The Zalozhniy Quartet
Katya Backstory Chapter 5
7pm Rebel Village, Chechnya, April 22nd 2009
The rebels’ camp was high in the mountains, a small cluster of houses on a slope.
After she killed the driver, they had quickly ransacked the truck and set off at a fast hike along goat-trails through gorges and slopes. Katya struggled to keep up, new bruises and hurts making themselves known. The leader, the others called him Zelixman, seemed to recognise the name Nurzhan. The troop marched quietly, efficiently, not talking. Katya was surprised that they didn’t seem happy to have killed the soldiers, there was no back-slapping, no celebration. They would not come close to her, and Zelixman had taken his automatic back. The tall rebel was the only rebel behind her, guarding the rear.
The sun had dropped below the peaks, leaving a purple twilight, when they arrived at the village camp. The rebels scattered to various huts, shedding weapons and webbing, becoming civilians. Women, head-scarfed and meek, welcomed them in. Katya was left lost in the centre, unsure of where she was supposed to go.
“Zelixman will see you.” The tall rebel flicked his head at a large hut off to the right, a dark SUV parked behind it.
He followed closely behind as she pulled open the door to the large hut. A couple of women bustle in the kitchen serving food from a large pot, while Zelixman sat at a simple wooden bench, hands restless on top. His hands were large and rough, with visible callouses. Farmers’ hands. Sat next to him was a man Katya hasn’t seen before. He was healthy, but had never done a hard days’ work. Blond hair, mid 30’s, wearing a black combat jacket. The tall rebel shut the door behind her, and stood blocking it. He hadn’t taken his rifle off.
“Please sit.” Zelixman’s voice was deep. His Chechen accent was not one Katya could specifically identify, but there were very many dialects. She pulled out the bench opposite and sat, her back to the door and the tall rebel. The blond man was puzzling her, he seemed out of place.
“Thank you for your hospitality and rescuing me Zelixman. I am ..”
Zelixman held up a hand to stop her, “Take off your headscarf.”
Katya paused, nervous. That request was impolite between strangers. Cautiously expecting a trap, she unknotted it and pulled it off her hair.
“How did you get the bruise on your cheek?”
“In custody, they wanted to know who I knew.”
Zelixman glanced at the blond man, who shook his head, with a sneer. “She’s no-one” he said.
“Call and confirm.” Zelixman ordered him. Blondie sighed, awkwardly pulling a satellite phone out of a jacket pocket and left the hut, annoyed.
“We did not mean to rescue you. It was by Allah that you were not killed. We make the Russians regret coming into the mountains.”
“I was told we were being taken to Grozny for questioning.”
“They lied. You were being taken into the wilds or to a murder house. They weren’t going to ask any questions.”
Katya was shaken. It was true that she hadn’t recognised where the van had been attacked, it wasn’t the main road. The FSB didn’t know she wasn’t a terrorist, maybe she had nearly been tortured and killed.
The blond man came back in, “Spetsnaz caught her in Makhachkala and handed her over yesterday for interrogation. She tried to blow up some soldiers.” Katya’s stomach dropped, what else did he know? She waited for him to say more, to give a signal that she was not Nurzhan, but he didn’t.
Zelixman smiles at her, “You have family in Chechnya?” he asks.
Katya thought fast, back to Nurzhan’s interrogation transcript and the conversation in the truck. “No, all my family were killed last year in a bombing.”
Zelixman smiled at her, “I’m sorry. We’ll find you a safe place, and if you still want to kill Russians you can. But tonight you stay here, as our guest.”
The tall rebel escorted her to a nearby hut. He was open to chat now and Katya got his name, Mansur. No fire had burned in this hearth for a long time and Mansur fetched firewood and helped Katya get a flame going.
“I’ll bring you some food, and do you need anything else?” Katya needed a gun and a phone and to get the hell away from here and the blond man.
Instead she asked “Who’s hut is this?”
“A brother, killed last year. His wife has gone back to her family. I’ll be back soon with your food.”
After he left, Katya quickly scouted the hut. It was two rooms, both basic. Wooden walls, floor and roof. She found a rusty knife in the kitchen and slid it under her robes. There was a small window in the main room and a hole in the ceiling to let smoke out. There was a large bed in the other room, but no window. She needed to know who blond man was, and what he was doing here.
Mansur returned with a bowl of stew and a bucket. “I’m afraid I need to lock you in. I have orders. If you need anything call for me.” He lifted the bucket. “The toilet is outside, so you need to…” He paused trying to find a polite phrase.
She nodded. “I understand.”
“Sorry Lalita. We are normally good hosts, this is not how a woman guest should be treated.”
He left and locked the door, and her legs wouldn’t support her anymore. She collapsed onto the floor. Her tension and energy emptied away, she felt hollow and that she was going to be sick. She put a hand across her mouth, and looked with disgust at the bucket. She should have listened to Yasha, she was out of her depth here. The rebels will discover she’s a spy and kill her.
She lay there for a long time, fighting nausea. The wooden floor was rough, and a cool draught blew into her face. How many times had she led on the orphanage storeroom floor like this? Aleksandr would find her, hug her until she stopped crying. They would call each other by their secret names. Names the Director of the orphanage beat them if she ever heard. Sister. Brother.
Was Aleksandr dead by now? Or was he in some dark cellar being tortured? She pushed herself up. Enough of her self-pitying weakness. She had a job to do, no matter how scared she was. She was not going to let Aleksandr or Yasha down.
9pm Rebel village, Chechen mountains, April 22nd 2009
The hut window faced outside the village, but she rose and pulled the curtain across anyway. What had Mansur said about normal? So, tonight was not normal, even for rebels, her instincts told her it was somehow linked with the blond man. In the bedroom she found extra blankets and made a long shape in the bed. It might fool them for a little while. She washed and treated her cuts and scrapes.
In the main room, she peered carefully through a crack in the doorframe. Lights shone in the other huts, and Mansur lounged on the other side of an open area, talking quietly with another armed rebel, otherwise the place was quiet.
Katya moved to one wall, took a deep breath and sprung up to grab a roof beam. She pulled herself up to hang upside down, legs wrapped around it. The hut creaked. She inched along until she was near the smoke hole, at the highest point of the roof. Pulling herself up to stand on the beam, she could just reach the edges of the hole. Smoke wafted around her from the fire below. Now or never.
She grasped the edges of the hole, testing their strength. The hole was a gap in the roof between two struts, and seemed solid. It was going to be tight, but this wasn’t that different to the high window out of the orphanage attic room, and she’d made that hundreds of times. She jumped up from the beam, pulling hard. Her head and an elbow made it through, and she wiggled and levered her top half, and then her hips through. The roof sloped steeply, she jammed a foot against one edge of the smoke hole, and lead flat on the roof tiles. Her hands and her clothes had rubbed against the edges and were black with soot. Useful. She rubbed the soot over her face. Camouflage.
Led flat against the roof tiles Katya could see most of the hamlet. Zelixman’s hut was across the open centre, still lit up, the SUV still parked behind. The huts were circled around the centre space, each about ten feet apart, she could sneak round the outside and be outside most of the lights, but there might be more guards out there, in the dark.
Carefully, Katya pushed herself down onto the side roof, her clothes catching on the handmade tiles, friction stopping her sliding off. It was dark in the gap between her hut and the next. She watched for a count of one hundred and twenty. No movement, no sounds.
She dropped dpwn into the gap, and rolled further into the dark. She froze, breathing open-mouthed, listening for a shout or a gun cocking. Above her, thousands of stars hung, in a clear black sky. The half moon was low, throwing gentle a silver sheen.
Slowly she crept around each hut on the edge, staring blindly into the dark, straining every sense to hear, see, smell, sense in the dark beyond. She reached the wall of Zelixman’s hut without shouts or shots. The SUV was round the hut corner, to her right, her hut and the open centre to her left.
A window let yellow light out, bright to her night-adjusted eyes. It was slightly ajar, with a cable running out and round the hut to the right. She positioned herself below the window, back pressed to the wooden wall, out of the light and listened. She could hear Zelixman and Blondie talking, and the clatter of cutlery and dishes.
“… wait longer. The Afghan lorry will be here in a day or two.” Zelixman’s voice.
“It’s working again.” Blond man.
There was more clatter, then silence and in the quiet Katya could hear the high-pitched whine of a laptop fan. After a minute, she heard a new male voice. Older and raspy. Coming from a small speaker.
“Hello. I can prepare the novichok 5 from simple chemicals. The final form will be in two parts, a fine powder and, in this case, a liquid solution, both of which are mostly harmless, except when mixed. Though, I wouldn’t recommend consuming either, of course! But they won’t kill you, until they are mixed.”
Katya had to work out where that video was recorded, and when. Blond man was clearly connected in with this.
Zelixman’s voice again, slightly louder, “What happens when they are mixed?”
The raspy video voice responded “What? Well, they produce an oxyphosphonofluoridate gas variant. They give off a nerve gas, simply. This inhibits a specific neuro-muscular transmitter, leading to rapid respiratory and cardiac failure.”
Katya froze, it was some sort of video call, not a pre-recorded video.
She slowly pushed herself up, to one side of the window, and looked in. No-one in sight. She kept edging up until she could see the back of Blondies head. He was sat at the bench, a laptop open on it, with a video image.
There was no power lines, phone lines or mobile phone signals here, how were they making the call? She studied at the cable again. That couldn’t run all the way down the mountain, could it?
She ducked back down and scanned around, then sidled around the corner. The cable disappeared in the darkness, towards the SUV parked there, with some sort of metal pole on its roof, glinting in the moonlight.
She crept closer, racking her memory of the electronic comms course, she’d barely passed it as it was full of mathematics. She slipped round the far side of the SUV, a Landrover. The pole was a tripod on the roof supporting a small flat-faced box on the top, facing down the mountainside. She stretched up and followed the sightline of the box. Far away and below in the dark, glowed orange lights of a large city. It was some sort of line-of-sight communication device, microwave? Laser? The technical details were lost to her, if they were ever there, but that orange glow was the other end of the call.
Assuming that was Grozny, she was in the mountains, maybe 50km south, and her target, was somewhere in the city.
The Landrover was unlocked, a power cable ran from the pole through the passengers’ window. Katya put her hand on the drivers’ door handle, and squeezed until the lock clicked and door opened a fraction. The interior lights come on, bright, white. She pulled the door open, reached in and flicked the switch off. Inside smelt of cigarettes. Hurriedly, she bent over the driver’s seat looking for hints. There was a power adaptor in the cigar socket, a central console with LCD display and nothing much else. There was a control knob, similar to the one she had in her BMW back in Germany. She experimentally turned it, and the LCD lit up with a map. Turning the dial she rotated the menu options round to Addresses, then Recent Destinations. Four addresses appeared, all in Grozny. One she knew was the FSB office, one was labelled Grozny City Hotel and two others she memorised. Perfect.
She explored the menu options, trying to find a Home option when she caught the power cable slightly with her elbow, there was a scrape from the tripod on the roof. “Pizdets” she said under her breath, hit the Off button, slid back out and shut the door, as quietly as possible.
She heard voices, and crouches down, watching underneath the car. She could see two pairs of feet, Zelixmans and Blondies.
“You got enough I think anyway, when the lorry’s here call me and we’ll bring him. "
Blondie moved to the rear, Katya slithered under the SUV, thankful for its high clearance. Blondie opened the boot door and put something in, then scratched the tripod off the roof and put it in the boot. One end of the power cable fell down in the mud by the drivers’ door, his feet walked around, opened the passenger door and the cable disappeared up, out of Katya’s view.
“Send me the list of chemicals that he didn’t finish.”
She was breathing open-mouthed as she had been taught, chest on the cold ground. The underside of the Landrover was dark above her. If he drove off now, she would be completely exposed. Twisting her arm round she extracted the thin kitchen knife. The passenger door shut, but the feet turn and walk back to the hut.
Once the feet re-entered the hut, she counted ten and scrambled out the far side. The Landrover was still unlocked. Standing in the dark and Katya wonders where she could hide in the car. Her lift back to Grozny.
Ten minutes later, Blondie reappeared, dumped some more stuff into the boot and threw a bag on the backseat then got in the drivers’ door.
“I’m off now, call me when you’re ready, but don’t hang around, you can see he’s not got long.”