For three weeks, Jez watched his peers leave for the front while his presence wasn’t even acknowledged by the sergeant. He had to face up to him, and find out why.
“Excuse me, Sergeant Sharansky.”
“Yes, private, come in.”
He bent as he pushed through the flaps and into the tent. “If I may, Sergeant, I’ll get straight to the point.” Sharansky sat back and nodded. “You seem to be of an opinion that I wouldn’t be of much use in the field. I’ve trained KooKooEh ever since I got here and…”
“And?” the sergeant broke in.
He stood further to attention. “Sergeant, I know this war is bitter and casualties high. I just don’t understand why my skills are not put to better use.”
“Oh – a tantrum. The boy isn’t getting his way.”
Rankled, Jez discarded caution. “It’s not like that, Sergeant, no, I…”
“All right… all right,” the sergeant conceded, and lifted a hand to silence him. “We’ve received information of a rooftop party for a group of significant conservative officers. I’ve looked at your records. Seems you can shoot, but you’ve never killed. Do you think you can go the distance?”
Had Sharansky waited for him to make this approach?
“Yes, Sergeant, you’re right, I haven’t killed, but there has to be a first time for everyone. I’m ready, it won’t be a problem.”
“It’d better not be. Get your combat gear together and make sure you’re ready to travel at first light. Don’t worry about weapons, I’ll sort them out.”
Night still contested with day as Jez emerged. The KKE boy sat behind the wheel with Sergeant Sharansky next to him. It was so early that his mind hadn’t kicked in properly, or was it that he hadn’t clipped his belt buckle properly? Whichever, he got in a tangle and fell.
“Don’t worry,” the sergeant said, “you’re not late.” He turned to the driver. “Let’s go.”
Friendly enough, but Jez could’ve sworn he’d sniggered.
Then it got worse. The accelerator hit the metal before Jez had sat down, and he crashed over into the rear seat. This time the sergeant laughed for all he was worth.
“After the boy drops us, it’ll take him an hour to get to his KooKooEh comrades and let them know we’re on our way,” Sergeant Sharansky said. “We’ll have that hour and another three to get to our position and set up. Oh, one more thing: you’re Jez, I’m Viktor, and we’re without rank. You’re trained, so there’s no need to explain.”
“No, Sergeant, sorry, Viktor, but why the time limit?”
“We’ve arranged for KooKooEh to make a diversionary attack on a military village in the town’s suburbs. When their firepower can be heard we must be in position and ready to open fire.”
They hadn’t driven for long when the jeep left the main road in favor of dirt tracks and paths that wound along low gullies and high mountainsides. But now the boy drove tentatively and made sure the vehicle didn’t kick up dust. Eventually they stopped on a hillside and Jez pulled his rattled body from the jeep. A spattering of houses lay to the west, or at least he guessed they were houses: from that distance they looked no more than an anomaly in the terrain. Viktor took a bag from the jeep and the boy drove off without a word.
“Will there be opposition between here and the town, Viktor?”
“There’d better not be, or the mission is over. Until we’re ready to hit, low profile is the name of the game.”
They crept silently over sterile ground, and the nearer they got the more patrols they found to skirt around. When necessary they bellied out, slung the bag over the back of whoever’s turn it was to be mule, and crawled. When they reached the halfway mark, Jez was up on his feet and trotting crouched with the bag over his shoulder.
“You want me to take a turn with that bag?”
“No, it’s not a problem.”
The lifetime of physical training had paid dividends and his body thrived on the workout. But his mind was full of the task ahead: he would kill; that was why he’d trained so hard. It was a necessary step in his military evolution. Even so, sweat popped on his face – and it wasn’t through physical exertion.
They arrived on the town’s outskirts and nestled into a niche at the base of a hill. Viktor took two AK-47 submachine guns from the bag: a recently developed weapon created by a young unknown called Kalashnikov. Jez had trained with the rifle and liked its responses – accurate to 800 meters and still a kill shot at 1,500 meters. Viktor laid the guns side by side and dipped back into the bag. He took out enough ammunition to fill the magazines twice over.
“Load up, Jez. Then take off your trousers and shirt, and fasten the ammunition belt with the spare bullets in front of you.”
Jez relaxed and grinned. “We’re going to look a bit obvious if we walk into town like this.”
Viktor sighed. “We’re not quite finished,” he said. “Sling the gun over your back.”
Jez obeyed, and as Viktor pulled out sandals and a couple of hooded kaftans, the fog cleared.
“Get into these,” he said. “Reports say there are Arabs in the town, so we should go unnoticed.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Well, I don’t think the conservatives will lose any sleep over killing us slowly.”
Reality sobered his thoughts – death was feasible.
“Noticing the AK-47 won’t be a problem as long as you don’t bend to pick anything up in town,” Viktor continued.
Jez held out the kaftan like a girl in a dress shop and nodded. “I could pass as an Arab without the kaftan. And you’re… well weathered.”
He watched Viktor pull the kaftan over his head. His muscular frame could have been a problem, but in the loose-fit garment he just looked fat. Jez grinned.
“Nothing, Viktor, just thinking.”
They moved into side alleys of what Jez presumed was a typical mountain town: houses with dark adobe sun-dried brickwork, mainly flat-roofed but some slanted and tiled. Orange trees bore bitter fruit that had been left to over-ripen and wither. Their skins had already bleached to a pale shade of yellow, and the branches they hung from stretched over sandstone walls to reach for the shade of olive trees, whose aged trunks had bloated to more than a meter in width. These olives lined the street, proudly adorning the sidewalks. Their long, heavy branches provided shade for the passersby, while the white paint around the trunks gave guidance to night traffic.
On a main street, Jez watched donkeys pull rickety carts piled with firewood. Rusted old cars belched blue-black smoke so thick that it rasped the throat. An uncovered army truck chugged by, full of soldiers who looked over-heated as they leaned wearily on their rifles. Vehicles had parked on either side of the road, which slowed the traffic. A black chauffeur-driven convertible stopped just ahead with a military officer sat in the back seat, tapping a swagger stick on his forearm and staring straight ahead. His pompous expression raised the hackles on Jez’s neck. The blonde woman sitting next to him was just the opposite: she craned her neck in every direction and showed interest in all she looked at.
They turned off into a side alley and Jez was glad to leave the mayhem behind; but within a couple of meters he found himself pressed against a wall to let a heavily-laden donkey pass. The large wooden cases that flanked the animal looked over-burdening, but it never faltered. A woman led the beast from the front and stared directly at Jez. Her tanned and shrunken face seemed to admonish him, but then he realized she wasn’t looking at him, but through him.
After several alleyways into town they came to an open plaza where Arab vendors manned vegetable stalls. On the opposite side of the square a number of conservative soldiers hung around, smoking, talking.
“Take my hand, Jez,” Viktor ordered.
“Just do it,” he said with resignation.
Jez took the sergeant’s hand and they walked diagonally across the square. Viktor clung to him and chatted in Greek – or whatever language it was; it all sounded Greek to Jez. They bumped and pushed their way through a throng of people who eagerly cleared their goods in readiness for an evening of freedom.
Halfway across the plaza, anxiety tingled over Jez’s skin as he brushed against a man. Perfumed and smartly dressed, he looked how a key official might. The stock of Jez’s AK had clipped the man’s arm, not hard, but enough for him to reach up and rub it. With face contorted, he stared at Jez in puzzlement, probably wondering how someone so much smaller than him could cause such pain with a minor bump.
Jez brought his hands together and bowed remorsefully. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, using the only Arabic he knew.
“Yes, sir,” Viktor added, “I’m sorry too. This is an idiot boy and I don’t know why I keep him.”
By the look on the man’s face, he hadn’t understood a word. Jez guessed that’s what Viktor thought too, which would be why he turned on Jez, swiped at his head, and pushed him across the square. He continued with the angry charade until they got nearer to the soldiers, he quieted, took Jez’s hand and returned to jabbering. They cleared the square and the handholding abruptly ended.
“That’s a relief,” Jez said. “I like you well enough, but not in that way.”
Viktor laughed warmly. “It’s not unusual for male Arab friends to hold hands. It doesn’t mean the same with them, and we need to blend in as much as possible.”
“Whatever you say.”
The sergeant shook his head and laughed as he took another swipe at Jez. His directions brought them to their first destination: a red sandstone house with off-white steps that led to a door on the first floor.
“Isn’t there someone here to meet us? You can’t just go in without knocking,” Jez said, as Viktor reached the top step and grabbed the door handle.
“Don’t worry, we have all the information we need, enough to get the job done. That way if we’re caught we can’t let anybody down.”
“What if the house is found after we’re done? Won’t that lead to our informant?”
“You ask too many questions. Me, I just get on with what I’m given. Truth is, I don’t know what cover has been set up. I only know what we have to do and how we have to do it.”
The windows were small, but inside was bright because a French door was positioned to catch sunbeams that reverberated on the stark white walls. A ladder to a trapdoor stood against a teak-colored ceiling beam. Jez slipped the kaftan off over his head and removed the rifle. “Oh,” he groaned, and stretched and arched his body. “I’m glad to get rid of that. When I bumped into that man, the gun moved and the stock was stuck between my shoulders.”
“Ah, such a sensitive little button,” Viktor baited.
Jez nearly rose to defend his words until he realized he was being sent up. They sat in underwear, tucking into the Feta cheese and bread that had been left out on the table.
“Right, Jez,” Viktor said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. “We have a good hour before the fireworks begin. According to my information there are a good few rooftops to cross before reaching our position and it’ll be easier to get there while it’s light, so we should make a start right away.”
“That’s not a problem, but do we go in under-shorts and vest? Not a very dignified way to die if we’re caught.”
“Don’t worry about that, there’s no such thing as dignified dying – just dying.”
Maybe, but Jez would prefer it if he had a bit more on than a pair of underpants.
Set against the backdrop of Soviet, post-war Russia, Birth of an Assassin follows the transformation of Jez Kornfeld from wide-eyed recruit to avenging outlaw. Amidst a murky underworld of flesh-trafficking, prostitution and institutionalized corruption, the elite Jewish soldier is thrown into a world where nothing is what it seems, nobody can be trusted, and everything can be violently torn from him.
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Genre - Thriller, Crime, Suspense
Rating – R
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