Needle In The Ice
by Mickie Turk
followed the path of bombed out buildings with a vigor she didn’t feel.
More than once she’d had to crush her
shoulder into jagged masonry to avoid stepping on dead rats and broken glass.
Dimmed by dust and ash, early morning light glinted on the brim of the skyline.
Soft breezes blew in from the north and lifted the haze, separating the world
into dirty, swaying curtains. As she marched, she pulled a wind collar over her
mouth and tried not to inhale the vapors of burnt wood and the rot of animal
carcasses. For the moment, the crease-faced militia patrolling the neighborhood
and bearing high-powered assault rifles ignored her. She was one of Malik’s
assets. No one ever hassled Malik’s assets.
the Americans she was a false flag
pretending to be a turncoat CIA operative, feigning to share and sell secrets
to the Chechens. Today she was bait and, unless her backup showed up in the
next few minutes, she would be trapped or killed. She needed a
Malik’s armored truck
stood only a few short blocks away. A mere thousand yards. Where was Stryker?
Was she really going to die
here, in the place journalists were calling the most destroyed city in the
world? After six years of war, comparisons of Grozny to Hiroshima were
numerous. Before panic picked her mind clean, the agent forced herself to
recall Chechnya’s recent history.
In the first war,
all of the moderate leaders were assassinated and forty percent of the
citizenry fled. In the second Chechen war, Russians carpet-bombed any visible
structures, once even a maternity ward. One hundred thousand people, both
Chechens and Russians, had lost their lives.
despised the fact that her own country had helped finance President Boris
Yeltsin’s shitty war, but she couldn’t change the past. She was here to help
restore order and nothing more. And she’d done her job well, getting Malik to
trust her and to meet out in the open. The last of the most dangerous
extremists was close to being vanquished.
civilian with arms bandaged in duct tape and covered from head to toe in grey
ash, sprang from an alley and ran in front of her. The man looked like he’d
spent the night in one of the charred structures. She stopped long enough for
him to sidestep her.
yards. Eight hundred. Seven hundred.
She conjured up
Stryker. A big, fit man who wore a mask. For years she’d wanted to see his face
uncovered but never asked. During their secret missions together, he’d gained a
reputation for arriving at the last minute to win the day. Something that
shortened her life span considerably each time he did it, but before they’d
always had a plan. This time was different. He not only failed to show up and
help scout locations, Stryker never sent word whether he’d gotten in touch with
the Americans. It’d been more than a week since they met in the mountain city,
Urus Martan. She’d explained then that Malik was softening but it would be at
least a few more days before she could get him to Grozny. If Stryker wasn’t in
the loop, how could he know which day of the week Malik would arrive and where?
Maybe Stryker was
here already. But
if that were the case, why was he playing games with her?
After a lifetime
of viewing the world from the trenches, Stryker was arrogant with serious
character flaws. She knew she couldn’t continue working with him, but she
understood and forgave Stryker’s limitations. It was their handler, Devon
Distiche that The Needle truly despised. Devon was a bad leader. From his comfortable
perch in DC he called rank and instead of connecting the dots, mired his agents
in unclear expectations. Unable to consider anyone’s viewpoint but his own,
Devon valued intimidation over critical thinking and intellectual curiosity. He
dismissed her concerns about Stryker and allowed the rogue-ass to do as he
pleased. As long as Stryker brought in results, it didn’t matter to Devon who
else got hurt.
She wanted to slow
down, slow down time, but she couldn’t. A move like that would cost her.
Malik’s goons would know instantly she had a reason to be afraid.
Now’s the time masked man. Come save the
damsel in distress and all’s forgiven
The name barely escaped her lips before the barrel of an assault rifle grazed
her cheek. For someone who was trained not to blink in the face of danger, she
never got the hang of controlling her impulses when faced with bullies. Agent
Needle knocked the barrel flat against the ledge of the truck’s open window. He
glared at her. She knew what he was thinking. He should shoot her. She hoped
the anger she projected was sufficient to mask the terror she really felt.
much caffeine?’ Malik lowered the window all the way, withdrew his weapon, and
sniffed the air. “I think it’s going to rain.”
around her. Two of Malik’s men sat sideways on the hood of the truck; they
looked bored but she wasn’t fooled. These soldiers always had flight and fight
responses ready for go.
street, a projectile had blown out the windows of the building. But the blast
hadn’t been strong enough to melt the carbon steel infrastructure holding the
three stories together. She rested her arm on the window ledge, pulling her
jacket sleeve casually over a threadlike tattoo wrapped around her wrist.
“Now where would I
get coffee,” she snarled. I’ve been walking for eighteen hours. Your thugs
drove me fifty kilometers outside of the city and dropped me off in the middle
of a field. You’re lucky I’m so dedicated, and that I thought ahead to stash
the documents before leaving. Those assholes would have stolen them before they
kicked me out. Don’t you know you can’t just hire somebody you dragged out of a
sewer? Trust isn’t free, it’s earned.”
threw the door open and jumped out of the vehicle, breathing heavily. “You
didn’t bring the blueprints? Is this what you’re telling me?”
Needle jerked back and put her arms up in mock surrender. “You would’ve had
them by now, comrade, if only you’d let me photograph the files with my camera.
But nooooo! You’d rather let your stubborn, backwater paranoia lose the war. I
mean look at this place.” She pointed at each building on the boulevard as if
tallying the destruction for an office report. “Do you really think you have a
spitball’s chance in hell of winning by doing things the old fashioned way?”
slapped her. A signal to his men.
She tore off
running before they could grab her. She’d earned her code name, Needle. Her
ability to get in and out of places before anyone noticed her absence was
legendary. Speed and endurance were also at the top of a long list of talents
first barrage of fire from Malik’s lieutenants, she dove behind a burnt-out car
and then snaked her way inside the three-story edifice—a skeleton of what once had
been a behemoth apartment building.
erupted from both sides of the streets. Rebels as young as twelve years old
emerged from other damaged buildings firing, adding to the artillery bedlam.
Needle ran in and out of rooms jumping over rubble and bodies. She calculated
at least three live ones were inside now chasing and shooting at her. She
didn’t know whether to be more afraid of a bullet piercing a vital organ, or of
one of the structural supports collapsing, allowing the contents of the second
floor to bury her.
shots stopped. She knew that the weapons the rebels carried needed only seconds
to reload. That was exactly how long it took her get out and begin scaling the
apartment wall towards the roof. Normally, Needle wouldn’t attempt to climb a
building without gear, but this structure with its broken concrete blocks and
blown out windows, provided a plethora of foot and handholds.
the street below, the rebels moved frantically trying to get a bead on her. One
man ran back in the direction of Malik’s vehicle, the second scurried off into
another building. The third stood still shaking his head. By the time he looked
up, she was already out of sight, running across rooftops.
It got too quiet.
She couldn’t resist and crouched-crawled across the roof until she reached the
parapet. She leaned over just in time to see a man sidle up to Malik’s vehicle.
He opened the door, leaned in, and dragged out a body. Then a second and a
third. Blood pooled onto the street. She strained to hear. When no sound
reached her ears, she knew.
About time asshole.
weapon was a knife. Guns were too noisy for the tardy trooper.
Moments later when
she noticed the faint rumbling of vehicles, Needle let out her breath. She felt
more than heard them because everything around her was vibrating. Shit, this
building really could collapse, she thought. She sprang to her feet and ran
down to the second floor across rows of rooms and until she found an open
window and jumped.
She was on the
ground sprinting when she felt a large shadow pass over her. He’d waited for
her but now was keeping up. Her resting heart, always a steady fifty-two beats
a minute, hammered nails into her temples and blood rustled inside her skull.
Stryker must have been here for days because he seemed to know the terrain as
well as any sewer rat. Two blocks later, he steered her down an alley into an
abandoned house. They waited. An idea formed in her head. There could be no
forgiveness this time.
They struck out
again. At the corner she spied the convoy. Stryker had already disappeared. So
what. He’d discover what she was about to do soon enough.
A parade of
Russian tanks and armored trucks filled with Russian militia, American
military, and CIA personnel stormed the street. Needle walked up to the first
tank. She watched as a gaunt, sixtyish man climbed out with agility, jumped to
the ground, and took off his helmet. He eyed her warily as she pulled down her
wind collar. A stranger looked back at her from a side-view mirror. Her face
smudged with dirt and white ash, set off high cheekbones and wide-set hazel
eyes in high relief. It was like staring at a zombie. Hadleigh pulled off her knit
cap, letting down a shock of dark hair over her shoulders. That’s when she
looked up at him.
bastards took your sweet time. And your wonder boy nearly got me killed.”
shrugged and turned his cold eyes to the sky. “You’re alive.”
“You always take
his side. Did you know that he waited until the last millisecond to show? I’m
through being his date with death.”
Devon took a step
towards her. “Stop whining. That’s his style. He’d never let you down.”
“I could kill him.
Right now I could kill both of you,” Needle said.
darkened and his usual ramrod straight shoulders and back slackened slightly.
“Get a grip.”
never been anything like you two before. You’re not changing anything. You’re
staying together; nothing else is possible.
The Needle moved
towards Devon. She got close enough that he could feel her breath on his chin.
“Spies like us have to trust each other. I’ve never seen his face. I’m not sure
I would know his voice.”
Devon, she knew,
was on the losing side of an age-old argument and would try a different tack.
He said, “Pull yourself together and think about all the good you do.” He moved
his short arms expansively. The remaining local citizens had left their hiding
places and were shuffling onto the streets. They hugged and shook the hands of
Russian and American soldiers. “In places like this.”
away. “It doesn’t matter anymore. I know about your promotion and you’re taking
me with you. Yeah. Know why? Because I just quit. Get me stateside. All the
fixins’. You owe me that.”
standing next to another tank turned away from the people talking to them in a
language they did not understand and began walking towards them, their weapons
lowered. She threw them dirty looks and kicked Devon in the shin. The soldiers
continued to approach with caution, hands stiffening around their weapons.
The sounds of new
rumbling forced everyone to stop and look around. A second convoy of military
vehicles drove down the boulevard from the opposite direction. It could have
been 1945 with the 5th
Royal Tank Regiment advancing on Hamburg, but
without the Germans blowing up parts of the autobahn. The lead vehicle stopped
a few hundred feet from the intersection. Two American soldiers jumped out of
the back followed by a large teddy bear of a man in his fifties. Brigadier
General Stanley Weston walked up to Needle and gave her a big hug.
“Agent Needle, on
behalf of my regiment, the United States of America, Mother Russia, the Chechen
people, and my own mother, I thank you.”
“General Weston. Sir. Just doing my job.”
Weston like Devon
earlier, but with mammoth arms, made wide, sweeping gestures indicating the
vastness of the street, of the city. “Well, doing your job kept my men from
falling into an ambush. Not only that, these citizens can start putting their
lives back together. The war is almost over.”
General, sir.” Devon motioned to the two soldiers standing next to her and they
sparkled with mirth as he eyed her. “I didn’t realize that the famous agent
known as Needle was such an itty bitty . . . gal.”
Needle slid a
satisfied look at Devon. His face revealed nothing.
“Of course, my
gratitude extends to your partner Stryker, as well. He had some trouble, but in
the end was able to get us your Intel in time. Where is he anyway?” For the
first time, Weston looked dubious.
say sir. He doesn’t like to stick around.”
Weston looked up
and down the streets. He raised his eyebrows.
forward to working together again in the future, agent Needle.”
“Why General, sir,
haven’t you heard? Devon just offered me a job at Langley, and I accepted. I
start next month.”
“Well, you old
coot,” he said nodding to Devon. “Nothing but the best for your new department,
I expect.” Turning to Needle, Weston offered his elbow. “Ma’am, would you like
to ride up front with me?”
“I would consider
that an honor,” she said and took his arm. As she walked toward the armored
vehicle she turned one last time to look back, down the street and up into the
windows of the dismal, empty buildings.
At the passenger door,
Weston watched as she climbed in. He looked concerned when he asked, “Are you
sure you’re making the right decision? You two made a hell of a team, if I may
say so myself.”
“Thank you sir.
Very sure. I’m just glad it’s over.”
Was it really
over? Which part? Needle’s adoptive mother, Solveig, flashed before her eyes as
she always did when she found herself not only alive, but also intact after a
What if things had gone differently and Solveig
never got to see her again? What if she’d died and Solveig found out? What
would the woman do? Certainly not react in a conventional manner. Not grieve
like other mothers—crying into the long night, bemoaning what could have been.
Solveig would feel something—maybe loss—but it would be packaged differently.
It might show up like a simple distraction of thought. Solveig was normally
steely focused—if she couldn’t concentrate she might think about Hadleigh then,
or the fact that Hadleigh was no more. Or it might take on the
flap-flap of a moth’s wings as they
crashed into the light; Solveig might feel that strange sensation in her hands
or in her feet. Maybe deep in her throat. Whatever form it took, ironically,
Solveig would be at a loss to understand the fresh presence of a new sensation.
It made Hadleigh sad to think that Solveig would have no one to soften the
strangeness. If her daughter died suddenly and alone, far away in a war torn
Above the street,
in the corner of a tall, broken down house, Stryker’s hands shook as he pulled
off his balaclava and mopped his forehead. From the cracked window he silently recited
the words he’d heard during the heated argument between Devon and the Needle,
and later, her conversation with Weston. He’d always known that the day would
come when he’d have to pay for what he made her go through. Even though he
couldn’t help how he did things. But it never once occurred to him that Needle
had it in her
to quit the spy game.
The idea of never working together again, never being able to see that face
again, was unimaginable. And yet . . .
He watched the
Needle and General Weston each get into the truck, and when the driver finally
pulled them out of view, Stryker turned around and leaned into the wall. Guns,
knives, bombs, wars—none of these things scared him as much as the loss of the
one person that defined his being, gave meaning to his life, and filled him
with the hope that one day he’d
a better person.
“This isn’t over. Not between us.”