Back | Next

Chapter Three

There was a small open area at the top of the slope and Vadim got out to open the gates. Mike got out as well to take a look around. From the spot it was possible to look across the entire valley and Mike realized it was much larger than he'd thought the night before, at least five miles long and a couple of miles across. There were four smaller valleys running into it, including the one that held Alerrso. Their streams, which were lined by trees in most places, joined in the basin and then drained down the road he'd approached on. The valley was mostly flat with a few small hills towards the northeast end with the road approaching from the northwest and running along a slightly elevated track on the west side. The homes of the Keldara were clustered on the south side near the town and directly across from the caravanserai.

Besides the villagers, who looked like ants from his elevated position, there were cattle and horses that had been turned out to look for browse. There were clearly distinguishable fields as well, most of them separated by stone fences. Mike guessed that the soil of the valley would be rather stony but it might be rich; the rivers running down to it would bring a heavy load of soil with each spring flood. He could tell where the flood plains were and he realized that the Keldara homes were drawn well up above them.

He saw a flash of red hair on one of the playing children but even with the small binoculars from his jump bag he couldn't tell if it was the spectacular redhead he'd picked up. He used the binoculars to examine the area more carefully, especially the Keldara homes.

There seemed to be six distinct groups with about three houses and a barn or two to each. The barns were joined to the houses by low stone walls and there were a few covered walkways. The area around each of the houses had been plowed and shoveled carefully but it was the layout of the houses that bothered him. After a moment he realized what he was looking at; each of the separate groups had interlocking fields of fire between the houses.

Most of the houses were built into the side of the hill and from them the Keldara could lay down a withering fire on any enemy approaching from the valley. The thick stone walls and small windows made each house into a sort of bunker. They'd be vulnerable to artillery or mortar fire, or an attack from the south. But looking at that steep hillside and thinking about getting to it, Mike could understand why it would be ignored as a threat.

For that matter, there was a small drop-off between the houses and the valley that was hard to recognize at this angle. It might be natural but it had the look of something that had been built. Put a palisade on it and any attacker would be hard pressed to get to the houses from the valley at all. There were three breaks in the bluff, which he was sure was manmade, one running to the road, but dipping down to the valley first, and the other two to the fields. There might be a fourth, it was hard to tell from his angle, running east towards the southeast valley. The one that went to the road had a large stone fence running parallel to it that conceivably could have been a defensive wall at one point. Up above all of the houses, with a narrow track that might once have been a road, was an open bench that had rocks stacked on it that looked like old foundations.

"Seen enough?" Vadim asked from behind him.

Mike had heard him crunching through the snow so he wasn't startled.

"Pretty valley," was all he said.

"There used to be tigers in the mountains," Vadim replied, clearly disappointed that he hadn't surprised the former SEAL. "Or so it is said. The Keldara were called the Tigers of the Valley back then and it was the job of one of the Keldara to go out each year and kill a tiger. You can still see some of the skins around in the homes."

"Interesting layout," he said, putting the binoculars away. "Are the Keldara armed?"

"They have a few old guns," the policeman said. "About five if I remember correctly. None automatic. Bolt action rifles from the Great Patriotic War that a few of the men were allowed to bring home. They do some hunting with them. Why?"

"You said the Chechens sometimes attack farms," Mike said, turning to walk through the gate and putting his binoculars back in the jump bag. "I was wondering if they'd ever been attacked."

"Once," Vadim admitted. "But the Chechens had driven off by the time we got there. They lost a cow and one girl that the damned Islamics carried off."

"Driven away or been driven off?" Mike asked as they walked up to the caravanserai. There was a broad, flagged, courtyard beyond the gates with a fountain in the middle and gardens to either side. The main door had steps running up to it and a covered portico that was only lightly dusted with snow. On the north side the curtain wall ran close to the house with what appeared to be a graveled drive running between the two. Beyond the garden on the south side was a large yard that was heavily overgrown with weeds and even small trees. There was also a high wall on that side that extended out towards the yard; he couldn't see what was beyond it.

The ground floor of the house was about six thousand square feet or more from what Mike could see and while there were windows they were mostly small and deeply set. Too small for a person to climb in or out. The ground floor would be dark as hell. The second and third floors, however, had numerous windows, although most of the ones on the south side had decorative bars over them. On the sides the smaller second story gave on to a balcony, while in the center a domelike structure rose from the lower floor. The dome had numerous small openings on the side so there would probably be good light under it.

"Half and half," Vadim answered, negotiating the lock on the front door. The door was about ten feet high and made of heavy wood. "The Keldara said that they'd killed at least one of the attackers but there was no body. They'd pulled into their houses as soon as the Chechens were sighted driving down the road. The girl had apparently been out picking berries and couldn't make it back to the houses in time. The Chechens drove in, took fire from the houses, grabbed the girl and a cow and drove off."

Mike thought about driving into that open area in front of the houses and what even five rifles, well handled, could do and nodded.

The main door led to a hallway with another heavy door at the end. The floor was tiled in what looked like marble, some of it cracked and all of it worn. Mike noted that the walls were still stone and that there were a few windows with shutters on them that could look into the rooms beyond. The word "murderholes" came to mind; the long, dark antechamber was intended for defense of the house from an attacker. There were coat hooks by the far door, which Mike and Vadim ignored; the house was as cold as the outside if not colder.

The foyer beyond was, in fact, well lit. It was high celinged and between large windows on the west side and lightwells on the east the room could be clearly examined. It was about sixty feet square with the ceiling held up by flying buttresses. The floor was more marble while the walls were dark wood paneling. Directly across from the door was a huge fireplace with a setting around it including a few chairs and an antique sofa.

"There is a large dining room that way," Vadim said, pointing north through an arched opening, "and a massive kitchen adjoining it. My wife hated that kitchen but there's a smaller one on the second floor. There are two layers of cellars. Maybe more; that's as far as I got. There's a bunch of rubbish left down there from when the Soviets had it. There are two small bathrooms in the living areas down here and a few rooms for general use, but take a look at this."

Vadim led him to a door on the south side, then down a short corridor to another heavyset door with a locking bar on the house side. Beyond that was a long corridor with doors on either side that led to an open area that was more or less circular. There was a stairway spiraling up on the west side and a balcony circling the room with more doors off of it. On the south side of the room was a heavy door with metal filigree on it and barred windows following the line of the balcony. The floor was marble, in much better condition than in the foyer, and the walls were tiled in mosaics. Many of the tiles had fallen off but they appeared to depict pastoral scenes of woodlands and fields with wild animals and cattle browsing placidly. In the center of the room was a fountain but there was no visible furniture.

"Harem?" Mike asked after a moment.

"You figured it out," Vadim said, nodding. "It was the Ottoman harem quarters. The commissar used it for barracks."

"Silly commissar," Mike said, looking around. "Does the fountain work?"

"No, more's the pity," Vadim said. "The door leads to a walled garden. Very nice. Even has fruit trees. Needs to be cleaned up, though."

"I'm looking at it, not buying it," Mike said, turning back to the main house.

The second floor had the best bedrooms, fourteen in total, and four bathrooms, including the one off the master suite. The master suite was on the south side and had glass doors that led to a balcony. From the balcony Mike could look down into the garden of the harem and out across the valley. It was covered and fairly deep so there was only a light dusting of snow.

There was furniture in some of the rooms, but with the exception of the master suite it could better be described as "ruined" rather than "antique." And the few bits which were in good condition, including in the master suite, were Soviet era. From experience, Mike knew the beds and chairs would be uncomfortable as hell.

"Bit much for even a casual stay," Mike noted as they walked back down to the foyer.

"There are more bedrooms for servants on the third floor," Vadim said, shrugging. "And an attic that's packed with rubbish. The cellars are as well, as I mentioned. But it's awfully interesting, don't you think?"

"Very," Mike admitted. "You can tell it was renovated by the tsars at least. But the foundations aren't Russian or Ottoman. I don't know why I can tell that but they're not."

"No," Vadim said. "I think the building was originally more of a fort. Look closely at the windows on the ground floor; I think they were chiseled out at some point. Probably the upper stories were rebuilt or renovated by the Ottomans to make it more of a house."

"This foyer isn't Ottoman," Mike said, looking at the flying buttresses. There were six of them, made of sandstone that had been later reinforced in patches with concrete. But the base sandstone in places still had a trace of carvings. They had been very deep but time had worn them away, especially at levels where hands could touch. The best description he could come up with was "lace." They definitely weren't grape-vines although there were some bits of that in there. In a few places it was clear that something had been chiseled out and roughly sanded over. From the shape it might have been crosses.

Mike took a bit more of a look around, finding a large room in the south wing that was on the opposite corner from the harem. It had high windows that let in a fair bit of light and had once had fixtures on the walls.

"Library," Mike said, shaking his head. "Even the bookshelves were removed. I wonder why?"

"The Soviets probably didn't like the books," Vadim said, shrugging. "They might have cut up the bookshelves for firewood for that matter. And used the books for kindling."

Mike suddenly had a vision of the room filled back up with books. SEALs were generally thought of as slope-browed adrenaline junkies, but he'd found them to be well above the norm in intelligence. And he, personally, liked books. But he also could see using it for a workout room. He missed workouts; he hadn't been able to do any regular ones since leaving the states.

The place was way, way, way more than he'd ever need. He had no family and, given his security situation, no interest in starting one. And this was the home of a feudal lord, not a former SEAL. It was designed to hold dozens of servants and hangers on, not to mention guards.

On the other hand . . . it would be a damned good place to go to ground. Nobody would be looking for the guy named "Ghost" in this remote spot. And the place was designed for defense. The long yard on the south side would make an adequate pistol and short-distance rifle range. There was plenty of room for workout equipment. Weapons would be easy enough to obtain, legally or illegally, and if Vadim wasn't willing to be on the take he was a monkey's uncle. He'd turn a blind eye to anything short of a tank that Mike "obtained" and he might not even blink at a tank.

"How much . . ." Mike said, then paused and shrugged. "How much do you think the bank wants for this place?"

* * *

"A million dollars?" Mike said, his eyes wide. It was far less than he'd expect to pay in the states or western Europe, but in Georgia that was beyond a fortune. And the location was unusual to be asking that much money for a half-ruined fort.

"The caravanserai is entailed with the farms in the valley," Mr. Mironov said, shrugging. "It cannot be sold without including those farms."

"What about the farmers?" Mike asked. "The Keldara."

"They are tenants," Mironov replied, shrugging again. "They pay rent in a portion of the crops to the owner of the caravanserai. One of the reasons I'd like to get it off my books is that they're not very good farmers; the farms are not very productive at least."

"With nothing but horse-drawn plows what do you expect?" Mike asked disparagingly.

"I tried to get permission to purchase better equipment," Mironov said, defensively. "But the bank owners considered it just pouring good money after bad."

"Well, I don't want to be the lord to a bunch of sharecroppers," Mike said, shaking his head. "I don't know anything about running farms."

"There is an overseer," Mironov pointed out.

"I believe you met him at the tavern," Vadim said dryly. "Otar Tarasova. Large loud fellow. Hard to miss."

"I can imagine how well the Keldara work for him," Mike said, looking at Mironov. "I'm really not interested in becoming a gentleman farmer."

"It is a pity," Mironov said, sadly. "Frankly, the million is simply to clear the debts on the farm. We bought it as a lot with a number of other properties from the government and haven't been able to unload it. Among other things, the way that it's entailed it cannot be broken up. Buy the caravanserai and you get the valley. But nobody wants both."

"Hold on," Mike said. "The whole valley? For a million dollars?"

"Euros," Mironov pointed out. "But, yes. The whole valley."

Mike leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers for a moment, tapping the balls and thinking. A million dollars was a lot of money to most people, but he had thirty mil, close enough, just sitting around. Okay, euros, say a million and a half. Most of it was invested here and there but the investments had been going well. In fact, he probably could close out everything and walk away with more than thirty mil. And it was a bunch of land.

But that led to the question of the Keldara. If he bought the land he'd feel a very real sense of responsibility about a bunch of red-neck farmers. But, then again, there was that one farmer's daughter. . . .

"Heh," he said after a moment, grinning faintly.

"What?" Vadim asked, curiously.

"In the U.S. military, one of the euphemisms for dying is 'bought the farm,' " Mike said, thinking. "I just used the phrase in my mind and realized what I'd thought. How big is that thing, anyway?"

"About thirty square kilometers," Mironov said. "Including the mountainsides which are useless except for the wood on them. Excellent woodstands; you could make money simply by lumbering them off."

"Last thing I'd do," Mike said distantly. "Although, there are a few spots that would make dandy ski runs."

"I think we're a little remote for a ski resort," Vadim said, watching him.

"I wasn't thinking about tourists, I was thinking about me," Mike said. "Just how stuck in their ways are the Keldara?"

"They can be very stuck in their ways," Vadim admitted. "But . . . I did mention that the caravanserai is generally owned by foreigners. That person is referred to as the Kildar. The Keldara consider the current owner as their lord. Not one like Mr. Mironov, when he's working for the bank, but they even called the commissar the Kildar. They . . .  tend to be more understanding about changes from the Kildar. He's just another in a string from their perspective. And, of course, you can toss them out on their ear if they anger you or don't do what you want them to. You even own the houses."

"Crap," Mike said, thinking about what he'd seen in those houses. "Those places are hovels."

"They're no worse, and in fact much better, than most homes in the mountains," Mr. Mironov pointed out. "And you have to be careful about changes; the Keldara are very prickly about debt. I suggested putting in gas heat and stoves and they asked how they were supposed to pay for it. They realized that it would mean being in debt to the bank and they flatly refused. The same thing happened with suggesting that they take loans to buy tractors. They have the right to cut wood in the mountains and some of their animals are their own, for which they have pasturage rights. They live within those constraints very carefully."

"Okay, so let me get this straight," Mike said. "You want a million euros for a valley with Neolithic, okay, medieval-style farms, a run-down castle and pig-headed farmers."

"There is a reason we haven't been able to move it, yes," Mr. Mironov said with a sigh.

"And let's not forget the security situation," Mike added, grimacing. "Vadim, any idea how well those guys can fight? Could they be a militia?"

"The Keldara rarely leave the valley," Vadim said, shrugging. "And they were specifically exempt from draft during the Soviet era; one of Stalin's odder legacies and one that was never explained. So there's no recent record to tell what they're like. However, during the Great Patriotic War many of them fought in the Red Army and acquitted themselves well. At least, so I've heard. There were quite a few Heroes metals sent home, posthumously, and a few that made it back with them. For what it's worth, the other groups in the mountains say they're the best fighters around. I don't know, personally."

"Say that again?" Mike said, shaking his head. "Stalin exempted them from draft?"

"Yes," Mr. Mironov said. "No one knows why. He wasn't even from around here."

"Okay," Mike said, blowing out. "Let me take another look around. I'm not too sure about this. Buying a farm wasn't on my list of things to do this week."

He left Vadim with the banker and went out to get his Mercedes unburied. It took about fifteen minutes but he finally managed to get it out of the snowed-over parking lot and through the drifts thrown up by the snowplow.

He made his way back down the defile to the valley and drove along the road, looking out at the snow-covered fields. As he did he thought of the work that had been done to the road; it was an amazing undertaking if all they used was the draft horses he could see in the fields. And they were cleared before he and Vadim had driven down. Admittedly, he hadn't been up at dawn, but it was still impressive.

He stopped the car at the far end of the valley and turned around, driving back towards town slowly. As he reached the turn for the caravanserai he followed his impulse and went back up. He drove into the courtyard and looked around, for what he couldn't tell. There was something about the architecture of the lower floor that was bugging him. The blocks of stone were uniform, about a half meter long and a quarter meter high. Many of them had carvings, especially along the base. Near the stairs there was one that had what might have once been Roman numerals. He realized that what he really needed was some tracing paper and a carbon stick.

He walked into the caravanserai and through the foyer, examining the large formal dining hall and the massive, extremely messy, kitchen that supported it. He took a stroll through the harem quarters, just for the frisson. It would be easy enough to fill the quarters with girls from Eastern Europe. Not that he would; he'd come too close to his demons once. But it still had a bit of a tingle. The rooms had Soviet era military beds in them and Russian graffiti. Easy enough to fix. At least if he had a lot of visitors, he'd have somewhere to put them.

He realized he was thinking in terms of ownership and grimaced. Buy the farm. Yeah, I bought the farm. It just had the wrong ring to it. Like speaking from beyond the grave.

The house was wired for electric, which was something. The service this far out from major areas was probably spotty. Get that fixed with some big generators. Hell, there were three or four streams that would do for decent hydroelectric, which could be fed to the Keldara . . .  And that lovely, lovely girl would finally have electricity. Maybe even running water.

He walked out of the house, whistling.

* * *

"I'll take it," Mike said after he'd been ushered into Mr. Mironov's office and the secretary had left. "I'd like some help and a few conditions, however."

"What conditions?" Mironov asked. "And how will you be arranging payment?"

"There's more than enough in Zurich Mercantile," Mike said, sliding over a slip of paper with his account number on it and a release code. "Go ahead and arrange a transfer of three million euros. One will go to pay for the farm, the other two into an operating account. I'll probably need more in time, but that will do for starters."

"Very well," Mironov said, looking at the number as if it were fairy gold.

"I have some arrangements to make, separate from the sale," Mike continued. "So until the final papers are signed, I'd like to keep my interest quiet. Will that be a problem?"

"Not in the bank," Mironov promised. "I'll have the papers drawn up this afternoon by Mrs. Chizhova; she's very discreet. When the transfers come through, the place will be yours."

"Until I'm ready, I'd like the sale to remain quiet," Mike noted. "I suppose I need to go talk to Captain Tyurin."


Back | Next