Jez listened to his heart pound as he made his way to the militarized airplane. The propellers of the Lisunov Li-2T whumped as they waited patiently for heavier work, but patience wasn’t a condition he suffered from. The blood had raced through his veins non-stop since he’d been reassigned.
Only a handful of passengers crossed the airstrip; and boarding the right-hand side of the aircraft revealed why: cargo took up ten of the twenty seats. Probably it was munitions for the KKE, or Soviet personnel. He found an empty window seat behind the wing, stowed his kitbag and sat.
A regular army captain flustered along the aisle and bundled awkwardly into the seat next to him. He was a short, thickset man with a kindly, but weathered face.
“Ah, the uniform, you’re with Spetsnaz.”
“You’re very young. Are you new to the group?”
“Yes, I am, sir.”
Conversation over, the captain nodded, settled his briefcase onto his lap and busied himself with its contents. He hummed so tunelessly that Jez reckoned the composer would have trouble recognizing it.
Not long after the last passenger had boarded, the beat of the aircraft’s engines increased and the vehicle started to move slowly, turned a quarter circle, stopped and then turned a bit more before beginning its journey up the runway. Jez tingled as he felt the bulk of the machine try to get airborne. Several times it lifted from the blacktop only to bounce back to earth and waft small clouds of blue smoke from the tires.
Jez kept vigil out of the window until the plane had enough power to keep the wheels in the air. He knew that this, his first flight, would be the most exciting of all flights. The drone of the engines increased. The plane rose up to the clouds, reached its desired height and changed the angle of elevation towards horizontal. They hit turbulence and the passengers bounced fiercely in their seats.
“Is this the start of a long tour of duty, Private?” the captain asked.
“The truth is, sir, I don’t know.” Even if he had, he wouldn’t have been willing to discuss his remit.
The captain seemed to sense what Jez thought of the question, smiled graciously and returned his attention to the briefcase. The aircraft rode through every available air pocket and Jez enjoyed each twist and turn, until at last they arrived at the KKE landing strip.
In 1948, with two-thirds of the country in communist hands, coming down in a safe region wasn’t difficult. This strip was north of the Balkan Peninsula in a southern area of Macedonia. Historically, the Greek right-wing conservatives had used tyranny to subjugate the Macedonians, which made for an easy alliance with the KKE.
Jez was last off the plane, because the captain took forever to repack his case. When he did leave his seat, another officer rushed by and Jez was held up further. By the time he reached the bottom of the gangway, his travel companion had met his contact and most of the other passengers had left the strip. Workers were unloading the cargo from a rear hatch, and beyond that a young KKE soldier stood by a UAZ-469 Soviet jeep.
The soldier looked too young to be there. His long unkempt hair hung straight, stuck untidily out from under a weather-beaten beret. His features typically Greek, his dusty olive uniform was an exact match for the color of his skin; and his large brown eyes, should he live long enough, would draw the girls like flies to sugar.
He held out a hand to halt Jez. “You Kornfeld?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m Private Kornfeld.”
The boy remained solemn-faced and nodded towards the jeep.
“Good luck, Private,” the captain bid, as he and his associate passed. “I hope the ride you have here is not as bumpy as the one we’ve just shared.”
“Thank you, sir.” Jez forced a friendly grin, but found the lackluster in the KKE boy’s gaze had unnerved him. A face without expression and eyes without life. Jez wondered what lay ahead.
The young soldier crunched into gear and pulled away at breakneck speed, while Jez jerked backwards as they flew from the dirt runway. The jeep formed a sand cloud that trailed their movements. After fifteen minutes of dusty roads they reached mountainous ground, and Jez hung on as the jeep danced over the rough terrain. Rocks jutted dangerously from the track or the road hung precariously over precipices, and he bit his lower lip at the boy’s avant-garde attitude to driving.
“You must have seen a lot of action here?” he said, and hoped he hadn’t interfered with the boy’s concentration.
He looked only around fourteen, but his character seemed a lifetime older. His eyes left the road to give Jez a cursory glance. In the meantime, the jeep took the twists and curves as if on automatic pilot. “No Russian speak,” he replied, and without a line of expression he returned focus to the job.
Jez wished Anna had been by his side. He was sure she’d have something to say about the boy’s erratic driving and stone-faced comments. Whatever, he concluded a great friendship wasn’t about to be forged with his Greek driver, and he turned his attention to the elevations around them. The journey took them south, nearer enemy territory, and finally to an open stockade in a dustbowl nestled at the foot of a line of low-rise mountains.
The jeep raced to the center of the compound, the wheels locked up and they skidded to an emergency stop. The dust cloud didn’t follow suit and Jez learned what it was to be enveloped by a sandstorm. The powdered dirt settled, and without a word the young Greek soldier shut off the engine, nodded and left. Jez threw his kitbag over his shoulder and turned full circle in the hope there might be someone more companionable.
Soviet soldiers had gathered in a group near a cluster of tents and a sergeant held center stage. “Excuse me, if you’re Sergeant Viktor Sharansky,” Jez said, breaking the loop, “I believe you’re expecting me. I’m Private Kornfeld.”
The sergeant looked him over derisively. “What’s this? Now they send me little boys to take care of in the middle of a war. Maybe I should stick a broom up my ass and sweep up as I go, because I’m not doing enough already. What say you – err – Private Kooornfeld?” He stretched the name sarcastically, and the others laughed.
Around forty years old, Sharansky was medium to tall with square shoulders that tapered to slim hips. Muscles fought to burst the confines of his short-sleeved combat shirt, and he looked every centimeter the definition of a boyhood hero. A cubed head with rough features on the front of it, creases that denoted laughter and eyes displaying a cheeky twinkle – Jez wasn’t put off by his words.
“You’ll find I’m able to look after myself, Sergeant. I’ll give you no cause for concern.”
The sergeant laughed. “Don’t let that distress you, little one, I have no intention of offering any such thing. What happens to you is down to you. What’s your first name? I’m not giving you Private Kooornfeld every time I’m ordering you around.”
“My name is Jez, Sergeant.”
“Right, Jez Sergeant, I’m busy. Find somewhere for your kit and we’ll see what we can do with you later.”
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.
Genre - Thriller, Crime, Suspense
Rating – R
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