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Authors: Rick Mofina

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BOOK: Whirlwind
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14

Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, Texas

K
ate was at a loss.

Standing in the Rivergreen Community Hall, questions whirled in her head.

Why was Mandy, her competition, looking for Jenna Cooper?

Why was she following Kate’s story after Dorothea rejected the idea?

Kate thanked Rivera and White then made a beeline to Mandy.

“Excuse me,” Kate said. “Hi, I thought you were going to Irving today. What’s up?”

“Oh my Lord, Kate, why are
you
here? You’re supposed to be on the night shift.”

“Did Dorothea ask you to follow my story on Jenna Cooper?”

“Your story?” Mandy’s high-boned cheeks turned red. “Sweetie, it’s not your story. It’s Newslead’s
story. And since we put it out there, it’s really anybody’s story now, isn’t it? All I did was enquire as to whether or not they found the child. By the way, why are you here? Does Dorothea know?” Mandy raised her cell phone. “Would you like me to call her and check for you?”

“I don’t believe this.” Kate rolled her eyes. “I’m here on my own time.”

Mandy tapped a glossed nail on Kate’s laminated ID tag.

“If that’s the case, it would appear you’re using Newslead to advance your own interests, whatever they may be.”

“What? This is bullsh—” Kate pulled back on her rising anger.

As she turned from Mandy she met the eyes of an elderly man and woman, their faces bearing the cuts and scrapes of survivors, looking up from cots near them. They’d witnessed the exchange.

Suddenly Kate was jabbed by a pang of shame for letting newsroom politics play out here, of all places. It was unforgivable, unprofessional. Immediately Kate apologized to the couple, dismissed Mandy with a wave of her hand and walked away.

Seething as she moved through the hall, she tried in vain to comprehend why Dorothea would not only push her off her story, but then steal it from her and give it to Mandy.

Why would I want to work with people who do this?

Because she needed the job, that’s why.

She needed the high pay and benefits. She needed the security for Grace and for herself. Bills were piling up at home. Newslead was a big organization with bureaus everywhere. If she could get through this and land a job, she might have a shot at a better bureau elsewhere.

I can’t give up
.

Kate left Mandy and the issue behind her.

Tapping her notebook on her thigh she continued moving through the hall for the next ten minutes until she stopped. Two rows of cots over from where she stood, Jenna Cooper was sitting with Cassie and talking with two other women. Clothes, towels and toiletries were stacked next to them on the pallet.

Reporters?

Kate didn’t think so. One woman had a clipboard and an official-looking ID hanging from her neck. Kate wasn’t sure about the other woman. She had her hand on Jenna’s shoulder. Jenna was dabbing a tissue to her eyes, Cassie was holding a stuffed teddy bear.

A crisis worker and a friend of Jenna’s, maybe?

Kate slowly moved toward them, keeping a respectful distance but close enough to hear parts of their conversation.

“No, you can’t give up hope, but you also have to focus on who needs you now, on the things you can and should do now,” the woman said.

“I’m trying to reach my husband,” Jenna said. “The people here gave me this cell phone. Since last night, I’ve been texting, leaving him messages to call. I got through to his dispatcher who said Blake’s on the return leg of a trip to Alaska. He’s in Washington State, in the mountains, in an area with weak service.”

Jenna looked up, saw Kate and invited her to join them.

“This is the reporter I talked to.” Jenna nodded to the women.

Kate introduced herself, apologizing for interrupting.

“Hello, Kate, I’m Wendy DeBello. I’m with trauma counseling services.” The woman had a folded edition of
USA TODAY
under her clipboard, which had picked up Newslead’s stories and pictures.

“Holly Lawrence. Jen’s sister. I got in from Atlanta last night.”

“What’ve you heard on Caleb?” Jenna’s voice was raw and quivered. “Have you been to the flea market today? We’ve heard nothing this morning. They’ve restricted access. Now family can’t get in, only officials and media. For safety, they said. We’re going to wait at the line this morning. I need to be as close as possible. Tell me what you know, please!”

“I was just there. I’m sorry, there’s no news. They’re still searching the site, the entire flea market, still getting people out.”

All the pain bubbling under Jenna’s skin was in her eyes. Here was a shell-shocked woman battling to hang on to hope, any hope. And, as sickening as it was, Kate was going to intrude at her most vulnerable time.

It was a part of being a reporter that she hated.

“Forgive me, Jenna,” Kate started, “but I wanted to follow up on your situation. Maybe you could tell me more about the strangers who helped you.”

“Did they find them? Is there new information?”

“No, no, nothing like that, but can you tell me, or remember anything more about them?”

“Okay.”

Kate switched on her small digital recorder. She held it in view as she prepared to take notes, as well. Jenna thought, then with her voice shaking, she gave Kate an inventory of the few details she could recall. The woman was white, had a good figure, a pretty smile and was in her twenties, short spiky red hair, jeans and a low-cut top.

“And wait, maybe a tattoo.” Jenna touched the top of her chest. “Here, a butterfly, or bird, something with wings.”

Kate noted it.

“The man with her was white, the same age, about six feet, muscular build. He had jeans and a T-shirt with a motorcycle or a dog, I think. Lots of tattoos on his arms, maybe flames, I don’t know. He had stubble on his face and he never spoke.”

“Anything else?”

“They’re complete strangers. I never saw them before in my life, but the woman seemed kind of forward, kind of infatuated with Caleb.”

“Infatuated?” Kate noted the word and put an asterisk next to it.

“She got all sweet on him at the table where I bought some clothes. Then we saw them in the center, I mean they were just there in all the craziness, and so quick to help us when the storm hit. I had these terrible feelings that they may have taken Caleb somewhere, got confused and everything, or—oh, God—
maybe they just took him!

“Did you tell anyone about your feelings?”

“Yes. I talked to some officials, and some police officers. They’re so overwhelmed, but they said a kidnapping couldn’t be ruled out as a possibility. But it was highly unlikely because no evidence of a kidnapping has surfaced, and so many people are still missing that anything may have happened. Their theory is that Caleb’s case is related to the storm.”

Kate made a note:
Kidnapping a possibility but no evidence
.

Kate began weighing the additional details in a new light. The word Jenna had used,
infatuated,
got her thinking, but her thoughts were cut short when the cell phone Jenna was holding rang.

“Hello?” She repeated it louder. “Hello, Blake?”

Tears rolled down her face.

“Blake, wait, I can’t hear, I need to—” Jenna stared at the phone helplessly. Wendy took it, increased the volume and handed it back. It was now loud enough for their conversation to be heard by everyone.

“What’s going on, Jen? I’ve been out of reach. I saw the news in the motel about the tornadoes in Dallas. Jen, are you and the kids okay?”

“No!” Jenna broke down. “We’re at a shelter. I can’t go home yet.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Caleb’s gone!”

“What? He’s what? I don’t— Jen?”

“The house might be gone, too! Oh, God!”

Great gulping sobs exploded from her. Wendy was rubbing her shoulders. Cassie had buried her little face into her teddy bear and nuzzled against her mother. Jenna was holding her tight.

Kate took a picture with her phone, fighting a surge of guilt.

“We were at the flea market when it happened,” Jenna said, relaying the story to her husband. “We can’t find him! He’s so small and I should’ve been holding him! I should’ve held him with Cassie. It’s my fault. I’m so sorry, Blake. We need you here. Cassie and I need you, Blake!”

Jenna was trembling and a great groan that evolved into a wail erupted from the pit of her stomach and she lost her grip on the phone. Kate stared at it on the floor, lights blinking as Blake’s voice, now tiny, remote, pleaded from it.

“Jen? Jen? I’m coming home. I’ll tell Arnie, I’ll get on a plane. I’m coming home!”

Kate picked up the phone, placed it in Jenna’s hand and gently raised it to her ear.

“He’s coming home,” Kate said softly.

“Hurry!” Jenna wept into the phone. “We need you.”

Kate turned away, blinking back her own tears as images of her own life—losing her sister, Grace’s sparkly little fingers, her fight for a job—burned by at the speed of light. Listening to Jenna’s agony and standing amid the sea of suffering storm survivors, Kate asked one question over and over.

What happened to Caleb Cooper?

15

Moscow, Russia

A
world away from the devastation in Texas, Pavel Gromov waited in his black Mercedes on the western side of the megacity.

He was at the edge of Filevsky Park, a glorious stretch of nature along the Moskva River favored by Catherine the Great. Parked across the street from the Palatial Elite Hotel, Gromov held a device with a small screen showing live video of a wedding reception taking place on the top floor. The images flowed from a camera his men had covertly installed in the luxury banquet suite.

He waited with the patience of a predator.

Gromov was in his mid-sixties and had the small, piercing eyes of a king cobra. They never betrayed his sadness at all he’d lost through the disintegration of the Brotherhood, the
vory v zakone
. They were a special class of Russian criminals who abided by old rules. But over the years the Brotherhood had fractured, the codes were ignored. Gang turned against gang in territorial wars.

Even Gromov, a powerful old
vor
—or mobster—and respected businessman with enterprises around the world, who’d implored the others to return to the organization’s harmony, had paid an unbearable price.

He opened the image on his cell phone and met the happy faces of three men in their twenties, smiling and shirtless during a holiday at the Black Sea. Two of the three displayed their tattoos with pride.

There was Anton, his firstborn, a rock-hard, smart, calculating warrior, partial to Italian tailored suits. Gromov was eager for Anton to assume his mantle until the night two years ago when his body was found on a meat hook in the cooler of a side street butcher shop in Volkhonka.

Dmitri, the middle son, was tightly wound but fiercely loyal and poised to hurt anyone who failed to show Gromov respect. He sought vengeance on his own. Six months after they’d buried Anton, Dmitri was shot fifty times at a traffic stop in Central Moscow.

Six months later to the day, Gromov received a delivery of a gift cake. When he opened the box in his kitchen he found the head of Fyodor, his youngest. Once more, pain penetrated Gromov to the core of his being.

Why Fyodor?

Fyodor had never been involved in the business. Everyone knew. Fyodor never bore a tattoo, never wanted to be part of the
vory
life. Fyodor was a librarian, a writer who loved the arts. His “soft son,” who was very secretive and so shy he didn’t even have a girl.

Gromov knew that his enemies murdered his boys, even gentle, innocent Fyodor, to cause him maximum agony, to ensure the end of the Gromov name, to eliminate him completely. Anton and Dmitri had married but had not yet started families. Gromov’s bloodline ended with him. His enemies wanted him to die an anguished old man with no one to assume his throne.

Gromov knew who was responsible. He waited and he planned. Over time he exacted his vengeance, killing his enemies one by one using methods that cast suspicion firmly on other enemies.

Let the jackals devour themselves.

Today, the last and biggest guilty enemy would pay.

Gromov glanced at his wedding surveillance screen. Now they were wheeling out the multitiered wedding cake.
Good
. There was laughing, drinking. Joy filled the room. Now, his enemy’s daughter and her new husband gripped the knife to cut the cake. All smiles and love everlasting.

Gromov lifted his head casually to peer over his glasses at his cell phone with the care of a veteran surgeon. He pressed numbers on his cell phone, its keypad chiming softly. The photograph of his three dead sons vanished from the screen as the detonation code appeared.

Now.

Gromov pressed Send.

He blinked and glanced up to the hotel’s top floor in time to feel a slight concussion thud wave, hear the full explosion as the fireball streaked from the suite propelling debris and bodies to the street below.

Gromov studied the scene the way a coffin maker studies a fresh cut piece of wood. Satisfied, he tapped his driver’s shoulder.

For a few dying seconds the flames reflected on the car’s gleaming black body as it glided into the night.

* * *

Late the next morning, Gromov sipped tea while reading a newspaper at an outdoor café on Gorky Street.

Screaming across the front page was an article on the deaths of thirty-three people in the bombing of a wedding party. The attack killed the target, Igor Zelin, a feared crime boss.

Gromov could not bear looking at the news picture of Zelin’s daughter. She was a beautiful young bride. Her body was found in the street below. Gromov’s vengeance tasted of bile. It sickened him to realize what he had become, and he mourned it all.

Above everything, he grieved for himself, for his loss of a direct bloodline. For Gromov had dreamed that one day his grandson would establish a legitimate business, one in which Russians did not kill other Russians. Something noble that would endure.

But that dream had been taken from him.

He gazed up at the distant spires of the Kremlin.

What was left for him?

Yes, he had money, he had power, but it meant nothing without his sons, without a legacy. Now, old age and death awaited him. And after Gromov died there would be nothing.

A shadow passed over his table and a huge man sat across from Gromov, revealing familiar gold crowns when he smiled at the headline.

“They say it’s obviously the work of the Chechens.”

“It could be,” Gromov said.

“Zelin had made many enemies.” The big man winked.

“Good to see you, Aleksey. It’s been too long.”

“I am sorry. I’ve been out of touch, taking care of things in Istanbul. I’ve been back for two months now, catching up. I heard about the boys. My condolences, Pavel. No man should have to bury his sons.”

“The price we pay for the lives we’ve lived.”

Gromov knew the sympathy in Aleksey Linevich’s eyes was heartfelt. The two men had been friends since boyhood. They talked for half an hour, until Aleksey’s phone vibrated and he checked the message.

“I must go,” Linevich said, suddenly remembering. “Yes. How stupid of me. The failings of old age, I almost forgot. My wife recently heard a wild rumor about Fyodor.”

“What is it?”

“She belongs to a Pushkin literary group and was at a publisher’s party last week, when she overheard a few women gossiping that, before his death, Fyodor Gromov had a girlfriend and she was pregnant with his child. It’s crazy, I know. Had you heard of this, Pavel?”

Gromov was dazed. He had a grandchild?

“Pavel?”

“No, no, I had not heard this.”

“Well, you know how the hens cluck away. It’s a terrible thing to say and likely untrue.”

As Gromov digested the possibility, hope trickled into his heart.

“Could you possibly find out more for me, Aleksey?”

Gromov’s friend nodded seriously.

“I’ll speak with my wife. I’ll get you more information quickly.”

“Yes, please.” Gromov stood, shaking his friend’s hand, watching him leave before he sat down alone, again. Thinking.

Fyodor, a girlfriend—a pregnant girlfriend? Could it be? No. Most likely, as Aleksey says, it’s bad gossip. But how does such gossip get started? What if it’s true?

I have a grandchild.

BOOK: Whirlwind
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