Wombat Group Media
Action / Adventure / Thriller
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WEDNESDAY, 11 MAY
“Touch me again,” Carson growls in Ukrainian, “you lose the hand.”
The hand caresses the top of her ass. Its thumb taps the bottom edge of the ballistic vest beneath her slate-blue, long-sleeved polo.
Stepaniak chuckles. After Carson turns to glare—not before—he peels his left hand off her and holds it up, palm out. A playful smile splits his close-cropped black beard. “Dear Carson,” he purrs. “Don’t be that way. You used to like having me touch you, I remember.”
“Used to like lots of things that’re bad for me.”
She uses the window reflection to pat the hood-head out of her hair, then stalks away with two Zero Halliburton aluminum attachés—eight kilos of dead weight at the end of each arm—to the middle of the gravel road carving a slot between two long, low concrete-block buildings. It’s good to be outside and on her hind legs again after being strapped into the Range Rover’s back seat for over four hours with a black canvas sack over her head. Bad road, checkpoint, bad road: rinse and repeat.
The familiar noise of squabbling chickens and the familiar smell of chicken shit leaks out the narrow windows sheltered under the eaves of the corrugated metal roofs. The first thing she’d ever killed was a chicken. Her mom had tried, but she was drunk, as usual, and botched it. Carson had to finish the job. She was nine? Ten? She’d cried over the dead bird she’d helped feed and raise, the next-to-last time she remembers crying.
She turns a slow 360. Ten hostiles—no, eleven, one on overwatch on the north coop’s roof—split into two groups: one by the olive-drab cargo truck ahead of the two Range Rovers, the other arced around the back end of the matte-black Toyota technical behind the SUVs. Smoking, chatting. Three different camouflage patterns on their utilities, at least two different types of boots, four types of headgear, black or olive balaclavas. Mostly AK-74s or AK-105s.
And she’s not armed. She’d tangled with Stepaniak when he told her to leave her sidearm at the Volnovakha hotel this morning, but he won. He’d said, “Our hosts get nervous when people they don’t know bring weapons to a meeting.” He gave her his slickest smile. “Don’t worry, dear Carson. I’ll protect you.”
Fuck that. That’s when she ducked into the toilet and stashed her collapsible steel baton in her body armor. She hates bringing a club to a firefight, but it’s the best she can do today.
Stepaniak’s muscle—Stas and Vadim—stand smoking by the second Range Rover. Vadim has a slung Ksyukha; Stas a suppressed Vityaz-SN submachinegun. Hostiles? Hard to tell. Vadim leers at her knees. Not because he can see them (they’re covered with black denim), but because the handles on the Halliburtons are there.
The other militia troops stare at her. Yes, she’s the only woman there, but really? They’re way hard up if they’re checking me out. Or is it the luggage? Do they know, too?
She spins toward the rattle of nearby gravel. It’s Heitmann, crabbing toward her with two large black portfolios slapping his calves. He’d been in the second Range Rover with Stas and Vadim. He’s one reason she’s here (the cases being the other). “Fraulein Carson?”
Heitmann’s a curator for a German museum and looks the part: fine-boned face, rimless glasses, careful graying middle-brown hair everywhere except on top. A short, over-neat beard and mustache compensate. “Do you know where we are?”
He shakes his head. “No, I am sorry. In the negotiations, the solicitor never told us where the militia held our artworks.” His English carries a soft German accent— “v” instead of “w,” hard esses—and he speaks carefully, like the words might break. He glances around like a bird looking for cats. “We can hope this is the place.”
Yeah. Hope. “We’re probably still in Donetsk Oblast. Locals call it the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ or ‘DNR.’ Can’t tell how deep we’re in, though.” Stepaniak took both their phones, so there’s no way to look it up. For all she knows, they’re in Russia now. It’s only fifty straight-line klicks to the nearest border from where they’d crossed the contact line. But as shaky as Heitmann looks, he doesn’t need to hear that.
“We drove so long.” Heitmann seems to be developing a bad-car-crash fascination with the militia troops by the cargo truck. “Who are these people?”
“What do they rebel against?”
Carson cocks an eyebrow at him. “Figured you’d know all about this.”
He shrugs lightly. “Our news is full of Syrians, for obvious reasons.”
The “obvious reasons” being the million refugees who crashed into Germany last year. “Well…short version is, late 2013, the president of Ukraine killed an agreement with the EU. Most of the country wanted it.” Good thing she read the agency backgrounder. “Yanukovych—the president—was from here, the Donbass. Basically a crook and a Russian stooge. Hear about the Maidan?”
Heitmann nods. “Yes, I think. The big protests in Kyiv?”
“Right. Basically a revolution. Protesters kicked out Yanukovych. That pissed off the Russians—the ones living here and the ones in Moscow. He was their boy. Putin used the Russian Army on the down-low to ‘help’ the locals take over Crimea. Then he started a civil war here. That was two springs ago.” She thumbs toward the militia troops. “They’re supposed to be fighting it. Guess the Russian Army’s doing most of the fighting now.”
“I see.” He edges closer. “Your man”—he glances toward Stepaniak—“is he…reliable?”
Is he? Carson doesn’t need to look at him to see him, but she does anyway. Stepaniak had liked making an impression when they first met four years ago, and apparently nothing but colors have changed. Back then he wore all black; now it’s all blue—the leather car coat, the dress shirt open at his throat, the sharply creased slacks. His black hair should have some gray by now, but doesn’t. Dye, not good genes.
“He’s agency lead here. They vouch for him.” I won’t.
A shout from behind her: “Pora!”
It comes from a third low building, this one just east of the southern chicken coop and about a third as long. Three rusty roll-up metal doors. The Kapitán stands in the open middle doorway in his pristine digitized green camo utilities —the latest Russian pattern—fists on hips, like recess is over and the kiddies need to come back to class.
The Kapitán rode in the SUV with Carson and Stepaniak. She doesn’t know who he is, but guesses this is his ‘hood; he wears the same patch on his left shoulder (a blue-and-black shield with a rising yellow sun) as the other troops. Every time they stopped at a checkpoint, his was the only voice she could hear clearly.
She hefts the Halliburtons and jerks her head toward the open door. “You heard the man.” Then she marches off, the gravel crunching under her boots.
She checks her watch: 1:52 p.m. All goes well, they’re out by 2:30 and back to Volnovakha—on the Ukraine side of the line—by six. She wants this to go well, meaning done. Babysitting isn’t her favorite chore. Neither is being a bagman.
Carson stops at the open roll-up to let her eyes adjust. What she sees looks like vehicle maintenance: three service bays, workbenches, tools, floor jacks, a stack of snow tires in the southwest corner, two 200kg barrels against the east wall. Other than the roll-up doors, a standard door set into the west wall to her right is the only other way out.
Something about the setup tweaks her gut. A lot of people are filing into a not-large space. Most are heavily armed. If shit goes south…
She jerks away from a hard grip on her shoulder, then spins to find Stepaniak’s face just inches from hers. She growls, “What’d I just tell you?”
Stepaniak hisses in English, “Make sure nemyets does his job.” Nemyets is Russian for a German. He brushes past her to catch up with the Kapitán.
By the time the roll-up door slams down and the fluorescent strip lights blink on, Carson counts ten people with her in the center bay: Heitmann, Stepaniak, the Kapitán, Vadim, five militia troops, and a dark, semi-handsome man in a shiny charcoal pinstripe suit and no tie.
They gather around an old wooden trestle table holding two side-by-side rectangles, each maybe half a meter by two-thirds, wrapped in midnight-green plastic. Heitmann sucks in a sharp breath when he sees them.
Carson lays the Halliburtons on the table next to the paintings, handle side toward her. Everybody in the room starts to drool. It’s like watching a pack of coyotes ogle a rabbit.
Heitmann fidgets next to her at the table, breathing fast. His eyes skate from one assault rifle to the next. He whispers, “So many guns.”
Carson has two jobs here. One is to carry and guard the attachés; the other is to keep Heitmann breathing regularly and focused on his job. That second part’s harder.
She leans her lips toward his ear. “Relax. Nobody’s drunk yet.” That’s always a good sign for her. The startled look Heitmann gives her says it’s not working for him.
Stepaniak and the Kapitán take places on the other side of the table from Carson, their backs to the bay doors. The suit frowns at the end of the table to her right. Four militia troops fan out behind her; the fifth stands beside the center roll-up door. They’re looking both more alert and more nervous now. Vadim hovers in the bay to Carson’s left, watching everybody else.
Six hostiles still outside, plus Stas. Keeping others out…or us in?
“Carson, nemyets, friends. Please.” Stepaniak’s English lugs a heavy accent, but his cadence sounds like a TV chat-show host. He points at Heitmann, then toward the two plastic-wrapped rectangles. “Look at pictures. They are right? Say yes.”
Heitmann leans the portfolios against the nearest table leg and fumbles with the rectangle farthest to the left. He’d work faster if his hands didn’t shake so much.
The adrenaline rush starts to dilate time. Carson’s rational mind tells her she’s not scared, just careful. Her rational mind isn’t usually the one that keeps her alive, though.
She flashes to the first time she walked into a room full of shady men with weapons. She was a patrol cop in one of Toronto’s crappier neighborhoods, fresh off her probation, less than a month working solo shifts. A prowler call took her to a supposedly empty storefront that was full of biker types doing a bootleg cigarette deal. Her supposed brothers in blue slow-rolled their response to her backup call—girls still weren’t supposed to be street cops—so she had to face down seven hardened felons carrying long weapons and submachine guns with only her Glock, buckets of adrenaline, and a big dose of attitude. It wasn’t until backup finally showed and she was safe that she realized she’d pissed herself. Thank God for navy-blue trousers.
The green plastic—a trash bag—rustles to the floor. The painting’s gaudy, with messed-up perspective and figures that look like dolls. An angel with a blond perm and red-and-gold wings blesses a praying woman in a blue gown while a glowing pigeon hovers over them both.
Carson whispers to Heitmann, “Museum’s paying money for this?”
He shoots her a look usually used on rude children and crazy homeless people. “It is an Annunciation,” he whispers. “By Lucas Cranach the Elder, in 1515. Please, have respect.”
Whatever. Carson isn’t an art expert.
Heitmann pulls a white three-ring binder from a portfolio. It’s full of pictures of the painting. He flips to a page, then peers through an old-school magnifying glass at the real thing and compares it to the photo.
Someone grumbles in Russian, “What does he do?”
It takes Carson a few moments to narrow down the voice. It’s the first time she’s heard the suit speak. His Russian’s coated with a thick accent she can’t place. He’s dark with almond eyes. From one of the Stans? The Caucusus?
Stepaniak says, “He’s checking that it’s real.”
The suit snarls, “Of course is real. What do you say?”
“Nothing, Ruslan, nothing.” Stepaniak’s in calming-the-mad-dog mode. “The museum wants to make sure, that’s all. It’s a condition.”
“They say I cheat? I not cheat. I am honest man.”
The Kapitán mutters, “You’re a fucking brodyaga.” A street-corner black-market dealer. Not a compliment.
Ruslan stabs a finger at the Kapitán. He booms, “I am fucking brodyaga? You pay fucking brodyaga. What are you?”
Shit. Now the dick-waving starts.
The Kapitán growls, “Look, cherniy—”
Stepaniak darts between the men, holding up a hand to each. “Friends, friends, please. All is good, yes?” He smiles at the Kapitán. “You get your money…” Then at Ruslan. “…you get your money…” Then both. “…everyone gets what they want, yes? No need to fight, yes?”
Carson checks on Heitmann while the trash talk spirals toward the roof. The German’s frozen at the table, his magnifying glass vibrating in midair. She hisses, “You done?” He shakes his head. “Get done before this comes apart. Move.”
Ruslan’s slipped into whatever his native language is. It’s not hard to tell what he’s shouting. The arm he stretches toward the Kapitán over Stepaniak’s shoulder says a lot. She’s already heard at least two militia troops running their rifles’ bolts. Carson hopes Stepaniak spotted the pistol in Ruslan’s waistband—not because she cares much about Stepaniak, but because if it comes out to play, the militamen will go kinetic on everybody.
Heitmann’s abandoned the first painting and is stripping the bag off the second one. Sweat runs down his forehead. He’s breathing like he just finished running up a cliff.
Carson switches focus to the fight. A militia troop has Ruslan’s arms pinned. Stepaniak’s huddled with the Kapitán, who’s holding the pistol he’d had in his shoulder holster. Good news: it’s still aimed at the floor…for now. Carson really, really misses her Glock.
The yelling and rustling suddenly switches off. Everybody—everybody—stares at the table. What the…?
It’s an icon, old enough that the paint’s cracked and faded and the faces have turned dark. It looks like the same idea as the other painting, but totally different. The angel and woman are stretched, almost boneless. The flat, fake buildings behind them are a stage set, not a place.
The Kapitán crosses himself the Orthodox way, right shoulder before left. A couple other militiamen do the same. Even the suit shuts up for a minute. Someone behind Carson murmurs what sounds like a prayer.
Heitmann looks behind him, then all around, then dives into comparing the icon to the pictures in the binder. Carson whispers, “This famous or something?”
“The artist is. This came from Dionisy’s studio. He and Andrei Rublev founded the Moscow School, the style of icon you see here.”
None of those names mean a thing to her. “Shouldn’t there be more gold?”
“This is very early. They used not so much gilding then.” Only the halos shine in the strip lights. “The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were very difficult for the Church.”
Okay. She checks the room’s temperature. The Kapitán’s all folded arms and stormy face. His eyes toggle between the icon and Ruslan, who’s pacing a small circle at the end of the table like a caged hyena waiting to kill something. The militia troops keep shuffling their feet and fingering their weapons’ trigger guards.
Stepaniak’s back at the table. When his eyes aren’t glued to the attachés, they follow every twitch the German makes. He’s watching her, too. He smiles. “Is like old times, yes?” he says in English.
Carson grumbles, “Keep telling yourself that.”
Heitmann stands straight, shuts the binder, then faces Stepaniak. “I am satisfied these works are the pieces stolen from our museum.”
Stepaniak puts on a big grin. “Ah, nemyets. Very good, you please me.” He shifts to Russian. “Dear Carson, please show the men”—he sweeps his hand around the room—“the gift you brought them.”
Everybody’s watching her now. “I need Heitmann’s phone.”
“The combo’s on it.” A security measure. The museum gave her the cases locked.
Stepaniak grumbles, then dips his hand into his car coat’s left pocket and brings out a newish Galaxy S7. He hands it to her; she passes it to Heitmann. He opens it with his thumbprint, fiddles with the screen, then turns it so she can see. In Notes: “829.”
She draws a deep breath. Once she does this, her value to these men goes to zero. She turns both cases on end and twiddles both locks to the key code. Lays them down, pops the locks, swivels the cases so they face Stepaniak and the Kapitán. “Go ahead.”
Stepaniak lifts the lids on both attachés. His smile turns sharkish. The Kapitán’s jaw sags. Ruslan steps around, peeks, palms his mouth.
They’re looking at a hundred straps of used €200 notes with non-sequential serial numbers. Ten thousand yellow-faced bills. Two million euros in untraceable cash.
Carson considered taking it herself. That’s why the German had the combo.
Stepaniak grabs a random strap. He riffles the hundred banknotes with his thumb, then tosses the bundle into the case. He steps back two paces.
“Dear Carson.” His grin practically glows. “Very good. You please me.”
He cross-draws a pistol from under his car coat.
He shoots Carson.