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Chapter Ten

"At a certain level, there is no such thing as a storefront; the people it pays to shop with simply do not advertise."

Mrs. John J. Weston was a spare woman in her late fifties, much shorter than Anastasia. She seemed to never hurry, but made her way through the crowds like a lioness parting gazelles. People simply, instinctually, stepped out of her way.

Anastasia was simultaneously trying to take in the city, trying not to get overwhelmed and simply absorb Amelia Weston. She hoped that by the time she was a hundred she might have half the grace and just amazing aura the woman exuded.

Mrs. Weston was definitely not "Amelia." The First Lady, despite the fact that they were clearly friends, referred to only as "Mrs. Weston." That was fine by Anastasia; having to call the wife of the President of the United States "Amanda" had nearly killed her. She was much more comfortable with Mrs. Weston. She was not going to think of telling her, but Mrs. Weston reminded her, very much, of the first manager of Otryad's hareem she had served under, Salah. But Salah with a cosmopolitan background.

Samarkand? That had been a lovely stationing. Mrs. Weston named shops that Anastasia knew, and a list of shopkeepers, by name, that she only vaguely recalled. Details of meals and meetings in a calm, unhurried voice.

Tbilisi? Only for a short time when the General, capital letters, was an envoy. Lieutenant Colonel, then. Still Soviet, of course. Pleasant town but...gray. She understood from friends who wrote her that it was much more gay now.

No name dropping, no one upping, no "well, when the General was running arms negotiations for the SALT II Treaty..." No, all the mentions were small things to put Anastasia at her ease, to make her feel as if she had found a friend, a confidante. A highly formal one but a friend nonetheless.

In a hundred years...maybe.

"You have to know where to go," Mrs. Weston said, nodding at the bellman of what looked very much like a sprawling hotel.

"And here is where to go?" Anastasia asked. "This is a hotel, yes, Mrs. Weston?"

"It is indeed," Mrs. Weston said. "The Watergate of infamy and legend. But it has some places worth visiting as well. David has his hair cut here. All Good Republicans do."

"I am unfamiliar," Anastasia said. "I apologize."

"Oh, water under the gate, my dear," Mrs. Weston replied. "But quite famous."

The lady made her way to a back elevator, nodding to various people who obviously knew her and chose the fourteenth floor.

"It helps," she said, "if you think of it as a very large souque. I have to make the assumption, you will forgive me, based on the First Lady's request, that you have not done significant travel in cities."

"I have not, Mrs. Weston," Anastasia admitted. "I think you have seen more of Samarkand than I have. And Tbilisi, for that matter. I have not even been in the souque very much. Only twice that I recall."

"Hmm, hmm."

Anastasia wasn't sure exactly what "Hmm, hmm" meant but she suspected that a very sharp and cosmopolitan mind was putting some clues together.

They exited the elevator and turned down the corridor, stopping at a door that looked very much as if it went to a hotel room or possibly suite. It had a number but below that was a discrete brass plaque that simply said: G. Groome, Clothier.

Mrs. Weston didn't bother to knock. She just opened the door and swept in.

"George," she said to a gray-haired black gentleman. He was seated on a chair looking at a ledger, wearing a striped silk shirt and exquisite wool trousers held up by bracers. "It's been simply ages."

The room looked a good bit like a suite, albeit the living room, and was tastefully and expensively decorated. Anastasia was taking more notes.

"Mrs. Weston," the man said, smiling and revealing very white, very straight, teeth. "As I live and breathe."

"George, I have a bit of a problem," Mrs. Weston said, pulling Anastasia forward. "This is Miss Rakovich from Georgia, note that's the country, George, not the state. Her friend, a Mr. Ford, is visiting the House. Only in town for a day. Old friend of David's or something. No decent shops in Tbilisi as you know and his wardrobe's gotten quite threadbare. Hawaiian shirts if you can believe! The staff is simply clucking."

"I understand," George said, throwing a wink to Anastasia.

"So Miss Rakovich and I would like a spot of tea," Mrs. Weston said, walking to the divan, hand on Anastasia's arm. "And perhaps you could show us what London and Paris are messing up this year?"

* * *

Mike arrived back at the White House in a taxi. He paid the driver then went up to the side gate. This time he was careful to have the right passport ready.

"Mr. Ford," the uniformed officer said, nodding.

"I've got a bit of a problem," Mike said, taking back the passport. "I can't recall exactly how to get to my room, I don't know where my girlfriend has gotten to—the last time I saw her she was about to get grilled by the First Lady—and I need a shield room with a computer that can run a PDF file."

"Why don't I call an escort?" the officer said, trying not to grin. "And Miss Rakovich left about an hour ago in the company of Mrs. Amelia Weston, wife of General Weston, the MDW commander. I believe they were going shopping."

"Why am I not surprised?"

* * *

Mike slid the CD into the computer and opened the single PDF file. It contained photos of the seven known or suspected players on the operation as well as an estimate of opposition forces.

The Chechens had about three hundred fighters in the area, organized in another "battalion" like the one the Keldara had wiped out a few months back. The leader was Commander Bukara, another of the organizers of the Breslan attack as well as others on the Russian heartland. The Russians seriously wanted his ass but had never been able to localize him. It was probable that he'd be at the rendezvous. If Mike could bring back his head the Russians would be very happy.

Person of interest two was Mohammed Al-Kariya. He was a money man for Al Qaeda with fingers in various sources of supply. He was technically "white" although he was on the State Department list of terrorism supporters. Nobody had ever pinned anything on him, though, and the Europeans let him come and go. His "white" identity was as an international banker and fundraiser for "Muslim Charities."

Mohammed had required Muslims to support the poor and thus it was the duty of good Muslims to donate to charities. A large number of Muslim "charities" however were funding channels for international terrorism. The money traveled mostly through a closed banking system among Muslim groups that was surprisingly hard to crack. But plenty of it got to Al Qaeda and similar groups. And Al-Kariya was one of the main men handling it. If the Chechens wanted that much money, he was going to be around keeping an eye on it.

Al-Kariya was, to say the least, heavy-set. He wasn't going to be running very fast.

Then there was Arensky. The data on him was surprisingly sparse. He'd gotten a Ph. D. from Moscow University back in the Soviet days and then disappeared into the Soviet and then Russian "Advanced Research Agency." ARA was something like America's DARPA, a clearing house for various high tech research projects. What bothered Mike was that as far as he knew, ARA didn't play with nukes. That was under an entirely separate agency and the two rarely interacted. And although it said that Arensky had gotten a Ph.D. the document didn't say in what.

Arensky had a daughter, Marina, who had apparently disappeared with him. Twenty-two, blonde, green eyes. Pretty thing. But not a security issue on the op.

Arensky was probably going to have security with him. The number one probable provider was Sergei Rudenko. Former Spetznaz colonel, fifty-three and started under the Soviets. Described as "tall and broad" with gray shot black hair. The photo was from his official dossier and Mike mentally added "seriously cold eyes." Russian mobster but not a member of any particular group, known hitter. He had a group of former Spetznaz that he picked and chose from for missions. There would be at least fifteen to twenty of them. Mikhail had been one of his usual guys which was what made the first connection.

Another "person of interest" was one Kurt Schwenke. Often worked as Rudenko's second-in-command. Former East German Stasi specializing in "wet work." Got into the game late but made something of a name for himself in his brief period before the fall of East Germany. Forty-seven. There was a photo but it was old and had the notation that Schwenke was "an expert in disguise and deception." The list of kills, culled from the Stasi archives found after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was impressive as was the variety of techniques from pistol to sniper to small explosives. Wanted by Germany for "crimes against humanity" and by just about every government in Europe for that matter; he was tied to most of the former Western European communist terrorist groups. He'd been around. Like Mike himself, he was an expert at infiltration and silent kill.

The Al Qaeda guys would have their own security and then there was the Chechen "battalion." The Keldara had tangled with them once, but it was from prepared defenses. Unless he got brilliant, that wasn't going to happen this time. The correlation of forces was adverse.

If he had full support, say a B-52 loaded with JDAMs or a Specter gunship, this would be dead simple. But using just the Keldara it was going to be tough.

Not as tough, however, as simply getting into the Pansiki. The last Georgian control post stopped nearly sixty miles from the site of the rendezvous. And it wasn't a straight sixty miles; the area was nearly vertical Alpine mountains. The Chechens had patrols and logistics groups moving all through the area so even flying in would be tough. The closest they could get was maybe thirty miles from the rendezvous. Then they'd have to hump in, hit the site and hump back out. It was hard enough to carry food for a thirty mile hump through that sort of terrain: carrying ammo, weapons and commo was going to be a stone bitch.

Where'd they put those mules from the last Chechen supply-train they'd hit?

If they brought mules they'd raise their profile significantly. However, they could probably mask as a Chechen train. That had an upside and a downside. There were Spetznaz working the other side of the border, covertly. They were likely to get hit by "their" team. And the Chechens had control teams on the routes in the area.

Okay, he knew a group that had the helos to get them into the area. And they could handle the mules; the Keldara weren't that far from their farmer roots. The last thing they didn't have was good intel on the area around the rendezvous. But he knew how to get that, too. It would mean a preliminary covert insertion and some way to set up short range commo. But that could all be arranged. Come to think of it, Vanner was airborne qualled.

Mike started to grin evilly.

* * *

"Did you have a good day, Stasia?"

The dinner was the definition of "intimate." The room was, like most of the White House, small, tucked away in a corner of the East Wing. The only diners were Mike, who had seen his "assistant" for about three minutes since he'd left, Anastasia, the President and the First Lady.

Mike was still having a hard time figuring out which fork to use.

"Both good and interesting," Anastasia said, cutting a bit of her salad and taking a small bite. "Mostly because of Mrs. Weston."

"Didn't I tell you Amelia was a treasure," the First Lady said.

"A force of nature," the President added. "There don't seem to be many like her, anymore, present company excluded."

"I must exclude myself, Mr. President," Anastasia replied. "I thought many times, today, that if I live to be a hundred I might come close to being Mrs. Weston."

"I think I need to meet this lady," Mike said, smiling.

"You'd probably get along well," the President said. "She's far more steely than she generally lets on."

"You should hear her talk about the first attack on the Embassy in Mogadishu," the First Lady said. "The Embassy Marines beat it off, with some help from the Embassy staff and...others. The General being then a military attaché he was in the thick of it."

"And according to General Schnorer, so was Amelia," the President added. "On the roof with a sniper rifle taken from a wounded Marine. I understand your meetings went well, Mike."

"Yes, sir," Mike said. "Well enough."

"All the issues resolved?" the president asked.

"More like in the process of being identified," Mike admitted. "But it's doable. Marginally."

"If it was easy, we wouldn't be talking," President Cliff noted, smiling.

"The difficult we do immediately," Mike responded. "The impossible takes a little longer."

"Take all the time you need," the President said. "As long as you make the train."

* * *

Mike shook the hand of the pilot then stepped out of the Blackhawk. Petro, son of the houseman Uncle Latif, was already there, grabbing bags from the crew-chief. Of course, with what Anastasia had bought the kid couldn't carry it in one load.

"Lemme get that," Mike said, hefting both of his bags as well as one of Anastasia's and the big case he'd bought to carry her purchases. And apparently most of them were going to be shipped. Shit. He was seriously getting heavy in the clothes department.

"I told you not to let her go shopping," Adams said, grabbing bags as well. "What's up?"

"Command room," Mike said. "Combat staff. Daria. Thirty minutes."

"Got it," Adams replied.

* * *

"We got ourselves one colossal fuck-up in the making," Mike said, sighing.

Adams, Vanner, Nielson and a somewhat nervous Daria were gathered around the staff table all of them wondering what was up.

"Methinks I hear distant musketry," Nielson replied.

"Not so distant," Mike said, rubbing his eyes. "The Russians, the mob in this case, are selling nukes again. And this time to the Chechens."

"Get out," Vanner said. "Why in the hell would the Russians sell the Chechens nukes?"

"Money?" Mike said. "Sixty mil in this case. We recover them, we get twenty. There are supposed to be three. I hope even NSA can count that high. It's not something you want to diddle with. A nuke here, a nuke there... The problem is time and location. We know the time but it's just a couple of weeks away. And we've got minimal intel. I'm planning on sending Katya in to get some more, but that has problems, too. And getting there... it's right in the middle of the Pansiki."

"Gods," Adams said, rubbing his eyes. "We could walk there in a couple of days. Drive there... about the same time as getting to Tbilisi. That is..."

"If there weren't a few thousand Chechens in our way," Mike said. "We can't use any of the regular passes or trails. They're all watched."

"High," Nielson said. "Way high up. Don't take the low passes. Hell, in some cases don't take passes at all, go right across the shoulders of the mountains. Serious alpine. Winter's already started up there. It's close here. It's gonna be a bitch."

"More or less my thinking," Mike said. "Daria, darling?"

"Yes, Kildar?"

"Order climbing gear from Arctic Outfitters in Alaska," Mike said, sliding over the list he'd made up on the way back. "We're going to need everything from soup to nuts. Clothing, crampons, ice axes, the lot. Express ship. Make sure they know we need it now and I don't care how much it costs. Charter a plane if you have to."

"Yes, Kildar," she said, making a note on the list. "I'll match this to the Keldara teams. But you've got two sets of female gear. Who?"

"That's up to Vanner," Mike said, turning to the intel specialist. "Katya's going to need commo. Her implants are short ranged. Which means sending in a commo team in advance."

"Well, it's the same problem, isn't it," Vanner pointed out. "Getting there. I mean, the girls are strong and I think they could make the walk. But they're going to need the gear, first. Getting there ahead of Katya, or even ahead of the teams to pick up intel, that's going to be tough."

"Sure would, if they were walking," Mike said. "I seem to recall you mentioning you were airborne qualified. Ever done any freefall?"

"Kildar...?" Vanner said, warily.

"See, HALO makes so much more sense," Mike replied, grinning.

"Oh, you have got to be out of your mind," Vanner said, his eyes wide.

"I like it," Adams said with an evil grin.

"Daria, another list," Mike said with just as evil a grin. "Five sets of high altitude jump gear. Parachutes. Freefall trainer." He slid over another sheet of paper and grinned, again. "I've actually got both lists on files. I'll get them to you."

"Good news," Adams added. "He's a fully trained HALO instructor. Got thousands of jumps. Jumpin' fool."

"Great," Vanner said. "You go."

"You know why I can't," Mike replied. "Two of your best commo girls, at least unmarried ones. I'll assign a couple of shooters for security. And then we start training. Piece of cake. All you have to do is fall. You can fall, right?"

"All the way to the ground," Vanner said with a sigh.

"It's fun," Adams said. "You'll love it. Oh, prebreathing sucks and I imagine that the DZ is probably going to be a little small. Then there's all the problems of where, exactly, ground level is and winds in mountains and... Actually, it's going to suck. Glad it's you and not me."

"We gonna try to use any special weapons or techniques on this?" Vanner asked, ignoring the Master Chief. "With the support we're getting we could probably get anything from the US government."

"I don't think so," Mike said after a moment's thought. "Trying to integrate special weapons at this point would really set us back. Let's go with conventional approach. But, out of interest, what were you talking about?"

"There are some interesting sound weapons that are being developed," Nielson said. "And the new thermobaric system the Marines are using."

"Too much overkill on that for this mission," Adams said. "Those things are used for flattening houses."

"Be useful for interdiction," Mike said. "But it takes coordination from what I've read. You have to penetrate the wall of the structure with a standard rocket round and then put the thermobaric through the hole. That is if you don't have a window as a target."

"How fast can we get some?" Adams asked. "I can set a few of the Keldara to training on them. Run everybody through, but Shota's shown a real knack for the Carl. Which is good given how big it is."

"I'll check into it," Nielson said, making another note.

"First thing is to call all the troops in," Mike said.

"Already done," Nielson said. "It will take about another day for Team Padrek to get back to pickup points."

"Get with the Georgian military," Mike said. "I'd rather that they not get back worn out from humping. See if you can get helicopter support to pick them all up."

"Will do," Nielson said, making a note.

"Call General Umarov," Mike said, referring to the Georgian military chief of staff. "I don't want any petty bullshit getting in the way. He should be up on this, if he's not, wake him up."

"Will do," Nielson said.

"Vanner, we need to get the insertion of Katya as a high priority. Her primary mission is similar to Albania; find Marina, localize her for extraction and assist in assuring her safety during extraction."

"Will do," Vanner said. "You're seriously planning on inserting me?"

"I'll even let you have a weapon," Mike said, grinning. "Set up the insertion on Katya as soon as we get the data dump from Chechnik and you run through it."

"Will do," Vanner said. "Does Katya know she's being inserted?"

"That's my next meeting," Mike admitted, grimacing.

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