A Nice Place to Die
Kelly Robinson reached the alley just in time to see the woman he was after slip around a corner onto a street at the other end. He started after her -- then pulled up short when he heard the shooting. It was a hit, and Scotty was in trouble. Was Yasmin involved? She couldn't be. But he didn't have time to ponder all of that. He hesitated for only a moment. Yasmin was getting away. Scotty was under fire. He turned back.
Only to find the passage blocked by a pair of men who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
In a glance he knew them for what they were. Evzones. Greek street toughs. The name had originally signified Greek soldiers, but its common usage included any tough guy. Maybe these two were local. Or maybe they'd been imported. Since he didn't put much stock in coincidence, Robinson was confident of one thing -- they were hired help. And they were both armed with knives.
"I know this isn't playing fair, guys," said Robinson, raising the Walther P38. "But I don't have time to play."
"We do not want to play, Amerikanos," said one of the evzones. "We are here to kill you."
They had separated, moving to either side of Robinson, a classic maneuver, and one Robinson knew he had to stop. So he fired, putting a bullet into the leg of one of the Greeks. This one fell back against the wall, clutching his leg. The other one attacked in the same instant. Robinson was ready for him. He just barely eluded the vicious sweep of the knife, latched onto his assailant's wrist in passing and flipped him head over heels. Once the man was on the ground, Robinson used his grip on the man's wrist to leverage him over onto his stomach. A little more pressure, bending the wrist in a direction it wasn't intended, forced the evzone to drop his weapon. Robinson kicked it away. Only then did he release the man. Backing up, he covered them with his pistol.
"Check out of this game," he said harshly. "It's no place for amateurs."
With that he spun and headed back up the alley....
Crouched behind the Sunbeam Alpine, Scott had an idea. The street was at a slight incline; if he could put the car in reverse it would roll backwards -- perhaps as far as the street corner. And if they could get that far they'd be able to dodge down the intersecting street and out of the sniper's line-of-sight. It beat hanging around waiting to get shot.
"Stay low," he told Triakin. "When the car starts to move, move with it. Just remember to keep your head down."
He didn't wait for a response from the scientist. The shooter hadn't fired in almost thirty seconds -- he was waiting for a target. And the streets were empty -- the inhabitants of Kastraki had wisely sought cover. The passenger door was ajar; he crawled across the front seats, cut the ignition, released the parking brake, reached down with his left hand to depress the clutch and used his right to shift into reverse. As he had calculated, the car began to roll backwards. He slid out to rejoin Triakin. They stayed behind the car, crouched low. The shooter fired again, puncturing one of the tires on the driver's side. He'd figured out what Scott was up to, but there wasn't much he could do to stop it. Twenty more feet. Ten. The driverless car began to veer off the road and hit a light pole at the corner. Grabbing Triakin by the arm, Scott made a run for it. The sniper fired again. Scott slammed Triakin against the wall of the building on the opposite side of the intersecting street. They were out of the shooter's sight now. Scott heard police car sirens, and breathed a sigh of relief....
Vulkan's weapon of choice was a Husqvarna 561. It was a .358 Magnum centerfire sniper's rifle with a three-round magazine, 25.5 inch barrel, hand-checkered walnut stock and corrugated butt plate. The weapon's total weight was a little less than eight pounds. The breech pressure was about 20 tons p.s.i., so the muzzle velocity was quite high and the trajectory of a 150-grain bullet was flat. The rifle was mounted with a Bausch & Lomb Balvar 5 scope.
The weapon had never failed Vulkan before. But it was failing him now. He cursed under his breath as he checked the Balvar 5. He'd fired four times, and each time the shot had gone wide to the left. He was trying to adjust, but that wasn't easy -- only with the fourth shot had he hit what he was aiming for, the Sunbeam Alpine's tire. He could only assume that Borodov had tampered with his weapon at some point in time after his final check of the Husqvarna. But why? What game was the cell commander playing?
The police klaxons were much louder now; Vulkan peered over the low parapet that encircled the roof. Two police cars were skidding to a halt at the front of the building; the third was speeding on towards the intersection where the Sunbeam Alpine was resting against the light pole.
Vulkan checked the intersection through the scope. Triakin and the black American agent were out of sight, and they wouldn't be foolish enough to emerge into the open. He saw the third police car stop. Two uniformed men got out. He was surprised to recognize one of them. It was Zandros. What was Zandros...?
Then he swung the rifle slightly to survey the street -- and saw Kelly Robinson coming out of the alley into which he'd disappeared only a moment before.
Vulkan was sighting to the right of his target, trying to adjust, when the policemen burst onto the roof. They had moved more quickly than he'd anticipated. Turning, he fired the Husqvarna from hip level, emptying the magazine with two shots, both of which hit their marks. It was the third policeman who killed the Section 13 assassin with several shots from his service revolver. The impacts of the bullets sent Vulkan reeling over the low parapet. He was dead before he hit the street....
Kelly Robinson was halfway to the intersection when he saw the two policemen emerge from their car and approach Scott and Triakin, who were pressed up against the front of a building. Both policemen brandished saps and struck their unsuspecting victims without warning. Robinson shouted, lengthened his stride -- and then hurled himself to the street as one of the policemen whirled and began shooting at him with a pistol. In seconds both Scott and Triakin had been bundled into the car, and as it sped away, one of the policemen tossed a canister underneath the Sunbeam Alpine. Robinson scrambled to his feet and tried to put as much distance as possible between himself and the car. When the explosion came its force was sufficient to knock him off his feet. Metal shrapnel whistled overhead. By the time he dared look up, the police car was long gone....
Standing on the rim of a steep hillside above Kastraki, Ilya Borodov lowered the Negretti binoculars and allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. From his vantage point he had been able to watch the entire operation unfold. Standing beside him, Chenko breathed a sigh of relief.
"So it went well, Colonel?"
"Of course," replied Borodov. After all, it had been his plan. "Zandros has Triakin, and one of the American agents. Elena did her job well. And Vulkan is dead. All in all, quite satisfactory."
"General Gorinsky will not be pleased," worried the cryptographer.
"There will be nothing he can do about it. Vulkan died valiantly. He did his part in a successful operation to recover Triakin. Vulkan for Triakin -- it is a trade not even Gorinsky would dare question openly."
"What will you do with the American?"
Borodov shrugged. "He may be of some value. We will let Valenten decide his fate."
"But there is a kill-on-sight order...."
"That is Gorinksy's doing. Not Valenten. Besides, I am not a Section 13 assassin."
"And what about Robinson?"
"We cannot concern ourselves with him. He has failed twice. His career is finished. Come, we will be late for our rendezvous with Elena. And then we will return to Ikor and prepare to go home -- at long last."
They climbed into the black Peuguot awaiting them on a nearby road and drove away.
When Nils Larsen walked into his office at the U.S. embassy in Athens the next morning, he was shocked to find Kelly Robinson waiting for him.
"How did you get in here? Why wasn't I informed?"
Robinson, sprawled wearily in an armchair, raised a forefinger to his lips. "Keep your voice down, Lars. You might wake the Marines. I'll tell you my secret if you'll tell me yours."
"What are you talking about?"
"Scotty said you intercepted a KGB message about me from Borodov's cell. I want to know where it originated."
Larsen grimaced. He went to his desk and sat down and kept his hands on the top because he knew Robinson was watching to make sure he didn't reach underneath to hit the emergency button that would summon a squad of the very stern and dedicated Marines assigned to embassy security.
"I heard about Kastraki last night," said Larsen, as though he had a bad taste in his mouth. "What a mess. Where the hell were you when Triakin and Scotty were grabbed?"
"Chasing a ghost. Now, about that location...."
"No way. You're out of this, Kelly. We didn't really care about losing Triakin. Sure, the Israelis still wanted him, and it would have been a feather in our cap to deliver him, but we had all the information we wanted after the debriefing. The main thing was to tie up loose ends. Maybe smoke out the Borodov cell. Losing Scotty wasn't in the game plan."
"I'll get him back. Just tell me where he is."
Larsen sighed, stared at Robinson for a moment. "You're a mess."
"Yeah well, you try riding on top of the train all the way from Kalambaka to Athens without getting a little travel-worn."
"The signal came from the island of Thera. We believe Borodov to be in the old castle of Ikor. We can only hope it will take Borodov a little while to make arrangements to get back into the USSR. Because I need twenty-four hours before we'll be ready to go in and try to recover Scott. I have to use a private contractor. The Department won't risk more assets."
"I'll get him back," said Robinson, heaving himself up out of the chair. "I'm not an asset anymore."
Larsen looked skeptical. "Well, you can try. And Kelly...."
Robinson paused on his way out the door.
"Don't bother coming back without Scotty."
Robinson nodded, and left the office.
The old Greek fisherman, his face as creased and weathered as the rocks above the cove into which he had skillfully guided his caique, wasn't getting any fishing done today. But he had a pocketful of drachmas, courtesy of Kelly Robinson, so he didn't mind. Chain-smoking Xanthas, he expertly maneuvered the craft as close to the base of the precipice as he dared, then nodded at his son, who lowered the brown canvas sail. He spoke to Robinson, who looked inquiringly at the younger man.
"He says beware the kallikantzari," said the latter, with an apologetic smile. "The demons. There are many in this place."
Robinson nodded. "Tell me about it." In times of danger his senses seemed particular acute; he was assailed by the pungent aroma of the sea, and of the old wood of the boat and the acrid fragrance of the old man's Greek cigarette. Sitting in the stern, he was running a length of rope provided by the fisherman through the trigger guard of his Walther P38, behind the trigger, attaching the other end of the rope to a belt loop at the back of his jeans. Then he snugged the pistol under the waistband at the small of his back. He'd already shed shirt and shoes, so he was ready when the fisherman gave the signal that indicated the caique was as close to the rocks as he was prepared to take it. When the signal came, Robinson flipped over the stern and plunged into the water. With strong strokes that defied the push and pull of the currents trapped in the cove, he reached the base of the cliff and found a handhold. Only then did he look back -- to see that the caique was leaving the cove at a fair clip, under full sail.
He looked up and was unable to see the rim that was his destination, but he'd already calculated that it was a good five hundred feet above the surface of the sea. And at the crest of this precipice was the ancient castle of Ikor. He hoped Scotty was there.
Robinson began to climb. All the techniques, all the lessons he had learned at the Ranger school at Fort Benning kicked in. An experienced climber could move up a rock face that he could not actually cling to. It was a matter of seeking counterpoise between one point of imbalance and another, defying gravity, fingers and toes finding purchase on little ripples or creases of rock that even a serin could not perch upon. The secret was not to stop, particularly at a point of imbalance, and not to press himself against the stone, which was the natural inclination. A natural -- but fatal -- inclination, because to do so cost him leverage. Robinson did not look down, did not let fear take charge, knowing that if it ever did it would weaken him, would mean he did not make the tension foothold or handhold with conviction, and then he would fall.
A hundred feet above the cove he found a fissure, a crack that reached diagonally up the face from his left to his right, and he made good use of it until it petered out a hundred feet further up. Then he found himself confronted by his first real obstacle -- a lip of stone he'd been unable to identify from below. Wedging the heels of his feet into the tapering end of the fissure, he reached out and up and pressed the palms of his hands against the underside of the lip. Maintaining constant pressure, he moved his hands further out until he could curl his long, powerful fingers around the edge of the lip, and even as gravity pulled his body away from the cliff face he used that to kick away and curl his entire body up and over the protrusion, letting his weight slide to the right, seeking purchase with his left foot on the lip and groping upwards with his right hand to find the handhold that was the key to his survival at that moment. He found it, and a moment later was balanced on the lip, taking a deep breath before continuing his climb.
From that point on it was easier; the cliff rose at about fifteen points off the vertical, and was very weathered, with numerous holds available to him. Twenty feet from the rim he found a ledge, and paused there, catching his breath and, for the first time, looking down. He expertly dismantled the Walter P38 and dried all the parts on his pants leg, including the eight rounds in the magazine. Only when this was done did he scramble the remaining twenty feet to the rim, pistol in his grasp. The base of the castle wall was only a few feet away. He moved along it thirty yards, coming finally to an opening about three feet square. Crouching, he peered into the darkness. The crawlspace angled steeply upward, and he assumed this had once been used for dumping refuse into the sea below. Once again he climbed, wedging hands and feet against the sides of the space, well aware that if he slipped and slid down the hole he would be catapulted right out into space for a long, probably fatal, descent to the sea. Thirty feet along he came to a heavy grate of strap iron, which gave way when he pushed, and a moment later he found himself in an empty stone room with a cold hearth at one end and a heavy-timbered door at the other. He tried the door, muttering a prayer under his breath. The door wasn't locked, swung outward on squeaking iron hinges.
He was in.
Borodov was at his desk, stuffing maps, dossiers, communiques and the gilt-framed photo of his family into a brown attache case, with Elena standing nearby, when Chenko entered the vast, vaulted great hall.
"The helicopter will be here in ten minutes, Colonel," said Chenko. "I just heard from them."
"It's about time," said Borodov, irritated. "They are several hours late."
"I radioed the plane at Lesbos to inform them of the delay."
Borodov nodded. The chopper would take them to a floatplane which would transport them to Istanbul, where they would transfer to a Russian freighter bound for the Black Sea. A short voyage would carry them to Sebastopol.
"I have also received a message from headquarters, Colonel, regarding the American agent."
Borodov stopped what he was doing and looked up. "What does it say?"
Chenko was grim. "General Valenten orders you to terminate him."
Borodov nodded. "Yes, of course. A bone tossed to Gorinsky, so that he won't feel so bad about losing Vulkan. 'I fear that few die well who die in battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?'"
"Shekspira?" asked Chenko.
"Of course. Very well. Go tell Zandros. He will take care of it. Then bring Triakin to the yard."
Scott was hanging by his wrists, which were encased in thick iron shackles chained to a wall of stone, and it hurt, because he could barely touch the floor with his toes. Triakin, being shorter, was in worse shape; similarly trussed up to Scott's right, his feet dangled a good six inches from the floor. He'd tried to find purchase with his heels, but the wall had been worn smooth as glass by centuries-worth of prisoners who had no doubt tried to do the same thing. But Scott forgot all about the pain when he heard the clatter of the latch on the door to the cell, which then swung open to allow a burly Greek and a slight, boyish-looking Russian enter. The Russian looked a little pale. The Greek didn't look anything at all. His features might as well have been carved from the same stone on the wall from which Scott was hanging. But there wasn't any question what the pistol in his hand meant.
"What, not even a last cigarette?" asked Scott, in Greek.
"You do not smoke," said the Russian, in English. "I have read your dossier."
"Well, that's true, yes. But I'm willing to start if it'll get me a last cigarette."
"I am sorry," said Chenko, sincerely. "We have received our orders."
"Then stop talking," said Scott coldly. "And get it over with."
He closed his eyes.
A shot rang out. Then another.
Scott opened his eyes -- in time to see Zandros whirl towards the door. The body of the guard who had been posted outside the cell, one of the Greeks in the Zandros apparat, came into view as it fell across the threshold. Then Robinson came into view, in the corridor beyond, and he and Zandros exchanged fire at point-blank range, the gunshots blending into one loud crashing percussion. Zandros was hurled backwards. His pistol skittered across the stone floor. Chenko hesitated, then made for it. But the hesitation cost him dearly. Robinson stepped over the body of Zandros and kicked Chenko in the face as the Russian bent down. The impact sent Chenko sprawling, out cold.
"What took you?" asked Scott hoarsely.
Robinson was frisking the dead guard, coming up with a skeleton key. "Hey, at least it didn't take me two months."
"I could have found you in less time," said Scott. "They just wouldn't let me look."
"Excuses, excuses," said Robinson, using the key to unshackle his partner.
Scott picked up Zandros' pistol. He could hear, very faintly, the familiar sound of a helicopter -- high up on the wall from which he had, until recently, been dangling, was a narrow lateral opening that allowed a modicum of fresh air and light into the room.
"Is that our ride?"
"No," said Robinson curtly, releasing Triakin.
"You're still alive," said the scientist bitterly. "How disappointing."
"Just not your year, is it, pal?"
"So how do we get out of here?" asked Scott.
"Do I have to come up with all the answers?" asked Robinson with mock exasperation.
Scott shook his head. "Man, some Dudley Doright you'd make."
Robinson gave Triakin a not-so-gentle shove towards Scott. "Here. Take him out. I've got unfinished business."
"Right." Scott knew there was no point in arguing. Besides, Robinson was already out the door.
Standing in the castle yard, neither Borodov nor Elena saw Robinson immediately -- they were both peering up at the Kamov helicopter that had just appeared above the castle battlements, a monstrous loud mechanical insect black against the cerulean blue Aegean sky. She saw him first -- some primordial instinct for survival made her look around -- and she shouted a warning to Borodov that was swept away by the tumult caused by the descending chopper, but she grabbed his arm and turned him, and when Borodov saw the American he reacted instantly. Elena was still in her Yasmin Liraz disguise, wearing the fatigue jacket and faded jeans and she had not changed her hair. Borodov reached his right hand into a coat pocket and brandished a Steyr automatic even as his left arm snaked around Elena's neck. The stranglehold secured, he used her body as a shield, put the barrel of the Steyr to her temple.
Robinson dropped into a shooter's crouch, both arms extended, left hand supporting his gun hand.
"Drop it!" shouted Borodov, "Or I will kill her."
He began backing up as the helicopter descended to the yard, leaning against the whip of the air currents produced by the Kamov's rotors. "Kill him," he said, his lips brushing Elena's ear. "He won't shoot you. He thinks you're Liraz. Kill him now, Reyanovich!"
Frightened, she groped under the fatigue jacket, bringing out the Makarov semi-automatic, taking aim at Robinson.
Robinson fired -- once, twice.
Shocked, Borodov stepped away, letting her lifeless body fall at his feet. Rage twisting at his features, he raised the Steyr and got off two shots that sent Robinson diving to the right. Then he made a break for the helicopter. Rolling and coming up one knee, Robinson drew a bead and squeezed the trigger. He had Borodov dead to rights. But the Walther was empty. He only had the one clip. Standing up, he watched with helpless frustration as the Kamov rose into the sky and veered away sharply, disappearing over the battlements, carrying Ilya Borodov to safety.
Suddenly weary, Robinson walked over to the woman's body. He knelt, turned her over, gazed at the face that was too much like that of the woman he had loved. But it wasn't her. Heaving a long sigh, and shaking his head at the waste of it all, he closed her sightless eyes. Taking the chain from around his neck -- the one that bore the delicate ring of gold filigree that had once belonged to Yasmin Liraz -- he placed it in the dead woman's hand.
Then he stood up and walked away.