Mornings at the Orchid were slow. The building, formed out of several welded cargo boxes, had a cave-like atmosphere, with a long bar, a few screened off rooms, and a perimeter of benches. The kerosene lamps were low, most of the light coming in from the front door, and two skylights. It smelled like rust, cheap booze, and sweat. It would, in Edward Blythe’s opinion, have made an exceptionally good Malaysian dive bar in the days Before.
Edward, not entirely minding his own business, was at his usual table, chosen for its observational benefits. He had a pint of some thin off-brand lager, the height of luxury in this epicurean desert, quickly decarbonating in front of him.
Sergei, followed by a tail of two, wandered in, yawning. He was not yet dressed for the day, and Edward took his time admiring the young man’s broad, contoured musculature rippling under his black tank top. He also took note of the knives in place, one in each boot, and the famous Damascus steel bone-handled bowie knife tucked in a sheath across the small of his back.
His two Lammergeiers went to the bar to order something to eat, but Edward knew for a fact that Sergei rarely bothered with cooked food, or anything prepared by another’s hands. It amused Edward thinking about it, how many cans of tuna must be required to maintain that herculean physique.
From where he was seated, Edward wasn’t exposed, but he wasn’t hidden either. So he wasn’t surprised when Sergei caught his eye, shrugged off his tails, and made his way over, presenting his imposing self at Edward’s table with a cold smile that pulled at the half-healed wound in his face.
Like most everyone else, Edward knew he couldn’t take Sergei in a straightforward contest of strength. But Edward always fought dirty, and always ensured the odds favoured him. If it ever came down to it he’d make the younger man work hard for a victory — a victory would cost him in sight, limbs, or other appendages.
Edward had been trained by the 22 SAS in the kind of fighting that could be accomplished in close quarters, utilizing whatever came to hand. Once, in a raid in a Saudi village that had gone terribly wrong, he’d been forced to kill a man with a hash pipe. In another operation, he’d chased the target into a St. Louis restaurant and ended up using a combination of formica bar top and a shard of fire hardened beef rib to eliminate him.
Sergei, on the other hand, liked a show. He liked an audience. He wouldn’t do the sure thing and corner Edward, or call on help. However, quick and skilled as he was, Sergei knew if he gave him the slightest opening Edward would do something permanent to him. The Russian was smart enough to know that as a crippled predator among the scavengers, he wouldn’t last long.
Between that knowledge and the quality of Edward’s merchandise, they had each cultivated a wary respect of the other. Even a confessional relationship, which Edward encouraged. He wanted Sergei, a peerless bully, to think of himself as having a share in elite warrior status. In reality, Sergei Vetrov was exactly the kind of “elite warrior” that got his parachute cord snipped on the first jump.
“A visit from the komandir himself,” Edward said, toasting Sergei with the last of his flat beer, then drinking the dregs of it down. “I’ve been waiting for your summons.”
“So you could ignore it and make me look like an asshole,” Sergei sneered. “The way you did the other night, when you let the American take the girl.”
Edward smiled and touched the bruised bridge of his nose, which had absorbed most of Delaware Ford’s straight right. Still a lot of gloss on that one, but he could throw a punch.
“You had the message, same as him,” he said, signalling the bartender for another. “First come first served, mate.”
“You’re a funny man,” Sergei said, though he wasn’t smiling. “You don’t really give a fuck, do you?”
“Do you know, Vetrov, I don’t,” Edward replied, now serious. “You may think I build and sell weapons for reasons of material profit, but the truth is that I just want you to keep shooting each other until there’s no one left. So unless you learned something in that boy’s prison of carnal interest to me, why don’t you fuck off?”
Sergei cocked his head like an intrigued canine. “Who the hell is stupid enough to go around talking about that?”
The bartender arrived with another pint, and in addition, a half bottle of vodka and a glass for Sergei. Sergei snatched it off the tray, hooked his foot around a chair and pulled it out, sitting down and filling the glass. Edward waited for the bartender to return to his post.
“Your pa’s old team like to gossip,” he said, then grinned suggestively.
Sergei scrutinized him. He wasn’t exactly sitting at Edward’s table so much as next to it, his legs stretched out, chair tilted slightly back like he was bored in class.
“What else do you know?”
Edward put his lips together and considered the man, then grinned. “All right. But I rather think that ought to be my question. If you want, I could show you how I interrogated Ashram’s man. You might learn something about yourself.”
Sergei ignored the flirtation. “What did Rachel tell you?”
“Nothing of tremendous value. She was frightened, covered in someone else’s blood. She didn’t say as much, but I think she was trying to reach Delaware Ford. He didn’t expect to find her.”
“What did she tell you about me,” Sergei reiterated with emphasis, making Edward wonder if he was concerned with more than just the vanity of hearing about himself.
“I understand why you’ve got it bad for her. In her place I think I’d cut my losses regarding your obvious drawbacks and make the best of you, but you understand that she’s not of our ilk. She’s got her destiny to think about.”
“I am her destiny.” Sergei said it like it was as obvious as a law of physics.
“You’ll have to work harder for that, young man,” Edward said with a smile. “You can’t just murder your way into her affections. If she is your Helen of Troy, you’re going to need a proper war.”
“Against the Americans?” Sergei laughed softly, and took another shot. “Why would I start a war I can’t win? Unless you have something for me.”
“Say I do,” Edward said, lowering his voice. “Say I have feelings of contrition for not delivering the girl into your… loving arms.”
“Say I would be willing to offset value against a large weapons purchase, in consideration of that.”
Sergei let his head drop to the side, giving Edward reason to think the vodka was helping the commander’s mood. “I admit you’re getting me a little hard.”
“Well,” Edward said, leaning back. “I aim to please. Which, by the way, if you want an even steeper discount —”
“But you have good taste,” said the monster with a smile. “That I will give you.”