Chapter Fifteen

Wednesday, 28th June, 8:30 a.m.

Natalie wondered what had become of the domestic labor force as she settled into interviewing a disappointing prospect for the new maid’s position. Suddenly she heard the front doorbell ring, distracting her from her business. A half-minute later it rang again, twice.

Finally she heard one of Markov’s bodyguards answer the door, and a booming Texas drawl said, “Mornin’, got a work order to repair a banged up security gate. Y’all wanna sign this for our arrival time?” She heard some low talking and then the visitor’s voice, more loudly. “Whadia mean, not expectin’ us? Git yer boss out here, pronto!”

The door closed and a moment of silence followed, during which time Natalie tried to continue the interview while listening closely to what was going on in the other room. Suddenly Markov let go a loud string of Russian obscenities and his office door slammed. Then the front door opened again, followed by low talking for a moment, and the visitor boomed, “Round back ya say? Thank you vurymuch.” And the door closed again.

A minute later she heard a lorry with a loud exhaust tone drive into the courtyard. The driver gunned the throttle, causing a loud backfire, and then all was quiet. She realized this interview was ill timed, so she hired the girl, gave her forms to fill out, and sent her home. It occurred to her that the stupid little bird she hired would be a perfect parting shot at Markov.

Natalie went to the kitchen, fetched a serving tray, dislodged the rubber pad in the center by running a knife under it, filled three tumblers with ice water, and walked to the courtyard. Howie met her next to the lorry and took one of the tumblers, lifted it to his lips and slowly drank while he slipped a folded sheet of paper under the tray’s loose rubber mat. When all had finished drinking, she returned to the kitchen and busied herself refilling the tumblers within view of the inner door of Markov’s study.

A few minutes later she heard a frightful screeching sound from the courtyard that lasted a full minute before the loud report of a gun interrupted it. Then she heard the Texan bellow, “Gotta git the damaged iron out of the gate so we kin git some new made. Somebody did a real job on this gate.” Again she heard some Russian cursing and the screeching began anew. Seconds later she saw six Russians fleeing to the opposite side of the house.

Entering Markov’s study with the tray and water, she cringed at the noise intruding from the courtyard. But that didn’t stop her from carefully placing the tray on Markov’s rosewood desk, moving the drinks to one side and extracting the folded piece of paper Howie had placed under the rubber pad.

She withdrew two sheets of stationary from the middle of the stack contained in an ugly, Gothic desktop dispenser, sat in front of the typewriter, inserted one of them into the platen and rapidly copied part of the information she received from Howie. Replacing that sheet with another like it, she typed the rest of the information. She carefully removed the stationary from the typewriter and inserted the first of two matching envelopes in its place, onto which she typed the address of the judge heading the Organized Crime Task Force. After repeating that with the second, she folded the stationary, sealed it into the envelopes, and slipped them back under the tray pad. The work had lasted seven eternal minutes, with Natalie realizing that if she were caught, her next stop would be the Russians’ favorite fishing spot on the bay—after Romeo finished with her.

She longed for ear plugs as she passed through the glass doors into the courtyard with the tray of liquid refreshment concealing the fruit of her hazardous work. Sparks were flying fully ten feet into the air as two men handled a heavy-duty abrasive saw and made as much noise as they possibly could. Howie straightaway spotted Natalie exit the house and casually walked over to her, positioning himself between the tray and the windows overlooking the courtyard. With one hand he took a tumbler, and with his other hand withdrew the envelopes from their hiding place and slipped them into his inner jacket pocket. The other two fellows paused from their work long enough to down the water, then Natalie returned to the kitchen.

Finally she heard iron falling into a large box on the lorry, the engine starting, and gradually passing into the distance. Natalie knew she had three days to make her escape and disappear from the face of the earth.

To facilitate that, Karl had given her a half-million dollars for her support while she created a new identity somewhere else in the world. Natalie, however, was not motivated by the money. She would gladly have helped us simply for the pleasure of hurting the Russian mob.

***

Friday, 30th June, 10:11 a.m.

Anne Williams was tall and regal, her perfectly Teutonic features graced by long, blond hair. With a Master’s degree in criminology and jurisprudence, she was vastly overqualified for handling the varied management duties for Judge Judith Weston’s office. One of those duties was to screen the incoming post for adverts or suspicious items, such as those with no return address, and dispose of them after examining for dubious content. That particular day, Anne was anxious to finish her work and begin her weekend holiday, so her cursory sorting of the daily post missed the ivory linen envelope without a return address.

Shortly after delivering the stack of envelopes to Judge Weston’s desk, she heard her boss’s voice on the intercom, curtly requesting her presence in the Inner Sanctum. “Anne! I found this piece of mail in my in box. There is no return address. Why didn’t you set it aside?”

“I’m sorry Judge Weston,” she answered without disclosing her less-than ideal attitude, “I’ll check more carefully in the future.”

“It is interesting, though. I inspected it myself, since you didn’t, and found a most curious listing of Russian names and addresses in the Eastern Seaboard area. Then there are what appear to be bank names and account numbers. Fax it to District Attorney Reardon in New York City. The number’s in the Rolodex.”

Anne did dial a fax number, and sent images of both the envelope and the list, but she didn’t find it in Judge Weston’s Rolodex. The person receiving the fax was even more interested in the information than District Attorney Reardon would have been, since his name, Leonid Kaskov, was at the head of the list.

***

When Kaskov’s “secretary” handed him the fax, he said in his Russian accented English, “Where this come from?”

His secretary/bodyguard began answering in Russian, but Kaskov barked, “Idiot! Speak English!”

Then, in perfectly butchered English, “By post mark, is from San Francisco.”

“Find out what office send it.”

Looking at the fax header, the burly, but not especially bright secretary scratched his head, then reached out cautiously to point out the text that said, “From the office of Judge Judith Weston.”

Kaskov, not known for his sense of humor, responded to his secretary’s revelation of the obvious with a silent stare that would have melted a granite rock. “I see that. Get fax analyzed for any clue where ORIGINAL come from.”

***

5:35 p.m.

Leonid Kaskov was not accustomed to being crossed, so as he awaited the results of the fax analysis, he stalked about his mansion in a decidedly foul temper. His staff had never seen him so agitated, and realizing that he was not to be trifled with under the best of circumstances, they avoided him at all cost.

When the investigation results finally arrived, they reported that both the stationary and the print of the typewriter apparently matched samples of correspondence he had on file from Markov’s office. “Call Markov!” He shouted to his secretary. “Tell him he has mole … Come to think of it, I call him.

“Lev! You have mole in your operation.”

“That cannot be, comrade Kaskov. My people are …”

“Then how you explain fax I just get from Judge Weston’s office? Includes confidential account numbers for all twelve families in continental US.” Lev Markov had no answer.

“Lev, you think I am fool? Envelope has post mark of San Rafael!”

“Another organiz …”

“No, it could not be from other vor. Stationary and typewriter are from your office.”

“Comrade Kaskov, that could not …”

“Lev! Find that mole!”

He disconnected the call and slammed the intercom key. “Get me Gorg!”

A very impatient minute passed before his red telephone rang. “Gorg, I have job for you at other coast. Contact Pasof when you get to Frisco. Find zapodlo (dirty dealings) of Markov.” Then he abruptly disconnected.

All syndicate bosses maintained spies in the offices of any other bosses they didn’t trust, and Pasof was the code name of his spy in Markov’s organization. Though each boss knew spies were present, he had no way of screening them out, other than surrounding himself with his oldest, most trusted associates and hoping for the best.

***

Later that day, Kaskov again found a fax from Judge Weston’s office on his desk. This time it listed people for whom he had personally issued contracts, the people who fulfilled them, and the dates. With a blue streak of Russian profanity he seized his phone and began calling the members of the Brotherhood of Seven, bosses of the most powerful Russian mafia families in the continental United States. He intended to end this fatal leak with decisive action. They agreed to gather, with their bodyguards, to confront Markov at his home on the following Monday morning.

***

2:00 p.m.

Markov sat at his desk, reflecting on his security leak situation, and Kaskov’s resulting expectations. The call had begun to spiral Markov into a depressed mood, but he wrestled back control of his emotions just in time for the telephone to ring once more. He picked up on the first ring, and when he heard Kaskov’s newest information, he felt the heat of panic rising into his face, leaned back in his executive’s chair, and said not a word. Kaskov’s decision was final.

His first impulse upon replacing the telephone handset was to order a stiff drink of vodka, but he reconsidered, needing his mind clear to analyze his rapidly worsening situation. He stood as if he had aged fifty years in the previous few minutes, and began pacing his study. How would he convince the Brotherhood that the security leak was not his fault, and that he had succeeded in plugging it? His life depended upon finding the answer.

Not only was his life at risk, but the prospect of that psychopath, Romeo Obozniev, assuming control of his beloved family literally sickened him. How could he have been so stupid as to think he could successfully groom such an undiciplined, compulsive pervert for the terrible and sacred responsibility of acceding to this leadership position? “Yes,” he said in Russian under his breath, “I deserve what I get. Is my arrogance that has killed me.”

How would he find the turncoat in his organization on such short notice? Romeo was the only other person who could access the sensitive information that was sent to Judge Weston. But he could not be the perpetrator because, as his second in command, the brodyaga (leader-in-training) never left his side while on the premises. And the security system logged in anyone attempting to enter the building at any hour. Of course, Romeo had supervised the security system’s installation, so if anyone could circumvent it, he could. Was it possible his trusted lieutenant had betrayed him? He silently shook his head.

His mind wandered freely, reviewing his various endeavors throughout the years, the challenges he had accepted. Breaking into the locked mind of that American pilot to steal some of the most valuable information since the golden days of the Soviet Union would have been his crowning achievement. Just selling the information would have been a windfall, but mastering the process of acquiring it would make him a hero of both science and crime. Imagine, connecting the living brain of a man to a computer … a network of computers … with access to all the family’s most carefully guarded secrets.

Markov quickly grasped his mobile and pressed the memory button for Romeo.

“Romeo!” he interrupted when Obozniev answered, “Get boys!”

***

Sunday, 2nd July, 8:00 p.m.

Natalie listened to the ringing tone, praying that Howie would answer his phone. Since she believed Markov and his men were attending the opera, this was to be her last opportunity for escape.

As soon as she heard the click indicating he had answered, she began, “Uncle Howie, How’s Mother?” She spoke cheerfully for the benefit of the telephone tap.

Recognizing the prearranged code for her extraction from Markov’s place, he successfully disguised his Texas accent and said, “Not very well, Nattie. Get the first flight out here. See you when you arrive.” And he broke off the connection. His reference to the first flight out meant she was to make all haste to San Francisco International Airport and wait at the passenger pickup curb.

Next she called a taxi, stating quite clearly, for the sake of Markov’s telephone line recorder, that her destination was the airport. She calmly proceeded to her rooms to throw a few things into her travel bag, and left a note on Markov’s desk informing him of her cover story.

The Taxi arrived much earlier than she had expected, and when she climbed into the rear seat she noticed the driver was wearing a rather large western hat, though there was little room between it and the head liner of the car. “Where to, Ma’am?”

“You tell me, Uncle Howie, but somehow I think it’s not the airport.”

“Why, that’s still up to you Ma’am,” he said as he put distance between themselves and Markov’s mansion. “We could use your help if y’all wanna stick around. You’re as safe with us as anywhere.”

She became pensive for a moment. “I disagree … I’m not safe anywhere until Markov and his organization are dead.”

***

When they walked into our rooms forty-five minutes later, Howie proudly announced, “Ever’body, meet Natalie.”

Of course we all gathered about our new associate and welcomed her warmly. “You did a brave thing,” I said, “Thanks to you we might just get Rachel rescued.”

“What can I do to help?” Her charming, light Russian accent contrasted markedly with that of the ruffians we had been avoiding.

“You’ve already sacrificed your security to help us. I should say that’s more than we could have hoped for. Can’t imagine why you’d want to do more.”

“You could say I’m interested in anything that would put Markov’s gang out of business.”

“According to Howie, you’ve worked with the Israeli intelligence service.”

“I didn’t do anything dangerous or spectacular, like the field agents. I was just an analyst.”

“Did you use the name, Natalia Goldman?” Betty said.

Natalie shot an inquiring glance to Howie, to which he responded with a nod. “That’s the name I was born with.”

“So,” Betty replied, “why did you change it. I don’t see any shame in being Jewish. Some of my best friends are Jewish.” Betty flashed a coy smile towards me.

“When I applied for a job with Markov, I thought that being a non-Jewish Russian … you know ….”

“So you were ashamed of being Jewish.”

“Not ashamed … not really. I just didn’t want to risk any anti-Semitic attitude preventing my hire.”

“Rather like Hitler not wanting to admit to the Jewish blood in ‛im.” Betty’s frankness startled me, and Natalie.

“No! It wasn’t at all like that. I love my heritage.” Again she looked to Howie, this time for help.

“Ma’am, Natalie is the most open, un-prejudiced person I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowin’.”

“I’m sorry If I sound skeptical or bitter. It’s just that Jack ‛as faced such prejudice over the years, and ‛e’s not even ‛alf Jewish. I just tend to react strongly to that sort of thing.

“Do you ‛ave any ideas about getting our friend back from the Russians? I take it Howie‛s briefed you.”

Natalie seemed relieved by Betty’s more conciliatory tone. “There are a number of possibilities that I can see. We could play Delta-Force and go in with guns blazing. Or we might choose to live through the affair by employing a little finesse.”

“Finesse sounds prudent,” I said, “but where do we begin?”

“I say we finesse our way over to that laboratory and rescue our friend,” Betty said.

Of course I knew better, being the man of the family. “Now Betty, we must plan and take precautions–”

“‘Now Betty,’ ‘e says! You’re patronizing me, Jack. You keep braggin’ on my intuition, my sensitivity, and reject my suggestions out of ‘at.” This time there were no tears, only righteous indignation.

“Betty, you know I love you, and I am proud of your special qualities …” I stopped in mid-sentence when I noticed her hurt expression. Realizing that I was, in fact, patronizing her, I changed my tone, “Is ‘eating crow’ an American or a British dish?”

With no further delay, we began planning our assault of the Russians’ laboratory, not with guns, but with brains.

***

Monday, 3rd July, early morning

Rachel was still strapped securely to the table, dehydrated, and beyond feeling her hunger. In the weeks past she had spent as much time in prayer as possible. That was her only link to sanity in the agony of continuous muscle spasms and uncounted pressure sores.

Rachel? Rachel, are you still there?

Yes Ty.

What’s happening out there?

Absolutely nothing: No noises, voices, or even a change for my IV. I’m way overdue, and completely parched.

What was the last thing you heard?

Just the telephone ringing and some Russian mumbling. A few minutes later a door closed, but nothing for the past … oh, I don’t know, million hours or so.

They must have shut down the computer we’re connected to. I can’t access it, and I’ve tried for a long time.

I think they’ve abandoned us. I don’t know how long I can survive without water.

Wonder if your friends will get here in time … guess that won’t get them here any faster.

I hope they do, but I’m ready to meet God if they don’t.

Yeah, I suppose so.

Rachel waited several moments before commenting further. Are you ready?

There was no answer from him.

Ty?

Yes.

So you are ready to meet God?

I’m not sure.

This would be a wonderful time to get ready.

I’m not into fox hole conversions.

Fox hole, mad scientist’s laboratory, or in church on Sunday morning, God doesn’t care when or where you come to him, as long as you do.

You make it all sound so simple.

Ty, God has made it simple for such as us.

Rachel couldn’t hear the white van drive up just outside the concrete block structure. She first knew something was wrong when she heard the laboratory door open and steps entering the room. “Please give me some water,” she said with what little voice she could manage. “I’ll die without it, and then where will you be without a guinea pig?”

There was no response. Instead, a package was placed on the floor and she heard rapid steps leaving the room, followed by the door closing and locking.

Ty, I have a feeling we don’t have long. The Russians have just left a package with us. I suspect they want to destroy the evidence here, and we’re the evidence.

What about your desire to meet God face-to-face?

That hasn’t changed. It’s just the idea of having to be reassembled to do it that has me nervous.

You’re scaring me.

It’s time to be scared. Now, about reconciling with God . . .

***

6:15 a.m.

We had hoped to arrive when the Russians inside the laboratory were expecting their relief. Though caution was the watch-word, we drove boldly to the concrete block laboratory in a borrowed, white passenger van, wanting the Russians inside to assume their friends were arriving. With all the security cameras covering the approaches they couldn’t miss us.

We men dressed in the uniform of the Russian mob, dark suits with brown shirts and brightly colored ties, adding hats to conceal our faces. Betty and Natalie exploited their unique assets for the benefit of the Russian onlookers by wearing flimsy party dresses, high healed shoes and gaudy wigs. She had wisely realized that we needed some way to lure the men outside since we had no key, and had no idea of a password if there was one. Though I had objected strenuously at Betty’s self-assumed role as bait, her reasoning prevailed as usual.

Howie had produced enough body armor so we would be less vulnerable if the technicians were armed. Betty and Natalie, however, had to do without, since the bulky vests would have appeared rather odd with their dresses.

When the van stopped we all debarked. Marty and Howie noticed the amount of leg Betty flashed when it was her turn to step down, but my glare motivated them to proceeded with their business.

To our amazement, no one greeted, challenged, or otherwise acknowledged our arrival. Howie tried the exterior doorway into the building, but of course it was locked. We split up and walked about it in different directions, meeting at the opposite side. With security cameras sprouting from each corner they should have observed us by then, but there was still no sign of life. I began wondering if we were wrong about this being the Russians’ laboratory.

We walked back to the van to leave, but Karl wanted to take one more excursion about the building. Howie drove us to the east side, opposite the entry door, and Karl said, “Pull up close to the wall. I’m gonna try and get on top of the building. Maybe there’s a way in from there.”

Howie nodded his approval and did just that. Karl, riding in the front passenger seat, opened his door, soundly bumping the wall. A half-second later, the world seemed to end in a sudden explosion that rocked the van and pelted us with fragments of concrete block. When the dust settled we were still in shock at the unexpected cataclysm. All the right-side windows of the van had blown inward, with the glass and concrete fragments cutting us rather badly. What was left of that section of the wall leaned outward against the van, held more or less intact by steel reinforcement bars.

When our senses returned after a minute or so, we briefly examined ourselves and found that we were all still alive and relatively sound, despite superficial bleeding. Karl became frantic. “We’ve got to get inside! Rachel might be in there and still alive.”

He began moving to the left, apparently intending to climb right over Howie to get out the driver’s side door, but Howie put the transmission into low gear and carefully pulled away from the wall. As we moved off, more fragments of the wall fell onto the van through the broken windows, but eventually we were free. The sliding side door of the van was damaged and difficult to open, so Karl was out his door and climbing through a gap in the wall before we could exit.

As soon as he jumped down to the floor we heard his coughing and noticed a deep, red-colored gas wafting through the gap in the wall and into the outside air, along with dust from the blast. Howie shouted, “Karl, get out of there! That’s iodine vapor. It’s toxic!”

Coughing again, Karl said from inside, “Then it’s toxic to Rachel. I’m gonna find her.”

Amazed at Karl’s dedication, I forced the side door open enough to exit, dashed back to the wall and began to climb through the gap. “I’ll see if I can open the front door. Drive round to meet me there.”

As I jumped to the floor I heard Karl call out from somewhere in the blinding haze, “Rachel, are you here? Are you okay? Rachel, where are you?” He seemed frantic, running wildly about in the rubble that had been an advanced neurology lab, tripping and falling repeatedly but apparently taking no notice.

I found the outer door and managed to open it by the time the others arrived there, and with kerchiefs held over their noses they quickly joined us inside. As we entered the inner lab, Karl screamed, “Over here! I found her! Everyone, she’s over here!”

We followed his voice through the dust and vapor to find him struggling with an overturned table, trying to drag it away from the console against which it had been thrown. “Rachel, can you hear me … Oh my God! Her right leg is gone! She’s bleeding all over the place. Help me!”

When we arrived at his side I helped him move the heavy examination table. Betty flew instantly into action, reaching into Rachel’s open thigh to find the arteries that were spewing blood onto the floor. “I’ve got to ‘old these arteries, there’s no way to tourniquet ‘er wound. Get these straps off ‘er!”

Marty happened to have a large pocket knife to cut her bonds. Then he and Howie formed a crude stretcher with their arms and carried her to the van whilst Betty continued clamping the severed arteries with her fingers. I managed to force the van’s side door open far enough to admit Rachel and Betty, whilst Natalie whisked most of the debris off the middle seat. In the mean time, Karl had found her leg, itself badly damaged, and gently placed it on the floor of the van.

As we carefully drove southwestward along State highway twenty-four, a Highway Patrol car passed us and Howie laid on the horn with the Morse Code S-O-S to get the patrolman’s attention. Howie signed to the officer that we had an emergency and a moment later his car-top lights went on and he pulled in front of us to clear the way to the hospital. We followed him off the highway at the Ashby Avenue exit and to the Emergency entrance of Alta Bates Medical Center.

Hospital emergency rooms are often assailed for their cool detachment in the face of life’s carnage. The ER staff at Alta Bates, however, was a noteworthy exception. After one glance at Rachel’s condition they instantly swung into action with none of the usual quizzing about insurance or financial responsibility. Within one minute of our arrival, a stretcher and surgical instruments appeared as if by magic and a doctor applied clamps to the open arteries. Then we watched Rachel and her leg disappear into the surgery, surrounded by doctors and nurses.

With the responsibility of Rachel’s life literally out of her blood-covered hands, Betty, gray as death itself, fell onto one of the waiting room seats and fainted after a few seconds. Howie, who was well versed in first-aid, quickly lowered her to the floor and lifted her legs to the seat while I ran to a treatment room and gathered blankets to protect her from the chill of her shock reaction.

Karl never once sat down, but seemed bent on wearing a rut in the tile floor. Whenever someone came through the double swinging doors of the surgery he stopped pacing, hoping to find out what was happening. I could tell he was using every ounce of self-control to keep from crashing through the doors to investigate whether Rachel was alive, or ….

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