The Wrong Girl
Taylor sat in his car, pulled to the side of the small road that led across the border, watching the guard post through his binoculars. He was still far enough along the road, up on a cliff looking down into the small pseudo-valley where the checkpoint sat, that its guards were nothing more than tiny figures moving around an equally tiny building. Taylor doubted that even if they’d somehow looked in his direction, they’d noticed him. From where he was, the checkpoint wasn’t even visible without the help of the binoculars he was currently staring through.
This was his next big obstacle. He was certain Andre had been right, and they were on the take. This man Malik and his associates might have made it through once or twice under the radar, but even the most bored sentry in the world wouldn’t have missed repeated border crossings, especially if they were sometimes accompanied by terrified looking girls they’d kidnapped somewhere else. Even if he could roll up and talk his way across the border carrying an American passport and no authorization to cross, no way could he do it in secret.
That also ruled out going back to the state department flunky and trying to get him to talk to the Belorussian government and get Taylor access. Besides not wanting to deal with that asshole again, he would face the same problem with Malik finding out he was coming.
Taylor was pulled out of his thoughts by the sound of gravel crunching under tires. Looking in the rear-view mirror, Taylor saw an older truck with an open bed behind him, wood railings holding in boxes packed higher than the roof of the cab.
A man stepped out of the older truck, and Taylor recognized him instantly as the man being beat on in the warehouse, the one Taylor had told to get out. He didn’t see a gun in the man’s hand, and the fact he had been in the process of getting the shit kicked out of him when Taylor intervened, suggested he was not on the side of the slavers. That, however, didn’t mean the man was harmless or should be trusted. Taylor lifted the gun that had been sitting on his lap and held the weapon in one hand, just below the level of the steering wheel.
If something happened, he would only have one shot, there being no way to recover from the recoil sitting like this. That shot should, however, come as a complete surprise unless the man leaned in the window and looked into Taylor’s lap. The door also wouldn’t be much of an obstacle, and even after punching through the metal the heavy bullet would still have the power to severely wound or kill the man if it came to that.
“I thought it was you,” the man said in Russian as he came to Taylor’s lowered window.
Taylor only nodded at the man, who stood back a foot from the window and kept his hands in plain sight.
“I...” the man said with a stammer, “I wanted to thank you for helping me, before.”
“Why were they beating you?”
“I was short on the money they require for ‘protection.’ They were trying to motivate me, or at least, that’s how they put it.”
“Well, I’m happy to have helped. I can’t promise some other thug won’t move in and start shaking you down again, but at least none of it should be coming back down on you.”
The man nodded, looking back along the road, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Is there—” Taylor started to ask.
“Are you trying to get across the border?” The man blurted out, almost the same second that Taylor had spoken.
Taylor’s grip tightened on the gun, his finger pressing a hair more on the trigger.
“It’s OK,” the man said, seeing the narrowing of Taylor’s eyes. “I just saw you sitting here, looking along the road, and it only goes one way. I thought, maybe, you could use some help.”
“What kind of help,” Taylor said, his level of alarm not backing off.
“Well, I figured you might want to get across the border, ‘cause I know the men who you ... who were in the warehouse worked for a man on the other side, and ... I can help you with that.”
“I appreciate that, but you know doing something like that would put you in more danger.”
“Not much. Those guys never actually look in my truck, they’re too damn lazy. And I owe you. They were raising our payments again. It was too much. My family was going to have to start selling what food we kept to eat, just to pay them. You didn’t just help me in that warehouse, you helped my wife and kids too. Please, let me do something in return.”
Taylor had already discounted the thought that this was a trap. With everything that had happened, including this being the guy getting beat up in the warehouse when he burst in, would have been too far of a stretch for even the most committed conspiracy theorist to make into a convoluted plot. Still, Taylor didn’t particularly like the idea of letting an innocent involve himself, especially since this guy said he had a wife and kids.
“I don’t think...”
“Please. I know what they do in that warehouse, and if you can do anything to stop it, I really want to help.”
Taylor looked at him hard for a minute, then said, “What did you have in mind?”
“You get in the back of the truck. I’ll stack boxes around you, and drive you over.”
“They don’t look. I could probably let you sit in the passenger seat, and they wouldn’t say anything. I cross a lot, and they don’t pay any attention to me.”
“OK, go clear me a spot while I make a call.”
The man bobbed his head and turned, hurrying back to his truck. Taylor pulled out the sat phone while he watched the man start to work, and dialed Andre.
“Are you still in the town?”
“Yeah, for now. I already sent the girls back with one of my guys. I’m still trying to get some reinforcements here.”
“I’m about to cross, but I’m leaving the car I’m driving on the side of the road that heads into Belarus. Could you have someone pick it up and take it back to the town? I’m gonna leave my shit in the trunk, and I’d prefer not to have to buy new underwear after this is over.”
“Yeah, I’ll take care of it. How are you getting over?”
“I have a guy helping me. How long will you guys be staying down here?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try to extend it a few days, but at that point pressure from the top will start trying to pull me back.”
“I understand. I’ll try to clear this up as quickly as possible, since I’d prefer to have a friendly face on this side of the border, just in case.”
“Call me each day, and I’ll give you a heads-up on when we’re leaving if I can.”
“Will do, thanks, buddy.”
Taylor got out of the car, holstered his gun, and headed toward the truck. The driver had shifted boxes, making an open space in the middle with boxes tiered, so they supported each other, making a stable shell. As he finished, with more boxes stacked around it, Taylor would have been hard-pressed to say there was such a pocket in the middle just by looking at it. It was skillfully done to the point where Taylor wondered if he’d ever smuggled someone over the border before.
“I’m John,” Taylor said, extending his hand.
“Sebastian,” the man said, hopping down and meeting Taylor’s grip with a rough, callous covered hand.
Releasing the handshake, Taylor said, “I need to get to a town called Reuya. It’s supposed to be a few miles over the border.”
“I know of it, although it’s closer to ten miles by the roads. It’s on the reverse side of a hill, so the roads switch back a lot. I can get you there,” he said, gesturing at the open spot in the truck.
Taylor clambered into the truck, tucking himself into the small space, as Sebastian started stacking boxes, cutting off the light piece by piece. Even as he watched the boxes getting stacked, Taylor could see new snow falling on the man’s shoulders and on the boxes in place, promising a very cold trip across the border.
After a while, the sound of scraping and thumping ended, and Taylor could feel the engine of the old model truck turn over through the bed of the vehicle. The boxes shifted ominously as they surged into motion, but thankfully none fell on him. He half-wanted to pull out his gun and keep it at hand in the unlikely chance this was all some sort of ruse, but he had to keep pushing against boxes that started to slide in as the truck rocked back and forth on the less than even road.
They drove for a handful of minutes, before the truck pulled to a stop again, and Taylor could hear muffled voices that he couldn’t make out. The conversation was extremely brief, and after a few moments, they were bouncing around again as the truck continued along the road.
Taylor had expected Sebastian to pull over shortly after they passed the border, but they continued for several more minutes. It felt to Taylor like they started to make turns, first this way, then that. After fifteen minutes of crawling along Taylor started to get concerned they hadn’t stopped yet. Just as he reached the point where he was ready to push the boxes out of the way and see what the hell was going on, the truck stopped and the engine shut off.
The boxes started being moved, and light began to shine through as the boxes disappeared in reverse order. Taylor was surprised that in the half an hour he was in the truck, the sky had changed so much! It was now a darkening gray instead of a clear blue. Snow now fell at a much faster rate than when he’d first got in the truck, already piling up on places where boxes had sat a few seconds before.
Sebastian’s hand reached through the boxes and pulled Taylor out. Taylor was looking at a small house, backed by woods on one side and fields on the other, with the sounds of livestock coming from a small outcropping of barns.
“I know you said you needed to get to Reuya, but the snow is picking up, and there’s word it might turn into a blizzard. Reuya is on the other side of that hill over there,” he said, pointing to something Taylor would have called a small mountain instead of a hill, “and once you start climbing, they become dangerous even in good weather. With how fast this is picking up, we would lose visibility before we got to the other side. I know you’re in a hurry, but you can’t get anywhere if you end up dead at the bottom.”
Taylor couldn’t fault his observation. The roads on the flat areas were bad enough, and from where he was standing the ‘hill’ seemed pretty steep. He wasn’t wrong about the snow, either. In the minute they’d stood speaking, the volume of falling snow had increased.
“These usually blow out overnight, and I should get you there in the morning. Until then, you can stay here, if you like.”
Taylor thought about it for a minute. Taylor felt Sebastian was sincere in everything he’d done, and he seemed completely on the up-and-up. But considering all the screwups Taylor had made so far dealing with this mess, he also couldn’t help but second-guess his instincts.
Still, the fact remained there was no way anyone could have come up with all the variables that led him to this spot at this moment, and the likelihood of this being more than it seemed was ridiculously small.
“I’d like that,” Taylor said finally.
Sebastian clapped Taylor on the shoulder and waved him toward the house. Taylor made sure to let Sebastian get ahead of him the closer they got to the small building’s front door. This was not so much because he thought this was a trap, but because it wouldn’t be right to walk into the man’s house before him.
Sebastian seemed to get the idea, because he stepped in front of Taylor. He unlocked the door, opened it, and stepped in first.
“Marta, I’m home,” he called out, while Taylor stepped inside and shut the door to the snow that was starting to pick up some serious speed.
The room they walked into looked to take most of the space he could see from the outside, covering half of the width of the front of the house. There were two doors leading from the room, one on either end. Near the door on the left wall, from Taylor’s perspective, was a small table with four chairs around it. Closer to the other door was a couch and two chairs, sitting in front of a rickety old TV positioned roughly in front of them.
A short, plump, blond-haired woman came out of the door to the left, while wiping her hands on a dish towel. The big smile on her face faded instantly into a completely blank expression.
“Kdo je to,” she said, in a language that Taylor didn’t recognize, her voice sounding weary and afraid.
“Marta,” Sebastian said in Russian, “This is John, he’s a friend.”
“Sebastian!” She sounded notably upset, and Sebastian looked nervous, glancing at Taylor then back to his wife.
“I’ll just sit over here,” Taylor said to no one in particular, moving over to the couch.
Sebastian gave him a tight smile and went over to his wife. The two began to talk animatedly in a whisper. Taylor only caught a word or two, but it was still in a language he didn’t recognize. Eventually, they wound down, Sebastian never raising his voice, but ending it with something that sounded firm. She glanced once in Taylor’s direction, turned, and headed back into the room that, from where Taylor was sitting, looked like a small kitchen.
“I’m sorry about that,” Sebastian said, coming back over to him, “things in this area can sometimes be ... difficult. Especially considering the main source, I have to sell our goods to. She is concerned about what your being here could mean.”
“She’s not wrong. I haven’t made any friends with the guys who’ve been operating out here, and what I’m planning next will probably make it worse.”
“I know, but I think it’s unlikely they’ll know you were ever here. It’s not like we have neighbors who could report on us. And, hopefully when you’re done...”
“Sebastian, you need to be clear, I am not here to remove these people. I came to collect a girl who was taken from her family, that’s it. I’m not here to free you guys from their control.”
“A chance you could hurt them enough that they leave or at least pull back is better than no chance at all. If not for what you did already, my family would starve the rest of the winter.”
“Don’t count on it being a strong chance. I’m just one guy.”
“You were one man in the warehouse, and I saw what you did there.”
Taylor didn’t respond, but the look he gave Sebastian made it clear he didn’t think Sebastian’s reasoning was likely.
A sound caught Taylor’s attention, and he turned as two blond-haired girls came running out of the door to the right. They skidded to a halt when they saw Taylor. Sebastian spoke to them in the language he had spoken to his wife, although he heard his name twice, so he figured he was telling the girls who Taylor was. They both looked nervously at him, although the braver of the two waved when Sebastian had stopped speaking. When he was done talking to his children, he gestured toward the kitchen, and both girls dashed off in that direction.
“They look like their mother,” Taylor said after they had gone.
“Yes, thank goodness. Could you imagine if they looked like me?” Sebastian said with a laugh.
“The language you keep speaking?”
“Czech. We came from a small town outside of Prague ten years ago.”