Curtains for Coburn Vaughn

Coburn Vaughn had been surrounded many times over the course of his life. In each instance he wondered if it would be the last. His hands raised in the air, pistol surrendered at his feet and a wall of Kalashnikovs staring him down menacingly, he pondered earnestly “is this curtains for Agent Double Deuce?”

Alexei Antipov, the Soviet General overseeing the impromptu Russian firing squad certainly seemed to think so, judging from the smug grin on his gleaming and scarred slavic face. Vaughn and Antipov were old enough to remember the uneasy alliance between their two countries only two decades before but the fresh-faced boys with the itchy, trembling fingers dancing across their steel triggers had never known the decadent Western powers as anything other than a well-matched nemesis. And the men with their fingers on the atomic “button” in Washington and Moscow were no different than those untested Russian boys steadying their rifles towards Vaughn. One twitch of the finger and it was lights out for the little blue planet spinning helplessly through the stars.

It was Coburn Vaughn’s solemn duty to prevent this catastrophic end from ever beginning. He was a spy, saboteur, assassin, secret agent. He was also the best, which is why he was still alive. And one of the few men in the business with any degree of notoriety.

“You make mockery of us for last time Mr. Vaughn,” Antipov insisted.

“Well then, I suppose you’ll have to continue doing so without my help” replied the blasé Coburn Vaughn, trying his best to irritate his opponent to the last breath. Meanwhile the secret agent took in his surroundings, his highly sharpened mind grasping for a way to work himself out of his ghastly circumstances. Every situation, Vaughn believed, was a puzzle. And every puzzle by its very nature begged to be solved. Vaughn only had to find the key to this particular conundrum to grant him his freedom. And save his life.

From the outside, the building was just another propaganda book warehouse. A repository of ceiling-high shelves stocked to the roof with reams of pamphlets and posters and mountains of books. Most of it was political in nature, the collected works of Marx, Engels and Lenin;  various biographies of state heroes; historical accounts of the Second World War with a particular prejudice towards the contributions of the Soviet Union; and any other sort of state-sponsored literature the Politburo couldn’t quite figure out what to do with. Rickety wooden ladders, some thirty feet high and precariously equipped with wheels, were attached to each aisle of books, ostensibly for an employee to stock or retrieve items from the shelves. By day, the facility itself was staffed by only  two people.

Victor operated the front desk of the warehouse and served as the de facto supervisor during the day. A rumpled and slightly out-of-shape man of approximately sixty-years-old, Victor wore the same tweed suit to the warehouse every day with a rotation of three shirts and two ties and his greying beard often smelled of pipe tobacco. He was an extremely friendly and decidedly unexceptional man, a widower who had raised two girls on his own with little help from his family. They were now quite grown up and had since moved to Moscow, one to study as a ballerina, the other to marry a powerful man with a stark, Stalinesque moustache in the Politburo. Victor received and filed orders when they came in, which was not often, and spent most of the day reading or sleeping.

The other daytime employee was a local boy of limited intellectual means known as Pavel. Thin and uncoordinated, Pavel had large questioning eyes and a nervous tick that caused him to make strange clicking noises when he was scared or uncomfortable. His parents and most of the town had rejected him as a mental invalid but Victor had taken the lad under his wing. The local employment office had assigned Pavel his post as a stock boy at the propaganda warehouse to get him away from anywhere he could cause expensive or dangerous accidents and had expected him to do little, if anything in this position. Victor had patiently taken his time to teach young Pavel how find and organize items in the vast and lonely warehouse of forgotten manuscripts. The young man had taken to his training extremely well and the two men were now a well-oiled machine. Whenever Pavel and Victor received an order for a poster for an official event, a ream of pamphlets for the waiting room of a new facility, or a set of books for a local school, the duo fulfilled their duty swiftly, quietly and efficiently. There were never any complaints about the functioning of the Minsk propaganda warehouse.

This official function was merely a pretense however, as the facility housed some of the most sophisticated code-breaking equipment in the entire history of covert intelligence. Gone was the era of hiding decoding documents in a false heel of your boot. These days the major political powers used highly advanced networks of computer systems to code and decode information far more complex than the simple messages the Office of Strategic Services had passed across enemy lines during the war. When Antipov was chosen to oversee the security of the Soviet Union’s newest decoding computer station, he selected the propaganda book warehouse in Minsk as the location.

The warehouse was an ideal spot for such an endeavor. The space was large but unassuming and the electrical system had been recently renovated. This was an essential requirement for sustaining the massive power needs of the kilowatt-hungry machines that would be housed within it. There was a large basement beneath the facility where the computers could be installed that neither Victor nor Pavel could access. The building attracted little attention from the locals, who were too beleaguered by the drudgery of life behind the iron curtain to have any need for literature espousing the supposed superiority of their lifestyle. Nor were they particularly interested in the finely-dressed, well-mannered young men and women who made their way to the warehouse at night as the working-age members of the community shuffled home from their jobs at the local radio factory. They always arrived exactly three hours after Victor and Pavel locked up the facility at 6pm. The two men had no idea about the secret life of the seemingly unremarkable building where they spent most of their waking lives.

Little did the townspeople know that the young people who slipped into the warehouse as Victor and Pavel slipped out were some of the most brilliant computer scientists and data engineers in the entire country. Many of the nation’s best minds in the field had been pilfered by the West during the early days of the Cold War, after being educated at considerable expense by the state. The inevitable “brain drain” this caused was one of the many factors that had led to the decision to build the Berlin Wall, the highly symbolic but very real barrier that blocked the gateway from East to West with an iron fist. The few computer engineers who decided or were coerced into staying were individuals whose skills were highly valued, and “volunteers” were often recruited for important projects such as the secret decoding computer compound in the Minsk propaganda warehouse. For those who were selected to take part in this project, it was a decidedly pleasant sort of intellectual conscription. Their pay was slightly higher than that of other people in the community their age and their living quarters more comfortable. They were popular with the local girls and kept healthy tabs going at the nearby watering holes. They were, on the whole, all men. With one exception of course.


Leya Molokovo was the first person in her family who even knew what a computer was, let alone work with one. She had always loved machines, and her father marveled that even as a young girl she could fix clocks and toaster ovens and watches with only a few simple tools. She loved the way machines looked when she opened them up and peered inside. She relished in taking them apart, feeling each component in her small hands and then putting them back together. Her father had made her a little work bench next to his and she began collecting wires, switches and sparkplugs from any derelict machine she could get her hands on. Leya even began visiting all of the local workshops each week asking their proprietors if they had any broken down machines she could pilfer parts from. Sometimes they had machines that were in need of repair. She would offer to fix them in exchange for spare parts. They would laugh and say “sure devochka, go ahead.” They were always amazed when they turned around to see that the plucky little girl had indeed fixed their broken equipment.

When she was thirteen, Leya heard about a company called “IBM” that created incredible machines that could actually think. Leya’s mind had never been so on fire with imagination. She read that these “computers” as they were called, ran on vacuum tubes. What wonders! Leya of course set out to build her own computer. She never saw her mother more angry than the day she realized that Leya had been the one stealing vacuum tubes from all of the workshops in the town. That anger turned to beaming pride when Leya received national recognition for the incredible computer that the brilliant teenage girl had built out of machine parts. When a pair of party officials came to her door that morning, Mrs. Molokovo was certain they would cart away her foolish daughter to a gulag and that she would never see her baby again. But instead, the imposing man in the Soviet military garb had smiled broadly and placed his massive, calloused hand under Leya’s delicate chin and remarked “you make your mother very worried today Leyachka. But some day you will make Mother Russia very proud.”


That was over a decade ago and Leya Molokovo had grown beautiful as well as intelligent. She kept her silky black hair in a long braid that ran down her back past her waist, a few stubborn strands dangling down her round, pleasant and dimpled face. Her modest white blouses and grey working trousers concealed her ample physical attributes. She was by no means a busty girl, but she had a dazzlingly slim waist, slender thighs and well-proportioned breasts. When she received her scientific scholarship at the University of Moscow, she rarely accepted offers for social engagements, much less dates. She was too busy studying and building, copying and improving upon the plans of American computer systems that had been supplied to her by her sponsors at the university. She didn’t bother asking how they had been acquired.

Due to her predilection towards introversion, Leya’s reputation among her peers at the university varied from “what a prude” to “I think she’s a lesbian” and she had few friends and fewer lovers. The one man who she had fallen in love with was one of the few people to see her in anything else other than her blouse and work pants and the only person other than her mother to ever see her naked. His name was Igor and he too was a scientist, a chemist to be precise. Their courtship had been short but memorable. They met at the university library, discovering to their mutual consternation that both had claimed the large study table in the corner of the facility as  “their” table. They argued in hushed tones over the table before deciding to share it. This uneasy partnership continued for weeks, both Leya and Igor eying each other suspiciously and passive aggressively moving each other’s books to make more room for their own. Eventually their animosity developed into magnetism as is often the case in such circumstances and the two students found themselves increasingly attracted to one another. After two months of brinksmanship, Igor and Leya found themselves in the library long after everyone else had gone home, including the librarian himself. Leya climbed over the table, knocking all of their papers and books to the floor. Igor thought she was attacking him. In a way, she was. They made love all night on the table and when the sun started rising, put their clothes back on and returned all their study materials to the table in an orderly fashion. When the librarian returned in the morning, he remarked “Why, you two are here early!”

The next night they made love again, this time in Igor’s dormitory. He had given his roommate a few rubles and instructions to get some dinner and make sure he was out of their way while they continued their passionate triste. Over the following weeks and months, Igor and Leya made an effort to know more of one another. When not in class they still spent their study time at the table together and took most meals together. They spent nights in Igor’s room when they could (the female dormitory had far stricter rules about evening “guests”) and spent many more on their table. The two young lovers had even found a vent where they could hide a few blankets and pillows to make the proceedings a bit more comfortable. Very quickly, Leya realized she was in love. She was however not comfortable speaking of such things. She had told her mother that she loved her once. The woman had smiled a sad smile and kissed her daughter, but said nothing. Perhaps she could not speak of such things either. Eventually it was Igor who had said it. Leya would never forget the way he had put it “You do realize we are in love Leyachka?” Leya couldn’t help but agree. She knew better than to deny a basic scientific truth.

Shortly after graduation, Igor told Leya about a way to escape to the West. He had a friend in East Berlin who knew a way to get out past the wall, past the guards and the barbed wire and machine guns. Leya protested. The state had paid for their education, how could they be so ungrateful? What of the danger? What if they died? Igor was undeterred. He said that he loved her and would show her how safe it was. He would go first. He left Moscow with an aura of confidence she had not seen in him since after the first time they had made love. He assured her that they would be reunited. That one day they would be together and free.

He was killed of course. He had tripped over barbed wire and was shot in the back by marksmen in the East German guard tower. They let him bleed out. He died alone in no man’s land, crying out for help. Crying out for Leya.

Leya had been too afraid to tell him the real reason why she didn’t want to go, just as she had been too afraid to tell him of her love. She was with child. When she received news of Igor’s death—murder—she was in the library, standing at their table. She had felt great pain both inside and out. She had fainted for the first and only time in her life. She had fallen hard into their table. The baby had died inside her, right there in the library where she had been conceived.

Leya happily accepted the job at the secret computer decoding station in Minsk. Unlike some of her more stylish and urbane peers, she had put up no resistance to leaving Moscow to work in a warehouse. They did not even have to threaten to throw her family into the gulag. The operation was a mess when she arrived. She had spent the first four weeks rewiring the entire warehouse and reconfiguring each of the massive processors. At first the men who worked there resented her authority and confidence. But eventually they offered her begrudging respect and acceptance. She had, after all, increased the efficiency of the network twenty-fold through her reconfiguration efforts. Alexei Antipov, the supervisor of the project, was most pleased.

Within two months of Leya’s arrival, the operation had had its first real success. They had decoded a heavily encrypted communique between Washington and a radar installation in Ashugi Japan that had been smuggled out by a double agent and defector. The decryption had led to the shooting down of the American “U2” spy plane and capture of its pilot, Gary Powers. It was a great propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, and although the participation of the Minsk operation could obviously not be publicly revealed, the group was quietly congratulated by an emissary from the KGB. Leya was friendly but uninterested in the empty platitudes. She simply wanted to get back to work. Back to her machines. For three years Leya worked long nights in the secret computer station beneath the propaganda warehouse in Minsk. Three uneventful years until she met Coburn Vaughn.

“Kill me Antipov, but leave the girl out of it,” Vaughn insisted with a bravado ill-suited to his precarious predicament in front of the squad of Russian soldiers under Alexei Antipov’s command. Vaughn didn’t regret involving the girl. Earning her trust had been essential to gaining access to the facility. He did regret letting her fall in love with him. There was a loneliness in her eyes, an inescapable sadness in her quiet and precise ways that let him know she had secrets that she was unwilling to discuss with even her most intimate associates.  Vaughn understood, respected and even admired her for that. He hoped that his capture would not lead to her death.

Vaughn’s handlers had been scouting Leya Molokovo for some time. Arrangements were made through back channels for the two to “meet” at the Warsaw Computer Expo one year earlier. Vaughn was travelling incognito as Czechoslovakian Data Engineer Krystof Buzek and an intelligence asset who worked as the concierge of the local hotel had arranged for Leya and Vaughn to be “mistakenly” assigned to the same room the evening before the conference. Vaughn’s handlers had studied her personal history and psychological profile well and knew that creating a scenario which mirrored her “table romance” with Igor would allow her to quickly open up to Vaughn in a way she hadn’t to any other man since her first and only lover was killed. The two stormed down to the concierge and demanded they be assigned to separate rooms. Vaughn put on a ferocious show and relished it. The concierge apologized politely for the mistake but asserted that the hotel was full and no other arrangements could be made on such short notice. When Vaughn insisted the hotel manager intervene and it was agreed upon that a cot be wheeled into the room and the two would share their quarters until another room opened up. Vaughn and Leya would switch between the cot and the bed each night, under the assumption that the hotel staff would dutifully change the sheets each morning when the two guests left for the conference.

One night turned into the entire week and Vaughn and Leya pretended to ignore each other during each of the seminars and lectures of the conference and offered little more than cold shoulders and forced pleasantries when they returned to their shared room. By the end of the week, the two couldn’t help but find the whole ridiculous situation comical. They still said very little to each other but each time they locked eyes in the room or on the conference floor they both couldn’t help but giggle. And when the two stumbled into each other in the middle of the night on the Thursday before the last day of the conference, each trying to get to the bathroom at the same time, they both broke out into uproarious laughter. Afterwards, the two couldn’t get back to sleep and they talked all through the night about computers, politics, food and any other shared point of interest. They agreed to have dinner the following night after the keynote speech.

Vaughn was coy and gentile as they walked to the local restaurant. Leya remained distant but friendly and when Vaughn took her hand on the way back to the hotel, she didn’t protest but he could tell her hand was shaking. When they returned to the room he was gentle and attentive as they kissed each other softly, her buttocks pressed against the door that had been closed only seconds before. Leya Molokovo bareley noticed when Vaughn’s muscular arms lowered to her knees and lifted her sleight, slender body into the air. She felt herself float towards the bed, his mouth never leaving hers and when the soft, cool sheets pressed against her back Leya Molokovo opened her body and her heart to Special Agent Coburn Vaughn. She never told him that he was only her second lover. He never told her that there was no such person as Krystof Buzek—that she was now in love with two ghosts. That night both lovers’ secrets were held close to their heaving chests.

When it was time to leave the conference both agreed to write and Leya desperately wished that she could invite her new lover to visit her in Minsk. But she knew that was impossible. She was responsible for one of the most closely guarded technological secrets in the entire Soviet Union. To shirk that obligation would not only be a betrayal but an act of treason. When she spotted the man she believed was Krystof Buzek at the local taverna in Minsk, part of her sensed it was more than a coincidence but she let pure joy of seeing the last man she had made love to overcame this suspicion. Leya had never visited the taverna in all the years she lived in Minsk and she felt as though it was fate that the one time she did, she would see none other than the man she had been pining over for nearly a year. In fact, Vaughn’s asset at the local department of Water and Power had cut her gas line earlier that afternoon so that her oven would cease to function and she would have no chance but to venture into town for her evening meal.

When Vaughn and Leya spotted each other across the crowded floor of the taverna, she felt as though time were standing still like in that silly American film about Romeo and Juliet living in the West Side of New York. Vaughn had shoved his way through the throng of townspeople enjoying their evening libations and embraced Leya without a word. Leya was no longer hungry (how could she think of dinner at a time like this?) so Vaughn quickly paid his tab and the two agreed to go for a walk. Vaughn explained that he was visiting a cousin in Minsk and had no idea that was where she lived and worked. The stroll inevitably led back to Leya’s apartment and the two gave their bodies to each other hungrily. It was with some consternation that Leya realized it was nearly 8:00 and she would need to be at the warehouse within an hour. Impulsively, she invited Vaughn to come with her. She loved him almost as much as she loved her work and she suddenly felt a palpable desire to share her two passions with one another. She told herself that she could give Vaughn a quick half hour tour of the facility and shuffle him out before her comrades arrived. It was a breach of protocol of course, but she was feeling impulsive and felt the sudden urge to do something on a whim.

For Vaughn of course, there was nothing impulsive about what was about to transpire. It was in fact the result of over a year of careful planning and manipulation. A long con with one objective: To destroy the computer decoding facility underneath the propaganda warehouse in Minsk. What Vaughn did not know is that his asset at the department of Water and Power had been compromised and that Alexei Antipov would be waiting for them both when they arrived at the warehouse.


“Don’t worry Mr. Vaughn,” Antipov remarked with a dastardly smirk, “we would not be foolish enough to harm the valuable Ms. Molokovo. She is far more valuable to us alive.” Antipov barked an order in Russian and Leya was ushered in at gunpoint by two additional soldiers. “We will however let her watch you die as punishment for her betrayal.”

“Krystof!” Leya cried out to Vaughn, her eyes filled with tears and confusion.

Antipov turned to her and smiled broadly, “There is no Krystof Buzek Comrade Molokovo. This is Special Agent Double Deuce, a decadent Western spy. He has used you in an effort to destroy all that we have built here together.”

“Krystof?” she repeated, now as a question of hurt and disbelief.

Vaughn’s face did not react, he simply stated “I’m afraid he’s right darling. The name’s Vaughn. Coburn Vaughn”

She turned her head away from him in shame and disgust. After a moment, she gathered her emotions, and turned back to Antipov and Vaughn. “I don’t care,” she remarked calmly, “I love him.”

Antipov rolled his eyes, “Enough. He dies. Goodbye Mr. Vaughn.”

Just then, the puzzle came into focus. Vaughn could see with stark clarity the way out of his conundrum. The way to save his life and the freedom of Leya Molokovo, a woman he now understood to be a person of great strength and beauty.

“I prefer Au Revoir Comrade General,” replied Vaughn glibly. He paused for a moment and then started laughing. After a few seconds, Antipov joined in, his booming voice bellowing through the long aisles of the warehouse. The soldiers looked to each other in confusion and decided with a wave of shrugs to mimic their commander’s laughter. Only Leya refused to laugh. She looked as though she would never laugh again. She was however staring intently at the man she now knew as Coburn Vaughn and when he glanced to the nearby rolling ladder and then at her, she knew in an instant what they were about to do.

Vaughn leapt onto the ladder closest to him, the one on his left. Leya ducked under the rifles of the two guards behind her and rushed for the opposite ladder. With a huge thrust of adrenaline-fueled momentum, Vaughn swooped his right foot against the ground like he was on a skateboard and propelled himself down the aisle. Along the way, he grabbed an AK-47 from a confused and startled soldier and turned to shoot it over his shoulder. Before anyone could make a move, Vaughn had already killed 4 of his unsuspecting captors and was speeding halfway down the aisle of books. He gave a few more pushes to the ground, launching him further down the aisle as a barrage of bullets sprayed above his head and around his torso, a few glancing off the unsteady wooden ladder. He turned to his right and saw Leya tucked in low on her ladder, her head just peaking above the third rung, her left foot occasionally lowering to push herself ever forward. Vaughn directed his attention forward and noted that they were almost at the end of the line. Leya turned and made eye contact with him. They both nodded and leapt from their respective ladders. Vaughn rolled expertly across the tile floor of the facility but the untrained Leya struggled to protect herself as she tumbled across the hard surface. When they both arrived to a stop at the southern wall of the facility, Vaughn pulled the stunned and dizzy Leya from the ground and uttered a guttural “C’mon!”

He took her by the arm and began to lead her towards the loading dock of the warehouse. He had studied the plans of the facility before the mission and knew it was their only possible escape route. “I’m going to get you out of here,” Vaughn declared as he hid them behind a stack of book crates.

“No,” she protested, “I know why you came here and I can help.”

Vaughn shook his head, “There’s no time and they’ve confiscated my explosives.” He glanced back at the charging soldiers yelling at them to halt. “There’s no way we can destroy the computers in time.”

“Men like you and Antipov,” the brilliant computer engineer began, “think that the only way to solve your problems is to blow them to bits. This is a new era Mr. Vaughn, new tools. And new ways to destroy them.” She pulled a small slip of paper from her pocket—a binary punch card with a complex sequence programmed in.

“What is that?” Vaughn inquired with genuine curiosity.

“I call it a ‘virus’,” Leya Molokovo explained.

Leya led Vaughn down the spiral staircase to the huge bank of computer systems that lived beneath the warehouse. The sizable complex buzzed with the sound of machinery. Her comrades were starting to trickle in and they studied the flustered Molokovo with her strange companion quizzically. “Over here,” Leya declared, pointing to a slot at the end of one of the three rows of computer banks. She flipped a switch next to the slot and fed her binary punch card into the opening. For a moment the lights flickered. When the room returned to brightness, each one of the computer systems began to shut down with a loud hum until the entire facility was nearly silent except for the confused whispers of the other engineers.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Vaughn exclaimed in disbelief.

Leya smirked, but her satisfaction did not last as she began to hear the sound of boots marching down the spiral staircase. Vaughn closed the huge metal door behind them and barred it with the rifle he had stolen from the soldiers.

“Is there a way out of here?” Vaughn asked, barely hiding his desperation.

“No,” she replied curtly.

Just then, a short, bald man in wire-frame spectacles dressed in a lab coat approached Vaughn and Leya from around the corner of one of the now-silent computer systems. Leya recognized him as Petrov, a data engineer who had been working at the facility for around two years. “There is always a way out,” Petrov countered.

The small bald engineer briskly led Vaughn and Leya down the bank of non-functioning computers as the sound of the soldiers attempting to knock down the metal door to the hidden facility echoed through the chamber. “I have been plotting my escape for some time now,” Petrov continued, “I haven’t seen my children or my wife for almost two years. Antipov said they will kill them if I stop working. I have found a hidden entrance to the facility. I have merely been waiting for the right moment to make my break. This seemed an appropriate time.”

Vaughn couldn’t help but smile as the strange trio worked their way towards the end of the long bank of derelict computers. There were so many pockets of unbelievable courage in this godforsaken world. Petrov stopped at a grate situated at the far left corner of the facility. He motioned for Vaughn to help him lift it. The secret agent silently complied and when he looked down the shaft he was happy to see that the bottom was visible and there was a source of light coming through from the outside. Vaughn looked to Leya and cocked his head towards the grate. He grabbed her by the arms and lowered her down the shaft. He then looked back to Petrov.

“After you,” the small engineer instructed with a smile.

Vaughn returned the grin and lowered himself into the shaft. As he felt his shoes splash into a shallow layer of water below, he heard the sound of the door being blasted open. “C’mon Petrov!” he called out in desperation, but it was too late. Vaughn heard the pounding of boots, the angry shouts of soldiers, the crackle of machine gun fire and then silence. And then there was a slight stream of blood trickling down the shaft into the already murky water. Leya closed her eyes and felt a single tear streak down her round face and find a solemn resting place in her dimple.

Vaughn and Leya silently traversed the twenty-some-odd feet between the shaft and the end of the duct, which lead to a nearby stream. It was beginning to snow, the first of the winter Leya thought to herself. Vaughn pulled a large folded wad of rubles from his pocket and pressed them against Leya’s breast. He wrapped his free hands around the back of her neck and felt the long beautiful black braid caress the top of his knuckles.

“You must run,” he commanded, “this should get you to the border.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine,” he declared stoicly, “I’ve been on the run before.”

The sound of the soldiers clanking through the shaft distracted them for a moment until she reluctantly stuffed the rubles into her coat pocket and grabbed Vaughn by the collar. She kissed him deeply and sweetly as the freezing cold snowdrops melted on their rosy red cheeks.

“Thank you,” he whispered softly.

“No,” she replied, “thank you.”

Vaughn nodded his head and smiled and without a word, he began to run into the nearby woods. Leya Molokovo took a deep breath and began to run in the opposite direction. By the time the hapless Alexei Antipov and his bumbling soldiers found their way out of the duct and into the snow, their prey had disappeared past the powdery white horizon.