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Against All Evil: The Intruders, Episode Six

Welcome to Episode six of The Intruders.

First, a review of episode five. On the evening of the day following a break-in at their Portland home, Max and Lena vanquished the Killoff-gang thugs who had come to Portland to capture Max and obtain the formula for his lethal virus. Documents from the gang’s hideout revealed that the Killoff’s headquarters was in Columbus, Mississippi. Knowing that to have any peace in their lives, they would have to destroy the syndicate’s leadership, Max and Lena decided to go to Columbus and put an end to the Killoff cartel. Realizing the challenge, Lena enlisted the aid of their two adopted daughters, Zula and Rana, both accomplished in martial arts. The daughters were to join Max and Lena in Mississippi a few days later. Leaving Lena's lair the night before their planned departure, Max and Lena failed to pay close attention to a man who appeared to be sleeping on the sidewalk down the block. Meanwhile, the Killoff gang’s leader, Ivan Killoff, and his brother Vladimir were wondering why they couldn’t reach their men in Portland by phone, especially since the client to whom they had promised the virus was demanding delivery that very night. Ivan’s mobile rang as the episode came to a close. 

           Episode Six

After Max and Lena came out of Lena’s secret sanctum in an abandoned machine shop in Southeast Portland and left in their Outback, Abdul Farhadi, inconspicuous in the dark shadows down the street, called the leader of his al-Qaeda sleeper cell. Fifteen minutes later a tan Toyota sedan arrived and two bearded men joined him. They smashed through the door of Lena’s hideout and rushed in, discovering Lena's partner, Raj Rajgupta, sitting in front of a bank of computer screens. After an hour of unspeakable torture, Raj revealed what he knew about Max and Lena's travel plans. Satisfies that he had told then everything, they then decapitated him with Lena's bread knife and left his head in the refrigerator, ghoulishly displayed on Lena's favorite porcelain platter.

While Raj was being tortured in Portland, 2400 miles away in Mississippi, Ivan Killoff answered his phone on the second ring.

After listening in silence for a moment, Ivan sputtered. “There was change in plans, a minor delay. We need a little more time, but I guarantee we’ll have what you want by tomorrow night.”

The line went dead. Five minutes later a windowless van pulled up in front of the Killoff warehouse. Two men got out and jimmied the building’s front door. They silently made their way to the office where Ivan and Vladimir were still trying to contact Nicki in Portland. The two Killoffs were taken by surprise when the assailants burst into the room. Before the two brothers were able to do anything to protect themselves, two pistol shots echoed through the dark warehouse. The killers doused the bodies and much of the office with gasoline and ignited it on their way out.

And so it was: with two bullets and a single match, the Killoff cartel ceased to exist. But with regard to Max and Lena, a far more dangerous adversary had taken the cartel’s place in the quest to obtain the formula for the lethal virus Max had unintentionally created years earlier, as if fate were upping the ante in its attempt to punish him for an unforgivable transgression.

Back in Portland, a little before dawn the following morning, Max readied his automobile for the trip to Mississippi. Over the years he had lovingly restored an armored, super-charged 1968 Mercedes-Benz 600 Grand Limousine that he had discovered in a Munich junkyard. For Max, this vehicle was the perfect combination of design, engineering, performance and reliability, and he eagerly looked forward to the drive.

Later that morning, cruising smoothly down I-5 South a little past Salem, Lena told Max that she thought they were being followed. “That Toyota Camry five cars behind has been on our tail since leaving Portland,” she said.

“Yes. I noticed it too, but wasn’t sure. What do you think, Liebchen? Should we lose it or find out what's going on?” Max queried. He had a good idea what her response would be.

“We need to know why they're following us. And who they are. There’s three of them. A divide-and-conquer tactic should work. We'll eliminate two of them and capture the other one. Pull into the next rest area.” Max nodded in agreement as Lena described her plan.

Twenty minutes later, Max took the rest area exit and parked at the far end of the nearly deserted truck parking lot. There were few other visitors: the single semi idled as the driver tested tire pressure with a big hammer; an elderly couple sat at a picnic table drinking from steaming paper cups; a lone woman was walking a leashed dog.

A short moment later the Camry arrived and parked near the bathrooms. The three men remained in their car. Lena got out of the Mercedes and walked towards a nearby stand of trees. At the same time Max got out and ambled toward an information alcove.

Seeing the woman heading for the trees, the burly man in the back seat eased out of the Camry and followed her. The other two remained in the car and watched Max.

Twenty yards into the woods, Lena glanced over her shoulder and saw that the man behind her held a pistol with a silencer attached. When she went around a sharp bend in the path a second later she quickly stepped out of sight behind a large oak tree. Apparently afraid of losing her, the bearded man sped up. When he came to where Lena was waiting his increased momentum added to the force of the smashing kick she delivered to his chest and which shattered his ribcage and ruptured his lungs. He dropped to the ground as a muffled gurgle of blood erupted from his mouth. She made sure he was dead, then rushed back to the edge of the woods. She saw Max in the information area studying a wall map.

Max saw Lena across the lot and headed toward the bathroom. The two men got out of their car and followed him. Lena trotted across the parking lot without the men noticing and approached the information area as the second of the two men entered the bathroom behind Max.

Inside the bathroom, Max was in one of the two stalls; its door was closed and latched. The two men were waiting for him to come out. The younger of the two held a pistol. The other one had a loaded syringe ready. Lena entered the open door behind them as quiet as a cat approaching its prey. With expert precision she downed the one holding the gun with a powerful chop to the back of his neck with the hard edge of her clinched fist. Then, in one continuing dance-like motion, she turned, stepped firmly on the other man’s foot and rammed her hand into his chest. He catapulted backwards, smashed his head hard against the cinder block wall, and collapsed unconscious to the floor.

Lena propped the dead gunman on the toilet in one of the stalls while Max injected the other one with the contents of the syringe the man had been holding. After making sure no one was nearby, they put the comatose assailant into the trunk of the Mercedes, then gagged him, tied his wrists behind his back and shackled his ankles. They then hurried into the wooded area and pulled the man Lena had dispatched earlier off the path and covered him with brush. Before leaving the rest area they collected the men's IDs and other possessions. A minute later they returned unnoticed onto the highway and continued south.

When Lena couldn't reach Raj by phone she sadly realized how the men who followed them must have discovered their travel route. The passports they took from their car had been issued in Yemen; the names were Arabic. Max and Lena speculated that the men were al-Qaeda operatives, and suspected that the Killoff gang had been hired by the terrorist organization to obtain Max's plague formula. Although they had believed they could have defeated the Killoffs, Max and Lena well-knew that this jihadist group was a horse of a different color; Al-Qaeda made the Killoffs look like Keystone Cops. But at least, one way or another, they would be able to confirm their suspicions and learn more later when they interrogated the man stashed in the trunk.

Late that afternoon they reached their destination, a CIA safe-house on the outskirts of Sacramento, one that Lena had used in the past. She punched in some numbers on a keypad next to the security gate, and after it swung open they proceeded along a winding, tree-lined gravel driveway to a plain single-story house hidden by a dense grove of tall laurel bushes.

“What about the man in the trunk?”  Lena asked after Max parked.

“We’ll leave him for now. He should be ready to talk by tomorrow morning. If he isn’t, an injection should help. And if that's not enough, you'll have to persuade him with methods from the old days,” Max responded.

 

The next morning the safe-house manager didn't question Lena’s request to use one of the sound-proof rooms in the basement. Max and Lena pulled the weakened Arab out of the trunk and half-carried, half-dragged him down a flight of stairs, then into a brightly-lit chamber where they strapped him into a metal chair bolted to the floor. Max inserted a venous line into his arm. As soon as Lena removed the gag, the prisoner cried out in Arabic for water. His lips were cracked and bleeding. His voice was raspy and dry. The back of his head was matted with blood.

Lena Ignored his garbled pleas and said. “Who do you work for?”

“We are doing the work of Allah. You infidel dogs are not worthy to even crawl in our shadows,” he croaked, seemingly trying as best he could to project the brazen bravery of a zealot on the threshold of divine martyrdom.

Lena ignored his response. “What did you do to my friend Raj?”

“To the glory of Allah, we cut off his head after he talked.”

Lena had to dig deep into her reserve of will power to suppress the temptation to brutally repay him for killing her loyal friend. But she well-knew the importance of the information they needed, and that a fanatic jihadist like this one would talk only after time-wasting torture.

She stepped back and turned to Max, “Is the truth serum ready?”

“Of course,” Max replied, then injected a mixture of scopolamine, temazepam and sodium thiopental into the IV line.

To be continued.

Against All Evil: The Intruders, Episode Five

In the previous episode, Max and Lena escaped before the Killoff Russian mafia gang approached their hiding place on Mount Hood in an attempt to capture Max and obtain the virus formula demanded by the gang’s unnamed client. Back in Portland by mid-morning, Lena went to her secret den and joined her sidekick and computer expert, Raj Rajgupta, and completed her preparations for an attack on the Killoffs that night; Max went to his laboratory at the Oregon University Health Sciences complex to retrieve what he needed for his part of the plan. Our story continues just after they learned that their enemy had regrouped at their hideout in a North Portland laundromat.

And now, Episode Five

Twenty-two minutes after Axman informed Rajgupta that Nicki Killoff and the others were together again, Lena was seated in front of a row of washing machines and dryers in the all-night laundromat housing the Killoff's hideout. She was disguised as a disheveled and gritty old woman with a garbage bag full of wet clothes on the floor in front of her. As she rose from a sticky yellow plastic chair to put the clothes in a dryer, a door on the other side of the room slowly eased open. A balding, powerfully-built man stepped into the room, assessed the situation, closed the door and went out the front entrance and across the street to the 7-11 market. Lena had instantly recognized the man as The Albanian, and sat back down. She assumed that he needed cigarettes or something and would return soon.

She was right. A few minutes later he entered the front door and started towards the stairs to the basement. But, as he passed Lena again he looked a little closer and noticed the tiny earbud barely visible through a scraggly wig. Reacting immediately to his suspicion, he moved to where she sat and pressed a pistol hard against her forehead. When Lena looked up from her seated position, surprise flooded his face; he recognized her at once.

“Is it really you? I thought I killed you 30 years ago. This time I won't fail.” the assassin said.

But as The Albanian was about to pull the trigger, a bumbling old man, smelling of filth and mold, crashed through the front door pushing a wobbly grocery cart full of dirty rags. In the fraction of a second that The Albanian glanced in Max’s direction, Lena’s hand shot up with unbelievable speed and grabbed the thick wrist of his gun-hand in a vise-like grip. She snapped his arm backwards and pulled him down towards the floor, at the same time executing a reverse foot sweep. His legs catapulted upward as she pulled him onto the concrete floor so hard that his bald head split open like a cleaved melon before he even had a chance to comprehend what had happened. She easily caught his dropped pistol in her other hand.

The old bum, Max in disguise, threw off his reeking coat and rushed over to help pull the body aside. They had to get the dryer going before the others in the basement wondered why The Albanian had not returned. He assured Lena that Axman had successfully rerouted the dryer vent’s exhaust hose into a basement window. Lena put the load into the dryer, added the milky liquid that Max had given her earlier, inserted six quarters into the coin slot and pushed the START button.

In the basement below, Nicki and Boris were instructing the borrowed Russian mob guys about their plan to find Max and Lena. Suddenly they all started sneezing, followed quickly by a burning sensation in their eyes, then difficulty breathing.

 “What the . . .,” were Nicki's' last words before collapsing. Two of the thugs went down next, then Boris and the rest of them. 

Five minutes later Max stopped the dryer. Fifteen minutes later he and Lena went down to the basement; by then the air had cleared. Nicki and the others were out cold, and would be for at least eight hours. Max and Lena cuffed everyone, grabbed the box of documents under Nicki's table, then called the FBI with an anonymous tip about a Russian mafia gang incapacitated in a laundromat basement. They also mentioned the dead assassin lying in front of a washing machine. They collected Axman where he was waiting out back and departed without leaving a single trace of their having been there.

Back in Lena's abandoned coffee shop 30 minutes later, Max and Lena learned from Nicki's files that the Killoff gang’s headquarters was in Columbus, Mississippi. The gang had moved there from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their warehouse operation near the river. The Killoff's control of drugs, weapons and human trafficking had only been temporarily interrupted by the storm and were back in full swing.

Max and Lena knew that to have any peace in their lives, and to protect Max's secret, they had to go to Mississippi to complete their task. Ivan Killoff, his ruthless younger brother Vladimir, and their army of ex-KGB goons, must be eliminated. At least that was what they believed then. But, since there was no mention of any “client” in Nicki's files, they were totally unaware of the danger that lay ahead.

“Tonight was the easy part wasn't it,” Lena queried speculatively, then took another liverwurst and onion sandwich from the platter Raj had prepared.

“Yes, Liebchen, you may be right. Tonight might turn out to have been simple compared to what we may encounter next. Maybe you should call the girls. We just might need a little help,” Max replied thoughtfully.

“That’s a good idea. I'll see if they're free,” Lena responded as she picked up her secure phone.

“They'll meet us at the Hyatt in Oxford, Mississippi in three days,” she reported after disconnecting a few minutes later.

“So Maxi, should we drive or fly?”

Max considered her question, thinking how easy it would be for their enemies to monitor the airports.

“Let’s take the Mercedes. It’s more comfortable than airplane seats. More secure, too. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

What Max didn't say was how he looked forward to some quiet time to think more about the possibility of self-induced power enhancement. A long drive would provide that opportunity. They also needed time to plan their confrontation with the Killoffs. Besides, he loved driving his big Mercedes 600, to his way of thinking, the perfect automobile.

When Max and Lena left Lena's hideaway later that night they noticed a man lying on a blanket on the damp sidewalk half-way down the block. They weren't alarmed though, assuming he was just another Portland homeless guy who had found a dry place where he could pass the night in peace. But, if they had looked a little closer, they would have seen an olive-complexioned, bearded man concealing a Nikon 35 mm camera equipped with a telephoto lens. The time would come when Lena would chide herself for the oversight.

Meanwhile, in the early hours of the following morning, Ivan and Vladimir Killoff were huddled together in the back office of the Transit Trucking warehouse. They were concerned about why they couldn't reach Nicki or Boris in Portland. Even their calls to the Portland Russian gang went unanswered.  Equally worrisome was what to tell their client? A client they had never met in person, spoke with an accent they didn't recognize, and was demanding immediate results. Ivan had come to regret his decision to take on this contract to capture Max and extract the plague virus formula, especially since his own gang had failed to do so two years earlier. It was a task that had turned out to be more difficult than he could have ever imagined. When the phone rang precisely at 6 a.m., he knew who it would be. The call he was expecting, but also dreading.

To be continued . . .

Against All Evil: The Intruders, Episode Four

In the previous episode, Max and Lena formulated a plan to fight back against the Killoff Syndicate after their thugs had failed twice in the past two years to capture them. The Killoff gang was after a deadly virus Max had innocently and accidently created during his research. The gang’s unnamed client was becoming increasingly insistent on its acquisition, demanding that the Killoffs deliver the formula sooner than originally planned. The morning after the most recent failed kidnapping attempt, Nicki Killoff learned of Max's whereabouts just before Max and Lena were preparing to leave the remote mountain cabin to which they had escaped the night before. Episode Three concluded with Killoff thugs heading for the cabin for another attempt to capture Max and his in resourceful wife and helpmate, Lena.

And now, on with our story.

It was nine a.m. when Max and Lena left the remote cabin near Mt. Hood and started up the slope to the shortcut through the woods to where they had hidden their car. Halfway up the hill, Max suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Lena pulled up next to him.

“Did you hear that?” Max said. “It sounded like a car door closing. Wait! I hear people running . . . on a dirt road.”

“Max? Are you sure? I don’t hear anything. How can you hear something that must be far away?

“It’s like last night in the house. When I heard the intruders fiddling with the front door. When I woke from that dream.”

Then a flash of reflected light caught Lena’s attention. “There’s someone coming along the road. See them through the trees? There’s a bunch of them.”

 Max looked where Lena was pointing. “You’re right. Let’s go. We’re not prepared for visitors yet.”

He couldn't help but notice how invigorated she was as they continued up the hillside.

“This energy’s incredible,” she said to Max, running next to her, matching her speed and length of stride. “I think I could run like this forever,” she added.

Is this what I think it might be?? Max wondered. This is exactly how it felt during those energy enhancement experiments I conducted on myself.  What the hell’s going on? Could it actually kick in automatically? Is there a trigger that responds to danger? My God! What if this is real? I’ve got to check this out as soon as we take care of this damn Killoff problem.

Two hours later, back in Southeast Portland, Max and Lena separated when they reached the corner of MLK and Hawthorne Blvd. She drove on to a boarded-up, abandoned machine shop under the ramp to one of the bridges spanning the Willamette River. Max walked across the Hawthorne Bridge and up to a secret level-4 cell culture laboratory at the OHSU Medical Center. They both had work to do since they intended to engage the enemy that night. They understood the tactical advantage of surprise and were determined to use it to their advantage.

Lena arrived at her operation center a few minutes later. The upgraded space housed computers and other electronic gear in a central room, a small office for Lena, a compact kitchen with a table and three chairs, and a lab for Max. The computer equipment was the responsibility of her faithful Indian companion, Raj Rajgupta. He greeted her without turning away from the images scrolling on his three wide-screen, high-definition monitors.

Ignoring his greeting, Lena snapped, “Why didn't we know the Killoffs were in town?”

She had contacted Raj immediately after the previous night's attack in their home and instructed him to find out what was going on.  He had worked all night and had the answers.

“Sorry, Lena. There was no hint of a trail. No trace of their arrival. They're here under the cover of a local Russian mafia gang. I learned from street-level scuttle-butt and some hasty phone intercepts that they had arrived two days ago, failed in your kidnapping, missed you on Mt Hood, and are now on their way back to town. Three members of the Killoff gang are here, from their headquarters in Mississippi: Ivan’s 26-year-old son Nicki; Nicki’s lieutenant, Leonid Stravorski; and Ivan's nephew, Boris. My guys saw Nicki and Boris this morning, but no sign of Stravorski.  And there’s one more out-of-town guy, an assassin and bounty-hunter called “The Albanian.” He arrived today and is with them now. They've also enlisted a bunch of the local Russian mob guys to help find you two. Looks like they really mean business this time.”

“The Albanian? Damn!” Lena said, interrupting Raj. “Where are they holed up?”

“They're using the basement of a laundromat on North Lombard as a hideout. Arnie Axman, one of my street guys, set up surveillance from an empty dumpster in the laundromat’s rear parking lot while they were out looking for you and Max. He'll let me know when they return.” Raj turned back to his screens.

“Good work, Raj,” Lena said, somewhat mollified. She went into her little office and powered up her own computer.

Lena didn't like it that “The Albanian” had joined the Killoffs. She knew him to be ruthless and cunning, having encountered him many years ago when he was a young KGB hit-man. During that encounter, he thought he had killed her. But he hadn’t; although seriously wounded, she survived. “This time will be different,” she muttered to herself as his face filled her screen. Her back-door access to restricted CIA files served her well once again.

Meanwhile, across the river and up the hill in his biohazard lab, Max was preparing a special treat for their Killoff foes. Alone in the lab, sitting in front of a biohazard exhaust hood, he cautiously removed one milliliter of a milky liquid from the freezer vial he had just thawed and carefully transferred it into a sterile tube. Next, he added ten milliliters of growth medium, screwed the cap on tight, wrapped the tube in impervious plastic sealing tape, slipped it into a small padded envelope and put it into a padded pocket of his back pack. He then put the resealed freezer vial back into the liquid nitrogen storage tank, discarded his bio-suit into a burn chamber, erased his entry record from the secure lock-pad and left unseen through a seldom-used utility tunnel. He left no trail of having been there.

Back in Southeast Portland thirty minutes later, Max joined Lena and Raj in time for lunch at their favorite fast-food spot, a Burgerville near Lena's lair. Seated at a window table looking out onto MLK Boulevard, they reviewed their plan of attack while savoring black bean veggie burgers and organic rhubarb milkshakes. After due consideration, they concluded that the unexpected appearance of “The Albanian's” would not change their plan as it was laid out. If it worked, he’d go down like the others.

Max, slurped up the last of his shake, then addressed Raj. “Find out from your street people when and where the Russians will be tonight. Once you know they're together, set it up for the attack. Now, I need some time in the lab,” Max said as he rose from the table, grabbed his pack and headed for the door. Lena and Raj followed.

A little later, not far away in North Portland, two dusty vans pulled into the littered lot behind the laundromat and parked across from an unused, rust-coated dumpster. Nicki, Boris and The Albanian headed for the building’s rear door. The other men divided up and left in each direction down the alley. Once inside the laundromat, Nicki made another call to his father, fearful at the prospect of reporting yet another failure.

Even Boris and The Albanian, standing just outside the door to Nicki’s make-shift office, could hear the Killoff boss's anger (or was it panic), then the loud threat of severe consequences if the formula were not in hand by the deadline.

“Find them!” Ivan screamed. “If you don't have them by tomorrow night

our client is going to send in their own agents. And Nicki, I don’t think they

would leave any witnesses. Like you, for instance.”

After hanging up, Nicki waved the other two into the room. “All right, let's get busy and figure out how to find him,” he said.

Five hours later, at 7:20 p.m., with their plan laid out, the three thugs took a break for dinner.

 “We'll regroup in half an hour,” Nicki said. Looking at Boris, he continued, “Get the local Russians guys back here so we can start the search for Manus tonight. We don't have time to lose.”

Back at Lena’s hideout in Southeast Portland, at 7:35, Max came out of his lab and joined Lena in the kitchen.

“My part's ready. How is it with you?” he said anxiously, sitting down at the table.

Lena, noting the concern in his voice, replied in her confident manner. “Everything is in place, Maxi. The Russians are still at the laundromat. One of them went to the pizza shop down the block. They do have to eat, you know. Axman will call when they’re together again. The microphone he attached to the back wall is picking up everything they say. Now we just have to be patient. So let's have a little Schnapps, a few pretzels, and listen to some Brahms until it's time to go. How about the Third Symphony?”

Max smiled as the concern drained from his face. He grabbed a handful of pretzels and accepted the little glass of clear liquid Lena offered him. “Okay, Lena, you’re right. Prost!”

It was 8:13 when Axman called from the dumpster. “They're back. The local guys, too. Everything’s ready here.”

“We'll be there in fifteen minutes,” Lena said as she punched the off button on the CD player.

They were in their Outback and on the way two minutes later.

To be continued.

Against All Evil: The Intruders, Episode Three

Welcome to another episode of The Intruders. But first, a review of the previous installment.

Max and Lena had discovered that the Killoff crime ring had found Max and Lena again and hired two Portland Russian mob thugs to capture Max and deliver him to Nicki Killoff. Nicki intended to coerce Max to reveal his secret for producing a lethal plague virus. Ivan Killoff, the gang’s leader, had sent his son Nicki with two of their best men, Boris and Stravorski, to Portland for this purpose. But when two local Russian thugs on loan to the Killoffs invaded Max's home, Max and Lena subdued one and fatally wounded the other. The kidnapping failure prompted Nicki to have Stravorski killed by Boris. Nicki then commanded Boris find Max as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Max and Lena had decided not to run from the Killoffs, but to end the threat to what they had hoped would be their golden retirement years.                                

And now, we continue . . .

Nicki Killoff called his father Ivan after Boris removed Stravorskie's body from the basement of the North Portland laundromat Nicki was using as his Portland headquarters.

Ivan, waiting in his office in the gang's trucking warehouse on the edge of Oxford, Mississippi, answered the phone on the first ring. “Nicki! Did you get them?”

“Well, ah . . . no. They got away. But we'll find them. I pro . . . promise,” Nicki stammered.

“What? Again? This is their second escape. Your promise is meaningless. Obviously, you're not up to this task. Stay close to the phone and do nothing. I’ll call back soon.”

“But father, we had a good plan. But they knew we were coming and were prepared. They fought like wild animals.”

“I’m not interested in your excuses, Nicki, and won’t accept any more of them,” Ivan replied in a stone-cold voice, then terminated the call.

Meanwhile, later that same night, having turned over the captured intruder to the police and then quietly leaving their house, Max and Lena were comfortably ensconced in a cozy cabin on a remote slope of Mt. Hood. It was a neighbor's weekend retreat and they had been there before. They sat together in front of a low fire, both lost in deep thought.

“The Killoffs will hound us forever if we don't destroy them once and for all,” Lena said, breaking the silence. “We have no choice,” reiterating what they had decided after learning the identity of the would-be kidnappers.

“You're right, Lena. That has to be our single focus. We can't allow them, or anyone else for that matter, to obtain the formula. I wish I had never tested the energy enhancement procedure on that virus. But it was the only one we had in the lab at the time, and I was anxious to confirm the process. I should have waited to get a less dangerous strain. This mutation can turn a person into a bloody corpse in 24 hours, and it’s highly contagious. It would be a horrible way to die: massive internal bleeding, spasms, excruciating pain. I don’t know exactly why those bastards want it so badly, but I know damn-well it’s not for the good of mankind.”

“Don't fret, Max. What's done is done. But now . . ., now it’s time to put an end to this game. So get on with your planning,” Lena said in her calming manner.        

About five a.m., with Lena asleep on the sofa, Max saved the document he’d been diligently working on, then closed and put aside his laptop. He went out onto the cold grass and breathed in the crisp, clean mountain air. After stretches and yoga exercises, he hurried back into the warm cabin. But, in his haste to get on with the task ahead of them, he didn’t notice the fresh boot prints in the damp dirt below the living room window. Back inside, he showered and shaved, then ate a hastily-prepared breakfast. Finally, he was ready.

“Lena, let's talk.,” he called out to her from the little kitchen where he sat at a table set with two steaming cups of green tea.

Lena was already awake, finishing her isometric exercises. She smiled and answered immediately.

“I'll be right there.” She too was ready: anticipating the possibilities that Max could come up with, she had made her inquiries, called in a few favors, issued orders. Her people were standing by and could be deployed at a moment’s notice.

While Max and Lena were in the cabin finalizing their plan, in North Portland at the gang's hideout, Nicki Killoff had just answered the call from his father, Ivan, informing him that help was on the way.

“And Nicki…we have to have the formula no later than ten days from now. Our client is insistent, and has moved up the delivery date. They mean business. There’s no room for mistakes,” Ivan added before hanging up.

Two hours later, Boris ushered the man sent by Ivan into the basement hideout. Nicki was sitting at his rickety table in the dingy room and greeted the man, who was of medium-height, well-muscled and hard-looking, with a sullen stare. He looked to be in his mid-fifty’s, was bald and dressed in black. To break the tension, Boris introduced Nicki, but had no idea what the man's name was.

The man stepped forward, leaned over a bit, spread his large, thick-fingered hands on the table and looked directly into Nicki's eyes. In a low, gravelly voice, he said, “Just tell me what you need, Nicki boy.  All I know is you want a couple of old people grabbed, right? So who and where are they? And what's the big picture here? If I'm gonna get this done, I gotta know what's going on. Ivan didn’t say much”

Nicki blinked nervously, but otherwise held his own, trying to maintain control of the situation.

“Who the hell are you? What have you been told?” he spat out, as if he was in charge rather than his father, far away at the other end of the phone line.

“Relax, junior. I'm The Albanian. I provide necessary services, so to speak. Your old man hired me to capture the two you're looking for. I deliver them alive, I get fifty thousand apiece. Dead, I get nothing”

“Well . . . okay,” Nicki said, reluctantly accepting the fact that he had no choice but to cooperate with the hired enforcer. “I'll tell you what we know.”

“The old man is Maximilian Manus. He’s a scientist. He made some kinda killer virus. He's the only one knows how to produce it. There’s gotta be a formula or recipe or something. Whatever it is, we gotta get it. His crazy wife, a big woman named Lena, is always with him. We want ‘em both, but especially him.”

“So what's the problem?” asked The Albanian. “There's just two of them, right? And they're old, aren't they?”

“Yeah, . . . but there’s a few complications.”

The Albanian said nothing, just waited.

Nicki continued, “Two years ago they dodged our attempt to capture them, and then again last night. We've got to find them and get that formula. We have to deliver it to a client within 10 days. If we don't meet their demand, there’ll be disastrous consequences.”

“Don't worry, Nicki. I don't do failure. But tell me, how did these two geriatric retirees manage to escape? Two times, right?  Do they have a secret army? Is there something special about them? If there is, I need to know.”

Nicki glanced at the open notebook on his table. “Max Manus; some kind of science genius in biochemistry and neurobiology, whatever that is.

Nicki looked up for a second from the open notebook, towards The Albanian, then continued.

“He’s rumored to have discovered a way to increase energy. Like science fiction, super-hero stuff. He's supposed to be the only one that knows how to make it work. His wife helps keep it secret. But instead of his energy discovery, we’re after is his formula for the plague virus. It says here he created it when he was studying the energy thing. Like a test experiment or something.”

“Okay, I get the picture. It sounds like this old guy’s a little nuts, but no dummy. But, that doesn't mean we can't capture him. What about the old lady? This Lena dame? What's her story?”

Nicki withdrew a printout from a file box under the table and recited its content:

 

Name: Lena Hock; Born 1948, Blauberg, Switzerland.

Father: General Gustav Hock, Swiss army.

Mother: Irena Cordreseau, Carpathian gypsy; WW II anti-Nazi partisan, tall, cunning, ferocious; descendent of Genghis Khan.

At young age, acknowledged intellectually and athletically precocious.

Disappeared age 20:

Escaped Syrian maximum-security prison 1975

Surfaced in Israel same year.

Identified as US CIA assassin 1979; trained killer.

Met Manus 1995 during covert Central Asia high-tech CIA operation; married 1996.

Out of sight until rumor of Manus’ energy discovery leaked 2005.

Retired CIA 2006 (age 58)

Considered extremely dangerous.

 

The Albanian stared at the young Killoff with disbelief for a moment, then said, “Are you afraid of these fossils?  They're past their prime. Let's find them and bring them in. I'll collect my bounty and get the hell outta here.”

“Right, but first we have to find them,” Nicki responded. “We've got a dozen of the Portland Russian guys searching for them. It shouldn't take long to track ‘em down. They couldn't have gotten too far.”

Just then Boris' cell phone rang. He recognized the number and answered at once. After a second he turned off the phone. “They found them. Let's go!”

 

To be continued . . .

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