Tyler Hillman had excelled at mathematical puzzles from childhood. That aptitude led him to easily master the most advanced mathematics courses throughout his academic career, drawing him first to engineering, then to aviation. His new situation, however, presented the most challenging puzzle of his life. Though he had no keyboard or computer monitor, he gradually learned to control the Russians’ computer by thinking in binary strings, and as he discovered consistent responses to certain binary combinations, he memorized them to use as machine language commands. Since he bypassed all normal user interfaces, the Russians knew nothing of his manipulations.
His first self-assigned task was to re-calibrate the impulses the “scientists” used to inflict pain on Rachel. Then, once he mastered their local computer, he reached out to include other computers on the Russians’ secure network. The process took days, being interrupted as it was by their periodic, inept probing.
During a necessary break from the mental challenge, he thought, Rachel, I hope my computer language thoughts haven’t caused you any distress.
I guessed what you were about so I tried to keep my mind clear of distractions. Actually, I’ve been trying to make sense of it all. Would it be possible to brief me as you go. Perhaps I could pick up something useful from your process.
I’ll try. One of the things I’ve been working on is minimizing your pain when they torture you. I think I’ve managed to re-calibrate their pain impulses. It may still hurt, but at least it will be more endurable. Just remember to put on a good act when they throw the switch on you. I don’t want them to know I’ve hacked their systems.
Gratitude so filled Rachel’s heart that she didn’t need to consciously think the words for Tyler to know it. He simply went back to work refining his technique, with Rachel learning all she could.
After a considerable period, Rachel sensed relative silence from Tyler’s mind.
Oh, I hope I my thoughts didn’t distract you from your work. I’ve been trying to keep my mind quiet.
You’re fine, Rachel. I was just wondering, well, what do you look like?
Is that all? I’m afraid I’m nothing special to look at; brown hair, rather small of stature. What else can I tell you?
If we both get out of this alive I’d like to meet you in person.
I should say we’ve already met. How much more in person can we be, than in each other’s heads. She felt his consternation.
That’s not exactly what I meant. I’d like to get to know you better … you know, be friends.
I have no issue with that, but be warned, I’m probably old enough to be your mum.
Tyler paused for a moment, taken aback by Rachel’s statement. Oh, you mean mother. Say, how the he … heck did you get into this position? By your thoughts, I figured you were in your twenties.
Call it young at heart. I’ve challenged myself all my life, and that’s led me into some interesting situations.
She could almost hear his laughter. I guess so.
Monday, June 19, 7:15AM
Marty’s mobile played a rather low fidelity rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth from its belt pouch. When he placed the instrument to his ear, his mood declined markedly when he heard Witherspoon’s voice. “Marty. Roger. How about coming over to Lev Markov’s place for a little party?”
“I don’t know, Roger. To be honest, I’m not very comfortable with the man, and–”
“Nonsense Marty. You’re coming and that’s final. Make it quick, okay?”
“Well, I suppose so. I’ll see you later.”
As Marty approached Markov’s hacienda-style mansion south-east of Oakland, he marveled at the acres of carefully groomed lawn spotted with willow and various fruit trees. A man-made brook meandered roughly parallel to his quarter-mile long, two lane drive.
When he parked his car by Markov’s front door, hardly a moment passed before Marty was startled by a large, pock-marked face appearing at his driver’s side window. It belonged to a formidable-looking butler, who reached out his meaty hand to grasp Marty’s door handle. Since it hadn’t yet been unlocked, his hand slipped off the handle, and he ejaculated a stream of what must have been Russian profanity. Reluctantly, Marty unlocked the door.
With Marty’s door finally open, the butler stepped back and said in his heavy, Russian accent, “You are Marty Hillstead?” Marty nodded, not feeling at liberty to correct the man’s error. “Please follow to see Mister Markov.” Marty felt as if he were about to jump into a snake pit, but he saw no other option.
Markov’s study was located towards the rear of the house, just off the courtyard. When they entered the room, he found Markov, Roger Witherspoon, and three more large, formidable-looking men waiting for him. Roger evaded eye-contact with him, which bothered Marty even more.
Markov looked to Witherspoon, who nodded back to him. Then he said in his thick, Russian accent, “Marty, glad you could make it. Take the seat.” He indicated a chair positioned in the middle of the room. “You want cigarette?”
Never having started the filthy habit, Marty just shook his head and seated himself in what was obviously the interrogation chair.
“Hope you don’t mind I light up.
“Natalie!” Markov looked towards the interior door of the room. Then, looking back down at his guest, “Marty, you want something to drink?” Without waiting for him to answer, he again bellowed, “Natalie!”
A woman wearing a conservative suit appeared in the doorway. She shot an unvoiced question to Markov, who looked back down to Marty. “Well?”
“Gee … guess I’ll take a double shot of Scotch, no ice, thanks.” The woman disappeared through the doorway, apparently to fetch the drink.
“So, Marty.” The Russian sported a knowing expression. “I hear you had meeting a few days ago, at Golden Gate Park. I have photographs to show you talking with people.” Markov displayed a ghostly greenish photo taken by an infrared camera that showed Marty, Betty, and Jack walking together. “Tell me about it.”
Marty mustered as much confidence as he could manage. “There’s not much to tell. Just some old friends I’ve been keeping in touch with.”
Markov paused a long moment for effect. “One of your ‘old friends’ was Karl Adams,” His voice was thick with spite. “Tell me where he is.”
Suddenly Marty felt an iron grip on his arms and shoulders. Then someone grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled his head over the back of the chair.
Markov shook his head in a silent command to release him. “I am so sorry for bad manners of my comrades.” Then with mock sternness he addressed his men, “Never to deal with the difficult guest before he refresh himself.”
The woman returned with one drink on a tray and lowered it to within Marty’s reach. When he took it, nodding his thanks to her, he noticed she was exotically attractive, with large dark eyes and long, gray-streaked dark hair drawn severely back and pinned up into a bun. He wasn’t much of a drinker, so he sipped the strong liquor hoping to delay whatever it was Markov had in mind for him.
Marty chugged the liquid with much spluttering and coughing, and returned the glass reluctantly to the tray. He noted her tall, statuesque figure walking back towards the door, but this predicament damped his appreciation of such visual delights.
Once she closed the door, Markov nodded to his men and they again seized his arms, tied them behind his chair back, and tied his ankles to its rear legs. A strong hand again pulled his head back, completely immobilizing him.
Markov had a strange glint in his eyes. “Do you know what lighted cigarette can do to eyeball?” He blew on the ember and held it before Marty’s face. “I understand can be very painful.”
10:30PM, Phillips Lake, Oregon
Marty’s basement accommodated us in reasonable comfort. Though we had covered the windows heavily with blankets, we kept our lighting minimal. As we read samples from Marty’s library under little more than candle light, Betty said, “Quick! Put out the lights!” So we did. “I think I ‘eard a car engine stop.”
We felt our way through the pitch blackness to different windows and slowly moved the coverings just enough to peer outside. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary on the front side of the house, so we slowly returned the window coverings to their positions and felt our way to the rear windows.
On looking past those drapes there at first seemed nothing to see. Then a shadow moved against the dim reflection of the starlit sky off the lake water. Apparently Betty had spied it too, as she shushed us before we could say anything.
Five minutes later we heard glass break from some distance away inside the house, apparently on the second floor. After a few minutes of silence we heard the floor over our heads creak slightly, then an occasional, cautious step. Again a few minutes passed and we heard someone exiting the house over the front porch.
We stood, frozen, for another couple of minutes, until I detected a familiar, alarming odor in the air. “I say, do you smell–”
The others completed my sentence, with Karl crying out “gasoline,” and Betty screaming “petrol” in harmony. We knew we had to vacate immediately, but before we could locate Marty’s escape route, the house above us seemed to explode into flame.
With no concern for stealth under the circumstances, we showed our torches about the basement until we spied the way to Marty’s tunnel. The blaze roaring above the ceiling sounded as though it was in the cellar with us, but we still entered the tunnel cautiously because of our concern for the advertized booby traps.
Despite our fear of the inferno over our heads, we made our way down the earthen tunnel foot by foot, with Betty in the lead because of her smaller size and greater agility. After proceeding about fifty feet into the tunnel, Betty suddenly held her arms straight out to her sides and slowly backed off a few feet. “My foot ‘it a different sort of surface. It feels springy, weak.”
She motioned to follow, and we carefully approached the position of her furthest footfall. Brushing away the loose earth revealed a rough platform of boards. I knelt at their edge and placed my palm against one of them with moderate pressure. It flexed alarmingly. The weakened, rotten condition of the boards made comment unnecessary.
I lifted one of them aside and shone my torch beneath. The sight took my breath away. “I say! I shouldn’t like to be impaled on those spikes. It’s a good six-foot drop.” We shuffled the boards about to clear off the earth and get an idea of the pit’s length, revealing at least a five foot span. The width extended from one side of the tunnel to the other, leaving no ledge along which to pass.
Karl shook his head. “There’s no way we can get past that, and we sure can’t go back. Any ideas?”
Of course, Betty and I agreed with his assessment. We couldn’t return to the cellar, since the house could collapse at any moment, and we apparently couldn’t go forward.
Imminent death, however, has a most amazing effect on mental acuity. Karl and I began speaking simultaneously, but he motioned for me to continue. “One thickness of board won’t support much weight, but what about laying them on top of one another. Their combined strength may support the heaviest of us, which is likely to be me.”
Suddenly, Betty said, “Take off your trousers!” Karl and I looked at each other, and then back to Betty. She started undoing her belt and noticed us simply stared at her. Frustrated, she added, “We’ve got to make a safety rope, and do you see a coil of it lying about?” Without further objection, we each shed our trousers, much too afraid for our lives to feel embarrassment, and tied the legs together to make a sort of rope.
“Now, I’ll tie it about me waste and you two ‘old on to the other end as if me life depended upon it.” She then proceeded quickly and gracefully across.
Next was Karl’s turn, and while his balance wasn’t as good as Betty’s, he eventually made it.
Suddenly we heard a great crash as the inferno collapsed into the basement behind us. We didn’t need our torches to see the burning wreckage filling the tunnel and the smoke washing along the ceiling towards us. I knew I had to traverse the impossibly narrow, rotten bridge or die trying, so Betty threw me one end of our rope and I tied it about my own waist. I briefly committed the affair to the Lord, backed off two steps, and at quick march began crossing the boards. They were limber, but holding my weight, until with three feet left to go, I mis-stepped and began losing my balance. I tried to jump to the edge, but the extra force on the weakened boards caused them to crack and I had no solid footing from which to jump. Instead I sprawled towards the safety of the far edge, and with a healthy tug on the makeshift rope, Betty and Karl managed to keep me off the spikes and drag me over the edge.
A few yards further on the tunnel turned to the right and so did we. Not more than ten feet beyond that, Betty again held out an arm while holding the torch’s beam steady on one spot. “There’s a slight glint in the floor, reflecting from my torch.” She stooped for closer examination. “It seems to be a trip wire, connected to who knows what ‛azard. Step carefully now.” So first Betty followed her own advice, then I, only to step on another wire that triggered a localized cave-in. Betty and I jumped clear, but Karl, lagging behind, was covered with loose earth and stones from the tunnel roof. He probably could have dug himself free, but Betty and I helped him out to expedite our journey.
Some distance further on we reached a “T” that would have been truly puzzling had we approached from its leg. But we arrived from one arm, and assumed it had been placed there to confuse someone approaching from the other end of the tunnel.
We turned left and continued along to finally arrive at a door that appeared embedded into the tunnel’s walls. I slid the bolt free of the door post and first tried pulling it towards us, but when it wouldn’t move I pushed against it. Stiffly, it swung away to reveal the darkness of a room on the other side. Passing through the door, we found ourselves in what had to be Marty’s root cellar, and our torches revealed carefully compacted earthen walls and floor, and a cement ceiling. The door through which we entered had apparently been covered with similarly compacted earth to conceal it from intruders.
Looking about, we finally saw what had to be the exit, or entrance, depending upon one’s perspective. I tried to slide that bolt aside, but found it apparently locked from the outside.
Hope for escape fled from us. Retreat wasn’t an option, so all we could do was stand, looking from one to another and back to the locked door.
Soon, the sound of wind penetrated our tomb from the outside, distracting us from our melancholy. We stepped up to the door and peered through some cracks, to see an irregular orange light. Then we heard a distant rumbling sound, growing louder by the second. It didn’t take long to realize the terrible truth that the burning house had sparked a major fire in the woods surrounding it.
Panic is an ugly word, but it’s the only explanation for my next action. Despite knowing it was a useless gesture, first I, then Karl stepped up to the door and put our backs to it, pushing with every ounce of strength we had. But for flexing, it remained as secure as a bank vault.
“Betty, please! Give us a hand. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“It’s no use, Jack. Even if we could get the door open, we’d just be walking into an inferno.”
I stood stupidly, not comprehending her reasoning, so she continued. “The door’s likely to burn. If we can get away from the fire, down the tunnel, we might just be spared.”
Without further discussion, Karl and I agreed that our best chance was to retreat into the tunnel and close the inner door after us. As we huddled in the tunnel, we held the inner door open just enough to watch orange light show brightly through cracks in the outer door. We heard a loud crackling, with occasional crashes, but the crackling turned into roaring, and as quickly as a bomb detonating, the outer door burst inward with a shower of embers, and the concrete ceiling collapsed into the root cellar. I instantly shut the door through which we had watched the cataclysm, and we backed down the tunnel while watching slivers of shimmering orange light through the door’s cracks.
Marty watched a red Hummer pull into Markov’s circular drive and park just outside the double glass door leading to his study. Markov and his goons stood to greet the new arrivals when they entered, with bear hugs all around. “Gregor, telephone report was good, but please, give details.”
Gregor accepted a seat on the davenport. “As I told you, place went up like big fire cracker–”
“How you do it this time?” Markov was eager to enjoy the tale.
“I make aluminum foil bowl and pour gasoline into it,” the arsonist bragged, “then I twist it closed and put it in microwave. Then we splash rest of gas around floor and turn on microwave. That give us time to get clear before fireworks start.”
“You sure they not escape from house?”
“We watch from both sides and no one run out. If they were there, they are now crispy chicken.” Gregor chuckled at his own humor.
Still sitting, tied to the chair in the middle of the room, Marty desperately hoped his friends had found the tunnel and made good their escape. He wanted to pray for them, but was under such conviction for his self-righteousness that he would have felt hypocritical doing so. He had hated telling Markov where to find them, but felt he could be of greater service to them if he were alive and able to see. Of course he also told himself that his fear of torture had nothing to do with it, thinking such weakness would have made him less of a man.
“Fire spread to trees and we run to car. I assure you, no one escape.”
Gregor looked concerned because Markov no longer appeared happy. “Hey boss, I did okay. Yes?”
Markov looked respectfully up at Gregor. “Not to worry, you did good. I just wanted to watch Adams die. That man has charmed life. I do not believe he is dead until I see his cold body at my feet.
Markov nodded towards Marty. “Witherspoon, take care of your friend.” Witherspoon looked surprised, but the Russian ignored it. “I go to see with my own eyes if Adams is dead.” And with that, Markov and his cadre left for his limousine.
Witherspoon stood in front of Marty with his hands clasped behind his back, but Marty couldn’t determine from his expression what he was thinking. “So, it comes down to this. Oh, what shall I do?” Feigned concern filled his voice and face. “You probably never knew that your ‘Goodie Two Shoes’ routine has always griped me. But being instructed by the ‘Boss’ to kill you … why,” a grin spread across his face, “that’s an unexpected pleasure.”
Was it hours, or days, that we had hugged the dirt floor of the smoky, oxygen-depleted tunnel? My throat and lungs felt as though the firestorm had raged right through us, rather than through the forest, mere feet above our heads. And I assumed I wasn’t the only one whose headache raged with a force rivaling that conflagration.
Anxious to escape to fresh air, we inched our way past the inner door’s charred remains, and confronted the virtual wall of cement that had once covered the root cellar. With bare hands, we dug our own rough tunnel through packed soil and tree roots, and over the broken, cement slab. Then, before we could climb over the charred tree that had caused the damage, we had to blanket it with inches of that same soil.
Eventually, we stood at the edge of what could have been our tomb, and savored the relatively fresh air. Then we picked our way through burned forest to the road leading away from Marty’s property, beginning our long walk back to Baker City.
To the east, a plume of smoke rose to block the morning sunshine, and imparted a weird, artificial quality to the light. A four engine, propeller driven aircraft–a converted, P-3 Orion–roared low over the charred landscape. Before it disappeared into the cloud to deliver its payload of fire retardant, it was close enough for us to read the numbers on the red-painted, vertical stabilizer, and to observe the fuselage’s red-stained belly. I thanked God that we had suffered through the tunnel ordeal, rather than fly in harm’s way fighting the blaze.
We walked along the concrete road, detouring around still smoking, downed trees, while being careful not to step into some hidden bed of embers. It was slow going, and we got progressively more hungry and tired.
Witherspoon casually placed his right hand into his trousers pocket and slowly moved to within inches of Marty’s knees, while maintaining his hateful, gloating stare. He jerked his hand out of pocket and flipped open a wicked-looking knife in one quick action, causing the nervous prisoner to start. Satisfied with his little joke, Witherspoon then moved around to the back of the chair.
Not knowing what to expect, Marty tried to follow his tormentor with his eyes until he lost sight of him directly behind the chair. Suddenly a popping noise and a pull on his leg caused Marty to jump as if he had been stabbed.
“Hey, don’t hurry this along by jumping like that. I haven’t hurt you, yet.” He sliced another rope, around Marty’s left ankle. “Besides, I’d hate to soil the place. Gaining the trust and loyalty of Markov’s boys is hard enough without creating a bloody mess for them to clean up.”
As Witherspoon began on the wrist bindings, Marty said, “Why do you want to impress them?”
Witherspoon chuckled. “Marty, sometimes you are so stupid. You didn’t think I was working for them, did you? You’re about to be killed by the future boss of the Stateside Russian Maffia. They think I’m a quarter Russian.” He laughed as though he had told a clever joke.
When the last of the ropes parted, Witherspoon commanded, “Stand up!”
Marty rose to his feet, exaggerating his stiffness.
Casually hefting his knife, obviously enjoying the feeling of power it gave him, Witherspoon moved around the chair to face his prisoner. “Turn around and put your hands behind your head.”
Marty began turning to his left and raising his hands as if to obey, but bashed Witherspoon’s right wrist with his own right hand, knocking the knife free to land on the floor a few feet away.
The gamble had paid off. Witherspoon was dumbfounded for fully a second. When he realized he had lost his only advantage, he dove towards the knife to retrieve it, giving Marty enough time to pick up the substantial, straight-backed, wooden chair, and crash it over Roger’s upper back.
He hit the floor hard and lay there for a long moment. Then he rolled half-way over to look up at Marty, but first glanced towards his knife. “Marty, are you trying to kill me? I was just kidding about hurting you …” Suddenly he tried to lunge for the knife, but Marty again crashed the chair down, this time breaking it over his head and neck, stopping the struggle altogether.
Not accustomed to such violence, Marty became weak in the knees and quickly sat on the floor, where he stared at Witherspoon’s bleeding head for more than five minutes. At that moment, after the commotion of the brief fight, the mansion seemed as quiet as a mausoleum. He realized he was quite alone with this … corpse? Had he killed a man?
The possibility of his being a killer began to consume him, and he had to learn whether Witherspoon was alive or dead. Crawling around the body, he looked for some sign of life, then he picked up a leg of the broken chair to poke the man’s side. There was no response. He crept up to Roger’s head and tried to feel for a pulse at his carotid artery. Either he had no skills as a paramedic, or the man was dead.
Finally he began thinking of such things as escaping Markov’s estate, and staggered to the front door, hoping to get away in his own car. Trying the door, he found it bolted, and hadn’t the slightest idea where to find the key. He ran from room to room, window to window, but found each of them barred like a prison cell.
Then Marty thought of the patio exit from Markov’s office. He ran back into the room and deftly stepped past Roger to the sliding glass door. Unlatching it, he breathed a sigh of relief, then stepped into the sun-drenched patio to find the wrought iron gate closed. When he walked over and shook it, he found it was locked securely, with no apparent unlocking mechanism.
Cursing as he had not done in years from the escalating frustration, Marty ran to Roger’s iridescent, cream-colored Cadillac, parked at the curb opposite the gate. But of course the keys were missing.
With no idea how long he had before one of the Russians returned, he ran back into the office and stood, looking down at Roger. Fear and shock began to fill the void left by the temporary adrenaline flow of the fight, and he found himself shivering uncontrollably.
Marty steeled himself to retrieve Witherspoon’s car keys, even if it required probing his trousers pockets, but he paused to study the body once again before beginning the ghastly project. After kicking Witherspoon’s leg with no response, he patted the near pocket and felt nothing like a bundle of keys. Then he reached over and patted the other pocket. Still nothing. If the keys were on his person, he must have been lying on them.
Marty rolled him onto to his back. Since the man’s eyes were closed, Marty hoped he had only beaten him senseless, rather than lifeless. Patting his pockets again, he found the telltale lump of keys, reached into the pocket and removed them.
Before leaving, he remembered he needed to warn the others, so he stepped over to Markov’s desk and dialed the ornate, gold-plated telephone. Karl answered his mobile on the second ring. “Karl, I’m so glad you’re all right. How are the others?”
“They’re okay, no thanks to you.”
“I’m sorry. They were threatening to kill me, and I knew they meant it. I thought I could be more help to you alive. Besides, you made it through the tunnel like I said.”
“Again, no thanks to you. What was the idea of rigging the tunnel? We could’ve been killed.”
“Well, I can’t undo that, and I’m sorry you were in danger, but I’ve gotten free of Witherspoon. He’s lying over there unconscious … I hope. Say, where are you now? I can drive up to meet you.”
“I’m not sure we should trust you. That’s the second time you’ve almost gotten us killed.”
“I don’t blame you for being suspicious. Just give me a landmark to look for and I’ll stop there and get out of the car so you can see I’m alone.”
“I don’t know this area, so you tell me.”
“Okay, I’ll show up at Baker City Hall in twelve hours, park out front and walk around the block. If it looks safe, you can come to me.
“Oh by the way, Markov is heading your way. He wants to make sure you’re dead, so he’s going to my place first. They’re in his black limo, so watch yourselves.” Then he broke off the connection.
Marty walked to the car, unlocked it, got in, buckled the seatbelt and started the engine. He backed up to a position where he could get a running start at the gate, put the gear selector into low range and stood on the throttle. The surprisingly quiet surge of power enabled the Cadillac to accelerate to a speed of thirty miles per hour before reaching the gate. The car shuddered on impact and instantly both front air bags exploded, obscuring his vision as he tried to control it. Finally, several yards onto the lawn opposite the gate, the car skidded to a stop. By then the air bags had deflated so he got out and jogged around the building to his own car.
Though Marty had assumed the Russians would drive to Oregon, Markov’s Tupolev 134 delivered them to Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton, roughly one and a quarter hours after it left the Bay Area. The first thing he did on arrival was hire a cab to transport Romeo, Gregor, and a wad of drug money to the nearest used car dealer to purchase two passenger vans.
Fred Gibson, proprietor of Gibbies Good Cars and Trucks, thought he had died and gone to heaven when the two Russians got out of the cab waving hundred-dollar notes. They didn’t seem to care how much they paid, or in what mechanical condition the vehicles happened to be. Twenty minutes after they walked onto the car lot, he watched one drive away in a blue and gray Ford Econoline, and the other in a rusty white GMC Vandura. Both were over priced lemons.
Markov dismissed the vans’ rough appearance, as long as they would help him find closure concerning Karl Adams. Since he owned neither the local police departments, nor the Oregon State Police, his drivers had to obey the rules of the road, causing the drive to Baker City to take nearly two hours.
Getting to Marty’s property at Phillips Lake further delayed them. The fire had spread roughly eastward in a triangle that threatened both the hamlet of Salisbury and the outskirts of Baker City.
Markov, of course, rode in the Ford, whose air conditioning managed to keep its interior comfortable while minimizing the smoke penetrating to the passengers’ lungs. His comrades riding in the GMC, however, didn’t enjoy such luxuries, coughing themselves hoarse along the way.
Just after returning to the roadway from detouring about a fallen tree trunk, Betty stopped, cocked her head, and gestured to us to be quiet. “Someone’s driving this way. We’d better ‘ide off in the woods til we can see who it is. They’ll ‘ave to stop at that fallen tree.”
The sparse ground cover remaining in that immediate area forced us to hike quickly through the charred trees, to find large enough ones to hide us, while remaining close enough to spy on our visitors.
Only seconds after finding concealment, we saw two passenger vans proceeding carefully along the road, driving around each small limb they encountered. When they stopped near the fallen tree, twenty soot-blackened men piled out of the vans. Complaining bitterly in Russian, they threw what at first appeared to be rags over the smoking limbs and heaved in unison to move the tree a couple of inches at a time. Had we not realized who they were, we might have found the sight too amusing to control ourselves.
A half hour later they shuffled back to their vehicles, climbed in and drove down the road to the next fallen tree a couple of hundred yards away.
“That was rather too close for comfort.” I had hoped parodying my habit of stating the obvious would provide some comic relief. But no one laughed, as we resumed our trek towards Baker City, still five miles distant.
Rachel often kipped while trying to keep her mind quiet. Always the considerate sort, she tried to avoid distracting Tyler from hacking the Russians’ computer system. Besides that, her intravenous nourishment just kept her alive, and nothing more. In effect, they were starving her. In one of her more lucid moments she remembered her promise to call or e-mail her friends.
Ty. Her mind worked sluggishly, as if she was struggling to awaken from a shallow trance. Do you have e-mail?
Good question, let me ask my silicone friend. The usual jumble of binary thought followed, lulling her to sleep once again.
Following an indeterminate time, she awoke to, Rachel, wake up. Rachel, wake up. Rach–
Yes Ty. Sorry I’m so inattentive.
What e-mail address do you want to access?
She had to think for a moment to recall it. Try r-a-y-e-s, the number sixty, at e-m-net dot net. Tell them we are in a concrete block building a few miles off to the north of the highway on a gravel road, somewhere between Antioch and … and … Oakley, and the Russians are guarding us closely.
Is that all? Do you have any idea how long it’ll take me to code all that? I don’t exactly have a keyboard, you know.
Sorry, but I think that is the minimum they should know.
For a long moment, Rachel sensed some confused emotions. No … I’m sorry. This limbo is getting to me. For all I know I might be just a … a brain in a bowl, hooked up to a computer.
4:30PM, Near Phillips Lake, Oregon
Only one van-load of Russians arrived at Marty’s property. The other was supposed to follow as soon as their motor cooled down. Seems running the Econoline’s air conditioner during its long tree-clearing stops caused it to overheat and blow its coolant over the road. Finally the poor, abused engine’s chugging and pounding protestations convinced Markov to give it a rest. After transferring his command center and as many of his men to the GMC as it would hold, Markov continued.
The white Vandura pulled to a stop in the drive of what had been Marty’s holiday palace. No one got out for a few minutes, since the occupants had to humor Lev Markov during his ranting pep-talk. “I am watching you. Make sure you looking under everything!” With that final encouraging word, the overloaded van disgorged its filthy, thirsty, exhausted load of unhappy Russians to pour over and through the huge pile of ash and debris.
The other van finally arrived more than three hours later, with its nearly spent engine puffing smoke, but with its occupants obviously refreshed. When they stepped to the ash-covered ground Markov greeted them with a gun aimed at the head of the driver. “You went to town for party,” he evenly said through clenched teeth, “while your comrades work in this hell.”
“Relax Boss.” The driver stood with his hands raised in surrender. “We bring food and drinks, and … and tools.” He desperately motioned to one of the other new arrivals to fetch something from the rear of the van. He quickly complied, throwing open the door and lugging a heavy ice chest into his boss’s view. Distracting Markov to their payload seemed to stay the driver’s execution.
“Boys,” he called over his shoulder, “Take a break. Eat and drink. Your comrades will take your places.” The new arrivals broke out shovels and rakes, and torches to stave off the encroaching twilight, then got to work whilst the others refreshed themselves.
By the early hours of the morning, the power in their torches was flagging, and Markov finally admitted there were no bodies to be found there. Bitter, discouraged, and in a decidedly fowl temper, Markov and his men boarded the vans to return to Baker City and find a place to clean up and rest.
Baker City was Norman Rockwell Middle America, an old town by western American standards, with conservative values. Merchants rolled in their sidewalks at sunset, except those in the entertainment district near the highway. Marty drove through virtually deserted streets to the “picturesque and historic” City Hall. Since he saw no one, he decided to park in the loading zone directly in front of the steps leading to the entrance. Had he known the police station was also located within City Hall, he might have been more discriminating in his choice of parking.
Feeling self-conscious and terribly vulnerable, he left his car and began walking southward along First Street towards the end of the block, turned right along Place Street and continued to Second Street. Still he saw no one. Would his friends be there as promised?
At Second street he again turned right, and the dead quiet of the abandoned downtown had him on edge. Half-way down the block a noise from the alley across the street startled him, so he picked up his pace, wanting only to return to the safety of his car.
He nearly jumped out of his shoes when he heard, “Marty, over here,” in a stage whisper. But he quickly regained his composure and turned to see where it came from. “It’s Karl, over here.”
Marty tentatively walked across the street and was relieved to see the three of us hiding in the shadows of a building. “Are you satisfied I’m alone?”
Karl stepped from the shadows and smiled. “Yes, thank’s for coming. We’ve reserved a room for you at the Always Welcome Inn over by the turnpike.” The conversation turned to small talk as we rode with Marty to the Inn for a night’s sleep.
Before retiring, however, Betty used Rachel’s laptop to access her e-mail account and found the most curious message: “I am Ty. Rachel says go to concrete building north of Antioch-Oakley highway on gravel road. Russians guarding.”
When Betty finished reading the message, we glanced about at one another until Karl broke the silence, “I was afraid of that.” His face showed a deep grimness, but he continued, “At least we have some idea where we can find her.”
We all showered in turn and went to bed as early as we could manage. During the night, however, a noise awakened us. Some people apparently entered the room directly over our heads and made rather a lot of commotion before finally settling in.
Betty arose early to load Marty’s car for the drive back to the Bay Area, but she returned to our room with concern in her face and quiet urgency in her voice. “I ‘eard some ‘ushed conversation from the room above us, and it wasn’t English.”
“Right. Tourists from anywhere in the world might be staying here. Don’t borrow trouble, my love.”
“And the tourists might also be spying past the window curtains, fascinated by what we’re doing but carefully out of sight? Jack, remember. There may well be a particular group of Russians in the area.”
Betty was kinder than necessary in view of my abysmal carelessness. Without further discussion, we agreed that subtle haste was in order, so we four casually walked out to the car, jumped in, and sped away.
Our speedy departure caused quite a stir amongst our neighbors. As we drove away, they dashed out their door and along the balcony while pulling on and tripping over clothing and shoes.
We decided to drive south along Whitney Highway, assuming the Russians would assume we took the turnpike. Since they had been kind enough to clear the fallen trees from the roadway through the burned forest, we progressed fairly quickly to State Highway 26, and eventually drove south along US Highway 395 towards home.