrown out garbage, coming to a halt besides bumpers and parts of a grill face panel. The street resembled a wreck’s graveyard, a field of battle.

The chaser car and Priya were dogfighting like two fighter pilots, pushing their machines to their limits while maneuvering through tunnels and gorges. Priya’s dented hood got undercut by headwind and took off in a spectacular somersault, threatening to decapitate her as it flew past.

“I am supposed to get a call on the 8th, a day before the attack and meet Tanya,” Olga said.

Priya could see the open engine now right in front of her, working, exhausting and spitting out oil and gas. She was on the fast lane, but that also meant any approaching vehicle would arrive frontal right on her side.

Her tires smoldered in the curves as the chaser car tried to edge her out against the rock slide.

“Well this isn’t gonna happen,” Antoine said.

A truck approached down the mountain road, its horn already blaring on the short track that lay between them.

“Do you know where the bomb is?” Antoine said.

“No!”

Priya’s car decelerated slightly to get behind the chaser, but the car stuck at her side to leave her no other way than to smash against the truck. Antoine had a split second left to intervene.

“Do you know where Tanya is?”

“No!”

He grabbed onto the hand brake and pulled it hard. The car banked and nearly took off by the sudden brake. The wheels blocked and hurled Olga and Antoine into a drift.

“We don’t have time for games!” Antoine said.

“I don’t know anything!” Olga said.

The two chasers braked full stop, while Priya used the window that had opened to accelerate. She rushed towards the truck, engine blaring and got on the first lane right in front of Olga. The gap closed a millisecond later. Antoine saw the truck rushing past with its horn blasting. Priya had evaded it by the blink of an eye and dived into the tunnel. Olga followed her with the two chasers in their necks, into the darkness.

Priya took another evasive maneuver banking her car on the fast lane that made her tires squeal, circumventing the huge stone lying on the road.

Olga was focused on the cars behind. Judging from her driving she was more afraid that they would catch up in the dark passage, the narrow road with walls of rocks, than she was of the bright abyss that awaited her outside.

She saw the huge stone too late. The car crashed into it and drove over, its tire bursting. It got off the road and whirled up dust as its tires churned the small strip of grit that separated the road from the tunnel wall.

Olga countersteered the drift that drew out much longer as Antoine would have liked. The car would lose its grip and somersault every second. The front wheels bit on asphalt, with a burst tire like a broken tooth, but the car fishtailed out into the other direction. Antoine’s gut turned as he felt the centrifugal forces prompting the car’s back to overtake its nose and spiraling. Rock greeted them front and back.

The walls rushed past them. The tires suddenly blocked and the ground beneath them gave away. They were in mid-air, flying, rolling over their own axis. A loud crash dented their roof and let them know that they just turned upside down. They came cross with no way left for the chaser cars to evade them.

The first car following them rammed their rear and hit them full on, moving them forward through the tunnel. Even with eyes pressed close, they could see the light at the end coming back. The other car braked as they skidded on to their side, changing lanes and driving on after the first, while Olga’s Marussia approached the edge. Airbags opened with a bang, their faces pressed against it like cushions, facing each other like awaking on a Sunday morning. The outside world had them back again. Bright sunlight fell into the tunnel exit, engulfing them. Antoine didn’t welcome it. It was a bad awakening. They were still tumbling, time frozen down to slow motion as his body fluids were shaken side to side like in a washing machine.

“She is useless,” he thought to himself.

His head snapped back. Sunglasses, a drink, a phone, glass splinters, a gun were flying loose inside the cabin, all upside down. Olga’s gun. They both saw it simultaneously and grabbed for it at the same heartbeat.

“Even now, naïve and power hungry.” He finished his thought.

The car’s stern was leaving asphalt and soon after the ground, hanging over the ravine like equilibrating balances. Antoine’s gut turned as he felt the centrifugal force prompting the car’s back to overtake its nose and pull it down over the edge. He fumbled for the door handle, found purchase and ripped open the door. Bright sand and rocks blinded him. The chasm gaped beneath his feet. He pushed himself away from the co-driver’s seat and jumped forward, clutching the open car door. He was fighting gravity as the car threatened to tear him down with it. Then the car suddenly stopped. It was turned upside down on the edge of the ravine, its wheels turning slowly. In the wide canyon, two gun shots rang out.

 

 

***THIRTY-FIVE***

Priya parked her car across both lanes to form a street barricade. They would come back to finish the job. She unbuckled her seatbelt and rushed back to the car wreck, sun and adrenaline hot on her back. Her knees were weak when running, shaking. She had to watch out they didn’t give away and bring her to fall.

She had heard gunfire coming out of the car. She came closer with the gun, ready to shoot Olga and cutting out the image she feared to find. She knew Antoine didn’t carry his weapon, but Olga could have one in her car.

Antoine’s arm came out of the window in front, then his head and the other arm, the gun in hand.

“Antoine,” Priya said, squatting besides him. “Are you alright?”

“I’ve been better,” he said.

“I heard shots,” she said.

“I did it,” he said. “Rest in pieces.”

He climbed out and turned back, extending his arm to help Olga out of the death trap. Cuts and bruises covered their faces.

A chuckle came from them, that turned into a laugh.

“You made me half deaf,” Olga said.

“Better than half dead,” he said. “I had to shoot the airbags.”

Priya’s hearing came back and with it the noise of the chasers.

“That was close,” Antoine said.

“It’s not over yet,” she said.

Priya ran back to her car and took cover. She held her gun out and aimed down the road as steady as she could. Her breathing was fast. She was trembling. The rays of light coming over the jagged mountain tops shone into her eyes and made her squint. The chaser cars would come with the sun in their backs, glistening in the daylight, blinding her. And making her full with fear. The engine roar alone would do this. But the prospect that they were sitting ducks on the road close to the cliffs with nowhere to go, was worse. The sheet metal of her own car wouldn’t withstand them, not one bit.

The gun got heavy in her hand, swaying in the wind and under exhaustion. Her eyes watered. The sound of engines faded away. The hunters didn’t come back. Maybe it was just an unfortunate accident. Maybe they had been mere racers, not killers.

“I think they aren’t coming back,” she said, her voice dry. She let down her gun, reluctantly doing so and feeling vulnerable again.

Her call went unheeded.

Antoine looked into Olga’s flashing eyes, wide from adrenaline and another close confrontation with death.

They stood close to each other now, the tips of their shoes already touching. Antoine could feel the tension in her, something that was more than the shudder from a high speed car chase, he guessed. It were all the things he had revealed to her. He was an agent, much like her.

He took her hand to comfort her and looked into her eyes. She didn’t blink, as if she was waiting for something and silently pleading him to give it to her.

“I don’t know what that all means now,” she said. “And on whose side you are on.”

Antoine still held her gun in his hand.

Olga had a confused look on her face.

“Guess it’s game over for me now,” she said. “Would I know where I will fall down, I’d lay some straw.”

He had to make her trust him. Her cooperation was needed and if she wouldn’t help them, all was lost.

Right when she lowered her eyes in disappointment, Antoine took hold of the back of her neck and went in to kiss her. His move got rejected by her as she turned her head sideways and held only her cheek against his lips before they could connect. Antoine kissed her cheek and moved over to her lips without touching them. He stayed there only a hair’s breadth away so that he could feel her breath cooling his lips and their noses moved against one another. He felt how she didn’t dare move closer, nor away. Olga’s eyes were locked to his mouth, as were his on hers.

“You betrayed me,” she whispered. “And you knew it the whole time.”

Antoine moved slightly forward which was enough to let their lips touch gently, like a finger sliding over a gun trigger with held breath, slightly, ever slightly up to the point where the shot followed unconscious by chance. The perfect hit and then some more.

For the first time in weeks it felt like they had all the time in the world, even when they didn’t.

Priya’s mien turned sour. She had undertaken everything to save them and seeing them kiss was her reward, a bad joke.

“We have to go,” Priya said, waiting for them.

They didn’t stop from her interruption.

“Okay, we should get back now,” Antoine said.

He and Olga walked past Priya, without acknowledging her much and headed straight to her car.

Priya looked after them as she could feel the anger building up in her like needles sticking in her chest.

“Priya, you drive from now on,” he said. “You are obviously the better choice.”

Priya lashed out with her foot and delivered a kick against the rear of the wrecked car, with all her temper thrown into it. She could feel it moving from her toes up her calves and stomach into the front leg to the tip of her foot. White hot burning. She smashed a dent into the sheet metal of the trunk and left the vehicle shaking. As she turned away, with hands clenched to fists, the car wreck set in motion and slid down the steep slope.

Grinding, the Marussia fell from the cliff until it reached the bottom with a loud bang.

“Sarajevo,” Antoine said. He screwed up his face as he spoke the word. “Every time I’m here I can almost feel the betrayal that lies in the air.”

Antoine entered the piazza ahead of his whole unit and sniffed a breeze of fresh air.

Pigeons flew off from the sidewalks and a floor that was a mosaic of stones, old as time. Everything was quiet, like time stood still. Old people feeding the birds crossed the street before him, with the chatter of food markets nearby and open cafes. Antoine observed the birds take off and landing on the roof of a closed well in the middle of the plaza, looking like a small tower of an orient palace. Behind stood an old mosque made of white stones with its one minaret towering above the shingle roofs of all the small buildings around it.

“Looks so peaceful here,” Priya said, grabbing an apple from a market stand.

She bit into it heartily with a loud crackle, fruit juice dripping out of between her teeth.

“Peaceful?” Antoine asked. “Kovacs doesn’t even set a foot on this place after what happened in the Bosnian War. And a hundred years ago the Austrian-Hungarian crown prince was shot here on the open street. The assassination caused the beginning of World War One.”

They were passing old house walls that showed entry holes from firefights in another era, from another war, two decades ago. Kovacs had already fought Muhajideen and Chechens in secrecy during his youth and lost his innocence.

“Fitting that we are here now,” Priya said. “Marking the beginning of World War Three.”

“If we fail,” Jacque said.

“We won’t be there to witness it if we do,” Priya said.

“Priya is right,” Rose said. “But I take this as a positive. We stand with our backs against the wall. And we are facing absolute professionals. We are going up against the men who killed our agents and left the HQ in ruins. I don’t know if we can win this, but there is no other way. You know the stakes.”

“Our technological and intelligence resources are cut,” Priya said. “There won’t be any high-tech for this last operation.”

“Normally I would say I can live with that,” Jacque said. “We just have to improvise.”

“Which means all we have at our disposal, is our old contacts and Jacque’s bank account,” Rose said.

“See, I knew there was a flaw,” Jacque said.

“We could use some time to plan and gather what we can get before we get into Moscow,” Antoine said. “Do we have a box here in Sarajevo?”

“Yes, you could say that,” Rose said. “But it’s different than the ones we have in Berlin, or London.”

Rose opened the box but the result let Antoine’s heart sink. There was nothing wrong with the container from what could be seen from the outside, except that the inside was empty. An empty room, with nothing to work with. Everything they would come up with they had to build literally from scratch.

 

 

***THIRTY-SIX***

Rose entered after all of them had and walked to the container wall. She pressed a control of the panel there that set the container in motion. The walls looked like they became higher, but it was the floor that sunk down and descended below ground level, like a second floor in a box, only that there literally existed a second floor. The elevator platform stopped at the ground of a hall vast enough to lose sight of its walls in the darkness around them. Rose turned on the lights when she punched a button next to the elevator panel. Tube lights activated all along the ceiling, illuminating one section at a time and driving the darkness back, until the dimensions of the hall became visible.

It was a former industrial testing facility, now abandoned under the area of freight and storage containers.

“Feels like home,” Antoine said. “I have a car garage like that.”

“Good, because this will be our home for the next few weeks,” Rose said.

“Now there is a lot of room for ideas,” Priya said.

“A lot of room to fill with everything we need,” Rose replied. “Planning stage, practice ground, shooting range, driving ground. We can re-enact parts of our mission like the Secret Air Service first did.”

“We did that too with the Deltas,” Antoine said.

“Yes, but the British were the first,” Rose said.

“Guys, please,” Jacque interrupted. “The coup will take place in Moscow in the Kremlin, one day before the Victory Day of the Russian Federation. Red Square will be packed with visitors, tourists, police and security personnel. Bombing search teams will make sure the area is clean before the festival starts.”

“Our attackers will have to move in afterwards, during the preparations of the festival and use the crowd and workers as cover to get out,” Rose said. “If I were them, I would use a disguise, like a team of technicians, ambulance or firefighters who can get past the controls more easily to smuggle the bomb inside. We have to survey any changes in the roster of such teams to track them down.”

“This is too old school,” Antoine said. “If I were them, I would use stealth-technology. Remember the Spetsnaz we encountered in Berlin? The whole special unit has now access to the same stealth suits. They can go in without being seen and go in through ways conventional means wouldn’t allow. No visual signs, no roster changes to backtrack.”

“Stealth technology,” Priya said. “Espionage roots back to Sun Tsu’s Art of War. The ninjas perfected those principles. What they trained to achieve was to practicable be invisible. This is what the stealth suit allows. The pinnacle of espionage and assassination. It renders the enemies’ eyes useless. The best hunters always go for the eyes. It gives them an immense physical advantage, from psychological not to speak.”

“Radek’s men served with him in the GRU 45th Guards Spetsnaz Regiment of the Air Landing Forces, they are all airborne troops,” said Antoine. “We have to keep in mind that they may come from above.”

“We have to intercept them before that and not let it come to this,” Jacque said. “They will be in a same kind of preparation phase than we are now and will get the new equipment from this arms dealer called Yuri. Especially brand new weapons. This is where we should set our first strike. Exchange the arms-dealer, eliminate the competition and make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

“You want to sell them the weapons?” Antoine said.

“I’m a businessman,” Jacque said. “That’s the way I would do it.”

“And then put trackers on their weapons to find out the location of their base,” Rose said.

“That’s very obvious,” Priya said. “If the initial dealer doesn’t show up, it will raise their suspicion. We have to be careful. If they perform a scan on their weapons and find those trackers, we are done. Also remember, we need to find a way to make them visible to us, when they are wearing the stealth suits. There is still no anti-stealth technology available till now. We can try to neutralize its effects via EMP weapons, but we can’t put them to use if we don’t know where they are in the first place.”

“So how can we make an invisible enemy visible?” Jacque said.

“We can’t,” Priya said. “But we can put signals on them that tell us exactly where they are. I have an idea. We can track them with radio frequency identification tags. It works like conventional Barcode technique, but is more effective in identifying diverse objects. RFID technology has been popular in many applications. Surveillance, access control, theft prevention and movement tracking.”

“How does it work?” Jacque said.

“A RFID system comprises of a number of readers and a large amount of tags. The tag usually stores an ID that is uniquely assigned. When entering or staying in the interrogation area of readers, a tag can report its ID to the reader via radio frequency signals. And it’s only the size of a rice corn, easy to hide.”

“That sounds good,” Jacque said. “Where is the catch?”

Priya sighed. “With ultra high frequency, we can reach a read range of up to five hundred meters.”

“Meaning we have to stay close,” Antoine said. He looked into the faces in the round, nodding. “We can do that.”

“Okay, let’s baby-step it,” Rose said. “Kovacs is already in Moscow, tracking the arms dealer Yuri down. With Olga’s help we may find him soon. She makes use of her connections in the FSB, getting the hunt on Yuri without letting them know about the big coup planned in Moscow. That way she will not be suspected of collaborating with Tanya. We intercept Yuri’s delivery, replace him and hand over his supply to Radek’s men.”

“We take Yuri out,” Antoine said. “And follow whoever shows up for the weapons deal back to their base. Me and Kovacs can do this. I will make myself on the way to Russia and meet up with him. I just need directions.”

“Meanwhile we need the RFID tracker-weapons and ammunition ready,” Priya said. “And also a plan B for the marking. We should try to mark them close up with patches on their bodies that send the signals once one of us gets close to them.”

“I will follow the person buying the arms back to their base to do that, together with Kovacs,” Antoine said. “We need to stay within the five hundred meter range to not lose them. Simply tracking them down and hoping that they will show up in front of our sights again might not prevent them from blowing up the Kremlin. Even if Olga is there to prepare against their attack. We’ll have to infiltrate them and not let them out of our eyes.”

Rose looked at them for a long time. He remembered the talk he had with her about not being soldiers. Still, she nodded.

“I agree,” Rose said. “There is no beauty, than the beauty of action.”

He wanted to say more, but turned away and left, his steps echoing in the vast hall. There was nowhere to disappear, except the darkness at the end in the unlit area. It took a long time till he got there and he knew that the others kept watching him till he entered the shadows.

“Where are you going?” Rose asked.

“Calling some friends,” he said without stopping.

Priya looked at the others.

“I didn’t know he had friends.”

He pulled out his phone. It took him a couple of seconds to conquer his doubts. He had to remember the way they talked. Once he contacted them there would be no way back. He hadn’t done it in a long time and if he did now, they would think he had risen from the dead.

He searched through his old contacts, recalling his Deltas like they were brothers. It was time to revive the old, inactive WhatsApp group. Hunter, Cage, Saw, Hannibal, Centurion, Atlas. Antoine stopped at the last name.

Even though Atlas Sebastian was always a clumsy joker, there was no one he trusted more when things got real. And there was nothing more sobering than stepping on a landmine, he remembered.

The image was still as lively as if it happened yesterday. It was in Afghanistan 2004. Antoine stepped on a mine on his way to a forward position. Standing there in the high grass with no cover, there was nothing like having Enzo Centurion and his ever faithful rifle. Antoine became the bait for Centurion’s gun – named Maria. Got to love her. He couldn’t recall her missing. They had such a perfect tandem.

Greg Saw and Hannibal Hamlin got into positions ahead to provide safety and Atlas just jumped down, dug around the landmine and managed to take it out. All the while Jonus Cage with morphine and tranquilizers was ready to go.

They were an open target but Antoine still managed to open fire at the Taliban.

And after all that and getting into safety, when Antoine bought him and the boys enough beers to get them drunk, Atlas pulled out the land mine, threw it at Antoine and said “catch”. Every one hit the deck, Antoine grabbed it, pulled it to his chest and landed on it to shield the blast. If he had enough time to fire a round before he died, it would be for Atlas. Lying there on the explosive he saw his life flash. It took him a while to hear Atlas’ laughter. He had taken the pin and made it a dud.

Antoine punched the touch screen keys of his smart phone.

He sent out the message into the four winds, a language of metaphors that couldn’t be decoded by electronic means, because there simply existed no code.

Whoever was left of his old unit in the Delta Force, would receive it and hopefully follow the call. The fact it wasn’t issued for half a decade would strengthen its significance.

He had knowledge that most of them had separated but he had an idea where they all were.

Maybe some of them would have time to come. He knew, if they weren’t in danger themselves right now, they would try to make it.

So far they had come. Antoine had to call on all his reserves and contact his friends from the past, a thing he wasn’t allowed to do. He wondered, if he crossed that boundary, how much more would it take till he broke the ultimate restraint of returning to his family which thought him dead for the last five years. But then, this was not something he thought likely to happen. What he thought likely to happen was that he would die on this mission infiltrating the enemy. It would be his second death in a lifetime. This time it would be for real and not many would be left to mourn.

 

 

***THIRTY-SEVEN***

It was a race against time and the arms dealer to set everything in motion. They needed to convince Kovacs to not only find Yuri, but also take him out, pass as one of him and meet with the mercenaries in the flesh. It involved a severe life insurance and enough money for his bereaved to be sent to college, should the other party decide to leave no witness behind.

Kovacs bode them their welcome in the load space of his truck. Only one man arrived to take over the weapons, as agreed. Kovacs doubted that it was actually a member of the Spetsnaz, but rather a henchman. The reassuring thing was that it increased Kovacs’ chances of survival when it came to a confrontation. Nonetheless, beads of sweat formed on his neck.

The buyers were careful in their procedure. They sent a man in the middle, which would have made their attempt to take them out on the spot fruitless.

“What happened to Yuri?” the buyer said.

“Yuri got sick,” said Kovacs.

Kovacs shifted when the man approached. But otherwise he was sure he was doing a good job.

“You want the delivery now or not?”

He handed him a cargo case to examine the weapons. It was full of modified Kalashnikov AK-12 assault rifles.

“Five more of this, in interchangeable length,” Kovacs said.

The buyer took over the weapon and aimed to the side at the wall of Kovacs’ truck.

“Ammunition is over here,” Kovacs said. He indicated the ammo boxes on the stack behind him. “One thousand five hundred rounds.”

“Those weapons are clean, yes?” the henchman said.

“Fresh from the manufacturer,” Kovacs said. “With no serial numbers. Same goes for the ammunition. The suits are back there.”

He took a long look at the goods and then at Kovacs. His gaze stared into Kovacs’ face.

“Transaction has been made,” Kovacs said. “I want to see all of it before I leave.”

Kovacs let his shoulders sink a little as he got to work.

Kovacs brought the crates forward one after another. It would take some time transferring them back to the buyers own car, when they were only alone, but letting him examine every one of them would throw them back in the planned timetable.

Every minute they stayed out here in the back of his truck was a minute too long. They had chosen a closed parking garage in the city outskirts for the handover. But nothing stayed untouched forever. Even here strayers would come by by car, homeless people looking for shelter, dealers having their meetings. Once or twice a day, police would patrol to check if everything was in order. Kovacs had to make sure it didn’t happen when they were out dealing illegal arms. For him and the UNIT this was the only shot they had. If the Russians lost their henchman, he was expendable. They risked nothing for putting him out there while the UNIT put all they had on one card. If their opposition had already started to grow suspicious, they could sacrifice their pawn to get them out of the game entirely. Once again, it was a game of information, of who knew what. Kovacs only hoped their enemies wouldn’t expect the revenge they were planning.

He opened the trays lined up in rows. They reminded him on coffins in a KIA transport back from a warzone. Much like the ones he had been with on the transfer from Bosnia when he was a youth. Except these were filled with long snouted black metal dealers of death, waiting to spit pointed bullets formed like teeth. Kovacs brushed over the magazines embedded in each boxes’ sections and the eyes of the buyer followed him.

Kovacs stopped and pulled out one bullet, holding it in between his fingers and examining it like it was a trinket.

“What is it?” the buyer said.

“These bullets,” Kovacs said, “are made of cutting edge technology.”

The henchmen took it from his fingers and held it up in front of his face.

Every tenth bullet was equipped with the RFID signal emitter, all but invisible to the naked eye.

“They are designed to combine excellent ballistic trajectory with causing the most possible damage,” Kovacs said. He took the bullet back from the buyer and gave him a demonstration. “Upon impact, the bullet will go into a tailspin. First in one direction, then into the other, to leave the biggest possible opening behind.”

“I know,” the buyer said. “Been there, done that.”

He kicked the box lid shut with the heel of his shoe.

“Alright, I have seen enough,” he said. “The transaction is over. Now help me get the boxes into my vehicle.”

Kovacs felt irritated.

“I would rather have you load them yourself, gentleman,” Kovacs said.

The buyer shook his head.

“No way. I am only one man. Co-driver is sleeping. You help me.”

“Then wake him up,” Kovacs said.

“Listen, we had a twenty hours drive,” the buyer said. “You don’t want to wake him up. And you don’t want to put me asleep with your talking.”

Kovacs hesitated and took a deep breath in which he reconsidered his options.

He nodded and bent down at the same time as the henchman. They came back on their feet, each one lifting a box and stepped outside onto the loading ramp.

The weight shook the vehicle. Backlight washed against Kovac’s face and engulfed his form as he followed the buyer outside one step at a time.

Kovacs returned to the driver cabin. Antoine could hear the other truck leave when he opened the door. He had his gun drawn and ready just in case. Not that it would have saved Kovacs in time. His face looked unhealthy after the confrontation with the buyers, and the fact they had slipped into a pretend role of a man they had shot through the head on a bridge from a safe distance and dumped the body into a river only an hour before. Collateral damage. There simply had been no time to convince the arms dealer otherwise, not with the fortune in grasp he was about to make and not after he had seen their faces. Kovacs had spent the rest of the time trying to convince themselves that it was one bad guy less who molested the world, another man less who festered on society like a maggot with his illegal trade. Both had trouble to see where to draw a clear line. But what needed to be done had been done.

“I would rather have shot the buyers,” Kovacs said, “instead of provide them with a Red Bull for their way back.”

“How far?” Antoine said.

They were in the outskirts of Moscow. The arms dealer had come from the city and there was no way the two buyers had been from there too.

“A twenty hours plus drive,” Kovacs said.

“That gives us a rough estimation where they are heading,” Antoine said.

Kovacs nodded and went over to the driver side. “I’d wager the Ural mountains.” He swung himself into the seat, pulling himself up into the high cabin. “I’ll bring you to the Moscow train station now. You can take the trans-siberian railway and follow the truck eastwards, until it leaves the main road. Probably somewhere around Yekaterinburg.”

“Yekaterinburg,” Antoine said. “And then?”

“Then, once you have closer directions from Priya, you ask a local to take you with him,” Kovacs said. “There aren’t many taxis out there. It’s common to just go hitchhiking. He will probably get you far, at least till the first patrols show up, and they will show up when you come closer to their base.”

“Alright, well that sounds good enough to me,” said Antoine. “The rest I will just have to leg it.”

“Meanwhile I’m heading back and prepare the meeting point in Moscow,” Kovacs said. “What about the rest?”

“They will come,” Antoine said. He rummaged around in his breast pocket and pulled out a notebook. “I’ve got a small shopping list for you.”

Kovacs took it and skimmed through it. “A boat, underwater scooters, a van, disguises, rental cars?”

“There are the things we want and the things we need,” Antoine said.

“This is it,” Priya said. “The weapons are with them and Kovacs made it back safe. He is on the way to a safe house. The buyer is returning to the mercenaries’ base. The tracker on the car is working.”

“Does Antoine know where it will lead him?” Jacque asked.

“He has a slight idea,” Priya said.

“Maybe that’s better that way,” Jacque said. “I mean if one has to jump over a stream and knows how wide it is, he will not jump. If he does not know how wide it is, he will jump, and six times out of ten he will make it.”

“That are nice odds,” Margret said. “Are you keeping it that way with us too?”

“I try to keep it to finances only.”

“Good, let’s get to work,” Rose said, “Show us how to find them, Priya. I want to give Antoine an update and provide him with enough intel on the location when he arrives, that it feels like a second home to him.”

Priya got to her seat and opened her laptop.

“Satellite is running and tracking the signal down,” she said. “In the meantime I show you how the tracing works and how we can use it in-field.” She handed tactical goggles to Rose and Jacque, like the ones that were used on the shooting range. Their simple design betrayed the technology hidden inside. Priya activated a display on the inside glass of her goggle and prompted the others to do the same. It gleamed in a blue transparent color in front of her left eye, like a monocle. Various arrows showed up around the outer rim of the light circle. They indicated the direction of positions of RFID markings sharing the same coding all around them, but out of her field of sight.

“Transmitters are online and working,” Priya said. “Now look over to the weapons.”

She turned in her swivel armchair, feeling how Rose and Jacque were following her.

The weapon racks in the middle of the room, where they had built a small shooting range facing away from them, lit up with multiple crosshair signals. The hairlines closed in almost simultaneously on the bullets stored in the magazines, two or three in each one.

“I like the sight of this,” Jacque said. “Whoever is out there on our side, will be able to spot them with their stealth suits on.”

Priya noticed the smile carving into Rose’s cheek, while she still carried the goggles. Rose didn’t let herself distract away from what she was seeing.

“That’s why you need to get really acquainted with them,” she said. “We will be the ones out there.”

Jacque swallowed. “What about reinforcements?”

“I know you don’t like to get your hands dirty,” Rose said. “There will be coming some, but this time we need every man we have. Sometimes it’s just not enough to open the wallet or direct from the background. It’s times like these where we have to step out on the stage, Jacque.”

“I understand,” he said. “I just forgot how it feels like over the years.”

“Stage fright?” Rose said. “It feels like it’s the last day of your life and there is no way to turn back time. You never know how close your feeling is to the truth. This is what it feels like. Fear. The realization that nothing is safe and everything else is moving into unimportance.”

“No, that I remember,” Jacque said. “I won’t forget it till the rest of my life. It terrified me the first time. But I mean firing a gun, you know. Knowing to hold the fate of the world on your finger tip when you pull the trigger. True power and purpose. That’s what I forgot.”

He turned and walked away from them, the rifle slung over his shoulder in his business suit. He took off his jacket and started to roll up his sleeves.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To the shooting range.”

A red alarm light lit up beside the elevator. Rose’s gaze wandered over to the elevator and her face frowned. Priya followed her stare and took off the goggles.

Rose’s voice was only a whisper.

“We’ve got company.”

 

 

***THIRTY-EIGHT***

Priya darted a glance at the camera screens.

There were shades emerging out of the shadow in her HUD. She wanted to see their faces without the interference of her tactical display.

“Reinforcements,” Rose said. She nodded in their direction. “The cavalry has finally arrived.”

Five men walked towards them, with purpose in their stride, but as if they had all the time in the world to fulfill that purpose. Death could wait. They would bring it with them and welcome it at the same time.

Priya didn’t know them, but Rose did.

“Gabriel Hunter. Enzo Centurion. Jonus Cage. Greg Saw. Hannibal Hamlin,” she said.

The first was heavily bearded. The others wore stubble and make-believe civilian haircuts and hadn’t shaved in days. “I’ve heard stories.”

“Who are they?” Jacque asked.

“Delta Force. The friends of our friends are our friends,” she said.

“Jacque,” Hunter said before Rose could reply. “I heard a lot about you. Thanks for the check and thanks for inviting us to the party, Miss Appiah. Nice garage you got here. We will fill it with some toys.”

“We already have a lot to play with,” Priya said and handed him her goggles.

Hunter looked around through the HUD flickering in front of his eye.

“RFID marked ammunition?” he said. “This could have been from me.” He gave the goggles back to her. “You must be Priya Patel then. Where is the rest?”

“I’m sorry to inform you, but Antoine is already on his way into the witch’s cauldron,” Rose said. “If everything works out as planned, we should meet him on the enemy side.”

“Oh, this will make our reunion the more nerve-wracking,” he said.

“Welcome aboard, gentlemen,” Rose said. “Priya, Jacque, this is our new team.”

The five men let their backpacks down and started to unload. More crates were left behind on the elevator platform. They set back out into the dark area to get them.

“Rose,” Priya said with her voice low. “I don’t know much about them. Antoine never talked with me about them. I guess it was for a reason.”

“They were in Iraq and Afghanistan together,” Rose said, “and several other hotspots around the world.”

“Why didn’t he mention them before? Did they hold some old grudges from the time when they fell apart?” Priya said.

“That was years ago, nearly a decade now,” Rose said. “They are all professionals. Some wounds never heal, is that what you want to say?”

“I don’t know,” Priya said.

“We don’t have time for this now,” Rose said. “Better to not speak about it. They are our only help.”

The five men returned.

“Let’s get to brass tacks gentlemen,” Rose said. “An ex FSB spy named Tanya Sharipova and a rogue Spetsnaz force led by Radomir Voronin, better known as Radek, want to take the Kremlin down. After the bomb will have gone off, Russia will have to say it was attacked, but it wouldn’t know by whom and it would have to contain it by covering the Kremlin like Chernobyl and Fukushima, removing it piece by piece. The once proud Russia will be made humble in front of the whole world and it wouldn’t even know why.”

“We need vehicles and a simulation of the outlines on Red Square,” Hunter said. “Find the spots where we can operate from, with good firing fields and options to relocate. There will be a lot of civilians between our and their barrels, which means our snipers need high vantages and our close combat specialists need to be real close. We need to be unsuspicious to get that close, in disguise, with minimum gear and concealed weapons. Everyone needs to be like a chameleon and adapt to the surroundings. They think themselves invisible but we got them exposed. They will not know we are coming until it’s too late.”

Rose caught Priya staring at her. She knew what was going through her head. It would only work out that way, if no one told them they were coming, if the five men they needed to trust were trustable.

“Satellite has their position,” Priya said, looking at the change on her screen.

All eyes in the room were on her and went to the laptop. She projected the screen against the wall as a huge map for all to see.

“Where?” Rose asked.

“It’s in the East Urals,” Priya said. “Inside the Radioactive Trace.” She zoomed the satellite image closer, like a bird diving through clouds. “A compound near the town Ozyorsk.”

“My God,” Rose said. “Tell Antoine to go there.”

They all stood in a line in front of the big screen, arms crossed or prepped against their hips and digesting what the picture was showing them.

“Know what I’m thinking?” one of the Deltas said. “Why don’t we take them out before?”

“Viable option under normal circumstances,” Rose said. “But look at the size of that compound, comparable to a military base. We plan to go up against a squad sized enemy, but right there we won’t face equal terms. They have mercenaries in their service, ex-military, paramilitaries or local militia.”

“We can deal with them,” the leader of the group said.

“Maybe,” Rose said. “But remember our objective, Hunter, we got five to ten targets that need to be eliminated. If one gets away their mission is still not stopped. We can slip in one man, but not the five of you too. And even then, if you start a fight there, you have the numbers against you with no help. If we exhaust everything here and fail, there is nothing to stop them at Moscow. But if we lure them out on the Red Square, we will do two things: we stand squad against squad and the Guard will set off the alarm to interfere.”

“That’s what I fear,” Hunter said. “And you can’t just inform the Guard beforehand about what’s going to happen, because they will lock down the place and make it impossible for us to operate, if they believe us in the first place.”

“They will believe us when the first shots are fired,” Rose said. “And that’s exactly the moment where I will deliver the message.”

“Let’s hope they do,” Hunter said.

“That’s what we have our insider in the FSB for,” Rose said.

Hunter stroked his full beard while regarding her.

“About one part of the plan, I would like to run by you,” he said. “Would you join me on my way up to the van. I want to share a word with you.”

She shrugged. “One shares food not words.”

Rose was listening to him intensely talk about the specifications of the van and the bullets the Russians were using, till he stopped talking as soon as the elevator doors closed.

He hesitated and looked at her.

Rose knew what was coming, so she asked the question first.

“Who told you to come?” she said, watching him.

“Derek,” Hunter said.

Their eyes met.

“But we both know Derek is dead,” Rose said.

“Yes. I was at his funeral,” Hunter said. “But couple days ago, I was approached by him. His old WhatsApp account went live again.”

They sat down at a restaurant near the piazza they had arrived before. Rose waited for the waitress to leave to listen to Hunter’ story.

“You need to understand,” Hunter said, “I was at his funeral. But I sensed he wasn’t dead. You need to understand he was more than just a brother to me.”

“He spoke highly of his unit in the short time I knew him,” Rose said.

“How well did you know Derek?” Hunter said.

“I was contact person in the Kandahar mission, codename Blackbird,” she said.

“That wasn’t even half of it,” he said.

They talked about the various missions, at one point Hunter rolled up his sleeve and showed Rose the scars on his forearm. One cut for every lost comrade. When they lost one of their family, it hurt.

Derek was one of them.

“And David Messiah,” Rose said. “Your predecessor.”

Hunter gulped. It was still an old scar ripped open again.

“I’m surprised Derek was able to talk about it,” he said. “He was the only one with him when it happened and he never forgave himself for it. Actually it was killing him softly.”

“Now he has a lot of memories killing him not so softly,” Rose said. “He is so scarred, I sometimes feel that he has a death wish.”

“His joy in life was his family,” Hunter said. “I can’t imagine how he is now, without them. He must have gone dark from losing them.”

“Did you know them?” Rose said.

“I still keep sending cards to Destinee and A.J. every year,” he said.

 

 

***THIRTY-NINE***

Antoine entered a lake of yellow water. It stank like it was an unhealthy thing, a rotten soup. He knew it was much worse than that. Everything around it was despoiled, the grasses scrawny that drank from it until they realized it was poison. The few trees that could develop branches big enough to be recognizable on its shores stood like tortured willows. Between them Antoine saw the patrol. Two men in outdated and non-uniform Russian military camo vests, of course armed. They shunned the lake like every other living being, also when their patrol brought them close to it. They looked into its muddy waters and threw something into it. Even the sound it made was unnatural, like it was swallowed by a soft tissue, drowning out the loudest sounds. Antoine noticed the same about his boots. He stood in the lake and his pants soaked just above the ankles. He bent low until his bottom was only a hand’s width above the water. Further he didn’t want to go, not when the patrol movements didn’t force him to.

This was the East Urals Radioactive Trace. The area around Ozyorsk was the third most polluted place on earth. Wastes from the nuclear power plant in the Cold War's arms race had been dumped here for years, mostly into a lake that was sole source for ground-, drinking- and cleaning water. This was bad before the accidents happened. Now after, the damage done was beyond recovery. Half a century had passed and optimists spoke about that it was safe to set foot on the contaminated soil again. Antoine felt how the slick grip of the water got hold of him and his hackles rose. He didn't want to imagine which irreparable fallouts on his body this mission could leave. The fumes of the lake made him feel nauseated as he dived into them. He kept his focus on the patrol, the more imminent threat. They would force him to go lower if they came closer. The day was ending, but the light was still good.

Everything Priya had told him about the location was evident. The degree of radiation, the absence of authorities and communities, the presence of para-militaries starting about five kilometres from the compound. They were men of the employers he was after. He would encounter more of them the closer he got to his targets. Their rounds would overlap to a net getting tighter and tighter. He would have to slip through it without leaving trails behind.

“For a mad dog, seven miles isn’t a long detour,” he remembered Olga saying.

The two guards stayed on the east side shore, turning their backs to him. He could hear them talk to another, laughing. Their hands were relaxed over their weapons, which they had slung over their torsos and resting in front of their stomachs. It seemed they were not alarmed or expecting his arrival. He knew the signs of patrol duty for months without any occurrences. Who could blame anybody not to come here? It was a place most didn’t know even existed, or had tried to sweep under the mat. It was a perfect hideout for groups who dealt with weapon ready radioactive waste or an ex-Spetsnaz unit gone renegade.

Antoine felt the urge to cock his pistol when the two turned their backs on him. They would have been in a good position to take out and dump their bodies onto the ground of the lake, after taking over their uniform. They most certainly would have never been found, but the point was he was in for the long haul. Their absence would raise questions if they didn’t return and an alarmed personnel would ruin his chances to slip in.

He saw one of them raising a hand to greet someone else he couldn’t see, just over the embankment. Antoine turned west and made his approach along the west shore to circumvent them. He heard voices from another patrol on the west side when he was a hundred meters in, wading through the water and using a wide strip of reeds to cover from them.

Fumes and fog settled over the lake as evening approached. The sun was red in its last hours when it sank over a vegetationless ridge, but the industrial smog made it possible to stare into it without making the eye hurt. It gave the ground an auburn tint, a soil full of heavy metal waste and churned in decades for its iron ore. There were other things that hurt the eye and it lay in the air like invisible dust.

After several hours deep in the heart of the region, Antoine’s eyes burned and he felt his throat itching. Having been on missions in the field, he was used to it, but it could turn into a major problem over the next couple of hours, when it turned into a cough. He pulled his bandana up over his mouth and nose like he had seen it from the patrol, to cover the entries of breathing. To remain silent in a darkening environment was of the essence and he knew the guards would rather hear him, than see him. The mist over the water helped and he embraced the coming of the darkness. His boots wading through water was a sound he had learned to routinize and it adapted to the natural flow. It was still ankle to calves deep and his pants were soaked up to the knee from several missteps into deeper water. He felt the chill of the night coming, first in his fingers, then on the spots on his legs that refused to dry in the cold wind. Although wet, his feet were kept warm by his socks and the constant movement but he knew this would change when he left the lake. The mud on the ground clawed on his soles like soft tissue. He whirled up so much dirt he couldn’t see the tip of his boots anymore. But with the way of approach still leading through that water, with patrols passing left and right every other minute, it was like the lake didn’t want to let him out of its grip.

A jetty protruded out on the surface into the mist, that was in Antoine’s way. He saw movement on it and paused. A patrol walked on the gangplank. The glow of a cigarette gave the soldier away, then a cloud of smoke forming away from his face. The soldier looked around. From this position out on the lake he could see a big part of the surrounding water. Antoine tried to get closer and make as less sound as possible. He didn’t have much time, but the faster his movements were in the water, the more noise he made. Either way, if he remained only a little longer in the open, the sentry would spot him. He came turning around to him before Antoine could reach the jetty. He had to change his plan fast. He let himself slide into the reed, but knew it was not enough to hide at this distance. Antoine put his hands into the water, down into the ground. He got hold of something viscous that felt like it had been solid years ago. He lay flat on the surface and prone, just so that his head and torso stayed out of the water. He pushed himself over the lake and his lips and nose away from touching it, then lifted his head to look at the patrol staring in his direction. The sentry simply stared. Antoine looked away from his eyes, past him over his shoulder. Most people could feel when someone watched them.

“Don’t make me go down deeper,” Antoine said to himself, holding his muscles tight in his neck, arms and legs.

The sentry’s comrade called out to him. They exchanged some words and the other patrol came closer. Antoine could hear boots stepping over wooden panels. The jetty creaked. The watchman that had looked out to him turned to his companion and they stood in the twilight for a while before returning to their route.

Antoine let them wander away on his right and focused on the terrain ahead. At the end of the lake a small river fed it with water. There was a bridge overhead and a blockhouse surveying the crossing. Antoine wagered that it was manned by another patrol. He saw the red white markings of a road barrier. Antoine waded through the last part of the lakeshore and hugged the shadows at the bridge. It was of old masonry, bricks protruding in irregular pattern probably built to safeguard the farmers’ paths from a time when the crops were healthy. Light burned in the window of the house above him. They had established checkpoints to seal off the area, like an executive force of the state, when in reality they were the terrorists. For the locals it mattered not. Whoever had the most power, ruled. The government had abandoned them together with this place as soon as the catastrophe happened. They had instructed them two weeks later to start evacuation. The reasons were still kept a secret. Things like this didn’t get forgotten, not after ten years, not after fifty. Antoine guessed Radek’s Spetsnaz had an easy time recruiting militia from the local population. The stories had been passed down from the father to the son. The repercussions could be traced back through the generations.

He considered himself pierced into enemy territory now. Patrols strolling through villages, road checkpoints and the wilderness surrounded him. He didn’t only have to watch if the way ahead was clear, he had to watch his back too. Being alone made it difficult to maintain a three hundred-sixty degree view. Paranoia set in and he jumped at every sound. As much as he hated the surges of adrenaline and his stomach muscles cramp, it was to be expected and what would keep him alive. Aware of his own sounds he was making down by the water, routine helped him tone them down, until the last thing he worried about was just the sound of his breathing. He listened to his heart pounding as he rested his back against the wall under the bridge and let a convoy of vehicles pass by over his head. He counted one motorcycle, a jeep and a truck from the engine sounds of it. The wheels set onto the road and let the masonry shake. Dust crumbled from the arched piers he was hiding under. The sand trickled in his neck, but he was too concentrated to monitor the enemy movements to let himself distract by it and shook it off with a shrug of his shoulders. The road was coming from Ozyorsk in the west, he was certain and the Spetsnaz encampment lay north east of it, closer to the Mayak complex where the accident had happened. There was a good chance the convoy was heading there and would leave the main road somewhere along the way. He noticed the sign stating that entrance of foreign citizens was strictly prohibited without special permission. It was a relic from the government left here before the officials withdrew. In a way it still found its use for the new local power that had taken over.

Antoine had now studied the movements in the area long enough to discover the pattern behind the patrols. They were always out in teams of two, trying to have overlapping view ranges to the other patrols, which meant being scattered widely enough to stay out of view to each other. One per team usually carried a radio set. Considering the amount of patrols Antoine had encountered, their spread and the kilometers they had to cover in a circle that far from the compound, he had a good guess about their numbers. Three platoons would be needed for the tours, which meant a fourth was on call inside the base.

Having broken through the initial circle it meant Antoine would meet less resistance on the following route. He had two ways to follow the convoy, one was to steer clear from the road and cross the open field which led to a forest on the left to the street. The other side was strewn with hills and less vegetation, which he chose for his approach. Chances were if the sentries had one infrared device in the area, it would overlook the wide field and the seemingly impenetrable forest at night. The hills would conceal his heat signature, while he would shine bright crossing between the trees. He assumed the patrols had at least some night vision goggles at their disposal, but just like his own, it was too early to use. There was still low light from the streetlamps and light at the checkpoint. He avoided electronic aid and direct contact for the time to preserve his natural night vision.

Antoine climbed up the slope to the bridge and kept low in the ditch by the wayside. That way he could close distance fast, while just keeping his upper body bent and running for the first time since the lake. Water had gotten into his boots and his socks made wet noises, very much resembling walking through a swamp. No one was around close enough to hear it, like his breathing after running a few hundred meters. Every time he entered new terrain, he made sure to take his time, slow his pulse and survey the area and also see if anyone was following him. The light cones of the convoy in the distance left the road and entered forest territory on the right. He could hear their revving engines fading away like a constant roar of wind. He followed them between the hills until he lost them out of sight. When their sound was only distant, the barks of waking dogs returned. They were somewhere in or behind the wood, maybe in a close village or part of a patrol. It mattered little, as there was no other way. He had to enter the forest.

 

 

***FORTY ***

The wood rose up two hundred meters ahead of him. High trees set themselves apart from the grass field, like a wall. They shifted in the wind. A comfortless feeling crept up on him. He sat on the back of his foot and observed the edge of the forest. The woods were dark in Russia. He had noticed it before at the landing in Moscow, a city surrounded by vast forests that loomed lush green and dark and cold, like a cloud screen shielding it from the grassy plains beyond. He hadn’t seen forests like this at home, where they used to be tended and cultivated. Here they were wild and let grown for centuries. Vast trees felled by storm or lightning lay here covered with moss. Those still standing tall were strong in numbers and endless, allowing no light or strip of sky shine through from the forest’s one side to the other. Antoine squinted his eyes to see if something set itself apart from the trunks. What unnerved him was the last part to close until he reached the forest’s edge. Anyone located within the fringe of the wood was invisible to him, while he had to cross the open field. He covered the distance at a run to be absorbed by the vegetation. His eyes adjusted as soon as he entered. It was as if the world changed. Forms in the darkness became visible and the blackness turned into shades of grey. He saw details on the trees, trunks, branches, leaves and roots, all covering the forest soil. Twigs cracked underneath his soles and forced him to slow down his pace. Not only from his feet came the noise that disturbed the night. He was not alone. Twigs broke a couple of meters ahead of him. He went down bending low. There was a rustle in the leaves and the thumping of legs. Something heavy set in motion and was jolting away from him. His heart raced, but he didn’t see the source, even when he instantly knew it was a living being. It didn’t protrude from the undergrowth but he could see the branches and leaves shaking heavily, which meant it was a small animal. It could be anything from a deer to a rabbit or even wolves. Bears roamed the region too. After people had left the accident site, wild animals took back the place men tried to avoid. Like the men he hunted.

There existed a myth in Russian folklore about men who became wolves. Antoine remembered Olga explaining it to him in Sarajevo, after having seen the tattoos on her bodyguards.

There were two types, the ones who had angered the devil and were turned into werewolves as a punishment, the Wawkalak and then the others, who chose to become wolves, the Bodark. The Bodark were a fitting example for someone choosing the hardship of Special Forces.

Their symbolism was prominent among Spetsnaz ranks. They all had decided to leave their former life behind and become killers and learn how to survive in nature. To transform into a Bodark, so the story went, one had to run into the forest and stab a copper knife into a tree. Still holding the knife, one had to repeat an old chant.

“We have an old saying,” Olga had said. “If you are afraid of wolves, don’t go to the woods.”

“I have to,” Antoine said.

“They will know you’re not one of them,” she said.

“I will become one of them,” Antoine had said.

She shook her head and laughed. “If you want to live with the wolves, you have to howl like one.”

He had howled like a baby wolf trying the first time.

They had left with a short kiss, Olga returning to her duty to the Kremlin, trying to prepare the operation and not raising suspicion.

Further from the eye, closer to the heart. Long passing ceremonies only meant unnecessary pain.

He kept his thoughts away and focused. He didn’t think he would see Olga ever again.

Once he entered the wood, he could see cutting marks on some of the trees. At first he thought they originated from deer scratching their antlers against the bark of the tree, but upon closer examination he realized they were cuts and stabs from military knifes.

Antoine could imagine the elite members nurturing this cult among the local paramilitaries. They were descending from farmers and huntsmen, among which superstition and the old tales were still known. It was a symbol that brought them closer together, the actual professional killers, with those aspiring to be, like a rite of passage. Normally a matter of pride not to allow outsiders tattoos and affiliation to the elite units, after they had gone renegade they had realized that everything that helped to make their paramilitaries feel stronger and heightened morale was a good thing for them.

One could easily get lost, get off one’s path and start to doubt one’s purpose in an abandoned environment like this. Old myths made them accept more easily that the desolate woods were their home and country they had to defend.

Seeing the ritual scars here told Antoine that he was close to the compound. This forest was frequented in great numbers, an exercise or assembly point.

Months of patrols and morning jogs had let them know every tree. For Antoine it was an unfamiliar surrounding. They had the advantage. He had to see every tree and landmark for the first time and use his imagination to guess what was lying beyond. When he dived into the sea of trees and finally got to these destinations, they turned out different than expected. The landscape turned into shapes he hadn’t thought about before. Crates, grooves, hills with wide glades where the forest had been cut and the ground was strewn with tree stumps that looked like yellow plates to step on. He stayed away from the clearing and kept an eye on the crest of the hill. An electricity pylon loomed into the night sky. It stood on four concrete foundations, blocks that could keep a sentry out of sight. It had been erected to feed the nuclear power plant and was put to use for the unit’s compound now. He could follow the high-voltage power line and also the forest trail he had found. It was the same the convoy had used half an hour before. He didn’t want to stay on it, but kept it close.

Engine sound let Antoine freeze. He located it from coming behind him from the road. It was on the way to him. He turned to see light cones drawing closer, slowly illuminating the night around him. He dashed forward into a sprint, to leave the piece of wood behind him. The light was chasing him and more and more of his surroundings got floodlighted. He ran until the noise of the vehicle was sitting close in his neck and he threw himself flat on the floor.

He rolled behind the trunk of a tree as the jeep passed. The red black lights burned into his eyes and let a stinging afterprint. He hadn’t been compromised. His heart rate and breathing was still up, now even more than during the sprint. He rested some time, the back of his head leant against the tree, before getting up and following the forest trail. The natural sounds of the wood returned soon after the jeep’s roar faded. The sound of crickets, owls, rustling leaves and creaking trees in the wind engulfed him.

It was never completely quiet in the woods. When it was, there was something wrong.

Antoine walked through alleys of trees, all structures of grey with a sea of leaves that would turn red at his feet when the sun rose.

There were trenches winding through the ground and though they made his gut wrench as he approached them, they were nothing but leftovers from the Cold War and from a time when static warfare was still a scenario to be reckoned with.

He jumped over one of the ditches and followed it along. They were filled with foliage and puddles, resembling dried out riverbeds, and logs of wood, where the makeshift bridges or felled trunks lay across the pits. Most trenches led to pillboxes further inside the trench system. They would offer shelter if the weather turned bad or if he would have to sit out a chance to get into the compound. He marked the position and kept it in his mind for later use, though he would only come back here if he had to. Tank traps protruded from the ground flanking the position of the trench system, caked in a coat of rust and moss. He held onto them to pull himself out of a low ground and thought about the years they had to tell as the cold metal connected with his palm.

The plutonium plant and its compound were built in haste after World War Two. The same flawed material was used for the buildings Antoine saw emerging out of the nightly mist. It didn’t subtract his excitement. He had found their base, could leave the wading through murky waters behind and soon would have other troubles to deal with. His leg injury was healing badly from the long march and the contact of boots on socks had rubbed it open. Ribs were still hurting and he felt another pain in his stomach, he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten or drunk water in a while and while he didn’t miss liquid as much as a warm meal, it was the thirst that made him exhausted.

But now he could allow himself the least to be weary. He was close to the zone and could see the walls of the compound. With every passing hour, this mission would turn more dangerous. Night was still at its finest hour and he had to use it. He scurried from tree to tree, his body lower the closer he came. The lights in the base were scarce like the moon hidden behind clouds, the courtyard opaque from fog and dew. He sprinted the last part where the trees were cleared and stopped only when he was in the shades at the foot of the wall. He groped his way along the concrete structure, his eyes over the edge of it, switching between the guard’s walkway and the guardhouse at the base access. The mural was grey and slick with no purchase to climb and covered with paintings and graffities, but it was torn at places. Reparations were a thing the militants hadn’t bothered with. Antoine found a section where bricks were broken in as if a wrecking ball had crashed into the wall. He put his hand on the rim of the breach, the lowest entry point still at breast height. The cups of his fingers scrubbed against a blanket of dust as he clawed them in. The sharp edges of broken stone bit into his skin as he pulled himself over the ledge. He felt something cut into his thigh and the fabric of his pants strained before he swung his legs over the gap. His boots set on the ground on the other side of the breach.

Buildings awaited him, packed close to the wall. They were concrete giants with all the finesse of practical Eastern bloc structures. Like anvils had been dropped from the sky and left there for generations. Not much would move them or shake them, even when their original occupants had left years ago and taken most of the equipment with them. They were stripped barracks, dormitories, workshops, canteens, tank garages, motor pools. Their facings were full with mosaic-like window fronts of burst glass, like broken teeth. They lay scattered on the ground below Antoine’s feet. A murmuring wind blew through the houses’ empty steel bars, resembling a whistle and sometimes a sigh. Others were Quonset huts, all-purpose, lightweight buildings. Their sides were of corrugated steel sheets but their appearance copied the longhouses of indigenous Northern American people.

The complex was huge. Antoine knew the barracks held one platoon right now sleeping in their beds, with space enough to house three more. Even then, the compound’s garrison would be wide-spread. The facility was made for six times that size, for a battalion’s strength. But the distances between the different areas were far, made to drill, hold parade grounds and maneuver tanks. He wouldn’t be able to close the gaps during the day, he had to do it now and then find a way to stay where he needed to be. He required food, shelter and then had to find out where the targets were staying. He needed a means to blend in and become one of them, before the sun came up.

Antoine thought about the second tattoo of the Spetsnaz when he walked towards the canteen, the one Radek wore. The dining hall was empty this late at night, but the doors were not locked. The tiles on the floor led up the hallway like a chess-board. He could not use the light switch, but the rest light from outside was enough to let him grope his way. He cast a long but weak shadow into the dark room upon entering, weaker than the shadows that awaited him in there. In the darkness, he could easily draw pictures in front of his eyes.

Radek’s tattoo was of a very old and ugly looking man, he remembered, with his beard twisted and winded over the elite soldier’s bulging veins. Koschei the Deathless, a figure out of Slavic folklore and horror fairy tales too dismal for children to tell.

Antoine could make out silhouettes of chairs, jumbled in the hall that gave him an impression of how many militants he would be confronted with tomorrow. Still, this was the best place to immerse and lurk. To get to Radek or one of his men and get hold of the bomb before they would detonate it wasn’t going to be easy. He could draw parallels to the figure his enemy wore.

In the stories, Koschei abducted the hero’s wife, but what was his real problem, his nuisance, was that he was hard to kill. Not by conventional means could his body be destroyed.

Like the cause of the renegade Spetsnaz wouldn’t be eradicated by taking only a few of them down.

The hero had to go after his soul, but his soul was hidden separate from his body. It was said that Koschei held it hidden inside a needle, which was inside an egg, which was in a duck, which was in a hare, which was in an iron chest, buried under an oak tree, on the island of Buyan in the ocean. As long as his soul was safe, Koschei the Deathless could not die.

As long as Antoine didn’t find and defuse the bomb, the world was in danger.

 

 

***FORTY-ONE***

Antoine walked to the serving counter and then slid his foot into the kitchen. The door was left open a gap, wide enough for the tip of his boot to enter and shove it aside. As he looked down, he noticed the crust of mud that had settled over his shoes and the dirt he had left behind on the tiles. Fortunately he wasn’t the only one who had left behind a trail. The floor was covered with smears and drops of brown water over the huge board of a chess game. His fingers grasped the handle of the kitchen door. He opened it slowly. A beam of yellow light pierced into the hall back out of it. Someone had left it on. Filthy luminescent tubes buzzed overhead. The kitchen flickered as he stepped in, resembling the shine around a campfire. Antoine fought the urge to switch it off to stay hidden, but the change would attract attention to anyone left here. He swung his head. Pots and dishes hung from a rack to dry. A water tap dripped. It made blobs into the sink, like a finger touching the strings of an instrument, and then from time to time gurgling noises as it wound itself down the drain. It jarred on his nerves.

He looked around and found the knives. Big kitchen knives. He took one out of the knife block and held it in his hand for a second, getting used to the weapon. Then he closed his grip around it tight. He had to make one hundred percent sure he was alone.

He approached the back of the room, silently. There was a cold box to the left and a door back to the storage room. The long counter on his way there was cluttered with everyday objects, pans, buckets and deep fryers. They would make a lot of noise if stirred up. Antoine checked the room behind, the blade of his knife leading up front. It was unlit, but the noise of running machines filled the air. He passed the dishwashers and washing machines. The sparse outside light was held off by screens covering the windows. Ventilation hummed and shadows of ties attached to the fan grille danced projected against the wall. The airways were clogged in dust. A wet mop stood in the corner beside a bucket. The stink of stale water that was spread all over the room turned Antoine’s growling stomach. For a facility meant to be sanitary it was an even more dissuasive sight to see how much it had failed. He entered the next room, a room for storage, which was locked to the outside. He noticed a shelf with cleaning agent and laundry, the white attire of kitchen personnel. Antoine left the dead-end behind and went back to the kitchen and exit to the mess hall. He cowered against the wall close to the doorframe, from where he had a good view outside through the open door and the serving counter. His finger went up to tap the light switch. The night fell back into the canteen with a clack as all light was killed. He waited and listened, his eyes on the windows in the exit doors, then back to the corridor to the supply delivery.

Antoine tried to think about something to pass the time as he counted the seconds.

The folk tale of Koschei went, that if the chest was dug up and opened, the hare would bolt away. If it was killed, the duck would emerge and try to fly off.

After a minute, still nothing had happened, except the monotonous hum of the machines.

Antoine was confident enough to stand up again, his knife still in his hand. Its blade shone as he was on his way back through the washing and storage room.

Anyone possessing the egg had Koschei in their power. He would begin to weaken, become sick, and immediately lost the use of his magic.

Antoine stopped at the rack with the cleansers. Here was something he could use, even when it changed his plan into something he hadn’t foreseen.

If the egg was tossed about, Koschei was flung around against his will.

Antoine’s hands touched the folded cloth on the rack. It felt surprisingly washed and clean. He took it from the shelf and spread it out in front of him.

If the egg or needle was broken against Koschei’s forehead, Koschei would die. This was how the story ended.

The kitchen staff’s attire was about his size. He put away the knife to change his clothes and began with his jacket and shirt. Sometimes you had to dare to bring you close to your goal.

The same sound of the washing machines that lulled him to sleep woke him up now. He found himself huddled up on the floor of the storage room, taking a moment to remember where he was. The floor was cold and wind was coming in through the window slits. His feet were numb even though he had left on his shoes. The day was throwing in grey color into the room. Antoine got up and put on the kitchen staff clothes he had tried on before he went to sleep. He laid off his black clothes like a cocoon and put on the white. He observed his image in the mirror as he brushed his sleeves in place. As counterintuitive as it seemed, the bright white would help him more than the dark camouflage. A chameleon didn’t always try not to be seen, sometimes it hid in plain sight, while passing itself off as something it was not.

He found something to eat in the kitchen now that the light was getting brighter and stuffed it into his mouth. He washed it down with bottled water in a big gulp. He was still not finished when he heard voices outside and the door to the canteen opened. His heart surged and he felt a flash tear through his limbs and guts that made him nearly throw up the portion he just ate. He was in their base and they were coming. He would stand against them face to face.

Antoine looked around and took the leftover food with him. He didn’t want to be seen by them, not as the first one they met here, nor didn’t he want to leave tracks. It would raise questions. He withdrew to the supply delivery area, a place that led outside into a backyard with dais to unload oncoming trucks. Some vehicles were still parked here from the previous day. He leant against one of the trucks and waited, passing as a kitchen staff member waiting for new supplies. They arrived after an hour.

Two trucks drove through the compounds entrance, coming from an outside village to bring foods from the farmers. They turned in the canteen’s backyard and reversed back to the dais with loading ramps and canvas cover open. The kitchen was beginning to run by then. Antoine could hear the noises of talk between the staff members. Some had gone out for a smoke. They had already noticed him, so he nodded but kept his mouth shut. He stayed within eyeshot but didn’t want to indulge in conversation. It was common that new personal joined them, but his presence would raise without a doubt curiosity. They would pester him with questions and one too many would sooner or later blow holes into his cover. He looked over to them, as they stood in a circle, five men, shifting between legs in the chill morning air.

“Cigarette?” one of them asked Antoine.

He took a moment, looking at the arrived supply trucks, as if to consider their offer.

“No, thanks.”

He gave them a smile and it got returned. Then they turned around, lit their smokes and laughed about something.

The fact that there was work to do bailed him out. The equivalent of a petty officer arrived to greet the morning with jokes and a roaring laughter that soon turned into barking orders to begin their shift. Kitchen staff scurried away, some put out their smokes, others kept them in their mouths, trying not to lose them in the sudden hurry. All around Antoine was turmoil and enough to do to keep everyone busy.

Antoine was handed a box down from the loading ramp and followed the men before him inside. He passed the petty officer who was checking and signing the receive papers from one of the drivers. Antoine carried the load. Once he was inside, he felt swallowed by the white crowd of personnel. He was absorbed by the enemy and no one knew that he was up to no good.

Breakfast came. It had taken up the early morning hours to prepare the rations and unloading the trucks. The night patrols were coming in from their tours and the day shift headed out to replace them. They ate now and packed their bags with provisions for the whole day.

Antoine stood at the counter and kept a good overview while giving out the meals. He tried to keep a head-count and look for faces he had seen before, figures that kept Olga surrounded in Barcelona. He hadn’t seen the aggressors who had attacked Vienna and killed his comrades, not face to face. The agency had provided him with what it could, all the scraps of tiny information gathered from their encounters. Olga had told him a lot in the last moments with him but no actual intelligence existed. Their connection to their net of information was broken. He had to go after what he saw and heard.

A kitchen staff nudged him when he put a ration on the plate.

“This one,” he said, indicating at the man next in line. “You want to give him more.”

“Why?” Antoine asked.

“He is Spetsnaz,” the man said. “One of the former 45th. The wolves.”

Antoine took a second scoop and loaded the plate. He gave it to the soldier and looked into his eyes. They both held the plate at the same time. Antoine couldn’t bring himself to let go. He had to swallow his pride and contempt first. The Spetsnaz snatched the plate and regarded him like a lowlife unworthy of even serving him. He snorted and went away. Antoine could feel his poisonous eyes following him until he left the line.

Their tension went unnoticed by Antoine’s colleagues or maybe it was common between the two classes, between a killer and a scullion. Still, his kitchen colleague realized Antoine didn’t know much about who he was dealing with.

“You must be new here,” he said to Antoine. “Better pay some respect to the wolves. It’s healthy. You have respect, you don’t lose your teeth. Otherwise it will be soup for you for the next weeks.”

“I am new here,” said Antoine.

“Kirill,” the man said to him. “My name’s Kyrill.”

“Viktor,” Antoine said. They shook hands.

“That was Boris Fyodorov,” Kirill said. “I saw him once lay a block of concrete on his bare back, while his buddy went to work on it with a sledgehammer. The concrete broke, his back apparently not.”

Kyrill nodded into the direction of the line.

“Trouble never comes alone,” he said.

The next man was someone Antoine had seen before, in the cellars in Barcelona and the night at Opium club.

“That’s Andrej Zhukov,” Kirill said. “Ice cold bastard.”

“What did he crush on his back?” Antoine asked.

“He was swinging the hammer,” Kirill said.

Antoine turned his head away not to face Andrej. He handed him the plate with an extra portion like he had done before. The red carpet treatment. The man passed by without recognizing him.

“They are all veterans,” Kirill said, “…who have had enough. You should see their pictures in ceremonial uniforms from the day they left their old regiment. Their chests laden with awards. Multiple Medals for Courage, Orders for Merit to the Fatherland and Orders of Courage. Like Vasili here.” The next Spetsnaz came into view. “Vasili Beriyev.”

Antoine overheard their talk.

“Can you imagine our old comrades from the 45th invading Ukraine as we speak?” the commando said to his colleague.

“Yeah, been there, done that, getting paid shit compared to us now,” the other said, bumping his fist with the first.

“That’s why we left,” Vasili said.

“Damn right it is,” the other said. “For some people war is war, for others – dear mother.”

“Do you know the last?” Antoine asked Kirill.

“Yes. Alex Ershov. Lost his right eye in South Ossetia. Hasn’t been the same since. He’s with one foot standing in the grave. Even Chuck Norris fears him.”

Antoine took out a pen of his pocket and drew two streaks on a scratchpad. He watched them and took care on which table they chose. Then work called him to continue providing the line, a whole platoon, then two more. He had six streaks on his scratchpad at the end of the breakfast.

Radek hadn’t been one of them. He was not among his men, his inner circle, his Spetsnaz yes, at some time for sure, but not with the militants. He preferred to dine more exquisite, Antoine assumed, especially for his last supper.

Antoine turned to Kirill.

“Do you know where Radek is eating?” he asked.

“Why do you want to know that?” Kirill said. “Be glad that the Hero of the Russian Federation isn’t here. There’s a rumor how he got it. Forty-two terrorists, one hundred twenty-nine hostages. One hundred seventy-one body bags. Mission accomplished. Just be glad he isn’t here. Without a cat, mice feel free.”

 

 

***FORTY-TWO***

Once the soldiers were finished eating, the rest of the morning comprised washing dishes and cooking vast amounts of lunch meals. Antoine kept his ears open for clues and his mouth mostly shut. He knew now how many they were and had studied their behavior. He had to learn how to act as one of them, to become one of them.

Lunchtime came faster than expected. There hadn’t been a time were Antoine could have taken a break between cutting meat and vegetables and bringing new ingredients. He had only gone to the storage room once to organize something for his own needs. He flexed and relaxed his fingers to get rid of the cramps and wiped over his forehead. Steam was in the air from various boiling pots and it had become warm underneath his clothes. But what disturbed him more, was that he had no time to prepare. He had no plan figured out yet and had to think and improvise on the go. It was hard to come up with something where he had to think everything through, all the consequences his actions would draw until the end. It was even harder when the Spetsnaz arrived, now recognizing every one of them and able to pick them out of the crowd like sorting the wheat from the chaff. His pulse rose and he could feel his veins pounding when he saw the enemy, the enemy of all enemies around him. The kitchen noise and orders around him fell on deaf ears. All he was focused on were the striding steps of Spetsnaz boots. They drew closer on the chessboard that filled out the canteen hall like bishops pushing through the pawns. Antoine wondered where was their king.

The palms of his hands were itching. He took a new plate and loaded it accordingly, once, then twice.

“Spicy?” he asked Vasili.

The man in line didn’t even give a hint of a nod. His eyelids simply twitched.

Antoine grabbed down beneath the counter and emptied a bottle of hot sauce over the meal.

He then put another scoop on top. The plate was overflowing like the top of a volcano. His hands were shaking and he brushed the glass of water on the man’s tray. He let the plate fall onto the tray to try to catch the glass, but his numb fingers failed to grab it. Vasili darted one step backwards to avoid getting splattered with the meal, but the glass fell forward. Water swapped out of it before it broke against the tray and burst to smithereens. The water splattered all over the tray and partly onto the plate. The floor in front of Vasili was a puddle and his hands and sleeves were wet.

Ty che, blyad,” Vasili shouted. He was staring at Antoine and then at his clothes, his arms still up from when he jumped back.

“I’m sorry, I really am,” Antoine said.

Derr’mo,” Vasili said. “Idi syuda, mu’dak.”

“Hey, I already told you I’m sorry,” Antoine said.

Vasili gave him another poisonous look and was about to go. The other Spetsnaz were hungry too.

Antoine indicated his uniform and took out a next plate.

“See, nothing happened, right?” he said.

“I guess not,” Vasili said. “You are a lucky fool.”

“Please move on, you are holding up the line,” Antoine said.

“What?” Vasili shouted. “Are you kidding me?”

“I’m really not,” Antoine said, taking up the next meal.

Schas po ebalu poluchish, suka,” Vasili said.

Antoine forced a smile. “I am glad this counter is between me and you right now.”

The soldier snorted and left with his tray in hands.

“You are dead,” Vasili said under gritted teeth.

Antoine grinned weakly. He grabbed underneath his kitchen staff clothes and turned off the voice recorder. Then he took the bottle of hot sauce and let it disappear in the dust bin.

“Spicy?” he asked the next one and opened another bottle. He made sure the first bottle couldn’t get into anyone’s hands.

Antoine left his post and threw away his headpiece under which pearls of sweat had started to form. He brushed his hands into the fabric of his clothes to dry them. In the storage room was another set of clothes in plastic bags, a militant’s uniform. He changed his outfit and put on the olive green, a shirt, camouflage baggy pants and boots.

He didn’t have access with the kitchen staff’s apparel outside on the compound to go everywhere, but now a lot of doors would open for him. He would only need one, the one to follow his target.

The Spetsnaz left their tables. They went out to breathe fresh air and stretch their legs. The operation was soon to begin. He tailed them to find out their whereabouts, their personal sleeping, locker and recreational rooms, their habits to pass the time as well as their favorite routes.

Antoine took out his voice recording device and transmitted the recorded audio back to his team. Priya would know what to do with it. It was only a question of if she could do it in time.

The one he had given the meal and spilled his water, Vasili, strayed on his way back to the billets. He slowed down as he walked, going slightly bent and held his stomach. Antoine could imagine how he felt. It was his doing and he couldn’t help but smile as he saw the pain he had inflicted, even when his heart pounded in his chest at this stage that was crucial for everything. It would make or break their whole plan.

Vasili entered the billets and Antoine followed him. They met a doorkeeper inside, who was busy reading the comics of a newspaper and was wearing the same outfit as Antoine. He snapped to attention once he saw the Spetsnaz approaching, a good second too late. The elite soldier couldn’t care less this time. Antoine saw his face was distorted as he looked back in disgust at the lazy watchman. The cleaning reagent inside the meal Antoine had prepared was doing its magic. The Spetsnaz was coughing and clutching his stomach.

“Damn, what was I eating?” Vasili said.

Antoine imagined the itching sensation it must have had down the throat and the rumble it must cause in the Vasili’s stomach.

The man hurried down the corridor which was close to his private billets and crashed into the door to the restrooms. He swung them open using both his shoulder first, hand second. Antoine waited till it closed shut again, then entered behind him. He was close on his heels but not close enough for Vasili to spot him in the bathroom mirrors. Besides he was focused on his own misery. The Spetsnaz was heading to the toilet cabin and stretched out his hand for the door handle. If Antoine didn’t strike now, he might lose him. He had only two seconds before his target was inside and would lock the door, but he couldn’t allow himself any mistakes. Antoine looked around.

The lavatory was tiled in white, made crumbly by age and carelessness. There were cracks in the mirrors, rust on the faucets, footprints on the cyan painted wall. No obvious items to use as a weapon. He would have to do without.

“Not again a restroom fight,” Antoine said to himself.

There was a good chance the mirrors wouldn’t stay the same.

He lunged to wrap his arms around Vasili’s neck, when he saw the red sign at the next toilet cabin. It was occupied, someone was there with them. Antoine stopped in his tracks, his heart now racing. He turned to the washbasin and braced himself against it, panting hard. He looked up into the mirror, where he saw his target disappear inside the toilet and the lock close shut behind him with a clack. Antoine took a deep breath to organize his thoughts. He was shaking on his whole body, despite holding on to the basin and his knees were weak. He had to stay unsuspicious and think. Both were hard to accomplish in his state.

He wasn’t going to do this with a witness who would intervene and raise an alarm. Right now, he couldn’t even reach his victim without kicking in the door and sacrificing his moment of surprise. Not against a Spetsnaz. He had to make sure the first strike already counted. Antoine had learned the hard way never to underestimate a Russian and these were the best of the best, thrown in with a healthy dash of fanatism and madness.

He sank his head over the sink and ran his hands through his hair.

An announcement pulled him out of his state. The crackle in the speakers above the mirror let Antoine look up and listen to the voice. It sounded raucous and harsh and its words tasted of vodka and cigarettes. They were about to go on a mission. Preparations needed to be made, packing of all the gear, loading ammo and putting on their special operation suites. It spoke of Spetsnaz only. That meant stealth suits, jump gear and high altitude oxygen masks. It would start in half an hour. Antoine could hear a curse out of the toilet cabin. His target was running out of time, but so did he.

The door lock of the Spetsnaz’s cabin clanked open. Antoine turned away and rushed outside to not getting seen by him. If Vasili would face the man that was responsible for his afflictions things would turn ugly right here. Antoine left the bathroom and returned out on the corridor. There weren’t many places to hide. He could just turn into the corner and hope the Spetsnaz’s way led into the other direction.

He heard the door open behind him and saw Vasili move out of the corner of his eye. The Spetsnaz hurried down the hallway and into his room. Antoine stalked after him, but heard voices inside the room. Half of the man’s group was already in there, getting ready for the mission. He heard them laughing at his comrade’s late arrival, interrupted by the clashing of gear against the lockers.

Antoine disappeared out of their sight behind a corner and leant his back against the wall. He exhaled hard. He simply must not let him get away, or at least find another way to get onto the transport with them.

Vasili returned. Antoine wasn’t prepared for it, but he came back from his room, with his clothes laid off to the underwear and a towel wrapped around his shoulder. He ran down the corridor, past Antoine without recognizing him and other problems on his mind.

Antoine heard the hasty steps of slippers shuffle past him. Vasili was rushing to the showers. Antoine pushed himself away from the wall and was on him. This was his last chance, to get him in the showers. Antoine dashed into the shower room, right after the Spetsnaz. Vasili didn’t care who was coming after him and didn’t have time to look. He was frantically busy tearing off his shirt and underwear and getting under the shower. Antoine allowed himself a quick look, although it was likely that he would make his attempt even with other witnesses around. Things had become that desperate. They were the only ones in the shower room. The area with the wash basins at the front of the room was separated from the showers by a tiled wall, waist high and enough to hide a body should anyone enter too soon. The floor was made of tiles that looked hard as rock.

The man standing naked under the shower turned on the water and closed his eyes as it sprayed in his face. Antoine struck with a Belgian takedown. He dived down and grabbed Vasili’s legs above both ankles, pulling fast with a jerk. His victim’s head, not even having time to open his eyes, missed the water faucet, but crashed down against the tiles. It made a cracking sound as his forehead connected, but it didn’t knock him out. It was more as if the beast of a man was awoken by it.

 

 

***FORTY-THREE***

Vasili bucked up and tried to get on his feet again. Antoine didn’t let it come to this. He leveraged his whole body weight on him and fixed his arms in place. Antoine pushed down and could feel the muscles of his torso strain. The Spetsnaz threw his head back and cracked Antoine’s nose. His vision blurred as tears clogged his eyes, but Antoine fought against the stinging pain. He wouldn’t need his eyes, or nose to get the job done because that was what dirty jobs were. Warm blood dribbled from his nose and mixed with the puddle of water that formed on the tiles. It looked like Antoine wanted to drown the man in it, as he pushed and rubbed Vasili’s face against the floor. What he really needed, was just a moment of distraction to sling his arms around the Spetsnaz’s neck. Antoine got his target in a sleeper hold and yanked him around on his back like an anaconda. They were both facing upwards, with the elite soldier on top of him. The shower’s flush trickled into their faces. It drowned out the gurgling noises Vasili made in order to fight against Antoine’s grip. Antoine’s hold got tighter. He felt his biceps bulge and shudder. His forearm and upper arm pinched like pliers onto both sides of Vasili’s neck. He sensed it when the sleeper hold was final and his victim had no way out. The man’s limbs went slack, his body feeling like a dead weight on top of Antoine. Now he just would have to endure. Silence returned in the shower room, except the pelting of a never ending stream of water drops and their muffled echo from the enclosed walls. Antoine lay there and counted the seconds. Only now he realized his clothes were soaked wet and the water was cold. Senses came back slowly. His arm was cramping. He still hadn’t let go of his target. He didn’t feel when the life went out of him, but he had felt when his consciousness had left him. After this there was not much difference, between sleep and death. Antoine checked if the man was still breathing. He couldn’t find any signs, although he couldn’t be sure. He was shaking on his whole body from exhaustion. After a while he decided it was enough.

A sudden voice above his head made him cringe, until he identified the source as only the speakers. The mission announcement pulled him out of his inaction. He had maybe ten minutes to hide the body and change clothes, identity and his voice, without being seen by anyone.

Antoine searched the Spetsnaz’s belongings he had left nearby on a bench. There was his billet-key and key to his locker.

He went over to the door and opened it a gap to peek outside into the hallway. It was empty, so he checked the bathroom on the other side. The cabins were unoccupied.

Antoine returned to the strangled Spetsnaz and dragged him out of the shower, across the corridor. The doors to the billets could open at any second. He was trailing water behind and over into the lavatory.

Antoine could hear the door of the Spetsnaz’s billet open. A couple of squad members of him were coming out. They were calling out a name, the dead man’s he had killed for sure. Antoine hauled the body inside of the toilet cabin and locked it behind him. He prepped the corpse onto the toilet seat and listened to the noises outside. Spetsnaz entered the shower and bathroom, looking for their comrade.

“Vasili,” one shouted. “It’s time.”

The man had seen the lavatory was occupied. He waited standing in front of it.

Antoine froze inside the cabin. All that separated them was a thin door and he had to make the man move away.

He focused on the conversation back in the canteen and tried to remember the voice of the man he had killed. He had recorded it. Priya hadn’t sent him the data for his voice changer yet, so he couldn’t use it. All he had was the recorder. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled it out. It was moist and looked cracked. He rewound for a second and pushed the button to play.

“You are dead,” the dead man’s voice said, silent like a whisper. It hung in the air like a tragic threat, chilling even Antoine like a message out of a grave.

The man standing outside remained quiet.

“Just make sure to catch up,” he finally said. “We’re heading out.”

Antoine saw the boots turn through the slit under the door and the soldier walking away. He met with his squad members in the hallway and they left together.

Antoine breathed out to a long drawn sigh. He allowed his shoulders and his tension to sink. He stepped onto the corpse and climbed up the toilet cabin to exit it with the door still locked behind.

He walked out onto the corridor and turned left to the troops’ billet. He had Vasili’s key to open it, this and the key to his locker, which was all that stood between him and becoming the person he was going to imitate.

He let the door fall into the lock behind him. He had five minutes left, but his goal was as close as never before.

The room was abandoned, but in a fashion that deserved the room of Special Forces. Every blanket was in place over the beds and folded like with a ruler. Nothing was left behind on the table or on the beds. They knew it was likely that they wouldn’t come back from this mission.

Antoine tried Vasili’s key on the various lockers. He found the right one and the door opened. An arsenal of gear and weapons awaited him that made him stop for a second. He had to lay on all of it.

He put on the stealth suit, protective gear, knee and elbow pads, Kevlar vest, pulled the balaclava over his face, put on the helmet, put the night vision goggles in place on his forehead, slid into gloves, filled the magazine pockets with ammunition, took out his gun of the locker, locked and loaded.

He was standing in front of a mirror and the sight surprised him. He truly had become one of them.

He checked the stealth suit and test-activated it. His mirror image disappeared, only visible through blurred lines and a distortion of his background. Only one kind of creature was known whose mirror image didn’t appear.

He looked around to see everything had gone with him. Then he closed the locker, left the room behind and went out to join his comrades. The difference to them was, he knew for sure he would never return to this place.

His fingers found a note inside the tactical vest as he strode down the corridor and unfolded it. It was a handwritten letter, scribbled full front and back. Antoine knew what kind it was. He started to read and translated it in his head, while he walked out into the yard.

“Many people who are studying what we are doing, at one point face this question: If our religion is love and peace, how can it be the foundation of our war?”

A UAZ jeep was parked outside with a personal driver waiting for him. He nodded to him and got on board.

“Compare an athlete fighting in the ring and a warrior defending his homeland,” Vasili’s words went on. “Both are prepared to hurt another human being, but what a huge difference in justifying their actions. The goal of a ring fighter is to show that he is superior to the other fighters, to prove that he is the best. While the goal of the warrior is to save his family, his friends and his country from death and misery. The warrior has a noble goal and at this moment is close to God. While the main motivation of the ring fighter is pride, the warrior is driven by love, love for his family, friends and country.”

Antoine looked outside. It were the testimonials of men who felt the need to justify their actions to the afterworld.

“Thus, training to be a true warrior is not only justified, but is necessary,” the text said. “How else can we save the innocent people from evil? How else can children held hostage by the terrorists be saved? Professionals such as soldiers and police officers are trained, armed and prepared for the task of saving lives. They put their own lives on the line with humility and honor.”

Trucks and units of troops rushed past on the street. They were heading the same direction as him. Antoine didn’t feel that strong urge to read the last will because he felt it was his duty to bestow that honor on the man whose life he had ended. He felt it because it was a way to get inside his enemies’ heads. He would be on this mission surrounded by them soon and acting as one of them, he wanted to know their motives, their vindication and their mindset. It would help to understand them, participate their moves and see the outcome of their mission. Only that he would be there to stop them.

 

 

***FORTY-FOUR***

He returned his eyes back on the letter. The words blurred from the shaking passenger cabin of the jeep as it made its way through the base, but he went on. Who knew how long the drive would take and where it would take him.

“Religion teaches us that fighting becomes a sin only when there is pride and aggression in it, or if it contains hatred, revenge or callousness, when the causes are greed, vanity, envy, desperation and other such vices,” the testimony said. “Otherwise, if it is fighting for defense, for rescue – it is a sin not to fight and let your loved ones get hurt or killed or have your country destroyed.”

Antoine shrugged. The same could be said for both sides, for his point of view. Every side justified their actions and thought itself righteous.

“There are numerous examples of righteous warriors since the creation of the world,” the letter went. “The first warrior known to mankind is Archangel Mikhail – God gave him the sword – the power to fight evil; and with that sword he had banished the fallen angels from God’s Kingdom, all those who no longer served God, but only served their own pride. It had to be done, so that evil does not take over.

We see the Prophets in the Old Testament – such as Gideon or Samson – they were blessed by God to fight the evil. All the way to our times, when during World War II, numerous nations had to go up against evil.

The Word of God in the bible tells us that there is no bigger sacrifice than to give up your life for others. Thus, anyone who prepares to be a true warrior, who undergoes training and takes a weapon in his hand, accepts this possibility of sacrificing his life in the name of love for other people; in essence, he prepares to become a martyr.”

This was it, Antoine thought as he looked up. They were prepared to become martyrs, ready to die for their cause and for sure convinced that it would help their home and country in the long run, even if it meant to shed blood of their fellow countrymen. It was a radical view. Antoine wasn’t here to say if it was right or wrong. He was going against the killing of innocent people, no matter if it was just a means to an end or not. This was his view. Maybe his enemies would label him as a short-sighted, unreasonable radical too, wired differently, standing against them. If this would be the case then so was it. He returned to the letter in his hands.

“The ultimate quality that the Spetsnaz develop is devotion. A devoted sacrifices his life to fighting the evil in his heart and constantly asks God to help him with that. In reward for his hard work and resulting humility, God gives him this amazing gift to succeed. Our spirit will always be with God and we will fight only when it is absolutely necessary, only for a noble cause. We have to do it, otherwise evil will take over.”

He looked outside. They were out on the airfield, where trucks unloaded and the troops were assembling to bid them farewell. Antoine took out his voice modifier. It was still not working. A green light would signify when Priya’s data-transfer had been finalized. The light on the device was still on red.

The radio in his headset crackled.

“Vasili,” a voice said. “Is this you coming?”

Antoine tried to find where the speaker was located. The driver of the UAZ pointed where he was going to bring him.

A big transport machine filled out the whole width of the runway, its wingspread carried by four jet engines. They were running and waiting already.

Antoine’s car was closing in from behind the airplane. He could see the ramp to the cargo hold was open. Against the background of artificial light from the interior of the plane, seven figures in digital camouflage and heavy gear stood out. They were waiting for him.

He cleared his throat to answer the radio.

Da,” he said.

One word alone would not reveal his true identity. More would.

The driver parked the jeep right at the foot of the ramp where the squad was waiting. Antoine put Vasili’s note back into his vest and opened the door of the car. He disembarked with his weapon close by, the muzzle of the rifle leant against his shoulder. He had the voice modifier in his other hand. It was still blinking red.

Antoine could see from the vanes that the wind was going strong. He couldn’t actually feel it in his enclosed suit, just hear the howling it left against his helmet.

The soldier at the head of the group stretched out his hand to welcome him. It was Radek. His hand touched him on his shoulder, like a brother.

“Vasili, old friend,” he said.

Antoine froze.

He looked at the arm that was touching him and the man it belonged to. Radek had led the attack on the UNIT’s headquarters and destroyed his office and second home of many years. He had struck in the heart of his beloved city Vienna and ripped the agency’s heart out, leaving his comrades dead in the rubble behind. What disturbed him even more, was that he had been so close to them and hadn’t been able to help them.

Like Radek had been to Vasili, only separated by a thin wall and not even knowing death had taken his friend, he thought. He would make it happen to every one of them and he wanted to do it right now.

“I gotta say, one old friend is better than two new ones,” Radek said. “Where have you been so long?”

Antoine looked around. Radek had the bomb strapped to his back, ready for the jump. The other squad members were armed to the teeth with assault rifles, submachine guns and grenades. Their inbuilt HUD goggles glared at him. Equipped with the best technology, they looked like soldiers from the future. He wanted to let them become history.

His son A.J. came to mind, as he saw the procession of militants standing at attention for their leave. He couldn’t stop thinking abandoning him.

Radek turned away from the paramilitaries and commanded Antoine to follow him. The rank and file militants saluted as sendoff for their brave heroes. Antoine walked behind the seven Spetsnaz he would share the transporter and their last hours with. They were loaded like drones, most of the equipment that was needed for the jump would be discarded after the landing, but right now they resembled bees lumbered up with dust around their legs. Their visors and oxygen masks had something insectile to them. They would be thrown out of the sky and come down over the land like a plague.

Antoine stepped onto the ramp and walked up the ascent. He noticed something vibrate in his hand. It was the voice modifier. The light had changed from red to green. He lifted the device to his neck, up to his vocal cords and put it in place under the rolled up balaclava. He coughed slightly to test what effects it would have. The sound coming out of his mouth was strange and not from him.

Radek halted at the top of the ramp and turned around to cast a last glance on their base of operation, their home they were forced to live in and hide, like rats, in the third most polluted place on earth that had undoubtedly tainted them and the men they left behind, who would live long enough to see the consequences.

Saying goodbye used to be hard, but not this time.

Radek laid an arm around Antoine’s neck and shoulder. The two were standing at the edge of the hold and looking outside, as the plane started rolling.

“Are you ready to write history, Vasili?” he said. “To become a master or a deadman.” It’s win all, or lose all.

Antoine rummaged around in one of his many vest pockets and fished out the testimonial letter.

“I am ready to write history,” he said. The voice in which he spoke wasn’t his own. It was Vasili speaking again, coming back from the dead. He looked him into the eyes, returning the hug. “My friend.”

The ramp elevated, cutting out the view to the outside world until it closed shut. Antoine activated the device Priya had given him to change the coding of the RFID signal their ammunition was sending to differentiate him from the other Spetsnaz.

His squad had their own identifier too, to spot each other while their stealth suits were active.

He turned back to his group which had taken seats on the sidewalls of the cargo hold, facing each other. He sat down as the aircraft accelerated, sensible in the rolling sound beneath their feet getting louder and the shaking walls. Everything inside the huge machine vibrated. The superfluous lights went out and were exchanged by emergency lighting.The convulsions of the craft rose when it reached its maximum velocity, resembling an earthquake. It struggled to get its huge mass up in the air, its nose first, setting off with its front undercarriage and then, what felt like an eternity and after several attempts to break contact with the ground, the back lifted. The pilot yanked its nose up trying to win the race of defying gravity, no matter the weight of this massive behemoth. Walls shook. Rivets rattled. An aircraft was not a static chunk, it was moving in the current of physical forces. It needed to stay flexible, for they deformed it on a small scale. The pilot executed a sharp curve that pressed Antoine into his seat. There were no windows to look outside for a reference to the horizon, so all Antoine had was the reaction of his own body. He knew they were gaining altitude fast and changing their course to Moscow.

To perform a HALO jump, high altitude, low opening, they would need climb up between fifteen thousand and thirty-five thousand feet. It was a long way to go there, but would be a fast one down, covering most of it in free fall. In a typical HALO insertion, the parachutist would jump from the aircraft, free-fall for a period of time at terminal velocity and open his parachute at a low altitude. The combination of high downward speed, minimal metal and forward airspeed serves to defeat radar as well as simply reduce the amount of time a parachute might be visible to ground observers, enabling a stealthy insertion. With the use of stealth technology, the last point became obsolete.

“The bomb is supposed to go off in the ventilation system of the Kremlin, making it unusable and killing most of its staff,” Radek said. “We are supposed to go in, plant it and walk out without anyone noticing. That is the power of stealth which now any terrorist could buy.”

It was a two and a half hours flight from the base to Moscow. They crossed the Ural Mountains westwards and even though Antoine couldn’t see, he knew they were passing vast forests and lakes with little to no civilization below them. Later on the landscape turned into rocks and snow-capped summits on a mountain chain that separated two continents like a deliberately drawn line from north to south. Five years ago, a meteor exploded in the sky over the Ural Mountains, injuring more than one thousand people in the Chelyabinsk region. There was panic, as people had no idea what was happening. Many were hurt by flying glass as windows were blown in. Witnesses described feeling a pressure wave and hearing explosions overhead as the object hurtled to Earth.

Some things happened by nature, that no one could have an influence on. Sometimes things happened, that normal men didn’t have influence on. But some special men did, not because they were lucky or powerful, but because they chose to do so.

 

 

***FORTY-FIVE***

 

 

A mild day in Moscow’s spring, a victory day.

Priya sat down in a cafe across Red Square, her tablet in hand. She took a seat by the window, alone, where she could be in relative isolation. On her hands were electronic wristbands that could be used as steering device for the drone, or switch between the real time video feeds each member recorded. A simple swipe with her hand would lead to a certain command or motion of the UAV.

A waiter appeared and asked her for coffee, then went away.

Priya turned on her screen. The aerial view of the quadrocopter hovering over the Kremlin showed itself to her.

“Drone is active,” she said.

With a snap of her wrist she ushered the drone forward to waypoints on the map She zoomed in on a van approaching the road inside Kremlin, pulling over to the parking lot in front of the Political Office building.

The car was highlighted bright from multiple signals out of its driver and passenger seats.

“I’m getting your readings,” she said.

Guards walked around, controlling the papers of the van and waving it over to halt at the building. They left it alone as soon as their fake identification was explained, returning to their patrols or guard posts.

“All is set and we’re through,” Cage said.

“You’re good to go,” Priya said.

“Let’s move out,” Hunter said.

They opened the doors and the highlighted figures got out of the car. For Priya they were seen only as senders of their code. Saw went back into the direction from where the van had come from, towards three cathedrals standing close to each other. His pace was slow and relaxed and she could see him gesture to one of the guards. Hunter left the car and walked over to the office building. He was carrying something in both hands which slowed him down even more. He stood in front of the guard watching the building. Access to the public was restricted to these premises. The others, three signals, waited behind in the van.

Hunter had to talk to the guard. Priya, Kovacs, Cage, Atlas and Saw were listening over their comms. No one dared to interrupt. They were all waiting with bated breath.

Priya could see Saw standing in front of the tsar’s bell, which had been dismantled from the bell tower and positioned in front of it.

Hunter was let into the building. There were restaurations to be done and handymen were allowed to enter for a limited time that involved their work. Given his outer appearance, clothes, equipment and fake identity, Hunter was one.

Hunter entered the building and Priya switched to infrared view. She dwindled down the drone below rooftop height and pursued his heat signal through the windows.

Hunter was led through the lobby of the Kremlin Presidium, surrounded by several heat signatures of guards securing the entrances to the different wings of designated Building Fourteen. Hunter’s figure was only a distant shimmer behind the walls. It lit up once he reached a corridor at the outer side of the building, shining through windows every time he passed them. Priya was following his life sign, like a torch into the night. Only one other light was with him and stayed at his side, glued to his heels. The guard showed him the way to get to the room needing his attendance. Every other route was off limits and the guard made it clear so that there would be no mistaking.

Outside, three life signs pulsated in the back of the van. Priya could see their arms moving, handing out weapons and ammunition that they had kept concealed in the car’s false floor. Their fate was not something Priya would have liked to share, sitting in the dark, closed space, waiting for the invisible enemy to drop from the sky.

Priya got her coffee served. She swiped her arm and swayed the camera over to Saw’s position who was standing in front of the tsar’s bell. Saw watched left and right before entering the bell through a broken open split in its side.

Hunter entered the empty office space where reparations needed to be made. It lay on the top side, overseeing Ivanovskaya square. He nodded to the guard who left him and closed the door behind, then went over to the window. This was where he would get to work, a good vantage. He put out his box of tools and started to assemble the rifle he had dismantled in its parts.

The door behind him opened again. He froze, his rifle half put together and not ready for use. Hunter covered the weapon with his body and prayed the person entering wouldn’t come closer or step in front of him.

“Yes?” he said over his shoulder.

Hunter heard the steps of heels towards him. A woman.

He turned.

“Compliments from Olga,” she said.

In her hands she had a bottle of water.

He took it with a nod. She smiled and left the room.

Priya wiped over the surface of her tablet. The screen changed to satellite view. A percentage number displayed the progress in tracking Antoine’s position. His signal was incoming from the south-east. He was reaching Moscow fast.

“Standby, package is coming,” Priya said.

They entered Moscow’s airspace in the late afternoon.

“We are reaching the drop zone,” the pilot told them.

“Don’t try to get into hell ahead of your fathers,” the deck officer said. “Stand by for jump equipment check.”

They got up in lines of two, revising each others gear, that everything was in place and packed correctly. Parachute, rip cord and a second emergency chute.

Antoine turned to put the RFID patch onto the man behind him while checking his equipment.

He got two in reach, then was on to Radek.

“No need to check, Vasili,” he said, stopping his hand before he could reach him. “When I jump out of an airplane, I don’t want to be a hundred percent sure that chute opens.”

The leader laughed and slapped Antoine on the shoulder.

Antoine recoiled his hand, gripping the RFID patch tight in his glove. It was the size of a rice corn. But he couldn’t get to Radek without raising suspicion. It was only a plan B after all, if the ammunition trackers failed.

Antoine locked his breathing mask in place. The air of the oxygen tank was more difficult to inhale, almost as it needed to be sucked out through a straw. Its coldness filled his lungs and made his throat dry.

The ramp opened to a small slit, letting in a ray of light from the afternoon sky. It lowered like the jaws of a big whale and Antoine was staring out onto the world below them into a sea of clouds.

“Stealth suit checks,” Radek ordered.

One after the other they activated their cloaking fields, disappearing in the hold of the airplane, like melting into thin air. Their silhouettes flickered like ghosts.

“Camo active,” one of the Spetsnaz confirmed.

Antoine looked down at himself. Even his gun was shielded and nearly invisible. He held up his hand in front of his face and could almost look through it, blurred like through a kaleidoscope. He knew even their parachutes would be inside the radius of the energy field. The shape of his team members lit up in his HUD, emphasizing where they should be so that he could see them.

They deactivated the stealth suits again, fully materializing behind him. It would save energy on the way down.

“Get ready for insertion,” the deck officer said. He waved them forward, tightly crowded together in a group.

“Remember comrades,” Radek said. “We have five steps before we get our fifty millions. First, jump.”

They all laughed.

“Second, make our way to the basement of the Senate. Third, Andrej, you stop the engine for the ventilation system. Boris, you make sure we can get this bad boy into the shaft. Four, I have the honor of placing our motherland’s made Uranium into the system. Five, get out through the west-gate where Alex will be awaiting us with the red van.”

“Don’t you mean six?” Boris said. “Kicking our legs back and watching the government suffer from our island.”

“The tale is told quickly, but the job is done slowly,” Alex said.

Easier said than done.

Antoine stepped onto the lowered ramp, finding grip in the slots in the metal floor. Russia’s finest were behind him, so close he could almost hear their breathing in his neck.

Radek gave Antoine a tap on his shoulder. That was the sign.

“The strongest wins,” he said. “If we will be alive, we will not die.”

Antoine took a step forward and left his footing, diving into the open. Seven men followed on his heels without a spark of hesitation.

 

 

***FORTY-SIX***

They fell. Antoine somersaulted and tried to regain his balance and sense of up and down. He spread out his arms and legs and fixed the horizon to hold onto, even if it was only a visual aid. The wind howled between his spread fingers. Out of the corner of his eye, he detected the other Spetsnaz members staying close to him, descending in formation. He consulted his altimeter. They were at thirty-five thousand feet, facing temperatures of minus forty-five degrees Celsius. Without the polypropylene knit undergarments and other warm clothing, he would be at risk of frostbite. He saw and heard the aircraft peel away behind them, returning to the base. He didn’t know how they planned to get out of this, not that it mattered.

Antoine entered the cloud layer. It felt like he was drowning in mist. He remembered to focus on his breathing. Fatigue and anxiety could lead to a jumper suffer hypoxia, lack of oxygen. As if this wasn’t enough, every sin of his past seemed to pay him back now presenting new risks. He couldn’t simply shake off what he had done, or try to forget and deny it. It was there in his body, medical conditions that wouldn’t lie. Smoking of cigarettes, excessive use of alcohol and drugs including histamine antagonists, sedatives and analgesics all made him more susceptible to hypoxia. He could feel dizziness and his vision fade. He clung on to his conscious with all the will of his mind, but it threatened to slip from him. He must not let it happen. If he lost his consciousness, he wouldn’t be able to open his parachute.

They had taken precautions against this. A half an hour period of pre-breathing prior to the jump, where they inhaled pure oxygen had flushed nitrogen out of their bloodstream. Now during the jump, they were still hanging on another oxygen bottle. If a problem during the changeover from the pre-breather to the oxygen bottle had occurred, he would feel it by now. Nitrogen would return into the jumper’s bloodstream and lead to decompression sickness, just like a single breath of atmospheric air would elevate his arterial nitrogen levels to dangerous values. This would mean death or permanent disability from nitrogen bubbles in the blood stream, which caused inflammation of joints. Antoine hoped the aircraft pilot knew that the same could happen from the rapid ascent they had taken.

Vision returned. Through snapping back into consciousness or breaking through the cloud layer he couldn’t tell. Moscow was unfolded beneath him. In his HUD target markings for their landing zone appeared. Antoine saw himself approaching them at terminal velocity.

Antoine reached the two-thousand feet mark. There existed buildings which were higher than that. He activated his stealth-suit. If the parachute failed to deploy at this height, there was next to no time to resort to the back-up chute or untangle the lines.

He pulled the ripcord. The chute skidded out of his backpack and unfurled above him. It braked his fall and jerked his legs around. He looked up to check if his chute was properly deployed, but there was nothing to see, the stealth-technology working its magic.

Moscow welcomed him with a view that took his breath away. There were seven high-rise buildings, seven sisters in Moscow built in the late nineteen-forties, early nineteen-fifties. People called them Stalin’s skyscrapers for a reason.

Antoine saw the top of one of the buildings crowned by a spire with a star in a chaplet of ears of wheat. The gigantic star must have weighed around twelve tons and was shining golden. Stalin himself had made an order to put spires with stars on top of all the Moscow skyscrapers. They looked at Antoine like a relic from the Cold War. Little did they know that he was here to save them.

Crossing the Moscow river, Antoine had the Kremlin right in front of him in his landing approach. It was a fortress compromising of government buildings and cathedrals, encircled by a red wall and red towers, too high to climb. That was why they were going to land inside, in the very heart of Russia. They drifted over the battlements, silent and invisible only resembling mirages and went down in the garden beyond the wall. It was a park with trees, big enough to land unnoticed and hide their parachutes.

Antoine touched down ruggedly and got his knees bent hard from the impact. He rolled off and unbuckled his chute before he got back on his feet. He hoped the stealth-suit would hold up its camouflage, otherwise it would turn into a straight out gunfight. A guard stood at the edge of the park with his back turned to him and facing the buildings. A noise turned Antoine’s head. Several gardeners were leaf vacuuming the park west to his position. He got the signals of his comrades, being all scattered throughout the area but within walking distance. Antoine heaped his chute together and hid it behind a tree as fast as he could. Time was of the essence. Radek was pressing hard. The longer they waited the more possible it was that they were compromised.

“Form up on me.” Radek’s voice sounded over Antoine’s helmet speakers, his words only as a whisper.

The signals began to move, coming closer together to their leader waiting at the edge of the park, a dozen meters left to the watchman.

Antoine set out to meet him and kept low, to make his silhouette and the distortions it left in the air small.

He aimed his weapon at the watchman. “Hostile on the right, he has an assault rifle.”

“Weapons hold,” Radek said.

They sneaked past him and crouched around the last tree line separating them from the street and walkway. Hedges shielded them to the left together with a long-drawn granite bench resembling the material of grave stones.

Radek pointed forward.

“Another hostile to the front, assault rifle.”

On the opposite street side, in front of the Kremlin Presidium a guardhouse with another watchman awaited them. Access was highly secured and restricted to the public. Building Fourteen held offices of the Russian presidential administration, as well as the Kremlin Commandant’s office and offices of the Federal Protective Service, the FSO.

Behind it, across the whole length of Ivanovskaya square, Antoine saw the Senate. A line of parked cars lay between them, providing some cover on the way.

He looked to the left where the bell tower of Ivan the Great stood at the side of Archangel Mikhail’s cathedral and remembered the note of the dead man he embodied, one of the three righteous warriors.

“Where are you, friends?” Antoine said in a whisper.

Radek gave the sign for marching off, only visible because they were that close to their leader and knew he was here.

“We’re moving.”

They spread out into a wide line, reaching over the width of Ivanovskaya square and made ready. On his word they got up and broke into a stride, crossing the sidewalk and the broad street. Everything built here was to demonstrate power and allow a show of strength. The square and street was big enough to let a parade march across it, or leave multiple tanks roll past side by side. It was a nightmare for passing it on foot, with watchmen all over the place. Even in stride it took longer than Antoine wanted to. The parked cars would offer some protection. There was a field of black diplomat cars with tinted windows and light delivery trucks sticking out, from repairmen, handymen and restore companies. They nearly made it to them, when one of the vans’ doors slid open.

“Contact front,” Radek said.

Out of the blackness of the hold two workers emerged in blue overalls, except that they weren’t workers. Star shaped flashes lit up from the back of the car, illuminating the interior and the faces behind them, accompanied by the staccato sound of automated weapons.

Whoever it was didn’t care about the silence and stealth the Spetsnaz were bringing to the table. They knew they were there. They saw them.

 

 

***FORTY-SEVEN***

“They’re onto us, open fire!”

A Spetsnaz beside him went to the floor, thrown on his back. They were under fire. Antoine threw himself on the ground and rolled over to the car next to him. He saw Radek and three or four others skid on their knees to the cover of parking cars.

“Ugh, I’m hit,” Antoine heard one.

Two of their team were struck down while crossing the street, one of them seeming fatal. The other got up on one arm and moved out of the kill zone with his body tilted like a skier on carvers. He was firing with his other hand to make the ambush barrage stop. Antoine could see from their response that they were pros. They moved with near superhuman speed.

“Get everyone into cover,” Radek said. “Suppressive fire, go.”

Radek got out of cover and opened up on the van. Two of his squad mates followed his example. Their shots were audible only by the click clack of the moving breech lock and the patter of brass cartridge casings. Bullets clanked against the van’s door as they tore holes into its sheet metal.

A single shot echoed and broke through the window glass of a car close to Antoine, causing it to splinter with the sound of cracking ice. The car went down on one side as one of its wheels got hit and lost air. Antoine noticed a red splash on the car’s window, a second before the Spetsnaz standing behind fell over and crashed against it, his limbs going limp.

“Sniper. Unknown position.”

“Frag out,” Boris said.

He lobbed a grenade over the car roof. Andrej and Alex with their backs kept against the vehicle took precision shots against the guards they had left in their back.

“Six o’clock, threats neutralized.”

Both the watchman at the other side of the street in the park and the one in the guardhouse slumped to the ground through head-shots.

Antoine heard shouts out of the back of the van. Its driver hit the pedal and caused the wheels to rotate on the slot, trying to get away. Boris’ grenade exploded in a gust of black smoke and splinters, to the left front of the van and showered its windshield with debris. Several cars got shaken and slumped down through destroyed wheels. Alarm systems went off. The van’s engine revved and squealed to a high pitched noise, setting the small truck in motion.

“Flank them left,” Radek said. “Get that van.”

Two of Radek’s team broke out of the dead lock and redeployed to the left flank, near Ivan the Great’s bell tower. The old bell was positioned on a ledge at the foot of the building, big enough to grant cover for two men.

The two appeared only as blurred shapes on Ivanovskaya square, but the van was chasing them. They sprinted their last steps to the bell and threw themselves on the hips, covering the last meters sliding.

“Goddamn, they are seeing us,” Antoine heard their voices.

Assault rifle fire rained down over their heads, ricocheting off the huge bell with brassy clanks.

Priya saw the fire exchange as a blur of muzzle flashes, every few seconds a RFID marked bullet racing past the square bright as a beacon but too fast to catch the eye and travelling out of Priya’s drone screen.

“Watch your fire, friendlies,” Priya said. “Saw is at this position. Get him out of there.”

She steered the drone around to get a view on the tsar’s bell. The two Spetsnaz stragglers were close behind but too occupied with the fighting. Losing trust into their stealth technology was showing on their nerves. They were caught back footed.

Saw was coming out of the bell’s split, shooting the foremost of the two into the back and lunging with his knife at the second. It got stuck into his neck and Saw pulled the man back into the bell.

A grenade dropped at the entrance of the great tsar’s bell and sprung into the shadows where Saw was hiding.

A second passed in which Priya’s breath stood still, a moment taking so long to think about all the possible solutions what Saw had to do to save himself. Leave the bell and dive into cover. Hurtle himself towards the grenade and throw it away before it could explode. A bright flash and a supernova of dust rang out of the bell. In reality it must have given off a terrible sound but the sight and realization of it gave Priya enough reason to gasp. Saw didn’t come out. There was no way he could have withstood that.

Staring at her cup filled with coffee as black as the feeling in her heart, she had to speak the words she had hoped she would be spared of saying.

“Man down. Saw is down.”

The van zoomed past them towards the red-bricks gatehouse beneath Borovitskaya Tower.

It was not the Spetsnaz’s presence that had caused their retreat. Looking over the field of wrecked and blackened cars, Antoine could see guards running towards them, storming out of the Arsenal.

“Multiple hostiles, twelve o’clock,” he said.

The building opposite of the Senate was home of the Kremlin Guard, the Presidential Guard. Its members wore the traditional full dress uniform in blue.

“Riflemen.”

They opened up with their ceremonial SKS rifles from across the square without even seeing their enemy.

The Spetsnaz advanced into the parking lot, fanning through the field towards them. Antoine rolled under a car and aimed at the heels of the closest Spetsnaz he could see through the gap. It was Andrej. He pushed his finger against the trigger and pulled it through, sending a burst underneath the vehicle onto the other side.

Another sniper shot sounded off from somewhere and sent a Spetsnaz down. Its echo lingered in the air on the wide square and Antoine looked around to locate it.

It had come from the top of Building Fourteen to their east. Radek saw it too.

“Three o’clock, sniper.”

He pressed on to get out of its field of fire. Only a couple meters further into the parking lot, the angle would be blocked.

“Reposition, let’s get them,” Radek said.

Four Spetsnaz would take on the onslaught of the Kremlin Guard, fed by an increasing stream of reinforcements from the Arsenal and already a platoon strong.

They emptied their magazines in controlled bursts into the rows of blue uniforms, standing calm against the storm like towers of strengths. Three shots per target, no more, no less. They brought them down like cutting wheat. The assault faltered.

“Keep up, we’re breaking them,” Radek said.

Stealth-technology and modern weapons beat numbers and relics of the Second World War. Spetsnaz were always outnumbered, never outgunned. It was fear of the invisible what ran ahead of them, reaching the mind of more enemies than their storm of bullets. The guard ran and scattered over the square or took shelter behind the antique cannons in front of the Arsenal.

They left Radek the way open to the Senate.

Antoine formed up on the Spetsnaz, coming around the back of a car. Boris was taking cover, reloading his magazine. He looked up at him.

On the left flank, an explosive detonated, set right under a vehicle and lifting the car up in the air. It got pushed into their direction and somersaulted, blowing the Boris away in one massive shockwave. Antoine aimed his weapon and fired on Alex, before the blast reached him. Windows all around him splintered and he got thrown against a vehicle door. His helmet and back left a huge dent in the metal. When he lifted his head, he could see the Spetsnaz lying in front of him, riddled with bullets. Alex reached for his weapon. Antoine drew his sidearm.

The Spetsnaz raised his gun to shoot. If Antoine pulled the trigger now, it was up to Radek and him. He would know by then that Vasili or whoever was behind his identity, was a traitor. He could kill the last of the Spetsnaz, but not both him and their leader.

Time was running out. He had to pull the trigger. Another shot hit Alex in the face and punched the back of his head against the car wreck. Radek turned in time to see the muzzle flash out of Building Fourteen, second floor one of the windows. They had found the sniper, or the sniper had found them. Radek opened up with his rifle, pinning him down behind the window ledge. The wall was riddled with bullet holes. Brick splinters blew up into the office room. It would need more restorations after that.

“Now is the time to push,” Radek said.

Antoine nodded.

“I’m with you.”

They pushed themselves away from the wrecked cars, their doors broken open and swinging in the stream of all the motion around. Flying bullets, hurtling bodies, the whole air around them was static and in chaos. They chased through the eye of the maelstrom.

Behind him, Antoine could hear window glass splinter and rain down from the heights of Building Fourteen. A figure jumped out of the Presidio’s second floor, crashing into the roof of a vehicle a long second below.

Antoine didn’t have the time to check. Radek was up and running, closing the distance over the Senate. He had to follow him.

He heard the buzzing of a drone somewhere above him, not staying out of reach anymore with the need to staying undetected long gone.

In the back of his mind he thought it might be Priya, watching over him, bringing him through this by coordinating the forces they had encountered out of nothing.

She might be wondering why Antoine didn’t take the shot now. He could stop Radek right now. Antoine lowered his weapon and joined his leader into the fray. He had his own reasons not to kill Radek.

 

 

***FORTY-EIGHT***

Radek stumbled over the square. A stray round hit him in the ankle and brought him down, crashing onto the bomb he was carrying in his backpack. The shots were plinging off the concrete forming showers of sparks. They browsed over his head from the entrance to the Senate. Radek killed the guards that had made him bleed. Antoine was catching up with him. He stretched out his hand and brought him back to his feet. Under the cover of their ghostly appearances, they launched into their last assault. It was when time was of the essence and an enemy needed to be shifted from his position no matter the cost. A rush headlong into enemy lines to overwhelm the defenders’ reaction and make their positions useless. The only reason why it overwhelmed a defender was that it was madness. A man would need to give up his fear of death to do this. In every military basic camp, soldiers learned to accompany the last meters of the charge with a shout, a war cry from the top of his lungs. It was meant to inspire fear in the enemy together with the sudden approach of an enemy, too close to take it in its sights.

Radek and Antoine both started to scream. It defied their whole purpose of stealth technology, but together with it, it did one thing above all: inspire fear.

They were like ghosts submerging out of an ethereal realm, half material, half visible, with their voices echoing and booming into the hall of the Senate. It was like the howling voices out of graves and the barking of wolves. And Antoine realized it wasn’t even his own anymore.

They crashed into the guards at the steps to the building. The wooden door wings swung open and spit out manpower to stop them. A hail of bullets preceded them, meeting flesh, bones and gunmetal. The defenders tumbled back, the door wings blown back into the building and shredded with bites of a shark, each tooth a bullet and a mist of blood stinging its thirst.

Antoine threw himself against it, pushing it open with his shoulder, splintering it as it was cardboard.

He shook himself as he entered the lobby. Chipped wood and dust ran from his silhouette. He was a bull broken through the barriers of an arena-fight, defying all odds and still coming back to get the red flag before him. He panted hard. He was one of the few who still drew breath around him.

The air was filled with black powder stench, smoke clouds sinking over the bodies at his feet like a shroud. Brass rolled over the marble floor. He crunched them under his boots as he entered deeper into the building. He walked beneath the pillars of polished stone that no one before him had marred, now lying broken open. A march through the skeleton structure of a tsar’s hall who they were coming to dethrone.

He went on, opening hell around him as they plunged forward straight into the heart of Russia. Portraits and statues of tsars and rulers were their only witnesses. They were taking over now.

“When you are at home, even the walls help you,” Radek said. “You know what the man said who restored this place? Crushed walls, ripped air ducts and piles of two-hundred year old bricks remind me of wandering around ruins of Berlin’s Reich Chancellery in 1946.”

Radek spat on the ground as they ascended the stairs.

“The people sitting inside here also remind me on someone,” he said. “On 9th May, Hitler’s Germany fell. On 9th May, the modern Russia shall fall.”

A deep clunk let Antoine turn around, heavy metal crashing on marble. Radek had let his backpack down. He was looking up to him, the detonator in his hand.

“Tomorrow it will all be over. Moscow wasn’t built at once. But it will go down at once. And then rise from the ashes. It’s time. Like that time in Georgia, Vasili. Remember what we said. The church is near, but the road is icy; the bar is far, but we will walk carefully.”

“I remember,” Antoine said.

“And you know the saying: What is wholesome to a Russian…,” Radek nodded, “…is death to a German.”

He drew his weapon, lightning-fast.

“The scythe has hit a stone. You have never been to Georgia, Vasili.”

Antoine leashed out, both his feet hitting Radek in the chest. They parted like two pins in a bowling lane hit by a wrecking ball. Radek raked the air with shots, ripping out chips from the ceiling as he lost the detonator. Rage was pulling the grip around the trigger tight. Antoine landed on his back, seeing the device tumble down the stairway. He rolled back into the adjoining room, scrambling over the carpet to find cover behind the door frame.

Antoine risked a glance back into the hall but Radek was gone, even his squad readings had vanished. Antoine pulled out the cables of his own suit to go blank just the same. He switched the feed in his goggles to RFID signal and soaked in the readout of the marked ammunition. Two signals, one on the floor from a spent cartridge case, one behind the opposite doorframe. Antoine jumped as he turned around. A third behind the wall right next to his back, only a hand’s breadth separating him from it.

Radek must have wondered how the ambushers had been able to spot them from the get go. There would only be two conclusions who sold them out. Either the Chinese with the stealth suits – unlikely – they wanted the mission to succeed and praise their product. Or the weapon traders that sold them the guns.

Antoine could hear Radek’s gun falling down the storey into the lobby, with it the signal gone. Now Antoine had no idea where Radek would be moving. All there was, was a white wall, a blank page on which future would be written in blood.

Radek laughed out loud.

“Ran from the wolf but ran into a bear.”

Antoine tried to translate it in his mind. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“Two bears don’t live in one lair,” Antoine replied.

“True,” Radek said.

“One of us has to die and it isn’t me,” Antoine said.

“Maybe both. If planning for revenge, dig two graves. And a thousand more.”

Antoine considered his options and ammunition count and cursed. His enemy’s advantage forced Antoine’s hand. The detonator was on Radek’s side. He had to move.

Antoine pulled his gun and swung around the door frame. It would be a gunfight, a standoff.

He shot the fire sprinkler, breaking the head of the sensor to set off the alarm. Water showered down from the ceiling into the hallway. Through the rain, he emerged out of the room.

Antoine took a breath and swung through the door. He dived headlong into the room, immersing into the mist and turned sideways. He saw something, a man sized shape, where the rain was swallowed like a black hole. It was invisible but defined by its absence. It lit up with a flash, firing at him. Antoine managed to plink off two shots, pulling the trigger as fast as he could. Then the ground welcomed him, slick, marble and littered with brass. He brought his arms forward and absorbed the fall in a roll over his shoulder.

He got up, dazed and taking a split second to orientate. Bright flashes lit up riddling the air with silent shots that trailed him along the wall since he entered the room. He gave off another two, then dived into cover, behind the backpack bomb, shooting out two from the right and one from the left, before jumping forward to the stair’s handrail. He hit something. The blurred thing before him tumbled, it spat out blood, out of nowhere dripping into reality. It crashed down the stairs, slithering on its back, right to the detonator.

Antoine chased it with gunfire, his legs carrying him faster than they allowed. The ghost stopped. It spat out flashes of lightning that took Antoine’s strength away. He stumbled, crashing down the stairs. The lightning seized. Both sides were drained of it, no bullets left to come out of nowhere, only a hollow clack of a dry fire mechanism. There were some in their magazines. No time to reload. Antoine let the pistol go, a soldier’s greatest sin, he conceded with a crooked smile. His knife slid out, its blade dull and blackened, wetting with water like drops of dew. They would turn to blood. As it drew a circle bearing down on Radek, the blade had moistened its thin lips waiting to bite. It met cold steel, twins clashing on another from the same origin, as it grinded against the Spetsnaz’s own blade. Never before had two things so cold born a spark so bright.

Unstoppable force met immovable object.

The knife recoiled in Antoine’s hand, he leant his body into the next stab, pushing into the ghost. With each thrust its tip hit plates, steel and armor as it was trying to find an entrance.

Antoine felt the impact tingle up his arm, a jet of warmth. He broke the symbolic needle on Koschei’s head. Radek stumbled forward, reaching for the detonator.

Radek was looming over him. He saw the betrayal with his own eyes. The hate it must have ignited burned underneath the cloaked suit. He couldn’t see Antoine’s face, or Vasili’s, which made him still believe Vasili his friend had turned. It was the only thing that made him hesitate to push the button.

Antoine picked up a guard’s pistol from the ground.

“Die, Koschei,” Antoine said.

He fired. The weapon jammed.

Radek was standing before him, deathless as the monster on his body.

“There is no way for two deaths to come for you, but from one you will never run away.”

Radek lunged with his weapon and rammed the stock of his rifle into Antoine’s face. His goggles and nose broke. The glass cracked and shards cut into his face.

He was exposed.

“Whoever you are, when death comes, no tricks can help you,” Radek said.

A sniper rifle fired from point-blank blew out Radek’s gun of his hand, then a second shot appeared from out of nowhere, yanking his body around, a third, throwing him against the wall and a fourth piercing a hole in his torso. He fell down, his gun and detonator clattering to the ground. A whisper escaped his lips. He reached for the detonator a second time.

“Grasp all…”

A boot stepped onto his hand. Cloaked in a restoration worker-suit in front of Radek and Antoine, stood Antoine’s old comrade, Gabriel Hunter.

“…lose all.” Hunter ended the sentence for him.

 

 

***FORTY-NINE***

 

 

He held his sniper rifle aimed at Radek’s head. Radek’s fingers went slack, the bomb detonator falling out of his hand. Hunter kicked it out of reach and it slithered out into the hallway.

Hunter held out his hand to Antoine.

“Good to see you Hunter,” Antoine said.

“I have you stuck differently in my memory,” Hunter said.”Just so you know. I just saved your life… again.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Antoine said. “We never met.”

“Oh yeah? Then how come you know my name? Came here to help an old friend and all I got was this cheeky monkey.”

He failed to hold back a smile as he helped him up.

“I have seen your face in Paris,” Hunter said. “And although I liked your old one better, it’s good to see you again.”

“Can you do me a favor?” Antoine said. “Just don’t tell anyone… yet. Especially Destinee and A.J.”

Through the windows they could see Kremlin guardsmen regrouping for another attack. Some were trying to flank them. They were aiming at their position.

“Well… Antoine, if that is your name now,” Hunter said. “We should get going.”

The stealth-suits were still working. Hunter put on Radek’s. Antoine followed Hunter. They were finding a way out of the building and headed eastwards. It was the same way Radek had taken to reach the Senate.

Kovacs was hitting the pedal hard as he kept the van speeding towards the west exit gate. He would need all the speed he could muster up. He demanded everything from the engine, there was simply no other alternative. They were closing Borovitskaya gate in front of them and he could see his passengers cringe in the back mirror. They were staring past him out of the windshield onto the scene unfolding before them, clinging to the safety handles. The doors were still open on both sides and the concrete below racing past them. No time for seatbelts.

The guards shut down the gate without any chance of getting through. It was a massive door that would stop a car or even truck dead in its tracks.

Kovacs noticed Cage spreading his arms in the co-driver seat and bracing for an emergency stop and worse, an inevitable impact. He could only imagine what would happen to the passengers in the back, with all their gear on the loose. Kovacs shook his head.

“Not this time Cage,” he said.

Kovacs hit the accelerator instead.

“Cage, hit that door,” he said.

Cage leant out of the passenger cabin, holding on with one hand and reaching out with his second. He aimed the grenade launcher of his assault rifle out of the van.

“A little more left Kovacs,” he said.

He jerked the wheel violently, not much time left before the impact and had to try hard to not lose control over the vehicle.

Cage fired. The loud hollow thunk sounded not a moment too soon. Kovacs could see the grenade launched hitting the gate, trailing a tail of air behind it. It got stuck in the middle of the door. Nothing happened. Cage was using incendiary ammunition, which meant the grenade didn’t explode upon impact, but with a delay. Cage fired the manual detonator and the gate ignited in a fireball. The forces were so violent it got ripped out of its hinges and exploded out through the gatehouse onto the other side of the wall.

Kovacs wouldn’t have time to brake anyway. He steered clear of the bigger obstacles and tried hard to fit the car through the gate at neck-breaking speed. Cage could save himself back into the van before the gatehouse would have decapacitated him. Side mirrors broke on both sides and shattered on the wall. The back of the van collided with the exit wall and banked out. Kovacs yanked the wheel against to steer in the opposite direction. The van slid into a drift, going over a patch of grass. It was only seconds away from overturning. Kovacs brought it back on the road where its wheels squealed as he hit the brake. They were entering full traffic on a principal road. Cars rushed past them honking horns and evading the intruding van.

But it was also their chance to submerge among the crowd. Kovacs changed some lanes to get away from their initial entry point. Behind him, Cage and Kovacs shut the stowage doors close, taking a last look at the red walls of the Kremlin. They had made it out of that fortress, at least for now. But the same red they saw filling out the walls, had crept inside their car now. Blood was sprayed over the ground, walls and ceiling. Saw was down.

With imminent medical care there would still be a chance, but it was something they couldn’t afford. If they left him here, Saw and they together awaited a worse fate than that. Kovacs didn’t take the decision easily, but it was what all had agreed to before going on this mission. This was not an officially sanctioned operation by a branch of the military, but a private crusade to save the world. As long as no one saw the evidence, they were simply criminals at best, terrorists at worst. They couldn’t bring Saw or any other casualty into a hospital before their flight was behind them. Kovacs realized in that moment more than ever, they truly were alone.

Hunter and Antoine approached the east gate. The raising of the alarm had led to a shutdown of all exit ways. No one was let in or out. They were trapped with the energy reserves of their stealth suits running low. Antoine closed in on the guard watching over the gate house. A second one stood at the opposite side of the walkway. Hunter was going to take care of him. Antoine nodded to his friend, then proceeded to close in on the guard. He was coming full frontal. The watchman couldn’t see him. His stealth-suit started to flicker, its energy low. The guard darted back and brought his weapon up. Antoine knocked him out with the stock of his rifle. Hunter let his crack against the second guardsman’s neck. The two slumped down at the gate, but it didn’t go by unnoticed. Antoine broke into the guardhouse. A third soldier stormed outside and crashed right into him. They entangled with their hands and weapons into a deadlock. Antoine pushed him behind the door. He didn’t want to use lethal force, but his hands were bound. Time was running out. He had to do it. He reached for his sidearm and shot the guard. He tried to aim for the shoulder but the weapon slipped in the melee and the bullet hit his opponent through the jaw. He tumbled back, his life leaving him.

Antoine cursed. He hit the button for the gate. The door swung open. Hunter was waiting for him outside, covering their backs. There were shots hitting the wall all around them.

“Let’s go,” Hunter said. He was waving.

Together they ran through the exit, a bright field opening in the gap and expanding in front of them. Antoine could smell freedom but they would have to make it past that. Beyond that gate lay Red Square.

The gate spat them out onto Red Square, out into the open. They passed the memorial of the nameless soldier. The statue watched over them. They too were nameless. No IDs and no one to take responsibility for their actions. Police sirens were wailing everywhere. They had just been waiting to come out of their holes. Antoine turned right to reach the south end. There was no cover. Everything that could save them was stealth technology and their speed. Hunter had only the latter. He outpaced Antoine but he wore no stealth suit, making him the only visible target. From opposite the plaza, Antoine spotted Priya leaving the building. She was running towards them, but headed southwards as soon as she realized it was safer to stay separated. A racing vehicle that crushed through the barricades from the left got Antoine’s attention. It trailed a trace of white smoke behind it as it fishtailed over Red Square. There were still civilians on the square. They scattered and fled in all directions, as if a bomb had detonated in the middle of the plaza. No one knew how close they had come to this and who had saved them. Right now they paid Antoine back unknowingly, by simply being there and getting into the line of fire between him and his chasers. The van drove past them, braking to a slithering halt. The door opened. Police vehicles entered Red Square from the north, but his friends were waiting. They would get him, Priya and Hunter out.

Antoine stopped to breathe. A feeling hit him like he had seen this before, a déjà vu. He forced his memory to find it and dig it out of that hidden place from his past.

Messiah. It was David Messiah. He was waiting for him, waiting to get to the extraction point. The chopping sound of rotor blades intruded his ears. The helicopter was coming. It was seven years ago.

Nigeria. The grass was high on the field below him, reaching up to a man’s waist and floating in the wind like calm waves at a shore. The US Army helicopter set down on the clearing, stirring up the blades of grass with the downwash of his rotor blades.

They spread in all directions, like… like the refugees on Red Square.

Antoine’s body was burdened by the weight of metal plates from his heavy armor, made to resist direct fire. And direct fire they encountered. Even now after accomplishing their mission. Overburdened and slowed down, there was no way to outpace the enemy. Antoine got hit in the back and stumbled. He fell and got back up on his knee, like so many times before. It didn’t even leave a scratch under his armor. Plates covered his back, shoulders, neck and thighs. They were walking tanks and felt invincible, like demigods. Bullets plinked away from them and left dents and scratches in their scorched armor. All they had to do was make it back to the chopper. Churchill once said no feeling was more exhilarating than being shot at with no effect.

Messiah stopped and turned. He was their leader. He was the first with his boots on the ground and the last to leave and he left no man behind. Antoine was angry at him for this, in this situation. He wasn’t in trouble. He knew he could make it out alone. Messiah lifted his hand and waved Antoine to him and spurned him on with inspiring shouts. A projectile hit him, but he didn’t even fall. He just straightened himself up again and went on. Messiah grabbed Antoine’s shoulder and helped him up into the chopper. He followed and laid himself on the floor. Exhaustion had cost him all his strength. The helicopter lifted off from the grass and got airborne. When Antoine turned to his commander, he saw the blood running out over the passengers’ cabin floor. It gathered in the rills resembling creeks of crimson melt water running from a mountain. Antoine looked at Messiah. His face was pale underneath his visor. The mountain was shaken.

“Everything is alright,” Antoine said. “You will make it.”

Messiah shook his head. “Not this time.”

He took his hand out from under his armpit and a gush of dark blood ran out soaking his clothes and dripping to the floor. Antoine remembered he had been hit when he waved his hand at him. The bullet had entered the only gap in their armor, beneath the armpit.

Messiah died on the flight back. Soon later Antoine learned the projectile that caused his death had entered his chest, exploded one of his lung and was caught inside through the plating of his heavy armor.

The joy resulting from being shot at with no effect only came from defying the universe. It was when you were meant to die and you somehow cheated death. But most of the time you just lost the game and you realized all-in had turned to all-gone.

He didn’t want the same thing happening to Hunter.

“Get into the car, Hunter,” he said. “Don’t wait for me.”

He could make it out unseen. Priya was still off their radar but Hunter stood out. He wore the blue workers’ uniform that did the rounds on the police radio and they had seen him coming out of the Kremlin. Policemen appearing in front of St. Basil’s cathedral aimed their guns at him. They shouted and opened fire.

Hunter threw himself flat on the ground and rolled over. The van hit the brakes and drifted between him and the police officers. Antoine saw how his friends pulled Hunter in.

“Get the hell out of here,” Antoine shouted.

The policemen stared at him like they had seen a ghost. He gave away his position to tell his friends what to do. It was enough prove to let them heed his words.

The van rotated its wheels on the spot and accelerated once they took grip on the road. One of the policemen took a shot at the car. The other turned on Antoine. He couldn’t see him but he shot nonetheless. It hit Antoine square into the shoulder, causing him to tumble. He fell and stretched out his leg to reach the policeman. His leg wrapped around the officer’s arm and brought him down with a shattering fall, winding the gun out of his hand. He got the other ones attention. He came to help his comrade but Antoine got up and fled. The van was out of reach now. It roared down the square and joined the road. There were more barricades it had to crash through first.

Even if he wasn’t meant to get on board, he needed to catch up. He knew the escape plan.

Priya knew it too. He caught a glimpse of Priya running on the other side of the street. He tried to get to her, to protect her, cling on her heels like her invisible shadow and watch over her like a guardian angel. He would catch bullets if they would be drawn to her.

The van broke through a roadblock, overcoming the last thing that would have stopped it before the bridge. Policemen brought themselves out of harm’s way.

They knew something was wrong, when Priya tried to follow the car. Once they picked themselves together, they stretched out their hands and demanded from her to stop.

Priya was running in front of Antoine in full speed. While she was lighter and faster, she also had to find a way through the snack and souvenir stands that occupied the street. Antoine just followed her at every turn. They saw the bridge looming ahead, only a hundred meters before them. Antoine mobilized his last reserves. This day was stretching him to his limits. His injuries made his body protest. It didn’t matter. He had to ignore the pain and move on. This was the last run. Priya went over into a sprint and he kept up with her, hearing his heart drumming and his breath echoing in the confined spaces of his helmet. His transpiration fogged the inside of his goggles. Dirt and sweat was everywhere chafing between his clothes and skin.

Antoine looked up to the car. The van had made it up the bridge, still outpacing other traffic participants. It banked right hard, from the outmost fast lane and pulled over to the first one, before touching the sidewalk. It didn’t brake. Antoine watched how the car broke through the barrier and got hauled over the bridge so fast he didn’t even have time to cringe before it happened.

The van tumbled down and collided with the water surface, impacting with a loud splash. It was too heavy to float, its momentum driving it deeper. Moscow river swallowed the whole vehicle in one go.

Priya didn’t halt. She seemed to use up her last reserves when she was up on the bridge’s sidewalk. It wasn’t her first time on a bridge. Antoine knew every time she was on one, she got transferred into a state of anxiety. Some miracle had prevented her from jumping the first time and saved a life that she had wanted to end. Now she had to take the jump. She took a leap onto the handrail and stopped. The sudden halt nearly threw her over, but she balanced it out. She took a look down and Antoine knew she couldn’t do it.

 

 

***FIFTY ***

Antoine sprang forward. He landed on the handrail next to her and tried to grab her hand. Her arms were slick from sweat and her skin soft. He couldn’t halt from his speed but realized in the same moment he was losing his grip. It became clear to him that if he let go he would lose her. Their fingers parted and Antoine was grabbing air. He turned around and shot his other hand forward, while tumbling backwards. He got hold of her wrist. Antoine’s weight yanked her forward violently, nearly dislocating her shoulder. She lost her footing and fell over, getting torn with him down into the deep. It was a long fall, especially when you couldn’t see when the end was coming. Antoine fell into nothingness, his eyes locked onto Priya’s.

The impact came sudden, with the only warning of Priya closing her eyes before the impact. It took Antoine by surprise and let him nearly black out. The loud splash and sudden coldness overloaded his nerves. His heart and lungs cramped, tightening his whole body from the cold. He wore a cold resistant suit but it was of little solace against the intruding water. His clothes soaked within milliseconds. The coldness sucked the air out of his lungs. He wished nothing more than return to the surface to breathe air and leave the water. Yet he knew he had to do the opposite. The path he had to choose lay down.

He would have to force Priya to do the same while hoping she was still conscious. He looked around to find her drifting beside him, still holding his hand. She was awake and surprisingly calm. Under water had always been her refuge.

Out of the corner of his eye Antoine could see the van with his old friends drifting into the deep. His comrades climbed out of the open slide door, one after another. Shades appeared on the water surface of people gathering on the bridge. They lit up with bright flashes and gunfire sound. The police was on them and was getting desperate. The hail of bullets that entered the river let him know that. They rained down like a shower of arrows, trailing down fingers of compression waves coming down like the light coronas of fireworks.

Priya turned from him and dived to the bridge, getting deeper to evade the projectiles. Antoine followed her, seeing as the bullets drove to her and stopped only a couple hand’s breadths above her. Antoine pulled himself forward through the water with wide arm strokes and pushed himself away with kicking his legs. The four figures of the car had made it out into the water too and were heading towards the foundation of the bridge. All the equipment for their flight was stored there. They pulled back the tarpaulin everything was hidden beneath. Scuba tanks and underwater scooters for every one of them. Antoine was out of air when he reached them. It was a pressing feeling, the hunger for air to breathe, like an empty stomach. He had to stay calm. He reached for the tank and opened the valve, letting compressed air in and out of the diving regulator before clenching the mouthpiece between his teeth. He sucked in the cold air, a second time on that day, now thirty-five thousand feet below, from the sky to the ground to underwater. A deep breath gave him enough air to put on the scuba tank on his back. He got behind the control of his scooter, holding on to both sides and pressed the accelerator button. Around him, the other propellers set in motion and swirled the water with air bubbles.

Hunter was there and Atlas with Cage and Kovacs. Despite the immeasurable odds, they had all made it except one. One scooter stayed behind, reserved for Saw. Antoine looked at it and gave a salute in mind as he passed by his comrade’s gear. He hoped he would make it somehow but knew that this hope was futile. He had to move on and couldn’t linger in thoughts at his friend. They still weren’t safe.

Antoine shifted his view. The water was dark. It was full with blood, leaking out of one of his comrades in front of him. Hunter drifted deeper, colliding with his scooter into the ground. He didn’t react and just kept driving. The accelerator button was in a fixed position and even though his limbs went slack, the scooter kept pulling him forward.

Antoine snorted out air bubbles in a desperate sigh. He screamed into his regulator, but no one could hear him under water. He couldn’t believe the same thing happening to Messiah repeated itself. It was like a bad dream, one of his worst nightmares now covered into a blanket of cold dark water.

Antoine steered over to Hunter. He had lost his regulator and it was trailing behind, releasing air into the water. On top of his bullet wound, his lungs would fill with water. Antoine got hold of Hunter’s scooter and grabbed his arm in place to not lose him. It became harder to maneuver with the second scooter, when Antoine closed up to his group. He was already lagging behind. They had several hundred meters to travel underwater to get far enough away from the crash site. But they had to do it in due time. Police would get suspicious if none of them returned to the surface and would widen their search parameter. By the time they would send in divers to find that the van was abandoned and no bodies were to be found, they should have been in safe distance.

Safe distance was where their escape boat lay, but it couldn’t be considered safe distance for Hunter. The further they had the more his condition would become worse. Antoine looked over to him to make sure he was breathing from his regulator. His friend beside him was pale and lying in the water resembling a mannequin. The shape of the boat appeared dark like a shadow on the river surface.

Antoine emerged at the stern of it. His group was already mounting the boat and helping each other on deck.

Antoine spat out his regulator.

The sight made him speechless. His old Delta Force squad was united together before him, standing above him as he thought they would have reassembled at his grave. No one of his brothers recognized him. Saw he would never see again. He had died for his cause before he had the chance to meet him.

“Hunter is wounded,” he said. “Help him.”

He swam to the entry deck of the boat. Cage and Kovacs pulled Hunter’s body up over Antoine’s back.

Antoine hauled himself out of the water. The deck was slick with Hunter’s blood. At least he hoped it was only his.

“Oh my god,” Priya said. She looked after Hunter but she was no field medic. No one was. Kovacs was assisting her, pressing his hands against the wound while Cage had moved to the captain’s cabin.

Hunter clutched a picture in his fingers. He handed it to Antoine and let go of it, his fingers too weak, before Antoine could reach it. Antoine hunched down and picked it up from the deck, where it had fallen into a puddle of blood thinned with rain. The photo was framed in red as he held it in his hands.

The boat was already starting, which was important. The bridge was still in visual range. They were anything but safe here. A helicopter was making its rounds over Red Square and the Moscow river bridge. If he spotted them there was nowhere left to go.

Antoine looked at the picture. It was one of Destinee and A.J.

Hunter had been Antoine’s last link to his family. The chain would be cut loose. Only Rose was left who knew about it. If only there would be a possibility to see them, break through the barrier that was there. He always thought of it as something that couldn’t be overcome, that was terminal, but what if he could fight against this limiting belief. What if he could see them again one day? Was it even thinkable? Hunter certainly thought so. He had known they were waiting for him.

The boat they were on was a small ship made for one day trips through Moscow and it wasn’t more than they needed. Antoine stood at the prow with his hands on the railing and looked on the way ahead. Tourist ships passed them with buffet and musicians on board. The police seemed to begin blocking the passage around Kremlin. Radio transmissions told the captains that there was a situation and they needed to stand by as soon as everything was cleared. It harvested some protests among the passengers. Antoine could notice everything going on even from the passing faces. They didn’t know he had saved them from a lot more trouble than they were going through right now.

An oil tanker passed in between the boats and disrupted the view on the sightseeing ship. Antoine turned away as Priya was coming to him. The palms of her hands were bloody and she tried not to touch anything.

“Hunter?” Antoine said.

She shook her head so that long flicks of her hair fell into her face. She brushed it aside with the back of her hand, still smearing some droplets of blood across her brow. For all Antoine knew it didn’t belong to her.

“Gone,” she said.

Antoine looked past her to the end of the deck. Kovacs put a blanket over the dead body of his friend.

“All the time, the same things happen around me,” Antoine said. “It’s a repeating circle. Back in Nigeria I lost a friend the same way, while extracting out of the combat zone. I think I have them and then I can feel them slipping out of my grasp. Like with you on the bridge.”

“But you got me after all,” Priya said. “And we secured the bomb. You saved a whole city.”

Priya grabbed Antoine and pulled him down under the railing.

“A city that is now trying to kill us in return,” Antoine said.

“It will be different one day,” Priya said.

He lifted his head to cast a glance over it out on the water. Cops were combing the waters. A police patrol boat drove by in direction to the bridge. Kovacs and Cage drew in their heads. A blanket was covered over Hunter’s body but his feet were standing out. Kovacs hid them fast. The whole deck of the boat was splashed with water and their clothes were wet. Antoine hoped the cops wouldn’t see the blood. They received a radio call, loud enough for him to hear it. The commander of the ship put in the throttle and the ship moved on, faster than before. Cage remained steady not to warrant any attention. He steered them through Moscow to the outskirts of the city.

Rose and Jacque waited for them with two black old model diplomat cars. They were draped in long trench coats and wore hats against the cold that crept in with the evening. Antoine didn’t know how long they had waited but it must have been some time.

“Welcome back,” Rose said, as they left the boat at the shore and came up the slope. “Well done. You saved Moscow. And a whole lot more I guess.”

She gave each of them a pat on the back. Still she wasn’t smiling. The euphoria was missing. They transported Hunter past her and she laid her hand on his head. Antoine could see she fought with tears. This was only one half of their casualties. Saw couldn’t even have been brought back with them.

“Antoine,” Rose said. “It’s good to see you again. Been a long time.”

“Who are you telling that,” he said. “Tell me one thing. Did you think I would make it?”

“I had full trust in your abilities,” Rose said.

“That’s not what I asked,” Antoine said. “It was more than close. The odds seemed unbeatable at times. So what if I wouldn’t have made it all through the Spetsnaz’s lines and beaten Radek. What then?”

“Then we would have lost,” Rose said.

They were transporting Hunter into the trunk, like a mortuary car. Jacque pulled his black driving gloves over his fingers. It was their ride home, for all of them.

“Then why don’t I feel like winning now,” Antoine said.

He definitely wasn’t winning.

“Because Tanya is still out there,” Rose said. “You always learn a lot more when you lose, than when you win.”

They were sitting in the car, for the first time comfortable with still five people squeezed into a vehicle and the fear of pursuing police cars in the back of their minds. The others were in the second car with Jacque, split up in case something unexpected happened.

Only on the plane back did they find the strength to retrospect.

“Peace is costly,” Rose said. “But it is worth the expense. Tanya’s plan was to detonate a dirty bomb inside Kremlin,” Rose said. “It would have been Russia’s Nine Eleven, decimating big parts of the Senate and with it the President and the upper tier of the Russian government. With the help of the stealth suits, there would have been no trace of the attackers and with Tanya’s connections, it would be easy to facilitate a story that another party was behind it, with the al-Nusra link to the dirty bomb probably the Chechens, who are fighting alongside them in Syria. With Chechen terrorists behind it, it would force Russia to undertake operations in Syria with a big part of Chechen fighters operating on the side of the rebels. Russia was always afraid of these fighters coming back to its border, now the more. Now they would have a reason to prevent them from coming back at all with a new political lead, a hardliner. And if the Chechen fighters came back, he would make sure it would be in coffins. Saudi Arabia is trying to build their pipeline to the Atlantic Sea through Syria, which both Assad and Moscow are against. Russia and the Oligarchs would lose all their influence in supporting Europe and the United States with oil, however the US would gain leverage by independence from Russia’s oil fields by getting it from the Saudis. That is why the US wanted participation rights in the Syrian war and they got it with the bombing in Turkey, now trying to topple Assad. If the bombing in Moscow today would have succeeded, it would have pitted the two superpowers against each other. The US and Russia would have been directly involved in an armed conflict on two different sides, something that hasn’t taken place since the Cold War. A New Cold War was prevented today and many lives saved. We give thanks to the brave men and women who worked tirelessly to bring these terrorists to justice. The world will never know their work. Their names will be lost to history. But their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

 

 

***FIFTY-ONE***

The muezzin woke him. Antoine awakened in a bed for the first time in days. He had to look around to remember he was in a hotel not far from Sultanahmet Square. Beside him lay the woman he had met in Reina club Istanbul, before this nightmare had started. Her name was Deniz. For a second he thought it all had felt like a dream. But the scars on his body were real when he sat up.

Deniz awoke and pulled on the blanket, trying to get him back. He could hear her soft voice.

“Broken rib, broken nose, black eye, cuts and bruises….”

He turned around from the edge of the bed. Deniz looked at him, a smile stealing over her lips. She reminded him so much on Destinee when she did that.

Antoine smiled back though his face hurt.

“I can’t believe that I went home with you,” Deniz said.

“The first thing you told me when I met you was, that you wouldn’t,” he replied.

“That was before I saw you were in dire need of a massage,” Deniz said.

“You nearly made me forget the bright side of getting hit by a bus,” Antoine answered.

He reached for the remote control to turn on the screen in front of their bed. Maybe he had made it into the news. He was curious how the media would turn this story, just one glimpse at their fake reality and then he swore to himself he would continue his vacation.

The breaking news were on national television.

“Regarding the prevented terror attack in Moscow, right now we have a line to the one standing behind the revealing of this conspiracy, who as well might be considered the savior of the Russian President’s life, yes even the savior of the Russian Federation. One should know, that among the terrorist attackers, were also found traces of another unit, which allegedly helped in preventing the attack. A unit apparently so secret not even the national security at the Kremlin did know about its participation. Standing here at this press conference at the side of the Russian President, live from Moscow on Russia’s Victory Day, is the person behind this counter-terrorism unit, a hero in the eyes of the Muscovite population.”

The view zoomed from the news reporter back over her shoulder, showing a woman standing on the podium beside the President. Antoine stared, his heart stopping in his chest. He recognized her voice. He recognized her eyes, lips and face. It was Olga.

“Hero is a strong word for what I did and there are many things for which I’m not proud of, but my duty for this country deserved it,” Olga said. “To save Moscow from a Russian nine eleven, the strength of one woman is not enough. I had a whole team of specialists operating under me and although their identities shall remain a secret, I know very well who they are.” Her eyes locked with the camera. “And I can assure you that they will get their fair share of recognition.”

Interesting how that turned around, Antoine thought.

Applause rang out, before everyone focused on the President, standing on Red Square, with the might of an army parade beneath him.

“The iron will of the Soviet people had saved Europe from slavery,” he said. “9th May, was a day of grief and eternal memory. But it is a holiday when an overwhelming force of patriotism triumphs, when all of us feel particularly acutely what it means to be loyal to the motherland and how important it is to defend its interests.”

The echo of his words was swallowed by the cheers of the crowd.

There couldn’t have been more fitting words, Antoine thought to himself, given the irony.

He switched the channel and turned to Deniz. “Can we have breakfast in bed… I have a feeling it was a long night.”

Deniz nodded and got onto the phone. She was lying there wearing almost nothing as she ordered in her mother tongue. It sounded sweet like the white nougat, honey and hazelnut of Turkish delight.

“It’s funny, I leave you one moment out of my sight and all of a sudden a terror attack in Russia gets stopped at the last second,” she said tongue-in-cheek. “Are you sure you didn’t have anything to do with it?”

“I have to confess,” Antoine said.

“That you are the super spy of my dreams?” she asked, rolling over the bed towards him.

Antoine laughed.

“No. You remind me of someone. Someone I know… or used to know. Someone very close.”

It hurt Antoine that he was still too injured to enjoy her beautiful body to the fullest. Injured on the outside and injured on the inside. He would never do it.

“You can’t run away from destiny”, he said as an afterthought.

“You love another woman,” Deniz said.

Antoine shook his head.

“Until the world changes, there’s no chance I can. This love has to wait.”

Deniz took his face into her hands.

“This love is for tomorrow.”


Love Is For Tomorrow Redux

The free Director’s Cut version of Love Is For Tomorrow - extra-length and a completely different storyline makes this a novel on its own and a free entry into the spy-series. On his way back from his last mission, Antoine Springer stops in his favourite city Istanbul to do what he loves best - chasing women. His personal mission is interrupted by a dubious bombing and he is thrown right back into the field. Antoine moonlights his services for the UNIT - an independent spy agency in the capital of spies, Vienna, Austria. He is one of the undisclosed numbers of assets from over 30 nationalites covering missions on 6 continents that the UNIT's mastermind has at her disposal. This current mission is special: the plans of two female spies could bring the world to the brink of world war three. Antoine has been warned that his life style would lead to his fall. Ironically when the enemy’s plan becomes clear, he is already in too deep. The lesser of two evils would have him venture right into the lions den. Only white-knuckle car chases, a standoff with veteran special forces and the most daring airborne insertion the world has ever seen could stop the spies and their resourceful allies. Outnumbered, outgunned and outmatched, Antoine is ultimately confronted with something even more bone chilling to him than an enemy bound to make a superpower fall - his past. Karner raises the bar for the start of an edge-of-your-seat suspense series, combining european hot spots, suave humor and the glamour and decadency of the top 1% with modern warfare in this lavishly entertaining thriller.

  • ISBN: 9781311267306
  • Author: Michael Karner
  • Published: 2016-03-19 18:35:20
  • Words: 98144
Love Is For Tomorrow Redux Love Is For Tomorrow Redux