July 1992, The Balkans
was leaning out of the open window of the Landrover,
letting the minimal breeze cool the sweat on his body.
Flimsy t-shirt rolled up to his shoulders, he adjusted
the shades, before glancing at Vadim. "You think
tomorrow's job will be just like today's job, which
is just like yesterday's job?" Yawning, he reached
for the lukewarm water, bottle squeezed between the
hope so. No combat." Vadim wore shades, too, much
better for driving, as the sun was belting down and
exploding on every reflecting surface. He was sweating,
even though he wasn't wearing any body armour. "But
the Balkans are volatile", he cautioned. "Just
when everyone thinks it might get better and people
get some sense back
though, I ask you. I hear of shit happening, but all
we see is exactly
nothing." Tipping his
head back as he drank, Dan handed the bottle to Vadim,
who rested it against the wheel, took a curve, then
drank on the straight bit of the road. "I'd like
to know what the fuck's going on here. I mean, I know
what we're being told, I know what I hear, but what
do we actually see? Nada. Bodyguarding for what?"
Yawning again, Dan settled back despite the bad road,
drumming his fingers against the outside of the vehicle
door. "Oh no," he rolled his eyes and pointed
forward, "not another road block with nothing to
show for. Bastards."
gave a tired laugh, finished the bottle and handed it
back. "Guess they have to spend the time somehow",
he muttered, already fishing for the papers as he slowed
couple of men with AKs stepped closer when Vadim came
to a stop. Paramilitaries, not quite like the ones they'd
met before, and Dan frowned, but said nothing, remained
in his seat, watching them closely. Something different
about them, something
and then he spotted the
two Cs and the cross, which left him pondering.
first man hardly glanced at the papers and shook his
head, telling them in monosyllables, that there was
no way they'd pass. No, and no again, waving his hand
as well, while the other came closer, clearly menacing,
the AK raised, while keeping the Landrover and the two
passengers in check.
gritted his teeth, but then managed to get his papers
back, and drove backwards turning on the narrow dusty
road. "Don't like this", he murmured. "No
bribes. That means it's a bit more serious than their
Dan's frown had turned into a steeple between his eyebrows.
"Bad enough to go insane with absolutely nothing
happening, but this doesn't make me happy either. Suggest
we have a wee gander, aye?"
idea. Will be good to stretch the legs." Vadim
drove on, making sure he was out of sight before the
turned off the road into the trees, until they were
protected from curious eyes. "My best bet is they're
trying to shield the road right after that block, about
two hundred yards down the road." He murmured,
consulting the map. "Not much of a road, really,
but there's a village down there. Here." Indicating
on the map.
Checking the map, Dan pushed the shades off his eyes.
"Seems to be a fairly small place, but what the
fuck would they want with that?" The frown wouldn't
leave him, and with the shades back down again, he grabbed
his armoured vest and the weapon. "I figure this
is part of our official duty." He winked, but without
humour, "recon for tomorrow's run, aye?"
yes. Very official." Vadim took the armour as well,
got out of the car and got kitted up in no time, checking
Dan's kit once Dan was fully dressed, who returned the
favour straight away, then pocketed the map and grabbed
his own weapon. "Let's go." They headed off,
fast, using the terrain for cover and protection wherever
possible, moving first parallel to the street and then
up the side of the hill, well above the checkpoint.
was slightly slower, the knee had been bugging him more
lately, but he'd never uttered a word about it. Figured
that ignoring the pain was the best way forward. Once
they had reached the brow of the hill, vegetation was
sparser, and they got onto the ground, just in case.
Tapping Vadim's leg to get his attention, Dan asked
quietly, "you think they got some illegal weapons
stores down there?" Before crawling forwards until
they had a fairly clear view of the village.
possible. Ever since the story with the German King
Tiger tank or whatever it was, I believe anything",
Vadim murmured. Rumour had it that when the Serbs had
attacked a village, the villagers had brought out a
fully functional King Tiger tank the Germans had left
behind sometime in the Second World War, and somebody
in the village had kept it in working condition for
all those years. And true to the doctrine of deterrence,
the Serbs then left, not risking to find out whether
the steel monster could still spit death and destruction.
It was just one of those insane little stories that
made Yugoslavia the madhouse it was.
they saw, the moment they stuck their heads out enough
to look down, though, made them freeze. Dan disbelieved
his own eyes for a second, until he caught himself and
got hold of the binos, checking. That's when he took
in a hissed breath. "What the fuck!"
in on dozens of bodies on the ground. Dead. Some torn
to pieces, others killed 'cleanly'.
eyes narrowed behind the binoculars. It was strangely
familiar, the obscene dance of armed men and unarmed
people. The dance of flashes of guns, slow, almost agonizingly
slow advance, no cover, nothing tactical about dropping
bodies while walking. Walking the survivors into a corner,
and rounding them all up. Men, women, children. No matter
the age nor the gender.
fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!" Dan breathed out, guts
clenching. No matter how many he'd killed, no matter
how much he'd seen, this was
this was Afghanistan
all over again. Cleansing. Mindless killing. Genocide.
Just without the Hinds. "What the fuck's
going on here?"
reached over and clasped Dan's shoulder. "Fucking
the Geneva Convention up the ass", he murmured,
but his own words rang hollow.
the fuck are we going to do?" Dan turned to glance
at Vadim, but only for a moment, because he couldn't,
just couldn't stop watching the evidence. What the hell
were they to do indeed? What? What besides watching
the survivors being rounded up, over a hundred of them
it seemed, and the paramilitaries arguing amongst each
other. Difficult to tell what they were on about, but
Dan had a guess. "Looks like they can't decide
if they should get rid of them there and then."
His voice was without inflection. Not sure if he felt
anything at all, anything beyond the horror. Had he
turned old, soft, mellow, sociable and human since Afghanistan
and the slaughter of the black crows and their children?
He felt sick, a growing anger like a red-hot fist in
Vadim shook his head. The banality. Arguing while the
as yet survivors watched, sweating blood and piss. He
closed his eyes for a long moment, hand still firm on
Dan's shoulder. "We can't take them on. Too many.
We're not equipped for it."
Dan was sweating. The man who'd never been bothered
by extremes of weather was dripping with sweat. Cold,
clammy, and fuelled by a rage that would never know
movement, down there, and Dan adjusted the binos. "What
fucking bastards!" Hissed between clenched teeth
when he saw a sudden flurry of men beating with clubs
and rifle butts onto the helpless civilians. Like animals,
corralled and readied for the slaughter. When shots
rang out, more bodies lay slain, and the beating continued,
until the survivors were forced into waiting trucks.
Limping, blood drenched, and separated into men, women
was breathing hard, rolling to the side when the trucks
drove off, leaving some of the paramilitaries with a
handful of civilian men behind. Obviously to clean the
place and to dig a grave where no doubt those as yet
survivors would vanish into as well. Despite his tan,
the pallor was visible in Dan's face. "Does the
UN know about this?" His voice sounded forced.
"Shit, we have no fucking evidence."
be fucked if I knew what they know." Vadim inhaled
deeply, tried to think straight. Bad enough they had
no chance to do anything about this now. "We need
to get away." He dug the map out of his pocket
and marked the spot, the roadblock, and noted down the
time and date. "We need to get back to base. Maybe
they can send UN guys to check the village."
Dan nodded hastily. "If I ever complain again that
there's nothing happening and we are just waiting around,
tell me to shut the fuck up."
didn't make this happen." Vadim gave a half-hearted
grin. No, Dan hadn't, but he had. Not here, not now,
but somewhere else, in a land that everybody had now
forgotten about, where the sky was a unique shade of
looked at Vadim and nodded once. "No. But I didn't
stop it either. I never stopped it." Not here,
not there. Crawling backwards to get up and away as
quickly as possible. He didn't have a clue what the
peacekeeping forces could do, but they bloody well had
to do something.
led the way, staying low, moving fast, finding the way
back that Dan only had to follow. His hands in the gloves
were sweaty. He wanted to do more than crawl away, there
were lives being lost, and there was absolutely no way
to stop that now. "They have to do something about
it. This must be breaching contracts, treaties or whatever."
they got to do something." Dan was limping
for a few steps when they had reached the lowest area,
but soon had himself under control. Damn the knee. "Let's
get cracking. Not a fucking clue what they are going
to do, but at least they need to know. Have to stop
that happening again, and where were they taking them
anyway? The main detention camp?" He got into the
Lannie, leaving the armoured vest on. For safety, now
that they knew what was really going on.
idea." They might just drive them somewhere better
to shoot them. It was impossible to predict. What if
the naysayers in the discussion won the upper hand on
the way? These guys didn't have a master plan, no grand
design. It was random. Vadim started the car and began
to manoeuvre it back out of the woods, then, with gusto,
turned it into the other direction and sped away, racing
the way back they'd come, until they got to the other
road, and, after a long delay that they owed to the
fact this route went all the way around the valley,
got them into camp.
their discovery was not met with the reaction they had
hoped for. Meticulous noting down, of course, but otherwise
... nothing. They had no orders to act. None that would
mean interference. On the contrary, the peace keepers
were strictly in the region to show strength - as deterrent
- and to otherwise do nothing. Intelligence and careful
noting of data, but that was it. They were not at war
- even though the country was, according to what they
don't get that idea of deterrence", Vadim murmured,
sitting in the Mess, having a very subdued meal. He
should let it rest, but he could see in Dan's eyes that
he was thinking about it, and in that case, it was better
to bring it out into the open. "Deterrence means
the enemy needs to believe you do something. We are
clearly doing absolutely nothing. What's the deterrent
value of that?"
have no fucking clue." The answer came too quickly,
too violently. "What the fuck would you lot have
done if they'd had fucking blue berets parading the
fuck around in Afghanistan and do otherwise fuck-all?"
them for a drink, take the piss out of them, then send
them home to mommy, drunk and dishevelled." Vadim
gave a short, coarse laugh. "Or my Colonel would
have mopped the floor with them, one way or the other.
Or the politicians would have accused them of anything
we could dig out on them. Or work with their backers.
There are fifteen different ways to get rid of them
that I can think of."
Precisely." Dan grunted, concentrated on the food
with far more effort than necessary. Shovelling it down
until he was almost done, suddenly raising his head.
"Knowing you, you'd probably just fucked the pretty
shook his head. "Couldn't do it. Not on the job.
Not with any real danger involved." He gazed at
the plate, thinking, for a moment, how these people
had been dropped, then shook his head. But it wasn't
that easy. They were here to prevent this kind of thing
from happening, and it did happen, and nobody cared?
damn." Dan mopped up the rest of the sauce off
his plate with a leftover bite of bread. "Nothing
for us to do then right now. Just plan tomorrow's route
and itinerary, and check the teams. Aye?"
Vadim reached across the table and took Dan's hand.
"Let's see what else we can come up with, hm?"
He gave a wink, and even if he wasn't in the mood for
sex, it would take their minds off things. Things like
dying and mass murder.
and I told you a couple of videos arrived that I ordered
Vadim glanced around. "What did you order?"
grin was back from gloom and reality to the irreverent
man who'd waded in gore and came back mentally unharmed
- and physically a ragtag of scars. "Let's just
you'll like it. Want to watch? Right now?"
the usual entertainment." Vadim gathered up the
trays and carried them back to rack, then walked at
Dan's shoulder to their room. Here, people knew they
were 'an item', but it was easier than in Kuwait. People
tended to mind their own business, even though Vadim
missed the light touch of Jean - even if he'd never
admit that. Besides, that place had brick-built low-slung
buildings that housed two or three men rooms for the
affiliated personnel like Dan and Vadim. Who, naturally,
shared a room with its single beds pushed together.
Two men staying in one place was too normal to be commented
upon, and the camaraderie was far less evident than
it had been in the Gulf.
the porn, followed by the inevitable sex was enough
to diffuse the earlier horror, which had had more impact
than anything they'd seen or done in Afghanistan - because
it had been unexpected. And because this was brother
against brother and neighbour against neighbour. Not
an enemy flown in from a foreign land.
didn't talk about it anymore, and the next day went
by as if it had never happened.
July 1992, The Balkans
was on duty, watching some politician's back, while
Vadim remained in camp, partially because he'd got a
whole range of immunization shots. One thing the medical
personnel amused themselves with when they were bored,
he reckoned, and consequently he felt like he was fighting
the onset of a flu or something. Tired, washed out,
and they'd told him he should give his immune system
a day off, which he did. Not quite voluntarily, especially
with Dan out in the field.
sitting on his bunk or sleeping was too boring, and
he didn't manage to focus on reading. So he headed over
to the phones, which were unoccupied - he could make
five parallel calls as everybody else was out and about
- or in the Mess, which he'd given a pass today. He
had a notepad and a pencil, and made a range of calls
with the phone cards he'd purchased, starting with one
number he remembered, and then asking for numbers he
should remember but didn't. He felt detached and unreal,
until he heard a female voice answer the phone.
The voice was petulant, annoyed that he wasn't who she'd
wanted to call. He was taken aback for a moment, then
smiled. "Is your mother home?"
your father. Vadim smiled, shook his head. "Your
was an audible intake of breath, then he heard Katya's
voice. "Who is it, honey?"
laughed, tonelessly, but covered the receiver. So petulant.
She sounded just like an ordinary teenager. His leaving
hadn't broken any spirits there.
grin faltered. "Hi. It's me."
was no response, and then he heard Katya tell Anoushka
to go, she was missing her lessons, then the door. A
deep breath. "I'm sitting down now", Katya
said. "Are you
yes. Are you?"
how you define trouble." Vadim put the pencil down
and leaned back. "I'm in Yugoslavia. What's left
of it. But it's not my kind of trouble. I'm just a mercenary
she wasn't going to ask or say anything, he gave a sigh.
"I'm okay. I'm just a bloody coward. I meant to
call you much sooner, but I just
up my courage, thought I could face it if you told me
to put down the receiver and never again call you."
why you didn't tell her it's you?"
So I can be just a mystery caller and not the father
who's not talking to her. Vadim closed his eyes. He
really didn't want to fuck this one up. "I'm not
giving you any more trouble, Katya. I already owe you
too much. I don't want to make this worse for you. I
want to be
" the man you deserved. You'd
have liked to marry. "No more trouble for you."
be apologetic." Her voice was warm, like he remembered
it, when they had whispered plans for the future, at
night in bed, cuddled up, but chaste. Brother and sister.
"It's good to hear you're alive, I've been hoping
for that, for you. That you're alive and well."
yes. Are you well? He could still guess her questions.
"I'm doing alright. Starting to tire of the work."
you're not getting any younger. Poor darling."
Gently admonishing, her way of being tender, sometimes.
"Did you get injured? What do you look like these
days? I cut my hair. I can send you a photo."
older. More tanned, I guess - we spent a lot of time
in Kuwait." We. He winced slightly.
means you're not alone?" Clever girl. As fast to
riposte as she was with the lunge. Her voice made him
think of a kick-lunge, when she threw the opponent with
a change in rhythm. What an elegant, tricky bitch she'd
been on the piste.
the man I met in Afghanistan
That's good to hear." Her voice tinged with something,
but it wasn't jealousy. Maybe something like surprise,
expertly hidden. "And you are happy?"
Somewhat non-committal, but it felt strange to talk
to her about it. He'd have preferred if she hadn't asked.
He really wanted to keep these two things separate.
"The job's a bitch, but we earn double the money.
Enough to retire in a few years. Do you
we're fine, Vadim, thanks for asking, I appreciate that.
But it's really time you look out for yourself. I'll
get these kids up to be good adults, I've managed so
far, I'll get them the rest of the way, too."
know you will." He was relieved. The kids were
doing fine. He'd never have doubted that, but it was
good to know it now. Katya was managing, she was doing
fine. Another unbroken spirit. "You're living with
quite." There was a ringing silence for
a long moment. "I'm afraid, Vadim, that Szandor
years older than you, yes." Katya made a gentle
sound. "It was an illness. A disease, and it went
on for almost three years. In the end, it was pneumonia."
Of all things?"
Vadim. He died of AIDS."
couldn't speak. Thought of Szandor, the old-fashioned
gentleman that had belonged into a French fencing salon
somewhere in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century,
maybe. He'd always had something dandyish about him,
tall, elegant, long, strong legs made for fencing. One
of the first men who'd ever kissed him. The second man
to fuck him. The first man who had allowed him to fuck
him. Szandor of the noble brow, the aristocratic nose,
lean, deadly, drop dead gorgeous in the white dress.
The same man who had a way to salute you on the piste
that breathed a decadent elegance that must have made
any communist fencing bureaucrat apoplectic.
cleared his throat. "Sorry. I
I just don't
know what to say."
was hard on all of us", she said. "He'd have
liked to meet you one last time, sorry to say that,
that must seem cruel now. But he did care a great deal
about you. I hope he felt I was there for him enough
towards the end."
you." She'd been there, and he hadn't. Vadim rubbed
his face. "Was it
wasn't pleasant. I think you might want to come and
look at the things he left for you. If you want to and
find the time. I'll keep them for you, if you'd rather
and a box full of memorabilia. Some collector has been
trying to get in touch, but I'm not selling it before
you've decided what to do with it."
you." The blow resonated like a vicious hit he
hadn't seen coming. And he'd only called to check on
her and the kids. That Szandor was dead - that was something
he could hardly grasp. AIDS. Holy fuck. His ex-lover.
Courting death, until it got him. And he'd have thought
being a soldier was risky - but being good-looking,
gay, and easy to drag into bed was even riskier, apparently.
The papers were full of people dying of the 'gay disease'.
But Szandor? Of course, he hadn't been enough of a celebrity
to get his own obituary anywhere where Vadim could have
read it. "When did he die?"
ten months ago." Katya's voice was warm, mellow,
tender. "During the night." She waited, but
picked up that he didn't want to talk about it any more.
"Is there any way I can reach you?"
We have a postal address. I could call you
smiled audibly. "I'd like that very much. What
you give me your postal address, and
I'll send you some photos? I might even send you some
of the letters I never posted. Silly me, it's a habit
hard to break. I guess it was my way of keeping a diary
- writing you all those long letters."
it's sealed." Katya smiled again. "Should
I tell the kids?"
you think that's
the good thing to do?"
are still a memory in this family, Vadim. We never decided
you were dead. You were just far away, but never dead."
swallowed hard, felt his eyes blur and wiped at them.
"Tell the kids. I might
come for a visit,
maybe, but in the meantime, letters
live to regret that, Vadim Petrovich", she joked,
"There are so many letters waiting for you."
thought it was banter. But she did speak the truth.
He did live to regret that.
August 1992, The Balkans
were glued to the television set. The Mess TV room was
crowded, and deadly silent. Silent except for the voice
of the presenter, talking about a camp that had been
declared by the paramilitary as a prisoner of war camp,
and was a kick in the face of the Geneva Convention
and the International Committee of the Red Cross - and
a place of terror to all inside.
men are at various stages of human decay and affliction;
the bones of their elbows and wrists protrude like pieces
of jagged stone from the pencil thin stalks to which
their arms have been reduced."
was pulling nicotine into his lungs, watching the pictures
that did not hit him as much as some of the others -
not after what he'd seen in his life - but which clenched
his guts once more, the helpless rage returning, and
with it the realisation he was human after all.
is nothing quite like the sight of the prisoners desperate
to talk," the presenter went on, "and to convey
some terrible truth that is so near yet so far, but
who dares not." Images now flickering across the
screen that were unlike anything any of the men had
ever witnessed. Including Dan and Vadim, and Dan tensed
in his seat. Metal crates, stacked on top of each others,
and prisoners existing in hundreds in their own filth,
which ran through the metal grids and dripped on skeletal
bodies with vacant stares.
stares burn, they speak only with their terrified silence,
and eyes inflamed with the articulation of stark, undiluted,
The reporter trailed off and let the images speak for
themselves before carefully selected prisoners were
allowed to talk - and yet didn't. They didn't need to,
though, it was all too clear. This was no war. This
was systematic killing, terrorising and torture.
suddenly snapped, the sound of his fist hitting the
armrest of his chair a sudden explosion in the silence.
"Fuck!" Jumping up. "Fuck that!"
When he stormed out with the air of frustration and
utter, helpless rage around him, many eyes followed.
They all knew what he'd been thinking and what he hadn't
said, nor asked: why the fuck was no one doing anything
was right behind, swallowing empty bile that kept rising
in his throat. He'd grown up with images like that.
The Glorious Soviet Army liberating the Nazi death camps.
Very hard to resist the parallel, even though the Serbs
had been the Brother Nation, and that alone made him
angry, that these men had been allies, brothers, had
a similar culture, a similar image of themselves. Slavs.
But he couldn't even utter these thoughts anywhere here,
where a Russian name conjured up the wrong ideas, even
though people accepted he was on their side and for
all intents and purposes a Brit. Only that he wasn't.
reached for Dan's neck, pulled him close, in the middle
of camp. "Dan."
Dan was fuming, but the burning fire in his eyes had
no outlet. "What the fuck is anyone doing
about this? Why the fucking fuck does everyone sit here,
unable to do any-fucking-thing?" Taking a breath
that didn't reach his lungs. "Damn!" He was
shaking with frustration. "I want them to give
me some fucking orders to go out there!"
don't need orders." Vadim's words were cold, fully
rational. "We're made for this kind of war, Dan.
We've done it all our lives. We can give them a piece
of hell back."
are you talking about?" Dan stared at Vadim, fists
opened his lips, then closed them, frowning, instead
used more strength to hold Dan, trying to convey the
meaning without words. Let's go. Let's kill them. Kill
stared at him for a long time, until he finally shook
his head. Lowering his voice, aware they were in the
middle of camp. "That's vigilantism, Vadim. We've
" not killers, he wanted to
say, but it got stuck in his throat. "We can't
a soldier. Words that, once upon a time, had saved
his life. Vadim's face twitched and he looked towards
the camp gate. It would be so easy. Operating behind
enemy lines. Not with those kids, but alone. Wolves.
Hunting. He shook his head, rested his forehead against
Dan's. "Maybe we should leave", he murmured.
"We're wasting our time here. They don't let us
off the leash."
what are we going to do if we leave?" Dan murmured.
"We haven't got enough money yet for the farm.
if that's what you want, shit, I'd leave.
This place is
" He trailed off, shaking his
moved closer, embracing him, holding him close and tight,
not caring for a moment if anybody saw it and what they
were thinking. Dan was right. They couldn't just walk
out of the job. "If it's too
much shit for
you, Dan, we go. Okay? We find some other place. Somewhere
where we can actually do some proper work." Whatever
I'm okay." Dan grimaced. "What about you?"
long as I have you, I manage. Whatever. Anything."
Vadim ran his fingers through Dan's hair, kept holding
him like that, tried to fuse their strength, Dan's with
his, his own with Dan's. Hard steel, soft steel. Combined,
they were a weapon to behold.
smiled, didn't think about anything else that moment
than Vadim, and how they'd been the lucky ones so far
- despite everything.
September 1992, The Balkans
letters came. It was a brown padded envelope, and it
was full and heavy with paper. Vadim took it with him
to their room, sat down on the bed and reached inside,
making sure he'd get the whole lot in one hand. He didn't
want it to spill over, then put the envelope to the
side. Letters, individually sealed and dated, like she
did, so he knew in which order to read. Laid out much
like chapters in a book, ordered, with their own internal
logic that he could only grasp when he followed the
rules. Her neat handwriting. He checked the dates. One
every few months. Twelve months ago, one every week.
Szandor's dying and death. Vadim swallowed hard, wasn't
sure he wanted to confront that, didn't know whether
to follow the rule or leave those out that he knew were
sorted the letters on one pile, ordered by date. Old
ones on top, new ones below. The photos showed the kids.
Fourteen and twelve years old. Anoushka was growing
up to be a beautiful girl, just like she had been beautiful
as a child, even as a baby. Silvery blond hair, fair,
pure complexion, teeth white and straight. The very
image of health, and he smiled when he saw a semi-formed
frown that made her face darker than it should be. One
photo showed Anoushka, flushed and victorious in fencer's
kit. The second and third 'winners' framed her, and
Vadim could see that they were positively intimidated
still. Or maybe they had just been soundly beaten -
or he was imagining things. He knew for sure that Katya
wouldn't have sent the photo if Anoushka hadn't won.
A family of winners, at all costs. It would certainly
build her character, he thought, especially dealing
with setbacks and superior forces. At that age, it did
no harm to feel invincible. Quite the opposite.
He looked so much like his father that it was painful.
The shattered body of a pilot, smashed against Afghan
rocks. Disfigured, dismembered by wild dogs, both humans
certain sweetness about him, deep thoughts, a withdrawn
boy, lanky and clearly not at peace with himself, or
anybody else. Vulnerable. Vadim tried to divine what
he was like. His father had had an infectious, open
laugh, the easy charm of a pilot, removed from the dirty
war below, a rider on the flying steed, coming in to
punish and rescue. Nikolai had nothing of that, he seemed
honest, but not open, and he, too, would be growing
up to be attractive, if very differently from Anoushka.
She'd break hearts, he might just mend them. But there
was little else. Nikolai clearly didn't like to be photographed.
placed the photos back into the envelope. He couldn't
carry any of those with him, that would look funny,
and, besides, in Yugoslavia, he didn't want them that
close. And he could hardly pin them to the wall, either.
It just didn't feel right. He didn't want to remind
Dan of the time Before. In a way, this was a new life,
keeping visible tokens of a past - that was a parallel
present - didn't feel right. Maybe one day. Maybe it
was easier not to be reminded every single day. He didn't
see any photos of her, though. Maybe she had sent it
right away and didn't have any photos on hand that showed
her with the new haircut. That would be very Katya.
looked at the pile of letters. That would be the hard
work. Part of him feared it. It took him forever to
read, and often enough he didn't grasp any of the meaning
at all and had to read a simple text several times.
These letters had meant so much. His protection, his
connection, the reminder that there was a world that
was not Afghanistan. Wasn't madness and heat and the
insane need to take, plunder, destroy. Humanity could
be letters. Vadim groaned and got up. He'd take this
slow. Be careful. Her letters always had an effect,
he'd have to be careful with the dosage.
September 1992, The Balkans
was standing outside in one of the few relatively dark
corners that weren't awash with the constant floodlights.
The night was blissfully cool, and he leaned against
the outside wall of the accommodation block, smoking.
Yet there was nothing tranquil about it, nothing at
all, because the sounds in the night were everything
shook his head, as if to clear his ears and mind, but
the sounds were still there, and would haunt him throughout
the night. In his dreams, during waking hours. He wasn't
the only one affected, he knew that, and he nodded to
one of the British soldiers who walked past and whose
facial expression was as clouded and angry as his body
language was tense. They'd all suffered the sounds -
and the helplessness.
looked up when a shadow darkened the corner of his eyes,
and he smiled at Vadim, but the smile never reached
his eyes. "Guess it's better to watch a video,
aye?" Stubbing out the fag as he turned towards
Vadim, "and make sure it's loud."
they walked inside, the screams of the girls and women
were still echoing in his mind, and his fist remained
clenched for a long time to come.
October 1992, The Balkans
Mad Dog!" One of the guys was calling out from
the admin block, cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
Dan stopped walking, had been in the process of rubbing
the remains of his fried breakfast off his sweater,
eyeing the egg yolk with distaste. "What's up?"
for you." The chap was waving a brown, battered
looking A4 envelope.
piqued, Dan gave up on the egg and turned 90 degrees
to march up to the admin HQ instead. "Can only
be from my brother." He shrugged, reaching for
think so," Blowing cigarette smoke in Dan's face,
the guy dropped the letter into waiting hands, "funny
you bitches to snoop around." Pulling lips back
from his teeth, Dan mock-snarled.
get your heckles up, diva." The guy laughed, rolled
his eyes and spat the end of the fag to the ground,
"that weird-ass stamp is too obvious even for you
made a rude gesture in front of his groin. "Wanker."
Half-heartedly. He liked the admin guys, and the continuous
banter between 'fags' and lower end of HQ had established
itself like a comfortable custom.
that funny anyway, it's
" Dan turned the
envelope, peering at the stamp, he could make out a
bird and its nest, which looked like an eagle, but also
the word 'Magyar Posta'. He shook his head, snorting.
"Bullshit, that's a stamp from Hungary. It's for
Vadim. You lot are such dickheads you got it wrong again.
Do I look like a Russian hunk?"
guy was fishing for another fag, couldn't get the cigarette
fast enough out of the packet when Dan had already snatched
it, under no more than eye-rolling protest. "No,
but like an aging pimp."
guy lit Dan's cigarette after lighting his own. "It's
your name on the envelope, mate, despite what you're
going to tell me in a second, yes, I do know how to
read and write."
whatever." Dan took a deep drag, keeping the smoke
in his lungs until he spotted the tell-tale blond head
turn round the corner, straight out of the Mess.
Vadim!" Calling out and waving the envelope, before
he'd even looked at it properly. "Got a letter
could see that Vadim would rather have gone straight
to the toilet blocks, but he approached anyway, nodding
at the admin guy who seemed to suddenly have something
important to do, retreating back into the low building,
leaving Dan and Vadim alone.
you." Dan handed the envelope over, but it took
less than a glance for Vadim to hand it straight back.
Fag secured in the corner of his mouth, Dan finally
took a proper look. His name, no doubt. Daniel McFadyen.
Dan frowned. 'Daniel'? Who the fuck
The frown deepened, he knew only one person in Hungary,
and that couldn't be. He hadn't heard from the bitch
since January 1990, no reason why now. "Makes no
at Vadim, who shrugged, Dan wiped his nose with his
sleeve, skilfully avoiding the burning cigarette. Autumn
was getting cold in the Balkans and his nose kept running.
"OK, let's see, then." Turning the letter
in his hands, "no sender. Ach well, only one way
to find out."
ripped the letter open, but his finger slipped and he
tore most of the envelope in two, scattering a few pieces
onto the ground. "Shit." Mumbled, they both
knelt down to catch the three pieces of paper before
they got blown into a puddle. One white, two
the fuck?" Dan picked up what seemed like a very
short letter and one photo, the second photo ended in
Vadim's hand. Standing back up, Dan stared at the photo,
uncomprehending. A girl. A toddler, no more than possibly
two. He had no clue. Grinning impishly into the camera
with her dark hair wild and lose, in long curls, with
dark eyes and a few freckles on her nose.
?" Dan stared, turned the photo,
another angle, but always the same face and same grin,
shook his head again. "Who the fuck?" He felt
his hand slapped, the one that held the letter, reminding
him of its existence. Casting his eyes over the few
lines, he froze.
think it's only proper to inform you about my daughter
Kisa. She is a healthy, happy child with a temper that
appears altogether un-Russian. These were taken on her
second birthday on 13 September, a bright day for all.
You can see her presents and a friend in the background.
I am not sure how much of an interest you take in this,
without whom this would not have been possible. I will
keep you updated, just in case you do.
fuck." That was all. Frozen with shock. "Fuck."
frowned, looked at the photo. Katya sending this to
Dan? But realization hit him like a sniper's bullet.
Heavy calibre, right to the brain. Immediately shutting
him down, off, and he knew in all clarity, like a dying
man, what had happened. Katya. And. Dan.
bastard", Vadim snarled, the anger so pure, so
red-hot, so darkly pleasant, something that burned
everything else away, something strong and hot and all-consuming.
Rage. His fist went right into Dan's face, who didn't
have much time to react, taken by surprise. Elbow following
as Vadim went close quarters, knowing instinctively
his bulk and strength were his advantages. Had always
lost balance, pain exploding in his face, chest, and
he lost his grip on photo and letter. Stumbling backwards,
too shocked, too surprised at the violence. Grunts of
pain, unable to think, understand, nothing at all. Reactions
delayed, never got his defence up fully, he crashed
to the ground, on his back, below Vadim.
bastard. Lying cheating fucking bastard. Vadim's mind
was empty, there was no horror that this was Dan, and
what he was doing to him - punching and kicking him
like his worst enemy - no reasoning beyond the feeling
he'd been massively and unforgivably betrayed.
shouted Vadim's name, once, twice, and then nothing
but groans when his survival sense kicked in, but too
late, he could do nothing but protect himself best he
could. Getting in the odd punch or kick of his own,
but his defence had been weakened from the start, and
his mind was reeling, unable to find one clear thought,
while his body could not grasp what was happening to
it, could only rely on the most basic instincts of fighting
ruckus alerted a team of other mercs who came running
and it took five men to pull Vadim off Dan, and even
they struggled. The frustration in camp often gave way
to violence, so people reacted immediately, and once
Vadim knew he was bested, he stopped and got to his
feet. Several guys now between him and Dan, who'd scrambled
to his feet, refusing help. Face bleeding, bruised,
dark eyes betraying the shock that had rendered him
numb, incapable of reacting. No feeling. No understanding.
Just pain. Body
his mind hadn't grasped the full
extent of terror yet.
stared at Dan, rage still burning in him, his knuckles
hurt, the anger pounded like a red flood against his
Fuck!" Dan managed, tried once more, emotions in
such disarray, not a thought left. No sense of reality.
A bad dream, a nightmare in broad daylight. This couldn't
. Ignoring the men around him. The
stares, the questions. He had no answers.
switched to Russian, immediately, code reasons and all
that, breathing so hard it took him several moments
to put together syllables and words. "You bastard
fucked my wife!" he snarled, noticed his error,
"Ex-wife, whatever! You bastard did it!"
jerked, as if he'd received another punch. Fuck, since
when had he turned into a victim? Since his goddamned
world had collapsed and become a nightmare, a few minutes
ago. "You don't understand!" Wiping blood
out of his eye, spitting blood onto the ground. Russian,
too, the switch came without thinking. "Listen
nothing to understand. You fucked my wife, while I was
fucking dying. And you thought I wouldn't find out?
Fuck you." The betrayal was worse. Both. It wasn't
just jealousy, he could deal with that, he'd proven
that over and over. It was the fact it was Katya, his
past, his children, and Dan had just broken into that
fucked around with it. His world, his
anchor, at least back then. And that Dan had become
one of Katya's men - that was even worse. Again, sharing.
His lover and his wife, and now this. A child. As if
to mock him and remind him he'd never been much of a
husband, not much of a father, not even much of a lover.
Katya had taken something that had been his, alone,
his, and the barrier between old life and new life had
been torn down and created
open, Dan paled beneath tan and smears of blood. You
fucked my wife. No sound came out, as an ice cold
fist slammed into his guts. While I was dying.
I know. I remember. And it killed me, too. He stood
frozen on the spot, no more words, no attempts. She'd
done it. She'd won. He felt so sick he wanted to throw
up, and it wasn't because of the kicks and punches.
hadn't given him a chance.
me the fuck alone", Vadim roared, unable to contain
that pain, and he forced his way through the other mercenaries
who tried to hold him back, but he would have none of
didn't move. No reaching out, no calling Vadim's name.
Nothing. You fucked my wife. He shuddered, stared
at Vadim running away. No chance. No questions. No chance
for explanations. Believing he'd done it. Betrayed him.
Expected the worst, convinced he was a traitor. Twelve
shook his head violently when some of his mates tried
to talk to him, and pushed them away when they grabbed
hold of his arms. Didn't want to hear them, no voices,
no well-meant taking him to the medic to patch him up.
No queries, couldn't bear it. Just alone. Leave me
the fuck alone. He could do that. Mind reeling,
world shattered, and Vadim believed he was a traitor.
She'd won. He hoped she would rot in a hell he didn't
looked around on the ground, gathered the letter, muddy
and torn, then found the photos. Dirty, crumpled, and
he straightened them, wiped the specks of blood off
the kid's face with his sleeve. Still in the front of
the admin block, the mercs and soldiers were starting
to scatter, when he ignored each of them.
at the picture of the girl, he couldn't grasp what he
saw. A child. Laughing. Dark hair, dark eyes. A girl.
The kid that had destroyed his world.
hated the mother. Hated that bitch with more fervour
than he'd ever hated anyone. Even Vadim. Back when
no. Not going there.
hated the bitch but he could not hate the kid.
received a major dressing down just two hours later.
The CO, his own nerves clearly frayed by the images
of a reality outside that none of the soldiers could
actually deal with, coldly told him his punishment,
after he'd asked whether Vadim had, in fact, without
provocation, attacked a fellow soldier. A fellow soldier.
The word the CO did not use was 'partner', or 'lover',
but Vadim knew exactly what he was thinking. That their
kind of bond could only lead to this kind of quarrel.
That two gay soldiers would always turn against each
other, and be not only a nuisance, but a liability.
Not professional. Emotions had no space in places like
these, least of all two faggots punching each other
took the pay cut stoically. He was really expecting,
hoping, to be kicked out. Only so he could go outside.
And. Do. Something. He had nothing left to lose, nothing
but the pain. He remembered he'd been in that kind of
mindset before, one hundred percent soldier, zero percent
human. He knew how effective he could be. What a force.
And there'd always been something that had held him
back. Doubts. A family. A man he'd meet as a lover.
Very rarely had these been there and not impeded him
- when they had paled, or he'd been so tired that he
couldn't feel them, but right now, they were gone. Now
all that baggage had fallen off him, he was free to
do whatever he pleased. And that gave him a sense of
purpose, cut loose the chain that had grown into his
flesh so deep he'd really believed it was part of him.
It wasn't. He was free.
acted properly repentant, which meant he kept silent,
didn't protest, just accepted that bastard telling him
he'd expected him to be more professional and he'd hoped
that would be the last time.
saluted, and went back to his room. Their room. Pushed
the beds back to where they'd been at the start, took
the envelope with letters and photos, his own beginnings
of letters he'd never finished, and burned the lot outside,
where nobody could watch. Let it go up in smoke, Szandor's
death, the stories from school of his kids, the local
fencing association stories. It was soon gone. The last
of the photos that browned and crumbled to ashes was
a photo of his other cuckoo's child, Nikolai, whose
withdrawn, sceptical and soft face seemed to say: I
knew it wouldn't last, so I didn't smile at you.
Dan finally returned to the room - since he had nowhere
else to go - he'd been cleaned up. The dark bruises
vivid in his face, and the split at his brow kept together
with butterfly strips. He froze when he opened the door.
The beds - pushed apart. He'd have thought he was prepared
for anything by now, but the sight slammed into his
guts like another fist.
was sitting on a chair, polishing the boots, cleaning
his whole kit, it smelled of boot polish, soap, and
metal. While it was a ritual, part of everyday duty,
Vadim was fully focused on the task, didn't look up,
just worked through the leather of the boots to keep
them waterproof and in fighting condition. Precious
little else they could do. Aching inside, though, it
fucking hurt, but he was good at keeping a straight
face, just pretended the muscles in his face were not
connected to anything else.
mouth opened, old habit, but no sound came out. No word
of greeting. Everything he might have wanted to say
was silenced by traitor, liar, and no
chance. He walked over to the bed that he assumed
was 'his', and the fist in his guts was churning his
insides. Beds. Not bed. One bitch had destroyed that
and he couldn't see a way out. Too hurt to try and explain,
too proud to talk, and too shattered inside.
turned his back to Vadim, carefully placing the photos
amongst his kit. He'd destroyed the letter. Nothing
in there he wanted to ever see again. Not the bitch's
writing, not her words. September thirteen was all he
needed to know, and Kisa. 'Kitten'. Lapushka. How fucking
ironic if it didn't hurt so much. Taking his muddy and
bloodied clothes off, he reached for towel and soap
bag. He needed a shower, had to ease the soreness and
ache and had to try to wash away what could never be
cleansed. No chance. After twelve years. Assuming
the worst and proving that no matter what, the ex-wife,
the bitch, was more important than him. She'd
won. Well and truly, at last.
was out of the door without a sound.
looked up when Dan was gone. Being in the same room
was hard. He didn't want to see him, hear him, smell
him, ever again feel him. Stupid fucking need. Sex.
Men made themselves fools for sex. Gave up their honour.
Gave up everything. He shook his head, stowed away the
kit. He'd have to arrange something, so he took a wad
of money and went to the NCO who planned the shifts.
The staff sergeant had already heard the story, and
it didn't take much convincing to be put on opposite
shifts. Vadim was fairly sure the man had no idea how
serious it was - he played along to "give both
of them space", as he called it, and Vadim took
the boon that came for free. It was understood he owed
him, but that was fine. As long as they would spend
as little time in the same area as possible. Bad enough
he couldn't ask for different accommodation, but he
left that move to Dan. Dan was the man who made friends
and who found other lovers, like Jean. Tough luck, no
Jean in sight in Yugoslavia.
Dan returned to the room Vadim was out. Better that
way, it hurt less. Mind numb, he couldn't get one single
coherent thought, let alone string several together.
All of this had to be a nightmare, couldn't be true,
utterly impossible that Vadim would have done that,
would have condemned him like that. Like trash. Worth
nothing. Twelve years just gone.
dressed, had to somehow get ready for nightshift. A
couple more nights of that, how the fuck was he going
to function though? Beside Vadim? But even on his own,
how was he going to keep himself from getting killed,
because he just couldn't focus? Damn. He was a soldier,
still. Mercenary, PMC, whatever. He was still a professional.
And if he got killed
right now, what did it matter?
Wouldn't make things worse. Perhaps in the light of
the morning, but at the moment, it seemed a damn viable
option, and he didn't care.
to get some food down, Dan smoked fag after fag, popped
a couple of painkillers the medic had pushed into his
hand, and then it was time to get kitted out and back
onto shift. But when he got into the Landrover, one
of the other mercs was standing there, claiming he had
taken over the shift and that Dan had been put onto
permanent night shift. Dan just nodded, didn't ask questions,
didn't complain, didn't give a damn. Figured it was
easier to work with anyone but Vadim, and existing at
different times without seeing each other.
night, he hardly talked and he did his job. No more,
found a new rhythm, a faster rhythm. Doing his duty,
he was silent, the type that did the job by the book.
There was no sign of fraying about him, and people seemed
to believe that. Running security, showing weapons,
guarding compounds, watching the blue berets do nothing
but show off their pristine uniforms below haunted eyes.
Vadim wasn't haunted. He was possessed.
area around them swarmed with irregulars. The same men
who killed and murdered and raped and tortured, living
like wild dogs off the land, feeding on human flesh
and blood. Breaking the soul of a people, shattering
a land so it would never grow together again. They feared
nothing. They ruled the land by force of arms, by force
of brutality, and that reinforced their fearlessness.
The feral dogs feared nothing.
wore black camo on his hunting expeditions. He went
to bed like anybody expected, waited for the camp to
calm down and Dan to leave, then got dressed again.
A boring, pointless day gave way to the thrill of the
hunt when he put on the unmarked black camo, ammunition,
knife, garrotte, gloves, something deadly or useful
in every pocket. Getting out of camp was easy enough
- he knew the routines, he was an insider. Any insider
can fool the system. He'd fooled the Soviet Army for
years, deep in enemy territory. This wasn't so different,
followed the noise they made, waited in the dark for
them to fall asleep. Took out their guards, then killed
the sleeping men. For I have become death, the destroyer
of worlds, he thought, smiling, after he had done the
work. Killing sleeping men was easy. Just the finale
to the stalking, the watching, fanning the flame of
anger inside and getting ready. Feeling alive inside
while he hunted, and calm, focused, centred, after it
returned to camp past midnight, slept for four or five
hours, then did his day shift. He couldn't go out hunting
every night, but he made it a priority to go out at
least twice a week. Leaving bodies behind when he'd