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?”
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?’”
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.”
“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.
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!”