29 3 / 2014

Gen changed the subject. “Right now, Baron, I’d like for you to meet with Major Callum.”

“What does he want?” the Baron asked.

Beth answered. “He found us before we found Javed Khan. Once he saw I was alive, he wanted to pay you. Food, medicine, a little prestige for any conditions.”

“You mean exhaustion?”

“I think he’d wish away constipation if you asked for it.” She smiled. “He was relieved. If a woman died on his watch, he’d choke on self-loathing.”

“We have an ally,” Gen said.

28 3 / 2014

The Baron rubbed his bare scalp. “Sannikov, I assisted the Soviets in ‘52. The cat o’nine lives would’ve been lost to New York if not for me. Or worse, to Langley.”

The Zombie spoke up. “In some circles, we’re already traitors to America.”

Sannikov shook his head, refusing to dignify the Baron’s implications of friendship.

“I’m not saying the Bolsheviks weren’t fighting with me,” the Baron said, “but I’ve never intended to fight on either side of the Cold War. I’m not here to fight any wars. I only want to stop them from happening. I need you to understand this.”

“Why?” Sannikov asked.

“When I take the Rites,” the Baron said, “it’ll be to stop a future war. A biblical war.”

Sannikov shook his head harder, then glanced at Osin and turned to walk back towards the Bolshevik tent. He didn’t even seek the last word.

Osin sighed. “We will see you at the bids, Baron.” He gestured at his radio man to leave. He hesitated to go. “One last word. Do be careful.“

“Of what?”

“Ignorant men. Unlike Sannikov, those who don’t know what your death means.”

“Do you have a threat in mind?” the Zombie asked.

“Only your wrath. It would be worse than any war.”

“Jesus, do you hear this kind of thing often?” Beth asked.

“Thankfully not,” the Baron said.

“Dead men don’t change the world,” Osin said.

The Baron looked Osin over. This was a tidy man, well-organized. His very appearance was keeping secrets, yet here he was, repeatedly telling the Baron to watch out. Was someone planning on killing him? Was Osin warning him about it? Or was this mere anxiety?

“Understood,” the Baron said. He’d play it safe regardless.

Osin appeared satisfied. “Good day, Baron d’Holbach.”

After they left the Soviet area, Beth and Gen convened with the Baron briefly. The Baron told them what’d happened in Langley’s tent. Beth listened attentively to the Baron’s assessment of Javed Khan’s local moral viewpoint and his loss of leadership over the auction. Gen was mildly upset, cleaning his glasses nervously, mustache twitching to every loaded word.

“So Javed Khan thinks giving up the Rites is about anticolonial politics,” Beth said.

Gen twitched at anticolonial. He put his glasses back on. “The man is right. This is our land. This is a Pashtun story. He only has the wrong scope. The story he’s telling ends in his lifetime. The story he ought to be telling lasts as long as there are Pashtun on this earth.” He took a shallow breath, hesitant. “Selling the Rites wouldn’t spite the West. It would empower it.”

“Exactly,” the Baron said. “There’s not much else to tell.” And he told all he could recall. He left only one detail out of his summary. He didn’t mention Javed Khan’s accusation that Gen was an opium warlord. Though that seemed more and more likely, the Baron couldn’t guess whether or not the accusation itself would have an impact on Gen’s interactions with Javed Khan, and right now, he had the impression that Gen was the only positive influence left.

Beyond the Chinese and Gen, Javed Khan had no friends at this auction.

22 3 / 2014

“Their payment for what?”

“They were indebted to rich Pashtun men. Assume they paid with work.”

“Which men?” Gen asked.

“Who?” Sannikov relayed.

“I don’t know. Afridi warlords.”

“I would know them,” Gen said quickly.

The Baron glanced at the Generous Man. Telling him about Ivan’s presence in Landi Kotal might save him a lot of effort and time, but sitting on the information could tease out more indirect information about Gen’s connections and secular authority.

“Does he know why they were trying to kill Beth?” the Baron asked.

“Do you know why they attacked the Artemisian?” Sannikov relayed.

“I’ve only heard that Captain Wells was an unpopular man.”

The Generous Man nodded. “Guilt by association.”

Beth watched Sannikov calmly. The Baron knew what she knew—the Soviets had tried to kill her because of her position in the investigation of the murders of the White Mountain Roamers—but it was equally likely that what Ivan Emin suggested was true. Captain Wells was a target, and the Afghan soldiers might’ve been hired or organized because of a secular hatred. They simply didn’t know enough to say otherwise. At least, the Baron didn’t know enough.

Without the full view from Gen and Beth, who knew what might be an obvious truth?

All that mattered here was Sannikov’s attitude. He might oppose the Baron and the Zombie, but if he bothered to lie for Beth’s sake, he was unlikely to make another attempt on her life. For that matter, if she didn’t break the investigation in the end—say if the Baron himself told Wu about the Soviet murders of the Roamers—then she’d have nothing to fear from them.

“Emin,” Sannikov said, “time is almost up. Do you have anything to say?”

“If you have questions, Baron, speak next time you see me. I’ll come to Ali Masjid for the bids at noon.” There was a brief pause. “My apologies, Bethany of London.”

“Thank you,” Beth said.

Osin let go of the crank. The flywheel spun down and the radio died away. “Are you satisfied?” he asked calmly. “Or do you accuse us of more?”

“I have nothing more to say,” Beth said. “We’re finished. I’m satisfied. Are you?”

“I’m not happy that the Bolsheviks are banking their own prestige,” Osin said, “but I’m not surprised either, and I know Sannikov is loyal to the Soviet cause. I’m satisfied.”

“I’m not,” Sannikov said. “We will win the Rites. That will be my satisfaction.”

21 3 / 2014

“Emin will be with our supplies in Landi Kotal,” Sannikov said. “Call to him there.”

Once Osin had the flywheel up to speed, he gestured to the handset. “Go ahead. I wish for the next minute, that we could speak to the radio closest to Ivan Emin.” He wasn’t going to risk missing Emin, even if it cost a little more prestige.

Sannikov picked up the receiver and pressed the button to talk. “Emin, come in.”

After a few seconds, a voice came out of the speakers. “Yehst.”

“We have only one minute. The Baron is listening.”

Emin’s voice was tinny and attenuated. “Understood. How may I help?”

“Two of my men died in opium den owned by the Generous Man. They wanted to kill the London woman. Do you know things about this, Emin?”

The answer was immediate. “No, I do not.”

Sannikov scowled. “They know you are banker for Bolsheviks.”

“Do you know anything else then?”

“Comrades Barkov and Garin requested prestige after I returned this morning.”

“The dead men?”

“Yes. They didn’t hire middlemen. I denied their request.”

“Why?” Sannikov asked.

“They gambled with Pashtun this week. I thought they wanted prestige to pay debts.”

”They worked as mercenaries.” Sannikov spoke the word with disdain.

“Their payment,” Emin suggested.

20 3 / 2014

“I’ll spend the prestige to make the call. Wait here.” Osin walked to the tents to retrieve their hand-cranked radio. He didn’t rush, leaving plenty of time for Sannikov to talk alone.

Sannikov looked up at Beth and the Baron, eyes shifting from one to the other. “Between us, it wouldn’t matter if my soldiers were working with the Afghans or under my orders. You were witness to their murders. The responsibility is on your shoulders, and you—” He squinted at the Baron. “Twice you’ve stood by while your monster spills Bolshevik blood. First Malik’s men—”

“You’re not Malik,” the Baron said quickly.

“Now my men?”

“Malik was betraying the trust of the entire Soviet cult.” The Baron pointed at Sannikov. “You would compare yourself with him? A rogue element?”

“The Zombie would’ve killed anyone there,” Beth said softly.

“I did kill everyone there,” the Zombie said curtly.

“And Sannikov,” Beth continued, “this is the Baron. You know his reputation.”

“I know what he did in fifty-two. He’s an enemy of the Bolsheviks, no matter what is claimed.” He glanced at the Zombie. “It brings me to tears, to see evil protected by the devil.”

“Dramatic,” the Zombie mocked.

“Are you going to do anything about it?” the Baron asked.

“Not with your pact,” Sannikov said. “But we will stand in opposition to you. The Rites will go to Russia. The Bolsheviks will have them. This will be our revenge.”

“Jesus,” the Zombie said, “you’re right out of the nineteenth century. What next, challenge him to a duel? Besmirch his honor?”

Sannikov spat into the dirt. “Weak insults from the idol of the West. Invincible, irresponsible, and dangerous. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting time for your failure, filth.”

The Zombie stared at Sannikov blankly, either in defiance or confusion.

“Moron!” Sannikov snorted thickly, swallowing dust and mucus.

Osin returned with another soldier hauling the radio in his arms. “Pray Emin has his hand set on him.” He grabbed the crank and threw his back into turning it. The radio’s flywheel whirred.

19 3 / 2014

The Baron needed a way to press back and change the subject simultaneously. “When it comes to the Rites, it’s all my business. The Ethiopians paid me. It’s why I’m here.”

“Ah, of course. Just following orders. For the sake of the world. I’ve heard it.”

“A Bolshevik comparing me to a Nazi?” the Baron asked.

Sannikov was quick. “Stalin’s purges were his own.”

“Listen. The Soviets didn’t dodge before the Zombie saw them,” Beth said. “They were spotted. They really didn’t have prestige, Sannikov. Would they have had a personal supply?”

“None of these men do tasks,” Sannikov said. “They’re soldiers, not peasants.”

Beth continued. “So they have to get prestige from a banker?”

“Before we deploy or see action, we supply our soldiers.”

“Since they didn’t have any prestige, they weren’t working with a banker then?”

“Why would they work with a banker? The attack was organized by secular Afghans.”

“Was it?” Beth asked. “I’ll be blunt. I need proof that you aren’t aiming to off me. So I need to know two things. Would you send a soldier into a fight without prestige. And if not, were these men really without prestige?”

Sannikov offered one leathery hand. “This is the Zombie.” He held out the other.  “These are world class cults.” He closed them both. “I’m not a fool.”

Osin agreed. “We aren’t monsters. We want our men to live.”

“So who is your Bolshevik banker?” the Baron asked. “We need to hear from them.”

“What would you have them say?” Sannikov asked, “If such a man was real.”

Beth answered, “I’ll keep it simple. If the banker didn’t give these men any prestige, that’s good. If the banker refused to give these men prestige, that’s perfect.”

Sannikov nodded slowly. “Good, good.” He looked to Osin. “Do you know?”

“I have ideas,” Osin said.

“Poorly kept secrets,” Sannikov agreed. “He’s Emin. Call him on the radio.” Sannikov looked down at his creased leather boots. “I’ll ask him.”

18 3 / 2014

Osin glared. “And you think Emin will have anything to say about this?”

“He won’t know anything about Wells, but he’ll know about the soldiers.” The Baron idly patted his pockets, looking for a cigar tube. He couldn’t find one on hand. “My point about Wells is simple. You can’t risk these facts spreading around. Soviets were helping Afghan soldiers kill British nationals because of pre-Partition India politics. It could start a secular incident.”

“You wouldn’t dare—”
“You know I won’t spread rumors,” the Baron said, “my point is, you shouldn’t either. If the story checks out with Emin—if he is banking for the Bolsheviks, and his boys were fighting for the Afghans without his permission—you need to disown the dead immediately.”

“And then your Zombie’s murders remain off the record?” Osin asked.

“No. Everyone will hear about the murders,” the Baron said.

“They were awful,” Beth agreed.

The Zombie’s grin grew broader. “They’ll be local legends.”

“They’ll be in the papers at least,” Gen said.

“Quiet!” Osin ran three fingers over his long chin, wiping away sweat and slinging it at the dirt. “Emin isn’t here. He’s still in Landi Kotal. Sannikov will have to answer for him.”

The Baron cursed inwardly. He hadn’t considered that after his dodge, Emin wouldn’t have returned to the fort ahead of them. Pleading for Emin ahead of Sannikov only encouraged Osin to pull Sannikov into the conversation, if only because it gave Osin a chance to shame the Bolshevik faction in front of a third party. “Sannikov won’t know,” he said.

Yuri Osin turned and shouted towards the tents. “Sannikov! Idite syuda!” To the Baron, he said, “You’ll find out from him in a moment.”

An older, weather-beaten man stepped out of the Bolshevik tent and into the sun. He seemed unbothered by the changing conditions, having been browned and beaten into senseless leather by years of exposure to pitiless sun and snow. His wrinkles were deep, cutting lines into his folding skin straight up over his half-balded, darkly bronzed scalp. There was no easy way for him to shave without stretching out the flesh like old canvas, so he’d simply stopped bothering, making do with a simple trim to keep the patches of silver and black cut close. If Osin’s uniform was simple by design, Sannikov’s was simple by necessity. Grey, wool, and loosely loomed, it looked like something that might’ve been worn by a private in the Soviet army, something that’d seen two dozen patrols in rough terrain, with worn knees and elbows and hand sewn hems. The Baron noticed that his buttons didn’t match.

He smiled broadly. His teeth were encrusted with plaque deposits, all stained darkly by tobacco smoke. “The Baron d’Holbach,” he said thickly, “Did you call for me?”

Sannikov had come from somewhere very distant and unpleasant compared to Yuri Osin, that much the Baron could tell. Reassigned there because of his Bolshevik allegiance in the Soviet cult, perhaps. This was the nervous smile of a man trying to be pleasant in front of a superior; maybe he already knew about Landi Kotal and was dreading this very meeting.

Beth answered for him, “I did, really.” She stepped forward, offering her hand to Sannikov. He took it slowly, and she squeezed tightly, giving him two rough shakes before letting go. “Bethany West of the London cult,” she said. “Two men in your employ were spotted trying to murder me in Landi Kotal. Before I could confront them, the Zombie assaulted the building.”

Sannikov seemed impressed with her. “I heard reports. You didn’t do this?”

“I killed several Afghan mercenaries. I’m guessing they hired your men because they knew them from Soviet-Afghan meetings and because of their military expertise.”

Sannikov nodded slowly. “So you insult my boys?”

Beth didn’t flinch or beg to differ. She waited for Sannikov to come to his own conclusions. She couldn’t even offer him the chance to decide. Like all naturally aggressive men, Sannikov wanted a reaction to reject and punish. Her silence offered him nothing.

Osin spoke up, “Sannikov, the only insult is to the pride of the Bolsheviks. They believe these men were hired for secular reasons—as mercenaries, not soldiers.”

“They didn’t have prestige,” the Baron said.

Sannikov’s wrinkled brow deepened. “What would you know about that?”

“I’m saying, they weren’t working with your banker.”

Sannikov rubbed an eyebrow with his thumb. “I don’t have a banker.”

“Don’t lie.”

“I’m not. In truth, I’m trying to understand your madness, Baron. You unleashed your Zombie on Bolshevik men because you thought they didn’t have prestige?”

“He killed them on his own. These men were trying to kill Beth.”

“And that was your business?”

“We’ve been hired by the Chinese to help the London cult in their investigation. She’s been working on the case for days. It was in the Zombie’s interest to save her life.”

Sannikov dismissed the Baron with a grunt and a wave of his hand. “Everything is your business. Always an excuse, eh?”

28 2 / 2014

Osin blinked at the bright light. “Was your building damaged?”

“I’ve inspected the entire thing,” Gen said. “Just bullet holes and bodies.”

“I’m sure the police will be helpful. They don’t appear interested in the bodies of foreigners. Why is that, I wonder? Why ignore murder in your jurisdiction?”

“Heh. Osin, men accuse me of bribing the police, but they can’t prove it.” Gen smiled cordially. “I’m sure you understand the irritation of unfounded accusation.”

Osin didn’t smile. “How can I help you, Ms. West?”

“The men who tried to kill me were Afghan mercenaries. City men, trained, secular. I shot several of them before I had to retreat to safety.”

“Good,” Osin said tersely, “London trained you well.”

“I hid upstairs, but I glanced at the people moving in to occupy the ground floor.” She took a long breath. “I regret to inform you, Osin, that two of the men assaulting my location were Soviets. They dressed in civilian clothing, but I’d seen them in Landi Kotal already.”

“Sannikov’s men are in that area.” Osin said immediately. “I’ll call him here.”

“No,” the Baron said, “that won’t be necessary. We already know you aren’t working well with the Bolsheviks. You don’t need to demonstrate it.”

“I need him to hear the accusation you place at his feet.”

“The Zombie figured out everything already.”

“I killed them, tortured them with a knife, and extracted their confessions,” the Zombie said. “They were hired alongside the Afghan fighters.”

“What?” Osin asked.

“I killed them—”
“I don’t care!” Osin said sharply. “You said they were hired?”

“They didn’t have any prestige on them,” the Baron said. “They couldn’t dodge. At least, we can be sure they weren’t working with the Soviet banker.”

“I’m the banker,” Osin said.

“The Orthodox banker then,” the Baron said. “Regardless, they had Afghan coins in their pockets—change from spending afghani bills in Landi Kotal.”

“There is no other banker.”

“Not true,” the Baron said, “if it isn’t Sannikov, it’s his second in command.”

“Ivan Emin?”

“That name sounds familiar. If you want to call someone out, don’t waste my time with Sannikov. Bring me Emin. Ask him if he’s banking anything for the Bolsheviks.”

“The Bolsheviks haven’t brought their own banker—”

“You don’t need to convince me,” the Baron said, “I know you’re in control. That’s why we came to you first. The soldiers the Zombie killed, they said the Afghan were out to murder Captain Wells and his partner. It was revenge. Wells tortured someone important a decade ago.”

27 2 / 2014

“I’ll stick to addressing Osin then,” the Baron said. “If Sannikov has any loyalty to the Bolsheviks, he’ll be unhappy about Malik’s treatment back in ‘52.”

“Malik tried to kill you,” Gen said, “Not the other way around, right?”

“Right, Schuler killed him, but I kept the cat o’nine lives out of his hands.”

The Zombie spoke up. “I don’t want Sannikov talking. He’d color the situation, complaining about all the fighting in New York. The Baron is right. We shouldn’t engage him.”

Beth started towards the Soviet tent, and the rest quietly fell in behind her. The Baron was looking over her head at the Gaz-51s. Men were seated, balancing on the wooden panels on the sides of the truck beds, swapping cigarettes and pointing at their approach.

“I’d like to start the story,” Beth said, “you and the Zombie can fill in the gaps.”

The Generous Man brought up the rear. “I’ll verify everything. It was my building.”

From his high seat, an older Soviet cupped his hands and called out in a pidgin English developed during World War II, “Baron, follow woman? Rebonok, need mama lead?” He laughed at his own joke, and the older soldiers beside him laughed as well, while the younger cultists at the foot of the truck, mostly civilians, watched the Baron cautiously.

Once they were within speaking distance, the Baron said, “I follow authority.”

Beth smiled and marched through the wide gap between the trucks. Ahead, the two large Soviet tents stood side by side, cast over with tarps to create a shaded breezeway. Men with pips and uniforms were standing in the shadows, talking quietly. One tent was likely for the Bolsheviks, the other for the Orthodox. Their door curtains were drawn back to let in the sunlight. Beth shouted ahead, “Ms. West of London, to speak with Yuri Osin.”

One of the men straightened out of a slouch and leaned into a tent.

“Are they calling him out to meet us?” the Generous Man asked.

“They must be hiding something in their tents,” the Zombie whispered.

Yuri Osin hurried out into the sun, casting a long matchstick shadow to one side. He was tall and thin, only topped by the Zombie, and his spade-like chin was smooth and shining with fresh aftershave. He’d washed his thin black hair as well, having brushed it back to air dry. He’d grease it later, the Baron guessed. He even wore a fresh uniform, this one paler than the last, though still grey. Now he wore no insignia, not even that of a Soviet private. The Baron wondered if he was disassociating himself with military operations in some way, maybe as a reaction to the Soviet corpses that’d turned up at the opium den in Landi Kotal. He rushed up to meet them, not smiling but looking calmly alert and eternally serious. “Good to see you’re alive, Ms. West.”

Beth smiled wider. “Should we go inside? Out of the sun?”

Osin smelled like witch-hazel on the breeze. “I’m afraid we have placed sensitive materials in plain view,” he said. “We must meet here.” He briefly addressed the Generous Man. “I’m glad. It seems my radio and your prestige saved a young woman’s life.”

“Yes,” Gen said, “what have you heard?”

“There was a fight,” Yuri Osin said, “Gunshots. Many dead.”

“On my property,” the Generous Man said.

23 2 / 2014

“Lieutenant Song is absolutely a dangerous man.” Beth was smoking another hand rolled cigarette. Smoke puffed gently as she whispered, and words were reduced to a conspiratorial softness, as if they too would be dispersed by the breeze. “Wu is an intellectual. He’s a scholar. Song isn’t even a true child of dynastic China. He’s a soldier, the son of a farmer who fought in the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War. Zin told me that Song only joined up with the PRC cult because the Soviet-planned reorganization of the army left him out of a job.”

“The PRC cult?” the Baron asked.

“That’s what they call themselves,” Beth said, “but really, they’re the former cult of the Qing Dynasty. Most people don’t know this yet. The current Chinese cult is seditionist.”

“They’re not part of the government?”

“Nope. They’re in opposition to the Communist Party in China.” Beth took another, long draw before tossing the butt of the cigarette away. “For good reasons too. They all suffered losses from one purge or another, except for Song. He only lost his job. I mean, that’s a good reason to hate the party regardless, but he doesn’t share their zeal. He’s more interested in rebuilding the occult infrastructure of China.” She blew out the rest of her smoke, emptying her lungs, then took a long breath. “Think about how large China is. It’s bigger than the United States, and far more inhabitable. That means people, so many people you can barely imagine it.”

“That also means endless tasks,” the Baron said.

“Right, so Song wants to bring back the Heavenly Order of the Scholar-Officials. They ran China’s secular bureaucracy. They also sat at the top of a massive, empire girdling cult, collecting tribute from the entire goddamn thing. Their control eroded throughout the colonial era, and the recent political purges decimated and scattered their members, but they’ve keep good records. Song knows what kind of power they used to have. He wants it back.”

“What does Wu want?”

“He wants to oppose the Communists, I think. Reconquering China’s cults and taking tithes are less important to him than overthrowing Mao’s government.” Beth scratched the inside of her ear and pulled out a fingernail caked with dark orange wax. She scraped it off on the knee of her uniform. “Fucking dust.” She looked up. “Put it this way. Wu would like to live in Taiwan. Song would like to live in Beijing. Before World War II, they might’ve been on different sides.”

“I think Song is loyal to Wu,” the Generous Man said. He’d been standing behind Beth, almost without speaking for the last couple of minutes. They’d been reviewing the conversation inside Fairfax’s tent, omitting only Javed Khan’s implication that Gen was an opium warlord. “Call it an intuition.” Gen worked his jaw. He’d been clenching it shut.

“Just intuition?” the Zombie asked.

“I overheard Song and Wu arguing about Schuler. Wu thought you could shoot a Theist to death. Song said you couldn’t. That’s not the kind of conversation you have with an enemy.”

“Sure it is,” the Baron said, “I just talked with Fairfax about the Ark.”

“Enemies always have good ideas,” the Zombie said flatly.

The Baron nodded. “We should get a move on. The Soviets haven’t made up their minds about the casualties in Landi Kotal, not yet. We need to shape the story.”

“Do you know much about them?” Beth asked. “Yuri Osin is in charge, and Miroslav Sannikov is his lieutenant, but they’re not working well together.”

“I heard in the amir’s court in Afghanistan,” Gen said, “After Stalin’s death, it’s hard to say who’s fully in charge. Khrushchev doesn’t appear to be a cultist, and the Orthodox leadership is scarcely seen. Nobody knows if they’re really in control.”

“Right,” Beth said, “Osin is a big shot in the Orthodoxy, and Sannikov is his diplomatic nod to the Bolsheviks. This way they can send a party to the auction without actually knowing who’ll run the cult when they return to Moscow. I figure that neither side wants to be branded a traitor. Not if they’ll be coming home with the Rites for the Ark.”