Chapter 14


Monday, July 3, 5:00PM

Romeo Obozniev smiled as he pondered the implications of Markov’s final order. He would inherit his former boss’s estate, run the household and the organization his way, and be rich beyond his wildest expectations–well, not quite. What cheered him most, however, was the prospect of finally leading the search for the Yeshurun woman and her fellow conspirators. Where Markov had failed, he, Romeo Kaskovich Obozniev would succeed.

Romeo proudly turned towards the pilot and prepared himself emotionally to issue his first executive order. “Illich!” They had always been peers, though it was of course obvious to all that Romeo was the superior of the two. But finally he was officially and evermore, The Boss. He had difficulty restraining his glee as he informed his pilot of the change in command. “Brotherhood of Seven has … ,” he paused to stifle a slight chuckle, maintaining his authoritarian demeanor, “They have transferred Markov away from here, and I am now Vor of this organization. You will now answer only to me.” Being The Big Boss felt just right.

***

7:30PM-Central Time Zone

Almost before the Tupolev stopped rolling, Romeo lowered the ladder and debarked to find a telephone and call a taxi. He paced the sidewalk in front of the terminal for twenty minutes before it arrived, handed the driver a twenty-dollar note and said, “Take me to nearest hospital!”

The driver obliged, and they arrived at the emergency entrance of Methodist Hospital ten minutes later. Again, before the vehicle stopped Romeo was out of the car’s door and heading through the hospital’s glass doors. He marched up to the Emergency room admitting desk and produced some forged Health Department credentials that he was sure would get answers.

The admitting clerk took a superficial look at them. “Ya know this isn’t San Francisco, and y’all’s jurisdiction ended ‘bout two thousand miles northwest o’ here. Can’t give you any information. Have a nice day.” Of course her well-wishing sounded as fake as it really was, and Romeo knew his plan was temporarily thwarted.

He left the hospital furious that the idiot behind the counter would not accept his carefully forged credentials, but his anger only stimulated his imagination. Not knowing exactly what resources he needed to get past the hospital staff, he resolved to find a physician who would sell him that information.

He found a public telephone outside the hospital, but the directory tethering chain dangled without a directory. Then he stalked back to the taxi, whose driver must have anticipated a subsequent trip. “Find me telephone book quickly.”

“I cain’t find ya nuthin ‘til ya git back in.”

His jaw muscles bulged as he swung back into the taxi and slammed the door. Less than a minute later the taxi stopped next to a public telephone outside a service station, and before he got out, Obozniev checked for a phone book. Satisfied, he got out and marched over to the book, grasped it firmly, and yanked it hard enough to pop the chain loose. He returned to the taxi and sat in the rear seat with the door open while he searched its pages for physicians whose names sounded Russian.

Hoping a Russian doctor might cooperate with him more than others in providing certain, non-traditional services, he narrowed his search to Russian surnames. Then he began calling. Only a half-dozen of the doctors were actually from one of the Russian Federation States, and none of them were willing to provide what he needed.

Next he tried researching passport photo shops, hoping to find one that would provide forged papers. But finding the listings was much easier than choosing which ones to contact. None of them wanted to discuss business over the phone, so he gave the addresses to the driver and enjoyed a tour of the city while being gouged with an exorbitant fare. Romeo decided not to fight it, however, concentrating only on getting the documentation he needed to find Rachel.

After riding around in the taxi for hours and stopping at more than a dozen passport photo shops, Romeo found one where the proprietor hedged a little rather than refusing him out of hat. “Do you know …, ‘well connected’ Russian business man to use photo in special way?”

The shop keeper looked Romeo over suspiciously. “With the right incentive, know what I mean? I might be able to make a couple’a phone calls …,”

Romeo reached into his left jacket pocket, withdrew a roll of hundred-dollar notes, pealed one off and handed it to the man.

The shop keeper looked even more skeptically at Romeo. “Now maybe you could give me somethin’ that won’t wind me up in the slammer. This bill’s a little too fresh for my taste, know what I mean?”

Romeo smiled at the man, appreciating his discernment. He then reached into his trousers pocket, withdrew a genuine hundred-dollar note and handed it to him. The man smiled back at him and retired through the beaded curtain to his inner office. All Romeo could hear was, “Bear, I gotta guy here that …,” and the rest of the conversation was muffled.

Fifteen minutes later he broke off the call and returned to the front. “Okay. Tell your cabbie to beat it. You got another ride comin’.”

Romeo obeyed, paid the driver from his left coat pocket, took the change, and reentered the shop as the taxi rolled away. “So, who is my new ride?”

The shopkeeper grinned slyly. “You’ll like ‘im. Talks just like you. B’fore he gets here, I need t’take a picture of ya.”

Romeo looked at the man suspiciously and asked, “Polaroid?”

“Yeah, Polaroid! Do I look that stupid? Stand right over there,” and he pointed to a line in front of a cheap backdrop facing the camera. “I ain’t even gonna charge ya for it. Complementary, that’s what it is.”

A few minutes later an unlikely vehicle stopped at the curb. It was an old, bright metallic purple Chevrolet, lowered until the chassis nearly scraped the pavement. Two men climbed out. The passenger was a well-worn man, apparently in his sixties, wearing a black, pinstriped suit. The driver was a much younger, slick-looking Latino, wearing an iridescent blazer to match his car.

Without a word the two men walked towards Romeo, the older stopping in front of him, and the other circling to stand behind. They stared at him for a full minute, but Romeo was too smart to speak first.

The older man finally spoke with a thick, Russian accent. “Okay! Who you are and what you want?”

“We talk in private!” Romeo nodded towards the strange-looking car.

With the newcomers bracketing him, they walked to the car and sat him between them. “I am Comrade Obozniev,” Romeo began proudly in Russian, “Vor of the Bay Area family.”

The Suit said, “Speak English. Ignacio speaks no Russian.” So Romeo repeated himself in English.

“Hey man, whas a ‘Vor?’” Ignacio said with a heavy Hispanic accent to match his appearance.

“Is boss man of organization.” Then, to Romeo he said, “Why you are here?”

“I hunt gang that kill my boss. They fly to Sugar Land with hospital patient, so I going to track them through hospitals.”

“What was name of boss?”

“Lev Markov. They stole critical information and leaked it to authorities, so he did only honorable thing.”

The Suit nodded solemnly. “I hear of Markov. Good man.”

“He was like my father.” Romeo actually said it with a straight face.

“My name is Lex Kyznetsov. Not Vor, but boss of Russian and Cuban gang made to one.” With a proud smile he added, “Soon we be syndicate, and control Southeast Texas operations.”

“Hey man,” Ignacio said, “we don’ know this dude. Les dump ‘im, we be busy already.”

“Ignacio. This is my countryman, my brother, we help.” So he looked at Romeo and asked, “How I help you?”

Romeo smiled at his warm reception. “I need papers to get in hospital and get information. You have contacts all over?”

“Hey man, we got d’best! Boss wansa help you, you get good help.”

Both Russians looked triumphant, though for different reasons.

***

Thursday, July 6, 2:45PM

Romeo’s new friends provided excellent documentation for his use. They were good enough for him to gain entrance to the hospital where Rachel was still in a coma, and find out about patients who had undergone trauma that would be consistent with having survived an explosion.

***

Minutes later, Howie, sitting in Rachel’s room watching the Tele, spied a movement by the door in his peripheral vision. When he looked up, Obozniev was already inside the door, studying the heavily bandaged woman on the bed. Howie adopted an exaggerated Texas drawl. “Yesir, how kin I help y’all t’day?” He knew the worst mistake someone can make is underestimating his enemy, and he intended to not be the one doing it.

Romeo’s attempt to disguise his Russian accent failed when he said, “My name is Robert Osgood. This woman,” and he checked the name Admitting gave him, “Mary Hughes, must answer the insurance questions.” He still didn’t seem to recognize her.

“Ah thank y’all kin see mah sister’s condition, so perhaps ah kin answer all y’all’s questions.”

“Wake her up!” Romeo demanded, obviously not knowing with whom he was dealing.

Howie stood up to full height, towering over Romeo, and calmly reiterated, “As y’all kin see, mah sister’s in no condition to answer yer questions, bein’ as she’s in a coma.” While he kept his voice calm, he knew how to present a formidable appearance that said, “You will regret messing with me,” so Romeo grudgingly backed off.

“I will have nurse notify me when she is conscious,” Romeo said with appropriate bravado, “and I’ll be back.”

After Romeo left, Howie called Karl to say, “Some Ruskie was snoopin round here. Didn’t seem to know for sure that this is Rachel, but he said he’d be back. Sounded just like that Schwartz an’ somethin’ actor in the movie.”

***

Karl thanked him for the information and broke off. Then he called all of us together to report Howie’s message. I confess we were becoming weary of being the mouse to this Russian cat, but Betty had her head on properly when she said, “What does that Bible verse say? Is it ‘Greater is the Russian Mafia than ‘e that is in me?’”

I said, “Point well taken,” and quit complaining.

***

In the engineering spaces of the hospital, a telephone technician had the communications interface console opened, with wires running from it to recording devices in his service kit. Ignacio Espinosa wore his baseball cap low over his face out of habit, though being recognized there was highly unlikely. Among the outgoing telephone conversations he recorded was Howie’s call to our Houston flat. Along with the conversation, he recorded the dialing tones, which Kyznetsov’s contacts used to determine our location.

***

Friday, July 7, 6:12AM

Our flat was a small, single bedroom efficiency in which Betty and Natalie slept in the bed whilst Marty and I shared the parlor floor. The crash awoke me instantly, but by the time I stood it was too late to do anything but take a heavy blow to my temple, instantly putting me back to sleep.

When I awoke I found that I was strapped to a rough, wooden pallet, with such a splitting headache that I could not see straight. I must have groaned a bit, since someone who sounded like Betty shushed me.

“Welcome. I was afraid you would miss show.”

I heard a little clattering of what sounded like hardened steel instruments. “We are almost ready. My loyal assistant, Viktor, will position all of you in front row for show.”

I felt the pallet to which I was bound tip upward, placing me into a sitting position on the floor. Though my eyes were crossed and my head pounded because of the concussion, I could now take in a little of our prison. We were in a rather small warehouse with no windows, little lighting, save what was directed towards us, and one door.

Once we were all seated in a semi-circle we could at least communicate with our eyes, as well as see the profile of a table, behind which Romeo stood, gloating with meaningless prattle.

“Now get lost,” Romeo said to Viktor, “and lock door behind you.”

I tried to squint through the light and the haze of my headache, but could see nothing to the right of Obozniev than the vague shape of Viktor moving towards the door. When he opened it, daylight poured in, illuminating Romeo and his table of tools. “Idiot!” he shouted, “Shut door.” I could see the profile of an arm gently drawing the door closed.

The clicking latch signaled Romeo to proceed with his recreational plans for us. Visible only in profile, I could see him pick up first one instrument, then another, as if undecided how best to proceed. “You know, last time I face this decision was fifteen years ago, in Afghanistan. Our able fighters captured some rebels … ten of them I believe. Rebels were brave when we tied them to pallets, just like you.” While he spoke, our captor casually walked around the small table, touching or examining his beloved instruments. “Yes, they were brave.” He chuckled. “Then I chose, I believe it was this little baby,” he held up a small, spiral-shaped object rather like a cork puller, but with finer wire. “Shall I demonstrate its use? I chose biggest, strongest man,” and he flicked the hardened wire to make it ring. “He last, maybe five seconds before he squeal like a little pig.

“Who is big, strong man here?”

While I could not see his eyes, I knew he was looking at me, and I knew I could not endure the kind of torture he was threatening without direct divine intervention. I prayed silently but fervently for angelic protection, and knew Betty and Karl were doing the same. I suspect even the cynical Marty may have tried praying.

Though I knew the agony would be quite real, a peace washed over me as I knew with a certainty that I would be with my Lord before long. Not even Romeo Obozniev can delay death indefinitely.

Romeo was looking down at his collection when I thought I spied movement outside the glaring light. If he had been looking my way at that exact moment, he probably would have seen my eyes try to focus behind him, and he would have turned to investigate. But he was enjoying his teasing far too much to be that observant.

As quietly as if on cat’s paws, Viktor slowly returned to a position behind Obozniev and abreast of the lights that flooded past him. He withdrew his gun from his shoulder holster, switched the safety off, and held it at arms length pointing at the back of Romeo’s head.

The slight click of the safety being released caused Romeo to halt his diatribe. Slowly he turned to face Viktor and his gun. With extreme disdain in his voice Romeo said, “Do not even think about it. I will forgive this one time only, but–”

The report of Viktor’s gun interrupted Romeo’s little speech. His head snapped back from the impact of the small caliber, hollow-point bullet between his eyes and he stood for two seconds before his knees buckled and he slumped into a heap.

Viktor entered our circle of light and stood for fully five minutes staring down at his boss with a sadness of nearly infinite depth painting his barely visible face. Finally he looked at his gun and slowly lifted it to press the muzzle against his own right temple.

Betty urgently said, “Stop!” He paused, vacantly gazing at her as she continued, “You don’t know what you’re doing. As soon as you pull that trigger you will be standing before God in judgment, with no ‘ope for anything but–”

Before she could finish speaking, he closed his eyes, squeezed the trigger, and his life was over with a single, muffled pop. His body fell next to that of his boss and all was quiet, save for our examining what few options we had.

We tried standing with the pallets tied to our backs, but they were too heavy for us to balance, causing Betty and Marty to crash back to the floor where they were unable to stir further. After a few minutes, all conversation died off for what seemed an eternity, but was probably only about two hours.

Finally a moaning sound attracted my attention and I glanced over to see Romeo’s legs changing position. A moment later he sneezed, and instantly cried out in pain while a mist of red droplets fell through the light and settled to the floor.

More time passed, and the moaning began anew. Slowly, carefully, Romeo rolled over, face down, and the moaning became an anguished cry that continued until he struggled to his hands and knees, trying to maintain his balance.

We remained deathly quiet, hoping to avoid attracting the monster’s attention, as we watched him attempting to struggle to his feet. About half-way to a standing position he tottered, a little at first, but eventually he crashed again to the floor. And I could see why. Blood was flowing freely from his nose, and had already matted his hair and covered his face. Viktor’s bullet, apparently intended for Romeo’s frontal lobe, had lodged in his sinus cavity after severing some facial artery.

Eventually he began crawling away from us, towards the room’s one door, moaning loudly all the way. Once there, he tried rising again to his knees to reach the door lock, but fell flat before he could grasp it. He rolled to his left side and tried to reach the lock once again, but settled for pounding weakly on the door a few times.

Someone on the outside tried the door latch, but found it locked. In response, Romeo tried pounding again, but only managed two or three soft slaps before his limp arm fell to the floor and he rolled face down.

Those who were outside began flinging themselves against the metal door, but gave up when its futility became apparent to them. Nearly a minute later a staccato roar told of their automatic weapons emptying into the door latch mechanism.

More pounding resulted in the door swinging hard against Romeo’s head, though I doubt he was aware of it. The men, one of whom was Ignacio, shoved their way into the room and surveyed the carnage. They walked over to Viktor and checked his pulse, then briefly looked at the table covered with grizzly-looking instruments of torture. Ignacio cast us a knowing look, reached into his jacket pocket to produce and snap open his switch-blade knife with one deft move.

He stepped over to Marty, crouched next to him, and worked the knife through his right arm’s binding. Then Ignacio and his mates slowly sauntered to the door and exited.

Marty quickly began working at the knot holding his torso in place, and then the one holding his left arm. In a few minutes we were all standing next to the table, looking at Romeo’s torture tools and quietly contemplating our near fate.

“We need to telephone Howie and see if Rachel is still safe,” said Karl.

“Right! Now how do you expect to do that? Do you see a public telephone about?” Even as the thoughtless words left my mouth I knew I shouldn’t have said it, but I hoped my acute headache was excuse enough. Karl seemed stricken by my remark, so I tried to mend fences by using that excuse. “That was my headache speaking, Karl. Please forgive my rashness.”

Marty approached with Romeo’s mobile in his hand. “Here, this’ll work as good as any.”

Karl eagerly took it and began punching in the hospital’s number. “Room two-twelve please.”

He waited a moment, then said, “Marty, is Rachel okay?

“Yeah, we are too. I’ll fill you in later. Do you know how to get in touch with Jeff?

“Hope that’s pretty soon. Say, when he calls, send him to pick us up. We’re not exactly dressed for hailing a cab.” The women wore camisoles for nighties, and the other two men wore skivvies and under shirts. I was the only one largely covered with clothes, though they were only pajamas.

“I don’t know. Hold on a minute and I’ll see if I can get our bearings.” He stepped to the open door and surveyed the neighborhood. “Jack, you’re at least wearing pajamas. Would you mind finding the nearest street sign so we can tell Howie where to pick us up?”

When I entered the daylight I thought my head would explode. I covered my eyes and tried to navigate along the abandoned street until I could find a sign post. After finding one, I tried my best to read it against the bright, hazy sky. I became dizzy and chilled, and had to sit on the curb to let it pass. But it didn’t. My nausea finally overcame me after a few minutes sitting there and I deposited the meager contents of my stomach into the gutter.

“Hey buddy,” a voice said out of my confused mental state, “Wake up!” Then the voice said to someone else, “Drunk on his keister.”

Another voice said, “I don’t think so, look how pale he is. I think he’s in shock …,”

My next sensation was that of blinding light. I was freezing and being jostled about, but suddenly a warm blanket covered me and blessed shade relieved the glare. When I forced my eyes open, I saw a familiar-looking angel next to me. Her voice seemed familiar as well, “Jack, me luv, you’re awake!” Then she looked to her right and said to someone else, “‘e’s awake!”

Another face appeared, not angelic as was the first, and a bright light shown in my eyes. A male voice said, “He’s still in deep shock.” A hot hand rested on my forehead. “More hot blankets.”

When I realized my left arm felt relatively warm, I struggled to look at it and saw IV hoses attached to my forearm. “Wass,” I tried to put words together, but my mouth felt paralyzed. “Wass ‘at?”

“That’s a warm saline solution to help bring up your body temperature and hydrate you,” the male voice said. “You almost died before those police officers found you on the street. We’ll be at the ER in just a couple of minutes.”

I must have slept, because the next time I opened my eyes, I was still looking at Betty, but apparently from a hospital bed. “Hello my love. Still here?”

“Why you scurvy bloke,” she said playfully in her Cockney accent, “You don’t think I’d leave your side, do you?”

I simply smiled my response, with the tears welling up within me expressing the love my voice couldn’t utter.

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