Guardians

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Chapter 31

Argus had a number of subsidiaries, including a private military company. It was named Administrative Actions and registered in the Bahamas, with a home office in Johannesburg. For the time being it wasn’t much more than a rented office space, a phone line, a single employee to answer that phone, and the few pieces of paper testifying to its legal existence, but it was enough for the purpose Jan had in mind.

His plan was to approach Stepanenkov as AA’s representative. He appeared at the base in a 1992 Mercedes-Benz S500, wearing an Armani suit. When he stepped out, he was escorted by two burly, scowling, silent men in similar attire, staring out at the world through dark glasses.

Both of Jan’s “bodyguards” had been flown in by the company at Nick’s request, Argus employees now tasked to the operation. Kurt Kessler was ex-Delta Force, a veteran of the Desert One operation. Bill Anderson, who was in the Benz’s driver’s seat, like Nick, had a history with the Army Rangers, followed by a stint in the Diplomatic Security Service. Both had VIP protection experience, and looked the part, with Kessler’s faint accent, a legacy of his childhood in East Germany, contributing to his image by sounding plausibly “South African.”

The air base’s guards stopped them at the gate and made sure they were expected, then gave Bill directions. Bill acknowledged them with a nod, then drove past them along a course that took them out of easy view of the road before coming to a stop in front of a small building with an open-topped Uaz truck parked in front of it. General Stepanenkov sat in the back. Captain Drykin (familiar to Jan from the file photo) was in the front passenger-side seat next to the driver.

Jan lowered his window and watched as Stepanenkov emerged from the truck and approached his Mercedes on foot.

“Welcome to Ugransky Air Force Base, Mr. Vandergelder,” Stepanenkov said in lightly accented English. “Please join me in my vehicle. Your guards, however, will have to remain behind.”

Kurt looked uncertain, but Jan nodded and did as he was asked.

The Mercedes was conducted to the waiting area, while the Uaz drove off.

“So, tell me a bit about what brings you here,” Stepanenkov said.

“It’s all quite simple,” Jan said, trying to channel his friend Piter’s sales pitch. “The old regime in South Africa is on its way out, and we’re looking at a lot of soldiers and pilots out of work. You know the kind of thing.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know the kind of thing.”

“Anyway, Moscow isn’t in a position to offer the Blacks any more giveaways, the French are losing interest in their old colonies, the Americans are scaling back their own commitments, and were never all that interested in the region anyway.” He shrugged, as if he thought American bankruptcy and isolationism were a given. “There’s a lot of opportunity for someone who can offer the kinds of support all those powers used to, and some of us are setting up a company to give them exactly that.

“Naturally, we need weapons, and the Russian market was strongly recommended to us.”

If Stepanenkov saw any irony in a South African doing his arms shopping in the former Soviet Union, he didn’t show it. “What do you have in mind?”

“We’d like to put together equipment for a battalion. We are interested in an air section, however. Transport, certainly, both rotary and fixed-wing, and fire support too. Some attack helicopters and light fighters to start, but I see us picking up a couple of planes with air-to-air capability too.

“And of course, spares and ammo for everything, enough to sustain a training regimen as well as a stockpile for combat operations.

“We don’t need to win Desert Storm, just have enough firepower to let a beleaguered government clean house in short order, and in that part of the world a jeep with a heavy machine gun can be worth a tank company in the Middle East or Europe.”

This amounted to fifty million dollars worth of equipment, perhaps more. It wasn’t the deal of the century, but it was very much worth Stepanenkov’s while, especially given the promise of more business to come if this company found him a satisfactory supplier.

“I understand this shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary for you.”

“You are correct,” Stepanenkov said pridefully.

“I understand your people arrange training services as well.”

“I can connect you with veteran specialists who can instruct your people in the use of any equipment you buy, or if you prefer, see that your people are trained here in the country.

“We can also find combat as well as support personnel, when this suits you. This includes a pool of people with experience in the part of the world with which you’re concerned.”

Soviet veterans of Angola. People who’d once been shooting at Jan and his countrymen. “I will bear that in mind.”

Their drive took them along the runway, just as a pair of MiG-29s took off.

“Some of my Air Force friends went up against the MiG-23 in Angola,” Jan said off-handedly. “It gave our Mirage pilots a tough time. A much better plane than the Americans realize, I think.”

“Contempt comes easily to them, too easily,” Stepanenkov agreed. “I’m pleased to see you understand these things.”

Jan noticed a patrol along the fence, an armed soldier with a dog on a leash.

They continued to the headquarters building, where Stepanenkov meant to discuss the remainder of their business. Entering the building Jan kept an eye open for other familiar faces from the file he’d read – Parolow, Lebedev. He didn’t see them as they walked down the hall, then through a side corridor to an unmarked door.

Half-expecting to have a gun pulled on him, Jan glanced back over his shoulder as Stepanenkov unlocked it, opening it and leading the way. “Come in. We can speak privately in here.”

The room had clearly been designed to impress visitors. There was real wood paneling, marble flooring. The furniture was high-quality Swedish stuff rather than government issue.

It also looked like the General had spared no expense in buying office equipment. The desktop was occupied by a large computer monitor, and from where he was sitting he could also see a printer, and what he thought might be a digital tape drive. There was also a fax machine on a table by the wall, and sitting next to it on the floor, a paper shredder with an empty wastebasket.

“Have a seat,” Stepanenkov said, and Jan settled into an armchair in front of the desk while the General walked over to a cabinet. “You have a beautiful office.”

“Thank you.” Stepanenkov didn’t volunteer anything more about it, despite its oddities: its lack of windows, its complete separation from the regular office where he performed his duties as base commander. Jan’s guess was that he’d taken over some back room and converted it for this use.

Still, whatever the case, its existence hadn’t even been hinted at in the file.

“Drink?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.” The cabinet was clearly a little freezer, designed to fit in with the décor.

“Ice?”

“Yes please.”

Stepanenkov produced two glasses, and ice, from inside it, then sat down behind his desk and poured each of them a shot of vodka. Jan didn’t drink on the job when he could avoid it, but it was important to seem sociable, and he was perfectly capable of holding his liquor.

“Just five years ago, I’d never have expected to be here,” Jan said, sounding thoughtful after draining his glass.

“A great many others can say the same, myself included. Do you regret it?”

“I don’t know,” Jan confessed. “When I look back on it, it feels like I spent my youth fighting for a world that’s now gone.”

“As did I,” Stepanenkov told him.

Jan thought of the dreams his grandfathers had about what Africa could become. All his generation was able to do was try to hold back the tide.

In the end, they’d failed.

“Maybe it was all just a fantasy,” he mused aloud.

“I know what you mean,” Stepanenkov said. “My father was as much a New Soviet Man as anyone I ever met.”

Not for the first time it occurred to Jan how strange it was that at the end of the Cold War, it was with this ex-Communist that he could identify with, more than any of the people who’d been his country’s allies in their struggle.

“All the same, we both saw the opportunities that change has brought, and we are acting accordingly. That is what has brought us here.”

“Yes,” Jan agreed. “I suppose it has.”

“I think we will understand each other,” Stepanenkov said. “This is very important in business, wouldn’t you agree?”

Jan did, and then they went on to discuss his company’s needs.

“Small arms – rifles, side arms,” Jan said. “Machine guns, light, medium and heavy, fifty-cals included. Grenades, both hand-tossed and the launcher-fired variety, a few ASG-17s maybe. Rocket launchers, the newer RPG models. Man-portable missiles, anti-tank types. Infantry mortars, up to eighty-two millimeter caliber at least. Ammo for everything, and explosives suitable to demolitions work.” They worked out the numbers. “Some light armor, a company’s worth, is also in order, for the extra mobility and punch.”

“Will BTRs do?”

“A half dozen of those, though a couple of vehicles with a bit more firepower might be worth having as well. BMPs? Or perhaps better still, BMDs.”

“The type used by the airborne troops?”

“Yes. Even the early versions with the seventy-three millimeter guns would be very suitable.”

“We can get those.”

“As for air support, capacity equal to three or four old Antonov-12 turboprops to help move our gear around, an equal number of Mi-8-series aircraft, a pair of MiG-23s. With all due respect to your new aircraft, our needs are simple for the time being.”

“Point taken,” Stepanenkov said. “Will we be arranging transport, or will this be cash and carry?”

“Cash and carry will be satisfactory.”

With the outlines of the deal laid down and numbers that sounded about right named, they agreed that after Jan and his associates finalized their order they would pay half the money. Stepanenkov would then begin making the necessary arrangements, and they would pay the other half of the money on receiving the goods.

Their business concluded the General offered to escort Jan back to his Mercedes. He accepted, returning to meet up again with Kurt and Bill for the drive back to the farm.

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