Patrick slings the transport chopper into a slow climb, scudding across the darkened countryside, making straight for the Transnistrian border. Sergei carefully applies a dressing to the Irishman’s recent wound. ’Doesn’t look too bad,’ he tells the younger man. ’You’ll be fine, assuming we make it to the ground in one piece.’
’We’re not out of the woods yet!’ Somerset calls, pointing out the forward canopy. Directly ahead, an ugly, bulbous shape is rising quickly out of a shadowed valley, ranks of heavy calibre weaponry adourning each squat wing. ‘Why won’t these guys just quit?!’ Katya growls in frustration. ‘Can we shoot it down?.’
Somerset frowns, ‘Not without some very serious hardware, no. That’s a Hind. A gunship. Heavily armoured. These peashooters wouldn’t even break the windows.’
‘We could run?’ Sergei suggests hopefully.
‘S-sure,’ Patrick responds uncertainly. The others can see his eyes are bloodshot after a long flight into the Ukraine and hours already spent searching for the team fleeing from Odessa. And that’s not even counting the blood still drying after his encounter with the sniper.
Sergei grimaces, then says, ‘Okay I have one thing that might stall them, keep on this heading.’
Moments later, the radio crackles, ‘Unidentified aircraft bearing west by north west, you are ordered to land immediately for priority security inspection under the authority of the Zbroyni Syly Ukrayiny.’
Sergei takes the handset and replies, ‘We can not comply with your request, this is a secure diplomatic flight, with Black Zero authority, code 16, returning to Krumovo Air Force base on a matter of national security.’
There’s a long pause, then. ‘Understood. Please state which commanding officer has authorised this operation?’
‘Brigadier General Ivankov.’
By now the Hind has circled around the team’s chopper and is coming up alongside, so close that Patrick can make out the pilot and copilot against the grey clouds.
‘Acknowledged. You are cleared to proceed. Please be advised there is a very low pressure weather front approaching from the west, all flights will soon be grounded. We suggest you make course for Dubasari and wait for it to pass.’
Sergei lets out a long breath. ‘Many thanks, we’ll do that.’
The Hind sheers away to the east, its huge rotors and lumpen chassis momentarily silhouetted against the murky sky.
‘That was too close,’ Sergei mutters.
A short while later, air traffic control starts redirecting all flights away from the approaching storm, but by then the stolen chopper is across the Transnistrian border.
‘Where are heading for?’ Patrick asks.
’We’ll just have to put this down in a field somewhere close to Tiraspol and walk.’ Sergei replies.
Patrick touches down beside a line of trees, just a few hundred yards from the outskirts of the city. Anywhere else in the world, this might have attracted an inquisitive crowd, if not a full blown police response, but fortunately Transnistria isn’t like most other places.
The team jumps out, rising wind whipping at their clothes. ‘We need to rest,’ Somerset calls over the roaring gusts. ’Let’s just find a bar, get some downtime and give this ‘Mr Happy’ a call.’
The team agrees and trudges towards the nearest line of decaying high rise buildings. Military jeeps, packed with unsmiling soldiers, speed along heavily potholed roads, alongside expensive four-by-fours and decrepit sedans. Pedestrians scurry along the pavements, keeping their heads down and scarfs pulled up to protect them from the biting winds. It doesn’t take long to find a grim-looking bar with an even grimmer-looking barman, but at least he’s wise enough not ask any questions as the four cluster cluster around a filthy table.
Sergei pulls out his phone and dials the number for Tiraspol’s Happy Cleaning Service™. After a brief conversation, a meeting is arranged at an upmarket Chinese restaurant near the local football stadium.
’We’ve got a few hours before the meet,’ Sergei says. ‘Mr Happy is at a football match, but will see us afterwards. Let’s stick around here for the time being.’
Katya is scratching at her the skin on her arms and inspecting the flesh below a tear in her jacket.
‘Something the matter?’ Sergei asks.
‘No- well, yes,’ she replies. ’I’m itching all over – look.’
The skin on her arms is swelling into angry red welts. Sergei leans in to examine the marks.
‘Could be something you picked up running around in those tunnels,’ he decides. ‘Probably nothing permanent, try not to worry. Let me know if it gets any worse.’
Katya doesn’t look very reassured but makes an effort to resist scratching the reddened skin.
After a few hours of much needed relaxation, the team make their way to the restaurant. Sergei and Katya go inside while Somerset and Patrick linger nearby to provide backup, if needed.
After a few minutes, a broad, well dressed man steps out of an chauffeur driven Mercedes and strides into the restaurant, his ruddy face breaking into a big smile upon seeing Sergei.
‘Sergei, my friend! How good it is to see you again- how long has it been? Five years?’
‘Six, I think, comrade,’ Sergei answers, smiling broadly as the big man engulfs him in an exaggerated bear hug. ‘This is my associate, Katya Lavrova. Katya, meet Mr Happy.’
‘Such a pleasure,’ Katya responds warmly, as she is kissed several times on each cheek.
Formalities over, Mr Happy is suddenly all business.
‘So, I have a private suite, let’s go discuss what you are here for,’ Mr Happy says, looking serious.
The upstairs room looks out towards the over-sized stadium opposite – with seats for over ten thousand spectators, it’s comically large for this city and its steadily dwindling population.
Food arrives on sizzling trays, smelling surprisingly good, given the surroundings. As the staff disappear downstairs, Mr Happy looks at Sergei, frowning.
‘Sergei, you are putting me in a difficult position by coming here,’ he says. ‘The word is that the Litsky Bratva are extremely interested in your whereabouts and are expending significant resources hunting for you. Not to put too fine a point on it, you’re walking dead men.’
Sergei scowls, ‘Nothing gets by you, old friend. And yes, we have – as you say – kicked the hornet’s nest.’
‘So why shouldn’t I just hand you over and take a big cash reward?’
‘You probably should,’ Sergei replies, holding the big man’s stony gaze. ‘But then you’d just be like all the Litsky Bratva’s other lapdogs.’
Mr Happy’s face darkens, but Katya cuts him off. ‘What Sergei is trying to say, is that we think we have skills to hit the Litsky Bratva where it hurts. We certainly have a very good incentive for doing so. And if that ambition aligns with your financial goals, then so much the better for both of us.’
Mr Happy pauses, contemplating, then his face abruptly breaks into a wide grin, ‘You are right of course, my dear. And I think you’ll find I have the resources to aid you in this noble endeavour.’ Katya could practically see the dollar signs in his eyes. ’ There’s just one small matter I’d like your help with first – just so I know we’re all on the same side.’
‘You have only to ask and it’s done.’ Katya replies without hesitation.
‘Take a look at this,’ Mr Happy passes a newspaper over to the two agents. it’s a long, gushing feature piece about a footballer, called Abesoli. There are numerous pictures of the African youth on the pitch and inside a decadently appointed dacha.
Sergei and Katya look puzzled.
‘This is FC Sheriff’s new star player,’ explains Mr Happy. Sergei and Katya’s expressions are still frozen in bafflement. ‘FC Sheriff’s owner, Victor Gusan, is an old friend and rival. As you well know, I support FC Tiraspol, and I’d dearly like to see them prosper in our upcoming game. It’s in two days time.’
Realisation dawns, and Sergei smiles. ‘Aha, now I see. Well in that case, we shall leave you to your evening. I’m confident that you’ll be getting in touch in due course. Best of luck with the game.’
Sergei and Katya head for the door, but Mr Happy calls out.
‘Just make sure you don’t kill him, okay.’
Back outside with Somerset and Patrick, Sergei explains the situation. ’There’s a man we need to temporarily inconvenience. He’s something of a local celebrity and so will be closely guarded. But I have an idea.’
Sergei explains the plan and the team book into a hotel. Somerset goes to rent a car while Patrick and Katya do some research into the newspaper article, trying to identify the best opportunity to strike. Sergei visits a pharmacy, followed by a camping store, then disappears into his hotel room.
Patrick and Somerset take a drive in the rental car and identify what might be Abesoli’s dacha. Katya, however, reasons that a man with Abesoli’s wealth, fame and youth would likely frequent the city’s exclusive night club, ‘Escape’, which conveniently happened to be hosting a ticketed event that evening.
Around ten o’clock, Somerset and Katya set off for ‘Escape’. At the door, an irascible bouncer gives them a skeptical look. ‘This is tickets only, you can’t come in,’ he says. Katya turns on the charm, but man is having none of it.
‘This a club for young people,’ he says scornfully. Somerset tenses fractionally and he stares hard at the bouncer. The man, to his credit, realises he’s gone too far as he notices Somerset’s cold, merciless eyes, the promise of sudden violence etched in the muscles tensed beneath the tailored suit.
Katya breaks the spell before things turn very ugly for the hapless doorman. ‘Well, if you don’t want our money I suppose we’ll go elsewhere,’ she says, turning away with a shrug.
’It’s okay, err, actually, you may go in,’ the bouncer mutters, stepping aside.
Back at the hotel, Patrick enters Sergei’s hotel room. ‘Sweet Mary and Joseph, what is that smell?’ he complains.
Sergei closes the bathroom door and pulls off a surgical mask. ’It’s complicated, but it should serve. We’re going to induce a histamine reaction in our footballer friend using an antibiotic – Polymyxin B. This isn’t the sort of thing you can buy over the counter, but you can find it in some of the more potent brands of topical antiseptic treatments. So with a bit of creative plumbing and a camping stove, I should be able to refine us enough to spike a drink with.’
‘You sure this won’t kill him?’ Patrick wonders.
‘No … well, probably not,’ says Sergei cheerfully. ‘An emergency tracheotomy might not be off the cards, but any idiot with a penknife and a ballpoint pen can pull that off.’
Patrick looks a little worried. ’Anything I can help you with? he asks.
’We’ll need some way of sneaking this stuff into the club,’ answers Sergei. ‘Can you work some magic with this cigarette lighter?’
A short while later, Sergei heads out to the club, meeting Katya outside where’s she apparently struggling to light a cigarette. Sergei offers to help and strides back off into the night. Katya returns to the nightclub, modified lighter in her pocket.
The club is steadily filling up when there’s a small commotion at the door. A tall, dark skinned youth in an expensively hideous tracksuit has just arrived, greeted by wild applause from the other partygoers. He beams round at his fans, while a crowd of minders set about segregating off part of the club for their ward. Already, a group of girls is forming an eager line, vying to get into the star’s private circle.
‘Guess I’ll go play desperate and needy then,’ says Katya resignedly. ‘Unless you want to..?’ She motions towards the jostling groupies.
‘Uh, no why don’t you take this one,’ Somerset replies. ’I’ll be ready to make a distraction.’
It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to work out what pushes Abesoli’s buttons, a few fluttered eyelids and lot of flattery later and Katya is invited over to join the other hopefuls basking in the footballer’s glory.
A tedious hour passes while Katya makes idle small talk with the star and the rest of the groupies. Champagne is flowing fast, but the minders are keeping a close eye on Abesoli’s alcohol intake. Eventually one gives a relenting nod and the footballers glass is refreshed. Seeing the opportunity, Katya subtely tips the contents of the lighter into her own glass and turns around to catch Somerset’s eye.
Somerset weaves drunkenly across the dance floor, allowing himself to be nudged by a dancing youth. His drink goes flying and Somerset turns angrily on the young man, shoving him back to crash into a table. The youth leaps to his feet, yelling obscenities. Instantly, four of the man’s friends are by his side, lashing out at his attacker.
‘Oops,’ thinks Somerset, as a fist flails past his right ear. The burgeoning brawl is drawing excited gasps though, and Abesoli’s circle of fans turns to watch.
Somerset deflects another swing, but is caught out by a punch to the stomach. As he throws himself sideways, another fist grazes his chin and a third crunches into his forehead, leaving his head ringing.
By now the bouncers are swarming across the dancefloor to break up the fight and all eyes are locked on the commotion. Katya calmly reaches forward and replaces Abesoli’s glass with her own, then, while the bouncers drag Somerset and the five youths towards the door, she tips her glass to Abesoli and heads off to get her coat.
As she walks away, there’s crash, followed by a small shriek. She turns to catch a glimpse of Abesoli slumped over the table, his minders leaning over, one frantically dialing on his mobile phone. She can just make out the footballer’s face turning a sickly yellow, unsightly swellings forming around his eyes and mouth.
As Katya and Summerset pull away from the club, an ambulance arrives in a blaze of sirens and flashing lights. Satisfied with a job well done, the team turn in for the night.
It’s dark when Katya wakes. Above her, the sky glows blood red. To the left and right she can make out black, earthen walls. ‘Where-?’ she begins, but her face is suddenly covered with a deluge of reeking soil. She makes to brush it away but she can’t move. Another cascade of dirt lands on her, covering her body. ’I’m being buried!’ she realises in horror. A face looms above her. A face she recognises. Dr Dorjiev, framed in the bloody sky. More earth lands and she hears the scrape of a spade in moist earth. The greasy dirt fills her mouth and nose. The scrape of the spade again. The doctor’s face staring down from the red sky.
She wakes up screaming.
’I’m really worried about this,’ Sergei says, examining the bloody skin on Katya’s arms. Overnight, the welts have turned to weeping lesions.
‘You know, you really need to work on your bedside manner, Doc,’ Katya says crossly.
‘Look, we’re going to need to get you into a hospital or a lab or something for some tests.’
‘Can you do that here?’ she asks.
‘Not really. Not with the Litsky Bratva so close behind us,’ Sergei says, frowning. ’I’m heading up to check on Abesoli later, make sure he’s definitely out of the match tomorrow. I’ll try to pick up something for your skin, but…’
‘This isn’t just a skin infection, is it?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’ Sergei pauses, brows furrowed. ‘When you were down in the tunnels… did that thing, the Zalozhniy, when it attacked, did it break the skin?’
Katya shakes her head. ‘No, I was hurt when it threw me, sure, but it barely touched.’
Sergei starts gathering up the contents of his medical kit. ‘Okay, well that’s something at least. I’ll be back later. Try to rest for today, okay?’
Katya agrees and Sergei and Somerset drive up to the private hospital where Abesoli has spent the night, while Patrick ducks into the hotel’s conference room with his laptop.
Sergei, disguised as a duty nurse, walks into Abesoli’s private ward and makes a show of fussing around the patient and checking his notes. A few ticks and a small addition to Abesoli’s prescription later and Sergei heads back to the car.
’How’s he doing?’ Somerset asks.
’I’ve made sure he’ll be feeling pretty woozy for tomorrow’s game.’
Back at the hotel, Patrick emerges from the conference room, looking annoyed.
’I’ve left a false record of our helo on the Belarus air traffic control servers, but I don’t know how much good it’ll do – the internet round here is like something out of the feckin’ dark ages,’ he explains miserably.
Darkness again. The Doctor’s face looms in the red sky above, leaning closer. She can’t move. The face leans in, searching, hunting, getting closer. A glint from a scope, a crack, sudden impact in her chest. Warm blood flowing down her back. Katya wakes in panic for the second time, the sheets stained with blood from bleeding sores.
‘Mr Happy called,’ Sergei says, trying to sound positive as he daubs Katya’s bleeding skin. ‘He sounds pleased. We’ll be out of here tomorrow.’
‘Good,’ Katya says, grimacing at the stinging antiseptic.
’We’ll meet him at the restaurant later. We’re going to give a list of equipment. Anything you need?’
‘Just what we talked about: some decent firepower, frag grenades, body armour, night vision goggles, anything to give us an edge over those sneaky bastards with the rifles.’
‘And we’ll need somewhere to make some bullets,’ suggests Patrick. ‘Silver ones.’
The team share a look. This mission was getting far stranger than any one of them cared to think about.
While Katya stays behind to rest, Somerset, Sergei and Patrick head out to the restaurant again, Somerset staying in the vehicle while Patrick takes Katya’s place inside.
Mr Happy is in a buoyant mood – his beloved FC Tiraspol managed a historic nil-nil draw against their bitter rivals, FC Sheriff. The restaurant is packed with jubilant supporters.
As the big Russian talks animatedly about the match, Sergei hands him a piece of paper listing the equipment they need: two four-by-fours, two high power rifles, a shotgun, an assault rifle, fragmentation grenades, tear gas grenades, a starlight scope, night vision goggles and some time in a machine shop.
‘This should be no problem,’ beams Mr Happy. ’I’ll have it all ready for you, two days at the most.’
‘Make it one day, and I’ll give you an unwanted helicopter,’ Sergei jokes.
‘Haha, maybe,’ Mr Happy chuckles. ‘Oh there’s one thing: the scope – our last batch of them was not so good, you don’t want one of them unless you don’t care about not hitting a barn door at five meters.’
‘Okay, we’ll manage without it then.’
‘I also have some information for you, if you’re still serious about taking the Litsky Bratva down…’
Mr Happy explains that much of the Litsky Bratva’s income is earned from a front company called Baldak Transport, whose shipments of illegal firearms, slaves and narcotics from Odessa to Debrecen, Hungary are the backbone of the Litsky Bratva black market trade.
‘If you can interrupt that supply chain, then it’ll hurt their wallets considerably. And it would give any rival a great opportunity to take over some of their turf. A man like me could profit from such an unfortunate event. I’ll even throw in some EU transport data to help ensure you know which shipments would be most sorely missed.’
’You’ve been more than generous, Mr Happy,’ Sergei replies, gratefully.
‘Yes, well, what are friends for? I’ll call you when the equipment is ready.’
Business concluded, the three men stand. As Patrick turns to look out across to the absurdly large stadium, he catches an all too familiar glint of a rifle scope.
‘SNIPER!’ he sceams, and the window glass explodes, shattering across the room in a thousand razor-sharp fragments.
Startled cries of confusion and fright echo around the restaurant below. Mr Happy is already running for the door, barking into a radio handset. There’s another crack and a bullet hole appears inches above Patrick’s head as he bolts for cover, blood welling in several deep cuts caused by the flying glass.
‘Somerset, exfil, rear door!’ Sergei yells into the tac-net above the cries of the panicking diners. He and Patrick lunge towards the restaurant’s fire exit, putting plenty of cover between them and the distant rifleman. Out in the road, Mr Happy dives into his Mercedes, with surprising speed for such a big man, even as Somerset screeches to a halt behind.
‘Twenty four hours.’ Sergei shouts after him. ’We’ll be waiting for your call.’
Then Sergei and Patrick are in the rental car, tearing off into the darkened streets.
‘Let me guess,’ Somerset says grimly. ‘Guy with a rifle.’
‘Yes, our friends must have worked out we’d come here,’ Sergei replies.
‘You know, we really should see about taking the fight to them for a change,’ says Somerset, tugging the car into a tight turn out of the litter-strewn alley.
‘Once we’ve got the equipment from Mr Happy, then we can see about evening the score.’ Sergei pulls out his phone. ‘In the meantime, let’s pick up Katya and get out of the city.’
The walls are closer this time. Angular, covered with waves of undulating fabric. She’s packed in tight, boxed up, ready for… for burial. A giant face looms above her, pale against the glowing red sky. It’s staring down at her, lips twisted with malice. Its hand reaches to its chest, clawed fingers sinking into pallid flesh. Skin and muscle part, white bone sinking away. She can’t move, not even to shut her eyes against the horrible sight. The fingers curl inwards, towards it each other, grasping. And pull. Their prize slips out into the red-lit night; black, oily liquid gushing out, the pulpy mass beating a slow rhythm. The Doctor leans closer, the dripping heart gripped before him. Now it’s at her own chest, slipping tortuously into the pliant skin. Dr Dorjiev’s smile is a triumphant leer.
Katya lunges forward into conscious, already feeling the sticky liquid gluing the cheap bed linen to her burning skin. As she stumbles to the bathroom, the sheet comes away in a agonising tear, soaked with her blood. She gasps at the sudden pain.
The marks on her skin are now huge sores, weeping blood, each one twisted, curving through elongated curls and sharp angles. Through the flickering light in the tiny bathroom she sees them all together for the first time. To her horror she realises that they form words.
Wiping away some of the grime from the mirror, she turns slowly, reading the Cyrillic letters aloud.
“THE ENGLISHMAN’S PRIZE IS OURS YOU WILL NOT INTERFERE”
There’s a gentle knock at the door. ‘Katya, you okay?’ Sergei calls softly. ’What’s happened?’
’What’s happened…’ she says through gritted teeth, tears lining her cheeks. ‘… is that someone really needs to learn how to send a fucking text message.’