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Chapter 30

Smolensk Oblast, R.F.

Headquarters mentioned a Russian Air Force commander named General Stepanenkov, said that their analysts figured he was their best lead where the ellipton was concerned, and wanted the team to focus their investigation on him.

They asked Nalchum to arrange a safe house outside the city, near the oblast’s western limits, and they promptly relocated there. The place looked like a private farm, apparently one the new owners had either been persuaded to rent out, or had abandoned.

Surrounded by empty fields in every direction, it gave them greater privacy, and made it easy to spot anyone trying to sneak up on them. The farm buildings also afforded plenty of space for the three of them, certainly more than their little Moscow apartment, and their cars, which they kept out of sight.

Once they had the place checked out and their secure line back to D.C. set up, they returned their attention to the investigation that had brought them there in the first place, starting with the files on Stepanenkov and his lieutenants that their bosses sent over. They reviewed them in the living room.

“Andrei Ivanovich Stepanenkov, born June 6, 1940 in Leningrad, Soviet Union,” Emma read aloud from the dossier. “Son of Ivan Dmitrovich Stepanenkov and Anya Nikolayevna Stepanenkov.”

She looked up, summarizing now. “Ivan was an Air Force pilot who just a year later was flying attack missions in World War II, and went career, eventually making General. Andrei followed in his father’s footsteps, attending the Armavir Higher Education Academy 1958-1962, after which he went on to postings in a succession of frontline aviation fighter regiments, listed below. Note that these include two overseas postings, the first as an ‘adviser’ to the Egyptian Air Force in 1970, during the ‘War of Attrition,’ and the second a two year-length tour of duty in Afghanistan as the commanding officer of a regiment of MiG-23s . . . combat commands all the way.”

“That’s the career fast track, all right,” Nick said. “The connections probably didn’t hurt.”

“Still, Stepanenkov seems to have been well regarded as both a combat pilot and a commanding officer. And interestingly, there isn’t even a whiff of corruption about him until the last few years.”

“That may well be the truth,” Jan said. “These people are living through the collapse of their world, their system breaking down, and all the old rules are out the window.”

“So they don’t know what crime is?” Nick replied, unimpressed. “I’ve heard that one before. Still, the opportunities and incentives for it have just exploded.”

Jan, who had never expected to become a mercenary, just let it go. Instead he turned his attention to the files regarding Stepanenkov’s inner circle: Colonel Boris Lebedev, who went all the way back to the ’70s with him; Captain Pavel Drykin, who looked a good decade younger than his twenty-nine years, and whose grandfather had fought in the Great Patriotic War alongside Stepanenkov’s father; Major Sergei Parolow, ex-Spetsnaz commando and highly decorated veteran of Afghanistan.

“What do you think?” Nick asked. “Any chance of turning one of them?”

“Maybe,” Emma said, “given time, but that’s exactly what we don’t have, isn’t it?”

Fair enough, Nick thought. “Then we do something more active? Any ideas?”

“We check out the base,” Jan said, “and the easiest way to start that off is to present ourselves as customers.”

He explained what he had in mind, and after making a couple of phone calls Nick agreed that it was worth a shot.

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