CHAPTER 1: LANDING DAY
“Is that it? Three and a half years jammed into just two boxes and three pieces of luggage?”
The young blonde woman nodded, shrugging. “What can I say? I travel light—besides, I brought a lot back on my last trip. Thanks guys.” She handed the driver of the idling SUV some bills. “For petrol.”
“Oh please, Karin—as if!” The driver, another blonde, pushed the bills away. “Do you need a lift down to Vestdall? I could come back later and we could go down together.”
Karin, shook her head. Mariela, the housemaid, had already begun hauling her boxes into the townhouse. “Thanks but I’m really not sure what my plans are. You guys go ahead—you all going to be at the Club tonight?”
Elise, the driver, nodded. “You know I am. You guys going down?”
“Yeah, I think—aren’t we?” It was Laura, the younger of the two Christiansen sisters.
“Oh—definitely, I think,” confirmed Sarah. “But who knows what the fam has planned. But probably.”
Karin waved the uniformed maid away. “Mariela, I’ll get those—ok, look I know I’ll see you one way or the other. Thanks again for the ride—it was fun!”
Through rolled down windows the girls all made their suitable farewells and Karin was grateful as Elise’s sleek black BMW SUV sped down the city street. Five hours of gossip and chit chat had been fun but she was happy to be back home at last. She looked down to pick up the last of her luggage but the maid had already retrieved it. Karin closed the gate and headed into the courtyard of the family’s townhouse. She smiled in the warm afternoon sun. She was home.
“Thank you, Mariela. Anyone home?”
The fortyish Philipina shook her head. “Dr. Vester, she leave you a note. Mister Paul—he busy in Parliament. Busy day, busy day!” she added in exasperation.
Karin took the envelope, even as the maid poured her a glass of her famous homemade lemonade.
“It is hot. You have this.”
Karin took the glass and drank greedily as she scanned the note, written in her mother’s meticulous and practiced script.
Sorry to miss your arrival! I had hoped to be home but there’s so much I need to clear off my desk before the holiday break. I probably won’t make it down to Elf Hill until tomorrow morning. Paul’s all hung up in Parliament because of the latest budget dramas as well. We won’t make the fireworks at the Club tonight but there’s no reason you shouldn’t head down. Take the Landrover—it’s all top offed—and we’ll see you in the morning. Just one favour—if you do decide to head down to Vestdall, please go before it gets too dark. Humour me, ok?
She was disappointed. Landing Day was sacrosanct— the long weekend, the fireworks, the parties all celebrating the landing on the Dominion of the first European sailors. It was the national holiday, but more importantly, it signalled the beginning of summer!
“I already call Abazu to air place out for you,” Mariela said, taking the empty glass from Karin’s hand. “If you go, you should go soon Miss—it is already four o’clock.”
Karin nodded. “I need a shower and I need to throw an outfit together for the Commodore’s Ball first,” she noted, more to herself. “Mariela, my Pradas—the black ones—are they…?”
Mariela’s normally placid mien flipped into a grimace. “Ah—I apologise! No—I will call Chinoso—you no need worry. Go take shower—I call him now.”
Karin was about to wave her off but she really did want the shoes—they’d go perfectly with the little black dress she’d bought at the Boxing Day sale for just this occasion, once the heels were mended of course. She nodded.
“Fine, fine,” she agreed as she headed up the staircase to her wing of the Vester townhouse. She should have sorted this out already, she thought. She’d given Mariela the shoes for repair when she’d been back only a month earlier. If she had to scramble a bit, well—that was her job, after all!
Thirty minutes later, Karin was already in an improved post-shower mood and ready to hit the road, shoes or not. As she took the keys off the hall rack for the Landrover, she was ready to tell Mariela not to worry about the shoes—she already had another pair packed—when she overheard the exchange between the maid and Mr. Chinoso.
“No—you SAY twenty, you GET ten. Ten for you, ten for me. That’s the way it works, you old thief.” It was Mariela, in a hushed but threatening whisper.
“But please Miss Mariela—” It was Chinoso, the old Primevan, beseeching her just as quietly.
“You take this or nothing!”
Karin could hear the drama end as the old man grunted. She paused, then entered the kitchen.
Mariela held up a pair of black stiletto pumps. “Chinoso just bring these around for you Miss Karin.”
The dark brown Primevan man in worn, soiled khaki work clothes, nodded, smiling.
“Thank you, Mr. Chinoso!” she responded, taking the shoes in hand with a smile.
“You are most welcome, Miss. The heels, they replaced— all repaired,” he added gravely, as if it was a matter worthy of more discussion. He turned to Mariela. “Perhaps you need knives sharpened? Since I’m here?”
Mariela shrugged. “Since you are here.” She rummaged through a drawer and wrapped up a handful of kitchen knives in a tea towel. “Go on then,” she said, handing the bunch to the grateful old man.
Karin had already jammed the shoes in her overnight and, keys in hand, headed out behind the older man. “If anyone calls, I’ll be down at Elf Hill. Happy Landing Day, Mariela!”
The maid merely nodded, taciturn as always.
After tossing her bag in the back of the Landrover, she walked over to Chinoso’s truck. It was a small utility moke, on the door of which advertised in stencil, “The Knife Man”. Mr. Chinoso was already honing the kitchen knives on the grinder mounted on the back of the absurdly small vehicle. Chinoso had been servicing Lighthouse Hill, her own neighbourhood, since as long as she could remember. While he had always offered a variety of services—everything from handyman repairs, small painting jobs, and even shoe repairs—he had always simply been known as “The Knife Man”.
“Mister Chinoso? I wanted to thank you for my shoes.”
The old man stopped his grinding. “A pleasure to be of service, Miss! Any time, any time!”
She handed him a ten Dominion krona bill. “Please—for the last minute inconvenience!” she insisted.
He stared at the bill, then back to the rear of the courtyard worried. He shook his head. “Please, Miss. Not necessary. Mariela would not… approve,” he forced himself to say.
Karin’s smile tightened. “But I DO approve. Go on—take it! I’m not leaving until you do!” she waved the bill at him insistently.
Reluctantly he took the bill, head bobbing gratitude. “Thank you, Miss. Thank you very much.”
Now her smile returned in full measure. “That’s fine, fine. Happy Landing Day, Mr. Chinoso!”
The old brown man now returned her smile squarely. “And to you, Miss—and to you!”
Karin felt good as she shifted gears in the old Landrover, leaving the neatly bricked and gabled district where some of the Dominion’s most powerful families kept a city residence. Her great grandfather had bought the Vester townhouse and it had remained in the family like a jewel, passed on from generation to generation since then—even when they had spent most of their time in the country on the big estates that made the familial fortunes possible. These days, her mother and her new husband Paul spent most of their time in Kongestad. At twenty, everyone had tacitly accepted that she would NOT be referring to Paul as her stepfather, and Paul hadn’t seemed offended. Of course, he loved the new address—as a politician on a constant hunt for credibility, the Lighthouse Hill address granted him that and more.
Chinoso seemed grateful and she was pleased to have brightened another’s day. She was piqued that Mariela had seemed to be skimming off a share from such a trivial domestic transaction but, with Primevans, she knew she mustn’t jump to conclusions. How they dealt with each other wasn’t something she felt she should get involved in. Was ten kronas such a big deal? She honestly didn’t know. She knew the Primevans she encountered seemed happy and content with their lot. Of course, that was a small group—the household workers (not servants—that wasn’t respectful, her mother said) like Mariela and the caretaker Abazu. DNU employed Primevan maintenance workers and cafeteria staff and they seemed happy enough.
Even now, as she rolled down Little Stroget, Kongestad’s High Street shopping district, she noted the Primevan clerks behind the counters, the nannies and governesses tending to their charges, the smartly uniformed chauffers, even the municipal workers and none seemed to display the slightest resentment as they tended to their duties. Even as the Landrover approached the Royal Kongsborg Motorway, the topic had already lost its appeal.
The Landrover hugged the highway as Karin shifted into fifth gear, leaving the capital behind her. She loved this part of the trip—the flat road carrying her past less and less traffic, which all seemed headed towards to city and the suburbs that ringed it. Paul had wanted to get rid of the Landrover but her mother had refused. It was her father’s old ‘warhorse’ and had carried the three of them to Elf Hill innumerable times when she was younger. He had maintained it, like everything else in his care, with immaculate care, the twenty year old engine purring like the classic she now was. It was the ‘beach wagon’ and saw more use around the verdant, dusty roads around Vestdal than in Kongestad.
She thought of her father then—he had only been gone five years but the ache was there and always would be. At least it had been quick. He had been a strapping man—six feet, broad shouldered, a modern day viking of a man whose appearance complimented the delicate beauty of her just as striking mother. The cancer had hit while she was still finding her sea legs at St. Hilda’s, feeling like a goose amongst swans. Her parents had decided not to tell her until the end stage hit. By then, Bjorn Vester was a shadow of his former self. Even then, there was dignity and reserve. She would be fine, he informed her, from his hospital bed. Death was a partner in all things and she must resist the urge to indulge in self pity. Her mother would need her and she must focus on her studies. Her financial security had been assured. In his final six months, Bjorn Vester had carefully organised his finances and the family fortune, which he had inherited and had doubled, had been placed in a trust. Mum had been well cared for and a comfortable consideration for Karin had been designed. As the only child, she’d inherit everything when her mother also passed on. In the interim, a trust of five million Dominion kronas would revert to her when she reached the age of twenty-five. “In less than ten years, Karin, you’ll have a head start in life few girls your age have. I expect you to conduct yourself accordingly,” he said, in a mock stern tine that even her father couldn’t maintain. That was her last memory—the two of them laughing absurdly with Karin just as mockingly replying “Yes, Father, I shall conduct myself!” Two days later, he was gone—just like that.
The familiar big green highway sign soon announced “Vestdal Lake Region 2 km” and, as if by muscle memory, she drifted the Landrover off the exit into the twilight and towards Elf Hill. The weekender was only fifteen minutes away but as the white utility vehicle jumped onto the gravel road, she already felt home. The signs she passed announced the numerous vacation homes she had memorised since she had been little—“Cliff Cottage”, “Sandy Retreat”, “Shore House”—and they all saluted her as she peeked over high hedges to guess which houses were open for the season. Since she had begun summering at Elf Hill, the Vester property, as a little girl, she had grown up at Lake Vestdall as much as the townhouse in the capital—probably more so.
About an hour away, Lake Vestdall couldn’t boast the magnificent seacoast estates only the most wealthy old money families could maintain, it was close enough to provide a weekend refuge for what her mother called the “comfortable class”. Lawyers, bankers, executives and investors colonised the Lake about fifty years ago. Property lots were large, ensuring privacy and enough room to grow. The Vester property had been purchased by her own great grandfather in the first wave of development and the Vesters were one of the ‘first families’ of the Lake. The body of water was ringed by the properties—a beautiful big blue spectacle that lapped wide long beachfront on all sides.
Karin unconsciously smiled as the Landrover made the short jog up the paved road to Elf Hill. Abazu, who had been caretaker as long as she could remember, had the outside lights on just as the sun was making its final descent. She parked, grabbed her bag and swung the screen door open just as Abazu turned the corner from the side of the property.
“Miss Karin! All ready for you!” Like Chinoso, he wore the khaki work clothes preferred by Primevan service workers, though his were starched and creased.
“Happy Landing Day, Abazu!”
The middle aged black man nodded. “As you say, Miss. You need me, I be in cottage, ok?” He pointed over the massive hedge, where a small, neat white cottage had served as his home for the past twenty years.
She nodded and he left by the rear kitchen door, as always. She was amused that he should follow such decorum, given it was only the two of them but that was the silent but thoroughly dependable Abazu. She didn’t even know if that was his first or last name—she had just always known him as “Abazu”. Karin tossed her bag on the huge, overstuffed couch that faced the massive windows that displayed the expanse of Lake Vestdall in all its holiday home lit glory. Switching on lamp after lamp, she opened the French doors that led out onto the huge deck. It was as it had always been—the slate deck, the pool illuminated by blue lights, the loungers she’d collapse into tomorrow, to combat the inevitable hangover. Abazu had trimmed the lawn that day—she could smell the freshly mown grass—and her father’s little putting green sported brave little flags on all sides. Beyond the tennis court no one much used but her grandmother had insisted on some twenty years back. In front, the private beach front and the raked, creamy coloured sand. The home’s manicured exterior belied that sprawl that was the house itself. Though initially not one of the larger homes in the Lake region, previous generations of Vesters had added to the modest ground level and keep going, adding room after room, each facing the lake. Her father had satisfied himself with merely updating an office, but that still left a long, lazy residence that offered six bedrooms, interspersed with sitting rooms, parlours, the office, sun rooms, a library and the kitchen which dated back to the 1970s—not counting the two cabanas that sometimes doubled as guest houses when the infrequent need arose. It was a ridiculous, irrational compound that Karin knew every inch of and absolutely adored.
A glimpse at her father’s Rolex prompted her into action. 6:12pm and the club activities would kick off at 7! Pouring herself a small glass of chardonnay in the vintage but spotless kitchen, she retrieved her bag and made her way to her own bedroom right off the east wing. An hour later, she was driving through the security gate at Whitecaps Beach and Sailing Club, the institution that was the heart of the Lake region.
“Evening!” Sensing he was new, she added “Vester, 1718.”
The club had only ever hired Dominioneer staff—mostly kids from the nearby Dominion State University—and security was no different. The handsome white uniformed blonde boy, about her own age, checked a roster and, smiling, popped up the boom gate.
“Evening, Ms. Vester! Happy Landing Day! Know you next time!”
She replied in kind and drove the short distance to the main reception building, where a short line of vehicles was waiting for the valets to attend to them. Karin added her own road dusty Landrover to the impressive line of Mercs, Rolls, Jaguars and Bentleys and giggled as she was helped out of the beast by the club’s doorman, balancing on her now repaired Pradas.
“Thank you, Alastair. So much for my chariot!”
The elderly Englishman shook his head. “Fits you to a tee, Ms. Vester. Besides,” he leaned in and whispered, “you can roll in here in whatever you like—you’ve been a member here since you were born! A lot of these folks are Johnny come latelys,” he tipped his brow to the growing crowd of men and women in evening dress. “I remember your father drove a tractor in here one time!”
Karin laughed, believing him. Reception was lit up and the ships’ prow, a stern looking mermaid that had once guided an old sailing ship, dominated the large room, staring down on all of them with her typical disdain.
Seeing all the familiar faces, she nodded, waved, gave and received greetings with all the usual crowd. At the bar, while others repeated their own club account numbers—no cash was ever exchanged on club grounds and everything was done by account—she never had to share her own account number and received her vodka tonic in the secret smug satisfaction of being a familiar. She set off to find Elise.
Passing by the Sortvanger Swingers, a quartet that played every club event and who’s idea of “swinging” ended at Sinatra classics, she caught sight of her best friend on the club deck. Looking spectacular as always in a red number that was only as provocative as Elise permitted it to be, the two hugged, then toasted their respective drinks.
“Happy Landing Day!”
“Happy Landing Day!”
The clink completed the club ritual the two had shared since they’d first met there, toasting Shirley Temples at ten in imitation of the adults. Since then, they had shared not only the Whitecap, but St. Hilda’s and then Dominion National University. Family and friends were always referring to them as virtual sisters and they both had teased Elise’s little brother Edvard in the infuriating way only sisters could.
“Where’s the punk?” she asked smirking.
Elise pointed over her shoulder, leaned in and whispered “Please don’t laugh—he insisted, even though I told him he’d look ridiculous!”
Karin’s eyes followed and there was Edvard—in full dress blues—striding in supreme confidence towards the pair. It was an effort to heed Elise’s request.
“Uh, Hi Karin!” Edvard proffered his white gloved hand, which she shook solemnly.
“You look quite dashing, Edvard,” she allowed.
He saluted, with a broad smile. “Cadet Edvard Holm, Royal Academy for Military Arts, at your service!”
“At ease, soldier,” Elise giggled, then patted her little brother’s shoulder. “She’s thoroughly impressed. Now let us gossip already—ok?”
The eighteen year old awkwardly backed off. “Sure, uh—see you for the fireworks, ok, Karin?”
She nodded. “Absolutely—don’t be AWOL, ok?”
He nodded gravely and turned to take compliments from an older couple on his dashing new wardrobe.
Elise mock relief-wiped her brow. “He’s still smitten with you, sister. Can’t you just break his heart already?”
Karin shook her head helplessly. Edvard had exhibited an ongoing case of puppy love since he’d turned fourteen. It was equally endearing and appalling. “What’s doing at JP?” It was the nickname for the Holm holiday home, the most prestigious home on the lake—Jade Palms.
“Madness, as always. There’s a humongous house party that starts tomorrow. About a bazillion guests expected and Cook is going insane, even with the city help being shipped in to help. I’m keeping my head down—maybe I’ll crash with you guys.”
Karin laughed. “You have twenty bedrooms, not to mention five guest houses. And you want to crash with us peasants?”
Elise crossed her arms over her red silk party dress, exasperated. “For a ‘party’, it all just gets so serious. Drives me nuts! Oh, but there’s one good thing about it—guess who’s staying with us?” she asked slyly.
“Frida Ebba?” Karin teased.
Elise put her hands over her ears, eyes closed. “Don’t start— my ears will bleed if I hear it one more time!” Frida Ebba’s was the Dominion’s latest one hit wonder, bordering on meme. Her “Love Me, Love Me” had hit the charts and was either horrible or angelic, depending on who you asked. “No, really—guess.”
Karin thought. The Holms were heavily involved in advertising and media—that was it! “Not Hannah Claydon?”
“Yes!” Elise screeched, drawing disapproving glares from two older ladies nearby. She pursed her lips in atonement, then explained. “My father was part of the consortium that convinced GNN to give it a go here. She limo’d in this afternoon—and yes, she’s AMAZING!” The two older ladies glared again, in disapproval.
Hannah Claydon had been a sensation since she’d arrived in the new GNN Kongestad studio six months earlier. The Englishwoman was a fresh contrast to the dowdy government media service presenters of the DBC or Dominion Broadcast Corporation. Ratings suggested GNN was making a race out of it. Karin loved the new service which seemed to reflect a more modern perspective than the DBC’s one sided take on everything. She especially like the brash new anchor. Hannah was what her father might have called a ‘piece of work’. Working her way from soft news back in the UK, she had battled her way to her current role which, even though it was a minor market, still marked her as an up and comer. It didn’t hurt that she was stunning, a blonde with an English Rose face and a Page Three figure. And she was, like Karin and Elise (and her mother for that matter), a DNU grad. Or she had at least attended DNU for her semester away—and even roomed with Grand Duchess Frida.
“Did Laura and Sarah make it down?” With the Christiansen sisters who had been part of their caravan from DNU, it was always a fifty-fifty proposition.
“Laura was up for it but Sarah wanted to see the big fireworks in Kongestad. I’m sure they’ll be down tomorrow. Come on—let’s get a fresh drink.”
For the next couple hours, the two friends made the rounds, swirling in drifts of old friends and family acquaintances, bouncing from group to group sharing news of campus life, gap year plans and first job jitters. Karin felt a second wind, casting off her long day of travel in a happy glow of club socialising. Some minor stars even lit up the festivities. Karin and Elise kept a running tally. No royals of course but they recognised Auguste Waltraub, an MP who never met a media opportunity she didn’t like. Ellinor Vita, Captain of the Dominion Olympic team, was on hand and as friendly and down to earth in reality as she seemed to be on the sports networks. Claudia Valeska, the face of the DBC, was staying with friends and seemed to be anticipating a run in with her new on-air competitor Hannah Claydon. The friends watched in admiration as the older journalist finally made the first move, crossing the ballroom and extending a hand to a surprised Claydon.
“Ms. Claydon, congratulations on what you’re achieving with GNN.”
There was a noticeable drop in volume across the ballroom as attention focused on a possibly delicious little drama.
Hannah didn’t pause. She took the hand firmly and smiled. “Please call me Hannah and thank you.”
The veteran journalist nodded. “And I’m Claudia. I enjoy watching you—when I can. We are usually working the same hours.”
That brought wary but warming laughter. “True!” Hannah agreed. “And I you.”
There was a tiny lapse which Claudia filled gracefully. “The Dominion is well served by different approaches to whatever constitutes the national conversation. The DBC and GNN offer different perspectives and that’s a good thing.”
Claudia shook her head. “Institutions are…old. Let’s just say I’ve been keeping the chair warm. As for your offer, well—I feel the same. What say I host you—on Green Room?” That was Valeska’s weekly one hour interview show, always a Sunday evening ratings draw.
Hannah considered. “OK—if it is reciprocal and I can interview you on Backstage, you have a deal.” Backstage with Hannah was GNN’s own celebrity interview show.
The erstwhile competitors shook hands. Aware there was now an audience for their exchange, Claudia smiled and raised her arms. “Who said it was impossible to negotiate a deal in the Dominion?” she cheerfully demanded, to a small round of applause and laughter. There were a few glasses raised in a toast and the ballroom once again resumed its bubbling gaiety.
“She handled that well,” Elise noted, admiringly.
“Well, they both did, didn’t they?” Karin countered, impressed with Hannah’s professional aplomb.
They both turned to the male voice behind them.
Elise set her glass down and hugged the young man, looking handsome as ever in his tailored evening clothes and tall but off-the-rack frame.
“Gunnar!” Elise might have offered the greeting but the tanned blonde man’s gaze was fixed on Karin.
“Ladies! Happy Landing Day! Home for the break?”
Elise nodded. “We drove back today— you know what a beast that drive is!”
“You’re not any worse for it, though. You’re both gorgeous as always.”
Elise gave her friend a knowing look. “Both of us? Look, I promised my parents I’d make an appearance with the usual suspects here and all I’ve done is booze it up with you know who,” she nudged Karin. “See you on the deck at midnight for the show?”
“With champagne in hand,” Gunnar promised, even as he steered Karin towards the beach pavilion.
The pavilion was of course closed for the evening but the beach was dotted with others, enjoying the purple cloudless evening sky.
“Take a walk?” Gunnar asked.
Karin unslung her Pradas, leaving them on the stairs leading down to the sand. Gunnar followed suit, depositing his own shoes next to hers, and rolled up his pants. Silently, they stepped on the cool sand, walking into the soft wind coming off the lake. After they had made their way well past any other beach strollers, they found a natural seat on the dunes, watching the occasional dots of lights on the water—motor yachts ready to enjoy the Whitecaps fireworks from the water.
“Why didn’t you return any of my calls?” he finally asked. The question wasn’t accusing—it was curious and slightly mocking. Typical Gunnar Brandt. The two had known each other since they were kids—he the older boy by two years, always the ringleader in the building of sandforts under the club walkways or the endless games of volleyball. The Brandt place was on the opposite shore from Elf Hill, a whitewashed brick affair as polished as Elf Hill was a work in progress. They’d grown up together, then graduated to summer infatuations and eventually a six month fling during Karin’s freshman year—and Gunnar’s senior year—at DNU. Then he was off—a semester abroad in the US at Wharton, an internship with a Silicon Valley venture capital fund, and eventually back in the Dominion with Danish-Pacific Investments, the family firm. The calls, emails, texts had all grown less frequent, due no doubt to Karin’s lack of response.
“I just got…busy. I never forgot you but it…well, it wasn’t practical. Sorry.”
He chuckled. “Practical. You are consistent, I’ll give you that. My sandforts were never practical—but I got you to help me dig them, didn’t I?”
“Yes—AND get us all suspended by the Club Manager, Mr. Lymston, for a week in the hottest part of the summer!” She gave his shoulder a mock punch. “Anyway, how’s life?”
Gunnar grinned. “Life is good. I’m here—you’re here.” He waved his arm towards Whitecaps. “We’re here. What’s not to love about this life?”
“I know all that. I’m asking about you, dummy!” Karin chided.
“Finally out of boot camp. The last year, I was rotated through the firm’s forex, reinsurance, risk management and accounting divisions. To my dad and uncles, all being a Brandt means is you get a shot. I guess I passed probation. When I get back, they’ve assigned me to the merchant banking division—which is where the fun stuff happens and the big money gets made.”
Karin nodded. The Brandt clan were a serious lot. If Gunnar had received the green light, it wasn’t because of nepotism. But then had Gunnar ever failed to achieve anything he set his sights on?
“And you? You have another semester and you’re finished.”
She smiled. “I’m finished now. I took extra courses so I could graduate early. My trip today was my swan song from DNU.”
He waited. “And?”
“3.8. Magna cum laude in International Relations. I can attend the actual ceremony in a few months if I want to.”
He put his arms around her, a firm kiss surprising her accepting lips. “Congratulations. Well done.”
She drew back gently. “There’s more. No one knows but Elise and she’s sworn to secrecy.”
Gunnar was perplexed. “Anything wrong? Look, I swear,” he raised his hand in response to her arched brows.
“It’s NOT bad—it’s AMAZING. I was accepted. You’re looking at only the Dominion’s seventh Rhodes Scholar!”
Gunnar’s palm hit his forehead in genuine, happy shock. “I don’t know what to say! I’m so happy for you, Karin!”
“I’m off to Oxford—but not for six months. I just found out two days ago—I wanted to tell Mum first but… anyway, promise not to say anything, ok?”
“Of course not! She’ll be thrilled! What great news!”
She could already tell he was calculating how the news might affect his own planning. She knew he had always wanted them to wind together. He was nothing if not patient. Her own decisions had been based on the same long term objective, to some degree. True, they had each dated other people. But none of those relationships had ever been serious. While he’d always stayed in touch during their ‘out’ periods, he’d never obsessed. Sometimes that annoyed her—but it always hooked her back into his orbit when the circumstances warranted.
“We do a fair bit of business in London,” he mused, even as he pulled her down into the sand.
“Do you? What kind of business?” she asked blithely, even as his hands drew up the black party dress.
“Sometimes, it’s risky business,” he murmured, his tongue finding her ear lobe. His hands were exploring other aspects of her body.
Suddenly, she drew up. “Not… tonight. It… isn’t the right time.”
He nodded with gentlemanly correctness. “Of course.”
Her fingers circled his lips. “It will be the right time soon. I need to see this next chapter of my life through and then…”
“You’ll finally marry me and we can dispense with this tantalising virginity of yours?” he asked with a frankness that betrayed the frustration of years.
She pursed her lips in playful defiance. “Probably. In any case, won’t it be worth the wait? I never demanded that YOU remain a virgin.”
He shrugged. “I’m loyal, not a saint. Yes, of course it will be worth the wait.” He began to zip up the trousers of his tuxedo trousers, when her hand intercepted his.
“Since we’re here, I may as well check on MY investment,” she whispered, her hands already drawing the trousers down again.
Twenty minutes later and thoroughly dishevelled, the two dusted the sand off their formal clothes. Karin hadn’t agreed to Gunnar’s original terms but she was fairly certain he was happy with the negotiated settlement they’d come to. They slowly made their way off the dunes towards the club deck, where a crowd had already begun assembling for the fireworks. When the sky magic finally began, rockets hissing and booming in multi-coloured streaks far above them, she saw Gunnar’s naturally confident smile scan the sky then down at her. She was sure then that her decision had been a sound one. Months later, she would learn just how fateful that decision would be, in ways she could never have imagined.
“I’ll drop you off,” Gunnar offered when the final fireworks faded in the inky black sky. “You can get the Landrover tomorrow.” She wasn’t drunk but she wanted a few more quiet moments with him. Grabbing her shoes, she followed him to his Mercedes convertible. With no reason she could articulate, a question popped into her head. As the car whipped through the soft, warm night, she turned to Gunnar.
“Is ten kronas a lot of money to a Primevan,” she asked, suddenly aware how bizarre the question must seem.
Even in the dark, she could sense Gunnar’s confusion. “I suppose. Why do you ask?”
She shook her head as she poked her feet back into the Pradas. “Just curious. Thanks for the lift. See you tomorrow? For lunch at the Club?”
He sighed, looking at Elf Hill forlornly. “Yes, for lunch then.”
The two kissed, then kissed some more but when Karin opened the door, the spell was broken.
“Thanks again and no telling anyone about the big news!”
Gunnar raised his palm again. “I said I swear I wouldn’t”
“Good.” Then turning back, she blew him a final kiss. “Happy Landing Day!” As his car sped towards his own family place, Karin watched the lights on the lake dim one by one. It really had been the best Landing Day she could remember. It was a memory she would cherish many times in the difficult days ahead, a memory that, like the lonely lights on the lake, would remind her that Life could be a source for happiness and promise, no matter how dark the world around could become.
Bacon. Karin stretched, glancing at the clock on the nightstand. 11:03. Outside, the sun and sand beckoned for the uncountable time. There were already white sails coasting in the distance, a southerly wind filling them. More importantly, there was bacon– and coffee—and they were both to be had downstairs. Throwing on an old, well worn robe, she padded down to the kitchen.
“This is how you share your news? You, young lady, are an absolute brat!” her mother chided her, even as she refused to let her escape the embrace.
“Well done, Karin. Why didn’t you tell us you’d apply?” It was Paul with a much needed cup of coffee, which her mother finally allowed her to accept.
It was Paul who prepared a plate for her, as the mother and daughter caught up. She didn’t even try to reply until she’d downed three pieces of bacon and a couple of pancakes for good measure.
“We got here around nine. What a day!” The husband and wife both shook their heads. “How were the fireworks at the Club?”
“Stupendous as always. Hannah Claydon and Claudia Veleska were there—that MP too—Waltraub? It was lots of fun. Ellinor Vita—she’s staying with the Jensens. Oh– Gunnar was there—he’s doing amazing things! What was the drama yesterday anyway?” She vaguely recalled Mariela referring to something, but she’d been so focused on getting to the Lake that she hadn’t really picked up on it.
It was Paul who filled her in. As a Senator with the neutral Centre Party, he was the in-house political commentator who loved nothing more than to prattle on about the latest developments. That was how he and her mother had met. As Director of National Health Services, she was required to report to Parliament on a somewhat regular basis. The romance and marriage had been lowkey affairs. She was no huge fan of Paul but he was growing on her. He certainly doted on her mother and had not objected to the pre-nuptial agreement she insisted her mother requested.
“Ingrid threw a temper tantrum, got her defence budget increase and the PRF promptly suspended negotiations,” he summarised.
Her mother, in her Elf Hill khaki shorts and blue linen top, sipped her coffee, still holding the letter. “Translation: Minister of Defence Hanne got the PM to up the ante and the PRF left the table. No one knows what happens next. But honestly,” she held up the letter, “why didn’t you tell us? We might have been able to help!”
Karin nibbled more bacon. “First, I wanted zero help. Second, if I didn’t get it, what would be the point? But I did! Oxford, here I come!”
Paul’s mobile rang. “Senator Ludvigsen. Yes, yes—give me a minute.: He held the phone up, shaking his head wearily. The two women waved him away— it was a common occurrence. He retreated to the Sun Room, where mumbles rose and fell down the hallway for the next half hour.
Her mother rolled her eyes. “The more he’s out of government, the more he’s propositioning or being propositioned. We were stuffed in a loop yesterday—all the budgets were frozen for ‘review’ once the media bullied the poor PM after the PRF news went live. As if the VERY meagre health budget has anything to do with power sharing or party politics!” Her mother’s eyes flashed in irritation. Even in anger, it was difficult for her light blue eyes to really convey convincing ire. Not true for Karin—her dark ocean blue eyes, inherited from her father, easily signalled fury before a word left her lips. “Anyway, congratulations Darling. What are your plans for the next six months? You’re welcome to stay here, with us in the city? If you like, we could find you your own place—”
Karin held up a hand. “Mother, please! I don’t know—I only found out the day before! I was thinking about getting a job of some kind, I guess.”
Her mother shook her head. “Why? I don’t understand.”
Karin sighed. “It is what adults do, remember? But to be honest, I hadn’t thought further than that. There isn’t exactly a job I could apply my degree towards, unless baristas require international relations to serve espresso in some High Street café,” she admitted.
As always, her mother’s brain was already chewing on the question. “I know— the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yes, that would look good on your cv.”
Karin snickered. “Sure, I’ll run for Parliament and get tapped for the Minister gig. Mother, what are you thinking?”
Her mother waved her away, phone already in hand. “A cadetship, smartass—would that suit? I doubt it would pay a salary but the experience… I’ll text Lucy right now!”
Her mother looked up in exasperation. “Lucia Therese? The PM, if you weren’t following along? We went to school together—Felixholm Prep, then DNU. She went on to King Peters for law and I went to South Pacific for medicine. Between us, I can’t believe she made it to PM but then she was always such a politician, even in school. There–,” she clicked a phone button, “…and I’ll let you know when her office responds. It won’t be long. I don’t bother her that often so when I do get in touch, she always gets back to me.”
Karin nodded, considering. “But she’s PM, not Foreign Office. Wouldn’t her Minister get annoyed? I wouldn’t want to—”
Christa Vester (her mother had kept her first married name, to Karin’s delight), cut her off. “She’s handling both PM and Foreign for now. She came out of Foreign and prides herself on it. Given everything with the PRF, it probably does make sense that she conducts her own foreign policy personally. Ah! And here we go—yes, and her staff will be in touch after the holidays regarding the cadetship. There are security clearances and the like but you’ll soon be doing whatever International Relations grads do in the Foreign Office. Anything else I can sort for you?” she held her phone up in triumph.
Karin devoured another piece of bacon. “Maybe some more pancakes?” she asked innocently.
The mother and daughter both giggled, Karin breaking down first. She suddenly felt as if she was riding Life like some magical barge, coasting towards increasingly inviting destinations.
CHAPTER 2: MONSOON KING
The Halvoen piers were deserted. It was well after midnight, and the Harbourmaster’s Office had closed hours ago. Their contact had been correct. Security was non-existent, with the four guards assigned to patrol the piers rarely straying from their never-ending poker game in the Front Gate building. It was a third-tier pier, mostly devoted to servicing the local fishing boats as well as the occasional freighter collecting and hauling off the produce from the local farming communities.
The Monsoon King was flagged as Panamanian but crewed by Chinese, a typical dodge that jaded Dominion customs officials were used to. The tractor parts to be offloaded in the morning where needed, regardless of place of origin or who owned the vessel. The Halvoen peninsula was a breadbasket in the making and anything that the local farmers wanted was waved through. The tractor parts would represent 70% of the profits for this journey, but the remaining 30% would be provided by the PRF. That cargo took up a minuscule percentage of the hold, less than half a shipping container.
Lights flashed twice in the upper deck. “That’s us,” his companion nudged him. “Let’s go.” The two men made their way from behind the terminal and made their way silently across the gangway up into the freighter. They were greeted by two crew, who gestured up to the bridge. From there, the captain, an older Chinese who never opened his mouth except to puff on his cigarette, led them wordlessly into the cargo hold. He flicked on a flashlight, pointed it at a container near a forward hull hatch. The container door and hatch were already both opened.
“How do we get the merchandise off?” he asked his companion.
“RORO—roll on, roll-off. We have an electric truck ready to move everything through there.” He pointed at the open hatch. Beyond it was another, wider gangway prepped to accommodate a small vehicle.
“Let’s check it.” He followed the captain, already entering the shipping container. He directed the crew to use an electric forklift to move an obstructing crate, which revealed what seemed like just another shoulder height crate labeled “GREENWAY TRACTOR TECHNOLOGY”. A crowbar appeared and the top cracked. Inside, there were dozens of small unmarked cardboard boxes. The captain handed him a box cutter, which he took and used to cut through the packing tape wound tightly around a box on top. Opening the box, he waved for the captain’s flashlight. Pointing it into the box, he nodded, reaching in and withdrawing a fistful of the contents and tucking them into a messenger bag he’d brought just for that purpose.
Handing the flashlight back, he held up a mobile phone. He tapped the keys then nodded at the captain, who now withdrew his own phone. Seconds later, a visible glow rose, and the captain nodded. He turned to the companion. He held up two fingers then withdrew.
The companion now pulled out his own phone. “We have two hours. Bring the truck up and get going.” Turning to the other man, he nodded. “They’ll handle it from here. Let’s go.” They passed the small electric truck roll past them, the small whirr barely a whisper.
As they descended, the older man made a note that if the crew had an idea of what was being smuggled into the Dominion, which they most certainly did, then official Chinese channels would also know. That they had permitted the crew to take the job—albeit at an eyewatering rate—was significant. He must share this insight with the Central Committee.
They exited the same way they had entered—through the tunnel under the abandoned terminal—and found a delivery truck waiting for them, keys under the seat and a tank full of petrol. They both drew on the overalls and pulled on the caps advertising the grocery home delivery service noted in large letters on each side of the truck. After driving thirty minutes, the younger man pulled into an industrial district on the outskirts of Manvikhaven. The job at the Halvoen pier would be complete, the merchandise soon headed for multiple destinations within the Dominion, some in trucks like the one they were in and in other inconspicuous vehicles.
“Why did you join me?” he asked the younger man.
“Because I don’t trust you,” he answered, smiling wide, white teeth in the dark night.
He nodded. Opening the messenger bag, he withdrew the contents, passing one to the companion, who took it eagerly and began flicking through the glossy pages. Then he slowed, spending more time on each page, using his phone light to read the text and make out the images.
“This is… powerful,” the man acknowledged.
He already knew just how powerful. He’d approved every aspect of the production of the magazine the man was now excitedly flicking through. ‘MINX’ magazine was his proposal, and the cost had been enormous. The Central Committee had given him the go-ahead reluctantly, some arguing the money was better spent on arms or explosives. He countered that the revolution needed fighters before they needed guns and the wavers fell in line. ‘MINX’ magazine would become a recruiting tool he was confident would succeed and his companion, one of the naysayers, now seemed to agree.
“Yes, you were right.” He held up a magazine spread featuring a soldier, face pixelated but clearly not European, grabbing a ponytail of a blonde girl in tatters, clearly terrified. The headline above the image read ‘TAKE WHAT IS YOURS! JOIN THE FIGHT! JOIN THE PRF!’
“Any chance it can be traced outside the Dominion?” he asked.
“None. It was all commissioned through Russian organized crime, using Eastern European talent, photographed in a Danish studio. It is as authentically Dominion visually as they could make it and nobody involved is traceable.”
Kabemba Munda continued to flick through the glossy, coated paper. He rubbed his fingers. “Nice stock, which is good as I imagine a single copy will be passed amongst a dozen ‘readers’,” he chuckled. The Chief Ideologue of the PRF, Munda was the final authority on politically correct messaging. That he was finally converted to the project was a huge victory for the older man. “Weaponised porn,” Munda mused, still turning pages, “is going to send our recruitment efforts through the clouds, Old One.”
“Sixty-four pages of explicitly violent sexual content featuring all types of Dominion-looking nubiles, laced with PRF party positions and promises of the spoils of war. A powerful mix of stimulation and inspiration. I predict we’ll fill out all capital city cells within sixty days, and we can begin distribution of the next issue into the provincial towns and villages next. Though by then, we won’t need to produce the magazine production overseas. I imagine, the next issue will be produced by your team and starring,” he paused, “local talent.”
This would be a win for him as well—as the older man had anticipated. His propaganda unit would produce the magazine and he would collect all future kudos. He had no desire to outmaneuver the man many had already begun calling the ‘Violin Spider’. The two had been informal allies for months leading up to this point and he saw great merit in building on it.
“But will it make a difference?”
He was taken off guard by the usually brash young cadre. He knew the source of the despair. There had been two attempts to provoke the Dominion into a response in the last five years. One he had approved of, the latest he had bitterly opposed. Neither had caused so much as a ripple.
“Yes, because it is only the beginning. The window is closing. We have no choice but to take the ultimate risks. Our people are becoming infected with the decadence and weakness of prosperity. We have no choice but to resort to more extreme measures.”
Kabemba nodded in agreement. “We agree. At least we’ve chased the so-called moderates away. And this latest Dominion government is a farce we must take advantage of. So,” he held up a rolled copy of ‘MINX’ magazine, “we have our expensive recruitment drive launched. The Dominion will learn of it and—”
“Do nothing,” the older man replied.
Kabemba nodded. “Do nothing, lest they terrify their own people or provoke us. We then have our new PRF cadres, with which we…”
“…can fill out our party cells, which can then begin terror operations design to corrode the Dominion political system, which is already weak spined, and sap Dominion military and security morale. I have some concepts which I’ve shared with the Leader. He’s giving them serious consideration, but if we even implement some of the operations I’ve proposed, we will begin to hollow out the Dominion and destroy its capacity to resist our eventual military conflict.”
The Violin Spider steepled his fingers, contemplating the long game just outlined. His narrow East African eyes held the thousand-yard stare the old man knew was born of a deadly mix of fanaticism and ambition. He turned the key and the truck began moving slowly down the service road. In a steely tone, the older man knew would brook no refusals, he asked, without turning.
“I should like to learn more about these operations.”
And so he began sharing them. By the time the delivery truck had dropped him off in the dawn light, the older man knew his erstwhile ally would be in communication with the Leader—and advocate for the proposed operations. With that, another Rubicon crossed and fewer days left for the degeneracy known as the Dominion.
CHAPTER 3: A CALL TO ARMS
It was a most unwelcomed end to a long day at the construction site. First, the materials he’d ordered two weeks ago still hadn’t arrived, which meant re-scheduling his crew to work on the fit-out for the extension, rather than the structural work required for the third floor. The owners, a young high powered professional duo from Lund, had expected their ‘little’ 1,000 square metre beach place tucked right between Moon Mountain resort and the Tilde Estate to be ready weeks ago and weren’t pleased to learn the property wouldn’t be ready for a Landing Day move in. That phone call tested his patience but he had managed to calm them with promises of overtime which would be billed at normal rates and an extension of only an extra week to the schedule.
Now this. Of course, he’d already received the text alert on his phone so the express delivery was not a complete surprise, but usually there was a day or two in between alerts and actual orders. He opened the envelope.
“MINISTRY OF DEFENCE
TO: LARS SCHMIDT
1st RECON CO, 3rd BATT
15th EASTERN LT RIFLE REGIMENT
RE: READINESS EXERCISE”
“More weekend warrior fun?”
It was his wife, Inga, changed out of her teaching outfit into a t shirt and jeans. She kissed him. “Long day? Looks like you could use a beer, hon.”
He nodded and she obliged, cracking open a can of Carlsberg, which he took with a grateful smile and a thirsty gulp.
“Kristi in her room, listening to that damn song again—I had to tell her to put her headphones on! Bent, in his room—”
“Playing ‘Weapons of War’,” Lars completed.
“Dinner?” he asked, suddenly exhausted.
“As you know, Kristi doesn’t eat any more and Bent binged on what was left of the Chinese when he got home so it’s you and me. I’ve got all these term papers to grade so ok to order in? Pizza?” She had clearly had her own long day but was all the more lovely for it. Her golden blonde hair was bobbed these days but lustrous and framed a face that brought to mind a younger sister of Nicole Kidman. The body behind him was both full figured and lithe and in a bathing suit, Inga could pass easily as an older sister to their daughter Kristiane. Those lips, thin but cherry red and usually smiling, invited a kiss, which he delivered promptly.
“Of course. I need a shower,” he admitted, to which she nodded.
“You do. And that?” There was a barely perceptible concern in those two words.
He put the letter down. “More ‘play soldier’ stuff, that’s all. There wasn’t even an annual exercise last year, so it is probably some bureaucratic budget catch-up silliness. That new minister—” he shook his head—“is a real piece of work,”
Inga mimed a punch. “Why? Because she’s the Dominion’s first female Minister of Defence?” she demanded in playful outrage.
He shook his head. “Please—no politics!” The last election had divided them as nothing else had. “I surrender! Anyway, we take the Reservist money every year so it doesn’t matter what I think of it all.” In their early married years, the Reserve stipend had often meant the difference between making the rent or not, as Inga had struggled as a substitute teacher and he had chased work on construction jobs. Now that they were both established—he with his own small but well regarded building outfit and she in a tenured high school teaching role in the school district—the Reservist stipend more often went into a trip or Christmas gift fund. He wished he’d resigned now because he was already juggling projects and calling in favours to complete the holiday home job because of the latest call-up.
“Go on, you reactionary,” she swatted his dusty backside. “When you get out of the shower, your pizza will be ready and waiting,” she promised.
He did just that, peeling out of the work clothes. Though he was the ‘boss’, he was indistinguishable from the rest of the crew by the end of a long day and just as tired and grimy as they all were. As he stepped into the marble walk in shower he himself had designed and built just three years ago, he felt the tension of the day melt off. All drizzled off his long, lank pale frame except for the two words—“and that?”—his wife had posed. The call up wasn’t normal. His unit was militia grade and in all his time in the Reserves, his unit had never been summoned for a ‘readiness exercise’. This was new language and he suspected it might signal something he had thought was light years away. The PRF was a terrorist outfit, and a fringe one at that. It wasn’t a military threat as far as he knew. He could only hope it was a normal annual call-up and the two weeks would pass quickly. Hell, it might even be fun to fire off some automatic rounds with the boys and drink some Carlsbergs out in some bush bivouac. In any case, there were more important matters to attend to. Lars dried himself off with a thick towel and slipped into grey running shorts and a clean blue “Schmidt Building & Design” t shirt. He’d already heard the doorbell, which meant the pizzas were here!
CHAPTER 4: KASPER FARMSTEAD, 3rd District, WEST SOLLOPSGANGSDALEN
Lars looked up from the drone controller board, exasperated. “No, nothing—Captain.” It was just a second’s delay, but she’d caught it.
“Anything else you want to add?” demanded Captain Bach, her uniform still crisp with those out of the box perfect creases.
“No, Captain,” he replied quickly with a lie. He wanted to ask why a twenty-something Dominion State University grad with six week’s training at the Royal Artillery Grounds was in charge of his militia unit.
The short-haired blonde in her peaked garrison cap tapped the controller. “Keep looking and focus. I’m off to regimental HQ— contact me by field VOIP if they pop their heads up, Sergeant.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” he nodded, happy to fiddle with the controls as she left the field position in her jeep. Captain Astrid Bach had been waiting for him when he joined his unit at the Bollgrund rendezvous point. The company’s prior CO, at thirty-five an accountant his own age, had apparently been transferred to a Blomsterby unit after being promoted to a regional role by his civilian employer. It was an opportunity for the new Minister of Defence Ingrid Hanne to score a goal for the PM’s “A Way Forward For Women” program. Wonderful. He couldn’t blame Bach—the new government was making it easy to fast track women in all kinds of government roles. Why not put a barely trained Sociology major in charge of a Royal Dominion Army militia company? Aside from the obvious enjoyment she derived from strutting around in her new uniform, she seemed more interested in hanging around regimental HQ than actually spending time with her new unit, composed entirely of male Reservists between twenty and fifty.
He re-focused on the recon drone. He wondered if the powers that be regretted not investing in anything resembling a modern air force and instead relied on gadgets. He doubted it—those who had made that decision were already retired and beyond bearing any responsibility.
“Hey Sarge, we’re over two weeks on this annual—you think we’ll finish up soon? I got things to do and my boss—”
“Shut it, Bertelsen! There—look!” He held the controller board up. There was a flash of camo and undergrowth that seemed to roll forward.
“PRF!” the corporal exclaimed.
“Jesus, keep it down! Spread the word… quietly. They can’t be more than five clicks out. Kasper Farmstead. Mount up!”
Five minutes later, the 1st Recon Company was surging southwestward towards the farmstead in three columns, each composed of a platoon. Lars took Platoon B, ready to reinforce either flank as needed.
“It might just be a patrol. It could be a raid,” he whispered calmly into the VOIP field phone.
“Roger that,” came the response from the Kasper Farmstead.
“Your disposition, Kasper?” he checked.
“Fifteen adults, eight kids. We’ll concentrate in the blockhouse and post snipers in the compound. We have nine rifles, three shotguns, three handguns—lots of ammo,” came a confident reply.
“Roger that. We’ve got a recon militia company on your back porch—we should be in position in five. Good luck, Kasper. Over out.”
Lars was both relieved and unsurprised that the farmstead was well prepared. Rural farmsteads had originally spread out over large acreage land grants, dating back to colonial days. They, in turn, had been divided over generations but almost always kept in the family. Instead of splitting apart, the modern farmsteads were more like small stations that connected and supplied other family farms in the same area. City folks mocked the rurals, implying in-breeding and stupidity but Lars had always found the farmsteaders self-sufficient and capable.
The PRF hadn’t dared to attack even villages thus far. Perhaps they hoped the farmsteads would make easy pickings, but he was damned if they’d carry off so much as a chicken tonight. And he doubted they’d be satisfied with just chickens. Since the initial call-up, there’d been rumours about just what the PRF was up to in this new, bloodier phase of their insurgency. Thank God, Inga and the kids were safe in Bollgrund, he thought.
Bertelsen pointed at the beeping VOIP field phone. “BACH” insistently blinked on and off, as annoying as the company commander herself. “You gonna answer, Sarge?”
“Corporal, I stowed that away already. Remember?”
The corporal shrugged. “Now I do, Sarge.” The two men moved quickly to catch up with the rest of B Platoon, just as Lars heard the unmistakeable blast of a shotgun erupt from the clump of buildings up ahead.
The PRF unit had moved even more quickly than Lars thought possible. They were weaving in between the out buildings and surrounding the sturdy blockhouse with interlocking fire. A Molotov cocktail exploded on the flat blockhouse roof when B Platoon began laying down automatic fire on all sides. A surprised PRF officer in a red beret pointed towards his position before being immediately cut down by his advancing platoon. By now, Platoons A and C would have heard the fireworks and begun fanning towards the PRF flanks and rear.
Another camo’d figure dashed out with a lit Molotov but was dropped by fire well to the rear. The farmers had positioned their snipers well. He was about to call in platoons A and C when he heard a jeep engine roar up from the rear.
“What the hell is going on?” Bach.
“Looks like a PRF raid, Captain,” he explained pointlessly. “We caught them out though. Platoon A and C are closing now,” he gestured with the VOIP field phone, which she snatched.
“Platoons A and C, hold your position! I repeat, hold your position!” she snapped into the phone.
Lars was incredulous. “We can take them out, Captain—I doubt they have any reserves!”
The blonde hair bobbed in ire. “The Minister has ordered “Deflect Not Destroy” rules of engagement, Sergeant! Why didn’t you call me as instructed?” she demanded furiously.
“Captain, we can catch them NOW if—” He stopped. What was the point? The firefight was over just as abruptly as it had begun. The PRF unit had already slipped through the gap, headed back into the mountains and jungle—though empty handed.
“Answer my question, Sergeant!” the little red faced blonde yelled. In the distance, a victorious cheer rose from the blockhouse and lights illuminated the surrounding area, in which at least three unmoving PRF cadre lay.
The VOIP phone vibrated and he answered. “Kasper? You did well.”
“Thanks. We got three at least.”
“Leave them—we’ll be up in a minute.”
Turning to Bach, he nodded to the farmstead. “Could be intel opportunities, Captain. Shall we?”
She glared at him. As always, he found an angry woman extremely attractive—even this self-important twit. Though not half as sexy as Inga, he amended his thought.
“This isn’t over,” she snarled, as she rose and walked ahead.
But it was. As he’d thought possible, one of the PRF cadre was only wounded. He was a young grunt, but any POW was an intel bonanza, given how hard it was to catch one. He doubted there was much such a low level recruit could spill– but it DID suffice to produce a citation for Captain Astrid Bach, as well as secondment to Military Intelligence, where she was well out of their hair.
He learned all this a week later, when the entire 15th Eastern Light Rifles were ordered to the Bollgrund base for R&R rotation.
“You interested in taking it on, Schmidt? 1st Recon, that is.” Colonel Clausen had been a regular before civvy life as a successful solicitor. He had been running the reserve unit since he had joined up at twenty. It was an old topic of discussion.
“No, thank you Sir. You know me. I can do more good at my current rank.”
Lars nodded. “Appreciated, Sir. Is this “Deflect Not Destroy” the new rule of engagement?”
The Colonel smiled. “I didn’t hear that, Sergeant Schmidt. Say again?” he asked, lips curled.
“Sorry, Sir. Just clearing my throat.”
The regimental commander nodded. “As you can probably guess, this isn’t the annual Carlsberg and Ammo beer blast. You’ve got a week and then you’re rotating back in.” He held his hand up, as Lars began to remonstrate. “Stow it. The PRF has ratcheted the whole thing up. This isn’t isolated. Reserves have already been called up in Jernbjerg and Kryyderlandet. We’re getting regular RDA units and support shortly. We’re going to stop this in the hinterland before it gets out of hand. Your men’s employers have been informed and—” he raised his hand again as Lars tried to interject—“the government will be running PSAs thanking all the Reserve staff for their brave and patriotic service. If your construction clients complain, they’ll be audited by Royal Revenue for the next century, alright?”
Lars nodded. “Understood, Sir.”
“Dismissed. Call your wife, get a drink and play some pool. That was some work out there last week. Let’s just get this done, Lars,” he added informally. “I get tired of playing soldier too, but we need to knock these bastards out before they get too big for their boots—that clear soldier?”
Lars saluted crisply. “Crystal, Sir.”
CHAPTER 5: OPERATION BLACK MAGIC
EboManso looked at his watch. 9:03. All that would be here were here. It was time to begin.
“Comrades, welcome. You have heeded the call. You are the select. You are the Assegais!”
The nine men, seated on crates and construction material scattered through the eighth story worksite, lightly stamped their feet. Though situated in the heart of Blomsterby’s CBD, there was no danger of discovery. The security guard on watch below was one of their own.
“Look at one another. When our struggle is concluded, the fighters in this room shall be amongst the most important men in this city! You shall command the heights and you shall bend the arc of destiny to lead our people—the Prime people—into a new Golden Age!”
The appeal to vanity and patriotism was, as he had been instructed in Cadre School, irresistible. The men positively glowed with pride and commitment.
“As you know, our cell has grown from one,” he pointed to himself, “to two,” he pointed at another, “to three, four and more– to our current eight. We have a new candidate for consideration tonight and we shall see if he has the courage of his convictions. Adebayo, come forward.”
A gangly teen, still wearing his janitorial overalls, stood up from a stack of gyprock he’d used as a seat. Gripped in his hand was a rolled up, much-smudged magazine. Every other man in the room had one as well by his side. They were much sought after and he had pleaded for another hundred copies at least, but Party HQ had run out of stock. A new issue of MINX magazine was promised in the near future though.
“Do you offer yourself as a candidate for the Assegai cell of the PRF, Adebayo?”
The voice was nervous but the emotion strong. “Yes, Comrade.”
“And the target for your initiation?”
“ JulieAbildgård. I saw her name tag. She’s a waitress at Solskin Café, on Bremerholm and Ny Østergade. She—I–,” he stammered, suddenly overcome.
Ebo nodded. He pressed a button on his phone, which then projected a series of images on the white sheet he’d draped on the wall for just this purpose.
“Julie Abildgård, age eighteen—remember comrades, never younger!—and as Adebayo has said, a waitress at a café. She works part time and attends Dominion State University at Blomsterby. She majors in…” he checked his notes, “architectural design. How nice for her!”
The men gathered chuckled, even as they gazed at the surveillance photos and videos taken of the subject of Adebayo’s fancy as she waited tables in her blouse and skirt. The brunette was nothing special to Ebo—decent face, a willowy figure—but for Adebayo, she evidently represented a great deal more than that.
Adebayo was transfixed by the many images dancing across the screen. “I watch her every day for months now—I work at Brasserie du Nord across the street. She…uh, she’s—”
Ebo waved his hand. “No need to explain.” He turned to the whole group. “No need for a Prime EVER to explain. A Prime sees, a Prime desires, a Prime TAKES!”
The foot stamping began again. Adebayo’s face had grown damp with excitement.
“As we speak, your Julie is walking back from the university library. She will take the Sofiegade and we will greet her after she passes over the bridge there.” He handed a pistol to Adebayo. “There you will assert your privilege over her and secure your admission to the Assegai cell of the PRF. Are you ready?”
Adebayo took the pistol in wonderment, still not able to conceive that his deepest fantasy was about to be released. He nodded dumbly, grinning.
“We will secure her for you and then you may have as long as you require. You will leave her healthy and alive—this is important. Kill her and your application will be rejected. You understand?”
Adebayo nodded, grimly. They had discussed this in depth many times already. The girl had to live in order to share her story. It was the sole objective of Operation Black Magic—which had nothing to do with cell initiation and everything to do with the greater psychological warfare campaign now underway throughout the Dominion. Kabemba Munda had been adamant. No underage and no murders.
“Let’s go.” The nine men filed down the half constructed stairwell down to street level and from there, Sofiegade.
“Can I have her afterwards?” Adebayo whispered.
“After we win?”
The assumption was so earnest, Ebo was taken aback. He honestly didn’t know if they’d be alive at the end of the night, let alone be victorious in an insurgency with long odds already.
“Her and more. As many as you could ever want,” he promised, pushing the boy forward down the quiet empty street. Ebo might be lying or telling the truth. Only blood, and perhaps more important, luck would provide the ultimate answer to Adebayo’s question.