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Night was falling and the snow getting thicker as the Mercedes skidded into the mountains, its traction control system constantly engaging to keep it on the roughly paved road.

Mike Harmon quietly cursed himself as he considered what to do. He'd made some stupid decisions in his life, more than one of which had been nearly fatal, but dying in the Caucasus Mountains in a blizzard was looking more and more likely. It would be a stupid and ignominious way to go out, all things considered.

Mike was a former SEAL who had, after leaving the teams, planned a quiet life. He'd been a student at the University of Georgia, not particularly happy but managing it, when he'd discovered a terrorist operation going on under his very nose. A series of choices had led him to a secret base in Syria where kidnapped coeds were being tortured and raped on camera to force the American government to withdraw from the Middle East. He'd been instrumental in breaking up the operation, freeing the girls and then holding the position until relieved by a SEAL team, after which airborne rescue forces captured the facility and extracted the girls. In the process he had been so badly shot up he nearly died, but he held his ground right up until passing out from blood loss.

He'd been paid a rather hefty reward for the operation and then wandered down to the Florida Keys to just...chill. With thirty mil in numbered accounts, a college degree suddenly seemed less necessary. Instead of a vacation, while enjoying himself in the Bahamas with a couple of lovely young ladies he'd been asked to capture a nuke that more terrorists were smuggling through that country. Again, he'd succeeded, at least to the extent of preventing the terrorists from getting any further even if the nuke had been detonated in place. And, again, he'd nearly died from the wounds he suffered.

The Keys clearly being too hot for comfort, he'd wandered through Europe until in a whorehouse in Siberia he'd picked up the scent of another nuke. He'd followed it back through Europe, via the white-slave markets in Bosnia, and found it planted at Notre Dame, waiting for a papal mass. When the timer had gotten down to less than a minute and the French EOD unit was sure they'd never stop it in time he'd taken a fifty-fifty chance and sent a code to the bomb that would either temporarily disarm it or detonate it. He'd been lucky: Paris was still there. However, the French government was less than thrilled by his taking the choice in his own hands and declared him, or at least his cover identity, persona non grata.

This left him back in Russia, not sure what to do with himself and with every Islamic terrorist on the face of the earth pissed at this unknown who had broken up three major ops. Russia's winter was coming on, nothing to look forward to, and he decided to head south. Georgia had always interested him as a country and, just looking for somewhere to lay low, he'd headed that way.

Georgia, called the Switzerland of the Caucasus, was a mountainous country bordered by Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Black Sea. White people were called "Caucasians" because it was believed by some anthropologists that they had originated in these very mountains. A deep background study of world languages had indicated that the original "Caucasian" proto-language had about six different words for rivers and more than a dozen for mountains, which made sense given what he'd been driving through. The place looked a good bit like Vermont, but with higher mountains. It was renowned for its ski slopes and sudden avalanches.

The religion of the region was mostly Eastern Orthodox. Despite its Christian basis, the country had numerous security problems: Chechen Islamic terrorists that used its mountains as safe haven from their ongoing war with the Russians, a separatist movement in Ossetia, and internal stresses that dated back to the Soviet era. On the other hand, it was unlikely that anyone would notice just another wandering American tourist, much less make a connection between that tourist and the unknown American operative who had stopped three terrorist operations butt cold. And Mike had enjoyed skiing when he was trained in it by the SEALs. So to Georgia he hied himself, pleasantly contemplating a winter of hanging out in ski resorts and picking up ski bunnies.

Instead he'd found himself on this back road, totally lost, low on gas and in the early stages of a blizzard. He had no idea where he'd gone astray and the Fodor's map was next to useless without some road signs, which were notoriously rare in areas like this.

The Mercedes skidded through another saddle in the apparently endless mountains and, through the blowing snow, he saw a sharp right turn coming up. He braked carefully, following the road through a series of downward S turns until it, miraculously, flattened out. To his left he could see what might be the edges of fields while to his right was a steep slope. He consoled himself that any road led to a town eventually and kept on, driving carefully so he wouldn't be spun off the road into oblivion.

His lights suddenly illuminated a human figure in the middle of the road and he hit the brakes, hard, skidding to a stop, nearly sideways and only after a hard fight to keep the car from spinning out entirely. He had skidded right and the car was pointed directly at the small figure with a bundle of firewood over...her, by the clothes, back.

Mike put the Mercedes in park and stepped out, waving and smiling in his most friendly manner.

"Excuse me," he said in Russian. "Do you know where there's a town?"

The figure was covered in a heavy coat and a scarf and the reply, whatever it was, was whipped away by the blowing wind. The woman was bent nearly double by the bundle of sticks and Mike wanted to help her with it but he was pretty sure she'd take any approach negatively. The area was renowned for girls being stolen into prostitution and sexual slavery and there was no way for Mike to convince her he was just a lost tourist. Among other things, he didn't speak Georgian. Many of the locals spoke Russian, however, so he tried that again, stepping into the light so she could get a better look at him.

"Lost I am," Mike said, struggling for the Russian. He'd never studied the language; what he knew had been mostly picked up in brothels and bars. "A town? Petrol?"

The figure let go of the wood for a moment and pointed up the road, yelling something over the wind. It sounded like the word for six in Russian. Maybe six kilometers.

"Six kilometers?" Mike asked. "Thank you." He paused for a moment and then gestured at the car. "You need ride?" He made a motion for the firewood on her back and putting it in the trunk.

The woman backed up at first and then looked around at what was now, without question, a blizzard. She clearly was struggling with the fear of getting in a car with a stranger versus that of freezing to death. Finally she shrugged and hobbled forward.

Mike took the weight of the wood, which was at least eighty pounds, and popped open the trunk, dropping the large bundle in it. The woman was short and the wood must have weighed very close to her body-weight. Once he was in the Mercedes again he unlocked the far door and turned up the heater.

The woman got in and nodded at him.

"Spasebo," she said in a very small voice, sticking her mittened hands under her armpits and then removing one to point up the road. She had left on her scarf so Mike couldn't get a look at her face, but the eyes over the scarf were just lovely, a blue so dark and yet bright that they seemed to glow.

Mike followed her gestures carefully, including the ones to slow down as they came to curves. She clearly knew the road well. Fortunately, it was more or less level and only curved back and forth mildly. Mike couldn't get a look beyond about ten meters but it seemed as if this must be one of those wide valleys that were sometimes found in mountains. He'd heard somewhere that they were from glaciers, but he didn't know more than that about them.

The woman was clearly trying to pick out landmarks and suddenly made slowing motions, then pointed to the left, down a steep bank. There was a narrow road there, but it was a sharp descent. Mike considered it for a moment, then lined up the Mercedes and skied down the hill more than drove, ending up in a slight fishtail at the bottom. He lined out again, though, and followed the woman's directions through the snow to a house that was up another slight slope. He realized as he did that it was a good thing he'd happened on her; they'd driven nearly two kilometers and it was unlikely she would have made it home alive.

The house was long and low, made of dressed stone, with a roof that looked to be slate. There were very few windows and those small, with shutters, which were closed. From behind the shutters, though, light glowed. As Mike pulled into the yard in front of the structure a pack of dogs burst into a chorus of barks and surrounded the car.

The woman got out, yelling at the dogs, as the front door of the house opened. A man stepped out into the blizzard, shouting at the woman in turn. The woman replied at length as she got out the wood, stumbling with it to the door and waving with one hand at the car and Mike.

Finally, the dogs gotten under control, the man gestured for Mike to get out of the car and come in the house. Mike got out cautiously, surreptitiously checking his piece, and followed the man and woman into the house.

The first thing that he noticed was the smell, a compound of wet dogs and people who didn't bathe nearly enough overlain with wood smoke. The room was crowded with about ten people, adults and teenagers, and he could see the heads of older children peeking around a door. There was a large fireplace at the far end, near the head of a long table. Over the fireplace was a very moth-eaten tiger's head.

Dinner had been laid out on a long trestle table and it reminded him that he'd been getting hungry as well as annoyed at his predicament. He kept his eyes off the food, though, nodding at the man who had invited him into the house as the woman began divesting herself of layers of clothing. The man was tall and broad as a mountain with a shock of dark red hair. He was wearing a white long-sleeved wool shirt and blue jeans, but what caught Mike's eye was the heavy silver cross dangling from a chain. It was something like a Maltese cross with broad crosspieces that spread to look almost like an axe. It twigged something in Mike's memory but he couldn't quite place it.

"My name's Mike Jenkins," Mike said in Russian, using his current cover identity. "I'm American. I was headed for the Bakuriani Resort and I got lost. Is there a town around? My car's nearly out of petrol." At least, he thought that was what he said. His Russian was really rough.

Mike checked out the occupants of the room as he asked his questions. The first thing he noticed about them was that they were clearly peasants. Their clothing, the men's especially, was rough stuff designed for heavy work. Jeans, which were becoming internationally ubiquitous, and heavy wool shirts. Those looked as if they might be homespun. The women were in somewhat brighter clothing, wool skirts with colorful blouses.

The second thing he noticed was the similarity in looks; this was clearly either a very large family or an extended one all living in the same house. There was a fair number of redheads, which was fairly unusual in Georgia where the people tended to be black or brown haired. There were even a few blonds, also unusual.

The third thing, and it took a moment for it to fully sink in, was the overall good looks. There were two older women, who could be anywhere from thirty to eighty given the way that peasants aged, but they were both quite good looking for all their wrinkles. The men were all robust and handsome almost to a fault, like Hollywood extras chosen for their physical looks rather than any group of peasants Mike had ever seen. And the younger women were just lovely as hell. Slim faces ranging from sharp to heart-shaped, slim noses, high cheekbones, mostly Tartar eyes and beautiful hair even half covered by colorful scarves. The group was simply startling in its looks.

"Alerrso," the man said, waving up towards the road. He had the same family looks and was maybe fifty, with a square, hard jaw and hard eyes that were considering Mike carefully. "Six kilometers."

"Spasebo," Mike said, nodding at him and turning to the woman who had gotten her outer wear off to say goodbye. When he saw her, though, he froze.

The girl was no more than fifteen, probably younger, with the most beautiful face he had ever seen in his life coupled with those startling blue eyes and fiery red hair that peeked out from under her babushka scarf. He found himself mesmerized by her appearance for a moment until he physically shook himself.

"I hope you stay well," Mike said, stumbling over the Russian phrases and his lolling tongue. "Thank you for helping me."

"Spasebo," the girl replied, looking down suddenly. "Was far walk."

"You're welcome," Mike said, turning back to the man who was watching the two of them angrily. "I am sorry bother you. I go Alerrso. Thank you for directions."

"Good night," the man said, gesturing at the door.

Mike made his way out of the house and to the car in a daze, still entranced by the girl's looks. He had met many women in his travels but none as lovely as that girl. She was just exquisite. And he'd never meet her again.

* * *

"What did he say to you?" Eugenius said, grabbing Katrina by the arm and shaking her as the door closed. "What did you do?"

"Nothing!" Katrina said, lowering her eyes and shaking her head. "I was on the road. He nearly ran me down in the snow. It was very far; I didn't expect the snow so soon. I could tell he was lost, nobody like that with that car would come here. He asked me if I would ride with him and I knew if I didn't I might not make it home. I'm sorry, Father, but I would have died if I hadn't ridden with him."

"You are a disgrace," Eugenius said, shaking his head. "I should send you to town."

"She could have done nothing," Lena said, laying a hand on his arm. "Look at her; she was frozen when she came in. Nothing happened."

"It is a disgrace," Eugenius repeated, angrily. "We will all be disgraced by her!"

"Father," Dutov said, going to the table and taking his seat, "he was American. He would not know our customs. Come, sit down and let us eat. Katrina is...Katrina. Getting angry at a cat for preening is...silly."

"Father, I'm sorry," Katrina said, shooting an angry look at her brother. "I would have died in the snow if I had not ridden with him. And I kept even my scarf on. We did nothing but drive back here. And now...he is gone. Nothing has happened, nothing will."

"We must marry her off," Mother Lenka said, cackling. "Or sell her to town. I think she'd be happier in town anyway."

"Shut your fool old mouth," Eugenius said, pushing Katrina towards the kitchen and taking his place at the table. "Let us give thanks that we have food for the winter and eat. This matter is closed."

* * *

The snow on the road was getting thicker and there were hidden patches of ice. Mike considered that fact as he looked up the road in the direction the man had pointed. The road, just beyond the farms, led up a narrow defile, twisting back and forth in parallel with a large, ice-choked stream. Fortunately, if he went off the road it probably wouldn't kill him and even in this weather he should be able to walk up to Alerrso or whatever. There was a narrow side road that went up the mountain to the east, but he was pretty sure that went nowhere and, given the conditions, he was in no mood to go exploring.

He engaged the transmission and headed for the first switchback, carefully. Normally, with a slope this steep, the only way to make it would be to get a run-up on the flats. But with the twists he was just going to have to hope the traction control and snow tires could give him some purchase.

The road headed upwards at about a six-degree incline, then bent sharply right. He made the turn, fishtailing only slightly but feeling the traction control reduce the power to the wheels as he slid. The more or less straightaway up to the right was, if anything, steeper than the approach and he pressed the pedal to the floor, feeling the traction control slip in and out as the car labored up the snow-covered road. He wasn't sliding much on that section but there were a couple of times when he thought he was going to come to a complete stop.

At the next switchback he backed and filled carefully, occasionally having to turn the control off to spin out of a hole, then lined up the next run. This time he backed up right to the wall of the switchback and gunned the engine, using the traction control to get some speed up before he hit the slope. This seemed to help but about half the way up the car started to fishtail, hard.

The traction control started to engage but he could feel the car spinning out to the left. On the right side was sheer cut rock and on the other about a fifty-foot drop. Instead of turning into the skid, which probably would have dumped him over the drop as the car went across the road, he increased it, turning the wheel slightly to the left. The maneuver caused a crunching sound as his right quarterpanel hit the rock wall, but the rebound from the "accident" pushed his rear end back onto the road and straightened the vehicle back out without either tossing him over the side or slowing him noticeably. The action was half instinctive but worked perfectly. The damage to the quarterpanel was hardly noticeable on the battered Mercedes.

Somewhat shaken, he made it to the next switchback and considered the next slope. The stream was to his rear, descending through a series of falls to the valley below and, at this point, actually running over the road. The ice of the stream meant he couldn't back up as far and get a run at the next rise but it didn't look as steep as the last two. He got a little speed up and hit the slope, pressing the accelerator down and letting the traction control handle the skids as much as possible.

Not only was that slope easier, it was somewhat shorter, and he quickly reached the top, not even slowing for the turn back to the left. He followed the road around, cautiously, finally reaching the top of the switchbacks.

There the road flattened out in either another upland valley or a pass. He couldn't be sure which since he only had about ten meters of visibility in the increasing storm. But he could vaguely see buildings ahead. Suddenly, with a swirl of wind, the barely glimpsed buildings disappeared. But he knew he'd found the town and drove forward, cautiously, since the road had more or less disappeared. In a few moments he began to see the buildings again and picked his way to the center of them, apparently driving down what passed for a main street.

The buildings vaguely visible to either side had the standard local look; most of them were one to two stories, built of dressed stone and looking as old as the mountains they inhabited. Most had trellis-covered porches to the side, currently covered in snow, and chimneys that belched a mixture of coal and wood smoke. From time to time he got a glimpse of the stream, which followed the line of the wooded hillside to the west. The oldest buildings were on that side of the road and seemed to follow the line of the stream. There were a few larger and more substantial buildings, including one that had a small sign indicating a branch of the Bank of Tbilisi and another that appeared to be some sort of store. A few of the houses had lights in the windows but nothing that looked like either a place to stay or get fuel.

At last he saw what was clearly the local tavern, its windows bright and a few rusted old cars and trucks parked in a small snow-covered lot bordering the stream. The building was two stories tall, dressed stone with a flat roof and apparently very old. By the parking lot, between the building and the stream, he could see a covered area with some tables. It wasn't in use at the moment, but it would be a pleasant place in better seasons.

There didn't appear to be anything along the lines of order in the parking lot so he just picked a spot not too far from the tavern and stopped the Mercedes, breathing deeply and slowly to get his nerves back. After a moment of that he shut the car down, shrugged on a heavy parka, grabbed his jump bag and headed for the tavern.

The door to the tavern was heavy wood and apparently stuck fast. He finally dragged it open and then closed it as fast as he could to shouts from the interior that quickly died. When he'd gotten it dogged back down he looked around the room, nodding to the locals.

There were about fifteen men in the room, most dressed in the rough clothing of laborers. They regarded him silently for a moment, then went back to talking in low tones of obvious surprise. It was apparent that the arrival of a half-frozen American in the middle of the night was soon to be the talk of the town.

The room was square with a serving counter on the left, a door to the rear and two doors on the left leading, presumably, to the kitchens. There were a few small windows on the walls but they were tightly shuttered against the snow. There was a fireplace on the far wall and a potbellied stove in the center. The seats by both were in use so Mike headed to the right side of the room, dumping his jump bag on an open table, then pulling out a rickety chair and sitting down. He was dog weary from the ride, the stress as much as anything, and he could feel it bleeding off. He wasn't sure if this was the sort of place that served you or if he should try to find the host or whatever, but for the moment he was willing to just sit in relative safety.

He looked up, though, as he heard rapid footsteps approaching and nodded at the woman in a dress and apron. She was in her forties, probably, not too bad looking but nothing compared to the people he'd seen in the valley. The phrase "rode hard and put up wet" came to mind; the life of running a tavern in the back country of Georgia probably wasn't conducive to maintaining youth.

"Food?" Mike asked in Russian. "Beer?" The beer in Russia was generally awful, but he'd never picked up the taste for either the local wines or vodka. Georgia wasn't noted for its beers either, but he could always hope.

"Stew," the woman said, nodding. "Or sava. Beer, yes. Bread, cheese?"

"Stew," Mike said, nodding. "Beer, bread, cheese. What is sava?"

"Is meat," the woman said, shrugging. "Is hit."

Mike wasn't sure what that meant but he nodded agreement.

"Sava," he said, his stomach rumbling.

"Ruskiya?" the woman asked, looking at him curiously.

"American," Mike said. "Traveling."

"Speak English," the woman replied, smiling broadly. "Little."

"Speak Russian," Mike said, grinning. "Little. No Georgian."

"Nobody speak Georgian," the woman said, smiling still. "Get food, beer."

"Thank you," Mike said. "Am very hungry, very tired."

"Is bed," the woman said, pointing overhead.

"I accept," Mike said, nodding. "Petrol?"

"Is down street," the woman said in English, pointing further into town. "Is close."

"Not tonight," Mike said. "Not with this," he added, waving outside.

The woman chuckled at that and left, headed for the rear. She took the door behind the serving counter so presumably the other door led to "bed."

Mike spent the time while she was getting his meal to check out the group in the room a bit more carefully. Most of the men were dark and burly from work, and appeared to be mostly drinking beer in tankards rather than wine, which was unusual in the area. There were a few plates around but the general intent seemed to be drinking as if there was no tomorrow. They were checking him out as well but they didn't seem unfriendly, just curious. They also were generally quiet, most of the talk in low tones.

The exception was a table at the back where a heavyset man with dark hair was holding forth apparently at the top of his lungs. Mike figured he was one of those guys who just always had to talk as if they were shouting from one mountain to another. The three guys gathered at the table had the look of toadies and nodded at everything the man said. He was a bit better dressed than the rest but didn't exactly look prosperous. Whoever the guy was, he was a pain in the ass. He was loud enough that it made it hard to think and Mike had a lot of thinking to do.

He wasn't sure where he was headed or what he was going to do. Being rich had always sounded great. And in plenty of ways it was better than being poor. But Mike had always had something that he was working towards. He was used to struggling, pushing his limits, excelling. Now he found himself in a situation where to excel, to stand out, was tantamount to a death sentence. Not only for himself but, potentially, for anyone he was involved with. He'd killed senior terrorists, foiled operations and done it outside the "normal" parameters. Generally, despite their effectiveness, special operations personnel weren't major targets except "in-country." Terrorists didn't, generally, track down and attack spec-ops guys, much less their families. But there were half a dozen fatwahs against him, personally, even if they didn't know exactly who he was. He needed something to do but at the same time he needed to go to ground. Somewhere that he'd be reasonably secure.

Georgia probably wasn't the place. The Chechens were starting to use eastern Georgia as their personal stomping grounds and the government was half in shambles. Terrorists, drugs, guns and sex slaves moved through the country in a constant stream. He'd be much better off in a place like, say, Kansas. But the only thing in Kansas was wheat. Okay, and spectacular blondes. But he liked wild countries like Georgia. They just had more soul than Peoria. Or New York, which thought it had soul but didn't realize it was butter substitute.

Maybe Nepal. Decent army, retired Gurkhas. Find some place like this and settle down until the terrorists either got reduced or found somebody else to target. If they ever forgot the guy called "Ghost."

The woman came back out bearing a platter covered with mugs and plates. She served the guy at the rear first, handing him and his three cronies mugs, picking up their empties and answering a question directed at her from the man. She answered it loudly enough that most of the people in the tavern could hear it and Mike caught the word "American" among the words.

After that she came over to Mike's table and set down a mug of beer followed by a bowl of stew and a platter with slices of dark brown bread and yellowish cheese.

"What your name?" the woman asked in English, sitting down and picking up a slice of cheese.

"Mike. What's yours?"

"Irina," she answered, considering him curiously. "How you come here?"

"Got lost," Mike said, shrugging and spooning up some of the stew. It was oddly seasoned but delicious. "Very good stew. Was headed for Bakuriana. Must have taken a wrong turn in the snow. Almost out of petrol."

"You lucky," Irina said, shaking her head. "Snow very bad."

"Very bad," Mike admitted, nodding. "Good car. Lucky."

"You stay?" the woman asked.

"Until snow clears," Mike said. "Roads clear."

"Hah!" Irina spat, laughing. "Spring."

"No plows?" Mike asked, surprised.

"Some," the woman said, shrugging. "Maybe couple weeks. Bad snow. More come."

"Crap," Mike said. "I guess I stay."

"Not much do," Irina said, gesturing around the room. "Get drunk. Talk. No talk Georgian."

"Used to being alone," Mike replied, shrugging. "Have books."

"I get sava," the woman said, standing up.


Mike ate about half the stew, then picked up the mug of beer, taking a sip. When he did he was pleasantly surprised, pulling it back and looking at it carefully. It was just about the best beer he'd ever had in his life, full and rich without being heavy or bitter. There was just a hint of something other than hops and barley in it but he couldn't quite place it. It was good enough that he took a deep pull and then set it down. Getting drunk his first night in town wouldn't be a good idea.

The sava when it was served turned out to be grilled strips of pounded meat, probably mutton, spiced and excellent, something like the meat you got in "gyros" in the States. He recognized some of the same seasoning as the stew. It was one of the better meals he'd had in the last few months.

Mike finished off all the food and the beer and realized he was exhausted. He knew he could keep going for days but it made more sense to get some sleep.

"You said you have a room?" Mike asked when Irina came back filling mugs from a pitcher.

"Upstairs," she repeated. "Small. Is okay."

"I think I'll head up," Mike said. "How much for the food and beer?"

"One ruble for food," the woman said. "Three rubles for room. You get bags?"

The combined sum came to about seventy-five cents. If the room even had a bed it was going to be a very cheap place to stay.

"I get bags," Mike said, pulling out some of the Georgian rubles he'd exchanged for at the border. He handed her five rubles and stood up. "For room and food. And tip. Thank you."

When he'd gotten his duffel, Irina showed him where the bathroom was and then his room. It was small, at the back of the building and both narrow and low, with a small shuttered window. It was also freezing; there wasn't any source of heat in the room and the stone walls radiated cold. The bed looked fairly comfortable with newly washed sheets but he knew it was probably filled with bedbugs. The door had a latch, which would last for about one kick. But one kick was about all he'd need if it came to cases.

After Irina had left he stripped the sheets and blankets off the bed and sprayed the mattress and sheets with bedding spray, covering all the surfaces until they were slightly wet and paying special attention to the seams. He then rolled out the small sleeping bag in his duffel on the mattress. He dumped his duffel on top of the bag and then sprayed the floor thoroughly with insect spray, hoping to get most of the fleas. He'd lived in enough third-world hovels in the service to know the creepy-crawlies you got in places like this. Last he pulled the pillowcase off the pillow, sprayed the pillow thoroughly and covered it with a case he carried. He'd gotten lice one time in Thailand and had a mordant fear of the damned things. Fleas and bedbugs just left you with bites; lice stayed around forever.

All that done he changed into a set of sweats and socks, slid his .45 under the pillow, slipped into the fart sack and drifted off to sleep in a haze of chemical protectants.

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