By JET & Lory
Written for PetFly by Richard Maxwell
internal thought in * *
~~~~~ Prologue ~~~~~
The steps of the large cathedral nearly dwarfed their occupants. The well-wishers thronged around the proud parents of the child wrapped in a brightly colored blanket and cradled in her mother’s arms. Behind them, the cathedral walls rose high into the air, its spire seemingly touching the clouds. The little girl gurgled in delight at the smiling faces peering at her, and her mother glowed with happiness as she nodded her appreciation to family and friends. Behind them stood the proud father, his face wreathed in a smile. A child’s christening was a time for happiness, joined with hope for the future, and this joyful group was filled with both.
No one heard the father’s quick intake of breath or the mother’s sudden gasp. As if caught on slow motion film, first the father, then the mother, crumpled to the cathedral’s cold stone steps. As the mother dropped to her knees, she clasped her baby girl tightly in her arms. Her dark brown eyes were frozen wide with surprise as she stared out into nothingness. A red stain slowly spread across the breast of her blue dress. Behind her, the same bullet had torn into her husband’s chest, and his life’s blood also seeped out onto the gray granite of the cathedral steps. By the time a relative quickly rescued the child from her mother’s arms, both parents were dead.
The celebrants-turned-mourners quickly slipped away, knowing full-well that any of them might be the next targets. For those who opposed the rebels, it was a dangerous time.~~~~~ ACT I ~~~~~Cascade
I never learned to read Cyrillic, so the banner hung suspended between giant columns at the Cascade Cultural Arts building had no meaning for me. One thing I could understand though, was the crowd’s aura of anticipation as they waited to hear today’s featured speaker.
Damn! It was already beginning. I could hear the amplified words coming from the loudspeaker as we hurried toward the plaza in front of the Center. "Today," the familiar voice Father Kasporev began, "a great man emerges from the darkness of our homeland to join his comrades in the light of God and community." His face shone with his fervent belief in the words he spoke to the crowd. "He is a poet, yes, but also a saint of the dispossessed…a prophet of the imprisoned…the broken, the poor left behind. He is the voice for those who cannot speak. Most of all, he is a conscience for those who have none!"
I call back over my shoulder, "Hey, will you guys hurry up? I don’t want to be late for this!" Jim and Micki Kamerev are only slightly behind me, but as far as I’m concerned, the distance might be a mile. The speaker today has intrigued me for years; I certainly don’t want to miss this opportunity to hear him speak. With those long legs of his, how can Jim move so slowly?
"When did you get into Russian poetry?" Jim’s caught up with me now. See? He can move when he wants to.
I don’t slow my steps as I explain. "Dimitri Gordievsky is more than just a poet, man. I mean, his gulag diaries are a primary source on neo-tribal adaptation."
Micki comments, "When you meet him, Blair, you’ll see — Dimitri is a very simple man."
She looks so…taken…with just the mention of the man. Of course, she has reason to be. "Oh, yeah, sure. Just your everyday Nobel Prize winner. What could be simpler than that?"
We pass the fountain flowing in the center of the crowd and find a place to stand near center of the throng lining the steps of city hall. Father Kasporev is smiling broadly, and his voice grows louder as he speaks. "To mark the opening of Cascade’s Russian arts festival, he will read from his works. Please welcome our guest of honor – Dimitri Gordievsky!"
A slim man in his mid-forties with brown hair and beard approaches the microphone, shaking hands warmly with Father Kasporev as the priest backs away. Gordievsky’s expression is friendly and approachable as he faces the applauding crowd, and I decide that I like this man I‘ve read about for so long. "Thank you, Father, for your kind words. But you embarrass me. I am no saint. I am just a mirror who reflects the frailties of our imperfect world."
Jim stands beside me, with Micki on his left. Before long, I’m wrapped up in Gordievsky’s inspirational words. The only time I snap back to reality is when Jim bends lower to whisper in my ear, "He’s got the right ideas, Chief. Glad you talked me into coming."
Sometimes Jim really surprises me. From his attitude, you’d never think he cares about politics, but when I glance up at him, I can tell he’s genuinely moved by Gordievsky’s ideas. "Me, too, man," I say quietly. Then, my attention’s drawn back to the podium.
Gordievsky has finished his prepared speech and is asking the crowd, "Perhaps there are a few questions?"
The bullet captured the sun, its glare reflecting off the smooth surface to send out small, shimmering shards of light. Father Kasporev’s tinny voice filled the room, amplified by the high-tech radio resting beside the man dressed in black. Brushing his dirty-blonde bangs back, the man nodded in satisfaction as the bullet was lowered into the chamber of a high-powered rifle. He felt the familiar tingle of anticipation creep down his spine and welcomed it. As had happened so many times before, his body as well as his mind was preparing for the task at hand.
The man took great pride in his professionalism. Killing brought him pleasure, that much he could not deny, but it was the preparation for the kill that truly fulfilled him. Anyone was capable of murder. It took a brilliant mind to plan and execute an assassination and not be caught. Therein lay the challenge, the meticulous attention to detail. The carefully choreographed dance for two that brought him to the exact moment when he would capture his target in his sights, then slowly ease back the trigger. Yes, his target was part of the dance, even if the marked partner never realized his participation, for he considered his victim at each and every step. Yes, a successful assassination was a mental exercise, and the man prided himself on his intelligence. He did not fear failure. He was the best, and he surrounded himself with whatever technological advantages he deemed necessary for success.
Failure was simply impossible.
A young Asian reporter speaks up immediately after the professor‘s call for questions. "Professor Gordievsky, you supported political reforms in Russia. Now you seem to think the Russian church is the only answer. Why?"
"Ten years ago," the professor explains, "things were so bad even Gorbachev knew we needed democracy." He smiles as though sharing a secret with the crowd. "Now they are so bad, any fool knows our only hope is prayer. But the truth is that the same ones who run the gulag, now secretly run the stock exchange. They were thieves then, and they are thieves now! Our Lord died between thieves." He pauses for a beat, his brown eyes scanning the crowd slowly. "Perhaps he can forgive them; I cannot."
The crowd erupts in cheers of support as another reporter calls out, "Will you name names?"
Gordievsky’s reply is instantaneous. "Of course! In America, I name names, yes!"
As the crowd applauds, the professor suddenly spots Micki in the crowd and waves. She lights up like a comet at the recognition, and I gesture for Jim to look at Micki’s glowing face.
Gordievsky calls to the crowd, "Wait! Wait, wait! There is someone who should be up here with me! She is the real reason I and many other Russian writers come to Cascade. Micki, come up! Come up!"
Nearly a half mile away, the man smiled at the flowery words of the speaker. That was another aspect of his job he enjoyed almost as much as the planning.
Knowing that in mere seconds, everything the unsuspecting victim thought was true would be blown away with the force of a rifle’s bullet. Knowing exactly how long that person had left to live, knowing almost to the breath how many more times his lungs would draw in life-giving oxygen. Knowing the chaos that would erupt after the shot was fired, and knowing that he would already be halfway to safety by the time those present could piece together in their muddled minds exactly what had just transpired.
He chuckled in anticipation. Yes, the knowing was a truly exhilarating power to possess!
His gloved finger flipped a switch on a small machine at his side and a monotonous whirring filled the room. The man turned back to the window.
He had thought of everything.
Raising the rifle to his shoulder, the man prepared to accomplish his mission and the tingling sensation increased dramatically. He smiled again, a tight, cruel expression. He found Professor Gordievsky and centered him in the crosshairs.
It was almost time.
As the crowd turns to her, Micki begins moving toward the podium area. I can’t believe what happens next. It feels like one of those slow-mo scenes in the movies where time seems to be stuck in molasses. Without warning, Dimitri Gordievsky staggers backward, clutching his chest. He turns slowly, then he collapses face-down on the entryway of the building. The crowd falls into a shocked silence, unsure of exactly what‘s going on.
Micki seems to sprout wings on her feet as she flies to his side. Jim recovers almost as quickly, but I’m trailing them both By the time I reach the steps, she’s already kneeling beside the injured man. She’s got one arm behind the professor’s back, but when she removes her hand, it is covered in blood. Flashbulbs erupted from all sides, creating an eerie lightshow as they capture the grotesque image.
"Doctor!" Micki screams. "Please, someone get a doctor! Somebody get a doctor!"
My voice is shaking as I turn to Jim. "Looks like someone shot him! I didn’t hear anything, did you?" Surely there had been some noise, the click of a clip being loaded, the flash of a gun – something – that Jim would have heard.
I stare up at him, waiting for the explanation that never comes. Jim looks to be as in the dark as I am. His confused blue eyes lock with mine. "I didn’t hear anything. I should have heard something, Chief. What the hell’s going on here?" He waits for me to make some sense of this, but I can only shake my head slowly as the words fail me.
I have no answer for him.
An hour later, in Simon‘s office, an answer still eludes me. Our first stop had been the hospital, where Gordievsky had been pronounced D.O.A. Both the hospital and station were bustling with reporters anxious to get the scoop on the assassination of the famous Russian dissident. Sometimes, the results of freedom of the press turn my stomach.
Now, as I perch on the edge of the conference table in Simon’s office, I’m still struggling to understand why Jim wouldn’t have heard something – anything – just before the assassination went down. Sure, there was a ton of noise with the crowd, the traffic, and the general bustle of downtown Cascade in the middle of the day, but such distractions haven’t stopped Jim before. For once, I’m stumped, but if there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that Simon will be asking for an answer.
Oh, man, when I’m right, I’m right. Simon slams several newspapers down on his desk with a growl, then sits down heavily in his desk chair. "Cascade just made front page center of the Times – that would be the Los Angeles Times, gentlemen – the Washington Times, and the New York Times! The mayor’s overjoyed by the publicity." Turning his scowl on Jim, he asks, "Come on, Jim! You mean to tell me you didn’t see or hear anything unusual?"
I wince at the question I’d known was coming. Jim glances at me quickly for help, but the best I can offer is a little shrug. "Don’t have a clue, big guy," I whisper, knowing he’ll hear.
He sighs slightly, then looks at Simon apologetically. "I didn‘t hear a thing, sir."
It just doesn‘t add up. I blurt out, "I don’t get it! How many times have you heard a gun being cocked, a trigger being pulled… Why not this time?"
Jim locks eyes with me for a long moment, and I see the guilt hiding in the shadows of blue. "Look, I don’t know what to say, Chief. I didn’t hear or see anything. If you’ve got any ideas, I’d love to hear them."
I wish I had an answer to ease his mind, but I don’t. The realization reminds me almost as forcefully as a punch in the gut exactly how little I really understand about this sentinel business. Sometimes, like now, I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. With Jim’s life in my hands. And me totally clueless.
Simon cuts in, sparing me the embarrassment of admitting in front of him what a idiot I really am. "Look, right now we have a high-profile murder with no suspects, no clues, and no motives. While Jim’s failure to hear the assassin may provide Sandburg with a fascinating theoretical question, it’s rather like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. I need answers, gentlemen!"
"Maybe the motive was political," Jim speculates, turning the conversation back to the facts of the case. "Gordievsky talked about government corruption without much regard for who might be listening. I would think the assassination was to keep him quiet."
I disagree, and I say so. "I don’t think so. Corruption in Russia is no secret. I mean, everybody knows who’s involved there. It just wouldn’t have the impact a similar scandal would here."
"Jim, I want you to clear your boards and make this top priority. We need to get our homework done and fast before the feds come in and take over. The way this is drawing ink, the feds will be all over us like a cheap suit." Simon grimaces as he stands and pours a cup of coffee.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s a struggle to stifle my smile as the office door opened, and a man and woman enter. The guy might as well have worn a neon sign flashing "FED!"
"Nice suit," I comment, biting my lip to keep from laughing. I can’t look at Jim. I would totally lose it.
The man shoots me a quick look, but obviously dismisses me just as fast. "Captain Banks?"
Simon’s smile isn’t stifled at all. If there‘s one thing that man despises, it‘s the feds tromping into his territory. In some ways, police captains are every bit as territorial as sentinels. Now that might make an interesting paper…
"Agent Mulroney," Simon says politely. "We were just talking about you."
The agent acknowledges Jim with a curt nod. Me, he‘s still ignoring like the plague. Maybe it‘s the hair? "Detective Ellison. Meet Inspector Major Katrina Vaslova. Moscow Metro Militia. Inspector Vaslova’s Russia’s official liaison with the Bureau."
The tall brunette steps forward. Her hair’s pulled back in a stark bun, and as she glances at me, her eyes have no trace of warmth. She wouldn’t be a bad looking woman, if she’d learn to smile, that is. Of course, Mulroney‘s not any friendlier toward me, so why be surprised? Could it be the clothes?
Vaslova nods to Simon and Jim. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Captain. Detective."
Hate me or love me, just don‘t ignore me. I paste on my widest smile and introduce myself. "I’m Sandburg. Blair Sandburg. Consultant to the police department. Nice to meet you. " Grinning at Mulroney, I add, "Hi!" Mulroney’s only reaction is to roll his eyes and look back at Simon. I shoot Jim a quick, but subtle, thumbs-up and am rewarded by the flash of a swift grin that immediately disappears without a trace.
"I suppose you’re here, Mulroney," Simon says quickly, "to tell me the Bureau is going to be taking over jurisdiction in this case?"
"Actually, Captain, the Bureau doesn’t want this case. We have every confidence in your department."
Jim looks slowly from Mulroney to Simon, his eyebrows arching in disbelief. Simon goes him one better. He actually guffaws.
"That’s a good one, Mulroney!" The congenial grin vanishes in an instant. "What do you want?"
If Mulroney is bothered by either man’s reaction, he covers it well. "We want Inspector Vaslova to assist with the investigation. The victim was a Russian national. She could be invaluable to us. Given the circumstances, we think it would be pretty good politics."
After exchanging a quick look with Jim, Simon agrees. His choices are limited any way. Gracious acceptance is his only realistic alternative. Still, I know how the words gall him. "Very well, then. Welcome, Inspector Vaslova. Detective Ellison will fill you in on the details."
Jim gives me his ‘I don’t believe this!’ look, and once more, I can only shrug. I can’t even figure out why Jim’s senses struck out this afternoon; Russian cops and federal agents are way out of my league.
Vaslova nods at Simon and says politely, "Captain, I promise to keep a low profile and not to step on…how do you say…? Your shoes."
"It’s toes," I correct her with a smile. Might as well try for a touch of good old American diplomacy here, right?
"Yes. Toes." The ice princess hasn’t thawed a degree.
So much for diplomacy.
It turns out that Inspector Vaslova has something to offer the investigation after all. She’s able to identify the type of ammunition used to kill Gordievsky after Jim admitted that our lab couldn’t ID it.
"It’s a 7.62 dragunov sniper round. Military issue. Our special forces use them." She hands the bagged bullet back to Jim.
Now she’s hit on something my partner’s familiar with. Special forces. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter if they’re U.S. or Russian.
"Spetsnaz," Jim says immediately.
Vaslova nods. "Yes. They have appeared in several recent killings in Moscow."
Jim opens a folder. "I’ll need to see those files," he comments.
Immediately, the armor goes up around Vaslova. "That will be…difficult."
"I thought we were cooperating here?" Jim’s getting defensive, but it’s like trying to bash down a brick wall. Talk about the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
"Of course," Vaslova replies coolly. "But you see the bureaucracy back home is complicated." She sighs, then adds, "I will do what I can."
I jump in to smooth things over. "That’s great! See what a little cooperation can do? I mean…"
I don’t get the chance to finish. Micki and Father Kasporev have arrived.
"Jim?" Micki is dressed in black, and her face is at least two shades paler than normal.
"Excuse me," Jim says immediately, making his way to her. "Micki, I’m sorry I haven’t called. I’ve just been very, very busy."
"It’s all right," she replies softly. "I understand. You remember Father Kasporev from the rally?"
I shake the priest’s hand and Jim nods in greeting. "Hi, Father."
"We must see Dimitri’s body," Micki says. "He was a deeply religious man. There are certain rites we must perform."
Jim looks to me, and I nod. I’ll hand it to him, Jim’s got a ton of respect for important cultural traditions such as burial rites. Just look at his behavior when Incacha died. Nearly went ballistic trying to get a little respect out of the bureaucracy for the Chopec beliefs.
Jim assures her, "I’ll see to it that…"
Vaslova quickly interrupts. "I am afraid that will not be possible." Her tone couldn’t be much colder if we’d been in Siberia.
"That’s not your call, Inspector." Jim’s voice matches hers, degree for degree.
"Actually, it is." She holds out a paper for Jim’s inspection. I read over his shoulder, and it looks legit. "This federal warrant issued by your Justice Department gives me the authority to take possession of the body as soon as the autopsy is finished."
Micki snaps, "I was not aware that the KGB now tells the Cascade police what to do."
"I am with the Moscow police. KGB no longer exists."
Micki’s gaze never wavers in the face of Vaslova’s intimidation. "How silly of me. I meant FSB." Micki looks over at me. "You see how easy it is to be democratic, Blair? All you need is to change your initials."
I don’t have time to answer. Micki and Father Kasporev turn immediately and leave.
"I thought we weren’t going to step on each other’s toes here?" Jim points out.
Vaslova lowers her head slightly. "I apologize. It cannot be helped." She, too, walks away.
Jim draws in a quick breath and scrubs his hand across his jaw. "Damn it, Chief. Ever get the feeling you’re walking a tightrope without a net?"
I laugh and slap his back. "Every day of my life, man. Every day of my life."
Next step – check out the crime scene. The sight of all that blood being carefully scrubbed away makes me cringe. I wonder if the worker doing the cleaning even considers that he’s washing away someone’s life’s blood?
It seems a desecration, somehow, to just scrub away Gordievsky’s blood so quickly. It’s as if they think if they get rid of the evidence of what happened here today, it will all be over. Everyone will forget.
But it won’t be over. A life was lost. A great voice silenced forever.
The worker takes a hose and rinses the site. The remnants of blood flow down the marble stairs in a crimson river. What a waste.
"You okay, Chief?" Jim is watching me carefully.
"Yeah, I’m all right. It’s just so senseless, you know? Gordievsky had so much to teach us, and now…" I shrug helplessly.
Jim nods. "I know. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him." He reaches out and brushes my nose gently. "How’s it feeling?"
What? For a moment, I’m confused, then I gingerly probe the still-sore bridge of my nose. It had been little more than a week since our return from Storm Island, and the injury I’d received at the hands of Monique was still sore. "It’s okay. A little tender, that’s all." What is it about me and women anyway? Usually it’s my heart that gets broken. I suppose I was fortunate that this time, it was only my nose. Well, not even broken, exactly, but pretty damn sore, just the same.
As I look around the plaza, I change the subject, ready to do something that will help catch the assassin. It’s all we can do. Gordievsky will still be gone, but at least someone will pay. "You know, Jim, I don’t get it. I mean, even with the crowd here, how in the world can a gun go off and you not hear it?"
When Jim doesn’t reply, I turn to him and for an instant, I think he’s zoned. He’s just standing there, staring up. At what, I don’t have a clue.
"Jim?" I rest my hand on his arm as I try to determine if this is a zone, and if so, how deep is he?
Jim still doesn’t answer, but he moves. At least, this isn’t a zone. He jogs down the steps and to the street where he points at a brightly colored piece of cloth tied to a high wire. Okay. Obviously this means something to Jim, but I’m totally lost. "What is it?"
"That’s a telltale. Sailors use it to tell which direction the wind is blowing."
If I was lost before… "Sailors?"
"And snipers. His line of fire’s this way."
So we begin to jog, following the trail of telltales. First green, then blue, now yellow. If we’d been in the jungles of Peru, Jim couldn’t have looked any more pure sentinel. He’s totally focused, seemingly unaware of pedestrians and the traffic.
I follow him closely, my own eyes darting around as I watch for cars. Someone in this partnership needs to exercise a little caution, right? "Hey, come on, Jim," I say as I jog beside him. "I mean, we’re half a mile away from city hall. Who in the world could make a shot from that distance?" Seems obvious to me that whoever left these telltales, it couldn’t be our shooter. Could it?
"Only the best, Chief."
Finally, he stops in front of a building and stares upward. "Top floor, corner window. There’s a small circle cut out of the glass. That’s where the shot came from."
No doubt in that voice. I follow Jim into the building. A set of stairs is directly inside the foyer. "You stay put," Jim orders, already two steps up.
I start to protest, then I think better of it. I’ve seen Jim in this heightened sentinel mode before, and it’s not exactly the best time to argue with the man.
The seconds tick by into minutes. I watch the top of the stairs, craning my neck to see the top landing. Nothing.
"C’mon, man," I mutter. "I didn’t argue. I waited like a good little observer. Would have stayed in the truck, if we’d been in the truck. Give me a clue here."
I look again. No Jim.
I take a deep breath, then I start up the stairs. On the way, I work out my defense. *I didn’t hear any shots, man. No sounds of a fight. I figured all’s clear and you just forgot to tell me, right?*
As it turns out, I didn’t need to rehearse after all. I find Jim in a room that most definitely does not fit your definition of normal. The walls are lined with mattresses. "Man! This is like a big padded cell."
Jim doesn’t turn around from the window. "Yeah, or a big silencer." He sounds distracted. "I thought I told you to wait downstairs," he adds, almost as an afterthought as he reaches over and picks up something from the top of the cut glass circle.
"What’s that?" Nothing like changing the subject.
Jim studies the object as he holds it up. "It’s a Russian coin. Some snipers – usually the good ones – have a signature. This is Yuri’s."
That takes me by surprise. "What? You know this guy?" His next words blow me away.
"Yeah. We tried to kill each other in Peru."~~~~~ ACT II ~~~~~I couldn’t get any more out of Jim on the ride back to Simon’s office. I settle for watching him closely, trying to pick up on any clue to help me understand what the hell is happening here. It’s not everyday I find out that my roommate is on a first name basis with a professional assassin.
"Igoravich Goragoff," Vaslova says, studying the folder lying open before her on Simon‘s conference table. "Code name Yuri. Spetsnaz sniper…eight years Afghanistan…hero of the Soviet Union…retired in 1993 with 122 confirmed kills."
My jaw literally drops open when Jim corrects her. "It’s 127."
Vaslova asks Jim the same question I’ve been asking myself since we left Yuri’s padded room. "How is it that an American detective has the knowledge of a spetsnaz sniper?"
Jim’s answer is purposefully vague. "Our paths have crossed."
She nods in understanding. "Ah, so you also have a history."
"None to speak of, no." Jim replies with a tiny shrug.
Modesty, thy name is Ellison.
"Those are the most dangerous kinds," Vaslova comments cryptically as she studies Jim intently, obviously sizing him up.
I stay out of their discussion, content to let the information sink in. I prop my elbows on the table and listen to Vaslova. What I hear starts the wheels turning.
"Yuri is unique. He is a master of surveillance – radio links, data intercepts, night vision. It allows him to work alone, to have the freedom to trust no one. Now he’s a free-lance assassin who contracts his services to the highest bidder."
Simon asks, "Any idea who that bidder might be?"
"A man as outspoken as Gordievsky has more than a few enemies."
I speak up. "Aw, come on, even I know for a pro like this to be involved, there’s more than just a grudge going on here."
Grudgingly, Vaslova agrees. "Perhaps."
"I’m just wondering," Jim puts in, "if you have any information about this case that you’re not sharing with us." He pinions her with those steely blue eyes. Jim’s fascinating to watch during an interrogation, and he’s using some of those same techniques with Vaslova. He stays cool, never showing his hand, never trusting, but not antagonistic, either. Just coolly detached, like a cobra waiting for the right moment to strike.
Damn, I’m glad I’m on his side.
"I am cooperating to the best of my ability."
What a non-answer!
Simon speaks up again. "I’m sure you are, Inspector. Look, why don’t you take this photograph and show it around Little Moscow? Perhaps Yuri was interested in a home-cooked meal."
Vaslova nods. "Very good, Captain." She takes the photo.
"Sandburg," Simon adds, turning to me. "You remember the neighborhood? Maybe you could draw up a list of establishments for the inspector?"
I figure I’ll make the best of it. "Right. Of course. It’s a classic American ethnic zone there. Sort of like a little piece of Russia right here in Cascade. Borscht meets café latte."
Before we can leave, the phone rings. "Yeah, Banks. All right, Doc, great. We’re on our way." After he hangs up, Simon announces, "Dan’s got news. Let’s head to the lab."
We go straight to the lab, the three of us in the lead, Vaslova following behind, talking on her cell phone. Simon leans in and whispers to Jim, "What do you think?"
Jim’s answer is equally soft. "I don’t trust her. Not as far as I can throw you."
Simon laughs at that. "Which ain’t too far," he chuckles.
I glance behind at Vaslova. Her black eyes are locked on Jim’s back, and I have an uneasy feeling she’s heard every word.
Dan Wolfe is handling the case. I like Dan. He’s got a sharp mind, and he explains his results in a way even a layman like me with a queasy stomach can understand. If I have to spend time around a coroner when I‘m in Jim‘s world, Dan would be my choice.
"Hey, Dan, what you got?" Jim asks as we enter.
Dan looks up, his long black hair in his traditional ponytail. "Hey, Jim. I found these in Gordievsky’s intestinal tract during the autopsy." He holds up what appears to be a bag of rocks.
Simon seems to be as surprised as I am. "Rocks? What are you saying? He had rocks in his intestines?"
Dan proceeds to dump the bag out on a specimen tray, then he picks up one already set over to the side with tweezers, giving it to Jim. "I cleaned this one up for you."
"Thanks, Dan," Jim quips with a smile. He lays it on the counter and focuses intently on the rock. "This looks like an uncut diamond."
"Yeah," Dan says. "Not your typical airline meal – even in first class." His phone rings, and he steps to the counter to answer. "Okay, good." He hangs up. "I got another customer waiting. Excuse me."
All eyes return to the diamonds.
Simon suggests, "I guess the first thing we do is get these things appraised."
"No need," Vaslova says quickly. "If cut correctly, they would be worth about $2 million. Perhaps more."
"You could tell all that just by looking at them?" Simon asks incredulously. Vaslova doesn’t respond, but she won’t meet Simon’s gaze.
Jim chuckles under his breath as Simon adds, "I don’t know, Jim. I think somebody knows more about this than they’re letting on, you know?"
Nodding, Jim replies, "Sounds right to me."
Vaslova’s surrender is immediate. "For some time we have known that large diamonds were being smuggled out of our Siberian mines. We traced the pipeline to Cascade."
Simon erupts right on schedule. "And you didn’t think it was important to tell us that?!"
"Until I was sure that Gordievsky and the diamonds were connected, I had orders to stay quiet." She turns to go, her hand resting on the doorknob.
"So much for a level playing field," Jim remarks.
That gets her attention. She turns around again. "We come from very different worlds, Detective. I told you what I could."
"All right, look," Simon comments, "the important thing is to find out why Gordievsky was killed. It’s time to smoke out his contacts. You know what to do."
"We’ll spread the word we’re shipping the body back to Moscow. His connection – whoever it is – will probably want to make a play for the stones." Jim immediately comes up with the plan. "Let’s go."
Diamonds as bait. Sounds enticing to me.
Jim and I pull our stake-out duty sitting in his truck up the alleyway from a shipping warehouse. It’s cliché stake-out weather. Just like something you’d expect in a B-movie. A mist shrouds the city, dimming the streetlights and casting a damp blanket over all it touches. The only movement in the alley is the occasional alley cat or skittering rat passing through the debris along the walls of the warehouses.
As we wait, I study Jim’s profile, debating whether to push for an answer. After all, privacy’s a sacred thing. But so’s friendship, right? So I figure, no time like the present. "Jim, you’ve been putting me off all day, man. You going to tell me about Yuri?"
"There’s really nothing to tell."
Tell me another one, Ellison. "You went up against him as a Ranger. You even knew how many kills he had. Obviously, you’ve followed his career since. Come on, what went on down there in Peru?"
Jim leans against the truck window, his hand resting on his forehead, and that jaw of his working constantly. Since we teamed up, Jim’s been pretty clear that his past is just that…in the past. Hell, I didn’t even know he had a brother! What I’m asking of him now is way beyond the ‘where’d you go to school’ kind of question. I know a lot of what Jim was involved in during his Army days is still classified, and I’d never expect him to reveal those things to me. But this…somehow, this feels *personal*.
I’ve almost given up on getting an answer when Jim takes a long breath and starts to talk. His voice almost doesn’t sound like his, it’s distant, as though he’s reliving what went down all over again. I wait quietly, without comment, not wanting to interrupt the flow of words once the floodgate has opened.
"The Army advisers were training the locals in anti-insurgency techniques. It was starting to work out until the other side sent in Yuri. He killed anyone with the guts to stand up to the rebels. Judges, city officials, priests – it didn’t matter. All very public hits designed to send a message. My unit was sent in to take him out." He pauses for a moment, and I have to strain to hear the softly added words, "It was my responsibility to see that Yuri didn’t kill again."
Jim is far away from me now, lost in his memories. "We never even got close. I’d been down there a while, long enough to get to know a lot of people. My closest friend was this guy named Hector Fernandez. He was a judge. Young guy, and totally fearless. We all knew he was on Yuri’s hit list, but Hector wouldn’t back down." Jim shook his head and shut his eyes for a moment, his hands clutching the wheel so tightly the knuckles turned pale. "God, he was brave, Sandburg. He and his wife had just had their first child, a baby girl. We all knew that the christening was just the sort of thing Yuri wouldn’t be able to pass up, so we pulled out all the stops to find him. Tracked him into the mountains."
Jim turns to look at me now, haunted blue eyes gleaming wetly in the sickly yellow light cast by the dim and dirty streetlight. He spreads his hands, palms out, in a futile gesture of helplessness. "I figured there was no way it could happen at the christening. He was a hundred miles away!"
Without conscious thought, my hand finds his bicep and grips it hard. I leave it there in silent support. If Jim notices, he doesn’t acknowledge the gesture. His own hands return to clasp the steering wheel, as if clutching that circle will help him hold on through the telling of this painful story.
"Yuri doubled back, came into town, and took Hector out right on the cathedral steps. The bullet passed through Marlena and killed her, too. The baby was unhurt, thank God, but that little girl is growing up never knowing her mother or father." Jim’s fist pounds powerlessly on the wheel as he spits, "Thanks to Yuri."
What do you say in the face of such pain? "Oh, man. I’m so sorry." I squeeze his arm again.
My words seem pitifully inadequate, but before I can find others, Jim adds softly, "I missed that one, too, Chief."
This time, words don’t fail me. "Jim, no. That was not your fault. You didn’t think he was anywhere near the cathedral. There was no way you could have known he’d doubled back."
"I-should-have-known!" Each word is emphasized by the sound of Jim’s fist striking the wheel. "It was my job to know! My responsibility, Sandburg, don’t you see that? I underestimated Yuri then, but I swear I won’t underestimate the bastard again."
Before I can reply, the radio sounds. "Zebra six, we have activity in the alley behind the building. There are intruders on the premises."
Jim replies immediately, suddenly calm and professional. "Roger that, edgar nine. I have a visual on the suspects."
The moment of sharing confidences vanishes in an instant as reality sets in. Time to go to work.
By the time we get inside, the action’s about over. That little knot of apprehension that forms inside my gut every time I go into an unknown situation with Jim loosens considerably, and I breathe normally again. Vaslova, Mulroney, Simon, along with various other uniformed cops, are standing around two familiar figures.
Micki and Father Kasporev.
One officer leads the priest away, while Jim approaches Micki. I stand close by, but I try to stay out of his way.
"Just tell me why!" Jim demands.
"You wouldn’t understand."
I hear the note of betrayal in Jim’s soft reply. "I thought I was your friend."
You blew it, lady. This is one man who may forget, but he doesn’t forgive. Not easily, at least.
Micki’s eyes hold his steadily. "You are, but you are also a policeman."
Jim turns and walks away without another word.
Vaslova comes up to Micki with a cunning smile. "Don’t worry, you can talk to me. Won’t that be nice?" The fake friendliness in her voice chills to the temperature of an iceberg. "Let’s go."
I catch the brief glint of fear in Micki’s eyes before she catches herself and holds it at bay. As Vaslova firmly grips Micki’s elbow, I hurry to catch up to Jim.
The mist is a perfect counterpoint to the thick tenseness in the air between the main characters in this little Russo-American drama that’s going down. I have to admit that since I’ve known Jim, my life’s been nothing if not exciting. Me, Blair Sandburg, caught up in the assassination of an international dissident. Who would’ve believed it?
Jim acknowledges me with a quick nod when I join him outside. He begins to speak, then suddenly stops as his head tilts in that familiar listening pose.
"Get down!" Jim shouts, pushing me roughly behind one of the vehicles. Almost simultaneously, a shot blasts the eerie quietness of the alleyway, and Father Kasporev crumples to his knees, then collapses completely. My elbow scrapes painfully on the rough pavement, and I feel the grit grinding into my face. Ow! My nose!
"Take cover!" Vaslova cries, as Micki makes a break toward her friend, now lying motionless. An officer grabs her shoulders, holding her back.
I hear Simon’s voice barking orders, but I can’t see him from my position behind the car. "Get her back inside now!"
Jim glances at me, the look in his eye warning me to stay put, and I nod in understanding. "Shooter’s down the alley!" Jim informs the captain. "Second floor!"
They tear down the alleyway toward the building. I watch them disappear from view.
The next few minutes whirr in confused activity. The ambulance arrives, and the medics pronounce Kasporev dead at the scene. The uniforms and Vaslova whisk Micki off to the station. I can’t even locate her among the press of protective bodies around her.
At last, Jim and Simon return. Banks doesn’t say a word, just climbs into his sedan and takes off for the station, muttering beneath his breath and puffing on his cigar like a bellows. Jim motions for me to join him, and I fall in step beside him.
"How’s your nose?" he asks, and I see his eyes dart in the direction of the second waiting ambulance. I hasten to reassure him.
"Fine. Nothing a little soap and water and antiseptic won’t fix." I touch it gently. "Gotta start protecting this handsome face, man."
Jim laughs unexpectedly, and I take advantage of the sudden good humor to change the subject. "So? What did you find?"
The smile disappears into the mist. Jim holds out an object, but my hand stops inches short of taking it from him. "Damn! Is that what I think it is?" I look up at him anxiously. "Don’t you think we should…I don’t know…call Joel or something?"
"It’s a fake, Chief." He holds out the charge to me. "Look at the display."
I read the digital block numbers. Then Jim turns it upside down. Suddenly, the numbers become letters, and my blood chills. /"ELLISON…"/
Jim’s blue eyes are cold as he nods in acknowledgement. "Yuri. He knows I’m here."~~~~~ ACT III ~~~~~The images on the computer screen flashed and changed as rapidly in the expert hands of the man sitting at the desk. A name and a display of personal information appeared on the left side of the screen…birth date…social security number…height and weight. The city of Cascade…a quadrant by the bay…an area of one square mile…three square city blocks…one…a street named Prospect and the home of James Joseph Ellison.
The cold-eyed man’s smile held no trace of warmth.
"Ellison," he breathed.
Simon orders us all home. Micki is escorted to the station, with Vaslova anxious to start the interrogation immediately, but Micki’s in no condition for it. Bless Simon; he agrees to give her until morning to recover from the shock of having a second friend murdered before her eyes.
I’m exhausted by the time we return to the loft, ready to pile in bed, clothes and all. From the looks of Jim, he’s not in much better condition. He didn’t say a word on the ride in, and I didn’t push it, content to allow the silence to lie comfortably between us. Jim revealed so much in the time before the raid on the warehouse. After catching Micki red-handed, I’m certain he’s not in a talking mood.
I head for the bathroom, and when I emerge a few minutes later, I spot Jim, standing by the windows, staring outside. I wait a full minute, but he doesn’t turn, doesn’t acknowledge my presence at all. Finally, I give up and quietly move to stand beside him.
"What’s wrong, man?"
Without speaking, he hands me a single sheet of crisp, white paper. Neatly printed in black ink are the words:
I haven’t forgotten Peru. Have you?
That’s it. No full signature, no elaboration. Nothing.
The threat is unmistakably there. Lying unspoken, hidden beneath those innocent seven words is a threat real enough to send an unexpected shiver up my spine. I grab onto the doorframe, supporting myself until the weakness in my joints passes.
Jim turns and heads to the trunk where we keep the spare linens. "I’m sleeping on the couch tonight, Sandburg," he states flatly, laying his gun on the coffee table as he passes by.
The sentinel’s personal territory – his home – has been invaded. I’m not surprised, and I’m more than a little relieved, that Jim will spend the night on guard outside the French doors to my room.
Taking a last look out into the black night, I turn and head to bed.
I hope the dawn is quick in coming.
Early the next day, a female officer stands nearby as Vaslova questions Micki, and we watch through the one-way glass of the interrogation room. The coldness of her tone makes me cringe. I don’t envy Micki.
"I do not know him," she repeats wearily. "And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you."
A bit of fire remains in those challenging eyes. Good for you, Micki.
I don’t understand Vaslova’s reply.
"On khotel ubit’ tebia."
There’s no mistaking the venom in Micki’s voice. "He is my enemy. Who are you?"
"You think I am your enemy, too? I am a Russian trying to find the murderer of another Russian."
Jim glances at Simon. "You’re letting her interrogate Micki alone?"
The captain shrugs slightly. "She thought she could get more out of her."
Obviously, Jim disagrees with that assessment. "Bad move. She’s not getting a thing."
We listen to what’s going on inside the interrogation room.
"Your father," Vaslova says quietly. "He was political, right?"
"My father was in the camps, if that is what you mean. That is where he met Gordievsky."
"And where did you meet him?"
"It would be easier to speak Russian," Vaslova points out. "Yet you prefer in English. Why?"
Micki retorts, "Russian in a police station brings back bad memories."
Vaslova’s voice drips with anger. "Do you think that just because you live here and your friend is an American policeman that we cannot touch you or your family?" Her hand whips out, grasping Micki’s chin firmly. "How is your mother in Smolensk? Or your grandparents in Vilnius? Where will your American friend be when we visit them in the middle of the night?"
Micki’s tone is as cold as Vaslova’s was heated. Calmly, she orders, "Go…to…hell."
Striking like a snake, Vaslova hits Micki hard across the face.
The sentinel springs into action. "That’s enough!" Jim tears out of the viewing room just as Micki stands and hits Vaslova back. Finally, the officer breaks in to separate the women, and I hurry into the room in time to hear Jim shouting.
"You! Outside right now!"
Vaslova apparently realizes it wise not to argue and storms from the room with Jim on her heels. Simon looks at me and I shrug. "Better go after them, man. Jim’s pretty pissed."
We catch them around the corner. Jim and Vaslova are eye to eye, glaring at each other with equal fury.
"Just what the hell were you doing in there?"
"This is called interrogation, Detective!"
"I don’t know what kind of oppression goes on in the old country, but here, when you hit and threaten a suspect, it blows the case because they’ll file charges!"
Vaslova shakes her head emphatically. "She won’t do that."
"Why wouldn’t she?"
"Because she won’t give me the satisfaction." Vaslova’s voice drops into a low, forceful range. "To you, she is a hero. She came to this country looking for freedom. Well, let me tell you something, Detective. The heroes are not the ones that run away, but the ones who stay behind."
Wow. Score one for the Russian inspector. Got a point there, Vaslova.
Simon interrupts the heated exchange. "All right, you two, knock it off." He turns to Jim. "You go outside. Go on." To Vaslova, he orders, "You take a walk and cool off."
I can see the argument building in Jim’s eyes, but apparently he decides not to buck Simon on this one. Probably a wise choice, given Simon’s current frame of mind. Unsolved murders involving the feds and international ‘cooperation’ don’t exactly put the man in a positive frame of mind.
I follow Jim from the building, trying to decide whether or not to bring up an idea that’s been slowly forming since we found Yuri’s padded assassination suite. On the one hand, Jim’s in a pretty foul mood himself. On the other, maybe a change of topic is exactly what he needs. Anything besides Vaslova, right?
"Jim?" I ask tentatively. "I’ve been thinking about this Yuri guy."
He waves me off. "Chief, I just need a little time right now, okay?"
Right. Interpreted from Jim-speak, that means ‘shut up, Sandburg.’ I ignore the warning. What the hell? How mad can he get?
"Jim, just listen to me. This is important." I quicken my steps to match his long strides. That’s Jim. He gets upset, he attacks everything with more of a vengeance. Including walking. "Think about this, man. You’ve got your incredibly acute distance vision; Yuri’s got his scopes. You’ve got your night vision; he’s got night scopes. You’ve got your sentinel hearing; Yuri’s got radios and microphones, right?"
The monster-strides slow almost imperceptibly. Yes! Gotcha, Jim!
"What’s your point?"
Here comes the hard part. "Well, he’s a sentinel."
One eyebrow quirks upward. "Oh, is that so?"
I can almost see Jim’s macho defenses rising. "Well, sort of, right? He extends his senses through technology, whereas yours are genetic." I struggle for the right words. "He’s a…techno-sentinel."
"Yeah," Jim points out quickly, "I use mine to protect and serve people. He uses his to hunt and kill."
"Yeah, yeah," I concede. "Given, my analogy isn’t perfect, but in all predator combat, even with sentinels, there’s some ritual display."
Jim stops at that, staring down at me in full concentration, but I see the clouds of doubt behind those blue eyes. "Is this going somewhere?"
Calmly, I explain, "Yeah. That’s why he didn’t explode that bomb last night, man. Why he spared your life. Why he didn’t plant another bomb in the loft or pick you off from the top of some high-rise when he had every opportunity. Because in some way, he recognizes you as an equal and that was his way of acknowledging it."
"Yuri doesn’t know I’m a sentinel," Jim points out reasonably.
"No, but he knew you in Peru. He knows how good you are, and apparently he came to respect you. He…"
Jim’s cell phone rings and he snaps it open. "Yeah?"
"Yuri," Jim mouths silently after a moment. He holds the phone out from his face and leans down so I can listen in.
<"I think the thing I miss most about Peru is the food. The trouble with Moscow is you just can’t find a good tortilla.">
Oh, man. Where did he get Jim’s number? Dumb question. This guy’s a pro. Of course he knows the number. God only knows what else the bastard’s got on Jim.
<"It’s been a long time, Captain Ellison. I didn’t recognize you at first, but then, a man in jungle fatigues looks very different from one in a stylish leather coat. Also, you did not hang around with…how do you say it?…hippies?…in Peru.">
Jim looks down at his black leather coat, then his eyes cut to me. I’m suddenly painfully aware of my long hair and rather…casual…appearance.
Yuri is watching us.
Jim surveys the rooftops, and it only takes him a moment to zero in on Yuri. Immediately, he maneuvers so that he is between me and the figure high on the building across the street. Covering the phone‘s mouthpiece, he orders, "Stay behind me, Chief. Get on your phone and call Simon. Tell him Yuri‘s on the roof of the Goldman building. Now!"
I quickly dial the call and fill Simon in. When I cut the connection, I turn my attention back to this scene that’s straight out of a spy movie that’s playing out on the streets of Cascade.
Mission Impossible’s got nothing on us.
"What do you want, Yuri?" Jim speaks again into the phone. Even though he‘s still got the phone held out from his face, he’s facing Yuri, and I have to strain to hear the reply.
<"This is an interesting moment, don’t you think? Here we are, two old adversaries facing off again.">
"Is that why you called? To catch up on old times?"
<"I called to tell you to let the girl go. She’s going to die anyway. There’s no need to hurt innocent people.">
Jim asks, "Why do you want to kill her?"
<"Ask Vaslova. The death of Micki Kamerev was decided the minute she entered that warehouse. There is nothing you can do to prevent it. The smugglers will be stopped.">
"You killed a friend of mine in Peru. It’s not going to happen again," Jim says flatly.
<"I killed many people in Peru. I don’t even remember the names. However, Micki Kamerev is already a dead woman. There is no need for other innocent people to die, perhaps even a third friend of yours, Captain. I take it that is another friend you seek to protect behind you now.">
Reaching behind, Jim finds my arm and shifts me farther behind him. "Stay back," he orders quietly. To Yuri, he declares, "It stops here."
<"Then I wish you luck, Captain. But know this: the next time we meet…I will kill you and whoever else gets in my way.">
The phone clicks off, and I see the figure on the rooftop disappear. Moving in front of Jim, I look up into a face carved from stone. "Jim? You okay?"
His eyes break away from the roof at last. "Yeah, Chief. Let’s go." Jim takes off at a run toward the station.
Jim told me to wait in the break room with Vaslova while he filled Simon in, and I’m trying to make the best of the situation. Everybody has their redeeming qualities, right? I’ve just gotta find them in Vaslova.
"Moscow must be pretty exciting these days, huh?" I ask in an attempt to start a conversation about anything but the case at hand. "The divergent cultural pressures, they must be enormous."
She turns on me in a heartbeat. " ‘Cultural pressures,’ Mr. Sandburg? The city is falling apart!"
Before I can respond, Jim blows in like a hurricane, with Simon in his wake. "Yuri told me to ask you why Micki is a target. Now, what the hell does that mean? No more lies!"
After a long look from Jim to Simon, she closes the door. "The Russian economy, it is crumbling. Diamonds are one of our few stable sources of income. Smuggling threatens that stability. If too many diamonds are sold, the value of our stones goes down. They cannot allow that to happen."
Simon barks, "They? They who? Who the hell are we talking about here? The Russian government?"
"There is more than one Russian government, Captain. There are the leaders everyone sees, and then there are the people who are behind them. These people will do whatever is necessary to protect their interests, even if it means hiring assassins."
I cannot believe what I am hearing. "Is that who hired Yuri? This shadow government?"
"Yes," she confirms. "To stop the smuggling."
Jim’s calmer now, but the irritation in his voice is undeniable. "Why didn’t you tell us this before?"
"I come from a country of secrecy, Detective. In Russia, we thrive on suspicion. Being open is a sign of weakness." A hint of a smile breaks the cold mask. "Perhaps there is something I can learn from you."
The intercom buzzes, announcing a call for Simon. We all watch him curiously.
"Banks here. What? Well, stall her, damn it!" He slams down the phone. "Micki Kamerev just made bail."
Jim’s already out the door before he finishes the sentence.
Micki’s in no mood to listen to reason as we trail along after her down the street away from the station.
"Come on, Micki," Jim argues. "This is stupid! The guy that shot at you could still be out there."
"I will take my chances." She strides on in determination.
"He got Dimitri. He almost got you at the warehouse. I mean, at least, at the station, you’re safe."
She shoots a look at Jim. "When I left Russia, I swore I would never be in prison again."
I can’t believe her. "Oh, good!" I comment sarcastically. "A lot of good that freedom’s gonna do when you’re dead!"
"Live free or die. That’s the American way!"
"This is suicide," Jim shouts as we cross the street. "This guy could be out here anywhere."
The words have scarcely left his mouth when two dark vans screech up, stopping on either side, effectively blocking us in.
"Watch out!" Jim warns, trying to get between me and the guy in the dark suit heading at us. He goes for his gun, but one man stops him as another grabs Micki’s arm.
"Leave me alone!" she protests.
"No sudden moves," cautions the guy who’s now slipping Jim’s gun into his jacket pocket.
"What the hell’s going on here?" Jim shouts. "Who are you people?"
No one answers him, but two of the suits grab Jim as another firmly grasps my shoulders, escorting us to one of the vans. Micki’s quickly placed in the other, and we take off in opposite directions.
Oh, hell. I’m pushed down on the floor in the windowless back of the van, and Jim is forced down across from me. I stare at him, trying to get a clue about how to handle this situation. Shaking his head, Jim shoots me a look that is half-apology, half-promise.
"It’ll be okay, Chief," he says softly. "It’ll be okay."~~~~~ ACT IV ~~~~~When the vans stop at last, we climb out and I look around. We’re in the woods by a cabin, and a familiar figure is approaching.
"What the hell’s going on here, Mulroney?" Jim takes three steps toward the guy like he’s gonna deck him. Which I wouldn’t argue with, seeing as we’ve been kidnapped at gunpoint. Pacifism has its place, but damn! Who do these guys think they are?
The man who took Jim’s gun returns it to him, and Mulroney apologizes. "Sorry about the dramatics, Ellison. We weren’t able to inform you of the operation."
Jim’s still in his face, but he hasn’t raised a fist yet. "What operation would that be?"
"Well, as soon as we learned that Ms. Kamerev had been released on bail, we decided to move her to a protected location. For her own safety."
I look around again. "Where are we, anyway?"
"Delta station," the fed replies, as if that explained everything. "It’s a safe house."
Micki approaches from the second van. "You had no right to bring me here!"
"Well, actually, we do, Ms. Kamerev," Mulroney points out calmly. "Your green card has been temporarily revoked, and we’re taking you into custody pending the outcome of your immigration status hearing."
Jim shakes his head. "Who are you trying to kid here, Mulroney? I know what’s going on here. The agency wants Yuri, and they’re going to use Micki here as bait. Hell, they probably even put up her bail!"
Vaslova appears at the cabin door and walks toward us. "You are right."
"What is she doing here?" Micki asks, eyeing Vaslova with distrust.
"Inspector Vaslova is here as a consultant," Mulroney explains. "This is now a joint FBI-CIA op. The agency has wanted a crack at Yuri for a long time. This is their chance."
Jim cuts his eyes at me, then back to the feds. "So, how do we figure into this?"
"Actually, Mr. Sandburg here is just along for the ride. It’s you we are interested in, Ellison. Given your history with Yuri, we felt your continued involvement might prove useful."
Great. Wrong place, wrong time, as usual. If nothing else, at least I’m consistent.
"What makes you think *we* want to stay?"
Catching the emphasis on the plural, I smile my thanks at my partner.
"Because you want to protect Ms. Kamerev, and you want Yuri as badly as we do." Mulroney pauses, then adds as an aside, "We know all about Hector Fernandez."
Only the twitch in Jim’s jaw betrays him. Otherwise, his face is devoid of all emotion. We follow Mulroney inside without another word.
I have to admit, the technical aspect of this whole thing is fascinating. One of the feds, a younger agent, is explaining the array of electronics set up in the cabin’s living area.
"…ground effect radar, random motion sensors, infrared scanners, and audio detectors inside and outside the house." He points to a monitor. "This is a geostationary platform with on-line, on-command image control. Gives up an infrared image of the cabin and surrounding area. That’s us right there. If Yuri shows up within 2,000 yards, this’ll pick him up."
"Oh, very cool," I comment, and it is. This is the aspect of police work that I really could get into.
Jim’s looking out the window, his mind obviously on matters other than what high-tech toys the feds have brought along to the wilds of Washington. "Mulroney’s pulling out? How many men is he leaving here?"
The young agent replies confidently, "Agent Walker and myself."
"I suggest you get a lot more up here."
"The idea is to draw him out," the agent protests. "If we put a circus out there, he won’t show. Besides, we’ve got a million dollars of state-of-the-art equipment here. There’s no way he can get past all that."
Jim looks at the agent as if he were a child not quite comprehending the seriousness of the situation due to his youth and inexperience. Finally, he says softly, "He’s done it before. Trust me."
Still unconvinced, the fed argues, "We can have people here within ten minutes and on the scene."
Jim’s voice is deadly quiet. "In five minutes, Yuri can turn this place into a graveyard."
A shiver shakes me slightly at the image conjured by those soft words, and I decide to stick close to Jim on this one. I ease closer to him. If there’s a techno-sentinel out there who won’t hesitate to kill us all to get at Micki, I want my own sentinel close by.
I’ll take Jim’s senses over Yuri’s tricks any day.
Deep in the woods, the hunter waited. Covered by a thermal tent, Yuri listened to the conversations inside the cabin. His camouflage paint and clothes rendered him barely visible against the browns and greens of the forest floor. He pulled out a device with a monitor and followed the small blips as they moved around the screen. By listening to the conversations and coordinating them with the blips, Yuri soon identified every person in the cabin.
His smile was cold.
I decide to wait with Micki in the kitchen while Jim checks out the perimeter. Actually, Jim sort of encouraged me to wait inside.
Ordered seems such a strong word.
"Where’s Jim?" Micki asks.
I stir the soup simmering on the gas stove. Might as well cook something. From how things are going, we could be here a while. "He’s checking out the perimeter." I taste a little. Needs pepper.
"Is he…still angry with me?" Micki’s voice is soft and hesitant.
"Oh, yeah." I taste the soup again. Better.
"There’s something he must know…about the diamonds. They were not for me. They were for the future. For Russia. The Mirny diamond mines are the last of the KGB empire. They were dug by zeks – prisoners like my father. Like Gordievsky."
I turn down the light under the soup and face her. "That’s where your father died?" From the corner of my eye, I see Vaslova standing in the doorway, listening.
"Those who killed him still run the mines," Micki continues, "only now, the money doesn’t go to the state. It goes straight into their pockets. So we decided to use their own diamonds to help build a new Russia. Gordievsky knew people in the mines; I knew people in the west."
"Father Kasporev used the church to filter the cash back home."
She nods her answer. "Yes."
It seems so simple. Only look at the body count so far, and from the looks of the situation, it might very well get worse.
Vaslova drifts into the room, a totally different Vaslova than I’ve seen before. Softer, somehow. More vulnerable.
"We dream of the same thing. A free Russia. Only our methods are different."
She moves to stand beside Micki, only there’s nothing threatening about her demeanor now.
Jim comes in through the kitchen door, his gun still in his hand.
"Hey, Jim. Anything going on outside?" I ask, hoping maybe Yuri’s been caught and we can all go home now.
Except Micki. Where the hell will home be for her when this is all over?
No such luck. Jim shakes his head. "No, not yet, but he’s out there. I can feel him."
It was time. Crawling out from the safety of his thermal tent, Yuri stood up, stretching his legs after hours hidden within the shelter. He pushed a single button on the watch-like device on his wrist., then he ducked back beneath his cover.
"Code red! We’ve got something in the woods! Looks like an intruder."
There’s a mad rush to see what’s appeared on the fed’s screen. We all see the blip as the agent points to it, then, suddenly, it disappears completely.
"Damn it! He’s gone!" The young agent stares at the screen in disbelief.
Beneath the safety of his tent, Yuri aimed his high-powered rifle at the shuttered windows of the cabin and smiled. He glanced at the screen beside him, selecting his target with care.
He fired. Once. Again. Again.
Jim must have heard the bullet streaking toward us. "Get down!" he cries. "Everyone get down!"
A bullet slices the air, followed quickly by a second.
I throw myself behind a large overstuffed chair, as Jim dives behind a chair. Vaslova and Micki take cover behind the other big chair. I lose track of the agents for a moment, and when I find them, my heart sinks.
They are lying perfectly still, sprawled in the middle of the floor, blood oozing out and soaking the rug, turning it dark and wet.
I fight back a wave of nausea. No time to get sick, not right now.
Jim starts to crawl around the back of the cabin toward me. "Stay low!"
Just as he emerges into the open from the safety of the couch, two quick bullets bite the floor, forcing him to retreat.
Vaslova calls out, "The windows are covered. How can he see us?"
Jim raises up enough to look at the monitor display. "Son of a…! Sandburg! Give me the walkie-talkie! Right above you."
Carefully, expecting at any moment to hear the crack of rifle fire, I ease my arm up and snag the walkie-talkie from the mantle. Hunkering back behind my chair, I lean out and toss it across the room to Jim.
"Mulroney! We’re under attack," Jim shouts into the black box. "Yuri’s tapped into the security system."
A crackling reply that sounds like Mulroney answers. "That’s impossible!"
Jim erupts. "Your two men have been hit. He’s using your satellite to target our heat signatures. Now shut it off before somebody else gets killed!"
"All right, all right," the voice crackles. "I’ll shut it down. I’ll call you back." There’s an audible click as the connection is broken.
Vaslova says, "I don’t understand. The satellite picked him up only for a moment, then he disappeared."
"He probably was covering up his body heat, using a thermal blanket or something. He popped out only long enough to let us know he was there and get our attention."
No one answered. I strain my ears, trying to hear something. Anything.
Be careful what you wish for. A spray of bullets tears through the walls and windows, splintering wood and shattering glass. I duck down low, covering my head and wishing I could crawl beneath the floorboards. The bullets are popping all around me, the splinters bouncing off my face. Down from the chair sprays into the air, and I realize it only offers the illusion of cover. Damn!
"Everybody fall back!" Jim cries. "Get behind the couch! Stay low! Sandburg, stay low!"
Don’t worry, man. I crawl quickly behind the more substantial bulk of the couch and collapse, panting and sweating with a combination of fear and exertion. From his position behind the chair, Jim spots me, and a determined look flares in his eyes. He crawls over to me, staying low. Dropping down and rolling, he plants himself in front of me so that I have the wall to my back and Jim to the front. Vaslova and Micki huddle together on the other side of Jim.
Mulroney’s voice crackles through the walkie-talkie again during a lull in the shooting. "Ellison? All right, we’ve turned it off. How bad is your situation?"
Jim leans back, his shoulder pressing heavy against my thigh. "He’s using explosive rounds. He’s firing blind now. It’s time to send in back-up."
There’s a long hesitation. "We’ve got a team on their way. Five minutes out."
Jim’s earlier words ring in my ears. *"In five minutes, Yuri can turn this place into a graveyard."*
What’s left of the cabin windows shatter with the impact of a tremendous explosion. "What was that?" I shout at Jim, staring at him as I grab onto his arm.
Jim shakes his head and keys the walkie-talkie. "Did you hear that, Mulroney? That’s a land mine. Your men are going down. Now, I suggest you send in the air support."
The next words fall like lead. "We can’t do that."
Another spray of bullets chops into the floor, the walls, the ceiling. We cower lower behind the couch, as Jim shouts into the walkie-talkie, "I’m telling you I need my people out of here now!" As another round bites the cabin walls and floor, he twists, grabbing my shoulders, pulling me down hard against him.
Mulroney‘s voice crackles again. "And I’m telling you, Ellison, we can’t risk the men. He could blow my guys out of the sky. Sit tight, and we’ll contain the perimeter. This is gonna be our last call. Yuri’s probably listening in. Over and out."
With a click, communication with the outside was cut abruptly off.
"Mulroney!" Jim shouts, keying the walkie-talkie to no avail. "Mulro…" He slams the device across the room in a fit of fury.
I can see the moment when Jim makes up his mind. He looks around, then points to Vaslova. "All right. You’re in charge here." Jim stares flatly at me. "I want you to listen to her. Anything she says, you do it, okay?" He doesn’t give me time to argue. "I’m going after him."
Just as he raises up, another bullet whizzes by. I grab Jim’s arm and hold him back. "You sure about this, man?"
Why the hell do I feel like he’s just said good-bye?
Staring hard into my eyes, forcing me to understand the meaning behind the words, Jim says pointedly, "He’s lost his sight. All that technology isn’t helping him. I got the advantage now."
Our gaze locks for a long moment, then I nod. I understand. The techno-sentinel’s working blind, and Jim could no more remain here in safety than he could walk out that battered door waving a white flag. Knowing Yuri can probably still hear every word, I squeeze his arm and say softly, "You can do this. Just be careful, okay?"
With a tight nod and a half-smile, Jim belly-crawls out the back door.~~~~~ ACT V ~~~~~Time creeps by. Minutes seem like hours, and the first hour felt more like eternity.
"It’s been a long time," Micki comments quietly, her eyes downcast. "What’s happened to Jim?"
We’re still huddled behind the couch. No more bullets have penetrated the walls, but no one’s mentioned moving. At least not yet.
"He’ll be back," I state firmly, stretching out my right leg to relieve the stiffness.
"If he was coming back, he would be here," Vaslova says coldly, and my heart tightens at the words.
Micki speaks the very words waiting on my tongue. "You’re wrong! You don’t know Jim. He saved my life before; he’ll do it again."
Amen to that, sister.
Vaslova shakes her head firmly. "If he is dead, Yuri is coming for us. We cannot wait for that."
Damn. The second guessing is starting. "Jim told us to stay here," I put forth, knowing it sounds weak. Jim’s a real stickler about the ’wait in the truck’ bit. Of course, this time it’s a cabin, but I really don’t think he’d appreciate the difference. On the other hand, a part of me wants to bolt out that door and find him. What if Yuri’s managed to get the drop on him? What if he’s zoned?
Vaslova stands up. "I’m going outside to have a look around."
I look up at her. "I really think that’s a bad idea."
"I don’t." She checks her gun and heads for the door.
Micki and I tentatively follow, standing just inside the open doorway as Vaslova stalks the perimeter of the porch.
Suddenly, a volley of bullets rages on the hillside. I grab Micki’s arm, pulling her away from the doorway, even though so far, none of the bullets has hit the cabin. Peering out from behind the couch, I see Vaslova dragging herself slowly in from the porch.
"Get out!" she orders, breathless. "He’s coming!"
I run to her side, Micki right behind me. "What are you talking about? We can’t do that!"
"Go! I can protect myself!"
I stare down at her, trying to analyze the situation as fast as I can. Jim said to obey Vaslova, right? Right now, considering the fact that the only cop in the room is lying on the floor, incapacitated, I’ll take my chances with Jim outside.
If I can find him before Yuri finds us.
That decision made, I turn to Micki. "All right, come on. Stay low! Stay low!" As we tear out of the shattered safety of the cabin, I have the feeling I’m one of those stuffed animals in the arcade shooting gallery.
The hunter entered the cabin without concern. He knew only the wounded and dead remained. The others, those who had hoped to survive by fleeing into the woods, would soon die as well.
He stared down at the woman lying motionless on the cabin floor. Taking her gun, he emptied the clip, then nudged her head to one side with the barrel of his rifle. Black eyes emerged at last from behind closed lids.
Yuri spoke in Russian. "*Why should I kill you? I only want the girl. Ellison may have to die for me to kill her, but that is his choice. Live with your failure.*"
He turned his back on the fallen prey and departed.
We struggled up the hill without looking back. I had no clue where Jim might be; I just sent up a silent imploration that someone up there would lead me to him before Yuri found us. "Come on!" I call back to Micki. "This way! Come on!"
Don’t ask me how I made the decision to run to the north; it just felt right. I’ve made enough other decisions in my life based on hunches. Some turned out great, others… Well, let’s just say I’m pretty much breaking even.
I’ve gotta find Jim. Fast. If I call out to him, he’ll hear, but then, so might Yuri, my self-christened ‘techno-sentinel.’ Who’ll find us first? I’m not sure I want to take the chance it’ll be Jim.
I glance back at Micki, and suddenly hit something solid. Not as solid as a tree, though. Warm. Gripping my arms.
Almost afraid to look, I raise my eyes and find Jim’s puzzled face.
"What the hell are you doing out here, Sandburg? I couldn’t believe I heard your voice out here. I thought I told you to…"
No time for patented Jim Ellison lecture number 123 – "stay in the truck (or cabin or outside or…), Sandburg."
I interrupt him. "Yuri shot Vaslova. She ordered us to leave before he got to the cabin. You told me…"
"I know. I know." Jim scans the area visually, and I’m sure, he’s listening, too. "All right," he says, apparently satisfied that, for the moment, we’re safe. "Get behind that stump. I need to know where you are. I’ll distract Yuri."
Micki moves to comply immediately, but I’ve had enough of the waiting game. Drawing Jim aside with a hand on his arm, I say quietly, "Look, man. Drawing Yuri away from Micki’s a good idea, but I’m going with you." Seeing the arguments building already, I forge on. "He’s a sentinel, too, remember? You’ve got him at a disadvantage already with his satellite connection broken. Let’s keep it that way. It’ll be two against one, and I really think that with this character, you need all the back-up you can get."
Jim’s expression never changes, and I just know he’s about to give me a tongue-lashing for questioning his order in a situation like this. Then, the icy eyes thaw and a warmth glows from within. Jim’s hand descends on my shoulder, and he squeezes it – hard. "Thanks, Chief." He glances over at Micki. "You stay there, you hear me? Do not come out, no matter what you hear."
She nods. "All right, Jim." Micki disappears behind the large stump.
"Do you hear him?" I ask Jim as we head off into the woods.
"Yeah. He’s behind us." Suddenly, Jim calls out, "Hey! This way! Sandburg! Micki! Come on!"
I grin. The prey is leading the hunter right into the trap. Then, I notice something. "Hey, Jim? Don’t you think you should, you know, have your gun out? I mean, Yuri’s sharp. We could run into him any time."
Jim stops and turns to me with a guilty look. "Yeah, uh, that’s a problem, Sandburg." He jerks his head back toward the cabin. "When Vaslova came out on the porch, I spotted Yuri taking aim at her. I distracted him, and he just winged her in the shoulder. I took a shot at him but missed. He opened fire on me, and I ended up rolling down the hill, and…"
"You lost your gun," I state flatly, saving him the embarrassment of admitting it. At his nod, I try to look on the bright side. "Okay, no gun. That’s okay, man. We’ll think of something, right?"
Jim shakes his head at me, and I’m not sure if it’s in disbelief at my naiveté or in admiration. "Let’s go, Chief."
We head up the hillside again, hopefully leading Yuri farther from Micki with each step.
The hunter’s head jerked around when he heard the voice shouting in the distance. An appreciative smile broke across the stern features. Ellison was not so stupid. Obviously, he was leading him away from Micki Kamerev. If that was the game he wished to play, so be it. He tired of Ellison’s interference. First, he would take out the captain. Then, he would return for Micki. She would not be so hard to find, once Ellison was out of the way.
Breaking into a jog, Yuri followed the sounds of his prey’s voice through the woods.
We break from the darkness of the woods into the sudden full light of day. Ahead of us, there is only open land and sky. "Where are we?"
Jim looks around. "The hydroelectric dam." He listens for a moment. "Yuri’s almost here. C’mon, Chief."
We run over to a small gazebo next to the dam. I glance over the side as we run by. A feeling of vertigo makes me queasy. "Man! That’s a long way down."
"Sandburg! Get in here!" Jim snaps, already inside the open-air gazebo.
"You’ve got that plan ready now?" I ask hopefully.
"Maybe," Jim says, gesturing toward the ceiling. It’s open with exposed rafters that form a steep A-frame. The height of the pitch makes it awfully dark up there.
Jim explains quickly, and I have to admit, I have my doubts. But I don’t have any better ideas. Taking a deep breath, I start to climb.
Emerging from the woods, Yuri looked around. He had tracked his prey here and had no doubts that Ellison was somewhere, lying in wait. The time for the confrontation had come. Their earlier meeting on the hillside above the cabin had been merely prelude. Only one would walk away this time.
Striding forward confidently, Yuri approached the overlook.
Checking beneath the small, A-frame gazebo, he found nothing. Listening, he heard only the sound of the water spilling over the dam.
Cautiously, he entered the building, looking around. Lifting his head, Yuri checked out the steeply-pitched interior roof. Shadows played upon shadows, accented with clinging spider webs, to obscure anything beyond a couple of feet up.
Yuri gasped as a foot caught him firmly in the jaw, staggering backwards to land with a heavy grunt against the wooden railing. "Ellison!" he breathed.
I watched Yuri fall against the railing as I followed Jim’s lead and leapt down from the dark rafters. For a moment, I hoped that he’d been knocked out and that the whole thing was over at last, but as usual, my luck wasn’t that good. Seems in the cop business, nothing’s ever easy.
Jim charged Yuri, landing a good right punch square to the jaw, but the Russian wasn’t staying down. He slid beneath Jim’s following swing, tackling him like a professional blocker. They both tumbled to the floor of the gazebo in a raging, angry heap.
"Sandburg!" Jim called to me. "Use your phone! Call Simon!"
I flipped out the phone and hit the preprogrammed number for Simon. Jim had been reluctant to use any form of communication before locating Yuri. All we needed was the techno-sentinel tracking us down through the cell signal.
"Simon! Are you with the feds?" At his affirmation, I quickly added, "Get back-up to the dam. We’re in the overlook pavilion! We‘ve got Yuri!" I didn’t wait for the reply, hurriedly sticking the phone back in my pocket and running over to help Jim.
The blows are falling like rain, pelting from Jim to Yuri and back again, too fast to follow. Jim’s bleeding from a cut above his eye, and his lip is already swelling. Yuri doesn’t look much better. Enough’s enough, already. When Yuri spins and his back’s to me, I charge, jumping up on his back like some crazed bull rider. If I’d stopped to think about it, I’m sure I’d have run like hell. Then, again, maybe not. By this time, I’m pretty pissed at this guy myself.
"Sandburg!" Jim’s on the ground, and from the corner of my eye, I see him jump to his feet, racing at Yuri, his shoulder dropped, and a determined gleam in his eye. I almost laugh at the sight of Jim, looking for all the world like the football star he had once been. Suddenly, Yuri backs up, viciously pounding me against the railing. The sharp edge stabs into the backs of my legs, and I feel the splinters cutting into my skin through my jeans. Yuri hit’s the railing hard, again and again, and my grip loosens. With a quick cry, I tumble over backwards and hit the ground hard.
I must have blacked out for a second, because when I open my eyes, I see Yuri sailing through the railing. The wood breaks with a resounding crack, and the Russian disappears from view.
Jim scrambles from the gazebo and is at my side in an instant. "You okay?" He checks me over visually as his hands grasp my shoulders.
"Fine," I gasp, still winded from the fall. "Yuri?"
Jim pounces to the side of the cliff. He kneels down, grasping Yuri’s arm as the assassin dangles dangerously over the side. I get up carefully, stiff and sore. At least, nothing’s broken. I move to stand beside Jim and peer over at Yuri.
"Why do you save me?" Yuri’s voice is strangely calm, considering his circumstances.
"‘Cause you’re going to stand trail!" Jim snaps. The muscles in his arm bulge even larger as he tries to haul Yuri farther up the side.
Yuri’s laughter echoes down the steep slope. "Your country will trade me for the next kidnapped American. How will you feel to see me go free, Ellison?" His eyes gaze tauntingly up at Jim, and I can almost feel Jim’s anger radiating from his body.
I rest a hand against the small of his back. "Easy, man. Don’t let him get to you."
He acknowledges my words with the barest nod of his head. Once again, Jim moves to pull him up, and I lean over to assist.
Yuri’s eyes bulge wide as the sound of a single shot breaks the stillness of the day. He jerks violently, then the thin lips curl up in a smile. His hand jerks in a wild spasm, and twitches out of Jim’s grasp. Yuri falls, screaming every inch of the way. I want to look away, to avoid seeing the inevitable horror of flesh slamming into concrete, but I can’t. My own body jerks uncontrollably when he hits, right below where the water greets the dam. We can’t see what must have been a tremendous impact, and Yuri’s body disappears beneath the swirling river.
If it bothers Jim, he doesn’t show it. Whatever anger is in him now is not directed at Yuri. Jim looks up at the top of the dam. I don’t need sentinel sight to see who is at the forefront of the cluster of men standing there.
With the night comes a calming coolness. An ambulance awaits its passenger, its whirling red lights casting an eerie crimson glow on the tableau. We’ve all gathered back at the cabin – Jim and me, the feds, Simon. The whole cast of this little spy drama back at the scene of the crime.
Jim storms forward, grasping Mulroney firmly by the lapels of that nice, federal suit. "Why did you have him taken out?"
"Why, your life was in danger, for God’s sake!"
Mulroney sounds genuinely surprised at Jim‘s fury.
Another fed shoves Jim back, away from his boss, but not far enough away to avoid the biting words.
"I was trying to keep him alive, so he could stand trial! We could have torn the lid off this conspiracy!" Jim’s voice stills, and I can actually see the dawning of understanding in the man’s eyes. "But that wasn’t what you wanted, is it? Who gave the order, Mulroney? The agency?"
Straightening his mussed coat, Mulroney says, "It’s over, Ellison. You survived. Now let it go."
Easy for him to say. He’s not the one who lost a friend to that cold-blooded bastard. The one who won’t see him stand trial for his crimes. The one who had to watch justice slip away from his grasp this afternoon on a dam high above a concrete waterfall. Watching Jim’s face, I see the flash of pain Mulroney’s casual words ignite.
He stares at Mulroney’s retreating back. "You idiot," Jim mutters. "You damned idiot."
Moving closer to my friend, I say softly, "I’m sorry, man. About Hector Fernandez. About losing Yuri. About everything."
Jim’s eyes track from Mulroney to me. The raw pain is dulled somewhat by the gratitude gradually warming their blue depts. "Thanks, Chief," he says, almost roughly, reaching out to squeeze my neck.
A sound behind us diverts our attention. It’s the gurney bearing Vaslova. Micki walks beside it and when the gurney pauses outside the ambulance doors, she says, "I was wrong about you."
Vaslova looks up at her. "The world is changing. Perhaps we were both wrong." Her eyes turn to Jim. "If you ever get to Moscow…"
He shakes his head. "Not very likely."
"You never know," Vaslova points out. "You might go there on a case someday. I know many good restaurants. There is one I like especially – Burger King."
Jim is grinning, too, as they load her into the ambulance and it pulls away.
Micki looks up at Jim, then over to me. "I seem to owe you my life…again." Her gaze drops to the ground, and her next words are barely audible. "About the diamonds…"
"I already told him," I interrupt, hoping to spare her the pain of explaining.
Jim nods. "I’m sorry about your father."
"I shouldn’t have lied to you," Micki admits. "It was no way to treat my…guardian angels."
A fed appears at her arm, escorting her away without time for more words. I wonder what will happen to Micki. "You think she’ll go to jail?"
Simon moves to stand with us as we watch them drive away with Micki in the back seat of the feds’ car. "I doubt it," he reflects. "The powers that be want this whole thing swept under the rug. FBI won’t prosecute, and I have no problem with that."
I look up at Jim. He’s staring in the direction of the dam, a familiar, far-away, listening look on his face. "What about Yuri?" I ask softly.
Simon takes a long puff of his cigar and says thoughtfully, "So far, no sign of the body. He couldn’t survive the shot and the fall, though."
A small shiver passes through my body at Jim’s quiet words. Surely, somewhere out there in the night, Yuri’s body lies trapped beneath a pile of debris or caught under a rock, his assassin’s eyes wide and unseeing.
Doesn’t it?The EndPlease remember to send feedback to our authors. Feedback can be sent to: [email protected]Next week’s episode: Dead Certain by CarolROI