Near Bistrishko Branishte; approx. 1 hour outside of Sofia, Bulgaria
As Mycroft had been so fond of saying, “There is no such thing as a 'simple op'. If there were, we would hardly need agents to carry them out as the garden variety patrol officer would readily serve.” Not that the statement was entirely true. Certainly a clandestine trip through Bulgaria, transporting several crates of illegal pharmaceuticals, drifted well away from “simple” and edged into “complicated” territory. However, within the greater scope of his mission, Sherlock could label this, at least marginally, average.
The recipient of said pharmaceuticals was Valery Kulikov; who was currently in exile after an unfortunate incident involving both the wife and sister of a Croatian emissary. That incident, alone, while embarrassing, would not have been enough to send him from his homeland. However, getting caught by the emissary, resulting in a physical clash that had ultimately hospitalized the emissary with near fatal injuries, certainly had been grounds for punitive action. Had Kulikov been of lower rank and had his father not been highly placed within the Kremlin's inner circle it is likely he'd have been taken to a desolate location, far from observing eyes, and quietly shot. Enough money and influence, it would seem, could buy a stay of execution for nearly any offense.
The battered pea green cargo truck had both a shortage of legroom as well as a dearth of reasonable suspension. Sherlock did his best to stretch his limbs within the confines of his allotted space and shot envious looks towards the wealth of free movement available to his traveling companion. Anthea, being of average stature, could nigh curl on her side for a kip if she were willing to pillow her head on the driver's lap – of which the driver, for all of his appreciative glances, would likely have been amiable.
Fresh, heavy snow overlay deep ruts and made for a good deal of swallowed cursing as their driver made no attempt to slow their passage over the caverns of ice and mud. Sherlock genuinely feared for their cargo; a concern that was clearly not shared by Radko as he launched into a tune that was loud, off-tune, and aggressively Pop. About the only thing positive that could be said for their journey was that it was nearing an end.
Twelve days previously, Sherlock had been in Romania after spending 3 weeks infiltrating one of Moriarty's installations in Petroșani. It had cost him two broken fingers and a small knife wound along his ribs as well as nearly being buried in one of the city's coal mines; several of which Moriarty had converted into a smuggling hub. He'd come off comparatively unscathed, all things considered. His fingers would need to remain strapped for another two weeks; compromising the use of his right hand. However, the current assignment was not meant to be terribly complex nor taxing. A cog in the machine and a small one, at that. In fact, he'd been fully prepared to tackle it alone; as he'd been forced to do after his original partner had been... well, suffice to say he was unavailable. So, he'd been unprepared to enter his temporary M16 flat to find Anthea waiting for him on the couch casually flipping through crap telly. Protestations to the side he'd been pleased as well as, unexpectedly, relieved to find she would be accompanying him on the next leg. Their cover was simple enough; drug runners working for the large facility in Romania who had barely escaped the destruction of the mine. It had the benefit of being partially true and with the size of the workforce it was almost laughable the ease with which they were able to insert themselves within the delivery network. Anthea was an unknown; Sherlock was fairly certain that even Moriarty had never met her. As for Sherlock, he'd made a few subtle changes to his appearance; hair trimmed, dyed a dark chestnut, and slicked back straight from his scalp with heavy product to control the natural curl. He'd also gone with his darkest contacts; making his eyes nearly black and, admittedly, somewhat ominous. The job itself was likewise simple, on the face of it. Valery Kulikov was one of many facilitators of the high grade illicit drugs formerly being produced by the coal mines in Petroșani. While not a big player in Moriarty's web, he happened to be a known associate of someone significantly higher on the importance list; Sebastian Moran. Sherlock had lost track of Moran some months previously; which had resulted in grievous injury on his part and weeks of recovery.
Thick tyres heaved over the final hill to reveal the small complex of rough buildings ahead. It was a dichotomy to hop down from the truck and approach the white washed wood structures that resembled nothing so much as a homey ski lodge. There were several men in heavy white parkas carrying automatic weapons but none of them appeared to be on alert and a few were gathered near one of the outbuildings smoking and chatting together. The only true disruption to the odd peace was the uproar of barking dogs coming from a large fenced run outside the main building. The dogs were all of a similar breed; large, heavy, thick-coated, and somewhat resembling mastiffs.
“Caucasian Ovcharka! Beautiful, eh?” A voice shouted from the doorway of the main building. Valery Kulikov was not a large man; standing only around 5'9”. However he was at least 18 stone; much of it carried in his belly. At his side was a massive, jet black dog that appeared none too pleased at their arrival; lips pulled slightly away from its teeth and its warning growl audible even from several meters. Kulikov thumped the dog happily on its shoulders though, Sherlock was relieved to note, he kept a strong grip on the chain leash attached to the beast's collar. “This is Zuby! Don't worry; he only bites SVR pigs.” His laugh shook his form. Anthea moved to stand alongside Sherlock; her manner shifting slightly in the presence of their target.
“Oh, he's absolutely lovely! You know, I've always adored dogs; my father raised wolfhounds when I was a child...”
While she engaged Kulikov, Sherlock followed the driver, as well as six of Kulikov's men, to the back of the truck to supervise the unloading of the shipment. With his injured fingers he was unable to help with the crates. However, he made certain to seemingly look over each one carefully to check for damage while surreptitiously removing a small canvass bag from one of the crates and easing it into a dark corner in the brief moments he was unobserved. By the time the crates had been moved to the storage shed, Kulikov and Anthea had progressed into the main complex. Sherlock was left on his own to follow after; reinforcing the lax manner of the facility.
Stripping his gloves as he entered, he was washed in the warm scent of the building. It stank of something wild – an animal stench not unlike a slaughterhouse though nowhere near as potent. Beneath that raw beast odor were clashing notes of scented candles that did nothing to mask the retch and, in fact, created a nauseating layer of artificial vanilla and wax. Well used to hiding his reactions, Sherlock endured it without so much as a twitch of his nose.
The men standing guard just inside the doors were of a much different manner than those lingering outside. Stone-faced, alert, they stood with their legs spaced wide and rifles held across their chests at an angle. Large, high calibre pistols sat in holsters at their hips and long knives were strapped mid-thigh with small blades near the ankle. No doubt there were more weapons out of sight.
No need for a guide as the sound of Kulikov's laughter led him to a dining room just off from a den filled with dozens of animal mounts; primarily boars and stags, though a massive elk held pride of place above an equally massive fireplace. Passing through the overt celebration of the hunt, Sherlock found Anthea sitting at the far end of a long table; on the corner near Kulikov's right side. The left side of the man was taken up by his massive dog; which gave a warning wuff as Sherlock entered; stopping all movement as the dog eyed him with a lethal stillness.
Kulikov muttered something fierce to the animal and jerked hard on its leash; though the dog didn't relax so much as a toe.
“Come! Come and sit! Zuby won't harm you. He's mostly all bark. Very little bite unless I tell him,” he chortled in robust Bulgarian. Dubious as to Kulikov's ability to hold back 100 kilos of furious death were Zuby inclined towards mauling, Sherlock, nonetheless, took the seat to Anthea's right.
“Alena was telling me of your troubles at the Caves.” As the man spoke, a young woman approached the table; no more than fourteen or fifteen. She had a platter of bread and meat in her hands which she set before Kulikov. She eyed the dog warily and flinched when it growled. Sherlock noted the long look that Anthea gave the girl and, beneath the table, rested his fingertips against her arm for just a brief moment. Without acknowledging the contact, Anthea turned back to Kulikov and smiled as the girl left just as silently as she'd entered. “Oh, it was dreadful!” She groaned. “William was nearly crushed when all that stone came loose! He's lucky to be alive!”
While Sherlock had wanted to keep Kulikov in the dark as to the mine collapse, ultimately he and Anthea had both agreed that it wasn't plausible. Word was bound to get out and they, as yet, had no firm timetable as to how long it would take to learn about Moran; if Kulikov were even in possession of the assassin's current whereabouts.
Sherlock allowed a grimace to curl his lip. “Luck had nothing to do with it.”
Grinning, Kulikov tore open the large roasted carcass; cracking apart joints and setting the greasy meat before him directly on the table. “You're a survivor. Like me.” After claiming his portion, he pushed the platter towards Sherlock. “Eat. Drink. Afterwards we will inspect this shipment, yes?” Not waiting for a response, he dangled what appeared to be a hunk of wild boar above Zuby; the dog snapping the prize while it was still in Kulikov's hand and causing the man to jerk back quickly or risk losing flesh.
The girl returned, then, holding a carafe of something poisonous yellow, vile, and with a smell not unlike lemon furniture polish. In her other hand she precariously balanced a stack of plates and cups. Barely had she set it down before Kulikov reached out and slapped her across the cheek. “Bliad’! I had to put my food on the table like a dog!”
Now it was Sherlock who had to be restrained; though he'd only gone as far as to tense his muscles. The girl held her cheek and snuffled; her sleeve slipping back and revealing a badly scarred forearm. Kulikov pointed towards it with a sharp laugh.
“Bitch got too close to Zuby when he was eating. Learned her lesson, eh?” The girl cowered when he reached out, once more – but this time he merely patted her head. “Go on with you! Clean the kitchen, feed the dogs, just stop hovering! You make my guests nervous!” He proceeded to fill their cups; hefting the carafe and grinning. “Limonnaya Vodka! You can only buy it in Russia.” He winked. “I get it delivered special.”
Neither one of them replied but Kulikov merely tossed back his vodka; seemingly oblivious to their silence. Picking at his bread, Sherlock was willing to sit back and allow Anthea to engage the big man with conversation about random topics, mostly light flirting. If this man had any kinship to Moran it was tenuous at best. Sherlock was already reconsidering the reliability of the sources that had suggested a tighter connection when there was a commotion outside.
Zuby stiffened; his broad head twisting towards the open door before he bellowed furiously – the fur on his back standing on end as he abruptly lunged; nearly wrenching Kulikov's shoulder's from the socket and shoving the table several inches to the side. The man cursed furiously in Russian; just managing to keep the animal from tearing the leash from his hands. Both Anthea and Sherlock stood as the cups of vodka rattled; one of them tipping its pungent contents across the rough surface.
Outside, the other dogs echoed with a similar ferocity; nearly drowning out the sound of an approaching vehicle. “Ty che, blyad! What the fuck is it now?!” Letting the dog practically drag him from the room, Kulikov spun at the last second; pointing towards the other two who had begun to follow. “Stay there. I'll be back as soon as I deal with this shit.”
The hairs on the back of Sherlock's neck were standing on end. Something felt wrong; very, very wrong. A glance towards Anthea revealed a shared emotion and she silently eased her hand to her pocket where her gun was tucked out of sight. There was a rustle at their back and Sherlock spun. The girl stood, just inside the door to what appeared to be the kitchen, clearly terrified. Anthea jerked her chin, speaking in hushed Bulgarian. “Go.” The girl, however, shook her head miserably.
By then, however, they could hear Kulikov returning; his loud voice carrying through the outside wall.
“Villiam, Alena! Come! An old friend has come to call!” There was nothing for it but to leave the dining area and the mostly untouched meal. Kulikov could be heard extolling the glory of the hunt and the effort it had taken to track his prized bull elk through heavy snow. He turned as the two of them approached; grinning wide.
“I want to introduce you to someone; though I'd be surprised if you hadn't met since you both work at the same facility...”
Sherlock froze. He had expected Sebastian Moran; preparing himself for the fallout of that exposure. What he hadn't... couldn't have expected, was the slender man standing at Kulikov's shoulder.
“So it's William now, is it? And here I thought you were dead.”
Sherlock swallowed; keeping absolutely still. “Funny thing, Oleg; I'd thought the same of you.”
Oleg Sanchin. Drug runner, sadist, and the man whom Sherlock had last seen at the coal mines just before the structure had collapsed. And, up until that moment, he had believed Oleg had been buried under millions of tonnes of solid rock.
While the guards quietly disarmed and restrained Anthea, Oleg grinned; walking into Sherlock's space; close enough that his breath filled the air between them with the sharp smell of the ginger he liked to chew.
“Oh, you and I? We are going to have a lot of fun.”