Nataraja and the Bull Nandi
Chapter 24 – Shiva’s Messenger
Nataraja and the Bull Nandi
From his vantage in a void space behind a mechanical room, the assassin Dimitri Petrov watched the tiny dials. They were his only real view of anything happening outside of his enclosure. Was this vertical shaft originally to house a large dumb-waiter, or just the current pipes and conduits? It ran from the basement to the upper floor as a cobra’s lair.
“This space is a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.” He was at the top of a ten-story well that was only 4 x 4 feet. Two large cylinders were chained in place, further cluttering his section on the upper level. Directly ahead was the back of an air-handling unit, as the duct doubled as part of the ventilation system. Dust of decades coated the walls. Suspended now in a fall restraint harness, Shiva’s Messenger was like a spelunker in an artificial cave.
He closed his eyes and imagined the link between his sniper’s blind and the one behind the fence in Dealey Plaza. His father was alive and standing with his carbine under his jacket. Dimitri took a deep draught of the fresh Dallas air. Thank you, Carl.
Silently, he watched and listened for the infinitesimal sounds that would signal the beginning of the endgame. In his mind, he circulated his plan again, avoiding the myriad of latent disasters. His confidence needed to remain doubt free. The skills his father had instilled in him were running at peak efficiency. Shiva’s Messenger was dangling in limbo and the world took a deep breath in anticipation with him.
The President of the Ukraine was at Boryspil Airport to greet the U.S. President when his foot touched Ukrainian soil. There were the customary handshakes and welcoming words. Weeds performed the rituals with his usual panache. This type of formality looked good on the newsreels but it took no special effort. The toughest job was for his stylist to make him look good after his long flight. Weeds would have time to relax and have a good night’s sleep before the grueling stuff began. Good thing, too, because he felt a major dump coming on and Larry hated airplane crappers.
He slid into the limousine amid a knot of Secret Service. Their heads were craning, ever watchful for an out-of-place move that signaled danger. The motorcade whisked him through the streets of Kiev, to his waiting hotel suite. Motorcycle escorts blocked the side traffic while they swept past all lights. His guards and the Secret Service would have already checked everything. He was probably safe but alone in the passenger compartment. Larry Weeds watched the crenellated building tops, for a sniper’s outline.
“Anyone standing on a roof would only appear to be a chimney pot, until a shoulder-fired missile contrail pointed him out.” Images accompanying that thought sent Larry sliding into the corner of the limo seat, out of sight. Weeds felt the familiar knuckle of fear grip and begin to twist intestines behind his belly button.
The POTUS detail was dedicated to his protection, and they performed as well as any agency ever could. He had appropriated a vastly increased budget for his personal safety but he didn’t feel any improved comfort level. “Could any extra spending ever keep me completely safe?” The law of diminishing returns said emphatically, no. A tiny risk must be overlooked. A dedicated assassin, like the innovative Shiva’s Messenger, could always find some way. Weeds gave an involuntary twitch, at the thought of that name.
“I felt so confident of my safety in Kiev but now I’m uncertain.” The president hoped beyond dread that the assassin would show up at the Washington lure but he hadn’t. Nick Taylor must’ve been confounded by that too because Larry’s buddy hadn’t been quite the same man since. Something was different about him and it was uncomfortable. “I didn’t even want Nick riding with me in the limo.”
Under a screen of American agents, the president was ushered to his suite. It was comforting as always to see Marine guards in the corridors. There aren’t many of them: perhaps they’re tucked away out of sight. Standing back a pace, he gently lifted the shade to peek out the window. Could Shiva’s scope see through the glass? Nervously, Larry tucked the curtains, so no daylight could peek in.
“With one outcome or another,” the president referred to his alternate plan, “at least it’ll all be over.”
Nick had ridden crammed in with other diplomats following the president’s limo. Taylor had not been up to his usual form with his pal but his mind was actively engaged on more important matters than placating an imbecile. On part of the flight, Weeds had been animated and excited about the Ukraine visit. It could have been a state visit to Antarctica and Larry would still have been ecstatic to leave America right now. The president and the chief of staff sipped several glasses of bourbon together, while Nick casually slipped in facts about the Ukraine. Weeds usually liked it when his friend did that. Then Nick had been called away to collect a secure message.
“It’s a go for sure! Bernard was right!” Nick had nearly sung the words. The message was like a Christmas gift with even a crepe wrapping that was of some lesser value. A wiretap of a politician he’d been monitoring since learning of her prior involvement with the Akron assassin had paid a rich dividend. Judith was astute enough to understand the veiled references and so was Taylor.
“She was too upright and unassailable to play political ball but now she will.” Congresswoman Forrester would obey or watch the headline ‘phone sex with an assassin’, kill her career.
“Is that enough to keep an inappropriate or misinformed tidbit of yours from sparking an international embarrassment.” The chief of staff had flagrantly crossed the line by openly calling his chat with Larry as what it really was.
“It’s plenty for now.” Nick recalled the president’s sharp reply but couldn’t care less. The man would soon be dead and if a miracle saved him, Larry would need his subordinate brain more than ever.
The jammed second limo smelling of a long flight’s armpits arrived behind the President’s. Nick stood on the hotel’s carpeted apron and turned a lazy circle. Where would it happen? Taylor felt on the cusp of poignant history that hadn’t repeated since 1963. A person in charge of befouling the security can only do so much. I’ll make further mistakes if possible but it’s now essentially up to the assassin, ‘Nick’s’ Messenger, to complete the job.
Taylor collected the key to his suite but his mind was on the next four days. The killer had that long and several appearances in which to pull his trigger. I would love to actually speak to Shiva right now. All he would like to know was where and when. With that information, the Chief of Staff could have set him up much better. He might have even been able to provide a nice padded sniper nest, complete with an aim here arrow. Nick smiled at the thought.
Throwing his bag onto the bed, he vowed to unpack it later. Right now, he felt a familiar stirring in his lower abdomen. It didn’t matter what time zone he was in. After the limited activity of a long airplane flight, the movements of walking to get to accommodations stimulated the necessary function. Taylor headed for the commode.
Tomorrow the public appearances will commence. Each of those was a target acquisition opportunity. This meant the vice-president’s chair and maybe even more. No more cow-towing to a man who was his intellectual inferior. My presidency is going to be inspired. The deed to that was securely locked in his office safe. Nick Taylor couldn’t suppress the smile that split his face from ear to ear. Go get him, Shiva! He didn’t even dare to utter that cheer in a whisper to the walls of the washroom.
“In spite of it all, it’s still good to be king!” Weeds stretched out on the large comfortable bed with a sigh. He loved nothing more than foreign junkets. It was world tourism, at far above first-class style, with foreign leaders and people treating him like royalty. More than just a king, I’m an emperor of the world’s most powerful empire. Nothing but the richest royal red carpet was rolled out.
“How can I be expected to make decisions and steer the country with this hanging over me?” Well, that sounded good and maybe it would even make a great line for a speech but Weeds knew that it wasn’t intrinsically true. He didn’t make decisions. People made them for him. His inner circle made choices and then he only ratified them. The Stryker Group set their priorities but that part would change soon. I don’t even select what socks to put on in the morning: my presidential valet does that.
“I certainly don’t steer the country but that would make for a great photo-op.” There he was, standing with resolve at the helm of a great tall ship. The name America was bold across her stern and he was holding fast the wheel with his thrusting jaw firmly set against a stiff squall. Then after the pictures, a make-up artist would fuss to repair his wind-wrecked hair. Someone who actually knows what a sheet, a jib or a spleen is supposed to do quickly grabs the tiller, before the boat can careen onto a shoal.
“I think a spleen is a body organ and Nick would’ve so rudely pointed it out.” Actually Larry was sure he felt a cramp in his spleen right now that told him that he had ablutions, he had put off. It would have enough bourbon in it to be noxious to the extreme.
“It’s too late now.” One thing that he had forgotten until just now was how much he detested the toilets in Europe. It was nasty having the biffy in a separate tiny water closet room, because it seemed to make the smell more concentrated. Even worse were the German ones, where the feces sat on a porcelain shelf without dropping straight into water. He should have used the presidential lavatory on the plane.
President Weeds unbuckled his belt and dropped his pants around his ankles. He sat down onto the toilet in the small WC. At least the seat was very nice and padded. Squirming slightly, into a more comfortable position, he looked around. Maybe this tiny room with no windows wasn’t so bad after all. It was one place where he was completely safe from Shiva, the gunman assassin.
Larry was suddenly gripped by a shocking memory. Shiva’s Messenger was an enigma to the world but he knew from the file that he was actually a Russian operative. KGB Colonel Vassily Orestovich Antenenko was a highly skilled agent. He was proficient in numerous languages, multiple weapons, hand-to-hand combat, field tactics, marksmanship and demolitions. While the president’s body prepared to perform one vital function, he was sitting on an apparatus, with a dualistic design that did two.
In the mechanical shaft, the needle of a gauge shot up upwards and jiggled briefly before coming to rest on an increment. The weight of the president’s butt had pressured up the water gel sealed inside the outer skin of the padded seat. The conforming action of the viscous fluid gave exceptional comfort but it was there for another reason. The semi-liquid pressed onto a plunger, crafted into the barrel of one hinge. The sensor sent its signal through the internal plumbing, to the antenna that was modified to serve also as a flush plunger. The knob, on the top of the surge tank, transmitted its message to a receiver in the nearby enclosure.
“I could turn a double play on foul bowels.” Shiva’s Messenger smiled at how appropriate that was for his strike three. The other gauge had registered just seconds ago.
“This will really shock the crap out of someone.” Dimitri Petrov flipped three toggles, with latex encased hands and then electrical impulses traveled back to the corresponding bombs.
Carl had spent hours carefully crafting the component parts. The luxurious seats were constructed of C4 explosive, painstakingly molded around an aluminum core. He had dipped the work into resin to seal it from emitting any detectible explosive fumes. The structure was then encased in a bladder that held the gel. The whole assembly had been coated with layers of vinyl to give it the impression of factory make and obviously of the finest quality.
With the sensor probe assembly in one hinge, the detonator was incorporated into the other. The power supply was a battery array housed in the tank stopper. Wiring was unobtrusively inside of the plumbing and hollow threaded bolts with nothing showing on the outside. Components of the electrical schematic were waterproofed against short-circuiting.
The whole ingenuous double functionality of the toilets had sat there innocuously waiting to execute a virtuoso performance. Agents from the Secret Service had sat on them while preparing for the president’s visit. Even a member of the explosives team had been caught short and used the one in the president’s suite, without even a flicker of an inkling of what he might be sitting on. They looked, felt, smelled and functioned like ordinary German style commodes.
“Security forces never examine further when they see exactly what they expect.” Dimitri had said this to Carl, when he produced the explosives from his luggage. This was simply one step further.
Shiva’s Messenger felt the major detonation and swung slightly in his harness. A generation worth of filth shook loose into the cramped quarters. Ready for an onslaught of the choking cloud, he slipped on his mask. It was of army surplus design and he looked like a foxhole doughboy.
“Out of the trench and into no man’s land.” He pushed aside the fan unit that was no longer secured to the floor. Maintenance man Dimitri had sawed the bolts off under the base. With the equipment moved, he now gained entry into the closet sized room, where staff previously accessed the dumb-waiter. From the hallway, it looked like only the slotted face of a large furnace because the shaft had been converted to do ventilation.
[Nataraja rides the bull named Nandi.]
“Now is not such a good time but in this case I already know what you’re talking about.” Dimitri distinctly heard the sounds of nearby feet as the Marine guards began to react to the blast. No matter. Those noises would soon cease.
Shiva’s Messenger placed both of his hands over the canisters of his mask and tried a breath. Suction pulled the goggles against his face. Now wouldn’t be a good time to suffer from an improper seal. He pulled the coiled hoses from the chained metal cylinders and clamped the open nozzles onto the vent panel. Leaning back into his vacated space, he cranked the main valves to full bore.
Deadly chorine gas flooded into the hotel corridor like chemical warfare. Liberating the two heavy cylinders of the highly toxic gas from storage at the hotel pool’s purification plant and transporting them by wheeled dolly, had been the easy part. Then had come the excruciating exertion of hoisting them up ten stories by rope and pulley. It had taken supreme effort that tortured his muscles and left him sore for days.
“Some may die but as few collaterals as possible.” He spoke a quote from his father in apology to the Marines outside. One toggle had triggered a small charge above the elevator shaft to disable the electric motors that moved the cables. No additional responding casualties would die in the gas. Taking only a few seconds, the lethal poison first intensified and then stilled the movements in the corridor as the last line of defense was neutralized.
Shiva’s Messenger employed the time by disconnecting himself from his lifeline and stripping off his clothes. Naked, he was more attuned to the surroundings and he could feel individual hairs tickle any warnings. He was connected with nature, even in a man made structure: like the ultimate predator seeking the supreme prey.
The messenger stepped into the devastated hall and the bodies of three Marines lay close at hand. Trapped in the corridor’s end by the shredded wall, there had been no escape from the vaporous death. He bent and relieved one of his sidearm and ammunition: now he had his gun. ‘You don’t need to bring what the environment can provide.’ Akron had also proved that truism.
The nude assassin kicked at the door and it flew open with a shattering of wood. The metal plate secured to the doorframe flew away, leaving only the frangible wood to hold the bolt secure. Dimitri had palmed the screws when he had replaced the piece he had accidentally damaged. The ones he replaced were sawed short and these pulled free easily when subjected to a sharp impact. Shiva’s Assassin paused for an instant while he brought his new weapon to the ready position. With a deep filtered breath, he stepped over the fallen Marine and into the sumptuous presidential suite. “No shirt, no shorts, no sympathy.”
President Weeds hadn’t the opportunity to begin his body’s need, when shock and awe of a next-door explosion shattered his peace. Larry’s physique tensed in reaction and his sphincter clamped. Swiftly, he pulled his trousers up and buckled them before peering out. The immediate coast was clear.
His mind steeple chased the range of possibilities for a blast so close by. It could be a major gas leak, or a catastrophic structural failure. Larry dismissed these possibilities as quickly as they fleeted in. Shiva’s Messenger is speaking out once again.
The president looked into the suite’s opulent salon room. Plaster motes hung in the air and flakes of paint shattered by the detonation fluttered. The room was empty of foe. Hearing muffled shouts and struggles outside of his door, Weeds crossed to the window to look for an alternate escape. He could see some smoke and dust emanating from the next window. That suite was assigned to the second most important man on the junket.
Larry Weeds experienced another painful dread in the pit of his stomach. He had lost another close associate. Tom Albertson had been killed right before his eyes. Now, Nick Taylor was undoubtedly just as dead in the next room. The American President wheeled to the sound of his door crashing open.
Tendrils of greenish fume preceded the masked, but otherwise starkly naked figure that stepped casually over a sprawled body. He closed the door, with the hand that wasn’t holding a gun.
President Larry Weeds watched the unclothed specter of death striding across a carpet patterned with both the intended print and the fallen debris. Recent red scars of bullet holes marked Shiva’s chest. Those should have killed a mortal and the man that killed JFK must be over seventy-years-old.
This was a vision more horrible by far than his worst surrealistic nightmare. The president shrunk away into the open bedroom door. He retreated as the Cobra of Shiva, naked as the god that he spoke for, advanced and narrowed the distance. Larry’s trembling calves impacted gently with the foot of the massive bed, the POTUS could withdraw no further. The emperor is in checkmate. The sacrificed pawns in the corridor had failed to protect.
“You cower behind walls of guards,” the assassin’s voice was steady and deadly as he removed his mask: the smell of chlorine in the room was tart as hell’s brimstone, “but I can come this close to you whenever I wish.”
Demonstrating precisely how near, Shiva’s Messenger leaned until his nose provocatively pressed against Larry’s. Weeds felt the cold aura of death that pervaded his personal space so flagrantly and maliciously, in the form of a primal naked predator. The contact of the face against his was an act so bold, he knew in the heart of his soul there was no deed so violent that this man couldn’t do.
There was no circle of protection so tight that could abate his murderous onslaught. The messenger doesn’t even need clothing! His unabashed nudity was far more spirit invasively frightening than if he had been wearing a black cowl. The president looked deep into the eyes and his vulnerable mortality was reflected in the piercing blue orbs.
John Fitzgerald pressed the cold muzzle against the temple of the man holding the most powerful office in the world and it was as his father had foretold. He felt a wave of freedom wash over him—he had never felt so completely alive. The vow was completed, because John was about to kill President Larry Weeds.
Shiva’s naked messenger thumbed the pistol’s hammer back and the metallic click marked the end of his life and his presidency. The president’s sphincter muscle unclenched in mortal terror and he completed the void that was interrupted by the blast. No! Contrary to his grandmother’s stern advice as a child—Larry Weeds would have to be found dead, with badly soiled underpants.
“Third time is the charm.” In the lobby of the hotel, Beth Withers watched a frenzy of futile reactions. The detonation had been subtly felt even on the ground floor. In her heart, she knew that violent death had occurred upstairs. The tenth floor explosion meant the job was done. Her Mensa club qualifications weren’t required to deduce that Shiva had slipped the flimsy cordon, to complete his triad of attacks. “Strike three: the president’s out.”
“There weren’t enough security forces present.” The only way she had got here in time to be now too late was by driving to New York after the Washington speech. Not even Eldon Browning was with her. Beth’s trained Secret Services eyes scanned the bedlam. A knot of men stood huddled at the elevators watching indicator lights that weren’t changing. Screening point attendants had joined the throng. Some men were loosing patience and slowly moving for the fire escape. “No one is effectively coordinating.”
“I can’t take command.” FBI Agent Beth Withers’ decision took a forcing of her conflicting will. She was no longer a Secret Service agent and that wasn’t her responsibility anymore. Larry Weeds had effectively terminated that career. He was now dead and while she could sympathize with the flustered POTUS men, Beth could no longer empathize with them. “I don’t even have a headset to follow what’s happening.”
“I’m here specifically, because I know what the killer looks like.” Again the young agent pressed herself to think clearly amid raging confusion. She knew his appearance as intimately as only a woman can know a man. “The Secret Service attempt to prevent has failed. Now, the FBI seeks to apprehend and that’s my job.”
The young woman’s thoughts changed gears. Remote triggering of an explosive device didn’t require the bomber to be present, or even in the same city. Still, what if he was nearby? The killer she tracked, studied and thought she knew wouldn’t randomly place a bomb and hope for a hit. He was precise. “Allen Powers would’ve been here to do it in a controlled way.”
FBI Agent Beth Withers looked quickly around. Where would he be? What is his escape plan this time? The hotel staff and the presidential entourage were in pandemonium. She wouldn’t find him in this stampede. He might not be exiting through the front. Beth hurried out onto the textured brick sidewalk.
“What if I do see him?” The young woman looked both ways in vain, or was it relief. She tried to call back the hatred she felt on the day she saw Allen’s name on the Shiva Task Force wall. The anger wouldn’t come to heart. Beth had seen too much of what he’d done.
“Was killing the president even wrong?” She asked then decided. “My answer is moot.” Agent Withers took a position near the stairs to a tunnel under the busy intersection.
“If I was hoping for a fast way to vanish,” Beth glanced over her shoulder at the descending stair, “this is where I’d go.” From here, she could observe both the main foyer door and the alley opening from the building’s rear. The agent drew her service revolver: it was the first time in her government career when this action wasn’t just for practice. “This time, there is no convenient ambulance waiting.”
John Fitzgerald left the Presidential suite and looked both ways. The chlorine cylinders were almost empty and the scream of gas issuing from the nozzles had dulled to a high-pitched whistle. As soon as that tailed off, the green smokescreen that sheltered his actions would swiftly dissipate. I’ll be gone by then—one way or the other. He retraced his steps to his snake’s lair. After donning his shorts and t-shirt, the assassin buckled on the harness. Taking the quick way down, he stepped into the brink and rappelled faster than an elevator to the basement.
His splayed fingers of both hands, ruffled and freed the clinging dust and plaster from his hair. This would also somewhat dispel the chlorine smell but he didn’t intend staying near anyone long enough to be sniffed. There were no fingerprints on his mask and goggles so he left those behind. After peeling off the latex gloves, he stowed them in his short’s pocket. Shiva’s Messenger stepped into his maintenance coveralls.
The sidearm taken from the Marine was a comfortable weight in the improvised cloth holster under his armpit. His coverall’s zipper was lowered to exactly the point where it would hide the weapon but allow for swift access. If guards were still monitoring the screening point then the assassin would have to shoot through to freedom.
“Hello Dimitri Petrov.” A chrome electrical fixture sufficed, though his reflected image was barely discernable. The bewildered looking maintenance worker emerged into the lobby from a basement door, next to the elevator bank. He blinked innocently at the six Secret Servicemen who were waiting with guns drawn.
One agent looked briefly at the hotel employee coming from the lower level. That was from a non-secured and low priority area. An escaping suspect would be coming from the upper floors by the other stairs or the elevator—if the damn thing was working. The agent’s attention swung away and he finger-stabbed the button four times in frustration. Dimitri walked through a milling crowd to the main entry.
The metal detector gave a squawk at his firearm but the point was unmanned. There’s no value in watching the coop’s door when the fox is already amidst the chickens.
Proceeding through the slowly turning triangular glass prison, Dimitri felt briefly trapped. He controlled the sensation by focusing outside. To his left was a stairwell into the underpass where shops lined the tunnel. That would have been a good escape route but only initially. ‘Don’t get cornered’, his father had said, ‘keep as many avenues open as possible.’ The assassin scouted and that stairwell had only three potential exits but the greenbelt across the road had literally hundreds.
Beth Withers saw the young man in the orange coveralls leave by the revolving door. Something about the way he moved slightly jostled the trigger of her recollection but didn’t quite pull it. He fit perfectly into the scene of what was natural to expect. A number of people had exited and some had entered since she had taken up station here. A few of the hotel staff had even come out for a quick smoke despite the mayhem inside.
He stepped out into the oncoming traffic but still that was normal. Others took exactly the same perilous plunge into the full traffic flow, instead of moving to the subterranean pedestrian ways. He turned towards her and the shock of recognition registered double digits on the Richter scale.
“Allen Powers!” No, it was Shiva’s Messenger in the flesh. Beth cupped her left palm under her revolver’s butt and swiveled around the stairway retaining wall. Leveling her handgun at his back, she began to squeeze the trigger. “I have to shoot: he wouldn’t hear a shout and he’s getting away.”
Beth’s fractional hesitation cost her the perfect shot. Taking two-steps at a time, a pedestrian ran up the stairs and moved into her aim. Pulling the gun aside as she fired, her bullet struck a passing car’s windshield and whined harmlessly past the assassin.
Quickly sidestepping, Agent Withers tried another fast shot but he was now running ducked below the level of the colliding traffic. He sprinted the rest of the way across the street in a crouch and leaped the short brick wall into the park. Beth’s third shot rang off of the brick wall only millimeters from where his back disappeared over it. Rising fast from a roll, he dodged around a thick tree trunk and used its girth for a shield as he raced up the gentle slope.
“Anybody! There’s a gunfight going on here!” Agent Withers was already moving into the traffic as she hollered. Her first shot had begun a chain reaction accident. The screeching of tires and the smashing of vehicles confused the sound of her further gunfire. The snipers on the buildings that ringed the other side of the hotel couldn’t hear them. On this face, the hotel had no neighbor. It only bordered on the street and a park.
The few agents present would be somewhere in the hotel. The security contingent was spread as a tiny pat of butter, delimited to only the slice of bread currently at hand. Secret Service agents were imploding onto an area around their charge.
Having escaped the closing ring, the assassin was in the clear, just as he had been in Akron. The deceased Nick Taylor had performed his own last rites brilliantly.
Where were the news crews? Probably they were patting themselves on the back over the coverage at Boryspil Airport. The president had been whisked away and then slipped into his hotel. Their drinks were costing exclusive footage of a gripping incident.
Beth couldn’t fire again yet, as she required her full attention to avoid the wrecks. She hurdled the wall and sidestepped the tree bole that he had used as a shield. Finding a good target as he reached the crest of the hill, she fired once more. He had launched into a roll over the hilltop and the projectile again missed. Withers had qualified with a marksman rating at the range but practice targets don’t dodge and dive.
John tumbled: Dimitri had vanished with the first shot. Evasion was covered in a different lesson plan. He swiveled and drew the handgun he had carried from the president’s suite. Squeezing off two pairs of double-taps, he aimed only at the tree. He didn’t want to kill whoever it was following him if he didn’t have to. Showing his pursuer that he was also armed should slow the progress, with an infusion of caution.
Shiva’s Messenger sprinted over the grass towards the wooded slope down to the Dneipr River. Ducking around a bronze bust on a pedestal, he watched his pursuer crest the hill at a dead run. He fired five shots in a pattern around the woman coming at her full-tilt. The girl dived for the ground and though John couldn’t precisely see her face, he had a very strong hunch he knew who it would be. She was one of very few people who could recognize him by sight.
“Why did I dive?” The young woman slid on the cropped lawn like a tight steal of second base. “It was reflex.” It had now cost her seconds and she knew from the tree hits that he wasn’t aiming for her. “I won’t do it again.”
Her defensive sprawl gleaned the Messenger sufficient time to jump over the lip of the bank. He ran downhill toward the river but this was definitely not his intended escape path. The slope was steeper and John’s heel slipped on a bare dusty patch. He skidded two meters on the seat of his coveralls before his feet were under him again.
“Is this for my country or really for me?” Beth’s words were more mental but her lips did move as her feet pounded toward where he had again vanished. “Do I forgive him?” It was ironic to ask, as she’d already shot with intent to kill. She topped the crest.
Spotting Beth again, Shiva’s Messenger fired another six rounds over his shoulder. They were spaced full seconds apart and they weren’t even aimed. He intended only to panic her and arrest the chase. John felt another very close miss that sprayed him with rock chips from the footbridge. She had run brazenly through his volley, without checking her speed to shirk or duck.
Now, he didn’t have time to make it far enough over the bridge to be safe and would soon be a perfect target. Changing plans on the fly, John vaulted the railing and dropped behind the bridge root. He ducked under the deck and heard her thundering feet.
“Come out, Allen!” Panting from the headlong run, Beth looked over the side of the bridge. She had him cornered and fired another round to punctuate the power in her words. The slug whined off of the structural metal and whistled away towards the water. “This chase is over! I have both of your only escape routes covered.”
John Fitzgerald grinned at the shot and stepped casually from under his concealment. Gun at his side, Shiva’s Messenger walked fearlessly up towards her and saw her weapon aimed directly at his heart. Her legs were wide splayed and she had both hands on the pistol. FBI Agent Withers couldn’t possibly miss her mark especially at this range but he kept closing the distance.
“You have no more bullets in your gun.”
I don’t want to shoot him dead but he keeps on advancing. Breathless and now mildly panicked, his words didn’t register. She pulled the trigger and the hammer struck with a resounding but harmless clack on an empty chamber.
“I’ll bet your reload is still on your dresser and you only planned to kill six men again today.” The young man had never once seen Beth take the spare rounds with her in Akron.
“It appears I might not get to kill even one.” Beth confirmed his suspicion. She certainly hadn’t expected to find herself in a running gunfight in Kiev. Her mind quickly counted the 15 shots that he had fired back at her. She looked at the standard Marine issue Beretta, in his hand. Her knowledge of weapons wasn’t extensive but she did know this one held a 15-shot clip.
“You’re empty also.” Her optimistic assumption would only level the odds slightly. He was still bigger and stronger than her: Beth was also willing to bet he was trained in hand-to-hand combat.
“That’s where you would be wrong.” John stopped four paces from her. His back was facing the span of the pedestrian bridge. He fired one shot that splashed a divot into the soft dirt. “I now have 14 rounds left. My father always drilled me to never be caught with an empty weapon.”
“I can’t back down.” Beth’s face was set in grim determination. “You’ve assassinated the President of the United States.”
“The explosion didn’t kill Larry Weeds.”
“Why should I believe that?”
“The closest I have to a real name is John Fitzgerald.” How many ways had he hurt Beth already? Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to kill. Only a leg shot if needs be, would prevent her further chase but she at least deserved to know why. “My father killed Kennedy. His motive was pure at the time but later learned he was wrong. I vowed to correct his error and I’ve now fulfilled that.”
“When all the colors have faded, John is what the chameleon really looks like.” Beth’s words weren’t questions and neither was the last, “You’re now telling me the truth.”
“Yes,” he confirmed and then held up his gun, “and this isn’t a bullet that you need to leap in front of.”
“Whether to jump is my decision to make.” Agent Withers saw an apology already in his eyes and knew he would shoot to make his escape. She had been valiant in taking on Shiva’s Messenger but the Secret Service and FBI had caused that task to be single-handed. Yet, she also had her duty to consider.
“Yes it is.”
“Tell me one thing.” A professional reason didn’t provide Beth a clear choice so a personal one might. “Knowing all as we do now, would you have done anything—differently?”
“I wouldn’t have shot at Larry’s hind-flank.” John quipped but he was moderately certain that wasn’t answering her intent.
“You know what I mean.” Beth pressed. Allen had adapted his chameleon personality to what she expected after he failed to break off the dangerous date. Judith initiated the affair without his input and against his best judgment. Interviewing Jessica had given Beth the final clues into figuring him out.
“Retrospectively,” John paused for a breath while his ex-lover’s eyes carved slices off his, “I would’ve made damn sure that you showed me that gun in the evening instead of the next morning.”
“That’s the correct answer.” The young woman smiled and she forgave him. Her official opinion would have to wait and see.
“May I ask you the same question?” John chuckled and stood in a mock cringe of the answer.
“Don’t even dream of going there.” Beth laughed at the cheekyness. “Just go.”
Agent Withers watched him turn and trot away. Every fiber of her government training was screaming at her not to allow him to get away. She fought her conditioned responses with the strength of her humanity and knew she was doing the right thing.
Shiva’s Messenger stopped at the middle of the span and turned. He smiled as he stripped off his Dneipr Palace coveralls and then waved as he tossed them over the side of the footbridge. He jogged the rest of the way in running shorts and a t-shirt. The assassin would disappear amid the fitness conscious people using the semi-wilderness area in the heart of the metropolis.
Beth took one more look at the orange slash of cloth floating in the water’s slow flow. His get-away meant the Shiva Task Force would remain active—but could she find it in herself to stay on it? “I’ll decide that after I find out what happened.” Agent Beth Withers turned and walked back up the slope. She winced at the prospect of the madhouse she was going to find at the Dneipr Palace Hotel.
“I don’t care that you missed Weeds this time.” Hamster Man’s nose whiskers had been brushing the television screen since news of the President’s surviving the third attack broke. John’s sudden arrival caught him unaware and emotional. Cobra Boy had said that he would either be successful or dead.
“I didn’t miss.” The grin was satisfaction with a twinge mystery.
“You only got the chief of staff and a couple of guards?“ Carl’s initial voice showed his remorse at having to break this news of the one bomb’s failure to explode. Then he twigged to the suspense in the face and realized that Shiva’s Messenger already knew that. “Don’t you dare play that game now! Give me all the strait dirt.”
“After the president had messed his pants,” John recounted the full details, “and while we were nose to nose, I told him my terms.”
“Tell it word for word.”
“The toilet in your suite is also a bomb, like the one that just killed Nick Taylor. Your body isn’t splattered all over your bathroom walls because as in Akron and Spokane, I allowed you to live. Your toilet seat didn’t detonate because there is one component not sealed. A simple short-circuited can explain how you dodged a third strike. Shiva’s Messenger missed once again.”
“I’ll bet terror was etched in him so deeply,” Carl guessed, “that it shone out his back and cast a shadow of dread on the wall.”
“From here forward, I’m the quiet power behind your throne.” John continued the retelling. “If you ever once falter, fail to obey me or tell anyone of our meeting, you’ll die. We’ll work at undoing the harms you and your corrupt predecessors have wrought. In this, you’re doing the one decent thing of your presidency. If these terms are unacceptable, I can quell your fears with a twitch of my finger.”
“What was his response?”
“He is still alive, isn’t he?” A smile lit John’s face. He had known Weeds was ready to fold when Judith had hedged her assessment based on influence Bernard Stryker wielded. The congresswoman assumed she was condemning Weeds to die. Instead, she was again helping to save his life.
“You didn’t exactly fulfill your father’s request.” Eckert noted.
“My father really asked me to right his worst wrong, even by my killing another president if needs be.” John now fondly recalled his father’s last words. ‘Deadly force in abeyance is mightier than it is in actuality.’ “Larry’s free will is gone and that’s what defines a life. I tied my strings to Pinocchio and his flesh turned to wood.”
“Weeds was already Bernard Stryker’s marionette.”
“That puppeteer still thinks his strings control Larry’s ambitions but my concealed overriding controls are snip resistant. While the president craves life, I own him”
“Bernard isn’t daft. He’ll eventually notice sluggishness in the glove-dummy’s dance.”
“Stryker isn’t the only freight train on our track. Your Shiva file will help us predict the schedules. We’ll just have to dodge or derail each as they roll through.”
“What was the relevance of the Potemkin Stair?” As they drove back to Odessa, Carl was reminded of an unasked question.
“The Office of the Presidency is the illusion of the stairs. The public’s perception is from the narrow top. Pushing the president far to the front, blocks vision of what’s behind but the eye deception is that it appears straight. The power elite looks from the opposite end and the distorted view is double what it should be. They like their width being twice as large so more coins can roll down their way. They rebuilt the stair in this skewed manner on purpose when they replaced Kennedy with their own president.”
“An interesting analogy,” his mind’s eye gave Carl a vision of the attraction in a new way, “but where do they climb from here?”
“With small changes, I plan to maneuver Larry down to the mid-point, where the width is exactly true and proper. I hope when able to clearly see both the president and staircase together, people will determine that the steps don’t quite mesh with reality and fix them.”
“The president will always be an up front and visible figure.” The ex-CIA man understood how a nearby figure or object obscured a view more than a distant one did but it seemed difficult to avoid.
“That’s not quite what I meant.” The young man thought of an alternate metaphor. “A national leader should be as a surfer on a wave. He balances the ride and also steers but in teamwork with the nose, keels and board. Power of leadership is now an outboard motor on a speedboat piloted by only a few. The citizenry bounces in the wake and chop, as a towed tube does. Even the majority has no real input into where they are pulled.
“You’re now holding the office of the United States Presidency in your hidden hand.” Eckert pictured an armed protector of Rome now able to seize it for his own. The thought wasn’t uncomfortable, as Carl now believed young John showed the wisdom to be just. “You can use it to shape the nation to what you think it should be.”
“Shiva’s Messenger only destroys to make room for rebirth.” In the passenger seat, the young man took off his shoes and socks. He put his both feet out the side window and the wind whistled through his toes. “Nataraja plans to stand behind while still able and just to prod the Nandi bull’s forward movements. Brahma’s citizens can choose where they should lead it.”
The world media covered the huge event of Shiva’s Messenger’s third failed attempt on the president. Jokes were cracked on about President Weeds’ ability to dodge bullets. Quips were coined about the triple threat— that tripped at the tapes. Guest experts commented and speculated on what had happened and when the next attempt might be. Bookies had to pay off the long odds to the few contrarians that betted against the terminal strike three.
The world believed one thing clearly. In Akron and Spokane, Shiva’s Messenger had deliberately not assassinated the president. In Kiev, he had truly intended to kill but only a tiny glitch caused an otherwise brilliant plot to disastrously fail. Only the bomber and the surviving victim knew otherwise.
Prior to Kiev, the media and public opinion seemed against the president and cheering Shiva’s Messenger on. Savvy politician that he was, Weeds stunned pundits and reversed the downward trend with an unpredictable stroke of genius. Demonstrating his staunchly pro-feminist stance, Larry put a decorated up-and-comer into the Chief of Staff position left vacant by the late Nick Taylor.
“Beth Withers,” the president remarked as he introduced her to the assembled cameras,” has served with distinction in the Secret Service, where her peers view her as elite. On special assignment in the FBI, her singular contributions supplied much of what we do know about the Shiva’s Messenger assassin. Who other than this woman with her credentials could be better at protecting me from further menace?”
In countering criticisms with undeniable rationale, Larry Weeds proved yet again that his strongest political attribute was the ability to take an unwavering stance, on the side of his best interests.