Chapter 1. Recruitment
The less you know, the more you sleep, - the famous saying. The password? It’s even funny. In the universe’s outer reaches, far away from commercial routes, in the darkness and emptiness, and the password? «Do you have a Slavic closet for sale? The closet is sold, but I can offer a nickel-plated bed and nightstand.» Don’t mess with my head, and it’s already going around. Perhaps I should have brought my trusty flask. It has helped me out more than once. Two or three sips, and you’ll be all right without coughing. I’m sorry, I didn’t think of it. As Mark Twain would say, in such a situation, all we know about this man is that he was not in prison, but why he was not, I do not know. He was talking about me like he knew what he was talking about. Exactly. For truth’s sake, though, we know because a secret file contains all our underbellies. I was sent out of the service but retained the right to a small stipend. They said I had got off lightly. But it wasn’t my fault! My sergeant was a gun dealer. Specifically, four-barrelled arquebuses. Big deal. On the black market. Well, an arquebus is the same as a crossbow, but with a barrel. A craftsman invented an arquebus with four barrels. In the Special Forces, when you need to act without noise and dust - that’s what you need. He used to carry them from our warehouse and was my subordinate. So, the bosses gave me a hard time... Like, what were you looking at, commander? It was a campaign against either corruption or terrorism. They got even with me, reporting back, putting a tick in the report to the director of the department: «fight the immoral individuals!» The sergeant was court-martialed, and I was retired. And where is the justice, you see? So, I went downhill. I had enough pensions and allowances for living on, and the bar was near: I could always drop in for a glass of «Wild West.» And I did, at least six nights a week. One day was a day off, as it should be. Why? I may not have been born in sunny Mexico, but I’m a macho man. A romantic and a heartbreaker. I take the edge off in the old, tried-and-true old-fashioned way.
That’s when it happened.
- You know him? - I asked Joe, the bartender, nodding toward the stranger who walked in. I had an even, friendly relationship with Joe from day one, not least because I had never caused a scandal or a riot, never wrecked furniture, never asked for a drink on credit, and never stayed in his debtor’s pocket.
El Dorado Bar is for locals; strangers don’t come in here. And the appearance of every new face is like an out-of-the-way event. Meanwhile, the stranger sauntered to the bar and ordered a Buccaneer, and I’ll tell you, it is not a cheap drink for the masses. I tried it once. So-so. For me, any Russian vodka is better. And I don’t have a headache afterwards. Joe, the bartender, of course, hurried to serve the rich, by all appearances, customer who sat down next to me.
- How are you feeling, Archie? - he started, looking away from me as if he’d just broken up with me yesterday after another booze and scuffle. - Where have you been? What do you do?
I wasn’t even surprised that he knew my name. However, I do not remember that we crossed paths on the job. And that on duty, I knew it right away by the tie. It was the same striped one they gave me when I worked for the government, and it was given to me for free, with my uniform and lunch ticket as a senior officer. And a colourful handkerchief, Pocket Square, a corner peeked carelessly out of the top pocket of my jacket. A primitive trick: a place for a tape recorder or an intercom. By the way, the handkerchief appeared as an accessory to men’s suits under King Richard II of England. It emphasized the high social status of its owner and was part of the gentlemen’s set of the XVI century, as French musketeers had swords, for example. Evil tongues, however, say that in those ancient times, the kerchief was used not so much to demonstrate manners at court but for elementary wiping face after sneezing. Strange as it may seem, people have been sneezing since immemorial and are still sneezing today. Even at the dawn of humanity, when the concept of dust in houses and apartments, as such, did not yet exist, the fashion for handkerchiefs was perceived as a temporary phenomenon. However, carrying a handkerchief of different colours and shades in the breast pocket is still alive. How not to admire the idea that nothing is more permanent than the temporary?
- It’s just the way it is. Little by little. No big deal. Unemployed. Moneys tight. Pretty girls around here are a real pain in the ass. One problem: I don’t know how bad things are in this beautiful world.
As a polite and well-mannered man, I could not immediately tell a stranger to go away. You must listen to the man first: what and how. My keen intuition has never failed me before: the official tie is here for a reason, and it seems to have a conversation with me.
- Shall we go?
We sat at the table and only looked into each other’s eyes. The fisherman sees the fisherman from afar, and the scout knows the scout a mile away.
- I was passing by... We were told you had a home here, so I thought I’d drop by and ask how old Archie was doing. No matter how you slice it, a SWAT legend spends his free time in some mouse joint.
- Is that so?
- Look, don’t get all hot and bothered.
- All ears. But don’t count on understanding, buddy.
- Aren’t you bored?
- Boring? You’re a joker, I see. There are a lot of fools around. I’d like cheese in butter here, like in paradise with virgins.
People often ask, «Why exactly 72 virgins?» The answer is that the Quran talks about seventy. In general, the number «7» is one of the favourite numbers for Muslims. But the translation should be understood as meaning that there is an «adequate» number of virgins waiting for the faithful in paradise, that is no less than 70... Someone has taken and twisted a few more for fidelity. But based on my poor experience, I would caution you have to pay for everything in life, not the least of which is for pleasure. And if you’re not ready for that, you’d better stay away from happiness. And one more tricky thing: Shouldn’t you die first if you’re on your way to Heaven?
- I see. I wouldn’t mind being with them for a day, either. But the service... There’s a money thing coming up.
- I have enough, you know — six hundred thalers a month for pocket money. On the one hand, it’s like a handout for a poor man, but on the other hand, I always have enough for a drink, and I don’t borrow and don’t owe anybody.
- Six hundred, you say? A bounty hunter and a few hundred thalers are not enough for you, eh? How about sixty thousand? In real money, in currency, in credit? Would you turn it down? From young, long-legged, and expensive girls? How would you like a villa in Chile? How about Puerto Varas? Fjords, snow-capped volcanoes, wooded mountains. A lovely German-style town on the shore of Lake Llanquihue, with beautiful nature, fine cuisine, seafood, and the best Chilean wines. You’re still young. You may be retired, but you have needs...
- That’s interesting, about the needs for wine and women, go on. You came to recruit, didn’t you?
- I go on. You’ve been wronged, I agree. Humiliated, I agree. But damn it, remember how good you are. You were... And if you’re still good with a beer mug, you could be instrumental.
- You want to kill someone? You don’t want to show your face. Do you want to sign a retired man up for a wet job?
- And add to that the epaulettes with a promotion, a paycheck. What about the intergalactic green card?
- Unlimited credit? Our army-issue all-terrain vehicle? All the banks are ours, just like before?
- True, you still must report to the accounting department, but do you think it’s worth it?
- So, what’s up? Just spit it out, meow something.
The “meow” part came out of my mouth, you know, when it’s such a drag, and you want a drink, you’d be climbing the walls.
- We need a driver. A driver with experience, pardon the jargon — a proven driver of our own. A transporter, just to be precise.
- Almost there. I can do that. No problem. But money upfront.
- Of course. Half, for starters. The total amount will be paid upon completion of the assignment. To your account, wherever fate takes you.
I didn’t like the hint of fate, frankly. I smelled something terrible and muddy, like the Okkerville Creek on the city’s outskirts, where the sewage was drained. But if you call yourself a rider, get in the truck.
- What was the assignment?
- You’ll find out in due time. Believe me. I don’t know. And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. When you meet the Colonel, he’ll explain everything to you.
- Just for the record, I didn’t say yes. Your offer needs to be considered with a clear head.
If a man changes his plans abruptly, he’s not suitable for anything, Polynesian wisdom.
- Deal. Think it over. I’ll call you. Tomorrow. Do you think you can sober up in time?
- I’ll try, buddy. I didn’t even ask your name.
- Call me Major. So long, mate. I hope to see you again.
Never hold out for anything you don’t know and can’t avoid. You can’t go far in this world without getting some bad manners. I have learned this simple philosophy of life firmly and forever. It’s akin to the proverb: from a fate and a prison. And running from the future is not in my rules. I decided it would be no worse if I went to see my former colleagues. Maybe something would work out. The offer was indeed tempting enough to turn down from the doorstep. And the savings have almost dried up - it must be frankly admitted. Spend the best years of my life with Joe and a bottle in my arms. Well, no. What did the major say? Young... I’ve got to shake it off, get cleaned up. Bosses are accustomed to being greeted by their clothes and seen off by their wits. He’s all right with the kettle, but you’ll have to splurge on decent clothes, a suit for the occasion. To put on the preserved ceremonial tunic with axe lands, to belt the dirk, to strap on the military decorations. «Purpleheart?» - might be considered impertinent. It is not worth the risk of appearing before the bright eyes of an unfamiliar colonel named Brockhaus, who became head of the Special Operations Department in the Department of Anomalies after my forced and unplanned retirement. Friedrich Brockhaus... what do you know. Is he the descendant of the publisher of that famous encyclopedia, which students still use today? Not excluded, of course, but the fact that German blood - definitely, no doubt. I don’t care if he was German if he was a good man.
However, the man in the boss’s chair looked nothing like a European. More like a Baghdad thief, but without the kufi, which I had seen in illustrated colour magazines. He was round as a pancake, with a heavy triple chin. Plump, fleshy lips. Broad «negroid» nose. Hairy arms. Eyes... the eyes, of course, the mirror of the soul. In the Colonel’s, they seemed like black olives, pressed into the eye sockets, running back and forth, that is, unable to focus on an object even for a second. They did not inspire confidence. However, it was all redeemed by a vast and beaming smile on his swarthy face, obviously prepared in advance for the guest who entered and an exorbitantly large belly — a smile for me and a belly for the master. The Colonel didn’t know - how could he? - that I’m not just «Archie.» I’m also «Long Whiskers,» and you can’t fool me like a sparrow on chaff. I’m ready to snatch a sparrow if it gets too close.
- That’s just the way I imagined you.
The Colonel closed the only file before him and put it into monumental steel safe. I wonder if he thinks I came to him to take it with me on the way back as a souvenir.
- Well done, Archibald! Despite your busy schedule, you took the time to visit old friends. That’s very important. Brockhaus. Friedrich. Call me Friddy, please. What ceremonies can there be between us? The special forces fraternity, it’s forever.
It’s a song as old as time: We’re all family, we must take care of each other. The Colonel thought I was partly Greek, too, because I look like a hereditary Mediterranean Jew.
- Please be seated.
With a commanding gesture, the Baghdad thief pointed to a chair beside a colossal tabletop. A green cloth accentuated its resemblance to a billiard table. Every chief has his faults. More precisely, his quirks. An excusable circumstance: that’s what a boss is.
- I knew at once that you were a clever man and would make the right decision.
When people are polite to you, they’re sly and keep a stone behind their backs.
- What about you, Colonel?
- Friddy, darling. To you, I’m Friddy.
- And yet?
- It depends. How Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote it, don’t you remember? About Lenin... Didn’t you learn that at school?
- «He was kind to his comrade with the affection of men. He stood up to the enemy harder than iron...»
- Exactly... I’m a practitioner. And nothing human is alien to me.
- Practitioners do all the evil on Earth.
- Sometimes, practicality is akin to a higher morality. Especially when you must make decisions concerning the fate of millions. Now the fate of humankind is, in some ways, in your hands. The department is entrusting you with a mission of the utmost importance.
As they say, even two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.
- May I remind you, Friddy, I’ve been in situations before where I’ve had to throw myself in front of a tank for the sake of humanity.
- I’m sure you have. Let’s call it a deal, sweetheart. Take care of yourselves. And God bless our department and us!
That’s how it all happened over a pool table. And I signed the contract. What’s the point of dreaming of happiness in a stall? I had to make a little fuss with a cunning Greek pretending to be German. I haggled, sold myself for more money - I got it for seventy thousand credits: a trifle, but a pleasure. Ultimately, it’s the result, not the negotiation, that counts. The process can give you a gag reflex, like in the shop, if you watch what the wieners are made of. I didn’t doubt for a minute that the Colonel was Greek as soon as I entered the office because the director of the Department is also Greek. That’s what they call being proud of your roots.
People, in general, are divided into Greeks and those who would like to be Greeks. Because the Greeks gave humankind the myths of Ancient Greece, that alone means something. If you were a diligent student in school, you probably noticed that in these myths, many Greek heroes are like gods, and the gods are no stranger to anything human, including cruelty, injustice, lust, and deceit. This, in turn, leads to the sobering idea that they are both made of the same cloth. The difference, however, is that the gods dwell on the high mountain of Mount Olympus, while the Greeks are at its foot. But all the same, to be Greek is happiness. And being a fat Greek is even happier. Unless, of course, you don’t mind. So, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Hence the proverb: Well, how not to please your little man? But it doesn’t matter. A deal with the Devil himself is worth something. God did not instruct us in vain: “I will give you life and death. You must choose to make a deal with God or make a deal with the Devil.” So today, I got the Devil.