NDP—All Chapters

Chapter One

Monday, 2 October, 1978 10:25 PM
The home of Jack and Betty Hubert

After twenty-five blissful years of marriage, I couldn’t believe the absolute blessing that God gave me in my wife Betty. At a petite, five-feet and one-inch in height,  her open smile and large, blue eyes still made me shy with her when entering certain intimate moments together.

On one evening early in October I lay upon her with nothing but perspiration separating our bodies, cherishing her never-ageing beauty while talking about nothing in particular, when she suddenly transformed from soft lover to hard, vigilant protector. “Stop!” she whispered.

“What is it, my love? Did I hurt you?”

“Shhh!” She listened carefully. “There it is again … Get off!” Still whispering, her urgency put me into fight-or-fight mode—and no, that wasn’t a typo. I rolled off the bed, settled silently on the floor, and withdrew my 9mm Glock from its hiding place behind our bed. Betty responded just as quickly and quietly, slipping off the opposite side, stepping over to our footboard chest to fetch and toss my nightshirt to me.

Partially clothed, I knelt by our bedroom door to listen carefully. Betty was dressed by the time I heard the whispering, apparently originating from our downstairs entry corridor. I gently grasped the doorknob and began slowly twisting, but it was no good, the blasted thing squeaked just the slightest, and the whispering stopped.

As I was about to throw the door open and charge onto our landing, gun blazing, a familiar-sounding voice shouted from below, “Jack! Don’t shoot, it’s just Rachel.”

So I opened the door, forgetting about my state of partial undress, glanced over the railing, and saw Rachel standing with a perfect stranger. Betty tugged at my nightshirt to get my attention, then nodded down towards my exposed loins. “Oh,” was all I could think of saying. As Betty passed through the door and began gliding (she always glided) down the staircase, I retreated to our closet for a set of clothing.

“Who’s the young man, Rachel?” My Betty never minced words.

“This is my employer. His name is Karl Adams, and he’s in a bit of a bind at the moment.”

I exited our bedroom, dressed but still scruffy, and descended our stairway without a trace of my Betty’s grace.

Marching over to our visitor, I extended my hand, “Karl, happy to make …” His scowl stopped me in my tracks, so I glanced over to Rachel.

“I am sorry Jack,” she appeared more embarrassed than sorry, “Mister Adams is rather reserved until one gains his trust.”

“Right.” I stepped back and tried to ignore the affront. “Mister Adams it is, then.”

Still, “Mister” Adams held his silence.

Rachel’s gaze alternated between me and Betty as she said, “Mister Adams is the founder and owner of the new, Division Street District, and he seems to have made some rather dangerous enemies, so he’s taken me on as his security adviser.”

Adams looked about distastefully as Rachel gave us the short-version of their reason for visiting.

“This evening we met to discuss further security arrangements when I noticed we were being watched, so we sped over here because we lacked other options.”

“Well then, won’t you step into our parlour and have a seat.” I gestured towards the archway separating our parlour from the anteroom, and Betty escorted our visitors inside.

Once seated, Rachel began revealing this rude man’s story.

***

Tuesday, 8 October, 1974

Karl Adams half-expected Mister Painter, his supervisor, to stroll into the men’s lav and catch him gold-bricking in the stall while examining the latest TREKKERS GAZETTE. Though nervous, he kept at it, the danger of discovery serving to heighten his Star Trek fantasy life, with Painter cast as the Klingon warlord. Despite his brave fantasy, he jumped when two of his co-workers blasted through the door, the tile surfaces scrambling their loud voices with echoes.

When they finally settled into the adjacent stalls, he clearly overheard part of their conversation. “Yeah,” Harvey’s booming voice could have projected over a football field. “Saw it in the paper. It’s gonna be on Channel Eight. You comin’ over to watch?”

“Nah, I’m not much into Star Trek and all those other space-opera-type shows. Got burnt out on Flash Gordon when I was a kid. Ya know it’s all fake, don’t ya? Filmed on plywood and cardboard sets. Give me a good western and a bag o’ popcorn and I’m in hog heaven.” Karl would have contributed to the discussion, but he felt the others couldn’t truly appreciate the social significance and subtleties of Star Trek.

Loath to risk missing such a significant event, that evening Karl stopped at the news agent to purchase a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle for the TV listings. Though he normally had little use for newspapers, he idly scanned the pages until he found a tiny advert hidden among the personals, where no one with a life of his own would likely find it. The words attracted him like a moth to a flame.

SUCCESS!!
Guaranteed Results.
No down payment.
216 Division Street (555)216-6666

Without knowing why, he cut out the advert and filed it safely with the other assorted scraps of paper cluttering his room, fully intending to investigate its claims. But his customary procrastination postponed any action.

***

Tuesday, 12 November

Karl’s thoughts wandered to the advert more often with each day of his miserable life, and when he could no longer stand the suspense, he began searching for it. Somehow, though, the damned thing refused to be found. He even tossed about his precious Star Trek video collection; he had to find it.

Finally he decided to call the Chronicle. After finding a coin, he walked straight to the corridor telephone, ripped through the directory until he found the number, fumbled the coin into the appropriate slot, and dialled.

When the bored-sounding receptionist answered, Karl said, “Yeah, I haf’ta find out about a personals ad I saw in your paper!”

“When did you see it?” Her voice seemed calculated to tell Karl this was a monstrous imposition on her time.

“It was a couple’a weeks ago.”

“Please hold …” Eore the depressed donkey would have sounded more enthused, and the line switched to “easy listening” music, which, in reality, is not at all easy to listen to.

Karl’s anxiety nearly caused him to hyperventilate. Had it not been for the nasal-sounding woman returning to the line, he probably would have fainted.

“Name?”

“How should I know a name? It said something about success, and no down payment.”

“I need your name, sir, to charge you for the research.”

“What d’ya mean, charge?” Karl’s whining response accentuated his usual, nasal-sounding voice.

“Sir, we charge sixty-three dollars an hour for …”

Karl slammed the handset into its cradle and began sulking back towards his room when the telephone rang. He didn’t feel like answering it for one of the low-lifes who always got calls and expected him to answer for them, but there is something urgent about a telephone ringing. He turned around and fetched the handset.

“Karl Adams?”

As a committed recluse, Karl was jolted when the caller’s deep, resonant voice spoke his name. “Uh, yeah, that’s me.”

“Here is the ad you requested. Please copy this down.”

“Just a sec, I haf’ta find a pencil.”

Karl dashed back to his room, found a pencil and scrap of paper, and within three seconds arrived back at the telephone. “Okay, I’m ready.” Like a young child writing his letters, he copied the few words and numbers to the paper and replaced the receiver, saying, “Thanks,” as an afterthought.

***

When he finished work the following day, Karl caught a bus to a less-than prestigious location at the edge of the old industrial district near the centre of town. With daylight waning and a frigid drizzle dampening his already miserable world, he trudged to the address he had copied. It seemed nothing lived there but cat-sized rats, and the occasional reprobate holed up in an abandoned office.

216 Division Street was a grey steel door at the base of a stairwell between two loading docks in an ancient textile factory. A bare lamp shown on the number, crimson, in the monochrome world of broken pavement and derelict buildings. The door’s filthy window afforded a glimpse of old, wooden boards: a stairway, rising out of view into darkness, its steps eroded by who knows how many pairs of boots over the years. Karl stood at the door, frozen in fear, asking himself how badly he wanted the advertised success, guaranteed, and with no down payment.

The hatred he felt for his miserable existence overcame his misgivings, and drove his right hand forward to grasp the spherical door knob. Though he prayed to no one in particular that it might not turn, it did. That self-hatred continued turning his wrist until the latch released and the door sprung open a fraction of an inch.

He drew the door further open and a shiver passed through his body as in response to a sudden chill. He placed his left foot on the first step and pushed himself up. A moment later he placed his right foot on the second step. Since he had unconsciously held his breath, when he finally inhaled, the stagnant atmosphere of the stairwell caused a coughing fit.

Suddenly, he heard a heavy scampering sound from the opposite side of the broken, lath wall to his left. Panic shoved him back down the steps and he stumbled through the doorway, sprawling onto the concrete porch, wrenching his right wrist and abrading his left elbow and knee. He lay helplessly for some time, not thinking of the pavement’s cold dampness or the pain of his injuries, but watching the black maw of the stairway for some monster to charge after him. He hated the cowardice that held him there.

When Karl finally regained his composure, he crept back through the door, listening for any sound to alert him of danger. His self-hatred once again pushed him forward, and he reached out to the rough wall to steady himself as he took one reluctant step upward, then another, and another, counting thirty-six steps by the time he reached the top.

He turned and glanced back down the steps. Gloom hid the bottom, and the silence caused his racing pulse to sound like giant pterodactyl wings beating in his head. He looked about the landing where he stood under a naked ceiling lamp, and found nothing remarkable but the place’s bleakness.

He noted a spot of light at the end of the cheerless corridor passing to his right, an impossible distance away. Groping for each footfall, he proceeded towards the distant light, and for the longest time it did not seem any nearer.

When at last he approached the lighted end of the corridor he noted the rich, mahogany-panelled walls, the thick, red carpet under his feet, and the stale odour of age, or decay, permeating the air. Portraits of prosperous-looking people hung at intervals along both walls. Some were heads of state, while others were captains of commerce, military and sports personalities, or media celebrities. The sight of those successful people gave him some hope that his quest might not be in vain.

Finally he arrived at an imposing, walnut-panelled door. Within the top panel, a circle of roughly eighteen inches diameter was cut out of the walnut, revealing the deepest black Karl had ever seen. Suspended within the void, for Karl couldn’t imagine it being painted such a dense black, was an inverted pentagon in the same blood-red as the address sign outside the stairwell door. The blackness continued behind the pentagon, with Gothic calligraphy in the same deep, shiny crimson, forming the words, “PERDITION INCORPORATED,” also suspended in the void. Fear quashed his impulse to touch the blackness, but his hand felt cold as he held it close. The lower door panel held a simple sign stating, “ALWAYS OPEN.”

Since he saw no latch, Karl placed his right hand against the door panelling and felt another shiver convulse his body. With only the slight pressure he had applied, the door slowly swung away from him on the quietest of hinges.

At first he could see no light in the room beyond, but when the door had fully opened he spied, far away, the dimly lighted end of the room. A voice that a network news anchor would have envied beckoned from within, “Welcome Karl. Please, come in.” Karl hesitated, and the voice repeated, “Please, come in Karl. We were expecting you.”

Karl’s legs obeyed the directive, carrying him forward through the darkness, toward the warm-coloured light. As he passed through the room, if indeed it was a room, he felt a cold, non-resonant openness, rather than the sensation of walls enclosing the space. Nearing the lighted area, he saw a massive teak desk, with purple draperies hanging from the wall on either side, extending upwards out of the light. A large version of the strange logo on the door decorated the mahogany wall behind and above the desk. He noticed a laptop computer sharing the top of the desk with a golden plaque bearing the name, Lord Gideon Ellasar. As he drew still nearer, he could hear a fast-cadenced tapping on the keypad, and finally he saw the person doing the typing.

The man behind the desk bore ruggedly handsome features in a ruddy complexion, with glossy black hair slicked back in a continental style. His pinstriped, black suit coat didn’t disguise his muscular torso.

When Karl finally reached the desk, the man rose to his full height, and his commanding presence made Karl feel more puny than ever. But the man’s warm smile and extended hand eased Karl’s apprehensions somewhat. With his painfully firm handshake, the man said, “Our name is Ellasar. How can we help you, Karl?” That this stranger with the vice-like grip and disarming smile knew his name didn’t seem at all odd to Karl.

“I found this ad … ,” Karl’s halting speech embarrassed him, as he fumbled in his pocket for the scrap of paper. Producing it, he offered it to Ellasar and continued, “… in the paper, a few weeks ago, and I was just wondering if it’s still good.”

The man dismissed the scribbled note without even a glance, as his ebony-coloured eyes seemed to drill into Karl, performing exploratory surgery on his soul. “Why yes. Of course it is still valid. Have a seat and let us get to the business at hand.” He cheerfully gestured towards an overstuffed chair that Karl hadn’t noticed before. “Would you like something to drink?” The gaze of those dark eyes never left his.

Karl thought for a moment. “Andorian Tea.” He felt cagey, hoping the fictitious Star Trek beverage might give him the advantage of confusing his host.

Without hesitation, Ellasar reached to his right and took the teapot from an ornate silver tea set that Karl had also previously failed to notice. A trail of vapour wafted from the spout, the strange, subtle fragrance capturing Karl’s imagination. Ellasar poured the steaming liquid into a silver teacup and reached across the desk to place it into Karl’s waiting hand. As a sense of deja vu filled his mind, he wondered if he had smelled this in another life? Perhaps his imaginings were more than that. Was he really a space explorer …?

Ellasar’s voice broke into his reverie. “So Karl, you lust for success.”

Karl nodded gravely without noting Ellasar’s strange choice of words, and the man added, “How do you define success?”

The question took Karl aback. He had never thought to define “success” for himself, perhaps because he had never considered himself potentially successful. Thinking came hard in this strange environment, and he puzzled over the question for a long moment. Finally, he managed to begin a halting sentence, “I think, it must mean getting what you want …” Karl felt incredibly stupid as he heard his voice trail off. “I guess.”

Was Ellasar’s smile a bit patronizing? Though he couldn’t be sure, it made Karl even more uncomfortable.

“Karl, we will be agreeing to a covenant, a legal document, so we must precisely define our terms.”

The headache that confrontations with his father had always caused began gripping him, and he wanted to leave. When he realized he couldn’t move, panic seized him.

“Let us examine the question rationally.” Ellasar took the tone of a lecturer. “Success can mean many things, such as reaching a goal, or achieving a desired outcome.”

As the imposing gentleman paused for effect, Karl said, “Yeah … yeah that sounds fine,” with his eyes quickly shifting about.

Ellasar made a show of struggling for patience as he continued, “Or, it can mean a general state of successfulness. I need your definition of success Karl. You tell me what it means to you.”

Karl’s headache was getting worse from trying to think under pressure. There was a long silence, but finally he managed, “I guess … I mean … If I try to do something, I can do it okay?”

“Is that a question, or is it your answer?”

“It’s … I think it’s my answer?”

“You,” Ellasar paused for effect. “‘think.’”

Karl hated being put on the spot like that. “I know!” he blurted out. “I mean, yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Yes. I suppose that is what you mean.” His subtle sarcasm was not quite lost on Karl.

“I have prepared a covenant for you to examine, and sign if it meets with your approval, Karl.” He reached into a drawer, and with a flourish, withdrew an ancient-looking leather scroll. He laid it on the desk and unrolled it. Then he pushed it across so Karl could read it.

The script appeared to be expertly handwritten calligraphy, and when Karl moved his hand across the warm, seemingly alive surface, he felt that familiar shiver. Since the letters seemed to have a light of their own, Karl had no trouble seeing the words, despite the room’s dim illumination. And though such archaic calligraphy was at first impossible to read, the words seemed to come alive before his eyes:

Be it known to all interested parties, that the undersigned, Mister Karl Ichabod Adams, an adult of normal faculties and majority age, has of his own free will, choice, and volition, entered into the following covenant:

I, the undersigned Karl Ichabod Adams, do agree with and pledge to the following terms in order to have “SUCCESS” as defined in my own words: “If I try to do something, I can do it okay.” In exchange for “SUCCESS” according to said definition, I, Karl Ichabod Adams, do pledge by my signature below, in my own life’s blood, to grant to PERDITION INCORPORATED, as directed by its Administrator, Lord Gideon Lucious Ellasar, the right to possession, at the moment of my departure from this temporal life and for all eternity, of all that is now or ever shall be mine, including my body, my soul, and my spirit.

Said contract is irrevocably agreed to and finalized by the signature of the above named Karl Ichabod Adams in his own life’s blood below.

Karl blanched when he read the words, “In my own life’s blood.”

“Does the covenant meet with your approval Karl?”

“I … Well … I’m not so sure about this part, right … ” He pointed to the word blood. “Here.”

For the first time during their meeting, Ellasar’s smile faded. “I assumed you intended to take this business seriously.”

Karl hadn’t thought much in terms of eternity, and even now felt such considerations were only for those anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, religious types. And certainly, no self-respecting star ship science officer would worry about such things. “Oh, I do … I mean, I am serious!”

Without another word, Ellasar held out an empty, crystalline fountain pen. Karl’s mind seemed lethargic, unable to fully apprehend the incongruity between this proposed act of faith and his staunch atheism, but his brief vacillation ended as if terminated by some external force. He reached out to take the transparent pen, but when he closed his fingers about it, sharp pain shot through his hand, jerking his arm and forcing a grunt from his throat. He tried repeatedly to fling it away, but his grasp was frozen. Grimacing helplessly, he shot a pleading glance at Ellasar.

“Do you plan to sign the covenant, or simply hold my pen in agony?” Ellasar’s question conveyed no emotion.

With his mouth agape in a rictus of horror, Karl watched his blood begin oozing into the infernal instrument’s barrel. His heart palpitated and his head throbbed as his clammy hand began moving. As if by its own will, the nib scratched his crimson signature across the ancient, leather scroll. Only then could he drop the pen.

Ellasar chuckled through a satisfied smirk while removing the pen from Karl’s trembling hand. “Congratulations Karl, you are on your way to, ‘doing it okay.’” His sardonic laughter gradually grew into a gloating, demonic howl. Finally he regained his composure enough to say, “Our business is ended … for now. The door is behind you.”

Confused, Karl stood and turned about, expecting to see a long walk back to the door, but found he was standing mere inches from it. He pushed it open to reveal total darkness, then looked back to where the desk should have been, but it too was darkness. He realized he was falling and tried to scream, but could not find his voice.

Chapter Two

Wednesday, 13 November, 5:43 AM

The falling sensation that had shocked Karl to shrieking wakefulness sat him up in his bed. Staring into the darkness of his room, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he should be somewhere else, dangerous, and not safely in bed.

He reached over to switch on his bedside lamp, and winced from a pain in the fingers and wrist of his right hand. After he switched to his left hand to click it on, he examined the painful fingers to discover dark, purple bruises. True to his typical reaction when facing a challenge, he cursed, then muttered, “Now how am I gonna fill out forms an’ shit?”

He stared at the bruises, trying to remember how or where he got them, and the anxiety of having forgotten something vitally important kept pestering him. But nothing came to mind.

A glance at his alarm clock told him there was no need trying to sleep any longer, so he shut it off, and thought of another stimulating day awaiting him at the “sanitary” land fill. How, after three years working there, did he manage to have any sense of smell?

As he struggled to stand at the side of his convertible Davenport-bed, his usual morning backache briefly distracted him from his other pains. For years he had hoped to replace his old “torture rack” with a real bed, but somehow he never quite got to it. He stretched his pain-wracked body as usual, but felt an unprecedented and most satisfying popping in his back, and for the first time in years it was without pain. For a moment he enjoyed the sensation, until he realized his fingers and wrist still hurt.

“What luck!” he muttered with more cursing. The only part of his body he used on that loader more than his back was his right hand.

Karl’s lavatory was nothing more than a curtained-off cubicle in the corner of his single-room flat. The visage reflected in the round mirror hanging on the wall over his chipped, enamelled sink told him it was a few days since he had last shaved. Though he was tempted to blow it off again because his blond beard showed very little, he snickered wryly, saying to himself, “Spock, you look very un-Vulcan this morning. Time to shape up if you’re going to be a success.”

Without a second thought, he rummaged through the clutter on a corner shelf over his water closet until he found the aerosol shaving cream. He shook it vigorously, squirted a generous ball of foam into his right hand and smeared it over his cheeks and neck.

Suddenly he realized that his wrist and fingers didn’t pain him as they had just moments before, so he rinsed them off and discovered the bruises had nearly faded. Puzzled, he stared at them for a minute, and again wished he could regain the troublesome, evasive memory. Finally he shook his head, opened a new disposable safety razor and began scraping his face clean.

For the first time since moving into his hovel, Karl regretted not having a shower available, so he did the next-best thing, a thorough sponge-bathing. It was then he found the abrasions on his left elbow and knee. Looking at them, he scratched his head in confusion, unable to recall how he had hurt himself.

Then he changed his skivvies and socks, pulled on a relatively clean, dark-blue work shirt and matching pair of trousers from his makeshift wardrobe, and with great satisfaction, left for the land fill with an unprecedented, lively step.

He arrived at the bus stop earlier than usual, despite having put extraordinary care into his preparations. Rather than grousing as he usually did to those waiting with him about the lousy bus service, he studied them furtively, guessing things about their lives and occupations. He automatically reached to his breast pocket for the pen and tablet he never carried, and made a mental note to acquire them. If he was going to be a success, he’d have to become a student of life.

The long commute finally delivered him to a bus stop about three-quarters of a mile beyond the land fill entrance. As usual the driver had refused Karl’s request to stop early and make his walk a bit shorter, so he stepped off the bus and was engulfed in gray diesel smoke as it accelerated away. Rather than cursing the driver under his breath as he had done each work day for the previous three years, he turned towards the land fill without recrimination and calmly walked, lost in thought, to the Administration building.

As he passed Painter’s office he noted for the first time how harried the old guy looked. He had always believed Dan’s duties were more recreation than work, and wanted nothing more than to have a similarly cushy position. Is that the picture of success? I think not! Another mental note made, he got quickly to work rather than hiding in the locker room as he normally would have done, fantasizing about his Trekkie ambitions until someone came looking for him.

Karl’s day flew past for a change. For years, his most important piece of equipment had been his wrist watch, but that day he was surprised when his cabin wireless crackled to life with Dan’s irritated voice. “Adams! You plannin’ on workin’ all night? The rest of us wanna get outa here.”

Though he hadn’t enjoyed that day’s work more than any other, he had attacked it like an enemy, hardly noticing the perpetual ugliness and stench of the solid waste land fill, rather like a soldier forgets about the noise and pain of battle when he is in the thick of it. Scraping the city’s refuse into the pit unconsciously symbolized to him the change taking place in his life. Without realizing it, he had replaced the passionate self-pity that had consumed him over the years with a cold, dispassionate quest for success.

Karl walked back to the bus stop and spent the long ride home lost in thought. He realized his employment at the land fill was a complete waste of valuable time, and tried to imagine what it would take to get free of it.

After stepping off the bus he didn’t walk to the video store as he normally would have, but stopped only at the local news stand where he purchased a copy of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

When he finally arrived at the dump he grudgingly called home, he drew his chair up to the small table that had never before served as a study desk, and began pouring over the financial news with a unique intensity. In fact, he read every word in the paper, including the ads.

Karl sensed no time elapsing until he had finished reading and formed his strategy. He was startled on glancing at his clock to see midnight had come and gone. Before him, written in pencil on a paper towel, were the names of six public stocks that had attracted his attention. Though he felt no fatigue, he forced himself to rest on his bed, plotting how to find enough money to buy in.

***

Thursday, 14 November, 6:00 AM

He must have slept, because his alarm clock startled him out of a dream involving a long, dim flight of stairs. But Karl didn’t have time for analysing dreams. He shaved again—two days in a row was unprecedented—cleaned up, pulled on his best clothes, clutched his notes and his copy of the JOURNAL, and hurried to the telephone to call the land fill.

“Dan, I’m not coming in today. Just don’t feel like myself!” In that, he told the truth, but his feeling wasn’t physical, and certainly not bad.

“I guess not! You were a one-man show yesterday. I got complaints from the other guys sayin’ you were makin’ ‘em look bad. What got into you?”

“Just doing my job, Dan. I can’t help it if I outclass the other guys.”

“Okay Adams, rest up. But when you come back I want to see you keep makin’ ‘em look bad. Makes me look good.” He laughed as if he had said something clever. Karl didn’t utter the expletive that came to his mind.

After hanging up, he studied one of the ads he’d circled, pushed more coins into the telephone and dialled the listed number. “Yes, I want to talk to a broker.” He drummed his fingers on the telephone table, waiting to be taken off hold. “Yes, set up an account under the name Pavel Chekov.

“Yes I’m serious.

“No … No, I don’t need counselling.

“That’ll be a credit card.” He recited his credit card number and expiration date from memory.

“Yes, I understand that! Just set me up to buy ten shares each of White Properties, Tech-Mentor, Advanced Resolution Control, Secured Documentation, Network Management Associates, and IT Publishing.”

Again he drummed his fingers while waiting. “That’s right, credit card.

“I KNOW it’s going to be expensive, but not as expensive to you as losing your job! Just do it!”

With that he slammed the handset into its cradle, turned to head down the stairs, hitting about every third step, crashed through the front door and headed down the street as if the devil himself were after him.

His first stop was a five-and-ten store where he purchased an inexpensive vinyl portfolio and packages of legal pads and stick pens. At the checkout counter he also found the pocket-size spiral pad he had wanted the day before. He had a life’s work ahead of him, and he was going to be prepared.

***

The Public Library reference section held more books than Karl had ever seen in one place. He fingered through the collection for half an hour, occasionally pulling a volume on investing or real estate from a shelf and laying it on his growing stack. Finally, he carried them to an available table to begin pouring over the information, paper and pen at the ready.

Before he knew it, the room lights blinked and the librarians glared at him expectantly. It was five minutes until ten in the evening, and the library was closing. He had studied for nearly twelve hours without as much as looking up, except perhaps for meeting the occasional biological need, and his brain was fried—a most satisfying, if novel, sensation.

That evening his torture rack Davenport-bed was a welcome sight.

***

Friday, 15 November, 6:00 AM

The dark corridor seemed to go on indefinitely, the distant light never getting nearer. Suddenly a brash clanging invaded the quietness, and the corridor slowly dissolved into Karl’s dreary room. He reached over to quiet the alarm and wiped his hand over his face as if trying to clear away the cobwebs of fatigue. His brain ached from the information he had tried to assimilate the day before.

He glanced at his table to see the new portfolio lying at its edge, filled with his many pages of notes. Never having worked so hard, he couldn’t imagine what had motivated it. But from somewhere deeper than his fatigue, that spark of motivation caused his left arm to throw aside his covers, his legs to swing over the side of the bed, and his body to stand erect. Again he stretched, and again his back popped, relieving his pain and stiffness. He stepped straight over to his mirror and began shaving, his thoughts occupied with his new passion.

After washing and dressing, Karl started for the corridor telephone to again call in sick, but realised his job held so little mental challenge that he could study his notes whilst working. He did, however, stop at the news agent near the bus stop to purchase the latest edition of the JOURNAL.

His study during the long ride to work revealed that all but two of his stocks had increased in value by anywhere from a half to three points. He realized with a little mental calculation that even after possible credit card charges, he had made more from his investments in one day’s time than he had during a month’s bashing his body at the land fill. He also considered the two stocks that hadn’t appreciated in value, resolved to learn why, and to not repeat that mistake. Of course, he never considered how stupid charging his stock purchases could have been in view of the market’s volatility.

As he passed Dan’s office, he fought the urge to resign that day. He did, however, stop at the telephone in the lunch room to call his broker with a sell order for all his stocks, putting into practice a bit of advice he had read in his studies: “Don’t be greedy! Take the profit and recycle it.” He knew he would have another buy list of stocks by day’s end.

***

Friday, 9 May, 7:55 AM

“Karl, my man, have a seat.” Without waiting for a response from his visitor, Dan looked back down to pretend he was busy with the clutter on his desk. Karl marched to within inches of the desk, trying to conceal the disdain he felt while looking down at his seated boss.

After a long moment of silence, Dan looked up to meet his cold gaze. “Okay Karl, what can we do for you.” Dan’s use of the imperious, “we,” irritated Karl no less than usual.

“You need to have me train somebody to take over my job.”

Dan did a comedic double-take and arched one eyebrow. “What? You plannin’ on movin’ into my office?”

“No.” Karl chuckled at the absurd thought. “I’m leaving in two weeks.”

Dan’s jaw fell open and Karl envisioned a fly trap ready to spring closed upon it’s quarry. Karl only smiled at his blustering—nearly ex—boss. “You can’t do that! After all the time I invested in you … I mean, you’ve done the work of three men during the last six months. I was just gonna offer you a huge raise, and the lead-man job out there!”

Karl could no longer withhold his contempt for the man sitting behind the boss’s desk. Though Dan was at least six inches taller, Karl seemed to tower as he looked down at him. Slow, deliberate words rolled from his lips, “Dan, you are an incompetent liar and a thief. You used your father’s connections at City Hall to land this job, and you’ve been mishandling it ever since. Why should I stay here and dig you out of the hole you’ve made for yourself when I could buy you AND this infernal place?” He turned away and walked to the door, but looked back to say, “You don’t deserve two weeks notice.”

Finally he turned his back, not only on his former boss, but on his past life as well. The New Karl Adams faced a world full of promise.

***

August, Three Years Later

Anyone who had known Karl in the Old Days would not have recognized him, or his lifestyle. His exhaustive personal transformation produced someone the business world couldn’t ignore. While educating himself in business, finance and the humanities, he continued amassing his fortune through shrewd stock market and real estate investments. With the ample capital he had available, he acquired much of the old industrial sector and renovated it to become The Division Street District, the Bay Area’s new prestige business and residential location.

His crowning achievement was his personal residential masterpiece. Located at Number Two-One-Six Division Street, the converted garment factory included both the hub of his business activities, and a lavish residence. Since he had become one of California’s, and arguably the nation’s, most influential figures, his headquarters had to suit both his position and the image he tirelessly cultivated.

***

Monday, 21 August, 7:45 AM

Despite having surrounded himself with the trappings of “the good life,” Karl Adams finally had to admit that he was miserable. After pondering the issue for some time, he fixed the blame for his disquiet on his feeling of physical vulnerability. Whilst he wasn’t aware of anyone stabbing him in the back, he was acutely aware that the most mortal of betrayals aren’t, at first, painful. In view of the “deals” he had perpetrated against some very dangerous people, he knew that he was susceptible to even worse in return.

To appease his insecurity, he called the one person in his sphere of influence that he could even remotely trust. After satisfying the social amenities, Karl said, “I know you’ve occasionally enlisted the services of, shall we say, confidential resources? I need to find someone I can trust, who has certain … skills … you know ….”

Marty’s nasal-sounding, Eastern Seaboard accent said, “Uh-huh …” His pause was great with pregnancy. “You know … There’s one guy … He’s pretty good, but I’m not sure how available he is … that’s if I can reach him.”

“Just do your best, Marty. And thanks.” He broke off the call without further enlightening his friend.

Karl stood beside the Italian marble fountain at the centre of his floor space, deep in thought, as he slowly returned his secure mobile phone to the inner breast pocket of his tailored smoking jacket. He stared at, but didn’t see, the statue of the beautiful young maiden pouring water from her pitcher. He heard, but didn’t listen, to the sounds of burbling water and soft, New Age music that filled his space as he turned to amble towards his loft.

***

Thursday, 24 August, 4:42 AM

Apparently Marty had found his, “secret agent,” because early the following morning Karl’s residence telephone awakened him from his recurring dream—the one involving the light at the end of the corridor. He lifted the receiver to hear a rugged-sounding voice with a southern drawl, “Mister Adams, a mutual friend requested that I call. How are you, sir?”

Karl was short on both sleep and temper. “Yes! What do you want?”

“No sir,” the drawl said, “what do you want?”

Karl was more irritated by the cryptic nature of the call than the intrusion into his private time. “Look, I don’t have time for riddles.”

The southern gentleman sounded genuinely apologetic. “I’m sorry for the timing, sir, but considering the, ‘sensitive,’ nature of your business, I thought it would be prudent to call at this hour.”

“Yes, so get on with this, ‘sensitive,’ business.”

“As I was saying, our mutual friend felt y’all might need some kinda specialized services. So, as I said sir, what do you want?”

“This, ‘mutual friend.’ What might his name be?”

“Mister Adams, I am assuming this is not a secure line, and in consideration of the gentleman’s privacy, I am not at liberty to mention his name. Perhaps if you were to mention, in general terms, what y’all need, sir, I’ll be able to help you.”

Karl raised his voice. “Now look, ‘sir,’ we seem to be at an impasse, and if, ‘you all,’ don’t want this call to end right now, you had better be more specific!”

The caller was unflappable. “Am I to assume, Mister Adams, that you wish to engage the services of a confidential security agent?”

“Now, that didn’t hurt so bad, did it?” Karl’s sarcasm was palpable. “So you’re Marty’s friend. Do you do this dance with all your clients? Yes! I need security services.”

“I apologize, sir.” The Drawl sounded as if he were reading from a script. “I am fully booked for some time into the future, but I have an idea of who might be available to help y’all. The person I have in mind is exceptional in the necessary skills required for confidential security support. Do I have your permission to request that contact?”

“Mister, whatever your name is, are you telling me that you don’t have time to consider working for me?”

“Sir, I am telling you that I am booked for the foreseeable future,” the caller repeated calmly—a fact that irritated Karl all the more, “and out of regard for my current commitments, I must respectfully decline your offer.”

Karl was about to reply with even deeper sarcasm, but the caller continued, “To facilitate my colleague’s contacting you, sir, may I please have your secure cell phone number. I assure you, my colleague is even more security conscious than I am.”

“How do you know I have a secure cell phone?”

“Mister Adams, our mutual friend knows your circumstances pretty well, so if you don’t mind, the number please?”

After Karl grudgingly recited his secure mobile number, the caller said, “My colleague will be in touch, sir.” And the line went dead.

The uneasy feeling that he was getting in over his head began bothering him. The rest of the day that feeling grew into minor paranoia, with his jumping whenever the telephone rang, and then being short with the callers. The running water and New Age music failed to calm him, and the one business meeting he had scheduled for the day didn’t go at all well, leaving Karl even more upset.

***

Friday, 25 August, 3:15 AM

That evening Karl retired early, but as usual sleep eluded him. When his secure cell phone warbled shortly after three the next morning, he was awake to answer it.

“Adams!” he barked into the phone, but he wasn’t prepared for the voice that replied.

“Mister Adams,” said the soft, British-sounding female voice, “a colleague asked that I call you at this secure number regarding security services …”

“You get your boss on the line! I’m not talking to any secretary!”

“Mister Adams.” She spoke with just the slightest suggestion of pique. “I was warned to expect a rotten attitude from you, and be advised that I will not accept that from you or anyone else! Do you or do you not require the services of a security specialist?”

Such a direct response to his bullying surprised him. “Yes I do! But you’re not qualified, so …”

She had the nerve to interrupt him. “Mister Adams, if you want security services at the level I am prepared to provide, you must be willing to compromise your prejudices. Think it over, and call me at …” And she slowly gave him her business telephone number before ending the conversation.

This unknown woman, whom Karl couldn’t intimidate, intrigued him. He fought with himself, suffering from an indecision that he hadn’t experienced since before—well—before what? His past life was like a dream, though less persistent than his light-at-the-end-of-the-corridor dream. It seemed he had always been the wealthy, ruthless, self-assured king of the city centre, and it irritated him to be challenged by a woman. But the ball was, so to say, in his court.

 

Chapter Three

Tuesday, 5 September, 5:45 AM

As time passed, Karl’s insomnia grew worse. When Marty called early Tuesday morning Karl was still lying awake, staring at the ceiling above his bed while randomly pondering various aspects of his complicated life.

“Uh … Karl … Sorry to wake you up so early, but have you moved on that ‘security’ business we discussed?”

“I wasn’t sleeping, Marty, why do you ask?”

“Well … I’ve heard something on the wind, so to speak, and I was hoping you have yourself covered, security-wise.”

“What do you mean? Is there something I should know about?”

“Nothing I can comment on Karl, but …”

“What do you mean, you can’t comment?” Karl’s already short temper seemed to shrink appreciably. “Are we friends, or not?”

“Now, Karl, it’s not a matter of friendship or anything. I just can’t comment on what I’ve heard … you know …”

“I’m not sure that I do, Marty! Tell me what you heard!” Though Karl was not in the habit of raising is voice, he thought nothing of loudly trying to intimidate his friend.

“I’m sorry … I just can’t get specific, but it has something to do with Weber. Just consider yourself warned.” And the line went dead.

So there it was. Karl’s options had narrowed to none other than the insufferable woman whose telephone number he had kept.

***

The now-familiar, British-accented voice answered instantly, “Yehsurun.”

Karl was confused. “Yesh … What?”

“Yehsurun is my name, Mister Adams.”

“Ms Yehsurun,” Karl pronounced the name syllabically. “What kind of name is that?”

“Mister Adams, does it really matter what kind of name I have? But since you must know, my name is Jewish, and it means ‘the upright one.’ Now what other trivial information do you need?”

“Ah … My reason for calling is …”

“I’ll call you right back,” and the line went dead.

A few seconds later his secure mobile sounded, and Rachel spoke before he was able to say anything. “You were saying?”

“I wanted to find out if you were still available for a job.”

“That depends on what you’re willing to pay.”

“Ms … Yehsurun …”

“Please Mister Adams, call me Rachel.”

“Yes … Rachel, certain rumours have reached me … and I would like you to …”

“Are you speaking of exclusive, full-time security coverage?”

He thought about it for a moment, and his pride prevailed over reason. “Of course I want full-time coverage, but it’s got to be undercover and complete.”

“My base fee for that sort of security coverage is ten thousand a month, plus expenses. Of course, that doesn’t include hazard compensation, which I’ll assess based on degree and duration.”

“Is that … dollars?”

“Yes, Mister Adams, that is ten thousand dollars a month, and I achieve the desired results by legal means.

“That’s pretty steep for limited services, don’t you think? Would …”

“My fees are not negotiable. Remember, you get what you pay for, and I am really quite good at what I do, Mister Adams.”

Karl thought for a moment, but Rachel’s subtle, British accent interrupted, “Either you require my services, or you don’t. Considering your exposure and your resources, I think my demands are indeed reasonable.”

“What do you need to get started?”

“Wire six months’ advance salary to the following Swiss account number, and I’ll be in touch.” She recited her account number, and the name and phone number of the bank, and the line went dead. After pocketing his own phone, he sat down again on the side of his bed, conflicted between seconds thoughts about cost, and fear of whatever unknown hazard had prompted Marty’s cryptic call.

***

Friday, 8 September, 9:15 AM

Karl’s secure secure cell phone silently vibrated his inside breast pocket. He turned away from the members of the Division Street District Foundation board, withdrew and opened his phone, and held it to his ear. “Adams.”

Rachel’s familiar British voice was on the line. “One word, Mister Adams: ‘Witherspoon!’” And again, the line went dead.

Karl slowly returned the phone to its place while he spied Roger Witherspoon’s emaciated visage. He and R. J. George, another of Karl’s confidential inner circle, were involved in a quiet discussion which seemed devoid of any sinister content. Karl stared at Roger with a knowing expression, “Roger, do you have something to tell me?”

Roger said nothing, but his eyes shifted about as if he were wondering whether there might be another Roger somewhere in the room.

Karl rested his elbows on his expansive teak desk, hands together as if in prayer, forefingers touching his lips. His stare seemed to make Roger even more nervous. A heavy weight hung over the meeting, with everyone looking expectantly from one of them to the other.

Roger smiled self-consciously. “What’s this all about?”

“Roger, my friend.” Karl’s voice carried an understated menace. “What on Earth have you been up to?”

Roger’s mouth opened but nothing came out, as if his words had caught in his throat.

“You seem nervous, my ‘friend.’ Could there be some reason for that?”

***

Roger wanted only to escape, but knew that would be an admission of guilt. How did Karl know about his conversation with Weber? And why was his talking with a competitor causing this melodrama?

“Do you have something to tell me?” Karl’s stare bore painfully deeper.

“Well … as you know …,” Roger assumed Karl knew, and hated him for playing this kind of sick, psychological game. “Alex Weber called me a couple of weeks ago and suggested we have lunch, and,” he swallowed hard, “you know I’m not actually an employee of yours … well, I didn’t see anything wrong with his buying me lunch.”

“Of course there’s nothing wrong with having lunch with Weber … as long as your business doesn’t undermine my business.” Karl flashed a mock smile. “But, there wouldn’t be any reason to meet secretly if your business were above board. Would there Roger?”

Why was he petrified? What could Karl do but exclude him from his business deals? And if that were to happen, he could always fall back on Weber.

Roger forced a calm demeanour. “Now Karl, there was no ‘secret’ meeting. Besides, we’re old friends, you and me. Why would I be working behind your back? I mean … not that I was, but ….” He felt the nervous tick under his right eye that always betrayed his anxiety.

“Of course we’re friends Roger. I was just giving you a bad time, you know, making you squirm. Now off with you. I’m sure you have other business.”

Roger couldn’t help feeling conspicuous as he stood, smiled and nodded to everyone, then walked towards the lift with as much aplomb as he could manage. When he had opened the gate and was about to step onto the platform, Karl called after him, “You know Roger, you were squirming. Just like a trapped weasel.”

Karl’s parting remark distracted Roger, causing him to trip over the threshold, but he quickly corrected, pulling the gate closed behind himself. Feeling terribly awkward and embarrassed, he affected deep concentration on the lift buttons. Even after pressing the one for the ground-floor, he stared at the buttons to avoid looking back at the others and betraying the guilt, resentment, and rage heating his face.

***

With that bit of melodrama concluded, Karl dismissed the rest of his associates with strained laughter and hand shakes all around. Finally alone, he slouched into the deep padding of his black leather executive’s chair, wondering what to do about Roger Witherspoon. He absently reached again into his inner breast pocket, withdrew his secure cell and pressed Rachel Yehsurun’s speed dial key.

“Ms … Rachel, may I ask how …”

“Mister Adams. By now you should realize that I do not discuss business at this telephone number. Please break off and I’ll ring you right back.”

The instant his mobile vibrated, Karl began, “How did you know about Witherspoon?”

“My sources and methods are my business, Mister Adams.” The flint edge of her gentle-sounding voice intrigued him.

“I love that British accent of yours, Rachel, and you’re obviously very capable.” He heard her exasperated sigh. “But I need to meet with you in person. You know I haven’t had a chance to interview you properly.” Since this was only a woman, Karl assumed he could charm her into whatever he wanted.

“That won’t be necessary, Mister Adams. My work speaks for itself.” The line went dead and Karl looked at the phone, not believing she had again broken off a call.

He mashed the REDIAL button on his phone more forcefully than necessary, not about to let a woman have the last word.

“Yesh …”

“Rachel! People do not hang up on me! If you wish to remain in my employ, you will never hang up on me again! I have an assignment for you, and I want to give it to you in person. Meet me at …”

“Mister Adams! Once again it seems I must remind you that I don’t discuss business at this telephone number. Besides, you’ve already given me your assignment, and that is to mind your security. You know, I watch your back by any legal means necessary. I hope that removes any confusion about my role in your service. Have a good day.”

“Rachel! R … Wait! I’m sorry. Please call me from your ‘other’ phone.” It galled Karl to play by her rules, but he’d do anything to get what he wanted.

With Rachel back on the line, he continued. “Rachel, would you please give me your secure phone number, just in case of an emergency?”

“If I gave you that, you’d use it for all sorts of trivial purposes, and I won’t have that!”

“No, you’ve made your point.” This insufferable woman was about to give him an ulcer. “I’ll respect your wishes. Please, I need to be able to reach you without doing this little dance. And your sources are your business, but I’d like to make sure you know what I need.”

“Alright, Mister Adams.” Rachel’s voice betrayed her grudging tolerance. “Against my better judgement, I’ll give you my secure number. And you mentioned that you needed something. What is it?”

“I want a little more cooperation, Rachel. You need to keep me in the loop. I pay you for information, so keep me informed … Hello?”

“Just waiting til you’ve finished, Mister Adams.”

He didn’t know what to say, and hated feeling awkward. “I guess that’s all … Just keep in touch.”

***

Monday, 11 September, 8:30 AM

Karl wracked his brain for someone he could trust with his “special” assignments. He realized that if he could hire someone to do something illegal, he needed some other leverage to ensure loyalty. Otherwise that sort of person would be completely untrustworthy. It had to be someone he owned completely.

At once, he realized that Witherspoon himself might just prove useful when other, “conventional,” resources fell short of his needs. If the guy was going behind his back, he likely had skeletons from past misdeeds figuratively hidden somewhere in his cellar. It remained only to find and exploit them, so with great trepidation, he dialled the secure telephone number of Rachel Yeshurun.

“Yeshurun.” Rachel’s manner was terse, even to the point of abruptness.

“Rachel, please listen to me,” he said quickly, hoping to circumvent this difficult woman’s whining about protocol.

“Yes, Mister Adams, how may I help you?”

Karl was relieved to hear Rachel’s amiable reply, so he got to his business straight away. “I’m afraid this Witherspoon business could get out of control and become a major security problem. I’d like you to take some, shall we say, ‘pro-active’ measure to insure that doesn’t happen.”

“Mister Adams!” Rachel’s tone became decidedly cooler. “If you value our association, I hope you will know better than to ask me to kill for you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Rachel. That’s not the way I do business.” Since he suspected such a drastic step might become necessary, he wasn’t telling the complete truth. “Our arrangement is fine on your terms. All I need you to do is check deeper into Witherspoon’s business. Find any dirt I could …”

“I’m sorry, Mister Adams, but you still don’t seem to understand the way I do business. Your reference to ‘dirt’ is offensive. ‘Dirt’ is not a commodity in which I deal.”

“Call it what you want to, but find something I can use as leverage so he won’t try anything behind my back again.”

She sighed deeply. “Alright, but it’s against my better judgement.” And the line went dead. Would he ever get used to having her hang up on him?

***

Thursday, 28 September, 5:25 PM

People usually didn’t notice Rachel Yehsurun. Until her mid-twenties her hair had been a rich, chestnut colour. Now, in her early forties, she wore her long, salt-and-pepper hair in a bun. Behind her unneeded horn rim spectacles and deliberately bad makeup, her beautifully angular facial features were well defined. Her large, deep hazel eyes had perfectly formed dark brows, long lashes, and no bags. At a trim five feet tall and wearing unremarkable clothing, she blended even when there was no crowd. Such practised anonymity served her well as she researched and observed people, an occupation at which she excelled.

As promised, Rachel got busy researching Roger Witherspoon’s past, which would have been an easy subject for a trained sleuth to uncover. His adult life seemed transparent—too transparent. His personal data, for what it was worth, was a matter of public record. There were no scrapes with the authorities, no deals-gone-bad, and his credit record was a study in responsible, Middle American spending.

Rachel’s curiosity as to why a man on record with such mundane behaviour should seek the company of a mob-owned blighter like Alex Weber drove her to more specialized information sources. There she uncovered his hidden, juvenile record.

Like the prodigal son, this shady character had left home to enjoy the high-living to which he believed he was entitled, only to get into trouble and have Daddy bail him out. In one day she discovered several facts of his background that could compromise his influence, such things as having been charged with child molestation, vandalism, and conspiracy to commit murder as a minor. His intended victim had been his own father.

The more Rachel delved into Witherspoon’s rotten life, the more she enjoyed the prospect of exposing him. To that end, after three weeks of digging she assembled his dossier on her laptop computer, printed it, and placed a call to Karl’s secure mobile to arrange a meeting.

“Mister Adams,” she said cheerfully, “I have some material for your reading pleasure.”

Karl, however, was anything but cheerful. “Rachel! I hope my assignment didn’t disturb your vacation!”

Rachel was taken aback—again. “Mister Adams, if you will go off like that whenever I don’t meet your ridiculous expectations, you may consider this my resignation. I don’t need the work, or the aggravation. If you do not wish to have my information about Witherspoon, this conversation, and our association, is at an end.”

***

The line went dead, and Karl stood facing the vast windows in is office, mobile to his ear, eyes closed. He practised, with marginal success, the breathing exercises his highly-paid guru had prescribed for stress reduction. About a minute later, he closed the mobile, reopened it, and with a forced calmness, pressed Rachel’s memory dialling button. “Rachel, I apologize … please understand, I’m under pressure, which doesn’t excuse my behaviour.” He hated eating his words, and only did it when the price was high enough.

“Mister Adams, I certainly understand stress, and even losing one’s composure. But please, if we are to work together you must remember that I am a professional, and give me at least that much consideration.”

“I’ll try. So, if you don’t mind giving me another chance, what do you have for me?”

“This was one job I did not mind doing. Your Roger Witherspoon deserves any trouble you give him, but I must personally deliver his dossier, because of the sensitive nature of the information. I can’t risk compromising any of my sources by allowing it out of my sight before you have it in your hands.”

Karl was quite anxious to have it in his hands. “Bring the package right over …”

“Please, Mister Adams, not at your flat. Meet me in one hour at the newsagent located at Fifth and Eastshore Avenue. Do you know the place?”

“You mean that dumpy news stand? Sure, but why not …”

“I’ll be wearing a medium brown, calf-length suit skirt with a matching jacket, and old-fashioned spectacles, but pay attention, I’m easy to miss. When you ask for a copy of the Chronicle, I’ll give you the one I’ll be holding. Take it immediately, pay the proprietor, and return home. Your information will be in the envelope secured inside. And remember, this is proprietary information. I am depending upon, trusting, your complete discretion. If some of this should leak, I would certainly lose my sources … and possibly endanger our safety. And please note. I said OUR safety.”

The line went dead and he returned the mobile to its home on his person as he sat at his desk and considered how long he would take getting there. He checked his watch and turned to gaze out the front window at the afternoon sunshine illuminating the buildings — his buildings — on the far side of the street. Twenty minutes later he checked his watch again, got up, and walked to the freight elevator.

***

Rachel timed the delivery so the news stand cashier, whom she knew to be a sports fanatic, would be distracted by a baseball game on the TV. She arrived at the counter a moment early, hoping Karl was as prompt as he was demanding. As she had anticipated, the proprietor was trying to watch the game on a miniature colour TV perched upon a rear shelf, while monitoring his merchandise. She asked for a paper, to the annoyance of the sports fan. After he handed it to her, she feigned interest until he turned his head to watch an exciting play. Stealthily, she slipped the envelope inside, removed the backing from the narrow strip of two-sided tape already attached to the envelope, placed it into contact with an inner page, and gently squeezed the paper to secure the adhesive. Then she held it, browsing other papers and magazines until Karl arrived.

***

Curiosity about this Mata Hari whom he had never met consumed Karl, but he wasn’t terribly impressed with the mousy-looking woman he saw. He did notice, however, two trim ankles, despite her sensible shoes and shapeless, calf-length skirt. He walked up to the newsagent and asked for a copy of the Chronicle, appearing to ignore Rachel.

Without smiling, she said in a deliberate American accent, “Here, take this one. I changed my mind.” She placed it on the counter without releasing her hold until Karl grasped it and took it from her.

He looked at it for a moment, then glanced up, but she was already gone. He reached into his trousers pocket and withdrew the seventy-five cents he had placed there moments before, bumped the distracted proprietor’s shoulder, handed the quarters to him, and returned home.

Re-entering his flat, he quickly strode to his office, sat at his desk, and began leafing through the paper. At first he couldn’t find the envelope and nearly panicked, but he soon noticed that it was secured to one of the inner pages. How the hell did she manage that? She’s good.

***

6:45 PM

The telephone rang a number of times before Roger answered, “Witherspoon here.” He normally delayed answering, both to inspect the caller I.D., and to give the impression that he was busy.

“Roger my friend,” Karl said without sincerity, “how are you?”

Roger hesitated, not knowing what to expect from him, “Karl,” he cleared his throat, “I’m well, thank you. To what do I owe this call?”

Karl warmed to his little game as he began casually. “Why don’t you drop over tonight. I have some information you’ll find very interesting.”

“Honestly Karl, can’t it wait until the next board meeting? It’s …”

“No, it can’t!” Karl’s voice was edged with flint. “I’ll see you this evening at, say, nine.”

***

Karl’s street-level intercom buzzed at seventeen minutes past nine o’clock. He glanced at a monitor showing a wide angle view of his front door, including the familiar, gangly form of Roger Witherspoon. Karl pressed an intercom button. “Yes!”

“It’s Roger,” the intercom squawked. Karl pressed another button, knowing that downstairs a buzzer sounded and the door latch clicked. He watched Roger open the large, carved hardwood-surfaced steel door and disappear through it. A moment later he heard the elevator begin its laborious ascent. Finally, the iron gate opened and an angry-looking Roger Witherspoon stamped over to Karl’s desk.

“What the deuce is this all about? I had to cancel an important appointment! This had better be good!”

Karl chuckled and gestured toward the chair on the opposite side of his desk. “Oh, it is.”

Roger took the seat and looked impatiently at his host for a moment. Finally he gave in to the suspense. “Well?”

Karl slid the stapled bundle of computer-printed paper across the desk. “Look it over, Roger.” Then, after a significant pause he added, “Please, say it isn’t so.”

As Roger scanned the pages, the little colour of his pasty complexion drained from his face and perspiration began beading on his forehead. “W …” His voice cracked, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Where did you get this?”

Karl answered in a patronizing tone. “Now Roger, does that really matter?”

Roger’s normally small eyes looked more like saucers, unblinking, searching Karl’s face for some sign of the confrontation’s meaning.

“Oh, I hope you don’t think … ” Karl feigned sensitivity. “No, this won’t come between us. I’m not so narrow as to let a sordid history disrupt a good friendship. But it might change — shall I say —the character of our relationship somewhat?” Karl struggled to keep his composure as he played the cat with this long, bony mouse.

A knowing look came upon Roger’s face as he crossed his arms and leaned back. “What do you want?” Then, affecting a more conciliatory tone, he added, “You know my circumstances haven’t been the best of late. Surely I can’t have anything you want.“

“Actually —” Karl pretended deep thought. “There is something you can help me with.”

***

Monday, 2 October, 10:05 AM

Roger Witherspoon concentrated on maintaining a casual demeanour as he met with Alex Weber in his personal lounge behind his casino. Even during the small talk phase of their meeting, Roger wanted to hide his face, convinced his true purpose was written all over it.

His assignment was to request a confidential meeting where Alex would dismiss his body guards. Then he would wait until his host was distracted by a pre-arranged telephone call from Karl, step over to Weber’s private bar, and slip a sedative into the drink he was preparing while his back was turned. After the call, Roger would recommend that Alex have a drink to calm himself, encouraging him to drink it all. Roger was supposed to keep talking until he “bored him to sleep,” as Karl had indelicately put it. Once Alex was unconscious, Roger was to search his files for something they could use against him. After using a miniature camera to take pictures of anything he found, he would carefully restore the documents to their original positions and leave, telling the guards their boss must be on drugs because he fell asleep in the midst of their conversation.

Roger did his best to control his nervousness as Alex’s bodyguards continued loitering in the room. Would they never leave?

Eventually, however, Alex said to them in his B-movie hoodlum accent, “Get lost! Mister Witherspoon and myself, we got some important business to talk about.”

Roger was taken aback when Alex went to the bar to mix their drinks. No, idiot! I was supposed to do that. But finally, Alex got down to business, “So, you’re sure Adams don’t know about us get’n together?” Without waiting for Roger’s reply, he continued speaking to the cocktails he was preparing, “That jerk leads a charmed life. Tried to get something on him a couple’a years ago, but the guy’s squeaky clean. Just ain’t natural!”

He turned towards Roger with two drinks in his hands, complete with miniature oriental umbrellas. He was a cliché of the pretentious thug, with his pastel green leisure suit and open-collared yellow silk shirt tugging against the soft flesh over his chest and ample midriff. “Need somebody on the inside!” he continued, passing the drink to Roger, “Somebody which can get close enough to the heart of his operation to find out where it stinks. You can’t get that rich that fast without having something dirty goin’ on.”

Roger entertained Alex with some mis-information about Karl’s businesses until the telephone finally rang. Alex stood to answer it, and was soon shouting obscenities at the caller.

Roger had been proud of his own blue vocabulary, but even he was taken aback with the creativity Alex poured into his invectives. When one of his lackeys opened the door to investigate, Alex angrily waved him off and walked away for privacy. With Alex’s back turned, distracted by his shouting into the phone, a jittery Roger Witherspoon quickly set his own plan irreversibly into motion.

***

4:21 PM

Karl sat listening to Roger’s account of his spy game, amused, until he heard the spontaneous change in plans. “Everything went as planned until I realized that even with incriminating documentation in your hands, Alex could still be a thorn in your side.” Roger forced a smile. “So once Alex was asleep,” He shifted in the chair and kept his nervous smile in place. “I took a sofa pillow and held it over his face until he quit trying to breathe. He never even knew what happened.”

Karl sat, dumbfounded, not fully comprehending what he had just heard. When Roger saw his reaction, his smile faded, and the nervous tick under his right eye demonstrated his genuine distress. When Karl fully realized the truth that his associate had taken a human life, he began thinking in terms of police rushing in, side arms drawn. Since he had helped stage the meeting, he could easily be implicated as a fellow conspirator with Roger. Larceny was one thing, but murder … Then he thought of Alex’s relationship with the Russian Mafia, and the police became the good guys in his mind.

Karl knew his life was forever changed, but he had no idea how much.

***

8:27 PM

Rachel answered her secure mobile to find Karl speaking before she could even say her name. “Rachel, don’t start with me! I don’t have time to humor your quirks! Something’s happened and I need to speak with you, in person. Now!”

Rachel heard the desperation in his voice and hesitated for a moment, uncertain how to react. “This had better …”

“Rachel, please! It’s crucial that I see you.”

“If the circumstances warrant, I suppose that would be alright.” Then she added with more certainty, “I’ll meet you in ten minutes at the same newsagent where I gave you the information. He’ll be closed by now.”

***

Karl’s silver BMW was waiting at the curb when she arrived. When she got in she noticed his set jaw and white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, and he immediately drove off without so much as a glance toward her. Once safely on their way, he got right to the point. “Roger killed Alex Weber today.”

Rachel paused to digest his statement. Then, dispassionately, “Have you informed the police?”

“No.” He hesitated, continuing to look forward. “There’s a problem.”

They drove on for a long moment, then Rachel’s curiosity finally took over. “Right … and what is the problem?”

Karl’s voice bordered on panic. “I sent Roger over there. But not to murder anybody!”

“Oh, and …”

“It’s still under wraps, but I could be implicated!”

“Mister Adams, no matter how badly you might be implicated, it’s always better to avoid the appearance of a cover-up. I suggest you go to the pol …”

“You don’t get it, do you? Alex was owned by the Russian mob, and if they connect me with that murder, I’ll be lucky if they kill me fast.”

“Are you being completely truthful with me?”

“I have nobody else to turn to. I mean, it’s all been a game up ‘til now, but this changes everything. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

“Mister Ad …”

“Cut the crap, Rachel. I’m through playing authority games. I need a friend and you’re elected.”

Karl’s bluntness took Rachel aback, and she stared at his hawkish profile. She caught herself reacting more to his unattractive features—the large, curved nose and short chin—than to his authoritarian attitude. That contradiction in her normally emotionally detached, analytical mind shocked her. She couldn’t remember reacting that negatively, that quickly, to anyone else, and she resented his reducing her to that level.

Seizing the personal challenge, she barked, “Turn right at the next signal light.”

“Where—”

“Just do it! I know a couple who might help.” He shot her a resentful glare but followed her directions without further comment.

 

Chapter Four

Monday, 2 October, 11:32 PM
The home of Jack and Betty Hubert

Rachel stood with her guest in our foyer, chattering through her introductions like a squirrel on amphetamines. “He’s my client, a key figure in the industrial district renewal, and he may be implicated in the murder of Alex Weber, and as you know, he was hand-in-glove with the mob, not Karl, but Weber, but he actually had nothing to do with …”

“Rachel, settle down! Let’s get right to the bottom of this.”

She took a deep breath and began again. “Okay Jack. Karl needs someone living on site to cover his back door, so to speak, which really isn’t simply his back door—”

“Bottom line?”

Another deep breath. “He has space in his residence block where he could furnish a proper flat for the two of you. The position would include butler and domestic services as a cover for your being there, but he really needs high-level security on site, twenty-four-seven.”

“You say he’s gotten into it with the Mob?” I stroked my chin whiskers and analysed the ramifications for a long moment. “Jolly good! What say you, Betty? Do you feel like coming out of retirement for a time?”

Betty’s large, blue eyes gazed at me, her expression quizzical. “Nothing against ‘Life With Father,’ mind you,” she replied in her mild Cockney brogue,” but I’ve grown just a bit weary of the good life. If there’s some action to be had, let’s have it.”

Betty and I smiled our mutual understanding. So I put it to Rachel with my attempt at a penetrating stare, “This bloke seems square with you?”

“That he does, Jack.”

I looked hard at Karl and read the desperation in his eyes. “We’re your couple, Mister Adams. I’ll be your gentleman’s gentleman, and my Betty will be your housekeeper. One thing I want to make perfectly clear, though—”

“Before assuming you’re hired, tell me why Rachel’s so fired up about you, of all people, helping me.”

Betty looked at me as if to say, “What have you gotten us into?” But I trusted Rachel’s judgement.

“Like Rachel, I was an intelligence analyst for the Israeli Mossad. Retired at twenty years in the service. My speciality was communications analysis.

“Once, when I was working on a particularly thorny problem at home, Betty happened to look over my shoulder. Well, after a few seconds of thinking about it, she came up with the key to the whole thing. Could’ve knocked me over with a feather.” Karl responded to my bit of levity by maintaining a straight face. Or perhaps I should say he didn’t respond at all.

Despite my failed attempt at humour, I continued, undaunted, with our verbal resume. “I tried to get her on with the service, but since she’s not Jewish, my employer wouldn’t hire her. Not to waste such a valuable resource, I encouraged her to continue unofficially helping with my work anyway.

“That was about the time I became acquainted with Rachel, and we hit it off rather well. Not wanting to risk any appearance of infidelity, I introduced her to Betty, and they quickly became fast friends. Kindred spirits, so to speak.

“Well, for years I had flirted with my Jewish heritage, and I finally began reading the Torah and the Talmud in depth, studying, if you will. I became vaguely unsettled when I noted several instances where the two works didn’t seem to agree, and began considering throwing the whole religion thing over the side, so to speak.”

Karl broke into my story, “Is this going anywhere Hubert?”

I crossed my arms and stared down my nose at the short man, trying to appear formidable. “If you don’t mind, Mister Adams, I am trying to address your stated concern.” He seemed unintimidated, but resignedly nodded for me to continue. “On looking back, I don’t think it was coincidence that I was assigned to gather data on an Israeli businessman whom the government suspected of sedition. The religious elements of our government view Messianic Jews with marked suspicion. You see, he was quite vocal in his belief that Yeshua, called Messiah, was in fact God incarnate.”

“Yes, I see. But let’s skip all the religious crap and tell me why you’re so qualified to take care of my security.”

“Excuse me, Mister Adams, but that religious ‘crap’, as you call it, explains why we should be the ones guarding your security.”

“I don’t see how, but continue, I guess.”

“Anyway, not having been reared as a religious person, I couldn’t understand what the flap was all about, so I assumed there were some other grounds for suspecting him of sedition. I watched Mister Levin for over a year, gathering exhaustive data on his business and personal life, but in the end I couldn’t find a single fact that suggested he was anything but a very good man. His behaviour was exemplary. He doted on his family and fulfilled every responsibility of Israeli citizenship.

“I finally concluded that he was either staunchly upright, or a very good actor, evil beyond imagination. Betty, whose judgement I trusted implicitly, believed the former, but I didn’t know. To discern the truth, I stepped out of my roll as covert investigator and visited him at his office. I’m afraid my interrogation was rather pointed as I tried my best to trap him in his words. But he seemed completely honest, even transparent, when discussing the most private aspects of his life.”

Karl shifted his weight and sighed deeply every minute or so.

“I must say, his genuineness took me aback, and when he began presenting his reasons for believing in Yeshua as the divine Son of God, why, I simply listened. Before I left that day, I had come to believe it myself.

“When I shared with Betty what he had told me, she readily agreed with my conclusion, since she didn’t hold to the historic Jewish preconceptions. So we both began studying the Christian scriptures. A couple of months of that, I became quite uncomfortable with my work for Mossad. So with Betty’s blessing, I applied for and received early retirement.

“We continued our friendship with Rachel, strained as it was from our insistence upon talking about our love for Yeshua. But that love wouldn’t allow us to abandon Rachel to her disbelief. After two years of watching us grow in our Lord, she had to admit there was something genuine about the changes she had seen, and she wanted the same thing for herself.” Despite Karl’s glazed expression, I continued sharing with him.

“I had thought the change in our lives—that’s Betty’s and mine—were remarkable. But Rachel was positively transformed. And those changes didn’t escape her supervisor’s notice. When he confronted her about it, she didn’t hedge in the least, but told him all about her Messiah.

“Well, to sum up, that got her canned. And not only that, but the man considered her a security threat and did his best to have her silenced … permanently. The resourceful girl that she is, Rachel managed to slip out of his clutches and disappear to the United States.

“We soon followed her to San Francisco and continued our friendship and fellowship.”

“So, how does all that religious crap,” Karl emphasised the word, “crap,” simply to spite us, “qualify you to guard my security?” His persistent, derogatory reference to our faith demonstrated more than simple unbelief. The man obviously sported a real vendetta against Christ, Christianity, and religion in general.

“Why, it explains how we separated from the intelligence service, and speaks to our character.”

“I wouldn’t brag about my faith if I had any. Too many televangelists have gypped their followers out of too much money for me to find religion much of a character reference.”

“Nevertheless, what we believe or don’t believe has no effect on our competence. And we are quite good at our security work.”

“I don’t seem to have much of a choice, do I, old chap. Against my better judgement I’ll give you a try, but what about salary and benefits?”

“Oh, we’ll take a salary, all right, but our taking the position doesn’t depend on what you tell us about it. Rachel has already pre-screened you, or you wouldn’t be standing where you are.”

“Okay then, but you mentioned some condition.”

“While you’re technically our employer, to do our job properly you must understand that you will do what we tell you. No reservations.”

He still looked sceptical. “I … guess so.”

“Right! Was that a yes, or a maybe?”

“Okay. I’ll go with you for now, but any more preaching and you’re out. Got it?”

I glanced first at Betty, then at Rachel. Detecting no obvious reservations in their expressions, I resolved to continue. “If you’ll just give us a moment, Betty and I will throw a few things together and follow you to your place. We need to perform a complete security survey before doing anything else. Does your block have a rear entrance?”

“My … ‘block?’”

“The building where your flat is located.”

“I’ll never get used to the way you Brits talk. Yes, there is—”

“We’ll follow you to a spot some distance from your ‘apartment,’ where you’ll join us to point out the rear entrance. Then we’ll deliver you back to your car and you’ll drive home and park as usual, letting us into your flat at the entrance you’ve shown us.”

***

Twenty-five minutes later, as we approached the rear door of Karl’s block, Betty pointed ahead of us. “What do you make of that?” I looked in the direction she pointed and finally spied a glint of reflected light. I must have appeared comical as I squinted and otherwise screwed up my face until finally I made out what seemed to be a dark-coloured van parked in the equally dark alley of the next street, barely visible, but with a direct view of Karl’s rear entrance.

If I had appeared comical, the likelihood of the faceless occupants of that van circumventing our well-thought scheme certainly was not. “Mister Adams, would you mind sliding down below your window sill?” His silent obedience surprised me.

With him seated on the rear floorboard, back against his door, we drove on past the mysterious van and turned left onto the first street. I thought it best to circle back and park on the street, behind of the van.

I dialled the police, to be greeted with, “Third precinct, officer Gordon speaking.”

“Hello. I would like to report a suspicious vehicle loitering in the neighbourhood.”

“I need your name, address and phone number.”

“The name is Hubert Milford … .” I gave my mobile number and an address that I supposed might supply a view of the van in question.

“Why do you think it’s suspicious? Could be visiting someone around there.”

It might have sounded queer, had I asked the constable to wait while asking Karl for information. So not knowing the district at all well, I had to be clever. “Right. The block in which the van is parked has facilities for parking more securely elsewhere, so there is no legitimate reason for anyone to be there.”

“Where exactly is this allegedly suspicious vehicle?”

“It has been parked for some time in the alley just north of Division Street, between Second and Third Avenues. Look for a dark-coloured van. I can’t make out a brand or number plate from here.”

“We’ll have a blue-and-white unit there in a few minutes.” And the line went dead.

Moments later, my mobile warbled and I opened it to recognize the voice of the officer with whom I had just spoken. “Who am I talking to?”

“This is Hubert Milford, how may I help you?”

“Okay Mister Milford. This is Officer Gordon. Just checking the phone number.” And the line went dead again.

Twenty-five long minutes later, red and blue lights flashed on the dark buildings bordering the alley. I stepped out of the Rover, walked to the corner, and spied a patrol car parked by the van. Two uniformed policemen with very long torches peered through its front windows, one on either side. The policeman on the driver’s side began talking with someone through the window, then waited while the driver passed what must have been some sort of identification to him. He examined it carefully by the light of his torch, spoke at length to the mysterious driver, handed back his papers, stepped back from the van, and watched as its headlights blinked on and it slowly moved away. The officers finally returned to their car, shut off their emergency lights and backed down the alley after the van. Our way was clear to proceed.

After returning Karl to his own vehicle, we drove back to the end of his alley and parked our Rover. We walked to his rear entrance, talking quietly between ourselves, and when he finally opened the heavy steel door he welcomed us into his home. “Well, this is it … at least the lower floor. I live upstairs, or maybe I should say up elevator.” He briefly chuckled at his own humour.

Gesturing proudly at the first room, he explained, “This used to be a side alley, for fire escapes from these two buildings.”

I noted a sewer access cover half-way down the corridor, and a fire escape leading to an upper level. “Are that sewer access and fire escape still functional?”

“They are. I had some work done down below when I renovated the place. It goes to a catwalk along the sewer, and gives access to the pipes coming out of my building.”

“I see that the corresponding fire escape to the neighbouring block has been removed and its fire exit closed with newer bricks. Is the sealed opening visible from the inside?”

“Checked it myself. It’s all covered over with panelling. Had a hell of a time finding the spot, even when I knew it was there.”

Betty and I exchanged glances, silently agreeing to ignore his course language, and thankful that it was not even more colourful. “If the sewer access cover is moveable, your security is compromised.”

“I’ll admit I didn’t think of that. I don’t want to weld it shut, so I can use it for maintenance. What would you suggest?”

My brief university major in engineering helped answer the question. “If we weld a cross bar to the top of the cover, it can be locked in place so no one can gain entry from beneath.” Karl withdrew a pen and small notebook from his breast pocket and jotted some notes.

Betty pointed towards a large object at the back of the room, so I said, “Tell me about that machinery. It appears to be a dynamo and petrol tank.”

“It’s a diesel-electric generator with enough fuel to supply power for five days of normal usage, or a month of minimal power draw. It was pretty expensive.” Of course, that fact had not been lost on me.

We turned left into a doorway near the outer entrance, that opened to a room equipped with a fair amount of security and surveillance equipment, and a rather complete maintenance shop. After a few minutes examination, I said, “This should do quite nicely for our work. What of the contractor who installed it?”

“Solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. The guy has a reputation to uphold.”

The next room was used for storing emergency provisions, and past that we discovered what were to be our own rooms, though incomplete. Betty said, “A couple of days’ work and they’ll be ship shape, or at least adequate to our needs. There’ll be time for improvements in due course.”

After touring what there was of our future flat, we finally entered what Karl called “The Foyer.” An anti-room of sorts, it contained a receptionist’s desk, a few tasteful chairs along the wide corridor, and at the end, a large, open lift with a wrought iron gate.

I’ve never been fond of lifts, especially the open variety, and Karl must have observed the trepidation in my face. “Just step on the platform, it’s perfectly safe.” We did so, then he added, “Stand away from the gate while I close it and press the ‘UP’ button.” Of course, I had no intention of standing near any edge of that dangling contraption. After he pushed the button, we heard a large relay slam shut, and felt the whole structure vibrate as a winch began pulling us upward, quite slowly, to Karl’s flat.

As my eyes approached floor level, I was taken aback by the expanse of open space. Betty voiced my reaction in her inimitable fashion. “Gol! Would you look at the size of the place.” The lift shuddered to a stop and Karl opened the gates, allowing us to step into a veritable wonderland of residential splendour.

The sounds of soft, new-age music and running water, and the scent of fresh blossoms filled the air as we scouted the flat for security provisions already in place. “How are you equipped with surveillance cameras and microphones?”

“You’ll see very few of them, but I can watch and listen to every cubic inch of the place.” Karl spoke with transparent pride.

“Are any of the devices wireless?”

“I see where you’re going, and no, they’re all hard wired. You might not have noticed in the security room, but I have a pretty elaborate RF detection gimmick, just in case any bugs get planted in here.”

As I looked up at his large, east-facing windows, he anticipated my next question. “Triple security glass, reinforced with microscopic Kevlar fibres. They’re transparent, except for a sheen in direct sunlight.”

“Is it always that dark to the east of here?”

He laughed proudly, then stepped to an electrical panel to press a button. I couldn’t constrain my reaction when street lamps suddenly appeared in the windows, with the pre-dawn light visible to the east.

Seeing my reaction, he said, “LCD shutters.”

I could only shake my head and remember to close my mouth.

Karl beckoned us to follow him to a wrought-iron, spiral stairway that led to a loft extending half the length of the flat. Before ascending the steps, I noticed Rachel hanging back, and realized she had not said a word since entering Karl’s quarters. Stepping over to her, I asked in a low voice, “Rachel, why so quiet?”

She glanced ahead at Karl, already on the steps, and then to me. “I have no need of attending this tour, and I should be about my work.”

“Oh, give it a rest for a while. You’ve got plenty of time for your spying. Relax and enjoy the tour.” I could tell my advice was not accepted, and thought a bit of levity might soften the moment. “Nervous about entering a single man’s parlour?” Her glare told me that I had either been completely off the mark, or too close to it. She silently turned about and removed her mobile from her bag to punch in a number.

So I followed Karl up the iron steps and to a writing desk near his bed, with a drapery hanging behind. Moving the fabric aside, he revealed a low, iron door in the wall. “This opens to the fire escape you saw in the generator room.

“The fire sprinklers I’ve got everywhere,” he pointed to various places below the open-truss ceiling “are fed by a thousand gallon water tank on the roof, so I don’t even have to worry about the city supply being cut off. Between that and everything else you’ve seen, security’s as good as it gets without being obvious. This place is self-sustaining for up to a month, with water and food storage, and alternate power.”

As Karl went on like a tour guide, I stood at the balustrade and noted the way he had used empty space to partition the floor area of his flat into three discrete, special-purpose zones. At the south-east corner was his formal office, with an oversized teak desk backed by a proportionately large black leather executive’s chair. I wanted to ask him why such a small man needed such large furniture, but restrained my curiosity.

Books of all descriptions lined the south wall, with a rolling library ladder providing access. Little wonder that the odour of old books added to the overall bouquet of the place.

Occupying the north-eastern quarter was a sunken conversation pit with enough space for comfortably seating at least fifty along its continuous, over-padded seat. West of that was a formal dining area in a “U” shape, open to the east. Seating people along both sides of the table, he could probably serve a hundred guests.

Of course, the area covered by the loft on which we stood was out of my view, but I understood it to contain his kitchen, laundry, spa, and gymnasium. When he paused to draw a breath, I voiced my curiosity. “Mister Adams, how many people can you entertain here at once?”

He paused momentarily. “Legally? Just a handful, because of the limited exit facility. But the fire martial sort of overlooks my parties because of my fail safe sprinkler system.” His pride in his residential masterpiece was plainly obvious. “Oh, I’ve had maybe two hundred here for parties.”

I pointed at the classic-looking sculptures on equally artistic pedestals that occupied the spaces separating his various zones. “Those are quite good. Are the sculptors well known?”

Karl took offence at my question. “Are they well know? Do such names as Degas, Rodin, Lipchitz, Archipenko, and Remington sound familiar?”

He pointed to a fountain with a life size sculpture of a beautiful young girl, perpetually pouring water from a pitcher on her shoulder into a birdbath. “At the intersection of the open spaces you will note an extremely rare example of marble fountain sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He always worked in terra cotta, you know.” I restrained my curiosity about the paintings lining his walls, wanting to avoid a lesson in art appreciation.

The four of us eventually retired to the opulent conversation pit to discuss the specifics of our arrangement. Rachel looked to Betty and me. “Our best strategy is for me to remain anonymous. I’ll maintain a covert overview of Karl’s situation, while you remain visible as his domestic staff.”

I was concerned about Marty’s Mysterious Security Man knowing of Rachel’s working relationship with Karl. “Rachel, just who is the chap who recommended Karl to you? What do you know of him?”

“Not much, but what I do know I like. I met Howie through my professional association with the Mossad, and he would have quite a lot to lose by exposing me.” Then she addressed Karl, “What do you think of Marty. I know he’s Howie’s client. Is he a mate of yours?

Karl paused for a moment. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘mate.’”

Shaking her head slightly, Rachel explained. “A mate is a crony, you know, a friend.”

Karl sighed tolerantly. “Marty and I are okay, but everybody has his price.” He thought again. “Yes, it wouldn’t hurt to keep tabs on him.” Then, looking pointedly at Rachel, “Consider that an assignment.” She said nothing, but nodded thoughtfully.

“Right,” I said, looking intently to my lady, “Let’s get on with it, Love.”

***

Tuesday, 10 April

The move went quickly, since all we had to transport was our simple wardrobe and other personal effects. Karl thoughtfully provided a temporary bed and partitions for us in his kitchen and pantry area, so we wouldn’t become asphyxiated in our own flat due to the fresh paint and carpet glue.

***

I had hoped our new employment would present some challenge, and even discovered a latent acting talent, playing to the hilt, the role of the proper English butler. As time passed, however, and Karl became comfortable with our routine of watching his back, we again wondered if our move had been wise. Though his desperation had persuaded us to join him, when he felt more secure, his disposition revealed a distinct, dark side. Not only were his business machinations somewhat shady, but he was not above manipulating his “help,” forgetting at times our true purpose for being there. Though Betty and I had tried to crucify, so to speak, our youthful pride, Karl regularly challenged our patience.

“Hubert!” Karl had taken to addressing me by my surname to complete the illusion of my being simply a domestic servant. “Senator Phillips will be here shortly. Escort him up here when he arrives. Are the hors d’oeuvres ready to serve?” Before I could answer, he called out, “Betty! Have you finished the cleaning yet?”

Betty’s face betrayed her annoyance at his suggestion that she was ill prepared for an important visitor. “I’ve already finished, Mister Adams.”

“Just check it again. I want everything perfect!”

“Are you suggesting that my housekeeping needs improving?”

“Look, I don’t have time for this! Phillips is already late, and I want him impressed with the place. Check it over again, white glove this time.”

“Yes, Mister Adams. I’m sure there must be something I’ve forgotten.” Her sarcasm was lost on our preoccupied employer.

I retired to the lower foyer, prepared to greet His Nibs, the high-profile Senator. Of course he was fashionably late, but when he finally arrived I opened the door to not only Senator Phillips, but to his entourage of very large, well dressed security men wearing dark spectacles and wireless ear-pieces. Without a by-your-leave, they barged through the door, ready for anything.

Senator Phillips was young, apparently in his early thirties. His physique and tailored attire could have been that of a male model. When he strolled in after having his security force examined the premises, I greeted him formally. “Senator Phillips, Mister Adams awaits you in his office.” Of course he had nothing to say to a mere domestic, so he proceeded straight to the lift.

When we entered Karl’s flat he marched over to the Senator with hand outstretched, “Senator Phillips, so glad to see you. Won’t you step over to my office.” He ignored the security blokes, who were never very far from their charge. When the Senator and Karl were seated, they spoke quietly for a moment, then he looked over to me and said. “Hubert, I won’t be needing you now.”

By no means would I have remained obtrusively in their presence, but since no one told the senator’s own security people to leave, I felt slighted. Swallowing my pride yet again, I exited to the security room where I might observe the proceedings more stealthily, deriving a certain satisfaction from thwarting Karl’s deliberate faux pas.

***

Friday, 9 November

Betty and I were about our domestic business when Karl withdrew his secure mobile. Apparently its silent ringer had vibrated his breast pocket. “Adams!” After a few seconds of listening to the caller, his face became ashen.

Breaking the connection, Karl looked at us and spoke without emotion. “That was Rachel. Markov has put a new contract out on my life, and he’s brought in a couple of Russian hit men.” His imploring expression made me want to snap a photo to remind him, in his more self-assured moments, why he hired us.

When we took him to our personal rooms, he quite literally cowered in a wardrobe until she called again, hours later, to explain it had all been a mistake. He used the most colourful language to convey his opinion of the false alarm, but much of it was to a dead line.

For some reason we did not understand, the man’s fear of death was far beyond what we would have considered normal. Partly from compassion, and partly from our duty as Christians, Betty and I used any opportunity to share with our employer what we knew of things eternal. Such knowledge had changed our lives drastically for the better, and we knew it could do the same for him. His response to our sharing, however, was open hostility, or more often, complete indifference.

Chapter Five

Saturday, 5 May, 10:15 AM, Chechen local time

Naval captain Tyler “Scooter” Hillman fought to keep alert during his classified, high altitude reconnaissance mission over Chechnya. His F-14 Tomcat cruised at altitude, carrying high-tech photographic equipment instead of its usual load of armaments.

Scooter had just completed the gradual westward turn for the homebound leg of the long, routine—translated, “boring”—flight. A sudden noise caused adrenalin to saturate his nervous system as if it had been injected through an hypodermic syringe. It was the radar lock alarm, and he knew their cake walk was over. His radar intercept officer, Captain Nelson “Flaky” Kellogg, instantly activated both electronic and infra-red countermeasures, hoping to divert the SAM(surface to air missile) that bore thirty kilograms of high explosive towards them at trans-sonic speed.

Standard protocol dictated a moderate left turn so his banked attitude would allow him a visual fix on the advancing missile. Of course they had routinely evaded simulated missile attacks during training exercises, but this was different. Simulations couldn’t kill them.

When he finally spotted it, over a mile away, the SAM was closing too fast for comfortable evasion despite their having deployed countermeasures. It must have been launched by the Chechen rebels, whose SAM inventory was reportedly limited to the old Russian SA-6.

He slammed the control stick to the left and forward, and pushed his throttles to the wall in much less time than it takes to tell it. The twin GE turbofan engines began spooling up to deliver all twenty-seven thousand pounds of thrust squarely into their backs. The Tomcat, however, wasn’t nimble under the best of circumstances, seemingly taking forever to enter the left turn and dive that would have placed them out of danger.

Captain Hillman quickly realized this SAM was in fact not the old SA-6, tracking as it did despite their best evasive effort. The flash and concussion of the missile’s warhead exploding just off the F-14’s port side abruptly interrupted his thoughts, and he knew it had come too close.

Alarms sounding and lights flashing told him that his Tomcat was wounded, and his correction to level flight took too long and required far too much effort. His hydraulic system was damaged, and a cursory check of his gages indicated he was also losing kerosene. With a fuel leak, the danger of a catastrophic fire far outweighed his desire to return to friendly airspace, so he cut off the fuel supply to his left engine and the Tomcat began a controlled drop towards earth.

Since they both realized they would not be able to return to the airfield from which their mission had originated, Flaky consulted his navigation computer, but could see no viable landing site other than unfriendly airfields.

Captain Hillman then chose the only open option; to fall towards friendly air space and eject as late as possible, hoping to continue on foot. He spoke quickly and dispassionately into his helmet microphone, “Flaky, we have five minutes at best before we have to leave. Send the message and destroy the code book.”

Captain Kellogg said, “Roger!” even as he coded the Mayday message. Captain Hillman didn’t have to be told what was going on behind him. He knew that in less than half a minute Flaky would have sent the message, then opened the code book wide and jammed it into the chamber below his ejection seat rocket nozzle. The blast of super-heated gas would reduce the highly classified code book to microscopic bits of ash in less than a second. Finally, he would press the button combination on his computer keypad that would destroy all stored data, and lower his helmet’s blast shield into place.

While Captain Hillman fought the Tomcat’s controls, he also fought to keep his mind clear of images of his wife and two small sons. Returning to them was the only option he would consider, despite the three-quarters of a million dollars for which his life was insured.

After only a couple of minutes, the Tomcat was losing altitude at an alarming rate and beginning a roll to the right, resisting Captain Hillman’s best effort to keep it level. The time had come to eject. He struggled to bring the nose up, hoping to shed air speed. As the stall warning sounded and he felt the crippled airframe begin to shudder, he pulled his own blast shield down and grasped the ejection seat trigger over his head.

He shouted, “On three!” into the intercom, and events aboard the Tomcat ran together. His RIO was to punch out at the count of three, the explosive bolts releasing the canopy a second before his ejection seat fired. When Captain Hillman heard the explosive bolts detonate, however, he saw the canopy hover in place rather than flying clear of the ejecting pilots. The air turbulence around the unstable Tomcat prevented the canopy from lifting away as it should have. “Flaky …” he began, trying to warn his friend, but the rear ejection seat fired, driving him into the framework of the loose canopy, killing him instantly.

Thinking the canopy had been dislodged by the first ejection, Captain Hillman pulled his own yellow and black ejection seat trigger with all his strength. He didn’t have time to notice that the canopy had not yet cleared his own path, and the rocket to which he was strapped drove him into the leading edge of the canopy, shattering both his arms, breaking his neck, and knocking him senseless.

Ruslan Iakoubovsk, a Chechen farmer, spied the parachute in the air as it dropped the unconscious Captain Hillman into a field outside of Frunzenskoe in northern Chechnya. Ruslan drove his sick old pick-up truck back to his house as fast as it would go, hoping it would hold together long enough to earn him a tidy reward by reporting his sighting to his nephew Visegi, the local Chechen Mafia boss. When the men found Captain Hillman, he was still strapped into his ejection seat, badly broken and comatose, but still alive.

 

Sunday, 6 May, 6:00 PM

Rachel, Betty, Karl and I routinely met to clear the air, so to speak. To that end we had arranged a meeting at Rachel’s flat where we were to arrive, each by his own conveyance, and by a circuitous route.

The three of us had thought to take Karl to task for his lack of cooperation and horrendous temper, but decided to address the cause, rather than the symptoms of his “illness.” With that in mind we anticipated the confrontation that would cost us more than we could have imagined, but would ultimately provide lavish compensation far beyond our mortal existence.

***

Was it coincidence that shortly before leaving to meet with us, Karl’s telephone rang? He impatiently picked up the handset and said, “Adams!”

“Good evening Karl.” The resonant, male voice on the line spoke with an unhurried calm, and the perfect diction that would have made any network news anchor jealous.

“Who is this?”

“I am Gideon Ellasar. Perhaps you recall our previous conversation.”

“I … can’t say that I do. But the name has a familiar ring to it,” Even as Karl said it, a sudden dread washed over him.

“Yes, I supposed it might.”

“So, how can I help you, Mister … Ellasar?” The caller had Karl’s full attention.

“We will discuss, tonight, a subject critical to both of us.”

“Sorry, but I’m booked this ev…” And the line went dead.

Though the brief conversation was finished, his uneasiness was not. His weekly briefing with us would occupy him until late, so he was certain there would be no meetings with mysterious strangers on that night.

***

6:35 PM

After a few moments’ small talk, Rachel got down to the business at hand. “Karl, we entered your employ at your moment of need, and not because we required the wages. Yet, you’ve chosen to break our trust by disregarding our efforts and treating us as menials.”

Karl started to break in, but Rachel persisted. “Please, let me finish before saying you’re right and we’re mistaken.

“When you felt threatened, why were you so extremely anxious?”

“Since when do I have to explain myself to you?” He wore his arrogance like a mask. “You’re right. Your job is to take care of my security, but I don’t answer to you! Is that clear?”

“To whom do you answer? Everyone must answer to Someone, don’t you agree?”

A knowing expression came upon his face. “And man created god after his own image,” His voice dripped sarcasm. “I see where you’re taking this, and I don’t need it!”

“You can’t escape answering to God. One day, every knee shall bow—”

“Not that again.” he interrupted with exaggerated forbearance. “I appreciate your concern for my eternal destiny, but my ‘hangups’ are no concern of yours, and if you don’t want to limit your activities to do the job as I see fit, I can find others to do it. Now if that’s all you’ve—”

“No, it is not!” Rachel said in a pique. “Though you’ve been positively beastly towards us, we want you to know we care for you rather deeply.”

A sly smirk crossed Karl’s face. “Speaking for all of you, or … just for yourself?”

“Speaking for the God who loves you enough to send us into your life at your moment of need! That’s who I’m speaking for.”

“You can leave that ‘God stuff’ out of this! I’ve done real well without any gods in my life, and I don’t intend to change now. This meeting is—”

“NOT over! We’ve conformed our lives to your needs, and you will not dismiss us as mad! You will listen until we’ve finished, even if it ends our professional relationship.”

Karl smirked and settled back onto the Davenport, affecting grim resignation as if a tooth extraction without anaesthetic were imminent.

“You say you’ve got no gods in your life, but what do you call your drive to possess power, wealth and loose women?”

His knowing expression returned. “So that’s it.” Then his face grew a lascivious leer. “I do believe you’re jealous, Miss Yeshurun.”

“Ha!” Karl’s untoward remark struck Rachel as hilarious. “Jealous?” Then she got right in his face. “You’re absolutely right I’m jealous! But you wouldn’t understand my jealousy even if I tried to explain it.”

“Try me.” Karl seemed to enjoy challenging her.

“I am jealous … we’re ALL jealous of you with a Godly jealousy, because God loves you and so do we.”

He resumed his pained expression.

Since Rachel remained silent for a moment, I said, “Mister Adams, a knowledge of God’s love transformed each of us from self-centred, mythologically self-sufficient, bureaucratic prigs, to what we are today—”

“Yeah, now you’re self-righteous, religious prigs.” He sniggered and left it at that.

Betty was quicker than I with a response, “As religious as Jesus His self?”

Karl didn’t know how to answer that one, so she continued with the more definite Cockney accent into which she lapsed when she was angry. “We’re followers of Jesus, we are! Students, if you will. To compare us with Him is the greatest tribute you can make to such as us.”

“Anything I say to you is not intended as a tribute.” I had no idea why his countenance was so hateful.

“Why do you ‘ate Jesus so?”

“Why, I don’t  ‘ate’ anyone.” Karl lied, mocking Betty’s accent. “I’m simply indifferent, that’s all.”

“Your vitriolic reaction to Jesus’ love says you’re not indifferent. The question is, why?”

Karl began to stand. “I don’t have to sit through this! ” But Betty blocked his way.

“We’ve put up with a load of rubbish from you when all we offered was our protection, and yes, our friendship! You’ll sit ‘ere and listen til we’ve bleedin’ well finished.” As unbelievable as it would seem, Karl had nothing to say in response.

“Mister Adams,” Betty continued more softly, “What are you afraid of?”

His arrogant countenance deflated a little as he considered the question. “Am I afraid?” he asked of no one in particular. He thought much longer before saying, “You know what absolutely petrifies me? It’s the thought that I don’t know what’s next. And that I might not make it to the top in the time that’s left.”

“What do you expect to find at the ‘top’?”

He considered again with a vacant look. “I don’t know.”

“Do you want to know?”

“Yes … But I have a lot to think about at the moment.” He seemed unusually sincere. “I just need time to think.”

Betty looked at Rachel and me, and backed off, allowing Karl to stand. He turned without another word and walked outside to his car.

Betty and Rachel again looked at me, and Betty said, “What do you think?”

“I think he has rather a lot to think about.” We all knew what my statement meant, because each of us had at one time been in his exact position. All we could do was pray.

***

Sunday, May 7, 4:20 AM

Just before five the next morning Karl drove into the parking garage below his flat. He began sensing something wasn’t right as he noticed a distinctly stale odour while riding the lift. Though it was his practice to always leave lights burning, as his eyes passed floor level, the only light visible was a soft, warm glow from the area of his office. Of course he assumed the electronic window shading had been activated, so he cursed as he pushed the wrought iron gate aside and began feeling his way to a light switch.

But he stopped, petrified with fear, when he noticed movement at his desk.

“Welcome Karl,” said the familiar voice. A feeling of foreboding intensified Karl’s fear as he realized the voice was that of the caller he had dismissed the previous evening. “Come over, Karl, I will not bite you.”

Karl’s legs mechanically carried him closer to the one person he feared most, though he still could not remember why. As he neared the desk, its dreaded occupant cordially asked him to be seated. Of course Karl knew he had no choice in the matter.

“Are your fingers still in pain?” Ellasar smirked, then took a long moment to examine his surroundings. “You have done well for yourself Karl. I am proud of you. Of course you have not even begun to approach your potential. If you like, you are able to reach the very pinnacle of world power and wealth. Nothing in all the world will be refused you.” Then, with a penetrating gaze, “Such is the nature of our covenant.” His right eyebrow arched, and his voice seemed to imply a threat. “Do we need to review the terms of that covenant?”

Karl was mute, though he knew not why.

“You engaged in a conversation this past evening that indicated you have forgotten what you signed.” The intruder produced an ancient-looking leather scroll, and with a slight flourish he opened it before his captive audience.

The words of the scroll seemed to shimmer as he read the short document. Then the fingers of his right hand gave him a twinge as he read his signature, in the faded-brown of dried blood.

“Need I remind you of these irrevocable terms, Karl?” That gaze! That hateful gaze, penetrated right to the core of his soul. “As you can see, my friend, it specifies in part, ‘I, Karl Ichabod Adams,’” Ellasar stared at Karl while reciting the scroll’s provisions from memory. “‘do pledge by my signature below in my own life’s blood to grant to PERDITION INCORPORATED, as directed by its Administrator, Lord Gideon Ellasar,” he paused to smile with mock humility, “the right to possession of all that is now or ever will be mine, including my body, my soul, and my spirit at the moment of my departure from this temporal life, and for all eternity.’ Do you have any question as to the meaning of these words?”

Karl tried to speak, but only managed a croak from his dry throat. He swallowed hard and tried again. “How did you know—”

Ellasar interrupted with that familiar, evil smile. “Now Karl, does that really matter? The fact is you have considered an action that is impossible for you because of our covenant, that you signed of your own volition, in your own life’s blood.” Then he feigned a heartfelt sensitivity. “Karl, you might as well forget all those meddlers’ promises because it is out of the question.” His sniggering at the suggestion spoiled his little act. “Are we clear on that, or must I foreclose right now on what is legally mine?”

Karl sat numbly, not knowing how to respond.

“Am I to take your silence as acquiescence to my position?” Ellasar carefully, reverently, picked up the scroll and began rolling back up.

With a lump in his throat, Karl simply nodded. He knew his despair was evident to one with Ellasar’s exceptional abilities. With a self-satisfied smile, Ellasar stood and began walking away from the desk, but before he had gone five steps he simply vanished, as if entering a darkness not of this world.

At that moment the room lights came on and Karl looked up to see the light of early dawn in the eastern sky. This new day felt like the end of his life as he began to understand the gravity of his situation.

He wanted to burn his executive’s chair because he felt it was defiled by something unspeakably evil. But was he not just as evil, having signed such a stupid and irrevocable covenant?

Karl was unable to move for the longest time, but the morning sunlight dazzling his eyes finally stirred him from his fatalistic brooding. Methodically, he stood and began walking towards the spiral stairway leading to his loft.

He trudged up the wrought-iron steps, passed his bed, entered his lavatory and opened the medicine chest. The label of a pill-bottle sitting alone in its hallowed place read, “Use as directed for sleeplessness. CAUTION: Do not use while driving, operating machinery, or with beverage alcohol. May be habituating.” He chuckled at the dark humour of such warnings in the context of his intentions.

With the pill bottle in his left hand, he popped the cap and let it fall into the basin. Then he picked up the water tumbler, walked to his liquor cabinet and removed a bottle of vodka.

He placed the glass and pill bottle on his night stand while he sat on the edge of his bed. With ritualistic movements, he removed the vodka bottle’s cap, dropped it to the floor, and filled the ten-ounce tumbler. He shook the pill bottle until a few of the sleeping pills lay in his left hand, tossed them into his mouth, picked up the tumbler and washed them down his throat, stifling a cough from the strong drink.

He repeated that action until both the vodka and pill bottles were empty. Then, anticipating the oblivion his world had promised, he calmly lay back on his bed to die.

***

Sunday, 7 May, 7:35 AM

I concluded long ago that, despite evidence to the contrary, I must have the innocent mind of a newborn babe. I was sleeping that soundly when the most urgent jostling startled me to wakefulness, with Betty’s alarmed voice asking, “Jack dear, what’s wrong?”

How was I to know anything, freshly aroused as I was from a deep sleep? Mildly annoyed by the intrusion into my repose, I said, “Nothing, Love, now go back—” But with one glance at her face I was fully awake.

Instinct again took charge as I reached for my Glock. “What is it?” I whispered.

She put her hand on mine, indicating I wouldn’t need the gun. “I woke with a dreadful feeling … we need to hurry, please!”

We sprang from our bed and ran to the lift where I drew the iron gate closed while she repeatedly pressed the UP button. With a clunk and a growling sound, the lift finally began its agonizingly slow ascent. When at last it ground to a stop, we threw open the gates and Betty burst forth faster than I’d ever seen her. I was right at her heels up the spiral stairway to Karl’s inner-sanctum, where he lay fully clothed upon his bed, apparently asleep. An empty liquor bottle and tumbler occupied his night stand.

“He’s drunk himself into a stupor,” I said, disgusted with his condition. “Now he will expect us to put him to bed pro—”

“‘ello, what’s this?” Betty reached to the floor and picked up something I hadn’t noticed. She glanced at the label, tossed it onto the bed and began mercilessly shaking him. “Mister Adams, wake up! Wake UP,” she shouted. “He’s taken sleeping pills with the alcohol.” And she continued shouting and shaking him.

The odour of liquor wafted from his slack, open mouth, and I lifted one of his eyelids to see the iris respond ever so sluggishly to the light. At first I felt no pulse at his carotid artery, but persisting, I found it weak and rapid.

Before I could say anything further, Betty turned to dash into the lav. In a blink, she soaked a bath towel in cold water, and returned to slap his face with it repeatedly while screaming at him, hoping to get a little adrenalin flowing.

It seemed ages, but finally his lolling head lifted on its own and his eyelids fluttered. We rolled him over so he faced the floor, and I poked my finger right down his throat. Such a fit of gagging, coughing and regurgitation we had never witnessed, but what was left of the sleeping pills lay on the floor in a reeking pool of bile and liquor. Betty and I worked him about to a sitting position and struggled to keep him awake for hours, despite his incoherent objections.

When he at last became sufficiently conscious, I asked him why he had tried to take his own life, especially in view of our discussion of the previous night.

“I … I didn’t know what else to do.” His despair was evident as he spoke in a slurred, sodden voice. “This guy, Ellasar, was here when I got home.” Karl buried his face in his hands as if about to weep, but continued his story haltingly. “This guy was the embodiment of evil and … and he showed me a contract, a … ‘covenant’ he called it. Then I remembered signing it, in my own blood, back in the old days … you know, before all this.” His gesture indicated all he possessed. “It said I was to requillin … reliquin … give him my eternal soul,” He looked up at us, agonized, “in exchange for unlimi … did … ed success.” His head rolled down, but he forced himself to look back up at us. “What an IDIOT I was! I signed a contract with Evil, making me just as evil, and there’s nothing I, you, or even God can do about it.” Again, he buried his face in his hands. “It’s a done deal.”

Then he looked up angrily. “Why did you stop me? I’m as good as dead anyway!” Then he went silent, as if plotting to do himself in, successfully, the next time. We knew we couldn’t leave him alone in his current frame of mind, so we continued sitting on the edge of his bed, one on either side of him.

Later, Betty’s concerned voice broke the silence. “I confess I don’t know exactly how you feel, due to your unique experience and all. But when God first showed me my personal evil, why, I felt filthy too. Could‘ve done meself in, but for my friend Rachel settin’ me straight. I’d like to tell you what she told me. Changed my life, it did.”

“It’s no use! Can’t you see? I signed his stupid contract in my own blood! It’s iveric … a done deal.”

“Who says?”

“I saw it myself! It’s a done deal I tell you, signed, sealed, and all but delivered.”

“Who says?” my confrontational bride pressed.

“Ellasar!” he wailed.

“Do you know what the word ‘devil’ means?” She grasped his face with both hands and forced him to look at her. “Deceiver! That’s what it means! This devil that calls himself Ellasar is a LIAR, and he’s completely taken you in. Don’t believe him, he’s lying to ya. Believe God instead. His word will NEVER lead you astray.”

“But … what I’ve done!”

“Don’t look at what you’ve done! Look at what God’s done. Jack and I did some horrid things, and when God showed us the truth of our actions we too were broken hearted. But we chose to believe Him, and so can you!”

“If only I could.”

I felt that I should chip in my tuppence. “Karl, have you ever heard of Saint Paul?”

Hopelessness still clouded his voice. “Of course I have, but the operative term is ‘saint.’ The guy was a pope or something. What does a saint have to do with me?”

“‘Saint’ Paul began as Saul, the legalistic Pharisee who engineered the martyrdom of uncounted early Christians. Saul was certainly not a saint.”

“Just shows how mixed up and corrupt your whole religious system is.”

“What it shows is God’s grace, his unmerited favour that was willing to forgive a religious bigot and murderer. You’ve done nothing more deserving of damnation than he did. And he was the author of much of the New Testament, wasn’t he? No, there’s nothing mixed up and corrupt about God’s love.

“God’s word says he doesn’t lie, in fact God is the author of all truth. You said yourself that Ellasar is evil, so why trust what he tells you?” Karl sat dead still, his eyes staring forward as if in a trance.

I felt it necessary to add just one more thing. “Karl, the choice is yours: Believe the God who loves you, or follow that hateful demon to perdition.”

Finally he reacted, looking quickly over to me as if slapped. “‘PERDITION!’ That’s what the sign said.”

“Sign?”

“Yes … it’s as plain as day now. The long hallway, the sign on the door. It said, ‘PERDITION INCORPORATED’. Why couldn’t I see it before? ‘Perdition,’ that’s like, hell fire and damnation, right?”

“One could so describe it.” I didn’t see where he was going with his line of reasoning.

A less-than wholesome smile spread across his face. “Of course! Why didn’t I see it before? It’s all that religious crap! Tell you what, you leave me alone about your God-stuff and I’ll be just fine, thank you very much.”

“Mister Adams, you nearly killed yourself. Then where would you have been?”

“D – E – A – D! Like a dog splattered on the highway. Say, thanks for saving my life and all, but I don’t need your religion. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”

I saw that his heart was coated with armour. “As crystal.”

“Look, you don’t need to act so dejected. I mean, you’re not a bad salesman an’ all, but you’re not gonna get any Jesus Brownie Points off of me. So, call ya when I need ya.”

What could I do but play the deferential butler? “Yes sir. Thank you sir.” Then, remembering there was but one other thing we could do, I nodded for Betty to follow me down to our own rooms.

Once there, I placed an emergency call to our colleague. “Rachel, drop everything and pray for our mutual friend. He’s as hard as granite to the gospel, so we’ll have to leave it to the Lord.”

“My dear Jack. Regardless what he does with the gospel, it’s in the Lord’s hands. So, let’s get about it.” Though I’ve never before carried on a group prayer over the telephone, we somehow managed to spend the rest of the morning committing Karl’s past, present and future to God’s more-than capable hands.

 

Chapter Six

Monday, May 8, 8:15 AM

Roger Witherspoon discovered the small advert in the financial section of the San Francisco Chronicle. It made a promise for which he would have given everything he had.

Vengeance is Yours
Guaranteed Results
No Down Payment

***

Since murdering Alex Webber, Roger had lost control of his life. Karl felt free to exploit him for any dirty job he had to do, and Roger felt he had no choice but to comply. Never one to be subservient, Roger deeply resented such treatment. His only consolation was believing that he would overcome Karl by sheer hatred.

When he dialled the telephone number printed in the advert, a refined, male voice answered, “Perdition Incorporated. How may we help you?”

“I saw your ad in the paper today. Who do I talk to about it?”

“Gideon Ellasar will arrive at your residence at precisely nine PM.” And the line went dead. How the hell would he know where to come?

When he tried calling the number again a computerized voice said, “The number you dialled is not in service. Please check the number and try again.” So he did, and got the same recording. Whoever the hell this Gordon Eleazar is, he’s sure not psychic. Finally, Roger dismissed it as a dead end, and without further thought on the matter, continued his day normally.

That evening he was watching his usual “adult” cable channel on the Tele, when the antique, mantle-clock began chiming nine o’clock. Half-way through the chiming, his doorbell rang, its note discordant with the clock.

He drew on a wrap and went to the door, peered through the peep hole carefully, but could see nothing clearly enough to identify his caller. Just as he was about to say something through the door, a deep, resonant voice interrupted him. “Roger Witherspoon, we have an appointment.”

“Ah, yes, who is it?”

“I am Gideon Ellasar.”

“Uh, certainly … uh ….” Finally Roger remembered calling about the mysterious advert. “Oh, yeah. But how did you know my address?”

“Perhaps I have arrived at the wrong door. I had been under the impression that Roger Witherspoon wanted to gain revenge against some person.” Though Roger couldn’t see through the door, he knew that Ellasar had turned to leave.

“Wait Mister … uh … hold on! Please, come back!”

Roger fumbled with the lock, but finally opened the door. Ellasar, taller than he and perfectly dressed, marched into his living room as a conqueror might enter a vanquished city. Turning about to face Roger, the visitor asked, “What do you want?”

Roger glanced about as if looking for a hole in which to hide. Feeling only the piercing gaze that seemed to dissect him, he missed the question’s incongruity.

“Roger, you need not be nervous. I can give you whatever you want, but the advertisement you answered was rather specific.” His voice modulation and power awed even Roger, the habitual status seeker.

“What do I have to do?”

Ellasar flashed a satisfied smile, reached to his inner jacket pocket and withdrew a leather scroll. With a flick of his wrist, the ancient-looking document unrolled before Roger’s eyes. “Please read this covenant and tell me if it meets with your approval.”

Roger stared hard at the archaic calligraphy until it began making sense.

Be it known to all interested parties, that the undersigned, Mister Eugene Roger Witherspoon, an adult of normal faculties and majority age, has of his own free will, choice, and volition, entered into the following covenant:

I, the undersigned Eugene Roger Witherspoon, do agree with and pledge to the following terms in order to have “REVENGE” against the person of Karl Ichabod Adams. In exchange for said revenge, I, Eugene Roger Witherspoon, do pledge by my signature below in my own living blood to grant to PERDITION INCORPORATED, as directed by its Administrator, Lord Gideon Ellasar, the right to possession, at the moment of my departure from this temporal life and for all eternity, of all that is now or ever will be mine, including my body, my soul, and my spirit.

Said contract is irrevocably agreed to and finalized by the signature of the above named Eugene Roger Witherspoon in his own life’s blood below.

Roger studied the scroll carefully and a smile spread across his face. Irrational as it was, he believed this Lord Ellasar could deliver what he wanted most in the world. “Where do I sign?”

Ellasar produced a glass fountain pen. When Roger grasped it to sign the scroll, pain stabbed his fingers, and he saw his blood entering the pen barrel. He shot a glance at Ellasar’s dispassionate face, but said nothing as he looked back down and scratched his bloody signature into the ancient-looking leather. With intense satisfaction, he turned the pen over and handed it back to Ellasar.

Without further comment, the visitor methodically rolled up the scroll, returned it and the pen to their places inside his jacket, turned away, and stepped back over the threshold. Roger followed him to the door, but started as he peered outside and saw no one there.

***

Tuesday, May 9, 8:00 AM

Roger Witherspoon faced a quandary. Since the evening before, he had formed a plan to do away with Karl. But it required some mechanical ability and he was anything but a tradesman. As hard as it was for him to face, he needed help from someone with the necessary skills. To that end he contacted Lev Markov, the local Russian Mafia boss.

“How do you get my number?” The Russian’s thick accent was hard to understand without paying strict attention.

“Suffice it to say I have my contacts. What matters is you aught to know that Adams engineered Webber’s death, and we need to talk about it.”

“I take care of my own problems. What is to talk about?”

“Let’s have coffee tonight, say, at Bob’s Big Boy, over on the West Side.”

“This better be good, Witherspoon! I don’t have time for to chase the wild ducks!”

Roger barely suppressed his amusement with the stereotypical misuse of American slang, but he managed “Ten o’clock tonight” without laughing audibly.

“Okay, I be there, with my boys!”

***

Vladimir Romerovich, aka Romeo Obozniev, was Lev Markov’s lieutenant and heir presumptive to the mob’s leadership. He had assumed his particular alias while working as an analyst with the KGB, intending to imply that he was successful with the ladies. His supposed conquests were legendary, at least amongst his comrades.

Markov replaced the ornate telephone handset into its cradle and stared up at Obozniev, who had just appeared in obedience to The Boss’s summons. “Romeo, my son, please sit.” The portly, balding Russian obediently settled into the low chair on the opposite side of the desk. But for lacking the forehead birth mark, he might have passed for Mikael Gorbachev.

“Do you think that I do not read the news papers?” They both spoke English out of habit, having been KGB agents during the glorious days of the Soviet Union. “You leave signature all over whore! How long you think cops cannot find you? They find you, they find me, and I don’t want to explain our business arrangements.”

“Boss, I …”

“I told you these killings must stop! This is last warning. I will not tolerate disobeying me.”

Romeo’s hang-dog expression almost made Markov laugh aloud. Though he would not have seen the humour if he had known the murderous thoughts filling his lieutenant’s imagination.

“But Boss, you said, ‘No more boys.’ Woman was not boy.”

“Do you want I should tell comrades that you like the little boys? They would kill you, then I would have to kill them, and then where would I be?” Romeo looked alarmed at the suggestion of anyone other than his boss finding out his deepest secrets.

“Okay Boss! No more boys, and I be careful with women to change M.O.”

Markov rolled his eyes in frustration, then stared knives at his protégé. “You knock it all off or we go to fishing hole! You understand me?”

Romeo sighed deeply and said, “Yes, comrade.” The “fishing hole” was a deep spot in San Pablo Bay already occupied by a number of Markov’s problems.

“You know I hate talking of this. Let us discuss Witherspoon ….”

***

Lev Markov sauntered into Bob’s Big Boy with two shifty-eyed associates who made him seem relatively small by comparison. As the Russians approached, Roger couldn’t divert his eyes from the awful scar on the left side of Markov’s face, running from his temple to his cheek bone, narrowly missing his eye.

“Why you stare?” the hoodlum demanded as he neared Roger’s booth.

Roger slid out of the booth and stood, extending his hand to greet his visitor. “Good evening, Lev. That’s a fine scar you’re sporting. Am I to assume you were victorious in that particular battle?”

Markov glanced at Roger’s hand, then sneered up at his face. “You call me Mister Markov.” He gestured to one of his associates to stand next to Roger, then motioned for them to be seated.

Acting fearless, Roger smirked at the bodyguard and slid back into the booth, with Markov’s goon following. The Boss remained standing for a moment, impassively studying Roger now that he held the higher ground, but Roger simply smiled up at him.

Finally, Markov sat opposite Roger, with his other associate seated next to him on the aisle. Roger noticed the Russian’s left eye drooping slightly, probably a minor paralysis from the injury that caused his scar.

“Now, tell me about that marvellous scar.” Roger’s body language and tone of voice showed no fear of the dangerous men surrounding him.

“Sometime you’re friend is your enemy. I made mistake to trust him, but I was quick, and he is dead. If I did not win fight, one of my associates here, or out there,” he nodded out the window, “would be Vor.” Roger glanced out the window and saw three other muscular, shifty-eyed men loitering about a black limousine. Their appearance and mannerisms shouted “Hollywood Hoodlum.”

“I like that.” Roger nodded his approval. “You’re security conscious.”

“Yeah. Security conscious, and if you don’t have good story for me, my boys make you one less security risk.”

“Let’s go for a ride. You know, fewer ears in your car.”

Markov smiled. “Yes, you have nothing to hide when ride in my car.” He nodded to his associates and they stood, waiting for him and Roger to stand and leave.

With one goon on each side, Roger walked to Markov’s limousine, slid into the rear-facing seat, and there, too, was flanked by bodyguards. As the car drove away, Markov silently stared at Roger, waiting for him to yield the advantage by speaking first. But Roger wouldn’t crack, forcing Markov to break the silence.

“So … Mister Roger Witherspoon, why should I let you waste my time?”

“Lev …”

“I said, you will call me Mister Markov!”

“Mister Markov,” Roger said with exaggerated deference, “Don’t you Russians say ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend?’ I have a score to settle with Karl Adams. And I understand you have a great deal of affection for him as well.”

“Adams? I spit on him!” And Markov spat on the shoe of one of his bodyguards, who rolled his eyes without otherwise complaining. “He is the son of a dog! I would give anything to see him in hell! But he stays in his fortress and I cannot touch him. Besides, if I did, the man has friends in very high places. It could ruin my business.”

“It would seem to me that he already has.” Roger flashed a knowing grin. “You won’t risk killing him, but I will, with your indirect help.”

“How can amateur like you do what my organization cannot? You are full of hot gas! I do not have time to deal with wishful thinking.” Markov reached over to his intercom, pressed a button and began, “Max! Turn …” But Roger quickly reached over to lift his hand off the switch. Instantly, two guns with silencers pressed uncomfortably against his temples.

“Not here!” Markov said quickly to his men. Then to Roger, “You have just committed suicide. No one touches Lev Markov without his permission and lives.” Again he reached to touch the intercom button and said, “To the bay!”

Roger settled back on his seat with a complacent smile. “Pity you’ll have to go on hating Adams, ‘Mister Markov.’ My plan would have left you in the clear,” and he shrugged, “but, if I die, I die.”

“Amuse me, Witherspoon,” Markov said without smiling, “While I take you to final resting place, you may tell me of ‘wonderful’ plan.”

Roger reached up with both hands to push the silencers away from his temples, and the guards looked to Markov, who nodded. They withdrew the pistols an inch or two and he began his explanation in the tone of a Harvard professor. “Adams’ pad is well secured, you’re right, but it’s not impregnable. With one of your lock men and an electrician, I can get into his place and use that ancient elevator shaft of his to kill him. Do you want to hear more?”

“Keep going, I am not yet amused.” While Markov wasn’t amused, Roger found controlling himself difficult because of the Russian accent he considered laughable.

“Yes. As I was saying, Adams has virtual vault doors at the front and rear of his place, and they’re his only way out. First, your lock man will circumvent the back door alarm and let the electrician in. He’ll jimmy the backup generator and short out the UPS unit. Adams is so proud of his ‘high tech’ alarm system, but its only auxiliary power is that same UPS unit.

“While the electrician is doing that, your lock man will fix the lock so the door can’t be opened once it’s closed. It’ll only take a minute. Then we kill power to the building so nothing’s working.

“Finally the lock man will open the front door and fix that lock exactly like the rear. I’ll temporarily block the door open and take in a barrel of old rags soaked in kerosene to put next to a wood wall. Of course I’ll leave its lid off to the side, so it’ll look like someone forgot to replace it.

“And I have a little modification in mind for the barrel itself. I use some hydrochloric acid to eat holes at the bottom seam. After I neutralize and wash off the acid, it’ll look just like it’s perforated with rust.

“When I light it through one of the ‘rust’ holes, the draft will slowly spread the fire upward and turn the barrel into one giant, flaming smudge pot. That will give me plenty of time to get out before it’s noticed.”

Then, with an evil leer he added, “The fire will spread to the walls and turn the place into a brick oven. Anyone for roast Adams?”

Markov sat through the lecture with a frown frozen in place. Then he burst forth with a sudden raucous laugh and reached out to slap Roger’s knee painfully. “If you are fool enough to try that, my boys will help. But they get out before fire starts. So, when we do it?”

Once again he reached for his intercom and ordered, “Home, Max!”

For the rest of that evening they planned the joyful event for the following Friday morning, and got thoroughly smashed in advance celebration.

***

Following our all-night prayer vigil, I was dead on my feet, having forgotten that I am no longer twenty-five years of age. Betty, however, seemed to have been empowered by the evening’s activities. She buzzed about Karl’s flat like a humming bird, while I plodded in a frightful temper.

But those days passed and life got back to a semblance of normalcy. We saw little of Karl over the following week, since he was apparently determined to avoid us. One finds it difficult to imagine a gentleman avoiding his butler, but when the occasional encounter became inevitable, his manner was brusque at best.

He made Rachel’s work even more difficult than ours, by disregarding her security recommendations as if each was a personal affront. Once it nearly cost his life, and ours.

Karl’s secure mobile vibrated in his pocket as it was wont to do, with Rachel on the line. “Karl, I’ve uncovered some rather alarming information …”

“I’m sure you have. I suppose I’m in imminent danger of the fires of hell. Well thank you very much for the warning.” He broke the connection with some minor cursing.

Though neither Betty nor I had broached the subject since our previous confrontation, he told me, “I’m getting sick and tired of your little preaching games. Consider yourselves on notice. You’ve got a week to get out!” And he spun about to march towards his office.

Betty was in our flat when I entered and told her what had happened. “It’s all for naught. He’s given us the boot.”

My fiery love became livid. “‘All for naught,’ he says. All for naught? I’ll show you all for naught,” and she began a monologue of promises from God’s word that lasted, apparently without pausing for breath, for at least five minutes. “Where’s your faith, mister? All this means is Karl is under heavy conviction from the Lord, and if we have to keep our mouths shut to him, we can still pray, and hard!” As usual, she was right.

Chapter Seven

Friday, 10 May, 3:10 AM

With our time for ministering to Karl drawing to a close, we spent the following days doing little else but work, pray, eat, sleep—but not much of that—and more work. Thursday evening of that week, after one of our late night prayer vigils, we went to bed, exhausted.

At some time in the early hours of the morning, Betty nearly pushed me out of bed with her screaming and prodding. It was completely dark, and smoke stung my eyes and throat.

I lept from bed, shouting, “Stay here,” and dashed through our sitting room until the small toe of my left foot painfully bashed some unseen obstacle. A litany of the fowl words I had tried to forget spontaneously accompanied my brief, one-legged dance. With that out of my system, I hobbled over to open the door into the entry corridor, and released the handle instantly when it burned my hand. Then I Placed my other hand on the door itself and found it scorching hot, satisfying my curiosity to look beyond it.

“Blast! There’s a fire in the corridor.” I carefully retraced my steps to the side of our bed and sat to don my shoes. “Put on your shoes. Where are the torches and mobile?”

“I’ve already got mine on. Now where did I leave those things?”

“How in blazes should I know?”

“Interesting choice of words, dear. here’s our mobile, and I remember the torches are in the security room.” Betty was infuriatingly calm in the emergency.

We felt our way through our dark flat, found the torches, and entered the rear corridor. I jumped to reach the fire escape ladder, but missed, falling on my sore foot. “Ow! Bloody hell, that hurts!” Betty kindly refrained from commenting on my bad temper. Another jump, and I reached it to pull it down.

We scrambled up to the landing and found Karl’s iron fire escape door was cool to the touch. Knowing the flames hadn’t yet reached his loft, we drew the door open a few inches, but straightaway had to slam it shut because the smoke was too thick to enter without first gathering deep breaths.

Having done so, we swung the door open until we saw Karl’s writing desk just on the other side, and had to lean hard to force it out of the way. That accomplished, I stooped to clear the lintel and stepped into the dense smoke and darkness, taking Betty’s hand so we wouldn’t become separated. With my other hand I felt my way to Karl’s bedside. Fortunately he was a light man, which enabled me to easily drag him to the fire escape door without releasing Betty’s hand. She had wisely held onto the door post to prevent our getting lost in the murky darkness.

Once back on the fire escape landing, I swung Karl up into the fireman’s carry and slammed the door, trying to slow the smoke’s further filling the upper reaches of the tall corridor. Then we retreated down the ladder where we could breathe relatively clean air.

I tried to release the latch of the alley door but it wouldn’t budge. After carefully lowering Karl to the floor I forcibly applied my shoulder, but it didn’t yield, to the regret of my poor, ageing skeletal system. While I was trying to be heroic, Betty felt for Karl’s pulse, and as she began working to resuscitate Karl, I knew he was still alive.

Though we were on the floor level, smoke was beginning to reach us, so there was no time to search for a battering ram to force the door. It’s no surprise that Betty had the best plan. “The sewer cover! Find the key for the sewer cover!”

I hastily limped through the smoky security room, found the work bench, and the key hanging from a peg over it, then returned. The padlock opened easily enough, so Betty and I both grasped the attached bar and lifted to slide the cover off to the side.

I dragged Karl to the edge of the hole and started down first, then Betty shoved him over so I might take his weight upon my shoulders, despite the soreness of my right one. We carefully guided Karl’s head and legs through the hole and descended the ladder to the catwalk inside the sewer. The muggy air bearing the stench of human waste was a blessing in disguise, providing a distraction from my pains.

Once safely down, I lowered Karl to the catwalk so I could take the mobile from Betty, and enter Rachel’s number, while Betty again worked on resuscitating him. “Yesh …” Rachel’s voice began to say, nearly covered by the noise of poor reception.

“Rachel! No time to explain. Fetch a cab and head towards our block. Stop and wait two streets … uh … to the south. Call again in a few.” I broke off and handed the mobile back to Betty. By then Karl was coughing and trying to breathe on his own, so I hoisted him again to my shoulders, trying to put out of mind the soreness from its encounter with the steel door, and began hobbling westward through the sewer conduit.

When I requested that Rachel meet us two streets away, I was suffering under the misconception that city drainage systems were all marked for street intersections. Moving quickly along the sewer catwalk gave us absolutely no reference to our location, with complete darkness between broadly spaced work lamps, despite Betty’s trying to light our way with the torches. More than once I nearly misstepped, a mistake that would have left me swimming—and Karl drowning—in the city’s effluence.

We turned to the right at what we hoped was Division Street, and continued until we encountered a ladder to the surface. I lay Karl on the catwalk and climbed to the street-level cover while Betty again worked on him.

When I finally managed to lift the iron cover enough to spy down the street, I saw number 216 Division Street showing flame through the bullet-proof rear windows, one of which had already broken, with fire licking outward. The fire tenders were just arriving at the scene, and I thought of the lawn and fountain onto which they drove, and how I had admired them from the now burning building. Dropping back down the ladder a bit, I let the lid settle into place, looked down at Betty and simply said, “Sorry Love, further on.”

After what seemed hours of darkness, stench, and physical strain, I again climbed a ladder, forced the iron lid enough to see out, and decided we had travelled under the streets quite far enough to avoid being observed by whatever enemy might be watching the fire. I shoved the lid aside with, what was for me, a gargantuan effort, and spied a street sign. Placing another call to Rachel, I simply said, “Third and Parker. Have the driver deposit you a block away and walk over to us. And thanks.”

As I again struggled to shoulder Karl for the ascent he began to stir, mumbling some incoherent syllables. Suddenly he began fighting me, no doubt due to the disorientation of awakening in such a foreign environment. I lowered him to the catwalk and tried to quiet him. Fortunately for me, he was still weak from nearly having been asphyxiated.

“Mister Adams, you’re quite safe now.” Then I realized he had no idea what he was safe from. “You nearly died in a fire, but we escaped through the sewer access in your utility corridor.”

Wracked with coughing, he managed to say, “What … Where am I?” He looked around, unable to comprehend his surroundings, even after my explanation.

Betty said, “Mister Adams sir, please shut up and listen. Somebody tried to kill you by setting fire to your flat. God shook us loose to reach you in the nick of time. He wants you alive, though I can’t imagine why!” I could tell by her expression that she instantly regretted having said it. “Let’s get out of this stench so we can breathe.” He seemed to concur because he made no further inquiries. I had to lift him up to Betty’s waiting hands after she climbed out to the street because he was still too weak to climb the ladder, or even to stand alone.

I never thought damp pavement could feel so comfortable as we lay in the fresh, cool air of the early morning street. When I could finally think clearly, I arose to push the sewer cover back in place and got us off the street where we wouldn’t be so conspicuous. There we waited a lengthy twenty minutes for Rachel to spy us out.

As she rounded the corner, she dashed towards us, and when she realized Karl had nearly succumbed to the smoke, she knelt to minister to him. He still looked dazed, but was beginning to comprehend his situation.

Rachel looked up at us and said, “I tried to warn him. Roger has finally lost it; completely daft. Didn’t know what he would do, or when, but I knew something was afoot.”

“So why didn’t you warn one of us,” I asked.

“I’d hoped to gather more decisive information to convince Karl, but Roger acted much faster than I thought he would. I’m so sorry I didn’t persist.”

I couldn’t be angry with her, as broken as she seemed over it. “Rachel, don’t worry about it, but we do need to have you find us some transportation. My car was burnt up in the parking garage, as was Mister Adams’ SUV.” I tried to analyse our options, but the more I considered, the more dismal they appeared. “And if we call a taxi the driver will surely report us because of our sad state.”

“What about his friend Marty?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t know. We have no idea who is involved in the arson.”

“Rachel,” Karl struggled to say between hacking coughs, “Marty’s okay,”  more coughing, “call him!”

After he coughed out the number, Rachel opened her mobile and dialled. She waited, apparently through a recorded message, then began speaking. “Mister Halstead, this is Rachel Yeshurun. I’m with Karl, and he asked that I call to see if you could arrange transport for us. You may have heard by now about his flat burning. Please call when you hear this.” Then she gave her mobile number.

“It appears we’ll be waiting for his return call.”

Then, in a shivering voice, between coughs, Karl managed to say, “Cold.”

Unfortunately, we had no wraps for him, so we all helped him to his feet and began walking, with his arms over Betty’s and Rachel’s shoulders since I was too tall to support him well. In a sense, that was to be the last stroll of Karl’s natural life.

***

5:15 AM

Marty Halstead was preparing his shower when he heard his dressing room telephone warble. Not a wasteful man, he reached into the shower and shut it off. When he finally picked up the handset, he heard the voice of Roger Witherspoon, a fellow board member for the Division Street District Foundation. “Marty,” Roger said with apparent concern, “I need your help!”

“Roger, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know how to say this, but a couple days ago Karl called me … Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.”

That approach concerned Marty even more. “Is it something I need to know?”

“Well … You’re his best friend that I know of. Maybe you know what it’s all about.”

“Roger! Tell me what’s going on and I’ll decide if its something to be concerned about.”

“Okay. Karl asked me if I knew anything about removing structures by burning. Said he had some property that needed to be cleared off, and burning it would be the fastest, cheapest way to do it.”

“Well … I’m not aware of anything that needs clearing, and I know his properties fairly well.”

“Marty … there’s something else I have to tell you … I mean … he’s our friend and all … and I’d hate to believe it of him … but …”

“Roger, spit it out!”

“All right! Karl’s place burned last night …”

“NO! Was anyone hurt?”

“Karl’s nowhere to be found, and we don’t know about his staff. No bodies were recovered, and he seems to have dropped out of sight.

“I understand,” he added in passing, “the place was insured to the hilt.”

Roger’s implied accusation left Marty mute, so he said, “Well, you know my number. Call if you hear anything.”

Marty’s trembling hand fumbled the telephone handset as he replaced it. He had hoped to influence Karl positively through his friendship, but in view of Roger’s news, he didn’t see how he could remain loyal to the man. As was his habit, he lifted the handset again to check his voice mail, and the pulsating dialling tone told him a message awaited his attention. He entered the access number, then his personal code, and heard Rachel’s stress-filled message.

Already suffering from information-overload, Marty simply didn’t know how to respond to the appeal for help. He knew of some shady deals in which Karl had participated, and if he were capable of that, what else could he do?

Needing a second opinion, he again picked up the handset and dialled. “Roger,” he said when the other man answered, “I just found a message from Rachel Yeshurun, saying that she and Karl need a ride.”

As if thinking aloud, Roger said, “So he has an accomplice … where are they? I need to reach them and convince Karl to go to the authorities.”

“I don’t know. She didn’t give any location. Just said to call them back as soon as I got the message.”

“You don’t want to be anywhere near those two. They could easily implicate you in the arson. Tell you what. Let me get in touch with an investigator I know. He’s ex-KGB, and really good at what he does. Wait for my call.”

Marty was completely torn between his duty to honour a friendship, and his duty to obey the law. After agonizing over his quandary, waiting seemed his best option.

***

8:30 AM

A few blocks of walking seemed to warm Karl enough to stop his shivering, but he soon needed to rest for a time.

When we had all perched on the curb, Betty studied Karl for a long moment. “Have you ever known anybody to love you?” Her Cockney inflection softened ‘til she sounded conciliatory.

“What …,” His voice, hoarse from smoke inhalation, broke off his answer.

“Not sexually, but with the kind of love that would send ‘em into a burning building for you.”

Karl didn’t answer, but plastered the usual resentful expression on his face.

“Look at him, sit’n there stubborn as can be. Now why do you suppose that is?”

“I …” He coughed and cleared his throat. “I really think it’s none …”

“‘None of our business, he says! After we’ve just risked our lives to save his scurvy skin he says it’s none of our business. Seems to me, mister uppity, that it’s every bit our business.”

“Now Betty, …”

“Now Jack! This arrogant bloke is making sport of us, and the Lord! It’s time he began looking at the world through something other than mister rich Karl Adams-coloured glasses. I put it to you again, Mister Adams, has anybody ever loved you enough to give his life for ya?”

Still, no response.

“Imagine for a moment that your father …”

“Leave my father out of this!” His hoarse voice interrupted with a colourful string of obscenities.

“So, you’ve never known a father’s love. Well we have, and it’s because of his love we risked our lives to save yours! If it was up to me, I’d as soon have let you roast like the weenie you are. But God loves you, and though we were once just as hateful towards him as you are, he saved us through his son Jesus freely giving his life on the cross. So what could we do, but love you with the love he gave us … even if I don’t much like you. I imagine God didn’t much like me while Jesus was hanging in agony on the cross for my sins. But he didn’t stop it, did he?”

Still, the frozen countenance.

Although I vividly remembered the last time I chipped in while ministering to him, I finally spoke up, “Karl, why won’t you believe us?”

Were there tears in his eyes as he looked up at me? “I can’t!”

“Why can’t you?”

“Because I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“I don’t know!” The pain of frustration clouded his face. “I can’t trust anyone! I’ve been betrayed by everybody I ever trusted.”

“Think how Yeshua felt when all those people who celebrated his entry into Jerusalem turned right about and cursed him while he was hanging on the cross.”

Betty added, “One of his closest friends even turned him in to the authorities. Jesus, the one Jack calls Yeshua, knew all about betrayal, but did it stop him from dying for them, and for you and me? Not at all!”

Then I added, “I suppose I was afraid to trust too, before I gave in from desperation, and trusted Yeshua to make it all right. But the moment I let go, so did my fear. He replaced it with a fearless new life … eternal life. If you have new life in Yeshua Hamashia, you’ll never have reason to fear again.”

“He’s telling the truth he is. It was the same for all of us, and for each of the millions who have let go of their fear and hatred to trust God.”

Karl looked up at Betty with pleading eyes. “How can I believe all this, when much of the hatred and violence in the world is done in God’s name?”

Betty pounced on that. “Finally, he comes up with a valid question! That’s easy, when you know the Lord and his word. Jesus said, ‘For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.’ What kind of fruit are hatred and greed? Then he goes on to say, ‘A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his ‘hart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart ‘is mouth speaketh.’ Makes sense, doesn’t it? After that he said, ‘And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.’ 1

“The house of your life is an heap of rubble, because your beliefs, your assumptions, are false, ‘built upon the earth, rather than the bedrock’ like the Bible says. Remember how Jesus said the good man brings forth what is good, but the evil man brings forth what is evil because his mouth speaks from the evil in his heart? Did you listen to the hatred that spewed from your lips a while ago?

“As for the corrupt religion of the world, Jesus covered that too. He said there are many who act religious, saying ‘Lord, Lord,’ but don’t do what he says. In another place, Jesus said, ‘Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’ 2 Don’t be surprised, Mister Adams, that much evil is done in the name of religion. That just proves what Jesus said is true!”

Betty had always been better than I at storing up God’s word in her heart. So all the time she was talking, Rachel and I were quietly praying that Karl’s hard heart would break.

“I don’t know … I … can’t …”

“You’re still lyin’ to me, and to God! You know you can decide right now where you want your loyalties to lie: Either with God, or with yourself. You can decide, and you will. To not decide is to decide against God, and you know it!”

“I need … time …”

“You’ve had time!”

I prayed that Betty was led by God’s Spirit in making such demands.

“For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” 3

His face shown an earnestness born of desperation as he again spoke to Betty in his rasping voice. “It can’t be that easy. We’re talking about a new life here. There’s always labor pains with birth, so I have to do something first … a pilgrimage to some mountaintop holy place or something. No … it can’t be as easy as you say!”

“Karl,” I said, “Yeshua—Jesus—did all the work for you. He took your pilgrimage when he carried your sins to the cross of Calvary. There’s one Bible verse that says, ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.’ 4

“What, …” he began, then paused, looking at the pavement as if the answer lay there. “I need help. I don’t know what to do … or say.”

Betty replied, tenderly. “Why do you think God brought us into your life? All you have to do is talk to him. You can’t con God, so if you’re ready to come clean with him, he’s ready to listen.”

Karl glanced about self-consciously, with tears of misery leaving tracks in the soot on his face. Looking for the world like a little child, he struggled to his knees on the pavement in his sooty pyjamas, with is hands together and eyes closed, a curious sight if we had not known what he was about. “God … Aw, I don’t know what to say!”

Betty knelt in front of him and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Just say what’s in your heart, Mister Adams.”

His face took on the sternness of resolution and he tried again. “God, all my life … I’ve tried to blame the cra … excuse me … the crud, that happened to me on you, by refusing to admit you exist. I guess I knew all along I was full of sh … I’m sorry … full of … anyway, looks like I was wrong. God, if it’s not too late, could you forgive me for my stubborn and selfish life, … and see your way to open my eyes to your way of seeing things? I’ve never loved anything or anybody, but … if you love me, … I guess I’ll have to love you back. Not that it would be easy, either to love me, or for me to love you … I don’t know, I’m all mixed up! All I know is I want you in my life, and that devil, Ellasar, out of it!”

With that, Karl broke down, weeping in a heap on the pavement. Then he stiffened and began quaking violently, grunting and groaning incoherently. As he again struggled to his knees a guttural voice came from his throat uttering unrecognisable sounds, and suddenly he screamed, a high-pitched, ear shattering, inhuman sound, and fell back heavily to the pavement. I was afraid he was dead, so I reached out to feel his pulse and found it fast, but strong and regular.

“Have I killed ‘im?” Betty asked.

“No, but I think a certain demon is very unhappy about now. I believe our friend belongs to God.” As I said that, Rachel sat quietly on the side walk, tears streaming from her eyes.

My gaze wandered upward to the early morning overcast, typical of the Bay Area. My mouth opened for a long, deep yawn—truly, one of life’s simple pleasures. After having nearly lost my life, peace washed over my soul, as if I were simply out for my morning walk. But it was more than that; the supernatural peace overwhelmed my fatigue, my numerous pains, and my natural anxiety after having lost nearly everything to the conspiracy of sinister forces.

A slight break in the overcast distracted me from my reverie. The sky I could see through that hole was just changing from light azure to an even lighter turquoise. Then, as if a divine hand were pushing it into view, the morning star moved into the small field of sky, glittering its joy over the spiritually newborn babe.

Though Karl, Betty and I had lost most of our earthly possessions, the night had been most productive. And we had no way of knowing where Karl’s new life would take us.

***

1. Luke 6:44-49 KJV

2. Matthew 7:22-23 KJV

3. 2 Corinthians 6:2 KJV

4. Ephesians 2:8-9 KJV

 

Chapter Eight

Friday, May 12, 10:45 a.m.

After Karl’s nearly fatal trauma, he should have been breathing concentrated oxygen, rather than foggy, morning air. His poor condition forced us to stop and let him rest every few minutes. Although he was exhausted from continually placing one foot before the other, Karl’s face reflected the supernatural inner peace that the rest of us had come to take for granted. While his tears were from joy, mine were from conviction.

I had never before witnessed such a sudden change in temperament. His radiant expression bespoke the tremendous burden that God had lifted from his shoulders.

When we finally reached Rachel’s flat at mid-morning, the ladies and Karl collapsed from exhaustion. After a couple of hours’ rest and a meal, Karl asked, between agonized coughing fits, to use the telephone. His voice remained hoarse from the smoke he had inhaled.

As he picked up the handset he looked towards me and asked, “What account would you like the funds transferred to?”

“There’s no need …”

With his right hand he gestured a mouth snapping shut. “You both lost a lot of possessions in the fire, so I want you to have enough to get reestablished.” With that, he dialed the number of his bank. “Could I please speak with an officer,” With his rasping voice, if he had wanted a vocal disguise he couldn’t have done better.

“Yes, my name is Karl Adams.” A coughing fit interrupted his speech. “Sorry. Anyway, I need to transfer some funds from my personal account.” He waited a moment, then recited his account and personal identification numbers.

“Say again?” He glanced up to us with concern in his face. “What do you mean, my assets are frozen? Check the Foundation’s account!” He recited those numbers, and while he waited for the response he again looked up and said to us, “No explanations. Just, ‘Sorry Charlie.’

“That one’s frozen too?” Apparently the answer was affirmative. “Let me speak with your supervisor!” He listened for a moment. “Oh … Can’t you tell me anything?” Having known Karl for the previous two years, I expected the telephone to fly apart with the force of his breaking off the call, but he gently, thoughtfully, put down the handset.

“Jack,” he said, coughing again as he looked up at me, “would you mind checking your account?”

So I did, and found the same result.

“Rachel, do you still have that Swiss account?”

“Why, yes.”

After more coughing he continued, “I don’t know what’s going on. We seem to be under attack from all sides. First my place is torched …” still more coughing, “then not only mine, but my friends’ account is frozen,” I felt gratified that he included us amongst his friends. “Rachel, your turn.” He pushed the telephone to within her reach.

She picked up the handset and dialed an international telephone number. After a pause, she entered some more numbers and listened. She said her name and after a moment, added, “Shaddai.”

She nodded to us and I said, “Can you convert some of your funds into liquid form?”

She smiled, “How wet would you like to be?” Then she waited, punched in some more number sequences, and replaced the handset into its cradle.

“Well?” I was impatient to hear the result.

“It’s now in my ‘petty cash’ account.”

Karl said, “How much could you transfer?”

Rachel smiled mildly. “Look around. How much do you think it costs to live here?”

“You mean, you’ve squirreled away everything I’ve paid you all this time?”

She assumed an exaggerated, innocent expression and shrugged her shoulders.

We retired early that evening, as comfortably as we could considering the meager accommodations at Rachel’s tiny flat. Betty and Rachel shared her twin-sized bed while I tried to sleep on the davenport, sans cushions, with Karl using the cushions on the floor. I believe we had that arrangement backwards, since the davenport failed to oblige my frame by easily a foot. But neither of us got much sleep because of his intermittent coughing fits.

***

Saturday, May 13, 6:30 a.m.

When Rachel’s alarm clock sounded, Karl awoke with a start, his voice still raspy from the previous day’s smoke inhalation. “Hey! I didn’t dream!”

Not knowing what he was about, I said, “And … ?”

“I didn’t dream,” he said with more emphasis on the last word, “That’s the first time in years I haven’t been bothered by nightmares.” I must admit I couldn’t readily empathize with him, but I shared his joy as best I could.

Rachel looked for the world like a ragamuffin wandering out of her bedroom, yawning and rubbing her eyes.

“You look a wreck,” I said with no insult intended, “Didn’t you sleep well?”

After another great yawn she mumbled something about a busy brain and not enough room on the bed. She stepped into the kitchen, poured some bottled water into a teapot and placed it on a burner. After aimlessly stepping away from the stove a few paces, she slapped her forehead, grimaced her instant regret, circled back to the stove and turned on the flame under the teapot. Again she made the circuit away from the teapot and back, picked it up to confirm that it contained water, set it down and wandered into the lavatory.

Karl and I busied ourselves putting the living room back into order, and my Betty strode out of the bedroom humming a merry tune. “Good morning all. Oh, what a glorious day the Lord ‘as given us.”

“Am I to assume you’ve slept well?” I asked.

“Didn’t stir at all, but Rachel seemed reluctant to rise.” Then, looking over to Karl, “What ‘ave you got planned for the day, sir?”

He glanced up with surprise and asked, “Sir?” looking about as if searching for someone else in the room. “I don’t see a ‘sir’ anywhere around here.” He seemed serious enough, and we weren’t sure how to interpret his statement.

“First, Missus Hubert, apparently I must again clarify the rules in force.” His scowl caused me to wonder about his previous day’s apparent change of heart. “Miss Yeshurun!” he called towards the lav.

“Coming straight away,” Rachel said through the closed door.

“Mister Hubert,” he addressed me, still with the scowl straining his mouth, “Please, be seated.” He directed me to the davenport, next to my bride, so I dutifully complied.

“Miss Yeshurun,” he barked at the closed door, coughing because of the strain to his week voice. “Are you coming?”

Miss Sleepy Eyes didn’t look much better than she had, as she opened the door to rejoin us. Without a word, Karl directed her to the place next to me, and there we sat like the three monkeys, all in a row.

As a lord before his subjects, Karl paced up and down the room, the scowl ever present. Finally he stopped and pivoted to face us. “A number of things have changed that I have to make perfectly clear. Since yesterday I discovered something disconcerting.” If anything, the frown became even more pronounced. “And it’s something the three of you will just have to tolerate.” He paused for effect. “I seem to have developed a sense of humor.” His eyebrows dipped and his eyes narrowed. When he had the three of us completely flummoxed, he burst out with, “Gotcha!” and a broad, playful grin covered his face like the sun breaking through threatening storm clouds.

I believe our three mouths hung open quite stupidly, not sure what to do with his apparent jocularity.

“As for the rules I had in mind,” he said with smiling lips and twinkling eyes, “there’ll be no more of this ‘sir’ and ‘Mister Adams’ garbage from the three of you. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m poor as a church mouse, and I can’t pay you a cent, so,” he shrugged, “I guess you’re all fired. And since I’m now homeless and pennyless, I have to throw myself on your mercies.” He watched the three of us expectantly, as if not sure what our response would be.

We hardly knew how to respond, so I ventured, “Mist …” He interrupted me mid-word by squinting in a most threatening manner.

“Yes, make that, Karl,” I said, thoroughly chastised.

“I hope you will forgive us if we seem less than enthusiastic about your apparent change in nature, but we have observed in you, several apparent changes of heart since we became associated.” I didn’t know how to continue, so Karl did it for me.

“You’re right. I’ve been completely unpredictable, contrary, a perfect SOB.” Was his countenance contrite? “I only hope you can forgive me … as the Lord already has. I can’t promise I’ll always be even-tempered, but I can promise that I’ll try … if you’ll have me among you. As I said, I can’t contribute anything material until I figure out what to do, but what little I have is yours.”

He simply stood there, waiting for us to respond. The three of us glanced at one another and finally Betty said, “I’ve been less tolerant of your foibles than the others, and you ‘aven’t mentioned it. If you forgive our bad attitudes, I suppose we’ll ‘ave to forgive you.”

We nodded to one another and I stood, towering over the very much deflated Karl Adams, extended my hand and said, “Right. We’re willing to let bygones be just that, and I for one want to sort everything out and get on with our lives.” We shook hands vigorously, then he amiably slugged my aching shoulder, inflicting much unintentional pain.

“A li’le hug’ll be fine for me, thanks,” said Betty.

Rachel was conspicuously quiet after our little bout of reconciliation, so I again sat beside her and said, “What’s up?”

In typically feminine style she examined her slippers rather carefully and answered, “Oh, nothing really.”

Karl caught on quickly and gave me a comprehending nod. I stood and he sat in my place. When she continued examining her slippers, he said “Rachel, please look at me.”

She complied, but with a tolerant expression, colder than dry ice.

“I know it won’t be easy, but I want you to forgive me for the way I’ve acted toward you, personally.”

She turned away, desperate to look anywhere but at his face.

“Please, hear what I have to say. Then you can slap me or kick me, do anything but just tolerate me.”

She reluctantly turned her moist eyes back to him in a glare that would have shriveled even the most stout-hearted Brit.

“Rachel, I was cruel to you … beyond cruel. I don’t know. Guess I was being an immature brat, kinda like the boy who dipped the girl’s braid in the ink well. You don’t pull that kind of crap … er, garbage … on someone you don’t like.”

Miss Iceberg-Face never flinched, so Karl stumbled for words, trying to find the magic ones that would set everything right.

“You complicated my life, and I tried to get even with you for it.” He looked away for a moment, scratching his head in puzzlement. “You see … you were too good. Not that you just acted too good, but you were incorruptible. I couldn’t get to you, and I both hated and admired you for it. Well, after a while the admiration side started taking over and I couldn’t allow that.” He paused for a deep sigh. “It was inconsistent with my agenda … whatever that was.” He looked disgusted with himself. “I found myself trying to demean you, to bring you down to my level, but the harder I tried the more beautiful you became … I … I don’t mean exactly that way … not that you aren’t … you know … compared to my own ugliness.” Then he looked embarrassed, as if his tongue had slipped.

Tears began working their way down her cheeks. “I can’t …”

“I know I’ve put you through a lot, so …”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish my thought.” Her shriveling look turned to daggers. “That’s what I mean … But my Lord won’t allow me to hate you … Oh, never mind.”

“Rachel, please. I want to change, and I don’t expect you to suddenly jump into my arms … not that I want you to … I mean, I do, but …”

Rachel looked stricken, jumped up from the davenport as if something had bit her, and turned away from him.

“Rachel, I … I don’t know what to say.”

She began marching with exaggerated dignity towards the lavatory.

“Maybe some day, if you can ever forgive me. I mean, I hate the way I was, and I want … desperately, to be good enough for you …”

She cut him off by shutting the door none too gently behind herself. Karl only sat there, head in hands, as if battling a monumental headache.

I seated myself where Rachel had been, and placing my hand on Karl’s shoulder. “Don’t fret yourself, Mister …”

“Jack, please! I’m not ‘Mister Adams’ any more. I don’t know who I am.”

“Karl, you’ve become a child of Almighty God, the creator of the universe.” He looked up to me as though he were trying to comprehend my words. “You’ve shed your false identity. Give yourself a chance to get used to the idea.”

Karl nodded weakly, and I could tell his attention was distracted to the lavatory door. “Don’t let her get to you. Give her some time, she’ll come around, if you want her to.”

To that, Karl replied with a sincere transparency that revealed the change taking place within. “You have no idea.”

***

After a day of figuratively walking on eggs, we all thought it best to settle into the business of making plans. Betty warmed to the pragmatic task, though Karl and Rachel sat as remotely separated as they could. Glancing around Rachel’s small dinner table, Betty asked “What ‘ave we got to work with?”

Everyone looked to Rachel, who seemed the only one whose funds were available. “Let me see.” She calculated mentally, shaking off her reticence. “My three hundred odd thousand pounds were converted to … approximately four hundred thousand dollars of liquid funds.”

“Seems quite the tidy amount, what?” I looked about at the others as though I had said something bright.

Rachel stared blankly at me, but politely said nothing. Betty, on the other hand, burst out with mirthless laughter, “For going on ‘oliday, perhaps. But think about it for a moment, me luv. Three hundred thousand quid ‘as to cover the four of us for who knows ‘ow long and through who knows what adventures. I fear that ‘tidy sum’ could fly away on ravens’ wings, that fast!” and she snapped her fingers. “We must think of alternate plans, and be prepared for anything.” The point was well taken, so I kept my mouth shut.

Rachel changed the subject. “Let me check my sources. We need to know what kinds of risks we’re facing.”

She went to her wardrobe, brought her laptop computer back to the table and got to her business. None of us knew what to do while she was tapping things in and reading from the monitor, so we occupied ourselves with possible plans of action and general small talk.

After quite some time she gave a deep sigh, closed the lid of her computer and leveled her gaze at each of us sitting about the table. “Karl seems to have made some dangerous enemies during his rise to fame and fortune. Now it’s all crashing in like a house of cards.” Then, looking intently at Karl, “Does the name Markov mean anything to you?”

He raised his eyebrows. “I’ve had dealings with him. Why?”

“You really should be more careful those you choose for your enemies. Seems Markov has broadcast a contract for your head … separated from your shoulders if possible. My sources indicate you’re hotter than fire works, and they’d all like to have a piece of you.”

Karl sat, deflated, unable to say anything. Betty finally broke the silence. “What in blazes did you do to the bloke?”

As if his mind was just coming back into the room, he said, “Huh?”

“Why does Markov seem to ‘ate you so?”

“Oh. He was the boss of the inner city before I came along,” Karl said flatly, “Guess you could say I displaced him.” Then looking earnestly into each of our faces he added, “You guys are in danger, having me around. I need to get as far away from you as I can, ‘cause I’m as good as dead.”

After a moment of awkward silence he gave an odd smile and a quick chuckle, “Know what? I’m not even scared. What I need to do is turn myself in to the authorities and take my licks. I’ve hurt a lot of people in ways they don’t even know. I deserve what I get, but you don’t.”

Rachel looked hard at Karl and asked, “Have you had people killed?”

“No … though Webber’s death could easily be pinned on me.”

“Well, Markov has. That man is the scum of the earth, and just because he wants you dead doesn’t mean you deserve it. And as for Witherspoon, I believe he was behind your block being burned. That could have killed my closest friends. No, you aren’t going to submit to any Russian goon, and though you may have done some scurvy things in your time, haven’t we all.” Then, looking to the rest of us she said, “What say you? Shall we consider the four of us a family, or not?”

Betty expressed the answer for the two of us, “Since you put it that way … I suppose we’re in it together.”

“I don’t know what to say, but I don’t want to jeopardize any one of you.” Karl’s attention focused on Rachel, to her embarrassment.

I chimed in, “You’ve heard it, Mister Adams. That’s our decision, and I must say, we’re with you to the end.” I paused for a moment when I noticed the tolerant expression on Karl’s face. Then I added, “Excuse me, that was ‘Karl,’ wasn’t it?” Though he smiled, he looked tired and discouraged.

Rachel spoke up, “Karl, though I confess to uneasiness about Markov’s contract on us,” she smiled at Betty and me, “I submit that our best action wouldn’t be evasion. Our resources are limited, but between the four of us we have a lot of talent and experience, so I vote we go on the offensive.”

Karl squirmed in his chair, looking like he wanted to contribute more to the conversation but unsure whether he should. Betty also noticed it and said, “Mist … Karl, ‘ave you got something to add?”

“Well … I’m concerned about our resources too, if we’re to do anything concrete against Markov and Witherspoon. As far as that goes, I’m not sure if it’s still available, but I did have a modest, ‘rainy day’ fund put aside. We could try to get to it, but I would have to do it in person, and it’s not exactly near by.”

Rachel said, “Just how far away is ‘not near by?’”

“Hong Kong.”

After a long moment, Rachel finally broke the silence. “Who knows about the account?”

“Marty knows of it, but no details.”

“And where did this ‘rainy day’ fund come from?”

Karl wore a self-conscious expression, “Creative bookkeeping?”

The three of us searched each others faces for some way of taking the moral high ground without sounding self-righteous. Betty finally said, “And ‘ho does it really belong to?”

“Just about everyone but me, and that’s the trouble. I never thought of it before, but it really isn’t mine. But it doesn’t belong to the Hong Kong and Beijing bank, either. It’s like an albatross around my neck.” Deep in thought, he continued as if talking to no one in particular, “I should give it back, but it came from so many places; government grants, investors, taxes unpaid because of cheating …” Again he searched our faces, “It’s dirty money, but what can I do with it?”

I had always admired Betty’s moral sense, so I listened carefully to her take the matter on. “With that kind of money, there’s no repaying it to its rightful owners.” She paused to think. “While it’s not yours, we might consider using part of it to cover our costs. Putting Markov and Witherspoon out of business could be considered a service to humanity.”

Rachel added, “For my part, I vote we get to the business of changing our identities. As widespread as the ‘Adams contract’ has become, it won’t be long before we’re all targets. Betty, you’re volunteered to begin our transformations. I’ll acquire the identities, and you,” speaking to me, “will acquire our air tickets to Hong Kong … covertly, of course.”

Karl acted like he wanted to add his sentiment, so I asked him, “Do you have something to add?”

“Well … I’m new at this being a Christian, but … aren’t we forgetting something?”

After a moment, Betty took a silly look upon her face and said, “From the mouths of babes.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit stupid, “I say we commit the whole affair to the Lord.” Betty smiled at me knowingly, while Rachel examined Karl’s face for some betrayal of shady motives.

***

Tuesday, May 23, 11:30 p.m., ten days later

The pair of Russians watching the darkened windows of Rachel’s flat expressed their opinions about the assignment with the most colorful language. Gregor and Ilia hadn’t quite finished their night’s romantic activities with two choice call girls … each. Their boss, Lev Markov, took good care of them. Unfortunately he also expected them to jump the instant he beckoned.

First, they decided after some heated discussion that they should take shifts watching, and listening with their new laser eavesdropping device. Then Ilia slouched down into the driver’s seat and soon began vibrating the windows with his snoring.

Before dawn, Gregor began setting up the surveillance equipment, but when the laser listener got no reading off the target windows, he slapped Ilia on the head and told him in crude street Russian that the equipment didn’t work. A cursing Ilia reached back for the instructions they had carelessly thrown aside, and began reading. Again, the air turned blue when he read the passage that said the beam had to be precisely ninety degrees to the target surface. They looked to their own side of the street, opposite the window and at about the same height, but the building there did not reach high enough for the angle of attack they needed.

Deaf, but not blind, they set up the video camera with a very long lens, and trained it on the nearest window of Rachel’s flat. It seemed like an eternity, however, before lights began popping on so they could record some action. Having hoped for some small visual reward for their hard work, they were disappointed when the first person they spied was wearing a dressing robe.

The lavatory light went on, but they couldn’t see any detail through the privacy-glass window. Finally the parlor light went on, and some time later they spied a face standing at a distance from the window, barely visible. Was it looking their way? Gregor attempted to train the long lens on that person, but she moved out of view too quickly. The bedroom light blinked off, and they suspected someone behind the glass was watching them.

***

Wednesday, May 24, 4:30 a.m.

I’ve never been able to sleep well before traveling. My internal clock seems to anticipate the inevitable jet lag. So when Rachel’s alarm sounded I felt as though I had only just fallen asleep. Out of habit I stumbled from my cot into the lav to scrape the beard off my face, but the new persona I saw in the mirror awoke me quickly. My former, dark head of hair, a point of pride for a bloke nearing his sixth decade of life, was quite gray, and my customary smoothly shaven face bristled with two weeks’ gray beard growth. I had hoped my new appearance would evoke images of a sea captain, or at least an academic, but I couldn’t flatter myself with either, no matter how I tried.

A little polite knocking at the door interrupted my self-criticism, and a whisper said, “Jack?”

“Yes, Love, ‘tis only your grandfather.” She opened the door and a vision of youth and loveliness glided through, while envy and appreciation did battle within me. My Betty normally appeared ten years younger than she had any right to, but after her make-over she could have passed for a university student. I felt gravely unworthy of her loving embrace.

She traded her Cockney accent for a proper classy one. “You know, I’ve always been attracted to ‘older’ men.” Her flirtatious voice could very quickly drive me mad.

All I could say was, “Right …”

But before I could climb to greater heights of dimness, Rachel’s secure mobile sounded four or five times, and through the closed door we heard her say, “Yeshurun!” in her usual, stern telephone answering voice.

She listened for not even a half minute, grunting assent occasionally, and then we heard the little beep signifying her breaking off. She called out, “Karl, are you awake?”

In answer to which we heard a male sound slightly more distinct than a grunt say, “Uh … I guess, why?”

“That was Marty, finally answering my call from Friday last.”

Karl spoke a bit more clearly than before. “And?”

“And he wants to know where you are. Told him I’d have you call him back when I see you.”

“Why didn’t you just tell him where we are?” Karl was in the bad humor of the morning following a hard day.

Just then I opened the door and we reentered the parlor.

“I don’t like it,” Rachel said.

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why don’t you like it?”

“He seemed too anxious. It didn’t seem quite right.”

“I told you the guy was okay.” He got up from the davenport and walked over to take up the telephone handset.

Before he could dial, I reached over to cover the number pad. “Just a moment.” He looked at me expectantly. “I’ve learned to trust Rachel’s instincts. We’d better check into it before returning the call.” And he nodded grudgingly.

“I wish I could recall giving Marty my secure phone number,” Rachel said, “I suppose he could have gotten it from Howie, but not without his asking me first. It’s all wrong.”

Rachel went to her laptop computer, started it up, and began checking an Internet database with the telephone number Marty had given her. She looked up at Karl with a smile. “What was Marty’s telephone number?” She knew perfectly well what it was, but asked the question for effect.

He told her the number as he remembered it, and she smiled. “Would you like to see the listing for the telephone number he just gave me?”

“Okay, I’ll bite … again.”

“Les Miller.”

“Never heard of him, check again.”

Rachel still sported that indulgent smile. “Already cross referenced that name with known aliases, and guess what popped up.”

Karl seemed resigned to bad news.

“A certain Mister Lev Markov.”

His head suddenly fell forward as if someone had just bopped him on the back of it. With a screwed up expression he said, “Markov! What’s Marty got to do with him?”

Rachel was hesitant to add, “Karl … one thing I neglected to tell you about Roger’s activities … because of the heat of the moment and all …”

“Well girl, spill it. I won’t bite.”

“A couple of days before the fire, one of my sources told me that Roger had visited with Markov.”

“Whoa,” Karl looked dizzy for a moment, “that would make sense as far as Markov and the fire are concerned. But, Roger doesn’t have the guts to go anywhere near that cutthroat. They both had no love for me.

“That’s worse than I thought! If Roger conspired with Markov, he must’ve instigated the fire. And if Marty’s also connected with Markov, that means we have to assume both he and Roger know about my account in Hong Kong, and you, as well!” He looked over to Rachel, the shock of sudden realization on his face.

“Betty,” I said, as casually as I could muster, “be a luv and check discreetly out the front windows.”

As usual, she was ahead of me by a half second. Standing some distance from the part in the curtains, she first examined the street to the left, then to the right. Without a word she hurried into the bedroom and clicked off the light. I followed, curious as to the outcome of her search.

Betty spoke flatly. “I see a black van down the way. Rachel, does it belong there? It resembles the one we spied in the alley behind Karl’s flat on our first visit there.”

Rachel considered for a moment. “Not unless it’s coincidence, and I don’t believe in coincidence.” Rachel quickly dashed to her bedroom, hid her computer in its place and threw some things onto the bed. She called out to us, “Pray it’s not too late.”

She looked up at our blank expressions and said louder, “I said pray!” At which point we did.

Rachel stuffed her bundle into a small, light rucksack and added, “It’s possible they don’t know you’re here. I suspect they would’ve taken action before now if they did.”

Karl again reached for the telephone handset. “I’d better call the travel agency.”

But I blocked his reach, saying, “It’s quite likely tapped by now.”

Rachel handed her bag to me and reached for the door latch. “I’ll meander towards the block’s rear entrance and clear the way …”

“Rachel,” Karl said, “I can’t have you endangering yourself like that!”

“What’ve you got to say about it? This is the way it must be done. They’ll likely follow me if they’re watching, as I’m sure they are. I’ll call if it’s safe to leave.” With that she started to open the door, but Karl reached out and grasped her wrist. One cold stare caused him to release his grip, and she slipped casually out the door, locking it behind herself. The three of us threw what little we had into shopping bags, seated ourselves, and waited.

***

Ilia punched a memorized number into his mobile and told their comrade watching the rear entrance to pay attention. A few minutes later the mobile vibrated, with the same Russian reporting a woman leaving from his side of the block.

Believing they were on to something, he started the motor and turned the van about to pick up the fellow who was watching from the alley. They tried to maintain a discrete distance while following her, a difficult feat when your prey is walking.

***

About ten minutes later my mobile sounded, and Rachel’s voice was on the line. “It worked. The black van is trying to covertly follow me. Didn’t see anything else suspicious when I left by the rear entrance, and nothing in the corridors. I’ll lead them to River Front Mall, then I’ll lose them in the shopping crowd. Meet me at Arvin’s salon at one o’clock. Betty knows the place.” Then she broke off.

***

When the Russians lost sight of Rachel, they broke into an animated discussion. The consequences for losing their quarry could be dire indeed. Since they each had a mobile, they finally decided to split up and search separately.

At one point Puchi, the one they called The Idiot, thought he spied something interesting in a beauty salon, but Ilia dismissed it because none of those involved matched the descriptions Lev had given them.

***

12:55 p.m.

Rachel had predicted a swarm of humanity and we weren’t disappointed. Every chair was full at Arvins’, and we didn’t recognize any of the women seated there as Rachel.

One of the operators, a tall girl with frizzy blond hair, turned towards us with a smile. After a few seconds I recognized it was Rachel and struggled to keep from laughing, so I nudged Karl and pointed discreetly. But his reaction was far from discreet. He burst forth with a brief, but loud guffaw, and tried to stifle anything further. Finally, Betty looked over and nodded her approval of the disguise.

Rachel limped over to the counter where we stood at the salon’s entrance, greeted us with a wink, and said with a perfect American accent, “Are we here for a facial today, or a permanent?” Then, quietly, she added as herself, “I hate these stilts!”

Her eyes widened a bit as she glanced beyond us. “Don’t turn about!” Then, more audibly, “It’s the first side hall to the right, down the mall.”

We waited as she furtively watched the crowd. Then she whispered, “Go.”

Feigning conversation, we turned to leave the place as she turned to go further in. None of us saw anyone suspicious as we reentered the crowd. We continued talking while we strolled to the corridor Rachel had mentioned, and followed it to a utility corridor leading to delivery doors for all the establishments along that stretch of mall.

About the time we found the door labeled “Arvin’s,” it opened, and out stepped Rachel, still wearing her disguise. Without a word she led us further down the corridor, into a janitor’s supply room, and closed the door.

“We need to be wary, I’m beginning to see bad guys everywhere. By now my ‘escort’ knows they’ve lost me and they’ll broaden their search.”

Betty said, “Depending on their manpower, they’ll try watching all transport out of the city, and per’aps even public transport and car rental agencies.” We all nodded assent. “We’re fairly safe in our disguises, at least in a crowd. We’d best go separate ways. Rachel, collect your available dollars and we’ll meet you at … at the ‘earst Anthropology Museum, where they’ve opened that popular Egyptian display. You go first, then we’ll stagger our departures at ten minute intervals. And for goodness sake, please try to walk naturally in those platform shoes.” After a word of prayer, we were off.

Nearly two hours later the three of us awaited Rachel’s arrival. At one point, a frumpy old lady approached us as if to ask directions. Then she said in Rachel’s voice, “I’ve got to wash this chalk out of my hair before my itching scalp drives me potty!”

Then, louder and in her geriatric character, “Hear you are, lovies … nice lunches for each of you.” Of course each lunch bag contained a packet of the money she had acquired.

“You’ve each got your papers?” We nodded our answer. “You’ll find your instruction with your lunches. Be good, children.”

When we were alone we found notes in our bags saying, “Meet at Island Shangri-la Hong Kong, one week from today, four o’clock in the afternoon, at the Café TOO. Ask for the Presley party. And mind your new identities!”

 

 

Chapter Nine

Saturday, May 27

Captain Hillman sensed time passing, so he knew he must be conscious. At first he assumed he was in some sort of sensory deprivation capsule, since he had absolutely no physical frame of reference. Suddenly an itch attacked his left thigh, but when he tried to scratch it, he panicked because he couldn’t feel his arm.

He thought he must’ve broken his neck. But that didn’t explain why he couldn’t see or hear. He concluded it must be a nightmare, and resolved to relax and breathe slowly. And since it was a nightmare, not feeling his own breathing didn’t matter a lot.

He must have slept, because he next felt jumbled, random sensations of taste, touch, pressure, pain, temperature, and flashing color. The sensations intensified until he felt he would lose his mind, then they stopped.

Some time passed, and the sensations began again, but with indefinable differences. Then he heard a loud, yellowish humming from the left, gradually changing to a more general bluish white noise. Odd there was no aural sensation from the right.

PAIN! Total pain through every fiber of his being … then nothing.

Captain Hillman lost track of the number and frequency of those sessions, assuming he was undergoing some sort of sadistic torture. But his captors hadn’t yet probed for information. He longed for a direct confrontation with his tormentors, to see their faces and stare them down, to defy them as he had imagined during his anti-interrogation training. He was taught not to hate, because it would eat away his insides, giving victory to the enemy. He knew his best strategy was to resist with all his will.

***

Monday, May 28, 11:35 p.m., Hong Kong

Romeo Obozniev was in charge of twenty-nine other Russian mafia sociopaths assigned the daunting task of finding Karl Adams and his party as they would inevitably pass through Chek Lap Kok, the mainland airport serving Hong Kong Island. They had studied dozens of photos of the four fugitives, but Obozniev lavished particular attention on the Jewess, Rachel Yeshurun, because her small size and attractively angular features suggested to him a beautiful young boy. Simply fantasizing about what he would do to her initiated his coveted physical response, so he intended to be the one to find her.

Though Romeo had warmed to the project at hand, his comrades constantly groused about the long hours they were expected to be vigilant, and all the faces that began merging after only the first few thousand. How could they be expected to find four, probably disguised, people out of the tens of thousands who would pass through the jetway gates each day? Yet there would be no excuses, and their positions, if not their lives, depended upon locating those four troublesome people. By the end of their fifth day of watching, half the team was stupefied, a condition exacerbated by their periodic vodka consumption.

***

Lev Markov led another team of six Russians to watch the bank itself. Of course they had a cover story and forged papers to satisfy the bank’s security people. It seemed the four fugitives were international bank robbers from Russia who had targeted the Hong Kong and Beijing bank. He didn’t know Karl’s account number or in what name he had opened it, but he had the full cooperation of in-house security to spot any sizable transfers or withdrawals.

Hoping to motivate his men, Markov had posted a reward of five hundred thousand US dollars for the three Brits, and a cool million for the despised Karl Adams—alive! It would be worth every cent to slowly carve him up, a finger here, an ear there, and listen to him scream. He was curious to see just how long he could keep him alive. Though that bungler, Witherspoon, had blown his attempt to roast Adams, he, Lev Markov, would not fail.

***

Tuesday, May 30, 1:05 a.m.

The dowager’s hump Rachel had strapped to her back as part of her geriatric disguise kept her from resting during the seven hour flight from San Francisco. As she debarked, she had no trouble acting the part of the arthritic, eighty-five year-old woman, and her only goal in life was to lie down flat, without the hump. Before the flight she had happily anticipated becoming reacquainted with the sights, sounds, and odors of Hong Kong, but her sleep deprived, jet lagged misery prevented any such appreciation. Her secured reservation at the Island Shangri-la had cost a fortune, but having a bed waiting at the end of the long cab ride was worth it.

Ten hours after departing San Francisco, she hobbled into her twenty-eighth floor single room, dropped her bags, and fell face down onto the bed fully clothed. During the short seconds before sleep engulfed her, a thought briefly passed her semi-conscious mind. It was something about a meeting the following day, but it was gone, as was she.

***

7:30 p.m.

Betty and I had reasoned that Markov’s resources were too limited to cover all of China. For that reason we chose to avoid Chek Lap Kok, or Hong Kong Intercontinental Airport as it was also called, and flew into Tokyo. Then we took the ferry to Shanghai and the train to Kowloon, across the channel from Hong Kong Island. Our assumed identities were never challenged, though we spent a great deal on the various expedited visas needed to cross all those borders.

Once in Kowloon, we sought quarters in any hotel that would have us without reservations. After tramping about half the day with our bags in hand, we finally found a quaint little room at the China Star. The nightly charge took my breath away, considering the small size of the room, and only one lavatory was located on each floor.

The friendly Chinese proprietor, who spoke the Queen’s English perfectly, explained that all but a very few VIP rooms in Hong Kong were quite small by American standards. The fact of our naivete, and that the gentleman assumed we were recently from the USA, demonstrated how Americanized we had become. We settled in to wait until the following day when we were to meet Karl and Rachel at the assigned place.

***

Wednesday, May 31, 10:15 a.m.

Karl’s resolution to cleanse himself of ungodly thought patterns and language was hard-pressed during his periodic encounters with customs agents. Convincing those mindless extensions of the Communist bureaucracy that he had nothing to hide was rather like trying to push packaging cord. He had assumed the wrong persona as a traveling disguise, and matched almost perfectly one of the profiles they chose to harass. His short goatee and shaggy dark hair, along with his holey Levi’s, canvass sneakers and cut-off shirt sleeves convinced even the laziest customs agents that he was hiding drugs.

Flying into Beijing was his second mistake. It took him a full day to convince dozens of bureaucrats that he was a respectable, if eccentric, capitalistic imperialist pig.

From there he boarded the southbound commuter train that stopped anywhere there was an excuse to do so. How was he to know that he would have to purchase separate visas for each province he entered? And each new visa required debarking the train, being rejected by the normal travel agents who sold such things, waiting in some new bureaucrat’s office until he too was convinced Karl had nothing to hide, shelling out the exorbitant bribes and fees for the expedited visa, and rushing back to the train station to catch the next southbound.

He finally found himself sitting in a taxi on one of the hundreds of ferries crossing Victory Harbor, praying he would arrive at the Island Shangri-la in time to meet his friends. He could physically feel the buzz of too little sleep and too much coffee during the trip. That, added to his splitting headache and the sensory overload of the sights, noises and odors of this seething mass of humanity, convinced him that he would literally die if prevented from cloistering himself for a few hours in the hotel room.

The ferry nudged gently into its landing, and instantly the hundreds of bicyclists crowded towards the bridge. Many minutes later, the bridge began lowering and the cabs started their engines. When they finally left the ferry, it was a short, but tangled, drive to the Island Shagri-la, where his reservations awaited him.

Karl walked into the lobby of the hotel just past noon, approached the registration desk, waited in line for fully one half-hour, and finally found that their computer had never heard of him. Of course the clerk’s practiced contrition was of little comfort to the road-weary traveler.

Back on the street, Karl spotted the silver-colored top of a cab offloading a family of tourists, but it was a half block away. He broke into a flat-out sprint to reach it before someone else discovered it was available, and arrived just as the driver was taking the fare.

“Hold it!” he called as the driver turned to reenter the car, “I need a ride.”

Just then, a businessman with a briefcase walked up to the left rear door and hopped straight in without an excuse me or by your leave. “Hey! That’s my cab!” Karl reached for the door latch and opened it to find the defiant, Indian or Pakistani-looking face staring at him. “Look, a hundred dollars for the cab!” The Indian’s eyes rolled and he stooped forward to speak to the driver. “Okay, two hundred!”

The Indian turned his face slowly towards Karl and said in his thick accent, “Three hundred!” Apparently the bloke thought Karl had more money than sense, which seemed to be the case, because he reached into his Levi’s pocket to remove a small wad of notes, pealed off the appropriate amount and offered it to him.

“US dollars!”

Karl breathed slowly, trying to maintain an even temper, put back the notes, stooped to remove his left canvas shoe, reached inside, and withdrew three rather soggy one hundred dollar American notes. The Indian grudgingly accepted the distasteful bits of paper with the tips of his fingers, gathered his overcoat and brief case, and stepped out. Karl cast his belongings into the rear seat, swung himself inside, and spied the driver’s greedy leer in the mirror.

“I need a place to stay. I have no reservations.”

The driver nodded knowingly and said into the mirror, “Okay mister, three hundred US dollar.”

Karl jerked up the door latch and flung it open hard against its stop, so the driver quickly added, “Mistake mister. Two hundred.” When Karl began to step out, “Okay mister, one hundred! No lower, or no ride!”

Karl reached out for the door handle and slammed it. “Go!” He again removed his shoe, withdrew one more note, and handed it through the slot in the plexiglass partition. He had no idea the driver would have made the trip for as little as twenty dollars, because the hotel was only three blocks away.

He also had no idea that three blocks distance could make so much difference in the quality of the neighborhood. His destination hotel was obviously old and in poor repair, but a bed by any other name ….

***

3:55 p.m.

As much as his entire being rebelled, Karl walked the three blocks through the surging throng to arrive at the maitre d’ podium of the Café TOO. When he said “Presley party,” the distinguished-looking gentleman first surveyed Karl, then the reservations list. After another distasteful look at Karl, he raised his right hand and clicked his fingers. A waiter appeared about two seconds later, glanced at the list where the other man pointed, and escorted Karl to the private dining room where our meeting was to take place.

***

None of us could point the finger at any other because of our slovenly appearance after our long and difficult journeys. If Karl felt as he looked, he would probably have preferred getting a week’s sleep to eating the dinner we had ordered for him.

When he finally settled in, I opened the conversation. “Right. We’re all here. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering your dinner for you, Karl. Hopefully, a little refreshment will elevate your spirits.”

“I vowed to quit drinking what I need to elevate my spirits, but I’ll take what you’ve ordered.” His smile came across not particularly cheery, and none of us had much to say until after the meal.

“I’m tempted to delay this ‘til tomorrow.” Karl slumped in his chair as he spoke. “We’d all think clearer after some sleep.”

Betty appeared taken aback. “You’ve dragged us ‘alf-way around the world and now you want to postpone the operation?”

“I was just thinking …“

”You’re no more tired than the rest of us. I say we get on with it.”

“Please,” Rachel said, “let’s not argue, just because we’re exhausted. I agree that we may as well get right to it. We didn’t have the time to arrange our strategy before we had to separate, and we shouldn’t go blind any further.” No one seemed of a mind to object further.

“One thing we can anticipate is the bank being closely watched.” Rachel considered for a moment and added, “They’ll also be monitoring account activity for large transactions. When Karl closes the account they will be onto us instantly.”

“The way I see it,” Betty said, “they’ll be looking for a single, large withdrawal.”

Rachel considered Betty’s contribution for a moment. “And I’ll have to find out the bank’s business hours. If the doors are open until the moment the transactions cease being posted, we can complete our business without its being immediately detected.”

Karl spoke up. “And we don’t even have to haul a bunch of cash away. If each of you opens an account that you can access from stateside, I’ll transfer funds to them in relatively small amounts. Available money, no suitcase full of cash.”

“Right. Then it’s settled,” I said, “Tomorrow we each go in at different times to open new accounts. It’ll likely take most of the currency we have with us, but after paying for our rooms and confirming our transport back to the States, all we’ll need is taxi fare and enough to feed ourselves.”

We looked at one another and nodded assent, then Karl said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m wiped out. See ya in the morning for breakfast … in the coffee shop.

“Waiter!” We could make no complaint about the restaurant’s service, as our waiter popped in almost instantly. “How late does the coffee shop serve breakfast?”

“Ten o’clock in the morning, sir.”

“What do you mean, ten AM? That’s the middle of the night!” The waiter stared without comprehension.

Karl looked back to address us with exaggerated frustration. “Okay, quarter to ten it is.”

***

Thursday, June 1, 1:00 p.m.

The Hong Kong and Beijing Bank was as busy inside as was the street outside. I went in first, and patiently waited in the New Accounts line, staring straight ahead so as to avoid noticing others and being noticed. I did, however, detect a heavy security presence, and there were so many Caucasian men in dark, pinstriped suits milling about that I had no idea which of them might be Russian Mafia.

After a half-hour in line, most of which time I spent filling out forms, I stepped up to a chest-high, marble counter attended by a middle-aged Chinese woman named Ling. I guessed she was middle-aged at any rate, since I’ve never been successful estimating the ages of Asian people. Her English was broken but discernible, and I discovered we were mistaken as to the amount of funds necessary to open a basic checking account. One hundred dollars did the job, and in another twenty minutes I was on my way out of the bank with a booklet of counter checks, a temporary bank card, and a great feeling of satisfaction.

Betty and Rachel repeated my actions with one exception. Betty spied a man of medium height and slight build with a scar on the left side of his face, dressed in an expensive, charcoal-gray suit, dividing his attention between a computer monitor and bank clients. We managed not to attract his attention, however, which is very well since according to our description of Lev Markov, that was he.

The next phase would be tricky. Because of the nature of his account, Karl had to personally conduct transactions, albeit in the name of Pavel Chekov. At some point moments before the doors were locked, Mister Chekov would have to enter the bank and find the shortest line available. Due to the bank emptying of clients at that time of the afternoon, Karl would be more conspicuous than he wanted. We depended heavily upon the excellent disguise Betty had created for him, and on God’s providence, for his safety.

From previous observation, he knew the tellers would continue accepting transactions for a few minutes past the close of the business day, posting them on the following day’s ledger. Since the tellers had been alerted to report all sizable withdrawals to the Russian “security” people present in the establishment, he had to transfer funds to our new accounts in smaller increments, even if the process took days to complete.

***

Friday, June 9, 4:15 p.m.

A spring shower had freshened our world whilst Karl concluded his business inside the Hong Kong and Beijing Bank. Seconds after he exited the building and a guard re-locked the doors behind him, the Sun emerged from behind a cloud, symbolizing the end of our intrigue.

We three were having tea at a street vendor where we might watch for him leaving the bank. As he glanced our way, we could tell without words that he had been successful. Then he turned the other way and proceeded to his hotel room. Our plan was to arrange four different flights from Chek Lap Kok, arriving in San Francisco at staggered times to avoid attracting curious eyes. We had agreed to meet at Nick’s Lighthouse on Fisherman’s Wharf the day following my arrival, since I was to be the last to make the passage.

The first to leave was Karl, traveling light, as were we all. His leaving China was much easier than arriving. It was as though the authorities were happy to see him go. Again, the long flight was uneventful, and passing through customs in San Francisco was seamless. Apparently the agents in California are more accustomed to seeing strange characters.

Betty was the third to make the flight, and I was fourth. Neither of us encountered anything remarkable enough to mention.

Rachel, however, had a far different tale to tell.

 

 

Chapter Ten

Saturday, June 10, 12:53 a.m.

The last of the late flights leaving Chek Lap Kok 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. Am not sure, but is possible 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 and headed for the plane, he only noticed that 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.

***

6:45 p.m., 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 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. Then she reached into her bag for the silk scarf that she kept there for any of a number of potential emergencies. This certainly fit that description.

***

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 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 the bothersome, little old lady was safely out of her hair, Rachel 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 her 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 forcibly slowed her breathing, 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 embedded 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 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 top 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 talk more I 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, not to worry. You will have chance to enjoy lady’s charms, but I think we 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 car park 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 pebble surface, dislocated shoulder first, in excruciating pain.

With no concern for 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. At least the ceiling was finished, apparently with decent thermal insulation.

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 concrete. 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, 8:30 p.m.

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 steel table. Someone said, “Just relax, you are okay. Empty 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 is 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 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 not play game with us! Cooperate, or we give 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? Rachel’s foreign, inner voice asked.

bereave … believe … they have my bain’s prain … center wired for … stimulation. Hope they quill … will clon … con … clude that I meed nore … time to turn … tune into you. Please … 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 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 loo.” 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 lav.”

Still no answer.

“Oi, Mister Mad Scientist! I have to go to the loo, 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 Mafia. 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.

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 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.

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