Safe House, Apache Dance, AZ...
Jake Slaughter walked out onto the deck of the cabin's deck for a few minutes of solitude after the long flight back from Quito.
In his own way, something he had learned to do years earlier, he had already made his peace with God over the death of de Alvarez in Ecuador; the assignment behind him, it was time to move on. He breathed deeply the cool night air and drew hard on a Sam Adams longneck.
Wine-red alpenglow washed the crennelated peaks of the Tucson Mountains and the vast Saguaro forests of the Sonoran Desert. Old Tucson Studios, stage for myriad old westerns and the renowned Desert Museum were visible from the house perched high up Golden Gate Mountain, south of Gates Pass Overlook. "Look at that," he muttered, his husky voice the upshot of the arid climate and one too many of his favorite rum-soaked cigars.
He scanned the open vista, the stands of desert scrub, Saguaro and Cholla cacti, and Mesquite and Palo Verde trees crowded into the valley below. Sounds of nightfall filled the air, the hum of nectar-feeding bats, the din of Hawk moths and other foraging insects, Javelina and Coyote running down an evening meal, and myriad bird species burrowing into the safety of their nests for the night. His eyes crinkled above a smile. "Aphrodisiac for the senses," he whispered. "Surely the Almighty scooped out this place on one of his better days."
His personal phone slapped him out of a sound sleep at seven the next morning. He sat up, his cracking knees a sharp reminder that he was aging by the minute, the pounding in his head an indicator that he was getting a bit long in the tooth to down a half-dozen longnecks and still function at peak efficiency the following morning.
"Jake? It's Michael in New York, did I wake you?"
"You're nothing if not consistent, Mikey."
"Hell, it's ten o'clock here in the real world, been at it for three hours already."
"Right." Michael Franks was Jake's long-time editor at Simon and Schuster in New York, always helpful and always calling at inopportune times. Good thing he was so damn affable. "What's up, pal?"
"Got your message about heading off to Beaufort. Can you send me the final draft of the book before you go?"
In his precious spare time, Jake wrote children's books, a dozen or so over the past couple of decades while secretly employed by a covert black ops arm of the CIA. The book in question was the third in a series of six adventure stories, protagonists and antagonists all creatures of either the desert or the southeast Atlantic coast. The books both entertained and informed, a quality his readers especially liked. They also sold like parrot heads at a Jimmy Buffet concert, a quality his publisher relished.
"I'll have it on your desk by the end of the week, Mikey, will that make you happy?"
"Wish all my writers were like you, Jake."
"No you don't. You put up with me because I make you folks a crapload of money."
"I thought I just said that."
Jake laughed. "Goodbye Michael."
"Hold on, I have a great idea. How about a book signing tour? It's been a longtime since your east coast fans got a peek at Father Jake's mug."
Jake rubbed his fingertip along the scar on his stomach. "I don't know, Mikey, I don't handle large crowds very well, you know that."
"He'll, man, they have a new pill out that takes care of, what do they call it, SAD, social anxiety disorder. Dumb ass acronym, but I'll get you a script, okay? Couple of those and a six pack and you'll be nattering to the walls." He chuckled, the infectious titter that buoyed his like-ability.
"All right, I'll think about it."
"Great, meanwhile I'll start making arrangements with Barnes and Noble and a bunch of indies. Call me when you get to the coast. Ciao."
What the hell, he was going to be home for a few weeks, first time is some years, to check out the new family digs, so maybe a tour wasn't a bad idea. His publisher had been after him for a while now, promos and marketing and all that.
He poured a cup of coffee and walked out the back door, the early morning air redolent of musk, sandalwood and honey. Memories coursed back through portals long closed. He read again an invitation he'd received months earlier:
The reunion of Beaufort High's class of 68
The promise made will now be kept
See y'all June 7-9 at the Lancaster Hall, downtown Beaufort
Regrets only, please!
"Regrets," he muttered. "Hell yeah, I've got a few. Who doesn't."
Monday, October 8, 2012
Syracuse University, 1967...
Elizabeth Creighton’s water broke at ten o’clock, the evening of May fifteenth. By eleven o'clock she’d been admitted to the hospital, and Doctor Hiram Weatherby arrived twenty minutes later.
“How are we doing, little lady?” he said.
“I've felt better.” She gritted her teeth against a stabbing contraction.
“Well, it shouldn't be long now.” He poked and prodded at her with thick, meaty fingers. Syringe in hand, he located a vein in her left arm.
“What's that?” she asked.
“Scopolamine, a sedative. Something to help you through the next few hours.” He smiled. “Nothing to worry about, Elizabeth.” He slipped the needle out of her arm. “I’ll be back in thirty minutes. Near as I can figure, we're two, two and a half hours, away.” He turned and strode out of the room.
He paid for his coffee, walked across the cafeteria floor, and slid into the already occupied booth.
“Should be only a couple of hours now, sir.”
“Excellent.” Colonel Prescott’s ever-present smile lit up the booth. “We've everything in order on our end. All you have to do is work your magic and we're home free.”
“You understand that you're going to have to give us a few days?" Weatherby told him.
“Of course. I’ve apprised Sister Angela that the baby is under observation and to not expect us until at least the end of the week.”
Weatherby slid out of the booth. “Right, then, I'd best get back. Nurse Baker will notify you when it’s time.” He turned, started away.
“Well done, my friend.”
“Thank you, Colonel.” With a innocuous grin, he added, “That's why you pay me the big bucks, right?”
They wheeled Elizabeth into the OR ninety minutes later.
“All right, my dear.” Weatherby stroked the hair out of her eyes while his assistants prepared her for the baby's entrance. “I'm going to give you another injection of scopolamine. It’s time to go to work, but you're going to have to help me with this, understand?”
“Yes.” Her voice was now weak with fatigue.
“All right.” He positioned himself at the end of the table between her splayed legs. “Let's get on with it, shall we?”
“Push, Liz,” he bellowed ten minutes later. “Again!”
Perspiration streamed down her face, and her heart hammered against her ribcage. The injection had eased the pain, yet the pressure between her legs threatened to rend her from crotch to sternum.
“We may have a problem here.”
“What's wrong?” Liz screamed.
“There’s some internal bleeding here, Elizabeth, and the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby's neck. I can't take any chances, I'm going to have to put you out, prevent you from moving at the wrong time. Now, please, relax, take two or three deep breaths and let me get on with my work.” He nodded to Dr. Walker. “Put her under, Jack.”
“Elizabeth?” He touched the tips of his fingers to her cheek. "Wake up, sweetheart.”
She opened her eyes, obviously struggling to focus on his face.
“Good stuff, huh?" he said. "Can you imagine if we bottled it and sold it over the counter? Talk about your all-time highs.” He’d begun to care for this one, an emotion that could prove risky in his business.
“The baby?” Liz moaned between dry, cracked lips.
“A girl, Elizabeth,” he replied, straight-faced. “But, there were complications.” He sat down on the edge of the bed, pinching his Roman nose between thumb and forefinger and wishing he hadn’t let Prescott talk him into this. Culpability festered like a malignancy in his bowels.
Elizabeth’s eyes brimmed with tears.
He stroked her face again and whispered, “She didn't make it, sweetheart.”
At eleven-fifteen, the evening of May nineteenth, Colonel Prescott's sleek, black Mercedes rolled up to St. Cecilia's.
He rang the bell. Waited.
A round, cherubic face peered out at him through the wrought iron bars. “May I help you?”
“I'm Tyrone Prescott, Sister.”
“Yes, yes, Mr. Prescott, come in, please, we've been expecting you.”
“There now,” she said, forty-five minutes later, sitting at an ornate roll-top desk. “The baby is asleep in her new bedroom. You’re leaving her in capable hands, I assure you.”
“I’ve no doubt, Sister.”
“Does your niece have a name, Mr. Prescott?”
“Erika.” His voice cracked at precisely the right moment. “Erika Kingston, named after her mother.”
“Again, I'm so very sorry about your sister's passing.”
“Her father, my brother-in-law, was killed in Vietnam six months ago. So, when my sister died in childbirth, it left only me to care for their daughter.”
“We’ll do everything within our power to look after her.”
“I have something here to help you do just that.” He handed her an envelope. “I want only the best for her, and although my vocation does not allow me to care for her directly, it does allow me the luxury of seeing that she is well taken care of.”
“And there will be another fifty-thousand every year hereafter to cover expenses. I’ll add to the kitty when it’s time for her schooling. My niece will want for nothing, Sister. Now,” he added, his face bereft of emotion. “There are a few details you need to know. First, I work for the Government, and in my line of work one tends to amass adversaries.”
Later, as the limo prepared to pull away, Prescott rolled down the window, reached out and held Sister Angela's hand. “Remember, it’s imperative that no one, I repeat, no one, know of my niece's existence. I have sworn enemies out there, some of whom would stop at nothing to get to me. Should they find out about her, all the money in the world won’t provide her adequate protection, do you understand?”
“Fully, Mr. Prescott.”
“Thank you, Sister.” His smile was broad and warm, and his lips brushed the back of her hand. “You are an Angel of God.”
“No, sir.” Her cheeks reddened. “Just another of His servants. Now along with you.” She shooed him away and turned toward the nunnery gate. “We’ll see you again next month, Mr. Prescott.”
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Twenty years later...
Father Jake Slaughter sat alone in the quiet of the Sacristy at The Basilica del Voto Nacional in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador.
He was dressed in a priest's black cassock, a white, wide-sleeved surplice and an eight foot long crimson stole, his head bowed in silent prayer as he awaited the evening's final confessor.
Cold rain fell in sheets as don Pedro de Alvarez's black Mercedes limo pulled up in front of the church. Two men jumped out with umbrellas and escorted don Pedro up the front steps, through the front door and into the darkened vestibule.
Father Jake, kneeling at the altar, turned, then stood and walked toward the confessional. The nave was empty and don Pedro dismissed his bodyguards with a wave, then draped his wet coat over a pew and entered the confessional.
The small slider opened, a dim light illuminating Father Jake's slightly turned away angular face.
"Who are you and where is Father Medina," de Alvarez asked in a surly tone.
"I am Father Jake, my son. Father Medina is not feeling well and I have come from San Miguel de Sucumbios at his request to hear your confession."
He did not have to look at don Pedro to know that he was being scrutinized. "Do you wish to confess your sins, my son," he said in a calm reassuring voice?
A moment of silenced passed between them before don Pedro began, "Bless me father for I have sinned...."
Father Jake sat in silence, head bowed, for the next fifteen minutes as don Pedro rendered a detailed account of his myriad indiscretions against Almighty God and the Holy Mother Church.
de Alvarez looked up and through the screening when he was done, awaiting penitential discipline and absolution.
Father Jake turned his head to face the man and asked softly, "Are you truly sorry for your sins, my son? Do you now renounce Satan and his disciples of evil, and beg forgiveness of almighty God?
This was an unusual question, one never asked of him by Father Medina, but de Alvarez had wasted enough valuable time and was already late for an important meeting with his top three drug and prostitution czars. "But of course, Padre, why else would I be here." For the first time, he noticed the blood red cross dangling at the end the black bead necklace hanging around Slaughter's neck. "What's with the red cross, never seen one like that?"
Instead of answering, Father Jake made the sign of the cross and whispered, "May almighty God bless you, forgive you and have mercy on your soul?
Before he could finish, Slaughter pulled the 9mm Glock with its heavy silencer out for the left sleeve of his white surplice and shot Alvarez through the neck.
He rushed out and grabbed hold of de Alvarez, dragged him out onto the floor and kneeled down next to him. He looked into the man's crazed and frightened eyes, then anointed his forehead with oil and began to recite the set of prayers comprising Last Rites, giving don Pedro a last chance to repent and help his soul find its way to the other side.
"Why?" de Alvarez's voice was beginning to fail him. "Who are you?"
Jake didn't answer, instead made one last sign of the cross, pressed the Glock against the man's temple and pulled the trigger.
He slipped out the back door of the church where Father Medina waited in a silver Lexus sedan.
"The bodyguards?" he asked.
"Taken care of," Medina said.
Father Jake nodded and rested his head back against the seat.
Twenty minutes later, as the Cleaners finished removing all incriminating evidence from the church, Jake was aboard a private Gulfstream V jetting back to the states.
Christmas eve, 1954…
We gather at our family home on lake Onatah, the big 'O' to the locals, anticipating the laughter of a fat man with a beard, and the scratch of tiny hooves on the roof.
All lay in darkness as I walk down to the lake beside my uncle, who always smells of Old Spice, cigarettes and peppermint. He is a jolly man with gentle eyes, wise with age and faded with time, who usually communicates through a series of grunts, snorts, and laughter, sounds that, my Dad says, are akin to our prehistoric ancestors.
The lake is flat and black, moonlight annealed to its surface like tin foil, a burnished silver ribbon stretching from shore to shore, and the chill night air freezes the hairs in my nose and brings tears to my eyes.
Behind us light filters through the house windows and shadows dance along the walls as
aunts and uncles, some by blood, others by lifelong acquaintance, gather around the fireplace. A piano plays, accompanied now by a fiddle and the soft melody of a Christmas carol, familial voices blended as if by a master vintner.
I shake with a chill and my uncle pulls me to him, wraps his arms around my shoulders. “Tell me what you see, boyo?”
I look up and his eyes are shut. “What do you mean?”
“Close your eyes and tell me what you see.”
I squeeze my lids together. “I can’t see anything?”
“No?” he whispers. “Listen then and tell me what you hear.”
“I hear the waves,” I tell him. “Lapping at the shore, and the family singing up in the house.”
“Turn those sounds into a memory and you’ll always remember this night.” He points out to the lake, to a wall of vapor rolling in from the opposite shore. “There are ghosts out there, boyo, dancing in the mist. Can you see them? Specters of those who’ve come before us; our kin. Got to come back and visit once in a while. It’s the way things work. Promise to always come back for a visit. They’ll be here waiting for you.”
I peer into the darkness, watch the mist skip across the surface of the lake. It swirls and forms into tendrils as if directed by some otherworldly force.
My uncle watches and says, “Don’t be afraid, memories are buried treasure, possessed of a power all their own. They’ll hammer at you if you let them, but you’ll find yourself half a man without them.”
A series of distant mortar thumps and the sky explodes; class-A fireworks, a tradition with lake folk, complete with reports, flashes and shimmers of every size, shape and imaginable color.
It is getting colder and the snow crunches under boot as we turn and start back toward the house, toward the comforting murmur of family and friends.
Warmed by a candle of wonder, carefully tended by the child inside my uncle, I go to bed and lay in darkness. Just before I slip into the long blank of sleep I think, was it a dream?
Years later, I will return to the lake, to the shore, and wonder? Was I crazy? How about my uncle? No, I will have learned by then that crazy is simply a moniker we put on someone who still has the magic in them after they’re no longer a child.
Twelve years pass in a blink and Kelsey and I stand waist-deep in the sun-warmed crystalline water of the lake; the early evening air cooling as the sun drops toward the horizon.
I hold her close, her youthful, summer-tanned body firm and warm. Still, she shivers in my arms. “Will you come to the bus station tomorrow,” I say?
She hesitates, then, “I don’t know if I can take it, Jake.” Her shoulders quiver. “This damn war, first it’s my brother, then Jack and Bill, your best friends, and now you. Off to Ft. Benning and then…” Her voice trails off and I feel tears fall from her face onto my chest. “Please, just hold me tight. I don’t want to talk about you leaving.”
Later, we build a fire on the shoreline, open a bottle of wine and curl up inside a large, cotton blanket. Soon after, we are naked and her body moves in sync with mine as we make love in the warm sand at the edge of the lake, with only the stars and moon as witness. A sexual union that, I believe, has included the bonding of our souls.
I wake early the next morning, after a discomfited night of sleep, not knowing what the day will bring. I shower and pack my shaving kit along with one extra pair of civvies. The Army will supply me the balance of my wardrobe for the next eighteen weeks.
I look in the mirror, at the beginnings of circles under my eyes and at the lone wrinkle that creases my forehead. Nothing I can do about that, time alone will weave a fabric of them across my face. Then I run a brush through my hair and manage a smile. One of Fort Jackson’s base barbers, who the trainees call ‘the great equalizers’, will make sure I have no need for a brush or a comb for the next few months.
An hour later I sit alone in the back seat of my dad’s ‘57 Chevy as we weave our way toward the Greyhound bus station.
Dad eyes me in the rearview mirror. “She may already be there son. Perhaps her folks drove her.”
I wait as bus after bus pulls away, wait and watch, hoping that she will show, though in my heart I know she won’t.
Finally, the driver calls for boarding. I hug my mom who, with tears streaming down her face, can’t seem to find her voice. My dad, ever the stoic, a man of few words, dabs at his left eye, then throws his arms around my shoulders and whispers, “I love you son, take care, now.”
I sit in the back of the bus and wave to my folks.
As the bus rolls away, I resist looking back, knowing that I am leaving behind all those that I love, that my Kelsey is not there waving to me, and that the last long, lazy days of summer sun, fun and desire are over. A thought comes out of nowhere, searing, an arrow through my heavy heart: I will never be nineteen years old in August again.
The steady hum of wheels on the pavement seeps into my bones and I sit back and close my eyes.
Just before I drift off, I recall my last conversation with Kelsey; "What are we going to do, Jake?"
“You are going to go off the college and I'm going to fulfill my duty. When you graduate and I get back we will pick back up and begin our life together.”
Which, of course, won't happen. Life will intervene and it will take twenty years for me to finally return, this time as an emotionally and spiritually bruised man of the cloth. A man of faith with a deeper, darker calling. One that will not get me within shouting distance of St. Peter when my time on earth is over.
Then, I think of a cold winter’s night at the lake, all those years ago, and of my uncle, gone now, though the memory of him lingers still.
And, then, I think of ghosts.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
United flight 457 arrived Rochester International at seven-fifteen p.m.
Timothy Williams moved through the concourse toward baggage claim, scanning the crowd for other than friendly faces.
COMMEX had taken every conceivable precaution to protect its agents. Still, there had been too damn many 'accidents': Delaney Curtiss, Beirut, stuffed into the trunk of his Saab, three bullets to the back of the head; Guy Tomasik, Hamburg, garroted in a hotel room, his dinner still on the table; Gregory Jacobs, Tunisia, found in an alley outside a popular nightclub, his spinal cord severed by a seven inch stiletto.
Christ, he thought, awaiting arrival of his overnight satchel. Other than himself, there were but two left from the old days--the days of 'Shadow Company'--Jerrod Martin and Brady Thomas. Jerrod was stateside, somewhere in the southeast, but God alone knew where Colonel Thomas had disappeared to.
He grabbed the satchel off the serpentine conveyor and exited the terminal.
"Holiday Inn, Downtown." He glanced from the cabby's face to the driver's license mounted on the dash, then back at the man's face, his left hand tucked inside his blazer, caressing the butt end of a .357 Magnum. Couldn’t be too careful.
The Checker pulled up in front of the hotel minutes later.
He leaned in through the side window, handed the cabby a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change. And there's another fifty in it if you're back here tomorrow morning, five-fifteen sharp.”
“Yes, sir.” The driver beamed and rolled away, fantasizing a weekend tryst with one of Main Street's well-oiled urchins.
Williams strode up the steps and through the arched-glass entryway into the lobby.
“May I help you, sir?” The svelte, blond wore a plastic smile below her pert, upturned nose.
“Please. I have a reservation: 'Michelson, Anthony'.”
She punched his name into the computer, confirmed the reservation. “And, how long will you be with us, Mr. Michelson?”
“Just tonight.” He gave her a tired smile, aping perfectly the road-weary look of any number of salesmen who waltzed through the hotel.
Minutes later, he opened the door to his room, palmed the pistol, and entered. He checked the closets, the bath, the balcony, the desk and drawers, then the television, the table lamps, and the phone. Satisfied, he unpacked, took a long, hot shower, and then slipped into gray slacks and a muted, blue Ralph Lauren pullover.
Before leaving for dinner, he stretched a two-inch length of clear monofilament line from the base of the sliding glass door that led out onto the balcony to the metal casing surrounding it.
Once in the hallway, he locked the door to his room and stretched another piece of clear line from the base of the door to its wooden jamb, then turned and walked down the hallway. With the telltales in place, no one could get into the room without his knowing it.
He requested a corner table where he could monitor restaurant activity, ordered a Dewars on the rocks and a Porterhouse steak, medium rare, the S&W .38 strapped to his leg an easy reach.
He finished dinner and ordered a snifter of Brandy. Relax, old boy, he thought. All itineraries and assignments are transferred to and from the field via a sophisticated new program conjured up by Prescott’s programming wizards. Should someone backdoor the system, break the code, and access the files, they’d end up searching for me sometime tomorrow at the Desert Inn in Albuquerque. Damn clever, those COMMEX boys. He chuckled and ordered another Brandy.
Christian Richards sat across the room, camouflaged by a long mahogany bar. He spoke easily, laughing with the men at the table, his corporeal self dealing with the situation at hand, a wrap up of the day’s business activities and dinner and drinks with RichCo's newest franchisees.
His spiritual, more disciplined self remained in contact with Agent Timothy Williams, monitoring the man’s every move, a master hunter, sizing up his prey. How he loved to observe them, watch them live out their paltry, feckless lives. It provided a perverse satisfaction knowing he held their destiny in his hands.
Williams beckoned the waitress, ordered a third Brandy, then crossed his arms on his chest and stared up at the ceiling, a tired smile creasing his face.
Yes, Richards thought. Sit back, relax. He’d witnessed it many times, these displays of ignorant confidence. Soon, Williams’s defenses would break down and he’d lose his combative edge. A deplorable lack of discipline, and these were Prescott’s finest? Why, they barely presented a challenge. The ultimate engagement, the final encounter, would come when this, the prelude to the overture he’d orchestrated was complete. “Only a matter of time, now, Kenjisan,” he whispered through clenched teeth.
Richards finished his tonic and lemon, excused himself, walked to the bar, and put his arm around the waitress’s shoulder, a charismatic smile on his face. “Pardon me, Miss?”
She turned. “Sir?”
“Would you get us another round when you get a chance? The group right there.” He pointed toward his table.
She twisted her head, and Richards moved his hand over the snifter of Brandy. The top of the diamond encrusted, onyx ring on his little finger sprang open, and a thin stream of blue-green powder trickled into the drink, dissolving instantly. Visible for a moment, on the inside of his forearm, just above the wrist, was a tattoo, a small crimson crescent, a miniature wounded moon.
“Yes, sir. Let me deliver this drink and I’ll be right with you.” She smiled and rushed off.
Richards returned to his table, bid his new RichCo associates good evening, then went upstairs where he remained in his room for a little over an hour, cleaning up paper work.
Finally, he stood, stretched, slipped out of his robe, and walked into the bathroom where he donned a black, skintight body stocking, a pair of soft, black slippers, and then applied a thin layer of jet-black to his smooth, tanned face.
A small pouch, attached by Velcro to the back of the body stocking, held a pair of thin, rubber surgical gloves, a long, flexible strip of stainless steel, a fifty milliliter syringe, and a small vile of clear, bluish liquid. To this cache, he added a roll of white surgical tape and three round, smooth objects that resembled the leather golfs ball popular in the late eighteen hundreds.
He checked his watch: eleven forty-five. His pronounced cheekbones pulled his face up and back into a skull-like grin.
He exited through the sliding glass door, dropping down minutes later onto the balcony outside Williams’s room. He rolled into a darkened corner, sat up, and peered through the glass.
Williams was asleep atop the bed, the drug having overcome him before he’d had a chance to strip off his clothes and crawl under the covers.
Richards slid the flexible metal strip through the space between the double doors, pried the safety bar from its latch, tripped the lock switch, and slipped into the room.
He found a vein, injected the antidote and Williams’s eyes slowly opened.
Richards grinned, watching the man fight to focus on a world gone hazy, knew that his hands and feet felt swollen and numb, as if they’d been pumped full of procaine, and that Azrael appeared little more than a strange, shadowy being speaking in obscure, tongue-thick phrases.
“Do you know who I am, Mr. Williams?”
He shook his head no, but his eyes said differently.
“Yes,” Richards muttered. “Then, you also know why I’m here, don’t you?”
“Please.” The words were muffled, slurred through drug-numbed lips.
“Don't beg,” he said, his voice the growl of an animal. “It's unbecoming. Besides, you knew the risks going in.”
For Richards, there was enormous exhilaration in having the power of life and death over another human being. His greatest thrill didn’t always come from acting on that power, it came, at times, from simply having his foes live with his dominion over them. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times.
Williams shook his head, his eyes swollen orbs of fear, and beads of sweat trickled down his forehead.
Richards’s smile was
merciless. “Let's get this over with, shall we?” He pulled one of the small, round objects from his pouch and attached a ten-inch length of waterproof fuse to its center. He spoke throughout the procedure, softly, reassuringly, much as a surgeon would speak to a nervous patient. “We call these little beauties Yak-Paks. A device my father taught me how to make when I was a child. You do remember my father, don’t you?”
“No.” Williams’s voice squeaked with fear.
“No? Then let me refresh your memory. Does April ‘79 or Nepal ring familiar?” He stripped off three, six-inch lengths of surgical tape, attached one end of each strip to Williams left cheek.
“Ah, yes, The Mezzhandi. And the 'Druid'? You remember the 'Druid', do you not?” Richards's grin turned feral. “Of course you do. Well, I am Azrael, his son, and I have sworn a blood-oath to avenge him, to dispose of those responsible for his death. To destroy your precious COMMEX.”
Williams struggled against his imminent demise.
“Now, back to the Yak-Paks. We wrap the equivalent of one-third of a stick of dynamite into the dried and waterproofed skin of a yak.” Richards cradled the device in the tips of his slim, elegant fingers. "The seams are sewn together with gut. They are a powerful weapon, easily made, and just as easily concealed. Now, open wide.” He spread his hand across Williams's face, his thumb and index finger applied vice-like against the pressure points of the jaw hinge.
Williams’s mouth dropped open and Richards stuffed the Yak-Pak home. He ran the fuse out of the corner of the man's mouth and then stretched the tape tightly across his face, sealing the charge within its newfound womb. He stood and looked down into Williams’s eyes, his voice flat and indifferent. “I promise you it will be quick and painless.” He gazed into the middle
distance and added, “Not like it will be with your Mr. Thomas. Oh, no, he will suffer, I guarantee it.” He picked up a book of hotel matches, tore one out, struck it, and lit the fuse.
Williams tussled with his ties, fighting the impending launch into the hereafter.
“You have fifteen minutes to make peace with whomever or whatever it is you worship.” Richards turned and walked out of the room onto the balcony.
His climbed up the side of the building onto the roof and moved off cat-like to the opposite side of the hotel, where he dropped down safely onto his own balcony.
Ten minutes later, he sat in the lounge, dressed in a beige running suit, sipping Tonic with lemon, and chatting with the bartender.
When the Yak-Pak detonated, Williams’s head exploded like a ripe melon, specs of blood and bone and silky ropes of mucous painting the bedroom walls as his decapitated body convulsed on the crimson-stained bed.
“Christ-in-the-night.” The bartender grabbed onto the edge of the bar as the building seemed to sway on its foundation. He picked up the phone, dialed the front desk. “What the hell was that?”
Richards smiled. A COMMEX agent’s life was cheap, pointless. Still, each successive killing left him feeling more liberated, more powerful, more invincible. That, my friend, he thought, knocking down the last of a Tonic and lemon, is the resounding thunder of revenge.
As sweet as ever.
Sedona, AZ, 1990...
Brady jerked bolt upright in bed, heart pounding, blood sluicing, runnels of icy sweat wetting a three-day growth of beard.
He scanned his Spartan cabin, knew well he’d find nothing more than personal demons lurking in the shadows.
"Sweet Jesus." His voice was dry, raspy.
Though he and Elizabeth had shared many warm and wonderful memories, Hilton Head was the dream that pervaded his sleep, week after week, month after month.
An hour later, he sat alone on the front steps of his cabin, fighting off the effects of an on-going nightmare wherein he is always running toward her, trying to warn her, to save her. He still sees her as she was that night, as she will always be in the asylum of his mind, young and alive, filled with hope and dreams reborn.
Like an unwanted flower, the love they’d shared had been cut down as it began to bloom.
Thank God she’d felt no pain. The coroner’s report stated that Liz died instantly, feeling little more than a dramatic increase in air pressure and a moment’s searing heat as she was jettisoned off the balcony into the cavernous maw of eternity.
The bomb had been meant for him; Liz an innocent victim of his sordid past, of his association with COMMEX.
He’d rectified that by resigning the following week, firebombing his bridges with Prescott and COMMEX, and moving to Oak Creek Canyon. A partial fulfillment of a shared dream.
But, what he could do nothing about, try as he might, was the never-ending goddamn guilt. If only he’d not stopped for the wine, he might have been back in time to do something, anything for chrissakes. He might even have died with her, which he’d often considered infinitely preferable to a life led without her.
At times like this, he felt emptiness, silent resignation.
He finished his coffee, drew heavily on a Winston Light, and leaned back on his elbows, his face turned toward a brightening dawn sky, his red-rimmed eyes squeezed shut.
"I miss you, Elizabeth,” he said, her name a keepsake knotted in the back of his throat.
He eyed Brady, began his silent approach, moving cautiously out from the safety of the trees, his almost super-natural ability to elude and endure bred by centuries of persecution.
He was a formidable creature, with bright yellow eyes, the kind of eyes that loom large in the darkened corners of childhood fantasies. He closed on the cabin, head low to the ground, moving in an ill-defined pattern, stopping briefly at a series of predetermined points along the invisible perimeter of his territory, never once taking his eyes off the man sitting on the front steps.
The muffled sounds did not go unnoticed. "Morning, Lobo." Brady opened his eyes and stared straight ahead, refrained from cocking his head toward the Mexican Gray wolf that stood twenty paces from the front porch.
It had taken two years for the wolf to accept his presence in the valley. It had been a pup, an obvious orphan--its parents likely killed by poachers or ranchers--when he’d first spotted it.
The wolf pup proved early on that it was a survivor. Brady often found it snoozing in the mid-morning sun beside a pile of picked over jackrabbit bones. He’d never attempted to care for it, nor had he tried to domesticate it, opting instead to let the wolf remain forever wild, to set the guidelines for their symbiotic relationship on its own terms.
Now, on those occasions when his predatory companion dropped by for a visit, Brady found himself talking to it, speaking openly to it, like he would to a close friend, of those things kept long buried in his heart. And the wolf appeared to almost listen, to somehow understand.
Lobo eyed him, and a low, raspy growl escaped its throat.
Brady turned slightly, cast the animal an expressionless glance. "Come to visit for a while?" He spoke softly, not locking eyes, purposefully maintaining a posture that displayed neither dominance nor submissiveness.
They sat for a while in silence, two Alpha males of distinct species who shared a common bond: they’d each lost a soulmate. Brady had seen neither the dominant female nor the litter of pups for over a year. It occurred to him that he and the wolf were destined to live out the remainder of their lives alone, as Alpha males are considered to be monogamous creatures, known to mate for life.
Moments later, Lobo pointed his shiny, black nose skyward and trumpeted a series of short, ear-piercing howls, then turned and sauntered off into the trees.
“Not today, huh?” Brady whispered. “See you next time, friend.”
Saturday, September 22, 2012
At eight-fifteen the following morning, COMMEX Headquarters, an inconspicuous, three-story brick building, located on Healy Road, just off US 15, twenty miles southwest of Rochester, was a hive of activity.
Lt. Marcus Kinnard strode past Mrs. Periwinkle's desk, his eyes riveted to the door leading into Colonel Prescott's office.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant.” Her voice was cool, patronizing. “The Colonel’s on the phone and cannot be disturbed.”
“Not to worry, Periwinkle,” he said, in his patented machine gun voice. “What I have to discuss with him won’t wait. You just keep answering phones, taking messages, and making coffee like a conscientious, little woman, okay? Let me and the Colonel worry about running the organization.”
“Up yours,” she whispered, casting him a homicidal grin.
Marcus Kinnard, second in command to Colonel Prescott, was a small, ratish-looking man, a badly preserved fifty-one, with a drinker's purple veined face, a nose the color and size of an overly ripe apple, and beady black eyes. Mrs. Periwinkle thought him a poisonous little man, secretly wondering how many times a year he shed his skin.
Kinnard opened the door, waltzed into Prescott's office.
The Colonel glanced up, face flushed, eyes filled with quiet fury and pointed to a plush leather chair.
Kinnard sat, struck up a Chesterfield and waited for Prescott to finish his conversation.
“Yes, sir,” Prescott said, his voice controlled and expressionless. “The wheels are in motion even as we speak, sir. Lt. Kinnard’s arrived and my niece should be here any moment.” He glanced at Kinnard and shook his head as if to say, 'I need this desk-jockey telling me how to run my business'.
Kinnard sucked on the cigarette, blew a large white smoke ring toward the ceiling and cast his boss a hackneyed grin.
“Of course, sir,” Prescott said. “I’ll keep you apprised of our every move. Good bye, sir.” He muttered as he hung up the phone, “Oh my, yes, sir. But of course, sir”
“I just heard about Williams,” Kinnard said. “How, Colonel? How in hell could anyone have known he was here?”
“I don’t know, Marcus. I thought we'd taken every conceivable precaution.”
“We’re certain it was Azrael?”
“Forensics confirms it was a Yak-Pak.” Prescott cradled his head in the palms of his hands, thick fingers toying with the thin, silver wisps sprouting from his balding pate.
“Well, then, there can be only one answer.” Kinnard spoke matter-of-factly. “Either Azrael or someone within his organization has happened upon the Key, accessed the computer.”
Prescott’s head snapped up. “I don't believe that for one minute. We've got a foolproof system here. The damn Key changes daily. Even if someone did manage to get hold of it, without the code they'd end up hiking a false trail.”
“Do you have a better explanation, Colonel?” Kinnard slumped back in his chair, his thin, colorless lips pulled back in a pompous, oily sneer.
“No, Marcus, I don't, and I’m not about to waste time looking for one. The President has 'strongly suggested' that I remedy the situation straight away. So, I'm going to put this to bed once and for all. I’ve asked Mrs. Periwinkle to find Erika and have her report to my office.”
“Somewhat drastic, Colonel.” Kinnard smiled, conjuring up blatantly sexual images of the Colonel's fair-haired niece.
“Drastic times and drastic measures, Lieutenant.” The intercom on the desk buzzed. “Yes?”
“Ms. Kingston to see you, sir. Appears we caught her in the middle of a workout at the health club. She hasn't yet changed.”
“That's fine, Mrs. Periwinkle. Send her in, please.”
“I'm afraid you caught me at an awkward time, Uncle Tyrone.” Erika walked into Prescott's office, running a towel through her mop of blond hair. “From the tone of Mrs. Periwinkle's message, I assumed 'immediately' meant skip the shower and the change of clothes.”
“Right, my dear.” He kissed her on the cheek, motioned to a chair. “Please, we’ve much to discuss.”
Kinnard stared hard. A pair of silk running shorts adorned her long, lean, tanned legs, and sassily uptilted breasts strained against the thin fabric of a tank top. She had a seductive young body, a flawless complexion and a sexy, breathy voice, alluring and taunting but with a sweet edge.
Prescott knew that she’d long been the focus of Kinnard's warped fantasies, knew, too, that she ‘d made it a point to counter his perversity by goading him at every conceivable opportunity.
She bent over, stuck her round, firm buttocks in his face, and ran the towel over the chair seat. “Lieutenant.” She sat, the patented Kingston pout enhancing a sensuous underlip.
“Erika.” Black pupils set into rheumy, yellow orbs traveled the length of her body, then returned to her ice-blue eyes.
Neither her intent nor her actions were lost on Prescott, who couldn’t help but admire the way she handled Kinnard. True, he’d been forced, at times, to mask his pride so as not to offend his second in command. Regardless of his penchant for young women, preferably slim and trashy, as well as an insatiable appetite for what might be considered deviant sexual practices, Marcus Kinnard was a resolute, energetic employee, indispensable to the organization.
“All right.” Prescott interrupted the histrionics. “Down to business, shall we? Erika, I'm sure you’re aware that we’ve had a rash of 'accidents' lately.”
“If you mean the loss of our agents, then yes, I believe everyone’s aware of the problem.”
“Well, it appears we’ve lost another.”
“My God. Who? How?”
“You’ve heard about last night’s explosion at the Hilton?” Kinnard said.
“Yes. Has someone claimed responsibility?”
Prescott leaned forward, forearms on the desk. “No, but the work has a unique signature.”
Erika gazed into her Uncle's slate-gray eyes, waiting for him to get to the point.
“Lt. Kinnard and I have orders to put an end to the dilemma, and we need your help.”
“Sir?” Her forehead wrinkled.
Prescott had never before asked for Erika’s help, especially in a situation as delicate and dangerous as this. Throughout her formative years at Saint Cecilia’s, he’d kept her in the dark regarding COMMEX, of what he did for a living. Even now, though she actually worked for and received a monthly paycheck from the organization, Prescott continued to protect her, to keep her on the periphery, away from the big picture, offering only an occasional, cursory glimpse into the heart of COMMEX, and only at her insistence.
“We've reason to believe that a group called the Mezzhandi is responsible,” he said. “They are led by a calculating killer, one with an appropriate moniker: Azrael.”
“Mezzhandi?” she murmured, with a quizzical look
“The Mezzhandi are not unfamiliar to us,” Kinnard interjected. “Its members have been a stick in our craw since the mid-seventies, long before COMMEX became involved."
“Shadow Company,” she whispered. “Of course, the Mezzhandi were supposedly disbanded years ago by a team of agents known as 'Shadow Company'. But that’s conjecture, right? An urban legend? Scuttlebutt has it there are no files, either in the computer system or in the vault, that contain a single reference to 'Shadow Company'.”
Prescott nodded. “I purged the file on it years ago, though I still have hardcopy filed away. It was real, Erika, not just a figment of someone's overactive imagination. Best goddamn team of agents we ever put together. And the stories you’ve heard are closer to the truth than you'll ever care to know.”
“All right then, Uncle, what can I do to help?”
“We need you to locate someone for us,” Kinnard said. “Someone,” he added with a lip-split sneer. “Who has made it perfectly clear he wants never to hear from us again.”
“I don't understand?” She ignored Kinnard, continued to stare at her uncle.
“The gentleman the lieutenant refers to was once the leader of 'Shadow Company'. One of our 'wet' agents, one of the most lethal the intelligence community ever produced.”
“Do I know of him?”
“I think not.” Prescott leaned back in his chair, folded his hands in his lap, and stared down at the tips of his shoes. He had to be careful, this was dangerous ground. “His name’s Brady Thomas. Known also as Kenjisan. He left the organization eleven years ago. You see, there was a terrible accident...”
For the next two hours, Prescott and Kinnard recounted the history of the Mezzhandi, of 'Shadow Company's' involvement in its demise, and finally of the unfortunate incident that caused Brady Thomas to leave COMMEX.
“So,” Erika said. “Our agents are being systematically killed off by the Mezzhandi, a group thought disbanded years ago by Brady Thomas, and you believe the only way to stop the bleeding is to bring him back into the fold.”
“Exactly,” Kinnard said.
“But, you’ve already told me he wants nothing to do with us. Understandable, as he blames us for his fiancé’s death. What makes you think we can change his mind?”
“The Mezzhandi, Erika." Prescott said it deliberately. "The Mezzhandi and Azrael, the Druid’s son, were responsible for Elizabeth’s death.”
Prescott was renowned for his ability to coolly and assuredly intertwine threads of truth and fiction into the fabric of a story. And make the whole damn thing seem plausible. Erika was a living example of his ability to manipulate facts. After all these years, she still suspected nothing. It was said that, given enough time, he could talk a fish onto a hook.
“I see,” Erika said. “Sounds like a simple case of revenge. Why not try to contact him yourself and explain the situation? I don't understand why you need me?”
“Oh, but that it were that simple, Erika.” Prescott shook his head, retaining the ever-present smile. "Unfortunately, we face two very real problems. First, although we know Brady lives in Arizona, somewhere in the Verde Valley, most likely the Sedona area, we’re not sure of his exact whereabouts. Second, Mr. Thomas, as Lt. Kinnard has alluded to, is not likely to be what you would call approachable.”
“What the Colonel is saying,” Kinnard interjected. “Is that Mr. Thomas is not likely to welcome us back with open arms, regardless of the reason. If he gets an inkling that we’re involved, he'll burrow in so quickly, so deeply, that we'll never find him.”
“Right,” Prescott added. “But, he doesn't know about you, Erika, has no idea you’re affiliated with our organization. You are my ace in the hole.”
“All right, Uncle, shoot, what do you want me to do?” She smiled. “Don’t want to talk myself out of my first real assignment, now, do I?”
Prescott turned and logged onto his computer terminal. “I want you to go home and pack. You're going on an all expense paid vacation to Arizona.”
Her bright blue eyes sparkled as she watched him bang out a memo. “Alone?”
Prescott had taken her to the beach for a few days here and there, and once on a three-day long conference to the Catskills, but never for an extended period of time. And never by herself.
“Now.” Prescott spun on the chair, stared at her. “Listen carefully, my dear. The success of this mission is entirely dependent upon you following everything Lt. Kinnard and I have to say to the letter, understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Prescott's intimidating demeanor reared its head, demanding attention.
He handed her the memo. “On your way out, stop by petty cash and pick up some cash.”
“You’ll need to pick up a few items before you leave. I want you to stop by Carlton's Photo Emporium and buy the best equipment on the shelf, strictly first-class stuff: cameras, lenses, tripods, light meters, everything a professional would take on assignment. You know what's required. Given the number of classes you've taken at the University, you're the finest photographer on staff.”
“Thanks, Uncle T, but why buy new? Why not take what we already own?”
“He'd know, Ms. Kingston,” Kinnard said. “He knows that every piece of COMMEX equipment has an asset code etched onto it. He doesn't miss a trick.”
She looked at Prescott. “I…”
“Stay with us, it will fall into place. Now, after you purchase the appropriate equipment, run out to the airport and buy a first-class ticket to Phoenix, and for God's sake, pay cash, we don’t want him tracing you back to us through a credit card. Leave your return flight open, no telling how long this assignment will last. With me so far?”
“Good. Now, when you get to Phoenix, rent one of those fancy RVs, a large one, bedrooms, baths, all the accessories. Then, head north, toward Sedona. We’ve reserved a secluded campsite for you outside of town.” He rifled through a file. “Let’s see, yes, here we are, the Manzanita Campground. Here are your papers.” He handed her a manila envelope. “You've already been cleared through appropriate state and federal agencies.”
Erika glanced through the packet. “This is my cover? I'm on assignment from National Geographic? In the Verde Valley to photograph rock formations for an upcoming feature on northern Arizona?”
Prescott nodded. “Once you’ve settled in, it’s business as usual. Act as if you actually are on assignment.”
“That’s it, my dear. Enjoy yourself, good food, lots of sun, and, from what I understand, spectacular photo opportunities. Oh, and yes, snoop around a bit, name drop, that sort of thing. You know the drill.”
“All right, then what?”
“You wait. Tt will be only a matter of time before Brady finds you.”
“And, when he does?”
“Well,” Kinnard said, pulling at his lower lip. “That’s the tricky part. You must do your damnedest to convince him that you truly are there on behalf of National Geographic, but we also need you to slip up on occasion.”
“Listen, Erika,” Prescott said. “We've already told you what's likely to happen should Brady find out we’re searching for him. At the same time, as strange as this sounds, we want him to finally realize just that. But, it’s absolutely vital that he figure it out on his own. And, slowly, we can ill afford to be overly zealous or the least bit conspicuous.”
“So I drop subtle hints here and there, is that it?”
“Exactly, but keep them very subtle, and very infrequent. We need you to impart, over time, only enough information to make him suspicious, to make a move and contact us directly.”
“And believe me, Ms. Kingston,” Kinnard added. “If we pull off this little charade, Mr. Thomas be all over this place when he figures it out.”
“All right,” she said. “Any suggestions as to how and when to drop these pearls of suspicion?”
“Can't help you there, sweetheart,” Prescott said. “You're going to have to rely on your own tenacity and discretion. You’ve been fully trained, so use that knowledge to your advantage. But take your time and be very careful. You need to leave a trail, but do not, and I repeat, do not, make it appear as such. Brady can sniff a setup like a hound on a hunt, understand?”
“Yes, Uncle.” She smiled with her mouth and her eyes. “Mr. Thomas sounds like an interesting man.”
"A thoroughly dangerous one and a man of enormous conviction. Regardless your extensive training, I want you out of there on a plane home at the first sign of trouble.”
“Well, that's about it, my dear. Any questions?”
“None I can think of at the moment.”
“All right, then. Stay in touch with me daily.”
“Yes, sir.” She stood. “If I'm going to catch our man, I'd best get my fanny in motion.”
She leaned over the desk, kissed him on the cheek.
“Please, be careful.” He was genuinely concerned.
“I promise, Uncle T. Hey, I've been trained by the best, right?”
“What would you have me say?” He smiled and put his arms around her neck.
“Is the pervert staring at me again?” she whispered.
“Of course, my dear. You're going to be the death of the man, but you already know that, don't you?”
“Oh, I hope so.” She smiled impishly, turned and sashayed out of the office.
Prescott smiled after her, Kinnard's face riveted to her backside.
“I'll check in when I get to Sedona.” She blew him a kiss and closed the door.
“Well?” Kinnard turned back to his boss.
“Do you think she can pull it off?”
“I believe so.” His smile broadened, as it did whenever he was nervous or agitated. “Then again, it doesn't really matter, does it? One way or another, Brady will come back here. It’s only a matter of time. Hell, that’s why I initiated this strategy all those years ago, isn’t it? In anticipation of a moment, a situation, precisely like this? I knew the day would come when we would once again require Mr. Thomas’s considerable talents in order to save COMMEX.”
“Oh, I understand, Colonel,” Kinnard said, his voice a notch above a whisper. “But I'd certainly not want to be in your shoes should he have to be told the truth about Ms. Kingston.”
“Well, Lieutenant,” Prescott sat back in his chair and cleared his throat. “Let’s just hope it doesn't come to that.”