CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

Beyond Effective, But Not Maximum, Range

 

Our situation’s complexity had just gone from that of a labyrinthine scheme, to that of a Gordian Knot. I saw but one course of action, and it seemed a darkly tunneled one without light at its end. I unzipped the bag, as I had been intending, but that ended my original plan. I pulled Cherno’s automatic from my vest pocket and pointed it straight at the Captain’s face.

“Don’t move, and don’t make a sound,” I ordered him in a monotone.

My eyes engaged his. My stare hardened. He didn’t move. I wished I was holding the Kel-tec with a suppressor attached, but that wasn’t where the roulette wheel stopped.

“Dutch, run down those stairs and close both doors of the white room, then run back up here as fast as you can.”

The low cracks of the .32 caliber weapon we had heard would be nothing compared to the sounds generated by the firing of AKM 7.62 high velocity cartridges. I could only control the room I was in and could ill-afford the drivers of the vehicles outside to take any action at all. With my left hand I picked up the syringe loaded with morphine, and advanced upon the chess table.

“Don, stand behind him,” I said, my eyes never leaving the Captain’s.

I held up the syringe, when Don was in place.

“You have a choice,” I advised Victor. “You can let me give you this morphine, which is enough to take you to dreamland for a few hours, or you can force me to shoot you, with your own weapon, which I will. And we have no time. Decide.”

I heard Dutch running back up the stairs.

Captain Cherno’s face was a frozen mask.

“What’s going on?” he demanded. “Who are you?”

I motioned to Don with my head.

“Grab his elbows,” I said.

Don grabbed.

The captain jerked. The threat of being shot probably would deter Cherno. It usually did unless you were threatening a player. Citizens, even military officers, have almost never been so threatened in their lives. They don’t react to the threat. I had seen it many times. I had had to shoot a few of them to prove I would, and could. I stuck the needle of the syringe directly into the left side of the Captain’s neck. I pushed the plunger all the way in, as he jerked and bucked. The scuffle caused the syringe to free itself from my grip, and the captain’s neck, as well. It flew across the chessboard, knocking some of the pieces to the floor.  The unique shiny tops of the pieces sent reflections scattering like small diamonds.

“Let him go,” I yelled at Don.

The big drunken Russian staggered, both hands clutching his neck. I knew immediately that I had not hit an artery. The man would have died in seconds, if that had been the case. He might die anyway. That much morphine he could probably handle, but I did not have time to wait the several minutes it would take for the drug to work through muscles and fat. I had to have a brain shot, and the neck was as close as I could get. Cherno went down, not like a tree falling, but more like a collapsing two hundred and fifty pound flower. I did not have time to check his vitals, for Dutch had returned. I put the automatic back in my pocket, zipped up the bag and made for the front of the building.

“Let’s get the hell...I began, when the assistant walked through a side door.

All three of us gaped. Nothing was said. We just stood there, five feet apart. The assistant’s eyes scanned the Captain’s body, sprawled on the floor by the chessboard. I lunged at the man, hitting him with my right shoulder, which I had dropped as my hand again went for the automatic.

Both of us hit the door, and then kept on going. When he went over backwards, we both slid under a table. I got the automatic up, and then brought it down on the exposed side of his head, time after time, butt first. I felt my feet being tugged. I looked back to see Dutch pulling away. I grabbed a bunch of scattered cloth napkins and shoved them into the stunned assistant’s mouth. I held on.

“Get the damned bag open. Tape him. We can’t have any noise.”

Fearful about the drivers nearby, I tried to stop the injured man’s writhing and kicking. I listened for the sound of a diesel engine, but could hear nothing. And I knew we were running out of time.

No matter what had happened in the underground gulag, soon, very soon, there were going to be well-armed men coming up and filling the building still occupied. Don pulled out rolls of tape from the bag and went to work on the man’s head. His hands shook so badly that his tape job made the assistant’s head resemble Hollywood’s Invisible Man. I realized that I had blood all over my hands, my vest and my face. Heads bleed terribly.

“Help me clean up,” I said, quietly to Dutch.

He wiped my face. I did my hands as best I could, then stripped off the vest. I looked down to see two belts of gold strapped around my waist. I pulled my shirt out of my pants and let it fall free. The soaked vest was history. The shirt would have to hide the belts, my looks would have to pass muster with the drunken drivers, and my pocket would have to serve as a holster for the nine-millimeter. As best I could without water, I cleaned the gun off, and then stuck it into my front pocket.

I didn’t like the size, or the shape, of the bulge, but I had no choice. I took a syringe from the bag, loaded twenty milligrams, and then stuck it into the stomach of the still struggling assistant. We all held onto him. A couple of minutes passed before he grew completely still. I zipped the bag and stood up.

“Let’s get the hell out of Dodge,” I shouted.

Dutch and Don ran in front of me.

“Jesus Christ, walk,” I swore at them.

They slowed. There was nobody in the study. Captain Cherno’s body lay where it had fallen. Whether we were leaving a slew of corpses behind I didn’t know. If we were, then there’d be hell to pay somewhere down the line. For now, however, we had to stay alive in order for the opportunity to face such a prospect. We went through the double doors as though we were leaving a restaurant after lunch.

The sun was still beating down, when we stepped onto the porch. Outside there was no sign that anything had happened in the house, or down inside the ghastly gulag. It was peaceful and pastoral, but I realized we were fast running out of a precious ally, time.

“You two in the back,” I said to Dutch and Don, following at least a tattered remnant of my original plan.

I climbed into the vehicle, slammed the metal door and latched it. I crouched behind the drivers. I unzipped the bag at my feet, took out a banded pack of hundreds, split the paper holding it together, and handed five bills to each Russian.

They both giggled when they took the money. I waited with forced patience for them to stow the bills in their pockets. Finally, the Tundra Cat driver hit the ignition switch. The diesel belched black smoke out of its raised twin exhausts. I did not relax at the sound, but I felt a lot better. The man played with the control levers. We backed slowly away from the building, and then stopped. He rotated the tracked vehicle on its axis. During the slow grinding turn I watched the two Russian sailors, attached to Captain Cherno’s vehicle, walk out and size us up. I didn’t like the fact that they were so alert and mobile. Maybe, I should have given them two bottles. The conjecture added to my mounting number of regrets.

“Thank you, Indy,” I heard to my left.

It was Hathoot, propped up in his seat, his leg showing some blood, but not enough to cause me worry. It was too soon to give him more of the pain medication that we were beginning to run a bit low on. The bottle had not been empty when I had put it back, but it was getting close. I had become one of those wild animal hunters rather than a hunter of men. Perhaps what I really needed was one of those tranquilizer guns. I cut off the thought, ending it with the hope that Alexi had taken maximum advantage of all six shots he had had.

We screamed up to top speed, gradually escaping out of the muck and flying across the terrain. We did not make it out of the valley’s natural swale. We were climbing toward its lip when I saw a flurry of activity behind us at the house. I motioned our drivers. They were concentrating on driving and chatting with one another. Seconds later, however, shots were fired. Quick sharp cracks cannot be mistaken for anything other than what they are.

Supersonic bullets headed our way. Our Tundra Cat slowed, as both drivers turned to gape behind them. In the distance uniformed men milled about, emerging from the ground like ants. We had only encountered four, maybe five, of the guards, but I could plainly make out at least twenty now in front of the house. I estimated our range at about a mile, well beyond the effective range of an AKM, even the old 7.62 millimeter versions. The Russians used short 7.62 cartridges. They lacked the long-range punch of the U.S., or NATO, 7.62. We were beyond effective range, but not beyond maximum range.

Sometimes, rarely, a firearm’s maximum range can also be its effective range. One of the guards set off a full magazine at us. Its sound, which arrived at the same time that Don and Dutch both cascaded forward into the middle seats of the Tundra Cat, was akin to that of a distant short-lived chain saw. Our driver stopped the Cat. I knelt by Don. He had taken a hit through the tissue above his collarbone. The bullet had gone in and out only an inch from the top of his shoulder, at the “V” of his neck.

“Pressure,” I shouted into his ear, taking his good hand and shoving it over to cover the wound. “Press hard, I’ll get to you.”

His eyes half shut with pain. Dutch was already holding the outside of his arm. I pulled his hand away.

“Thank you, God,” I intoned. It was another flesh wound.

The bullets had been so far from their driving explosives that they had almost fallen through both men. There was no hydrostatic damage, no spalling, or rotating within the tissues.

“Pressure,” keep it on,” I coaxed him.

I looked into his eyes, so I could determine if he really understood. I pulled the automatic out of my pocket, and then faced our two drivers in front.

They were both twisted around, gawking. I moved to the back of the front seat. I could not shoot them, but they did not know that. But I wanted their cooperation. I rummaged in my bag, without looking away from the men. I pulled out two banded packages of hundreds and handed one to each man.

“Provideniya, fast.” I said, and then motioned with the barrel of the pistol.

They each held a pack of the money, first exchanging glances, then grins. I knew then that I was probably not going to have to shoot them, so I smiled too. We took off. Back at the hell house the Captain’s vehicle, loaded with guards, started after us.

“Oh Christ,” I muttered.

Even if our Tundra Cat was fast enough to beat their smaller rig to town, which I thought it was, any dockside battle would be a complete and utter disaster. We could never hope to win a firefight. For one thing, we had one small automatic pistol. Our drivers were part-time, undependable mercenaries, already paid off. And there was an active military presence in Provideniya. Nor could we not stop, wait, and hope to ambush our pursuers. They were armed to the hilt. That left only surrender, which was out of the question. I couldn’t imagine another alternative.

Until the pursuit vehicle stopped. Ours was fast closing on the upper edge of the valley. We would be lost to visual contact in seconds. The guards were out of the vehicle behind us. It became obvious that they were in total disarray and disagreement.

“What the hell?” I boomed. Hathoot heard me. He was watching with me.

He laughed. “They’re caught in a classical dilemma. They must go back and help their Captain or chase us. They know they cannot catch us. If they go back, then they have to rush to the airport to get to the helicopter. That will take too much time. And that has its own problems, because they must then decide to either come after us or get the captain back to his ship.”

Hathoot’s train of thought made total sense. There were two forces behind us. The guards were one force and the Navy men the other.

“They can’t agree on anything,” I responded.

We watched them agree on one thing, however. They lined up, and then lay in prone position. I pushed Hathoot down, then grabbed the boy, still wrapped in my cashmere coat, and shoved him down, too. Our vehicle was struck several times by what seemed like heavy hail, before the sound of distant chainsaws rolled up the valley wall. We then passed over the ridge and out of their view. I checked back with our drivers. They were oblivious to the impact of bullets. The driver in the passenger seat tipped up a half empty bottle of Black Label, offering it to me with a crazed grin. I took it. I made believe I was drinking too. The power of drugs, booze and money was not over-rated in this world. They were the modern secular version of the Trinity, and I could not succeed without them.

I didn’t know what the Russians behind us were going to do. I didn’t know what their radio or landline capabilities were with Provideniya, or with the Heavy Cruiser. And there was the helicopter to consider, as well. Was it armed? There were still way too many variables to calculate. But my short-term work was cut out for me. I dug into my bag to retrieve bandages, tape and still more morphine.

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