/ Language: English / Genre:sf_action / Series: Paladin of Shadows

Choosers of the Slain

John Ringo

Former SEAL Michael Harmon (Ghost, Kildar) has a pretty good life. He’s settled down in the country of Georgia and built a solid commando-quality militia out of his local retainers. The Keldara have an ancient history of being first-class mountain warriors and all they needed was a few million in modern weapons and training to bring them up to speed. Now, with the Keldara keeping the area safe from Chechen raiders, and the various other terrorists that want Ghost’s head on their wall, he can settle back, relax in his harem and drink a few beers. However, a US senator has a problem. A “major financial contributor’s” daughter has been kidnapped into the labyrinthian depths of the Balkans sex-slave trade. The US government has been unable to find her and the Senator is “very” interested in changing that condition. Five million dollars interested. As Ghost and his Keldara warriors blast a gaping hole through the middle of the trade, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to the mission than a “poor missing waif.” There's a rot underneath, and the stench is coming from the very floor of the Capitol. Being at war with Albanian gangs is one thing. Taking on Washington is a different ball game. But Ghost never believed in fighting fair.

Choosers of the Slain

by John Ringo

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book and series has no connection to reality. Any attempt by the reader to replicate any scene in this series it to be taken at the reader’s own risk. For that matter, most of the actions of the main character are illegal under US and international law as well as most of the stricter religions in the world. There is no Valley of the Keldara. Heck, there is no Kildar. And the idea of some Scotts and Vikings getting together to raid the Byzantine Empire is beyond ludicrous. The islands described in a previous book do not exist. Entire regions described in these books do not exist. Any attempt to learn anything from these books is disrecommended by the author, the publisher and the author’s mother who wishes to state that he was a very nice boy and she doesn’t know what went wrong.

Chapter One

“Colonel Kortotich,” Mike “Jenkins” called out as the unwounded Chechen prisoners were being unloaded at a Georgian military prison.

Mike Harmon had been a college student at the University of Georgia when he’d witnessed the kidnapping of a coed. Most college students would have picked up their cell phones, or run to someone who had one, and called 911. But before he was a college student he’d been a SEAL and a SEAL instructor. So he just jumped on the kidnapper’s van and rode it to its destination.

That move, and a series of similar decisions, had led him to an underground bunker near Aleppo where terrorists backed by Syria had brought American girls to be used as hostages. And their plans didn’t just include holding them, but torturing them for the cameras to force American units to leave the Middle East.

Mike had lost one of the hostages before he realized what the plan was, but he’d fought his way through to the rest and held the position until relieved, along the way wiping out a chemical weapons factory, the Syrian president and Osama Bin Laden.

This had earned him the grateful thanks of a nation, quite a bit of money and a price on his head from every Islamic terrorism group on earth. “Mike Harmon,” Team Name “Ghost,” had quietly disappeared, maybe alive, maybe dead, and “Mike Jenkins” had reappeared in his place.

After being the wrong place at the wrong time too many times, Mike had settled down in the Republic of Georgia, using part of his reward money to buy a pleasant little farm with a group of tenant farmers already in place. However, the security situation in the area being what it was, he’d taken the opportunity to train the retainers as a local “militia.”

The retainers, called the Keldara, had taken to it like so many ducks to water. A little digging turned up the fact that the Keldara were anything but simple farmers. According to his interpretations, they were, in fact, the last remnant of the Varangian Guard, the Viking guards of the emperors of Byzantium. The group had apparently descended from a small force of mixed Norse and Scots-Irish that had drifted down through the Mediterranean until encountering the Byzantine Empire.

They farmed quite well but at heart, like the Kurds and the Gurkhas, they were warriors first and foremost. A couple of million dollars in equipment and a similar amount in payroll for trainers and training had turned them into a formidable, if small, fighting force. They had taken on a Chechen “battalion” at nearly three-to-one odds and the prisoners and dead now being loaded into the Georgian military trucks were the result.

Mike suspected it wouldn’t be the last such battle for the group called “The Tigers of the Mountain.”

“Mr. Jenkins,” the Russian attaché replied, nodding. “Quite a battle for a little militia.”

“Untrained militia,” Mike pointed out. “They were only in their third week of training. The teams fought them straight off of their first days of range training.”

“How many did you kill?” Kortotich asked.

“One hundred and three KIA,” Mike replied. “Including some who got froggy when we were in the capture phase. Forty-two WIA, including some the doctors don’t think will survive. And twenty-one prisoners, unwounded.”

“And Breslav?” the Russian asked.

“He, unfortunately, did not survive the encounter,” Mike said, slipping a picture out of his jacket pocket and handing it over. Breslav had, apparently, been directly in the area of effect of a claymore, since his torso and right arm were missing. However, his head was still attached and the expression of surprise was clear on his face. As was the expression of satisfaction on the face of the Keldara who was holding his head up by its hair. “I would have liked to capture him for intel purposes, but you can’t always get what you want.”

“We are glad enough that he’s dead,” Kortotich replied, smiling at the pic. “Can I keep this?”

“Certainly,” Mike said. “It’s a photo quality printout, anyway. We only use digital cameras.”

“Three weeks of training, you said?” Kortotich asked. “I think that my bosses will be impressed. Very impressed.”

“And, of course, the intel we forwarded you,” Mike pointed out. “That stopped his team from entering Chechnya. Can I take it we might be able to avoid a border war?”

“There is still the matter of the Paniski Gorge,” Kortotich pointed out. “That is where their main bases are.”

“I don’t think the Keldara will be up to taking that on any time soon,” Mike replied. “But we’ll start interdicting their movements as soon as our training is complete. The Gorge will be a matter between you and the government of Georgia.”

“I’ll pass all of this on,” Kortotich said, pocketing the picture. “And I give you the thanks of Russia, for what it’s worth.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will have some use in the future,” Mike said, smiling faintly. “You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Take care, Colonel.”

* * *

“Back into training again,” Nielson said in a satisfied tone. “Nothing like a little live-fire exercise to get the blood pumping and the troops motivated, but now they’re going to think they know it all.”

Colonel David Nielson was the senior officer of the group Mike had hired to train the Keldara. The colonel’s field credentials were impeccable but he was, at heart, a trainer. He loved taking soft clay and molding it into soldiers. As such he’d been a very good choice to lead the training, although some of the trainers, notably the SEAL and Marine Recon members, had questioned having a regular Army guy in charge. That was until they started to see the results.

Mike had been flown back to the serai, courtesy of the Georgian government, which was being remarkably friendly at the moment. He’d consistently tried to downplay the Keldara, but having a fraction of their force wipe out a Chechen “battalion” was, he was told, being discussed at the highest levels. It had also made the international news, although the story for press consumption was a special Georgian commando group. Which, in a way, they were.

“Get that out of their system with a good, solid after action review,” Mike said. “I’ll be on the grill, too.”

“Everyone was involved,” Nielson pointed out. “Who conducts it?”

Mike started to answer when his sat phone rang.

“Jenkins,” he said.

“Pierson, go scramble.”

“Scrambled, how’s it going, Colonel?” Mike replied when the system was in place.

“I thought it was going to be a year before you were fully in the groove?” Pierson said. “What’s with making network news?”

Colonel Robert Pierson had been Mike’s “control” ever since his first mission in Syria. The colonel just happened to be the guy picked to talk on the phone with some madman who had traced the kidnapped coeds halfway across the world. Since then he’d received similar calls from Mike and made a few in the other direction. He never ordered Mike, who was after all a free agent, he just suggested or in a few cases pleaded. He was less a “control” than an information conduit. And in a way a friend.

“We did?” Mike asked, frowning.

“Slow news day,” Pierson pointed out. “And the Chechens are still a bugaboo after Breslan. Apparently the guy you wacked had a small piece of setting that up. At least, according to CNN.”

“Nice of them to tell us,” Mike said, rolling his eyes at Nielson.

“Seriously, what did you do, use all the trainers?” Pierson asked.

“No, it was mostly Keldara,” Mike replied. “Their first FTX. Right off of their first two days on the range. The mortar girls had had more range time, but not much.”

“Jesus Christ,” Pierson said, wonderingly. “How far are you into training?”

“Three, four weeks,” Mike said. “Depending upon whether you consider that training. Colonel Nielson doesn’t.”

“I didn’t say that,” Nielson said with a sniff. “Just that it’s interfered a bit.”

“Well, the boss man said ‘Good job’ followed by ‘next time, try to avoid the papers.’ ”

“Tell him I said thanks,” Mike replied. “Anything else?”

“Just that,” Pierson said. “I’ll add my own ‘good job.’ Take care.”

“Will do,” Mike replied. “See ya.”

“We were talking about an after action review,” he continued, looking at Nielson.

“I was thinking it might make sense to ask D.C.,” Nielson replied, gesturing at the phone with his chin.

“Thought about it,” Mike said. “Too many fingers in the pie. You’ll work up the AAR. Include me in the review as well as yourself. Get Adams and a couple of the instructors to do a forensic of the shoot site. I want a count of every round expended and a probable of who shot who. Work them all down and show them exactly what they did wrong. And I did wrong. Start with my forgetting to bring the mortars; I’m not used to having to think about integral heavies. And we had a major problem at one point with commo control. I want that hit heavy, along with the fact that it slowed down the pursuit, and I want Vanner to get started on what we can do about team freqs and sub-freqs. When Oleg told them to move by odd and evens, the security guys wanted to get out and pursue. That has to be covered, too.”

“Will do,” Nielson said, sighing. “Can I have Kat to assist?”

“Go for it,” Mike replied. “Hot-wash tomorrow, full AAR with all teams by the end of the week.”

“Got it,” Nielson said. “I’ll get started.”

* * *

“Vanner,” Mike said, sticking his head in the radio room. Vanner was pointing to something on one of the computer screens with his head nearly touching that of the Keldara female working the computer. Mike wasn’t sure who she was, but he was pretty sure she was from the Makanee clan.

“Kildar?” the intel NCO said, spinning around.

The term “Kildar” was what Mike was called by the Keldara but it had caught on with others. It was a unique name for the local warlord, translating as something like “baron.” What it meant, simply, was leader of the Keldara and that was enough for those who had come to know them.

Patrick Vanner was a former Marine, but Mike tried not to hold it against him. The guy was plentiful hardcore, but he was, nonetheless, the designated team geek. He’d been an intercept specialist in the Marines, then worked for the NSA for a while. After getting out he picked up a degree in computer science that was almost superfluous to his actual knowledge, which when it came to electronics and electronic intel was enormous. Short, stocky and crew-cut, he was proof positive that you could take the boy out of the Marines but not the Marines out of the boy.

“Got a couple of questions,” Mike said, gesturing for Vanner to follow him out of the room. Mike led the way to the war room and grabbed a seat.

“You look like you’re getting pretty friendly with some of the Keldara girls,” Mike said, raising an eyebrow.

“Is that why you wanted to see me?” Vanner asked, frowning.

“No, but I figure I should ask about it,” Mike replied.

“Gildana and I are just friends,” Vanner said, shaking his head. “She’s really good at picking out freqs. I’m being very proper in all my dealings with her. Speaking of which, I know these girls are being paid for this, but is there some way we can get them rank? They’re doing the job of commo and intel techs, which in the military would make them privates or specialists.”

“I’ll think about it,” Mike said. “But watch yourself. I don’t want some Keldara Father on my case over a pregnant daughter. Or even one that could be pregnant, if you get my drift.”

“Got it,” Vanner said.

“On the real reason I wanted to talk to you,” Mike continued. “We had a real breakdown in commo on the op. Not a breakdown, exactly, but…”

“The team net got filled with chatter,” Vanner said, nodding. “That’s partially a matter of training so they don’t just jump on the radio.”

“I’d like more,” Mike said. “Sub freqs for the sub-teams, a general freq for the whole team, then on up. Something where the commander doesn’t have to think about it to pass stuff down, though, and can listen in on the chatter. Also, I want to start working on a battle net. Something where call-for-fire, at least by those with the right equipment, is point and click. Probably with a voice backup and confirm, but I want to be able to point to a spot on a map and say: ‘Send fire there.’ I’d also like to be able to sketch out movements for the teams.”

“I can get all that,” Vanner said. “Some of it’s off-the-shelf and unclass but some of it’s classified U.S. and European systems, mostly U.S.”

“I think we can swing that,” Mike said. “You find the system and I’ll get permission for us to get it. Keep an eye on whether it can be integrated into U.S. battlefield systems. If we end up in a situation where we can call for fire from God, I’d like to be able to do it. Look around at some of the firms that do C2 and offer free field trials,” he added, grinning. “Try to get a deal; it’s not going to be cheap gear.”

“Will do,” Vanner said. “Anything else?”

“If you and Gildana get to be more than friends, tell me first,” Mike said, seriously. “I’ll see what I can do with the Keldara. Unless it’s a lot more than friendship, in which case you’ll be going home with a mother-in-law.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Vanner said, frowning. “But it’s a thought. She sure as hell is gorgeous.”

“And she can cook,” Mike said, nodding. “But she’d have to adapt to an entire new culture. A very, very different one. Think about it carefully.”

“I will,” Vanner said.

“Now we’re done,” Mike replied, grinning. “Take care.”

* * *

“What we’re going to do here, is go over the action you just engaged in just like any other test,” Nielson said to the gathered Keldara. The hot-wash on the action was being conducted team by team, taking the whole day to go over known faults. They’d started with Team Oleg as the one that had been involved in the most combat. They were using one of the basement rooms in the serai for the review and it was packed with the Keldara sitting on folding chairs and looking nervous. “We will do one of these after every action, so get used to them.

“The first thing to say, and I’ll say it again and again, is that you did very well,” Nielson continued, looking around at the group. “Especially since you are in the middle of training. But there’s no such thing as perfect. This is a method to get closer and closer, though, if you pay attention. Right now, Chief Adams and Sergeants Fletcher, Graff and McKenzie are walking over the skirmish area and working up the full review. What we’re doing today is called the hot-wash. We’ll be going over individual and unit actions as they are known and determining what we can do better the next time. I’ll start with ammunition expenditure.”

He pulled up a list with a graph on the computer screen on the wall and pointed to a couple of high points.

“There were over sixty rounds of 7.62 expended per casualty that was found to have been shot,” Nielson said, pointing at the two graphs. “Not a total of sixty rounds, but sixty rounds per casualty. The low round count was Oleg, which, given that he shouldn’t have been firing at all, was pretty good at only fifteen rounds. Oleg, why did you fire?”

“I… wasn’t doing anything else, Colonel,” the team leader said, uncomfortably.

“You were supposed to be paying attention to everyone else’s actions,” Nielson said, shaking his head. “Chief Adams is, trust me, much more accurate than you are in a fight like that. But he expended no rounds because he knew he wasn’t there to fight. He was there to observe and control. You are given a weapon for one purpose only; self-defense or something that you have to shoot at because you can’t get one of the shooters to do it in time. That is it. Period. I can’t imagine a reason for you to have expended even one round in this engagement. Did any of the enemy get close to your bunker?”

“No, sir,” Oleg admitted, dropping his head.

“Keep your head next time,” Nielson said. “You’re there to control the flow of the battle. If you have to, lead from the front if you’re directly attacked; if you have to engage due to time constraints, you can engage. Otherwise, keep your finger off the trigger! Beso!”

“Sir!” the Keldara said, sitting bolt upright. He’d been bent over talking to the Keldara next to him.

“Three hundred and eighty-six rounds?” Nielson said, clearly amazed. “How in the hell did you expend three hundred and eight-six rounds?”

* * *

The day after the hot-wash they took all six teams out and walked the ground, looking over what they could have done better. Mike determined that Nielson was just better at picking out details on stuff like this than he was. Everything from the timing on when he’d pulled in Vil to when he’d sent Killjoy and Vanim down the hill was reviewed and critiqued.

The third day was a final review held in the main dining room of the serai. Mike had had more tables and chairs brought in and there was just barely room for all the militia and the trainers. They’d even brought in the females from the mortar section who were sitting at a separate table with their trainers. The girls were looking smug as cats at being included in “guy talk.”

“Kildar,” Nielson said. “Could you stand up?”

“Here it comes,” Mike noted to Adams, standing up at the head of the table.

“The recon movement to the observation point was good,” Nielson said. “No major flaws there except a lack of putting your point out far enough during the movement. No trash found at your bivouac of the first night although there was debris at the main OP on the hilltop. I won’t get into your choice of targets for the sniper operations; that is idiosyncratic and depends upon human factors I won’t argue. However, your timing on withdrawal was quite bad. You very nearly got flanked by the pursuit party; you’re aware of that?”

“Yes, I am,” Mike said, nodding. “I took a few more shots than I should have.”

“Arguably, you should not have been shooting,” Nielson pointed out. “You should have been spotting and controlling and let Lasko shoot.”

“I wasn’t sure that would work,” Mike said. “The ranges were longer than he’d trained on. I wanted to make sure the sniper fire was good enough to really sting them. But I did pull out too late.”

“Your movement, given the closeness of the pursuit, was about par,” Nielson said, pointing to the map. “Why did you choose to be the bait and send Praz and Lasko directly up the mountain?”

“I was in better shape to run,” Mike said, shrugging. “Praz and Lasko weren’t up to my level of condition. As it turned out, they probably could have made it just as well, but it was a tough hump. In the situation, I took the danger point.”

“On reaching the ambush point you took one of the security bunkers for your position,” Nielson said. “Why? You couldn’t maintain view of the battle from there.”

“I was following Chief Adams’ direction,” Mike said. “I assume that the pursuit party was close enough that Adams just wanted me to get to ground and that was the nearest bunker.”

“In the planning stage you failed to consider the mortars for support,” Nielson said, checking off an item on the list.

“Agreed,” Mike said. “I’d thought of them solely in terms of fixed position use. I’m glad you remembered them,” he added to chuckles through the room.

“Which brings us to the most critical danger point in this action: command and control,” Nielson said. “The true commander of the mission was the Kildar. But he was forward deployed and in action for the majority of the mission. I was managing the battle, but I wasn’t in command. The Kildar should have either relinquished command of the battle or moved to a position that he could manage all the pieces. It worked, because the Kildar and I could work together very well. But one or the other of us should have been designated for command and that person should have been in a position to control the flow of the battle.”

“I’ll comment on that,” Mike said, stepping to the front. “I intend to always command from near the front if at all possible. My intention is to make that possible through better technology. But, yes, in this instance I was without effective maps and didn’t really know where the pieces were. Colonel Nielson ran this battle and did so quite well.”

“Damned straight,” Chief Adams said, loudly, starting the applause.

Mike waited for the applause of the grinning Keldara to die and then waved at the group.

“You’ve completed your first action and your first after action review,” Mike said, grinning. “And I’m sure you’d rather be back in combat than having it nitpicked.” He waited again for the chuckles to die down, then nodded. “Again, you did well. And if we keep this up, each time you’ll do better. But, for tonight, you have met the enemy and survived. There is a custom among the military that from time to time they have a dinner for only their unit, called a dining-in. There are various customs, which we’ll work on as time passes. But for tonight, you are the guests of the Kildar. Tomorrow, of course, you’re back in training. So… watch the beer.”

“Kildar,” one of the men said, glancing over at the two tables of women. “What about the women? Are they to be serving?”

“Not if you want fire support next time, Viktor Shaynav!” one of the women yelled back. Which elicited a room full of belly laughs at Viktor’s expense.

“No,” Mike said, as the doors opened and his various “girls” came in bearing trays. “Tonight you will be served by the women of the Kildar in thanks for being loyal retainers and some of the finest soldiers it has been my pleasure to serve with.”

* * *

“Christ, I can’t believe you got it finished so fast,” Mike said, standing on the top of the dam. The outer slope and top had even been seeded and covered in straw to prevent erosion while the inner slope was covered in clay. The weir hadn’t been closed, yet, so the stream at the base still flowed freely. But all that took was turning the wheel. It was barely four weeks after the battle and the whole thing was in place.

“I’ve even got most of the houses wired with some fumble-fingered help from the Keldara,” Meller said, proudly. “The big difference was getting the additional equipment.”

“What about the channel to bring the other stream over?” Mike said. It was clear the streams hadn’t been joined up, yet.

“I used the spare Keldara to put a temporary dam in up there,” Meller said. “Then I blasted the channel. It created an embayment so the hydrostatic force wouldn’t be so bad. We’ll partially fill this with the current stream, then open that up, slowly, to add that stream in. That dam will probably wash away in the spring, but by then you won’t need it. You want to do the honors?” the engineer concluded, waving at the wheel that controlled the weir. The controls were propped out over the water on a pier and had an automatic lifting device for when the water rose too high.

“No,” Mike said, shaking his head. “You built it. You close it.”

“Okay,” Meller said happily. He stepped out onto the pier and calmly spun the wheel, dropping the metal plate into its slot and stopping the water from the stream, which immediately started to back up. “We’ll open up the other one in a few days when this gets about six feet deep.”

“How long to fill it?” Mike asked.

“About two weeks,” Meller said. “At which point you and the Keldara will have your power. And we can start running water lines to the houses as soon as we get material.”

“Start on that next,” Mike said, nodding. “We’ll have to figure out something for treatment; this stuff isn’t drinkable as is.”

“Chlorine’s cheap,” Meller said, shrugging. “I’ll look into it.”

Chapter Two

“It’s nice to mostly have the house back,” Mike said, walking into the dining room. Nielson was drinking tea and looking over some papers while Adams was finishing off a plate of ham and eggs.

“Fewer fights over the girls,” Adams said.

The Keldara were well into their patrolling phase of training and that required fewer instructors. With “basic” over, most of the trainers had left. A few were still around for patrolling and advanced training and some, like Adams, Nielson and Vanner, looked to be permanent additions. But the house was definitely less full than it had been. Especially with most of the remaining trainers out running the Keldara around the mountains.

“The girls” were local hookers that Mike had hired for the aid and comfort of poor trainers far from the joys of home. The owner of the local brothel had given Mike a good deal on long-term rental eventually giving up the business entirely, and sending his one remaining girl to join the others.

Four of the five girls were completely standard Third World working girls. Three of them were from the local area farms, girls with no better prospect than being working girls for the rest of their lives, while the other two were Russians. One of those, Katya, was somewhat different. Poisonously mean when she could get away with it, the girl had never adjusted to being “owned” in the way that was common in the area.

Mike, who had nicknamed her “Cottontail,” was slowly shifting her out of being a working girl and into pursuits more suited for her high level intelligence and utter sociopathy. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with her long-term — the option of putting her in an unmarked grave was still out there — but he saw lots of potential in the girl if he could just trust her even a bit.

That, however, would not be a smart thing to do.

“Speaking of the girls,” Mike said. “I’m going to move Cottontail fully into intel. I wish we had a good Humint trainer around; I think Katya would probably be a good agent.”

“If you could trust anything she gave you,” Nielson pointed out, looking up from his papers. “Could you?”

“Depends on what was in it for her,” Mike said, shrugging. “She really hates Chechens, probably more than she hates the rest of the world. If we use her to develop Humint in the Chechen region it might work.”

“She’ll need to learn Arabic,” Adams said, wiping his plate with a biscuit.

“Berlitz has a course available,” Mike said. “Of course, that means letting her out of the house. Hell, I’ll give her a handful of cash and tell her she can go if she wants. Win/win proposition.”

“What about ‘your’ girls?” Nielson asked.

In addition to the hookers, Mike had more or less inherited a harem. Sexual slavery was rife in the region and most of it was controlled by the Chechens who used it, along with drugs, as funding for their ongoing war with the Russians. Most of the girls were bought from orphanages or their parent,s since the farmers in the region could get nearly a year’s income for otherwise “useless” women. But the Chechens weren’t above snatching a girl off the street.

One such group had snatched one of the Keldara girls from the local town where she had gone to market. When they took off in their van they passed right by Mike’s caravanserai.

He had taken five shots from a Barrett .50 caliber to stop the van, fortunately missing the girls all in the back. Then he and the reaction team of trainers had taken down the two Chechens in the van.

This left Mike with seven girls ranging in age from twelve to seventeen on his hands. Inquiries had indicated that they were no deposit, no return; the various farms that had sold them had no interest in getting them back. After discussing the situation with his local advisers, Mike had accepted that the best course of action was to take them in as concubines. He’d considered various alternatives, but none of them would really work. He’d drawn the line at breaking in the really young ones, but the rest now were his bed warmers.

However, he’d immediately seen the problem with having a house full of teenaged girls to manage. So he’d gone to Uzbekistan, where harems were traditional, and hired a professional harem manager. Anastasia had turned out to have far more skills than just harem management. Not only was she great in the sack, she spoke multiple languages and was at home in almost any social environment.

Mike had also hired a female tutor for the girls. His long term plan was to get them trained to a level that they could get into college and get a “real” life. But in the meantime, he couldn’t exactly bitch about having five very good looking teenage screw-bunnies at his beck and call.

“None of them are the right mindset to set on something like this,” Mike replied. “But Anastasia is fluent in Arabic. Maybe I’ll have her teach Cottontail.”

“Be careful what she teaches her,” Adams said, without looking up. “You might get a very nasty surprise.”

“Are you talking about Anastasia teaching Katya or the other way around?” Nielson asked, grinning.

“Yes.”

* * *

“Genadi,” Mike said, as he pulled up in his Expedition next to the farm manager. “I haven’t spoken to you in weeks. How goes the farm?”

When Mike had bought the Keldara farm, which essentially meant the entire multithousand acre valley, he had been less than satisfied with the overseer that came with it. In short, Otar Tarasova was a blow-hard and a bully that didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. The local police chief had turned up Genadi Mahona, who was not only school trained in agronomy but a member of the Keldara. Otar and Genadi had earlier had a run-in and the former manager had forced him off the farm, to the level of having him thrown out of the Keldara.

Mike was impressed by the young man. Genadi knew the problems of farming in the valley with its very short growing season, but he was also more than willing to bring in modern techniques and equipment to improve conditions. He was also willing to face down the Keldara elders over his changes. The Keldara were open to many new ideas and ways of doing things even while being dead stubborn on others, and many of the elders thought that Genadi was going to starve them all with his new seeds, planting methods, fertilizers and “herbicides.” After all, anything that killed the weeds would certainly kill the crops. This year was going to be a test of how well he knew his stuff. Mike was betting that things would go well.

“I could use some hands,” Genadi admitted. “When are the younger men going to be free for work again?”

“Not for a few weeks,” Mike said, frowning. “What do you need?”

“Small things, but numerous,” the farm manager answered. “Some trenching that I can’t get a backhoe into, some repairs on the barns that requires strong backs. The old men are doing well, as are the women, but there is only so much they can do.”

“We’ve got a break in the training schedule coming up the end of the week,” Mike said, frowning. “I’ll see about gettting that break extended from a few days to maybe two weeks. I want them to have a break before we go to patrol phase two. That’s going to be a ball buster.”

“I’ll put it off until then,” Genadi said, nodding. “And I’ll make sure they have a break towards the end.”

“Great,” Mike said, grinning. “How’s the crop?”

“Even Father Mahona admits that the grains are coming in well,” Genadi replied, smiling broadly. “And the peas are nearly ready to harvest. We’ll do that with the combine so I won’t need the young men. Before it would have taken everyone stripping the plants, but the combine has an attachment that does it for us. Then we’ll replant in beets for the fall crop.”

“Whatever,” Mike said, admitting that he knew nothing about farming.

“It goes well,” Genadi said, smiling back. “Very well.”

“Good,” Mike replied. “That’s all I needed to hear anyway.”

“The farm goes well,” the farm manager said, frowning slightly, “but there is another problem.”

“What now?” Mike asked, sighing.

“Father Nona and Father Kulcyanov would like to meet with you, privately,” Genadi said. “It is a very private reason, for the Kildar only. Not involving the militia.”

“Today?” Mike asked, puzzled.

“Soon,” Genadi said, shrugging. “Not right away. Any time this week or next week would do.”

“Going to hint about what?” Mike asked, smiling.

“I think they need to discuss it with you,” Genadi said, shrugging. “It is for them to say.”

“Tomorrow do?” Mike asked. “Afternoon?”

“That is fine,” Genadi replied.

* * *

Mike entered the caravanserai and looked around the foyer. Two of the harem, Tinata and Azhela, were sitting in the foyer area playing a game involving small colored pebbles. Tinata was a sixteen-year-old with flamboyantly large breasts and flaming red hair that was quite natural. Mike knew for sure and certain that the curtains matched the rug. Azhela was smaller with fine, light brown hair and a smaller chest that, nonetheless, was quite noticeable on her smaller frame.

In a move that made sense to him at the time, he’d had Anastasia obtain uniforms for the girls. They were essentially “school-girl” uniforms, white shirt, blue and green plaid skirts and low-quarter shoes, which had advantages and disadvantages. It cut down on the petty bickering about who got to wear what on what day, and who was prettiest, which was a major point of contention among the girls. However, as with many males, he found the “school-girl” look was a major turn-on. It didn’t help that they were, essentially, real school girls. As usual when the girls popped to their feet, skirts swirling, their shirts straining their buttons, smiling, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and obviously quite willing to satisfy his every desire, whatever important problem had been on his mind went right out the window. The braces that many of them now sported didn’t help matters.

Mike dragged his eyes away from Tinata’s remarkably fine breasts and shook his head.

“I think I need to dress you girls in chadours,” he said, smiling to show it was a joke. “But could one of you ask Anastasia to meet me in my office whenever it’s convenient for her?”

“Yes, Kildar,” Tinata said, curtseying slightly and bowing her head in a gesture of meekness that Mike knew was an act. The girl was an absolute minx in bed. “I’ll go summon her directly.”

“Don’t bother her if she’s doing anything important,” Mike said, heading for his office.

“Shall I come back with her, Kildar?” Tinata asked, looking at him out of the corner of one eye.

“No,” Mike said, definitely. “But don’t go far. I haven’t got anything scheduled this afternoon.”

* * *

“You asked to see me, Kildar?” Anastasia said as she entered his office.

The harem manager had been a member of an Uzbek sheik’s harem since she was twelve. She was tall and refined with long, lovely, blonde hair and blue eyes with a slight epicanthic fold. Fine boned with the face of an angel, she could have made big money as a supermodel. Instead she had been immured in a harem for fourteen years with rare opportunities to get out; the flight to Georgia had actually been her first flight on an airplane.

She was trained, and naturally skilled, at managing groups of girls. However, she had few other skills. Since she was getting a bit long in the tooth for the tastes of the sheik, at all of twenty-six, she was looking at being either given away as a bride to some retainer or being sent off with a chunk of money to find a new life. The “new life” would probably be a madame in a whorehouse, given that she didn’t know anything else.

The job offer from Mike had been like a gift from heaven. Not only did Mike need a manager, he was far less controlling than the sheik and more than willing to include her in his travels. Then there was the fact that Anastasia was a serious masochistic submissive. The sheik had never had a strong enough hand with the whip in her opinion and was otherwise rather uninteresting in bed, generally going for “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” but not even staying awake for the “thank you” part. Mike was a serious dom and more than willing to satisfy that side of her sexual personality. Then there was the fact that he considered it a duty and a pleasure to make a woman have a good time in the sack. For Anastasia the last months had been heaven. Her only complaint was that Mike still hadn’t set up the bondage dungeon in the old cellars that he’d promised her.

“I want you to start working more with Katya,” Mike said, waving her to a chair. “I know she’s working with Vanner, but I want you to start training her in Arabic.”

“I already have been,” Anastasia said, smiling. “And German and French. She already speaks Russian and more English than she’s willing to admit. I started teaching her other languages to keep her busy. When she’s learning, she isn’t so much of a problem. And she is very smart. Smarter than I am, I have to admit. She soaks up information and has a remarkable memory.”

“Especially for slights,” Mike said, sighing. “But that’s good. I want you to concentrate on Arabic and Chechen dialects of Russian and Arabic for the time being. Get her able to understand it, clearly, no matter how garbled.”

“I understand,” Anastasia said, nodding. “Are you sure you can trust her?”

“No,” Mike admitted. “But leave that for me to worry about. I’ll set it up as a win/win proposition. She can do the mission, or she can run. She won’t have enough information to do us serious harm.”

“She has been working with Vanner,” Anastasia pointed out. “She knows about your intercept capability.”

“So do the Chechens,” Mike pointed out, sourly. “The Russians leaked it to them.”

“But she knows details,” Anastasia argued.

“We can change codes after she leaves,” Mike said. “And that won’t be soon. I’ll pull her out of Vanner’s section and set her to learning. For that matter, I’ll see what I can scrounge up in the way of manuals on infiltration and espionage. I think she’d be good at it. And if she cuts and runs instead, well, then we don’t have to worry about her anymore.”

“There is that,” Anastasia said, smiling. “So, when do I get my bondage dungeon?”

“I’ll put it on my construction list,” Mike said, grinning. “But this afternoon, I’ve made another date.”

“Tinata,” Anastasia said, nodding. “I’d wondered why she was looking so happy.”

* * *

Mike laid the red-head down on the bed and leaned down to gently kiss her on the neck.

All the girls knew his tastes by this point and Tinata had changed into a pair of five-inch spike sandals. She moaned and twisted aside as he tickled her neck with his tongue, sliding around to reach for his crotch.

“Not so fast, young one.” Mike chuckled, sitting down next to her. “We’ve got all afternoon.”

“That is very good,” Tinata said, turning her eyes aside in mock shyness. “I can wear you out.”

“Good luck.” Mike chuckled again, kissing her neck and then digging his tongue into the juncture of her shoulder and neck. There was a muscle there with a nerve running along it that generally got women juicing and Tinata moaned again as his tongue dug firmly into the nerve juncture.

He slid his hand up her stomach, untucking her shirt and began unbuttoning it. He occasionally just tore one off — he owned the uniforms after all — but this time he was taking his time. Tinata enjoyed being pinned but wasn’t into full bondage and still freaked out a bit when he got too rough. She enjoyed a bit of dominance but that didn’t mean she was a full BDSM freak. The last two times they’d been together he’d only had time for a quickie. She orgasmed, but barely. He intended to drive her nuts this afternoon. And he had a secret weapon: she was really turned on by giving head.

He slowly unbuttoned her blouse while continuing to suckle at her neck, occasionally putting one hand on her upper arm. The spread of goosebumps was a good indicator of how interested the girl was and this one had bumps to her elbow, good sign.

As the bra came off he slid down her chest, still teasingly, and slowly worked his way around her breasts. They really were quite magnificent, solid and natural DDs but still so young and fresh they were nearly as hard as fakes. They were also quite sensitive and by the time he’d finally worked his way to the nipples, sucking and licking on one while his hand worked the other, she was moaning.

He suddenly reached up and grasped her hair, slithering around so that he was on his back and she was up on her knees.

“Do me,” he ordered, pushing her head down towards his crotch.

Tinata let out another moan and slid his pants down, bringing out his member. She began by slowly licking along the base, working her way up with light flicks of her tongue.

He reached past her arm and cradled one of those magnificent breasts, stroking it lightly with the balls of his fingers as she began to fellate him. The combination of her fetish for head and the sensitivity of her breasts caused her to stop for a moment, just shuddering, as she ran her cheek up and down his dick.

“Keep going,” Mike said, grabbing her by the hair and sliding her lips back over his cock. “I didn’t say you could stop.”

He quit playing with her tits and reached around, grabbing her ass and dragging it closer so he could reach between her legs. He slid his hand under her cotton panties and up onto her clit, stroking her labia and clit lightly.

Tinata started to stop again, shuddering too hard to go on, but he had retained his hold on her hair and he began forcing her up and down on his dick as his finger plunged into her slit.

The girl began to rock and moan while keeping up the suction, as he timed the thrusts at both ends keep up a constant state of sexual tension. When he judged she just couldn’t take any more he pulled her up, ripped her panties off and took her, hard.

Pulling one of her legs up he thrust all the way into her until their pelvis bones met squarely on her clit, elicting a moan of pleasure and a gasp. Tinata had her eyes closed and was already starting to rock into him as he began to pound. He tried very hard not to concentrate on the fact that he was fucking the hell out of a teenage redhead with really great tits. He didn’t want to cum until he’d worn her flat out. When he started to feel himself getting close he’d think about multiplication tables. That always got him to back off.

He grabbed her wrists, pinning them above her head with one hand, then started stroking her tits as he thrust. He just used his thumb on the left nipple, brushing it in time with his thrusts.

That really got the girl going. She kept thrusting against him, moaning and crying in pleasure until she came, suddenly and quite vocally, letting out a shriek of pain and pleasure that was surely heard all over the caravanserai.

Mike stopped immediately, letting her get her breath back. He’d been working out ever since he took over the caravanserai and wasn’t even winded, yet.

“You okay?” he asked, looking at her as she opened her eyes.

“Oh, yes,” Tinata breathed, then laughed. “I am very okay.”

“Good,” Mike said, sliding back into her. “I’m barely started.”

“Oh, God!” Tinata gasped, lying back and quivering as his thrusts caused the aftershocks from her orgasm to crescendo. “Have mercy, Kildar!”

“Not hardly,” Mike answered gruffly.

This time he took more time, not just hammering in and out but varying the pace and movement. He would thrust slow and long, all the way in, for five thrusts then pick up the pace over a few more series until he was hitting in a rapid fire he called “bunny fucking.” After the bunny fuck he’d back off again.

By this time, Tinata wasn’t in any control any more at all. She was just orgasming in rapid sequence, especially as the bunny fucks hit. From time to time he’d back off for a bit to let her gain some equilibrium then go back to it before she could even get a word out. If she could talk, she wasn’t fully in the moment from his point of view.

When he got a little tired he slid over to the side, still maintaining penetration, and rearranged their limbs so he could lie on his side. Her right leg was over his left and his right over hers with contact maintained in the middle. He slid her right arm under his body and pinned her other arm behind her head with his left hand. This left his right hand free and he began stroking her nipples again as he continued to slide in and out.

“Kildar…” the girl gasped. “Please…”

“Please, what?” Mike asked, slowing down but not stopping.

“I… please… ” the girl whimpered. “No more…”

“Just a little more,” Mike said evilly, sliding his hand down to her crotch.

“Nooo…” Tinata whimpered as his finger slid over her clit and started working it.

Mike began hammering her, hard, as his finger continued to work her clit. Suddenly she let out a shriek and began writhing in his grasp, at which point he stopped, withdrawing his hand.

“Oh…” the girl said, lying supine on the bed. “Oh… God…”

“Was that okay?” Mike asked, curiously.

“Okay?” Tinata said, opening her eyes. “I can’t see! I can’t see anything! I’m blind!”

“Low blood flow to the optic nerve,” Mike said, gently. “It passes. You’ll get over it.”

“That’s easy for you to say!” Tinata replied. “Does that mean that this has happened with you before?”

“To women I’ve been with,” Mike admitted.

“You are a danger to all women, Kildar,” Tinata said, chuckling throatily.

“So I’ve been told.”

“I think I can see some light, now.”

“See, it’s passing,” Mike said, sliding out.

“Ooooo…” the girl gasped. “Warn a woman next time!”

“Why? It’s more fun if it’s by surprise,” Mike said, getting out of bed. “Want something to drink?”

“I should be serving you,” Tinata pointed out.

“Be a little hard at the moment,” Mike said, opening up the fridge. “Coke?”

“Please,” Tinata said, sitting up and fumbling to pull a pillow behind her. “I’ve never been blind before. It’s not nice.”

“But it’s passing, yes?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” Tinata admitted. “I can see shapes.”

“Here,” Mike said, putting the open Coke bottle in her hand.

She fumbled at it and lifted it to her lips, carefully.

“That’s good,” she said, smiling. “I’m seeing better.”

“Good,” Mike said, taking a pull off of his own Coke. “As soon as you can see clearly, we’ll start again.”

“So you can make me blind again?” Tinata asked, laughing.

“If I can,” Mike admitted, smiling. “Are you saying it wasn’t fun? Besides, you never finished your blowjob.”

Over the next four hours he screwed Tinata through three applications of lubricant and various complaints of swelling, along with more orgasms than the poor girl could count. Only when she was entirely spent and supine did he finally allow himself to cum. And it was a hard one, fully curling his toes.

“Kildar…” Tinata said as he slid a towel under her, gently, to catch the outflow.

“Hmmm?” Mike asked, pulling her to cuddle into his shoulder.

“Wonderful…”

“Shhh,” Mike said. “Sleep.”

Mike lay there, thinking about his task list, until her breathing was regular and it was clear she was deeply asleep. Then he slid out of bed, carefully arranging a pillow under her head, and put on his clothes. He had plenty of work he should have been doing, but sometimes you just had to take time to make sure the harem was happy.

Chapter Three

“Okay, buddy, what do you take?” Adams asked when Mike got to his office. The former chief was sitting in one of the chairs with his feet up, apparently awaiting his arrival.

“What do you mean?” Mike asked, sitting down and clearing his screensaver with his password.

“I timed it, this time,” Adams said. “Three hours and forty-seven minutes from the first shriek until your door opened. I mean, are you getting black market Viagra or something?”

“I don’t need Viagra,” Mike said, shrugging and pulling up the spreadsheet on Keldara costs. He’d made a pretty penny from killing wanted terrorists and “securing” a few nukes that otherwise would have left large holes in cities. But the Keldara were costing like crazy and it was just amazing how fast the money bled away.

“Oysters?” Adams asked.

“Christ, you’re not going to let this go, are you?” Mike asked, leaning back in his chair.

“How many times did she come, anyway?” Adams asked. “The shrieks were getting pretty muted by the end.”

“I don’t know,” Mike admitted, trying not to grin. “I only counted the times she went blind. That was three.”

“Good Lord,” the chief said, shaking his head. “So, give. What are you taking?”

“Nothing,” Mike said. “I don’t take anything. I just don’t allow myself to come.”

“How?” Adams asked, exasperatedly. “I mean, Tinata is…”

“A knockout,” Mike finished. “A certified virgin the first time I screwed her, pretty as hell, great tits and a tight pussy. I just think of other things when I think I’m going to come. And keep going. For as long as I want.”

“What? Dead puppies?” Adams asked, curiously.

“No, mathematics, generally,” Mike admitted. “Multiplication tables. What’s eight times seven?”

“Uhm…”

“Right, if it’s not right there in your head, you have to think about it,” Mike said. “Most people do have to think about the sevens and eights in the tables. Anything that requires a bit of concentration. Something you have to think of to recite to yourself. Just… distract yourself to get out of the moment but keep them in it. And if you’ve got a modicum of control you can keep from coming. That way you can make a lady really happy, if you fit even vaguely. If she’s not into penile orgasms, there’s the fingers and tongue. And once a woman comes once, she generally will keep coming if you keep going. Most of the time they’ll say they want you to stop, but unless they’re really aggressive about it, keep going. Their orgasams just get larger and larger until they’re really over the edge. Simple as that.”

“I need to try that out,” Adams admitted. “Where the hell did you learn this?”

“I overanalyze,” Mike said, grinning. “You’ve told me so yourself. There’s more than one reason that they called me… what they called me on the teams. When you’re doing a sneak at that level, you have to be able to read a person, to know exactly what they are going to do, to feel everything around you. It’s not much different in bed. You’re a great entry guy, buddy, but you were never as good as I was at a sneak, right?”

“Admitted,” Adams said, shrugging. “And that makes you great in bed?”

“Believe it or not, it’s awful close,” Mike said, smiling thinly. “They’re both about power, trust me. When a woman is that much putty in my hands, it’s just like when the knife goes in on a target. There’s a reason they call orgasm the ‘little death.’ ”

“That’s sick,” Adams said, shaking his head.

“I never said I was a well man,” Mike replied, still smiling.

“Go ahead and try it on Flopsy, Bambi or Mopsy,” Mike continued, listing off three of the hookers by nickname. Cottontail’s impossible; cold as the Antarctic. Don’t even try.”

“She seems to have fun,” Adams said, frowning.

“She’s pretty good at faking, but not as good as she thinks,” Mike said, shrugging.

“How can you tell?” Adams asked.

“What, you want me to give up all my secrets?” Mike replied, grinning.

* * *

As soon as it was dark Mike donned combat gear and headed out to his personal Ford Expedition. He’d ordered various vehicles for the Keldara to get the farm on a more modern basis: When he bought the property the Keldara had still been using horse-drawn plows. Besides tractors he’d purchased trucks and SUVs for each of the Six Families. They doubled as transportation for the militia but were mostly used for farm work.

This was his personal Expedition, however, and although it seemed the same as the rest on the exterior, save for a spare antenna here and there, it was significantly modified on the interior. He’d given Vanner a bunch of money, and the electronics wiz had fitted it out with every conceivable bit of gear that he might need to control the militia. In effect, it was a roving command post.

He punched in a code on the dashboard-mounted computer and brought up current locations on all the training groups. Phase One of patrolling was about done and he’d hardly had a chance to go out and check them out. A group from Team Sawn was conveniently near the north road, while being well out of sight behind a ridge, so he put the SUV in gear and headed out.

The caravanserai was perched on a ridgeline overlooking the valley of the Keldara and at a height to be able to barely see into the town of Allerso which was in an upper valley. The driveway from the caravanserai ran down a series of switchbacks to the road that passed along the edge of the valley. The road was slightly elevated so that most of the valley could be viewed as he drove northward. The crops did, indeed, seem to be growing well and there was a new glow of electric light from the houses. When he’d arrived the Keldara didn’t have a pot to piss in, much less electricity. If he died tomorrow, or today, which on this road was a possibility, he’d have done that much good at least.

Lasting good, that is. He’d done many things that he defined as “good” over the years, but they mostly involved killing terrorists or finding wayward weapons of mass destruction. But more terrrorists always seemed to arise, hydra-headed, and WMDs were here to stay. There was always some Russian guard willing to sell his soul for a bagful of cash or some muj with a high school knowledge of chemistry whipping up a beaker of Sarin. To put all of them out of business would require changing the world, and that was too big a prospect for any former SEAL.

He cleared the valley and ascended the switchbacks at the north end, heading into the mountains. He was glad the road was clear this time of year. The first time he’d come to the valley of the Keldara he had been lost and the road had been an ice-covered nightmare of a drive. On an early summer night it was simply pleasantly winding.

He reached a good debarkation point where a small parking area overlooked the river foaming through the gorge below and got out, stretching. The night was clear and black as pitch, perfect for a walk in the woods.

He loaded up his assault ruck and picked out an SPR for the trip. The teams were on their last exercise of Patrol Phase One, a two-day hike with various mission objectives. Patrol Phase One was designed to train them in various missions in patrolling in large groups, rotating members of the teams through leadership positions. It was straight out of the Ranger Handbook, which fit the mission of the Keldara better than SEAL training. After they’d gotten used to patrolling in large groups they’d move to Phase Two, which would train them in small unit patrolling over large distances, the only way that they would be able to fully interdict Chechen movement in the area.

He deliberately hadn’t looked at the particular mission of this patrol. They might be in movement or set up for ambush; it was up to him to find them and determine their mission.

He had to be careful about it, however. The teams were loaded with blanks but carried a full load of combat ammunition; the area was unsecure and their “training” might involve hitting a Chechen group at any point. The Chechens had to know by now that this region wasn’t safe. His people had stopped a snatch and wiped out a full battalion attack already in the area. But the Keldara area had been a major path for Chechen groups for some time; the passes in the Keldara AO were the only way through the mountains short of entering the much better protected area around Tbilisi. It was one of the reasons that the Russians, and therefore the American government, were looking for him to shut down Chechen operations in the region.

He first had to cross the rather sizeable stream. While that sort of thing was easy with a group, by himself it required a bit more care. He hunted around for a good ford but there was none in the immediate area. And even getting down to the stream bed from the road was tricky.

Finally, he found a reasonably negotiable spot and slid down the hill on his butt, ending up with his feet planted on a rock that was actually jutting out of the stream. He secured a climbing rope to the rock and hooked off to it, then slid into the stream.

The current was powerful and bloody damned cold, glacial melt coming straight off the mountains. The rocks were also slippery as hell. He made his way carefully across the current, planting his feet and using the hard point of the rope to stabilize.

He got to the far side and pulled the disconnect he’d tied into the rope, retrieving it and then coiling it and putting it away. He thus was starting off his hunt dead wet, cold and nigh on to miserable. Which was all to the good; he’d been having it too easy lately.

The team had last been placed on the far side of the ridge above him, so he headed up the steep slope. In places he had to push himself up using the trees on the ridgeline but it only took him thirty minutes or so to ascend the ridge and get a good hide.

He pulled out a thermal scope and started scanning the area below him. When he didn’t see anything in the spot he’d noted the team in, he scanned around. There didn’t seem to be anything in the valley below so he kept scanning around.

The valley the team had been in was a narrow V heading down from the north and more or less paralleling the road at about two hundred meters of elevation. There was a small stream running down the center. It joined with a slightly larger valley that curved in from the east and finally joined the gorge the road wound up, adding the contents of both streams to the river that cut the gorge.

The team was nowhere in sight in the first valley so he kept panning back and forth looking for hot points in either valley. He finally spotted a hot point coming into the larger, perpendicular, valley, but it was coming from the east and nowhere around where the team had been. They’d have had to run like hell to get up to that point and the figures were moving wrong. As he watched, more and more figures came in view and some of them had the distinct outline of horses or mules. It wasn’t one of the Keldara teams, that was for damned sure. In fact, unless he was much mistaken, it was a Chechen supply convoy.

He considered for a moment where he’d left the Expedition. Supply trains like this one generally met up with trucks somewhere along the road that he’d parked on. The damned Expedition was directly in view of anyone driving down the road, which was one hell of a note.

He didn’t know why this sort of thing always seemed to happen to him. He was like a terrorism fuck-up magnet. All he’d wanted to do was go watch the Keldara doing ops and here he was dealing with a damned Chechen supply convoy. It was such a pain in the ass.

He pulled out a map and slid down the hillside out of direct view. The maps, a new improvement by Vanner, were fluorescent in ultraviolet, so he set the Night Observation Device to UV, slid it down over one eye and opened up the map.

The valley the Chechens were moving down was marked as 415 and, sure enough, there was a narrow trail running along the south side. There was also a ford marked. It was a good thing he hadn’t taken a better look at the map or he might have used both and run right smack dab into them coming the other way.

The trail was snaking on the hillside and, based on their movement, they were going to take a good hour to reach the road. Depending on where the Keldara team was, it might be able to get into ambush position. But groups like this usually met up with trucks coming down the road and they’d be coming from the north; even the Chechens weren’t stupid enough to run up the valley of the Keldara, and all the sources they used were to the north. That was the whole point of running through here.

Ergo, there was a truck or trucks coming down from the north to meet them. It would rendezvous with them near the ford, transfer cargo and go back north. Guns and ammo coming in, drugs, girls and what have you going out.

This was a mission for more than one of the teams. And he still couldn’t find the team he was looking for, so he’d have to call in.

“Keldara Base, this is Kildar,” he whispered over the radio. “We have a situation.”

* * *

Gildana Makanee keyed her headset and waved at Sergeant Vanner as the call came in.

Gildana was seventeen years old, blue-eyed and long-legged with long blonde hair she regularly braided in a thick rope that hung to her lower back. Until a few months before, Gildana had envisioned a life just like her mother and her grandmother and great-great-great grand, dating back to medieval times. She would soon marry, many of her friends had married already, and the man she was to marry, Givi Ferani had already been chosen. Then she would have as many children as she could manage until she was old and gray and worn out from working the farm.

She liked Givi and thought he would make a good husband. He was hardworking and at least had a sense of humor. She really had no dreams beyond having beautiful and healthy children who would live.

Then everything changed. The new Kildar had come and now everything was topsy-turvy. As one of the better readers and writers among the women of the Keldara she had been chosen to assist in the “ops and intel” section and met Sergeant Vanner. He had opened up a whole new world to her and the girls who worked with her. They now controlled the communications for the Keldara militia and some of them worked in the intel section intercepting what they could catch of the limited Chechen radio traffic. The work was long and often boring, but far more interesting than cleaning the house, cooking, hauling water and keeping the fires going. Sergeant Vanner had even gotten her a “correspondence course” on satellite communications and she was working on it assiduously. Along with it had come several other courses on mathematics and she was working her way through those at the same time.

Life was looking up.

“Kildar,” she answered in a calm and lilting tone, “this is Keldara Base. Say situation, over.”

Calm and unhurried. Sergeant Vanner had drilled that into them over and over. The last thing anyone wanted to hear over the radio was that anyone was stressed out. Keep calm, no matter what was happening.

“I was going out to observe Team Sawn, operating in the vicinity of valley 415. I am at position 918 in view of a convoy of probable tangoes moving down 415 from the east towards a probable rendezvous at 228. Count is thirty tangoes, eighteen pack animals. Weapons not observable at this range. Clear?”

“Tango convoy at valley 415, moving east towards 228. Your position 918. Count is thirty tangoes, eighteen pack animals.”

“Roger. Unable to determine position of Team Sawn. Probable vehicle movement from north along Tbilisi Road for link-up. Get Keldara Two, Three and Five in contact. Contact Team Sawn, have them display UV source. Will vector Team Sawn to ambush on convoy if possible. Vector second team to road if possible. Tell teams to go red on ammo.”

“Roger, Keldara Six,” Gildana said, scribbling notes. She looked over her shoulder at Sergeant Vanner who had slipped on a headset and was nodding at her notes. “Keldara Two is available at this time, Six.”

“Roger,” the Kildar said. “I’m going to sit tight until I’ve got an idea where Sawn is. Get cracking.”

* * *

Vanner had already opened up a window on his screen showing the locations of all the teams and shook his head.

“That’s funny,” he said. “Sawn’s just to the east of him, down in the valley. They’re in an ambush position along the side valley, so they’re not in position to hit the Chechens. Call them up.”

“Sawn Six, this is Keldara Base,” Gildana said, switching frequencies for transmission but leaving open the Kildar’s frequency so she could listen if he called.

“Sawn.”

“Be aware, there is a Chechen force, thirty tangoes, eighteen pack animals, moving down valley 415, approximately three thousand meters from your position. Kildar is on the ridge behind you, observing from 918. Show UV marker so the Kildar can vector you to them.”

“Roger.”

* * *

Mike blinked as a hot-spot appeared in the valley and then a UV light was laid out, clearly marking the position of the ambush team. They weren’t more than five hundred meters below him and they’d been completely invisible to IR. They must have covered themselves up pretty damned good.

He checked his frequency sheet and changed to Sawn’s codes. The different connections weren’t frequencies, but packet codes for the distributed network that had been laid in over the last few weeks. Besides going out on patrol training, the Keldara had been laying down dozens of “black box” retransmitters. The devices were encrypted and distributed information in frequency-hopping burst packets. Weighing in at a bit less than two pounds, they functioned something like the internet, picking up the packets and moving them along the best routes. The boxes were now in so many places in the nearby mountains that communications were virtually solid throughout the local area. But only for the Keldara. The system was locked out for anyone else, short of very high-tech and aggressive hacking.

“Goddamn, Sawn, you guys are hidden like a bitch,” he said approvingly. “But we’re going to have to move. Pick up your team and move south to the trail along 415. And boogie. Go hot at this time.”

“Roger, Kildar,” Sawn said. The Makanee boy was not by any stretch his top team leader, that would be Oleg Kulcyanov, but he was pretty damned good. And if he could hide that well, it boded well for the mission. Now if the team could just move fast and quiet.

“I’ll link up somewhere around the river,” Mike said. “Tell your guys if they frag me I will strangle them with my bare hands.”

“Understood, Kildar,” Sawn said, the humor evident in his voice.

“Kildar, this is Keldara Base.”

“Gotta go, Sawn,” Mike continued as more hot-spots appeared. It was apparent that the entire twenty-man team had been lightly dug in along the hillside. Too bad they weren’t in position to hit the Chechens; it had been a perfect hide. “See you at the stream. Go Keldara Base.”

* * *

“Kildar, Keldara Three is here,” Gildana said, looking over her shoulder at Colonel Nielson. “He recommends vectoring Team Padrek onto the road to the north.”

“Have him handle that end,” the Kildar answered with a slight grunt of effort. “Be aware that my damned Expedition is in full view on the road. If the Chechens steal my car, tell Padrek to run far and fast.”

“Roger, Kildar,” Gildana said, smiling slightly.

“I’m going to go link up with Sawn and cover that end,” the Kildar continued. “Get the trucks.”

“Roger, Kildar.”

“Kildar out.”

Gildana looked over her shoulder at Colonel Nielson quizzically.

“Vector Padrek to point 583,” the colonel said, pointing out a spot on the map near the road to the north. “Interdict all vehicles moving from the north, standard road block. The Chechens will probably be carrying contraband. Rules of Engagement Three. Do not fire until sure of resistance, but stop everything and use full care. Roll out the support team, have them draw RPGs and MGs. They need to be on the road in fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, sir,” Gildana said. The Kildar had bought a specialized database and she and Vanner had modified it slightly. This was the first test of it in a “real world” mission.

She brought up the database and punched for live-mission. A screen gave her a number of options, each of them marked by large buttons or icons. She chose “roll response team,” then “heavy weapon loadout,” “roadblock,” punched in the code for the location when the box came up, chose “rendezvous,” then hit the icon for Team Padrek, which was the head of a ram, and last chose ROE 3.

The system automatically generated an operations order including what weapons and ammunition pack each member of the team would carry, which vehicles were available and a map to the position. In addition, there was a frequency list and information about friendly forces in the area.

She hit send and got a pop-up screen that read: “Please detail commander’s intention.”

She hit the “modify” key and rapidly typed in data on the current situation including the fact that there was probably a truck or trucks headed to rendezvous with the Chechen mule train. Then she reloaded the frag-order.

Nielson considered it for a moment and then nodded.

“Send.”

Chapter Four

Oleg Kulcyanov’s eyes flew open as a buzzer went off beside his bed and the monitor of the computer turned on, flooding the darkened room with light. The printer started spitting out sheets as he rolled to his feet, rubbing his eyes. Another damned drill.

Oleg Kulcyanov was nineteen, a huge bull of a man with a shock of nearly white hair. His great grandfather, Mecheslav Kulcyanov was the head of the Kulcyanov Family. His grandfather had died in a logging accident before Oleg was born. His father was probably going to be the next head of the Kulcyanov Family and in time Oleg would probably succeed him.

While he had been in electric light from time to time in town, until recently he had never considered that he, himself, might live in a house with electricity. He had never seen anyone operate a computer until last February when the Kildar arrived. He had certainly never believed he would use one.

But the Kildar had arrived in the valley like a whirlwind. Before they had assimilated the arrival of a newcomer to the area the Kildar had bought the valley from the bank, and their service with it. More changes started coming with increasing speed: new vehicles, tractors, medical care. Then the trainers had arrived and suddenly the Keldara found their true purpose returning. For the Keldara were warriors at heart.

Oleg went to church every Sunday but the Keldara were not truly Christian. They cloaked themselves in the mantle of that faith, but they had retained their true allegiance through the years, to The All Father One-Eye, to his son Frei the Lord of the Axe, to the Old Gods. They had held true to their faith through generation after generation, working as farmers as the only way to survive but never losing their faith that some day the Way of War would return. And the Kildar had brought it back.

Oleg knew that the Kildar was not a god, but many of the Keldara regarded him as one, an avatar of Frei perhaps. He was certainly a warrior among warriors, as he had proven again and again. And Oleg was willing to follow the Kildar to anywhere in the wide world, for he knew that the Kildar would always lead them on the path of war, where a Keldara could truly be a servant of Frei.

As he read the form on the computer screen he grinned. Finally, it was time to go to war.

He reached out and hit the red button over his bed, then stood up and picked up the papers that had finished spitting out of the printer.

The button activated the lights in the squad bay beyond his room and started a high-toned pinging that was interspersed with a recording by Lydia, Oleg’s fiancée.

“Arise, Keldara! Enemies are at the door! Prepare for battle and the day of red war! Bring us scalps!”

Oleg had been sleeping in his uniform pants and a T-shirt. He slid his feet into zipper tac-boots and zipped them up, then threw on his uniform jacket, striding out of the room.

Dmitri Devlich, his team second, was just finished zipping his boots as Oleg stepped into the squad bay. The rest of the team was mostly on its feet, putting on their boots and jackets, as the recording continued.

“Battle this day for honor and the Keldara! Be true to your comrades and warriors born!”

Oleg handed Dmitri the sheets detailing each man’s load-out and mission. The sheets were arranged in the same pattern as the squad bay, so all Dmitri had to do was go down the length of the bay handing them out. Each sheet had a picture of the individual squad member, the weapon and ammunition load they were to draw, a list of materials they were to carry and a general mission order including the paragraph Gildana had written about the current enemy conditions.

As soon as Oleg had passed off the sheets he read the section detailing his responsibilities and walked back to his room. He pulled out the correct map-set, checked to make sure it was actually the right one and started buttoning his uniform tunic while rereading the mission orders.

As he was rereading, Givi Kulcyanov came in the room, buckling on his gear and carrying Oleg’s in his arms.

“Simple mission,” the radio telephone operator said, handing Oleg his body armor and combat vest. Givi was a cousin rather than a brother as the name would imply but they had known each other their whole lives.

“We don’t know if this is the only group of Chechens in the area,” Oleg pointed out. “And we don’t know what will be waiting for us in the trucks. It might be simple and it might be very hard indeed.”

“You’re always a pessimist,” Givi said, grinning.

“I’m always a realist,” Oleg replied, throwing his armor over his head and buckling it on. “That’s why I’m the team leader.”

When he got to the squad bay most of the team had moved down to the armory to draw their weapons. Their prepacked rucksacks were by the door and as each man drew his weapons for the mission they added them to the load, moving out the door to the waiting vehicles.

Oleg drew an SPR and a .45 caliber silenced pistol, checking each, then slipping in a magazine. Last he put the weapons on safe and picked up his ruck, heading for the door.

Dmitri was by the door as he went out, checking each weapon to see that no one had loaded a live round, yet, and that all weapons were on safe.

“You’re the last out,” Dmitri said.

“Load it,” Oleg replied, heading for his vehicle. “Givi, call in that we’re loaded and preparing to roll. Then give them roll time.”

“Roger,” Givi said.

“I make it as seven minutes, more or less,” Dmitri said, climbing in the passenger side of his Expedition. His would be the last vehicle out of the compound. Oleg would be in vehicle three of the five. The lead vehicle traveled well forward of the convoy as a point in case of ambush.

“Agreed,” Oleg said, getting in his own vehicle. “Let’s roll.”

* * *

Mike crouched by the side of the trail as the team passed. He was both pleased and pissed that not one of them noticed him. He’d intended to close from the rear and call in before contacting the team but had accidentally gotten ahead of them. He was pleased that he hadn’t lost the ability to be virtually invisible in the brush and that nobody had reacted to the figure by the side of the trail by fragging him. On the other hand, he was pissed that the Keldara, and even McKenzie, had just walked right past him. If he’d been an enemy they’d be in a world of hurt.

Part of the reason they hadn’t noticed him, he had to admit, was his camouflage. From the first he’d determined that the Keldara would have only the best equipment and he’d paid through the nose for it. The camouflage uniform, in particular, had been costly. There was an Italian firm that produced digi-cam, digitally enhanced camouflage, in virtually any pattern. The first uniforms he’d ordered had been standard digi-cam, U.S. military issue. But they hadn’t, in his opinion, been perfect for the local terrain. The U.S. digi-cam was designed to blend the wearer in any condition from city to mountain to desert. It wasn’t “dialed” for pure mountain/forest conditions.

The Italian firm had sent him several sets of digi-cam in various shades and patterns until he found one that he liked. Then he’d outfitted the Keldara in that. It had been expensive as hell, though. Besides the custom camouflage pattern, the fabric was comfortable, conformable and fire resistant. Each uniform cost about three times that of a standard U.S. digi-cam uniform, but he figured it was worth it. The Keldara were limited in number and were his primary outer defense. Besides, they were friends.

He let the last member of the team, who was correctly checking his back trail, pass by and then stepped out onto the trail. When the Keldara’s back was turned, he crouched and let out a slight “psst.”

The Keldara spun in place, raising his SPR to his shoulder and crouching to sweep behind him.

Mike, who was within arm’s reach, simply grabbed the barrel of the weapon and yanked it out of his hands.

“You’ve got lousy situational awareness, Yevgenii,” he hissed. The name of the Keldara was embroidered in glow-letters on the back of his boonie-cap. “Stand down.”

“Kildar!” the boy whispered. “I never saw you!”

“That’s why I’m the instructor and you’re the trainee, boy,” Mike said, quietly.

The Keldara forward of the trail had heard the byplay and slapped the shoulder of the Keldara in front of him, sending the signal up the line of troopers to halt for something to the rear.

Mike handed the weapon back and stepped up along the line of crouched troopers, tapping them on the shoudler as he passed.

“Piatras, how’s it going. Ionis, ready to do a man’s job tonight? Sergejus, keep your barrel down this time. Stephan, how’s the baby?

“McKenzie,” Mike said when he got to the command group in the middle of the patrol. “Sawn. Let’s get moving; they haven’t stopped.”

Sawn nodded and tapped forward and back. He waited until he’d gotten responses from either direction, then got the team moving.

They continued down the trail until they got to the stream and then moved off to the right through the woods, weaving in and out among the trees.

As they approached the trail that was being used by the Chechens, Sawn gathered the group into a cigar-shaped perimeter and had them drop their rucksacks. Leaving two personnel behind to keep an eye on the rucks, he brought the team forward to the trail.

He detailed two of the Keldara to move up the trail in the direction the Chechens should approach from, then laid out the rest of the team along the trail, about five meters into the woodline. At the far end he laid in a group across the trail, closing it in an “L” shape.

The ambush was set up on the downhill side from the trail, which wasn’t perfect, but it would probably do. They also didn’t have any claymores with them, which wasn’t great. Nor did they have heavy weapons; this training had been based on recon and light ambushes so the machine guns were back at the base. They did, however, have frag grenades. And the Chechens probably wouldn’t have NODs.

With no signal from the observers along the trail the Keldara started working on their positions. There was no time to dig real fighting positions but the Keldara rapidly scraped out shallow trenches, pushing the dirt up in small breastworks in front of them. The leaves they scraped off to the side. When they lay down in the trench they wrapped themselves in a ponchos lined with thermal blankets, then pulled the leaves back over themselves, covering themselves completely.

Sawn’s second, Dimant Ferani, followed behind, touching up the positions and ensuring that each position had minimal thermal output. The Chechens rarely used thermal imagery devices but it never hurt to be sure.

Mike had scraped out his own hasty fighting position, wrapped and covered. Under the cover he slipped out a frag grenade and held it in his right hand with his weapon by his right side. Then he settled down to wait.

The Keldara were as perfect as any group he’d ever met. From years of farming and hunting they had enormous patience and the ability to simply sit, or lie down in this case, for hours. They also tended to keep awake, which was a major benefit with ambushes; most ambushers tended to drift off and start snoring. But the Keldara just… waited, like expert hunters. He was again amazed by the absolute perfection of the group of rural farmers.

The Chechens, however, were not nearly as good. He could hear them coming long before the signal from the overwatch position that the target was entering the zone. He could also smell them: a tinge of woodsmoke, BO and harsh cigarettes. The latter was so strong he was sure one or more of them was actually smoking.

There was a series of clicks over the radio as Sawn signalled the team to prepare to engage. Mike could hear the sound of the mules’ hooves on rocks and couldn’t imagine that the normally vigilant animals didn’t know the Keldara were there. However, Sawn had obviously chosen the downhill side for more than one reason. There was a current of air coming down the mountainside and it blew from the trail to the ambushers. That was keeping their scent from reaching the mules. As long as everyone was silent, they were golden.

There was another series of faint clicks in his earphones and then a series of beeps. One, two, three…

Mike pulled the pin from the grenade and lifted himself to his knees, the leaves and poncho cascading away from him, then threw the grenade uphill into the mass of men and mules in front of him. With that done he ducked down into the hasty fighting position and flattened himself into the ground, as a series of sharp cracks filled the air with a hail of shrapnel.

As soon as the last grenade had detonated he slid his SPR over the side of the small mound in front of him and began picking out targets. The Chechens had gone to ground fast, but they didn’t have good cover along this section of the trail and if he couldn’t directly target someone, one of the Keldara to the side could. AK rounds cracked overhead but he ignored them, sweeping his weapon back and forth in a search for targets.

The mules complicated things, slightly. Some of them were down, kicking in pain from the riddling shrapnel. Others, however, had broken free and were running loose. One came barreling right over his position, stamping hard on his thigh as it passed.

He’d picked out three targets and downed them when he heard Sawn’s whistle for the team to sweep across the objective.

He lifted himself up and kept the weapon at present as he stepped forward. There was a wounded tango on the ground, hit by shrapnel or a round in the leg, he wasn’t sure which, with an AK on the ground next to him. Mike swept the UV light from his rifle flash on the tango, made an assessment that he wasn’t a leader, and put a round through his head.

He continued across the objective, checking the dead and wounded carefully, until he was well into the woods on the far side. He flipped the sight on the rifle to thermal imagery and swept it up the hillside, looking for hiding tangoes but didn’t find any.

Sawn’s whistle signalled recall and Mike headed back down the hill to the trail, checking his sector for recovery items. Besides the mules, the surviving ones of which the Keldara were gathering up, he was looking for any intel items such as paperwork. There didn’t seem to be much immediately obvious and he left off the search to go find Sawn and McKenzie.

“We’ve got three prisoners and two somethings,” McKenzie said as he approached.

“Somethings?” Mike asked.

“Two bints with the Chechens,” the Scottish former SAS sergeant said in his thick brogue. “One with a grenade fragment in her side. Ivan’s talking with them at the moment. I get the impression they weren’t wives or such like.”

“Slaves,” Ivan said, stepping up to the trainer’s side. “They were picked up on farms over towards the Pankisi Gorge. That and the food on the mules. They weren’t bought, the fucking black-asses raided and burned the farms.”

“Bloody hell,” Mike muttered. “Orphans and damaged goods.”

“More lassies for your harem, lad,” McKenzie grunted, humorously.

“Raped and abused ladies make difficult harem girls,” Mike pointed out, sighing. “What about the other prisoners?”

“One looks like the leader of the convoy,” McKenzie said. “The other two were hiding in the woods and put their hands up so fast nobody had the heart to shoot them.”

“Probably drivers,” Mike said. “Postbattle cleanup time. I’m going to head down to the road and try to intercept the response team on the way up to intercept the trucks.”

“They might not be coming tonight, lad,” McKenzie pointed out.

“But they will eventually,” the Kildar said.

* * *

Mike made it to the road just as the first vehicle of the reaction convoy rounded the nearest corner. He stepped out in the road and waved at it as it approached, hoping like hell they wouldn’t either run him down or frag him.

“Kildar,” Ivar Makanee said as the vehicle rolled to a stop.

“Need a ride to my Expedition if you please,” Mike said. The vehicle was a Ford F-350 flare-side and he waved at the point leader to stay in his seat as he climbed in the back.

“Keldara Base, this is Kildar,” Mike said, settling into the load of weapons and ammo in the rear.

* * *

“Kildar, this is Keldara Base,” Gildana said. It was past her time to be relieved but Vanner had kept her on the radio since she was fully “dialed in” on the situation. The truth was, he couldn’t have pried her out of the seat.

“I’ve linked up with Team Oleg point,” the Kildar replied. “I’m going to head up to the roadblock and check out operations up there. Russell’s with Team Padrek, correct?”

Gildana looked at her ops screen and nodded to herself.

“Correct, Kildar,” she said, looking around the room. She’d put the call in on the announcement system since it was from the Kildar and she caught Colonel Nielson’s eye, raising her eyebrows to see if he had anything he wanted to pass on. But the colonel just shook his head.

“I’ll head up there and hang around to see if anything happens right off,” the Kildar continued. “Make sure that Padrek knows it’s us coming up the road, please.”

“Roger, Kildar.”

“Kildar, out.”

She changed frequencies to Padrek by hitting the appropriate icon and took the system off announce.

“Padrek, Keldara Base.”

“Padrek Five, go.”

“Kildar and Team Oleg are on the way, ETA five to seven minutes. Status?”

“All clear so far,” Padrek Five replied. That was Bori Mahona, a distant cousin, like most of the Keldara. He was a serious young man, more studious than most of the Keldara, and she could practically see his furrowed brow over the radio.

“Kildar asks that you not fire on their vehicles,” she added, twitting him slightly.

“We’re prepared for their arrival, Keldara Base,” Bori replied tightly. “Anything else?”

“Negative,” she said, secretly happy to have pricked his seriousness. “Keldara Base, out.”

“How are you feeling, Gildana?” Vanner asked, sitting down in the station chair by her.

“Good, sir,” Gildana replied.

“You need relief?” he asked.

“No, sir,” she said as the icon for Team Sawn started to flash. “Go Sawn.”

“If you flag out, tell me,” Vanner said, sitting back.

“Keldara Base, this is Sawn Five,” Gavi Makanee said over the radio. Gavi was a first cousin, about her age and they’d been raised almost as brother and sister. She could see him now, short-cut red hair tousled by his boonie hat, camouflage paint on his face, probably crouched over a scrap of paper carefully doing it all “by the book.”

“Go Sawn Five,” she said, bringing up the mission report screen.

“Enemy KIA twenty-nine,” Gavi said. “Enemy WIA one. Papa Whiskey three. Hotel two. Friendly KIA, zero. Friendly WIA, two, non-critical, say again, non-critical. Ammunition, green. Supplies, green. Large quantity of small arms, food and some contraband. Twelve pack animals functional. Caching or destroying immovable material and moving to road for pickup.”

“Roger, Sawn Five,” Gildana said, bringing up another screen and dispatching a group of vehicles to go pick up Team Sawn.

* * *

“Hey, Padrek,” Mike said as he rolled off the back of the truck.

“Kildar,” the team leader said, ducking his head. “Would you like to take a look at our positions?”

Mike glanced at the team’s trainer and then shook his head.

“This is your game, Padrek,” Mike said. “The next time you’re going to have to do it all on your own, so you might as well start now. I’m just another shooter on this one.”

“Yes, Kildar,” the leader said, swallowing nervously. “I’ve laid in positions on both sides of the road and prepared a tree for a roadblock. I’ll get with Oleg and get his vehicles in position to reinforce the block.”

“Go for it,” Mike said, wandering to the roadside with a wave. He hunkered down on a rock, dropped his ruck and stretched his shoulders. To think a few hours ago he was screwing the hell out of a young redhead. What the hell was he doing here?

A couple of the farm trucks were placed to block the road while the two teams began cutting trees to make negotiable S curves that would slow vehicles approaching the position. A forward position was also under construction, the “chicken” pit where a single soldier would be placed to order vehicles into the roadblock.

Meanwhile, the heavy weapons gunners of Team Oleg were building positions along the roadside. If anyone tried to force the block, the Keldera would catch them with raking fire as they tried to negotiate the S cover obstacles.

Last, the drivers of the three remaining Team Oleg vehicles waited in place in case anyone passed them. They could pursue or be used as a secondary blocking point.

Mike’s big worry was truck bombs. The defenses were spread out but one truck bomb could cut a swath through the core of the Keldara families. Which would put a pretty large black mark on the record of the Kildar.

Which he wasn’t going to fix by worrying about it.

“I’ve redeployed the group,” McKenzie said, coming over to his position in the trees and dropping his ruck. “I’m moving Sawn up forward to close the block if anybody tries to run and putting Oleg’s boys on the block itself.”

“Works,” Mike said. “Get the spare vehicles out of sight and if they get a solid block in place move the ones blocking the road.”

“Will do,” McKenzie said. “You really expect them soon?”

“No reason the mule train is going to want to wait around, especially this close to us,” Mike said, leaning back on his own ruck. “It’s been a long day. Wake me up if anything interesting happens.”

Chapter Five

“Kildar?”

Mike had awakened when he heard stirring and sat up immediately, checking his weapon.

The vehicles were gone from the block and large timber and boulder blocks were in place on the road. All he could see in view were a few of the Keldara, though.

“There are three trucks coming down the road,” Dmitri said, quietly. “Gregor’s taxi passed through late last night but we expected him. He ran Captain Tyurin into Tbilisi yesterday.” Tyurin was the local police chief. Venal to a fault on minor items, he was a strong supporter of the Keldara militia and its fight against the Chechens. With a regal bearing and uniforms far finer than his official salary could afford he appeared to base his actions in life on Inspector Louis “I am Shocked, Shocked” said Renault from Casablanca.

Mike checked his watch and saw it was just before dawn.

“Okay, that looks like show-time,” he said, getting to his feet and checking the SPR. “Where is everyone?”

“Most are in defensive positions,” Dmitri said. “Oleg left only five in view. All of Sawn’s force are in hides or dug in. Sergeant Vanner has sent Lilia up with some technical gear.”

“What?” Mike asked, following Dmitri into the woods.

The intel specialist was in an open hole about thirty meters from the road about halfway up the switchbacks. Mike could hear the trucks approaching down the grade as they got to the position.

“Good morning, Kildar,” the young woman said, smiling at him in the faint predawn light. She had light red hair that was tied in a bun under her boonie cap and, like all the Keldara women, was almost startlingly beautiful. She looked like an out-of-place fairytale princess dressed in digi-cam.

“What did you bring?” Mike asked curiously.

“Intercept and jamming gear,” the girl said, waving at a blinking box at her feet. “And an umbrella mike so we can overhear their conversation.”

“Great,” Mike said, picking up the directional microphone and waving it towards the waiting Keldara. However, all he could hear from the troops awaiting the trucks was breathing. The Keldara were almost scary. They’d lived together so long that they could communicate at a level that sometimes seemed like telepathy. He saw one of them turn and look at another and make a chin gesture, which was all it took for the other two to redeploy.

The trucks were making too much noise at this range for him to overhear the drivers but he saw them brake as the Keldara in the chicken pit lit off a magnesium flare.

“Five gets you ten they try to run,” McKenzie said, peering through a night scope.

“No transmission from the lead truck,” Lilia said, looking at her scopes. “No transmissions at all.”

“Start jamming on all non-Keldara freqs,” Mike said, crouching down and directing the microphone at the trucks, trying to pick up chatter.

“The driver of the lead truck just asked the guy next to him something,” McKenzie said.

“Saw that,” Mike replied, directing the microphone at them. But there was still too much noise from the truck motor for him to hear anything useful. The passenger in the lead truck took his time answering, though. And when he said something, the truck pulled forward.

“Okay, the passenger in the lead is a leader,” the Kildar said. “Get that out to the trooops. I’d like him alive.”

“Yes, Kildar,” Dmitri said, keying his communications.

* * *

“What is this?” the driver of the lead truck demanded as he pulled up next to the small timber and sandbag bunker placed in the middle of the road.

“Inspection for contaband,” Juris Makanee said, easily. “Proceed one vehicle at a time around the barriers. If more than one truck enters the barrier area both will be fired upon. Stop halfway down the barriers for preinspection, then you can proceed to the final block for clearance.”

“I’m sure that something can be arranged,” the driver said, handing over his license with a folded bill behind it.

Juris looked at the license as he absently handed the fifty ruble note back.

“You’re cleared to move to the next check point,” Juris said, looking the man in the eye. He wasn’t Russian or Georgian, probably a black-ass Chechen bastard. But the orders were to stop and inspect, not shoot them out of hand as he’d prefer. “And if you try to bribe the next guard, he’ll put a bullet through your head. Move out.”

The driver angrily put the truck in gear and jerked forward as Juris waved for the next truck to stop.

* * *

“Checkpoint,” Mikhail Solovi said, looking across the compartment at Vyatkin.

Vyatkin put his head out the flap of the military truck and looked at the setup.

“This isn’t Georgian National Guard, whoever it is,” Vyatkin said, sitting back down and looking at the Chechen black-asses in the back of the truck. “Who is it?”

“Keldara,” one of them said, frowning. “I told Mashadem we couldn’t move through here, but they wouldn’t listen.”

“Are these the new militia in the area?” Solovi asked, shaking his head. “Bribe them.”

“They won’t take bribes,” one of the Chechens said, fingering his AK. “They are led by an American, the Kildar. They are very loyal. We are totally fucked. They don’t take prisoners.”

“There were only five I saw,” Vyatkin said, looking at Solovi.

“There will be more hidden around the checkpoint,” Solovi said. “We need to not be caught in this, Eduard.”

“Agreed,” Vyatkin said, looking at the Chechens. “You never saw us, understand?”

“Have a good walk back to Russia,” the Chechen said as the two dropped over the back of the truck. “You Russian bastards,” he added when they were out of sight.

* * *

“Interesting,” Mike said. The reception at the back of the trucks was clear as gin. “The last vehicle’s filled with troops. Two guys just jumped off the back. Let them get in the woods and then tell Sawn I want them both alive. When the first truck has been checked for explosives, let the second one up to the midpoint check point. Check it while the first one is being cleared, then engage. Blow the shit out of the trail truck, but just kill the drivers of the other two and take down the passengers. I want all that done in one hit.”

“Understood, Kildar,” Dmitri said, keying his communicator.

* * *

“We’re clear,” Vyatkin said, stopping to pant.

“You are out of shape, Eduard,” Solovi said, looking back at the trucks. The lead truck had reached the final checkpoint and he briefly considered whether they should have stayed in the truck. But not even the stupidest guard could miss the armed Chechens in the rear truck. They had supposedly been “guarding” them on the way to the meeting, but they’d spent most of their time being as insulting as they could manage in a hamfisted way.

As Mikhail watched, the militiaman searching the second truck climbed out of the back and walked over to the driver’s side. As soon as he reached it, there was a series of pops and the passenger side doors were yanked open by more guards who dragged the occupants out and threw them on the ground. The drivers were clearly dead.

Before the Chechen guards in the trailing truck could react, RPG rounds slammed out from both sides of the road, turning the rear of the trucks into burning shrapnel. The Chechens who made it out of the back were quickly silenced by heavy fire from machine guns, their bodies dancing as the bullets slammed into them from either side.

Yob tvoyu mat,” Eduard whispered, looking at the carnage.

“Set up,” Mikhail said, angrily. “They knew we were coming. There must be a platoon hidden in those trees.”

“Closer to a company, actually,” a voice said from behind them.

“Fuck.”

* * *

“This situation brings out the cliché in me,” Mike said, gazing in wonder at the two Russians. “But I’ll try to leave it at one. I’ve got a gun, a backhoe and over a thousand hectares to get rid of the bodies. So why don’t you just tell me what you’re doing here and I’ll be up by a couple of bullets and some diesel on the deal.”

“You’re American,” Mikhail said, sneeringly. “You won’t kill us. Just call the damned Georgians and turn us over to them.”

“You’re so sure of that, tovarisch,” Mike said, drawing his .45. “Okay, two clichés. I’ll try to keep it down. Last chance.”

“You’re not going to…” Mikhail said, just as the Kildar, without looking, pointed the weapon and shot Vyatkin through the knee.

As the screaming man fell back on the hold of his two Keldara handlers, Mike pointed the weapon at his head.

“This is the deal,” Mike said. “I was listening to you in the truck, so I know you’re the leader, ‘Mikhail.’ So why don’t you keep your fat friend from having his head blown off, and various unpleasantries to you, by telling me why a couple of Russian hitters are traveling with Chechens.”

Yob tvoyu mat” Mikhail said, panting.

“Jeeze, you’re stupid,” Mike said, pointing the pistol at Dmitri and dropping him with a round through the teeth that blew out the back of his head, spattering the Keldara and the surviving Russian with brains.

“You son of a bitch!” Mikhail snarled, struggling in the grip of the two Keldara.

“Your turn, comrade,” Mike said, pointing the .45 at the Russian’s knee. “You’ve got four major joints. And even after I shoot them, there are various unpleasant things I can do to you. Huh-one, huh-two… no? Three.”

The Russian screamed as the .45 blew his knee joint to splinters and sagged in the grip of the Keldara, but they held him upright.

“Damn, you’re dumb,” Mike shook his head. “You’re going to die. You’ve got to know that. And I know you don’t have some honor code to stick to. Now, me, I’d take a lot before I’d give up the location of some SEAL buddies. But you? You’ve got nothing to look to but money. What’s the point in suffering for something you’re not going to earn, anyway? Tell me what I want to know and I’ll put a bullet through your head and put you out of pain. I don’t promise more than that, but you can hope.”

“Fuck you,” the Russian panted.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Mike said, kicking him squarely in his wounded knee.

This time the Russian fell to the ground, writhing, despite the best efforts of the Keldara to hold him upright.

“Plug the hole before he bleeds out,” Mike said, stepping away. “Don’t let his apparent pain give him an opening. But let’s try to keep him alive for a bit.”

Three Keldara pinned the writhing Russian to the ground while a fourth worked on the knee, plugging it with coagulating-impregnated cotton and then wrapping it in a pressure bandage. It was still bleeding, but not as copiously, when the Keldara was done.

“Feeling better?” Mike asked, stepping up to the Russian and then kicking him, hard, in the bandaged kneecap.

When the screaming died down Mike sqatted near the Russian’s head and shook his own.

“Come on, Mikhail,” Mike said, sympathetically. “Why were you with the Chechens? What in the hell is going to make them let a couple of Russians ride with them?”

“Weapons…” Mikhail grunted.

“Oh, give me a break,” Mike said, shaking his head. “Hold out his arm, it’s the elbow next…”

“No!” Mikhail gasped. “Special weapons. That’s all I know. There is a trade. Money for special weapons.”

“How much money?” Mike asked.

“I don’t know,” Mikhail said, desperately. “I was just to meet about security arrangements.”

“The Russian mob is selling the Chechens weapons?” Mike asked, musingly. “Vladimir is going to love that.”

“Not mob,” Mikhail said. “Sergei. Sergei Karensky. He is handling security for someone, I don’t know who. Eduard was to discuss money. He said only that it was very much. Very much.”

“Not enough, Mikhail,” Mike said, putting the hot barrel of the .45 to the Russian’s elbow. “What kind of weapons? How much money?”

“I don’t KNOW!” he screamed. “Much money!”

“Where was the meet going to go down?” Mike asked.

“Somewhere near Arensia,” Mikhail gasped.

“That’s right in the Pankisi, Mikhail,” Mike pointed out. “There is no security in that region. How were they getting in, chopper?”

“Cars,” Mikhail gasped. “Land Rovers. From the Russian sector. Sergei set it up. Right at the edge of the Pankisi Gorge.”

“And why didn’t you go in that way?” Mike asked.

“Too risky,” Mikhail said. “He can do it once, but only once. Please, I’ve answered your questions. I ask only that you not kill me.”

“I rarely leave enemies alive, Mikhail,” Mike said, sympathetically. “You know how it is. You just can’t trust a live enemy. You can trust a dead one.”

“Kildar,” Oleg pointed out from behind him. “He will remember more things. Perhaps if Vanner questioned him more at base, there would be useful information he could extract.”

“Hmmm…” Mike said, standing up. “Mikhail, here’s the deal. Vanner’s a very nice guy. Bit of a geek, bit squeamish. If you’re very nice to Sergeant Vanner, perhaps I’ll let you live and let you retain the use of your dick. Do you think you can be open-minded about that?”

“Yes,” Mikhail squeezed out.

“And, who knows, you might even walk without a limp,” Mike said, holstering the .45. “They do remarkable reconstructive surgery these days. I had a buddy who was a SEAL instructor who lost his lower leg in Afghanistan and a year later it hardly slowed down his runs. Of course, he lost it to a fucking mine you dip-shit Russians planted. You scattered them all over the fucking country. So you’ll understand if I’m less than caring if you do walk with a limp for the rest of your life. Oleg, get this piece of shit out of my sight.”

* * *

“McKenzie,” Mike said when he found the former SAS sergeant.

“Heard the shots,” McKenzie said, scooping up a spoonful of beef stew. “And the screams. Anyone live?”

“One,” Mike said. “And this is now a sanitization situation. Not because of the bodies, but the Russkies were setting up a meet with the Chechens involving ‘special weapons.’ We might have queered that by hitting these two.”

“Pity,” the NCO said, folding the pouch and putting it away. “What do you want to do?”

“I want everything to disappear,” Mike said. “Get the Keldara up here. All the bodies go in the ground, the trucks disappear, the mules disappear. The girls go into the caravanserai with the remaining Russian.”

“What about the bearers and the Chechen leader types?”

“Take them back to the caravanserai,” Mike said. “There are all those cellars and what-not. We’ll see what we can get from them.”

* * *

“You’re one cold son of a bitch,” Adams said, admiringly. “You just tangoed that one bastard and shot up the other?”

“Russians aren’t going to work with the Chechens unless they’re secret emissaries or there’s a hell of a lot of money involved,” Mike said, forking up a piece of egg with steak. “If they were from the government they were going to ID themselves right off. We’d protect them like gold and they know it. Ergo, they were with the mob or something along those lines. And that meant big money which meant something special.”

“WMDs again?” Adams asked.

“At a guess,” Mike replied, shaking his head. “A Russian would sell his own mother for the right money.” He looked up as Vanner entered the kitchen, holding sheets of paper. “Get anything good?”

“After they saw what you did to the Russian, all the Chechens opened up. It was a basic supply run with the added mission of getting the Russians to some of the top Chechen guys over in the Pankisi.” The former Marine was red-eyed and gratefully accepted a cup of coffee from Mother Savina as he sat down unceremoniously. “The dead Russian wasn’t much help but he did have this,” Vanner added, sliding a plastic card across the table.

“And this is?” Mike asked, looking at the unmarked card with a series of numbers on it.

“I’m surprised you’ve never seen one,” Vanner said, amused. “They’re issued to keep track of Swiss bank account numbers.”

“Not from Zurich Mercantile,” Mike said.

“Mercantile does it sometimes,” Vanner said. “Those are from Bank Suisse, though. I don’t have the codes to open up the accounts, but those are four different accounts in Bank Suisse containing any number of dollars.”

“Or none,” Mike said. “If they were selling something, there could only be starter cash in them. You can open one with a hundred euros.”

“But that is where the money was going, presumably,” Vanner said. “The ‘big money’ this Mikhail guy keeps babbling about. The Chechens confirm that there were ‘special weapons’ involved, but they don’t know what. The rumors range from MANPADs to nukes.”

“Find out from our buddy Mikey who else this Sergei guy might use for a contact,” Mike said, finishing off his breakfast. “In the meantime, I’m going to go round up one of the girls and screw myself to sleep.”

“No rest for the donkeys, huh?” Vanner asked.

“I didn’t say you had to do it right now,” Mike pointed out. “Let him sweat a while. Without painkillers.”

Chapter Six

“Crap!” Mike suddenly muttered, stopping his stroke.

“Kildar?” Jana said, writhing under him. “Kildar, you’ve stopped.”

“I know,” Mike said, propping himself up on his elbows. “I told Genadi that I’d meet with some of the elders this afternoon. In about thirty minutes, in fact. Damnit!”

“Surely after last night, they won’t mind if you cancel,” Jana said, humping into him. “You have time.”

“But I didn’t tell them I was canceling,” Mike said, sourly. “That means they’ll be here, come hell or high water. I was so bent on getting it in I forgot.”

Firefights always made him horny. He’d been told that was a natural reaction and as a SEAL he’d learned to suppress it, to an extent. But under the current circumstances there was no particular reason to. Which was why as soon as he’d gotten done with Vanner and breakfast, he’d gone to the harem, literally grabbed Jana and dragged her upstairs.

He’d already come once but he could feel at least one more in there and he’d been heading for it happily, with the intent of following it with about twenty hours of sleep, when he remembered the meeting.

“We’re going to have to cut this short,” Mike said. “Sorry.”

“You are the Kildar,” Jana said, shrugging. “And it is not as if I have not had mine…”

* * *

“Father Kulcyanov, Father Mahona, Genadi,” Mike said as he entered the parlor, “it is good to see you again. Oleg, long time no see.” When he saw Oleg he was especially glad he hadn’t cancelled; the kid had been out on ops for a week and had a “murthering great” skirmish in the morning. The least the Kildar could do was show up after all that.

The meeting was being held in one of the three small parlors in the caravanserai. One had been set aside more or less permanently as a “recreation room,” read bar, for the trainers. The second was commonly used by the harem girls. This one was for when Mike had a small number of guests to entertain. Such as the elders, all of whom could easily fit in the comfortable room.

The room overlooked the gardens by the harem quarters. When Mike had arrived, the gardens had been suffering from decades of neglect. The somewhat inexpert care of the Keldara yardsman hadn’t gotten them back to any condition of glory, but they were much better than when he’d arrived. The roses were coming along well and they filled the room with scent.

He’d taken a very fast shower and his hair was still wet. He hoped it wasn’t as obvious that he’d just jumped out of bed. However, given the way that the Keldara talked amongst themselves, if not to outsiders, he was pretty sure they knew damned well where he’d been. He hoped they wouldn’t take it as an insult. He was only a few minutes late, after all.

“You gentlemen asked for this meeting,” Mike said, sitting down on the couch and pouring a cup of tea.

“Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov said formaly. “We come to speak of the customs of the Keldara.”

Father Kulcyanov was not the oldest of the Family leaders, but he was acknowledged as the senior for all matters of protocol and custom. He was, in fact, the high priest of the Keldara’s ancient worship. A tall man, he was clearly shrunken from his original growth with clear signs of cardiovascular failure. Once he must have been as large as Oleg, perhaps bigger, and he had been one of the few Keldara to fight in the “Great Patriotic War,” WWII, from which he had returned with a chestful of medals.

“I am always observant of the customs of the Keldara,” Mike said, carefully. In fact, he had trampled all over a few, but only when it seemed the only way to accomplish what had to be accomplished. In one case, he’d trampled all over their fear of debt by taking a girl with a burst appendix to the hospital in Tbilisi. He wasn’t about to let the girl die just because the Keldara couldn’t afford the cost. He’d unknowingly trampled all over another by taking her friend, Lydia, Oleg’s fiancée, along as a chaperone. It turned out that for an unmarried female he couldn’t have picked a worse one.

That had, he thought, been smoothed over. But the presence of Oleg argued against it.

“As you know, Oleg Kulcyanov is fasted to Lydia Mahona,” Father Kulcyanov continued. “There is a problem in that regard. It involves bride price.”

Mike looked at Genadi. The farm manager had been a Keldara before being forced off the farm by his predecessor. However, he hadn’t just been tossed off the farm but formally cast from the Families. The move had been forced on them by his predecessor, but it put him in a good position from Mike’s perspective; he knew the customs but was no longer bound by them. And he could generally talk freely about them without offending the Keldara since he was no longer one of them.

He was also a graduate of the University of Tbilisi and had thought long and hard about the customs so he had an understanding that often eluded both Mike and the Keldara.

“It’s a dowry,” Genadi said. “It’s a long held and very serious custom, but it has a purpose. It’s generally fixed at a year’s income for the male. In the first few years of setting up a household, there’s a strong loss of income from both sides. The bride generally becomes pregnant quickly and there are household items that are needed. The male also tends to have a fall off of quality of work.”

“I’m going to need Oleg at high function this year,” Mike said. “But I get your point. How much do you need?”

“This is not a situation where the Kildar can simply gift the bride and groom,” Father Mahona said, grimacing. He was one of the younger elders and he and Mike had a very good relationship. So if he was that blunt, Mike probably was in a minefield. “Bride price is a very personal item. If you gifted Lydia without recompense then it would, effectively, make her your bride. Oleg could never marry her in that condition.”

“Not gonna happen,” Mike said, looking at Oleg who was looking very unhappy. “Oleg, where do you stand in this?”

“I will let the elders explain, Kildar,” Oleg said. The guy looked really unhappy.

“Okay, first things first,” Mike said. “Oleg is my top team leader. I’m cognizant of the customs of the Keldara, but anything that reduces Oleg’s functionality or loyalty is out the window.”

“This will reduce neither, Kildar,” Oleg said, definitely, looking Mike in the eye. “This is a long-held custom and one that binds the Keldara. The custom they wish to speak of binds the Keldara to the Kildar. And you are both my commander and my friend. I am in support of it.”

“What custom?” Mike asked, cautiously.

“The Kardane,” Genadi said, grimacing. “In Western cultures it would be called the ‘droit de seigneur.’ ”

Mike frowned for a second as he tried to remember where he’d heard the phrase and then blanched.

“You’ve got to be joking,” he snapped.

“They’re not,” Genadi said in rapid English. “It’s an old custom. A really old custom, one that hasn’t been used since the days of the Tsars. But it’s custom and they can live with it.”

“Kildar, the Kardane is fully acceptable to all involved,” Father Kulcyanov said. “The prospective bride spends one night with the Kildar and the Kildar then gifts her with her bride price. This is a trade for a trade, the opening of the prospective bride for sufficient funds to set up her household. It must be consensual on both sides.”

Mike opened his mouth to reply angrily and then shut it. He was the Kildar. He owned the land they lived on and even the houses they lived in. he could simply order them to ignore this stupidity and they might. Or he might find himself in a bitter multiyear war with disaffected troops he had to trust like his own brothers. So… don’t assault the position, find a way around.

“Okay, Lydia comes up to the caravanserai…”

“Don’t go there,” Genadi said, in rapid English again. “It has to be as it was stated. Don’t try to twist it or you’ll run into real crap.”

Mike sighed. “Explain.”

“It has to be value for value,” Father Mahona said, seriously. “Full value must be given in both directions or it would be a violation of honor. In both directions.”

“Translation,” Genadi said, in Georgian. “If you don’t open Lydia, she’ll be looked upon as too useless to be a woman of the Keldara. She’ll be looked upon as unfit since you rejected her in that way. Her honor will be violated by being alone with you and twice violated for being found wanting.”

“And she and Oleg don’t get married,” Mike said, looking over at Oleg. “You’re going along with this?”

“I am most worried that you will refuse, Kildar,” Oleg said.

“Not that I’m going to… be with Lydia?” Mike asked incredulously.

“I would consider it an honor,” Oleg said, seriously. “As would Lydia. We have discussed this.”

“Crap,” Mike muttered. “What is it with women wanting to jump in the bed of the Kildar? Why couldn’t this have happened when I was seventeen?”

Both questions were rhetorical since he’d already discussed it to death with everyone from Genadi to Nielson. The Kildar was very high status, not only among the Keldara but among the other groups in the region in contact with them. The girls he’d rescued from the Chechen slavers had practically fought one another for the right to be first in his bed. And plenty of the Keldara girls had made it clear they wouldn’t object to even a casual roll in the hay, which was normally verboten among the Keldara. The touch of the king was magic and in the region the Kildar was regarded as more of a king than anyone since Louis the XIV.

“How do you stand with this, Kildar?” Father Kulcyanov asked, again formally. “The arrangement is that Lydia will spend one night with you, upon which night you will open her. For this boon you will grant her the boon of her bride price, which is at a mimnimum five hundred rubles.”

“Lydia’s worth a lot more than that,” Mike muttered. She was, arguably, one of the three prettiest of the Keldara women, which put her in the top one percent internationally. Most of the Keldara girls could easily be supermodels.

“Very well, but I have conditions upon this ceremony. For one thing, we will make it a ceremony. If this is to be done, it should be done well.”

“What do you mean?” Genadi asked curiously.

Mike hadn’t been sure but when the question was asked the broad outlines dropped in as if he had seen them somewhere. Maybe in a dream, maybe in a book, he wasn’t sure. But it was right.

“Genadi, obtain two horses,” he said. “A gelding for me, black by preference but most important is that it’s rideable and good looking. Obtain a… I think they call it a palfrey as well, white by preference. In the meantime, if Lydia doesn’t know how to ride sidesaddle, get her instruction, I don’t care from where or how much it costs. I will get with Mother Savina on the preparations for Lydia, over and above riding lessons. For one thing, there are… call them other riding lessons. She’s not going to come to my bed entirely ignorant and terrified. Anastasia will handle part of that, but I’ll put Mother Savina in charge. There will be special clothing involved for both of us. And when I come to her house to pick her up, there will be a small ceremony. I’ll work on that. This won’t take place for at least a couple of weeks. We need to get the horses and riding lessons, first.”

“Is this an American custom?” Father Kulcyanov asked, confused.

“No,” Mike said. “This is a me custom and you will abide by it.”

* * *

“More hot, young, virgin pussy?” Adams asked as Mike entered the kitchen the next morning.

“Oh, bite me,” Mike muttered, pouring a cup of coffee.

“And I thought that not having to fight over time with Bambi and Flopsy was the good life,” Adams continued.

“We’re talking about Oleg, here, damnit,” Mike replied. “If I don’t handle this just right I’m going to lose the support of my top team leader.”

“He’s fully on board,” Adams said. “I was talking about it with Mother Savina. She thinks it’s a great idea.”

“Jesus, this culture is sick,” Mike muttered quietly, so that Mother Savina, who was pottering around in the kitchen, wouldn’t hear him.

“Not really,” Adams said, shrugging. “Odd. Quaint. But hardly sick. If it was sick, they would have found a less pleasant way to manage this. What gets me is how well we get along.”

“Huh?” Mike said, frowning. “Not that I’m not good for a distraction right now.”

“You’ve spent some time in the sandbox,” the chief said, shrugging again. “What do you think about your average towel-head versus the Keldara?”

“No comparison,” Mike said, puzzled. “The Keldara are can-do. They don’t try to stab you in the back. If there’s a problem, they fix it or if they can’t they get your assistance with it and pitch in as much as possible.”

“There’s other stuff, yeah,” Adams said. “But do they remind you of anyone over there?”

“Not really,” Mike said, making a moue of distaste. “If I was comparing them to the towel-heads, it’d be insulting.”

“Ever do much with the Kurds?”

“No,” Mike admitted, thinking about it. “I was training a group that had a couple in it. But not for long.”

“The Kurds are the same way,” Adams mused, leaning back. “With the regular Arabs and what have you in Iraq, you’re always negotiating. You need something done, you have to scratch a back first, or grease a palm. With the Kurds it’s like… BAM! You need something that’s in their interest, they’re right there in support, be it a firefight or power-plant construction. We just… get along better with the Kurds than we do with the Arabs. Gurkhas the same way. You don’t get it with most tribal groups, but you do with, oh, say the Massai. And the Kurds. And the Gurkhas. And now with the Keldara. It’s like some sort of secret handshake. That’s why I agreed with you about the whole commando thing and why I don’t let it sweat me when they come up with something like this. The one thing that I never particularly liked about the Kurds is the way they treat their women; the Keldara are at least better at that.”

“Well, I’m glad you think it’s such a great idea, since you’re going to have a part of the whole thing.”

“Whoa!” the former chief snapped. “I’m not going to touch Lydia.”

“Much as I like her, it’s not Lydia that I’m worried about,” Mike said. “Mother Savina, come over here. We’ve got a ceremony to figure out.”

* * *

Mike had a full schedule for the day. Among other things, he hadn’t been keeping up with the progress of the brewery.

When he’d arrived in the valley he’d been surprised by several things. One, of course, was the general good looks of the Keldara. The women were outstanding but even the men were so good looking they could have been actors playing their roles. In most “peasant” cultures, the nature of the work tended to make both men and women hard and ugly. So did the inbreeding characteristic of such cultures. The Keldara were a rare exception that proved the rule.

The second thing he had been astounded by, however, was the quality of the local beer. Georgia was far better known for its wines than its beer and it had been a long time since he’d had really good beer when he arrived. But the beer in the tavern in town had been outstanding, as good as any to be had in an American or German microbrewery. However, when he began interacting with the Keldara he’d discovered that the beer in town was their “bad” stuff; the pure quill was so good it should be illegal.

It wasn’t pure beer by German standards, having some additional berries and herbs that were limited to the local area added. But it was truly amazing stuff. Mike had seen the possibilities from the day he took over. The Keldara were depressingly poor by modern standards. His introduction of modern equipment and methods in farming would help alleviate that somewhat, but they really needed a source of capital. They made outstanding beer, people paid good money for good beer. Ergo, they needed a brewery and a distribution program.

The problem was, what Mike knew about either could be written on the inside of a matchbook in crayon. And the Keldara women who brewed the beer did it in small batches.

His answer, as usual, was to delegate. As part of the Keldara spring festival, which was so old it matched pre-Christian festivals found only in ethnology textbooks, a “king” was chosen as well as a “goat,” the latter called the “caillean.” One of the Keldara militia members, Gurum, an otherwise intelligent and capable fellow, had been chosen as the bannock caillean when he found a bean in his bannock.

The caillean was regarded as an omen of bad luck by the more conservative Keldara and the team Gurum had been assigned to had pinned every problem they encountered on him. So he’d been almost impossible to integrate into the teams.

However, the women were much less attuned to the problem of having a caillean around. So Mike had given him a quick class in internet research, a reasonable budget and put him to work on the brewery problem. Gurum had asked a couple of questions in the beginning but since the battle with the Chechens Mike hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him. And while he’d seen some construction on the brewery site — a bench near the road to town that had once been a toll station — he didn’t think it was complete.

When he pulled onto the bench, he was surprised by the almost abandoned air of the place. There was a partial building completed, two storeys, more or less, with stone walls and a roof at least, but the doors at the front weren’t installed nor were the windows. There were some construction sounds coming from the interior, however, so Mike parked and walked in the front door.

“ ’Ware, Kildar!” a voice called from above, just as a balk of timber crashed to the floor a few feet from him.

“Thanks for the heads up,” Mike said, looking up. One of the older Keldara males was looking through a large hole in the second floor with an abashed expression on his face.

“Vassily, you were nearly out one Kildar,” Mike said. “Watch where you’re thowing logs next time!”

There was far more work completed than Mike had thought. The upper floors were mostly in and were heavily reinforced with thick crossbeams that were not much more than adzed down tree trunks. The supporting pillars, which were rather close together towards the front, were much the same. Some of the bark was still evident in spots. The right-hand side of the building was open to the ceiling in a loft configuration. Mike wasn’t sure what that was for, but he was willing to assume someone did.

“Kildar,” a voice called from the back. “We were wondering when you would drop by.”

“Hello, Vatrya,” Mike said as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Vatrya was one of the older unmarried Keldara females. He wondered if she was in the same boat as Lydia and hoped that, if so, the brewery would be making enough money soon so the same compromise wouldn’t be necessary. On the other hand, he had to admit that the honey-blonde was a fine figure of a young woman. Long legs under that skirt and nice high ones. Not to mention a heart-shaped face and just lovely dark blue eyes.

He realized he was slipping over to his dark side rather quickly. The idea of breaking in several of the Keldara women was more than attractive. But that was the problem; it could quickly become addictive. It would be easy enough to use the excuse to abuse the privilege and he had worked too hard to cultivate the Keldara’s respect to lose it that way.

Vatrya was accompanied by a tall, spare, man Mike didn’t recognize. From his clothing, a casual polo shirt and tan slacks, he probably wasn’t a Keldara.

“You haven’t even met Mr. Brock,” Vatrya said, gesturing the man forward. “Kildar, this is Herr Gerhard Brock of the Alten Brewery Company.”

“Herr Brock,” Mike said, offering his hand.

Brock shook it deliberately in the manner of a European and nodded.

“You are the Kildar,” the man said in English with a strong German accent. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“And you Herr Brock,” Mike replied, trying to keep the confusion off his face.

“The brewery apparatus is in transit at the moment,” Mr. Brock said, waving to the rear. “As stated in the contracts, we had the vats and piping in stock. I am assured that locally manufactured materials are available for the barley bins. And, of course, the ovens are being constructed by the Keldara.”

“The Keldara are very good at general construction,” Mike said, nodding.

“I strongly suggest that you take Gurum’s suggestion in regards to the annual convention,” Herr Brock continued, stone faced. “It would be the perfect venue for your aims in regards to marketing. Time is, of course, short, but I am being assured that you are capable of managing the requirements.”

“We’re very adaptable,” Mike said, nodding. “And we are used to short decision cycles.”

“I am to look on the oven construction,” Brokc said, nodding in farewell. “I look forward to further conversation with you, Mr. Kildar.”

“It’s just Kildar,” Mike said as the man strode towards the back of the building again. “Vatrya?”

“Yes, Kildar?” the girl asked, her eyes wide and smiling.

“What did I just talk about?”

Chapter Seven

“You want to what?” Mike asked.

Gurum looked uncomfortable sitting in the chair across from the Kildar. But he held his ground.

“The convention for the International Association of Brewers and Brewery Distributors is this year in the city called Las Vegas in the United States. You know of this city, Kildar?”

“Yeah, I know Las Vegas,” Mike said, sighing. “Sin City.”

“I do not understand, Kildar?” Gurum said. “Sin City?”

“Las Vegas is in a state, like a province, that permits gambling and prostitution,” Mike said, sighing again. “Its nickname is Sin City. It alliterates in English. So you want to, what? Have a booth for Keldara Beer at this convention? Do you have any idea what the logistics are for something like that? And where in the hell did this Brock guy come from?”

“Kildar, when you assigned me this task I was challenged by several problems,” Gurum said, frowning. “The first being that I knew nothing about brewing. This is a woman’s task in the Keldara and they guard their secrets closely. Mother Lenka was, of course, the person to work with on that. She has agreed to be the… the brewmistress for the brewery and has been working with Herr Brock on the design for the initial brews. Herr Brock is with the Alten Brewery in Koblenz, Germany. Alten has its own small brewery going back to the 1800s, but it is also an international supplier of brewery equipment and materials. In addition, they have been most helpful in regards to marketing and shipment methods. At their suggestion, I inquired as to a… booth it is called at this convention. The convention had a cancellation, so I was able to secure a small booth. It is in an outlying area, but quite functional for our needs. All of this I have managed to do within the budget you assigned to me, but to actually set up the booth and create marketing materials for it will require a higher budget.”

Mike was stone faced through this recital but his lack of experssion was hiding deep surprise and respect. Gurum had taken his suggestions and run with them in a way that Mike, even with his experience of the Keldara, found amazing.

“Where’d you scrounge up Alten?” Mike asked, ignoring the question of the convention for the moment. He knew diddly about setting up a booth but he’d been to a couple of conventions where people sold gear that SpecOps groups used. All he really remembered about them was booth babes… Now there was a thought.

“Alten was one of the three companies I contacted after an internet search,” Gurum replied. “They were both the most helpful and, when I contacted previous customers, the one that seemed the most well liked and respected. Their prices were slightly higher, but Command Master Chief Adams pointed out that quality is often worth the extra money.”

“And they’re supplying…?” Mike asked curiously.

“Almost all of our equipment,” Gurum answered. “As well as marketing and distribution advice. They’ve built breweries in Europe and the United States but this is the first time they’ve done one in Georgia or the other Caucasus areas and they seem very enthusiastic.”

“You’ve really taken this bull by the horns, haven’t you?” Mike asked, finally smiling.

“I had some questions about it when I started,” Gurum replied carefully. “You were… busy with many things. I spoke to Chief Adams and he said that SEALs consider intiative to be a good thing. He told me to take as much initiative as I could. I have been careful with my budget, but it will take more to complete the plans and get distribution going.”

“I’d figured that the budget really only covered research,” Mike said. “Okay, tell me about the convention.”

“I have never attended such an event,” Gurum admitted. “I have, however, contacted a company that is in the business of setting up for such events. They have supplied suggestions about what we would need. Some of them they can provide; others we need to provide ourselves. They assure me that they can set up a… ‘turn-key’ booth, but we must have certain marketing items prepared in advance.”

“Lots of marketing items,” Mike said musingly. “Folders, brochures, posters, freebies. I’m not even sure how many of each we’ll need.”

“In addition, we will need beer,” Gurum said, seriously. “Genadi has a lawyer who is handling the farm’s legal issues. I have contacted him and gotten permissions to export a batch for marketing purposes and more permissions to import it to the United States. He also obtained permissions for us to import the brewing equipment and a grant from USAID in the amount of $50,000 for the brewing equipment.”

“That’s a damned big grant,” Mike said.

“It was a matching grant,” Gurum said uncomfortably. “We agreed to provide $25,000 and they doubled the money.”

“And what is seventy-five grand going to buy us?” Mike asked curiously.

“All of the brewing equipment to set up a one hundred hectoliter plant,” Gurum replied. “In fact, we’re going to have to do some charging internal to the Keldara to expend it all.”

“Run that one by me again?” Mike said, confused.

“There is more money in the grant than we actually need for equipment and materials,” Gurum said, carefully. “Therefore, we are also using the grant money to pay the Keldara for their work and some is set aside for initial capital before we get a cash flow going.”

“You’ve been talking with Nielson, too, haven’t you?” Mike added, grinning.

“Yes, Kildar,” Gurum replied with a nod.

“Okay, approved,” Mike said. “Top to bottom. And I’ve got a few ideas about the booth I’d like to bring up…”

* * *

“Hey, Vanner, didn’t you buy some whiz-bang photograhy gear as part of your ‘I wanna be a super-spy’ package?” Mike asked as he strolled into the intel shop.

“If we have to do HUMINT work, we’re going to have to have cameras, Kildar.” Vanner sighed. “I bought a pretty good Nikon setup and a few lenses, yes. Your point?”

“I need to borrow it…”

* * *

Mike wasn’t, by any stretch, a professional photographer. But he’d taken a couple of courses his first time through college and enjoyed them. And there were some subjects that were just purely photogenic.

He’d taken the Expedition down to the valley where the troops that weren’t training were hard at work in the fields. The Keldara males, still picking rocks in areas and checking on the progress of the barley, were good for a few dozen shots. But it was when the girls came out with lunch that he really got started.

About a third of the girls from the compound carried baskets with loaves of bread and rounds of cheese poking out from under colorful cloths. The rest, however, were carrying buckets brimming with ice and ceramic beer bottles.

“Lydia,” Mike said, walking over to the group, “I need to get some photographs of the girls so we can make up some advertising stuff for the brewery.”

“I understood all of that except the last part,” Lydia said, smiling.

Mike thought about that for a second and then shrugged helplessly. He hadn’t considered that the Keldara had so little access to modern technology and culture that the concept of “modeling” was outside their worldview.

“You know that Gurum is planning on trying to sell the beer at a convention in the United States?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” Lydia answered as the girls, and most of the guys, started to gather around.

“Well, we won’t be selling it by the glass or bottle,” Mike said, frowning in thought. “What we will be looking for is someone who will buy it from us in large quantity and then sell it in the United States. That’s called a distributor. What we will be doing is looking for a distributor, a good one that will give us the most money for our beer we can get. With me so far?”

“I can handle even larger words, Kildar,” Lydia replied, batting her eyes at him. “Two, even three syllable.”

“Very funny,” Mike replied. “You asked. Okay, so to find the best distributor, we have to have people notice us. There will be hundreds of small brewers like us at the convention, all trying to get the big distributors to notice them. So, how do we get the distributors to notice us, rather than the other brewers?”

“We have the best beer?” Greznya asked, smiling. Greznya was one of the older unmarried females, a tall redhead with bright blue eyes and pert if small breasts, who normally worked in the intel section. Recently, Vanner had started breaking the intel girls down and assigning them to work with specific teams. Apparently Sawn’s team was on field duty. So the girl had gone from running an intercept and analysis section to hauling bread and cheese to the field. On the other hand, she didn’t seem to mind.

Mike considered the answer and then caught Katrina’s eye. The little minx would have the answer he was looking for he was sure.

“Katrina, how do you get the boys to notice you?” Mike asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Sway your hips?” Katrina replied, grinning. “Look them in the eye? Pout your lips? Drop one shoulder? Put your hand on their arm? Then they’ll carry your water and you don’t have to.”

“Minx,” Greznya said with a smile.

“Katrina, however, is right,” Mike said, seriously. “We want the distributors to notice us. We will build some displays for the booth that have the ‘look’ of the valley of the Keldara, we will have bright signs and we will have pictures of pretty girls. Oh, and we will have pretty girls giving out free tastes of our beer. Some of you will go to the convention and serve beer, smiling all the time. But before that we have to make things to give out that have pictures and information about our beer. And for that we’ll need pictures,” Mike finished, holding up the camera.

“Of pretty girls?” Katrina asked. “Then just take them of me.”

“Quiet, you,” Mike growled. “I will. But first I want pictures of all the girls. Girls with beer is a good thing for sales. So line up and smile.”

It took more than that. The Keldara women were trained almost from birth that they shouldn’t use their looks as a weapon. And they were very camera shy at first. But after Mike got a couple of good photos, and was able to show them to the girls using his laptop, they got into the spirit of the shoot.

The best image was towards the end of the shoot, when he had all the girls line up with their buckets in one hand and the other wrapped around the shoulder of the girl next to them. Most of them were holding a bottle in their off-hand and he’d managed to get a decent expression on every face. The boys, thankfully, were more interested in the shoot than they were in food for the time being and didn’t so much as grumble about their lunch being held up.

When the food and beer had finally been served Mike discreetly grabbed Katrina and pulled her aside.

“When you get back to the house, have them call me,” Mike said. “I’d like to get some shots of you later today. But have your mother call me and set it up.”

“Very well, Kildar,” Katrina said, batting her eyelashes at him. “But I can go now. There is less to carry back than we carry to the field.”

“Okay, but we’re going to go by the brewery and pick up a chaperone,” Mike said. “I know just the one to use.”

* * *

“Hello, Mother Lenka,” Mike said as he ducked his head in the still-under-construction brewery. “Could I have a moment of your time?”

“There is something you need to know about sex, Kildar?” Mother Lenka cackled. “Or is it brewing?”

“I need a chaperone, actually,” Mike said, leading her out into the sunshine. “I’m going to take some photos of Katrina for the brochures for the brewery. But I’m sure as hell not going to go off alone with her.”

“And you think that I’m a chaperone?” Mother Lenka said then started laughing so hard she choked. “Oh, Kildar, you tell such good ones!”

“You’re just the chaperone I need, old crone,” Mike said, grinning and leading her over to the Expedition. “You’re an older, married female. Wholly respectable… sort of.”

“Not even close,” Mother Lenka said, still gasping for breath. “They will assume that you just needed coaching with the young one!”

“No, they won’t and you know it,” Mike said. “But when I ask her to do some of the things I’ll need her to do for the shots, you won’t so much as bat an eye. Could you imagine if I asked her to suck the foam off the top of an open beer bottle in front of, say, Mother Kulcyanov?”

“She wouldn’t even know what you were trying to suggest,” Mother Lenka said, giving him a toothless grin. “But I understand. Assuredly I will chaperone you, young man. And if you need any suggestions…”

“I’m sure we’ll do fine,” Mike said. “But I do need to pick up some supplies.”

* * *

He’d spotted the location while checking out the Keldara doing patrolling ops. It was a quiet little dell, with a small waterfall surrounded by trees. There was a wide grassy area that at the moment was filled with late spring wild flowers and the light was just about right.

He parked the Expedition on a narrow dirt logging road and led the two up to the dell then went back to the SUV for his equipment and the bucket of beer he’d appropriated from the brewery.

“Okay, Katrina,” Mike said, handing the girl a bottle of beer and positioning her by the waterfall. “What I want you to do is think of just how wonderful Keldara beer is and when you look at the camera I want you to look at it as if it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.”

“Make love to the camera,” Mother Lenka said, somewhat sadly. “That was what I was told when I would model. Think of the camera as your lover.”

“I didn’t know you modeled,” Mike said, glancing over at her as he considered the light and made some manual adjustments to the Nikon.

“I’ve done many things you would not think I had, young one,” Mother Lenka said, then laughed again. “And many that even you would not believe!”

“Mother Lenka is my role model,” Katrina said, holding up the beer bottle and giving the camera a smouldery look. “Like this?”

“That’s a start,” Mike said. “Work it, babe.”

Chapter Eight

Mike hit the answer button on his phone and threw the estimates for the convention booth costs on the desk. He hadn’t realized it would be that much. Just getting electric run was a minimum of two hours at $175 per hour. Thank God he didn’t need internet connection! At least the photo shoot had worked out well. He had some killer shots that had been worked into three different brochures and a poster of Katrina that was sure to be a big hit. But the more he looked at the rest of his plans, the more he realized he was going to need some pull in D.C…

“Go.”

“Kildar, there is a call from the United States,” one of the Keldara women said over the speaker phone. “An officer in the State Department.”

“Put it through,” Mike replied, picking up the handset. Speak of the devil…

“Mr. Jenkins?” a cultured voice said a moment later.

“The same,” Mike growled. The only thing worse in the U.S. government than IRS agents, in his opinion, were the Northeastern Liberal brahmins that ran the State Department. And this guy sounded like a classic case.

“Mr. Jenkins, my name is Wilson Hargreave Thornton, I am a desk officer for the Moldava section in the State Department.”

“I don’t suppose that’s located in Minot, North Dakota, is it?” Mike asked. Moldava was the poorest country in Europe, with no major exports except blonde hookers. It was hardly the France desk.

“No, Mr. Jenkins,” the man said, laughing dryly and quite falsely. “The Moldava desk is hardly Siberia. It has had some serious action of late. And it’s about that that I wish to talk to you. I was asked to do a favor for a senior member of the legislative branch. However, I’ve exhausted my sources in this matter. When I so informed him he, quite out of the blue, asked if I knew you and if I would contact you for him. I will say you’re a hard man to find.”

“I like it that way,” Mike said.

“So I understand,” the man said, chuckling again. He had the dry chuckle of a person who had had their sense of humor surgically removed but tried to act as if it was still intact. “I would like to ask you to come to Washington for a few days and meet with the member I was referring to. He needs someone with your… background.”

“I don’t think so,” Mike said. “I don’t go around taking orders from ‘senior members of the legislative branch.’ I don’t even take them from senior members of the executive branch.”

“Mr. Jenkins,” Wilson Hargreave Thornton said seriously, “you have many enemies both internationally and, frankly, within the government. Having a senior senator that owes you a favor is in your best interests. I might add that the senator has already been instrumental in helping you. I believe you recently received a grant from the International Monetary Fund?”

“Yeah,” Mike said, grimacing. “I’d thought they were being pretty friendly with the taxpayers’ money.”

“Nonetheless,” Thornton replied, clearly smiling.

“And what the hell does a senator have to do with the IMF?” Mike asked.

“Mr. Jenkins,” the State Department officer answered, chuckling, “there are senators and senators. And then there are the ones that can quietly suggest that stalled paperwork be unstalled. Or, for that matter, permanently stalled I might add.”

“My… background is generally lots of dead bodies,” Mike said bluntly, ignoring the implied threat. “Senior senators have a remarkable way of forgetting past favors when bodies turn up.”

“Not this time,” Thornton said, just as bluntly. “I’ll tell you that it involves a young lady who is in trouble. And you are, frankly, the only name that came to mind to fix that problem. Given your… background.”

“Crap,” Mike muttered. They knew his hot buttons, that’s for sure. “When?”

“The senator can set aside tomorrow evening for a quiet and discreet discussion,” Thornton replied. “Would that work for you?”

“If I can get a plane,” Mike said. “And this is not going to be a freebie unless it’s dead easy.”

“Understood,” Thornton replied. “Check in to the Washington Sheraton. The senator will contact you there.”

“And you’ll disavow any connection to me, right?” Mike said, grinning.

“I’m glad you understand,” Thornton said, cutting the connection.

* * *

“Anastasia,” Mike said, sticking his head in the harem manager’s office. “Could you do me a favor and pack me some bags. I have to go to D.C. Enough for a few days. No uniforms. Some casual clothes and a few suits with sundries.”

“Very well, Kildar,” Anastasia said. “When will you be back?”

“Not sure,” Mike admitted. “But that will do for as long as I’ll need those clothes. And call that charter company in England and get me a jet. I might as well travel in style.”

* * *

Mike hated D.C. It wasn’t anything personal, just a formless resentment. When he’d been a SEAL, D.C. was synonymous with the “brass,” the medal-bedecked bastards, most of whom had never heard a shot fired in anger, who sent the teams out to work miracles and then bitched when they failed. Or performed the miracles but caused a bunch of bad press over dead tangoes.

Now, somehow, he’d ended up being brass. Or close enough as made no never mind. He didn’t walk the corridors of power, but if he picked up the phone he could be having a quiet dinner with the President this very evening. Or the secretary of state or defense or the national security adviser. That made him, de facto, a Washington “player,” even if he spent his time staying as far away as he could.

And at the moment he was particularly pissed. He was just hanging out waiting for a phone call. He hadn’t even brought one of his “ladies” with him to pass the time. All he could do was watch Fox News and kick his heels.

He got up and walked to the minibar, preparatory to just getting stinking drunk and telling the “senior senator” to go stuff his mission, when the phone rang.

“Jenkins,” he growled.

“I’ve set aside a meeting room on the third floor,” a faintly familiar baritone replied. “The Sherman Room. Follow the signs.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Mike said. Might as well find out what the fucking senator wanted.

* * *

There were two heavies outside the room. They had the look of Secret Service, which made the “senior senator” very senior indeed. As Mike approached the door a man in coveralls came out carrying a black instrument bag. The “senior senator” had had the room swept before the meeting, which was rather unusual.

“Jenkins,” Mike said, stopping at the door and ignoring the technician.

“Cell phone, pager and PDA, please,” one of the men said, holding out a canvas bag with a zipper lock.

Mike pulled out his cell phone and dropped it in the bag, then shrugged. The other agent pulled a magnetic wand and ran it over him as the first agent zipped the bag shut and handed Mike the key.

When Mike was swept, the agent knocked on the door and opened it to a faint call from inside.

Mike instantly recognized the “senior senator” when he entered. He couldn’t quite place the name, but he’d seen him on TV a few times.

“Mr. Jenkins,” the man said, getting up from his seat at the conference table and walking over to the door to shake Mike’s hand. He had a a commanding presence and a firm handshake and looked Mike right in the eye. He was a guy you trusted immediately. Just like any good con artist or politician. Speaking of redundancy. “I’m Senator John Traskel.”

“New Jersey,” Mike said, nodding his head. “You’re the guy they’re saying’s going to be the next minority leader.”

“And I’m the senior minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which is more to the point,” the senator said, waving him to the a seat. “But please call me John.”

“Mike,” Jenkins said, sitting down. “You’ve got a problem.”

“One of my constituents does,” the senator said, nodding sagely. He was a tall guy with prematurely gray hair that was perfectly coiffed and his suit hadn’t come off the rack. Mike also remembered that there was serious family money behind the senator, something in excess of a hundred mil. Come to think of it, he was also one of the few members of the Democratic party who was a tad right wing on social issues. Which was why he was also being bruited around for a presidential candidate in the next election.

“His daughter has gone missing,” the senator continued, opening up one of the folders and sliding a picture of a girl in a bathing suit across the table. She looked about fourteen and filled the suit well. Blonde and very pretty.

“Natalya Fedioushina,” the senator continued. “Fourteen.”

“Call America’s Most Wanted,” Mike said, sliding the pic back to the senator.

“She went missing in Moldava,” the senator said seriously.

“How the fuck did that happen?” Mike asked, aghast.

“The gentleman is a native Ukrainian.” The senator sighed. “His wife was visiting relatives in Moldava when the young lady was kidnapped. Presumably for, well…”

“To be sold as a sex-slave,” Mike said. “It’s Moldava’s only real export. And you want me to find her? Do you have any idea what sort of task that is?”

“Yes,” the senator said, nodding. “I do. I’ve seen both the open and the classified data on the sex-slave industry. But we do have one lead.”

“Go,” Mike said, shrugging.

“This man,” the senator continued, sliding another picture across. The pic was taken of a man exiting a small foreign car, a Lada Mike thought from the roofline. Heavyset, dark, he had the look of a Balkans pimp type, one each. “Yuri Smegnoff. He is most probably the man who kidnapped her. Unfortunately, we don’t know what he did with her.”

“How long?” Mike asked.

“Two weeks ago,” the senator replied, slipping the pic back into the file and sliding the whole folder across.

“By now she’s in Albania or Serbia being broken in,” Mike said, flipping the folder open. There were more pics of the girl and of Smegnoff as well as a list of his common hangouts.

“We just want to know where she is,” Traskel said.

“That’s not going to be easy, even if this pimp is a good contact,” Mike replied.

“You very much want to do this mission, Mr. Jenkins,” the senator replied tightly. “I need the favor. And you don’t want me remembering that you didn’t help when I needed it.”

“Was that a threat, Senator?” Mike said, smiling but not looking up. “Please. You’ve got access to some of my files, at least. Any threat from you is hardly going to sway me.”

“You’re playing with the big boys now, Mr. Jenkins,” the senator almost snarled. “This isn’t killing a few terrorists on an island in the Bahamas. This is the kindness and consideration, or not, of the United States Senate. You really don’t want to piss me off.”

“I’ve been playing with the big boys for a long time, Senator,” Mike said bluntly. “Again, water, duck.”

“All my constituent wants is his little girl back,” the senator said tightly. “Please?”

“Big contributor?” Mike asked, flipping through the file.

“Yes,” the senator admitted. “Very large.”

“Good,” Mike said, closing the file and looking at the senator again. “Because this isn’t going to be a freebie. I won’t be able to lone-wolf this one. I’ll need an intel team and shooters most likely. This is likely to get bloody.”

“I believe that you already got a fairly substantial IMF grant…” the senator said, frowning.

“Hah!” Mike said, chuckling. “That’s barely earnest money. You have any idea how much an op like this is going to cost me?”

“I suppose I should,” the senator said, nodding. “A million?”

“More like five,” Mike said, frowning. “It’s going to be expensive on my end. I’ll submit a cost sheet at the end. He’d better pay up.”

“That won’t be an issue,” the senator said.

“You want her extracted?” Mike asked.

“Just found,” the senator replied. “When we know where she is, we can use other channels to get her out. Legal channels. I trust that I don’t have to suggest that my name not come up if anything… untoward occurs.”

“I’m very discreet,” Mike replied, standing up. “But when I send you the bill, your friend had better pay it. Because if he doesn’t, you will.”

* * *

Mike perused the file as the Gulfstream crossed the Atlantic. Finding the girl wasn’t going to be easy but that wasn’t what was bothering him. The girl in the photos was certainly pretty enough, but she didn’t look like a girl having a great time at the beach. And he was sure the picture wasn’t taken in the U.S. The rocks along the beach were limestone or something similar. There simply weren’t any major beaches in the U.S. that had limestone around them. Not like the stuff in the pic, anyway. He’d put money on the pic being taken on the Adriatic or Black Sea coast. And the bathing suit she was wearing in the one pic and the dress in the other were European, not American.

On the other hand, the unnamed “constituent” was an immigrant. The pics might have been taken in the Old Country. But the girl’s eyes… she was not enjoying having her picture taken. It wasn’t teenage surliness. She was resigned and unhappy.

Mike frowned and looked close at the bathing suit pic. He wished he had a magnifying glass with him because it looked very much as if the girl had a large bruise on her abdomen. Like from a punch.

The whole op had a bad feel to it. The minor State Department official contacting him, the senator, the pictures. It just didn’t add up.

Well, he’d know he’d found out what was really going on when it started to stink.

* * *

“Well, it would certainly be nice to have some support from the other side of the aisle,” Nielson mused as he looked at the pictures. “And the lady is certainly charming enough in a naifish sort of way.”

“Tracking her’s going to be a stone bitch, though,” Adams pointed out. “Most of the gangs running this racket in that region are Albanians. They’re right bastards and mostly come from Albanian clans. They all know each other, so we won’t be able to insert anyone.”

“Not on the runner’s side,” Mike said, rubbing his chin.

“What are you thinking?” Nielson asked, looking up.

“I’m thinking that we need Vanner and Cottontail in here,” Mike replied.

* * *

“That’s the op,” Mike said looking at Vanner and the Russian hooker. Cottontail was sitting up and apparently paying rapt attention but that could mean anything. Mike had picked her up from the local brothel, very much against his will. The girl was pure poison. Either as a result of her experiences as a sex-slave or from nature she was a vicious sociopath and delighted in making life for everyone around her miserable. Since she’d been living at the caravanserai, Mike had kept her from being too much trouble by keeping her busy, first in studies and then later working with Vanner in the intelligence section. The girl was smart as hell, which was part of the problem; as a whore she’d been underutilized.

But she had the makings of a first class agent. She simply had no soul and was a great actress.

“How are you planning on tracking her?” Vanner asked curiously.

“Well, the first line is that we’re going to pay a trip to the pimp and ask him nicely what happened to the girl,” Mike said, then looked over at Cottontail. “The other string rests with you.”

“You want me to go into that,” the girl said, waving at the papers.

“It’s not like you don’t know the moves,” Mike replied flatly.

“What’s in it for me?” Cottontail asked, just as flatly.

“Money,” Mike said. “Twenty thousand euros for the entire op, assuming you do your job. And you’ll get to fuck over the sort of guys that made you a whore. We’re going to be having a lot of polite and charming conversation with them.”

“Do I get to watch?” Cottontail asked seriously.

“If it fits the mission,” Mike said. “And I’ll guarantee you that we’ll be following. I won’t say bad things won’t happen to you, but we’re going to be on your ass the whole way. I guarantee you won’t be stuck back in the system and we’ll try damned hard to keep you alive. But mostly it will be up to you. You in?”

Cottontail looked at him coldly for a moment then nodded.

“At the very least, take pictures,” she said, suddenly grinning in a way that was truly scary.

“Will do,” Adams replied. Of all the men who knew her, Adams was perhaps the only one who liked her. At least in part because he liked right bastards.

“We’re going to need to fill out the team,” Mike said. “We’ll need an intel and operational section and a group of shooters and security. We’re going to have to insert across multiple borders, through multiple police jurisdictions and, worse, into multiple gang territories. And after a bit the fact that we’re closing on something might become obvious. The intel section…”

“Tracking devices,” Vanner said, looking at the ceiling. “Bugs. Cameras. Shotgun mikes. Body mikes…”

“You’re on it,” Mike said, looking at Adams. “The shooters…”

“Team Sawn is dialed in on entry techniques,” Adams said. “Break it down four ways. One team for entry, one for security, attached to each main group. We’ll need vehicles…”

“The white vans the traffickers use,” Nielson said, nodding. “Plenty of room and…”

“The Keldara girls that are handling intel and commo will just look like more whores on their way west,” Mike said, nodding. “With the shooters as their guards. We got us a plan?”

“Well,” Nielson said with a sniff. “It’s a start.”

Chapter Nine

Mike considered the border crossing as the six vans approached it. It had just flat taken six vans for all the team and their gear.

Set up of the operation had only taken three days. Vanner had many of the items they were going to need on hand and the few that he didn’t were more available in the Ukraine than in Georgia. The route had taken them through the Ukraine, and a brief stop at Dnipropetrovsk filled in the gaps. Weapons were easy; the Keldara were very well armed.

However, travelling to Moldava had taken some time. The roads in Georgia and the Ukraine, ranged from bad to just awful. And given that the vans were packed with foreign nationals using fake passports and enough weapons for a small coup, discreet travel was the byword. They’d mostly stayed off the major roads, which meant not only circuitous travel but staying mostly on the “just awful” roads.

By the end of the week’s trek, Mike felt as if his kidneys had been shaken out through his sinuses.

However, they’d made it to the Moldavan border. The problem then was that the out-of-the-way border crossing near Ribnita, which according to reports was unguarded, had a couple of Moldavan soldiers running a checkpoint.

“Be of good cheer and tip heavily,” Mike said. The headset dangling from his ear was a bit out of the ordinary for white slavers but it wasn’t entirely out of character. “Hand me your passports,” he continued, looking to the rear of the vehicle.

The seats right behind the driver’s were filled by three Keldara in work clothes and jeans. Their heavy-cotton button-down shirts were untucked so the pistols at their waist were concealed. Poorly in a couple of cases, but concealed. The rest of their gear was packed in the cargo area of the van, stuffed into several discreet pullman bags. He just had to hope that the border guards didn’t want to search them or they’d find far more than they bargained for.

Behind them were four girls from Vanner’s intel section in blouses and jeans. The latter had caused some screaming from the more traditional Keldara but Mike had thrown the weight of the Kildar behind the decision. The girls were potentially vital to the operation and they had to fit in. Most women didn’t wear skirts when travelling, even in this part of the world. A couple of the girls had looked askance when told they were going to dress in pants, but most of them had taken to them with glee. Change was coming to the Keldara in the form of Levi’s 505s.

In the last set of seats were four more Keldara heavies, the entry team portion of the shooters. They also had pistols holstered at their belts but in addition they had sub-guns under the seat. Mike dearly hoped that they weren’t going to start the op by killing a couple of Moldavan soldiers. That would be… bad.

“Hello,” Yevgenii said to the soldier as he rolled to a stop next to him. “How are you today?”

“I’m out here on this shit road,” the soldier grumped as the passports were handed across.

“At least it’s not raining,” Yevgenii said happily.

Mike looked around carefully. There were only two, the soldier taking the passports and his companion, who was leaning against a tree by the side of the road. If worse came to worse, they could probably take them both down without bloodshed.

The soldier flipped through the passports, pulling out a bill from the top one and pocketing it.

“You are from Georgia?” the soldier asked.

“Yes,” Yevgenii said, grinning. “We are a church group going to visit monasteries in your country and Romania.”

“And I’m the High Prelate,” the soldier replied, handing the passports back. “It is lonely out here, how about some time with one of your girls?”

Mike blinked at the suggestion. It wasn’t one he’d run across before, but he’d never been masquerading as a white slaver.

“I think that could be arranged,” Mike said, smiling. “I have just the girl for you…”

“That one looks good,” the soldier said, pointing in the window at one of the Keldara girls. As it turned out it was Vanda, one of Yevgenii’s first cousins. He could see the Keldara slowly turning purple at the suggestion.

“No, no,” Mike said, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. If he didn’t get this guy to go for Cottontail there was going to be blood on the walls. As he was thinking that, the other soldier started to wander over, wondering what was going on. “I have a very pretty one for you and your friend,” Mike continued, hitting his mike. “Adam… ovich, tell Cottontail she’s got a special duty up front.” He only remembered at the last moment to use Russian and he knew he still had an accent. He wasn’t supposed to be talking at all! Damn Yevgenii!

“We will want one for each of us,” the soldier said, looking in the van at the back. “And I still like that one by the window. She is very pretty and has good tits.”

“Kildar…” one of the Keldara muttered from the backseat.

“Silence,” Mike snapped. “I have a girl coming up for you. She is very good, very pretty and can take you both at once if you wish.” He glanced in his rear-view and sighed in thankfulness as he saw Cottontail walking up the line of vehicles. There were a couple of cars stopped behind the line of vans, now. This was going downhill fast.

“Hi, boys,” Cottontail purred as she came around the van to the driver’s side. “You want some company?”

The Keldara women were justly famous for their beauty but Cottontail had most of them equalled at least. And when she put her mind to it, she could exude a sort of raw sensuality that was riveting. What was most riveting was that she looked like a teen virgin, even if she’d been with more men than a dockside whore and had the soul of Jeffrey Dahmer. Part of the strength of her act was that men rarely really looked at her eyes. Oh, they were stunningly beautiful, but men never got beyond that. They didn’t see the little fire of hell burning in the rear of them. Or if they did they thought it was just lust, not pure evil.

“She will be good to you,” Mike said, waving them away. “We will pull our vans to the side until you are… done.”

Mike got out and waved the vans forward and to the side of the small back road, then walked down the line, wishing he smoked. He needed something to steady his nerves. He was fine if it was a matter of killing everyone in the building, hole, ship or even town. But this shit was for somebody who enjoyed it.

He also took the time to wave the two cars that had been waiting through, and then found the chief in the fourth van.

“What was that all about?” Adams asked.

“The soldiers were bored and horny,” Mike said, sharply. “They thought it would be a good way to pass the time to ‘borrow’ Vanda as part of their tip.”

“The Moldav bastards,” Sedama snarled from the driver’s seat as the rest of the Keldara muttered angrily.

“Yevgenii nearly blew his top,” Mike snapped. “But this sort of thing is going to come up. Handle it. Talk your way through. I’ll tell you when you can kill someone. Don’t kill anyone until I tell you. Is that clear?”

“Clear Kildar,” Sedama replied, breathing out. “So Cottontail is taking care of it?”

“Yes,” Mike said, still angry. As much at himself as at the situation. He should have prepared for it.

“And on another crossing when we don’t have her along?” one of the Keldara in the rear of the van asked.

“I’m going to have to think about that one,” Mike admitted. “Giving up the Keldara women is, clearly, out of the question.”

“I dunno,” another Keldara said. “There’s always Anisa…”

“Hey!”

* * *

Mike was leaning on the front of the lead van, looking at a map, when Cottontail came back out of the woods wiping at the corner of her lip with her thumb.

“Everybody satisfied?” Mike asked, cautiously. He hadn’t told her she was going to have to bribe border guards and he felt curiously shamed by the incident. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t screwed enough men for two more to be no big deal.

“They are,” she replied, archly.

“And are they alive?” With Cottontail you always had to ask.

“Yes,” she admitted. “I considered it, but it would interfere with the mission, no?”

“Yes, it would,” Mike said.

“And the mission is killing many slavers. This is a mission I like. I would not want it to fail.”

Her eyes were as clear and innocent blue as a child’s.

* * *

Chisinau was the capital of the small country of Moldava. Moldava was more an agreed upon border state between Russia and Romania than a real country. Russia had troops on the east side of the Dniester River to support the local Slavic ethnic groups so the central government couldn’t really call that “their” territory. The situation was so bleak, they’d even elected a communist as president and more or less regressed to a semi-communist, sort of Stalinist, failed state. Totally landlocked, the poorest country in Europe, its total exports were limestone, hookers and people looking for a real life somewhere else.

The team had been installed at the Hotel Stalin on the outskirts of town. The hotel was near an industrial area and if Chisinau had a better and worse part of town, it was in the worst. In keeping with the general dilapidation of the neighborhood, the hotel looked as if it had been used by every rocker at Woodstock. The carpet, where it wasn’t pulled up entirely, was about fifty years old and poorly made then. The rooms were filthy, the corridors were littered and the bathrooms didn’t bear description.

It also was doing a booming business. They’d barely been able to get enough rooms for all of them and when Mike checked out their fellow travellers he could see why. They weren’t the only people bringing girls through Moldava.

He wandered down to the bar, which gave “dive” a whole new meaning, and looked over the offerings. To his amazement, they had Johnny Walker Red.

“Walker,” he said, perching on the rickety stool. The bar was about half filled and the clientele was telling. The men were all beefy and from various bulges mostly armed. The women were all wearing damned near nothing and given the temperatures in the bar they had to be freezing. Most of them also seemed rather… subdued. As in “if I make a wrong sound, my pimp is going to beat the shit out of me. In public. And nobody will care.”

One of the girls had just had her head pushed under the table when he sensed someone coming up from his off-side.

“Where you in from?” a man said in Russian as he settled in the seat next to Mike.

“Georgia,” Mike said, honestly.

“Strange accent,” the man said, frowning. “You’re not Georgian.”

“American,” Mike admitted. “This is a way to pay the bills and the fringe benefits are great.”

“Now we’ve got Americans in the game,” the man grumped. “I am Ahmed Pasha. I saw some of your girls, though. Very nice. How much?”

“I’m taking them to Montenegro for an auction,” Mike said. “They’re not for sale. Mike Duncan.”

“I saw one, a blonde, very big breasts,” the man replied. “I’ll give you a thousand euros and you won’t have to feed her from here to Montenegro. I don’t keep them, myself, you know. I am broker and move them. I know men will give me good price for her.”

“I can get better money there,” Mike said, laughing. “The buyers are special, pimps with wealthy clients. They want virgins or damned near. Clean and undamaged so they can have them first and hard. That’s why I’ve got so much muscle with me, so the girls don’t have to be disciplined. I’ll go with the plan. What’s the word on the roads west?”

“Ungheni was covered when I came back through,” Pasha said. “You have to go all the way up to Balti to get through without a check. But the guards on Balti will usually take only five euros per passenger. They prefer euros. Here in Chinisau so many girls come through, so many men. Some have do this long time, some, like you, just getting started. I know everybody, can find best price for you. Fifteen hundred. She was very lovely. The one wearing the blue blouse. Very nice breasts. Very nice. I, too, have special customers and girls that good are getting hard to find.”

“They had guards on Ribnita,” Mike replied. “Five euros per passenger and they wanted a freebie. Fortunately I had one that had already been broken in or I’d have been out a lot of money. I’ve only been doing this for a while, yeah, but I’ve got a covered racket. Just me and my partner and we cut out the middlemen. When we’re done with them we sell them to guys like you; my partner handles that. No dice. Not even in the game. That’s Vanda and I’m looking at damned near ten grand for her first. You’d just dump her into the pipeline; if you’ve got special customers I’m the pope. What was happening in Romania?”

“Not much until you get near Cluj Napoca,” the man said. “There was a checkpoint on the E-60 near Tarnaveni. Real bastards when I went through west. They acted like I was transporting my girls for immoral purposes and against their will. The shame. And it was very expensive in bribes. Ten thousand in dollars or euros? It doesn’t matter, that is crazy. I can buy twenty girls for that.”

“Don’t know how far east you’re going, but we hit one like that near Novyi Buh,” Mike replied. “I explained to one of the girls that she had to talk us through. Or else. I understand, though, that there was a crackdown in Odessa and some of the guys are looking to move their more noticeable girls. You could probably get some good trades. And she’s not really for sale, anyway.”

“I operate here,” Pasha said. “Although I buy Ukrainian girls. And if you have any more like those, next time through, I’ll give you a good deal. I know all the men who buy and sell. I wonder who you know in Montenegro? Ammad? Tufa?”

“Neither,” Mike said. “Very small network; I doubt you’ve run into it. We get high price girls and charge Westerners, mostly American, for the privilege of breaking them in. Charge them through the nose. You have to have the contacts for that. My partner is connected in the States. Then we dump them in the regular channels. We’re in the market for those types of girls, though. Bringing these all the way from Georgia is a pain. You know a guy named Smegnoff? I understand he’s got some girls that I might want to buy.”

“Everyone has got girls,” Pasha said, shrugging. “Smegnoff, yes, he has some good ones sometimes. If you really want to see him, he is in the Café Arrendi in the evening. But so do my suppliers. And we don’t use them as hard as he does. He had one girl that tried to run away, so he broke her knees. She can walk only with a limp, now. Very sad.” He didn’t seem terribly broken up about it.

“I need them unused,” Mike said, standing up and tossing a twenty euro bill on the bar. “I can do with a couple of very high quality girls, very pretty, virgins, young. I’ll give you a good deal on them. I’ll be around for a couple of days if you get anything worth talking about.”

* * *

“Well, we’re established,” Mike said as he came into the room the team was using as a command post. Vanner was already in place with various electronic gadgets set up and a wire discreetly running out the window. “The agreed cover: we’re running high quality girls to Montenegro for a special auction. I put out the word that we’re in the market for unspoiled girls.”

“I’ve gotten Smegnoff’s cell phone plotted,” Vanner said, nodding. He had a set of cup headphones on with one cup dangling. “He’s about a half a kilometer southeast of here which plots out as…”

“The Café Arrendi,” Mike said, grinning as the intel specialist turned to look at him. “Already got the word.”

“What’s the play?” Adams asked.

“Work him,” Mike said. “Then get him someplace quiet and have a nice long chat.”

Chapter Ten

The Café Arrendi was a “coffee shop” that fronted for a brothel. It was on a minor street in south Chisainau that was the center of what passed for a red-light district. The traffic movement along the road was slow since business, even in the early morning hours, was brisk. Girls lined both sides of the streets, waving at the passing cars and rapidly boarding those that stopped.

“Pull over, here,” Mike said as the van reached the front of the shop. He noticed that none of the girls were waving for them to stop; it was apparent what the van was used for.

What the darkened windows cloaked, however, were five Keldara in full body armor, cradling MP-5s. If anything “untoward” went down in the coffee shop, their job was to extract Mike, and Smegnoff, alive. And since Mike was the Kildar, they were very serious about that mission.

Mike rolled out of the van and stepped between two cars to the curb. He noticed that besides the girls there were men, most of them heavyset and wearing bad suits, scattered along the road. He wasn’t sure if they were there to make sure the girls kept working or as external security on the coffee shop. He did spot what was probably the Lada the picture of Smegnoff was taken by. Of course, there were three other Ladas parked within less than a block of it, but it was nearly opposite the coffee-shop and the right color and trim.

The interior of the shop was run down with rickety tables and chairs and a filthy floor. Mike was almost afraid to try the coffee, but it wasn’t all that bad. The girls working the counter were the most rode-hard-and-put-up-wet duo he’d ever seen, a hollow-faced girl with black hair and a bleached blonde. Both were dressed in skin-tight tube dresses and clearly were supposed to be advertising. If they were, they were advertisements for getting every venereal disease ever discovered and probably a few that were barely known.

Mike had spotted Smegnoff when he walked in. The pimp was in a corner with two other males. They had the scent of muscle and helpers at “breaking” girls. They were larger than the pimp but Mike figured if it came down to cases he could take all three of them. And the Keldara fire team was waiting in a van outside.

He sipped the espresso as he drifted over to the table.

“You’re Smegnoff,” Mike said, sitting down uninvited.

“And you’re the new American,” Smegnoff said, smirking. “I hear you’re in the market for girls.”

“Top quality, only,” Mike said, nodding and ignoring the muscle. “Pretty, young and untouched.”

“What is the fun of selling untouched girls?” Smegnoff sneered.

“Money,” Mike said, shrugging. “You can get pussy anywhere. But young, virgin pussy, that’s real money if you’ve got the right customers.”

“I have customers like that,” Smegnoff said, shrugging. “A few. Everyone does.”

“Well, that’s my main clientele,” Mike said. “I hear you sometimes get pretty top quality girls.”

“They’re around,” Smegnoff said, nodding and eyeing the former SEAL. “Not all the time, you know?”

“Anything at the moment?” Mike asked. “Or, for that matter, anything you can steer me to that hasn’t been raped yet?”

“Not right now,” Smegnoff said. “But they will be expensive.”

“We’ll bargain,” Mike said. “I’m in town for two days letting the ladies rest. Then we’re gone. You’ve got that long.”

* * *

“I’ve got a shotgun mike set up on the Arrendi,” Vanner said when he got back. “But his car has a heavy by it. I can’t get a tracer on it; the Keldara were too obvious.”

Mike looked around the room at the Keldara females and rubbed his chin.

“What are you thinking?” Yevgenii asked, eyeing the Kildar uncomfortably.

“Anisa,” Mike said, glancing at the Keldara girl. She was a lovely young brunette with long legs and a classical face.

“Yes, Kildar?” the girl asked, curiously.

“Would you be willing to pose as a hooker?” Mike asked. “We’re going to run into this problem again. I could send Cottontail to do it, but what I’d like is to send both of you. One of you to distract the guard, the other to plant the tracer. That way if we have to do it again, or something like it, after Cottontail is inserted you’ll have experience. You’ll have a Keldara backup team, of course.”

“What would I have to do?” the girl asked uncertainly.

“Well, the first thing is getting into character,” Mike said.

* * *

“I cannot wear this in public!” Anisa wailed.

The tube dress was, okay, pretty darned short. And the girl had clearly never worn high heels in her life. Cottontail, who could walk in them like most girls walked in flats, was smirking as the Keldara female attempted to balance on the top of the stiletto sandals.

Cottontail and Killjoy had been sent out shopping and had come back with everything that Anisa needed to look like a hooker. And the girl did, albeit a rather expensive one.

“I’m having problems with this,” Adams said in English, shaking his head.

“So am I,” Mike admitted. “But I think it’s the best plan to go with.”

“Oh, it’s not the plan,” Adams replied. “I’m wondering how much we could get for her…”

“Don’t go there,” Mike snapped, shifting to Georgian. “Anisa, you look perfect. You’ll be fine. All you have to do is walk up to the car with Katya, lean up against it while she talks to the guard, plant the tracer and then walk away with her. You’ll be under observation the whole time and the Tigers will be there if anything goes wrong. But nothing will. You’ll do fine.”

“I cannot walk down the street in this!” Anisa said. “I look like a whore!”

“Uhmm…” Vanner said. “That’s sort of the point.”

Anisa opened her mouth to respond and then shut it when she couldn’t think of a reply.

“Well…” she said after a moment, half triumphantly. “How am I supposed to carry it dressed like this? Where am I going to hide it?”

“It’s not that large,” Vanner said, pulling out a gray rectangle that was about the size and general shape of a cigarette lighter. “It’s got a contact adhesive on one side. I suppose you should hide it somewhere where it’s out of sight and easy… to… access…” He trailed off.

Anisa looked at him blankly then over at the Kildar.

“On your leg, right up in your crotch is what he doesn’t want to say,” Mike said bluntly. “For that matter, you might be able to simply palm it. Keep it in your fist. The problem with that is that people will assume it’s money or something.”

“I don’t think this is going to work,” Anisa said, holding out her hand for the device.

Vanner helpfully peeled the cover off the contact adhesive and handed it over.

“You can turn your back, now,” Anisa said, looking at the men.

“Oh,” Mike said, turning around, “right.”

* * *

Anisa looked at Katya, who was standing with her arms folded, watching, and then shrugged. She took the small rectangle and, spreading her legs slightly, stuck it to the inside of her thigh.

“You can still see it,” Anisa said triumphantly.

“Higher,” Katya said, sighing angrily.

“If I put it any higher it will be inside of me!” Anisa protested.

“And the problem with that is…?” Katya asked. “Besides, it won’t. Just put it higher. There is plenty of room. You just have to actually touch yourself. Don’t tell me you’ve never touched that part before.”

“Cottontail…” Mike warned.

“Ow! Ow!” Anisa exclaimed as she peeled it back off. “That hurts!”

“It’s… pretty strong adhesive,” Vanner replied, his back still turned.

“Oh, no,” Anisa said as she fumbled under the dress.

“What now?” Mike asked in exasperation.

“It’s… caught,” Anisa said, blushing. “On… hair. Down there.”

“You should have waxed,” Cottontail replied, her arms still crossed. “This is silly. Let me carry it.”

“I don’t think Anisa is up to chatting up a guard,” Mike pointed out. “Do you have it in place?”

“Yes,” Anisa said, adjusting her dress. “You can look again.”

“Now, try walking in the heels,” Mike said.

Anisa carefully tottered across the room, stopped at the far side and turned without actually falling down.

“This is insane,” Katya said, angrily. “Just let me do it! I can chat up the guard and plant it!”

“She needs to learn,” Mike said. “We can’t be depending on you to do all the outside work. Anisa, one foot in front of the other, like you’re walking on a narrow beam. Move your hips with the motion and your shoulders against it. Undulate. Try it.”

Anisa sighed and started back. She did pretty well until she got her hips and shoulders out of sync and Adams had to catch her before she fell.

“Nobody had better ever find out about this,” she hissed, pushing herself back up. The chief had been exceedingly careful with his hands, but there wasn’t much he could catch that wasn’t off-limits. He’d managed by wrapping both hands around her waist. This caused her dress to head north and south, respectively, which very nearly left her unclothed. At least in important areas.

“Try it again,” Mike said sternly. “This is training. You are going to be doing a mission every bit as important as the door-kickers. They had to train; you have to train. If I’d thought ahead, I would have brought one of the harem. I didn’t. This is my fault. Drop it on me. But we’re going to need you to be able to do this. And maybe more than just you. You’ll be training at least one other girl in the same things. Get used to it. And everyone is going to know about it. You’re going to have a security team watching you.”

“Okay, okay,” Anisa said, readjusting her dress. “Here goes.”

By the end of thirty minutes with Mike coaching her and Katya inserting snarky, but pertinent, remarks, she could walk in the heels and even undulate. A bit. Enough to look like a new hooker on the street.

As the two left, Adams let out a long sigh.

“I’m going to have to either go down on the street and hire a girl or go take a long cold shower,” the chief said. “That was just…”

“Erotic as hell,” Mike replied. “You can understand why these pimps do what they do. Besides the money, which in this society is nothing to sneeze at.”

“It almost makes me rethink my choice of career,” Adams admitted. “And they get to do this all the time.”

“And beat the girls around when they screw up,” Mike added.

“I’m not particularly into beating on women,” Adams said, shrugging.

“Well, most of the girls they get don’t exactly want to be hookers,” Mike pointed out. “And even the ones that do, don’t want to give up most of their hard-earned money to the pimps. So they beat on them until they learn better. It’s a sucky situation. And you know the fun part?”

“What?” Adams asked, frowning curiously.

“How many whores have you fucked in some third world shit-hole?” Mike asked, turning to look at him. “We’re the reason this goes on. You can’t just say ‘it’s males’ when you’re one of the males that benefited by it.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Adams shrugged. “I don’t notice you losing sleep over it.”

“I do, sometimes,” Mike admitted. “And I’m the one that enjoys beating on women. I wish I had the money to buy up every whore and potential whore on the planet and put them somewhere safe.”

“But if you did, you’d just have more kidnappings.”

“There’s that,” Mike admitted, sighing.

“You ever think about this whole system as a good thing?” Adams asked.

“What in the hell do you mean by that?” Mike snarled.

“Think about it,” Adams replied calmly. “In the states, the predators snatch some girl off the street, rape her and kill her. Here they snatch them off the street, rape them and then sell them. Alive.”

“Now there’s a hell of a thought and no lie,” Mike said quietly. “But you think that some of them don’t die in the process?”

“No, a bunch of them do,” Adams admitted. “But a bunch of them live, too. For a given value of life. Which means still breathing. Concentrate on bringing home a live one and leave the fucking existentialism for after the mission, SEAL.”

“Will do, Chief,” Mike said, grinning.

“Now I’m gonna go find some abused, raped, forced-to-be-a-whore whore and fuck her silly ass off. For cash. Without beating on her. End of angst.”

Chapter Eleven

“I don’t know where to look,” Anisa said, nervously trying to adjust her dress so she wasn’t showing so much skin.

“Anywhere but at the cars,” Cottontail said easily. She clearly didn’t care if her dress was riding up. Or down. She looked as if she was terribly bored and more than willing to just have the damned thing fall off. “If you look at the drivers they might stop. That would be good on one level; we’d look like we were actual working girls. But we’d have to turn down the offer. Unless you’re planning on doing a trick while you’re doing this and I don’t suggest it.”

“I’m not,” Anisa snapped.

“Well, that’s one problem off my mind,” Cottontail said, smirking. “You might want to try it, though. You don’t have a pimp to take all the money and cash is cash. Well, the Kildar might want a cut.”

“I’m not going to… do that with a man other than my husband,” Anisa said.

“And probably the Kildar, right?” Cottontail said, snidely. “For your ‘bride price,’ right? What do you think that is but turning a trick? Maybe you could work up the bride price while you’re here…”

“Stop it,” Anisa said angrily. “Just… stop, okay? We’re here to work.”

“Well, it’s work…” Cottontail said, trailing off. “There’s the car.”

“I see it,” Anisa said, nodding.

“Don’t look directly at it.” Cottontail looked around. “Look at the other girls, instead.”

Anisa looked around and sighed.

“They are all dressed so…”

“Sluttily,” Cottontail said, laughing nastily. “Men like that. They like to have women that are fast, cheap and easy. They don’t have to worry about whether we like it or not. Most of them like that we don’t. They like to hurt us, to use us, to make us feel less than they are.”

“Not the Kildar,” Anisa pointed out.

“Even the Kildar,” Katya replied sharply. “He likes that he owns us, that he can use us.”

“He treats you well,” Anisa protested.

“But he still owns us,” Cottontail snapped, turning to look at the girl and waving at the whores along the street. “We’re no better than these! We’re owned by the Kildar and he uses us at his pleasure! The only difference is we don’t walk the street! We just live in his brothel for the use of him and his friends.”

“He said he offered to let you all go,” Anisa argued unhappily.

“To where?” Katya snapped back. “What can we do but make our way on our backs? There are plenty of girls here who chose to be here, because even this is better than wherever they’re running from! Because they don’t have any other choice but to sell their bodies. They don’t have a family to go back to…” She stopped and turned away, her face hard.

“Is that what happened to you?” Anisa asked quietly as they continued walking.

“I don’t talk about it,” Cottontail said bitterly.

“Do you have a family?” Anisa asked, still quietly.

“Just shut the fuck up, okay?” Katya replied. “We’re nearly there and we need to get our game face on.”

“Okay,” Anisa said nervously. She very carefully did not adjust the lower part of her dress.

The guard was a beefy guy in a sweat-stained shirt and trousers. He was leaning on the hood of the car, casually watching the girls on the street. In Anisa’s opinion, if he was supposed to be guarding the car, he was looking at the wrong people. Or, maybe not, given what she was planning on doing.

“Hi, big guy,” Katya said in Russian. “My friend and I were having an argument.”

“I saw,” the man said stolidly.

“I say that you can tell the length of a guy’s parts by his hands,” Katya said, slinking up to him. “And I notice you’ve got really big hands…”

Anisa smiled in what she hoped was a winning way and leaned up against the hood, turning away slightly. Patrick had told her the easiest way to place the device would be in the wheel well. The device had a magnet and the adhesive so it should stay.

“What do you say?” Katya asked, leaning up against the guard. “How are you… hung?”

“Well enough for you,” the man said, less stolidly. “Care to find out?”

“Maybe,” Katya said, coyly. “I’ve just had an hour session with a guy whose dick was smaller than my finger. And I could do more with my finger than he could with his dick. Do you think you could do better?”

Anisa reached up under her skirt and ripped off the tracer, trying not to whimper as she pulled out a fingerful of pubic hair. Katya was right; she should have shaved. She never had but she’d heard about it. It seemed terribly… whorish. Okay, so she should have shaved.

She turned back towards the guard, slipping her hand under the wheel well and pressing the tracer into place.

“I’m busy now,” the guard said, slid his hand up Katya’s dress and fingering her. “I’ll be off in about an hour.”

“And I’ll get you off in much less,” Katya said, pouting. “But I’ll see you then. You’re going to be around here?”

“For sure,” the guard said, running his hand over her breasts. “I’ll look forward to it. Bring your friend.”

“Sure will,” Katya said, walking off. “She needs the attention of a real man, too.”

“He stinks,” Anisa said as they walked away.

“So do most of the Keldara,” Katya replied. “So do most tricks, at least around here. It’s like they’ve never heard of soap. Now let’s get back to the hotel and maybe I can get some hot water to wash his stink off.”

* * *

“He’s moving,” Tolenka said.

“Got it,” Jov replied, putting the car in gear. The four-year-old gray Lad a had been purchased earlier in the day in a very informal transaction involving cash and a promise to get the tags transferred. It was less conspicuous for a stakeout than one of the vans. But a van was right around the corner, loaded with shooters. For that matter, there was an MP-5 at Tolenka’s feet.

“The tracer’s working fine,” Endar said, looking at the screen on his lap.

“Don’t pull out, yet,” Killjoy said from the backseat. He was one of the American trainers who had accompanied the mission. The Keldara were getting pretty damned good as shooters, but they still didn’t know diddly about moving around in the world. Killjoy wasn’t exactly a world traveller but he had more experience than the Keldara and could think on his feet. He also was somewhat smaller than Russell, which was why he was crammed in the back of the small car.

“He had a couple of girls with him,” Tolenka added.

“Could mean anything,” Killjoy noted.

“Speaking of girls,” Jov replied. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw Anisa!”

“Watch your mouth,” Endar snapped. Not only was Anisa his cousin, he’d worked with her in the intel section and respected her.

“I’m not saying anything wrong,” Jov said, smiling. “But… All Father! I never realized what legs she had!”

“Jov…” Endar said, angrily.

“Can it,” Killjoy said. “Jov, pull out. Endar, where’d he go?”

“He turned. Right. I think about three blocks away.”

“Turn right at the next street,” Killjoy said, looking at the map. “He’s headed across the river. We’ll parallel, then fall in behind at the Soseua or whatever that damned road is called.”

* * *

“He’s gone to a townhouse across the river,” Vanner said, looking at his screens. “Confirm it’s him by intercept. He called someone named Vass and asked him if he had any girls meeting your requirements. Also if he’d ever heard of you. No indication that he’s worried about Americans coming down on him.”

“Odd, that,” Mike said musingly. He was ensconsed on the bed with his fingers interlaced behind his head, looking at the ceiling. “She had to have told them that she was an American, right? She’s at the very least a legal resident. And she would have told them her father would pay money to get her back. I mean, getting back a kidnap victim over here is no big deal. You pay off the police, they don’t try to arrest the kidnappers.”

“So what’s really going on?” Vanner asked.

“That’s what I’m going to find out,” Mike said, sitting up. “Somewhere along the way. But right now, I need to know more about this guy. I’m heading for bed and so should you. By morning I want full intel on him.”

“Got it,” Vanner said.

“But put one of the girls on duty and you rack out,” Mike added. “I’ll be right next door.”

* * *

“He went back to the townhouse last night at eleven,” Vanner said, rubbing his eyes and sipping coffee. “He took two girls with him and no guards. Over the next six hours, girls came trickling in in ones and twos. Looks like about a dozen. There was at least one male present when he arrived and when he left he brought a different girl with him. The townhouse is two story, but it appears it may have a basement. I’ve got Sawn down at the building records office looking for blueprints. He returned to the coffee shop and has not left. Neither has the male at the townhouse and there appear to be at least three females still in the house. The surveillance team was relieved at seven am. Overnight they put up three surveillance cameras and laid in two window microphones on the townhouse, one of them by his apparent office and another by his bedroom. You want the take?”

“Is it what I’d expect?” Mike asked, biting on an already stale roll.

“Pretty much,” Vanner said. “The girls in the house are apparently not fully trained. They’re in the process of being prepared, so to speak. This is the analysis from my section and I’ve audited enough of the take to agree. I’m a little reluctant to have the Keldara girls doing point on this. It’s pretty brutal.”

“They’ll find out what it’s all about when they get married,” Mike said, shrugging. “Have a talk with them as a guy, though. I don’t want them getting so emotionally scarred they’re put off of sex for life. And who else is going to do it? The shooters?”

“Point,” Vanner admitted. “We also placed two mikes in the coffee shop, near his usual table, and I’ve, of course, got his cell phone wired.”

“If Adams ever shakes a leg, get him up to speed,” Mike said. “I’m going to go shopping.”

* * *

“Mr. Duncan,” Ahmed Pasha said, sitting down next to him. “A little early for Johnny Walker is it not?”

“The sun’s over the yardarm somewhere,” Mike said, swirling his drink. “Do you live here?”

“No,” Pasha said, lifting his chin and clicking in negation. “But it is a good place to conduct business. Many traders come in here. How are your girls?”

“Almost recovered from the rigors of the trip thus far,” Mike said. “We’re definitely leaving tomorrow morning.”

“I have found one girl that would possibly meet your requirements,” Pasha said, leaning over conspiratorily. “A young Ukrainian girl. Very nice, very pretty. Blonde. Not much in the breast department but unspoiled and very pretty. And they may yet grow; she is quite young.”

“Works,” Mike said, nodding. “Yours?”

“A friend’s,” Pasha said. “I can introduce you, if you wish.”

“Pasha, you don’t have any friends,” Mike said. “What’s your cut?”

“Ten percent,” Pasha said. “Minimum of one hundred euros, cash.”

“You really think this girl’s worth a thousand euros?” Mike said with a laugh. “Right. Pull the other one.”

“Pull the other what?” Pasha asked, confused.

“Sorry, doesn’t translate,” Mike replied. “I was saying that you were not being truthful with me. Girls here go for less than five hundred euros, even the best.”

“This one is unspoiled,” Pasha said, sternly. “She will get you much money where you are going. Enough that you will pay.”

“We’ll see,” Mike said. “Here?”

“I have a room here,” Pasha said. “Two eleven. That is neutral ground, yes?”

“Okay,” Mike said with a sigh. “When?”

“I will call my friend,” Pasha replied. “Perhaps soon after noon.”

“Okay,” Mike said. “I’ll give you my cell number.”

Chapter Twelve

Pasha’s room, as befitted a more or less permanent resident, was much cleaner than the ones Mike had secured. That seemed to be mostly his doing. Whatever his failings as a slave trader, he was apparently quite neat in his housekeeping.

Mike was in an easy chair nursing another Johnny Walker when there was a knock at the door. When Pasha opened it, a man pushed a young girl into the room and then followed it up with a slap to the back of her head to make her step farther in.

“Here’s the stupid slut I was talking about,” the man said harshly. He was at least in his sixties with a red face and nose half hidden by a white beard. He’d make a nice Santa Claus and Mike wondered if he used that to pick up his victims.

The girl was clearly frightened, even terrified. And, yes, very pretty. About five one, long blonde hair and blue eyes. And no more than twelve. She was just starting to get the gangling growth spurt that kids hit at that age and might, indeed, grow some more tit. He wasn’t sure she was even menstruating yet.

“Very nice,” was what he said.

“Strip,” Santa Claus ordered the girl.

“Please,” she whimpered. “I just want to go home…”

“Strip, stupid whore…” Santa Claus snarled, drawing his hand back.

“No marks!” Mike snapped, standing up and walking over. “Girl, I must see what I’m buying. Take off your clothes.”

“Please, no…” the girl begged, looking up at him with tears in her eyes.

“This is how you do it without marks,” Mike said, sighing and gripping the back of the girl’s head with his thumb and forefinger. He applied pressure, hard, and received a gasp as the girl’s knees buckled at the pain. “Take off your clothes, you stupid slut.”

The girl looked at the three hard-faced men and then closed her eyes and began removing her clothing.

When she was fully stripped, Mike walked around her, shaking his head. She had welts on her back, ass and budding breasts.

“You hit her on the breasts?” Mike asked angrily. “With what?”

“My belt, of course,” Santa Claus snarled. “What do you expect me to do? She needs to be trained but I’m hardly up to it anymore!”

“Christ on a crutch,” Mike muttered in English then continued in Russian. “These damned bruises will take weeks to fade! I’m planning on being in Montenegro the end of next week; she won’t be presentable by then!”

“She’s untouched,” Santa Claus snapped. “She’s a virgin. That is worth something.”

“She’s bruised,” Mike snarled. “Two hundred.”

“Forget it!” the slaver replied. “Put your clothes on, bitch.”

“Wait, wait,” Pasha said. “We are friends here. Let us sit and drink tea and talk.”

The girl had quickly scooped up her dress and underthings in her hands but Pasha shook his head.

“No,” he said to her, pulling the clothes out of unresisting hands. “Stand by the chairs; there is much to discuss.”

Pasha poured green tea and laid out a service on the table as the girl stood by, shivering in the cold of the room. Mike ignored her, as did the others.

“You have at least a week of travel, if you are staying off the major roads,” Pasha said, sipping his tea. “This will give most of the bruises time to fade.”

“Not all of them,” Mike said, poking the girl on the ass. “This one cut the skin for that matter. She’ll scar.”

“A virgin,” Pasha noted.

“No proof of that,” Mike pointed out. “She was probably raped by her uncle who sold her to this guy.”

“I took her from an arcade,” Santa Claus replied with a shrug. “These young girls, they trust me because I look like Saint Niklaus. And I did not rape her. Even with the Viagra, sticking it in young pussy like this is too hard. I use the older hookers who are looser.”

The girl had put her face in her hands and was quietly crying when Mike stood up.

“Lie on the bed,” Mike said, pushing her to the bed.

“If you take her here you must pay for…” Pasha said.

“I’m checking,” Mike snapped. “Lie on the bed, on your back, with your knees up in the air.”

“Please,” the girl whimpered through the tears.

“Shut up and do what I said, slut, or you’ll be hurt again,” Mike said sternly.

When the girl was on the bed he stuck his fingers in her pussy and spread it as wide as he could. Even with the dim light in the room he could see the hymen and it was unbreached.

“Virgin all right,” he admitted grumpily. “Get up and put your clothes on, bitch.”

“There, a virgin,” Pasha said, happily. “For that, two hundred is much too little. Fifteen hundred euros.”

“You’re crazy,” Mike said, shaking his head. “No more than three. So, Santa, you ever go over to Romania?”

“No, only the Ukraine,” Santa Claus replied as the girl finished dressing. “Little slut, sit on my new friend’s lap and show him how biddable you can be.”

Mike let the girl sit in his lap and ran his hands over her stomach as she quivered in fear. He was careful to try to skip the bruised areas but she still was quaking, which didn’t help much. He had a very real problem with being the sort of son of a bitch he was playing and the entire scene was turning him on more than he liked. He knew the girl could feel a very solid erection under her pert little ass and he knew that made him not only a Class A son of a bitch but a pervert. Unfortunately, short of castration he wasn’t sure what to do about his little problem. Other than killing bastards who actually let their demons out. Such as the two other males in the room.

They chatted about the bad roads, the problems with weather and the unreliability of finding virgins as they sipped green tea. From time to time one or another would make an offer. Mike almost walked when they balked at thirteen hundred euros until he realized that would be leaving this poor kid in their hands. He finally dickered them down to nine hundred euros but not a penny less. He only got the hundred euros off because of the bruises and by actually getting up and walking halfway to the door.

He pulled out the cash and forked it over with a grim face, then slapped the girl on the back of the head.

“If you think that you have had it bad so far, try to run away from me,” Mike growled in her ear. “I will do terrible things to you. Terrible terrible things. Are you going to try to run?”

“No,” the girl said, resignation in her voice.

“You could run from the old man, maybe,” Mike pointed out. “But I can outrun you. And if I have to even hurry, not only will you not be a virgin by tomorrow, I will sell you to the worst whorehouse in Istanbul for seamen to fuck all day long. And the reason I will sell you there is because you will be too messed up for anyone else to buy you. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” the girl replied, her head down.

“Let us go,” Mike said, nodding at Pasha and the still unnamed Santa Claus. “If you can get more like this, we can do business in the long term. But no marks!”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Santa Claus said, smiling and standing up. “It was good doing business with you.”

“The same,” Mike said graciously, taking the girl by the wrist and leading her to the door.

His rooms were a flight up and down the hallway. When he got to the command center room he paused.

“I’m glad you didn’t run,” he said, quietly. “The reason is, I’m not a slaver and I would not want to have to hurt you. But you must not talk about what you see in here, do you understand?”

“No,” the girl said fearfully.

“You will,” Mike replied, knocking on the door.

One of the Keldara girls answered the knock and looked in surprise at the girl Mike still had by the wrist.

“Greznya,” Mike said, thankfully. “Just the lady I needed. Come on, girl. What’s your name, anyway?”

“Oksana,” the girl said, quietly, her eyes widening as she saw the computers and electronics set up around the room.

“This is Greznya, Oksana,” Mike said, gently pushing her farther into the room. “She’s not a slave, not a whore. She works for me. We’re doing something here and it’s necessary that I act like a slaver. I’m sorry that you were put through that, but you are safe, now.”

“Really?” Oksana asked, panting.

“Really, really,” Greznya said, smiling. “This is the Kildar. He is a renowned fighter and he does not harm women.”

“Unless I have to,” Mike pointed out. “Sorry about what happened in there. But that fat bastard was about to smack you one across the face. Again.”

“Come in,” Greznya said, sighing. “We know something of what you have been going through and we are very sorry. Where are you from?”

“The Ukraine,” Oksana said. “Near Kremenchug.”

“Well, we have much to do,” Greznya said, pulling her further into the room and settling her in a chair. “But we will see if there is a way to get you back there. You have family?”

“No,” Oksana replied quietly. “I was raised in orphanage. They had sent me out only the day before. I was at a fair when the man, Hadeon, approached me. He offered to buy me lunch and I was very hungry. Then he said he could get me a good job in Italy.”

“Which is one of the places you might have ended up,” Mike said, sighing. “I won’t speak as to the quality of the job, since that’s rather obvious. I’m sorry, Oksana, but that story is very common. This is how many girls end up in places like this.” He paused and looked around the room at the monitors. “Well, not like this.”

“What is this?” Oksana asked, finally settling down. “What are you doing?”

“We’re tracking a girl who was kidnapped, as you were,” Greznya replied. “We know she came as far as here. We are trying to find out where she went.”

“Why?” Oksana asked, suddenly tearing up again. “Why do you look for her when nobody cared about me!”

“Because her father is rich and has powerful friends,” Mike said bluntly. “You have neither a rich father nor powerful friends. Well, you didn’t.” He looked at her and cocked his head on the side. “I’m not sure what we’re going to do with you. I needed to buy you because it made our cover stronger, but I’m not sure what to do with you, now. I’d hoped you’d have a family to go home to.”

“So you could get more money?” the girl asked unhappily.

“No, I have plenty of that,” Mike said, waving his hand around the room. “This isn’t cheap. No, you were going to be returned gratis. But with nobody to go home to… Well, that presents me with a problem. I’ll think about it.”

* * *

When Mike left the room, Oksana looked at Greznya with wide eyes.

“He is very strange,” the girl whispered. “He frightens me.”

“Well, you don’t have to be frightened of him any more,” Greznya replied. “And as for the being strange… you get used to it.”

* * *

“We got anything different?” Mike asked as he wandered next door. Vanner had moved the data analysis section to the adjoining room since the other one was both crowded and busy.

“Very straightforward,” Vanner said. “We haven’t really had a lot of time to pin down his movements, but it looks like he mostly is a repeater.”

“So we have a choice of taking him down at the café or at his house or in movement. And he’s got, effectively, hostages, at each point.”

“He didn’t bring a girl back with him in the morning,” Vanner pointed out. “If he doesn’t tomorrow…”

“Works. I’ll send Adams out to find a quiet spot.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Bravo team in position.”

Mike looked back at the van full of Keldara and nodded to Yevgenii.

“Alpha in position.”

“Target is moving. Target is unaccompanied, repeat unaccompanied.”

“Roll the op up,” Mike said quietly.

“Roll up,” Yevgenii repeated.

“Roll up confirmed,” Vanner replied. “We are out of here in one five minutes. Team Charlie is in place to recover telltales.”

“Don’t forget to pay the bill,” Mike muttered. “Don’t send that.”

“Roger,” Yevgenii replied. They were both in civilian clothes with body armor underneath. The team in the back was in full battle rig. Smegnoff was a hard worker and it was just after dawn. He’d been heading back to the café to get some paperwork done. He also apparently counted down his cash in the back room. That was where the majority of his “associates” and his main base for farming his girls and doing deals were located.

“Target is repeating, repeating. Kramor Prospect so far.”

“Get ready,” Mike said, turning his head. “It looks like us. Close up.”

“Close up,” Yevgenii said as he started the van. “Close up.”

Santos Street was two lane with cars parked along both sides. The van for Alpha team was parked in an alley halfway down the block.

“Closed up,” the following team called. “Target is turning on Santos. One, two… Go! Go! Go!”

Yevgenii threw the van into drive while hammering the accelerator. The lightly loaded van jerked out into the road in a cloud of blue smoke and immediately began disgorging fighters in full battle dress, with MP-5s and silenced SPRs pointed at the oncoming Lada.

Smegnoff was a survivor of numerous street battles and he had quick reactions. He didn’t bother to come to a full stop before throwing the Lada into reverse and hitting the accelerator. His problem was that the four year old Lada following him slammed into him from the rear and then went to full power, turning his car sideways across the street.

It was less than ten meters to the car and before he could try to drive out of the ambush the lead Keldara had smashed in his driver-side window. The second in line dropped his MP-5, drew a taser from his holster and fired it into the slaver.

In no more than seven seconds the slaver was in the back of the van, wrapped in rigger’s tape, leaving only two smoking Ladas for the police to try to explain.

* * *

“Good morning, Yuri,” Mike said pleasantly as the man’s eyes flew open from the ammonia capsule. “Did you have a good rest? I’m sure you recognize the after-effects of chloroform; you’ve used it a time or two.”

“Muh-wugfuh?” the man said through the rigger’s tape on his mouth.

“Oh, sorry,” Mike said, reaching up and ripping the tape off the man’s face.

Yuri Smegnoff was taped to a chair that was firmly bolted into the middle of the floor of an abandoned factory. It had probably been a supervisor’s chair when the factory had been in operation. Now it served Mike’s uses perfectly. He had to give Adams a bonus for scrounging up the facility on such short notice. Another note to make; they needed to do more ground work at each stop. This wasn’t the last such interrogation that they’d have to do.

“Ow! What the fuck is this? I don’t know who you are but—”

“Yuri, Yuri,” Mike said kindly. “All I am is an honest businessman trying to do a job. Now that job is for people who view you and me as no more than insects. In your case, one to be stepped upon. You’ve made some very powerful people very angry, Yuri. Now, this can go easy, or it can go hard. Let’s make it easy, shall we?” He drew out a folder and pulled out a picture, flipping it in front of the man’s face.

“Now, I know you see a lot of young women,” Mike said nicely. “But I’m really hoping, for your sake, that you recognize this one. Because if you don’t, I’m going to have to improve your memory.”

“I… I do,” Yuri said, licking his lips. “Yes, I remember her.”

“Ah, good,” Mike said. “Now, Yuri, there’s a thing about my friends here,” Mike said, gesturing at the Keldara standing behind the chair. Yuri hadn’t even noticed them and when he turned around his eyes flew open. Mike had chosen two of the larger shooters and they were both holding MP-5s at port arms and wearing full battle armor. “They’re really simple farmers from the back hills. And they’re simple people. They have a very strong code of honor. So they really don’t like lies. Not a bit. And since I’m their leader, I need to uphold that tradition. So, please, Yuri, let’s not be lying as we go on. You do remember her, yes?”

“Yes,” Yuri said, licking his lips again. “One of my catchers picked her up near the town square. She said she was Ukrainian, that she was looking for work.”

“Go on,” Mike said.

“Can I have some water?” Yuri asked, carefully. “I am very parched.”

“It’s an effect of fear,” Mike pointed out. “It comes from the adrenaline. I’m sure that many of your little girls had very dry mouths. Did you give them water, Yuri? No, I thought not. So, you picked her up near the town square. And you brought her to your townhouse?”

“Yes,” Yuri said, starting to breathe hard.

“And you settled her, there, I’d think,” Mike said, raising an eyebrow. “We’re men of the world; we know what that means. You dipped your wick and that of a couple of your guards. You beat her around and told her she belonged to you, now. All the rest of that sort of thing. Yes, Yuri?”

“Yes,” the slaver said quietly. “But this is who you look for? She had no friends!”

“We’ll get to that later,” Mike said, smiling. “So, you settled her down and then what, Yuri? She’s not walking the street for you. We’ve checked rather carefully. So, where’d she go, Yuri?”

“I did what I always do,” the slaver said with false bravado. “I sold her. I don’t remember to who.”

“Ah, Yuri, Yuri,” Mike said, reaching back and accepting a large sledge hammer from the Keldara. “Bad answer.”

“No, look, I can try…” the man said as Mike moved the hammer back and then forward into his left knee.

When the screams died down, Mike leaned forward to the man’s ear.

“Yuri, Yuri, my friend. We are friends, right? Yuri, that was a bad answer. Do you know why that was a bad answer, Yuri?”

“I need to remember…” Yuri whispered.

“It’s because we’ve had your house and coffee shop bugged for the last day and a half,” Mike replied. “You talked about how you keep careful records. You sold two girls yesterday, Ionna and Sofiya, to a man named Markov. We’ve got rather good pictures of all three of them. Sofiya is a lovely lady, isn’t she? And you got seven hundred euros for her, as I recall. And you told Markov that you kept all of your information to hand, in your PDA. So, Yuri, why didn’t you mention your PDA to me, please?”

“No names,” Yuri gasped. “No names.”

“Why, Yuri?” Mike asked, straightening up. “Because the men you sold her to are very dangerous? Yuri, I eat people like you, and the bad men you work with, for lunch. And is there something they can do to you that I’m not going to, Yuri, my friend, my buddy? So, who did you sell her to? Actually, what’s the password for your PDA? My little geek friend would very much like to know. He says he’s having trouble hacking it.”

“Hey!” Vanner said from the back of the room. “These things aren’t easy. He’s used at least a ten point encryption and you can’t just hammer them on the ground and pull out the info!”

“No, but I suppose that’s possible with you, isn’t it, Yuri?” Mike asked, smiling in his most friendly manner. “So, Yuri, password, please?”

“No names,” the man gasped again then shrieked when Mike lightly kicked his knee.

“Yuri, Yuri, I grow tired of this,” Mike said, picking up the sledge again.

“Please,” Yuri said, eyeing the heavy hammer. “Please. I can’t give you names.”

“Oh, Yuri, and you were doing so well,” Mike said, tossing the hammer onto his shoulder. “How many women have begged you, Yuri? Did the one that tried to run away beg you, Yuri? And why should I listen to your pleas when you didn’t listen to theirs? So, Yuri, count of five,” Mike continued, lifting the sledge. “And after we’ve worked through the major joints, there are always the intermediate bones…”

“Capital A, zero, One…” Yuri gasped.

“I’m in,” Vanner said a moment later. “What name did you use for her?”

“Her name was Natalya,” Yuri said. “Natalya Y I think.”

“Natalya,” Vanner muttered. “Damn there are a lot of Natalyas in here. Try Natalya S, Yuri. That was two weeks ago.”

“No, she was two or three months ago,” Yuri said. “There are pictures.”

“Sure are,” Vanner said, wonderingly. “Kildar, you need to see this.”

Mike set the hammer down and walked over to where the intel specialist was holding the PDA up.

“I’ve hotsynched it,” Vanner said, unplugging the cord. “We’ve got the whole thing. Including his list of clients and who bought what girl, etcetera. But you’ve got to see this.”

Mike picked up the PDA and looked at the picture. Then he walked back over and opened up the folder, pulling out the pic of the girl on the beach.

They were identical. And there was more than one. Most of the rest were of the same girl, without the bathing suit.

“Nice tits,” Mike said. “We’ve got what we want. Close it down and call in the clean-up team.”

* * *

“Penny for your thoughts, Mike?” Adams said.

They’d made it from Chisinau to Vatra Dornei in one day by hard travelling. The crossing at Gotesti had been guarded but they’d gotten through that by slipping the appropriate amount of klei to the guards.

Once in Romania they’d gotten on National Route 17, which would have just about been an adequate to a poorly maintained county road in a poor county in the states, and made the best time they could, ignoring the potholes to the extent they could. By just after dusk they’d made it to Saratel, short of Cluj-Napoca but not by much. However, that was the area that Pasha had reported had roadblocks so Mike decided to settle in at a small hotel that generally catered to Transylvanian tourists and move on the next day.

He set the bottle of beer on his stomach and considered the chief’s question.

“Well, I’m wondering if we weighted the body enough,” Mike admitted. “I think a couple more concrete blocks would have been a good idea.”

“He’ll stay down long enough,” Adams said, shrugging. “And it’s not like they’re going to be looking at us. He had a lot of enemies. We were barely on his radar horizon.”

“And I’m wondering what the hell I’m going to do with whatsername,” Mike admitted.

“You mean Oksana?” Adams asked. “Nice girl. She can ride on my lap the rest of the way.”

“I mean long term,” Mike replied. “The same problems apply to her that apply to all the other waifs I’ve been picking up. I need to find a boarding school in Argentina or something that will start taking them in.”

“Worry about that after the mission’s over,” Adams suggested.

“Good point,” Mike said, frowning and taking a pull off the beer. “And I’m wondering just what the fuck we’re really chasing.”

“Ah, now we get to the source of your angstiness, Great Leader,” Adams said. “You got another one of those?”

“Cooler,” Mike said. “There are three bits of information to sort. What we were told. What we know is true. And what we know about the overall situation. We were told that the girl was a dependent of a rich constituent. That is, almost certainly, a lie. If she was, when she got into that crap she would have screamed bloody murder about how they could make more money off of her from her father. And Yuri was pretty damned sure that she wasn’t an American. When he was begging for his life, he added that she didn’t even speak English, only Russian. So…”

“So, she’s not what the fine senator told you,” Adams said, belching. “We’re still going to find her, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mike said. “For one thing, there’s a rich senator who owes me one huge fucking favor for sending me on a wild goose chase when I could be fucking my harem. And for another, this has already cost like crazy. He’s in for the five mil or we’ll be committing crimes against the peace in the Continental United States. I’m wondering why we’re really here.”

“Well, we know the senator really wants to find her,” Adams pointed out.

“Do we?” Mike said. “Or are we just being diverted from something else? Is the senator, for example, running a scam with the Chechens to get us out of the valley so we can get hit while the team is gone?”

“Pretty unlikely,” Adams said, frowning. “I don’t know what they could use as payment to the senator and so we’re gone? The other five teams are still there. And Nielson’s running the store. That one doesn’t wash.”

“I’m brainstorming,” Mike pointed out. “First you come up with the ideas. Later you knock them down. Okay, that one wasn’t so great. But why? And if he does want her found, why? And why me?”

“You can find her and are imminently deniable,” Adams pointed out. “How many people could testify that they saw you and the senator together? And nobody but the two of you know what was said in the room.”

“The secret service guys saw us meet,” Mike said. “On the other hand, I don’t know they’re service. And that guy on the Moldava desk.”

“And you know he exists?” Adams asked.

“Ouch,” Mike said, grimacing. “Nope.”

“Something for Vanner to research,” the chief said. “And one more thing.”

“Go,” Mike said.

“Who besides Nielson is briefed in and not on the op?” Adams asked.

“Nobody,” Mike said, frowning. “Why? You think somebody’s going to try to clean us up? Good luck.”

“There’s always poison, but no,” Adams said. “I was wondering who could be broken free to go have a chat with your friends in Washington.”

“No one,” Mike admitted. “But good point. At this point we’re in fuck-up zone. I’ll put Sawn on it. I can spare him. We’re really running the team and he can think on his feet. Time to cover our ass.”

“Or somebody’s anyway,” Adams said. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to end up getting fucked somehow.”

“Or somebody will,” Mike said.

Chapter Fourteen

Timisoara turned out to be a fairly interesting place, for a Romanian city.

Much more Western in design and feel than the other towns they’d passed through, Timisoara had a rich history. The fertile bottomland around the river Timis had attracted settlement as early as 200 BC. Subsequently, the area had been held successively by the Dacians, the first known settlers, the Romans, the Magyar, the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs and every other notable group in Eastern Europe’s history. Burned to the ground by the Mongols, burned again when retaken from the Ottomans, who had made it a central military repository and armory, it was rebuilt for the last time by the Hapsburgs and still retained their baroque influence. It was that influence, to a large degree, that set it off from other Romanian towns.

The reasons it had been fought over so often were apparent. The Timis river gave it easy navigation and it had close ties to the various mines in the Transylvanian region. With a strong road and rail network, it was one of the vital strategic points in the area called the Banat with links to Hungary, and thus the West, and Serbia to the Balkans.

The same reasons that every major conqueror had captured or destroyed it now made it a central way-point for the transport of nubile flesh.

Smegnoff’s helpful PDA had listed the buyer of Natalya as one Nicu Gogasa, a man with whom he’d done extensive business. There was even a pic of Gogasa sitting in the Café Arrenica with the late and unlamented Yuri, both of them with young, lightly dressed females sitting on their laps. They were clearly good buddies. Nicu was much slighter than Yuri and better, even flashily, dressed. He looked more like a mildly successful American pimp than a mafia thug. There were contact numbers including cell, a PO box for mail, and a physical address: the Club Dracul. They even had a website that included a map.

Many Romanian official records turned out to be on the internet. From these, with the sometimes problematic assistance of an online translator, Vanner had been able to determine that Nicu Gogasa was listed as the sole owner of the Club Dracul. Mike found it unlikely that he was really the sole owner. He looked far too flashy. Clubs were a great place to wash money, so the mob was probably a silent backer. But it meant he was probably going to be around the club.

So it was in this happy state of mind of having all the initial intel he needed that Mike pulled up in front of the Club Dracul in the company of Russell. The former Marine barely fit in the rented Fiat, which just made Mike all warm inside.

The first thing to make him pause was the security. Two guys in battle dress, both damned near Russell’s size, were guarding the door, while a third bouncer in a T-shirt that revealed bulging muscles was sweeping for weapons.

The second thing was the line, which stretched down the block.

“Mr. Gogasa is apparently making money,” Mike said as they cruised past the entrance looking for parking. “Law Level Nine protocols.”

“Crap, I hate those,” Russell muttered, reaching under his jacket and beginning to divest himself of weapons. It took a while.

“Alpha Team,” Mike said, keying his mike with his voice. “Law Level Nine zone. Battle armor. Probable heavy weapons.”

“Great,” Adams growled back. “Try not to start a free-fire.”

Mike finally found a parking space in a for-pay lot and headed down towards the line for the club.

“Your motivation is I’m important and you’re my muscle,” Mike said over his shoulder as he walked past the line, reaching in his pocket.

“Your motivation is to get us out of this fucker alive,” Russell replied.

The bouncers in armor eyed both of them as they approached the front of the line but it was the sweeper that waved them to a stop.

“I understand there’s a cover,” Mike said, flicking a folded hundred euro note up where it could be seen over his thumb.

“That covers it,” the bouncer growled in accented English. He took the bill, but still insisted on sweeping them. Mike wasn’t as sorry about leaving the weapons behind as he was about the radios and cameras.

The line skipped, the two of them walked in, paid their real cover of seven hundred and twenty-five thousand lei, or about ten euros, got their hands stamped and walked through the doors.

Romanians considered the popular Western image of “Count Dracula” as an insult. “Dracul” translated as “Dragon” and was the name of an ancient order of Romanian knights, the equivalent of being named to the Order of the Garter. Vlad Tepes was, in fact, a defender of Romania against incursions by the Ottoman Empire and was celebrated in Romania not as a blood-drinking monster but as a strong and willful leader of the anti-Ottoman forces, a sort of fifteenth century George Washington.

The fact that he occasionally ate his dinner while surrounded by hanged bodies was politely overlooked.

The Club Dracul, however, bowed to the Western tradition. It was more Gothic than most Goth clubs in the states, with coffins on the walls and ankhs being the primary symbol. The waitresses were dressed in long flowing gowns, slit down to their navels in the front and up to their waists on the side, and wore heavy black eye shadow and lipstick. The pointed teeth on many of them came as something of a shock, though, even to Mike who had spent plenty of time in Goth clubs in the States.

Unsurprisingly, the club was dark as hell. There were three elevated dance floors, each with a girl or girls up on them wearing from very little to nothing at all, and two floor-level dancing areas. These were crowded with both males and females. The Romanians clearly believed in combining regular dancing with strip. For that matter, as he was checking out the environment Mike saw one of the girls he’d pegged as a patron get up on the platform and start making out with the dancer while slowly stripping.

“Okay,” Mike said. “I think this is my kind of place.”

“What?” Russell shouted over the heavy European industrial-dance music booming from speakers set all around the periphery.

“Let’s get a drink and pace!” Mike replied.

“Special dance, sir?” a nearly naked brunette asked, rubbing up against Russell.

“Maybe later,” Russell replied, looking around.

“Grab her while you can,” Mike said over his shoulder.

“Here,” Russell said, handing her some cash. “Walk with us.”

“We want someplace out of the way,” Mike shouted at the girl as they walked to the bar. “But where we can watch!”

“I no speak English,” the girl replied. “You wanna good time? I not expensive.”

“She speaks enough English,” Russell shouted.

“Is it just me, or would a firefight be quieter?” Mike screamed back. He was definitely going to be hoarse by the end of this evening.

“Much!” Russell yelled back.

They got their drinks, and a “pay-me” drink for the brunette, then circulated as the girl continued to try to scam Russell out of all his spare change.

“Eleven o’clock,” Russell yelled.

Mike looked left and got a glimpse of the tango. Nicu was near the back of the club at a semicircular banquette. He had a girl on either side, then a couple of guys that Mike pegged as friends or business acquaintances. There were a few more girls scattered around but most of the people in the immediate vicinity were muscle.

There had been more muscle scattered around the room but it was definitely concentrated in the vicinity of Nicu. And the muscle around him was as heavily armored as the bouncers out front. And more heavily armed. One of them was toting a Czech Skorpion 9mm SMG on friction straps.

Mike got all that in one quick glance then spotted a table where they could keep an eye on the tango and the floor.

When they were in posession of the table, Mike leaned over to Russell.

“Go lay the bitch and check out the security in the rooms,” Mike said as quietly as he could under the circumstances.

“Will do,” Russell said, taking one of her upper arms in a hamlike fist.

“He be very good to you!” Mike yelled to the hooker as they walked away.

“You be good to me?” a female voice near by his ear.

Mike turned to look into an exquisite pair of nearly black eyes. Very shapely. So was the rest of the body when he got his eyes off of hers. And he could see that plainly because every stitch she had on was see-through.

“Maybe,” Mike yelled back. “You sit and talk. I pay.”

“Okay,” the girl yelled back. “I speak English.”

“So what the fuck are you doing in a place like this?” Mike asked, looking around for a waitress.

“Making money,” the girl replied with a laugh. “You want drink? I get.”

“Only one for you,” Mike said, pulling out a twenty euro note and handing it to her. “Get something real for yourself and come back! There’s more where that came from.”

“I will,” the girl said, eeling away through the crowd.

When she got back, with a real honest-to-God energy drink, she handed him the change.

“Yours,” Mike yelled. “And here,” he continued, handing over another twenty. “That means you stay with me for an hour.”

“Twenty minutes,” the girl replied, tucking the the money into her G-string. “Twenty minutes, twenty euros. You want blow? You want fuck?”

“How much?” Mike asked.

“Twenty minutes, twenty euros,” the girl yelled back, laughing.

“What’s your name, girl who laughs?” Mike asked.

“Nikki.”

“Sure it is,” Mike replied, shaking her hand. “I’m Mike.”

“Sure it is!”

“Nice club,” Mike yelled back, looking around.

“Is only good dance club in Timisoara,” Nikki yelled back. “All others closed. Government shut them down. Said they were illegal brothels!”

“So is this,” Mike pointed out.

“You noticed!” Nikki said, laughing again. Very merry eyes. “See man in corner?”

“There’s a bunch of them,” Mike pointed out.

“Silk suit, silk shirt, open at collar, gold chain, Tanya and Svetlana feeling him under table?”

“Got it,” Mike yelled.

“Nicu Gogasa. Owns club. Says he owns club, anyway. Twenty euros, twenty minutes. Fifteen to him, five to me. And all of the five goes to pay off my ‘debt’ for when he bought me from the man who raped me. Or to food or my clothes that I don’t even want.”

“That sucks,” Mike said, distantly. It was clear he wasn’t really listening.

“Very,” Nikki said, her face suddenly hard. “But all other clubs, close by government.”

“Somebody’s got the ear of the government,” Mike said, looking around.

“Club is owned by Albanians,” Nikki said, turning sideways and spitting on the ground in a most unladylike fashion. “Run whores through here. Bring them in from all over. Then they go away.”

“When are you going to go away?” Mike asked, looking at her darkly.

“Soon,” Nikki said, no longer laughing. “Club always have new girls. That what makes it best in town. Would leave if I could. Can’t.”

“No papers,” Mike said. “Where are you from?”

“Belarus,” Nikki said. “You know story, right? You been in clubs like this, yes?”

“Many times,” Mike said with a nod. “Was it a waitressing job in Italy?”

“Taking care of kids in Belgium,” Nikki said sadly. “I was looking forward to it.”

“Things suck all over,” Mike replied.

“Seem like nice guy,” Nikki said. “Like boyfriend I had in Belarus. Why you go to clubs like this?”

“To meet pretty girls like you,” Mike said.

“No,” Nikki said. “Eyes are wrong. Not watching girls, watching men. Not gay ones. The breakers.”

“Bouncers,” Mike corrected automatically.

“That too,” Nikki said, reaching out and turning his face to her. “And breakers.”

“Gotcha,” Mike replied. “Good work if you can get it.”

“You think?” Nikki asked angrily.

“What would you say if I told you I was shopping?” Mike asked, turning to look out at the floor again.

There was a pause and he looked over at the girl.

“I’d say maybe,” Nikki admitted. “Is that what you do?”

“Maybe,” Mike said. “How much for you?”

“To buy?” Nikki asked angrily. “You think you can just buy like so much vodka?”

“If I walked over to whatsisname and offered him five grand euros, what do you think he’d say?” Mike asked, turning to look at her again.

“I think your twenty minutes are up, that’s what I think,” Nikki said, turning away.

“I don’t,” Mike said, grabbing her arm. “Sit and talk. You’ve got five more minutes. Don’t make me take it up with the management.”

“You would,” Nikki said, sitting down and crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“Let me put it this way, would you rather stay and take your chances with the Albanians or with me?” Mike asked, turning at movement and realizing it was Russell coming back through the crowd.

“I think the Albanians,” Nikki spat.

“Bad bet,” Mike said as Russell sat down. “Well?”

“Wired to the max,” Russell replied. “Camera and probably sound.”

“Live on Candid Camera?” Mike asked. “Must be off-putting to the customers.”

“They were concealed,” Russell said. “I had her get on top so I could get a good look around.”

“You’re not shopping,” Nikki said.

“Shit!” Russell snapped. “She speaks English?”

“Quite well,” Mike replied. “Go on.”

“Security door at both ends,” Russell said, looking at the girl. “Booths along the sides, curtains. She was very professional but still sort of stumbled through the motions. She hardly cried at all, though. These are intermediate whores. They’re still getting settled in.”

“You’re looking for better trained?” Nikki asked nastily.

“We’re doing research,” Mike said. “On the sex trade in Eastern Europe.”

“Sure you are,” Nikki snorted.

“Parts of it,” Mike said. “And you talk a lot. Don’t you get in trouble for that?”

“All the time,” Nikki said.

“They’re good about not leaving scars,” Mike noted.

“You should look under my hair,” Nikki said. “And the needle marks don’t show up much.”

“Gotcha,” Mike said, standing up. “Come on.”

“Don’t go over there,” Nikki said, pulling back. “Please.”

“Time to find out what you’re worth,” Mike replied, dragging her towards Nicu’s table.

She straightened up and tried to appear as if she liked the idea as soon as a bouncer looked her way and had almost managed a smile by the time they got to the table. One of the muscle stood up and held his hand out to stop the twosome but Nicu waved them forward with interest in his eyes.

“Mind if I sit?” Mike said, waving at the chairs filled by women.

“No,” Nicu said, glancing at Nikki darkly.

“Nice club,” Mike said. “Very classy.”

“Thanks,” Nicu said, looking sideways at one of the men at the booth and then back. “What can I do for you?”

“How much for this one?” Mike asked, waving at Nikki.

“For the night?” the pimp asked, grinning. “Five hundred euros. She could have told you that. Should have told you that,” he added, looking at Nikki again, this time with a smile that promised pain later.

“No, to buy,” Mike said. “I’m in the market.”

“That, of course, would be out of the question,” Nicu said, smiling faintly. “That would constitute sexual slavery. This young lady is free to come and go at any time.”

“Sure she is,” Mike said. “Half the cops in town would pick her up for you if she could even get out of the club. We’ve danced through all the proper forms. How much? Time is money, Mr. Gogasa.”

“And you are?” Nicu asked, suddenly curious.

“A drunk American who wants to buy a sex-slave,” Mike said blankly. “Of course. What else?”

“Many things,” Nicu said, glancing sideways again. Mike ignored the look but he’d now pegged the “associate” as something on the order of a control.

“Well, what I actually am is a guy passing through with a group of girls intended for sale in Macedonia,” Mike said. “A special sale. Very special. I think she would do well at it.”

“And I can believe that or not,” Nicu replied.

“Would you believe five thousand euros?” Mike asked.

“Hah!” Nicu said, grinning. “You make me laugh. I will make more than that off of her before I sell her.”

“You don’t sell her,” Mike pointed out. “You move her to your boss’s network.” He glanced over at the “associate” and nodded. “Right?”

“And we will make more,” the man replied, coldly. “Far more.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Mike said. “Sure, you move her through the network, maybe to Albania then over to Italy. Then up to the rest of Europe, maybe the U.S. or U.K. But what’s going to happen along the way? You lose how many girls that start from here? What’s your actual profit per girl? I know I will. And you don’t have to deal with her support anymore. Or the possible loss. Raise, fold or call.”

“Fourteen thousand,” Nicu said, glancing over at the Albanian with a raised eyebrow to which he received a nod.

“Out of the question,” Mike snapped. “Half that, maybe. I can walk out onto the street and buy any four free women for that much.”

“But she is trained,” Nicu pointed out. “She has been taught not to try to escape, what that gets her. And she has been trained to give sex well. Would you like her to show you how well she sucks? Nikki is a very good sucker. Thirteen is a very reasonable price.”

“All of that is assumed,” Mike pointed out. “And your training is sunk costs,” he added, gesturing at the muscle. “You pay them from the profit from the bar, not even counting the money you’re laundering through here.”

“What money?” the Albanian asked angrily.

“Oh, get off it,” Mike snapped. “Clubs are perfect laundering spots. Did you take in a thousand in cover charges or ten thousand? How are the police to know? Water the alcohol and charge it at full price, then figure on the margin. Then there’s the girls. Are they turning ten tricks a night or twenty? The difference between the two all goes in your pocket. Do me a favor and don’t take me for an idiot, okay?”

“Okay,” the Albanian said. “But you must take us for idiots. You come in here with a bullshit story about selling girls in Macedonia. To who? I know all the buyers in Macedonia.”

“I don’t know who they go to after our special customers are done,” Mike said. “I just get them to the house in Macedonia.”

“There was a crackdown on those,” Nicu said, frowning. “Most got shut down.”

“Jesus,” Mike said, looking at the Albanian. “You don’t keep him around for his brains, do you? Who forced the crackdown?”

“IFOR,” the Albanian said, looking at him carefully. “And KFOR. And you’re American military. The haircut, the build. Their fucking Special Force, yes?”

“So you think they really cracked down on our house?” Mike asked.

“You buy for the military?” Nicu asked, really confused now.

“Of course not,” Mike said, sighing. “Soldiers can’t afford what we sell.”

“You make black funds,” the Albanian said, nodding as he sat back. “You run house that raises money so your military can do the things your government doesn’t pay for. The things your parliament cannot know about, yes? Twelve thousand. Because the American military has been very good to my people.”

Mike had to admit that the Albanian would make a great writer for the Democratic Underground. Of course, there was more than a gram of truth to it. He did do black work and he was doing some fundraising. He’d have to give it some thought. But he knew he didn’t sell girls. End of existential angst as the chief would say.

“And for the Israelis, yes?” Nicu said, the light finally dawning.

“There are things you don’t talk about,” Mike said with another sigh. “But let’s just say that Mossad got its funding cut way back this year, just when we really needed them to keep funding their Damascus office. Okay? And thirteen is out of the question. I need to make a damned profit, okay?”

Over a couple of drinks and more than one copped feel they got an eventual price of ten five worked out.

“And you think you will make a profit from her in Macedonia?” the Albanian asked.

“For what we offer rich bastards from the states and Japan?” Mike asked. “You betcha.”

“We have such visitors,” the Albanian said, still clearly puzzled. As well he should be; Mike was spinning bullshit so fast it was practically brown silk.

“Look,” Mike said, shaking his head. “What is the U.S. Military known for?”

“Destroying countries?” one of the other men asked.

“Very good bombs?” Nicu said.

“Invading any country that has oil?” the Albanian asked, shrugging. “Being very good at killing people and less good at finding them?”

You just wait, motherfucker, Mike thought.

“Okay, all of that,” was what he said. “But the main thing that matters here is we don’t talk. What happens at the house, stays at the house. Period fucking dot. That’s something that our customers can depend upon. We don’t have fucking cameras in the booths. Hell, we don’t even have booths. You have your choice of anything from silk bedrooms to the dungeons. And anything goes if you’ve got the cash. Understand?”

“I have never heard of this house,” the Albanian said, frowning.

“See? Now go get your clothes, honey,” Mike said, looking at Nikki. “You’re mine, now.”

* * *

Once they were out on the street, with Mike and Russell flanking the whore, Mike leaned over to her ear.

“Nikki, you really don’t want to run,” he whispered. “Not just because of the bad things that Nicu will end up doing to you if you do. Just go along with us and you won’t be sorry.”

“So I can be raped in a dungeon by rich old men?” Nikki asked, breathing hard and fast as they approached the car. All she had was a tube dress and a small bag that couldn’t hold much more than cosmetics. He had to wonder where the clothes she’d “bought” had gone.

“Well, it’s that or the Albanians, honey,” Mike said. “And just don’t ask stupid questions until we can get someplace to talk, okay?”

“What are you?” the whore asked.

“Like I said,” Mike repeated. “Shut up. Russell, sit in back with her.”

“Miss,” Russell said as he opened the door for her. “Please don’t try to run. If you did I’d have to restrain you. I’d try not to hurt you, but you’re a lot smaller than me and you’d probably get hurt anyway.”

“Where would I run to?” she asked bitterly.

Chapter Fifteen

It was a silent twenty-minute ride to the hotel and then another silent three minutes to the set of rooms Mike had found.

“Russell, go debrief with Vanner,” Mike said as he knocked on the command room door. He knew there’d be at least some Keldara women there. “He’ll need your input on the club layout.”

“Oh, Kildar,” Anisa said, blushing. She was wearing the tube dress and high heels, very much the same uniform as Nikki, if in different colors.

“You really are a whoremaster,” Nikki said bitterly.

“Not quite,” Mike said, trying not to smile at Anisa’s discomfiture. “Doing some training, Anisa?”

“Uhmmm, yes, Kildar,” the girl said, still furiously blushing and pulling her dress down. The maneuver just about got Mike a view of nipple, which caused her to blush and back up so fast she nearly went ass over teakettle.

Katya was in the room, dressed in jeans, and for the first time Mike saw what looked like a real, honest, smile on her face. In fact, all of the Keldara girls were in the room along with Oksana and there were three more dressed in tube dresses and trying to stand on high heels.

“Been doing a lot of training, Cottontail?” Mike asked, breaking into a grin. “I gotta say, if I really was selling hookers, I’d make a mint off of you girls.”

“Don’t even joke about it, Kildar,” Greznya said, gasping. “We’ve been listening to far too much of what happens to them.”

“Sorry,” Mike said, contritely. “Speaking of which, various gals, this is Nikki from Belarus who up until recently was a whore in Nicu’s club. I want you to suck her brains dry. Do we have maps, yet?”

“Blueprints of the club as well as his apartment building,” Greznya said, getting up and going over to a table to flip through some sheets. “We’re not sure where he breaks the girls in, or where he keeps his records.”

“You’re not a whoremaster,” Nikki said, looking around at the girls. The Keldara girls were all fiddling with their dresses, nervously. She clearly wasn’t sure what to think. They were dressed as whores and as nervous as new ones but they certainly didn’t look as if they were in fear of him.

“I am not a whoremaster,” Mike said. “I know you have a tendency to chatter, Nikki. Even if you get a chance, do not chatter about what is happening here. Lives depend upon it. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said, puzzled.

“Ladies,” Mike said, looking around and trying not to grin again. “I leave it to you. And… this looks like good training!”

“As in unpleasant and uncomfortable?” one of the girls trying to balance on stilettos asked. “These shoes hurt.”

“Exactly,” Mike said, walking to the door. “Good Training!”

* * *

“You worked in Nicu’s club?” Greznya asked, settling Nikki on the edge of the bed with a Coke.

“Yes,” Nikki said, looking around. “What is this?” she asked, staring at Katya and Oksana. There was something different about them, she could tell.

“We were hired to find a girl who is in the sex-slavery industry,” Greznya said. “Sometimes we have to pose as hookers, which is why the girls are practicing. It was sort of a joke; only Anisa has had to do it.”

“And me,” Katya said, sipping at her drink which was clearly alcoholic. “But I’m a real whore, just like you.”

“And what about you?” Nikki asked, looking at Oksana.

“She was going to be made into one,” Greznya answered. “The Kildar bought her, instead.”

“He was a little late for me,” Nikki said bitterly.

“He will be late for almost all the women around here,” Katya said with a slight slur in her voice. “He was late for me. Hell, he used me as one. Still might. And worse. I’m a whore, why not? Once a whore, always a whore.”

“You are more than that,” Anisa said sharply. “Much more.”

“Whatever,” Katya replied.

“Hail, hail, the gang’s all here,” Vanner said, walking through the adjoining door.

“Nikki,” Russell said, nodding at her.

“Hi,” Nikki said, smiling to see a familiar face, even if it was Russell’s.

“We need to look at the blueprints,” Vanner said, walking over to the table. “What Russell is sketching out doesn’t sound like the design on the paper.”

“It’s not,” Russell said, glancing at the blueprints. “The sex booths are through here, which shows a solid wall. It looks as if they knocked a door into this section, here,” he added, pointing. “This place used to be a couple of warehouses; they’ve redesigned it.”

“Nikki, right?” Vanner said, gesturing at the girl. “Have you been in much of the club?”

“Some,” Nikki said, walking over and looking at the schematic in incomprehension. “What is this?”

“It’s like a map of the building the club is in,” Vanner replied. “I know it’s confusing, but don’t worry. We’ll walk you through it…”

* * *

“I hope you have something for me, Vanner,” Mike said the next morning when he strode into intel. “I had a crappy night’s sleep and the smoke from that damned club is killing my lungs.”

“Well, at least some of us got some sleep,” Vanner replied. “No rest for the staff pukes, huh? Yeah, we got some stuff but it’s basically crap.”

“Go,” Mike said, flopping into an armchair.

“Okay,” Vanner said, flipping up the blueprints for the club on an easel. They’d been heavily marked over and some of the areas were either entirely unmarked or marked with dotted lines making approximations. “First part of the crap.”

“I can see,” Mike said. “They’ve really worked that building over. And I don’t see where they’ve got the guys watching the security cameras.”

“We’ve positively established it as being right here,” Vanner said, waving his hand over one quarter of the more-or-less-square building that wasn’t mapped. There were some doors around it, but nothing inside the box.

“That’s bad,” Mike said.

“It gets worse,” Vanner said. “There are cameras on all entrances. Nikki has seen the security in full rig and they’re heavy. Up to RPG.”

“How very good,” Mike said dryly.

“They stay in the club, in a barracks,” Vanner said, glancing at his notes. “But it’s in the security area. The girls don’t go in there to service them. Nicu moves in a three vehicle convoy. Leaves late, comes back late, around noon. Sometimes goes out of town.”

“Shopping,” Mike said.

“Shopping,” Vanner confirmed. “His convoy uses multiple routes. The only confluence is his apartment and the club. Sometimes he takes girls, especially new ones, to the apartment. Apartment has security all over it, too.”

“All over?” Mike asked.

“All over the ground floors,” Vanner said. “We’ve got cameras on the club and the apartment.”

“Does he keep records of the girls?” Mike asked.

“Presumably,” Vanner said. “Or someone does. But that would be in the offices.” He pointed to a spot on the blueprint near the back of the main club area. “To get to the offices you have a couple of choices. Go through the club, go through the girls’ dormitory, which has very tight security, or go through the security area itself.”

“No,” Mike said. “You’re thinking two dimensionally.”

“The roof?” Vanner asked incredulously.

“It’s worth looking at,” Mike said. “Brainstorming. Okay, convoy, multiple routes. Lots of bystanders around in the club and heavy security. Lots of security on the apartment. Records in a practical vault. Nikki tell you about the Albanian?”

“The guy who actually sold her?” Vanner asked. “Brami Dejti. Former officer in the NLA. Got made fighting the Serbs, worked his way into fundraising by sex, slavery and drugs. Arrested for war crimes, rape and murder of females, mostly, associated with the NLA, never prosecuted. He got released by the Belgian contingent of KFOR and nobody ever brought it up again. Arrested in Greece for pimping, released. Arrested in Belgium for suspicion of transportation of women for immoral purposes and kidnapping. The two witnesses, the whores, disappeared. Case dropped. That guy?”

“Where’d you get it?” Mike asked, nodding.

“I pulled up a list of known players and ran the mug shots past Nikki,” Vanner said. “For damned near two hours. After that it was easy. Interpol has a rap sheet the length of Albania on the guy. Somehow he always slips out of the net.”

“Interpol is the epitome of European policing,” Mike said. “All the information in the world and no real success at stopping crime. We need to work on him. Maybe more than Nicu.”

“He left last night in a convoy of three Mercedes that from the looks of them were armored,” Vanner replied. “We might be able to get something more tomorrow night. If he shows.”

“We need them both,” Mike said. “Together. And we need their records.”

“That means taking down the whole club, Kildar,” Vanner said, frowning. “You’re not talking about that, are you?”

“I dunno,” Mike said. “I’m going to think on it. Find me a way in that doesn’t require shooting. Anything. Find it. If we can get somebody inside, we’re going places. Short of that, I’m out of ideas. We’ll have a meeting this afternoon to toss ideas around. You, me, Adams, Sawn, Russell, Nikki and a couple of the Keldara women.”

“Will do,” Vanner said, sighing.

* * *

Mike looked around the room and then at the unhelpful blueprint on the easel.

“Nobody?” he asked. “I mean, I knew I was stumped, but you’re all smart people. Somebody’s got to have an idea!”

“Well, I’m stumped too,” Adams admitted. “But I know the way I think. If you can’t get in easy, get more firepower.”

“I’m not calling in the families to deal with one damned link in the chain,” Mike said.

“Well, I’m just not the Mission Impossible type,” Adams replied. “Vanner?”

“I could try to remote access their computers,” the former Marine said, musingly. “I’ve got the systems to do that. The walls on the warehouse are old Russian concrete. It’s pretty lousy stuff; it falls apart pretty quick normally. But the problem with it is it’s ferroconcrete. Instead of using rebar, it’s laced through with wire mesh. That acts as a Faraday cage; no signals get out. I’m pretty sure there’s hardly any cell phone connection in there. I know I haven’t picked up cell calls from Nicu or Bramji.”

“What about the roof?” Greznya asked. “The walls stop signals, but does the roof?”

“Checked,” Vanner sighed. “It’s metal. Stops ’em dead.”

“I am still not so sure about reading this map of the building,” Nikki said diffidently. “But there is something on it I don’t understand.” She got up and walked over to the blueprint, tracing a section. “What is this?”

“The warehouse had in-ground drains,” Vanner said. “It’s the sewage connection for them. I looked at that; it’s marked as being only three inches wide. Really fucking thin for the purpose, but I suppose that’s Soviet architecture all over.”

“It looks larger,” Nikki said. “This is the marker?” she added, pointing to a number.

“Yeah,” Vanner said, curiously. “Why?”

“This is in decimeters,” Nikki pointed out. “Three decimeters. That is about this big,” she pointed out, holding her hands apart.

“Damn,” Vanner said, standing up and walking over to the map.

“Fifteen inches,” Adams said. “Still very damned small. I wouldn’t want to try to get shooters in there.”

“No,” Mike said softly. “But you can get someone or even something up it.”

“It runs under the club,” Vanner said, tracing the line. “And under the offices and through the girls’ rooms into security. The entrance is over on that side. There are drains marked.”

Mike walked over for a closer look and shook his head.

“There wasn’t a drain opening there,” Mike pointed out. “Nikki, this is between the bar and stage two. There’s not an opening there, is there?”

“No,” the girl said definitely.

“They’ll have laid the floor in over them,” Vanner said positively. “Nicu wasn’t the first owner of the club and from the looks of the paperwork the previous owners were forced to sell. He might not even know about it. And one of the drains is right under the offices.”

“What can we do with that?” Mike asked.

“Let me do some shopping,” Vanner said distantly. “At the very least I can get a recon probe up it. Maybe by the end of the day.”

“Get some of the Keldara into the club,” Adams said. “Rotate them through, picking up intel. They’ll need to keep their mouths shut and their eyes open.”

“Just the men or women as well?” Greznya asked. “The girls are trained for intel gathering. Not this type, but they understand the concept.”

“There were plenty of customers going there just to dance,” Mike pointed out. “Send in a shooter and one of the intel girls as a pair. How many of the girls would be willing to do it?”

“Most,” Greznya said, smiling. “Totter in on high heels, yes?”

“They’ll need more practice,” Mike said, seriously. “They’ll need to be able to dance on them.”

“I’ll get with Katya to show us,” Greznya said with a nod.

“Okay, let’s break this up,” Mike said. “Vanner, go shopping. Take a couple of the Keldara shooters and a girl if she wants to go. They need to get used to city life.”

“Will do,” Vanner said. He had pulled out a scratch pad and was writing on it.

“Take Killjoy with you,” Adams added. “That way he can answer questions while you shop.”

“Got it,” the Marine replied.

“Greznya, talk to the girls,” Mike said.

“I will, Kildar,” the girl replied.

“It’s not a plan, but it’s a start.”

Chapter Sixteen

Patrick Vanner was running on too little sleep and he knew it. However, he’d found everything he needed shopping, and putting the pieces together had been relatively easy. Once he’d gotten the pieces and put together a plan, he’d turned it over to Greznya. The girls had gotten used to tinkering with electronics and the design changes were relatively simple. The device was mostly hollow, anyway, and had a built-in spot for a camera. All they’d needed to do was install the bits he’d picked up, a few black boxes he always kept around just in case, and do the systems integration. He’d gotten in a power nap.

All that being said, he knew that he’d come up with the idea while in a sleep-deprived haze. In other words, it might be genius and it might be utter stupidity. Since he wasn’t sure which, he’d carefully avoided discussing it with the Kildar or Adams and had sworn Killjoy to secrecy.

Which was why the former Ranger was with him in the sewer tunnel.

“I think you’re bent,” Killjoy said, lifting the device into the tunnel overhead.

“It’s designed to avoid walls,” Vanner pointed out as he checked the take from the device. “All we have to do is put it in the tunnel and let it go. It’s perfect, really.”

“It’s nuts,” Killjoy said. “Even if it works.”

“If it’s stupid and it works it ain’t stupid,” Vanner replied.

“Don’t go quoting Murphy’s Law of Combat to me,” Killjoy said. “Not while I’m doing this. It makes me wonder if the smell from the sewer is making me as bent as you are.”

“Just turn on the motor,” Vanner said dazedly. “I’m getting a good feed from the camera and the intercept systems are nominal.”

“Okay,” Killjoy said, flicking the switch on the base of the thing.

“Right, here goes,” Vanner said, touching a control.

There was a series of beepings that emitted from the tunnel.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t pull the sound box,” Killjoy said.

“I’m pretty sure they won’t hear it,” Vanner said. “And, no, I forgot to tell the girls.”

“Like they wouldn’t know about it?” the former Ranger asked.

“Hey, they’re the Keldara,” Vanner said, shrugging. “It’s not like they go to a lot of movies. They’ve never even seen Star Wars!”

He hit another button and there was another series of beeps.

“You go, R2,” Killjoy said, chuckling.

And the miniature R2D2 toy began making its way up the tunnel and into the darkness.

* * *

“Where’s Vanner?” Mike asked as he walked into the command post. “I looked in intel and he wasn’t around.”

“Getting some sleep,” Greznya said, peering at her laptop computer screen. “He’s planted an intercept system under their offices and we’re getting the take from their computers. Getting in through the sewer worked, by the way.”

“Can you hack their girl database?” Mike asked.

“Not yet,” Greznya admitted. “They’re using the computer at the moment and that takes too fine of a touch; we’ll have to wait until Patrick wakes up. What we’re doing is getting the information that they’re seeing. Which is mostly financial at the moment. And we got their passwords when they punched them in. And Nicu uses a laptop with a WiFi link. He accessed it and updated it when he got into the club and we got the take from that. And he left it on but wasn’t using it so we sucked it out. But it doesn’t have a back-list of girls on it, just ‘current projects.’ ”

“Anything we can really use, yet?” Mike asked.

“Nope,” Greznya admitted. “Wait for Patrick to wake up. He didn’t get any sleep all last night or today.”

“Okay,” Mike said. “I’ll go bother somebody else for a while. Send somebody to get me when he’s up and functional.”

* * *

It was nearly midnight when Mike got called to the intel room.

“You got something?” Mike asked, looking at the group gathered around the computers.

“Sort of,” Vanner said with a grimace. “They’ve got, they think, pretty good security. It’s not as good as they think, but it’s pretty good.” He spun around in his chair and stood up, stretching his back.

“There are three different computer systems running in the room,” Vanner said. “Nicu’s laptop, an internet connected computer and a remote computer without any external connections. Their internet communications systems are encrypted with PGP and the computer’s got three firewalls, one hardware and two software. The hardware and one of the software firewalls have known holes in them. The third doesn’t. It’s Romanian and if anybody’s found holes in it I haven’t been able to track the information down.”

“So we’re still not in their computers?” Mike asked.

“Not really,” Vanner said with a sigh. “I tried slipping in a trojan and got whacked. Hard. They damned near traced me. Well, actually, they did trace me. To a university computer in the U.S. that I’ve got a trojan on. From there the trace went cold. I don’t think it was someone in the room; it was an automated response. But I’ve already determined that the information we need isn’t even on that computer. It’s on the computer without outside access. There’s no way to get information off of it except to connect. If I can get a connection on it I can suck it out in about ten minutes. But I’ll need at least ten minutes with the computer to do that. And the office is manned around the clock. Oh, and one huge problem we keep running into.”

“What?” Mike asked, sighing.

“Everything is in fricking Romanian,” Vanner said, shrugging. “You read Romanian? I don’t. We’re using automatic translators. You know how good those are.”

“What about Nikki?” Mike asked.

“She speaks English and Russian,” Vanner replied.

“Go roust out Russell, a Keldara girl and one of the Keldara shooters,” Mike said after a bit of thought. “Have them go find a street hooker that speaks Romanian and English. Reads it, too. One that won’t be missed. Bring her back here. We’ll just take her with us when we leave.”

“That’s pretty damned cold, isn’t it?” Vanner asked, incredulously.

“We’ll pay her,” Mike said, shrugging. “And figure out something better she can do than being a hooker when we’re done.” Mike folded his arms and looked at the blueprint again. “Can you sleep, again?”

“In a while,” Vanner said.

“Good, get some more sleep. We’ll brainstorm this again in the morning. I’ve got an inkling of a plan; we’ll see if it holds up to scrutiny.”

* * *

When Mike entered the command center the next morning, there was a new face.

The girl was in her twenties, thin, dark and attractive but with a very hard face.

“Kildar, this is Ruxandra,” Vanner said by way of introduction.

“Hello, Ruxandra,” Mike said, sitting down. “Is she briefed in?”

“Yes,” Russell said.

“And are you willing to help us, Ruxandra?” Mike asked, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, of your own free will?”

“I’m still wondering about that,” Ruxandra admitted, staring at him darkly. She had really good eyes for it. “I’d gladly see Nicu in hell, though. One of my friends was picked up by his men and I never heard from her again. Then her body turned up off the coast of Italy. It had been in the water for a long time, probably dumped off the coast of Albania. Another girl, she didn’t want to give the blowjob, yes? She tried to bite. Nicu had her front teeth hammered out. Now she does not bite, yes? I’d be more happy to help you if I was sure he was going to die.”

“I think that’s going to be how it has to go,” Mike said. “I’ve worked this over half a dozen ways. I’ll run through a few of them.

“Way one. We find one of the guys that works in the office in the evening that we can dope up someone to impersonate. Grab him, slip our guy in, suck the computer and our guy goes out.”

“Welcome to Mission Impossible,” Adams said, shaking his head. “They speak Romanian, Mike.”

“Yeah, that’s only one of about a thousand problems,” Mike pointed out. “Way two, we just go with a frontal assault. We’d have surprise. We can get some weapons in the room in advance. I suspect that Nikki knows a couple of the girls who would bring stuff in for us. Right?”

“Possibly,” Nikki said. “They are not swept when they come in the back entrance. And there’s nothing keeping them from going into the club.”

“Set up assignations with the girls off-site, discuss it with them, let them do it if they wish, hold on to the ones that balk. Then hit the front and rear, hard. Go for Nicu and the Albanian from the front while the back team goes for the computers.”

“We’d take a lot of casualties,” Adams said, frowning. “That was my thought. And I don’t want to think about the mess. Lots of dead civilians. Even if the Keldara picked their shots, Nicu wouldn’t. For that matter, we don’t know that some of the girls wouldn’t burn us. We could be running right into an ambush.”

“Right,” Mike said. “Now, the question is, if things go down, what do Nicu and the Albanian do?”

“I’d say, head for either the office or the security barracks,” Vanner replied. “There are more cars out back. I’d say if they have to, they escape that way rather than out the front. There’s a door near his booth that goes to a hallway that leads to the office. Turn left on it and you’re headed for the girl’s area and the security barracks. He’d hit that door if anything went down. Then either sit it out in the office or head out the back to escape. There are three rear entrances.”

“We need a person to go up the tunnel,” Mike said, shutting his eyes.

“It’s too damned small for the Keldara,” Adams said. “Even the girls.”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “But Oksana would fit. Greznya, go get her, would you, please?”

When the girl was led into the room she was clearly frightened.

“It’s okay, Oksana,” Mike said, gently. “I asked you to come in here because I need you to do something for us. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to require that you be brave. Do you think you can do it?”

“I’m not really brave,” Oksana said, honestly. “I’d like to be, but I am always fear.”

“Being brave doesn’t mean not having fear,” Mike said, shrugging. “If you don’t have fear, you can’t be brave. You have to overcome fear to count as brave. Do you think you can overcome fear?”

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “What do you need? Do you want me to be with man? I do not want to be with man.”

“No,” Mike said, shaking his head. “This is going to require physical bravery in a different way. Have you ever been in a small place?”

“Yes,” the girl said. “I like it in a small place. I feel safer.”

“That’s good,” Mike said, nodding. “Oksana, we need someone to crawl into a very small, very dirty and nasty place, and put some things in there. Up a tunnel.”

“That…” the girl said then paused. “I do not know if I would like that.”

“If you do it, we can capture and kill slavers,” Mike said, leaning forward. “I don’t know if we can free more girls like you, but we will give them more of a chance. Some of us are probably going to die doing this. If you don’t do it, more will die. I am really hoping that you will do this. We need you. Very much.”

The girl regarded him for a moment and then tilted her head to the side, looking him in the eye.

“When you bought me, you treated me very bad,” the girl said. “Why did you do that? The Keldara women, they say that you are a very nice man.”

“I am a very bad man who tries to be nice,” Mike said, not turning away. “This is the truth. I did what I did because if I did not, the men in the room would have suspected I was not who I said I was. They would have thought me soft, a weak man who could not be a slaver because I was too nice.”

“Did you enjoy it?” Oksana asked.

Mike looked at her for a long moment, then shrugged.

“Yes,” he answered, simply, still staring her in the eyes. It was as if there were only two people in the room. “I would not have done it if I didn’t have to. But, yes. I am not a nice man. I am a very, very bad man who has chosen to be nice most of the time. I do many things that are for the side of what I call ‘good.’ But many of them are very bad things, like what I did to you. I do them for good reasons. But my bad side enjoyed it very much.”

“You tell me this even though you want me to do something for you,” the girl said wonderingly.

“If you do this, you are like a soldier that works for me,” Mike said, shrugging. “I must be honest with my soldiers, with my troops. I must be honest and loyal with them as they are honest and loyal with me. If I don’t, it doesn’t work. I have shown them my bad side and my good. They choose to believe I am, at heart, a good man. I don’t argue it with them. Maybe they are right and I’m wrong. But the things that I do are as much to make up for my bad side as they are for any other reason. Perhaps that makes me good. I don’t know. All I know is that I must be honest.”

The girl stared at him for a moment more and then looked away, breathing out.

“Yes, I will do this,” she answered. “But you pay your soldiers, yes?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Mike said, grinning. “You’ll get paid.”

“Good,” the girl said. “And I get to keep it?”

“You’ll get to keep it,” Greznya said, looking over at Mike with a strange expression.

“Two thousand euros for this mission and as of today you go on base Keldara intel operative pay,” Mike said. “Greznya, she’s now in your section.”

“Good,” Greznya replied. “I can use another girl who actually knows how to use high heels.”

“Good indeed,” Mike said, distantly. “Okay, Vanner, I’m going to need most of the shooters taken off of intel duty. Figure that out. Adams, you and I are going to work out the entry plan. We’re also going to need a place to rehearse.”

“I’ll get some of the girls looking for that,” Vanner said. “They were the ones that found the warehouse in Chisinau.”

“How much Semtek do we have with us?” Mike asked.

“About sixty kilos,” Adams said.

“We’re going to need most of it,” Mike replied. “And we’ll need some field expedient CS.”

“I’ll add that to my list,” Vanner said.

“Chief, my room in fifteen, bring all the maps and updated intel data,” Mike said, nodding. “And Oksana?”

“Yes… Kildar?” the girl asked.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Seventeen

Mike looked over at the chief a couple of hours later and shrugged.

“Think it’s going to work?”

They’d been over and over the design of the club, but in the end a modified brute force method was all that they could come up with. And even that meant putting some “principles” on the line. If they screwed up, the Keldara were likely to be in a very deep crack. On the other hand, Mike, personally, probably wouldn’t be around to care.

“Oh, it’ll work,” Adams said. “What I’m wondering is if it’s worth it. We’re going to lose people. At least one, probably three.”

“So are we doing this for money?” Mike asked. “Or are we doing this for the mission, whatever that means?”

“Or are we doing it because we’re just curious where the trail leads?”

“That too,” Mike admitted.

“You’re risking a lot for curiosity,” Adams said.

“If it was just curiosity, I don’t think I would,” Mike admitted. “I’d just pull back and tell the senator the trail was too cold. But I’m not doing this for pure curiosity or for the ‘mission.’ And certainly I wouldn’t pay two or three Keldara for five mil. I’ve got the funny feeling that this little Ukrainian whore is way more important than the senator was willing to admit.”

He looked up as there was a knock on the door and slid a cover sheet over the plans.

“Come.”

Greznya stepped into the room and looked around.

“I hope I’m not disturbing,” she said.

“We’re about done,” Mike replied.

“I was wondering something,” the woman said, looking over at the chief.

“I’ve got to go start getting the troops dialed in,” Adams said, standing up with a file in his hand. “You two talk.”

When the chief had left Greznya sat down and regarded the Kildar thoughtfully, then frowned when he smiled.

“What?”

“I was just thinking of the changes in the Keldara since I’ve taken over,” Mike said, still smiling. “They wanted to kick Lydia and Irina out of the Families for being alone with a man, even though there were four people in the car and it was a medical emergency. And look at you, now. Not to mention being willing to, effectively, throw the chief out for a private chat.”

“I see the humor,” Greznya said, finally smiling.

“So what’s wrong with how I handled Oksana?” Mike asked.

“You’re sure that’s it?” the girl asked.

“Yep,” Mike said. “I saw your look.”

“I was just wondering…”

“What I did to her?” Mike asked, his face hard.

“Oh, no, she told me that,” Greznya said. “And I said much the same things you said to her. Except the part about you being evil. And I wasn’t sure how you actually felt about it. But… the way you spoke to her. How…”

“How did I know to treat her that way?” Mike asked, leaning back. “I asked myself the same thing. I wasn’t sure if I was manipulating her or not. But I felt like I had to treat her as if she mattered. Because she does. As a human being and as a member of the team.”

“I think that’s it,” Greznya said, smiling. “You treat people as human beings, no matter who they are. This is why we love you.”

“That’s a bit strong,” Mike said. “And I’ve treated people as things, plenty of times. I’m doing it right now, looking at the plans, knowing that some of the Keldara are going to die in this raid. And I’ve done it to women plenty of times before.”

“But you speak to a young girl as if she is the most important person in the world,” Greznya said. “Nobody has ever treated her as if she was important. You treat us, the women of the Keldara, as if we are important. In the Families we are only as important as our wombs and the ‘women’s work’ we do.”

“And is it manipulation?” Mike asked. “Don’t ask me back. I don’t know. All I know is that there are people who are important to my mission. And I treat them that way. Whatever the mission might be. However, once they are members of the team, they are always members of the team. If I treated you, tomorrow, as if you had no importance, then the next time I needed you, the next time the mission needed you, I wouldn’t be able to depend on you. I guess it is manipulation. But it also includes loyalty in the mix.” He paused and shrugged, grinning. “Call it military leadership.”

“Now I know that Oksana is smarter than I, am” Greznya said, staring at him thoughtfully.

“Why?” Mike asked.

“Because I have to agree with her. You are both crazy and very scary. But I will still follow you wherever you lead, Kildar.”

“Yeah, but am I right?” Mike said, shrugging. “I have to wonder about this entire mission; there is no way we’re going to get the data we need from the club without some casualties.”

“We are the Keldara,” Greznya said, shrugging and looking away. “You are the Kildar. We will follow wherever you lead.”

“But…” Mike said, noting the body language.

“There is really no ‘but,’ ” Greznya said, getting up. “For the rest… I think you should talk to Sawn.”

“Why?” Mike asked.

“Because I’m a lady and I can’t use those words,” Greznya said, nodding as she walked out.

* * *

“Kildar,” Sawn said, not looking up from the MP-5 he had broken down on the bed.

“Greznya said I should talk to you,” Mike replied, settling into a chair. “About the mission.”

“She mentioned that,” Sawn said, still not looking up. “I sort of expected this to be tomorrow, though.”

“Unfortunately, tomorrow is when I’ll need to give the mission a full go,” Mike said, stretching out his feet as the Keldara began reassembling the sub-gun. “So, what do you think? I won’t promise to take your recommendation, but I want some thoughts.”

“Go,” Sawn said, shrugging and closing the gun. He jacked the breach and stared into it, ensuring that there wasn’t a round in the chamber.

“Why?” Mike asked. “I mean, curiosity, sure. And I’ve got the feeling that there’s something very sniffy in Washington but I can’t be sure unless I follow the trail to the rot. But we are going to take casualties, Sawn. They’re probably going to be shooters. But there’s always the possibility that they’ll be one of the ladies. Or me or Adams.”

“Go,” Sawn said, finally looking up. The stare forced Mike to pause. Each of the teams had a… call it a personality, one that they got from their team leaders. Oleg’s team was blunt and implacable as a tank going through a wall. Vil’s team depended on speed and finesse, grace over power. Sawn’s team, though, was the thoughtful one. Not that they couldn’t go hard against the bad guys, but they tended to think their shots, to take just a tad of time contemplating before doing unto others. That might be only a fraction of a second, but the result was usually smarter and tighter than the other teams. Sawn’s team had been up on the rotation for this mission, but Mike was glad. This mission had required a lot more think and a lot less “implacable” than Oleg could have handled. Team Sawn was a good choice.

All of that thought, all that contemplation, came from Sawn. Farmers didn’t tend to produce philosophers but Sawn was a close as the Keldara came. He had a depth that Oleg, Vil, Padrek and the others didn’t possess. And that depth turned out to be filled with quite a bit of anger.

“There are a number of reasons,” Sawn continued, looking back down at the weapon in his hand. “This is the first true mission which the Keldara have attempted. If you withdraw, even for the reason of sheltering us, it will affect our confidence. Oh, not entirely, but we will be forced to question whether you would have taken a team of Americans in, if you would have trusted them…”

“But…” Mike said, stopping when Sawn raised a hand.

“I said a number of reasons, Kildar,” the team leader said, looking up and smiling tightly. “That is but one, and the least. The second reason is what you have said. America, Washington, affects the entire world. We had not realized to what a degree, hidden away in our valley. But now that we are looking out of our hole, looking again at the world, America affects everything. If there is this… evil somewhere near the core of your government, finding it is important. To you, to America and to the Keldara. Without digging out the rot, we cannot know if it will harm us. But knowing that the rot is there, without digging it out… That is like a tooth that you let fester. It will kill you in time.”

“Okay, I’ll buy that one,” Mike said, frowning. “My fault for dragging you into it.”

“You are the Kildar,” Sawn said, suddenly letting his anger show. “It is not our horror, not our shame, that we are your fighters, your guards, it is our honor, Kildar. We share your danger, willingly and even with joy. You have given us, again, our honor. And as you gain more dangerous, more powerful, enemies, our status raises thereby.”

“Okay, that one’s sort of… twisted,” Mike said, chuckling. “But I sort of get it. If you’re going to believe in the way of the warrior, you have to believe all the way.”

“And there is a last thing,” Sawn said, seating a magazine in the weapon. “This… trade. It is dishonor upon us all.” He turned and looked out the window at the city and shook his head. “Our women have been stolen, Kildar. When we were weak, when we had nothing and certainly no weapons, people who think they are warriors came upon us and treated us like peasants. We are not peasants, Kildar. We have had to do what we have done over the years, so many years even we did not realize until you came to us. But we are not peasants, Kildar and these men, in this trade, have dishonored our lands, our homes.”

He turned back to Mike and his eyes were bright with his anger as he jacked a round into the chamber.

“Do not even think of turning back, Kildar,” Sawn said, gritting his teeth. “I would that we could kill them all. Kill them until the All Father cried out in horror and the sun bled.”

* * *

“This is very scary, indeed,” Oksana said, looking at the hole.

“You can do it,” Russell replied, fitting the package in the tube. “I know I can’t,” the massive NCO added with a grin. “You just push the package up the tunnel until I tell you to stop and then back out. If you get stuck, I’ll pull you out with the rope.”

“Okay,” Oksana said, trying not to breathe.

“You’ll be on the radio the whole way,” Vanda said. The female Keldara was fiddling with the receiver box for the telephone headset Oksana was wearing. “Count to five, slowly.”

“One, two, three, four, five,” Oksana said.

“Can you hear me?” Vanda asked. “I mean, in your earphone?”

“Yes,” Oksana replied.

“We’re good.”

“Okay, Oksana,” Russell said, putting one hand under her shoulder and wrapping the other around her lower thigh. “Up you go.”

Whether she wanted to or not, Oksana was lifted up to the tube.

“Stick your arms in,” Russell said. “Push on the package. I’ll push you in for the first bit.”

As Oksana placed her hands on the inside of the tube she felt herself gently but firmly rammed into the hole. The package was right inside the opening but by holding her hands out she was easily able to push it ahead of her.

Someone had found a suit of a strange, slick, material called “Tyvek” that covered her from head to foot. That was nice of them since the interior of the tunnel was very dirty. And some of the Keldara soldiers had given her pads for her elbows and knees and leather gloves with rough palms so they would help her crawl. She supposed the least she should do was keep going.

“You there, Oksana?” Vanda asked.

“I’m here,” Oksana said. “I am crawling forward.”

The tunnel was very tight; she could barely move her arms, but she could push with her legs and pull a little. Bit by bit, pushing the package ahead of her, she moved down the tunnel.

“There is not much air in here,” Oksana said, panting.

“Slow down a bit,” Vanda said. “We’ve got hours to do this. Don’t push yourself and you won’t need as much air. So, you’re from the Ukraine? Where?”

“I was raised in an orphanage in Kremenchug,” Oksana said. “It was not very nice.”

“I’m sorry,” Vanda said. “Wasn’t there anything that you liked growing up?”

“There was a garden that we got taken to, sometimes,” Oksana said, pushing forward again, slowly. “It was very beautiful in the spring and summer. But in the orphanage there was not much. Even the place where we played didn’t have grass, only some weeds.”

“Do you know what you want to do when you grow up?” Vanda asked.

“I think I want to be a fashion model,” Oksana said. “I see their pictures in magazines and they are all so beautiful.”

“I suppose that is a goal,” Vanda said dubiously. “Have you ever considered being a gardener…?”

* * *

Sawn looked around the lobby of the embassy. The guard on the front, a Romanian security guard, had directed him to the visa section. But that was not, really, what he was here for. However, as he’d been briefed, there were two Marines in dress uniform in the lobby, standing at parade rest. He walked over to one of them that had more stripes.

“I am told the guard on the gate I am here for visa…” Sawn said.

“The visa section is down the hall, sir,” the corporal said, pointing. “Good day.”

“I am not here for visa,” Sawn said. “I am courier for station chief. Please direct me to secure point to wait for clearance. Code is Kildar Seven Three One Two.”

* * *

“Interesting clearance,” the man behind the desk said, looking at his security screen.

“Yes, sir,” Sawn said. “I am not know. I am only courier.”

“You’re a team head for the Kildar,” the man said, looking over at him. “Sawn Makanee, head of Team Sawn. There’s even a not-very-good picture of you.”

“I would not know anything about that, sir,” Sawn replied.

“I’m sure you wouldn’t,” the CIA station chief said, smiling. “What are your orders?”

“I am to be directed to secure console,” Sawn said. “I am to enter password and put in file from disk. I am to run destruction program on file and then take file to burn point for burning. I have had all steps described to me.”

“I’m sure,” the station chief said, rolling his tongue in his cheek. “There was a disappearance in Chisinau last week. A slaver.”

“I am not sure what you say, sir,” Sawn said, looking honestly puzzled.

“And a report that a group of Georgians were passing through the town,” the station chief pointed out. “Men transporting women to Macedonia, if I recall correctly, for purposes of prostituion. I don’t suppose there is any connection?”

“I would not be able to say, sir,” Sawn replied.

“So where is the Kildar?”

“I am not sure what you ask, sir?” Sawn said. “Can I just do upload, now?”

“The guy who gave you the packet. And your instructions.”

“I am given to them by man on the street and paid money,” Sawn replied. “May I do upload, now?”

“Are we going to have a disappearance, here?”

“I should be going, now,” Sawn said, standing up.

“Sit down,” the station chief snapped. “You’re in an embassy in a secure section. You walk out when I tell you to walk out!”

“Yes, sir,” Sawn said, sitting down. “Permission to speak freely, sir?” His accent had apparently disappeared.

“Yes.”

“You really don’t want to ask questions, sir,” Sawn replied. “You really don’t want to have ever seen me, to have ever heard the name Kildar, to have ever thought about any connections. Not if you value your career, sir. Because, sir, the Kildar is here for very senior Americans, sir. That he is here, you need to forget. If anything happens, you need to not make the connections, sir. Or very senior American will be very upset, sir. I was told to pass this to you, sir, by the Kildar, who, yes, gave me the package, sir. And to note that all he needs to do is get on the telephone and you will find that Romania is a much nicer place than Ghana or Benin, sir. I don’t even know, frankly, where Ghana or Benin are, sir, but I think you’d rather be in Romania, yes?”

The station chief’s face had gone from the red of anger to white and then back to red.

“You little shit, you can’t just walk in here…”

“Sir, is telephone number,” Sawn said, pulling out a number. “Would you call, sir?”

“What is this?” the station chief asked, looking at the slip of paper. It was a number in D.C. and by the exchange it was in the Pentagon. There was even a scrambler code. Fucking Defense Department getting in on intel, of course.

“Please to call, sir, or let me leave,” Sawn said, tilting his head to the side. “Your choice.”

The station chief looked at him haughtily for a moment and then picked up his secure phone.

* * *

“Pierson.”

“And you are?”

Colonel Bob Pierson looked at his phone. The call was coming from the CIA station chief’s office in Bucharest, Romania. He hadn’t even known there was such.

“This is Colonel Robert Pierson, Special Operations Liaison Office. And to whom am I speaking, sir?”

“This is Jasper Weatherby, I’m the CIA Station Chief in Bucharest. I’ve got a young man in my office who wants to use our secure room to send a message from someone called the Kildar.”

“Has he got codes?” Pierson asked.

“Yes, I’ve checked the database and he’s one of this Jenkins’ character’s team leaders.”

“Then let him send the message,” the colonel said, his brow furrowing. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem, Colonel, is that I’ve got what looks like a rogue DIA black op going on in my patch! I’ve seen the data on Jenkins and I don’t want to be the one to clean up the mess!”

“Oh,” Pierson replied, smiling as he leaned back in his chair. “So you’re saying you’re not going to let him use your secure facilities because you don’t want Mike in your patch. I can see that. Tell you what, just have the Keldara toddle back to Mike and tell him that. Not a problem, I’ll guarantee it. Mike won’t bother you any more.”

“Let me be clear, Colonel,” Weatherby said, tightly. “I want him out of Romania. Now.”

“I’ll pass that on,” Pierson replied. “Look, I’m sure you’re busy and I know I am. Just send the Keldara back and forget it.”

“Very well, Colonel,” Weatherby said. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem,” Pierson said. “Good-bye.”

* * *

“I won’t ask what you’re doing in Romania,” Pierson said over the secure link.

“You didn’t get the message?” Mike asked incredulously.

“The station chief blew his lid and I had him send your unnamed Keldara back,” the colonel said. “He should be on his way. Tell him no big deal. I’ll send a courier over. Where are you?”

“You don’t want this going by anyone who’s not one hundred percent, Bob,” Mike replied , tightly. “You really, really don’t. I think… no, I know I got scammed. The message laid it out to date and more or less asked if you-know-who wanted me to go home with my tail between my legs and discuss it with the person that sent me or to keep going.”

“You’re being so discreet it’s scary,” Pierson said.

“I don’t want to end up on C-Span, Bob,” Mike replied.

“That’s scary all right,” the colonel said, breathing out. “I need that data.”

“Damned straight,” Mike said.

“If Sawn’s not gotten too far, have him go cool his heels in the embassy,” Pierson said, thoughtfully. “I need to make some calls.”

* * *

“Mr. Makanee?” the Marine said politely. “Could you come with me, please?”

“May I ask where we are going?” Sawn said, just as politely.

“The military liaison office,” the Marine replied.

As they were walking down the office Sawn saw the station chief walking in the opposite direction. There were two Marines with him. One was carrying a box that appeared to contain personal effects while the other was discreetly if unmistakably escorting him.

“This is an outrage!” the station chief snapped as he approached Sawn.

“Sir, your orders are to remain silent,” the Marine trailing him said definitely. “Further attempt to speak will require that we restrain you, sir, with respect.”

The station chief opened his mouth to respond and then clamped it shut.

Sawn ignored the byplay, with the exception of stepping politely out of the way, until they were passed.

“Thanks,” the Marine escorting him said. “Turn right at the next corridor.”

“I did not think it best to argue in the hallway,” Sawn replied, turning the corner.

“Oh, thanks for that, too,” the Marine said. “But I meant getting rid of that guy. He was a real shithead. I’d love to ask what this is all about, but I know better.”

“The reason I’m here is that we are not sure,” Sawn admitted as he entered the Office of Military Liaison.

Chapter Eighteen

It was well past his official quitting time, but Bob Pierson wasn’t even sure what that meant anymore. Generally, this job had involved sixteen-hour days running up to sixty in the bad times. The military had long before learned to count “days” as the period between one solid sleep and the next and ignore such things as the rising and falling of the sun. And he was afraid this was one of those “bad” times. When Mike got that cadgy on the phone he was onto something hot. And the mention of C-Span meant he was afraid it was going to explode.

So he sat and tapped the balls of his fingers together, wondering what was about to come in on the secure server.

SIPARNET was the military’s internet. Set up like the civilian internet it was entirely separate and transmitted only over secure lines. Theoretically, it was uncrackable. Lord knew the military tried to keep it that way, tried very hard. And, thus far, there had been no leaks. But there was always a first time. Pierson had half considered that they might want to hand carry the data back to the States. But Mike must have thought it was time-critical.

His inbox dinged and he hit the message with a sigh.

A moment later, after the second “Holy Fuck!” he picked up the secure line to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This was going to be a long one.

“This is Pierson in SOLO,” he said. “I need to talk to the secretary. Now.”

* * *

“We’re over time for our cover,” Adams pointed out as the Keldara fast-roped off the balcony, again.

“Well, I’d say we’re dialed in,” Mike replied. “I’m hoping for some word from Pierson, though.”

“Thus Nadzia following you around with the sat phone,” the chief said, looking over at the Keldara girl. She was wearing a short dress and more makeup than he’d ever seen on a Keldara female.

“And she builds the cover,” Mike said.

“Speaking of which, I haven’t gotten my ashes hauled in a few days,” Adams pointed out.

“Be discreet and smart,” Mike replied as the sat phone started to beep.

“Kildar,” Nadzia said, walking over.

“Jenkins,” Mike said once he got the headphone in.

“Approved,” Pierson said. “Find the girl and gather all possible intel. You can probably guess how high that went.”

“I take it that it only went up one chain,” Mike said.

“Absolutely,” Pierson replied. “And nobody actually had the conversations. Nobody had lots of conversations late into the night. And nobody is going to say anything about it, ever again.”

“Gotcha,” Mike said.

“Except one thing,” Pierson replied, then paused. “I need to send that by courier, though. Damnit. I don’t want any more conversation on this than necessary. It’s incredibly inflammatory. Mike, you might want to just back out.”

“Forget the other unless it’s truly pertinent intel,” Mike said. “And, no, I’m going to follow the trail. I said I’d know what was going on when it started to smell. I think I’m getting a whiff. And it stinks like hell.”

“Be careful.”

“There’s careful and then there’s careful,” Mike said. “Out here.”

He watched the Keldara slide down the rope again and fan out as one of the Keldara intel specialist followed them down. Anisa, who was no more than seventeen and until six months before had never seen a computer, never driven a car, never been on a date, was wearing the same black uniforms and body armor as the fighters. She ran immediately to a computer on a desk, threw the monitor on it to the side and began removing the cover. In no less than thirty seconds she had it disassembled and the hard drives stashed in a pouch. Despite the gas mask she was wearing.

Thirty seconds later, all the Keldara were back on the balcony.

“I think we’re ready.”

* * *

“It’s a profitable night,” Dejti said, looking around the club.

“They are all good nights,” Nicu replied.

“I said ‘profitable’ not ‘good’,” the Albanian replied.

“This is much better than running around in the mountains being chased by the Serbs, yes?”

“Sometimes,” Dejti said, stoically. “But the tension is the same, yes? Or don’t you feel it? I have felt this before. There is something moving. The American is back in the house, with some of his girls. You see?”

“I saw,” Nicu said. “They’re buying drinks and whores. What about it?”

“I don’t trust him. He doesn’t have the right feel.”

“You worry too much,” Nicu said, shrugging.

“And you don’t worry enough,” the Albanian said darkly. “You think that because we have done well, that it will always continue. You think that because we have the government, that there are no other forces against us. That is what Kadul thought, too. And now who owns the club? Perhaps the Americans are looking to take over, eh?”

“Calm down,” Nicu said. “I will get you a girl, a young one. Have your fun with her, you will feel better.”

“No, not tonight,” Dejti replied, looking out at the dance floor. Too many of the fucking guards that were supposed to be looking for threats were looking at the women. Most were not his people. He could trust his tribe, but too many had to be in positions like his, handling the money and the girls. Muscle you could hire, but could you depend on it? If not, when things went wrong, could you depend upon them to die, to keep you alive, to fight for you like members of your family? No. That was why it was Albanians who were on his cars. It was Albanians in the office, counting the money and bundling it. Nicu thought he ran the club. Let him handle the women; Dejti’s people handled the money.

“Tonight I want to be clear,” Dejti continued. “There is a feel in the air, yes? Like before a storm when you are walking in the mountains; you can feel the prickling on your skin? Like before an ambush.”

“There will be no ambushes here,” Nicu said, yawning. “And I wouldn’t know about storms in the mountains. I’m a city boy.”

“So you are,” Dejti replied. You useless shit he thought. As soon as he could get a decent Albanian to replace him, Nicu was going to be a graveyard boy.

“You need a girl,” Nicu said, waving at one of the guards. “Dragos, go and get Bohuslava. You’ll like her,” he added to Dejti. “Very young, very new, from Slovakia. Beautiful. Don’t mark her too badly, please.”

“I said I didn’t want a girl you stupid—” Dejti started to reply, then stopped as screams and coughing erupted on the dance floor.

“What is happening?” Nicu yelled as the music kept throbbing.

“Someone dropped a stink bomb!” the nearest guard said, just as Nicu caught a whiff of the stench. Already people were crowding to the exits.

“Fucking jokers,” Nicu growled, standing up just as the ground thumped hard, twice.

“This is no joke,” Dejti shouted. “Out! Now!”

“What?” Nicu yelled. “Why?”

“Because, this is an attack,” the Albanian yelled as he ran for the back door to the offices.

* * *

Mike leaned back in the booth and tried to ignore the stench.

“I’m really wondering about this,” he said.

“Timing,” Adams said. “And… now.”

The three Keldara girls got up and started screaming and coughing, running for the nearby door that had just been opened. Nicu had finally gotten up and was hurrying for the same door, his bodyguards closing in around him.

Mike, Adams and Russell got up and followed the girls, shouting at them to calm down. Mike caught one just before they reached the line of bodyguards.

“You little bitch!” Mike yelled, slapping the girl so hard she fell over. “You don’t try to run on me!”

He turned to grab at another, who had literally bounced off one of the guards, and continued through with a stab into the guard’s gut. The polymer blade sank up to the small hilt and he yanked sideways, but left it in the wound, as the guard started to crumple.

Adams and Russell had each accounted for two more and that left just one between the door and Mike. The guard had drawn a gun but had no fucking clue how to use it at that range.

Mike ducked down and sideways, wrapping a hand around the barrel and left the guard with a broken finger that had nearly been ripped off.

Nicu was through the door but Mike took up a stance and put a round right through his leg as Russell turned and shot the nearest guard that hadn’t been covering the retreat.

“Sixteen seconds,” Greznya yelled, ripping off her shoes and rolling to the side. She somehow had acquired a pistol as well and used the body of one of the dead guards as a resting spot to fire across the room, taking out another guard. “GO!”

Russell was already through the door, dipping down to lift Nicu by his collar as the assault team came through the door to the offices. There were two guards between them and Dejti and one got off a burst from his Skoda Skorpion. It was his last action as the following Keldara put two rounds in him, center of mass. The other guard had already flown forward, his face blasting open as a 9mm round from Chief Adams blew through the back of his head and out the front.

Dejti had drawn a pistol but he was surrounded and slowly laid it on the ground, his hands in the air.

“Twelve seconds!” Greznya yelled, backing through the door and closing and bolting it.

“Tag and bag ’im,” Russell said, thrusting Nicu at the Keldara now filling the hall. Two were covering the far end, one was working on the downed Keldara and the other two caught Nicu, rapidly wrapping his hands and mouth with rigger’s tape.

“You’re going to die for this,” Dejti said as Russell caught a tossed roll of tape and pulled off a strip.

“I’ve heard that one before,” Mike said.

“Seven, six…”

* * *

“How’s Endar?” Mike asked as the van pulled away.

“Bad,” Yevgenii answered, pulling off his black balaclava. “I think even if we could take him to the hospital he would not make it.”

“Vanner, status on the casualty?” Mike asked as soon as he had his headset in.

“Gone, sir,” Vanner answered. “I get terminal reactions. He took one through the aorta, I think. They must have been using hot rounds.”

“That Skorpion was a 5.54 variant,” Adams said. “It went right through the plate. I checked. Three rounds, one of them dead through the target point.”

“Understood,” Mike said. “Continue plan.”

* * *

“What do we have?” Mike asked as he walked into the new command post.

It was another abandoned warehouse. The former Eastern Bloc was littered with them. Mostly they had held military equipment that was designed to fight the evil Americans and their hordes of puppet-state armies. Once the world woke up and shook off the miasma of communism, they’d been filled with nothing of much use. The military equipment was sold off at ten cents on the dollar, if that, the factories mostly shut down, and the warehouses now awaited someone to fill them with… something.

At the moment this one was filled with white vans, computers, cots and Keldara racking out on the floor and talking in low tones about the op. It had been successful, but the loss of Endar was clearly weighing on them.

And towards the back it was filled by two guys trussed up in station chairs and the group regarding them with interest.

“We got anything useful to ask them yet, Vanner?” Mike asked.

“Not really,” Patrick replied. “We’re still looking for Natalya. Do you know that they’ve moved over two hundred girls named Natalya alone in the last year. Twenty in the period we’re looking for.”

“You should be through twenty already,” Mike said.

“Their database is for shit,” Patrick sighed. “They’re using Excel if you can believe it. Finding a grouping of Natalyas is easy. I think it’s only twenty in the date range; some of the dates aren’t input right. And I’ve looked at those; she’s not any of them. So I’m expanding the search.”

“Hurry,” Mike said, turning to look at Nicu and Dejti. “I’m looking forward to asking these guys the right questions.”

“Ah, here she is,” Vanner said, happily. “She was received on the fifteenth of May and shipped out on the third of July. The guy transporting her was called Mehmet Hubchev and she was going to the Belgrade facility…”

“So we’re going to Belgrade?” Mike said.

“But!” Vanner added. “There’s a note that she was to be transshipped to Rozaje. Where in the hell is Rozaje?”

“Montenegro,” Adams said. “Near the Albanian border.”

“That got a rise out of Dejti, here,” Mike said, stepping forward and yanking the tape off the Albanian’s mouth. “So, Dejti, what’s so important about Rozi or whatever.”

“I tell you nothing!” the Albanian said, spitting at him.

“Hey, a live one,” Mike said. “Chief, the screams really hurt my ears, stuff something in his mouth.”

“Okay,” Adams said, stepping forward while he drew his knife. He took Nicu’s ear in a thumb and forefinger and then cut it off, neatly. Then in one swift motion he stuffed it in Dejti’s mouth and followed it with a wad of cloth. “That do?”

“Works,” Mike said, stepping around the back of the chair to pick up the sledge hammer. “Now, it only took a couple of wacks from this to get Nicu’s friend… what was his name?”

“Yuri,” Vanner said helpfully. “Hey, boss, there are only a couple of girls in each shipment sent to this Rozaje place. Most of them get sent to other brothels or straight to Albania with notes to check them for breaking and then send them through the pipeline to Italy. I only count… twenty females in the last six months that went to Rozaje. I’ve got it on a map; there can’t be much of a brothel there; it’s tiny.”

“So, Dejti,” Mike said, pulling the hammer back. “We’re going to talk about Rozaje.”

Once the screams had died down, Adams reached for the ear. Then he picked up a smaller sledge, held the Albanian’s mouth shut by pushing up on his chin and smashed out his teeth.

“Sorry about that addition, boss,” he said, fishing in the whimpering man’s mouth. “I didn’t want him biting me while I got Nicu’s ear out. Guess where I got that idea?”

“Not a problem,” Mike said. “As long as he can talk. So, Dejti, what’s the deal with Rozaje.”

“You look for girl,” Dejti said. “One girl.”

“That’s right, one insignificant little Ukrainian hooker,” Mike said. “So what’s so important about Rozaje?”

“If she went to Rozaje, she is dead.”

* * *

“We will find who did this and kill them,” Luan Dejti said, looking around the shattered office. Not much was visible; it was clear that whoever had hit the club had left explosives behind. Those had started a fire and even the police said there was not much evidence. Witnesses had seen some people enter the back rooms, but nobody could identify who they were. Except the dead guards, possibly.

“They were professionals,” Yarok Bezhmel said. Bezhmel was one of the few “made” men in the Albanian mafia who was not an Albanian. The former Spetznaz officer was highly regarded by them, however, for his professional training and total ruthlessness. “The shooting was short and precise, the bombs were precisely placed and whoever took down the guards at the door killed four guards armed with pistols and machine guns with nothing but plastic knives.”

“So, who are they?” Luan asked. “I want their balls. He was my cousin. We cannot just walk away from this.”

“Oh, no,” the Russian said, squatting down and picking up a spent cartridge. “Hmm… American 5.56 for their M-16s and variants. I’d say that, somehow, you have angered the American military my friend. That would explain the precision, at least. I would say that this is the work of American special operations. Their SEALs or even Delta Force. Perhaps one of their quieter groups that works with the CIA or the Defense Department intelligence. Yes, that would be it most likely. Their ‘black ops’ groups. So, who did you anger in America?”

“This should not be,” Luan said breathlessly. “What have I done?”

“Perhaps you got the wrong girl,” Yarok answered, standing up. “I heard that Yuri in Chisinau has disappeared. A very clean operation, very professional. He did much work with Nicu, no?”

“Yes, but I have no idea how much,” Luan said, waving around the room. “Everything is destroyed!”

“And if anything is gone, it is not evident to the fine Romanian police,” Yarok said, dusting off his knees. “I think I need to go to Chisinau and ask questions. Also of your employees here. But I will have better questions when I return. Will you reopen the club?”

“Perhaps,” Luan said, frowning. “It was a very good business for us. But I will need a new front man. I don’t suppose you want to run a club?”

“Not at all,” Yarok replied. “But I do need you to get some people together for me, some people that are good with weapons. Very good. We will need them.”

Chapter Nineteen

“Well, I’d say that our cover is going to be pretty thin after that one, Mike,” Adams pointed out.

Mike looked out the window of the small hotel south of Belgrade and shrugged.

“I suppose we know the next main objective,” Mike said. “Bastards.”

It was raining in Serbia and the hills to the south were cloaked in clouds. A shitty day for a shitty discussion.

“It was, more or less, what we said they were doing with the girls,” Adams pointed out.

“Yeah, but I really hoped that it didn’t exist in reality,” Mike said.

“The world’s a fucked up place,” Adams opined. “So, do you think the senator was a client?”

“But why’s he looking for a girl that’s dead?” Mike asked. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

“We don’t know she’s dead,” Adams pointed out. “We only have what Dejti said.”

“They snuff all the girls that go to Rozaje,” Mike said, still looking out at the rain.

“Most,” Adams said.

“He only said that after we’d broken his other leg,” Mike said. “I’m not sure it was good intel. Besides, he was hard to understand after you broke out his teeth.”

“So we go to Rozaje, discuss it with this Bulgarian that runs the place,” Adams said. “We discuss it with him really personally.”

“I’m thinking about that,” Mike said. “But there’s a bunch of problems.”

“It’s in the KFOR sector,” the chief said. “I think the Fijians have got that area at the moment.”

“I really don’t want to get in a fight with KFOR.” The Kosovo Force was an international peacekeeping enforcement group placed in the Kosovo region of Serbia after the brief Kosovo war. Effectively, they policed the region. If the Keldara went in and wiped out another Albanian brothel they wouldn’t be dealing with just the local police. And KFOR had access to modern forensic techniques. They might not choose to use them under the circumstances, but it was something to think about.

The worst bit, however, was what was unsaid.

“And KFOR knows about it,” Adams pointed out.

Up until then. Damn.

* * *

“He’s sure?” the President asked.

“As sure as he can be, Mr. President,” Pierson replied. “I sent him a code disc so we could send and receive highly encrypted transmissions. His last transmissions indicate that the compound in Kosovo is used for terminal sexual purposes…”

“They bring in hookers from around Eastern Europe so rich and very sadistic bastards can kill them during sex,” the defense secretary said, bluntly.

“Yes, sir,” the colonel said. At this point, he’d gotten used to briefing the President; it went with the job. Office of Liaison was founded to keep the current president up-to-date on what was going on with very black, very special operations organizations around the world. Pierson had gotten Mike dumped in his lap on his first operation, back when Mike had a real life and a real name. Since then he’d been Mike’s “control,” to the extent that the former SEAL had any such thing.

If anyone, he should have been the point of contact on this mission. It was obvious, now, why the senator had not used him.

“What in the hell was Traskel thinking?” the President snapped. “Did he think that Mike wouldn’t find out where the girl had gone?”

“It’s possible, Mr. President, that he was unaware,” Pierson pointed out. “We don’t know that the senator was a client.”

“He traveled to Eastern Europe during the same time frame,” the national security advisor pointed out. Her normally dark face was gray with anger.

“So did three other senators from his party,” the secretary of defense pointed out. “And two from yours, Mr. President. So did their families. And it was a very open trip.”

“At the taxpayers’ expense,” the President said angrily.

“Actually, Mr. President, it was paid for by a special interest group,” the secretary of defense replied. “The International Association for Women’s Rights. Apparently they hadn’t anticipated how… interested the congressmen and senators would be in the subject; there are quite a few confidential reports on the trip. Much went on that would be rather—”

“That if the American public got wind of it would cause a firestorm,” the national security advisor said with a sigh.

“I’m thinking less of the senator than of his son,” the secretary said musingly. “He had an entire report all of his own.”

“If we even hint about this…” the President said.

“We can’t do a thing,” his chief of staff said. “We need those reports to stay absolutely confidential. If there’s even a hint that anything about that trip came from our party, it would blast back on us, hard.”

“And in the meantime, we continue to just let it happen,” the national security advisor said, coldly.

“You know the problems with stopping it,” the President pointed out. “The pressures are too high for us to do more than spit in the wind. And we’ve got other fish to fry, like stopping terrorists from attacking the United States. In the meantime, it goes on. And, no, I don’t like that. Do you think I wouldn’t stop it if I could?”

“No, sir,” the NSA said, sighing. “It just, sorry, pisses me off.”

“Well, I suspect that this one operation is going to get stopped,” the secretary of defense said, smiling. “And stopped hard.”

* * *

“What are we going to do with Endar?” Adams asked.

The question of what to do with three bodies was the current topic of discussion. Two of them were easy. There are a million ways to get rid of a body, some of which even worked if you didn’t want it discovered. However, all of them were a bit cold for one of your own troops. And repatriating the body was out of the question.

“We’re going to take a little side trip,” Mike said. “There are some nice beaches down on the Adriatic coast and I think the girls are due for a break.”

“We’re just going to cart a body around for the next few days?” Adams asked, aghast.

“Look,” Mike said. “We’re carrying eight girls who look as if they’re intended for immoral purposes, over sixty weapons, body armor, night vision goggles, entry tools, bugging tools, hacking tools and at least six remaining kilos of explosive. What’s a couple of bodies to add to that?”

“Smell?” Adams asked.

“Get some dry ice.”

* * *

Yarok scanned through the computer records, looking for he knew not what.

He’d told Dejti that the group was American special operations, but he still wasn’t sure. The methods were the same; if he had to guess he’d say SEAL by the entry patterns and the way the groups moved, based on the few remaining eyewitnesses. But there was no reason he could find that an American special operations unit would attack the Albanians. Quite the opposite, in fact, given some of the videos in Dejti’s hands.

He’d nosed around Chisinau, a bastard city in his opinion, and some of Yuri’s associates had mentioned a group of Americans that had also been nosing around. They supposedly had Georgian girls they were taking to a “special auction” in Montenegro. The also had more muscle than was normal, at least fifteen or twenty Georgians.

The database he was looking at was from Interpol, a listing of potential security threats in and around the EU zone. The problem was, there were so many he wasn’t sure what he was looking for. The group might not have even been Georgian, but he was concentrating there. But between the Ossetian separatist movements and the Chechnyans…

He stopped in his perusal and backed up a page. There was a note in the database about a new Georgian militia with American training. A mountain infantry group called the Keldara.

“An American using the name of Michael Jenkins has begun to form a new militia in the Georgian mountains. Said militia has engaged with Chechnyan terrorist groups twice. Equipped with light small arms, the group has undergone training with five or more Western special operations trainers. Results of training unknown.”

There was a picture of “Jenkins” and he matched the description of the American in Chisinau. Of course, so did half the men in the world. But Yarok copied it off the database and mailed it to his men in Timisoara to show to the witnesses from the club.

He briefly considered simply turning the information over to the Romanian authorities. They’d put the word out through Interpol and that would certainly inconvenience this “Jenkins” character. But it wouldn’t fulfill his mission, which was to put the man in an unmarked grave.

However, Interpol also kept a database of people using hotels. It was slow to update, but it might give him an idea where Jenkins was going…

* * *

The girls liked the hotel.

The Hotel Caesaria was on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro, a narrow strip of land that included the cities of Kotor and Perast. The town of Zelenika, which was where the hotel was located, could barely count as a town, much less a city. There was a straggle of old houses, a small market and a wharf to support the primary local industry: small boat fishing. The majority of the boats looked as if they’d been constructed in the time of the Argonauts. They were open “caiques,” lightly built wooden dories originally designed for one or two men to row them or to use small sails. Their only concession to the twenty-first century was the addition of small diesel motors. The fishermen would generally leave in the afternoon, go out in to the reefs that choked the area, lay down gill nets with gourd floats, then pick them up the next morning, starting usually at dawn.

Zelenika was near the opening of a large bay that serviced the boat traffic of both Kotor and Perast. There wasn’t much for either; local trade was highly limited and there wasn’t even a regular ferry service to Dubrovnik, the nearest major city, much less to Italy which was just across the Adriatic. Zelenika was the definition of “backwater.” The hotel was just down the road from the main “town,” near the very tip of the cape that protected the bay.

There were a few beaches but mostly the coastline was too rocky for good swimming. There was, however, enough room for some sunbathing and a small beach by the hotel. Mike had explained to the girls that, as part of their cover, it was important that they looked as if they were just on a trip and getting a little sun. After some pro-forma protests, most of the Keldara had suited up and headed for the beach along with the three “liberated” hookers.

Which left Mike out in a small Lada, looking for a boat. Two, actually.

Zelenika mostly fronted on its excuse for a wharf. The small bay that the city faced was curved in a semi-circle with ancient jetties protecting it from northerly gales. The wharf itself was a seawall that looked as if the original stonework was Roman and had rickety wooden piers jutting out from it. It was backed by a narrow street made of flagstones patched with everything from bricks to concrete to sand. There were a couple of sailboats anchored in the middle of the bay and a few ancient speedboats tied up at the piers. Nets were hung up along the seawall to dry but no fishermen were around when Mike parked his car, removed the distributor to hopefully prevent its theft, and began looking for a bar.

The first storefront was a general store. Just checking around, Mike went inside.

There was a woman who looked to be a hundred, and was probably forty, sitting behind the counter watching some show in Serbian. It mostly involved women crying, which was about par for this region. The shelves were filled with some of the worst snack foods Mike had ever seen, and he’d been in plenty of third world stores. For that matter, most of them looked as if their sell-by date was before his birthday and they were covered in dust. He peeked in the two refrigerators and backed away hastily. The contents were mostly local erzatz Coke knock-offs. He’d had one of those during his previous trip through the area and regretted it for days.

As he went out he had to shake his head. There was a postcard rack celebrating the wonders of visiting scenic Zelenika. Most of the postcards were faded to the point of illegibility. He wondered who ever figured this place for a major tourist destination.

The second store was a fish market. From the smell, he was more than willing to pass right by.

The third, however, was what he was looking for. The small restaurant and bar — the distinction was small in places like this — had a few rickety tables out front and a big sign in Serbian that had seen better days. Under it another weathered sign proclaimed that he had found “The Head of the Albanian.”

His kind of place.

Mike sat down at one of the tables, which rocked ferociously on the flagstones of the street, and wondered if he’d get any service.

After staring out at the not-particularly-scenic scene in front of him for about a half an hour, and noting the lack of boat traffic, he saw a man come out from the back wiping his hands on a rather dirty cloth.

“You want drink?” the man said in passable English.

“Wine,” Mike replied. “In the bottle.”

“Carafe,” the man said, slapping the back of his right hand into his left palm in the local signal for “all gone.”

“Carafe, then,” Mike sighed. The alcohol would probably fix whatever was growing in the carafe. “Some bread and fish. As long as it’s not from the place next door.”

“No problem,” the man said, grinning a gap-toothed smile. “Is fresh.”

“Fresh last week, probably,” Mike said.

“Today,” the man replied. “Fishermen come here. I buy their fish. You want prawns?”

“Steamed, if you can,” Mike said, nodding.

The prawns — local shrimp and about half the size of a small lobster — were actually pretty good. They’d be better with drawn butter, but that had never caught on in the Adriatic region. Hell, in the Mediterranean, for that matter. The wine, on the other hand, was paint thinner. Mike ordered tea, hot, which wasn’t exactly awful, and sipped at that.

It was about three PM when the fishermen started to show up. Mostly they headed for their boats and started to load the dried nets into large baskets, then stowed them in the covered forecastles. However, a few stopped into the tavern for a belt before heading out.

When most of the boats were gone, one of the men who was clearly a fisherman remained, morosely sipping at the paint thinner wine.

“No boat?” Mike asked in Russian.

“Is in yard,” the man replied in something that was half Serbian, half Russian. Both were Slavic root languages and hadn’t actually drifted that much. They were about as similar as two types of German. “You fish?”

“I want boat,” Mike replied. “Two. One to buy, one to rent. Where’s yard?”

“Down around corner,” the man said, pointing to the south east. “I show you?”

“And get a cut?” Mike asked, smiling.

“Is good day not to fish,” the man said. “Especially if I get some money anyway.”

* * *

On the east side of the town was another small bay Mike hadn’t suspected was there. There weren’t any piers but there was a narrow strip of sand and rocks where a small boatyard existed.

There were about three caiques in various stages of completion, two more drawn up and being worked on, supposedly, and a few small speedboats. Most of the latter were clearly the worse for wear but two were in decent condition at first glance and one even had an outboard motor mounted.

“This is Drulovic,” the fisherman said, walking up to a man who was bent over a torn-apart diesel. “Drulovic, this is man who wants boats.”

“I need one of those,” Mike said, pointing to the caiques drawn up on the shore. “To buy. And a speedboat to use for a day or so. Both have to work.”

“Those I’m making for people,” Drulovic said, wiping his hands on a cloth. “One of the others, it was Vasa’s. He’s gone. Never paid me. It needs work.”

“Two days,” Mike said. “That’s when I need it. How much?”

“Two thousand euros,” Drulovic said, shrugging.

“Three hundred,” Mike said, automatically.

“You want it working in two days, you give me two thousand euros,” Drulovic said, grinning. “And you give me another three thousand as deposit on other boat. What you going to do with it?”

“Bury somebody,” Mike snapped. “Five hundred for the caique; it only has to work for a couple of hours. And a thousand deposit.”

“A thousand for the caique,” Dulovic said thoughtfully. “A thousand deposit and a hundred to use the other.”

“Done,” Mike replied, dipping in his pocket and pulling out a wad of cash. “Half now, half when I pick it up.”

“You carry a lot of money around,” Drulovic mused as he counted out half the money.

“Very few people are stupid enough to try to steal from me,” Mike replied, handing over the wad of cash. “Otherwise I’ll need to buy another boat.”

Chapter Twenty

“Okay, you are officially nuts,” Adams said as Mike pulled the caique up on the rock-strewn shore of the cove.

Finding the right place for the ceremony had turned out to be the toughest job; coves along the Adriatic that were landable at all tended to have villas. As did this one, the difference being that the owners weren’t home.

Most of the Keldara were gathered on the shore. Endar had been loaded on a bier made of four different woods while the two slavers still rested in the plastic bags that, along with liberal addition of dry ice, had kept the smell down for the last week.

“First the wood,” Mike said. “You got the kerosene?”

“Of course I have the kerosene,” Adams snapped. “And this is going to be visible for miles!”

“By the time anybody gets to the boat, they’re going to be toast,” Mike replied. “Everybody checked out.”

“I even paid the bill.”

“Sawn.”

“Yes, Kildar,” the Keldara team leader said, stepping forward.

“The wood is to be loaded by Tenghiz and Padrec,” Mike said, stepping back. “Then the bodies by Slavic and his team. His weapons are to be laid by Rusudani. You will take the position of Priest of the All Father and sing him to sea.”

“Yes, Kildar,” Sawn said, nodding.

“Before we begin, I will explain,” Mike said, stepping onto the moonlit beach. All lights had been left behind in the vans along with a small security detachment composed mostly of the trainers. “The translation of the song of the wanderers shows that your tribe came, long ago, from among the ranks of seafaring warriors. It was their tradition to send their great warriors who had died in battle to sea. They would shove a specially made boat into the sea and set it afire. We’re going to drive this one out to sea and then set it on fire with Beslan, his weapons and his dead foes. I cannot bring Beslan back to the valley. This is the best choice I can think of.”

“We understand, Kildar,” Sawn replied, nodding. “It is said that even in the days of the Tsar a few of the dead each year, especially the Family seniors, would be burned on the pyre. This is a rite we accept. Thank you.”

“Like I said, best I can do,” Mike answered shrugging. “Lets get started.”

Sawn wasn’t the best singer among the Keldara, but he was pretty good. And he’d heard the words of the funeral rite, the Keldara funeral rite, enough times to be able to repeat them. Mike wasn’t sure what language they were in; it certainly wasn’t Georgian and he suspected it wasn’t Celtic like the song of the wanderers. The latter was sung each spring by the best voice in the tribe. At the last ceremony McKenzie, the former SAS NCO, had been able to partially translate it as an epic about a wandering group of fighters that had come from the far north and been captured and enslaved, then forced to defend an inhospitable fortress on the edges of the empire. The clues in the song were clear to Mike, who had wondered about some of the oddities of the Keldara and the caravanserai.

The original Keldara had been a group of Norse, and apparently Scot, warriors that had made their way down through the Mediterranean until they encountered the Byzantine Empire. Since they were clearly related to the guards of the Byzantine Emperors, the Varangian guard, they were grouped with a small team of actual Varangians and sent to guard the caravanserai, which at the time was a lucrative income generator on the Silk Road.

Since that time, with influxes of succeeding waves of invaders, their fortunes had fallen even further, leaving them as mere farmers in a lost mountain valley. But the warrior core remained and had been brought out by the training of the American and British soldiers Mike had brought in.

Now, the circle closed. The latest Keldara dead, like their forebearers of old, would be sent out to sea on a wooden boat with the bodies of his foes at his feet and his weapons piled at his head.

It was a hell of a lot better than being dumped in an unmarked grave. And since Mike intended to take the boat to damned near the horizon before lighting it off, there was little chance anyone would notice. Or, given the area, care.

Of course, they’d pulled the ammo. They were going to need it.

Chapter Twenty-One

The villa was actually southwest of Rozaje, right up in the mountains near the Albanian border. The road from Rozaje, according to the map and satellite photos, stopped not far beyond the villa, but a collection of trails was evident as well, some of them passable to all-terrain vehicles. It was likely that the villa was on a smuggling route from Serbia into Albania. The same routes had supplied the KLA during the war against the Serbians.

Mike had expected that getting into the area would be harder than normal. The region was under the sporadic control of the Kosovo Force and Mike had expected more efficient checks than had been characteristic up to this point. The first check, the “border” crossing from the Serbian controlled area, had really had him worried. The troops were French and thus, he’d assumed, unbribable.

However, while there were French troops in the area, the actual border crossing had been under the control of Serbians. Mike had spoken to them in Russian and put in the usual tip. The Serbs had looked in the vans, seen that the cargo was mostly women, and waved them through.

From there the trip had been smooth. There were two internal checkpoints that had caught them but at the first the same tip had worked and at the second Katya and Nikki had sealed the deal. Mike was still unsure about bargaining his way through on the backs of the girls, but if it worked he wasn’t going to knock it.

Montenegro was an anomaly. Depending upon who you asked, it was either a province of Serbia, according to Serbia, an independent state, according to most of the residents, or something in between, according to most of the rest of the world and certainly to the U.S. government. In 1992, in the wake of the Dayton Accords, the then legislature and president had agreed to not separate from Serbia, as Croatia and Bosnia had done. The decision was so controversial that even the U.S. government didn’t recognize it. Furthermore, the Serbians were unsure how to deal with it since Montenegro had its own freely elected government and, notably, its own burgeoning army. So for the time being, nobody rocked the boat. Technically, it was a province, but in reality it was an independent state.

The name “Montenegro” translated as “Black Mountain” and in keeping with the name, Montenegro, whether it was a province or a country, was definitely mountainous. The mountains weren’t alpine in their heights, not even up to Georgian standards, but they were pretty serious hills. The country stretched from the plains of, definitely, Serbia to the Adriatic and the very limited flatland was either cultivated or covered by cities.

Their objective was in keeping with the terrain and, therefore, wasn’t a pretty sight from the perspective of assault.

“Right on the hilltop,” he noted, looking through the binoculars and taking pictures.

“The outer perimeter security is KFOR,” Adams noted. “Fijians.”

“We’re going to have to figure something out about them,” Mike said. “We don’t want to go around killing KFOR troops.”

“Tasers?” Adams asked.

“Maybe.”

The high hill had wall terraced into its sides as well. Anyone approaching was going to be in view. And Mike ad gotten a count on at least six guards inside the compound. That meant, at a guess, something on the order of twenty total in three shifts. They’d have to lay this one out carefully. A frontal assault had all the makings of a disaster.

“We’ll leave a couple of the Keldara up here to get the guard schedule,” Mike said, sliding back down the ridge overlooking the compound. “Two days to prep. Let’s get working on a plan.”

* * *

“Guards change three times per day,” Vanner said, pointing to the sand table of the compound that was set up in the small conference room the hotel hosted. If the owners had questions about why a group of slave traders wanted a conference room, a hefty tip had answered them. “Girls normally arrive during the day and not later than midnight, according to our sources.” By which he meant the now deceased Dejti.

“This is going to be hairy,” Vanner continued, looking at his console. “We don’t even have a good internal schematic. What if they dump their records when we hit? I mean, even if they’ve made backup DVDs, you throw those in a microwave and set it on high and they’re toast.”

“I think we might be overmuscling this one,” Mike said, looking at the window design again. Over the years, Western special operations and their intelligence support units had developed an encyclopedic database of windows and doors throughout the world. Even older, by definition custom-made, windows such as those on the villa fit basic parameters which were in the database. And Vanner just happened to have acquired a copy.

Mike sometimes had to wonder if Vanner was his actual control.

“Define,” Adams said, looking up from the rough floor plan that had been worked out from external observation. The outer rooms were sketched in, lightly, with vast areas of gray area. They knew there was a basement, there was a visible door, but they had no idea of the layout.

“Well, overmuscling is when you’re using too much force for a mission,” Vanner said, looking up from his computer with a smile.

“Wise ass,” the chief growled. “So what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking we’re going to need Lasko and Praz,” Mike replied musingly. “And some special equipment.”

“Make up a list,” Vanner said, sighing.

“And we need more interior data,” Mike said, rubbing his chin in thought. “We can try to find one of the Albanians that work there and bribe him for a layout…”

“They’re all from one clan,” Vanner said, flipping through a chart of the known guards. “At least it looks that way.”

“Which would be risky,” Mike continued. “We can try to insert a girl into the place, such as Katya…”

“I was wondering why you’d been carting her around,” Adams said. “Besides for looks.”

“Might I remind everyone that this is a snuff house?” Vanner pointed out. “Whoever goes in there probably isn’t going to come out!”

“It’s Katya,” Mike said, offhand, then smiled. “Just joking.”

“Thank God,” Vanner said, breathing out.

“Besides,” Mike continued, still looking at the windows, “what I really meant was that I’d be damned surprised if Katya got snuffed. Even if we weren’t banking on her getting intel out to us. I mean, think about it: Fat middle-aged European or American or Japanese rich jackass, poor-little-practically-virginal-crying-thing…”

“And you’ve been teaching Katya hand-to-hand, haven’t you?” Adams said, nodding. “You think…?”

“No,” Mike replied. “Because I don’t think she could get the intel out. Kill her perp, sure. If it was an assassination mission I’d send her in a heartbeat, pardon the pun. But for this, I don’t think she’s right.”

“So… what?” Adams said, throwing up his hands.

“Pleased to meet you…” Mike whispered, finally looking up, “won’t you guess my name?”

* * *

“The group that hit the Club Dracul is called the Keldara,” Yarok said, bringing up the first slide. “They are a Georgian militia group, using the women smuggling routes and a cover of being sex smugglers. There are about fifteen to twenty shooters in the group as well as some women from their tribe. I’m not sure of the function of the women. In addition, they’ve picked up one or more women from normal sources on the way.”

“Where are they now?” Boris Dejti asked, angrily. “We will rape their women before their eyes then gouge them out.”

Boris Dejti was the senior Dejti clan member in charge of all the scattered “operations” in the Balkans. There were members of the clan more senior than he, but they were all semiretired in the backcountry of Albania. However, Boris realized he was going to have to have a talk with the Senior Fathers about the events of Club Dracul. And he wanted to be able to give them a timeline on how long it was going to take to avenge the attack.

“You will be lucky to kill them at all,” Yarok said. “Remember what they did to the club. Its defenses were formidable but they took it down with, at most, one casualty. I think you had better leave them to me. As to where they are, they were supposed to be going to Montenegro. They certainly haven’t used a major hotel there, but that might have been disinformation. The last report I had on their movements was in Serbia. They may be heading for Kosovo.”

“Then they are heading into the lion’s den,” Boris replied happily. “We will find them and kill them. There are many fighters available in Kosovo and Montenegro.”

“You’re certainly permitted to try,” Yarok said with a sigh. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’d recommend increasing security at facilities in the south. They have taken at least three people and probably tortured them for information. They are looking for something. When we figure out what, we’ll know where they are going…”

* * *

Mike loved the night. Of course, that was fundamental to his one great gift, but he still loved it.

The night had never held any terrors for him, even as a child. He remembered walking through darkened woods when he was no more than eight and simply being enthralled by the difference between the night and day. At night, every sound was clearer and sharper, all his senses alive to the slightest hint of wrongness.

Like the waves of smell wafting off the Fijian sentry.

There was a thirty meter open area to cross to the first terrace and the sentry was on a regular beat. One hundred paces south, turn, one hundred paces north. On the other hand, he wasn’t Teutonic in his pace. Quite often he’d simply stop and lean against the wall. If that happened while Mike was crossing, it would be a bitch.

The choices were simple, fast or slow. If Mike waited until the sentry was near the end of his beat and then darted across, he could be up on the second terrace before the guy reached the end. On the other hand, if he stopped and turned, Mike’s movement was sure to give him away.

However, if Mike went slow there was a good chance he’d be caught in the open area by the sentry. He was good enough that the sentry might simply walk past. Might.

There was a small niche in the wall of the terrace where some stones had fallen and lay scattered in the grass. As a hiding place it would normally be discounted, but between Mike’s ghillie suit and luck, he could probably hole up there to let the sentry pass.

As the sentry continued on his southward journey, Mike opted for a middle ground. He lifted himself up on fingers and toes, a leopard stance, and slithered out onto the close-cropped grass.

There was a half-moon tonight, but the clouds were fairly solid. The mottled light actually made seeing harder. If the clouds broke up he might have problems. For now, though, they were still solid. There was also a slight breeze from the southwest, blowing any sound he might make, slight at best, away from the sentry.

Mike kept his head down, looking mostly at the grass with occasional glances at the sentry, and envisioned himself as darkness and silence. He wasn’t sure if the mental state was really helpful or not, it seemed like mumbo-jumbo to him, but he’d used it most of his career and even if it was only self-hypnosis he wasn’t going to change things now.

He made it to the niche and paused as the sentry turned to head back. All the cover he had was the broken wall and his ghillie suit. He had a silenced .45 if it came down to cases, but he really didn’t want to kill this Fijian guy. For one thing, he didn’t deserve it. All he was was a poor guy far from home told to guard a facility. There was a 99.999 to infinity percent chance that the guy had no idea what was going on in the villa. But even if he did, Mike would eventually have to fess up to having offed him. Which would drop him in the clacky. Killing Albanian pimps was one thing, killing a soldier on a UN sponsored peace-enforcement mission was another. Words would be had. And then there was the fact that it would probably blow the mission.

The sentry made it to within five meters of Mike’s spot and stopped, turning to look out at the darkness and stretching his back. He propped his weapon on the wall, about three feet from Mike’s niche, leaned back against it and fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette and light.

Mike closed his eyes as the lighter flared and the smell of cheap, strong tobacco wafted over him and tried not to sigh. Lord only knew how long the guy was going to rest there. Mike was just settling in to wait when he heard a hail from the north and cringed; the sergeant of the guard was wandering around. He’d only done that one other night. Why tonight?

Mike didn’t speak a word of Fijian, but he’d spent enough time around grunts and doing guard duty himself to fill in the blanks.

“What a night, huh?”

“Just like last night. Nothing to fucking do but look at the woods. Why the fuck are we here?”

“Because we’re too poor to be sitting on the beach in Fiji.”

“I should have gone to work for my cousin Emil at the dive shop.”

“I didn’t know your cousin Emil had a dive shop.”

“Sure, down in Toraborabawankununka. You know it.”

“Sure, Toraborabawankununka Dive and Sport. Hey, I used to go there when I was on vacation…”

Mike suddenly realized he was muttering the lines of dialogue and stopped as the sergeant said something he translated as “Well, I’ve got to get back and check my paperwork…”

…and wandered back to the north.

He was definitely getting too old, and too introspective, for this work.

With the sergeant headed north, the guard headed south. Mike waited until they were both separated by at least thirty meters from his position, stood up, stretched his aching joints and oozed up onto the wall.

Thirty yards from the woodline to the first terrace. Three terraces, each between twenty and thirty meters wide. Then the final wall up onto the balconies. From the terraces, except when he scrambled to the next higher, he wasn’t visible to the sentry below. And the terraces weren’t patrolled. But there were Albanian guards up on the patios around the villa. This far down, he wasn’t going to be particularly visible to the guards, who did not use night-vision systems. But as he got closer he’d be more and more likely to get spotted. From here on out, slow and cautious movements were the order of the evening. In and back.

The Albanian guard was visible up on the patio. He was looking out towards the woods, not down at the terraces, as far as Mike could tell. But movement drew the eye. Mike eased over the wall onto the first terrace and then oozed, slowly, across the terrace until he was in the shadow of the second wall. So far, no alarm.

If the shit totally hit the fan, a Keldara reaction team was in the woods to cover his withdrawal. Of course, that would blow the mission, permanently. If that happened they might never find out what happened to the girl. And then the President would get all pissy and the senator would go on doing what he, presumably, did. That wasn’t on.

Mike lifted up and checked on the sentry who was apparently, from the smoke and slight IR signature, taking another smoke break. Lifting up further he saw that the Albanian was talking to another guy, their heads turned away from the view. He slithered up the rocks of the wall, then began sliding across the open area just as the moon broke out of the clouds.

He froze, immediately, not looking up. His face was covered in camoflage makeup and the ghillie suit had a light mesh mask in addition. But a face always seemed to be the easiest thing to pick out. He simply waited on the sward, sweating a little despite the cool of the night, until the moon went back behind the clouds. Then he started his sneak again.

Three terraces, each of them bringing him closer to the Albanian who was hanging out at the top. Within an hour, Mike was crouched at the base of the wall of the last terrace, smelling the thick, acrid stench of the Albanian’s cigarette. This one was, if anything, more vile than the Fijian’s. Mike had never seen the point in using tobacco; all it did was blunt the senses and ruin your night vision. On the other hand, he loved it when enemies used it.

There were eight guards on duty in the house. Five were on exterior duty, one on each side with an additional one by the gate on the east side and two were, apparently, on various internal points. The eighth acted as something like a sergeant of the guard, roaming from point to point to make sure the others stayed awake and alert.

During the day and into the evening there were, in addition, about five Albanians and a handful of local workers. The locals were probably ethnic Albanians for that matter.

Getting past the Albanian was going to be harder than getting past the Fijian. The open area at the bottom was larger than the one at the top for one thing. And the Albanian didn’t seem to be wandering. He was just hanging out in place with a full view of the final stretch of ground and of the patio to either side.

Mike stripped off his night-vision goggles and lifted up a mirror, angling it over the top of the wall. As he’d climbed he had shifted to the north and he was about twenty meters from where the Albanian was standing, leaning with his arms on the low railing or wall that surrounded the patio. It was, apparently, concrete or similar materials formed in a lacy, open pattern. First there was the open area of the terrace, then the six-foot-high wall, then a slight ledge, then the railing.

Getting over that railing was going to be impossible if the guard was standing in plain view. Which was why Mike planned on distracting him.

He reached into his utility pocket and pulled out a small flashlight. When he flicked it on, nothing appeared to happen, but that was just if you had the wrong vision.

* * *

“There’s the signal,” Sawn said, picking up the UV light from the flash through his night-vision goggles and nodding at Vanner.

“Roll the party,” Vanner whispered into the mike.

* * *

“It’s nice to finally get to have some fun,” Greznya said, flicking a lighter into life and applying it to the string of firecrackers.

“I’ve never actually set fireworks off,” Katya replied, holding up a long tube. “What is this?”

“Roman candle,” Listra said, smiling. “We’ll save that until we have their attention…”

* * *

At the first sounds of gunfire, Kreshnik Daci’s head snapped up. It had been a long and tiring night and he was spoiling for action. When he’d been sent out to help the far flung reaches of the gang run by his family clan, he’d expected much more fighting and more of a view of the world. Thus far, he’d beat up a few uppity bitches in Lunari, guarded a group of girls in transit in Serbia, loaded some on a boat to Italy and ended up guarding this place. None of it was contributing to his real dream, which was to get a student visa to America.

Short of that, he wanted to shoot someone.

So he actually hoped someone was attacking the villa. Anyone who did so, though, had to be insane. They’d have to assault up the slope in full view of the guards who had more than just the Czech Skorpion he was toting. They’d get slaughtered if they tried. Which was all right by him.

However, the gunfire was not close. It was on a hill about five hundred meters away to the southeast. He wandered in that direction, just as a ball of fire drifted up and then swore. It wasn’t gunfire at all, just some kids playing with fireworks. Okay, so from the tracers, they were also shooting off a gun, but they weren’t shooting at the villa.

“Kreshnik!” Imer called over the radio. “What is happening?”

“Some fireworks,” Daci replied, walking down to the southeast corner of the patio. “Some kids probably. Somebody shooting off an AK, too. But it’s not coming this way.”

“Oooo,” Gustini Huksa wooed as a bottle rocket ascended and then erupted in a shower of sparks. The southern guard had drifted over to the corner and now lit up another cigarette. The flash bastard smoked American Marlboros. Gustini had been assigned to Herzjac, the main town that supplied IFOR with its girls. There he’d struck up a deal with one of the UN vendors: two cartons of Marlboros for one hour with a girl. It was a win/win situation for the two since the vendor could “loss” the Marlboros and Gustini didn’t even have to do that much paperwork with the girls. When he left he turned the source over to another guard for a share of the action. He still got a couple of cartons of Marlboros every week. “Nice. I wish I was out there rather than stuck in this rathole.”

“Sooner or later we’ll get to go somewhere else,” Kreshnik opined with no real hope. He had been told that assignment to this villa was a sign of the trust and respect that the clan had for him. So far, it seemed like a dead end.

The fireworks didn’t last long and as the last faded, Imer appeared.

“Nice, you’re both watching the fireworks instead of your posts,” the older man snapped. “Get back in place and make sure no one has gotten past you.”

“How could they?” Gustini argued, waving at the hilltop. “It would take a ghost to get up the hill without us seeing him!”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Mike stepped through the door and closed it softly on oiled hinges. The alarm had been tricky but the lock was totally vanilla.

The room he was in was a rather pleasant dining area with the look of a breakfast room. The floor was hardwood with thrown carpets that had the feel, from their depth and softness, of being costly. Clearly no expense had been spared in hosting the exclusive clientele. He had a hard time putting that together with the nature of the establishment, but he supposed that after a hard night torturing the whores the customers were probably ready for a good breakfast before they began their day.

It wasn’t, however, useful from his point of view. The single interior door didn’t show any light so, after carefully oiling the hinges and checking for alarms, he opened it soundlessly.

The hallway beyond was, indeed, unlit. It was hardwood again, and he stepped carefully but still elicited a squeak. Moving down the edge limited the noise. To the right, near the end, there was a door with light coming from it and the hallway intersected a lit corridor there.

He slid up his vision system and he inched silently down the hallway to the lit doorway. Squatting down and keeping an ear out for approaching guards he slid a fiber-optic camera under the door. Paydirt.

The interior was an office and security room. One of the guards was napping in front of a computer console that was playing back either a scene from in the building or a similar rape video. There were three computers in the room, including the one the guard was napping in front of, along with file cases and paper scattered over a desk.

Mike snapped a couple of pics of the room, then slid the camera out. Stepping to the corner he moved the camera out at ground level and looked around. There was one more guard, as well as the rover, to find. He saw nobody in the cross corridor but there was another lit room. The far end opened out into a large room. From the exterior map they had developed, that would be the main entrance. The doors along that hallway were more or less mapped from exterior observation. The one with the lit doorway was the guard room, then there were two parlors for “meet and greet.” The last was always curtained, so its purpose was unknown. There were two external rooms along the hallway, also purpose unknown. The end of this corridor would terminate in the ground floor kitchen. Somewhere, there were going to be stairs to the upper floors and to the basement.

Mike eased back down the unlit corridor, sliding the camera under the unlit doorways. The exterior “gray” rooms were bedrooms. From the accoutrements, they were designed as low-impact bondage rooms. The beds had shackles on them but there was no sign of suspension gear and cleaning them up would be a pain.

The inner rooms, however, were apparently for rougher play. One had a bed in it, but it was covered only with a matress cover, and stains on the side indicated that blood had been spilled. The other was a straight torture room. Getting the camera in that room was tough since the door was solid to the floor. But there was a rubber lintle and Mike pushed it in.

No girls, though. And the rooms still didn’t have the look of serious killing rooms.

Mike paused as he heard a door open and close followed by footsteps coming down the lit corridor.

He opened the door to the room adjacent to the office and oozed over to the partitioning wall. Slipping out a contact mike, he placed it on the wall and slid in an earbud.

The door to the room opened and there was a barked exclamation followed by the sound of a chair, along with a body, hitting the floor. The following conversation was in Albanian, which Mike couldn’t even begin to make out. But the chewing out was clear enough. The rest, as things settled down, was unclear. Finally, it finished and the supervisor left the room.

Mike waited until the footsteps had died down and the guard in the room started snoring. Then he stepped back out into the corridor.

Mike continued down the corridor to the door at the end and checked that. Kitchen. Okay, that was an exterior, but they hadn’t been able to get a full view. There didn’t appear to be anyone in it at the moment. He oiled the hinges and opened the door carefully.

The room was big and well scrubbed with a large range, industrial refrigerator and a center prep island. Stepping into the room he could see five doors besides the one to the exterior. One of them, from the look, was a walk-in fridge or freezer. He’d check that last. One checked out as a large pantry, a second opened onto another interior corridor, the third opened onto a small room that appeared to be another office, the fourth, though, led to stairs both up and down. Basement entry and a way to the top floor.

He stepped over to the freezer and took a look inside, then backed away hastily. There were a couple of large sides of meat towards the back but two bodies of young women dangled from hooks towards the front. Both had the marks of having been savagely tortured. One had a cut throat and the other looked as if she had been strangled.

Mike slid out a low-light camera and took pics of both girls, then quietly closed the door. Neither was the target and getting pissed about the find would simply degrade his performance. He put the sight aside and checked the door to the stairs.

The stairs down were simple wood; those going up were covered in carpet. He chose up first, stepping along the side to reduce squeaks.

The landing at the top had another door, this one bolted on the inside. He quietly slipped the fiber-optic camera under the door.

The hallway was brightly lit and it took his eyes a moment to adjust. When they did, the first thing he noticed was a guard sitting in a chair and napping at the far end of the hall to the left. That would be to the north.

He stepped back down the stairs, going all the way to the bottom floor. There was another bolted door and he checked under it.

The basement was a pure torture dungeon. There were a couple of cages along one side, various pieces of furniture including a St. Andrew’s Cross and a saddle as well as suspension devices. There were also a couple of metal tables and a bed with rubber sheets on it. The tables had been cleaned, but from the looks of the floor bad things had happened.

He slipped into the room and looked around carefully. He had to step up on one of the tables to find what he was looking for, but he finally found the first one hidden in the suspension rig: the room was wired for full audio and video. He doubted the monitors were live at the moment, but it would be a bad thing if they were.

Okay, the layout was solid. Time to egress.

He moved quietly back up the stairs to the kitchen then down the hallway to the breakfast room. He half-wished he’d brought some poison along. Serve the bastards right. He’d done as much, or worse, to men in the past. The recent past come to think of it. But that was a target and the purpose now was obtaining information. Not just to get his rocks off.

The worst part was that he knew that the whole setup held an attraction for him. Inside he was, face it, the sort of person who patronized this establishment. He had thought more than once about not only rape but torturing a woman just to get his kicks. Killing her even. Brutally and with the greatest possible fear and pain inflicted.

That didn’t mean he did it. He had the… discipline to control that particular demon. Admittedly, he channeled it into things that were damned near as horrible. But this was… vile.

And he was going to end it.

* * *

“Any trouble getting through customs?” Mike asked.

“Not really,” Praz said, shrugging. The retired member of the Army Marksmanship Training Unit was the Keldara sniper instructor. Short and muscular, he had come in second twice in a row on the “long shot” at Camp Perry, being beaten out by the same Marine sniper. Mike had his eye on the Marine as soon as he quit the Corps. “They thought we were crazy, but they didn’t give us any hassle.”

“What is the mission?” Lasko asked, setting the long cases down on the bed. The former hunter was one of the oldest Keldara in the force, but he’d hardened like teak. Thin and wiry, he looked like nothing so much as the mountain goats he normally hunted. The goats were wary and had very keen vision; in general the only shot even a very good hunter got was at over five hundred meters. Lasko was a firm believer in coming back with as many goats as expended cartridges and he usually did.

“Right up your alley, Las,” Mike said, his face hard. “Choosers of the slain.”

* * *

“Sniper teams in position,” Praz said over the radio.

“Dart team one in position,” Sawn whispered. “All targets present.”

“Dart two in position,” Parak whispered. “Ready.”

“Bravo entry, ready,” Adams said.

“Alpha entry…” Mike whispered back, looking around, “ready. Initiate.”

* * *

Sawn peeped through the scope and calculated the wind, again. The darts were very low velocity and tended to drift with the slightest wind. And the range was long for the shot. He wished that it was Praz or Lasko doing the shooting, but he would have to do.

There were four of the Fijian guards gathered by the lower gate to the villa. One was the sergeant, which was what they had been waiting for.

Sawn took a deep breath and then paused and looked at Parak.

“Two right,” Sawn said, wiggling the dart held between the fingers of his left hand.

“Got it,” Parak replied laconically. The team sniper was far more sure of his shots.

“If I miss…” Sawn said.

“Follow over,” Parak said. “Copy. Same for you.”

“You won’t miss,” Sawn said, taking a breath and letting it out.

He took his first shot, followed quickly by Parak’s first. The sergeant stopped gesticulating and reached for the dart that had sprung up on his chest, looking at it in a puzzled manner.

By the time he’d started toppling Sawn had rotated the bolt of the air gun and slid in the next dart. He hadn’t even lined up his next shot, however, before Parak fired. Sawn took his time, though, making sure of his target and trigger control before firing. That dart sunk in as well and the Fijian guards on the gate were all down.

“Target one down,” Sawn whispered, sliding back through the concealing underbrush.

“Target two down.”

“Snipers.”

* * *

Praz looked through the scope and calculated the shot one more time. The east target was easy, the south target harder. And there was no telling when the rover would show up.

He took a slight breath, waited for his heart to pump to diastolic and then gently squeezed the trigger of the customized sniper rifle.

“South target down,” Tariel said. “Not moving.”

Praz had felt the round was right and was already tracking to the second target. The question was whether he would hear the first fall and, sure enough, he was moving, reaching for a radio. Praz led him a touch and fired.

“Miss,” Tariel said as the man paused and looked around wildly, crouching behind the ornamental railing. He had his radio up, now, and was talking into it excitedly.

Praz, rotated the bolt one more time and lined up the target’s head. At this range it was not exactly an easy shot, but it was the only portion in view. Wait, wait, squeeze.

“Target,” Tariel said. “He’s all over the patio.”

“I can see that,” Praz said, sliding back and wiping at the sweat on his forehead. “Keep looking for targets.”

* * *

“Wake up you idiot!” Imer Emini said, running into the computer room. “Kreznik said we were under attack!”

“I heard,” Oltion Dzaferi said, sitting up and wiping his eyes. “Where are they?”

“That is what all this is there to tell us!” Imer snarled, waving at the computers. “Turn on the monitors! Kreznik, report!” Imer paused and looked at the radio, shaking it for a moment in frustration. “Gustini? Pejerin? Victor? Anyone?”

“Shkumbin, here,” the upstairs guard replied. “What is happening?”

“I don’t know,” Imer replied, breathing hard. “Go to one of the girls’ windows and look out. See if you can see anything. Oltion, get those black-asses on the phone and ask them what is happening!”

“I go,” Shkumbin said grouchily.

“Stay on the radio,” Imer continued. “Keep talking. Oltion?”

“There is no reply from the black-asses,” the technician said, shrugging. “I need to turn on the lights to see with the monitors.”

“Not yet,” Imer said, cautiously. “Shkumbin?”

“I’m in the girls’ room,” Shkumbin replied. “I see nothing out the—”

* * *

“Target, upper window three,” Tariel said, quietly.

“Got it,” Lasko replied, stroking his trigger.

* * *

Imer looked up at a crash from above and then snarled.

“Get on the phone to town! Tell them we’re under attack!”

“Phones are out,” Oltion said, shaking his head. “And internet.”

“Begin dumping,” Imer said, shaking and drawing his pistol. “I will go buy you time to dump all the data…”

The last thing he consciously recognized was the sound of the door blowing in.

* * *

“Computer room secure,” Mike said, lifting his balaclava. “Clear. Vanner, get to work.”

“On it, boss,” the intel specialist said, sitting down at the first computer and waving Greznya to the second.

“I count eight tangoes down,” Adams replied. “Preparing to sweep upper floors.”

Mike stepped out into the corridor as more Keldara women flooded into the room. Keldara were moving from room to room in a coordinated sweep, searching for additional targets.

“Bravo Six,” Adams said. “Sweep complete. One down tango in an upper room, courtesy of Lasko, at a guess. Six girls.”

“Grab ’em and get down here,” Mike said. “Vanner?”

“We’ve got the hard drives,” Vanner said, standing up. “What about the files?”

“Savo! Packs!”

“Ignition system in place,” Adams called. “The place is rigged.”

“Five minutes, people,” Mike called as the Keldara women started ripping files out of the drawers and filling the bags the militiamen held out to them. “Greznya, start the count.”

* * *

Yarok looked at the devastated villa and shook his head.

“They took down the Fijian guards with tranquilizer guns,” he said, sighing. “They clearly did not want to anger KFOR excessively. Then they, apparently, took down the villa’s defenses, took the girls and probably other information and torched it, rather expertly, on the way out. There was one Fijian guard who said that from the time he heard the first shots to when the vehicles left was no more than five minutes.”

“I will kill them all,” Boris roared. “This cannot be permitted!”

“Oh, agreed,” Yarok replied, sighing again. “But you’ll recall that I recommended increasing security at all facilities in this area. There were only the normal eight guards here.”

“That should have been enough,” Boris snapped. “Especially with the Fijians. These Americans are wizards!”

“Hardly,” Yarok said, musingly. “They took down the outer guards with snipers. Good ones, too. I have found one sniper point, I believe, and it was a seven hundred meter shot with a crosswind. That is a world-class sniper. However, with the outer guards down, that left only four. What I’m wondering is how they found the plan to the house.”

“What do you mean?”

“To do something like this, this cleanly, you have to know where you are going,” Yarok said, rubbing his lips in thought. “You need a layout to the house. Otherwise you’re running around trying to find your targets. I would say, from the time that was given by the remaining guard, that they had to have the layout to the house. And given the defenses, I don’t see how they could have entered it beforehand. So…”

“You’re saying we have a leak?” Boris asked coldly.

“I’m saying it’s a possibility,” Yarok admitted.

“I will look into this,” the Albanian promised.

“Do,” Yarok replied. That will get you off my back while I take care of the real business. “In the meantime, I’m going to try to find where they ran to to hide. I doubt that Rozaje is going to be their last target. It will be interesting to see where their final destination lies.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

Mike leaned back in the beach chair and readjusted his sunglasses as a really stunning woman wearing barely a G-string walked by.

“What did we get, Patrick?” he asked. The beaches of the Adriatic had their good points. At the moment, he was fixated on two of them.

Getting across the border into Croatia had been relatively easy. There were dozens of small border crossings near Vinica and Ŏitluk that had lax security. Smuggling was endemic in the area and the few crossings that had guards were entirely revenue generators. They had been more than willing to take their usual cut for smuggling girls.

The coast of Croatia had numerous islands and beaches and was a destination spot for summer tourists from throughout Eastern Europe. A quick change of demeanor and the group were tourists, schoolkids taking in the sun along the Adriatic. They’d even been able to check into a decent hotel for once.

And all the Keldara girls had broken down and gotten swimsuits. For the cover of course. Most of them were far less daring than the lovely blonde, Czech or Slovak at a guess, who had just wandered by, but they were still an eyeful.

“They apparently did get full audio and video on their clients,” Vanner said, tightly. “I only… audited it. But it’s pretty rough. The problem being, there are only five DVDs from the haul. And our girl isn’t on any of them.”

“That’s good I suppose,” Mike said.

“Yeah, but they’re only recent DVDs,” Vanner pointed out. “The rest were transported out to a town called Lunari.”

“Crap,” Mike said, picking up his sunscreen and wiping some on his chest. He’d picked up a hell of a farmer’s tan over the winter and spring.

“But…” Vanner said. “I’m not sure it matters. We got the rest of their records. They didn’t keep electronic records, but the files were solid. And there’s interesting news.”

“Don’t keep me waiting,” Mike said, watching a couple of the Keldara girls splashing each other. He briefly considered joining them and then suppressed the idea.

“The thing is, all the girls that went to Rozaje didn’t die,” Vanner said. “We’re having a hard time translating all the files since they’re in fucking Albanian. I’m having to scan them in and OCR them then run them through a translator. You know how funky that can come out. But we’re sure that some girls leave. Sometimes they had too many there. A client or clients wouldn’t show up, whatever. They’d end up with too many girls from time to time and they’d ship out the excess.”

“Don’t tell me Natalya slipped through the cracks” Mike said, incredulously.

“That’s the way it looks,” the intel specialist replied, grinning. “She got transported to Lunari along with a bundle of DVDs.”

“Shit,” Mike said, sighing. “What do we have on Lunari?”

“It’s not going to be fun,” Vanner admitted. “It’s the center for girl running, and drug running and gun running in Albania. Totally lawless. It’s controlled by about six different clans or gangs; there’s not much distinction. The government doesn’t even try to control it. Landlocked but not far from the sea. From the intel I’ve managed to get, not much, it’s also pretty carefully controlled. There are notes about elaborate security systems. And the gangs are heavily armed. There’s some stuff in the files on it, too, but… getting through all of them is going to take time. I could use some help on translation.”

“Any idea where, exactly, the booty is?” Mike asked.

“Yep,” Vanner said. “Natalya, and the DVDs, were sent to a particular brothel run by the Dejti gang.”

“That’s a familiar name,” Mike mused.

“He was, apparently, one of the guys in tight with the clan,” Vanner said. “That’s going to be an issue. Long term, at least.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Mike said, standing up. “I’m going swimming. Want to come?”

“In a minute,” Vanner said, swallowing. “There’s something else. We didn’t get the DVDs, but we did get their client list and payment rendered for services, so to speak.”

“And?” Mike asked, pausing.

“I ran a bunch of names through the internet,” Vanner said, shaking his head. “It’s not exactly a Who’s Who, but there are a lot of… well, rich people at least. And a few that are just powerful. Jesus, Kildar, this data is political dynamite!”

“I’d figured as much,” Mike said, sighing.

“The former French commander of KFOR, for God’s sake!” Vanner said.

“That explains the security,” Mike said, dryly. “What about our friend the senator?”

“Senator Traskel isn’t on it,” Vanner said, tightly. “Neither is his son. But… there is someone you’ve heard of…”

* * *

“Oh… blast,” the President said, looking at the message.

“There was just the one word, sir,” Pierson replied. “But I think the meaning is clear.”

“Senator Grantham!” the secretary of defense snarled. “Impossible! I’ve known him for… decades!”

Senator Pat Grantham was the senior senator from South Carolina, a staunch supporter of the President, noted for his religious views and outspoken religious conservatism. A determined but honorable in-fighter in the Senate, losing him would be a nasty political blow to the President’s agenda.

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” the national security advisor replied. “He was on the junket, too. I don’t see how it changes things.”

“Well, it’s going to make our jobs harder,” the chief of staff pointed out. “I’d be more than happy to see Traskel gone. Grantham, on the other hand…”

“There is no ‘other hand,’ ” the president said, definitely. “None. As with Senator Traskel, I’m going to wait on solid confirmation. But if we get it, Grantham will no longer be a senator. Period.”

“The senator’s from another party…” the chief of staff pointed out.

“I don’t care,” the president snarled. “Not One Damned Bit. I doubt I can give him the justice that he so richly deserves. But he will no longer be a senator of the United States.”

* * *

Mike was surprised at the extent to which the Keldara girls were willing to play a little grab-ass. He’d put it down to the “Kildar” effect, but they were playing with the militiamen as well. Hell, even Oksana was out there, playing in the very small waves. Mike hadn’t tried any grab-ass with her, only to find the girl, along with some of the Keldara girls trying to tackle him. He’d let them dunk him and then swam through their legs, pulling them under and then pushing them back to the surface; very few of them were strong swimmers. They’d been amazed and alarmed at how long he could hold his breath.

The problem with the grab-ass was that it was getting him horny. And the Keldara girls were off-limits. So, for different reasons, were the girls they’d “picked up.” He still wasn’t sure what to do with them. Transferring them from sexual slavery to the harem, a different form of sexual slavery for all extents and purposes, didn’t seem like a decent use of his time. Something would have to be done, but that was for another day.

With a certain amount of reluctance he finally climbed out of the water and wandered back to his beach chair. Which was occupied.

“You’re…” Mike said and then paused.

“Daria,” the girl replied, getting up. She was about nineteen at a guess, one of the girls they’d recovered from Rozaje. Tall and statuesque, she had a great set of knockers and an air of naivete that had to be an act. “Sorry, was I in your chair… Kildar?”

“Call me Mike,” Mike said, waving for her to get back in the chair as he squatted down by it. “How are you doing?”

“The nightmares are less,” the girl said quietly. “We knew what we were there for; the guards made sure to tell us. And we could hear some of it. Girls would leave and not come back. I was sick when I arrived and I wasn’t presented.”

“Good thing,” Mike said. “I’m sure you would have been a first pick.”

“Thank you so much,” Daria replied, her face tight. “I thought the same. The doctor had just given me a clean bill of health. They told me I was going to be presented to the next… customer.”

“And now you’re not,” Mike said. “Be happy. Enjoy the sunshine knowing you’re going to get to keep enjoying it.”

“Am I?” Daria asked, pointedly.

“Uhmmm, yes,” Mike responded. “Right now, I can’t afford to let you leave. You’re still, effectively, a prisoner. But you won’t be raped or beaten and when this mission is done I’ll drop you anywhere you care. Back home if that’s what you want.”

“Home,” Daria said, quietly. “I don’t know if I recognize the word. If you’re talking about the Ukraine, there is nothing there for me.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Mike said, picking up his sunglasses.

“Where do you live?” Daria asked. “In Georgia? But you are American.”

“I’ve got reasons to live there,” Mike said, shrugging.

“And you have a house there,” the girl said, tilting her head to the side.

“And a harem.” Mike shrugged. “I’m sure you’ve been talking to the Keldara girls.”

“Is that where we will go?” she asked carefully.

“For a time,” Mike said, shrugging again. “Until we figure out what else to do with you. I’ve got to figure something out; the caravanserai’s going to fill up with women otherwise and then it’ll be nag, nag, nag all day and night. ‘Kildar, when will I have my turn? Kildar, can I have a new dress? Kildar, am I the prettiest?’ ” He grinned at the girl and was surprised to get a grin in return.

“I can tell you live with women,” Daria said. “You have that look.”

“Domesticated, that’s me,” Mike sighed. “Just a hopeless love slave to women’s desire…”

“And you get nothing?” Daria asked lightly.

“Oh, I suppose so,” Mike said, grinning again. “But I try to give as good as I get.”

“I get nothing,” Daria said, shrugging. “I was virgin until…”

“Get a good job in Western Europe?” Mike asked.

“Yes, but, I knew about the problems with that,” Daria said, frowning. “The thing was, the person who… sold me was my boyfriend!”

“Ouch,” Mike said, shaking his head. “That’s cold.”

“He said that he knew someone who could get me a job in Belgium,” Daria continued, looking out at the sea. “I am trained as secretary, yes? I can read and write in English, French and German. My boyfriend… well, he is not great man. Has no job but… I like him.”

“I had a girlfriend one time. She said that she was a bum magnet,” Mike said, nodding. “She wasn’t, by the way, referring to me. But… there are women who attract those sorts of guys like flies.”

“That is me,” Daria continued, her nose thinning in remembrance. “He is introduce me to another man who said he had contacts with business in Belgium…”

“I’m sure he did,” Mike said dryly.

“We meet… three times before I agree to take job,” Daria said, sighing. “He is having letterhead and letters of employment. But I have not the exit visa or entry visa, so Pasha…”

“Pasha?” Mike said, crinkling his brow. “Ahmed Pasha?”

“That was his name, yes,” Daria said. “And there was another man with him, Peter…”

“Looked like Santa Claus?” Mike asked.

“Yes!” Daria said, turning to look at him.

“You need to talk to Oksana,” Mike said, his jaw working. “So, you certainly didn’t make it to Belgium.”

“They took me over the border to Moldava,” Daria said. “There…”

“They raped you, beat you and took away your passport,” Mike said. “So you couldn’t leave without their aid. And sold you to the Albanians.”

“Yes,” Daria said, turning back to look at the ocean.

“Run into a guy named Dejti?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” Daria replied, quietly.

“Well, he sleeps with the fishes.”

Daria paused and frowned, then shrugged.

“That means nothing to me,” she admitted.

“American slang,” Mike replied. “It means I broke both his knees and then shot him through the head and dumped his body in a lake.”

“Oh,” Daria said, breathing out. “Oh.”

“I doubt you ran into a man named Nicu…”

“In Romania,” Daria said, her face hard. “It was he who sent me to Rozaje.” She paused and quirked an eyebrow. “Fishes?”

“Fishes.”

“I am not sure how I feel about that,” she admitted.

“That’s because you’re a nice girl,” Mike replied. “And I am not a nice man.”

“That I don’t believe,” Daria said, laughing breathlessly. “If you were not a nice man, we would have been left in the villa, still chained up, waiting for the next men to take us.”

“Believe it,” Mike said flatly. “Because I do nice things, does not mean I’m a nice man. The men who raped you, the men who beat you, simply do the things I would like to do. And occasionally do when a young lady likes that sort of thing. I’m not a nice man. A nice man would not beat another human being to death with a sledgehammer.”

“Dejti?” Daria asked.

“Nicu’s boss,” Mike replied.

“Dejti poked my breast with needles,” Daria said, softly. “And shocked me with electric cables. He hit me in the belly so hard I was peeing blood. He didn’t leave any scars on the outside…”

“But he left them on the inside,” Mike said.

“Many.” She paused again and then shrugged. “You know women who like this sort of thing?”

“My harem manager for one,” Mike said, smiling faintly. “Anastasia used to… belong to a shiek in Uzbekistan. She told me she was happy to come work for me, because he would not hit her hard enough. She likes to be whipped and hurt. Giving her what she wants, without causing scars, is hard.”

“She is your harem manager?” Daria said, shaking her head. “I have a hard time thinking about that.”

“They are girls that I picked up for various reasons,” Mike replied. “I didn’t know what to do with them, so I kept them as girlfriends, concubines really. They can leave any time, I even offer them a stake to get started. None of them took me up on it. When they get old enough to make it in the world, and educated enough, I’ll kick them out the door. In the meantime I’m giving them an education and a chance for a real life.”

“And they give you sex?” Daria said tightly.

“I don’t force them,” Mike said, shrugging. “Most of them were from small farms in the mountains. They considered it an honor, which surprised me. The thing they call me, Kildar, is a sort of nobleman in the area. But… yes, they give me sex. You can say they pay their way that way, but I prefer to think of it as consensual. We all live with the lies we tell ourselves.”

“Yes,” Daria said, sitting back and sighing. “That we do.”

“So what do you think I should do with these girls?” Mike asked. “I’ve got everything from Oksana, registered virgin and orphan with nowhere to go to… you, I suppose. I assume you have somewhere to go back to?”

“If I could face it,” Daria said. “My parents told me not to leave. They did not like my boyfriend.”

“Looking them in the eye will be tough,” Mike admitted. “But… ‘home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’ ”

“And where is your home?” Daria asked.

Mike stopped and blinked. Home still meant the U.S. to him. His parents were dead; he hadn’t talked to his sister in… years.

“Thanks for asking,” Mike said, frowning. “The answer is, I don’t have one.”

“You should have a home,” Daria said, frowning in turn. “You are a good man, you should have a good home.”

“I suppose it’s with the Keldara,” Mike replied, still frowning. “They are the closest thing to family I have. For years, home was the Navy, the Teams and BUD/S. I was married, but that came apart after I got out. Now… I don’t know.”

“You should marry again,” Daria said definitely.

“When I find the right girl, maybe,” Mike replied. The sun was slowly descending to the west and the temperature was dropping steadily. He wasn’t bothered by it, he’d gotten used to far worse on beaches all over the world, but the girls were getting out of the water and shivering. “Looks like time for dinner,” he added, standing up.

Daria followed him as he headed back to the hotel and he turned to look at her, quirking an eyebrow.

“I was wondering…” the girl said, then shrugged. “It is nothing.”

“Tell you what,” Mike said, quirking one cheek up. “Let’s talk about it upstairs.”

When they got to his room, Mike waved her to a chair and flopped on the bed, propping up some pillows behind him.

“One of the things we haven’t done on this op is introduce a consistent rape counselling program,” Mike said. “Or an abuse counselling program. Why? Because we’re on a combat op and it’s not important to the operation. And, frankly, we don’t have any counselors. Maybe we should bring in some touchy-feely types to cover the bases, but we haven’t. I haven’t. Comments?”

“Why should you care?” Daria asked, shrugging one shoulder.

“If it’s affecting the mission,” Mike said. “We’re stuck with you girls for the time being. If you’re not functional, it affects the mission.”

“We’re functional,” Daria said, angrily. “And you’re not stuck with us.”

“Yes, I am,” Mike replied. “You’re aware of who we are and what we’re doing. If we just dropped you off on the street, the news would get around. Besides, as part of my not being a nice guy, but trying to act like one, I can’t just drop you on a street corner. So I’m stuck with you. And if you’re getting huffy about that and decide you’re going to storm out, you’ll discover we’ve got plenty of rigger tape.”

“Rigger tape?” Daria asked, confused.

“Duct tape, then,” Mike said, rolling over and pulling a roll out of his jump bag.

“We’re still prisoners, then,” Daria said.

“Yep,” Mike replied. “Just like before. But we’re not planning on killing you as part of sexual funs and games. Only real difference. Oh, and you’re not going to get raped. And we’ll try really hard not to raise a hand to you. But, yeah, you’re still prisoners. It’s just a more comfortable jail.”

“Then why don’t you rape me?” Daria said, breathing hard.

“Don’t tempt me,” Mike said. “Seriously. Don’t. You’re a real looker. And the reason is, I try to act like a nice guy.”

“What if I told you I wanted you to?” Daria said, looking down at the floor and blushing. “What if I told you that as much as I hated what happened to me… I liked it as well?”

“Then I’d tell you that I’m not a rape counsellor,” Mike replied with a dismissive shrug. “I’d also tell you that you’re not alone. Bum magnets tend to end up in abusive relationships. I would guess that your bum boyfriend occasionally slapped you around, right?”

“Yes,” Daria said, looking up. “I should have stopped him, but…”

“You loved him and he loved you,” Mike finished for her, shrugging. “It ain’t love, honey, it’s abuse syndrome. Hell, it’s being a submissive. Not necessarily sexually, but in general. You probably felt like you deserved it, that it was all your fault.”

“Are you in my head?” Daria asked angrily. “Is this some sort of mind thing?”

“No, it’s being old enough and experienced enough to have had the conversation before,” Mike said, shrugging again. “You’re hardly alone. Abuse like that happens all over, honey, even in the United States. You never had sex with your boyfriend?”

“No,” Daria said, blushing again. “I drew the line there, even when he became angry. And he only hit me when he was drunk. One time he tried to…”

“Rape you,” Mike said.

“I was going to say force me,” Daria replied. “It was not really rape—”

“Yeah, it is,” Mike snapped. “Date rape is rape. Period fucking dot. So you drew the line there, now what?”

“Now…” Daria said and stopped.

“You said that some of the abuse you enjoyed?” Mike asked calmly.

“I should not,” Daria said, dropping her face in her hands. “I think I am a very bad person.”

“Item number sixty-two of the checklist,” Mike said, chuckling.

“What is so funny?” Daria snapped, glaring at him.

“You were brought up to be a very good girl,” Mike said, still smiling. “To not have sex until you are married. But you feel the want of it?”

“Yes,” Daria admitted. “Very much.”

“I won’t ask if that’s an ‘especially now’ answer,” Mike said. “But the point is, if you’re forced ,then it’s not your fault. If a man makes you do it, you are not so bad a person. It is one of the reasons that you want to be forced, to be made to have sex. Yes?”

“I… hadn’t thought of it that way,” Daria admitted.

“If you are tied, how can it be your fault?” Mike asked. “But if you still like it, that still makes you a bad person inside. So you want to be hurt for being a bad girl. Am I close?”

“Yes,” Daria answered quietly.

“All right,” Mike said, shrugging. “Let’s talk about that. Part of it might be because of the rape. But… did you ever think that way before the rape? I mean, did you fantasize about things like that when you masturbated?”

“That’s a very personal question!” Daria snapped.

“This is a personal conversation,” Mike replied. “The question is, did these feelings come about as a result of the rape, or did you have them before?”

“Some of them…” Daria said, softly. “Some of them before.”

“There are books and books written about what you’re feeling,” Mike said. “The term is sexual submission. Lucky for me, I tend to run into them a lot since I’m a sexual dominant. Opposites attract and all that. The point is, you’re not bad for feeling that way. It’s a normal, hell probably a majority, feeling in women. It’s even a desire in some men. So the first thing to get into your noggin is that you’re not evil for feeling that way.”

“It feels… wrong,” Daria said. “Bad.”

“And some women enjoy being told how bad they are,” Mike said. “That’s all fine and dandy, as long as it’s really a consensual thing between two rational adults. Or more, sometimes. The point is, it’s okay to feel that way, okay to play out those fantasies. As long as you know where to draw the line. The term is ‘the bedroom door.’ As long as your fantasies are play, whether it’s in a bedroom or a living room or the kitchen, the whole house or on a mountainside, as long as the play ends at an agreed upon point, it’s just fun.”

“Fun,” Daria snorted. “I want… I want to be told I’m bad.”

“And as long as that’s in the bedroom, metaphorically, that’s all fine and good,” Mike replied. “Daria, look at me.”

He waited until the girl looked up and met his eyes.

“You’re a good girl, a fine woman,” Mike said, holding her eyes with his. “You just have the need to be told otherwise. Do you want to be spanked? To be abused?”

“Yes,” she admitted, still looking him in the eye.

“But you don’t want that to be your life, right?” Mike said. “Tied up and hit, carefully, and told you’re a bad girl in bed, sure. But not hit in the face because supper’s late.”

“No,” Daria said, shocked. “I mean, yes, the first but not the second.”

“You’re a sexual sub,” Mike said, shrugging and leaning back. “My favorite kind of girl. But the point is, at the end of the play you go back to being your own person. Owning yourself. Loving yourself and knowing that you are not a bad person. If you can’t do that, you’re never going to be the person you can be.”

“But now I feel as if I really need it,” Daria practically wailed. “I want it all the time—”

“Item twenty something on the post-rape checklist,” Mike said. “Nymphomania. The female in the situation shifts to desiring sex. If it’s going to happen, anyway, they might as well learn to enjoy it. A lot. And do it. A lot. Even when they aren’t forced to.”

“You’re saying I’m sick?” Daria asked carefully. “Nymphomania is being sick.”

“Not really,” Mike replied, shrugging. “You’re just having a standard reaction to your form of trauma. Sorry if it makes you feel less special. Not sorry if it makes you feel less bad. Because you’re not. You’re a fine young lady. You’ve just been through a traumatic experience and you’re reacting to it in fairly well recognized ways.”

“So what do I do about it?” Daria asked, sitting up.

“That’s where my knowledge sort of breaks down,” Mike admitted. “The thing about rape, especially when it happens to a person with little or no experience of sex, is that it changes the wiring for what is positive and negative sexual experiences. You can’t really know what your sexual interests, your needs, are. Look, my ex-wife did some rape counselling. Most of the stuff I know comes from her and girlfriends who have been abused. I’m not an expert. Okay?”

“Okay,” Daria said, carefully. “But you’re as close as I can get right now.”

“Right,” Mike admitted. “Especially since you’re still, effectively, a prisoner. Even if I went out and found a counselor, he or she would be sucked into the same void. So I’ll just tell you what I know. The thing about rape is that it sort of changes the wiring. There was a boy that my wife counselled. He’d been homosexually raped when he was thirteen or so. And he’d been homosexually oriented ever since. So he was in his mid-twenties or so and all of a sudden he starts getting interested in girls. He’s not sure what’s happening, so he goes back into counselling. Turned out, he wasn’t really homosexual at all. His orientation was as a result of the rape, period. So right now, it would be hard to tell what your real orientation is.”

“So what do I do?” Daria asked. “What do I do about the… the nightmares? About the feelings?”

“Well, one thing is you talk about them,” Mike said. “This is a good start. And if you’re fixated on certain kinds of sex, try them. You’re not a virgin anymore. If you want to have sex, have sex. Over time, your real orientation will probably, I dunno, realign? Talk to some of the other girls about the feelings they have, the nightmares they’re having. Talking about it hurts when you do it, but it will help.”

“I’ll tell you one nightmare,” Daria said. “It’s that this is all an elaborate joke to break us down again. That we’re going to go right back into being whores. That’s not even a nightmare; it’s something I worry about all the time.”

Mike opened his mouth to reply and then paused.

“You know, there’s an aspect of this I hadn’t considered,” he admitted. “If we bungle one of the upcoming ops, you might just end up that way. Back in slavery, that is. Hell, the Keldara women would. Although I think the rest of the militia would turn up pretty quick with Nielson leading them. I probably ought to figure out a way to get you all back to Georgia. You’d be safer there. Not safe, exactly, but safer.”

“To be part of your harem?” Daria asked bitterly.

“Like I said, I’m not sure what to do with you,” Mike replied.

“Can I just go home?” the girl asked softly.

“Not until the op is over,” Mike said. “You understand why.”

“Understand, yes,” Daria said. “Happy about, no.”

“Not much I can do about your happiness,” Mike replied with a shrug.

“You can do one thing,” Daria said.

“And that is?”

“I need…” She paused and looked at the floor. “I want…”

“You know that this is probably just your reaction to what you went through, right?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” she admitted. “That doesn’t relieve the need.”

Mike cocked his head to the side and really looked at her for a moment.

“Daria?”

“Yes?” she asked, looking up.

“Take your clothes off.”

“What?” the girl asked.

“I’m going to relieve both our needs,” Mike replied, standing up and walking over to her. “I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, but it’s the best one I can come up with right now. The bedroom door is, metaphorically and really, shut. You can choose to not play the game if you wish.”

“I choose…” Daria said then paused. “I think I choose to play.”

“Fine,” Mike said, walking over to one of the other chairs and sitting down. “Then stand up and take off all of your clothes.”

The girl looked at him for a moment and then stood up and started to slowly undress. She started off looking at him but when she started to slip her dress off she had to look away.

When she started to sit down and remove her shoes, Mike waved at her to stop.

“Keep the shoes on,” Mike said gruffly. “I like high heels. Here is the deal. You’ve been an actual sex-slave. Some of the play is based around that sort of situation. Are you going to be able to take that?”

“Yes,” Daria said, softly, still looking at the floor. “As long as I’m sure it’s play.”

“Are you?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” Daria admitted. “I trust you. I don’t know why I do, but I do.”

“It might have something to do with my rescuing you from durance vile,” Mike told the naked girl. “Or my winning smile. But we’re going to have to establish the parameters. That is, we’re going to have to find out what I can and cannot do. And you’re going to have to know how to end the play. Are you listening?”

“Yes,” Daria replied. “Can I put my clothes back on?”

“Not unless you want the play to end,” Mike said. “Do you?”

“Not yet,” Daria admitted. “I am very confused. I want to do this, but I am frightened. I was stripped like this to be sold to Ahmed Pasha. It was very humiliating. This is very humiliating. But…”

“You like it,” Mike said.

“Yes.”

“Go over to the bed and get a pillow,” Mike ordered. “Put it on the floor and kneel on it. There,” he added, pointing to a spot a few feet away from his chair. “Keep your head down when you are kneeling. You will only look at me when I order you to do so. The response to that is ‘Yes, master.’ ”

“Yes…” Daria said, pausing with a catch in her voice. “Yes, master.”

When the girl was kneeling, Mike leaned forward.

“From now until the end of play, you are my slave,” Mike said. “I will order you to do things, I will force you to do things. You will obey my orders. Do you agree to this?”

“Yes, master,” Daria said, her head bent in submission.

“Before we begin, we have to know what you will accept and what is not acceptable,” Mike said. “Is there anything that you will not accept? Answer truthfully.”

“I don’t want to be hit in the face,” Daria replied, shivering. “And I don’t want to be burned.”

“I will not hit you in the face,” Mike replied. “What about anal sex?”

“I don’t like it,” Daria admitted. “But…”

“It’s humiliating?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” the girl answered, softly.

“And you like to be humiliated,” Mike said. “You like to be shown what a bad girl you are.”

“Yes,” Daria said, her face working against the tears.

“Time out,” Mike said, sitting up. “When I say that, we’re out of play and it’s time to talk. How are you feeling?”

“Strange,” Daria admitted. “Very weird. Like I’m not really here.”

“Detached?” Mike asked. “Floating? Almost like you’re not in your body?”

“Yes.”

“A normal reaction,” Mike said. “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” Daria admitted.

“Am I causing bad flashbacks?”

“No,” she said, blinking. “Strippping sort of did. But this… no.”

“Okay, we’ll continue,” Mike said. “If at any time, you have to stop, you can say ‘time out’ or ‘yellow’ or any odd word. But if you say ‘no,’ or ‘stop,’ or ‘please’ or anything else along the lines, it means ‘You’re doing great, do it harder and meaner.’ Understood?”

“Yes,” Daria said, half laughing.

It was the first time Mike had heard her so much as chuckle and he took it as a good sign.

“What are you laughing about, slave?” Mike snapped. “Drop your eyes to the floor where they belong!” He stood up and walked over to her, circling her predatorially.

“You have been a very bad girl, Daria. You defied your parents, had sex out of wedlock and admitted that you enjoyed it. You are a bad girl and you must be punished.”

“Yes, master,” Daria said softly.

Mike dipped into a bag and came out with a couple of lengths of soft rope and a cloth. He tied her hands and ankles and looped the two ropes together to hogtie her on her knees then blindfolded her with the cloth. He carefully pulled most of her long, blonde hair out from under the blindfold and then grabbed it, hard, pulling her head back and making her gasp in pain.

“You’ve been a bad girl, little bitch,” Mike rasped. “And you’re going to be punished for it.” He slipped his bathing suit off and slapped her on the face with his cock. “Say ‘I’m a bad girl.’ ”

“I’m a bad girl,” the girl sobbed.

“Whatever punishment my master gives me, I deserve,” he said, slapping her on the face again.

“Whatever punishment my master gives me, I deserve.”

“Take it in your mouth, bitch,” Mike said, shoving his dick in her mouth. “Suck it like I know you do. Suck it hard or you’ll be punished.”

He wasn’t sure if it was natural talent or the training she’d gotten since being kidnapped, but Daria truly knew how to give a blowjob. She could have sucked a golf ball through forty feet of steel hose. He felt like his dick was being hickeyed. She might be the best blower he’d ever had, which was saying something. He hadn’t planned on blowing a load in her mouth, but the blowjob was too good to pass up. When he felt himself starting to orgasm, he blew most of it in her mouth, then pulled out and pumped the rest onto her face and gorgeous tits. And she swallowed automatically after barely a choke. Damn she was good.

“Slutty little bitch,” he growled into her ear, rubbing the cum onto her face and breasts. “You’re nothing but a slut, a little bad girl. Say you’re a slut.”

“I’m a slut,” Daria whispered, shaking her head as if to try to throw off the cum.

“I’m going to show you what sort of slut you are, bitch,” Mike whispered. He grabbed her by the hair with one hand and wrapped an arm around her body, lifting her bodily and throwing her onto the bed. “Bad girls get beaten.”

“Please don’t beat me, master,” the girl whined. “I’ll be good.”

“I’ll teach you to be good,” Mike said, pulling his belt off his trousers. He untied her wrists, then retied them to the front, stretched them over her head and rolled her onto her stomach. “You’re a bad girl and you need to be spanked.”

“Please…” Daria whined. “Please don’t…”

Mike pinned her hands over her head, wrapped a leg onto her body to hold her in place and began whipping her on her gorgeous ass. He wasn’t using full strength by any stretch of the imagination, since he wasn’t sure what she could actually stand.

Daria bit into the cloth of the bedcover, whining and trying not to scream.

After a while Mike stopped and lifted her head up by her hair.

“Have you had enough, bitch?” he growled.

“Master,” Daria gasped. “Please, I’ve been very bad…”

Mike twitched an eyebrow up and forced her head back down into the bedcovers. This time, he parked higher, pinning her arms with his leg and began whipping not only her ass but her back as well, carefully keeping clear of the kidney region. He also hit harder.

She began shuddering and sweating from the pain, moaning into the bed and occasionally screaming. But if she really wanted him to stop, all she had to do was spit out the bedcover so Mike kept at it.

It was at times like this that he considered the fact that in a “scene,” the sub was actually in charge. Here he was doing all the work and she was getting exactly what she wanted without having to do anything but take the pain, which she actively enjoyed. It was an odd dichotomy and he found that he suddenly wasn’t as into it as he usually would be. Part of that was keeping one eye on the fact that the girl had been recently traumatized. He wasn’t sure if what he was doing was helping or reinforcing the trauma. But Daria, like Anastasia, seemed to be one of those girls who just soaked up pain and turned it into pure pleasure. It was almost disheartening. He really enjoyed inflicting pain and suffering; having someone absolutely and totally enjoy it was a let down.

He suddenly realized that he’d completely lost his erection. That’s what came of philosophizing in the middle of a scene.

Mike shifted again and grabbed her hair, turning her face towards his crotch.

“Lick it, bitch,” he growled. “Lick it and suck it like the little slut you are.”

She took it in her mouth and began expertly sucking it again, which got him back to a world-class erection in no time.

“You’re a little fucking slut,” Mike snarled, dipping into a bag and pulling out a condom. “You’re worth less than the price of dog turds. You’re worth nothing.” He pinned her down and spread her ass, shoving his dick into it, hard, as she moaned in pain.

“You’re a useless little slut,” Mike growled in her ear, clamping one hand over her mouth and wrapping the other around her throat. “You think I’m a nice guy, I’m not. I’m an evil, raping, bastard, just like the evil raping bastards that kidnapped you. And I like to rape my little bitches and then kill them. And that’s what I’m going to do to you, bitch. I’m going to rape you in the ass and strangle you at the same time. Nobody will care about a little bitch like you, anyway.”

He knew he had her now, since she was struggling against the bonds. But he had her pinned flat with his weight and she wasn’t getting away from either hand. He kept talking to her, threatening her and abusing her as he kept one hand clamped over her mouth and the other applying light pressure to her windpipe. He pumped hard on her gorgeous ass for a few minutes and finally came.

“Are you all right?” he asked, withdrawing both hands and easing out of her ass.

“You really scared me,” she said, breathing hard. “I wasn’t sure…”

“It’s called edge play,” Mike replied. “Creating a condition of doubt in the mind of the sub. You weren’t sure if I was serious or not.”

“Yes!”

“I wasn’t,” Mike said, rolling over and undoing her hands. “Seriously.”

“It was scary,” Daria admitted, sitting up and untying her ankles. “But I liked it. I was sure enough that you weren’t going to do it that I wasn’t panicking, but…”

“Well, let’s try something else,” Mike said, standing up and walking to the bathroom.

“You mean you’re not done?” Daria asked, surprised.

“Oh, hell no,” Mike said. “Be right back.”

He came back with a hot wash cloth and gently wiped the cum from her face and breasts.

“You’re gentle,” she said, lying back and sighing, then gasping a bit as she hit a sore spot.

“How’s the back?” Mike asked, caressing her breasts a bit more than was strictly necessary.

“Sore,” she admitted. “But not as sore as my ass. You hit me very well.”

“Thanks,” Mike replied, sliding the washcloth down her stomach and taking one of her nipples in his mouth.

“Oh, that feels good,” Daria said sighing.

“Should,” he replied, blowing on it lightly to get it to stand up. “You have a gorgeous body, did you know that?”

“It is okay,” Daria said, shrugging.

“It’s absolutely exquisite,” Mike replied, lowering himself on the nipple again. He’d eased the washcloth down her stomach and now slid it between her legs, giving the area a thorough cleaning. He wiped the outsid,e then slid his finger, encased in the rough cloth, into her vagina.

“Oh,” Daria sighed. “Oh… god…”

“You like it rough, huh?” Mike chuckled, biting on her nipple lightly. “I’ll give you rough…”

He rolled onto her and pinned her legs open, biting on her shoulder and thrusting his fingers into her vagina repeatedly. She began panting and sighing so Mike kept at it, thrusting with his fingers and biting her on her neck, shoulder and chest, appearing to lose control as she bucked under him and moaned. Finally, as she appeared to be nearing climax, he slid another condom onto his dick and thrust into her.

She settled a bit at first but the continuous hard thrusts warmed her back up as he growled in her ear and continued to pinch, bite and twist her nipples roughly. He pulled her legs up and grabbed her sore ass, eliciting a half scream of pain. Finally, she panted and moaned her way into a screaming climax that had him clamping his hand over her mouth to save his ears as much as for decorum. Hell, Sawn was in the next room and it was going to be obvious that the Kildar was up to his old tricks.

The girl didn’t seem to be a multiclimax type, so he slowed just enough to let her get her wind back and then drove in, hard, getting his third orgasm of the encounter. It had to be the tits.

“That was…” she whispered, then moaned as he carefully withdrew.

“Decent?” Mike asked, cleaning up and then pulling her in to cuddle on his shoulder.

“Very nice,” Daria whispered. “I did not think it could be that way.”

“Welcome to the real world,” Mike said, yawning. “I’m for a nap, how ’bout you?”

“I think I could use a nap as well,” Daria admitted. “Can I sleep here?”

“Just try to leave,” Mike said, curling into her.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“None of them have left,” Ctibor said, as Yarok walked into the apartment. “They usually stay at least two days in one place, by the look of the previous data.”

The Albanian hit team had taken up four apartments in the building. It was owned by the Albanian mob, so getting the apartments had been simple enough, if rough on the previous tenants. But the tenants had left behind some nice furniture. Unfortunately, it was not going to be in very good condition when the team left; the “shooters” Boris had turned up were mostly gutter scum. What was it that British general had said? “The scum of the earth enlisted for drink.” That was what Boris had found for him when he asked for professionals. Yarok wondered, briefly, which general it had been. Montgomery, probably.

“I’m not happy with taking them down in the hotel,” Yarok said, rubbing his lips with his fingers. “Is the team all here?”

“The ones that are sober,” Ctibor said, spitting on the floor. “You’d think the Albanians could round up better men than this.”

“It would have been better if we’d caught them in that hotel in Kosovo,” Yarok admitted. “But around here all you can get is gutter thugs. Even the veterans of the war mostly have real jobs. Or they work for rival gangs.”

“So what do you want to do?” Ctibor asked, shrugging.

“We will hit them tonight,” Yarok said, decisively. “Before dawn.”

* * *

Mike blinked and opened his eyes at the ring from the cell phone and started to roll over only to find that he was totally tangled in sheets and covers. He managed to untangle without disturbing Daria and snagged the phone.

“Jenkins,” he growled.

“Kildar, it is Gurum.”

“Gurum?” Mike asked, rubbing his eyes and wondering why the brewery manager would be calling him while he was on an op.

“I am in the city of Las Vegas, Kildar,” Gurum said. “The booth for the convention is well prepared and the company is in the process of installing. But you said that you wanted some of the Keldara here for the booth. I had left the choice up to you, Kildar, but when I called home they told me you were… on business.”

“Shit,” Mike snapped, sitting up. “I completely and totally forgot.”

“I can hire local models, Kildar,” Gurum said. “They are not cheap and I will have to hurry to find Keldara dress…”

“No,” Mike said, thinking rapidly. “I’ve got a better idea.”

* * *

“You want what?” Pierson snapped.

“We need to meet,” Mike said. “About the other thing. And I need to get some people into the U.S. Now. We have what is called a win-win situation here.”

“You’re joking,” Pierson said, sighing. “You want visas for thirty something complete unknowns?”

“And I’m going to need some passports, too,” Mike said. “I can get the photos, but I’m going to need them by the time the plane lands in the U.S. And the visas on file.”

“Why don’t you just fly back yourself?” Pierson asked exasperatedly.

“Because we’re in Indian Country,” Mike pointed out. “I’m not going to just drop my team in Indian Country, Bob.”

“Shit,” Pierson replied tightly. “Okay, okay. But you’ll need to go to the embassy. What kind of passports?”

“Georgian, I guess,” Mike said. “No, scrap that. I know a better way to get them. But we’re going to need somebody in the States to receive us that knows not to ask too many questions. The thing is, we’re going to Vegas. That’s right next to Nellis, which has some really good secure rooms. Oh, and we’re carrying about seven hundred pounds of print intel on the op that’s going to need some Albanian translators. Very closedmouth ones. I’ll drop the original electronic EEI with you as well. That’s in half a dozen languages, including Romanian.”

“I’ll get you a secure fax number to send the information on the girls to the embassy,” Pierson said, relenting. “I need to start making some phone calls, though, right now.”

“That’s fine,” Mike said, sitting up and slapping the still sleeping Daria on the rump and eliciting a yelp. “We’re going to have to move like lightning to make the convention.”

* * *

“The stakeout just called,” Ctibor said. “They’re packing up.”

“Shit,” Yarok muttered over the phone. “Any idea where to?”

“No,” Ctibor admitted. “We couldn’t get a mike into the rooms. The stakeout has a shotgun mike, but the men who are loading the vans don’t seem to know. The stakeout said that one of them said something about a convention.”

“That tells us a lot,” Yarok snapped. “Find out where they are going.”

“Perhaps we can hit them enroute?” Ctibor suggested.

“Maybe. Tell the stakeout to follow them. We’ll need more than one car to follow.”

“I’m on it.”

* * *

“Vanner,” Mike said, slipping the intel specialist a note. “Call this number. It’s a chartering company I’ve dealt with before. Tell them I need a large plane as fast as possible. My usual pilot if he can fly it.”

“Yes, sir,” Vanner replied, grinning. “How are we going to get the girls into the States, sir?”

“I’m on it.”

* * *

“This is highly irregular, Kildar.”

“I know, Minister,” Mike said, rolling his eyes. “And I am sorry to place this burden upon you, knowing that your time is extremely valuable. But it is most urgent and very important. I know that aspects have the attention of the President of the United States. While the situation does not directly affect Georgia, it has very wide-ranging implications. And it is imperative that I take the full team to the United States as soon as possible. Tonight if we can.”

“I will call the embassy in Croatia immediately,” the Georgian minister for external affairs said with a sigh. “But I will want to know that this is for an important purpose.”

“I will convey that to the President, Minister,” Mike said, rolling his eyes and wondering how many favors he was going to owe by the time the night was over.

“Mike,” Adams growled over the radio.

“Go,” Mike said.

“I think we have a problem. I’ve spotted the same white Lada four times since we got out of town. Either the guy’s going to Zagreb just like us or we’re being followed.”

“Crap,” Mike said, shaking his head. “We knew it had to happen sooner or later. Okay, evasion plan Alpha. Sawn, you monitoring?”

“Yes, Kildar.”

“Follow the agreed routes and meet at the agreed rally point. Adams, you have pick-up. Everyone go to scrambled cell at this time.” Mike pulled out his map and studied the roads. “Yevgenii, take the next left…” So much for making good time.

* * *

“Yarok,” the security specialist growled. He’d had a hard time getting all the vehicles for the assault team, most of whom were half or all the way drunk. While the American had taken less than fifteen minutes to get on the road, it had taken him over an hour.

“Ctibor. They’re splitting up. I think the trail car was made.”

“I told you to use more than one car!” Yarok fumed.

“I had a hard time getting more,” Ctibor complained. “And we never caught up. The stakeout car is still following one group that is on the main highway to Zagreb, but the other vans all have pulled off.”

“Follow the group on the main highway,” Yarok said. “They have to rendezvous somewhere.”

* * *

“Okay, Garold, they’re still on us,” Adams said over the radio. “Break it down. I’ll stay on the highway.”

He watched as the other vans pulled off the main road to Zagreb and then shook his head.

“That’s right, little lamb,” he crooned. “Stay right on my tail.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

“Hello, Mr. Jenkins,” Hardesty said as Mike reached the top of the rolling ramp. “Larger crowd than normal?”

John Hardesty was a tall, slender and distinguished looking former RAF fighter pilot who had gotten out with the fixed intention of becoming a pilot for British Airways. The problem with that being that, like the RAF, BA had been having cutbacks for years. Unable to get the job of his dreams, he’d settled for flying rich bastards around in private jets.

One day he’d gotten a charter that looked to be the usual, flying a rich American bastard around Europe. However, it had turned out somewhat differently than he’d imagined. The first odd note was that the rich American had turned up with just one suitcase and a small backpack instead of the loads of business suits the pilot had expected. And the destinations had been… odd. Small towns in Russia, rather notoriously dangerous towns in Serbia. And instead of the usual “I’ve got a business meeting tomorrow morning, we’ll be taking off at noon,” the passenger had required that he and his copilot to be on-call twenty-four hours a day. And had usually turned up in the middle of the night, reaking of cordite, his clothes spotted with bloodstains. At one point he turned up with what was clearly a low-class Russian hooker and carted her around for the rest of the trip. Hardesty tastefully ignored the fact that she had recent bruises from a beating.

The passenger also turned out to be travelling under at least three false names, and clearances for entry to countries had been remarkably smooth. He might be a hitman, but if so he was a hitman for a government, which made him almost respectable.

The various flights had culminated in Paris where the passenger had advised him to get to an airport well away from the City of Light and choose a hotel room that didn’t look in that direction. The news the next day that a nuclear weapon had been found in Paris, and been disarmed, came as no real surprise.

Since then he had carted “Mike Jenkins,” AKA Mike Duncan, AKA John Stewart, AKA whoknowswhat around to various spots in Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia. Since that first wild charter there hadn’t been a hint of gunpowder. Until tonight. Tonight he had the feeling things were going to get wild and wooly. Again.

“A bit,” Mike said. “And documentation is following. We’ve also got a bit of luggage.”

“Plenty of room in the compartments,” Hardesty said, leaning down to glance under the fuselage as the Keldara began unloading. Some of the bags looked suspiciously long. “I take it none of it’s going to explode?”

“We’re leaving the Semtek, if that’s what you mean,” Mike replied, standing by the females as the girls walked by.

“Nice joke,” Hardesty said, smiling. Then he looked at Mike’s face. “You were joking, right?”

“Customs is going to be handled on the far end,” Mike replied. “But we’ll be leaving a good bit of the material on the bird. So figure on a five-day layover in Vegas.”

“You weren’t joking,” the pilot said, shaking his head as one of the Keldara men went by with his arm in a sling.

“We’ve gotten drivers to take all the vans to the embassy,” Mike replied. “But while I’m willing to leave my Semtek, I’m not willing to leave all the gear. Or the ammo,” he added as the Keldara men started filing up the stairs with various rather heavy bags that might or might not contain such things as guns and ammunition.

“There are times that I really wish you’d picked another charter company as your flyers of choice.” Hardesty sighed. “On the other hand, the young ladies are quite charming, are they not?”

“About half of them are intel specialists,” Mike said. “The others are hookers that have been freed from Albanian gangs. One of which is, apparently, hot on our tail. As soon as the last of our party turns up, you might want to be ready to take off. Fast.”

“Really, really wish…”

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

* * *

“This is most irregular,” the second assistant to the ambassador from Georgia to Croatia moaned as he looked at the pile of blank passports. “Most irregular.”

“You want irregular?” Chief Adams sighed. “There’s an Albanian hit team on my tail. There’s a plane waiting to fly to the U.S. at the airport. And I’ve got to get from here to there, with these passports, and without getting killed. So just do me a favor and stamp the appropriate spots so I can get the hell out of here before we have a firefight in the embassy, okay?”

“You are joking, yes?” the official moaned.

“I am joking, no,” Adams said, picking up the official stamp. “So you want to stamp them or not? Your call. But I’m not leaving without them.”

* * *

“Mike, got the documents,” Adams said, leaning over to look out the window of the van. He was currently parked on Georgian territory, but the minute he pulled out he was going to be in Indian Territory. With no backup.

“Hold one,” Mike said. “Any sign of shooters?”

“Not so far,” Adams replied.

“Well, we’ll just have to go for the trailer.”

* * *

“IFOR duty desk, Sergeant Simmons speaking, how may I help you, sir or ma’am?”

Simmons was a reservist from Tennessee with the Fifth Regiment. All in all he’d much rather be back in Murfreesboro watching NASCAR, but duty in Bosnia these days was pretty tame. And the girls were plentiful and downright fine. Cheap too. There was worse duty. He’d already done one tour in the sandbox and that classifed as “much worse.”

“Sergeant,” a man said in a hoarse whisper. “Thank God I finally got to an American. I’ve got a real problem.”

“Sir, IFOR is not available to help distressed citizens…” the sergeant replied, sighing. Every time somebody lost a passport or got mugged or rolled or something, they fucking called IFOR. He flipped open his Rolodex looking for the number for the local police.

“It’s not that,” the man whispered. “I’m running from a group of Albanian terrorists. I’m an Albanian American, okay? My name’s Hamed Dejti. I grew up in San Diego, okay? I was down in Kosovo, I was visiting relatives, okay? I was in a café and I heard some of the men talking about bombing one of the IFOR camps. They had a car and the explosives but they were arguing about who was going to drive it, okay? I guess I left too fast, they must have suspected I heard them. I mean, they were talking about the stupid American that didn’t understand them, okay? I’ve been running from them ever since. I tried to get the border guards to help me…”

“Sir, are you sure about your information?” Simmons said, hitting the alert button and rolling out the duty guard platoon. This wasn’t a mugging. The voice had a definite American accent and the caller was clearly scared. He just wished he had a tracer circuit.

“They said they were going to strike one of the American camps,” the man said, more definitely. “They didn’t say which one. But that’s you guys, right?”

“Where are you right now, sir?”

“I’m at a payphone on Gajdekova Street,” the man said. “The only ones I know about are in a white Lada, parked a half a block from the Georgian embassy. I’m right across the street. I think they want to kill me, but there are too many guards around. I’ll wait here until somebody gets to me. I can’t even get to the American embassy, they cut me off! Please…”

“Sir, I’m scrambling the duty platoon right now,” the sergeant said, looking up as the duty officer walked in, scratching at his stomach under his uniform. “We’re on it.”

* * *

“Adams.”

“Cavalry is on the way. As soon as our friends are occupado, boogie. We’re only waiting on you.”

* * *

“They’re in the Georgian embassy,” Ctibor said, pointing with his chin.

Yarov leaned down to mask his face and looked towards the gates of the embassy. It was an old mansion with an iron spike fence around the courtyard and a baroque exterior. The guards didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the white Lada, but he could see the van parked by the side entrance.

“Well, we’re in place, but that’s only one of them,” Yarov replied. “We need them all.”

“Why did they go to the embassy?” Ctibor mused.

“Because they knew we couldn’t get at them, there,” Yarov said. “The rest might have already rendezvoused and this is a throw-away group. We’ll wait one night and if they don’t move…”

He looked up and shook his head as a group of Humvees, with the one in the lead sporting the blue light of an MP vehicle, raced down the road at high speed. The side of the Humvees were painted with the American flag and a large yellow blazon he didn’t recognize.

“Fucking IFOR,” Ctibor growled. “Fucking Americans. Why can’t they just go back to their own damned…”

He paused as the vehicles screeched to a stop and began disgorging troops in full body armor.

Yarov started to back away from the Lada and stopped as an M-16 was thrust in his face.

“Up against the wall, dirt bag!” the American private from the Fifth Cavalry screamed, grabbing his arm and turning him around. “Hands above your head.”

He twisted his head sideways and growled as the white van sedately drove out of the main entrance to the embassy. As it passed the street scene of American trooops rounding up “dangerous terrorists,” whoever was driving tooted their horn in farewell.

Fucking Americans.

Chapter Twenty-Six

“Jenkins,” Mike said, picking up the phone.

The 757 was configured with a large passenger area in the rear and a small office compartment up front. Mike was currently in the office, discussing the recent mission with Vanner and Adams.

“This is Captain Hardesty,” the pilot said dryly. “You might want to know that we are now ‘feet wet’ over the Adriatic.”

“Thanks,” Mike said, chuckling. “Feet wet” was a military term for leaving an area of operations over the water. Dating back to the Vietnam War, it was the traditional call that the unit and aircraft were safe from interference by hostiles. “I’ll be even more happy when we’re feet wet over the Atlantic.”

“I’ll give you a call,” Hardesty replied. “We will, however, be refueling in England. One hopes that this charter will not cause inconvenient questions to be raised upon landing.”

“Unlikely,” Mike said, smiling. “I think that even if any questions are being raised, the British government is going to be more than willing to avoid them given some of the information we’ve probably acquired.”

“I’ve got at least one name from the British Foreign Office,” Vanner said, looking at his notes. “I haven’t translated the file, yet.”

More than willing,” Mike repeated.

“I see,” Hardesty replied. “Very well. Flight time to Las Vegas with stops to refuel will be about twenty hours. You might want to get some rest. We’ll also be picking up a change of pilots in England. They’re… briefed.”

“Good to hear,” Mike said. “Talk later.”

“So far, we’re not getting real far on the data we picked up in Rozaje,” Vanner said. “The translation is going really slow. But there’s one bright spot. We don’t have their DVDs, but the video was stored on the computer and then the DVDs were burned from it. I’m going to run a file reconstructor on the data and see if we can find any bits from the previous videos. It doesn’t look like they cleaned the computer but the bits are going to be partial.”

“Tell me what you get,” Mike said, yawning. “Can any of the girls run the program?”

“Yeah,” Vanner replied. “I’m going to let them work it while I get some shut-eye. But I want to scan the files. The girls have seen just enough of this stuff to know they don’t want to see any more.”

“Agreed,” Mike said tightly. “Get started on it and then get some rest. We’re going to need you fresh in Vegas.”

“Will do,” Vanner said, picking up the laptop and leaving the office.

“If we have to go to Lunari it’s going to be tough,” Adams said after the intel specialist had left. “We don’t have much on it, but what I’ve been able to glean indicates that the town’s a fucking fortress. More than one, since all the gangs have houses there and they don’t trust each other.”

“We might be able to do something with that,” Mike said, yawning again. “What goes for Vanner, goes for you, too. Get some rest. I’m going to need you alert whenever we get there.”

“I was planning on it,” Adams said, getting up. “You too.”

“I will,” Mike replied. “I’m going to watch some news and then rack out.” The couch in the compartment converted to a bed and he was planning on taking the unusual step of using “rank has it’s privileges.”

“See you in the morning,” Adams said. “Or whenever it’s going to be.”

* * *

Mike flipped open his own laptop and scanned the news. The top news story on the Fox site was the search for a missing girl in Kansas. Which meant dick all to him. Next down was the battle over the current Supreme Court nominee. The nominee was stuck in committee, naturally. The liberals were screaming about the nominee’s “non-mainstream” religious views, by which they meant he was a practicing Catholic and had firm views on abortion and other “life” issues. And Grantham was the chairman of the committee, he noted.

It was assumed he would be voting with the President but he’d hardly been supporting the nominee in the last few days, which was worth fifteen minutes of comment from political and legal experts. The senator, it seemed, had twice missed opportunities to move the nominee out of committee and on to a floor vote.

France was trying to crack down on Islamic jihadists and having a rough time. The French security forces had been on high alert ever since the previous year when a nuke was set to blow in Paris. However, the French judiciary and various liberal groups were creating roadblock after roadblock against deportation of even the most extremist members of the Islamics.

The majority of the Islamics were found in southern France and around Paris. And the majority of those were housed in “government housing” neighborhoods composed of block after block of massive apartment buildings. The neighborhoods had become “no-go” zones for the police and in places there had been pitched battles that were nearly the equal of the “insurgency” period in Iraq. It hadn’t, quite, reached the level of civil war, but if it were anywhere but France the news media would be all over it. As it was, the only term that came to mind was “downplayed.” There was one shot in the background of what had to be an RPG being fired at French police, who appeared to be in retreat. It sure as hell didn’t look good and he was glad he was out of it. He might drop a line to the Chatanueuf and see how bad it was.

And in the tail end of the news was a poll showing that the lead in the presidential polls was Barbara Watson, former first lady, junior senator from Massachusetts and a card carrying bitch from hell. If there was anything she hated more than conservative political positions it was the military. Still deployed all over the world trying to fight the good fight, the military was sure to be gutted, War on Terror or no, if she took office. And the intel groups would be hamstrung.

Mike wasn’t sure if the news was just particularly bad or if it was just fatigue. But it seemed like everything he had worked for most of his life was going down the tubes. The only good news was that the Georgian government seemed to be stabilizing and even the Ossetians were coming to the table. The way things were going, Georgia was going to be a better place for him to live, all around, than the States.

Thoroughly depressed, he killed the TV and the lights and lay back, watching the stars through the narrow windows of the plane.

* * *

Mike rolled to his feet, disoriented, as the plane began its descent. He rubbed his eyes and looked out the window, still disoriented. According to his watch it was eight AM, but the sun still wasn’t up. Oh, yeah, they were flying with the sun. This was going to get annoying. Jet lag was a bitch.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re beginning our descent to Gatwick Airport in England,” Captain Hardesty intoned. “Please reconfigure your seats and such like for landing. We’ll be refueling and picking up breakfast. I’d appreciate it if the English speakers could translate, since my knowledge of Georgian is sadly lacking. Mr. Jenkins, if you could pick up the phone, please?”

“Jenkins.”

“We’ve received an inflight advisory that members of the British government will be visiting with us while we’re in England,” Hardesty said, neutrally.

“Oh, really?” Mike asked. “I’m going to need to make some phone calls.”

“Please do,” Hardesty said. “As long as they don’t get my plane impounded and my pilot’s license pulled. I am officially disavowing any suspicion of illicit activities, I might add.”

“Nice to know,” Mike said, chuckling as he hung up the phone. He dialed a number from memory before checking his watch. It was still the middle of the night in the U.S.

“Office of Special Operations Liaison, Navy Captain Parker speaking. How may I help you, sir or ma’am?”

“That’s a mouthful, Captain,” Mike said. “Mike Jenkins. I’m checking in. We’re landing in England and we’re apparently getting a deputation from the Brits. Comments?”

“Unknown at this time, Mr. Jenkins,” Parker said after a moment. “I’ll need to make some calls.”

“Please do,” Mike said. He picked up the phone and connected to the rear cabin.

“Yes, Kildar?”

“Greznya? I hope you got some sleep.”

“I got quite a good sleep, thank you, Kildar,” Greznya replied.

“Are Adams and Vanner functional?”

“They will be after another cup of coffee,” Greznya said. “And Vanner has something he’s looking at. Would you like them to step up front?”

“No, I’m going to head back,” Mike said. “See you in a bit.”

* * *

The rear of the plane was configured for about twice as many people as there were Keldara so Keldara were sprawled everywhere. Adams was getting them up and the seats reconfigured as Mike stepped through the door.

“Be with you in a second, Mike,” Adams called.

There were two flight attendants on the plane and Mike waved one of them over.

“Is there a way to access the intercom back here?” Mike asked.

“Right here, sir,” the woman said, picking up a phone and hitting the appropriate button.

“Rise and shine, Keldara,” Mike said in the Keldara dialect of Georgian, which he was fairly sure the crew wouldn’t be able to understand. “We’re about to land in England. When we do we’re going to be getting a visit from some representatives of the British government. I’m not sure what they’re going to be asking about, but I suspect it has to do with our visit to Romania and points south. In that case, nobody speaks English at all well and understands it even less. If it comes down to lawyers, guns and money we’ve got all three on our side as well as some very interesting video footage. Enough about that, though.

“As you all know, we’re headed for the U.S. to attend a convention and try to sell our beer. In addition, I’ll be meeting with members of the U.S. government and will be discussing our recent trip. Hopefully, we’ll be able to trade for some intelligence on our next objective. But that’s for me to worry about. What you are going to be doing is selling beer. Gurum will be running that side of things. I don’t want any caillean stuff to interfere. Gurum has done a good job this far and it’s time for us to backstop him. The girls will be wearing traditional dress, handing out beer and smiling at the customers. The boys will be making sure the customers keep their hands to themselves. Pictures may be taken. In that case, smile for the camera. I don’t know how much of it Adams, Vanner and I will be available for, so you’re mostly going to be on your own.

“Las Vegas is called Sin City. There are various vices available to the visitor. But I know that the Keldara are far too meek and gentle to engage in such things as fornicating with prostitutes, gambling and drinking.”

He waited for the expected chuckles to die down and then shook his head.

“Okay, so maybe you’re not. But there are lots of ways to get in trouble that you’re not aware of. So most of the trip I’d like you to stay around your rooms or down at the booth on your schedule, which we’ll come up with and publish. I’ll try to squeeze out some free time so you can see the town with local guides. After the convention, though, I suspect it will be back into the belly of the beast. So have as much fun as you can.”

“Kildar,” one of the Keldara women said as he hung up. “Phone.”

“Jenkins,” Mike said, picking up the handset.

“Parker,” the caller said, briefly. “Answer to your question: Your activities came to the attention of MI-6. They put the Georgians together with the Americans and came up with you as being the likely person. When we were questioned on it, routinely, we were noncommittal. They apparently have specific concerns, unspecified according to the report. My guess is that they want to talk about their unspecified concerns.”

“We’re carrying our gear,” Mike pointed out. “A search of the plane will lead to embarassing questions. For that matter, we’re going to need some interference run in the States.”

“You’re not debarking or unloading until Las Vegas, right?” Parker asked.

“Correct.”

“It’s handled,” Parker said. “When you land in Vegas, get your troops settled in at whatever they’re doing. You’ll be contacted at your hotel and flown out to Nellis for debrief and data comparison.”

“Got it,” Mike said. “Anything else?”

“Not here.”

“Out, then,” Mike said, hanging up the phone.

“Kildar,” Vanner said as he finished. “We’ve got something.”

“Something useful?” Mike asked. “Finally?”

“Very.”

* * *

“There were over two hundred file snippets on the hard drive,” Vanner said, leaving his trayback down with the laptop on it as the plane descended. “I haven’t had time to look at all of them, much less get a feel for who all the people on them are, but I found this…”

He hit play and the screen showed a masked but naked man in bed with two women, girls really. One of them Mike recognized immediately as their target, the other was unknown.

“The other female is Ludmilla Seventy-Eight,” Vanner said, continuing to let the video stream without sound. The scene was pretty clear. Neither of the women were having fun as the man worked “Ludmilla” over with what looked like a soldering iron and a pair of pliers. The target, Natalya, was simply chained to the bed in a position where she had to watch.

“The video is broken, but the end is there,” Vanner continued in a strained voice.

The next snippet showed the same scene, but in that portion Ludmilla was on her face with the masked man apparently taking her anally. From what was visible of her back, she had apparently been whipped in one of the missing segments. As Mike watched, the masked man wrapped a thin cord around the girl’s neck and strangled her while he was taking her. When her struggles had ended, permanently, the man got off of her and the video abruptly ended.

“There’s no way to tell that that’s Grantham,” Mike commented.

“Well, there’s one corroborating item,” Vanner said, backing the video up and turning on the sound while handing Mike a pair of earphones.

Mike didn’t really want to watch the video again but he put on the earphones anyway.

“Fucking bitch,” the masked man snarled. “Little fucking whore. I’m going to do you in every hole and then fucking kill you. You’re playing with the big boys, now! Beg me for your life and you might live, bitch…”

The video continued in the same vein for some time and Mike finally hit the pause button.

“And?” he asked.

“Here’s a video of Grantham talking to the cameras,” Vanner said.

Mike watched that video as well and listened to the voice with his eyes closed, then played the snuff film as well with his eyes closed.

“Same voice,” Mike said, shaking his head.

“I thought so, too,” Vanner said. “But something was bugging me about it. So I took a good look at the video.”

He brought up a screen capture in PhotoShop. The capture was of the masked man, stretched out next to the murdered girl and working her over. He’d apparently stretched his back and he was at full height.

“The bed is a standard European double,” Vanner said, bringing up a ruler tool. “The height of the bed is seventy-eight inches.” He laid the ruler down and got a length off of it. “Senator Grantham is six foot one or seventy-three inches.” He laid the ruler down and got the height off of the figure in the video.

“Doing the math,” he continued, pulling out a cocktail napkin and sketching the numbers on it, “I get that the guy in the video is only five feet ten inches tall. More like five nine. Max of five eleven.”

“So what’s with the voice?” Mike asked. Something was nagging at him about the video but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Various ways it could be cloaked,” Vanner said, shrugging as the wheels chirped on touchdown. “There’s a device that goes on the vocal cords that can change a voice. Not perfectly, but close enough for this. Not my area of expertise and I don’t have the equipment to do a really tight voice compare. But what this looks like is a deliberate frame of the senator by person or persons unknown.”

“And you can bet that Traskel is in it up to his patrician eyeballs.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Mr. Jenkins,” the first man through the door said, holding out a limp hand to be shaken. “Horace Wythe-Harcourt of the Foreign Office. A pleasure to meet you.”

“And you, sir,” Mike said, nodding as two more men came through the door of the plane.

“Jasper Drake, MI-5,” the second man said, nodding. “And my counterpart from MI-6, John Carlson-Smith.” Drake was tall and slender with an air of respectability about him that would have done for a banker.

“Pleasure,” Carlson-Smith said, shaking Mike’s hand firmly. Carlson-Smith was a short-coupled, broadly muscled blond man with a nose twisted from a fight.

“What can I do for you, gentlemen?” Mike asked, waving them to seats in the office compartment.

“To be clear about our intentions,” Wythe-Harcourt said, smiling, “we’re not going to ask you about the special operations group you have on the plane or your cargo.”

“About forty automatic weapons, RPG launchers, ammunition for both and sundry other devices of destruction,” Carlson-Smith said, also smiling. “Why’d you leave the Semtek? Certainly not space considerations. We have people in the Zagreb airport, you see.”

“So what are you going to ask about?” Mike said, ignoring the question.

“We believe that you have recovered intelligence from a villa outside of the town of Rozaje,” Drake replied smoothly. “It has come to our attention that a member of the British government has recently been making decisions that are… somewhat out or character. Actually, three members. All of whom recently served in the Balkans and all of whom have known proclivities that might have been… assuaged in that villa.”

“Crap,” Mike muttered. “You’ve got yourself a real problem, then.”

“You don’t have intel?” Carlson asked. “I’m surprised. From the after action report it was a very clean op.”

“Cards on the table and no repercussions, then?” Mike said, smiling also.

“None,” Carlson-Smith replied, directly. “We just want the take.”

“That’s going to be a problem,” Mike said. “There’s three ‘takes.’ They kept paper records and made videos. But the vids were then burned to DVD and sent elsewhere. There are some remaining snippets on a hard drive. We’ve got the hard drive and the paper records, which are in Albanian, but not the DVDs. And I’m taking all of it to the U.S. We’ve got a higher priority problem than a couple of diplomats.”

“I’m not sure that will work,” Wythe-Harcourt said smoothly. “The problem is that there may or may not be other records that are a higher priority problem, as you put it, for Her Majesty’s government as well as allied governments. We would very much prefer that the information remain close, if you will.”

“So what you’re saying is that we’re not leaving with our intel?” Mike asked bluntly.

“We assure you that all the information that is germane will be handed over to the American government,” Wythe-Harcourt said calmly. “It’s simply that we actively prefer that those items of interest to Her Majesty’s government not go astray as it were.”

“Well, then we’ve got ourselves a problem,” Mike said, still smiling. “You see, there is information that is of very great importance to the people and government of the United States in that intel. So you’ll see where I’ve got an issue with turning it over to you. At least as much of an issue, if not a greater one, than you have with turning it over to the U…S government. I see a very ugly stalemate.”

“We need that hard drive,” Carlson-Smith said tightly.

“Calmly, John,” Wythe-Harcourt said, smoothly. “This is why we are negotiating.”

“I’m not sure what the basis of negotiations would be,” Mike said, shrugging. “You’re not going to let me take off with the intel and I’m not going to turn it over. I didn’t get rid of all my Semtek, by the way, and you’re going to have a very hard time capturing the data before it’s destroyed, given that I’ve got twenty top-flight troops on the plane. SAS isn’t going to do you much good except to get the data destroyed and make one hell of a mess. And an international incident between two countries that have a very special relationship.”

“So you’re not going to give it up?” Drake asked musingly.

“Over my dead body,” Mike said. “Literally. That is how you’re going to have to get it. And the bodies of my troopers.”

“Calmly, Mr. Jenkins,” Wythe-Harcourt said, sighing. “Calmly. As I said, negotiations. Your concern is understandable. Is ours?”

“It’s a matter of relative concern,” Mike said. “There is data in there, that we have found, that is uncontrovertible proof of crimes committed by a senior member of the U.S. government. That’s not going anywhere but a very secure facility in the US. And we’re not sure we have all of it. Further, there may be other data as dangerous. This data is extremely sensitive but right now all you have is the Sword of Damocles hanging over a few of your minor diplomats. That’s a world of difference from what the U.S. is looking at. Relative concern.”

“We have information that there may be a higher degree of concern for Her Majesty’s government,” Wythe-Harcourt said, deadpan.

“How high?” Mike asked carefully.

“Very high,” Carlson-Smith practically snarled. “Very damned high.”

“Stalemate again,” Mike said, shrugging. “Anybody? Because I’m not planning on going home empty-handed. And Gatwick Airport is a lousy place for a firefight, I’ll also admit. People would ask questions and there’d be all sorts of media and…” He shrugged and smiled. “For that matter, they’d ask questions if the plane simply sat here for a few days.” He paused for a moment and then shrugged.

“Let me bring someone else into the discussion,” Mike said, musingly. “If I may?”

“Someone… discreet?” Wythe-Harcourt asked.

“My intel specialist,” Mike said. “Former Marine intercept specialist. Did time with the NSA. Good enough?”

“I suppose,” Drake said.

Mike picked up the phone and hit the connection to the rear. “Send Vanner up. Tell him to bring his computer and notes,” he said then turned back to the threesome. “Care for some coffee while we wait? Or, pardon, tea?”

* * *

“Yeah, boss?” Vanner said when he came through the door.

“These gentlemen are from the British government,” Mike said, waving him to a seat. “They think there are some Rozaje files that are important to them. Important enough that we’re not taking off until we turn over all our intel. I told them over my dead body. And yours, by the way.”

“Oh,” Vanner said in thought. “Yeah, I guess it would be over mine, too. Hell, even the girls’. Even if they didn’t know why.”

“So let’s discuss the take with these gentlemen and try to come to some sort of arrangement,” Mike said.

“So you’re saying we don’t trust the Brits with this stuff and they don’t trust us?” Vanner asked.

“That would sum it up nicely,” Drake said dryly.

“I think that’s it,” Mike said, frowning at the Brits. “I, frankly, don’t know any of you from Adam. And strange things happen with intel in bureaucracies. I know the people I’m going to be turning this over to. I trust them not to abuse it.”

“And for our part, I must add that we most especially do not trust you,” Wythe-Harcourt admitted. “You’re a free agent, an international security contractor with a very shady reputation holding the blackmail equivalent of a nuclear weapon.”

“There is that,” Mike said with a grin. “And I’ve got copies, moreover. Horrible thing. Vanner, how many video clips did you get?”

“There were a bit over two hundred listed ‘scenes’ in the files,” Vanner said, temporizing. “I haven’t translated all of them, but there about the same number of video clips, most of them incomplete. Natalya was listed on three scenes before being translated. I cross-referenced those scene files and found the one we were looking for in the hard copy. But finding the video was more luck than anything. I had to scan through clips of the scenes one by one but I found her on the seventh clip. That was the one I showed you. But I don’t know what is on the other scenes and there’s no file directory to cross-reference to the hard copy files.”

“There were two hundred women killed in that place?” Wythe-Harcourt asked, his eyes wide.

“Approximately,” Vanner replied. “Women were not killed in all of the scenes but in a few of them more than one was apparently killed. The highest I found was three. I think that guy needs to be tracked down and taken out; he apparently hardly engaged in rape, just torture and murder.”

“Later for that,” Mike said. “Gentlemen, what are you looking for? Maybe we can just extract the hard copy files and try to find the video clips and turn them over. Understand, the Albanians still have the DVDs.”

“I’m not sure that will be sufficient.” Wythe-Harcourt sighed. “And we’d very much like to avoid naming names at this juncture.”

“Screw this,” Mike said, picking up a phone. “Greznya, get me OSOL on the line.”

“Mr. Jenkins,” Wythe-Harcourt said, firmly, “I really believe that the fewer people brought in on this…”

“And I believe that this decision is at the wrong level,” Mike replied bluntly. “Like I said, I don’t know you guys from Adam and as you said I’ve got no cred in your eyes. So let’s get people with cred involved. This is too high level for us to be dicking around with.”

“I’m here at the personal orders of the Foreign Minister,” Wythe-Harcourt said, just as bluntly.

“Head of MI-6 for me,” Carlson-Smith said.

“Head of MI-5 in my case,” Drake added.

“And I’ve got marching orders from the President,” Mike snapped. “I think I trump.”

“Parker.”

“You’re sounding tired,” Mike said.

“End of shift,” Parker said. “Pierson’s supposed to be in in about an hour. What do you got?”

“The Brits are refusing to let us take off with the take,” Mike said tightly. “They’re afraid that someone senior is on camera. Someone senior in the British government.”

“Oh, joy,” Parker said with a sigh. “And we have…”

“We have something very interesting,” Mike said. “Among other things, we’ve got data that tends to disprove our previous intel. The person named previously does not appear to be really present. But there is enough there for a slighly lame frame of said person.”

“Interesting,” Parker replied. “We need that data.”

“That’s what the Brits are saying,” Mike said. “And they’ve got the guns to prove it.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Parker said.

“Yeah, especially since without this take the previous information is out there,” Mike said. “We need bigger guns in on this.”

“I’ll make some calls,” Parker said with another sigh. “I’m going to have to wake people up.”

“Great,” Mike said. “Especially since right now my body has no idea what time it’s supposed to be.”

Mike ended the connection. “Parker is waking up some of our more senior people,” he said, picking up his coffee. “You can hang out here, or you can call your people and tell them to start expecting very important phone calls.”

“If you don’t mind, we’ll stay here,” Drake said, pulling out his cell phone. “But we would like to make some calls also.”

* * *

“Kildar,” Greznya said, sticking her head in the door. “Colonel Pierson for you on line two.”

“Got it,” Mike said, picking up the phone and hitting the connection. “Jenkins.”

“Do you just enjoy kicking hornet nests?” Pierson asked. “There I was, minding my own business, eating my breakfast like a real human being…”

“Tell it to the Brits,” Mike said, glancing over at where Carlson-Smith was scanning the video footage and taking notes.

“I understand that you’re going to get clearance soon,” Pierson replied. “But we’re going to have the Brits ‘assisting us in our investigations.’ ”

“Works for me,” Mike said. “As long as I can take off…”

“Kildar,” Greznya said, breathlessly, glancing around the room. “A very important call on Line Three.”

“I’m talking to Colonel Pierson,” Mike said, covering the receiver.

“More important!” Greznya said, her eyes wide.

“Hang on, Bob,” Mike said, putting him on hold and switching lines.

“Do you just enjoy kicking hornet nests?” the President asked, tiredly.

“Jesus, did they get you up for this, sir?” Mike asked.

“Yes, they did,” the President replied. “Actually, they got me up to field the call from the prime minister. You’re getting clearance to take off if you don’t already have it. When you get here, all the data, every snip and dribble, gets carted to a base along with your intel people. The Brits are sending over some people to keep an eye on it at the same time. Since we were on a very secure line, the prime minister told me who was suspected of being in their video and I agree that not letting it become public knowledge is a good idea.”

“Bloody hell—” Carlson-Smith snapped, hitting a computer key.

“Was that who I think it is?” Vanner asked, his eyes wide.

“I think they just found what they were looking for, Mr. President,” Mike said, at which four heads snapped up, even the two glued to the computer screen. “Is it who you thought it was? The Pres already talked to your prime minister and he’d like to know.”

“Yes,” Carlson-Smith snarled. “It is.”

“They confirm, Mr. President,” Mike said.

“Get that intel to the U.S., now,” the President ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Mike said.

“And don’t lose it!”

“Will do, sir,” Mike replied.

“Carlson-Smith will remain with the materials for the rest of the flight,” Drake said, hanging up his phone. “You’re cleared to take off. You’re to fly direct to Washington, Dulles Airport, refuel and then direct to Nellis Air Force Base. You will offload your materials there, as well as your intel specialists, and then fly to Las Vegas. The landing in Nellis will not be recorded. We’ll brief your pilot on the new itinerary. Mr. Wythe-Harcourt and I will debark and brief our respective bosses.”

“Well, I just debriefed the only guy I consider in the category,” Mike said, waving the phone. “Who was it, by the way?”

“That’s none of your business,” Carlson-Smith snapped.

“The British Home Secretary,” Vanner replied. “And Jesus does that guy have a tiny dick.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

“Daria,” Mike said, sitting down next to the girl. “I’m sorry, I haven’t been ignoring you. There’s just a lot going on.”

A lot was an understatement. Despite the President’s assurances, various hoops had to be jumped through. Among other things, it turned out that Carlson-Smith didn’t have his passport with him. Mike had offered one of the blank ones from the Georgian embassy, but that had been politely declined. The delay, however, even with no problems in the U.S., was going to make their arrival in Las Vegas tricky at best. Mike had, along the way, managed to convince people that he had a real need to go to Vegas first, so the landing in Nellis had been put off until the Keldara, and Mike, were dropped in Vegas. Which left just a few little details to clean up.

“I understand, Kildar,” Daria replied, smiling. “How is it going?”

“Well, we’re on our way at last,” Mike said. “But I was wondering if you could do me a few favors.”

“Of course,” Daria said, smiling. “Here?” she added with a wink.

“Now, now,” Mike said, shaking his head. “I need you to call ahead and talk to Gurum. Find hotel rooms for everyone. Some of us might not actually make it to Vegas but I want everyone to have a room. We probably can’t…”

“This is done,” Daria said, pulling out a notebook. “The group that cancelled at the convention had a block of rooms reserved. I found out about it and contacted them. They still had the rooms held, but had finally decided that they were not attending. I secured that block of rooms for us at a very reasonable rate. Since we needed some more space, and the hotel was mostly booked, I also secured the penthouse suite for your use, anticipating that Chief Adams and Mr. Vanner would be using it as well. I asked about information security on the room and the hotel has assured me that since the usual users of the room are major American businessmen who often discuss proprietary business in the penthouse that it is quite secure. I spoke with Gurum, who is a very nice man, and ensured that there was access to food for the Keldara. I also talked to the intel girls and they have sufficient ‘traditional native costumes’ for the convention.”

“Oh,” Mike replied.

“I spoke with Chief Adams as well,” Daria continued. “We’re at about sixty percent on small arms ammunition, one hundred percent on RPGs and have a sufficiency of grenades. He wanted me to remind you that we need more Semtek and that if we have to go into Lunari that we’re probably going to need more troops. We also need resupply on first aid equipment. And we only have sufficient rations for one day for the entire group.” She paused, looked at his expression and shrugged. “I’m trained as a secretary and manager. And my father was a colonel in the Ukrainian Army.”

Mike opened his mouth to reply, then shut it.

“Is there anything for me to do?” he asked, somewhat plaintively.

“Just sign the appropriate checks,” Daria said, smiling prettily. “Oh, and I need your passport.”

“Why?” Mike asked, pulling it out.

“We’re hoping you have all the right entry and exit stamps,” Daria replied, flipping through the passport. “And you do.”

“What’s that going to get us?” Mike asked curiously.

“Mr. Vanner thinks that he can create stamps for the rest of the passports from this,” Daria said, tucking the passport away and making a note. “We’re going to need Croatian entry and exit stamps, at the very least. And I think that’s it.”

“Are we paying you?” Mike asked incredulously.

“No, as a matter of fact. But I’m trying to help.”

“In that case, take a note to double your pay,” Mike said, smiling. “Seriously, Anastasia does some of this for me in Georgia but I could use a real assistant. And you seem to have things remarkably under control. Are you open to a job offer?”

“Does it involve shooting people?” Daria asked carefully.

“No,” Mike said, then shrugged. “I’d suggest that you take some training, purely for defense. But what I’m thinking of is what you’re doing, a personnel and logistics person for missions, assuming there are other missions, and being my personal assistant. I suspect that in Georgia you’re going to be bored, but when we’re doing things like this you sure won’t be.”

“What would something like that pay?” Daria asked carefully.

“Well, it would include room and board at the caravanserai,” Mike pointed out. “On the other hand, there’s not much to do there. As to the pay, we can work that out and find something equitable.”

“And what about… the other?” Daria asked, just as cautiously.

“What other… oh,” Mike said, then shrugged. “Up to you. If you consider it a duty, don’t worry about it. I’ve got more women problems than I’d prefer. On the other hand, if you consider it a fringe benefit, we can work something out,” he added with a grin.

“For now, I think I’d put it in the category of ‘fringe benefit,’ ” Daria said, smiling back. “I accept the job offer. We’ll work out the pay.”

“Thanks,” Mike said, standing up. “Get used to finding out-of-the-way buildings to beat people to death in.”

“I’m sure they’ll deserve it,” Daria said, smiling darkly.

* * *

“So how are you going to use my passport to fix everybody else’s?” Mike asked Vanner. “Copy the pages?”

The intel specialist was seated at a table at the rear of the plane, working on his computer.

“Won’t work,” Vanner said. “The Georgian passports have different watermarks. I scanned in all the entry and exit stamps on your passport including most especially the Croatian one. Now I’m creating a three-D model of what the stamp looks like,” he continued, spinning the computer around so Mike could see.

“Very nice,” Mike said dryly. “It looks like a stamp. And that gives us… what?”

“Well,” Vanner said, hitting a key and looking at a large item that looked vaguely like a printer on the floor, “in about fifteen minutes it should give us a Croatian entry stamp.”

“How?” Mike asked.

“That,” Vanner said, pointing at the box, “is a desk-top manufacturing device. Give it any sufficiently small three dimensional design and it can make it. Right there.”

“You’re kidding,” Mike said, furrowing his brow. “Right?”

“Nope,” Vanner said, grinning. “It’s no good for multipart machinery but it can make any solid object that’s smaller than its collection area. The technique is called sintering. The machine takes the CAD diagram and splits it into thin layers. The way it used to work is that each layer would be laid down and then welded to the lower layer, sintered actually. This one is a rapid system that lays the whole model down, layer by layer, then heats the item up and forms it in one go.”

“I almost hate to ask how much that thing cost,” Mike said, shaking his head.

“It was the first run of a new generation of them,” Vanner replied. “And a lot. But I thought it might be useful to have along. And I got a deal on it as a beta tester.”

“We’re going to need more than one,” Mike said, thinking about the future.

“Well, I’ve got an in with the manufacturer,” Vanner said, grinning.

* * *

“You do have ink, right?” Mike asked as Vanner slid the still hot stamp into a holder. It sure looked like an entry stamp.

“Fourteen different colors and shades,” Vanner admitted. “I mean, I’m not a professional forger, but I can hum a few bars.” He picked up a piece of paper and opened up a stamp pad with Mike’s passport open on the table in front of him. Humming, he inked the stamp and then stamped it on the piece of paper.

“Looks… pretty much the same,” Mike admitted.

“It should, it was made from this model,” Vanner said. “I had to work out the background watermark and I think that might have led to some thin spots…” He pulled out a loupe and considered the stamped paper under the light. “Yeah, there are some rough spots. But if it’s not a close inspection it should work. And if any of these passports get a close inspection we’re going to have problems.”

“Well, we should be okay on the U.S. end,” Mike said. “Where’s the MI-6 guy?”

“Going over the hard copy files,” Vanner said. “Turns out he speaks and reads Albanian.”

“I hope he’s not developing more intel than we’d like,” Mike said. “Where?”

“Front of the compartment,” Vanner replied. “I’m going to get started on the exit stamp…”

* * *

“This is horrible stuff,” Carlson-Smith said, skipping to the next video.

“See anyone you recognize?” Mike asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Carlson-Smith said tightly. “I was assigned to the Kosovo sector for some time and I recognize several gentlemen who are or were similarly assigned.”

“Interesting that they were able to get them there,” Mike said. “I suppose you’ve also seen the video that we’re interested in.”

“Vanner pointed out the file,” Carlson-Smith said. “I’ve avoided it. That’s for you Yanks to fix up. The rest of this is going to be more… difficult. They’ve compromised the bloody head of the French force in Kosovo. And he’s been promoted. He’s in charge of the military-civilian liaison office in France that’s supposedly been backstopping Interior Ministry Forces on rounding up France’s Islamics. Which has been notably unsuccessful, I might add.”

“I’m missing something,” Mike admitted.

“The Albanians have been working with the muj for some time,” Carlson-Smith said dryly. “Nothing that the bloody media is willing to bring up, but they trade information among other things. I’d give odds that our friend General Robisseau has been feeding information to the targets in France. Probably because he was ‘encouraged’ to do so by his Albanian friends.”

“Crap,” Mike muttered. “Any Georgians in there?”

“Not as far as I can tell,” Carlson-Smith said with a chuckle. “But there’s more than one American and quite a few Japanese. Check this one out,” he added, hunting in the files for a moment.

Mike watched the resulting playback for a moment and then turned away.

“So?” he asked. “I’ve seen a couple.”

“Didn’t recognize the gentleman?” the MI-6 agent asked, smiling thinly. “One of your bloody liberal strategists, mate. Been on TV any number of time. Big money collector.”

“Cleaning this up is going to be a nightmare,” Mike admitted. “Multiple countries, multiple jurisdictions. And all people that could afford the squeeze, which means either rich or powerful or, generally, both. Who bells the cat?”

“Who indeed, mate,” Carlson-Smith said, jumping to another file. “Bloody hell, another one. Junior member of the Foreign Service. Works with the UN in Kosovo. Refugee relief. Rich liberal poofter. I’d have guessed him for being under the whip, not holding it.”

“I’d think he’d be getting his pussy from refugees,” Mike noted.

“He probably was,” the MI-6 agent admitted. “But getting rid of the bodies is tough. And when you abuse them beyond a certain point, they go talking to the press. That gets your career sidetracked. You have to leave the Foreign Service and go work for an NGO, which doesn’t have benefits nearly as good, does it?”

“Point,” Mike said. “What are the benefits of working for MI-6?”

“You get to look at really nasty porn,” Carlson-Smith said darkly. “And you get to deal with lowlifes and drug dealers. Then there’s the terrorist informers, most of whom don’t actually know anything, but are more than willing to take cash for nothing. On the other hand, it’s got great dental.”

“Sounds great,” Mike opined. “James Bond and all that.”

“People think that,” Carlson-Smith said with a sigh. “But it’s more like your CIA, isn’t it? I mean, yes, we get weapons training in class and all that, but we never bloody use the things. I haven’t drawn my weapon in my whole career and very rarely carry anything for that matter. Very few of us do. Neither do your CIA intel fellows, believe me. The paramilitary types like NVA are a different story, of course. They’re the wet-work fellows.”

“So what do you do?” Mike asked, curiously.

“As I said, run around dealing with lowlifes and trying to get someone to tell us something true,” the MI-6 agent said, shrugging. “You build up a group of contacts and get information in any way that you can. It’s more glad-handing than running around with beautiful women and killing supervillains. Most of it’s quite boring, really.”

“Sounds that way,” Mike said with a snort. “I’ll take James Bond any day.”

“I’d rather be doing that than this, mate,” Carlson-Smith said. “Among other things, there are things that man is not wot to know or something like that. And this is one of them. Something you’d best keep in mind.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked, frowning.

“There are going to be quite a few very powerful and very unhappy people when this particular ant-pile gets kicked over,” the Brit said, shutting down the video program. “I’m covered since I’m just a dumb bureaucrat doing my job. Except for those IRA bastards, nobody personally cares about one agent or another. Sure, the odd muj will have a whack at us, but that’s just business. You they’re going to hold personally responsible. The people on these files, they’re going to lose and lose big. But so are their supporters and sponsors. And they’re still, mostly, going to be in power, either directly or indirectly. Even if parties fall as the result, which they just might. Just by finding these files, you’ve made some powerful enemies.”

Mike thought about that and shrugged.

“Let ’em come.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

“Everybody has their customs and immigration form filled out,” Adams said as Mike waited nervously for the inspectors from BCIS to board the plane. They’d stopped at Dulles to take on fuel and for clearance and Pierson had assured him that clearances were taken care of. But after the stop in Britain, Mike was half anticipating being taken into custody along with the whole team.

The plane had docked to a tubeway. Mike wasn’t in a position to see down the hallway but he could hear the footsteps approaching and was surprised by the degree of reaction. He’d gotten shot to ribbons on more than one occasion, but for some reason this meeting was filling him with dread. Probably as a result of the conversation with Carlson-Smith. The MI-6 agent was calm as toast, however. As he’d said, nobody was going to hold him personally responsible for the files. Hell, the data on the computers was illegal, forget the guns and ammo in the cargo hold!

The customs inspector stepped through the door and shook Hardesty’s hand and it took Mike longer than it should have to process the face.

“My name’s Pierson,” Colonel Pierson said, smiling at Hardesty disarmingly. “I’ll be processing your crew and passenger’s manifest while my associate does a quick check of your cargo hold.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Captain Hardesty said, swallowing nervously.

“Pierson?” Mike asked, his eyes widening at the sight of the Army colonel in the uniform of a custom’s agent.

“Ah, Mr. Jenkins, I presume?” Pierson said, smiling. “Let me just check on the crew’s documentation and I’ll be with you and your… group in a moment.”

* * *

“Yes, BCIS is shitting a brick,” Pierson said when he’d sat Mike down with a stiff bourbon. “And State is shitting a brick. And the National Security Council is shitting a brick. Which is why I’m here instead of a regular inspector and why a Navy commander from OSOL is carefully ignoring the contents of the hold. Satisfied?”

“I should have trusted you when you said it’d be taken care of,” Mike admitted, smiling finally. “But that’s not the only reason you’re here.”

“No,” Pierson admitted, looking over at the MI-6 agent who was watching him carefully. “And, as agreed, all the original files are going to Nellis for your review, Agent Carlson-Smith. But you said Grantham wasn’t the culprit and the President wants that data as soon as possible.”

“Let me get Vanner,” Mike said, picking up the phone.

It took Vanner a few minutes to run through his song and dance again but when he did Pierson leaned back and nodded in satisfaction.

“Grantham’s been acting weird, lately,” Pierson said. “I mean, yes, he’s his own man and he works the Senate as he needs to, cutting deals, concentrating on what he thinks is important. But the decisions, the votes and actions he’s been taking, are completely out of his normal line.”

“The Supreme Court nominee?” Mike asked.

“That’s just the most noticeable,” Pierson replied, nodding again. “But that’s the big one. He’s stalling the guy in the Senate. It’s the first changed vote that the President has had a chance to place on the bench, a conservative for a liberal. The news media is screaming, the liberals are screaming and Grantham should be acting decisively. Instead, it’s like he’s trying to run out the clock or something.”

“So somebody is blackmailing him with the video?” Mike asked. “Traskel?”

“That would be the prime suspect,” Pierson admitted. “But that doesn’t mean it’s him. It could be any enemy of Grantham’s normal positions. And it would be a stupidly long-ball shot for somebody like Traskel. He’s been in the Senate for years; is likely to stay there for years, there’s no reason for him to have set this up.”

“Well, it’s connected to Traskel somehow,” Mike said, frowning. “I mean, he knew to send me after this particular girl. And why her, I wonder?”

“Natalya’s in the video but she survived the scene,” Carlson-Smith said. “She’s more likely than most to be able to identify the perp.”

“There’s another way to do it,” Vanner said. “Voice print. The person has had his voice modified, but you’re still going to be able to pull out some data and get a voice recognition on them.”

“We’d have to have a matching voice print,” Pierson pointed out.

“Echelon could run it in a couple of hours,” Vanner said, shrugging.

Echelon was a “black” operation of the NSA that monitored world-wide voice and internet communications searching for keywords.

“Okay, assuming that Echelon really exists…” Pierson said dryly.

“I used to work at No-Such-Agency,” Vanner said, just as dryly, using the nickname for the NSA. “It wasn’t an off-the-cuff estimate, Colonel.”

“Okay, assuming we could get the NSA to admit it exists, for this project, which has major political overtones,” Pierson said, raising his hands. “Even admitting that, the voice is disguised and NSA won’t use it, period, for investigation of American citizens. Even under the Patriot Act. And I’m pretty sure we don’t want to open that can of worms for this. This is horrible, but it’s definitively not terrorism related. In fact, except for being something like a constitutional crisis, it’s not even national security related!”

Pierson paused and shrugged unhappily.

“What should be done, by the book, is that the data would be turned over to the FBI,” the colonel continued. “There’s a process for that, now. Information gathered during an intelligence operation that points to a crime committed can be forwarded to the FBI for investigation. The problem is, the FBI doesn’t have jurisdiction. What we have here is a rape and a murder. Those are civil crimes. They occurred in Macedonia, which is the only jurisdiction that could try them.”

“So we either turn the data over to the Macedonians,” Carlson-Smith said musingly, “which would give them blackmail material on half the governments in the Western World or… we let them walk?”

“No,” Pierson said, shaking his head. “What the President wants to do is very quietly show the data to the appropriate people. Quiet meetings that result in the perp simply no longer being in anything that resembles a position of power. And it won’t matter which side of the aisle they are on, or what country they’re from. He’s discussed this with the prime minister and the prime minister is on board. But…”

“But we have to have all the data,” Mike sighed. “We’ve got to get the DVDs.”

“And anyone associated with the Albanian operation,” Pierson agreed. “And then there’s the other side. Who bells the cat?”

“The State Department,” Mike said with a shrug.

“Nope,” Pierson replied. “Currently, what you’re carrying is very closely held. And it’s going to stay that way. No leaks. God-help-us-please, no leaks.”

“Agreed,” Mike said, frowning. “But you’re not suggesting…”

“Either we or the Brits will handle the introductions,” Pierson said, his face hard. “But you’re going to be the messenger.”

“Like hell,” Mike said, shaking his head. “No fucking way.”

“You’re not an operative of the American government,” Pierson continued, tightly. “You’re just… you. You’ll handle the data presentation and get the appropriate assurances from the people you deal with on what is to be done. But the bottomline is that every single person has to exit the government, and anything government affiliated. No nongovernmental organizations, no military contracts, no lobbying. They become common citizens and disappear. Hopefully, most of them will commit suicide.”

“Then we might as well scrap most of the data,” Mike said, frowning. “All we’ll need is the hard copy of who was involved, and the DVDs.”

“Agreed,” Pierson said, nodding. “We’ll lock down the data in a vault and it won’t ever go anywhere.”

“No,” Mike said, looking distant. “If I’m the guy carrying the message, then I’m the guy holding the data. They won’t trust anyone with that data, including the United States government. I’ve got a hole that’s plenty big enough for it. We’ll bury it under the caravanserai. I’ll tell them where it is. And tell them to leave well enough alone. They won’t believe it if I tell them it’s been destroyed, which would be my first choice. We’ll just… hold it. Someday, it will just be history.”

“I’m not sure the prime minister would agree with that,” Carlson-Smith said.

“And I’m pretty sure the President wanted to keep them in Nellis,” Pierson said, frowning. “That’s a big damned responsibility to just delegate.”

“Who are you talking to?” Mike asked tightly. “Think about how we met, Bob.”

“That’s different.”

“How?” Mike replied. “The President and the prime minister will geek. Trust me. Because this way, these things don’t hang like a Sword of Damocles at every high level meeting. They’ll go from Nellis to the caravanserai and be buried. You’ll pull the data about American and British members for America and Britain to deal with. The rest are up to me. After we find the DVDs. Hopefully they haven’t made copies.”

“You’ll have to make sure of that,” Pierson said darkly.

“I’m not even sure I can get the DVDs,” Mike said, breaking his stare and sighing.

“We’ve got improved intel,” Pierson said. “Not much of it, but some. That, too, will be available at Nellis. There’s one oustanding issue: information control. Who knows what in your teams?”

“The Keldara know pretty much everything about Rozaje,” Mike said, frowning. “But the Keldara don’t talk…”

“Can we trust that, though?” Carlson-Smith asked.

“Could you trust the Gurkhas?” Mike asked. “This is the business of the Kildar. The Keldara don’t talk. Even then the information on who and what is pretty tightly restricted. I had Vanner keep it away from the girls just because of what it was. They’ve looked at the files and made some lists. But even then it’s very close. I’m not even sure that Adams knows any names except your foreign service guy and the not-Senator-Grantham. We’ll keep it close. Vanner will lock it down as of now. Scrap the Albanian translators; we won’t need them for the rest of this.”

“So it’s tight,” Pierson said, sighing hopefully.

“It’s tight,” Mike said. “And with the Keldara, and me, it will stay that way.”

“And you’ll take the messenger duties,” Pierson said.

“And the guard duties,” Mike replied. “After we have the DVDs. I’m going to need support for that. A lot.”

“You’ll get whatever we have,” Pierson said. “Anything you ask for, trust me.”

“And then I get to be the Chooser of the Slain,” Mike said, grimacing. “Great. Oh, there’s one more thing.”

“Which is?” Carlson-Smith asked.

“When we find out what the link is to Traskel, I get to break it to.

Chapter Thirty

“Gurum, it’s good to see you again,” Mike said, looking around the gate area.

Las Vegas McCarran International Airport was, for most visitors, their first introduction to the state of Nevada. For good or ill, that first impression was of slot machines. Lots and lots of slot machines. They seemed to be stuck into every nook and cranny and most of them were in use by arriving, departing and even transferring passengers trying their luck.

Other than that, and the ads for casinos, it was much like any other airport and the Keldara had seen a few at this point. The group still gawked as they exited the walkway from the airplane.

“Vanner, sorry, you’re going to have to forego the pleasures of Sin City,” Mike said, shaking the sergeant’s hand.

“I’ll pass,” Vanner said, smiling. “Been here, done that, lost my shirt.”

“I’m not planning on gambling,” Mike said, looking around. “I’m doing enough of that as it is. I’ll be out to visit in a day or two.”

“Got it,” Vanner said, stepping back into the tubeway. “Good luck.”

“Same,” Mike said, turning back to the Keldara brewery manager. “What do you have laid on, Gurum?”

“There is a bus waiting, Kildar,” Gurum said, leading the way into the airport. “I was not sure about luggage…”

“The Keldara have everything that we’re bringing here,” Mike said, gesturing to the Keldara troopers loaded down with black luggage.

“We have the rooms laid on and the booth is set up,” Gurum burbled. “There was a pre-day but we were not prepared for that; I hope it doesn’t hurt sales—”

“Couldn’t be helped,” Mike said, feeling the effects of both jet lag and culture shock. Not so many hours ago, he was running from an Albanian hit team.

“The convention begins tomorrow,” Gurum continued. “It is only three o’clock, here. The Keldara could take the evening off and look around—”

“The Keldara are going to the hotel and going to bed,” Mike said. “With pills, if necessary. It will help reset their body clock.”

“Very well, Kildar,” Gurum said, his brow furrowing. “But I need a few for set up. There is more work than I had expected. And… I think I overestimated the trouble of setting up the booth I designed.”

“How much trouble could it be?” Mike asked.

“Much,” Gurum admitted. “I truly do need some Keldara, Kildar. Please.”

“Okay, okay,” Mike said, shaking his head. “We’ll need four of them functional tomorrow, but you can have at least ten.”

“Thank you, Kildar,” Gurum said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank you. That way we should be able to get fully set up.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask what you did to the booth design,” Mike said, shaking his head.

“It is… a very noticeable booth, Kildar,” the brewery manager admitted.

“What’s laid on for tomorrow?” Mike asked, trying to shake off fatigue. He needed to be sharp. As much as the current mission mattered to the world, getting a distributor for the Keldara would affect them for a long time. For good or ill. It was important and he had to simply compartmentalize the other mission. Among other things, they couldn’t even talk about it, here.

“We will have the booth open all day,” Gurum said. “Daria sent me a roster of the female Keldara to set up a schedule. But there is a problem.”

“And that is?” Mike asked, yawning.

“There is a local law that anyone serving alcohol must be of eighteen years or older,” Gurum pointed out.

Mike blinked for a moment and then frowned. The Keldara girls were professionals doing a tough job so it was hard for him to remember, most of the time, that they were teenagers. Most of them. Greznya was over eighteen and so were a couple of others. But most of them were sixteen or seventeen. Beyond that age, most of the Keldara women were mothers and they weren’t attached to the operational teams. He had a sudden mental image of Anisa sliding down the fast rope into the office in Club Dracul and stripping out the computer in mere seconds. The girl had just turned seventeen a month ago.

“There are only five of the girls who are eighteen or over,” Gurum pointed out. “That is enough for one or two to cover the booth all day but the convention runs for five days…”

“This is what I get for putting their real ages on their passports,” Mike said with a sigh. “And I’m not going to call DIA and ask them for a bunch of false IDs, just to sell beer. We’ll put everyone that’s of an age to work. We’ve got two more women that can fill in for that matter. If the guys have do some of the serving, fine. The rest can just be booth babes and charm the customers.”

“Very well, Kildar,” Gurum said, sighing. “I had hoped you would agree with that.”

“I’m nothing if not reasonable.” Mike smiled at the Keldara. “Now, where’s the bus?”

* * *

Mike had forgotten how much he hated trade shows.

The convention was in one of those massive, echoey convention centers that seemed to be designed as a stable for sperm whales. It was certainly big enough; just walking from one to the other was a workout. One that Mike, after the stresses of the last few days, wasn’t going to bother with. He had no interest in picking up a bag full of pens, coasters and T-shirts from beers he was never going to drink.

The International Brewery Wholesaler’s Convention had its good points, he had to admit. The Keldara “booth” was in the Beer Garden where over forty breweries, ranging from Anheuser-Busch to… well, the Keldara with their patented “Mountain Tiger Brew,” offered free samples. Mike had tried a couple of the other brews and then given up. There just wasn’t anything on earth that compared to Keldara beer.

And others seemed to agree. Since a few hours after their opening, as the word got around, there had been a continuous line for the Keldara beer. And most of the drinkers had just sort of… hung around. Part of that was the beer, but a big part of it was the Keldara girls.

The girls staffing the booth, both those serving and those just being friendly, were soaking up the attenion and flirting for all they were worth. They’d never been in a situation where men were vying for their attention and they were clearly enjoying themselves. And the distributor reps, almost entirely male, were enjoying themselves as well. The Keldara girls were spectacular and so… naif that the distributors found them too charming to resist. He wondered what most of them would think if they knew what the girls had been doing for the last few weeks. Or that the “bar backs” hefting the barrels like they were made of air could probably kill everyone in the convention in less than thirty minutes.

Gurum had done a good job on the booth as well. And he was right, it was noticeable.

It turned out that after checking shipping costs, the amount of beer they were taking would cost far less as a container shipment than it did sending it by air. The problem being that even with that amount of beer, it would only take up part of the container. There was a way to do that, called Less Than Truckload, but the cost difference wasn’t all that great.

So Gurum had looked at the problem and, with the usual Keldara ability to look outside the box, had decided to use most of the container for other “stuff.”

What the rest of the container held was mostly stone. Specifically the granite the Keldara picked from the fields every spring and used for everything from fences to house walls. It was the same granite that the brewery was being constructed from.

With the help of the ten Keldara that Mike had loaned him, Gurum had built a miniature Keldara “brew house,” complete with a display of original Keldara brewing methods, a small “fence” that channeled the convention goers into the area and a “bar” constructed of undressed granite with a wooden countertop. It was, by far and away, the most spectactular booth in the convention and Mike wondered whether others would try to top it the next year.

“Are you Mr. Jenkins?” a heavyset man asked, plopping down on the stone bench the Keldara had installed along the wall.

“Yes?” Mike said. “And you are?”

“Bob Thomas,” the man said, holding up an electronic device that looked something like a PDA.

“I’m not sure what that is,” Mike admitted. Gurum had handed him one early that morning, but Mike had parked it behind the booth.

“It’s my card,” the man said, smiling. “I guess you lost yours?”