Kildar, p.2

Kildar, page 2



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  "Shut your fool old mouth," Eugenius said, pushing Katrina towards the kitchen and taking his place at the table. "Let us give thanks that we have food for the winter and eat. This matter is closed."

  * * *

  The snow on the road was getting thicker and there were hidden patches of ice. Mike considered that fact as he looked up the road in the direction the man had pointed. The road, just beyond the farms, led up a narrow defile, twisting back and forth in parallel with a large, ice-choked stream. Fortunately, if he went off the road it probably wouldn't kill him and even in this weather he should be able to walk up to Alerrso or whatever. There was a narrow side road that went up the mountain to the east, but he was pretty sure that went nowhere and, given the conditions, he was in no mood to go exploring.

  He engaged the transmission and headed for the first switchback, carefully. Normally, with a slope this steep, the only way to make it would be to get a run-up on the flats. But with the twists he was just going to have to hope the traction control and snow tires could give him some purchase.

  The road headed upwards at about a six-degree incline, then bent sharply right. He made the turn, fishtailing only slightly but feeling the traction control reduce the power to the wheels as he slid. The more or less straightaway up to the right was, if anything, steeper than the approach and he pressed the pedal to the floor, feeling the traction control slip in and out as the car labored up the snow-covered road. He wasn't sliding much on that section but there were a couple of times when he thought he was going to come to a complete stop.

  At the next switchback he backed and filled carefully, occasionally having to turn the control off to spin out of a hole, then lined up the next run. This time he backed up right to the wall of the switchback and gunned the engine, using the traction control to get some speed up before he hit the slope. This seemed to help but about half the way up the car started to fishtail, hard.

  The traction control started to engage but he could feel the car spinning out to the left. On the right side was sheer cut rock and on the other about a fifty-foot drop. Instead of turning into the skid, which probably would have dumped him over the drop as the car went across the road, he increased it, turning the wheel slightly to the left. The maneuver caused a crunching sound as his right quarterpanel hit the rock wall, but the rebound from the "accident" pushed his rear end back onto the road and straightened the vehicle back out without either tossing him over the side or slowing him noticeably. The action was half instinctive but worked perfectly. The damage to the quarterpanel was hardly noticeable on the battered Mercedes.

  Somewhat shaken, he made it to the next switchback and considered the next slope. The stream was to his rear, descending through a series of falls to the valley below and, at this point, actually running over the road. The ice of the stream meant he couldn't back up as far and get a run at the next rise but it didn't look as steep as the last two. He got a little speed up and hit the slope, pressing the accelerator down and letting the traction control handle the skids as much as possible.

  Not only was that slope easier, it was somewhat shorter, and he quickly reached the top, not even slowing for the turn back to the left. He followed the road around, cautiously, finally reaching the top of the switchbacks.

  There the road flattened out in either another upland valley or a pass. He couldn't be sure which since he only had about ten meters of visibility in the increasing storm. But he could vaguely see buildings ahead. Suddenly, with a swirl of wind, the barely glimpsed buildings disappeared. But he knew he'd found the town and drove forward, cautiously, since the road had more or less disappeared. In a few moments he began to see the buildings again and picked his way to the center of them, apparently driving down what passed for a main street.

  The buildings vaguely visible to either side had the standard local look; most of them were one to two stories, built of dressed stone and looking as old as the mountains they inhabited. Most had trellis-covered porches to the side, currently covered in snow, and chimneys that belched a mixture of coal and wood smoke. From time to time he got a glimpse of the stream, which followed the line of the wooded hillside to the west. The oldest buildings were on that side of the road and seemed to follow the line of the stream. There were a few larger and more substantial buildings, including one that had a small sign indicating a branch of the Bank of Tbilisi and another that appeared to be some sort of store. A few of the houses had lights in the windows but nothing that looked like either a place to stay or get fuel.

  At last he saw what was clearly the local tavern, its windows bright and a few rusted old cars and trucks parked in a small snow-covered lot bordering the stream. The building was two stories tall, dressed stone with a flat roof and apparently very old. By the parking lot, between the building and the stream, he could see a covered area with some tables. It wasn't in use at the moment, but it would be a pleasant place in better seasons.

  There didn't appear to be anything along the lines of order in the parking lot so he just picked a spot not too far from the tavern and stopped the Mercedes, breathing deeply and slowly to get his nerves back. After a moment of that he shut the car down, shrugged on a heavy parka, grabbed his jump bag and headed for the tavern.

  The door to the tavern was heavy wood and apparently stuck fast. He finally dragged it open and then closed it as fast as he could to shouts from the interior that quickly died. When he'd gotten it dogged back down he looked around the room, nodding to the locals.

  There were about fifteen men in the room, most dressed in the rough clothing of laborers. They regarded him silently for a moment, then went back to talking in low tones of obvious surprise. It was apparent that the arrival of a half-frozen American in the middle of the night was soon to be the talk of the town.

  The room was square with a serving counter on the left, a door to the rear and two doors on the left leading, presumably, to the kitchens. There were a few small windows on the walls but they were tightly shuttered against the snow. There was a fireplace on the far wall and a potbellied stove in the center. The seats by both were in use so Mike headed to the right side of the room, dumping his jump bag on an open table, then pulling out a rickety chair and sitting down. He was dog weary from the ride, the stress as much as anything, and he could feel it bleeding off. He wasn't sure if this was the sort of place that served you or if he should try to find the host or whatever, but for the moment he was willing to just sit in relative safety.

  He looked up, though, as he heard rapid footsteps approaching and nodded at the woman in a dress and apron. She was in her forties, probably, not too bad looking but nothing compared to the people he'd seen in the valley. The phrase "rode hard and put up wet" came to mind; the life of running a tavern in the back country of Georgia probably wasn't conducive to maintaining youth.

  "Food?" Mike asked in Russian. "Beer?" The beer in Russia was generally awful, but he'd never picked up the taste for either the local wines or vodka. Georgia wasn't noted for its beers either, but he could always hope.

  "Stew," the woman said, nodding. "Or sava. Beer, yes. Bread, cheese?"

  "Stew," Mike said, nodding. "Beer, bread, cheese. What is sava?"

  "Is meat," the woman said, shrugging. "Is hit."

  Mike wasn't sure what that meant but he nodded agreement.

  "Sava," he said, his stomach rumbling.

  "Ruskiya?" the woman asked, looking at him curiously.

  "American," Mike said. "Traveling."

  "Speak English," the woman replied, smiling broadly. "Little."

  "Speak Russian," Mike said, grinning. "Little. No Georgian."

  "Nobody speak Georgian," the woman said, smiling still. "Get food, beer."

  "Thank you," Mike said. "Am very hungry, very tired."

  "Is bed," the woman said, pointing overhead.

  "I accept," Mike said, nodding. "Petrol?"

  "Is down street," the woman said in English, pointing further into town. "Is close."

"Not tonight," Mike said. "Not with this," he added, waving outside.

  The woman chuckled at that and left, headed for the rear. She took the door behind the serving counter so presumably the other door led to "bed."

  Mike spent the time while she was getting his meal to check out the group in the room a bit more carefully. Most of the men were dark and burly from work, and appeared to be mostly drinking beer in tankards rather than wine, which was unusual in the area. There were a few plates around but the general intent seemed to be drinking as if there was no tomorrow. They were checking him out as well but they didn't seem unfriendly, just curious. They also were generally quiet, most of the talk in low tones.

  The exception was a table at the back where a heavyset man with dark hair was holding forth apparently at the top of his lungs. Mike figured he was one of those guys who just always had to talk as if they were shouting from one mountain to another. The three guys gathered at the table had the look of toadies and nodded at everything the man said. He was a bit better dressed than the rest but didn't exactly look prosperous. Whoever the guy was, he was a pain in the ass. He was loud enough that it made it hard to think and Mike had a lot of thinking to do.

  He wasn't sure where he was headed or what he was going to do. Being rich had always sounded great. And in plenty of ways it was better than being poor. But Mike had always had something that he was working towards. He was used to struggling, pushing his limits, excelling. Now he found himself in a situation where to excel, to stand out, was tantamount to a death sentence. Not only for himself but, potentially, for anyone he was involved with. He'd killed senior terrorists, foiled operations and done it outside the "normal" parameters. Generally, despite their effectiveness, special operations personnel weren't major targets except "in-country." Terrorists didn't, generally, track down and attack spec-ops guys, much less their families. But there were half a dozen fatwahs against him, personally, even if they didn't know exactly who he was. He needed something to do but at the same time he needed to go to ground. Somewhere that he'd be reasonably secure.

  Georgia probably wasn't the place. The Chechens were starting to use eastern Georgia as their personal stomping grounds and the government was half in shambles. Terrorists, drugs, guns and sex slaves moved through the country in a constant stream. He'd be much better off in a place like, say, Kansas. But the only thing in Kansas was wheat. Okay, and spectacular blondes. But he liked wild countries like Georgia. They just had more soul than Peoria. Or New York, which thought it had soul but didn't realize it was butter substitute.

  Maybe Nepal. Decent army, retired Gurkhas. Find some place like this and settle down until the terrorists either got reduced or found somebody else to target. If they ever forgot the guy called "Ghost."

  The woman came back out bearing a platter covered with mugs and plates. She served the guy at the rear first, handing him and his three cronies mugs, picking up their empties and answering a question directed at her from the man. She answered it loudly enough that most of the people in the tavern could hear it and Mike caught the word "American" among the words.

  After that she came over to Mike's table and set down a mug of beer followed by a bowl of stew and a platter with slices of dark brown bread and yellowish cheese.

  "What your name?" the woman asked in English, sitting down and picking up a slice of cheese.

  "Mike. What's yours?"

  "Irina," she answered, considering him curiously. "How you come here?"

  "Got lost," Mike said, shrugging and spooning up some of the stew. It was oddly seasoned but delicious. "Very good stew. Was headed for Bakuriana. Must have taken a wrong turn in the snow. Almost out of petrol."

  "You lucky," Irina said, shaking her head. "Snow very bad."

  "Very bad," Mike admitted, nodding. "Good car. Lucky."

  "You stay?" the woman asked.

  "Until snow clears," Mike said. "Roads clear."

  "Hah!" Irina spat, laughing. "Spring."

  "No plows?" Mike asked, surprised.

  "Some," the woman said, shrugging. "Maybe couple weeks. Bad snow. More come."

  "Crap," Mike said. "I guess I stay."

  "Not much do," Irina said, gesturing around the room. "Get drunk. Talk. No talk Georgian."

  "Used to being alone," Mike replied, shrugging. "Have books."

  "I get sava," the woman said, standing up.


  Mike ate about half the stew, then picked up the mug of beer, taking a sip. When he did he was pleasantly surprised, pulling it back and looking at it carefully. It was just about the best beer he'd ever had in his life, full and rich without being heavy or bitter. There was just a hint of something other than hops and barley in it but he couldn't quite place it. It was good enough that he took a deep pull and then set it down. Getting drunk his first night in town wouldn't be a good idea.

  The sava when it was served turned out to be grilled strips of pounded meat, probably mutton, spiced and excellent, something like the meat you got in "gyros" in the States. He recognized some of the same seasoning as the stew. It was one of the better meals he'd had in the last few months.

  Mike finished off all the food and the beer and realized he was exhausted. He knew he could keep going for days but it made more sense to get some sleep.

  "You said you have a room?" Mike asked when Irina came back filling mugs from a pitcher.

  "Upstairs," she repeated. "Small. Is okay."

  "I think I'll head up," Mike said. "How much for the food and beer?"

  "One ruble for food," the woman said. "Three rubles for room. You get bags?"

  The combined sum came to about seventy-five cents. If the room even had a bed it was going to be a very cheap place to stay.

  "I get bags," Mike said, pulling out some of the Georgian rubles he'd exchanged for at the border. He handed her five rubles and stood up. "For room and food. And tip. Thank you."

  When he'd gotten his duffel, Irina showed him where the bathroom was and then his room. It was small, at the back of the building and both narrow and low, with a small shuttered window. It was also freezing; there wasn't any source of heat in the room and the stone walls radiated cold. The bed looked fairly comfortable with newly washed sheets but he knew it was probably filled with bedbugs. The door had a latch, which would last for about one kick. But one kick was about all he'd need if it came to cases.

  After Irina had left he stripped the sheets and blankets off the bed and sprayed the mattress and sheets with bedding spray, covering all the surfaces until they were slightly wet and paying special attention to the seams. He then rolled out the small sleeping bag in his duffel on the mattress. He dumped his duffel on top of the bag and then sprayed the floor thoroughly with insect spray, hoping to get most of the fleas. He'd lived in enough third-world hovels in the service to know the creepy-crawlies you got in places like this. Last he pulled the pillowcase off the pillow, sprayed the pillow thoroughly and covered it with a case he carried. He'd gotten lice one time in Thailand and had a mordant fear of the damned things. Fleas and bedbugs just left you with bites; lice stayed around forever.

  All that done he changed into a set of sweats and socks, slid his .45 under the pillow, slipped into the fart sack and drifted off to sleep in a haze of chemical protectants.

  Chapter Two

  Mike had a hard time orienting himself the next morning. The room was dark and cold and there wasn't much in the way of sounds. There was a faint light coming from the cracks in the shutters, though, and after a moment he could recall the night before. He lay in bed for a moment, dreading the cold, then rolled out of the fart sack.

  The stone floor was freezing, even through the wool socks he was wearing, but he ignored it, grabbed his money-belt, pistol and jump bag and headed for the bathroom.

  The bathroom was small and intensely European. The shower was on a long hose with nowhere to hang it and all the fixtures looked as if they were from an American home in the 1930s, but he'd gotten used to that
. He performed his morning ablutions, careful not to drink the water and washing his mouth out with a small bottle of bourbon after brushing, then headed back to his room. He considered repacking but given the weather report, and the brief glance he'd gotten out the window in the bathroom, he wasn't leaving anytime soon. So he dressed warmly, holstered his pistol, grabbed his jump bag and headed downstairs.

  There was a young, good-looking girl—brunette and just starting to bloom—sweeping the tavern when he walked in. She was startled by his appearance, letting out a tiny squeak of surprise, then nodding and darting into the back room. Mike took a seat by the potbellied stove in the empty room and waited in hopes of service.

  After a moment a short, slim man came out of the back, wiping his hands on an apron.

  "I'm Stasys," the man said in Russian, shaking Mike's hand. "I own place and cook. You like room?"

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