Tuesday, June 13, 3:00 p.m.
Karl had never enjoyed waterfront odors, and though they intruded on his senses only slightly at Nick’s Lighthouse on Fisherman’s Wharf, he found their mere suggestion irritating. He was already waiting at an outside table, practicing the spiritual gift of long suffering, when Betty and I arrived exactly on time, as was her custom. We ordered a dinner of deep fried prawns and ate very slowly while awaiting Rachel’s arrival.
Betty shifted in her chair for the hundredth time in a half-hour, sighed deeply, and broke the tense silence. “We’ve got to call ’er.” Her Cockney brogue became more apparent when she was upset.
I nodded assent, handed her our mobile and she dialed the number. “Rachel? ‘ello?” She closed the phone, abruptly cutting off the connection. “Someone picked up the call, but said nothing.” Her protracted pause carried the grimmest ramifications. “She’s either lost ‘er mobile and the person who found it answered … , or ….”
Though Betty let the awful alternative hang in the air, Karl voiced it. “Or they’ve grabbed her.”
We looked at one another glumly for a while, and as usual it was Betty who had the best plan. “We’ve got no better way to pass the time than to pray.” And so we did.
To avoid the appearance of loitering, we nibbled at our dinner for the next hour and a half, though our concern and concentration on praying kept us from appreciating its excellent flavor. After consuming more coffee than they really wanted to serve us, however, we had no choice but to leave.
Seagulls and other ocean sounds accompanied our stroll along the quay, during which we tried to sort things out. Suddenly, Karl stopped. “I need to call Marty and find out why he turned against me.”
“Let me do it,” Betty said, “I want to ‘ear his voice. Per’aps I’ll be able to discern something.”
“Go right ahead. I might have a hard time being civil to him.”
Karl dialed Marty’s phone number and handed the mobile to Betty. “Mister ‘allstead, this is Betty ‘ubert, an employee of Karl’s. Do you ‘appen to know anything about ‘is whereabouts?”
She listened for fully a minute, not saying a word. “I see. Might I ask where you got that information?
“Gol! That is most curious, because it isn’t at all ‘ow it really ‘appened. Why would Mister Witherspoon want to lie to you?
“I wonder, could we meet somewhere? Jack and I would like to straighten all this out.
“Yes, that sounds fine. Good bye.”
Betty looked at Karl. “The man seems clueless. I believe ‘e’s been completely taken in by that Witherspoon bloke. We’ll meet ‘im tomorrow morning in Golden Gate Park, at the end of Funston Street. Can’t think of a better place, meself. It’s highly defensible, as if he wants security as badly as we do.”
Wednesday, June 14, 8:22 a.m.
We could nearly have spread the fog on our morning toast as we arrived in Golden Gate Park. That may be a poor choice of simile, as I hate soggy toast, but the fog was none-the-less thick.
Karl hid in our hired car as Betty and I watched for Marty to drive out of the mist. Finally we heard a car motor approaching, and Marty’s Acura parked on the left side of our car. We walked over to meet him, and despite our initial reserve, he was anxious for the truth.
“Let’s be seated at one of the park benches, if we can find it in this soup.” After I said that, we walked a hundred feet or so, found a concrete bench, scooped off as much dew we could and sat down. Then we both spent considerable time recounting to him the events on the morning of the fire.
When we finished our story, his contrite expression made him look like a different man. “What have I done?”
“What would you say to Karl if ‘e were ‘ear just now?” Betty asked.
“I’d have a hard time facing him. I’ve always tried to do what’s right, but I’ve betrayed a friend.”
When Marty finished speaking, Karl, having stolen up behind our park bench to listen, quietly said, “Sounds like you need some forgiving, Marty.”
Marty reacted with a start, turned and said, “Karl, I’m so sorry …”
“Marty, forget it. I was kinda ticked at first, but you just didn’t know the truth of the matter.” Karl rested his hand on Marty’s right shoulder. “There’s nothing to forgive, and it’s all forgotten.”
Marty’s face betrayed his puzzlement. “Karl, what’s wrong with you … you don’t seem like the same person.”
Karl smiled broadly. “You don’t know how right you are.” Then he sat beside Marty and spent the rest of the morning recounting his journey to faith.
When Marty finally got his chance to rebut Karl’s passionate gospel presentation, his answer was predictable. “Karl, I appreciate your concern for me, and your experience has obviously done a great deal for you, but I have my own spirituality. God honors our good intentions. Besides, a loving God wouldn’t send anybody to an eternity of torture.”
Karl slowly shook his head. “Marty, I desperately wish I could tell you you’re right. The changes in me should speak for themselves, but we’ll have to discuss it another time. Rachel’s in trouble and we have to find her.”
“How can I help?”
Betty said, “Mister ‘alstead, do you still have Witherspoon’s confidence?”
Marty reached out to gently grasp Betty’s upper arm. “Please, call me Marty, and yes, I believe I do.”
Still smiling, Betty nodded and subtly shrugged away from his grasp. Neither said a word, but I could tell they were both embarrassed. After Marty left, I said, “What’s the matter my love?”
“I thought I‘d forgiven ‘im. I’m ashamed of meself.”
“Don’t worry too much about it. I haven’t heard of your canonization as Saint Elisabeth yet.” She smiled and chuckled at my little joke.
The fog had burnt off and given us a beautiful day as we went back to the car. With Karl driving, I glanced over to Betty and could tell her nimble mind was busy hatching a plan.
I often wondered how Betty always managed to leave me in her wake when we walked quickly together. She was well ahead of Karl and me in the corridor leading to Rachel’s flat, when suddenly she applied her brakes and threw her right arm out to the side. We in turn stopped straightaway, and heeded her silent shush. She turned to face us, pointed towards the door, and motioned with her palms down for us to proceed squatting. Which we did.
When we reached her, she indicated we should look at the door jam, broken from a forced entry. Picking up her intent, I motioned Karl back along the wall and positioned myself in front of the door.
Not having a weapon for defense, I felt like an imbecile, planning to barge into a room full of who knew what dangers. I thank God that only a brief prayer is necessary when one practices communion with him, so I balanced myself carefully, lifted my right leg and smashed the door with all my strength. Instantly, I dropped to the floor and rolled to the side, expecting a gun’s report to reward my efforts. But there was no gun shot. The door slammed against the inner wall and quickly swung back against the door jam, but in the brief moment it was open, Betty’s sharp eyes examined the interior visible from her position.
We collectively held our breath for a few seconds, and Betty reached out to nudge the door open. I motioned for Karl to stoop as I did the same thing, and we scuttled through the opening into Rachel’s apartment. Though we were ready to take evasive action, we encountered no resistance.
The sight that greeted us upon entering was certainly not Rachel’s housekeeping. Her personal things lay everywhere. Food containers were dumped. Furniture cushions and even her mattress were slashed. There was no need to comment on what greeted us, because considering with whom we were dealing, we should have expected it. I was glad Rachel couldn’t see the damage to her tidy little flat, but then wished she were safely with us.
“I wonder if they found Rachel’s computer?” As I said that, Betty was already hurrying into Rachel’s bedroom, where she felt around inside her wardrobe, fiddled with something that caused a clunking sound, and reentered the parlor proudly displaying Rachel’s laptop computer.
“Them Russians are good, but Rachel’s better. What bloke would think to check for a false bottom in a box of sanitary nappies?”
With a flourish, Betty plugged in the laptop’s power and modem cables, opened its lid to let it boot automatically, and clicked on the desktop e-mail icon. Logging into Rachel’s e-mail account was not a problem since she had thoughtfully used our initials and wedding date for her user name and password. But the dial-up connection seemed to take forever to retrieve the eighteen new messages, all of which were adverts.
Our understanding had been that if we should become separated, she would either call us directly or find a cyber-pub from which to e-mail us. That so far neither had happened did not console any of us, least of all, Karl.
We planned to check back periodically, but not from her flat. Due to our careful surveillance before approaching her block, we felt reasonably confident no one was spying upon us at the moment, but we had no idea how long that freedom would last.
Karl reached for Betty’s mobile. “I’d better call Marty. He might know of a place we could stay.”
After the phone call, we individually stole out of Rachel’s flat, and walked by separate routes to the newsagent by the channel, where we had agreed to meet Marty. Moments after approaching the sales counter, we heard a car stop at the nearby curb. Not wishing to appear too obvious, Betty glanced at the car and then smiled at me, confirming that it was Marty. Then we sauntered over and crowded into his compact, Acura coupe. Always the gentleman, I insisted that my Lady Love take the front passenger seat, claiming half the rear seat for myself. Karl occupied the other half, his smaller frame enduring the trip north much more easily than did mine.
We arrived at Marty’s holiday retreat in northwest Oregon after driving through the night, but I had no idea where we were until he said, “Home sweet home.” I was quite taken aback, because its only resemblance to the average American “log cabin” was its rustic, wooden construction.
He observed my astonishment at the size of the place. “I had it built for entertaining business contacts. Lots of room, and a dock down on the lake.
“I don’t think the Russians or Roger know I’ve caught on to their little ruse, but you would do well to lie low. No lights or TV at night, that sort of thing. In fact, for safety’s sake you might want to stay in my basement.”
After I extricated myself from the Acura’s rear seat and rediscovered my legs, he escorted us to a well-concealed basement door at the side of the house. Marty dug through his key-ring for a moment until he found just the right one, placed it in the lock and tried turning it to unlock the door. But it didn’t move, even with considerable fiddling.
Karl tried it next, but with the same result. “Please, allow me, Karl. I’ve got the advantage of experience with locks and keys.” After about a minute of my own fiddling, I regretted having sounded so cocksure of myself. Then, to my ultimate relief, the grudging lock yielded.
I stepped back to allow Marty the task of opening the door and taking us inside. “It’s a little rough, but there’s plenty of space and a few day-beds. You’ll find the place fully stocked, and if you need anything just call me on your cell phone.” He looked at Karl, “Disguise your voice and act like you’re a salesman, trying to sell me what it is you need.” Then he smiled. “Gotta warn ya though, my sales resistance is pretty good.”
I must have looked at him quizzically because he added, “I don’t have a secure phone at home, so just in case the lines have ears ….”
Karl scowled. “So we just wait here? For what?”
“Don’t worry. I’m on it.” Marty’s grin would have seemed most reassuring if the stakes hadn’t been so high.
“Oh, by the way, the basement has an emergency exit through a tunnel to my root cellar. It’s deep in the woods so no one’s likely to connect it with this place, even in the unlikely event that it’s seen. Be careful though. I was on a security kick when I built it, so if you do have to use it, watch out for my booby traps.”
The three of us must’ve continued to appear dubious. “This is the best I can do for you. I know it’s not much, but it’s safe, and hopefully it won’t last long.”
“That’s not it, Marty. This place is fine, and you’ve been great.” Karl glanced towards Betty and me for our confirmation. “We just feel trapped, no matter how nice the accommodations.”
Marty again tried to reassure us with a confident smile. Then he climbed the basement steps, closed and locked the door, and drove away, leaving us without transport in the basement of a rustic holiday palace. But we were hardly on holiday.
Tyler Hillman had excelled at mathematical puzzles from childhood. That aptitude led him to easily master the most advanced mathematics courses throughout his academic career, drawing him first to engineering, then to aviation. His new situation, however, presented the most challenging puzzle of his life. Though he had no keyboard or computer monitor, he gradually learned to control the Russians’ computer by thinking in binary strings, and as he discovered consistent responses to certain binary combinations, he memorized them to use as machine language commands. Since he bypassed all normal user interfaces, the Russians knew nothing of his manipulations.
His first self-assigned task was to re-calibrate the impulses the “scientists” used to inflict pain on Rachel. Then, once he mastered their local computer, he reached out to include other computers on the Russians’ secure network. The process took days, being interrupted as it was by their periodic, inept probing.
During a necessary break from the mental challenge, he thought, Rachel, I hope my computer language thoughts haven’t caused you any distress.
I guessed what you were about so I tried to keep my mind clear of distractions. Actually, I’ve been trying to make sense of it all. Would it be possible to brief me as you go. Perhaps I could pick up something useful from your process.
I’ll try. One of the things I’ve been working on is minimizing your pain when they torture you. I think I’ve managed to re-calibrate their pain impulses. It may still hurt, but at least it will be more endurable. Just remember to put on a good act when they throw the switch on you. I don’t want them to know I’ve hacked their systems.
Gratitude so filled Rachel’s heart that she didn’t need to consciously think the words for Tyler to know it. He simply went back to work refining his technique, with Rachel learning all she could.
After a considerable period, Rachel sensed relative silence from Tyler’s mind.
Oh, I hope I my thoughts didn’t distract you from your work. I’ve been trying to keep my mind quiet.
You’re fine, Rachel. I was just wondering, well, what do you look like?
Is that all? I’m afraid I’m nothing special to look at; brown hair, rather small of stature. What else can I tell you?
If we both get out of this alive I’d like to meet you in person.
I should say we’ve already met. How much more in person can we be, than in each other’s heads. She felt his consternation.
That’s not exactly what I meant. I’d like to get to know you better … you know, be friends.
I have no issue with that, but be warned, I’m probably old enough to be your mum.
Tyler paused for a moment, taken aback by Rachel’s statement. Oh, you mean mother. Say, how the he … heck did you get into this position? By your thoughts, I figured you were in your twenties.
Call it young at heart. I’ve challenged myself all my life, and that’s led me into some interesting situations.
She could almost hear his laughter. I guess so.