The Man in the Blue Fez
From a former death camp near the snowy Russian mountains of 1973, Jez Kord is sent into the freezing wastelands to prove himself fit. Pavel Rostislav has orders to hinder his progress and follows closely behind. The training ends and they return together, but as they approach the camp the sky fills with helicopter gunships. A venomous assault ends with the flaming liquid of napalm bombs swallowing up the entire complex. They make a run for it, but a unit of Spetsnaz elitists become aware of them and are hot on their heels.
Anna Kord is on assignment in Turkey with two other agents. Adam Mannesh and his twisted band of misfits have designs on a drug empire that Anna and the unit have been tasked to take down. Adam pretends to come to their assistance, but betrays them. Now their only chance of survival hangs on Jez and Pavel evading the Siberian pursuit.
Northern Russia, January 1973
Noon, the sun had begun its descent towards the western horizon and the promise of warmth was sinking with it. Gold and pink rays glancing off mountaintops spread as one over the frozen lake below. Midway up a mountain slope overlooking the lake and not too far from where the Urals trailed off into the wasteland, Pavel Rostislav lay in wait. A light wind whispered across the incline, bringing cold that found a way through his winter gear and set him shivering. He snuggled into the hollow cut from the compacted snow as far as he dared, but knew there could be no respite. He had to hold his vigil.
With teeth gritted, he raised the standard issue field glasses to his eyes and scoped the fishing hole in the ice lake while trying to ignore the freezing barbs that spiked at his bones. Time pressed on and he took a moment of it to glance at the thermometer on the backpack by his side, shuddered to see the temperature had dropped to minus fifty. Mist clouds would be visible to an enemy, so he expelled his breath against the chinstrap on his snowsuit, but then small ice crystals bunched up there and he exhaled in exasperation, irritation nipping at his spirit.
The sun dropped below the peaks and the ice lake turned bluish grey while the sky on the eastern horizon reflected mauve tiers on snow-knuckled mountains. Snow flurries lifted from drifts nearby and snaked down into the basin, dancing like ashes blown from a dead fire. Pavel’s goggles took the color down a notch further and his heart sank. All he wanted now was to get this thing done and return to camp. However, just as he began feeling that his blood might turn to an icy sludge or his body may be only moments away from paralysis, a blur on the landscape took human shape and his spirits lifted. Shrouded in a heavy arctic snowsuit, the man moved slowly yet gracefully towards the fishing pole sticking up from the ice. The garment he wore should have been brilliant white, but it had turned a dull bluish grey – same as everything else. He wore traditional Siberian snowshoes – same as Pavel’s – large teardrop-shaped hardwood frames with rawhide lacing crisscrossed into a strong latticework. Not a big man and because of that, and his deftness, he hardly left a print as the meter-long constructs dabbed and glided gently over the snow. Any imprints he might have made were swiftly covered as clouds of blue flakes curled around his ankles and stole all signs of his presence.
After clearing newly formed ice from the fishing hole, he pulled on the cord attached to the pole and hauled in his catch. Four fish, equally spaced along the line, flapped on the ice. He cut the smallest free and cast it back into the water. Pavel felt that old excitement bubble up and adrenalin ran hot around his gut. His patience had endured long enough. It was time to end the task. His gloves fumbled as he unzipped the leather sleeve and took out the Dragunov sniper rifle within. The deep scar next to his left eye itched as it always did when the thrill of the chase got the better of him. He ran a finger along the crevice to ease the irritation and then tucked the hollow stock of the gun into the softer flesh under his shoulder. Resting his face on the gun’s cheek pad, he slipped his gloved finger inside the Arctic trigger guard, scoped the target through the range finder and smiled. This was all so easy. Almost too easy; for a rifle like the Dragunov, six hundred meters was an effortless distance. The crosshair settled on an elbow and he slowly panned the weapon until his aim was centered where the man’s temple would be.
“Bang, you’re dead,” he whispered, and gently squeezed the trigger.
Northern Russia, December 1972
His wife’s disturbed moaning dragged Jez Kord away from packing his kit and he smiled sympathetically. Anna had been asleep for several hours and while he knew she would never admit it, her nerves were jangled before going out on the mission. They were in the married quarters of a Gulag that was once part of Stalin’s death camp infrastructure. In the Siberian plains, yet less than a thousand meters from where the last of the Ural Mountains trailed off, the forgotten compound lay two hundred kilometers north and east of the city of Vorkuta in the Komi District. Because of its distance from civilization it was ideally situated for him and the other eighty or so military personnel to live and train together.
He’d been at the camp for three months, although, he hadn’t been aware of the first two. He’d spent them in a coma as a result of his previous task, and up to that point had been known as Jez Kornfeld. Fit enough now to tag along with Anna on her Turkish mission, he was sure, but General Michel Petrichova had other ideas.
“It’s too soon,” he told him. “You would be detrimental to the operation. Go out into the cold long enough to prove yourself robust, return in good shape and I will consider reestablishing you as an active agent.”
Jez sighed, the unit was no longer part of the mainstream military, and should its existence become known to the Kremlin’s main assembly it would be viewed subversive, those within considered traitors. On that basis, he was no longer under anyone’s control, he could go where he wanted, when he wanted. No one could stop him … but that wasn’t really true. He’d tied his lot in with the general and his orders were to go out in the Arctic waste and prove himself, so that would be what he’d do.
Finishing with his kit, he was about to gently snuggle up next to Anna and catch a few hours shuteye before leaving, but a groan was followed by a single snore that snapped her head up off the pillow as if she’d been slapped. “Uh, oh, must have been dreaming,” she said, sitting up, rubbing the back of her hand across her eyes.
“You all packed?”
“Yes, time for a couple of hours head down and I’ll be off.” He slipped out of his trousers and got under the heavy woolen blankets. She lay back beside him and he wrapped an arm around her; she felt like she’d been toasted over the fire. “Mmm,” he said, “maybe we could cuddle up a bit first?”
She laughed, took his face between her hands and kissed him passionately; she tasted of sleep and his excitement hastened.
The sky appeared clear but Jez couldn’t see a single star to stud the twilight above. The noise from a firefight suddenly kicked up and fear took a grip of his heart. Anna! Discarding the backpack, Jez clambered, pulled at the snow with his hands to help his progress but moved slowly because the snowshoes got in the way. At the summit, he rose to his feet and saw a thirty-meter flat cap in front of him: The ridge. The sun had long since dropped from sight on the distant plain and should’ve left a midnight blue sky in its wake, but the land was undimmed and brightness dazzled his eyes. Rockets flared from gun tubes and the whole complex had erupted into a death-dealing inferno. One of the gunships was loaded with napalm bombs. They fizzed from the tubes, hit the ground, and a series of fireballs enveloped the site.
From what Jez could see, minimal fire was returned.
His allies, and his beautiful Anna, had been caught flat-footed. The assault ended and the choppers milled around what could best be described as total devastation.
Jez focused his binoculars on the ship carrying the napalm bombs and watched as it made a few victory bows to its fellow assailants, tilting to about forty-five degrees before returning to the horizontal.
The helicopter was still on a downward bow when a ground missile fired from out of the inferno. The shell faltered, wavered through the air like a quasi-dud firework, and then struck the napalm ship under the rotor from where the engine exhausts exited. In a flash, the craft went into convulsion, hurtled downward, and smashed into the ground, disappearing in a ball of flames with combusted juices spewing away indiscriminately. But the minor victory was short lived. The remaining crafts homed in on where the rocket launcher had fired and hit it with everything left at their disposal. Somehow, a figure on the ground survived long enough to emerge from a foxhole at the edge of the stockade. The outline of a pathetic human form stumbled and zigzagged through the flames.
Jez felt a sourness blossom in his chest that spread deeply into his groin. Smoke billowed from the soldier’s clothing. He stood no chance. And no quarter was given. Several lines of smoking tracer bullets ripped into the snow until hitting the runner and tearing his body apart. No possibility of life remained. Jez wiped at tears, already freezing to his cheeks. He turned away. For the second time in his life he had lost Anna. Pavel was also suffering. His shoulders had slumped, his head dropped, and he wept.
Jez forced himself to look beyond personal pain. From previous experience he knew he had to get moving, forget about sorrow, survive. He pulled at Pavel’s shoulder. “Come, my friend, we’ll return tomorrow and see what can be done, but don’t hold out hope for survivors.” He took one last look at the devastation before leaving.
The choppers landed and six to eight troopers jumped from each. They held sub-machine guns poised and ready as they roamed the parts of the site that had already cooled. He recognized the almost indistinguishable snowsuits and his heart sunk further: the men were part of a Spetsnaz unit. His old regiment.
Sergeant Georgy had that pasty, dead flesh look when he fainted, which could be a worry. Afanasiy’s prisoners had died in the past, luck of the draw, but if Borislav were to leave this life before giving up his information it could leave Afanasiy with his balls in a sling. And he’d had enough of that after the Vorkuta fiasco. Knowing that Borislav was being illegally held and that he had the backing of his colonel, it didn’t take an Einstein to work out that he had to come through this unscathed.
When he did come around, if he did, Afanasiy would go easy on him, bypass the rope block, and sit him in a chair. The soft touch wouldn’t make much difference now. The fear of further pain would be persuasion enough. Afanasiy had been on the job too long not to know when a prisoner was broken.
He and Anchova left Borislav to sleep it off in the interrogation room and went to a bar for lunch. On their return, they found the prisoner curled up and groaning – Afanasiy took more than a little relief seeing he was still alive. Apart from worrying about the prisoner’s health, he was glad to escape Anchova’s constant griping about how the cold was biting into his ear. He should’ve been thinking how lucky he was. If Afanasiy hadn’t had the quick wit to pick up the earlobe in Vorkuta, he couldn’t have had it sewn back on. Then he really would’ve had something to cry about – nowhere to hang his glasses. A guttural laugh choked from his throat and Anchova gave him a withering glare, as if he had second guessed what he’d been thinking. Afanasiy cleared his throat.
They tied Borislav to a chair and Anchova sat opposite him while Afanasiy sat on the edge of the bunk and pulled out a pack of Black Russian. He tapped one out for Anchova and lit up another for himself. Stupid glasses, he thought as small clouds of grey smoke drifted under the frames and stung his eyes. Borislav swayed in his chair like a drunk and if it hadn’t been for the ropes, he would’ve fell to the floor for sure. Afanasiy lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I’m not sure he isn’t playing for time. Use the smelling salts.”
Anchova floated the ammonia under Borislav’s nose and he almost jumped back to life. He coughed a phlegm-filled cough and shivered as if in shock.
“At last … So, now you’ve had a small taste of what could be ahead for you, I’ll hold back my persuasion, trusting you will talk.”
Borislav’s eyes were inflamed from his relentless crying. “You have no right …”
Sergeant Afanasiy was impressed that the man still showed a little spirit, a surprise indeed. He drew on his cigarette, pursed his lips, exhaled a thin blue line, leant over and stubbed the butt out on Borislav’s arm. Borislav yelped as red embers sparked from his flesh, some falling to the floor, others burning out alongside the black ash on his skin where a bubble had already begun swelling. “Then get your rights back. Tell us what you know.”
Tearfully, he gave an exhausted sigh and hung his head. “What is it you think I can tell you?”
The people Afanasiy interrogated always played the game in the same way – but why? They must’ve known they would break in the long run, so why endure the pain first? Not a trait he suffered from, which was why he had been quick to give answers when the Kornfeld lookalike had questioned him in Vorkuta.
“Let’s start with the drugs. How is the operation set up and in which Russian districts do you supply?”
“What? Russia? No, no, not Russia,” he said.
The denial was a point at which Afanasiy should have inflicted more pain. But Borislav had a look of surprise. Anchova lifted his butt from the chair, but Afanasiy put a hand on his arm to restrain him. “Let’s do it another way,” he said. “I don’t ask questions, you just tell me about your end in the drug trade. Oh, and what drugs is it we’re talking about.”
Borislav’s shoulders slumped and he winced at the pain the movement caused. “Heroin … and it isn’t for distribution in Russia. I believe it’s shipped to the west.”
Afanasiy sat back and pondered. This scam could be bigger than he had first envisaged. If he got enough info from Borislav it could be meaningful to his career.
“Shipped from where?” he asked.
Borislav wasn’t about to voluntarily tell his life story, so Afanasiy tried thinking ahead. “Who handles it and from where does it originate?”
“The Turks handle the operation. I don’t know where the drugs come from, only that a Hasidic Jew skippers the Gulet from somewhere east.”
A Hasidic Jew skippering a Turkish schooner. Afanasiy smirked. That was so unlikely it had to be true. “How do these Turks pay you?”
“They don’t. And I don’t really know anything about the Turkish side of things, I swear.”
“Then who pays you?”
The room went silent; Borislav looked down. Afanasiy decided to let it go for the moment. “Very well, I assume you have something to do with payment for the drugs.”
“Yes, I take care of that side of things. In fact, that is my main part in it.”
The interview continued, slowly and painfully. Nightfall painted the window black, but Afanasiy had the bit between his teeth. He couldn’t leave it now. “Why were you chosen for the task?”
Borislav was ever weakening and his head kept nodding forward. He was losing concentration. Afanasiy suddenly realized the prisoner hadn’t eaten since the previous evening.
“Answer this one question,” he said, “and I’ll let you sleep, eat, wash … and I’ll have a medic look at your shoulder.”
Borislav lifted his head and looked at Afanasiy with gratitude.
“Why were you chosen for the task?”
“I was recruited because of my position at the plant.”
Afanasiy wanted to press, but the prisoner was on a heading for delirium. “Okay, tomorrow we finish up. But remember, Borislav, if sleep gives you a renewed courage and you decide to get tough, so will we.”
But Afanasiy knew he was already finished. It was safe to wait.