Authors: Basil Sands
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage
The two strangers saw Marcus looking at them. He nodded and smiled in a friendly greeting when they made eye contact, then he turned back to his dinner.
Marcus felt uneasy. He didn’t know what it was, but his internal antennae sounded an alarm. His senses leaped to a heightened state of alert like a Doberman Pinscher awakened by a noise in the night. After twenty years’ hunting bad guys in some of the worst places in the world, he knew to listen to these internal signals. His body tensed with a fight-or-flight level of energy that pulsed electrically through his nerves.
Linus noticed the mood change come over his friend. He looked up to take notice of the two men making their way toward the front of the store. As they approached, their words become audible.
Marcus’s tension increased tenfold. During his career in the Marine Corps, he had served as a specialist in anti-terrorist operations. He had discovered at an early age that he had a talent for learning languages. Albanian, specifically the dialect of northern Albania and the southern parts of the former Yugoslavia, was the main language the Marine Corps decided he should study at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, early in his career. According to the military, he was natively fluent. Despite the fact that there were very few brown skinned in that part of the world, the military decision-makers believed he could be used in a variety of roles throughout the region. During the Yugoslav civil war and the later Kosovo war, Marcus’s skills were employed extensively.
One of the men, who stood about six feet tall with a thick black mustache and closely cut hair, spoke with a distinctive Gheg accent from northern Albania. The other was shorter, blond and blue-eyed. He was clean-shaven and carried himself on an athletic frame. His chiseled facial features made him look like he came from a long line of Nazi poster boys. His accent was Kosovar.
The pair spoke openly in Albanian as they approached the counter. They obviously assumed that neither of the others understood them.
“Look, Nikola, they even have mud people here in this frozen wasteland. He must be the descendant of slaves,” said the blond-haired Kosovar as Marcus smiled at them.
“He looks strong,” replied the tall one. “Stupid, but strong. I bet he would sell for a good bit on the markets of Yemen. He would make a good household eunuch for some Arab Sheik.”
The pair let out a chuckle.
“When we complete the job, that is what we should do,” said the Kosovar, “Get into the slave business and put all the American blacks back on the Arab slave market. We will be rich!”
The tall Albanian looked at Marcus, smiled widely, and said in nasal Gheg, “You are a big, stupid black oaf, and I will enjoy cutting your balls off someday.”
The two grinned with mock friendliness and put their items down on the counter.
“Howdy,” Marcus said in English. “You guys must work for the power company, right?”
“Yes,” replied the blond. “We were just out here working on the outage.”
He spoke very good English with only the slightest hint of an accent.
“Boy, that outage was something, wasn’t it?” Linus asked. “All day long, and then poof! It comes back on.”
Nikola responded in strongly accented English, “It is working now, just a simple case of a burned-out transformer on that main link. Allah willing, it won’t happen again.”
Linus raised his eyebrows at Nikola’s statement and said, “Yeah, God willing.” He finished scanning their snacks with the infrared barcode reader attached to the cash register and added, “That’ll be thirteen dollars and seventy-two cents.”
The Kosovar opened his wallet and handed Linus a hundred-dollar bill. As he did so, Marcus glanced down briefly and noticed the man had a thick stack of cash in his wallet—what appeared to be thousands of dollars.
The Kosovar took his change and goods, and then turned to the door, Nikola close behind. When he pulled the door open, a thick, rolling mist churned in as the frozen outside air met the warm interior atmosphere.
The Albanian turned back toward them. “Have a good night, gentlemen. Insha’Allah.”
“Yeah,” Marcus replied. “Stay warm out there.”
The bell above the door jangled loudly as it closed behind the two. Marcus and Linus heard the Tanana Valley truck start up. A moment later, the Albanian electricians sped off into the night on the highway, heading back toward Fairbanks. Marcus and Linus sat in silence as the sound of the truck faded.
“So, Marcus,” Linus asked, “Did you get what they said? I only remember bits and pieces of those European languages, but that sounded like Yugoslavian or something. Am I close?”
“Albanian,” replied the retired Marine.
“Albanian? Isn’t that your main military language?”
“So, what did they say?”
“They’re going to cut your balls off and sell you as a eunuch to an Arab sheik.”
“Excuse me?” Linus’s eyes widened. “I think Cara would have something to say about that.”
“Actually, they were talking about me.” Marcus took a mouthful of his stew. “They’re up to something. They talked about finishing a job.”
Linus crossed his arms over his chest. “Think we should call the cops?”
Linus reached for the phone and added, “In my humble opinion, it sounds like they’re a couple of Tangos.”
“Well, the problem would be getting cops to believe a report about terrorists in Salt Jacket.” Marcus set down his spoon. “Give me your phone, though. They nearly ran me over on Johnson Road. I got the number from the side of the truck. I’ll call the cops and report them for reckless driving. We can see what turns up.”
Linus handed the wireless phone and reached across to hand it to Marcus. He froze when the sound of truck tires crunched on the gravel-strewn snow of the parking lot. Bright beams of light shot through the window next to the cash register as a large pickup truck pulled in to the first parking space near the door.
The engine idled with a deep rumble for several seconds, then went quiet. A moment later, the lights turned off, then a door slammed shut. Boots crunched on the snow and advanced onto the wooden step of the entry landing.
Marcus tensed his body. He gripped the small bread knife in his right hand so that the blade was flush against his forearm. Linus reached under the register and put his hand on the custom Pachmyr grip of the .357 magnum pistol stored on a shelf immediately under the cash drawer.
A single, unidentifiable shadow of a man appeared briefly in the glass of the window set in the top half of the door. The door swung open loudly, jangling the bell that hung just above the top of the jamb.
The man looked up. “Good even…”
spread on his face when he saw Marcus. It was quickly replaced with a broad smile
“Well, I’ll be. Marcus Johnson. What in the world are you doing back home?”
Marcus and Linus instantly relaxed.
“Evening, sir,” Marcus said, putting the knife back down beside his bowl of stew. “I’m here to stay now, retired.”
Linus released the pistol.
“That’s good, real good.” Eugene reached out and shook Marcus’s hand in his. “Linus, whatever Marcus is eating there, put it on my bill.” He looked at Marcus with an expression of proud satisfaction, as if the younger man were his own son.
“I can’t let you do that!” Marcus objected. Eugene held up a hand to silence the protest. “Don’t try to be all polite and crap, young man. You may be a retired Marine superhero and whatnot, but I’ll still kick your butt if you refuse. Your dad was my best friend; I’m doing it in his honor.”
Marcus could not argue with that. “Thanks.”
The older man sat on a stool next to Marcus. “So, you are retired, huh? Must be nice at such a young age.”
Marcus swallowed a spoonful of the still-steaming stew, then answered, “Yes, sir. I’m retired from the Corps, and here to stay. No more war for me. Linus and Cara managed to save fifty acres of our land from the creditors after Dad died. I set up in Grandpa Johnson’s old cabin at six mile last summer.”
“You’ve been here since summer and didn’t come to call?” Eugene scolded.
Linus set a cup of coffee in front of Eugene. The older man nodded his thanks and lifted the white porcelain cup to his lips to take a sip as Marcus replied, “Sorry I didn’t contact you. I’ve just been so busy making the old place livable, and, to be honest, I had a lot to sort out and really didn’t want to see anybody.”
“I understand, son. Well, at any rate, it’s good to have you back, and all in one piece.”
Eugene took another sip of the strong black coffee. He turned and spoke in a nearly whispered voice. “Does Lonnie know you’re back?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t get in touch with her, that is. I don’t think it would be a good idea to interfere.”
“Interfere?” Eugene asked, screwing up his eyes in confusion. “With what?”
“She’s a married woman,” Marcus replied. “I don’t want to be the one to cause any problems in a happily married couple’s life.”
Eugene sat up straight with an incredulous look on his face. “You didn’t know?”
“That idiot left her two years ago. He took off with some young Air Force tramp about half his age.” Eugene was clearly still angry regarding his former son-in-law. His tone of voice practically eviscerated the man in effigy. “I never did like that boy. He was a walking example of head-stuck-in-rectum syndrome.”
“I didn’t know,” Marcus said. He turned a sharp gaze on Linus.
“Hey, bro, I was going to tell you, but,” the shopkeeper stammered, “it just wasn’t the right time.”
Marcus turned back to his stew. He spooned up a large piece of yellow potato that floated on the surface and held it in front of his mouth, unsure of whether to eat it. His appetite suddenly fluctuating as memories of his love for Lonnie and the bloodbath of Sierra Leone flooded his consciousness. “Well, if she still wanted me, she would have called me. She had my number at Pendleton.”
“She was embarrassed, Marcus,” Eugene said. “I know my daughter. She was torn up about not having accepted your proposal before she met him. When she found out you were still alive, she almost went nuts. But she held on. I think it was because she hoped you might still come back someday.”
“Well, we’ll see, sir.” Marcus said, his voice low and pensive.
Linus spoke up from the other side of the counter. “Eugene, give her the store number. She can call here and leave a message if she likes. I’ll make sure Marcus gets it.”
“You got it, Linus.” Eugene turned back to the handsome, brown-skinned man seated next to him. “Marcus, you’ve always been like a son to me. Even if things don’t work out with you and Lonnie, that won’t change. If you ever need anything, and I mean anything, let me know.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” he replied.
“All right,” Eugene said, taking out his wallet as he walked toward the register to pay the bill. “It’s time for me to go. I’ve gotta track down a couple of yahoos that nearly ran me off the road on the way to the substation.”
Marcus straightened. “That was you?”
“You saw it?”
“Yeah, I was on my snowmobile on the side of the road. I barely got out of their way myself. The guys who drove that truck left here just a few minutes before you came in. I was about to call the cops and report them for reckless driving.”
Eugene turned and sat back down, one foot on the floor and the other on the metal rail that ran around the seat post.
“Their names were Adem and Nikola, according to Officer Bannock at the pump station. But I’ll be damned if I know of any guys by those names at TVEC, or with any of our contractors.”
“Did Bannock say anything else about them?” Marcus asked.
“He said he had an uneasy feeling about the way they acted when he approached them. Why do you ask?”
“I did two tours in the ‘Stan with Bannock, one during the Soviet Occupation, when we weren’t supposed to be there, and one in ‘04 just before he messed up his knee. He’s got an amazing danger antenna. If Charlie Bannock was suspicious, you had better get it checked out. I got the impression they don’t work for TVEC at all.”
“What do you think they’re up to, then?” Eugene asked. “Bannock thought they were speaking Albanian. We aren’t at war with that country, are we?”
“No, but Albania is the only European country that’s an Islamic Republic. Al Qaeda does a lot of recruiting there,” Marcus replied.
“Well, don’t that just take it all?” Eugene muttered. “What in the world would terrorists want all the way up here, messing with our electrical grid? I mean, this is the edge of the civilized world, not exactly a juicy target for Al Qaeda.”
“Whatever their purpose for being here, they are here,” Marcus said. “And if those two aren’t Tangos, then my twenty years in the Corps was a waste.”
“Dadgummit!” blurted the older man. “I’d better get in touch with Bob Stark down at Alaska Homeland Security. This day is going from bad to worse. “Well, you boys have a good rest of the night.”
Eugene pulled his cell phone out of a coat pocket and glanced at the screen to see if he had reception. Three of the four bars flashed above the icon of an antenna in the corner of the small LCD. He continued to speak to Marcus and Linus as he thumbed through the contacts list on the phone.
“Give me a ring if you see those two come by here again, or anyone else suspicious, for that matter. Here are my private office and cell phone numbers, and e-mail.” He handed each of them a couple of business cards. “I’m taking it to the troopers right away. Don’t hesitate to call at any time with anything you may find out.”
Eugene pushed the dial button and put the phone to his ear as he turned toward the door.
“Marcus,” he called back, “I’m gonna tell Lonnie that you’re back and give her Linus’s number. That’ll put it in her court. I ask you, give her a chance. A lot has changed in the past couple years.”
“Thanks, Mr. Wyatt.”
Marcus turned back to his soup as his father’s best friend walked out the door, got into his truck, and drove out of the parking lot. Eugene turned the big tan F250 west on the Richardson Highway and headed through the darkness back to Fairbanks.