A Hard Woman to Kill (The DCI Hanlon Series)

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A Hard Woman to Kill

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He who takes delight in the slaughter of men
cannot have his will done in the world.

 

Tao Te Ching

Prologue
 

Claudia Liebig looked at the young boy’s picture. Serg was frowning hard in concentration as he drew. In five years of teaching Claudia had never met such an intense child. Everything Serg did was coloured with the same remorseless focus.

Claudia had rebelled against the tenets of her art school, which was ultra-liberal, focused on the idea that theory was as important, or maybe more so, as technique. Claudia disagreed and here at the small, international private school near Alexanderplatz in central Berlin where she was the art teacher, figurative work featured highly. By all means, she said, be abstract, but before you do me a series of coloured rectangles or Cubist faces, or before you display an everyday object as art, show me you can paint like Mondrian, Picasso or Duchamp could.

Today her pupils were drawing their parents at work. Desks and rudimentary offices were the main themes – most of the parents worked in offices and some of the children’s parents were in TV, so there was a smattering of cameras and monitors depicted in the paintings.

Serg was drawing some tanks; they looked scarily real. She admired them.

‘T-80s,’ said Serg. He spoke flawless German even though Russian was his mother tongue. He had an amazing vocabulary too, thought Claudia. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites, but they do. Serg was hers. Despite being Russian. Not a popular thing to be in nineties Berlin.

‘That’s nice,’ said Claudia. Serg bowed his head over his painting, colouring in the tanks battleship-grey. ‘Are they good tanks?’ Serg lifted his head and looked steadily at her with his startlingly green eyes. He was a child of almost unearthly beauty, thought Claudia, like his mother.

‘My father says that remains to be seen.’

‘Is that your father in the tank?’ Claudia pointed to the picture.

Serg shook his head and indicated a figure in a jeep. It was astonishingly well drawn. Claudia had met Serg’s dad once, rumoured to be head of the FSB, the former KGB, at the Russian Berlin embassy, the Stalinist-style palace in the Unter den Linden, in the heart of the city. She could recognize his powerful bull-like neck and physique, the angry energy that the hunched figure seemed to radiate.

‘That’s him,’ Serg said.

‘Get that machine gun up here now,’ barked the colonel. Captain Kamenev ducked as more clods of heavy Chechen mud rained down on them from the remains of the park they were sheltering in. The colonel in his filthy uniform, some medal ribbons sewn on to the breast pocket – Kamenev recognized a couple from Afghanistan and, taking pride of place, the red ribbon of the Hero of the Soviet Union, from way back in the glory days, before the USSR fragmented – picked up an AK74 rifle and fired a dozen shots at a third-floor window a couple of hundred metres away on the other side of the park. He put the gun down, turned and directed the reinforcements trickling up from the ragged lines behind them. They were confused and scared conscripts, some of whom had received only a few hours’ training and were now up against seasoned Chechen troops, battle-hardened in Afghanistan, and fighting for their religion, their soil, their families and their lives. One of the colonel’s sleeves was soaked in blood. Watery sleet fell from a dull, silvered sky. Three burnt-out T80 tanks lay like dead metal dinosaurs in the no man’s land between the park and the three apartment blocks, pockmarked by shell fire, windows blown out, the grey concrete scorched here and there by fire. In huge, Cyrillic letters someone had painted the Chechen slogan,
Svoboda ili Smert
, freedom or death.

And the cold rain fell down from the leaden skies above.

Small-arms fire crackled menacingly from the buildings opposite alongside the heavier, meatier sound of a PK machine gun. ‘Why don’t we blow those bastards up?’ grumbled Kamenev to the colonel. He scratched at the lice under his rough battledress. Filthy Chechen lice, they itched like crazy. He peered through a jagged hole in the brickwork where a Mukha RPG shell had punched its way in, and looked at the park. There were three dead Chechens there, the colonel’s handiwork. The colonel rolled his eyes, took out a Belomorkanal cigarette and lit it. The cheap, harsh tobacco seared his lungs comfortingly.

‘Cos they’re all underground in sewers and cellars and those dimwits in their tanks can’t drive down a proper street in Grozny, let alone one full of rubble, and do you really want to provide more shelter for the
Dukhs
?’ Learn from history, boy, thought the colonel. Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it. My dad fought at Stalingrad; I was brought up on stories of fighting in ruined cities.

He got into a low crouch and rubbed his knees. I’m not as young as I was, he thought.

‘Better get back to headquarters. I’m not supposed to even be here.’ He shook Kamenev’s hand, crushing the young man’s fingers in his powerful paw, and was gone, relinquishing his temporary control of the forward position. The captain looked mournfully at his retreating figure. He wished to God the colonel was still here to take command and tell him what to do. He looked around him, saw the terrified faces of the conscripts around him.
Blyad
, he thought, I guess I’m in charge now.

Several hours later, the colonel was in the back of a UAZ 4x4 as it bounced along a rutted track through what seemed to be an endless forest about forty kilometres from Grozny. It was late afternoon but already dark. In the front was Cherkov, his FSB bodyguard who had been with him for twenty years, and in the back, next to him, Velnikov, a staff captain from 58th Army, based at Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. The guy behind the wheel was a driver from a Group Vympel Spetsnatz Unit. The colonel didn’t know the man, but he could do with losing a few kilos. The ruts were so deep, the earth impacted by the weight of heavy logging lorries, that the driver was keeping the UAZ at an almost forty-five degree angle, the offside wheels on the raised central soil, the nearside wheels in one of the troughs. Whoever the driver was, thought the colonel, he was doing a bloody good job. To keep up the speed he was doing in those conditions showed some skill and a cool head.

Grozny should have been surrounded, hermetically sealed, but there were gaping holes in the ring surrounding it. The colonel, with his knowledge of military tactics, practical, hard won fighting the Mujaheddin in Hazarajat in the central Afghani mountains, had been brought in specifically to identify these areas. He had discovered the biggest gap in the Old Sunzha sector and they were on their way to meet a Chechen informant who would supply the names of the Russians who were being bribed to let it happen.

‘Hey, Cherkov,’ said the colonel to the man in the front passenger seat. ‘Is it true that woman cook at the base gave you that shiner?’

Cherkov turned and grinned, one hand cradling his KMP sub-machine gun. One eye was almost closed, a riot of blue and yellow. ‘Yeah, she hit me with a soup ladle,’ he said. ‘I’d told her she had an arse like a badly packed parachute.’ They all laughed. They were the last words he ever spoke.

The driver turned a corner, hissed under his breath, and slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the tree that lay across the road. While the car skidded to a halt, the passenger window exploded in fragments of glass as three rifle bullets hit Cherkov. He died instantly. The colonel swore and grabbed his machine pistol from the seat next to him, pulling the trigger and firing blindly through the smashed window at the unseen attackers. He heard a scream and silence, and turned to Velnikov. The colonel was about to shout to follow him, and his hand reached for the door handle as he tried to take the fight to the enemy. The staff captain shot him in the face at point-blank range.

Velnikov opened the screw-topped vodka bottle of 80 per cent proof Ruskova vodka and took a swig.

‘That was easy,’ he said to Arkady Belanov. He had expected more from the dead man, knowing his reputation. He looked at the body of Colonel Surikov sitting next to him, his head resting against the rear window, covered now in gore. Blood from the bullet hole in the colonel’s forehead had stained the neck of the white T-shirt he wore under his battledress the exact red as the colour in the medal ribbon of the Hero of the Soviet Union on his chest. He handed the vodka to Belanov. The fat man took the bottle with his left hand, nodded his thanks and casually shot the captain through the heart with his right.

‘Yes,’ he said to the corpse, sitting next to the dead colonel. ‘Very.’ He took another pull on the vodka bottle and put the Baikal pistol down on the seat next to him.

Claudia Liebig said to her class, ‘Five minutes to finish, children.’ She walked over to Serg Surikov. His picture was nearly finished. Claudia looked at the picture. Behind the tanks a city was burning. She could see red flames and black smoke. In the corner, in the sky, was a figure with wings,

‘Is that an angel?’ she asked.

Serg nodded.

‘To protect your father?’

Serg nodded. His very green eyes were slightly slanted, an inheritance from his Siberian Tartar mother, then he added softly, ‘Or to avenge him.’

Outside, the skies were darkening over Alexanderplatz and it started to snow.

1
 

‘This is my husband. His name is Charlie Taverner.’

Oksana Taverner (née Oksana Ilyinichna Yegorov) looked across the desk at Hanlon. The policewoman’s features, Oksana decided, were harshly pretty but not helped by a swollen and badly bruised left eye that was a purplish-black in colour. Oksana’s eyes dropped to check for a wedding band on Hanlon’s left hand, but the long, strong fingers were free of ornamentation. So, not done by her husband then, which had been Oksana’s immediate thought. Yekaterinburg, Oksana’s home city, like most of the Urals, most of Russia, most of Eastern Europe, had a poor record when it came to violence against women. If you saw a woman there looking like Hanlon you’d know who had done it.

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