Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Badger Games

A Detective Sergeant Mulheisen Mystery

by Jon A. Jackson

“It’s great fun to watch characters who began in another series take on a life of their own. . . . There is plenty of action, lots of low-key black humor and Jackson’s perfect ear for the nuances of criminal speech.” –The Chicago Tribune

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date March 19, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3983-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $12.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9956-0
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

A spine-tingling thriller of drug smugglers, rogue CIA agents, veterans of Kosovo, and heavy firepower, culminating in a deadly game of hide-and-seek in an abandoned Montana mineshaft.

Jon Jackson is a master of mystery whose books the Chicago Tribune has called “addictive.” Badger Games finds Jackson at the top of his form, as Joe Service and Helen Sedlacek find themselves in the middle of an international cat-and-mouse intrigue beginning in Kosovo and stretching to the mountains of Montana.

A former freelance contractor to the Mob, Joe Service is now in the employ of the Lucani, a cadre of rogue government agents who have recently lost an operative known only as Franko. Franko, last seen in the path of a drug-smuggling ring in a Kosovar mountain village, was from Montana’so Joe and mafia princess Helen head to Butte to see what they can learn. But they’re not the only ones. A volatile mercenary nicknamed the Badger is also looking for Franko; and the Lucani have sent backup – to help Joe or to contain him, he’s not sure – in the form of a bombshell who rivals Lara Croft for sex appeal and dangerous moves. Taut, masterful, and wickedly clever, Badger Games is a note-perfect thriller from one of the masters of the genre.

Praise

“It’s great fun to watch characters who began in another series take on a life of their own. . . . There is plenty of action, lots of low-key black humor and Jackson’s perfect ear for the nuances of criminal speech.” –Chicago Tribune

“Jackson keeps his crime fiction fresh with sharp characterization, vivid scenes and offbeat humor.” –Douglas Levin, Portland Oregonian

“[In Badger Games] it takes more than a dictionary to sort out one kind of badger from another, and it’s a pleasure to see Jackson resolve it all.” –Michael Helfand, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“The mines and mountains of Montana are the perfect backdrop to Jackson’s masterful and intricately suspenseful plot.” –Big Sky Journal

“In his ninth novel, Badger Games, Jon A. Jackson has created a suspense novel that is sure to keep the reader on his or her toes. With a myriad cast of characters moving from location to location, the reader will be double-checking for who are the good guys and who are the bad ones. . . . As with any good suspense novel, the obvious is not always reality.” –Tom Mayes, I Love a Mystery

Excerpt

A Babe in the Woods

The first time Franko saw her she was walking around Tsamet, clicking snapshots of the minaret like any American or German tourist. She was tall and attractive in a curious mixture of exotic and wholesome. She had her hair pulled back, and the baseball cap she wore had a little opening that allowed her hair to billow out in a brownish-red ball. It reminded him of the hole in the pants of a cartoon character, through which Brer Fox’s tail waved.

She wore faux expedition gear, lots of khaki with many snaps and epaulets and pockets. She left the top buttons undone on the shirt, revealing a formidable cleavage. The pants were relaxed fit, but the seat was well filled out.

When he got back to his crofter’s cottage, up on Daliljaj’s farm, he made a couple of quick pencil sketches of her. They weren’t quite right–he hadn’t gotten the nose or the eyes–but the wide mouth and full lips were okay. Later he had a chance to correct these sketches and ink them in.

He saw her a couple more times in town, or near it, in the next week or so. In the meantime, he went fishing, as usual. It was handy for making his connections with the smugglers. The farmers hereabouts were used to seeing him walking in the fields, or the woods, along the streams, usually after parking his battered old Subaru Out­back near a little stone bridge. He would have his ­knapsack with his sketchbook and lunch in it, binoculars for bird-watching, his creel, and his fishing vest and would carry his rod. And soon he would be casting into the stream, wandering across the fields, climbing fences, stalking trout, birdwatching, sketching. “The Naturalist,” they called him.

Under the bridge he would find the goods that had been left for him. They would go into the creel, or the backpack. Later, usually far upstream, where the stream ran through the wooded glades, he would encounter the young fellows to whom he passed the goods, with their instructions for delivery. Then he would go on.

He caught many trout. Very few people fished for trout in these parts. He was fascinated by these fish. They were small and easy to catch. He tied his own flies streamside, based on the insects he observed, using a handy portable device. And he would sketch the little trout. Some of them were an undescribed species, or at least a subspecies, that he couldn’t find in the taxonomic records. They had greenish flanks with unusual vermiform markings on their backs. Most of them he released, but he always kept a few to give to his landlord, Daliljaj. He drew meticulous pictures of their guts, their organs, the insects they were dining on. He measured them carefully, and weighed them with a little hand-held instrument.

He sketched everything on his almost daily fishing hikes: the views of the mountains, the houses, the farmers, the farmers’ kids, the bridges, the haystacks, the stiles that got one over the rough stone fences–each farmer built different kinds of bridges, stacked his hay differently, had his own idea of a proper stile. But mostly he sketched wildlife: birds, marmots, foxes, the rare badger snuffling through a field, and especially the fish.

One day he was sketching a small trout and he’d brought along some watercolors, to try to capture the vividness of the green flanks, the red and blue flecks, before the color faded, as it did too quickly. He was in a little sunny clearing in the woods, barely a foot from the pebble-bottomed stream where he’d caught this fish–sitting on a crude bridge over it, in fact.

This was a bridge he’d sketched before: just some roughly hewn logs thrown across the stream and planks nailed to it. But the farmer who used it to get from one meadow to another had made a rough railing with extra logs, perhaps to make sure that his reckless sons didn’t drive the tractor into the creek, and had planed off a place to sit.

The stream skirted the edge of the woods. It was only knee-deep in most places, but there were chest-deep pools, one close by, where he had caught the trout. Small, colorful stones lined the stream.

He was concentrating and didn’t see the woman until she stepped onto the bridge. It was the American woman, whom by now he had learned was a representative of the American foreign-aid agency.

“Hi,” she said, and sat on the opposite railing to watch while he quickly finished the sketch and made some daubs of color in the proper spots, as a guide for later.

Franko set the book aside with the pages open to dry and said, “Hello.”

“Can I see?” she asked, coming across to reach for the book.

He let her have it. “That paint is still a little wet,” he said. He was gratified to see that she handled the book carefully, ­holding the freshly painted page open and merely glancing back at other pages. Up close, he saw that she was at least partly African-­American, but her skin was very pale, like old ivory, and she had freckles. Her eyes were brown, with gold flecks.

“Is this me?” she said, finding an earlier sketch. ‘do I really look like that? What a big butt you think I have!” She turned her rear toward him, mockingly. She was wearing khakis, as usual.

“It’s just a quick sketch,” he said. “Here, let me fix it.”

“Oh no, you’re right,” she said, smiling. “I do have a big butt.”

“Not at all,” he said.

‘some men are crazy for big butts,” she said. “Ah, here’s that Romeo kid. He’s very handsome. What eyes! Oh ho, and here’s a buxom lass. What’s that line of Walton’s, about the trout in the milk?”

“It’s Thoreau,” he said. “‘some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.””

“Is that from Walden? Maybe that’s how I got it wrong.”

“I think it’s from the Journal,” he said.

“Well, this picture is a trout in the milk,” she said. She showed him the picture, which he knew well. It was of a farm girl named Fedima–Daliljaj’s daughter, in fact–and she was nude from the waist up. She was washing her upper body by a stream. “You don’t want this to fall into the hands of the farmer.”

He looked rueful. “It was quite an innocent occasion, I swear. I just happened to see her. I couldn’t resist the sketch–when I got home.”

“I’ll bet,” the woman said. She handed the book back. ‘so, what are you doing up here, spying on farm girls?”

“I’m not usually that lucky,” he said, setting the book down beside him on the railing seat. He bent down to wrap the fish in ferns and started to place it in his creel. Instead, he said, “Would you like a fish?”

‘my best offer of the day,” the woman said. “But no thank you. It’s way too circumstantial. Well, what are you doing?”

“I’m fishing,” he said.

“Is that why you meet the young men in the woods?” she said. “You’re not gay, are you?”

“Certainly not.”

“I didn’t think so, with your eye for farm girls. I was just trying to get under your skin.”

She was quite close, propped on one knee on the seat to look over his shoulder at the picture of the trout again. He was uncomfortable, but he didn’t want to move away.

“Would you like to sketch me?” she said.

“I’d love to.” He picked up the sketchbook. “This picture is dry,” he said, leafing over to a fresh page.

She sat down across the way. ‘maybe you can get the nose right,” she said.

He began a preliminary line with a pencil. In a moment of daring, he said, “Or the butt.”

The woman laughed. “You’re asking to see my butt?”

“Just joking,” he said.

“I don’t mind,” she said. She stood up and began to unbuckle her belt, then looked about, cautiously. “Perhaps not here. There’s always someone around that you don’t notice until too late, isn’t there?”

But there was no sign of anyone. They were alone on the little bridge. A copse of willow trees blocked the meadow to the west, and the little dirt road, after crossing the bridge, disappeared into a thicket to the east.

The woman stepped down from the bridge and wandered along it. He hastily assembled his gear and followed. She came to an old stone wall, now generally fallen down. Here she stopped, glanced around, and swiftly removed her boots, her pants, and her shirt. She wore no underwear. It was all he could do not to gasp. She had a fine, full-figured body.

“How’s this?” she said, sitting in the sun on some moss. She leaned back gingerly against the rough wall, stretched her arms along the stones, and languorously extended her legs. She spread them well apart, one knee drawn up, assuming a frankly wanton posture.

The sexiness of the pose was enhanced and mocked by the fact that she hadn’t removed her baseball cap. He sketched very rapidly, eager to capture her careless sensuality. He was also fighting to suppress an uncomfortable erection. His problem was not unobserved by his model.

“Should we do something about that?” she said, with a sly smile.

He sketched the smile. It was perfect. ‘do you think that would be a good idea?”

“Too late,” she said, rising to her feet abruptly. She nodded toward the bridge, not so very distant. A tractor could be heard approaching. “What did I tell you?” She sighed and stooped to gather her clothes. Before she stepped into the shelter of the trees to dress, she looked over her shoulder and said, “How’s the butt? Too big?”

He stood and stared after her, unable to think of a suitable reply. Should he go into the woods with her? Was this an invitation? But no, she was dressing rapidly.

“Ciao,” she said, and disappeared just as the tractor issued out of the copse of willows and started onto the bridge.

Franko glared at the tractor with real loathing. The man on it did not see him. He was turned on the seat, his back to Franko, to make sure that the old and decrepit wagon that dragged behind, loaded with fire logs, tracked properly. He was quickly over the bridge and out of sight.

Franko looked back into the woods, hopefully. The woman was gone, of course.

It had become a habit of Franko’s to take his morning coffee in the yard, literally the barnyard of his landlord, Vornuto Daliljaj. This was not as unappetizing as it might seem. It had been a long time since the barnyard had been used by animals, although a faint and not unpleasant aroma was still detectable. It was a large, open ground nominally enclosed with a dilapidated wooden fence as well as the battered walls of some sheds, the old barn, and the cottage. It was a staging area for farm implements, but it had an aspect of privacy. One might almost describe it as a kind of bucolic plaza, populated by a few strolling, garrulous chickens and the silent, prowling cat.

The east wall of the old stone cottage Franko occupied also served as part of the enclosure. In fact, if one looked closely one could see where an overlarge doorway or opening in this wall had been reduced with later stonework, not quite in the style of the original, less crude and using a finer mortar. A conventional door was mounted in the newer opening.

Franko figured that animals used to be housed in the stone cottage. He wondered if it had been the bullpen, in fact, where a cow was introduced to the sire of her calves. Probably the entry had been reduced at the same time the wooden floor was installed, to create housing for farmhands, or another family. There was a definite air of the byre about the cottage. It also had a front door, which gave onto the area outside the barnyard.

Franko had found a weathered wooden bench that he set next to the barnyard door. The crude, unfaced stone wall behind the bench had been plastered with stucco in some long ago past, so that now it had a pleasant tawniness that took the morning sun very well, warm but not glaring. It was nice to sit on this bench and lean one’s back against the warm stucco, particularly now, in this good fall weather when there was a hint of frost in the morning air.

From this bench Franko could look past the barn, the tackle shed now used to store tractor parts, a dilapidated jakes, and down the sectioned fields to the east, down the mountainside to where a minaret poked up above the treetops. Then one’s eye rose to distant ridges, other farms half-hidden among the trees. There was often a wisp of mist rising out of the trees, mingling with smoke from chimneys, and generally, as one’s eye approached the horizon, the air thickened and blurred into a grayish blue.

“Look away, look away . . . Dixieland” were the words that came to his mind when he saw this. But it was hardly a southern landscape–almost exactly the same northern latitude as his native Montana, six or seven thousand miles to the west.

Franko sometimes brought out his notebook and sketched the view. He thought moments like these were made for smoking a pipe. But he had never taken up smoking. So he just gazed and thought, allowing himself to come fully awake.

Montana was also mountain country, but it was not much like this. These mountains were not as large as the mountains around Butte, not as clearly a part of a huge, distinct range. But maybe it only seemed so, he thought, because these valleys were smaller, not so grand and sweeping. The mountains here were rugged and precipitous, but somehow not such massive structures. And then, he thought, it could be that it was just lower here, with the Adriatic not more than eighty miles away, as the raven flew, beyond another mountain range at his back.

These thoughts were pleasantly dislodged by the appearance of the daughter of Daliljaj, very pretty and dark-eyed Fedima, who was only eighteen and looked remarkably elegant to Franko’s mind in her head scarf, blue jeans, heavy sweater, and rubber Wellington boots. She was the crown of his morning pleasure.

She tramped across the old, rough, but well-flattened and sunbaked yard carrying his coffee in a little brass pot. She had ground the beans herself, he knew, in a tubular brass device with a handle on the top, and had poured the hot water over it to steep. It was very strong, but Franko had learned to like it. It was also too sweet, but he tolerated that as well.

It always happened, he noticed, that within a few moments of Fedima’s appearance around the stone side of the old granary, another person could usually be seen–remote but not too far off, not so close as to require even a casual wave, ostensibly uninterested in the conjunction of Fedima and Franko. Often this person was old Daliljaj himself, though frequently it was his wife, or even one of Fedima’s brothers. But there would be someone, just a black image on the perimeter of Franko’s vision, a crow or raven, as it might be, attending to some useful but not evidently pressing business.

Today, it was old Daliljaj, repairing part of the fence that formed the other part of the entry. He was winding a length of baling twine from an old fence post to the gatepost. And at that moment, the world changed forever.

A large, brutal-looking man in a paramilitary uniform walked up to Daliljaj and kicked the gate free of his hands.

“That your fucking tractor out on the road, balija?” the fellow demanded loudly.

The old man gaped. Nobody, not even a Serbian cop, talked to the old man like that. The term balija was derisive and contemptuous, and hadn’t been heard in these parts until quite recently. Certainly not up in this mountain village, where the Daliljajs had been farming for generations.

The cop didn’t even have a real uniform, just some foolish camo outfit. Was he even an officer? What was his rank? Something about the oaf’s grinning face made the farmer hesitate.

“What is the problem?” he said, careful not to address the policeman with disrespect but also not to honor him with a title like sergeant or lieutenant, which might not properly apply.

“The problem is that it’s parked in the road,” the cop said. He looked about the compound in a way that suggested he was taking inventory. He raised an eyebrow at the figure of Daliljaj’s daughter, Fedima. Like a good Muslim woman, she immediately vanished into Franko’s house, leaving behind the coffeepot sitting on the bench next to Franko. A moment later she exited from the other door and presumably went to the farmhouse, via a route shielded from the eyes of the men in the yard.

“Who are you?” the cop said to Franko, who stood up and approached the gate.

Franko was cautious. He’d heard about this fellow from Captain Dedorica, the police chief in Tsamet. He was called Bazok, and he was the informal leader of a handful of such men, sent down from Belgrade to “assist” the local police chief. Captain Dedorica’s information had been sketchy. Franko had meant to press Dedorica about it, but he’d forgotten.

“I live here,” he said.

Bazok nodded. “Oh yeah,” he said. “You the one they call Franko? I want to talk to you.” He turned to Daliljaj. ‘move the tractor. You can’t leave it on the road.”

“Nobody ever complained before,” Daliljaj said. “There is no traffic–it’s not in the way.”

‘move the fucking tractor, balija,” Bazok snarled, the smile icy now. When Daliljaj went off, he turned to Franko and said, “Where’s your place?”

Franko shrugged and led him back through the gate and across the barnyard. He stopped and pointed to the old stone cottage with a new metal roof. Suddenly seeing it through a stranger’s eyes, Franko thought it didn’t look like much–a miserable hovel. The stone had been laid in a style that he had known at home as “pudding stone”; that is, a crude frame of wood was erected, and stones were simply dropped into a thick pudding of cheap, sandy mortar. These old walls had a tendency to fall down after fifty or sixty years, but someone had kept this one repaired. Of course, if it had been a bull pen that would account for the extra-thick walls.

Bazok gestured for Franko to go ahead and took a step toward the house himself, but stopped when Franko did not move.

“We can talk here,” Franko said. He wasn’t sure how receptive he should be to this fellow. Was he actually a cop, or some kind of unwarranted deputy? In Montana a man didn’t just walk onto another man’s land in the way that Bazok had, unless he was armed and visibly authorized with a badge and a uniform, to say nothing of an official, legal paper. This guy looked to be about twenty-two or twenty-three, big and beefy but with a few complexion problems still and not too handy with a razor. Even so, one was not in Montana. It wouldn’t hurt to play along, tentatively.

Bazok looked at him, sizing him up. Franko was not a big man, not within six inches of his own height or fifty pounds of his weight, but a sturdily built man in his late thirties. Like most of the men in these villages, he had black hair, dark eyes, a thick black mustache. Bazok was not impressed.

“Come,” Bazok said. “I have to discuss private things.”

Franko realized then that Bazok was not a Serb. He spoke the language all right, but there was something unnatural about his usage, as if he was not quite comfortable with it. It occurred to him that the man was an American. In English, he said, “What’s the big deal?”

Bazok broke into a genuine grin. “All right,” he said, in good American. He grabbed Franko’s right hand with his own and clapped him on the shoulder. “They didn’t tell me you were from the States. Where you from, dude?”

Franko managed a faint smile but wrenched his hand free and stepped back from Bazok’s near embrace. Without glancing around he gauged whether there were any Kosovars anywhere near. He didn’t think so; none of Daliljaj’s sons or cousins would be in the compound at this time, and he was pretty sure that Fedima had gone to the house. Still, it wouldn’t do to appear too chummy with this clown.

“I’m from out West,” Franko said. “Butte.”

“No shit,” Bazok said. “I been there. I rode a freight through Butte once. Burlington Northern, eh? Friendly people in Butte, they don’t hassle you. So what’re ya doin” here, hangin” out with these hankyheads? You don’t look like no Taliban–you ain’t a fuckin” terrorist, are you?” He laughed and prodded Franko’s stomach playfully.

Franko frowned. “You must have heard about me, from Captain Dedorica,” he said.

“Oh, sure,” Bazok nodded. “You’re the friendly neighborhood dope peddler. That’s why I stopped by.”

Franko suppressed a sigh of depression. So that was it. This oaf wanted to be cut in on Dedorica’s “business tax.” He considered it. He supposed he had no choice. If Dedorica had seen fit to inform this guy, then it probably meant amending the agreement. The question was how much, and whether this meant that Dedorica now got correspondingly less for not keeping his mouth shut. But. . . . He had a second thought: who was this guy, really? Why an American? Something was amiss.

He nodded at the door, a slight motion. “If you insist,” he said in Serb. As he’d hoped, the cop caught on. He pushed Franko forward, his huge hand on his back. Even if no one seemed to be around, there were always eyes. Franko was more comfortable with an appearance of being coerced. He could not afford any suspicion from the Kosovars.

Like any such house of its type and vintage, Franko’s croft was not well lit. There were few windows, and the electrical wiring was a single exposed conduit. It ran an old battered refrigerator, and there was an outlet from which extension cords served a radio, a reading light by the so-called easy chair, and another reading lamp clamped to the bed frame. A single light bulb dangled from the center of the ceiling.

The interior was essentially one room, perhaps four paces wide and twice as many long. The kitchen area took up one end, with a sink and a counter for preparing food. A narrow window looked out onto the path that led around the granary toward the main house. There was no running water, no drain system, and certainly no toilet. A bucket stood on the rough wooden floor near the sink. Another bucket under the sink caught the waste. Around an old, scarred wooden table covered with an oilcloth stood some mismatched wooden chairs.

At the other end of the room stood the metal frame bed with a single mattress, some rumpled blankets. In between was a ratty old overstuffed chair with a table next to it, on which were stacked a few books–a Serbian dictionary, a mystery novel with a black cover and a French title. A reading lamp stood nearby. It had a battered paper shade. Clothes were scattered on the floor, more hung from a rod affixed in a corner.

“Pretty cozy,” Bazok said, with no apparent sarcasm, peering about with interest. Suddenly, he thrust out his hand. “Hey, the name is Boz.” He pronounced it “Bozh.” “Back in the States, they call me “Badger.” But over here, it’s Bozi Bazok.”

“Badger?” Franko said. “Is that what that animal is?” He gestured toward the ferocious, snarling beast on the patch that decorated Bazok’s baseball cap.

“Yah,” Bazok said, proudly. “But I got the name from this.” He lifted his cap to reveal thick black hair that was cut in a stiff brush. In the center of the brush was a tuft of white hair. “I had that since I was a kid,” he said, ‘so in Georgia, they called me Badger. Mark of the beast, my old lady used to say. It fits.” He grinned, displaying a lot of white teeth.

He pointed at the loft, to which a ladder led. “What’s up there?”

“Storage,” Franko said. He leaned against the counter. “Go ahead, look.”

Bazok climbed the ladder until his head was above the level of the loft floor. There were boxes, a suitcase, an old television set. “What’s in the boxes?” he called over his shoulder.

“Junk–it was here before.”

Bazok climbed down. “How long you been holed up here?”

“Six months, maybe more.”

“You don’t watch the tube?”

“They don’t carry the ballgames,” Franko said, sourly. “I’m not interested in propaganda.” Lately, the Serbian television stations had been spewing anti-Muslim “news’ broadcasts and special programs extolling the regime.

“Nice radio,” Bazok said, nodding at the fancy Telefunken broadband radio sitting on the kitchen table. Franko didn’t respond. ‘so, where do you keep the shit?”

“What shit would that be?”

“The dope.”

“I don’t have any dope,” Franko said. He was sure that Dedorica would not have suggested to the young cop that narcotics were readily available here. But maybe the cop was just asking a cop question. “When were you in Butte?”

“A couple years ago.” Bazok aped a southern accent: “Just kickin” around the country. Ah’m from Atlanta, originally.”

“Really? You speak pretty good Serb,” Franko observed.

“Actually, I was born in Yugoslavia,” Bazok said. “I think. I got adopted by an American lady. Grew up in Atlanta. But I got tired of it and hit the road when I got old enough. You grow up in Montana? That’s nice country. I liked it. It’s a little like this, the mountains and all.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that,” Franko said. “This is more like West Virginia, Appalachia, don’t you think?”

Bazok nodded. “Yeah, I can see it. Well, listen, we gotta talk.”

“What about? I’m happy to meet a fellow Yank, even one from Atlanta, but I’ve got to be cool. These folks don’t exactly dig Serb cops, you know.”

“Hey, I’m cool, dude. I’m not gonna blow your cover, Frankie. The deal is, I know the bros, in Belgrade. Ziv and them. They said to look you up.”

“Zivkovic?” Franko was suprised. “How do you know these people?” He thought it was interesting that they hadn’t told Bazok that he was an American. It suggested that they hadn’t been totally open with Bazok, for whatever reason, but he didn’t bring that up.

“I met ’em in the States,” Bazok said. “That’s how I got to this fuckin” shithole country. I’m part of their posse. Then I got into this vigilante gig.” He gestured at his outfit. “It was Ziv’s idea. It’s a good scam.” He laughed. “I’m kind of diggin” it. But it’s a long story.”

“I’d like to hear all about it,” Franko said. He was sincere. “But not here, not right now. Maybe I could meet you in town, in Tsamet. At a beer garden, maybe. Or, I know, I could come by the station. We could talk.”

“Yeah, that’s okay,” Bazok said. “But the news is there’s some heavy shit going down. You wanta get your show ready for the road. In a couple of days you don’t wanta be here.”

Franko was stunned. “What kind of operation? When?”

“I’m not sure, but it’ll be heavy, is the word,” Bazok said. “The army will be along pretty quick, in a day or two, maybe sooner. I got the feeling, though, that they’ll have me and some other outfits like mine do the dirty, at first anyway. Ziv found out about it, he called me.” He tapped his breast pocket, evidently where he kept his cell phone. “You got one of these? What’s your number?” Franko gave it to him. “All right, I’ll give you a buzz.”

“I’ve got to know how soon,” Franko said. He looked out the kitchen window toward the barn, the lane, the orchard. No one seemed to be about, but he felt uneasy in the house with the thug. The big question was how much Zivkovic had told this guy. “I’ve got shipments, things scheduled. I can’t just pick up and run.”

“It’s gonna get jungly,” Bazok said. He sounded excited. He came over to where Franko was and stood too close; his breath was foul. “They’ll be putting up roadblocks pretty soon. Your shipments won’t be coming in or going out. You gotta think like you might have to just walk, leave everything. I’ll try to get up here first, make sure there’s nothin” too suspicious layin” around. Prob”ly have to torch the house. See what I mean?”

This was serious. Franko thought of Fedima. He’d have to get her out. That wouldn’t be easy. He had to think. Maybe he could get Daliljaj to go too. That would probably be best. Get up into the hills, to the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), maybe. Daliljaj would have contacts; they could get over into Montenegro, maybe, or down to the coast. Maybe get out through Albania.

“I can’t just walk away,” Franko said. “There are people due in here, valuable goods to consider.”

“I gotcha,” Bazok said. “But like I say, I doubt that your people will be gettin” through. When the shit starts, it’ll come down like a storm outta the hills. You don’t want to be thinkin” about your business. C’mon, let’s get outta here.”

Outside, the cop took a deep breath of the mountain air. He looked around. “That your car?” He nodded at the beat-up Subaru Outback. “I thought you’d have something with some jump to it– you’re makin” a ton here. A Cherokee, maybe even a fuckin” Humvee.”

“It runs,” Franko said. “That’s what passes for a good vehicle in these parts.”

“Ah,” Bazok said, nodding, enlightened. “You don’t want to make too big a scene out here in the sticks. But you got to be thinkin” about haulin” your shit down to the barracks, tonight.”

“Tonight!” Franko didn’t like the sound of that. Deliver close to a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of raw opiates to this doofus in his barracks? Not likely.

“It’s happenin”,” Bazok said. His face was big and grinning, like a jack-o’-lantern. He was not an ugly guy, if he could think to keep that menacing grin off his face–the teeth mirrored the badger image on his patch.

“What about my people?” Franko said.

“What people? I told you. . . . oh, you mean these balijas? What the fuck do you care? Whoa, I get it. You’re shaggin” the ginch. I seen her, not a bad little piece of ass. What’s her name, Fatima or something?”

Furious, Franko stepped toward the grinning oaf, fists clinched. Suddenly the cop’s boot shot out and slammed Franko’s right leg on the side of his knee, causing it to buckle. The cop caught him by the hair, burying his powerful fingers in it, while his other hand wrenched Franko’s right arm around behind his back.

“You fuckin” dog,” Bazok growled loudly in Serb. “I ought to kick your fuckin” ass and haul you down to the station.” He bore Franko to the ground, facedown, with his knee on his back. He knelt to rasp in his ear, “How can you fuck something like that? I’ll bet she’s as hairy as a coon.” He stood up but held Franko down, pinned with a heavy boot. “You get your ass down to the station this p.m., shithead. Don’t make me come back up here lookin” for your sorry ass. And you,” he snarled at Daliljaj, who had come around the side of the barn, ‘did you move that fuckin” tractor? All right.”

He kicked Franko playfully in the butt, then strode off, taking a lazy swipe at Daliljaj, who ducked. He laughed and walked out to the road and got into his police jeep and drove off.

Daliljaj rushed to help Franko up. “Are you all right?” he asked anxiously.

“I’m okay,” Franko said, standing up and brushing himself off. “Filthy bastard. He didn’t hurt me.”

“What did he want?”

“Just throwing his weight around, I guess,” Franko said. “Listen, my friend, I must go down to Tsamet. It’ll be all right. Dedorica won’t allow anything serious. But I’m concerned about you, and your family. This man’s behavior concerns me–something unpleasant must be happening.”

“You don’t worry about us,” Daliljaj said. “You mustn’t say anything to Dedorica.” He looked fierce. “We can take care of ourselves. We have friends.” He looked toward the forested mountains about them. “These pigs, they will pay.”

The old man was not really very old, just into late middle age. He was short but stocky, a powerful man. He knew that Franko was dealing contraband, but he wasn’t sure what it was. It didn’t pay to inquire too closely. He also suspected that Fedima was attracted to the man, but he didn’t believe that it had gone very far. He could not allow that, although he liked the American. Franko was not a Believer. It would not do. Still, the patriarch understood women: they had no control over their passions. A man had to govern them. The American was a good man, as foreigners go, but had no morals, of course; that was certain. It was up to Daliljaj to see that nothing foolish went on. A little flirtation, that was ­nothing.

Sometimes, though, he had thought that maybe Fedima should marry this American, go to his country. Things were getting bad here. He and his people would survive; they would rise up, take Kosovo. He was a Believer, but he was a practical man, after all. If the American wanted the girl and took her with him when he went–and he was sure that Franko would go, he had always known that–then perhaps that would be all right, even though the man was not a Believer. At least he wasn’t a Serb–he might have the name of a Serb, but he was not a Serb. She would be safer with the American when things got really bad. A woman in Kosovo, a Muslim woman, was always in danger from the Chetniks. But the American could not have her here. That would not be right. It would make Daliljaj look bad, although the American was well liked.

“I have a bad feeling,” Franko said. “This Serb, he is too bold. If he can behave like this, it means that something evil is coming.”

“Oh yes, the evil is coming,” Daliljaj said. “But you need not fear for us, my friend. We will be all right. Besides, the bashi-bazouk is not a Serb. Couldn’t you tell? He’s a German, I think.” He was being polite, distinguishing the policeman from his tenant.

Bashi-bazouk? You mean like a Turk? A terrorist?”

“No, no,” the old man laughed. “That’s what they call him and his men, but it is a bad joke, I think. The Chetniks will use him and his friends like dogs, to hunt the Kosovars. But they will be the first to die.”

Franko was depressed by this bravura rhetoric. The farmers were fierce men, bold men, but they were farmers. He had seen what kind of weapons they had–old rifles from World War II, a crazy confidence in knives. Against AK-47s, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, they had no chance.

He spent the afternoon relocating his goods, especially the cash. There were some secure places to stash things back beyond the home pasture, in the woods, among the caves in the rocks. He got together a practical kit of passport, money, and a handgun. It was a plausible kit, one that the foolish cop would approve. Then he drove into town.

Excerpted from Badger Games

©2002 by Jon A. Jackson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.