The sun fell beyond the rolling peaks, bringing an early evening to rural Ukraine. The dark ridgeline above the narrow mountain pass was tinged in fading yellows and flickering golds. Dusk carried a witching wind along the Carpathian slopes from the heights of medieval legend to the bottomless bedrock of superstition’s realm.
Deep wagon ruts from gypsy caravans snaked through ancient dirt down there in the canyons, forming unprotected trails where even gods tread lightly in the despair of this evening. The flat lands surrounding the mountains were a place of sobering imagination. It was a forbidden dimension where less than human creatures waited in the shadows.
As the rocky formations brought an earthly darkness to hell’s valley, a blood orange moon rose above the treetops on the plains to the east and set the foothills on fire with a glowing light that shook the depths of our gravest nightmares. The inferno spread quickly over the lowlands, intensifying gloom into disparity and making it difficult to determine who, or what, may be following unsuspecting travelers.
An old flatbed truck rolled along the rough road trying to find a path of less resistance. The steering wheel was in freefall. The tires sagged to the left and rose to the right, then sagged to the right and rose to the left through a minefield of distemper. At times, the wheels cut sharply around nothing at all as if avoiding imaginary bodies left from dead days past.
The man driving glanced in the rearview mirror. He swore he saw dead-eyed goblins sitting among the swaying tree branches. The sight scared him more that he imagined it would, reminding him of tales his old babushka used to whisper in the quiet of firelight.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost, or something worse,” nodded his passenger.
He briefly thought about punching a hole in the man’s chest. He had already regretted asking him along in the first place. Several times. The last thing he needed right then was another idiotic observation from this imbecile.
The driver concentrated on the road. His eyes didn’t waver from the incline as the old truck began its climb into the black heart of oblivion. The road crunched and popped under the weight of the three-ton Zis-5 vehicle. He prayed the bald tires would hold together long enough to reach their destination.
“Shut up,” he finally answered.
“Are you scared of vampires and werewolves? You don’t still believe that old woman’s tales do you? It was just talk. Crazy talk.”
Who would make up such stories, the driver thought? There is evil in this world, my brother. Real evil that can’t be explained. It haunts us in the uncertainty of human night, in the faltering confusion of our minds, in the sudden eclipse of our souls.
“I never mock such things and neither should you,” he assured his passenger.
The driver took a deep breath. Air eased from his lungs like cold fog drifting across the flat surface of a night-stained lake. He wiped his face with a damp shirtsleeve.
“You are scared, Yuri. I never thought I’d see the day.”
“If you don’t shut up, you won’t see tomorrow.”
“You sound like you’re thinking about putting a bullet in me,” the passenger said with a tentative smile.
“I’m thinking about putting you out right here. You can walk on if you like or run back home for all I care.”
Light turned to twilight quicker than the driver had hoped. It wasn’t the presence of total black that bothered him. After all, what he can’t see can’t hurt him. His real fear lay in the movements and whispers intensifying every shadow and they were swiftly closing around the truck at that moment.
Yuri pulled in his arm and cranked up the window. As the truck rocked back and forth over unseen potholes, he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He didn’t need to lose control right now and nosedive into a ravine.
“For God’s sake, it’s another two hundred kilometers to Kraków. What am I supposed to do?”
“You can walk back through the valley down there. It’s the shortest way home.” Yuri flipped a thumb over his shoulder before continuing. “Since you’re such an atheist all of a sudden, I’m sure you’ll find someone, or some - thing, to pick you up.”
“You superstitious…” He shook his head and looked out the window. “Come on Yuri. You’re talking to family. I was just being funny.”
“Brother or not, Valeri, if you don’t shut up and give me some peace, I swear I’ll put you out. I see nothing to joke about until we deliver this crate.”
Yuri downshifted as the old road wound farther into the foothills. The gears ground metal on metal. The cab bucked under him. He stared into the rearview mirror again to ensure everything was as it should be. I hate these mountains, he thought.
“This ain’t like you, Yuri. What’s wrong?”
Valeri looked at the side of Yuri’s face. Even though his silhouette was half-formed in the faint light, he saw something he’d never seen before. Fear soaked the brow of his unshakable brother. Yuri was keeping something from him.
“What’s in the crate?” asked his brother.
The rear left axle suddenly bounced into a rut and hit bottom. The steering wheel jerked hard to the left. Yuri’s first instinct was to swipe at the brakes but he had to keep the slow momentum going up the pass. He corrected course and tapped the gas again.
A scraping beneath the truck bed grew louder and echoed in the wind. The noise stopped as a tire climbed out of a long pothole. Yuri readjusted himself in the bench seat.
“What is in the crate?”
“I know that. It took five of us to lift it inside. But what is it?”
“The man said manufacturing ingredients.”
“Yuri, what sort of ingredients needs to be stored in a lead container?”
The dull, grainy figure of a man came into focus as the sniper adjusted the knob on the night scope. He calibrated the distance; ninety-three meters. At that short distance with the SVD modified Kalashnikov and new night scope he would be able to see the blessed face of god in the man’s eyes as the bullet pierced his brain.
The target stood near the corner of the building, just outside the light ring of the streetlamp. He was dead if he stepped into the light. But it didn’t much matter either way. The glow of his cigarette was enough to mark the kill zone. The sniper nudged the dial to sharpen the man’s features.
Another figure suddenly walked into the reticle and the image in the night scope blurred. The abrupt movement surprised the sniper. He pulled his eyes away, wiped his forehead on a sleeve, and let his sight adjust to the darkness again.
The night air was thick with humidity but his line of sight from back inside the third floor window was clear all the way to the target. The sniper peered down at the two figures. The late arrival was as tall as the first but slighter in build. Was it a woman? It was hard to say with the watch cap pulled low over the ears. Maybe a boy, he thought.
He would kill that one for the fun of it.
The sniper loosened his shoulders and stretched his neck. He stared through the scope again. Tonight was easy money, as they said in the United States; sight, squeeze, sight, squeeze. A few seconds was all he needed to finish both of them and still be back at the barracks in time for late mess call.
Before he could refine the image again, the sniper saw the cigarette bounce in the street from an outstretched arm. The exploding sparks shattered the scene into a million pieces. He pulled his face away from the weapon to readjust his eyes to the night again.
The slender one pulled the sniper’s target backward. They disappeared into a recessed doorway that took them to the far end of darkness. The sniper could see the outline of the door frame but his two targets were invisible within the protection of its black shadow.
Even with the night optics, he knew any shot would be risky. He had to be certain at least the primary target was put down cleanly. A soft smile creased his lips. He would let the instant unfold in slow motion and follow god’s will.
The sniper was patient if nothing. He had trained to be patient. Those were weeks, months, years he would never get back. Still, he waited. He would remain on overwatch. The moment will come soon to drop both and he would be ready when that time came.
He refocused the 1PN51 night scope on the black cavity of the doorway and slowly exhaled. When they reappeared, the pair would be moving fast. This added a bit more challenge to the game, he thought, that’s all.
“Zita, thank God you’re here. I’m in trouble. We’re in trouble. Three of your mates are dead. That leaves me, and you.”
“I understand. What’s happened now?” she asked.
“They’re following me. I see them everywhere.”
The sniper recognized a waving arm in the darkness. He smiled.
“Who is following you? Please calm down, Jersic. And keep your voice low.”
“That’s easy for you to say. I have the exposure here. I’m a member of the Central Committee, for God’s sake.”
“Yes, I realize that. You’re the deepest mole we’ve ever had inside the Soviet government.”
The sniper pressed the ten-round magazine into place. It locked with a faint click. He chambered a round.
“I have to leave Prague. Now. They know I work with MI6,” Jersic said.
“Who knows and what do you think they know?”
“Vlček knows. He knows everything!”
“I need another day to get things sorted.”
“I won’t last another day.”
Jersic wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and returned the damp cloth to his pocket.
“I’ll call the Americans as a last resort. I know someone who can help.”
“The Americans won’t help us.”
“Calm down. We’ll deal with it.”
“How are we going to do that?”
“Jersic, you’ve been in place for seven years. Why the urgency now? What has you so frightened?”
“I’m telling you they know about me. They’ve systematically killed the others and I’m next.”
“You’re being paranoid. Wilson was in a traffic accident and Bradley drowned on a fishing trip up in Doksy. He was nowhere near Prague at the time. Timm died in his sleep; bad heart. The field office has not been able to find a connection between their deaths. They are sending replacements as soon as time permits.”
“And you accept that three deaths in three weeks is coincidence? All you can say is bad timing? I know how these people operate and I’m scared.”
“I believe you. They were good men. London has taken your situation under advisement and they are working on an extraction plan.”
The sniper exhaled. He reduced his breathing to one quarter the rate of his heart.
“I can’t wait for London. I’ll be dead by tomorrow.” Jersic said.
“Don’t do anything rash. I’ll get you out,” she said.
“The game is over, Zita, it’s time to make my peace or run,” he sighed. “Take care of yourself.”
The black pit fell silent. He turned to leave. Zita grabbed an arm.
“Collect what you can’t live without. Meet me across the river at Restaurace Pravěk at. 9:00 p.m. One hour, do you hear me? If you aren’t there by a quarter past, you must wait until tomorrow evening.”
“I’ll be there. Thank you.”
It was a halfhearted reply. Jersic placed a weak hand on Zita’s shoulder.
He stepped out of the doorway into the path of a 7.62 mm bullet, traveling at 830 meters per second. The projectile entered his face below the right eye. Jersic was dead before the skull shattered and sent shards of bone into his brain. Dead before the sound echoed through the canyon of buildings on Myslikova Strasse.
Zita rolled the opposite way out of the blind recess, coming up in the light of the streetlamp. Realizing her mistake she continued to roll to the corner of the building as a second round exploded against the brick above her. She crouched in the shadows, weapon ready to return fire.
Yes, definitely a woman, the sniper thought.
He whistled as he dismantled the rifle and packed it away. Mission accomplished, he thought. The woman wasn’t his concern anyway. She would have been a nice bonus, but no matter. That situation would take care of itself. He was certain he would see her again.
He casually wiped the window sill of fingerprints and looked around the room to determine what else he might have touched. Still whistling, he lifted the gun case over the body of the suite owner. The old man had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was too bad, but necessary. Life was a series of wrong places and wrong times.
He stepped around a patch of blood on his way to the apartment telephone. He lifted the handset, dialed and requested a wet works team for the body on Myslikova Strasse.
“Is the traitor dead?”
“The kill was clean.”
“No one saw you?”
The smell of Turkish tobacco filled the room with an acrid odor. The man seated behind the desk picked up a still lit cigarette and flicked the ash into a full ashtray. The fire burned dark red as he inhaled.
“Comrade Vlček, you hired an elite Soviet SDM marksman with twenty-seven confirmed kills during the suppression of Dubcek’s reforms in ‘68,” said the sniper.
“Yes, quite an impressive achievement, Comrade Major. Your eyesight is not in question.”
The sniper shifted his weight from one foot to the other at parade rest. He looked down at the Czech Communist Party Leader with a faint odor of disdain. Politicians were so pompous, he thought.
“There was another. Perhaps it was a woman. The two spoke briefly.”
“And you failed to eliminate her with Jersic?” The sitting man gazed curiously at the sniper, mocking his failure. “Well, I see. You left a witness. Perhaps we hired the wrong man.”
“She was athletic and I am still managing the new night scope. In my defense, sir, no one else could have succeeded with two kills under the circumstances.” The soldier hesitated then tried to change the subject. “I assume she is his handler.”
“Yes. We know who she is.”
“Then I’ll find her and finish the job.”
The fat bureaucrat smiled as he lit another cigarette. He slapped the lighter back onto the desk. Vlček squinted up through thick smoke at the sniper standing in front of him. How wonderfully uninformed this stupid man is, he thought. He knows nothing of what’s really going on. He’s only interested in fulfilling my irrelevant taunt while everything around his pathetic petty life’s about to change within days.
“I have a better idea, Comrade,” Vlček began, “Do not let your misplaced pride come between us on this. An opportunity presents itself with this woman slipping through your grasp.”
The bureaucrat peered at the sniper’s face to be certain there was no objection. It was difficult to read his emotionless face. The soldier stared at the wall above Vlček’s head.
“We have five witnesses who swear she was with Jersic and each is positive she brutally murdered Jersic. You see… two flies with one hit.”
Vlček opened a top drawer and pulled out a single sheet of paper. He glanced at it before dropping the document on the desk and spinning it so the snipper might read it.
“I have taken the liberty of drafting this official report which will be released to the 6:00 AM morning wire for major news desks across Europe,” Vlček continued.
The soldier looked down at the paper. He read the words not quite understanding.
Czech authorities are looking for a female British national in connection with the brutal assassination of a Communist Committee Member last night. The young woman is also a suspect in the suspicious deaths of three other British nationals in recent weeks.
Airports, trains, and border crossings have closed to foreign travelers until each can be properly secured. Eastern Bloc troops moved to the western highlands as a precautionary measure. Prague has also closed to international commerce and all public gatherings in the city are cancelled until further notice. These steps were taken to ensure the safety of our citizens. We apologize for your delayed schedules.
“I don’t understand,” the soldier said. “How did you know she was there and that she lived? Were you following me?”
“We have been watching her and the others for some time. She just happened to intersect with your op and my people were there to witness the event,” Vlček waved a hand in the air.
“Sir, I request a day to find her,” requested the Major.
“I’ll give you a day,” Vlček responded. “…to report back to your unit. You have done as we asked. Enjoy the city. Sample its food or savor its women; whichever you prefer. But stay away from the Brit.”
“Major, do not betray my generosity.”
“We’re fighting for our survival here in Prague. And, at this moment we have been offered the unique opportunity to finally destroy Britain’s spy network here. Let politics finish this.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” the sniper repeated.
The fat bureaucrat wondered why he felt the need to explain such a complicated matter to this animal who had been trained to do only one thing. It was beyond his kind to understand. He cared for nothing except his Kalashnikov.
“You are dismissed, Major Akulov.”
The sniper came to attention and saluted. He retreated through the door, along the hall, down the stairs and into the street, all the while thinking about the target he missed.