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 infrared 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 gauges 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 pickup 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.
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 Himself?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.