02 January 2007

In Which Sarge Describes the Shadows He Saw That Night...


When I left you last, I was chewing gum, holed up in the junior efficiency apartment of Aglionby, the French money launderer and saboteur who, as you might remember, was behind the failed explosions at Harbour Grace a few years back. I was in Tallinn with the snow just starting to fall. Earlier I had found a few bottles and some lighter fluid, as I said, Aglionby was not naive. With those two bottles beneath the window I also had a rifle and a coffee cup half-full of bullets, and I was digging through them, feeling their cool smoothness roll across my fingers, waiting for the shadows to become men; I also had my knife but I wished for more. The shadows would form up, I knew, it was just a matter of time. I figured seven to twelve men, probably locals, former army, led, perhaps, by a worthwhile kill or two.

Time passes slowly but goes quickly, one of those contradictions we get used to until we're leaned up against a scarred wall in the Balkans wondering where the death is. I didn't dare turn on a light, the darkness grew and the street emptied. I looked out the window and tried to listen for signs of a gathering. Would they give me the night? Twilight is brief this time of year, this far north. Then I thought about it, there was absolutely no movement and hadn't been for the last four or five minutes. From one end of the street I could see construction signs set up, blinking a slow beat against the reflecting snow. Odd.

Odd and disturbing. I chanced a closer look, trying not to silouette myself in the window. Everything I did was slow. I rolled under the window, silently thanking Aglionby's professionalism; he had chosen a stone construction, one of the few in Tallinn. There was only one accessible entrance into the building, and I had a good vantage point of anyone trying to enter. There were only eight apartments spread across the six floors. This fifth floor shared an apartment but it had been empty since I first made my entrance there earlier in the day.

I knew they would make an appearance, and if I was kept busy it would only take a few of them to make my life miserable. At this point in the game I stopped thinking of death and fate, I thought of my training, back in Banff and then across the globe, instinct took over and I felt as smooth as the bullet I earlier rubbed between my fingers. I thought about what I must do. The time was now, soon there would only be the essence of things; I had that clarity of vision one only seems to find in combat. It is the opposite of the junk, but it is its equal at least. Both highs sometime play for keeps, I could not let this night be that play: that double zero. The wheel was turning now.

I finally saw movement, two men, so where were the others? I waited. Why let them know they were right yet? I wanted to instill some doubt that I was, in fact, at Aglionby's before I revealed myself. My rifle was ready, Aglionby's body filled the air with stink and with the radiators coming on, the smell almost doubled, there was also the stink of my near-failure to accompany it: the twisted spoon lay under an end table. The apartment smelled like some Moscow den of iniquity; down the street the men's movements were slow and deliberate. Always covering each other, always keeping to the shadows. I saw another pair of men on the near side of the street coming from the other end; they were covering the other group and they were good. Everybody was covering everybody else and I leaned against the wall under a picture of some saint and just waited. They set up zones of fire and made hand gestures at each other. I understood that they too, were also waiting. The sky was dark, the snow, heavier now, fell around them in great swirls.

An SUV pulled up directly in front of the building, undoubtedly plated. The time for subtlety was over on both sides and it was time to even the odds on mine. Carefully I selected a target, the most exposed, the easiest; they would come out of the shadows with his death. It was quick. My bullet returned ten others and the apartment exploded with sound; a bullet slammed into the corpse with a thud and Aglionby jerked a danse macabre as two others followed. With Aglionby, two dead. Automatic fire cut through the night. Christmases along the avenue were being ruined, the apartment disintegrated around me, Aglionby lay there, torn up by bullets. I stayed low, the window was gone. I had another good shot and took it. He had gotten careless and it cost him. Was it time to move yet? This celebration of birth had turned into a feast of death, I readied one of the molotovs.

With the window gone the toss was easy, and with the explosion the street seemed to dance in the night. I fired into the explosion and the building seemed to shake with return fire but at least no RPGs. Perhaps they had some insane idea they would take me alive, but my cyanide pill allayed any fears of that. It was kill or be killed, the kind of fight that brings out tooth and claw. I would use the last molotov to cover my escape, I hoped to ignite one of the parked cars. I fired randomly a few bullets and rolling again under the window, looked above and saw where my aim must be true. While I was looking I thought about the syringe that I had discarded when I threw the spoon to the floor. Had that been less than an hour ago? Well less. Quickly I tried to see if I could find the syringe in the gathering night, an occasional bullet crashed into the walls around me. They thought they had me now.

There it was, among the splinters of glass, rock and wood, a broken lamp next to it.

I would fill it with bleach, one last weapon for hand to hand if it came to that, then I would throw the molotov, grab the corpse and push my way into the hall wishing for a prayer. There had been better plans but in Tallinn I always ended up clawing to survive. Briefly I thought of her face, I thought of the last time, afterwards. The light on the ceiling from outside.

They put spotlights outside trying to blind me and illuminate me. They felt comfortable waiting, after all, I would run out of bullets first and then they had me every way. I let myself sweat for a second.

Then I fired a couple blind shots to give them something to think about and picked my way to Aglionby's sink. They didn't bother responding. I was a little worried about that, but I wanted to let them know it wasn't time to get any wild ideas about the front door just yet. My hands were shaking as I worked the bleach from below the sink into the syringe. To a junkie, bleach is the closest thing, sometimes, to a hospital as there is to get. Otherwise it's blue. Had that been us? Her? I leaned back up against the wall for just a second, gathering myself, the next two minutes would determine whether I ever saw the sun again. Perhaps I prayed, a brief vision of the Virgin surrounded by bloody penitents full of fool games begging for a worthwhile life somewhere done in stained glass and then I let fly with the bottle toward an old Zapor and fired into the car with five bullets and made a run for it. I heard the car explode and then screaming, bullets ripped the apartment in an onslaught and there was crashing and falling around me as I grabbed the bleeding lump of Aglionby that was to be my shield when I forced my way into the hall and stairwell.

What kind of shield was that? I just hoped if Aglionby had to stop a bullet there might be bone between me and it. He would stop a knife well if there were someone waiting right inside the stair doors, which I thought there might be. I kicked the door out with one kick, and moved crouched into the hall listening to the bullets whine about the apartment breaking what was broken yet again and again. It was like Africa.

The hall was empty, broken lights flickered, from above I could hear a man yelling and cursing his luck, but there would be no ambulance, a few bribes had seen to that. The yelling stopped, as if he too understood that now, and there were whimpers mixed with curses and pleas in the clumsy Estonian of Tallinn, polluted as it is by its many visiters. By the time I reached the door to the stairwell, there was silence, Aglionby was slick against me, my sweat mingled with his caked blood and I readied the rifle and held the body a little away from me, crouching beneath the stiffening body so that my face and chest lay nestled against the ribs and pelvis of the man I had killed. The building was silent. I knew they were in the stairwell, and they knew I knew it. But I had no choice, with the other ones on the street waiting for me like a second team. I thought of those servants I had read about years ago in some history class; they would gather from the river the dishes the masters threw into it after eating so they could do it all again the next day. It struck me as funny and I let myself laugh as I pushed the corpse up against the door, twisted the knob and more fell into the stair case.

Immediately two shots, from above and below, rang out. I felt the reverberation as Aglionby's face was obliterated and there was a second, a second I exploited for all it was worth, as I clutched the body and jumped over the stairwell at the man below me who perhaps only saw a leaping, headless corpse before Aglionby and I fell onto him and I put my knife into the mercenary's gut although I think his back was already broken. I rolled off the corpses and picked up my rifle which had fallen when I reached for my knife and shot down and then up; in my adrenalin I squeezed off seven or eight rounds which irritated me. But I killed another and could hear the man above me wailing, that made five down, perhaps seven more, perhaps only two more, which would mean the building was clear but I wasn't counting on it. The stairwell was quiet, but I was still on the third floor, with all kinds of opportunities to meet a careless death. I only had a few bullets left at this point but I didn't want to reach for the dead man's gun, from where he was, if the man above was only badly wounded, he could put one in me if I moved toward the gun. I edged my way down. There was silence.

Then I was on the second floor, with the second team waiting below and maybe a man moving behind me from above, unless the wounded man was the only one there. There was no door here, just a short hall leading to an apartment. My veins pushed adrenalin through my body and I fought to think through the rush. In the early evening I fought the endless night. They wouldn't wait in the lobby when they could wait outside with grenades. There was no need to be subtle now.

At that moment, for some reason, I thought of the time Ranger and I had first confronted Deseilligny. He must have been on my mind because of the last communique I'd had with Ranger, but I remembered it had been in Ulan Bator, we thought we'd flagged down one of the many unmarked taxis and instead Ulan Bator had its first known drive-by. It had been a joke even among enemies. I had laughed about it once, a year or so later with Deseilligny when we called each other names in that Freetown hardware store, and I laughed now. What absurdity, this! If Death waited, I would have stories for it; above I heard the squawk of a radio go unanswered, outside they must have been marking the living and the dead which perhaps meant that nobody had checked in. Or it meant that someone had and they were trying to decoy me. Regardless, I had to get to the street now and I was out of brilliant ideas. Through the lobby there was no hope, through the second floor living room window offered perhaps even less. Silence settled in like a jeer. They had me alright, but perhaps there would be something in the second floor apartment. It was a better bet than the lobby. I picked the lock and moved in.

Now, I was a shadow.

Nobody wanted to give away anything, I looked out into the street. The apartment had been empty, from the look of it, somebody was visiting mother in the country for Christmas. I was happy there were no terrified locals to give away my position. A few things had gone right now, I could count on no more. The shadows and the night had fully bled into each other now, the falling snow picked up a few tendrils of ambient light and then I heard the slightest echo of a sound from the front door I had closed behind me. A jiggling of tumblers already unlocked. I readied my knife and moved toward the noise, becoming the man's fate. As he slowly entered I brought him down with a knee and a hand to the mouth. I pressed my face close to his, creating the odd intimacy between vanquished and vanquisher.

"Tell me," I whispered, "and you will die from lightning, otherwise, it will be the cat and the mouse."

"How many of you?"

Slowly I started to remove my hand from his mouth, my knee reached up under his throat.

"Eight. Eight! Please I want to live! Please!" A local.

More than willing to kill for a new car, or a trip to the Black Sea resorts, but I took pity.


"What? I don't..."

"Oh, come on," I took my knife out, "Who?" The whisper now perilously soft.

"I do not know, a man. A man with red hair! A very thin man! Very tall!" He spoke Estonian with a kirderanniku accent, from further to the north and east. A sailor's son maybe.

He continued in a sigh, "10,000 kroons." It was still silent outside, I felt his jacket vibrate, still I was rooted to the spot.

It couldn't be.


"Answer it," I told him.

He spoke softly into the radio. Would he chance a distress code? He checked in, said he was still looking through the apartments on the third floor. There was a short curse and the radio broke off. I told him I had to hurt him, that I would let him live and knocked him out with a cuff to the head. Quickly I secured him with a sheet and a pillowcase and grabbed the radio. I threw him in a closet next to the front door. Nobody else was in the building, I had perhaps two minutes before they would realize I was no longer in the building but I needed to get the prize. Where was the prize waiting? One of them would know. Clearly they would send the least important into the building.

I ran to the roof. The wind had picked up since the morning. The spotlights shone up past me and I jumped from one roof to another, until I felt the radio vibrate, I found a drainpipe and slipped to the street down past where they waited for me. I began to double back, it was my only chance. The explosions surprised me. They brought bigger toys than I expected and I wondered idly if my prisoner had lived and if so, how much of him had? I never found out.

I spotted them quickly now and took aim, I would have to kill one and hope the other lived. I shot for the head first but it went wide, the next bullet traced into one of the men's guts and before the other could fire I had put one in his left knee and his gun had flown from his hands. A lucky shot. Cautiously I advanced with my knife drawn, my adrenalin pounding so that my heart felt bathed in powerlines.

There they were, a lump of shadows against the snow covered ground. One groaned, he was tough I could tell, the other convulsed. It is never pretty, but the ugliness of pain always surprises me. I had tossed my rifle away, it was empty, and my right arm hung loose with the knife, I advanced slowly. They were both still now, having seen me or heard me.

"Tell me," I said, "where can I thank your employer for his gift of bullets?" The one I had shot in the belly laughed derisively, I recognized he was Libet, one of Mercerier's foot soldiers, I put my knife into his throat, cutting his laugh short.

"Now tell me," I repeated to the one still alive, "where can I find your employer?"

"Aller se faire voir chez les grecs," he said, and lunged at me with a knife of his own. I turned him aside but my knife caught in a strap of his pack and flew off and he came back at me with curses. Without thinking, I reached into my pocket as he jumped from his one good leg at me and I plunged the syringe into his neck and pushed in the bleach as I knocked him aside. He lay quickly dead, and the snow fell heavier, already beginning to cover them as I made my way down the street with the sound of sirens from far away approaching closer.

This is how I came to leave Tallinn with the idea Toynbee might be the mole. I have no proof save perhaps the voice of a man alive or dead, I do not know. I must go back briefly to Tallinn to see her, and I will make then some final disruptions of the French shell game here, but then I must clear my name. I wonder what Ottawa thinks of all this? It used to be that I knew things like that.

*** **********

Smitty does have talent with the goose, it's good to hear he's finally started to move on; Cordula affected him greatly and her death was truly a sad one. As for the photographs, turn your eyes away from Deseilligny’s remains, perhaps there is something that eludes us there in the periphery. Or perhaps we are missing something in its absence. Deseilligny truly had no equal as a fighter, his willingness to claw, bite and tear during hand to hand combat made him a nightmare, and a worthy enemy.

I am tired now, Cpl., and must close my eyes a bit. Once again I finish a missive on a train. Perhaps in years to come, instead of dreaming about the faces of the dead and the scars of the earth, I will dream of trains.

with best wishes in the new year,


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