The Zalozhniy Quartet

From the Tower of Darkness

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!

Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after some To-morrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.”
- Omar Khayyam

Rosario and Somerset strode into the lobby of the Kingdom Center’s Four Seasons hotel. Once the crown jewel of the Saudi skyline, the skyscraper had fallen behind younger, taller buildings springing up across Riyadh and Jeddah. Now, at just over a decade old, it had a prideful air of faded lavishness that seemed almost conservative by the soaring standards of its ambitious neighbours.

They waited for polished elevator doors to chime open and, entering, Rosario lowered the black holdall with a heavy, metallic thunk.

“Got everything?” Somerset asked, one eyebrow raised in a hint of mockery.

“I’d have brought the kitchen sink if I could have got it in the bag,” Rosario answered. “Just want to make sure we’re prepared. The plan isn’t as watertight as I would like."

“They rarely are,” Somerset said. He seemed to be acting reassuring, but something dark flickered across his eyes. “Did Katya tell you about the Koernerbank?”

Rosario chuckled, making light of it. “She mentioned something about it, yes.”

“Yeah, well. Let’s just say we should be prepared to improvise.”

Although the hotel had its prerequisite luxury Kingdom Suite, bedecked with all the decadence money could buy, Somerset and Rosario’s shared double had a distinctly pragmatic air, though the price was still well beyond their dwindling funds. But after what they were about to do, vacating a room on a stolen credit card was going to be the least of their worries.

They went straight for the panel behind the bathroom sink, where the architect plans had revealed an access point for the building’s huge and labyrinthian air ducts. Somerset heaved the ceramic basin away in a shower of ruined plaster then set to work on the panel with a wrench. A few minutes later, he crawled through the gap and Rosario passed the heavy bag through to him.

They’d studied the plans relentlessly over the past twenty-four hours, in between snatches of sleep and several trips to source the specialist equipment that now filled the holdall. Even so, they hadn’t been fully prepared for the cloying, claustrophobia of the vents. They had to force themselves down each narrow duct, like a cork into a bottle. Trapped in here, it was impossible to imagine they were in fact hundreds of feet above the ground.

Eventually, they forced their way out into a wide vertical shaft, hung with heavy cables. Somerset hooked a rope on to a diagonal girder and allowed it to take his weight while he recovered his breath.

“That,” Rosario panted, “looked a lot easier in the movies.” He looked down into the shadowed elevator shaft below them, seeing the body of an elevator rise up the steel chamber lit by light leaking from vertical ranks of elevator doors. It paused at a floor far below them, then sank back down out of sight.

Somerset checked his watch. “Patrick should be meeting Katya at the airfield in ten minutes. Come on, clock’s ticking.”

Using ropes from the bag for support, they climbed another five stories before hauling opening a maintenance panel in the side of the elevator shaft and slipping into a maintenance room. Rosario moved to the door, and carefully opened it a crack. He watched as a small patrol of private security men strolled idly through the open plan office space.

The two agents quickly picked their way through chest-high cubicle walls, the worn carpet easily masking the sound of their footsteps. They made their way to the elevator that served the office levels and Somerset slipped a thin piece of metal between the doors. They both heaved one half of the sliding doors open. Rosario slipped through with the holdall, then Somerset followed, letting the door slide shut. The four bored security guards continued their monotonous circuit of the floor, oblivious.

The agents clambered upwards into the lattice frame which formed the backbone for the Kingdom Center’s iconic tuning-prong design. Although the close packed steel girders made the climb relatively straightforward, they still had around thirty floors to ascend until they reached the top of the 300m tower. However, due to a quirk of Riyadh building regulations, the building was actually unoccupied in the bulk of the tallest sections. A short climb would put them at the top of the conference area, then a further elevator shaft completed the journey to the very top and the lobby of the skybridge.

After only a few minutes of climbing, Rosario’s bag felt like an anchor tugging him downwards into the dark void below. Somerset offered to take the load while they paused for breath, then looked at his watch again. “We’re falling behind,” he warned.

They could hear the rumble of elevators moving above and below them, and feel the breeze as the air in the shaft was displaced. Somerset fished a torch out of his pocket and shone it around, examining a connecting shaft adjacent to them. An elevator descended and slowed to a halt a few meters away with a faint creak of oiled machinery.

“Come on,” Somerset said. “I’ve had enough of climbing.” Shouldering the bag, he hauled himself, ape-like, through the zig-zagged beams and swung lightly onto the roof of the elevator. Rosario followed, trying hard not to think of the black abyss beneath him. He alighted on the roof beside Somerset as the elevator began moving upwards again. Somerset motioned him to lie down.

The elevator accelerated upwards and Rosario felt his ears pop as the air pressure changed. Scant seconds later, the car began to decelerate and Rosario felt the strange sensation of weightless, rendered all the more terrifying by the fact that he was inches from the edge of roof with no hand-holds to speak of. He closed his eyes and concentrated on a silent prayer that there would be space at the top of the shaft so that they would not be crushed by the rising elevator.

The elevator halted. Rosario opened his eyes and squinted up at the tangle of cables and pulleys that lay just a few inches from his head. He let out a long relieved breath even as he felt Somerset tugging at his elbow.

“Got to get moving,” Somerset whispered. “Before it goes back down.”

Rosario slid off to the side of the car, and lowered himself on to a crossbeam. He quickly found a place to loop the rope around – once the elevator descended, there would be nothing between the two of them and the thirty storey fall. Somerset dropped down beside him and clipped on.

The elevator quietly began its return journey. Once it had gone, Somerset shone the torch around again, spotting the final maintenance hatch, exactly where it had been marked in the plans. Moments later, they were inside a small room, filled with circuit breakers and junction boxes. Somerset carefully tried the door, moving as slowly as he could manage. The door was unlocked, but he didn’t risk opening it. Satisfied that they had a viable exit, he pressed his ear to the door panel and listened.

“Can’t hear anything,” he said, frowning.

“The ritual’s going to be out in the middle of the skybridge,” Rosario answered, his nerves relaxing somewhat now that their gravity-defying climb was over. “Just how noisy did you think it would be?”

“Well excuse me for expecting there to be chanting or something,” Somerset hissed back. “Better check in with Patrick.”

Rosario’s blood suddenly ran cold. It was time to come clean. “Somerset, there’s something we need to talk about first,” he said, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard by anyone passing through the lobby beyond.

“Oh,” the Englishman replied, his face suddenly cold. “Speak then.”

“It’s about Katya … I couldn’t risk telling you before now. Katya … she’s working with Dorjiev.”

A ripple of emotion passed almost imperceptibly through Somerset’s face. Rosario wondered if the other agent simply shoot him and leave. It was that very fear that had kept him from revealing the truth until now, when it was too late to back out.

Somerset’s cold stare abruptly relaxed. “I know,” he sighed. “I suppose I did all along. I was never convinced by that story about how she got out of hospital. So she’s with Dorjiev. Fine. Think that’s going to make this job any easier?”

“She’s bringing his Zalozhniye. They’re tough. Should be good when the fighting starts.”

Somerset nodded slowly. “And Katya, what’s to stop her turning on us once all this over?”

“She won’t. She’s struggled with this, I know. He almost broke her, before she came to me. And he has some hold over her. But this team means more to her than you think. She will stand by us, I know it.”

Somerset rubbed his brow between his thumb and forefinger, scowling. “Bet your life on it?”

Then their radio earpieces crackled to life. “Did someone order a Hind gunship?” Patrick’s cheerful voice said over the airwaves. “Have the welcome package ready. ETA, 30 seconds.” Rosario grinned at Somerset.

Then everything went wrong.


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Twelve years later

Katya sat in the last row of pews, looking up at the stained glass window. The Italian sunset made the colours glorious, but the shards of light were far above her. The nave of the church was shadowed, empty.

“The note you left at Snovi said you’d come sooner. I was ready years ago.” Her words echoed off stone walls.

Sparks of dust drifted idly in the sunlight.

“It was difficult to track everyone down in South America. Took a little longer, in the end.” Somerset’s voice came softly from the darkness behind her. Dangerous and still familiar.

“You sure you got them all?” she asked.

“I’m sure.”

In the silence that followed she heard Somerset’s shoes scuff on the tiled floor and wood creak. Katya felt her pew lift slightly as he sat down on the far end.

“Just a few, final loose ends,” he said.

She turned to him. “Rosario’s plaque is on the wall to your right.” He held her gaze. There was still steel in his remaining eye, but no hate. The other eye was an uncomfortable milky white, a jagged scar running down from his eyebrow to his cheek. He turned his head to the plaque.

Freed from his gaze, she assessed him. He wore a suit, of course, dark material. Underneath it, he still seemed in good shape, though age crinkled his eyes. His hair was short, in the dark she thought she could see flashes of silver in the blond.

And, of course, more scars. A long, thin one round his neck, and a large patch of shiny pink skin on the back of his left hand. She wondered what kept him going.

He shifted slightly and she noticed the dark metal of a suppressor resting in the crook of his arm, pointed at her. She couldn’t see the rest of the gun.

He bowed his head and turned back to her. “We could have done better that day.” he said, his voice laced with regret.

“You’ve never told me how he died.”

Somerset sighed. “Not the way he deserved to.”

Something was troubling him. She wore a sharp grey skirt and cropped jacket. Italian styling, he guessed. She looked full of health. He tried to remember how old she was, how old she ought to look. Wasn’t she about his age? He knew he looked worn out and damaged in comparison.

Katya didn’t look any older than when he had last seen her, twenty years ago. On that day.
He cleared his throat.

“Everything looked like it was going to plan, for all of ten seconds. We got the drop on one of them by the Eastern elevator. He was fast – like Thaler and the others – but the silver did for him, just as we figured. Rosario blew the roof, like we planned.

“We couldn’t see much of the ritual, just figures in the smoke. We held them back with a couple of grenades. I think they hit Rosario then, but he was still moving. The gunship cleared the rest of the bridge.” Somerset paused, his eyes fixed on the middle distance, recalling the spraying glass, torn bodies tumbling into the night.

“When the firing stopped, we went for the altar. Patrick was yelling something, fouling up the radio. I thought he was just excited or panicking. People get like that in combat sometimes. I should have realised.”

She interrupted. “He was in control, the zalozhniye were shooting at him. He jumped out.”

“There was nothing left on the bridge. Just the altar, and an empty syringe, I think. That’s when you and your friends started shooting everything to bits. We started running back, the whole fucking thing coming down around us. It was destruction. I remember hearing Rosario cry out then, but it was impossible to tell above the noise. I just dropped the thermite charge, and we rappelled down the elevator shaft. He never said anything. The sprinklers were washing everything down, and I didn’t notice how badly he was bleeding.“

Somerset took a long breath in, flexing his scarred hand, eyes fixed on it.

“We got back to the conference room level. Rosario landed hard. I saw he wasn’t right. But then you were back on the radio screaming about the 747.”

Katya nodded. “It was coming in so fast. There was no time. I thought you were still on the bridge.”

Somerset did not look at her, did not even seem to hear her. “I shot out the nearest window and pushed Rosario through and jumped after him. We were, I guess, on the 40th floor or so. The plane hit 20 floors below, half-way down the building. It was … Anyway, we’d both pulled ripcords, our chutes were deploying. We tried to steer away. The glass … It took so long to explode, I’d given up expecting it. I assumed it wasn’t going to, it was empty of fuel. Then the air blazed and burned. A sheet of fire reached up and swallowed him, his scream turned to static as the radio burned.”

“I still hear it too,” Katya said quietly.

Again Somerset ignored her. “You know what keeps me awake at night? It’s not wondering whether I could have done something different. It’s knowing that I couldn’t.”

“Somerset, it wasn’t your-” Katya began speaking, but fury grabbed him.

“No, it wasn’t my fucking fault, it was yours – you killed him. He was dead before we even set foot in that building. Because he trusted you!” He spat the final word like a curse, shattering the warm silence.

She flushed, her own anger building. “Bullshit. I did what I had to do, Dorjiev did what he did whether I was there or not. He nearly killed me too! I sacrificed myself in the caves for you, for us, facing Philby, and you did what you always do, you abandoned me. You weren’t by my bed when I woke, Dorjiev was. He healed me, showed me how to make a Zalozhniye and-”

“That’s it? That’s your excuse?” scorn dripped from Somerset’s words. He’d been building up to this for some time. Decades. “So Dorjiev let you into the secret of his little pets and just like that you turned on your friends, the people who saved you time and again! Saved you from Dorjiev, in case you’d forgotten?”

Katya sensed rather than saw his grip on the gun tightening.

“No!” she snapped, it sounded less like a snarl of defiance than she felt, “Rosario saved me, not you. You distanced yourself, you kept yourself safe. We weren’t a team, we just shared your goals for a bit.”

“I was acting like a trained agent should! I was- ”

“No! I was, I am! Dorjiev has power. Not votes, not money. Real fucking power. I was doing our jobs, being an agent. Learning, stealing his knowledge. Working both sides – that’s what we do, Somerset. Well, that’s what I do. You assume-.”

“My god, you actually believe that, don’t you? I see how you fooled Rosario! He told me, you know… About you and Dorjiev. About the Zalozhniye. How you’d choose sides before the end. Guess he was right, afterall. But you chose Dorjiev, didn’t you?

“No!” Her voice cracked.

“Go on,” he goaded, “Admit it. This is an apt place for a confession.”

“No, I hadn’t chosen then,” she repeated, her voice firmer. “and I did nothing that you wouldn’t or shouldn’t have done. There’s no halo above your head, David Somerset. I played the cards I was dealt and I played to win. I had no clue that mudak (ублюдок) would fly a fucking plane into the tower. I didn’t know, I would have told you, warned you, don’t you dare think I wouldn’t.”

Somerset snorted “Easy to say now. To justify it to yourself. God, you admire him, don’t you?”

“I hate him! He nearly killed me that night, and he had my Yasha.., he had him-” For the first time her eyes broke contact.

“Poor you,” Somerset said icily.

“Fuck you.” she said with venom. “I thought Dorjiev could be managed, at least long enough to finish the job, to get us out alive. And he finished them off, he did with the plane what we couldn’t even think of doing.”

“He killed thousands!”

“How many would be dead if they’d finished the ritual or survived, if we’d failed? He’s insane, but insanely brilliant. A man like that … you’re either with him, or dead. We were living on borrowed time.”

“Speaking of which,” Somerset said abruptly. “I think I’ve heard enough. Just so you know, I’d never have played his game.”

He rose to his feet, extending the gun in a long, single-handed stance, his body angled so that he stood almost sideways, his back to the altar. The light of the setting sun spilled through the open doors, inking one side of his scarred face with shadow. There was no pleasure in his expression, no pain, just that stony, determined look he’d always worn. The same one that had been stalking her across the years.

“Goodbye, Katya Lavrova.”

“Hold on.” she said calmly. “You can’t kill Dorjiev without me.”

“You’re lying.” The gun didn’t waver. It was pointed at her face, only a few feet away.

“You can’t kill him with bullets or bombs. I can show you how to do it, I’m the only one who knows his secrets.” She spoke fast, but sat, studying him intently over the barrel.

“You’re betraying him too?” He gave a cynical laugh.

“Yes, I am. But for something better. We made a good team, Somerset, you, me, the others. We balanced each other out, we achieved a lot. We could be a team again, you and me. One last job, before you get too old.”

‘You get too old’, not ‘we get too old’, he thought.

Part of him wanted to just pull the trigger, to simplify things, to stop having to think. “You kill him then, if you know how.” he said.

She smiled ruefully. “He’s not stupid. He’s taken steps to stop me doing that. But you could, with my help.”

He shrugged a tiny fraction. “Thanks, but I think I’ll kill you and try my luck with him. One less knife at my back.”

Katya shook her head, a look of pity at him. “You can’t kill me with guns either. Not anymore.” she said. “You know there’s hidden knowledge and powers. You know Dorjiev has that power, and I’ve learned from him for decades. The things he meant to teach me and other things I’ve found on my own.”

She stood up slowly, watching him, arms wide, palms open. His pistol tracked her, sliding down to stop pointing at her heart. She spoke softly. “You don’t need to trust me Somerset, we have the same goal. We’d be a powerful team again. More powerful than before. We’d finally avenge Rosario, and Sergei. Please David, help me kill Dorjiev.”

It made a horrible, tempting logic. It could easily be true. What had she done in the years he was deep in the jungle?

Another, colder thought washed over him. If she showed him how to bypass Dorjiev’s protections, that might bypass hers too. If she had them.

She could be lying, again. A last bluff to save her life and get him to do her dirty work. Or get him killed.

He glanced up at the roof, seeking answers. The shards of colour had slid along and up the stonework, the sunlight weakening, shadows lengthening in the nave.

He weighed the probabilities, and his feelings.

And decided.

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