The Wrong Girl
It took Taylor a little while to convince the girl to leave with Andre, and to get Reznikov down and into his car as well, but eventually, his friend was on his way, and Taylor continued south.
The small two-lane road continued through the Russian countryside, with the random shack or farm scattered here and there. Taylor was starting to think Reznikov had managed to play him again, until a sign for Serpurtau came into view as he rounded yet another deserted stretch, with an arrow pointing him down an even more run-down two-lane road.
Sure enough, a mile along that side road Taylor saw a group of buildings springing from the nothing that had littered the roadside to this point. They weren’t large, and they weren’t impressive, but they did indicate the presence of a small village at the very least. The road that Taylor was on became the main road for the town. It was lined with several two-story buildings and even one three-story one, which, according to the sign was a hotel.
Taylor also saw the large two-story warehouse that Reznikov had mentioned sitting diagonally from the hotel. Currently, both the big rolling door and the smaller person-size door to one side were shut tight.
Pulling off to the side of the street a few feet down from the hotel, Taylor hopped out dragging his duffle bag out behind him. Dingy would not be strong enough to describe the lobby of the hotel, with its moth-eaten furniture and dirty linoleum floors. It was probably stylish at some point in the seventies, but its time had long since passed. It was a safe bet this hotel wasn’t used to visitors who would have been looking for more updated surroundings.
Taylor walked over to the grizzled old man at the desk, who’d been watching him but had yet to say a word.
“I’d like a room,” Taylor said matter-of-factly, setting his bag by his feet.
“What are you here for?” the man asked, making no move that would indicate he planned on giving Taylor a room.
“I’m here for none of your damn business. Give me a room.”
The man stared at Taylor for a moment, then grunted and spun around, pulling a small key ring off a peg board.
“I want one facing the street.”
“They’re all full.”
Taylor found that extremely unlikely.
“I’ll pay twenty-five hundred rubles extra.”
Taylor snorted and said, “Hell, no. But if you don’t want the money...”
“No, fine. I think we might have one available,” he said, putting his hand out.
Taylor pulled the notes from his pocket and put it in the man’s hand. He had anticipated needing cash and hadn’t wanted to whip out the entire envelope the senator had left for him. Guys like this were usually opportunists, but they didn’t do well with temptation. Money in hand, the clerk handed over a new key bearing the number seven.
Taylor headed up the tight stairwell and found the room. As promised, or at least implied from taking Taylor’s money, the room did face the street, and he could see the warehouse from its window. A small, rickety bed sat in the middle of the room with sheets Taylor was pretty sure he didn’t want to even breathe near, wrapped over an impossibly thin mattress.
Taylor pulled the wooden chair that had been pushed under the narrow table that someone might have laughingly called a desk and carried it over to sit in front of the window. Reaching into his bag, Taylor withdrew a pair of binoculars and settled into his seat, beginning his watch.
While it was as boring as any stakeout, Taylor had to acknowledge it had the benefit of a bathroom, which was a definite plus, although the wooden chair left a lot to be desired, comfort wise. Taylor watched the building for over two hours until the first sign it had anyone inside presented itself. A newer model BMW came from the same direction that Taylor had and parked in front of the warehouse. Considering from the map Taylor had looked at, that was the only direction to a road that led toward any kind of civilization, which probably meant the car had come from somewhere else, apparently to specifically visit the occupants of the warehouse.
The man who got out was middle aged and, from his vantage point, Taylor could see he was well on his way to balding, and hoping a comb-over could hide natures little joke. He was wearing what seemed like a loose-fitting suit, although it was hard to tell from this distance, and walked purposefully toward the smaller door on one side of the warehouse and knocked. After a few minutes the door opened, and a large man with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail stepped out, giving the smaller balding man the once over.
They two men spoke for some time. Even at this distance, Taylor could tell from the body language and gestures that the smaller man was trying to explain something or ask something from the larger man, who stood, arms crossed, occasionally responding.
Eventually, the larger man nodded and reached back into the doorway, coming back with a flat, rectangular metal detector, which he waved over the smaller man, making him turn as he did the back as thoroughly as the front. Apparently not finding anything, he set the metal detector back inside the doorway then physically patted down the smaller man, reaching into each pocket, looking at its contents then handing it back.
Cleared, he stood aside and waved the smaller man in through the door, closing it behind them. Taylor silently cursed once the entire process was finished, and the men disappeared. What that display proved was that Taylor would have to go in unarmed, which didn’t sit well. He continued to observe the building into midafternoon, watching as two more men showed up and approached the warehouse, both following the same process as the balding man. So far, only the second of the three men had reappeared, leaving the warehouse with a girl on his arm.
Taylor continued to wait and watch, looking for an alternative entrance into the building, but it seemed like an effort in futility. He couldn’t see exactly from where, but the warehouse looked to be backed directly onto another building, and there didn’t look to be any access points on the roof. Taylor could also see multiple video cameras from where he was sitting, which ruled out a more aggressive approach.
Sadly, this left subterfuge, which Taylor was less comfortable with. Reznikov hadn’t given him any indication of what he’d need to say to the men guarding the warehouse to get inside, although apparently, they were accepting customers. The auction was tomorrow, so he had a window, but not much of one. One option was to just buy her and walk her out of the building. That left the other girls behind, but hopefully, he could have Andre do something once he had actual proof of what was happening. The other option was to get hold of a weapon and shoot it out, but there was a strong chance some of the girls being held in the warehouse could get hurt. And of course, that didn’t count how outnumbered Taylor would be, making his own survival questionable. It wasn’t so much that Taylor worried about himself, but if he went down, there would be no other help coming.
But, to decide if that were even possible, Taylor first had to get inside. And the only way he could see to do that was as a customer. Which turned his stomach, but he’d have to fake his way through and see what he was up against.
Going over to the bag, Taylor pulled out the satellite phone and a small multi-tool he had in one of the side pouches. Stepping on the already filthy bedspread, Taylor reached to the vent located high on the wall, just above the bed’s headboard and unscrewed it. Feeling around, Taylor confirmed the vent formed a small shelf before dropping sharply into the heating ducts that fought in vain against the Russian winter. Pulling the gun and holster off his belt, he set the weapon on that metal outcropping, placing the sat phone with them, before screwing the vent cover back in place and hopping from the bed.
Taylor walked around the room, eyeing his handiwork, eventually deciding he couldn’t see any outward indication that the vent had been removed and put back again. He gave himself a small smile at his paranoia, considering it was unlikely that someone would go digging through his things, and armed people weren’t that usual in Russia. While American manufactured firearms weren’t unheard of, they were less common than domestic varieties, and the satellite phone would raise all kind of eyebrows. All in all, he figured a little paranoia was better than the alternative.
Next, he opened his bag and pulled out what he considered were his ‘better’ clothes, not that they were particularly fancy. But they were about equal to the clothes the other men he’d seen wearing, and the dark, long wool coat would make him half-decent. Opening the envelope, he pulled out a chunk of the cash, and put it in two separate bundles in each of his pockets, then put the rest back into his bag, pushed deep in between other clothes.
He could feel the proprietor’s eyes following him as he walked out of the building, and headed across the street to the warehouse. Knocking on the door, he stepped back and waited, hoping there wasn’t a secret knock the other guys had used.
After a minute the door opened, and the black-shirted guard looked Taylor up and down.
“Yes?” he asked.
“I was told I could acquire special ... umm ... merchandise here by a friend of mine,” Taylor said.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, starting to close the door.
“He said there was an auction was coming up soon, but he didn’t have the full details. I am very interested in the auction.”
The door stopped its closing motion and opened once more. Looking him over the guard reached in the doorway and pulled the black metal detector that Taylor could see sitting on a reception style desk sitting just inside the doorway. As he had with other men who Taylor had watched enter the building, he proceeded to check Taylor for contraband, first with the wand then by patting Taylor down by hand.
He had stopped over Taylor’s pocket, and he knew the guard felt the wad of money in each pocket since he’d hesitated each time he’d hit the bundle of bills. The guard, however, hadn’t tried to take the money which, considering where he was, had been a possibility. Apparently not finding anything concerning, the guard stepped back and to one side, gesturing Taylor inside.
Once Taylor was in, and the door was shut, the man pointed at the floor where Taylor was standing and said, “Wait here.”
With that, he disappeared through a door on the left side of the wall that probably led into the warehouse proper. The room itself had somewhat low lighting, although it wasn’t dark, with a desk right next to the front door and a few chairs against one wall. The word that best described it was, spartan.
After a moment the guard came back with a smaller man wearing glasses.
“How can I help you,” the man asked, sounding almost more like a waiter or maître d’ than a functionary for a place that sold kidnapped women.
“As I was telling your man here,” Taylor said, not having to put much acting into sounding nervous, “I was told there was an upcoming auction here, and I was very interested in bidding on some of the wares.”
“Who told you there was an auction?”
“A man in St. Petersburg named Reznikov,” Taylor said, hoping Andre had done as he’d asked and put the smuggler into the deepest hole he could find.
The man looked at the guard then back at Taylor, “That man has a big f•©king mouth.”
“It took a fair amount of money to pry the information from him,” Taylor said with a shrug, hoping if they got a whiff of money they might relax their guard.
“Your accent is strange,” the man said. “Where are you from?”
The non-sequitur took Taylor off guard, “Uh, America.”
“And how do you know Reznikov?”
“I have used him in some business transactions in the past.”
“What type of business are you in?”
“Acquisitions. I help people with enough money acquire, well, whatever they are looking for,” Taylor said, thinking it sounded like a fair explanation for how he knew a smuggler.
“And is that why you’re here?”
“Yes,” Taylor said, trying to sound confident.
The man stood, staring at Taylor for a few moments, before asking, “What are you in the market for?”
“My client is looking for red hair, preferably midlength, young, fair skin, freckles if possible, and blue eyes.” Taylor said, trying to describe Mary Jane as closely as possible, but in a general way to hopefully not raise red flags.
“That is very specific.”
“My client has specific tastes. Reznikov said your selection was the best, but I have a few more places I can go to find what my client’s looking for,” Taylor said, playing a bluff.
It was a risky strategy, threatening to take his business elsewhere. Taylor was an unknown to them and if they had enough business they might decide he wasn’t worth the effort. That would leave Taylor with choices that had a much lower chance of success. At the same time, since they didn’t know him beyond Taylor dropping the name of someone not even directly affiliated with them, he had to be taken seriously right away.
“Isn’t that something you can find in your own country?”
“Maybe, but harder to obtain. Also, while I may be American, my clients come from all over the world. If you don’t have what I’m looking for, say so and I’ll get out of your way.”
“Wait here,” he said, and headed back through the door, followed by the guard again.
Taylor waited, and hoped they weren’t trying to look into his, on the fly, backstory. Odds are no one had found the guards yet, but if they had, things could go sideways fast. Several minutes passed before the man came back into the room.
“Come with me,” he said, waving for Taylor to follow him through the door he’d originally come through.
The door led into a huge open room with a raised platform at one end, a variety of lights hung high on the ceiling, including spotlights with various colored lenses, and even what looked like a full-service bar against one wall. By Taylor’s estimate, this large open room covered about half of the warehouse, based on what he’d seen of the length of the building from the outside.
What he guessed was about a third of the warehouse space was partitioned off by a hall, with one door toward the back of the warehouse, near the stage, and another one not far down from the bar. Both were solid doors and gave no clue as to what was beyond the door. One door almost certainly led to where the girls were being held, since he saw none of them in the large room he was currently in, which he was thinking of as the ‘auction’ room.
He also didn’t see the two guys who’d entered the warehouse and, at least from what Taylor had seen, hadn’t left yet. He guessed they were through the other door, and while he could probably also guess what they were doing there, Taylor didn’t particularly want to dwell on that.
One thing he could clearly see in the auction room, they had a lot of muscle. Taylor could see at least ten guys, not counting the guard who’d stayed in the front room and the guy who’d ushered him into the auction room. That guy didn’t seem like muscle and Taylor pegged him more as middle management. The rest were clearly guards. All were carrying, and several obviously so, with semi-automatic rifles hanging off their shoulders.