Ties That Bind
Robert and Mickey stepped onto the boardwalk at Coney Island. The ocean and sky spread out before them and the weathered gray wooden planks that made up the boardwalk seemed to go on for miles in both directions. The sound of the ocean underlined the noise of the hundreds of people milling about. Mickey recognized at least three different languages being spoken in their immediate vicinity. Peering into the Nathan's French fry bag, he looked for one last fry, before pouring the errant bits of fried, salted potato directly into his mouth.
Robert looked at Mickey and grimaced. "Aren't you supposed to watch what you eat, Mickey?" Robert took one last drink from his paper cup, and then mopped his brow.
"I am, McCall. I didn't even have one hot dog, and I love Nathan's Famous. This is just plain potato; I can have vegetables." Mickey walked to a large garbage can and threw the crumpled bag into it.
Dodging a group of small children running wild in the summer sun, Robert followed him to the garbage can and threw his empty cup away, "How in the world do you eat that much greasy, junk food and never gain an ounce?" Robert asked disdainfully.
"Good metabolism, McCall." Mickey was beginning to feel better about dragging Robert to Coney Island. He looked past the people moving around him, and considered the garishly painted signs on the sides of the food vending shops that lined the edge of the boardwalk. "Remind me to pick up some of the buttered steamed corn before we leave." He said, wiping his mouth on a paper napkin.
"Ah, the excesses of youth," Robert said wistfully. "Now that I think of it, I was the same way. Thin as a rake, when I was younger."
Mickey snickered. "So what happened?"
Robert took off his sunglasses and squinted at Mickey in the bright summer sun. "The age of forty-five hit me and my fast metabolism ground into plodding." He studied Mickey from head to toe, "I would say that at forty-five, it'll be plodding for you as well." Mickey felt worried until he saw the contented look on Robert's face.
The Coney Island boardwalk in July was in full swing with people walking and jogging in every direction. The scent of the sea was combined with the smell of fast food and cotton candy. Down below them, the long, wide beach was packed with people, and dotted with the bright colors of large sun-umbrellas.
Robert and Mickey strolled along the sun filled boardwalk. Mickey unbuttoned his shirt in order to cool off. If it wasn't for the sea breeze, Mickey thought, Robert would have made some sort of a comment about the foolishness of walking for miles in the July heat.
The sound of children and adults screaming with glee as they were spun around on the rides at Astroland echoed over the boardwalk. The two men turned their backs to Coney Island, heading away from the direct glare of the sun, towards Brighton Beach.
"The sun is very strong this time of day," Robert mentioned pointedly, dabbing at his brow with a linen handkerchief. "Mind you, it's nothing like Cyprus in August, is it?" He was determined to make his point to Mickey. "Nonetheless," he said loudly, "the sun is very strong."
Mickey looked at Robert and snickered. "Well, McCall, you could always step into one of the pavilions over there, get out of the sun and visit with the other alter cockers."
Robert eyed Mickey sternly, then he smiled, "Full of the joys of spring are we, Mr. Kostmayer?" Mickey grinned back at him mischievously. Robert continued, "And that is not a very nice thing to say to me, is it? Calling me an old fart," He looked over to Mickey, "especially coming from a little pisher like you." Mickey burst out laughing. He would never be able to put one over on McCall. Living in NYC for any time meant picking up lots of Yiddish expressions.
They weaved around the other people on the boardwalk, to get to the railing on the side that looked out over the beach and the ocean. Once there, they stood side by side and scanned the spectacular view.
Robert watched as Mickey hitched himself up to sit on top of the railing. He seemed to have snapped out of the preoccupied and edgy mood he had been in when he had arrived at the apartment earlier that morning. He had assured Robert, that his bout of amebic dysentery hadn't been the reason for his abstraction. They had both been a victim of that particular parasite a number of times before. All he had to do was watch what he ate, take the medication and he'd be fine in a few days.
When Mickey had suggested a trip to Coney Island, Robert had instantly ruled himself out, explaining that amusement parks weren't his cup of tea. Eventually, worried by Mickey's instance on making the trip, he had decided to humor him and come along. Robert took a deep breath and filled his lungs with salty, sea air. He moved closer to his friend and spoke up so Mickey could hear him over the din of the ocean and the people. "I haven't been to a place like this since I was six years old. Once my mother took me to a town on the Thames estuary, not far from London, called Southend-on-Sea. Looking back now, I think she was homesick and The Kursal amusement park and walking on the pier would have reminded her of home.
"We couldn't go on the beach, because of the defense preparations. Some of them had been mined, in case the Germans invaded. But we walked along the promenade and tried cockles and jellied eels."
"Cockles? Jellied eels? And they say the English don't know good food!" Mickey laughed.
Robert grinned in return, "Well, I didn't like them very much." He looked out over the blue Atlantic and spoke sadly, "It must have been one of the last times I saw her fit and well." Even after so many years, Robert was almost overwhelmed by the memory.
He took another deep breath, and stood up ramrod straight, his jaw set, "The few members of my father's family that still spoke to him, were horrified that she had taken me to such a place. Southend-on-Sea was fine for the working classes, for a holiday, but not for a McCall. It wasn't long after that, that I was sent away to school," Robert said bitterly. "My father said it was because of the war, that I would be safer out of London. Truthfully, I think it was because they were all snobs. My mother never really did come to terms with the way she was supposed to act."
They pushed away from the railing and continued their walk. The breeze was refreshing, and the boardwalk seemed a little less crowded here. "I love this place!" Mickey said suddenly, so loudly and with such passion that people turned to stare at him. "The biggest and most important events of my life happened to me here. On the boardwalk...," he looked at Robert, gave a licentious half smile and raised one eyebrow, "...and under the boardwalk."
"Mickey, if you are going to regale me with some story of raging adolescent hormones, I will stop you right there." Robert picked up his speed and tried to smother his smile.
"But, McCall," Mickey called out, "you gotta hear about Bambi Tiger."
Robert stopped walking and turned to Mickey. "Who?" he asked incredulously.
"I swear," Mickey said laughing and raised his right hand up as if to take an oath, "that was her name." He dropped his hand, shook his head and muttered to himself, "Bambi Tiger!" He moved closer to Robert. "She was sixteen going on thirty." He looked down at the gray planks of the boardwalk with a wistful smile on his face. "Sheesh, I haven't thought about her in years." He raised his eyes to the horizon. "I was a wild kid of fourteen. I met her on the beach at Bay 6, just down the way from here." His voice was soft and warm. "We went under the boardwalk the first date we had. I was crazy about her. She seemed sophisticated and worldly to me." He shrugged. "Well, she was sixteen to my fourteen." He looked to his friend, to see if Robert understood how he had felt.
"Yes," Robert nodded, smiling gently. "First love?"
"Naw! First time!" Mickey grinned. "She dumped me within a week, when an eighteen year old with a car came along. I thought I'd keel over with grief."
Robert chuckled, "Quite the romantic, aren't you Mickey?"
"I've never been called that before!" Mickey snorted. "I've been called lots of other things..."
"And I've usually been the one to say it." They both enjoyed the moment before continuing their walk.
All of a sudden, Mickey felt a prickly sensation push itself to the forefront of his mind, and he felt the muscles in the back of his neck and shoulders tighten. The noise of the boardwalk seemed to slip away. He looked to Robert, who was already standing with his head cocked, as if listening to an inner voice
"Mickey, had you planned to meet anyone today?" McCall asked as he casually slipped his sunglasses back on, using the action to glance around.
"No, not me, McCall. You expecting any company here?"
"Hardly." Robert looked around. "Up and under?"
"That's my idea." Mickey said.
"I'll get a drink at the water fountain now," Robert said, a bit too loudly.
They walked to a drinking fountain near the beach side of the boardwalk and Robert bent to drink.
"See ya later," Mickey called out nonchalantly, he then jumped over the railing and dropped six feet onto the sand. Mickey ran down the beach trying to blend in with the crowd. Looking casually over his shoulder, he saw that no one had followed him off the boardwalk. He didn't think that he was the one being pursued.
Mickey looked back at the boardwalk. Through the bustle of the people there, he just made out Robert, who was strolling away from the fountain. He saw a man about twenty feet back, shadowing McCall's movements. Mickey ran over the hot sand toward the boardwalk, ducking under it, just as Robert started to descend a ramp on the opposite side that led onto the cement pavement of the street.
Moving silently, Mickey was soon hidden under the ramp. He watched as Robert stood at the corner, nonchalantly wiping his sunglasses. The man approached Robert's back silently. As if on cue, Robert and Mickey made their move.
Robert spun around, ready to confront the man as Mickey materialized behind him, grabbing the man's arms and squeezing them securely behind him. "McCall, McCall!" the man shouted. "I am Leonid Konopika, Do you not remember me?"
"McCall, you know this guy?" Mickey growled, as Robert looked the man squarely in the face. He was about Robert's age and height, but stouter. Almost bald, his remaining hair was pure black, as were his exceptionally bushy eyebrows and mustache. His eyes were a weak brown and heavily hooded.
"Leonid, Leonid Konopika?" Robert said.
Mickey saw recognition light up his friend's eyes and he looked questioningly at Robert.
"Mickey, Mickey," Robert said, a broad smile breaking out on his face, "is that any way to treat an old friend of mine? Let him go this instant."
Mickey lifted one eyebrow and shrugged, "Your call, McCall." He released the man.
The man smiled at Mickey for a second before turning to Robert. "McCall!" he yelled, and threw his arms around Robert in a bear hug. Robert energetically returned the embrace. The two men pounded each other on the back.
"How long has it been, my friend?" Konopika asked, laughing.
"Too long, too long," Robert replied. "So, what are you doing here?" he asked as they let go of each other.
The man drew near to Robert, conspiratorially, and Mickey moved closer to hear. "The Company brought me here to Brighton Beach. It's like home, Russian wherever you go." He looked at Mickey, "I was not sure it was McCall. I had just started to follow you both!" He slapped his hands together. "Ha! I should have remembered; McCall has eyes in the back of his head. He was the best agent I ever worked with."
"You two worked together?" This was getting interesting, Mickey thought, another part of McCall's past to add to the jigsaw.
"Many years ago." Leonid said
Robert's voice was little more than a whisper as he said to Mickey, "Leo was a double agent. He gave the Company a lot of very valuable and useful information."
Leonid waved the compliment away. "Please, it was a long time ago. Another lifetime."
A crowd of boisterous Russian speaking women, overloaded with baby carriages and screaming small children, pressed in at them from all sides and interrupted their conversation. "Hey!" Mickey called out, as a small boy wiped sticky hands on his bare leg.
The boy's mother glared and screamed out in Russian. She shrieked to keep away from her Boris and she called him an idiot American. Mickey knew enough Russian to translate that insult and he was about to tell her to teach her rotten kid some manners when he saw Robert glare at him.
"Come," Leonid said. "It's too crowded here. There are benches with shade right by my building, only a block away. Come with me!"
Leo put his arm around Robert's shoulder and cheerfully beckoned Mickey to join them. "McCall, McCall," Leo repeated happily to himself as they started to walk.
Mickey followed behind the older men, listening while they talked of old times and old comrades. He thought about his own friends, from the neighborhood and high school. Where were they now he wondered? Mickey looked at Robert, his closest friend, and hoped fervently that they were not destined to go their separate ways.
As Leo had promised, the benches outside his building were deserted. When Robert commented on the empty seats, Leo shrugged. "I guess they are all inside watching 'Oprah' or 'General Hospital', at this time of day." They sat down with Leo between Robert and Mickey. The Americans were eager to find out why he needed help. Robert saw Mickey sit forward and rest his elbows on his knees, deliberately keeping the distance between them small so that Leo wouldn't have to raise his voice too much.
Leo spoke, his voice still lightly accented, "McCall, I am stunned, who would have believed that I would see you today by chance?"
"Yes, coincidence is a strange thing," Robert answered thoughtfully. Abruptly, he became businesslike. "All right, Leo, you asked for my help, what's the matter?"
Konopika began his explanation, "I have a cousin, on my father's side of the family. His name is Dmitri. You must understand, McCall, he is not part of our world. He is a musician and a good one."
Robert smiled, "My son is a musician and a good one, also."
Konopika continued, "Dmitri, wants to leave Russia. He is unhappy. He has no family apart from me, and no friends. His life has been very difficult since it became known that I was a defector and double agent, a spy. Because he played for one of the prestigious orchestras, he was left alone. At the end of the cold War, when its funding was cut, the orchestra was forced to dismiss some of its members and Dmitri lost his job. He applied to come to the United States but he was denied a visa, I know it was more out of revenge than any good reason."
"Yeah, double crossing the KGB would really piss them off." Mickey added.
Leo waved a hand to acknowledge Mickey's interruption. "So when I heard from Dmitri about an organization that gets people out of Russia, for a fee, I made some inquiries. They have offices here in Brooklyn and they call themselves Freedomlink. They say they are a charity. Ha! Some charity."
Leo fell silent when a passer-by came too close "I believed them at first and I paid them $10,000 to bring Dmitri here. It was most of my savings, McCall."
Leo shook his head sadly, "Dmitri left Moscow nearly two months ago but he has never arrived. Last week, I decided to talk to the woman in charge of Freedomlink. I found out her name is Lydia Pasina. When I went to see her, she just told me some lies about problems with papers. Then she told me to be patient, to wait. I didn't trust her so I made some inquiry's of my own. I still have one or two people I can trust. I discovered that Dmitri is in an internment camp in Hungary. He is one of a group of people that has been picked up by the border patrols there."
Leo grasped Robert arm to emphasize his feelings, "McCall, there are no papers or arrangements, the whole thing is a scheme to take people's money. I have no proof, but I think this Lydia is not the caring, altruistic type."
"Why don't you go to the authorities? Tell them about Freedomlink?" Mickey asked.
"I can't. You tell him, McCall. You know I am here on sufferance. The Company pays me a pension and I have a new identity. Besides, I have reason to believe that your government has used Freedomlink themselves. I can't go to anyone."
"I do understand your problems, Leo. So, what do you want me to do?" Robert asked. " I can't get your cousin out of Hungary, I don't have those resources any longer."
"I understand that. I want you to get information about Freedomlink. Tell the authorities and then maybe they can do something for Dmitri. And maybe, they will stop Freedomlink from ruining any other lives."
"Leo, I don't know if I can help, but I will try. Give me a day or so to make some inquiries, see what I can turn up, and then I'll let you know."
"I am grateful, McCall. But there is one thing, a warning, I have heard that Pasina has connections with the Russian mob. People who have asked too many questions have disappeared. There have been other rumors. I heard that some poor souls don't get as far as Hungary, they disappear without a trace.
"Don't worry, Leo, I'll be careful."
Then Mickey spoke up, as Robert was sure he would. "Hey, McCall, need some help?"
"Are you sure you're fit enough, Mickey?"
"Don't fuss, McCall, I'm fine." Mickey grumbled good-naturedly. You know me, I get into trouble if I've got nothing to do."
"Yes," Robert grimaced. "I know." Robert looked at him thoughtfully, for a moment. " Actually, it's fortuitous you offered to help, Mickey. We will need some information, and with your help, I know just the place we can get it."
Robert paced slowly while Mickey sat at the computer terminal. Mickey sat back from the keyboard while his search request was processed.
It had been ridiculously easy for them to get into the building. Too easy, Robert thought. He was torn between telling Control about the lapse in security and keeping the knowledge to himself. He might need access to the Company computers again. Mickey's ID had been sufficient to get them both past all of the security checkpoints. Admittedly, Robert was a well-known figure here in headquarters, but he was no longer on staff. That was a serious lapse in security.
At this hour, there was only a skeleton staff of analysts and office personnel on duty and the room was dimly lit. Text began to appear on the screen and Robert leaned over Mickey's shoulder to get a better view.
Lydia Pasina's file appeared first, and Robert began to scan the lines, eager to find out more about the woman at the center of Freedomlink.
"Do you want me to search for her known associates, McCall?" Mickey asked quietly.
"Yes, Mickey. I want to know what we are up against." Robert tapped the computer screen with his glasses. "Can you print out this information?"
"Sure thing." Mickey pressed a key. "There, I did it. It's going to come out over there." Mickey gestured across the room and almost immediately a printer began to hum and churn out paper.
Robert collected the sheets as they reached the tray at the back of the printer, and scanned the information quickly. On the last page, there was a fairly recent photo of Lydia, taken from her immigration forms. The woman in the photo was blond with light colored eyes. Her hair looked dyed. She looked years older than the thirty-three recorded on the printout. There was a harshness about her features that spoke of hard living, and unpleasant memories.
More paper began to flow from the machine and Robert picked up the sheets, glancing at each one in turn. Several of the names were familiar to him. The men concerned were all low-level thugs. According to their biographies, they were mostly former Soviet policemen and military personnel. The woman, Lydia, appeared to be the brains behind the scheme.
"McCall," Mickey said, interrupting Robert's chain of thought "look at this."
Robert quickly walked behind Mickey and scanned the information on the computer, "Oh my God!" Robert murmured distastefully. Even after thirty years as a soldier and a spy he had still to come to terms with the awful things human beings could do to each other for profit. The report told of a whole family, mother, father and three children who had gone missing while in Freedomlink's care. The only clue to their whereabouts, a severed hand, had been discovered in East Germany. From the fingerprints, the owner of the hand had been tentatively identified as the father. It was assumed that a similar fate had befallen the rest of the family.
"How many other incidents like this one have occurred?" Robert asked.
"At least ten that the Company suspects."
Robert shook his head. "People with no outside sponsorship, all killed."
"No one knows they're leaving, and no one knows that they're missing. No questions." Mickey said angrily.
"They cover their deeds well, those bloody barbarians!" Robert growled.
As more information emerged, Robert noticed that 'Company' involvement was more than just slight. They had used Freedomlink extensively in the past two years to get defectors and agents out of Russia. He had a sudden premonition that he and Control were due to butt heads again, and soon.
However, it happened sooner than he could have imagined. Hearing Mickey cough quietly, he turned and found they were being watched from the doorway.
Without his jacket and with his customary bow tie loose around his neck, Control stood leaning comfortably against the open door, staring at the two men in the room. "Kostmayer, I thought you knew that this room was off limits to you." The Agency man spoke softly.
"Since when, Control?" Mickey asked.
"Since the last time I caught you collecting information for McCall." Control spoke around a wry smile. He put his eyeglasses on and walked behind the seated Mickey.
"So, how did you know. Did I trigger an alarm or something?" Mickey asked curiously. Robert remained silent, watching the exchange.
"If you don't know, Kostmayer," - Control squinted at the screen, reached over Mickey's shoulder, and poked at the keyboard twice. The screen went black- "then I am going to recommend you for more training." His smile lingered for a few more moments.
"Damn, I hate computer courses." Mickey spoke vehemently.
"I know. Consider it just punishment."
"Control, what the devil are you doing here so late, anyway?" Robert asked, knowing his pique was evident in his voice. "Don't you ever leave this place anymore?"
Control turned to face Robert. He looked amused, and wiped his lips with the back of his hand, "what am I doing here? I work here, Robert, which is more then I can say for you." He looked toward Kostmayer, "Or you, if you don't start to obey directives more closely."
"Control," Robert interrupted, "why did Mickey's search set off an alarm and leave a trail? Unless, there is something to do with Freedomlink that you don't want to come to light."
Control looked away from Robert's face and started to roll up his shirtsleeves. "That information is on a need to know basis, Robert. And this time, you don't need to know."
"Now wait just a minute." Robert moved closer to Control, and raised his voice slightly, "In this case, I do need to know. At the very least, there is a man in the middle here, Leonid Konopika. You remember him, Control, don't you? A man who has given up everything for this country and the Company?" Robert used his glasses to punctuate his sentences. "He is living, miles from his friends and family, when he hears of an organization that can bring his cousin, his closest relative, into the country. A relative, I might add who is being persecuted by his own government. This lonely man spends all his savings to bring his cousin here. Only to discover that Freedomlink is nothing better than a con." Robert squared up to Control. "Don't you care that these Freedomlink vultures are cheating desperate people out of money, out of hope, and even worse in some cases, according to your own operatives, out of life itself?"
Control backed away from Robert and shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry, Robert. I'm as unhappy with this situation as you are. Of course we are dealing with criminals who break the law, but as you know, sometimes, in this business, we can't pick our bedfellows."
Robert held up some of the papers from the computer printer up and shook them at Control, "Why is the Company involved with this sordid little organization?"
"We need them. They're good at what they do."
"At what they do? Oh right! The usual answer. Expediency," Robert said with disgust, and paced the room angrily. Mickey sat mutely in his chair watching the older men as a spectator might watch a tennis match, his head moving backwards and forwards as each of them spoke.
"Whilst in the Soviet Union, Leonid Konopika spent twenty years living in fear for his life, serving the Company. How do I tell him that you are no longer interested in him? That 'business as usual' is more important to the Company than the ties of loyalty or the sanctity of human life?"
Control half sat on the edge of a nearby desk and crossed his arms. "It's not like that, Robert, and you know it."
"Come on, Control." Robert's voice was harsh. "Why are you protecting Freedomlink?"
"You know why, Robert. There are times when it is imperative that we have the means of moving people without being seen. Freedomlink has all of these contacts already set up." He shrugged slowly, "We need their expertise."
"So what do I do for Dmitri Konopika, Leonid's closest relative? Tell him that he is lucky to have only been conned by your friends in Freedomlink? It is a harsh enough reality that awaits him, Control. He is probably going to be sent back to Moscow, unless we do something."
Control's voice was flat as he looked at his hands, "Leave it alone, Robert. You'll get in way over your head. Just leave it."
Robert became indignant, "I'm sorry, Control. You know I can't do that, and you of all people should know why.
Control opened his mouth, but had no comeback to offer to Robert. He suddenly switched his attention to Mickey. "I can't sanction your involvement in this, Kostmayer."
Robert jumped in furiously, "Leave Mickey out of this. He is helping me as a friend." He viewed Control with contempt. " I wonder if you have any firsthand knowledge whatsoever, concerning the laws of decency? Or even of the ties that bind people together? By God! I wonder at times whether you even know what simple friendship means?"
Control grimaced, looking as if the barb hit home. "Don't be ridiculous, Robert. I understand about friendship. But, in this case, old son, I can't permit you to involve yourself."
"Well then, Control," Robert said, folding his glasses and slipping them into his inside pocket, "it is very lucky that I am not looking for your permission to become involved." His voice was like ice. He turned toward the door and said over his shoulder, "Good Night!"
Still annoyed with himself for losing his temper with Control, Robert pushed open the door to his apartment. The door swung inwards violently, hit the wall with a crash and then headed back towards him at only a slightly reduced rate.
Catching the door on the rebound, Robert stalked into the living room and, after removing his jacket, threw it onto a chair. Mickey followed more slowly and instead of heading for the refrigerator and the cold beer that was there, he threw the files on the coffee table and sank down onto the couch.
Robert studied Mickey curiously, wondering why he seemed lost in thought. Taking two bottles of imported beer from the refrigerator, Robert opened them and carried them through to the other room. He plunked one down in front of Mickey and took a seat across from the unusually silent younger man.
Robert pulled the files of information Mickey had smuggled out towards him and turned the pages. He read for a while in silence while Mickey drank his beer. "You see this, Mickey," Robert pointed to a piece of paper. "This man Lipovetski, I've heard his name before and I can't think where."
Suddenly interested, Mickey sat forward and pulled some of the smaller files closer. "Let me have a look in here; I remember the name too." He shuffled the papers for two or three minutes, "Yeah, here it is," Mickey passed a single sheet of paper over the table. "Lipovetski, he is suspected to be a senior man in the local Russian Mafia. Maybe he's the contact between the two groups."
"That would make a lot of sense." Robert nodded thoughtfully. "I can't see the locals forgoing a piece of this sort of profit.
Mickey continued to scan through the files. "Jeez, McCall, this is one sick turkey."
"There are reports that he has a history of torturing, then slicing and dicing his enemies."
Robert looked at Mickey, "I'm tired, Mickey. Just give me the specifics, without the colorful jargon."
Mickey sighed, "He has some fun with his victims, McCall. Broken bones, blade work, severed body parts, all while they're still alive. Then, he lets anyone else who might cross him hear about it. His victims are usually found in pieces, scattered around, after he shoots 'em." Mickey looked up at Robert, "Specific enough for you?"
Robert shook his head sadly, "Quite specific, thank you." He was lost in thought for a while. "Like drawn to like," he muttered. "What do you think Mickey? Is Freedomlink paying off the mob?"
"Looks like it to me, McCall."
"Unfortunately, at the moment, I can't see anything to take to the police. The only record of misdeeds on file about Freedomlink in New York City, are of fire code violations and a habit of stealing electricity from the city by attaching wires to street lamps. There is nothing here that can be used as proof that they are otherwise breaking the law, and furthermore, anything in the Company's files would be inadmissible in court."
"I could always take care of them for ya, McCall. There's a special group discount today, only fifty bucks." The words were light hearted but the coldness in Mickey's tone made Robert look at him thoughtfully. Kostmayer was serious, evidently he found Freedomlink's activities as nauseating as Robert did.
"Not yet, Mickey. Let's try this by the book first."
"Maybe we oughta take a look in Freedomlink's offices? They stupid enough to leave something lying around," Mickey suggested.
"When shall we go?" Robert asked, with a sigh seeing his chance for a soft bed slipping further and further away
"I always say, there's no time like the present," Mickey said. Standing, he collected up the empty beer bottles and carried them through into the kitchen. His voice echoed back as he walked through into the study, "I'll just pick up a few things we might need, from the back room." He returned a few minutes later, carrying a small canvas bag.
"We need a van and surveillance equipment. Can you arrange it?" Robert asked.
"Sure, McCall. Let me off on the way and I'll pick one up, no sweat."
Putting the canvas bag on the ground beside him, Mickey crouched down in front of the door. He looked at McCall standing a few yards away watching the end of the alley. As far as Mickey could see, this was going to be a piece of cake. The lock on the back door was old and so easy to pick, that he could have done it one handed, wearing a blindfold.
Less than twenty seconds had passed before he eased open the door and turned to wave at McCall. The older man hurried over and together they entered the building. As they stood in the hallway they could see two doors to their right and a stairway directly in front of them. The doors were back entrances to the stores that occupied the ground floor of the building. While Robert watched the stairs, Mickey checked the doors. They were both locked tight.
The offices they were seeking were on the second floor and, by the light of their flashlights, they climbed the stairs and found the door inscribed with Freedomlink's name.
It took even less time for Mickey to open this door and let them into the outer office. "This is too easy, McCall, anyone could have picked that lock," Mickey whispered.
"I know, Mickey, they are overconfident. With their Company and mob connections, they must think they are safe from any interference."
Leaving Robert to search the outer office, Mickey let himself into the inner office, which was occupied by the leader of Freedomlink, Lydia Pasina. He started with the desk and found no surprises, just some papers and the personal effects he would have expected in a woman's desk. Out of habit, he ran his hand over the underside of the desk top, both inside the drawers and out. Inside the drawer, taped to the surface, he found a piece of paper with three, two digit numbers on it. He searched the remaining drawers quickly. He turned as Robert came in.
"I've finished outside. The equipment is in place and there's nothing of interest there," Robert said quietly.
"Okay, I was just about to start with the safe. It won't take long." Mickey waved the paper at Robert. "I found the combination." Pushing the door almost closed, Robert watched the outer office and hallway while Mickey knelt in front of the old, dented safe.
In less than a minute, Mickey had the door to the safe open and was searching through the contents. He signaled to Robert that he had found something and, when Robert neared the desk, passed him a set of account books. Robert swiftly set them out on the desk and began to record the pages.
While Robert worked the digital camera, Mickey bugged the phone and set up a video camera and several microphones. From now on, Lydia couldn't sneeze without them knowing about it.
Mickey searched the rest of the room thoroughly, finding nothing of interest until he came to the single bookshelf fixed to the wall behind the desk. Taking the books down, one at a time, he shook them to dislodge anything hidden between the pages. Inside a Russian/English dictionary he found a few photos of Lydia Pasina with the mob contact, Lipovetski. In the fuzzy color prints, obtained with blackmail in mind, Mickey guessed, the couple weren't doing much talking, Lydia's mouth being otherwise occupied. Mickey handed them to Robert, "Take a copy of these. They might be useful for something."
Mickey looked around the room feeling there was something out of place, but he couldn't put his finger on the problem. He paced slowly looking around while McCall finished taking the pictures. He had replaced the books in the safe and returned the paper to its hiding place when the answer finally came to him. There was a panel in the wall, by the couch, where there shouldn't be one. It looked like a poor drywall job, something common enough in old buildings. He walked over to examine it. There were no plumbing or electrical outlets here that would have called for the wall be broken into and then repaired so badly. He reached out and tapped the panel softly; a hollow sound echoed back.
Alerted by the tapping, Robert asked, "What have you found, Mickey?" as he replaced everything just as they had found it.
"I'm not sure, but we'd want to see anything these people might want to hide." Mickey studied the wall for a moment, then, pushed gently, putting pressure on different parts of the panel. There was a muffled click and the panel swung back. When Mickey looked into the mysterious cache, he found a set of books with identical bindings to the ones that Robert had copied. "Whaddya think, McCall? Copy these as well?"
"Right," Robert smiled, "My, my, they certainly do look promising, don't they?" He checked the time. "You keep watch. We've been here too long already."
Nothing moved in the time it took for Robert to copy the second set of books and before long, Mickey was replacing the books and re-locking the secret panel.
They left the building as smoothly as they had entered, locking doors behind them and erasing any trace of their visit. Less than an hour had passed since they entered the building, but now, they were in a position to know everything there was to know about Freedomlink and its activities.
Mickey backed the van out of the alley where they had left it and drove into Manhattan. Robert sat in the passenger seat lost in thought.
"Mickey, do you know, offhand, if our friend Wilhite is around?"
"You mean 'Mr. I Can Look at a Set of Books, and Tell You If They Balance In Five Seconds Wilhite'?" Mickey shook his head laughing.
"Very clever, Mickey. Very clever. So? Is he around?"
"Easy enough to find out, McCall," Mickey said, pointing to the phone, "Call him. Or is it too late?"
"Wilhite loves this sort of thing. I'm sure he'd rather look at these copies than sleep." Robert smiled, "Drop me at my apartment so that I can pick up my car and I'll go to see Wilhite. It won't take him long to download the information from the camera onto his system. Then you go home and get some sleep. You can take the early shift, at Freedomlink, in the morning."
Mickey arrived at 7:00am, parking one block from the Freedomlink offices. He sat comfortably in the back of the van as he checked all the equipment. The van contained the newest surveillance gadgets around and they pretty much looked after themselves. The audio and visual recording equipment only operated when it detected movement or sound and it was set to page and transfer any signal to him if that should happen. As a result, he had been able to spend what was left of last night in his own bed.
It had been a silent night at Freedomlink. Good thing too. His gut had started to act up about an hour after he got home. Maybe McCall was right and he shouldn't have eaten so much junk food on the boardwalk. Even though he wasn't hungry, Mickey unpacked his breakfast. It was something to do to occupy himself while he waited. Gatorade and plain white rice. Back to safe food for a while.
He had finally figured out how he got the damned parasite, this time. When the shooting started, at the end of his last mission, he had taken a dive into a shallow, stagnant pond just outside the village. He had forgotten about the incident until the fever and gut problems hit two days later. Then he wished he could have lived those few moments over again. He knew he would have chosen to take a bullet instead.
Either bullets or bugs gonna getcha, he thought. Sooner or later. It was damn inconvenient, and he would probably go through it again. Most agents who worked in third world countries played host to all kinds of parasites from time to time.
He looked at the rice for a moment and pushed it to one side, he wasn't that hungry yet. What he wouldn't give for a cup of strong, black coffee.
It was 7:20am and Robert had just finished dressing when there was a light knock on the door of his apartment. "Coming, " he called out.
Checking through the peephole, he recognized the man standing there and opened the door. He stood back to allow the Company number expert, Charles Wilhite, to enter the living room. Wilhite looked like a typical accountant. He was slightly shorter than Robert, with a round face, thinning hair, and the decided look of a man with little in the way of a sense of humor.
"Good morning, Charles. Would you like a cup of coffee? I've just made some."
"Thanks, Robert. That would be good. I'm not usually out this early in the morning."
Going into the kitchen, Robert said, "I'm sorry for disturbing you so late last night, I do hope you didn't mind."
"Not at all. It's not often I have the opportunity to see such a badly executed forgery."
"Meaning?" Robert asked as he passed a mug of coffee.
"Meaning, as you surmised, there were two sets of books. Once I had the information, it only took me a short time to work out what was going on. Freedomlink is definitely under reporting the amount of money it's making."
"Are you absolutely sure about that?" At Wilhite's nod, Robert thought for a moment and took a sip of his coffee. A plan was already forming in his mind, it just needed one more thing to fall into place and then he was sure he could deal with Freedomlink and Lydia Pasina.
Wilhite pulled a file of papers from a slim briefcase. "I've marked the most interesting parts, but just by looking at the bottom line, you can see the two sets of figures don't tie up. One is much lower than the other, a sure sign that Ms. Pasina and friends are lying to their Russian Mafia associates."
"Excellent, I had hoped to find something of the sort. Thank you, Charles. You'll let me have your bill in due course?"
"No need, Robert. This one's on me. I intend to use these papers in one of the courses I teach.. I want to make sure my students don't ever make such elementary mistakes."
"I'm glad to be able to help."
Wilhite had finished his coffee and was putting the cup on the counter top when the phone rang. He waited while Robert answered the call.
"That you, McCall?"
"Okay, I'm in position outside the offices. No one has shown up yet."
"I didn't think they would be early risers. Just keep me informed."
"Kostmayer?" Wilhite asked.
"Yes, he's watching the offices."
"In that case, remind him that I need his personal expense account for this last mission."
With a wry smile, Robert relayed the message. The explosion of sound from the receiver forced him to hold the phone away from his ear. The words 'accountants' and 'expenses' featured heavily in the outburst. When Mickey stopped ranting to draw breath Robert stepped in, "Mickey, you know I won't relay that message!" He looked at his guest and gave an embarrassed shrug. "I'll speak to you later, Mickey."
Robert put the phone down and turned back to Wilhite, who said indifferently, "Told you to tell me where to stick it did he?"
"Er.. Yes, rather."
"Don't worry, Robert. It's the same every time, I expect it now."
"Oh, that's a relief."
"Well, I must be going. Thank you for the coffee Robert, and don't forget to let me know what happens. I will need the full story for my training exercise."
"Of course and thank you once again."
Alone, Robert poured himself another cup of coffee. He carried it through and sat down on the couch. Picking up the file Wilhite had left, he checked the details that had been highlighted for him, and easily noticed the discrepancies.
It was after nine when people began to arrive at the Freedomlink office. Mickey had wiled away the last hour planning how he would arrange for the violent and painful disappearance of all pencil pushers at the Company. It had been a fun way to pass the time.
Alex Alaxandrovech, was the first to arrive. He was tall, dark haired, and wore an expensive suit. He looked like he was all business. Next, Jacob Rusovskaya showed up. Mickey checked the files again - AKA - Jack Russ. He looked like a reject from a road production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Finally, Ivan Grubenko, medium height and solidly built, a man who looked like an insurance agent, turned and walked into the door that led to Freedomlink.
Mickey checked again. All of the recording equipment was working well, but the inner office was still silent. It seems that they had guessed right, last night. Lydia Pasina had that room with the hidden books all to herself.
It was after ten when Mickey first spotted her walking down the street. He glanced at the computer picture he had gotten the night before. Yes, that was Lydia Pasina. Whooboy! She was one piece of work. Five foot six, blonde and brassy. Not my type, Mickey thought - the wrapping ain't too bad, but what's in that package, I wouldn't wanna touch.
Mickey put a call into Robert. "The Freedomlink gang's all here McCall. Information should be coming soon." He flipped a switch on the control panel, "OK, the feed's up on your Russian pal Povich's PC. Anything that's too hard for me to translate will be highlighted for him."
"Good work, Mickey. Stay put and call me if you see or hear anything."
"Right, I'll contact you, McCall. Later."
An hour or so later, the phone rang again and Robert lifted the receiver on the second ring, before the answering machine could pick up.
"Hey McCall, I think I've got something interesting here. Lipovetski, Lydia's Russian Mob contact, is coming over later this afternoon; he just called to arrange a meeting."
"Good, just the news I've been waiting for. Leave the equipment running and get back here. We've got some preparations to make before our Russian friend arrives."
"Okay, I'll put everything on automatic. See you in about forty minutes."
Lydia Pasina looked at herself in the mirror and patted her hair happily. That stupid girl in the salon had finally given her the correct shade of blonde. "Yes, that's much better." She purred contentedly.
If only that crude mobster Gregor Lipovetski was not going to pay her another visit today. Lydia didn't enjoy having to placate him or that she had to pay so much money to the Russian Mob but, it was the way of business in Russia and here in New York. To survive you had to pay. She did get some pleasure in the fact that she was only paying half of what the mob would want, if they knew how much Freedomlink really took in. A bitter smile came to her lips, doing to Lipovetski, what she used to do for five dollars on the streets of Moscow, now brought her thousands of dollars. She had indeed moved up in the world. Her hands smoothed down the pale pink silk of her blouse. Such fine things she had now; and to think it was just a twist of fate that had brought her here, and away from Moscow's filthy snow covered streets.
Vladamir Maximov, the biggest, most corrupt police Commissar in Moscow, a city well known for corruption, had met her when she was doing business one day outside one of the hotels that catered to foreign businessmen. Less than two years after the fall of communism, Vladamir had everything set up to smuggle people out to the west. They called the service Freedomlink and offered its services to anyone who couldn't get out of Eastern Europe or the United States the legal way, for whatever reason. The money had been good right from the start. They had even made business contacts with Western government agencies.
Lydia had helped Vlad to expand Freedomlink and make it even more profitable. So no one had been in the least surprised, when she had stepped into his place as the head of Freedomlink, before his body had even cooled. Lydia wondered if Vladamir, the fool, had ever realized that she had been the one who had set him up to be killed in that Paris hotel room. She shrugged. It was of no importance.
She looked around the room. It was a pity business had to be carried out in this second rate office. It was small, dark and drab, but it was exactly what those fools expected of a charitable organization. She always told her clients, in a voice dripping with sincerity, that every penny they gave her went to pay off the villainous officials who stood between them and their loved ones.
"Imbeciles," she smirked. The money went to pay off her credit cards and her pleasures. And when extra money was needed, she accepted half the usual fee from people who did not have relatives to help them. It was easy money. Those worthless wretches were taken to a lonely spot where they were stripped of all their valuables and then pushed into an early and unmarked grave. Profits were profits.
She glanced at the hidden place in the wall where the books showing Freedomlink's true profits were hidden. Gregor Lipovetski, the pig, never thought that his sweet Lydusia could ever cheat him.
Men are so stupid, Lydia smirked. They think that if you get on your knees in front of them, that somehow you are weaker then they are. They are animals, all of them. She continued to admire her reflection in the mirror. When she had worked in Moscow, she finished her days covered with dirt where the filthy beasts had touched her. Now, at least, the dirt didn't show.
Through her open door, she heard footsteps on the stairway. He's here, she thought, forcing herself to stand up straight and throw her shoulders back. She quickly adjusted her brassiere, lifting each large breast up, pushing even more flesh above the top of her plunging neckline. There! she said to herself, Look at that those, you pig, and then forget your business!
She turned to greet Gregor Lipovetski as he opened the outer door and puffed into the main office. He was a man who looked as if a gorilla had mated with a fireplug. Short and broad, he might be mistaken for stupid but he wasn't. He was a man with the instincts of a killer, and the morals of a snake. Lydia knew that she could push him just so far, before her well-being would be jeopardized.
They played the same game at the beginning of every meeting, acting as if they both didn't know what was expected to happen. "Oh Mr. Lipovetski, you honor me by coming here yourself" she said greeting him in Russian, her voice pitched high and dripping with submission.
"Please, Gregor. I am Gregor to my friends." Lipovetski said with the gruff accent of his native Tbilisi. The exertion of climbing the stairs in the July heat made him sweat heavily and he mopped his face. His smile was closer to a leer as he followed her into her office. He closed the door, made his way to the large overstuffed couch and sat down heavily.
"Then you must, must call me Lydusia," she smiled, her bright red lipstick accentuating her mouth. She moved a box of tissues onto the table, and lifted a small dish of his favorite candy. "Have you come to check up on me?" she crooned in a breathy voice. She bent over to offer him the candy, encouraging his eyes to wander over the large mounds of flesh that pushed out of her blouse.
"Oh no, Lydusia," he wet his large bluish lips with his tobacco stained tongue. He had started to breathe heavily again. "Just to see how you are keeping, only to have a nice visit."
She sat next to him on the couch, her hand wandering innocently to his knee. "How kind of you, Gregor," she batted her lashes theatrically, "to take an interest in our small business." She leaned closer to him, noticing smugly that, yet again, his eyes were glued way below her face. "I am so lucky to have you as my friend," she trembled very visibly, "and as my protector."
"Who would dare to hurt you Lydusia?" he said fiercely, "You are under my protection."
"Yes, and you are so very powerful," she slowly moved her hand up his thigh, "and so good and kind to me. " She sighed deeply and pouted, "It is very difficult to be a woman alone and to be in charge of a business, Gregor. How ever can I show my gratitude to you?"
As his answer, Lipovetski forcefully grabbed Lydia and clumsily slid her off the couch onto her knees in front of him.
Mickey, wearing full NYPD uniform, was in the van watching what was going on in the Freedomlink office on one of the video monitors. "McCall," he said with a smirk, "we'd better get in there before this goes any farther."
Robert glanced at the monitor and grimaced. "Right you are, Mickey. Let's move."
Mickey led the way up the staircase into the Freedomlink office and walked through the empty outer room. He looked at Robert, then they opened the door to Lydia's office without knocking.
Robert stood at the entrance of the room gaping at the two people on the couch. "My God," he said, his voice dripping with disdain. "What in hell is wrong with you people? Disgusting!"
Lydia jumped up and shrieked in Russian, "Who are you? Get Out! Get Out!" She clutched her blouse closed and continued to scream at them.
Lipovetski pulled a throw pillow onto his lap and roared along with the woman, "How dare you? What are you doing in here?"
"Does anyone here speak English?" Mickey asked, with exaggerated slowness and facial movements, as if he didn't understand what they were saying. He turned to Robert and said, "Yeah, we got a lot of trouble when we speak to these Russians. They say they don't understand English, but they understand money all right."
By now, Gregor Lipovetski was zipped up. In Russian, he ordered Lydia to be quiet. He would take care of the Americans. He stood and addressed Mickey, " Why you here?" he barked in halting English, "I pay police."
"Yo! You got that wrong, fella. Nobody pays me off." Mickey said angrily.
Robert tapped Lipovetski on the shoulder to get his attention. "I am from the NYC Commission of Energy. We have reports that that this business here..." He put his glasses on, pursed his lips and scanned his clip board, "...Freedomlink, is stealing electricity from the city."
While Robert had their attention, Mickey walked to the window, opened it, and leaned out. He gripped a wire that was running to the office, "Well, lookee here, Mr. Alva. And it's connected to that light pole on the street."
"Oh officer, I don't know what that is!" Lydia exclaimed. She went to the window and managed to brush her front against Mickey. He hid his feelings of disgust with a leer and moved away from her.
"Surely, you don't believe that I would steal electricity?" Lydia turned and directed her smile at Robert. "I run a charity." Her voice was now deep and dripping with sincerity. "Do I look like a person that would do such a thing?"
Gregor Lipovetski peered up into Robert's face. "I have important friends. You get out or you will be sorry!" He put a hand on Robert's shoulder.
Robert stared deeply into Lipovetski's eyes. "I suggest you take your hand off me, sir," he said quietly.
Mickey saw Lipovetski go pale. Shark Gregor had just recognized a larger and more dangerous predator in Robert. Unnoticed, Mickey had slowly made his way to the false panel in the wall. He pressed the place that opened the small secret door.
"Hey!" Mickey said innocently, withdrawing the books from their hiding place. "What are these?"
From the other side of the room, Lydia looked over at him, and when she saw what he had in his hands, her eyes narrowed with hatred. "Give them to me!" She shrieked, "I know my rights!"
"They always know their rights." Mickey the cop said.
Lipovetski glared at Lydia, then turned to Robert. "That is illegal!" he bellowed, "Illegal search, not in plain sight. You must give them back to her."
Lydia smirked, started to move toward Mickey and put her hand out. "Hey, don't get excited lady. I don't want them. They've got nothing to do with the wiring." Mickey casually handed the books to Lipovetski, who was standing closer to him.
Nervously, Lydia smiled at Lipovetski. "I will take them, Gregor. They are just my personal records," she crooned, grabbing for the books. "Silly things. They are nothing."
Lipovetski moved away from her and glanced in one of the ledgers. His nostrils flared as he frowned, and then he tucked the volumes tightly into the crook of his large arm.
The trap shuts, Mickey thought.
"Officer Thomas," Robert intoned. "Have you found any other illegal connections to City property? Is our business here finished?"
"There aren't any other illegal wires, sir. We're finished."
Mickey watched as Robert scribbled a note on an official looking document, then looked at the two Russians. Their eyes were locked with one another's and anyone else in the room had been forgotten.
"Well then," Robert said, "Freedomlink will receive a summons and bill in the mail, for this theft of New York City resources. See that you don't repeat this offense, or the fines will become even higher. We've other places to check." Robert said crisply. He turned and walked out.
"Energy Commission strikes again. Top of the day to youse two," Mickey said smiling crookedly. He tipped his hat as he left the room.
Robert was already in the van, listening with a headset to the barrage of yells going on in the Freedomlink office, when Mickey climbed on board
"That went well." Robert said, as Mickey removed his uniform hat and belt.
"Yep, for us." Mickey snorted. "What's going on in there?'"
Robert squinted, "From what I can make out, our Ms Pasina is in for some trouble. They're speaking too quickly for me to understand." He handed Mickey another headset. "What can you make out?"
Mickey listened, his brows knitted in concentration, "Something about double crossing her friends and how, if it is true, then Freedomlink will be made to pay a high ... What is that?"
"Penalty." Robert was also concentrating on the ongoing shouting match.
"I don't think he means interest rates." Mickey snickered. He listened hard for a while longer, "He's telling her to wait for further instructions now. Do you think she'll run for it, McCall?"
"No, I don't. She knows it isn't that easy to move on. My guess is she will try to brazen it out at first."
They heard a door slam. After a moment, Lipovetski stomped out of the doors and walked down the street, past the van. He had Freedomlink's books in his hands.
"Damn!" Mickey said, tapping his headphone, "Listen to her curse. Gee, McCall, she looks kinda upset, doesn't she?"
Robert looked at the woman screaming into the phone. "I do believe you're right, Mickey," Robert said, "she does seem a tad overexcited."
In the Freedomlink office, Lydia had called her senior partner, Alex. She was screaming into the phone. Sometimes Alex was as slow as the rest of them. "Alex, he has the real books already, you fool. Some American bureaucrat was here about the wire that we have to get the free electricity."
Alex smirked his usual, "I told you so."
"I don't want to hear it, Alex. Why pay for it when we could get it free?" She shrieked with frustration, "Forget that for now! We have bigger problems with Gregor Lipovetski and the books!" She was pulling at her hair, which now stood out from her head in peaks. She was biting her bottom lip, and all of the blood red lipstick had been transferred to her teeth.
Alex's voice was smug, "I hear California is filling with people from the smaller block countries. We could go there."
"No!" she shouted into the phone, "We can't leave here. There is too much money in this location, and where do we go? They have contacts all over this city, this country. No, they can get to our contacts on our routes in Eastern Europe. We won't be able to get anyone out! Where will our money come from then, idiot?"
She stopped by her desk, and with her free hand, opened a drawer, took out a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of vodka. "I'll handle this," she said. "I'll offer him money and a higher percentage - maybe thirty percent."
"Lydia, no! That is too much!" Alex groaned.
"Seventy percent of Freedomlink is better than nothing." She said. She poured a drink with one hand. "Gregor Lipovetski is dangerous, but stupid. These mob men, they are all stupid. They only know to wait for orders. If they had any brains they would be out making money for themselves." She drank the vodka down in one swallow. "I can handle Gregor. I will cry repentance and vow that I will be his loyal slave. He is a crass crude man, a pig. He will like that idea. And after a little while I will think of a way to get rid of him. Meanwhile, business will go on as usual."
"Are you sure it will work? Will that protect us?" He then started to whine, "Giving so much of our money away. I don't know if the rest will agree to that."
First he is frightened, then greed takes over. Good, she thought. "Call Ivan and Jacob. Tell them to get to the Freedomlink office for an emergency meeting. I've got to think. Gregor must be presented with my idea in just the right way. Maybe if I let him think that it was his own idea..."
"But so much of our business? Maybe we should move on Lydia? Maybe it is time..."
"No!!" she screamed. "Running scared is not possible. I refuse to give all this up. I will think of something." She slammed the phone down. Alex was becoming more and more of an irritation to her. Maybe she could work something out that would clear up a few of her problems at the same time.
"Think. Think. I've got to think of something." She again filled the glass with the vodka, gulped it and took a deep breath. "I can do this," she picked out a cigarette and lit it, sucking in the harsh smoke, "I've made my way through worse before." The exhaled cigarette smoke encircled her head. "Think, Lydia Pasina. You are smarter and better than any of them. Think."
At ten minutes to two in the morning the streets of Brighton Beach were quiet and the summer night had become increasingly hot and humid. Lipovetski's secretary had called with his orders. They were to meet with him at the Brighton Beach Baths at two. Even though it would have only been a four-block walk, Lydia had decided that it would look better if they rode to the Baths together in a car.
Ivan parked and all four Freedomlink members walked to the entrance. Lydia walked between Alex and Ivan, arm in arm with them both. Jack walked behind them. She wanted to look as though they hadn't a worry in the world. Lydia had chosen her outfit with care. It was an innocent and demurely cut summer dress, but the material was so thin that, in certain light, you could see through it.
One of Gregor Lipovetski's men was at the door. Lydia recognized him and smiled. He returned her smile with a stony expression, "I must pat you down for weapons," he said gruffly.
Lydia bit angry words back before they burst from her lips. This man was nothing, a low level soldier. She shrugged and lifted her eyebrows to her colleagues, "My, my, Gregor is being very thorough isn't he?" she said.
She stood in front of the man and raised her arms out to shoulder level. He patted her down quickly and lightly. Lydia felt heartened by this. It showed that Gregor still spoke about her as someone that should be treated with respect. Lydia stood to the side and watched as the other three Freedomlink members were quickly searched. She was glad that she had made a point of asking for Alex's advice and had followed it, ordering them to not carry any weapons.
They walked through the maze-like pathways that ran throughout the front of the Baths and were joined by two more of Gregor's men. By the time they had passed through the entrance to the outdoor concert area, Lydia had forced herself to become calm and confident. After all, she had ordered Jacob hide two of his more able and dangerous friends in the baths. Both of them were armed and so, if anything went wrong, they still had a way out. She walked quickly and added a bounce to her step.
On the stage Gregor Lipovetski stood up to greet her. She smiled brightly at him. A young man was sitting next to him on a folding chair. He leaned back and crossed his legs casually. In a flash, Lydia recognized him as the son of the most powerful Russian mob boss in NYC. His name was, Yurgi or Yore - something like that.
Lydia stepped up the staircase and onto the stage. Before the other members of Freedomlink could get there, they were herded towards seats in front of the stage and made to sit down.
Lydia walked straight to Gregor. "Gregor Lipovetski," she said, putting her hand out to touch his arm, "This is a misunderstanding, a mistake. Why should you be angry about my personal accounts?" She leaned forward and whispered in his ear. "I said so many nice things about you." Lipovetski looked surprised and confused.
Lydia looked toward the younger man. "Gregor Lipovetski, please introduce me to this handsome gentleman," she said and offered her hand. The harsh lights of the stage had made her dress all but invisible. The younger man responded to her immediately, by standing up, taking her hand, and kissing it.
"A gentleman," Lydia crooned, "your name?" She asked, and looked up at him through her lashes.
"Not important, lovely lady," he said, his accent educated and suave. He stared, assessing her, and then he smiled.
Gregor Lipovetski tried to not notice the trick that the lights were playing with the material of her dress. He cleared his throat. Nervously, he picked up the ledger he had taken from Freedomlink. "These are not personal accounts. We have looked them over, Lydia. These are the real books to Freedomlink's business."
"Books?" Lydia laughed gaily." No! My personal diary, my household records, I told you in the office."
Lipovetski held them out to her. "See. They are ledgers. You have been cheating us, Lydia Pasina. We are supposed to get fifteen percent of your business and we get not even eight percent."
Lydia took the book and looked through the pages, turning them quickly. It was Alex's handwriting, she knew. Alex always did the books. "I don't understand," she said, looking as innocent as she could manage. "These are not mine! This is not even my handwriting!" Lydia took a large step backwards, knowing that the light would make her dress transparent, revealing her legs and more, in every detail.
"How can this be?" Suddenly, she looked startled and then pressed her hand to her mouth. "Oh no!" she gasped, "I've been set up! I knew those two men weren't from the Energy Commission!" She quickly turned to Gregor, her skirt lifting in the breeze, "They came in to find the books and to give them to you. I've been set up!" She held the book out toward Lipovetski, "I can't believe it. This is Alex's handwriting!!" she exclaimed, and then pointed a finger to where Alex Alaxandrovech was sitting.
The two men on stage tore their eyes from Lydia's form and looked toward the accused man. Alex, eyes wide, stood up, "No, no," he repeated. Shock quickly turned to anger, when he realized what Lydia was doing. "You bitch!" he screamed, as he tried to climb up onto the stage. "You bitch, with your lies. Putting it all on me! I've always expected treachery from you. Damn you, Lydia Pasina, I'll kill you!" he yelled, spittle flying from his mouth. Pulling a small stiletto from an almost invisible fold in his sleeve, he threw it at her.
Instantly, Gunshots rang out and Alex slumped to the ground, half of his head missing. Gregor nodded his approval to his bodyguards, "Good work," he called out to them.
The wildly thrown knife had nicked Lydia's hand. "I am bleeding!" she cried. She hung on to Lipovetski as if she were going to faint. "Oh, look how he hated me!" she said as tears slid down her cheeks.
The younger man took her bleeding hand in one of his own hands, and guided her onto a chair, while murmuring words of comfort. "Get her some water to drink!" Gregor Lipovetski roared to his men. He stood protectively close to the seated Lydia.
Jacob and Ivan stood motionless, bathed in the sweat of fear. The sight of their dead comrade and the speed, at which Lydia's lie had brought about his death, shocked them.
Lydia clung to Gregor Lipovetski's hand. "Oh Gregor," she wept, cradling her cheek against his palm, "He was always jealous of me. He hated that a lowly woman was his boss." One of Gregor's men brought a cup of water and a clean towel. He offered them to the weeping Lydia. With shaking hands, she accepted the cup of water and sipped. She returned the cup and whispered "Thank you," in a weak voice. She then took the towel and wiped at the cut on her hand and at her tear-filled eyes.
"He must have replaced my diaries with false books, to set me up. And he sent those two men into the office when he knew you'd be there, Gregor, to make sure that you were given those phony ledgers."
Gregor Lipovetski, frowned as he thought, "Yes," he said, "they did not seem like the usual city bureaucrats. That older one especially. He had iron in his gaze."
Lydia beat at her breast, "What have I done to deserve such treatment?" she wailed, "It is because I am a woman!" she put both her hands in front of her face and wept - loudly.
Lipovetski became enraged. He pounded down the staircase to get to the remaining Freedomlink members. He pulled Ivan up by his collar. "Did you know about this? Were you also trying to cheat me?" he shouted. Ivan was pale and confused.
"No, I know nothing." Ivan said, his voice hollow. He was shaking his head in shock.
Lipovetski threw him down to the ground. "And you?" He turned and grabbed Jacob by the neck, shaking him like a rag doll.
"No," Jacob yelled. "He did it to her himself. He always hated Lydia!" he added. Lydia listened from the stage, her face still buried in her hands. Jacob was smarter than she had thought. He would be very useful in the future.
The younger man knelt next to Lydia, and spoke soothingly. "Lydia Pasina, this has been hard on you. To find that a trusted friend has tried to betray you like this..." He gently pulled her hands away from her face. She sniffed, looking as pitiful as she could. He offered his handkerchief to her. "But now, you must realize that my organization must take a greater interest in Freedomlink. I can see that you are an innocent victim here. And I pledge to help you." He took her hand and patted it. "Your partner may have been cheating you all along. We will find out."
Lydia pressed his hand to her lips, and started to stroke it, smoothly and rhythmically. "Oh thank you, thank you," she breathed. She looked out over the edge of the stage down at Lipovetski standing over Jacob and Ivan.
"Oh, Gregor Lipovetski," she called out, her voice soaked with emotion, "I will rely on you now, more than ever." Gregor turned and started to walk up the steps, drawn back toward his sweet Lydusia. She reached out to him, her white hand groping at the empty air.
"Bloody hell. She's good!" Robert gasped. "She's pulled off a bloody miracle. They believe her."
Robert and Mickey sat inside the van, which they had driven onto the part of the pitch-black boardwalk that overlooked the Baths and the bandshell. The van and its passengers were invisible in the dark. They had gotten to the baths within ten minutes of the phone call from Lipovetski's secretary to Lydia. Once there, they had arranged a few surprises in the sound booth of the bandshell.
Long before anyone else had arrived, they had moved the van to its present hiding place on the boardwalk. When Jacob and his friends had passed by earlier, they hadn't noticed the vehicle.
Mickey watched in amazement as Lydia, playing the innocent victim, clung to the younger man's arm like a leech. Her other hand outstretched towards Lipovetski. "What do we do now, McCall?"
"Time for plan B, I think, Mickey."
"Okay, give me five minutes to get into position and take care of a few problems."
"That's fine, Mickey. Five minutes from now, I'll go in."
Soundlessly, Mickey left the van and made his way across the boardwalk. He eased his way through the hole in the chain link fence he had cut earlier and into the bandshell area of the baths. He climbed up onto the stage and moved silently around backstage until he was behind the first of the men Jacob had positioned there. Mickey hit him once, high behind the ear, and caught him before he hit the floor. From his pocket, he produced some plastic cable ties that he used to secure the man's hands and feet.
Satisfied that the guard wouldn't cause any problems later, Mickey moved on. The second man was disposed of and immobilized quickly and efficiently.
Mickey continued to move stealthily through the dimly lit area. Next, he found one of the Russian mob soldiers and, without any difficulty, he joined the ranks of the unconscious. Two more to deal with, Mickey thought anxiously as he looked at his watch. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that he had at least ninety seconds left before Robert entered the bandshell.
The remaining two guards were on the far side. The huge screen at the back of the stage provided cover for Mickey to get close to them. He had taken care of the fourth man and was closing in on the fifth when he heard footsteps from the common area. Using McCall's arrival as a distraction, he snuck up to the last guard and neutralized the man with little effort.
Robert was now clearly visible to those on and close to the stage. From his position, Mickey saw recognition dawning on the faces of Gregor and Lydia.
Robert stopped well short of the area covered by the hidden video cameras that they had put into position earlier. Before he could speak, Lydia screeched, "It is him," her helplessness suddenly forgotten. "From the office! He was one of them. He set me up!"
Looking Lydia up and down as though she had crawled out from under a rock, Robert said coldly, "Stop that awful noise now, it's over."
"What do you mean?" Lydia ventured nervously.
Gregor Lipovetski snarled at Robert, "You come here? This is where I do business! My men surround you, fool. What do you think that you can do? My men are armed." He looked toward his boss. "Stupid Americans, they think everyone is as weak as they are."
Robert ignored him and addressed the remaining men seated in the auditorium. "Gentlemen, and I use the word advisedly, I would like to show you something you might find interesting, concerning Ms. Pasina, here."
Pressing a remote control in his pocket, Robert started the video recording made in the Freedomlink offices that afternoon. On the huge screen at the rear of the bandshell, the assembled group saw and heard how Lydia intended to outwit Gregor and his associates.
There was a stunned silence as the videotape finished. Then all eyes focused on Lydia. She tried at first to maintain her innocent expression but, very quickly, her look turned to one of disgust and contempt. "Well, it was worth a try," she spat. "I almost had you believing me." Her mouth was twisted into a sneer as she said, "So I cheated you, what are you going to do about it?" Turning to Jacob, she said, "Get your friends out here now. Tell them to cover us. We're leaving."
"Stay very still, Jacob," Robert interrupted. "This applies to the rest of you also. My colleague has already incapacitated all of your guards." He turned to face Gregor. "Now, Mr. Lipovetski, I should be grateful if you would surrender your weapon. My friend is the nervous type and we wouldn't want any unfortunate accidents, would we?"
While the younger man kept his hands conspicuously in clear sight, Lipovetski pulled a gun from his jacket. He put it down on the stage and slid it toward Robert. His face was livid with rage and embarrassment, and he turned towards Lydia. "Lydia Pasina," he shouted, "what is he saying? What men?"
Lydia rounded on Gregor, "You stupid oaf. You still don't understand do you? I was using you, I never cared for you. You are a repulsive, fat pig and I hated it every time you touched me." Her self control gone, Lydia raged incoherently, spittle flying from her mouth.
She turned and glared at Robert, "You! It's all your fault! You have ruined everything!" she screamed. Consumed by anger she picked up the stiletto Alex had thrown at her and lunged at him. Robert sidestepped neatly, avoiding her desperate dive. She had raised the knife above her head, to come at him again when a single shot rang out. Lydia looked as if she was pushed backwards. An expression of surprise spread on her face as a bright red stain blossomed over the fabric of her summer dress. She tumbled to the ground.
A second shot came almost overlapping the first and Gregor shouted in pain as his backup gun flew from his hand. Throwing himself to the floor, the younger man shrieked, his voice high pitched and feminine.
A single glance told Robert that Lydia was dead. Robert looked towards Mickey who was in the classic shooting stance, his arms outstretched in front of him, his still smoking gun pointing directly at Lipovetski. Now that the burly Russian offered no further threat, Mickey seemed content merely to track his movements. He watched calmly when Gregor picked up the towel Lydia had dropped and used it to bind his hand
The younger man, still cowering on the floor, squealed hysterically, "Lipovetski are you crazy? Using your second gun on that slut? I could have been killed!
Gregor looked towards the younger man, "I had to do it. The whore! She mocked me, embarrassed me, I had to do it. No one does that to Gregor Lipovetski, and lives."
Ignoring Gregor's outburst, Robert addressed the remaining four men, "Now gentlemen, your attention please! I am going to explain, clearly and carefully what I expect to happen. I have copies of all your books, all of your records. And with the film I have, well, you must be aware that I have enough evidence to put you all in prison for the next twenty years."
Yurgi got up from the floor, he looked confused and overwhelmed. He spoke to Robert for the first time. "Who are you and what do you want? Do you know who I am?"
"I know exactly who and what you are, young man, so don't try to threaten me. I've dealt with filth much worse than you and your organization for the past thirty years." Robert glanced over to Mickey, he still had everything under control. "So I want you to listen very carefully. My terms are not, I repeat not, negotiable. I want Freedomlink closed down and all the money they have stolen returned to its rightful owners." He looked at Yurgi and Gregor; "I want the mob to end its involvement with this sordid trade. If this does not happen, I will do something far worse than going to the police with my information. Imagine how your father would react if a tape of tonight's events were to be sent to the head of every crime family in the city? His enemies would have a field day. All the evidence they could possibly want to bring you both down. I don't think they would ever find your bodies, do you?" Robert waited, to be sure his words had sunk in. "Oh and one more thing, don't even think of trying to do anything to my colleague, the tape, or me. I will keep it in a very safe place, with instructions, that should anything untoward happen to either of us, the tape will be distributed not only to the other mob families but also to the police and the press."
Greeted by a stunned silence, Robert said, "Good. I see we understand each other. Goodnight gentlemen." Turning, he walked briskly from the bandshell.
Mickey followed, backing away from the four men. He kept his gun in clear view, deterring them from any foolish actions.
The sounds of raised voices echoed around them as Robert and Mickey left the Baths. Robert wondered whether anything would be left of Freedomlink in the morning. As far as he was concerned, he had cut off the head of the dragon. Now the body was sure to wither and die.
Two weeks later
Robert put the assorted types of bagels on a warm dish. The match was to start soon and Mickey had arrived just in the nick of time with the food for their Saturday brunch. Robert had installed the satellite dish so that he could watch every match as it happened. This match was the opening one of the new English League season and happened to correspond perfectly with brunch in New York.
Robert noted contentedly that Mickey was fully recovered from his bout with the parasite, as he saw him refill his coffee mug. He checked the coffee table once again. Yes, everything needed to watch the match in comfort was there. He didn't want to have to miss one moment.
There was a knock on the door, "Blast ,"Robert exclaimed, " Who the bloody hell..." He opened the door. "Control, I have a match starting. It is the Charity Shield, between Liverpool and Manchester United. He turned away from the door and pointed to the over laden coffee table. "You may stay, if you behave. No large wagering permitted. Only friendly bets."
Mickey, his face almost covered by the coffee cup, snorted, "Speak for yourself. I can do with a windfall."
Control looked at both the men in turn, then smiled, set his copy of the Daily News down on the couch and shrugged off his summer weight jacket. "Don't mind if I do, I haven't watched any soccer in years, since I was in Europe last in fact. Would you care to explain the significance of this match for this poor colonial, Robert?"
"My pleasure. The Charity Shield, as I said earlier, is the opening match of the season and it is a match between the winners of the FA Cup and the League. It is always played at Wembley Stadium. Is that enough information?"
"More than enough, really. I could do with a cup of that coffee, Robert." He sat himself down on the couch in front of the food.
"I'll put up a new pot," Mickey said, as he pulled the comics section of the paper away to read, "I've been drinking it nonstop since I got here."
"I've a pot of tea steeping." Robert walked into the kitchen, "Care for a cup now?"
Control picked up a split bagel and started to heap cream cheese on it. "Tea's good, for a starter. Is this the salty lox or is it Nova?"
Mickey looked over at the table, "That's the salty lox, Nova's on the other side."
"Good," Control forked a slice of the salty fish onto each half of the bagel. He took a large bite and chewed with gusto.
Robert brought the teapot and cups into the living room and set them on the already overflowing table.
Two hours later the match had finished and most of the food had been consumed. Robert was just back from the kitchen after clearing some dirty dishes away and Control was leaning back on the couch, "Have you see this Robert?" Control slid out one of the sections of the paper, folded it open to a story, and passed it to him.
"Hardly," Robert snapped. "The Daily News is not my sort of paper, and you bloody well know it, Control."
Control pointed to a story. "Read."
Robert sighed and felt for his glasses. He remembered that he had left them in the kitchen. "Blast! My glasses are never where I am."
Control laughed and handed the paper to Mickey. "Here," he said, "this concerns you also. Read the article right below the fold."
Mickey reached for the paper and glanced at the story. Robert thought that a shadow of anger passed over Mickey's face, but the look was fleeting. "Wow!" Mickey exclaimed.
"Well, what is it?" Robert asked.
"A two for one coupon at McDonald's!" he looked up innocently, "Can I have it, Control?"
Control stared so coldly at Mickey, that Robert felt the temperature in the room drop by several degrees. "Below the fold, Kostmayer." Control said quietly.
Mickey read aloud. "It mentions that Jacob Rusovskaya and Ivan Grubenko, two former partners of Freedomlink, a charitable organization, in Brooklyn, were arrested in Hungary yesterday, on multiple charges of fraud and three counts of murder."
"Would you happen to know anything about that, Robert?" Control asked sharply.
Robert sighed deeply. "I can honestly say that I haven't the slightest idea why they are in Hungary. I'm also sorry to say that I had no hand in their arrests. They deserve all the justice they get."
"The Company has been looking for Lydia Pasina and her other partner for over a week now. They seem to have packed up and disappeared."
"No sign of them at all?" Robert asked.
"Jersey swamps don't talk." Mickey muttered as he hid his face behind the paper.
Control looked at him, "What's that?"
Mickey looked up. "Just reading another story, Control. Sorry."
Control shifted his weight on the couch to get a better look at Robert. "I was thinking of what you said the other week, about the ties of loyalty, friendship and family."
"You actually listened to me? I mean, you usually dismiss me out of hand." He raised his cup in a salute. "My, my, a banner day."
Control crossed his legs and made a point of patiently waiting for Robert to put his teacup down. "I decided that the Company did owe Leonid Konopika something for his many years of service." He glanced at Mickey and then looked at Robert. "His cousin is on a plane at this moment, heading for New York."
Robert looked in unabashed amazement at Control. "What?" Robert gasped, his eyebrows raised, "You don't mean to say that you actually listened to me for once? The end is nigh!" He intoned. Control shook his head and his eyes brightened with amusement as he started to get up off the couch.
"Does this mean that you have somehow developed a heart, old friend?" Robert grasped at his chest with a dramatic flair. "What next? Hmmm?" Robert stood up and rubbed his finger on his forehead, a look of wonder on his face. "Perhaps you will start petting puppies in the street, Control."
Control lifted his jacket off the back of the chair, not looking at Robert at all.
"Or picking posies, perhaps?" Robert continued.
Control turned to Mickey, "Come on kid, I'll give you a lift." His back to Robert, he held the door open.
"I know!" Robert exclaimed, having a fine old time, "You'll start helping little old ladies..." he stopped, thought and chuckled, "I mean, if you can find anyone older than you are, that is. And help them cross the street!"
Mickey snickered, "See you later McCall." He walked out.
Control stood in front of the entryway, he turned and took a little bow. "You are very welcome, old son." He walked into the hallway and closed the door.
Robert beamed, "Thank you, my friend. Same to you."
Control and Mickey walked down the outside steps to Robert's building. Mickey knew that it was a hot day, but right now he felt chilled to the bone.
At the bottom of the steps, Mickey stood next to Control as the older man removed his bow tie and put it into his shirt pocket. Out of habit they both automatically scanned the street for possible problems. Control opened his collar and took a deep breath. He turned to Mickey and graced him with a small smile. "Well, Kostmayer, all's well that..."
"Yeah, and the end justifies the means, Control." Mickey felt some heat enter his face as his anger grew.
"Now kid, you've got to agree, Robert was the best man for the job."
Mickey looked down. He didn't trust his temper not to show itself to his boss. "Don't ever order me to lie to McCall again, I won't." His voice was a deep growl.
Control looked away. He wiped the sweat off his upper lip with the back of his hand. "It was just a day at the beach for you, Kostmayer, that's all I asked you to do." Mickey felt Control's hard gaze return to him, "The outcome resulted in the saving of lives. Freedomlink is finished. They won't be hoodwinking desperate people and killing them anymore." He refolded his jacket over his arm, "And now the Company will have to bring in more reputable people. I would say that the end did justify the means this time."
Mickey glared at his boss, "Why'd you bring up the partners' arrest in Hungary to McCall? We both know you set it up. They had to get away from Gregor and the Russian Mob and you somehow made it easy for them to escape to Hungary, where Interpol could charge them with those crimes," Mickey bristled. "But why point it out to McCall and why did you ask him if he had a hand in it? You know damn well he had nothing to do with their arrest."
Control rubbed his bottom lip and looked around them, again checking the street for trouble. "Sleight of hand, Kostmayer. I knew that Robert would hear about their arrest sooner or later. If I ask him if he had anything to do with it, he might not suspect that I put it all together. Elemental misdirection."
"Lies," Mickey growled
"Only in a manner of speaking."
"You had me lie to McCall to get this all going. I don't even want to think of what McCall would do if he ever found out that it was all a set up, and that I helped manipulate him."
Control looked over to his car parked down the street. Mickey followed his gaze and saw that Control's driver was watching them closely, waiting for Control to signal him to bring the car up.
"He'll never find out about this if you don't tell him, " Control said with a hint of annoyance. "Look, I've been unhappy with the Company using Freedomlink for years now. I learned about Leonid Konopika's problem from my own private sources. I just made certain that Robert met his old comrade-in-arms. All we did was use your misspent youth as a conduit, in order for that meeting to occur."
Mickey felt empty as he watched Control signal his driver to pull the car up to him. "But why the hell did you make me lie to him? Why not just put the problem to him?"
Control turned to Mickey. "How many times over the years have I extended a frank and honest request for his assistance, only to have him turn me down because the Company was involved?
It was true, Mickey had to agree. He remembered trying to talk McCall into a small trip to Beirut for the Company, only to be turned down flat.
"I still don't like using him," Mickey mumbled, "or even worse, lying to him."
"In this business, lies are the coin of the realm. That's what we do kid, when we need a job done,"
Control put his hands low on his hips, took in and slowly let out a deep audible breath and stared at him. Mickey felt that all patience had run out between them. "You should have learned that by now." Control said looking up and away from Mickey, squinting into the sun. "If you intend to survive in this job..."
"Well, maybe I'll quit this job, Control. I don't need this..." Mickey declared. He turned his back on Control, and started to walk away.
In a flash, Control caught up to Mickey and grabbed his shoulder. "Face it, Kostmayer," he said sanguinely, "you'll never leave the Company. You need the action too much." He paused, to make sure that he had Kostmayer's attention, "And if you think that you would leave, then you've got a bigger problem on your hands than just lying to Robert McCall." In a quiet deep voice he said, "You're lying to yourself."
At that, he turned around and with two long strides got to his car, slid in and slammed the door shut.
Mickey was staring at the car as it took off. He remained standing on the street long after the car had disappeared. He hesitated, listening to an inner voice that usually advised him on his actions. He was so disturbed by what Control had said to him, that he almost missed the movement of the curtain in the third floor window. That movement told him that Robert McCall had been watching them.
He turned and walked back toward the entrance of the building.