Today's Reading

The GPS put the sinking inflatable thirty feet inside Russia, moving east toward the American line. Rake eased back his throttle. The patrol boat had used a weapon he recognized as the 7.62-mm general-purpose machine gun, standard issue on Russian coastal vessels. The more powerful heavy machine gun would have been from the Russian island itself, two weapons deployed simultaneously on a border where guns were usually quiet.

The command again: 'Go back, Americans, or we will open fire on you.'

They would not shoot him, thought Rake. Not here, not with the way the American President was cozying up to Russia.

'Distract them,' Rake instructed Mikki. He clipped a rope to his belt, took out his earpiece, sheathed his fishing knife and slipped into the sea. Cold water rushed around him, pumping his heart. He swam, barely breaking a ripple. Mikki turned on a recording they used to irritate Russian border guards, a mix of speeches by Stalin, Gorbachev, Putin, military music, a local Alaska radio talk show, people yelling at each other about Arctic drilling, all jumbled together, speakers turned up full volume.

Rake reached the inflatable. A limp hand, a woman's, hung over the side. He pushed himself up. The rubber tore more, and the craft dipped. Water poured in. She toppled over him, her fingers gripping his, and fell dead-weight into the sea, taking Rake under with her. He surfaced and hooked his arms under hers, lifeguard style. He kicked his way back to the dinghy, using the belt rope to guide him. Blood trailed from her. The sea-water temperature was low enough to kill within minutes. She grasped him, feeling for his hand. She was alive, with energy. Mikki pulled in the rope. Rake swam hard toward the dinghy.

Mikki stretched down, taking her weight from Rake, who let go just as a fist struck the right side of his head, glancing across the temple. Arms wrapped around his neck and dragged him backward. Water flooded into his mouth, catching in his throat, choking him. A second blow smashed into the left side of his head, blurring his concentration.

There were two swimmers, in wetsuits, goggles, oxygen tanks, flippers, the works. One had an arm locked skillfully around his neck. The other had the woman. Water swept over him, the swell from the patrol boat coming toward them, men on deck, shouting instructions.

Rake let himself be taken. They could have killed him. They hadn't, but that didn't apply to the woman. They had shot her with intention to kill. Rake would try to get away once he'd worked out how to neutralize both swimmers simultaneously.

The Russian plan must be to bring back all three of them. They would portray it as a rescue operation for a fishing dinghy in trouble. They would cite the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue under which Russia and America operated. There was cooperation in the Bering Strait, which made what was unfolding so strange and out of place.

A Russian search lamp, bouncing through the fog, succeeded only in splaying light into a glare. The second swimmer let go of the woman. She floated free, probably unconscious, left to die. The swimmer had two hands clasped to the bow of the dinghy to stop Mikki going into the water after her. The patrol boat was close, water splashing through from its propellers. Mikki drew his state-trooper-issue Glock 22.

Unexpectedly, Rake's swimmer turned to look back, his arm loosening enough for Rake to unsheathe his knife. The swimmer saw the glint of steel, lit by the search lamp. Rake's blade moved through the water. Instead of blocking it, the Russian pushed himself back.

'Udachi,' he shouted through the mouthpiece. Good luck.

On the dinghy, Mikki had his pistol poised to fire. But his swimmer let go of the bow, ducking under the water and away, two military frogmen following a sudden reversal of orders to leave. Rake guessed what was happening: forget about the Americans, too much trouble. Deal with the woman, floating between Rake and the dinghy. Her leg kicked. A Russian frogman broke surface inches from her, a knife in his right hand, raised to strike and kill her.

Mikki shot him, three decisive cracks of gunfire from the Glock, one missed, one to the face, one somewhere else that Rake didn't see. He kicked himself forward and rolled onto his back in time to see the second swimmer's knife plunge down against him. Rake caught his wrist and twisted back the knife hand to cut the oxygen connection. The swimmer gasped. His grip weakened. Rake kicked him away. 'Idti!' he shouted in Russian. Go.

Even with his buddy dead, mouthpiece torn away, the Russian didn't go, predictable for a soldier whose mission was unaccomplished. His concentration was skewed enough for Rake to bound forward, wrap his legs around him and pull him in close. He slashed the hand that held the knife and rammed his elbow hard between the man's eyes. His enemy floundered. Rake pushed him away and, looming like a phantom, the Russian boat appeared through the fog, its bow bearing straight down on him. Mikki fired his rifle in deliberate, steady controlled pairs, winging one crewman on deck and shattering the wheelhouse glass. Rake had seen Mikki hit a polar bear at three hundred yards from a dinghy in winter seas. This target was bigger and closer. The machine gun could have torn through Mikki and the dinghy in moments. But it stayed quiet. Rake pushed himself back out of the turbulence of the wake.


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