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Chapter Twenty-One

The villa was actually southwest of Rozaje, right up in the mountains near the Albanian border. The road from Rozaje, according to the map and satellite photos, stopped not far beyond the villa, but a collection of trails was evident as well, some of them passable to all-terrain vehicles. It was likely that the villa was on a smuggling route from Serbia into Albania. The same routes had supplied the KLA during the war against the Serbians.

Mike had expected that getting into the area would be harder than normal. The region was under the sporadic control of the Kosovo Force and Mike had expected more efficient checks than had been characteristic up to this point. The first check, the "border" crossing from the Serbian controlled area, had really had him worried. The troops were French and thus, he'd assumed, unbribable.

However, while there were French troops in the area, the actual border crossing had been under the control of Serbians. Mike had spoken to them in Russian and put in the usual tip. The Serbs had looked in the vans, seen that the cargo was mostly women, and waved them through.

From there the trip had been smooth. There were two internal checkpoints that had caught them but at the first the same tip had worked and at the second Katya and Nikki had sealed the deal. Mike was still unsure about bargaining his way through on the backs of the girls, but if it worked he wasn't going to knock it.

Montenegro was an anomaly. Depending upon who you asked, it was either a province of Serbia, according to Serbia, an independent state, according to most of the residents, or something in between, according to most of the rest of the world and certainly to the U.S. government. In 1992, in the wake of the Dayton Accords, the then legislature and president had agreed to not separate from Serbia, as Croatia and Bosnia had done. The decision was so controversial that even the U.S. government didn't recognize it. Furthermore, the Serbians were unsure how to deal with it since Montenegro had its own freely elected government and, notably, its own burgeoning army. So for the time being, nobody rocked the boat. Technically, it was a province, but in reality it was an independent state.

The name "Montenegro" translated as "Black Mountain" and in keeping with the name, Montenegro, whether it was a province or a country, was definitely mountainous. The mountains weren't alpine in their heights, not even up to Georgian standards, but they were pretty serious hills. The country stretched from the plains of, definitely, Serbia to the Adriatic and the very limited flatland was either cultivated or covered by cities.

Their objective was in keeping with the terrain and, therefore, wasn't a pretty sight from the perspective of assault.

"Right on the hilltop," he noted, looking through the binoculars and taking pictures.

"The outer perimeter security is KFOR," Adams noted. "Fijians."

"We're going to have to figure something out about them," Mike said. "We don't want to go around killing KFOR troops."

"Tasers?" Adams asked.


The high hill had wall terraced into its sides as well. Anyone approaching was going to be in view. And Mike ad gotten a count on at least six guards inside the compound. That meant, at a guess, something on the order of twenty total in three shifts. They'd have to lay this one out carefully. A frontal assault had all the makings of a disaster.

"We'll leave a couple of the Keldara up here to get the guard schedule," Mike said, sliding back down the ridge overlooking the compound. "Two days to prep. Let's get working on a plan."

* * *

"Guards change three times per day," Vanner said, pointing to the sand table of the compound that was set up in the small conference room the hotel hosted. If the owners had questions about why a group of slave traders wanted a conference room, a hefty tip had answered them. "Girls normally arrive during the day and not later than midnight, according to our sources." By which he meant the now deceased Dejti.

"This is going to be hairy," Vanner continued, looking at his console. "We don't even have a good internal schematic. What if they dump their records when we hit? I mean, even if they've made backup DVDs, you throw those in a microwave and set it on high and they're toast."

"I think we might be overmuscling this one," Mike said, looking at the window design again. Over the years, Western special operations and their intelligence support units had developed an encyclopedic database of windows and doors throughout the world. Even older, by definition custom-made, windows such as those on the villa fit basic parameters which were in the database. And Vanner just happened to have acquired a copy.

Mike sometimes had to wonder if Vanner was his actual control.

"Define," Adams said, looking up from the rough floor plan that had been worked out from external observation. The outer rooms were sketched in, lightly, with vast areas of gray area. They knew there was a basement, there was a visible door, but they had no idea of the layout.

"Well, overmuscling is when you're using too much force for a mission," Vanner said, looking up from his computer with a smile.

"Wise ass," the chief growled. "So what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking we're going to need Lasko and Praz," Mike replied musingly. "And some special equipment."

"Make up a list," Vanner said, sighing.

"And we need more interior data," Mike said, rubbing his chin in thought. "We can try to find one of the Albanians that work there and bribe him for a layout ..."

"They're all from one clan," Vanner said, flipping through a chart of the known guards. "At least it looks that way."

"Which would be risky," Mike continued. "We can try to insert a girl into the place, such as Katya ..."

"I was wondering why you'd been carting her around," Adams said. "Besides for looks."

"Might I remind everyone that this is a snuff house?" Vanner pointed out. "Whoever goes in there probably isn't going to come out!"

"It's Katya," Mike said, offhand, then smiled. "Just joking."

"Thank God," Vanner said, breathing out.

"Besides," Mike continued, still looking at the windows, "what I really meant was that I'd be damned surprised if Katya got snuffed. Even if we weren't banking on her getting intel out to us. I mean, think about it: Fat middle-aged European or American or Japanese rich jackass, poor-little-practically-virginal-crying-thing ..."

"And you've been teaching Katya hand-to-hand, haven't you?" Adams said, nodding. "You think ...?"

"No," Mike replied. "Because I don't think she could get the intel out. Kill her perp, sure. If it was an assassination mission I'd send her in a heartbeat, pardon the pun. But for this, I don't think she's right."

"So ... what?" Adams said, throwing up his hands.

"Pleased to meet you ..." Mike whispered, finally looking up, "won't you guess my name?"

* * *

"The group that hit the Club Dracul is called the Keldara," Yarok said, bringing up the first slide. "They are a Georgian militia group, using the women smuggling routes and a cover of being sex smugglers. There are about fifteen to twenty shooters in the group as well as some women from their tribe. I'm not sure of the function of the women. In addition, they've picked up one or more women from normal sources on the way."

"Where are they now?" Boris Dejti asked, angrily. "We will rape their women before their eyes then gouge them out."

Boris Dejti was the senior Dejti clan member in charge of all the scattered "operations" in the Balkans. There were members of the clan more senior than he, but they were all semiretired in the backcountry of Albania. However, Boris realized he was going to have to have a talk with the Senior Fathers about the events of Club Dracul. And he wanted to be able to give them a timeline on how long it was going to take to avenge the attack.

"You will be lucky to kill them at all," Yarok said. "Remember what they did to the club. Its defenses were formidable but they took it down with, at most, one casualty. I think you had better leave them to me. As to where they are, they were supposed to be going to Montenegro. They certainly haven't used a major hotel there, but that might have been disinformation. The last report I had on their movements was in Serbia. They may be heading for Kosovo."

"Then they are heading into the lion's den," Boris replied happily. "We will find them and kill them. There are many fighters available in Kosovo and Montenegro."

"You're certainly permitted to try," Yarok said with a sigh. "But don't say I didn't warn you. I'd recommend increasing security at facilities in the south. They have taken at least three people and probably tortured them for information. They are looking for something. When we figure out what, we'll know where they are going ..."

* * *

Mike loved the night. Of course, that was fundamental to his one great gift, but he still loved it.

The night had never held any terrors for him, even as a child. He remembered walking through darkened woods when he was no more than eight and simply being enthralled by the difference between the night and day. At night, every sound was clearer and sharper, all his senses alive to the slightest hint of wrongness.

Like the waves of smell wafting off the Fijian sentry.

There was a thirty meter open area to cross to the first terrace and the sentry was on a regular beat. One hundred paces south, turn, one hundred paces north. On the other hand, he wasn't Teutonic in his pace. Quite often he'd simply stop and lean against the wall. If that happened while Mike was crossing, it would be a bitch.

The choices were simple, fast or slow. If Mike waited until the sentry was near the end of his beat and then darted across, he could be up on the second terrace before the guy reached the end. On the other hand, if he stopped and turned, Mike's movement was sure to give him away.

However, if Mike went slow there was a good chance he'd be caught in the open area by the sentry. He was good enough that the sentry might simply walk past. Might.

There was a small niche in the wall of the terrace where some stones had fallen and lay scattered in the grass. As a hiding place it would normally be discounted, but between Mike's ghillie suit and luck, he could probably hole up there to let the sentry pass.

As the sentry continued on his southward journey, Mike opted for a middle ground. He lifted himself up on fingers and toes, a leopard stance, and slithered out onto the close-cropped grass.

There was a half-moon tonight, but the clouds were fairly solid. The mottled light actually made seeing harder. If the clouds broke up he might have problems. For now, though, they were still solid. There was also a slight breeze from the southwest, blowing any sound he might make, slight at best, away from the sentry.

Mike kept his head down, looking mostly at the grass with occasional glances at the sentry, and envisioned himself as darkness and silence. He wasn't sure if the mental state was really helpful or not, it seemed like mumbo-jumbo to him, but he'd used it most of his career and even if it was only self-hypnosis he wasn't going to change things now.

He made it to the niche and paused as the sentry turned to head back. All the cover he had was the broken wall and his ghillie suit. He had a silenced .45 if it came down to cases, but he really didn't want to kill this Fijian guy. For one thing, he didn't deserve it. All he was was a poor guy far from home told to guard a facility. There was a 99.999 to infinity percent chance that the guy had no idea what was going on in the villa. But even if he did, Mike would eventually have to fess up to having offed him. Which would drop him in the clacky. Killing Albanian pimps was one thing, killing a soldier on a UN sponsored peace-enforcement mission was another. Words would be had. And then there was the fact that it would probably blow the mission.

The sentry made it to within five meters of Mike's spot and stopped, turning to look out at the darkness and stretching his back. He propped his weapon on the wall, about three feet from Mike's niche, leaned back against it and fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette and light.

Mike closed his eyes as the lighter flared and the smell of cheap, strong tobacco wafted over him and tried not to sigh. Lord only knew how long the guy was going to rest there. Mike was just settling in to wait when he heard a hail from the north and cringed; the sergeant of the guard was wandering around. He'd only done that one other night. Why tonight?

Mike didn't speak a word of Fijian, but he'd spent enough time around grunts and doing guard duty himself to fill in the blanks.

"What a night, huh?"

"Just like last night. Nothing to fucking do but look at the woods. Why the fuck are we here?"

"Because we're too poor to be sitting on the beach in Fiji."

"I should have gone to work for my cousin Emil at the dive shop."

"I didn't know your cousin Emil had a dive shop."

"Sure, down in Toraborabawankununka. You know it."

"Sure, Toraborabawankununka Dive and Sport. Hey, I used to go there when I was on vacation ..."

Mike suddenly realized he was muttering the lines of dialogue and stopped as the sergeant said something he translated as "Well, I've got to get back and check my paperwork ..."

... and wandered back to the north.

He was definitely getting too old, and too introspective, for this work.

With the sergeant headed north, the guard headed south. Mike waited until they were both separated by at least thirty meters from his position, stood up, stretched his aching joints and oozed up onto the wall.

Thirty yards from the woodline to the first terrace. Three terraces, each between twenty and thirty meters wide. Then the final wall up onto the balconies. From the terraces, except when he scrambled to the next higher, he wasn't visible to the sentry below. And the terraces weren't patrolled. But there were Albanian guards up on the patios around the villa. This far down, he wasn't going to be particularly visible to the guards, who did not use night-vision systems. But as he got closer he'd be more and more likely to get spotted. From here on out, slow and cautious movements were the order of the evening. In and back.

The Albanian guard was visible up on the patio. He was looking out towards the woods, not down at the terraces, as far as Mike could tell. But movement drew the eye. Mike eased over the wall onto the first terrace and then oozed, slowly, across the terrace until he was in the shadow of the second wall. So far, no alarm.

If the shit totally hit the fan, a Keldara reaction team was in the woods to cover his withdrawal. Of course, that would blow the mission, permanently. If that happened they might never find out what happened to the girl. And then the President would get all pissy and the senator would go on doing what he, presumably, did. That wasn't on.

Mike lifted up and checked on the sentry who was apparently, from the smoke and slight IR signature, taking another smoke break. Lifting up further he saw that the Albanian was talking to another guy, their heads turned away from the view. He slithered up the rocks of the wall, then began sliding across the open area just as the moon broke out of the clouds.

He froze, immediately, not looking up. His face was covered in camoflage makeup and the ghillie suit had a light mesh mask in addition. But a face always seemed to be the easiest thing to pick out. He simply waited on the sward, sweating a little despite the cool of the night, until the moon went back behind the clouds. Then he started his sneak again.

Three terraces, each of them bringing him closer to the Albanian who was hanging out at the top. Within an hour, Mike was crouched at the base of the wall of the last terrace, smelling the thick, acrid stench of the Albanian's cigarette. This one was, if anything, more vile than the Fijian's. Mike had never seen the point in using tobacco; all it did was blunt the senses and ruin your night vision. On the other hand, he loved it when enemies used it.

There were eight guards on duty in the house. Five were on exterior duty, one on each side with an additional one by the gate on the east side and two were, apparently, on various internal points. The eighth acted as something like a sergeant of the guard, roaming from point to point to make sure the others stayed awake and alert.

During the day and into the evening there were, in addition, about five Albanians and a handful of local workers. The locals were probably ethnic Albanians for that matter.

Getting past the Albanian was going to be harder than getting past the Fijian. The open area at the bottom was larger than the one at the top for one thing. And the Albanian didn't seem to be wandering. He was just hanging out in place with a full view of the final stretch of ground and of the patio to either side.

Mike stripped off his night-vision goggles and lifted up a mirror, angling it over the top of the wall. As he'd climbed he had shifted to the north and he was about twenty meters from where the Albanian was standing, leaning with his arms on the low railing or wall that surrounded the patio. It was, apparently, concrete or similar materials formed in a lacy, open pattern. First there was the open area of the terrace, then the six-foot-high wall, then a slight ledge, then the railing.

Getting over that railing was going to be impossible if the guard was standing in plain view. Which was why Mike planned on distracting him.

He reached into his utility pocket and pulled out a small flashlight. When he flicked it on, nothing appeared to happen, but that was just if you had the wrong vision.

* * *

"There's the signal," Sawn said, picking up the UV light from the flash through his night-vision goggles and nodding at Vanner.

"Roll the party," Vanner whispered into the mike.

* * *

"It's nice to finally get to have some fun," Greznya said, flicking a lighter into life and applying it to the string of firecrackers.

"I've never actually set fireworks off," Katya replied, holding up a long tube. "What is this?"

"Roman candle," Listra said, smiling. "We'll save that until we have their attention...."

* * *

At the first sounds of gunfire, Kreshnik Daci's head snapped up. It had been a long and tiring night and he was spoiling for action. When he'd been sent out to help the far flung reaches of the gang run by his family clan, he'd expected much more fighting and more of a view of the world. Thus far, he'd beat up a few uppity bitches in Lunari, guarded a group of girls in transit in Serbia, loaded some on a boat to Italy and ended up guarding this place. None of it was contributing to his real dream, which was to get a student visa to America.

Short of that, he wanted to shoot someone.

So he actually hoped someone was attacking the villa. Anyone who did so, though, had to be insane. They'd have to assault up the slope in full view of the guards who had more than just the Czech Skorpion he was toting. They'd get slaughtered if they tried. Which was all right by him.

However, the gunfire was not close. It was on a hill about five hundred meters away to the southeast. He wandered in that direction, just as a ball of fire drifted up and then swore. It wasn't gunfire at all, just some kids playing with fireworks. Okay, so from the tracers, they were also shooting off a gun, but they weren't shooting at the villa.

"Kreshnik!" Imer called over the radio. "What is happening?"

"Some fireworks," Daci replied, walking down to the southeast corner of the patio. "Some kids probably. Somebody shooting off an AK, too. But it's not coming this way."

"Oooo," Gustini Huksa wooed as a bottle rocket ascended and then erupted in a shower of sparks. The southern guard had drifted over to the corner and now lit up another cigarette. The flash bastard smoked American Marlboros. Gustini had been assigned to Herzjac, the main town that supplied IFOR with its girls. There he'd struck up a deal with one of the UN vendors: two cartons of Marlboros for one hour with a girl. It was a win/win situation for the two since the vendor could "loss" the Marlboros and Gustini didn't even have to do that much paperwork with the girls. When he left he turned the source over to another guard for a share of the action. He still got a couple of cartons of Marlboros every week. "Nice. I wish I was out there rather than stuck in this rathole."

"Sooner or later we'll get to go somewhere else," Kreshnik opined with no real hope. He had been told that assignment to this villa was a sign of the trust and respect that the clan had for him. So far, it seemed like a dead end.

The fireworks didn't last long and as the last faded, Imer appeared.

"Nice, you're both watching the fireworks instead of your posts," the older man snapped. "Get back in place and make sure no one has gotten past you."

"How could they?" Gustini argued, waving at the hilltop. "It would take a ghost to get up the hill without us seeing him!"

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