Chapter Seventeen

Wednesday, 3rd July, 6:55 a.m.

We arrived at the hospital right on time, at the end of the night nurses’ shift. With what we hoped appeared to be professional efficiency, Marty jumped out of the ambulance’s passenger seat, swept around to the rear, opened its double-doors, withdrew the collapsible, wheeled stretcher, and pushed it through the Emergency Room doors.

With the double glass doors open I heard Howie’s booming voice say, “Ah don’t give a rat’s ass about all y’all’s protocols and procedures. She’s my patient and I wanna speak to the attending physician! Y’all get’em up here now, ’cause we gotta plane to catch!” I must admit his acting was Academy Award calibre.

I grew restless when a half-hour passed with no Rachel, especially in view of the interest a dark-suited man paid the ambulance. He ambled over from his car to investigate what was supposed to appear a routine patient transfer, copied the license plate numbers, made some other notes and skulked back.

Finally, after nearly forty minutes parked under the Emergency Room awning, we were on our way with our precious cargo to Buchanan Field near Concord, where Karl and Jeff awaited our arrival. The Russians stationed in their car observed the operation with great interest, and what I assumed was another of their vehicles followed when we left the hospital.

We knew they were still behind us as twenty-minutes later we drove through the tarmac gate at Buchanan Field. Our Russian escort drove directly to the airfield office and the passenger quickly went in, probably to inquire as to our destination.

I scanned the aircraft parking area and felt a bit unsettled when I finally spied Karl and Jeff standing beside an old de Havilland Caribou. The camouflage paint peeled in places, especially where there were dents and bullet holes in the wings and fuselage. The left wind screen was seriously cracked, and all the tires appeared tread-bare.

“Is this our transport to freedom?” I said to Jeff as I gingerly stepped from the ambulance passenger seat.

“Yeah. Ain’t she a beauty?”

“Are you sure it flies?”

“Hell yeah, she flies! Did yeoman’s duty in ‘Nam back in the seventies.”

Howie interrupted with, “Mister Stringer, these here are religious folks, so please watch your language.”

Jeff looked at me as if I were a Martian, but I said, “Never mind the language, we just want safe transport.”

“I expect she does look a little rough, but she’ll still haul a full load half-way ‘cross country.”

“Then let’s be on our way.”

Jeff carefully estimated the cargo bay room that was available for our ambulance. After satisfying himself that it would fit, he nodded to Howie, who jumped into the driver’s seat and carefully guided it up the retractable ramp and into the cargo bay, with only inches to spare on either side. He drove slowly forward and back until Jeff, watching an instrument panel, yelled, “Hold it!” Once parked safely inside, he set the brake and made his way past Rachel, Betty and Natalie to exit through the rear door and secure that end of the vehicle.

Jeff, of course, secured the front end. Then he entered the cockpit and pressed the button that started the auxiliary power unit, to slowly begin closing the cargo bay door.

Howie took the command seat at the left, and Jeff took the co-pilot’s seat at the right. As Marty and I took the extra seats on the flight deck, I couldn’t help commenting on the petroleum odor permeating the old aircraft. “Smells rather noticeably, what?”

Howie grinned back at me, enjoying the experience as would a ten year-old boy. “Yeah, ain’t it great?” The preflight checks went quickly and to my astonishment, everything seemed to work.

Then came time to start the engines. Jeff, sitting in the right seat because of the wind screen cracks on the left, moved the throttle levers to the start position. “Howie, would you mind checking port engine clearance?” Howie craned his neck over his left shoulder to visually verify propeller clearance and said, “Clear!” Jeff flipped on an ignition switch and pushed a starter button. The starter motor for the left engine groaned for fifteen seconds before the first cylinder fired with a loud pop, followed soon by another, and suddenly the engine roared to life, blowing the dense cloud of blue smoke away to the rear. When it stabilized, the process repeated identically with the right engine. Jeff synchronized the thundering engines and informed the tower that we were ready to taxi.

I might have expected the clouds of smoke at the initial startup, but when both engines continued emitting thin wisps of smoke as we taxied, I shot a questioning glance at Howie. That elicited a grin and a single large thumb pointing upward. “She’s a little bit heavy,” he shouted over the din, “what with the extra fuel, but Jeff says she’s lifted more.” I smiled what I hoped was a confident smile, and nodded to him. Then I began praying in earnest.

Five minutes later we were on the center line of the runway with the engines roaring at full throttle, and Jeff standing on the brake per his Naval flight training. Finally he released the brake and we began moving, slowly at first, but our speed built steadily until the nose gear lifted off the pavement and we began climbing towards the overcast cloud cover. The turbulence lessened when Jeff retracted the landing gear, but the deafening noise didn’t.

Minutes later we were through the clouds, and the sunlight reflecting from the top of the overcast dazzled my eyes. I studied the instruments out of curiosity and noted our bearing was just north of due east. Knowing that Texas didn’t lie on that bearing, I was consumed with curiosity as to our destination. I shouted over the racket to Howie, trying to attract his attention, but with his headset on he had no idea. When I happened to glance down to the console where I sat, I noticed a headset lying there. Putting it on, I quietly said, “How do I turn this contraption on?”

I was surprised by Jeff’s answer through the headphones. “It’s already on Mister Hubert. You learn pretty quick.”

“Right. Thanks. I was just wondering where we’re heading.”

“At the moment we’re on a direct heading to Denver. Half way out, though, I’m gonna radio an amended flight plan and turn towards Oklahoma City.”

“Why the change?”

Howie chimed in, “No change. We been headed fer Texas from the git-go, but I figured them Ruskies might be smart enough to monitor the airports. So Jeff here sent ‘em on a wild Caribou chase.”

He chuckled at his own wit and Jeff continued the explanation. “On the way to Oklahoma City we’re gonna have navigational trouble and make an emergency set down at Hull Air Field in Sugar Land. That’s another reason I’m sit’n here in the right seat. I’m just along for the ride. Meet your Captain, Howie Hughes.”

Howie cast a huge grin my way. Then he looked forward through the cracked wind screen and said, “Okay Jeff, I’ll take the yoke.”

Jeff looked back at me. “Gotta protect my ratings. If I was in charge and made a dumb-a … er … bonehead error like that I’d be likely to lose’em. After we touch down you’ll move up here and I’ll go back and be just one of the passengers. Howie has enough connections around there that they’ll soon forget any trouble he gets into.” Then he smiled at our Captain and slugged him on the shoulder, causing a slight-but-dizzying yaw of the aircraft. It seemed our two new friends were kindred spirits.

***

8:45 a.m.

Markov was an early riser. When he received the call from Feodor Sorokin, his man at the airport, he was already supervising lavish breakfast preparations for the Brotherhood. After listening for a moment he said into the mobile, “Stay on it. They will not go to Denver, trust me.”

Then he punched in the memory number for his pilot. “Viktor, prepare Tupolev to leave at moment’s notice.

“I do not know where you go. Romeo will find latest information from Sorokin when he get there.”

After breaking off the connection he again entered Obozniev’s number and told his lieutenant, “Romeo! Go to Concord. Feodor will give instructions. I must stay with Brotherhood.”

Markov stood for a moment with a satisfied smile, feeling the exhilaration of knowing he was still on top of the situation. Now he just had to convince the Brotherhood that he was. So far the damage was controlled, and he had to be sure it stayed that way.

***

Even before his boss broke off, Obozniev began reveling in the prospect of finding and dealing with the troublesome, “Adam Family,” in his own way. Without gathering any of his comrades accompanying him, he fairly dashed to the boss’s limo and hurried to the airfield at Concord.

***

9:00 a.m.

Anne Williams’ intercom blared with Judge Judy’s hated voice, “Anne, please come in here … now!”

Judge Weston sat behind her desk like an iceberg, cold, inert, and formidable. “Anne,” she said with the same coolness, “I have just spoken with District Attorney Reardon because I was curious about his conclusions on those lists I told you to fax him. He never received them. Why?”

Anne’s nimble mind wasted no time. “The machine has started dropping faxes, with no error message to tell me. It must’ve begun about then.”

“All right, I’ll do it myself if I can’t trust you to get it done. Where are the original copies?”

“I put them in the archive file; let me go down and get them.” Anne forced a casual demeanor as she left the Judge’s office. The elevator took her to the basement, where the archives were kept. A left turn, rather than a right on exiting the elevator led her to the public garage where she parked her car on a monthly permit. Of curse she would never again need that parking permit, driving, as she did, to the airport to book a flight to New York City. “Anne Williams” knew the authorities would soon discover her true identity, so it was time to leave.

***

Twenty-minutes later, an impatient Judge Weston pressed the intercom switch to the outer office. “Anne.” There was no response, so she pressed another switch that connected her intercom to the archive storage room.

“Archives desk.”

“When did Anne Williams leave your area?”

There was a perceptible pause. “Ma’am, Anne never signed in at my desk. I’ll let ….”

Judge Weston was no longer at her intercom. Being arrogant, but not stupid, she knew what her secretary’s absence meant, so she stepped over to her personal file cabinet, opened a drawer, and removed her digital camera. Connecting it to her laptop computer was automatic, as was entering the few keystrokes required to print the photos she wanted. When the printer was finished, she removed the photos of the original lists, walked back to the outer office, placed them into the fax machine, entered Reardon’s fax number and pushed the Send button.

***

9:40 a.m.

The Tu-134 became airborne after only a short takeoff run, with Romeo supervising from the right seat. Twenty-five minutes into the flight, his mobile sounded. Feodor Sorokin was on the line. “They change flight plan. Now they go to OKC, and land in forty minutes.”

“Idiot! Why you wait so long to call? Incompetent fool.”

“Romeo, I just find out. I could not …”

“I am Boss of operation! You call me Comrade Obozniev. And what is this ‛Acosee?’”

Poor Sorokin covered the mouthpiece of his telephone and Obozniev heard some mumbling as he consulted the airfield office clerk. “That was O-K-C. Is Will Rogers World Airport.”

“Feodor, my friend. OKC is big airport. Ask nice man where they park.”

More mumbling ensued. “They park at OK Air Service.” Obozniev broke off the connection without another word.

After cursing in Russian for a moment about the incompetents he had to work with, he unnecessarily shouted at Viktor. “Maximum speed to Oklahoma City!”

“But Romeo …”

With his minuscule patience nearly exhausted, he spoke through clenched teeth. “You will address me as Comrade Obozniev now! Markov put me in charge, so I am The Boss.”

“Comrade Obozniev, full throttle for that long will kill engines …”

“You question my order!” He drew his gun to point it at the pilot, who looked at The Boss as though he were mad.

“Comrade Obozniev, if you kill me you have no pilot.”

“Yes, of course I know that, Obey me or I kill you when we land.”

***

Viktor knew he could not afford the luxury of expressing his true reaction, but simply said, “Yes Comrade.” Then he pushed the throttle levers to their stops. If they made it to Oklahoma City, the turbo-prop engines would be exhausted and badly in need of overhaul.

The pilot referred to the G.P.S.(Global Positioning System) and typed his position into the navigational computer. Then he found the position of Will Rogers World Airport and typed that into the computer to get his new bearing. Thank goodness he did his homework and wrote key information into his notebook in advance. After finding the frequency of the nearest FAA air field he notified them of their change in destination.

An hour and a quarter later the Tupolev was within control range of Rogers Tower, but their rapid progress was beginning to have its effect on the engines. With air speed down to four hundred knots and smoke trailing from the engines’ exhausts, Viktor knew they would be waiting a few weeks in Oklahoma City for rebuilt engines to be installed before they could go further. He was certain his beloved aluminum bird would never make it to another destination, if she survived the take off. Sitting quietly at the controls, Viktor seethed with hatred for the upstart sitting at his right, and longed for a way to rid himself his “New Boss.”

Once the Tupolev was parked at the air service, Romeo proceeded to the office, and as American-sounding as possible, spoke to the desk clerk. “Some friends arrived short time ago. You tell me where Caribou parked?”

The clerk looked at him strangely. “What Caribou?”

“Caribou airplane landed here. Where is it?”

“I know you meant an airplane, but I haven’t seen a Caribou around here in months, and even if I had, I wouldn’t tell you about it.”

Romeo was tempted to solve this little problem the way he usually solved his problems, but realized that would hurt his chances of learning what he wanted to know. “What a shame. My friend say he would meet me right here. I hope nothing is wrong.” He reached into his left jacket pocket, separated a counterfeit hundred-dollar note from the roll and began fingering it on the counter top. “You know if inbound flight plan was changed short time ago?”

The clerk’s eyes were practically saucers as he looked at the apparently valuable piece of paper within his reach. “Well … now that you mention it.” He reached to the worthless note and slid it towards himself. “I did hear of a flight that diverted to the Houston area about an hour ago. Seems the idiot pilot flew the wrong bearing and wound up approaching Sugar Land by mistake. Houston tower called Rogers tower to update the flight plan as soon as he requested emergency landing permission at Hull Field.”

***

Before he could finish talking, the clerk watched the Russian walk quickly back towards his Tu-134. With a satisfied grin he picked up the note from the counter, scowled a bit, and held it up to the light for closer examination. Suddenly he hurried to the office door and shouted at Romeo. “Hey buddy! Hey you! Russian! This bill’s a fake!” He began following Romeo towards the airplane at a jog, but the Russian was aboard before he could catch up.

Being only a clerk, however, and certainly not a violent man, he decided the rather large hand gun pointing at him out of the shadow of the Tupolev’s door was enough motivation to desist and return to his office. As soon as the Commies were out of his hair, he’d call the FBI, the CIA, or somebody.

***

“Viktor,” Romeo, The Boss, said, “Start engines and fly to Sugar Land.”

Viktor gently said, “Comrade Obozniev, engines are spent. I think they do not get us off ground.”

“If we get in air, we make it to Sugar Land?”

“Not fast, but we get there.”

“Then start engines! We risk it.”

“We need fuel to go on, and what you mean, ‘Sugar Land?’”

Romeo refused to admit ignorance of Sugar Land’s location, or of their need for fuel. “Idiot! You think I don’t know that? Go get fuel! I do your job and find flying direction to Sugar Land.”

Viktor virtually launched himself down the boarding steps and dashed to the fuel depot, leaving Romeo to return purposefully to the office. The clerk backed away from the counter when he looked up and saw Romeo enter again, but the Russian shot him a friendly smile, instead of just plain shooting him. “You right, bill I give you is fake. I play the little joke. I buy it back for real twenty dollars.”

The nearly petrified clerk slowly stepped forward, reached below the counter, and placed the counterfeit note on top. Romeo took it back, then he held up the twenty dollar note. “Where is Sugar Land?”

“Why, it’s in Texas, sir, right near Houston.”

“I know that!” he lied, “Tell me what bearing to fly.”

“How should I know that? Do you think I have all the charts memorized?”

“You have chart for that place?”

“It’s thirty-seven, fifty,” the clerk said with care.

“You take twenty.” The threat in his body language was quite obvious.

“Well, whadia know,” the clerk said with no enthusiasm, “I was wrong, they’re on sale today. Just twenty bucks.” He stepped to a filing cabinet, fingered through it for a moment, withdrew a packet of maps and placed it on the counter.

Romeo took it, and his evil leer nearly dissuaded the clerk from reaching for the note. But he somehow found the courage.

As Romeo approached the Tupolev once again, the kerosene wagon was just parking by the left wing. He called out to Viktor, “Not full tanks! Enough for Sugar Land, Texas.”

“Comrade, where in Texas is Sugar Land?”

“Idiot! Why I put up with you? Sugar Land is near Houston! I have charts.”

He reentered the aircraft and dropped the charts on the navigator’s console behind the right seat. Then he returned to the door and shouted, “Hurry! We must go!” Though Romeo enjoyed being The Boss, dealing with these idiotic menials was frustrating at times.

***

After a half-hour of enduring Romeo’s threats and other verbal abuse, Viktor had filed the new flight plan and was in the left seat, coaxing the poor, overworked engines to life once more. With the kerosene tanks half-filled, the flight plan filed and the Tupolev taxiing, Viktor cast a pleading glance towards Romeo, but The Boss’s murderous return stare dashed all hope of aborting the nearly suicidal departure attempt.

At the down-wind end of the runway, Viktor pushed the throttles to their stops and felt the power build. What was the difference between Romeo shooting him and their both dying in a crash? At least he’d take The Boss with him.

He watched the engine revolution gages, hoping for more speed. But their RPMs leveled off at least three hundred less than they should have for a safe takeoff. After a few seconds Viktor released the brakes and began the long, slow roll, hopefully to minimum airspeed before he ran out of runway. Gradually the momentum built until he thought he could rotate the nose skyward.

Too near the pavement’s end, with the structures, fence and trees ridiculously close, the landing gear lifted free of the runway. Viktor straightaway pushed the lever that would retract the gear and reduce air resistance so maybe, just maybe, they could clear the obstacles.

As he passed over them and slowly gained altitude, he felt relief wash over his body. He glanced at Romeo who sat unaffected by the near-death experience, and realized that The Boss was either much more stupid, or much more courageous than he had thought.

***

3:00 p.m.

The Caribou was not fast, but we arrived safely over Howie’s “Stompin’ Ground,” as he enjoyed calling Southeast Texas. The broken cloud cover revealed to us a panorama of urban sprawl that surpassed even the Bay Area in scope.

Howie radioed for emergency landing and parking instructions from Houston Intercontinental Air Traffic Control, since the larger airfield’s tower controlled the entire area. “We’re gonna have quite the reception committee once we touch down if we don’t tell them we have our own amb’lance.” So he radioed that message as well, hoping to reduce our processing time and get Rachel to the hospital more quickly.

Deftly exploiting the Caribou’s short landing capability, Jeff approached slowly, letting the landing gear kiss the pavement, then reversed the propellers’ pitch and gunned the throttles. We slowed in plenty of time to turn into the first taxiway, and within less than a minute he was shutting down the engines. For a fighter pilot, he certainly knew how to handle a flying van.

Howie had quite a bit of explaining to do before he satisfied the local airfield manager that our emergency landing was the result of an honest mistake. In my mind, Rachel’s life was an infinitely higher priority than technical truthfulness.

Finally we left the air field and proceeded to the nearest critical care facility, which happened to be Fort Bend Hospital in Missouri City. With Howie driving, Marty and I sharing the passenger seat, and Jeff, Natalie, Betty, Karl and Rachel crowded into the back, we had little room to move inside the Oldsmobile ambulance.

Once there we had Rachel admitted under the name of Mary Hughes, overruling Karl’s preference of Mary Adams. We discussed at length how we would monitor her progress and security, and we managed to overrule Karl once again by electing Howie to stay with her.

***

4:35 p.m.

Leonid Kaskov’s mobile sounded from his inner coat pocket, so he retrieved it, opened it, and barked, “Kaskov!”

Markov was still playing host to the Brotherhood, biding his time until he heard Obozniev’s report about Natalie and the rest of the “Adams Family.” What he heard of the conversation, however, made him physically ill.

Kaskov looked over to Markov, squinting as he said into telephone handset, “How do they find that information?

“Is it official?

“Do they know where I am?

“Are you sure?

Kaskov’s countenance fell when he finally said, “How long?”

After the answer to his question he broke off the connection and continued staring at Markov. “List of incriminating information you allowed to leak is now in New York DA’s hands. He took to Grand Jury and got indictment against me.” With a fatalistic scowl he glanced around to the others seated at the table. “With that information he will be able to prosecute me, even to death penalty.”

Kaskov turned away, stood, and returned to his room. Markov watched him leave, mouth agape and forehead clammy with a cold sweat. With a deep sigh he withdrew his own mobile and entered Romeo’s number. “Romeo, find them. Is my final order, I am dead man.”

Markov stood for a long moment, considering his options. He knew he was going to die, but how could he save face and die with honor? With an expression of grim resolve he dismissed his household staff and slowly walked into his study.

He stood before his desk for long minutes before opening the top drawer on the right side of his desk and removing his trusty Tokarev nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol. Holding the grip in his right hand, he grasped the slide with his left, chambered a round, walked into his lavatory, sat down against the wall of his shower, carefully positioned the gun in his mouth, aiming towards the center of his brain, and squeezed the trigger.

He neither heard the report nor felt the hollow-point bullet shred his brain, but was surprised and alarmed at his next sensation. Instead of the oblivion he had expected, he found himself standing before a blinding light along with an innumerable multitude of others who were also surprised and alarmed at the fate they knew would be theirs.

***

Monday, 3rd July, 5:00 p.m.

Romeo Obozniev smiled as he pondered the implications of Markov’s final order. He would inherit his former boss’s estate, run the household and the organization his way, and be rich beyond his wildest expectations … well, not quite. What cheered him most, however, was the prospect of finally leading the search for the Yeshurun woman and her fellow conspirators. Where Markov had failed, he, Romeo Kaskovich Obozniev, would succeed.

Romeo proudly turned towards the pilot and prepared himself emotionally to issue his first executive order. “Illich!” They had always been peers, though it was of course obvious to all that Romeo was the superior of the two. But finally he was officially and evermore, The Boss. He had difficulty restraining his glee as he informed his pilot of the change in command. “Brotherhood of Seven has,” he paused to stifle a slight chuckle, maintaining his authoritarian demeanor, “They have transferred Markov away from here, and I am now Vor of this organization. You will now answer only to me.” Being The Big Boss felt just right.

***

7:30 p.m. Central Time

Almost before the Tupolev stopped rolling, Romeo lowered the ladder and debarked to find a telephone and call a taxi. He paced the sidewalk in front of the terminal for twenty minutes before it arrived, handed the driver a twenty-dollar note and said, “Take me to nearest hospital!”

The driver obliged, and they arrived at Texas Children’s Hospital ten minutes later. Again, before the vehicle stopped Romeo was out of the car’s door and heading through the hospital’s glass doors. He marched up to the admitting desk and produced some forged Health Department credentials that he was sure would get answers.

The admitting clerk took a superficial look at them. “You know, this isn’t San Francisco, and y’all’s jurisdiction ended about two thousand miles northwest of here. Can’t give you any information. Have a nice day.” Of course her well-wishing sounded as fake as it really was, and Romeo knew his plan was temporarily thwarted.

He left the hospital furious that the idiot behind the counter would not accept his carefully forged credentials, but his anger only stimulated his imagination. Not knowing exactly what resources he needed to get past the hospital staff, he resolved to find a physician who would sell him that information.

He found a public telephone outside the hospital, but the directory tethering chain dangled without a directory. Then he stalked back to the taxi, whose driver must have anticipated a subsequent trip. “Find me telephone book quick.”

“I can’t find ya nuthin’ til ya get back in.”

His jaw muscles bulged as he swung back into the taxi and slammed the door. Less than a minute later the taxi stopped next to a public telephone outside a service station. Obozniev checked for a phone book, and satisfied, he got out of the taxi, marched over to the book, grasped it firmly, and yanked it hard enough to pop the chain loose. He returned to the taxi and sat in the rear seat with the door open while he searched its pages for physicians whose names sounded Russian.

Hoping a Russian doctor might cooperate with him in providing certain non-traditional services, he narrowed his search to Russian surnames. Then he began calling. Only a half-dozen of the doctors were actually from one of Russia, and none of them were willing to provide what he needed.

Next he tried researching passport photo shops, hoping to find one that would provide forged papers. But finding the listings was much easier than choosing which ones to contact. None of them wanted to discuss business over the phone, so he gave the addresses to the driver and enjoyed a tour of the city while being gouged with an exorbitant fare. Romeo decided not to fight it, however, concentrating only on getting the documentation he needed to find Rachel.

After riding around in the taxi for hours and stopping at more than a dozen passport photo shops, Romeo found one where the proprietor hedged a little rather than refusing him out of hat. “Do you know … ‘well connected’ Russian business man to use photo in special way?”

The shop keeper looked Romeo over suspiciously. “With the right incentive, know what I mean? I might be able to make a couple’a phone calls.”

Romeo reached into his left jacket pocket, withdrew a roll of hundred-dollar notes, pealed one off and handed it to the man.

The shop keeper looked even more skeptically at Romeo. “Now maybe you could give me somethin’ that the Secret Service won’t be so interested in. This bill’s a little too fresh for my taste, know what I mean?”

Romeo smiled at the man, appreciating his discernment. He then reached into his trousers pocket, withdrew a genuine hundred-dollar note, and handed it to him. The man smiled back at him and retired through the beaded curtain to his inner office. All Romeo could hear was, “Bear, I gotta guy here that …” and the rest of the conversation was muffled.

Fifteen minutes later he broke off the call and returned to the front. “Okay. Tell your cabbie to beat it. You got another ride comin’.”

Romeo obeyed, paid the driver from his left coat pocket, took the change, and reentered the shop as the taxi rolled away. “So, who is my new ride?”

The shopkeeper shot him a sly grin. “You’ll like him. Talks just like you. Before he gets here, I need t’take your picture.”

Romeo looked at the man suspiciously and asked, “Polaroid?”

“Yeah, Polaroid! Do I look that stupid? Stand right over there,” and he pointed to a line in front of a cheap backdrop facing the camera. “I ain’t even gonna charge ya for it. Complementary, that’s what it is.”

A few minutes later an unlikely vehicle stopped at the curb. It was an old, bright metallic purple Chevrolet, lowered until the chassis nearly scraped the pavement. Two men climbed out. The passenger was a well-worn man, apparently in his sixties, wearing a black, pinstriped suit. The driver was a much younger, slick-looking Latino, wearing an iridescent blazer to match his car.

Without a word, the two men walked towards Romeo, the older stopping in front of him, and the other circling to stand behind. They stared at him for a full minute, but Romeo was too smart to speak first.

The older man finally spoke with a thick, Russian accent. “Okay! Who you are and what you want?”

“We talk in private!” Romeo nodded towards the strange-looking car.

With the newcomers bracketing him, they walked to the car and sat him between themselves. “I am Comrade Obozniev,” Romeo began proudly in Russian, “Vor of the Bay Area family.”

The Suit said, “Speak English. Ignacio speaks no Russian.” So Romeo repeated himself in English.

“Hey man, whas a ‘Vor?’” Ignacio said with a heavy Hispanic accent to match his appearance.

The Texas Russian answered, “Is boss man of organization.” Then, to Romeo he said, “Why you are here?”

“I hunt gang that kill my boss. They fly to Sugar Land with hospital patient, so I go to track them through hospitals.”

“What was name of boss?”

“Lev Markov. They stole critical information and leaked it to authorities, so he did only honorable thing.”

The Suit nodded solemnly. “I hear of Markov. Good man.”

“He was like my father.” Romeo actually said it with a straight face.

“My name is Lex Kyznetsov. Not Vor, but boss of Russian and Cuban gang made to one.” With a proud smile he added, “Soon we be syndicate, and control Southeast Texas operations.”

“Hey man,” Ignacio said, “we don’ know this dude. Les dump ‘im, we be busy already.”

“Ignacio. This is my countryman, my brother, we help.” So he looked at Romeo and asked, “How I help you?”

Romeo smiled at his warm reception. “I need papers to get in hospital and get information. You have contacts all over?”

“Hey man, we got d’best! Boss wansa help you, you get good help.”

Both Russians looked triumphant, though for different reasons.

***

Thursday, 6th July, 2:45 p.m.

Romeo’s new friends provided excellent documentation for his use. They were good enough to discover that Texas Children’s did not admit adult emergencies.

With his Latino friend providing taxi service, he finally arrived at West Huston Medical Center. His forged papers were good enough for him to learn that a woman whose trauma was consistent with having survived an explosion had been admitted earlier.

***

Minutes later, Howie, sitting in Rachel’s Intensive Care room, spied movement by the door with his peripheral vision. When he looked up, Obozniev was already inside the door, studying the heavily bandaged woman on the bed. Howie adopted an exaggerated Texas drawl. “Yesir, how kin I help y’all t’day?” He knew the worst mistake someone can make is underestimating his enemy, and he intended to not be the one doing it.

Romeo’s attempt at disguising his Russian accent failed when he said, “My name is Robert Osgood. This woman,” and he checked the name Admitting gave him, “Mary Hughes, must answer the insurance questions.” He still didn’t seem to recognize her.

“Ah thank y’all kin see mah sister’s condition, so perhaps ah kin answer all y’all’s questions.”

“Wake her up!” Romeo demanded, obviously not knowing with whom he was dealing.

Howie stood up to full height, towering over Romeo, and calmly reiterated, “As y’all kin see, mah sister’s in no condition to answer yer questions, bein’ as she’s in a coma.” While he kept his voice calm, he knew how to present a formidable appearance that said, “You will regret messing with me,” so Romeo grudgingly backed off.

“I will have nurse notify me when she is conscious,” Romeo said with appropriate bravado, “and I’ll be back.”

After Romeo left, Howie called Karl to say, “Some Ruskie was snoopin’ around here. Didn’t seem to know for sure that this is Rachel, but he said he’d be back. Sounded just like that Schwartz an’ somethin’ actor in the movie.”

***

Karl thanked him for the information and broke off. Then he called all of us together to report Howie’s message. I confess we were becoming weary of being the mouse to this Russian cat, but Betty had her head on properly when she said, “What does that Bible verse say? Is it ‘Greater is the Russian Mafia than he that is in me?’”

I said, “Point well taken,” and quit complaining.

***

In the engineering spaces of the hospital, a telephone technician had the communications interface console open, with wires running from it to recording devices in his service kit. Ignacio Espinosa wore his baseball cap low over his face out of habit, though being recognized there was highly unlikely. Among the outgoing telephone conversations he recorded was Howie’s call to our Houston flat. Along with the conversation, he recorded the dialing tones, which Kyznetsov’s contacts would use to determine our location.

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