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Black Brick

 

Text Copyright © 2015 Dan Decker

All rights reserved.

Published by Xander Revolutions LC

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

For my family.

 

Contents

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34

Author’s Note

Books by Dan Decker

About the Author

Sample Chapters – Dark Spectrum

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2

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1

I couldn’t silence the alarm bells ringing in my head as Bruce Andrews and his date walked out of the restaurant. They were heading to the ballet but weren’t going to make it.

With a glance towards my partner Shannon, I dropped enough cash on the table to cover the bill.

Shannon was staring after Andrews, and I almost reminded her to not break cover, but I thought better of it when I saw the silent snarl on her lips. I headed towards the door instead.

I was nervous now that Andrews was out of our sight. He had just made a lewd comment to his date, and she had giggled. Shannon growled, and I shook my head.

Our surveillance team had planted a bug on Andrews earlier in the day and I was beginning to wish that they hadn’t. Ignorance would have been useful. We couldn’t be expected to stop something if we didn’t know about it. When Andrews made his next comment, I almost removed my Bluetooth ear bud altogether.

“I’m gonna let her kill him,” Shannon said as she darted past me and waited for me to open the restaurant door, I zipped up my coat before grabbing it. “I swear I will. I don’t care if he thinks she’s an escort, nobody should have to put up with that kind of abuse. I hope she tortures him too. I’m gonna watch and enjoy every minute. This smelly city will be better without a scumbag like him.”

Shannon had a point, but I almost shushed her until I saw that nobody was close enough to overhear.

The blonde woman couldn’t have been okay with the way Andrews had been treating her during dinner, though by her laughter you would have thought he had her enthralled. No woman would appreciate being compared to differing varieties of dogs. It was an act, it had to be.

This was the reason I wasn’t sticking around to finish my caramel-covered brownie and ice cream. Instead, I now stood out in the cold keeping tabs on a detestable man.

Andrews should have figured out his date had hidden motives, but he was as dumb as he was crude. We would have to break our cover to keep him from getting killed because protecting him had been part of our orders as well.

“Instead of letting her kill him,” I said, “we could leak his actions to the media. The blogosphere will ransack him, and Diggon will be forced to do something about it. Give it a week, and he’ll be gone.” My arm brushed against the bulge of my pistol as I spotted them half a block away. I hadn’t planned on using it tonight, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“We should have requested a closer table,” Shannon said. “I could have recorded them on video and posted it to YouTube.”

“We could have live streamed the whole thing,” I said. I’d wanted to use the hidden camera on my ballpoint pen for months. Anytime I needed to make a video I usually went for my phone because I forgot about that feature.

“Getting him fired won’t be enough,” Shannon said. “We’ll make sure everybody he knows gets a copy of the surveillance tape in their inbox.”

When Andrews had explained what he wanted to do after the ballet, all the while referring to his date as his little mutt, Shannon had turned red, and I had been forced to grab her hand because I didn’t like the way she’d been holding the knife. I had never known Shannon to stand by while someone disrespected a woman. She also didn’t break out of cover too often. Either way, I hadn’t wanted to take the chance.

“How about this?” Shannon asked. “We’ll shoot him in the knee and bring her in. If she knows what we need, good. If not, no harm done.”

I shook my head. “Not worth the risk. What if Diggon is on to him and she’s here on their behalf?”

“She’s the buyer.”

“Yeah, I’m not going to trust your instincts on this one. We’ll play this straight and follow our orders exactly.”

There were a lot of unknowns at the moment that were making me uncomfortable. I’d forgotten how many months we had been keeping tabs on Andrews, but today was the first time this woman had surfaced, and the timing was too convenient.

Our analysts had just found evidence Andrews had been stealing money from Diggon in addition to selling information.

If we knew, chances were good that Diggon top executives had learned of it too. A company with that many government contracts had to be spying on their employees as well.

The street was well lit, and despite the low temperature, there were a surprising number of people about. I took Shannon’s hand as I glanced around. We were supposed to be a young couple out for a pleasant, though chilly, spring evening on the town. I hoped we were pulling it off, but I was far too tense to expect that we did.

“Jake!” Shannon said in a whisper while squeezing my hand. I felt her breath quicken as she wrapped her arm around mine. “She’s not alone.”

A tall, broad shouldered man crossed the street in front of us and followed after Andrews and his date, the tall man’s eyes were glued onto them in a way that caused my hackles to go up. I hadn’t been able to spot an obvious weapon hidden beneath his thick coat, but the way he walked and the alert expression on his face was enough to mark him as a threat.

I walked to the curb and pretended to be waiting for the crosswalk light while Shannon turned sideways and used me as cover while she kept on eye on them.

“Another has joined up with that big guy.” Shannon leaned in close as she whispered, her blonde hair swaying in front of me. I could feel the warmth of her breath on my ear and tried to not let it distract me, but it was hard. I hated that we had to hide the true nature of our relationship when we weren’t on assignment.

Hoping to clear my head, I went through a mental checklist. My compact pistol in my shoulder holster already had a round chambered. Steeling myself against the cold, I unzipped my coat so I would have easier access to it. An extra ammo magazine was in my right pocket, and a spare subcompact pistol was in the left. I also kept another subcompact pistol in an ankle holster that wasn’t company issue.

I took pains to keep other team members—including Shannon—from knowing about it. It wasn’t that I had any reason to suspect my teammates, trust just didn’t come naturally to me.

There hadn’t been much expectation of any gun play tonight, so I’d grabbed my standard issue Glock 23. I preferred weapons with a bit more firepower than the silenced Sig Sauer Mosquito I carried when I knew I would need to keep things quiet. The Sig Sauer was a .22 caliber, and the Glock was a .40 caliber. The subcompact pistols in my pocket and on my ankle were .40 calibers as well, the Glock 27.

Shannon hadn’t brought a silenced weapon either, so if it came to a gunfight, we’d have to get out quick.

I tried to tune out the feed from Andrews’ bug to focus on our surroundings but was sucked back in when Andrews said something coarse. I hoped he would see through her ruse. It would be much easier if he came to his senses and ran. I hated saving such a revolting man.

“They’re turning down an alley,” Shannon said. “The two men followed.”

I cursed.

We approached the alley as quick as we could without running and stopped at the entrance to listen. Andrews was close enough that I didn’t need the earpiece to hear him pleading for his life. He offered money and said he’d give them anything they wanted.

A man laughed while the woman cursed, calling Andrews a name that I couldn’t quite make out. There was a thwack and Andrews screamed.

“I go left,” I whispered to Shannon, “you go right.”

“You’ll back me up if I take Andrews out, right? You know, fog of war and all that.”

I snorted, but Shannon’s smile sent a chill down my spine. “Don’t you go vigilante on me. Stick to the mission.”

“We’re protecting a dirtbag.”

“We usually are,” I said, pulling out my pistol and wishing for a silenced weapon.

I should have waited another couple of seconds. A man was passing by that I hadn’t noticed, when he saw my pistol, he lifted his hands above his head.

Growling, I motioned for him to continue on his way. Once he had gone, Shannon turned to hide what she was doing and pulled out her pistol.

“Whose trigger happy now?” she asked.

I shrugged. Things like this happened when I became too focused.

I didn’t like the thought of the scare I’d given that man, but there was little I could do about it now.

I took a breath and put him from my mind, stamping down the guilt I felt at the alarm I had caused him. Several deep breaths later, my focus returned, and I was ready to go around the corner.

I had a bad feeling that when we did, people would die. I tried to ignore it but the face of a man that I’d killed several months ago came to mind. He sometimes kept me awake at night as I played the event over and again, analyzing what I could have done differently. I shook my head. It hadn’t been my fault, but even though I knew it, my subconscious had not yet accepted it.

I made eye contact with Shannon and we turned the corner.

 

2

A single bulb lit the alley. It was enough to see but left everything in shadows. Garbage cans littered either side, and there was a wide half-frozen puddle right in front of us.

Andrews was crumpled in a heap on the other side of the icy water with his date standing over him, the eager to please smile replaced with a snarl.

The broad-shouldered man was on the left, he was pointing a gun at Andrews. We had the element of surprise, and our surveillance target was in danger so our training kicked in.

I shot the big man as Shannon fired at the other. The twin explosions in the confined area made my ears ring. Luckily, the one with the hidden earbud wasn’t affected as badly.

I thought about the surveillance team listening in and wondered how long it would take for backup to get here. Protocol dictated that they call the gunshots into Black Brick, our base.

They wouldn’t provide much help, though. When backup arrived, they would be careful before getting involved. While we worked for the government, we didn’t advertise our presence when local cops showed up.

Our operation ran in a dark gray area, and it was best to keep out of an entanglement with law enforcement.

Andrews screamed again, the ringing in my ears made his voice sound far away. I could also barely make out commotion from the street behind us as people responded to our gunfire.

The woman raised her hands as I walked forward through the puddle. The man that I shot wasn’t breathing, and the one Shannon had taken out was moaning. A roll of duct tape had fallen out of the pocket of his coat and was rolling away.

What kind of man had the big guy been? Did he have a family? Children?

I looked away from the men and focused on the woman.

“I don’t blame you for wanting to kill Andrews,” I said. “My partner would help you if she could, but we need him alive.”

The woman straightened. “Just get it over with. Make it a clean shot to the head.”

“Hopefully we can avoid that. We just have a few questions. Tell us what we need to know, we may let you go.” I might as well have not said the last part because I could tell she didn’t believe me. “Who do you work for?”

She didn’t reply. Despite her predicament, the woman was resolute and alert, almost as if she were in control of the situation. She stepped away from Andrews, keeping eye contact with me as she did.

“Stop,” I said as the woman reached into her purse. Andrews crawled to his feet. There was blood on his face, and he was wet. When he moved to leave, I jabbed my pistol into his back. I couldn’t help but think that was less than he deserved. “Freeze, if you know what’s good for you.” Now that we’d broken cover, we’d bring him in for questioning too. Either these two would make a deal, or we’d turn them over to law enforcement.

“Advice for the future,” Shannon said to Andrews. “Any woman that lets you talk to her like that has an agenda. Also, I’m gonna find you and kill you myself once this is all over.” She motioned to the woman. “Down on your knees.”

“Shannon,” the woman said. “This isn’t how this is going to go. You can have Andrews, but I’m walking away.”

I tried my best to not let my surprise show. Shannon took a step towards the woman, a snarl on her lips. “Down on the ground!”

“Careful,” I said to Shannon. I’d almost missed it. A small smile had flitted across the woman’s face when Shannon had stepped forward. “She’s gonna jump you.”

“Shut up,” Shannon said to me while motioning with her pistol to the woman. “On your knees. Now.”

The woman sighed in resignation, bent as if to kneel, and then lunged toward Shannon. She locked arms with Shannon and pushed the gun up into the air just as Shannon pulled the trigger.

“I’d rather not shoot you too,” I said to Andrews while looking for an opening to take down the woman. From my peripheral vision, I’d notice him looking toward the street. “But don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re here to rescue you. I just need you alive. There was nothing in my orders about you needing to have functioning knees.”

I lined my pistol up several times, hoping for a shot, but each time things shifted and my bullet would have hit Shannon as well.

There was a sound overhead, and I saw a man peeking off one of the roofs from three stories above. I frowned. Had we attracted the person’s attention with the shooting or had they been there before?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman grab Shannon’s pistol. I cursed and almost fired on instinct but was glad I didn’t. The next moment Shannon was in the way and would have taken a hit to the chest. She wore a bulletproof vest, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

There was the whispered cough of a silenced weapon from overhead and blood spurted down the woman’s throat.

She dropped Shannon’s pistol and clutched at her neck, trying to speak, but only a gurgling sound came out. I already had my pistol pointed up, but I could no longer see the man. I could sense that he was still there and kept looking.

Andrews broke into a run, and I stuck out a foot and tripped him. He hadn’t even landed before the hidden shooter took him out with a shot in the back. As Andrews fell, something skidded out of his pocket and hit the wall, but I didn’t look to see what it was.

By that time, I’d moved up against the wall of the building where the shooter was located and was in a kneeling position. Landing in the puddle, I aimed my gun up towards the roof, prepared to shoot at anything that moved. Everything was still except for the man Shannon had wounded, he was moaning softly.

The seconds ticked by as I scanned the area while water seeped into my pants.

“Shannon, get under cover.” She hadn’t moved since the woman had been shot. I wasn’t even sure if she noticed that Andrews had gone down as well. When she didn’t respond, I repeated myself.

She looked over at me. The light cast much of her face in shadow, but I could see the whites of her eyes. Her mouth hung open, and blood splatter from the woman covered her gray coat.

It wasn’t the first time we’d been shot at during an operation, but it was the closest Shannon had ever come to flying bullets.

“See the shooter?” Shannon asked, shaking off the stupor and retrieving her pistol from the dead woman before ducking up against the same wall I had.

“Briefly, just before he started.”

“Why didn’t you take him out?”

“Made a mistake.” He hadn’t looked like a threat at the time, but now that I had a chance to think about it, I knew I’d read the situation wrong. A sane person wouldn’t have been curious about an alley full of gunfire; no, they’d have gone for cover.

My eyes focused on the object that had fallen from Andrews’ pocket. A cell phone. I didn’t dwell on it because his phone had been bugged for months and we had a copy of everything on it. The street we’d come from moments before was deserted.

My eyes returned to the phone.

That wasn’t Andrews’ phone, he had a smart phone. With a look back at the roof—still no shooter—I scooted over to the device and picked it up. It was cheap, like the kind of phone you could buy, make a few calls, and then throw away. Chances were Andrews’ surveillance team knew about this other phone as well, but I put it into my pocket just in case.

A car screeched to a halt on the street. Flashing red and blue lights reflected off the alley wall.

I swore under my breath and began to move in the other direction, keeping to the shadows.

“Beltran is gonna be mad,” Shannon said, “he’ll make us pay for this.” She was referring to our boss, Jeff Beltran.

“Probably,” I said, not relishing the idea of showing up at Black Brick with this to report.

“Kill me,” begged the wounded man. His gun lay several feet away, but it wasn’t within his line of sight. We should have disarmed him earlier. In the heat of the moment, neither of us had thought about it.

I kicked the gun further away. If he had a chance at living, I wasn’t going to take it away. I’d seen enough death for one day.

As Shannon followed me down the alley, I kept a close eye on the roof and heaved a sigh of relief when we ran out the other side.

3

The sun peeked out of the clouds as Shannon and I walked onto Kingstone Campus; it was nice to have a brief moment of heat to temper the cold of the early spring. As the sun disappeared again, I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my coat and tried to clear my head from the morning’s research. Everything I’d read was starting to jumble together, and I was glad for the exercise.

“Why can’t the news sites get anything right?” Shannon asked as she walked with her phone in hand, eyes glued to the screen while she flipped through stories. “Here’s one that claims you and I were Latino men. I just finished another that said it was a fight between three rival gangs.”

I was glad the media didn’t have their facts straight. It made it harder for the incident to be linked back to us.

“Any word on the ID of the victims?” I asked, wishing we would have had time to snap a few photos of Andrews’ assailants. At least then we would have had something more to look into.

Shannon shook her head without looking up. I took her arm and guided her to one side of the sidewalk so that a cluster of approaching girls could pass on the other side.

Jeff Beltran’s contact with the police hadn’t got back to him yet, so we didn’t know what evidence they’d been able to collect. Depending on what came back, Beltran might use his connections to obfuscate anything that led to us.

We’d turned in the guns we’d fired and taken new ones. Our old pistols would be destroyed. The last thing we wanted was somebody connecting our missions together through ballistics.

When I had produced Andrews’ throwaway cell phone, the people on our surveillance team had become excited. The information on the phone was being analyzed, and we might have the results before we were done with class.

I hated waiting. I needed something to do.

“Why didn’t the sniper kill us too?” Shannon asked for the twentieth time, putting away her phone and pulling several strands of hair out of her eyes as she put on her sunglasses.

She was wearing a thick purple coat that complimented her figure nicely. I didn’t tell her she looked good, for some reason she didn’t enjoy those types of compliments even though she went to a lot of effort to keep her clothing trendy. The only time I got away with that type of thing was when she was in the right kind of mood.

I shrugged in response to her question and pushed away thoughts of the man I’d killed. I hadn’t slept much the night before, the shooting continuing to play in my mind. Shannon had wounded her guy, why couldn’t I have done the same with mine? At least then I wouldn’t have another death on my shoulders.

I took a deep breath and let it out.

“I mean, it makes sense for the sniper to kill Andrews and the woman. He saw we had her and wanted to keep her from talking.”

“You got it wrong,” I said. “Vargo figured out that Andrews was selling company secrets.” I was referring to Lane Vargo, the CEO of Diggon. “The woman was the buyer, that’s why he killed her too.”

“No, the shooter and woman were working together.”

“If they were, it would have made more sense for him to take out you and me.”

She frowned. “Hmm. You have a point there. Ok, so the sniper probably wasn’t with the woman.”

“And who else would have an interest other than Diggon?”

Shannon nodded her head. “Assuming that’s true, why would the Diggon sniper leave us alone?”

I smiled, a thought occurring to me, I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before. “He knew we were government and was worried that killing us would result in a drawn-out investigation.”

The thought Vargo might know about us made me uncomfortable. Diggon had been the target of numerous investigations over the course of the last two years. We didn’t have anything definitive on the company, but as a whole, it smelled. I’m sure it wasn’t the only defense contractor that got its hands dirty, but it was one of the largest.

I suppressed a groan as I thought about going to class when we’d just made a breakthrough. I’d been in the middle of reviewing the surveillance logs we had on Andrews, wondering if additional evidence of the woman he’d been with last night would turn up when Beltran had stopped by our desks and reminded us. Attending class was a distraction we didn’t need, but Beltran had been insistent that we keep our cover intact.

“We must work for the only federal agency that requires their agents to masquerade as students,” I said.

“You need to learn how to whisper,” Shannon said in a hushed voice that was almost as loud as mine.

I looked around, there wasn’t anybody within earshot. “Nobody heard me.”

“You of all people should know better.”

I shook my head, she was right. We walked in silence the rest of the way to class. Several minutes later, when we passed a group of girls, I wondered what it would have been like to be a real student here. Even if I graduated, the degree would never do me any good because it was attached to a fake identity.

And honestly, what good was a history degree anyway?

We approached the George Washington building, an impressive old four-story stone structure that housed the social science schools. We found our classroom on the second floor and took our seats at the back. The lecture hall was arranged with stadium seating, and a podium was located in front.

Professor Peck stood at the lectern, waiting for class to start. He was a tall man with black hair that was beginning to turn gray on the sides. Rumor had it that he was wealthy and taught for free because it was his passion. I had meant to look into Peck because of this peculiar story but hadn’t found the time.

Somebody nodded at me from the front row, and I made eye contact with Thor. I nodded back, doing my best to hide my dislike for the man. On one of those rare times when I’d paid attention, Peck had been drilling him. For some reason I couldn’t remember, I’d read the assignment and after it was obvious Peck wasn’t going to let up on the poor kid, I’d jumped in and directed away Peck’s attention. I’d regretted it ever since because Thor hadn’t left me alone.

Having outside connections wasn’t a good idea for my line of work. Friends were a luxury that I couldn’t afford. I’m sure Beltran would have wanted me to be nicer for the sake of my cover, but I didn’t see the need. It wasn’t worth the effort.

While pulling out my tablet, I saw that the dark-haired girl from several rows up was trying to make eye contact with me again. She’d been eyeing me since the beginning of the semester.

I looked away with a tight smile and hoped Shannon hadn’t noticed. Sure enough, a message popped up on my tablet from Shannon a moment later.

I didn’t respond as I shifted, trying to find a comfortable position. These chairs weren’t made for somebody with long legs like mine. That, combined with the body armor I wore, always made attending class a chore. We were also required to wear thin invisible latex covers that hid our fingerprints that made it harder to use the tablet. I’d long since gotten used to those, but I doubted I’d ever be comfortable with the armor.

When I brought up the news, I tried to tell myself I wasn’t checking out of guilt, but knew it was a lie. A few minutes later I found a follow-up to an initial news story about Bruce Andrews’ murder. They’d identified the woman Shannon had fought. Gina Townsend. I read on until the article identified the man I’d killed.

Terrence Morrison. The name seemed to burn into by brain, and I knew I’d never forget it. I scanned the rest of the article hoping for additional information about the victims but was disappointed.

Still, the names would be a good starting point. I forwarded the news link to Shannon and elbowed her.

“You check the woman, I’ll research the men?”

She scowled, wondering what I meant until I pointed at the message that had just popped up on her screen. Sighing, she nodded.

Toward the end of class, I hadn’t managed to learn anything useful about Terrence and was becoming convinced Terrence Morrison wasn’t the man’s real name. I didn’t have access to all the tools the research team did back at Black Brick, but I should have been able to learn something about him.

Shannon nudged me, and I looked in the direction she indicated. Peck was picking on a student in the row in front of us, and the dark-haired girl was staring at me. I gave her a small smile. She returned it with a wide-mouthed grin. My face turned red, and I avoided making eye contact after that but could feel her eyes burning into me.

Did she have no shame? Shannon was sitting right beside me. Part of our cover was that we were dating. We acted the part when on campus in a way we never did at Black Brick. Well, at least not when others were watching.

“Stop leading her on,” Shannon said.

“You baited me.”

“You know, there’s something odd about this. You’re ugly, cute in a blockhead sort of way, but still ugly. Think she’s onto us?”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re paranoid.”

Shannon scowled. “She’s way out of your league.”

“Thanks for thinking so highly of me. She’s not a problem.” My tablet vibrated, and I turned the screen back on, Beltran had just sent an email. The results from Andrews’ phone were back. I smiled. The information gave us a new lead and Beltran had included a mission assignment. Shannon and I had less than two hours to catch a plane to San Diego. We needed to investigate a hacker named Jason Kurt.

Bruce Andrews had called Jason Kurt seven times in the last two weeks. The surveillance team was going to be furious they missed this. I didn’t want to be around when Beltran chewed them out for their mistake.

How had Andrews kept the calls off the radar? We had his home, office, car, phone, tablets, and computer bugged.

I was busy reading through the report when Peck called my name.

“Mr. Chever, what’s your take on Executive Order 11905?” I didn’t recognize the name until Shannon kicked my foot. I looked up, already halfway through Beltran’s email. The classroom discussion was the furthest thing from my mind.

“Mr. Chever,” Mr. Peck said. “What’s more important than this class?”

My feeling of elation evaporated as I looked into the cold eyes of Peck and my mind went blank. I used my Sam Chever alias on campus, and I was embarrassed I hadn’t recognized it.

“Executive Order 11905?” prompted Peck.

“Not sure I’m familiar with it,” I said.

“Skipped your reading, I see. I’m referring to our government’s ban on assassination.” Peck folded his arms and glared. The man should have been a judge, I felt condemned and guilty. “Your thoughts?”

I nearly choked.

Terrence Morrison’s face came to mind unbidden. It was followed by the other man I had killed. Sure, I hadn’t assassinated any of my victims, but that sort of activity fit within my job description. “Uh… It’s important to make sure other leaders feel reassured we won’t target them. It would change the dynamics if we had an open policy of assassination.”

“Open policy? Do you suggest that there should be a secret policy?”

I cursed. I shouldn’t have answered that way. I wished Peck would leave me alone. “Why not? Why should soldiers sacrifice their lives because of disagreements among idiot politicians?”

This wasn’t going well. Shannon was looking away, but I could tell she thought I was being reckless.

“So. Mr. Chever, you have no qualms about our government planning cold-blooded murder?” Shannon placed her hand on my leg, her nails dug into my thigh.

“I didn’t say that.” I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. “I’m just saying war is costly. We should make the leaders duke it out in the ring instead.” It was a lame attempt at a joke, but nobody laughed.

“We’d stop electing old white men to the Presidency,” Peck said. He smiled at the smattering of laughter he received. The pressure from Shannon’s nails was going to tear through my jeans if she pressed any harder.

“Mr. Chever, please be sure to read the assignment for our next class. I’ll send you some extra reading, be prepared.” Peck dismissed us.

“Skirting the line, Sam,” Shannon whispered as we packed up our things. I followed her eyes to the dark-haired woman.

“It’s going to take us forty minutes to get to the airport,” I said. We still had to get back to Black Brick and collect our luggage. We always left it packed so we were ready to go at a moment’s notice.

I grimaced when I noticed Thor approaching, a wide grin on his goofy face. He was a short man and kept his hair cropped close to his head.

“We need to go,” I said, but it was too late. Thor was already here.

“Peck was tough, but you held your own.” Thor grinned and alternated between me and Shannon hoping for an introduction. I wasn’t going to give it.

“That wasn’t bad. I was just having some fun. Good seeing you.” I slung my pack over my shoulder and headed for the door, leaving Shannon to catch up.

4

The frothy water reached out to lick the tip of my shoe, but my foot wasn’t down on the sand long enough for it to matter. The pounding of my legs on the beach seemed to be in harmony with those of Bill Martinez and Tom Vandyke who ran to the side of me. The crashing waves kept time with our gait and the sunny day was a welcome change to the cold back home.

When we’d arrived at the airport the previous day, I’d been surprised to see Martinez, Tom, and Cherry Mann waiting for us. Beltran’s email hadn’t mentioned anything about them. Like Shannon and I, Cherry and Tom were still on temporary status.

Martinez wasn’t part of our usual team, but I’d worked with him in the past. I wasn’t happy to have him along because I didn’t like the way he operated. The last time we’d been on an assignment together, he had broken a man’s kneecap to get him to talk. I could still hear the man’s screams whenever Martinez was nearby.

The flight had been uneventful, and we’d spent the evening before doing surveillance and research on our target, Jason Kurt. This morning, Kurt was still sleeping, and we’d all agreed that we could afford some time at the beach before he woke up.

I allowed myself to relax so I could take it all in and was glad I didn’t have to attend class today. A run on the beach was a much better substitute.

The breeze was slight, the air warm, and the sun was out. It had been months since I’d experienced pleasant weather.

One day I wanted to retire and live in a place like this. I took a deep breath and let it out.

I closed my eyes and was a kid again, running through the desert sun of Texas, the beating sun cleansing my soul. That brought with it the disapproving face of Sister Bautista. I pushed it away and allowed my focus to return.

Beside me, there was a swift movement as Tom kicked out and connected with my shin. I shifted my weight to compensate and was barely able to keep from toppling into the surf and got my foot wet in the process. So much for dry feet.

“Still two to one,” I said, smiling when Tom didn’t answer.

“Break a leg or sprain an ankle,” Martinez said. “I’m not helping either of you.”

We fell silent, and I pushed ahead while keeping a wary eye on Tom, he matched my speed and took a slight lead. I didn’t make a move to get ahead because I was better able to keep an eye on him now.

“A little help?” A woman waved to get our attention and pointed at a volleyball that had landed just ahead of us. I was surprised to see a group of people out this time of the morning. It wasn’t even ten yet. They looked like college students. Weren’t they supposed to be sleeping till noon?

The jagged cliffs towered several hundred feet behind the woman, and she was standing in front of a pile of a bulbous ocean plant that I had no name for. Despite my concentration, I noticed that her bright red swimsuit made a nice contrast to the rest of her.

Like a distant gust of wind in a storm, I didn’t allow this thought to touch me and was surprised when I realized I was darting ahead.

“Sure thing.” I scooped up the ball and tossed it to her before either of the others responded. It was, of course, no surprise that Martinez hadn’t made an effort and Tom appeared to not have noticed the woman.

If Tom hadn’t been good with a rifle at a thousand yards and deft with a computer, he would have long since been washed off the team because of his habit of zoning out.

“Join us?” The woman smiled, motioning back at the game. That small part of me that I never let take control was tempted. It looked fun, but we didn’t have long before we needed to return to Shannon and Cherry, who’d opted out of the morning run to tan instead. Tom, who’d just noticed the woman, looked ready to stop, but Martinez didn’t slow or even glance at her.

“Thanks. Next time.” I felt a twinge of regret. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to relax, and if I was honest with myself, I wanted nothing more than to join the game.

I got lost in the run again as the sun washed over me. The warm breeze from the ocean felt good, and both were a perfect help to maintaining my focus.

Before long, we ran out of time. When the others turned back, I hesitated and wished I could continue.

The cliffs ended just ahead, and I could make out a greater expanse of beach. I’d run forever if given a chance. For a fleeting moment, I thought of fleeing my problems, but slowed and chased after the others.

True to habit, they were running faster now.

One of these days, I would just keep running, but that couldn’t be today. I still needed the structured life Black Brick provided. Without it, I doubted that I would have made it past the deaths of my parents.

Even with our faster speed, Tom would still have attempted to trip me up, and I wasn’t in the mood for the game any longer. I kept Martinez in between us. If Tom tried it with Martinez, he’d end up with a broken neck.

I was taken out of my trance when we passed the volleyball game, and the woman waved, flashing a toothy smile. I nodded and put her from my thoughts. I had Shannon waiting for me.

Twenty minutes later, when we came around the bend and could make out Cherry and Shannon absorbing the sun, we ran faster. The ground disappeared beneath us, and our gait tightened up until we were in sync with each other.

This lasted for several heartbeats. Tom was the first to fall behind. I noticed Shannon was looking our way and adrenaline shot through me, bringing out a final reserve of energy. I overtook Martinez and felt a small thrill rush through me.

It wasn’t long though before my chest burned, my eyes watered, and then Martinez was at my side, keeping pace while I gasped. The sound of Tom calling from behind reached my ears, but I couldn’t make out the words. Then it was over, and I could go no further, I slowed to a stop, wheezing for breath as Martinez rushed ahead.

At first, I thought it was just my imagination that a man was taking pictures of us with his phone. But when I looked at him, he stopped and turned away. He was a hundred feet off and was wearing a wide brimmed hat that did a good job of obscuring the rest of his face.

“You almost had Bill!” Shannon called out.

My heart skipped, and I hoped I didn’t show my surprise. I’d been so focused on the man that I hadn’t noticed Shannon approaching. If she realized she’d startled me, I’d never hear the end of it. The breeze twisted her blonde hair around her neck, and her smile made me forget the woman at the volleyball game.

If only I saw Shannon smile more often.

Tall for a woman, Shannon was still several inches shorter than me. She was wearing sunglasses and had a yellow sundress pulled on over her swimsuit. It was hard not to stare.

“Did you twist an ankle?” she asked. “I warned you about running on the sand. Just be glad you lost to Bill, Tom wouldn’t ever let you live it down.”

I looked back at the man in the wide-brimmed hat, but he was already walking away. Maybe he had just been taking pictures of the ocean.

“How’s your future case of melanoma coming?” I was still out of breath, and my voice sounded off. I scanned the beach and noticed Cherry and Martinez were standing a little too close. If they weren’t more careful, Beltran would find out about them.

“How’s your future case of a broken nose coming?”

“Try it, and you’ll pull back a bloody stump.” I took a deep breath. “Did you see him? The man taking pictures.”

Shannon looked around and focused on the man who was now a good distance away. “Stop being paranoid. Nobody knows we’re here.”

“You forgetting about Jackson?” I studied her face. She really did think I was worrying over nothing. She grimaced when she heard the name Jackson.

On a mission a few months back, I’d begun to suspect a man named Frank Jackson knew we were playing him. I’d expressed my concerns to Shannon, but she’d thought I was worried about nothing. I’d allowed her to allay my fears. That had been a mistake. Jackson had ended up leading us into a trap. Even though we had managed to escape, Jackson was still out there, and we might have to deal with him again one day.

“You ever going to let that go?” Shannon asked.

“Not until you admit you were wrong,” I said, glancing at my watch. We didn’t have long before we needed to get into place around Jason Kurt’s home. He should be waking up soon.

“Stop being petty. You’re too paranoid, even for a spy.”

I scowled. “We need to go.”

5

I was waiting for Jason Kurt’s last computer to power down when there was a sound at the doorway to Kurt’s bedroom. I turned from the bank of computer screens expecting to find Shannon but instead recognized Lisa, Jason Kurt’s younger sister. Somehow, we’d missed the fact she was still here when we’d broken into the home.

“Hey mister,” Lisa said in a small voice. “Whatcha doing?”

The little girl stood in the doorway, her hair in pigtails and a smudge of something on her cheek. Grape jelly? She wore a shirt that sported cartoon characters I didn’t recognize and clutched an ugly orange stuffed animal that looked like the progeny of a horse and a dolphin.

I covered my surprise. Shannon and I had already been in the home for half an hour and had gone through every room. How had we missed her?

Cherry and Tom must have assumed Lisa had left with Kurt’s mother. I should have confirmed they’d seen Lisa leave as well.

“Oh, I’m just helping your brother out with a few things.” I smiled at the girl, wondering why she wasn’t afraid of me. Lisa twisted around and disappeared into a room down the hall. I thought about pulling the plug on our mission as I watched her go.

She didn’t appear bothered by our presence, but I was uncomfortable having her here. Innocents were supposed to be left out of things like this. Shannon would have overheard the exchange through the earpieces that both of us wore. Her silence was telling. That meant she’d found Lisa and hadn’t told me.

I had already removed several cameras Kurt had set up in his bedroom and Lisa had seen us. If we didn’t snag the hard drives now, we might not get a second chance. Things would be okay, Lisa was too young to give a reliable description of us, and we’d be gone soon.

I looked back at the computer monitor; I still had a few minutes before it shut down. I shifted, brushing more garbage from the desk onto the floor. How could somebody live like this? Candy wrappers and empty soda cans littered the desk and a nearby bookcase. The floor was barely visible and covered with clothes, books, a half-eaten bag of chips, and loose paper. How could Kurt’s parents tolerate an adult child who chose to live in squalor?

My mother would never have put up with this, I was sure. Unbidden, my focus shattered and the memories came rushing back. I could see every event vividly as if watching a movie, but more real. The smell of fresh vomit, the feel of my father’s cold, stiff body when I tripped and fell on top of him, the shrill screams of my mother, the loud explosion of the revolver and the acrid smell of gunpowder. The man’s laugh still echoed in my mind.

My ear bud cackled. I made myself focus on the present. I was stealing the hard drives of a hacker and needed to complete my mission.

“What are you doing on Jason’s computer?” Lisa asked, bouncing back into the room. “He never lets anybody touch it.” I looked at the small girl. “Jason doesn’t like it when other people touch his things. I know, because he yells at me when he catches me in here. That doesn’t mean I stop, though.” The girl shook her head as she giggled, causing her pigtails to flick into her face. “If he catches you in here when he comes home from school, he’ll be real unhappy.”

I forced a smile and chuckled. “Well, I’ll just have to see he doesn’t catch me.” I didn’t blame Kurt for not wanting Lisa in his room. It wasn’t a place for an unattended child.

In addition to the two widescreen computer monitors that sat on Jason’s cluttered desk, two additional monitors were fastened to the wall. A large flat screen television hung off a swivel stand on the other side of the bedroom, muted and tuned to a news network.

Cords peeked out from underneath the clothes that were strewn across the floor. Posters of women covered the window. I recognized one as an actor, but I didn’t know any of the others. The most recognizable feature of the room was the pungent smell of sweat, rot, and dirty clothes.

“He’ll know,” Lisa said in a high-pitched voice, “he always does!”

I thought of the cameras we’d removed and grunted. “It’s okay, I won’t let him catch me, and I won’t tell on you. We’ll just keep this our little secret.” I patted the girl on the head. I never spent much time around children, and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do, I stopped though when Lisa frowned.

“Okay,” Lisa said running out of the room dragging the stuffed toy behind her. I smiled as I watched her go, hardly a care in the world. Had I ever been like that?

“I almost shot her,” Shannon said stepping into the room. Her nose scrunched up as the smell hit her. “Thought she was the dog.” I unplugged the computer I’d just powered down and pulled it out from under the desk. It was the first of four.

“Yeah, her pink ribbons are really confusing. Thanks for the warning, by the way.”

“Hey, Tom’s the one that missed her,” Shannon said. “She won’t be left alone for long.”

I didn’t comment on Shannon’s obvious assessment and opened the computer case, removed the hard drive, wrapped it in plastic, and placed it into my briefcase. The silenced Sig Sauer Mosquito in the breast pocket of my suit coat bumped against my chest when I stood, reminding me why I’d considered pulling the plug. This wasn’t a game, people sometimes got hurt.

“You find anything else?”

Shannon shook her head. “Nope. This smelly hole is the only place of interest.”

“What’s the update on Kurt?” I asked.

“Just got out of class,” Shannon said. “Bill says Kurt has a thing for his professor and is hanging around bugging her.” Martinez had followed Kurt to class while we’d stayed behind to nab the drives.

I didn’t bother to put the computer back together because Jason would know we’d been here regardless, and that was kind of the point Beltran had wanted us to communicate when he sent us to track Kurt down. Beltran had called it an intimidation tactic, but I thought it was more likely to just piss Kurt off.

I turned to the other computers and removed those hard drives as well. Rummaging around the room, Shannon managed to find an old laptop underneath the bed and a tablet computer Kurt apparently slept with, both went into her briefcase. Afterward, once Shannon had taken pictures using her cell phone, we placed bugs around the room. One in a vent, another under the bed, we even pulled up part of the carpet in the corner and placed one underneath.

As I replaced the carpet, I noticed white dust beside a small bookcase that stood against the wall beside the bed.

“Drugs?” I asked as I examined the white powder wishing there had been time for a full surveillance workup. Beltran had been adamant our raid take place as soon as possible. I rubbed some of the powder between my finger and thumb and was surprised that it felt familiar.

“Let’s go,” Shannon said. “Drugs are the least of his issues.” She looked at her watch and muttered something I didn’t hear.

It took me a moment to place it. The last time I’d seen this white dust was when I’d helped Sister Bautista hang sheet rock at the Boone Ranch for Boys. It had been an ambitious project for an older woman with a handful of boys under ten.

I pulled back the bookcase expecting to find a hole, but instead, I found the wall undamaged. There was more dust on the floor, so I ran my hand along the wall just above it and felt several ridges.

Kurt’s sloppiness had given him away. He’d done a good job of patching up the wall, but he should have cleaned up afterward. Ignoring Shannon’s look of impatience, I pulled a flashlight from my briefcase and became certain the wall had been disturbed. I could see the variations in the paint. Following along the edges, I cut a square of the wall away using my pocketknife and found a paper bag inside.

“Let the cops handle this,” Shannon said, “let’s go.”

“This isn’t drugs.” I opened the bag and pulled out a stack of photos. The picture on top had three people, two women and a man. They were in a conference room. The second and the third were of the same people. I stopped on the fourth. It was the woman from several nights ago. It took me a moment to remember her name. Gina Townsend. She was talking to another man that I recognized but couldn’t put a name too.

I showed the picture to Shannon. “Know him?”

She shook her head.

I wondered if Kurt had left behind the powdered sheetrock, hoping an intruder would find the hidden compartment in his wall and stop there. It was a paranoid thought, but I couldn’t help it. I inspected the other walls by running my hands along them. When Shannon saw what I was doing, she sighed.

“I think we got everything,” she said. Her phone beeped with a text message. “Kurt’s on his way.”

Hoping there wasn’t something else hidden away, I put the pictures in my briefcase.

My phone vibrated. It was a news alert—I’d lost count of how many I set up—with an update on the Andrews murder investigation. I was about to put my phone away, thinking it could wait until I saw the headline. They had a lead on the suspects in the investigation. I clicked on the alert to read the story.

“Find the remote to that TV,” I said to Shannon. “They found footage of the suspects from the Andrews murder.”

I paused. “They have us on video.”

When she couldn’t find the remote, I started switching channels on Kurt’s television by hand. Unfortunately, the story wasn’t big enough to interrupt the national news cycle. Andrews was an executive for a large corporation, but he’d been a minor player in the company.

I growled.

Shannon had her phone out by then and was searching for additional information.

“We don’t have to destroy his room as well,” Shannon muttered, glancing up. With a start, I realized I had grabbed onto the television with one hand and was in danger of pulling the swivel stand off the wall. I released my hold.

I felt numb. It was the first one of our missions that had been brought back to our doorstep. I’d killed a man and the man Shannon shot had died as well.

If the video led to us, Beltran might have no other choice but to cut his losses and let us take the fall. That was the risk we took in this line of work.

My phone vibrated again. I pulled it out, expecting another update to the story, this time, one that included our pictures.

It was a text from Cherry asking why we hadn’t left yet. I remembered what Shannon had said, just before the alert had come in. Kurt was on his way back.

I took Shannon by the arm and pulled her out of Kurt’s bedroom. That earned me a glare, but she came along, phone clutched in hand.

When we got to the car, I took the driver seat while Shannon called into Black Brick.

 

 

6

I remained in my seat on the airplane when the seat belt sign turned off and the pilot announced we could get up.

Those around us stood and began to remove luggage from overhead bins. Beside me, Shannon was flipping through emails. She hadn’t waited for the plane to stop moving before she had turned on her phone.

I checked my watch, it was almost seven in the evening, it had been an eventful day and we’d still need to brief Beltran once we returned to Black Brick.

We’d waited for clearance from Black Brick before heading to the airport. It turned out that the video that we’d been panicking about had been too grainy to give the cops anything useful. I hadn’t seen it yet, but it showed us approaching the alley, taking out our weapons and then heading in.

Despite the assurances from Black Brick that we were safe to return, I was a little nervous that we’d find police waiting for us at the airport.

“I’m starved,” Shannon said. “Think we have time to grab a bite before heading back to Black Brick?” As she spoke, her phone rang. She listened for a moment and answered affirmatively before hanging up. “Beltran wants us back immediately. He just learned that we took a later flight. Apparently, we’re late for a meeting.” Shannon stood and pushed past me, almost running over an elderly man in the process.

I apologized to the man before following Shannon off the plane and into the airport. When Shannon decided on a course of action, heaven help anybody who stood in her way, even an old man with a cane.

At the end of the exit ramp, I looked around, in what I hoped was a casual manner, and didn’t see any police. Even though it was a clear spring evening, I expected that it would be cold outside, in contrast to the pleasant warm weather of southern California. I was glad for the suit and wondered if I might want my overcoat that was packed away in my luggage.

I examined the crowd waiting at the baggage claim, looking to see if anybody was paying too much attention to us. I half expected to see the man that had been taking pictures of us at the beach, but I didn’t. A family of four waited nearby. The mother was trying to calm her crying baby without success, while the father was looking for their baggage, eager to be on his way. He was gripping a toddler by the arm that was doing her best to escape. I took out my phone, pretending to check email while I continued to scan. I didn’t expect to find anything but looked anyway.

Even though it had been a short trip, we’d still taken a full complement of luggage according to standard operating procedure. We never knew when an overnight mission could turn into several weeks.

“It’s kind of sweet that you were so worried about Kurt’s sister,” Shannon said. After we’d left, I’d listened in on the bugs to make sure that Kurt hadn’t gone into a rage and done anything to his sister because of what we’d taken.

I couldn’t tell if she was mocking me. Her arms were folded, and she was looking away while she spoke. She’d put on sunglasses shortly after getting off the plane. Combined with her dark suit, she was looking too official.

“You never know what a man is capable of.” I spotted our luggage and began pulling it off.

Shannon gave an exaggerated sigh. “Beware the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. Women never cause so much trouble.”

I grunted. “Yeah, they never cause problems.”

Shannon’s glare was playful, mostly. “Think things will be less hectic once Beltran gives us our final test and our status changes to active?” Shannon asked as we left the airport. The temperature was indeed brisk, but I was comfortable with just the suit coat. The musky stink of the Philly air was almost a welcoming smell. It always felt good to come home.

“I doubt we’ll remember what sleep was like,” I said.

We passed Kingstone campus half an hour later. The tall clock tower overshadowed the rest of the buildings. I could barely hear it ringing in the hour. If today had been a normal day, I would have attended class.

I sometimes wished that my life had turned out differently. That instead of chasing down terrorists, I was actually attending a university. College was supposed to be a defining life experience, and I was doing it as a cover.

We came to the end of the campus and turned towards Black Brick. Despite its name, there wasn’t a single black brick in the modern ten-story office building.

I parked in the underground parking garage, and we took the stairs to the main floor. The most notable feature of the lobby was the large thin televisions in the entryway; they rotated through promotional information for Zerutas Ventures, Inc. The company was our cover and did a little business to keep away suspicion.

The plush couches, handmade solid wood furniture, and elegant art had been designed to give the impression that Zerutas was prospering, but wasn’t raking in money. A handful of guards were located inconspicuously throughout the floor and could easily be missed by a casual observer. Various weapons were hidden around the lobby in addition to those the guards had secreted away on their persons.

In the middle of it all, stood a large reception desk that reminded me more of a fortress than a place to greet visitors. Instead of hiring receptionists to operate the desk, Beltran assigned analysts to a four-hour rotation. I greeted Dolores and received a warm smile in return. I’d often wondered what a woman like Dolores was doing working for Beltran. She shouldn’t be stuck in the office all day slogging through reports.

Dolores had a new hair cut that was barely longer than mine. It was a rare woman that was able to pull off hair that short, but she managed to do it. I noticed Shannon frowning at me as we headed to the elevator. What was she unhappy about now?

The tint of the windows in the conference room on the fourth floor had been darkened to provide contrast with the large touch screen at the front of the room where Gus Capps, the head of research and intelligence, was touching the monitor to zoom in on a picture of several people that I didn’t recognize. Beltran turned when we entered and motioned for us to take a seat. He was a short man, but solid.

The conference room table was long and narrow with twenty seats around the outside. Cherry, Tom, and Martinez were already seated at the far end of the table. They had returned on a flight earlier in the afternoon, bringing with them several hard drives, the pictures I had found in the wall, and Kurt’s laptop. Martinez nodded to me, and I hesitated before returning the gesture.

Martinez leaned over and whispered something in Cherry’s ear. She smiled, covering her mouth with a hand as a lock of brunette hair fell into her face. I was surprised to see such an overt demonstration right under the nose of Beltran. Shannon was staring their way. By her expression, I could tell that she knew about them as well or at least had her suspicions.

“Continue Gus,” Beltran said, oblivious to Cherry and Martinez.

“We’ve identified a man with Gina Townsend in the photos you found,” Gus said motioning with his scrawny, pale arm that looked like it had never seen the sunlight. Rumor had it that Gus hadn’t left Black Brick for several years. While I didn’t quite believe it, I had to admit that Gus was more disheveled and pale than normal.

He clicked the remote in his hand, and the picture of Gina and the man I had recognized showed on the large television screen that hung at the front of the room. “I believe this is Brian Payne.”

I was taken aback. Payne was an elusive man. Nobody had a picture of him. Where had Jason Kurt come by it? Why did he look familiar to me?

Upon closer reflection, Payne did look a little like a movie star, but I wasn’t familiar enough with those things to know who.

“Kurt was stealing money from Diggon and transferring most of it to Payne,” Gus said.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Cherry said, tightening her lips. “Why would Andrews hire Kurt to steal from Diggon only to give it to somebody else?”

I frowned, wondering what I missed. It would have been nice if they’d waited for us to start the briefing.

“Isn’t it obvious,” Tom swiveled to look at her. There was a flash of something in his eyes when he looked at Cherry that I wasn’t able to interpret. “If it comes out, Diggon wants deniability.”

Diggon had hired Kurt and Payne? I wondered what else I had missed.

“Agreed,” Gus said. “Kurt siphoned off close to one million for himself in addition to the couple million he transferred to Payne and was covering his tracks well. Andrews probably didn’t know how much Kurt took, though I assume part of their arrangement was that he’d pocket—” A ringing phone interrupted Gus.

“Is anybody going to shut that off?” Beltran asked before it got to the second ring. I checked my phone, I wasn’t the culprit. The others were doing the same when it stopped. Beltran nodded to Gus who opened his mouth when it started up again.

Shannon nudged me and motioned to my briefcase. I could feel Beltran’s eyes boring into me as I set my bag on the table and removed Kurt’s tablet. It was flashing a notification of an incoming video call. Ordinarily, Shannon and I would have stopped and left the tablet and the hard drives on the third floor with the tech team, but there hadn’t been time.

“It’s Kurt,” I said, “calling his tablet.”

“Well shut it off,” Martinez said.

“Hold on,” Beltran said. “I’m curious.”

I shrugged and answered.

Kurt appeared on the screen. His face was scarred with acne and black wavy hair framed his chubby face. I recognized Kurt’s room in the background and wondered if the bugs we’d hid had picked up any useful information yet.

“You shouldn’t have answered man,” Kurt said. His lips were turned up in a snarl, and he looked ready to attack, bits of food were stuck on his unshaven face. Cheetos? “I’ll find you guys! Ya, hear? Prepare for the world to come crashing down on you.” Kurt worked his keyboard.

“Nice place you have,” I said. “How many years did it take to cultivate the smell?”

“I’m taking you guys down!” Kurt held up a picture of Shannon and I leaving Kurt’s bedroom. I swore. I’d looked through the room and removed several cameras, I must have missed one. I smiled, hoping I’d covered my shock, but it was too late because a grin split Kurt’s face.

“Now that I’ve got your attention.” Kurt held up another picture, this one showed me walking into a store. “Not incriminating in itself, but later that day you were seen murdering a man.” He held up another photo that featured me with a mask-wearing the same clothes, Shannon was visible in the background of both. “Put the two together, and that’s some powerful evidence.” The photos were convincing; he was a good artist.

Shannon muttered something I didn’t catch.

“Return what you’ve taken,” Kurt said. “Or you’ll be the most wanted man in America. I’ll plant more photos of you doing other questionable activities. By the time I’m done your own mother will hate you. How would you like the police to come knocking at your door?”

“Yes, well, I’ll be waiting,” I said. “In the meantime, you might want to run as well. I have proof of the money you stole from Diggon. What do you bet they handle it internally? You were supposed to take some, I’m sure, but I bet they didn’t plan on you stealing a million.”

Kurt paled.

“Oh, it seems I have a card to play too.”

“Perhaps we can reach an agreement.”

“No,” I said. “There’s nothing to—” I stopped when I heard screams come from the tinny tablet speakers. A chill ran through my heart as I recognized the high pitched scream of a child.

Lisa.

The next moment Kurt was engulfed in flames and the video feed ended.

“Bomb,” I said, looking around my room. Shannon had a look of horror on her face. Cherry was tearing up. Gus looked like he was going to get sick and even Martinez who was normally stoic was trying to regain his composure. Of the people in the room, only Beltran didn’t seem bothered.

I pulled out my phone. There may still be time. Perhaps the kid would be okay. I hadn’t dialed more than the first number before Beltran grabbed my arm.

“Think about this. What good will an emergency call from here do? Kurt’s in San Diego. You won’t even get the right operator, we don’t need the attention.” Beltran turned to Gus. “Have one of your tech guys make an anonymous call that looks like it’s coming from nearby Kurt’s place.” They waited in silence while Gus made a call and relayed Beltran’s instructions.

“Good work Jake,” Beltran said. “We confirmed that Kurt was working for Diggon as well as robbing them. Gus, continue.” I watched as the others turned back to the briefing. I was surprised by Martinez’s reaction, he had a faraway look on his face. Sadness or disappointment? I couldn’t tell.

Maybe I was wrong about Martinez; maybe he didn’t lack normal human empathy. I just couldn’t get past Martinez slamming a man’s hand into a car door and then shattering his kneecap with a baseball bat. The man had refused to give up the information we’d wanted, but we could have got him to speak another way.

Shannon looked at me, concern showing on her face. It was the first unguarded emotion I’d seen from her in a while. When she touched my hand, I realized I’d been on the verge of snapping the tablet in two. I dropped it to the table.

“People just got hurt,” I said, interrupting Gus. “A criminal, yes, but his innocent little sister was in the house as well.”

“Truly regrettable,” Beltran said. “But there’s nothing more we can do but to soldier on and get to the bottom of this so we can stop it.”

“We’re supposed to protect people,” I said, “not get them killed.”

“Your anger is understandable,” Beltran said, “if you want to take some time off, fine. Otherwise, sit down. We have work to do.”

I hadn’t even realized that I’d stood. I shook my head as I sat, trying to clear it of an image of Lisa burning to death.

Shannon nudged me. “You okay? Let’s take some time off. I could use a day by the pool.”

I shook my head. The cold hard truth was that Beltran’s words made sense. There wasn’t anything we could do other than continue on our path. I tried to concentrate during the rest of the meeting but kept hearing Lisa’s screams.

“Good work with Kurt,” Beltran said to us once the briefing was over. “The op went well. Before you know it, you’ll all be active.” While the others exchanged smiles, I just bared my teeth, if Beltran noticed, he didn’t say anything.

“Ordinarily, I’d like to give you guys a chance to rest, more especially so given the events of this evening, but I don’t have the time. I have a list of about a hundred things to do. Martinez, a man fitting Payne’s description was seen downtown earlier today, find him. I’ll email you what we know.”

“Jake and Shannon, shadow Lane Vargo. I want you on him in case the sniper from the other night is targeting Diggon’s executive team. I’ll have mission briefs in tactical by the time you’re ready. Get going.” He looked at Cherry and Tom. “I need you to help out the analysts. You’re going to review the files we have on Ronan Wright and Lauren Griffith.”

Black Brick had been keeping watch on Bruce Andrews, Lane Vargo, Ronan Wright, and Lauren Griffith for the better part of a year. Wright was a Senior Vice President, and Griffith was Vargo’s personal assistant but did far more than that. I don’t know what Beltran had been hoping to find on Vargo, Wright, or Griffith, but so far we hadn’t turned up anything that was actionable.

“Have you thought this through?” I asked. “Shannon and I were left alive by Andrews’ murderer for a reason. If Vargo was behind that, he might recognize us.”

Beltran frowned. “Unlikely. Bruce Andrews was Vargo’s liaison with Kurt. Get going.”

First, Andrews was stealing from the company. Now, it sounded like he’d been doing it under orders from the CEO. What was going on? What had we missed? When had Beltran learned this and why did he wait until now to tell us?

Shaking my head but deciding against further voicing my doubts, I left with Shannon in tow. If the information was true, that blew apart our theory that the shooter from the other night was working for Diggon.

“Quite the show in there,” Shannon said once we were out of the room. “Next time you’re going to explode like that, let me know? I’ll bring popcorn and a coke.”

I didn’t respond and tried to forget what had happened, but knew I never would. The thought of Lisa’s curious, bright face being torched with flame would plague me for a long time.

 

7

It took considerable control to not wolf down my food when our orders arrived. I was famished and bit into the hamburger, swallowed, and took another bite. This was the first chance to eat since some stale peanuts I’d had on the plane.

There hadn’t been time for a meal after my run on the beach with Tom and Martinez earlier that morning. As soon as we finished cleaning up, we had left for Kurt’s house. I’d downed a Gatorade and eaten a Cliff bar on our way.

After our work there, I’d been too distracted by my worry about what police had on us to think about eating. When we’d gotten off the plane, Beltran’s order to return had stopped us from getting dinner.

I ripped off another bite and looked around the restaurant, trying to appear like a casual observer. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy my meal properly. We’d had to scramble after our briefing with Beltran and the others to get here before Vargo. It was loud and hard to hear. The stale smell of fries and onion hung in the air.

My eyes glossed over Vargo and the woman he was with, Janessa Carlton. They were several tables over, and their conversation was being relayed to us from the surveillance van several blocks away. A member of the surveillance team had been able to slip a bug onto Janessa before they’d entered the restaurant.

Vargo was paranoid and had his office, his person, and everything else around him swept for bugs on a regular basis. It was lucky our team had been able to get to Janessa as they entered the restaurant; otherwise, Shannon and I would have been sitting here in the dark.

That wouldn’t have been so bad, it had been weeks since the last time we’d managed to slip out of work and enjoy ourselves.

I was only giving casual attention to Vargo’s conversation over my ear bud. Based on what I’d heard already, Vargo didn’t seem likely to discuss Diggon’s covert activities with Janessa. At the moment, they were discussing an employee that was giving Vargo a headache.

Janessa was a human resource consultant to Diggon and Vargo regularly sought her services. According to our surveillance team, it wasn’t uncommon for them to meet for lunch or dinner and discuss various problems. When somebody needed to be fired, she handled everything. She also did recruiting as well.

Shannon twirled her fork in her pasta and raised some to her mouth. She had a direct view of Vargo, but I could tell she too was bored.

I couldn’t decide if Beltran was paranoid or if he had information that he wasn’t sharing. If my theory was correct and the sniper that took out Andrews was from Diggon, Vargo wouldn’t be in danger.

And even if Vargo wasn’t safe, what did we care? We’d been trying to nail him to the criminal activity of his company for the better part of two years.

I suppose that as a government agent I should have subscribed more to the innocent until proven guilty philosophy of our justice system, but I didn’t like spending my evening playing babysitter. It had already been a long day and I needed time to process everything that had happened.

The quick glance I had caught when we were seated was enough for me to know that Janessa was a fastidious dresser, but that she paled in comparison to Shannon. Well, at least when Shannon bothered to smile. The red evening gown Shannon wore suited her, if not the restaurant.

When we’d left Black Brick, the surveillance team had told us that Vargo was wearing a tuxedo and had purchased tickets to the opera. Halfway there, we’d received a call that Vargo had changed directions. Our team knew enough about Vargo’s habits that they’d given us instructions to come here.

This is why I’d started off wearing a bow tie, but had ditched it and swapped out the suit jacket for a leather coat that happened to be in the company car we’d taken. I wasn’t sure who it belonged to, but I was glad to make use of it. It was a bit small but passable at a glance. Shannon hadn’t been as lucky because her formal gown wasn’t as easily dressed down.

If I was taking out a woman like the one who now accompanied Vargo, even if it were just business, I would have chosen a classier restaurant. A restaurant with televisions hanging on the walls tuned to basketball games wasn’t my idea of a good date. Vargo was a wealthy executive, and he’d chosen to take his attractive consultant to a hole-in-the-wall hamburger joint? Seemed strange to me, but maybe the man liked his hamburgers.

I leaned towards Shannon. “How long have you known about Cherry and Martinez?”

She hadn’t looked surprised to see the flirty exchange between the two of them during the briefing earlier. I still couldn’t believe that Beltran had ignored it. There was no way he hadn’t noticed. Perhaps Martinez had done it on purpose to try and get a rise out of Beltran. That was something he sometimes did.

“What do you mean?” Shannon took a sip of her water and studied me with a slight frown and a considering look.

I took another bite. The burger wasn’t particularly good, but it was big and required two hands. Ketchup and mustard along with some grease dripped onto my chin, and I grabbed a napkin while precariously holding the burger with the other.

“Why do you always call him Martinez?” Shannon asked. “He prefers Bill.”

“Sure, Bill and Cherry.” That took me by surprise. In my dislike for my Martinez, I hadn’t realized that I’d been calling him by his last name. I hoped my distaste for him wasn’t obvious. Martinez’s brutal techniques weren’t common knowledge.

Shannon was no longer paying attention to me and didn’t hear my last statement, I nudged her. She gave me an annoyed look and shook her head. She started to raise her hand and then stopped, looking like she’d wanted to point to her ear.

I turned my attention back to the ear bud.

“—your plan depended on a weak link,” Janessa said. “It was too much of a risk.”

“It got the job done, didn’t it?” Vargo said, by the tone of his voice, I could tell he was giving her an annoying grin.

“But we have a mess now. Are you behind it? I have a hard enough time fighting fires for you internally. If you are and this becomes public, it will be outside of my skill set to handle it for you.”

There was a pause in the conversation, and I got the impression that Vargo was taking the time to make eye contact so he could send his point home.

“Janessa,” he said, “I didn’t have anything to do with this.”

There was a lengthy pause. “I’ve been calling in favors from my oldest friends to get you the best. Employees like Lauren Griffith are hard to find and harder to keep. I’d be very disappointed to learn that I’m putting them into a toxic situation.”

“Lauren is working out great. You were right about me trusting her.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “If I find out you had something to do with this thing, I’ll terminate my contract and pilfer those I’ve brought to you for my other clients.”

The way Janessa was talking, it sounded like Griffith would be more loyal to Janessa than Vargo. I made a mental note to mention this to Beltran. He likely already knew of this dynamic, but it wouldn’t hurt to make sure.

“You’ve nothing to worry about,” Vargo said, “I promise.”

Apparently, that satisfied her because they moved onto other things. Their conversation had been innocuous enough that it could have been about anything, but with the weak link reference, my mind jumped to Jason Kurt.

If Beltran was correct about the relationship between Vargo and Kurt by using Andrews as an intermediary, then Vargo had known Kurt was a weak link. He probably expected Kurt to steal from them as he siphoned money over to Payne.

Was that the job that Vargo had been referring to? Could the mess be the explosion at the Kurt home? Had Vargo been working late because he’d been coordinating the attack?

I looked at Shannon and could tell that she was jumping to the same conclusions. All small talk between us ceased as we spent the rest of the evening listening to every word they said, even though they never returned to the topic.

Once they finished their meal, we followed them as Vargo had his driver drop Janessa off before taking him home.

After that, the surveillance team told us we could go home because Vargo’s place was too secure and there was nothing more we could do.

On the drive back to Black Brick, I promised myself that if I ever learned for a fact that Vargo had been behind the deaths of Jason Kurt and his sister, I would make sure that Vargo didn’t get away with it.

 

 

 

8

The city passed by as I looked out the train window and tried to relax. The morning news coming out of San Diego said the explosion at the Kurt home was a gas leak, but I knew better. Four people had died. In addition to Jason and his sister, their parents had been home as well.

Vargo would have a lot to answer for once I could prove he was behind it.

I yawned and tried to clear my mind. The train was slowing down, and I could make out the stop ahead when I leaned in closer to the glass. It had been a low key day, but I was afraid that wouldn’t last for long. The morning had been spent in a biology class.

After that, Shannon and I had met up with Cherry and Tom, and we began to make plans to apprehend Lauren Griffith. It turned out that Beltran had already known of her connection to Janessa and wanted to exploit the division in her loyalty.

I’d been a little surprised when we’d followed Lauren onto the train. When she and her bodyguard had taken the seats at the back, Shannon and I had opted for seats just behind the doors at the center of the train car. Cherry and Tom were several rows behind us.

We believed that Griffith sometimes acted as a courier for Vargo by moving information and items that were too sensitive to be trusted to the normal ways of communication and transportation. At some point in the day, she was going to make a pickup. After that, we were supposed to bring her into Black Brick.

I was surprised at the boldness of our orders but couldn’t help but wonder if Beltran had leverage on her or Janessa. We didn’t bring somebody in unless we had evidence that they were involved in something serious. As far as I knew, we didn’t have anything like that on either of them.

It made me curious about what Griffith was picking up. If the pickup was supposed to happen on the train, we wouldn’t notice from our vantage point. But we didn’t have any other option.

“If it looks like she’s heading back to work after this,” I said, “we’ll have to move in.”

Shannon rolled her eyes but didn’t respond. I supposed that it was an obvious next move, but I’d wanted to make sure that we were both on the same page. Given her response, I decided to not say anything to Cherry and Tom.

“Let’s take a break,” Shannon said, leaning in and setting her hand on my leg. “We get so little time together as it is.” Today she was wearing a green coat with a white blouse and black pants. We didn’t know where Lauren would take us so I was stuck in a suit.

Shannon had pulled her hair back. When we’d attended class earlier, she’d been wearing high heels that matched her coat but switched them for a pair of running shoes. She’d learned that lesson the hard way. Whenever she went out wearing heels, it was a good bet that she was carrying a better pair of shoes in her purse in case she needed them.

I didn’t respond. Her lips barely touched my ear and sent a chill down my spine. Her smile reminded me of a stolen moment we had last night in the car before returning to Black Brick. I lived for the moments we were able to share, though they were few. Beltran might blow a gasket if he found out about us, but he didn’t seem bothered by Martinez and Cherry.

What did he expect? After learning to depend on one another under extreme circumstances, could he really be surprised when his agents became involved?

I wasn’t worried. The risk was worth it in my estimation. I just didn’t want Cherry and Tom to learn about our relationship.

“Come now,” Shannon said, looking bothered that I was ignoring her. I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder at the others and hoped they hadn’t heard.

I half expected a kiss when she leaned in again, but she kept that boundary, for now. She always seemed to get flirtier when there was a chance that somebody from Black Brick might catch us. I think she got a thrill from it. It just made me uncomfortable. Even though I thought our relationship was worth the risk, I didn’t feel a need to increase our odds of getting caught.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” I whispered, checking my watch as I threw her a smile to make sure she knew I was teasing. We still had a few minutes before the next stop.

“For good luck?” she asked. When I didn’t lean in she looked disappointed. We’d both agreed to keep it quiet. She chuckled.

I gave in and checked on the others. Cherry was absorbed in a magazine. It was surprising that an editor thought the woman on the cover was attractive enough to sell copies, perhaps she was the daughter of somebody famous. Tom was beside her and playing a game on his cell phone. Neither of them was looking our way.

“You don’t think this is the test, do you?” Shannon asked in a more normal voice.

“No,” I said. “It isn’t dangerous or complicated enough.” If the rumors were true, you either ended up dead or ready to quit. I didn’t see that happening today. “I overheard Martinez and Scott Henry talking about their final test and didn’t get the impression that they’d known about it beforehand or that it had been easy.” Martinez had stopped midsentence when he noticed me. I didn’t bother to ask for more information because Martinez wouldn’t give it. I was glad Martinez wasn’t on assignment with us today. I needed to find a way to get him booted from our organization.

“Ready to quit or dead.” Shannon frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

I shrugged and pulled out my phone to reread the email from Beltran about today’s assignment, looking for anything I might have missed. At the top was a color photograph of Griffith.

“We’re flying blind,” I said. “This feels rushed.” For an operation like this, we should have spent the last week keeping close tabs on Griffith. A month would have been better. The email we’d received from Beltran this morning was short and lacked information and the briefing with Beltran a few hours ago had been quick as well. He had been in a hurry and didn’t have time for questions before leaving the room.

“That’s why it could be our final test,” Shannon said. “Beltran is testing how we handle pressure and uncertainty.”

I shook my head. “Unlikely, the final test will be more challenging than what we’re facing today.”

Suppressing the butterflies in my stomach, I began a silent meditation. When we’d first come to Black Brick, many of our missions had been fakes. They’d been set up to look like the real thing but had been fashioned to be a learning experience. As time continued, some of the operations turned out to be real, where lives were at stake. Eventually, the fake missions had been phased out.

When I realized that I was fiddling with one of the .40 caliber subcompact Glocks that rested in the pocket of my coat, I stopped. Small enough to hide in my pocket, but carrying a large enough round to rip a hole the size of volleyball into a man’s chest. I’d have preferred my compact, but that wasn’t as easily hid. Subcompacts took more skill and concentration because the smaller pistol had enough recoil to jump out of your hands if you weren’t careful.

The train slowed to a stop, and I kept an eye on the exit to make sure Lauren didn’t get off the train.

I examined the people that boarded, wondering if one of them would make the drop. Several old women, a mother with a young son, a couple of men and women in business attire, and a man wearing a jogging suit were among those that got on. None of them looked like a fit, and most of them sat forward of us. As they sat, I noticed a man in a baseball cap up front, who had been reading a paper and looked back at the new passengers. I caught a partial glimpse of his face and made a connection.

“Payne is here,” I said.

“What?” Shannon asked. “Where?”

“Man in the ball cap near the front.”

Shannon groaned. “I think you’re right.”

Biting off a curse, I used the front facing camera of my phone to keep an eye on what was happening behind us. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. I fired off a text to Cherry and Tom, letting them know about Payne.

Griffith looked bored, but her guard was alert and paying attention.

As the train started to move again, Payne stood up at the front of the car, brandishing a pistol with a thirty round magazine extending out the bottom.

My training kicked in and before I realized what I was doing I had my hand on my pistol and was about to draw when five other armed men stood. Two were right beside Payne at the front; the other three were several rows in front of us. I lowered my hand. The men were wound up enough that none of them had noticed me.

“Nobody has to die, but I might kill a few to keep the rest of you quiet.” Payne pushed his sunglasses up the tip of his nose and pointed his pistol at the back of the train. He smiled. That chin was unmistakable. I felt like an idiot for missing his team of men. Everything we knew about Payne said that he liked to work alone, so instead of trying to assess whether he had a team with him or not, I’d just assumed that we had one problem, not six.

Shannon swore softly.

Payne’s three closest men moved to the rear of the car, and I chanced a look back. Griffith’s guard hadn’t moved, and he eyed the gunmen as they approached.

When I saw Payne take a step forward and look down at a man, I hesitated, unsure what to do.

“What’s this?” Payne asked. I couldn’t tell what the man was doing to provoke Payne, but it looked like he had his phone out. Payne shot him before I could react. The gunfire in the enclosed space sounded like a bomb. A child near the front started crying. The mother put her arms around him in a comforting and protective fashion.

“No phones,” Payne said.

I gripped one of the pistols in my pocket while folding my other hand over the top. I didn’t see a way to intervene without getting shot, but holding my pistol grip, helped me to remain calm.

Payne motioned to Griffith. “Come here.”

Everybody’s eyes focused on Griffith as she stood and stepped into the aisle. I felt bad for her. Griffith’s bodyguard looked furious, and I wondered if he would do something stupid. The man had to know that there wasn’t anything that he could do with six armed gunmen staring his way.

The child started wailing again as the gunman nearest Griffith grabbed her and pulled her forward. They were right in front of me when Payne spoke.

“I’ll throw that child off the train if he doesn’t shut up.” His voice was matter of fact and calm, leaving no doubt that he would. Our briefing on Payne had said that he could be cold, but I was taken aback by the threat and tightened my grip on my pistol.

The mother clasped the head of her boy close, whispering into his ear. The boy had quieted by the time the train started slowing for the next stop.

“We’re getting off, everybody else stays here.” Payne pulled a bag out from under his seat. “If we’re not followed, there’s a fifty percent chance of this blowing up. If we are, it becomes a hundred percent—”

He was interrupted by a gunshot. The man that had latched onto Griffith fell, blood spilling out of his chest. For a moment I wondered if Tom had done something stupid, but it was Griffith’s guard that had fired the shot. He had stood, pistol in hand. Foolish idiot, he was going to get other people killed. Reaching across Shannon, I pulled Griffith into our row as her guard dove behind a seat.

There was a brief silence before the cacophony of gunfire filled the train. It stopped several minutes later once the guard was dead. During that time Shannon and I kept our heads down and I expected that Cherry and Tom were doing the same. We knew a no-win situation when we saw one.

That didn’t mean I liked it. It also didn’t mean that the guilt I’d feel about how this day had gone down would ever go away.

It took me several heartbeats to realize that the gunfire had stopped. The sound was still echoing in my head. The small confines of the train car made the gunshots seem five times as loud.

The people in the rows around me started lifting their heads up, fear at war with curiosity. The guard’s body lay halfway into the aisle, and it looked like he’d been shot more than ten times. Payne still stood where he’d been when the firefight had started. If anything, his face registered annoyance at the interruption.

“There’s now a seventy-five percent chance the bomb goes off,” Payne said. “Any more heroes?” Nobody moved.

One of the gunmen pulled Griffith out of our aisle as the train came to a stop. When the doors opened, he pushed her out and followed after her. The others weren’t far behind.

Payne placed the bag on the floor and stepped over it. As he walked to the door, it looked like he wasn’t concerned about being the last of his men on the train. In fact, if I had to guess, his mind was now on to other things. We were beneath his notice. He’d said his piece and was now making other plans.

Once he left the train, I ran up to Payne’s bag. The people around me were shying away. I noticed the woman with the child had pressed her son against the wall.

“We have no time,” Shannon called after me, but I didn’t stop until I had the bag in hand. When I turned around, she was waiting at the door for me, her hand on the door trying to keep it open. As I ran towards her, I saw we weren’t going to make it. The door wasn’t stopping for her hand.

“Get off the train,” I yelled, but she didn’t budge. I swore and yelled again, but it did little good. The door was already almost closed. I considered trying to toss the bomb to her so she could chuck it off the train but thought better of it. I doubted that Payne would have taken any precautions with it.

The door was closed, and the train was moving again when I reached it. Tom and Cherry were on the other side, chasing after Payne. In my hurry to get to the bag, I hadn’t noticed them getting off the train. Shannon and I tried to pry the door open, but it wouldn’t budge. Shannon gave me a look that didn’t need an explanation. She was pissed at me for going after the bag. I was surprised she was still here. She’d had ample opportunity to get off.

“I had to make sure somebody kept you from getting killed,” Shannon said, when I pointed that out, “because you sure aren’t doing the job. You’re supposed to run away from the bombs, not towards them.”

I didn’t respond as I examined the bag and wondered how long we had.

 

9

The black bag had a large zipper at the top for the main compartment. There were several pockets on the side. After I checked the outside pockets and found them empty, I eased back the large zipper, wondering if it had been booby trapped. Once it was open half an inch, I put my index finger into the bag and felt the zipper as far as my finger could stretch. I felt nothing but the zipper teeth. Odds were it would be safe for me to open the bag but I would still have to be careful.

There was a disturbance behind me. I turned as a large African American man pushed to the front of the crowd that had gathered several feet away from Shannon and me. He had a good couple of inches on me in height and was broader as well. His suit hung off his frame in a way that underscored the fact that he was in good shape. As he pointed a hand at us, I could see his bicep threatening to burst open the sleeve of his jacket.

“What are you idiots doing?” he asked. “You’re gonna get us killed.”

I shook my head. “The man that left this won’t hesitate to blow us up.”

The black man took another step forward.

“Stay back,” I said. He looked like he’d be able to handle himself in a fight but I didn’t have time to duke it out with him. I needed to take care of the bomb.

As I sized up the man, I wondered how he would respond if I escalated the situation. Would he back off? There was little chance that he was armed. Knowing that Shannon would chastise me later, I took out my pistol but kept it pointed at the ground. We needed to get this bomb off the train or disarm it, and we needed to do it now. I couldn’t afford to let this man become a distraction.

“He has a gun,” yelled a woman. She continued to yell, but I couldn’t make out what she said because she was drowned out by screams from other passengers. I didn’t take my eyes off the man in front of me as I waited for him to respond. His eyes went to my pistol. The lack of alarm on his face made me wonder what he did for work. Had I guessed incorrectly? I felt a stab of panic and hoped that he didn’t have a gun. Was he a federal agent? A detective?

“Well, that didn’t help,” Shannon muttered. “I’d put away your pistol before somebody decides to be a hero. That black guy looks like he could break you in half.”

“Get yours out. He’s more likely to leave us alone if he sees we’re both armed.”

“You’re a belligerent fool, you know that?” Shannon didn’t make a move for her pistol. “What are you going to do, wave it in the air and fire off a shot? Do you think that will calm him down?”

I saw her point but wasn’t about to put it away. The man was continuing to eye my pistol and even though he hadn’t been alarmed, it had given him pause. He was getting pushed back into the aisle by the people moving away from us. I stared at him, hoping he’d stay where he was. How much time had I lost already?

“I’ll take a look at the bomb to see if there is anything I can do,” I said. “Get the door open or do something to stop the train.”

Shannon glared at me but turned to the exit.

I looked at the people around us. Pulling out my gun had the intended effect. There was now a wide berth between us and everybody else. The closest person to me was the black man who hadn’t moved once the crowd had pushed beyond him.

Several people were on their cell phones, but I doubted that anybody would be heard over this madness. I was surprised the train was still moving and wondered how the firefight hadn’t come to the attention of the train operator yet.

Hopefully, the people on their phones would be able to get through to somebody who could stop the train. I kept my eyes on the man as I knelt. Once I had, I turned my attention back to the bag.

I had just pulled back the zipper to the point I’d explored with my finger earlier and was probing further down the length of it when the black man approached again. He had his hands out in a placating gesture and was struggling to keep his face calm. There was a small tremor in his hands. Considering the situation, I was impressed at how well he was able to hold things together. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he dealt with high levels of stress on a regular basis. I was just able to make out his words over the din.

“Don’t you be messing with that! You’re going to set it off for sure.”

I pointed my pistol at the man. “You want to get shot? Stay back!”

“You’re not going to shoot me,” he said.

I let go of the bag and held my pistol with both hands. “You’re wrong. I will shoot you, especially if you’re stupid enough to try and keep me from getting a look at what’s in the bag.” There was a thumping coming from behind me, but I didn’t turn to see what it was. I assumed that it was Shannon working on the door.

“Relax. We’re both on the same team. Just put the pistol down.”

I stood, took a step back, and motioned with my pistol, pointing to the bag. “Unzip it.” I had been able to feel half the length of the zipper. I was reasonably certain that it wasn’t booby trapped.

“Are you serious? I’m not going to be your guinea pig.”

“Then stay out of my way!”

When he didn’t back down, I leveled my pistol and began to depress the trigger. The man wasn’t in any real danger, I knew the tension of my trigger pull intimately, and I still had a long way to go. My actions had the intended effect. I regretted that I had to resort to this, but he just wouldn’t leave me alone. There was a part of me that recognized he was just trying to do what he thought was best, but the other much larger part knew I had to take care of the bomb. Every second he interfered with that kept me from doing it.

“Stop,” yelled the man as he moved back. I had finally got the reaction I’d wanted in the first place. Unfortunately, it had taken a more overt threat than most normal people would have required. Perhaps he’d been operating under the assumption that I wouldn’t harm him. I didn’t want to, but if I had to put a bullet in his leg so I could examine the bomb, I would.

“Don’t shoot,” yelled the man. “You’re crazy! You know that?”

“A slight twitch is all it takes, understand?” I asked, keeping the gun pointing at him with one hand, but easing my finger off the trigger.

The man nodded. I returned my attention to the bag and tugged on the zipper with other until I was beyond the halfway point. I put my hand through and felt the rest of the way down the zipper. It was clear, so I unzipped it.

“Look, I can see you’re careful, but do you want to take this chance? There are children on this train.”

I looked up at the large man; he was standing several feet away from me again. In my concentration, I hadn’t noticed him moving closer. Despite my annoyance with him, I respected his stubbornness. It was a bad situation all the way around. People had just been murdered. From his perspective, I was the idiot that had picked up the bomb and was trying to figure out how to disarm it. Even though I could see his side, I couldn’t afford to take the time to try to talk things through with him while I held a bomb that might explode at any time.

Actually, I corrected myself. It would go off; there was no way that Payne wouldn’t set it off. He liked the chaos.

“I need to know what we’re dealing with,” I said to the man. “I may be able to disarm it.”

“That’s not good enough, either you know or you don’t. This is no time to be a hero.”

“You have a name?” I asked.

“Sure, Malcolm.”

“Malcolm,” I said trying to sound calm. “This will be a lot easier if you shut up and I don’t have to keep my gun on you. As you said before, we’re on the same side. We have a hundred percent chance of this going off unless we do something because those fools chased after the gunmen. I think it’s worth the risk of having me take a look. Don’t you?” I left out the part where I would have been one those fools too if I’d been given a chance. “Can I trust you enough to put my gun away?”

“You government? Let me see a badge.”

“I’m a concerned citizen.”

“Why you got a gun? You’re either government or a criminal. Your friends made it off, and you almost did too.”

I didn’t like his implication that a law abiding citizen couldn’t own a gun, but I didn’t go there. “Well, I didn’t, and now I’m here. The zipper isn’t wired, and we can open it. If you don’t believe me, take a look yourself.” I stepped back as Malcolm approached and peered at the zipper.

“You’d better be right.” He motioned me back towards the bag, indicating that he wouldn’t interfere with me trying to open it.

I looked into the man’s face, I wanted to believe him. I put my pistol away. There was a pause where Malcolm appeared to be considering a move, but it passed.

“You want to help?” I asked. “Try to get the bloody train operator on the phone. Tell him to stop the train.” I opened the bag the rest of the way and found myself staring down at several bricks of C-4. They were surrounded by a mess of wires. I stifled a groan. It was a rat nest.

“You got this?” Malcolm asked as he took out his phone. I didn’t have any idea how he’d be able to get to the appropriate person, but it was more than just an effort to get him out of my hair. This train needed to stop, preferably in a place to minimize the damage if the bomb did end up detonating. I tried not to think what would happen if I was still on the train when it did.

In answer to Malcolm’s question, I shook my head. Payne had done a bad job of building this. There were several places where duct tape held things together. What a mess.

“No,” I said, “it will take hours to untangle, and that’s if I hurry. We have to get it off the train now.”

Malcolm had directed his attention to his phone and hadn’t heard me. He must have found the number to dial or he’d just given up and called the police. Either way, he had the phone to his ear, and it looked like he was waiting for somebody to answer.

I looked towards the exit to see how Shannon was doing, hesitant about turning my back to Malcolm. I wouldn’t put it past him to tackle me if the opportunity presented itself, but I needed to know if she was making any progress on the door. Since disarming the bomb wasn’t an option, we’d have to get it off the train.

Shannon was kneeling by the door with a knife in her hand. She’d managed to spring a panel off the wall. At the moment, she wasn’t moving and was staring at the wires behind the panel. Her lips were pursed. She shifted, trying to get a better angle, and blocked my view of what she was doing. I decided that she was cutting a wire because of the way her knife hand yanked up.

The door opened.

I don’t know how she had known what to do, but I gave her my best smile and received one in return. It was too bad that I didn’t have time to stop and take a picture. It was rare to see a genuine smile from Shannon. As the door opened, the wind rushed by, pulling at her hair and twisting it around her face.

Malcolm said something, but I didn’t catch it. That was when I noticed that the passengers had moved even further away from us. Before, there had been a fair amount of space, but many of the people were still in their seats. Now, most of the passengers were packed into either side of the car, as far away from us as they could get. I felt their eyes on me. Some held hope, others fear, but most were like Malcolm and were distrustful of what we were doing.

There was an older man that hadn’t moved from his seat, even though he was only several rows away from us. His face was pale and his round eyes were glued to me, taking in every move I made as if trying to capture it all to memory.

He probably was. I could just see the man giving every last detail to the police of what Shannon and I looked like. I had started to wonder why he hadn’t moved when I noticed the top of some crutches. I felt sorry for the man but couldn’t do anything other than what I already was doing. I noticed several phones that were pointed our direction and looked away. The police wouldn’t need to ask the crippled man what we looked like. My whole exchange with Malcolm had probably been recorded. I made a mental note to mention this to Beltran. He was sometimes able to keep videos like that from going public.

Doing my best to hope that the agitated passengers weren’t going to rush us, I picked up the bomb and turned to the open door.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Shannon said at the same moment I realized we had a problem. When Shannon had started working on getting the door open, the train had been running through a commercial warehouse district where there had been plenty of open space to toss the bomb. That was mostly gone and had been replaced by residential buildings. While there was a short distance between the tracks and the city, it wouldn’t be enough.

I racked my brain, trying to remember if the train either crossed over or ran parallel to a river, but my mind came up blank. Careful to keep my balance, I leaned my head out the window but couldn’t see anything up ahead on this side that would be a better place. It wouldn’t matter where I tossed off the bomb, people would probably die either way.

As I looked back into the train car, I could see the eyes of some of the passengers willing me to throw it from the train. Some started to yell, wanting to know why I hadn’t chucked it yet.

Ignoring them, I looked at the other side of the train car. Malcolm had taken a seat and was covering one ear with his hand, his phone pressed to the other. Through the window, I could see a large vacant field. This looked better but not ideal. I’d have to hurry to get it off in time.

I looked back over my shoulder; an apartment building was passing by on the other side. I suffered a moment of indecision. I might be able to lower the bomb through the open door and drop it to the ground and hope that the fall wouldn’t set it off so that the train could pass. The problem was that I didn’t know how big the blast would be. I didn’t dare poke around in the wires to see how much C-4 was in the bag.

All options sucked. It wasn’t a solution but more of a choice between evils.

I made my decision and raised my gun, preparing to fire at the window. Malcolm, seeing me, stopped mid-sentence. I wasn’t able to make out what he was saying, but I assumed that he’d been able to get some sort of emergency response team on the phone.

I yelled at him to tell them to shut down the other trains. If I was successful at getting the bomb off, the other trains needed to be stopped until the situation had been resolved.

“You sure about this?” Shannon asked, appearing at my side. I’d almost forgotten she was with me. I’d been so focused on the bomb and situation with Malcolm that she’d almost disappeared from my consciousness.

“Do you see another way?” I looked around the train. “We’ll all die if we don’t do something.”

She didn’t answer.

I fired a shot at a window, half expecting the glass to be bullet proof. It wasn’t and shattered.

Using the top of my gun to break out enough glass for me to fit through, I ignored the renewed screaming and sounds of panic coming from the other passengers as I risked putting my head out the broken window to determine if another train was coming on the parallel track.

I couldn’t tell. I looked at my watch. It had been five minutes since Payne and the others had left.

Was that all?

It felt like it had been a lifetime. To be honest, I was surprised that the bomb hadn’t gone off already, I thought about Payne with the detonator in hand. Five minutes was a long time in the mind of a madman. Malcolm was beside me when I took my head out of the broken window.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.” He still held his phone to his ear. “I’ve talked to the police. They’re going to get in contact with the train operator. We can wait this out.”

The bomb started to make a beeping sound.

“No, we can’t,” I said. “Grab on to something and tell others to do the same.”

I could see fear on his face. I couldn’t blame him; the beeping was the most disconcerting sound I’d ever heard. He shook his head and told me I’d better be right about this before putting his phone back to his ear and grabbing on to a seat. He shouted into his phone, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear him say that there was a crazy man on the train trying to play hero.

The beeping got louder.

I said a prayer as I grabbed the top of the window with one hand while preparing to toss it with the other. Taking a deep breath, I flung the bag out of the train car. Just after I released it, I realized that it was headed straight towards a pole that I hadn’t noticed.

It hit the pole and then bounced onto the other track. Cursing, I yelled out to Malcolm intending to tell him what had happened so he could pass it on to whoever was on the other end of his phone, but my voice was drowned out by the noise from the screaming passengers.

In all the confusion it took me a moment to realize that the sound of their hysteria was covering up the noise of an oncoming train.

My next thought was for Shannon. She was over by the exit again; I could tell that she’d been trying to determine whether she’d be able to survive a jump. We made eye contact, she said something I couldn’t hear, but it looked like her lips had formed the words “You idiot.” She leaped over the row in front of her and lay down between the seats.

I dove to the floor and grabbed onto the bottom of the nearest bench. The train on the other track had met up with us and was now passing by on the other side. I held my breath, hoping for a miracle. It didn’t come.

The explosion came several heartbeats later.

Our train lurched. There was a brief second when I thought that we were going to be all right, and then we rolled.

 

10

I opened my eyes with a start. The heavy smell of smoke, burning rubber, and blood filled the air. The train car had been cast in gloom, but there was light overhead. From my vantage point, I couldn’t determine the exact source of the light, but I could at least tell that some of it was coming from a fire. Alarmed, I looked around and was relieved that I couldn’t see flames.

How long had I been out? I looked at my watch, but I couldn’t remember what time it had been when the bomb had gone off. My best guess was that I’d been unconscious for only a few minutes. I hoped it hadn’t been longer. The emergency response crews would be on the scene shortly, Shannon and I needed to be gone before that happened.

I tried to stand but slipped and fell, knocking my head against an armrest. The floor was wrong. I looked up and saw rows of seats on the wall. I felt foolish for not remembering that the train car had been knocked over by the blast.

Once I was on my feet again, I could see that the light was coming through the broken windows that were now overhead. My original assessment that the reflected firelight had been coming from outside was correct. I could just see the tips of flames dancing out there.

When I took a step, shards of glass crunched underneath my foot. I paused and tried to listen for the emergency response vehicles over the sounds of the nearby burning fire and the cries of injured passengers. It was made doubly hard because there was a ringing in my ears as well.

Nothing.

A wave of guilt hit me when I heard a long groan.

I had done this. I’d thrown the bomb out the window.

Taking a deep breath, I released it and closed my eyes. I hadn’t been responsible for this, and I knew it. I tried to put the matter from my mind; this was something to deal with later.

“Shannon?” my voice came out unsteady and cracked. It sounded far away. There was a dull ringing in my ears. I licked my lips and tasted blood. I tried a bit louder. “Shannon.”

“Nice job dummy,” Shannon said. She was about six feet away in the middle of a heap of passengers. I rushed to her, taking care not to step on anybody else. Many of the people around her were starting to sit up. A few were making sounds of pain.

The dark made it hard for me to tell if anybody was in need of serious medical attention. I hoped they weren’t, partially for selfish reasons. If they were, I didn’t think I’d be able to leave until proper medical help arrived or I was certain they would survive.

I knelt beside Shannon and put a hand on her head as she tried to get up. Her forehead felt cool and was slippery. I held my hand up to the light and saw that it was covered in blood. Glad that my slacks were black today, I wiped it onto my thigh.

“Wait,” I said, to keep her from moving. I kneeled beside her and did my best to examine her in the low level of light. There was blood on her face and arms as well, but nothing looked broken. She was cast in shadow, so I was unable to tell if her pupils were dilated. “Do you feel pain?” She looked like she had a concussion. I probably did too for that matter, my head felt awful.

“Of course I feel pain, everywhere hurts!”

“Anything broken?”

“No!” she snapped as I remembered that I could use my phone as a flashlight. “Get off me! I should have taken the bomb. A child would have done better than you. Throwing a bomb onto the train tracks? Did somebody replace your brains with jello?”

“I didn’t hear you offering to take it.” I pulled out my phone and tried to examine her using the flashlight app, but Shannon pushed me out of the way.

“That’s because I took the door, which I got open didn’t I? It’s your fault now that we can’t use it.” I released my hold on her and recognized that she was correct; the door was on the side facing the ground. Her snarky attitude set my mind at ease about her well being, but I could feel my conscience pricking up in the back of my mind again.

Once my panic for Shannon was gone, I turned my attentions to those around me and considered making a call to the authorities, but hesitated because I wanted to make sure that Shannon and I had enough time to disappear.

Malcolm had been on the phone when the bomb had gone off. I seemed to remember him saying that he’d been talking to the police, but he might have been trying to get through to the train operator like I’d asked him to do. I couldn’t remember, my mind was foggy. When I overheard a woman on her phone reporting what happened, that solved my dilemma. Good enough, help would soon be on the way. We still needed to get out of here and catch up to Cherry and Tom.

Using my phone as a light, I did a quick circuit checking for serious injuries. I was relieved that I didn’t see anybody that required immediate attention. The only dead I found were those who’d died earlier in the gunfight. This didn’t alleviate any of my guilt, though. Our train car had been further on before the explosion, others wouldn’t be so lucky. People had undoubtedly died.

When I was satisfied that I could leave the train car without feeling like I was abandoning somebody in serious need of help, I returned to Shannon. She was standing and holding a handkerchief to the side of her head. Presuming that this was the cause of the blood, I asked to see it. I was relieved to see that it wasn’t bad.

“Time to get out of here,” Shannon said.

“You sure you can make it?” I asked.

She just glared at me in response, daring me to question her health again. It was a legitimate question, but I let it go.

Using a seat as a foothold, I grabbed onto the lip a broken window. I couldn’t tell if this was the window I’d cleared out earlier because every other window had broken during the wreck.

As I scrambled through to the top of the overturned car, several shards of glass ripped my suit jacket on the way out. One even drew a little blood from my side. Once I was on top, I surveyed the mess, squinting while my eyes adjusted to the direct sunlight and tried to make sense of the damage the explosion had caused. The oncoming train that had hit the bomb was off the track, collapsed, the cars folded into each other and burning. The flames reached about thirty feet into the air; it was no wonder that I had seen them from inside.

Many of the cars from our train were overturned. I tried again to stuff my guilt away to deal with it later. None of this was my fault.

I just wish I would have noticed the pole.

I wasn’t sure what I would have done if I’d seen the other train. The beeping had been getting louder just before I threw it. If I’d have known about the second train, I would have hesitated, and we’d be dead right now.

There was a voice inside my head that said it was better that other people had died rather than us, but I shut it out. I couldn’t afford to think like that. Making those kinds of judgments wasn’t something I should be doing.

There was a sound coming from below me. When I looked, Shannon was coming through the window I’d used. I reached my hand down to her, but she pushed it away. I wasn’t surprised, but I would have thought that if ever there were a situation where she’d be glad for a helping hand, this would have been it.

“We don’t have time for you to admire your handiwork,” Shannon said as she surveyed the scene, “we need to get going.”

The comment made me clench my fists. Couldn’t she lay off? I’d only been trying to do what I could to help. Sure, it hadn’t worked out, but I hadn’t heard her volunteering to handle the bomb. She’d been only too glad to focus on the door and leave it to me.

I’d taken on the no-win situation and done the best I could, especially because Malcolm had been hovering over me every step of the way, making it difficult to work.

Another head appeared in the window while I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. Speak of the devil.

I offered Malcolm a hand, despite the fact that I was still frustrated with his earlier actions. He took it and was bleeding in several new places once he was up. He looked like he survived the wreck well enough.

When I glanced back at Shannon, her face reflected her true emotions about the situation. Despite her words laying the blame on me, she was feeling guilt for not getting the bomb off the train in time to save lives. I could understand that, and I could even understand her need to pin the blame on me. That helped me put things into perspective.

I hadn’t built the bomb or left it on the train. This was Payne’s fault, and I needed to get that through my thick head.

“Help the others,” I said to Malcolm and walked to the side of the overturned car, looking for a way down. Shannon was already there doing the same thing.

“You can’t leave,” Malcolm said when he saw what we were doing.

I didn’t turn back. I felt bad not staying to help, but there was little we could do. The police and emergency response teams would be here soon, and they were trained to handle situations like this.

There was a loud crack, and I looked over to one of the burning cars. There was another that coincided with a burst pushing the flames even higher; it was followed by several more. I hoped the emergency teams were close.

It took some finagling, but we used the bottom of the train car to climb down. Once we had, I took a deep breath. The anger and frustration I’d been feeling towards Shannon and Malcolm had dissipated. My attention was now focusing on Payne. There hadn’t been a good reason for him to do what he did. The people on the train hadn’t been a threat to him.

I didn’t need to ask Shannon what she wanted to do next because she was already on her phone trying to get a hold of Cherry so we could catch up to the others. I was glad that she wanted to continue our mission as well because I wasn’t about to turn back to Black Brick and hadn’t wanted to leave her behind.

Shannon was a mess, though. The cut on her head had stopped bleeding, but we’d have to stop to clean the blood off her face and out of her hair. Luckily, her coat had taken the worst of the blood, and once we ditched it, she’d look presentable.

I had a sudden thought and checked my pocket. The pistol I’d used to shoot out the window was missing. I tried to remember what I’d done with it after I’d used it last. I was drawing a blank. Had I set it down on one of the seats or had it come out of my pocket during the explosion?

I berated myself for not thinking about it until now and turned back to the car as the sound of sirens filled the air. There wasn’t time to go back. That was one unnecessary piece of evidence that shouldn’t have been left behind.

I still had another pistol on me, in addition to the backup I kept on my ankle, but Beltran wouldn’t be happy. He hated to get his hands involved in other agencies to clean up a mess.

 

 

11

As I stepped into the high-rise office building, I resisted shaking my head to get the ringing out of my ears. From what I could tell, my hearing was normal, even though it felt like there was cotton in them. It had been close to an hour since we’d left the site of the train bombing and I hoped that the ringing would soon go away. It was making my headache worse. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Shannon and I had popped into the bathroom of a gas station and done our best to clean up. I had smoothed out my hair and done what I could to make my coat presentable. I was lucky that I was wearing a black shirt as well as a black suit, the blood stains that I was sure were there weren’t showing.

There were several minor tears in the fabric of my suit jacket, but nothing that would cause the casual passerby to take special note of me. If anyone looked too closely, they might wonder, but I doubted that anybody would suspect that I’d survived an explosion.

Despite our better judgment, we’d also taken a moment to call Black Brick to give an update on what happened. Beltran’s voice was calm, but I could tell he was struggling to keep it that way. Initially, he’d ordered us back to Black Brick. I had pointed out that Cherry and Tom were chasing a mad man with a team of thugs by themselves so unless he was willing to call them back as well, we needed to catch up. There had been a long pause before he’d spoken.

“Find Lauren Griffith and Payne, kill Payne if you have too. Then get back here. It won’t be long before the police are looking for you. In all that confusion somebody took pictures of you two, guarantee it.”

Shannon had entered the building ahead of me. She’d done a better job at cleaning up, after she ditched her coat she almost looked normal. She’d let her hair down, and it did a good job of covering up the cut on the side of her head. There was also a wound on her hand that still had a raw look to it, but it had stopped bleeding.

While I’d waited for Shannon at the gas station earlier, I’d used my phone to check the news. I’d been surprised that the media hadn’t yet picked up on the fact that it had been a bomb. The accident was being explained as a collision between the two trains. That wouldn’t last for much longer, but for the moment it meant that other than official personnel, the average person wouldn’t have any clue that something more sinister had happened. It would provide us with a time buffer in which to apprehend Payne and Griffith.

The lobby of the office building was spacious with a marble floor, plush couches, and expensive chandeliers. There were several televisions that were tuned to the news. They were featuring footage of the train wreck from helicopters.

“Do you see him?” Shannon asked me.

I shook my head.

We were looking for Tom. Shannon’s call to Cherry earlier had gone to voicemail, so she’d left a brief message and then tried Tom. He’d picked up on the first ring.

After telling us the address of a building Payne had disappeared into and complaining that he couldn’t find Cherry, he’d hung up. Shannon, who had recognized the address Tom provided, had been asking what floor they were on when he’d disconnected. She had tried calling him back, but he didn’t answer.

When I had suggested that she send a text, she had rolled her eyes as she begun to type. That had been over fifty minutes ago, and he still hadn’t texted back.

When she noticed me looking, Shannon checked her phone again and shook her head.

I surveyed the lobby trying to decide what to do next. The office building had a parking garage that was several levels deep so we wouldn’t be able to observe all of the exit points of the building from here. There was a coffee shop nearby with tables that spilled out into the open area, and there wasn’t an empty table to be found. The other side of the lobby had vendors selling newspapers, magazines, and bagels.

I was trying to decide what to do next when Shannon spotted Tom walking purposefully toward us and elbowed me in the side. I refrained from flinching in pain; she hadn’t been very gentle about it. I didn’t know if she hadn’t been paying attention to what she was doing or if she was still trying to displace her guilt as anger towards me. Tom shook our hands with a warm smile on his face as if he was greeting clients. He pointed out a stairwell, and we followed him towards it.

“Couldn’t come a little faster?” Tom asked looking at me when he was sure that there wasn’t anybody within earshot of us. “I’ll hold you responsible if anything happens to Cherry. Lucky for you, we were able to track down a keycard before we became separated.”

“Turns out your past comes in useful, eh?” I said, assuming he’d stolen it. “You didn’t have to come for us. You let us slow you down.”

Like everybody else, Tom didn’t talk about his life before he’d joined Beltran’s little organization, but I’d gathered enough to know that he was an experienced thief, which was surprising considering he’d been recruited as a kid. I’d wondered what set of circumstances had pushed him to the wrong side of the law so early in life but hadn’t tried to dig into it. There was an unspoken expectation that we didn’t share much about our past lives. We certainly didn’t ask questions about others.

Tom didn’t answer as he unlocked the door and let us in, still playing the part of a professional with his clientele.

“What is it with you two?” Shannon said once the door to the stairwell was shut behind us. “You remind me of brothers.”

“You don’t have to like somebody to respect them enough to work with them,” Tom said.

“You think I respect you?” I countered showing more hostility than I wanted to. I was irritated that he decided on his own to meet us and then griped about having to wait.

Shannon’s comment reminded me of something Cherry had said on our flight to San Diego when we’d had a few minutes alone at the airport. Tom and I had been snapping at each other again. “The problem between you and Tom has more to do with Shannon than either of you would care to admit.”

I hadn’t responded because I wasn’t going to let Cherry fish any details out of me. I didn’t know what Shannon or I had done to make her suspect something, but I wouldn’t do anything to confirm it. I’d even considered making a comment about her and Martinez, but I’d let it pass.

Was Shannon the reason that Tom had come to meet us in the lobby? Was he interested in making sure that she had an extra person to protect her? If that were his reasoning, it would be on him if anything happened to Cherry. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I was right.

“Quit it you two,” Shannon said, breaking into my thoughts. “I won’t put up with this for much longer and may have to shoot one of you.”

“Hey, I was polite,” Tom said, flashing an ingratiating but annoying smile.

I didn’t reply as I went up the stairs, two at a time. I was sweating a bit by the time we reached the ninth floor but wasn’t breathing heavily. Being in shape had its benefits. Shannon was covered in a sheen of sweat that made her more attractive; Tom was panting, but I decided not to point it out.

“Cherry was on the tenth floor when I last heard from her.”

“I’ll open the door,” Shannon said, snatching the keycard away from Tom before he could react. He made a face which he quickly shifted into a smile.

I chuckled, pulling out my pistol. “I’ll go first.” I maneuvered the slide back to load a round and held it as it returned, keeping the whole process as quiet as possible. I received a curious look from Shannon; she’d seen me fire my gun earlier. I should have already had a round chambered. She didn’t comment, though. I wasn’t looking forward to telling Beltran that I’d lost a pistol.

“How about a few less explosions?” Tom whispered. Shannon had filled Tom in about the train on the way up. She’d done a decent job of telling the story evenhandedly. Unfortunately, even I couldn’t deny that it sounded like I’d miscalculated. I hadn’t bothered to interject any of the details that she either hadn’t noticed or hadn’t thought important enough to include because I didn’t care what Tom thought.

Shannon stifled a laugh but couldn’t quite hide her smile.

Not only was the joke in poor taste, but what had happened to stop fighting? I focused on the target we used at the shooting range—a silhouette with a red circle on the chest—and imagined it with Tom’s face plastered at the top.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We went up the next flight of stairs, and Shannon slid the keycard and opened the door. I crouched down and peeked to either side. A woman was disappearing around a corner on the right. I only saw her from behind, but it was enough to know that it wasn’t Cherry or Lauren Griffith. Holding my hand out to the others to keep them back, I waited for several counts before entering the hallway. I kept my pistol at my side to keep it hidden.

I’d been expecting a lobby when I opened the door, but instead, I was facing a glass wall that gave a view of the city. I could see a trail of smoke to the south that I attributed to the train bombing and wondered how Malcolm was doing.

My next thought was of him sitting down with a detective and giving up every last detail. I hoped that he at least tried to be accurate in his rendition of the facts.

Beltran was going to be upset if pictures of us surfaced and it might help if we came off as heroes instead of villains. Even if that did happen, though, it wouldn’t matter.

I would have to start wearing makeup, and my Sam Chever identity would be useless. At least then, maybe I could stop attending class. I repressed a snort, that wasn’t likely to happen. Beltran might force us to undergo plastic surgery, but we’d still have to go to class.

There was a small table with a vase that had fresh flowers. I’d been hoping that we’d be entering a workspace that had little happening. The flowers dashed my hopes. The carpet was brown and flat, the type of carpet that is used in high traffic areas.

“A woman just disappeared down the hall.” I pointed. “It wasn’t Cherry or Griffith. Any idea how many people are on this floor?”

Tom shook his head. “I hadn’t made it very far before I had to come get you guys. Cherry’s last text said that she’d followed them to a large conference room. Shouldn’t be too hard to find. You guys want the left or the right?”

“We’ll go right,” Shannon said. I didn’t have any objections. If that woman I saw earlier turned out to be a threat, it made more sense for both of us to go in her direction, rather than to send Tom alone.

Tom went left but not before he gave a smile to Shannon. There was something about that guy that got under my skin, and I didn’t think it had as much to do with Shannon as Cherry believed.

“You know he’s already lost, right?” Shannon said once he was out of earshot. I tried to keep my face free of emotion, not wanting to let on to the fact that she’d come close to reading my mind. Her sly smile told me that I’d failed. She held her pistol by her side and winked at me. “Now the only thing you’ve got to do is not mess it up.”

Despite my focus, my heartbeat quickened. Part of me hated the effect that she had on me, and of course, the other part loved it.

“Start planning on the mess-ups now. It might help to forgive me ahead of time.”

“Sorry, no pre-forgiveness for you.”

All my instincts told me not to do it. We’d just survived an explosion, the enemy could be anywhere, Tom was just down the hall, but one of us might not make it out of this building alive.

I pulled her in and kissed her. And why not? Death was always close by anyway.

“Well, look who’s decided he’s willing to kiss me in public,” Shannon said, her smile showed all of her teeth. Two smiles in one day, that had to be some kind of record. “Are you sure you didn’t suffer some brain damage? Tom could look back at any moment.”

In answer, I kissed her again, trying to hide my annoyance with her last comment. The thought of sneaking around under the nose of our other team members excited her more than I liked.

I didn’t know what to make of it but couldn’t stop from looking over her shoulder towards Tom. It didn’t appear that he’d seen us and I was mostly glad that he hadn’t. I was surprised that there was a part of me that wished he had. I’d thought I was above petty jealousy like that.

“Let’s find the conference room.” I tried to suppress my worry that somebody was going to find out about us. It would be nice when we passed our final test and could move out of Black Brick. I hated knowing that a camera was always watching my every move when I was in my one room apartment there.

We cleared the hallway without incident for the first few doors. Making me wonder if the floor was deserted. All of the doors we’d tried so far had been unlocked and empty. I was expecting to find the typical office furnishings, but the rooms were bare. I wondered how many unused offices were on this floor. Perhaps this was why Payne had come here. It might make a good place to stash Griffith.

Even though I was glad we were working on a floor that appeared empty, I was careful to not let down my guard. There was a reason why there had been fresh flowers. As we moved down the hall, I could feel the worry seeping into my bones. When we did find somebody else, I’d have to make a split-second decision on whether or not they posed a threat.

Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me but the death count for the day was already too high. I wanted to avoid any more civilian deaths. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this was why we wore body armor. We had time to assess the situation.

We were working on the fifth door of a connecting hallway when we came across somebody else. I was on one side of the doorway, and Shannon had grabbed the handle and was about to push the door in when I heard a door open behind me. I turned in time to see a woman step into the hall. She saw my gun and disappeared back into her office.

Cursing, I chased her. When I got to her door, the woman was standing at her desk with the receiver of her office phone to her ear, frantically dialing numbers. I moved to the desk and disconnected the call.

“First off,” I told her. “We’re—”

The woman interrupted me. “Don’t kill me! I won’t tell anybody what your face looks like. I have a bad memory.” She still held the receiver in one hand, and she was shaking. I felt bad. It hadn’t been my intention to scare her, but the last thing we needed were the police showing up. I used my free hand to take the receiver and place it in the cradle of the phone. She took a step back and held up her hands.

“It might help if you got the gun out of her face,” Shannon said, as she came into the office. She took up a position at the side of the door where she could look out into the hallway.

I smiled, feeling a little awkward as I lowered my gun. In the confusion, I hadn’t noticed that I was pointing it at her.

“Becca,” I said, reading the name plaque on the woman’s desk. “We’re not going to hurt you, but I can’t let you call for help. At least, not yet.”

We heard voices from the hallway and Shannon closed the door.

“For the last time, who are you with?”

It was Payne.

There was a pause. “I’m not with anybody,” Cherry said, her voice a small squeak.

12

Shannon grimaced when she heard Cherry’s voice and her demeanor changed. Before, Shannon had been alert and ready for anything. Now, her face tightened, and she twisted her neck to either side. I hoped she wouldn’t do anything stupid. If she did, I’d have no choice but to back her up.

Of the four of us, Cherry was the most cautious and the least likely to do something that would get her caught, but I wasn’t surprised that she was nervous.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t capable or a good shot—she was calmer in stressful situations than Tom—but I’d always seen her as the weakest among us. I wasn’t the only one. Shannon and Tom were protective of her too, which isn’t a good sign if you’re a spy.

The conversation continued, but I wasn’t paying attention to the words. I listened for the sound of her voice, willing away my desire to rush blindly to her aid. I grabbed Shannon’s arm as she made a move for the door. She glared at me and held up her pistol. She didn’t aim it at me, but her message was clear. Get out of the way.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered why Payne hadn’t just shot Cherry outright. He wasn’t one to have a conversation when a bullet could do his talking. I pushed the question away with relief that he seemed content to banter with Cherry, whatever his reason.

I pointed to Becca. “We can’t let her get hurt.” Becca had become pale and was cowering in her chair. Her arms were folded as if she was trying to hug herself.

I whispered an instruction to Becca to get under the desk while keeping my eyes on Shannon, I expected her to bolt towards the door.

I tried to think of a way to keep Shannon from barging out, but by the time Becca had crawled under her desk I hadn’t been able to come up with anything. I couldn’t let Shannon go alone, but I also wanted to live through the day.

“Tell me how many more there are,” Payne said, “and it will go better for you.”

Cherry snorted, but it was cut off with a shriek.

“Wait to see if they walk past our door,” I whispered. “We’ll take them from behind.”

“Payne’s going to kill her.”

“Can we help if we’re filled with holes?”

“Get outta my way.”

I doubted Payne would kill Cherry in the middle of the hallway because Becca couldn’t be the only witness on the floor.

There were several thuds and Cherry groaned.

Shannon pushed me out of the way.

I growled under my breath, that woman was going to get me killed. I readied my pistol and tried to visualize what was happening in the hall. I imagined a picture of six men and planned on shooting four in rapid succession while keeping my aim away from Cherry.

“I’m going. Come if you want.” Shannon reached for the door.

“I go left, you go right.”

Shannon nodded and burst into the hallway with me close on her heels.

From the start, even though there were fewer than I expected, I knew we were in trouble and that our reckless attack had been stupid. I should have wrestled Shannon to the floor to keep her from leaving.

The men were looking our direction when we entered the hallway and already had guns drawn. I fired at the first man on the left, my first two shots going into him as he started to raise his pistol. Too late, I realized I was aiming at the same man as Shannon. Cursing, I turned to the next man in time to see the barrel of a pistol explode in my direction.

Everything seemed to slow down. The flash from the muzzle of the gun seared into my brain, and I could have sworn I saw the bullet coming at me. It took me in the chest and knocked me back into the door jam.

I gulped for breath, afraid that the round had pierced my armored vest. All other thoughts fled from me. I couldn’t breathe. It was funny how something I’d always taken for granted became the only thing that I could think about. There were more shots all around me, and somebody else fell to the ground. I thought somebody was calling my name, but it sounded so far away.

Breathe. I needed to breathe.

My mouth hung open, and my arms flailed about as I worked on my lungs. When I was able to choke out a cough, I inhaled. It was shallow, but it was air. I gulped another breath.

I heard Shannon calling to me. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I felt my chest and was relieved that my hand didn’t come away sticky with blood.

“Jake, are you all right?” Shannon asked kneeling beside me. My head spun, and I saw her in double.

“Cherry?” I asked.

“I’m here Jake.”

I pushed myself up on one arm. Another man lay dead beside the one that Shannon and I had killed. Payne was gone.

“Where’s Payne?”

“He got away,” Shannon said. “Can you walk?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I said, my tongue felt heavy and thick. I coughed. “Beltran won’t be pleased if we don’t get Payne. I can see Beltran now. ‘Getting shot is no excuse for letting Payne get away.’” I pushed to my knees, felt a little lightheaded, took a breath, and then stood up. My chest felt like a wrecking ball had just hit it, and I was sure I’d be sporting a bruise, if not cracked ribs for some time.

“What happened to Griffith?” I asked.

“Payne killed her,” Cherry said. “I’m glad you guys came along when you did, he was going to kill me too.”

That would have normally been the place where Shannon would have thrown in an “I told you so,” but she kept silent. I noticed that she was staring at the tear in my shirt where the bullet had hit. I could only hope she was regretting her rash action. It was too late now, but maybe she’d be more careful next time.

“Where’s Tom?” Cherry asked.

“It shouldn’t take him long to find us,” I said. “The shooting will get his attention.” I noticed that Shannon was bleeding. I reached out to her arm. “What happened?”

“I snagged it somewhere.”

I pulled up the sleeve of her shirt against her protests. “Snagged on a bullet you mean.”

“It can wait.” Ah, there was the Shannon that I knew.

“We can’t wait for Tom,” Cherry said. “Even if Payne weren’t getting away, who else heard the gunfight?” I remembered Becca and went back into the office. She was still hiding underneath her desk, trembling.

“Becca,” I said, “you know that call you were making earlier? Give us about ten minutes and then finish it.” I didn’t wait for a response as we headed for the stairs. The elevator might be faster, considering my condition, but I wasn’t about to be shut up in a box that could become a cage with the push of a button. The others were of the same opinion.

We entered the stairs, expecting an ambush. Shannon led the way with Cherry close behind. I wondered if the growing bruise on my chest was going to affect my ability to keep up. My whole chest burned.

When they reached the main floor, Shannon and Cherry burst into the lobby without waiting for me. I was a flight behind them. By the time I was outside the building, they were already halfway down the block.

There was a hint of smoke in the air, and the sun was partially obscured. Whether it was cloud cover, smog, or smoke from the train explosions, I couldn’t tell. I gasped for breath, clutching my chest, and coughed. Pain racked my body. Steeling myself, I dashed after them as best I could, expecting not to be able to keep up, but they stopped soon after they started.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next.

Bill Martinez had Payne at gunpoint and was ordering him into a black suburban, the door of which was being held open by a man that I didn’t recognize.

What was Martinez doing here? He was supposed to have left last night on an assignment in D.C.

A question reoccurred to me and even though I didn’t like the answer that came to mind, something seemed to make sense. Why hadn’t Payne killed Cherry? Martinez might be here to help us out, or he could be rescuing Payne for his own reasons. If there was a connection between Payne and Martinez, Payne would have gone out of his way to keep from harming Cherry.

The thought bounced around my head as I took in the scene. Something wasn’t right. I aimed my pistol at Martinez. I didn’t have a strong explanation for my actions, but any trust I had for him had evaporated long ago.

There may have been a logical reason as to why he was here or why Payne hadn’t harmed Cherry, but I wasn’t willing to take the chance.

“What are you doing Jake?” Martinez asked. “Stop fooling around.”

“You’re not supposed to be here Bill,” I said.

“Are you out of your mind?” Martinez asked. “I’m here on Beltran’s orders. He sent me to help after your little stunt on the train. I’m sick and supposed to be resting, but I was called in to save your sorry team. Now put away your gun and stand down!”

I supposed it was possible that Martinez could have aborted his trip to D.C. for being sick but that didn’t sound like him, and he looked fine. It would take a lot more than the flu or a cold to bench him on the sidelines. No, something was wrong.

“Why don’t I recognize your men? Shannon, take Payne.” I wasn’t able to see Shannon and was unwilling to take my eyes off Martinez.

“You haven’t met half of the people that we work with,” Martinez said. “Put your gun down, and we’ll forget this happened. Look, I get it. You don’t want me to take credit for Payne’s capture, that’s fine. You guys did all the hard work. I’ll make sure Beltran knows. Stand down.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Jake, come on,” Shannon said. “We need to get going. We’ll sort this all out back at Black Brick. Okay?”

Cherry was on my other side, she put her hand on my arm. “You’re not thinking clearly. You’ve been shot.”

I lowered my pistol. This was wrong, I was certain. I had been shot in the chest, not the head. But now that my pistol was down, Cherry and Shannon both latched onto me and pulled me away.

Martinez smiled as he got into the vehicle. “I’ll see you guys at Black Brick.”

As the suburban peeled away, I stared after them, positive I’d seek a smirk on Payne’s face as the car disappeared.

“Wasn’t that Payne?” Tom asked running up. “Why did you let Martinez take him?”

I turned away from the road and studied Tom. He was out of breath, and his face was flush with sweat.

“We’re fools,” I said. “Martinez isn’t going back to Black Brick.”

Shannon shook her head but remained silent. I got the impression that she didn’t want to rip into me so soon after being shot.

“Where have you been?” Cherry asked.

“Looking for you. I found Lauren Griffith’s body surrounded by a bunch of men in suits. They’re on my tail—”

The sound of approaching sirens reached our ears, and I noticed that there were way too many people looking at us. I shoved my pistol into my pocket.

“See you guys back at Black Brick,” Tom said, taking off at a run. Cherry ran in a different direction.

“Are you okay?” Shannon asked, nervously looking around. “We can go together if you want.” It would have been against protocol for us to stay together in a situation like this. Beltran already had enough to be unhappy about; it didn’t seem worth it to push it much further.

“Take care of yourself,” I said and jogged away. I struggled to breathe, and my chest hurt, but I didn’t slow down.

The others weren’t convinced, but I knew the truth. Martinez had just betrayed us. I tried to run faster, but I was rewarded with a coughing fit that forced me to slow until I could catch my breath.

 

13

The conference room at Black Brick smelled like sweat, and I wasn’t the only with a ring of perspiration around my neck. We’d all made it back within a few minutes of each other and were waiting for Beltran to join us. It wasn’t going to be a pleasant meeting. I took a sip of coke and stifled a groan as pain shot up my chest.

I’d spoken with Dolores, who had been manning the reception desk in the lobby again, and learned that my instincts about Martinez had been correct.

He had in fact betrayed us. After taking Payne, Martinez had called Beltran. Dolores hadn’t known what the conversation had been about, but Beltran had ordered Black Brick into lockdown and restricted Martinez’s access to our base and internal systems.

I leaned back in my chair, trying to find a more comfortable position, immediately wished that I hadn’t, and sat up again. In addition to my chest screaming with every move, my lower back also hurt. I must have done something to it when I fell after getting shot. It was a miracle I’d been able to run as far as I had on the way back here.

The painkillers I’d taken hadn’t kicked in yet. I took another swig of Coke, wishing I’d thought to bring in another can or two because I was afraid this was going to be a long meeting.

When Beltran entered the room, the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. His face was a cold mask, but the anger danced in his eyes as he struggled to retain his composure. Beltran would sometimes fly off the handle, and all we could do was wait until he was done shouting.

I took another sip of my drink as Beltran set a folder he was carrying onto the table. He leaned down, putting his hands on the top and scourged us with his eyes.

“Why did you let Martinez take Payne?” Beltran demanded. “I wouldn’t have assigned your mission to another team without telling you. You know that.”

Shannon was staring out one of the windows, fiddling with a pen. Cherry didn’t appear to be listening. Tom was handling Beltran the best of any of us because he hadn’t been there for the Martinez part of it all.

I wasn’t in the mood to say “I told you so” or give the others a knowing glance. Meet back at Black Brick to sort this all out, indeed!

This failure was as much mine as theirs, if not more mine since I’d realized something was off. Beltran was angry, but not as furious as I was expecting. The betrayal of one of his most trusted agents should have been accompanied by a tirade of swear words and yelling.

There was something about all this that bothered me.

“How long have you known Martinez was a traitor?” I asked.

Beltran looked shocked, and I could see him trying to come up with a convincing lie, but it wasn’t going to work.

“Martinez was being managed,” Beltran finally admitted.

Managed? What did that mean? Why would Beltran leave a traitor in the ranks?

“You had information that would have been key to a successful resolution of the mission,” I said, “and withheld it from us. This is as much your fault as ours. If we can’t trust a team member, who can we trust?”

“That’s the motto,” Tom said, “trust your team.”

Shannon looked up. “How many times have you told us?”

“You’ve got to trust your instincts as well,” Beltran said. “Jake was the only one to recognize something was wrong.” He looked right at me. “You should have done everything in your power to keep Martinez from taking Payne, shooting them both if you had to. I’d much rather be cleaning up bodies now then guessing what Martinez is going to do next.”

I tightened my jaw. I’d just been shot, if that wasn’t a good excuse for a lapse in judgment, I didn’t know what was.

“Payne is dangerous.” Beltran looked at Cherry. “And I’m afraid Martinez is every bit as dangerous in his own way.”

Was this why Beltran hadn’t been bothered by Cherry’s relationship with Martinez? Beltran had bigger things to be concerned about. During the meeting, it had taken a real effort on my part to avoid staring at Cherry to monitor her reaction to all of this. Out of respect for her, I’d kept my eyes away. If she was crying, it was best that I didn’t notice.

“Yeah,” Tom said. “We know. We’ll keep our guard up. Blah, blah, blah.”

An idea occurred to me. There might be a good reason why Beltran had left Martinez where he was.

“This was our test,” I said. “We were supposed to discover that Martinez was a traitor. This whole time, I just thought you were being lax on the rules, but you wanted us to figure this out.”

“That is correct. You failed.” As Beltran let that sink in. “Every one of you had an opportunity to put this together. You all knew things he was doing wrong but did nothing. You should have trusted each other with what you knew.

“Jake, you watched him torture a man. Cherry, you knew he was embezzling from Black Brick. Tom, you knew he was taking calls on a cell phone that wasn’t one of ours but didn’t report them.” He looked at Shannon. “You caught him on my computer. Now, because you failed, Martinez has the resources Kurt transferred to Payne, and we have a much bigger problem on our hands.”

We all looked at each other, except for Cherry, who kept her eyes down. Beltran was right; we’d have known something was wrong if we’d been talking to each other.

“It is you that failed,” I said. “Sure, we didn’t pick up on your little exam, but you should have had a failsafe. It should have been impossible for Martinez to pull what he did because you already knew what he was.”

Beltran glared at me. “Forgive me for my misplaced faith in all of you.”

“So are we out now?” Shannon asked.

“Everybody fails their test the first time.” Beltran looked at us each in turn. “The next test will be much harder.”

Beltran’s revelations weren’t sitting right with me. “If you knew that we weren’t putting things together, you should have stepped up to do something about it, especially if you thought Martinez was going to team up with Payne. You knew that Payne would come after Lauren Griffith, didn’t you?”

Beltran didn’t need to answer the question, his face was enough.

“Jake’s right,” Tom said, although it looked painful for him to admit it. “How can you expect us to do our job when you keep back important information?”

“Did you know that Payne and Martinez were connected before today?” I asked, thinking back to our briefing the day the Kurt house had exploded. Martinez had been in the room when we’d been talking about Payne, and he must have been laughing at us. When Beltran had assigned him to locate Payne, Martinez must have also been amused by that.

I remembered the look of shock on Martinez’s face when the explosion had happened. Had Kurt been working for Martinez as well or had it been an act? I recalled everything I could, but couldn’t decide. If my guess was correct that Vargo and Diggon had been behind the explosion, Martinez would have been surprised.

No, that felt wrong.

Martinez was a better actor than I gave him credit for. If Martinez had recruited Jason Kurt as well, he had the most to lose if we brought in Kurt.

I thumped my fist on the conference room table. “Martinez killed Kurt and his family because he was afraid that after we’d learned Payne was connected to Kurt, we’d bring in Kurt and pump him for information. It was in Martinez’s best interest that didn’t happen.”

“That’s how Gina Townsend knew my name,” Shannon said. “She was working for Martinez. He was behind this all along.”

“Kurt’s family is dead because you didn’t do anything,” I said to Beltran.

Beltran bit off a growl. “Tone it down a notch or two. I knew nothing of the sort, but I did have my suspicions. That being said, I didn’t know enough to operate on. Anytime I send a team on a mission, I expect things will not go according to plan. So should you.”

“That’s a fancy way of saying you’re going to continue to withhold vital information from us.” Shannon was leaning forward, perched to attack. She’d never looked more beautiful. “People have died today. We could have saved lives if you had been more forthcoming.”

“I will do as I see fit!” Beltran snapped, raising his voice for the first time. “This is bordering on insubordination. You’ve blown off your steam. Now it’s time to get back to business.”

“Oh, it is, huh?” Cherry demanded. We all looked at her; it was the first she’d spoken. As I had suspected, there were tear stains on her face. “You should have told us Martinez was a traitor.”

“No,” Beltran said firmly, though his tone was softer. “There will always be information that you won’t have. Get some rest. We need to figure out what Martinez and Payne will do next and stop them.”

 

 

14

It was the first warm day in months, and the students of Kingstone campus were taking advantage of it. A group of people on the grass in front of the Lincoln library were tossing around a Frisbee, and there were even a few ambitious girls sunbathing. It was warm, but it wasn’t warm enough for that.

Several women who walked by chatted animatedly. In the brief snippets of the conversation I overheard, it sounded like they were discussing a celebrity, but I didn’t hear enough to overhear who. Not that it would have mattered if I did, I didn’t know much about those sorts of things.

I marveled at their energy. To me, they looked like kids, but I knew they were the same age as me, if not older. How was it possible for me to feel like an old man when I was barely old enough to be in college? What would I have become if I hadn’t been raised by the government?

I headed into the library. I wasn’t sure if I intended to get anything done, but I had to get out of Black Brick. It had been two days since the train incident, and I was going stir crazy. Beltran hadn’t even made us attend class, which I’d been thankful for until I felt the walls start to close in.

When I passed the lobby, I noticed Thor sitting at a table near the librarian’s desk and decided to go to the second floor. I didn’t feel up to dealing with the man.

I found an empty table in a corner and pulled out my tablet computer and set it down without turning it on. It had been a long couple of days and I still couldn’t tell up from down. The last week had been intense. Explosions left and right, people connected to Diggon dropping like flies, and hidden agendas everywhere I turned.

Beltran could call it a test if he wanted, but that didn’t make it any better. When we’d been told that there would be a final test to become active, I’d expected a hard mission that tested my personal abilities and limits.

What Beltran was doing tested my faith in him and our organization. What else would Beltran be willing to do as a test? How far was he willing to go? Would he let people die?

I was certain about only one thing. Payne and Martinez needed to be brought to justice.

Turning on my tablet, I avoided the temptation to check the news because it would be focused on the train wreck. More than twenty-five people had died so far, with more deaths expected. My subconscious had somehow been able to accept the fact that the situation hadn’t been of my own making and that I’d done my best. This kept the guilt from overwhelming me.

Yawning, I looked around the library and saw I was alone. Shelves of books towered all around me, providing me with the refuge and solace I sought. Shifting, so that my back was facing a wall, I decided it was safe to open work related information and review it. I needed to do something to keep my mind off the madness. The only way out was through.

As a team, we had expressed interest in helping chase down Martinez and Payne. Beltran had refused our offer but given us Martinez’s file to review.

“Make no mistake, you’re not on this case,” Beltran had said, “But Martinez knows enough about us that it would be best if everybody kept an eye out for his meddling.”

I opened the Martinez file and began to sift through it. Snorting, I realized that much of the information had been redacted or password protected. Later, if I had time, I’d try to get around the encryption on the documents. For now, I sifted through what was available.

Martinez had been recruited when he was twelve after his mother had died in a car accident. That wasn’t a surprise; all of us came from similar backgrounds. We’d all lost parents at a young age and never been adopted afterward.

I guess Beltran had adopted us all.

Did that make him our father? The thought made me shift in my seat. I hoped Beltran didn’t think of me as his son, I would never think of him in that way.

I noticed a file called activity logs and tried to access it, but found that it too was password protected. I’d been hoping to learn what Martinez had been doing the night that Andrews was killed. If he’d been using Payne and Kurt to get at Diggon, that made him our best suspect for the Andrews murder. Had he killed Gina to keep her from ratting him out? He could have killed us, but that might have drawn too much attention from Beltran.

“You made a mistake with Peck the other day, you know that, right?”

The statement broke into my thoughts like a cannonball diver at the deep end of a pool.

I looked up into the face of the dark haired girl that had been staring at me all semester. The tight pink sweater and jeans complimented her dark hair and it was an effort for me to remember that I was already spoken for.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

The woman smiled and shifted her head to the side. She was holding several books which she set down on my table. Without asking, she slid out a chair and took a seat.

“Peck’s going to call on you more frequently, just to see if you’ve done your reading.” She smiled, her white teeth stood out against her brown complexion. “Should I just call you Mr. Chever or do you have a first name?”

I was uncertain what to do and hoped that Shannon didn’t decide to come looking for me. I’d left without telling her where I was going, but she knew that when I went for a walk, I often ended up in the library. I wasn’t sure that Shannon would be the jealous type, but it was always wise to be careful with a woman who made a habit of being armed.

“Sam,” I hesitated. It was only polite to ask her, but I didn’t want this to go on too long and let her get the wrong idea. “You?”

“Kris Lee.” She slung her bag off her shoulder, set it on the floor, and leaned forward. “So you’re a history major, you going to teach?”

I hesitated. Was she stalking me? I was about to ask how she knew when I remembered that it had come up in class one day.

“No. Just thought it’d be nice to know something more about the world. You?”

She smirked. “I’m getting a real degree. Marketing with a sales emphasis.”

“You call that real?” I asked, smiling.

Kris returned it. “I liked your suggestion about having politicians fight it out in a ring.” The playful look on her face didn’t quite match the tone of her words, and she seemed nervous. I remembered what Shannon had said to me about this girl being out of my league. Well, Shannon was too. Kris was comparable to Shannon, at least on looks.

“Why should our soldiers die to settle disagreements between government leaders?” I asked.

“Politics becomes the ultimate reality TV show. Presidents aren’t elected but instead fight their way to the top.” Kris hesitated. “Wanna go grab a coffee?”

I bit my lip; it was hard to reject a woman with a smile like that. Shannon had a nice smile too. I just wished I got to see it more often.

“Look, Kris, you seem like a nice woman, but I’m seeing someone.”

“Oh! You think I’m asking you out.” I couldn’t decide if it was my imagination or not, but I thought she had turned a little bit red in the face. “I didn’t mean it like that. I have a boyfriend, but he hates talking politics. I was just hoping to chat.”

“Ah, sorry. How about a rain check? I’m working on a project right now.” My phone vibrated. It was Shannon. “Nice talking to you but I need to take this call.”

I was glad for the interruption because I didn’t know how to handle this situation. I almost would have preferred that Kris had come at me with a gun, if she had, I would have known how to respond.

“Have a good night.” Kris stood. “See you in class.”

I answered my phone and watched her leave. It had been a puzzling encounter, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it.

“Where are you?” Shannon demanded.

“Why?”

“Your fingerprints turned up on the train. Your pistol?”

I swore. In everything that had gone on, I’d forgotten to tell Beltran that I’d lost a pistol. “Impossible. I had latex covering my prints.”

“What about the last time you cleaned it?”

“Please, I follow the rules. Is my face all over the news?”

“No, Beltran caught wind of this before it got too far. He’s also managed to suppress a video or two from the phones of bystanders. We both owe him big time. Come quickly, he’s changed his mind about having us work the Martinez case.” Shannon hung up.

So much for a quiet evening of reflection.

There was no way that I’d left a fingerprint. I’d worn gloves the last time I cleaned it, I always did. I didn’t realize that I was sweating until I wiped my brow and pulled away a moist hand. Growling, I stood up.

Martinez could have lifted my fingerprints before defecting; he probably had the fingerprints of all of us. Payne could have planted a gun on the train that led back to me. I threw my tablet in my bag and left the library.

As I walked back to Black Brick, I tried to imagine going to a study group or having the option of getting mixed up with a girl like Kris. It might be nice to date somebody who wasn’t able to kill me with her bare hands.

Try as I might, I couldn’t picture that kind of life.

 

 

15

Steeling myself for what lay on the other side, I opened the door to the conference room and entered. Shannon, Cherry, and Tom were already sitting around the table. Beltran was pacing.

My eyes locked onto Shannon first, and she gave me a small frown.

“You didn’t think it was important to mention that you lost a pistol?” Beltran snarled.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, the pain flared in my back as I sat down and my chest felt like I had large leaden weights fastened to my ribs. “I always wear the latex covers.” That had been one of the principal rules from the very beginning, and I’d never broken it. I always wore gloves when cleaning my guns and was religious about changing the latex fingerprint covers that I wore on my fingers. Every morning I’d peel off the set I’d worn the previous day and put on new ones. “This is a setup. In the report, did it mention two pistols found in the train car?”

“When we screw up, we admit it,” Beltran grimaced, dodging my question, I could tell that I’d scored a point. There had been two pistols.

“I lost a pistol, but it shouldn’t matter, it didn’t have my prints. Martinez gave Payne a pistol to plant.”

My words hung in the air. Usually, I would have apologized by now, because that’s what Beltran was looking for, but I’d been given enough trouble for how the train incident had gone down, that I just couldn’t bring myself to utter the words.

“You should never lose a pistol,” Beltran said, much of his anger dissipating. He picked up a remote and pressed a button. When the screen came on, it showed a picture of Martinez with an older man. “We have an emergency, and unfortunately, you’re the only team I have available. This picture was taken earlier this morning. We caught this by accident, neither Martinez nor the old man was the subject of the surveillance.”

“Who was?” I asked.

“Somebody else.” Beltran pointed to the man beside Martinez. “This man has access to the old Diggon headquarters. The problem ladies and gentlemen is that Martinez knows about an operative I have at that location. Nothing has happened to her yet, but she’s close enough to finishing her mission that we are going to complete it tonight. Hopefully, whatever Martinez has planned won’t go down before that. We can’t allow Martinez to compromise this mission.”

Beltran met my gaze. “This cannot go down like the train.”

I growled, both because of the guilt and all the condemning looks I was receiving from the others on my team. I was grateful that Shannon was staring at the table instead of at me.

The death count was up to twenty-seven. I’d given in and checked the news on my way back to Black Brick. Several drawings had been made of Shannon and me, but they were nondescript enough to not be alarming. I was relieved that Beltran had been able to keep some of the videos and pictures from coming out, but I was afraid it was just a matter of time before others did.

The conflicting accounts of the survivors alleviated some of the worry I felt, but none of the guilt.

“This is a very simple mission.” Beltran’s eyes bored into me; it made me want to punch him. “Protect agent Lisa Hooper as she copies files from the Diggon data center. Nobody knows we’re coming and passing security will be a breeze. Zero body count. Can I be clearer?”

Tom smirked. “Careful, Jake may take that as a personal challenge.”

“What aren’t you telling us?” Cherry asked.

Beltran looked at Cherry, cracks appearing in his forced calm demeanor. “You’re reaching the end of your slack. Push me further. See what happens.” His voice held no emotion, and he spoke quietly, but the words hung in the air, the latent threat all but spoken.

“Who’s Lisa?” Tom asked.

“She’s a professional, and you’ll all obey her as you obey me.”

“At last an order I understand,” Tom said with a mock salute.

“Shannon and Lisa go in,” Beltran said. “The rest of you wait as lookout and backup.”

The instructions bothered me. Cherry was right, there was something that Beltran wasn’t telling us. If it was a simple pickup mission, why did he want three of us sitting in the car twiddling our thumbs instead of providing backup onsite?

“I don’t like being partnered with someone I don’t know,” Shannon said.

“It’s bad enough we have Jake,” Tom said, “who has a tendency to leave things in flames, but at least I know what to expect. Lisa’s unknown, she could do anything.”

“Cherry and Tom,” Beltran said, through clenched teeth. “You are dismissed.” Surprise at the dismissal registered on Cherry’s face, she blinked, her face frozen. Tom took it better, but not by much. They stood, took their things, and left without another word.

“I wish that I could keep Cherry out of this,” Beltran said once they were gone, rubbing the sides of his head with his hands. His eyes gave away the lie.

That was it. This is what was bothering me. Our mission wasn’t about helping Lisa. No, this whole thing was about Cherry. Beltran wanted Martinez to think that we were there for Lisa, but in reality, he was counting on Martinez taking advantage of the opportunity to grab Cherry.

My bet was that Beltran had reason to believe Martinez was going to be there tonight and wanted to dangle a carrot in front of him.

“You’re using her as bait,” I said.

“Just take care of her.”

“If anything happens to Cherry.…” Shannon pushed her lips together and narrowed her eyes, but didn’t finish her sentence.

I thought back to how Shannon had rushed headlong into Payne and his men to protect Cherry. I hoped that Shannon had learned her lesson, but I doubted it. The next time Cherry was in danger, Shannon would act rashly to protect her. The bruise on my chest was a good reminder. If I took too deep of a breath, my chest filled with pain. I wouldn’t forget that lesson anytime soon.

Beltran’s words were forced. “We have a job to do. I don’t have time to worry about Cherry. Or either of you. Get it done and get back here.”

 

 

16

Before the last light of day was gone, I checked my phone for any new email or text messages and put it away. The windows of our black Chevy Suburban were tinted, but I didn’t want to take the chance that the light from the screen would draw attention to our vehicle. There was a small chance of that happening because we were parked on a busy street outside of the building that used to be Diggon’s headquarters, but it was best to be cautious.

The new Diggon headquarters was several miles away and had just been completed. I hadn’t been into the building, but there had been a lot of publicity associated with its completion. Not only did it tower above all the other buildings in the city, but it also had a fully fledged zoo and aquarium on the premises.

The old building in front of us was still being used by Diggon but it was slowly getting phased out.

I thought about reaching out to Vargo’s surveillance team to see if Vargo was in the area but decided against it. They wouldn’t appreciate me bothering them while they were on the job. With the events of the last couple of days, I’d been too busy to keep tabs on the information they’d been gathering about him. I made a mental note to review the logs when we returned to Black Brick later tonight.

I mulled over Vargo’s strange words the night that the Kurt family had been killed. They made more sense now that we knew Martinez was behind things. Vargo’s denial of involvement to Janessa may have been genuine.

I wish we knew what Vargo and Andrews had hired Payne to do because it might help us understand why Martinez had recruited Payne out from underneath them. We couldn’t find any evidence from the files we’d taken from Kurt’s home.

Tom and Cherry sat in front, she was monitoring the radio, and he was on lookout. It had been a quiet couple of hours, but we hadn’t gotten out to stretch. My legs were in danger of falling asleep, so I shifted. A moment later I could feel the blood running back into my feet, but my legs still ached.

I hadn’t mentioned my concerns to Tom or Cherry. I didn’t trust them to keep my theory to themselves. Beltran was dangerous enough that I needed proof that he was using Cherry as bait before I spread it around.

If I were to tell them, I’d be running the risk of learning what Beltran was like when he really got angry. It was bad enough that I’d said some of the things I had. If I started trying to poison his subordinates against him, I might not be able to come back from that.

Despite our vigilance, the evening had been uneventful, and it had been over two hours since Shannon and Lisa had disappeared into the building.

“They should finish any minute now,” Cherry said looking at her watch. We’d had an update fifteen minutes ago that they were almost done.

“About time,” Tom said, “my back is starting to hurt.”

If Martinez were going to make a move on Cherry, he would have done it by now. I looked out the back window, shifted and brought my legs up onto the bench seat. That was better. Laying my head back against the window, I took a deep breath, ignoring the pain in my chest and back, and let it out slowly.

I was bothered that my fingerprints had turned up on the train, what did Martinez have to gain by planting evidence of my involvement? Beltran had made it clear that he thought Martinez was in this for Payne’s Diggon money, but what if he was wrong? What if Martinez was trying to destroy and discredit our organization as well? He could just pick us off one at a time.

The thought stopped me cold.

If that was Martinez’s game, the person that would be in danger here would be the only person by herself.

Shannon.

Lisa wasn’t a tactical specialist and wouldn’t be any help if they got into trouble. If I were Martinez, I wouldn’t come after the three of us as we sat armed to the teeth waiting for him to show. No, I’d go after Shannon.

I pulled out my phone and dialed. They were on the twenty-fifth floor, if something were to happen to them, we wouldn’t be able to get there in time. A moment later, I was relieved to hear Shannon’s voice on the other end.

“Idiot,” she said. “Communication is supposed to go over the radio.”

“Anything unusual happening up there?” I asked, Cherry and Tom looked back at me, but I didn’t heed the questioning looks on their faces. When she didn’t answer, I continued. “I was wrong. Martinez is going to come after you.” I noticed a startled look on Cherry’s face as she realized what I meant. She’d probably been worried she was bait but hadn’t been willing to speak it aloud.

“You’re worried about nothing, we’re—” Shannon stopped, and I could hear her phone clattering to the ground and her pistol being pulled from her holster. “Lisa, behind you!”

Gunshots came out of the tinny speaker of my phone. There was screaming, but I couldn’t tell from who. Probably Lisa, Shannon was too busy firing her gun. After that, there were voices, but I couldn’t make out what was being said.

I covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Gunfire.”

Tom was already opening his door, and I was trying to make out what was happening. I didn’t want the sound from outside to drown out what I could hear so I hit the front seat and motioned for Tom to shut his door and pointed to my ear. He did.

Cursing, I had to suppress the same instinct as Tom to rush up there. There wasn’t much that we could have accomplished, we were too far away.

The gunshots had stopped, but there was still yelling. I thought one of the voices belonged to Shannon, but I couldn’t tell for certain. When I recognized Martinez, I gripped the phone tighter.

I could make out other muffled voices, but that was the extent of it. At one point, I could have sworn that I’d heard Lisa say that Martinez had taken long enough. I gripped my phone tight, wondering if I’d misheard.

Her voice had been calm and collected. Hadn’t she been screaming moments before? Had it been an act to distract Shannon so Martinez had the opportunity to take her out?

There was a pause in the conversation, and I wondered if somebody had noticed Shannon’s phone lying on the ground.

There were scraping sounds as it was picked up and heavy breathing came through the phone.

Closing my eyes, I focused, trying to make out every last whisper that I could. An image of Shannon, lying in her blood came to mind. Taking a deep breath, I pushed away the thought and refrained from speaking.

“Follow us and she dies,” Payne said. The line went dead.

 

 

17

The flashing strobe lights and pulsing music were enough to deaden my senses. The club was teeming with people, and the air was hot and smelled of body odor, perfume, and sweat. I scanned the crowd looking for my target and hoped that I hadn’t missed him.

“Want to buy me a drink?” asked a voice from beside me.

It was a surprise that I was able to hear her shouting over the beat of the music. I wondered how long it would take my hearing to return to normal after I left as I focused on the woman who had spoken. A flash of light revealed her face and somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that she was pretty but I didn’t let the realization surface as I smiled my best smile and looked over her shoulder.

Where was my target?

Shannon had been missing for a week. I hadn’t been able to sleep and was more tired than I had ever been. I was afraid of making a mistake that could cost Shannon her life. The last thing I needed right now was somebody making it even harder to concentrate.

“A drink?” the woman repeated as she moved in closer and dragged her hand down my chest. The bruise from where I’d been shot was gone, but I still felt a small tingle of pain when she touched it. Maybe it was just my imagination.

“Sure, whatever.” The response had been automatic before I could stop it. The light flashed on her face again, and I realized I knew her. The name came to me slowly. The last week had been long and painful, everything had become a blur.

It was Kris, the girl who always stared at me during class and had stalked me in the library.

“Forget the drink,” Kris suggested. “Let’s get outta here.”

“Where to?” It just popped out because I had spotted my target.

Cole Gurley. He was a tall man and stood a head above the other people in the crowd. For all his height, he was still thin. Despite his lanky appearance, rumor had it that he could be vicious.

Kris grabbed my hand. “Anywhere, just not here.”

I barely heard her as I watched Gurley move towards a doorway on the far side of the room. I didn’t have time for Kris and pushed her hand away with a smile.

“Maybe another time, I gotta run.” I moved towards my target before she could answer. The flashes of light and thunderous reverberations of the music fell into the background as I approached Gurley.

My arm was grabbed from behind. My first instinct was to throw off the hand as if I was being attacked, but when I looked over my shoulder, I saw that it was Kris. Given what I was about to do, I couldn’t afford the attention I’d get for pushing a woman.

“I’m sorry. I came on too fast. It’s just that—” Her words were drowned out by the throbbing music. Gurley was moving away. Had he recognized me?

“It’s nothing to do with you,” I said. “Really, you seem nice.” I pushed past the desperate woman and into the crowd. I would have preferred to use the pistol in my jacket but leaving a corpse would have defeated the point. I wanted Martinez and Payne to know that I’d found their man. It was a risky move chasing after Shannon, but I didn’t think they’d kill her. Martinez had kidnapped her for a reason.

I was a step away from Gurley when Kris stepped in front of me.

“Men don’t usually walk away from me. You made your point.”

I didn’t respond as I moved her aside and grabbed Gurley from behind, slamming him into the floor. His screams were drowned out by the blaring music. I grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head into the ground.

“Tell Martinez that I’m coming for him,” I said, slipping a bug into his coat while he was trying to focus his eyes on me. I was certain I knew where Gurley would go after this, but in case he did something unexpected I needed to know what it was.

I moved back into the crowd. One or two people had noticed my actions, but most were oblivious. The music and flashing lights had hidden what I’d done. I heaved a sigh of relief when I left the club. It had been too stuffy for my taste and the cold night air felt good.

The streetlamp outside was covered with multi-colored fliers. The old blackened decomposing gum dotting the sidewalk made me wonder if anybody ever used the garbage can that was located to the side of the light.

I tried to keep my pace normal, hoping that if Gurley was going to follow me, I’d at least have a chance to get around the corner. I’d been forced to handle this evening without a backup because Cherry and Tom had thought my idea was ridiculous and they’d refused to come.

“Trying to ditch me?” Kris called out as I turned the corner.

Not knowing what to do about the crazy woman, I didn’t turn back and kept walking even though I could hear her footsteps following me. Once she turned the corner as well, I reached into my pocket for my pistol.

I stopped. It was doubtful that she was a threat to me, but I didn’t want to take a chance. It could just be a coincidence that she’d been at the club. Kingstone University was close by. It wasn’t too big of a stretch.

I released my hold on the pistol and turned around, feeling a little foolish that I’d reached for my gun. I was uncertain what I was going to say, and I didn’t want her getting caught up in the aftermath of what I’d just done in there.

“You aren’t working for the government,” she said when I turned around.

I laughed. “Government? I’m a student, just like you.” Our organization was a big enough secret that Beltran would sometimes say the President didn’t know about it. I wouldn’t expect Kris to be any different.

It was starting to look as though my instincts were good, something was off about her. She’d been a little too desperate, and a normal woman wouldn’t have followed me from the club, particularly after I’d assaulted somebody. I should have thought of that sooner.

I thought back to Shannon’s warning that Kris was out of my league. The signs had been there, but I’d been too dense to put them together.

“I know who you are, Jake Ramsey.”

I was taken aback. It had been a long time since somebody had called me by my full given name. To her, I was supposed to be Sam Chever.

“I know what happened to you as a boy,” she continued. “The murder of your father and the kidnapping of your mother. What you don’t know is that you were kidnapped that day as well.”

“Kidnapped?” I sputtered. Both of my parents were dead. What was this nonsense? I don’t know how she learned my name, but at the moment I didn’t care. “I’d run if I were you, I have an angry man on my tail.” I turned away from her.

“I’ve been looking for you for a long time,” she called out. “You don’t know what you’ve got yourself into. I am the only one who can help you.”

“Take care of yourself Kris.” I didn’t look back.

 

 

18

 

Cherry let me into their hotel room a short time later. It was cramped for three people, but the windows were facing the direction we needed. It smelled of cigarettes, and the bedspread had to have been twenty years old. There was a television, but it looked like one of the first ones ever made. The walls had probably been white once upon a time but were now varying shades of yellow and covered in grime.

Tom was sitting at a small table and monitoring the video cameras we’d set up earlier. The bed was covered with guns, computers, and cameras.

Cherry had rings underneath her eyes, but she greeted me with a tight smile. Shannon’s kidnapping had been hard on her for multiple reasons, not the least of which was Martinez. Beltran was cracking the whip, and everybody was running on less sleep.

“Did it work?” I asked, glad to have the hotel door shut behind me. I’d been looking over my shoulder since the club. Cole Gurley was part of the Fifteenth Street gang which was known for its creative brutality. It wasn’t uncommon for them to mutilate their victims.

We didn’t know for certain that they were connected with Martinez, but security camera video from that night had shown Gurley and a few others entering the headquarters a few minutes before Martinez and Payne.

In addition to keeping an eye on this place, there was a bookstore in a mall several blocks from here that had a connection to the gang. We didn’t know what the connection was, but members of the gang frequented the place. Beltran had set up surveillance over there as well.

My actions at the club were intended to flush Gurley out. I was hoping to either prove that he was working with Martinez or that he was unrelated.

“Yep,” Cherry said. “The bug picked up Gurley calling Martinez, and he’s on his way back to their lair now. Any hiccups?”

“None.” I didn’t tell her about Kris and the problem she posed. I knew that my contact with her was something that Beltran would expect me to report, but I didn’t think that Kris would cause me any trouble.

My guess was that she was trying to recruit me. For what, I didn’t know. For all I knew, she could be working for Martinez. I’d have to be more careful with her in the future.

I picked up a pair of binoculars and went to the window. The apartment building was rundown. There were some broken windows, and it was covered in graffiti. It was an ideal place for an outfit like the Fifteenth Street gang to set up shop.

Was Shannon in there?

I shuddered when I thought about what Martinez might be doing to her. I should have called Martinez out when he’d broken that man’s knee or done something about it myself. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

It had taken me months to work up the courage to make my move on Shannon. When I finally did, she’d laughed and said, “I thought that’s where you were going.” She’d then taken me into her arms and kissed me.

My thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door, and I pulled out my pistol.

“Settle down.” Tom snickered. “It’s just room service.”

“You should get some sleep,” Cherry said. “When we find Shannon, we can’t have you pulling the trigger and killing the wrong people.”

After I had eaten, I cleared a big enough space on the bed for me to lie down. I settled in and tried to sleep while trying to not think about the last time the bedspread had been washed.

My heart was beating too fast for rest, though. Every time I closed my eyes, I’d see Martinez torturing Shannon.

We were so close.

I awoke with a start when I heard a gun cocking. Cherry was holstering a pistol, and I smelled gun cleaner. It was a nervous habit of hers to be over prepared. Even though she’d probably cleaned and oiled her pistol several times earlier today, she’d just cleaned it again. I looked at my watch and was surprised to see that it was seven in the morning. I’d slept for longer than I thought.

“We’ve identified other men from the gang,” she said when she noticed that I was awake.

“Anything unusual?”

Cherry shook her head. “By the way, Black Brick was able to dig up more information on Cole Gurley. He is the type that doesn’t forgive easily. A girlfriend crossed him several years back. She was later found with an ear cut off and a large flap of skin missing from her arm. Even after all that, the poor woman refused to testify against him. Do yourself a favor and look over your shoulder, ok?”

I grunted.

“Gurley is moving with two women,” Tom said. “One blonde, the other brunette. He’s herding them to a van.”

“Can you make out faces?” I asked, getting out of bed and moving to the window.

“No, but do you want to take the chance that it’s not them?”

“This is a trap,” Cherry said. “It’s foolish to be moving them like this. They’ve got to know we’re tailing Gurley.”

“Agreed,” I said. “We’ll have to be more careful than normal.”

Cherry raised an eyebrow. “That’s funny coming from Mr. Slash and Burn himself. I know about you and Shannon. You’re in no position to make this call.”

“What’s to know?” I gave Cherry a toothy smile. She was guessing. Shannon wasn’t the girl talk type.

“You two hooked up.”

“Don’t let our cover go to your head,” I said. “We take risks. That’s what we do. We took a risk rescuing you from Payne. Shannon led the charge, and I ended up getting shot.”

Cherry looked ashamed. It was low of me to remind her of that, but I didn’t regret it. I didn’t have time to waste. The longer Shannon was with Martinez, the closer she came to death.

“Come if you want,” I said, heading to the door.

 

19

In the parking garage of the hotel, Cherry gave us a final admonition to be careful before getting into her black Chevy Suburban. Like the rest of us, she was gasping for breath. We’d covered the distance between our room and the garage in such a fast time that I doubted that we’d ever be welcomed back. I couldn’t remember how many people we had to dodge around, but it hadn’t been a few.

By the look in Cherry’s eyes and the way her lips were tightened, I could tell that the guilt I’d used to convince her to come had turned to anger. Whether she was mad at me or the situation, I didn’t know. I just hoped she’d be able to channel it to good use.

Tom took the wheel of the Dodge Charger while I jumped into the rear passenger seat. I hadn’t even closed the door by the time he’d started the engine and was moving. I slammed it shut as he sped away. I’d chosen the rear because I’d have access to the windows on either side.

Pulling up a rectangular case from between the seats, I checked the rifle that we kept in back. It was an FN F2000. The bullpup design would make it an ideal weapon for the type of close quarter situation we were likely to run into.

I loaded a magazine and chambered a round before setting it on the seat. I wouldn’t bring it up until we were closer to our quarry and knew more about the situation. I didn’t want some concerned citizen calling the police and reporting men with guns speeding through traffic.

The sun hit our windshield as Tom pulled out into the morning traffic and I squinted from the glare. The traffic was heavy, but hopefully, it wouldn’t keep us from catching up. I could just make out Gurley’s van turning the corner several blocks down. I caught my breath and restrained myself from telling Tom to hurry.

It took us forty-five minutes to catch up to Gurley’s black van. It had been a tense drive, and we’d lost sight of it several times, only to find it again as if by luck.

Cherry moved her suburban into the parallel lane while Tom stayed a car behind. The plan was for her to wait until Gurley’s van had come to a stop and then to pull in front of them, while we blocked them from behind. Risky, but the best we could come up with on the fly. We didn’t know where they were moving Shannon and Lisa, but I figured this would be our best chance to get them.

The radio in my hand squawked. “You guys ready?” Cherry asked.

“Hang on,” I said, “we need to see if they have backup.” Gurley’s van had left by itself, but I wasn’t taking chances that they hadn’t met up with other cars on the road.

The car between us and the van was a minivan. The driver was a middle-aged woman with a harassed look to her; she was ferrying kids to school. We’d have to get in front of her before we made our move.

To the side of us and behind Cherry’s suburban, were several other cars. A gray Toyota and another smaller compact car I didn’t recognize. The Toyota was driven by a kid with a shaved head and tattoos. There appeared to be a girl next to him, but it was hard to tell because her hair was cut short and she was as tattooed as he was. A possible threat but unlikely. The gang Martinez was working with, didn’t go for the punk look.

The smaller car—a Kia of some sort?—was a different story. There were several thick looking men. Those might be our guys; the only thing throwing me off was the car.

The SUV behind us was the most likely candidate, a dark Jeep Cherokee that could have been either blue or black. There was a person in both the driver and passenger seats. I took in all of this information with a casual glance around.

“Watch out for the Kia to the side and the Jeep behind us,” I radioed back to Cherry. She acknowledged and said she was waiting.

“Ok,” Tom said. “Keep an eye on them. I’m going to get ahead of this minivan and then we’ll go.”

While I waited for Tom to make his move, I tried to relax. There was no telling how this was going to work out. My beating heart was echoing throughout my whole body, and I felt a little nauseous.

I was glad that there hadn’t been time to eat after waking. I didn’t want food sloshing around in my belly just now. As a relaxation technique, I tried to imagine that I was out on a run, putting one foot after the other. Remembering the smell of the San Diego beach and the sound of the water, I took several deep breaths. It didn’t work. There was too much on the line.

The van took a right at the next intersection, spoiling our immediate plan. Cherry continued going straight because she didn’t have another option, but Tom followed the van around the corner.

We were now directly behind Gurley because the minivan had continued on without turning. My hackles went up. I’m not certain what it was that tipped me off. Maybe the van was going a bit slower or perhaps it was the industrial neighborhood we just entered.

I ignored the bad feeling because Shannon was in the van and we had to get her.

“Cherry,” I said speaking into the radio and consulting the map display on my tablet. “The next right is a dead end so wait for the one—”

The windshield of our car spidered as several bullets burst through and nearly took Tom in the head. Luckily, I’d been hunched over the tablet as I spoke into the radio, so I hadn’t been a target. I dropped the radio and tablet, pulling out my pistol instead of reaching for the rifle because I wanted the maneuverability. I rolled down the right window part of the way and then tried to use my elbow to break the glass. It bounced off and rather than continue to beat at it, I finished rolling it down, cursing the lost time.

“You’ll never hit them with that!” Tom yelled when he saw me taking aim out the window. He had shards of the windshield on him. “Use the F2000.”

I ignored Tom and fired several shots at the van’s tires. The bullets missed, and sparks flew up where they collided with the road.

“Use the rifle!”

“You wanna hold a rifle out of the window of a moving car?” I continued shooting as Tom sped up and crashed into the van, slamming me into the side of the open window and nearly tossing me out of the car. I screamed as my forearm took the brunt of the blow.

“Take them out—”

My gunfire drowned out Tom’s words, and I emptied my magazine, scoring a hit on the rear tire. I had time to reload before Tom rammed the van again. This time, I was prepared and braced myself.

The van didn’t slow.

“Armored tires,” I said.

“Ya think?”

“Jake, what going on?” Cherry squawked from the radio where it had fallen to the floor. That was when I noticed the slit in one of the back windows of the van. I fired several shots at that rear window. The bullets didn’t even come close.

“Careful!” Tom yelled when he saw what I was doing. “Shannon’s in there.”

“It’s reinforced,” I said.

“You didn’t know that!”

I snorted. Why would they have a slot if it wasn’t reinforced? Even though I hadn’t hit the slit, it was now closed.

Our car lurched, and there was the sound of shrieking metal as a car to the left side collided with us.

I was surprised to see that it was the Toyota that had sideswiped us. The woman in the passenger seat was bringing up a gun, and I fired several shots without thinking. The side window of our car shattered and I watched with sickening disgust as the woman’s tattooed face exploded into a bloody oblivion.

The Toyota slowed to a stop, and I spared a moment to see if there was any additional threat. It spun to the right and smacked into a parked car before coming to a stop. Maybe I’d hit the driver as well.

I didn’t have time dwell on the fact that I’d killed a woman because at that moment Tom accelerated and crashed into the back of the van. This time, the van slammed on its brakes and our car crumpled like a tin can.

I landed between the two front seats, inches away from metal that had jutted out. My body was racked with pain, but thankfully I hadn’t broken anything. Tom’s head was bloody and bruised. For some reason, the airbags had failed to deploy.

I heard doors open and looked up.

“Get moving,” I said, slipping back into the backseat and grabbing the F2000. “They’ll be on us soon.”

Tom looked around. “I can’t find my pistol.”

Several of the men removed wigs and tossed them aside. I felt a flash of remorse wash over me because of the way I’d manipulated Cherry. She’d been right; it was a trap from the start.

We could have avoided this whole situation if we’d listened to her. I felt foolish for how I’d been glad that we’d found them several times during our chase earlier. They’d been baiting us, and we’d been too frantic to notice.

“Can you run?” I asked, training my rifle on one of the men. I hesitated because I’d be firing through the windshield and I didn’t like the angle I had on the glass. The windshield had cracks running all through it, but it was still in place. I didn’t know how the bullet would react to the odd angle.

“No, I think I can walk. Sharp pain in my leg, though.”

I began to depress the trigger, hoping that the windshield wouldn’t mess things up, and was aiming at the head of the closest man when a vehicle plowed into him.

“Cherry!” Tom said.

I yanked the car door handle. Mercifully, it opened, and I ran around the back as Cherry backed the suburban up, leaving three men on the ground as she did. Two of them were still moving, but I doubted the third would ever get up again.

Several others were still in the van, and one or two had taken cover around the front of it. I picked one of those men and fired, taking him out.

That brought their attention to me, and I dove back behind the car.

“There’s too many,” I said as Tom crawled up beside me, he’d found his pistol and was gripping it with his right hand while using his left to brace himself on the car.

Cherry pulled the suburban up by us, and we made a break for the far side of it so we could use it as a shield. While we ran, I sprayed the van and surrounding area with bullets. We received return fire, and I felt a bullet go whizzing by my arm.

The next moment, the suburban was between them and me. Tom was already in, and I jumped in after him, careful to keep my head down. The vehicle wasn’t armored and wouldn’t give us much protection. Up front, Cherry had her head down and was screaming at us to move faster.

She sped away once she saw we were in. I counted to three before she peeked her head up over the steering wheel to see where she was going. I was awfully glad that we hadn’t run into anything during those few seconds.

The rear windows of the suburban shattered, so Tom and I remained hunkered down. The suburban swerved as Cherry tried to take cover while driving, shrinking down as far as she could in her seat. That wasn’t going to work, she needed cover fire.

Taking a deep breath, I sat up and turned towards the rear window, looking down the stock of the F2000. Most of the remaining men were examining their fallen comrades or trying to help the injured back into the van. I could just make out Gurley’s tall form staring after us, the fury on his face visible even from this distance. He was aiming a pistol our way.

I fired at the same time as him, missing him by a wide margin. I cursed and ducked, but his shot went wild too.

Gurley wasn’t the type of man to forget an insult. What I’d done to him in the club would eat away at him until he had a chance to even the score. Cherry was right, I’d need to look over my shoulder. It was a pity that my bullet had missed.

Cherry took a left through a red light, nearly crashing into another vehicle. The driver was flipping us off until she saw my rifle. Her face was a mixture of fear and anger; I could just imagine what she was thinking.

My smile faded as I looked back and saw a police car zoom up behind us. I looked at my watch. From the time that the first shots had been fired until now, it had been two or three minutes, maybe five at the most. The policeman must have been nearby and heard the shots.

“That’s quite the mess you boys made back there,” Cherry said. “See what happens when you don’t listen to me?”

“Wish we could tell the cop the people he wants are back there,” I said.

“Government agents doing this kind of damage, are you crazy?” Cherry asked. “No way would the cops keep something like this quiet.”

“Let’s do it Jake style then,” Tom said, grinning.

“K,” Cherry said.

“What do you mean?” I asked before I thought better of it. I already knew the answer.

“Slash and burn,” Cherry said. They both laughed. They wouldn’t have found it funny if they had the deaths of a lot of innocent people hanging around their heads.

“I prefer Cherry’s way,” I said, forcing a smile that I didn’t feel, “smash and kill.”

“Buckle up,” Cherry said as she increased speed. My phone rang, but I didn’t answer it.

“Beltran?” Tom asked. I nodded. Beltran was the last person I wanted to talk to right now. He claimed to have a sixth sense about knowing when we were in trouble and I was reluctant to answer the phone and confirm it for him.

A few seconds later, Cherry slammed on the brakes. Once the police car had crashed into us, she hit the gas and turned left while Tom tossed a grenade out the window.

“No!” I yelled.

Tom smiled. “Slash and burn.”

I watched in horror as the grenade bounced and started spewing smoke. A smoke grenade. How had I missed that?

My phone rang. Beltran again.

“You better get that,” Cherry said. “He’ll just keep calling till you do.”

I answered as more sirens filled the air.

“Is that the police?” Beltran asked. “Is it possible for you kids to do anything without setting the whole world on fire?”

“We’re handling it.”

“Try to leave the boys in blue alive, we’re all on the same team.”

“Doing our best,” I said as Tom leaned out the window and aimed my F2000 at another cop that had pulled up behind us and fired. I watched as the front wheel exploded. Cherry quickly put distance between the vehicle and us.

“Are you shooting at them now?” Beltran demanded, anger showing in his voice.

“Tom is releasing some tension.”

“Don’t kill them!” Beltran yelled.

“Tom, Beltran says we shouldn’t kill the police.”

“Noted,” Tom said.

“While you’ve been out causing havoc,” Beltran said, “Payne was seen leaving the bookstore in the mall. Next time he goes in we’re going to pick him up. I’ll need your help so try to get back here in one piece.” He paused. “And keep the police from following you home.”

“We’ll do our best,” I said hanging up and relaying Beltran’s message about not bringing the cops back with us.

Cherry rolled her eyes as she hit the gas.

 

 

20

The sun had long since reached the middle of the sky and was on its way down by the time we returned to Black Brick. It had been hours since we’d last seen a cop and I hoped that we’d completely left the chase behind.

While Cherry had driven like a mad woman, I’d bandaged up Tom’s leg so we could move to another car. His wound wasn’t bad, and I was relatively certain he would be on his feet in no time. We had changed vehicles twice in the last couple of hours and had finally decided it was safe enough to return.

“Five dead found at the scene,” Cherry said. I looked over from the wheel. I’d told Cherry she was risking our lives with her crazy driving and had taken the driver’s seat when we had switched cars.

“They give any details?” I asked, thinking about the two people that I’d shot—the woman with the tattoos and the man at the front of the van—and hoping I’d only killed two. I couldn’t remember if Tom had used his weapon or not, but if he had, he hadn’t used it much.

“Yep. Four men and one woman. Strange I didn’t see a woman. Must have been a bystander.”

I shook my head. “She was in the Toyota that sideswiped us.”

“I see. Looks like I got two with the car because they were run over.” She didn’t sound pleased or bothered, it was just a comment. I knew her well enough to know that it was a facade and that she was dealing with some inner turbulence. As far as I knew, it was the first time she’d killed on a mission.

That left two for me in addition to the woman, assuming Tom hadn’t gotten off a shot.

I tried to avoid thinking about the woman and found I couldn’t. It had happened so fast, and I’d acted out of instinct.

My phone beeped, disturbing my morbid thoughts. Once we had parked in Black Brick’s underground parking, I checked it. The email was from Kris via my student email account. In all the commotion, I’d forgotten about my interaction with her the evening before. It already felt like a distant memory, and it hadn’t even been more than a day yet.

After hesitating, I opened the email. Not opening it wouldn’t keep Beltran from reading it. If she mentioned the nightclub, the situation could easily spin out of control if Beltran didn’t hear about it from me first.

I almost laughed when I read it. Kris had taken a completely different tact. So according to her I’d visited last week and left something, huh?

I considered blowing it off, but I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t left anything at the club. The night had been a blur. Thinking about the pistol I’d lost on the train and not wanting another lecture from Beltran, I replied back that I’d meet her in the library.

Instead of getting in with Cherry and Tom at the elevator, I headed for the stairs.

“Where you going?” Cherry asked. “We need to debrief.”

“To check on something,” I said. “I’ll be back in a few.” The college campus was a ten-minute walk, and before leaving, I stopped off at my room in Black Brick and changed clothes, doing my best to try to look like I hadn’t been involved in a gunfight and been on the run all day.

Before I left, I checked the news to see if there had been any photos of us snapped during our escape from the police. If there were, they hadn’t been published yet, which meant that it would be safe enough to leave Black Brick.

I was close to the library when I heard a voice that made me cringe.

“Sam!” Thor said. “Hey, you weren’t in class yesterday. You should’ve been there, Peck went on a rant about big government. “

I tried to avoid rolling my eyes but wasn’t sure if I succeeded. “Course he did, that’s his job. Sit in his tower and tell everybody else in the world what they’re doing wrong.”

I couldn’t imagine Peck making the type of decisions that I made on a daily basis. People died because of what I did. Ridiculous hypothetical situations meant to test ethical waters couldn’t come close to dealing with reality.

“Yeah, that’s the problem with the real world and academia,” Thor said. “Little connection between the two.”

Thor was a scrawny kid who couldn’t have been more poorly named and came off as kind of slow. Could it have been an act? I couldn’t deny that Thor, like Kris, had an unhealthy amount of interest in me. I hadn’t suspected Kris of anything until she’d pointed a gun at me. Her pretty face had blinded me to the obvious. Was I letting Thor’s small size throw me off?

“Guess so,” I said. “Well gotta go, catching up with my study partner.”

“Oh really, what class?”

I had to think to make sure that Thor wasn’t in any of my other classes; it was obvious that he was going to try to come along. I couldn’t be sure if he shared any other classes, so I tried a different tactic.

“Not planning on doing much studying, just going to hang out.”

“Where at?”

“Don’t know, kind of leaving it up to her. It’s the girl I usually sit by in class.” I smiled and winked, he didn’t know about Shannon’s disappearance.

“Do you mind if I tag along? I have a couple of hours before my evening class.”

How daft was this kid? “Actually, I’d rather you didn’t, kind of hoping . . . you know.”

Thor had a blank look.

“Thinking of this as a date.”

“Oh! Sorry.”

“Maybe another time.”

“Yeah, sure.”

To rid myself of Thor, I pulled out my phone and said I needed to make a call before I went into the library. As Thor began to saunter away, I tried to keep my composure. I wished I knew how to get rid of the guy for good.

Once he was out of sight, I put my phone in my pocket, entered the library and went to the second floor. I circled around the shelves of books so that I could approach Kris from behind.

I’d told her to meet me at the desk I’d been using when we’d first met, but when I got there, it was already occupied by somebody else. Kris was sitting in a seat several tables back. The guy that was in the seat I’d used before had his head bent over a book, and I could see the orange tips of earplugs in his ears.

I approached, keeping one hand in my pocket on the hilt of my pistol. I wasn’t taking any chances. She turned when I was several feet away.

“We need to talk,” Kris said.

“Isn’t that why I came?” I asked.

“Not here. I guarantee you don’t want this overheard.”

I smiled. “There’s nothing we can’t talk about here.”

Kris shook her head. “Just remember, you asked for this. I’ve been tracking the guys that have her.” She pulled out a picture of Shannon strapped to a chair. Her hands and feet were bound. The gag running through her mouth was bloody. “I can help.”

I yanked Kris out of her chair and pinned her against the wall before I had a chance to realize what I was doing. My pistol was out and pushed into her gut.

“Where is she?” I demanded, remembering at the last moment to keep my voice quiet.

“Careful, people will see you.” The person sitting at the desk in front of us hadn’t looked back. I was a bit surprised he wasn’t more bothered with all the commotion I was causing. Even with his earplugs, he should have heard something. I suppose he was just too focused to pay attention. I could sometimes be that way too.

“Where is she?” I whispered.

“Let me go.” Kris jabbed me lightly with something sharp and pressed a knife into my stomach. “I didn’t take Shannon, but I know where she is.” I moved quickly and neutralized the knife before Kris could react. It fell to the floor, the carpet deadening the sound of the fall.

“I’m trying to help you. Killing me won’t get Shannon back.”

I pushed the pistol into her stomach, not caring if it hurt. Kris inhaled sharply and turned away as best she could. She’d known my real name and had revealed she knew Shannon’s as well. I shouldn’t have blown her off last night.

“Relax. I’ll tell you where—even take you there—but I need you to listen first.”

“Thirty seconds.” My voice was getting louder. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I should be more careful, but after everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, I wasn’t really in the mood to think things through.

“That kid’s going to hear you.”

“Twenty seconds,” I snapped.

“Jake, you don’t work for the government.”

“Time’s up. Where is Shannon?”

“Did you hear me?”

“Shannon. Tell me now.”

“Aren’t you curious how I know her real name?”

“I don’t care if you know how to get into Fort Knox unless Shannon is there.” I grabbed her arm and pulled her to the back of the library. The kid with the earplugs had never turned around. I was grateful for that but didn’t dwell on it. “If you’re lying…” I left the thought unfinished.

I dragged her into the stairwell and pushed her up against the wall and held the pistol to her neck. Kris stared back into my eyes as if I wasn’t armed.

“How did you find her?”

“Jake, I have resources that pale in comparison to Beltran’s.” So she knew about Beltran too.

Why was she claiming that I didn’t work for the government? Did she know something I didn’t?

The questions were pushed out of my mind when a thought occurred to me. “How long have you known where she is? Did you know last night?”

“No,” she said, but her face betrayed the lie. I let it go, for now.

“Think about it, Jake. Think of all the death you’ve seen working for Beltran.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “My name’s Sam.”

“Have it your way, Sam,” she said. “This way.” She pushed me away and stalked off.

Half an hour later, Kris pointed to an apartment complex. I tuned her out and focused on absorbing everything. It was an older building that was outfitted with fire escapes. The lobby had a doorman, who I assumed would be working for Martinez.

“You can’t get in from the front,” Kris said. “The lobby is under surveillance. We’ll go around the side.”

“Cameras?” I asked.

She nodded.

“The doorman?”

“He’s clean.”

“Why are you doing this? What’s your angle? Martinez screw you?”

“Now you want to talk?”

“Never mind,” I said. “Which side?”

Kris stepped away and put her hand up. “I’m willing to help you, but you have to listen to me after we are done.”

“You FBI?”

“Does it matter?” She sighed.

I pulled the photo of Shannon out of my pocket. It looked so real. If it was a fake, a lot of time had been spent doctoring it.

“I’ll listen,” I said. “After Shannon is safe.” I followed Kris down the side of the building where she led me to a window that was at the level of my chest. Kris stood on her tiptoes and knocked softly on the glass.

My phone rang. I didn’t answer and put it on silent. The call was from Beltran, probably wanting to know where I was. I’d ended up being gone longer than I thought, but I wasn’t about to pass up on a chance to get Shannon back.

The window opened, and a man held a hand out to Kris and pulled her in. He offered me a hand too, but I refused, grabbed the window ledge and climbed up.

There were three men in the room; all were armed with pistols and body armor. None of them looked surprised to see me, which probably meant that Kris was wearing a bug and that they’d heard our whole conversation. I hadn’t thought to check her before we set out. Several had hands on their pistols and watched me with wary eyes.

There was a twin bed in the corner with a stained mattress that was falling apart, and I caught a whiff of a stench that I didn’t dwell on. In the back of my mind, I became concerned about some of what I’d let slip when talking with Kris. I should have considered the possibility that our conversation was being recorded. At the moment, though, I was too worried about rescuing Shannon to care much beyond recognizing that I needed to be more careful.

One of the men held his hand to an ear. “They’re moving the women.” He had a good couple of inches on me and was wider than me by half. The muscles in his arms and chest gave away the fact that he spent a lot of his time working out. The other men were of a similar build, though one was substantially shorter than the others.

The short guy regarded me with open hostility. I didn’t blame him. I’d react the same way if somebody were threatening a member of my team in the way I’d done to Kris.

“They know we’re here?” Kris asked.

“Uncertain,” the big man said, with a menacing glance at me. “This way.” We walked out of the bedroom into a small living room with an adjoining kitchen. The place smelled of Clorox and Pine-Sol. The shag carpet was stained in several places, and the furniture was falling apart. The table legs looked like they’d been chewed on by a dog; one looked like it could break at any moment.

“The man that lives here was arrested a couple of days ago,” Kris said when she noticed me taking in the room. I noticed a dog in the corner with its head down. It looked like a cross between a lab and pit bull. It was still breathing, so I assumed that it had been tranquilized.

We followed the big man out of the apartment and down the hall until we came to a stop just before the end of the hallway. Another hallway was to the left and thirty feet down I could see an exit sign hanging above a door.

“This is where they’ll bring her,” Kris whispered. “Shannon and the others can’t know you had help. If you get into trouble and can’t handle this, we’ll come to your rescue. You don’t want me to do that though because I’ll have no choice but to take you all into custody.”

“Not FBI, huh?” I pulled up my pistol. She didn’t take the bait.

“Be in touch,” Kris said as they disappeared back the way they’d come. The short guy gave me one final glare before following the others into the room.

I moved to the side of the wall and listened. Several minutes later, I heard footsteps and waited until I heard the exit door open. When I came around the corner, I saw a man pushing Shannon through the exit. She looked worse than she had in the picture. Her head hung forward and she walked with a limp. There was a cut down the side of her face. I felt my chest tighten with fear but held off until they were out the door before I started to run.

I’d covered half the distance to the door when Payne came around the far corner, escorting Lisa. He cried out in alarm and pulled her back around the corner, firing off a shot. The bullet flew by to the side, leaving me untouched. I let them go and pushed through the exit.

Shannon’s captor was swinging his pistol my way as I fired. The shot took him in the chest, but I quickly touched off several more to make sure he went down. Shannon grabbed his gun and pushed him to the ground. I slammed the exit door shut behind me, realizing too late that it was locked from the outside.

Shannon kicked the dying man in the head. I put an arm around her waist and pulled her back. “He can’t hurt you.”

Shannon pulled away and kicked him again.

“Come on, we need to get Lisa.”

“She’s one of them,” Shannon said in between kicks.

“Are you sure?”

“She’s with them!” she said, snarling.

I put my arm around Shannon and pulled her away from the dying man. She turned to me, and I let go. Her face was contorted with rage, and for a moment, I was afraid she was going to attack me.

After a long pause, she turned away from her former captor.

I encircled her in my arms, but she remained rigid, so I let go of her. There were multiple bruises on her arms, and her face was covered in dried blood. Her right eye was puffy, and a deep purple ring encircled it. There were a series of red marks around her neck.

“What did they do to you?”

Shannon didn’t respond.

My phone vibrated. Beltran. As I answered and brought the phone to my ear, I noticed Shannon looking back at the man whose body lay in the doorway.

“Never again,” she whispered.

21

I paused outside the door to the classroom, not wanting to go in. We were ten minutes late, and my inclination was to skip it altogether. Shannon shrugged her shoulders as if to say that the decision was mine. There was a world of difference in her appearance now versus several days ago when I’d rescued her. Much of that was due to makeup, but it was nice to see her doing better even though she was keeping her distance from me. The scar was scabbed over and unfortunately it was wide enough that I figured she’d have a hard time covering it up with makeup. Perhaps a plastic surgeon would be able to do something about it for her.

Nothing would have made me happier than to skip class, but I didn’t want to give Beltran any additional reasons to be upset with me. He’d been furious that I’d gone after Shannon alone.

I opened the door and walked in. Heads turned our way, and I immediately thought better of it.

“Mr. Chever,” Peck said. The entire class turned their attention to us. Kris smiled and gave me a little wave. Normally, Shannon would have bristled at the attention, but she didn’t react. “I haven’t seen you in some time. Have you been well?”

“Been visiting family.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here because I haven’t had a chance to follow up with you on our topic last time. Did you read the articles I sent you?”

I remembered that he’d given me a personal reading assignment at the end of the last class I attended, several weeks ago. Peck had sent the email, but I had never opened it. Enough had happened in the meantime that it felt like months had passed.

“Never got around to it,” I said sitting down beside Shannon at the back of the class.

“I see. Please have the reading prepared for next time.”

I nodded my assent and pulled out my tablet and stopped paying attention.

“She’s looking at you again,” Shannon said a few minutes later. “It’s time you did something about this.”

I looked at Kris who rewarded me with a big toothy smile. “Forget about her, she’s a girl with a crush.” I felt bad lying to Shannon and wondered how she would react if she learned Kris had been instrumental in her rescue.

“You’re clearly with me,” Shannon said. “Why can’t she see that?”

I rolled my eyes but didn’t answer.

Out of sheer boredom, I finally opened the email from Peck. There were several attachments and a brief message instructing me to be ready to discuss the material during the next class. I was about to switch to something else when I noticed that this email was in my Black Brick inbox, not my school inbox.

How did Peck get that email address? I looked closer and noticed that Peck hadn’t used his school email address and that he was on the same email network as the rest of us from Black Brick.

This was an interesting and surprising development. Coincidence indeed that he’d singled me out on questions about assassination.

When class ended, Shannon was staring in the direction of Kris.

“Don’t do it,” I said, “it’s unnecessary.”

Shannon glared at me. “I don’t like it. A girl like that shouldn’t be interested in you.”

“I’m trying not to be offended.”

“Please, you’re an oaf, and you know it. You’re lucky to have me. There is something off about this.”

“You’re the lucky one!” I said, trying to sound playful but the tension between us caused it to fall flat. “She’s probably just out of high school, and the last thing that she needs is an agent shaking her down.” I tried to not sound sarcastic as I said agent, but Shannon must have noticed because I received a curious look. I hated it when I got those looks from her. It usually meant that I was in for some uncomfortable questions later on.

“Mr. Chever and Ms. Prosser,” Peck said, referring to Shannon’s alias, Jennifer Prosser. “Please stay. We need to talk about your absences.”

“You don’t think we work for the government?” Shannon asked when Peck had turned his attention to somebody else. “What proof do you have?” By her tone, I could tell that she had her doubts as well.

“Now isn’t the time. We’ll talk about this later. Promise.”

Peck stood at the front of the classroom by the door as if to keep us from bolting without talking to him, which I must admit I’d been thinking of doing.

“Not trying to sneak away are you?” Peck asked with a smile and a laugh as we approached. “You’ll be glad you stayed. Have a seat and wait a moment.”

Neither of us sat while we waited for the class to empty. Thor appeared to be waiting, and I growled under my breath. Hadn’t I been rude enough to the kid already? Most people would have taken the hint. Maybe Thor worked with Kris. I should have asked her about him.

When the last student left, Peck noticed Thor and encouraged him to move along. When Thor had gone, Peck locked the door and turned around.

“Why’d you lock the door?” Shannon demanded.

“He knows about us,” I said.

Peck smiled. “I see you finally read my email, Jake. I must admit I didn’t realize that I’d emailed you from that address until it was too late. When I never heard from you on the issue, I couldn’t decide if you missed it or just didn’t care. I’d thought that you would at least fake enough interest in my class to open it.”

I pulled out my pistol and aimed it at Professor Peck, Shannon did the same. For his part, Peck didn’t look surprised or threatened, but he did look at the back wall of the classroom. It seemed innocuous enough, but I wondered why his eyes went there of all places when we pointed our pistols at him.

“Forgive me for not trusting you,” Shannon said. “But I have little love for deception.”

“Ugh,” Peck said as he sat down in the chair behind his desk. “You want to do this the hard way. Isn’t it evidence enough that I know who your name is Jake and that I’m on the Black Brick network?” When neither of us moved, Peck made a motion with his hand. “Very well. Call Beltran and put him on speaker phone.”

“If you know the number,” I said, “how about you dial?

Shaking his head, Peck pulled out his phone, dialed, and set it on the desk.

“Henry,” Beltran said, answering the call.

“Jeff,” Peck said. “I have Jake and Shannon here. They’re having trouble believing they shouldn’t be holding me at gunpoint right now.”

“Can they hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Jake, Shannon. Disarm now.” We both lowered our pistols.

Beltran continued. “Make it quick Henry and send them back. Payne just entered the bookstore, and we need to get over there. Based on his past visits, we have about an hour before he leaves.”

Shannon shifted, and her lips came up in a silent snarl. She still hadn’t said much about her captivity, but I had been able to glean that Payne was the one who had tortured her.

“I’ll keep it short.” Peck smiled as he disconnected the phone. “Can you put your pistols away? Thanks.”

I tried to keep my voice even. “You’ve been taking a risk, grilling me about assassination and soldiers. I had begun to wonder if something was up.”

“Of course you did. I meant for you to. I was testing you. The two of you have reached a critical point in your experience that most agents don’t reach for years. Frankly, I’m concerned that the stress is getting to you.

“Shannon, Beltran briefed me on what happened. I can’t tell you how terrible I feel and can’t help but feel responsible. Beltran and I recruited Martinez personally, and I oversaw his training. He was like a son to me, and to see the evil he has become capable of causes me great distress.

“Jake, I know the deaths of those from the train weigh on your soul. I’d call you a hero if I didn’t know that you’d find that to be a mockery of your self-deprecation.

“Life has not been kind to either of you, but I must say that I’m proud of how you are turning out. You’re both on track to be the best agents I’ve had, and I’d hate to think that your desire to continue was waning because of events that frankly have been quite unusual. I’ve had agents that have never fired a shot on a mission. Already your experience has been the complete opposite of that, and neither of you has taken your oaths.”

“I thought we worked for the government?” I said. “Not you.”

“So you do, through me. What better cover than a college professor? Who would suspect a man who spends his time in an ivory tower?”

“So who do we work for?” I asked.

“The government, obviously.”

I rolled my eyes. “I need to know more than that.”

“It’s the only answer you’ll get.”

“Why are you breaking cover?” Shannon asked. “We’re not even agents yet. We could easily ruin what you have spent years developing.”

“The commitment I’ve seen from the two of you has convinced me that I needed to assure you that the sacrifices you have made have a purpose.”

“The news has been calling us terrorists.”

“What does the press know? Why do you care what bloggers say? The circumstances were beyond our control. You didn’t put a bomb on that train and took great pains to get it off. We work outside the system. Why do you think that we have to keep our connections a secret? Nobody, not even Beltran, knows how we get our funds and who provides us with orders.”

“So what we do isn’t technically legal?” Shannon asked.

Peck smiled. “It’s a dark gray area, which is why nobody can know about it.”

“‘When the government takes actions beyond the bounds of the constitution, the very freedoms of the people are threatened,’” I said, quoting the subtitle of the textbook that Peck had written for our class.

“Using my own words to condemn me.” Peck smiled. “Sacrifices must be made.”

I snorted. “I feel guilty about the blood on my hands. Do you?”

“That’s perfectly natural, and I’d be worried if you didn’t. I bear part of that blame and will do my best to help you deal with it, but this is the sacrifice your country asks of you. Your experiences, though terrible, have opened your eyes to the real world. It’s ugly and violent. Death can come suddenly without rhyme or reason. Evil people conspire to take this country apart a piece at a time. We fight to keep that from happening.”

“By stealing financial records and spying on companies.”

“Our actions transcend corporate greed and profit,” Peck held my gaze. “You need to decide what you believe.” He looked at his watch. “I need to be going and so do you. Think about it.” He picked up his bag and left.

We were halfway home when Shannon broke the silence that had dominated most of our walk. No doubt her reticence towards me also had something to do with it. Part of it was due to the open environment we were in; and for the last, we were still dealing with the shock of learning Peck was at our head. No wonder why Beltran had been so insistent we make it to class today, he’d probably known what Peck was going to do.

“You must admit that his cover is very good,” Shannon said. “I would never have suspected him of being our boss.”

“This smells,” I said.

“I trust Beltran and Peck to see the big picture. Do you?”

“What about the innocent people that have been hurt by our methods?”

“Payne bombed that train, stop blaming yourself.”

“Eleven of the dead were children. Beltran knew Payne would be following Lauren and didn’t tell us.”

“Beltran can’t tell the future any better than you or me.”

I thought about how Tom had shot at the police during our escape the other day. “Would the President or Congress condone our recent actions?”

“Of course not,” Shannon said, “that’s why Peck called this a dark gray area.”

“The trail of bodies behind us continues to grow.”

“You need to get past this.”

I didn’t respond because I could tell that I was getting nowhere with her. Right before our conversation with Peck, she’d expressed to me her doubts. Now that Peck had said his piece, she wasn’t concerned any longer. Whatever had been bothering her was no longer an issue.

Peck had managed to allay Shannon’s concerns, but mine were continuing to grow.

 

22

I tapped my fingers on the wheel while I waited for our parking receipt to print. I had a bad feeling about today, and I couldn’t do anything to shake it. I was afraid that Martinez had planted the evidence that had led us to the bookstore in the mall. I’d tried convincing Beltran that it was a trap, but he was insistent that we would be careful. Once the ticket appeared, I grabbed it and proceeded into the mall parking garage. It had been close to forty-five minutes since Peck had called Beltran. Payne was due to leave soon.

“You going to keep your head on straight?” Beltran asked as I parked. It was the first time Beltran had accompanied me on a mission in some time. While he hadn’t said as much, I believed it was because he didn’t trust Shannon to not shoot Payne as soon as she saw him. She was waiting a block away and would pull up to the mall once we’d grabbed Payne. Beltran probably figured it would be safer that way, but I wouldn’t put it past her to blow him away once we had him in custody.

“I was wondering the same thing about you,” I said, ignoring his gaze as I parked. I refrained from slamming the door as I left the car and headed up into the mall. Beltran would follow me in a few minutes.

This was insane, and Beltran knew it. A takedown in public like this wasn’t going to be a smooth process. Especially because we were dealing with a madman who’d already proven his ability to kill indiscriminately.

The food court was packed, and as I passed by a mother with a baby, I considered warning them to leave but couldn’t because that would risk blowing our cover. Beltran might believe these people were safe, but I couldn’t convince myself that was the case.

Cherry, who’d come over a few minutes before us with Tom, was already sitting at a table in the middle of the courtyard sipping on a drink. The bookstore was visible from where she was sitting. She looked relaxed, but underneath that calm exterior, I was sure she was still conflicted in her feelings for Martinez.

Tom was eating a sandwich nearby, and it was obvious that I wasn’t the only one unhappy with this plan. I circled around the courtyard looking like I was trying to make a decision for dinner. It wouldn’t fool Martinez or Payne if they spotted me, but it didn’t hurt to keep up the pretense. Nobody jumped out as being particularly worrisome, but neither had the woman I’d shot the other morning.

Beltran entered the food court at the same time I got in line to buy a pretzel. He looked my direction but didn’t make eye contact. How long had it been since he had been in the field? This was his first mission with us in more than six months.

I purchased my pretzel, pulled out my phone and pretended to make a call. Every so often I took a small bite as I chatted away with my imaginary friend.

After Beltran had purchased Chinese food from a place that sold it by the plate, he sat at a bar and pulled out his phone to read. Fifteen minutes later, when I noted that Beltran had finally taken a bite of the food, I had long since finished my pretzel.

The plan was to wait for Payne to come out of the bookstore before grabbing him. If everything went according to plan, we’d be leaving the building at the same time Shannon pulled up.

There was a sudden movement on the second level just above the food court that drew my attention. My hand was halfway to my pistol before I noticed that it was just some kids playing around.

I looked back at the woman with the baby and couldn’t help but feel relief that they had left.

That was when I noticed that she’d left the baby carrier underneath the table. I took a step towards it and saw the baby was still in the carrier. Several steps closer and I could see it was a doll and could just make out some wires. Cursing, I wished that I had tried harder to keep Beltran from doing this.

I turned to Beltran; he was looking right at me.

“Bomb,” I said. Several people nearby looked up when I spoke, but Beltran was already walking away before I repeated it again.

“Bomb,” I cried out. “Everybody run!”

People around me were slowly starting to look around, and the talk began to subside. I repeated myself and ran towards a table of children. The adult women at the table hadn’t heard me. I grabbed the two of them by the shoulders.

“Take your children and run,” I yelled. “There’s a bomb.”

One of the women scooped up a young boy who dropped his hamburger and started to cry. The other grabbed one of the other children, but several were too small to understand the sudden urgency in their mother’s voice. I picked up both of them and ran towards the glass doors, yelling as I went.

I had just set the children down outside on a spot of grass when a deep rumbling explosion blasted out the glass doors of the entrance. I put my arms around the children, pushing them down to the ground underneath me.

When it was over, I shook my head trying to clear it. I didn’t realize that the children were crying until I saw their tear-streaked faces. Not knowing how to comfort them, I surveyed the scene. Both Cherry and Tom had made it out. Cherry was helping an older woman, and I could make out the tears running down Cherry’s face. I wondered what was going through her mind.

Martinez had just tried to kill her. She hadn’t said as much, but I could tell that Cherry had been hoping that Martinez’s feelings for her would offer her some protection. Whatever had happened between them, she had believed it was real.

What a cruel way for it to be ripped away.

The glass doors were shattered, and smoke was billowing out. I recognized one of the women from the table and went to her, asking if she was all right. She didn’t hear me and my own voice sounded far away. I looked her over and determined that she was going to be ok. Her face had been scuffed up, but the child she carried was more or less unharmed. I went in search of the other mother.

I found her just before the glass doors. The explosion had knocked her to the ground, and her head was bleeding. I saw movement underneath her and pulled out a young boy. He was crying, and his face was covered in blood. I pulled off my jacket and did my best to wipe off the boy’s face. It was a tedious task, but I determined that the boy’s scraped face was the only place he was bleeding. I put the boy in the jacket and took him to the other woman.

I had just returned to the wounded woman when a second smaller explosion sent me covering her. I stayed on my knees to keep from hurting her further.

When it was over, I decided to risk moving her, in case there were still more bombs. I carried the woman over to her children.

She opened her eyes when I set her on the ground. One of the children pounced on her, and she tried to say something soothing, but it came out as a gurgle.

I realized several moments too late that I shouldn’t have brought her over. Her children didn’t need to see her like this. It might be their final memory of her.

The woman reached for the boy but couldn’t quite put her arm around him. I helped her arm up into an embrace of the child. The other woman placed the young crying boy that was wrapped in my jacket on the woman’s chest. She took a final look at her children and then stopped breathing.

I felt utterly powerless as I surveyed the scene, tears falling down my face. Tom and Cherry were already walking away. I needed to do the same but was still in shock and not thinking too clearly. Close to fifty people had made it out before the explosion. I tried not to think of all those who had still been inside when the bomb had gone off.

Out of the corner of my eye, an individual caught my attention. I focused on him and recognized him from behind.

It was Payne. He had walked calmly from the burning mall. The arrogance of the man filled me with rage.

Letting go of the woman as gently as I could, I chased after him, taking my pistol out as I did.

When I noticed that he was heading towards a car that had just pulled up, I ran faster until I saw I wouldn’t make it in time. Coming to a halt, I brought up my pistol, took aim and fired.

The first shot went through a window on the passenger side and out the driver’s side. Glass fell to the street as Payne opened the door and jumped in, ducking down. By that time, I was already on my fourth shot. The second had missed, having gone into the door, but the third might have been a hit.

As the car sped away, I continued to shoot. The rear windshield cracked but maintained its integrity. Even though they were out of range, I fired several more shots until they turned a corner.

Cursing, I ran up to the street corner where the car had been moments before and found some blood in addition to the broken glass. I’d hit him. Hoping it was a fatal shot or at least a wound bad enough to force him to the hospital, I took off at a run.

 

 

23

I rubbed my ears and tried yawning. I could hear, but it felt like cotton had been rammed down into them, forcing me to partially rely on lip reading. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t guarding my tongue as closely as I should have been.

Beltran stood at the front of the conference room, red in the face, gripping a whiteboard marker in a fist that was turning purple. At any moment, steam might start coming out of his ears. On any other day, that thought would have made me chuckle. It was just as well that I wasn’t in that kind of mood, laughing at Beltran might push him over the edge, and I wasn’t sure that I was prepared to face that today.

Tom and Cherry sat to either side of me. Cherry was looking away from Beltran trying to pretend that she was somewhere else. Tom was just as avidly avoiding the conversation by concentrating on his tablet.

“You left,” I said, repeating my accusation for the third time.

“What was I supposed to do?” Beltran asked, with his teeth bared and lips tight across them. “We only had moments to get out. How can you of all people question me about the casualty count? You’ve racked up the most collateral damage of any of my agents. Think of that before you accuse me.”

“I didn’t walk away from people I could save.”

“I could have been killed as well and then where would we be? If we die, who will be left to hunt Martinez and Payne? Our responsibility is greater than the life of any single individual.”

“Forty-three dead and over seventy wounded. That’s a lot more than a single individual.”

“I don’t need to remind you of the considerable effort it’s taken to keep the lid on your involvement in the train bombing, Bruce Andrew’s murder, your rescue of Shannon, and the mess you guys made running from the cops! I protected you. All of you. On top of that, I now have your shooting at the mall to contend with which I wouldn’t mind so much if you would have killed him.”

“Us?” I snorted, standing up. “You protected Black Brick. We’re supposed to be saving lives, not ruining them.”

“We make tough decisions that nobody else can.” Beltran stared at me. “Take some time. That woman dying in your arms. I get it. You need to sort this out. Just don’t take too long. We need—” I didn’t hear the rest because I slammed the door behind me.

How could Beltran be so casual about death? I understood his rationale, but he was wrong. How many parents had died today? I had signed up to fight people like the monster that had killed my own parents. No child should have their parents ripped away from them. The thought of all the dead and wounded made me want to punch a wall. Unfortunately, the closest wall was made of brick.

As I left Black Brick and walked towards the arboretum on campus, I called Shannon, but she didn’t answer. I’d talked to her briefly after the mall, and she was distant. Hopefully, the growing distance between us would subside. I wasn’t quite ready to admit that things between us might never be the same.

She hadn’t talked yet about what Payne had done to her or why. The torture didn’t make sense because there wasn’t anything she knew that Martinez didn’t. Because of the pain and ordeal she’d been through, I’d been hesitant to push her, and Beltran had been the same way. Knowing Shannon as I did, it wouldn’t do any good until she was ready to talk anyway.

The sun went behind a cloud, and it suited my gloomy thoughts. If I lost my job and Shannon, where would that leave me? I once tracked down my parent’s genealogy, hoping that I might find a relative but came up with nothing.

How different my life would have been if I’d had a living grandparent, aunt or uncle. I’d never have gone to the orphanage and Beltran wouldn’t have recruited me. But I would never have known Shannon.

It hadn’t happened that way and thinking about it wouldn’t change it. I tried to not let my jealousy overcome me as I observed the other students on campus going about their happy lives.

I walked along the large pond of the arboretum and sat down on a bench on the eastern side where I could see the city. Ducks were playing around in the pond and several approached as if expecting food. The pond smelled, but at the moment, I didn’t care.

“Sorry little guys, I came empty handed.”

There were footsteps from behind me. “Have some of mine,” Kris said. I didn’t turn. I should have expected her to find me. She was developing an annoying habit of turning up whenever I was alone.

When I didn’t acknowledge her presence, Kris sat beside me and begun tearing off pieces of bread for the ducks. She was wearing a light maroon sweater with black pants and a gold colored scarf. In her hand, she was holding half a bag of bread. There was a part of me that recognized she was looking really good, but the other much larger part of me that was bursting at the seams didn’t care.

“I heard about the mall,” Kris said.

“Who hasn’t? Look, I promised to listen and nothing else.”

“How’s Shannon?” Kris asked.

“Why didn’t you tell me you knew where she was at the club? You would have saved me a lot of trouble.”

“We’d have gotten there eventually.”

I growled. “When?”

“I don’t blame you for not trusting me, but that needs to change. Have you ever wondered who Beltran reports to?”

“If you think he’s lying about being with the government, he’s remarkably well connected with law enforcement.”

“There are corrupt officers on his payroll,” Kris said, “but most of what he does is smoke and mirrors. I bet if you think about it, you’ll realize that the actual instances where he was able to pull strings are few and far in between.”

“Where’s your proof?” I asked. When she didn’t respond, I figured that I’d listened long enough and stood to leave. Kris grabbed my hand.

“Stay for the pictures.” She flashed a smile and handed me a heavy manila envelope. My first instinct was to throw the pictures back at her, but I had just asked her for proof.

I sat back down, lifted the flap, and pulled out the photos. The first was of a younger Beltran standing in front of what looked like a bamboo house. I lifted an eyebrow.

“Keep going,” Kris said, “that’s just to set the scene.”

I continued to flip through the pictures of Beltran, and it turned out he was in a tropical village. Several photos showed him with people that looked to be of South American descent, and others showed him walking through a field of plants. It took me several moments to realize I was looking at a marijuana field. The pictures continued to depict Beltran with various other people, illegal drugs, and related paraphernalia.

One of the photographs depicted Beltran standing over a pit. I was unprepared for the next picture and dry heaved. It was the same pit at a better angle, and I could tell that Beltran was surveying a mass grave of men, women, and children. The next several pictures showed men throwing bodies into the pit. The last photo was Beltran cracking a smile with a well-dressed man in a dark suit while they surveyed the scene.

“This can’t be real,” I said, unable to look away from the picture. “They’re fakes or Beltran was undercover.”

“They aren’t and he wasn’t.”

I flipped through the pictures of the pit again, even though it made me sick, and I tried to spot incongruities. If the pictures had been doctored, there would be something to give it away.

When I came again to the picture of Beltran joking around with the man in the suit, I brought it closer and examined it. Of all the pictures, it was the one that stuck out to me as a fake. How depraved would two people have to be to make jokes at the site of a mass burial?

“I am sorry,” Kris said.

“How old are these pictures?”

“Decade or more.”

I looked more closely at the picture. “This proves nothing.”

“No, it doesn’t. But what do you believe?”

I thought back to Beltran’s cowardly exit from the mall and the women and children he’d left to fend for themselves. I couldn’t help but make a connection between the two, but was that fair? Just because a man was a coward, that didn’t mean he did evil things like this.

“I don’t know what to believe, and I certainly won’t be able to decide today.”

“Of course,” she said.

“What do you want from me?”

Kris took out another piece of bread and tore it into pieces for the ducks. The sour smell of the pond combined with the heat of the day was making the air pungent. She continued to study the ducks playing in the pond. To the casual observer, it was supposed to look like she was struggling with what came next. I figured it was an act.

“I want to help you,” Kris said, “but I’m not going to lie. I’d gladly step over your dead, mutilated corpse to bring Beltran down. I hope it doesn’t come to that, though.”

I laughed. “That’s the first thing you’ve said that I believe.” I reached for the bread bag, took a slice and began to shred it, tossing the pieces into the pond. Kris smiled.

“Before we go further, you need to decide what you believe.”

“There won’t be anything further. I listened, and that’s it.”

“That man that killed your father, Stanley Redder, the one you left alive. You ever wonder who he was working with?”

I paused. The change in direction took me off guard, but it wasn’t particularly startling. She’d been talking about my parents that night at the club. I wondered about where she was getting her information. Not many people knew that I’d killed one of my parent’s murderers. “No. He’s rotting in jail. I read the police report, but it didn’t have anything useful.

I remembered very clearly the man talking on his cell phone while looking over the body of my dead mother after he’d secured me to a chair with duct tape.

“What if I told you I had evidence of who was really behind the death of your parents?”

I bit my lip. The other day, she’d said my mother was still alive. Had she got the facts wrong or was she hiding something?

“You don’t.”

“You sure about that?”

“Ya.”

“Are you sure that the right man is sitting in jail? You ever been back?”

“Course not,” I said, standing. She was going too far.

“Make the trip. I promise you’ll be interested in what you find.”

Shaking my head, I left without another word. The pictures and her claims were disturbing, but I was far more bothered by her attempt to leverage the deaths of my parents for her own purposes.

I didn’t know where she was going with all this or how she’d found out about my actions on the day my parents died, but one thing was certain, I wasn’t going to become her pawn. She could play her games with somebody else.

 

 

 

24

I looked up from my tablet and noted that I still had ten minutes before I needed to get off the train. I had too many questions and what Kris had said to me about my parent’s killer was eating away at me. Beltran had insisted everybody take the day off and I’d been only too happy to have a break.

I’d looked for pictures of Stanley Redder online, but the only one I’d found had been of him being led from the courthouse. His face had been covered. I should have been able to find his mugshots, and it bothered me that I hadn’t.

Had my parents been killed so Beltran and Peck could recruit me? I didn’t know of a single agent who didn’t come from a background like mine. Redder had called somebody else the day he and his partner had murdered my parents. Who? Peck? Beltran?

If I’d learned anything during the last couple of weeks, coincidences shouldn’t be ignored. When Kris turned up while I was alone in the library wanting to talk, I should have seen through that right away. Something in the back of my mind told me that this led to paranoia, but I refused to pay it heed. Paranoia was a useful asset in this business.

After the incident with my parents, I’d never been interviewed by the police about what had happened. As an adult, I’d just chalked it up to shoddy police work, but I couldn’t deny that it was yet another coincidence tied to that day.

I shook my head. This was taking me nowhere. And to what end would that serve? It was unthinkable that Peck and Beltran had been involved in the murder of my parents, but the coincidence nagged at me like a hanging nail.

There was somebody reading the paper on the other side of the car, a picture of the train bombing was on the cover. The headline read, “Government Conspiracy?”

I wondered if maybe somebody had finally been tipped to our involvement, but then I noticed that I was looking at the front page of a gossip rag.

“Terrible shame,” said a woman said who sat beside me. She’d noticed me staring at the paper. “I have a friend whose son died in that explosion.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, trying to avoid eye contact and hoping that she would not feel inclined to further engage in conversation.

“Ten years old. I have a good mind to march down to the Philly Tattle Tale and give them a piece of my mind. Trying to exploit a terrible strategy like this. Have they no respect for the dead?” She sputtered and paused. “Sure, I suppose it’s possible a rogue government agency could have had something to do with it. Sometimes fingers on the same hand have no idea what the others are up to.”

“You’re one of those?” I asked “Buying into the idea that the government somehow benefits from bringing tragedy to its citizens.”

“Not the government in general, corrupt individuals maybe, but I wouldn’t believe it unless I saw iron-clad evidence of guilt.”

Lady, you have no idea, I thought. I wondered what she’d do if I confessed to my involvement.

She handed me a flier. It was titled “In Memory of Jerry Cala.” I stared at the large picture of the young boy and struggled to keep my face straight. Below were other smaller pictures depicting the boy with a soccer ball, at the beach, and at a birthday party with friends.

“That’s a terrible shame,” I said. “Mind if I keep this?”

“Go ahead.”

I thanked her, folded it up and put it away. I’m not sure what made me ask for it, but I figured remembering him was the least I could do for a life that had ended because of a decision I’d made.

When it came time for my stop, I almost didn’t get off. But I’d come this far, and I wanted to know if there was something to Kris’ implication that Redder was somehow innocent. I got off the train at the last possible second.

An hour later, when I looked up as Redder walked into the room and sat down in front of me, I knew that Kris had been right. This wasn’t the man who killed my parents. If she was right about this, what should I think of her assertions that I didn’t work for the government?

“What you want?” the man asked from the other side of the glass.

I looked into the face of the wrongfully imprisoned man and couldn’t find the right words to say. “Sorry, it sucks to be you,” didn’t seem adequate, and I didn’t want to give the man hope that I could somehow free him. Jake Ramsey was officially dead and would be able to do nothing for this man. That had been part of the deal when Beltran had recruited me.

“Made a mistake. Thought you were somebody else.” I stood and tried to avoid looking back into the man’s eyes. I felt bad for this innocent man serving a life sentence with no hope of exoneration. I wished I could do something for him, but at the moment I had too many other problems to deal with.

An hour later, I was on the train and almost to my stop when Beltran called. When I answered, I had a hard time paying attention as he told me that Martinez had been spotted by the surveillance team we kept on Vargo. He ordered me back to Black Brick so we could prepare to capture Martinez when he came out of the new Diggon headquarters. I found myself telling him I was ten minutes away before hanging up.

 

 

 

 

25

Shannon was in the driver seat of our Dodge Charger, and I sat on the passenger side. I wasn’t certain, but I suspected that Beltran had a thing for this type of car because Black Brick had a fleet of the Chargers. After our botched rescue attempt the other day when we abandoned the Charger, he’d almost been more concerned about the loss of the Charger than the fact we’d spent all day evading the police.

I had my rifle, the F2000 on my lap and it was covered with my jacket. It wasn’t my favorite weapon, but the bullpup design was easier to work with in many of the situations we encountered. We’d already been waiting for close to an hour, during which time, Shannon and I had barely spoken.

After trying several times to start a conversation with her, I’d given up and resigned myself to the awkward silence. I missed the way that Shannon had been before the kidnapping.

I should have been able to talk to her about the fact that the wrong man was in jail for killing my parents, but I didn’t know that I could trust her anymore because she’d changed.

Shaking my head, I surveyed the area. We were parked on a road that ran parallel to Diggon’s new headquarters. Cherry and Tom were several cars ahead of us. The space between us and the new building was nothing short of ostentatious. There were flower gardens, art exhibits, and a large amphitheater. My eyes stopped on the zoo.

While the zoo had its own place beside the tower, there were several impressive wildlife exhibits that led up to the massive complex. The closest to us featured grizzly bears in a sprawling habitat. I doubted most captive grizzly bears had it so lucky.

From here, although our heavily tinted windows made it hard to get a good view of them, I could make out several of the bears moving around. It had warmed up in the last few days, and I wondered how recently the bears had come out of hibernation.

I looked past the habitat, and beyond the wide expanse of gardens to the tower rising into the sky. It was my first time getting this close to the new Diggon building. I’d seen it go up from a distance while the construction had been underway because it was impossible to miss the building as it towered over most of the others in the city, but I’d never bothered to get closer.

Martinez was inside the Diggon headquarters and apparently already causing a scene because people in yellow jackets—Diggon Security—were milling around the entrance and had the place on lockdown. Originally, our orders had been to go in after Martinez, but we’d arrived too late and were now watching from a distance.

There was a flurry of activity near the entrance, and several Humvees arrived with more armed guards. Even though there weren’t any roads close to the front of the building, the sidewalks were wide enough to function as such. Diggon was quickly amassing a small army outside.

Had Martinez gone suicidal?

If he had, then nothing we did here would make a difference, and I’d have a better and safer view of it from a couch once the media caught wind of this. I looked at my watch and sighed.

I didn’t really know what Beltran expected us to do. Whatever was happening inside, the Diggon security force had a lot more firepower than we did. There weren’t any police on the scene yet, but that wouldn’t last for long. If they showed up, we’d need to get out of the way quickly in case some of the officers recognized us.

“I want Martinez and Payne dead.” It was the first Shannon had spoken since we’d arrived here.

“So kill them,” I said. “Cherry will probably help with Martinez if you ask.”

There had been a change in Cherry since the mall bombing. She’d barely been able to veil her struggle with her feelings for Martinez before. Now there was a quiet rage to her. I hoped for her sake it would pass soon.

Shannon turned to look at me, catching me off guard. For most of the trip, she’d been doing her best to pretend I didn’t exist.

By the expression on her face, I could tell what she was going to say next. I’d already been preparing for the conversation, if not the timing of it. Like the feeling I sometimes got just before vomiting, I knew that the moment had come.

“Jake, we’re through.”

“I figured.” It still felt like a double punch to the gut.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with what happened to me. I was planning to end it anyway before all this happened. Besides, it’s not like there really is much to end. We had several nights together, that’s all.” Shannon looked away, and her face went pale.

“You suck at timing,” I said. I didn’t like the way she characterized our relationship, it had been much more than just a few nights.

“I make no apology.”

I looked away. Even though I’d been expecting this, the moment took on a surreal effect. Shannon was breaking up with me in a situation where we might end up depending on each other for our lives.

“Let’s talk about this later,” I said.

“We won’t. I’m going to tell Beltran about our relationship and request a new partner.”

“You don’t think he already knows?”

“Did you tell him?”

I shook my head. “I kind of wonder if Beltran wasn’t trying to get us to fall for each other. Almost everything he has done pushed us towards one another. It hasn’t only worked on us.”

Shannon snorted, her whole body tensed. “Are you saying we should stay together because Beltran wants us to be together?”

“No, I accept the breakup. What I’m pointing out is—”

“It’s clear that you haven’t accepted anything.”

“Things are complicated.”

“Only because you choose to make them that way.”

I shut up. I couldn’t help but feel like one of the final things that had been keeping me from leaving this job had dropped away. I should have been angry, but I wasn’t. I was relieved. Once Martinez and Payne were neutralized, and I’d done my part to clean up this mess, I’d quit. It wouldn’t matter then whether I worked for the government or not.

“There he is,” Cherry’s voice crackled over the radio. “He really wants to be found, doesn’t he?”

I was shocked to see Martinez out in the open. He was pushing Lane Vargo in front of him with a pistol to Vargo’s head. If this didn’t have “Come find me” written all over it, I don’t know what did. I couldn’t decide if Martinez was arrogant or if he really did have a death wish.

Martinez had appeared out of nowhere and was heading towards the street where we were parked. There must have been an exit somewhere nearby to allow him to escape the security guards. The closest landmark to Martinez was a small building by the grizzly bear exhibit. I was surprised that the Diggon security team hadn’t locked it down as well.

Even though he moved as if he had all the time in the world, it wouldn’t be long before the Diggon security team picked up on this. I looked at the security team members outside the building. None of them appeared to be looking our way at the moment, but I wasn’t about to pull out binoculars to get a better look. I didn’t want to do anything that would call attention to us. It would look bad if we were discovered with the rifle I had on my lap.

Vargo was wearing a suit with a bright red tie and was bleeding from the side of his head. It was the first I’d seen of him since the night we’d been tasked with giving him protection at the restaurant. Since that time, I’d made a regular habit of reviewing the logs our surveillance team had been making, but there had never been another indication of anything tying him to Jason Kurt, Payne, or even Martinez.

I was uncertain about what to do and could tell Shannon had the same dilemma. Martinez was likely to be noticed at any moment, and we didn’t want to get caught in the middle.

If he was able to get Vargo away, we could follow him until we knew where he was taking Vargo. After the botched attempt that we had the other day during the high-speed chase, I wasn’t too keen to try the same sort of thing again.

“Here’s your chance,” I said to Shannon, nodding my head towards the rifle hidden underneath my jacket. “You should be able to make that shot without hurting Vargo.”

“A bullet to the head is too easy,” Shannon said, not making a move towards the rifle. “After Beltran gets what he wants…” She didn’t finish her thought.

“Torturing him won’t bring you peace,” I said as I thought of bringing up the rifle and looking through the scope at Martinez. He was a heartbeat away. The image of Shannon going to town on Martinez surfaced in my mind, and I couldn’t shake it. That wouldn’t be good for her. “I could do this for you.”

“Martinez’s finger is on the trigger. You’ll kill Vargo too. Honestly, do I have to do all the thinking for you?” Her voice was cold.

“If I’m not at the top of my game,” I said, “tell that to my ex. She picked a great time to dump me.”

“Sure,” Shannon muttered, “throw that in my face.”

We sat in silence watching Martinez walk forward. He was taking his time. What was his game? Did he want Diggon security to find him?

“Smile,” Cherry said over the radio. “We’re on camera.” Whatever thought I might have had of intervening disappeared when I looked up and saw a helicopter with Channel 9 blazoned across the side. Martinez must have tipped off the media. His actions were beginning to make more sense.

The police wouldn’t be far behind. We’d been lucky so far that none of our recent shenanigans had ended up on a video posted to the internet, and I didn’t want to press our luck. The best the police had of us from the other day were a few blurry photographs and sketches that could have been anybody.

Several armed men approached Martinez and based on his reaction, I could tell they were with him. They escorted Martinez and Vargo to a suburban waiting on the street just ahead of where Cherry and Tom’s Charger was parked.

The bird had shown up just in time to record footage of Martinez loading Vargo into their vehicle and driving off. Several of his men moved toward a different car, I couldn’t tell the make or model from my vantage point.

Shannon started our car.

“We should let them go,” I said. “We don’t want to be on TV.”

Shannon didn’t respond as she put the car in gear and moved forward. Martinez’s men retrieved rifles from their car. At first, I thought they were going to target us, but they began firing at the Diggon security force.

I had to double check to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Martinez had managed to escape with Vargo right under their nose, and now he was going to call attention to what he’d done? He must want a media circus.

Cherry and Tom were in front of us, and the suburban was several cars ahead of them.

I picked up the radio and was about to coordinate a strategy for following Martinez that would keep us from getting noticed when the back doors of the suburban opened and men began firing our way.

I couldn’t tell if they’d been lashed to the inside of the vehicle to keep from falling out, but something had to be keeping them on their feet. Unfortunately, the height advantage of their vehicle gave them the ability to target us even though we weren’t directly behind them.

Flashes from their gunfire illuminated the inside of their vehicle as bullets riddled Cherry and Tom’s car as well. Grabbing my pistol, I rolled down my window and opened fire, taking care to brace myself. I hated shooting from a moving vehicle.

“Watch out,” Shannon screamed. I pulled back into the car as Shannon shot past Cherry and Tom.

What was she doing? We needed to fall back, or we were going to be ripped to shreds. More bullets ripped through our windshield and shards of safety glass went flying into my face.

I heaved a sigh of relief a few seconds later as we slid to a halt. Our engine was smoking, and I was uncertain if she braked or the car had stopped working. I emptied my magazine into the disappearing suburban, but it didn’t slow them down. Switching to my rifle, I sprung out of the car and brought it up. My shots went wild, and they soon took a corner and were gone.

I stood as Shannon stumbled out of the car.

“You okay?” I asked.

She didn’t appear to hear me so I touched her lightly on the shoulder. Shannon turned, pistol aimed at me.

“Don’t touch me.”

I stepped back. “You okay?” There was some bruising on her face that hadn’t been there before.

“Don’t ever touch me again.”

“I won’t.”

Shannon lowered the pistol, but her anger didn’t fade.

A Charger lurched to a stop, and Cherry spoke through a broken window. “Need a lift?”

I was surprised that their car was still moving; the windshield was cracked in half a dozen places. How were they both still alive? Between our car and theirs, at least one of us should have been hit. I didn’t have time to think it through now, but I became suspicious. Had Martinez been trying to avoid harming us?

“Trouble,” Shannon said as the helicopter stopped to hover above us.

That was when the car died. Cherry turned the ignition, but it wouldn’t turn over. By the looks of things, it would never move again.

I avoided looking up at the chopper, hoping that they weren’t going to be able to catch my face on camera. We’d be running separate directions now. Hopefully, it would chase after Martinez and leave us alone.

Before any of us had a chance to make a break for it, a black suburban pulled up, and Beltran rolled down the window of the passenger side.

“In flames as usual,” Beltran yelled. “Get in.”

We all piled into the vehicle. Dolores was behind the wheel. Her knuckles were turning white from gripping the steering wheel too hard and her face was contorted. She was screaming for us to hurry. Once the doors were shut, she slammed on the gas and took off.

A few minutes later, when we’d determined that the news crew in the helicopter wasn’t following us, there was a collective sigh of relief. Dolores looked more relieved than the rest of us.

“Was this another test?” I asked, barely able to hide the shaking in my voice. It was all I could do at the moment to keep from yelling. A thought had occurred to me. An explanation for why Martinez’s men had been taking special care to ensure we didn’t get hurt in the firefight. What if this was the final test? Martinez could still be working for Beltran and everything he’d been doing could have been for that purpose.

Whether he caught my deeper meaning or not, Beltran didn’t answer my question. Perhaps he’d picked up on the venom I’d been hoping to hide.

“No more excuses,” Beltran said from up front. “Martinez has probably escaped Diggon and the police by now, but I think we’ve found his base of operation.” He looked back at the four of us. “We’re going in after him. Can we try to not mess this one up?”

“Maybe we’d be doing a better job,” Cherry snapped, “if you told us what was going on more often.”

“Are we going to have back up from the other agencies?” Tom asked. The other Black Brick teams were out of the city on an assignment which was probably the reason why Dolores had been recruited for field work.

I watched Beltran closely for his reaction. He’d always talked about how he was coordinating our activities with the FBI or local law enforcement, but I’d never seen anything firsthand to indicate such things ever happened.

“No. Martinez is our problem. We’ll take care of him ourselves.” For a brief second, a look of annoyance had crossed Beltran’s face, and I saw him looking from Tom to Cherry to me. I couldn’t tell if he was suspicious that we were asking questions that could blow the lid off a dangerous secret or if he was just getting tired of us constantly challenging his authority. Whatever it was, it was gone as quick as it came. There weren’t any other cracks in that cold hard demeanor of his.

 

 

 

26

Half an hour later, Shannon and I were walking towards a downtown hotel that was next to Martinez’s location. We were going to provide backup while Beltran went in after him. Because of the gravity of our mission and the fact that all the other teams were out on assignment, Beltran had recruited several Black Brick analysts to accompany them as well.

I wondered if Cherry and Tom were with Beltran, or providing backup somewhere else, Beltran hadn’t been clear on what their role was going to be and I hadn’t thought to ask until it was too late.

Beltran seemed to think that having four analysts at his back made up for their collective lack of experience and training.

The analysts knew how to work their guns and occasionally went into the field, but they weren’t ideal companions for a mission like this. If we really did have connections to local police, the FBI, or any other government organizations, wouldn’t Beltran have preferred to have their personnel on hand rather than barely trained analysts who might freeze when the gunfire starts?

As I thought about the past couple of weeks, other inconsistencies began to jump out at me. Beltran had never been able to get us the police file for Bruce Andrews’ murder. Other times, he’d had no problem getting useful information from police. Was that just because he had contacts in some precincts but not others?

Shannon walked slightly ahead of me, pulling her luggage with one hand. The setting sun cast her face into shadow.

Since I was going to quit soon anyway, I decided to take a risk and open up to her. She could be quite levelheaded when the occasion called for it, and I needed to bounce some of my questions off somebody else, or I was going to go crazy. Speaking quietly, I floated by her my theory that Martinez’s defection had been intentionally planned as part of our final test.

“You’re an idiot,” Shannon said, but I could tell there was something she wasn’t saying. There had been a hesitation on her part as she considered my theory, but whatever it had been, it was gone now, buried behind those blue eyes that I was afraid would haunt me for the rest of my life if I didn’t get her back.

Shannon jabbed at me with her free hand. An effort to cover her own misgivings?

“There are too many other questions,” I said. My luggage didn’t have wheels, and I nearly dropped it while dodging her punch. It hadn’t been playful and would have hurt. Shannon grimaced at missing but didn’t try again. “Both Beltran and Peck refuse to provide us with adequate assurance that we’re working for the government. Their callous disregard for civilians is worrisome.”

“Says the man that has killed more than everybody else combined. Be quiet, people might overhear you.” Shannon nodded politely at the door attendant a few moments later when we entered the hotel.

If we weren’t working for the government, who did we work for? A competitor of Diggon? Had everything we’d been doing been about business? If that turned out to be true, I’d feel like a fool indeed.

Even though our missions had usually involved spying on or stealing information from various corporations, I couldn’t be certain that the endgame was entirely about money.

There could just as easily be a political side to all of this, but it would require serious research to make any connections because Diggon donated to numerous political candidates on both sides.

I walked around the lobby of the hotel and pretended to be interested in the news playing on a television hanging from the wall while I waited for Shannon at the front desk. If I could only get her to engage with me in a discussion about this, perhaps we’d be able to figure out what was really going on.

Even though it was the first time she’d dumped me, it wasn’t my first experience with her suddenly becoming sullen and withdrawn. I’d originally become aware of this habit of hers back when our training had started and we’d been assigned to the same group with about twenty or so other kids. While there, we were tested and given lessons.

I nearly tripped.

I hadn’t thought about those other kids in a long time. We’d been told that the other kids had failed and been sent home.

And I had swallowed the lie. The kids had all been like us, orphans. There wasn’t a home for them to go to.

How many more of us were there?

I’d been staring through Shannon; she looked my way and frowned.

“It’s over,” Shannon said a few minutes later once she’d obtained our room key. “If I catch you looking at me like that again…” She left the thought unfinished.

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

Shannon headed to the elevator, leaving me to catch up.

“Peck talked to me again,” she said once the elevator doors had shut and we were alone. “He told me what happened to you as a kid. I almost cried. No wonder you are messed up. Peck said that something like that could leave a man with hidden weaknesses that raise their ugly head under high stress.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. I considered bringing up my suspicions that Peck may have somehow been tied to the death of my parents, but I stopped myself. I’d already proven that she wasn’t ready to question the intentions of Peck or Beltran. The elevator door opened so I remained quiet while we found our room.

“Weaknesses?” I asked once we got to our room a few minutes later. “Like my desire to protect innocent people or the fact I want more of an explanation about why you’re breaking up with me?”

Shannon opened up her suitcase and began assembling her rifle, a scoped Springfield M1A with an adjustable aftermarket stock. I did the same.

“I did care for you,” Shannon admitted. “I wasn’t using you.” That was more like it. Perhaps she was finally coming around.

“What changed?”

“It’s hard to say.” Shannon snapped her scope into place, and she tightened it down.

“So you still care for me?”

“No.” Her voice betrayed the lie. “I can’t be with somebody like you.” I wanted to reach for her, but she seemed to anticipate my desires because she picked up her rifle.

I turned away and finished assembling mine.

When I was done, I set it on the bed and went to the balcony. Night had set in, but most of the lights were on in the office building across from us. I wondered how Beltran knew that Martinez would be located in this building, let alone on this side of it.

There was an obvious answer, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to believe that yet or not.

Shannon came to the balcony and was careful to not touch me as she leaned against the railing.

“If I see Payne,” she said, “I’m going to kill him.”

I made a noncommittal sound.

“There is such a thing as justice.”

“Isn’t the point of justice to make a public example of the offender so that any tempted to do the same thing will think twice about it? Where is your public example? Who will learn the lesson that you are trying to teach?”

“Martinez,” Shannon said. “And then I’ll kill him too.”

“I’d rather Martinez walk away then you kill him.”

“Payne tortured me on his orders,” Shannon said. “You wouldn’t kill him in my position?”

“Only if it’s operationally expedient.”

“But Martinez and Payne are beyond the law, if we don’t punish them, who will?”

“He kidnapped Vargo today in front of the whole world. Do you think they will just forget about it?”

Shannon’s voice became cold. “Sometimes you make me very angry.”

We stood in silence, the several inches between us feeling like a canyon. My phone rang. Beltran. I answered.

“We’re in position,” I said.

“Excellent,” Beltran said. “We’re moving in and will be on the fifth floor in ten minutes, be prepared if Martinez takes the fire escape. Don’t fire unless it’s absolutely necessary and you’d better not lay down any killing shots.”

“Understood.”

“Make sure to remind Shannon.”

I grunted and disconnected.

“They moving?” Shannon asked.

“Yeah. Beltran says no kill shots.” I retrieved my M1A, loaded the magazine and chambered a round. I pulled a chair to the balcony and sat. Shannon pulled her chair next to mine, put her rifle on the patio deck and pulled out a pair of binoculars.

I noticed movement through a window on the fifth floor near the spot Beltran had told us earlier to keep an eye on so I brought my rifle up and looked through the scope. Both people had their backs to me, but one looked like Martinez and the other Vargo.

Shifting my scope, I moved my attention to Martinez and waited for him to turn around. Despite my words to Shannon, now that I had Martinez in my scope, I wasn’t sure if I could let him walk away. Below me was the man that had caused Shannon the worst pain of her life and made her break up with me.

When I realized that I was applying pressure to the trigger, I relaxed. If I confirmed it was Martinez, I’d make that decision, but not until then. Several minutes went by, and the man I thought was Martinez turned to the side, giving me the view I needed to confirm his identity.

I exhaled. It was indeed Martinez.

“Give me the gun Jake,” Shannon said.

“Why?” I asked without looking up. “Use your rifle.” The crosshairs of my scope were on Martinez’s head. I touched the trigger, still undecided but almost willing my finger to make the decision for me.

“I didn’t want it to be this way,” Shannon said poking something in my side. That caught my attention. I turned.

Shannon had been poking me with a gun. Cherry and Tom were behind her, both of whom had pistols trained on me.

“What’s this about?” I demanded.

“Just following orders,” Shannon said.

“Everybody relax,” I said. With my rifle barrel poked through the metal rails of the balcony and my pistols in my pockets, my only option was to try and talk my way out of this. “What’s going on?”

In answer, Tom whacked me in the head with his pistol and ripped the rifle from my hands at the same time a gunshot rang out from above. Shannon glanced toward the direction of the shot but looked back. The lack of emotion indicated she’d been expecting it. The others had reacted similarly.

They were setting me up. My team and my ex-girlfriend.

The window I’d been staring at through my scope a few moments before was shattered, and I couldn’t tell if it was Vargo or Martinez who’d been shot because neither was in view.

I lunged for Tom, but Cherry and Shannon were there before I could do any damage and they restrained me. I suffered another hit to the back of my head, and this time, things became a blur.

  • * *

 

I opened my eyes to the sounds of sirens. My head hurt, and when I touched it, my hand came away bloody. Bits of hazy memory came back until I remembered that Tom had hit me.

Then, like an avalanche, I remembered everything at once.

I sat up too quickly and became dizzy, making me afraid I would black out again. Taking several deep breaths, I looked around and recognized the balcony of the hotel; it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes since I’d lost consciousness. My rifle lay beside me, and Shannon and the others were gone.

Crawling, I approached the steel bars of the balcony and looked down at the emergency workers on the fifth floor of the office building. Through the window, I could make out a body on a gurney; the face wasn’t visible, but by the suit the corpse was wearing, my guess was that the victim was Vargo.

First Bruce Andrews and now Lane Vargo. It wasn’t safe to be an executive for Diggon Corporation. I picked up my rifle and entered the hotel room, detaching the magazine; I saw that it was still full.

I was halfway through breaking down the rifle when I thought to check the serial number. I couldn’t quite say what made me do it, but I chalked it up to healthy paranoia. It hadn’t been removed. I slowly let out my breath.

Black Brick’s normal procedure was to remove anything that could identify a weapon. Beltran insisted on it. The serial number was always filed off. I was sure it could be traced to an address that would have more incriminating evidence on me. I must have woken up earlier than they planned; otherwise, I’d have arisen to the police pounding on my hotel room door.

I finished stowing the rifle in the suitcase and left the room. Several minutes later, I found the stairs and left the building.

 

27

It was a bright sunny day, but the wind was cold and biting. I zipped up my jacket, wishing that I had a full coat. I was planning to be outside most of the day and already felt the chill creeping in, that wasn’t a good sign.

I didn’t know how long it would be before the authorities would know everything about me, but I figured Beltran would help the process along.

After my escape from the hotel, I’d purchased an airline ticket to southern Florida using my phone and Sam Chever credit card. Afterward, I destroyed the phone and trashed the credit card. That would hopefully throw the police off my scent long enough to figure out what I was going to do. Next, I’d found a small dingy motel and slept for almost ten hours before waking to my new world.

After checking several news websites to make sure that my picture wasn’t being splashed all over the internet, I’d gone shopping using a debit card from an account I’d set up in secret a long time ago. Among other things, I’d purchased black hair dye, makeup, a tablet, and multiple disposable cell phones.

I ducked into a coffee shop, placed an order and took a table at the back facing the door. The place had a decent crowd, but there were still several empty tables. I had a few seconds of panic when I noticed a blonde woman with her back towards me that looked remarkably like Shannon.

Doing my best not to stare, I kept my eye on her until she turned enough for me to see her face and determined it was somebody else.

So far, I hadn’t been able to process Shannon’s betrayal. Because I’d been hoping for reconciliation with her, she’d been able to play me like a fiddle and kept me from picking up any clues about what she was planning to do.

Closing my eyes, I tried to clear my mind and free myself of the hurt. It didn’t work. I suspected it would be a long time before it would heal.

I unfolded a newspaper that I’d purchased earlier in the day and read the main story about Vargo’s assassination. They didn’t have a name or picture for me yet, but it was just a matter of time. I was halfway down the page when I froze and had to keep from looking around warily.

Lane Vargo, in addition to being CEO of Diggon, was also the brother of U.S. Senator, Sandra Vargo Mcculloch. How had I missed that? How many real government agents would be flown in to investigate? How many police would be assigned to the case? This wasn’t going away anytime soon.

Without realizing it, I reached for my drink and took a sip. On the way back down, my hand shook enough that I spilled some. I set the cup down and looked around the shop.

Were the businessmen the next table overlooking my way just a bit too often? Was there something wrong with the couple that had come into the coffee shop moments after me and now sat at the next table over?

I almost left.

Pulling the paper up again, I took several deep breaths. It seemed to help until I thought once again about Vargo’s sister and then the panic started all over again. I closed my eyes and reviewed my actions of the last two days. I’d done everything right, of that I was certain.

Another deep breath. And another.

My blonde hair was now black and the makeup I wore obfuscated my face. My own mother, were she alive today, wouldn’t recognize me. That thought was helping until I realized if they caught me, I’d never be able to find the man who killed my parents.

One problem at a time.

I continued my deep breaths. After I had finished my food, I fished out my tablet and went to the first news website that I could find and nearly dropped the tablet when the screen loaded.

I was looking at a picture of myself with the headline: “Assassin Identified as Sam Chever, a Troubled Kingstone Student.” I set the tablet down on the table to read, not trusting myself to hold it with steady hands.

A whole biography had been provided and the further I got, I found myself fantasizing about strangling Beltran because I was basically reading the cover document from a file Beltran had given me several years ago when he’d enrolled me at Kingstone.

Little things about my Sam Chever identity jumped out that had seemed trivial before. Sam’s father had been killed in the second Gulf War, and his mother had committed suicide shortly after that. I had remembered thinking at the time that the analyst writing this had an active imagination and should have considered a career as a novelist.

As I reread Sam Chever’s past with fresh eyes, I realized that the setup had been a long time in coming. It was that, or all the Black Brick cover stories were laid out with enough details that could point to frustration with the government in case one of Beltran’s people had to be set loose.

I guess that made more sense.

I finished the article and searched for more. At present, there was very little known about Sam Chever. I had a feeling that would change in a big way.

I packed up my stuff and made sure to leave a decent tip. I didn’t want to be remembered for being too generous or cheap. All I needed was to be forgotten.

I’d only made it several blocks before a realization set in. How long would it be before the train accident and mall bomb were traced back and blamed on me?

I had to force myself to keep walking. How long would it be before every law enforcement officer in the U.S. would be on the lookout for me, every grade school student in the world knew my face, and every news pundit calling for my head?

 

 

28

It was idiotic to return to Kingstone University so soon after everything had gone down. Leaving the country and never returning would have been the smart thing to do. Moving to an obscure part of the U.S. and living in the woods, would have been better. But returning, hoping to find answers or a way to set things right, was not the brightest idea.

I had been used, and I wasn’t going to let Beltran get away with it. In order to do that, I needed to find Kris. If she didn’t work for the government, she might be the only friend in the world that I had right now.

It had been almost two weeks since the assassination of Lane Vargo, and I was certain that classes should have returned to normal by now. I timed my arrival at the George Washington building to coincide with the end of Peck’s history class. As I waited for the class to end, I looked around, expecting to see police officers or easily recognizable government men swarming all over the place, but instead, I found things to be pretty much normal.

I sat on a bench, pulled out my tablet and turned it on but only pretended to use it while I kept an eye on the door to the classroom.

Thor passed by chatting with several people. I’d never paid much attention to the little runt, but with the warmer weather, he wasn’t wearing a coat, and I realized now he was in good shape and had an air of confidence about him that I hadn’t noticed before. Was his interest in me a coincidence or something more?

Did he work with Kris? Was he a federal agent? As Thor disappeared, I wondered if I’d underestimated the little man. I should have been more careful about brushing him off all those times he’d tried to befriend me.

Shannon passed but didn’t recognize me. It made me glad that my disguise was thorough, but it was tough seeing her again, and I had to refrain from staring. I was reminded of all the time we’d spent together, and I had to suppress my desire to chase after and confront her.

When I spotted Kris, I followed after, hoping that she would be done with class for the day. I was disappointed when she headed into another building. Cursing, I followed her into a large auditorium and took a seat in the back where I could keep an eye on her. I resisted the urge to pull out my tablet as the lecture started. Kingstone had a guest Wi-Fi internet option that I could hop onto, but I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

The class turned out to be a biology lecture. As the professor droned on, I noticed that dear old professor Henry Peck was sitting a few rows away. This wasn’t surprising; it was common for professors to attend lectures given by their peers. Even with my disguise, I’d subconsciously ducked down. I straightened up. Peck wouldn’t recognize me if Shannon hadn’t.

Once class was over, Kris left campus and headed towards a parking lot. I hadn’t planned on her having a vehicle because I’d figured that she lived in one of the nearby apartment buildings. I’d planned on following her home, but now that she was about to get into a car, that plan went out the window. I didn’t want to risk another unnecessary trip to campus. I sped up.

Kris turned and smiled as I approached.

Cursing to myself, I slowed down, wondering how she’d known until I noticed that she’d been on the phone. As she put it back in her pocket, I refrained from looking around to try and find her backup.

“Who do you work for?” I asked. I couldn’t believe that any federal agent would let one of the most wanted men in America approach without taking defensive measures and I assumed I didn’t have much time before her backup would feel the need to intervene.

“You’re stupid for coming here,” she said, “and as usual, you’ve managed to add to your trail of destruction since I last saw you.” She paused and met my eyes. “Did you kill Vargo?”

“I was set up.”

Kris nodded and looked around. “I believe you.”

Even though I should have felt comforted by that, I didn’t because of the agitation in her voice.

“How long before your backup gets here?”

“They won’t approach unless you do something to worry them.”

“You working with Thor?” I asked, watching for any sign of surprise or deceit. Kris gave me a puzzled look. She was either a very good actor or genuinely curious.

“Are you talking about that boy from class?” She shook her head. “Why do you suspect him?”

“Other than you, he’s the only person here ever to reach out to me. You had ulterior motives, why should he be any different?”

“He’s probably just a student. Luckily enough for you, I and my employer are the only ones that know about your fascination with me.”

I sputtered. “My fascination with you? You’re the one who’s been stalking me for months.”

Kris smiled, and I realized that she was teasing. I hadn’t been in that kind of mood for quite some time and was taken aback. I supposed that life hadn’t been as intense for Kris as it had been for me recently.

“You’re just as much of a criminal as I am. I’ve done some digging, and you’re not government.”

“I never said that my employer was the government.” She smiled. “I don’t think of myself as a criminal as much as I do a philanthropist. Besides, you don’t really want to compare crimes, do you? I thought not.”

I almost turned and left. It took every ounce of self-control I had to stay. I needed help, and she was the only person I could turn to.

“My boss is very interested in working with you, which is saying something, because you come with considerable baggage.” Kris opened her bag and handed me a folder. “This is a sign of good faith. My boss has been able to dig up a few things that you may find interesting. My number’s written inside. Please don’t be stupid enough to come back here again.” Kris turned to go, but I grabbed her arm.

“What does your boss want from me?”

“He’s just an old guy who’s trying to make the world a better place.”

“Does Martinez work for you?”

Kris rolled her eyes but shook her head. “Not everybody is out to get you, Jake.” She left.

I stuffed her folder into my bag and walked away, careful to try and spot her backup. Because I was concerned they might follow me, I took a circuitous route back to my motel room that took the better part of the afternoon.

As much as I’d been tempted to examine the contents of the folder while I was in transit, I resisted. The last time she’d given me something, it had included evidence of a mass murder. I didn’t want to risk somebody looking over my shoulder so I didn’t open the folder until later in the evening when I was back at my motel.

My room was exactly as I’d left it. I’d done the usual thing of leaving behind small innocuous details that would have been disturbed if anybody had entered the room. A small hair here, a bit of dust there, a few crumbs on my laptop. I was relieved that nothing was out of place because I needed to rest.

Even though the day hadn’t been physically demanding, remaining on constant alert while moving around, had taken its toll. Not to mention the stress of fearing for my life every step of the way.

Once I finished checking for signs of intrusion, I removed the folder, put my bag on the dresser and sat down on the mattress. The springs squeaked from my weight, and I sighed. The air was dank and musty, and I didn’t want to know the last time the carpet had been shampooed, but I felt safer than I had all afternoon.

I’d soon move on. It was the fifth room I’d rented in the last couple of weeks. I hadn’t stayed more than three nights at any one place. This was my second night and tomorrow I’d pick a place on the other side of the city.

I opened the folder and found there were some pictures; the first was of my mother. Surprised, I flipped to the next hoping for a picture of my father as well, but it was another of her.

After my parents had died and I’d been whisked away, I wasn’t left with any pictures of my family. Tears started to form in my eyes, and I blinked them back.

It wasn’t until the fifth picture that I realized something was wrong; my mother looked much older than I remembered her. The next sent my head spinning. She had gray hair. My memories were fuzzy, but I was certain that she hadn’t gone gray by the time she’d died.

I stopped on a picture of her walking arm in arm with a man who was not my father. The two of them were at the beach and looked very happy. So many questions tumbled through my mind that I had to close the folder to think.

My mother wasn’t alive. I’d seen her die.

I stopped cold.

That wasn’t exactly correct. I’d walked into the room after she’d been shot. She had been on the bed with blood spilling out of her side, a blank look on her face. The man that had killed her stood off to the side and hadn’t noticed me.

After that, I’d run into my father’s study, grabbed his revolver, and killed him. The other man, the man I’d previously believed to be Stanley Redder, had disarmed and bound me, which is where the police had found me. When they’d taken me away, she might have still been breathing.

Why would Kris have given me this? What was she doing? Were these photos doctored? Was she bringing back my past to further break me?

I paused and took a breath. Then another and another.

The big question danced around in my mind, teasing and taunting me. I was afraid to face it but I had no choice.

What if my mother was still alive?

That night outside the club, Kris had said my mother had been kidnapped. Unwittingly, I’d corrected her and not thought about it again.

I picked up the folder and flipped through the rest of the pictures. There were several more with her, the man, and children. Were these hers or did she adopt again?

I had to stop from crumpling them.

They looked like an ideal family. A family like mine had been, before it had been destroyed. At the back, on the inside of the folder was a brief note from Kris with her phone number.

Cursing, I turned on the television which was already set to a news channel and went to the bathroom. I needed to think about something else.

When I came out, I was surprised to hear my voice coming from the television.

It was a video recording of my conversation with Peck, taken the day that we’d been talking about U.S. policy. I hadn’t even suspected that there was somebody taping the conversation. Peck asked me if I believed if the U.S. should have a secret policy of assassination.

My response to his question sounded far away. “Why not? Why should soldiers sacrifice their lives because of disagreements among idiot politicians?”

Balling my hands into fists, I watched as the tape finished playing and the screen switched back to a panel of talking heads. I muted the television because I didn’t need them to tell me how that had come off. In light of the accusations and evidence against me, the tone and words of that conversation came off as anti-American, not to mention the fact that I was being accused of assassination. My words would have the news pundits raising a voice of warning about me targeting high profile politicians.

I don’t know how long I’d been staring at the screen when Shannon’s face popped up. I turned up the volume. The caption underneath identified her as Jessica, the girlfriend of Sam Chever.

“How long did you date Mr. Chever?” the newswoman asked. The screen was split, and it was clear that Shannon was being recorded from a separate location.

“We were off and on for awhile,” Shannon said.

“Has Sam tried to contact you?”

“No, he hasn’t. The day of the assassination, he kissed me goodbye, and I didn’t see him again. I never had any suspicion that he was up to something. In retrospect, I guess there were signs. I’d never thought much about some of the things he’d said until afterward. The recording that Professor Peck shared with us earlier has reminded me of other things that Sam said. Nothing real telling, just statements in passing.”

The tape had come from Peck? I’d just figured that it had been a student in class who’d managed to catch the discussion using their cell phone. That was surprising and bothersome.

What was Peck’s angle? Why release this?

“What did he say?” the anchorwoman asked.

“Oh, just little things, like the government had become corrupt and couldn’t be trusted. How he wished we’d stop involving ourselves in wars that we don’t belong in. But I’ve got to be honest, other people talk like that, and they don’t go out and kill the brother of a Senator. So, like I said, I’d never thought about it. It’s all surreal. I still don’t believe that this happened.”

“Are you afraid he might seek revenge against you?”

“No, I’ve been working with the FBI in chasing him down. They’ve promised to protect me. He’s not going to get anywhere close to me.” I snorted. I could have killed her after Peck’s class if I’d wanted.

The interview ended, and I had to restrain myself from throwing the television across the room. They were trying to bait me. I wasn’t supposed to have escaped. Beltran and Peck wanted me to get caught.

They’d probably planned on me getting killed by the police. Either way, they’d have their scapegoat.

I flipped through the channels and stopped when I recognized Peck. I wasn’t surprised to see him taking advantage of the limelight.

“It is a tragedy of the highest order, what a waste all the way around,” Peck said. “Mr. Chever was one of my brightest students. Mr. Vargo was well liked and respected.”

“Professor Peck, why are you only coming forward now with the recording?”

“To be honest, the conversation with Sam slipped my mind. In fact, it’s a coincidence that I found this at all. Finals are coming up, and in preparation, I like to review my lecture tapes.”

“Did Chever have help pulling this off?” the anchorman asked. “Or do you think he did this alone?”

“I don’t know. The FBI has been more interested in asking me questions than giving me answers.” Peck smiled. It looked practiced and fake, like a politician. How had I never noticed that before? “If you’re asking me if Sam was smart enough to do this by himself, the answer is yes. However, I doubt that was the case. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying domestic terrorist groups. This reeks of their involvement. This is indicative of a bigger problem than just Sam. For many years there has been a growing movement of extremists that are fed up with the politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“Their main argument is that it doesn’t matter if the elected official is coming from a conservative or liberal perspective, the government becomes increasingly bloated and out of touch. Of course, we all know that this is largely not true. Are their corrupt officials? Absolutely. Is that the general rule? Of course not!

“But I’m afraid that unless something is done quickly, that these will be the first of many incidents.”

A chill ran through me. Why hadn’t I seen it before? Peck had set me up. That tape hadn’t been just a coincidence. Peck had chosen to single me out in class and recorded the conversation for a reason.

Was Peck going to run for office?

“On another topic,” the anchorman said, “I understand you’re being considered to replace Vargo as CEO of Diggon. Would you care to comment?”

“What?” I said aloud to an empty room. Maybe it wasn’t about politics at all. Had Beltran been targeting Diggon so that Peck could take over?

Peck’s smile became somber. “I’d prefer to not comment on that. Vargo was a close personal friend of mine.”

The interview ended, and I muted the television. The coincidences had piled on. The house of cards that Peck had so elaborately spent years building was tumbling down, but I was the only one that could see it.

It all came back to Peck. I paced as I tried to think. Peck had done this on purpose; he’d as good as painted a target on himself. Did he want me to come after him? How would that further his agenda?

I paced for hours until my legs began to hurt. By the end, I was tired of hiding. I needed to act. Finally, just as the sun was coming up, I decided on a plan. It was time my story was heard.

29

Taking a deep breath, I let it out and checked the hidden camera on the pen in my shirt pocket. I was outside of Peck’s class, and my insides were churning with fear and trepidation. Shannon would be on the other side, playing the part of my shell-shocked ex-girlfriend Jessica.

I touched the fire alarm panel.

Kris would be there as well. She was so confident that I would do her bidding. Hopefully, today would disabuse her of that notion. Thor would probably be in attendance too, I still didn’t know if he somehow fit into all of this or not. I just wanted to make sure he had left before I went in.

Looking around to make sure the way was clear; I broke the glass that protected the fire alarm with my elbow and pulled down on the lever. A moment later, the alarm sounded, and lights started flashing. It took several seconds before students began to empty out of the classroom doors.

Leaning up against the wall by the door, I kept my eyes peeled for whoever would come through the exit first. Depending on who it was, I’d have to react quickly if they recognized me.

My guess was that Kris or Thor would be the first person I’d spot as the students evacuated the classroom. Shannon sat in the back and would be coming out last, and I was counting on Peck waiting to make sure the room cleared successfully.

As people began to file out, I pulled the ball cap that I was wearing down a little lower. In all the confusion, nobody seemed to notice me.

I was relieved when Thor walked out the door, chatting amiably with another girl from the class. He looked my way, but his eyes went right on past. One day, I’d have to solve the puzzle he posed, but not today.

When Kris came out, I ducked my head a little and hoped that she wouldn’t notice me. One of the major flaws in my plan was the fact that she’d seen me since I’d changed appearances. That’s why I was sporting a ball cap today.

Despite my efforts, she noticed me right away.

The startled look that crossed her face made me smile. I couldn’t help it, and the glower I received in return made me grin all the more.

“What are you doing?” Kris hissed, moving out of the crowd to stand beside me by the wall.

“Changing the game,” I said.

“Whatever you have planned won’t work.”

“Don’t follow me in there.” I stared into her eyes, afraid she would be too curious to walk away. “You won’t like what will happen if you do.”

Without waiting for an answer, I clicked the top of my pen, turning on the camera, and pushed through the doorway of people filing out. I had to jostle my way through, but nobody took notice of who I was.

Once I was in, I surveyed the room and was happy to see that it was more than two-thirds empty. As I suspected, Shannon was standing in the back, waiting for her turn to exit and Peck was at the front of the room waiting for the classroom to empty.

I was happy to see that my recollection was correct and there was a television hanging on the wall. I hadn’t been able to remember for certain, but I hadn’t been too worried, that wasn’t a key part of my plan today.

My eyes locked onto Shannon’s, and I smiled wickedly. There was a moment of uncertainty until she recognized me through my disguise. This was not going to go well for her. Her only opportunity to stop what would come next would be to play it cool. Part of me had been hoping for a look of contrition or guilt from her, but instead, she met my stare, head held high.

Kris appeared by my side as the rest of the room emptied and I cursed.

“Stay if you want,” I whispered as quietly as I could, hoping the pen camera wouldn’t pick it up. “But don’t blame me if your cover is blown.”

Kris hesitated before whispering back. “What are you going to do?”

“Stay behind me.”

It wasn’t until the last few people were filing out that Peck noticed me and realized who I was. I nodded my head at him, turned to the side to keep what I was doing out of view of the stragglers and pulled out my pistol.

Kris gasped, but didn’t try to interfere. It was too bad that she’d decided to stick around. Her very presence here would tip off Shannon and Peck that she was somebody they needed to look into.

Once the room was empty of everybody but the four of us, I kicked the door shut and looked at my watch.

So far, I was a little ahead of schedule. In about two minutes, an email that I’d put together would be arriving in the inbox of every journalist for whom I’d been able to track down an address. In addition to containing a link to a video I’d made earlier this morning with a confession, it had another link to a live feed of the video from my pen.

My guess was that I had fifteen minutes at most before I needed to think about getting out of here. I’d parked a rental car outside of this building earlier to ensure a smooth getaway. I’d luckily found a spot in faculty parking and knew that they’d just give me a ticket, not tow the car.

“Shannon,” I said while keeping my pistol on Peck, “how about you come join us down here?”

Peck had given a slight nod of his head before she came down the stairs of the classroom.

“We’re here to talk about your betrayal.” Shannon glared at me and kept silent. “Oh that’s right, Peck if you’d turn off your camera, I think it would go a long way to making everybody more candid.”

“Think about what you’re about to do,” Peck said as he walked to the front of the room and pressed several controls at his podium. “The camera is off.” He looked at me. “I can help you.”

“Great,” I said, ignoring his offer. “Do we all feel free to talk? I almost forgot, empty your pockets Shannon.” I looked at Peck. “You too.”

I pointed my pistol at Shannon. “Don’t forget those throwing knives you keep strapped to your inner thighs that I learned about the hard way.” Shannon tossed several pistols and a couple of knives to the floor. “Perfect, kick them towards me.”

“Your turn Peck,” I said, once Shannon had followed my instructions.

“I don’t carry a weapon.” Of the two, Peck was the most relaxed. His composure hadn’t broken, and he seemed to be detached.

“Kris, find out for sure.” I shifted my gun to Shannon and in the process, hopefully, shifted the camera to not pick up Kris.

After a lengthy pause, Kris moved forward and patted Peck down and came up empty. I was surprised and a little bit frustrated. That didn’t help. Shannon was exposed by the weapons; I just needed something to break Peck’s cover.

I had Kris pat Shannon down next, again shifting my pistol back to Peck and moving the focus of the camera as well. It was the best I could do. Kris found a knife and a small pistol.

“It’s time for a council,” I said, after tossing Kris my bag and instructing her to put the weapons in there. “I’m in trouble that isn’t my fault, and you’re going to help me get out of it.”

“This isn’t helping,” Shannon hissed. “How long before the other students come back and figure out what’s going on?”

I stared at Shannon and considered questioning her about her betrayal, but decided against it. I wouldn’t get anything from it, and it wouldn’t make me feel any better.

“Martinez never defected,” I said to Peck, “did he?”

Shannon scowled. “Don’t think for one minute that I’d work with that animal.”

Thank you, Shannon. I refrained from looking at the pen and hoped that it was working.

“Was that Shannon’s final test?” I persisted. “Torture at the hands of a supposed madman? So she could prove her devotion?”

“Son, I think you’ve mistaken me for somebody else.” There wasn’t any fury in Peck’s voice. “Put the gun down, and I’ll do what I can for you.”

“Was Vargo’s assassination my test or was I set up to be the guy that everything was blamed on once the testing was over?” I was greeted with silence.

I’d expected that Peck would be a tough nut to crack, but I wasn’t done yet. I had one last try.

“I figured it out, you know,” I said to distract him while I reached my hand into my pocket. “Your plan. Killing my parents so you can recruit me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peck said. I had to give him credit; he really did look like he knew nothing. If anything, my little stunt here was going to make him look better.

Time for my last trick. I took out the picture of Beltran at the mass grave and pushed it into Peck’s face.

“What is this?” Peck asked, his composure breaking into horror when he looked at the photograph. His reaction was perfect for somebody seeing it for the first time. “Who are these men?” Peck was good, and I was running out of time. Well, one out of two covers blown wasn’t bad.

I took out the pen, clicked the top, and tossed it to Shannon. “You of all people should have known better.”

Catching the pen, she picked up on what I meant and she snarled. “It wasn’t supposed to go like this, Jake. You have no idea what you’ve done here.”

Peck looked a little smug; making me wish that I’d thought to bring a second camera. He hadn’t said anything damning, but if I’d captured that smile and he continued his press circuit, he would have faced an uncomfortable question or two.

“Kris, would you be so kind to turn on the television and find a news channel? Any should work fine.”

Kris did as I asked and found a channel. When I saw my face, I smiled. It was the first time I’d been happy to see it on television. We’d come in on the tail end of the video I’d distributed earlier in the email.

“My fellow citizens,” my recorded image said, “I don’t ask for your forgiveness, for there is none to give. The inescapable fact is that I am tied to numerous events where innocent people lost their lives. It’s immaterial that I wasn’t the one that pulled the trigger that killed Vargo or that I didn’t plant the bomb on the train. I was there, and it happened while I was on duty. I believed that I was serving our country, though you now know that I was duped. My real name is Jake Ramsey. I was kidnapped on the day that my parents were killed. I don’t offer this as an excuse but as evidence. If law enforcement starts there, you may be able to stop this menace.”

The video ended and the news anchor came back on screen, it was the woman that had interviewed Shannon. “We’ve just received an additional data feed that has partially confirmed Sam Chever’s story. We can’t show the video yet, but I can confirm that we have live video footage of Jessica Prosser armed to the teeth, responding to the name Shannon and calling Sam by the name of Jake.”

Shannon screamed when a picture of her was shown. Peck was there as well, but they zoomed in on her. I hoped that I’d managed to keep Kris off the feed.

“It’s been a fun meeting hasn’t it?” I looked at Kris. “I’m leaving now. I recommend you come with me.”

Shannon snarled and might have said something, but I wasn’t able to make it out.

Peck stared at me coldly but didn’t say a word. I could tell that he knew he could survive this because he hadn’t slipped up. Peck had probably already formulated a plan on how he’d spin this. I’d been hoping to implicate Peck to turn the attention off me, but I’d failed. I’d have to try something else.

I motioned for Kris to head to the door, she complied with my request. I backed away until I was at the exit, with a final look at Shannon, I turned and left.

 

 

30

I heaved a small sigh of relief a few moments later when I opened the door exiting the George Washington building and spotted the rental car where I’d left it. As we crossed the parking lot, I surveyed the area looking for any sign of the police and came up with nothing. The whole exchange with Shannon and Peck had taken less than ten minutes, and I figured we still had another five before things would start to be locked down.

Taking a deep breath of the warm afternoon air and ignoring the desire to be somewhere outside enjoying myself, I led Kris to the vehicle. When I’d offered her a ride, she’d readily accepted.

We were a few blocks away from campus when the first police cars started to pass us. Ignoring my desire to speed up, we continued at a normal pace.

“You know Shannon has a point.” Kris had been silent for most of the trip. Her voice had an edge to it earlier when we’d left the classroom, but it was gone now.

“What do you mean?”

“At the end, she said that it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I think you were close to the mark when you were grilling Peck about whether or not this whole thing was your final test. You could probably go back to them, even now.”

I snorted. “I’m going to destroy them.”

“Maybe it’s time you came in from the cold. My offer still stands.”

“I’m not leaving one terrorist organization to join another.”

“You’ll never get them all. We can help.” I regarded her, making a show of thinking about it. Ten minutes ago when we’d left the classroom, Kris looked ready to kill me. Now she was back to recruiting me.

Maybe she was more desperate than I thought. Was she hoping to use me as bait to get to Beltran? What would she do if I was able to get her to him?

“I’ll agree to a provisional partnership,” I said, “but I’m staying out of your office.”

“Ok, let’s use your base.”

I shook my head, not trusting her enough for that. “No. We’ll find a motel room and set up there.”

Later that evening, after ditching the rental car and spending the day going in circles to make sure we were alone, we’d finally decided on neutral ground. I had nothing to look forward to but another night at a disgusting motel room. The carpet had enough stains to make me wonder if it had ever been cleaned.

Kris had purchased some hair products earlier, and when we got to our room, she disappeared into the bathroom. So far, the news hadn’t managed to turn up anything about her. But she had mentioned something about preferring to be safe rather than sorry as she went in. Peck and Beltran would be another matter entirely. Even now, Beltran probably had his analysts at Black Brick digging up every possible thing they could on her.

While she was working on her hair, I turned on the television and flipped through the news. I stopped on a channel that featured Ronan Wright who was now Peck’s biggest rival for the CEO position.

I had recently learned Diggon had been formed on Kingstone campus as a project between Wright and several other students. Peck had been an early investor. Of the original team, Wright and Peck were the only ones still invested in Diggon. Given that Peck and Beltran had killed Vargo, it wasn’t much of a stretch to think that Wright might be next. There were rumors that Wright was the board’s favorite to replace Vargo.

When Kris walked out, sporting her new shorter blonde hair, I had to avoid gawking. I thought she’d been a beautiful dark haired woman. She made an even better blonde.

“How do I look?” she asked.

I didn’t know what to say. Shannon never liked to be told that she looked good. Ravishingly beautiful were the first words that came to mind, but I thought better of it.

“It suits you. Looks good.” While I was happier with that response, she looked a bit disappointed. I don’t know what she’d been hoping for, but I figured that my words had been safe enough. “Has your boss made any connections between Beltran and Peck?”

I’d received a tongue lashing because I’d withheld from her Peck’s involvement in all this. I’d pointed out that she still hadn’t told me who she was working for and that had shut her up. While we were making sure we weren’t being followed, she’d called back to her employer and asked them to start looking into Peck.

“Nobody’s called back,” Kris said taking out her phone. “You sure about this? Diggon is at the top of Beltran’s list, and Peck is a major stockholder in Diggon.”

I snorted. “Other than killing Vargo, the damage Beltran has inflicted on Diggon is minimal because Peck is using Beltran to take control of the company.”

A thought occurred to me, and I don’t know why it hadn’t crossed my mind before. Beltran hadn’t been eager for Shannon and me to continue our investigation into Bruce Andrews’ murder. In fact, he’d made sure that we had other things to occupy our time.

Was he behind Andrews’ death as well?

“Assassinating the CEO isn’t generally how those things work. Can you prove Beltran was behind Vargo’s assassination? When I didn’t answer, she continued. “I’m not saying you’re lying, but things aren’t matching up.”

“You’ve missed something,” I said. “Any direction this goes, Peck will come out the winner.” I didn’t see a way out of that. Peck was positioned too well. I’d played all the cards I had for Peck and hadn’t been able to do much damage. Shannon’s cover had been ruined, but Peck would walk away untouched by my accusations. Given his aptitude with the media, I wouldn’t be surprised if he came out ahead. “Are you aware of any connection between Ronan Wright and Beltran?”

“No, Wright has never come up on our radar.”

“We need to talk to him. If he’s Peck biggest threat now that Vargo is dead, he might be our only friend.”

 

 

31

Kris and I parked in the closest parking garage for the new Diggon headquarters. It was almost a ten-minute walk from there to the main building. As we passed the grizzly bear exhibit, I examined it, trying to decide where Martinez had come from the other day. If there were secret passageways here, it would be useful to know about them. There were several doors into the enclosure, but I couldn’t tell just by looking at them which one he had used.

A few minutes later, we walked by a crowd of people that were looking down into a lion habitat. I shook my head, wondering if there was another corporate headquarters in the world with its own zoo and aquarium.

Kris gasped when we entered the building, and I did my best to keep my jaw from dropping. It was hard not to gawk. The lobby was six stories high and lavishly decorated. Chandeliers that were several stories tall hung from impossibly small cables. It was the most ostentatious display of wealth I’d ever seen.

I remembered reading that Diggon employed a full-time staff of over two hundred people to take care of the aquarium and the zoo.

The aquarium circled the reception area and in the middle of the room was an alligator display with bridges crossing over to where security officers waited to clear all employees and visitors. A modern-day moat. I would have snorted with laughter at the petty imperial symbolism, but it didn’t feel like a joke, especially with Peck positioning to become CEO.

A line of school children holding hands followed behind a teacher, and people were bunched on the bridges over the alligators.

The children made me think of Lisa Kurt, and I renewed my determination that innocent people—especially children—would never die again on my watch.

“This is shameful,” Kris said.

I nodded in agreement.

We were stopped by security on the other side of the bridge over the alligator pit. I handed them a newly created driver’s license. Kris had offered to help me with my new identity, but I’d refused and insisted that we use somebody not connected with her company.

Despite my numerous attempts to get Kris to reveal more about her employer, she continued to dodge the topic. I was getting annoyed with her refusal and figured there was a reason why she didn’t want to tell me.

But I could only handle one problem at a time. After I was done with Beltran and Peck, I’d focus on figuring it out.

The security guard confirmed our appointment, gave us guest passes, and waved us through for our meeting with Ronan Wright. I was relieved that he hadn’t given us a second glance and surprised that Diggon didn’t make everybody pass through metal detectors. That was a fact I had checked on before we came, but it was still surprising.

Our cover was that we’d come from another company seeking investment capital. Wright was in charge of funding, so it was a plausible enough cover story.

My plan was to question Wright to learn what he knew. If we determined he was in danger, we were going to protect him. If he were involved, we’d grill him for information, incapacitate him, and make a break for it.

It wasn’t the greatest plan, and as much as I wanted to take Peck apart, I needed to deal with Beltran and his teams first. The best way to do that was to convince Ronan to work with us in setting a trap for Beltran.

The guard directed us to a nearby elevator and told us to go to the twenty-fifth floor.

I caught a glance of a woman who looked familiar as the elevator door shut. Our eyes locked. It was Shannon, as a brunette. Beautiful as ever.

Even with my disguise, I was sure she recognized me. Could Beltran be here to assassinate Ronan already?

I nudged Kris. “See that? We may be out of time.”

Kris swore. “This is going to be messy.”

I looked around the elevator, suspicious that other people may belong to Beltran, but I didn’t recognize anybody else. With Shannon here, Cherry and Tom wouldn’t be far away.

When we got off on the twenty-fifth floor, I didn’t want to take a seat as the receptionist suggested, but I did anyway. What else could I do? It wasn’t going to help matters if I pulled a gun on her and demanded she take me to Wright.

Every time I heard the elevator doors ding, I expected to see Shannon step out so I kept my hand within reach of my pistol.

“It’s not too late to call this off,” Kris said.

“Leave if you want,” I said, glancing at the receptionist who was staring at me. “I’m going to keep them from killing Ronan.” I smiled at the woman behind the reception desk and hoped that she hadn’t seen through my disguise. She smiled back shyly.

The absolute idiocy of what we were doing struck me. What was I hoping to accomplish with a partner that I barely knew against a group of highly trained people? People that I’d counted as friends and associates up until several weeks ago?

“They are ready for you.” The receptionist favored me with a smile and all but ignored Kris as we followed her to a spacious conference room that seemed to take up half of the floor.

The large mahogany table could have sat more than forty people, though there was less than a handful at the moment. The windows on the wall opposite the door went from floor to ceiling and featured an impressive view of the city. There was another exit to the room on the other side.

A short older woman wearing a crisp business suit who sat at the head of the table stood to greet us. Several other people sat on either side of it. Something about a man on the left tugged at my memory.

“Mr. Wright is running late,” the woman began, but she stopped when she saw the pistol in my hand. Everybody was looking at me now, but I didn’t care.

I only had eyes for the man that had taken me captive while my mom had bled. His hair was gray now, and he had a few more wrinkles, but it was him. The image of him standing over the body of the man I’d killed flooded back into me. The acrid smell of the gunpowder still hung in the air, and I could feel the duct tape he’d used to bind my hands behind my back.

My mouth went dry, and I narrowed my eyes.

“Do you know who I am?” I demanded, walking around the table as the man stood. The large window framing him would have presented a tempting proposition, but the glass was likely tempered. “Do you have any idea?” I was yelling now.

The other door opened, and somebody else walked into the room. I didn’t turn to see who, I didn’t care.

“Hold it there Jake,” Beltran said. “Things are more complex than you understand.”

The other people in the room weren’t surprised to see Beltran. Was he here undercover or had he come out into the open?

“The damage you have done,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady as I gripped my pistol. “The lives you’ve wrecked. This ends here.”

“Your real parents aren’t dead,” Beltran said.

“I don’t care about the people that put me up for adoption,” I said to Beltran not taking my eyes off my father’s murderer. “My dad’s corpse was already stiffening when I tried to resuscitate him.” I wouldn’t put my mother in danger, regardless of my doubts about her. Beltran probably already knew she was alive, but I would be cautious still the same. “His blood spattered onto me when I tried CPR. Do you realize what that does to a kid? I still have nightmares.”

“It was self-defense,” the man said. He hadn’t moved since standing up. I could see a pistol peeking out of his suit coat. “He came at me with a knife, you understand? I didn’t have any other choice.” It was a lie. There hadn’t been a knife with my father’s body. I remembered the scene quite well.

I didn’t detect any fear in his face which I took as a sign of a man who had killed before and would kill again without hesitation. This man had let somebody else rot in jail for a crime he’d committed.

“Larry,” Beltran said to my father’s killer. “It’s time to own up to what you did.”

Larry glared at Beltran but turned his attention back to me. “Your father and I, we were old friends, and we’d been working together for years. He knew the drill. I’m not sure what happened, he just went crazy.”

“Jake, I understand,” Beltran said. “Larry killed your parents. You’re a wanted man. You aren’t in a position to see that Larry is brought to justice. If you need to kill Larry so we can move on to other things, that’s just fine.”

A look of shock crossed Larry’s face, and his eyes narrowed when he took in Beltran.

“This is why you wanted me here?” Larry demanded, hand moving towards the inside of his coat. If he pulled his gun, I wasn’t sure who he’d go for, Beltran or me. “Even now, you’re still pulling my strings. I should never have let you convince me to be a part of that in the first place.”

“Kris, Larry is armed,” I said. “Please take his gun.” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized that Beltran had known that we’d be here today.

How? Kris? Had she been working for him this whole time?

No, I couldn’t let my doubts overcome me.

Beltran was here because of Ronan Wright, who had been the next obvious target for me. Beltran had planned on me coming after him. I hadn’t been suspicious when I’d been able to make an appointment with Wright because I didn’t think that Beltran had infiltrated Diggon to such a degree that he could walk freely in the open.

My eyes became slits as I regarded Larry. If Beltran wanted me to kill him, maybe that was a sign I shouldn’t.

Kris hadn’t taken more than a step or two when Larry went for his gun. I pulled the trigger of my pistol without thinking and went numb as I watched him fall. The window behind him cracked and was splashed with blood, but remained intact.

The gunshot hurt my ears, and the other people around the conference room covered theirs. Somebody yelped, but I didn’t see who. As Larry slumped to the floor, almost everybody else backed away from me. This was something I’d wanted to do for more than a decade, but I felt hollow inside. My father was still dead.

Beltran moved closer, and I trained my pistol on him.

“Larry deserved that,” Beltran said, cool and collected. “You are the victim of an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

My hands shook as I looked at Beltran over the top of my pistol. Whether I was shaking from the adrenaline or anger, I couldn’t tell. How many times had I thought about killing Beltran since my team had betrayed and framed me? I walked around the table towards him, careful to keep my gun trained on him. I stopped several steps away from where he stood.

“That was convenient. My father’s killer delivered on a silver platter. This doesn’t change things between us.”

“There is much you don’t know,” Beltran said.

“Seems simple to me. You had Larry kill my parents so you could recruit me. You put us together so I would kill him.” My finger tensed on the trigger. “I’m tired of your lies and manipulations.”

“Nobody mourned the loss of your parents more than me. They were close friends.”

Maybe Beltran didn’t know my mother was alive after all. I couldn’t help but hope that she hadn’t abandoned me, that she hadn’t been in on Beltran’s little plan. The thought of her betraying my father to his death, made me want to retch.

“Larry was working for you,” I said, depressing the trigger slowly. “That makes you responsible. You set me up for Vargo’s death and blamed everything else on me.”

“Your father worked for me too. I didn’t tell Larry to do what he did, but I can understand your perspective.”

“Liar!” I couldn’t bring myself to believe that my father had worked for Beltran.

“I won’t deny I’ve done a lot of lying,” Beltran said. “And I don’t blame you. You can kill me and have your revenge, or you can listen to what’s really going on and make a decision that makes sense. A decision for your future.” The other people in the room stood against the far wall, they had moved when I’d shot Larry. Kris was keeping an eye on them and looking antsier by the minute.

I didn’t blame her; this was supposed to have been a conversation with Wright, not the day of vengeance it was quickly becoming.

“Our mission to kill Vargo was legit,” Beltran said. “He was tied to criminal activities too numerous to count. But as with many things, I had a dual purpose. I ordered Shannon to break up with you. Yes, I knew about you guys. I had your own team set you up as a test. I’d planned on your capture and wanted to see how well you would hold up under federal pressure. But things got a little out of hand.”

His explanation only made sense if you didn’t value human life, something that Beltran excelled at. While there was a sincerity to Beltran’s words about wanting to test me, his eyes shifted while he spoke. No, Beltran may have wanted this to be a test, but Peck was more practical than that.

Peck needed somebody to blame so he could take the reins of Diggon and had made Beltran get with the program. Peck did things his own way. I wondered if Beltran and Peck had been at odds with one another about what to do with me. Beltran had wanted one of his famous tests. Peck had needed a scapegoat.

I looked at the other people in the room trying to gauge their reaction to Beltran’s confession. Some fidgeted and looked uncomfortable, but if I’d been hoping for surprise or outrage, I was disappointed. Beltran wasn’t here undercover, he worked with these people.

He worked for Diggon.

“I was supposed to be caught,” I said, staring at the others, looking for some hint that they hadn’t known about this. To the last one, they were scared, but none of them were surprised.

“Yes,” Beltran said. “We would have sprung you after you’d kept your mouth shut for a few days.”

“I’m sorry I ruined your plans.”

“I’m not. I can’t deny that you’ve done some damage, but I’ve never been more proud of one of my recruits. You’ve done a great job and have not only managed the media but kept us on the run. It’s safe to say you’ve passed your test. Welcome back. We have a special position for you.”

The others in the room expected that I’d rejoin. Even Kris looked doubtful. I wasn’t ready to show my hand yet, but as long as Beltran was talkative, I had additional questions. I’d sort the truth out from the lies later, once he had everything on the table.

“We’re internal security for Diggon,” I said. “We clean out the rot.”

Beltran nodded. “That’s exactly right. Think of Diggon as a government, and why not? We practically own several nations in Africa and South America. We’re the third largest corporation in the world with revenue greater than most countries. Can you imagine what would happen if this company were to fall into the wrong hands? What a madman could do with the weapons we make? The data we collect? It’s a scary proposition. That’s where you and I come in.”

“That doesn’t make sense because Diggon isn’t even five years old yet,” Kris said. “Jake was recruited more than a decade ago.” It was the first time she’d spoken. Beltran regarded her with a calculating look that he frequently got when deciding what to do about a particular problem.

Would she die if I agreed to join him again?

“Your friend is correct on her timelines,” Beltran said, “but I’m not going to get into that. You need to decide. Are you in or are you out?”

“Why did you let Martinez and Payne kill so many people?”

“They don’t work for me. It was a mistake to wait for your team to discover his treachery, but I don’t condone the deaths of innocent people.”

I snorted. “Forgive me for not believing you. Surely Peck told you about that picture? The one of you at the mass grave?”

Beltran nodded as if prepared for the question. “That was taken out of context. I was on a mission and had to maintain a cover. If it’s any comfort, I killed the man behind the genocide.”

Beltran reached for a remote and turned on the television. “I owe you this much.”

Shannon came onto the screen. She had blonde hair and was sobbing. It was tough to watch, and I gripped my pistol tighter.

“This was recorded the night we determined that things had gone wrong with our plan. She cares for you, she loves you. Come back to her, come back to us.”

His blatant attempt at manipulation snapped me back to reality.

I thought of Beltran’s deceptions and all the horror that had resulted. Before I realized what I was doing I had pushed Beltran against the wall. The others in the room became a blur as I focused on him.

“I’m done,” I said. There was a commotion behind me, but I didn’t turn. I was too busy jabbing my pistol into Beltran’s gut. I could feel his bulletproof vest. I jabbed harder. I wanted him to feel pain. I brought my pistol up, intending to hit him.

“Stop,” Shannon said. “Or your pretty friend dies.”

I looked over my shoulder and saw that Tom and Cherry were with her as well. They had pistols trained on me. Shannon had Kris against the far wall by the door, a pistol to her head.

“How’s it going, Jake?” Tom asked, the smirk on his face complementing the pistol he had pointed at me.

“What Beltran said is true,” Cherry said, the concern on her face providing an interesting contrast to her pistol. “You’ll understand once you’ve had time to calm down.

“Please,” Shannon said. “I miss you.”

Her words hardened my resolve.

“They’re playing you, don’t—” Kris said. Shannon cut her off by a slap to the face.

I winced, but Kris looked okay. I focused on the more important issue.

Beltran.

I’d been debating what to do about him. There was no doubt in my mind that he was an evil man. Turning Beltran over to the police wouldn’t work. He’d either pay them off, or he’d escape. Either way, he would continue his grisly work.

I’d been recruited years before Diggon was formed and Beltran would continue his special brand of recruiting as long as he breathed. If Diggon went bankrupt, Beltran would still be there. More parents would die, and more children would be orphaned. I almost killed him at the thought.

I tried to not think about all the homes he’d wreck if given a chance.

While I agreed that the world would be a better place without Beltran, I hesitated. If that was the line of logic I followed, where would it end? Martinez and Payne had to go as well. Surely I’d go after Peck too.

Once I got them, if I was still alive, would it be over?

Could I just walk away from the man I’d have to become to do these things? That pathway led to nowhere.

If I did this, would there be a difference between the men I was killing and me?

All the killing I’d done up to this point had been in self-defense. Even Larry had been going for his gun.

Shannon jabbed Kris in the throat again and brought me back to reality; there wasn’t time for this.

I put Beltran in between the others and me and fired into his back. To the other people in the room, it must have seemed like I decided to kill him. That wasn’t the case. His body armor would protect him. He’d live.

The conference room doors burst open, and grenades were tossed in. Tear gas started spewing from them. With burning eyes, I aimed my pistol for the door nearest me and fired at the first person that walked in. As he went down, I noticed that he was wearing a gas mask. Another had been about to enter behind him, but he stopped. By that time, half a dozen armed men had entered through the other door. Tom and Cherry were already down, and two men were wrestling Shannon to the ground.

The man behind the one I’d shot entered, and he was followed by several more. I didn’t see a way out. I thought I recognized Martinez behind a gas mask just before I was clubbed in the back of the head.

 

 

32

When I awoke the first thing I saw was one of the expensive chandeliers in Diggon’s lobby hanging directly over me. I must have taken quite a knock to the head because I thought that it was falling and going to hit me.

I tried to roll out of the way and ran into something—a person by the feel of it. Blinking, I looked back at the ceiling. After determining that it was my head that was spinning and not the chandelier falling, I tried to collect my wits. There was a huge lump on the back of my head, but other than that I was fine and I was surprised to find that my hand and legs were free.

After several labored breaths, I sat up and immediately wished that I hadn’t because it made me dizzy.

“They’re starting to wake.”

I didn’t recognize the voice.

Shannon was beside me, and she was out cold. I might have thought she was asleep, except the gash on her head and the blood that had dripped down her face told a different story.

Kris lay to the other side of me. Cherry and Tom were nearby as well. They were all unconscious. Where was Beltran? There had been other people in the conference room, what had happened to them?

Martinez was with a group of people nearby. All of them had gas masks pulled onto the top of their heads. I did a double take when I recognized Ronan Wright among the men. He didn’t have a gas mask and was talking to Martinez while gesturing animatedly. They were too far away for me to make out what was being said.

What did Wright have to do with all of this? As he spoke, he became more agitated, and he started gesturing towards something I couldn’t identify because a lavish garden was in the way.

I searched my pockets. They’d taken away my pistols and ammo magazines. I cautiously moved my leg and hid a sigh of relief. I was still armed with my subcompact pistol. It wouldn’t be much good against so many people, but it was comforting still the same.

“Don’t move,” said a voice from behind.

I turned and recognized Cole Gurley. He sneered. The tall man looked at me in much the same way I imagined he’d looked at a lot of his victims. I doubted I’d be leaving alive today if he had anything to do with it. In addition to Gurley, three other armed men surrounded us. It must have been one of them that had spoken earlier.

I wondered why Martinez had kept us alive. If he wanted to destroy Beltran, it wasn’t much of a stretch that he’d be willing to kill all of us as well. I caught Martinez looking at me, but he didn’t say anything and turned his attention back to Ronan, who was yelling now.

“Kill them all!” Ronan demanded. “Starting with Beltran, I won’t be safe as long as he’s alive.”

I didn’t hear Martinez’s response, but it wasn’t to Wright’s liking because he threw his hands up in exasperation.

“The whole reason I hired you was to protect me,” Wright said. “Peck, Beltran, and everybody in their employ has to be taken out, you’re as incompetent as Townsend.” He took a breath and reached towards his pocket, but his hand never made it. Several of Martinez’s men took him by the arm and patted him down, removing a pistol.

Martinez was working for Wright?

I guess that made sense, but how did the train and mall bombing fit into it? What did Wright gain from those acts? The name Townsend had struck a chord, but it took a few seconds for me to put it together.

Gina Townsend.

The woman who had tried to kidnap Bruce Andrews. She’d been working for Wright? We’d never learned why Vargo had been hiring Payne, but I now suspected that perhaps all this was coming down to nothing more than a simple power struggle between Vargo and Wright. Vargo had probably hired Payne to kill Wright.

Wright had Martinez take Payne from us.

That made sense, but I still couldn’t see how the train and the mall furthered their agenda. Neither Wright nor Martinez had a reason for that wanton destruction. Martinez, though brutal, always had a reason for his actions. I’d never seen him do anything that hadn’t been thought out and well planned.

I thought back to what I knew of Payne before this whole thing started. He’d been considered a dangerous man in his own right, but there had been more to it. He didn’t care about the destruction he left behind. Martinez and Wright had grabbed the tiger by the tail when they’d recruited Payne to their side, but they hadn’t been able to control him.

Shannon stirred. “Where are we?” she asked, sitting up. “Ow.”

“Take it easy,” I said, not taking my eyes off the scene unfolding before me. I wished that I was able to make out what Martinez was saying. He gestured with his hands and his men walked Wright across the bridge over the alligator pit and to the bank of elevators. When they got there, they kept their guns on Wright but didn’t move further. My guess was that Martinez had just terminated his employment relationship with Wright. “How you feeling?”

“Like my brain is trying to rip open my head. You?”

“Same.”

Shannon groaned. “About what Beltran told you—”

“Don’t worry,” I said,” I don’t have any expectations.”

“He was telling the truth.”

I turned, unable to keep the anger from my voice. “You broke up with me because Beltran told you too? You’re weaker than I thought.”

Shannon didn’t have an answer for that. I looked away, not knowing what to say and partially regretting my words.

We didn’t speak for the next half hour. During that time, all the rest regained consciousness. Tom was the last to come to, and once he had, Gurley growled at Martinez, who was standing on the bridge looking down at the pit. I probably imagined it, but I thought I could hear the gators down there.

Martinez approached, taking a rifle from one of his men as he did. “Beltran has been lying to you.”

“We already know we work for Diggon,” Tom said. Cherry was sitting closer to Tom than necessary, and I wondered if something had happened between them. Beltran would probably be happy about that. Martinez noticed as well, his eyes narrowed while Cherry stared defiantly back at him.

One of the armed men stirred at Tom’s tone, but Martinez brought his hand up, silencing the man.

“That’s one lie among many, and it’s the least disturbing,” Martinez said. “Bring them here.”

Four of Martinez’s men walked out from behind a lavish garden. Two had Beltran between them, and Payne was in between the other two. Both men were bound and gagged with duct tape.

“First off, I didn’t condone Payne’s actions at the train or the mall.” Martinez looked at Shannon. “He tortured you without permission.” Shannon didn’t flinch at the information, and I could tell that Martinez wasn’t getting through to her. The look in her eyes conveyed a threat that she didn’t need to put into words.

I growled. “What about the Kurt family?”

“That was Peck.” Martinez must have noticed I didn’t believe him because he continued. “Peck employs a man that you know as Thor. That man has a lot to answer for, but that’s not why we’re here today.”

I mulled this over. It was true that I’d been suspicious of Thor because of his interest in me. When Peck had revealed himself to Shannon and me, Thor had been waiting outside class until Peck told him to leave. Had that been an order? I thought back to the man on the beach that had been snapping photos of us when we’d finished our run and tried to imagine Thor underneath the hat.

I could see it.

“Toss him in,” Martinez gestured towards the alligator pit.

At first, it wasn’t clear who he was referring to, but Martinez’s men grabbed Payne and dragged him to the bridge. As Payne struggled with his captors, I wrestled with my feelings. Payne deserved to die, but tossing a bound man to the gators seemed extreme, even for Martinez.

No, there was more to it than just an execution. Martinez wanted Payne to suffer. He was trying to help Shannon get her revenge. A glance at Shannon showed she was taking this all in with cold eyes.

At the bridge, without any ceremony, they tossed Payne over the side. Even with the duct tape covering his mouth, I could still hear him screaming. Shannon’s face had about as much emotion as a rock when the sound of the splash reached our ears, cutting off the scream.

My eyes went to Beltran, and I wondered if he’d suffer the same fate. There were more splashes, and it sounded like Payne had managed to get to his feet as the water moved with a frantic rhythm. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man. When I’d crossed earlier in the day, I’d only glanced down, but I’d seen enough to know that there were enough of the animals down there that at least one of them would be interested. His muffled screaming started up again, and we all listened as he presumably tried running again. Even Shannon had a look of horror on her face which tightened considerably when there was another splash that was followed by thrashing and then silence.

Martinez cleared his throat, cutting into the eerie quiet. “Almost all of us have something in common. We watched our parents get murdered at a young age.” Martinez turned to Beltran. “This is your final chance to tell them the truth.” One of the men at Beltran’s side ripped the duct tape off Beltran’s mouth and slit the tape on his wrists.

Once he was freed, Beltran stood between his captors. His back straight, eyes alert, and demeanor calm. He didn’t respond.

“Beltran killed our parents,” I said, “so he could mold us into the agents he wanted us to become. Giving us traumatic experiences at young ages made us malleable and paranoid.”

“You’re half right,” Martinez said.

“You’re both crazy,” Tom said.

“Those people were never our parents,” Martinez said. “Beltran hired them to raise us. They were actors. Once they’d played their part and faked their deaths, they started the process again with other children.”

I didn’t know what to say.

The explanation that Martinez provided made sense. My conversation with Beltran and Larry took on new meaning. Beltran’s words came back to me: “Your father worked for me too.”

Was this the reason my mother was still alive? She’d played her part and moved on with her life. I thought about the family she had now and felt sick. Had Beltran hired her again?

As the full impact of Martinez’s words hit me, I found that I was paralyzed. It fit, but the truth rang hollow.

My parents had been working for Beltran. They hadn’t loved me. I was a job to them. My childhood was being ripped away from me. The only happy memories I’d ever known were evaporating.

Tom laughed. “Is that why you’ve been causing all this trouble? I was at my parent’s funeral. It was an open casket.”

“Their final performance,” Martinez said. I had to strain to hear his next words because he spoke softly. “My parents’ funeral was the same way.”

“You’re insane,” Cherry said.

Martinez looked like he’d been slapped. He shrugged. “It’s the truth.”

“My parents died in a car wreck,” Shannon said.

“You are a unique case,” Martinez said. “Those were your real parents and they really did die. Have you ever wondered if it was more than an accident, though?”

“Don’t you dare go there!” Shannon said, standing. “You better kill me here and now, because if you don’t, I will come for you.” I guess Martinez’s attempt to assuage Shannon of her ill will towards him, hadn’t worked.

Beltran wore his typical impassive expression, and I tried to guess what was going through his mind. He had to be angry.

“Martinez is telling the truth,” I said. It took great effort to stand, but Shannon was the last remaining bright spot that I had. I couldn’t let her throw her life away. Shannon looked ready to punch me.

“My mother is alive,” I said. “Beltran admitted that my dad worked for him.” I looked at Beltran. “Did my father have a change of heart and not want to go through with the plan? Could he not bring himself to fake his own death because he’d grown to love me? Larry decided to improvise when he found out, didn’t he?”

“Kill me,” Beltran said. “Let my children go.”

“Protecting your investment?” Martinez asked. “Isn’t that how you refer to us when speaking with Peck? No, I have a better idea.” Martinez walked to the middle of the floor and laid down his rifle. Beltran was on one side, and we were on the other. “If you really believe that these people are yours, Beltran, you have nothing to fear. If you don’t trust them with the truth, you can always start over. Please take note: I have a team of armed men at the door. Each one has a rifle trained on one of you. There will be no moving until I blow the whistle. I will allow everybody to stand before this charade comes to an end.”

Martinez’s words were met with silence. Was he serious? He was going to turn this into a race to a gun? A trial by bullet? We were further away from the rifle than Beltran was. This would be by design, making Beltran think that he’d be able to make it to the rifle first. Cutting his losses would be a tempting prospect. I looked towards Beltran who was as stoic as ever. Cherry and Tom were shifting uncomfortably, but Shannon was staring from the rifle to Martinez.

“I have a prediction,” Martinez said as he waited for Kris, Cherry and Tom to stand. “Beltran will go for the gun, but won’t be able to shoot fast enough. Those of you that survive are welcome to join me. If you’d rather not, that’s ok as well. I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone. I want you guys to experience freedom. I want you to know what it’s like to live.”

He and his men retreated. Beltran looked at each of us. I could see him calculating his odds. If he ran for the rifle, he’d be corroborating Martinez’s story. He already knew what I believed; the question was what Shannon, Cherry, and Tom believed.

I was curious why Martinez had left Kris alive. Could it be because he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer after all or did he just want to gain goodwill with me by not killing her? Hoping I’d start to trust him? I supposed that was consistent with blaming Payne for the terrorist acts, but at the same time, we’d just witnessed a brutal execution. Clearly, he wasn’t above getting his hands dirty.

The whistle blew, and Beltran ran for the rifle. I grabbed my subcompact pistol out of my ankle holster and fired, hitting Beltran in the head. Only after I pulled the trigger did I wonder if Martinez had discovered my weapon and left it on purpose. It was too convenient now that I saw how things had gone.

Beltran fell to the floor as Shannon scooped up the rifle. She didn’t miss a beat as she dashed after Martinez who’d just disappeared with his men out the exit. I was surprised that Martinez didn’t want a front row seat to his twisted little game.

I called after Shannon, but she didn’t respond. I turned back to Beltran’s body, uncertain what I felt. I wasn’t an executioner, and there had been little doubt in my mind that Beltran wouldn’t have hesitated to turn the rifle on us. But had I been a little quick to take him out? Shannon was determined enough that she might have made it there first.

A small voice in the back of my mind told me Beltran had set me up to kill Larry, just like Martinez had set me up to kill Beltran.

I looked towards Shannon as she chased after Martinez.

She wouldn’t stop until she killed him or was dead. She didn’t have a chance of succeeding while Martinez was surrounded with so many armed men. I had to keep her from getting killed. I ran toward the exit with Kris close on my heels, leaving behind a bewildered Cherry and Tom.

 

33

Even though the sun was setting, there was still enough light to make out where Shannon stood several hundred yards away. She was in the open and slowly turned in a circle with her rifle up and ready to fire.

I took as much time as I dared to make my approach, keeping an eye out for Martinez and his men as well. By the time I had almost reached her, I decided they were gone. I didn’t know how they’d been able to disappear so quickly, but I figured that Martinez had used a hidden passageway somewhere on the grounds to make his escape. He seemed to know this place better than anybody else.

In the distance, I spotted a lone figure that had his back to me and was walking away at a normal pace.

The light was getting dimmer by the minute, but by the height of the man and the back of his head, I would have bet money that it was Thor. I’d spent a lot of time hiding from him and had gotten pretty good at recognizing him from a distance. What was he doing here? I squinted, wishing for binoculars, and thought about going after him. Lisa’s screams haunted me as I remembered Martinez’s claim that Thor had been behind the death of the Kurt family. I decided against chasing after Thor because there would be time enough to deal with him later.

“I was too slow,” Shannon said when I reached her.

“We can chase him another day,” I said, neglecting to mention my theory for Martinez’s escape. I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night while she went from exhibit to exhibit looking for hidden passageways.

We didn’t speak as the sun set. I wanted to reach for her, to take her in my arms and comfort her, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“I’m sorry,” Shannon said at last. It was the first time I ever heard her apologize and it caught me off guard. “I shouldn’t have let Beltran convince me to break up with you.” It was hard to tell if she was sincere because it was dark and she was covered in shadow, but I suspected her words were genuine and I wanted to believe that she meant it.

“This isn’t really the time—”

“If we don’t get another,” Shannon said. “I wanted you to know.”

I didn’t know how to respond.

“You guys trying to get caught?” Kris asked. I hadn’t noticed her approaching. “There’s at least three corpses back there. We need to split.”

Shannon gave me a questioning look and turned to Kris.

My instincts were to keep these two apart. Shannon had been bothered by Kris before we’d known anything about her and I could see that Kris had a bruise on her neck from where Shannon had jabbed her with the pistol.

Kris was right though, we needed to leave. I don’t know why we hadn’t seen any of the Diggon security detail, but I didn’t want to stick around and wait for them to show up. Perhaps Martinez had done something to keep them busy so he could have his fun.

“Things will be different now,” Shannon said.

I hesitated, looking from Shannon to Kris.

With Beltran dead, I’d assumed his team would fall apart. Black Brick should have died with Beltran, but I could see the resolve in Shannon’s face and realized my assumption might be wrong.

“Peck didn’t know what Beltran was doing,” Shannon said. “He didn’t know what kind of man Beltran was. You saw how shocked he was to see the photo of Beltran at the mass grave. If we’re there to guide him, he won’t make the same mistakes, and we’ll be able to do some good.”

I could tell Kris expected me to stay with Shannon. She started to edge away.

“No, Shannon,” I said. “We never did any good. Diggon doesn’t have the right to do the things they’re doing.”

“We can rein Diggon and Peck in.”

“The only way to do that is to kill him,” I said. “Come with me and leave this all behind. Let’s start new lives.”

“Do you accept my apology?” Shannon asked, looking vulnerable and scared for the first time since I’d known her. I hadn’t realized what I’d implied when I suggested we start fresh.

“Yes,” I said when the silence was beginning to get awkward.

“Does this mean—”

“Shannon,” I said interrupting her. “You can’t expect me—”

“It’s clear you haven’t forgiven anything. I was doing what I thought I had to; I didn’t know what Beltran was really up to. I was following orders. Can’t you see?”

I hesitated, unsure what to say next.

“I have to make sure Cherry is all right.” Anger flashed across Shannon’s face, and she stormed away, headed in the direction of Diggon.

“I need time to sort things out,” I called after her. Shannon didn’t turn around. I wasn’t certain she heard me.

“You have a way with women,” Kris said. “You know that?”

I was about to chase after, but there was an explosion on one of the high levels of the main tower. Shattered glass fell to the ground, and smoke surrounded the top of the building. Shannon was already gone by the time I reoriented myself.

My first thought was for Ronan. He’d disappeared into the elevator as soon as Martinez had blown the whistle.

Thor’s presence was one coincidence too many, he had to be working for Peck as Martinez claimed. While Martinez had been keeping everybody busy, Thor had taken advantage of the opportunity to plant the bomb. With Ronan gone, Peck was a shoo-in for the CEO position.

I had one guess who was going to be blamed for this.

I thought back to the alley and the unknown shooter that had killed Bruce Andrews and Gina Townsend. Had that been Thor?

What about Vargo? Had Thor been the shooter on that as well?

Once Beltran had admitted to being behind Vargo’s death, I hadn’t given it another thought, but now I wondered who had pulled the trigger. It wasn’t Cherry, Tom, or Shannon because they were all with me at the time of the shooting.

I turned in the direction Thor had gone, but he’d long since disappeared.

“I’m leaving,” Kris said. “Come if you want.” She ran towards the parking garage.

I didn’t hesitate before following her.

 

34

I turned up the volume on the television when I saw Peck’s face. He’d managed to strike an appropriate balance between mourning and confidence. He had just come from the funeral of Ronan Wright who—as I had suspected—had died in the explosion at Diggon tower.

Bruce Andrews. Jason Kurt, Lisa, and their parents. Lane Vargo. Ronan Wright.

Thor and Peck had a lot to answer for.

Peck had played the media magnificently. There had been a camera recording when I killed Larry and Beltran. The heavily edited footage had been seen by millions and, of course, didn’t come with audio. That would have caused too many questions.

“Mr. Peck,” the anchorwoman said. “Congratulations on your new promotion. How does it feel to go from being a college professor to the CEO of one of the largest and most influential corporations?”

“Well, as you can imagine,” Peck said, “it’s been quite a change. But I don’t want to talk about that today. There has been a lot of death and tragedy. My company has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks. I’d like to take this opportunity to announce a new partnership between Diggon and the federal government. We’re creating a citizen watch program called Spectrum.”

“And just what will Spectrum do?” the anchorwoman asked.

Peck help up his phone. “It’s an app that people can voluntarily run on their phone, tablet, or computer. The app will monitor what is going on around the user and report a live stream of data back to our servers. When alarming events take place, we’ve developed technology that will recognize what is happening so that local and federal authorities can be alerted.”

“I understand there is a unique feature to catch the person behind all these attacks on Diggon,” the reporter said. “Care to comment?”

“Yes,” Peck said. “We have programmed a special alert for Sam Chever. Or Jake Ramsey. Or whatever name he’s going by these days. Our system is designed to alert authorities the moment his face or voice pops up on the system.”

Peck paused and looked squarely at the television. “We’re coming for you, Jake. Soon every upstanding citizen will have an app in their pocket with the express purpose of looking for you.”

If Peck had really wanted me dead, he’d have had Thor kill me at the Diggon headquarters. I was more useful to him alive. This is exactly what he wanted. A reason to recruit volunteers as his spies. Peck needed something for them to fear.

It was me.

I shut off the television. I should have shot Peck when I had the chance. Unfortunately, at the time I’d still believed I could get my life back and it hadn’t seemed like a good idea to kill a high-profile man like Peck without knowing what he was up to.

How big of a fool was I?

Instead, I’d played right into Peck’s hands, accomplishing some of his dirty work and giving him a villain to blame for the rest.

I turned off the light and opened the blinds of my motel room. It was dark, and most people would be going to bed soon. Since the attack on Ronan, the city had been quiet. I had a feeling it was the calm before the storm.

Peck wasn’t done with me yet. I had a feeling he meant to use me for something more than just a distraction.

Whatever it was, this wasn’t something I could walk away from. Peck had already proven he wasn’t afraid of doing things the messy way. He just didn’t let the mess touch him.

It was up to me to stop him because I was the only one who knew what he was.

[]FREE SHORT STORY

 

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Author’s Note

If you have enjoyed this novel, please leave a quick review and tell your friends. Also, if you would like to receive notifications about other upcoming works, sneak peeks, and other extras, go to dandeckerbooks.com and sign up for my newsletter. Finally, if you would like to reach out, please feel free to drop me a line at [email protected] I always enjoy hearing from readers.

 

Books by Dan Decker

Science Fiction & Fantasy

War of the Fathers Universe

[_Prequel: Blood of the Redd Guard _]

Volume One: War of the Fathers

Volume Two: Lord of the Inferno

*The Containment Team *

Volume One: Ready Shooter

Volume Two: Hybrid Hotel

Thrillers

Jake Ramsey Thrillers

Black Brick

Dark Spectrum

Blood Games

Silent Warehouse (Short Story)

About the Author

Dan Decker lives in Utah with his family. He has a law degree and spends as much time as he can outdoors. You can learn more about upcoming novels at dandeckerbooks.com.

[][*Sample Chapters – Dark Spectrum *]

 

 

Jake Ramsey has lost everything. His job. His life. His sense of self. He can’t go outside unless he wears a disguise and even if he does all that, he is afraid to speak, fearing his location will be detected.

When Jake finds himself engulfed in the middle of a terrorist attack, it isn’t long before he suspects it is connected to him.

Somebody knows Jake is in the area and is setting him up to take the fall.

As Jake digs deeper, he becomes concerned that children have been kidnapped by the man behind the terrorist attack. The way becomes harder as he gets closer to the truth, facing decisions of life and death. If you enjoy thrillers with twists and turns, this book is for you. Pick up your copy today!

1

THE WOMAN’S SMILE CAUGHT me off guard, and my heart froze in my chest, distracting me from the buzzing sound I’d heard overhead. Her blonde hair reminded me of Shannon; even though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Shannon smile like that.

“Hey,” I said before I could stop myself. Her grin widened, but she moved past without stopping as my feet came to a standstill of their own accord.

Foolish! I thought, wishing I’d just kept my mouth shut. How many nearby smartphones had picked it up? I turned to see if she’d stopped too, but she’d continued right on past. A man grumbled as he darted around me but I ignored him.

My heart pounded in my chest. I wanted to chase down the woman, but knew I couldn’t. I was wearing a disguise. Even if I was looking to meet somebody that was no way to do it.

She disappeared into the crowd. I lingered for a moment but didn’t spot her again.

A van lurched up onto the sidewalk, mowing over people and sending them flying. A man was pushed into the wall of a building, securing him between the vehicle and the bricks.

I darted forward, my hand in my messenger bag, searching for my pistol. I didn’t make it far.

An explosion shook the ground and almost knocked me off my feet. I grabbed a nearby light pole to steady myself as I looked behind me. Flames came out the side of the upper part of an office building. Shrapnel and glass fell towards us.

Screams came next as people rushed back from the building, which was a difficult thing to do considering all the foot traffic and cars on the road. Panic surged as they couldn’t get out of the way of the falling debris.

People rushed towards me, looking to fight their way past. Several made it around me before the gaps closed and there was no place for them to go.

The world seemed to slow as I took in the scene. Trying to process it. Trying to figure out what this had to do with me. I looked back at the van but couldn’t see it from my crouched position by the light pole. I straightened, straining for a view of what was happening with the van but couldn’t make anything out.

My hand wrapped around the butt of my pistol but I didn’t pull it out. I didn’t need somebody to see me with it and assume I was responsible for what was happening.

I’d take it out if I had a target, not before.

Peck is setting me up again, I thought as I pulled out my burner phone and dialed 911.

It might have just been my paranoia speaking, but I couldn’t discount the possibility, even though the public attack didn’t seem like Peck’s style. It would have been more likely if he still had Beltran working for him, but even Beltran had preferred to keep things under the radar as much as possible.

It was one thing for Peck to pin Ronan Wright’s death on me, it was quite another to set me up by killing innocent people. I wasn’t sure Peck was willing to go that far but couldn’t dismiss the notion out of hand.

That was the type of thing Beltran had done for Peck before I’d put a bullet in his head.

“What is your emergency?” the operator asked.

I hesitated.

Shards of glass rained down, hitting the other people on the sidewalk and me. I covered my head with my messenger bag as I struggled to move back. I was careful not to run into anybody else, so I didn’t make it far. It would have been better if I had both hands free to hold my bag because it was heavy, loaded down with a pistol, ammo, hand grenade, flashbang, and other things I found useful when I was out and about in the city.

“What’s the emergency?”

I could make out the slightest sound of tension in the operator’s voice. I pitched my voice low and looked around, wondering how many of those around me had cell phones with the Spectrum app installed. My smartphone had it installed, but it was on mute so it wouldn’t monitor anything I said. The notifications had come in handy multiple times.

“There’s been a bombing on Market Street,” I said. “Send help immediately.” I clicked out of the call before she could ask any questions.

If law enforcement had made a deal with Diggon to use Spectrum, it would have been all over the papers. I hoped I’d done a good enough job disguising my voice to keep the suspicion off me. Somebody else was bound to call in too, but seconds mattered in situations like this. My quick call might just save lives.

A shard hit the back of my hand and made a large gash. Biting off a cry, I brought up my other hand to steady the bag while I pulled down the wounded hand for a look. Blood dripped down my arm, but the cut wasn’t bad and would clot on its own. I put it from my mind as I looked for an opening to slip away. There wasn’t one. I’d walked into a wall of people who were all fighting to get away. Those in front were trying to claw their way past me.

The congestion was caused by the van. I expected the doors to open and gunmen to pop out but it remained still. The driver’s side door was open and the seat was empty. The man who’d been pinned to the building wasn’t moving and his head hung down.

Others had been injured but I wasn’t able to see them through the crowd and I certainly couldn’t make my way to them. As I slung down my bag, shards of glass that had collected on top of it hit the sidewalk. I grabbed the light pole with both hands and shimmied up it until I could see above the crowd. The only exit was a small opening between the van and a delivery truck parked on the street. People were moving through it.

The bomb. The van.

It was a terrorist attack, but something seemed off. Perhaps a bomb in the van hadn’t gone off. As the seconds ticked by and nothing happened, I became confused.

Every instinct told me to run, to claw my way through. I fought it back. I didn’t have a place I needed to go and wouldn’t have left if I did; at least, not until the danger had passed and I’d done what I could.

For a moment, I was no longer on the street but was instead atop an overturned train car. A man whose name I could no longer remember told me I couldn’t leave, that people needed help. I’d left the site of the explosion without a second thought. Because I’d thought I had a noble purpose.

A higher calling.

I pushed back the guilt as I focused on the present.

Smoke trailed from the building as more flames sprung up inside, lighting up windows that had miraculously survived the blast. I heard a scraping sound and noticed the twisted remains of a large desk teetered at the edge of a gaping hole. A small blast came from within and propelled it all the way out.

“Look out!” I yelled, looking for a way to get to a man who was right below it. I wasn’t going to make it in time. I motioned to him and called out again. “Move, move, move!”

I wasn’t sure if he heard me but I wasn’t the only one warning him. He had a confused look as he stepped out of the way just as the desk slammed into the concrete, pieces of metal flying off as it did. He paled as he stumbled back, aware of just how close he’d come to dying.

I shut my mouth with a gasp, trying to process the scene. My brain made it feel like I was trying to swim through mud but I forced myself through it.

The screams from those around me seemed to slow down as I closed my eyes and pushed at the fear which had enveloped me. I was reminded of how adults had made a wah-wah sound on a kid cartoon I’d once seen.

I wasn’t the only person who had called out to the man but I had the most to lose. I swore under my breath and looked to either side, afraid somebody’s phone might have picked up my words. Even now, alerts could be popping up on phones all around me, warning people I was in their vicinity. With me being the most vocal, I expected all eyes to turn towards me.

I slid down the light pole, figuring it was best to do nothing more that would call attention to myself.

Sweat trickled down my neck and formed in my armpits as shrapnel rained down. The pieces were small and much of it was paper or cardboard, so I left my bag where it hung on my shoulder, preferring easy access to my hardware should I need it.

If I was going to be framed for this, Peck’s people might be nearby to apprehend me. Or at least ensure I didn’t escape. I should have figured the few quiet months I’d experienced were too good to be true.

I continued to expect gunmen but none came. Even the explosion had been small, affecting part of one floor. Perhaps less than ten offices.

Was I being set up? Had Peck hoped I’d whip out a gun and play the hero only to have the crowd backlash and take me down?

As the crowd pushed away from the building, our proximity becoming closer and closer, I started to feel like a sardine. Between the still moving traffic on the road and the fact it was rush hour, we didn’t have many places to go.

Despite all that, an area opened around the building and I could see the desk wasn’t the only thing to have fallen. Luckily, most appeared to have escaped without injury. I looked at the man between the van and the brick wall, wanting to reach him to see if he was still alive.

A woman pushed up beside me and pulled out her phone, she’d come from behind and people had been happy to let her come forward. A teenage boy slipped past her into the gap she’d made but moved no further.

Something about the way she acted made me think she was a reporter or a blogger. It wasn’t just the fact that most people were moving away while she was getting closer, but she had an air about her that was hard to quantify.

I held my breath, afraid she’d figure out I was the wanted terrorist Jake Ramsey. If she had Spectrum installed on her phone…

But that wasn’t what worried me the most. I let out a long slow breath. With all the chaos, it was unlikely anybody’s phone would have been able to pick me out from anyone else. No, it was what I’d done right before everything had changed to a sea of tumult.

The woman I’d greeted.

The Spectrum app was said to be installed on two out of every five. The thought filled me with dread.

Had all of this happened because of an innocent flirt?

The question made me think. It seemed unlikely, considering the van had hit the sidewalk right after and the bomb had gone off a few seconds later.

But still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the bomb had been planted some time ago. Perhaps the van had been following me. Peck could have waited until he had an alert I was in proximity of the building and then ordered the attack.

A chill ran down my back.

I’d been thinking my skills had kept me safe from Peck, but what if that wasn’t it at all?

Maybe he’d just been waiting for the right time to set me up. I frequently traveled Market Street, particularly since I tended to walk more often than not.

There were at least thirty people in my immediate vicinity, which meant as few as twelve phones might have picked up my words.

As the reporter moved closer to the building a sliver of relief slid into my chest. The people let her pass. The space she made closed around her. I let out a quiet sigh of relief.

I kept waiting for the other foot to drop but nothing happened. The van sat without disturbance and there hadn’t been another blast. The panicked looks from those around me were getting worse. People were starting to figure out we were trapped.

The crowd shifted and I spotted a woman on the ground, blood came from her head and she wasn’t moving. A man crouched over her checking for a pulse. He shook his head and stood up. He was pained by the death but it didn’t seem as if he knew her.

I growled as I ground my teeth, hoping this hadn’t happened because of me. I regretted the innocent flirt. Perhaps if I’d been more circumspect, I could have saved that woman’s life.

If Peck were here, I wouldn’t have had a problem doing to him what I’d done to Beltran. It was unfair Peck had turned me into a prisoner in my own body.

The thought made me pause. I’d never before killed somebody in cold blood. Even in my anger, I knew that was a line I didn’t want to cross.

The wall of people on all sides felt less confining than the knowledge the phones in their pockets and purses were looking for me.

I had helped to save a life by calling out to a man. It was mercilessly ironic I’d put myself in more danger by doing so. And heaven help me, I’d do it again, even if that meant Peck and his squad of goons were able to locate me. I didn’t know Spectrum’s full capabilities but if more than a couple of phones picked me up, I figured Peck’s team could use Spectrum to triangulate my position.

Thirty seconds had gone by since the explosion, maybe a minute. The panicked crowd was turning to a mob. I was glad I’d had the foresight not to whip out my pistol.

A boom shook the air and debris fell from above into the churning chaos that swarmed all around me. It was a smaller explosion than the first. I wondered if it hadn’t been caused by a bomb but rather something that hadn’t played well with the fire.

I shielded my eyes and stepped back, running into a man who stared up at the scene with his mouth wide open. He had pieces of glass in his hair but didn’t appear to be aware of them. I was surprised he didn’t have any in his mouth, considering the way it hung open.

“I can’t believe it,” he said, his eyes darting every which way. “Not here, not now.” He licked his lips. Under his chin, he had a large scar that went over to his neck. “They’re after me. Not again. No, no, no.”

“Who’s after you?” I demanded, cringing at hearing my own voice and eyeing a woman who’d just whipped out her phone to record the fire. I pushed on, grabbing him by the arm while lowering my voice and tilting my head away from her. “Who did this?” His words echoed my own thoughts. If this explosion hadn’t been about me, I needed to know.

He didn’t answer as he spun and savagely jostled his way into the crowd. He clawed with his hands and kicked with his feet. Most moved just to let him pass. Through an opening he created, I could see people were starting to trickle out between the van and the delivery truck.

I wanted to go after him but thought he was likely insane. His clothing had been grimy and just a step above rags. Gritting my teeth, I watched him go. If I were to follow, I’d have to fight my way free. Even if I was willing to do that, I wasn’t ready to leave yet, not until I knew the situation was under control. I just needed a few minutes for things to settle, and then I could go.

If I left before then, I’d have to deal with the uncertainty I might have saved lives if I’d stayed. I couldn’t live with the guilt of more innocent dead on my hands.

Something about the way the man had spoken made me doubt his mental acuity. The scar made me wonder if he was a veteran. Was he experiencing paranoia left over from the war? He was in his mid-thirties, so it was possible he’d seen battle.

Another man almost pushed me out into the street in his haste to get by, once again I found myself latching onto the light pole. He too clawed his way around the desperate people.

I about punched him in the face when he gripped the shoulder of a teenage boy and shoved the kid back so he could go forward. The man’s face was pale and he breathed in short gasps. He was scrawny, barely taller than the boy he’d just manhandled. He darted between several parked cars and onto the road.

I opened my mouth, intent on ripping into him but stopped short of yelling. It had become second nature to avoid speaking whenever possible. The mental sludge I’d been wading through was gone. My mind was starting to work now the initial shock of the blast was over.

I was just glad I hadn’t done anything I would regret. I could live with the consequence of speaking out to help a man. It wouldn’t be long before the congestion broke, and assuming everything was looking stable, I’d be on my way out of here, well before the first responders showed up.

A car slammed on its brakes but it was too late. It hit the hyperventilating man, sending him flying into the asphalt with a sickening crunch that made my skin crawl. By the way he landed on his head, he might have broken his neck.

I made a fist, my relief for not calling to the man turned to regret. If I’d said something, would it have stopped him from going onto the road? Might I have saved him if I hadn’t been so worried about my own skin?

A woman with a little girl clutched to her chest darted into the street, heedless of the oncoming traffic. Apparently, she hadn’t seen what had just happened to the man. The girl screamed as tears flowed down her cheeks.

“Watch out!” I yelled, jostling my way forward and out to the side of the road beside a parked car. My words were lost in the chaos of yells, screams, flames, and honking horns.

Tires squealed. A two-door car narrowly avoided the woman. The car right after it came mere inches from breaking her legs before it lurched to a stop.

The driver rolled down his window and swore, yelling she needed to be more careful. A large chunk of brick and mortar fell onto the hood of his car, making a deep indentation. The engine sputtered and died. I doubted it was from the debris, the damage hadn’t been that bad. My guess was he’d turned it off.

Swearing up a storm, he opened his door and stepped out into the path of an oncoming truck.

 

2

I OPENED MY MOUTH to yell a warning but the words died on my lips. I flinched as the truck driver slammed the brakes and honked the horn, his reactions coming a second or two after he’d hit the man. The poor man had been shoved into his car door, ripping it off. Both went flying as the truck came to a stop.

I wasn’t quick enough, I thought, averting my eyes from the carnage. From what I’d seen of the man’s landing, I doubted he’d live. The turmoil around me covered up almost every sound associated with the accident but I was still able to hear bones crunch as he landed on the asphalt.

Guilt welled up in my chest, but I didn’t allow it to take hold. I hoped I hadn’t spoken because there hadn’t been enough time. If it was my subconscious trying to keep me out of trouble…

I pushed away the thought. I’d spoken no fewer than three times in the last minute, each time without regard for the consequences. It was impossible to keep quiet in a situation like this. Human dignity required I speak up to help people.

If Spectrum picked up my words and Diggon sent their response teams after me, so be it.

I wasn’t going to let Peck and Diggon control how I responded, not when people were in danger. I fixed the thought in mind as I decided what to do next. In the space of five seconds, two men had been hit. The images of both accidents hung in my mind like the aftereffect of a bright light.

I looked back at the van, still expecting something more to come from it. A bomb, armed men, something. Nothing did.

I didn’t want to become the next victim but had to do something to help the injured men. I moved onto the road, inching forward to avoid becoming the third victim. I let a truck speed past before crossing in front of a white Honda Accord whose driver laid on the horn while he slowed.

I had plenty of time to make it across but made eye contact as I moved, wanting him to know I was watching. My hand moved of its own accord to the pistol in my bag but I didn’t pull it out. The driver’s lips formed words I could only imagine was a volatile stream of curses. He stuck his hand out the window and gave me the middle finger.

Biting back acidic words as there was no sense in risking Spectrum just to tell a man off, I waited in between lanes for a bus to pass mere inches away from me. It was slowing and I noticed the driver’s eyes were on the flames and carnage from the explosion. I doubted he’d seen me.

I shook my head as I waited to make sure an SUV behind the bus saw me and was slowing down. How had the traffic not already come to a standstill? Had the height of the explosion kept them from noticing it?

Maybe the drivers hadn’t seen what was going on, but I doubted it. It was more likely they’d just floored the gas and moved on by. With the stopped bus now blocking one lane and the accidents blocking two others, it was just a matter of time before the congestion closed off the last lane.

As I walked alongside the car that had run into the first man, the driver was still behind the wheel, his hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. I rapped on the passenger side window but didn’t stop, just summoning him with my hand.

I figured the man who’d been hit by the truck didn’t have long. If he were still alive, he wouldn’t be for long. The truck driver was running to the man who was an appreciable distance away. The man looked like a broken doll.

I shook my head as I took a knee, motioning for the first driver to join me.

People don’t know how they’ll react to a crisis, not until they are amid one. I’d trained for much of my life to act in emergencies and it had still taken me a few seconds to break out of my shock and even more time to quit acting on instinct. Even with all my training, I’d had the same response as everybody else; I’d just waded through it faster.

That’s what my training had been about, teaching me to process drastic happenings faster so I could formulate an effective response.

It was difficult for me to ever give Beltran credit for much of anything, but I had developed the ability to remain calm under intense stress. I could thank him for that. Perhaps I should have expressed my gratitude before shooting him in the head.

Whatever I’d learned was outweighed by what he’d done. That was unforgivable.

I could have had a normal life and he’d taken that away. Instead, I had no friends, no family.

Stopping that line of thinking, I went to my knees and put my hand underneath the injured man’s jaw, checking for a pulse. The anger I’d felt when he’d shouldered me was gone; it was replaced with a feeling of shame for having been bothered by something so petty. He couldn’t breathe without considerable effort. His eyes were large and round, darting back and forth. He moved his lips as if trying to speak but no words came out. A ghastly sound that was barely audible escaped from his mouth. The rest of him lay limp.

The poor fool. I doubted he’d walk again.

The driver got out, his hands shaking as he shut the door. He wiped his chin with the back of his hand and I caught the faint whiff of vomit when he approached.

Other people were getting out of their cars, some gaping at the hole in the building. A circle formed around us as people anxious to help the injured man pressed in.

Glad as I was for the show of humanity, I wished they’d stay back. I could feel the presence of their phones.

Two in every five.

Ten people surrounded us. That made four potential phones monitoring the situation.

I swore under my breath.

“Is he okay? Is he okay?” The driver struggled to breathe as knelt beside me. His hands went to the man’s jacket. “You okay, sir? Please be okay.” He cursed when I pushed him back.

“Don’t move him,” I said hoarsely. “Wait for the paramedics.”

“He ran right out in front of me, I didn’t have a chance to stop. Not a chance. You saw it, didn’t you? Tell me you saw it!”

I tuned out the driver as I focused on the injured man. Most of my training had taught me how to neutralize a threat. It hadn’t included anything other than basic first aid skills. I didn’t know what to do beyond knowing he shouldn’t be moved. His neck could be broken or he could have internal injuries. I still hadn’t seen him move anything below his chin.

“Find us help!” I said to the driver. “We need a doctor.” The injured man took a ragged breath, but it sounded stronger than any of the previous ones.

The driver didn’t respond. One of the women who’d gathered around us cupped her hands and shouted towards the crowd.

“Is there a doctor here?” Her words were lost in the chaos.

“Can you move your fingers?” I asked the man, bending low so only he could hear me. “Just open and close your hand.”

He sputtered and coughed but didn’t answer me or move his fingers. He looked right through me. I waved several fingers in front of his eyes to draw his attention.

“Move your hands,” I said slowly while making eye contact. “Can you try?”

“Yes,” he said, his voice barely audible. The word came out with a great deal of effort.

He strained his face and for a second nothing happened. I feared the worst. When his hand twitched, I let out a sigh. He closed his fingers and made a loose fist.

I smiled. “Do the other.” He did and afterward, without any prompting, he moved his feet. He made a move to sit up but I put a hand on his chest and firmly but gently kept him down.

“Wait for help. You’re in no further danger waiting right here.”

“Let me talk to him.” The driver shouldered me out of the way and began to ask questions very similar to those I’d just asked.

I was about to argue but stopped. The injured man would live; there was no reason to stay here longer. I stood and made the crowd of anxious people make room for me. Their attention was on the man and within a few seconds, I had managed to slip out of the circle.

My lifesaving capabilities were crude at best and I’d done what little I could. The driver might be just trying to save his own butt but that aligned his interests with the injured man.

The disguise I wore was good but why take unnecessary risks?

The truck driver and the second injured man had drawn a crowd as well. I wouldn’t be able to do anything more.

Things were starting to settle down. With the stopped traffic, the blockade of people had broken when they moved into the street. I could see the van.

My hackles went up as I went to it. The van appeared to be abandoned but I kept my hand in my bag. It couldn’t be a coincidence this had happened just before the explosion. It had been planned and orchestrated, but from what I could see, few people had died.

Why? That was the opposite goal of most terrorist attacks.

I approached the man who’d been pinned to the brick wall. He wasn’t moving.

“Sir,” I asked. “Can you hear me?” He didn’t respond. Knowing what I’d find but needing to check anyway, I put my hand on his wrist. There was no pulse. I checked his neck and found the same.

 

3

I GRIPPED THE BUTT of my pistol but didn’t pull it out. I tried to not think about the man’s family and those who would mourn his death. Fear seeped into my bones as I approached the van. Using my elbow, I pushed the half-open door until it was fully ajar and examined the cab but found nothing of use.

An empty candy bar wrapper was on the floor, along with some dirt. Perhaps the police could use it to determine something about who’d done this, but that didn’t help me.

The back of the van looked empty but I still went around to the rear. Using the top of my hand to avoid fingerprints, I opened the back door. The van didn’t have any seats other than up front. The back was indeed empty. I’d expected to find a bomb.

What was going on?

It might have been a terrorist attack for just the purpose of stoking fear but I was having a hard time believing it.

No, this was about something else.

Why had they blocked the pedestrian traffic? Now that everybody was free, did they not care any longer? If their goal had just been to stoke fear by creating death and mayhem, they’d had a rich target pool when everybody had been jammed in together. Their moment of opportunity had passed.

As I studied the scene, I noticed another van had been abandoned in the middle of a crosswalk on the other side from where the explosion had happened. It hadn’t blocked traffic as thoroughly as had the first, but it had created an obstacle.

It had all been a trap, but I didn’t see anybody who looked like they were planning to do any more harm.

The trap had failed. Maybe there had been a phase two that hadn’t worked.

Or had the perpetrator already accomplished their goal?

I thought of everything I’d said. I’d spoken more in public during the last few minutes than I had in six months.

What if this had all been about locating me? If Peck had orchestrated this to pinpoint my location, he’d had ample opportunity.

The thought came from the paranoid part of my brain but I’d learned it wasn’t always wrong. It was correct about fifty percent of the time. Not good odds, but a little disconcerting nonetheless.

I scanned the crowd, looking for somebody doing something out of place. I expected to recognize Shannon, Cherry, or even Tom. I wanted to think none of them would target innocent people but I’d been surprised they had remained with Diggon after Beltran had been exposed for what he was.

Everybody I could see was reacting in the way one might expect.

Some people gave aid to those who’d been hurt by falling debris. Mothers and children were scurrying away. Babies wailed at the top of their lungs while the faces of older children were pale with fear. I saw tears rolling down the cheeks of a little girl who couldn’t have been older than six or seven. Her mother whisked her down the sidewalk, dragging the poor girl. In the other arm, she held a baby boy, his face scrunched up.

Nothing popped out at me. Was I just letting my paranoia get to me?

Even if this wasn’t Diggon, this was going to stir things up for me. Maybe the chaos had made me invisible, but I wasn’t going to count on it.

Most of the explosions in the city’s recent memory had happened when I was nearby. I wasn’t responsible for any of them but I’d been blamed for all of them. This would go the same way.

The doors to the office building flung open and people poured out; unaware of the burning debris that still fell from above.

They flooded the area as they exited the building, swarming around the large chunks of rubble. Men in suits, women in pantsuits, and a variety of others, all pressed through the doors. Most went into the street where the traffic was still at a standstill.

A man walked backward as he gaped at the hole in the building and didn’t notice the curb. He fell but other than a few bruises looked like he would be okay.

Over the roar of the crowd, chaos, and fire, I could just make out a buzzing sound that reminded me of a helicopter but was pitched too high. Unless somebody was flying a model airplane through the city streets, it was a drone.

As I looked up, I covered my eyes with my hand as if to shield them from the sun. My actual purpose was to obscure my face.

Several seconds later, I spotted the drone high in the air hovering in front of the blown-out building. It looked small from down here but I figured it was bigger than I thought. I couldn’t tell for sure but I thought there were several cameras. One on the bottom and another on the side.

A news drone? Or was it something worse.

Whoever was in control of it had got it up in the air quick enough. Although a lot had happened, it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes since the initial explosion.

Hadn’t I heard a buzzing sound right before the attack?

My suspicions increased as I searched the crowd, hoping I’d see who was operating it. I wasn’t able to locate anybody.

[_They’re coming for me, _]I thought, my paranoia seeping in from all sides and coloring my view. The urge to run came but I pushed it away. [_Peck set it to blame me but I don’t need to act guilty. _]

People were hurt and a number were being jostled as others from within the building pushed their way out.

The cries coming from the scene drew me in like a moth to a flame. To atone for my limited part in the destruction that had happened in this city six months ago, I had decided I would not turn my back on people in need, even if that made things uncomfortable for me.

The first responders had to be close. Without looking up at the drone, I renewed my resolve to keep fear guide my response. I pushed through the crowd until I was in front of the building and right under where the explosion had occurred. The drone was overhead so I made sure to not look up.

The building was twelve stories and the bomb had been on the tenth floor. A smattering of debris continued to fall from above but the largest chunks had already come. Ash and soot fell as if a warm snow. Every now and then, a chunk of something came toppling over but it was nothing like the first piece of debris that had almost crushed a man.

I looked for anybody who might be hurt but all I could see were people spilling from the building at an ever-growing rate.

A woman with soot stains on her face pushed out of the exit and for a brief moment, I was back at the mall, holding a dying mother while her children surrounded her.

The dead mother’s children would grow up blaming me for what had happened that day. I clenched my fist as I scanned the crowd, looking for anybody who might need my help. One day, I hoped those children would know the truth.

It’s time to leave, said a voice in the back of my head. I ignored it, the soot-streaked woman stoking my resolve. My disguise worked, I’d proven it several times over. I would slip away once things were contained but before the first responders were on site. I had nothing to fear if I kept a low profile.

Tears welled up in my eyes, as the woman was lost in the shuffle. She looked unharmed, just shaken by the experience.

She wasn’t the only person who had been near the explosion. Those who came after had it worse. A man with a bleeding leg leaned on two women for support as he came out the double doors. He hopped on his good leg. Our eyes met and I read his determination to make it out of the building on his own power—even if aided by others—rather than on a stretcher.

More injured people followed.

While some untouched individuals pushed out of the crowd, not stopping to check if those they pushed were wounded, others helped those who couldn’t move on their own.

It was always amazing to me how the worst situations tended to show a person’s true colors.

A large man with a wisp of ash on his face elbowed his way around several others who helped a woman with a cut down her side.

One of the men grunted.

“Hey, watch where—” the man stopped when he saw who had pushed him. He shook his head and muttered something inaudible. I didn’t know much about such things—Shannon could have told me the designer—but the large man’s suit looked expensive. Judging by the other man’s reluctance, I figured the large man was an executive.

I wanted to kick the large man in the gut and ram his nose into my knee, just so he better understood what the others were going through, but I refrained from going near him, if only to lessen the temptation. The less I did to draw attention, the better.

In fact, I’d dawdled long enough. I hadn’t found anybody who needed help and the minutes were ticking by. My duty to help had been fulfilled.

First responders would soon be on site, and while I did have enough makeup caked on to fool Shannon and others from my former Black Brick team, it didn’t make any sense to put it to the test.

I turned to leave.

“Help! Please help.”

I cursed as I looked around. When I couldn’t locate the source, I almost didn’t respond, figuring somebody would go to their aid. I’d just gone several steps when I heard it again.

“He’s bleeding. I don’t know what to do. Please help!”

 


Black Brick

Jake Ramsey watched his parents get murdered when he was a boy. Shortly afterward he was recruited to work for Black Brick, a covert government organization. After Jake survives a shootout while protecting the corrupt executive of a powerful and well connected government contractor, his suspicions grow that the covert government organization he works for has been subverted by somebody who doesn’t have the country’s best interest at heart. The deeper he digs the more he fears he has been lied to about everything, including the details around the deaths of his parents. Jake doesn't know who to believe as he searches for answers, dodges bullets, and is framed for a train bombing. He soon finds himself fighting against the very organization he believed to be on the right side of the law. If you enjoy thrillers with twists and turns, this book is for you. Pick up your copy today!

  • ISBN: 9781370278787
  • Author: Dan Decker
  • Published: 2017-05-04 17:20:24
  • Words: 74743
Black Brick Black Brick