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People came to Kobuleti to hide. It's why we were there, and it's why Bakhar Lagidze had brought his family there, and I knew it, and I never asked him why.
I should have.
I was awake but unsure of it, my eyes suddenly open, the last whispers of dream vanishing, leaving me with no true memory, just the impression that it had been unpleasant, that I had done things of which I was not proud. Full-moon blue filtered into the bedroom, shadows swayed behind the thin curtains as long pine boughs rocked in the breeze.
Our dog, Miata, an old Doberman with no voice, was pacing at the door. I tried to focus my blurred vision on him as he turned a circle in place, raised a paw to scratch at the door, then glanced back my way. I fumbled my glasses off the nightstand and onto my nose, watched as he repeated the sequence. It had been the noise or the motion or both that had pulled me from sleep, and I knew the behavior for what it was, and it shifted me fully awake, and I put a hand on Alena's shoulder.
"Trouble," I said.
She murmured, refusing to surface.
"Wake up." I'd been speaking in Georgian. I switched to Russian. "Trouble."
I looked to the door in time to see Miata finish another circuit, this time to fix me with a plea in his eyes. Any other dog, I'd have thought he was fighting a weak bladder. I slipped out of bed, felt the hardwood immediately leech heat from my feet. There was a pistol in the nightstand drawer. I put the gun down long enough to pull on my jeans.
"What's going on?" Alena asked.
"Miata's got something."
She looked at me blearily, halfheartedly shook her head, as if unsure she was dreaming this or not. "Not the alarm?"
"I'll check. Stay here."
She was readying a pistol of her own as I left the room.
The two laptops that ran our security system lived in the linen closet beside the bathroom, on the shelf above the towels. I could feel Miata's moist breath against my bare ankles as I checked each. No alerts, nothing had been tripped. Nothing on the video. Nothing in the logs. It occurred to me that Miata was now an old dog, and maybe he really did need to take a leak, nothing more.
Then he bolted away down the hall, paws clacking on the floor. I followed more slowly and caught up with him at the back door. Together we listened to the night, and whatever it was he was hearing, I wasn't. I opened the door, and stepped out after him into the summer darkness.
The air was close to cold, chilled as it came in off the Black Sea, with threads of thin fog hanging in the trees, and it was as dead silent outside the house as it had been within. I thought about going back for a shirt, but Miata had begun cautiously trotting toward the woods that ringed our house, muzzle and ears both raised, and he clearly wasn't in a mood to wait. Two will-o'-the-wisps, dim halos, blinked at me as a car came along the road that cut through the forest in the distance. The sound of the engine followed a second later, but barely, the vehicle easily half a mile away, turning along the road that led to the Lagidze home. The light, then the sound, faded.
I followed Miata to the edge of the treeline, where it bordered our backyard, put a hand on his back to calm him. Alena and I had cut down several of the trees in the past two years to clear sight lines to the perimeter, and we still had four cords of wood split and stacked and ready to keep us warm through the coming winter.
Then I heard the shots.
This time, Miata had to follow me.
Flat run, barefoot, in the forest, in the dark, it took me almost three minutes to cover the distance, and I counted gunshots as I ran. I heard a total of fourteen more, all of them sounding as if spoken by the same weapon. An engine turned as I reached the edge of the dirt road leading to Bakhar's house, and the car it belonged to was already in gear and accelerating, and the lights hit me. The driver's response to seeing me, shirtless, barefoot, and armed, was to floor the Land Cruiser and swerve it in my direction.
My answer was to get the hell out of the way as fast as I could, and when I got to my feet again, the car had already shot around the bend, taillights retreating. Miata burst out of the woods, racing in the direction of the house. I went after him. A second Land Cruiser was parked outside of the darkened house, its tail to Bakhar's beat-up Opel, and I could see three men heading for the larger vehicle. The night stole details, but I saw that two of them were armed, and one of them had a long gun, the distinctive silhouette of an AK, and maybe Miata didn't care, but I sure as hell did.
"Back!" I shouted the command in Russian, and Miata took it immediately, veering off sharply, into the cover of the woods on the right.
I went left, and had just enough time to put a tree between myself and the AK before the shots came. Whoever was on the trigger knew his business and controlled his bursts, sending three my way in short order. The Land Cruiser started up right after the third salvo. I broke cover to run alongside the road, using the trees, and the AK shouted at me again, and this time I got a fix on the shooter and returned fire, two double-taps that went true.
A door slammed, and the Land Cruiser shot forward, then past, then was gone.
I brought my pistol down, tried to get my heart rate and breathing to follow suit. Miata edged out of the shadows on the other side of the road, followed me as I went to check on the man I'd shot. His legs had folded beneath him where he'd collapsed, the AK lying parallel to his knees. I could see he was Caucasian, probably Eastern European, which was hardly a surprise, considering that was where we were. I found a wallet and a wad of euros on him and took both, stuffing them into my own pockets. I picked up the AK, gave it a quick check.
The night had gone quiet again.
I looked toward my friend's house. The front door was ajar, perforated with shots. Moonlight dropped a shadow that filled the entrance with darkness.
I didn't get an answer. I didn't expect one.
I already knew what I was going to find.
The first thing Bakhar Lagidze had said to me was, "You run like someone is chasing you."
Then he laughed.
This wasn't the first time I'd seen him, but it was the first time we'd exchanged words. He, his wife, daughter, and young son had moved into the neighboring house the previous spring, and in the interest of exercising due diligence, Alena and I had taken discreet notice. It wasn't that neighbors were a danger, per se, but any change in the status quo, by necessity, had to be viewed as a potential threat. Theoretically, we were as safe now as we were ever likely to be, living under carefully established cover that we had each come to embrace. But theory and practice continue to be two different things, and there were people who knew what we had done, and what we could do, and who, despite their promises to the contrary, might one day decide not to leave well enough alone.
So we had made it our business to know who these new neighbors were, if only to be certain that they posed no threat to us.
It would have been easy for me to have ignored him, then, to have pretended to be too absorbed in my run to have heard him. But we'd passed one another on this road before, me running back up from Kobuleti's one main street, heading home, him walking with his fishing pole and tackle box down to the beach. It wasn't simply that it would've been rude; better to be known and accepted in the community, to belong, and thus turn the community itself into another layer of security.
So I slowed, then stopped, then turned back to face him, maybe twenty feet between us. He was watching me, head cocked to the side, the edges of a smile visible beneath his thick mustache.
"You're always going so fast," he said. "Every time I see you. Sprinting."
"Tail end of the run," I explained. "Last push."
He nodded, then used the fishing pole to gesture up the road, at the woods. "You and your wife, you're in the little house, right?"
I crossed the road closer to where he stood, nodding. It was easier than using words, and I was somewhat breathless, and it gave me a few more seconds to think things through. Alena took her run in the afternoon, preferring to leave it before dinner, and it was as likely as not that he'd seen her taking the same route I did.
He used the pole again, this time to gesture in the direction of his home. "We're in the Party house, the old Russian's place. Fucking Russians, we had to tear out half of everything just to make it into a home."
"Yeah, we're always working on our place," I said.
He nodded, commiserating with a lifetime commitment to home improvement, then set down his pole so it leaned against his side and offered me his hand. "Bakhar. Bakhar Lagidze."
"David," I lied. "David Mercer."
We shook hands.
"Canadian," I lied, again. "You're local?"
"Born in Tbilisi. You speak our language very well."
"My wife taught me."
"She's Georgian, too?"
I nodded. The lies were so practiced they didn't require any thought on my part. "But she grew up in Moscow. She used to dance."
Bakhar Lagidze's eyes lit up. They were blue, deep set in his lined face. His mustache, mostly black, had strays of gray emerging. I put him in his early forties, maybe five years older than I was.
"She should meet Tiasa! She's my daughter, she wants to dance, like the Bolshoi. Your wife teaches, right?"
"A little," I admitted. Alena had begun taking on students, only a handful of them, since we'd last returned from the U.S. She'd posted flyers in the cafes in town, initially as a means of reinforcing our cover, establishing a meager supplemental income that we didn't really need. It was my suspicion that she enjoyed teaching, though she had yet to admit as much to me. "You should bring her by."
"Maybe Ia will bring her over."
"My wife." Bakhar's smiled broadened, showing stained teeth and genuine pleasure. "Wonderful to meet you, David. Nice to meet the neighbors."
"Good to meet you, too," I told him.
It wasn't until I was home, under the needle-spray of the shower, that it occurred to me that Bakhar Lagidze had most likely done to us what we had done to him. He'd checked us out, just enough to be sure his neighbors didn't pose him a threat.
He'd been right.
The threat had come from another source entirely.
I stepped in blood when I stepped into the house. There was a lot of it, and I could smell it, along with the lingering of gunpowder. The moonlight outside wasn't enough. I was going to have to turn on a light.
When it came on, I could see the puddle, spent brass glittering in and around it. The blood broke into a smear, leading down the hall. Like our home, Bakhar's was only one-story. Unlike ours, it was large, as befitted a family of four. On entry, the hall opened to a common room that doubled for dining, and then, off that, was the kitchen. Following the hall led to the master bedroom, and then the corridor went ninety degrees to the left, to the bathroom and the two other bedrooms.
Miata snuffed at the air behind me, hesitating.
"Home," I told him, and pointed the way. He looked at me sorrowfully, then dropped his head and went.
The smear ran straight to the master bedroom, its door wide open. I tried to be careful where I stepped as I followed the trail down the hall. My blood-covered soles dried on the carpet, and for a second I thought they might be a problem later, but then I thought about the general state of law enforcement in Georgia in general, and Kobuleti in particular, and admitted that I was most likely worrying about nothing. Forensic science hadn't ever been high on the national agenda, and since the war in South Ossetia and the subsequent Russian stranglehold on the country, it had fallen even further.
A table lamp had fallen in the bedroom, its light still on, and it illuminated from below. Somehow it made the scene inside the more horrible.
The blood had been Bakhar's, but I'd already guessed that, and maybe that was why I thought I'd find less of it in here. I was wrong. There was more.
There was a lot more.
He'd been shot in the hall, through the front door, perhaps as he'd come to answer it. I hadn't seen a gun anywhere on the floor and I wasn't seeing one in the bedroom, so if he'd been expecting trouble and had come to answer it with some of his own, the men who'd killed him had taken the weapon. They'd hit Bakhar in the chest, perhaps as many as four times from what I could see. Then they'd entered and taken hold of him, likely by his hair, and dragged him to the master bedroom, where they'd propped him on his bed.
At that point they'd gone to work on him with a knife.
He was still recognizable to me, but barely. Stabs and slashes covered his face, chest, and groin, though I couldn't see any on his arms or hands, nothing that resembled a defensive wound. It would have been nice to believe that meant he'd already died before they brought out the blade, that he hadn't tried to defend himself because there'd been nothing left of him to defend. But it was just as likely that he'd been dying instead of dead, and from the two Land Cruisers I knew there had been at least four of them who had come for the killing, and certainly two could've held his arms while a third set to carving.
The knife had been entirely unnecessary, and the savagery of it spoke clearly of cruelty and rage. His neck had been cut so badly it seemed now barely able to keep his head with his body. Blood, brain, and flecks of bone glistened in the macabre light. I could see the pearl gray of his cervical vertebrae in the mass of red meat that had been his throat.
This wasn't simply murder.
This was looking at hatred, pure and plain.