Tanner's Twelve Swingers (Evan Tanner #3)

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05.03.2019

“And if not?”

“I think he will. But stay here and keep the girls quiet.”

“Of course.”

I touched Minna’s cheek. “You stay with Milan,” I told her. “I’ll be back for you as soon as I can. Be a good girl.”

“Yes,” she said.

I left the bus and walked quickly toward the rendezvous site. I approached from the east, skirting the side of the huge fenced industrial complex, dark and deserted now. I stayed close to the fence and moved quietly down toward the waters of the gulf.

It was hard to see in the darkness. But when I was close enough, I saw a sleek ship anchored at the water’s edge and I sighed heavily and relaxed.

And I crept a little closer and saw another larger ship alongside the first vessel, and a group of men in uniforms, and heard Anders’s voice, whining, and heard the crisp orders of the harbor police.

He had not betrayed us. But he had been betrayed himself, or else the harbor police had been after him for some time. It scarcely mattered. As I crouched there watching, Anders was marched off under guard and taken aboard the police vessel. The ship pulled away from the shore, and Anders’s own ship, manned by police, followed immediately after it. The two of them disappeared in the blackness of the night, bound for Tallinn Harbor.

Well, that tore it. For a long moment I did not move, did not even breathe. I had fourteen unsafe people sitting in a stolen bus with no place to go. We couldn’t return to Riga, we couldn’t possibly get through any borders in the bus – we were in trouble. The boat that should have carried us to Finland was gone. The sailor who should have captained that freedom ship was on his way to prison.

And we were going to hell in a haywagon.

We could just drive around in the bus, I thought. One bus, after all, looked rather like another. Or we could send the ten girls back to Riga – they might be safe there – and the rest of us could try to get out of the country in a stolen car. I didn’t see how it could work, but I didn’t see how anything else could work, either, and the longer I stayed where I was, the worse things were going to get. Sooner or later some bright-eyed cop would wonder why a bus was parked on a side street. I had to get back to the bus. I had to do something, anything.

So I retraced my steps, but not slowly now, not slowly at all, but hurriedly, scampering alongside the high wire fence, stumbling, regaining my balance, rushing onward, stumbling once more, brushing this time against the fence…

At which point all the sirens in the world began to wail hysterically.

Then everything happened. Searchlights mounted within the industrial complex suddenly sprang to life and focused upon me. Gates swung open, and a handful of armed men streamed forth from within, fanned out in a semicircle, then drew the semicircle close around me. Guns pointed at me. Flashlights flared in my face.

The leader of the group, a heavy, thick-necked Estonian with a machine pistol in his hand, approached me with fury in his eyes. I stood with my hands held high and my brain turned momentarily off.

“You,” he shouted. “What are you doing here? What is the meaning of this? Do you know where you are?”

And, from some far-off corner of my mind, the words of the Chief rushed in to haunt me. You wouldn’t miss a chance at the Colombian job unless it were something very big indeed. There’s a missile center outside of Tallinn. Is that part of it?

“Fool, I’m talking to you! Do you not know where you are?”

I had a fairly good idea.

The bells had stopped ringing, the sirens had ceased to wail, the searchlights were dim once again. And I was inside the gates of the missile complex, inside a large, high-ceilinged building of concrete block. Oil drums and complicated machinery lined the sides of the building, tables and desks were arranged in neat rows at the far end. Overhead, a maze of cables and beams crisscrossed the ceiling.

The same group of men stood around me in the same sort of semicircle. They had holstered their guns now. A quick pat-down had revealed to them that I was not armed, and so they were free to relax.

I, however, was not.

“You say that you are from Latvia.”

“Yes.”

“But you have no papers.”

“No.”

“No means of identification.”

“No.”

“And what were you doing here? Spying?”

“No. Just walking. I did not know of this center, I thought it was merely a closed factory-”

“You were walking in the middle of the night?”

“I wanted to walk down by the water.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“I was restless, I could not sleep.”

“You were perhaps spying?”

“No, never that.”

“Or planning sabotage?”

“Certainly not!”

“Or planning, perhaps, an illegal trip to Finland? Or to receive a shipment of illegal goods from Finland?”

“No.”

“It does not matter what you say to me,” my interrogator said. “My job is security here, that is all. If what you say is true, you have nothing to fear.”

I gave what was supposed to look like a nod of numb relief. The relief was false, the numbness true enough.

“The MVD has been informed. A detachment of their men will arrive shortly to take you away so that your story can be checked. If they release you for a fool or shoot you for a traitor, it is none of my affair. I have merely to guard you until they arrive.”

When the MVD checked me, they would find a smuggled manuscript taped to my body and two rolls of subversive microfilm in my shoes. I did not care to think about what they might do to me. It was like contemplating the various possible manners in which I might eventually die. Such thoughts were not only futile, they were the breeding ground of despair.

I thought instead of fourteen passengers sitting in a darkened bus.

The twelve Lettish girls would have a hard time of it, probably drawing some prison time, possibly getting away with fines and such punishment. Milan Butec would be almost certainly returned to Yugoslavia, where, like Djilas, he would live out his days in prison.

And Minna?

No punishment for Minna, certainly. Adoption, perhaps, by some good patriotic citizens of Soviet Russia. Adoption and relocation in another republic of the U.S.S.R. No trip to America, no chance for her brain to grow the way it wanted to, no opportunity for Minna to become the person she had every right to be.

I could resign myself to the fate of Milan and Sofija and Zenta and the other Lettish gymnasts. I could avoid thinking, at least for the moment, of what might lay in store for me. But I couldn’t put Minna out of my mind.

Until I heard a thin, birdlike voice from the far end of the huge room. “Papa? Papa?”

My guards turned toward the voice. And, stepping between two rows of stainless steel desks, her tiny hands clutching a rag doll tight to her chest, her little pink cheeks streaked with tears, came my little Minna.

Chapter 15

“Papa!’

“It’s his daughter-”

“How did she get in?”

“Papa!”

“Who knows?”

“What a pretty thing she is! The poor child has been crying. Let her go to her father.”

“Papa…”

She ran full-speed at me, the little legs flying over the concrete floor. I stooped down and held out my arms, and she threw herself into them. I picked her up and held her close, and she sobbed madly.

“It’s all right, Minna,” I told her. “Don’t cry, it’s all right…”

Between sobs she drew something from behind the rag doll and pressed it into my stomach. My hand closed around it. It was an automatic pistol.

“Hold me in your arms,” she whispered urgently. “When you hear a gunshot, get us out of the way as quickly as possible. And shoot as many guards as you can.”

“Where did you get this?”

“ Milan strangled a sentry.”

The guards were chattering as they watched this touching familial scene. “A beautiful child,” one said. “How she loves her father.”

“He can remember her love in his prison cell.”

“What is a child of that age doing awake at this hour? That is what I would like to know.”

“Perhaps the whole family was escaping.”

“The MVD will be here soon enough.”

“Be ready,” said Minna.

And a shot rang out at the rear of the hall.

The guards, all but one, spun around toward the source of the noise. The one who did not turn reached for his pistol. I shot him in the chest, grabbed Minna tight, and made a mad dash for a clump of heavy machinery on my right. Bullets splattered the floor around us. We dropped breathless behind a cover of futuristic stainless steel machinery. Minna huddled beside me, and I peered through the machine, took aim, and fired at the man who had asked me all those damnable questions. The bullet went wide. I shot again, aiming for his head, and hit him in the calf. It wasn’t the world’s best marksmanship, but at least it put the son of a bitch on the ground.

Milan was firing from behind a desk at the far end of the room. He had already done for two of the guards, but there were still almost a dozen of them left, and the odds seemed impossible. There were only two rounds left in my own pistol. I didn’t know whether to waste them now or wait until we were rushed.

It seemed hopeless. We were outnumbered and outarmed and outclassed, and our adversaries had help coming; the MVD were due to arrive at any moment. All the guards had to do was keep us pinned down until the secret police arrived in force. Then we would be finished.

I turned to Minna. “How did Milan know I was here?”

“He followed you.”

“Followed me?”

“When you left the bus. He told all of us to stay where we were because he had to follow you. He was afraid that there might be a trap, and then he came back short of breath and told us that there had been a trap.”

No trap, I thought. Just a maddening combination of little things going wrong, a bit of bad luck for Anders and a bigger bit of bad luck for me.

“He was certain you would be angry with him for disobeying orders,” Minna said.

“He picked the right orders to disobey. But I’m afraid it will only make things worse. I don’t see how we can get out of here alive.”

“Look, Evan-” She pointed at the ceiling. I looked up, and at the other end of the hall Milan shouted, and high up on the ceiling, in the maze of ropes and chains and pulleys and lateral beams, the women’s gymnastic team of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic swung gaily into action.

They scampered over the ceiling like agile monkeys on the bars of their cages, tossing themselves here and there, then swooping gracefully down upon the guards and soldiers below. They dipped and soared, they swooped and sailed, and the guards didn’t know what to make of it.

“Look, Evan!”

Sofija, swinging on a length of wire cable, sailed in a perfect parabolic arc toward a fat bug-eyed guard. He was trying to draw a bead on her with his pistol but couldn’t get the gun aimed in time. With one nimble foot she kicked the gun out of his hand. Her other foot took the guard full on the point of the chin and tumbled him out of the game. Another guard crawled on his hands and knees toward the fallen gun. Zenta dropped twenty feet through the air, feet first, and landed with a foot upon each of the guard’s shoulders. He crumpled to the floor, and the room rang with the sound of his shoulder bones snapping from the impact.