The Zalozhniy Quartet

Guardian Angel

A low breeze stirs the loose edges of my hospital gown, chilling beads of sweat on the bare skin beneath. The unfashionable combination of shapeless pastel gown and expensive denims is drawing curious stares from the tourists milling around the historic city square. Time to leave before someone thinks I’ve just bolted half-dressed from a hospital ward. Mainly because they’d be right.

My breathing is calming quicker than I’d dare hope; life on mission is better for my general fitness than laying low, living off fast-food and cheap cigarettes. Katya appears, dodging trams and coach parties. She’s been running hard for several minutes, deep breaths just turning ragged with the sustained exertion.

‘You see where he went?’

I keep my eyes locked on the shadowed void between a pharmacy and an office block. ‘Yes. The alley opposite. But if he keeps up that pace, we’ve already lost him.’

Katya nods fractionally. ’He’s quick. Did you have time to – ’

She’s cut off by a percussive crack from the alley, the shapes of wheelie bins suddenly stark against an eruption of flame, soon obscured by roiling smoke. Around us tourist gasp and point, surging forward to take in the fiery spectacle. Some are already pulling out mobile phones.

Unconsciously I stride towards the alley, trying to drag some sense out of the recent chain of events. I step out across a main road, traffic already halted by the blast. Was this part of the runner’s getaway? But the guy had already as good as lost us. Hell, he’d been losing us within the first hundred yards.

The numbers just don’t add up and my frustration is steadily turning to anger. I’m chasing shadows and each time I get a light on one, a hundred more appear, mocking me from the edges of my vision.

I step into the alley, head up, doing my best impression of a concerned citizen, despite the hospital gown flapping open behind me. There’s something nagging at the back of mind as I step towards the burning car, a voice echoing from the past. Something about angels. But I just want to get my hands on that little fucker and get some answers, to get a step closer to the people pulling the strings, to burn their shadows away.

Behind me there’s a rapid scrape of movement. ‘Sergei, scoper!’ Katya calls out. She’s already rolling to cover even as blood freezes in my veins. Time slows, treacle-thick. That nagging voice is in my head again. ‘Dead men don’t look for guardian angels.’ The bullet misses my chest by a fraction of an inch, tugging at the hospital gown, pulling me off balance. I lunge towards the side of the alley and the dubious safety of the wall, knowing full well that the shooter has me zeroed in and has all the time they need.

The second shot punches me off my feet and I sprawl onto the tarmac. It’s over. How could I have been so stupid?

…………………………………………

‘Guardian angels?’ I laugh.’That’s a little melodramatic, don’t you think?’

The woman behind the desk regards me cooly. ‘Once you’ve spent some time in the field, Sergei, you might find that even you are a little more prone to melodrama. Certainly you’ll find that any high exposure field op goes much smoother with a good marksman at your back. Indeed, you may even find them worthy of the title.’

’There’s no marksman in our team,’ I observe.

She looks irritated now. ’Indeed; and therefore you are more vulnerable to the same enemy assets. These lessons are – ’

I cut in before the scolding starts. ‘Look, Ulyana, I don’t – ’

’You’re my student. That’s Miss Ostrovsky to you.’

I force a smile. ‘Miss Ostrovsky, the mission is designed around getting to the target undetected. By the time he knows he’s dying, we’ll be out of the country. That’s the whole point! We won’t have time for these fieldcraft … theatrics.’

‘In my experience, Sergei, even successful missions seldom go according to plan. And your best chance of avoiding failure is to be prepared for all eventualities. Knowing how to not walk straight into a sniper’s firing arc would seem to be a valuable part of that, wouldn’t you say?’ She gestures again at the indescipherable lines on the chalkboard, a cross hatch of elevations, angles and distances.

‘Miss Ostrovsky,’ My voice has an acidic edge. ‘I am lending my scientific expertise to this mission to aid my government – my country – to send a message to those who would slander their countrymen for shallow, capitalist ends. I have exactly zero intention of pursuing a further career in espionage.’

Ulyana looks at me closely. There’s a softness in her expression and I realise suddenly that there’s tenderness beneath that stern exterior. At least, there is when she’s not explaining the finer points of tactically murdering people. She leans closer, voice quiet as if afraid to be overheard. ‘You are an innocent, Sergei. An idealist. I hope this mission doesn’t take that away from you.’

…………………………………………

‘Sergei?’

My eyes snap open, dark tarmac swimming into focus. I must have blacked out. Katya’s face hovers a few feet away, concerned.

‘You okay? You dying?’ She asks, peering up the alley. It occurs to me that I don’t even know where the sniper is firing from. Real fucking professional. I reach down to feel the damage. My hand comes away sticky with blood, but less so than I’d feared.

“Not yet.” I want to laugh at my own amateurish good fortune. The impact must have knocked me out of a direct line of sight. But laughing would probably seem a bit too much like I’m in shock. I roll towards the alley entrance and haul myself into a sitting position. The wound is starting to sting now, on both sides, but the movement doesn’t appear to have caused any extra bleeding.

Katya suddenly bolts diagonally up and across the alleyway, snatching something off the floor and sprints back holding a leather satchel.

‘I think the bullet went straight through.’ The inevitable chorus of sirens has started in the distance. Best be on our way.

‘You need a hospital?’ Katya asks.

This time I do laugh, which hurts. ‘Not twice in one day. Besides, this hole will draw too much unwanted attention – Summerset would never forgive me. I’ll patch myself up. Let’s just get out of here.’

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