This is how it starts. Some of you might guess who Vladimir is...
Vladimir Nikolayevhich was cuffed and hooded, but his guards had made a fatal mistake. His hands were behind him, but not attached to any part of the inner structure of the military van. A standard Russian UAZ 452 – he’d know those rickety creaks and the pungent blend of oil and diesel anywhere. The vehicle trundled towards some unknown destination where he would be interrogated, beaten some more, then shot in the back of the head.
Three of the four men chattered as they picked up speed down a straighter road. Their second mistake. Clearly they weren’t Special Forces – Spetsnaz – like he’d been until very recently. Regular army. He’d only seen the two men who’d taken him from breakfast with his daughter. But now he knew there were four – one other had engaged in the banter, another had remained silent but was referred to as the butt of several bawdy jokes. The hierarchy of the men was also clear. The leader was in the front passenger seat, the silent one the driver, leaving the two musclemen in the back with him. One beside, one opposite. He waited. They’d been driving for an hour or so, initially dirt tracks, now a highway, which meant they were on the E119 to Vostok. If they turned right, he had a chance, as they would have to cross the Volga river. Then he would make his move.
If they turned left, he was a dead man.
Vladimir wasn’t a man for options, or for hedging his bets. Not a question of making the right choice, but of making the choice right. In all his missions in the past twenty years he’d never cared much for a Plan B. Leave too many options open, and events control you, inviting failure.
The van would turn right.
He needed to know if there was anything, a metal strut, for example, between him and the driver, in front on the opposite side. Nobody had talked to him since his arrest. Why talk to a hooded, dead man? But they were military, at least they had been at one stage or another, so it should work. He waited for a pause in their talk fuelled by bravado – they were probably wondering which one of them would pop him in the skull. He had a feeling they’d make the driver do it. A rite of passage. Probably a rookie, not yet blooded.
The pause came.
“Cigarette?” he asked, nodding through his hood to the one opposite. “Probably my last, we all know that.”
Silence, except for the van’s suspension creaking. He imagined questioning looks from the musclemen to the leader, the driver fixing his eyes on the road, maybe a glance in the rear view mirror. The dead man had spoken.
A sigh, the rustle of clothing, a pocket unzipped, the tap-tap of a cigarette being flushed from the pack. He could smell the nicotine despite the strong diesel fumes. A hand heavy on his shoulder – the muscleman on the same side – while the hood was pulled up by the other one just enough. He felt cooler air on his lips, the stale coffee-breath of the one opposite.
The smack in the mouth wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it stunned him all the same. He slid off the bench onto the floor, and while three of the men burst out laughing, he stretched his left leg backwards towards the rear edge of the driver’s seat – nothing in the way, no vertical metal support. But there could still be a wire mesh separating the rear compartment from the two in the front. He rocked back onto his knees, and addressed the one who’d hit him. He lowered his head, bychit-style, a bull about to charge, and spat out the words amidst spittle and blood.
“Mu dak, suka, blyad!”
This time the punch was fully expected. He railed backwards and upwards, travelling with the force of the uppercut, so that his head ended up in the gap between the driver and the leader, which cost him a whack from the latter on the top of his head. No wire mesh. Rough hands slotted him back where he’d been twenty seconds earlier. Profanities poured forth. Nothing he’d not heard or said himself. His face stung. He ignored it. Things settled down, and the banter resumed.
He began drawing long breaths, oxygenating his body. He was chilled, because he had no coat. The other men were wrapped in thick commando jackets. It was early spring, still cold. The Volga would be near freezing, maybe four degrees. Not a problem, he bathed in it every morning. For them, though, it would be a different story.
The van slowed. The tick, tick, tick of the indicator. They slowed down further. Stopped. A truck passed fast ahead of them, rocking the high suspension van in its wake. The leader bellowed a command, though he wasn’t stupid enough to name the destination. “This way, this way.” Another lorry – no, a tractor, given the smell of manure – the leader cursing the young driver for not pulling out sooner. The engine revved, the gear engaged, the van pulled forward.
And turned right.
37 Hours is due out in March 2017
66 Metres is already out!
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