4:30 p.m., Near Phillips Lake, Oregon
Only one van-load of Russians arrived at Marty’s property. The other was supposed to follow as soon as their motor cooled down. Seems running the Econoline’s air conditioner during its long, tree-clearing stops caused it to overheat and blow its coolant over the road. Finally the poor, abused engine’s chugging and pounding protestations convinced Markov to give it a rest. After transferring his command center and as many of his men to the GMC as it would hold, Markov continued.
The white Vandura pulled to a stop in the drive of what had been Marty’s holiday palace. No one got out for a few minutes, since the occupants had to humor Lev Markov during his ranting pep-talk. “I am watching you. Make sure you looking under everything!” With that final encouraging word, the overloaded van disgorged its filthy, thirsty, exhausted load of unhappy Russians to pour over and through the huge pile of ash and debris.
The other van finally arrived more than three hours later, with its nearly spent engine puffing smoke, but with its occupants obviously refreshed. When they stepped to the ash-covered ground Markov greeted them with a gun aimed at the head of the driver. “You went to town for party,” he evenly said through clenched teeth, “while your comrades work in this hell.”
“Relax Boss.” The driver stood with his hands raised in surrender. “We bring food and drinks, and … and tools.” He desperately motioned to one of the other new arrivals to fetch something from the rear of the van. He quickly complied, throwing open the door and lugging a heavy ice chest into his boss’s view. Distracting Markov to their payload seemed to stay the driver’s execution.
“Boys,” he called over his shoulder, “Take a break. Eat and drink. Your comrades will take your places.” The new arrivals broke out shovels and rakes, and torches to stave off the encroaching twilight, then got to work whilst the others refreshed themselves.
By the early hours of the morning, the power in their torches was flagging, and Markov finally admitted there were no bodies to be found there. Bitter, discouraged, and in a decidedly fowl temper, Markov and his men boarded the vans to return to Baker City and find a place to clean up and rest.
Baker City was Norman Rockwell Middle America, an old town by western American standards, with conservative values. Merchants rolled in their pavement at sunset, except for those in the entertainment district near the highway. Marty drove through virtually deserted streets to the “picturesque and historic” City Hall. Since he saw no one, he decided to park in the loading zone directly in front of the steps leading to the entrance. Had he known the police station was also located within City Hall, he might have been more discriminating in his choice of parking.
Feeling self-conscious and terribly vulnerable, he left his car and began walking southward along First Street towards the end of the block, turned right along Place Street and continued to Second Street. Still he saw no one. Would his friends be there as promised?
At Second street he again turned right, and the dead quiet of the abandoned downtown had him on edge. Half-way down the block a noise from the alley across the street startled him, so he picked up his pace, wanting only to return to the safety of his car.
He nearly jumped out of his shoes when he heard, “Marty, over here,” in a stage whisper. But he quickly regained his composure and turned to see where it came from. “It’s Karl, over here.”
Marty tentatively walked across the street and was relieved to see the three of us hiding in the shadows of a building. “Are you satisfied I’m alone?”
Karl stepped from the shadows and smiled. “Yes, thank’s for coming. We’ve reserved a room for you at the Always Welcome Inn over by the turnpike.” The conversation turned to small talk as we rode with Marty to the Inn for a night’s sleep.
Before retiring, however, Betty used Rachel’s laptop to access her e-mail account and found the most curious message: “I am Ty. Rachel says go to concrete building north of Antioch-Oakley highway on gravel road. Russians guarding.”
When Betty finished reading the message, we glanced about at one another until Karl broke the silence, “I was afraid of that.” His face showed a deep grimness, but he continued, “At least we have some idea where we can find her.”
We all showered in turn and went to bed as early as we could manage. During the night, however, a noise awakened us. Some people apparently entered the room directly over our heads and made rather a lot of commotion before finally settling in.
Betty arose early to load Marty’s car for the drive back to the Bay Area, but she returned to our room with concern in her face and quiet urgency in her voice. “I ‘eard some ‘ushed conversation from the room above us, and it wasn’t English.”
“Right. Tourists from anywhere in the world might be staying here. Don’t borrow trouble, my love.”
“And the tourists might also be spying past the window curtains, fascinated by what we’re doing but carefully out of sight? Jack, remember. There may well be a particular group of Russians in the area.”
Betty was kinder than necessary in view of my abysmal carelessness. Without further discussion, we agreed that subtle haste was in order, so we four casually walked out to the car, jumped in, and sped away.
Our speedy departure caused quite a stir amongst our neighbors. As we drove away, they dashed out their door and along the balcony while pulling on and tripping over clothing and shoes.
We decided to drive south along Whitney Highway, assuming the Russians would assume we took the turnpike. Since they had been kind enough to clear the fallen trees from the roadway through the burned forest, we progressed fairly quickly to State Highway 26, and eventually drove south along US Highway 395 towards home.
Thursday, June 22, 9:00AM
We easily found a pilot who was willing to take us for an excursion flight. Pilot’s lounges seem to attract blokes who have no life but flying, and Buchanan Field Airport at Concord provided just such a person.
The air service counter clerk smiled when we asked if he knew of a pilot who might be available. He looked to his right and called to someone we couldn’t see. “Yo! Jeff. Some folks wanna go flying.”
Seconds later, a tall, lean man wearing a Giants baseball cap, blue Chambray shirt, blue jeans and alligator-skin cowboy boots sauntered into the office from the pilots’ lounge. When he saw us, his large, white-toothed grin contrasted markedly with his tawny-highlighted, black complexion. His features suggested aboriginal Australian heritage, but when he said, “Well howdy, folks,” his “good-ole-boy” country accent seemed incongruous with his appearance.
The pilot’s physical condition and youthful features made him appear younger than his graying, curly black hair indicated. He reached out to shake my hand. “I’m Jeff Stringer, fully certified for anything with wings or rotors. Where ya wanna fly?” His engaging smile and forthright manner drew our affection and trust instantly.
Soon after we were airborne in a dirty, rattling cargo plane that seemed to have first seen service in Korea, Karl, occupying the co-pilot’s seat, leaned towards Jeff. Because the turbo-charged, Lycoming eight cylinder engine and three-blade propeller created a nearly impenetrable din, Karl shouted, “So Jeff, how did you get into the flying business?”
Jeff grinned at Karl and patted his headset, indicating that we should don ours. When he was sure we all wore one, he began a fascinating monologue about how he got his wings. “Back in the late ‘60s, when we were stupid kids,” he laughed at his little joke, “I fell in love with flyi’n, so I pestered my folks into lettin’ me get a civil aviation license.
“Well, there I was, sitt’n with a pair o’ wings pinned to my play-suit when the Viet Nam war broke out. I was only seventeen, but my folks signed the papers and I found myself in the Navy, ‘cause they have the best flight schools, don’t ya know.” He paused long enough to convey his pride to us.
“So the first thing I did was ace all the academics and apply to OTS. But the base C.O. looked at me and said, ‘Kid, you’re smart, but you have the wrong skin pigmentation. Don’t fight it, and I’ll make sure you’re an NCO on flight crew in no time.’
“Well, that sounded like B.S. to me, so I told him nothin’ doin’. Took some fancy talkin’, but he recommended me without mentioning my skin color, and when I got to the school all the guys looked at me like I was from Mars or something.
“So I decided then and there to be the best damn student at the school, and by gawd I did it. Graduated first in the class, so they couldn’t ignore me.” Again he looked over at us, grinning his pride.
“So that qualified me for Top Gun school, but there were no black carrier fighter pilots in the Navy, and drivin’ bus didn’t sound good to me. So I had to go through school three times before I qualified to fly off a carrier. Man, they knit-picked me ‘til I thought I was gonna puke!
“Cause it took me so much time to qualify, the war in Nam was over by the time I graduated with my wings, so they stuck me with ferryin’ all the friendly personnel from Saigon back to Japan. And with the war over, I was sittin’ with carrier qualification and no need for them to put me on a carrier. Dead end street.
“So I opted out and used my savings to leverage my first plane for charter use. Now I got three of ‘em, a six-place, a nine-place twin, and this old cargo rig. Not exactly fighter aircraft, but they keep me in the air.”
Jeff seemed a competent pilot, but with perhaps a bit too much style for my land-lubber inner ear. We gave no explanation for the excursion over the east end of the Bay, so at first he seemed to assume we were merely tourists wanting to see the city by air.
But when we urged him off the usual scenic route towards Oakley, he began wondering what we were about. “Don’t get much call to fly over this far east—Lookin’ at some property?”
“You could say that,” said Karl evasively.
“Do you wanna follow the highway or the shoreline?”
Karl looked at Betty, who had a better idea where we might find the site. “Keep the ‘ighway in view on the right.” Her request earned a quizzical glance in return. Not being pilots in our own right, we didn’t realize Jeff would have to transmit an amended flight plan to San Francisco International air traffic control.
After receiving permission to deviate from the original flight plan, we turned southeastward until we sighted the road to Oakley, then turned left again to fly parallel to it. Soon we spied the first of many gravel roads running roughly northward from the highway, and veered left to follow it. Finally, the eighth time we repeated that exercise, the road led to a cubical concrete building that matched the brief description Rachel’s friend e-mailed to us. A black limousine, two smaller cars and a two-place helicopter rested nearby, and the tar roof sprouted a number of radio antennae and a rather imposing satellite uplink. The gray building was positioned squarely with the compass, and the road continued past it to a pier on the shore, about a quarter-mile further on.
Circling the building twice got us noticed, and when some men dashed through the only door to stare up at us, Betty said, “Get down!” We ducked below the window level out of their view, with the exception of Jeff, of course, and Betty answered his questioning expression. “It’s a surprise. Can’t let them see us, can we?”
“They don’t look too happy ….”
I lied as ingeniously as I could on short notice. “Don’t worry about it. It’s our little joke.” Then I looked at Karl. “Are we ready to return?”
Karl looked at Betty and Marty, and they all nodded agreement. “Right, let’s head back then.”
Again Rachel slept, both to pass the endless hours and to endure the pain of lying bound to the minimally padded examination table. Ty’s constant binary communication with the computer continued to aid her escape from her intolerable circumstances.
… chel. Rachel. Rachel.
I’m here. What’s wrong?
I’ve made a breakthrough.
“What you hear?” shouted the Russian scientist, “Tell me!”
Rachel thought as quickly as her torpid brain would allow. “A noise. Someone made a noise.”
“No noise here! You tell truth!”
“I must’ve imagined it.” Pain suddenly washed over her, but their attempted unbearable torture was reduced, thanks to Ty’s intervention, to a major annoyance. Affecting mortal agony was better by far than suffering the real thing. Even though the pain was less intense than before, it was enough to cause in her a minor shock reaction, satisfying her inquisitors that their button-pushing had its desired effect.
“You stay awake! Listen for thoughts!” The artificially induced pain ended, replaced by the real pain of her confinement.
What … was that?
I said I made a breakthrough. I’ve found a way into their secure network. Would you like me to offer it to your friends?
What? Oh yes … that would be nice. They’re clever enough …
“What you hear? You hear something, do not lie to me! You want more pain?”
Witherspoon felt as though he had been run over by a van. A while after having regained consciousness, he carefully rolled over, moaning constantly, and felt the crust of dried blood on his neck and face. After a few minutes of wallowing in his self-pity, he paused long enough to consider the ramifications of Marty’s escape. He knew Markov was not a forgiving man, so he began fabricating a story that just might enable him to survive his situation.
After crawling to Markov’s desk, he climbed into the Boss’s leather executive’s chair. When he dialed Markov’s mobile number the ringing tone sounded seven times before his voice mail answered. Roger breathed a sigh of relief, since he knew he could fake bravado to a recording, but wasn’t sure about convincing the Russian directly. “Lev, when you return you will see your study in a state of upheaval. Marty put up a fight, but he’s dead now, and I’ll dispose of his body carefully. Put the damage on my tab.” He said it as lightly as he could to disguise his nervousness.
He staggered into the courtyard and saw the empty parking place in which his Cadillac had once stood, the smashed security gate, and mangled bits of trim and headlight that had once graced his car, now lying on the pavement. Walking towards what had been the security gate, he saw his beloved, terribly expensive, limited production Cadillac resting on the lawn with its front fenders jammed against its flattened front tires. His throat constricted with hatred for Marty and his friends, and standing there feeling like he would choke to death, he swore to … to the Powers of Darkness … that he would have his revenge. All that remained was to call a taxi, clean the blood off his face, and take the most powerful headache medicine he could find, but not necessarily in that order.
Betty again logged onto Rachel’s computer to retrieve e-mail. After deleting all the unsolicited adverts, she said “Hello, we ‘ave another e-mail from that Ty fellow. Seems ‘e’s offering us unlimited, covert access to Markov’s computer network. There’s a secure ftp site, a password and everything. What do you think, Jack, is it a trap?”
“Why would he set a trap for us? Says he’s in communication with Rachel, and how else could he have gotten her e-mail address. It’s not exactly public knowledge, except for the senders of adverts.”
“Maybe you’re right, Luv. But I say let’s tread carefully, none the less.”
Markov didn’t know whether to curse or fall down laughing when he retrieved Witherspoon’s message from his voice mail. Of course he had seen Marty with the others at the motel in Baker City, and since he hated duplicity among associates even worse than he hated Karl, he immediately broadcast a contract on Witherspoon.
When he saw the damage to his property, however, he doubled the reward to one hundred thousand dollars for Witherspoon’s delivery, alive. His idea of the perfect holiday was to have Karl tied to one chair and Witherspoon tied to another, and to face the dilemma of whom to torture first.
Friday, June 23, Midnight
Roger Witherspoon sated his voyeuristic drive by watching “adult” films, assuming his executive suite at the Marriott in San Jose was safe. He wasn’t followed there, and none of the hotel help, including his porter, were Russian. Through a friend of a friend, however, the young man had heard of the contract on Witherspoon and wanted part of it. His information made its way quickly to Markov, who in turn rejoiced while planning Witherspoon’s capture … alive.
The knock on Witherspoon’s door came exactly at midnight. Furious, he charged to the door, spied through the peep hole, saw a uniformed house maid, and jerked the door open to be frightened nearly out of his wits at the sight of a tall, ruddy complected man in a black, pin striped suit standing where he had expected to see a woman.
Witherspoon tried to slam the door, but Ellasar’s outstretched fist stopped it as though it had hit solid concrete.
“Why Roger,” Ellasar said mildly, “how inhospitable.”
Terrified, Witherspoon tried vainly to conceal his fear and recover his composure. “Uh, yes Mister … uh …”
”Ellasar, that’s right. I knew your name, I mean, how could I forget? You Just startled me. You know, knocking on the door in the middle of the night.”
“Will you not invite me in?”
“Yes, yes of course.” Witherspoon stepped backward to the chair where he had been sitting, snatched up the clicker and switched off the Tele. Then he backed up until he bumped the rear wall and could go no further.
Ellasar strolled into the room and shot an amused glance at the blank Tele screen, then looked back at Witherspoon with a knowing smile. With his right foot, he pushed the heavy, reclining chair in Witherspoon’s direction, its back towards the wall. He never shifted his gaze away from the frightened man, and gestured to the waiting chair. “Please Roger, be seated.”
Witherspoon walked around the chair as if on stilts and obediently settled into it like a decrepit geriatric, looking anywhere but at his visitor. “You seem unsettled Roger. Why is that?” Ellasar sat on the side of one of the queen-size beds, but even sitting, he seemed to tower over the intimidated Witherspoon.
“Well, you know, middle of the night, unexpected call.” His pretentious, upper-crust act failed miserably.
“Aren’t you curious why I am here?” Ellasar spoke with a hint of coyness.
Still trying to recover his composure and command of the situation, Witherspoon answered, “Yes, of course. How can I help you, Mister Ellasar?” He hated the nervous tick under his right eye betraying his anxiety.
“Roger, I came not to be served, but to serve. Wouldn’t you like to know that Lev Markov is coming to call.” He ignored Roger’s double take. “You see, he was in Baker City when Marty was leaving, and saw that he was still alive and in good health.” He laughed with genuine amusement. “In fact, he and his men spent the night in the room right over his head.”
Ellasar seemed to enjoy Witherspoon’s expression as he came to fully comprehend those facts, and glanced about the room for a place to hide.
“Running will not save your life. And when he finds you, how can I say it? You do not know the meaning of the word ‘suffering.’” Witherspoon fought the urge to weep.
“You must make a choice.”
“Tell me, what can I do?”
Ellasar paused, seeming to deliberate. “You can allow Lev to have his way with you, a most unpleasant prospect, I assure you.” Ellasar reached stoically into his breast pocket. “Or you can die painlessly.” He produced a vial of green liquid.
Witherspoon glanced nervously from the vial to Ellasar’s face and back. “I …” he started to speak, but his voice broke. “I don’t know ….”
Ellasar’s reply dripped with mock sympathy. “The luxury of deliberation is not yours. Lev is even now entering the hotel lobby. You have exactly one minute before he will walk over this flimsy door.” He abandoned all pretense of compassion as his gaze became painfully intense. “As I said, the choice is yours.”
Witherspoon absently reached out for vial, held it to his lips, and tipped it up to pass the clear green liquid through his mouth and into his system. While there was no flavor, the liquid warmed his mouth and throat like a good brandy. He felt himself calm in anticipation of oblivion.
But he did not know this devil’s capacity for deception. Suddenly he felt as if an invisible dagger stabbed the center of his chest, and a pain he could never have imagined radiated across his shoulders to his arms, and into his neck and jaw line.
His face began turning blue while he tore at his chest as if he could remove the invisible torture device, and he managed to gasp, “You … said … painless.”
Ellasar smiled gleefully. “I lied. You see, Lev might have been persuaded to relent on his cruel intentions, thereby preventing me from collecting my rightful bounty. I will not risk losing you as I did Karl Adams.”
As Witherspoon struggled for a breath that would never come, Ellasar’s enjoyment of his situation got the better of him and he began chuckling, then laughing, then howling hysterically. Roger’s mouth and eyes gaped from the inexpressible pain, and his sight dimmed as he leaned forward out of the chair, but he never felt himself hit the floor.
Roger started as if awakening from a dream. He glanced about and found himself amidst a vast sea of people who wore nothing but some nauseating, malodorous filth. When he looked down at himself, spasms of dry heaves shook his body as he sensed that his own disgusting vileness seemed to transcend that of all the others. This place, this surreal experience, seemed far more vivid than any event of his life.
A great light shown before him, paling the brightest sunshine. He tried to shade his eyes, but that Father of all light shown through his hands, his eyelids, and even the horrific bodies standing in front of him. He could not deny that the all-consuming light was in fact the glory of the eternal God whom he had routinely blasphemed in deliberate disbelief. The convenient rationalizations that had consoled him during his life of cynicism melted before that perfectly penetrating light, and he found himself crying and moaning in unison with the billions standing about him. Unintelligible groans filled his throat as he realized that he was about to be judged by the very God whom he had flippantly dismissed all his life.
Time as he had understood it no longer existed, and what would have been a second of time now seemed interminable as he stood there recalling his pathetic days on Earth in vivid detail. Even as he involuntarily deliberated on each private, shameful deed of his life, those thoughts seemed to be broadcast for everyone’s scrutiny. Try as he might, he could not think of a single personally redemptive work on which to base any hope for mercy.
A deep rumbling, rushing sound, louder than any earthquake or cyclone, drew his attention to the Light, and his sense of physical sight dimmed and ceased to exist. Gradually he came to understand the meaning conveyed by the massive sound, but not through the recognizable syllables of any human language. His comprehension began not in his mind, but in the depths of his soul. It seemed to say, “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the deceiver and his minions. For I was hungry, but you let me starve. I was thirsty, but you refused to offer me a drink. I was a stranger, but you spurned me. You allowed me to remain naked while you enjoyed your affluence. When I was sick and in prison you forgot about me.”
Witherspoon found his voice joining the billions of others asking, “Lord, when did I see you hungry or thirsty, naked, sick, or in prison, and failed to minister to you?”
“The truth is, as you refused one of the least of these, you refused me.”
His depth of shame prevented his facing the throne of God even a moment longer, so he turned in unison with the disgusting multitude and began walking away, isolated and desperately lonely in their midst.
The entity that had been Roger Witherspoon, divested of any sense of human dignity or value, walked further than it had ever walked during its earthly life, further than it could have imagined, surrounded by the perpetual clamor of desperate self-pity. After what seemed an eternity of walking, it began hearing something that was at first unrecognizable above the din. Eventually it realized the noise was that of panicking, once-human souls, shrieking in terror, becoming louder as it walked down the steepening, rocky slope.
Gradually the stench of burning flesh reached its nostrils, combining with that of its own filth to make it completely, perfectly ill. Dry heaves temporarily interrupted its miserable moans, and it heard those further ahead screaming wildly as they reached the abyss. It wanted to stop and turn back but knew that was not an option, so it kept walking in despair. The clamor drew nearer until it heard those immediately ahead cry out, with their screams fading into the distance to join those already plummeting to the Lake of Fire.
Finally its left foot found no purchase and it pitched forward, hearing its own scream as it fell through the stench and heat into a place where man was never meant to go. As it fell on and on, the searing heat, the overwhelming fetor, and its abysmal blindness became ever more oppressive while it longed for the promised oblivion that it knew would never come.
The thing that was once Roger Witherspoon began itching with a burning intensity, and when it tried to rub itself, it felt small, wormlike creatures crawling on its skin. The more it tried to wipe them off, the more those infernal bugs crawled onto it, and though in life it had never been afraid of creepy things, they struck it with horror. Worse than their torment and the agony of physical burning, was its universal hatred, self-pity, bitterness, jealousy and rage, as it realized that it could so easily have avoided the whole ordeal.
Finally it heard another sound rising above the din of despair. The sound was laughter, but more. Then it realized the insane, gloating howl emanated from the one it had known in life as Lord Gideon Ellasar. Though ultimately defeated, the demon had the perverse satisfaction of dragging so many eternal human spirits along with him into his own personal abyss of perdition, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Markov’s goons burst through the hotel room’s hardwood door to be overwhelmed by the putrid odor of old death, and they covered their noses with kerchiefs in defense. When Markov finally walked in, he too gagged as his associates pointed out Witherspoon’s body lying on the floor, reduced to a state of decay that should have taken weeks. Straightaway, he grabbed the kerchief from the face of one of his men and held it over his own nose.
He stood, staring at the corpse, brushing the flies away from his own face. Puzzled, he mumbled to himself as he finally turned away to leave the room. His only solace was anticipating what he would do to the despicable Karl Adams, and regaining the satisfaction Roger Witherspoon’s untimely death had denied him.
From the Marriott, Markov et al. drove in silence to the lab near Oakley, intending to lean on the “scientific team” trying to extract marketable information from the locked mind of Captain Hillman. Storming into the lab, Markov said in Russian, “What is taking you so long? Three weeks and nothing to show.” There were explanations, and then pleadings.
Rachel of course only saw the bright light in her face, but she heard the discussion perfectly, understanding only an occasional phrase of the rapidly discoursed street-Russian. She didn’t see Markov take the large-calibre revolver from one of his bodyguards or point it at his lead scientist, but she heard the ear-splitting report, the crash of a computer monitor falling as the man stumbled backward into it, and the thud of his body hitting the floor. At that moment she knew she was in for it, because the others would become desperate out of fear for their own lives.
After the Boss and his men left, Rachel heard the two remaining Russian scientists urgently discuss their best course of action. Bemoaning the fact that the only English speaking person on their team was no longer speaking anything, one of them approached her. “Please help us,” he said in slow, basic Russian, hoping she knew enough to discern his meaning, “The Boss will surely kill us if you give us no information from the American.”
“I will try,” she answered in her own badly broken Russian, “Give me a little time and I will try hard. If you die, so do I.”
Rachel directed her thoughts towards Ty. Did you get that?
What happened? Something startled you but I couldn’t tell what was going on.
Markov just executed one of his scientists for failing to get your information. Give me something to tell them, something that wouldn’t compromise your precious national security.
Captain Hillman let his mind free-associate for a long moment. Yes …. With access to their database, I should be able to spin a convincing yarn or two. Good thinking, Rachel.
You flatter me. At the moment I’m so rummy I can’t think. Give credit to God.
Your devotion is commendable, but I wish he’d come down and set us free.
But Ty, he already has.