The Old Man refused to die. The poker faces of the five powerful men surrounding his hospital bed gave nothing away, but Vladislav Balderis, his enforcer, knew what they were thinking. Who was going to take over now? The intravenous dripped a cocktail of drugs into the Old Man’s veins to ward off further damage from the stroke he suffered overnight. The diagnostic machines whirled, beeped, and chirped while the intubated ventilator pounded a steady beat forcing air into the Old Man’s lungs.
Vlad put his debugging kit into his gym bag after scanning the room for camera lenses or listening devices. There were none.
Vlad found out the accountant had arrived at precisely 8 a.m. to the tidy row home on Cambria just off of C Street., juggling the Old Man’s coffee and pastry with the Philadelphia Daily Sun and the Wall Street Journal. When he did not see him in the front parlor reading chair, he called out and heard no reply. Fearing the worst, the accountant rushed upstairs and found him lying face down on the bedroom floor naked. They transported the Old Man with a weak pulse and shallow breathing by ambulance to the tired Temple Episcopal Hospital.
The Old Man’s lieutenants descended on the hospital at B Street and Lehigh Avenue from wherever they spent the night, with Vlad being the last to arrive. His 90-minute workout separated him from his cell phone tucked away with his MP-443 Grach pistol in his locker. Vlad understood why this man, wearing only a hospital gown, would not go easily. He heard many stories while driving for the accountant or the Old Man.
An old and cranky head nurse entered the room, shaking her head. Her take-no-shit attitude shown through her readers perched on the bottom of her broad nose. There was more gray than black in her tight afro. She was a fireplug to be sure and took up a defiant stance. “If you are his family, why do you all have different last names?” she demanded.
“We are all his sons from different mothers.” Arkady Valnikov said, looking up at her from across the Old Man’s bed. He stood to his full height, a tad over six feet, the sweatsuit forming around his square bulk. Tussled short black hair and a day-old beard completed the picture of a middle-aged man who was rudely awakened.
“Only his family may see him while he on this floor,” she replied, turning on her heel.
The head of hospital security arrived in short order, entering the brightly lit room with a purposeful stride. Older retired cop Vlad surmised from the Fraternal Order of Police ring on his right ring finger.
“What seems to be the problem here?” he demanded while turning down the walkie-talkie on his hip. The move was meant to open his blazer and reveal his shoulder holster.
“When did hospital square badges start carrying?” Vlad thought as he went back to busying himself with his cell phone while studying the ventilator set up that kept the Old Man alive.
“This is a unique situation we have here, Mr. Murphy,” said Yury Yukolov, reading from the man’s photo ID on a lanyard hanging from his neck onto his paunch. Yukolov turned and intercepted Murphy half-way between the doorway and the Old Man’s Bed. Yury was the senior lieutenant in age and stature. He stood a full head above the shorter, flabby ex-cop.
“He has no living family here in America,” Yukushev followed. “He has raised us like sons in his business. We are his family and are deeply saddened by all this.” He waved his hand at all the medical equipment dwarfing the Old Man.
Murphy said, “You realize that hospital policy requires me to inform you that his next of kin is to be the only visitors to ICU. Now when he is moved to a general hospital floor, you will—……”
Arkady moved over to face the head of security at a closer than comfortable distance and said, “We were told that by the nurse, but as my brother has said, we are all that he has here. Certainly, an exception can be made, given the circumstances.” Arkady reached out to offer a handshake.
The head of security awkwardly accepted the handshake and only registered slight surprise at the neatly folded $100 bills that he palmed and slipped into his pocket with a practiced nonchalance. He looked at all the three men towering over him. He glanced past them to the younger guy built like a light heavyweight who was busy with his smartphone. Murphy cleared his throat and said, “Yes, I understand now, given the circumstances. He would be alone without you. I will assure you of all the privacy that you require during your visit. I’ll tell the nurses now.”
“Thank you,” Arkady said.
Yukushev followed with, “Please visit us and help us celebrate when our father returns to health.” With a simple gesture of exchanging business cards, Yakushev handed the man passes to the VIP room of the Harbison Ave Sports Bar and Grille, a gentleman’s club under the Old Man’s control. Yury Yukolov patted him on the shoulder, and they gave the man some breathing room.
The other lieutenant that handled gas station skimmers, identity theft, and Insurance Fraud nodded from the bedside in solemn agreement as the head of security backed out of the room. The accountant paid no attention to the drama and stood over his fallen comrade.
Each had a crew that handled different aspects of the Old Man’s operation. Vladislav worked directly for the Old Man, as did the accountant.
Yury, the oldest man there and the most likely heir to the throne, spoke first. “The old goat thought he was never doing to die.”
“Fools,.” Vlad interrupted, without looking up from the YouTube video he was watching on his iPhone and listening to from his Bluetooth earpiece. Under any other circumstance, calling any of these men a fool, let alone all of them in front of each other, would be the end of Vlad the enforcer.
Vlad paused the video and said, “You all acted as if this day would never come. You all thought he would live forever on a diet of Viagra, vodka, and teenage whores.”
An uneasy silence fell. Even though they were all old enough to be the hothead’s uncle, only the Old Man could control Vlad. Where the others had autonomy over their operations and gladly forked over much of their profits to the Old Man, Vlad bristled at his lack of freedom to act on his own. His earnings from the electronics store and salary under the Old Man’s hardened gaze were his only compensation. He was a resourceful tactician, but the Old Man constantly criticized him for not seeing the world strategically.
Vladislav Balderis stood there facing the older, softer men and decided that this time was going to be his time. Had he been instinctively waiting for this moment? Was it only the faint beating of the Old Man’s cantankerous heart that was stopping him?
“You are respectable business people. You are held in high esteem in your families and community. Some of you have done quite well for yourselves.”
Pointing at Arkady, he continued, “Arkady, you have a mansion in the suburbs. You contribute to the church and many civic organizations. The Old Man built the waterfront operation that you profit from.”
“Oh, Yury, tell me if it wasn’t for the money laundering, how much could you sell the gentleman’s clubs and sports bars for? Five million? Ten million? You have sent your children to prestigious schools, and now they are giving you grandchildren.”
He looked at the others. “Which of you have used an ice pick lately, other than to prepare for a summer barbecue? Oh, that’s right. That’s Vlad’s job. I hear what you say. Let ‘Bad Vlad’ handle that. Who does your ‘wet work?’? Those bikers at the clubs? Sure, they will break a few arms, but who makes people swim in the river never to surface again?”
Vlad was on a roll., “You don’t have to do what I do. I make your operations run smoothly, I make your problems disappear, but today, I will be first to tell you that the rules of my engagement have changed. This thing of ours that the Old Man built is leaking profits. As you lead your comfortable lives, you don’t care how much money is left on the table, do you? Do you ask yourselves why do we have to play nice with the other groups operating in this city? Do you ask why our terms are so lenient? What has happened to the Siberian Wolves? Who fears us in this city?”
Vlad wasn’t finished yet. “Nobody rocks the boat; nobody makes waves. Keep it smooth. Stay under the radar, you were told. Everybody eats at the table. Everybody except for Vlad.”
He looked at the Old Man now and addressed him bluntly. “As you got old, you forgot what made you who you were. You stopped taking risks. You let the others grab the money when it came to new opportunities. You would say to me, ‘Vlad, this is a small fishbowl we swim in. We make friends with the bigger fish so we won’t get eaten by them or have to eat their shit. Vlad, you are in a hurry, always in a hurry, slow down, let the money come to you.’” He paused. “I would bring you my ideas, and you would just shake your head and laugh.”
Vlad placed his phone in his pocket, walked over to the machine keeping the Old Man alive and applied the sequence he had just watched on the YouTube video, turned off the ventilator machine, and cut off the signal to the nurse's station.
The Old Man shook violently, and his left hand shot out as his right arm was secured by the tape and tangled tubing that held the drip in place. As the Old Man shook and shuddered during an agonizing breath-deprived minute, the others were frozen and made no move to intervene.
Vlad grabbed the Old Man’s hand in his and clenched hard. “Who is laughing now, Old Man?”
He held it until it went limp.