The radio traffic had slackened and a dog was barking in the distance as Vitaly got up from the couch. His knee was stiff, and he did some stretching, then turned toward the bathroom just as a second dog began to sound off closer to home. Probably the paper boy. Vitaly peeked through the front curtains, expecting to see a boy or girl in the twilight, but instead there was a man and woman coming up the incline. And something seemed odd. The couple didn't look right together. The black man was wearing a tan, dress overcoat while the woman beside him was in jeans and a sweatshirt. Both seemed uncomfortable, almost rigid, and they were not strolling, but moving with a sense of purpose.
At the base of the hill, a vehicle approaching the street entrance caught Vitaly’s attention. It was a patrol car, and he saw it slow and debate whether to turn before passing on out of sight. Police? Deep in his gut, Vitaly felt a twinge. You’re just tired, that’s all. Still, he kept his eyes on the bottom of the incline, well illuminated by streetlights. Just tired.
Near the intersection, behind a tree, he saw movement. Imagining things … No, there! A man leaned out and stared up the hill. Vitaly peered at the image. Who is that? A cop? The police car had slowed, then just driven by … The figure now ducked back out of sight. No, couldn’t be a cop, Vitaly tried to convince himself. That wouldn’t make sense. But then the scanner message replayed in his mind. “Check with the special agent…” Special agent meant FBI. For the first time, Vitaly sensed real danger. He looked again at the couple coming purposefully up the hill. It all came together. SHIT!
Vitaly hurriedly flipped the scanner to the
“This is 145,” the scanner broke in. Vitaly looked back at the radio.
“145, Dispatch. Go ahead.”
“We've arrived at the location. It looks like the agents are moving in now.”
The agents. Moving in... Vitaly felt as if the floor were giving way. They know. Somehow, they know! His disbelief mixed with panic. How could they? How? He peered back out the window. The couple was now little more than a house distant. Vitaly’s strength began to drain away. After all this ...
No. Hands clenched into fists. ... NO! NO! NO! Vitaly pushed the hopeless feelings aside. It was time for action, not for weeping. Think clearly. Don't do anything stupid. And move!
He had an escape plan. It wasn’t elaborate, but such a scheme was not supposed to be. And if he was wrong, he could come back and laugh. But if he was right ... He must not allow himself to be taken. If that happened, there would be no hope of seeing Yelena again. He would never know his unborn child. And, eventually, they would make him talk. Never a prisoner. Never! Like a good soldier, he would fight. Now MOVE!
“So you think he'll come peacefully?” Winn asked.
“I hope he does,” Liz said, her eyes glued on the small home up ahead. “He's got to be wary, but he also came back, so he must feel safe for the moment.” She saw there was a light on in the house, filtering out through the curtains beside the front steps. “If we're lucky, we'll catch him off guard.” Please, make it that easy.
From his position at the corner of Donner's back yard, Kreveski peered over the roof of the metal shed at the thin slice of street and sidewalk visible along the fence line. Rezhnitsky and Winn passed by, and the senior agent dropped back down, peeked into Donner's yard, and then moved forward. He stepped over the barbed wire and took cover behind the only tree, ten yards from the bushes that ringed the home's rear deck.
Her heart pounding, Liz shoved her hand into her purse and gripped the stock of her revolver. She and Winn turned off the main sidewalk and headed toward Donner’s front door. She tried to peer through the curtains but only a pale glow was visible. Just come to the door. Give up!
Move! Vitaly raced into the kitchen. He reached under a shelf, pulled out an envelope, and stuffed it into his pants. Move! He was on the cellar steps when the thought struck. Weapon! He had no gun -- that was one thing his superiors would not allow -- but he needed something. Vitaly burst back into the kitchen and grabbed a small knife, then locked the basement door behind him as he flung himself into the cellar. Move!
Her senses on edge, Liz crowded alongside Winn on the small porch. She pushed the doorbell once, then again. There were dampened chimes. Come on, answer! She listened, hoping to detect some movement inside. Voices drifted out, muffled and indistinct. It sounded like TV. No one came to the door. Liz raised her fist and knocked.
“One more try.” Answer, damn it! Answer! She pounded on the door this time. “FBI! Open up!”
Vitaly heard the doorbell just as he hit the cellar floor, and it shredded the last bit of doubt in his mind. He was the target! He vaulted onto an old desk beneath a ground-level window. On the other side of the dirty glass lay the crawl space under the back yard deck. Clutching his knife, Vitaly flipped up the window frame and hooked it to the ceiling. A musty smell drifted in.
Move! Vitaly jumped back to the floor. Someone was knocking now. He hit the light switch at the base of the stairs and in the darkness took two strides and climbed again to the open window. There was a louder pounding at the door. Move! The bottom of the window sill was chest high, and letting the cool breeze guide him, Vitaly felt for the edges of the opening. He laid the knife outside along the wall, then grasped both sides of the frame and crouched.
Do it! He exploded upward into the clear space. His chest thudded against the moist ground, and he clawed at the rocky soil, struggling to pull the rest of his body out into the night air. Reaching up, he grabbed a crossbeam and heaved himself forward, squirming until his feet were clear. Then he jack-knifed around and gently closed the window. He felt for the knife. There. Vitaly clutched the thin handle, squatting in the darkness beneath the deck. His breathing heavy, his jeans and sweatshirt smeared with dirt, he stared out at the faint, early morning glow of the outside world. I've got a chance now. A chance.
At his post in the backyard, Kreveski waited. There was a breeze, and the birds in the tree overhead were presenting their morning songs. Dogs barked in the distance, and an insistent pounding now came from the front of the house.
“No go,” Liz grumbled to Winn. She leaned around to peer through the hazy curtains, but there were no shadows, and no sounds of footfalls. Damn! She pulled out her gun and set her purse aside. “I guess we do it the hard way.”
“I'll take the honors,” Winn said. He held his revolver barrel up and kicked at the center of the wooden door. There was only a resounding thud. He tried again and this time the door showed signs of giving way. “One more.”
Winn drew back and kicked. The door flew open and smashed against the wall. “FBI! Freeze!” he yelled as he burst inside in a shooting crouch.
Liz followed. “FBI!” She surveyed the room down the barrel of her gun. The small living area was lit by a single lamp, and John Donner was nowhere to be seen. But he had been there recently. Three radios sat atop a steamer trunk; one playing a steady rock beat, the other two belching out messages as Liz crept forward. Scanners. Did he hear us coming? We were careful, but…
A few steps away, Winn braced against the wall at the entrance to a darkened hallway. He turned the corner and froze in firing position. “FBI!” There was only silence in response. His eyes trained ahead, he reached over and flipped on the hall light. “Come on!” he said. “John Donner, show yourself!”
Vitaly heard the door being kicked in as he crouched beneath the deck. The crawl space was three feet high and empty. There were bushes and latticework on all sides, blocking both his view and that of anyone watching, but here and there were gaps he could squeeze through. He wiped the sweat from his eyes with a dirt-smeared hand.
They'll have someone covering the rear. How do I get by? Vitaly knew surprise was his one advantage, but heading straight for the rear of the lot would still be foolish. Covering open ground in the twilight, he'd easily be seen. He shuffled over to one edge and peered through the bushes at the fence that separated his yard from his neighbor's further up the hill. There. Once over the wall, he could work his way to the nearby woods.
They'll still see me. When I hit the wall, at least. A decoy was needed. Vitaly pictured the layout of the yard, and found an answer. The handle of the knife wedged between his teeth, he scurried across the crawl space, sifting dirt through his fingers. By the time he reached the other side his hands had closed around several small stones. They would have to do. Overhead, he could hear the dull thumping of footsteps inside his house.
Near the edge of the yard, Kreveski waited behind the tree, peering at the rear exit that lead to the deck. He had brought out his revolver. The front door could be heard giving way and someone shouted. Then it was quiet again.
Clutching the stones, Vitaly gently squeezed out from under the downhill edge of the deck into a hidden space behind the bushes. In the murky light he peered along the fence line towards the back corner and his neighbor’s metal tool shed. He peered over his shoulder, trying to visualize his return path, then chose two rocks. Careful not to raise his arm too high, he lobbed the stones toward the roof of the shed. The small objects seemed to fall short. There was no sound.
Harder this time. Vitaly took aim. It felt right, and even before the rocks had arced back down he was in motion.
Kreveski turned toward the sharp sounds.
His knife in hand, Vitaly frantically crawled to the far end of the deck and forced himself between two bushes. Branches scraped at his face.
There was another noise, a softer sound, and Kreveski swerved back to face the house.
With one strong push Vitaly was out in the open, his sights set on the tall wooden fence. Three steps and over. With enough speed, the former gymnast could dig his foot into the side and vault the barrier.
“Halt, FBI!” Kreveski yelled at the figure that had burst from beneath the deck.
Vitaly's second stride hit the ground. One more ... His bad knee pushing down hard, he hurtled toward the wall. Grab it!
Kreveski steadied his gun as the figure reached out for the top of the fence.
Vitaly swung his foot up to make contact with the wood barrier. His hands stretched toward the rim. Get over! . . .
The Russian shuddered as something drove hard into his thigh just as that foot touched the fence. His leg collapsed beneath him and he slammed into the wood, then crumpled to the ground.
Inside Donner's house, Liz was cautiously entering a darkened bedroom when she heard the shout from outside and then the crack of a gunshot. She ran back down the hallway, burst through the front door and jumped off the porch. Did he make a run for it? She headed for the back yard, with Winn not far behind.
Kreveski edged through the puff of smoke from his revolver toward the prone, limp figure sprawled face down in the grass.
Vitaly lay on the moist ground, stunned for a moment before his mind began to clear. His leg was throbbing. No!… NO! . . . Yelena! . . . Baby! . . . Never a prisoner! . . . He sensed someone approaching and remained motionless, resting on his right side and twisted at the waist so that his chest was pressed against the lawn. His arms were tucked underneath. There were footsteps. He listened. Only one person... Knife? Vitaly squeezed his right hand. He had the weapon.
Kreveski kept his gun barrel pointed at the sky as he knelt down beside the motionless suspect.
Liz’s shoulders bobbed with her heavy breathing as she jumped around the house and into firing position, then peered along the fence line. In the dawn glow she could see Kreveski bent over an inert figure.
Vitaly felt someone kneeling beside him. He tensed, his fists pressing harder into the dirt. Only one ...
With his free hand, Kreveski reached out to roll the body over.
Vitaly felt a grip on his shoulder. Wait ... He was being turned. Wait ... NOW! With desperate strength, he thrust off the ground.
Liz saw the motionless body suddenly jerk and twist sharply, and then a hand, clutching something, rose into the air. “WALT!” she screamed, as the senior agent threw up his arm as a shield.
Die! Vitaly brought the knife down hard on his enemy. But just as the blade hit home, there was a POP! and, in an instant, he felt very weak. Too weak ... to ... move.
Liz' hands snapped back from the recoil as Donner went limp with the bullet's impact and flopped over on his stomach. She prepared to fire again, but Donner remained still.
“I'm covering!” Winn said from behind. “Get Walt!”
Liz hurried ahead. Damn it! Kreveski had been pushed backwards by the assault, and he sat on the ground at the suspect's feet, his revolver now firmly pointed in Donner's direction. Liz saw the nylon of Kreveski's windbreaker had been torn at the left shoulder, and a wet blotch was spreading across the fabric.
“Walt, you all right?” she said as she knelt beside him.
“Top of my arm. Probably a lotta stitches.” He waved his gun at the body. “Check him.”
Liz moved to the motionless torso. Damn you, be alive. Talk! Face down in the grass, Donner had not made a sound since he’d been hit the second time. Liz saw the stain on his upper thigh, and then, between his shoulder blades, the dark, sticky hole she had created. Bad. Hesitating, she reached down and felt along the side of Donner's neck. It was sweaty and cold -- and she could find no pulse. Hoping she was somehow wrong, she grabbed an arm at the wrist and squeezed it between thumb and forefinger, trying to discern the beat of Donner's heart over the pounding of her own. There was nothing. Liz scooted back from the body, clamped her hand onto the shoulder and yanked. The lifeless figure flopped over, and Donner's eyes stared upward, unseeing. Be absolutely sure. Turning her head away from the waxy face, Liz put her ear to Donner's chest. Silence.
“Dead?” she heard a voice ask. It was Taylor Winn.
“I'm afraid so.”
“Shouldn't have happened,” Kreveski said. “Sneaky son-of-a-bitch, wasn't he?”
Winn squatted down beside the senior agent, and with his help, began to peel off the blood-stained jacket. “Nothing like easing into retirement,” Kreveski grimaced.
Liz stared at Donner's face. It had a look of surprise: the mouth slightly open, the matted brown hair laying disheveled across the dead man's forehead. “Pochti proskachil,” she whispered as she climbed back to her feet. You almost got away with it.
End Post 36
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
Other evacuees clustered in the bleachers around portable radios.