3. THE NEW TRINITY
True to their word, the boys from Vladivostok had brought their own guns.
The sky was brightening uncomfortably fast, but Kaspar and Gleb knelt on the grass and began dividing the rucksacks’ contents into two large backpacks as if they had all day. Yuri was stung by the notion they had, in fact, paid the garrison commander that much, and that he should have held out for more money himself.
The first bag had a party’s worth of gourmet snacks, various camping supplies, and at least a hundred tiny bottles of liquor, the kind they served on jet airliners. The second contained a French press coffee maker, what looked like a kilo of Turkish dark roast, and one of those compact video cameras preferred by extreme sports athletes – or amateur porn makers. The latter, in Yuri’s opinion, seemed more in line with young Sokolov’s demeanor than crunching numbers in a ledger. But he was no expert in either really, so he held his tongue.
The third bag held the weapons.
Gleb had no sooner unzipped it when Nikolai elbowed his way in and dug out a fancy Heckler and Koch VP9 pistol, brandishing it sideways like a street thug on American TV. Yuri bit the inside of his cheek to keep the scorn off his face.
Kaspar and Gleb had brought ugly little futuristic sub-machineguns that they clipped to bungee slings under their jackets, secret agent style. Everything smelled of lubricant and new plastic. There was enough ammunition to chop down several trees.
The former soldier in Yuri sized up their weapons: small caliber, high rate of fire, sloppy past twenty meters…
Bullet hoses, he concluded. Look sexy, but they lock up tighter than a duck’s ass at the first hint of dirt. Video game shooters. Useless for the Zone.
The taste of ashes grew stronger. Zakhar’s warning was unfolding before Yuri’s eyes like a horrid prophesy.
The urge to walk away swept through him like a stiff wind. He could slip into the trees and disappear…
The next perimeter patrol would catch them. Technically, no one was allowed to come this close to the Cordon, but so long as they were still outside the wire and young Sokolov had told the truth, the three of them to get off easy. Vladivostok had laid out enough cabbage. A baton upside the head, a couple hours in a cell maybe, but they’d walk. No harm, no foul.
Of course Yuri’s days as a guide would be finished. To abandon a tour was the ultimate black mark. He would have start all over, move far away, to a city probably, with its herds of people and traffic, noise and garbage and sooty air. At his age, no degree, he’d have to drive a truck or take scut work in a factory to pay the bills. He and his wife crammed in a tiny concrete apartment in a drab complex with a thousand others just like it… No more forest at dawn. No more slipping through the Cordon at midnight. No more drinks at Yakov’s bar after a run. No more haggling with Zakhar. No more terror, no more wonder, no more Zone, ever again.
Yuri spit on the ground. That would not do.
Call Yuri Bonyev a smuggler, a thief, a moon curser – call him a man of his word. His wife would say he had chained himself to a fool’s dream, to misguided integrity, but really, there was no nine to five for him. He already had a job – Zone guide – and Yuri Bonyev was no quitter.
Besides, Vladivostok had his name. They knew where he lived, what he looked like. It might take a while, but trouble would catch up. Like it always does.
Yuri spit again and watched the three men as the deep blue of night melted into dawn. Leaving wasn’t an option, not really.
He jostled his own back pack to settle it on his shoulders. Sokolov may be footing the bill but they were in Yuri’s world now. He was the boss here, and bribes or no, it was time to move.
Yuri straightened Sasha’s sling across his chest and was about to speak when Nikolai interrupted.
“Look at this muzhik, will you? Fucking AK, he thinks we’re in Donbas.” He gestured at Sasha with his pistol. “Where’d you get that? Off the back of an army truck?”
“No,” Yuri replied. “I got it in Syria. Fighting Kurds.”
“Oooooh, the old goat shot up some rug merchants in Damascus. Well, the streets are a different game. Best keep up with the times.”
“These are not your streets, Mr. Sokolov,” Yuri started. “And the Zone is not a game. You should have more respect – – ”
“I should, I should, I should…” Like a little boy in big shoes, Sokolov tried on a world-weary laugh. It didn’t fit and he didn’t notice.
Instead, he shook his head as if Yuri were the world’s stupidest man. “You Ukry are soft from the hat down.”
He waved his pistol at the trees, toward the fence. “This place, this Zone of yours is not magic. It’s nothing. Like Church, maybe something powerful happened back in the day, but all that’s left now is stories and fences. And old goats like you cashing in on them.”
Nikolai picked up his video camera in his other hand, held it and his pistol up like Show-and-Tell, and Yuri was a retarded toddler. “These right here, technology and firepower. Add money, and you’ve got the new Trinity.”
He turned to his two big shadows. “Am I right?” he demanded.
Kaspar and Gleb nodded. They had mastered the art of looking interested.
A thousand replies buzzed in Yuri’s head like bees, but he managed to keep them from slipping out. “We need to leave now,” he said instead. “The morning patrol will be here soon and we shouldn’t.”
Nikolai Sokolov mock bowed. “Whatever you say, Mr. Best in the Area. Believe, me, I’m dying to get this over with even more than you.”
The best investment Yuri had ever made was Sasha. Cliché as it sounded, the AK74 had saved his ass a dozen times over, more so in the Zone than Syria. And Syria had been war. Cleaned and oiled after every run, Yuri had spent hundreds on custom parts and upgrades. His wife complained the gunsmith saw more of his money than she did – which might have been true, if Yuri was being honest.
His second best investment was a subscription to Zakhar’s Monthly. Six pages of flimsy newsprint, it had recipes for fried, vodka-infused SPAM, reports of mutant sightings and artifact finds, and was perfect for toilet paper. Plus, coded into the sunrise/sunset table on the back page was that month’s schedule for the Zone Enforcement patrols and drone flyovers.
Rumor was the Turk received copies straight from the garrison commander’s desk. God only knew how he managed that, but the information was never wrong. It was expensive, the subscription, but worth every kopek, seeing as the alternative was cell in Vladimir Central or ‘an unfortunate incident while resisting arrest.’
So Yuri spent the rest of the day leading his charges through the countryside in a game of ‘Dash and Duck’: short, fast spurts from cover to cover.
It had rained the night before and the bugs were out in full force. The sun was hot. Steam rose from the damp soil. There was no wind or clouds.
Like all good foot soldiers, Kaspar and Gleb endured silently. Like every bad officer Yuri had ever encountered, their boss never missed an opportunity to complain.
Sokolov sprayed bug repellent around his head and shoulders. He was on his second can. “Hey old man, this place has roads, no?”
It was early afternoon. The four of them were resting in a stand of pines, rust-red foliage murmuring overhead. “Yes, it does,” Yuri replied, eyeing the sky.
“So why are we not taking the fucking car?” Sokolov snapped. “You trying to prove a point? Show me I’m getting my money’s worth following your wrinkly old ass?”
Yuri checked his tone before he answered. “No. I’m trying to stay out of prison. There’s a drone overhead right now.”
Yuri pointed up. “Hear that?”
The three men cocked their heads to listen and out of the rinsed blue sky came the faraway sound of a lawnmower engine.
“That’s a Pchela 1T,” Yuri lectured. “That bee may not have a sting but it has very sharp eyes. It would spot us in a heartbeat.”
Sokolov frowned but his ego was too brittle to give up easily. “So? We paid the Major to look the other way.”
Yuri took a moment to check his Vostok before answering and wondered if he still had aspirin in his kit bag. This one was giving him a real headache.
“So all surveillance footage is monitored at the big Pervomajsk base north of Kiev,” he explained. “Not locally. Any unauthorized incursion is logged in an official incident report and tagged by GLONASS coordinates before being handed off to the nearby garrison. To the Major. It wouldn’t matter how much money you threw at him; he would have no choice but to respond. Troops would be on us in less than thirty minutes.”
Gleb spoke up. “I told you, Boss. Best in the area.”
Nikolai Sokolov scowled but his defiance drained away. He fished his phone out of his jacket pocket instead and sagged against a tree trunk. “Maybe I’ll get my money’s worth after all,” he groused, and fell silent, swiping at the screen.
Both Kaspar and Gleb caught Yuri’s attention. Each gave a small, satisfied nod.
Yuri nodded back and looked up into the sky, listening as the engine sounds faded. Perhaps this run won’t be so bad after all, he thought.
Even as that notion jelled in his head, Yuri pictured the Turk behind his counter. He had a roll of 1,000-ruble notes in his hand and they were crumbling even as he counted them and the dust from his thick fingers fell like tiny snow onto a new set of BN-4 Night Hawk binoculars, more and more and more until it covered it like the hump of a shallow grave in winter.
“Well shit,” Yuri muttered.