Chapter 9


Saturday, June 10, 12:53AM

The last of the late flights leaving Hong Kong Intercontinental Airport were loading about the time Romeo Obozniev spoke into his two-way radio, “Attention Comrades. Prepare to return to rooms for little sleep.”

As he finished his transmission he noticed an old woman rising from her seat in the loading gate waiting area across the concourse from him. He wasn’t sure what it was about her that attracted his attention, but he mentally noted her appearance. Perhaps there was some incongruity between her elderly appearance and her overall bearing. She just moved more youthfully than she should have. His hand went to his inner breast pocket to remove his mobile as he watched the woman. Glancing at the mobile just long enough to find the speed dial he wanted, he pressed the button and held the device to his ear.

“Comrade Markov, Obozniev.”

“Why you bother me? You have orders!”

“Yes, comrade. But I have noticed woman boarding last flight to San Francisco. I am not sure, but there is certain resemblance to Yeshurun woman.”

“Is enough for us to tail her?”

“Yes, could be her, easy.”

“Can you get her out of there?”

“No, she is now entering jetway.”

“Is Illich on Tupolev?”

“Yes, comrade, pilot is sleeping aboard.”

“Get plane ready. I be there in half-hour.”

“Okay Boss.” He cursed to himself about Markov having to go with them. Surely the Boss would prevent his having “quality” time with Yeshurun, if indeed this turned out to be her.

Then into his radio he said, “Strike last order, boys. Get aboard Tupolev now. We go to meet flight in States.” Since the bulk of their luggage was still aboard the Tu-134, all they had to do was await Markov’s arrival aboard the aircraft.

Romeo hated running, but if he was to awaken the pilot so he could file a flight plan to San Francisco before Markov boarded, he didn’t have much time. Even running, it took him ten minutes of heavy puffing to reach the private gate at which the Tu-134 was parked.

He always enjoyed viewing the sensual lines of the sleek, twin-engine aircraft, but as he left the terminal he only noticed the boarding ladder was retracted. Quickly withdrawing his mobile, he punched in Illich’s number and waited while it rang.

He quit counting at twenty rings, but it finally clicked and the irritated voice of their pilot spoke something in Russian to the effect of, “What do you want? I am busy!” but with much creatively obscene language added for effect.

“Prepare flight plan for SFO. We leave in twenty minutes. Markov is on his way, so put ladder down now.”

***

Viktor Illich had nothing to say in reply. The Boss would expect the Tu-134 to be ready to taxi by the time he boarded. He roughly shoved the whore aside and pulled his clothes over his perspiring body. He reasoned that it wasn’t too much of a loss, since Oriental women failed to hold his interest as did Nordic women.

He reached into his pocket, withdrew a twenty dollar note and threw it at her. When she saw that it was only a twenty, she began screaming at him in Chinese and exhibiting threatening body language.

To quickly end the confrontation, he reached up to his jacket hanging on the back of the compartment door, pushed it aside, withdrew his pistol from its holster and pointed it between her eyes. Point well taken, she shut up, pulled on her flimsy dress and shoes, seized the twenty and headed for the door. He neither knew nor cared that her pimp would beat her severely for delivering only twenty dollars.

Viktor entered the cockpit, pressed the button that would lower the boarding ladder, and got busy making the flight plan. He had only fifteen minutes to finish his pre-flight checks and start the engines.

***

As the whore stepped off the ladder, Romeo eyed her with a flash of indignation, having been cheated of enjoying her charms in his unique way. But business always seemed to come first. He boarded the aircraft, and while fantasizing about finally catching up with Rachel, began preparing for their long flight to San Francisco.

***

6:45PM, San Francisco International Airport

Markov and Obozniev stood watching Pan Am flight 187 passengers disembark through the terminal jetway. Finally they spied Rachel walking quickly through the gate, and began discretely following her as she moved with the crowd of travel-weary passengers and their enthusiastic friends and family, towards the luggage carousels.

***

Rachel thought she glimpsed Markov’s scarred face amongst the crowd while awaiting her baggage. With personal property scoring a distant second priority compared to her life, Rachel chose to abandon her belongings, casually disappear into the crowd, and find refuge behind a nearby telephone kiosk.

She withdrew her makeup mirror from her hand bag and held it at the edge of the kiosk, giving her a narrow view of the crowd without exposing her position. Slowly, carefully, she scanned the crowd of faces, and it seemed hours before she spied Markov once again.

For lack of a better disguise, she whipped off her wig, draped her frumpy, old-lady beige coat over her shoulders, and worked her dowager’s hump around to her front and down under her dress until it dropped to the tile floor.

***

Markov and Obozniev lost sight of Rachel for only a moment, and as if by magic, she completely vanished. Romeo nearly panicked at the thought of losing her after coming so close, but Markov had the cooler head of the two. “She will have to pass through Customs. We find her there.”

***

After checking for Markov once more, she casually strolled along the edge of the crowd towards Customs, hoping the agents would allow her through without luggage. She felt naked without part of her disguise, and desperately wanted to disappear, so she ducked into one of the Customs examination rooms and closed the door. Moments later a female security guard burst in. “What are you doing in here? This room is only for personal searches. You have to leave!”

Rachel wanted to delay as long as possible, so she gave a convincing performance of the confused old lady. “I’m sorry young woman. Isn’t this the Customs room? Where are the boys who will check my bag? I don’t have much.” She dumped the contents of her hand bag onto the floor.

“Ma’am, please … here, let’s pick your things up.” They both stooped to reach for Rachel’s belongings, and being the “old lady,” Rachel affected losing her balance and fell into the other woman, knocking them both to the floor.

During two minutes of the most remarkable confusion Rachel could create, the security woman managed to scoop everything back into her bag and ushered her past the Customs line. After satisfying the security guard that she was safely out of her hair, she walked towards the exit leading to the taxi parking area.

Just a few steps outside the terminal, Rachel felt people crowding her, and then something hard poked her ribs on either side. “Walk with us,” Markov said as they escorted her to a black limo. He opened the rear door and gently but firmly, forced her inside.

Strong hands locked onto both her arms and pulled her down to the rear-facing jump seat. She looked to both sides, where the guards’ hard, staring eyes held her as securely as did their hands. Markov and Obozniev stepped inside to take their seats on the plush davenport opposite her, then seized her purse and began sacking it.

Rachel forced her mind into professional mode. She knew they were Russians, and she knew the one with the scar was Markov. She also knew their reputation for brutality, so she resolved to give them as little excuse as possible.

Markov tried to disarm Rachel with his version of a warm smile, but failed miserably. In his thick, Russian accent, he began his gentle interrogation by saying, “Where is our friend, Adams?”

“Gol! I wish I knew,” she lied, affecting a Cockney accent. “The bugger ditched me on the trip back and I’ve no way to contact ‘im. The bloke owes me money! That was the ‘ole point of accompanying him to ‘ong Kong. Now I still don’t ‘ave me money.”

“Sounds very nice,” he said with the aspect of a spy movie interrogator, “but why were you wearing disguise if you were hoping to get paid?”

“Adams insisted. Do you really think I’d dress up like a frumpy old woman if I didn’t ‘ave to?”

“What a shame. I was hoping to use you as bait to catch Adams. Now I dispose of you.”

The “B” movie Don Juan seated next to Markov broke into a wicked leer and slowly began massaging his private parts. She couldn’t believe what he was doing and felt herself flushing with panic, but Markov almost seemed embarrassed. “Romeo! Your time will come, but that is disgusting. Quit it!” With a look of grudging tolerance, Romeo made a show of folding his arms. His eyes, however, remained fixed on her.

Rachel forced her breathing to slow, and remembered to pray for help in knowing what to do. Instantly she felt the need to pray for Romeo, though everything within her rebelled at the idea.

Father, I don’t know how to pray for such a man, but if you show me his needs I’ll pray for him. She closed her eyes to shut out the evil stare that seemed to be raping her, and tried to think about the man as being in need of God’s grace.

Father, I need help loving that man. Help me to love him with the love you showed me when Jesus willingly went to the cross for me.

Rachel again felt her face warming, not from fear for herself, but from a broken heart. Compassion washed away every other thought. She no longer saw the filthy leer of a despicable pervert, but the eternal need of a lost soul, hopeless, without God’s redeeming presence in his life. With her eyes moistening, she yearned to rescue him from a fate infinitely worse than anything he could plan for her. A tear escaped, to slowly make its way down her cheek.

Romeo chuckled. “Crying for yourself won’t do you no good. I like to see the ladies cry.” The evil leer imbedded itself even more deeply into his fleshy face.

Rachel looked Romeo straight in the eyes. “I’m not crying for myself. I’m crying for you.”

“You lie! Why do you cry for me?”

“Because God loves you, and gave his life for–”

“Shut up!” Romeo drew his pistol to aim at her head. “You do not talk to me about your God!”

Rachel continued, unblinking. “He made you for a purpose, and you’ve ignored his prompting, getting bitter towards him, bitter enough to try and deny his existence.”

Again he screamed “SHUT UP!” and his finger began squeezing the gun’s trigger as he breathed hard and fast.

Rachel anticipated certain death with a supernatural peace, but Markov broke out laughing hysterically. “Romeo, don’t you see? She got to you. A woman got to you–”

Romeo suddenly moved the pistol’s aim to Markov, who instantly ceased his laughter and smiling. Both hoodlums flanking Rachel aimed their pistols at Romeo. Markov menacingly said to him, “Do not even think about it.”

Romeo stared for a moment, wide eyed, then slowly raised his aim to the bonnet of the car and carefully lowered the pistol’s hammer.

“Romeo, you must learn to control your passions,” Markov said in a fatherly tone, “I would hate to lose you. You are one of my best men, but if you aim your pistol at me again, you are dead man.”

Romeo’s stare returned to Rachel and conveyed an unspeakable hatred. His jaw muscles bulged, and despite his silence, she knew she had hit a sensitive chord.

“Romeo, you–”

“Lady! If you say another word I will kill you myself, though I hate to mess up my car’s upholstery.”

They drove on in silence for at least twenty minutes, with Markov deep in thought. Finally he said, “Romeo, do not worry. You will have your chance to enjoy the lady’s charms, but I think we can put her to more profitable use temporarily.” He reached over to touch the intercom button. “Max, drive to lab.”

Despite her intelligence training, Rachel was in shock at the prospect of being taken to the lab, whatever that was. Dying was one thing, but labs weren’t simply for killing people.

The black limousine took the Bridgehead exit from State Highway 160 towards Oakley, and eventually turned left onto a long gravel road. After winding about bogs and gravel pits for what must have been ten miles they stopped in a parking lot next to an unpainted concrete block structure.

The day was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for a June day near San Francisco. After twenty-five stifling minutes of waiting alone in the black limousine with no air conditioning, the large man guarding her opened the car door. His enormous hand engulfed her upper right arm, and she felt a stab of pain with an audible pop as he dragged her out of the car. Then the gorilla let her fall onto the gravel, dislocated shoulder first, in excruciating pain.

With no concern about her agonized protestations, he grabbed her left arm and half dragged, half walked her to the steel door in the side of the structure. Through the blur of pain she saw Romeo open the door for them to enter the dim interior, where her escort shoved her into a chair. Romeo locked the door through which they had just passed, then he and the gorilla disappeared through the only other door in the room. They spoke not a word during the whole process.

Again she waited, determined not to satisfy these brutes by revealing her agony. As she regained control of her faculties, she began noticing her surroundings. The anteroom in which she sat bore no amenities but the white, steel chair she occupied, and a single bare lamp hanging by its wires from an open junction box in the ceiling. All interior surfaces were the dismal gray of concrete block, and the room stank of mortar and cement.

After a few minutes’ wait, Rachel felt she had nothing to lose by making a fight of it. She stood, cradling her right arm, stepped over to the right side of the inner door, which opened inward from the right, braced herself with her useless right arm partially restrained in her belt, and waited for it to move.

Before long the latch turned, the door began to move, and she prepared to swing her left fist with all her might. The brute was first through the door, and before he could see her, she swung her fist towards his groin, but missed, hitting his thigh instead. Instantly he grabbed her left arm and held it with a vice-like grip, laughing at her impotent resistance as he guided her back to the chair.

After dropping back into the chair she stared lethally at the unaffected brute until an older, white-haired little man in a white laboratory coat entered the room just a moment later. She realized her impression of his small size may have been skewed by comparison to his monstrous assistant. The older man marched up to her straightaway, while the brute held her painful right arm and her head as in a vise. The man in white withdrew his right hand from behind his back and jammed the needle of a hypodermic syringe into her left arm, quickly forcing its contents into her system.

Rachel winced at the sting of the abrupt injection. “What was that for?”

The little Russian answered in his heavily accented English, “You soon to learn.”

“What are you going to do about my dislocated shoulder?”

The little man motioned to the brute, who hunched over to hear him mutter something into his ear. Had Rachel not been in such pain, she would have laughed at the stereotypical image of the mad-scientist and his hulking assistant. The little humor she found in that observation vanished as the monster grabbed her right arm, held it straight out, planted his knee in her arm pit and yanked. Pain once again clouded her vision as the joint popped into place. It took all her will to not cry out.

She cradled her arm for fully a minute, when her vision began swimming. The two Russians stood close by, dumbly observing the effect of their handiwork, with the mixed odors of garlic and poor personal hygiene displacing that of fresh cement. She was about to become physically ill, but the room began tilting radically as she tumbled from the chair. Her surreal view from the floor faded to blackness.

***

Sunday, June 11, 8:30PM

Rachel awoke with her head throbbing, and her eyes blinded by the bright, surgical-style light in her face. She tried shifting her body, but felt straps pinning her, immovable, to the scarcely padded table. Someone said, “Just relax, you are okay. Empty your mind of thoughts.” The voice, Russian accent, and obnoxious garlic breath seemed to be that of the white-haired man with questionable nursing ability. And emptying her mind of thoughts was her last priority.

***

When Captain Hillman first sensed the foreign thoughts invading his mind, he was certain his sanity had slipped away under the psychological torture he struggled to endure. But they didn’t seem like the insane ravings of an out of control mind. There was reason and warmth in those thoughts, but what did it mean?

All the unanswered questions had worn him down, and fear began displacing his resolve. In his world, paralyzing fear was the object of greatest dread, so he entered a downward cycle of anxiety, depression, and more fear. His loss of control made him ashamed, and he was certain that he would be blubbering, if only he could feel it.

***

Rachel felt a lump in her throat as if she were about to cry. She felt clammy, jittery, and her first impulse was to blame the symptoms of anxiety on her intolerable captivity and uncertain fate. While she sensed a fearful desperation to the point of nausea, it seemed strangely detached from her own consciousness. She silently prayed, Father, this is not from you, because you are not the author of confusion, and perfect love casts out fear. I love you father, so calm the fear I feel.

***

Tyler Hillman wasn’t used to feeling depressed. Normally an up-tempo guy, the worst he had ever experienced was a mild, situational melancholy that past as soon as he got a handle on it. But this was different. One moment a feeling of despondency spiraled him towards a suicidal black hole, and the next, it was as though a comforting, supernatural hand had reached out at the last instant to jerk him back from the precipice.

Is that you God?

***

Rachel got the distinct impression that someone had asked her if she was God. I’ve never been called ‘God’ before.

***

A thought that seemed to answer his question startled the normally unflappable aviator. Who’s there?

Rachel knew God loved her. More than a passive acceptance, it was to her a certainty. Strange, or even weird circumstances didn’t scare her because her God wouldn’t let her down. My name is Rachel. Who are you?

Tyler Hillman, Captain, United States Navy. Under international law I am not required to reveal any information but my name, rank, and service number.

Isn’t that nice. I’m a civilian, and I don’t care what you know about me since you’re only in my head anyway. Confused emotions replaced the foreign thoughts in Rachel’s mind for a long moment.

Rachel? Where are you?

I’m not entirely certain, but I’m being held captive in a sort of laboratory near San Francisco. Another moment of confused silence.

The last thing I remember … I was half a world away from California. This whole thing doesn’t make sense.

I have no quarrel with that.

“Lady!” The harsh, Russian-accented voice of Doctor Garlic Breath wrenched Rachel’s attention away from her inner conversation and exacerbated her pounding headache. “What do you sense?”

She resisted leaving the friendly, sub-audible voice to heed the stern reality addressing her.

“Please pay attention! We have the ways to get attention of you. Unpleasant ways.”

“I’m confused. Why are you doing this to me?”

“Concentrate! Do you have different thoughts now?”

Rachel realized this had something to do with her inner friend, but didn’t know what she should reveal.

Who’s talking to you?

My captors. I think they want to know about you.

Don’t tell them anything, please.

I’m inclined to agree with–- A sudden, indescribable, absolute pain ripped through Rachel’s being, blocking all other sensation and conscious thought. She had never felt anything remotely like it, simultaneously emanating as it did from everywhere and nowhere. When the pain ceased as quickly as it had started, her throat was raw, thought she didn’t remember screaming, and her body was as limp as over-cooked pasta.

The Russian voice said to her, “You cooperate now?”

Rachel felt clammy; her breaths came ragged and raspy. “What … do you want?”

“You tell us what you hear in mind.”

“I don’t know what you mean–” Again the pain.

***

The piercing odor of ammonia startled Rachel back to consciousness. “You like pain, yes?”

“I can’t tell you what I don’t know,” she said desperately.

Some Russians muttered in their own language, but her rudimentary knowledge of Russian wasn’t up to the task of translating. “Rest now,” said the Russian voice, “more later.” Another needle stabbed her in the shoulder and she knew she would sleep whether or not she wanted to.

They’re drugging me now. I know we’re both in this against our will so we must work together.

You’re right. Do you have any mobility?

No, they’ve … immobilized me … completely. What … about … you? Rachel tried to push her thoughts through the encroaching mental twilight.

I don’t know. I can’t sense anything but your thoughts and their torture. It’s like I don’t even have a body.

Rachel sensed no more thoughts as she succumbed to the drug.

***

A dream-like barrage of sensations woke Rachel with a start. But it was no dream, continuing unabated after she was fully conscious. She quickly closed her eyes to avoid staring into the never-dimming lights above her face.

“Lady,” the hateful, Russian voice said, “What waked you up? You feel something.”

“I think I was dreaming, but it made no sense. Just a jumble of sensations.”

Again, that Russian mumbling as her tormentor consulted with unseen others. “You will tell me what you feel!”

“I don’t know what I felt! It made no sense.”

The pain took her breath away in an uncontrolled grunt, and every muscle in her body tightened. Telling herself the pain was all in her mind made it no less real.

Rachel, what are they doing to you?

But she couldn’t answer, expending her full concentration on enduring the agony. As the bright light began dimming the pain again stopped as suddenly as it had started.

“You will not play the game with us! Cooperate, or we give you pain all day.

Rachel answered weakly, panting, and faint from the ordeal. “That won’t help me feel whatever it is you want. You can’t make me feel something that’s not there.”

The Russians went back into their huddle. What are they doing to you?

I believe they have my bain’s prain center wired for stimulation. Hope they quill … will con … clude that I meed nore … time to turn into you. Please, mmm … give me a moment to recover.

***

Rachel sensed that time had lapsed, but she continued her thoughts as if it hadn’t. The trouble is, during that time they will continue trying to get directly to your thoughts. Can you continue taking their stimulations?

Oh, hi Rachel. It’s been hours since you said something. I was wondering if you died or something. In answer to your question, I can take it if you can. Hopefully they’ll make a mistake and kill me before they get any sensitive information. Death would be a welcome change.

Rachel brightened at what she thought was a reference to faith. So, you must know Jesus.

How did you know that?

Rachel sensed his instant change to a much more guarded mood, so she didn’t answer.

You lying

Captain Hillman, please! What is wrong with my asking you that question?

Nobody knows about Jesus Mendoza but the other guys in my Top Gun class and the members of the court marshal. You’ve got to be working with them, or you wouldn’t know about Mendoza.

That’s silly. I wasn’t talking about a pilot friend of yours. I meant Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God.

Captain Hillman did feel silly. Why was he so sensitive about Mendoza? The court marshal had cleared him of all wrongdoing. His friend’s death was simply a tragic accident, wasn’t it?

I sense pain in your memory of him. You should never feel guilty about something that couldn’t be helped. There’s plenty of guilt to go around without manufacturing it. In fact, that’s what my Jesus died to alleviate.

So, you’re one of those religious people? That’s okay, but I don’t need any crutches. I’m a committed Agnostic, and like it that way.

Captain Hillman, I respect your commitment to non-commitment, but I couldn’t disagree with you more.

Rachel, just leave it alone. I’ve been preached at more than

Another brain stimulation test interrupted him, and he could only concentrate on enduring that.

Rachel tried to shut out his chaotic experience by praying for him.

Eventually, his thoughts intruded on her prayer and meditation. Can your ‘hell’ be any worse than this? She sensed bitterness in the question.

Believe me, there is no comparison. Imagine knowing that this will last for eternity, and that you could have avoided the whole thing simply by humbling yourself to ask for God’s forgiveness and help. Can you imagine the despair? What we are experiencing is simply a stroll in the park compared with that.

You are truly amazing, the way you work so hard to convert me, and you don’t even

“What do you hear?” the Russian voice interrupted, “Brain waves say you are thinking.”

“Can’t I think without being challenged for it?”

“You don’t think! Just listen!”

“If you must know what I feel, I need to use the lavatory.” There was no answer, though she could hear the Russians talking. Her biological need became more pressing with passing time. “Excuse me, I said I need to use the lavatory.”

Still no answer.

“Oi, Mister Mad Scientist! I have to go to the lav, or you’re going to have an awful mess to clean up momentarily!”

Again no answer. “I wish to lodge a formal complaint with the management! Your service is perfectly beastly.”

While there was no verbal answer, the pain once again swept over her, and she was in no condition to be embarrassed by her loss of control.

***

Captain Hillman felt he must have slept when he suddenly became aware of the weird sensory stimulations, and he determined to endure it as he had all the others.

Rachel’s sense of his confusion and discomfort interrupted her own despair over her circumstances. I felt that. It was awful.

Not as bad as some others. It’s like they’re experimenting on my brain, and gradually refining the stimulations to get into my mind. I wonder if they’ve somehow wired us together.

Before Rachel could answer, Doctor Garlic Breath broke in, “Brain waves say you are awake. Relax and sense thoughts, or you get more pain!”

Rachel tried to think of some rational ploy to postpone the inevitable. “Torturing me won’t exactly set my mind free.”

Again she heard the muttering Russian voices. “We have your family. You cooperate, or they die.”

Rachel had to pretend to be worried, because she had no earthly family to concern herself about. “Please, don’t hurt them. I’ll help you any way I can.”

I’ll stall the blokes as well as I can. Are you able to discern what they’re saying to me?

Not exactly, but I got your impressions of what they say. And by the by old sport, you must be English. I thought you spoke kinda funny.

How do you know how I speak? You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.

Her feeble attempt at humor was lost on the pilot. Anyway, I’ll try to relay their words to you. Tell me what to tell them.

Tell them you only sense conf

“We do not wait forever!”

“I’m confused. What am I supposed to feel or hear, or whatever?”

“You will know!”

Why are they so interested in our communication?

I know some things … secrets. Either they work for an unfriendly government’s intelligence service, or they’re hoping to sell what I know to the highest bidder.

So you don’t know whom you’re dealing with?

Not a clue.

They’re Russian maffia. Rachel sensed the pilot’s emotional reaction to her answer.

I don’t have to guess what they want to do with the information. And I don’t have to worry about making it out of here alive.

That was my measure of the situation … . Captain Hillman, are you ready to die?

First, that’s none of your business. Second, if I wasn’t ready to die I wouldn’t be a pilot. I’m a pretty good guy; honest as the day is long and I wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Right. Unless, of course, the fly was trying to hurt you.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing at all, but do you really think God is interested in how great a person you are?

Why wouldn’t he be?

That’s not the way he works.

So, you’ve got some cozy link to the Great Univ–

Oh, can it, Ty. If you can explain the metaphysical link you have to an aeroplane, I’ll leave you alone about my relationship to the Creator of the universe.

Rachel sensed a busy mind for a long moment, but no conscious answer.

Tyler, our human goodness doesn’t impress him at all. In fact he’s not the slightest bit interested in our goodness, unless we’re as good as he is.

GREAT! The only person in the world I can talk to and she’s a religious fanatic.

The way of Jesus is neither about religion nor fanaticism. It’s about faithfulness and love. She thought of the conversation through which God had led Karl to repentance, and tried to pray for the pilot without his hearing.

You’re praying for me. You really do mean all that stuff about faithfulness and love.

I didn’t intend for you to hear. I forgot for a moment where you are. But yes, I do mean all that stuff.

Rachel … what if … are you afraid to die?

I’m a little apprehensive about the process of passing over, but–

“Lady! What you wait for?”

“I’m trying to concentrate on whatever it is you don’t want to tell me to concentrate on.”

“Try harder! We do not have forever.”

I do.

You do what?

Have forever.

Wish I had your faith.

You can, if you let God speak to you. He’s not willing for anyone to perish, but for all to come to repentance … You’re afraid, I can feel it.

‘Afraid’ is an overstatement. Anyway, wouldn’t you be scared if your entire frame of reference was suddenly turned inside out?

You don’t have to be worried. Give God the benefit of doubt. Talk to him yourself.

And have you listen in? No thanks!

God’s listening in right now, just as you and I are listening to each other’s thoughts.

Why are you so all fired interested in me? We’re both about to die. What good are your Jesus Brownie Points to you now?

Rachel remembered Betty’s report of Karl saying nearly the same words.

Who’s Karl, one of your converts?

He’s a friend, who was even more bitter than you are. After nearly losing his life he accepted the life Jesus gave for him. That’s what I want for you, because Jesus loves you, and so do I.

Just let me think about it for awhile.

Sorry I can’t offer you the privacy you–

“You are stalling!” Then came the pain, so severe that her mind again fled to the comfort of unconsciousness.

***

Tuesday, June 13, 3:00PM

Karl had never enjoyed the odors of the waterfront, and though they intruded on his senses only slightly at Nick’s Lighthouse on Fisherman’s Wharf, he found their mere suggestion irritating. He was already waiting at an outside table, practicing the spiritual gift of long suffering, when Betty and I arrived exactly on time, as was her custom. We ordered a dinner of deep fried prawns and ate very slowly while awaiting Rachel’s arrival.

Betty shifted in her chair for the hundredth time in a half-hour, sighed deeply, and broke the tense silence. “We’ve got to call ’er.” Her Cockney brogue became more apparent when she was upset.

I nodded assent, handed her our mobile and she dialed the number. “Rachel? ‘ello?” She closed the phone, abruptly cutting off the connection. “Someone picked up the call, but said nothing.” Her protracted pause carried the grimmest ramifications. “She’s either lost ‘er mobile and the person who found it answered … , or … ,”

Though Betty let the awful alternative hang in the air, Karl voiced it. “Or they’ve grabbed her.”

We looked at one another glumly for a while, and as usual it was Betty who had the best plan. “We’ve got no better way to pass the time than to pray.” And so we did.

To avoid the appearance of loitering, we nibbled at our dinner for the next hour-and-a-half, though our concern and concentration on praying kept us from appreciating its excellent flavor. After consuming more coffee than they really wanted to serve us, however, we had no choice but to leave.

Seagulls and other ocean sounds accompanied our stroll along the quay, during which we tried to sort things out. Suddenly Karl stopped. “I need to call Marty and find out why he turned against me.”

“Let me do it,” Betty said, “I want to ‘ear his voice. Per’aps I’ll be able to discern something.”

“Go right ahead. I might have a hard time being civil to him.”

Karl dialed Marty’s phone number and handed the mobile to Betty. “Mister ‘allstead, this is Betty ‘ubert, an employee of Karl’s. Do you ‘appen to know anything about ‘is whereabouts?”

She listened for fully a minute, not saying a word. “I see. Might I ask where you got that information?

“Gol! That is most curious, because it isn’t at all ‘ow it really ‘appened. Why would Mister Witherspoon want to lie to you?

“I wonder, could we meet somewhere? Jack and I would like to straighten all this out.

“Yes, that sounds fine. Good bye.”

Betty looked at Karl. “The man seems clueless. I believe ‘e’s been completely taken in by that Witherspoon bloke. We’ll meet ‘im tomorrow morning in Golden Gate Park, at the end of Funston Street. Can’t think of a better place, meself. It’s highly defensible, as if he wants security as badly as we do.”

***

Wednesday, June 14, 8:22AM

We could nearly have spread the fog on our morning toast as we arrived in Golden Gate Park. That may be a poor choice of simile, as I hate soggy toast, but the fog was none-the-less thick.

Karl hid in our hired car as Betty and I watched for Marty to drive out of the mist. Finally we heard a car motor approaching, and Marty’s Acura parked on the left side of our car. We walked over to meet him, and despite our initial reserve, he was anxious for the truth.

“Let’s be seated at one of the park benches, if we can find it in this soup.” After I said that, we walked a hundred feet or so, found a concrete bench, scooped off as much dew we could and sat down. Then we both spent considerable time recounting to him the events on the morning of the fire.

When we finished our story, his contrite expression made him look like a different man. “What have I done?”

“What would you say to Karl if ‘e were ‘ear just now?” Betty asked.

“I’d have a hard time facing him. I’ve always tried to do what’s right, but I’ve betrayed a friend.”

When Marty finished speaking, Karl, having stolen up behind our park bench to listen, quietly said, “Sounds like you need some forgiving, Marty.”

Marty reacted with a start, turned and said, “Karl, I’m so sorry–”

“Marty, forget it. I was kinda ticked at first, but you just didn’t know the truth of the matter.” Karl rested his hand on Marty’s right shoulder. “There’s nothing to forgive, and it’s all forgotten.”

Marty’s face betrayed his puzzlement. “Karl, what’s wrong with you … you don’t seem like the same person.”

Karl smiled broadly. “You don’t know how right you are.” Then he sat beside Marty and spent the rest of the morning recounting his journey to faith.

When Marty finally got his chance to rebut Karl’s passionate gospel presentation, his answer was predictable. “Karl, I appreciate your concern for me, and your experience has obviously done a great deal for you, but I have my own spirituality. God honors our good intentions. Besides, a loving God wouldn’t send anybody to an eternity of torture.”

Karl slowly shook his head. “Marty, I desperately wish I could tell you you’re right. The changes in me should speak for themselves, but we’ll have to discuss it another time. Rachel’s in trouble and we have to find her.”

“How can I help?”

Betty said, “Mister ‘alstead, do you still have Witherspoon’s confidence?”

Marty reached out to gently grasp Betty’s upper arm. “Please, call me Marty, and yes, I believe I do.”

Still smiling, Betty nodded and subtly shrugged away from his grasp. Neither said a word, but I could tell they were both embarrassed. After Marty left, I said, “What’s the matter my love?”

“I thought I‘d forgiven ‘im. I’m ashamed of meself.”

“Don’t worry too much about it. I haven’t heard of your canonization as Saint Elisabeth yet.” She smiled and chuckled at my little joke.

The fog had burnt off and given us a beautiful day as we went back to the car. With Karl driving, I glanced over to Betty and could tell her nimble mind was busy hatching a plan.

***

2:00PM

I often wondered how Betty always managed to leave me in her wake when we walked hurriedly together. She was well ahead of Karl and me in the corridor leading to Rachel’s flat, when suddenly she applied her brakes and threw her right arm out to the side. We in turn stopped straightaway, and heeded her silent shush. She turned to face us, pointed towards the door, and motioned with her palms down for us to proceed squatting. Which we did.

When we reached her, she indicated we should look at the door jam, broken from a forced entry. Picking up her intent, I motioned Karl back along the wall and positioned myself in front of the door.

Not having a weapon for defense, I felt like an imbecile planning to barge into a room full of who knew what dangers. I thank God that only a brief prayer is necessary when one practices communion with him, so I balanced myself carefully, lifted my right leg and smashed the door with all my strength. Instantly I dropped to the floor and rolled to the side, expecting a gun’s report to reward my efforts. But there was no gun shot. The door slammed against the inner wall and quickly swung back against the door jam, but in the brief moment it was open, Betty’s sharp eyes examined the interior visible from her position.

We collectively held our breath for a few seconds, and Betty reached out to nudge the door open. I motioned for Karl to stoop as I did the same thing, and we scuttled through the opening into Rachel’s apartment. Though we were ready to take evasive action, we encountered no resistance.

The sight that greeted us upon entering was certainly not Rachel’s housekeeping. Her personal things lay everywhere. Food containers were dumped. Furniture cushions and even her mattress were slashed. There was no need to comment on what greeted us, because considering with whom we were dealing, we should have expected it. I was glad Rachel couldn’t see the damage to her tidy little flat, but then wished she were safely with us.

“I wonder if they found Rachel’s computer?” As I said that, Betty was already hurrying into Rachel’s bedroom, where she felt around inside her wardrobe, fiddled with something that caused a clunking sound, and reentered the parlor proudly displaying Rachel’s laptop computer.

“Them Russians are good, but Rachel’s better. What bloke would think to check for a false bottom in a box of sanitary nappies?”

With a flourish, Betty plugged in the laptop’s power and modem cables, opened its lid to let it boot automatically, and clicked on the desktop e-mail icon. Logging into Rachel’s e-mail account was not a problem since she had thoughtfully used our initials and wedding date for her user name and password. But the dial-up connection seemed to take forever to retrieve the eighteen new messages, all of which were adverts.

Our understanding had been that if we should become separated, she would either call us directly or find a cyber-pub from which to e-mail us. That so far neither had happened did not console any of us, least of all Karl.

We planned to check back periodically, but not from her flat. Due to our careful surveillance before approaching her block, we felt reasonably confident no one was spying upon us at the moment, but we had no idea how long that freedom would last.

Karl reached for Betty’s mobile. “I’d better call Marty. He might know of a place we could stay.”

***

3:30PM

After the phone call, we individually stole out of Rachel’s flat, and walked by separate routes to the newsagent by the channel, where we had agreed to meet Marty. Moments after approaching the sales counter, we heard a car stop at the nearby curb. Not wishing to appear too obvious, Betty glanced at the car and then smiled at me, confirming that it was Marty. Then we sauntered over and crowded into his compact, Acura coupe. Always the gentleman, I insisted that my Lady Love take the front passenger seat, claiming half the rear seat for myself. Karl occupied the other half, his smaller frame enduring the trip north much more easily than did mine.

We arrived at Marty’s holiday retreat in northwest Oregon after driving through the night, but I had no idea where we were until he said, “Home sweet home.” I was quite taken aback, because its only resemblance to the average American “log cabin” was its rustic, wooden construction.

He observed my astonishment at the size of the place. “I had it built for entertaining business contacts. Lots of room, and a dock down on the lake.

“I don’t think the Russians or Roger know I’ve caught on to their little ruse, but you would do well to lie low. No lights or TV at night, that sort of thing. In fact, for safety’s sake you might want to stay in my basement.”

After I extricated myself from the Acura’s rear seat and rediscovered my legs, he escorted us to a well concealed basement door at the side of the house. Marty dug through his key-ring for a moment until he found just the right one, placed it in the lock and tried turning it to unlock the door. But it didn’t move, even with considerable fiddling.

Karl tried it next, but with the same result. “Please, allow me, Karl. I’ve got the advantage of experience with locks and keys.” After about a minute of my own fiddling, I regretted having sounded so cocksure of myself. Then, to my ultimate relief, the grudging lock yielded.

I stepped back to allow Marty the task of opening the door and taking us inside. “It’s a little rough, but there’s plenty of space and a few day-beds. You’ll find the place fully stocked, and if you need anything just call me on your cell phone.” He looked at Karl, “Disguise your voice and act like you’re a salesman, trying to sell me what it is you need.” Then he smiled. “Gotta warn ya though, my sales resistance is pretty good.”

I must have looked at him quizzically because he added, “I don’t have a secure phone at home, so just in case the lines have ears . . .”

Karl scowled. “So we just wait here? For what?”

“Don’t worry. I’m on it.” Marty’s grin would have seemed most reassuring if the stakes hadn’t been so high.

“Oh, by the way, the basement has an emergency exit through a tunnel to my root cellar. It’s deep in the woods so no one’s likely to connect it with this place, even in the unlikely event that it’s seen. Be careful though. I was on a security kick when I built it, so if you do have to use it, watch out for my booby traps.”

The three of us must’ve continued to appear dubious. “This is the best I can do for you. I know it’s not much, but it’s safe, and hopefully it won’t last long.”

“That’s not it, Marty. This place is fine, and you’ve been great.” Karl glanced towards Betty and me for our confirmation. “We just feel trapped, no matter how nice the accommodations.”

Marty again tried to reassure us with a confident smile. Then he climbed the basement steps, closed and locked the door, and drove away, leaving us without transport in the basement of a rustic holiday palace. But we were hardly on holiday.

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