Monday, July 3, 8:45AM
Markov was terribly edgy following the telephone call from Leonid Kaskov announcing the Brotherhood’s assembly at his home. His apprehensions were entirely reasonable since he was honor-bound to await the Brotherhood’s life-or-death decision. They were honorable men, and many were his old friends. They would be fair, and if they decide against him, they would be merciful. As an Atheist, he felt he had no reason to fear death, believing nothing followed this life, whether reward or punishment. Such rationale, however, can seem superficial and transparent when death might be imminent.
With only two and a quarter hours remaining until his judge, jury, and probably, his executioners arrived at his front door, Markov sat in his study staring out the glass doors at what had been his expensive wrought iron security gate. Suddenly a realization hit him like a nine millimeter hollow point slug in the chest. “The noisy workmen!” he said aloud in Russian. “How could I be so stupid?
“Romeo!” he bellowed, and Obozniev instantly appeared in the inner doorway. “Find workmen you hire to fix gate!”
Romeo, however, looked confused. “Workmen? I did not call workmen, you did.”
Another string of Russian obscenities followed his complete understanding of the affair. Since neither of them had contracted repairmen, it was obvious that fixing the gate had been the perfect cover for someone in his household to steal his stationary and use his typewriter to publish the fatal information. He was disgusted to think he had fallen for it, cooperatively fleeing his study for quieter surroundings.
“Gather household! Do what is necessary to find out which is spy!”
Romeo smiled his acknowledgment of the assignment and headed straight for the kitchen. This would not be work for him. He only hoped someone would resist his questioning, but that was unlikely. If the staff was afraid of Markov, they were petrified of Obozniev. Following ten minutes of questioning, he returned to Markov with the news, “Goodman is not here. Others say she leave yesterday.”
Markov stalked over to his desk, seized the telephone handset, and was about to dial a number when he found Natalie’s note. He deliberated for a moment, then said to Obozniev, “Find her and bring her to me, alive if possible.” Romeo again smiled his acknowledgment of a delightful task and set about it with the intensity of one who truly enjoys his work.
Markov sat in his study stoically watching his court yard garden grow until the front door bell rang. He sighed deeply with resignation and proceeded to answer it personally. Twenty-three people stood at the door, with Kaskov in the lead. “Leo, my brother. Is good to see you,” he lied, reaching out to hug his enemy, “Let us gather in dining room.”
When the men were seated around the formal rosewood dining table, Kaskov sat at one end and Markov sat at the other, with the balance of the Brotherhood of Seven split between both sides. Their bodyguards, hiding their eyes with dark glasses and wearing scowls, stood close by.
Markov forced himself to remain calm and friendly. “Won’t you allow me to serve you coffee or tea?” He knew alcoholic refreshment was not appropriate for such a solemn assembly.
Kaskov motioned to the table’s center piece to have it removed, and three of the standing men jumped to obey. Once it was removed, two maids entered with trays of coffee and served it with sugar and cream to all the guests. After doctoring his coffee and taking a sip, Kaskov said, “Comrade Markov, what you have to tell us?”
“Brothers and friends. I have investigated matter of household security and discovered source of leak. I have placed contract on Natalie Goodman, my … former … head housekeeper, who conspired to steal information you receive. She will be delivered alive for your questioning. My operative in office of Organized Crime Task Force intercepted message so it did us no harm.” His statement was a ruse, because Anne Williams had been a Soviet mole who was forced into the civilian job market by the fall of the Soviet state. She was, in fact, not his operative and she had not intercepted the message. Her presence in Judge Weston’s office had simply been divine providence.
“Please accept my hospitality while we wait for delivery of woman to us. I have plenty of room for all.”
The Brotherhood silently looked at each other and nodded assent. “How did woman get sensitive information,” asked one of the Seven.
He couldn’t to admit the true source of the information because he the national organization would surely not approve of his secret scientific venture. “An enemy, Karl Adams, hired hacker to break into heavily encrypted network. Took him long time, and I have no knowledge until too late. Then Goodman woman stole my personal stationary for them to incriminate me.”
The inquisitors’ faces betrayed no reaction as they again glanced about from one to another. Markov was quite satisfied with his performance as the Brotherhood adjourned to settle into their rooms.
While we were gathered in the emergency room waiting area, a hospital housekeeper spied Natalie and recognized her from an e-mailed photo she had received from Obozniev that very morning. The housekeeper quickly proceeded to a linen closet where she could privately call him from her mobile.
Nurse Marila Bosworth had a special relationship with God. Not that others don’t, but she was one of those rare individuals who, figuratively speaking, lived on her knees. Since she, in one way or another, prayed much of the time, God could get her attention more easily than most.
While on her dinner break, she was studying her Bible in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, when a certain verse seemed to speak to her, but she didn’t know what it meant. Chapter thirty-three, verse three said, “If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people.” Feeling some urgency about it, she closed her eyes and began praying fervently. As she prayed for lucidity, she received the distinct impression that someone in the emergency room was in danger and needed to be warned. But what was the exact nature of the danger, and whom should she warn?
The nurses’ lounge was just outside the cardiac surgical suite. It took about two minutes to walk from there to the emergency room surgery where she saw the staff busily working over a patient. Looking through the observation window, she winced to see a woman lying on the operating table with her right leg some distance from where it should have been anchored at her thigh. When she began praying for this unknown woman, she realized this was not the person to whom God had sent her.
Marila continued to the waiting area where she saw the usual assortment of concerned family members. Then she noticed us ministering to Betty, who was lying on the floor with her legs elevated, and covered with hospital blankets. Approaching our group, she said, “Is there anything I can do?” Her nurse’s uniform spoke for itself.
“My wife just saved the life of her friend, in the surgery over there.” I gestured in the direction of the double doors. “It was too much for her and she’s fainted.”
“Let me get some smelling salts,” and she quickly walked back through the doors. A few seconds later she returned and stooped next to Betty, broke the vial and waved it under her nose.
Betty started after a couple of seconds and we had to restrain her from getting up too quickly. “Wha’ ‘appened? ‘ow did I get down ‘ere?”
“You fainted, love, after you saved Rachel’s life.”
“Rachel! ‘ow is she … Tell me!”
I was at a loss because no one had yet informed us of her condition, but the nurse said, “She seems to be stable, with the bleeding clamped off.” Noticing our curious expressions, she added, “Oh, I don’t work in the ER. I was at dinner when I got the distinct impression that I was needed out here. Is anyone here in danger or running from someone?”
Howie looked quite suspicious. “Why do you ask?”
Marila hesitated. “Sometimes when I’m praying or reading my Bible God speaks to me–,” Howie rolled his eyes, which stopped Marila in mid sentence.
I stepped into the awkward gap. “Nurse Bosworth, I’m a Christian, and I can relate to what you are saying. Please continue.”
“Anyway,” she glanced at Howie warily, “I got the distinct impression that someone out here was in danger, and that it is imminent.”
Betty was just then struggling to seat herself on the chair, but managed to say, “There is only one threat to us that I can think of.” She looked over to Natalie. “Markov! We’ve got to get out of ‘ere!”
Karl, however, crossed his arms stubbornly and said through a set jaw, “I’m not going anyplace as long as Rachel is in danger.”
I stood tall and looked down at Karl. “You’ll be sacrificing yourself with no benefit to Rachel.”
Marila stepped between us, “You don’t have to leave. I work here, remember? I can hide you where no one will find you.”
Betty lowered her voice to barely a whisper. “Someone about the ‘ospital must ‘ave told Markov we’re ‛ere! How can we be certain the informer isn’t watching us even now?”
“I can check for anyone who seems to be loitering in the area, and ask the staff if they’ve seen anyone unusually interested in your group.”
We nodded in unison and she again headed for the double doors. Just before reaching them she glanced to her left, stopped, and turned back towards us to say, “You might as well go over to admitting and take care of all the paper work. I’ll take you.”
Markov still didn’t know exactly what connection Natalie might have with us, but the coincidences still nagged him. Why was Natalie at the Emergency Room? He had assumed the explosion would destroy Rachel’s body as well as the other evidence of his clandestine operation, but what if it hadn’t?
Markov turned on his speaker phone and punched a speed-dial number. “Evgeni, where did you place plastique at lab?”
“I put by computer terminal, but not plastique. I mix up little batch of Nitrogen Tri-iodide.”
“Don’t get technical. I pay you to know such things so I don’t have to.”
“Please, you will like this. I mix up liquid and leave it in lab. When it dry … ,” He tittered a little. “Anything set it off.” By then he was absolutely gleeful. “Somebody even sneeze near it, and BOOM!”
“How much damage did it do?”
Evgeni was tempted to say, “How should I know? I wasn’t there.” But caution prevailed, so he actually said, “I do not know, but no one–”
“Well, find out! And see if woman’s or man’s body is there.” And he broke the connection, muttering unkind things about the quality of his help.
We followed Marila down the corridor to the left, past a housekeeper, and turned right after a few yards. Our nurse dropped back to speak with Betty, who nodded after a couple of seconds. Then Betty dropped back to tell me of the housekeeper who seemed interested in us. I in turn found a very intriguing plaque on the wall and stopped to examine it closely. My peripheral vision told me the housekeeper was looking around the corner of the corridor, watching us.
I called to Marila. “Nurse, can you explain this plaque to me?”
Marila turned back and the housekeeper disappeared. “She is following us.” I said quietly, “Can we lose her?”
“She knows this place even better than I do … Quickly, follow me in here!”
We diverted through a supply room, down a narrow corridor and into a surgical scrub room. She tossed some blue surgical attire, including booties, masks, goggles and caps to most of us, and we quickly put it on over our street clothes. To me she tossed a cardiac surgical robe and patted the table. “Remove your shoes and socks.” Then with deft actions she put slippers on my feet, pushed my trousers’ cuffs up to my knees to make it appear I wasn’t wearing them, opened my gown and laid some sterile cloths over my chest. She pulled an IV stand over to the table, set up a used IV bag and tubes, and taped the end of a tube to my arm. Then she snapped her fingers, snatched some surgical gloves, and tossed them to the others. “Gloves! Here, put these latex gloves on.” Then she gathered the others around me and began pretending to open me up. I had never in my life been so thankful for a healthy heart.
The observation window blinds were open just enough for us to see the housekeeper hurriedly pass by, then return to peer through. After a moment she seemed satisfied and continued on her way.
We couldn’t have been more apprehensive if we were really opening me up, since we had no eyes outside the room telling us what was happening. All we could do was stand there, or lie there in my case, pray, and wait. A half hour passed, then an hour. During that time Betty filled Marila in on our odyssey, and more. Since Natalie, Marty and Howie didn’t know the Lord and were a captive audience, Betty and Marila spoke of their relationships with God, not in the sense of preaching, but simply sharing with one another.
Karl fidgeted, unable to calm his anxiety. “I wonder how Rachel’s doing?”
“She’s in the best of hands,” Marila said, “Both the doctors’ and God’s.”
“How long can it take?”
The nurse considered for a moment. “Reattaching a leg severed at the thigh could take all day. Each blood vessel, each nerve, has to be reattached to the proper location, and nerves are the consistency of Jell-O so they must be extremely careful. There are new procedures for rejoining nerves using synthetic sheaths that hold the ends together. We used to think nerve cells couldn’t regenerate, but given enough time they can.” Karl was taking it all in, and one could tell such information eased his apprehension.
One hour became two, and then three. Following all we had been through, just waiting there and not knowing for what, became quite tiring.
“It’s time I was checking the lay of the land out there. They don’t connect my face with you guys, so I’m sure I’ll be safe if they’re still here. I’ll check on your friend as well.” Since we had no answer, Marila left through the scrub room.
Nearly twenty minutes later she returned. “I think this was successful. I was wondering what your hoodlums looked like, and now I know. There are still some rough-looking characters in dark business suits standing around the waiting room, but it’s time to take our patient to recovery. If any staff asks questions, we’re on a training exercise.”
She closed my surgical gown, released the wheels on the table, grasped the IV stand, and we headed for the recovery room. Since day surgery patients left the hospital directly from there, we hoped to leave undetected.
Once in the recovery room, Marila shed her surgical clothes and went outside to clear the way, but she returned moments later with an apprehensive expression. “They must be covering all the exits.”
“That leaves two possibilities,” I said, “We sprout wings, or dig our way out.”
“Forget about digging. The tunnels are already there! I should have thought about it hours ago … I’m sorry–”
“Don’t worry about it, little lady,” Howie said, “Just tell us what t’do.”
But Karl said, “You’re just going to abandon Rachel now that I–er–we have her back? We can’t do that!”
“Believe me, she’s in good hands, and I’ll take care of her as if she were my own sister … come to think of it, she is.” She flashed a very reassuring smile, but Karl was still skeptical. “I don’t blame you for not wanting to leave your wife, but I can take care of her at least as well as you.”
He let the wife comment slide past. “You’re crazy if you think I’m just going to waltz out of here and leave her in danger.”
“They won’t recognize her because of all the facial damage. She’ll require extensive reconstructive surgery before she looks anything like herself. But from what you said they know your face, so if they see you, you’re both dead.” Karl’s face took on an expression of grim resignation and he had nothing more to say.
She walked to the “Staff Only,” non-ambulatory elevator in the corridor, watching closely for prying eyes, and when the door opened she motioned to us. Still lying on the gurney, I went for a merry ride down the corridor and into the elevator. With the door finally closed, she pressed the basement button. “This may be touchy. The basement is housekeeping country. Hopefully our pesky spy is still looking other places for you.”
When the elevator door opened Marila poked her head out to scan the corridor, stepped out to check more closely, and motioned for us to follow her into the adjacent doorway. Since it was too narrow for the gurney, I had to risk jumping off the contraption and through the door, still wearing the surgical gown. Just before closing the door, the cold, bare floor reminded me to fetch my shoes and stockings from where they were stashed.
The door was at the top of a set of cement steps that passed steeply down to the sub-basement fire door. After passing through that we found the hospital heating plant in a huge room with steel mesh catwalks that allowed engineering crew access to all service locations. We followed one of the catwalks to the left for about fifty yards to the gray, cement wall at one end of the room, and descended another flight of steps to the wet, basement floor.
Pipes of every description hung from the catwalk we had just traversed, and disappeared into a square tunnel with roughly six feet of clearance beneath the pipes attached to the ceiling. Caged lamps created islands of light every hundred feet or so, but the floor was free of obstructions so walking would be easy.
“Continue along the tunnel until you reach the ‘T.’ Some of the pipes will disappear straight ahead into a smaller tunnel. Follow them.”
Howie said, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but how do y’all know so much about the bowels of this place?”
“Years ago I occasionally got bored during my lunches, so I explored.”
“So, where does your little tunnel go?”
“To the air conditioning plant. You’ll be able to leave from there, out of sight of your friends outside. Listen, please be careful. I guess you know you’re dealing with dangerous people. Anyway, I’ll be praying for you.” Somehow I knew that was no idle promise.
As we proceeded into the tunnel, Howie and I had to stoop for clearance, with my back soon complaining about it. When we reached the intersection, the smaller tunnel was more of a large pipe, roughly half the size of the first one, and round, with water dripping from it. We helped the ladies and Karl into the tunnel, then Howie followed, scraping his Stetson hat on a pipe strap. Finally I hopped up, instantly I regretting my hurry as I smacked my head smartly on the same pipe strap, giving myself a wonderful spinning sensation and instant splitting head ache. As I leaned against the wall regaining my composure, I felt blood oozing down the left side of my head and neck.
Misery is crawling with a splitting head ache through a dark, wet pipe, over slimy stuff, hoping you’re getting closer to a destination you’ve never seen. While perceptions can be erroneous, it seemed the few lamps were spaced roughly two miles apart. If traversing the earthen tunnel beneath Marty’s house had been unpleasant, scrambling through this concrete pipe was horrendous.
Complaining, however, will do no more good now than it did then. Eventually we found ourselves crawling towards, “The Light At The End Of The Tunnel.”
When It was my turn to jump down to the floor of the air conditioning plant, I was alarmed at the drop before me. While the step into the pipe had been only about three feet high, this was to be about a twelve foot drop. Watching my overhead clearance closely, I turned about, eased myself over the edge, and as gently as possible dropped to the floor.
Apparently it wasn’t gentle enough, however, since my left ankle painfully turned on landing. I instantly took my weight off the ankle, but not quickly enough to prevent at least a nice sprain, and sprawled to the floor.
I cried out loudly, trying to restrain verbiage that would have expressed my natural reaction. The others looked over and began making fun of my indelicate position, until they realized I was, in fact, hurt.
Betty was the first to reach me, saying, “Jack me love, ‘ow bad is it?”
“Bad enough, I should say–”
“Who’s stoppin’ ya?” said Howie with a grin. I must have looked puzzled because he explained, “All y’all Brits say ‘I should say,’ so I said ‘Who’s stoppin’ ya.’ You know, from sayin’. It was a joke don’t y’know … tryin’ to ease the tension?” Natalie stuck a finger in her mouth, pretending to gag. “Never mind, let’s git’ya up and survey the damage.”
He came over and lifted me as easily as if I were a child, carried me to the steps leading to the outer door, and sat me down. With the gentleness of an orthopedic doctor, he examined my ankle, grunting every few seconds. When he twisted my foot a certain direction I yelped and inadvertently kicked, missing his jaw, but dislodging his hat.
“More’n a sprain,” he said as if commenting on the weather, “Without the proper diagnostic equipment, my guess is it looks like it’s dislocated.” He looked up at me. “Gotta set it. Lift up your left leg. I’m gonna plant my foot under your left thigh and yank hard.”
I obeyed, he yanked, and I have no idea why the Russians didn’t hear me. Next thing I knew I was gazing into Betty’s angelic face as she was trying to revive me.
“Bound up y’all’s ankle as best I could, usin’ my suit coat’n belt.” He seemed to hold no rancor as he spoke, but made sure I knew it none the less. “We better git goin’,” he added, “Found a ol’ push broom that should make a passable crutch. Screwed this little ol’ pipe flange on the stick so it wouldn’t sink into the mud so bad outside.” Howie’s resourcefulness was beginning to surprise me, but not as much as it eventually would.
With his help I climbed the flight of steps up to the level of the outer door, where Betty slipped it open and surveyed the landscape. “We’re on the opposite end of the parking lot from the ‘ospital. I don’t see any suspicious people about, but let’s leave one at a time anyway, one minute apart, walk around the building and gather at a concealed location.”
So that was what we did, Howie first, Karl second, Natalie third, I hobbled out next, and finally Betty followed to the shopping center on the opposite side of the boulevard. Once there, Howie said, “I’m headin’ back for the van, wait here,” and he set out jogging in his high-healed cowboy boots, an odd sight, despite the distraction of the escalating pain in my left ankle.
Fifteen minutes later we were on our way back to our rooms, plotting ways to retrieve Rachel again. With an informer inside the hospital, we knew her anonymity would not last long. Betty said, “Howie, you seem to know lots about the medical profession … ,” and left the statement open to interpretation.
“Jack of all trades, master of none.”
“Are you master enough to be Rachel’s personal physician?”
He considered for a long moment. “A fella could go to jail for that kinda role playin’.”
“Don’t forget, we ‘ave an insider at the ‘ospital.”
“I suppose so, but I don’t like doin’ anything that could wind me up in the hoosgow.”
Marila was quite willing to risk her career helping us. Somehow, by late evening when she arrived at our rooms in an old-style, borrowed ambulance, she had managed to gather for Howie all the accouterments of a physician, including a staff badge from another hospital. “It wouldn’t do to have local credentials and a stranger’s face.” For Betty, Natalie, Marty and me she furnished ambulance attendants’ uniforms and badges
Karl tried insisting on accompanying our rescue mission, but Betty was even more insistent that he would not. He grudgingly agreed to arrange our flight instead.
Howie had tried to hire a small cargo aircraft to transport us out of harm’s way, but some of his pilot’s credentials were not current. Then we remembered Jeff Stringer’s helpfulness when we searched the eastern Bay Area for the Russian’s laboratory, and knowing of his Naval flying background we willingly assumed he was no friend of ex-KGB underworld figures.
“Does anyone know where we’ll go when we do spring Rachel?” Karl looked around to the rest of us, who stared blankly back at him.
Howie answered after a moment, “I know of a municipal airport near my ranch, down by Sugar Land. An there’s a pretty fair hospital near there too, for the lady. Karl, see if you can git in touch with yer pilot friend. He’s gotta file a flight plan, ya know.” Betty went into her purse, withdrew and glanced through her notebook, and gave Karl Jeff’s phone number. While he made the call, she began planning our disguises for Rachel’s kidnaping.
My resourceful wife again performed virtual miracles, transforming our appearances with makeup, wigs, odd bits of hair pasted where they wouldn’t normally be, and gauze rolls strategically placed in our mouths to change our facial contours. Dark glasses finished the illusion for Marty and me, with spectacles for Natalie and herself.
Since we didn’t have a camera, Howie dashed off to buy an inexpensive instant-print, and the film to go with it. When he returned, he and Betty worked together to modify the badge with his photo and name, in place of the woman’s who had lost it originally.
Marila then coached Howie in the professional idiosyncrasies of medical doctors. “I’ve seen you bluster, so I don’t need to coach you in that aspect of the medical profession. Whatever the attending physician tells you, just say, ‘Hmmm’ with a skeptical expression.” Then she produced a transfer form to get Rachel out of the hospital. “Here, study this. When you get to the I.C.U. nurse’s station, ask for one of these by form number, then fill out four or five lines illegibly and leave it casually on the counter. We’ll have the ambulance waiting at the ER entrance. And don’t forget to demand copies of all the records in her file. Without that they’d know the whole thing is bogus.”
When asked where she came by all those resources, she smiled demurely. “Twenty-five years in hospitals doing favors for one’s colleagues … .”
When he arrived at the laboratory, he was dismayed to see the building still in one piece. He was forced to admit that he had underestimated the building’s strength, but he consoled himself with the notion that a contained explosion was probably far more devastating to the interior of the lab.
He walked around the perimeter of the building until he saw the gap his device had caused in the reinforced concrete block wall. Entering the building, he picked through the rubble until he found the remains of the pilot’s body and the life-support system that had kept him alive. He’d have to do the job again to vaporize all clues.
He was puzzled, however, about what had happened to the woman’s body. The table to which she had been strapped lay on its side, across the room from where it had stood. On closer examination he saw that the restraints had been cut, and though there was blood on the floor and table, there was no body. How could he have failed at his primary mission? The lab was still there and the woman’s body was missing, and how was he to tell the unforgiving Markov of his incompetence?
Back at his car, he mixed up another explosive witch’s brew. Then he planted it in what had been the laboratory, set the timer, and left. This time there would be nothing left of the building for Markov to discover his little secret about the first explosion’s dubious outcome.
Wednesday, July 3, 6:55AM
We arrived at the hospital right on time, at the end of the night nurses’ shift. With what we hoped appeared to be professional efficiency, Marty jumped out of the ambulance’s passenger seat, swept around to the rear, opened its double-doors, withdrew the collapsible, wheeled stretcher, and pushed it through the Emergency Room doors.
With the double glass doors open I heard Howie’s booming voice saying, “Ah don’t give a rat’s ass about all y’all’s protocols and procedures. She’s mah patient and Ah wanna speak to the attending physician! Y’all git’im up here now, cuz we gotta plane t’ catch!” I must admit his acting was Academy Award caliber.
I grew restless when a half hour passed with no Rachel, especially in view of the interest a dark-suited man paid the ambulance. He ambled over from his car to investigate what was supposed to appear a routine patient transfer, copied the license plate numbers, made some other notes and skulked back.
Finally, after nearly forty minutes parked under the Emergency Room awning, we were on our way with our precious cargo to Concord, where Karl and Jeff awaited our arrival. The Russians stationed in their car observed the operation with great interest, and what I assumed was another of their vehicles followed when we left the hospital.
We knew they were still behind us as we drove through the tarmac gate at Buchanan Field. Our Russian escort drove directly to the air field office and the passenger quickly went in, probably to inquire as to our destination.
I scanned the aircraft parking area, and felt a bit unsettled when I finally spied Karl and Jeff standing beside an old DeHavilland Caribou. The olive-drab camouflage paint peeled in places, especially where there were dents and bullet holes in the wings and fuselage. The left wind screen was seriously cracked, and all the tires appeared tread-bare.
“Is this our transport to freedom?” I said to Jeff as I gingerly stepped from the ambulance passenger seat.
“Yeah. Ain’t she a beauty?”
“Are you sure it flies?”
“Hell yes, she flies! Did yeoman’s duty in ‘Nam back in the seventies.”
Howie interrupted with, “Mister Stringer, these are religious folks, so please watch your language.”
Jeff looked at me as if I were a Martian, but I said, “Never mind the language, we just want safe transport.”
“I expect she does look a little rough, but she’ll still haul a full load half-way across the country.”
“Then let’s be on our way.”
Jeff carefully estimated the cargo bay room that was available for our ambulance. After satisfying himself that it would fit, he nodded to Howie, who jumped into the driver’s seat and carefully guided it up the retractable ramp and into the cargo bay, with only inches to spare on either side. He drove slowly forward and back, until Jeff, watching an instrument panel, yelled, “Hold it!” Once parked safely inside, he set the brake and made his way past Rachel, Betty and Natalie to exit through the rear door and secure that end of the vehicle.
Jeff, of course, secured the front end. Then he entered the cockpit and pressed the button that started the auxiliary power unit, to slowly begin closing the cargo bay door.
Howie took the command seat at the left, and Jeff took the co-pilot’s seat at the right. As Marty and I took the extra seats on the flight deck, I couldn’t help commenting on the petroleum odor permeating the old aircraft. “Smells rather noticeably, what?”
Howie grinned back at me, enjoying the experience as would a ten year-old boy. “Yeah, ain’t it great?” The pre-flight checks went quickly and to my amazement, everything seemed to work.
Then came time to start the engines. Jeff, sitting in the right seat because of the wind screen cracks on the left, moved the throttle levers to the start position. “Howie, would you mind checking port engine clearance?” Howie craned his neck over his left shoulder to visually verify propeller clearance and said, “Clear!” Jeff flipped on an ignition switch and pushed a starter button. The starter motor for the left engine groaned for fifteen seconds–I counted–before the first cylinder fired with a loud pop, followed soon by another, and suddenly the engine roared to life, blowing the dense cloud of blue smoke away to the rear. When it stabilized, the process repeated identically with the right engine. Jeff synchronized the thundering engines and informed the tower that we were ready to taxi.
I might have expected the clouds of smoke at the initial startup, but when both engines continued emitting thin wisps of smoke as we taxied, I shot a questioning glance at Howie. That elicited a grin and a single large thumb pointing upward. “She’s a little bit heavy,” he shouted over the din, “what with the extra fuel, but Jeff says she’s lifted more.” I smile what I hoped was a confident smile, and nodded to him. Then I began praying in earnest.
Five minutes later we were on the center line of the runway with the engines roaring at full throttle, and Jeff standing on the brake per his Naval flight training. Finally he released the brake and we began moving, slowly at first, but our speed built steadily until the nose gear lifted off the pavement and we began climbing towards the overcast cloud cover. The turbulence lessened when Jeff retracted the landing gear, but the deafening noise didn’t.
Minutes later we were through the clouds, and the sunlight reflecting from the top of the overcast dazzled my eyes. I studied the instruments out of curiosity and noted our bearing was just north of due east. Knowing that Texas didn’t lie on that bearing, I was consumed with curiosity as to our destination. I shouted over the racket to Howie, trying to attract his attention, but with his headset on he had no idea. When I happened to glance down to the console where I sat, I noticed a headset lying there. Putting it on, I quietly said, “How do I turn this contraption on?”
I was surprised by Jeff’s answer through the headphones. “It’s already on Mister Hubert. You learn pretty quick.”
“Right. Thanks. I was just wondering where we’re heading.”
“At the moment we’re on a direct heading to Denver. Half way out, though, I’m gonna radio an amended flight plan and turn towards Oklahoma City.”
“Why the change?”
Howie chimed in, “No change. We been headed for Texas from the git-go, but I figured those Ruskies might be smart enough to monitor the airports. So Jeff here sent ‘em on a wild Caribou chase.”
He chuckled at his own wit and Jeff continued the explanation. “On the way to Oklahoma City we’re gonna have navigational trouble and make an emergency set down at Hull Air Field in Sugar Land. That’s another reason I’m sit’n here in the right seat. I’m just along for the ride. Meet your Captain, Howie Hughes.”
Howie cast a huge grin my way. Then he looked forward through the cracked wind screen and said, “Okay Jeff, I’ll take the yoke.”
Jeff looked back at me. “Gotta protect my ratings. If I was in charge and made a dumb-a … er … bonehead error like that I’d be likely to lose’em. After we touch down you’ll move up here and I’ll go back and be just one of the passengers. Howie has enough connections around there that they’ll soon forget any trouble he gets into.” Then he smiled at our Captain and slugged him on the shoulder, causing a slight but dizzying yaw of the aircraft. It seemed our two new friends were kindred spirits.
Markov was an early riser. When he received the call from Feodor Sorokin, his man at the airport, he was already supervising lavish breakfast preparations for the Brotherhood. After listening for a moment he said into the mobile, “Stay on it. They will not go to Denver, trust me.”
Then he punched in the memory number for his pilot. “Viktor, prepare Tupolev to leave at moment’s notice.
“I do not know where you go. Romeo will find latest information from Sorokin when he get there.”
After breaking off the connection he again entered Obozniev’s number and told his lieutenant, “Romeo! Go to Concord. Feodor will give instructions. I must stay with Brotherhood.”
Markov stood for a moment with a satisfied smile, feeling the exhilaration of knowing he was still on top of the situation. Now he just had to convince the Brotherhood that he was. So far the damage was controlled, and he had to be sure it stayed that way.
Even before his boss broke off, Obozniev began reveling in the prospect of finding and dealing with the troublesome, “Adam Family,” in his own way. Without gathering any of his comrades accompanying him, he fairly dashed to the boss’s limo and hurried to the airfield at Concord.
Judge Weston sat behind her desk like an iceberg, cold, inert, and formidable. “Anne,” she said with the same coolness, “I have just spoken with District Attorney Reardon because I was curious about his conclusions on those lists I told you to fax him. He never received them. Why?”
Anne’s nimble mind wasted no time. “The machine has started dropping faxes, with no error message to tell me. It must’ve begun about then.”
“All right, I’ll do it myself if I can’t trust you to get it done. Where are the original copies?”
“I put them in the archive file; let me go down and get them.” Anne forced a casual demeanor as she left the Judge’s office. The elevator took her to the basement, where the archives were kept. A left turn, rather than a right on exiting the elevator, led her to the public garage where she parked her car on a monthly permit. Of curse she would never again need that parking permit, driving, as she did, to the airport to book a flight to New York City. “Anne Williams” knew the authorities would soon discover her true identity, so it was time to leave.
Twenty-minutes later, an impatient Judge Weston pressed the intercom switch to the outer office. “Anne.” There was no response, so she pressed another switch that connected her intercom to the archive storage room.
“When did Anne Williams leave your area?”
There was a perceptible pause. “Ma’am, Anne never signed in at my desk. I’ll let–”
Judge Weston was no longer at her intercom. Being arrogant, but not stupid, she knew what her secretary’s absence meant, so she stepped over to her personal file cabinet, opened a drawer, and removed her digital camera. Connecting it to her laptop computer was automatic, as was entering the few keystrokes required to print the photos she wanted. When the printer was finished, she removed the copies of the original lists, walked back to the outer office, placed them into the fax machine, entered Reardon’s fax number and pushed the Send button.
The Tu-134 became airborne after only a short takeoff run, with Romeo supervising from the right seat. Twenty-five minutes into the flight, his mobile sounded. Feodor Sorokin was on the line. “They change flight plan. Now they are going to OKC, and will land in forty minutes.”
“Idiot! Why you wait so long to call? Incompetent fool.”
“Romeo, I just find out. I could not–”
“I am Boss of operation! You call me Comrade Obozniev. And what is this ‛Acosee?’”
Poor Sorokin covered the mouthpiece of his telephone and Obozniev heard some mumbling as he consulted the airfield office clerk. “That was O-K-C. Is Will Rogers World Airport.”
“Feodor, my friend. OKC is big airport. Ask nice man where they park.”
More mumbling ensued. “They park at OK Air Service.” Obozniev broke off the connection without another word.
After cursing in Russian for a moment about the incompetents he had to work with, he unnecessarily shouted at Viktor. “Maximum speed to Oklahoma City!”
With his minuscule patience nearly exhausted, he spoke through clenched teeth. “You will address me as Comrade Obozniev now! Markov put me in charge, so I am The Boss.”
“Comrade Obozniev, full throttle for that long will kill engines–”
“You question my order!” He drew his gun to point it at the pilot, who looked at The Boss as though he were mad.
“Comrade Obozniev, if you kill me you have no pilot.”
“Yes, of course I know that, Obey me or I kill you when we land.”
Viktor knew he could not afford the luxury of expressing his true reaction, but simply said, “Yes Comrade.” Then he pushed the throttle levers to their stops. If they made it to Oklahoma City, the turbo-prop engines would be exhausted and badly in need of overhaul.
The pilot referred to the G.P.S.(Global Positioning System) and typed his position into the navigational computer. Then he found the position of Will Rogers World Airport and typed that into the computer to get his new bearing. Thank goodness he did his homework and wrote key information into his notebook in advance. After finding the frequency of the nearest FAA air field he notified them of their change in destination.
An hour and a quarter later the Tupolev was within control range of Rogers Tower, but their rapid progress was beginning to have its effect on the engines. With air speed down to four hundred knots and smoke trailing from the engines’ exhausts, Viktor knew they would be waiting a few weeks in Oklahoma City for rebuilt engines to be installed before they could go further. He was certain his beloved aluminum bird would never make it to another destination, if she survived the take off. Sitting quietly at the controls, Viktor seethed with hatred for the upstart sitting at his right, and longed for a way to rid himself his “New Boss.”
Once the Tupolev was parked at the air service, Romeo proceeded to the office and as American-sounding as possible, spoke to the desk clerk. “Some friends arrived short time ago. You tell me where Caribou parked?”
The clerk looked at him strangely. “What Caribou?”
“Caribou airplane landed here. Where is it?”
“I know you meant an airplane, but I haven’t seen a Caribou around here in months, and even if I had, I wouldn’t tell you about it.”
Romeo was tempted to solve this little problem the way he usually solved his problems, but realized that would hurt his chances of learning what he wanted to know. “What a shame. My friend say he would meet me right here. I hope nothing is wrong.” He reached into his left jacket pocket, separated a counterfeit hundred-dollar note from the roll and began fingering it on the counter top. “You know if inbound flight plan was changed short time ago?”
The clerk’s eyes were practically saucers as he looked at the apparently valuable piece of paper within his reach. “Well … now that you mention it.” He reached to the worthless note and slid it towards himself. “I did hear of a flight that diverted to the Houston area about an hour ago. Seems the idiot pilot flew the wrong bearing and wound up approaching Sugar Land by mistake. Houston tower called Rogers tower to update the flight plan as soon as he requested emergency landing permission at Hull Field.”
Before he could finish talking, the clerk watched the Russian walk quickly back towards his Tu-134. With a satisfied grin he picked up the note from the counter, scowled a bit, and held it up to the light for closer examination. Suddenly he hurried to the office door and shouted at Romeo. “Hey buddy! Hey you! Russian! This bill’s a fake!” He began following Romeo towards the airplane at a jog, but the Russian was aboard before he could catch up.
Being only a clerk, however, and certainly not a violent man, he decided the rather large hand gun pointing at him out of the shadow of the Tupolev’s door was enough motivation to desist and return to his office. As soon as the Commies were out of his hair, he’d call the FBI, the CIA, or somebody.
Viktor gently said, “Comrade Obozniev, engines are spent. I think they do not get us off ground.”
“If we get in air, we make it to Sugar Land?”
“Not fast, but we get there.”
“Then start engines! We risk it.”
“We need fuel to go on, and what you mean, ‘Sugar Land?’”
Romeo refused to admit ignorance of Sugar Land’s location, or of their need for fuel. “Idiot! You think I don’t know that? Go get fuel! I do your job and find flying direction to Sugar Land.”
Viktor virtually launched himself down the boarding steps and dashed to the fuel depot, leaving Romeo to return purposefully to the office. The clerk backed away from the counter when he looked up and saw Romeo enter again, but the Russian shot him a friendly smile, instead of just plain shooting him. “You right, bill I give you is fake. I play the little joke. I buy it back for real twenty dollars.”
The nearly petrified clerk slowly stepped forward, reached below the counter, and placed the counterfeit note on top. Romeo took it back, then he held up the twenty dollar note. “Where is Sugar Land?”
“Why, it’s in Texas, sir, right near Houston.”
“I know that!” he lied, “Tell me what bearing to fly.”
“How should I know that? Do you think I have all the charts memorized?”
“You have chart for that place?”
“It’s thirty-seven, fifty,” the clerk said carefully.
“You take twenty.” The threat in his body language was quite obvious.
“Well, whadia know,” the clerk said with no enthusiasm, “I was wrong, they’re on sale today. Just twenty bucks.” He stepped to a filing cabinet, fingered through it for a moment, withdrew a packet of maps and placed it on the counter.
Romeo took it, and his evil leer nearly dissuaded the clerk from reaching for the note. But he somehow found the courage.
As Romeo approached the Tu-134 once again, the petrol wagon was just parking by the left wing. He called out to Viktor, “Not full tanks! Enough for Sugar Land, Texas.”
“Comrade, where in Texas is Sugar Land?”
“Idiot! Why I put up with you? Sugar Land is near Houston! I have charts.”
He reentered the aircraft and dropped the charts on the navigator’s console behind the right seat. Then he returned to the door and shouted, “Hurry! We must go!” Though Romeo enjoyed being The Boss, dealing with these idiotic menials was frustrating at times.
After a half-hour of enduring Romeo’s threats and other verbal abuse, Viktor had filed the new flight plan and was in the left seat, coaxing the poor, overworked engines to life once more. With the petrol tanks half-filled, the flight plan filed and the Tupolev taxiing, Viktor cast a pleading glance towards Romeo, but The Boss dashed all hope of aborting the nearly suicidal departure attempt by his murderous return stare.
At the down-wind end of the runway, Viktor pushed the throttles to their stops and felt the power build. What was the difference between Romeo shooting him and their both dying in a crash? At least he’d take The Boss with him.
He watched the engine revolution gages, hoping for more speed. But their RPMs leveled off at least one thousand less than they should have for a safe takeoff. After a few seconds Viktor released the brakes and began the long, slow roll, hopefully to minimum airspeed before he ran out of runway. Gradually the momentum built until he thought he could rotate the nose skyward.
Too near the pavement’s end, with the structures, fence and trees ridiculously close, the landing gear lifted free of the runway. Viktor straightaway pushed the lever that would retract the gear and reduce air resistance so maybe, just maybe, they could clear the obstacles.
As he passed over them and slowly gained altitude, he felt relief wash over his body. He glanced at Romeo who sat stoically, unaffected by the near-death experience, and realized that The Boss was either much more stupid, or much more courageous than he had thought.
The Caribou was not fast, but we arrived safely over Howie’s “Stompin’ Ground” as he enjoyed calling Southeast Texas. The broken cloud cover revealed to us a panorama of urban sprawl that surpassed even the Bay Area in scope.
Howie radioed for emergency landing and parking instructions from Houston Intercontinental Air Traffic Control, since the larger airfield’s tower controlled the entire area. “We’re gonna have quite the reception committee once we touch down if we don’t tell’em we have our own amb’lance.” So he radioed that message as well, hoping to reduce our processing time and get Rachel to the hospital more quickly.
Deftly exploiting the Caribou’s short landing capability, Jeff approached slowly, letting the landing gear kiss the pavement, then reversed the propellers’ pitch and gunned the throttle. We slowed in plenty of time to turn into the first taxiway, and within less than a minute he was shutting down the engines. For a fighter pilot, he certainly knew how to handle a flying van.
Howie had quite a bit of explaining to do before he satisfied the local airfield manager that our emergency landing was the result of an honest mistake. In my mind, Rachel’s life was an infinitely higher priority than technical truthfulness.
Finally we left the air field and proceeded to the nearest critical care facility, which happened to be Fort Bend Hospital in Missouri City. With Howie driving, Marty and I sharing the passenger seat, and Jeff, Natalie, Betty, Karl and Rachel crowded into the back, we had little room to move inside the Oldsmobile ambulance.
Once there we had Rachel admitted under the name of Mary Hughes, overruling Karl’s preference of Mary Adams. We discussed at length how we would monitor her progress and security, and we managed to overrule Karl once again by electing Howie to stay with her.
Markov was still playing host to the Brotherhood, biding his time until he heard Obozniev’s report about Natalie and the rest of the “Adams Family.” What he heard of the conversation, however, made him physically ill.
Kaskov looked over to Markov, squinting as he said, “How did they find that information?
“Is it official?
“Do they know where I am?
“Are you sure?
Kaskov’s countenance fell when he finally said, “How long?”
After the answer to his question he broke off the connection and continued staring at Markov. “List of incriminating information you allowed to leak is now in New York DA’s hands. He took to Grand Jury and got indictment against me.” With a fatalistic scowl he glanced around to the others seated at the table. “With that information he will be able to prosecute me, even to death penalty.”
Kaskov turned away, stood, and returned to his room. Markov watched him leave, mouth agape and forehead clammy with a cold sweat. With a deep sigh he withdrew his own mobile and entered Romeo’s number. “Romeo, find them. Is my final order, I am dead man.”
Markov stood for a long moment considering his options. He knew he was going to die, but how could he save face and die with honor? With an expression of grim resolve he dismissed his household help and slowly walked into his study.
He stood before his desk for long minutes before opening the top drawer on the right side of his desk and removing his trusty Tokarev nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol. Holding the grip in his right hand, he grasped the slide with his left, chambered a round, walked into his lavatory, sat down against the wall of his shower, carefully positioned the gun in his mouth, aiming towards the center of his brain, and squeezed the trigger.
He neither heard the report nor felt the hollow-point slug shred his brain, but was surprised and alarmed at his next sensation. Instead of the oblivion he had expected, he found himself standing before a blinding light along with an innumerable multitude of others who were also surprised and alarmed at the fate they knew would be theirs.