Authors: Dana Haynes
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To my incandescent wife, Katy
To Tamara Burkovskaya, former Senior Political Specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, who provided a generous glimpse into embassy life. It proved invaluable.
To Tim King, research travel companion through the former Yugoslavia. It takes a special skill to spend that many days in the Balkans, in a rented subcompact, and not go nuts. You're a mensch.
Caladri, the Coast of Italy
The quiet man stood in the entrance to the taverna. The regulars didn't remember seeing him enter. They hadn't noticed the flash of too harsh, too white sunlight when the door opened. They hadn't smelled the tang of salt and seaweed invade the tobacco and hashish funk of the bar.
But there he stood.
He wore a cowboy hat, a denim shirt, jeans, and boots. The shirt was unbuttoned to reveal an off-white undershirt, and the sleeves were rolled up past tattoos and well-defined biceps.
One by one the patrons of the taverna noticed him, then went back to their beer and their boredom.
The quiet man walked to the bar, removed the cowboy hatâold and badly sweat-stainedâand set it on the bar. His hair was black, almost shoulder length, and swept back. His face was leathery, tight, and deeply pocked. He had a thin, lipless mouth, exceedingly flat planes along his cheeks and forehead, and a nose that had been badly broken and poorly mended.
The old bartender, a pipe cleaner of a man, rubbed a filthy rag on the filthy bar and took his time looking up. When he did, he flinched at the sight of the customer's face.
The quiet man nodded.
The manager limped to the tap and returned with a pint. The quiet man reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a much-bent photo. He set it on the sticky bar and slid it across.
It was a photo of Daria Gibron.
The old man peered at it, squinted, made a point of scratching his thin patch of hair. He looked up and shrugged.
“Seen her?” He spoke English.
The quiet man reached into the back pocket of his jeans and withdrew a folding knife, the handle carved of bone. He kept the knife closed.
The bartender peered at the knife, then up into the flat, reflectionless eyes, then back at the knife.
The quiet man looked skeptical. As if the name were unfamiliar.
“Gatta Randagia. It is what she calls herself,
Yes. I know her.”
The old man shrugged. “She's out.”
The quiet man nodded solemnly and picked up his dirty stein with his left hand and sipped. “Out where?”
For, ah old things, not people. Piecesâ¦?”
The manager grabbed a beer mat, turned it over to the blank side, and drew a map. He'd begun to sweat now. It wasn't just the unspoken threat of the closed knife. It was something intractable and menacing on the man's scarred face.
That, plus the
The old man had feared her from day one. She was radiant, yet somehow she carried that exact same menacing air as this man.
The quiet man studied the beer mat. “Junkyard?”
For aircraft. Old aeroplanes,
The old man wet his lips. “Running.”
The bartender shrugged. “Who can say? The devil, maybe.”
The quiet man drained his beer. He seemed to contemplate that.
He pocketed the bone knife, shook his head. “Can't be two of us.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The bartender wasted no time in alerting the people in Caladri. The residents detested strangers. In a town in which the two main industries were the importation of illegal immigrants from Africa and illegal drugs from South America, a snooping foreigner is no friend.
Within minutes the grapevine spread the word that the stranger was looking for Signora Gatta Randagia.
Nobody could remember if the town had named her or if she'd coined the nickname for herself.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The stray cat crouched in the shadows, fingertips on the ground, slightly forward of her hunched shoulders, the heels of both sneakers up off the dirt, and surveyed the battlefield.
It was only mid-July but already the weather had turned nasty on the Mediterranean coast. Where much of the region is sun-swept and touristy, Daria Gibron had picked a spit of land shoved uncomfortably between a barren strip of rocky coast and the Trenitalia railroad tracks, wedged like a broken rib up against the rest of northeastern Italy. The villages to the west were rich fishing waters and the villages to the east catered to a trendy, moneyed set. But on this rocky gouge of land, almost nobody had made an honest living in decades.
It suited Daria to a T.
The temperature was in the nineties and the humidity matched it. Yellow-white clouds filled the sky and turned the sea a mottled green, the kind of clouds that promise rain, just to taunt you.
Daria was hunched like a sprinter in a starting block. She squinted against the white glare and the painfully glinting metal all around her. Everywhere she looked Daria saw bits of things that once had been aircraft but which would never again have the word
associated with them. They were ground things now. Warped wings here, rusted fuselages there, piles of tread-bare tires and desiccated cockpits strewn about. The debris were dated between the 1950s and the 1990s. Some military aircraft, some civilian.
Daria's dark skin glowed with sweat. She wore ratty cutoffs and a short Violent Femmes T-shirt, sleeves ripped off and neckline badly and unevenly stretched out. Some boy had left it in her bed, but for the life of her she couldn't remember his face. Her sneakers were new. Her straight black hair was pulled into a ponytail. She wore fingerless black gloves with golden zippers that ran halfway up each palm: “borrowed” from a Parisian drug dealer the year before. Her only other accessories were bandages here and there, stretch tape wrapped around both wrists, and a red/purple swoosh of a lovely new bruise on her flank, under her left arm.
The junkyard had been built in the remnants of a mercury mine in a valley between scrubby hills. Almost no plants beyond weeds grew in the narrow valley. A flicker of a smile ghosted across Daria's parched lips.
What's a nice Jewish girl like you doing running in a place like this?
She heard the squeak of shoe tread on aluminum and knew that the Kavlek brothers were on the move.
She pushed off with her right foot from beneath the truncated wing of a Phantom F-4F fighter. Her first goal was the stubby, roof-gutted Tornado dead ahead. Its cockpit had been blown out, avionics rusting in the thin haze and sun. A whacking great hole had been torn out of the top of the fuselage, likely from a midair collision or a missile rather than a crash landing.
The final goal wasn't the snub-nosed Tornado but the huge, mothballed Airbus A-320, just beyond. The narrow-body airliner was about 120 feet long, providing plenty of running room. It sat flat on the rocky ground, sans landing gear. If she could get inside that beast, she could buy herself some advantages.
An Israeli Army drill sergeant had once ragged her: “In an open-field flight, your advantages are eyesight, space, and liberty! Rob the enemy of them, and it's advantage you!”
Daria leaped from her cover, sneakers hitting the hard earth, legs and arms pumping.
A flash of skin to her left and above her. Mehmet Kavlek, the sturdier of the brothers, diving off the fuselage of the Phantom. He'd been above her all along.
Daria guessed that the husky Turk couldn't leap from atop the Phantom to the wing of the Tornado. He'd either land on the ground betweenÂ â¦ or atop Daria.
She threw herself forward in midair, ending with a tumble, shoulders first, then her back, her ass, her sneakers. Once her shoes hit the packed soil, she used her momentum and her bunched legs to leap.
Mehmet Kavlek thumped to the ground a meter behind her.
Where was the other brother?
Still running, Daria caught hold of the wing of the grounded fighter craft and swung her body up and to the left, one knee clearing the airlift surface of the wing. She grunted and used her momentum to roll along the surface, completing the roll on one knee and one foot.
She glanced back. Mehmet's meaty hands appeared before her eyes as he leaped for the wing.
Daria turned and ran, springing for the front half of the fuselage.
Ismael Kavlek made his appearance. Lighter than his brother, he sprang like a gazelle onto the horizontal elevator of the Tornado's tail section. A normal human would have smacked into the vertical stabilizer and rudder, but the whip-thin man raised one foot, kicked at the stabilizer, rerouted his momentum 90 degrees, and deftly surfaced atop the fuselage with Daria.
The roof was holedâtoo great a distance for even Ismael to reach her directlyâbut the bigger Turk had hauled himself up onto the port wing behind her, so there was nowhere for Daria to go but forward, toward the starboard wing.
She landed, knees bent, and hauled ass down the length of the wing, which sprang under her weight like a pirate ship's plank.
Behind her, Ismael Kavlek leapedânot
the hole in the fuselage but
it, head first, into the aircraft, landing in a somersault, springing to his feet, shoulder slamming open the flight-deck door. He was running perpendicular to Daria now.