The Zalozhniy Quartet
Katya Backstory Chapter 3
8am Makhachkala, Dagestan April 21st 2009
Katya’s plane landed at Uytash airport the next morning. Soldiers guarded doors and passages, dark rifles across their chests and eyes roving over the sparse passengers.
In a rusting, jolting taxi headed for the city, Makhachkala, Katya took a white scarf from her handbag and wrapped it around her head. She watched the dirty, southern outskirts pass by through the half-open rear window. The air-con was broken and the sun had already warmed the air. Dust and industrial stinks blew in and around the back seat.
It had barely changed from her memory, the cars on the road were still worn out, no skyscrapers on the skyline. The Caspian was still there, of course, sparkling beyond the warehouses, and the low mountains skulked on the left.
Unexpectedly, Katya felt the tug of childhood memories, she wanted to see Orphanage House No. 2 again. No-one she knew would still be there now, but she was so close. She considered, balancing the risks and checking her motives. Then she ordered the driver to take a route off, through a western suburb. His eyes glared at her in the rear-view mirror, his mouth hidden, he argued about the price and the detour out of his way, but for a smile and several more roubles, he graciously agreed and wrestled the taxi off the main road and into narrow side streets.
It was still there, the orphanage, the same but different. Katya told the taxi to park on the opposite side of the street. She studied the building from the backseat, the driver silently studying her in the mirror. It was like she’d seen the building in a movie, and was now seeing the set. Her memories were dramatic, dark shadows and bright lights. This was just ordinary. Half the blue wooden entrance double door were open, as it usually had been. Each ground-floor window still had the three horizontal bars, fortress or jail at different times of her childhood.
The top left window had been the girls’ dorm. The one below it the boys. In the early years of misery, she had found friends and protection. In the laundry room one night three of them had sworn an eternal oath of kinship, sealed with their blood and the wholehearted belief only children can truly hold.
“You know someone there?” the driver interrupted.
She met his eyes, hers unblinking and cold.
“No. Go on.” She looked back across the street. “This isn’t what I wanted.”
The taxi stopped on a main street, by a huddle of rundown shops. Katya got out and waited until the taxi rattled off, then examined a dusty jewellery shop, second along. The window was thick with decades of dust, and instinctively she checked the bottom left corner, hoping to see her initials still there, inscribed with a finger twenty years ago. Western marketing experts would have the window shining and clear, but that wouldn’t work here. Her people liked mystery and the dusty reassurance that their parents had shopped here and their children would too.
Inside was predictably gloomy, sunlight limped in but gave up halfway across the display cases.
“Can I show you something?” The shopkeeper was short, wrapped in layers of cloth, and moved with the economy of age.
“Yes, a nice ruby, a deep red one. I love rubies.”
The shopkeeper sharpened his gaze on her, squinting.
“Katya? Let me see you! I thought you had died or gone to Moscow? Either way you forgot me and my jewels.”
“I’d never forget you Uncle Miska. It’s lovely to see you again, but I need to talk business.”
“Well child, come into my office, and we’ll talk business and other things.”
Over black coffee, Miska updated Katya with decades of local news and gossip, people she barely remembered, but enjoyed hearing about. She avoided his gentle questions about her current life. Miska had always had a soft spot for her when she was a child and she suspected he had been instrumental, in some mysterious way, in getting the GRU recruiter to talk to her.
She assumed he’d done the same for Luka. Miska didn’t press her on what she has been doing since leaving Makhachkala, perhaps he guessed or already knew.
Gradually Katya steered the chat round to recent comings and goings. Miska often arranged unofficial transport for people and, more importantly, caviar.
“You are looking for someone specific I think.” He said. “You have come back to see them, not to see Uncle Miska. But I think I know who you are asking for. Two weeks ago I was asked if I could arrange a passage through the port. There are many rebels and separatists and jihadi’s coming through, but this was different. This wasn’t a fighter, this was an old man. Is this story of interest?”
“You know I love your stories. This sounds interesting.”
Miska nodded slowly, sipped his coffee, continued.
“I spoke to the customs officers and the port police as I was asked. All was arranged for a smooth passage, but the package came but he didn’t leave, he had become sick and couldn’t move anywhere. Two days he was hidden, and his patrons were scouring all over for some medicine. It caused many problems, people thought I’d lied and became angry, but then he got better and they all left.”
“What was wrong with him?”
“I don’t know, I did not see him, though they called him the yellow man.”
“Liver failure perhaps? Who were his patrons? Where is he now?”
“You have too many questions. I don’t know where he is now. He got better and left. His patrons are good customers, regular visitors. But I’m sure he went to Chechnya. Into the mountains I suspect.”
“Then that’s where I have to go. Thank you Uncle, I will come back this way and see you again soon.”
She stood up, paused. She tried to decide if she wanted to ask about someone they both had successfully avoided mentioning.
He looked up at her, steadily, “You want to know about Aleksandr.”
She abruptly sat back down again, suddenly nervous.
“How is he? Is he happy? I am sorry I didn’t let him know, but I wasn’t allowed to contact anyone after I left”
“He missed you for a long time, but Aleksandr is married, and doing his trucking. They have a young daughter. They were happy.”
“Were? What’s happened?”
“He was taken a few weeks ago.”
“Taken by who? Separatists?”
Miska gave a snort, “No, soldiers. On the road from Khasavyurt to Grozny. He was driving bricks and steel for the rebuilding, when they took him at a checkpoint I hear.”
“Of course.” He nodded sadly.
“I don’t understand, why would soldiers take him? Was he working for the rebels?”
“Katya, you know him better than anyone. Aleksandr is an innocent, but they’ll take anyone they want. Time to time, bodies are found. Tortured and damaged. Mostly, they are never seen again. Chechnya is in very bad state, but it happens even here now.”
She sat back, off-balance, trying to rationalise an explanation, but she couldn’t make sense.
“You must be very careful, Katya. The separatists will kill you for being Russian. The Russians will kill you for being Dagestani, or just in the wrong place. Or looking like a Islamist. Do not trust anyone there.”
“I trust you. And I will be careful, I am good at what I do. One question, was his wife good for him?”
“His wife is gentle, from a good family, she is called Olga. His daughter is called Ekaterina. Katya for short.”
4pm Dakhadaev Street, Makhachkala, April 21st 2009
Three hours later, Katya sat in a second floor office room, furnished in the 80’s and hard used since. Through the window she had a clear view of the FSB fortress across the street.
Katya considered the GRU office around her, it was small and grubby. The FSB building reminded her of a thuggish conscript looking for a fight. The two agencies had very different purposes, the GRU stealthily protected Russia from Western and Chinese military enemies. The FSB, still the KGB really, was there to protect Russia from Russian citizens. They got the biggest budget and press.
Across a desk from Katya, with their backs to the window, was her two local GRU contacts. Aleksi, an ex-Spetsnaz officer and Mikael, the GRU residency head. Katya had estimated Aleksi at aged 31, competent and not afraid of killing, Mikael was a worn 50, heavy drinker. Dagestan wasn’t an important residency, he’s been shuffled off here, unable to do damage. In the thirty minutes since she arrived, Mikael had complained about her clothes, found fault with her orders, her mission and their management.
Mikael was still ranting as she pondered the buildings, he pointed angrily at her and she tuned back in to what he was saying. “Do you really think you can come in here and find this guy? He has not docked here, we would know, the ship must have posted a fake manifest and sailed further north. I have told them this, but they don’t listen to me. There are hundreds of fishing villages, full of caviar smugglers and other criminals. But if we hear anything, we will…”
Katya decided that she couldn’t charm Mikael round, or couldn’t be bothered. She knew that a leader this weak would have let corruption and failings fester in their residency, but she had a mission to focus on, and he was in the way.
“He landed here a week ago, and is now probably in Chechnya.” She said it flatly.
“Rubbish! You Moscow paper pushers think you can analyse from behind a desk..”
“Colonel, I learnt this from reliable informants here this morning. Why you have not discovered it may feature in my report to Moscow. I might also check the residency’s informant logs and payments, if I have time to spare here.”
Mikael stopped, his mouth a tight angry line, but fear in his eyes. Aleksi sat quietly, his eyes gliding back and forth between the two of them.
She rolled over Mikael before he could gather his thoughts. “If you would like me to progress my mission quickly, I need a cover identity that’ll allow me contact with separatists in Chechnya. Also, the chemist has jaundice or some liver disease, contact Intelligence and confirm that.”
Colonel Mikael stared at Katya, will he fight or flee?
He visibly deflated. “We are all part of the same team, Lavovra. I will get someone to do what you ask.” He sank slightly in his chair.
“Thank you Colonel. Time is important so if you could instruct the someone now, that would help.” Katya knew this would hurt, but it always better to keep someone down once you’ve got them there.
They held eye-contact for long seconds, then Mikael stood and walked out. As he reached the door, Katya called out.
“Oh, and one other thing, I need the arrest records for an Aleksandr Ortoff – he was taken on the Chechen border a month ago. I want to know why he was arrested, and where he is now. Sir.”
The door slams shut behind him.
Aleksi leaned back, smirking “I see why Moscow wanted you far, far away.”
Adrenalin was running through Katya. “Are you here to piss me off too?”
“Ow, little hedgehog. The Bear is your friend.” He pointed at himself.
“First, I will tell you there’s no records of arrests. Not from the border and never from Chechnya. The Colonel won’t tell you this though, he’ll blame the soldiers, or your information. Paperwork is the first casualty of war, then truth. I can ask around and see if I can hear anything about this Ortoff, but no promises."
“If there’s no paperwork, how do they get tried?”
“This is a war on terror, the CIA do rendition flights and black sites in Afghanistan, we have Chechnya. No trials. Not even secret ones.”
“It’s completely lawless.” Katya had seen hard interrogations. Ones where the subject was not expected to survive.
“No, the FSB and the Special Ops are the law down here. Islamic rebels and black widows the other side. Couple of days back we caught a black widow sneaking into town. She’s being sent to Grozny for interrogation. If you want you could speak to her.”
“What was she doing here?”
“Revenging her murdered son apparently, someone gave her a crude bomb and she was going to blow herself up near some soldiers. Or police. Or postmen. Whichever uniform was handy. She knows someone who’s making Chechen bombs though.”
“Good. I need to be in Chechnya, that’s where Globenko is, I’m sure. You need to take me with her, as a prisoner. I’ll see what I can get from her, and then improvise from Grozny. I’m guessing the chemist won’t be far from a decent hospital and he’ll need chemical supplies.”
“The only real hospital is in Grozny. The rest are just small shit-holes with no decent medical care. Guderme has oil money, and chemicals, but that’s well protected and few civilians. But this widow’s no idiot, she’ll see you’re Moscow immediately and tell you nothing.”
“That’s my job, you get me an identity to convince the FSB, and I’ll convince her. "
Aleksi studied her, then smiled. “I’ll find one.”
Later, Katya sat alone in the office, trying to get into the mind of a woman who had lost all her family and was ready to give her life to avenge them. She had read the file and interrogation transcript of the widow, Nurzhan, but the FSB interrogator was speaking in Russian, not Dagestani or Chechen, and doesn’t get any real information, just venom. Katya could sense his frustration, but he’s far too blunt and resorts to vague threats of ‘specialists’ in Grozny, which clearly said that he was out of options. What an amateur, a woman who’s prepared to blow herself up isn’t worried about death. So, what does she care about?
Aleksi opened the door, carrying a tray with a plate of beef and two beer bottles. It was dark outside, Katya put down the papers and stretched, cracking knots out of her shoulders. She needed to go for a run, or a swim to clear her head.
Aleksi put the tray down, “I’m guessing none of your new friends here brought you any food or drink?”
She smiled, “No, I seem to have not made a good impression. I think I’m hungry.”
He slid the tray across the table to her, taking a bottle of beer for himself. He sat opposite, twisting the beer open and drinking deeply. Katya pushed the meat around the plate.
Aleksi gestured towards her with the bottle. “You were right, the scientist is sick. He was diagnosed with alcoholic liver damage 6 months ago. His doctor says he only has a little time left.”
Katya nodded, that fit. “He’s either doing something he’s wanted to do for a long time, or this is his last chance to make some money for his family. Anything on Ortoff?”
“There’s nothing here about him, but most border arrests are taken into Chechnya. I have some friends in the FSB there, I’ll speak to them tomorrow. But, I don’t get his link to the chemist?”
“To Globenko? No, he’s important for other reasons.”
Katya ignored this and pushed the plate away, rearranged but uneaten. She took the other bottle.
“My cover’s ready?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s as good as it can be. I will take you, under arrest, to the FSB offices now, and get them to put you in her cell for the night. It’s odd, but not totally unlikely.” He shrugged.
“No, I don’t want the FSB involved. You’re driving her to Grozny tomorrow?”
“No, I am an Intelligence officer. I have the Order of Courage medal. I don’t drive prisoners around.”
Katya flushed, “Sorry, I didn’t mean it how that sounded.”
“No matter. We’re not all here waiting for retirement or death. Anyway, in Grozny I’m known as Vadislav Barshai, a construction executive. I’ll be there in Grozny as back-up for you, and to handle the FSB.”
“Thanks. That’s good to know. How long is the drive? Three hours?”
“A bit longer with checkpoints and stuff. I’ll tell them to take their time though, give you longer. And it’ll be an armoured truck, it will be just you and her in the back, they won’t be listening in.”
Katya reassessed her view of him. A medal for courage, organised and running a cover in Chechnya.
“Why are you here? Why not somewhere more useful?” she asked.
Aleksi took a long swig and put the bottle down hard. “Good fucking question. Mainly as I’m good at dirty stuff and bad at choosing friends. There’s lots of dirty stuff here, and people who need that doing.” He stared hard at the bottle on the table. Then looked at her,
“Your turn, why are you here not somewhere more useful? We were expecting Moscow to send an old fool, someone they wouldn’t mind losing.”
“I’m not really sure. I was ordered back, mid-op, to chase someone around the countryside. There’s politics behind it, but I don’t know who or why. Maybe they wouldn’t mind losing me.”
“If you succeed, in finding him, the FSB’ll take credit, they run Chechnya. If you don’t find him, you’ll take the blame. If you’re here, they don’t care about you.”
“What did you get your medal for?”
“You haven’t answered my original question yet. What is Ortoff to you?”
She put the bottle down.
“I think I’ve had enough for today, is there a hotel I can go tonight? With a pool?”
He sized her up. “You have been in the West too long, no, there’s still no decent hotels here, but there is the base, it’s got a big pool. I could sign you in and, if you’re not too fussy, you can eat and sleep there. It’s safe. Hundreds of tough Spetsnaz protecting you.”
Katya was surprised by him again, maybe he wasn’t married? Or maybe he just didn’t care.
“That sounds fine. Maybe the Spetsnaz are there to protect you.”
He laughed, “I don’t want to be on the wrong side of you.”
“Who said you’d made it onto the right side?”
“Hello again, prickly hedgehog. So, I propose a bet. The loser over, say, twenty lengths answers the others’ question honestly and truthfully. Yes?”
The pool was large, cold and empty. They swam fiercely against each other. Katya was good in the water, but Aleksi was stronger and faster. At the end of twenty lengths, they hung one-handed on the edge breathing heavily, laughing at the absurdity. Aleksi pushed himself effortlessly up out of the water and offered Katya a hand up. She grabs his forearm military fashion, his hand round her wrist, and he pulled her up next to him.
“So” he said dripping, “Who is Ortoff?”