Guardians

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Chapter 46

Rezene, Republic of Latvia

It was almost two hours from the village to Rzhev, but Emma’s team covered the distance before sun-up. They spotted the display window of a clothing store a few minutes after arrival. She used her lock picks to get them inside, where they grabbed a few sets of clothing and some luggage.

They changed in their cars, then left them behind and continued on foot to the train station, which they reached a little after dawn. The Militia were worrisomely numerous in the train station, and there were some uniformed MVD personnel there too, but their Soviet-made clothes helped keep them from drawing second glances. Of course, they were a mismatch with their Western passports, but the rather apathetic-looking clerk at the ticket desk didn’t seem to notice, or care.

They managed to get on the next train running the Moscow to Riga line, and they kept to themselves during the ride. They could have got off the train in Zilupe, but it was a small town very close to the Russian border and they opted to stay aboard until they reached Rezene. No one there paid them much mind when they walked off either. Gabe checked Rod and Dane into the city hospital while the other four found a car, which they drove to the airstrip outside the city after sunset.

The term “airstrip” described the facility well. Never completed, lacking hangars or other support structures, it wasn’t much more than a runway and one small, lonely building inside a fence. But that runway was long enough to accommodate most aircraft, and it was possible to arrange the company’s exclusive use of the facility, which was why the plan called for them to land the Falcon there, and move the ellipton, and themselves, onto another, waiting plane.

As they approached it Emma could see an old, four-engined turboprop on the runway, an Antonov-12. A Soviet answer to the American C-130, it was robust, with a large cargo capacity and relatively long legs (important given that it couldn’t be refueled or maintained here). It had also been widely produced and sold in the last three decades, in civil as well as military service. That made it an inconspicuous choice in this part of the world, another reason why they were using it for the job rather than a Western aircraft.

Emma also saw a guard at the gate, holding a Heckler & Koch MP5; one of the party that came in aboard the plane to guard it until they completed the evacuation. After making sure they were who they said they were, he waved them in, letting them drive to the one building standing on the grounds, a little way behind the plane.

It was as unfinished on the inside as it looked from the outside, with unpainted walls and bare concrete floors. However, the ground party had made it habitable, bringing in some lights and appliances and even some furniture – some chairs, a couple of tables, a light bamboo couch.

Emma saw Martin, Jan, Hank and Abram sitting on the furniture around a low table, drinking coffee, while Hank ate a frozen meal out of a tray.

“Hey, you made it after all,” Hank said, glad to see them. His expression changed after Greg, the last out of the car, closed the door behind them. “It looks like you’re a few people short,” he said.

“What happened?” Jan asked.

She told them, as her party took seats and got coffee for themselves. “They shot down the Falcon. Stepanenkov’s people, probably, but we can’t be sure. Bob, Bill and Kurt didn’t make it.”

“Fuck,” Hank said as Greg pressed a cup of coffee into her hands.

“Rod and Dane were injured, and they’re in the hospital in this city. Gabriel’s with them. They should be out of there before long, though.”

“That still leaves Nick unaccounted for,” Jan said.

“We were hoping he was with you.”

“No. We separated.”

“I see you don’t have the ellipton with you.”

“He took it,” Emma said.

“Thought that they wouldn’t be looking for just one man, but a group instead? He’d make better time on his own? That sort of thing?”

“That sort of thing,” she agreed, fully aware of the irony. Emma thought again about her letting him go with the ellipton after the crash, if she shouldn’t have refused to go along with the plan. And she wondered why he wasn’t there. Maybe he’d been captured, or killed. (And maybe he’d betrayed them. But she preferred not to think about that.)

“I see,” Jan said gravely. “I’ll let headquarters know.”

Jan got up, walked out of the room, used his satellite phone, then returned. He didn’t say anything, so Emma figured he had nothing to report, that there was nothing for them to do but to go on waiting.

Twenty minutes later the phone rang and Jan took the call.

“Nick placed a call to headquarters just a few minutes ago,” Jan explained afterward. “He sent a message reporting his location, but hasn’t responded to any calls since. It’s got to be checked out.”

“And we’re the ones who have to do it, which is why they’re telling us,” Emma said.

Jan nodded, clearly not happy about the way things were playing out.

“What’s the location?”

“Southeastern Estonia, near the Russian border, not very far from Pskov.”

Emma wondered what took Nick to Estonia. Did he think to try to bypass a hunt that way? Obviously the plan hit a wall, which was why they had to go in and get him.

Maybe it had been the least-worst of the options he saw in front of him, but it seemed to her that he should have stuck with the rest of them.

Jan told them there was a Mi-8 utility helicopter they could use, which would be on its way. They borrowed what weapons they could from the field’s guards, and Jan asked for what help they could get. The head of the detail asked for volunteers, an ex-Marine Recon lieutenant named Mark agreeing to come along with the eight remaining members of the team.

The Mi-8 arrived at the airstrip, landing to pick them up, then flew them north and east. It was forty minutes’ flight time in the helicopter, which had enough range to get them there and back again without needing to be refueled if they didn’t stay too long at the scene. They couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t need that time, though, given all that could have happened between Nick’s making his mysterious call, and their arriving on the scene.

During their flight Emma didn’t worry about the Estonians challenging them, but she did worry about the Russians spotting them. They must have been paying more than their usual attention to the area, and she didn’t think they’d hesitate to violate Estonian airspace to recover the prize. As things were she’d already stared a MiG in the face early that morning, and been shot down by it, and she wasn’t excited about the prospect of repeating the experience less than twenty-four hours later.

Emma noticed the helicopter stopping, then looked out through the window at what seemed to her the solid carpet of foliage over which they were hovering – it was all wooded hills out here – and then at her watch again.

“We’re there,” Mike said, coming back through the door of the flight deck. “Right at the coordinates Nick sent us. No convenient place to set down, though.”

“We’ll have to abseil in,” Greg said.

They used the rescue hoist set up at the port side doorway. Jan went first, Emma after him, avoiding branches as she made her way down. Hitting the ground she found Jan already crouching with his H & K leveled at his shoulder, scanning the darkness. She shifted into the same position just after getting clear of the cable, then heard boots crunching in the snow behind her, one man after another coming down until the nine of them were on the ground.

“I don’t see him,” Jan said. “We’re going to have to search the area.”

The civilian-grade signal Nick used had a substantial margin of error, meaning they had to be ready to search for tens of meters in every direction – assuming he was still there.

Jan started giving orders, leaving just Mark to guard the cable while the others fanned out in separate directions. Jan himself proceeded south while Emma went southeast, the group starting to lose visual contact with one another through the trees.

“Over here!” Greg called over the radio. Emma moved in the direction Greg had gone from the cable.

She found Greg crouched down next to Nick while Mike stood over him, holding the ellipton by its handle.

“He’s unconscious,” Greg said as the rest of the group crowded around the scene. “His thigh’s swelling up bad; I think a bullet tore open his femoral artery.” He checked his shoulder. “He’s been shot in the shoulder, too, didn’t even get to bandage that. Now after being in the snow all this time . . .”

“We’ll get him to the ER in Rezene,” Emma said. Overhead the helicopter moved toward their position and lowered its cable, enabling Greg and Hank to maneuver Nick into the rig.

Emma heard the rattle of an automatic weapon somewhere in the night. She whirled behind a nearby tree, crouched down, looking in the direction she thought was the source of the fire.

“Go!” someone yelled, and she glanced back to see Nick being pulled up toward the helicopter, the ellipton strapped to him, while the others in the group she could see (she couldn’t identify them all just now) were positioned like she was, behind any cover they could find as phantoms stalked from tree to tree in their direction. One of them momentarily illuminated himself with the muzzle flash from his weapon.

“You and Hank, together!” Jan yelled. She looked back at the cable, saw Hank moving. He was the shortest man in the group, and they probably figured the hoist could accommodate both of them.

Emma nodded, dashed back to it, got on the cable with Hank, and let herself be pulled up, feeling naked as she passed up between the branches and guns fired and bullets smashed bark below. Back inside the aircraft she and Hank got clear of the rig as quickly as they could to let it swing back into action, then she moved to the window on the side of the helicopter facing their attackers, slid it open, pointed her weapon out.

She fired at someone she thought might be there, didn’t know if she hit them.

The wait for everyone to get back inside seemed interminable, and it felt like there were more and more enemies on the ground all the time. Some of them were shooting up at the helicopter, one bullet ricocheting off the outside of the aircraft near her, another punching through its skin and across the cabin just inches away.

“Who’s left?” Greg yelled out.

“Jan!” someone said, and then they started moving away, Jan barely far enough up the cable by that point to be over the treetops, swinging along as they turned back south to head for Rezene. Hank and Greg helped Jan back inside the aircraft and Emma was horrified to see his clothes covered in blood.

“We’re going to need another bed in the ER,” Greg said.

Emma wondered if he’d last until then.

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