I brought Alan and Henry to the ridge overlooking Kukes in the early afternoon. They took out binoculars and mumbled to each other while scoping out the city. The wind pushed ice floes across the narrow lake and carried banks of clouds crashing into the mountain ridge, periodically obscuring the view of the snowy valley below us. Alan turned and barked, “Wait for us here.” Henry tossed me a bottle of Vodka, “Stay and watch our packs. We’ll be back in the morning.” I grinned and opened the bottle, taking a long pull to their satisfaction.
Down the narrow ridge they set off, the setting sun illuminating their way.
There was no cover on their path to Kukes. Completely exposed, they were confident that they were safe. They had believed my ruse and their voices chided me inside my head, telling jokes of finding a frozen drunkard upon their return up the ridge: “Take one fifth of vodka and mix with one Macedonian. Allow to chill overnight. Serve in a frosted glass.”
Hubris tainted their judgment and they never looked behind to notice that a mountain sheep followed.
If they had been careless regarding me, they proved their abilities infiltrating this city of smugglers. As dusk approached they grew bolder and moved more quickly through the blocks of prefabricated buildings. They approached a dimly illuminated doorway where an old man with a newspaper smoked on an upturned paint drum. As I concealed myself in a pile of scrap metal opposite the courtyard, they handed him something. The old man disappeared inside, closing the door behind him. The two waited outside nervously, aware they were being observed and obviously uncomfortable about it.
A hand grasped my shoulder. I wheeled and snapped the offender’s neck before I realized it was an old woman wrapped in a shawl. The scrap tumbled and betrayed my location. The two were no longer in the doorway.
I barked like a dog.
There was no movement.
The babushka’s shawl smelled of piss, brown coal, and onions. I wrapped it around my head and hobbled over to the door where moments ago my quarry had waited.
The snow beneath my feet announced, “Here he comes!” In plain view I stopped and doubled over with a consumptive cough, supporting myself with her walking stick.
I knocked at the door. The old man’s narrowed eyes peered through the crack. I mumbled something and began coughing again. The door opened wider and the walking stick crushed his trachea then sent the other guard’s pistol flying. His cry was cut off with an uppercut.
No alarm sounded in the dim hallway. I followed my ears to a closed door where a heated discussion was underway. As I pressed my ear to the door, the latch failed and I fell into the middle of the room.
The room was silent. “Borka?” Henry’s confused expression mirrored his voice. Alan was not curious why his mountain guide suddenly appeared on the floor and used the distraction to grab a canister on the table and draw his pistol. Gunfire erupted in the room as I somersaulted away. Alan darted into the hallway but crumpled, still clutching the canister. Henry was screaming. There was a shot, then silence.
I entered the room and ensured that all parties to the prior negotiation were reunited at the bargaining table, joints placed at festive angles.
The canister contained Polonium.
For whom? For what?
All assembled carried multiple passports: Albanian, U.S., Russian, English, French, Serbian, German, Turkish – a United Nations of dead smugglers.
There was no time to investigate further and there were still two travelers waiting to be escorted to their destination…
The snow and Bill’s ankle had forced the two men to descend into the village. Everyone in the village knew of the two foreigners and where they were staying. Now I knew as well. I recruited a young boy to take the canister to the guests and tell them it was a gift from Borka. He dutifully marched off to the house.
At night I set the house ablaze. A steady wind caused the fire to spread beyond my intended target. The village alarm was sounded and people rushed to and fro trying to extinguish the blaze. Bill limped out into the street. I emerged from hiding to engage him and a bullet grazed my left shoulder. I retreated back into the shadows. Gene lay down an excellent cover fire while Bill limped to take up position. Gene then appeared, covered in soot, but Bill’s cover fire hindered my movement. I was pinned down. They would maneuver themselves until they had a clear shot at me. Hastily, I scraped a pile of snow together; returned fire then put my jacket and hat on my snow-doppelgaenger. Shivering, I moved back and watched bullets pierce my jacket. Gene approached cautiously. Before he could discover the ruse, I shot him. He lay groaning for a moment, then there was a flash and I was knocked back.
My ears rang as I scrambled to my feet and hid once again in the shadows. I had the advantage of mobility over Bill and I began scrambling in a half circle to put the fire between him and me as to give me a better shot.
Bill leaned against the wall and drank. His head darted left and right, peering into the shadows, searching for me.
He yelled into the night, “Who are you?”
“Canada.” I whispered into his ear as I cut his throat.
I am making my way back to Berlin as I write. The recovered canister is in my possession, although I do not know what to do with it. General Calrissian has been notified, but no orders as to its future have been given.
Stop by for Christmas Dinner if you can. It would be good to see you again, and Smitty is cooking goose.