Chapter Sixteen

Monday, 3rd July, 8:45 a.m.

Markov was terribly edgy following the telephone call from Leonid Kaskov announcing the Brotherhood’s assembly at his home. His apprehensions were entirely reasonable since he was honor-bound to await the Brotherhood’s life-or-death decision. They were honorable men, and many were his old friends. They would be fair, and if they decide against him, they would be merciful. As an Atheist, he felt he had no reason to fear death, believing nothing followed this life, whether reward or punishment. Such rationale, however, can seem superficial and transparent when death might be imminent.

With only two and a quarter hours remaining until his judge, jury, and probably, his executioners arrived at his front door, Markov sat in his study staring out the glass doors at what had been his expensive wrought iron security gate. Suddenly a realization hit him like a nine millimeter hollow point slug in the chest. “The noisy workmen!” he said aloud in Russian. “How could I be so stupid?

“Romeo!” he bellowed, and Obozniev instantly appeared in the inner doorway. “Find workmen you hire to fix gate!”

Romeo, however, looked confused. “Workmen? I did not call workmen, you did.”

Another string of Russian obscenities followed his complete understanding of the affair. Since neither of them had contracted repairmen, it was obvious that fixing the gate had been the perfect cover for someone in his household to steal his stationary and use his typewriter to publish the fatal information. He was disgusted to think he had fallen for it, cooperatively fleeing his study for quieter surroundings.

“Gather household! Do what is necessary to find out which is spy!”

Romeo smiled his acknowledgment of the assignment and headed straight for the kitchen. This would not be work for him. He only hoped someone would resist his questioning, but that was unlikely. If the staff was afraid of Markov, they were petrified of Obozniev. Following ten minutes of questioning, he returned to Markov with the news, “Goodman is not here. Others say she leave yesterday.”

Markov stalked over to his desk, seized the telephone handset, and was about to dial a number when he found Natalie’s note. He deliberated for a moment, then said to Obozniev, “Find her and bring her to me, alive if possible.” Romeo again smiled his acknowledgment of a delightful task and set about it with the intensity of one who truly enjoys his work.

Markov sat in his study stoically watching his court yard garden grow until the front door bell rang. He sighed deeply with resignation and proceeded to answer it personally. Twenty-three people stood at the door, with Kaskov in the lead. “Leo, my brother. Is good to see you,” he lied, reaching out to hug his enemy, “Let us gather in dining room.”

When the men were seated around the formal rosewood dining table, Kaskov sat at one end and Markov sat at the other, with the balance of the Brotherhood of Seven split between both sides. Their bodyguards, hiding their eyes with dark glasses and wearing scowls, stood close by.

Markov forced himself to remain calm and friendly. “Won’t you allow me to serve you coffee or tea?” He knew alcoholic refreshment was not appropriate for such a solemn assembly.

Kaskov motioned to the table’s centerpiece to have it removed, and three of the standing men jumped to obey. Once it was removed, two maids entered with trays of coffee and served it with sugar and cream to all the guests. After doctoring his coffee and taking a sip, Kaskov said, “Comrade Markov, what you have to tell us?”

“Brothers and friends. I have investigated matter of household security and discovered source of leak. I have placed contract on Natalie Goodman, my … former … head housekeeper, who conspired to steal information you receive. She will be delivered alive for your questioning. My operative in office of Organized Crime Task Force intercepted message so it did us no harm.” His statement was a ruse, because Anne Williams had been a Soviet mole who was forced into the civilian job market by the fall of the Soviet state. She was, in fact, not his operative and she had not intercepted the message. Her presence in Judge Weston’s office had simply been divine providence.

“Please accept my hospitality while we wait for delivery of woman to us. I have plenty of room for all.”

The Brotherhood silently looked at each other and nodded assent. “How did woman get sensitive information,” asked one of the Seven.

He couldn’t to admit the true source of the information because he knew the national organization would surely disapprove of his secret scientific venture. “An enemy, Karl Adams, hired hacker to break into heavily encrypted network. Took him long time, and I have no knowledge until too late. Then Goodman woman stole my personal stationary for them to incriminate me.”

The inquisitors’ faces betrayed no reaction as they again glanced about from one to another. Markov was quite satisfied with his performance as the Brotherhood adjourned to settle into their rooms.

***

11:30 a.m.

While we were gathered in the emergency room waiting area, a hospital housekeeper spied Natalie and recognized her from an e-mailed photo she had received from Obozniev that very morning. The housekeeper quickly proceeded to a linen closet where she could privately call him from her mobile.

***

Nurse Marila Bosworth had a special relationship with God. Not that others don’t, but she was one of those rare individuals who, figuratively speaking, lived on her knees. Since she, in one way or another, prayed much of the time, God could get her attention more easily than most.

While on her dinner break, she was studying her Bible in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, when a certain verse seemed to speak to her, but she didn’t know what it meant. Chapter thirty-three, verse three said, “If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people.” Feeling some urgency about it, she closed her eyes and began praying fervently. As she prayed for lucidity, she received the distinct impression that someone in the emergency room was in danger and needed to be warned. But what was the exact nature of the danger, and whom should she warn?

The nurses’ lounge was just outside the cardiac surgical suite. It took about two minutes to walk from there to the emergency surgery where she saw the staff busily working over a patient. Looking through the observation window, she winced to see a woman lying on the operating table with her right leg some distance from where it should have been anchored at her thigh. When she began praying for this unknown woman, she realized this was not the person to whom God had sent her.

Marila continued to the waiting area where she saw the usual assortment of concerned family members. Then she noticed us ministering to Betty, who was lying on the floor with her legs elevated, and covered with hospital blankets. Approaching our group, she said, “Is there anything I can do?” Her nurse’s uniform spoke for itself.

“My wife just saved the life of her friend, in the surgery over there.” I gestured in the direction of the double doors. “It was too much for her and she’s fainted.”

“Let me get some smelling salts,” and she quickly walked back through the doors. A few seconds later she returned and stooped next to Betty, broke the vial and waved it under her nose.

Betty started after a couple of seconds and we had to restrain her from getting up too quickly. “Wha’ ‘appened? ‘ow did I get down ‘ere?”

“You fainted, love, after you saved Rachel’s life.”

“Rachel! How is she … Tell me!”

I was at a loss because no one had yet informed us of her condition, but the nurse said, “She seems to be stable, with the bleeding clamped off.” Noticing our curious expressions, she added, “Oh, I don’t work in the ER. I was at dinner when I got the distinct impression that I was needed out here. Is anyone here in danger or running from someone?”

Howie looked quite suspicious. “Why do you ask?”

Marila hesitated. “Sometimes when I’m praying or reading my Bible God speaks to me …,” Howie rolled his eyes, which stopped Marila in mid sentence.

I stepped into the awkward gap. “Nurse Bosworth, I’m a Christian, and I can relate to what you are saying. Please continue.”

“Anyway,” she glanced at Howie warily, “I got the distinct impression that someone out here was in danger, and that it is imminent.”

Betty was just then struggling to seat herself on the chair, but managed to say, “There is only one threat to us that I can think of.” She looked over to Natalie. “Markov! We’ve got to get out of ‘ere!”

Karl, however, crossed his arms stubbornly and said through a set jaw, “I’m not going anyplace as long as Rachel is in danger.”

I stood tall and looked down at Karl. “You’ll be sacrificing yourself with no benefit to Rachel.”

Marila stepped between us, “You don’t have to leave. I work here, remember? I can hide you where no one will find you.”

Betty lowered her voice to barely a whisper. “Someone about the ‘ospital must ‘ave told Markov we’re ‛ere! How can we be certain the informer isn’t watching us even now?”

“I can check for anyone who seems to be loitering in the area, and ask the staff if they’ve seen anyone unusually interested in your group.”

We nodded in unison and she again headed for the double doors. Just before reaching them she glanced to her left, stopped, and turned back towards us to say, “You might as well go over to admitting and take care of all the paper work. I’ll take you.”

***

Markov still didn’t know exactly what connection Natalie might have with us, but the coincidences still nagged him. Why was Natalie at the Emergency Room? He had assumed the explosion would destroy Rachel’s body as well as the other evidence of his clandestine operation, but what if it hadn’t?

He turned on his speaker phone and punched a speed-dial number. “Evgeni, where you place plastique at lab?”

“I put by computer terminal, but not plastique. I mix up little batch of Nitrogen Tri-iodide.”

“Don’t get technical. I pay you to know such things so I don’t have to.”

“Please, you will like this. I mix up liquid and leave it in lab. When it dry,” He tittered a little. “Anything set it off.” By then he was absolutely gleeful. “Somebody even sneeze near it, and BOOM!”

“How much damage did it do?”

Evgeni was tempted to say, “How should I know? I wasn’t there.” But caution prevailed, so he actually said, “I do not know, but no one …”

“Well, find out! And see if woman’s or man’s body is there.” And he broke the connection, muttering unkind things about the quality of his help.

***

We followed Marila down the corridor to the left, past a housekeeper, and turned right after a few yards. Our nurse dropped back to speak with Betty, who nodded after a couple of seconds. Then Betty dropped back to tell me of the housekeeper who seemed interested in us. I in turn found a very intriguing plaque on the wall and stopped to examine it closely. My peripheral vision told me the housekeeper was looking around the corner of the corridor, watching us.

I called to Marila. “Nurse, can you explain this plaque to me?”

Marila turned back and the housekeeper disappeared. “She is following us.” I said quietly, “Can we lose her?”

“She knows this place even better than I do … Quickly, follow me in here!”

We diverted through a supply room, down a narrow corridor and into a surgical scrub room. She tossed some blue surgical attire, including booties, masks, goggles and caps to most of us, and we quickly put it on over our street clothes. To me she tossed a cardiac surgical robe and patted the table. “Remove your shoes and socks.” Then with deft actions she put slippers on my feet, pushed my trousers’ cuffs up to my knees to make it appear I wasn’t wearing them, opened my gown and laid some sterile cloths over my chest. She pulled an IV stand over to the table, set up a used IV bag and tubes, and taped the end of a tube to my arm. Then she snapped her fingers, snatched some surgical gloves, and tossed them to the others. “Gloves! Here, put these latex gloves on.” Then she gathered the others around me and began pretending to open me up. I had never in my life been so thankful for a healthy heart.

The observation window blinds were open just enough for us to see the housekeeper hurriedly pass by, then return to peer through. After a moment she seemed satisfied and continued on her way.

We couldn’t have been more apprehensive if we were really opening me up, since we had no eyes outside the room telling us what was happening. All we could do was stand there, or lie there in my case, pray, and wait. A half hour passed, then an hour. During that time Betty filled Marila in on our odyssey, and more. Since Natalie, Marty and Howie didn’t know the Lord and were a captive audience, Betty and Marila spoke of their relationships with God, not in the sense of preaching, but simply sharing with one another.

Karl fidgeted, unable to calm his anxiety. “I wonder how Rachel’s doing?”

“She’s in the best of hands,” Marila said, “Both the doctors’ and God’s.”

“How long can it take?”

The nurse considered for a moment. “Reattaching a leg severed at the thigh could take all day. Each blood vessel, each nerve, has to be reattached to the proper location, and nerves are the consistency of Jell-O so they must be extremely careful. There are new procedures for rejoining nerves using synthetic sheaths that hold the ends together. We used to think nerve cells couldn’t regenerate, but given enough time they can.” Karl was taking it all in, and one could tell such information eased his apprehension.

One hour became two, and then three. Following all we had been through, just waiting there and not knowing for what, became quite tiring.

“It’s time I was checking the lay of the land out there. They don’t connect my face with you guys, so I’m sure I’ll be safe if they’re still here. I’ll check on your friend as well.” Since we had no answer, Marila left through the scrub room.

Nearly twenty minutes later she returned. “I think this was successful. I was wondering what your hoodlums looked like, and now I know. There are still some rough-looking characters in dark business suits standing around the waiting room, but it’s time to take our patient to recovery. If any staff asks questions, we’re on a training exercise.”

She closed my surgical gown, released the wheels on the table, grasped the IV stand, and we headed for the recovery room. Since day surgery patients left the hospital directly from there, we hoped to leave undetected.

Once in the recovery room, Marila shed her surgical clothes and went outside to clear the way, but she returned moments later with an apprehensive expression. “They must be covering all the exits.”

“That leaves two possibilities,” I said, “We sprout wings, or dig our way out.”

“Forget about digging. The tunnels are already there! I should have thought about it hours ago … I’m sorry …”

“Don’t worry about it, little lady,” Howie said, “Just tell us what t’do.”

But Karl said, “You’re just going to abandon Rachel now that I … er … we have her back? We can’t do that!”

“Believe me, she’s in good hands, and I’ll take care of her as if she were my own sister … come to think of it, she is.” She flashed a very reassuring smile, but Karl was still skeptical. “I don’t blame you for not wanting to leave your wife, but I can take care of her at least as well as you.”

He let the wife comment slide past. “You’re crazy if you think I’m just going to waltz out of here and leave her in danger.”

“They won’t recognize her because of all the facial damage. She’ll require extensive reconstructive surgery before she looks anything like herself. But from what you said they know your face, so if they see you, you’re both dead.” Karl’s face took on an expression of grim resignation and he had nothing more to say.

She walked to the “Staff Only,” non-ambulatory elevator in the corridor, watching closely for prying eyes, and when the door opened she motioned to us. Still lying on the gurney, I went for a merry ride down the corridor and into the elevator. With the door finally closed, she pressed the basement button. “This may be touchy. The basement is housekeeping country. Hopefully our pesky spy is still looking other places for you.”

When the elevator door opened Marila poked her head out to scan the corridor, stepped out to check more closely, and motioned for us to follow her through the adjacent doorway. Since it was too narrow for the gurney, I had to risk jumping off the contraption and through the door, still wearing the surgical gown. Just before closing the door, the cold, bare floor reminded me to fetch my shoes and stockings from where they were stashed.

The door was at the top of a set of cement steps that passed steeply down to the sub-basement fire door. After passing through that we found the hospital heating plant in a huge room with steel mesh catwalks that allowed engineering crew access to all service locations. We followed one of the catwalks to the left for about fifty yards to the gray, cement wall at one end of the room, and descended another flight of steps to the wet, basement floor.

Pipes of every description hung from the catwalk we had just traversed, and disappeared into a square tunnel with roughly six feet of clearance beneath the pipes attached to the ceiling. Caged lamps created islands of light every hundred feet or so, but the floor was free of obstructions so walking would be easy.

“Continue along the tunnel until you reach the ‘T.’ Some of the pipes will disappear straight ahead into a smaller tunnel. Follow them.”

Howie said, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but how do y’all know so much about the bowels of this place?”

“Years ago I occasionally got bored during my lunches, so I explored.”

“So, where does your little tunnel go?”

“To the air conditioning plant. You’ll be able to leave from there, concealed from your friends outside. Listen, please be careful. I guess you know you’re dealing with dangerous people. Anyway, I’ll be praying for you.” Somehow I knew that was no idle promise.

As we proceeded into the tunnel, Howie and I had to stoop for clearance, with my back soon complaining about it. When we reached the intersection, the smaller tunnel was more of a large pipe, roughly half the size of the first one, and round, with water dripping from it. We helped the ladies and Karl into the tunnel, then Howie followed, scraping his Stetson hat on a pipe strap. Finally I hopped up, instantly I regretting my hurry as I smacked my head smartly on the same pipe strap, giving myself a wonderful spinning sensation and instant splitting head ache. As I leaned against the wall regaining my composure, I felt blood oozing down the left side of my head and neck.

Misery is crawling with a splitting head ache through a dark, wet pipe, over slimy stuff, hoping you’re getting closer to a destination you’ve never seen. While perceptions can be erroneous, it seemed the few lamps were spaced roughly two miles apart. If traversing the earthen tunnel beneath Marty’s house had been unpleasant, scrambling through this concrete pipe was horrendous.

Complaining, however, will do no more good now than it did then. Eventually we found ourselves crawling towards, “The Light At The End Of The Tunnel.”

When It was my turn to jump down to the floor of the air conditioning plant, I was alarmed at the drop before me. While the step into the pipe had been only about three feet high, this was to be about a twelve foot drop. Watching my overhead clearance closely, I turned over, grasped an overhead pipe, eased myself over the edge, and as gently as possible dropped to the floor.

Apparently it wasn’t gentle enough, however, since my left ankle painfully turned upon landing. I instantly took my weight off the ankle, but not quickly enough to prevent at least a nice sprain, and sprawled to the floor.

I cried out loudly, trying to restrain verbiage that would have expressed my natural reaction. The others looked over and began making fun of my indelicate position, until they realized I was, in fact, hurt.

Betty was the first to reach me, saying, “Jack me love, ‘ow bad is it?”

“Bad enough, I should say.”

“Who’s stoppin’ ya?” said Howie with a grin. I must have looked puzzled because he explained, “All y’all Brits say ‘I should say,’ so I said ‘Who’s stoppin’ ya.’ You know, from sayin’. It was a joke don’t y’know … tryin’ to ease the tension?” Natalie stuck a finger in her mouth, pretending to gag. “Never mind, let’s git’ya up and survey the damage.”

He came over and lifted me as easily as if I were a child, carried me to the steps leading to the outer door, and sat me down. With the gentleness of an orthopedic doctor, he examined my ankle, grunting every few seconds. When he twisted my foot a certain direction I yelped and inadvertently kicked, missing his jaw, but dislodging his hat.

“More than a sprain,” he said as if commenting on the weather, “Without the proper diagnostic equipment, my guess is it looks like it’s dislocated.” He looked up at me. “Gotta set it. Lift up your left leg. I’m gonna plant my foot under your left thigh and yank hard.”

I obeyed, he yanked, and I have no idea why the Russians didn’t hear me. Next thing I knew I was gazing into Betty’s angelic face as she was trying to revive me.

“Bound up your ankle as best I could, using my suit coat and belt.” He seemed to hold no rancor as he spoke, but made sure I knew it none the less. “We better get going,” he added, “Found a old push broom that should make a passable crutch. Screwed this little old pipe flange on the stick so it wouldn’t sink into the mud so bad outside.” Howie’s resourcefulness was beginning to surprise me, but not as much as it eventually would.

With his help I climbed the flight of steps up to the level of the outer door, where Betty slipped it open and surveyed the landscape. “We’re on the opposite end of the parking lot from the hospital. I don’t see any suspicious people about, but let’s leave one at a time anyway, one minute apart, walk around the building and gather at a concealed location.”

So that was what we did, Howie first, Karl second, Natalie third, I hobbled out next, and finally Betty followed to the shopping center on the opposite side of the boulevard. Once there, Howie said, “I’m headin’ back for the van, wait here,” and he set out jogging in his high-healed cowboy boots, an odd sight, despite the distraction of my ankle’s escalating pain.

Fifteen minutes later we were on our way back to our rooms, plotting ways to retrieve Rachel again. With an informer inside the hospital, we knew her anonymity would not last long. Betty said, “Howie, you seem to know lots about the medical profession,” and left the statement open to interpretation.

“Jack of all trades, master of none.”

“Are you master enough to be Rachel’s personal physician?”

He considered for a long moment. “A fella could go to jail for that kinda role playing.”

“Don’t forget, we have an insider at the hospital.”

“I suppose so, but I don’t like doing anything that might could wind me up in the hoosegow.”

***

Marila was quite willing to risk her career helping us. Somehow, by late evening when she arrived at our rooms in an old-style, borrowed ambulance, she had managed to gather for Howie all the accouterments of a physician, including a staff badge from another hospital. “It wouldn’t do to have local credentials and a stranger’s face,” she commented. For Betty, Natalie, Marty and me she furnished ambulance attendants’ uniforms and badges

Karl tried insisting on accompanying our rescue mission, but Betty was even more insistent that he would not. He grudgingly agreed to arrange our flight instead.

Howie had tried to hire a small cargo aircraft to transport us out of harm’s way, but some of his pilot’s credentials were not current. Then we remembered Jeff Stringer’s helpfulness when we searched the eastern Bay Area for the Russian’s laboratory, and knowing of his Naval flying background we willingly assumed he was no friend of ex-KGB underworld figures.

“Does anyone know where we’ll go when we do spring Rachel?” Karl looked around to the rest of us, who stared blankly back at him.

Howie answered after a moment, “I know of a municipal airport near my ranch, down by Sugar Land. An there’s a pretty fair hospital near there too, for the lady. Karl, see if you can git in touch with yer pilot friend. He’s gotta file a flight plan, ya know.” Betty went into her purse, withdrew and glanced through her notebook, and gave Jeff’s phone number to Karl. While he made the call, she began planning our disguises for Rachel’s kidnapping.

My resourceful wife again performed virtual miracles, transforming our appearances with makeup, wigs, odd bits of hair pasted where they wouldn’t normally be, and gauze rolls strategically placed in our mouths to change our facial contours. Dark glasses finished the illusion for Marty and me, with spectacles for Natalie and herself.

Since we didn’t have a camera, Howie dashed off to buy an inexpensive instant-print, and the film to go with it. When he returned, he and Betty worked together to modify the badge with his photo and name, in place of the woman’s who had lost it originally.

Marila then coached Howie in the professional idiosyncrasies of medical doctors. “I’ve seen you bluster, so I don’t need to coach you in that aspect of the medical profession. Whatever the attending physician tells you, just say, ‘Hmmm’ with a skeptical expression.” Then she produced a transfer form to get Rachel out of the hospital. “Here, study this. When you get to the I.C.U. nurse’s station, ask for one of these by form number, then fill out four or five lines illegibly and leave it casually on the counter. We’ll have the ambulance waiting at the ER entrance. And don’t forget to demand copies of all the records in her file. Without that they’d know the whole thing is bogus.”

When asked where she came by all those resources, she smiled demurely. “Twenty-five years in hospitals doing favors for one’s colleagues.”

***

6:36 p.m.

Evgeni Petrenko was a highly competent demolitions specialist, so when he received the call to survey his handiwork at the laboratory, he was taken aback. How dare Markov question his ability?

When he arrived at the laboratory, he was dismayed to see the building still in one piece. He was forced to admit that he had underestimated the building’s strength, but he consoled himself with the notion that a contained explosion was probably far more devastating to the interior of the lab.

He walked around the perimeter of the building until he saw the gap his device had caused in the reinforced concrete block wall. Entering the building, he picked through the rubble until he found the remains of the pilot’s body and the life-support system that had kept him alive. He’d have to do the job again to vaporize all clues.

He was puzzled, however, about what had happened to the woman’s body. The table to which she had been strapped lay on its side, across the room from where it had stood. On closer inspection he saw that the restraints had been cut, and blood clung to the floor and table. How could he have failed at his primary mission? The lab was still there and the woman’s body was missing, and how was he to tell the unforgiving Markov of his incompetence?

Back at his car, he mixed up another explosive witch’s brew. Then he planted it in what had been the laboratory, set the timer, and left. This time there would be nothing left of the building for Markov to discover his little secret about the first explosion’s dubious outcome.

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