Colonel Grushkin sat in the co-pilot’s seat of a Hind Mi-24 helicopter, watching the landscape unroll beneath his feet. Having been born and raised in Russia’s Ural Mountains, he felt at home as the terrain changed from flat to rolling to rugged, forested peaks. He had been flown in a captured Gulf-stream G IV jet from Seattle’s Boeing Field to the vacant Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.
Upon his arrival, eight Hind 24s were waiting, fueled, manned and ready to go. Each carried six Spetsnaz troops in the back and he had marched down the G IVs air stairs and trotted across the tarmac to the closest helicopter. Sending the co-pilot to occupy the seat reserved for him in the rear, he had climbed into the cockpit and barked at the pilot to get them in the air even before he had his flight harness buckled.
It had been a short flight to reach the southern edge of the Sawtooth Mountains and he had taken the opportunity to call his aide who had remained behind in Seattle. The Captain assured him that there was no new intelligence and that his orders had not changed. Disconnecting without so much as a “thank you”, he martialed his impatience after verifying the pilot was pushing the helo to its top speed.
The flight approached the mountains from the southwest, the pilot contacting the other Russian helicopters that were already in the area searching for the American Major. Soon they were flying between rocky spires that soared above them, the Hinds stretching out into single file as they wove their way deeper into the wilderness.
“Go directly to the crash site,” Grushkin ordered the pilot over the intercom.
“Of course, Comrade Colonel. It is on the far end of that lake,” the pilot pointed through the windscreen at a large, crystal blue body of water that glinted in the sunlight.
He descended as they moved over the lake, flying at two hundred feet. Even at that height the fierce wind from the giant rotor tossed the surface of the water, churning mist into the air that the following helos avoided by gaining altitude and spreading out to the sides. As they approached the midpoint of the lake, the pilot began bleeding off speed and finally transitioned into a tight orbit over the crashed Russian helicopter.
The machine sat slightly off shore in a few feet of water. It was nothing more than a burned out hull, the flames having been so intense there were portions of the armor plating that had begun to melt and run down the sides. Grushkin gave it a cursory glance before turning his attention to the shore. He’d seen more than his share of helicopter crashes and knew that after the intense fire only aviation experts would be able to make any type of determination on what had brought the aircraft down.
The experts were on their way, having departed Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana shortly before he had lifted off from Mountain Home. They had farther to go, but he expected them on site within an hour.
“Get me on the ground,” he growled, pointing. “Right there.”
The pilot followed the legendary Colonel’s finger, seeing a large mound of earth and rocks that rose up from the water’s edge. A thick stand of pine trees grew from the top of it and there was no room for him to bring the Hind in for a landing.
“I’m sorry, Comrade Colonel. There is no room to land.” The man was nervous, his voice shaking as he told Grushkin he wasn’t able to do what the Colonel wanted him to do.
“Fuck your mother,” Grushkin invoked a common Russian curse. “I’m Spetsnaz. Hover the helicopter and I will go down a rope.”
The Colonel took off his flight harness and worked his way out of the cockpit into the troop compartment. He snapped a terse command and the Spetsnaz troopers leapt out of their seats. While two of them prepared a pair of fast ropes, the door was opened. Grushkin leaned out, satisfied to see the pilot had them in a stable hover over the shore.
He nodded to the troopers, and the ropes, secured to specially made stanchions inside the helicopter, were tossed out to uncoil to the ground. Checking his sidearm, Grushkin zipped his cold weather parka and accepted a pair of leather palmed gloves. Slipping them on, he grasped one of the ropes and nimbly stepped out of the aircraft and slid to the snowy ground.
Moving out of the way he scrambled down the small hillock, idly noting the remaining troopers touching down behind him. Reaching the flat spot behind the mound, he stopped and surveyed the area with his hands on his hips. It was obvious there had been a fresh snowfall since there was activity here, but the signs of a fight were still easy to see.
Careful not to disturb areas which he might wish to examine closer, Grushkin stepped to the corpse of a large wolf. As big as it was, he had both seen and hunted larger ones when he was just a child. Kneeling, he brushed snow off the body and didn’t need to look any further when he saw the damage from rifle bullets.
Standing, he looked in each direction along the shoreline. The snow had been so churned up that even with a fresh fall the surface was not smooth, and he could see where several sets of tracks had arrived from and returned to the north. He signed to the Spetsnaz who had fanned out around him in a protective bubble and they began moving along the edge of the lake.
It wasn’t a particularly difficult hike for Russians who were used to cold weather and soon they reached Rachel’s camp. Though the canopy that had functioned as a windbreak was gone, the snow that had piled up against it remained and had sheltered the area from the north wind. The remains of the fire were plain to see, as were the tracks heading directly up the ridgeline in front of them.
Leading the way, Grushkin set off, climbing quickly while thoroughly examining the forest floor as he moved. Quickly he found a corpse that had been mostly consumed by animals and waved one of the troopers forward to collect a tissue sample. He had no idea if they had DNA on file for the Major, but he liked to cover all his bases.
Odds were either the GRU or SVR would have obtained a sample at some point in the man’s military career. Both organizations had gotten quite good at it, and had instituted the procedure even before the general public knew what DNA was. Their most common method, once a target of interest was identified, was to send a female agent to make contact and seduce the man.
American males seemed to despise condoms, perhaps thinking they were more indestructible than the rest of the world. Regardless, the agent would leave the target with a smile on his face and completely oblivious to the fact that she carried a sample of his DNA in her body to be collected, typed and catalogued.
Grushkin continued up the slope, the Spetsnaz troopers fanned out in a wide line around him. As they reached the top of the ridge he heard a distinctively different rotor in the valley below and knew the crash investigators had arrived. Ignoring them for the moment, he paused to look at the compacted snow where something heavy had been dragged, following the path to a narrow road.
Fresh snow filled in the deepest tracks that had been left by a vehicle, but he could make out where it had turned around and headed to the east.
“Have the helicopter pick me up,” he barked at the Spetsnaz team leader.
The man immediately got on the radio and in a few minutes the Hind appeared over the treetops. It was equipped with a winch and Grushkin was quickly lifted up, swinging through the troop compartment door.
“Go. Follow the road,” he shouted at the pilot over the rotor noise.
“But the other men, Comrade Colonel.” The pilot turned in his seat.
“Have another helicopter pick them up,” Grushkin said, working his way into the cockpit. “Now get us moving.”
The pilot nodded and said something to the co-pilot who was operating the winch. It whined as he retracted the braided steel cable and soon they were in a slow flight, following the Forest Service road.
The Jeep tracks were faint from their altitude, but still visible enough to be followed. It didn’t take the Hind long to reach the larger road, the heavy aircraft banking and following as it began to descend.
“What town is this?” Grushkin asked as they approached several homes that marked the boundary.
“Ketchum, Comrade Colonel,” the pilot answered after consulting a map.
From their altitude the vehicle tracks were still visible and they followed them to a small, brick building in the center of town. An abandoned ambulance was visible, marking the structure as a hospital.
“Someone is injured,” Grushkin muttered to himself as the pilot reversed course when the tracks doubled back on themselves.
Only minutes later they came into a stable hover over a large home set amongst thick trees on a several acre lot. Tracks that were mostly filled in as well as fresh tracks churned through virgin snow clearly marked the house.
“Comrade Colonel, do I follow the tracks or set down to search the house?”
“Down,” Grushkin said, already unstrapping and reaching behind him for an AKMS rifle.
He jumped to the ground as the Hind’s landing gear settled, running for the side of the house. Checking the full perimeter first, he made entry and methodically cleared the large home. Satisfied he was alone, he spent several minutes walking around and looking at the signs of three people who had stayed here.
Discarded American MRE wrappers. A bed that had been used. Empty IV bags in a trash can. Blankets left on two chairs and a couch. Fresh ashes in the fireplace.
Squatting in front of the hearth he removed the cold weather glove from his right hand and extended it over the ash. Not hot, but not cold either. There was still some warmth emanating. Drawing a twelve-inch, World War II era bayonet that had belonged to his grandfather, Grushkin dug through the remains of the fire, feeling faint heat radiating on his face. He was only a few hours behind the Major.