Guardians

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Chapter 43

Pskov Oblast, R.F.

Moving alone, without having to organize a larger evacuation or look after anyone else, Nick made quick progress through the forest.

It helped that the ellipton was light for its size. Still, it was rather a bulky thing for a man on the run to carry. After lugging it a couple of kilometers Nick cut a length of the strap from his duffel and slipped it through the ellipton’s handle so he could sling it over his shoulder, while fixing up the duffel so that he could continue to carry it the same way as before. He also ditched the plate armor he’d been wearing over his jumpsuit, to lighten his load but also because the sight of it would make him even more conspicuous than he already was.

Before dawn Nick hit a small town with a truck he hot-wired, and a shop with a display window through which he hurled a brick. The glass shattered without setting off an alarm, but he sprang through and worked just as quickly as if the cops had been alerted, snatching a few sets of clothes and a suitcase that he carried back to his new truck.

When he was a safe distance down the road he changed clothes, and tossed his jumpsuit in the nearest trash bin. He wore just the ballistic armor now, invisible under his civilian clothes. He left the ellipton on the floor of the car in front of the passenger seat, within easy reach but out of easy view of anyone looking through his window.

The first order of business after that was to switch cars, since it seemed plausible the authorities were already looking for the truck, and since it might save him the trouble of refilling the tank. He did just that after hitting another town after dawn.

Driving his second car, Nick started thinking about his route out of the country. He knew that he could head west on the Baltic Highway and take it all the way to the field where the company had a plane waiting for them, but on top of the heavy MVD presence certain to be on the highway, the security services were probably watching the Latvian border, given the plane’s earlier course. He decided to keep going north instead, heading for Estonia. He wouldn’t be completely out of trouble there (there were still plenty of Russian troops in that country), but he thought it might be easier to evade the hunt, and to cross over into Latvia along the mutual border between the two Baltic republics.

Nick proceeded in that direction, sticking with secondary roads as much as possible, only occasionally using a major highway to transit between them. Soon enough he ditched that car, too, getting another vehicle an hour later and improvising a strategy out of this, not sticking with any one car too long to minimize the chance that the authorities would be looking for the one he was traveling in, and to avoid having to pull into a service station to fill up the gas tank. He concentrated on commonplace, low-end vehicles, generally going after the first vulnerable vehicle he could find.

Nick also abided by the rather low speed limits, to avoid attracting unwanted attention that way from the authorities, and trusted to his ability to read his maps and to his instincts more than the confusing road signs, while never, ever stopping to ask for directions. He kept the radio on, too, just in case there was an announcement regarding his situation – a report about a plane crash, word that the authorities were searching for persons of interest. He heard nothing of the kind while he was in Smolensk, or after he crossed into Pskov oblast, the westernmost extension of contiguous Russia, right on the other side of which was Estonia. Until then he needed to stay just one step ahead of the opposition, and to do that for a day at most.

Nick steered clear of the Latvian border all the way up to the oblast’s capital before turning west again. It was moving in that direction in what he expected to be his last vehicle (an ’84 Niva), while coming over the crest of a hill just twenty kilometers short of his exit from the country that he spotted an improvised checkpoint. It looked ordinary enough, a simple barrier near which was parked a vehicle marked as belonging to the Interior Ministry’s traffic police rather than one of the MVD’s heavily armed paramilitary units.

There was snow-covered pine forest on both sides of the road, and Nick felt tempted to take the Niva into them. He also thought about just blowing past the checkpoint. But it was possible this was all about something else entirely, and if that was the case, he certainly didn’t want to unnecessarily set off an alarm.

Even if the traffic cop was supposed to be looking for him specifically, he probably didn’t know the reason for the hunt. He certainly wouldn’t rate being told about the ellipton. His orders might even have been vague enough to let Nick find a way through without creating an incident.

Nick slowed his car to a halt and lowered his window as the Inspector walked up. He knew few of the officers spoke English well and he considered playing dumb, but opted against it.

“Yes, inspector?” Nick asked.

“You’re a foreigner,” the Inspector said, his gaze flicking to the other, empty seats.

Nick didn’t flatter himself that he could pass for a native. “Uh, yes,” Nick said.

“Your papers, please.”

That was a problem. Nick had a passport and visa identifying him as Rick McGavin, but he didn’t have any documentation testifying to his lawful ownership of the vehicle, or to his business in this particular area.

He simply handed over what he had, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary, while offering his most disarming “idiot foreigner” smile.

Maybe the man was so concerned with looking for someone who wasn’t Rick McGavin that he wouldn’t trouble himself over the rest of his papers. And if that was the only thing that seemed off about him, there was a chance he could buy or bluff his way out of this situation.

The Inspector checked the passport photo against his face. They matched, of course.

“What’s your business here?” the Inspector asked simply.

“My company had me visiting Smolensk,” Nick answered. “They are interested in a machinery plant there.”

It was plausible enough, there being plants of the type in the area. Perhaps the Inspector wouldn’t be overeager to interfere with a foreign investor who just might have been well-connected enough to make problems for him.

“I see,” the Inspector said. “One moment.”

He took Nick’s documents back to his car with him, leaving Nick waiting.

Nick felt his body tense. He thought about his Shpagin, if the time hadn’t come to use it, but held off. Then something about the Inspector’s manner as he returned convinced Nick that he was going to draw his gun. He didn’t think he’d get to his own gun in time to beat him, so he just gunned the engine and plowed through the barricade.

Nick heard a gunshot, then another, then another right after he saw his windshield spider web.

He looked back over his shoulder at the checkpoint, fast disappearing in the distance. The man had seen his car and no doubt reported it – unless his radio wasn’t working, and Nick didn’t think he was that lucky. Even if no alert went out, Nick’s damaged windshield would draw notice and unwanted questions.

Nick suddenly felt very exposed. He had never intended to drive over the border; the plan was just to get as close as possible, then sneak on foot across an unmonitored stretch.

Now, though, he’d have to get out of this car earlier than planned, even if he wasn’t sure how much earlier. He tried to delay the moment as long as he could, every extra minute he continued in his car saving him fifteen or more out there. And so far it didn’t seem like the man from the checkpoint was chasing him.

Nick kept on driving, starting to get a little more optimistic about the situation when he heard a helicopter’s propellers.

The helicopter sounded big, and close, and when it streaked ahead of him he saw just how big and close – and low – it was. It had the lines of a Mi-8 and Interior Ministry markings. Up ahead it turned sideways across the road and descended toward the tarmac.

The side door slid open and armed men started to spill out.

Nick swerved off the road, away from the helicopter. The car came down in a ditch, then rolled out of control into a tree.

Nick flung his door open and dove out with the submachine gun and the duffel and the ellipton, then dashed into the trees.

He heard shots behind him, and shouted orders to stop, but he didn’t, tried instead to get as far away from the road and his pursuers as he could before turning north again.

A bullet smashed into the trunk of a pine near him, showering him with splinters of wood before he tripped and came down on his right knee in the snow. Getting back up he noticed that there was blood on his hands, and looked down.

He’d been shot through the thigh.

He hadn’t felt it, didn’t feel it now, wasn’t sure he felt anything. Even as everything stood in sharp relief around him, the injury felt incredibly distant.

Nick thought of the satellite phone in his duffel bag. He decided against using it, though. He wouldn’t be able to do anything more than report failure now, and he hadn’t given up on getting over the border yet.

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