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!
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
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
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.