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Chapter Two

Mike had a hard time orienting himself the next morning. The room was dark and cold and there wasn't much in the way of sounds. There was a faint light coming from the cracks in the shutters, though, and after a moment he could recall the night before. He lay in bed for a moment, dreading the cold, then rolled out of the fart sack.

The stone floor was freezing, even through the wool socks he was wearing, but he ignored it, grabbed his money-belt, pistol and jump bag and headed for the bathroom.

The bathroom was small and intensely European. The shower was on a long hose with nowhere to hang it and all the fixtures looked as if they were from an American home in the 1930s, but he'd gotten used to that. He performed his morning ablutions, careful not to drink the water and washing his mouth out with a small bottle of bourbon after brushing, then headed back to his room. He considered repacking but given the weather report, and the brief glance he'd gotten out the window in the bathroom, he wasn't leaving anytime soon. So he dressed warmly, holstered his pistol, grabbed his jump bag and headed downstairs.

There was a young, good-looking girl—brunette and just starting to bloom—sweeping the tavern when he walked in. She was startled by his appearance, letting out a tiny squeak of surprise, then nodding and darting into the back room. Mike took a seat by the potbellied stove in the empty room and waited in hopes of service.

After a moment a short, slim man came out of the back, wiping his hands on an apron.

"I'm Stasys," the man said in Russian, shaking Mike's hand. "I own place and cook. You like room?"

"Very nice," Mike said, surreptitiously scratching where one of the fleas had gotten him despite his precautions.

"You want food?"

"Please," Mike replied. "Any coffee?" He could smell food and bread being cooked, but not a trace of coffee smell.

"Tea?" Stasys asked. "Bread?"

"Tea, bread and sava?" Mike asked. What he really wanted was three eggs, over medium, bacon and hash browns. But only Americans and Brits ate like that for breakfast.

"Yes, I get," Stasys said, going back in the kitchen.

The shutters had been thrown back and Mike could see the storm had passed over. There was still a light snow falling and it looked as if quite a bit had been dumped during the night. He wondered, briefly, about the additional snow Irina had mentioned. The way things were it looked as if he wouldn't be able to leave before spring.

As the tea, bread and sava were being served by the girl, the door to the room opened and a man in a long wool coat stomped in, kicking the snow off his boots and saying something in Georgian to the girl. He was tall and slender with a slim, intelligent face and wearing a uniform cap. When he pulled off the coat it revealed the uniform of the local constabulary and from the cut and tailoring Mike guessed he was a senior officer.

"Hello," the man said, coming over to Mike's table and sitting down. "You would be the American called Mike. I am Captain Vadim Tyurin, the constabulary commander for the Keldara." The man spoke excellent English with hardly any accent except of Oxford.

"Mike Jenkins," Mike said, shaking his hand. "Care for some tea?"

"Vyera is getting me a cup," Vadim said, smiling. "Coming right to the point, though, I don't suppose I could see some identification?"

Mike smiled back and dug in his pocket, pulling out his entirely false passport for Mike Jenkins. It was only false in that it wasn't his real name; it had been issued by the American government with all due forms.

"Sorry for that," Vadim said, handing it back after a careful study. "It's very unusual for us to get Americans, or any foreigners, in the Keldara. What brings you here?"

"I got lost," Mike said as the girl, presumably Vyera, brought out another cup and saucer and set it in front of the policeman. "I was headed for Bakuriana and I guess I took a wrong turn. I'm not even sure where I'm at."

"You are, in fact, nowhere," Vadim replied, shrugging and pouring tea. "The Keldara is pretty remote even in Georgia. With the exception of the Six Families it's rather sparsely populated. Which means the damned Chechens have the run of it. I'm supposed to be up here to disprove their ownership, but with only three subordinates that's rather hard."

"No funds?" Mike asked.

"Apparently not," the policeman said, taking a sip of the tea. "The Chechens run drugs, mostly opium, through the mountains and pick up many of their sex slaves in this area. Then they sell them in various places, use the money to buy guns and run them back through. They even force the locals to give them food and money. If they don't they burn down the farms and kill the farmers, taking the prettier girls for their sex slave rings. I've tried to form local militias, again no funds. It requires more than just giving them guns; if that's all you do the Chechens just 'inherit' them."

"Sounds frustrating," Mike said. "And a tad dangerous for the local police representative."

"Not so much," Vadim said, deprecatingly. "Since it is quite impossible, I simply don't try. Much safer all around."

"And if it was possible?" Mike asked.

"Oh, then I'd be quite interested," the Georgian said, narrowing his eyes. "The most frustrating aspect is the lack of authority and the responsibility. I'd like to discharge my responsibilities, but without the funding, it's quite impossible." He regarded Mike carefully and then shrugged again. "The subject has, I'm told, come to the attention of the American government. Russia has threatened to enter this part of Georgia and 'clean it up,' as if they could do any better than they have done in Chechnya. But the possibility of a border war with two countries that are nominal allies has the American government upset, or so I'm told. Which is why I wonder how you came here, really."

"Ah," Mike said, grinning. "I really got lost. I'm not a representative of the American government. Truly."

"Very well," Vadim said, sighing. "It was too much to hope, I suppose, that we might actually get some help."

"I'm just traveling," Mike said, shrugging. "Looking for someplace to settle for a while, I guess."

"You are unable to settle in the United States?" Vadim said, warily.

"Oh, I could," Mike said, hastily. "I just like . . . call it the wilder places. But a region that's about to have a border war with Russia might be a bit too wild. I'll probably just stick around until the roads get cleared, then pass on." He paused and frowned. "I met some of the people down in the valley, asking directions. They seem . . ."

"Unusual," Vadim said, nodding. "They're the Keldara, the people the region is named for. Georgia is a collection of many different peoples that have survived for thousands of years, protected by the mountains. Bits and pieces of dozens of cultures that were conquerors or driven out by the people that conquered the plains. There's no such thing as a Georgian, just many odd tribes like the Keldara. Did you see any of the women?"

"Yes," Mike admitted. "Spectacular."

"Very," Vadim said, grinning. "And they make the best beer in the world. You had some last night."

"I'd wondered where that came from," Mike said. "It was incredible."

"Secret recipes of the Keldara women," Vadim said, shrugging.

"How long until the roads clear?" Mike asked, looking out the windows. The sky had cleared, slightly, and the snow had stopped falling.

"A week or more," Vadim said, frowning. "There is another storm predicted for a day or two from now. If it clears for a time after that you might be able to get out. Until then I'm afraid you're stuck. Unless you can call in a helicopter."

"I could afford a helicopter," Mike said, looking back at the cop. "I'm not exactly without funds. But I'm not someone who can, for example, call Washington and get a helicopter sent in." Okay, a little white lie. He probably could do exactly that if there was a reason. "So what is there to do in Alerrso besides watch the snow fall?"

"Very little," Vadim said with a sigh. "There is a small brothel down the street and if you need money the bank can get it wired in. They are the only ones that have an internet connection, alas. They use a satellite, you understand? The phone lines and electric are spotty otherwise. There is no library. I have some books you could read but they are in Georgian and Russian mostly. A few military books in English that you might like. I don't know if you're a student of history or not."

"I was a student of history," Mike said. "I dropped out of university to form a company. The company was successful, especially after the war started. I sold out and now I travel."

"You have the military look," Vadim noted, dryly. "A soldier, yes?"

"Bite your tongue," Mike said, grinning. "I was a SEAL. But that was a long time ago. These days I'm a retired widget maker."

"You're young to retire," the cop pointed out. "And what is a 'widget'?"

"It's not anything, really," Mike said. "Well, there is something called a widget, a kind of box cutter. But it's really a term for any unspecified device. I made a communications widget for the military, for special operations units. I had the idea for it and got some guys who were smarter than me to design it. Then we got some capital and started a company making them. It was very small until the war, then there was big demand for them. There was a buyout offer from a major defense firm I couldn't resist. So now I'm retired. I used to do contracting work for the government on the same sorts of things. But I got tired of that. Sometimes I think the main reason I travel is so my former clients can't call me back."

"Or so you won't be recalled to the SEALs?" Vadim asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No chance of that," Mike said, darkly. "They don't want me back and I don't want to go back." He noted the look and shrugged. "I was an instructor for a long time. When I tried to go back to the teams there were problems. I got kicked off my team. After that I got out."

"And went into making widgets," Vadim said. "The money was better, yes?"

"Yes," Mike said, looking out the window, his face working. "But there are times I'd rather be back on the teams."

"Well, for now you are here," Vadim said. "Would you care to take a look around my town?"

"Your town?" Mike said, dropping a ruble on the table. "And I don't want to take up your time."

"There is no what you would call mayor," the cop said, shrugging again. "I am the police and also the administrative head. So, yes, my town. As to taking up my time, there is not much to do in winter. Few move through the mountains during this season and when the Chechens aren't making problems we are a very quiet area."

Mike got his coat and followed the cop out of the tavern, getting his first clear look at Alerrso. The first thing he noticed was that the snowfall the night before was even heavier than he'd thought; the Mercedes was covered in a couple of feet of snow and the road was thoroughly packed.

The town didn't have more than a dozen or so buildings in it, all clustered in a small valley. The mountainsides were cloaked with heavy timber; most of it looked like oak and maple.

There was a solid ridgeline to the west rising to at least five thousand feet above his current elevation, but to the east the hills leveled off not much higher than the valley and he could see clearly along the slope of the western mountains. Right at the head of the valley, by the switchbacks he'd ascended, was an old fort of some sort occupying a ridge of land that jutted out from the mountains. It had a low curtain wall and a large building in the middle that looked halfway between a castle and a house. The area inside the curtain wall was extensive, which argued for gardens or something out of sight.

"The old caravanserai," Vadim said, noting his examination. "Nobody is sure when it was first built. This used to be a branch of the Silk Road so it dates back at least that far."

"The Silk Road was in use in the Roman times," Mike pointed out.

"Oh, it's not that old," Vadim said. "Probably to the time of the Mongols or the Ottomans."

"Is it occupied?" Mike asked, examining the sandstone walls. They looked in decent repair. Certainly there were no breaches.

"Not right now," Vadim said, sighing. "It's a long story and it's cold. Shall we walk?"

Mike nodded and they headed up the street, walking down the center of the road, which had been sketchily plowed.

"Georgian history is thousands of years old," Vadim continued. "This was the kingdom of Medea and, like Jason, one group after another has come here for riches or because we are a crossroads. The Greeks, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Turks, the Mongols, the Russians, they've all invaded us and left their mark. In the bone the 'true' Georgian is a Medean, but we've so many little remnants, deciding who is 'true' Georgian is a full-time job.

"Of course the tsars conquered Georgia back in 1801," Vadim said. "It was more or less to keep us from being invaded by the Turks, again, but they took over against the treaty of friendship we had at the time. When they did, the tsar installed a local lord, a Cossack, and he took over the caravanserai for his home. At that time there was still some trade through here and he collected tolls for the tsars. That had been the pattern of the caravanserai as long as anyone could remember; that a foreigner from some distant king was installed in the caravanserai to control the area. There's even a name for the position: the Kildar. Then the Soviets took over and tried to make all their changes and installed a commissar in it to keep order. He had a small group of soldiers to enforce Soviet law but, really, it had little impact. During Stalin's time Georgia was much ignored and the various purges and pogroms mostly missed this little area. Then, with independence, there was the question of what to do with it. Eventually, it was sold to the Bank of Tbilisi along with a number of other parcels as part of 'privatization.' I actually lived there, briefly, when it was held by the government, then moved out when it was privatized."

"So the bank owns it," Mike said. "And nobody lives there?"

"The bank manager has a house in town," Vadim said, shrugging. "The caravanserai is a sort of mausoleum to conquest. And here we have the bank," he continued, pointing to a building which was heavily constructed of dressed stone. "Another very old building in a town of very old buildings. The original construction predates the Ottomans and may have been an inn of some sort."

Mike examined the building for a moment, frowning. The lintels of the heavy doors were marble supported by pillars that had once been carved. The stone was also excellently dressed. The building had not been hastily constructed and reminded him of Roman constructions he'd seen. But the Romans had never extended their reach to Georgia.

"And here we have the town square," Vadim continued, walking on. "On corner we have the bank, across from it my small police station. On the other corner is our local brothel and on the last the local hardware, general sundries and apothecary. Down the street is the mill, which I won't inflict upon you. And, of course, there is a small church. Everything one small town needs," he added, humorously.

"How's the brothel?" Mike asked, examining the building. It was obvious Soviet construction as was the police station; simple buildings of poorly made concrete without any decoration.

"Being married, I, of course, only enter to ensure order," Vadim said, evenly but with a faint ironic smile. "The girls range from quite pretty to in one case very beautiful. Also quite young, which is generally unusual in such a small town. They are, however, somewhat infested by lice. A point my wife made rather sharply the one time I picked some up. From a hoodlum we'd arrested in there, of course. Certainly not from the young ladies. However, that is why I only enter to ensure order."

"Pass," Mike said. "Hate lice."

"Not as much as my wife," Vadim said with a sigh. "You'd have thought I brought home the pox from the way she went on."

"Is there anyone that rents rooms?" Mike asked, looking around. "Besides the tavern. The one they have me in is rather—"

"Small, musty and dark," Vadim said. "Not to mention infested by fleas, lice and bedbugs. I've had to arrest a few people who were using it and we usually use . . . what would you say, class four hazmat, yes?"

"Yes," Mike said, chuckling. "Seriously, are there any rooms?"

"I doubt it," Vadim said, sighing. "There has been no demand for such."

"What about renting the caravanserai?" Mike asked, turning to look back at the small fort. The clouds had broken slightly and in the light the red sandstone gleamed. He wasn't even sure where the stone had come from; most of the stone in the area was granite.

"You could ask the bank manager," Vadim said, shrugging and walking to the bank. "But I find it unlikely that he will be allowed. With independence certain old laws were put back in place, one of which attends upon the caravanserai. I'm not sure it could be rented. And it would be very expensive."

"Old laws?" Mike asked as the policeman pulled open the door to the bank. The front stoop had been shoveled off but the door still caught.

"We'll speak to Mr. Mironov," Vadim said, waving him in.

Mr. Mironov turned out to be a small, spare man who occupied a large office at the rear of the building. The desk had the look of dating back to the Soviet era but there was a Georgian flag on one wall and a portrait of the current president behind the desk. The desk was mostly clear with the exception of a framed portrait. Its back was to Mike but he assumed it was of Mrs. Mironov.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jenkins," Mr. Mironov said as tea accompanied by small slices of brown bread was being served.

"Mr. Jenkins is interested in renting the caravanserai," Vadim said, taking a sip of tea and nodding at the young woman who had served it.

"Ah," Mironov said, sighing. "Renting is quite impossible, I'm afraid. The caravanserai is rather specifically entailed as they say in English. It cannot be rented and can only be sold with the entailed lands."

"Bit more than I'm interested in," Mike said, frowning. "I'm really just looking for somewhere to hang out until the snow clears. It looked interesting."

"It is quite interesting," Mironov agreed. "Some of the construction is clearly Ottoman, but the foundations are much older. The sandstone comes from a quarry in the valley that has been mined from time immemorial. It's the sort of place I'd like to show to an archaeologist or historian, just to get some idea of when it was originally built."

"Well, I was a history major, but I'm hardly a historian," Mike said, frowning sourly. "And the history program I was in wasn't very good in my opinion. One of the reasons I left."

"I would be interested in your opinion of the caravanserai, nonetheless," Mr. Mironov said, pulling out a ring of keys. "If Captain Tyurin thinks he can get up to it in his Range Rover."

"Possibly," Vadim said, taking the keys. "I'd certainly like to show it to Mr. Jenkins."

"Do you have a way to access accounts outside the Bank of Tbilisi?" Mike asked. "Specifically, if I wanted to get a draft on the Zurich Mercantile?"

"It could be arranged," Mr. Mironov said, raising one eyebrow. Mike had just as much as admitted to having a numbered account, which spoke of someone unusual.

"Zurich Mercantile is just easier to use overseas than an American bank," Mike said, shrugging at the looks. "Most of my funds are in Citicorp but I keep some of them in Zurich for walking around money. And some in American Express, for that matter. They manage most of my overseas investments."

"We have access to both," Mr. Mironov said, subtly changing his attitude to the American visitor. "And, of course, if you stayed for any time we'd be happy to open an account with the Bank of Tbilisi."

"I doubt I'll be staying that long," Mike said. "But thank you."

He and Vadim walked over to the police station and got in the latter's Range Rover.

"You think you can get down to the valley?" Mike asked.

"The road down should be plowed and sanded by now," Vadim said. "The Keldara do it. With horse-drawn plows, I might add."

"Must be a bitch getting up that hill with horses," Mike said, shaking his head. "Don't they have regular plows or tractors?"

"They have one tractor," Vadim said, pulling out of the station parking lot cautiously. The Range Rover had snow-chains but the road was still icy in spots. "It dates from Stalin's time. For everything else they have horses and oxen."

"Jesus," Mike said. "It really is poor up here, isn't it?"

"Very," Vadim said, sourly, as he approached the switchbacks. "Let us hope for good fortune in this endeavor."

The road, however, had been thoroughly plowed and sanded, and the Rover made it down to the valley easily. Mike noted that not only had that road been plowed but so had the road up to the caravanserai, which was another series of switchbacks.

"The Keldara do all of this?" Mike asked, surprised. A few of the valley's inhabitants were out in the snow, mostly gathering wood except for a group of children engaged in a snowball fight.

"They are responsible for the road in the valley and up the hills," Vadim replied as he turned onto the road up to the caravanserai. "And, of course, to the fort. It's a duty they've held for generations and they take it seriously. They take all their duties seriously. Fortunately, the commissars that held the area during the Soviet period were lenient; the Keldara can be very prickly about their rights and duties. And the way they maintain their farms fit well with the Soviet collective model. Even if the Keldara considered it just another form of fiefdom."


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