Chapter 30: Open Sesame
Copyright© 2016 by Graybyrd
The great room of Steve and Marie’s new river-front home just south of Penticton featured a raised brick fire circle with a hammered copper smoke hood suspended from heavy chains. A black steel chimney rose up through the high-peaked roof.
Flames flickered and twisted up into the hood, casting fluttering patterns of light and shadows on the people seated around the brick circle. Marie moved softly from person to person, refilling mugs and stubby glasses for her guests.
Pietor and Andrei sat together in leather-padded high-backed chairs. Everyone’s attention was focused on them.
“Have I told you the story of my beloved master’s last moments, and the heavy charge he laid upon me?” Pietor asked. All but Marie motioned that he had not.
“Ah, yes, our wondrous Marie,” Pietor smiled up at her as she filled his glass from a cold pitcher. “Raven Woman was with us for his last moments. I, of course, fell to my knees in terror when she arrived at Viktor’s bed. I marvel that I did not wet or soil myself at the time, but I was too consumed with grief in his dying moment, by his calm acceptance of death’s quiet approach despite my fervent entreaty that he stay. I could not even scream in fear, I was so paralyzed! Yes, she was there.
“She greeted Viktor in his last moments. It is my privilege to be with you, brave warrior, she said. She lay her hand upon his brow and comforted him. I have never seen such peace upon his face, or such a smile. I know that she made his last moment one of joy, to see his face as he left us.”
Pietor paused for several moments, his eyes glistening as he held his head level, eyes focused on the dancing flames rising off the burning wood.
“You see,” he continued after setting his glass on the arm of his chair, “Viktor was both a father, a mentor, and a guardian to me for all of my adult life. I would happily have given my life for him, a thousand times over. So, when he lay his great charge upon me, it fell upon me as my life’s burden.
“I clearly remember every word of his vision, his instruction to me. I remember it so clearly that the words might as well be engraved upon my soul. With your forbearance, I will repeat them for you now. I do not think that Marie will mind, for these are her instructions, as she gave them to Viktor:
“My son, I must hasten. She told me of a terrible vision, and that we have a huge burden placed upon us. She saw a mushroom cloud over an American city. She saw innocent souls ascending to the heavens. She said the time is not now, but neither will it be long. She sees the seeds of hatred and violence being sown even now, and when the hatred seizes their nation, the terrible vision will come to pass. She said it might be prevented, but it will be exceedingly difficult. It is like catching one particular rat among millions in the sewers, she said. It will take the greatest skill and vigilance. All must work together to find the one rat and kill it!”
“She saw that we must look to the remnants of the Cold War madness that gripped the great nations for so many years. It was in those days that thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons were created and improved in a head-long race toward mutually assured destruction. Some have been lost, she was shown, and some of those now lie concealed in unthinkable locations. ‘Look there, ‘ she warned. ‘Be attentive to the whispered warnings, the frightened murmurs from the lips of brave men of good conscience.’
“There we may find the device and destroy it. We MUST destroy it, Pietor, and those who would use it!
“Pietor, you are my inheritor. You have been my strong right arm; now you must become my body, my purpose, my devotion. You possess my trust; now you will possess my burden of responsibility. Use all of our resources. Hold nothing back. Spare no effort. Waste no moment, and deny no alliance. The vision must not come to pass! You must find and destroy that weapon and all who accompany it.”
Tears were running in streams from Pietor’s face before he finished reciting the last words given him by his master on his death-bed. But his voice was clear and strong. He did not choke with emotion; his words rang around the room with purpose.
“After he died, Raven Woman placed her hand upon me, and she caused me to rise and stand before her. She comforted me in my grief, but she confirmed my terrible burden!
“The fate of an American city lies upon your shoulders. The fate of your nation rides upon your head. And I grieve to say, the fate of my own people is entwined with that of yours. This terrible menace, this growing canker of hatred threatens to consume not only your people, but mine. If you can find and destroy this hateful weapon, we may all survive to rejoice in a new age. I dare not speak of what might otherwise come to pass.”
Marie moved silently to stand behind Pietor. She placed her hands on his shoulders to reassure him that she approved and supported his dedication. She smiled across the fire to her husband Steve. He nodded briefly and returned her smile.
“Some of you know that I am the inheritor of Viktor’s great fortune, and the leader of his legion of dedicated men and women who served his cause. They now serve my cause. What had been his dedication to safeguard our beloved city, that the horrors of war and destruction would NEVER AGAIN fall upon her, that cause has expanded far beyond its original purpose. Now our beloved city is but a hub at the center of our cause. For, to preserve the city, we must safeguard our world!
“That is why I am here, good friends, and that is why this aged Russian bear, Andrei Gulichov, my chief of intelligence, has agreed to stay by my side. By serving your cause, we are serving our own cause. You should know that this is no small thing. The resources and the dedication of Nikogda Snova is a power unto itself. Even great nations would be foolish to underestimate us.
“Before his death, Viktor turned away from a tragic path. He was shown the light of truth by our ebony lady, standing behind me. Since that burden was passed to me, I have been inspired by our shining lady, standing there behind her husband. The legion of men and women dedicated to Nikogda Snova will not kill! Nor do I, as their leader. In this way, I can stand before my friends, the Masi’shen, with an untroubled mind.
“Forgive my long speech, my friends, but until this moment I had not felt the urgency to explain myself and my burden, and my resources. But now is most assuredly the time. I remind us all that time grows short. The threat is real, and the consequences of failure are unthinkable.
“We must find and destroy those nuclear devices and frustrate the evil men who seek to use them. I am quite confident that Andrei, sitting here scowling at my endless monologue, has brought us the key to unlock the puzzle. Given that key, Mr. Zaglinder, can you now show us who we must question, where we must go, and what barriers we must knock down to achieve our purpose?”
Bob Zaglinder and Steve Barringer worked with Todd Abrams and Andrei Gulichov at a row of computer monitors on two side-by-side desks, with whiteboards mounted on the wall on either side to lay out and draw connections between all the persons, the agencies, the groups within the agencies, and the outside contractors and key people that Bob Zaglinder could recall from his time as Senior Assistant to Chief of Staff Jonas Barnes. It was a prodigious display of eidetic memory. It seemed that Bob had revealed a spider-webbed tangle of intrigue and plotting. Somewhere in those over-lapping webs lay the pathways of the purloined Russian suitcase nukes, the identity of those who were guarding them, and the secret of their location.
“Damn, damn, damn!” Steve swore to Todd and Andrei. “I see it, but I can’t make sense of the thread so we can unravel it and pull it apart. Who or what is the common factor? If we blunder about, we’ll alert them, and they’ll go somewhere else and dig a deeper hole!” he grumbled.
Andrei had been staring at the white board puzzle for a long, long time, leaning back against a tall stool borrowed from Steve and Marie’s entertainment bar. He rumbled deep within his chest from moment to moment, swinging his great, shaggy head back and forth, his eyes picking at the names and links. His memories were churning: old contacts, past intrigues, associations, plots uncovered and secrets squeezed from faint traces; hints, and whisperings.
“DA!” he suddenly shouted, jumping off the stool. He picked up Todd Abrams in his great arms to swing him around in a wild circle.
“DA! I was so STUPID not to see it before!”
He dropped Todd back to his feet, and snatched up a yellow legal pad from the desk. He furiously began writing down names in boxes, connecting them with lines and arrows. He didn’t stop until nearly the entire sheet was filled with a mind-map layout of connections and lines and labels. He ripped the sheet off the pad and rushed over to Bob Zaglinder to seize his head with both massive hands, crumpling the sheet against Bob’s left ear. He pulled Bob’s face forward and planted a sloppy kiss in the center of the startled man’s forehead.
“Da! You wonderful, wonderful man! You did it! All of it! Right there for all of us to see!” Andrei thrust the sheet into Bob’s hand, closed Bob’s fingers tightly around it, and he danced away across the floor in a spinning, leaping Russian dance of celebration. For a huge man, he was incredibly graceful and light on his feet!
“Mister Zaglinder, I beg you, do not lose that sheet. Make copies, now, instantly! It is the solution. It points right to the heart of the puzzle, and we have solved it! I go get a drink ... a stiff drink! I will make it a double! Marie! Break out that precious bottle of Russian vodka! I celebrate! Da! Then I will sit down with these good comrades, and I will point out to them what is on that sheet of paper, right under their very noses!
“So that’s our target!” Steve explained to Michael and Eric Stridehorn, the Peacekeeper commander. Their new force would be tasked with a mission to swoop in and snatch the pumpkins, code name for the suitcase nukes that Bob and Andrei’s analyses had located.
Another team of eight operatives from Pietor’s Nikogda Snova force had come into Canada several weeks before to assist with operations. They made their base in Toronto. Immediately after Andrei’s insight and breakthrough, they were dispatched to follow certain targets around the Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas to track their movements and activities. The team enjoyed the advantage of smart phones equipped with Masi’shen encryption, linked to a shuttle waiting overhead in stealth mode. The shuttle relayed to the Geneva embassy, and to Penticton, the Peacekeeper operations base. They were able to verify what Andrei had deduced: the trail led from Barnes office to a contractor’s office in Maryland, which led to a guarded mining warehouse and explosives complex near the intersection of I-81 and I-77, outside of Wytheville, Virginia.