Authors: Greg Dinallo
“Come on, Ed,” Andrew pleaded. “We’ve gotta do
. We just can’t—”
gotta do something!” McKendrick interrupted angrily.
“The package—” Andrew said flatly.
McKendrick ignored him and downshifted.
,” Andrew pressed.
McKendrick tightened his lips, and stomped the gas pedal to the floor.
The Corvette laid down a patch of rubber and took off. Its taillights left a red smear in the darkness.
Andrew lurched backwards, pinned to the seat by the sudden acceleration.
The car rocketed into the on-ramp of the 610 Freeway. By the time it hit the traffic lanes it was doing well over a hundred.
* * * * * *
In the underground museum on the Churcher estate, Vanik was crouching in front of a storage room door, positioning a device made of precisely machined stainless steel parts over the lock.
This door and five others—four of which Vanik had already opened—led to climate-controlled rooms where paintings not hung in the galleries were stored. The doors were arranged in a semicircle, and opened onto an atrium from which the galleries fanned out.
Gorodin exited the adjacent storage room.
Vanik questioned him with a look.
Gorodin shook no, disgusted. “Not in there, either,” he replied in Russian.
“Two more to go,” Vanik said, discouraged. “Maybe Comrade Deschin was wrong. Maybe the package is in the mansion or offices downtown?”
“No.” Gorodin said flatly. “Minister Deschin knew Churcher for over thirty years. They were very close. He was positive something this sensitive and important to Churcher would be kept here. Get on with it. We’re wasting time,” he added impatiently.
Vanik shrugged and returned his attention to the device that he had positioned on the door. He grasped the handle—a long, one-inch-diameter stainless dowel—and spun it. Three mechanical jaws tighted on the edges of the lock’s hardened steel faceplate. Additional turns of the handle drove a super-hardened steel drillbit into the keyhole, then gradually retracted it, tearing the lock assembly from the door.
Vanik removed the device and set it aside. Next, he inserted a machined crank-handle into the jagged opening. He engaged the now exposed inner locking mechanism, and rolled back the four dead bolts that penetrated two inches into the metal frame on both sides of the door.
Gorodin pulled it open, reached inside, flipped on the lights, and entered the storage room.
Like the other storage rooms, this one was lined with parallel racks filled with canvases. A long work table with large, flat steel file drawers beneath, took up the center of the space.
Gorodin went to the drawers, opening them bottom to top, searching as he went, and not taking the time to close them. Once certain the package of documents wasn’t in the drawers, he crossed to the racks of paintings, and began flipping through the canvases.
In one rack, The New York School—a Rothko, a Klein, a large Pollock, two Rauschenbergs, a Warhol, and three de Koonings. In the next, Impressionists—three prize Tahitian Gauguins, two Monets, Matisse’s “Chambre Rouge,” four Lautrec lithographs, Van Gogh’s “Prison Courtyard,” and a Degas. In the third rack, Renaissance masters
—a da Vinci, a Raphael, a Titian, a Giorgione, two Botticellis, four Michelangelo drawings, and a Veronese. In the fourth, a massive Courbet by itself. The fifth was filled with over a dozen Picassos. The sixth contained, Russians—three Kandinskys, a Pevsner, three Malevich sketches, and a Chagall, and then, two more Chagalls. These last two canvases were exactly the same size, and stored back-to-back in a tight-fitting clear plastic sleeve—the only works stored in this manner.
Thus intrigued, Gorodin pulled them from the rack and carried them to the worktable.
The flamboyant oils were two of many Chagall had painted in Russia for the Jewish Theater in 1920. At the time, he had already spent four years in Paris, returning to his homeland just prior to the Bolshevik uprisings to court his long-time fiancée. He was made commisar of art for his home city of Vitebsk, where he founded an art school. Its students, like the master who taught them, produced works diametrically opposed to the state-approved Social Realism. And in 1923, Chagall’s style was challenged by the new regime.
“Don’t ask me why . . . a calf is visible in the cow’s belly. Let Marx, if he’s so wise, come to life and explain it to you,” Chagall replied. He and his bride left Russia soon after, never to return.
Now, sixty-three years after Chagall painted them, GRU agent Valery Gorodin held the two masterpieces that had never been exhibited in Russia or the West. He slipped the back-to-back canvases from the plastic sleeve, and in the space between them found what he was after.
The package was a sealed, nine-by-twelve-inch waterproof mailer. It contained six engineering drawings of the
. The thirty-by-forty-inch blueprints had been folded four times in each dimension and fit neatly into the mailer which was devoid of markings and return address. The typing on the plain white stick-on label read:
2364 Fallbrook Road
Chevy Chase, MD 20015
Gorodin wasn’t an aficionado, but he knew Chagall was an expatriat Russian Jew. He smiled appreciatively at Churcher’s selection of a hiding place, took the package, and quickly left the storage room.
* * * * * *
The red Corvette swung into the short approach road that led to the Churcher estate.
McKendrick depressed the button of the remote control unit clipped to the car’s visor.
The ornate entrance gates rolled back.
The Corvette rocketed between them without slowing, and accelerated up the cobbled drive. In thirty seconds the car had circled the mansion, crossed to the far side of the grounds, and nosed to a fast stop in front of the stables.
Andrew opened the door and got out.
McKendrick leaned across the transmission hump. “Package can’t be shipped from Texas,” he said. “I’ll be gone at least a day. Don’t talk to anybody.”
Andrew grunted and slammed the door.
The Corvette rocketed off into the night.
Andrew watched for a moment. He felt isolated. The way he did as a teenager after he’d tangled with his father who would bring down a steel door in his mind, shutting him out. Andrew stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jacket, crossed to the stables, and climbed the outside staircase to his quarters above.
Across the grounds, the Corvette came over a rise and pulled to a stop adjacent to the museum kiosk.
McKendrick got out of the car, and walked briskly beneath the kiosk’s intricate steel-and-glass roof toward the elevator.
He took the duplicate electronic card key from his wallet, and was about to insert it into the reader. His eyes darted to the status light. It was red, not green, indicating the elevator was in the down position—someone was in the museum. Had to be. McKendrick was turning toward the security phone on the opposite side of the kiosk when he heard the elevator door rolling open.
Gorodin and Vanik appeared in front of him. They froze for an instant, startled by McKendrick’s presence, then bolted past him and ran into the darkness.
McKendrick took off after them. He had no idea who they were, but he’d seen the package under Gorodin’s arm, and knew he had to get it back.
The chase led toward the grove of aspen.
Gorodin was in the lead, already short of breath, and hanging onto the package. He was really back now, he thought. It was typical that the task had gone so well, only to be compromised at the last moment. He envisioned Beyalev smiling snidely on learning he’d been caught, and ran even faster.
Vanik was a few steps behind struggling with the toolbox, glancing back at their pursuer who was gaining.
McKendrick’s massive arms and legs were churning, his chest heaving. In a burst of speed, he launched his 240 pounds through the air, diving past Vanik for Gorodin who had the package. The ground came up fast and hard as McKendrick landed just short of his target. His hands clawed at Gorodin’s ankles as they slipped from his grasp. He had stopped many touchdowns in South Bend with that kind of tackle, but that was twenty years ago and he could see what he was doing.
Vanik got tangled in McKendrick’s legs and went down, the toolbox crashing to the ground with him.
Both men scrambled to their feet.
McKendrick marshalled all the power in his weight lifter’s body and fired a punch toward Vanik’s head, intending to take him out with a single devastating blow and go after Gorodin.
Vanik put the toolbox in front of his face.
McKendrick’s fist smashed into the steel surface. The bones in his hand shattered in a muffled crunch. He recoiled, howling in pain.
Vanik raised the toolbox overhead, and heaved it at McKendrick. It bashed him square in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
McKendrick shoved it aside to get up.
Vanik dove at him, slamming a forearm into his throat and a knee into his groin as he landed.
McKendrick gasped, his body arched against the pain. Vanik’s fingers clawed at his neck, and vise-locked around it, thumbs crushing his windpipe from both sides, brutally. McKendrick fought to tear them from his throat, but Vanik’s strong, expertly trained hands continued strangling him, and he knew he had only a few seconds of consciousness left. He expanded the powerful muscles in his neck and caught a breath, then brought his fists up explosively between Vanik’s arms, and slammed them into the underside of his jaw.
Vanik bellowed as the tandem blows landed. The force sent him reeling backwards off McKendrick onto the ground.
The impact on McKendrick’s broken hand sent shock waves rocketing up his arm. He got to his feet, despite the pain, and was searching the darkness for Gorodin when Vanik lunged into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground again.
The two men rolled, and came up grappling at each other’s clothing, fighting, clawing to get a handhold, any advantage.
McKendrick’s right hand was useless. He exploded from down low,
and blasted a left into Vanik’s stomach. The punch landed with such force, McKendrick’s fist penetrated the triangle beneath his adversary’s rib cage to the wrist.
Vanik made a disgusting, wretching sound and doubled over in agony.
McKendrick lunged forward, grabbed a handful of his hair, and brutally smashed a knee up into his face.
Vanik’s head snapped backward. Blood was spurting from his nostrils and mouth. He tumbled end over end, arms and legs flailing, and landed in a lifeless heap a distance away.
McKendrick turned to where he last saw Gorodin.
The sharp crack of a gunshot rang out.
McKendrick straightened suddenly, and spun to his left holding his shoulder. A burning sensation exploded across his chest. The searing pain shot up the side of his neck and out the top of his head. He staggered forward, realizing in his zeal to retrieve the package he had made a fatal error; he had never considered the men were armed, though to
it had been drilled into him in the military and had paid off in Asian jungles. Wasn’t
the platoon leader who warned his men, “Unchecked emotion is an enemy sniper!” Hadn’t
once sternly lectured a friend who had chased a burglar instead of calling police? Didn’t
always caution others to—
Another sharp crack rocked the night.
McKendrick saw the blue-orange flash in the blackness at the very instant the bullet ripped into his flesh. He lurched with a yelp. His left leg buckled under him. He dropped where he stood. Blood gushed in spurts from a hole in his thigh.
Valery Gorodin holstered his weapon, a Smith and Wesson magnum supplied by the GRU in Houston, knowing he had waited much too long before using it. The movement of the combatants, the darkness, the difficulty of getting a clean shot would suffice to explain. But Gorodin knew the truth to be different as he hurried to his downed colleague. “Is it bad?” he asked in Russian, the extreme circumstances causing him to slip into his native tongue.
Vanik lied, through a broken jaw. He pushed up into a sitting position with Gorodin’s help, and shook his head trying to clear it.
McKendrick was lying in the grass nearby, the blood draining out of him while his nostrils filled with the smell of cordite. The brief exchange in Russian between the two GRU operatives was the last thing he heard before losing consciousness.
Gorodin dragged Vanik to his feet and, hefting the toolbox and the valuable package, led his battered colleague across the grounds.
Andrew couldn’t hear the sounds of the fight in his quarters above the stables. But the sharp gunshots penetrated the stone walls. He was sitting on the bed pulling off a boot when the first crack made him flinch. The second confirmed what he thought he had just heard. He slammed his foot back into the scuffed leather and ran for the door, pausing to take a rifle from a rack next to it.
Andrew came onto the landing at the top of the outside staircase. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and pick up the two figures running through the grove of aspen a distance across the grounds. He came down the steps, two, three at a time, ran past the stables, along the pasture fences in pursuit, and was cutting across the path that led from the mansion to the museum when his boot hit something slippery. His legs went out from under him. He fell to the ground, and slid through a patch of wet grass. The rifle flew out of his hand, vanishing in the darkness. He came to a stop, smeared head to toe with a viscous substance that tasted sweet on his lips. McKendrick was moaning nearby. Andrew scrambled to his feet, cleaning his face on his sleeve, and hurried toward the sound. McKendrick was lying facedown in the grass when he found him.
“Ed? Ed?” Andrew called out, shaking him a few times before accepting that he was unconscious.
McKendrick’s face was pale and battered. His right pants leg was soaked with blood. The crimson syrup poured out the cuff onto the ground in a steady stream, adding to a rapidly expanding pool.