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Chapter 59

March 1992

Ugransky Air Force Base

Smolensk Oblast, R.F.

Stepanenkov watched the Ilyushin on the runway being loaded, troops hauling crates out of trucks parked next to it and carrying them up into the plane’s cargo cabin. It was mainly small arms and associated ammunition, not the most exciting stuff in the world, but money was money, and his prospects for seeing a lot more of it were good.

Planes were flying in and out now just like before, product continuing to move through the airfield at a steady rate, thanks to Stepanenkov’s backers, who had furnished him with the money to repair the base and replace the warehouses that had burned down, while providing brand-new fighter planes for his unit. There was also enough money to replenish the lost stocks of munitions and compensate their customers for the shipping delays.

It helped that the buyers of the ellipton weren’t in a position to ask for their down payment back. (He had decided to take Biriuzov’s word for this.) It also helped that the prospects for business remained bright.

The Wars of the Yugoslav Succession seemed likely to drag on. The fight in Moldova was probably just getting started, and perhaps only the first of several battles in neighboring countries in which Russia would have to assert its interests, overtly or covertly. His weapons could help, and to the extent that the clash strengthened the establishment surrounding him, his operation would be better off for it.

The Middle East would go on being a good place to do business. The sanctions with which the Americans were slapping so many of the Soviet Union’s former client states actually increased the demand for the cheap black market wares he provided.

The budgets of African governments were more modest, and likely to become only more so as their internal headaches multiplied and their foreign backers lost interest, but there were a lot of buyers all the same, and money to be made there too. He already saw a positive sign in the callback he got from Mr. Vandergelder of Administrative Actions. Due to the lack of communication in the past few weeks he’d worried the man had lost interest in the deal they’d discussed, but it looked like this would be a “go” after all. Vandergelder said he could expect to receive the down payment on the arms transfer before the end of the month.

Not all the developments were congenial to him, however. General Biriuzov had told him that he’d be on a shorter leash, and he was, a retired GRU officer now attached to his staff.

Colonel Ilya Lermontov wasn’t as disagreeable as he might have been. He didn’t interfere in Stepanenkov’s handling of the operation, or try to cause him any other problems, as far as he knew, and never rubbed his nose in the fact of his presence. Still, the General didn’t like his being there on principle, and it was very clear that he meant to do his job of knowing everything that happened on the base, something Stepanenkov could do without, so he certainly wouldn’t have minded Lermontov’s going away and never coming back.

It was one more reason Stepanenkov looked forward to taking a vacation in a few weeks’ time, as his job entitled him to, and the stress of recent weeks made wise. He wanted to go someplace warm, with a nice beach, but didn’t feel quite right leaving the country at the moment. Sochi seemed like a good fit with his tastes and needs at the moment. He wondered how the resorts had changed since his last visit.

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