Frozen Conflict Chapter 1

“You’re imagining things, Eugen,” Cezar Lungu said.  He was leaning back in an overstuffed easy chair with a massy, polished wooden frame, a blond, vacant-eyed Ukrainian hooker on his lap.  He was fully clothed; she was in her underwear.  He picked up the shot of Kvint and tossed it back with a grimace and a loud, “Pah!”  “We have an arrangement!  And with what we’re paying the Russians and the Transnistrians both, we should at least get a warning if anything has changed!”

Eugen Codreanu did not turn away from the window, but continued peering into the night.  He wasn’t looking out toward the Dnieper River below the dacha, either.  He was looking back toward the wrought-iron gates and the guard posts, through the trees.  He was looking back toward the city of Ribnitza, which was throwing its glow against the near-perpetual pall of smoke and steam coming from the steelworks.

When Codreanu still hadn’t replied while he poured more Kvint, Lungu tried again.  “You’ve been jumping at shadows for four months, Eugen,” he ventured.

Codreanu finally turned away from the window.  He was not a man who would get a second glance in most places in Europe.  Going gray in the temples, his thick hair was combed back from a high forehead.  He kept himself in good shape, though somewhat offset by the copious amounts of Kvint, vodka, and cigarettes he consumed on a daily basis.  His clean-shaven jaw and cleft chin looked faintly bluish, his beard was so dark.  He was in his late fifties but took pride in the fact that he could easily pass for his late thirties, which helped with the women, almost as much as his wealth did.

He took a deep drag on a cigarette.  The room, filled with antique furniture, the beams and columns richly carved, was already thick with the haze of smoke.  “We should have stuck with small arms and munitions,” he said nervously.  “The Nurlat deal was a mistake.”

“It was the biggest score we’ve ever made, Eugen!” Lungu exclaimed.  “We made millions in one deal!”

“Yes, it was,” Codreanu replied.  “But we never saw anyone watching us here in Transnistria before that.”

“I think you’re just nervous because of the size of the deal,” Lungu said.  “People are always watching everyone in Transnistria.  That’s why we pay them.”

But Codreanu shook his head.  “I don’t know, Cezar,” he said.  “Something feels different.”

“Relax, Eugen,” Lungu said.  “Have some Kvint.  Go upstairs and have a romp with that black-haired gypsy girl.  We have the best security in the country, and we’ve paid all the police and Army officers that need to be paid.  We’ll be fine.  No one except us and the buyers even know about the Nurlat deal.  We’ve got no reason to be afraid.”

Codreanu finished his cigarette in two more deep drags, then crushed it out.  He held the smoke for a long moment, then blew it toward the ceiling with a gusty sigh, nodding as he did so.  “You’re right, Cezar,” he said after a moment.  “Of course you’re right.”  The only loose end from the deal had been the Russian naval officer he’d bribed in order to get his hands on the old Project 877 submarine that had been held in reserve for over a decade.  But his contacts had carefully arranged for the officer’s untimely death in an automobile accident during the small hours of the morning on the back streets of Sevastopol.  That the officer had been far too drunk to even start the car wasn’t something that would necessarily show up in a Russian autopsy.

He was relatively certain that none of his own organization would have sold him out.  And he didn’t think the Russians would really have cared that much.  It wasn’t like they had been using the old hulk.  He’d been in mothballs for years.

He turned away from the window and started toward the stairs, trying to think about Drina and her enticing body instead of his fears.  Unlike the blond Ukrainian that Lungu was fondling, Drina was a convincing little minx.

The lingering worry that the buyers might have reason to come after him wouldn’t leave his mind, however, even as he mounted the steps.  He still had no idea who they were; they had money, and they had the connections to contact him with the job.  That was all he knew.  But buying a Russian diesel submarine on the black market wasn’t something that happened every day, and he couldn’t help but wonder what the long-term repercussions of the biggest deal in his career as a black-market arms dealer would be.

***

The man known only as Redrum stepped up into the old panel van, making the shocks compress under his bulk.  The shocks were shit, anyway, as he was convinced was the case with every rusting, shitty car in this shitty country, but Redrum was a big man, and even if the van’s suspension had been in good shape, he still would have rocked the van as he entered.

“How’s it looking?” he asked.

The skinny kid watching the camera feeds didn’t answer.  He didn’t even show any sign that he’d heard.  That was when Redrum noticed the earbuds in his ears.  He leaned down.  He could just hear the music playing, and that was with his own severely damaged hearing.

Redrum wasn’t one to play around.  And he didn’t like Stiletto in the first place.  The kid was a tech whiz, but he was a scrawny hipster and arrogant as hell.  Redrum had no idea how he’d gotten the job in the first place, but he really didn’t fit in with the roiding monsters that made up Redrum’s team.

He reached down and yanked the earbud out of Stiletto’s ear, resisting the temptation to take the earring beneath with it.  When the job was over, maybe then he could really put Stiletto in his place.

The kid snapped his head around, glaring through his thick-framed glasses.  Redrum was pretty sure there wasn’t even a prescription on the things.  They were an affectation, nothing more.  “What?” Stiletto demanded.  Even his voice pissed Redrum off.  It was high, nasal, and just as arrogant as the rest of his demeanor.

“Status report,” he rumbled, glowering down at the kid.

After a moment of the staring contest, Stiletto started to wilt.  Redrum knew what he looked like.  Pale as a dead fish, shaved bald, two hundred fifty pounds of solid muscle, he had black eyes and a thick-featured face that looked like a shaved gorilla, even to him.  It was why he preferred Eastern Europe to any of the other regions he could work in, and wasn’t complaining about the assignment.  He could sort-of blend in in the Slavic countries.

He also knew that Stiletto was not entirely unaware of the story behind his callsign.

“It’s quiet,” Stiletto said, turning back to the screens but unable to suppress a faint shiver as he did so.  He couldn’t keep the faint quaver of fear out of his voice, either, and had to be hating himself for it.

Good.

“Security?” Redrum asked.

“There are ten men patrolling the grounds, in pairs,” Stiletto said, getting back on firmer ground.  “I’ve been watching them through the dacha’s camera system.”  Typical Stiletto; he always had to mention how clever he was, getting inside an opponent’s tech.  The fact that one of Redrum’s team had needed to break into the dacha to lay the groundwork for Stiletto’s “master hacking skills” always went unmentioned.  “They check in with the central security desk, which is located on the first floor, every twenty minutes.  I think this guy’s paranoid.”

Or Faust was right, and he got made yesterday.  It did seem like Codreanu was looking over his shoulder more lately, though.  His security had markedly increased since the Mexico incident.

He’s running scared.  Which means that he’ll probably bolt if he thinks we’ve eyeballed him.  At the very least, we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Redrum was a pragmatist, above all else.  He was always planning for the worst, just in case it happened.  He never counted on a plan coming together the first time.

“Keep an eye on them, and use the damn radio to call me if anything changes.  Understood?” Redrum said.  Stiletto didn’t look at him, but nodded a little jerkily.  “And keep your damned headphones out while you’re working.”  Without waiting for a reply, he turned and dropped out the back door of the van.

The surveillance vehicle wasn’t far from Codreanu’s grounds.  That was mostly necessitated by the short range of the wifi transmitter that Lèzard had installed in the dacha.  Otherwise, Redrum would have much preferred putting it on the other side of Ribnitza.  But it did mean he didn’t have far to go to link up with the rest of the team, where they were waiting in a pair of ancient, rusty GAZ sedans.

Looking around, he headed for the trees nearby, jerking his head to signal the rest to join him.  It was dark, and there weren’t really any streetlights in that part of Hirjau, the glorified suburb of Ribnitza that stretched north along the Dnieper.  He wasn’t too worried about being observed.  The joint Russian-Transnistrian patrols didn’t come through this part of town much, either, he suspected because Codreanu paid good bribes.

The team got out of the cars and moved to join him.  Like him, they were all still in their local civilian garb, mostly dark jeans and collared shirts, with a few wearing jackets over them.  He knew they were all armed, but they had left the heavy hardware in the cars.

“We’re going tonight,” Redrum said without preamble.  “We’re outnumbered, but at the very least, we need to make him turtle, dig in like a tick and stay where he’s at.”

In the dimness under the trees, the rest of the team looked around at each other.  “We have six men,” Bèstia said.  “Just how are we supposed to do that?”

“It’s dark,” Redrum said.  “They don’t have night vision.  We’ve got explosives, pyrotechnics, and a lot of ammo.  Figure it out.”

The Frenchman subsided.  Redrum didn’t much like him or the other Frog, Lèzard.  But they were good at their jobs, so he didn’t have to like them.  “Any other dumb questions?” he asked.  “Good.  Lèzard and Faust, Bèstia and Skinner, you’re on cordon.  Cat, you’re with me.  We’re the assault team.”

The rest of them just nodded.  They were getting well paid for this gig.  Better be, given that we’ve got to hang out in this post-Soviet shithole.  Never thought I’d meet people who actually wanted the old USSR back, and lived like it.

Of course, the less he thought about his employers’ desired endgame, the better.  They really weren’t all that different from these wannabe Soviets, if you got right down to it; they were just a lot richer and more “respectable.”  But Redrum wasn’t one given to much cognitive dissonance.  He just ignored such things and concentrated on what he was getting paid to do.

“Get your shit,” he said.  “We go in five.”

***

Radu Anghelescu was bored and distracted.  Patrolling the dacha grounds was probably the most mind-numbing job he could imagine.  He’d seen every centimeter at least fifty times already that night.  And the night was young.

He kept looking up toward the house, having glimpsed the silhouette of that Roma girl, Drina, in the boss’s bedroom window.  He knew that she was off-limits; she was Codreanu’s pet of the moment, but he was taken with her.  He couldn’t get her out of his head, not to mention some of the things he fantasized about doing to her…

He never got the chance to look back down, even as his partner, Dorin Sala, started to chide him for pining after the boss’s pet hooker.  The bullet punched through the back of his skull and blew out his right eye, tearing through his brainstem as it went.  He never even knew what hit him.

A moment later, as the treeline around the grounds erupted with explosions and flame, a three-round burst caught Sala in the throat, even as he stared in shock at his friend’s corpse.  Choking on his own blood, Sala collapsed on top of the lifeless husk that had been Radu Anghelescu.

***

Redrum watched the two gate guards drop and lowered his Zastava M21.  The Serbian version of a modernized AK-74 wasn’t fancy, and he’d fired a lot more accurate weapons, but it did the job, and didn’t stand out that much in the little wannabe-Soviet breakaway republic.

Dashing forward, he took a knee next to the low wall that jutted out from the trees and bushes on either side of the gate and aimed in over the top of it.

The long driveway was framed by more trees as it arrowed toward the dacha itself.  The house was lit up far more than the surrounding suburb of Hirjau.  There were streetlamps along the driveway and brilliant spotlights up on the eaves of the house’s roof, clearly installed for security purposes.  The house was semi-obscured by the trees, but the lights in the windows of the plastered timber mansion were still on, silhouetting the security goons who were running down the curving double staircase toward the driveway.

It was a longer shot, particularly with the Zastava’s open sights, which hadn’t been altered much from the standard Kalashnikov sights from 1947.  But Redrum knew his guns, and knew his marksmanship.  And it wasn’t that long a shot.

The first 5.56mm bullet punched through the Romanian thug’s guts and tore a bloody hole out through the small of his back.  The 5.56 didn’t tumble the same way a 5.45 would, but a gut shot was a gut shot, and these gangsters didn’t have the warrior mentality to push through that kind of pain.  Screaming and bleeding, the man fell face-first down the steps, and Redrum was already transitioning to the next man, who was already ducking down below the stone railing.

Redrum flipped the M21 to full auto and simply sprayed the rest of the magazine at the front of the house.  Glass shattered, splinters and puffs of pulverized plaster flew, and chips were blasted out of the stone.  There might have been screaming, but Redrum couldn’t hear it over the rattling roar of his rifle.

The magazine went dry, and he ripped a second one out of the chest rig under his jacket, using the edge of the mag to sweep the empty out before rocking the new one in.  He fired a few more rounds at the house for good measure before turning to the wiry man next to him and yelling, “Fall back!”

He suited actions to words as he turned away from the wall and dashed toward the shadows beneath the trees across the street.  A moment later, Cat followed.

He hadn’t told Bèstia, but Redrum had a plan, and a well-thought-out one.  Storming that dacha with two men was probably going to be suicide, no matter how poorly-trained Codreanu’s thugs were.  And while Redrum might have had a lot wrong in his head, he wasn’t suicidal.

As he ran, he heard a renewed storm of gunfire behind him, as Lèzard and Faust opened up on someone trying to get down to the river from the back of the dacha.

The plan was going just the way he’d hoped.

***

Codreanu huddled on the floor next to Drina, still wearing his shirt but otherwise just in his boxers and socks.  Drina wasn’t wearing that much.  They’d been just getting warmed up when the first shots had sounded outside, and he’d grabbed her and plunged to the floor before bullets started to hammer at the side of the house like hail.  The walls were thick enough that they probably couldn’t penetrate; the dacha was several hundred years old, and the timbers and layers of plaster were thick and solid.  But the windows had shattered under the gunfire, and several rounds had skipped through to smack craters in the wall and ceiling.

“Come on!” he shouted, grabbing Drina by the wrist and starting to crawl toward the stairs.  They had to get out of there.  All his fears had been realized.  Someone knew that he’d sold those unknown men the submarine, and they were coming to tie up loose ends.  Or they were coming to kill him in revenge for what had happened in Mexico.

Codreanu had seen the news.  The whole world had.  And he wasn’t stupid.  He was sure that the sub had somehow been a part of the seizing of the Tourmaline-Delta platform.  He just didn’t know what part.  Nor did he particularly care.  All that mattered was that it had now put his own skin in deadly danger.

Drina was fighting his grip, struggling to stay where she was.  Codreanu just twisted her arm and pulled harder.  “Come on, bitch, unless you want to die!”

But she just whimpered and pulled away some more, and as another burst slashed through the smashed window, Codreanu cursed and shoved her away, before resuming his frantic crawl toward the stairs.

Let the bitch get shot.  It’ll serve her right.  If he felt some passing regret at not having gotten the chance to sample her charms again, it was drowned out by the screaming insistence of his own sense of self-preservation.

Getting down the stairs was difficult; he didn’t want to stand up, but when he tried to crawl headfirst down the steps, he quickly lost control and fell, tumbling down the stairs to rebound painfully off the landing and finish his thumping descent to the ground floor.  Dazed, he looked up.

The Ukrainian girl must have been standing up near the window.  She was on her face on the rug, bloody, puckered holes through her alabaster skin.  Lungu, his pants around his ankles, was huddled against the nearest carved wooden pillar, a Beretta PX4 Storm in his hand.  He was spattered with blood, probably the Ukrainian girl’s.

Gavril Vaduva stormed into the room from the back, a well-worn Vz.61 Skorpion in his hands.  Vaduva had been Codreanu’s chief enforcer and security man for years.  Barrel-chested and beefy, he liked to use his hands instead of guns, when he could.  This was not one of those times.

“Stay down!” Vaduva snapped.

“We have to get out of here!” Lungu all but screamed.  “The boats, on the river…”

“They have the river covered, too,” Vaduva said.  “Iulian and Liviu are dead.  Petre will probably be following them.”  He scrabbled across the floor to peer carefully out the shattered front window toward the gates.  “We can hold the house,” he said.  “They can’t come in here without a fight.  And our friends in the police and the Army will soon clear them out.”

Codreanu wasn’t so sure.  He should have had enough money to ensure his security, but somehow these hitters had gotten through, anyway.  But Vaduva had never steered him wrong before.

He stayed flat on the floor, listening to the cracks and pops of gunshots outside, hoping that his old friend was right.

***

Redrum was sure that the recall signal had not been well-received.  After all, it wasn’t like the Romanians were putting up any sort of coordinated fight.

Yet.

He was down on his belly in the mud and slush, feeling the cold water seeping through his clothes, his M21 aimed in at the gates.  It was time for Phase Two of his plan.

The gunfire died away as the rest of his team broke contact and got away from the dacha, pushing down into the thick brush along the banks of the Dnieper.  Now it was only a matter of waiting.

He suddenly hoped that he hadn’t miscalculated.  He’d figured that Codreanu wouldn’t want to stick around long after his dacha had been shot up, but if he waited long enough for the Transnistrian Army, or worse, the Russian peacekeepers, to get there…

But Redrum had studied what information his employers had gathered on Codreanu before the mission, and the man was nothing if not predictable.  He paid off authorities through cutouts, and generally tried to have as little contact with them himself as possible.  And this time was no different.

Headlights blazed on the other side of the gate, as a pair of Mercedes SUVs raced down the driveway toward him.  Putting the M21’s sights about where the windshield should be, Redrum hoped that the glass wasn’t armored as he squeezed the trigger.

He dumped half the magazine in the first burst, gripping the rifle’s forearm tightly to control the recoil.  Even in the prone, the Zastava had some significant barrel rise.  Flame stabbed in the dark, an identical blast of fire coming from Cat, just to his left.

Glass shattered and the Mercedes swerved sharply, plowing into the low wall next to the gate.  The bumper and grill crumpled, and the car skidded sideways, blocking off the gate altogether.  Redrum poured more bullets into the Mercedes’ flank, emptying the magazine.

Then it was time to go.  Hopefully, his plan had worked, convincing Codreanu that he’d be ambushed if he tried to leave.  They’d have to keep eyes on the place and be ready to move in an instant, but he was fairly confident that Stiletto would give them ample warning to intercept Codreanu if the man tried to break out again.  They should have enough breathing room for the backup team to get to Transnistria.

He just hoped, as he loped away through the dark under the trees, that his employers didn’t send that bastard Flint.


Frozen Conflict is now up for Kindle preorder, releasing May 15th.

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