Dawn came over Groznyy quickly, too quickly for Ivan Arseni's tastes. After a quick shave and a light breakfast, he roused Segur Sonaria and had him help him prepare their Hind while they waited for General Yevin and his "special cargo."
"Is she ready?" Arseni asked his gunner, referring to the chopper itself.
"As ready as she can ever be, Ivan Maksimovich," Sonaria replied. "I just hope the 'special cargo' isn't actually a nuclear bomb or something like that."
"Me too, tovarishch, me too."
The dawn had come too quickly for Carter Mason too, and she sat up on the bed in the hotel room graciously provided to her by Lev Arigov, contemplating about what was about to happen in this small soon-to-be country. Finally, after five minutes, she mustered the strength to get up and get something to drink, specifically the urn of coffee at her bedside table. She was very surprised when a single sip of the black coffee jolted almost every muscle of her body awake, and she remembered Lev's reminder that the coffee in this hotel had at least twice the caffeine of most commercial brands. Carter shook off the mental cobwebs that somehow still clung to her mind and then headed for the shower to freshen up. After that, she ate her breakfast before finally attending to an important matter.
Carter had brought along both of her pistols. The first was a Makarov that had once belonged to her grandfather Alex, who claimed to have picked it up off a Soviet guard during his escape from the notorious Vorkuta gulag back in the 1960s, which had subsequently turned into a sort-of family heirloom with every Mason from Alex to Joe to Carter carrying it along in their missions for their various agencies. The second was a Tokarev TT-33 presented to her by the former Premier of Costa Gravas Alejandro Goya, after she had played a part in saving the latter's life during his country's transition from an iron-fisted dictatorship to a successful yet struggling democracy. She also remembered being awarded a medal, the Order of Santa Filomena or something like that, which came with a gold-and-purple sash. The Latin American countries really loved their sashes, didn't they? Even Rosie herself had a blue-and-yellow sash resembling the flag of Costa Luna for formal occasions, and the sash thing was already spilling over to other countries. Well, everybody loved status symbols, didn't they? Although she was sure that Rosie wore her sash more because of tradition and not just position.
What the hell, Carter thought. She put the Tokarev into its brown leather holster, which she cinched around her waist like a belt, and then she tucked the Makarov into the small of her back. She also checked both guns' ammo, and she made sure that she had two spare magazines for each weapon on her. Finally, she clipped the identity card that Arigov had given her to her shirt, which identified her as Senior Lieutenant Gavrina Vasilyevna Kumilyova of the Krakozhian Army, seconded to the Krakozhian Expeditionary Force to the Chechen Republic, and gave her permission to carry weapons in the soon-to-be country.
The walk to the Capitol was mostly uneventful, and Carter soon found herself on the third floor, where most of the administrative personnel of the KEF had settled in. What struck her as odd was the fact that most, if not all of the people there were armed with pistols and wearing bulletproof vests, even the tech weenies like Rostislav Abramov and his staff. It was a different matter inside Arigov's office, though. He and Klimov had placed their vests on stands near to their desks, which made a lot more sense to Carter once she thought about it. The vests were probably as uncomfortable as hell to wear while seated, but they wanted it in a place where they can quickly reach it when the call came.
"Hey there," Arigov said in greeting. "Where's your friend?"
"I don't know, maybe still fixing up." Carter leaned back on her chair. "So, the big one's for today, right?" she asked.
"Yes, it is. At least, that's what the Idrisovs told us. It's a shame that we had to find that out right now, when we can't do much about it except keep losses to a minimum. A day earlier and we could have rounded up a lot more suspects, but I guess we just have to work with the information that comes to us."
"We've all had that feeling before."
The Third Chechen War, like most all wars, began with a single gunshot. In this case, it was from an old Soviet-era pistol fitted with a bulky silencer, and its target was an old, balding security guard manning his post at the entrance of one of Groznyy's three radio stations. The guard died almost instantly as the nine millimeter bullet penetrated his skull, tore through his brain and spine, and finally exited in a red cloud of gore before smashing into the concrete wall behind him. His attacker didn't even pause to watch his handiwork though, as he hurriedly led his comrades through the building and into the broadcasting room. There, he found the DJ deeply engrossed with the music he was playing, but he only had to point the pistol at him for the DJ to silently raise his hands and relinquish his seat. The attackers' leader took a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket, spread it out in front of him, cut the music, and spoke the words that would change Chechnya forever.
"Comrade Lieutenant?" Rostislav Abramov said as his head peeked into Arigov's office. "It's begun. The rebels took over Radio Groznyy, just as they said they would. They're spouting their regular anti-Western bull there right now."
"How about the police stations, checkpoints, and garrisons? Any attacks on them?"
"Nothing yet, sir, but it's got to be soon. Say, five to ten minutes from now."
"That's a comforting thought," said Carter.
"Call the general," Lev told Vyacheslav. He picked up his cellphone, pressed a button, and placed it next to his ear. "Comrade General? It's Vyacheslav Il'ych. It has begun."
Suddenly, red lights and klaxons turned on throughout the Capitol. The employees dropped everything that they were doing and filed for the proper exits, guided by the soldiers and guards with them. Many of them began calling their relatives, telling them that everything was all right, they were fine, take care of themselves, and that they'll be back soon. All in all, it made for a very noisy evacuation.
In the third floor, Lev, Vyacheslav, and Carter were escorting Governor Tarenin—also clad in a bulletproof vest—to an emergency stairwell when Rosie joined them. "Where have you been?" Carter asked her.
"I was following a lead on Idris Idrisov's whereabouts. And then I heard the sirens and the alarms and the anti-Western sentiments of Radio Groznyy's new morning disk jockey, so I figured that this was where I should be for this coming battle."
"Oh, it'll be a battle all right," said Vyacheslav. "Rebel artillery has begun bombarding the south and east of the city, and rebel fighters have been spotted loitering somewhere in the north. It isn't a good day to be a Russian peacekeeper here right now."
The stairwell took them right to the underground parking lot. The group piled into a plain black van right in front of them, and soon they were navigating the now-very-much-deadly streets of Groznyy. Artillery rained down on them, but Vyacheslav's very radical driving skills just barely kept them alive.
They arrived at the airport just as the first shells began to fall. Most of the Air Force planes and choppers except one had left, and that one remaining chopper was already preparing to leave, if the turning rotors weren't indication enough. Generals Yevin and Churbanov and a few Chechen government bigwigs were already inside, and Lev practically shoved Governor Tarenin inside. As he began to close the doors, the governor asked him, "Aren't you fellows going with us?"
"We still have some more jobs to do, Comrade Governor!" Arigov shouted over the screaming engines. "We will follow you as soon as we can!" To the pilot, he said, "Go! Go before one of these shells land a direct hit!" The pilot saluted crisply, turned his attention to his chopper, and then lifted it off the ground, flying away just as a shell landed right where it had been a few moments ago.
Now it was the four's turn to run. They piled back into the van and peeled out of the now-heavily-bombarded airport, and Vyacheslav steered it into Groznyy's near-confusing web of alleys and back streets. "Dammit, where is he?" he muttered to himself.
He spotted something white fluttering in the corner of his eye. He stepped on the brakes and waited long enough for a person to board the van before peeling out of the area. "Nice of you to make your presence known," he told the newcomer.
"Spasiba, tovarishch," replied Yevgeniy Leninsky. "It always feels good to be appreciated."
"Why weren't you at the agreed meet? Was someone else there?"
"Not just someone else, comrade. A squad from Intel Group Nine was already camped at the extraction point when I got there, and they accused me of defecting to the Western infidels! Da, right! Like that'll ever happen!"
Intelligence Group Nine was one of the most feared Chechen rebel groups in history. Originating from the first Ichkerian Republic under Dzhokhar Dudayev, IG9 was a glorified death squad, eliminating troublesome dissidents, both Chechen and Russian, quickly and quietly and with the unspoken sanction of the government. They had been forced to hide from the reprisals that were sure to come after the Russians flooded back in to Chechnya, biding their time and funding themselves through kidnappings-for-ransom and extortion. Few, if any, had survived an attack from them, and the news that they were participating in this Ultranationalist-funded war was a very bad sign. "How did you survive, Yevgeniy?" Carter asked the twelve-year-old. "I mean, someone so young to have made it through one of the most murderous rebel bands in the country?"
"Oh, don't be so surprised, lady comrade," Leninsky replied. "It was actually very easy. Kill their leader, and then run away as fast as you can."
Carter was honestly impressed. It took balls of steel to attack the most feared band of rebels alone and almost unarmed, and judging by Leninsky's story, he had a pair of titanium ones. "What were you packing?"
"I didn't have nothing on me when they got me, comrades! I had to steal Old Marduk's gun just to get away! At least the Chinese finally made a weapon that works!" He held up his war trophy, a QSZ-92 pistol, for all of them to see before tucking it in the waistband of his jeans. "Oh, don't act so surprised about it," he told Carter when he noticed that she was still staring at him. "Magnus Kane is more bloodthirsty than every member of IG9 combined could ever hope to have."
"I assume we still have another 'job' left to do, Lieutenant," Rosie asked Arigov.
"Roger that, Comrade Queen," he replied. "One more job left to do."
Vyacheslav pulled the van over to a small police precinct. The four jumped out, and as Leninsky made to follow them, Lev said, "It's best if you stay here in the van." Yevgeniy agreed to the idea. To the girls, he said, "Pick up those black sacks in the back. We're going to need them."
Surprisingly, despite the deep earthen rumblings of falling artillery and the confused chatter on the radios, the precinct was still manned by two officers, a private and a senior inspector. However, as they got closer it became apparent why the police were still manning the precinct: it was a jailhouse. Vyacheslav took his wallet, presented it to the officers, and said, "I want prisoners 1127, 2500, and 2501 turned over to me immediately. They have information that may be vital to us."
"1127, 2500, 2501…" the inspector muttered as he entered the numbers into his prisoner database. "Um, Comrade Lieutenant, we may have a little problem. You see, prisoners 2500 and 2501 can only be turned over to someone with a clearance level of Two-Delta and higher. You only hold clearance level Three-Alpha, sir."
"Well, I don't know it you know this, Comrade Inspector, but with the Third Chechen War blazing all around us, I have been given clearance level Two-Victor by my commanding officer General Yaroslav Mikhailovich Yevin. Now, I suggest that you turn over these three prisoners to me right now or else I shall take them myself."
"Comrade Lieutenant, we weren't informed of your sudden promotion in clearance levels. Your commanding officer generally informs us of a change in clearance level via phone call. Maybe I should call General Yevin about this." The inspector reached for the telephone beside him.
"I'm afraid you can't do that, Inspector," Vyacheslav replied, his voice now gaining an icy tone. "General Yevin has already left for Stavropol, along with Governor Tarenin and the rest of his battle staff. Now," he continued, drawing his Desert Eagle pistol from its holster, "are you going to give me my prisoners?"
"But, sir, I must protest! The proper protocols are not being followed! Besides, how am I to know if you really are one of General Yevin's men? For all I know, you're a rebel with a very convincing identity card—"
The loud report of the Desert Eagle echoed throughout the precinct building. After the ringing in everyone's ears had cleared, they could see a big hole in the wall beside the inspector's head that wasn't there before. Vyacheslav turned his pistol so that it was now pointed at the cowering and very surprised inspector. "I won't repeat this again," he said. "I want you to give me prisoners 1127, 2500, and 2501, or else this will be the last thing through your mind."
The inspector gulped visibly, and then he nodded to the private, who stepped out of the desk and went down the hallway. Vyacheslav motioned for the rest of his group to follow him, and then, to the inspector, he said, "A wise choice, comrade. But I think I'll stay here, just in case you do something… unpleasant."
The private stopped at a section marked SPECIAL DETAINEES and unlocked the first three cells, shouting orders for their occupants to step outside and prepare to be handcuffed. Carter recognized them as Ssottokkodd Ballall, and the infamous Fatima and Darood Idrisov. "Them?" she asked Lev. "Seriously?"
"Yes, comrade, seriously," he replied matter-of-factly. "Help me put these on." He tossed the two women black sacks, and it didn't take them much to realize the sacks' purpose. They threw the sacks on the heads of the three detainees, and then led them out to the main hallway.
"You will be rewarded for this, Inspector," Vyacheslav told him as he left. "That is, if you make it through the war alive."
They piled back in to the van, where Yevgeniy Leninsky was waiting for them. "Where have all of you been?" he asked them. "You told me to stay here, but that's a little bit hard if you even paused to consider the artillery raining down on us! And who are they?" He gestured at the three prisoners. "Some old friends?"
"They're some of your old friends, Yevgeniy," Lev replied, "so I'd watch my tongue if I were you."
"Where to now?" asked Carter. "Not the airport, I hope. I mean, with this kind of bombardment, I'm sure there's nothing there that we can even hope to use."
"Actually, it's a small airfield where some of the short-range Aeroflot feederliners used to land," Vyacheslav replied. "Our ride out of here is over there." He pointed at a small airplane just in front of them, which Carter had somehow not seen. Not just that, she hadn't realized that they were already inside an airport until he pointed it out to her. She stared at the Antonov An-14 disbelievingly and said, "Can that thing really get us out of here?"
"Oh, don't worry," Lev told her. "Comrade Antonov will take his friends where they have to be. Now come on! We have to get out of here before the rebels find this strip!"
They boarded the aircraft quickly, and while Carter, Rosie, and Yevgeniy secured the prisoners to their seats, Lev and Vyacheslav were already spinning up the engines so that they could take off as soon as possible. When they were all in their seats, Lev accelerated the An-14 until it reached takeoff speed. He pulled back on the control yoke, lifting the nose and then the entire plane off the ground and away from battle-scarred Groznyy.
"Next stop, Stavropol."