From the next Alexi story, due out in late April.
Alexi, Ivan, and the Hidden Heart
“Problem, Sergeant Z?”
Several, sir, I’m just prioritizing them, First Sergeant Alexi Zolnerovitch thought, looking at the messages on his desk. “I am not certain, sir.” He looked up at Captain Arturo Duran-Gallegos-y-Dubicki, the ROTC executive officer, leaning in his doorway. “Have you heard anything from a farmer about the cadets stealing fruit?”
Capt. Duran shook his head. “No, but I’ve been back home in Ojo Caliente. Wedding, two First Communions, and Abuelita’s 95th birthday, all in the same weekend. I came to work to get some peace and quiet.”
“That’s what my wife said last year during fire season, Sir. The fire lines are quieter than our kids.” And the cats, because Ivan the Purrable had just gotten his phone privileges back and seemed intent on making up for lost time. That or seeing how much mischief a cat and a smart phone could get into before Babushka cut off his access again.
“Has there been a complaint?”
Alexi wagged one hand back and forth. “Yes and no, sir. Pete fielded a loss claim from one Dionisio Griego over in the San Luis Valley, for cherries and apricots taken from Mr. Griego’s orchard. Supposedly by our cadets. Except the dates came several weeks after the summer field exercises, Sir. Mr. Griego says he saw a strange light, like someone was using red and then blue-green filters, the same as the military uses.” Except the cadets didn’t use those, and they wouldn’t have night-vision gear unless they bought and brought their own, which they were not allowed to do even if they could afford it, which most couldn’t. Alexi ran through the arguments in his head, wondering what Lt. Peter Jones had told the farmer.
“If any of our cadets got that far away from the training area, we’d have caught them,” Duran added. “I’d be more worried about meth-heads or someone like that getting into the fruit, or someone stealing it to distill.” He grinned, showing a gold tooth, “Not that anyone in my family would ever home-brew, but I’ve read about it.”
Alexi grinned back. “Of course not, sir.” And his wife’s family never smuggled home-brewed plum and other brandies or ouzo back from Greece, although in Catherine May’s grandparents’ defense, cousin Stavros was a commercial distiller, so it didn’t exactly count. Or so Alexi hoped.
“Well, write everything that you have up and we’ll see what happens once Col. Eastman gets back from leave.” Duran leaned into the office and lowered his voice, “How’s he doing?”
“Better after four days of high-power IV antibiotics at a private hospital, Sir. The knee repair might not take, though. It’s still wait-and-see. Rumor has it he got MRSA.”
Duran crossed himself. “Ugh. Nasty stuff.”
“No argument, Sir.”
Duran went back to terrifying late-arriving ROTC cadets and Alexi frowned at the little sketch map and GPS coordinates. The orchards were on the south side of the South Piñon Hills, irrigated, down near Alamocitas, almost within sight of New Mexico. Yeah, Alexi thought, the cadets would have had to hitch-hike a ride at least forty miles south of where the exercise had taken place. Although, if they’d come back while on break, it might make a little more sense, except they should not have known about the orchard. Oh, that’s right, the farmer’s cousin’s daughter was a cadet, thus the farmer’s assumption. Well, it was not something Alexi was going to investigate that evening, since the Colorado School of Mines sat on what had once been the edge of Denver in Golden, two mountain ranges and a watershed away from the San Luis Valley. He caught himself and corrected the thought to probably would not go looking for the intruder, because between his military career and his adventures with Baba Yaga and her associates, he’d stopped saying never.
Well, it was time to go see what disaster awaited in the small-unit exercise class. Alexi stood brushed his trousers legs clean of white fur, then checked his appearance in the little mirror. Still almost as broad as he was tall, built like his Ukrainian peasant ancestors, with summer-blond hair that would darken back to light brown pretty soon, light blue eyes, and a wary expression on his round face. Wary because the latest crop of first year officer candidates, well, Alexi kept reminding himself that everyone had to start somewhere. But trying to use that historical assassinations game for planning irregular warfare? And then arguing with their sergeant about it? He snorted. Not the young man’s best idea, or so Alexi hoped.
That evening he mentioned the complaint to Catherine May, his Greek-by-adoption wife, as he helped her clean up after supper. Their children, Peter Alexandrovich and Catherine Theodora, ages eight and four respectively, occupied themselves in the living room on the other side of the kitchen bar. Theodora asked something and Peter responded in Russian. “English, Peter,” Alexi and Catherine May called in chorus. The boy had heard nothing but Russian for his first four years of life, and that from Baba Yaga and her creatures, so why shouldn’t he lapse into Russian, Alexi sighed.
“Babushka and Ivan are not helping,” his wife pointed out as she finished programming the dishwasher.
“And Gatta?” He looked over at the fluffy white cat sitting on the bar, her tail draped artistically across two books, some mail he needed to file, and Catherine May’s black, three-inch fire science binder.
Gatta, also called Belle and officially named Byehla Ailuros, turned her head just enough to glare at Alexi with one eye. “Meh.”
“That answers that,” Catherine May observed.
Their cell phones buzzed with an incoming text message, and they groaned. “No tuna, no peace?” Alexi asked under his breath.
“Does anyone else you know have cats that text, dear?”
He shook his head. He probably didn’t want to know anyone so burdened, either, given the strange things already in his life. First, ten years before, he’d driven to Golden, had watched the Little House on Chicken Feet crossing I-29 and discovered that the Russian fairytale monster Baba Yaga not only existed, but she’d kidnapped his grandmother in order to get Babushka’s property. In the process of rescuing Babushka he’d also freed a Coyote and the Red Horse. The Coyote had helped him when he faced down Baba Yaga again, and the even fouler spirit of Chernobog when some Russian pagans in central Kansas summoned the swamp spirit. Just after he first crossed paths with Catherine May, he found himself dealing with Baba Yaga and Chernobog again, along with a dark firebird. Oh, and his crazy ex had drowned herself and turned into a rusalka, the vengeful water spirit.
But it had been kidnapping Alexi’s children that had led to his final, he devoutly hoped, battle with Baba Yaga, aided by Vasili, the Little Humpbacked Horse, Gatta, and the water of life. Alexi reached inside his collar for his St. George medallion, stroking it, then picked up the phone. He read the message, mentally translated from “otto corrupt” into Russian and then English. “Um, what gauge for firebird?”
His wife’s brown eyes went wide and white in her tan face, and she ran a hand over her tightly braided black hair. “As in shotgun.”
“Yes. A firebird is eating Babushka’s tomatoes.”
They looked the phones, then at each other and groaned in unison.
(C) 2016 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved