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Authors: G. T. Almasi

Blades of Winter (28 page)

BOOK: Blades of Winter
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“Hey, Scarlet, where are ya?”

“Oh, hey, Trick,” I try not to sound freaked out. I do
not
want to tell Patrick that I’m seeing things. “I’m near the Louvre. What’s up?”

“Our bird has sung quite a tune. Come on back here. I’ll tell you about it as you go.” I jog along the Seine toward our Paris HQ while Trick fills me in. The assassin I caught at the Eiffel Tower is named Pavel Grigorevich Tarasov. He’s got other handles, but this is the one Extreme Operations calls him. As we thought, Tarasov is a pro, despite his panicked driving.

He’s one of the retired Russian Levels who freelance for the Blades of Persia. Once you’ve become a Level, you’re not suited for any other work, and the Levels who hit retirement without enough money saved up enter the private market. There are more Russians in these positions than other nationalities because the Russkies don’t pay their agents squat. Tarasov revealed that the KGB lets him be a freelancer as long as he sends them any intel related to Russian security. He’s also forbidden to pull any jobs in Russian territory.

Tarasov started blabbing as soon as he woke up in Jacques’s ancient reeking cellar. He’d already been shot at, wrecked his car, BASE jumped off the Eiffel Tower, a maniac girl tried to tear his collarbone off, and he’d undergone
stomach surgery in the back of an ambulance. Resisting interrogation was the last thing on the poor guy’s mind.

Our captive is familiar with Winter, although he’s never actually spoken with the man. Tarasov said that Winter speaks only with a few lieutenants. It seems that the reclusive leader has trust issues with foreigners, perhaps because so many of them have tried to kill him. Tarasov received his assignment through one of those lieutenants, Kazim Nazari, but he knows that the contract on me came from Winter himself.

I comm to Trick, “So this confirms that the Blades of Persia is mixed up in all this.”

“Right,” he answers. “It links your mother’s kidnapping and the attacks in Baghdad directly to Winter.”

“Wow.” I cross the street in front of Jacques’s safe house and walk down the alley to Jacques’s hidden car elevator. “Do we know why Winter is after me?”

Trick comms back, “Not yet, but we’ve got our next step. Tarasov gave us Kazim’s location, his comm code, even a picture of him.”

“Where is he?” I check that nobody can see me, then I open the bulkhead door to Jacques’s safe house.

“He’s in Riyadh. But check this out. I jumped on the jackframe and plugged Kazim’s comm code into our signals-tracing program. I cross-referenced Kazim’s code against the two unknown subjects in the comm calls we decrypted in May.”

Jesus, next he’ll tell me about the fucking algorithms
.

I comm, “Can we skip to the good part, please?”

“Kazim’s comm code came back positive as the person who sent Hector to New York.” Trick pauses. “Kazim Nazari is definitely XSUS Two.”

C
HAPTER
27
T
HREE DAYS LATER
, T
UESDAY
, S
EPTEMBER
23, 1:05
P.M.
ST R
IYADH
, P
ROVINCE OF
A
RABIA
, GG

Our mission to trace my father’s last assignment has been expanded to include harvesting intel about the Blades of Persia, their leader Winter, and the Darius Covenant. All three of these mysteries run through our one concrete lead, Kazim Nazari. We’ve received clearance for this high-level mission because the Front Desk has signed on as the principal agent. He’ll personally monitor everything we do. He’s really stuck his neck out. If I screw up, he’s toast. No pressure, though. Just the fate of me, my partner, my boss, and whatever ghosts of my father we find along the way.

Patrick and I are traveling into Riyadh to meet our Greeters. Our ride is one of those fucked-up ancient buses crammed full of sweaty villagers sweating their sweaty asses off. Yelping kids, grunting goats, clucking chickens, the works. You’d think it was a ride at Disneyland if it weren’t for the stench.

The Germans don’t ride buses. They drive like jerks in their gigantic Krautmobiles with the AC cranked and their horns blaring. One of them cuts us off, and our driver has to lock the brakes to avoid a collision. We all slide off our seats and land on the floor like a bunch of pumpkins. A few chickens tumble all the way down the aisle and make a squawking feather pile next to the driver.

We pick ourselves back up, and I mutter, “Asshole,” to Trick.

“True, but our driver did the right thing, avoiding that car.”

“He should’ve pushed that Düsseldork off the road.”

“He probably knows better than to mess around with the Germans,” Trick whispers. The Germans’ rules for this region are transparently biased. If there’s a traffic accident involving a German person and a local person, it’s never the German’s fault.

I’m dripping sweat. One of the side effects of the drugs I use is that my body constantly tries to flush itself out. My abundant quantity of Exoskin doesn’t help. I’d kill for some air-conditioning right now. I’ve killed for a lot less.

“Christ, this must be the hottest place in the world.”

“Actually, it
is
the hottest place in the world,” proclaims Trick. “Well, it’s the hottest city. Next is Baghdad, then Phoenix.”

“Arizona?”

“Yeah, we have the third-hottest city in the world. How about that?” Trick is such a nerd sometimes. Like I give a shit about Phoenix. But even when I’m a sweaty, pissed-off mess, Trick can make me laugh, because he knows so much more crap than he needs to.

He sees my grin and reaches over to take my hand. It breaks my heart how nice he is to me despite what a Bitchzilla I can be. I don’t deserve this person. I wrap my arms around him and give him a kiss on the mouth. He leans against me with a big smile on his face as I rest my forehead against his cheek. We stay snuggled up as a cloud of chicken feathers and body odor chases our bus into the city center.

As soon as we arrive in the main plaza, half the people on the bus try to force their way off first. This sparks a raucous storm of shouted threats and universally intelligible hand gestures. After a minute the knives come out. We decide we’ve had enough of this rolling circus and exit the bus by jumping out a window. Another advantage of our under-tall statures.

We walk around the plaza and look for our Greeters. They’ll be two men, we assume, but they might be gals. The Germans brought relatively equal rights for women. The old-timer locals hate it, but the Fritzes have
made it abundantly clear that if their subjects don’t like the new rules, they can go fuck themselves.

Patrick scans the faces while I scope the vicinity. It’s a generally rectangular space, about half a city block, surrounded by shops, garages, and houses. The buildings are short, three stories at the most, but they all have lots of windows and doors. Plenty of places to hide. Lots of people scurrying to and fro. Buses groan their way in and out of the plaza while a few German policemen try to keep everyone in line by pushing them around. There’s a permanent cloud of dust settling on everything. The people wind up the same sandy color as the buildings. You can tell them apart because the people are sweatier.

I spot two big men across the plaza. They sit at a small table and sip out of little espresso cups. Behind them is a large garage door, and over their heads is a sign with a picture of a car being pulled by a tow truck. Besides the fact that they aren’t scurrying anywhere, these two stand out because one of them is wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap, the kind with a flat top. They’ve got to be our Greeters. They were told that we’d approach them, so it’s natural that they ignore us for now. I nudge Trick and tilt my head in the direction of the garage. He glances at the guys, then looks back at me and nods. We dodge traffic across the plaza in their direction.

We approach our Greeters. They’re setting coasters on top of their espresso cups between sips to keep the dust out. They watch us as we walk up to their table. The Pirates fan is about fifty with gray hair; the other guy is a dark-haired twentysomething. They’re both stocky, rugged guys.

Trick opens the conversation. “We’re from the University of California. Are you the men we’re supposed to meet?”

“You’re the journalists?” asks the older one. The younger one eyeballs us keenly.

“That’s us,” I pipe in. Patrick and I are supposed to alternate answers, back and forth.

“The soccer match is already over,” counters Young Guy.

“We’ll cover the next soccer match.” Trick gets his lines right.

Old Guy states, “It’s not until next year.”

I finish our coded introduction. “Then I guess we’ll write a longer story.”

The Old Guy laughs and stands up. Young Guy gets up, too, and the two of them walk into the garage. We follow them inside.

Compared to the dust storm outside, the inside of the garage is spotless. Several shiny, high-end German sedans are parked in a row, and each wall is occupied by racks of tools and carts of fancy-looking equipment. The guys get into the front seats of a big white Mercedes, and Trick and I pile into the back. Young Guy drives us out of the city center. All the windows are tinted to keep the sun out. The air-conditioning is deliciously frosty. I relax in the back and hold my damp shirt away from my skin.

Trick leans forward. “What should we call you?” he asks Old Guy.

“I’m Domicles,” declares the older man, “and this is my son, Graccus.” He indicates the younger guy behind the wheel.

“Hi, Domicles. Hi, Graccus. I’m Solomon, and this is Scarlet.”

Domicles scrutinizes me, then Patrick. “Which one of you is the Interceptor?”

“She is. Level 8.”

Graccus inspects me in the rearview mirror. I wink at him. He looks back at the road with no change of expression. Tough guy.

“So what have you got for us?” Trick asks.

Domicles shifts around in his seat so he can see us better. He tilts his Pirates cap back and explains what he and Graccus have learned about our target.

Kazim Nazari is the founder of a bioresearch facility
outside Riyadh. It’s called White Stone Research Institute. The rambling facility is lavishly endowed with high-end equipment and well-decked-out personnel.

Domicles has three contacts in the lab’s maintenance department. These informers say that although some members of White Stone’s science team are Middle Easterners, many of the researchers are European. Graccus snooped around and found that every one of the Middle Eastern scientists at White Stone had their educations paid for by the Darius Covenant. When my partner asks how much oversight the local German authorities impose, Domicles gives us a crash course in how things work on Greater Germany’s sandy frontier.

When Berlin parcels out the cushy government jobs, the best and brightest administrators are sent to glamorous places like Paris, Madrid, and London. The rest are dumped in the Teutonic equivalent of Bumfuck, Nowhere, which includes Riyadh.

So not only are the local German authorities from the bottom of the barrel, they’ve been publicly humiliated in direct proportion to their postings’ distance from the Fatherland. The ever-savvy and enterprising locals see how much these barrel scrapers resent their superiors for banishing them here. This resentment has been monumentally exploited with a dazzling matrix of bribes and payoffs that would make Vito Corleone proud. A thriving black market has sprung up, fed by the despair of the cast-out bureaucrats and the avarice of human beings everywhere.

The black market’s starting line is the Mediterranean ports, where all the dockworkers are native Middle Easterners. The only Germans working the docks are the overseers, who receive kickbacks proportionate to the quantity of goods that make it into their shipping ledgers as “breakage.” From there the “duty-free” goods travel the width and breadth of Middle Eastern Greater Germany.

As long as this illegal traffic remains discreet, there’s minimal interference from the Reich’s regional representatives.
They rationalize their laissez-faire attitude as a good way to give the Middle Eastern
Üntermenschen
the illusion of putting it over on
der Mensch
.

Not all the area’s German officials are on the take, but they still keep their mouths shut. The quickest way to scuttle a career as a bureaucrat is to expose the corrupt behavior of one’s fellow bureaucrats. Everyone in the organization will assume they’re the next to be ratted out. Their defensive response will be to collectively scorn and slander the whistle-blower until that person resigns or dies.

All this results in a lively black market, and here’s where Imad Badr comes in. Much of the information he passes to the Abwehr and the CIA results in the arrest of one of the underworld’s prominent crime figures. Often these figures use legitimate businesses as a front. The way Rashid hides his black market operations behind his cafés is a good example. Unlike Rashid’s cafés, however, some of these criminal facades compete with part of Badr Enterprises, which becomes their undoing. Badr finks them out to the Western powers and absorbs their share of the market.

This has had twin effects. Legitimate local markets have been gradually delivered to a handful of native-run corporations, especially Badr’s, and the black market has for the most part been taken over by a few big Middle Eastern cartels, one of which is the Blades of Persia.

The CIA maintains files on both the Blades and Badr Enterprises, but they’re very thin files. We know the names of these two organizations but not much else. An underground group like the Blades is naturally wrapped in secrecy and has no written records anywhere. Badr Enterprises is an inscrutable multilayered company within a company. Badr has his hands in a lot of businesses, but it’s very difficult to pin down if he actually runs any of them.

What’s also hard to pin down is whether Imad Badr’s shady business practices are relevant to our Job Number.
It’s certainly good data, and Trick files it all away before he brings Domicles back to our task at hand: harvesting intel about Kazim Nazari.

BOOK: Blades of Winter
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