Bob gladly confirmed that he'd be able to join the volunteer movers for pizza when Cray had called earlier in the afternoon. It was an excuse to leave work after a hellish day, avoid going home to an empty house - Drew being out of town on business - and to just 'hang' with Spike, Cray and two of Cray's closest pals - Benny and Tim.
Several unopened boxes were stacked in the dining area of Spike's new downsized base of operations and the relocated pieces of furniture were randomly staged in their assigned areas. The basic layout reminded Bob of the first apartment he'd shared with Drew. The difference was the various improvements - stainless kitchen fixtures, granite surfaces, hi-tech ceiling fans, remodeled bathrooms, wool carpet and plantation shutters. 'Probably funded with Lou's help during their salad days.' He was aware that Spike had been sensitive about wanting to pay his own way but had occasionally acquiesced to his former partner's largesse. The end result was that the 80's look of the condo had been creatively updated to fit into the 21st century.
Five paintings, some signed limited-edition lithographs and a couple of mirrors rested at a careful slant along the wall. Bob recognized a few pieces of art that had hung in the other condo but decided to avoid a comment. 'Those two large Vance Kirkland paintings have gotta be in the solid five-figures each,' he thought while admiringly looking around. 'Aesthetic palimony, no doubt, from young Lou.' All in all, he decided that the guys had done a professional job in getting Spike moved. 'But they're young and tough.' After studying the monster sofa and the bedroom suites, he was somewhat relieved that his schedule hadn't permitted him to play hooky earlier in the day and possibly risk wrenching his back.
The four weary young men, somewhat ripe with sweat and smudged with dirt from loading and unloading Spike's 'stuff', seemed satisfied with the results of their toil and had fun joking with each other. The other thing that caught Bob's attention was the way that Cray and his high school chums were already transitioning into young adulthood. While not stating the obvious, it was apparent they now considered the recent graduation ceremonies to be a milestone, and each relished their new almost status of being B.M.O.C. - big men on campus.
From the interaction between the crew, Bob decided Spike had been subconsciously chosen as role model 'du jour' for the college-bound men…and he approved. They were tentatively easing into the next part of their lives and looking for direction without being obvious. With Cray, however, he was sure there was something else happening: way beyond simply looking to his slightly older buddy for advice.
He couldn't help but notice a renewed spring in Cray's step and a continuous grin that bordered on 'shit-eating'. The lingering when Cray looked at Spike was a mixture of expressions that varied between admiration, happiness and a subtle jump-on-your-bones randiness.
Bob had picked up on his son's rejuvenation when he arrived an hour earlier - around six - to join the troops for celebratory pizza. When Tim and Benny talked about wiggling out of their high school romances and boasted about the opportunities of meeting freshmen girls at their respective colleges in the fall, Cray didn't seem to be fazed about his recent strikeout in the love department. And as topics moved from movies they'd seen, to Vegas Strip gossip, to the NBA finals, Cray chimed in with upbeat remarks. This went on until the last slice was gone and Cray's mates bid 'goodbye'. Bob decided it was also time for him to go home - Drew would be back from L.A. in a couple of hours.
"Guys, thanks for the invitation," Bob said, "I wasn't into warming up leftovers for dinner tonight. Cray, you want a ride home?"
"Um…I'm going to help Spike unpack a little and..."
"And I'll get him home in a couple of hours," Spike quickly replied. "I know he has an early shift tomorrow morning." He patted Cray on the shoulder and added, "I'll take care of him."
Bob noticed both guys ratcheted up their smile quotients when he walked over to Spike. "Do that," he said with a nod of approval. He was sure that Spike picked up on his meaning. "In the meantime, allow me to shamelessly hint that Drew and I look forward to being invited to your housewarming party."
"An invite goes without saying."
"This place is going to be neat…and for the record, I'm a pretty good picture hanger." Bob smiled and took a little bow.
"I might just enlist you then. Give me a few months to pull this place together. When my brother Henry moves in, I'll have a combination housewarming and welcoming party."
"Excellent. And in that he'll be classmates with Cray, I'm sure we'll both be hosting many study sessions." Bob playfully slapped Cray's arm and said, "I'm outta here. See ya later."
"I'm getting kinda weary," Cray replied with an exaggerated yawn. "I'll probably be back around ten."
Bob thought he'd have a little fun and toss out a few departing words of friendly ambiguity. "Whatever works for you guys," he said at the doorway.
The guys waved and Spike yelled, "I'll bring him home as soon as we're finished."
It was tempting to retort, 'Finished…with a happy ending?' but Bob held his tongue and just waved before closing the door. Walking the fine line, transitioning from being a dad to a close friend, where you didn't hold things back, could be tricky. Bob didn't want a joke to be misinterpreted.
He was positive Spike was helping Cray get over losing a boyfriend. 'Or is it the other way around?' he asked himself as he drove home. 'They both seemed to be pretty cranked up.' Bob knew, being not too far removed from their age group, that adult-rated TLC could temporarily take care of lingering serious personal problems. He'd occasionally taken advantage of a 'mercy fuck' back in college not that many years ago, before Drew, and understood the concept. But Bob also knew meddling was not in order: Spike was a good friend, a trusted part of their nuclear family and a valued colleague. And Cray would be 'family' forever.
Once he got home, Bob had his priorities in order: 'losing' his dark suit work uniform, plunging into the pool for a few carefree laps, changing into his trusty gym shorts and cracking open a bottle of Samuel Adams' Hefeweizen. There was nothing very interesting on TV, so Bob settled into the den's easy chair with his current James Patterson mystery novel. 'Damn,' he thought as he turned a page, 'this detective dude gets into more shit. Someone close to the main character was always getting murdered, but Detective Alex Cross pulls it out of the fire. I wonder how he'll do it this time…'
The next thing he knew, he was awakening to a wet kiss planted on his cheek and breathing in the familiar muskiness of Drew…with a faint whiff of Aqua de Silva cologne. He opened his eyes and smiled. "Hey, babe. Whazzup?"
"Obviously, not you," Drew replied with a snicker as he sat down on the arm of the chair. "To say the meeting in L.A. was interesting would be an understatement. You wanna talk now or hold it 'til the morning?"
"Like I have any choice after a setup like that. Besides, it's not even ten and I'm not that sleepy."
"Oh, yeah?" Drew replied, chuckling. "I suppose you had your eyes closed just for a moment."
"I admit to a baby catnap. But I'm alert now."
"Then talk it is," Drew replied. Since the 'whoops' two years earlier, when he hadn't told Bob everything about the dark side of the Gallian and Bromley businesses, he now always made sure his partner was in the loop on all matters. He flopped onto the sofa and related who'd been present from the company.
"Lou Junior, didn't show?" Bob was a little surprised that the heir apparent on the Gallian side of the family was missing.
"Guess he had pressing bank business in New York. His dad called him right after the meeting and briefed him. By the way, a fraternity brother to Al and you led the presentation. You remember Oleg Petrov?"
"Oleg? Yeah, neat guy about ten or twelve years older than me. He went on to law school as I recall."
"That's the man."
"Probably haven't seen him since I was in school. He was very active in the alumni association and would be around the house a lot as an advisor." Bob sat up straighter and frowned. "How does he fit into the picture?" He remembered Oleg had started a career with the FBI in Washington, D.C., and then moved on to something else back in L.A.
"Well, now he's a big deal with AOI International, the security firm that Mr. Gallian has contracted on a project-consulting basis." Drew toed off his shoes, pulled out the tail of his shirt and unbuttoned it.
"Why use outside security people? I thought Gallant Security was the best." To Bob, this sounded like trouble brewing.
"For things such as techie stuff and surveillance, AOI's apparently much better…and Oleg got everyone's attention with his presentation. He's one of those dudes who does his homework and politely doesn't take any shit." Drew then rolled out a detailed bullet point retelling of the meeting.
Except for a few random questions, Bob kept still and analyzed each succinct morsel of the problem Mr. Gallian had discovered and Oleg's involvement with the solution. After he got used to the idea of Petrov being some sort of James Bond-ish, techno-super sleuth, Bob concentrated on the information and how it might affect their lives. He agreed with Drew that the company and principals had the upper hand on this 'go-around' with the Russians.
"The last thing we need is to run into the Ruskie goons," Bob said. Although unspoken, the memory of Nick and Rod's house being bombed two years earlier and Rod dying still lingered in his mind. He also thought of his sister being part of the Bromley family. "You and Cray are too dear to me not to worry about us being targets. And I'd hate to be paying a mortgage on rubble."
"Trust me…it's not going to happen. Between Oleg's snooping and Gallant Security's muscle, we're in good shape. And business wise, we were told the bank has turned the corner and will show a small profit this quarter."
"Maybe we can pull the same magic with the casino." Bob silently groaned at the maize of marketing plans he'd been working on to make that happen.
"Nick's cautious but thinks a slight recovery is possible by the end of the year." Drew's expression silently telegraphed, 'I'll believe it when I see it'.
"My opinion…the boss is playing with a game face," Bob replied. "Everything I read in the Journal-Review says we'll be in the shits until next year."
"I agree, babe. At least we've got the costs in line so we can eek through by breaking even or showing a small profit."
For his part of their nightly 'show and tell', Bob mentioned the invitation to join Spike, Cray and friends for pizza and re-capped the gathering at Spike's new condo - including his observations about their son's obvious attraction to Spike and vice versa.
"You don't think Cray staying over at Spike's old place last night was just an innocent coincidence?" Drew asked.
"Not a chance. And here's the topper - I think our creative boy was the instigator. You know how Cray gets when he's got a goal in mind." Bob stood up and grabbed his half-empty beer bottle. "But if something like this is happening, I'm happy Spike's the other guy."
"Even with the age difference?"
"Daddy, you do remember that you're four years older than I am. Right?" Bob gently swatted the top of Drew's head and added, "I think if Cray needs some support and a little lovin', he couldn't be in better hands."
"I don't know if you meant that as a pun, but I get your point," Drew replied with a laugh.
"Now who's tossing out puns, babe?"
"Okay, I get your drift…then." Drew got to his feet and lightly pecked Bob on the lips. "Just so ya know, I agree. Spike's one helluva guy and he won't hurt him. Between us kids, I think that Cray has probably learned a few moves from us along the way. Chip off the old blocks - plural in this case."
"Obviously good parenting, however unorthodox," Bob replied with a wink. "If that's settled, why don't you adjourn to the boudoir and I'll take this bottle to the kitchen. Who knows, maybe we can get a little lovin' before the eleven o'clock news."
"Deal," Drew replied and walked out of the den.
Bob checked the locks to the patio and front door on his way to the kitchen. He was pouring the remains of the warm beer into the sink when he heard the door to the garage open and heard Cray humming some bouncy song as he walked in. He turned around and noticed their son was wearing a different ensemble than a couple of hours earlier. "Hey." Bob also noticed Cray was wearing a dreamier version of his earlier grin. 'Our boy has definitely gotten his pipes cleaned.'
"Still up, I see," Cray said as he walked over to the refrigerator.
"But ready to hit the sack. Drew's back from L.A. and we've got an early day tomorrow." Bob watched Cray pick a few carrot sticks out of a container and close the fridge door.
Crunch. "Me, too," Cray replied between chews of the carrot.
"By the way, thanks for including me for pizza. It was fun." Bob tossed the empty bottle into a re-cycle sack under the sink and decided to continue - deal out a few 'cards' and see how they'd be played. "Spike's going to have a nice place when he gets it pulled together. And I got the impression you're going to help him make it a happier home."
Crunch. "Oh?" Cray asked with a questioning expression that bordered on contentment.
"Would it be wrong to guess that you and Spike have…gotten to know each other a lot better over the past couple of days?" Bob smiled and shrugged.
Crunch . "Um, I…"
"Buddy, it's pretty obvious that you two are happy campers. I'm not being nosy - well, not too much - just an observation, friend to friend. For the record, I like Spike a lot and think anyone who snags him is one lucky man. I'm only concerned about timing…you're both coming off break-ups."
Crunch. Cray chewed as he contemplated Bob's comment. "We had that conversation - last night and again just before I came home tonight." He swallowed the last of his bite and flipped on his grin again. "Can't get anything past you guys, can I?"
"Goes under the heading of been there; done that." Bob looked in his eyes and continued, "When I was in school, not that many years ago, I had my share of disappointments. Then I met Drew…but it took a while for us to figure things out."
"We decided to take this slow and not jump into anything just because…um, you know."
Bob knew that the 'you know' translated to two guys getting their horns trimmed, but decided not to joke. "Drew and I are always going to cover your back and look after your best interests. However, you're now an adult and we'll respect whatever you decide." He hugged Cray and added, "Hope I'm not coming off as a 'momma hen'."
"Naw. Maybe a 'poppa bear'…but neither you or Drew are hairy enough." Cray kissed Bob on the cheek and smiled. "You guys are my absolute best friends, and I promise to keep you guys posted on developments in the boyfriend department. Deal?"
"Fair enough. You've got the summer to do that," Bob replied. "Maybe we should invite Spike over for a bar-be-que very soon. I'm sure the new nightclub will mess up his schedule in a few months."
"How about we do something here for the Fourth? Steaks, monster baked potatoes…all that stuff."
"Sounds like a plan," Bob replied. "And I'll start bugging Drew about clearing his schedule. See you at work in the morning."
"Night." Cray let out a sigh of satisfaction and went to his room.
Bob set the house alarm and turned off lights on the way back to the bedroom. He chuckled to himself when he saw Drew, sprawled on the bed, breathing deeply and emitting a slight snore. 'Didn't even make it to the news.'
Nothing had changed in the cherrywood-paneled conference room since the final interview with the managing director of AOI ten years earlier. 'Well, maybe the value of the Georges Braque and Fernand Léger paintings and the Modigliani sculpture,' Oleg Petrov mused as he looked at the assemblage of his peers sitting around the massive black granite table. He momentarily glanced out the window - the view of the tranquil Fairfax, Virginia, countryside intermingled with other office buildings tucked into the landscape. In the distance, he could make out the outline of the ExxonMobil corporate campus.
He'd traveled to D.C. for the June, end-of-the-month, AOI partners meeting at headquarters. It was always a full day of business, followed by a working cocktail hour. 'Working' was a euphemism that didn't accurately describe what was usually accomplished. The partners were able to seriously network over a few drinks and lavish hors d'oeuvres in a reception area within the confines of AOI where security wasn't a concern. Once the electronic 'mote' was drawn, it was always a let-the-hair-down and no-holds-barred trading of 'intel' amongst trusted associates.
While the boss reviewed the numbers - actual vs. budget - Oleg's mind wandered as he considered the principals of his current project. Lou Gallian and Big Al Bromley: pillars of the international business community whose companies and bank were slowly recovering from the busted worldwide economy, and who were now targets of the ruthless Datchev mob. What had only been mentioned once was their undocumented involvement with unreported revenues from less than legal sources. "Gallian's 'off the books' operations aren't your concern," he'd been told by the man at the head of the table. "Focus on the threats from Datchev and use all of our resources to defeat the bastard…and his associates."
Keeping on top of the lucrative account was a priority, beyond the obvious reasons. In addition to AOI wanting to succeed and accomplish contractual goals, certain U.S. government agencies would be 'very grateful' for secret details concerning the Russian Red Mafiya- internationally and at home. Quid pro quo. Sharing intelligence with the CIA and FBI was the way AOI worked…had been for several decades…along with England's MI5, Germany's BKA and France's DST when appropriate. Government resources, whether it was swapped data or clearance to purchase restricted electronic equipment, were a very important part of AOI's mission for their business, and for the undercover goals of Alpha's secret brotherhood.
It was just before noon. Oleg was waiting for his turn to present his report when the IT supervisor sent him an urgent text message. IT needed help in evaluating new data the London team had extracted from Kiril Datchev's Kensington townhouse. He eased out of the leather-covered chair, went over to his boss and explained the situation. The managing director immediately excused Oleg from the gathering, sending him off with an encouraging pat on the back.
While traveling down to the sub-basement location of AOI ops, Oleg mulled over the current status of his case. These Russian thugs, led by a greedy oligarch, had become increasingly more difficult to translate in their interactions, but not because of the technology deployed.
After the plan to hack into Gallian's bank and casino had been foiled, Datchev and company immediately jumped to the conclusion that the townhouse had been bugged. However, this assumption could not be proved when nothing was found during a recent 'sweep' by debuggers. AOI's audio and video devices were miniaturized to the size of a pinpoint and impervious to detection. Nevertheless, everyone in the townhouse now spoke in a crude abbreviated code and occasionally they would write notes back and forth. This slowed down the deciphering and interpretation.
Once inside the core of the ops center, the IT tech updated Oleg on the status of their target. 'Ivan', the codename for Datchev, had rendered satellite phone interceptions virtually useless by upgrading his scrambling devices. But while the London desk had difficulty in piercing the new system, they had no problem tracking the transmission receivers. In the most recent call, they had the location of the second party - an art gallery in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris.
The latest feed of surveillance highlights contained several obscure references made in a conversation by Kiril Datchev - with his top lieutenants in attendance three hours earlier - talking into a speakerphone that sat in the center of the table located in the den of the townhouse. On the other end were persons, still unknown, at the Paris art gallery.
The language switched from Russian - russkiy yazyk - to French when Datchev addressed the speakerphone. Being fluent in both languages, Oleg had no problem following the flow of discussion. What confused him was the occasional sudden switch to the French alphabet, followed by an old mixture of slang.
"Play the last part again," he said to an unseen technician who manned the control panels. He sat forward in his chair, drummed his fingers and stared at the large television flat screen in the darkness of a side room in the ops center. The freeze-frame, high-resolution image showed four men sitting around a table: Kiril Datchev and his three 'mobscateers'.
"Ehrr Zjee," said the voice from the speakerphone, "Le Kid…dix-neuf trente…Pete."
"Da," Kiril replied in Russian and disconnected the phone.
A puzzlement. The Parisian had repeated, verbatim, what Kiril had barked moments earlier. Oleg scribbled down the English translation - R.J., The Kid, 1930, Pete.
The bad news was that someone outside Datchev's circle, from a location unknown to AOI in London, had contacted the Leneuf Art Gallery - probably on a prepaid cell phone - to set up the details of whatever arrangement was being made. 'But half a picture is way better than nothing at all,' Oleg decided.
He viewed the highlights one more time and watched as the meeting ended. Datchev bear hugged each man and said, "Rock and roll, the Bee-Gees," as the men departed. For Oleg, it was an audio WTF moment. 'The Bee-Bees…what's that all about?' Oleg wondered, while writing down the highlights on a legal pad. _R.J. =? Royal Jordanian Airlines? Pete = St. Petersburg? Kid = youngster? Fighter? 1930? _'If that's a date, we're looking back almost 80 years. Think…Think.'
"Oleg," the IT tech said on the intercom, "We traced a cell call from Leneuf to a number in New York - in the Brooklyn-Brighton Beach area code zone - a timeline that pinpoints it being placed just after the satellite call. Hope this helps."
"Thanks…right in middle of the Ruskies' nest." Brighton Beach was one of the largest Russian immigrant communities in America. 'With plenty of bad guys and their prison tats to go around,' Oleg thought.
"And we're working with DST in Paris on what's what with the gallery. At first blush, it appears to be a front for another Russian mob operation. Stay tuned."
With Datchev possibly farming out his 'dirty work', Oleg was concerned that the Hydra was gaining one head too many to watch. 'R.J…R.J…J.R…R.J.,' kept bouncing around in his head. "Wait, he said out loud, "I think I got something." He wrote down, _J.R. = junior. Lou, Jr. _'That's it…they're going after Lou Gallian, Junior. And Pete is the Pierre Hotel.' The Gallian men - father and son - lived in a spacious condo at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue. 'Spacious, hell…it was an entire floor.' Suddenly everything fell into place.
He picked up his Blackberry and scrolled to his preset numbers. On the second ring, his contact at Gallant Security answered.
"Oleg, ¿Qué pasa?"
"Trouble, man. I've been analyzing some new intel from London that suggests Lou, Junior, is going to be the target for a hit.
"Eighty percent…at least. Maybe closer to ninety-five. Ivan's getting cute with codes. But what's come to my attention might fit Lou's M.O. I gotta ask you, when he has guests - guys for hire - visiting him at the Pierre, does he give your detail the name for clearance at the door?"
"Lou has guests all the time. Young gentlemen. But he's good about letting us know the name and time."
"Check the log and see if he's entertaining tonight." Oleg figured the rent boys in New York were very happy to have him living back in the city. He could overhear his contact man talking on a Nextel phone. 'Probably the security desk on Gallian's floor.'
"Davey Tompkins at 7:30. And the usual note that the visit is for one hour. That's usually the case, you understand."
"Completely. An hour can take care of a lot of tension." Oleg was going to add, 'especially when it's a corporate write-off,' but thought it was best not to joke during a mini-crisis. 'And I certainly don't need to have a recording of this blow up in my face.'
"So I've been told."
"Give me a sec…I think I've got it worked out." Oleg wrote down the information and added to it. 1930 = 7:30. Kid = Davey. _He circled the time, twice. _'Bingo, this is it.' For the next five minutes he briefed the Gallant Security executive on the surveillance audio and his interpretation. They both concluded Lou would be in danger in less than six hours.
"My gut reaction is Davey is trained in lethal martial arts. He wouldn't bring anything with him that would register on your detectors."
"Good point. I'll augment the crew to add some muscle. We'll handle it."
"I'd appreciate you passing on anything you can get out of Davey - The Kid," Oleg replied. "This Paris connection is new to us." He knew the Gallant guards would get the assassin out of the hotel and take him to a remote location for questioning. 'By midnight, Davey will be history.'
"Can I contact you later tonight?"
"I'm in meetings, but I'll leave the phone on for you." Oleg paused for a moment and added, "You might be interested in knowing that 'Ivan' and crew are reconvening back at the townhouse tonight at midnight, British Summer Time. They probably are planning a celebration."
"Thanks, I'll send champagne."
"Naw. I'm thinking that Andre shit by Gallo…with our compliments. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."
"It'll be a blast," Oleg replied with a chuckle.
"With any luck."
"To be on the safe side, I'll have a call placed to The Yard around 2330 BST, with a warning of a jihad terrorist plot at Kensington Palace so the royals can be evacuated. No reason to create an international incident." Although the palace was a half-mile away, he preferred to play with caution.
_"You think it's wise to identify us?"_There was an edge to his voice.
"Backdoor, my friend. A valid third party will be used with appropriate filters…untraceable to either of us." Oleg planned on using a CIA contact in Islamabad to drop this little turd on the Yard's doorstep.
"I understand and it won't present a problem. Oleg, you should be in the diplomatic corps."
"And miss all the fun? No way. Take care."
He paused and reviewed the conversation. While Oleg was opposed to circumventing the law, these extreme measures were needed to tame and eliminate extreme men. Datchev was an animal and a menace - and should be dealt with accordingly.
It was time to brief AOI ops on the latest developments for their coordination with London and to give his boss a 'heads up'. Oleg looked at a clock and calculated it was just after 10:00 p.m. in Pakistan. 'First things first,' he thought as he turned off his phone. 'He's probably having drinks with the boys at the bar in the Marriott.' The hotel, recently reopened after being seriously damaged by a suicide truck bombing that killed 60 people, had one of the few bars available in Islamabad. As a result, it was a popular hangout for the various intelligence agents of several countries - friendly to the West and otherwise.
As he left the console to find the supervisor, he remembered a plaque that sat on his boss's desk at the FBI, years ago:
They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way. Jim Malone, The Untouchables
Or, New York. Or, London. Or…wherever. Oleg thought Chicago had gotten a bum rap in the image department. 'Between the Red Mafiya, Islamic extremists and the cartels in Mexico - I'm in a growth industry.'