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Rock, Meet Hard Place by Peter Nealen - Baen Books


Rock, Meet Hard Place (Part 1)

Peter Nealen


Jimunaizhen, North China

“Target is moving.”

I took my hand off the sand sock that I had crammed up under the bolt gun's buttstock and picked up the phone. “Roger,” I said, holding it up to my face, without taking my eye off the scope. Cell phones, even in this shithole, got lost in the traffic a lot more easily than tac radios.

“You know, I think I am going to get that Maserati,” J.D. said. He was sitting at the table beside me, his own eye on the spotting scope. “It's just nicer than the Beemer.”

I shook my head a little, without taking my cheek off the rifle. “Dude, you're Stateside, what, four weeks out of the year? When the hell are you going to drive the damned thing?”

“Hey, I've got a really small window to convince the high-end chicks that I'm the heat,” he said. “The fancy car is a shortcut. Stateside women are all gold-diggers, anyway. This way I get to be picky.” He laughed. “Besides, what else am I going to spend the money on?”

He had a point. I honestly didn't know what my bank account looked like at the moment; I hadn't been home in over a year. I was probably relatively rich. Our employers certainly paid well enough.

The equipment we were using kind of highlighted just how much money they were willing to throw around. I was sitting behind an AX50 rifle with an MP-7 PDW lying on the table next to me. J.D. was sitting behind a top-of-the-line Zeiss spotting scope, with his MDR bullpup leaning against the cinder block wall next to him. There were tens of thousands of dollars' worth of weapons, optics, and comm gear crammed into our little hide site.

Ten years ago, we never would have been using this stuff. Even when working clandestinely, where being seen means compromise, we'd still use mostly local weapons and gear. There was always that unlucky time where you get spotted, and if your kit looks like it doesn't belong there, people start digging. It screws with the deniability our employers prized so highly. Back then, you simply didn't see high-end gear in Xinjiang, much less high-end Western gear. But our employers had been funneling so much hardware into North China for the last decade that the only ones who weren't using NATO equipment anymore were the North Chinese People's Liberation Army itself, which was increasingly outgunned by the Triads in the east and Al Qaeda and their affiliates in the west.

“I think I've got the target,” J.D. said, suddenly all business, his eye pressed to the spotting scope. “Three Yongshis passing the stadium; looks like one's a gun truck.”

I shifted my position to bring the big sniper rifle to bear, peering through the scope. Sure enough, there were three of the boxy SUVs driving past the soccer field, which J.D. had generously called a “stadium.” I didn't need to pick them out of traffic, either; out here in Bumfuck, Xinjiang, right across the border from Bumfuq, Kazakhstan, most traffic had been reduced to mule carts. The only other cars on the road were going to belong to the PLA, the Russian Mafia, the local Communist Party boss, or the Uighur militias that were getting a lot of support from AQ.

Helpfully, the target had a North Chinese flag fluttering from his antenna. The Commissar was the target; we weren't getting paid any extra for killing his escort, and clearing them out meant staying in place longer than I cared to.

The North Chinese had put enormous amounts of resources into fortifying and manning the DMZ along the Yangtze. It seriously dwarfed the standoff between North and South Korea, and rivaled the Great Wall itself. But they had used so much of their precious resources and manpower that the border with Kazakhstan might as well be wide open. So, naturally, our employers used that border to bring most of the disruptive stuff in, where it was sold to militias, organized crime groups, and whoever else might give the Reds heartburn.

At least, it may as well have been wide open, with the border guards waving convoys of trucks through while they counted the bribes the lead driver had handed over, until this little prick had come out and started getting efficient. He'd had an entire platoon of border guards shot the first week he'd been out on the border, and it had gotten a lot harder to get the goods over the line. So we'd been called in.

I already had the range marked, so I didn't have to do any range estimation. The vehicles were moving, though, so I still had to lead the target. I took a deep breath and let it out, settling into the gun, my finger already taking up the slack on the trigger as I searched the darkened windshield for the shape that would be the Commissar in the back seat.

He wasn't in the back seat, I realized suddenly. He was riding shotgun. So much the better, then. I had to shift my position a little, to get solidly behind the weapon as I got my lead, breathed one more time, and squeezed.

I've never shot a .50 that didn't feel like getting punched in the face when it fired, and the AX was no exception, even with the enormous muzzle brake that did a pretty good job of attenuating the recoil. The rifle bucked bruisingly against my shoulder, and I lost the sight picture momentarily.

J.D. hadn't, though. “Good hit,” he said. “Took old boy right in the face. Hello, twenty-five grand.”

“Time to go, then,” I said, kicking back the chair I'd been sitting on and pulling the rifle back from the mesh-draped window. I had nothing against the Commissar's guards, and any further shooting was just going to draw them like flies anyway.

I hastily shoved the AX50 into its drag bag and slung it on my back, scooping up my MP-7 and making sure I hadn't dropped anything else. J.D. had already shoved the spotting scope in his day pack and slung his MDR. “After you,” I said, pointing to the stairs. The mesh over the window could stay where it was. Taking it down was too likely to attract attention.

J.D. headed down the stairs, as I pulled the phone out of my pocket and sent a pre-loaded text to Ivan and Carlos. “Done,” was all it said. They'd know to break down and head back to the safe house.

J.D. and I moved down the dim, dirty stairwell, J.D. keeping his rifle up as we moved. I took up security on the second floor landing as we passed it, letting him cover downstairs and to the front.

We burst out of a back door into an alley, where a dirty Dongfeng pickup was waiting, with Sergei sitting behind the wheel. I shoved the drag bag into the back seat and climbed in after it, while J.D. got in the front. Sergei already had us rolling by the time the doors slammed.

I'd taken the back for a reason; I had the MP-7, which was going to be a lot easier to maneuver if I needed to shoot Sergei in the head. Sergei was a Kazakh; he was also a brodyaga for Nursultan Kunaev, the mob boss who ran a cut of every smuggling route that came over the border near Lake Zaysan. Kunaev was a bastard's bastard, but Sergei, though quiet, had been a pretty good dude, so far. I'd still kill him in a heartbeat if I thought he or his boss were going to sell us out, and I was sure he'd do the same to us, but as long as our money was good, we'd get along fine.

He didn't drive for the border, but headed south, out of Jimunaizhen. We had our own little border crossing a few miles away, near Shali Haji, courtesy of our pal Kunaev.

Once we were out of town, I dug in my kit and came up with a pack of Sobranie Black Russians and a lighter. I rolled down the window a little before lighting up; J.D. didn't care for the smoke, but I needed some nicotine after that. I still didn't relax, exactly, as I puffed on the harsh cigarette, but then, I probably hadn't really relaxed in at least six years. You don't tend to relax much when you work for the kind of people we work for.

“You know,” J.D. said, turning halfway around in his seat, “there are a lot more pleasant ways to kill yourself than smoking those nasty fucking things.”

“I know,” I replied. “I contemplate them every time you start hounding me to quit smoking.”

He laughed, and we lapsed back into silence, hands on weapons and eyes out the windows, scanning the fields around us. We sure as hell weren't going to talk about anything more than banal superficialities around Sergei.

The border crossing was pretty straightforward. Hell, until our dead friend the Commissar had shown up, we could have just used the main road, the North Chinese border guards having been paid off handsomely to look the other way. We had to be a little bit more careful now, and the river crossing had needed to be concealed, but we still got across without too much trouble, and in a few minutes we were in Kazakhstan and making tracks for the safe house.

The safe house was an old farm out in the weeds; Ul'ken-Karatal was way too small a town for a bunch of strangers not to stand out like a sore thumb. Fortunately, there were enough ethnic Russians floating around that we didn't stand out like we might have in the Middle East. Granted, Carlos was brown enough that he might raise eyebrows; Kazakhs don't look much like Mexicans.

Sergei trundled the Dongfeng up to the whitewashed farmhouse and stopped with a squeal of brakes. J.D. and I piled out, dragging our gear with us, and I dropped an envelope fat with rubles in Sergei's lap. He picked it up, rifled through it, gave me a gap-toothed grin, and ground the pickup's gears into reverse before pulling out and leaving.

I was still tempted to move the safe house, since Kunaev knew where it was. So far, with the enormous amounts of cash our employers were willing to throw around to cover our operations and support, he'd left us alone. But a crook is a crook, and they all get greedy after a while. I should know; I'd spent most of the last decade working with crooks, rebels, terrorists, mercenaries, and all sorts of other unsavory types across Eurasia.

Dropping our gear in the entryway, J.D. and I set about checking the perimeter, making sure that none of either Kunaev's guys or the Kazakh NSC thugs had been poking around. By the time we were both satisfied that it was secure—it should have been, as the IED wired to our comms room door hadn't gone off—Ivan and Carlos were pulling up to the front door, Ivan's huge frame somehow squeezed behind the wheel of a creaking, rusty '79 Lada.

Ivan parked the car, levered himself out of the driver's seat, slammed the door hard enough to almost break the glass, snatched his gear out of the back seat before slamming that door almost as hard, and stalked inside. J.D. and I looked after him, then turned to Carlos, who had gotten out of the passenger seat rather more sedately. Carlos just shrugged.

“I don't know,” he said. “He's in one of his moods again.”

“Ivan is always in a mood,” J.D. said. “I think it's part of his Russian genes or something.”

“You could always try taking him on one of your hooker safaris,” I suggested. “Might mellow him out a little.”

J.D. gave me a look that suggested I was a complete idiot. “First of all,” he said, “I don't use hookers.” He waved to indicate himself. “You really think that I have to pay for it? No. Just, no.”

“What about that Maserati?” I asked, following Carlos inside.

“That's for the American chicks, I told you,” he replied. “It's a shortcut, not a payment. And second,” he continued, undeterred, “there is no way I'm taking that misanthropic gorilla out to the clubs with me. I'm pretty sure he'd look at a girl, go into lock, drink three bottles of vodka and start a fight.”

Considering that I'd first run into Ivan in the middle of one of the nastiest bar brawls I'd ever seen in Pavlodar, that was not outside the realm of possibility.

Carlos was just shaking his head. Ivan was in his room in the back of the house, doing brooding Russian things. The guy was the ultimate case study in disillusionment meeting clinical depression. He was damned good at his job, though.

I had more pressing matters to worry about than Ivan's mental state at the moment, though, namely getting paid. I knew Ivan would snap out of it eventually, whatever it was.

After carefully disarming the IED, I stepped into the windowless interior room that housed our comm setup, flipping on the light as I went. The single, bare light bulb hanging by its wiring from the ceiling illuminated one of the most high-tech comm setups Eastern Kazakhstan had ever not seen. The funny part was, if anybody outside of the team ever did set eyes on it, they'd think we were working for the CIA.

It didn't take long to get the VTC setup linked back to the office. For us, the “office” was a nondescript back room in an industrial park in Philadelphia. Most of the time. When we really needed to talk to the Office, well, that was different.

Ginger was staring at me through the screen, chewing her inevitable bubble gum. She had a real tendency to dress and act like a stereotypical early-'60s secretary, even though she was usually alone in the windowless closet she called her workspace. I knew for a fact that she was a lot smarter than the gum-chewing bubblehead she presented to the world, but the one time I'd said as much she'd just winked and shushed me. Given what we'd been up to the night before, I'd just smiled and nodded.

She wasn't wearing the airhead act this time, though. She stared out of the screen at me with a dead serious, one hundred percent professional look on her face. That didn't bode well.

“Frank,” she said, “the Office called. They want to talk to you, five minutes ago.”

I frowned. “Why? I didn't think Komrade Kommissar was that important.”

“They didn't say,” she replied, “but it sounded like a pop-up. It sounded serious, too.”

I shook my head. “They should know better than to hit us with 'serious' without some sort of big number attached to it,” I said. “But fine,” I continued, when a worried look crossed her face. “I'll call 'em.”

A look of relief crossed her face before she signed off. That was kind of worrisome. Generally speaking, our employers had been pretty good about keeping their distance. They got us the jobs, we executed them, we got paid. We tried not to ask too many questions. Knowing too much of the big picture tended to result in people, even contractors like us, mysteriously disappearing.

I knew that Ginger was worried that, just through sheer time on the job, we were getting too close to the threshold where they decided to make us vanish. They hadn't been as effective as they had been for seventy years by taking chances with leaks, that huge internet file dump on Operation Heartbreaker in Zubara notwithstanding. If anything, that had made our position that much more precarious.

I typed in the link to the Office. I didn't know where it was physically located, and I had no desire to know. We didn't keep the link anywhere on anything, and on the rare occasions that we had to use it, we were careful to wipe as much trace of it off the computer as possible. If it came to the possibility of the laptop falling into unfriendly hands—which pretty much meant anybody outside of the four of us—we'd destroy it first, making sure we got the hard drive. And we'd make sure we had proof of destruction if our employers asked for it.

The VTC link connected immediately, suggesting that somebody was just sitting there waiting for me to call in. Considering it was pretty early in the morning Stateside, that suggested that Ginger was right, and they were taking whatever it was really seriously.

I didn't recognize the face that appeared on the screen, which was surprising. Our employers liked to keep the stable of people who knew about the contract side of their operations small. This man had a shaved head and small goatee. He was lean, though there was a softness to him that suggested that he had spent the majority of his career at a desk. His next words suggested that my assessment was wildly erroneous, though.

“Mr. Dragic,” he said, his voice dry, with a hint of a Midwestern accent, “my name is Forsyth.”

That was chilling. I'd never met Forsyth, but the stories floating around among those in the know were not terribly pleasant. He had once been one of the top HVT hunters out there. In more recent years, as he got older, he tended to handle more . . . internal affairs. If Forsyth came after you, you were boned. If Forsyth took any interest in you at all, it probably meant you were boned.

“We have a mission for you,” the man continued, even as I pulled out another Black Russian and lit it, trying not to let my fingers shake as I did so. I usually tried not to smoke in there; there wasn't really any ventilation aside from the door that was shut behind me. But I was talking to one of our employers' scariest errand boys. I needed the nicotine.

“Whoa there,” I said, trying to maintain my tough-guy image and not let him see how much that name had rattled me. I was slightly relieved by the fact that they didn't want me to come in, but anything Forsyth touched was something I wanted to stay away from if possible. “That's not how this works. I work contract, and I pick the jobs you offer. I'm not one of your Dead Unit dupes. You ask, I say yes or no, you pay my price.”

The cold-eyed man on the screen didn't change his expression one iota. “Yes, I'm aware of your rather unique arrangement,” he said. That was bullshit; there was nothing unique about my little team of hitters. I'd been kicking around doing dirty deeds for these people for the better part of ten years. I'd linked up with other teams half a dozen times. And that wasn't even mentioning the Project Heartbreaker files. The Office had dozens of us running around the world, knocking people off to nudge events here or there. The Dead Units were the big offensives; we were the skirmishers. “And that arrangement depends on you maintaining your usefulness.” That wasn't a subtle threat at all.

“There is a time-sensitive target that just popped up. It is considered of serious enough import that all available assets are being called in, even those that might be at some distance.” A faint smile crossed his lips, that didn't extend to his dead, shark's eyes.

While I really didn't like the sound of that, I also realized that I'd probably blustered all I dared to. I looked at him through an eye-watering cloud of harsh cigarette smoke. “Who's the target?”

“Mr. Anders,” he said.

That made me sit up and take notice. As bizarre as it might be to hear that Anders, one of the Office's chief killers, was now an HVT, quite frankly it was like hearing that Christmas had come early to me.

He'd come out to Xinjiang with a few more of his high-speed, low-drag meatheads five years before. I'd had a five-man team at the time, and had been instructed to liaison with Anders. I'd done what they'd told me, even though a gigantic, blond mountain of muscle who looked like he belonged on a Wehrmacht recruiting poster didn't exactly blend in with the locals.

One of my guys, Imad, had been a Uighur and a Muslim. He was the best terp I'd ever worked with, and one of the best liaisons with the various Islamic groups that we interacted with in Xinjiang there had ever been. He knew every tribe, every clan, and he knew just whose ego to stroke to further work against the PLA. He was also what I called a jack Muslim. He drank, swore, and was one of the biggest porn hounds I'd ever seen. We were the only family he had; he knew that if AQ got their paws on him, he was just as dead as if he wound up in PLA hands.

Anders hadn't liked him. He made no secret of the fact that he didn't trust the “towel-head slope” and told me to kick him to the curb. I told Anders to pound sand; Imad was one of mine, and Anders didn't call the shots where my team was concerned.

Two days later we got ambushed. We never saw who it was; they shot at us and ran. They might have been one of the many AQ offshoots that had gained traction in Xinjiang the harder the PLA cracked down on the Uighurs. In the course of the ambush, Imad went down. He'd been shot in the back of the head.

I couldn't out-and-out prove it was Anders or one of his meatheads. There was no real court or chain of command to prove it to anyway. Anders all but dared me to do something about it. I swore then and there that one day I'd see him dead.

Maybe this was my chance. If it was legit.

“When did Anders wind up on the Office's target deck?” I asked, unsure that this wasn't some kind of elaborate loyalty test. It sounded too good to be true, and if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

“Some time ago,” he replied coldly. “You do not need to worry about the details. All you need to know is that he is a target, you are being hired to capture or kill him, and you need to get moving quickly.” It wasn't an unfamiliar mission statement, except for the ID of the target.

“I take it you have some intel about his whereabouts?” I asked.

“Yes,” Forsyth replied. “We have actionable intelligence that he is presently in Stepanakert.” When I stared at him blankly, he supplied, “That's in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan. At least it's still Azerbaijan officially. There's something of an ongoing ethnic war between the Azeris and the Armenians, and Stepanakert is right in the middle of it. Which is, we presume, why he's there. War zones are notoriously good places to do business with the underworld, something with which, I am sure, you are quite familiar.”

I was, but that didn't make this better. Azerbaijan was not our usual AO. It was most of a damned continent away. We had no contacts, no resources there. I said as much.

“Doesn't matter,” Forsyth replied. “This is high priority, and we're calling in all hands. All hands. So that means that you pack your shit and get on the next thing smoking for Azerbaijan.”

“How reliable is this report?” I asked, stalling for time. I really didn't like this. Whatever was going on—and I had no illusions that Forsyth was telling me the whole story—going half-cocked into a country I'd never worked in to pull a “Capture or Kill” mission was not my idea of a good time, or a good idea.

“Very,” the man replied. “He's apparently now working as muscle for the Montalban Exchange, which means he hasn't just gone rogue, he's actively gone over to the Opposition.”

I knew vaguely that the Montalban Exchange was involved in all sorts of underworld operations that our employers were always looking to counter, but the mysterious “Opposition” was something I'd never looked into that thoroughly. It all sounded like some kind of conspiracy theorist bullshit to me, anyway, cooked up to justify half of our dirty deeds in distant places. Sort of like the people who called our employers “Majestic.” There were plenty of webs of criminals, terrorists, and rich people hiding the fact that they were criminals without some kind of big-time shadow-clash of massive conspiracies going on.

“How long has he been there?” I asked, stubbing out my cigarette and lighting up another one. The smoke was raw on my throat, but I'd been smoking Russian cigs for so long that American ones just seemed tasteless now.

“We don't know for sure,” he replied. “Nor do we know how long they can be expected to stay there. We're not sure what the Montalbans are up to, but you should move quickly. I'm sending you a file with the locations where he may have been sighted, along with any other information we have on Anders and his movements.”

I held up a hand. “Hold on,” I said. “I'm sure you are already well aware of my past with Anders.” He just nodded impassively. I'm sure they had an entire file on the incident. “There's still the matter of our fee.”

He held up a piece of paper with a number on it. There were a lot of zeros after it. “Enough?” he asked.

I just nodded, taking another deep drag off the Black Russian. It was a good payday, almost enough to justify going halfway across the Eurasian continent to kill a very dangerous man. It was also enough to make me nervous about our future even if we did succeed. Our employers paid well, yes, but there were limits, and this was pushing it. Especially after what had apparently happened to Dead Six in Zubara, an offer that big had me looking over my shoulder.

“I'll need to discuss it with the team,” I said, but he shook his head.

“Let's dispense with the free market bullshit,” he said coldly. “This is a high value, time sensitive target. You do the job, you get paid, and the wheels keep turning. You turn the job down, or you hem and haw and make it clear to me that you don't have any actual intent to follow through with it, and your stock with the Organization fucking vanishes. And given your experience, Mister Dragic, that means that I will start to take a very personal interest in enforcing our non-compete agreement.”

There comes a point where the bluster and the facade of being your own man has to give way to reality. We'd just passed that point. The truth of the matter was, as much as I had a bad feeling about attempting to pull a snatch and grab—or just an assassination, which would be fine with me—on unfamiliar territory, I really did want Anders dead, even more than I didn't want this cold-blooded bastard turning his baleful eye toward me and my team. So, as much as it galled me to be their dutiful yes-man, I just nodded. “Understood,” I said, in as close to a tone of absolute professionalism that I could summon up anymore. “Send us any intel you've got, and we'll get it done.”

He gave me the same thin, vaguely sinister smile. “The packet is already in your inbox,” he said. “As is the contact to reach when the job is done.” He started to reach up as if moving to cut the connection, then paused. “Mister Dragic?” he said. “Just so we're clear. Taking Anders alive would be preferable. There is information in his possession that the Organization is very interested in extracting. However, given that it is Anders . . . dead is almost as good.”

“Roger that,” I replied flatly. If they thought I was going to try to take that mutant alive, they were out of their damn minds. He nodded with a sly, knowing look on his face, and cut the connection.

My cigarette had burned down to my fingers. I crushed it out and immediately lit up another one before going out into the main room, rummaging through a cupboard until I found the fullest bottle of Stolichnaya in the house. Without a word, I popped the top and took a long, burning swig.

J.D. and Carlos watched me as I slugged back the vodka, exchanging a glance. Ivan was off being Ivan somewhere else in the house, but he'd be along as soon as I called him; moody he might be, but he was still a professional.

“That bad?” J.D. asked. “I was sure we whacked the right guy.”

“We did,” I replied, after coming up for air. “No, this is because of the new mission we just got handed to us. Along with a not-so-subtle hint that if we didn't do it, we'd be the next ones on the chopping block.”

Eyebrows climbed. “That's a little unusual,” J.D. said. Carlos just looked concerned. Usually the pay was considered enough. “What's the job?”

“Anders,” was all I needed to say. Expressions hardened, and a dangerous, brittle edge entered the atmosphere in the little safehouse. The name even brought Ivan out of the back room, where he loomed in the doorway, his expression thunderous.

“He's apparently pissed off our employers,” I continued, before any of the muttered cursing could gain any real volume. “Whatever he did, he's now on the target deck, and apparently there's a full-court press offensive to capture or kill him. And when I say 'full-court press,' I mean that we've been brought in to help. Whether we like it or not.”

There was a note of enthusiasm and slight confusion in J.D.'s voice. “We get a chance to kill Anders? What's not to like?”

“Oh, I don't know,” I retorted. “Maybe the fact that he's in fucking Azerbaijan, where none of us have worked in years, if at all. Not only that, but I don't like being railroaded. We've done everything these motherfuckers have asked for years, and demanded nothing but our paychecks. And now they want to threaten to put us on the target deck if we don't take this job.”

J.D. looked a little taken aback. Ivan glowered. Carlos got quiet, his face very still.

I studied Carlos a little. The fact was, even though we'd worked together for close to five years, I still knew next to nothing about Carlos' life before I'd met him. He was a devout Catholic, which sometimes seemed a little strange in this business, but he'd told me that he justified it by the fact that most everybody we killed really had it coming, and that his prayer life kept him steady. But there were little hints that didn't quite fit; little reactions—like this one—that suggested that he hadn't always been as . . . centered. The clouded look in his eyes suggested that this was not the first time he'd been faced with a situation like this. Considering that even in my admittedly cynical view of the U.S. military, American soldiers were not really treated as expendable pawns, I had to wonder.

But Carlos' mysterious past was not our primary concern at the moment. “Something is very, very wrong,” Ivan said, his existential moment apparently over with the onset of a new mission. “They would not make threats if they were not desperate. Anders was golden boy. If he has defected, is something more going on.” Even though he was an American citizen and had spent twelve years in the Army, Ivan still had a pronounced Russian accent. I'm sure that all the time we'd been spending in Eastern Russia had contributed to it; I sometimes caught myself speaking English with a bit of an accent and even dropping articles every once in a while.

“Are we seriously considering not taking the job?” J.D. asked, looking around at the rest of us. “I mean, sure, there's a risk operating in a new place on short notice, and I'm sure that Ivan's right and there is something more going on. But I'd say that between our employers' potential displeasure if we don't do it, and the chance to finally give that psychopathic prick what he's got coming, that's two pros to one con.”

I took a deep breath, took another fiery swing of vodka, sighed, and shook my head. “No, we're taking the job. Forsyth made it pretty clear that we're in the cold if we don't. Doesn't mean I've got to like it, but we need a flight west, pronto.”

“I'll get on it,” Carlos said, heading into our little comms room. He had been the only one not to weigh in on the problem. He was like that. He rarely said what was on his mind, and most of the time we had no idea what he thought of any of the stuff we did. He just did it, coolly and professionally, and rarely said a word about it.

#

Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic

The Stepanakert International Airport wasn't the smallest “International” airport I'd ever seen, but it was up there on the list. The single paved runway was in decent shape, though any painted markings had worn off a long time ago. The terminal wasn't actually that much bigger than the control tower, which was also part of it. The flag of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which was basically the Armenian flag with a white chevron at one end, fluttered from the flagpole on top of the control tower. The green hills of this part of the Caucasus Mountains loomed above the terminal in the distance.

Wrangling a flight into an active war zone, even if it had been technically active for most of thirty years, had been an interesting trick. We'd ended up hitching a ride with a cargo flight that may or may not have been legit, ostensibly running medical supplies into Stepanakert from Astrakhan. I was pretty sure that the pilot was, if not drunk, at least heavily fortified with vodka, and the An-24 he was flying had clearly seen better days. Fortunately, it was a Russian bird, so it could still fly with a bunch of parts missing and fluids leaking everywhere.

I stood up, still having to hunch over in the cramped cabin, and tried to work a few of the kinks out. It hadn't been a straight flight; we'd had to go an extra hundred miles to the west to make sure we stayed away from the front line between the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and the Azeris. That front line had apparently been fluctuating more in the last couple of months than it had in the last five years, which was probably part of why Anders was hanging out in Azerbaijan.

The plane rolled and rattled to a stop on the crumbling apron, and we shouldered our relatively small packs and filed off once the crew chief, whom I was pretty sure was drunk, opened the door and let down the steps. Since we weren't sure what we were going to run into in the way of Customs officials, not to mention the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army, we hadn't brought a lot of gear. We were going to have to obtain most of our weapons and kit on the ground. Fortunately, Forsyth's briefing packet had included the locations of a couple of caches that should have most of the weapons, ammo, and gear we'd need. I supposed it was the least they could do, given how they'd been jerking us around so far. We hadn't even gotten any assistance on transportation.

I'd definitely be billing the office for the fat bribe we'd paid the Antonov pilot.

As we walked down the stairs, I couldn't help but notice that the airport looked, well . . . dead. There was a single short-range jet parked on the apron, and it looked like it had seen better days. I couldn't see anyone working, either; no ground crew, no baggage handlers, nothing. I glanced back at the Russian crew chief, who just grinned. Apparently, we were lucky to have been able to fly in here at all. The briefing packet had said something about lots of trouble about flights into and out of Nagorno-Karabakh, but I'd kind of skimmed over that part, and when we'd found a pilot willing to fly into Stepanakert, we'd jumped at it without asking too many questions.

There were also no cars waiting in the parking lot. Which meant we had a problem.

Chagrined, I turned back to the crew chief. “Is there some way to get ride into town?” I asked in Russian.

He grinned again, even wider. “Our friends will come for cargo soon,” he said. “You can ride with us, maybe buy car in town.”

From the looks of his grin, it was going to cost us even more rubles or dram. Fortunately, our employers have a tendency to throw money around like confetti, so we usually had a pretty sizable bribery budget. I just nodded, unable to keep some of the disgust off my face, wondering just who this Russki smuggler was going to tell about us before all was said and done. We'd have to sweep any vehicle we bought from these people very thoroughly, and take a good half a day to make sure they weren't following us before we found a safe house. It was somewhat contrary to the time-sensitive nature of the mission that Forsyth had gone to such lengths to stress, but fuck him, he wasn't the one out here with his ass in the breeze. Let these fuckers sell us out to Anders, and we were screwed before we'd even gotten started.

But if there was one thing I'd learned over most of a decade working in shitty, chaotic parts of the world with a lot of shady people, it was that you just smiled, nodded, looked for trouble, and stayed patient. So we settled in to wait for the Russians' contacts.

#

The safe house was a small, red-roofed cinderblock house with the whitewash peeling off the walls, surrounded by ancient oak trees and what looked like half a century of fallen leaves and weeds. The Office hadn't provided any prep for it, so we had to settle for renting the place from the Russians we'd hitched a ride into town with. If it wasn't bugged, I was sure that it would be under surveillance. We'd booby-trap the hell out of it the first chance we got. We had barely gotten inside when the phone rang.

I just looked at it for a moment. We'd been working our asses off to shake any surveillance that the Russians might have planted on us, dig up the weapons cache—which was now scattered across the floor, a combination of AKMs and AK-74s, AKS-74U Suchkas, Makarovs, Tokarevs, and an RPD, along with ammo, magazines, and chest rigs for same—get to the safe house, and unload our shit into it to start prepping. I was pretty sure that it was Forsyth on the phone, and I wasn't eager to spend time talking to him.

But the alternative could be worse. Our employers didn't like to get blown off. I answered the phone. “What?” I asked, by way of greeting.

Forsyth was about as pleasant. “Are you on the ground?”

“Yes,” I replied. “We're starting the planning and prep.” I left the and you're wasting my prep time part out.

“Will you be ready to move on the farm tonight?” he asked.

Are you fucking kidding me? “We just got our base of operations set up, hopefully without the Russians or Armenians knowing about it,” I replied. “We haven't done any reconnaissance on the farm to make sure that he's there, or get a good idea of the layout and possible opposition. These things don't happen with a snap of your fingers, you know.”

“You have the imagery and the briefing packet,” he said. “There isn't time to fuck around.”

I bit off the acid retort that his words deserved. What kind of amateurs did he think he was dealing with? That was a bit of a rhetorical question; the Organization had never shown a great deal of regard for its subcontractors, even the ones who had been working for them for years.

“Rushing this sort of thing gets people killed, and gets missions botched,” I told him, trying not to sound too much like I was lecturing a twelve-year-old. “How can we even be sure that Anders is there? There aren't any photos in the briefing packet; we have to get eyes on to confirm or we're going to miss him and he'll be gone.”

“We have enough indicators to be eight-five to ninety percent certain that he's there,” Forsyth said impatiently. “If he moves, we will let you know. We don't have time to do this the traditional way. Get your weapons and gear prepped, and hit that farmhouse tonight.” He hung up.

I stared at the phone in a mix of disbelief and fury, then tossed it on top of my pack in disgust. As tempting as it might have been to throw it against the wall, I wasn't pissed off enough to do something that stupid.

The other three were watching me, though Ivan kept loading AK mags, his fingers pushing the rounds in with a mechanical regularity, as if he was a machine. J.D. was frowning. Carlos was as impassive as ever, though there was a hint of concern in his eyes.

“Forsyth is insisting we go tonight,” I told them. “He says that they are certain that Anders is there, and that we should have enough from the briefing packet to launch. He tells me that if he moves, they'll let us know.”

“What?” J.D. snarled. “They've got surveillance on this asshole, and they're just now telling us?”

“That's presuming that they actually have surveillance on him,” I pointed out, “and they're not going off of some electronic chicken entrails and trying to bullshit us. Either way, Forsyth doesn't seem to be too inclined to brook any delay. As much as I don't like it, we're going to have to move fast, because I don't want my head in the Organization's crosshairs.” I took a deep breath, then checked my watch. “Offhand, that gives us about four hours to get a general CONOP set up and try to do at least a drive-by recon. We can't do anything in-depth, but hell, it won't be the first time we've had to do things on short notice.”

J.D. was fuming. Ivan just turned back to loading mags. Carlos shook his head as he finished going over his RPD. It was going to be a long one.

#

Ivan, J.D., and I slipped through the trees, moving toward the target house. Carlos had split off earlier to set up a combination of overwatch and base of fire on the house. Being the smallest guy on the team, naturally he had just sort of ended up with the RPD.

The rest of us were going to execute the actual hit. We were all dressed similarly, in camouflage that looked like some sort of Flecktarn knockoff, canvas AK chest rigs, and carrying the two AKMs and one AK-74 that had been hidden in the cache. We'd unanimously left the Suchkas behind; they may look cool, but if you're hoping to hit anything past a hundred yards, good luck. Even the Spetsnaz didn't like those things.

The house was dark, though we'd seen the flicker of a flashlight through the trees some time earlier. We had briefly considered simply driving up to the door, piling out, and kicking it in, but with Anders involved, that idea hadn't lasted more than a minute. Anders would have some kind of security out, and booby traps were definitely a possibility as well. So we'd stay nice and quiet and sneaky, up until it was time to go loud.

We kept a fairly tight formation, mainly because there hadn't been any night vision in the cache. I had no idea how old it was, but I suspected it was mid-Cold War old.

There was enough illum that we could just see the whitewashed walls of the house through the trees ahead. It was a long, low, one-story farmhouse, not dissimilar to our safe house in Ul'ken Karatal. There were a few outbuildings under the trees near it, including what had looked like a garage to the north on the overheads.

I was keeping my eyes peeled for sentries as we approached. It was a cool night, but my hands were sweating on the AKM's Bakelite grip and forearm. My heart rate was a little elevated, and I was trying to look into every shadow at once. That happens when you're on a half-baked, rushed op with three other dudes in unfamiliar territory, trying to hunt down one of the nastiest killers you've ever seen.

I took a knee next to a towering oak only a few paces from the house. So far, I'd seen no movement, no lights, no nothing. The place looked deserted. Given how much I trusted the intel from our employers, it might well be deserted. But I also knew that if there was a chance that Forsyth was right, and Anders was there, getting overconfident and sloppy would mean we wouldn't see the dawn.

Ivan and J.D. had joined me at the tree, spreading out around it to cover our six as well. I brought the compact little ICOM radio up to my lips and keyed it, my voice barely above a whisper. “Any movement?” I asked.

“No movement that I can see,” was Carlos' reply. “There are two vehicles parked out front. There's another one sitting at the Y down south, too. I can't see if there's anyone in it, but it looks wrong. It's out of place.”

I clicked the mic twice to acknowledge. I didn't want to talk too much that close to the target house. If anything, a suspicious vehicle nearby served as a positive indicator that this might be the right house, after all. I just hoped that we hadn't been spotted by anyone sitting in the vehicle with a belt-fed.

After another couple of minutes watching and listening, I started to get up. If there was a lot of security in there, they were inside, waiting for somebody to kick the door in. Or they were asleep. Either way, we couldn't wait any longer. It was go time.

The AKM up in the low ready, J.D. and Ivan flanking me a step behind, I flowed toward the back door. I kept the muzzle generally pointed toward the far corner of the building, except when I had to cross a window. There were two before we reached the door, and I quickly pied them off, covering every angle inside with my muzzle as I walked past, before snapping back forwards when J.D. moved up to take over for me. The maneuver was mostly pointless, since the interior was pitch black. But old habits can be a hell of a thing to break, and that's one that's saved my life a few times.

Getting to the door, my focus narrowed. I pointed the AKM just above the door handle, even as I reached forward to test the latch.

It was unlocked. I carefully turned the handle, and tried to ease the door open. I wanted to stay soft for as long as possible.

The door creaked loudly, as if the hinges hadn't been greased in years. There went staying soft. I flung the door open and stepped through the threshold, stepping aside as fast as possible to clear the way for Ivan, even as I triggered the flashlight taped to the rifle's forearm, scanning for threats.

The back hallway was empty. Flashlights played over bare plastered walls and a stone floor. There was no sound except for our own movement and harsh breathing.

Now that we were inside, we didn't dare stop moving. Hallways are deathtraps, and I had no intention of staying in that one for more than a few seconds. I swept forward, gun up and watching the three doorways ahead.

There were curtains over the one to the front and the left. So I went right, pausing just long enough to get a bump from either J.D. or Ivan behind me before charging into the next room.

It was a kitchen, dominated by a large hearth with iron racks for cooking bolted across the deep fireplace. There were hooks set into the wall above the hearth, and there were shelves made of old wood and brick along the far wall.

There were also two Russian 152mm howitzer shells sitting upright in the fireplace in a tangle of wires and det cord, with a cell phone sitting on top.

“Avalanche!” I bellowed. It wasn't original, but it was the standard code word in the U.S. mil that we'd all trained with for, “There's an IED, get the fuck out!” I suited actions to words by promptly diving through the window in a shower of glass and broken window frame.

Well, it was sort of a dive. It wasn't nearly as graceful as the word makes it sound. I kind of went through the glass shoulder-first, cut myself, lost my balance, and fell out of the window. I hit heavily and off balance, knocking some of the wind out of myself, only made worse when Ivan's big ass landed on me, followed by J.D.. J.D. wasn't as heavy as Ivan, but it still hurt.

Both of them rolled off, and I levered myself to my feet, painfully, but probably a lot faster than I would have under different circumstances. I wanted away from that bomb disguised as a farmhouse, right fucking now. Wheezing, favoring my side, which twinged painfully when I tried to take a deep breath, I started jogging away from the house, with Ivan and J.D. on my heels. I wasn't moving that slowly, but between the pain of my rapid exit and the desperation of having a whole lot of high explosive right behind me, it felt like I was swimming through tar, even as we plunged into the trees.

Just because we were running for our lives, though, didn't mean I'd dropped all semblance of situational awareness. I'd survived too long in too many dangerous places. So I saw the figures moving up through the woods even as we ran toward them, and instinctively slowed, bringing my rifle up. Then the house blew up behind us and knocked me on my face.

Fortunately most of the blast went up, throwing cement, stone, wood, and sheet metal high in the air. We were still close enough to catch a good bit of the shockwave, though, and more fragments were flying through the air and smacking into the tree trunks. It was momentarily raining debris, bark, and shredded leaves, and my ears were ringing as I picked myself up off the ground, feeling like I'd just been hit by a truck. I'd still had my AKM's sling around my neck, so I hadn't lost it, though I still had to grope for the controls as I got up, pointing it vaguely toward the team that had been coming at us. I didn't know who they were, but the odds were good that they weren't on our side. The only person on our side who wasn't within arm's length of me at the moment was Carlos, who wasn't exactly in a position to intervene, being some two hundred yards away on the wrong side of the farm.

I couldn't see much in the dark, especially with the pall of dust and smoke from the explosion that was settling over the woods. But I could just make out the shapes picking themselves up off the ground, a little faster than we were managing. We'd been closer to the blast. I didn't want to just start hosing down the woods without knowing what my targets were, but we were not in a good place. I brought the rifle to my shoulder, trying to focus on the sights, though this was going to be point shooting more than anything else.

I still hesitated. I just couldn't see. Decades of conditioning were cautioning me about shooting at any target I wasn't sure of. So I held my fire, even as the dark shapes of men started to approach out of the shadows and smoke. J.D. and Ivan would follow my lead; neither one was easily stampeded, as much as J.D. might seem a little hyper from time to time.

Four figures loomed out of the dark. Two of them were big dudes, the lead one carrying what looked like a G3, which was presently pointed in my general direction. Which was a problem, except that I had my AKM pointed at his face at the same time.

I couldn't see many details in the dark, but I could tell that this was no Armenian militiaman. I didn't know what kind of people Anders had around him, but the general circumstances suggested that he was either one of Anders' or he was competition. If he was competition, I really didn't want to shoot him. Okay, maybe I wanted to shoot him a little bit.

Before either one of us could decide whether or not to pull the trigger, a long burst of machine gun fire from the north ripped through the trees, driving us all back into the dirt.

It was really turning into that kind of night.

In moments, at least two more guns had opened up, rounds going past overhead with hard, painful snaps and smacking into trees with heavy thuds. They were hitting close enough that they had to have some pretty good night optics; they weren't just hosing down the woods.

Flat on my belly, I scrambled behind a tree, which promptly started getting chewed up by bullets. Green tracers were skipping by, and, in a rather surreal moment, I saw one only a few feet in front of me spinning on the ground, like some kind of deadly firework.

Looking to my right and left, I saw that Ivan and J.D. had managed to take cover, though J.D. was holding his arm as if he'd gotten hit. We had a momentary breather, but it couldn't last. We were pinned down, with little hope of suppressing machine guns with our little 7.62x39 rifles, and it was only a matter of time before more shooters closed in under cover of that withering storm of metal and finished us off. We had to get out of there.

Looking toward the unknowns that we'd almost started shooting at before the machine guns opened up, I could just make out their shapes huddled behind trees and flat to the ground, not unlike us. Whoever they were, they weren't on Anders' side. Either that, or Anders' mooks were way more incompetent than I had any business hoping.

Getting Ivan's and J.D.'s attention, I pointed to the south, the way we'd come and, helpfully, pretty much straight away from the machine gun fire. Fire superiority was out, so we were going to have to break contact the old-fashioned guerrilla way. We were going to have to get down in the dirt and do a lot of crawling.

Gripping my rifle with one hand, I managed to turn myself around even in the very, very small space that constituted the slowly eroding cover of the tree I was huddled behind, and started skull-dragging my way away from the fire. Rocks and roots dug into my cheek and hands, and leaves and grass seemed to slip and slide under my boots as I pushed and dragged myself over the ground, but as much as high-crawling might have been easier, the continued hiss and snap of rounds going by all too closely overhead was a great reminder of why that would be a bad idea.

The canvas AK chest rig that's been ubiquitous in the Eastern Bloc since the rifle first entered service with the Soviets is a thin, minimalist piece of gear, that doesn't add much bulk beyond that of the magazines themselves. It was still lifting me way too far up off the ground, especially as I actually felt a round go by only inches over my head.

Inch by inch, yard by painful yard, we got some distance. After a while, the machine gun fire let up, and I could hear a few voices calling back and forth in Russian from back by the wreckage of the target house. Somehow, I didn't think that they were the unknowns we'd almost collided with; either they were dead or they'd evaded like we had. At that moment, I didn't care.

A painfully long five hundred yards away, I finally got up on a knee behind a tree. There was a fair bit of forest between us and the flashlights that were now shining through the trees near the ruins of the target. We weren't safe yet, but we had some cover and concealment. I lifted my radio and called Carlos.

“Carlos, we're clear, break off and meet us at the rally point.”

No reply.

I checked the radio as best I could in the dark. It was on, and I was pretty sure it was still on the right channel. “Carlos, this is Frank. If you can hear me, get to the rally point. We're moving now.” There was still no answer, but we couldn't stay where we were, and trying to get to Carlos' position would mean crossing an open field and exposing ourselves while still well within the effective range of those PKMs or whatever the machine gunners had been shooting at us.

A Russian-accented voice came over the radio. “Hello, Frank. I am afraid Carlos cannot answer. Do not worry, though. You will see him very soon.”

With a muttered curse, I switched the radio off. There would be time to mourn Carlos, and plot vengeance for his death, later. I couldn't afford to forget that we were still in a very bad tactical position, and we needed to get out of it without doing anything stupid, or we'd be just as dead as Carlos.

We were far enough from the enemy that we could start moving somewhat normally. Of course, with the NKDA everywhere, we'd have to be even more careful getting back into town and to the safe house with our camouflage and hardware. Everyone within twenty miles would have heard that shitstorm.

But that would come later. Our rally point was out in the weeds, for obvious reasons. Getting to my feet, I led out, rifle at the ready. J.D. and Ivan fell in behind me silently.

None of us said a word, but we knew each other well enough not to have to. There was a lot of retribution brewing for the disaster that this night had turned into.

#

It was morning by the time we got back to the safe house. We'd had to dodge several NKDA patrols, who were predictably stirred up by the explosion and the gunfire. They were far too close to the front line to take a roaring gunfight right outside the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's capitol city lightly. We'd had to stash the weapons and gear under the seats of the old, broken-down UAZ that we'd paid entirely too many dram to the Russians' contacts for, and even stripped down and stuffed our filthy cammies in over them, donning simple work clothes in their place and frantically trying to scrub the camouflage face paint off.

If we had gotten stopped, we'd probably have been screwed. We were pretty obviously not locals, and not Russians, which would have immediately put us under suspicion. But we had managed to get into town and to the safe house before the mad scramble had managed to lock down the streets. The Armenians weren't quite the most professional or quick-reacting army I'd ever seen, and that worked in our favor.

We dragged the gear inside in a couple of duffel bags, dumped them on the floor in the kitchen, and stood around the table for a moment. Nobody said a word for a long time.

“I don't suppose there's much of a chance we could retrieve his body?” J.D. asked.

I just shook my head. Any chance at it would almost certainly be a trap. That Russian bastard was trying to goad us into doing something stupid on the radio; he could probably be trusted to be waiting for us to try something like that.

It was something we'd all had to come to terms with, over the years. We were mercenaries working for a shadowy, pseudo-governmental paramilitary/spy organization, in various places where Americans in general usually weren't welcome, never mind well-armed paramilitary operatives. If things went sideways, nobody was coming for us. If we went down, we'd be buried where we fell, if we got a burial at all. It sucked, but it was the nature of the game.

“So, what do we do now?” Ivan asked. “Element of surprise is lost. And now there are only three of us.”

“I'm not sure we ever really had the element of surprise in the first place,” I said. “That was an ambush, no two ways about it.”

“You think someone leaked that we were coming?” Ivan asked.

“Possible,” I said. “More likely, to my thinking, is that Anders dangled it in front of our employers to draw out anyone hunting him.”

“And just our shit luck,” J.D. put in, “that the Organization sent a handful of expendable contractors to do the job.”

“Maybe,” I said. I was getting a bit of a nasty suspicion about the whole thing. J.D. looked at me and frowned.

“You think that Forsyth sent us in there to hit the tripwire for him?” he asked quietly, after a moment.

“I think it's entirely possible,” I replied. “It would go a good way toward explaining his insistence on haste and as little preparation as possible. Though I don't know why they felt the need to drag us halfway across the continent for it.”

“Question still stands,” Ivan said. It must have been the strain; his accent had gotten really thick, even while his voice was as stolid and unemotional as ever. “What do we do now?”

“It might be a good time to start looking at one or another of our fallback options,” J.D. mused.

“We'd have to be damned good and sure that our employers think we all died,” I pointed out. “And that's pretty hard to do. Remember Tarasov?”

Nikolai Tarasov had been one of our targets, a Mafia Avtoritet who had done a lot of work through the Crossroads. The Organization had marked him, and he had apparently been assassinated in Vladivostok. Except that he'd faked it, and somehow the Organization had tracked him down and put us on him. We'd found him in the Crossroads, followed him to Belyashi, and put a bullet in his head behind a barn that had looked like it belonged in the tenth century. The Organization had ways of finding people. And if we all vanished at this juncture, Forsyth was likely to get suspicious and start digging. “Live and let live” was not in the Organization's vocabulary.

“We don't have the resources here to pull a vanishing act,” I pointed out. “And on top of that, we don't just have Forsyth to worry about. Anders and whoever that Russian bastard was know we're looking for them now, and they'll be looking for us.”

“Not to mention whoever the hell that other team was,” J.D. pointed out.

I looked over at him. So, I hadn't been the only one to notice that they didn't fit. A small team moving toward the same target we'd been after, that had been taken under fire by the same machine gunners who had been trying to kill us. Again, unless Anders' mooks were way, way more incompetent than I thought they were—and nothing about that ambush suggested that they were—those guys were working for somebody else. The only question was, who?

Then I shook my head. They were the least of our worries. My guess was that they were another team sent after Anders, which made them competition, but not necessarily more of a threat than that. “We'll keep an eye out for them, but we've got bigger fish to fry. Obviously, the intel Forsyth gave us was crap. We lost Carlos, and Anders now knows we're here. Which means he's going to be hunting us, not to mention the fact that the NKDA is going to be on heightened alert after last night. We try to run, we're probably going to get rolled up, especially if we try to fly—presuming that the same Russians who flew us in here aren't in cahoots with the Russians that Anders had waiting in the trees.

“I think our best bet is going to be to lie low and watch for an opportunity to ambush Anders, take him on the move. If we can take him out, Forsyth might just send enough support to get us out of here in one piece.”

“You really believe that?” J.D. asked.

I sighed. “Not really,” I admitted, “but it's a chance.”

The phone rang. I'd actually been expecting this earlier. When I looked at the number, it was simply “Unknown,” but I knew who it was.

“Your intel was shit,” I said, as soon I answered, without giving Forsyth time to say anything.

“Hardly,” he said dryly, apparently unfazed by my attitude. “If it had been, you'd have found nothing but an empty house. It's evident that you're on the right track.”

“So, you were watching.”

“Of course,” he replied. “We've had assets overhead ever since we determined that Anders was in Stepanakert. We saw the whole little drama, in real time.”

I bit off a bitter curse. They'd been sitting, fat and happy and safe, probably in some trailer in Nevada or somewhere, watching while Carlos died.

“Do you have anything useful for me,” I asked tightly, “or is this just a reminder that you're watching?”

“Consider it touching base, and an assurance that you're not on a wild goose chase,” he answered coolly. “I'm not calling the op off, if that's what you're hoping. However, check the email I sent the briefing packet to. I've attached some of the overhead footage.” I grimaced. We could watch Carlos die, since we hadn't seen it on the ground. “That other group on the ground is a concern.”

That got my attention. I'd presumed that if they weren't Anders' people, they must have been sent by the Organization. It would fit the “Need To Know” Nazis not to tell us about a backup team.

“I thought they were another team you'd sent,” I said. “You did say that this was an 'all hands' evolution.” Ivan and J.D. traded a glance before going back to watching me, Ivan impassive, J.D. with one eyebrow raised.

“Negative,” Forsyth said, ignoring my thinly veiled jab at our lack of support out here. For full court press, we were awfully alone, suggesting that more than just the intel Forsyth had given us was bullshit. “We don't know for sure who they are, though there are a couple of possibilities. We need you to keep an eye out for them. If they know about Anders, they might present a security leak that we need to plug as soon as possible. They are not your primary target, but if you can find out any information about them, we need to know.”

Well, that's just plumb gracious of you, I thought viciously. My team down by a quarter, not a word of condolence or promise of support, just another target to add to the deck. Asshole.

“Can we expect any more in the way of support?” I asked, trying to unclench my teeth before asking. “If you were watching, you know that we're down a man.”

“And that's unfortunate,” Forsyth said, utterly without feeling, “but at this time, we can't send anyone. Nagorno-Karabakh is getting more non-permissive. The Russians are starting to take a more active role in supporting the Armenians, and that means more eyes that could compromise us. Best to keep the footprint small.” A sarcastic edge entered his voice. “You should be fine, Mr. Dragic. I've read your file. You're a professional, after all.” He hung up before I could even ask for any additional information.

“Cocksucker,” I muttered, as I resisted the urge to throw the phone against the wall. If he was watching from his eye in the sky, he had to know more about Anders' movements than he'd told us. If that file he was supposedly sending didn't have that info, when this was all said and done, scary reputation or no, I was going to find Forsyth and put a bullet in him.

#

The imagery wasn't nearly as helpful as we might have hoped. The drone operator had tried to keep eyes on both the ambushers and the other mystery shooters, and as a result, lost both of them within a kilometer of the target site. The ambushers looked like they were heading in our direction, while the mystery shooters had headed for the hills to the northeast.

That was interesting. While I wasn't shifting fire—Anders and the Russian on the radio were still my main focus—that told me that they were either camping out in the woods or they had more resources in the area than we did. Or maybe they had a safe house with some distance from Stepanakert, which, given more time to prepare, I might have done as well.

Leaving them aside, we were reasonably certain that Anders' people had gone into the southwest portion of the city. Somewhere. There were actually two semi-intact villages spread over the hills to the south, Kerkicahan and Haykavan. I say semi-intact because we'd all noticed that there were a lot of ruins scattered around Stepanakert. How much was because of shelling during the war, and how much was because of the Armenians ethnically cleansing the Azeris from the region, I didn't know. At that point in time, I didn't particularly care. The ruins might make decent observation sites, and probably wouldn't make for very good safe houses. We might be able to use them for recon, and we could probably safely write them off as Anders' local base of operations.

We'd start recon that afternoon, after we got a few hours sleep.

#

Even with only Ivan and me in the canvas-topped UAZ 469, dressed in the dark clothes that seemed to be the most common in the area, with the Suchkas under our seats, trying to stay low-profile in Kerkicahan was not an easy task.

The UAZ was a large part of the problem. While there were still a lot of ruins around the outskirts, central Stepanakert itself was a pretty modern city, with high-rises, parks, paved streets, sidewalks, and plenty of cars. Kerkicahan, while just outside, was an old-world village, not that far removed from the Middle Ages. The roads were unpaved dirt, most of the houses standing were stone or brick, though most of them had been re-roofed with corrugated sheet metal, and internal combustion engines were about as common as electricity. I saw a few carts and a few donkeys, but this place was Afghanistan poor. It wasn't all that strange to us; we were used to working in some of the poorest, shittiest parts of Eurasia. But it made it difficult to cruise the roads looking for a safe house.

Of course, it should make it hard for Anders to hide a safe house, too. Not only would the blond giant stand out, but the vehicles they'd probably be using would, too.

The village sort of wrapped around the hillside in a crescent, with the roads forming something akin to switchbacks as they wound around the hill. We were rolling through the ruins of the upper half of the village when we saw another car on the road.

It was an ancient, ugly LuAZ 969, colored a mix of faded yellow and rust. I couldn't see the driver and passenger clearly, but a vehicle in this ancient dump of a village was an indicator. I just pointed, and Ivan nodded. We'd see if we could tail them; if they were Anders' people, they might lead us back to their safe house. Then we might be able to plan a proper, and less suicidal, hit on the place. Or at least set up more low-profile surveillance so that we could take them on the move.

We were going to lose sight of them if we kept going the way we were; they were on the next road downhill, and were going to pass behind some more ruins and thick stands of trees. But without going full car chase on them, we wouldn't be able to avoid it. Looking at the crude map I'd drawn based on the overheads, the two roads should come together up ahead, anyway.

The road entered the trees, ruined houses looming on either side, and I put out a hand to have Ivan slow down. I didn't want to run into them unprepared or unawares; if this was going to be an ambush, I'd rather be the ambusher than the ambushed.

We crept forward, Ivan's foot just off the brake, as I drew my AKS-74U out from under the seat and slid it under a jacket on my lap. For the most part I was just being careful, but if by some chance that was Anders in that car, I was going to have Ivan sidle up to it and hose it down. Even that huge freak would die with enough 5.45 holes in him.

By now, I was keyed-up, scanning the woods and the gaping, darkened holes of the abandoned windows and doors in the shells of the village houses as we rolled past, looking for an ambush, a triggerman, or even any signs of IEDs in the piles of rubble alongside the road. After having that farmhouse blow up and narrowly avoiding going with it, I was a little more paranoid about explosives than usual.

I wanted a cigarette, but we had the windows rolled up to make it harder to see us, and while Ivan smoked, he didn't chain-smoke the way I did, and even I wasn't all that keen on hot-boxing the UAZ with Black Russian smoke.

“There he is,” Ivan said, nodding toward where the LuAZ was coming around the bend just downhill and in front of us, barely visible through the trees. If the house at the bend hadn't been reduced to little more than a rubble-strewn foundation, we probably wouldn't have spotted it at all.

The vehicle turned right, heading further downhill and away from us, and Ivan pressed the accelerator, picking up speed to catch up. It would be easy to lose them in this labyrinth of empty, crumbling buildings and steadily encroaching trees, but it would be just as easy to get burned and wind up in a fight we weren't ready for. We had to find a balance.

We hit the intersection at just the same time that the LuAZ turned left on the next road down. A quick glance at the map told me we had a little bit of leeway, provided they didn't floor it as soon as we lost sight of them.

Ivan glanced at the rear-view mirror just as we turned down the road after the LuAZ. “Who is that?” he asked.

I hunched down and looked in my own rear-view mirror. There was another car behind us. An ancient, rusty Lada sedan, it had just come up on us from the same road the LuAZ had been on.

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered. We'd gotten focused on the LuAZ and hadn't noticed that they were being followed. But who was who? There were two big dudes in the Lada, both looking hunched and uncomfortable in the little car, but I couldn't see much more detail than that, at least not in the tiny, cracked and scratched mirror that wasn't at a very good angle. I turned in my seat and looked back.

“Well?” Ivan asked as I turned back forward. We were still following the LuAZ; there was no point in doing anything else until we decided to break away and try to lose the Lada.

“I don't know,” I answered, still peering in the rear view while trying to keep an eye on the LuAZ, which had just trundled past a Y intersection and was continuing straight ahead. “The driver is a big black dude. I don't remember anything in the intel about Anders having a big black dude on his team.”

“Nothing in intel said anything about booby-trapped house or Russian brodyagi, either,” Ivan pointed out. “What do you want to do?”

“Keep driving,” I said, my hand on the Suchka's grip under the jacket. “Let the situation develop.” We really didn't have much of a choice, aside from opening fire, and I was pretty sure that Anders wasn't in that Lada, so starting a gunfight just had the potential to get us both ventilated without getting any closer to our target. Even so, I was looking for an escape route. We were not in a good position.

The LuAZ suddenly turned off the road, heading toward a larger house some way off the road and back in the trees. At the same time, an open-top UAZ surged out of the same side avenue and up onto the road in front of us, blocking the way.

As if that wasn't enough, a pair of Lada 4x4s came roaring down the road behind the sedan. I caught a glimpse of what might have been an AK in one of the open windows.

I tensed and flipped the jacket off my shorty AK. We were boxed, and it looked like things were about to get loud.

Yub tvoyu maht,” Ivan muttered, reaching down to drag his own Suchka out from under his seat, even as he wrenched the wheel to the left. We were just past the Y, but Ivan was going for it anyway.

There were three shooters in the open-top SUV in front of us, dressed in civilian clothes but wearing Russian plate carriers over them. Three black AK variants were leveled at us, even as I finished rolling down the window, stuck my Suchka out, and opened fire.

It was a fifty-yard shot, so it was entirely doable with the stubby little AK subgun, but we were bouncing over dirt and rocks, and I'd just yanked the selector down to the first slot, auto, and mashed the trigger.

The Suchka only has an eight-inch barrel, so the muzzle blast is an impressive blossom of flame. It strobed in front of my face as I did my best to riddle the other UAZ with bullets, though I'm pretty sure out of the forty-five round mag, only about ten actually hit anything.

It was enough to get their heads down, at least, and I thought I saw one drop into the back, hopefully shot. I pulled the weapon back inside just in time to avoid having it smashed out of my hands by a low-hanging tree branch, as Ivan got us onto the other road, heading back up the hill.

The Lada was right behind us, the passenger leaning out of the window and firing what looked like a Dirty Harry revolver of all things at the 4x4s behind them. One of the 4x4s looked like it had swerved off the road and smacked into the ruin of a house; there was a pile of rubble on the smoking hood. The other one was still coming after us, with the occasional muzzle flash of an automatic weapon coming from the passenger side. Rounds snapped and hissed past, audible even over the roar of the UAZ's engine. One hit my rear-view mirror with a bang, sending bits of glass and metal flying.

Chyort!” Ivan yelled, even as another round ripped through the canvas top just over our heads, tearing a long slit through it. We'd come around the long curve in the road, only to see that it dead-ended at a bombed-out house surrounded by low stone fences about four hundred yards away.

I rocked the next mag into my Suchka and turned to hang out the window again. Ivan could find us an escape route; I needed to suppress our pursuit. The UAZ was moving, though I could only see two guys in it now, and it was right behind the other 4x4. I didn't have a shot at either, however, without hitting the asshole who was hanging out of the Lada's window with that big wheelgun.

“Who the fuck is that?” I wondered. At that point in time I really couldn't give less of a damn about Forsyth's Request For Information; they were shooting at the same people we were. Of course, it looked like they sucked at not being followed, had probably blown this whole op, and what kind of amateur brings a revolver to a gunfight anymore? But then the guy put a bullet through the windshield of the 4x4 behind them, and the sporadic AK fire from the passenger side window suddenly ceased, so maybe he wasn't that much of an amateur after all.

Ivan, rather than slowing down as we rapidly approached the end of the road, floored the gas and sent us hurtling alongside the low stone fence around the ruined farmhouse ahead. He spun the wheel as we came abreast of what had once been a gate leading off the road to the left, almost flipped the vehicle, and then we were bouncing and roaring across the overgrown remains of some Azeri farmer's barnyard, heading uphill and toward the trees.

Unfortunately, I now had no shot at all, as our pursuers were now on the wrong side of the vehicle, and eclipsed by another crumbling farmhouse. I did get a glimpse behind us of the Lada continuing the way we'd been driving, heading for a gap in the trees. That dude was still shooting that enormous hand cannon, and it seemed to have dissuaded the pursuit somewhat, even though the sedan was now rocking way too much for him to actually be able to hit anything. Then the Lada disappeared into the trees, even as the UAZ tried to make the turn to follow us.

I braced the Suchka as tightly as I could against the door column, and squeezed off a burst at the driver. At least, I tried to aim at the driver; Ivan wasn't slowing down to give me a good shooting platform, so I sprayed the general area with about ten rounds. Then Ivan gunned it over the low remains of a gap in the stone fence, I damn near bit my tongue off as we hit the ground on the far side, and by the time I'd un-rattled my brains enough to try and shoot again, he'd taken another turn, and there were trees and a ruined wall between us and our pursuers. I couldn't see shit, so I hauled myself back inside and slumped in the seat.

“You good?” I asked, already starting to check him for bleeds even before he could answer. I'd seen a teammate bleed out before he'd even realized he'd been shot. Considering that Ivan was driving, and we were hurtling along a rocky hillside at what I would not consider entirely safe speeds, having him pass out from blood loss would not be a good way to live to get paid, much less to old age.

Once I was confident that Ivan wasn't going to keel over from blood loss, I slumped back in my seat and started checking myself, wondering what the hell we were going to do now.

#

“Wait, wait, wait. Stop,” J.D. said. “Go back. He was carrying what?”

“A big-ass, Dirty Harry Magnum revolver,” I repeated. “I thought it was weird, too.”

J.D. had a frown on his face, though, rather an odd expression for Mr. Always Obnoxiously Cheerful himself. “No,” he said, shaking his head, thinking so hard I could hear the hamster about to have a heart attack. “It's not just that. Something about a revolver . . . ”

I looked over at Ivan as I lit up. He just shrugged. He didn't know, either.

J.D. suddenly snapped his fingers. “There was a BOLO, came out about a year ago,” he said. “I bet I can find it somewhere, still. Something about an HVT who uses a Magnum revolver.”

“A signature weapon, particularly one like that, doesn't seem terribly smart for somebody playing the HVT game,” I commented, taking a deep drag on the cig.

J.D. wasn't listening, but was poring over the “sensitive” laptop, that we used for comms and such things as mission files. “Here it is!” he said excitedly. “I knew I remembered it.” He turned the screen so that we could see.

The picture was remarkably good quality for an HVT shot. It looked like a mugshot, except there was no prisoner number under the young man's face. His head had been shaved, and he had a couple of nasty scars, one across his forehead, another that looked like it had barely missed taking out his left eye. For all that, he still looked like a kid. Just a kid who'd seen some shit.

He was also pretty high up on the Organizations “Capture” list. Strangely enough, there didn't seem to be a “Kill” portion to it. Whatever Constantine Michael Valentine was wanted for, it had to have been something he was carrying around in his head. The Organization wasn't usually all that eager to go for “Capture Only.”

“Fuck me,” I muttered, taking another deep drag on the Black Russian and trying to let the nicotine keep the headache at bay. That was all we needed. Another snatch-and-grab on top of the time-sensitive one that had already gone south.

After a moment, staring at the kid's picture, I snorted. “Constantine Michael Valentine, huh?” I said. “Damn, his parents must have hated him. Well, it's lover-boy's lucky day. Because we're sure in no position to do anything about him.”

“We could send the sighting up the chain,” J.D. said.

“And then what?” I retorted. “You know damned good and well that as soon as Forsyth hears that there's another HVT here, he's going to task us with both. We're already down a man, and we were undermanned for the Anders mission to begin with. Fuck Valentine and fuck telling Forsyth about him. Let somebody else worry about that one. We've got enough on our plate. Now, can we get back to the mission at hand? This is twice we've clashed with what I can only assume are Anders' people, with no sign of the big bastard himself. This isn't that big a city. He's got to be somewhere.”

J.D. looked uncertain. Ivan just looked grim. But without any further complaint, we got back to planning. The clock was ticking, Forsyth was probably going to be calling about the dustup in Kerkicahan any minute now, and I was now fairly certain that Anders' people were actively hunting us.

We needed to hurry up and get this job over with before it killed the rest of us.

#

“Why am I getting impression that this is waste of time?” Ivan muttered.

I just grunted an irritated monosyllable that might or might not have been a word. I was driving, Ivan was riding shotgun, and we were following one of the 4x4s that had shot at us in Kerkicahan a couple days before.

“We have seen all of these brodyagi several times,” he continued. “Still no sign of Anders. He is not type to stay inside and hide when there is killing to be done.”

I had to agree. We had gotten to the point over the last couple of days where we could recognize most of the Russian shooters. And the man in charge was definitely not Anders. Short, stocky, scarred, with a shaved head, no appreciable neck, and a nose that looked like it had been broken at least a half-dozen times, the guy I was mentally thinking of as The Bulldog was pretty obviously the team leader for the shooters, most of whom were hanging out in paramilitary uniforms and kit, openly armed.

The reason they were getting away with being so blatant was pretty evident from what we were seeing. The 4x4 ahead slowed and stopped at an NKDA checkpoint, and the Russians got out leisurely. Two of them hung out by the vehicle, while the other two walked up to the ancient BTR-52 and started handing out cigarettes and shooting the shit with the Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers.

As I watched, I decided that this wasn't just the Russians trying to win over the locals. There was a certain camaraderie in evidence that wasn't explicable by the Russians paying the Armenians off to look the other way. These guys had seen action together.

Ivan was watching the byplay going on next to the old BTR as well. “Russian 'volunteers,'” he said. “Russians have been supporting Armenians here for decades. Naturally is corruption and mafiya involved. Probably some 'volunteers' also brodyagi. Makes sense that Anders paid brodyagi already here for fighting against Azeris.”

I had slowed and pulled over to the side of the road as the 4x4 had stopped at the checkpoint. I didn't want to drive into the middle of that, and even as we sat there, a block and a half away, watching, I was looking for an escape route. One of the difficulties of our situation was that we didn't have multiple teams with multiple vehicles to do our surveillance with. That meant that sooner or later, we were going to get burned, assuming we hadn't already. Ivan and I had carjacked a creaky, wheezing GAZ-24 to replace the UAZ that had gotten shot up, but the same vehicle with the same two mopes in it was going to start to stand out after a while.

I was about to say something more about Anders' presence or lack thereof, when The Russian turned, looking around, and looked right at me. At least, he seemed to. He paused for a moment, puffing on his cigarette, looking at us.

“I think we might be burned,” I said.

“I think so, too,” Ivan replied. “Just play it cool.”

“Do I look like I'm panicking?” I asked, as I took my hands off the wheel to light another cigarette. Let The Russian think that I had just pulled over to light up. Plus, the initial cloud of smoke would help conceal my features.

Of course, of the few people who drove around here, most wouldn't actually stop to light up, but I was making do with what I had.

The Russian was still looking toward us as he leaned over to his buddy and said something. It was definitely time to go. I still kept it casual as I put the GAZ in gear and started us rolling, taking the first turn before the checkpoint.

The Russian and his cronies watched us the entire way.

“Fuuuuuuck,” I said, as I started on a long, meandering route back to the safe house. We'd been burned, all right. And for what? If Anders really wasn't there, we were about to get killed for a fucking red herring. Carlos already had been.

Neither of us spoke much on the way back. We managed to avoid most of the checkpoints, though at least one had been unavoidable. We'd been careful that all the weapons and gear were carefully hidden before driving up and handing the NKDA soldier our fake documents, which had been hastily turned out by the Organization. They were shit copies, and wouldn't stand up against any serious scrutiny, but the kid just looked bored and disinterested as he checked the documents, gave the inside of the car a cursory glance, and waved us by. He probably had some serious drinking and porn watching to do, and having to check vehicles was cutting into his “me” time.

Getting back to the safe house, we were presented with a problem. The car was burned, no doubt about that. Parking it in front of the safe house would only burn the house as well, and we didn't have a backup. But walking too far with the gear, even stuffed in the big backpacks we had in the back, might raise some eyebrows as well. We weren't locals, and this part of Stepanakert, hell, any part of Stepanakert, was a little sensitive to out-of-towners. These people had effectively lived under siege for decades. Strangers were noted. That was why we'd exposed ourselves as little as possible.

But the car was going to be a bigger target indicator, so we parked it five houses down, stuffed our Suchkas and chest rigs in our packs, and walked the rest of the way. J.D. was at the door, his AK-74 held just out of sight.

“Where's the car?” he asked, as we walked in.

“Down the street,” I answered. “We got spotted.” I dropped the pack on the floor and picked up my AKM. I'd be keeping it close for the moment.

“Um,” was all J.D. said. I turned and frowned at him. Usually, he'd have a lot more to say, especially about a compromise. But he wasn't looking at me. He actually looked a little guilty, which was a new expression for our resident hedonist and serial womanizer.

“What the fuck did you do?” I asked, concern about The Russian eyeballing us suddenly eclipsed by J.D.'s demeanor.

He was saved the necessity of answering immediately by the call signal from the laptop in our makeshift comms room, which was just a former bathroom, the toilet having been ripped out to leave nothing but a noxious-smelling hole in the floor. With a glare that promised a continuation to the conversation, I went inside to answer it.

I was expecting Forsyth. But the face that came up on the screen wasn't Forsyth. I'd never seen this guy before.

Forsyth had a dangerous rep, but he looked like an office geek who got to the gym regularly. Whoever this was, he was older, decades older, but even with thinning white hair and wrinkles, he looked like one dangerous, scary old bastard. His neck was almost as thick as The Russian's, and his eyes were probably the coldest I'd ever seen, and I've looked into the eyes of some very nasty people.

“You Dragic?” he asked. His voice was low and gravelly. It fit him.

“I am,” I said. There probably wasn't any point in trying to beat around the bush with this guy. He didn't look like the type to play games. “Who are you?”

“My name's Underhill,” he replied. “I'm told you've made contact with Michael Valentine.”

I felt a sudden cold rage at his words. So that was why J.D. had looked like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He'd talked about Valentine. Fucker.

But somehow I got the impression that showing this man anything but the utmost professionalism was not a good idea. “That depends on how you define 'contact,'” I answered. “We've tentatively ID'ed him, based on a couple of chance encounters in the course of our own operations. We're pretty sure he's here after Anders, just like we are. If it is him.”

Underhill's expression didn't change a whit. Nor did he apparently give a damn for my qualifications. “Your mission profile has changed,” he said bluntly. “You are to get eyes on Constantine Michael Valentine, and maintain surveillance until I get there. Do not try to engage him or his companions.”

“Dammit,” I snarled, momentarily not caring about how scary this oldster appeared. An old guy working for the Organization was usually not one to trifle with. He'd probably been around a long time, and done some things that would give most normal people nightmares. But after ten years of working for these people, we were being used as expendable pawns, and it pissed me off more than this guy scared me. “We're already in over our heads with looking for Anders. I'm ninety-five percent certain that he's hunting us as much as we're hunting him. And as near as I can tell, we're the only assets you've got here looking for him. And you want us to add another target to the list?”

“No,” he said, with the grinding patience of a glacier. “You're shifting targets. There are plenty of other teams out doing the same 'confirm or deny' game that you've been playing with the three dozen or so mostly spurious Anders sightings that have been cropping up. This is a higher priority.”

I saw red. We were out in the cold, with Carlos dead already, for a target that probably had never been there, and the Organization had known that? “And how many of those teams have been ambushed?” I asked through gritted teeth.

“Several,” he replied, with about as much feeling as a man talking about how his stocks were doing. Less, actually. A man talking about his stocks would have some actual stake in their success. Underhill didn't care. At all. “That was always to be expected. Enough of that. Stick to the matter at hand.”

It was a tribute to just how menacing this emotionless, gravel-voiced oldster was that I quit bitching and went ahead and played along.

“Why Valentine?” I asked. “What did he do that makes him more valuable a target than Anders?”

“He's not,” Underhill said. “You're being re-tasked because we're now fairly certain that Anders isn't in Azerbaijan, while you've got a pretty solid lead on Valentine. As for what he did; that's need-to-know, and you don't need to know. Just don't underestimate him.”

“He looks like a kid,” I said.

“That kid was a Vanguard merc before he became an Exodus terrorist,” Underhill said. “He's seen plenty of combat, and he's a survivor. If he was just any schlub with a gun, they wouldn't have hauled me out of retirement a year ago to find him.

“You've got your instructions,” he said, his voice low, hard, and brooking no dissent. “Get eyes on Valentine and don't lose him until I get there and can take him in. He's my target; you're now spotting for me. Don't screw this up.” The screen went blank. He'd ended the call.

To my credit, I didn't yell, I didn't scream, I didn't even curse under my breath. I just sat there for a minute, staring at the laptop. Then I got up, went out into the main room, without looking at either J.D. or Ivan, and lit a cigarette. I smoked the entire thing down to the filter, then crushed it out on the filthy floor before turning to stare at J.D.. He didn't look at me, not at first.

“I specifically said we were going to leave well enough alone,” I said. “We are undermanned, all but unsupported, and in unfamiliar territory. Let's stick to the job at hand until we can either bag the target or otherwise get back to our own AO, where we know the terrain and the people, I said. So tell me, J.D., since I'm pretty sure it was you, why did you decide to throw that decision completely out the fucking window and tell fucking Forsyth that we'd seen fucking Valentine here?”

He lifted his head and looked me in the face. Suddenly his guilty look was gone, replaced with a flash of anger. “Because somebody had to,” he snarled. “We've been through two ambushes and several days of recon, with no sign of Anders. Forsyth was getting impatient. If we wanted to have a chance in hell of getting out of here in one piece, I had to give them something, some reason not to just write us off and make us disappear. They wouldn't even have to take us, you know that. A word here, a file deleted there, and we're international fugitives. Fuck that.”

He stepped closer to me, lowering his voice. “This isn't about your pride anymore, Frank. It isn't about your idea of somehow being above it all, a gun for hire, totally uninvested, doing the job well enough to keep below the level of a threat and above being a pawn. Guess what, Frank? We're fucking pawns. We're no better off than the Dead Six guys that you pitied so much, all the while telling yourself that you had it figured out, that we could walk the tightrope and come out fine.” He stepped back and shook his head. “We're not fine, Frank. This isn't our game, and we can't play it the way we want to. I had to give them something, and it bought us time. So you can get off your damn high-horse and accept that if I hadn't told them about this Valentine character, we'd be dead in a week.”

I just glared at him, but at the same time, I knew that he was right. We'd been playing a game of brinksmanship for years, banking on our usefulness to keep us from being too expendable. But to the Organization, everybody's ultimately expendable, particularly contractors. We weren't special. We'd just bucked the odds for longer than most. Now we were out of options. I had no doubt that Underhill would make it his business to hunt us down and finish us off if we screwed this up. Forsyth might have a nasty reputation, but even without knowing anything about Underhill, something about that old man just scared me.

But that didn't make the fact that J.D. had gone behind my back to the Organization any easier to swallow. I'd trusted this man with my life for years. And he'd just betrayed that trust as surely as if he'd slid a knife into my back.

Part of that tightrope act we'd pretended was going to end in anything but a fiery crash and burn had been the understanding that we could never entirely trust the Organization. We had to trust each other instead. Yet J.D. had gone to the Organization in spite of Ivan and me. I didn't know if I could ever trust him all the way again.

I'd always known that J.D. had an amoral streak. He was a hired killer and a serial womanizer, and not much else. But this . . . it was all I could do not to just shoot him in the face. He was the same guy, but I'd be watching him like a hawk from here on out. Because I couldn't know when he'd decide to sell us out the rest of the way.

Ivan hadn't said a word, but the expression on his flat Russian face was thunderous as he looked at J.D.. Loyalty was a big thing with Ivan; he'd followed me without hesitation—though occasionally with some rather pointed questions—ever since I'd pulled him out of Pavlodar just ahead of the friends of the brodyaga he'd nearly killed in the bar. He wouldn't like this. And when Ivan really didn't like something . . . well, things could get a little physical.

“You should not have done this, J.D.,” he said, his voice sounding a little deeper, his accent a little thicker, than usual. “Not without consulting us.”

“Both of you would have just doubled down on your walk-the-line bullshit,” J.D. answered harshly. “You wouldn't have done it. So I did it for you.” He turned away, toward his room. “You can thank me later.”

Ivan and I watched him leave the room, neither one of us saying anything. Ivan didn't look pissed anymore. His expression was blank, dead. Ivan with the dead face was way worse than Ivan pissed off. It meant he was seriously contemplating killing J.D. in the next few minutes.

He turned to look at me, and I shook my head. “We still need him,” I said, reading the unasked question. I sighed bitterly. “We'll figure out what to do after this is all over.”

“He knows all fallback plans,” Ivan pointed out quietly.

“He won't tell anybody,” I said, starting to get over the anger. I could see why J.D. had done it, even if it still pissed me off. He hadn't suddenly turned into an Organization drone. He was scared that we were going to fail and pay the ultimate price for it, and had acted out of that fear.

Still, I could tell that the team's days were numbered. If we survived this nightmare of an assignment, we wouldn't be working together anymore. More than likely, we'd activate our fallback plans, and disappear into the shadowy corners of the world, to live out the rest of our lives under assumed identities, hoping the Organization overlooked us.

But that was dependent on that big, ugly if. If we survived. We needed to get to work on that part, and worry about what came after if there was an “after.”

“Come on,” I said. “We'll start planning to track down this Valentine character. J.D. can come join us when he's done sulking.”

#

In the end, we didn't have a chance to find anybody. They found us.

The fact of the matter was, we had no idea where Valentine and his Exodus pals might have been. We'd only ever seen them in passing, while hunting for Anders—or, rather, hunting The Bulldog, since Anders didn't seem to actually be on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. The only lead we had was that the Russians had apparently been following Valentine when we'd had our little dust-up in Kerkicahan. So we decided to go looking for Russians.

J.D. had come out of his room after Ivan and I had only been planning for a few minutes. We kitted up and got ready to move without much conversation. There wasn't much to say. At least, until Ivan looked out the front window to see if the coast was clear.

“We have company,” he said. I joined him at the window, trying to peer out without exposing myself too much to the outside. We hadn't drawn too much attention from the neighbors, but it was probably bound to happen. It was just a really bad time for it.

It wasn't the neighbors. Valentine had ditched the Lada for a UAZ. They were trying to be casual, but I could see enough through the rolled-up windows to tell that it was the same big black dude in the passenger seat.    The thought that they should probably have left that guy at home went through my head. It's hard to be inconspicuous in the Caucasus when you're damn near seven feet tall and black as the Ace of Spades.

“Oh, hell,” I muttered. Ivan had a stream of Russian profanity going under his breath. We didn't have to look for our target, but one of the keys to successful surveillance is that the target doesn't know you're there. And apparently, Valentine had come looking for us.

“We don't know that he knows we are here,” Ivan said. “He could only be looking. Maybe he is not even looking for us.”

“We haven't seen any of The Russian's people in this neighborhood,” I pointed out. “Either he's way off, or he's not looking for them. And right now, I'm not trusting in coincidence.”

“So what do we do?” J.D. asked.

I blew a deep breath out past my nose. “We've got to take him.”

Ivan's eyebrows climbed toward his hairline as he turned to look at me. I kept watching Valentine's vehicle through the window.

“Take him?” he asked. “In middle of street, during middle of day? And how will we avoid Russians and NKDA while getting him out of town, while dismantling safe house, and making contact with Underhill to tell him change in plans?”

“I don't fucking know, all right?” I snapped. “This is 'desperate times, desperate measures' time here. I'm spitballing.” The truth was, I had a sinking feeling in my gut that said we were fucked, no matter what happened over the next five minutes. “The only other option is to try to run out the back, try to lose 'em, set up somewhere else, and try to find 'em again. What are the odds we can pull that off, given how the rest of this job is unraveling around us?”

“Is not good plan,” Ivan said.

“It's no fucking plan at all,” I replied, throwing on my chest rig and grabbing my AKM. “It's nothing but a desperate roll of the dice. We're probably dead either way. May as well go down shooting, if that's what it comes to.”

Ivan shrugged, though he didn't even look at J.D. as he grabbed his own gear and weapon. J.D. didn't say another word, but he kitted up as if he was fully on board.

“J.D., you stay here, cover us from the window,” I said. “Ivan and I will go out the back.” He nodded, staying back from the window, but shouldering his AK-74 and bringing it to the low ready. Ivan and I beat feet out the back door.

The back was mostly overgrown, with trees overhanging the yard between the safe house and the house behind it, one of the few on Shahinyan Street. The yard was overgrown, but not overgrown enough to conceal the four men in Russian digital camouflage and black chest rigs moving toward the safe house, their black AK-107s held ready.

I don't know who was more surprised to see the other; we had been a little focused on Valentine out front, and they thought they were sneaking up on us. Everybody reacted about the same way and at about the same time, though.

I barely aimed as I ripped a burst at the first green and black silhouette that rose in front of my muzzle, even as I ran for the corner of the house and some kind of cover. Ivan was going the other way, and the Russians were diving for the ground, all of them shooting at the same time. Bullets snapped past, hitting the side of the house with loud cracks, spraying concrete fragments and plaster dust into the air with each impact.

Diving onto my belly behind the corner, I found that it really didn't provide that much cover; it cut off one of the Russian shooters, but I was still pretty exposed to the other three. Worse, I could hear more fire coming from out front, both rifle fire and the booms of Valentine's hand cannon.

Caught in the open, the Russians charged the house, firing as they came. I was in the prone, though, and shrank back against the wall, aiming in on the closest, and fired three fast shots. They tracked up his chest, and he staggered, but didn't go down. He had to be wearing a vest. So I raised the rifle a bit and shot him three times in the throat and face. Red splashed and he stopped dead, kind of went up on his tiptoes, and fell flat on his face.

The others slowed, and the covering fire started to get uncomfortably close. I shrank back further against the wall, trying to make myself as small as possible, but I had to finish this fast. The shooting from the street was intensifying, and I felt really exposed. There wasn't much between my ass and the street, after all.

Flipping the AKM back up to auto, hoping that there were still enough rounds in the mag, I rolled out from the wall and dumped the rest of the magazine at the charging attackers.

The AKM bucked with the recoil, the muzzle rising as I tracked it across the two men I could see. One doubled over as a round took him right beneath the plate, and stumbled to his knees. The other one tried to duck, and took a round to the top of the head. He wasn't wearing a helmet, either. A bloody chunk of skull went flying, and he fell on his face. Then the rifle clicked. Empty. It was a bit of a frantic scramble to get the next mag out of my chest rig, which I was lying on, strip the empty, and rock the new mag in. That guy I'd gut-shot, while he was rolling around on the ground and screaming, wasn't dead yet, and I never trust a bad guy until he's dead.

I racked a round into the chamber, got up on a knee, and started to bring the rifle to bear on the wounded Russian, when a burst smacked more concrete chips into my face, the deformed bullets whining past as they skipped off the corner. I'd forgotten about the fourth guy.

Where the hell is Ivan? I thought, ducking back away from the storm of AK fire. As soon as it slackened, I surged out around the corner, leading the way with my rifle.

I damn near hit the Russian in the face with the muzzle. If I'd been a split second slower, he probably would have grabbed my rifle and I'd have been in a world of hurt, down on the ground fighting him for the weapon. But as soon as his ugly, lumpy, scarred-up face appeared in front of my front sight, I was squeezing the trigger.

I hadn't dropped the selector lever down to semi, either. A five-round burst turned his head into a canoe. Blood and brains splashed back in a muddy red spray, and then splattered on me as his momentum kept him falling into me. We went down in a tangle of limbs, guns, and gear, as the liquid contents of his skull spilled across my chest.

With a grunt of mostly effort—I was too far in the zone to worry about disgust or what kind of STDs a Russian mobster might be carrying around in his blood—I shoved the corpse off of me and scrambled to my feet, desperately bringing my rifle to bear, scanning for any more threats. That was when I saw Ivan.

He was slumped against the wall, only a few feet short of the corner, not moving. A red splash against the plaster behind him told me all I needed to know.

I stared at his body for a moment, a moment I probably couldn't afford. I should have run after that. I really didn't have a team left. I didn't have anything left. I was watching what was left of my life unravel in front of my eyes. But for some reason, I turned and headed back around to the street, trying for one last chance at Valentine; one last chance at not ending up on Underhill's hit list.

Moving in a crouch, rifle up and ready, I approached the front of the safe house and the street beyond.

There was no fire coming from the house. Whether that meant that J.D. had chickened out or was dead, I didn't know. All the fire seemed to be going up and down the street. A two-and-a-half ton truck was parked almost right in front of me, with half a dozen Russian shooters trading fire with Valentine and his buddies, who were just down the street to my right, crouched behind their UAZ, which wasn't providing very good cover, but it wasn't going to be much of a getaway vehicle after that, either. There were several Russian bodies strewn in the street, as if they'd tried charging the UAZ.

I didn't really think about it. The Russians had killed most of my team; target or not, Valentine hadn't. So I opened fire on the Russians.

They weren't expecting it; they were entirely fixated on Valentine's team. No one even appeared to be watching their six o'clock. They must have been pretty confident that the NKDA wasn't going to interfere, and that their buddies in the trees would have taken us out without too much trouble.

If there's one thing I'm not, it's “not too much trouble.”

I knew they were wearing body armor, so I didn't just spray. I clicked the selector down to “semi,” and started putting controlled pairs into bodies.

Most of my work in recent times may have been sabotage and assassination, striking without warning against targets that usually have no idea that there's a threat anywhere near, but I'm still a good combat shooter. It's one of those skills I've always taken pride in maintaining. I'm fast, and I'm accurate. So it didn't take long to track along the ragged line of men crouched in the vague cover of the truck, putting two rounds into each of them. The AKM's rattling roar wasn't much compared to the storm of noise that was already roaring across the street, and I started at the back, so they only realized they had been flanked when the second guy from the rear fell onto his buddy, blood and brains leaking from his perforated skull. That threw off my aim, and the shots meant for his buddy went into the side of the truck, but I corrected and hammered three shots into that guy's side before continuing on.

The last guy, who was crouched at the front wheel well, almost got me. He realized what was going on and spun, bringing his Suchka around to point it at my face. His finger was tightening on the trigger when I shot him in the eye. His head snapped back and hit the fender, leaving a red smear on the green paint as he slid down to the pavement.

Still not certain I'd gotten all of them, I sprinted toward the bodies to check the back of the truck. Sure enough, there was one last Russian back there, and he let off a blind burst at me as I dove to the street, scraping my knees and hands, my AKM clattering as it hit the asphalt. I rolled quickly to the wheel well to get my feet under me, shoving the rapidly cooling corpse of the last man I'd shot aside.

Glancing down at him, I saw he had a couple of grenades on his kit, and I briefly considered it. But that would probably just blow me up, too, and I was in combat mode at that point. Depression and the inevitable destruction of my life were about as far from my mind as they could be.

I got into a crouch, then surged forward. There was only one thing in my mind at that point: Attack. The blind fire from the back of the truck had died away, and I wasn't going to give that sonofabitch a chance to try again.

I came around the corner and collided with The Bulldog, his bald head and lumpy nose unmistakable. He was frantically reloading, but I knocked the AK-107 out of his hands when I hit him. At least, that was what I tried to do. He let it go quick enough, and grabbed my rifle, trying to wrench it away. I held on for dear life as I fell on top of him, trying to get my knee under myself so I could get some leverage, buttstroke him, knee him in the ribs, anything.

He suddenly let go with one hand and snatched a knife off his chest rig. That made me let go with both hands and grab for his knife hand. I caught his wrist just as the tip of the blade touched my shirt beneath my chest rig. I held on, my knuckles turning white, practically doing a static pushup above that nasty piece of steel, trying to keep my weight off of it while I tried to twist his wrist.

He let go of the rifle entirely, and suddenly we were in a wrestling match for the knife, guns completely forgotten. Either I sagged a little, or he managed to push upward a little, because I felt the white-hot pain of the point going into the skin over my stomach. I surged backward and to one side, trying to get away from it. In the process, I got off the point, but lost my grip with one hand.

As fast as a striking snake, he was up off the ground, pressing his attack, my one hand no longer enough to hold off his two. He got on top of me, pressing down on the knife, which started to inch closer and closer to my chest.

I still only had one hand on his wrist. I drew the little backup Makarov on my hip with the other and shot him.

He grunted, a confused look in his piggy little eyes turning to shock as I pumped the other seven rounds of 9mm into his guts. The strength had gone out of him, and it was easy enough to roll him off of me, though I was bleeding from a couple of knife wounds now. The Makarov was smoking slightly, the slide locked back. The Russian looked up at me, that puzzled look still on his face for a moment, and then he wasn't seeing anything ever again.

A boot scuffed on the asphalt. I spun, instinctively pointing the empty Makarov, knowing it was too late. I was staring down the barrel of a G3 in Valentine's hands. That big revolver was in a leather holster on his hip.

Valentine was studying me. I don't know why he hadn't just shot me. Maybe it was because so far, we'd both been shooting at the Russians. Maybe he really didn't know what to make of me. I knew what he saw. A gaunt, prematurely gray-haired man, fit but with too many lines in his face from too much stress, too many cigarettes, and too much vodka, soaked in blood and brains and aiming an empty pistol.

“Who are you?” he asked. Strange, his eyes were different colors.

“Me?” I asked, glancing over at the safe house. The front windows were shattered, the wall pocked with bullet holes. “I'm nobody. Not anymore. Just one more expendable pawn who's been expended. Go ahead. Do it. You'd be doing me a favor.”

“Listen,” he said, lowering the muzzle so it was pointed more at my chest than my face, “you don’t have to die today. I just wanted to ask you a few questions. This can work out so we both walk out of here, alive. We don’t have a lot of time, though.”

“Yeah, no shit,” I replied, dropping the useless Mak on the ground. “Every Russian brodyaga and Armenian henchman is going to be descending on this place in the next hour. You'd better go.”

He wasn't going to make it that easy. He frowned, the rifle muzzle twitching upward a fraction of an inch. “Yeah, no, I think you’re missing what I’m getting at here. You’re coming with me. Get the fuck up.”

I briefly considered just letting him shoot me. It would solve a lot of problems. With the safehouse as shot up as it was, the fact that J.D. wasn't blasting Valentine and his buddy to pieces told me all I needed to know. I stood up and looked him in the face. “You’re Valentine, right? The one they’re looking for?” For some damned reason, I felt like validating my targeting, and making sure I hadn't blown it completely for the sake of some random merc who wasn't even the target.

But I'd hit paydirt, apparently. He tensed up, his face going blank. “I am,” he said, “and right now, your survival depends on you answering one question. Where is Simon Anders?”

I felt an insane, hysterical laugh rising up, but managed to keep it to a chuckle. “Fucking hell, this is too much.”

He didn't like that, and went back to pointing the rifle at my face. At that point, I couldn't care less. “Last chance, asshole,” he said.

“You don’t get it, do you?” I snapped. “Anders isn’t here. He was never here. This whole thing? It was a fucking setup. He’s put out false trails everywhere. Looks like we both took the bait.”

The big black dude came to Valentine's side. “We need to go,” he told him. “This was an ambush. They knew we were coming.”

“I don't think so,” Valentine said, studying me. He jerked his head at me. “I think they knew this guy was coming.”

The big dude looked at me. He wasn't an American; his accent was wrong. “Who is he?” he asked.

“He's a fucking dead man if he doesn't start being useful,” Valentine said.

Go ahead, tough guy, I thought. Do it. Do me the favor.

But I knew at that point that, depressed as I was, lost as I was, my damned survival instinct wasn't going to let me just lie down and die. Valentine wasn't going to just let me walk away, yet, and there was no way I was going to get the drop on him right away. Maybe, just maybe, he could be my way out of this clusterfuck. For damned sure the Organization's secrecy rules no longer meant shit to me. I'd play along with Valentine long enough to get out of this damned kill zone, then I'd fade. I'd run, and find one of our fallback bolt-holes and disappear, just like Ivan and I had planned to do. It might take some doing, but I could be patient.

#

Ulan Bator, Mongolia
Eight Weeks Later . . . 

My safe house, a small apartment in a nondescript brick apartment building in Ulan Bator, was dark as I came in from a supply run. I easily passed as a Russian, blending into the considerable Russian population of Ulan Bator. A bigger city is an easier place to disappear in than a small town or village out in the country, even if there was more risk of hostile eyes there.

This was one of the places that Ivan and I had set up as a fallback, a number of years before. I'd taken my time getting there after ditching Valentine, bouncing through a few other places and a few other identities to make sure I wasn't being tracked. We'd visited it every once in a while, though never for long, just enough to make sure the bills were paid and nobody was squatting there. I was living there as Dmitri Kuznetsov, a semi-retired professor. It wasn't much, as cover stories go, but it would do until I could come up with something better.

If I had so much time. As I closed the door and bolted it, a match flared in the living room. I froze.

As far as I knew, only my team had ever known about this place. How had they found me? I started to reach for the Tokarev concealed in the small of my back.

“I wouldn't do that, Frank,” the man in the living room said. The match briefly illuminated his features as he lit the cigar in his teeth, but I saw little except his glasses. “Turn on the light.”

I did. He had an old revolver pointed at me, a .357, I thought. I briefly wondered what the hell it was with revolvers lately? I reconsidered reaching for the Tok.

“Sit down,” he told me. I complied, studying him as I did.

He was old. His ears stuck out a little from snow-white hair and a face that was a mass of wrinkles. His eyes, though, were as keen as any young man's even as they watched me from behind a pair of round-lensed, wire-rimmed glasses. He was eighty if he was a day. There was an oxygen bottle sitting next to his chair, yet he was puffing on a cigar. The muzzle of that Smith never wavered.

“We need to talk, Frank,” he said.

“How did you know about this place?” I asked. “Nobody knows about this place.”

“I've been watching you for a long time,” he replied, puffing on his cigar. “I keep tabs on a lot of people. When one of them might be useful, I might have to act. I had to move quickly, in your case.”

I just felt tired all of a sudden. “Did they drag you out of retirement like Underhill?” I asked.

“Did who drag me out of retirement?” he asked.

I frowned. I was confused now. “The Organization?”

“Like that bunch of schemers and lickspittles could drag me anywhere. Pshaw!” he snorted. “Most of them think I'm dead.”

Now I was really confused. “So why are you here, and why have you been watching me?”

He stared at me. “Frank, how much do you really know about the Organization you've been working for for the last decade?”

“Not that much,” I admitted. “Some black agency buried so deep that it's existence never gets mentioned outside of shows like From Sea to Shining Sea. Conspiracy crap.”

He grunted again, taking another puff from the cigar, then reaching down to hold the oxygen mask to his face and take a deep breath. “Fair enough assessment, these days,” he replied. “Wasn't always like that, though.”

“You were with the Organization in the old days?” I asked.

“With the Organization?” he harrumphed. “Boy, I was one of those started the damn Organization. And it served a purpose back then. I'd been killing Communists on four continents before you were even born. That was what the Organization existed for. To stop the dominoes from falling. Ultimately, to win the damn war and bring the Soviets to their knees.” He took another puff off the cigar, then another breath off the oxygen bottle.

“Now it's all power games. Influence operations, PsyOps, using secret police tactics in the U.S. The whole shooting match has gotten corrupt. These damn kids don't give a shit about their country, they only care about their power and influence, their damned games. Most of us oldsters who are still alive have just gone deep, waiting out our time until we go, wishing it was different.”

“But not you.” I was starting to see where this was going. I wasn't sure I liked it, either.

“Damn straight,” he said. “I might be retired, but I still hear everything, and I've got contacts everywhere. The pattern's still faint, but it's there, if you've got eyes to see and the experience to put two and two together. Things are coming to a head. Bad times are a'coming. It's getting to be time for us old guys to step in and set things right. The new generation's screwed it all up.” He eyed me keenly. He might look like somebody's kindly old grandpa, but when you looked into his eyes, you saw that this was one hard old man. If what he'd said was true, this kindly old grandpa had probably killed more people than cancer. “That's where you come in. I need people. You've already got yourself in one hell of a position. Underhill's no joke. I should know. I trained the sonofabitch.”

“This is where you make me an offer I can't refuse,” I said, weary down to my bones.

“Smart boy,” he said. He stood up, that Smith still pointed at my heart, his cigar clamped in his teeth. The oxygen bottle was on a cart, but he didn't seem to need a cane. “You've got a choice. You can be like that Valentine kid, looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life. Or I can use my resources to help you stay under the radar. Underhill will never find you. The only price is that occasionally you've got to do some work for me. So, what's it going to be?”

I squinted up at him. “No, old man, what it really comes down to is I work for you, or you put a bullet in me and disappear. If you're really the shadow player you say you are, you're not going to chance me getting rolled up and telling them about this conversation.”

He smiled. “See, I said you were a smart kid.” His eyes went cold. “So what's it going to be?”

I sighed. “Hell, that's no damn choice at all,” I said. I wasn't ready to be murdered by Commie-Killing Grandpa in a shitty apartment in Ulan Bator. “If I wanted to get killed by my erstwhile employers, I'd have stayed in Stepanakert and waited for Underhill. I'll be here when you need me.”


Copyright © 2016 Peter Nealen


Peter Nealen is a former Recon Marine, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and something of an aspiring renaissance man (emphasis on aspiring). He reads extensively across genres and subject matter, in an effort to prove that yes, grunts can in fact read. And even write. He has written both fiction and nonfiction, primarily on military subjects. He is the author of the American Praetorians thriller series, the Jed Horn supernatural thriller series, and the recent paramilitary thriller Kill Yuan. This story marks his first time writing in another author's sandbox, in cooperation with Mike Kupari, coauthor of the Dead Six series. This story is set within the world of the Dead Six series by Larry Correia and Mike Kupari, and within the time frame of the third book in the series, Alliance of Shadows. It is part one of a two part story series. The second entry, authored by Mike Kupari, can be found here.