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Authors: Jon A. Jackson

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BOOK: Badger Games
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F
ranko was amazed at the traffic, the nervous mood in town. There were soldiers everywhere, lounging about, automatic rifles slung carelessly. How long had they been around? There had been new roadblocks on his way in, but they'd not stopped him, just waved him through when he slowed. He hadn't been paying attention lately, he realized. Had he been dreaming? He'd been too isolated, too distracted by Fedima … and the American US AID worker, who had gone now, it seemed.

The police station was filled with people, Serbs and Kosovars, everybody complaining, talking loudly. A Serbian army officer—Franko heard him called a major—seemed to be running things. He was ordering people about. Since Franko was not accompanied by an officer, not under arrest, not complaining, he was ignored. But he caught a glimpse of Dedorica, who stepped out of his office, looked about him in poorly disguised dismay, and retreated back into the room, quietly closing the door behind him. Franko followed, knocking and then slipping in quickly.

Dedorica tried to put a good face on, but he was shifty. “
Tako je,
” he said, with a shrug. “What can I do? I didn't send the Bazok up there. I didn't even know he'd been. Of course, he asked about you.”

Franko started to say, Why didn't you mention it? What am I paying you for? But he settled for “I thought, as we had an agreement, that you would keep me informed. What was he asking?”

“Well, that's just it,” Dedorica said. “He asked nothing of any consequence. He said he'd heard there was a foreigner living around here, who was he, what did he do? That sort of thing. Any policeman would ask that. Not that Bozi Bazok is any kind of policeman.” This last was muttered under his breath, but Franko overheard it.

“Well, who is he?” Franko asked.

“He's just a thug from Belgrade,” Dedorica insisted. “It has to do with the army. So perhaps they are like the
bashi-bazouks.
They preceded the Ottoman army, created terror, and by the time the army arrived, the people welcomed them for bringing order and protecting them from the horrors of the
bashi-bazouks.
So it's not as crazy as it looks.”

“Did you tell him about our arrangement?”

“Never! Why would I do that? I told him that as far as I knew you were a scholar.”

“A scholar! What sort of scholar?”

“A
biolog,
a naturalist.” The captain shrugged. He was a pleasant enough man, well into middle age, with a wife, children, and a mistress or two. He had impressed Franko before as a typical, fairly competent police officer, corrupt in the way of police but not venal. He was a Serb, but had lived in the region so long that he thought more like a Kosovar. It was clear that he was in despair, realizing that his life here was never going to be the same again, and perhaps only now understanding that it had been a better life than he'd thought.

“He has no notion of a scholar, anyway,” Dedorica said. “He said you were probably a spy. That's what Major Kaporica thinks, too.”

“He's the one running things?” Franko said, nodding toward the hall. “What should I do?”

“You're asking me, my friend? I'm sorry, there is very little I can do for you. The major is busy. He has left you to the Bazooks. But don't worry, you're in no danger. Just cooperate with the lad and I'll do what I can to see that you're not …” He hesitated.

“Not what?” Franko said.

“Not molested. You'll tell him a good story. He likes money, I think. Perhaps …” He made the universal gesture of rubbing his fingers with his thumb. “He's not very bright, you know, just a kid. What does he know about politics, about spies? Offer him some
money. You'll be all right. But don't make him angry. No, no.” He shook his head. “That wouldn't be wise.”

Then he took Franko down into the basement, to a room that was very much like a cell, where Bazok was waiting with a couple of his men. They looked like Bazok, young and burly and full of themselves, in the same outfit with the goofy cartoon arm patch, except they weren't so dark. They were big and blond. There was shouting down the hall, voices raised in fear and protest, the sound of curses, blows. Franko didn't like it. He assumed there were other cells down here, where things weren't quite as calm as in this room. A piercing scream was suddenly muffled.

“I'll talk to him,” Bazok said to the captain. “Go on back to your office. If I need you I'll buzz.” When the captain had left, he stepped close to Franko, literally nose to nose, and winked. Then, still in Serbian, he said, “What's your real name, spy?” and he struck him in the face with his fist.

Franko was stunned. The blow had come from nowhere. He lay on the damp concrete floor. He wondered if his cheekbone was fractured. He drew up his legs to protect himself from a kick, but none was offered. One of the other Bazooks hoisted him to his feet roughly. They were laughing at his shock.

“That should get his attention,” Bazok said, smiling. He pinched Franko's neck with his iron fingers. The pain was intense, but Bazok quickly relented. “Sit down, take it easy,” he said, suddenly too kindly, in the ominous way of cops. To the others he made a head toss toward the door. “Leave us. He'll talk more freely to me, alone. If I need you, I'll call.”

When they left, he spoke in English, a more amiable tone. “No offense, Frankie. I had to make it look good. Okay, what you got for me?” He picked up the valise that Franko had brought with him to the station and opened it on the metal desk. He looked at
the passport, tossed it aside, handled the Browning 9mm automatic pistol admiringly, then laid it aside. He sat down and counted out the money, bundled into packets of one thousand dollars. There were ten of them.

“That's it?” he said, looking up.

Franko shrugged. He slumped in his metal chair, hands in his lap, docile and defeated. “It's all I have,” he said.

“Don't shit me,” Bazok said. He tossed everything back into the valise, latched it, and set it on the floor next to his chair. “Where's the junk? Ziv said you had tons of it.”

“Tons? Never. A kilo, now and then. But I've nothing right now,” Franko said. “I sent a shipment a couple of days ago, with a trucker from Banja Luka. I don't leave it around, you know. The idea is to keep it in transit.” He was betting that Vjelko Zivkovic would not have told this punk much.

Bazok made a sour face. “We'll see,” he said. He sat in thought for several minutes, occasionally clasping his hands and cracking his knuckles. He brooded over his fist, kneading it, licking at it. No doubt it had hurt to strike Franko like that.

Finally, he said, “I think it'd be best if you split. There's no point in hanging around here. I'll take care of things up at the farm.” He smiled menacingly. “I'll take care of the pussy personally, don't worry. I'll see she isn't raped too much.”

Franko stared at him. “I don't think that's funny,” he said. “Vjelko and I go back a long ways. We're partners.”

“Is that so? That's not what I heard.”

Franko shrugged. “You wouldn't know,” he said. “Vjelko wouldn't tell
you.
The point is, there's bigger guys behind Vjelko, guys you wouldn't know about. They won't like this.”

“They're there, I'm here,” Bazok said, smiling. “The shit's about to fly. Just a matter of hours. Things'll start to get confused.
You could end up in a pile. It'd be outta my hands.” He spread his hands, palms up. “I tried to protect you, you wouldn't listen. You got caught in the sweep. You see?”

Franko saw it. With a calmness that surprised himself, he said, “Don't make trouble for yourself, Badger. Don't put yourself in a position where you have to explain things to guys who don't like hearing excuses. Vjelko sent you in here to look out for his interests. His and others',” he added, warningly. “If you're on the ball, you'll make out. You've got a phone there, call Vjelko.” He rattled off the cell-phone number.

Bazok wasn't smiling now. He was pensive, his face stupidly slack, mouth hanging open idly, gazing at Franko with narrowed eyes. “No,” he said, after a long minute. “I don't want to call Ziv. He's not expecting me to call. He don't like calls.” After another long minute, he got up and went out, taking the valise with him. He locked the door behind him.

Franko slumped on his chair. What a mistake coming down here! What had he been thinking? But he hadn't been thinking, just reacting. It was time to think. He felt he'd made some kind of impression on the dolt, but he wasn't sure. Bazok was probably calling Vjelko in private, but maybe not. He went back over his own words. He had simply told the lout what he hadn't been able to figure out for himself. He was concerned, however, by the fact that Dedorica had essentially washed his hands of him, had even implied that he, too, thought that Franko might be a spy.

So now what? He got up and walked about the little room, examining it. The door was locked; there were no windows. There was a drain in the floor. He supposed he could piss in that, if he had to. There was no cot, just the desk and a couple of chairs, a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. He sat down to wait. He listened to the muffled shouts, the screams. Doors slammed, clanged. People were taken in and out, protesting, though sometimes it sounded as
if they were being dragged. He heard some distant shots. He'd heard shots earlier, but he had not thought of what they meant, preferring to believe they were fired by soldiers, just high spirits. Who knew what was going on out there?

After an hour, Bazok returned, with the valise. He tossed it at Franko. It was much lighter. “You better get your ass on the road,” he said. “You got your keys?”

“Go where?”

“Wherever you want,” Bazok said. “Italy. Albania. I don't give a fuck, long as it ain't back up to the farm. You got a passport, you can probably get by the checkpoints. I can't give you a pass of any kind. I'd be careful about the back roads. Itchy fingers on the triggers out there,” he said. “I left you some cash. That'll help.” He smiled.

Franko considered the man and his words. It wasn't a good offer, it was just a bait. The suggestion of itchy trigger fingers might be authentic, an attempt to get him to make himself into a running target. He said, “I don't think so.”

“No? Last chance to bail,” Bazok said. “You don't want to end up in a pile with a bunch of
balijas.
It don't smell so good. Smells like shit. They fill their baggy pants when you line 'em up. Blood all over everything. It's a mess. Sure you don't want to skate?”

“I need to go to the farm,” Franko said.

“No way. Too late.”

“It's not too late,” Franko said. “I left some stuff up there.”

“Aha! Okay, now we're talking. Tell me where it is, I'll run up there and get it. It'll be safe with me. In the meantime, maybe I can talk the major into giving you a pass. You could drive to Bosnia … be there by morning, I bet.”

Franko shook his head. “I don't think so. I have to go up there.”

Bazok looked at him shrewdly. “You still thinking about that pussy? That's it, ain't it?” He shook his head, wonderingly. “The
power of pussy! It's stronger than money, they say, but I never thought so. Well, all right—what all you got up there that would make it worth my time and the hassle to ride you up there? 'Cause that's the only way we're gonna get through the troops, bro. We could take the jeep.”

“There's some uncut H,” Franko said. “Some cash. What the hell, you might as well have it, instead of the troops or the KLA. Somebody will find it, eventually. And while you're taking care of your newfound wealth, I'll just take a walk up into the hills.”

“Now you're thinkin',” Bazok said. “See? That wasn't so hard to figure out. If you'd been smart we could of took care a business when it was still easy.”

The situation had worsened while he'd been in the basement, Franko saw. Now there were troop trucks in the town, covered with tarps but with soldiers looking out. He saw an armored vehicle with an antitank gun mounted on it. Civilians were scarce.

“That stuff you told me about being adopted,” Franko said, as they cleared a roadblock and drove up the mountain road, “was that true?” They passed houses that had Serbian markings on them, buildings with sandbags in the doorways. There were little outposts with machine guns and more sandbags.

“Sure it's true,” Bazok said. “You think I'd lie about that? Thelma, she was like a mother to me. The only mother I ever knew. She picked me up on the street in a town near Jajce, somewhere like that.”

“You don't know?”

“Hey, it was a hundred years ago! All right? She worked for US AID, one of those agencies. Say, that reminds me—d'jou see that babe that was here this summer? She was a US AID worker, she said, but that was bullshit. You fuck her, too? I had her a couple a times. She was fuckin' wild! Couldn't get enough of the old two-ball injection.” He grabbed at his crotch and laughed.

Franko tried not to show his utter disbelief of this adolescent boast. “How old were you,” he asked, divertingly. “I mean when Thelma found you?”

“Shit, I don't know. Ten? Twelve? I don't remember much before Atlanta. Just a lot a noise and cold and not much to eat. She was a good woman. A nutcase, but okay.” He drove too fast but tensely alert, looking about constantly.

“These hills,” he explained, when he noticed Franko watching him, “they're full a snipers. They smell the blood. Nah,” he went on, reverting to his story, “I just as soon forget all that shit. Forget Atlanta, too, after the old lady died. Things went to shit there, too. But this”—he gestured at the dark countryside—“this is cool. This is more like it! Somethin's happ'nin', man! Don't you dig it?”

Franko didn't dig it. But he could see that Bazok was excited. He'd seen plenty of young fellows like this, Serbs and Kosovars alike. Rootless, ready for action. He figured the disturbance that so bothered him turned them on—the smell of war, the hint of violence in the air. Maybe it was the promise of an end to the humdrum everyday life that pumped them up.

BOOK: Badger Games
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