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"The new regime is just as rotten as the old one," the Chief declared. "We'll be doing the world a favour."

Klaus held his face in an emotionless mask. Overthrowing governments was bread and butter to some security agencies he could name, but NATO usually didn't dirty its hands to this degree.

"All the rhetoric coming from the Presidential palace claims that the conflict is over," continued the Chief, "but the country is still unstable. This can work to our advantage. Your contact has been there since before last year's coup. Lenz Dortmann." The Chief handed Klaus a photograph. "He will steer the operation. You will cooperate, von dem Eberbach, and you will ensure that the changes are successful. Together, you will find out where the regime is getting its money from, because it's certainly not coming from inside the country. Once we know that, we can shut them down. That, and the removal of the President, will open the way for a new government that may be more ... cooperative."

Working under the direction of an unknown quantity was not what Klaus would have preferred, but he had no say in the matter so he swallowed his protests, grudgingly resolving to make the best of the situation.

"If the current regime falls, there are at least three factions that will be vying to fill the gap," Klaus pointed out. "How sure are we that the one we want will get enough of a foothold to take control?"

The Chief grinned humourlessly. "That's where preparing the groundwork is so important, von dem Eberbach. I know you usually shy away from diplomacy, but this time you need to get some agreements in place before the President's tenure in office is, ehm, terminated."

Agreements, thought Klaus. A batch of well-placed assassinations to take out the power base of the other factions, more like it - shored up with bribes and covert support for the favoured mob of thugs that would be expected to form the next government. Certainly, the current regime was as bad as the one it had replaced in last year's ferocious coup, but Klaus doubted that the preferred faction would be any better - just another incompetent, vicious and unworthy bunch of parasites.

"This mission is ... sensitive, as I am sure you appreciate," the Chief said gravely. "Secrecy of the highest order. Once you leave Germany, you're on your own resources. Herr A will act in your place while you are away. Your men will not know where you are. And it goes without saying," concluded the Chief, "NATO's involvement with these activities must remain hidden. If any hint of it gets out ... well, von dem Eberbach, you don't need me to tell you that we'll deny any connection ... with the activities, and with you."

Klaus rose to leave. This was as repugnant a job as he could remember.

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

War. Wasteful, destructive. The war had erupted a year ago. One dictator replaced by another; one corrupt regime wiped out and replaced by its mirror image. The bloodshed had been savage and widespread. Now that the worst conflict was over, factions continued to posture in the uneasy false peace.  On the streets, violence reigned. Nobody had enough food; nobody trusted anyone - nobody could afford to.

By day, life had an odd normality. After dark, people stayed indoors to avoid the marauding gangs and military patrols. As the weeks went by, Klaus blended into the rhythms of the city. He spoke the language, and although his accent marked him out as a foreigner he managed to pass himself off as just one more person who had left the countryside to escape the sporadic fighting that continued between rival guerrilla bands.

In the weakening sunlight of a late afternoon, Klaus sat on a bench in the paved forecourt of the bombed-out cathedral.  Beside him, a ruddy-faced man with red-blond hair leaned back in his seat making a show of confidence.

"Everything is falling into place, Gerhardt." Lenz Dortmann's self-assured tones grated on Klaus's nerves. "I've recruited a technical crew to undertake the removal.  Our friends in the north are waiting for you. Your reputation in weapons training has preceded you, Gerhardt - they're expecting you to transform the militia."

"I'll be heading north tomorrow," said Klaus tersely.

Dortmann looked appraisingly at the man he knew as Gerhardt. Morose bastard, he thought.

Aloud, he said, "Come on, Gerhardt. It's your last night in what passes for civilisation. Get yourself laid, relax."

Klaus gave Dortmann a glance of barely-concealed distaste, and didn't bother to reply.

"What's the matter? Come on, sex is one of the few things you can still buy plenty of in this city. Look, I know a place..."

"No thanks," Klaus ground out. "I will be making preparations."  He rose. "You will hear from me in due course."

Klaus had not been comfortable with this mission from the start. He loathed not being in control of all the details; he resented having to collaborate with someone he simply didn't trust. Klaus didn't doubt Lenz Dortmann's allegiance, but he did doubt his competence. Too much bravado, not enough attention to detail. Not the sort of man you'd want to rely on ... but Klaus did have to rely on him.

Full of misgivings, he walked away.

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

A cold, dust-laden wind whipped through the mountain pass.  Night was falling, and the camp was quiet.  Klaus leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He ached all over. He'd had enough of this god-forsaken country. Five months under cover, and what had he got to show for it?

For the last two months he'd been here in this training camp deep in the barren mountains to the north of the capital. The ragged guerrilla band he had first encountered was shaping up into a disciplined squad. By his estimation, there were barely enough men, but they'd been stockpiling weapons and ammunition, and training from dawn to dark.

Systematically, their allies in the south had been undermining the rival factions, weakening their positions, sapping their strength. The time to move would come soon - as soon as the President was removed.

"Sleeping so early, Gerhardt?" chided a deep voice. Klaus opened his eyes and gave a crooked smile as a heavyset man sat down beside him.

"I never sleep: always vigilant," answered Klaus. He had a grudging respect for the guerrilla leader. The man's faith that their political masters would succeed in taking power and guiding the country back to prosperity was impressive. Misplaced, Klaus believed, but impressive.

"The men are improving, no?" the man commented gruffly. "But they are becoming restless; they are impatient to get on with things in the capital. We'll get word soon, Gerhardt. And then - a new day dawns." He slapped Klaus on the shoulder and moved off, grinning.

Klaus watched him go. Word would come soon. He hoped it would be what he wanted to hear.

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

A messenger arrived two days later. The news was bad. An attempt had been made on the President's life - and had failed. Security in the capital had tightened, and the regime had launched savage reprisals against its political opponents.

Klaus headed for the capital to seek out Dortmann.

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

There are times when the resilience of human beings seems boundless. In a city torn apart by renewed bloodshed, life went on. Vendors gathered in the market place to sell their severely limited supply of goods; women with baskets under their arms lined up to buy bread. In the rubble below a ruined church tower, boys kicked a football. A streetside café sold rot-gut liquor to men with enough coins to buy.

Two foreigners sat at a table, conversing in tense, quiet tones.

"You know, Gerhardt," said Lenz Dortmann, "even in troubled times like this, one can afford to take the time to get things right."

Klaus assessed him coldly with piercing green eyes. "I think it can be unwise to abandon things too quickly," he murmured, his tone dangerous.

Dortmann waved a hand dismissively. "Since the failed attempt on the President, nobody can get near the Palace. Too many troops. A second attempt is out of the question." 

The termination attempt had been carried out by two inadequately trained operatives, hot headed young men connected with a local resistance movement. Dortmann had prepared them, and had judged them ready. In the event, they were not, and neither had lived - and the dictator remained unharmed, and still in power.

This mission was falling apart rapidly. Klaus had nothing but contempt for slipshod standards and shoddy workmanship. Dortmann's attitude was despicable.

"Look, Dortmann, I've spent the last five months positioning us for a clean removal and you've fucked it up. No - not those dead boys, you! The centre-left faction is ready to seize power the minute that butcher is out of the way. The longer it takes, the weaker they'll become. Timing is everything. The forces in the north - "

Dortmann cut him off.  "The government won't change this time. The President will stay in place for now."

Klaus seethed. Dortmann remarked, "You know, Gerhardt, sometimes you have to let go for a while. Step back and regroup."

Platitudes, Klaus though bitterly. If this clown hadn't botched the job, there would be no need to let go of anything.

"Even so," Klaus gritted out, "we need the hard evidence about the President's foreign backers in order to dry up his supply of funds. Without that, this bloody situation will drag on for months - years. Are you going to fuck that up too?"

"I'll get it," said Dortmann dismissively. "I'm expecting to meet someone tonight who can provide what we need."

"And then you're pulling out of the operation? Leaving the locals to it?" Klaus's voice dripped with disgust.

"Our only option is to pull out," Dortmann said flatly. "We rendezvous in five days at the market town on the river. I'll pass you the information your superiors need to close down the government's foreign cash supplies. Then we split up, and head for the border."

Klaus knew a dead end when he saw one. He nodded once, stood, and made his way down the street.

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

In the distance, the setting sun burned: a smear of red fire on a dirty black horizon. Perched in the shadows on a rocky outcrop above the dry river bed, Klaus surveyed the wreckage of a once-prosperous village.

Houses had been reduced to rubble. Bare fields were blackened where the crops had been burned.  The tracks at the edge of the town were still intact but no trains ran any more: the line had been blown up back in the hills and there was no manpower to make repairs. An arched viaduct striding across the gully loomed out of the half-darkness, two arches broken.

Given a choice, he would avoid the place, but he had to make contact with Dortmann before heading for the border. It was their last hope to salvage something from this string of failures.  Shouldering his rifle, Klaus began to make his way down to the shattered town. His contact would be waiting for him there ... if all was well.

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

None of the buildings in this street had fared well in the bombardment: windows smashed, roofs gaping, walls destroyed. The house he wanted was as devastated as the rest, the splintered front door hanging from one hinge. Cautiously, Klaus pushed the door inward. Weapon in hand, he glided silently deeper into the building. Dortmann should be here...

Klaus found him in the third room. Someone else had found him first. He'd been dead for at least a day.

Rapidly, Klaus went through the dead man's pockets, then searched the building: nothing. Anything of any value - any food, weapons, ammunition - had been taken, and there was no physical evidence of any information he may have been carrying. Fuck it, thought Klaus.  If he's here, he must have got the information - but he doesn't have it now.

Who had killed him? A random opportunist, looking for loot - or someone who needed to keep that information from passing into the wrong hands? Someone who, even now, might be watching to see who came to make contact with the dead man?

Klaus weighed up his options. He had to assume that the information had been intercepted and the conspiracy was known. Plans for another coup were in disarray. Dortmann's end of the operation had been managed so badly that there was little chance of regrouping their allies quickly, and they were unlikely to trust Klaus after the termination had gone so badly wrong. Drying up the dictatorship's money supply had been the only chance to retrieve anything from this mess.  Now Dortmann was dead, and five months' work was all for nothing.

For the first time in his life, Klaus had to admit the situation was unsalvageable. There was no other option: he had to abandon the mission.

Outside, pale moonlight washed the landscape with weak, cold silver. Klaus watched as a military patrol made its way down the street and disappeared from sight. Could he risk the streets to get out of town? Instead, he decided to hunker down in the house for the night. There was a worn grey blanket on the floor, under the legs of Dortmann's corpse. Klaus tugged it free, shook off the worst of the dust, and carried it through to the room nearest the street, where he could see the roadway clearly whilst remaining hidden himself. Wedged into a dark corner, the cold seeping into his bones, Klaus waited for the dawn. 

In the hours between midnight and daybreak, a faint noise caught Klaus's attention: someone was moving softly outside the house. He kept still, alert and ready to spring. A small dark shape hesitated outside the empty window space, peering into the interior darkness, then with silent efficiency climbed through.

Klaus feigned sleep. The interloper moved noiselessly past him, and reached out for the backpack lying behind his head. A thief, then. Klaus surged into action and seized the intruder by the arm, snatching up his magnum with his other hand. The thief struggled, without crying out, but then stilled when he felt the muzzle of Klaus's pistol against the base of his skull.

He was only a child, Klaus realised; no doubt dangerous, certainly used to thieving in these treacherous surroundings, but a child none the less. A quick search for weapons revealed him to be unarmed.

"What are you after?" Klaus snarled.

The boy was perhaps 12, 13 years old. Slight build, big blue eyes, the purple hollows underneath made deeper in the dim moonlight. And the hair ... curly, tangled, pale gold. He would be a handsome man one day - if he lived that long.

"Give me something to eat, mister?"

Klaus glared at him, trying not to care too much. "You should be off the streets," he growled. "Don't you have a home to go to?" But Klaus knew the answer to that. How many of the dozens of dirty, scrawny kids he had seen in these pestilent towns had homes or families any more?

"Come on, mister. You've got food. I know you have. Give me something to eat?" The boy gazed up through his eyelashes, coy, calculating. "If you give me something to eat, you can fuck me if you like."

Klaus turned his head aside, tearing his eyes away from the blue gaze, and swallowed the bile that rose in his throat.

He jerked his attention back to the boy. "Nein," he said roughly. "I don't want to fuck you. Sit there, you can have food. And a place for the night."

Not taking his eyes off the boy, he rummaged through his pack for bread and cheese. Both stale, but still edible. He broke some off and handed it over, then passed him a bottle of water. He sat and watched as the boy devoured what he was given.

"How long since you ate anything?" he asked.

Keeping his concentration on the food, the boy shrugged. "Two days, maybe."

"Do you always offer to fuck people for food?"

"If it gets what I need, why not?" He chewed greedily, the way you learn to if you have to eat fast before someone takes it away.

"You'll get yourself hurt, you know," said Klaus.

The boy shrugged again. "The first time, a man told me he'd give me food if I fucked him. So I did what he wanted, and then he gave me a bundle of stuff and threw me out. When I unwrapped it, it was just rags. No food. He cheated me." He licked his fingers clean and took a swig of water. "That's never happened again. Since then, I get the food before they fuck me."

Klaus frowned. "Have you got a name?"

The boy simpered. "Whatever you want to call me." Klaus's frown deepened.

"What's your name?" the boy asked.

Klaus glowered at him for a moment. "No names," he said curtly. "Stay here the night. Sleep over there. And there'll be no fucking. I don't want you."

He tossed the boy Dortmann's thin torn blanket before claiming the opposite side of the room for himself.

Scheisse, he thought, I must be losing it. I should get rid of this street rat right now. He'll bring nothing but trouble. He glanced across at the boy who was now visible only as a small bony lump under a grey blanket - a small bony lump with a riot of blond curls.

In the morning, Klaus thought grimly; I'll get rid of him in the morning.

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

At dawn, the crack of gunfire woke Klaus. Several guns firing, a short distance away. He glanced across the room, and saw that the boy was awake, wide eyes peering over the frayed edge of the blanket.

Klaus edged over to the window, straining to see without being seen. Nothing in sight ... wait ... what was that?

The boy slithered across to his side, craning toward the window. "Get down, damn it," Klaus hissed, shoving him onto the floor.

A group of men with rifles at the ready moved down the street, kicking open the front doors as they passed. Two houses down, they hesitated, milled about. One of their number was gesticulating angrily, pointing back the way they had come. The buzz of voices was low, agitated. Klaus gripped his gun and watched.

Abruptly, the men turned and headed back up the street, away from the house. "Scheisse." They had to get out of there. Somewhere they could at least see danger coming before it was right on top of them.

"Come on, we're moving out," Klaus breathed. "You're coming with me." God knows what I'll do with him, he's only going to be a bloody liability, he berated himself. He holstered the magnum, shouldered his pack, picked up the rifle. Stealthily, silently, keeping to the shadows, the two moved off toward the edge of town, toward the ruined viaduct.

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

Hours later, they were deep in the hills. There were no roads to be seen, no paths to follow. Guerrilla fighters controlled the hill country: travelling here in daylight was hazardous. This terrain was even more claustrophobic than the town, more capable of concealing threats. Klaus strained to scan the unforgiving landscape for signs of danger. He was thankful that the boy had a thief's facility for stealth.

Late in the day, they stopped beside a narrow stream flowing sluggishly between overhanging crags, where they drank and filled up the water bottles. The light was going, and the boy looked exhausted. Everything he had ever learned from training and experience was telling Klaus to keep moving, but he relented. The boy was about to drop.

"We'll rest," he said. "Half an hour. Then we go on." The boy nodded wearily, and lay down in the deep shade beneath the rocks. Klaus leaned back against a dead tree trunk to watch and wait.

A footstep sounded behind him. Before he could react, he was seized from behind. A forearm locked across his throat, and a knife blade flashed in the attacker's hand just at the edge of Klaus's vision. He threw himself to one side, overturning them both. The two men gouged and clawed at each other, each struggling for control.

The attacker had dropped the knife. Where was it? Klaus couldn't see it, couldn't release his grip on his attacker long enough to feel for it. The man was above him, a knee on his chest, pinning him down. Gritty, callused hands closed around Klaus's throat. His attacker's eyes gleamed with murderous desperation.

A sudden blur of yellow curls, and Klaus's attacker grunted as the boy leaped onto his shoulders, one hand gripping his thin straggling hair. A flash of steel - and a fountain of hot blood gushed over Klaus. The hands at his throat went slack and his attacker tumbled sideways. The boy stood up, dripping blade in his hand.

For a moment, silence hung between them. The lifeless body of the attacker leaked blood into the dust.

"Thank you," Klaus said quietly. The boy stared at him, trembling violently, his blue eyes huge and dark.  Klaus struggled to blot out the impression of other blue eyes that he remembered. Taking the bloody knife from the boy's hand, he wiped it on the dead man's clothes and tucked it into his own belt.

"We have to keep moving," Klaus said. "I know I said we'd rest, but we can't. Do you understand? Can you go on?"

The boy nodded, unable to speak.

"Good. Come on." Hoisting his pack, Klaus began to make his way up into the narrow gully between the hills.  Tired and shocked beyond the capacity to think, the boy followed.

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

The UN troops at the frontier were used to an intermittent stream of refugees passing through. Something about the posture of the figures striding down toward the checkpoint told them that these two were different. The tall, gaunt man's grim expression gave even battle-hardened troops pause as he passed. The face of the blond-haired boy beside him was unreadable.

"Your commanding officer," Klaus snapped, fixing cold green eyes on the soldier in front of him.

"This way," the man responded, reacting to the hard voice of command.

Klaus had no papers or other identification, but within minutes the commanding officer was in touch with NATO headquarters. Within hours, NATO had dispatched a team to pick him up.

Waiting in the shade beside a small transportable building, Klaus looked back over five wasted months. He didn't have the information they sent him for, and the President was still in place. The war-torn dictatorship remained a running sore on the face of humanity. Failure was a bitter taste in Klaus's throat.

Inside the hut, the boy slept on a narrow cot.  Klaus stood a moment by the door, watching him: the small golden haired thief who had killed a man for him.  Perhaps bringing him out of a war zone was worth something.

The chopper landed before sunset. When it lifted off, it carried Klaus, heading to a debriefing he wasn't looking forward to. The blond boy, who had already seen too much in his short life, would be taken to a refugee camp.

Klaus crushed down the accusations that rose in his mind. What else could I do? There are too many like him. There are too many debts I can't pay. I can do nothing.

The sharp bitterness of two failures burned in his gut.


23 February 2011


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