A man like me is not supposed to have doubts.
Especially not at a time like this, poised in the open fuselage of an Mi-24 assault helicopter, carving a tilted arc around a black square in the grid of lights on Moscow’s south side. This is the worst time to be asking myself questions that can’t be answered. But lately they’re always there, corroding all those things I once believed so intensely. Defend the motherland, secure our southern flank, protect the innocents. Gripping a canvas strap to brace against the force of our turn, I whisper the words in a soundless incantation.
The AMERCO building rises from the darkness, a fiery, open wound torn midway up its south face. Smoke glows in chemical-pink wreaths against the night sky as the helicopter swoops, flares, drops to a hard landing. I leap out while the rotors are still thumping the air in a dying backbeat rhythm.
A policeman jumps in front of me. He shouts something about Chechen terrorists. The blast happened less than an hour ago, he yells, but I already know that and more. I circle my finger in the air impatiently, and he points the way to an improvised command center. Charging away from him toward the burnt skyline, I think that what he should have said is that the first blast is less than an hour old. More explosions might come, because at least two terrorists remain alive.
I am here to change that.
The General’s orders, issued over a scrambled satellite phone, ricochet inside my mind. Do not delay. Do not negotiate. Attack. Dead hostages, destroyed property—whatever the costs, they will be less than the price of capitulation. Orders birthed by hard experience fighting a shadowy war against a faceless enemy. Orders that mean I don’t have the luxury of doubt.
My path brings me within sight of the blown-out half of the sixth story of the targeted high-rise, the Moscow headquarters of an American oil company. Its southern side gapes like a screaming mouth, bent steel beams and metal studs for a tongue, belching smoke. The damage appears worse from here than it did from the helicopter. Moving faster now, I rush past a staging area for the dead and wounded, set back about a hundred meters from the edge of the zone where rounds from the building might reach. Many of the wounded are missing pieces. Limbs, eyes, and, in the case of one shrieking boy, part of his jaw. Each step drives nails into my left foot—the foot that is not there—a phantom pain, the product of being this close to my old adversaries, entering a world of horror, knowing what is to come.
The millennium Moscow bombings in Pushkin Square left 150 dead, the takeover of the House of Culture Theatre 130, just two among so many others I can’t bear to think of them all. The worst for me was the Beslan school massacre, during which 344 died, including 186 children. The architects of many such attacks are dead, some of them killed in operations memorialized by secret medals I’ve tossed into a cigar box, but others have risen to take their place.
The makeshift command post has been established in the first floor lobby of an office building three blocks away from the one that was bombed. I cross a wide street emptied of traffic. Slam open the steel and glass door. A small group huddled around a folding metal table all turn to stare at me.
“Who’s in command?” My voice sounds loud even to my own ears.
“Who wants to know?” Tall, thin, and spectacled, he looks like a haughty professor, although too young to be one. I know his kind at a glance. A staffer, privileged from birth by his family’s social position in the old Soviet order. His uniform and red beret identify him as a special forces officer of the internal troops of the FSB—the principal successor of the KGB—but his kind can be found throughout Russia’s military, political, and bureaucratic elites.
I throw off my overcoat so that he can see my rank on the tunic beneath. He turns his back to me.
“I’ll get with you later, Colonel.” He spits out the words as though he’s trying to rid his mouth of a bad taste.
He whirls to face me, lips twisted into a snarl. “You’ll not speak again until I address you. Is that—”
And I am upon him, wrenching him onto the table. It collapses under his weight and the force of the blow. A laptop crashes to the floor with him as he smacks the marble facedown. I plant the heel of my combat boot on the back of his neck.
“Who is second in command?” I say, so softly that everyone in the room leans forward to hear me.
A florid-faced policeman snaps smartly to attention. “I am, sir. Inspector Barokov.”
The FSB officer under my boot struggles to rise. Or to reach a gun. I pull my Sig, bend down, and crunch it against the side of his head to knock him out. Then nod to the inspector to go on.
Still saluting, he tries to draw himself straighter. “The Chechens took the AMERCO offices on the sixth floor. We didn’t have time to contact them before a bomb blew. We’re lucky the whole building didn’t come down. We don’t know how many are dead, and we can’t get inside.”
He waits for a response. I’m not surprised the building still stands. Its bones were erected during Stalin’s heyday, when labor was forced at the end of a bayonet and buildings were made of steel, brick, and mortar laced with blood. I flick my right hand toward my brow. He drops his salute, but remains at attention.
“Two terrorists are left on the north side of the sixth floor with maybe ten hostages, depending on how many from the office are still alive.”
“How do you know all that?”
“They released a hostage to communicate their demands.”
I could not possibly care any less what the terrorists want. In my mind’s eye I can see the General’s granite features, like a craggy Neanderthal’s, his heavy lips moving. Do not negotiate.
Barokov points with his chin to a woman sitting in a reception chair, doubled up with her hands cupping her face. She appears to be crying. All I can see of her is ash-blond hair and a soot-stained pantsuit with a long rip running down the sleeve. Another uniformed FSB officer, a lieutenant, stands stiffly beside her, but he does nothing to question my authority. He roughly jostles her shoulder to get her attention, and she looks up at him, then turns to face me. She has shell-shocked green eyes wet with tears. She’s overwrought, nervously fingering a blue pendant swinging from a chain around her neck and looking back and forth from me to the officer.
“You heard what he said?” I ask her. “Two terrorists, ten hostages, sixth floor. That’s correct?”
She glances at the officer. “Yes. There were two of them. Both on the sixth floor.” Her Russian is bad, with a heavy American accent.
I turn away, gathering my thoughts. “Show me the building layout.”
Inspector Barokov unrolls faded, tattered blueprints while others set the table upright and then stand aside, looking everywhere except down at the professorial FSB agent oozing blood onto the polished floor.
“They’re here,” he says, pointing to a wing of offices toward the middle of the building. “We might be able to get in here.” His finger lands on a stairwell that I can see is accessible only by entering the building directly below where the terrorists are thought to be.
I grunt and pull the plans closer, searching for a likelier path, sliding my finger along the crinkled paper to an exterior door on the west side of the building. The portal is tucked beneath an overhang six floors below and roughly thirty-five meters from where the hostages are being held.
“That door will be locked,” Barokov says. “And getting there will be a problem. But there are only two of them, so if you can make it inside, the stairs probably won’t be guarded.”
The lock doesn’t bother me. But he’s understating the difficulty of getting there. The path to the door will be a scramble through the terrorists’ field of fire. The darkness might provide cover, but not if they have night-vision goggles, which they probably do. The American military hands them out in Iraq the way it handed out sticks of chewing gum in France after World War II. Except that in Iraq the goggles are then sold to the people trying to kill American soldiers—free enterprise as practiced by Iraqi insurgents.
I page through the plans to the structural sheets. The main building is twelve stories high. It narrows six stories up, the center column rising like a thick candle in the middle of a cake. The sixth-floor ceiling is dropped, with a crawl space above it. Less than one meter of clearance. I roll back several pages of plans to find the one I want, then consider for a moment, trying to burn the drawing into my mind like light onto a photographic plate.
Barokov clears his throat and steps back. The former hostage is still quietly crying. Back at the helicopter a team of five combathardened commandos awaits my orders, and the chatter in my radio, mostly confused shouts, tells me that a separate Vympel antiterrorismunit is deploying nearby. But I can hear the General’s voice in my head, urging me forward. Do not delay. Attack.
I turn away from the group and radio my squad leader, talking in a low voice into my hand-cupped mouthpiece. Instruct him to deploy around the perimeter, storm the building at the first sound of fighting, save the hostages if he can, worry about me last. Then I set aside the radio and strip down to black paratrooper pants and tactical body armor over a long-sleeved, collarless shirt made of a body-hugging synthetic. Slide the Sig into a nylon holster. Adjust the knife hanging below the back of my neck. Take one last look at the plans, and then I’m out the door, where I wait for a moment while my eyes adjust to the pinkish gloom.
“Who the hell was that?” I hear Inspector Barokov say behind me.
Excerpted from Volk's Shadow by Brent Ghelfi
Copyright @ 2008 by Brent Ghelfi
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.