Kalin Baronov was about to die.

Georgi Leonidov had saved Kalin’s life more times than could be remembered. Now he would cause his death.

On this black Belasitsa night, elite agents of the Durjavna Sigurnost advanced on him from three sides. Only the sheer cliff face at his back prevented their attack from a fourth. He could not see them. At rare moments, when the lacerating wind abated, he heard their advance through the heavily forested land just beneath the slope on which he lay. The line of boulders before him gave protection—and the two Belgian automatics clenched in his fists even more. He vowed that more than one secret police officer would this night return to Sofia in a box. He was unflinchingly still behind the boulder at the far right of the line.

They were in position. He knew because all sounds of movement ceased. Their attack was imminent. Even in the bone-numbing cold, Kalin’s palms sweated on the grips of his pistols. His heart pounded so loud in his ears that he was certain the DS agents knew his location to a millimeter. Focus, he willed himself. Death—not merely the DS—stalked this plateau tonight. Make it your partner, your ally, and rain its kinship on your enemies.

Georgi, he thought. Even in the blood-soaked acts of kill or be killed, his friend’s image was seared in his brain: the Ghost of the Belasitsa doing, for the hundredth time, what no other man could do—now, carrying over his left shoulder the limp weight of Raisa Aracheva as, with just his right hand and legs, he scaled the vertical cliff face that most athletic men could not climb at all; carrying her to freedom just kilometers away at the Greek frontier.

A withering suppressive fire erupted from the tree line 50 meters away. Bullets hammered the face of boulders and scarred the frozen earth, seeking to claw their way through rock and dust to nestle snugly in a hard man’s soft flesh. Kalin withheld fire. If they wanted him, they must charge. The scant seconds in which they were caught in the open would suffice; he and his friend, Death, would be waiting.

The DS agents did not lack courage. They rose from the trees and charged, black figures on a black night, at least six of them fanning out across Kalin’s line of sight, their AK-47s spewing hot pellets of steel. But Death played no favorites, Kalin knew; He came for Communists and freedom fighters alike. Flat on his chest, for one tick he waited as bullets whined overhead and careened off of rocks; then he fired just above and slightly to the left of the muzzle flashes; fired both pistols at the figure at the left of the attackers’ formation.

In the instant that muzzle flashes ceased from the figure nearest him, a hot projectile seared through Kalin’s coat and thudded into his left shoulder, jarring his body backward and rattling his teeth. Immediately he lost sensation in his left arm, and the semi-automatic fell from limp fingers. Sweat and tears streaked both cheeks as, with all focus he could muster, he fired repeatedly at the muzzle flashes newly nearest him. Then those flashes also terminated and Kalin rolled to the boulder’s right, head and shoulders shielded by its edge, legs extended behind him, out in the open. All firing ceased.

They were on their bellies now. They knew now that Death was here for them, as well; that relentless hours of high Balkan practice had made their foe a marksman with either hand; that countless midnight fire fights with the DS, alongside the Ghost of the Belasitsa, enabled that foe to face Death with courage even greater than his fear. There was only grim motionlessness from the two heaps that had, just moments prior, rained fire on Kalin’s position. Chastened, the surviving DS officers crawled toward the line of boulders as silently as they could.

Furiously, by touch, ears and eyes straining for evidence of motion before him, Kalin expertly dressed his wound with antiseptic and bandages; dressed it exactly as the Ghost had taught him.

Tonight, he vowed wordlessly, was his last battle. He would die—or he would write. There would be no other outcome. He was thirty-two and had risked his life a hundred times to aid his father and the Ghost ferry to freedom poor luckless souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain. No more. He was a freedom fighter by choice—but a writer by birth. He had known since childhood what he would do.

Even if he survived tonight, and never again faced a DS thug, how long before Death swerved from kinship to enmity and came, swinging scythe in hand, for him? There were dozens of ways to commit suicide—surrendering one’s dream was one—and nobody’s years were countless. Regarding guns, this was his final battle. The sole battle left was literary. His lips, tight against pain, parted briefly in a grim smile. The toughest battle of all.

He heard a light scrape of boot against the cliff face above him. The Ghost was back! Any noise was deliberate, to attract attention away from Kalin. The DS agents let loose at the sound—Kalin fired repeatedly at the muzzle flashes—and Georgi Leonidov, with no need of stealth, did not rappel but flew down his rope like a descending eagle. Above the crashing guns that drowned the wind, Kalin heard his friend’s death-defying laugh.

Leonidov hit the ground and dived. “The Ghost!” he roared at his foes a name more terrifying than his weapons. “Of the Belasitsa!” From behind a boulder to Kalin’s left, Leonidov, with magician’s hands—ever in motion, ever unseen—lobbed two grenades into his enemy’s position, buried his face in the frozen earth, and, after the shattering explosion, rolled into the open, firing from his M-16 a swathe of lead across his enemies’ placement. Kalin waited for his friend to clear his line of fire and then emptied his clip into his foes’ last known position.

With one hand, Kalin replaced the magazine. The Ghost had reached the tree line from where the enemy had charged. No fire was returned at either of them. The high plateau was still. Where was the Ghost? He was, Kalin knew, ceaselessly moving—and, as if genetically engineered to wreak destruction, possessed an animal’s instinct to smell, hear, or see his foe, even on the blackest night.

Kalin heard nothing, saw less—but nonetheless shivered in a form caused not by cold but by something primeval; for, as though by preternatural instinct absorbed by osmosis from his friend, he knew where the Ghost was; slithering snakelike, silently, on his belly, semi-automatic—now silenced—clutched in his left fist, a ten-inch, wickedly barbed sheath knife in his right, sensing, like a shark, his enemy’s blood, and prepared to spill every fluid ounce of that belonging to State Security agents who assailed his friend and impeded, to the death, his sacred quest for freedom.

Then it was over. The Ghost ambled toward him, whistling lightheartedly, melodically, as though strolling, with his love, hand in hand, the Champs Elysees in a fresh May mist. But the viscous red fluid he wiped from his blade did not speak of romance.

“Dead eye shooting, Kay-Lee!” he roared jovially. “I observed it from up—”

Then he noticed that Kalin lay motionless in the grass, wan smile slowly fading. Instantly, he was on his knees, by his friend’s side, hands and eyes moving swiftly over Kalin’s body, until he felt the bloody mess of his compatriot’s left shoulder. Swearing in three languages, he jerked open Kalin’s coat, ripped off his sodden bandage, and pulled from his pack a fresh one. He applied it and squeezed with all desperate strength to be summoned from his wiry body.

Kalin fought to maintain consciousness. Momentarily, his eyelids fluttered open.

“Georgi,” he whispered. “I’ve got books to write…about heroes…”

The Ghost vigorously nodded.

“About yourself, Kay-Lee.” Even on a black Belasitsa night, with consciousness growing increasingly blacker, Georgi Leonidov’s smile lit the landscape as though powered by untold amps of spiritual force. Kalin passed out.

He awoke once, unsure whether his shoulder or his head hurt more, upside down, slung over the Ghost’s shoulder, blood rushing to his brain—his friend struggling under a man’s full weight, but tortuously ascending the cliff face, millimeters at a time, fractions of measurements, but refusing to quit, determined to carry to safety the man as much a son to him as to Todor Baronov; determined, even if it meant his own collapse and death.
Kalin was delirious.

“The literary world…must know…such deeds…” The thought passed half-formed through a foggy brain. “Much more…then Bulgarian freedom…depends…”

The world spun crazily, an out-of-control top in a gravitational field. Had the Ghost fallen? He had never been so nauseated. He was going to retch—he was falling, hurtling downward into an abyss, downward into a bottomless pit of unrelieved blackness and undisturbed silence.

(c) 2017 Andrew Bernstein. All rights reserved.

A Dearth of Eagles, by Andrew Bernstein, is fast-paced fictional work tells the story of Bulgarian freedom fighters during Communism’s final years, of their valiant attempts to smuggle dissidents to freedom in the West, and of their desperate battles with the Durjavna Sigurnost, the Bulgarian secret police who seek to kill them. It tells also of a parallel conflict, of one of the freedom fighters—a member of the tiny band, an émigré, a writer living in New York City—who engages in the story’s fiercest struggle, seeking to publish serious stories about these dauntless men in a Western literary culture that rejects heroism for anti-heroism. For ordering information visit Andrew Bernstein’s website.

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Andrew Bernstein

Andrew Bernstein is a philosopher and novelist whose latest novel A Dearth of Eagles will be released in May. Visit his web site at www.andrewbernstein.net.
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