The ocean lapped at our feet as palm trees swayed in a slight breeze to our right. With a red head on either arm and the sounds of Reggae wafting across the dunes life couldn't get much better. Sailboats hugged the horizon, their colorful sails stretched tight by the afternoon winds. The ladies with me laughed at my clever jokes and we all knew what lay in store for us at the cabana we were casually strolling toward. In the distance, I could see a phone on the beach. Not very big at first, it began to grow in size and it was ringing. The ladies didn't seem to notice as we continued toward it. But somehow it drew me to it and it seemed to grow in size far too quickly. I couldn't ignore its persistence ring. As I stared at the phone, the beach seemed to fade away and the ladies were gone. This was an evil phone and it was in my hand now.
Phone calls after midnight are rarely a good thing. The later they are, the worse they are. That's been my experience and I have plenty to go by. This one came just after 3AM. No one else was going to answer it but me and the echo through the house demanded my attention. I paused for a couple more rings to let the dream sadly fade from my brain.
"Danny boy. Pack your bags," was my greeting, all chipper as though it was morning or something. I knew both the voice and the source of the nickname without looking at caller ID. Knowing it was one of my very few old friends, Jackson Pollard, on the other end didn't help me figure if this was good or bad news. Probably bad, since he didn't sound drunk.
"Jackson. Your timing sucks." I asked with wake-up grumbling in my voice. It wasn't an automatic but I was pretty sure a late night call from him must have been somehow unavoidable. He didn't call that late, or early, whatever it was, just to chat. He wanted something. Jackson had the resources and contacts to get just about anything done and calling me, especially a late night call was extraordinary.
"Were you in the middle of something good?"
"The best. I was on a beach in Fiji with a pair of redheaded twins."
"Well then, it's a good thing I called. Red heads burn easily and they would have hated you in the morning."
"Thanks for the help, Jackson. I'll tell them what a great guy you are next time I see them. What kind of trouble do you have for me and how do I get out of it?"
"I need you to perform a bit of an extraction/relocation. It needs to be done soon." He paused a bit to let me digest that. Relocations are what the two of us had done for a living but that was a couple of years ago for me and longer for Jackson. Extractions were much more rare and usually meant trouble. Either someone didn't want to be relocated or someone else really didn't want them relocated. I was good but there were plenty of others, especially still in the Marshals that did it professionally. For me, it would be a hobby. "Daniel, this is high profile, very high risk. The company can't be seen in the mix of this and the Marshals won't touch it. We need an outsider."
"Who are you working for now? How soon?" If Jackson said it had to be soon and I was the guy, it was only because he had run the rest of the options and I was the obvious choice.
"There's a company plane on the way. There's a laptop on board with all the info you need."
"That's great Jackson but you presume much. What am I doing, for whom and how long? Is there pay involved or is this just because I'm such a great guy?" I asked, not really expecting much clarification.
"The CIA is passing info to the Fibbies to bring in a big name. He's getting old and we think he'll open up everything. One catch. His daughter. She's 23. She wants out. She's wanted out of the family since she figured it out a long time ago. Daddy won't let her go because he thinks he's her best protection. If she's already gone and he's convinced she's safe, things could go a lot smoother."
"That seems easy enough. Why doesn't she just leave," I asked. Why did you wake me for this, I thought.
"We think Daddy would hunt her down and bring her back and then shut up tight. If she's gone before we take him in, and he thinks she's safe, problem solved."
"So you want me to relocate her without Daddy's knowledge. Is that it? And by the way, who is Daddy?" I owed Jackson a lot. No. I owed him just about everything and this sounded pretty easy. If I could pay anything toward that debt, I would do it in a heartbeat. If I could earn a buck or two, so much the better.
"You're not gonna like it."
"What am I not gonna like Jackson? Who daddy is or how little I'm going to get paid?"
"You're not gonna like who daddy is at all. You're especially not gonna like who his friends are" he said. I think he wanted me to say "yes" before I had all the details but debt or no debt, I needed to know what I was getting into.
"Daddy is Sergey Mogelivitz. You heard of him?"
"Yeah. I've heard of him. Remind me."
"He's one of two American faces of the Bratva in America. Portsei is the other. Mogelivitz operates out of New York but has fingers into everything, New York to Louisiana." He paused a moment to let that sink in. I knew the Bratva was the Russian mafia and Mogelivitz was one of the biggest names. Nothing happened in the Eastern US, at least as far as the Bratva was concerned, unless it went through Mogelivitz. "His daughter is Smetlana. She's old enough to know everything. Sergey's partners and enemies alike will think that what he knows, she knows, that she could testify as well as he could. They're probably wrong but Hallmark hasn't gotten around to making a "I don't really know anything" greeting card yet. Can't send one out to all concerned. When Mogelivitz comes in, they will all want her dead. They'll want his wife dead too but she probably doesn't have long to live and will probably stay holed up in their Gold Coast estate. The wife isn't the issue."
"Oh, that Sergey Mogelivitz. So you think that's why I won't like it? Well, you've got that right. As soon as he goes into custody, every Russian crook in the world will either be trying to take his place or looking for her and especially Portsei. Not wanting to go to jail might be a motive. The bounty will be a billion dollars. Why wouldn't I like that?" I asked, my words dripping with the sarcasm it deserved. This was way beyond doing a very good friend a very big favor or paying off a very big debt. This was like signing my own death warrant. The world is not a big enough place to hide from the Russian mafia. We both let the silence hang until it was too thick to tolerate.
"Does she want to go? You said she does but does she realize what's going to happen when she leaves?" I asked. I stood and stretched. I looked back at the bed but there were no redheads to be seen although there might have been a bit of sand on the sheets. I was wide-awake now whether I did Jackson this little favor or not. I took the phone into the bathroom and turned on the lights. Bad idea. I squinted at the mirror and didn't like what I saw. "Does she realize how much risk there is for her?"
"She knows. We have a man inside and he's convinced she wants to be done with it. She's ready to go but hasn't had the opportunity. And Daniel, you don't have a big window here. I need you moving now."
"Alright Jackson. If I don't say yes before I'm completely awake, I won't say yes. When and where do I pick her up?" I asked. Normally it takes at least a couple of weeks to prepare an extraction and relocation. You need a new identity and documentation to go with it, a job, a life, an invented past. You can't just pick up and go. You have to prepare the way. I had spent almost six years working witness protection for the U.S. Marshals. I knew the drill. Fast and reckless usually meant failure. A safe house could buy some time and professionals working the paper and plugging background info into legitimate databases helps.
"Danny, the FBI is picking Mogelivitz up late this afternoon. She needs to be gone before that," he said and we both got real quiet. The more time between her "disappearance" and Mogelivitz being taken into custody, the more of a head start we would have and the better our chance of success. Success being that I continued to live. Double success if Smetlana Mogelivitz did too.
"That's nuts, Jackson. We'll be dead before we leave the country." It was likely and we both knew it.
"Danny, there's an account with your name on it and $5 million ready to transfer as soon as you have her. More to come for her once you have her established. There's a lot of money here, Danny. Don't ask where it came from 'cause I'm not gonna tell you. But I would certainly think Mogelivitz will reward the man who ensures his daughter's safety. $5 mil is for starters."
I took a deep breath. I was hoping for something a little less risky and a little less profitable. $5 million was a lot of money but it's hard to spend when you're dead. I told him so.
"She must have personal security. What does it look like? How close are the bad guys, or are they good guys? Do I have any help?"
"You don't have any help. Well, a little. She typically has a security detail of four to six when traveling and she is traveling. She's in Savannah, Georgia now but we think that's going to change later today. Charleston, shopping on Market Street is her likely destination. And if we're lucky, our inside man will be on the security team."
"Well that's a start. Four close and two separate or the other way around? Two cars, three? How do they travel? Does she have anyone with her or does she just love the company of big Russian goons?"
"She has a friend with her. Chloe Basset, a college friend I think. She's a non-factor. Figure on two cars, two to four escorts in one car with the other two with the ladies."
"Any restrictions, or can I do what I want as long as it works?"
"Don't break the law."
"You're a hoot Jackson. I'll take that as a green light. And yeah, I know, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Got it.
"Danny, the Fibbies are bringing him in today around five. If she's not gone, she'll be dead as soon as the Portsei and the rest of the Bravta figures it out, a day maybe two. If she's dead, he won't like us very much and he'll clam up. Everybody knows it but the good guys can't lay a hand on her until it would be too late. She won't testify. It would be death for her. This is the only way it's going to work. I've got other people I could call on but they'd all say no. Even $5 mil isn't enough. Not without backup. Too hot."
"But I will." I owed but Jackson was really stretching it.
"No. Look, you don't owe me anything, OK? You'll do it because you can. She needs a knight in shining armor. You're the guy." He knew what he was sticking me with and didn't know a better way to do it. I could tell he would rather not have this but somehow it had been dumped in his lap. And now he was dumping it in mine.
I didn't have to take it but then I did. I owed Jackson too much to just say no. I was wishing I had let the machine take the message and ignored it until tomorrow.
"Alright, Jackson. Today is a good a day to die. If I get there and decide to opt out, what happens?"
"We grab Mogelivitz anyway and she is on her own. His men protect her, maybe. Maybe he talks, maybe he doesn't."
"That's a hellofa place to put me."
"They go back to New York's Gold Coast tomorrow. We can't wait for that. It would be even harder, impossible, maybe. The estate is a fortress and security is incredible." He paused a second and cleared his throat. "The FBI has had a man, Dimitri, inside for two years. She trusts him but he can't do the job. He needs to stay in place. You'll have his cell number. He'll clue her in right before the pick-up. She should go OK."
"Should. You're not sure on this?"
"No. Not really. I think she will because she wants out. She'll have a security detail with her, protecting her from guys like you. You need to separate her long enough to find out if she's going gracefully. If not, well, there is no if not" he said.
"Alright. Take out a life insurance policy on me, would you. Way better odds than Lotto."
"You can make it work. Everything else you need will be on the plane. It'll be on the ground at Montgomery Field in 30 minutes or so. If you can be to the airport in an hour, let's see, three hour flight, you'll have about an hour in Charleston to get your bearings before she shows. Start thinking Eastern Standard Time. You're already three hours behind."
"I don't like it, Jackson. I don't like it but I'll give it a go. But listen up. If I get to Charleston and don't like what I see, or the package on the plane doesn't help, security is too much or she balks, you get to figure out a plan B. You care where I take her?"
"Someplace safe, Danny. Someplace safe" and he hung up.
It was already warm when I got off the plane in Charleston International. 'International', that was rich. Probably one plane a week flew to Bermuda. I picked up one-each inconspicuous rental and headed for downtown. I had managed to read the file, fix a few faces in my mind program the Garmin and still catch a nap on the flight in. Daddy Mogelivitz was getting old, the wife was bedridden and would probably never leave the estate in Long Island. Smetlana, the daughter was the only living child and the apparent heir to an immense fortune. No one really knew how much money. Mogelivitz probably didn't even know. She was a graduate of Syracuse with a degree in criminal justice, of all things. I wondered if that was so she could become a better criminal, figure out what her dad was really up to or if it was to help her escape the felonious life her father had locked the family into. I wasn't sure if that degree was good news or bad. Interesting, however you looked at it. She spoke French and some Spanish and had used it. She'd been around. European trip when she was in high school and again between her freshman and sophomore years of college. A couple of Caribbean cruises, a road trip to Key West. Typical yuppie kid trips. She'd had an older brother. He was ten years older than her but died four years ago, while she was in college. The dossier didn't say how he died.
The pictures were generally of good quality but there weren't as many as I would have liked. I focused on the shots taken in the last two years. Her college graduation shot was good for facial recognition but nothing more. Robes just aren't flattering; I don't care who you are. There was one of her on a street bike, V-twin cruiser, maybe a Harley but it was a bit blurry. Another on horseback, English style. I could tell from her posture that she was at home on a horse. Another of her with her dad. It was probably taken somewhere in the Caribbean, maybe a year ago, maybe with her mom already sick. It would match up time-wise with her vacation. It was the typical shot they take when you dress up for a formal dinner. Her dad was beaming. She had long straight blond hair, almost silver colored. It looked fine but full-bodied, as the ads say. Her face was good, symmetrical. She had fine, high eyebrows, very light in color over blue, almost steel-gray eyes, almost Scandinavian but her cheekbones were too high for that. She looked like she knew something you didn't, sort of a Mona Lisa smile. A thin, straight nose and the kind of mouth you see on lipstick ads. She had on a strapless black gown that showed off angular shoulders and a nice cleavage on a thin, tanned body. She was 5'9", an inch taller than her dad. She reminded me of a ballerina or an ice skater maybe. She made me think of a young Grace Kelly. A young, Russian Grace Kelly. Very beautiful and that kind of beauty would be hard to hide. I thought of Charlize Theron in the movie Monster. It could be done.
Traffic from the airport to downtown Charleston was light. Too early for tourists and too late for workers I supposed. I took the Meeting Street exit and headed toward the market. I knew Charleston pretty well and had studied the map on the flight. I could get around. Shopping in Charleston probably meant a trip to Market Street and the two or three blocks of open-air markets. I found a parking spot in a lot on Anson Street, a block away from the middle of the market and backed in, directly across from the exit. I checked and holstered one Glock 26 behind my right hip and one at my left ankle. Small is good and I'd used the mini Glocks for years. I had on linen slacks and a floral print shirt to cover the gun at my hip. I slipped on a pair of Serengeti sunglasses and a "gambler" style straw hat to shield my face from any security cameras and slid out into the growing heat.
I popped a mini blue into my left ear and tried my contact. He answered in Russian and hung up abruptly. I assumed he didn't want anyone else listening in. He called back two minutes later. Dimitri, my 'little bit of inside help' had just pulled into the Omni parking garage, about two blocks away. Talk about fortuitous timing. I looked over toward the Omni Hotel parking garage but it was blocked from view by shops.
Dimitri gave me Smetlana's number and said he would contact me when they got to the market, their first destination of the day. We agreed that the outdoor market would provide the greatest opportunity for distraction and the easiest escape. It was busy and getting busier which was good, as long as she wanted to leave with me. If not, it was the worst possible case. She would just have to want to go.
I walked away from the Omni on Market Street, toward East Bay and the old Customs House, keeping the market to my right. The market was a series of stalls and stores packed in over a three-block area of downtown. Market Street was actually two one-way streets on either side of the market and the market was one narrow block wide. The building had a few permanent stores inside but most of the vendors packed up each night and some only worked the summer or Christmas time. Tourists were beginning to fill the market so I took the sidewalk down North Market. Horse drawn carriages carried six to eight sight-seers at a time as a costumed tour guide describe the scenic old town. The architecture wasn't unlike that of downtown New Orleans, the French Quarter, especially between Broad and the Battery. Not as ornate, perhaps. Newer buildings invariably tried to blend in with the old and generally did a pretty fair job of it. It conjured up images of Civil War era aristocracy. Dimitri called again and I turned back to meet Smetlana and her group of six, now two blocks away. There was her friend, Chloe, and four "escorts", two very close behind her every step and another trailing on either side of her at a distance. Dimitri was one of the two trailers. I wondered if Dimitri was really his name and if he could be trusted. Any way you look at it, four is better than six and one that might be good for some help is better yet.
I worked my way through the crowd from inside the market now, shopping as I went. Sand dollar Christmas ornaments, local hot sauce, instant she-crab soup mix, T-shirts and paintings by local artists filled the market over and over. Tourists crowded the market looking for gifts for Aunt Edna and Uncle Buck. Nearing the middle of the market, I spotted one of the guards long before I saw Smetlana or her friend. He was enormous but he didn't look slow and he certainly didn't look ponderous. He looked like the kind of guy I would want guarding my daughter from kidnappers like me. A Russian Oddjob. I had no real plan yet so I kept my distance and watched. She walked slowly, laughing with Chloe, inspecting clothing, artwork and trinkets from various vendors. She stopped to talk with one of the basket-makers as she worked. The basket makers were typically of Gullah decent and had passed on their craft from pre-slavery days. She sat with dozens of baskets spread out before her, working quickly and she seemed to be explaining the work to Smetlana, something she undoubtedly did hundreds of times for each sale. The baskets are made from sweet grass and have a great smell to them. I'm pretty sure they are unique to the Charleston area.
I needed to separate Smetlana from at least one of the guards besides Dimitri and it would be good if she were out of the line of sight of one of the other guards as well. I caught my break when she bought a set of baskets at the State Street intersection. Six mall baskets and one very large one. One of the guards paid cash and she loaded him up with the baskets. After some discussion she sent him back to the garage with her baskets. He didn't seem happy to go but I could see that she expected him to follow instructions. He talked with the other close guard and then called up Dimitri to take his place. As the first guard disappeared down South Market Street, Dimitri filled in, leaving one trailer. I had ten to fifteen minutes before the big guy returned. I spotted a café on Anson Street and a plan started to take shape. I sent Dimitri a text. Get them into Kaminsky's Café for a restroom break. It was right around the corner from my car. I sent the text and headed to Kaminsky's to be waiting. Cutting through the market I spotted a vendor with some items I thought might come in handy. I picked up a blue baseball cap with a palmetto tree and a crescent moon, a huge, sturdy coffee mug, and a large bottle of Beastly Hot Sauce and paid with two twenties. He dropped them in a bag and I dashed for the café.
The café seemed dark after the bright light outside and I was thankful for having a couple minutes to acclimate. Dimitri came in first, followed by the two ladies with the other guard trailing. It wasn't crowded which was a disadvantage. Three or four options came to mind but they all seemed to either compromise Dimitri or require a lot of noise. If it came down to it, I would compromise Dimitri. He'd have to fend for himself. Smetlana and Chloe took a seat at one of the tables near the window and Dimitri headed for the men's room. His partner guarded the door leaving one outside, across the street but with the table in view. I caught Dimitri's eye as he went past but said nothing, no visible hint of recognition, but we both knew. I dialed her number and then watched her reach into her purse for her phone. She held it and continued to talk to Chloe for another moment, then flipped it open.
I spoke to her in French, intentionally catching her a bit off guard but definitely getting her attention. "Smetlana. Je suis venu pour vous sauver de l'ours russe. Voulez-vous échapper? Vous pouvez le faire maintenant. Êtes-vous prêt?" I asked in somewhat rusty French. I have come to save you from the Russian bear. Do you want to escape? You can do it right now. Are you ready?
I switched to English and kept my voice low. I was only 25 feet away and could watch her face take on a look of intensity. That was good. She was taking this seriously. "Smetlana, your father is going to testify against the Bratva but you must be safe first. You must be gone. The Bratva will kill you because they think you know everything too. Are you ready to leave?" I asked. She was looking nervous now but I saw her nod. "I'll take that as a yes. Don't look around. If you want to leave, order two coffees and then leave to use the restroom right now." She hesitated. I thought I had her but wasn't 100% certain. The other guard would be coming back soon.
"Smetlana, it's now or never. If you want to leave the Bratva, this is the time." She ordered the coffees but sat on the edge of her seat. Big brother watched the door, his back to her but checking frequently.
"It's now or never. If you want out, this is the time. Your dad is going to testify, bring it all down, but he wants you safe."
"How do I know I can trust you? My father has many enemies. Give me one reason I should believe any of this," she asked in French, recognizing the need for secrecy.
"Do you trust Dimitri?" I asked.
"He's the only one I do trust. Yes, with my very life," she said.
"Good. When Dimitri returns, ask him if the restrooms are clean. He will tell you they are spotless. He will use that exact word, spotless. When you hear that you have to leave. You have to use the restroom right then," I told her and watched for any sign. Nothing. I hung up and then phoned instructions to Dimitri. Then I waited.
Dimitri came out, wringing his hands. She spoke quietly to him and he answered. She hesitated one last time, then excused herself and went to the restroom. I followed her reaching into my shopping bag as I went. Dimitri tried to follow but the other guardian stepped in. Dimitri had given me the time to get directly behind her and the other guard followed me, trying to cut between us. I withstood his shouldering and stayed tight behind her. She could hear the commotion as we jostled but continued on toward the restroom. Good girl. As she opened the door and went in, I planted my feet and shoved hard backward against the Russian giant. It caught him off guard but it was only worth a second. I used it to duck into the women's restroom and slammed the door shut. He pushed in a second later and I caught him square on the forehead with a pint of Beastly's Hot Sauce. The bottle shattered cutting him and spraying his face with the sauce. He wiped at it with his big hand but that was a mistake. The sauce spread into his eyes, blinding him. You couldn't tell the blood from the hot sauce. He screamed out for Dimitri. I kicked him hard on the side of the knee and it crumpled. He was making a lot of noise we didn't need. The guard across the street could probably only see Chloe now and that was no good. I kicked the giant one more time in the middle of the back, sending his head into the sink with a sickening crunch. I grabbed a very startled Smetlana and pulled her toward the door.
"Now or never, Smetlana. Now. Now," I said with urgency. We pushed out the door and I turned her to the right, toward the back fire exit. Dimitri was coming down the access hall toward us. "Sorry, Dimitri. I have to," I said and shrugged my shoulders.
"What?" was all he said before I hit him squarely on the forehead with the coffee mug. It was a perfect shot and I saw his eyes roll up in his head as he went down. The trailer was coming in the front door at a full run. I dropped the mug and the rest of the bottle of Beastly Hot Sauce back into the shopping bag, taking my fingerprints with me where they belonged.
We popped out the back and I tried to orient myself. The parking lot was almost directly across the street. We darted across Anson, my hand on Smetlana's back guiding her just as the trailer came out the back. He had taken his sunglasses off in the restaurant and wasn't prepared to be back outdoors. The sun was in his eyes, looking almost due east, and he couldn't spot us for a moment. When he did, he reached inside his jacket for his gun. I already had mine drawn and from 30 feet, fired twice at his chest. The first sent him backward a step and the second sent him down. I pushed Smetlana for the car, opened the driver's door and pushed her in. I scanned the scene once for spectators, saw none and climbed in after her. I left the lot and turned right heading for the freeway. We were away but had made far too much noise. Far too much. "Buckle up, please." I looked to see that she was putting her seat belt on. Following instructions was a good thing.
I thought it through. No fingerprints left behind. Not by me at any rate and it didn't matter about Smetlana. They knew who she was. My hat and glasses protected me from security cameras, not that I saw any. As far as I could tell, no one saw us on Anson Street or connected us with the shooting. The car was probably good but the parking lot attendant might remember it though I doubted he'd got the license number. My quick assessment was better than I could have imagined. Dimitri should have a sufficient bruise to eliminate suspicion that he had helped and that was a bonus. My phone was a throw-away so even if he didn't clear his record, it couldn't hurt either of us.
I turned to Smetlana. She was looking behind us, breathing heavily but trying to get it under control.
"You're very brave," I said and she nodded very slightly. I was going to say more but she was in a bit of shock. I drove North on East Bay a few more minutes and realized we absolutely had to do one more thing before I turned off the peninsula. "Keep breathing but don't hyperventilate. It will clear your head. Here, drink this and give me your cell phone please. I need your phone." She took the water and reached into her bag and handed the phone to me. I scrolled through recently dialed numbers until I found her friend's number. "Call Chloe. Tell her you've been kidnapped. You're OK and in the back of a van and you think you're heading for Savannah. Be very succinct — no chitchat. Then hang up and give me the phone," I told her. She looked at me and I nodded for her to do it now.
When she finished I took the phone from her. I turned it off and wiped it with a tissue. We passed a narrow street and I threw it hard. "They could track us with your phone. Can't have that." She nodded and began to stare straight ahead. The thousand-yard stare. I'd seen it before. Disbelief. Sometimes it lasted hours, sometimes days and sometimes it seemed that people never snapped out of it, sleepwalking through their lives. It wasn't a big issue for now because she was committed to this course of action and would take directions. They usually do, although not as quickly as I'd like at times. She reached down and took her shoes off, then lowered her window and threw both of them out. It seemed strange at the time but the whole day was going that way.
I took the onramp for I26 toward Columbia. We had to get some distance between us and what was left of her guards. I hadn't seen any security cameras on Anson but they were there. There are always security cameras. If they weren't behind Kaminsky's they would be down the street somewhere. The license plate I'd borrowed from the airport-parking garage would probably slow them down a bit. The real plate was in the trunk. But still, we had to change cars. Columbia, 90 minutes away, was a crossroads. We could go north toward DC, a different shade of north toward Charlotte and Asheville, west toward Atlanta, or northwest toward Knoxville from there. We would change cars in Columbia. A different car and the variety of choices should slow down anyone trying to follow. Anyone following us would think of Atlanta as our most likely destination. Close, big city, large airport, everything you need to disappear. If they could track us quickly enough, they could be waiting for us in Atlanta. Unlikely, I thought, but not impossible. The only guy who really saw me was probably still trying to rinse hot sauce out of his eyes and the police might be questioning him for hours. The police would be looking for someone who killed a large Russian with a gun in his hand. They weren't a problem. At least I didn't think so. After 48 hours my trail would be as dead as the Russian. I had no idea if the trailer had seen me or not. If I could trust Dimitri, we should be good. Atlanta would be a safe bet. But we weren't going to Atlanta. We were heading for Knoxville. Everyone tries to escape by plane because you can cover the most distance the fastest. It's also pretty easy to track someone's path in a big airport. Especially if you know when to look. Days later, trackers can watch on videotape, then walk in, follow our path to the ticket counter and take the same flight we took only a week later. Nope. We wouldn't make it that easy.
"Are you with me, Smetlana? We need to talk. Tell me when you're ready," I said and looked over. She nodded a little and then looked over at me. She was starting to come out of it in big steps. Twenty minutes. That was good. She had done well but this was just beginning. I pulled into a rest stop just outside North Charleston. I got out and opened the door for her.
"Let's take a minute to freshen up," I said and gave her my hands. She stood up and looked at me, seeing me for the first time.
"Who are you?"
"Right now, I'm your best friend."
"What do I call you?"
"Daniel January, Danny, Dan. Do you understand what's going on?" I asked looking back at her almost eye to eye. She was tall, even without shoes. Tall and beautiful.
"I ... I think so. Yes, but maybe not. Why are you doing this? Who do you work for? You're not one of my father's men or you wouldn't have shot Gregor. Are you a Marshal?" she asked. Good question. Astute.
"Smetlana, I work for you. Up until now, I was working for a friend who wants you safe. You're safe. At least temporarily. But as of right now, I work for you."
She nodded and looked unsteady. She had an odd mix of appearing mentally strong but emotionally fragile. She looked like she might either cry or try to punch me and her lip trembled a little but she was fighting it.
"Scared?" I asked. "It's OK. It's normal. I'm going to protect you. This is the hardest part but I'll get you through it. OK?" Everyone needs reassurance right about then.
"OK," and she was practically trembling. She turned and headed for the restroom. When she came back she looked somewhat refreshed and composed. She took a small step toward me, looking for some form of security. She put her left hand on my shoulder and leaned close to me. I put my hands on her shoulders and held her with the most reassuring smile I could muster. She was certainly beautiful and she looked determined now, too.
"Daniel. Why should I trust you? My father's men were mean and nasty but they would protect me. Why should I trust you?"
"Because I promised a friend I would do this. I promised. That means I'll do it."
"I don't know your friend."
"No. You don't. Then there's this, I've already been paid. The money I was paid to get you away from your father's mean and nasty friends should already be on the way to my account. My friend, who you don't know promised. He promised so that means he'll do it. I could leave you right here, right now and still get paid. I'll do that if you want."
"OK. Fair enough. I think that must be true." She had learned a little something by being around all those mean and nasty Bratva men because she was almost intimidating me. Me. That just doesn't happen. I held her eyes as she looked into me, deciding her course of action.
"OK. I've decided," she said.
"I've decided to trust you. You did what you said, so far, and I feel like I can trust you. Please don't be someone I can't trust," she said, almost smiling hopefully. "And you can't call me Smetlana. My father calls me Smetlana. No one else. Everyone else calls me Lana. Call me Lana."
I smiled back, for the first time that day, I'm sure. "OK, Lana. Anything else?"
"Just a minute." She took her hand off my shoulder and lowered her purse. I followed the action to see a .357 revolver she had been holding low, aimed up at my heart. She had drawn me in, my hands were on both of her shoulders and she only had her left hand on mine. I couldn't do a thing. She had the drop on her knight in shining armor and she did it with a smile. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I laughed.
"That was very clever. You know how to use that thing?"
"What do you think?"
"I think you know how to use it." She put it back in her purse and then smiled at me. I hadn't even seen it. I felt like an idiot. I was going to protect her and it hadn't even crossed my mind that she might be armed.
"Is Gregor dead?"
"Good. He was more than mean and nasty. He was an evil man. The others are not very nice but he was pure evil. I'm glad he's dead." She thought for a minute, weighing so many events and possibilities. "Well, I can't stay at the rest stop. You have a plan? Where do I go? I mean where do I go to be safe? They will try to find me. And I could use some new shoes."
"That's your choice. If you trust me to get you out of the country, you can pick the destination. Anywhere you want. If it won't work or is too dangerous, I'll tell you. Is that OK?"
"Yes. I think so. How do you work for me, I don't pay you. My father has the money, not me. The Marshals have lots of resources but you said you don't work for the Marshals, right?"
"No. I used to but not any more. I've been paid in advance for this. I have enough money to get us anywhere in the world. I believe that your dad will come up with plenty more as soon as he knows you are safe. That might take a while but for now, I have more than enough. You can start your life outside the influence of the Bratva." She started smiling and it began to grow. "This is for real, Lana. This is for real," I said and she hugged me lightly. She felt much better when she was hugging me than when she had the draw on me. Gently, and with great difficulty, I pushed her back.
"Will you trust me to get you out of the country? Do you need me to help you?" I asked and the smile disappeared from her face. She nodded. "Good. Was that your only cell phone?" She nodded again. "We need to get rid of everything you have and get new stuff. Your father wanted you safe and that means there might be a tracking device in your purse, your shoes, anywhere. Your shoes. That's why you tossed yours." She nodded. There's a Wal-Mart at the next exit. It's cheap and fast. I need some supplies too. Everything you have with you, clothing, purse, whatever you carry in your purse, everything, it's all got to go. We'll keep your license for now and if you have any pictures, you can keep those but the rest has to go. Are you ready to do all that?" She smiled like a little girl and nodded.
"Yeah. There was undoubtedly one in my shoe. I've never found anything else and when I've left them behind I can go where I want. But you're right. I'll get rid of everything."
She bought clothes and changed in the bathroom at Wal-Mart. We left with two bags full of goodies. I scrolled through Craig's list ads as we sat in front of the Atlanta Bread Company on Main Street, sucking up their Wi-Fi connection. A quick phone call, a three block drive and I picked up our new car, A gray Jetta for $13,000 in cash. The owner seemed shocked with a cash transaction but quite obviously pleased. Lana followed me back to Wal-Mart where we left the rental with its original plate back on. I wiped down the areas we'd touched with Armor All. It would probably be rented once or twice at least before anyone could figure out what car I had used and they would clean it each time. I called Hertz and reported the car as inoperable and we got back on the road. Lana was happy, I was happy and we were on the road for Knoxville or maybe Nashville if we felt like it. We had a small ice chest full of Mountain Dew, veggies, snacks, a few new clothes for Lana and the latest Pat Conroy novel and some magazines for her reading pleasure.