by Derrick Perkins
Captain XO's note: This is the second narrative mission, transcribed by Derrick Perkins to appear. We hope you enjoy the continuing adventures of Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux, the Military Attaché of the Renegade.
Cold permeated the single room safe house. Under three layers of clothing, Joe Miller shivered. Outside the frosty glass of the window, snow fell on a nearly empty street. The vacant storefronts across the way seemed to sag under the weight of the light dusting. Donetsk was dying, if it wasn’t dead already.
“I get the impression we’re waiting,” he said, half-admiring the billow of fog his breath made.
Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux smiled thinly.
“There is fun in the waiting, my friend,” he said. “Anticipation is half the pleasure.”
Miller nodded sullenly. There was not much pleasure in freezing, that much he knew. When was the last time he had felt so cold? There were those ski trips in Vermont when he was a kid, nothing like taking a face full of snow after hitting a patch of New England ice. Maybe the night he forgot the T shut down before 1 a.m. while in college and had to trudge back to campus in February after an evening on the town.
“We couldn’t have waited in a hotel? One with a spa, maybe?”
“My friends abhor ostentatiousness,” de Curieux. “Hotels also have ledgers, records easily accessed, and far too many extra sets of eyes.”
He motioned at the window.
“Not that there are many five star accommodations left in this town anyway.”
“I hadn’t been keeping up on the news from here,” he said. “I hadn’t realized.”
“War is terrible enough, it does not keep well,” de Curieux said. “Reminds me of East Berlin in a way.”
Miller stopped asking questions. They never led anywhere satisfying with de Curieux anyway. Instead, he resumed his watch out the window.
Darkness was falling on the city, long forgotten by all but its inhabitants and the ideologues orchestrating its descent into purgatory. Unlike an American town, it did not burst into illumination as street lamps, porch lights, and neon signs greeting the coming of night. Donetsk just faded away.
Until a pair of automobile headlights flared in the distance, cutting through the gloom. Eventually, Miller could make out the sputter of a car engine. The tensioner was bad, he thought.
“These your friends?” he asked hopefully. “I can pull out the timing cover and take a look if it helps our cause.”
“I doubt they would have the parts to make a repair, though your offer of assistance is noted,” de Curieux replied, getting up. He stamped his boot-clad feet a few times. “You should prepare yourself. If all goes well, this will be a fairly rapid exchange of information.”
“Your dossier was strangely quiet on that part,” Miller said, standing. “Can we go somewhere warm afterward? A day in a building without heat or power is about long enough.”
“I have arranged for suitable accommodations until our extraction,” de Curieux said while the car came to a stuttering halt outside the building. Three men got out and quietly made their way to the door. In the darkness, they appeared only as wraiths.
“It should be them,” de Curieux said. “But wait for the correct knock sequence before making a noise.”
“Our security is based on code? Coded knocks?”
“Hush,” de Curieux said.
Miller bit his tongue and tucked his hands underneath his arms. In the cold quiet, he swore he could hear his teeth chatter.
A rap emanated from the door. After a brief pause it was followed by two more. Another pause; two more raps. Miller rolled his eyes.
De Curieux smiled in return, stepped forward and swung back the bolt on the door. Then he retreated until he was standing next to Miller.
“Now the fun truly begins,” he whispered in the younger man’s ear. Miller suddenly had an awful feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The door creaked opened and the three figures stepped inside. All of them were bearded and bundled up for the cold. They glanced at one another apprehensively. The largest of them stepped forward and offered a hand. De Curieux took it warmly.
“At your service,” de Curieux replied. “And you would be? I was told to expect a man named Petro.”
“Unfortunately, no,” replied the big man. “I am Ivan, Ivan Honchar. Captain Ivan Honchar of the MGB, and you are under arrest by the People’s Republic for the incitement of treason and espionage.”
He smiled and pulled two pairs of handcuffs out of his burly coat. The two men behind him produced Kalashnikovs.
Miller was about to protest, but any sound he might have produced would have been drowned out by the roar of engines and the creaking of metal tracks. Bright light flooded the room as searchlights flickered on. Heavily armed figures began flashing by the window.
Instead, Miller looked at de Curieux.
“They are very similar to the Stasi,” de Curieux said. “Much less dapper, though.”
“Oh,” Miller said. “Good to know.”
Three days earlier
Miller had never been invited to the backroom of the Zeppel Inn before and was appropriately shocked when one of the junior bartenders hustled him off from his usual table with the rest of the motor pool. As soon as he stepped inside, the door locked shut behind him. For a second he just marveled at the array of banners, trophies and other spoils mounted on the walls; were those really the Black Prince’s heraldic achievements? They were supposed to be on display in Canterbury.
“Wanna take a seat and join us?” asked a voice. Miller tore his eyes away from Otto von Bismarck’s pickelhaube and focused on the trio sitting at the long oak table in the room’s center.
The question came from a wiry, roseate-haired woman in a grease-stained tank top and work pants. A cigarette dangled from her mouth. Beside her sat a large, muscle-bound man in the field shirt preferred by The Renegade’s fighting men and women. A simple, black tattoo on the underside of his wrist--a greek helmet framed by two outstretched eagle’s wings--gave him away as a Bold Air Hussar. He thumped a tin of chew listlessly as he gave Miller the once over.
The third member gazed out impassively. Tall and lean, he had his arms crossed over his pilot’s uniform.
“Well?” he asked, raising an eyebrow and a glass. “Whomever called us here at least left us a bottle of 18-year-old Laphroaig.”
Knowing not to question good fortune, Miller grabbed a chair and sat down as the pilot poured him a dram. The liquor flowed down smoothly.
The woman produced a deck of cards from one of the many pockets sewn into her pants.
“Anybody up for whist?” she asked. Any replies were choked off by the sound of the door opening again.
In strode de Curieux. Unlike the four seated, who wore varying stages of off hours clothing, the colonel entered in full uniform, although not exactly one of the ship’s official uniforms. Rather, he wore the blue, high-collared tunic of a Prussian field marshal. Everything about him was neat, from the pressed pants to the finely combed auburn hair. There was just a hint of a shadow on his face.
“Ah, you have all found the place and made yourselves comfortable. Excellent,” he said, motioning toward the bottle of scotch whiskey.
Miller glanced at his drink and decided he felt decidedly uncomfortable all of the sudden. From behind his back, de Curieux produced a pile of packets.
“By way of introduction, my name is Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux, military attache to the Renegade,” he said, passing them out. “As such, I handle various extraneous affairs for the Captain XO as well as most diplomatic matters. Occasionally, I have need of extra hands.”
When nobody said anything, de Curieux sighed.
“As it happens, I have need of all of you,” he said, handing the final packet to Miller.
“Who are you again?” asked the woman. “I can’t remember coming across you ever. And I know the crew pretty well. Officers and all.”
“Sergeant Siobhan O’Leary, American-born, second-year member of the crew, assigned to the public affairs office.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Raised in Savannah, not Brooklyn, despite outward appearances,” a droll de Curieux continued. “Expert with social media, but dabbles--quite well, I must say--in demolitions as a hobby. Also goes by Valkyrie.”
O’Leary eyed him.
“Corporal Logan Winters, New Zealand native and distinguished member of the Bold Air Hussars, a former officer in the Ngati Tumatauenga discharged after borrowing a combat vehicle to settle a bar tab. A fitness fanatic who spends most free time on the range--I’m sorry, ranges. Is there a heavy weapon you’re not qualified to use?”
“I pick things up pretty quick,” Winters replied through the cigar.
“And Lieutenant Gustav Hanover, German-born pilot with two confirmed kills, a pre-med student before failing grades forced him from university. Quite a list of exploits in South and Central America before joining The Renegade a year ago.”
Hanover stood smartly and saluted.
“Herr Oberst,” he said, before sitting.
“Lastly, we have Miller, mechanic’s apprentice and duelist,” de Curieux said. “Now that introductions are over, you should take a moment to get to know one another. Enjoy the scotch and the evening. We leave tomorrow at nightfall. You will find orders relieving you of your regular duty in your packets. Please read them privately and pack appropriately for our excursion.”
He strode out without waiting for any responses. For a moment, they sat in silence. Miller examined his packet. It was smaller than the others. Hopefully, that bode well. He took the opportunity to refill his glass.
“So,” he said. “A PAO who goes by Valkyrie?”
“I know how to type and I like Instagram, so sue me,” O’Leary said. She turned to Winters and Hanover. “I get you, Winters, all brawn and no brain. I bet you’ve got some cute nickname like Brutus Maximus. But, flyboy, what did you do in South America? Kill someone important?”
“Several, actually. Most of them deserved it,” Hanover said.
“And now you’re a pilot?”
“I like flying better, and a repurposed raptor still allows me the opportunity to smite the unjust.”
“You got a nickname?”
“The Sword of Damocles.”
Miller burst out laughing. “I bet that caught on quick.”
“No, not really,” Hanover said quietly.
“And you, a duelist?” O’Leary asked.
Miller winced and ran a finger over the scar on his cheek.
O’Leary looked between each of them before slipping the deck of cards back into her pocket and pouring another round of drinks.
“This should be an interesting game of Never-Have-I-Ever,” she said.
Miller could not help but pace in the cell. There was nothing else to do and sitting on the cold, hard slab of metal serving as a bed proved too uncomfortable to bear. Hours had passed since their capture; he estimated the time as late afternoon, although the lack of windows and the solid steel door made it impossible to know.
“How can you just sit there?” he seethed, unable to contain himself.
De Curieux, legs crossed underneath him, brought a finger to his lips.
“To keep the head clear,” de Curieux said. “It also passes the time.”
Despite his serene attitude, the other man was bruised and bloodied. Guards in the hellscape of a prison had hauled him off for a “conversation” shortly after the pair arrived. The injuries, which de Curieux assured him were merely superficial, were on top of the routine beating the two received after Ivan slapped on the handcuffs.
“Even if the others alerted the Renegade, it’s going to be a day at least before they can organize a rescue operation or negotiate our release,” Miller said with the sinking realization that their captors were going to have plenty of time to have a “conversation” with him as well.
“You should,” de Curieux said, “assume that the cell is equipped with microphones. Loose lips and all that.”
“They already said they knew we were part of a team, and that they were rounding the rest of us up,” Miller said.
“Or they could have been bluffing and you have now confirmed their hunch, putting the lives of our three compatriots at risk,” de Curieux said. “Of course, maybe our accommodations aren’t bugged, either. You would think that being trained by NKVD veterans would help improve their counterespionage efforts, but they seem woefully overmatched for the task.”
Miller sank onto the hard bed.
“So what can we talk about?”
“I rather enjoy cricket,” de Curieux said.
“I don’t know anything about it. I grew up on baseball, remember?”
“Thankfully, it has a storied history stretching back nearly three centuries. Let me tell you about W.G. Grace and the Marylebone Cricket Club. The year was 1869...”
“Charges one, two and three are set,” O’Leary whispered, slipping behind the ruins of a brick wall to rejoin Winters. He grunted.
“Delayed timers--should give you a few minutes to get ready.”
Winters grunted again.
“One will take out the command post--I can’t believe I snuck past them so easily, must be the vodka--and the second will take a chunk of the mesh fencing on the northward side. The third is the decoy, it’ll go off a few minutes later on southern facing tower.”
“Copy that,” Winters said, searching through the array of pockets, ammunition and grenades tethered to his body.
“Which one do you want to take?”
“The gate. More action.”
“OK, I’ll keep the second hole clear. If it goes to hell, rendezvous at the third for a forlorn hope?”
“Yup,” Winters said, finally locating the tin of dip. He pulled out a wad and stuffed it into his cheek. After a few seconds, he spat at the snowy ground.
“You don’t talk much, huh, big guy?”
“Not much to say,” Winters replied.
“You must be a thrill on first dates. Got a weapon of choice?”
“M249 to start. M26 MASS for later. M1911 for much later. Mebbe shoulda brought my M203, though. She’s fun.”
The ground heaved and a momentous blast filled the air. For a second, night was day. Rocks and other debris rained down in a steady pitter-patter.
“Might have put a little too much P for Plenty in that one,” O’Leary said. “Oh well, I thought having a second glass of wine was a bad idea while putting on the finishing touches. Now I know.”
She patted Winters on the shoulder.
“Good luck, kiwi,” she said, preparing to scamper off to the far side of the gated concrete building.
“Go light that fire, missus O’Leary,” Winters said.
He straightened up from his crouch and hefted the big gun in his two arms. For a long while all he could see was smoke and dust. There were the usual sounds of men shouting in a foreign language and someone was screaming shrilly. The odor of cordite hung in the air. Almost as soon as the klaxons began to wail, the second blast went off. Winters smiled and stepped out from the cover of the ruined wall.
He started firing as soon as he could make out shapes in the fog of war.
O’Leary barely made it back to her section of fencing when the explosion ripped a jagged hole in the mesh fencing. She threw up her hands in time to shield her face from any of the jagged wire headed her way, but just barely. Already, she could hear rapid fire coming from the front entrance, competing with the sirens for attention.
Unlike Winters, who likely was walking into a firestorm, O’Leary figured she had a few seconds to sneak a peek at the damage she had caused before taking position. Nearly three meters of fencing was missing. She whistled approvingly.
Then she pulled out one of the molotov cocktails sashayed to her waist and flipped open her lighter.
“De Curieux said to make a scene.”
By the second thump, Miller was sure a rescue operation was underway. Either that, or the Ukrainians were risking Moscow’s wrath with an unexpected and unannounced early winter offensive. Though muted by the concrete walls, the steady thud of gunfire filled the cell. Ear-splitting sirens wailed to life.
“Excellent timing,” de Curieux said.
“What is going on?” Miller shouted over the alarms.
“Security breach,” de Curieux replied. “You should prepare yourself. I would imagine they will send someone to escort us to the interior of the building. How are you at hand to hand combat?”
“Not as good as fencing. Not nearly.”
“Then make sure you get good and in the way, please, old chap.”
Between the steadily escalating crescendo of gunshots outside, Miller could hear unseen hands working the latch to the metal door. It slid open and two men in dusty fatigues began shoving their way through screaming in a language wholly unfamiliar to Miller. Doing as he was told, he attempted to block their entry, hollering back nonsense in English and waving his hands maniacally. For his troubles, he took a fist to the gut.
Gasping for air, he doubled over and felt his hands pulled together. There was the metallic clang of handcuffs being swung about haphazardly. Hazily, he could see de Curieux move forward swiftly, precisely. There was the loud, almost wet smack of bone on skin somewhere behind him as de Curieux passed in a blur of motion.
Miller took a shot to his kidneys and felt his legs go completely soft. He fell to the ground, too out of breath to do much more than mewl in pain. Behind him he heard a curse cut short. A body flopped down next to him. Another series of body blows; another body on the ground. Then a hand in front of his face. Miller took it.
De Curieux helped him to his feet.
“Now do we escape?”
“Almost,” de Curieux said. “We need to bring Petro with us. He should be in the last cell on the corridor adjacent to ours.”
He patted down the two unconscious guards for a moment before pulling free a pair of sidearms.
“This is precisely what I mean,” he said with a sigh. “Never, ever, carry a loaded firearm inside of a prison. The opportunity for the inmates to get ahold of them are too many. This is standard operating procedure.”
He handed one to Miller.
“We move quickly. Do not use the firearm unless absolutely necessary,” he said. “Once we get to Petro’s cell, I will provide cover while you disengage the locking mechanism.”
Miller gawked until de Curieux patted him on the shoulder.
“You are an engineer; I have confidence in you.”
O’Leary tossed another molotov cocktail at the building, leaving her with just one. The bottle exploded, draping the two story concrete facade in brilliant fire. So far, only a few shadowy figures had ventured toward the breach and subsequent pyrotechnics. None proved to be de Curieux or Miller, so O’Leary scattered them with a few wild shots, running from position to position in the hopes of making them they were up against a handful of soldiers, not a lone arsonist.
Winters’ instructions had been the same, which she found out when they compared notes slightly before touchdown in Eastern Ukraine. Though the building blocked her view, the amount of noise coming from the front gate sounded like an entire battalion had closed with and engaged its target. As if to punctuate her comparison, a massive explosion rose up visible over the roof.
“I hope that was something he came up with,” she muttered, turning her attention back to the illuminated yard between the breached wiring and the prison. Still nothing.
But behind her, engines roared. O’Leary ducked and turned around. Black, armored vehicles rolled down the vacant street headed, she assumed, for the firefight at the main gate. That was the opposite of good. O’Leary remembered de Curieux had estimated a good ten minutes before any possible response--unless the separatists called in their Russian “volunteers.”
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” she said. At least the convoy--six vehicles strong now--was skipping over her position. They were going to the main show.
De Curieux left them with more than enough flexibility in their mission parameters, so she could always abandon the second gap to back Winters up. How she wished she had a radio. De Curieux had nixed them flatly when asked. Too much of an intelligence risk, he had said, to liable to interception. If they wanted to round up carrier pigeons, though that was fine with him. Might even add a little class to the venture, he had said.
The only technological advantage they were allowed was a small GPS chip embedded in on the bodies of the two men inside. Hanover, waiting by an escape vehicle in a hidden location, would shoot up a flare to guide any stragglers as soon as he saw the the dot clear the prison compound. .
Right now, though, surveying her options, O’Leary needed a radio. She wished they had taken de Curieux up on his offer of pigeons.
“Not to rush you, of course,” de Curieux said “but how is our progress?”
He pulled the trigger on his handgun and another deafening blast filled the corridor. Prisoners locked away in their cells pounded against the metal doors and screamed muted curses audible over the din. The guard at the opposite end of the hall pulled his head back around the corner.
“I’ve told you, I’m a mechanic, not a locksmith,” Miller shouted.
“Granted, but the question still stands.”
Miller shook his head as he looked down at his bleeding hands. He only had a scant few tools that de Curieux had dug out of a maintenance locker en route from their cell. None were particularly suited for dismantling a remotely controlled door with a hydraulic mechanism.
“I have most of it taken apart. I’m going to need a hand taking the door off of its hinges.”
“I can give you precisely one hand and roughly half of my attention,” de Curieux said, backing up slightly so that he was closer to the door. “Will that be enough.”
“If it means I don’t get shot, then I’ll take it,” Miller said. “I managed to get it slightly ajar. Let me get the crowbar wedged in there and we can give it a go.”
“Quickly now,” de Curieux said, and he fired off another round. This time the head at the opposite end jerked back. There was a thud and a single outstretched hand flopped out into sight.
“How I hate it when that happens,” de Curieux said. He sighed. “Ready when you are.”
“Give it a budge,” Miller said.
The two men threw their strength and weight into it. Slowly, painfully slowly, the door began to give. They felt it first. Then the metal began to screech as it pulled against the frame. Miller, very much exhausted, pressed until the veins in his arms bulged.
Mercifully, the door gave way after a final effort. He let the heavy crowbar slip from his fingers. It clammored on the floor as he stood in amazement of what he saw. Inside, cowering against the far corner, was a diminutive-looking man. Bespectacled and with his hands in his wild, uncombed hair, he looked like the type of man you found working in a university library.
“Petro Vedmid?” de Curieux asked.