Saturday, June 24, 6:15 a.m.
Betty immersed herself in researching the Russian mob’s hierarchy. After hours on the Internet, she perked up, looked at me and said, “Markov is actually second in command of the stateside Russian crime syndicate, and almost completely autonomous in managing Bay Area Operations. ‘e answers to only one man: Leonid Kaskov, the new godfather of the Red Mafia, and a worse cutthroat than Markov…. Oh, I’m afraid there’s bad blood between ‘em.
“Compared to Markov, ‘e’s a newcomer to the Stateside organization. The authorities can’t prove anything, but Kaskov left a trail of blood getting to the top.” Betty looked back to the computer screen. “You know, a federal court convicted Kaskov’s predecessor, Vyacheslav Ivankov, for extortion, and put ‘im away. Ivankov’s enemies called ‘im “Little Jap”, though this doesn’t say why.” She again looked up gleefully. “Anyway, Markov’s tried some maneuvers to get at ‘im, but all it did was nearly cost ‘is own life. No, there’s no love lost between ‘em.
“Did you know the Russian mob ‘as a very strict code of ethics?” She paused for effect, and for a breath. “The Thieves’ Code includes, among other rules, a prohibition against disclosing the locations of dens, safe ‘ouses, and ‘eadquarters, as well as the identities of informants or other resource people. Seems they are not at all forgiving of betrayal. They also ‘ave a rule against family involvements.” A sly smile that I hadn’t seen in years masked her angelic face. “What if our friend ‘ad been a bad boy, supporting two families on the sly. And to support them, ‘e’d accepted bribes from a competing organization. Wouldn’t it be a shame if such information came into Kaskov’s ‘ands?”
Betty sat back, proud of her work. “Thanks to Rachel and Ty, we ‘ave the means to sow seeds of conflict amongst the Russians.”
Karl sat quietly while the rest of us discussed the merits of her plan. After a few minutes he raised his hand hesitantly, as if he were in school and not sure of his answer, and I asked if he had something to offer. “You’re … referring to spreading slander …, if I’m following you right.”
“Speaking plainly, I suppose you could say that.” She seemed defensive.
“Where does that fit in with the way of Christ? Aren’t we supposed to obey him and expect God to honor our faithfulness?”
Betty paused, looking just the least bit annoyed. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
“Do you have some … Bible reference for that?”
By then, Betty was clearly irritated. “All right, what do you suggest? Are we to just stand by while those brigands ‘ave their way with my friend?”
“Betty.” Karl reached out to tenderly touch her shoulder. When she shrugged away he added with more certainty. “She’s my friend too. I confess Rachel means a lot more to me than I could’ve imagined before Christ began changing me. It tears me up to have her in their hands, but isn’t our first obligation to be faithful to God?”
“What’ve we done?” Betty said sarcastically, holding her hands out to Marty and me as if pleading her case, “Created a pontificating Goody Two-shoes?”
“Betty! That’s unfair and you know it,” I said. Then, looking at Karl, “Please overlook that outburst, she’s …”
“You will not apologize for me!” Betty shouted, stamping her foot. Then, with tears forming in her large blue eyes, “’e just wants us to stand by and do nothing!”
“Betty, that’s not what I’m saying. Just get the truth into the right hands and that will do the job. Didn’t Jesus say ‘The truth will make you free?’”
“Fine,” she said bitterly, “you can just sit spouting your scripture and I’ll get the job done!”
During this entire episode I was concerned about its effect on Marty, who was hungrily taking it all in. Trying to do damage control, I said to Betty, “You know I’ve always respected your moral sense and spiritual wisdom. Karl is simply trying to act faithfully.” Noting her tolerant expression I added, “Now don’t take that air with me! You of all people know I’m right. Do rotten circumstances nullify everything you’ve learned from our Lord?”
“You’re ganging up on me, me own ‘usband and that … that…,” She pointed at Karl and wept openly, “It’s not fair!”
I tried to console her with a tender embrace, but she pulled away. “Betty.” I moved with her to stay in her face. “Of course it’s not fair. Jesus didn’t promise life would be fair, but he did promise it would work out for the best if we simply obey him.” Unable to think of a valid argument, she responded with the silent treatment. “You know I’m right, don’t you?”
She looked up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks, buried her face into my chest, and quietly wept.
“Betty my love, we still need your help keeping Rachel and that Tyler fellow alive.”
Betty’s words were barely discernable between her sobs. “What good am I to anyone? I’ve let you all down, trying to push my prideful ways on you.”
“Nonsense!” I said, lifting her face so I could gaze into her teary blue and red eyes, “You’re simply reacting normally to the stress of the moment. Confess your rotten attitude to God and let’s get on with it.”
She looked into my eyes with a hurt expression as if I’d slapped her, making me feel terrible for my frankness. Then, unable to speak aloud, she whispered, “It is rotten, isn’t it.” Again she buried her face into my chest, but her mumbled words weren’t meant for me as she prayed for God’s forgiveness.
“Right,” I said, trying to minimize the struggle through which we had just passed, “We’ve got work to do.”
Karl spoke up. “Whatever we do, it has to look convincing. That means not too obvious. Markov is smart, and if we’re not careful they’ll know the information is a plant. It won’t take long for him to isolate its source, and if that happens we can say goodby to Rachel and Tyler. Tell you what, I’d really like to meet anyone who can think his way into a computer system. Glad he’s on our side.”
“Good thought,” I said, “subtlety is our catch-phrase. We have to make it appear that Markov is trying to cover his tracks, but not so carefully that it goes undetected.”
“Paper,” Betty managed between sniffles.
“Pardon?” Karl and I said in unison.
“We ‘ave to score some of Markov’s stationary. He’d be too smart to use ‘is e-mail account to inform on his organization. Too easily traced.”
I spoke cautiously. “Good idea, love, but isn’t monogrammed stationary a bit obvious?”
Betty rolled her large, expressive eyes. “Who said anything about monograms? Not all personalized paper bears a monogram. I’m talking about the under sheets, the ones without monograms.”
“Yes, of course. How stupid of me.”
“Now don’t you cop an attitude. Let’s bury our pride and get busy.” And so we did.
We thought it best to create a diversion while one of us stole into Markov’s estate home, surreptitiously borrowed a few sheets of stationary, and escaped without detection. After the damage Marty did to the Russian’s security gate we knew it would have to be repaired, and if we could supply the workmen, creating our diversion would not be a problem. But Markov knew each of us only too well. We had to find some trustworthy person who could assemble a team of workmen competent enough to at least seem as though they knew what they were doing.
“Let me give my security guy a phone call,” Marty said, “he has a variety of resources, and his resources have resources.”
With that, Marty withdrew his mobile from his inner pocket and keyed his security guy’s number. “Howie …
“Yes, I’m fine. Turns out Roger wasn’t ready for resistance. Say, how did you find out about my little scrape with Markov?
“Oh, really! She’s not part of the organization?
“Then how did she get the job?
“I met her at Markov’s place, not formally of course, she served me a drink. She’s a very attractive woman.
“I see. Say, did you hear about the mob capturing Rachel?
“Yeah, a couple of weeks ago.
“We’re only too aware of that.
“No doubt. Are you sure Natalie’s reliable?
“Okay, but you know it’ll be dangerous, and she’ll have to disappear off the face of the earth. They‘ll know she had something to do with it.
“Because when Markov’s stationary winds up in the hands of the Organized Crime Task Force he’ll know it came from the inside.
“They’ll all wind up dead.
“That’s cutting it pretty close. Are you sure they’ll get wind of it that soon?
“Yeah, I suppose so. Well, you set it up and let us know when it’s going down.”
We were all bursting with curiosity, but Karl beat us to the inquisition. “Marty, I got the gist of the conversation, but fill us in on the details.”
“Seems the Mossad recruited a certain Russian Jewish woman back in the seventies. When she retired she couldn’t find work in the field she was trained for, so she found a job with Markov as a housekeeper through one of her Russian contacts. Now she pretty much runs the place. She actually believed he was a legitimate business man until during one of his company parties a little over a year ago she heard some of his men bragging about one of his operations. She didn’t want any part of mob activity, but couldn’t get out of the job without coming up with some excuse that wouldn’t leave her dead.”
“What is ‘er name?” Betty inquired, “I knew most of Jack’s female contemporaries in the Mossad.”
“She goes by the name of Natalie Goodman.”
Betty thought for a moment and finally said, “I knew of a Natalia Goldman who worked in another division, but I didn’t know her personally.”
“Could be one and the same, but there’s no use guessing.”
“Why does he think she’ll work with us?” I said.
“She’s been looking for a way out, and Howie thinks she’ll want to do as much damage to her employer as possible in the process.” He shook his head slowly, frowning. “I’m just not comfortable with placing the whole affair in a stranger’s hands.”
Karl spoke up. “We already know who’s hands hold the whole affair.”
“Yes,” Marty answered skeptically, “if you say so.”
“I don’t see any alternative,” Betty said. “But I won’t ‘ave time to concern meself with that aspect of the operation, because I ‘ave to uncover our ammunition.”
With that, she returned to Rachel’s laptop computer for further research.
Sunday, June 25, 10:45 p.m.
Our front door bell chimed rather late in the evening for casual callers. Betty answered the door and I looked in from the kitchen to see a tall, lanky, middle-aged gentleman in a complete western suit, who conformed to the “Tall Texan” image perfectly, even to the handsome, weather-worn face and broad grin. Suspicious because of the hour, I walked over to join my wife. “Who is it?”
“Yes sir,” he said in a deep, resonant voice with the most charming Southern American accent, “As I was saying to the lady, my name’s Howie Hughes.” He forthrightly stepped forward with an outstretched hand, and before I could think of something clever to say as to the historicity of his name, he added, “I believe Marty Halstead phoned me from here. Is he still around?”
By reflex I reached out to meet his hand, but regretted it immediately. Though I am hardly a weakling, his grip felt like a leather-covered vise. Of course I would not betray my pain, and tried to turn my wince into a grin to match his. “Right. Marty’s in the adjacent room. I’ll fetch him.”
“Well thank you sir, that’s right nice o’ y’all.”
“Oh no trouble, we have adjoining rooms.” I stepped over to knock on Marty’s door. After a long moment, the door opened to reveal Marty’s tired face.
“Someone named Howie has come to see you.”
He glanced past me to see Howie standing in the entry corridor, smiled brightly, and marched over to greet his friend. I noticed he ignored the outstretched hand to clap him on the shoulder. “Howie, it’s great to see you.”
“Sorry ‛bout showin’ up at this hour, but if Rachel’s in a pinch I figgered we’d best git started sooner than later.”
“You’re right, of course,” I said, “Have you been in touch with Natalie as yet?”
“Nope. Figgered y’all might better fill me in on everything you know first.” Point well taken, we spent the next half-hour briefly appraising our new friend of our recent history.
He placed his call to Natalie from our speaker phone so we could be in on the exchange. “Hi, gorgeous. Hope I didn’t wake y’all up, I know it’s kinda late.”
“I was just finishing my whale sculpture.” she answered in lightly Russian-accented English, “I’m considering including a couple of calves to imply the presence of a pod. To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?”
“Oh, I’m just checkin’ in. It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other. Maybe we can get t’gether soon, you know, rehash old times.”
“Old times indeed. You haven’t called in nearly a year.”
“Yeah … I’m sorry about that. I’d hoped y’all might could understand the unpredictable nature of my business. Doesn’t leave any free time whatsoever, and time is what a relationship needs.”
“Relationship?” She chuckled humorlessly. “What relationship?” His face indicated the chill in her voice wasn’t lost on him. “If you’re so hard pressed for ‘free’ time, why are you calling now?”
“I just really wanted to see y’all. You know,” he said, cringing, “it’s been too long.”
“Do you need the pleasure of my company, or the fringe benefits?”
“Ouch. You’re right, of course. I’ve been a jerk, but I really miss ya. What d’ya say we take it easy, just have lunch this week?
“I’m insane for agreeing to it, but I suppose there’s no harm in your buying me lunch.”
“Great! What day are ya free?”
“My days aren’t ordinarily free, but I’ll ask Mister Markov for a couple of hours off at mid-day Monday. He rarely knows I’m around, so I’m sure it will be all right with him.”
“Can y’all meet me at our spot in the park, say, at eleven tomorrow?”
“Our spot? I imagine someone else is likely to have claimed it by now.”
“Uh, yeah. I get the message, but is that okay?”
“I suppose so. Tomorrow then.”
“With bells on! So long.” He broke off the connection.
Betty was concerned with the tone of the conversation. “There’s no wrath as bitter as a woman scorned. Are you sure she’ll agree to ‘elpin’ us?”
“We’ve been friends for eons,” Howie said in his Texas drawl, “She was just givin’ me a bad time, partly because her phone line’s tapped and everything’s recorded. I’ll fill her in when we meet in the park, then bring her here when we shake Markov’s guys.”
I looked at him skeptically. “You seem awfully certain of yourself.”
“Oh, she’ll be followed all right. But I’ve never seen a Russian I couldn’t shake … or woo when I wanted to.” He made the claim as a simple statement of fact, apparently feeling no need for humility.
Monday, June 26, 11:15 a.m.
Natalie checked her watch again. Her curly, slightly graying raven hair, worn in a bun while working for Markov, now swished over her shoulders as she looked about for the Texan she planned never to forgive. The last time they were supposed to meet he was “unavoidably detained,” which in his world meant he was off without notice to some remote corner of the globe.
Just as she began gathering her things to leave she heard a noisy pocket radio squawking from behind her. Before she could turn her head to see who was coming she heard Howie’s voice over the din saying, “Walk with me Nattie.” When she hesitated, he said, “Please, just get up and walk with me.”
She looked up at him with a mock smile, but the urgent expression she saw beneath the broad brim of his wool, Stetson hat dampened her rage. Natalie had anticipated punishing him for his tardiness in some womanly way, if he were to appear at all, but she swallowed her angry pride, stood without question, and let him take her left arm to lead her away from the bench.
As they walked in silence, Natalie again felt the heat of her anger rising and began to speak, but he interrupted by holding the radio up to her face as if showing it to her. “Keep your voice down,” he said just audibly over the noise, “They’re about a hundred feet off at eight o’clock with a shotgun mic. You’re happy to see me, so give me hell later.” He reached over to kiss her cheek, and she reluctantly accepted.
Their walk lasted forty-five minutes, and after hearing him out, Natalie found herself aligning with Howie and his new-found friends, against her better judgment.
“Weren’t you going to buy me lunch?”
“Hamburgers okay?” She rolled her eyes and they walked arm in arm to his flashy, metallic cobalt-blue, western style pickup with steer horns mounted to the bonnet. As they drove off, they spied the white van in the side mirrors as it rolled into the roadway a half-block behind them. Howie flashed an evil grin. “Let’s give ‘em a tour of the city.
“Say,” he added, “how many Russian goons does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“Have you forgotten I’m Russian?”
“You may be Russian, but you’re no goon, Honey.” She dismissed his sweet talk and actually began enjoying their time together, teasing their escort. They did manage, however, to fit in some planning for “Operation Stationary.”