The bullet-riddled pickup sped east at a high rate of speed. In the distance came the constant pounding of artillery shelling. The thump, thump, thump of ordnance followed by bright flashes cast an eerie apprehension over the truck’s occupants.
Except for the bright red-and-white signs in the front and rear windows identifying the truck as a media vehicle, the clunker resembled many of those used by the ethnic Russian rebels in their fight against the Ukrainian army. The truck itself was dusty white with dents along its side quarter panels. The bumper was adorned with a rusty metal cattle guard, and a long crack ran the length of the front windshield. The rear bed was filled with duffle bags and black watertight cases held down with straps.
Max gripped the wheel with his right hand while his left cradled a lit cigarette so it was protected from the open window. A camouflaged bucket hat was pulled tight on his head, and he wore a flak jacket, cinched tight, with the words MEDIA in both English and Russian across the chest and back. A set of fake media credentials and passport were in a travel wallet around his neck. He was armed only with a combat knife secreted in his boot, which made him uncomfortable given the conflict zone they were in. He kept the speedometer pegged at 150 KPH, ignoring the shimmy from the poorly maintained chassis.
Riding the bench seat next to him was Kate Shaw, one time CIA assistant director. She was dressed like Max save for a ball cap taming her curly hair. An earbud cord was attached to a boxy satellite phone she clutched in her right hand. Kate’s former CIA technical operations analyst, Kaamil Marafi, was on the other end of the line. Kaamil, safely nestled in his basement bunker on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, was illicitly patched into the CIA’s satellite surveillance system to get real-time updates on troop movements, roadblocks, and CIA activity in the area.
She touched her finger to the earbud in her ear. “Kaamil says there’s a Ukrainian military checkpoint ten klicks ahead.”
Max kept the pedal down. “Is there an alternative route?”
Kate spoke into her mic and waited for the response. “Negative. Not without going an hour out of our way.”
“Christ on a cracker.” Max made rapid calculations in his head. They were on a timeline and couldn’t spare the time to go around.
Kate looked over. “Christ on a cracker?”
“I’m trying to Americanize my cussing.”
Kate snorted. “No one says that.”
Max touched the brakes when he saw red lights appearing through the dusty gloom. A line of vehicles was stopped in the middle of the highway in front of a concrete barrier running across the blacktop. Three tanks flying the Ukrainian flag lined the side of the road and Max counted at least eight soldiers carrying automatic weapons. “First test of our cover coming up.”
Kate rolled down her window. “Pfft. No big deal.”
Max chuckled. “You sure you can handle this?”
“If you ask me that again, I’ll tell the roadblock soldiers you’re a rebel sympathizer and take care of Volkov myself.”
Max flicked his cigarette butt out the window and watched the shower of sparks disappear while his mind drifted to their job. Their target’s name was Victor Volkov, one of Russia’s most powerful mob bosses, who just happened to hold the ninth position on the list of twelve consortium members. Coincidentally, Volkov was also a high-value target of the CIA. Weeks earlier, Kate’s asset team at the CIA was disbanded in favor of the director’s new drone program, and Kate went AWOL from her job at the CIA and was now on the run along with Max. The drone team subsequently botched an assassination attempt on Volkov and instead killed fifteen civilians, including members of Volkov’s extended family.
Now Max and Kate were teaming up to take out Volkov. For Max, it was a step toward his plan to eliminate each member of the consortium as retribution for killing his parents. For Kate, it was the perfect fuck you to Piper Montgomery, the CIA director who had eviscerated Kate’s long and distinguished CIA career.
Ahead, several Ukrainian police cars with flashing lights left a narrow gap to allow civilian vehicles to pass single file through the concrete barricade. Four beefy men in blue-and-gray camouflage uniforms toting automatic rifles used high-powered flashlights to peer into vehicles and examine papers.
Max drummed his thumb on the wheel. “Scare tactics to prevent Ukrainian citizens from joining the rebels. Stay calm. Our cover is solid.”
Kate tucked a strand of curly hair under her cap. “It’s not my first rodeo, you know.” She informed Kaamil of the upcoming checkpoint before shutting down the phone and stowing it in the glove box. She fussed with the wallet strapped across her chest and withdrew a French passport.
Max inched the truck forward. “First rodeo?”
“Forget it. It’s just a dumb American saying.”
“I get it. Like you go through military checkpoints every day using fake credentials on your way to Starbucks before heading to your plush office at Langley.” He winked at her.
“Exactly like that. Except I don’t have an office at Langley anymore.” Kate’s smile disappeared.
Max shielded his eyes from the strong lights blazing through the front windshield as a gorilla-sized Ukrainian soldier appeared next to the truck.
“Papers,” the man demanded. The soldier held a flashlight pointed at Max’s eyes while another stood off to the side with his hand on his weapon. Max handed over their passports along with a pair of laminated media credentials.
“News?” The soldier spoke in Ukrainian.
“Tak,” Max said, jerking his thumb toward the back of the truck, speaking in halting Ukrainian. “Want to see the camera gear?”
The guard waved Max out of the truck with the flashlight while holding his paperwork. Max left the door open as he stepped out and made for the rear. He lowered the tailgate and pulled several hard-sided cases to the edge. The guard’s grip tightened on the flashlight as Max unlatched the first one. He proceeded to open the rest of the cases and watched as the soldier rifled through camera bodies and lenses, in the process dropping one on the tailgate with a sickening crunch.
“Easy,” Max said. He grabbed at the lens as it rolled to the edge.
The soldier’s hands were on his gun in a flash, pointing the barrel of the rifle at Max and shouting in Ukrainian. Max put his hands in the air as the lens rolled off the tailgate and shattered on the pavement.
“We’ll send you a bill,” Max muttered under his breath.
Another soldier barked an order while motioning with his gun.
“They want me to pull over,” Kate said in French. “Out of the line of traffic.”
Max groaned. Tucked in the undercarriage of the truck were two handguns, a H&K G28 compact sniper rifle, two pair of night-vision scopes, a packet of C-4 with associated bomb-making parts, several boxes of ammunition, and various other tools and weapons. Max had soldered the steel himself to fashion the hiding spot. He felt confident the weapons were well hidden, but there was always the chance a dimwitted soldier might get lucky. Depending on how thorough they were, Max and Kate might face an extended stretch in one of Ukraine’s prisons, known for its brutality and stark conditions.
Max shrugged. “Do it.”
Kate slid over to the driver’s seat, put the truck in gear, and eased over to the median of the blacktop. The man with the rifle walked alongside, keeping his gun trained on Max. Kate exited the vehicle as four soldiers converged on the truck. A hulking trooper, wearing a beret and four chevrons on his shoulder indicating the rank of senior sergeant, confronted Kate. He held her passport close to her face and studied the picture. After a few long moments, he grunted in satisfaction.
Kate moved off to the side, her hands in her pockets, while two soldiers pawed through their gear. The sergeant set a laptop on the hood of a military vehicle and started typing, periodically peering at their credentials. A third soldier walked around their truck with a handheld mirror equipped with a flashlight to examine the undercarriage.
Max stood with his arms crossed, tapping his foot, feigning irritation. He sensed Kate’s nervousness and hoped she had not lost her operational edge after years of riding a desk at Langley.
As if to assuage his concern, she winked at him and smirked. Her jaw muscles were clenched, but her green eyes flashed with mischief. For a second, Max admired the curve of her jaw before pushing the emotion away as a Ukrainian soldier bent at the waist to rifle through the truck’s cab.
After the sergeant spent several agonizing minutes peering into the laptop’s screen, he shut it with a thunk and turned back to Max and Kate. Max forced himself to breathe as the soldier walked up and put his face a foot from Max’s. “You know Ukrainian.”
“A little,” Max said, using Ukrainian, but with a French accent, thankful for the years he lived in Paris. If any hint of a Russian accent slipped through, they were dead.
The solider was at least as tall as Max, with a neck thicker than his head. “Destination?”
“Donetsk.” As always, the best lies were shades of the truth. Max eyed the soldier circling the truck with the mirror. A trickle of sweat ran down Max’s back despite the evening chill. His heart skipped a beat as the man paused to examine something, but he relaxed as the man continued his slow walk around the truck.
“What’s the purpose of your visit?”
Max smiled, pointing his thumb at the sign on his flak jacket. “Reporting on the war for Le Monde.”
The soldier’s eyes narrowed. “Topic?”
“We have a source who claims to have evidence the Malaysian airliner was shot down by the rebels using Russian weaponry.” Max wanted to avoid giving the solider the impression their reporting might be pro-Russian.
The sergeant pursed his lips. In his periphery, Max saw the soldier with the mirror stop again. After a gut-wrenching pause, the man removed the mirror and proclaimed the truck’s undercarriage clean.
The sergeant grunted and slapped their credentials against Max’s chest. “You’re free to go. Stay safe.”
Max and Kate jumped into the cab while a soldier held up traffic to allow them back onto the road. The sounds of artillery thudded in the distance and flashes of light flickered on the horizon as they wove through the concrete barricade and accelerated away from the checkpoint.
Max nudged a cigarette from the pack he kept wedged in his flak jacket. “That was just the first test of what’s coming.”