The Zalozhniy Quartet
Katya Backstory 7
8pm Khadyrov’s Villa, outside Grozny. April 23rd 2009
That evening, Katya was ready for the end of her mission. The FSB chief would want to keep it quiet, she thinks, and deal with Zlotnik behind closed doors.
Aleksi had come rushing back when she told him she had found the chemist.
“Just because some old fool says the FSB organised this, you can’t believe him? You certainly can’t report this until you have hard evidence.”
“I know, that’s why I’m going to expose Zlotnik and get the truth. They are traitors. They’re trading Russian lives for heroin and money, for their own pockets.”
“Where is the chemist?” he gave her a hard stare, but she doesn’t answer.
They got ready for the party in silence. By 7pm, they were heading out of the city in Aleksi’s Range Rover. Katya had taped her pistol to her thigh, underneath her long evening dress. Normally she wouldn’t go armed undercover, and the cold metal sat heavy against her skin. Outside the SUV, central Grozny zipped by, lit by orange streetlights. Soon the streetlights ended and they passed dark suburbs, empty gaps and shattered buildings. Katya watched the stream of construction lorries heading north, out of Chechnya, carrying concrete and metal waste somewhere else.
Khadyrov’s villa was several miles outside Grozny, in his family village. They pass through three sets of guards, before arriving. It may have started life as just a villa, but it was a large compound now. There was even a racetrack, with grandstand, and other more anonymous buildings. The main villa was floodlit, luxury cars dropping off in front.
Aleksi drove up and they got out. The air was much warmer than in the mountains, and stylish gas heaters roared by the entrance to ward off any hint of a chill. Aleksi threw his keys to a valet, and held his arm out for Katya, to walk into the entrance hall. A muscled doorman nodded at Aleksi.
“Vadislav Barshai, welcome, it is good to see you again.”
Inside was a white marble entrance hall, surrounded by waist-high vases of flowers. Paintings of Khadyrov Junior hang on the walls. It reminded Katya of a mausoleum. Akhmad Khadyrov had been killed by a bomb planted in the concrete under his seat at Grozny stadium. Khadyrov Junior had unexpectedly remained that extra day in Moscow and, after the bomb, was rushed to meet Putin. The son, now president in his fathers’ place, had been remarkably lucky not to be sitting next to his father.
Aleksi saw some men he knew at the bar, and Katya drifted off to mingle. The next hour crawled, the other guests were nouveau riche of the sort Katya despised. They leeched money from the rebuilding of Chechnya, and flaunted it endlessly. Rich Germans were often boring, but they didn’t find ways to mention their car or holiday or the size of their dacha at every opportunity. This was what she was trained for though and she smiled and made chit-chat until her cheeks hurt.
Across the room she noticed a guard whisper to Aleksi. He looked for her and nodded. Time to go meet Feliks and get the truth. She had prepared.
Together they followed the guard out of the back of the main reception room, up the stairs and across thick carpet to another large room. Rich sofas were carefully arranged and expensive bookshelves, empty, lined the walls. A large table sat in the centre, covered with a white tablecloth.
“Modin is coming” the guard said and departed, shutting the doors behind him.
“Do you need your drink?” Aleksi said, Katya put her glass down on a side table, next to a sofa.
“I’m nervous” she said.
“It’ll be over shortly I’m sure.”
One half of the double doors opened and a tall, striking man entered. Mid 50’s, mostly grey hair, but he moved with grace and fluidity. His eyes shine with intelligence and humour.
“You must be Katya, I am Feliks.” he strode quickly over and kissed the back of her hand.
She was taken aback, and almost curtsied before catching herself.
“Yes, I am, good to meet you, sir” Great start Katya, she thought sourly.
“Hi Aleksi” they shook hands warmly and Feliks indicated the sofas “Let us sit and you can tell me what is on your mind.”
Aleksi and Feliks started to sit down, but Katya remained standing, and they stop, and straighten back up, politely awkward.
“So it is a problem then. Katya before you start, can I ask you a question? What is it you really want from your career?” Feliks asked.
“Well, I, I want to protect Russia, and ensure it is strong.”
“Understood, and to protect Russia we need strong security services, don’t we?”
“Yes, of course, but ones that act in Russia’s interest.” Katya was worried, this conversation was not going where she expected. “I have uncovered traitors in the FSB, people colluding with Chechen rebels to attack Russia.”
“That is very serious. Do you have any names?”
“Aleksi, go and fetch Major Zlotnik, bring him here.” He waited, while Aleksi exited. "Katya, we are impressed with your capabilities, and think we can find a role for you. "
“Thank you, I just try to do my job. I’ll need to speak to Colonel Brestin about your suggestion.”
“I have spoken with Brestin, he is in favour of it. There is much you can accomplish outside of the GRU. Russia needs people like you. There are many threats to Russia. And you are right, there will be attacks on Russia, and people will die, but sometimes this is necessary. If we sacrifice a few, we can protect the many. The strong need to have the trust of the many. Russia cannot be allowed to disintegrate, so we need a strong external threat to keep the citizens together.”
“You want to let people get gassed so you earn their trust?”
“You mean the chemist? Of course, I don’t want to, but sometimes to get where you want to be, you have to go through hard territory. When Hitler invaded, Stalin had to slow him down to buy time. He ordered Russian troops into combat with no training and no weapons. They died in their tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. But he did what he had to do for the good of Russia. He slowed the German advance, sacrificing a few for the whole.”
“You’re comparing yourself to Stalin? You’re insane.” Katya shook her head.
“Stalin had some problems of course, but he knew how to handle power. I think you do too, and that’s admirable. Useful even. Isn’t Russia more important than one person?” he asked
“Yes, of cour-”
“More than a thousand people?”
“Yes!” she raised her voice.
“The world has changed. The public are empowered, we have to implement different controls. It can seem shocking.” Felix was calm. “We need the chemist Katya, where is he?”
“Safe, from you.”
“I could turn you over to Khadyrov. He has a whole farm here for getting people to talk. If you don’t like being on our side, I assure you being on the other side is worse. Where is the chemist? Last chance.”
“I am prepared to die for Russia.”
“You would not be dying for Russia, you would be opposing the new Russia.”
Blondie and Aleksi walk in. Both have guns drawn, and they are carrying a dirty, bloody man, his head covered with a black bag. His arms were tied and they dumped him to the floor.
“Hi Nurzhan or Lalita or Katya.” Blondie said. Major Zlotnik.
Feliks sighed. “Katya, at this point we normally threaten your family, but you have none, nor any close relationships we can find outside of work. Which is quite sad. But I think we have an offer that will work. Please lift your glass.”
She cautiously lifted her glass off the table, Feliks tugged the tablecloth, which fell smoothly off. Underneath was a large clear block of plastic. Sealed inside was a naked man, bloody and broken. Dead. Tortured. Face up, his mouth open in a silent scream, his bloody eyes staring at the ceiling, the clear plastic filling his mouth.
Bile shot up Katya’s throat and she had to clamp her mouth shut.
“Khadyrov has a certain sense of imagination. Personally, I find it quite repulsive, but Khadyrov is in power and works to retain it. No matter what.” He smiled.
Katya wanted out of that room, wanted to shoot him dead, but her bag was on the sofa, and she still had her glass in her hand. She turned to put the glass down, unable to think straight. She had prepared, but not for this.
“After a while they still rot away, there is a lot of bacteria in the human body. Which emphasises my point – by being constantly under attack, the immune system is strengthened.” Feliks continued, calmly.
He watched her. “You might resist the interrogation. So instead tell me what we should do with Aleksandr Ortoff. Aleksi tells me he is like a brother to you”
Blondie pulled the bag off the prisoners head. He was bloody and covered in grime, and older than she had last seen him, but she would know Aleksandrs’ eyes anywhere.
“Nice to see you again K” he said, hoarsely.
She put her glass down unsteadily on the perspex table, avoiding eye contact with the dead man. She turned to Aleksi, “You as well? You sold out for drug money?” she asked, sadly.
Aleksi held her gaze, “I’m sorry, but this is an opportunity for you. You have skills, and I didn’t sell out. Forget east and west, forget FSB versus GRU, that’s not true anymore. You could be part of the new Russia. I recommended you.”
“Katya,” Feliks interrupted, “Aleksi joined our family, this gentlemen,” he waves a hand at the perspex, “wasn’t the right sort. My question, your choice, is a simple one. Save Aleksandr and be welcomed into our family or be bypassed, forgotten.”
“I need to think.” She fumbled with her bag, and a gun clicked behind her.
“No guns, Katya.” Aleksi said.
“Don’t you remember the gun is on my thigh, not in my bag?” Anger filled her voice, but she reached down, moved the dress fabric out of the way and ripped the gun and tape off her thigh.
Katya held the gun up by the trigger guard. Zlotnik took it off her, disarmed it.
“Let Aleksandr sit down please, he was always a sick child” she said, without looking at Aleksandr. Feliks waved his hand at Aleksi who manhandled Aleksandr onto a chair by the door.“Come help us make a Russia to be feared again.” Feliks held his hand up for Katya, as if she could bear to touch him.
Katya took her powder compact from her bag, flipped it open and checked her makeup in the small mirror. She smiled at Feliks, breathed deeply and tipped all the powder into her glass. It fizzed and foamed.
Feliks and Zlotnik stared at it and her, confused. Feliks still had his hand out. Katya knocked the foaming liquid towards them, and holding her breath ran towards the door. Aleksandr was already moving, he had not forgotten their bag stealing routine.
Aleksi raises his gun too late, the novichok gas coming from the liquid started to interfere with his nerve signals.
“Help!” screamed Feliks, but the end was strangled and he fell choking.
Katya was beside Aleksandr, almost out the door. The gas would penetrate skin, they had to get out. She helped him hobble out into the corridor, fresher air, she hoped.
Behind she can hear strangled gurgling and thrashing.
Shurgard Self Storage, Bremen, Germany December 30th 2009
Katya stood alone in a self-storage room, in an anonymous building on a road outside Bremen. Bare metal walls and fluorescent lights. In front of her was a cheap desk, covered with head shots. Some official photos, some from cut from newspapers.
Behind the desk was a large corkboard. Pinned at the top was the “All Residences” alert requiring GRU officers to turn her in. It had a photo from her official file, dark hair and no makeup. She had changed a lot since then. If they caught her, they would return her to the Aquarium. For interrogation and disposal up the chimney. Or they would hand her over to the FSB.
Below the notice, the corkboard was divided in two. The right half had photos of Aleksi, Zlotnik and Feliks. The left side had two photos, Yasha and Aleksandr. She studied the photo of Colonel Brestin in her hand, trying to decide if he belongs on the left, trusted side. Or the right, compromised. Right.
She will sort out who belonged on each side, and destroy the traitors.
Then she would be able return to Russia and the GRU.