Guardians

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Chapter 44

Ugransky Air Force Base

Smolensk Oblast, R.F.

“It seems they really were ignorant of their mission after all,” Zuyev said as two of his soldiers dragged the unconscious Mr. Pickford out of the room. “Just gullible fools who took their employer’s money unquestioningly.

“All the same, one must be thorough.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said the seated Stepanenkov as he mopped up the sweat on his brow with the handkerchief Zuyev gave him in a gesture of mock consideration.

“I can see you are uneasy with my methods,” Zuyev said. “Has your conscience suddenly grown tender, or is it that you worry about what your clients will think?

“I suggest you worry less about them and more about yourself, and not only because you can consider your little side business over and done with – even if the attackers didn’t already see to that. The truth is that they would not be much better off with their masters than with us, given what they have let themselves become involved in.”

Stepanenkov recognized the implication: these men would not be alive much longer, which was just fine with Zuyev. He saw them as nothing more or less than enemies of the state who’d come to steal the keystone of the nation’s security. Given the nature of their errand in the country, they could never be released, and could never be put on trial. And they had not shown themselves to be useful enough to justify their retention, even as prisoners.

Stepanenkov knew Zuyev saw his situation as not much different. And he knew Zuyev wanted him to know this, which was one reason why he had conducted the interrogations in front of him.

The other reason, Stepanenkov felt sure, was to keep him close by. Almost as soon as he’d realized what deep trouble he was in, he’d wished he could speak to Parolow, to any of his people, and arrange an escape. But Zuyev didn’t break his watch over him for a moment, and even if he’d had a chance to get away, he knew Lebedev and Parolow were being kept hopping, running his errands. He didn’t know Drykin’s status, but he wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that one of Zuyev’s subordinates was already grilling him.

Stepanenkov had been in combat. He’d exchanged missiles with Israeli Mirages over the Sinai and watched as they knocked friends and comrades from the sky. In Afghanistan he’d been shot at by the bandits while flying his MiG, and mortared and sniped at on his base more times than he’d bothered to count.

All of this had been far, far worse than any of those experiences. Never in his life had he felt so out of control as he was now, and never had he felt himself to be in greater danger.

Right now Stepanenkov was ready to give up everything he had worked for, everything he had ever had, just to get away with his skin intact. He had even thought to offer Zuyev a bribe up to the limits of his worldly wealth, restrained only by the fact that no amount of money seemed enough to dissuade him, and even if he had been open to that kind of temptation, he knew he was in no position to negotiate. Zuyev could take what he wanted, and even mentioning the possibility that things were otherwise might set him off –

“Not knowing who they are also makes it difficult to know who their enemies were – besides our people, of course,” Zuyev continued conversationally. “Interestingly, the PVO has not detected any unusual activity by NATO forces near the borders, any signs of an attempt to cover the escape of the attacking force, or conduct a rescue.”

Or a rescue of the people whose plane had been hijacked, Stepanenkov thought.

“Perhaps we will see them try something tonight,” Zuyev continued.

“Perhaps,” Stepanenkov allowed mechanically.

Zuyev went on sitting in Stepanenkov’s office, in his chair behind his desk, making conversation with him like he was his employee, making and taking calls on his phones and ordering his secretary about.

Nothing Stepanenkov overheard indicated that his investigators had found anything much – just the mortar Lebedev had already located, the nearby tire tracks (since identified as matching the tires of the Uaz 469 van), a few dud mortar bombs, a few spent nine-millimeter shell casings. All of it was very ordinary, very widely available equipment, and again, not much of a clue as to who was behind the raid.

Stepanenkov’s phone rang yet again. Zuyev raised a finger for silence and answered it. This time the colonel listened much more than he spoke, and only after finishing with the phone did he tell Stepanenkov what was going on.

“A man has been spotted carrying an item fitting the ellipton’s description,” Zuyev explained. “He blew through an MVD checkpoint near Pskov in a car that was very likely stolen, and is now believed to be in the woods along the border with Estonia. Every available man will be moving into the area to make sure he doesn’t cross that border.”

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