Monday, February 4, 2013

Work in Progress: The White Dragons

Following is the opening chapter of a new work, The White Dragons, a suspense/thriller about international intrigue and betrayal. Below the excerpt you'll see the preliminary cover art I've done for this.


"The black ZIL threw up a rooster tail of dust as it sped along the winding dirt track that passed for a road.
     The sun was a semi-circle of dull orange, handing in a dead gray sky behind the jagged peaks of the mountains to the west, casting elongated purple shadows over the bleak and desolate landscape.
     There were few trees; a few stunted saplings, gnarled and twisted by the wind, hunched over the parched earth like ancient gnomes, their roots penetrating deep into the earth in search of the rare underground pool of water. Here and there, small flockss of sheep that had spent the day grazing on the rough grass that was scattered about the dry ground were being driven back to the cabins made of blackened logs, to be lodged in pens attached to them, pens made of the same misshapen logs. The rest of the livestock, one or two skinny cows, maybe a pig or two, and some chickens, ducks, and rabbits, would already be in the back room of the little four-room hut which they shared with the farmer’s family. The family, except for the farmer and perhaps his oldest sons, would already be huddled in the central room, around the clay oven for warmth, for even in early May, the night air was cold.
     The three men in the ZIL, though, paid no attention to any of this. The driver kept his eyes on the road ahead, ready to brake should a flock of sheep suddenly appear. Seated in the back, two men sat, each on his own side, back against the door, speaking quietly.
     “Are you sure this is a wise thing to do, Vasily?” the younger of the two, a clean-shaven man in his mid-twenties, wearing a gray suit and a white shirt that was open at the collar.
     His companion was in his late forties. He had a high forehead, with his hairline somewhere near to crown of his skull, jet black hair combed straight back and down. Piercing brown eyes sat on either side of a thin nose that hung like a hawk’s beak over thin lips set in a neatly trimmed moustache and pointed goatee. Vasily Shermov looked like Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and was proud of the resemblance, even taking to wearing dark suits like the Russian Communist leader. He laughed, harsh and guttural, spraying spittle across the seat.
     “There is nothing to worry about, Pyotr,” he said.  “My cousin, Dmitri, will certainly approve of what I’m doing.”
     “And, if he does not approve?”
     The question hung in the air like a threat. Shermov didn’t need to answer; both he and his young assistant, Pyotr Ksolvi, knew the answer to that question; they would simply be made to disappear, to vanish from the face of the earth as if they’d never existed. Shermov’s cousin, Dmitri Kovasc, was the First Secretary and head of the Central Committee of the Dagastan Soviet, and concurrently, head of the dreaded Dagastani Secret Service. He’d been merely the chief intelligence officer for ten years until he’d engineered the overthrow and murder of the former First Secretary and assumed that position as well.
     Dmitri, Shermov knew, did not tolerate opposition or failure, and he had only one response to either; a response that was final and fatal.
     Dagastan, a small landlocked country straddling the Arctic Circle in the near west of the USSR, surrounded by Russia, with the Cherskiy Range to the east and the Indigirka River to the far west, it was little more than a dot on the Russian map, about the size of the American state of New Hampshire, with a population of slightly over one million. Its people were mainly nomadic herdsmen and hunters, scratching out a living from undernourished flocks of sheep or from trapping animals for fur in the remaining forests at the foot of the mountains.
     The main ethnic group, the Kazbektuni, for whom the country’s capital, Kazbektun, was named, was a result of intermarriage of Rus, the light-skinned invaders from Scandinavia, and Khan, the descendants of the Mongol invaders from the east. Although they accounted for sixty percent of the population, they were among the poorest of the poor, mostly subsistence farmers, herdsmen, or trappers. In the entire governing structure of Dagastan, a bloated bureaucracy of over one thousand officials, there were only two Kazbektuni, both low level functionaries. The country’s ruling Central Committee had one Kazbektuni, an elderly man who spent most meetings with his head back, sound asleep. Among the menials; drivers, janitors, and other laborers, the Kazbektuni were vastly in the majority. The ZIL’s driver was Kazbektuni. While he understood the Russian his two passengers were speaking, his preference was to speak his native Dagastani.
     The Khan ethnic group made up ten percent of Dagastan, and remained mostly on the vast desolate steppe, herding sheep and living in conical tents made of sheepskin, after the manner of their Mongol ancestors. Aggressive and militaristic, they held ten positions in the Central Committee’s membership of one hundred. Short of leg, and barrel chested, they had the broad foreheads, slanted eyes, and flat noses of the Mongols. They were excellent horsemen, and it was said that one Khan soldier was worth fifty other Dagastani. Over time, the Khan had come to speak Russian, but with a thick accent.
     The remaining thirty percent of the population was Rus, the descendants of Norse invaders who hadn’t stopped in Russia, but had pushed on toward the west. They tended to light skins, brown or blond hair, high foreheads, and superior airs. Rus held all leadership positions that counted, including control of the intelligence, army, and police. The country’s central bank was in the hands of a Rus, and most of its preferred customers were Rus.
     Vasily Shermov and Pyotr Ksolvi were Rus, and had grown up speaking only Russian. Shermov knew a few words, but his young companion knew not one. Vasily was an official of the economic planning committee, and he’d come across information that would, he felt certain, change the future of Dagastan.
     He hadn’t taken news of his discovery to his superior or to his cousin, wanting to verify it first, and then ensure that things were arranged in a way that ensured the future prosperity of all of Dagastan’s people. If he could get everything lined up properly, he felt sure his cousin would forgive his breech of protocol.
     The sudden deceleration of the ZIL, and a muttered curse in Dagastani from the front seat, startled both men.
     “What is it, Leonid?” Shermov demanded.
     “Flock of sheep in the road,” the driver said in horribly-accented Russian.
     “Well, drive around them, fool. We must make our schedule.”
     “Sorry, sir; is not good idea. The ground off the road can be tricky. We might get stuck. The flock will pass soon.”
     “Well, it better,” Shermov said, and settled back, turning his attention to his companion.
     He didn’t see, therefore, the driver, Leonid, reach over and flick the light switch quickly, blinking the headlights. Nor did he see the four shadowy figures dressed entirely in black that emerged from behind the flock, menacing looking AK-47s held across their chests. They wore balaclava masks pulled down over their faces.
     Two moved to the left and two to the right, stopping at the passenger windows. Pyotr Ksolvi was the first to see them, and his eyes opened with fright. Noticing his young companion’s expression, Vasily looked up, and his mouth dropped open. “What the bloody hell?” he said, and turned toward the front.
     Before he could complete the turn, the four men, aiming downward to avoid hitting their companions, released a deadly stream of bullets shattered the windows of the ZIL and tore into the soft flesh of the two men, tossing them around the seat like limp puppets. Blood spattered the car interior.
     It happened so quickly, neither man had had time for more than the beginning of a scream of terror before silent darkness descended. The two corpses lay entwined like two lovers, their facial features unrecognizable after being ripped and shredded by the force of the projectiles.
     A pale of gray smoke hung over the car and the smell of cordite was thick. The driver reached for the door handle. One of the men on his side put his hand on the door, jamming it shut.
     “I’m sorry, Leonid,” he said, his voice muffled by the mask. “But, we must make this look like it was an act of terror, and there must be no way of it being linked to us.” He spoke in Dagastani.
     Leonid’s mouth dropped open. “But, I was promised – -“
     His words were cut off by the staccato drum beat of the man’s AK-47, which tore through the driver’s window, showering him with shards of grass milliseconds before his chest was torn apart by the projectiles. He was thrown back against the far door, his face frozen in an expression of disbelief.
     The taller of the black-clad men took a dirty, oil-stained gray bricklike shape from his pocket and, walking around to the rear of the ZIL, stuffed it into the space between the exhaust pipe and the gas tank. He then inserted a short fuse, and using a battered lighter, lit.
     “Let us get out of here,” he said. “The fuse is good for two minutes.”
     The others ran toward the front of the car, shooting and yelling at the sheep to move them. Some of the animals ignored the noise and continued to graze on the rough grass. The four men ran flat out until they were about two hundred meters from the hulking shape of the ZIL. The sky had darkened considerably, but was suddenly lightened by the orange fireball of the ZIL being tossed into the air as the block of C-4 explosive detonated and the fumes from the gas tank ignited. The noise of the initial explosion was loud, but the explosion of the gas tank was deafening. The car was quickly engulfed in flames, spreading an orange glow in a circle expanding out several yards. Black smoke billowed upwards. Along with the smell of burning petrol, there was the sweet smell of roasting flesh.
     The sheep that had not been killed by the concussion, or roasted in the ensuing fire, fled across the dusty ground, bleating in panic and kicking up a cloud of dust as they stampeded toward the safety of the hills. The four men stood in silence, gazing at their handiwork. After a few minutes, the tall man spun on his heels and started walking toward the hills. The others followed.
     The incident wasn’t known of or reported in Dagastan’s capital city of Kazbektun for two days, and only after two Khan tribesmen had come upon the still smoldering wreckage. Outside Dagastan, it didn’t even rate a small space in any international media.
     But, in a short span of time, it would have international impact."


Preliminary artwork for the cover of "The White Dragons"