James Patterson, Lee Child, James Grippando, J. A. Konrath, Heather Graham, James Siegel, James Rollins, Gayle Lynds, Michael Palmer Daniel Palmer, David Morrell, Chris Mooney, Dennis Lynds, John Lescroart, M. J. Rose, David Liss, Gregg Hurwitz, David Dun, Denise Hamilton, Eric Van Lustbader, Christopher Rice, Alex Kava, Grant Blackwood, F. Paul Wilson, Ted Bell, M. Diane Vogt, Christopher Reich, Brad Thor, Raelynn Hillhouse, Robert Liparulo, Steve Berry, Katherine Neville, Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child
Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night
To Dennis Lynds and all thriller writers, past and present. May their stories live forever.
This book is a trailblazer on two counts. It's the first short-story anthology of thrillers ever done, and it's the first publication of a new professional organization: International Thriller Writers, Inc.
By nature writers tend to be loners, happy with their work, their families and a few close friends. But we also yearn occasionally for collegiality. For years we've all said to one another, "Why don't we organize?" Then in June 2004, Barbara Peters, of the legendary Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, held the first-ever thriller conference in the United States. She invited six writers- Lee Child, Vince Flynn, Steve Hamilton, Gayle Lynds, David Morrell and Kathy Reichs-and one editor, Keith Kahla, of St. Martin's Press, to give presentations about the various aspects of writing and publishing thrillers. Clive Cussler spoke at the luncheon.
With only two weeks to publicize the event, Barbara thought she'd be lucky if a hundred people registered. In the end some 125 attended and, to everyone's surprise, not all were there to learn about writing. Many were readers who wanted to meet some of their favorite thriller authors. Here for the first time was concrete evidence of what most of us had long suspected: there was a demand among fans for a thriller writers' organization, too. If we held conventions, readers would likely attend, as well as us. And if we awarded prizes-there have never been awards specifically for thriller books, stories and films in the English language-that interest would only grow.
On the last day of the conference, in the sunny restaurant at the Biltmore Hotel in Scottsdale, several of the attendees stood around talking. Gayle Lynds, a highly accomplished thriller writer, mentioned that she thought the conference indicated the time had come to create an association for thriller writers. Adrian Muller, a journalist and freelance conference organizer, pointed out that the association should not be limited to the United States. Barbara Peters said she'd be willing to hold another, larger convention. Realizing that she'd almost committed herself, Gayle quickly announced, "I can't organize this alone, though." Her husband, the incomparable Dennis Lynds, added, "She's right. She can't." Barbara merely smiled and said, "Pull in David Morrell. He's perfect."
And that's what happened.
Adrian Muller volunteered to send out e-mails to every thriller author he could find to see if there was enough interest among writers to form a group. A few days later, Gayle and David had a long telephone call, discussing their workloads and a potential thriller organization that would be international in scope. They agreed to jointly head the effort, and over the summer of 2004 Adrian, David and Gayle talked and exchanged e-mails. Adrian arranged with Al Navis, who was orchestrating Bouchercon 2004, the great congregation of mystery readers and writers, to assign a room in which the thriller authors could meet.
The response to Adrian's e-mail was impressive. Author after author said that an association was a great idea. A meeting was held on October 9 in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and, after many discussions, International Thriller Writers, Inc. was born. In November 2004, members were solicited. That response was likewise incredible. Currently there are over four hundred members, with combined sales exceeding 1,600,000,000 books.
This is all quite astonishing, and fitting because thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes go on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre's most enduring characteristics. But what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job.
Thrillers, though, are also known for their pace, and the force with which they hurtle the reader along. They're an obstacle race in which an objective is achieved at some heroic cost. The goal can be personal (trying to save a spouse or a long-lost relative) or global (trying to avert a world war) but often it's both. Perhaps there's a time limit imposed, perhaps not. Sometimes they build rhythmically to rousing climaxes that peak with a cathartic, explosive ending. Other times they start at top speed and never ease off. At their best, thrillers use scrupulous research and accurate details to create environments in which meaningful characters teach us about our world. When readers finish a thriller, they should feel not only emotionally satisfied but also better informed-and hungry for the next riveting tale.
Henry James once wrote, "The house of fiction has many windows." That observation certainly applies to thrillers, and this anthology is an excellent example. When Gayle Lynds suggested producing it, International Thriller Writers, Inc. sent out a call to its members for stories. Many replied, and thirty were ultimately selected for inclusion. I was contacted about acting as editor and readily agreed, while Steve Berry, another ITW member and thriller author, took on the responsibility of managing director.
When the book proposal was finally shopped by agent Richard Pine, himself an ITW member, several publishers expressed interest and, after a bidding war, MIRA Books acquired the rights.
Generously, each of the contributors to this book donated his or her story. Only ITW will share in the royalties, the proceeds earned going into the corporate treasury to fund the expansion of this worthwhile organization. The theme of this anthology is simple. Each writer has used a familiar character or plotline from their body of work and crafted an original story. So you have something known, along with something new. As you'll see, the variations are captivating, as the writers' imaginations soared. Each story is prefaced by an introduction from me that sets up the writer, his or her work and the story. At the book's end, there are short biographies of each contributor. What a pleasure it was to read the stories as they came in, and it's my hope that you'll likewise relish the tales.
So prepare to be thrilled. And enjoy the experience.
– James Patterson
P.S. More can be learned about ITW through its Web site at
Lee Child's debut novel was Killing Floor, a first-person narrative introducing his series character Jack Reacher, and although clearly a fast-paced thriller it shared characteristics with the classic limited-universe Western. At the time Child was also an experienced media professional, aware that his second book had to be written before significant reaction to his first had even been received. To avoid stereotyping- which can affect a writer as much as any performer-Child determined to make his second book, Die Trying, as different as possible, albeit part of the same series. His plan was to stake out a wide "left field, right field" territorial span between books one and two, one in which the rest of the series could happily roam. Therefore Die Trying featured third-person narration and a classic high-stakes, multi-strand thriller structure. But, in its first draft, that structure went one strand too far. There was a character-James Penney-who had an appealing introduction and backstory, but who clearly didn't have any valid place to go. So Penney wasn't featured in the completed novel. Instead, he languished on Child's hard drive until a request came from an obscure British anthology for a short story. Child repackaged Penney's narrative and added a prequel-style ending, featuring a brief glimpse of Jack Reacher's early career. The story was published, but with limited distribution. Now it comes to life again, revised and renewed, in hopes of reaching a wider audience.
JAMES PENNEY'S NEW IDENTITY
The process that turned James Penney into a completely different person began thirteen years ago, at one in the afternoon on a Monday in the middle of June, in Laney, California. A hot time of day, at a hot time of year, in a hot part of the country. The town squats on the shoulder of the road from Mojave to L.A. Due west, the southern rump of the Coastal Range Mountains is visible. Due east, the Mojave Desert disappears into the haze. Very little happens in Laney. After that Monday in the middle of June thirteen years ago, even less ever did.
There was one industry in Laney. One factory. A big spread of a place. Weathered metal siding, built in the sixties. Office accommodations at the north end, in the shade. The first floor was low grade. Clerical functions took place there. Billing and accounting and telephone calling. The second story was high grade. Managers. The corner office on the right used to be the personnel manager's place. Now it was the human resources manager's place. Same guy, new title on his door.
Outside that door in the long second-floor corridor was a line of chairs. The human resources manager's secretary had rustled them up and placed them there that Monday morning. The line of chairs was occupied by a line of men and women. They were silent. Every five minutes the person at the head of the line would be called into the office. The rest of them would shuffle up one place. They didn't speak. They didn't need to. They knew what was happening.
Just before one o'clock, James Penney shuffled up one space to the head of the line. He waited five long minutes and stood up when he was called. Stepped into the office. Closed the door behind him. The human resources manager was a guy called Odell. Odell hadn't been long out of diapers when James Penney started work at the Laney plant.
"Mr. Penney," Odell said.
Penney said nothing, but sat down and nodded in a guarded way. "We need to share some information with you," Odell said. Penney shrugged at him. He knew what was coming. He heard things, same as anybody else.
"Just give me the short version, okay?" he said. Odell nodded. "We're laying you off." "For the summer?" Penney asked him. Odell shook his head. "For good," he said.
Penney took a second to get over the sound of the words. He'd known they were coming, but they hit him like they were the last words he ever expected Odell to say.
"Why?" he asked.
Odell shrugged. He didn't look as if he was enjoying this. But on the other hand, he didn't look as if it was upsetting him much, either.
"Downsizing," he said. "No option. Only way we can go." "Why?" Penney said again.
Odell leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. Started the speech he'd already made many times that day.
"We need to cut costs," he said. "This is an expensive operation. Small margin. Shrinking market. You know that."
Penney stared into space and listened to the silence breaking through from the factory floor. "So you're closing the plant?"
Odell shook his head again. "We're downsizing, is all. The plant will stay open. There'll be some maintenance. Some repairs, overhauls. But not like it used to be."
"The plant will stay open?" Penney said. "So how come you're letting me go?"
Odell shifted in his chair. Pulled his hands from behind his head and folded his arms across his chest defensively. He had reached the tricky part of the interview.
"It's a question of the skills mix," he said. "We had to pick a team with the correct blend. We put a lot of work into the decision. And I'm afraid you didn't make the cut."
"What's wrong with my skills?" Penney asked. "I got skills. I've worked here seventeen years. What's wrong with my damn skills?"
"Nothing at all," Odell said. "But other people are better. We have to look at the big picture. It's going to be a skeleton crew, so we need the best skills, the fastest learners, good attendance records, you know how it is."
"Attendance records?" Penney said. "What's wrong with my attendance record? I've worked here seventeen years. You saying I'm not a reliable worker?"
Odell touched the brown file folder in front of him.
"You've had a lot of time out sick," he said. "Absentee rate just above eight percent."
Penney looked at him incredulously.
"Sick?" he said. "I wasn't sick. I was post-traumatic. From Vietnam."
Odell shook his head again. He was too young. "Whatever," he said. "That's still a big absentee rate." James Penney just sat there, stunned. He felt like he'd been hit by a train.
"We looked for the correct blend," Odell said again. "We put a lot of management time into the process. We're confident we made the right decisions. You're not being singled out. We're losing eighty percent of our people."
Penney stared across at him. "You staying?"
Odell nodded and tried to hide a smile but couldn't.
"There's still a business to run," he said. "We still need management."
There was silence in the corner office. Outside, the hot breeze stirred off the desert and blew a listless eddy over the metal building. Odell opened the brown folder and pulled out a blue envelope. Handed it across the desk.
"You're paid up to the end of July," he said. "Money went in the bank this morning. Good luck, Mr. Penney."
The five-minute interview was over. Odell's secretary appeared and opened the door to the corridor. Penney walked out. The secretary called the next man in. Penney walked past the long quiet row of people and made it to the parking lot. Slid into his car. It was a red Firebird, a year and a half old, and it wasn't paid for yet. He started it up and drove the mile to his house. Eased to a stop in his driveway and sat there, thinking, in a daze, with the engine running.
He was imagining the repo men coming for his car. The only damn thing in his whole life he'd ever really wanted. He remembered the exquisite joy of buying it. After his divorce. Waking up and realizing he could just go to the dealer, sign the papers and have it. No discussions. No arguing. He'd gone down to the dealer and chopped in his old clunker and signed up for that Firebird and driven it home in a state of total joy. He'd washed it every week. He'd watched the infomercials and tried every miracle polish on the market. The car had sat every day outside the Laney factory like a bright red badge of achievement. Like a shiny consolation for the shit and the drudgery. Whatever else he didn't have, he had a Firebird.
He felt a desperate fury building inside him. He got out of the car and ran to the garage and grabbed his spare can of gasoline. Ran back to the house. Opened the door. Emptied the can over the sofa. He couldn't find a match, so he lit the gas stove in the kitchen and unwound a roll of paper towels. Put one end on the stove top and ran the rest through to the living room. When his makeshift fuse was well alight, he skipped out to his car and started it up. Turned north toward Mojave.
His neighbor noticed the fire when the flames started coming through the roof. She called the Laney fire department. The firefighters didn't respond. It was a volunteer department, and all the volunteers were in line inside the factory, upstairs in the narrow corridor. Then the warm air moving off the Mojave Desert freshened up into a hot breeze, and by the time James Penney was thirty miles away the flames from his house had set fire to the dried scrub that had been his lawn. By the time he was in the town of Mojave itself, cashing his last paycheck at the bank, the flames had spread across his lawn and his neighbor's and were licking at the base of her back porch.
Like any California boomtown, Laney had grown in a hurry. The factory had been thrown up around the start of Nixon's first term. A hundred acres of orange groves had been bulldozed and five hundred frame houses had quadrupled the population in a year. There was nothing really wrong with the houses, but they'd seen rain less than a dozen times in the thirty-one years they'd been standing, and they were about as dry as houses can get. Their timbers had sat and baked in the sun and been scoured by the dry desert winds. There were no hydrants built into the streets. The houses were close together, and there were no windbreaks. But there had never been a serious fire in Laney. Not until that Monday in June.
James Penney's neighbor called the fire department for the second time after her back porch disappeared in flames. The fire department was in disarray. The dispatcher advised her to get out of her house and just wait for their arrival. By the time the fire truck got there, her house was destroyed. And the next house in line was destroyed, too. The desert breeze had blown the fire on across the second narrow gap and sent the old couple living there scuttling into the street for safety. Then Laney called in the fire departments from Lancaster and Glendale and Bakersfield, and they arrived with proper equipment and saved the day. They hosed the scrub between the houses and the blaze went no farther. Just three houses destroyed, Penney's and his two downwind neighbors. Within two hours the panic was over, and by the time Penney himself was fifty miles north of Mojave, Laney's sheriff was working with the fire investigators to piece together what had happened.
They started with Penney's place, which was the upwind house, and the first to burn, and therefore the coolest. It had just about burned down to the floor slab, but the layout was still clear. And the evidence was there to see. There was tremendous scorching on one side of where the living room had been. The Glen-dale investigator recognized it as something he'd seen many times before. It was what is left when a foam-filled sofa or armchair is doused with gasoline and set afire. As clear a case of arson as he had ever seen. The unfortunate wild cards had been the stiffening desert breeze and the proximity of the other houses.
Then the sheriff had gone looking for James Penney, to tell him somebody had burned his house down, and his neighbors'. He drove his black-and-white to the factory and walked upstairs, past the long line of people and into Odell's corner office. Odell told him what had happened in the five-minute interview just after one o'clock. Then the sheriff had driven back to the Laney station house, steering with one hand and rubbing his chin with the other.
And by the time James Penney was driving along the towering eastern flank of Mount Whitney, a hundred and fifty miles from home, there was an all-points-bulletin out on him, suspicion of deliberate arson, which in the dry desert heat of southern California was a big, big deal.
The next morning's sun woke James Penney by coming in through a hole in his motel-room blind and playing a bright beam across his face. He stirred and lay in the warmth of the rented bed, watching the dust motes dancing.
He was still in California, up near Yosemite, in a place just far enough from the park to be cheap. He had six weeks' pay in his billfold, which was hidden under the center of his mattress. Six weeks' pay, less a tank and a half of gas, a cheeseburger and twenty-seven-fifty for the room. Hidden under the mattress, because twenty-seven-fifty doesn't get you a space in a top-notch place. His door was locked, but the desk guy would have a passkey, and he wouldn't be the first desk guy in the world to rent out his passkey by the hour to somebody looking to make a little extra money during the night.
But nothing bad had happened. The mattress was so thin he could feel the billfold right there, under his kidney. Still there, still bulging. A good feeling. He lay watching the sunbeam, struggling with mental arithmetic, spreading six weeks' pay out over the foreseeable future. With nothing to worry about except cheap food, cheap motels and the Firebird's gas, he figured he had no problems at all. The Firebird had a modern engine, twenty-four valves, tuned for a blend of power and economy. He could get far away and have enough money left to take his time looking around.
After that, he wasn't so sure. But there would be a call for something. He was sure of that. Even if it was menial. He was a worker. Maybe he'd find something outdoors, might be a refreshing thing. Might have some kind of dignity to it. Some kind of simple work, for simple honest folks, a lot different than slaving for that grinning weasel Odell.
He watched the sunbeam travel across the counterpane for a while. Then he flung the cover aside and swung himself out of bed. Used the john, rinsed his face and mouth at the sink and untangled his clothes from the pile he'd dropped them in. He'd need more clothes. He only had the things he stood up in. Everything else he'd burned along with his house. He shrugged and reran his calculations to allow for some new pants and work shirts. Maybe some heavy boots, if he was going to be laboring outside. The six weeks' pay was going to have to stretch a little thinner. He decided to drive slow, to save gas and maybe eat less. Or maybe not less, just cheaper. He'd use truck stops, not tourist diners. More calories, less money.
He figured today he'd put in some serious miles before stopping for breakfast. He jingled the car keys in his pocket and opened his cabin door. Then he stopped. His heart thumped. The blacktop rectangle outside his cabin was empty. Just old oil stains staring up at him. He glanced desperately left and right along the row. No red Firebird. He staggered back into the room and sat down heavily on the bed. Just sat there in a daze, thinking about what to do.
He decided he wouldn't bother with the desk guy. He was pretty certain the desk guy was responsible. He could just about see it. The guy had waited an hour and then called some buddies who had come over and hot-wired his car. Eased it out of the motel lot and away down the road. A conspiracy, feeding off unsuspecting motel traffic. Feeding off suckers dumb enough to pay twenty-seven-fifty for the privilege of getting their prize possession stolen. He was numb. Suspended somewhere between sick and raging. His red Firebird. Gone. Stolen. No repo men involved. Just thieves.
The nearest police station was two miles south. He had seen it the previous night, heading north past it. It was small but crowded. He stood in line behind five other people. There was an officer behind the counter, taking details, taking complaints, writing slow. Penney felt like every minute was vital. He felt like his Firebird was racing down to the border. Maybe this guy could radio ahead and get it stopped. He hopped from foot to foot in frustration. Gazed wildly around him. There were notices stuck on a board behind the officer's head. Blurred Xeroxes of telexes and faxes. U.S. Marshal notices. A mass of stuff. His eyes flicked absently across it all.
Then they snapped back. His photograph was staring out at him. The photograph from his own driver's license, Xeroxed in black and white, enlarged, grainy. His name underneath, in big printed letters. JAMES PENNEY. From Laney, California. A description of his car. Red Firebird. The plate number. James Penney. Wanted for arson and criminal damage. He stared at the bulletin. It grew larger and larger. It grew life-size. His face stared back at him like he was looking in a mirror. James Penney. Arson. Criminal damage. All-points-bulletin. The woman in front of him finished her business and he stepped forward to the head of the line. The desk sergeant looked up at him. "Can I help you, sir?" he said.
Penney shook his head. Peeled off left and walked away. Stepped calmly outside into the bright morning sun and ran back north like a madman. He made about a hundred yards before the heat slowed him to a gasping walk. Then he did the instinctive thing, which was to duck off the blacktop and take cover in a wild-birch grove. He pushed through the brush until he was out of sight and collapsed into a sitting position, back against a thin rough trunk, legs splayed out straight, chest heaving, hands clamped against his head like he was trying to stop it from exploding.
Arson and criminal damage. He knew what the words meant. But he couldn't square them with what he had actually done. It was his own damn house to burn. Like he was burning his trash. He was entitled. How could that be arson? And he could explain, anyway. He'd been upset. He sat slumped against the birch trunk and breathed easier. But only for a moment. Because then he started thinking about lawyers. He'd had personal experience. His divorce had cost him plenty in lawyer bills. He knew what lawyers were like. Lawyers were the problem. Even if it wasn't arson, it was going to cost plenty in lawyer bills to start proving it. It was going to cost a steady torrent of dollars, pouring out for years. Dollars he didn't have, and never would have again. He sat there on the hard, dry ground and realized that absolutely everything he had in the whole world was right then in direct contact with his body. One pair of shoes, one pair of socks, one pair of boxers, Levi's, cotton shirt, leather jacket. And his billfold. He put his hand down and touched its bulk in his pocket. Six weeks' pay, less yesterday's spending.
He got to his feet in the clearing. His legs were weak from the unaccustomed running. His heart was thumping. He leaned up against a birch trunk and took a deep breath. Swallowed. He pushed back through the brush to the road. Turned north and started walking. He walked for a half hour, hands in his pockets, maybe a mile and three-quarters, and then his muscles eased off and his breathing calmed down. He began to see things clearly. He began to appreciate the power of labels. He was a realistic guy, and he always told himself the truth. He was an arsonist because they said he was. The angry phase was over. Now it was about making sensible decisions, one after the other. Clearing up the confusion was beyond his resources. So he had to stay out of their reach. That was his first decision. That was the starting point. That was the strategy. The other decisions would flow out of that. They were tactical.
He could be traced three ways. By his name, by his face, by his car. He ducked sideways off the road again into the trees. Pushed twenty yards into the woods. Kicked a shallow hole in the leaf mold and stripped out of his billfold everything with his name on. He buried it all in the hole and stamped the earth flat. Then he took his beloved Firebird keys from his pocket and hurled them far into the trees. He didn't see where they fell.
The car itself was gone. Under the circumstances, that was good. But it had left a trail. It might have been seen in Mojave, outside the bank. It might have been seen at the gas stations where he filled it. And its plate number was on the motel form from last night. With his name. A trail, arrowing north through California in neat little increments.
He remembered his training from Vietnam. He remembered the tricks. If you wanted to move east from your foxhole, first you moved west. You moved west for a couple hundred yards, stepping on the occasional twig, brushing the occasional bush, until you had convinced Charlie you were moving west, as quietly as you could, but not quietly enough. Then you turned around and came back east, really quietly, doing it right, past your original starting point and away. He'd done it a dozen times. His original plan had been to head north for a spell, maybe into Oregon. He'd gotten a few hours into that plan. Therefore, the red Firebird had laid a modest trail north. So now he was going to turn south for a while and disappear. He walked back out of the woods, into the dust on the near side of the road, and started walking back the way he had come.
His face he couldn't change. It was right there on all the posters. He remembered it staring out at him from the bulletin board in the police building. The neat side-parting, the sunken gray cheeks. He ran his hands through his hair, vigorously, backward and forward, until it stuck out every which way. No more neat side-parting. He ran his palms over twenty-four hours of stubble. Decided to grow a big beard. No option, really. He didn't have a razor, and he wasn't about to spend any money on one. He walked on through the dust, heading south, with Excelsior Mountain towering on his right. Then he came to the turn dodging west toward San Francisco, through Tioga Pass, before Mount Dana reared up even higher. He stopped in the dust on the side of the road and pondered. Keeping on south would take him nearly all the way back to Mojave. Too close to home. Way too close. He wasn't comfortable about that. Not comfortable at all. So he figured a new move. He'd hitch a ride west, and then decide.
Late in the afternoon he got out of some old hippie's open Jeep on the southern edge of Sacramento. He stood by the side of the road and waved and watched the guy go. Then he looked around in the sudden silence and got his bearings. All the way up and down the drag he could see a forest of signs, bright colors, neon, advertising motels, air and pool and cable, burger places, eateries of every description, supermarkets, auto parts. Looked like the kind of place a guy could get lost in, no trouble at all. Big choice of motels, all side by side, all competing, all offering the lowest prices in town. He figured he'd hole up in one of them and plan ahead. After eating. He was hungry. He chose a burger chain he'd never used before and sat in the window, idly watching the traffic. The waitress came over and he ordered a cheeseburger and two Cokes. He was dry from the dust on the road.
The Laney sheriff opened a map. Thought hard. Penney wouldn't be aiming to stay in California. He'd be moving on. Probably up to the wilds of Oregon or Washington State. Or Idaho or Montana. But not due north. Penney was a veteran. He knew how to feint. He would head west first. He would aim to get out through Sacramento. But Sacramento was a city with an ocean not too far away to the left, and high mountains to the right. Fundamentally six roads out, was all. So six roadblocks would do it, maybe on a ten-mile radius so the local commuters wouldn't get snarled up. The sheriff nodded to himself and picked up the phone.
Penney walked north for an hour. It started raining at dusk. Steady, wetting rain. Northern California, near the mountains, very different from what Penney was used to. He was hunched in his jacket, head down, tired and demoralized and alone. And wet. And conspicuous. Nobody walked anywhere in California. He glanced over his shoulder at the traffic stream and saw a dull olive Chevrolet sedan slowing behind him. It came to a stop and a long arm stretched across and opened the passenger door. The dome light clicked on and shone out on the soaked roadway.
"Want a ride?" the driver called.
Penney ducked down and glanced inside. The driver was a very tall man, about thirty, muscular, built like a regular weight lifter. Short fair hair, rugged open face. Dressed in uniform. Army uniform. Penney read the insignia and registered: military police captain. He glanced at the dull olive paint on the car and saw a white serial number stenciled on the flank.
"I don't know," he said.
"Get in out of the rain," the driver said. "A vet like you knows better than to be walking in the rain."
Penney slid inside. Closed the door.
"How do you know I'm a vet?" he asked.
"The way you walk," the driver said. "And your age, and the way you look. Guy your age looking like you look and walking in the rain didn't beat the draft for college, that's for damn sure."
"No, I didn't," he said. "I did a jungle tour."
"So let me give you a ride," the driver said. "A favor, one soldier to another. Consider it a veteran's benefit."
"Okay," Penney said.
"Where you headed?" the driver asked.
"I don't know," Penney said. "North, I guess."
"Okay, north it is," the driver said. "I'm Jack Reacher. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
Penney said nothing.
"You got a name?" the guy called Reacher asked.
"I don't know," he said.
Reacher put the car in drive and glanced over his shoulder. Eased back into the traffic stream. Clicked the switch and locked the doors.
"What did you do?" he asked.
"Do?" Penney repeated.
"You're running," Reacher said. "Heading out of town, walking in the rain, head down, no bag, don't know what your name is. I've seen a lot of people running, and you're one of them."
"You going to turn me in?"
"I'm a military cop," Reacher said. "You done anything to hurt the army?"
"The army?" Penney said. "No, I was a good soldier." "So why would I turn you in?" Penney looked blank.
"What did you do to the civilians?" Reacher asked. "You're going to turn me in," Penney said helplessly. Reacher shrugged at the wheel. "That depends. What did you do?"
Penney said nothing. Reacher turned his head and looked straight at him. A powerful, silent stare, hypnotic intensity in his eyes, held for a hundred yards of road. Penney couldn't look away. He took a breath.
"I burned my house," he said. "Near Mojave. I worked seventeen years and got canned yesterday and I got all upset because they were going to take my car away so I burned my house. They're calling it arson."
"Near Mojave?" Reacher said. "They would. They don't like fires down there."
Penney nodded. "I was real mad. Seventeen years, and suddenly I'm shit on their shoe. And my car got stolen anyway, first night I'm away."
"There are roadblocks all around here," Reacher said. "I came through one south of the city."
"For me?" Penney asked.
"Could be," Reacher said. "They don't like fires down there." "You going to turn me in?"
Reacher looked at him again, hard and silent. "Is that all you did?"
Penney nodded. "Yes, sir, that's all I did."
There was silence for a beat. Just the sound of the wet pavement under the tires.
"I don't have a problem with it," Reacher said. "A guy does a jungle tour, works seventeen years and gets canned, I guess he's entitled to get a little mad."
"So what should I do?"
"Start over, someplace else."
"They'll find me," Penney said.
"You're already thinking about changing your name," Reacher said.
Penney nodded. "I junked all my ID. Buried it in the woods." "So get new paper. That's all anybody cares about. Pieces of paper."
Reacher was quiet another beat, thinking hard. "Classic way is find some cemetery, find a kid who died as a child, get a copy of the birth certificate, start from there. Get a social security number, a passport, credit cards, and you're a new person."
Penney shrugged. "I can't do all that. Too difficult. And I don't have time. According to you, there's a roadblock up ahead. How am I going to do all of that stuff before we get there?"
"There are other ways," Reacher said.
"Find some guy who's already created false ID for himself, and take it away from him."
Penney shook his head. "You're crazy. How am I going to do that?"
"Maybe you don't need to do that. Maybe I already did it for you."
"You got false ID?"
"Not me," Reacher said. "Guy I was looking for."
Reacher drove one-handed and pulled a sheaf of official paper from his inside jacket pocket.
"Arrest warrant," he said. "Army liaison officer at a weapons plant outside of Fresno, peddling blueprints. Turns out to have three separate sets of ID, all perfect, all completely backed up with everything from elementary school onward. Which makes it likely they're Soviet, which means they can't be beat. I'm on my way back from talking to him right now. He was running, too, already on his second set of papers. I took them. They're clean. They're in the trunk of this car, in a wallet."
Traffic was slowing ahead. There was red glare visible through the streaming windshield. Flashing blue lights. Yellow flashlight beams waving, side to side.
"Roadblock," Reacher said.
"So can I use this guy's ID?" Penney asked urgently.
"Sure you can," Reacher said. "Hop out and get it. Bring the wallet from the jacket in the trunk."
He slowed and stopped on the shoulder. Penney got out. Ducked away to the back of the car and lifted the trunk lid. Came back a long moment later, white in the face. Held up the wallet.
"It's all in there," Reacher said. "Everything anybody needs."
"So put it in your pocket," Reacher said.
Penney slipped the wallet into his inside jacket pocket. Reacher's right hand came up. There was a gun in it. And a pair of handcuffs in his left.
"Now sit still," he said quietly.
He leaned over and snapped the cuffs on Penney's wrists, one-handed. Put the car back into drive and crawled forward. "What's this for?" Penney asked. "Be quiet," Reacher said.
They were two cars away from the checkpoint. Three highway patrolmen in rain capes were directing traffic into a corral formed by parked cruisers. Their light bars were flashing bright in the shiny dark.
"What?" Penney said again.
Reacher said nothing. Just stopped where the cop told him and wound his window down. The night air blew in, cold and wet. The cop bent down. Reacher handed him his military ID. The cop played his flashlight over it and handed it back.
"Who's your passenger?" he asked.
"My prisoner," Reacher said. He handed over the arrest warrant. "He got ID?" the cop asked.
Reacher leaned over and slipped the wallet out from inside Penney's jacket, two-fingered like a pickpocket. Flipped it open and passed it through the window. A second cop stood in Reacher's headlight beams and copied the plate number onto a clipboard. Stepped around the hood and joined the first guy.
"Captain Reacher of the military police," the first cop said.
The second cop wrote it down.
"With a prisoner name of Edward Hendricks," the first cop said. The second cop wrote it down.
"Thank you, sir," the first cop said. "You drive safe, now."
Reacher eased out from between the cruisers. Accelerated away into the rain. A mile later, he stopped again on the shoulder. Leaned over and unlocked Penney's handcuffs. Put them back in his pocket. Penney rubbed his wrists.
"I thought you were going to turn me in," he said.
Reacher shook his head. "Looked better for me that way. I wanted a prisoner in the car for everybody to see."
Reacher handed the wallet back.
"Keep it," he said.
"Edward Hendricks," Reacher said. "That's who you are now. It's clean ID, and it'll work. Think of it like a veteran's benefit. One soldier to another."
Edward Hendricks looked at him and nodded and opened his door. Got out into the rain and turned up the collar of his leather jacket and started walking north. Reacher watched him until he was out of sight and then pulled away and took the next turn west. Turned north and stopped again where the road was lonely and ran close to the ocean. There was a wide gravel shoulder and a low barrier and a steep cliff with the Pacific tide boiling and foaming fifty feet below it.
He got out of the car and opened the trunk and grasped the lapels of the jacket he had told Penney about. Took a deep breath and heaved. The corpse was heavy. Reacher wrestled it up out of the trunk and jacked it onto his shoulder and staggered with it to the barrier. Bent his knees and dropped it over the edge. The rocky cliff caught it and it spun and the arms and legs flailed limply. Then it hit the surf with a faint splash and was gone.
It's no accident that five of James Grippando's ten thrillers are legal thrillers featuring Jack Swyteck, an explosive criminal defense lawyer. Grippando is a lawyer himself, though fortunately with far fewer demons than Jack. What's it like to be Jack? Simply imagine that your father is Florida's governor, your best friend was once on death row and your love life could fill an entire chapter in Cupid's Rules of Love and War (Idiot'sEdition). Throw in an indictment for murder and a litany of lesser charges, and you'll begin to get the picture.
Readers of the Swyteck series know that Jack is a self-described half-Cuban boy trapped in the body of a gringo. That's a glib way of saying that Jack's Cuban-born mother died in childbirth, and Jack was raised by his father and stepmother, with no link whatsoever to his Cuban heritage. Grippando is not Cuban, but he considers himself an "honorary Cuban" of sorts. His best friend since college was Cuban born and that family dubbed him their otro hijo, other son. Quite remarkable, considering that Grippando grew up in rural Illinois and spoke only "classroom" Spanish. When he first arrived in Florida, he had no idea that Cubans made better rice than the Chinese, or that a jolt of Cuban coffee was as much a part of midafternoon in Miami as thunderclouds over the Everglades. He'd yet to learn that if you ask a nice Cuban girl on a date, the entire family would be waiting at the front door to meet you when you picked her up. In short, Grippando- like Jack Swyteck-was the gringo who found himself immersed in Cuban culture.
In Hear No Evil, the fourth book in the Swyteck series, Jack Swyteck travels back to Cuba to discover his roots. Naturally, he runs into a mess of trouble, all stemming from a murder on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Grippando prides himself on his research, and threw himself into all things Cuban when researching the thriller. At the time it was impossible to speak to anyone about the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay without the problem of the detainees dominating the conversation. It was then that Grip-pando came across a forty-year-old plan-Operation Northwoods-which, in the hands of someone with an extremely devious mind, could cause a mountain of trouble.
So was born this story.
In Operation Northwoods, Jack and his colorful sidekick, Theo Knight, find themselves in the heat of a controversy after an explosion at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba-an explosion that rocks the world.
6:20 a.m., Miami, Florida
Jack Swyteck swatted the alarm clock, but even the subtle green glow of liquid-crystal digits was an assault on his eyes. The ringing continued. He raked his hand across the nightstand, grabbed the telephone and answered in a voice that dripped with a hangover. It was Theo.
"Theo who?" said Jack.
"Theo Knight, moron."
Jack's brain was obviously still asleep. Theo was Jack's best friend and "investigator," for lack of a better term. Whatever Jack needed, Theo found, whether it was the last prop plane out of Africa or an explanation for a naked corpse in Jack's bathtub. Jack never stopped wondering how Theo came up with these things. Sometimes he asked; more often, he simply didn't want to know. Theirs was not exactly a textbook friendship, the Ivy League son of a governor meets the black high-school dropout from Liberty City. But they got on just fine for two guys who'd met on death row, Jack the lawyer and Theo the inmate. Jack's persistence had delayed Theo's date with the electric chair long enough for DNA evidence to come into vogue and prove him innocent. It wasn't the original plan, but Jack ended up a part of Theo's new life, sometimes going along for the ride, other times just watching with amazement as Theo made up for lost time.
"Dude, turn on your TV," said Theo. "CNN."
There was an urgency in Theo's voice, and Jack was too disoriented to mount an argument. He found the remote and switched on the set, watching from the foot of his bed.
A grainy image filled the screen, like bad footage from one of those media helicopters covering a police car chase. It was an aerial shot of a compound of some sort. Scores of small dwellings and other, larger buildings dotted the windswept landscape. There were patches of green, but overall the terrain had an arid quality, perfect for iguanas and banana rats-except for all the fences. Jack noticed miles of them. One- and two-lane roads cut across the topography like tiny scars, and a slew of vehicles seemed to be moving at high speed, though they looked like matchbox cars from this vantage point. In the background, a huge, black plume of smoke was rising like a menacing funnel cloud.
"What's going on?" he said into the phone.
"They're at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay. It's about your client."
"My client? Which one?"
"The crazy one."
"That doesn't exactly narrow things down," said Jack.
"You know, the Haitian saint," said Theo.
Jack didn't bother to tell him that he wasn't actually a saint. "You mean Jean Saint Preux? What did he do?"
"What did he do?" said Theo, scoffing. "He set the fucking naval base on fire."
6:35 a.m., Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Camp Delta was a huge, glowing ember on the horizon, like the second rising of the sun. The towering plume of black smoke rose ever higher, fed feverishly by the raging furnace below. A gentle breeze from the Windward Passage only seemed to worsen matters-too weak to clear the smoke, just strong enough to spread a gloomy haze across the entire southeastern corner of the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Major Frost Jorgenson was speeding due south in the passenger seat of a U.S. marine Humvee. Even with the windows shut tight, the seeping smoke was making his eyes water.
"Unbelievable," he said as they drew closer to the camp.
"Yes, sir," said his driver. "Biggest fire I've ever seen."
Major Jorgenson was relatively new to "Gitmo," part of the stepped-up presence of U.S. Marines that had come with the creation of a permanent detention facility at Camp Delta for "enemy combatants"-suspected terrorists who had never been charged formally with a crime. Jorgenson was a bruiser even by marine standards. Four years of college football at Grambling University had prepared him well for a life of discipline, and old habits die hard. Before sunrise, he'd already run two miles and peeled off two hundred sit-ups. He was stepping out of the shower, dripping wet, when the telephone call had come from Fire Station No. 1. An explosion at Camp Delta. Possible casualties. Fire/Rescue dispatched. No details as yet. Almost immediately, he was fielding calls from his senior officers, including the brigadier general in charge of the entire detainee program, all of whom were demanding a situation report, pronto.
A guard waved them through the Camp Delta checkpoint.
"Unbelievable." The major was slightly embarrassed for having repeated himself, but it was involuntary, the only word that seemed to fit.
The Humvee stopped, and the soldiers rushed to strap on their gas masks as they jumped out of the vehicle. A wave of heat assaulted the major immediately, a stifling blow, as if he'd carelessly tossed a match onto a pile of oversoaked charcoal briquettes. Instinctively he brought a hand to his face, even though he was protected by the mask. After a few moments, the burning sensation subsided, but the visibility was only getting worse. Depending on the wind, it was like stepping into a foggy twilight, the low morning sun unable to penetrate the smoke. He grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment.
Major Jorgenson walked briskly, stepping over rock-hard fire hoses and fallen debris, eventually finding himself in the staging area for the firefighting team from Fire Station No. 2. Thick, noxious smoke made it impossible to see beyond the three nearest fire trucks, though he was sure there were more, somewhere in the darkness. At least he hoped there were more. Once again, the heat was on him like a blanket, but even more stifling was the noise all around him-radios crackling, sirens blaring, men shouting. Loudest of all was the inferno itself, an endless surge of flames emitting a noise that was peculiar to fires this overwhelming, a strange cross between a roaring tidal wave and a gigantic wet bedsheet flapping in the breeze.
Directly overhead, a stream of water arched from the turret of a massive, yellow truck. It was one of several three-thousand-gallon airport rescue and firefighting machines on the base, capable of dousing flames with 165 gallons of water per minute. It wasn't even close to being enough.
"Coming through!" A team of stretcher bearers streaked past. Major Jorgenson caught a glimpse of the blackened shell of a man on the gurney, his arms and legs twisted and shriveled like melted plastic. On impulse, he ran alongside and then took up the rear position, relieving one of the stretcher bearers who seemed to be on the verge of collapse.
"Dear God," he said. But his heart sank even further as the lead man guided the stretcher right past the ambulance to a line of human remains behind the emergency vehicles. The line was already too long to bear. They rolled the charred body onto the pavement.
"Major, in here!"
He turned and saw the fire chief waving him toward the side of the fire truck. An enlisted man stepped in to relieve his commanding officer of stretcher duty. The major commended him and then hurried over to join the chief inside the cab, pulling off his mask as the door closed behind him.
The fire chief was covered with soot, his expression incredulous. "With all due respect, sir, what are you doing out here?"
"Same as you," said the major. "Is it as bad as it looks?"
"Maybe worse, sir."
"How many casualties?"
"Six marines unaccounted for so far. Eleven injured."
"What about detainees?"
"Easier to count survivors at this point."
"So far, none."
The major felt his gut tighten. None. No survivors. A horrible result-even worse when you had to explain it to the rest of the world.
The fire chief picked a flake of ash from his eye and said, "Sir, we're doing our best to fight this monster. But any insight you can give me as to how this started could be a big help."
"Plane crash," the major reported. "That's all we know now. Civilian craft. Cessna."
Just then, a team of F-16s roared across the skies overhead. Navy fighter jets had been circling the base since the invasion of airspace.
"Civilian plane, huh? It may not be my place to ask, but how did that happen?"
"You're right. It's not your place to ask."
"Yes, sir. But for the safety of my own men, I guess what I'm getting at is this: if there's something inside this facility that we should know about…I mean something of an explosive or incendiary nature-"
"This is a detention facility. Nothing more."
"One heck of a blaze for a small civilian aircraft that crashed into nothing more than a detention facility."
The major took another look through the windshield. He couldn't argue.
The chief said, "I may look like an old geezer, but I know a thing or two about fires. A little private plane crashing into a building doesn't carry near enough fuel to start a fire like this. These bodies we're pulling out of here, we're not talking third-degree burns. Upward of eighty-five, ninety percent of them, it's fourth- and even fifth-degree, some of them cooked right down to the bone. And that smell in the air, benzene all the way."
"What is it you're trying to tell me?"
"I know napalm when I see it."
The major turned his gaze back toward the fire, then pulled his encrypted cellular phone from his pocket and dialed the naval station command suite.
7:02 a.m., Miami, Florida
Jack increased the volume to hear the rapid-fire cadence of an anchorwoman struggling to make sense of the image on the TV screen.
"You are looking at a live scene at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay," said the newswoman. "We have no official confirmation, but CNN has obtained unofficial reports that, just after sunrise, there was an explosion on the base. A large and intense fire is still burning, but because both the United States and the Cuban military enforce a buffer zone around the base, we cannot send in our own camera crew for a closer look.
"Joining me now live by telephone is CNN military analyst David Polk, a retired naval officer who once served as base commander at Guantanamo. Mr. Polk, as you watch the television screen along with us, can you tell us anything that might help us better understand what we're viewing?"
"As you can see, Deborah, the base is quite large, covering about forty-five square miles on the far southeastern tip of Cuba, about four hundred air miles from Miami. To give you a little history, the U.S. has controlled this territory since the Spanish American War, and the very existence of a military base there has been a source of friction in U.S./Cuba relations since Fidel Castro took power. There is no denying that this is Cuban soil. However, for strategic reasons, the U.S. has clung to this very valuable turf, relying on a seventy-year-old treaty that essentially allows the United States to stay as long as it wishes."
"We've heard reports of an explosion. Has anything of this nature ever happened before at Guantanamo?"
"No. Tensions have certainly run high over the years, spiking in the early sixties with the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, and spiking again in 1994 when sixty-thousand Cuban and Haitian refugees were detained at Guantanamo. But never anything like this."
"What might cause an explosion and fire like this at the base?"
"That would be pure speculation at this juncture. We'll have to wait and see."
"Can you pinpoint the location of the fire for me? What part of the base appears to be affected?"
"It's the main base. What I mean by that is that Guantanamo is a bifurcated base. The airstrip is on the western or leeward side. The main base is to the east, across the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of water that is Guantanamo Bay. You can see part of the bay in the upper left-hand corner of your television screen."
"What part of the main base is burning?"
"It's the southern tip, which is known as Radio Range because of the towering radio antennae that you can see in your picture. Interestingly enough, the fire is concentrated in what appears to be Camp Delta, which is the new high-security detention facility."
"Camp Delta was built to house suspected terrorists, am I right?"
"The official terminology is 'enemy combatant.' Originally, the only detainees there were the alleged members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. In recent months, however, the United States has broadened the definition of 'enemy combatant.' As a result, Camp Delta now houses drug lords and rebels from South America, suspected war criminals from Chechnya, kidnappers and thugs from Cambodia and a host of others who meet the Defense Department's definition of 'enemy combatant' in the ever-widening war on terrorism."
"This whole issue of detainees-this has become quite an international sore spot for President Howe, has it not?"
"That's an understatement. You have to remember that none of the detainees at this facility has ever been charged with a crime. This all goes back to what I said earlier-the base is on Cuban soil. The Department of Defense has successfully argued in the U.S. federal courts that the base is not 'sovereign' territory and that inmates therefore have no due-process rights under the U.S. Constitution. The White House has taken the position that the military can hold the prisoners indefinitely. But pressure has steadily risen in the international community to force the U.S. either to charge the detainees with specific crimes or release them."
"Some of these detainees are quite dangerous, I'm sure."
"Even the president's toughest antiterrorism experts are beginning to worry about the growing clamor over holding prisoners indefinitely without formal charges. On the other hand, you could probably make a pretty strong case that some of these guys are among the most dangerous men in the world. So Camp Delta is a bit of a steaming political hot potato."
"Which has just burst into flames-literally."
"I think this is on the verge of becoming one of the toughest issues President Howe will face in his second term-What should be done with all these enemy combatants that we've rounded up and put into detention without formal charges?"
"From the looks of things, someone may have come up with a solution."
"I wasn't suggesting that at all, but-"
"Mr. Polk, thank you for joining us. CNN will return with more live coverage of the fire at the U.S. naval base in Guan-tanamo Bay, Cuba, after these commercial messages."
Jack hit the mute button on the remote. "You still there?" he asked over the phone.
"Yeah," said Theo. "Can you believe he did it?"
"They said it was a Cessna. Wake up, dude. It's Operation Northwoods."
There was a pounding on the door. It had that certain thud of authority-law enforcement. "Open up. FBI!"
Jack gripped the phone. "Theo, I think this lawyer may need a lawyer."
There was a crash at the front door, and it took Jack only a moment to realize that a SWAT team had breached his house. Jack could hear them coming down the hall, see them burst through the bedroom door. "Down, down, on the floor!" someone shouted, and Jack instinctively obeyed. He had never claimed to be the world's smartest lawyer, but he was sharp enough to realize that when six guys come running into your bedroom in full SWAT regalia before dawn, generally they mean business. He decided to save the soapbox speech on civil liberties for another day, perhaps when his face wasn't buried in the carpet and the automatic rifles weren't aimed at the back of his skull.
"Where's Jack Swyteck?" one of the men barked at him. "I'm Jack Swyteck."
There was silence, and it appeared that the team leader was checking a photograph to confirm Jack's claim. The man said, "Let him up, boys."
Jack rose and sat on the edge of the bed. He was wearing gym shorts and a Miami Dolphins jersey, his version of pajamas. The SWAT team backed away. The team leader pointed his gun at the floor and introduced himself as Agent Matta, FBI.
"Sorry about the entrance," Matta said. "We got a tip that you were in danger."
"A tip? From who?" "Anonymous."
Jack was somewhat skeptical. He was, after all, a criminal defense lawyer.
"We need to talk to you about your client, Jean Saint Preux. Did he act alone?"
"I don't even know if he's done anything yet."
"Save it for the courtroom," Matta said. "I need to know if there are more planes on the way."
Jack suddenly understood the guns-drawn entrance. "What are you talking about?"
"Your client has been flying in the Windward Passage for some time now, hasn't he?"
"Yeah. He's Haitian. People are dying on the seas trying to flee the island. He's been flying humanitarian missions to spot rafters lost at sea."
"How well do you know him?"
"He's just a client. Met him on a pro bono immigration case I did ten years ago. Look, you probably know more than I do. Are you sure it was him?"
"I think you can confirm that much for us with the air traffic control recordings." He pulled a CD from inside his pocket, then said, "It's been edited down to compress the time frame of the engagement, but it's still highly informative."
Jack was as curious as anyone to know if his client was in-volved-if he was alive or dead. "Let's hear it," he said.
Matta inserted the CD into the player on Jack's credenza. There were several seconds of dead air. Finally a voice crackled over the speakers: "This is approach control, U.S. Naval Air Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Unidentified aircraft heading one-eight-five at one-five knots, identify yourself."
Another stretch of silence followed. The control tower repeated its transmission. Finally, a man replied, his voice barely audible, but his Creole accent was still detectable. "Copy that."
Jack said, "That's Jean."
The recorded voice of the controller continued, "You are entering unauthorized airspace. Please identify." No response.
"Fighter planes have been dispatched. Please identify."
Jack moved closer to hear. It sounded as though his client was having trouble breathing.
The controller's voice took on a certain urgency. "Unidentified aircraft, your transponder is emitting code seven-seven-hundred. Do you have an emergency?"
Again there was silence, and then a new voice emerged. "Yeah, Guantanamo, this is Mustang."
Matta leaned across the desk and paused the CD just long enough to explain, "That's the navy fighter pilot."
The recording continued: "We have a visual. White Cessna one-eighty-two with blue stripes. N-number-November two six Golf Mike. One pilot aboard. No passengers."
The controller said, "November two six Golf Mike, please confirm the code seven-seven-hundred. Are you in distress?"
"Jean Saint Preux."
"What is the nature of your distress?" think I'm having a heart attack."
The controller said, "Mustang, do you still have a visual?"
"Affirmative. The pilot appears to be slumped over the yoke. He's flying on automatic."
"November two six Golf Mike, you have entered unauthorized airspace. Do you read?"
He did not reply.
"This is Mustang. MiGs on the way. Got a pair of them approaching at two-hundred-forty degrees, west-northwest."
Matta looked at Jack and said, "Those are the Cuban jets. They don't take kindly to private craft in Cuban airspace."
The recorded voice of the controller said, "November two six Golf Mike, do you request permission to land?"
"Yes," he said, his voice straining. "Can't go back."
The next voice was in Spanish, and the words gave Jack chills. "Attention. You have breached the sovereign airspace of the Republic of Cuba. This will be your only warning. Reverse course immediately, or you will be fired upon as hostile aircraft."
The controller said, "November two six Golf Mike, you must alter course to two-twenty, south-southwest. Exit Cuban airspace and enter the U.S. corridor. Do you read?"
Matta paused the recording and said, "There's a narrow corridor that U.S. planes can use to come and go from the base. He's trying to get Saint Preux into the safety zone."
The recording continued, "November two six Golf Mike, do you read?"
Before Saint Preux could reply, the Cubans issued another warning in Spanish. "Reverse course immediately, or you will be fired upon as hostile aircraft."
"November two six Golf Mike, do you read?"
"He's hand signaling," said Mustang. "I think he's unable to talk."
The controller said, "November two six Golf Mike, steer two-twenty, south-southwest. Align yourself with the lead navy F-16 and you will be escorted to landing. Permission to land at Guantanamo Bay has been granted."
Jack's gaze drifted off toward the window, the drama in the Cuban skies playing out in his mind.
"Mustang, what's your status?" asked the controller.
"We're in the corridor. Target is back on automatic pilot."
"Do you have the craft in sight?"
"Yes. I'm on his wing now. That maneuver away from the MiGs really took it out of him. Pilot looks to be barely conscious. Dangerous situation here."
"November two six Golf Mike, please hand signal our pilot if you are conscious and able to hear this transmission."
After a long stretch of silence, Mustang said, "Got it. He just signaled."
The controller said, "Permission has been granted to land on runway one. You are surrounded by four F-16s, and they are authorized to fire immediately upon any deviation from the proper course. Do you read?"
There was silence, then a response from Mustang. "He's got it." "Roger. Mustang, lead the way."
After thirty seconds of dead air, the controller returned. "Mustang, what's your unaided visibility?"
"Our friend should be seeing fine. Approaching the south end of the main base."
Matta used another stretch of silence to explain, saying, "The main base is to the east of the landing strip. They have to pass over the main base, and then fly across the bay in order to land."
"Whoa!" shouted Mustang. "Target is in a nosedive!"
"November two six Golf Mike, pull up!"
"Still in a nosedive," shouted Mustang, his voice racing.
"Pull up immediately!"
"No change," said Mustang.
"November two six Golf Mike, final warning. Regain control of your craft or you will be fired upon." "He's headed straight for Camp Delta."
"Fire at will!"
A shrill, screeching noise came over the speakers. Then silence.
Matta hit the STOP button. "That's it," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. Slowly, he walked around the desk and returned to his seat in the wing chair.
Jack was stone silent. He wasn't particularly close to Saint Preux, but it was still unnerving to think of what had just happened to him.
Matta said, "Did Mr. Saint Preux have heart trouble?"
"Not to my knowledge. But he had pancreatic cancer. The doctors gave him only a few months to live."
"Did he ever talk of suicide?"
"Not to me."
"Was he depressed, angry?"
"Who wouldn't be? The guy was only sixty-three years old.
But that doesn't mean he deliberately crashed his plane into Camp Delta."
Matta said, "Do you know of any reason he might have to hate the U.S. government?" Jack hesitated.
Matta said, "Look, I understand that you're his lawyer and you have confidentiality issues. But your client's dead, and so are six U.S. Marines, not to mention scores of detainees. We need to understand what happened."
"All I can tell you is that he wasn't happy about the way the government treats refugees from Haiti. Thinks we have a double standard for people of color. I'm not trying to slap a Jesse Jackson rhyme on you, but as the saying goes-If you're black, you go back."
"Was he unhappy enough to blow up a naval base?" "I don't know."
"I think you do know," said Matta, his voice taking on an edge. He was suddenly invading Jack's space, getting right in his face. "I believe that the heart attack was a ruse. I think this was a planned and deliberate suicide attack by a man who had less than six months to live. And I suspect the logistical support and financial backing for an organization that only you can help us identify."
"That's ridiculous," said Jack.
"Are you going to sit there and pretend that he didn't mention any plans to you, any organizations?"
Jack was about to tell him that he couldn't answer that even if he'd wanted to, that conversations with his client-even a dead client-were privileged and confidential. But one thing did come to mind, and it wasn't privileged. Jean had said it in front of Jack, in front of Theo and in front of about a half-dozen other drunks at Theo's tavern. Jack could share it freely.
"He mentioned something called Operation Northwoods."
Matta went ash-white. He turned, walked into the next room, and was immediately talking on his encrypted cell phone.
7:40 p.m., Two Weeks Later
Sparky's Tavern was on U.S. 1 south of Homestead, one of the last watering holes before a landscape that still bore the scars of a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 gave way to the splendor of the Florida Keys. It was a converted old gas station with floors so stained from tipped drinks that not even the Environmental Protection Agency could have determined if more flammable liquids had spilled before or after the conversion. The grease pit was gone but the garage doors were still in place. There was a long, wooden bar, a TV permanently tuned to ESPN, and a never-ending stack of quarters on the pool table. Beer was served in cans, and the empties were crushed in true Sparky's style at the old tire vise that still sat on the workbench. It was the kind of dive that Jack would have visited if it were in his own neighborhood, but he made the forty-minute trip for one reason only: the bartender was Theo Knight.
"Another one, buddy?"
He was serving Jack shots of tequila. "No thanks," said Jack.
"Come on. Try just one without training wheels," he said as he cleared the lemons and saltshaker from the bar top.
Jack's thoughts were elsewhere. "I met with a former military guy today," said Jack. "Says he knows all about Operation Northwoods."
"Does he also know all about the tooth fairy and the Easter
"He worked in the Pentagon under the Kennedy administration."
Theo poured another shot, but Jack didn't touch it. "Talk to me," said Theo.
"He showed me a memo that was top secret for years. It was declassified a few years ago, but somehow it never got much press, even though it was titled 'Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba.' The Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted it to the Defense Department a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion. No one denies that the memo existed, though former Secretary of Defense McNamara has gone on record saying he never saw it. Anyway, it outlines a plan called Operation Northwoods."
"So there really was an Operation Northwoods? Pope Paul wasn't just high on painkillers?"
"His name was Saint Preux, moron. And it was just a memo, not an actual operation. The idea was for the U.S. military to stage terrorist activities at Guantanamo and blame them on Cuba, which would draw the United States into war with Cuba."
"Seriously. The first wave was to have friendly Cubans dressed in Cuban military uniforms start riots at the base, blow up ammunition at the base, start fires, burn aircraft, sabotage a ship in the harbor and sink a ship near the harbor entrance."
"Sounds like a plot for a bad movie."
"It gets better-or worse, depending on your perspective. They talked about having a 'Remember the Maine' incident where the U.S. would blow up one of its own ships in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba."
"But how could they do that without hurting their own men?"
"They couldn't. And this was actually in the memo-I couldn't believe what I was reading. It said, 'Casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a healthy wave of national indignation.'"
Theo winced, but it might have been the tequila. "They didn't actually do any of this shit, did they?"
"Nah. Somebody in the Pentagon came to their senses. But still, it makes you wonder if Jean was trying to tell us something about a twenty-first-century Operation Northwoods."
Theo nodded, seeming to follow his logic. "A plane crash on the base, a few U.S. casualties, and voila! The burning question of what to do with six hundred terrorists is finally resolved. Could never happen, right?"
"Nah. Could never-" Jack stopped himself. President Lincoln Howe was on television. "Turn that up, buddy."
Theo climbed atop a bar stool and adjusted the volume. On screen, President Lincoln Howe was delivering a prime-time message with his broad shoulders squared to the microphone, his forceful tone conveying the full weight of his office. The world could only admire the presidential resolve of a former general in the United States Army.
"The FBI and Justice Department have worked tirelessly and swiftly on this investigation," said the president. "It is our very firm conclusion that Mr. Saint Preux acted alone. He filled a civilian aircraft with highly explosive materials to create the equivalent of a flying eight-hundred-pound napalm bomb. Through means of deception, which included a fake medical emergency, he gained permission to land at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Guantanamo. In accordance with his premeditated scheme, the plane exploded and created a rain of fire over Camp Delta, killing six U.S. Marines and over six hundred detainees, and injuring many others.
"Naturally, our prayers and sympathies go out to the victims and their families. But I wish to emphasize that the speed with which we addressed this incident demonstrates that we will pursue terrorists and terrorist groups in whatever criminal guise they take, irrespective of whether they target American soldiers, innocent civilians or even foreign enemy combatants whom the United States has lawfully detained and taken into custody."
The president paused, as if giving his sound bite time to gel, then narrowed his eyes for a final comment. "Make no mistake about it. Although most of the victims were detained enemy combatants, this attack at Guantanamo was an attack on democracy and the United States of America. With Mr. Saint Preux's death, however, justice has been done. Good night, thank you, and may God bless America."
Jack remained glued to the television as the president stepped away from the podium. Reporters sprang from their seats and started firing questions, but the president simply waved and turned away. The network commentators jumped in with their recap and analysis, but Jack's mind was awhirl with his own thoughts. Was Operation Northwoods for real? Did Jack's client do this as a favor to the U.S. government? Or did he do it to embarrass the Howe administration, as a way to make the world think that the president had put him up to this? None of those questions had been answered. Or maybe they had.
Theo switched off the television. "Guess that settles it," he said, laying on a little more than his usual sarcasm. "Just another pissed-off Haitian crashing his airplane into a naval base to protest U.S. immigration policy."
Jack lifted his shot glass of tequila. "I'm ready."
He glanced at the lemon and saltshaker, then stiffened his resolve. "I'm losing the training wheels."
J. A. Konrath
J. A. Konrath is relatively new to the thriller scene. The Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series features a forty-something Chicago cop who chases serial killers. Konrath's debut, Whiskey Sour, was a unique combination of creepy chills and laugh-out-loud moments. Bloody Mary and Rusty Nail used the same giggle-then-cringe formula-likable heroes in scary situations. Konrath believes that a lot of the fun in writing a thriller series comes from the supporting characters. People are defined by the company they keep. Jack has a handful of sidekicks who both help and hinder her murder investigations.
Phineas Troutt is one of the helpful ones.
Introduced in Whiskey Sour, Phin operates outside the law as a problem solver-someone who takes illegal jobs for big paydays. Jack is never quite sure what Phin does to earn a living. Konrath himself didn't know, but thought it would be fun to find out.
Forsaking the cannibals, necrophiles, snuff filmers and serial killers of his Jack Daniels books, Epitaph revolves around a more familiar and accessible evil-street gangs. The result is something grittier, darker and more intimately violent than the series that spawned Phin. No tongue in cheek here. No goofy one-liners. Konrath has always enjoyed exploring where shadows hide when the sun goes down, but this time there's no humorous safety net. What motivates a man to drop out of society and kill for money? Is there a tie between morality and dignity? And most important of all, what is Phin loading into the shells of that modified Mossberg shotgun?
Let the body count begin.
There's an art to getting your ass kicked.
Guys on either side held my arms, stretching me out crucifixion style. The joker who worked me over swung wildly, without planting his feet or putting his body into it. He spent most of his energy swearing and screaming when he should have been focusing on inflicting maximum damage.
Not that I was complaining. What he lacked in professionalism, he made up for in mean.
He moved in and rabbit-punched me in the side. I flexed my abs and tried to shift to take the blow in the center of my stomach, rather than the more vulnerable kidneys.
I exhaled hard when his fist landed. Saw stars.
He stepped away to pop me in the face. Rather than tense up, I relaxed, trying to absorb the contact by letting my neck snap back.
It still hurt like hell.
I tasted blood, wasn't sure if it came from my nose or my mouth. Probably both. My left eye had already swollen shut.
"Hijo calvo de una perra!"
You bald son of a bitch. Real original. His breath was ragged now, shoulders slumping, face glowing with sweat.
Gangbangers these days aren't in very good shape. I blame TV and junk food.
One final punch-a halfhearted smack to my broken nose- and then I was released.
I collapsed face-first in a puddle that smelled like urine. The three Latin Kings each took the time to spit on me. Then they strolled out of the alley, laughing and giving each other high fives.
When they got a good distance away, I crawled over to a Dumpster and pulled myself to my feet. The alley was dark, quiet. I felt something scurry over my foot.
Rats, licking up my dripping blood.
I hurt a lot, but pain and I were old acquaintances. I took a deep breath, let it out slow, did some poking and prodding. Nothing seemed seriously damaged.
I'd been lucky.
I spat. The bloody saliva clung to my swollen lower lip and dribbled onto my T-shirt. I tried a few steps forward, managed to keep my balance, and continued to walk out of the alley, onto the sidewalk, and to the corner bus stop.
The Kings took my wallet, which had no ID or credit cards, but did have a few hundred in cash. I kept an emergency fiver in my shoe. The bus arrived, and the portly driver raised an eyebrow at my appearance.
"Do you need a doctor, buddy?"
"I've got plenty of doctors."
He shrugged and took my money.
On the ride back, my fellow passengers made heroic efforts to avoid looking at me. I leaned forward, so the blood pooled between my feet rather than stained my clothing any further. These were my good jeans.
When my stop came up, I gave everyone a cheery wave goodbye and stumbled out of the bus.
The corner of State and Cermak was all lit up, twinkling in both English and Chinese. Unlike NYC and L.A., each of which had sprawling Chinatowns, Chicago has more of a Chinablock. Blink while you're driving west on Twenty-second and you'll miss it.
Though Caucasian, I found a kind of peace in Chinatown that I didn't find among the Anglos. Since my diagnosis, I've pretty much disowned society. Living here was like living in a foreign country-or a least a square block of a foreign country.
I kept a room at the Lucky Lucky Hotel, tucked between a crumbling apartment building and a Chinese butcher shop, on State and Twenty-fifth. The hotel did most of its business at an hourly rate, though I couldn't think of a more repulsive place to take a woman, even if you were renting her as well as the room. The halls stank like mildew and worse, the plaster snowed on you when you climbed the stairs, obscene graffiti lined the halls and the whole building leaned slightly to the right.
I got a decent rent: free-as long as I kept out the drug dealers. Which I did, except for the ones who dealt to me.
I nodded at the proprietor, Kenny-Jen-Bang-Ko, and asked for my key. Kenny was three times my age, clean-shaven save for several black moles on his cheeks that sprouted long, white hairs. He tugged at these hairs while contemplating me.
"How is other guy?" Kenny asked.
"Drinking a forty of malt liquor that he bought with my money."
He nodded, as if that was the answer he'd been expecting. "You want pizza?"
Kenny gestured to a box on the counter. The slices were so old and shrunken they looked like Doritos. "I thought the Chinese hated fast food." "Pizza not fast. Took thirty minutes. Anchovy and red pepper." I declined.
My room was one squeaky stair flight up. I unlocked the door and lumbered over to the bathroom, looking into the cracked mirror above the sink.
My left eye had completely closed, and the surrounding tissue bulged out like a peach. Purple bruising competed with angry red swelling along my cheeks and forehead. My nose was a glob of strawberry jelly, and blood had crusted black along my lips and down my neck.
It looked like Jackson Pollock had kicked my ass.
I stripped off the T-shirt, peeled off my shoes and jeans, and turned the shower up to scald.
It hurt but got most of the crap off.
After the shower I popped five Tylenol, chased them with a shot of tequila and spent ten minutes in front of the mirror, tears streaming down my face, forcing my nose back into place.
I had some coke, but wouldn't be able to sniff anything with my sniffer all clotted up, and I was too exhausted to shoot any. I made do with the tequila, thinking that tomorrow I'd have that codeine prescription refilled.
Since the pain wouldn't let me sleep, I decided to do a little work.
Using a dirty fork, I pried up the floorboards near the radiator and took out a plastic bag full of what appeared to be little gray stones. The granules were the size and consistency of aquarium gravel.
I placed the bag on the floor, then removed the Lee Load-All, the scale, a container of gunpowder, some wads and a box of empty 12-gauge shells.
Everything went over to my kitchen table. I snapped on a fresh pair of latex gloves, clamped the loader onto my countertop and spent an hour carefully filling ten shells. When I finished, I loaded five of them into my Mossberg 935, the barrel and stock of which had been cut down for easier concealment.
I liked shotguns-you had more leeway when aiming, the cops couldn't trace them like they could trace bullets, and nothing put the fear of God into a guy like the sound of racking a shell into the chamber.
For this job, I didn't have a choice.
By the time I was done, my nose had taken the gold medal in throbbing, with my eye coming close with the silver. I swallowed five more Tylenol and four shots of tequila, then lay down on my cot and fell asleep.
With sleep came the dream.
It happened every night, so vivid I could smell Donna's perfume. We were still together, living in the suburbs. She was smiling at me, running her fingers through my hair.
"Phin, the caterer wants to know if we're going with the split-pea or the wedding-ball soup."
"Explain the wedding-ball soup to me again."
"It's a chicken stock with tiny veal meatballs in it."
"That sounds good to you?"
"It's very good. I've had it before."
"Then let's go with that."
She kissed me; playful, loving.
I woke up drenched in sweat.
If someone had told me that happy memories would one day be a source of incredible pain, I wouldn't have believed it. Things change.
Sun peeked in through my dirty window, making me squint. I stretched, wincing because my whole body hurt-my whole body except for my left side, where a team of doctors had severed the nerves during an operation called a chordotomy. The surgery had been purely palliative. The area felt dead, even though the cancer still thrived inside my pancreas. And elsewhere, by now.
The chordotomy offered enough pain relief to allow me to function, and tequila, cocaine and codeine made up for the remainder.
I dressed in some baggy sweatpants, my bloody gym shoes (with a new five-dollar bill in the sole) and a clean white T-shirt.
I strapped my leather shotgun sling under my armpits and placed the Mossberg in the holster. It hung directly between my shoulder blades, barrel up, and could be freed by reaching my right hand behind me at waist level.
A baggy black trench coat went on over the rig, concealing the shotgun and the leather straps that held it in place.
I pocketed the five extra shells, the bag of gray granules, a Glock 21 with two extra clips of.45 rounds and a six-inch butterfly knife. Then I hung an iron crowbar on an extra strap sewn into the lining of my coat, and headed out to greet the morning.
Chinatown smelled like a combination of soy sauce and garbage. It was worse in the summer, when stenches seemed to settle in and stick to your clothes. Though not yet seven in the morning, the temperature already hovered in the low nineties. The sun made my face hurt.
I walked up State, past Cermak, and headed east. The Sing Lung Bakery had opened for business an hour earlier. The manager, a squat Mandarin Chinese named Ti, did a double take when I entered.
"Phin! Your face is horrible!" He rushed around the counter to meet me, hands and shirt dusty with flour.
"My mom liked it okay."
Ti's features twisted in concern. "Was it them? The ones who butchered my daughter?" I gave him a brief nod.
Ti hung his head. "I am sorry to bring this suffering upon you. They are very bad men."
I shrugged, which hurt. "It was my fault. I got careless."
That was an understatement. After combing Chicago for almost a week, I'd discovered the bangers had gone underground. I got one guy to talk, and after a bit of friendly persuasion he gladly offered some vital info; Sunny's killers were due to appear in court on an unrelated charge.
I'd gone to the Daly Center, where the prelim hearing was being held, and watched from the sidelines. After matching their names to faces, I followed them back to their hidey-hole.
My mistake had been to stick around. A white guy in a Hispanic neighborhood tends to stand out. Having just been to court, which required walking through a metal detector, I had no weapons on me.
Stupid. Ti and Sunny deserved someone smarter.
Ti had found me through the grapevine, where I got most of my business. Phineas Troutt, Problem Solver. No job too dirty, no fee too high.
I'd met him in a parking lot across the street, and he laid out the whole sad, sick story of what these animals had done to his little girl.
"Cops do nothing. Sunny's friend too scared to press charges."
Sunny's friend had managed to escape with only ten missing teeth, six stab wounds and a torn rectum. Sunny hadn't been as lucky.
Ti agreed to my price without question. Not too many people haggled with paid killers.
"You finish job today?" Ti asked, reaching into his glass display counter for a pastry.
"In the way we talk about?" "In the way we talked about."
Ti bowed and thanked me. Then he stuffed two pastries into a bag and held them out.
"Duck egg moon cake, and red bean ball with sesame. Please take." I took.
"Tell me when you find them."
"I'll be back later today. Keep an eye on the news. You might see something you'll like."
I left the bakery and headed for the bus. Ti had paid me enough to afford a cab, or even a limo, but cabs and limos kept records. Besides, I preferred to save my money for more important things, like drugs and hookers. I try to live every day as if it's my last.
After all, it very well might be.
The bus arrived, and again everyone took great pains not to stare. The trip was short, only about two miles, taking me to a neighborhood known as Pilsen, on Racine and Eighteenth.
I left my duck egg moon cake and my red bean ball on the bus for some other lucky passenger to enjoy, then stepped out into Little Mexico.
It smelled like a combination of salsa and garbage.
There weren't many people out-too early for shoppers and commuters. The stores had Spanish signs, not bothering with English translations: zapatos, ropa, restaurante, tiendas de comestibles, bancos, telefonos de la celula. I passed the alley where I'd gotten the shit kicked out of me, kept heading north, and located the apartment building where my three amigos were staying. I tried the front door.
They hadn't left it open for me.
Though the gray paint was faded and peeling, the door was heavy aluminum and the lock solid. But the jamb, as I'd remembered from yesterday's visit, was old wood. I removed the crowbar from my jacket lining, gave a discreet look in either direction and pried open the door in less time than it took to open it with a key, the frame splintering and cracking.
The Kings occupied the basement apartment to the left of the entrance, facing the street. Last night I'd counted seven-five men and two women-including my three targets. Of course, there may be other people inside that I'd missed.
This was going to be interesting.
Unlike the front door, their apartment door was a joke. They apparently thought being gang members meant they didn't need decent security.
They thought wrong.
I took out my Glock and tried to stop hyperventilating. Breaking into someone's place is scary as hell. It always is.
One hard kick and the door burst inward.
A guy on the couch, sleeping in front of the TV Not one of my marks. He woke up and stared at me. It took a millisecond to register the gang tattoo, a five-pointed crown, on the back of his hand.
I shot him in his forehead.
If the busted door didn't wake everyone up, the.45 did, sounding like thunder in the small room.
Movement to my right. A woman in the kitchen, in panties and a Dago-T, too much makeup and baby fat.
"Te vayas!" I hissed at her.
She took the message and ran out the door.
A man stumbled into the hall, tripping and falling to the thin carpet. One of mine, the guy who'd pinned my right arm while I'd been worked over. He clutched a stiletto. I was on him in two quick steps, putting one in his elbow and one through the back of his knee when he fell.
He screamed falsetto.
I walked down the hall in a crouch, and a bullet zinged over my head and buried itself in the ceiling. I kissed the floor, looked left, and saw the shooter in the bathroom; the guy who had held my other arm and laughed every time I got smacked.
I stuck the Glock in my jeans and reached behind me, un-slinging the Mossberg.
He fired again, missed, and I aimed the shotgun and peppered his face.
Unlike lead shot, the gray granules didn't have deep penetrating power. Instead of blowing his head off, they peeled off his lips, cheeks and eyes.
He ate linoleum, blind and choking on blood.
Movement behind me. I fell sideways and rolled onto my back. A kid, about thirteen, stood in the hall a few feet away. He wore Latin Kings colors; black to represent death, gold to represent life.
His hand ended in a pistol.
I racked the shotgun, aimed low.
If the kid was old enough to be sexually active, he wasn't anymore.
He dropped to his knees, still holding the gun. I was on him in two steps, driving a knee into his nose. He went down and out.
Three more guys burst out of the bedroom. Apparently I'd counted wrong.
Two were young, muscular, brandishing knives. The third was the guy who'd worked me over the night before. The one who'd called me a bald son of a bitch.
They were on me before I could rack the shotgun again.
The first one slashed at me with his pig-sticker, and I parried with the barrel of the Mossberg. He jabbed again, slicing me across the knuckles of my right hand.
I threw the shotgun at his face and went for my Glock.
He was fast.
I was faster.
Bang bang and he was a paycheck for the coroner. I spun left, aimed at the second guy. He was already in midjump, launching himself at me with a battle cry and switchblades in both hands.
One gun beats two knives.
He took three in the chest and two in the neck before he dropped.
The last guy, the guy who'd broken my nose, grabbed my shotgun and dived behind the couch.
Chck chck. He ejected the shell and racked another into the chamber. I pulled the Glock's magazine and slammed a fresh one home.
"Hijo calvo de una perra!"
Again with the bald son of a bitch taunt. I worked through my hurt feelings and crawled to an end table, tipping it over and getting behind it.
The shotgun boomed. Had it been loaded with shot, it would have torn through the cheap particleboard and turned me into ground beef. Or ground hijo calvo de una perra. But at that distance, the granules didn't do much more than make a loud noise.
The banger apparently didn't learn from experience, because he tried twice more with similar results, and then the shotgun was empty.
I stood up from behind the table, my heart a lump in my throat and my hands shaking with adrenaline. The King turned and ran. His back was an easy target.
I took a quick look around, making sure everyone was down or out, and then went to retrieve my shotgun. I loaded five more shells and approached the downed leader, who was sucking carpet and whimpering. The wounds in his back were ugly, but he still made a feeble effort to crawl away.
I bent down, turned him over and shoved the barrel of the Mossberg between his bloody lips.
"You remember Sunny Lung," I said, and fired.
It wasn't pretty. It also wasn't fatal. The granules blew out his cheeks and tore into his throat, but somehow the guy managed to keep breathing.
I gave him one more, jamming the gun farther down the wreck of his face.
That did the trick.
The second perp, the one I'd blinded, had passed out on the bathroom floor. His face didn't look like a face anymore, and blood bubbles were coming out of the hole where his mouth would have been.
"Sunny Lung sends her regards," I said.
This time I pushed the gun in deep, and the first shot did the trick, blowing through his throat.
The last guy, the one who made like Pavarotti when I took out his knee, left a blood smear from the hall into the kitchen. He cowered in the corner, a dishrag pressed to his leg.
"Don't kill me, man! Don't kill me!"
"I bet Sunny Lung said the same thing."
The Mossberg thundered twice; once to the chest, and once to the head.
It wasn't enough. What was left alive gasped for air.
I removed the bag of granules from my pocket, took out a handful and shoved them down his throat until he stopped breathing.
Then I went to the bathroom and threw up in the sink.
Sirens wailed in the distance. Time to go. I washed my hands, and then rinsed off the barrel of the Mossberg, holstering it in my rig.
In the hallway, the kid I emasculated was clutching himself between the legs, sobbing.
"There's always the priesthood," I told him, and got out of there.
My nose was still clogged, but I managed to get enough coke up there to damper the pain. Before closing time I stopped by the bakery, and Ti greeted me with a somber nod.
"Saw the news. They said it was a massacre."
"You did as we said?"
"I did, Ti. Your daughter got her revenge. She's the one that killed them. All three."
I fished out the bag of granules and handed it to her father. Sunny's cremated remains.
"Xie xie," Ti said, thanking me in Mandarin. He held out an envelope filled with cash.
He looked uncomfortable, and I had drugs to buy, so I took the money and left without another word.
An hour later I'd filled my codeine prescription, picked up two bottles of tequila and a skinny hooker with track marks on her arms, and had a party back at my place. I popped and drank and screwed and snorted, trying to blot out the memory of the last two days. And of the last six months.
That's when I'd been diagnosed. A week before my wedding day. My gift to my bride-to-be was running away so she wouldn't have to watch me die of cancer.
Those Latin Kings this morning, they got off easy. They didn't see it coming.
Seeing it coming is so much worse.
Heather Graham has spent her life in the Miami area and frequently uses her home arena as the setting in her novels. She sometimes considers that it's quite a bit like living in a theater of the absurd. Where else can you mix such a cosmopolitan, big-city venue with traces of a distant past? The place has it all. Snowbirds blending with the Old South. The Everglades, where proud tribes of Native Americans still live. And the sultry "river of grass," which affords deadly opportunities for the drug trade and convenient hiding spots for bodies that may never surface again.
Graham loves her hometown, the water, boating, and one of her main passions, scuba diving. She says that loving Miami is like loving a child. You have to accept it for the good and bad. Graham is known for creating locations that live and breathe-becoming as much a character in her books as the people who propel them. A multi-award-winning author, continually reaching New York Times and USA TODAY lists, she's glad to work in several venues, including vampire, historical, ghost and suspense. Whatever time or place she's dealing in, Graham loves to keep her readers on edge. With The Face in the Window she takes characters from her thriller, The Island, and sets them in the midst of an unexpected storm with unexpected consequences.
THE FACE IN THE WINDOW
Lightning flashed. Thunder cracked.
It might have been the end of the world.
And there, cast eerily in the window, pressed against it, was a face. The eyes were red; they seemed to glow, like demon eyes. There was a split second when it seemed the storm had cast up the very devil to come for her.
Startled, Beth Henson let out a scream, backing away from the image, almost tripping over the coffee table behind her. The brilliant illumination created by the lightning faded to black, and along with it, the image of the face.
Beyond the window, darkness reigned again.
A lantern burned on the table, a muted glow against the shadowed darkness of night. The storm had long since blown out the electricity as it should have removed other inhabitants from the area. The wind railed with the sharpness of a banshee's shriek, even though the hurricane had wound down to tropical-storm strength before descending upon the lower Florida Keys.
Instinctive terror reigned in Beth's heart for several long seconds, then compassion overrode it. Someone was out there, drenched and frightened in the storm. She had gone to the window to see if she could find any sign of Keith. He had left her when their last phone communication with the sheriff had warned them that Mrs. Peterson-one of the few full-time residents of the tiny key-had failed to evacuate. She wouldn't leave for a shelter, not when the shelters wouldn't allow her to bring Cocoa, her tiny Yorkie. Okay, so Cocoa could be a pain, but she and Keith could understand the elderly woman's love for her pup and companion, and Beth had convinced Keith they could listen to a bit of barking.
The appearance of the face in the window was followed by a banging on the door. Beth jumped again, startled. For a moment, she froze. What if it was a serial killer? Normally, she would never just open a door to anyone.
But the pounding continued, along with a cry for help. She sprang into action, chiding herself. Someone was out there who needed shelter from the storm. Some idiot tourist without the sense to evacuate when told to. And if that someone died because she was too frightened to give aid in an emergency…
And how ridiculous. Sure, the world had proven to be a rough place, with heinous and conniving criminals. But to assume a serial killer was running around in the midst of what might have been a killer storm was just ludicrous.
She hurried forward, hand firmly on the door as she opened it against the power of the wind. Again, compassion surged through her as the soaked and bedraggled man came staggering in, desperately gasping for breath. He was a thin man with dark, wet hair that clung to his face and the back of his neck. When he looked at Beth, his eyes were wide and terrified. He offered her a faltering smile. "God bless you! You really must be an angel!" he cried.
Beth drew the quilted throw from the sofa and wrapped it around the man's shoulders, demanding, "What were you doing out there? How could you not have heard the evacuation orders issued for all tourists?"
He looked at her sheepishly. "Please, don't throw me back out," he told her. "I admit, I was on a bender in Key West." He staggered to his feet. "When I realized we were told to go, I started out, but my car was literally blown off the road. Then I saw light. Faint light-your place. God must look after fools. I mean…if you don't throw me out." He was tall and wiry, perhaps about thirty. She realized, when not totally bedraggled, he was surely a striking young fellow, with his brilliant blue eyes and dark hair.
"I'm not going to throw you out," she told him.
He offered her a hand suddenly. "I'm Mark Egan. A musician. Maybe you've heard of my group? We're called Ultra C. Our first CD just hit the stores, and we were playing the bars down in Key West. You haven't heard of me-or us?" he said, disappointed.
"No, I'm afraid I haven't."
"That's okay, I guess most of the world hasn't," he said.
"Maybe my husband will have heard of you. He's in Key West often and he really loves to listen to local groups."
He offered her his engaging grin once again. "It doesn't mat-ter-you're still wonderful. You're an angel-wow, gorgeous, too."
"Thanks. I can give you something dry to put on. My husband is somewhat larger than you are, but I'm sure you can make do."
"Your husband? Is he here?"
She felt a moment's unease. "Yes, of course. He's just.bat-tening down a few things. He's around, close," she said.
"I hope he doesn't stay out too long. It's brutal. Hey, you guys don't keep a car here?" he asked.
An innocent question? she wondered.
"Yes, we have a car," she said, determined not to explain further. "I'm Beth Henson," she said, and offered him a hand. They shook. His grip was more powerful than what she had expected. "Hang on, I'll get you those clothes," she said.
She picked up one of the flashlights and headed for the bedroom. She couldn't help looking over her shoulder, afraid that he had followed her. He hadn't. She went to the closet and decided on an old pair of Keith's jeans and a T-shirt. Best she could do. She brought them back out and handed them to the dripping man. "Bathroom is the first door on the left, and here's a flashlight."
"Thanks. Truly, you are an angel!" he said, and walked down the hall.
Keith's friends liked to make fun of him for the Hummer. Hell, Beth liked to rib him about it, shaking her head with bemused tolerance as she did so. It was a gas guzzler. Not at all eco-friendly. It was a testosterone thing, a macho thing he felt he had to have. He mused he could now knock it all back in their faces- the Hummer was heavy enough to make it through the wind, tough enough to crawl through the flooding.
So there, guys. Testosterone? Maybe. But Beth had been the one who had been worried sick about Mrs. Peterson. She had been worried sick again when he had left to retrieve Mrs. Peterson and the dog. She'd wanted to come; he'd convinced her that if she was home, he wouldn't be worried about her in the storm as well.
He fiddled with the knob on the radio again, trying to get something to come in. At last, he did. He expected the news stations in the south of the state to be carrying nothing but storm coverage-even if the storm had lost momentum.
".serial killer on the loose. Authorities suspect that he headed south just before evacuation notices went into effect." Static, damn! Then, "Parker managed to disappear, 'as if into thin air,' according to Lieutenant Abner Gretsky, prison guard. Downed poles and electrical failures have made pursuit and apprehension difficult. John Parker was found guilty in the slaying of Patricia Reeves of Miramar last year. He is suspected of the murders of at least seven other women in the southeastern states. He is a man of approximately-"
Keith couldn't believe it when another earful of static slammed him instead of statistics on the man. Headed south?
Not this far south. Only a suicidal maniac would have attempted to drive down into the dark and treacherous keys when a storm of any magnitude was in gear. Still, it felt as if icy fingers slid down his throat to his heart. Beth was alone at the house.
He was tempted to turn back instantly. But Mrs. Peterson's trailer was just ahead now. All he had to do was grab the old woman, hop back in the Hummer and turn around.
The first thing he noted was that her old Plymouth wasn't in the drive.
He hesitated, then reached in the glove compartment for the.38 Smith & Wesson he was licensed to carry. He exited the car, swearing against the savage pelting of the rain.
"Mrs. Peterson!" he roared, approaching the trailer. Damn, the woman was lucky the thing hadn't blown over yet. He could hear the dog barking. Yappy little creature, but hell, it was everything in the world to the elderly widow.
"Mrs. Peterson!" He pounded on the door. There was no response. He hesitated, then tried the knob. The door was open.
He walked in. Mrs. Peterson's purse was on the coffee table. Cocoa could be heard but not seen. "Mrs. Peterson?"
The trailer was small. There was nowhere to hide in the living room or kitchen. He tried her sewing room, and then, not sure why, he hesitated at the door to her bedroom. He slipped the Smith & Wesson from his waistband, took a stance and threw open the door.
Nothing. No one. He breathed a sigh of relief, then spun around at a flurry of sound. Cocoa came flying out from beneath the bed.
The small dog managed to jump into his arms, terrified. As Keith clutched the animal, he heard a noise from the front, and headed back out.
A drenched man in what was surely supposed to be a water-proofjacket stood just inside the doorway. "Aunt Dot?" he called.
The fellow was about thirty years old. Dark hair was plastered to his head. He stood about six feet even. He saw Keith standing with the gun and cried out, stunned and frightened.
"Who are you?" Keith demanded.
"Joe. I'm Joe Peterson. Dot Peterson's nephew," he explained. "How did you get here?"
"Walked." The fellow swallowed. "My car broke down. Um…where's my aunt?" he inquired. "You tell me," Keith demanded warily.
"I.I don't know. I was on my way down here.the car gave out. Man, I went through some deep flooding…walked the rest of the way here. Um, who are you and why are you aiming a gun at me?" There was definite fear in his voice. "Wait, no, never mind. I don't want to know your name. Hey, if you're taking anything, go ahead. I'll just walk back out into the storm. I'll look for my aunt."
"We'll look for her together," Keith said.
He indicated that Joe should walk back out. The fellow hesitated uneasily and then voiced an anxious question. "Aunt Dot-tie.she's really not here?"
Keith shook his head. "Move."
Joe moved toward the door. "Back out into the storm?" he demanded.
Keith nodded grimly. Outside, he put the dog in the car, stuck the gun in his waistband and opened the driver's side. "Get in," he shouted to Joe Peterson.
"Maybe I should wait here," Peterson shouted back.
"Maybe we should look for your aunt!"
They both got into the car. Cocoa scampered to the back seat, whimpering. Keith eased the Hummer out of the drive. "Search the sides of the road, see if she drove off somehow!" Keith commanded.
"Search the side of the road?" Peterson repeated. He looked at Keith so abruptly that water droplets flew from his face and hood. "I can't see a damn road! It's all gray."
"Look for a darker gray blob in the middle of the gray then," Keith said.
The windshield wipers were working hard, doing little.
But then he saw it. Something just barely visible. Peering forward more closely, he saw the Plymouth. It had gone off the road heading south.
Keith stared at Peterson, drew out the gun and warned the man, "Sit still."
"Right, yeah, right!" Peterson said nervously, staring at the gun.
Keith stepped from the car. He sloshed through the flooded road to the mucky embankment. He looked in the front and saw nothing. Why would the old lady, who always held tight to her handbag, have left the purse on the table when she was taking off in her own car?
Fighting against the wind, he opened the front doors and the back. No sign of a struggle, of a person, of.anything. Then he noted the trunk. It was ajar. He lifted the lid. And found Mrs. Peterson.
"So.you live out here, year-round?" "No. This is just a vacation home." "Lonely place," he said.
Beth shrugged. "We live in Coconut Grove, but actually spend a lot of time down here. My husband is a diver." "A professional diver?"
Beth could have explained that Keith's work went much further than simple diving, that his contracts often had to do with the government or law enforcement, but she didn't want to ex-plain-she wasn't sure why. Her uninvited guest had changed his clothing. He was warm and dry. She had given him a brandy, and he had been nothing but polite and entirely circumspect. The unease of having let someone into her house hadn't abated, although she didn't know why. This guy seemed to be as benign as a hibiscus bush.
"Um, yes. He's a professional diver," she agreed.
"Great," he said, grinning. He pointed a finger at her. "Didn't you get that original evacuation notice?"
"We got it, but this place was built in the mid-1800s. It's weathered many a storm. The evacuation wasn't mandatory for residents-only visitors." She was pleased to hear a sudden burst of static and she leaped to her feet. "The radio! I don't know why, my batteries are new, but I wasn't getting anything on it. And the cell phones right now are a total joke." She offered him a rueful smile and went running through the hall for the kitchen, at the back of the house.
"…be on the lookout.extremely dangerous."
She nearly skidded to a stop as she heard the words come from the radio on the dining table.
Like a stick figure, she moved over to the table, staring at the radio. It had gone to static again. She picked it up and shook it, feeling dizzy, ill.
".suspected to be running south, into the keys."
"Turn it off!"
Beth looked up. Her guest had followed her from the living room to the kitchen. He stood in the doorway, hands tightly gripping the wood frame as he stared at her. His eyes were wild, red-rimmed.
Like they had appeared when she'd first seen his face in the window. And there was a serial killer loose in the keys…
Mrs. Peterson was trussed up like a fresh kill, wrists and ankles bound, a gag around her mouth. There was no blood, and though her linen pants and shirt were muddied and soaked, there were no signs of violence on her. Keith checked for any sign of life. Her body was so cold.
But she was alive. He felt a faint pulse and snapped open the blade on the Swiss Army knife attached to his key chain. He cut the tight gag from her mouth and then the ropes binding her.
He didn't know if she had broken bones or internal injuries. She could wind up with pneumonia or worse, but this wasn't the kind of situation that left him much choice. He hoisted her fragile body from the trunk and returned to the car, staggering against the wind. He shouted for Joe Peterson to help, but there was no response. He managed to wrench open the rear door of the vehicle on his own.
"Dammit! Why didn't you help?" he demanded of his passenger, depositing his human burden as best he could.
There was no answer, other than Cocoa's excited woofs. His passenger had disappeared.
"You're right!" Beth managed to say, forcing her frozen mind into action. "The storm is rough enough. Let's not listen to bad news!" She turned the radio off.
"Hey, I have a Sterno pot, if you're hungry. I can whip up something."
He shook his head, not moving, staring at her with his red-rimmed eyes. You've been through worse than this! she reminded herself.
Yes! When she had met Keith, when there had been a skull in the sand, when she had become far too curious…
Toughen up! she chastised herself. You've come through before!
"I think I'll make myself something." Stay calm. Appear confident. How did one deal with a serial killer? She tried to remember all the sage things that had been said, recommendations from the psychiatrists who had spent endless hours talking with killers that had been incarcerated. Talk. Yes. Just keep talking…
Then she remembered her husband's own words of caution. If you ever pull out a gun, intend to use it. If you find that you have to shoot, shoot to kill.
She didn't have a gun.
But then again, there was another question.
What if he wasn't the serial killer? Just because she had found herself alone with this man and heard that there was a killer on the loose, did that mean this man was the one?
Weapon! She needed some kind of weapon.
And would it be the same? If you ever pull out a gun, intend to use it. Would that work with, if you ever pull out a frying pan, intend to use it?
She reached into one of the shelves for a can of Sterno and matches, trying to pretend the man who now looked like a psycho and stood in the door frame-still just staring at her-wasn't doing so. She forced herself to hum as she lit the Sterno, and then reached for the frying pan. She held it as she rummaged through the cabinet.
Then she felt him coming nearer.
Her back was to him, he was making no sound. The air around her seemed to be the only hint of his stealth.
She pretended to keep staring at the objects in the cabinet.
He was next to her, before her, staring at her, starting to smile.
She swung the frying pan around with all of her might. She caught him on the side of his skull, and the pan seemed to reverberate in her hands. He was still there, still standing, just staring at her.
He reached out.
She screamed as his hands fell upon her shoulders.
The flooding had grown worse. Still, Keith had no choice but to trust in his knowledge of the area and his instincts. He took the turn-off, then said a silent prayer of relief as the tires found the gravel and rock of his driveway.
The man calling himself Joe Peterson was missing. He had run from the car. Leaving his aunt. There was only one house in the area-his. And Beth was in it.
Something streaked out of the windblown brush and pines that lined the drive.
Someone ahead of him, making his way to the house.
Mark Egan's hands fell upon Beth's shoulders. His eyes met hers.
They held a dazed and questioning look.
He sank slowly to the floor in front of her, trying to catch hold of her to prevent his fall. She stepped back, then turned to flee.
His hand, his grip still incredibly strong, wound around her ankle. She fell, stunned. She still had her frying pan.
Never pull out a frying pan unless you intend to use it!
She raised it to strike again. She didn't need to. The vise of his fingers around her ankle eased. She scurried to the far side of the kitchen floor, staring at him. Was he dead? She inched ever so slightly closer on her knees, frying pan raised to strike.
He didn't move.
She remained still, desperately thinking. She loathed a movie wherein the victim had the attacker down-then just ran, eschewing the idea that a killer might rise again. She lifted the pan to strike again, then gritted her teeth in agony.
What if she was wrong? What if he was just a drugged-out musician?
She looked around the kitchen, desperate to find something. She saw what she needed. A bottom cabinet was just slightly ajar. She saw an extension cord. The good thing about spending her life around the water and boats was that she could tie one sturdy knot.
She scrambled for the extension cord and turned back to tie up her victim. To her astonishment, he had risen.
He was staring at her again.
His eyes were no longer dazed.
They were deadly.
The elements were still raging. The area in front of the house looked like a lake. Keith knew if he left the old lady in the car, he might well be signing her death certificate. He fought the temptation to leave her, to rush out in a panic, thinking only of his wife.
The dog was yapping.
"Cocoa, if you don't shut up.!" Keith warned.
To his astonishment, the Yorkie sat still, staring at him gravely. Keith opened the door, reached into the back, picked up his human burden. Cocoa barked once-just reminding Keith he was there. "Come on, then!" he said, and Cocoa jumped up, landing on the old woman's stomach. Keith hurried toward the house. Was the man in the trailer really just the old woman's nephew-who had run because of him? Or was he a killer? What if he were in the house, if he had come upon Beth…?
Keith made his way to the front door.
Run. There was no other option.
The rear door was at the back of the kitchen. She ran; he was right behind her.
When she opened the door, the wind rushed in with a rage. She had been ready. He hadn't. The door slammed shut in his face.
Beth ran out into the storm.
Keith burst into the house, Mrs. Peterson in his arms, Cocoa on top of her.
To his astonishment, a man staggered out of the kitchen. Wearing his clothes. The fellow stared at him like an escapee from the nearest mental institute.
He was unarmed.
Keith quickly strode to the sofa to deposit Mrs. Peterson. Cocoa stayed on her stomach-growling. Keith pulled his gun from his waistband. "Whoa!" the man said. "Where's my wife?" Keith barked.
"She hit me with a frying pan and ran out!" the man said. "Oh my God, I've been rescued by loonies!" he wailed. "She hits me-now you're going to shoot me?"
"Who the hell are you?" Keith barked.
"Mark Egan." He sighed, rubbing his hand. "I'm a musician. What is the matter with you people?"
Holding his gun on the intruder, loath to take his eyes from him, Keith draped a throw, tossed on the back of the rocker, over Mrs. Peterson. "Get in there," he ordered, indicating the guest room. "Now!"
"I'm going!" the man said, lifting a hand. He sidled against the wall, heading for the room. The lantern caused ominous shadows to invade the house.
"You know, you're crazy," he said softly. "You're both crazy!"
"If you've hurt her, I'm going to take you apart piece by piece."
"She attacked me!" the fellow protested.
"Get in there!"
It was then they both heard the scream, long and sharp, rising above the lashing sound of wind and rain.
The shed had seemed to offer the only escape from the violent elements, and she could arm herself there. Their shed held scuba equipment; she could grab a diving knife.
She couldn't get the door to open at first because of the wind. At last, it gave.
An ebony darkness greeted her.
She slipped inside, reaching in her pocket for the matches with which she had lit the Sterno. Her hands were shaking, wet and cold.
Her first attempt was futile. She was wet; she had to stop dripping on the matches.
At last, she got a match lit.
There, in the brief illumination of flame, was a face.
Flesh pasty white.
Hand gripping a diver's knife.
"Don't scream!" she heard.
Keith sped out of the house.
He was forced to pause, slightly disoriented. The wind and rain were loud, skewing sounds around him. Then he realized that the scream had to have come from the shed, and he raced in that direction, his gun drawn. He wrenched the door open. There was darkness within.
"Put the gun down!" came a throaty, masculine reply.
Beth appeared. Soaked, hair plastered around her beautiful face. There was a man behind her. The fellow who had claimed to be Joe Peterson. He had a knife, and it was against Beth's throat as he emerged.
"Put the gun down!" Peterson raged again.
"Let go of my wife," Keith commanded, forcing himself to be calm.
"You'll kill me. He's not sane at all, did you know that?" the man demanded of Beth.
She stared hard at Keith, eyes wide on his. He frowned. She seemed to be trying to tell him she was all right. Insane, yes, it was all insane, there was a knife against her throat.
"We're all getting soaked out here. Let's go back to the house. Keith, did you know we had another visitor?" she asked, as if there wasn't honed steel pressing her flesh.
"I've seen him."
"Where's Mrs. Peterson?" she asked.
"He tried to kill her-stuffed her into the trunk of her car," Keith said. "She's on our sofa now. And, uh, your guest is in the house. I imagine."
"I did not try to kill Aunt Dot! You had to be the one!" Peterson protested, the knife twitching in his hand.
"Let's get to the house," Beth said again. "Mr. Peterson, I'll walk ahead of you, and Keith will walk ahead of us."
Keith frowned fiercely at her.
"Yeah, all right, go!" Peterson said.
Keith started forward uneasily. There was one man in the house, and another behind him with a knife to Beth's throat. There was no doubt one of them was a murderer.
He entered the house. The door had been left open. Rain had blown in.
He was followed by Beth. And the man with the knife.
Mrs. Peterson remained as a lump on the sofa; nothing more than a dark blob in the shadows. Cocoa, however, was no longer with her. He had run to the far side of the room, and wasn't even yapping. He hugged the wall, near the guest-room door, whining pathetically as they entered.
"There was another fellow with us, too, a musician. Plays for a group called Ultra C," Beth said to Peterson. She swallowed carefully before looking at Keith again. "What happened to him? He was, uh, in the house when I left."
They heard a sound of distress. It was Joe Peterson. He was staring at the lump on the sofa.
"Mr. Peterson," Keith said softly. "I'm not going to shoot you. But you are going to get that knife away from my wife's throat this instant."
Beth pushed Peterson's arm, stepping away from him. Peterson barely reacted. He stared at the sofa. "God! Is she dead?" he asked.
Cocoa whined. Beth stared at Keith, shaking but relieved. "Cocoa," she said softly. "Well, I could have been wrong, but if this man had attacked Mrs. Peterson, the dog would be barking right now."
"Aunt Dot!" Peterson said numbly.
"She isn't dead-wasn't dead," Keith said. He looked at Beth. "So it's your musician."
"You realized it, too. But-"
"He's out there somewhere. And we'll have that to deal with. But for the moment.we've got to try to keep Mrs. Peterson alive."
"Keith, would you get me some brandy and the ammonia from the kitchen?" Beth asked. "We'll see if we can rouse her. Then we can try to make it to the hospital." She grimaced. "With the Hummer."
Keith walked to the kitchen, then stopped, pausing to pick up the frying pan that lay on the floor. He froze in his tracks as he heard a startled scream rise above the pounding of the rain. He turned to race back to the living room, then came to a dead stop.
Their living room had been pitched into absolute darkness.
Terror struck deep into Beth's heart. She had pulled back the blanket, anxious to be there first, to assure herself that the woman hadn't died.
A hand snaked out for her from beneath the cover, dragging her down with a ferocity that was astounding. Fingers wound around her throat and she was tossed about as if she weighed nothing.
Egan. Mark Egan. Drugged-out musician. No. Psychotic killer.
She saw his deranged grin right before he doused the lantern, holding her in the vise of his one hand like a rag doll.
"What ya gonna do, big man?" a throaty voice called out in the darkness, next to her ear. "Shoot me-you might kill her. Don't come after me, or she's dead."
Beth tensed every muscle. She didn't know if the man had a weapon or not, anything more than the hideous strength of his hands.
She could hear nothing other than the wind and rain. Stars began to burst into the darkness as his grip choked her. There was no sound of voice. No sound of movement.
Not even Cocoa let out a whine.
Then there was a muffled groan. Not Keith, the sound had not come from Keith! It was Peterson who had groaned. So…where was Keith?
"That's right," Egan-or whoever he was-said. "You stay right where you are. The missus and I are going to take the car. Your car. We'll go for a little ride. Will she be all right? Who knows? But try to stop me now, and you'll probably kill her yourself."
He began to drag her toward the door. He chuckled softly. "I don't see too badly in the dark. I like the dark."
They were nearly there; she could sense it. He threw open the door. Her heart was thundering so that she didn't hear the whoosh of motion at first.
She gasped, the air knocked from her as the whoosh became an impetus of muscle and movement. Keith. He flew into them from the porch side, taking both her and Egan by storm and surprise. She twisted. Egan's grip had been loosened by the fall. She bit into his wrist. The man howled, then went rolling away as he and Keith became engaged in a fierce physical battle.
Cocoa began to bark excitedly. She felt the little dog run over her hand and begin to growl. Egan cried out in pain again. She could hear Cocoa wrenching and tearing at something-Egan. In pain or not, Egan was still wrestling on the floor with vehemence. Rain washed in from the open doorway. The faintest light showed through, glittering on something.
The frying pan.
She picked it up, and in the darkness, desperately tried to ascertain her husband's form from that of the killer. She saw a head rise-
She nearly struck.
The other head was on the ground. There was a hand around Keith's throat, fingers tightening.
Blindly, she slammed the frying pan down toward the floor. A scream was emitted…
She struck again. And again.
And then arms reached out for her.
"It's all right now. It's all right."
The lantern was lit. Good old Cocoa was in the bedroom, standing guard over Mrs. Peterson who-despite having been dumped unceremoniously on the floor-was still alive and breathing. Her nephew, Joe Peterson, was tending to her.
Keith hadn't moved the form on the floor yet. Beth didn't know if he was dead or alive, but he wouldn't be blithely getting up this time.
She'd seen his face. Before Keith had covered it with the throw.
"Is it…him? The serial killer?" she said.
"I think so," Keith murmured, slipping an arm tightly around her shoulders.
"But you knew it wasn't Peterson when I did."
He turned to her, a pained and rueful smile just curving his lips. "Because anyone who spends any time in Key West knows that Ultra C is an all-girl band," he said softly.
"I told him you knew music," she said.
They both jumped, hearing the sudden loud blare of a horn. A second later there was a pounding on the door.
Keith, still gripping his gun, strode to it, pulling it open. Andy Fairmont, from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, was there.
"Jesus!" Andy shouted. "There's a serial killer on the loose! Have you heard?"
Keith looked at Beth. She shrugged, and turned to Andy. "Never pull out a frying pan unless you intend to use it," she said gravely.
"You'd better come in, Andy," Keith said, and he set his arm around his wife's shoulders again, pulling her close.
James Siegel says the most common question he's asked by readers is, Where do you get your ideas? His standard answer is, I don't know-do you have any? The real answer, of course, is, Everywhere. Siegel tends to write about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Being a self-described "ordinary person," Siegel doesn't find it hard to place himself in the protagonist's shoes. Riding the Long Island railroad for instance-where attractive women would sometimes occupy the seat beside him-sent Siegel into reveries of what if? That ended up as Derailed-the story of an ordinary ad guy whose life goes awry when he meets a woman on the train. Adopting kids in Colombia gave him the notion for Detour, where an adoption goes terribly, murderously wrong. And then there was the day he was lying in a massage room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The masseuse touched his neck and said, What's bothering you? Siegel's response: How do you know something's bothering me? And she said, Because I'm an empath.
Siegel was puzzled.
An empath? What's that?
I sit in a dark motel room.
It's pitch-black outside, but I've pulled the shades down tight anyway, so she won't see me when she walks in. So she'll be sure to turn away from me to switch on the light.
I don't like the dark.
I live on Scotch and Ambien so I never have to stare at it, because sooner or later it becomes the dark of the confessional and I'm eight years old again. I can smell the garlic on his breath and hear the rustle of his clothing. For a moment, I'm a shy, sweet-natured, baseball-crazy boy again, and I physically shrink away from what's coming.
Then everything turns red and the world's on fire.
I look back in anger, because anger is what I've become-a fist of a man.
Anger is what cost me my home, and anger is what put me into court-ordered therapy, and anger is what finally kicked me off the LAPD and into hotel security, where I can be angry without killing anyone.
You've heard of the hotel I work in. It's considered top-shelf and is patronized by various Hollywood wannabes and occasional bona fide celebrities. As downward spirals go, mine hasn't sucked me to the bottom yet, only to Beverly and Doheny.
I get to wear a suit and earpiece, something like a Secret Service man. I get to stand around and look semi-important and even give orders to the hotel employees who don't get to wear suits.
She was a masseuse in the hotel spa.
She was known for her deep-tissue and hot stone. I first talked to her in the basement alcove where I went to be alone-but I'd noticed her before that. I'd heard the music seeping out of her room on my way to the back elevators, and when she entered the basement to grab a smoke, I complimented her on her taste. Most of the hotel masseuses were partial to Enya, to Eastern sitar or the monotonous sound of waves lapping sand. Not her. She played the Joneses-Rickie Lee and Nora and Quincy, too, on occasion.
"Do your customers like it?" I asked her. She shrugged. "I don't know. Most of them are just trying to not get a hard-on."
"Occupational hazard, I guess?"
She was pretty, certainly. But there was something else, a palpable aura that made it feel humid even in full-blast air-conditioning.
I believe she noticed the ugly swelling on the knuckles of my right hand, and the place in the wall where I'd dented it.
"No. Pretty ordinary."
She reached out and touched my face, fanning her fingers across my right cheek. Which is more or less when she told me she was an empath.
I won't lie and tell you that I knew what an empath was.
A look had come over her when she touched my face-as if she'd felt that part of me which I rarely touch myself, and then only in the dark before the Johnny Walker has worked its magic.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"For whatever did this to you."
This is what an empath can do-their special gift. Or curse, depending on the day.
I learned all about empaths from her over the next few weeks. As we talked in the basement, or bumped into each other on the way into the hotel, or grabbed smokes outside on the corner.
Empaths touch and know. They feel skin and bone but they touch soul. They see through their hands. Everything-the good, the bad and the truly ugly.
She saw more ugly than she wanted to.
The ugliness had begun to get to her, to send her into a very dark place.
It was one of her customers, she explained.
"Mostly I just see emotions," she confided, "you know, happiness, sadness, fear-longing-all that. But sometimes…sometimes I see more…I know who they are, understand?"
"No. Not really."
"This guy-he's a regular. The first time I touched him, I had to pull my hands away. It was that strong." "What?"
"The sense of evil. Like touching-I don't know…a black hole." "What kind of evil are we talking about?" "The worst."
Later, she told me more. We were sitting in a bar on Sunset having drinks. Our first date, I guess. "He hurts kids," she said.
I felt that special nausea. The kind that used to subsume me back in the confessional, when he would come for me, that dark wraith of hurt. The nausea that came when my little brother dutifully followed me into altar-boyhood and I kept my mouth zipped tight like a secret pocket. Don't tell…don't tell. There's a price for not telling. It was paid years later, on the afternoon I found my sweet, sad brother hanging from a belt in our childhood bedroom. Over his teenage years, he'd furiously sought solace in various narcotics, but they could only do so much.
"How do you know?" I asked Kelly.
"I know. He's going to do something. He's done it before."
When I told her she might want to report him to the police, she shot me the look you give to intellectually challenged children.
"Tell them I'm an empath? That I feel one of my clients is a pedophile? That'll go over well."
She was right, of course. They'd laugh her out of the station.
It was maybe a week later, after this customer had come and gone from his regular appointment and Kelly was looking particularly miserable, that I volunteered to keep an eye on him.
We were lying in my bed, having taken our relationship to the next level as they say, both of us using sex as a kind of opiate, I think-a way to forget things.
"His next appointment?" I asked her. "When is it?"
"Tuesday at two."
I waited outside the pool area where the clients saunter out looking sleepy and satiated. He looked frazzled and anxious. She'd slipped out of the room while he undressed to tell me what he was wearing that day. She needn't have bothered-I would've known him anyway.
He carried his burden like a heavy bag.
When he got into the Volvo brought out from the hotel-parking garage, I was already waiting in my car.
I followed him onto the 101, then into the valley. We exited onto a wide boulevard and stayed on it for about five miles, finally making a turn at the School Crossing sign.
He parked by the playground and sat there in his car. It came back.
The paralytic sickness that made me want to crawl into a ball.
I stayed in the front seat and watched as he exited the car and sidled up to the fence. As he took his glasses off and wiped them on the pocket of his pants. As he scoped out the crowd of elementary-school kids flowing out the front gate. As his attention seemed to fixate on one particular boy-a fourth-grader maybe, a sweet-looking kid who reminded me of someone. As he began to follow this boy down the street, edging closer and closer the way lions separate calves from the herd. I watched and felt every bit as powerless and inert as I did back when my brother bounded down the steps of our house on the way to his first communion.
I couldn't move.
He stepped up behind the boy and began conversing with him. I didn't have to see the boy's face to know what it looked like. The man reached out and grabbed the boy by the arm and I still sat there in the front seat of my car.
It was only when the boy broke away, when he turned and ran, when the man took a few halting steps toward him and then slumped, gave up-that I actually moved.
Anger was my enemy. Anger was my long-lost friend. It came in one red-hot surge, sending the sickness scurrying away in terror, propelling me out of the car, ready to finally protect him.
Joseph, I whispered.
My brother's name.
The man slipped back into his car and drove away. I stood there with my heart colliding against my ribs.
That night, I told Kelly what I was going to do.
We lay in bed covered in sweat, and I told her that I needed to do this. The anger had come back and claimed me, wrapped me in its comforting bosom and said, You're home.
I waited at the school the next afternoon, and the one after that. I waited all week.
He came the next Monday-parking his Volvo directly across from the playground.
When he got out, I was standing there to ask him if he could point me toward Fourth Street. When he turned and motioned over there, I placed the gun up against his back.
"If you make a sound, you're dead."
He promptly wilted. He mumbled something about just taking his money, and I told him to shut up.
He entered my car as docile as a lamb.
A mother stared at us as we drove away.
I went to a place in the valley that I'd used before, when the redness came and made me do certain things to suspects with big mouths and awful resumes. Things that got me tossed off the force and into mandated anger management where the class applauded when I said I'd learned to count to ten and avoid my triggers. Triggers were the things that set me off-there was an entire canon of them.
Men in collar and vestment. That was trigger number one.
We had to walk over a quarter of a mile to the sandpit. They'd turned it into a dumping ground filled with water the color of mud.
"Why?" he said to me when I made him stand there at the lip of the pit.
Because when I was eight years old, I was turned inside out. Because I killed my brother as surely as if I'd tied that belt around his neck and kicked away the chair. That's why.
His body flew into the subterranean tangle of junk and disappeared.
Because you deserve it.
When I showed up at work the next day, she wasn't there. I wanted to let her know; I wanted to ease her burden. When I called her cell-she didn't answer.
I asked hotel personnel for her address-we'd always slept at my place because she had a roommate. Two days later I went to her second-floor flat in Ventura and knocked on the door.
I found the landlord puttering around the backyard, mostly crabgrass, dandelions and dirt.
"Have you seen Kelly?" I asked him.
"She's gone," he said without really looking up.
"Gone? Gone where? Gone to the store?"
"No. Gone. Not here anymore."
"What are you talking about? Where'd she go?"
He shrugged. "She didn't leave an address. Her and the kid just left."
He finally looked up.
"Her kid. Her son. Who are you, exactly?"
"Okay, Kelly's friend. She took the kid and left. That lowlife of a boyfriend picked them up. End of story."
I will tell you that I still did not understand what happened.
I will tell you that I went back to the hotel and calmly contemplated the situation. That when another masseuse walked out of her room-Trudy, one of the girls Kelly used to talk to-I said tell me about Kelly. She's an empath, I said.
"An empath. She touches people and knows things about them."
"Yeah. That they're horny and out of shape."
"She knows what they're feeling-what kind of people they are."
"Ha. Who told you that? Kelly?"
I still didn't understand.
Even with Trudy staring at me as if I'd arrived from a distant galaxy. Even then, I refused to grasp what was right there. "Kelly has a son," I said.
"Uh-huh. Nice kid, too. No thanks to her. Okay, that's not fair. She just needs to develop better taste in men."
"You mean the father?"
"No. I mean the boyfriend. She's got a dope problem-she's always doing it, and she's always doing them. Dopes." "What about the father?"
"Nah, he's kind of nice actually. A real job and everything. She dumped him naturally. He's fighting her for custody."
"Maybe he doesn't think junkies are the best company for an eight-year-old. And she's always trying to poison the kid against him. It's a fucking shame. You should've heard them going at it in the Tranquillity Room last week."
"Last week…when? What day?"
"I don't know. He comes by to drop off money for the kid. Tuesday, I think."
Now it was coming. And it wouldn't stop coming.
"What time Tuesday?"
"I don't know. After lunch. Why?"
Look at it. It wants you to look at it.
Tuesday, I think. After lunch.
"What does he look like, Trudy?"
"Geez…I don't know. About your height, I guess. Glasses. He didn't look too fucking terrific after seeing her. She told him she was going to take the kid and disappear if he didn't drop the whole custody thing. You know what I think? Her boyfriend wants that child support."
About your height. Glasses.
Don't look. Do not look.
Tuesday. After lunch.
When he argued with her in the meditation room, and then walked out looking anxious and upset.
When he drove to his son's school.
When he tried to tell him that he was fighting for him and to please not believe the things his mother said about him. When he reached out to make the boy listen, but his son pulled away because all that poison had done its work.
"The boy," I said. "He has brown hair. Cut real short-like a crew. He's sweet looking."
"Yeah. That's him."
I'm an empath, she said. I'm touching this bad man, this sexual predator, and what can I do about it-nothing, because the police won't believe an empath like me. He's coming Tuesday at two, but what can I do? Nothing.
How did she pick me?
Because she'd made me open that secret pocket.
Because one day they'd pointed me out to her-one of the masseuses-oh him, stay away, an ex-cop who used to beat people half to death.
But she didn't stay away-she came down to the basement room where I punched holes in the wall. She talked to me. And then I ripped that pocket wide open for her and spilled my dreadful secrets all across the bed.
My brother. My guilt. My anger.
A kind of religion with one acolyte, and one commandment. Vengeance is yours.
He's a bad man, she said. He's coming Tuesday at two. Tuesday. At two.
This man who loved his son. Who was simply trying to protect him. From her.
Why, he said, standing at the top of that sandpit. Why? Because anger is as blind as love, and she gave me both.
I will tell you that a drought took hold of L.A. and turned the brush in the Malibu hills to kindling. That twenty-million-dollar homes went up in smoke. That the drought dried up half the Salton Sea and sucked the water right out of that dump, and that a man disposing of his GE washing machine saw the body wrapped around an old engine casing.
I will tell you that he was ID'd and the bullet in his heart identified as a Walther.45-the kind security guards are partial to, and that a mother came forward and said she'd seen him being coerced into a car near her son's school by another man.
I will tell you that the wheels of justice were grinding and turning and rolling inexorably toward me.
I will tell you that I am not liked much by the police officers I once worked with, but there is a code that is sometimes thick as blood. That makes an ex-partner whom you almost took down with you get hold of bank records so you might know where a Kelly Marcel has been using her VISA card.
I will tell you that there's a motel somewhat south of La Jolla where the down-and-out pay by the week.
I will tell you that I drove there.
That I saw her drop the boy at his grandmother's, who lived in a trailer park by the sea.
That the boyfriend took off for parts unknown. That it's down to her.
I will tell you that I sit in a dark motel room.
That I've pulled the shades down tight so she won't see me when she walks in. So she'll be sure to turn away from me to switch on the light.
I will tell you that I hear her now, the slam of her car door, the crunch of gravel leading up to her door.
I will tell you that my Walther.45 has two bullets in it. Two.
I will tell you the door is opening.
I will tell you that finally and at last the dark no longer scares me, that there is a peace more comforting than anger. "I'm sorry," I say. Who do I say this to? This I won't tell you. I won't.
James Rollins's Sandstorm (2003) and Map of Bones (2004), were departures from his usual work. His prior thrillers were all stand-alones, with a separate cast of characters. But in these two, Rollins introduced his first series with recurring characters. He pursued that course based on input from his readers and from personal desire. For years, fans had contacted him and asked questions about various cast members from his earlier thrillers. What became of Ashley and Ben's baby after Subterranean (1999)? What is the next port of call for the crew of the Deep Fathom (2001)?
Eventually, Rollins came to realize that he wanted to know those answers, too. So he challenged himself to construct a series-something unique and distinct. He wanted to build a landscape of three-dimensional characters and create his own mythology of these people, to watch them grow over the course of the series, balancing personal lives and professional, some succeeding, some failing. Yet at the same time, Rollins refused to let go of his roots. Trained as a biologist with a degree in veterinary medicine, his new series, like his previous thrillers, folded scientific intrigue into stories of historical mystery. His new characters belong to Sigma Force, an elite team of ex-Special Forces soldiers retrained in scientific disciplines (what Rollins jokingly describes as "killer scientists who operate outside the rule of law"). Finally, from his background as a veterinarian, the occasional strange or exotic animal often plays a significant role in the plot.
And this short story is no exception.
Here, Rollins links his past to the present. He brings forward a minor character, one of his personal favorites, from his earlier stand-alone thriller Ice Hunt (2003). Joe Kowal-ski, a naval seaman, is best described as someone with the heart of a hero but lacking the brainpower to go with it. So how does Seaman Joe Kowalski end up being recruited by such an illustrious team as Sigma Force?
As they say…dumb luck is better than no luck at all.
KOWALSKI'S IN LOVE
He wasn't much to look at.even swinging upside down from a hog snare. Pug-nosed, razor-clipped muddy hair, a six-foot slab of beef hooked and hanging naked except for a pair of wet gray boxer shorts. His chest was crisscrossed with old scars, along with one jagged bloody scratch from collarbone to groin. His eyes shone wide and wild. And with good reason.
Two minutes before, as Dr. Shay Rosauro unhitched her glide-chute on the nearby beach, she had heard his cries in the jungle and come to investigate. She had approached in secret, moving silently, spying from a short distance away, cloaked in shadow and foliage.
"Back off, you furry bastard…!"
The man's curses never stopped, a continual flow tinged with a growled Bronx accent. Plainly he was American. Like herself. She checked her watch. 8:33 a.m.
The island would explode in twenty-seven minutes. The man would die sooner.
The more immediate threat came from the island's other inhabitants, drawn by the man's shouts. The average adult mandrill baboon weighed over a hundred pounds, most of that muscle and teeth. They were usually found in Africa. Never on a jungle island off the coast of Brazil. The yellow radio collars suggested the pack were once the research subjects belonging to Professor Salazar, shipped to this remote island for his experimental trials. Mandrillus sphinx were also considered frugivo-rous, meaning their diet consisted of fruits and nuts.
But not always.
They were also known to be opportunistic carnivores.
One of the baboons stalked around the trapped man: a charcoal-furred male of the species with a broad red snout bordered on both sides by ridges of blue. Such coloration indicated the fellow was the dominant male of the group. Females and subordinate males, all a duller brown, had settled to rumps or hung from neighboring branches. One bystander yawned, exposing a set of three-inch-long eyeteeth and a muzzle full of ripping incisors.
The male sniffed at the prisoner. A meaty fist swung at the inquisitive baboon, missed, and whished through empty air.
The male baboon reared on its hind legs and howled, lips peeling back from its muzzle to expose the full length of its yellow fangs. An impressive and horrifying display. The other baboons edged closer.
Shay stepped into the clearing, drawing all eyes. She lifted her hand and pressed the button on her sonic device, nicknamed a shrieker. The siren blast from the device had the desired effect.
Baboons fled into the forest. The male leader bounded up, caught a low branch and swung into the cloaking darkness of the jungle.
The man, still spinning on the line, spotted her. "Hey…how about…?"
Shay already had a machete in her other hand. She jumped atop a boulder and severed the hemp rope with one swipe of her weapon.
The man fell hard, striking the soft loam and rolling to the side. Amid a new string of curses, he struggled with the snare around his ankle. He finally freed the knotted rope.
"Baboons," Shay corrected.
"They're baboons, not apes. They have stubby tails."
"Whatever. All I saw were their big, goddamn teeth."
As the man stood and brushed off his knees, Shay spotted a U.S. Navy anchor tattooed on his right bicep. Ex-military? Maybe he could prove handy. Shay checked the time.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "My boat broke down." His gaze traveled up and down her lithe form.
She was not unaccustomed to such attention from the male of her own species.even now, when she was unflatteringly dressed in green camouflage fatigues and sturdy boots. Her shoulder-length black hair had been efficiently bound behind her ears with a black bandanna, and in the tropical swelter, her skin glowed a dark mocha.
Caught staring, he glanced back toward the beach. "I swam here after my boat sank."
"Your boat sank?"
"Okay, it blew up."
She stared at him for further explanation.
"There was a gas leak. I dropped my cigar-"
She waved away the rest of his words with her machete. Her pickup was scheduled at the northern peninsula in under a half hour. On that timetable, she had to reach the compound, break into the safe and obtain the vials of antidote. She set off into the jungle, noting a trail. The man followed, dragged along in her wake.
"Whoa…where are we going?"
She freed a rolled-up poncho from her daypack and passed it to him.
He struggled into it as he followed. "Name's Kowalski," he said. He got the poncho on backward and fought to work it around. "Do you have a boat? A way off this friggin' island?"
She didn't have time for subtlety. "In twenty-three minutes, the Brazilian navy is going to firebomb this atoll."
"What?" He checked his own wrist. He had no watch.
She continued, "An evac is scheduled for wheels up at 8:55 a.m. on the northern peninsula. But first I have to retrieve something from the island."
"Wait. Back up. Who's going to firebomb this shithole?"
"The Brazilian navy. In twenty-three minutes."
"Of course they are." He shook his head. "Of all the goddamn islands, I had to shag my ass onto one that's going to blow up."
Shay tuned out his diatribe. At least he kept moving. She had to give him that. He was either very brave or very dumb.
"Oh, look…a mango." He reached for the yellow fruit.
"Don't touch that."
"But I haven't eaten in-?"
"All the vegetation on this island has been aerial sprayed with a transgenic rhabdovirus." He lowered his hand.
"Once ingested, it stimulates the sensory centers of the brain, heightening a victim's senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch."
"And what's wrong with that?"
"The process also corrupts the reticular apparatus of the cerebral cortex. Triggering manic rages."
A growling yowl echoed through the jungle behind them. It was answered by coughing grunts and howls from either flank.
"Baboons. Yes, they're surely infected. Experimental subjects." "Great. The Island of Rabid Baboons."
Ignoring him, she pointed toward a whitewashed hacienda sprawled atop the next hill, seen through a break in the foliage. "We need to reach that compound."
The terra-cotta-tiled structure had been leased by Professor Salazar for his research, funded by a shadowy organization of terrorist cells. Here on the isolated island, he had conducted the final stages of perfecting his bioweapon. Then two days ago, Sigma Force-a covert U.S. science team specializing in global threats- had captured the doctor in the heart of the Brazilian rain forest, but not before he had infected an entire Indian village outside of Manaus, including an international children's relief hospital.
The disease was already in its early stages, requiring the prompt quarantine of the village by the Brazilian army. The only hope was to obtain Professor Salazar's antidote, locked in the doctor's safe.
Or at least the vials might be there.
Salazar claimed to have destroyed his supply.
Upon this assertion, the Brazilian government had decided to take no chances. A storm was due to strike at dusk with hurricane-force winds. They feared the storm surge might carry the virus from the island to the mainland's coastal rain forest. It would take only a single infected leaf to risk the entire equatorial rain forest. So the plan was to firebomb the small island, to burn its vegetation to the bedrock. The assault was set for zero nine hundred. The government could not be convinced that the remote possibility of a cure was worth the risk of a delay. Total annihilation was their plan. That included the Brazilian village. Acceptable losses.
Anger surged through her as she pictured Manuel Garrison, her partner. He had tried to evacuate the children's hospital, but he'd become trapped and subsequently infected. Along with all the children.
Acceptable losses were not in her vocabulary.
So Shay had proceeded with her solo op. Parachuting from a high-altitude drop, she had radioed her plans while plummeting in free fall. Sigma command had agreed to send an emergency evac helicopter to the northern end of the island. It would touch down for one minute. Either she was on the chopper at that time.or she was dead.
The odds were fine with her.
But now she wasn't alone.
The side of beef tromped loudly behind her. Whistling. He was whistling. She turned to him. "Mr. Kowalski, do you remember my description of how the virus heightens a victim's sense of hearing?" Her quiet words crackled with irritation.
"Sorry." He glanced at the trail behind him.
"Careful of that tiger trap," she said, stepping around the crudely camouflaged hole.
"What-?" His left foot fell squarely on the trapdoor of woven reeds. His weight shattered through it.
Shay shoulder-blocked the man to the side and landed atop him. It felt like falling on a pile of bricks. Only, bricks were smarter.
She pushed up. "After being snared, you'd think you'd watch where you were stepping! The whole place is one big booby trap."
She stood, straightened her pack and edged around the spike-lined pit. "Stay behind me. Step where I step."
In her anger, she missed the trip cord.
The only warning was a small thwang.
She jumped to the side but was too late. A tethered log swung from the forest and struck her knee. She heard the snap of her tibia, then went flying through the air-right toward the open maw of the tiger trap.
She twisted to avoid the pit's iron spikes. There was no hope.
Then she hit.bricks again.
Kowalski had lunged and blocked the hole with his own bulk. She rolled off him. Agony flared up her leg, through her hip, and exploded along her spine. Her vision narrowed to a pinprick, but not enough to miss the angled twist below her knee.
Kowalski gained her side. "Oh, man…oh, man…"
"Leg's broken," she said, biting back the pain.
"We can splint it."
She checked her watch. 8:39 a.m.
Twenty-one minutes left.
He noted her attention. "I can carry you. We can still make it to the evac site."
She recalculated in her head. She pictured Manuel's shit-eating grin.and the many faces of the children. Pain worse than any broken bone coursed through her. She could not fail.
The man read her intent. "You'll never make it to that house," he said.
"I don't have any other choice."
"Then let me do it," he blurted out. His words seemed to surprise him as much as it did her, but he didn't retract them. "You make for the beach. I'll get whatever you want out of the goddamn hacienda."
She turned and stared the stranger full in the face. She searched for something to give her hope. Some hidden strength, some underlying fortitude. She found nothing. But she had no other choice.
"There'll be other traps."
"I'll keep my eyes peeled this time."
"And the office safe…I can't teach you to crack it in time." "Do you have an extra radio?" She nodded.
"So talk me through it once I get there."
She hesitated-but there was no time for even that. She swung her pack around. "Lean down."
She reached to a side pocket of her pack and stripped out two self-adhesive patches. She attached one behind the man's ear and the other over his Adam's apple. "Microreceiver and a sub-vocal transmitter."
She quickly tested the radio while explaining the stakes involved.
"So much for my relaxing vacation under the sun," he mumbled. "One more thing," she said. She pulled out three sections of a weapon from her pack. "A VK rifle. Variable Kinetic." She quickly snapped the pieces together and shoved a fat cylindrical cartridge into place on its underside. It looked like a stubby assault rifle, except the barrel was wider and flattened horizontally.
"Safety release is here." She pointed the weapon at a nearby bush and squeezed the trigger. There was only a tiny whirring cough. A projectile flashed out the barrel and buzzed through the bush, severing leaves and branches. "One-inch razor-disks. You can set the weapon for single shot or automatic strafe." She demonstrated. "Two hundred shots per magazine."
He whistled again and accepted the weapon. "Maybe you should keep this weed whacker. With your bum leg, you're going to drag ass at a snail's pace." He nodded to the jungle. "And the damn apes are still out there."
"They're baboons.and I still have my handheld shrieker. Now get going." She checked her watch. She had given Kowal-ski a second timepiece, calibrated to match. "Nineteen minutes."
He nodded. "I'll see you soon." He moved off the trail, vanishing almost instantly into the dense foliage.
"Where are you going?" she called after him. "The trail-"
"Screw the trail," he responded through the radio. "I'll take my chances in the raw jungle. Fewer traps. Plus, I've got this baby to carve a straight path to the mad doctor's house."
Shay hoped he was right. There would be no time for backtracking or second chances. She quickly dosed herself with a morphine injector and used a broken tree branch for a crutch. As she set off for the beach, she heard the ravenous hunting calls of the baboons.
She hoped Kowalski could outsmart them.
The thought drew a groan that had nothing to do with her broken leg.
Luckily Kowalski had a knife now.
He hung upside down.for the second time that day. He bent at the waist, grabbed his trapped ankle and sawed through the snare's rope. It snapped with a pop. He fell, clenched in a ball, and crashed to the jungle floor with a loud oof.
"What was that?" Dr. Rosauro asked over the radio.
He straightened his limbs and lay on his back for a breath. "Nothing," he growled. "Just tripped on a rock." He scowled at the swinging rope overhead. He was not about to tell the beautiful woman doctor that he had been strung up again. He did have some pride left.
"Goddamn snare," he mumbled under his breath.
"Nothing." He had forgotten about the sensitivity of the sub-vocal transmitter.
"Snare? You snared yourself again, didn't you?"
He kept silent. His momma once said, It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you're a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
"You need to watch where you're going," the woman scolded.
Kowalski bit back a retort. He heard the pain in her voice.and her fear. So instead, he hauled back to his feet and retrieved his gun.
"Seventeen minutes," Dr. Rosauro reminded him.
"I'm just reaching the compound now."
The sun-bleached hacienda appeared like a calm oasis of civilization in a sea of nature's raw exuberance. It was straight lines and sterile order versus wild overgrowth and tangled fecundity. Three buildings sat on manicured acres, separated by breeze-ways, and nestled around a small garden courtyard. A three-tiered Spanish fountain stood in the center, ornate with blue and red glass tiles. No water splashed through its basins.
Kowalski studied the compound, stretching a kink out of his back. The only movement across the cultivated grounds was the swaying fronds of some coconut palms. The winds were already rising with the approaching storm. Clouds stacked on the southern horizon.
"The office is on the main floor, near the back," Rosauro said in his ear. "Careful of the electric perimeter fence. The power may still be on."
He studied the chain-link fencing, almost eight feet tall, topped by a spiral of concertina wire and separated from the jungle by a burned swath about ten yards wide. No-man's-land.
Or rather no-ape's-land.
He picked up a broken branch and approached the fence. Wincing, he stretched one end toward the chain links. He was mindful of his bare feet. Shouldn't I be grounded for this? He had no idea.
As the tip of his club struck the fence, a strident wail erupted. He jumped back, then realized the noise was not coming from the fence. It wailed off to his left, toward the water.
Dr. Rosauro's shrieker.
"Are you all right?" Kowalski called into his transmitter.
A long stretch of silence had him holding his breath-then whispered words reached him. "The baboons must sense my injury. They're converging on my location. Just get going."
Kowalski poked his stick at the fence a few more times, like a child with a dead rat, making sure it was truly dead. Once satisfied, he snapped the concertina wire with clippers supplied by Dr. Rosauro and scurried over the fence, certain the power was just waiting to surge back with electric-blue death.
He dropped with a relieved sigh onto the mowed lawn, as bright and perfect as any golf course.
"You don't have much time," the doctor stressed needlessly. "If you're successful, the rear gardens lead all the way to the beach. The northern headlands stretch out from there."
Kowalski set out, aiming for the main building. A shift in wind brought the damp waft of rain.along with the stench of death, the ripeness of meat left out in the sun. He spotted the body on the far side of the fountain.
He circled the man's form. The guy's face had been gnawed to the bone, clothes shredded, belly slashed open, bloated intestines strung across the ground like festive streamers. It seemed the apes had been having their own party since the good doctor took off.
As he circled, he noted the black pistol clutched in the corpse's hand. The slide had popped open. No more bullets. Not enough firepower to hold off a whole pack of the furry carnivores. Kowalski raised his own weapon to his shoulder. He searched the shadowed corners for any hidden apes. There were not even any bodies. The shooter must either be a poor marksman, or the ruby-assed monkeys had hauled off their brethren's bodies, perhaps to eat later, like so much baboon takeout.
Kowalski made one complete circle. Nothing.
He crossed toward the main building. Something nagged at the edge of his awareness. He scratched his skull in an attempt to dislodge it-but failed.
He climbed atop the full-length wooden porch and tried the door handle. Latched but unlocked. He shoved the door open with one foot, weapon raised, ready for a full-frontal ape assault.
The door swung wide, rebounded, and bounced back closed in his face.
Snorting in irritation, he grabbed the handle again. It wouldn't budge. He tugged harder. Locked.
"You've got to be kidding."
The collision must have jiggled some bolt into place. "Are you inside yet?" Rosauro asked. "Just about," he grumbled.
"What's the holdup?"
"Well.what happened was…" He tried sheepishness, but it fit him as well as fleece on a rhino. "I guess someone locked it." "Try a window."
Kowalski glanced to the large windows that framed either side of the barred doorway. He stepped to the right and peered through. Inside was a rustic kitchen with oak tables, a farmer's sink and old enamel appliances. Good enough. Maybe they even had a bottle of beer in the fridge. A man could dream. But first there was work to do.
He stepped back, pointed his weapon and fired a single round. The silver razor-disk shattered through the pane as easily as any bullet. Fractures spattered out from the hole.
He grinned. Happy again.
He retreated another step, careful of the porch edge. He thumbed the switch to automatic fire and strafed out the remaining panes.
He poked his head through the hole. "Anyone home?"
That's when he saw the exposed wire snapping and spitting around a silver disk imbedded in the wall plaster. It had nicked through the electric cord. More disks were impaled across the far wall.including one that had punctured the gas line to the stove.
He didn't bother cursing.
He twisted and leaped as the explosion blasted behind him. A wall of superheated air shoved him out of the way, blowing his poncho over his head. He hit the ground rolling as a fireball swirled overhead, across the courtyard. Tangled in his poncho, he tumbled-right into the eviscerated corpse. Limbs fought, heat burned, and scrambling fingers found only a gelid belly wound and things that squished.
Gagging, Kowalski fought his way free and shoved the poncho off his body. He stood, shaking like a wet dog, swiping gore from his arms in disgust. He stared toward the main building.
Flames danced behind the kitchen window. Smoke choked out the shattered pane.
"What happened?" the doctor gasped in his ear.
He only shook his head. Flames spread, flowing out the broken window and lapping at the porch.
"Booby trap. I'm fine."
He collected his weapon from his discarded poncho. Resting it on his shoulder, he intended to circle to the back. According to Dr. Rosauro, the main office was in the rear.
If he worked quickly- He checked his watch. 8:45 a.m. It was hero time.
He stepped toward the north side of the hacienda. His bare heel slipped on a loop of intestine, slick as any banana peel. His leg twisted out from under him. He tumbled face-first, striking hard, the weapon slamming to the packed dirt, his finger jamming the trigger.
Silver disks flashed out and struck the figure lumbering into the courtyard, one arm on fire. It howled-not in agony, but in feral rage. The figure wore the tatters of a butler's attire. His eyes were fever bright but mucked with pasty matter. Froth speckled and drooled from lips rippled in a snarl. Blood stained the lower half of his face and drenched the front of his once-starched white shirt.
In a flash of insight-a rarity-Kowalski realized what had been nagging him before. The lack of monkey corpses here. He'd assumed the monkeys had been cannibalized-if so, then why leave a perfectly good chunk of meat out here?
The answer: no apes had attacked here.
It seemed the beasts were not the only ones infected on the island.
Nor the only cannibals.
The butler, still on fire, lunged toward Kowalski. The first impacts of the silver disks had struck shoulder and neck. Blood sprayed. Not enough to stop the determined maniac.
Kowalski squeezed the trigger, aiming low.
An arc of razored death sliced across the space at knee height.
Tendons snapped, bones shattered. The butler collapsed and fell toward Kowalski, landing almost nose to nose with him. A clawed hand grabbed his throat, nails digging into his flesh. Kowalski raised the muzzle of his VK rifle.
Kowalski aimed for the open mouth and pulled the trigger, closing his eyes at the last second.
A gargling yowl erupted-then went immediately silent. His throat was released.
Kowalski opened his eyes to see the butler collapse face-first. Dead.
Kowalski rolled to the side and gained his legs. He searched around for any other attackers, then ran toward the back of the hacienda. He glanced in each window as he passed: a locker room, a lab with steel animal cages, a billiard room.
Fire roared on the structure's far side, fanned by the growing winds. Smoke churned up into the darkening skies.
Through the next window, Kowalski spotted a room with a massive wooden desk and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
It had to be the professor's study.
"Dr. Rosauro," Kowalski whispered.
"Dr. Rosauro." he tried a little louder.
He grabbed his throat. His transmitter was gone, ripped away in his scuffle with the butler. He glanced back toward the courtyard. Flames lapped the sky.
He was on his own.
He turned back to the study. A rear door opened into the room. It stood ajar.
Why did that not sit well with him?
With time strangling, Kowalski edged cautiously forward, gun raised. He used the tip of his weapon to nudge the door wider. He was ready for anything. Rabid baboons, raving butlers.
But not for the young woman in a skintight charcoal wet suit.
She was crouched before an open floor safe and rose smoothly with the creak of the door, a pack slung over one shoulder. Her hair, loose and damp, flowed as dark as a raven's wing, her skin burnt honey. Eyes, the smoky hue of dark caramel, met his.
Over a silver 9mm Sig-Sauer held in one fist.
Kowalski ducked to the side of the doorway, keeping his weapon pointed inside. "Who the hell are you?"
"My name, sehor, is Condeza Gabriella Salazar. You are trespassing on my husband's property."
Kowalski scowled. The professor's wife. Why did all the pretty ones go for the smart guys?
"What are you doing here?" he called out.
"You are American, si? Sigma Force, no doubt." This last was said with a sneer. "I've come to collect my husband's cure. I will use it to barter for my marido's freedom. You will not stop me."
A blast of her gun chewed a hole through the door. Splinters chased him back.
Something about the easy way she had handled her pistol suggested more than competence. Plus, if she'd married a professor, she probably had a few IQ points on him.
Brains and a body like that.
Life was not fair.
Kowalski backed away, covering the side door.
A window shattered by his ear. A bullet seared past the back of his neck. He dropped and pressed against the adobe wall.
The bitch had moved out of the office and was stalking him from inside the house.
Body, brains, and she knew the lay of the land.
No wonder she'd been able to avoid the monsters here.
Distantly a noise intruded. The whump-whump of an approaching helicopter. It was their evac chopper. He glanced to his watch. Of course their ride was early.
"You should run for your friends," the woman called from inside. "While you still have time!"
Kowalski stared at the manicured lawn that spread all the way to the beach. There was no cover. The bitch would surely drop him within a few steps.
It came down to do or die.
He bunched his legs under him, took a deep breath, then sprang up. He crashed back-first through the bullet-weakened window. He kept his rifle tucked to his belly. He landed hard and shoulder-rolled, ignoring the shards of glass cutting him.
He gained a crouched position, rifle up, swiveling. The room was empty. Gone again.
So it was to be a cat-and-mouse hunt through the house.
He moved to the doorway that led deeper into the structure. Smoke flowed in rivers across the ceiling. The temperature inside was furnace hot. He pictured the pack over the woman's shoulder. She had already emptied the safe. She would make for one of the exits.
He edged to the next room.
A sunroom. A wall of windows overlooked the expanse of gardens and lawn. Rattan furniture and floor screens offered a handful of hiding places. He would have to lure her out somehow. Outthink her.
He edged into the room, keeping close to the back wall. He crossed the room. There was no attack. He reached the far archway. It led to a back foyer. And an open door.
He cursed inwardly. As he made his entrance, she must have made her exit. She was probably halfway to Honduras by now. He rushed the door and out to the back porch. He searched the grounds.
So much for outthinking her.
The press of the hot barrel against the back of his skull punctuated how thick that skull actually was. As he had concluded earlier, she must have realized a sprint across open ground was too risky. So she had waited to ambush him.
She didn't even hesitate for any witty repartee.not that he'd be a good sparring partner anyway. Only a single word of consolation was offered. "Adids."
The blast of the gun was drowned by a sudden siren's wail.
Both of them jumped at the shrieking burst.
Luckily, he jumped to the left, she to the right.
The round tore through Kowalski's right ear with a lance of fire.
He spun, pulling the trigger on his weapon. He didn't aim, just clenched the trigger and strafed at waist level. He lost his balance at the edge of the porch, tumbling back.
Another bullet ripped through the air past the tip of his nose.
He hit the cobbled path, and his skull struck with a distinct ring. The rifle was knocked from his fingers.
He searched up and saw the woman step to the edge of the porch.
She pointed her Sig-Sauer at him.
Her other arm clutched her stomach. It failed to act as a dam. Abdominal contents spilled from her split belly, pouring out in a flow of dark blood. She lifted her gun, arm trembling-her eyes met his, oddly surprised. Then the gun slipped from her fingers, and she toppled toward him.
Kowalski rolled out of the way in time.
She landed with a wet slap on the stone path.
The bell-beat of the helicopter wafted louder as the winds changed direction. The storm was rolling in fast. He saw the chopper circle the beach once, like a dog settling for a place to sleep, then lower toward the flat rocky expanse.
Kowalski returned to Gabriella Salazar's body and hauled off her pack. He began to sprint for the beach. Then stopped, went back, and retrieved his VK rifle. He wasn't leaving it behind.
As he ran, he realized two things.
One. The siren blast from the neighboring jungle had gone silent. And two. He had heard not a single word from Dr. Rosauro. He checked the taped receiver behind his ear. Still in place.
Why had she gone silent?
The helicopter-a Sikorsky S-76-touched down ahead of him. Sand swirled in the rotorwash. A gunman in military fatigues pointed a rifle at him and bellowed over the roar of the blades.
"Stand down! Now!"
Kowalski stopped. He lowered his rifle but lifted the pack. "I have the goddamn antidote."
He searched the surrounding beach for Dr. Rosauro, but she was nowhere in sight.
"I'm Seaman Joe Kowalski! U.S. Navy! I'm helping Dr. Rosauro!"
After a moment of consultation with someone inside the chopper, the gunman waved him forward. Ducking under the rotors, Kowalski held out the satchel. A shadowy figure accepted the pack and searched inside. Something was exchanged by radio.
"Where's Dr. Rosauro?" the stranger asked, clearly the one in charge here. Hard blue eyes studied him.
Kowalski shook his head.
"Commander Crowe," the pilot called back. "We must leave now. The Brazilian navy had just ordered the bombardment."
"Get inside," the man ordered Kowalski, the tone unequivocal.
Kowalski stepped toward the open door.
A shrieking wail stopped him. A single short burst. It came from beyond the beach.
In the jungle.
Dr. Shay Rosauro clung to the tangle of branches halfway up the broad-leafed cocoa tree. Baboons gibbered below. She had sustained a deep bite to her calf, lost her radio and her pack.
Minutes ago, after being chased into the tree, she had found that her perch offered a bird's-eye view of the hacienda, good enough to observe Kowalski being led out at gunpoint. Unable to help, she had used the only weapon still at hand-her sonic shrieker.
Unfortunately, the blast had panicked the baboons below her, their sudden flight jostling her branch. She'd lost her bal-ance.and the shrieker. As she'd regained her balance, she'd heard two gunshots.
Hope died inside her.
Below, one of the baboons, the dominant male of the pack, had recovered her sonic device and discovered the siren button. The blast momentarily scattered the pack. But only momentarily.
The deterrent was becoming progressively less effective-only making them angrier.
Shay hugged the tree trunk.
She checked her watch, then closed her eyes.
She pictured the children's faces.her partner's.
A noise drew her attention upward. The double whump of a passing helicopter. The leaves whipped around her. She lifted an arm-then lowered it.
The chopper lifted away. The Brazilian assault would commence in a matter of seconds. Shay let her club, her only remaining weapon, drop from her fingers. What was the use? It tumbled below, doing nothing but drawing the attention of the baboons. The pack renewed its assault, climbing the lowest branches.
She could only watch.
Then a familiar voice intruded.
"Die, you dirty, rabid, motherfucking apes!"
A large figure appeared below, blazing out with a VK rifle.
Baboons screamed. Fur flew. Blood splattered.
Kowalski strode into the fray, back to nothing but his boxers.
And his weapon.
He strafed and fired, spinning, turning, twisting, dropping. Baboons fled now.
Except for their leader. The male rose up and howled as loudly as Kowalski, baring long fangs. Kowalski matched his expression, showing as many teeth.
"Shut the hell up!"
Kowalski punctuated his declaration with a continuous burst of firepower, turning monkey into mulch. Once finished, he shouldered his rifle and strode forward. Leaning on the trunk, he stared up.
"Ready to come down, Doctor?"
Relieved, Shay half fell out of the tree. Kowalski caught her. "The antidote.?" she asked.
"In safe hands," he assured her. "On its way to the coast with Commander Crowe. He wanted me to come along, but well… guess I owed you."
He supported her under one shoulder. They hobbled quickly out of the jungle to the open beach.
"How are we going to get off-?"
"I've got that covered. Seems a nice lady left us a going-away present." He pointed down the strand to a beached Jet Ski. "Lucky for us, Gabriella Salazar loved her husband enough to come out here."
As they hurried to the watercraft's side, he gently helped her on board, then climbed in front.
She circled her arms around his waist. She noted his bloody ear and weeping lacerations across his back. More scars to add to his collection. She closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against his bare back. Grateful and exhausted.
"And speaking of the love of one's life," he said, igniting the watercraft's engine and throttling it up. He glanced back. "I may be falling in love, too."
She lifted her head, startled, then leaned back down.
Kowalski was just staring at his shouldered rifle. "Oh, yeah," he said. "This baby's a real keeper."
Gayle Lynds did not intend to start a series. When she wrote her first book, Masquerade, in the mid-1990s, she was simply creating a modern espionage thriller. But in those early post-Iron Curtain days, not only was there serious discussion in Congress about dissolving the CIA, the New York Times eliminated its regular review column titled, "Spies & Thrillers." Within book publishing, the spy novel was declared as dead as the cold war.
Still, Masquerade became a New York Times bestseller. A great adventure story, it was infused with fascinating doses of history and psychology. In an odd way, Sarah Walker, the heroine, was Lynds. Both were magazine journalists, but Sarah had the misfortune to have an uncle who was a notorious assassin called the Carnivore, although she did not know this. In the novel, Asher Flores, the hero, is a CIA man of the fascinating ilk-charming, terribly smart, with the soul of a rogue. Together, Sarah and Asher must unearth the Carnivore.
Lynds went on to publish two more stand-alone thrillers, Mesmerized and Mosaic, and collaborated with Robert Lud-lum to create the Covert-One series. Through it all, she continued to receive mail from fans who wanted her to bring back Sarah, Asher and the Carnivore. So The Coil, a novel about the Carnivore's only child, Liz Sansborough, was born. A former CIA operative, Liz had played a pivotal role in Masquerade, just as Sarah and Asher would play pivotal roles in The Coil.
Liz and Sarah are two matched flames, not only in appearance but in spirit, with quick wit and the sort of personal courage that is both admirable and sometimes daunting. Costarring with Liz in The Coil is Simon Childs of MI6. For him, the "M" means maverick. Hotheaded and coolly charming, Simon reflects Lynds's endless fascination with politics- he's a penetration agent in the antiglobalization movement.
Lynds's latest espionage thriller is The Last Spymaster, and will be followed by another book in the Carnivore series. The Hunt for Dmitri is part of that continuum.
It's a Liz Sansborough story.
Which means the Carnivore must appear, too.
THE HUNT FOR DMITRI
The French never got enough credit. The Germans never got enough control. The Romanians had a guilt complex. And the Americans hadn't a clue. As the good-natured slanders continued, Liz Sansborough, Ph.D., peered around the Faculty Club for her close friend and colleague Arkady Albam. He was late.
The dimly lit bar was packed, every table filled. The rich aromas of wine and liquor were intense. As glasses clinked, a world atlas of languages electrified the air. Academics all, they were celebrating the conclusion of a highly successful international conference on cold war political fallout, post-9/11, which she had helped to organize. Still, there was no sign of Arkady.
The economist from the University of London grinned pointedly at Liz-the only American in their group. "I hear Russia's economy is so rotten that the Kremlin has had to sack dozens of its American moles."
"Only because we don't sell ourselves cheap." She grinned back at him. "Moscow can afford to keep your MI6 turncoats on the payroll forever."
As laughter erupted, the sociologist from the Sorbonne nodded at the empty bar stool beside Liz and asked in French, "Where's Arkady? He isn't here to defend his country!"
"I've been wondering, too." Liz's gaze swept the lounge once more.
Arkady was a visiting scholar in Russian history, on campus here at the University of California at Santa Barbara since January. They had met soon after he arrived, when he sat beside her at a mass faculty meeting, peered at the empty seat on his other side, then introduced himself to her. "I'm the new kid," he said simply. They discovered a shared European sensibility, a love of movies, and that each had pasts neither would discuss. In her mind, she could see his kindly wrinkled face, feel the touch of his fingertips on her forearm as he leaned toward her with an impish smile to impart some piece of wisdom or gossip.
The problem was, he was elderly-almost seventy years old- and so unwell the past week that he had missed all of Monday's events, including his own seminar. He had phoned to tell her, but stubbornly refused to see a doctor.
As the lighthearted banter continued, and more people arrived, there was still no Arkady. He was never late. Liz speed-dialed his number on her cell phone. No answer again. Instead of leaving another message, she toasted her colleagues farewell and wound through the throngs to the door. His apartment was only minutes away. She might as well look in on him.
The night sky was dull black, the stars pinpricks, remote. Liz hurried to her car, threw her shoulder bag across the front seat, turned on the ignition and peeled out, speeding along streets fringed with towering palms until at last she parked in front of Arkady's building. He lived in 2C. In a rare admission, he had joked once that he preferred this "C" to the one that referred to the Cellar, Soviet intelligence's name for the basement in the Lubyanka complex where the KGB executed dissidents and spies and those who crossed them. He barely escaped, he had told her, then refused to say more, his profile pinched with bad memories.
Liz ran upstairs and knocked. There was no answer. His drapes were closed, but a line of light showed in a center gap. She knocked again then tried the knob. It turned, and she cracked open the door. Just inside, magazines were strewn in piles. A lamp lay on its side, its ceramic base shattered. Her chest tightened. "Arkady? Are you here?"
The only sound was the ticking of the wall clock. Liz opened the door wider. Books lay where they had been yanked from shelves, spines twisted. She peered around the door-and saw Arkady. His brown eyes were wide and frightened, and he seemed small, shriveled, although he was muscular and broad-chested for his age. He was sitting in his usual armchair, drenched in the light of his tall, cast-iron floor lamp.
She drank in the sight of him. "Are you all right?"
Arkady sighed. "This is what greeted me after the last seminar." He spoke English with an American accent. "It's a mess, isn't it?" He still wore his battered tweed jacket, his gray tie firmly knotted against his throat. His left hand held a blue envelope, while the other was tucked inside his jacket as if clutching at his heart. He was a man of expressive Rus disposition and ascetic Mongol habits and was usually vibrant and talkative.
She frowned. "Yes, but you didn't answer my question. Are you hurt?"
When he shook his head, experience sent her outside to the balcony again. A gust of wind rustled the leaves of a pepper tree, cooling her hot face. As she inspected the street and parked cars, then the other apartment buildings, uneasy memories surged through her, transporting her back to the days she had been a CIA NOC-nonofficial cover operative-on roving assignment from Paris to Moscow. No one at the university knew she had been CIA.
Seeing nothing unusual, she slipped back inside and locked the door. Arkady had not moved. In the lamplight, his thick hair and heavy eyebrows were the muted color of iron shavings.
"What happened, Arkady? Who did this? Is anything missing?"
He shrugged, his expression miserable.
Liz walked through the kitchen, bedroom and office. Nothing else seemed out of place. She returned to the living room.
Arkady rallied. "Sit with me, dear Liz. You're such a comfort. If I'd been blessed with a daughter, I'd want her to be you."
His words touched her. As a psychologist, she was aware of her desire for this older man's attention, that he had become a surrogate father, a deep bond. Her real father was her most closely guarded secret: He was an international assassin with a code name to match his reputation-the Carnivore. She hated what he had done, what he was. That his blood flowed through her veins haunted her-except when she was with Arkady.
She sank into her usual armchair, where only the low reading table separated them. "Have you phoned the sheriff's department?"
He shrugged. "There's no point."
"I'll call for you."
Arkady gave his head a rough shake. "Too dangerous. He'll be back."
She stared. "Too dangerous? Who'll be back?"
Arkady handed her the blue envelope he had been holding. She turned it over. The postmark was Los Angeles.
"Ignore that," he told her. "The letter was sent originally from Moscow to New York in a larger envelope. A friend there opened it and put the letter into another big envelope and mailed it to Los Angeles. That's where my address was added."
Liz pulled out folded stationery. Inside were three tiny dried sunflowers. In Russia, an odd number of blooms was considered good luck. The writing was not only different, it was in the Cyrillic alphabet-Russian.
"Dearest," it began. She peered up at him.
"It's from my wife, Nina." He looked past her to another time, another life. "She wouldn't escape with me. We'd never had children, and she knew I could take care of myself. She said she'd rather have me alive far away than dead in some Moscow grave." He paused. "I suspect she knew I'd have a better chance alone."
Liz took a long breath. With the stationery in one hand, and the sunflowers on the palm of the other, she bent her head and read. The letter recounted the ordinary life of an ordinary woman living on a small pension in a tiny Moscow flat. "I've enclosed three pressed sunflowers, my love," the letter finished, "to remind you of our happy times together. You are in my arms forever."
Liz gazed a moment longer at the dried blossoms, now the color of desert sand. She folded the letter and slid the flowers back inside.
Arkady looked at her alertly, as if hoping she would say something that would rectify whatever had happened, what he feared might happen.
"It's obvious Nina loves you a lot," she told him. "Surely she can join you now." "It's impossible."
She frowned. "I don't understand what's going on."
"Nina and I decided before I left that if either of us ever suspected our mail was being read, we'd write that we were enclosing three sunflowers. Some snooper must've thought they'd fallen out, so he covered himself by adding them. The mistake confirms what Nina surmised, and it fits with this." He gestured at the damage around them. "I thought I was being followed yesterday and today. The vandalism proves he's here. And it's a message that he can have someone in Moscow scrub Nina to punish me if I try to escape now. He knows I know that."
Liz remembered an official statement during the Communist show trial of Boris Arsov, a Bulgarian defector: The hand of justice is longer than the legs of the traitor. A few months later, Arsov was found dead in his prison cell. The Kremlin had been relentless about liquidating anyone who escaped. Even today, some former operatives prowled the globe for those they felt had betrayed the old Soviet Union.
"You expect him to kill you," she said woodenly.
"You must go, Liz. I accept my fate."
"Who is this man?"
"A KGB assassin called Oleg Olenkov. He's a master of impersonation and recruiting the unsuspecting. Even after the Soviet Union dissolved, he hunted me. So I decided to become Arkady Albam-I thought he'd never look for me in academia. But for him, eliminating me is personal." He peered at her. "My name is actually Dmitri Garnitsky. I was a dissident. Those were desperate times. Do you really want to hear?"
"Tell me." Liz's eyes traveled from window to door and back again. "Quickly." As her gaze returned to Arkady, a small, strange smile vanished from his face. A smile she had never seen. For an uncomfortable instant, she was suspicious.
Day after day in the bitter winter of 1983, Moscow's gray sky bled snow through the few hours of light into the black well of night. From their flat, Dmitri and Nina Garnitsky could hear the caged wolves in the zoo howl. Across the city, vodka poured until bottles were empty. Meanwhile in Europe, Washington was deploying Pershing missiles aimed at the Soviet Union. A sense of helpless desolation shrouded Moscow, escalating the usual paranoia. The Kremlin became so convinced of a surprise nuclear attack that it not only secretly ordered the KGB to plan a campaign of letter bombs against Western leaders but also to immediately erase Moscow's dissident movement.
Dmitri was the city's ringleader. Still, he managed to evade surveillance and disappear for a week to print anti-Soviet pamphlets on an old press hidden in a tunnel beneath the sprawling metropolis. Nina was with him in the early hours before sunrise of that last day, making fresh cups of strong black tea to keep them awake.
Suddenly Sasha Penofsky hurtled in, snow flying off his muskrat shapka hat and short wool coat. "The KGB has surrounded our building!"
"Tell us." Dmitri pulled Nina close. She trembled in his arms.
"That KGB animal, Oleg Olenkov, is under specific orders to get you, Dmitri. When he couldn't find you, he decided to go ahead and arrest our people. They took everyone to Lubyanka."
He swallowed hard. "And there's more. The KGB wants you so much that they brought in a specialist to wipe you. He's an assassin with a reputation for never failing. They call him the Carnivore."
Nina stared at Dmitri, her face white. "You can't wait. You have to leave now."
"She's right, Dmitri!" Sasha turned on his heel and ran. He had his own escape plans. No one knew them, just as no one knew Dmitri's. It was safer that way.
"I'll tell them where your cell met, darling." Nina's voice broke. "I'll be fine." They would interrogate and release her in hopes they could find him through her. But if they believed she was also a subversive, her life would be at risk, too.
His heart breaking, they rushed down the tunnel. He shoved up a manhole cover, and she climbed out. His last sight of her was her worn galoshes hurrying away through the alley's fresh snow.
Dmitri paced the tunnel five minutes. Then he accelerated off through the bleak dawn, too, carrying a lunch pail like any good worker. The cold pierced to his marrow. Little Zhigulis and Moskvich cars roared past, a stream of bloodred taillights. He watched nervously. He knew Olenkov by sight but had never heard of the Carnivore.
On the other side of Kalininsky Bridge, he was running down steps toward a pedestrian underpass when the skin on the back of his neck suddenly puckered. He glanced back. Walking behind were a young couple, an older man with a briefcase and two more men alone, each carrying lunch pails like his. One had a mustache; the other was clean-shaven. All were strangers.
When an evergreen hedge appeared on his right, he yanked open a wooden gate and slipped into a small park beside an apartment building for the privileged nomenklatura. The skeletal branches of a giant linden tree spread overhead like anemic veins. He grabbed a snow-covered lawn chair, carried it to the trunk and jumped onto the chair. Reaching up to a hole in the trunk, he pawed through icy layers of leaves until he found his waterproof bundle. In it were rubles, rare U.S. greenbacks and a good fake passport.
But as he pulled it out, Dmitri heard the quiet click of the gate. He stiffened. Turned awkwardly-and looked at a pistol with a sound suppressor aimed steadily at him. Pulse hammering, he raised his gaze, saw the mustache. The gunman was one of the workers behind him in the underpass.
"You are Dmitri Garnitsky." The man spoke Russian with a slight accent and stood with feet planted apart for balance, knees slightly bent. About six feet tall, he was muscular but not heavy, with a bland, expressionless face and nearly colorless eyes. There was something predatory about him that had nothing to do with his weapon.
Dmitri tried to think. "Nyet. I don't know-"
Abruptly, the gate swung open again. The gunman tensed, and his head moved fractionally, watching as the notorious Olenkov marched in, impressive in his mink shapka hat and black cashmere overcoat. He was taller and broader-and smiling. He unbuttoned his coat and removed a pistol, which he, too, pointed at Dmitri.
"Very good," he told the first man. "You've found him." Then to Dmitri: "Come along, Comrade Garnitsky." He held up handcuffs. "We'll make a good show of it. A lesson for others who would harm our Soviet."
Dmitri climbed off the chair and tucked the packet under his arm. "Why bother with handcuffs? You want me dead to scare the others into recanting publicly before you send them to the gulags. You'll kill me here anyway."
"That's almost true," Olenkov said easily. "But I see no reason to make myself sweat carrying you. And my specialist was not hired to lug corpses. No, it makes much more sense to shoot you at the van where there'll be witnesses that you resisted."
The other man's head whipped around. Expressionless, he studied Olenkov.
Dmitri's rib cage clenched. Olenkov's words thundered in his mind "-my specialist was not hired." The other man must be the Carnivore.
"What about my wife?" Dmitri demanded.
"I'll deal with her later." Olenkov gestured with his weapon and ordered the other man, "Bring him!"
The Carnivore did not move. "A man in my business must be careful." His tones were quiet, commanding. "You're the only one who was to know who I am, yet you had me followed."
"So?" Olenkov asked impatiently.
"I never do wet work in public." His eyelids blinked slowly as he considered the KGB officer. "Never on the street. Never where there are witnesses who can identify me. My security rules are absolute. You knew what they were." It seemed almost as if he was giving Olenkov a chance to come to his senses. "I work alone."
But the muscles in Olenkov's jaw bunched. His face tightened. "Not this time!" he snapped. "The chief's in a hurry for Garnitsky's corpse. Get him!"
Disgust flashed across the Carnivore's face. His silenced pistol lashed around in a single smooth motion. He fired. Pop. The bullet slammed into Olenkov's overcoat, burning a hole blacker than the black cashmere. Blood and tissue exploded, spraying the gray air pink.
Rage twisted Olenkov's features. As he staggered sideways, he swung his pistol around to aim at the assassin. The Carnivore took two nimble steps and slammed a foot into Olenkov's knee.
The KGB man grunted and toppled onto his back, a black Rorschach blot against the white snow. His pistol fell. He stretched for it. The Carnivore smashed a foot down onto the arm, scooped up the gun, and pocketed it, watching as Olenkov struggled to free himself, to sit up, to fight back. But his face drained of color. His eyes closed. Finally, he lay motionless. Air gusted from his lungs.
Dmitri fought nausea and terror. He waited to be shot, too.
The Carnivore glanced at him, showing no emotion. "The contract on you is canceled." He opened the gate and was gone.
For a long moment, Liz said nothing, suffocated by the past. During the cold war, government officials and private individuals on both sides of the Iron Curtain had alternately used the Carnivore and tried to eliminate him. He was ruthless, a legend. Allegedly, he had only one loyalty-to money. He always worked in disguise, so no one knew what he really looked like, much less his true identity. All of the protocols in the story were accurate.
Still, his appearance in it was too much of a coincidence. Ignoring Arkady's gaze, she lifted the blue envelope, examining it closely against the bright light of the floor lamp. There was no hint of a covert French opening-slitting one end of the envelope then gluing it back together. No sign of a roll-out-Soviet tradecraft using two knitting needles on the flap. And no indication of steam or one of the new chemical compounds.
Breathing shallowly, she lowered the letter. She remembered Arkady's strange smile before he told her the story. "You know the Carnivore is my father, don't you?" she asked.
"How did you figure that out?"
Liz did not respond. Instead, she peered pointedly across the low table to the bulge in his jacket where his right hand remained near his heart. She had to know.
Acknowledging her unspoken question, he used the other hand to push aside the lapel.
Shocked, she stared. As she feared, he held a pistol trained on her. What she had not guessed was that it was hers-her Glock, which had been locked in her bedroom safe. She looked up into the face of the kindly man who was a close friend. A better father. His sweetness had vanished, a mask. Raw hatred burned from his dark eyes.
A fundamental of survival was to adapt. Liz erased emotion from her face. She had to find a way to take him or escape.
"It was the envelope," she told him. "No one opened it before you received it."
He inclined his head once. "Where is the Carnivore?"
"If you know he's my father, then you know he's dead." That was a lie. It was possible he was still alive. When she was CIA, she had discovered his real work when she spotted him in the middle of a wet job in Lisbon. She stopped it, and he promised to let her take him in. But before that could happen, he was apparently killed-yet his body was never found. "Was there any truth in your story?"
"There was a Dmitri and Nina Garnitsky, an Oleg Olenkov and a Carnivore. Olenkov was shot, and Dmitri Garnitsky escaped."
She thought swiftly, trying to understand. Then she remembered his words-Oleg Olenkov…a master of impersonation and recruiting the unsuspecting-and everything made a crazed kind of sense: last January, it had been no accident that "Arkady Albam" sat beside her at the faculty meeting. That was the beginning of his campaign to cultivate her, make her vulnerable to him. At some point, he wrote the "Nina" letter, and on Monday, when he claimed to be sick, he drove down to Los Angeles to mail it to himself. Tonight he set her up so she would worry and come to check on him. That was why he had been waiting, with her Glock hidden under his jacket, pointed at the chair where she always sat.
His thin lips curved in a smile, pleased with his ruse. Chilled, Liz listened as footsteps sounded faintly, climbing the outside staircase. He had created the envelope and story to distract her, keep her from causing trouble as long as possible because someone else really was coming-but not to terminate him.
She kept her voice calm. "Dmitri Garnitsky, I assume."
Olenkov pulled a 9mm Smith & Wesson from between his back and the chair. Neither it nor her Glock was equipped with a sound suppressor, which told her he had no intention of trying to hide what he planned.
"You think you'll walk away from this," she realized. "I'll bet the sheriff's department will find my place was tossed, too, so you can tell them that I was carrying my Glock for protection. That
I'd found out somehow that Oleg Olenkov was hunting me because he couldn't get revenge on my father." She was beginning to have a sense the envelope and story were a test of her, too.
He chuckled, pleased with the results of his operation. "You have given me my answer-the daughter is confirmed as a worthy substitute for the father. Naturally you must defend yourself. In the end, sadly, you and Dmitri will have wiped each other. I'll be very convincing when I talk to the authorities."
A trickle of sweat slid down her spine. "But what you're angry about happened long ago. No one cares anymore!"
"I care! I nearly died. I spent two years in hospital! Then when I was finally able to go back to work, they demoted me because of Garnitsky's escape. My career was over. My life was ruined. They laughed at me!"
The most powerful psychological cause of violent behavior was the feeling of being slighted, rejected, insulted, humiliated- any of which could convey the ultimate provocation: the person was inferior, insignificant, a nobody. Olenkov was a venomous and volatile man, probably with an inferiority complex, who could easily act irrationally and against his own interests-including relating tonight's tale, in which he appeared to be both arrogant and incompetent.
"You have no reason to feel ashamed," Liz tried.
" I did nothing wrong. It was all your goddamn father's-"
There was a knock on the door. It sounded like a jackhammer in the small apartment.
Olenkov rose lithely and walked sideways away, never moving the aim of the Glock from her. He lowered the S &W and unlocked the door, then retraced his steps. He sat again, pointing the S &W at her now, while he trained the Glock on the doorway.
"Come in!" he called.
The door opened, and fresh salt-tinged air gusted inside. A man stood on the threshold, the drab night sky and distant stars framing him.
"Liz Sansborough?" He had a Russian accent. "I got a note to come-" He saw the pistols. His soft blue eyes darkened with fear. His boxy shoulders twitched as if he was preparing to bolt.
Liz recognized him. He was a historian from the University of Iowa, not using the name Dmitri Garnitsky. He had a flat, tired face and large hands. Dressed in chinos and a tan corduroy sports jacket, he was probably in his late forties.
"Don't try it," Olenkov warned. "I'll shoot before you finish your first step away. Come in and close the door."
Dmitri hesitated, then moved warily inside. Gazing at Olenkov, he shoved the door shut with the heel of a tennis shoe. For a moment, puzzlement replaced his fear.
"Who are you? What do you want?" Dmitri peered quickly at Liz.
"You don't recognize me?" Olenkov asked. "Your voice maybe."
Olenkov laughed loudly. "I didn't recognize you either until I saw you walk. It's a rule-never forget how a person moves." He looked him over carefully. "The CIA has taken good care of you. I had plastic surgery, too."
Olenkov's reaction was a classic example of the compelling nature of deep shame. It not only inflamed, it consumed. He was engrossed in Dmitri, hanging on every word, milking pleasure from every shock, every surprise-which was the distraction she needed. She gazed swiftly around, searching for a weapon, a way to disarm him. She checked the cast-iron floor lamp just behind the little table between Olenkov and her.
Dmitri seemed to shrink. "Oleg Olenkov." His voice rose. "You bastard. Where's Nina? You've done nothing to Nina!"
Olenkov laughed again. "I have something more important for you-this is the Carnivore's daughter, Liz Sansborough. You remember the Carnivore-your savior?"
Liz leaned toward the tall lamp, hoping Dmitri would recognize what she had in mind. She rested her right elbow on the arm of her chair. From here, she would be able to reach up and back with both hands and pull the lamp's heavy pole down onto Olenkov's skull.
But Dmitri gave no indication he understood. He returned his focus to Olenkov and announced, "The Carnivore didn't save me. Your stupidness did!"
Everything happened in seconds. Olenkov jerked erect as if someone had just stretched his spine. Without a word, he glanced at each of them and leveled the guns.
As Liz's hands shot up and yanked down the lamp, Olenkov saw her. He ducked and squeezed the triggers. The noise was explosive, rocking the walls. The iron pole struck the left side of his head hard. Blood streamed down his cheek as the lampshade cartwheeled and the pole landed and bounced.
Liz's side erupted in pain. She had been hit. As the assassin shook his head once, clearing it, she snatched the closer gun. And hesitated, dizzy. She collapsed back against the other arm of the chair, taking deep breaths.
Across the room, Dmitri slumped against the wall. A red tide spread across his tan jacket from a bloody shoulder wound. His eyes were large and overbright, strangely excited, as if he had awakened from a long nightmare. Swearing a long stream of Russian oaths, he peeled away and hurled himself at Olenkov.
But Olenkov raised the Glock again. Liz kicked, ramming her foot into his fingers. The pistol flew. His arm swung wide.
Dmitri slammed the heels of both hands into Olenkov's shoulders. The chair crashed backward. As they fell with it, Dmitri dropped his knees onto Olenkov's chest, pinning him. Like a vise, his big hands snapped shut around Olenkov's neck.
Olenkov swung up a fist, but Dmitri dodged and squeezed harder. Olenkov clawed at the hands that crushed his throat. He gasped. He flushed pink, then red. Sweat popped out on his face.
Liz exhaled, fighting the pain in her side. With effort, she focused on Dmitri, a man fueled by years of rage and fear, by terror for Nina's safety. His mouth twisting, he glared down into Olenkov's eyes, cursing him loudly again, his iron grip tightening. He shook the throat, and Olenkov's head rocked. He laughed as Olenkov's eyes bulged.
Liz forced herself up. Resting the pistol on her chair's arm, she pointed it at Dmitri's temple. "Stop! Let him go. He can't hurt us now!"
Dmitri gave no sign he heard. He continued to strangle Olenkov, while Olenkov's chest heaved.
"Dammit, stop, Dmitri! The sheriff's department will arrest him. You'll be able to fly to Moscow. You can be with Nina!"
At Nina's name, Dmitri went rigid. His curses turned to mutters. Still, his hands remained locked around the assassin's neck, and his knees crushed the man's chest. Olenkov's eyes were closed, but his raw rasps told her he was alive. The awful sound of approaching death filled her mind. Her husband, her mother and many of her colleagues had died violently. She wondered how she managed to survive. Maybe she was the one in the nightmare.
She clasped her wound and worked to strip the anger and pain from her voice. "You and Nina have a real chance. I'd give a lot to have the chance you have."
At last, Dmitri's shoulders relaxed. As he stood and walked away from the unconscious Olenkov, his upper lip rose with distaste. He did not look at Olenkov.
Sickened by Olenkov, disgusted by her misjudgment, she turned away from Olenkov, too.
In the distance, sirens screeched. Dmitri lifted his chin, listening as they drew near. "When Nina was born, I was in hiding. My wife's parents raised her. She is twenty-three now." He paused. "My fault. I wanted to know about her so bad that I finally wrote her last year. That is probably how he traced me."
Liz's breath caught in her throat. "So Nina is-?"
"My daughter." Dmitri smiled a brilliant smile. "Thank you."
He headed for the door and opened it. Behind him, the night sky that had seemed so drab now shone like ebony. The once-distant stars sparkled brightly.
Gingerly, he touched his wound. "Not bad. How are you?"
"I'll live. Olenkov told me Nina was your wife."
His hand fell from his shoulder. Pain torqued his flat features. "Her name was Natalia. Olenkov terminated her."
"How horrible. I'm sorry." So Olenkov had lied about that, too. "Are you sure my father didn't do it?"
He shook his head. "As soon as the Carnivore found us, Olenkov scrubbed my wife. That pissed off the Carnivore. He said he was hired for wet jobs on criminals-not dissidents. So when the bastard tried to scrub me, too, the Carnivore shot him."
Liz stared. Her father had saved Dmitri? She felt a strange kind of awe. She had always accepted the government's version of the Carnivore's career as an assassin. But then, he had never said anything to make her think otherwise. What else had she missed?
"He sneaked me out of the Soviet Union," Dmitri continued. "We almost got caught twice. We walked three days across terrible ice and snow into Finland." He swallowed and looked away. "They say he was a killer, but he was very good to me."
As if it were yesterday, pieces of her childhood returned. Liz remembered holding her father's hand as they laughed and he led her in a race across the Embankment. Their long conversations as they sat cozily alone to drink tea. The gentle way he brushed away her hair to kiss her cheek. She might have been wrong about him. What else had she missed? For her, the hunt had just begun.
Michael Palmer & Daniel Palmer
I n 1982, Michael Palmer, then a practicing E.R. physician on Cape Cod, exploded on the literary scene with his first thriller, The Sisterhood, which made the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into thirty-three languages. Since then, he has written nine more thrillers of medical suspense. Palmer attended Wesleyan University with Robin Cook, and the two of them performed their residencies at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital at the same time. Later, Michael Crichton's work and Cook's success with Coma inspired Palmer to write and, between the three writers, the genre of medical suspense became firmly established.
Palmer sees the thriller as distinct from classic detective stories. Two of his favorites are William Goldman's Marathon Man and James Grady's Six Days of the Condor. In Palmer's thrillers, his protagonists are drawn into the story because of something they do professionally. They are not detectives and are not out to solve mysteries. Rather, their goals are simply to be the best physicians they can be. They're usually pulled into the story against their wills and eventually must defeat the forces impinging on their lives, or be destroyed in the process. Of course, along the way, a catharsis occurs, but what also distinguishes Palmer's work is a frightening aspect that leaves readers wondering if such a thing could actually happen to them.
Palmer has never before collaborated with another writer on a project, but Disfigured is coauthored with Daniel James Palmer, the middle of his three sons. Daniel is a professional songwriter, musician and software manager. Disfigured was actually Daniel's brainchild. And although Maura, the protagonist, is not a physician, the theme is medical, and like most of Michael Palmer's main characters, she's drawn unwillingly into the story.
We have your son. The picture enclosed is not a fake, this is not a hoax, and we cannot be bought. If you want to see your son alive again you will read this letter carefully and follow our instructions precisely.
At 4:00 p.m., on June 23, you have face-lift surgery scheduled on your patient, Audra Meadows, of 144 Glenn Cherry Lane, Bel-Air. During the procedure, you will inject 5cc of isopropyl alcohol around the facial nerve on both sides of her face. The resulting paralysis of her facial muscles must be complete and irreversible. If you fail, if she can lift even the corner of her mouth, you will never see your son again.
A copy of this note and photo has been placed on David's bed for your wife to find. Do not alert the authorities or anyone else. Choose to do so and you have sealed David's fate.
Dr. George Hill, the plastic surgeon to the stars, slumped down onto the cool marble of his foyer, his heart pounding. Just minutes before, the persistent ringing of the doorbell had awoken him. The manila envelope was propped against the front door.
Hill pushed himself up and studied the photo of his son. David's hair was shorter than when he saw him last. Was it two months ago? Certainly no more than three. His eyes, always bright and intelligent, were blindfolded. He was sitting on a metal folding chair holding a sign that read:
June 22 2:00 a.m.
2:00 a.m.-just three hours ago. Shakily, Hill made it to the phone in his entertainment center and called his office manager. "Hi, it's me," he said.
"Gee, even without checking my caller ID I guessed right," Joyce Baker replied. "I suppose 5:00 a.m. gave it away."
Odd hours and interruptions during her limited personal time were her curse for running George Hill's medical practice for fifteen years. He was at the top of the heap of plastic surgeons in southern California, if not the country, and he was determined to remain there.
"Have you given anyone in our office access to the new appointment scheduling program?"
"No," she replied. "I'm the only one with a log-on password."
"Has anyone asked you about any client's appointment? Anyone at all?"
"Absolutely not," Joyce said. "What's this all about? Which client?"
"Oh, it's nothing," he said. "Mrs. G. is scheduled to have some more work done Sunday night at the surgical center, that's all."
"I know that. I scheduled her."
"Well, she thinks a reporter knows about it."
"Goodness. I really don't see how that's-"
"Listen, Joyce, don't worry about it. I'll see you later."
This had to be an inside job, he was thinking, someone in the office or the surgicenter. The nature of his patient's procedures, let alone the precise time they were to be done, were more closely guarded secrets than the formula for Coke. Although she was not an A-list celebrity, Audra was still special to him-his Mona Lisa, his Sistine Chapel. Unlike with his other celebrity triumphs, he hadn't once leaked to the press that he was the artist behind her remarkable, enduring beauty.
He paced about his Malibu mansion for a time before working up the nerve to call Maura. As his ex-wife, she, above all, would understand the moral dilemma in which he had been placed, and as David's mother, she had the right to share in the decision that could have her son dead in less than two days.
Maura Hill pounded along Overland Avenue, pushing harder with each step. A few more minutes, baby, she gasped. A few more minutes. After years of all work and no exercise, she had begun running, then running long distances. Now she was hoping not only to run the L.A. marathon, but also to qualify for a number. However, her dream might have to wait. David's grades and his attitude had been slipping at school lately-too much MTV and guitar, his teachers had said, to say nothing of the hormonal chaos of being fourteen. To that list Maura could add: not enough father. She knew David's potential, and was hoping that she might show him by example how hard work and perseverance could pay off. Next year, maybe. Right now he needed a supportive, present parent.
Maura ran along the paved walkway to the three-bedroom cape where she and David lived. The house was quiet. As usual, her kid would take some major prodding to get up for school, but he would have to get up now if he wanted a ride. She had an early faculty meeting at Caltech where she taught computer science.
The ringing phone startled her. George's number came up on the caller ID. "Bastard," she instinctively muttered to herself. She had come to accept the fact that, after he discovered his remarkable talent for plastic surgery, he became totally self-absorbed and a lousy, philandering husband, but having him honestly believe that dinner or a ball game every couple of months equaled being a good father was too much.
"Hello, George," she said coolly.
Maura listened intently and blanched as Hill spoke. Still holding the phone, she sprinted down the hallway toward David's room. It's not possible, she thought. She had kissed David goodnight before she went to bed. He couldn't possibly be gone. She opened the door to David's room and gasped. The unmade bed was empty, and his window wide-open. The curtains fluttered like ghosts in the early-morning light.
"Who is she?" Maura shouted, bursting into her ex-husband's elegant Beverly Hills office.
Hill, who was slouched on a chair in his waiting room, drinking whiskey out of a tumbler, barely lifted his head.
"Her name is Audra Meadows," he said, finishing the whiskey and pouring another. "She's been a patient of mine for years. David's only been gone for a few hours, Maura. Shouldn't we call the police?"
"You read the note."
"Then what should we do?"
"First of all, we should stop drinking ourselves into oblivion so our brains can at least function with some clarity. I want to see that woman's file."
"But doctors are sworn-"
"Jesus Christ, George! Give me her file or I swear I'll trash this office until I find it. This is our son!"
Hill retrieved Meadows's record from his fireproof vault and handed it over. Maura's eyes widened as she looked through twelve years of surgical notes and photos-the usual Hollywood tucks and augments on her body, plus eight or nine procedures on her face. Even prior to the first of those, Audra Meadows was a strikingly beautiful woman. Her naturally high cheekbones were what others craved. Her almond eyes were a deep green, exotic and alluring. She was, quite simply, a version of perfection. And yet with each subsequent procedure, imperceptible unless the photos were viewed in sequence, Hill had preserved and even improved upon her vibrant, ageless visage.
"Why on earth was she a client?" Maura asked. "Like many of my patients, Audra sees in herself imperfections others don't."
Maura grimaced. Such vanity.
"So, who would want to hurt this Audra person so badly that they'd be willing to kill my son-I'm sorry, I mean our son?"
"Somebody envious of her looks?"
"Or of your skill. Perhaps they're trying to ruin you."
"I've thought about that. This is a competitive business- especially in this town."
Maura's eyes narrowed.
"George, if it comes to saving our son, you are going to do what they're asking, aren't you? You will do the injection." Her ex hesitated.
"That procedure will paralyze her facial muscles forever," he said. "Even if I do it there's no guarantee they'll let David live."
"But we have no choice!" Maura screamed. "Can't you do it now and fix it later? You're the fucking surgeon to the stars!"
George slammed his hands against his desk.
"What don't you understand about forever? Jesus, Maura, if I do what they want, and I get caught, I'll be reported to the medical board and never practice again. I'll be sued and lose everything."
"You self-centered bastard!"
"I know this is hard for you to understand, but all I've ever wanted since my rotation in med school is to be a plastic surgeon. It goes against everything I believe to intentionally destroy a person's face. I think we should go to the police."
Her eyes flared.
"You do that, and I swear I'll find a way to ruin you myself. Don't worry," she added, scooping up Audra's file, "I'll find David before you're forced to put your precious reputation up against his life."
She slammed his office door with such force the frosted glass shattered.
Maura left George's office aware that somebody might be watching to ensure she didn't involve the police. It was still before rush hour and there were few cars on the street. None seemed suspicious. Shaking from fear and rage, she drove about a mile west before pulling over at a red light. There, she rested her head against the steering wheel and allowed herself to cry. She was an egghead-a usually gentle scholar, not a woman of action. Now she would have to change, and change in a hurry.
Composing herself, Maura peered into the rearview mirror and noticed a gray Cadillac a few cars away. Its lights were on. Hadn't she seen the same car outside George's office just minutes ago? Her heart started racing. Had George's call to her been tapped? Were the kidnappers watching her right now? Maura slowly eased back into traffic. Seconds later the Cadillac pulled out and followed just a few cars behind. It was impossible to read the plates. Fumbling in her purse, she grabbed her cell phone and dialed.
"Hello," answered a familiar voice. "Hack, thank God you're there."
Taylor "Hack" Burgess was one of her students at Caltech-a Ph.D. candidate specializing in nanotechnology, the creation of submicroscopic electronic sensors with limitless possibilities. A fellow grad student once claimed that the brilliant, spectral, antisocial Burgess put the "eek!" in geek. His potential was infinite, assuming he could keep out of jail. His passion was the source of his nickname, and Maura was constantly chastising him for hacking into supposedly inaccessible systems. Burgess called it research.
"Hack, listen carefully," Maura said urgently. "I can't explain why, but I need you to do some research for me." "For you, anything."
She gave him Audra Meadows's name, address and date of birth, and added, "I need to know anything and everything you can find out about her. Has she been arrested? Been in court? Chaired fund-raisers? Gotten honored? Anything at all. Get into any system you can think of. It's urgent."
"Aren't you going to tell me to be careful?" "Do whatever you have to."
Maura checked the rearview. The car remained behind her. The sun, still low in the sky, made it impossible to get a good look at the driver. She stopped at a red light on Wiltshire. Her fingers were white on the steering wheel. I can't be this close and not know.
She grabbed her cell phone, took one deep breath and charged out of her car just as the light turned green. Horns blared as she raced back toward the Cadillac. She was able to see the silhouette of the driver now, but couldn't distinguish anything except a baseball cap and possibly sunglasses. As she approached, the Cadillac's tires screeched and the car lunged forward, smashing into an Acura, which spun forty-five degrees and rammed a VW.
Maura froze as the Cadillac then squealed into reverse and slammed into the car behind. There was the sickening crunch of metal and the car's air bag deployed. The Cadillac then made a sharp left into oncoming traffic. Cars spun out in all directions. Moments later the Caddy had disappeared down Wiltshire. Stunned, Maura reached for her phone. Hack answered on the third ring.
"Gray Cadillac. License plate California AZ3 something. That's all I got. Find a match."
From a distance she could hear sirens approaching. She used the time before the cruisers arrived to concoct a story of a stalled engine in her car, and road rage on the part of the driver of the Caddy.
Over the hours that followed, Maura was constantly checking to see if she was being followed. Finally, she decided to go to a hotel rather than to chance that her home phone or the house, itself, was bugged. She sent a note to George by messenger, instructing him to speak to no one, and to call her on her hotel-room phone from a pay phone. If she was being overly paranoid, so be it.
George had nothing new to report. Maura held her breath and asked again if he was prepared to honor the kidnappers' demand that he disfigure Audra Meadows.
"We can't let it come to that," was all he would say. "We just can't."
She slammed down the receiver and called Hack. "What have you learned?" she asked.
"A few things. It took a while for me to penetrate the DMV. They must have a new security guy. Their mistake was upgrading their SQL database to SP4 and that gave me the opening I needed."
"Hack, I don't care how you did it, in fact it's better I don't know. Just tell me what you've got."
"Okay. There are over three thousand California license plates that start with AZ3."
Maura's heart sank.
"Of those, I found less than twenty-five on Cadillacs. Half are owned by rental-car companies, the other half are residential, and none in the Los Angeles area."
"Not so fast. Rather than risk a trace, I used the good ol' phone and dialed Avis and Hertz." Maura perked up.
"I pretended to be the police, inquiring about a hit-and-run. Anyway, it appears we have ourselves a bit of a coincidence. Yesterday the Avis by LAX rented their 2005 gray Cadillac to someone from Meadows Productions. It's Alec Meadows's company. I checked."
Bingo! Alec Meadows. Infidelity? Audra threatening to leave him? Whatever the reason, he so badly wanted to hurt his wife that he was willing to threaten David's life. But was he willing to carry out the threat?
Maura crouched behind a row of well-manicured hedges and scanned the Meadows estate through binoculars. She had arrived shortly after sunset and was now wondering if she should just chance calling the police. The place was vast, set well away from the main road, and surrounded by dense woods. It was possible David was inside. If not, she was hoping for some clue as to where he might be.
The fieldstone house was like a castle, with a three-car garage that might have once been a carriage house. Hack had given her a profile of Alec Meadows from data he gleaned off of several sources. Meadows made his fortune in entertainment, producing schlock teen horror movies and several successful TV shows. He had no criminal record. The marriage to Audra was his first, her second. They had no children.
We have your son.
We. Could that be significant? Who might be working with Alec Meadows? Had he hired professionals? Maura struggled to make sense of it all. Alec could have just as easily hired a thug to cut up his wife. Why risk a kidnapping? Then it hit her again. Maybe Audra wasn't the real target after all. Maybe the real target was George.
The glow of approaching headlights pierced the darkness. Hack was prepared to drive out and sabotage the security system so she could get into the house, but now he might not have to. Maura darted across the drive and dived into the bushes nearest the garage. Moments later the center door lifted and a large black Mercedes drove inside. Maura waited until the garage door was almost closed, then rolled underneath it, continuing until she was under the rear of the car. The exhaust pipe singed her arm. She was biting down on her lip to keep from crying out in pain when the Mercedes's doors opened and two sets of legs stepped out.
"Put this on, Audra, you bitch. Come to me when I am ready." The voice was unwavering, commanding, and filled with rage.
"Of course, Alec," she responded in a shallow whisper.
Maura remained motionless until she was certain they had gone inside. Then she climbed the short staircase and inched open the door to the house. She was in a dark hallway from which she could see into the kitchen. A figure opened the refrigerator door, casting an eerie shadow. Moments later, he left. His footsteps echoed through the cavernous home as he walked upstairs. Maura entered the kitchen, her eyes quickly adjusting to the dark.
She moved stealthily into the dimly lit living room. Her plan was to hide until they were both asleep, and then to begin her search in the basement. If there was some sort of motion-sensitive alarm, she would have to improvise.
Suddenly, there were footsteps at the top of the massive staircase. Her pulse hammering, Maura scrambled behind the sofa and flattened out. Alec entered the living room and turned up the recessed lighting over the fireplace. He was no more than ten feet from where she lay. Two paces to his right and he would be staring right at her.
Maura could now see into the dining room through an open archway. The huge table was draped almost to the floor in an off-white tablecloth, and featured a magnificent centerpiece of freshly cut flowers.
"Audra, get down here!" Alec shouted.
He crossed to the base of the stairs.
Now! Go! Maura commanded herself.
Soundlessly, she crawled to the table and slid between two massive chairs and under the cloth. By pressing her cheek against the plush Oriental rug, she could peer out through a three-inch gap. She saw Alec's bare feet enter the room, followed closely by his wife's.
"You look like a little whore in that outfit," Alec snapped. "I like a slut. I like that a lot."
There was a sharp slap, and Audra cried out.
"Please, Alec, not tonight. I can't."
"You love it, bitch. You know it, and I know it."
There was another slap, this one harder than the last. Audra dropped from the force of the blow, landing just a few feet from where Maura was watching. Their eyes actually could have met, but didn't. The woman was clearly shaken.
"Get up!" Alec demanded. "I'm already hard." "Alec, please."
Every neuron cried out to save Audra from this monster, but Maura remained in a fetal position underneath the elegant table.
"Get on the table," he commanded. "I love the way you look right now. You're beautiful…so beautiful. Tomorrow, after your surgery, you're going to look even better."
Maura covered her mouth and gasped inwardly. Her calf muscle knotted from the tension and strain of staying in one position. The searing pain felt as though it was being stabbed with a dull knife. She bit her knuckles to keep still and quiet, and to blot from her mind the horror of what was transpiring above her.
For an excruciatingly long time there was no letup in the fury of Alec's attack. Audra's simpering cries had no effect. Finally, there were only the sounds of two people struggling for breath. Alec Meadows's rape of his wife was complete.
If Maura could have killed the man without jeopardizing her son, she well might have. When he was ready, Alec pushed away from the table, fixed his clothing and ambled upstairs. Audra remained where she was for a time, whimpering and totally spent. Maura felt deeply connected to her. Both of them were suffering greatly by Alec Meadows's design.
It was nearly four-thirty when Audra finally headed upstairs. Maura remained concealed. After a few minutes, she cautiously crawled out from under the table and stretched her throbbing calf. Then she conducted a fruitless search of the downstairs and located the door to the basement, which was by the kitchen. The vast, poorly lit space was unfinished concrete, dank and creepy. There were scattered boxes and old furniture, but no sign of David, and nothing that tied Alec to his kidnapping.
Disheartened, Maura considered then rejected the notion of waiting until the house was empty to search the upstairs. She was heading out when she noticed a door at the far end of the basement. It opened into an unfinished bathroom with a small vanity, sink, mirror and toilet. Inside the vanity she found a blue cosmetics kit containing several plastic vials of pills. Valium, Zoloft, Prozac, Xanax, Effexor-all prescriptions, and all in the name of Audra Meadows. Most of them were empty, but there was a good supply of both Effexor and Xanax. Maura knew those medications well. During and after her divorce, she suffered from depression. Effexor made her feel logy, and highly addictive Xanax was just plain scary. Instead, she opted for late-night TV, counseling and rigorous exercise. Still, it was easy to see why Audra might need medication.
The pills gave Maura something to work with. Assuming Audra was in therapy, her shrink might know about Alec. The problem would be getting the doctor to break professional confidence. Perhaps, she thought, smiling savagely, Dr. Simon Rubenstein had a son.
She glanced at her watch. There were nine hours left. Pocketing one of the empty pill bottles with Rubenstein's office address, she slipped outside through the basement door, and disappeared into the cool mist of the early-morning woods.
Hack left a small shoe box, per Maura's instructions, at the Holiday Inn reception desk. He knew David well and had no trouble honoring her request. Once inside her car, Maura transferred the loaded.38 special to her jacket pocket. Hack, always slightly paranoid and as eccentric as he was brilliant, had a small arsenal hidden around his apartment. In addition to the gun, he had information in the form of printouts regarding Alec Meadows.
Meadows had no actual studio or warehouse in his own name or the name of his company, and his office in downtown L.A. didn't sound like a place David would be kept. Also included was a list of twenty properties in southern California owned by people named A. Meadows. One of them, Hack had circled-per-haps a cabin of some sort, he noted, in the Los Padres National Forest north of Ventura. It was owned by an A. R. Meadows-
Alec's initials. She checked a map and estimated the drive there and back would be five hours. There were eight left before the surgery.
Dr. Simon Rubenstein had an unlisted home number, but Hack was working on finding it and his home address. Meanwhile, Maura went to the shrink's office in Hollywood, only a few blocks from George's surgicenter. The building was locked. She could hang around and wait for Rubenstein, or go with the only lead she had-the place in the mountains.
She called George at home, at the office and on his cell, but got only machines. Dr. George Hill, plastic surgeon to the stars, was never out of touch. He was avoiding her, and that meant he was still ambivalent as to what he would do when the moment of truth came. She left testy messages on each of his phones, letting him know in no uncertain terms what his life would be like if anything happened to their son because of him. Then she filled up the tank of her Camry and headed toward the freeway.
It took a stop at a Los Padres Forest ranger station, and some blind luck, but finally, nearly two and a half hours after she left L.A., she pulled onto Eagle's Nest Road, two miles west of Fra-zier Park. She had just four and a half hours to find David.
Number 14 was painted on a piece of wood nailed to a tree. The house, a cabin, just as Hack had suspected, was a tiny, ramshackle place with junk in the dirt yard-hardly the sort of property the Meadows were likely to own. Maura parked down the drive and approached through the woods. At the edge of the clearing, she took the.38 from her pocket. At almost the same moment, she felt a gun barrel pressed firmly against the back of her neck.
"Drop it!" a bass voice growled. "Now, turn around. Slowly!"
The gun was a hunting rifle with a telescopic site. The man was huge-six-six at least, with a dense red beard. Maura looked up at him defiantly.
"Where's my son?" she demanded.
"Lady, the only son you'll find around here is mine. Luanne?"
A frumpy woman came into the yard, hand in hand with an unkempt two-year-old. Maura felt ill.
"Is your name Meadows?" she asked, her voice hoarse and shaky.
"Ambrose Meadows if it's any business of yours. Now, what'n the heck are you doin' here?"
Devastated that she had rolled the dice with her drive to Los Padres and lost, Maura drove back to L.A. in heavy traffic. Her pistol was back in her jacket pocket. Calls to her ex-husband's various lines brought no response except the answering service.
"Perhaps you forgot," the operator said firmly, "but Dr. Hill doesn't allow any calls to the surgicenter while he is operating."
Maura groaned. It was the great doctor's crowd-pleasing policy that every patient was his only patient. She made no attempt to threaten the woman, but instead cut into the breakdown lane and sped back to Simon Rubenstein's office building and ran up three floors to his office. A man she assumed was Rubenstein, squat and egg bald with a kind, wise face, was just locking the door behind him.
"I have a gun. Please step back into your office or I swear I'll shoot."
If the psychiatrist was the least bit frightened, it didn't show. He turned the key the other way and held the door open for her. Maura escorted him to his back office and closed the door behind them.
"I don't want to hurt you," she said, "but I need help." "I don't carry any drugs, but you don't look as if that's your problem."
Maura took out the letter from the kidnappers and handed it to him. He read it thoughtfully.
"I snuck into the Meadows estate and found prescriptions with your name on them. But before that, I was in hiding when Alec Meadows raped his wife. He's behind this. Either he wants to hurt his wife or discredit my ex-husband. She's due to be operated on in just a few minutes, and I don't know where my son is."
She had begun to cry.
"Please put the gun down," Rubenstein said with calm force.
"Have you gone to the police?"
"It said not to. I.I thought I could find David before-" "And do you know if Dr. Hill will disfigure Audra as this note demands?"
"I.I don't know, I really don't. Now, please, the surgery's scheduled to begin in just a few minutes."
"I believe I can help you," Rubenstein said, "but first you must trust me and somehow stop the operation. How fast can you cover four blocks?"
Maura knew that George was as meticulous about his surgical schedule as he was about everything else. Stunned by what Rubenstein had shared with her, Maura vaulted down the stairs of his office three at a time, and out onto the street, dodging through dense pedestrian traffic like a halfback.
It was exactly four when she reached the gleaming glass-and-white-brick surgicenter. The doors were locked, the foyer dark. Without hesitating, she kicked in a plate-glass window, punched out the shards and clambered inside. The operating rooms were at the rear. One was in action.
"Mrs. Hill, you can't go in there," a nurse said as Maura rammed through the O.R. door. It was 4:05. Audra Meadows lay draped on a brilliantly lit table, her face prepped with antiseptic.
George, the Emperor, gowned, masked and gloved, stood beside her, a large syringe poised in his hand. There was another, similar syringe on the stainless-steel instrument tray. One of them probably contained some sort of anesthetic. The other? "Maura!" he cried. "What the-?"
Ignoring him, she raced over to Audra. The woman's eyes were rheumy from pre-op medication.
"Maura, you can't be in here," George said.
Ignoring him, Maura bent low beside his patient.
"You poor baby," she whispered. "I know what's been happening, Audra. I know and I'm going to help you. Everything is going to be all right. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand."
"Okay. Now tell me, where are you keeping my son?" George shook his head in disbelief.
"I can't believe Audra Meadows would want to do this to herself."
The police had called with reassurance that a SWAT team had picked up David exactly where Audra said he was being held- in a friend's little-used cottage in the hills above Malibu. The man she hired to do the kidnapping and guard David was under arrest, as was Audra, herself, although a judge had already promised Dr. Rubenstein she would be remanded to his service for a full evaluation.
"Her psychiatrist called it complex post-traumatic stress disorder," Maura explained. "Since well before her marriage she's had a pathologic love/hate relationship with her sadistic husband. He's the one who forced her into having all those surgeries. I guess the years of sexual and mental abuse finally pushed her over the edge. She believed if she were disfigured, Alec would reject her, and then she'd be free. Maybe she just couldn't deal with cutting her own face or even hiring someone to do it, or maybe she thought that with your skill, no scar was permanent."
A young detective entered the room, motioning for George. "Dr. Hill, I need to take a statement from you."
George got up to follow the detective and Maura stopped him.
"George," she said, "you had one syringe in your hand and I saw another on the tray. Were you going to go through with it? Was the one you were holding filled with alcohol?"
George smiled. "Well, Maura, what do you think?"
He then turned and walked away.
The Brotherhood of the Rose is a special book for David Morrell. It was his first New York Times bestseller. Later, it was the basis for an NBC miniseries. The "rose" in the title refers to the ancient symbol of secrecy as depicted in Greek mythology. Clandestine councils used to meet with a rose dangling above them and vowed not to divulge what was said sub rosa, under the rose. The "brotherhood" refers to two young men, Saul and Chris, who were raised in an orphanage and eventually recruited into the CIA by a man who acted as their foster father. Having spent time in an orphanage himself, Morrell readily identified with the main characters.
When Brotherhood was completed, Morrell so missed its world that he wrote a similarly titled thriller, The Fraternity of the Stone, in which he introduced a comparable character, Drew MacLane. Still hooked on the theme of orphans and foster fathers (Morrell thinks of this as self-psychoanalysis), he wrote The League of Night and Fog in which Saul from the first thriller meets Drew from the second. Night and Fog is thus a double sequel that is also the end of a trilogy. Morrell intended to write a further thriller in the series and left a deliberately dangling plot thread that was supposed to propel him into a fourth book. But his fifteen-year-old son, Matthew, died from complications of a rare form of bone cancer known as Ewing's sarcoma. Suddenly, the theme of orphans searching for foster fathers no longer spoke to his psyche. Morrell was now a father trying to fill the void left by a son, a theme later explored in several non-Brotherhood novels, especially Desperate Measures and Long Lost.
These many years later, Morrell still receives a couple of requests a week, wanting to know how the plot thread would have been secured and asking him to write more about Saul. When this anthology was planned, Morrell was specifically asked about a new Brotherhood story. He resisted, not wanting to go back to those dark days. But Saul and his wife, Erika, returned to his imagination and refused to leave. The plot thread-an unexplained attack on Saul's village-has been tied. Perhaps both Morrell and his readers will now find closure. There wasn't room to include Drew and his friend, Arlene, but fans will sense them, unnamed, in the background.
One other element is included, too-for what would a Brotherhood story be without the Abelard sanction?
THE ABELARD SANCTION
At the start, Abelard safe houses existed in only a half-dozen cities: Potsdam, Oslo, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Alexandria and Montreal. That was in 1938, when representatives of the world's major intelligence communities met in Berlin and agreed to strive for a modicum of order in the inevitable upcoming war by establishing the principle of the Abelard sanction. The reference was to Peter Abelard, the poet and theologian of the Dark Ages, who seduced his beautiful student Heloise and was subsequently castrated in family retaliation. Afraid for his life, Abelard took refuge in a church near Paris and eventually established a sanctuary called The Paraclete, in reference to the Holy Spirit's role as advocate and intercessor. Anyone who came for help was guaranteed protection.
The modern framers of the Abelard sanction reasoned that the chaos of another world war would place unusual stress on the intelligence operatives within their agencies. While each agency had conventional safe houses, those sanctuaries designated "Abelard" would embody a major extension of the safe house concept. There, in extreme situations, any member of any agency would be guaranteed immunity from harm. These protected areas would have the added benefit of functioning as neutral meeting grounds in which alliances between agencies could be safely negotiated and intrigues formulated. The sanctuaries would provide a chance for any operative, no matter his or her allegiance, to rest, to heal and to consider the wisdom of tactics and choices. Anyone speaking frankly in one of these refuges need not fear that his or her words would be used as weapons outside the protected walls.
The penalty for violating the Abelard sanction was ultimate. If any operative harmed any other operative in an Abelard safe house, the violator was immediately declared a rogue. All members of all agencies would hunt the outcast and kill him or her at the first opportunity, regardless if the transgressor belonged to one's own organization. Because Abelard's original sanctuary was in a church, the framers of the Abelard sanction decided to continue that tradition. They felt that, in a time of weakening moral values, the religious connection would reinforce the gravity of the compact. Of course, the representative from the NKVD was skeptical in this regard, religion having been outlawed in the USSR, but he saw no harm in allowing the English and the Americans to believe in the opiate of the masses.
During the Second World War and the escalating tensions of the subsequent cold war, Abelard sanctuaries proved so useful that new ones were established in Bangkok, Singapore, Florence, Melbourne, Ferlach, Austria and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The latter was of special note because the United States representative to the 1938 Abelard meeting doubted that the sanction could be maintained. He insisted that none of these politically sensitive, potentially violent sites would be on American soil. But he turned out to be wrong. In an ever more dangerous world, the need for a temporary refuge became greater. In a cynical profession, the honor and strength of the sanction remained inviolate.
Santa Fe means Holy Faith. Abelard would approve, Saul Gris-man thought as he guided a nondescript rented car along a dusk-shadowed road made darker by a sudden rainstorm. Although outsiders imagined that Santa Fe was a sun-blistered, lowland, desert city similar to Phoenix, the truth was that it had four seasons and was situated at an altitude of seven thousand feet in the foothills of a range of the Rocky Mountains known as Sangre de Cristo (so-called because Spanish explorers had compared the glow of sunset on them to what they imagined was the blood of Christ). Saul's destination was toward a ridge northeast of this artistic community of fifty thousand people. Occasional lightning flashes silhouetted the mountains. Directions and a map lay next to him, but he had studied them thoroughly during his urgent flight to New Mexico and needed to stop only once to refresh his memory of landmarks that he'd encountered on a mission in Santa Fe years earlier. His headlights revealed a sign shrouded by rain: Camino de la Cruz, the street of the cross. Fingers tense, he steered to the right along the isolated road.
There were many reasons for an Abelard safe house to have been established near Santa Fe. Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was invented, was perched on a mountain across the valley to the west. Sandia National Laboratories, a similar research facility important to U.S. security, occupied the core of a mountain an hour's drive south near Albuquerque. Double agent Edward Lee Howard eluded FBI agents at a sharp curve on Corrales Street here and escaped to the Soviet Union. Espionage was as much a part of the territory as the countless art galleries on Canyon Road. Many of the intelligence operatives stationed in the area fell in love with the Land of Enchantment, as the locals called it, and remained in Santa Fe after they retired.
The shadows of pinon trees and junipers lined the potholed road. After a quarter mile, Saul reached a dead end of hills. Through flapping windshield wipers, he squinted from the glare of lightning that illuminated a church steeple. Thunder shook the car as he studied the long, low building next to the church. Like most structures in Santa Fe, its roof was flat. Its corners were rounded, its thick, earth-colored walls made from stuccoed adobe. A sign said, Monastery of the Sun and the Moon. Saul, who was Jewish, gathered that the name had relevance to the nearby mountains called Sun and Moon. He also assumed that in keeping with Santa Fe's reputation as a New Age, crystal-and-feng-shui community, the name indicated this was not a traditional Catholic institution.
Only one car, as dark and nondescript as Saul's, was in the parking lot. He stopped next to it, shut off his engine and headlights, and took a deep breath, holding it for a count of three, exhaling for a count of three. Then he grabbed his over-the-shoulder travel bag, got out, locked the car and hurried through the cold downpour toward the monastery's entrance.
Sheltered beneath an overhang, he tried both heavy-looking wooden doors but neither budged. He pressed a button and looked up at a security camera. A buzzer freed the lock. When he opened the door on the right, he faced a well-lit lobby with a brick floor. As he shut the door, a strong breeze shoved past him, rousing flames in a fireplace to the left. The hearth was a foot above the floor, its opening oval in a style known as kiva, the crackling wood leaning upright against the back of the firebox. The aromatic scent of pinon wood reminded Saul of incense.
He turned toward a counter on the right, behind which a young man in a priest's robe studied him. The man had ascetic, sunken features. His scalp was shaved bare. "How may I help you?"
"I need a place to stay." Saul felt water trickle from his wet hair onto his neck.
"Perhaps you were misinformed. This isn't a hotel."
"I was told to ask for Mr. Abelard."
The priest's eyes changed focus slightly, becoming more intense. "I'll summon the housekeeper." His accent sounded European but was otherwise hard to identify. He pressed a button. "Are you armed?" "Yes."
The priest frowned toward monitors that showed various green-tinted night-vision images of the rain-swept area outside the building: the two cars in the parking lot, the lonely road, the juniper-studded hills in back. "Are you here because you're threatened?"
"No one's pursuing me," Saul answered.
"You've stayed with us before?"
"Then you know the rules. I must see your pistol."
Saul reached under his leather jacket and carefully withdrew a Heckler & Koch 9mm handgun. He set it on the counter, the barrel toward a wall, and waited while the priest made a note of the pistol's model number (P2000) and serial number.
The priest considered the ambidextrous magazine and slide release mechanisms, then set the gun in a metal box. "Any other weapons?"
"A HideAway knife." Modeled after a Bengal tiger's claw, the HideAway was only four inches long. Saul raised the left side of his jacket. The blade's small black grip was almost invisible in a black sheath parallel to his black belt. He set it on the counter.
The priest made another note and set the knife in the box. "Anything else?"
"No." Saul knew that a scanner built into the counter would tell the priest if he was lying.
"My name is Father Chen," a voice said from across the lobby.
As thunder rumbled, Saul turned toward another man in a priest's robe. But this man was in his forties, Chinese, with an ample stomach, a round face and a shaved scalp that made him resemble Buddha. His accent, though, seemed to have been nurtured at a New England Ivy League university.
"I'm the Abelard housekeeper here." The priest motioned for Saul to accompany him. "Your name?" "Saul Grisman." "I meant your code name." "Romulus."
Father Chen considered him a moment. In the corridor, they entered an office on the right, where the priest took a seat behind a desk and typed on a computer keyboard. He read the screen for a minute, then again looked at Saul, appearing to see him differently. "Romulus was one of the twins who founded Rome. Do you have a twin?"
Saul knew he was being tested. "Had. Not a twin. A brother of sorts. His name was…" Emotion made Saul hesitate. "Chris."
"Christopher Kilmoonie. Irish." Father Chen gestured toward the computer screen. "Code name Remus. Both of you were raised in an orphanage in Philadelphia. The Benjamin Franklin School for Boys. A military school."
Saul knew he was expected to elaborate. "We wore uniforms. We marched with toy rifles. All our classes-history, trigonometry, literature, et cetera-were related to the military. All the movies we saw and the games we played were about war."
"What is the motto of that school?"
"'Teach them politics and war so their sons may study medicine and mathematics in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music and architecture.'"
"But that quotation is not from Benjamin Franklin."
"No. It's from John Adams."
"You were trained by Edward Franciscus Eliot," Father Chen said.
Again, Saul concealed his emotions. Eliot had been the CIA's director for counterespionage, but Saul hadn't known that until years later. "When we were five, he came to the school and befriended us. Over the years, he became.I guess you'd call him our foster father, just as Chris and I were foster brothers. Eliot got permission to take us from the school on weekends-to baseball games, to barbecues at his house in Falls Church, Virginia, to dojos where we learned martial arts. Basically, he recruited us to be his personal operatives. We wanted to serve our father."
"And you killed him."
Saul didn't answer for a moment. "That's right. It turned out the son of a bitch had other orphans who were his personal operatives, who loved him like a father and would do anything for him. But in the end he used all of us, and Chris died because of him, and I got an Uzi and emptied a magazine into the bastard's black heart."
Father Chen's eyes narrowed. Saul knew where this was going. "In the process, you violated the Abelard sanction."
"Not true. Eliot was off the grounds. I didn't kill him in a sanctuary."
Father Chen continued staring.
"It's all in my file," Saul explained. "Yes, I raised hell in a refuge. Eventually Eliot and I were ordered to leave. They let him have a twenty-four-hour head start. But I caught up to him."
Father Chen tapped thick fingers on his desk. "The arbiters of the sanction decided that the rules had been bent but not broken. In exchange for information about how Eliot was himself a mole, you were given unofficial immunity as long as you went into exile. You've been helping to build a settlement in Israel. Why didn't you stay there? For God's sake, given your destructive history, how can you expect me to welcome you to an Abelard safe house?"
"I'm looking for a woman."
Father Chen's cheeks flared with indignation. "Now you take for granted I'll supply you with a prostitute?"
"You don't understand. The woman I'm searching for is my wife."
Father Chen scowled toward an item on the computer screen. "Erika Bernstein. A former operative for Mossad."
"The car in the parking lot. Is it hers?"
"No. You said you're searching for her?"
"I haven't seen her in three weeks. Does the car belong to Yusuf
As thunder again rumbled, Father Chen nodded. "He is a guest."
"Then I expect Erika to arrive very soon, and I'm not here to cause trouble. I'm trying to stop it."
A buzzer sounded. Frowning, Father Chen pressed a button. The image on the monitor changed to a view of the lobby. Saul felt blood rush to his heart as a camera showed Erika stepping from the rain into the lobby. Even in black and white, she was gorgeous, her long dark hair tied back in a ponytail, her cheekbones strong but elegant. Like him, she wore running shoes and jeans, but in place of his leather coat, she had a rain slicker, water dripping from it.
Saul was out of the office before Father Chen could rise from his chair. In the brightly lit lobby, Erika heard Saul's urgently approaching footsteps on the brick floor and swung protectively, hardly relaxing when she saw who it was.
She pointed angrily. "I told you not to come after me."
"Then what the hell are you doing here?"
"I didn't follow you. I followed Habib" Saul turned toward Father Chen. "My wife and I need a place where we can talk."
"The refectory is empty." The priest indicated the corridor behind them and a door on the left, opposite his office.
Saul and Erika stared at one another. Impatient, she marched past him and through the doorway.
Following, Saul turned on the overhead fluorescent lights. The fixtures hummed. The refectory had four long tables arranged in rows of two. It felt cold. The fish smell of the evening meal lingered. At the back was a counter behind which stood a restaurant-size refrigerator and stainless-steel stove. Next to containers of knives, forks and spoons, there were cups and a half pot of coffee on a warmer. As rain lashed at the dark windows, Saul went over and poured two cups, adding nondairy creamer and the sugarless sweetener Erika used.
He sat at the table nearest her. Reluctant, she joined him. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Of course I'm not all right. How can you ask that?"
"I meant, are you injured?"
"Oh." Erika looked away. "Fine. I'm fine."
"Except that you're not."
She didn't reply.
"It's not just your son who's dead." Saul peered down at his untasted coffee. "He was my son, too." Again, no reply.
"I hate Habib as much as you do," Saul said. "I want to squeeze my hands around his throat and-"
"Bullshit. Otherwise, you'd do what I'm doing."
"We lost our boy. I'll go crazy if I lose you, also. You know you're as good as dead if you kill Habib here. For breaking the sanction, you won't live another day."
"If I don't kill Habib, I don't want to live another day. Is he here?"
Saul hesitated. "So I'm told."
"Then I'll never get a better chance."
"We can go to neutral ground and wait for him to leave. I'll help you," Saul said. "The hills around here make perfect vantage points. Will a shot from a sniper's rifle give you the same satisfaction as seeing Habib die face-to-face?"
"As long as he's dead. As long as he stops insulting me by breathing the same air I breathe."
"Then let's do it."
Erika shook her head from side to side. "In Cairo, I nearly got him. He has a bullet hole in his arm to remind him. For two weeks, he ran from refuge to refuge as cleverly as he could. Then six days ago, his tactics changed. His trail became easier to follow. I told myself that he was getting tired, that I was wearing him down. But when he shifted through Mexico into the southwestern United States, I realized what he was doing. In the Mideast, he could blend. In Santa Fe, for God's sake, Mideast-erners are rarely seen. Why would he leave his natural cover?
He lured me. He wants me to find him here. I'm sure his men are waiting for me outside right now, closing the trap. Habib can't imagine that I'd readily break the sanction, that I'd gladly be killed just so I could take him with me. He expects me to do the logical thing and hide among the trees outside, ready to make a move when he leaves. If I do, his men will attack. I'll be the target. Dammit, why didn't you listen to me and stay out of this? Now you can't get out of here alive any more than I can." "I love you," Saul said.
Erika stared down at her clenched hands. Her angry features softened somewhat. "The only person I love more than you is.was.our son."
A voice said, "Both of you must leave."
Saul and Erika turned toward the now-open doorway, where Father Chen stood with his hands behind his robe. Saul had no doubt that the priest concealed a weapon.
A door farther along the refectory wall opened. The ascetic-looking priest from the reception counter stepped into the doorway. He, too, had his hands behind his robe.
Saul took for granted that the refectory had hidden microphones. "You heard Erika. Habib has a trap arranged out there."
"A theory," Father Chen replied. "Not proven. Perhaps she invented the theory to try to force me to let the two of you stay."
"Habib's an organizer for Hamas," Erika said.
"Who or what he works for isn't my concern. Everyone is guaranteed safety here."
"The bastard's a psychologist who recruits suicide bombers." Erika glared. "He runs the damn training centers. He convinces the bombers they'll go to paradise and fuck an endless supply of virgins if they blow themselves up along with any Jews they get near."
"I'm aware of how suicide bombers are programmed," Father Chen said. "But the sanctity of this Abelard safe house is all that matters to me."
"Sanctity?" Saul's voice rose. "What about the sanctity of our home? Four weeks ago, one of Habib's maniacs snuck into our settlement and blew himself up in the market. Our home's near the market. Our son…" Saul couldn't make himself continue.
"Our son," Erika said in a fury, "was killed by a piece of shrapnel that almost cut off his head."
"You have my sincerest and deepest sympathy," Father Chen said. "But I cannot allow you to violate the sanction because of your grief. Take your anger outside."
"I will if Habib calls off his men," Erika said. "I don't care what happens to me, but I need to make sure nothing happens to Saul."
"I'll convey your request," Father Chen said.
"No need." The words came from a shadow in the corridor.
Saul felt his muscles tighten as a sallow face appeared behind Father Chen. Habib was heavyset, with thick dark hair, in his forties, with somber eyebrows and intelligent features. He wore dark slacks and a thick sweater. His left arm was in a sling.
Keeping the priest in front of him, Habib said, "I, too, am sorry about your son. I think of victims as statistics. Anonymous casualties. How else can war be waged? To personalize the enemy is to invite defeat. But it always troubles me when I read about individuals, children, who die in the bombings. They didn't take away our land. They didn't institute laws that treat us as inferiors."
"Your sympathy almost sounds convincing," Erika said.
"When I was a child, my parents lived in Jerusalem's old city. Israeli soldiers patrolled the top of the wall that enclosed the area. Every day, they pissed down onto our vegetable garden. Your politicians have continued to piss on us ever since."
"Not me," Erika said. "I didn't piss on anybody."
"Change conditions, give us back our land, and the bombing will stop," Habib said. "That way, the lives of other children will be saved."
"I don't care about those other children." Erika stepped toward him.
"Careful." Father Chen stiffened, about to pull his hands from behind his robe.
Erika stopped. "All I care about is my son. He didn't piss on your vegetables, but you killed him anyhow. Just as surely as if you'd set off the bomb yourself."
Habib studied her as a psychologist might assess a disturbed patient. "And now you're ready to sacrifice the lives of both you and your husband in order to get revenge?"
"No." Erika swelled with anger. "Not Saul. He wasn't supposed to be part of this. Contact your men. Disarm the trap."
"But if you leave here safely, you'll take their place," Habib said. "You'll wait for me to come outside. You'll attack me."
"I'll give you the same terms my husband gave his foster father. I'll give you a twenty-four-hour head start."
"Listen to yourself. You're on the losing side, but somehow you expect me to surrender my position of strength."
"Strength?" Erika pulled down the zipper on her rain slicker. "How's this for strength?"
Habib gasped. Father Chen's eyes widened. Saul took a step forward, getting close enough to see the sticks of dynamite wrapped around Erika's waist. His pulse rushed when he saw her right thumb reach for a button attached to a detonator. She held it down.
"If anybody shoots me, my thumb goes off the button, and all of us go to heaven, except I don't want any virgin women," Erika said.
"Your husband will die."
"He'll die anyhow as long as your men are outside. But this way, you'll die also. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of a suicide bomb? I don't know how long my thumb can keep pressing this button. When will my hand start to cramp?"
"As insane as you and your killers. The only good thing about what you do is you make sure those nutcases don't breed. For Saul, I'll give you a chance. Get the hell out of here. Take your men with you. Disarm the trap. You have my word. You've got twenty-four hours."
Habib stared, analyzing her rage. He spoke to Father Chen. "If she leaves before the twenty-four hours have elapsed."
"She won't." Father Chen pulled a pistol from behind his robe.
"To help me, you'd risk being blown up?" Habib asked the priest.
"Not for you. For this safe house. I pledged my soul."
"My thumb's beginning to stiffen," Erika warned.
Habib nodded. Erika and Saul followed him along the corridor to his room. Guarded by the priests, they waited while he packed his suitcase. He carried it to the reception area, moving awkwardly because of his wounded shoulder. There, he used a phone on the counter, pressing the speaker button, touching numbers with the index finger of his uninjured right arm.
Saul listened as a male voice answered with a neutral, "Hello." Rain made a staticky sound in the background.
"I'm leaving the building now. The operation has been postponed."
"I need the confirmation code." "'Santa Fe is the City Different.'" "Confirmed. Postponed."
"Stay close to me. I'll require you again in twenty-four hours."
Habib pressed the disconnect button and scowled at Erika. "The next time, I won't allow you to come close to me."
Erika's thumb trembled on the button connected to the detonator. She nodded toward a clock on the wall behind the reception desk. "It's five minutes after ten. As far as I'm concerned, the countdown just started. Move."
Habib used his uninjured right arm to open the door. Rain gusted in. "I am indeed sorry," he told Erika. "It's terrible that children must suffer to make politicians correct wrongs."
He used his car's remote control to unlock the doors from a distance. Another button on the remote control started the engine. He picked up his suitcase and stepped into the rain.
Saul watched him hurry off balance through shadowy gusts toward the car. Lightning flashed. Reflexively, Saul stepped back from the open door in case one of Habib's men ignored the instructions and was foolish enough to shoot at an Abelard safe house.
Buffeted by the wind, Habib set down his suitcase, opened the driver's door, shoved his suitcase across to the passenger seat, then hurried behind the steering wheel.
Father Chen closed the sanctuary's entrance, shutting out the rain, blocking the view of Habib. The cold air lingered.
"Is that parking lot past the boundaries of the sanction?" Erika asked.
"That isn't important!" Father Chen glared. "The dynamite. That's what matters. For God's sake, how do we neutralize it?"
"Simple." Erika released her thumb from the button.
Father Chen shouted and stumbled away.
But the blast didn't come from Erika's waist. Instead, the roar came from outside, making Saul tighten his lips in furious satisfaction as he imagined his car and Erika's blowing apart. The vehicles were parked on each side of Habib's. The plastic explosives in each trunk blasted a shock wave against the safe house's doors. Shrapnel walloped the building. A window shattered.
Father Chen yanked the entrance open. Slanting rain carried with it the stench of smoke, scorched metal and charred flesh. Despite the storm, the flames of the gutted vehicles illuminated the night. In the middle, Habib's vehicle was blasted inward on each side, the windows gaping, flames escaping. Behind the steering wheel, his body was ablaze.
The rumble of thunder mimicked the explosion.
"What have you done?" Father Chen shouted.
"We sent the bastard to hell where he belongs," Erika said.
In the nearby hills, shots cracked, barely audible in the downpour.
"Friends of ours," Saul explained. "Habib's team won't set any more traps."
"And don't worry about the authorities coming to the monastery because of the explosion," Erika said.
A second explosion rumbled from a distance. "When our friends heard the explosion, they faked a car accident at the entrance to this road. The vehicle's on fire. It has tanks of propane for an outdoor barbecue. Those tanks blew apart just now, which'll explain the blasts to the authorities. Neither the police nor the fire department will have a reason to be suspicious about anything a half mile farther along this deserted road."
By now, the flames in the cars in the parking lot were almost extinguished as the rain fell harder.
"We had no idea there'd be a storm," Saul said. "We didn't need it, but it makes things easier. It saves us from hurrying to put out the flames so the authorities don't see a reflection."
Another shot cracked on a nearby hill.
"We'll help clean the site, of course," Erika said. "The Monastery of the Sun and the Moon will look as if nothing ever happened."
"You violated the sanction." Father Chen raised his pistol. "No. You told us the parking lot wasn't part of the safe house," Saul insisted.
"I said nothing of the sort!"
"Erika asked you! I heard her! This other priest heard your answer! You said the parking lot wasn't important!"
"You threatened an operative within a sanctuary!"
"With what? That isn't dynamite around Erika's waist. Those tubes are painted cardboard. We don't have any weapons. Maybe we bent the rules, but we definitely didn't break them."
The priest glowered. "Just like when you killed your foster father."
Erika nodded. "And now another black-hearted bastard's been wiped from the face of the earth." Tears trickled down her cheeks. "But my son is still dead. Nothing's changed. I still hurt. God, how I hurt."
Saul held her.
"I want my son back," Erika whimpered.
"I know," Saul told her. "I know."
"I'll pray for him," Father Chen said.
"Pray for us all."
Deviant Ways was Chris Mooney's first thriller. In the novel, Mooney introduces a secondary character named Malcolm Fletcher, a mysterious, enigmatic former profiler with strange, black eyes who's hiding from the FBI. Another former profiler, Jack Casey, manages to track Fletcher down and convinces him to assist in a disturbing case-a serial killer who murders families in their sleep and then detonates bombs just as the police arrive. Fletcher, Casey discovers, knows the identity of the killer, who happens to be a former patient from an FBI-sponsored behavioral modification program. By the end of the thriller, Malcolm Fletcher is once again on the run, being hunted by his former employer.
When the book was first published, Mooney was surprised by the number of letters and e-mails he received wanting to know more about Malcolm Fletcher. What happened to him? Was he still being chased by the FBI? What other secrets did Fletcher have? More important, what was Fletcher doing? Mooney himself didn't know the answers to these questions. Fletcher had actually disappeared from Mooney's imagination, so the author went to work on two stand-alone thrillers: World Without End and Remembering Sarah. But the e-mails from readers didn't stop, so Mooney started asking himself those same questions and decided to revisit his popular character. During the process, Mooney discovered he missed Fletcher and the world he inhabited, so he's now exploring the idea of using Fletcher in a potential series.
Here, in Falling, Mooney explores his trademark themes of loss, retribution, and how justice so often depends on one's interpretation. He also introduces a new character, a young woman who has been asked to help set a trap to capture the dangerous former FBI profiler.
So what has Malcolm Fletcher been up to all these years?
Time to find out.
The airport was busy and hot. Marlena had to walk fast to keep up.
"The transmitter is very small, less than half the size of a pencil eraser," Special Agent Owen Lee said. He had the slender build of a swimmer and talked with a slight lisp. "Your job is to plant the transmitter and walk away, and then you can enjoy a few days of R & R here in the Caymans, courtesy of the federal government."
"I still don't understand why you specifically requested me," Marlena said. It was a valid question. She was a lab rat. Her expertise was in forensics not surveillance.
"I asked for a confident young woman, someone who could think on her feet," Lee said. "She also needed to be exceptionally good-looking and Cuban, because this guy has a thing for Cuban women. That's when your name came up."
"Who's the subject?"
Marlena felt her legs wobble.
Malcolm Fletcher, one of the brightest minds the FBI had ever produced, was now one of the FBI's Most Wanted. Currently he had a two-million-dollar price tag on his head for the deaths of at least three federal agents.
And that was just what the federal government was offering. For years, Marlena had heard rumors of a reward somewhere in the neighborhood of five million dollars being offered by Jean Paul Rousseau. His son, Special Agent Stephen Rousseau, had been part of a failed attempt to apprehend Fletcher. Now Stephen Rousseau was brain dead and still on a feeding tube.
"Judging by your expression, I take it you know who he is."
Marlena nodded, swallowed. "Is it true about his eyes?"
"No pigment at all, totally black," Lee said. "I hear you've applied for the open position in Investigative Support."
"Yes." Marlena was hoping her lab experience would give her an edge over the other applicants competing for the coveted spot inside the Investigative Support Unit, the section of the FBI that deals exclusively with serial murder.
"Capturing Fletcher and bringing him home to justice-this is the kind of case that makes careers. I hope you take directions well."
"You can count on me, sir."
"Good. Now let's go buy you a dress. You're going to a cocktail party."
Marlena dropped her suitcase into the back of a battered Jeep. Sitting behind the wheel was a man who could have easily passed as a body double for the Incredible Hulk. He wore a Yankees baseball hat and a T-shirt stretched so tight it looked moments away from splitting. His name was Barry Jacobs, one of the members of Lee's surveillance team.
Malcolm Fletcher, Lee explained, was a man with very particular tastes. Everything had to be just right. Lee insisted she model each dress for him.
Each time, Marlena stood in front of him while Lee sat in a leather chair, telling her to turn around or to the side. Lee didn't smile or say much, but she felt his gaze lingering too long over the exposed parts of her body. To get past her discomfort, Mar-lena focused on the store-the rows of expensive shoes and the glass jewelry cases, the bright smile of the helpful Frenchwoman who kept bringing her different cocktail dresses. Here she came again, holding up a tasteful yet revealing black Gucci.
When Marlena stepped out wearing the Gucci, Lee's expression brought to mind a recent rape case she had worked on-a handsome, Ivy-educated young man who drugged women with Rohypnol and videotaped what he did with them. The way the young man smiled as he unbuckled his belt was a lot like the way Lee was smiling right now.
While Lee paid for the dress and shoes, Marlena excused herself and went outside. Jacobs was leaning against the store wall, smoking a cigarette.
"Can I bum one of those?"
Jacobs handed her a cigarette, then lit it for her. "You nervous about tonight?" he asked.
"Should I be?"
"No. I'll be at the yacht club, but you won't see me. Lee and the other two agents on our team, they'll be monitoring everything from the operations house about five or so miles down the road. That's where we've been staying. Lee's got you booked in a nice hotel."
Having male and female agents sharing the same quarters was now against regulations; too many female agents had complained about lewd behavior and sexual harassment. And after the creepy way Lee had looked her over, Marlena felt relieved to be staying someplace else.
"Fletcher has never attacked anyone in public before. As long as you don't go anywhere alone with him, you'll be fine." Jacobs stubbed out his cigarette. "I'll go get the Jeep. Tell Lee it's going to be a few minutes. I had to park in a garage."
Two doors down, Marlena spotted a revolving display holding rows of bright, colorful postcards of the Caymans. The postcards immediately brought to mind her mother. Ruthie Sanchez took the postcards family and friends had sent her over the years and taped them up on the wall inside her janitor's closet. She'd loved her postcards with their scenic views.
Marlena picked out two postcards she thought her mother would have enjoyed. As she paid for them, along with a pack of cigarettes, she tried hard to push away the memory of her mother trapped on the fifty-sixth floor of the World Trade Center's north tower, the fire and horrifying screams growing louder and closer as her mother stared at the shattered window leading out to a blue sky thick with smoke, her only way out.
Owen Lee insisted on conducting the briefing inside her hotel room. He handed her a folder and excused himself to talk with Jacobs in the hallway. Marlena read the file on the balcony overlooking a crowded beach.
The report was mostly about Fletcher's movements on the island over the past week. Twice he had been spotted talking to Jonathan Prince, a lawyer who owned a private bank on the island. According to an unnamed informant, Fletcher was supposed to meet Prince at tonight's cocktail party to pick up his new identity, complete with passport and credit cards.
Here were four surveillance photos. The first was of Jonathan Prince standing outside a pair of glass doors. He was an older man, with a shaved head and a nose shaped like a beak. The last three photographs were of Fletcher. In each, the former FBI profiler wore stylish clothing and different types of sunglasses. Mar-lena was wondering about the strange, black eyes hidden behind the dark lenses when Lee stepped onto the balcony and handed her a Prada handbag.
"A Rolex watch and a pair of diamond stud earrings are in there to help you look the part," Lee said. "The transmitters are inside the small, zipped pouch."
Mounted on a rectangular piece of plastic were six transmitters, each one a different color to match whatever fabric color the target might be wearing.
Lee pulled up a chair and sat down. "The top part is made with this Velcro-like substance that attaches itself to any fabric. You barely have to apply any pressure. Go ahead and try it."
Marlena peeled off the white disk, reached around Lee's back and brushed her finger against the collar of his shirt, marveling at the way it so easily stuck to the fabric. The transmitter was so small you could barely see it.
"Good technique," Lee said, and smiled.
Marlena smelled the mint-scented mouthwash on his breath. His red hair was damp and neatly combed. She hoped to God he hadn't spruced himself up for her.
"You mind if I smoke?" Marlena asked.
"Not as long as you share," Lee said.
Marlena went into the bedroom and came back with her cigarettes. She lit one, then handed the pack and matches to Lee. "I read over the report." She casually moved her chair to give her some distance. "There was no mention as to where Fletcher is staying on the island."
"That's because we don't know. Fletcher's highly educated with surveillance techniques, so we can't use our normal methods. Plus, he tends to move around only at night, which presents its own set of problems. Now, tell me what you've heard about him."
"Mainly that he's brilliant."
"Without a doubt. When he worked for Investigative Support, he had the highest clearance rate on serial murder. Unfortunately, Fletcher crossed a line. Instead of bringing these monsters in, he acted as their judge, jury and executioner. When the bureau found out what he was doing, they sent three agents to Fletcher's home to handle the matter discreetly. One agent is brain dead and hooked up to a feeding tube. The other two agents…we still don't have any idea what happened to them. Fletcher's been on the run ever since."
"How did you find him?"
"The informant mentioned in the report is a secretary at Prince's firm. For years, we've believed Fletcher used the Caymans to shift around his money and change identities. Now we know it's true. She supplied us with the aliases Fletcher's been using, his bank accounts, you name it."
Lee lit his cigarette, tossed the match off the balcony. "Fletcher's scheduled to meet Prince at ten. The cocktail party will be crowded, everyone holding drinks, trying not to bump into one another. You're going to walk behind Fletcher, touch the back of his arm and say, 'Excuse me'-you know, pretend to bump into him. Go for a casual approach, it always works best."
"And if Fletcher approaches me?"
"Then you talk to him. Be yourself, flirt with him, touch his arm or shoulder like you're interested, and then find a way to put the transmitter on him-and once you do, don't disengage right away. That will look suspicious. Talk to him for a few minutes, and then find a way to excuse yourself. We'll take it from there."
"Why did the secretary give up Fletcher?"
"She's planning on leaving her husband, and two million buys her a new life and a whole lot of distance. Now, to answer your next question-why aren't we using her to plant the transmitter? First off, she doesn't have direct access to Fletcher. He never meets Prince at the office, only in public places where he has multiple escape routes. Second reason is, even if I could arrange some scenario to get the secretary next to Fletcher tonight, the woman is not what I'd call grace under pressure. If I send her in with an agenda, Fletcher will pick up on it right away."
"Why not just approach Fletcher directly? You certainly have the manpower."
"True, but then we'd have to bring in the locals. Prince has many friends on the inside, people who can be easily bought. There are extradition issues and some others that don't concern you.
"Look, Marlena, I can understand why you're nervous," Lee said. "But you've got to trust me when I say I have all the bases covered. The watch in your purse is equipped with a listening device, so we'll all be listening in. If there's a problem or a change in plans, Jacobs will get word to you. And if I think you're in danger, I'll pull you out. We've got a boat standing by, just in case. You'll be fine as long as you remember this rule-under no circumstances are you to go anywhere alone with Fletcher." "Jacobs mentioned that."
"Head over to the party around eight and get a feel for the place. Your name is already on the guest list. The set of keys on your bed belong to a black Mercedes parked out in the back lot. The directions to the club are under the seat."
Marlena stared out at the water.
"Wipe that look off your face," Lee said. "Everything's going to be fine."
You keep saying that, Marlena thought, wondering who Lee was really trying to convince.
The yacht club was located at the opposite end of the island, a remote and stunningly beautiful spot overlooking a sprawling dock packed with sailboats and yachts. Apparently, this was the place to be if you were in the market for a trophy wife or a sugar daddy. There wasn't a woman here over the age of thirty-five, each stunningly beautiful and wearing a dress worthy of a red-carpet show. Now Marlena understood Lee's obsession about picking out the perfect dress.
It was coming up on ten. For the past half hour, Marlena had been forced to listen to a fossil named William Bingham, aka Billy Bing, the Mercedes King of Fresno, California, talk about sailing the way you'd talk about great sex. As she pretended to listen, scanning the well-dressed crowd for Malcolm Fletcher and Jonathan Prince, her thoughts kept drifting back to the postcards.
This wasn't the first time she had purchased something for her mother after she died-this past Christmas she had dropped two hundred dollars on a cashmere sweater at Talbots. It wasn't like she could take the sweater or the postcards to her mother's grave. Ruthie Sanchez didn't have a grave. Like so many 9/11 victims, her remains were never found-and they would never be found because Marlena had signed away all rights to her mother's remains in exchange for a lucrative settlement that had allowed her to put her severely autistic brother in a special home.
Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of psychology would say her need to purchase gifts for her dead mother was about not wanting to let go. Fine. But there was another reason, something Marlena had told no one, not even her therapist. Every time she held the postcards, the Christmas sweater, the crystal vase she had bought on the first anniversary of her mother's death, the feeling that kept boiling to the surface was outrage. The hijackers and planners, the CIA and FBI bureaucrats and politicians who had ignored the warning signs-Marlena wanted to take these people and, just like in the Bible, stone them to death over a period of weeks. Thinking about the different ways she could punish the people responsible-that was the feeling that kept coming to her over and over again.
Marlena snapped her mind back to the present. Billy Bing was still talking; something to do with golf. Thank God, here came the waiter with her glass of wine.
"A gentleman at the bar wanted me to give this to you," the waiter said, and handed her a folded napkin.
Written in black ink was a message: Use phone on top of cooler inside boat Falling Star, near end of dock. Untie boat, then call and follow instructions. Jacobs. A phone number was written under his name.
Marlena politely excused herself from the conversation and headed for the docks, remembering Lee's words from this afternoon: If I think you're in danger, I'll pull you out of there. We've got a boat standing by.
So something had gone wrong, and now she was in danger.
Heart pounding, she stood on the dock in front of the Falling Star, an oversized Boston whaler, the kind of charter boat most likely used for deep-sea fishing. The boat was dark and empty, but the one moored next to it, a Sea Ray motor yacht, was lit up and packed with well-dressed people drinking highballs and smoking cigarettes and cigars.
Marlena took in her surroundings. A lot of people were milling around on the docks but nobody was heading this way. Okay, get moving. She stepped on board the Falling Star, feeling it rock beneath her heels, and set her wineglass and purse on the table inside the cabin. Under the table were two matching extra-large Coleman coolers wrapped in chains and secured by padlocks. A third Coleman sat against the wall behind her, near the cabin door. This cooler wasn't locked; the chains had been removed and lay in a ball on the floor. Sitting on the cooler's top were two items: a cell phone and a set of keys. The top, she noticed, wasn't fully shut.
As instructed, Marlena went to work untying the boat from the dock, glancing up every few seconds to survey the area. People were minding their own business, their laughter and voices mixing with the old-time jazz music coming from the Sea Ray. After she hoisted the last rubber fender onto the stern, she moved back inside the cabin, grabbed the cell and dialed the number written on the napkin.
"Don't talk, just listen," said the man on the other end of the line. His voice was deep and surprisingly calm. Must be one of the two agents she hadn't met-the ones monitoring from the house, she thought. "The keys on top of the cooler are for the boat. Drive out of the harbor. Get moving. We don't have much time."
The man on the phone told her where to find the switch for the lights. Marlena started the boat. The twin engines turned over, the floor vibrating beneath her as she increased the throttle and slowly eased the boat away from the dock with one hand on the wheel, the other pressing the phone tightly against her ear.
Something heavy landed on the stern. Marlena whipped her head around, her panic vanishing when she saw Barry Jacobs, dressed in the same dark suit as the waitstaff, step inside the cabin.
Thank God, Marlena thought. Jacobs, red-faced and sweating, yanked the phone away from her and tossed it against the floor.
Marlena stared at him, dumbfounded. She opened her mouth to speak, the words evaporating off her tongue as Jacobs shoved her up against the wall.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
"You told me to take the boat out."
Jacobs dug his fingers deep into her arms. "Don't lie to me, or I swear to Christ-"
"I'm telling you the truth," Marlena said. "A waiter gave me a note written on a napkin. Your name was signed on the bottom. It said to-"
"And you just came down here?"
"Lee said if there was a problem, you'd get word to me-" "Where's this note?" "In my purse."
"Get it." Jacobs released her and took control of the wheel. He increased the throttle, and the boat lurched forward.
Glass shattered inside the cabin. When Marlena stepped inside, she saw that her wineglass had fallen to the floor. The cooler near the cabin door had moved. Drops of blood were leaking around the seams of the cooler's half-opened top. Mar-lena reached down and opened the cooler.
As a forensics specialist, she had seen her share of dead bodies, the dozens of different ways human beings could be cut, broken and bruised. But seeing the way Owen Lee had been dismembered sent a nauseous scream rising up her throat.
Then Jacobs was standing next to her. He slammed the cooler shut.
"Relax, take deep breaths," Jacobs said as he escorted her to the seat. "I'm going to call the command post."
Jacobs held out his cell phone. Marlena stared at him, confused.
Something hot and sharp pierced her skin. Marlena looked down at her chest and saw twin metal prongs attached to wires; Jacobs was holding a Taser. The charge swept through her body, and the next thing Marlena saw was her mother clutching her hand as they fell together through an electric-blue sky.
Marlena heard splashing. Her eyes fluttered open to moonlight.
She was still on the boat, lying across one of the padded seats set up along the stern. All the deck and interior lights had been turned off, as had the engine. A cooler lay on its side, opened. It was empty.
Something heavy bumped against the boat. Marlena had an idea what was going on and went to push herself up but couldn't move. Her hands were tied behind her back, her ankles bound together with the same coarse rope. She swung her feet off the seat and managed to sit.
She was out in open water, far away from the harbor. Zigzagging along the sides and back of the boat were several distinctively shaped dorsal fins. And those were just the sharks she could see.
"There's no need to panic, Marlena. I'm not going to feed you to the sharks."
She turned away from the water and looked up into Malcolm Fletcher's strange, black eyes.
Marlena backed away and fell, hitting her head against the side of the boat before toppling onto the floor. She lay on her stomach, about to roll onto her back-she could use her feet to kick- when Fletcher's powerful hands slid underneath her arms and lifted her into the air, toward the water. She tried to fight.
"Despite what the federal government has led you to believe, I have no intention of harming you," Fletcher said, dropping her back on the seat. "Now, I can't say the same is true about Special Agent Jacobs. Lucky for you I was on board to put a stop to it."
Fletcher's face seemed darker than in the surveillance pictures, more gaunt. He was impeccably dressed in a dark suit without a tie.
"Before I cut you free, I'd like a piece of information-and I'd appreciate some honesty," Fletcher said. "Will you promise to be honest with me? This is important."
Marlena nodded. She took in several deep breaths, trying to slow the rapid beating of her heart.
"Those postcards you purchased earlier, who were they for?"
The question took her by surprise.
"I bought them for my mother," Marlena said after a moment. "She's dead, isn't she?"
"How did-? Yes. She's dead. Why?"
"Tell me what happened."
"She died on 9/11. She was inside one of the buildings-the north tower."
"Did you have a chance to speak with her?" "Not directly. She left a message on my machine." "What did she say?"
"She said, 'I love you, and remember to take care of your brother.' There was some background noise, and then the cellphone signal cut off."
Marlena thought about the other voice on the tape, a man whispering to her mother. A friend at the FBI lab had enhanced it: "Hold my hand, Ruthie. We'll jump together." The crazy thing was how much the man sounded like her father, who died when she was twenty. Or maybe she just wanted to believe her mother hadn't been alone during her final moment.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Fletcher said, and meant it. "Excuse me for a moment."
Fletcher ducked inside the cabin. Water splashed along the back and sides of the boat. A moment later, he came back, dragging a hog-tied Jacobs across the floor. Fletcher propped Jacobs up into a kneeling position directly in front of her. A piece of duct tape was fastened across Jacobs's mouth.
"Remember what I said earlier about confession being good for the soul," Fletcher said to Jacobs, and then tore off the strip of tape.
Jacobs stared at the sharks circling the boat. He swallowed several times before speaking. "I sold you out to bounty hunters working for Jean Paul Rousseau. Stephen, his son, was a federal agent, part of a team sent to apprehend Fletcher."
"Those agents were sent to kill me," Fletcher said. "I acted purely out of self-defense, but that's a story for another time. Keep going, Special Agent Jacobs."
"Rousseau wanted Fletcher captured alive and brought back to Louisiana. That was the condition of the reward. The bounty hunters and people working for Rousseau, they wanted us to disappear. Everyone would assume you were responsible because you have a track record of making federal agents disappear. That way, it would keep the heat off Rousseau."
"I'm afraid Jacobs is telling the truth about the bounty hunters," Fletcher said. "I've been following Lee for the past week. Naturally, I wanted to see what he was up to, so I took the liberty of tapping into his phone conversations-the FBI's encryption technology is woefully out of date. After Lee and Jacobs left your hotel, I followed them back to the house they've been using as a base of operations. You can imagine my surprise when, two hours later, five rather disturbing-looking men emerged from the back doors and carried three oversize coolers to the fishing boat Lee used to transport all his surveillance equipment. I recognized one of these gentlemen from a previous entangle-ment-a professional tracker, or bounty hunter, who works for Daddy Rousseau. Now tell Marlena about what you had planned for her."
Jacobs didn't answer.
Fletcher whispered something in Jacobs's ear. He looked terrified.
"After you planted the transmitter, the bounty hunters were to move in and take care of Fletcher," Jacobs said, his voice quivering. "They wanted me to take you out on the boat under the guise of meeting up with Lee at the operations house. You were supposed to disappear, out here in the water. The sharks were going to take care of you. No bodies, no evidence, no case."
"And where were you going?" Fletcher said. "Costa Rica."
"With how much money?"
A pause, then Jacobs said, "Seven million."
"It seems the price on my head has gone up," Fletcher said, grinning. "Jacobs neglected to mention the part where I slipped out of the utility closet and caught him in the act of feeling you up. I think he was preparing to share a special moment with you before dumping you overboard. It's not every day he has an opportunity to be intimate with such a beautiful woman. Did you tell Marlena about your colorful tenure in Boston?"
"I worked as a handler for informants."
"He's being modest," Fletcher said. "Special Agent Jacobs was the handler for two very powerful figureheads inside the Irish mafia. In exchange for lucrative payoffs, Jacobs ran interference so these two men could continue committing extortion, money laundering and murder. When his superiors got wind of what was going on, these two men suddenly disappeared. Any idea what happened to them?"
"I was cleared on those charges," Jacobs said.
"You were never indicted because the president stepped in and invoked executive privilege in order to protect a member of his high-ranking staff-a member who once worked as your boss in Boston. The corruption went well beyond Jacobs, and the president wanted it kept quiet. How many people died to protect your secrets, Special Agent Jacobs? How many people did you kill?"
Jacobs didn't answer.
"It doesn't matter. I think we've heard enough." Fletcher taped Jacobs's mouth shut.
Then Marlena watched as Fletcher dragged Jacobs, kicking and screaming, to the back part of the boat. The idea flashed through her mind: Jacobs alone in the water, screaming out in pain and horror as the sharks ripped him apart. No part of her rose up in protest or tried to push the thought away.
Jacobs was pinned against the stern, screaming behind the duct tape as he stared, wide-eyed and terrified, at the water.
"Do you want me to cut him loose before I toss him overboard?" Fletcher asked her.
Marlena didn't answer, aware of the intense feeling building inside her, the one she had when holding things like the postcards and the sweater.
"What would your mother want you to do?" Fletcher asked.
Marlena thought of her mother alone in that terrible moment, a woman who worked as a janitor and wanted nothing more out of life than to be a good mother to her two children, now forced to make a decision between jumping to her death and being burned alive.
She spotted a bright light on the horizon. The light belonged to a boat.
"That would be my ride," Fletcher said. "What's your answer?" She wanted Jacobs to suffer. But giving the order to do it was something else entirely.
"I want to bring him in," Marlena said.
"At the moment, you have no direct proof of his involvement with the bounty hunters. Jean Paul Rousseau is not a stupid man. And despite his rather apish appearance, I'm willing to bet Jacobs covered his tracks just as well. It will be your word against his. I don't have to remind you how those cases turn out, especially since Jacobs has connections in very high places."
"I'll work the evidence."
"I doubt you'll find any."
"I'll take my chances."
"Your choice." Fletcher released Jacobs. "Turn around, Mar-lena, and I'll untie your hands."
The boat that pulled alongside them was a cigarette boat, a bullet-shaped race boat designed for incredible speed. Standing behind the wheel was a pale man with a shaved head and an odd-looking nose-Jonathan Prince.
"Malcolm," Prince said. "We need to get moving."
She recognized the voice as the one she had spoken to earlier on the cell phone.
"You had this whole thing planned out," Marlena said, more to herself.
"I needed to move you to safety, and the only way to do it was to get you on the boat, away from the club." Marlena felt Fletcher's breath against her ear. "Those postcards and whatever other items you've bought since your mother's death? I suggest you bury them."
Her hands were cut free.
"I'll leave Jacobs tied up, in case you change your mind. Good luck, Marlena."
The cigarette boat roared away. She got to work untying the rope around her ankles. She didn't rush. She knew there was no way she could catch up to Fletcher.
During the commotion, Jacobs had managed to rub off part of the duct tape from the corner of his mouth. "I have an account set up here on the island," he mumbled. "I'll transfer the money to you. All I need is a laptop. You let me go, and I'll disappear. You'll never see me again."
Marlena didn't answer.
"Seven million," Jacobs said. "That kind of money can buy you a lot of things."
But it can't buy me what I need, Marlena thought, and went to start the boat.
"Wait, let's talk about this," Jacobs said. "We can come to some sort of agreement."
Marlena drove toward the bright lights of the island. She heard Jacobs screaming over the roar of the engines and wind, pleading with her to make a deal. Marlena drove faster and thought of her mother falling through the sky and tried hard not to dwell on the limitations of justice.
Both a literary and suspense novelist, Dennis Lynds is credited with bringing the detective novel into the modern age then, twenty years later-in the 1980s-introducing literary techniques that propelled the genre into its current dynamic form. An award winner, Lynds wrote under several pseudonyms, publishing some eighty novels and two hundred short stories. His most famous pen name was Michael Collins. Under that label he created fiction's longest-running detective series, starring the indelible private eye Dan Fortune. The New York Times consistently named Lynds's mysteries among the nation's top ten. One year, it listed two of his titles, each written under a different pseudonym, without realizing he was the author of both. His awards include both the Edgar and the Marlowe Lifetime Achievement.
Lynds also published literary novels and short stories. Five were honored in Best American Short Stories. Then, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, he pioneered the detective form again, writing books in both third and first person and lacing them with short stories, techniques which today's writers employ regularly.
"Powerful and memorable, [these works] indicate Collins has embarked on a new course after some 60 books," wrote critic Richard C. Carpenter in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers. "Truly, he is a writer to be reckoned with." Of his most recent short story collection, Fortune's World, the Los Angeles Times commented, "To spin tales as intriguing and thought provoking as these for three decades is a remarkable enough achievement. Even more remarkable is the sustained quality… It takes style to bring that off. Bravery, too, of course."
Iconoclastic, witty and generous, sadly Lynds died August 19, 2005, at the age of eighty-one. Several of his short stories will be published posthumously, including the one here, Success of a Mission. This story was first published in 1968. Since then, it has been nominated for several awards and anthologized. The story is still relevant today in both its triumph and its tragedy.
SUCCESS OF A MISSION
The minister of defense stood with his back to the room. He faced a large map on the wall of his office.
"They will attack," the minister said. "If we do not know the locations of their ammunition dumps, supply depots and fuel stores, we cannot stop them."
The minister turned. He was a small man with a round face that would have been kindly except for the hard gray surface of his eyes. These hard gray eyes studied the faces of the other two people in the room the way a scientist would study a specimen on a microscope slide.
"That data would only be at army headquarters in their capital, Minister," the tall infantry captain said.
The minister nodded. "Yes. Our man at their headquarters knows that much, has already located exactly where they are in the building."
"He cannot get the data for us, Minister?" the woman asked.
"No. He cannot get into the building. It would be quite impossible in his disguise, and in any case we need him to remain in his present position. His contacts are too low level, and we have no other reliable agents with the necessary experience at their headquarters for a job of this degree of difficulty, sensitivity and importance. There is no time to place an undercover man in the headquarters now. It will have to be a single swift operation from outside army headquarters. Get in, get the data, bring it back without them being aware that we have it."
The woman paled under her olive complexion. There and gone, the quick fear, but it had been there. She was little more than a girl, despite her officer's uniform. Her face was oval, with a small nose, wide and full lips and soft brown eyes. She had been in the army three years, and had killed four men with a knife in the dead of night, but she paled as the minister described what would have to be done at the headquarters of the enemy's army in the heart of enemy country.
The tall man only nodded. "When do we leave?"
His voice, when he said this, was low, and had a faint trace of an accent different from that of the woman and the minister. There was a long scar on his lean, tanned face. The middle finger of his left hand was missing. His almost-black eyes showed no expression.
"In ten minutes, Captain. All your papers are ready," the minister said. "You, Captain Hareet, will be an American automobile salesman on a long-planned combined vacation and business trip that could not be canceled despite the crisis. We have picked you for this job because of your experience, your colloquial American English and your command of Arabic. With some darkening of the skin, your features will also pass as Arab, if that becomes necessary. You know their army and their city."
Captain Hareet nodded. "Yes, sir. I know both only too well to lose a war to them."
The minister faced the girl. "Lieutenant Frank, you will be his wife. Your home is in Santa Barbara, California. You have lived there, and no special regional accent is required for an educated Californian. Standard American will do. Your Arabic will pass in an emergency, but we hope there will be no need. It is hard for a woman to infiltrate in Arab countries."
"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Frank said. The shiver in her voice was so faint no one but a man as trained as the minister, or Captain Hareet, would have caught it, and it disappeared as quickly as it had come. The two men looked at each other, nodded, and then smiled at the woman.
"You are lovers?" the minister asked.
The captain was silent. Lieutenant Frank hesitated for a moment. Then she nodded. "Yes, sir. Paul and I have lived together for over a year. We were lovers before that. We planned to marry soon, but that will have to wait now until after the crisis has passed."
"I am sorry for that, Lieutenant, but it is good that my information is correct."
"Is such information necessary?" Captain Hareet asked.
"All information is necessary," the minister said. "In this case, it might be vital. You will be posing as man and wife under the most careful scrutiny of every foreign national who arrives in their country at this moment. They will expect us to send spies, try to learn what their plans are. Women who are not married tend to act like coy maidens at the wrong moment. They forget. To act like she sleeps regularly with a man, a woman must be sleeping regularly with the man. Men who are not married don't know how to act with a wife at all."
"Yes, sir," Hareet said, and smiled again at the young woman. "I think Greta and I will be able to act the part well enough to pass any inspection."
"Do we parachute?" Greta asked.
"The sky is too clear. They will be alert. You will fly to Rome, and there you will board a normal commercial carrier. You will be Mr. and Mrs. Rogers of Santa Barbara. Harry and Susan, but he calls her Susy. Your papers are in order. The real Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are in Europe on such a trip with a different order of itinerary caused by a sudden change in plans we managed to arrange, and are being watched by our agents. You look enough like them to pass a cursory inspection."
The minister turned again to the large map on the wall. "I wish we could allow you some time to prepare. We can't. You are the only suitable team we have that can act the part on such short notice. I cannot even tell you how to proceed. Only that we must have the data within three days."
The minister turned once more to look at Hareet and Greta with his hard gray eyes. "In three days, they will attack us."
Mr. and Mrs. Harry Rogers of Santa Barbara, California, U.S.A., passed through Rome customs and immigration without any trouble. The Italian officials were most polite, and more than a little appreciative of Mrs. Rogers's dark beauty. She received all the customary whistles and smiles, and one definite pinch. In the taxi that took them to their hotel, they peered out the windows and exclaimed over everything, as American tourists would.
They checked into the hotel they had booked months ago from the States, showered off the grime of their trip, made love in the ornate Italian bed and went out to see the sights of the Eternal City. They ate in one of the best restaurants in Rome, ordered two bottles of good local white wine, went dancing, threw some coins in the proper fountain and visited the others, and generally had a fine tourist evening in the Italian capital.
The next morning they did not rise early, took the time to have their usual big, leisurely breakfast, then caught a taxi back to the airport for the next leg of their journey. On the jet out of Rome, they had seats just behind the wing. Harry Rogers held a guidebook and pointed out the sights below they had missed on the ground the night before.
"Look, dear," Captain Hareet said to Greta, the perfect eager American automobile salesman on his first trip to Europe. "There's St. Peter's, and the Colosseum, and the Via Veneto. We were standing right down there just last night, honey."
"Did you remember to send the postcards to the Phelps and the Temples, Harry?" Greta said, her mind clearly at home with her social obligations where a good wife's mind should be.
"Ouch, I forgot," Mr. Harry Rogers said, the self-centered American husband. "We'll send some from Athens when we get there, okay?"
When they arrived at the airport of their next stop, the capital of the enemy country, there was the loud confusion normal to Arab countries. The present political crisis and impending possibility of war only heightened the clamor and chaos. They were inspected thoroughly at customs. With the mighty United States Seventh Fleet cruising pointedly at this end of the Mediterranean, Americans were not in the best standing in Arab countries at the moment.
"You will do well to remain safely within the city," a customs official told them coldly. "And I suggest you do not enter the less visited and policed areas."
"We sure won't, buddy," Hareet said, his voice clearly nervous.
The official smiled at the intimidated American. Another man who stood off to the right and watched everyone who passed through customs did not smile. The dark shadows of his Levantine eyes stared at Captain Hareet's left hand. He showed nothing on his face, no particular expression, but his steady gaze followed them as they left.
"He's interested in your missing finger, Paul," Greta said through a wifely smile. "They might have a file on you."
"Possible," Hareet agreed, smiling down at her. "We must go to the hotel, however. The risk can't be avoided, our contact will be made there."
Greta walked ahead of her husband in the American fashion. They took a taxi to their hotel, where she walked in first, left Ha-reet to pay the cabdriver and run after her.
In their suite of rooms, Hareet remembered to overtip the robed and surly bellman, and Greta remembered to prepare at once for a shower. They were well-taken precautions. Two maids soon arrived to perform some barely necessary tasks.
"We're being watched, Paul," Greta said.
Hareet agreed. "The question is, are we being watched as their normally trigger-happy suspicion against all tourists at a time like this, or have we been spotted as something special and possibly dangerous?"
"I would say something special." Greta thought carefully. "But not yet certain. They are checking on us."
"So we have some time. A few hours at least. Unless they do have a file on me and have connected it to Harry Rogers."
"How many will come?" Greta asked.
"If they are sure, a squad of soldiers and a vehicle. If they are still only suspicious, two men."
"We can't stay here in the rooms. We wouldn't look much like American tourists."
"No. Are you ready?"
They went out and down to the crowded streets that smelled of the masses of humanity and poor sewage disposal. Streets now crowded more than usual with the local inhabitants, the fellahin and the middle class and even the elite upper classes in their Cadillacs and Mercedes. They were all more excited than normal. There was a high tension in the city, a fever of hate and violence building almost by the minute. In the markets, the merchants hawked and sold frantically. In the shops, shutters were being readied for possible mass demonstrations.
The two Americans were watched with barely concealed antagonism.
Hareet took pictures until it was dark. They went to clubs that throbbed with excited patriotism. The belly dancers appeared overcome with ecstasy, danced specifically for the soldiers in uniform who seemed to throng everywhere. Four Americans sat near Hareet and Greta in one popular tourist club.
"I don't like it," one American said to them. "Time we got out of here."
"The sooner the better," another said.
"It doesn't look so good," Hareet acknowledged, his voice nervous again.
"Dave Spatz," the first American introduced himself. "Where you folks from?"
"Santa Barbara," Hareet said. "Harry and Susy Rogers."
"I was in Santa Barbara once for Fiesta. That's one helluva great town to live in. We're from Chicago."
"August is our best month," Greta said.
The police watched them, listened to them. But the police were watching everyone. They sat through two drinks and three belly dancers, then left and returned to their hotel. The desk clerk was friendly.
"Terrible times," the clerk said. "Even our thieves are too excited to work."
"Thieves?" Hareet said.
The clerk smiled and held out Greta's wedding ring. "Madame forgot her ring after her shower. The maid found it after you had gone out."
"Oh, my, how careless of me," Greta exclaimed, and smiled at the clerk.
She reached for the ring with her left hand. The clerk bowed over her hand to put the ring on. When he straightened up, his eyes had subtly changed, clouded, but he continued to smile as if nothing had happened.
Greta and Paul went up to their suite.
"They searched our rooms," Hareet said. "That's when they found your wedding ring."
"It won't matter," Greta said. "I made a bad mistake, Paul. Did you see the clerk's eyes? He saw it."
Greta took off her wedding ring and held up her hand. The ring was a broad gold band. The third finger of her left hand was smooth and unmarked, one single color.
"I'm suntanned, Paul," Greta said. "There should be a pale ring mark on my finger. The clerk knows I haven't worn the ring more than a few days."
"You have a dark complexion."
"Not that dark. Look under my wristwatch. My sunglasses have left a pale patch on my nose. He saw all that, too, Paul."
Hareet looked at his watch. "We'll wait half an hour for the contact."
The knock came in fifteen minutes.
Hareet opened the door. Behind him, the shower was running in the bathroom, the noise coming from under the bathroom door.
The two dark-eyed men who came into the suite wore Western clothes. They both glanced toward the sound of the shower, then back at Hareet.
"My wife can't stand this heat of yours, too muggy," Hareet said with an apologetic smile. "Back home, our heat isn't so humid. Dry and not all that hot except when the Santa Anas blow down the canyons, you know?"
"In Santa Barbara, sir?" one man said. "The sundowner winds, yes?"
The other man walked through the rooms, his hand in his pocket. All the rooms except the bathroom. He returned, shook his head to the first man, and stood near the hall door they had left open.
"That's right," Hareet said to the first man. "You've been to Santa Barbara?"
"If you will ask your wife-" the first man began.
Greta appeared silently in the open door from the hall. The man at the door heard her soft step, turned. She stabbed him twice in the heart before he could move or even open his mouth.
Hareet's knife appeared in his hand. The first man only managed to half draw his pistol. Hareet killed him with a single thrust.
Greta closed the door. They dragged the bodies into the bedroom and pushed them into a closet, moved the furniture just enough to cover the bloodstains on the carpeting. They changed into Arab clothes and left the room. They took nothing with them but their weapons and their second set of papers. They took the back stairs down.
Before they left, Hareet broke the mirror of the dressing table in the bedroom.
In the noisy streets, they mingled with the crowd. As they walked through the packed throngs of the enemy capital, Greta held Hareet's hand once. Her veil hid her face. Then they separated and she walked behind him until they reached the dark and deserted streets in the slums of the city where the fellahin wallowed in filth and misery.
On a particularly dark and silent street they went down four steps into a dank cellar where water ran in a deep trough at one side of the room. Slime floated on the water and rats swam in the slime. Hareet haggled with a one-eyed Arab in ragged Western clothes and a stained fez. Money changed hands. Hareet and Greta found a deserted corner of the cellar. They lay down to sleep as much as they could.
"How long do we have?" Greta said.
"As long as we've always had, Greta. Two more days."
They spoke softly in stilted Arabic. Water spouted in ragged streams from pipes in the walls, human waste reeked through the darkness. The people lay in stuporous sleep, or sat against the walls and stared at the poverty and need and squalor of their lives. No one cared about Greta and Hareet in the darkness and silence of the cellar, no one was suspicious. Patriotism does not run deep among the ragged and starving and diseased of any country, not even here where patriotism was often all they had to make them feel human.
"They have no way to trace us," Hareet said. "The Rogerses are gone for good. They know that two spies are in the city, but they expected there would be spies anyway. Our problem is still the same-to get the data. The only change is that it will be a little harder to get it back and in time."
"There's another change, Paul," Greta said. "We don't have a bed for tonight."
"No," Hareet said. "I'm sorry, liebchen"
Greta smiled at the endearment that was far from his stilted Arabic. "I'm sorrier," she said, and lay close against him in the dimness. "Where will we live when we retire, when this is over?"
Hareet stroked her arm softly. "There's a hill in the north. It looks out over orange trees and an olive grove. You can see the border. I own it, and when I can look at that border and know that no danger will ever come across it again, then we will build a stone house and live in it."
They slept for a time, took turns on watch. Greta was awake when the ragged peddler sidled up to them like an apparition from the slimy water of the cellar itself. She touched Hareet, who opened his eyes but did not move.
"The mirror could be mended," the peddler whispered in English.
Hareet took his hand from the pistol under his ragged robes. Greta slipped her knife back up her voluminous sleeve. "We had to kill two," Hareet said.
"They were found. Fortunately, I had seen the mirror five minutes before. What is your assignment?"
"The ammunition dumps, supply depots, fuel centers."
"Impossible. The maps and information are in General Staff Headquarters," the peddler said.
"I can get in," Hareet said.
"But not out, Captain. No way you can get out. Not with the data in usable form."
"Why?" Greta asked.
The filthy peddler sat against the wet stone walls, seemed to close his eyes and go to sleep. "Because our Arab friends have become modern, Lieutenant. At least at General Staff Headquarters. The documents will have been chemically treated so that no one can touch them undetected, or film them undetected. A sophisticated touch supplied by their friends in the bigger nations. Also, to get out you must pass two ranks of guards and locked gates, and a bank of detectors that detect film or the documents themselves."
"So if we steal them, they would know at once and change the locations."
"If you got them out, the present locations would be changed as fast as they could do it. Perhaps a short delay in their plans, and no help to us."
"And we could only make the attempt once," Greta said.
"No matter how many attempts we made, the data is useful to us only as long as they do not know we have it," Hareet said. "It must be taken and sent to our forces undetected."
"And that can't be done, Captain," the peddler said. "We'll have to beat them head to head, no matter how bad that looks."
"Everything can be done in some way," Hareet said, and sat for a time in the raw stench of the cellar filled only with the sound of running and dripping water. "Our man inside General Staff Headquarters is still there at his job?"
"Yes." The peddler nodded. "But there is no way-"
"The main building with the information we need is inside a courtyard?"
"Yes. And there is a locked gate in the outer wall of the courtyard."
"Where are the detectors?" "At the door of the building."
"How is the security inside the building in the day and the night?"
"In the day, fairly tight. At night, poor. They rely on the wall and outer gates and perimeter guards. The guards inside make rounds but don't go into the offices. The staff officers don't trust the soldiers with keys to the offices. That's their weakness."
"And we'll use it," Hareet said.
"Can we go in together, Paul?" Greta said.
"Of course not," Hareet said simply. Then he smiled at her.
"But perhaps we can find some private place later tonight. A place for us to sleep."
She smiled in return. "Tonight, then."
Hareet and the peddler lay down on the stone. Greta sat up, watching. Hareet and the peddler talked for a long time. It was well past midnight when the peddler left alone. Hareet and Greta pretended to sleep for another hour, then slipped out of the dank cellar together.
"Our peddler gave me another address," Hareet said. "Somewhere we can be alone. It's not far."
They both knew the danger of such a move, every moment on the streets brought the possibility of being stopped, observed, making a mistake. Every new place exposed them to more contacts, more unexpected events. But they both also knew the risks of tomorrow.
The place turned out to be a small room on the second floor above a dark bookshop owned by an old Coptic Christian widow with patriotic slogans in her window. The peddler himself let them in, had a room of his own on the first floor where he had lived for over a year.
"It's as safe as anything can be here," the peddler said, and left them alone in the tiny room with its one bed and some chairs and a cabinet they could barely see. There was no light.
They didn't need a light. After they had made love once more, Hareet held her close against him for the rest of the night as if to build a wall of protection that would keep her safe. He was not a demonstrative man; Greta knew he was afraid for what could happen to her, to them, when the night ended.
The guards paced at the gates in the outer wall of Army General Staff Headquarters far out on the edge of the city. They looked up as they walked their posts to watch their jets fly high above in beautiful formation. The ragged people on the streets cheered the jets and the guards as they shuffled past the front gates.
Among the throngs of people that passed the gates was a tall, dark-skinned man with a pointed beard, thick glasses and a fez. He walked purposefully, with an arrogant bearing. With the tas-seled fez he wore a dark Western suit and immaculate pale kid gloves. The crowds of fellahin gave him respectful room as he strode around and through them.
Hareet, in the dark makeup and wearing the gloves to conceal his missing finger, turned into a side street at the corner of the wall and proceeded on his inspection of the headquarters building. The side wall was broken by only another high wooden gate, locked on the inside and outside. In the rear, the wall stretched without a break, and on the fourth side there was only a narrow, barred gate, also locked on the inside and outside and patrolled by a guard.
The building inside the high stone wall was from the last century and only two stories high. The roof had a steep pitch, and the windows of the upper floor were barred and shuttered. Two armored cars slowly patrolled the street all around the building, moving in opposite directions.
Hareet, his study completed, walked to a house a few blocks from the headquarters, and there changed into the flowing and ragged burnoose of an Arab country. He removed the fez and glasses, replaced the fez with a keffiyeh, and rearranged his false beard. He strapped his left arm to his side, and assumed a limp in his left leg.
A crippled fellahin was too common a sight in the streets of the city for anyone to look at twice. The fellahin limped his way to a filthy alley that paralleled the street in front of staff headquarters, and entered the rear of a building. He climbed to the second floor and slipped into an empty room at the front. He locked the door behind him, crossed quickly and without a limp to the front window with its clear view of the guarded gate into the headquarters.
Hareet sat in a chair some three feet inside the window so that no sun would glint on the powerful binoculars he took from beneath his burnoose. He sat on the chair for six hours without moving, except to rest his eyes now and then, and to light a cigarette. He scrutinized the building, and the officers who went in and out.
Late in the afternoon, a slight scratching came at the door of the room. Hareet listened from his chair. The scratching was repeated in a definite pattern. He opened the door. The peddler came in.
"Have you found your man, Captain?"
"A colonel of artillery," Hareet said. "He looks enough like me to pass. He's in there right now. He is arrogant, the soldiers do not seem to like him, and he drives himself. His vehicle indicates that he is a field commander, not a staff officer. He is unusually tall, has slightly Sudanese features, wears a monocle and strides much as I do. He also wears gloves. He carries a swagger stick and is annoyed at having to present credentials every time he goes in or out of the front gate. When does the guard change?"
"In an hour."
"Where are all the supply, fuel and ammunition depot documents we need?"
"In a small vault. It's an old key-locked type left by the British. With all other precautions supplied by their more modern friends, they don't feel a need to spend what a new vault would cost. It won't be hard to open, and it's located in a file room connected to the office of the chief of supply. They may work around the clock tonight."
"No, not an Arab army. They will be in conferences or with their mistresses. Come."
Hareet and the peddler left the room, and went down to the alley. Greta stood in the shadows of the alley dressed as a street boy.
Hareet described the colonel of artillery. "Watch for him. If he comes out, don't lose him."
Hareet and the peddler returned to the building a few blocks away where Hareet had changed from the gentleman in the fez to the crippled fellahin. There the peddler opened a large dossier, and Hareet found the picture and official history and designations of the artillery colonel he had seen go in and out the main gate of General Staff Headquarters.
The peddler read the details. "Colonel Aziz Ramdi. Forty-two years old. Unmarried. Sudanese mother. No foreign posts or training, no staff time, but many commendations for bravery in the last war with us. Commander of the Hundred and Twelfth Field Artillery. They're part of the city defense. Only recently transferred to the city from service on the southern border. He hasn't had the plum positions, doesn't sound like he's made any good connections. Probably because of that Sudanese mother. Hard to say how well-known he could be at staff headquarters."
"I won't need long," Hareet said. "It's reasonable to assume that a line officer who's been out in the field and far from the capital won't be all that familiar to the staff here. He's my best chance, we don't have a lot more time."
The peddler nodded, and with the picture of the artillery colonel in front of him, Hareet worked on his face until he looked as much like Colonel Aziz Ramdi of the Hundred and Twelfth Field Artillery as he could.
"The film could be shot over the wall from a top window," the peddler said. "I have the equipment."
"They would know," Hareet said.
"You could copy and not photograph, then the light would not sensitize the chemicals on the documents."
"There would not be time. I would have to touch the papers. The data must be secured without their knowing that we have it," Hareet emphasized.
Hareet completed his disguise. With the peddler shuffling far enough ahead of him that they could not be considered in any way together, he walked back to the alley and the room across from the headquarters. It had grown dark in the city, and large floodlights illuminated the headquarters wall and building.
"He is still inside," Greta said from the shadows of the alley.
An hour later, the colonel of artillery came out, got into his
Jeep and impatiently presented his credentials at the front gate. He drove off to the left and made a right turn onto a narrow street that was the direct route to his unit.
A fellahin woman dashed out of the shadows directly into the path of his Jeep. A ragged peddler pursued her. The peddler caught the woman in the street in front of the colonel's Jeep, struggled with her amid a torrent of loud screams and curses. Ramdi jammed on his brakes, and added his own curses to the loud Arabic.
The colonel barely felt his Jeep sway as someone jumped into it behind him. His pistol was still under its flap when the thin cord tightened around his throat.
Colonel Aziz Ramdi glared angrily at the officer of the guard at the gate into headquarters. The officer of the guard was nervous as he inspected the colonel's credentials. Only fifteen minutes ago he had checked the colonel out, and he felt ridiculous going through the entire routine again, but he knew he would have been even more nervous if he hadn't. In an Arab army, independent thought and decisions are not encouraged. Another weakness Hareet had exploited before.
The colonel made no explanation for his sudden return, sat in stony silence through the entire careful process. But his arrogant eyes bored through the junior officer with the clear implication that the colonel would remember this insult. The status of recognition is also part of an army too rigid with class and privilege.
"A thousand pardons, Colonel," the officer of the guard said, and returned the credentials with a smart salute.
Hareet drove on into the courtyard without even returning the salute. The junior officer swore under his breath at the back of the arrogant colonel.
Hareet parked his Jeep as close to the main entrance of the headquarters building as he could-a senior officer does not walk far. He jumped out as if impatient to get to some important task, strode rapidly to the entrance. Two majors reached the entrance a hair before he did-which he had arranged by slowing his pace. The majors both stopped and deferred to him. He waved them ahead with an impatient gesture of his swagger stick: asserting his rank, showing democratic largesse and distracting the guard at the front door.
The two majors hurried on into the building so as to not keep the colonel waiting. Not much more than an inch behind them, Hareet merely flashed his credentials to the guard. The guard, hurried by three credentials almost together, and the need to give three fast salutes, barely glanced at the tall colonel's identification.
Hareet was inside the building.
The long corridors were dim, cool and high-vaulted. Hareet strode loudly along the corridors until he located the office of the chief of supply. There was light under the door and the low sound of steady activity inside. As the peddler had predicted, the office of the chief of supply was working long and late this night.
Hareet walked into a lounge for officers only. He entered, went into the lavatory, and then into a booth. Inside the booth, he removed all his makeup. He changed his rank to major. He changed his insignia to that of an artillery unit stationed far to the south. He tore all the credentials of Colonel Aziz Ramdi into small pieces and flushed them down the toilet, removed the credentials for a major of a tank unit in the south from a thin pouch under his clothes. He flushed the pieces of the pouch. He remained in the lounge for an hour, absorbed in reading some important report.
Each hour, he walked back to check the office of the chief of supply. Twice, he went into the officers' dayroom and read a magazine. He drank the thick Turkish coffee the orderly served. In his normal appearance, there would be no one who could know him, as far as the peddler knew there were no officers from the distant artillery unit in the capital at this time, all field units being on twenty-four-hour alert.
At midnight, the office of the chief of supply was as dark and silent as all the other offices. As Hareet had been sure they would, all the officers from the chief of staff on down had gone to rest or party. Tomorrow would be a great day, tonight the building was quiet. Only the guards moved in the corridors of the headquarters.
Hareet waited until a guard had made his rounds of the corridor outside the office of the chief of supply. The corridor silent and empty, Hareet opened the door of the office with a picklock, slipped inside, his knife ready on the remote chance someone had been left behind, perhaps asleep.
No one had.
The door into the windowless file room was open. Hareet fitted a small light to his head and crouched to inspect the vault. It was a simple key-locked vault from British days such as the peddler had reported. Hareet picked the lock with no trouble, swung the door open.
The documents he needed were neatly filed in their proper places. The folders were sealed with a wire-and-plastic seal that had to be broken to open the folder. Hareet broke the seal and removed the documents. They felt faintly slippery to his touch. Tomorrow, ultraviolet light would reveal Hareet's prints, but that would not matter.
He photographed the documents with the miniature camera that had been hidden in the built-up heel of his boot. There were ten lists with maps and dated overlays. The overlays were all new and dated that day. Hareet photographed each document. They became faintly darker under the heat of his intense light. He unloaded the roll of microfilm and placed it in its container in his breast pocket.
He took a second roll of film from his other heel, reloaded the camera and took a second set of photographs.
He returned the documents to their files, resealed the folders as best he could, replaced the folders in the vault and relocked the vault.
He left the file room.
Behind the door of the dark office he sat at the general's desk, smoked a slow cigarette, looked around this high-level office of the enemy and waited for the guard to make his next round. It took a second and a third cigarette. He smoked deeply, enjoying the relaxation.
When the guard had passed, he slipped out of the office of the chief of supply, relocked the office door and walked openly again to the lounge for officers. Inside a booth once more, he sat and went to sleep with his head against the wall.
Dawn arrived soon after five o'clock that morning.
The building came slowly to life. Vehicles drove up and parked outside. Orders were shouted all through the courtyard and at the gates. The corridors echoed with the smart clicking of heels, and the morning greetings of the elite officers. Heavy-booted footsteps rang all through the building. Office doors opened and closed like the ragged sound of small artillery.
Hareet waited until just after six o'clock when the initial chaos had slowed to a steady sound of routine.
Inside the booth he took a large piece of wrapped halvah from his pocket, unwrapped it, and embedded the second roll of microfilm inside until it was completely covered with the soft confection.
He left the booth, went out into the lounge that was still empty at the early hour and returned to the corridor.
Hareet walked calmly toward the front door. Visiting officers were being checked in by the sleepy night-shift guards. Excitement and confusion were high at the door-the fever of impending war in any army. The day-shift guards were forming in the courtyard. The ragged fellahin servants were sweeping the courtyard, watering it down in preparation for the heat of the day to come.
Already the sun was up. It was going to be a dazzling day. Far across the courtyard at the front gate, Hareet could see the nightshift guards stretching the weariness from their bones, waiting for their relief. Vehicles coughed and sputtered in the morning air. The officers continued to pour in. No one was going out.
Hareet waited until the day-shift guards forming outside began to march to the posts to make the official transfer with the night-shift guards. He placed his pistol in his pocket, checked the film in his breast pocket, and when a large group of officers came across the courtyard and approached the front entrance, strode out and walked straight up to the door.
The officers thronged in the entrance.
A guard turned around to check Hareet's credentials.
There was a faint click somewhere in the wall, and an alarm began to sound, echoing through the building and out across the courtyard. The guard at the door stared at Hareet.
Hareet stabbed him in the heart, held the man's body close against him, and walked out into the courtyard through the confused group of incoming officers.
For a long moment, as the alarm continued to sound through the headquarters and over the courtyard in the bright morning, the officers and guards milled around and shouted and no one noticed Hareet walking across the courtyard away from both the building and the front gate still carrying the dead guard upright against him as if they were hurrying together toward some important official duty.
Then the officer of the guard saw them out there all alone and going in the odd direction, saw that one man was holding up the other. He ran after them, shouting, "You out there! You, Major! Stop where you are! Stop-"
Hareet dropped the dead guard, drew his pistol and shot the running officer of the guard. Then he turned and ran on across the courtyard toward the small barred side gate where he knew there was only one guard.
Pandemonium flowed through the building and the courtyard as the guards and officers all grabbed for their weapons. Quickly the day-shift and night-shift guards all spotted Hareet and began to converge on him. The guard at the side gate fired and missed. Hareet shot the guard down.
He leaped for the wall. A bullet hit him in the leg, buckled it. He collapsed, rolled, and struggled up again. He grasped the bars of the gate and hauled himself up toward the top of the wall. Outside the wall, the two armored cars on patrol both careened into the street. Hareet reached the top of the wall.
A burst of fire struck him in the back. The machine guns on the armored cars cut him in two. Two rifle bullets exploded in his head. His body, at the very top of the wall, fell back to the stones of the courtyard.
The night-shift and day-shift guards stood all around Captain Hareet's body, uncertain what to do, perhaps awed by the daring escape that had failed.
A colonel of military police pushed through the guards and shot Hareet in the head again.
The colonel bent down, searched, and found the microfilm in Hareet's breast pocket. The colonel laughed and kicked the dead body. Some soldiers laughed now, spat on Hareet's lifeless eyes.
"Cut his head off," the colonel of military police ordered. "Hang it on the gate with a sign: Pig of a Spy!"
A general of the staff walked slowly up, and the soldiers and other officers gave way. The general looked down at Hareet's body. The colonel of military police handed the general the roll of microfilm.
"Take his body and identify it, Colonel, before you cut off any heads," the general said. "A very stupid attempt, but well done. He very nearly escaped."
"A desperate attempt," the colonel sneered. "A hopeless attempt. They are afraid of us, General."
"Of course they are afraid of us, as we are afraid of them," the general said almost wearily. "Find out what it was they wanted,
Colonel, what he has on that microfilm. Not that it matters now, but they might try again."
"They will always fail," the colonel insisted. He did not like to be told he was afraid of the enemy. That was weak, defeatist talk. He would watch the general. But now he looked down again at the dead body. "The fool never knew it would have done him no good to succeed. We would locate what he took even if he had escaped, and instantly change our plans."
The colonel laughed. Hareet's body was taken away. The chief of supply quickly identified the enormity of the theft and posted a twenty-four-hour guard at his door. Even though, he explained to the army commander, there was no way anyone could get that data without the chief of supply knowing it instantly and changing it. In any event, the chief of supply assured the army commander, the data was still secret and safe, there was no need to change the vital plans with so little time left. The army commander was relieved, such a change could have delayed them for days.
Captain Hareet was soon identified, and his head cut off and hung on the gates for the fellahin to jeer at.
The headquarters returned to its routine. Officers came and went in a steady stream. The fellahin servants cleaned the courtyard while the officers prepared for war. The hardworking, important and excited officers ignored the ragged peasants. One of the fellahin swept up a large piece of discarded halvah. He dropped the halvah into his trash sack. Eventually he took the sack to a trash box near the small barred gate in the side wall where Hareet had died.
Soon, a truck picked up the trash boxes and drove them to the city waste dump. Out at the dump, a ragged peddler scraped among the boxes. Later, the same peddler hawked wares in front of a hotel near the eastern edge of the city.
A pretty Italian tourist woman bought a small urn from the peddler.
That evening, the pretty Italian tourist checked out of her small hotel and drove from the city to a deserted beach. On the beach, she stripped down and swam out to sea.
Thirty-six hours later, the attack was launched. Ten hours after that, the war was essentially over. All the supply depots, ammunition dumps and fuel centers of the attacking army were destroyed within ten hours of the initial attack.
Some weeks later, Lieutenant Greta Frank sat alone on a hill in the north of her country and looked out toward the border beyond the orange trees and olive groves. The border was quiet. It was not yet safe, but it was becoming safer.
The minister came up the hill and squatted down in the dry dust. His hard gray eyes looked out toward the border.
"There was no other way," the minister said. "They had to be convinced that he had tried and failed. They had to catch him- and not alive. He knew it was the only plan that would work."
"And you knew," Greta said.
"You knew before we went."
The minister drew patterns in the dust with his walking stick. "Why didn't you go there and do it yourself?" Greta asked. "The great minister who won the war." "I could not have done it."
"No, you could not have done it, and I could not have done it, and the peddler, whoever he really is, could not have done it. Only Paul could have done it," Greta said. She studied the patterns drawn in the dust by the minister. Ancient patterns like the sun and moon of cavemen, hieroglyphics. "He knew he was the only way."
Below, among the orange trees, two young boys ran and shouted, played soldier.
John Lescroart & M. J. Rose
John Lescroart is a bestselling writer of legal thrillers. M. J. Rose is an international bestselling writer of thrillers about a sex therapist and her patients. Intersecting those two variations seemed like a difficult challenge, but that's exactly what The Portal does. Via e-mail from one coast to another, Lescroart and Rose explored the psyche and actions of Lucy Delrey, a young, disturbed woman who, at different points displayed facets that surprised both authors. For Rose, Lucy's therapy is the portal itself: a door that opens into a darkened room, which is all Dr. Morgan Snow (from Rose's thriller The Halo Effect) can see. Consequently, the therapist's advice, which Lucy takes to heart and which propels the story forward, is based on elusive shadows. For Les-croart, the story represented an opportunity to revisit the legal world from which he drew his bestselling thriller Guilt. Lucy's trip to exorcize her demons takes her straight to San Francisco (Lescroart's main stomping grounds), where sophisticated professionals eat in fine restaurants, stay in fine hotels and mingle within a society that, for all its surface appeal, hides many a dark secret.
I think there is something wrong with me, emotionally." I nodded. She'd said this before. In almost every session. Lucy Delrey had been in therapy with me for two months. Every Tuesday evening at 6:00 p.m. she arrived at my office on Manhattan's Upper East Side, sat opposite me, and we chipped away at her defenses.
"Why do you feel there's something wrong?" I asked her.
"I just don't feel anything, Dr. Snow. Not even in the most extreme circumstances."
"What are the most extreme circumstances?" The conversation we were having was almost identical to the conversation we'd had last week, and every week before that. We always got to this point when Lucy would shut down, sit silently for a few minutes, and then change the subject and talk about how as a child she'd wanted to be an artist and about the man who had inspired her.
Tonight she answered me, for the first time.
"When I destroy someone. Even then, Dr. Snow. I don't feel anything."
She paused. Looked at me. Waited. Tried to read my face. But I was sure I hadn't shown any shock or surprise. I was used to confessions. Even overly dramatic ones, like this.
I persevered. "What do you mean, destroy someone?"
In the few seconds it took until she answered, I anticipated she meant that she was speaking of destruction metaphorically. I waited, curious.
"Destroy. You know. Assassinate." Her voice started out as a whisper and became softer with each additional word. "Annihilate." And softer still so that the last word, "Kill," was barely audible.
There was no change of expression while she spoke, but as soon as she finished, a look of exhaustion settled on her face. As if just saying the words had been tiring.
It was this expression that made me wonder for a brief second if it was actually possible that she was-no. In all the time she had been in therapy, nothing she had ever said suggested she was capable of killing anyone. She was using these words as a metaphor for the psychological destruction of people she loved.
"I should feel something. I should be upset." Her voice was back to its usual timbre.
This was the longest Lucy had ever gone without mentioning Frank Millay-the artist she had known when she was a child- who had painted watercolors on the boardwalk in Brooklyn Heights.
Some sessions she described the paintings: how they captured the essence of the river and the cityscape, how they moved her and made her want to learn how to use the brush and the pigments to create washes that would mean something. Other nights she told me about the painter himself and how it had taken her, a girl of seven, months to get him to talk to her and then finally to show her how to use the brush on the thick paper that had a texture created to capture the merest hint of color.
During all those sessions I had become aware of my patient's attention to detail. Her obsession with color. Her memory that retained every nuance of those days.
But even after all those months I did not know why Lucy had come to me.
Oh, I knew she was troubled by what she perceived about her lack of emotion. But we never got further than the fact of it. The only real emotion she ever exhibited was when she spoke about the painter and the paintings and her impression of them.
Now, finally, she had broken the repetition of her childhood memories with a revelation that caught me off guard.
"What do you think about when you are-while you are destroying someone?"
"Just that it's a job. I'm concentrating on the steps. On the work."
I still didn't believe that she was serious. Nothing in her character suggested it. I had worked with men and women in prison. I'd listened to descriptions of cold-blooded murders and crimes of passion. I'd watched patients' faces contort with anguish as they described breaking out of a fugue state and finding a knife or a gun in their hand or their fingers around someone's throat, the skin a milky blue-white streaked with finger burns.
"I'm sorry, Lucy. I'm not sure I understand. 'It's a job'? Do you mean that literally? I thought you were a photographer."
"I am. But in addition…people hire me…" Lucy's words trailed off.
I nodded, encouraging her to go on.
"It's not something I talk about in polite society. I'm not used to talking about it. But I think you need to know so that you understand me better. So that you can help me figure out why I don't even care about how I fuck up people's lives. Destroy them."
I put my right foot out in front of me instinctively.
To press down on the panic button.
But there was no such button in my office-it was in the small room where I used to conduct therapy sessions at the prison. Lucy was so convincing that she actually was a killer that I'd responded the way I would with a criminal in prison and extended my foot to call for help. This prickling realization-that Lucy might indeed be a killer and not just speaking in metaphor-chilled me.
But I didn't have the luxury of focusing on how I was feeling. I had to say something. To get Lucy to keep talking. To get more information from her. To figure out what I was going to do because the one time a therapist can break a client's confidentiality is if a life is in imminent danger.
The one time.
"I don't believe that you don't have feelings about what you do," I offered. "Usually when we don't feel it's because we are blocking our emotions."
"Why would I do that? It's how I make my living. I'm not ashamed of it. I kill them with their own passions."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you know that if you offer a man sex he won't pay a whole lot of attention to who you are? The same man who would run a Dun & Bradstreet before he'd take your business call will take a woman to bed without even knowing her last name. It's that lust that I count on. That hard-cock need that makes what I do so easy. Too easy really. I don't think that a man should be that easy to murder. He should fight. He should be scared. He should know his life is in danger-not just be lying there bare-assed and spread-eagled with a blonde giving him head. They don't even know…" Lucy stopped here to take a sip from the coffee cup she'd brought in with her.
My own hand was shaking slightly. I hoped Lucy didn't notice.
Yes, I'd heard confessions like this before, but always before in the prison, with guards watching. Not here in my office.
"Does it give you pleasure?"
She nodded. "If I know enough about the man. And if he's enough of a scum. Yes. You could say I'm some sort of avenging angel. I only kill men who deserve it. Who have done the unforgivable. Who need to be punished."
I was watching for any sign of psychosis, still trying to tell if this was fantasy or reality. But her pupils were not dilated. Her breathing was regular. There was no sweat on her upper lip or forehead. No sheen to her skin. Her fingers did not twitch in her lap. Her feet did not tap. She spoke in the same even voice I'd heard for a long time. She seemed in full control and connected, very much in the present moment.
"The painter," she said. I nodded. "When I was a kid, he made me realize that anything could be made into something else. He'd look at that water that I just saw as some stretch of muddy blue and he'd find a hundred colors in it. Some of them brilliant."
"Did the painter die?"
"I don't know. He moved away. He didn't tell me. One day, he was just gone. I went looking for him. But no one knew what happened. I look in galleries when I can. He'd be about fifty now. Fifty-year-old men are easier to fool than thirty-year-old men. The younger men aren't always sure. They succumb but they can be a little suspicious at first. Like, why is she coming on to me? To me? But the older guys are so damn flattered you can see their eyes getting erections. They are too damn easy."
I nodded. "Maybe the painter died. Maybe he didn't move away."
She didn't say anything. But suddenly her eyes filled with tears. One rolled down her cheek and she reached out to brush it away. Her surprise at her tears was clear.
"I never thought about him dying."
"Why not? Why did you assume he moved without saying goodbye?"
She shook her head as if she were getting rid of the question I'd raised. And then she changed the subject. "I should be upset about what I do. I know I should. But it's like these guys deserve it. I mean most of them are doing something to someone. They are abusing someone somehow. It's not like they are all nice guys. But I give all of them a chance. Before I take them back to the room, I give them a chance to turn me down. I ask them if they are married or if they have a girlfriend. And then ask them if they really want to do this. If they really want to hurt the women they are with."
"Some of them must say no."
"Not very many. Maybe two."
I wanted to ask her out of how many. But I didn't want to stop her.
"One man stroked my skin. His fingertips were as soft as a woman's. He had blue eyes. I remember his eyes. Because of those damn fingers that ran up and down my arm making me shiver. Usually, I don't feel anything. That's what I meant. Before. I don't feel anything when they touch me. Or when I pull the trigger."
"You use a gun?"
I hadn't meant to ask that bluntly-as if I doubted her. It was unprofessional. I'd wanted to ask her how she killed them, not blurt out the worse-case scenario I could imagine.
She looked at me as if I were the one who was crazy and needed help. "A gun?"
"When you kill them?"
"Dr. Snow, I set them up. I pump them up. I am a hired assassin. I expose them and ruin them. My whole apartment is a camera. I destroy them by taking pictures of them and then turning them over to cops or detectives or the tabloids. Character assassin." She smiled.
And for a few seconds there was no question in my mind that a man would go with her and not think twice.
"Do you think I should try to find him? Find Frank Millay, finally?"
It was the end of the session, but I didn't stand as I often did to signify that Lucy's time was up. She had arrived at a crucial point in her therapy and I didn't want to cut her short.
"I think you want to find him. And that's what's important."
Typically, I preferred to ask, not to answer, questions. In fact, I'd told Lucy, the same way I told all my patients at some point, that only by answering one's own questions could one come to terms with personal truths. But she had finally expressed a need, a desire. And that was a breakthrough for her. From everything she'd described, she hadn't given in to any real emotion since that last time she was with him. She called him the portal. After he was gone, her emotional life effectively stopped.
"There's one thing, Lucy. We need to make sure that if you do go find him it's to understand. Not to act out."
She smiled, slyly, seductively, slipping into the pose she used when she needed to hide from me. From anyone, I guessed. I'd witnessed her do this in almost every session. We'd get close to something critical and she would shut down.
Was Lucy ready to go find Millay?
Was it within the realm of my responsibility to hold her back?
"I'm sure that I'm going to understand. Not to act out. Aren't you sure, Dr. Snow?"
"While we've considered that something may have happened with Frank Millay that both closed you up emotionally and caused him to disappear, I wish you would give it some more time here. But I understand your frustration. How long are you going to give yourself to find him?"
"I don't know. Maybe a couple of weeks?"
"Would you think about coming in for another session? Or two? So we can make sure that if you find out what happened, you will be prepared."
Lucy grasped the implication immediately. She sat with her back pressed into her chair, all defensiveness now, her legs tightly crossed and turned sideways. "I've already done regressive-analysis hypnosis with my last therapist," she said. "We didn't uncover anything like that."
"Like what, Lucy?"
"But that doesn't mean you haven't buried the bare facts."
"The bare facts." Moisture was evident in Lucy's eyes and her voice came hot with anger, although she, too, modulated her volume. "Frank Millay did not rape me."
"Please don't 'all right' me, Doctor. I would remember that. I promise you."
I nodded, drew in a breath. I couldn't hold her here. "You're searching for something that you've lost, and whatever that is has had a profound effect on your ability to feel things. If you can find that something in the real world, rather than in my office, or with some other psychoanalyst, yes, Lucy, yes, it might start the healing."
"Law offices of Bascom, Owen, Millay." "Oh. Could I speak to Frank Millay, please?" "Certainly," the cultured female voice said. "Can I tell him who's calling?"
"An old friend. I'm not sure if he'd remember me. My name is Lucy Delrey." "Just a moment."
On the one hand, it had been too easy; and on the other hand, impossible. Before Dr. Snow's suggestion that she try to physically locate Frank Millay, Lucy had looked in a haphazard fashion through gallery openings in the newspapers, or stopped in at galleries when the art struck her in some way that seemed vaguely familiar. She never consciously considered the fact that the street artist had given up on his first love and entered another field. Similarly, she had never before considered Googling the name Frank Millay.
Where the name came up in two seconds.
An attorney in San Francisco.
It couldn't possibly be the same man. But she had to call and find out. She had to be sure. "This is Frank Millay."
For an instant, she found herself tongue-tied. But then, afraid that he'd hang up if she didn't speak, she found her voice. "Is this the Frank Millay who used to be an artist in New York?"
Now the pause came from the other end. "Who used to paint anyway. Yes." Another hesitation. "I'm sorry. My secretary gave me your name, but."
"Lucy," she said. "Lucy Delrey. I was a little girl."
"Oh my God," he said under his breath. "Little Lucy, of course. How little were you then?"
"Seven. I'm thirty now."
"Thirty? God. Thirty is impossible."
"Not if you're about fifty. That would be about right." She couldn't hold back a small, nervous laugh. It was his voice. She'd have recognized it anywhere. Although it had an unaccustomed seriousness to it, an adultness that she thought befit his new profession. "You're a lawyer now?"
"Only for the past twenty years," he said. "Wow, Lucy." Words seemed to fail him. "You looked me up?"
"Googled you actually, yes."
"But.what are you doing? Where are you?"
"I'm home, still in New York. I'm a." But her business didn't lend itself to easy explanation. "I'm a photographer," she said.
"So somebody's still doing art," he said. Then, in an awkward tone, filling in the space, "That's good to hear."
"Yeah, well." A silence settled for a minute, until Lucy surprised herself. "Listen, Mr. Millay," she began.
"Okay, Frank. It just happens that I'm coming out to San Francisco next week on some business. Would it be too weird if I came to see you? If we had lunch or something?" Sensing his reluctance over the line, she pressed on. "I wouldn't blame you if you said no, but in spite of this call, I promise I'm not a flake or a stalker or anything. I just still remember what an incredible impact your paintings had on me. Still do, as I remember them. It.it would mean a lot. I just feel like I need to see you."
Silence for a long beat. "I'm married now," he said. "I've got three children. I don't know if my wife…" He let the sentence hang.
"Please," she said. "She doesn't have to know. It's so important. We need to talk, that's all."
"You know I don't paint anymore, Lucy. I haven't touched a brush in twenty years."
"No, it's more than that. It's you, who you were." Then, unsure of exactly what she meant, she added, "It's not just that, either."
"No," he said. "No, I suppose not." Finally, when he did speak, his voice was nearly unrecognizable, constricted with that adult quality. "I'll find some time," he said. "What day next week?"
She didn't sleep well over the next five days.
Frank Millay's colors, particularly that muddy blue, seeped into her dreams and woke her over and over again. It was a cold blue under a cold sky and she woke up, paradoxically, dripping with sweat. And sexually aroused.
All the dreams had the same setting. Millay's whole room was a womb enclosed in that dark, muddy blue-the river as he'd painted it endlessly flowing along the windowless walls over the bed.
Which made no sense.
She had no memory that she had ever been to his bedroom. She had never seen his bed.
But something was stirring things up.
The last dream was different. It started with the smells of must or animal or mold, and there was a bright light at the end of a dark green tunnel. Then she turned and walked through a red door and suddenly was in Millay's muddy blue room. She felt the skin on her thighs rubbing together and realized that she didn't have any clothes on. She was standing on a golden storage box and he was painting her picture, although she could only see his head behind the canvas. He had a blond beard that looked wet somehow. He kept saying something in a deep voice that seemed to echo in her bones and make her weak. Stepping around the picture, he walked right up close to her. He smelled like that other smell, and now she recognized that it was semen. He wore an orange tie-dyed T-shirt, but no pants and no underwear. Because she was standing on the storage box, their faces were at almost the same height and he held her eyes while he put his hand between her legs. Then she looked down and something muddy and blue was coming out of his penis and he was painting her with it. Stroke after stroke after stroke.
She woke up, sobbing, in the middle of an orgasm.
And finally it all came back.
She knew now that in a fundamental way, she had at last begun to heal. The recurring waves of what had been repressed memory now throbbed with the persistence of a bone bruise, painful enough on two more occasions to bring her to tears, but at least she was no longer numb. She almost called Dr. Snow to tell her that she'd begun to feel things again. If much of it was negative and painful, that was okay. It was the price to get back to normal. But she knew that she wasn't quite finished yet. To complete the recovery, she would have to assassinate one last man. The one who'd all but destroyed her so many years ago.
Frank Millay clearly didn't want her to come to his office. He'd e-mailed her to say they should meet at the Slanted Door, a terrific and easy-to-find Vietnamese restaurant located in San Francisco's newly renovated Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street. He had one o'clock reservations there under the name York. He'd explained that it wasn't a place where they were likely to run into too many of his colleagues on a weekday afternoon. She realized with a bit of a thrill that he was already afraid of exposure, even of being seen with her. And this led to the understanding that he only could have agreed to the meeting with her for one of three very different reasons-to somehow try to explain what he'd done, to beg her to forgive him, or to get the details of her blackmail.
But Lucy knew fifty-year-old men. Once she started coming on to him, in spite of what he'd done to her, he would never suspect her true motive. He would believe that, sick as it might be, she was still, after all, attracted to him. She had her story down, her cameras and microphones hidden and primed in her hotel room at the Four Seasons a couple of blocks away.
She was ready.
Lucy, braless, and further turned out in a black slit skirt, low heels and a tightly fitted red silk blouse, arrived and got seated at their table-tucked away in a corner-twenty minutes early. It was a cool day, and cool in the restaurant. It calmed and somewhat gratified Lucy to realize that no man who looked her way seemed to be able to avoid a glance at her erect nipples.
When Frank Millay came to the greeting station, she recognized him immediately, even though he was now the quintessential lawyer-clean-shaven, short-haired, dressed in a three-piece suit. He was still trim, still handsome, although slightly gone to gray. But the face had no slackness to it, the jaw was firm. Close up, she could see that the deep blue artist's eyes still might have the power to captivate. But not her. Not anymore.
When the hostess left him, he sat, assayed a bit of a worried smile and said, "My God, you're beautiful."
A waiter came by, introduced himself and presented menus, saying he'd be back in a couple of minutes. A busboy poured water. Out the window, on the Bay, the Sausalito ferry with its complement of screeching seagulls steamed out from its mooring under the scudding clouds.
Millay's eyes darted down to her breasts, then came back up to her face. He sighed. "This is awkward."
Lucy reached out her hand and placed it over his for an instant, then withdrew it. "It's all right," she said. "I guess I should have told you on the telephone. I contacted you because I wanted you to know that I forgive you."
"I don't know why." he began. "It's why I left New York, to get away from what I was doing. It was all getting out of control, what I did to you was just part of it. I was going through a crazy time." He brought his hand to his face, rubbed the side of his cheek. His look was something more than chagrin, touched by a brush-still-of fear. "I can't explain it."
"You don't have to," Lucy said. "We all make mistakes."
"Not like that. I've got a seven-year-old daughter right now. The thought of what I did to you still makes me sick. I'm so sorry. So sorry."
"Were there others?"
"No!" Frank Millay nearly blurted it out. "No," he said again.
"It was just you, the pretty little girl who loved my paintings. The only one who loved them, to tell you the truth. And who made me take her up to my room one time to see them."
"Was it only once?" Again, she touched his hand. "I really don't remember."
"Just once," he said. "Once was enough."
The waiter arrived and took their order. She said she'd like to have some wine, but only if he'd join her. By the time the waiter left, Frank Millay had visibly relaxed. Pushed back from the table, he sat with his ankle resting on the opposite knee. He wore stunning black shoes of knitted leather, black socks that disappeared into his pants leg. Lucy, fidgeting now as though she were slightly nervous, managed to undo the second button on her blouse.
"So," she said, "you're married now?"
"Well, seventeen years. We're okay." "That doesn't sound very romantic." "It's really not very romantic." "Do you miss it? Romance?"
"Not really," he said. Then, "Sometimes, I guess. Who wouldn't?"
"That seems a shame. You're still a very good-looking man. You must know that. You must hear it all the time."
A small embarrassed chuckle. "Thank you, but I wouldn't quite say that I hear it all the time. And I for damn sure wouldn't call me good-looking anymore."
She put her hand on his again, and this time she left it there as she met his eyes. "I would," she said. "Why do you think I've remembered you after all this time? Do you think, that day, it was all your idea?"
After that, it was easy.
At the Four Seasons, they went straight up from the hotel entrance to her two-room suite. As soon as they were inside, Lucy excused herself for a moment, leaving Frank Millay in the living-room section while she went, ostensibly, to use the bathroom. One of her cameras that looked like a pen she had arranged on the dresser-it would automatically snap a picture every minute until she turned it off. The video camera was her cell phone, which she arranged and propped on one of the bed tables.
In the bathroom, she flushed the toilet for verisimilitude's sake, then stepped out into the bedroom, undoing her blouse now, taking it off, laying it on the bed. "Frank," she said, "aren't you going to come in here?"
He appeared in the doorway and stopped, taking her in.
She saw the hesitation now. He still had his coat and tie on. And it was one of her inviolable rules-she would give each of her victims one last chance to save themselves, to prove to her that they were better than they appeared. Even Frank Millay might still escape, although she didn't want that to happen.
She gave him what she knew was her finest smile. Winsome and seductive at once, playful but with a serious edge of promised passion underneath. "Are you sure you're comfortable with this?" she asked him. "I don't want to force you to do anything you don't want to do."
He broke a small smile that seemed to mock himself. "If you hadn't wanted to force me," he said, "you would have left your shirt on."
She unclasped the hook on her skirt and let it drop to the floor. "Well, then," she said, stepping out of it, sitting on the bed where she knew the cameras would capture everything. She patted the mattress next to her. "Why don't you come over here?"
Still, he seemed to hesitate for one last moment before he started moving toward her. When he got in front of her, she reached for his zipper, traced her finger down the bulge in the front. "Oh, my," she said.
She felt his hands in her hair, traveling down the sides of her head to cup her face, which he lifted so that she looked up at him.
"I'm so sorry," he said as his hands slipped lower.
"No. You don't need-" But suddenly she felt the hands pushing down on her shoulders, holding her where she sat, then slowly, almost as though he were caressing her, closing around her neck.
"Don't you see?" His face suddenly inches from hers. "I can't take the risk. Someday you might tell."
"But no, I-"
And then there was no way to make any more sound. She tried to call out, to straighten up off the bed, to kick at him, but he was nearly twice her size and now seized with an irresistible power. He pushed her back onto the bed and fell upon her, his hands closing tighter and tighter around her windpipe.
Her vision exploded into yellows and purples and greens and then they all blended to a muddy blue, then a darker, colder blue.
And then no colors at all. Only black.
I hadn't heard from Lucy for two weeks when I turned on the news late one night and watched her face appear on the screen while a reporter described the brutal murder that had taken place in San Francisco.
"The killing was recorded on Lucy Delrey's cell-phone camera, which the police discovered at the scene."
Immediately in the hours, days and weeks afterward, Millay's PR machine went into action and it was clear that by the time the case went to trial, his attorneys would have spun it so that the world at large would perceive Lucy Delrey as a psychotic nymphomaniac who got pleasure from setting up men sexually in order to destroy them. Frank Millay had been her hapless victim.
The sympathy would be with him by then, but I've got to believe that even in San Francisco, if you strangle a woman on videotape, you're looking at some kind of a stretch in prison. Mil-lay's career-his entire life-would be ruined. It could never be the same.
And the strange thing was, just as I had asked her to, Lucy had found the complicated truth. No matter what had happened in those final minutes, she had gone out there to destroy him and she'd done it.
David Liss's first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper began with what may have been an unlikely inspiration for a thriller: his ongoing doctoral work on the 18th century British novel and its relationship to emerging modes of finance. Liss succeeded by showing how the rise of paper currency was surrounded by an air of mystery, danger, urgency and cultural paranoia, but he also succeeded because of his intrepid protagonist, Benjamin Weaver, a daring and reckless thief-taker-roughly a combination of modern-day private eye, police-officer-for-hire and hired muscle. Weaver's fearlessness on the lawless streets of 18th century London, and his willingness to meet danger head-on, won the character many fans, and he returned in A Spectacle of Corruption and will be back again in The Devil's Company.
Liss has stated in interviews that he tremendously enjoys writing about Weaver and the violent and colorful world he inhabits, but he feels the need to divide his time between that character and his stand-alone thrillers, The Coffee Trader and The Ethical Assassin. Unfortunately, between writing more tales of Weaver and the time required to explore other interests, Liss has had no time to pursue a project that has interested him since completing Conspiracy-a story set in the same world inhabited by Weaver but focusing on other characters-with Weaver occupying the role of secondary figure. Until now, that is.
The Double Dealer has at its center an aging highwayman who wants to tell one last story before he dies, the story of an encounter years ago with the young Benjamin Weaver, once a highwayman himself. The fun in a project like this, according to Liss, is to rethink some of the most basic ideas of a recurring character in order to see him anew. Liss enjoys writing about flawed protagonists and sympathetic villains because in real life no one is perfect or perfectly bad, and everyone is the hero of his or her own story.
The Double Dealer has given Liss the chance to present his ongoing hero as the villain of someone else's story.
THE DOUBLE DEALER
I'm old and like to die soon, and no one will care when I do, and that's the truth. But I've a story to tell before I go, and I've paid this here gaunt scholar fellow with a face of a rotten apple to write it down. I aim to make him read it back, too, as I don't trust him and I'll not pay a penny until I like what I hear.
It ain't often I like what I hear. Them newspapers are full three, four, maybe five times a year of the great deeds of that worthless Jew, Benjamin Weaver-that great man, what done this favor for the ministry, or that for the mighty Duke or Arse-Wipe or good Squire Milksop. Old as he is, he's still at it. They forget, they do, but old Fisher don't forget. I recollect it all, as I crossed with him when we was both young and he was no better than me-maybe worse, for his being a Jew withal.
It ain't no secret, but not oft spoke of neither, that time was this hero, a "thief-taker," claims to make streets safe for the likes of what calls themselves ordinary man. No better than one of my number, a prig and one of the highway, and he'd have been at ease with the shitten likes of any blackguard cutpurse.
The world remembers that he was once a pugilist, and lived by his fists. They know him now as some kind of do-gooder, but there was a time between that, when his fighting days was done, and he ain't yet figured out this thief-taking lay. I know all about it, and I aim to make it public.
So, I begin with a piss-rainy autumn day, maybe 1717 or '18- maybe '19 or '20. Can't say as I quite recall, being as I said old and having blood come out both me lungs and me arse. But that ain't your concern. Yours is that when I was young I come 'pon a handsomely dressed spark finishing his business with a mighty fine-looking equipage-lonely all of them, on a nice, ripe deserted stretch of highway. He had in his hands a sack full of coins and jewels and mighty pretty things, and then said his farewells to a pair of ugly bitches, past thirty, and so good for nothing. He charmed them, though, as he called himself Gentleman Ben, and they blushed and bat their eyelashes like he were a spark at a dance and not the man what bound up their coachman and took their precious dainties. His partner, a fellow called Thomas Lane, were some twenty feet down the road, keeping his eye sharp for trouble.
These two were like brothers, never thinking to do a lay, one without the other. They even looked alike, with their dark hair, tall stature and wide backs, both. And that's the thing, ain't it? You don't want to mess with these sorts of prigs, these coves what are never one without the other, these sparks what come to be like blood, for you do wrong by the one, you must surely face the other.
So it was that I rode close to Thomas Lane (though I didn't hear his name 'til later). The other one, what I learned was Weaver, was at the equipage, making pretty talk to the ladies. The sun, peeking through them clouds, were before me, and I couldn't see Lane's face all clear, but I could see it crumpled well enough and I knew he'd had enough and more of Weaver's fripperies with these hags. He were looking back 'pon Weaver and not forward to me, so that he never heard me nor saw me neither, and I rode real quiet, as I trained my horse to do, and snuck up to him all silent like and pummeled him hard in his head. He fell over but not down, and so I struck him in the head again, and once again in that very same pate to make certain he stayed quiet, and this plan worked well enough, for this last blow, I later heard, quite killed him, but I didn't think so then. All I knowed was that he made not a sound more, and that contented me.
I had no plan to kill him. He weren't no friend of mine, but he was a brother prig, and I meant no more but his silence. Still, once it were done, there could be no helping it. No tears will squeeze the breath back into him, will it?
Now, coming from the other way were my friend and partner in these affairs, a spark called Ruddy Dick. There were some three or four fellows I regularly engaged with for my adventures, but none were more trusted by me than old Dick, an aged fellow, as I thought then, though some twenty years my junior to where I am now. So, I catch old Dick's eye, and we know at once the lay, for we were longtime friends, like I said.
This Weaver might have not been keeping his wits about him, but those what he robbed were, and they saw the freaks I played 'pon Thomas Lane. They pointed and cried out, as though these two highwaymen were friends and I the enemy. Never once did they presume I come to save them, but that's the curse of this here face, even more terrible when I was young, if you'll credit that.
With the hags crying out and then taking shelter in their coach, I turn to this gentleman bandit, and I shout to him. I say, "Ho, my spark, I'm afeard I've quite bludgeoned your fellow, and I'm afeard you're next."
Weaver-though, as I says, I knew not yet his name-turns to me and stares not with surprise or horror or sadness, but with a rage burning in those dark eyes, clear enough through the misty rain. In the time it takes between you cut yourself and the blood starts its flowing, he understood all. He observed the scene, observed what I intended, and I knew then that I'd made an enemy.
That were the bad news, as they say. The good news were that I didn't expect he'd live long, not with Ruddy Dick coming down 'pon him hard. He'd spurred his horse to a good gallop and drew his blade, ready to take off the distracted Jew's head as though it were the foreskin 'pon a privy portion.
Now, there's Weaver, staring at me with those hateful eyes, and there's me, holding his gaze, keeping him distracted while Dick rides hard. It's but a tick of the clock, or less even, before this angry fellow is a headless angry fellow, but all at once, like he's got eyes peeking through them locks behind him, he turns. He drops his sack of goodies, and in an instant his blade is out and swinging, and it's at Dick before Dick's blade is on him. Nothing quite so colorful as a beheading, but the blade swings and opens Dick's throat, and the blood's all ruddy fountainish. That was it, then. The death of Dick.
Right tragic it was, a good friend such as he, who I shared my victuals and coin and whores with. Still, life must march forward, and Weaver weren't the only one who could see all clear and easy in the blink of a rat's eye. I spurred my horse, and make like I'm like to take a swipe at Weaver, all revenge-ish, but instead I reach down, grab the sack of plunder as was dropped, and I speed away, leaving behind me a pair of corpses with their puddles of blood.
It was but a matter of weeks before I learned that the one I pummeled never lived after. The other one, the cove yet alive, I now heard were called Benjamin Weaver, and that he had vowed to be revenged for what I done. So a month or two I stays on my guard, but nothing transpired. I heard no discussion of Weaver nor of his exploits, and I began to wonder if he might be dead or gone into hiding. That, I told myself, were the end of it. But it weren't the end, and though I talked a mouthful and been through two pints, it ain't but the beginning of this tale.
So, a year or more later, I'm on a fresh lay. I wished I could hole up as men was being nabbed all regular like, sent to the gallows like chickens to the butcher. I planned my lays careful, and didn't like to do many and take the chance of being 'peached.
This one was no more than a month since the last because the last ain't quite worked as intended. I'd been led to believe that a particular coach would contain a great fortune, and for what I knew it did, but all were contained within a strongbox. This particular box was made by some German named Domal, said to be the cleverest maker of such things in the world. It were too strong for breaking, and too intricate for picking. All that work had brought wealth, but wealth I could not reach. I still had it hidden away, in my secret spot in my secret rooms-for I told no one where I lived, not even my closest friends, for it's best to trust no one, in particular your friends.
Instead of this box, which I can't open, I now set my eyes 'pon a coach to return Londonward for the season from the summer in Yorkshire. These things are ordered just so, and there would be trunks and ladies and jewels-silver buckles and fine handkerchiefs, and linens and all manner of goods. It's somewhat dispiriting, as a prig can take three or four hundred pounds of swag, and not get more than three or four pounds from the fence, but there it is. Now, these rich folks, they would never have been so foolish as to travel the roads without escort, and an escort they could trust, too. But what signifies that? They were to have two, and a manly, strapping, all burly coachman besides. This coachman was a handsome fellow named Phillip, what name means "lover of horses." I tell you that only so you understand I'm a scholar on top of all else.
This Phillip showed himself a liking for a kitchen girl, a pretty little thing, slim of form but fiery in humor. Maggie, she was called, and she loved me hot and mighty well, which was how I entered into this lay. I convinced her to shine her favors on poor Phillip, and so she done. Maggie worked her wicked charms, and he come up so gasping for breath, so clouded with the stink of love, he would do anything she might ask. So it were he consented to aid us for a share of the treasure and a share of pretty Maggie, too. So he thought, but I'd taken to myself the role of the double dealer.
That's how we begun, me with my partner by my side, for as I said, I had not come so far and done so much without a few good fellows to aid. Here was a spark called Farting Dan, and aptly named he was. But beyond his farting, he was one of them thinkers, which was the good of him. The bad was his stench.
Many's the time I thought the men in pursuit should find us by his fragrance, for it weren't any ordinary farts he offered, but the kind to make your eyes water and your head feel strange. For all that, Dan earned his keep, he did, stench be damned. Not quite so daring or adventuresome as old Ruddy Dick, but a dependable man, who knowed more about pistols than any other spark I'd encountered. With his aid, I could be as certain as ever a man could hope, that my pistols should not misfire. Besides, once we divvied up the spoils and went looking for our fun, never once did the choicest ladies prefer him to me, even with my face being what it is.
So the day comes, and we wait among a copse of trees until our mark passed us, a fine equipage 'twas, all turquoise and gold, with black trim. It looked to me like money bags pulled by two stout horses. Before it rode one tough, and behind it another, and both these fellows burdened by the tedium, which was how I liked them.
Farting Dan begins it, riding hard up to the rear guardian and unloading a pistol directly into his chest. There's a burst of powder and flame, and this fellow slumps over onto his horse.
This were by no means the way I was accustom to do business. No need to kill a spark who might as well be knocked down. Still, best never to fret, and I go to take care of my guardian to the front, but Farting Dan is on it before me, galloping hard and now firing a second pistol right into this fellow's back.
I'm close now, and for an instant I'm blinded by the flash, but when it clears I see the horse with no rider, and a body 'pon the ground.
I give him a look, and he shrugs in answer. Fair enough, I thinks to myself.
Screams and cries now filled the air, for the sorts of folk in the equipage were by no means prepared for such bloodshed as now was unleashed. In truth, these dandy highwaymen had made our job easier, for the ladies were inclined to believe that being robbed should be the most romantical of experiences, so when they saw it up close, with its blood and gore and the stench of death and shite they were all the more like to obey our commands.
Farting Dan let loose with one of those stenches for which he was known and rode hard to the coach. I'm behind him, making ready with a pistol, wiping at the stink-full air, for the equipage must be stopped. Phillip were supposed to make a good show of attempting to outrun us, and he's making wild with the reins and the horses are at full gallop, maybe a fuller gallop than I'd like, and by all appearance, the two dead toughs inclined Phillip to feel all mistrustful and switch allegiance.
The way we'd planned it, I'd be the one who made as though I was dealing with Phillip, but that Farting Dan had another scheme, and like a trick rider at Bartholmew Fair, he's on the back of his horse, and then leaping in the air. Always thinking, that Farting Dan, and now he thinks to come down 'pon that coachman Phillip, the very one what's supposed to aid us. Farting Dan knowed that well, but he showed no sign of caring, for I look over and see he's got a pistol out and he's using it as a club. He swings it and swings it again. A third time and a fourth. I hear grunts and moans, but the struggle is out of my view. When I come again into the view, the coach is still, the coachman is slumped over, the ruins of his skull are bathed in blood. Farting Dan has that terrible redness all over his hands, splattered upon his shirt, sprinkled upon his face. He grins at me something terrible and then licks the blood off his lips.
I ride now up to the still coach. A quarter mile down the road are two bodies and two horses. I don't like to leave a trail such as that, but the road is not so traveled that we can't presume a quarter hour's isolation. Most like we'd have an hour, but I don't care for presuming. A man remains cautious or he gets nabbed. Nothing simpler.
Farting Dan jumps down, letting loose with an arsey trumpet blast. I breathe through my mouth and dismount. Now's the time to conduct the business.
Whimpers come from the guts of the equipage, but I could see nothing with the curtains drawn, as though they might hide behind their flippery. Still, a man is wisest to exercise caution, so I wave my pistol and point at the door. "Out, you bitches!" I shout. "Nice and slow, with your hands high and not near nothing. Any man what don't do as I say gets himself shot, his privy removed, and placed in the mouth of the nearest lady."
You shock 'em to their core. None of this pleasantry crap. My, what a pretty string of jewels. Would you mind ever so much placing it 'pon my hand? I'd as soon swive a barnyard pig as say such shite. I've done one in my time and not the other, and I shan't tell you which.
The door then opens a crack, and then all at once, and a great man with a great belly, dressed in a suit of sky-blue cloth, all lace and gold thread about him, stumbles out. His wig is askew, no doubt knocked about from his terrible trembling, and his face is slick with perspiration, despite the chill in the air. Hard by fifty years of age, and there are tears in his eyes; he's crying like an infant what been ripped from its mother's teat and hurled against the wall.
"Please," he says, all snotty weepful. "We'll do as you say. Don't hurt anyone."
"Don't hurt anyone?" I bark. "Why, look about you, my blub-berer. Your guardians are dead, your coachman smote. Mean you that I should not hurt anyone above the station of a servant?"
I think to add more, but time is of the most importance, and a man of the highway ought not to comport himself as though he were a comedian. "Out of the coach, the rest of you," I says.
"There's no one in there but my wife," the weeping fat man tells me.
"Out with her, or there shall be no one in there but your widow," I answer. Mighty clever, I was in those days.
Out she comes, as pretty a thing as I've ever seen. Not more than eighteen, with white skin, a swan's neck, eyes so green they're like the brightest leaves on the sunniest day of the clearest summer. She's got one of those fancy gowns on, and the bodice makes visible a fair portion of her massive bubbies. She has her eyes cast downward, and, like her husband, her lips are all atremble, but these lips are red and moist and waiting to be kissed.
Farting Dan gives a right lascivious look, and neither the woman nor the husband can guess if he means to blow a hole through her or to make use of the ones she's already got.
I toss the fat man a sack. "Start filling it. Your coins, your notes, your jewels, aught of import. I plan a search before we go, and I mean to cut off one of your fingers for everything I find that you ain't included."
I've still got my pistol trained on them when Farting Dan says, "I believe we must tarry a few minutes longer than planned."
He's looking at the wife, so there is no mistaking his mind, but I wish to make it clear that this ain't the time for frolicks. "Spend your share with the whores," I say. "I'll not take chances here."
"I'll wager you will." He gets onto his horse so as say he's no concern for my preferences.
The sods, meanwhile, are putting into the bag what I ask. The fat man has put in his purse and is taking the buckles off his shoes. The lady is taking off her rings and her necklace.
I send the husband up top to throw down the trunks what's stationed up top, a pair of fat ones they've got. They crack open egglike when they hit the dirt, and out spills a mass of clothing and trinkets. I make the pretty lady collect the trinkets, and put them in the bag, and as she pushes things this way and that, I see something bright and shiny, all glistening in the sun. It can't help but draw my attention.
It's a lock box, very like the one I have back in my rooms, the one I schemed to get, the one containing a fortune which might as well not exist since I can't get at it. It's the same sort, with the very same filigree design on the steel of it. This one is a great bit smaller, about twice the size of my fist, but the lock seems to be exactly the same size, looking unusual large on this piece. So now there's something on my mind more important than the pretty wife.
"What's in the box?" I ask the husband.
"Banknotes," he tells me. He clearly don't want to, but he does it anyway. Good fellow. Deserves a pat on the arse, he does.
"Give me here the key," I order.
He only shakes his head, and tells me, "I don't have it." "Where is it?" I demand.
"There isn't one. The notes inside are too valuable, so I destroyed the key."
"Then how the deuce do you get them out?" I roared, for it was a mighty reasonable question, and worthy of being asked loudly.
"I have the one man in the world who can pick a Domal lock," he says. Thus it is that he points to the crumpled heap of Phillip the coachman, bloody, glistening in the sun almost so much as the metal box.
This is what they call an irony. Farting Dan has bashed the brains out of the one man who could help me get into this box, and the one I got hidden in my rooms, too. I stare at the heap, and then something happens that don't look like it should. Phillip, like as if on cue in a stage play, twitches.
With the pistols still on the happy couple, I take a closer look at him. There's blood all matted in his hair, but his skull ain't bashed in at all. For all his wild swinging, it don't seem that Farting Dan done very much damage.
What I need to do is get Phillip back to my rooms and tend to him until I can ask him to get my box open. That's as much as anyone would conclude.
Farting Dan's been gone for a bit longer than perhaps he ought to've been, so I glance about, and see nothing. Then, with pistols held steady, I take a fleeting look behind me. If those two had been of a mind to overpower me, they could have done then, for I gazed at the scene longer than a wise prig ought.
What was it that so caught my attention? It was Farting Dan. He was behind me, all right. Behind me, and tied to a tree. His eyes were open, his mouth was open. And though I was a good hundred feet away, it looked to me for all the world like his throat was open, for it was much streaked with blood, as was his shirt and jacket.
Such cruelty. Such malice. Anyone casting his eyes to it would see that this weren't meant to hurt Farting Dan, though it appeared to have done that plenty, but to put the scare into those gazing 'pon it. It felt a whole lot like someone getting even, and in that moment I knew full well that there could only be one man behind it all. Benjamin Weaver, and he meant to even things up.
"Why didn't you open your gob?" I demanded the fat man.
"I didn't see it," he whimpered. "I was too busy collecting the articles for you."
"Then you'll die for it," I said, for this was the sort of outrage that demanded someone die, even if it were not the person what done it. My hand was calmed, however, by a voice.
"Leave him be, Fisher," I heard. "Face me like a man, if you dare."
I turned and there he was, astride a horse, about halfway between Farting Dan's body and myself. I was far away, and it had been more than a year, but I recognized the face all the same. Sure 'nough, 'twas Weaver, the man what had struck down Ruddy Dick. He held pistols in both hands, and they was trained upon me.
At that distance the guns should be entirely worthless, so he prods his horse forward. "It's time for you to pay for what you did to Thomas Lane," he says.
I was determined to show no fear, though I was fearful plenty. "What about Farting Dan there? He didn't have nothing to do with your precious pretty fellow."
"I see the damage you've done," he answered, arrogant as a lord. "He deserved to die, and so do you."
He had his pistols trained on me, and I had mine on him. He had two, and I had one, but mine had been tended to and loaded by the great and deceased Farting Dan, and that gave the advantage to me. I would be able to fire before he dared, and lucky shot would do the business.
He was about five feet short of what he must have considered being in range when I fired my pistol. He fired his in almost instant response, but my shot had been true, his false. Not so true as a man in my state should have liked, for it only hit his shoulder, but he lurched backward, and his pistols fired upward.
Weaver tumbled backward off his horse, and this, I knew, was my moment. "You!" I shouted at the fat man. "Get him on my horse." I gestured with a fresh pistol toward the still, slumped body of Phillip.
The fat man obliged, and in less than thirty seconds, I had him on the horse, and myself besides. Weaver was still struggling to get to his feet. He clutched at his shoulder, and there appeared to be a great deal of blood. It seemed I had hit him in his blood tubes, a wound that would make my escape all but certain, but I would take no chances.
I passed him quickly on my horse, emptied a pistol shot into him and rode on, my still prisoner balanced on the horse like a big bloody sack of shite.
It was a hard three-hour ride to my rooms in London. I could have not have planned this better had I tried, for it was full dark by the time I arrived, though not so dark that my presence on the street should draw attention from. And London, though it has many faults, at least enjoys the marvelous trait of being a city where no one will wonder why you ride about with a slumped man over your horse. There were, after all, too many other distractions. The cries of women selling shrimp and oysters, the pie men, the whores and traders in nefarious goods. Fools ran their coaches down the narrow streets too fast, farmers led their pigs this way and that. The streets were full of emptied chamber pots and kennel and dead horses carved up by beggars for their dinner. The skies in London were full of smoke and coal, the people rushed and angry and afraid. I may as well have been a buzzing fly for aught anyone gazed upon me.
I kept my rooms in Hockley in the Hole, and in that maze of makeshift buildings without addresses, sometimes without streets, no one could find me who was not led there by myself. And my landlord, who observed me dragging Phillip upstairs- he would say nothing. I paid him for his silence. He even helped get Phillip to my rooms, where we dropped him on the floor. To best make sure all went as it should, I gave the landlord a coin and sent him on his way.
I didn't live richly in my home, for it were only a place to rest; I lived in taverns and bagnios and with the ladies of the streets. Here I had my poor bed, a few furnishings upon which to sit and rest my food when there I ate. I hung nothing on the walls, covered the splintering floor with no rugs, put no dressings 'pon the cracked windows.
On our journey home, I had observed that this Phillip's head was no longer bleeding, and his breathing appeared to me fairly normal, all of which gave me hope. I lit a few oil lamps to allow me as much light as I needed. Then I took a bucket of water, what I used for washing that morning, and threw it upon Phillip. He stirred at once. He groaned and coughed and sputtered. He opened his eyes.
I trained a pistol on him. "Sit up."
He done it and put a hand to his head and then drew it away sharply.
"I hears you can open a Domal box."
He nodded, and it looked to me like the effort almost made him tumble over, and for all the world it seemed like it should take a miracle for this hurt bastard to open the box tonight.
With some difficulty, for I was very tired, I pushed aside a large and uncommon heavy chair I kept by the wall, and then opened the secret compartment in which I stored my most precious valuables. Included among these, and indeed almost alone among these, for I had little of value at the moment, was the box. Unlike the one I had in my loot bag, this one was near the size of a man's torso, and heavy, though from its frame or contents I knew not.
I set it down on the floor next to him, and he gazed 'pon it groggily.
"Open it," I told him.
"No," he said in a voice surprisingly steady. I trained my pistol on him. "Do it." "Killing me won't get it open," he said. "True," I agreed. "But lead in your leg might encourage some cooperation."
Then he did something most unlike a man with a bashed head. He pushed himself to his feet and stood facing me, gazing at me with unclouded eyes, standing steadily and strong. His injuries were perhaps not so severe as they appeared, not so severe as he'd led me to believe.
Not ten feet from him, however, with a loaded pistol, I was the master, and if he would not believe it, I would be forced to explain it in terms he could not ignore.
"Open it," I told him, "or you will regret it."
He smiled at me, and it was a smile full of confidence and, yes, pleasure. Here was a man enjoying himself not a little.
"I don't know how," he said.
"Then I will remind you," I answered, and fired the pistol directly at his knee. An injury of that nature might cause him so much pain that he would be unable to do his business, but I have observed, and more than once, that a man with one knee shot will go to great lengths to avoid having the other served with the same sauce.
Through the smell of powder and cloud of smoke, I noted that a man who ought to have collapsed remained still standing. From so little a distance, I could not have missed. There were no marks upon the floor, yet he remained unscathed, and had not even flinched during the firing.
"Your pistol is spent," he said. "Mine, however, is not." From his pocket he withdrew an imposing piece, which he aimed at my chest. "Sit." He gestured to my great and heavy chair.
Make no mistake, I had my wits about me. I saw no reason to lose heart, but with no choice but to obey, I sat. From his pockets he then withdrew a length of thick rope.
"Tie yourself to the chair," he said. "And no deception, if you please. I have my eye 'pon you, and I know a fine knot from a poor."
My hands fumbled with the rope. "Look here, Phillip. I have a great deal of money about me, and rather than be enemies, let's come to what they call an understanding."
He said nothing until I had secured myself tight to the chair. I meant to create a loose knot, but his eyes never left me. I must now operate under the belief that he could not kill me in cold blood- and that I could buy my freedom with the promise of silver.
Once I was bound, he smiled at me, a devilish sort of smile. "My name is not Phillip," he said to me. "I presume you did not see my face when you knocked me down a year and a half ago, and so it is you who do not recognize me today."
A sort of stillness overtook the room. It was the stillness that came over the theater when a great revelation was made. Even the rabble of the pits would pause in their nonsense to look up and see what secrets were being said. Here it was, in my life, such a moment. A moment of the theater as things that had been hidden revealed themselves.
"Thomas Lane," I said. "I thought you was dead."
"No, Thomas did not die, though I am not he. You mistook the one for the other, as you were meant. I am Benjamin Weaver."
"Then, the man I knocked down…" I began.
"That was me who you mistook for Thomas Lane during our last encounter. Thomas had some unfortunate bounties upon him, and he thought it useful to let the world believe he died by your hand. It was therefore spread about that you had killed him, and to give the story the credibility Thomas required, it was also spread that I sought revenge for a death that never was."
I began to sputter, for now this story was all confusion. "If I did not kill Lane, why all the trouble to take revenge upon me?"
He smiled again. "It is not revenge, Fisher. It is a matter of business, as I have found a better way to earn my bread. I am no longer a man of the highway, but a thief-taker. The owner of this box employed me to retrieve it. As you would tell no one, not your closest confederates, where you kept your goods, I had no choice but to encourage you to bring me to it of your own free will. Your attempt to rob us 'pon the highway was my scheme. I permitted you to believe you manipulated me, when I was the one who manipulated you."
"You're nothing but a double dealer, and a more ruthless bastard than ever I was," I told him. "You let all those people die so that you could retrieve this box?"
He laughed. "No one has died. No one has been hurt. Did you not wonder how you missed me when you fired 'pon me? Your companion neglected to include balls in the pistols. We deceived you with empty firearms and false blood from the stage."
It was then, over the stench from the discharged pistol, that I began to smell something else. A stench like rotted eggs-and rotted meat and rotted teeth. Then, into the room walks Farting Dan, Thomas Lane by his side.
"I knew you had the box in your rooms," Farting Dan announces, "but as you would tell no one where your rooms were, I could not sell that information. I knew the way you'd have to pass, though, so Thomas and I rode ahead of you and waited for you to glide by. You were so intent in getting home, so certain you were now safe, you did not notice us behind you."
"You've betrayed me," I shouted at Farting Dan. "Why?"
"For money," he said with a shrug.
"It's a good reason," I answered, "and I'll not fault you for it."
"Now," Dan says to Weaver, "take the box and be off with ye. That was our bargain, and I expect you'll honor it."
Weaver nodded. "I should like to bring you to justice, Fisher, but I will honor my word. You'd be wise not to cross my path in the future, however."
And so it was that he lifted the box in his arms, and he and his companion left my rooms.
In silence we waited as we heard their heavy steps down the stairs, then the slam of the front door. Farting Dan went to the window and watched for some minutes, and I watched him. Then at last he turned to me and broke the silence. "Not too tight, I hope, them ropes?"
"I done it myself," I says.
"You comfortable?" he asks.
"Shut your gob and untie me," I says. "You get the last payment?" He cut through the ropes with his knife. "Ten more guineas, as promised."
With my hands free, I stood and rubbed my wrists. "A lot of nonsense for twenty guineas," I says. "Particularly since the contents of that box must be worth a hundred times that."
"Twenty guineas is better than nothing, which is what the box was worth to us if we couldn't get it open. And we got it without fear of a hanging, or having to do business with a fence. Not bad in my thinking."
He was right, too. That Farting Dan was a practical fellow, and a clever one. I'd have never thought of this plan on my own. But that was Dan. Always thinking. And always farting.
As a deputy U.S. marshal tasked with transporting inmates and hunting down fugitives, Gregg Hurwitz's protagonist, Tim Rackley, finds himself in and around prisons on a daily basis. The Kill Clause, Rackley's first thriller, begins with Rackley learning about his seven-year-old daughter's murder. From there, he's drawn into a shadowy commission of men seeking justice outside the law. The Program brought Rack-ley inside a deadly mind control cult, when he was tasked with retrieving the missing daughter of a powerful Hollywood producer. For research, Hurwitz went undercover into mind control cults and submitted himself to cult testing.
Troubleshooter, the next Rackley thriller, opens with the leader of an outlaw biker gang pulling off a daring freeway escape while being driven from sentencing to prison. Clearly, the Rackley series grapples with issues of vigilantism-justice versus the law-each book offering Rackley's ever-evolving perspective. In the course of researching each of the Tim Rackley books, Hurwitz himself spent time behind bars, getting to know the men and women who keep the prisons running.
Dirty Weather was inspired by them.
He was handsome in a dirty sort of way, lank hair shoved back over his ears, muscles firm beneath a white button-up shirt he wore untucked with the sleeves cuffed past the forearms. He'd slipped into Frankie's Furlough quietly, a swirl of biting wind from the still-closing door conveying him to the far end of the bar. The rickety building stuck out from a snowdrift off the interstate as if hurled there. The interior smelled of sawdust, which layered the floor, soaking up spilled booze and the melted sludge of tracked-in earth.
Home to truckers, twelve-steppers who'd fallen off the staircase, and most often, correctional officers, the Furlough had been something of a roadside institution ever since Frankie had taken his pension from the big house and parlayed it into four walls, a roof of questionable efficacy and a red-felt pool table. He'd done well for himself, too, though it wasn't apparent from the looks of the place.
The surrounding landscape had been stripped bare by winter, trees thrusting like forked sticks out of gray rises of snow. Few signs of life persisted in the stretch of Michigan freeze: a liquor store across the frontage road, a long-closed diesel station, a sloped gravel turnoff for runaway semis. And then a stark ten-mile crawl north to the only employer of significance in the county, the Upper Ridgeway State Men's Correctional Facility, which rose from behind a stark shelf of white cedars like a secret no one had bothered to keep secret.
Laura finished twirling a pint glass on a towel, her attention drawn back to the stranger at the end of the bar. He'd walked with a slight limp, which interested her. Also, he kept his gaze on the lacquered birch veneer instead of on her breasts (her most attractive feature were she to judge by the eye traffic of Furlough's fine patrons) or her rounded but still-firm thirty-six-year-old ass. Her face wasn't bad either, this she knew, but it had collected age around the eyes and at the line of her jaw. And the skin of the neck. Nothing to be done there. His face, by contrast, was more youthful-she put him in his late twenties-but it was quite pale, almost unhealthily so, as if he were used to living in a warmer climate.
Between small, measured sips, he turned the bottle in his hands as if he'd never seen a beer before. Contemplativeness, in Frankie's Furlough, was something of a rarity. In contrast, Rick Jacobs was all swagger, shooting solids against Myron's stripes. Barrel chest, thermal undershirt, beard, weekend game-hunter- Rick was a carbon copy of a carbon copy. Ever since he'd joined up with the Asphalt Cruisers, Rick asked people to call him Spike. Despite his efforts, the nickname hadn't taken. He had a penchant for racist jokes and loud belching, and the tremors hit him if he got forty waking minutes from a bottle of Glenlivet. That's why he was here, even during a blizzard that kept the entire county shuttered in except for Laura, who would've burrowed through snow with her bare hands to get some fresh air after playing nurse, and Myron, who Rick had no doubt bullied into playing sidekick. Just good country people, Rick and Myron, quick with a grin and a left hook.
Rick paused, his ass in front of the fire that Laura persistently kept going. Her father had built the brick hearth with his own two hands, an act of masculine creation he reminded her of at least once a week, even though he'd rarely gotten around to using it when he was running the show. He didn't believe in burning resources; this was a hewn-featured man, powerful even in his decline, who still banged about the house wearing the Shetland wool sweater he'd bought on a trip to Montreal during the 1967 Expo.
The stranger caught her next glance and flared a finger from the bottle. She headed over, trailing a soft hand along the bar. "Another?"
"Nah, just a pack of Reds, please."
"No boozing and cruising," she said, sliding the cigarettes across the bar. "Smart choice. You'll wind up on the other side of the bars."
He leaned back, a faint grin etched on his face. "Is it that obvious?"
She leaned over the bar (giving him a chance for an eyeful of cleavage, which she was pleased he didn't capitalize on) and peered at the baton ring protruding from his belt. "Plus the Galls boots. Dead giveaway. I been working here a long time. And though you're cute"-this widened the smile-"I know the template. Newjack or transfer?"
His eyes, faded blue, took on a hint of playfulness. "How do you know I'm new here?"
"Because I haven't seen you. Hell, we are called the Furlough. Even the prisoners know about us. That's what we get for being on the thoroughfare." She tossed the stale popcorn into the trash and slotted the wooden bowl back into the cupboard. "So, I'll ask you again, hotshot-Newjack or transfer?"
"Newjack." He extended a callused hand. "Brian Dyer."
"Laura Hillman." She pointed at the neon sign hanging over the rust-stained mirror. They hadn't had it serviced in years, so it read, F nk e Furl gh. "Frank's daughter. Been around a few blocks a few times." She cocked her head, letting a tangle of hair cross her eyes. "Still embarrassed?"
"Why would you say that?"
"No blazer, no bad maroon tie, no gray slacks. You changed after shift in the lockers even though the draft in there can make your"-a delicate tip of her hand-"retract inside your body. It can catch you a lot of static in the world, being a correctional officer, so you'd rather leave the uniform behind the gates."
Again he smiled, and she felt something inside her warm. A part of her that hadn't felt comfort-or hope-in a long time. Though the fire was a good fifteen feet away, a drop of sweat hung at his hairline. She liked that he sensed the heat so keenly.
He bobbed his head. "What else? I mean, aside from the fact that you're clearly smarter than me. Is there a Mr. Laura?"
Rick strolled to the near side of the pool table, overchalking his cue. Myron had stumbled out, heading home to get his nightly tongue-lashing from Kathy over with, so Rick was burning his remaining quarters chasing trick shots. He'd started staying right up until last call ever since Laura, in the wake of her father's latest heart attack, had taken over weekends.
A loud click of the pool balls and Rick cheered himself heartily.
Laura leaned forward, lowering her voice. "I look bad in blue, so I married into the family tradition instead. Fresh out of high school. Mr. Laura had just graduated the Academy. And you know what they say are the first three things you get when you become a CO."
"A car, a baton and a divorce," Brian replied.
"We gave it the obligatory two years. Since then, I've been a lonely girl."
"Not so lonely," Rick offered from where he was leaning over the thirteen, which had evaded the corner pocket for three shots running.
"Thank you for that, Spike"
He grumbled something and got back to chalking.
"What's with the tattoo?" She rested a hand on the faded blue ink on Brian's forearm, and he jerked ever so slightly at her touch. His skin was warm and soft, and the feel of it against her palm was inexplicably thrilling.
Behind them, the pool cue clattered to the worn velvet, and Rick said, "Fuck this, then." A brief howl of wind as the door banged the chimes, hard, and then they were alone.
"The tattoo," Laura said, tracing the dip of the inked woman's waist with a thumb.
"I don't remember getting it."
"Sounds like a sailor story."
"Not quite." Brian looked away, his mouth firming, and she sensed sadness there, and anger. "It was during an eight-day drunk…"
Her voice was quiet and a touch hoarse with the premonition that she might regret her flippancy. "After what?"
"My wife. Three months pregnant. Drunk driver. High-school sweetheart, for what that's worth. We'd been together four years, were just starting to really fight good-you know, baby'll help things-but she was part of me." He tilted his beer bottle to his lips, but it was still on empty. "Another sob story. Just what you need in a place like this."
Her hand still rested on his arm and it felt awkward to withdraw it now. She liked the feel of their touching, the feel of him. The seam of their skin was slightly moist, their sweat intermingling. She struggled for words that wouldn't sound trite. She thought about fetuses, the crunch of car metal, Brian's faint limp. "How do you get back from that?"
"Am I back?" He laughed a real laugh, like he was enjoying himself. "It put me down for a good while and when I got up, I enrolled in the Academy. You can go either way after a thing like that. The line is-" he held up his hand, thumb and forefinger, measuring a quarter inch. "I thought a little order would help me pull it together and I was right. So order I've got. I spend my time in a place where guys keep Clubs locked on the steering wheels of their cars that they park in the shadow of a wall tower. Guy I work with-Conner?"
"Sure, I know Conner."
"He welded a hasp to his lunch box so he could keep a tiny lock on there. No shit."
"Sounds like Conner all right."
"It's being locked in paranoia. But you know what? I'd be lying to say I don't take comfort in the metal. All those right angles. And the bells, set your watch to them. I'll leave someday, I'm sure, head somewhere warm, and I bet I'll miss it all. It's like.armor, almost."
"And you needed armor."
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I did."
She found herself close to him, a foot maybe-he'd been speaking quietly and drawn her in, and there was an instant where she thought she'd just keep leaning until their lips met. His heaviness seemed to match the weight of her disappointments. A single child raised motherless in a frozen plain. She'd tried to get out, even to Detroit, but she'd chosen young and then her marriage had dissolved, leaving her mired like a shot bird. Twenty years old then and she'd never found it in herself to risk again.
She'd gone to Florida once-Disneyworld with Sue Ann-but as for spreading her wings, well, she'd always stayed in her childhood bedroom, except for during her brief marriage. And even then she'd made it not ten miles, just across the gully. A decade and a half ago, now. And so she'd spent her years since laughing with the truckers, shooting stick with the COs and taking the occasional roll in the sheets just to get some warmth inside her. Her indiscretions bought her snickers in church and criminating looks from her father, exaggerated into a kind of horror now by his palsied left cheek and the white film ringing his lips. It stung her deep and hard, the murmur that preceded and followed her, but she'd long resolved herself to getting what sustenance she could where she could, and to hell with the rest of them.
She'd been saving up though, a few years now, and maybe that money would get her out of Upper Ridgeway or at the very least out of her father's house. Or maybe-a notion almost too painfully hopeful to entertain-it would help her get a house with someone else someday. But her radar was off, as her father liked to say. She saw what she wanted to see in men and sometimes these days she didn't even see that.
Brian raised a hand to her cheek (impossibly, impossibly warm), his elbow braced on the bar so she could give his palm the full weight of her chin and then the door smashed open and a man with a gun charged them, screaming so loud flecks of saliva dotted the bar.
"The safe-I know there's a fucking safe get it open now."
Laura backed against the glass shelves, a bottle of Triple Sec bouncing twice on the floor and clattering to a quiet roll. Brian remained on his stool facing forward, enveloped in an intense calm that spoke of experience, his hands spread in view on the bar. His eyes stayed straight ahead; he seemed to be tracking the man's movement in the mirror behind her.
The gunman wore several long-sleeved T-shirts, one on top of the other. Snow and sweat had matted his wispy blond hair to his skull. He fumbled a credit-card-size block of what looked like beige Play-Doh from his pocket, his stare level on Laura.
"You'd better move, bitch." The gunman shoved Brian's shoulder with his gun. "And you, get up against the-"
Brian pivoted on the stool and drove his fist into the man's gut. The gunman doubled over and the gun barked once. Brian grunted and staggered forward.
The man shuffled backward toward the door, screeching, "Dammit, Goddammit. You stupid idiot," and then the bells shivered, the wind rushed, and he was gone.
Laura vaulted the bar. Gritting his teeth, Brian fought off his boot and hurled it into the fireplace. His sock, drenched with blood, made a peeling sound as he slid it off. This too went the way of the flames.
The bullet had pierced the outside of his right foot, two inches back from his little toe. The shock had just caught up to Laura, moistening her eyes. The comforting smell of the fire drifted in, further disorienting.
"You're okay." Disbelief tinged her voice, and not a little relief. "You're okay."
"It's fine. Passed through the side, here."
"I'll bandage it and we'll get you to the hospital. I have a first-aid kit."
"Lock the door first. And check the parking lot, make sure he's gone."
She did, bending the cheap venetians over the window. The interstate was an oblivious white strip. A wall of snow encircled the empty parking lot, white fading into the white trunks of the firs. A white Subaru was parked at the side of the frontage road, though she had to press her face flat to the glass to see it. The headlights shot twinning beams into the snowfall, but the car was apparently empty. "No one. But there's a car still there. Lights on."
"It's gotta be his. No one else out here. And he's not going far on foot."
"He could be hiding in it. Or in the trees." "Call 911."
She ran behind the bar and snatched up the phone. Dead. "He cut the line."
"Okay. We're isolated here. You have a gun?"
"No. You think he'll come back, this guy?"
"Looked like he had C4 with him. For blasting a safe."
"Jesus Christ," she broke in, "C4, like action-movie C4?"
"I spooked him, but maybe he settles himself out in that car, realizes that we're holed up and injured. Plus, we're riding the aftermath of a blizzard-not exactly the best time for a speedy police response even if he hadn't cut the phone line. I say we split."
"Not before I stop the bleeding." She was pulling bowls and plates from the cabinet. She found the first-aid kit and returned to him. He was sitting, arms braced over his knees, smiling at her in the orange glow. She felt his stare as she worked. He seemed oblivious to the pain. She didn't really know what she was doing, but she cinched a tourniquet midway up his foot and wound an Ace bandage over some sterile pads, applying pressure on the entry wound.
"That happen a lot around here?"
"A correctional officers' bar? You kidding me? A normal night, someone came in here, they'd get beaten within an inch of their lives."
She finished and patted his calf. She could see the fire's glow reflected in his eyes and she touched his face, gently, letting her fingers drift down over his lips.
His face darkened, his gaze shifting nervously to the window. "Let's get going."
"My Bronco's out back." She helped him up.
He leaned on the walls, making ginger progress. "What are you doing?"
Laura was on her knees, rolling back the shitty carpet by the jukebox. She worked the dial of the floor safe until the gears clanked. She withdrew three tight rolls of hundred-dollar bills and stuffed them in her pockets. "There's fifteen grand here. My life's savings. If that guy comes back, he'll have plenty of time to tear the place apart. If he doesn't already know where the safe is."
"Let's go, let's go."
She put an arm around his waist and kicked through the back door, waiting for the gunman to fly out of the white haze at them. But it was just the wide swath of alley, the soggy stack of Bud-weiser cartons under the overhang and her truck. The wind hit them hard, whipping flecks of snow into their faces. It tore at her collar, the cuffs of her jeans. She deposited Brian in the Bronco and waded around to the driver's seat, her eyes holding fearfully on the Subaru. The gunman's car remained maddeningly motionless, its headlights beaming forward like a dead man's gaze.
Brian was shuddering by the time she got the engine turned over. She'd left the heat blasting and the radio on-Don down at KRZ was spinning the Highwaymen, Kris Kristofferson as smooth as good scotch, save for the pulses of static from the weather. She blasted the heat. The Bronco bucked over drifts of snow past the Subaru, its shadowed interior drawing briefly into view through ice-misted windows, and then they were skating on the frontage road, heading for the interstate entrance. She studied the rearview, frightened. As if on cue, the radio went to fuzz, then warped into silence.
The windshield of the Subaru continued to stare after them, but the car didn't pull out. She watched it recede, her heart pounding.
Barely visible up ahead through the snow were two sets of flashing red lights. Laura eased up to the sawhorses, fighting down the window. Four deputies blocked the overpass.
Before she could say anything, Earl leaned in and shouted over the wind, "We just got word there's been a break at the prison. Miguel's dead-bastard caved his head in on the escape. That's all we know except to lock down the road."
"I just had a guy try to rob me. His car's still back at the Furlough. We think he's still around there." She brought a trembling hand to her face. "My God. Miguel. I just saw him over at the garage yesterday, getting a new radiator in his…" Her eyes welled. "Has someone told Leticia?"
"Thinning blond hair," Brian shouted past her. "Five-eight, five-nine, maybe. Skinny."
Earl's brows rose as his eyes shifted. "Who's this?"
"Brian Dyer. He's a CO up at the big house. He got shot protecting me. I gotta get him to the hospital."
"Okay. Go. Go. We'll take the Furlough." Earl squinted through the falling snow. The Subaru's headlights were barely visible. "That car up there?" He turned to the others. "Move it, let's move." He rapped a gloved fist on Laura's hood and she pulled past the roadblock, coaxing the Bronco back to speed.
They crossed the overpass, veering toward the south entrance, and started the long curve around to the interstate.
The radio crackled and Don's distorted voice came audible in waves. "-deadly escape from the prison…Miguel Herrera's body found stripped and frozen in the east yard."
Blocking the bottom of the on-ramp, just before the merge, was a felled tree. Brian shouted and Laura hit the brakes, sending the Bronco sideways. They coasted peacefully to a stop, an upthrust branch screeching up Brian's door. She let out her breath in a rush, and he laughed. Up ahead, on the interstate, was a furrow where some poor soul had trudged across from the frontage road, probably a half-frozen construction worker seeing to the sewage drains beneath the overpass. "I'll steer us around," she said.
Brian leaned forward and punched the cigarette lighter. His other arm was up around her headrest and he dropped it to the back of her neck. His hand was warm, so warm-he'd been holding it over the dashboard vent. The backs of his knuckles drifted down, grazing her cheek, her chin. She felt her neck muscles unclench, her body softening to his touch.
The radio reception came back in, if barely. "-security tapes show.used a starter pistol in their escape.one of the inmates shot in the foot going over the."
Laura's eyes widened. Her gaze jerked to the base of the tree- ax marks, not splinters. A mosaic of images pressed in on her. Miguel's wife's Subaru. The Furlough's empty parking lot even after Brian had arrived. His limp as he'd entered. The belt with the baton ring, poking out from the bottom of his state-issue button-up shirt. His face, already pale from the injury. The sweat on his brow-pain suppressed. And his stolen boot, thrown in the fire after the ruse so she wouldn't see that it had no bullet hole.
Brian's hand continued to play across her face. Trembling, she lifted her gaze but the stare looking back was unrecognizable. The snow beat against the window behind him, the branch scraping against the door. And then she saw the pale hand reach up over the tree trunk outside like something from a horror movie.
Brian's hand tightened and he drove a fist down across her chin. Her head smacked the window, her head lolled, and she slumped against the door. Digging in her pockets, he removed the rolls of cash. Then he reached past her ample breasts, tugged at the door handle, and shoved her with his good foot out into the snow.
Teddy slid down off the tree trunk, stamping his feet and rubbing his arms. Bits of ice stuck to his thin wisps of blond hair and his lashes, which framed bloodshot eyes. Brian fished the pack of Marlboros from his pocket, tapped out a cigarette and extended it between two fingers across the console. Teddy stepped over Laura's limp body and climbed in, his breath clouding against the wheel as he slammed the door against the cold. He took the proffered cigarette and set it between quivering lips. He removed the beige rectangle from his pocket-a carefully shaped block of used chewing gum-and tossed it into the back seat. Then he cranked the heat even higher, shivering violently and pressing his white fingers against the vents.
The cigarette lighter popped out and Teddy pulled it from the dash and tilted his head, inhaling the warmth.
Brian made a gun with his hand and pointed south. "To the sunshine."
Teddy maneuvered the Bronco through the soft snow of the shoulder, forging a path around the tree. As they pulled out onto the interstate, sheets of snow began to layer Laura into oblivion.
Technology and its ills, together with Native American mysticism, contrasts two worlds often at war-science versus back-to-nature values. In his first thriller, Necessary Evil, David Dun spun an action-driven tale of wilderness survival that highlighted this war of the worlds, pitting Kier Win-tripp against a ruthless corporate personality using human cloning to achieve medical cures.
Kier Wintripp is part of the Tilok tribe. Most of Dun's novels have involved characters from that tribe, which, although fictional, is in many respects based on various factual accounts of Native American life, lore, myth, history and religion. One aspect of Tilok culture is the Talth, a medicine person, part psychologist, part political leader, part judge, an expert on forest-survival arts. The pinnacle of the Talth is propounded by Spirit Walkers. These men come along only once a century and are recognized by their profound intuition concerning the affairs of men and nature. Kier was Dun's first, and perhaps most striking, Tilok character. A superb woodsman and tracker, a guide to youth, a teacher of the forest arts, he's also a doctor of veterinary medicine. Science being the ultimate rationalism, in Dun's novels Kier has many times sought, often unsuccessfully, to find peace in reason.
This is the story of how he became a Spirit Walker.
The old people said it was the spirit of a man unloved as a child, roaming the deepest forests of the mountains, but Kier Wintripp didn't believe in spirits that did the work of psychopaths.
He stood beneath the big conifers in front of his cabin picking huckleberries as Matty arrived with Jack Mix. A very curious combination. She an old woman, and he a former FBI agent. Matty approached and Kier sensed the tension in her frail body as she gripped his wrists with a grandmother's love. Mix kept back a respectable few paces.
"Jake, my grandson, has gone off into the mountains, to the caverns, with Carmen," Matty said. "They left three days ago before daylight and were returning late the same day." She stared at her feet. "And there's another thing."
He waited for her to explain.
"Jake was going to the cliffs, at the top of the caverns." "Below Universe Rock? The sacred place?" "It's wrong. I know."
"And they were to return the same day?"
She nodded. "The next day was my birthday. Jake would never miss his grandmother's birthday." He knew that was true.
"You will go?" Matty said, desperation in her voice. "Everyone knows you're descended from the last Spirit Walker. It's in you. You can find them."
His grandfather had indeed been a Spirit Walker, one of the tribe's mystics, revered men who came along once in a hundred years. They guided the Talth, advised the tribe, communed with spirits and discerned the hearts of men. Kier intimately knew the forest and taught the young its secrets. He was an ordinary man, half Anglo, half Tilok, but also a veterinarian trained in science, so part of him required the comfort of reason.
"You'll go get them," Matty said again, her voice breaking. "Please."
"I'll go," Kier assured her. "Spirit Walker or not."
"It's where the ghosts are. Raccoon says he saw a ghost. Robes white as bleached sheets. Jake and Carmen thought maybe Raccoon would be there with the ghosts. That's why they went."
Kier had heard the rumors of ghosts and murder. Fantastical stories that grew under their own weight.
Mix seemed to be waiting for Matty to leave, but she didn't. So they walked up on the porch and Kier invited them both to sit. Kier was curious about Mix. He seemed to be hanging around a lot lately. Under the eave, Mix removed his straw hat, revealing cropped brown hair that matched a neat mustache. Mix had made a fine transition from law officer to owner of a local feed store and wildlife photographer, even if he had never quite fit socially with the stranger-shy locals. Like Kier's wife, Jessie, also an ex-FBI agent, Mix had gladly given up the big city for the backcountry.
"Some of my friends from the FBI called," Mix said. "I recommended that they ask for your help. You're the best forensic tracker around."
He caught Mix's real message. "The FBI isn't looking for Jake and Carmen. Or ghosts."
"You're right," Mix replied. "They want to talk to Raccoon. Just yesterday they spoke with me. The couple over in Lassen County a year ago, they never found the girl, and the boy was a cooked pile of meat. That boy's father was a state senator. Then we had a couple from Humboldt just disappear off the face of the earth. The press is starting to use the words serial killer"
"That's got nothing to do with Raccoon."
"Maybe. Maybe not. What can you tell me about him?"
"We call him Kawa We Ma. A gentle man inside a big body." He pictured Raccoon as he'd last seen him, wearing a leather flight jacket over deer hide. The man had been born Josiah Morgan, a part-Tilok orphan adopted by the tribe. The nickname came from the port-wine stain on his face that gave him the look of a raccoon's mask.
"The tracks the sheriff found, and some other things, were suspicious," Mix said. "Raccoon disappears for days."
"You disappear for days in the woods, too, with your photography."
"I come back out. Talk to people. Run a store."
"Raccoon talks to the forest," Kier said. "People don't understand him, so they fear him. You and I have no idea what it would be like to see a miracle in every blooming flower. Raccoon is a man distracted by miracles. He's incapable of hurting anyone."
"If he isn't doing anything, then why not track him for them?" Mix asked.
"Because I don't want to."
Matty faced him. "Raccoon told Carmen that above the caverns, in the cliffs, there's a cabin with a ghost. Right above Man Jumps."
Carmen was Raccoon's daughter, whom Kier knew the man worshipped. So he believed the information.
Mix produced a bag of shelled pistachios and offered some. Kier scooped a few, as did Matty. "A cabin would show up on aerial photos," Mix said.
Kier shook his head. "It wouldn't be visible in a cave or hollow. And since it is sacred, no one goes there. Not even rock climbers."
"Who would you say Raccoon really cares about?" Mix asked.
Kier smiled. "That's a perceptive question for an ex-bureaucrat who sounds like he's returning to his old ways. My grandfather used to say the difference between a good and an evil man is what he loves. I'm not sure what Raccoon loves, other than Carmen. But, like I said, Raccoon is not a killer."
There were more questions, but Kier found that in answering he was repeating himself in a manner he disliked. Finally he said to Mix, "I thought you gave the FBI a flunking grade. Said they didn't protect the country the way they should. 9/11. The anthrax killer, and all that."
"I've got my beefs with them, but when it comes to a psychopath, I figure everyone has to pitch in."
Kier nodded, as if he understood.
Kissing Jessie and his children goodbye, dispatching hugs all around, and receiving the benedictory "be careful," Kier left for the woods. Three hours later he studied the tracks of Jake and Carmen, which told him a story. From their separation and angle he was certain these two were friends, not a couple. But it was the third set of prints, following theirs, that consumed his attention. They were made by a heavy man in good physical shape. Given the weight, the tireless stride, the smooth of the sole and the way it rounded at the toe, they could have only come from a handmade hide boot. Only a few Tiloks wore them and none were this size, except perhaps for Raccoon and himself.
The wind molesting the trees made him uneasy. He wondered if the murmur was more of Grandfather's sense of the presence of another life.
He allowed his mind to manipulate the puzzle engulfing him. More unease crept through him. Around him rose the towering rock faces of Iron Mountain with its caverns and Man Jumps, a hole in the cliffside. A slow, 360-degree turn brought his senses to high alert. Something man-made, a patch of cloth on the ground, just visible through the trees, caught his attention.
He inhaled deeply and noticed a strange, meaty smell, something like pot roast.
Hair rose on his arms.
He waited, not moving, listening, looking. Then he silently slipped forward and repeated the exercise. Thirty minutes later, after steadily creeping forward, he concluded that no one alive waited for him ahead. The sense taught by his grandfather confounded him. It would not leave him. But he overruled the sensation and entered the camp.
The first thing he saw was the charred remains of Jake.
A groan escaped his lips. He tried to divorce from his thoughts the agony that must have been Jake's last experiences on earth. He searched for signs of Carmen, imagining the terror she'd be feeling. Anger rose in him, forming a familiar determination.
He studied the fire pit where Jake lay. Given the depth of the ash, the remnants had burned maybe five hours. Probably the killer had watched the campers for a while to savor what was coming. So Kier knew what to do.
Find the watching spot.
He backed away from the fire and soaked in the scene. Quickly, he discovered where the killer had waited. Near the stream. And a fishing rod, probably Jake's, still leaned against a tree. He stared at the prints in the earth. Discernible, but blurred. If he hadn't seen the same blurs elsewhere in the camp, he would have attributed it to the movements of impatience. If he didn't know better, he would have said there were two large men making similar tracks.
Raccoon was here.
But Kier knew he wasn't the killer.
He surveyed the surrounding ground.
Something small and white caught his gaze. He bent down to examine it. A tiny flake. No. A chip of something. Not really. Much more.
A piece from a pistachio nut.
One thought rushed through his mind. Jack Mix.
He reeled off the possibilities. Mix could have easily made a print that size. He possessed the requisite weight, but to make either he would have been forced to stretch his stride to emulate Raccoon.
What did this mean?
He returned to the camp and searched for a sign of struggle or a spot where Carmen might have been tied down, but found nothing. He discovered a blood spatter at the base of the cliff. Fifty feet up the rock wall he spotted a blood smear. He knew what both meant. Jake had tumbled down the cliffs. Then he'd been cooked, like the boy in Lassen County.
To mask something.
Grandfather's sense of another life dogged him. But his scientific training reminded him that superstitions achieved nothing. So he circled the camp, searching for an exit track. On the far side lay a tan sheet of paper. He bent down and saw that the sheet was a map. Beneath it laid a Polaroid photo of a woman in her mid-thirties.
It was Jessie.
And in her engaging smile he saw the inherent goodness that would incite any killer to want to destroy her. Fear threatened to overwhelm him. The message resonated clear. The killer had known he'd be here and had seized his vulnerability.
He stuffed the picture in his pocket and studied the map. The area depicted was the Wintoon River, with an X marking the location of his cabin. He shuddered, but hesitated. Too obvious.
Something flashed in the corner of his eye.
He gazed through the foliage. Someone was there.
He dived into the brush, but a thump knocked him sideways, slamming him into the ground. Crawling on one side, a great river of pain swept down his spine, shoulder and arm. His breath came in gasps. Pain screamed through his mind. A crossbow bolt protruded from his flesh just to the left of his chin. It had traveled upward from behind, piercing his left trapezius muscle between the shoulder and neck, exiting just above the clavicle.
He struggled to escape the thickets and developed a sort of sliding crawl that enabled him to keep his shoulder rigid. Any movement produced unbearable pain. Finally he slipped into the forest, away from the camp.
More arrows sliced through the foliage.
He freed his belt and wrapped it around his hand, forming a leather sheath.
Reaching above the razor-sharp blades of the arrow, he nestled the leather against the bottom edges, then yanked. The stiff feather fletching ripped through the meat of his trapezius and came away clean. For several minutes he did nothing but hang on to reality and fight nausea. Then his mind started working. He removed some sterile gauze from his backpack and applied it to both wounds.
The bleeding slowed.
Thank the Great Spirit.
He grabbed hold of his emotions, palmed a compact semiautomatic Ruger.22 pistol from his pack and eased twenty feet away. The killer was here. So he waited. But no one came.
Sweating and in pain, Kier finally slipped warily out of the bushes and found tracks exiting the camp. One set of large prints, blurred, and smaller ones-Carmen's, which showed significant weight on the front of the foot, an indication that the killer might be pulling her. No toe tics, tripping, staggering or the like. She kept up a good stride on a steep incline and the implications were clear. The killer was forcing her deeper into the mountains.
His injury slowed him, and the notion that he might catch up to them vanished. He found that by keeping his upper body rigid, the muscles in his back bunched and naturally splinted the wound. But the side effect was cramping, and soon muscle spasms forced him to adopt an awkward gait.
The trail widened.
He stared down at the prints, but the ground spun from the blood loss. He blinked and steeled his mind, then tried to focus again. Carmen and her captor now walked side by side.
Clearly, Carmen was now accompanying the killer voluntarily. Without Carmen's tracks overlapping his, the big tracks became easier to read and they indeed appeared large, like Raccoon's, but blurred and overlain at times with another track.
What had his grandfather said?
Our eyes are guided by our mind. We need both but either can trick us, so we must rely completely on neither. This is why sometimes we must know without thinking and without seeing.
His mind balked.
To know was to understand.
He wanted to argue with the old man, now gone to the land of the dead, but knew that was impossible. He forced the pain from his mind. What was deceiving him? What was he to know?
Two men, one track.
But maybe the second man came a day or two later. He moved ahead.
At a fork, a third set of tracks stepped out of Raccoon's, leaving both men's tracks unblurred. He kept his balance and fought the shock.
The killer's tracks matched his own.
But they were fresher than the others.
What was happening?
He felt like he was living a nightmare. His boot and Raccoon's boot were nearly the same. Both were made in the traditional Tilok method. Both were large, like back at the camp. Raccoon had apparently come, then later perhaps someone else with a boot perfectly matching. If the killer could copy Raccoon's boot, he could also copy Kier's.
Raccoon was here. But so was Mix.
He followed tracks that looked like his own for a couple of hundred feet until he hit a dry creek bed. He knew it was a straight shot to Jessie and their cabin two thousand feet below. If the killer traveled by creek it would lead to a falls and a sheer drop, with a treacherous trail. So he eased his wracked body down the rock waterway, through heavy brush, looking for a print. Spasms played through his body while blood loss sapped him.
He stopped and tried to think.
Sometimes we must know without thinking or seeing.
Something nagged at him. His grandfather's superstitions seemed to beckon him to the sacred place.
If a man listens to such nonsense he won't even be able to put his socks on in the morning.
He had to think. Foolish people believed without their minds.
Jake chose to stay alone. To fish? No. He fell or was thrown down the cliffs. So what of the rod? A plant? The killer wants us to believe he was fishing. Because he wants to distract us from the alternative.
The torture was staged.
The picture of Jessie and the map now, more than ever, smelled like bait. A man is made by what he loves. His grandfather's words were a drum in his mind.
Suddenly he realized that he had wandered into danger. He gripped the pistol with a tight embrace.
Be a tracker, let the earth speak.
Then he saw it.
A dusting of white powder on the brush in the creek just ahead. None immediately to his right or left. Just ahead. He turned, searching for any sign of powder behind him and found nothing.
The sounds of dogs echoed along the mountain.
He pushed himself up the creek bank, ducked behind a tree and waited. His eyes lighted on a sandy area and he spotted footprints like his own, moving up the hill, not down to his cabin where Jessie nurtured his children. He stared, not believing his eyes. If he'd stayed on the killer's trail, or fled to the cabin to save Jessie, he would have passed straight through the white powder.
Behind him, the dogs arrived, bloodhounds, straining at their leashes.
He stopped and held his breath.
Following the dogs were men in self-contained Hazmat-equipped outfits with filters for breathing. The dogs leaped forward, but the white-suited men reined them back. Near the white powder the dogs bayed and wagged their tails, not seeming to care about the scent of Kier or the killer.
He turned and resumed his climb. Grandfather's voice had warned him away from the camp, to the caverns. Following logic would have placed him in danger.
Yet he still wanted to argue with the old man.
The cavern network high on the mountain spread out before him. The miles-long labyrinth hid Grandfather's pool and the rock floor allowed no tracks. It took forty minutes for him to make Man Jumps, the hole that opened out onto the seemingly endless wilderness of the Marble Mountains. A narrow ledge led away, making a trail for only the brave.
The opening from the caverns Matty mentioned would be several hundred feet above. There he might find a small cabin, in the sacred place, built against the rock wall, occupied by Jack Mix. The most practical route was through the caverns. So he lit a small Techna light and entered the cave.
His body was now feverish and he could barely stand. To continue forward on the largely vertical and shoulder-tight path was suicide. He thought of Grandfather. Straight as an iron pipe. Eyes seeing everything. What would he do? He felt no inner strength, only will, and even that was failing.
I can still go home and try to explain.
Another memory of Grandfather at the cavern pool became clear. "Someday you will have to decide if you want to put in with the Tiloks. You can do well in the white man's world." "But I've already decided." "No. You must decide when it counts."
A small shaft rose before him at a 45-degree angle. He struggled out of his blood-soaked jacket, then removed his pack. He grasped the tiny ledges and maneuvered up the tube. Spasms reignited from thigh to back and he cried in silent anguish. He pressed his back hard against the rock, the cool radiating through his shirt, which offered some respite from the fever.
Then pressed on.
The claustrophobic sense of being trapped became unavoidable. His progress was only a couple of inches at a time, his broad shoulders catching on the rock again and again.
Three minutes of mind-bending pain and contortions were needed to negotiate the narrowest spot. Once past, the passage wasn't much larger.
Finally, he found a ledge and reached daylight. Natural light illuminated ancient Tilok rock paintings. One painting was familiar. A hunter with an antlered crown.
The sign of the Spirit Walker.
One more ledge remained above him. He sucked in a breath and blindly grabbed hold, only to feel a crushing pain in the fingers of his right hand. Standing above him was a man wearing a mask with bulbous filters, gloved hands pointing a crossbow downward.
"I didn't think anyone could get up through there, until Jake did it day before yesterday," Mix said, his voice distant and muffled. The mask shook its head. "What you did is crazy, but maybe convenient. You're supposed to be down at your cabin getting arrested. I explained to the agents how you tried to kill me when I discovered your anthrax-manufacturing operation."
Kier fought both the pain in his fingers and his trapezius wound, which was slowly separating as he hung, fresh blood trickling down his back. He wanted to yank out his fingers and fight, but he saw the antlered crown on the rock wall and knew that his grandfather would wait. Damn the old man.
"I told them every man, woman and child in the country should be vaccinated against anthrax," Mix said, keeping his crossbow aimed. "A guy like me with no technical training could make anthrax in the basement. I told them anyone can do it, Arab, Jew, black or white. They thought I was nuts. Then I made it and mailed it to Congress and the media. The bureau still wouldn't listen. Oh, they interviewed me about terrorism. Sweated me. But I knew all their secrets. I told them I'd find the real anthrax killer. Now I'm delivering."
Mix pressed his weight more on Kier's hand, grinding it with his heel. The agony released a cold sweat from every pore in his body.
"Why'd you kill the boy?" Kier gasped. "Let's not play games."
"It started when? The couple…a year ago-"
"I couldn't help that. They broke into my cabin, where I stored the anthrax. They were going to die anyway. One whiff of that stuff and-" He made a throat-slitting gesture. "I decided a year ago to make you the anthrax killer. Then two days ago Jake came and rushed the program."
"We welcomed you-" Kier said.
"Jake saw the cabin. Mouthed off that it was a sacred area. I was going to shove him off the cliff. Strong bastard, though. I had to put an arrow in him. And I couldn't let that be discovered. So I remembered the guy in Lassen. The bureau believes you're the anthrax terrorist, but I knew that convincing them you killed Jake might be stretching it."
Kier fought the pain, begging his muscles for the strength.
"They're desperate for the anthrax terrorist, so I'm delivering." Mix chuckled. "Ex-renegade survivalist. Rebellious Indian. And you can come to the holy place." He laughed. "The Spirit Walker."
Mix pointed. "Cabin's right out there. I made your tracks. A trail straight here. Did you notice around your cabin? The bureau taught me footprints and all the forensics. Ironic, isn't it?" "The tribe will never believe it."
"There's anthrax hidden in your cellar at the summer cabin. After following my trail now, you've got it on you. If you hadn't seen me there at the camp, I might have just let you die of anthrax while under arrest."
But Kier knew he'd stopped short of all the anthrax. Even to his pain-fogged mind, it made sense. Raccoon followed Jake and Carmen into the camp and took Carmen. Mix killed Jake and then later came down to the camp from the cliff.
"Jessie," he choked out.
"FBI is getting a warrant to search the cellar of your cabin, if they haven't already."
"Lassen?" Kier said, even as his mind was sinking under the weight of terror for his family.
"Why would I murder some couple in Lassen? All that would bring is more cops. But we need to shut that senator up. People need closure. Raccoon will make a fine serial killer. The story of Raccoon, the serial killer, and Kier, the anthrax terrorist. Maybe I'll write a book." Mix went silent, aiming the crossbow at the base of Kier's neck. "I gotta finish you and get busy. Carmen and Raccoon are up here somewhere."
"Profit?" Kier breathed. "That the plan?"
"Book royalties. Some stock shares in the right vaccine company. But this isn't about that. It's about protecting this country when its leaders won't."
Kier couldn't talk anymore. The threat to his family became a hot knife in his mind. He closed his eyes and replaced the pain with an image of Jessie and his children. Then he gained strength from an image of his grandfather's face.
He sucked a deep breath and yanked his broken fingers from under the boot. But before he could do anything, a raging scream blared from several feet away.
Raccoon's massive frame flew at Mix.
Kier's left hand struck like a snake, his fingers wrapping around Mix's ankle and yanking the man down.
Mix fired the crossbow and Kier heard the bow string snap. Then he saw a spray of red from where the bolt sank into the base of Raccoon's neck.
Mix slammed against the cavern's painted wall, and fell into the hole with Kier. With his good hand, Kier pounced and ripped off the mask. Then he focused all his energy in the thumb of his ruined hand and rammed it into Mix's eye, going all the way through the cornea, the meniscus, and into the brain. Mix groaned and clamped his hands over the eye socket. His body began to shudder.
Carmen appeared, standing over Raccoon, screaming, trying to stop the blood. "No. Daddy, no." She was sobbing.
Raccoon took her hand as if he knew the blood would not be stopped.
"Stay with us," Kier said to his friend.
Mix's remaining eye went vacant and still and the body stopped twitching. He was dead. Kier crawled closer to Raccoon and gazed into the eyes of the man who'd saved his life. "You took that arrow for me."
"Spirit Walker," Raccoon said, using his free hand to take Kier's. "Carmen."
Kier watched Raccoon suck in a shallow breath, then the chest became still. He watched the Spirit leave his friend and struggled to raise his hand, wanting to call him back.
There were no words. Only anguish.
"My father's gone," Carmen said in a whisper. "The moment we got here he saw you were in danger. No time to say goodbye."
He wondered if Raccoon could see them from wherever he was.
Carmen went silent and simply stared at her father. He, too, said nothing. Finally, she asked, "How can you not be a Spirit
"I've decided," he said. "I am."
And he closed his eyes.
Sitting straight and strong by the reflecting pool, his grandfather nodded and smiled.
These days, to her family's great relief, Denise Hamilton stays home in Los Angeles and writes the Eve Diamond crime novels. But in the bad old days before she turned to fiction, Hamilton was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and roamed the globe, filing dispatches from Asia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former USSR.
In 1993, Hamilton was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach journalism in Macedonia. The Bosnian war was in full swing, and she went with the full knowledge that if the fighting spread to her part of the Balkans, she'd go overnight from college professor to war correspondent. But Macedonia never blew up and Hamilton widely toured the South Balkans and fell in love with the small, quirky nation of Albania, which at that time was just emerging from fifty years of communist isolation. As Hamilton writes in At the Drop of a Hat, there were few ways in and out of Albania but she managed to hitchhike into Tirana with some Albanian journalists she met at a conference on beautiful Lake Ohrid, at the Macedonia-Albania border.
Hamilton hadn't been planning such a trip and had only two hundred dollars and one change of clothes in her backpack. But she knew a good offer when she heard it, and being an adventurous sort, arrived in downtown Tirana in the late afternoon and immediately began calling U.S. Fulbright scholars in Albania, hoping to find somebody with a spare couch where she could crash. Luckily, she reached another Fulbrighter before dark and he took her to eat at what was then Tirana's only French restaurant, where they met the proprietor, a handsome and cultured Albanian man.
The restaurateur eventually offered Hamilton a ride back in his Mercedes to Skopje, where he often traveled for business. Due to scheduling conflicts she never took him up on his offer, and it wasn't until much later that she learned the full story of this man's life. In At the Drop of a Hat, Hamilton uses that knowledge and takes readers on a thrill ride of Balkan intrigue, providing along the way a taste for the sights, smells, textures and landscape that few Westerners have seen.
A tale from one who lived it.
AT THE DROP OF A HAT
Jane looked out the passenger window and told herself that everything was fine. Bashkim was driving, the Mercedes hurtling along the Albanian highway at a hundred kilometers an hour. The air inside the car felt tight and crackly. Outside, greenhouses stood in untilled fields, their shattered windows gaping empty. A black-clad woman followed a herd of goats up a rock-strewn hillside, spinning wool on a hand spindle. Anything could happen out here, Jane thought, and no one would ever know. The wind would shred her clothes and rain would bleach her bones and when spring came, the goats would crop the earth around her.
This has to stop, Jane scolded herself. She was a sensible girl, not one of those high-strung ones that fell apart at the drop of a hat. She just needed to rekindle the excitement she had felt last night.
She and Paul had been in their favorite Tirana restaurant, arguing because he refused to tap his diplomatic contacts to get her a ride across the border to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. A conference on Balkan literature was taking place in the capital and she really wanted to attend.
"What's the big deal?" Jane had protested. "Your embassy courier does the Tirana-Skopje run twice a week."
But Paul had suddenly grown engrossed in photos of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the French Alps that decorated the walls. Over the sound system, Edith Piaf sobbed about love and betrayal. Omelettes and salades nicoises sailed out of the kitchen. This had been their sanctuary, a little piece of Paris that shut out the chaos outside that was Albania. But now Albania had followed them inside.
"I can't put a civilian on that route, it's strictly for consular business," Paul said at last.
Since when am I just a civilian? she fumed, recalling other, more fevered words he had whispered in the three weeks they'd been together. He was a low-level attache at the U.S. embassy and she was a Fulbright scholar. They'd met at an embassy reception her first week in Tirana, bonded over too much Albanian mer-lot and hadn't been apart since, though in her weaker moments she wondered if it was just an expat thing.
"What do you want me to do, hitchhike? There aren't a lot of options going east."
There weren't a lot of options because the delusional Commie who had ruled Albania for almost fifty years had torn up the rail lines and sealed the border out of fear that the Yugoslavs, America and NATO planned to attack his backward and impoverished nation. Years after Enver Hoxha's death, it was still a logistical nightmare to get in and out. No trains or regional buses. The only planes went to Western Europe, then you had to double back. Taxis were cheaper, but she was a student and didn't have a hundred and fifty dollars to spare.
"Excuse me," said a low, melodic voice. "I don't mean to eavesdrop, but your voices…perhaps I can be of help."
The proprietor, Bashkim, stood before them, sleek in an Italian suit, hands clasped deferentially. He had toiled for years in Parisian restaurants, then come home to show the natives the glories of French cuisine. Except that Albanians, at their salaries, couldn't afford even one frite, though the brasserie had caught on immediately with the expense-account NGO and diplomatic crowd.
Paul fixed the restaurateur with a pensive gaze. "Really?" he said, a strange light flaring, then banking behind his eyes.
Bashkim gave a modest smile and bowed in Jane's direction. "I must go to Skopje on business tomorrow," he said. "I would be honored if you would accompany me. There is plenty of room."
"I'm not so sure that's a good idea," Paul said slowly.
But Jane had seen the shiny blue Mercedes out back and was already imagining the smooth ride, the lively discussion as first the countryside, then the desolate mountain passes, soared by. Bashkim had exquisite manners, spoke five languages, understood civil society. His wife, a beautiful Albanian with green eyes, kept the restaurant books while their little girl, immaculate in frilly dresses, played with dolls in the back. Jane could tell they were in love. Unlike many of the men who stared with hungry, medieval eyes, Bashkim never gave her a second glance. She'd seen how the expat community embraced him. She'd be safe. Plus, it would end the dreary row, her nagging suspicion that Paul didn't care enough to pull this embassy string for her.
Feeling a sudden need to assert herself, Jane said. "I am sure. I'm going."
Paul threw up his hands in mock horror, winked at Bashkim. "These Western women, they have minds of their own."
She had kicked him under the table, but later that night, they'd fallen into bed with their usual frenzy, all the sweeter for her impending absence. Afterward, Jane was touched that he shoved his cell phone into her backpack and insisted she keep it on until reaching Skopje, at which point she was to call and announce her safe arrival.
And so it was that Jane had set off from Paul's apartment this morning. The streets smelled of wet earth and sewers. Deformed Gypsy children writhed on cardboard, begging from passersby. Housewives leaned over balconies, beating carpets with red-faced fury. Four stories up, a cow mooed indignantly. The sight of livestock in apartments had startled her initially, but Jane soon learned you couldn't leave a cow out overnight in Tirana any more than you could a car.
Bashkim was tossing a suitcase into the back seat when she arrived. The Mercedes seemed low to the ground, like it was carrying a heavy load, but Jane thought that unlikely. Albania exported little but its own people.
Standing in the clear Adriatic light, she sensed Bashkim checking out her hiking boots and Levi's, the fleece-lined vest she'd thrown over a red ribbed turtleneck, and felt something shift. A flicker of apprehension went through her. Had she misjudged him? Then, he broke into a familiar smile and her misgivings evaporated.
She climbed in. As the apartment blocks, then the dismal shanties on Tirana's outskirts gave way to farmland, they chatted about Albanian literature and culture. Then talk turned to the present day.
"It's wonderful, what you're building here. There's so much opportunity."
"There was more opportunity in France," Bashkim said. "But I couldn't get residency."
"But the West is so sterile. Everyone's obsessed with money, getting ahead. There's no sense of family, of what's really important."
"You think people here aren't obsessed with money?" he said, jabbing the gas. After that they sat in silence. The Mercedes jostled with donkey carts and tractors, passing so close that Jane could have plucked wisps of straw from a farmer's hair. An olive-green truck of Soviet vintage emblazoned with the letters STALIN passed them, stuffed with young Albanian men who hooted and hollered. But other vehicles fell into line behind them, content to let the Mercedes lead.
Bashkim punched in a CD and the strains of Mozart wafted through the car. The pleasant odor of his cologne hung in the air.
"I'm really lucky you were going to Skopje this week," Jane said, trying to recapture their earlier ease. "How often do you make the trip?"
A smile curled around the edge of his mouth. "Whenever business requires it."
She studied him. He was blond, with blue eyes. This, too, had surprised her. He could have been a surfer from her college back home, if not for his pallid skin and something ineluctable in his profile that, framed against the raw landscape and crumbling stone buildings, she suddenly saw as quintessentially Balkan.
"Do you go to Skopje for restaurant supplies?" she asked.
There was a pause, an intake of breath. Then, "You are very curious."
Jane shrugged. "Just wondering."
"Sometimes it's best not to wonder too much." He let the words hang in the air and she felt it building again, an odd pressure in her head, the tingling of individual hairs on her nape. For a long time, she studied the scrubby landscape, bereft even of litter.
"Look," he said after a time, pointing to a fortress atop a hill, and she knew he was trying to make nice. "Skanderbeg's castle. Our national hero. He was a janissary, a viceroy in the sultan's army. But he rebelled in 1569 and led an uprising of the Albanian people against the Ottomans. He was never captured."
At the turnoff, a crowd of ragged boys appeared, bunching their hands in front of open mouths.
"They're hungry," Jane cried, reaching into her backpack for dried fruit, nuts.
Bashkim pressed harder on the accelerator.
"They have become accustomed to begging," he said tersely. "The foreign-aid workers throw out sweets and they scrabble after them like dogs."
The lack of sympathy struck Jane as harsh. When Bashkim got off the highway in Elbassan, a town dominated by a hulking factory that belched out black smoke, delicate tendrils of unease bloomed inside her.
"Why are we stopping?"
Bashkim's voice was light, nonchalant.
"To drop some medicine off with a friend." He grew apologetic. "It's for his sick mother."
He braked for a herd of sheep and something slid from under her seat, hitting her heel. She looked down and saw the barrel of a machine gun. Bashkim saw it, too. He lunged between her legs, grabbed it. His arm slid against her inner thigh. Then he shoved the gun firmly under his own seat.
"Sorry about that," he said, his voice thick.
Jane gripped the leather edge of the Mercedes seat, her palms slick with moisture. She wanted to scream. Had she only imagined that his arm had lingered? And what if the gun had gone off?
When he tapped her, she jumped.
"It's to protect us," he said. "Just in case."
She tried to still the thudding of her heart against her rib cage, convince herself it made sense. This was still a land of brigands. As for the other, it was just a clumsy accident.
Bashkim wheeled the car into a driveway and the gate to a compound swung open. Jane's unease spiked higher. Why hadn't he told her earlier about the stop? What if it was all a ruse? A trap? The car moved forward. She thought about turning the door handle and hopping out. But then what? The streets were filled with tough-looking, idle young men. And she'd be stranded with little money and no way back. She'd heard whispers about what happened to women found alone after dark, especially outside the capital. The gate clanged behind them and three men with hawk faces materialized. This was where it would happen, she thought.
"I'll wait in the car," she said.
"You should use the facilities," Bashkim said firmly. "There will be no other opportunity."
Then a door to the house burst open and a plump lady waddled out. When Bashkim pulled out a container of pills and handed them to the woman, Jane could have cried with relief.
The woman came around to Jane's door, grabbed her arm and tugged her toward the house. Oniony gusts of sweat, overlaid with a yeasty smell, came from her. When Jane glanced back, the men were clustered around the car trunk.
Inside, Jane was plied with tea, orangeade, cookies and raki, a potent and raw grape brandy. When they walked back out half an hour later, she noticed that the car sat higher. The men were examining a stack of boxes, and she thought she saw the glint of sun on metal. Then Bashkim stepped in front of her, blocking the view, and they left. Her mind afloat from drinking raki on an empty stomach, Jane leaned back in her seat. She told herself to stay vigilant, but instead dozed off, waking an hour later with a sour taste in her mouth, acid in her stomach.
They were in the mountains now, the tall, fierce peaks that dominate Albania, leaving only a sliver of arable land. It was afternoon. Just ahead, a bridge spanned a deep chasm. As they shot onto it, Jane looked and saw white water rushing down. She remembered Paul saying that the bridge was near the border. Then for a while the road would skirt Lake Ohrid, a deep body of still water that formed a natural border between Macedonia and Albania. Coming off the bridge, Bashkim executed a sickening curve around a precipice without a guardrail. Hundreds of yards below, Jane saw the rusting skeletons of cars that had misjudged the turn. Jets of saliva shot into her mouth and she thought she might be sick.
They were on a straightaway when Jane saw an accident ahead and a man waving a white shirt tied to a pole. Bashkim swore and slowed. As they drew closer, Jane saw it wasn't an accident but two Albanian army trucks, blocking the road. A pimply-faced soldier with a rifle waved them over to the side. Bashkim stared ahead with a fixed intensity. The car surged forward, and Jane thought he meant to gun the accelerator and try to blast through.
At the last possible second, he hit the brake. The cars behind him careened into a ditch, bumping along on a cloud of dust and then accelerating past the roadblock. Jane wondered if the authorities might give chase, but they seemed supremely uninterested.
A soldier walked up to Bashkim, rifle pointed at his head, barking orders in Albanian. Jane saw the restaurateur's knee tremble but his voice stayed calm. She heard the words Amerikane and Skopje. More soldiers came, ordered them out of the car. Jane felt unreal, stiff and jerky with fear. She'd heard about Albanian bandits who set up roadblocks and robbed Westerners of cars, clothes and even shoes, leaving them stranded in their underwear. In years past, tractor-trailer trucks had convoyed to the Yugoslav border without stopping. Jane thought about offering the soldiers money.
She pulled out the cell phone, thinking she'd call Paul at the U.S. embassy in Tirana. "Help," she'd say. "We've been stopped at a roadblock by Albanian soldiers and I think we're in trouble. Now aren't you sorry you didn't let me ride with the courier?"
The soldiers shoved Bashkim and screamed questions at him, ignoring her. Jane took several steps away. Nobody noticed. She drifted around one truck, moved along the tarp to the other, then froze in disbelief.
In the cab, hunched over a laptop, sat Paul. Another embassy guy with a crew cut that she remembered from a Tirana dinner party leaned against the door, peering intently at Paul's screen, a cell phone pressed to his ear. Jane checked her first impulse to dash over and throw herself, sobbing, into Paul's arms. Instead, she ran through all the possible reasons her lover might be sitting in this desolate mountain pass with a passel of Albanian soldiers, and why he hadn't told her he was coming or offered her a ride himself. The answers she came up with made her shrink back into the shade of the tarp. But it was too late.
Sensing her presence, Paul looked up. "Jane," he said. "Oh my God. What are you doing here?"
Like it was a big surprise. She thought back on the argument at the restaurant. Paul announcing in a loud voice that he couldn't allow the embassy courier to drive her to Macedonia.
His look of near gloating-she now realized-when Bashkim had offered a ride.
"You planned this," Jane said. "You set him up."
"That's ridiculous," Paul said, but his voice was as hollow as his eyes.
He glanced over her shoulder, and grim satisfaction spread across his face. She turned and saw the soldiers unloading boxes from the trunk of Bashkim's car. They had found the machine gun, too. Over to the side of the road, Bashkim lay spread-eagle on the ground. One of the soldiers kicked him as he passed and the prone man gave a strangled cry.
"Stop it, you bastard, we need him for questioning," the crew-cut man called.
Paul cursed and jumped out of the cab. He walked toward the soldier and in the moments that followed, Jane saw a different man than the one she had known. His bearing, even the tenor of his voice, changed. He was self-assured, in charge, bristling with power. The soldier cowered as Paul dressed him down in perfect-sounding Albanian.
Jane listened, astounded. Paul had told her he was hopeless with languages. Now this stranger walked back to her and said, "I'm sorry, Jane. But you were never in danger. We were tracking you with the global positioning device." He nodded smartly at the cell phone, which she still clutched impotently in her hand. "Led us right to the safe house."
Realization bore down like an oncoming train that would smash her into a thousand pieces. She had been the decoy. A nicely turned-out Western woman. Each side had used her. Something did break in her then. But to her surprise, when she examined the sharp and deadly pieces, she found that they had their own terrifying beauty and usefulness.
"What did Bashkim do?" she asked, willing her voice not to tremble.
"Our pal over there is one of the biggest smugglers in Tirana. Remember when the country rioted and looted the armories?
He's been trading machine guns to al-Qaeda for Afghani heroin. We've been watching him for months."
"We? Since when does the embassy track smugglers?"
"The embassy works hand in hand with Interpol."
"You're not some lowly attache, are you, Paul?"
He ran his hands through his hair and looked away. He didn't say anything. He didn't have to.
She felt that sanity was a thin membrane, stretching ever tighter. If she moved even a fraction, it would snap and she'd slip under. Yet she had to know one thing.
"Did you plan this? I mean, from the beginning? Because I thought.it felt."
She shook her head, blinking back tears. She had been played for a fool.
A shadow crossed Paul's face.
He licked his lips. "I never meant." he began.
He didn't get a chance to finish.
Two cars came roaring down the highway from the east, machine guns blazing. As she threw herself to the ground, Jane thought she recognized the vehicles that had peeled past the roadblock. Had they also been in the convoy that had trailed them from Tirana? Gunfire erupting around her, Jane clutched her head and crawled on her belly toward the nearest truck, expecting at any second to be hit and feel no more. Reaching the undercarriage, she rolled beneath it and listened to the shouts, the guns, then the groans of dying men. She prayed no bullets would pierce the gas tank.
After what seemed like hours, the shooting stopped. For a long time, there was silence. In the distance, a bird screamed, the exultant cry of a carrion feeder that spies dinner. Then she heard footsteps. She cowered and curled herself into a ball, wishing she might disappear. A shadow fell on the highway, and she saw a polished leather shoe.
"Come out," said an Albanian-accented voice in English. Bashkim.
She didn't answer.
"If you don't come out, I'll shoot you."
Still she stayed silent, wondering if he was bluffing. She heard the crack of his knees as he squatted. A hand with a gun appeared, angling to and fro, then settling its muzzle blessedly far from where she lay. Jane held her breath as he pulled the trigger. One of the truck's tires exploded with a loud pop and began to deflate. She gave an involuntary scream.
"I knew it." His voice was triumphant. "Last chance, Jane. Next time I aim for your voice."
"Okay," she said. "Don't shoot."
She crawled out and they stared at one another.
"Please," she said. "I didn't know it was a setup."
Bashkim's lips pursed. He looked at where Paul's body lay, eyes staring glassily at the sky. Near his head was a pool of blood. All around her were other crumpled bodies. One of the cars that had shot at them lay on its side, smashed and burning. She looked for the other.
"It went over the edge," Bashkim said. "They couldn't have survived."
"Wh-who were they?" Bashkim grimaced.
"My bodyguards. Don't you know it's dangerous to travel in
"Jesus," she said, seized with an uncontrollable bout of shivering.
Bashkim stared at her, and Jane thought he might be trying to decide whether to kill her now or later. They both knew she'd seen too much to live.
"He betrayed me, too, you know," Jane said.
He examined her indifferently. "So I heard."
He walked to where her cell phone had fallen and smashed it with his heel, grinding it into the asphalt like a cockroach.
"Don't kill me," Jane said. "I'll help you. I've got an American passport, money."
"Yes," Bashkim nodded. "With your passport, we'll breeze through."
He prodded her with the gun, back to the Mercedes. All the tires had been shot out, and smoke was rising from under the hood. She wondered if it might catch fire while they stood there. The trunk stood open, white powder seeping out of bullet-riddled boxes.
More boxes were scattered along the road, next to Bashkim's machine gun, which had been reduced to twisted metal. Bashkim told her to empty her backpack and hand over her passport and wallet, which he put in his pocket. Then he made her tear open the boxes and fill her backpack with the sacks of white powder. Pulling an old rucksack from his trunk, he ordered her to fill that, too. Then, he loaded her up like a pack mule and marched her off the highway, into the rocky countryside to a dirt trail pounded hard by animals.
"The border's about ten miles away. We'll have to stay off the road."
They set off, moving like ghosts through the denuded landscape.
"Let's stop here and rest a moment," he said when they reached a rock outcropping. His tone deliberate and unsettling. Bashkim eased himself down. He stared at her and she looked away, thinking about escape and when she might make a break for it. She needed cover. Bashkim stood up, laid the gun on a rock. He walked toward her as she scrambled to her feet. Suddenly he flung himself at her, knocking her to the ground. Jane tried to wriggle free but he was strong and his weight pinned her. She saw the look in his eyes. Perhaps the day's events had awakened something atavistic in him. Perhaps it had always been there. But she knew she was of no consequence to him anymore. He was going to kill her once they crossed, so it didn't matter what else he did in the meantime.
"Get off me," she panted.
He shoved a hand down her pants and tugged.
"Fucking get off."
"Fucking. Yes, that's what all you American girls like. I knew it the first time I saw you."
"You're wrong. Get off."
She tried to brace one hand against the dirt so she could twist aside and knee him. Instead, her fingers glanced off a large rock. She groped for it. It grazed the edges of her fingertips, just out of reach. Bashkim unzipped his fly.
Jane squirmed backward and flexed her fingers toward the rock. Her fingers nudged it, slid along the rough, granular edges, searching for where it might taper, afford a grip. There. Her hand closed tightly.
Bashkim tore at her underwear and rose up, wedging her legs open with his knee. A bloodlust burned in her. She'd get only one chance. The rock was in the air. Jane shoved her knee into his groin and screamed as she brought the rock down hard against the base of his skull.
He gasped, then was still. She rolled the inert body off of her, scrabbled up. Bashkim was unconscious. Bleeding. She looked at him and felt only a mounting need to zip up her jeans and flee.
She still held the rock, now slick with blood. Forcing her fingers to relinquish it took awhile. Jane panted shallowly, and the enormity of everything that had happened overwhelmed her. Leaning over a thornbush, she retched, cursing her weakness. She had to get to the border before night fell, stranding her. Already, the temperature was dropping. She knew the road below led to the frontier, but she had to stay out of sight. Prodding Bashkim's body with her hiking boot, she pulled out her passport, her money and his wallet. She also took a small black notebook with notations in Albanian and Arabic. Lastly she got the gun. She had never touched one before, but she knew they had safeties. She clicked it on and off a few times to familiarize herself with how it worked, then shoved the gun into her waistband. The cold metal felt reassuring against her skin. For two hours she marched uphill, crouching behind rocks whenever she heard a car. She didn't dare stop, terrified that her legs might lock up for good.
In the long gaps between vehicles, Jane kept her mind rigidly focused on the moment she'd hand the guard her passport and slip across to safety. She didn't see the olive-green truck that said STALIN until she was right above it, in full view of the road. The truck was parked and the young men from earlier were arrayed around, eating. Jane froze, then instinct kicked in and she darted off. With any luck they wouldn't follow. Instead, she heard excited voices, then the truck wheezing into reverse as it began backing up to a spot where it could turn off the highway and come after her.
Jane ran, adrenaline powering a burst of speed, her breath coming in great gulps of despair. She'd never outrace them. But she couldn't let them catch her. She'd seen the sporting look in their eyes, knew how the game would end. She had to hide before they came into view and hope they'd barrel past, consumed by the chase. She folded herself behind an insubstantial rock, praying the afternoon shadows would conceal her, and watched the truck bounce by just twenty feet away, ribald laughter erupting from within. Slipping from bush to rock, she followed them, until the truck turned and headed back to the road, figuring she had doubled back and they'd catch up with her before passport control. That meant she'd have to go cross-country. She was so weary but she forced herself to keep going. Another half mile and she reached the saddle between two summits. Below her stretched the water, dark and gloomy. Lake Ohrid. On the other side of the lake was Macedonia, and freedom.
She scanned the shore, looking for a boat, anything to carry her across. It was too far to swim. In the blue dusk, she made out a solitary figure mending a net. She heard the roar of the truck, the shouts of the Albanian men, and knew they had spotted her once more. But they'd have to follow the road's hairpin curves down to the lake, whereas she could plunge straight down the mountain. The lake stretched for miles, most of it unguarded. It was her only hope. She ran, dislodging avalanches of pebbles and dirt, sliding on her ass and once somersaulting head over heels to plow the ground with outstretched arms before righting herself and continuing her descent.
She could see the figure on the shore now. It was an old man. She felt the steel against her skin and knew she'd kill him if she had to. He watched her. As she drew closer, she saw a head of white hair, blackened teeth, a map of brown wrinkles. His face betrayed no surprise, as if deranged Western women tumbled down the mountain every day.
"Please," she said, sliding to a halt before him, scraped and bleeding. "You must take me across." She gestured to the other side of the lake. "I can pay. Valuta." She pulled out Bashkim's wallet, thrust greenbacks and euros and Albanian dinars at him.
To her surprise, the fisherman shoved the money back at her. She panicked, screaming at him in fragments of four languages. Ignoring her, he shuffled to a bush and pulled out a rowboat that lay hidden underneath. An ancient, frayed rope lay curled inside. He began dragging it to the lake and she ran to help him, thanking him in every language she knew.
"But we must hurry," she said, looking over her shoulder to pantomime running and pursuers.
"Ska problema," the old man said. "No problem."
"Besa?" she asked. The besa was a solemn promise, or oath, handed down from feudal times. Albanians would die before violating a besa. But did the old ways still hold?
The Albanian side of the great lake was moving into twilight. The few houses clinging to the slopes had never known electricity. Across the water, the Yugoslav coastline sparkled in warm, inviting twinkles of red and yellow.
She helped him push off and scrambled in.
They were about a hundred yards out when the truck came bouncing across the side of the mountain, the men angry as a swarm of bees. Several had already loosened their clothing. They ran to the water's edge and waded in, firing. She and the old man ducked, bullets sizzling past, skimming the water. The old man grunted and kept rowing, the ropy muscles of his arms straining against his skin.
Jane had the gun ready, just in case, but the fisherman seemed oblivious to her, lulled by the repetitive strokes, the plash of the oars in water. The cries and shouts grew distant, then ceased altogether. The wind kicked up and she shivered. They were suspended in nothingness, floating between worlds. Then the lights began to draw nearer. She watched in greedy hunger as the resort hotels and vacation homes appeared in the twilit murk. Then she heard a scritch as the rowboat hit the pebbly bottom.
"Bravo Yugoslavia," the fisherman said. Again she tried to press money on him but he waved it away, then placed his hand over his heart. The besa fulfilled.
The old man helped her clamber into the icy, thigh-deep water. She waved goodbye and stepped onto the shingle, legs like jelly, and watched the rowboat already easing back into the inky depths. Then she hiked up to the nearest hotel, got herself a room and ordered cvapcici and rice from room service.
The knock, when it came, startled her.
"Who is it?" she called.
When a Slavic voice answered, she cracked the door and saw a waiter with a tray. She opened the door wider for the food and out stepped two men in windbreakers. Before Jane could slam the door shut, one of them had his foot inside. The other passed the waiter a bill. "Thanks. You can go now," the man said in American English.
They came inside and closed the door.
"You did very well, Jane," the first man said. "We were watching from this side, in case anyone made it across. You understand, of course, why we couldn't risk an incident in international waters."
"Who are you? How do you know my name?"
"It's safe to stop running now. Paul was online with us, right before the connection went dead. Why don't you tell us the whole story."
He turned to his companion. "Nick, please relieve Jane of her burden. It must have been so heavy. Where is it, Jane?"
But she had left the bags of white powder behind on a desolate Albanian mountainside, next to what she feared was a corpse. How could they be so stupid to think she'd cross an international border with millions of dollars' of heroin stuffed into a backpack?
Jane fingered the gun at her side and considered her options. She was a sensible girl. Not one of those high-strung ones that fell apart at the drop of a hat.
"There's a lot you don't know," she said evenly. "And I'm the only one who can fill you in. But first I need a square meal and a shower. Then we can cross back over and I'll show you where the drugs are. There's also a notebook that may interest you. Once we take care of business, I'd like one of you gentlemen to drive me to Skopje. There's a conference I really don't want to miss. But I'll be graduating soon. And I can't see myself teaching Balkan literature in some U.S. backwater the rest of my life. So I think we should talk about a job. I understand you have an opening in Tirana."
Eric Van Lustbader
When Eric Van Lustbader was asked by the estate of the late Robert Ludlum to continue Ludlum's series of thrillers featuring Jason Bourne, he told them he wanted free rein to take the character in new directions. At the time, Lustbader was grappling with the loss of his father. So, understandably, the basis of The Bourne Legacy revolved around the thorny relationship between Bourne and the son he'd for many years assumed to be dead.
Similarly, in Lustbader's latest novel, The Bravo Testament, a father-son relationship fuels the high-powered action and emotional responses of the main characters. This familial emotional resonance will be familiar to Lustbader's fans, as it stretches all the way back to his first thriller, The Ninja.
The Other Side of the Mirror deepens and broadens this theme, but in other ways it's a departure for Lustbader. He wrote the story after one day rediscovering The Outsider, by philosopher/novelist Colin Wilson, in his library. The Outsider had been a seminal book, one Lustbader had devoured during his college days. Reading it again he found new meaning in his own work, which is reflected in The Other Side of the Mirror, a story about a spy-an outsider, if ever there was one- and the terrible toll secrecy and lies take on him. Lustbader, who thinks of himself as an outsider, seems drawn to his sense of apartness. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be outside society, or if that's precisely how you feel, this story is for you.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR
He awakens into darkness, the darkness at the dead of night- but it is also the dread darkness of the soul that has plagued him for thirteen weeks, thirteen months, it's impossible now to say.
What he can say for certain is that he has been on the run for thirteen weeks, but his assignment had begun thirteen months ago. He joined the Agency, propelled not so much by patriotism or an overweening itch to rub shoulders with danger-the two main motivations of his compatriots-but by the death of his wife. Immediately upon her death he had felt an overwhelming urge to hurl himself into the dark and, at times, seedy labyrinth in which she had dwelled for a decade before he had discovered that she did not go off to work in the manner of other people.
And now, here he is, twenty-three years after they had taken their vows, sitting in the dark, waiting for death to come.
It is hot in the room what with all the piles of magazines he's amassed, ragged and torn, beautiful as pink-cheeked children. Joints cracking, he rises, pads over to the air conditioner, moving like a wader through surf of his own making. It wheezes pathetically when he turns it on, which isn't all that surprising since even five minutes later nothing but hot air emerges from its filthy grille. Not that Buenos Aires is a Third World city, far from it. There are plenty of posh hotels whose rooms are at this moment bathed in cool, dry air, but this isn't one of them. It has a name, this hotel, but he's already forgotten it.
In the tiny bathroom, full of drips and creeping water bugs the size of his thumb, he splashes lukewarm water on his face. Cold is hot and hot is cold; does anything work right in this hellhole? He wants to take a shower, but the bottom is filled with more magazines, stacked like little castles in the sand. They comfort him, somehow, these magazine constructs, and he turns away, a sudden realization taking hold.
Curiously, it is in this hellhole that he feels most comfortable. Over the last thirteen weeks he has been in countless hotels in countless cities on three continents-this is his third, after North America and Europe. The difference, besides going from winter to summer, is this: here in this miserable, crumbling back alley of Buenos Aires, death breathes just around the corner. It has been relentlessly stalking him for thirteen weeks, and now it is closer than it has ever been, so close the stench of it is horrific, like the reek of a rabid dog or an old man with crumbling teeth.
The closer death comes, the calmer he becomes, that's the irony of his situation. Though, as he stares at his pallid face with its sunken eyes and raw cheekbones, he acknowledges that it very well may not be the situation at all.
He stares for a moment at the pad of his forefinger. On it is imprinted part of a familiar photograph-from one of the magazine pages, or from his life? He shrugs, uses the forefinger to pull down his lower lids one at a time. His eyes look like pebbles, black and perfectly opaque, as if there is no light, no spark, no intelligence behind them. He is-who is he today? Max Brandt, the same as he was yesterday and the day before that. Max Brandt, Essen businessman, may have checked into this dump, but it was Harold Moss, recently divorced tourist, who had come through security at Ezeiza International Airport. Moss and Brandt don't look much alike, one is stoop-shouldered with slightly buck teeth and a facile grin, the other stands ramrod straight and strides down the street with confidence and a certain joie de vivre. Gait is more important than the face in these matters. Faces tend to blur in people's memories, but the manner in which someone walks remains.
He stares at himself and feels as if he is looking at a painting or a mannequin. He is Harold Moss and Max Brandt, their skins are wrapped around him, in him, through him, helping to obliterate whatever was there before he had conjured them up. His facade, his exoskeleton, his armor is complete. He is no one, nothing, less-far less-than a cipher. No one glancing at him on the street could possibly guess that he is a clandestine agent- save for the enemy against whom he has labored tirelessly and assiduously for thirteen years, and possibly longer, the enemy who is no longer fooled by his periodic shedding of one persona for another, expert though it is, the enemy who is now curled on his doorstep, having finally run him to ground.
He returns to the rumpled bed, flicking off more water bugs. They like to gather in the warm indentations his body makes, no doubt feeding on the microscopic flaking of skin he leaves behind in sleep, like fevered nightmares sloughed off by the unconscious mind. He moves the bugs out of necessity only; really he has no innate quarrel with them the way most people do. Live and let live is his motto.
His harsh laugh sends them scattering to the four shadowed corners of the room. Some disappear behind the closed wooden jalousie that covers the window. They have all too quickly come to know him, and they have no desire to be eaten alive. Flopping down on the thin mattress in a star position, he gazes up at the constellations of cracks in the plaster ceiling that at one time long ago must have been painted blue. They seem to change position every time he takes this survey, but he knows this cannot be true.
I know, I know… A singsong lullaby to himself. What do I know? Something, anything, who can say with the fissures appearing inside his head?
It never fails, the color blue makes him think of Lily. The azure sky under which they picnicked when they were dating, the aquamarine-and-white surf through which he swam, follo