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Chapter Four

He eventually found the captain in the tavern, playing a game of cards with a few of the regulars. Tarasova and his cronies were already ensconced by the fire and well into their beer. Mike ignored them as he made his way to the captain.

"Give me a moment of your time, Captain?" Mike asked as the round drew to a close.

"Of course, Mr. Jenkins," Vadim said. "I was losing anyway."

"I'm shocked, shocked to find gambling in this establishment," Mike said, chuckling.

"You enjoy Casablanca as well?" Tyurin said, following him over to a table in the corner.

"I was wondering if you'd modeled yourself on Claude Rains' character," Mike admitted.

"A bit," Tyurin said with a sigh. "The price of being a powerless officer of the law is flouting the law. Even Inspector Renault had more forces than I."

"Well, good news," Mike said. "You've a new source of income."

"You're going to buy the farm, as you put it?" Vadim said, smiling sardonically.

"I am that," Mike replied. "But there are several things I'll need. Some of them are legal, normal and proper. Some of them may be legal and some I suspect are illegal."

"Let us start with the legal ones, shall we?" Vadim said, smiling again.

"I need a new overseer," Mike said, quietly. "One who knows the Keldara and who knows farming. Preferably modern farming. And not a loud-mouthed dirtball. I can tell I won't get along with Otar."

"Genadi Mahona," Vadim said, just as quietly. "He is actually one of the Keldara. He took his degree in agronomy at the University of Tbilisi then returned. He tried to get Otar to change some of his practices and got forced out of the homes. He works in the mill as a laborer at the moment."

"Figures," Mike said, sighing. "Okay, I am not an agent of the United States but I am a former SEAL. And a SEAL instructor moreover. I'm not going to just sit here and let the Chechens have anything they want. Besides working on the farms, I'm going to try to turn the Keldara into militia. For that I'll need arms."

"The problem is one of funding," Vadim said, shrugging. "I can register them as a legal local militia. But finding the funding for weapons is another thing."

"Funds are available," Mike said, dryly. "But what about obtaining them? How do we get them here?"

"You're serious?" Vadim said to a nod, "If you are, it is simple enough. I put in the order through the Georgian government for whatever you wish. You pay the supplier and it is shipped to us."

"Not through a central armory, right?" Mike asked. "I'd like to get everything I pay for."

"No, straight to us," Vadim replied.

"Anything?" Mike asked. "RPGs? Mortars?"

"They are a bit more sticky about heavy weapons," Vadim admitted, frowning. "Are you forming a militia or an army?"

"Say a well-armed militia," Mike said, grinning. "What about nonfirearm material? Electronics, uniforms, that sort of thing?"

"That will be less of a problem," Vadim said. "There is a very large surcharge on imports, but equipment for a militia is exempt. There is paperwork; I know how to file it."

"And what about farming equipment?" Mike asked.

"Again, it is exempt from import duties," the cop said, frowning. "How much are you planning on spending?"

"A lot," Mike admitted. "It's worth it to have a functioning farm and a functioning militia. With the sort of technology they're using, most of the men are tied to the farm. If I can bring in some equipment to free them up for training, especially serious training, it will be worth it. Speaking of which, can I bring in trainers? I don't want to do it all myself."

"That can be arranged, as long as they are not here to engage in combat," Vadim pointed out. "That would make them mercenaries."

"What about if I get stuck in a combat situation?" Mike asked.

"I think the American military puts it well," Vadim replied, smiling. "Don't ask, don't tell."

"And on that subject I believe we need to come to some accommodation?" Mike asked.

"A reasonable one," Vadim admitted. "A few hundred euros extra a month would be nice. But, frankly, just having the area somewhat secure would be wonderful. Anything they can do beyond that would be tremendous."

"You can't just secure a position like that," Mike said, shaking his head. "You have to know what is going on in a bubble around you. Which means intensive patrolling. I think that some of the changes I'm going to make will shake the Keldara to their core. But they'll be good changes. Where can I find this Genadi character?"

"Finding him will not be so hard," Vadim said. "He works at the mill and lives in a building at the edge of town with about a dozen other workers. Meeting with him without everyone in town hearing about it will be harder."

"Can you or one of your men, one that doesn't talk, pick him up and meet me outside of town?" Mike asked. "I'd say at the caravanserai but that would be a bit obvious."

"There's an old patrol house up the road at the pass," Vadim said, pointing south. "Around eight PM?"

"Works for me," Mike replied. "Thanks for the help."

"I don't care for Otar either," Vadim admitted.

* * *

Mike had a fire going in the stove by the time a battered police car pulled up. The drive up to the post had been much harder than down to the valley; he wondered that the old battered Trebia had made it at all. A man got out and looked around, then walked through the door of the small patrol post as the car pulled away. He was in his twenties, wearing old and soiled clothes and the weathered look of a farmer. But his light skin, blue eyes and bright red hair betrayed him as a Keldara.

"Siddown," Mike said in Russian, gesturing to a folding chair he'd brought from town. He'd been reheating tea on the stove and poured a cup. "My name's Mike Jenkins."

"Everyone in town has heard of you," the man said in passable English. "You got lost and Katrina saved you."

"Is that how it's told?" Mike said, smiling. "I didn't even know her name. And I think it was a matter of mutual help. I think she would have died in the storm."

"So do I," Genadi said, looking at him over the rim of the cup. "But you nearly got her in a lot of trouble."

"Why?" Mike asked.

"She was alone with a man," Genadi said, shrugging and setting down the cup. "She was nearly sent to town over it. That is what they call selling girls into slavery."

"Is she going to be sent to town?" Mike asked.

"Not over that," Genadi said, sighing. "Not yet, anyway. Do you understand why women are sent to town?"

"Because they get caught with men that they're not married to?" Mike asked, frowning.

"That is a direct cause," Genadi said, his brow furrowing. "But . . . I took an economics class in university and we talked about this. Women in low-tech agrarian societies, and that means all of the Georgian mountains and most of Russia, have very little economic worth. You know this?"

"I suppose," Mike said, interested. He'd sampled the fruits of the economic situation, but never really gotten into why so many women from Eastern Europe, of their own accord or not, ended up in the sex trade.

"They cannot do as much as men on a farm," Genadi said, shrugging. "So they don't bring in as much money. But they cost nearly as much in food and shelter costs as men. So they are . . .  if there are too many women, they are excess to needs, yes?"

"If you say so," Mike replied.

"There are none of the usual jobs that women can do just as well as men," Genadi said. "And even where there are, men are preferred. So women have little worth both in the agrarian and industrial areas. But the Chechens that come here, they will pay what is very good money for the women. As much as a half a year's pay for a man. This is money that the farms need. So they sell their daughters. It is an old custom and so normal that no one in the mountains really thinks there is anything wrong with it."

"I do," Mike said. "I hope like hell they haven't sold Katrina or there's going to be words at the very least."

"She has not been sent to town," Genadi said, definitely. "I talked to her brother only yesterday. But I think she probably will be sooner or later. And maybe it would be for the best. Katrina is one of those that doesn't do well in the Families."

"Like you?" Mike asked.

"Oh, I did well enough," Genadi said, shrugging. "Until I told that bastard Otar that running wheat three years in a row on the same field was idiotic. I think I shouldn't have used that word."

"It's true, though," Mike said, frowning. "Even I know that."

"The valley is large but only specific fields are well suited to wheat," Genadi said, furrowing his brow. "He was being pushed for more income, and wheat is an income generator. But so is soy, especially now that there's a mill in Tbilisi. The transport cost eats up a bit, but not much. But he didn't want to listen. Wheat is what he knows, that and oats and potatoes. Even peas, though he doesn't have an eye for a good hybrid. Really, he's not a very good overseer. He just talks a good line to Mr. Mironov. And blames his failures on the Keldara."

"Do you think you could do a better job?" Mike asked.

"Is that what this is about?" Genadi said, raising an eyebrow. "A job interview?"

"And picking your brain," Mike admitted. "I want to buy the caravanserai. Unfortunately, it comes with the valley. I don't really need the valley, but if I'm going to buy a farm, I'm going to do it right. And I could spot a bullshitter from across the room. The question is, are you any better? I don't know a plow from a sickle so I don't even know the questions to ask. And I don't know what the Keldara will stand for."

"Well, they'll do most things that you ask in reference to running the farm," Genadi said, carefully. "If it cuts into their stores for the year, though, they'll balk. You understand the setup down there?"

"Not at all," Mike admitted. "Explain."

"The Six Families have worked the fields for as long as anyone can remember," Genadi said, frowning in thought. "And, really, there hasn't been much change in their methods since the late middle ages, I swear. The plows are bit improved and they buy hybrid seeds, but that's about it. And even the hybrids they buy aren't the best, in my opinion. But they are cheap. They would be willing to work with modern machinery, but they have a deep belief that things like that are supposed to be owned by the land owner. Even the plows are owned by the bank, did you know that?"

"No," Mike said. "I'm not sure what I'm buying, am I?"

"No," Genadi said, sighing. "The land, the houses, the major tools, most of the livestock are all owned by the bank, by you if you purchase the farm. The Keldara own hand tools, their food, the furniture in the houses and the clothes on their backs. Oh, personal items as well. But everything else is owned by the bank. They buy seed on shares and owe shares of their output to the owner of the land. It works out to the owner getting about thirty percent of the material farmed and the Keldara getting the rest. They also have the right to farm small patches for themselves, three hectares per family, and to cut wood and gather certain items from the forests. They also have the right to run a few family owned livestock out with the owner's. They have the duty of fattening two of the steers per family for the use of the owner and the butchering of same. There are various other minor rights and duties. Now, the point is, these are rights and duties as seen by the Keldara. Some owners, notably the commissars, forced them to provide different support, to change their rights and duties. But as soon as the commissars left, they switched right back to the original custom. They are very custom bound, are the Keldara."

"You say 'they'," Mike noted. "But they're your family, too."

"I was more or less cast out when I challenged Otar," Genadi said, shrugging. "If you hire me, I can work there. I can act as overseer. But I'm not, technically, a part of the Families anymore. That will make it easier in a way."

"What landmines do I really have to look for?" Mike asked. "Don't get caught alone with a woman, you said that."

"Well . . ." Genadi said, sighing. "If you buy the farm, things will be a bit different. Frankly, the older members of the family have been whining for a Kildar for some time."

"I'm not a lord or whatever," Mike said, definitely.

"If you buy the farm, you'll be the Kildar," Genadi said, just as definitely. "And don't discount that. The Kildar can get away with things that regular mortals cannot. If you make a mistake in dealing with them, they'll be immediately willing to overlook it for the Kildar. The Kildar is more than a landowner. In ancient times . . ." He paused and frowned, then shrugged. "Well, the Kildar is an important man to the Keldara. You get the similarity in terms, yes?"

"Yes, and they're not Georgian," Mike pointed out, wondering what Genadi had not said. "What about ancient times?"

"That's . . . not something I can talk about," the man said, rubbing at his chest.

Mike noticed that he had some sort of cord around his neck and wondered if his shirt hid an oddly shaped axe.

"So, landmines," Mike said, changing the subject.

"Debt," Genadi said, immediately. "The Keldara are very stingy and very loathe to assume any debt outside the Families. Even to the Kildar. And they won't take charity. If you buy farm implements, improve the houses, whatever, that is up to you. That is your responsibility. But . . . if the food runs short in summer, as it often does, they won't accept charity. And even if they are short, if they owe you foodstuffs they'll give them up rather than fail in a duty. That, to them, would be debt."

"What about medical support or public works?" Mike asked.

"There is no medical support," Genadi said, frowning. "The nearest hospital is Tbilisi. There's not even an infirmary. If anyone gets sick, they die."

"That's got to change," Mike said. "I'll see about that."

"You'll have a hard time finding a doctor that's willing to move up here," Genadi pointed out.

"I might be able to get more help than you think," Mike said. "Public works."

"Well, it depends on what you're thinking about," Genadi said, furrowing his brow. "What sort of public works?"

"I'm thinking of putting in a small hydroelectric dam and plant," Mike admitted.

"My, you are thinking big," Genadi said with a chuckle. "You'll have to pay the men to work on it. And I suppose you can work out some sort of an exchange if you intend to wire the houses."

"I do," Mike said. "But that is for later. That caravanserai is too big for one person to manage it. I'll need some help, a cook if she can learn to cook my way, at least a housekeeper and maybe some maids, a gardener, things like that. Can I draw on them from the Keldara?"

"They'd be insulted if you didn't," Genadi said. "But that doesn't fall in their shared duties so they'll have to be paid."

"Of course," Mike said. "What about forming a militia? From the sounds of what Vadim was saying, the Keldara aren't pacifists."

"Quite the opposite," Genadi said, chuckling. "They pride themselves on, well . . ." He paused again and shrugged. "They're not pacifists. In the spring they have tests of strength and wrestle to see who is best. The winner is called the Ondah and gets certain rights and privileges. Most of the men chosen to head the Families are former Ondah so people really strive to win. And there are old weapons stuck here and there. Sometimes we practice with them and we really practice with them. And you don't want to deal with an angry Keldara holding an axe. There is a technique to axe fighting and I think we may be the only people on earth that still practice it. If you wish to make a militia from the Keldara, they'll support it enthusiastically."

"It's more than just getting handed guns," Mike said. "I was an instructor for American commandoes, what are called SEALs—"

"Navy commandoes," Genadi said, his eyes narrowing. "I have heard of them."

"If, and I say if, I form a militia, I'll expect them to train to American methods and standards," Mike said, his face hard. "That's a cultural thing as much as anything. It might require change in the way they do things, how they think about fighting. For one thing, it requires being able to handle it when someone tells you you're wrong and changing to the way that they tell you. Fighting and training with discipline. Will they be able to do that?"

"I think so," Genadi said, carefully. "The Keldara . . .  I think they can, honestly. They are disciplined. They're prickly about their rights and duties, but not that way."

"Okay, I'm not going to promise anything to them," Mike said. "I don't think that it's good to make promises that you're not sure you can keep. But you can assume I'll make changes. The first is that you need some decent clothes. I'll take the cost out of your pay. And I've got to figure out how much to pay you and where to stash you until it's time to tell Otar he's redundant."

"Be careful," Genadi said. "The man can be vindictive."

"Well, I'm one person he won't want to cross."

* * *

Mike had stashed Genadi at the caravanserai, telling him to lay low, and settled back into the tavern in the meantime. The next evening he was contemplating his glass of beer, listening to Otar bragging, when he realized that there was one aspect of the village he'd neglected to check out: the brothel.

He dropped a ruble on the table and walked out into the night, crunching through the snow as he walked down the street to the building Vadim had pointed out. He paused as he was leaving the parking lot of the tavern, then doubled back to his car, getting some materials out of it and putting them in a bag. Then he resumed his evening walk.

When he got to the brothel he knocked on the door and was greeted by a short, fat man with a beaten look.

"Good evening," Mike said in Russian. "I understand that this is a place a weary traveler can find friendship."

"You must be the American," the man said, waving him into an entry hallway. "I am Yakov Belyayev. I have not heard your name?"

"Mike Jenkins," Mike said as the man opened the inner door.

The building was obviously a house since the entry area was a sitting room. There was one man in the room sitting on a couch with a gorgeous blonde on his knee. As Vadim had mentioned, the girls, three brunettes, a redhead and the blonde, ranged from very good looking to, in the case of the blonde, just spectacular. They also were, uniformly, young; the youngest looked as if she should be playing with dolls, not sitting around shivering in a teddy.

"Very nice," Mike said.

"You may have your pick," Yakov said, dispiritedly. "Business is very slow. It always is very slow."

"You have very pretty girls for a slow place," Mike said, looking the group over. The blonde looked at him and lowered her eyes demurely but he'd gotten just enough of a flash to know it was a total act. The eyes that had tracked to him were as cold as a shark's, cold enough that they were a little frightening. Not just resigned cold but the sort of look you saw on someone who'd seen too much combat and discovered they enjoyed killing people and breaking things. Mike occasionally saw the same look in a mirror and knew it was the outward expression of something he didn't want to get involved with. The blonde was a flat killer waiting for her chance.

"Most of the girls are local," the man admitted. "I could sell them to the Chechens, I suppose, and sometimes I think I should. They eat more than they make most of the time. But it is the only business I know."

"The blonde?" Mike asked, curiously.

"Katya," the man said, sighing. "She was on her way to Eagle Market. I don't know how she ended up here. The man wanted to sell her for too little money for me to pass up. Spectacular, no? She could make good money in Bosnia, but she is here where all men can afford is a few kopeks. I have tried to sell her before, for her own good, but no one would take her. I don't know why, she is beautiful. And quite well trained. You like her?"

"Pass," Mike said. "Besides she's with someone."

"That is Marat, my doorman," Yakov said with another resigned sigh. "Why I have a doorman I don't know; I always answer it."

"Being polite," Mike said quietly, turning away from the girls, "I understand there is a bit of problem with, well, body bugs."

"It is hard to keep the girls clean," the man said, shrugging. "Hot water costs money, you know. And the price they want for the shampoos, it is terrible."

"I see," Mike said, sighing. "Is there somewhere we can talk, quietly?"

"This way," Yakov said, walking slowly to the back, his head down. He led Mike into the kitchen, which was dirty and deserted. Mike wasn't about to eat anything cooked in the place, that was sure.

"I'm going to be staying for a while, as it turns out," Mike said. "The weather and all. And I'd like to have my ashes hauled, but not at the cost of lice and bedbugs and fleas. Not to mention the pox."

"No pox," Yakov assured him. "The girls all use rubbers."

"As you say," Mike said, not looking at the kitchen. "The point is," he said, starting to pull out stuff from his bag, "I'd be willing to front you the material to clean the girls up. Hell, I'll even pay you a few euros to make sure they have access to hot water and to make sure they use it. I'll be a major patron of your . . ." he paused and choked at the words "fine establishment," " . . . house. If the girls are clean. If not, I'll just stick to rosy palm and her five fingers." By this time he'd laid out six bottles of lice shampoo, bedding spray and pubic hair cream. "Do we have a deal?"

"You are giving this to me?" Yakov asked, frowning.

"Yes," Mike said. "And if I find out you resold it rather than using it, you won't have to worry about losing money. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes," Yakov said, nodding dispiritedly.

"And make sure the girls have all the hot water they want," Mike said, pulling out a hundred-euro note. "This stuff works on first use. I'll be back in a day or two. If I see lice, I'll know you double-crossed me. You don't want to double-cross me."

"Some of the girls may be . . . resistant," Yakov argued.

"You're a pimp," Mike said, standing up. "That's your problem."



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