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Mirrored Man: The Rob Tyler Chronicles Book 1

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Mirrored Man

 

 

The Rob Tyler Chronicles

Book One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By G. J. Fortier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text copyright © 2015 G. J. Fortier

 

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to actual events or persons, living or dead, are coincidental. Any trademarks or products names are used only for reference, not endorsement. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or in part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This, my first novel, is dedicated first to the memory of my parents, Mary and Ted, whose wisdom and guidance made me the man I am today. We begrudgingly gave them up to Heaven far too quickly for my liking.

 

To my son Christian, whom I have often thought was the only reason for my being. He is my friend, my support, and the love of my life.

 

To my sister Geraldine, who has always been there for me. Whether standing behind, beside, or before, she has been there with love, strength, and encouragement through even the darkest days of my existence.

 

To Terri, who is my sister in Christ. Without her friendship, encouragement, humor, skills with the written word, and willingness to help this storyteller with his strong lack of grammar skills, readers might never have had the opportunity to read this.

 

Most of all, I dedicate this novel to God in Heaven, and I thank Him for the sacrifice that His Son, Jesus Christ, made on the cross for my sins. It is from Him that I was gifted with this meager talent to paint words on a page.

 

[]Table of Contents

Mirrored Man

1 Method to the Madness

2 Conundrum

3 The Vice Chairman

1 Method to the Madness

17 January 2001

1645 hours

 

 

THE WIND WHISTLED softly through the crags around the two soldiers as they lay motionless, their ghillie suits and floppy boonie hats providing insulation against the elements. More importantly, their attire masked them from the prying eyes of sentries scouring the peaks of the surrounding mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Robert “Rot” Tyler peered through the optic mounted on the fifty-caliber M82 sniper rifle, sighted on the cave entrance 640 meters to the southeast and 250 meters below. Next to him laid Petty Officer First Class Stacey “Sack” Connery who also had the crosshairs of his spotter scope on the opening in the mountain face.

They had made the jump into the Nurestan region during the new moon nearly three weeks before. Their insertion point near the village of Khamdesh Ghar was barely twenty-six kilometers from the border of Pakistan’s Northwest Territory. The cave was so well hidden that it had taken the men five days using GPS satellites to locate it, and another six to find the best combination of location and cover from which to shoot should the kill order be issued, all the while evading their very adept enemy in his own territory.

They had taken off from Dushanbe Airport in the capital of Tajikistan. Their ride had been somewhat different from what they were accustomed to. The Soviet-era IL-76 transport plane, codenamed “Candid” by NATO during the Cold War, was roughly the same size as an American Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. It was now owned and operated by Atlant-Soyuz Airlines in service as a freighter. This particular aircraft had been rented by a Russian flight crew and flown the roughly four hundred kilometers to the pair’s insertion point, twenty-two kilometers north of their current position. Armed with intelligence gleaned by the international community, the snipers from SEAL Team Six waited patiently, hoping that their extremely elusive target might turn up at this location.

“Fifteen.”

“That was fourteen.”

“It was fifteen,” Rot insisted.

“It was fourteen. You already said Cleveland.” Sack’s graveled voice was monotone as he played the familiar game.

“I did?”

Sack adjusted his tripod but remained silent.

This part of the mountains was accessible only by foot trails. No airborne vehicle short of a helicopter could fly below fifty meters in the narrow passages. It was a perfect hiding spot for the terrorist camp. Their quarry, ironically, had been on the payroll of the CIA only a dozen years earlier during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union. Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian national, had taken up the cause of the Afghans against the Russians. He had proven himself to be a brilliant tactician in the rugged countryside and a ruthless warrior against the communists. But lately, his undertakings had caused him to fall out of grace with the U.S. He was wanted by the FBI in connection with several U.S. Embassy bombings in 1998 and, more recently, the October 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole while she was at anchor in the Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen sailors had lost their lives, and thirty-nine more had been injured. All intelligence, though yet unconfirmed, pointed straight at Bin Laden as the mastermind.

It was time for some payback.

“Okay, fourteen. That just leaves two, right?” Rot asked as he scratched his cheek on the stock of his weapon.

“Yup,” Sack answered evenly.

“Okay.” Rot paused as he adjusted his view to focus on three men emerging from the cave. The terrorists took great care to stay out of sight during the day, but after sunset they were less cautious and came out to get some fresh air.

“Did I say Jacksonville already?”

Sack followed the newcomers as well. “That’s fifteen.”

Rot peeked from under the cowl of his camouflage suit at his partner. Both wore gray and black camouflage paint on their exposed skin, but that was where the similarities ended. At six foot four Sack was three inches taller than Rot, eighty pounds heavier, and built like a linebacker. His barrel chest and tree trunk limbs were legendary, and his emerald eyes reflected intelligence and intensity. But nothing spoke more of the big man’s cowboy personality than his thick black mustache.

“The Panthers?” Rot asked tentatively.

Sack stared at Rot disparagingly. “They’re in the NFC. Ain’t you from South Carolina? You ought ta know that one.”

“They’ve only been in the NFL since the expansion. I’ve only been back there a few times since then.”

“More ‘n a few.”

“Not during football season. Anyway,” Rot turned his attention back to his scope, “who’s left?”

Sack kept silent. It wouldn’t be long before the sun dipped below the peaks and the temperature started dropping, which would make it difficult for them to keep the lenses on their equipment from clouding over. Scanning the cave’s perimeter, he spotted a larger group moving toward the cave from the southwest. “One o’clock.”

Rot quickly found the second group moving toward the entrance. “Hello. Who do we have here?”

“Is that him?”

“I do believe we have a winner.”

The man in the middle of the larger group stood head and shoulders above the others. His thick beard and turban obscured his face, but Rot had studied enough video to know the man’s stature and mannerisms. “Contact Method. Paper has been printed.”

Sack complied without hesitation, speaking slowly and clearly into his headset’s microphone. “Method, this is Wyvern. Paper has been printed. I say again, paper has been printed. Request instructions. Over.”

Rot put his weapon’s crosshairs on the tall figure’s center mass as his index finger rested anxiously against his weapon’s trigger guard, ready to do its work. One shot from the Raufoss fifty-caliber explosive, armor-piercing round would be more than sufficient to eliminate his target.

Rot listened to the unexpected response as it crackled over Sack’s radio. “Wyvern. Method. Flypaper. Repeat. Flypaper. Over.”

“Method says we hold. Can you believe it? We hold again.” Sack spat the words.

“I heard.” Rot watched as the man in his sights laughed along with the others in the group. An odd feeling of relief swept over him. “Confirm your last.”

“Method. Wyvern. I repeat. Paper has been printed. Please confirm your last. Over.”

“Confirmed. Flypaper. Repeat. Flypaper. Over.”

Sack rested his forehead on the rock that served as the platform for his scope. “Confirmed.”

Rot sighed and thought of his wife as he watched the group disappear into the cave. She was right.

For several moments, all that could be heard was the moaning wind before Sack growled, slammed his head hard against the rock and glared over at Rot. “What are we doin’ here, LT?”

Rot watched blood trickle down Sack’s temple. “Relax.”

“But this is the second time,” Sack protested. “First in Somalia and now here.” He looked through his scope only to see their target gone. “Well, that’s just great. He’s in there now. All of this fer nuthin’! Japan to Moscow to Tajikistan. The Russians, the jump, three weeks in the desert, fer Pete’s sake!” To this rant he added a steady stream of expletives.

Rot ignored the rest of Sack’s rant. The lieutenant’s relief was growing, their mission over. But now Rot was faced with an even more difficult task. One he had been dreading more than the prospect of completing their mission.

They packed up in the dead of night beneath the light of the waning moon and began the long trek back to their extraction point in the same riverbed where they had concealed their jump gear. Before, they had stopped frequently as they moved mostly at night through low ground, using what little light the moon had provided to survey the peaks around them for signs of the enemy. But now their course remained uninterrupted as they traveled closer and closer to the choppers and home.

On the morning of the third day, Rot blurted out, “The Titans!”

Sack was accustomed to the lieutenant spouting the answer to a question asked hours or even days earlier. “Congratulations. It only took you four days this time.”

Rot smiled to himself. “I always forget the expansion teams. Hey, who’s playing the Giants again?”

“The Ravens,” Sack answered, amazed at Rot’s lack of football knowledge. “How can you call yourself a football fan and not know who’s playing in the fu—” Sack caught himself. The lieutenant’s ears had become sensitive to bad language over the past couple of years, soon after he married his little church-going bride. “Sorry, sir. The freakin’ Super Bowl.”

Rot smiled. “I told you, you don’t have to hold your tongue around me. I ain’t a nun.” He was painfully aware of the widening gap between other SEAL Team Six members and himself since he had married three years before. His mellowing demeanor had caused a reciprocal change in attitude from nearly every one of his teammates. A couple of them had listened politely as Rot tried to explain his admittedly radical transformation, but most weren’t interested. A few were even openly hostile at times. But not Sack—his observer, his partner, his friend. Snipers and their observers were the elite of the elite, and Rot and Sack were a team within a team, despite rank. And that fact was making Rot’s approaching chore even more difficult.

Sack smiled wide. “I was jus’ tryin’ ta be respectful.”

Rot gave him a knowing look. “Well, I appreciate that, but I ain’t responsible for your mouth. Or your soul.”

“My soul?” Sack lifted one of his booted feet, peering intently at its tread. “These boots’re brand new for this mission, LT.”

Rot ignored the quip. “Well, at least we’ll be home in time to watch the game.”

Sack squared his shoulders. “Go ahead.”

Rot looked at him quizzically. “What?”

“Ya might as well get it over with,” Sack stated stoically.

“What are you talking about?”

Sack sighed. “Every couple o’ weeks for more ‘n a year, you invite me to go to church with ya. Go ahead an’ ask. I’ll tell ya ‘no’ and then we can get on home.”

Rot smiled. “Okay. Come to church with me when we get back.”

“Can I bring Chiyoko? ‘Cause we’re both gonna need some forgivin’ the mornin’ after I get back.” Sack grinned, ending the statement with a wink.

Rot frowned. “Sure Sack. You can bring Chiyoko to church.”

The big man shook his head. “Best not. That chick ain’t got no business bein’ anywhere near a church.”

“Well, it’s an open invitation if you change your mind.” Rot turned his attention to the rising sun. “We better find some cover.” There was a short pause. “Now it’s my turn,” he added.

“Here we go,” Sack sighed.

Ignoring him, Rot began. “Name all the countries of South America.”

“Aww, c’mon LT. I give you football—American football—and you give me friggin’ world geography?”

Rot grinned. “You don’t want me to make it too easy do you? Besides, there’s only twelve of ‘em. Well, fifteen if you count the major territories.”

The two settled into a narrow crevice a dozen feet long and barely three feet wide, but with walls that stretched so high up into the peaks that only two stars were visible in the brightening sky. Sack tried to find a comfortable position while he asked, “What about the fifty states?”

Rot gave him a disappointing look. “I’m tryin’ to challenge you here. A third grader could name all fifty states.”

It took Sack the better part of the next hour to name all of the countries, including the three major territories, as they ate their MREs. The two then alternated between rest and watch duty in two-hour shifts as the day crept slowly by.

Sack became oddly silent for the remainder of their journey, communicating only when necessary. At times they were separated by the rough terrain, which gave Rot an opportunity to pray for strength and wisdom for his upcoming task.

It was shortly before midnight the night they reached the extraction point. The choppers were due to arrive at zero one hundred hours, so they took up positions with a clear view of the dusty riverbed where they silently watched the darkness for any movement among the jagged peaks.

Rot checked his Luminox watch. With the extraction time fast approaching, he was compelled not to wait until they returned to base for the coming unpleasantness. Mustering courage, he sighed heavily and spoke barely above a whisper the words he had been dreading.

“Um, Sack?”

“Sir?”

“I’m leaving Six.”

“Copy that, Sir,” Sack said without missing a beat.

Rot searched the darkness but couldn’t see Sack’s eyes clearly. Maybe he had underestimated the big man’s visceral skills. He thought a moment. “Did Walsh—?”

Sack stopped him with a nod.

Rot had served with Lieutenant Commander Benny Walsh aboard the USS West Virginia early in his career, before he became a SEAL. He had been more than Rot’s superior officer. He became his friend and mentor as well. Sack had met the man when SEAL Team Six spent some time aboard The Silent Mountaineer for a training exercise in the Mediterranean where he became fast friends with Benny, the “preacher’s kid.”

“How … when—?”

Sack cut him off. “I guess he figured somebody ought’ a let me know that my partner of six years was torpedoin’ me.”

“Sack—”

Stabbing an angry finger at Rot to silence him, Sack nearly shouted, “Just tell me it’s ‘cause of missions like this one where …” He trailed off for a moment, then continued with a lower, steadier voice. “… where we get called off at the last minute with no explanation. That, at least, I could understand.”

Rot’s fingers tapped the stock of his rifle uncomfortably, but he said nothing.

“Not ‘cause you went and got married and let yer wife drag ya off to church.”

Rot ignored the man’s disrespectful tone. “I can’t do it anymore, Sack.”

“Can’t do what?” Sack demanded.

Rot knew he owed the man an explanation, but he didn’t want to say the words.

“Can’t do what?” Sack hadn’t intended to scream, but he was more frustrated than he thought he’d be.

Ignoring the fact that Sack could’ve just given away their position, Rot simply said, “Kill.”

“What?” Sack asked incredulously. Only days before, Rot had been poised to do just that, to kill a terrorist leader. And Sack had absolutely no doubt that the lieutenant would have followed the order, had it come.

All at once Rot’s guilt lifted. “I got baptized.”

The words hit Sack squarely, literally rocking him back where he was sitting. “You did what?”

Rot nearly laughed out loud. “At the base chapel right before we left. I got baptized.”

The silence lasted a full minute before Sack spoke again. “I thought you wuz Catholic.”

“I am. At least I was. I don’t know what I am.” Rot paused before concluding, “I’m a Christian.”

Sack frowned. “Well, what’s up with the …” The words trailed off as he touched his head, chest and shoulders as Catholics do when they bless themselves.

Rot smiled, “Catholics are Christian, Sack.”

The big man’s face screwed up into another question, but the familiar sound of beating air interrupted his thoughts. He and Rot turned in unison and watched as a pair of MH-60K Black Hawks pirouetted around a rocky outcropping in the riverbed to the north. Flown by crews of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based at Fort Campbell, the Night Stalkers were a team of Army aviators who trained specifically for high-speed, low-altitude operations at night.

Sack reached into his ammo pouch and produced a three-by-three-inch square packet of chemical hand warmer. Activating it with a squeeze, he threw it in the middle of the riverbed. Although it was small, it was more than enough for the infrared equipment on board the choppers to use as a guide.

One of the helos started down as the other climbed to provide high cover for the SEALs. Rot and Sack moved toward the descending bird.

They were almost there when the unmistakable sound of AK-47 assault rifles rang out from every direction.

Ambush! “God help us!” Rot called out as he felt Sack back up against him. The big man began firing into the shadows of the rocks with his MP5. Rot, still carrying his sniper rifle, cursed himself for having let his guard down.

“On yer nine!” Sack screamed over the din of battle.

Rot looked left and saw several silhouettes in the moonlight charging them from behind a rocky outcropping, rapidly closing what few yards were between them. Without thinking, he turned the barrel of his weapon toward the closest attacker and fired from the hip. He watched as the fifty-caliber round struck the man in the chest, dropping him to the dust, dead. But the round, traveling at 2850 feet per second, passed through his target’s flesh, somehow missing bone. It struck the next man in line just below his throat, activating the explosive within. The assailant’s loosely fitting clothes seemed to balloon out as his head simply disintegrated. What was left dropped heavily to the sand. The next man stopped in his tracks, blinded. He began to wipe the gore from the second man’s exploded body from his eyes with the sleeve of his tunic. Rot fired again, forever eliminating his third opponent’s need to clear his vision.

“Cover!” Sack screamed as he began to sprint toward the rocks their enemy had been using as a shield.

Rot spun 360 degrees, searching for targets in the clamor. Finding the closest two, one behind the other and only yards away, he fired again with incredibly similar results as those of his first two victims. “Ya should a paid better attention!” He screamed at the men as what was left of them crumpled to the riverbed. He saw a flash from behind the boulders on the opposite side of the chopper. The entire area exploded as the helo’s weapons went to work. Above him, he heard the telltale buzz of the twin M134 mini-guns and the thud-thud-thud of the two M2 fifty-caliber machine guns as they opened up, their muzzles flaring, lighting up the night.

Danger! Move! Run!

He searched for another target as an explosion rang out above him. The aircraft he was standing under shuddered violently. Rot’s ears were filled with the unfamiliar sounds of a dying helicopter as it plummeted straight down, a shower of sparks, smoke, and bits of broken bird following closely behind. Scrambling, he back-peddled away from the crippled Black Hawk and tripped, landing on his back. The sickening sound of metal screeching in protest was deafening as the helicopter’s belly smacked the rocky riverbed. The force of the crash caused the starboard mini-gun operator to lose control of his weapon. It tore up a swath of ground to Rot’s immediate left.

Go! Now!

The battered crewmen were shouting and jumping from the chopper as it bounced violently up and down, turbines still working hard to lift the crippled bird. Its landing gear had collapsed and the hulk was beginning to roll toward Rot, rotors leading the way. The ground exploded into a blinding cloud as he tried to find some footing. Somehow, he avoided the spray of the rotor blades as they shattered into a thousand, thousand pieces.

Rot found himself standing near the cockpit of the downed chopper, which was now resting on its side. His M82 gone, he watched through stinging eyes as Sack, silhouetted by an explosion, was down on one knee firing in his general direction, covering his six. Grabbing his MP5, Rot spun just as he felt the sting in his lower back. Ignoring the pain, he found an enemy closing fast. Having no time to line up his weapon for a shot, he used his momentum to swing the machine gun as hard as he could, catching his opponent across the jaw. Blood and teeth exploded from the man’s mouth as he went down in a heap.

“Sack!” he screamed.

And then there was pain. Nearly blind, he fell to his knees, trying to focus. The noises of battle engulfed him, coupled with images he was struggling to understand. Angry faces surrounded him. Voices screamed unintelligibly.

Danger! Defend! Fight!

He was … where? Doing … what? He felt his body moving. Twisting and contorting. Familiar movements disjointed from any rational thought. Senses overwhelmed. He continued to move, not knowing why. With the next explosion, he found Sack again in the flash of light, but why was he falling? Sack, landing face down in the dirt. Sack, not moving.

A dream? Sounds, smells, images assailed him. Time had no meaning. His brain received incomprehensible signals as the pain in his head intensified. He felt the involuntary motion of his limbs. He was moving, but he didn’t know why. There were sharp pains in his right side. Then his back.

What’s happening to me?

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

SACK WAS BARELY conscious as he heard the battle raging around him. He couldn’t move his legs for the pain. He had difficulty even lifting his head. When he finally did, he heard the familiar sound of an MP5 ringing out and he caught sight of … he couldn’t be sure who it was above him. Then he saw the ghillie suit.

“LT?” he managed, too weakly to be heard over the melee. Sack continued to watch in amazement as Rot turned and methodically engaged each enemy as they came at him. Using his MP5 with deadly accuracy, Rot dropped several of his attackers until his weapon’s magazine was finally exhausted. Dropping it, he drew his nine-millimeter Beretta from its holster and quickly emptied the clip. When the pistol was spent, Rot began fighting hand-to-hand.

With each passing moment, Sack expected to watch his friend die as assailant after assailant came at him. But Rot had become a machine, sometimes taking them on two at a time. Every fight had a similar outcome as the bodies piled up around him.

And then there was silence.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROT WAS ON HIS FEET again but still couldn’t see. The involuntary, automatic movements had stopped. A light blinded him and then an image coalesced. It was strange at first. Not faces, but colors. Olive green and black. Stripes and stars. There were voices he didn’t understand. Familiar words, but they made no sense.

Then he was on the ground, unable to move. One word he discerned. Safe.

And then there was darkness.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROT AWOKE AT Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany three weeks later. During the skirmish in Afghanistan, he suffered a gunshot wound just inches from his spine, one that narrowly missed his right kidney, and several deep lacerations from edged weapons. But most seriously, he had a head wound the doctors concluded was probably caused by shrapnel from an exploding grenade. They insisted on countless tests before allowing him any visitors, annoying Rot to no end. He had no memory of the incident, and he needed to know what had happened. The staff had assured him, albeit prematurely, that he would make a complete recovery and return to full duty. But they had also emphasized that it would take time.

Sack was at his side as soon as he was allowed. He was anchored to a wheelchair, both of his legs riddled with gunshot wounds. One of them had shattered his left tibia, requiring a titanium rod to be inserted to replace the bone. Two screws protruded from his shin six inches apart, which were periodically adjusted to ensure proper healing.

Despite his injuries, Sack insisted on being Rot’s errand boy for the duration of their stay in the hospital. Rot tried pumping his friend for information, but Sack would only smile and say, “I ain’t supposed to tell ya.”

When the doctors were finally satisfied that the head wound would have no permanent effects, they, along with the SEAL’s commanding officer, gave Sack the go-ahead to tell Rot what had happened.

Rot lay in his bed with his head still wrapped in gauze. The nurse had elevated him enough that he could see the royal blue, semi-sheer draperies covering the window. They were closed because the direct light reflecting on the stark white walls sometimes hurt his eyes, an effect he was still suffering from his head wound.

His thoughts were the same as they had been from the first time he awoke in the hospital. They were of his last mission. A mission, like so many of his other assignments, where he was to take the life of an assigned target. In the past, it had mattered little to him what motivated his superiors to send him to do his work. He had simply followed orders. But his last mission was different. His target was a well-known terrorist leader who was suspected of committing some heinous crimes. Rot agreed, with just the common knowledge of what this man had done, that he probably deserved to die. But still, when the stand-down order had been issued, Rot recalled feeling an almost overwhelming sense of relief. Not because the man’s life had been spared. No, not that. It was the fact that God had spared him from being the instrument that took the man’s life from him.

“Hey, somebody said the pus bucket in this room wanted some ice cream.” Sack’s voice came rolling into the room just ahead of his wheelchair. He was balancing two bowls of what appeared to be either chocolate chip or cookies ‘n cream on his lap, pushing the chair forward with his hands.

“What? They didn’t have Neapolitan? Variety is the spice of life, my friend.”

Sack’s expression hardened as he stopped by the bed and regarded Rot.

“What? You gonna tell me you love me?”

“Okay, Rot. Tell me what you remember,” Sack stated flatly as he handed one of the bowls to his friend.

Finally. “I remember everything up to when the choppers came in.”

“That’s it?”

Rot thought about it for a minute. Images of the helicopter on the ground in front of him flashed through his mind. “Did the choppers crash?”

“One of ‘em went down.”

Rot sat his bowl aside and folded his arms across his chest. “Are you gonna tell me or—”

“It got hit in the rotor by an RPG.”

“Did the crew—?”

“They made it. The rag heads only hit it hard enough to knock it down, and it only dropped about fifteen feet. The co-pilot got his ankle broke and a couple of guys got shot up, but nothin’ serious.”

Rot picked up the bowl and took a spoonful of ice cream. Chocolate chip. “Go on.”

Sack looked down at his legs. “Right after that, I got my legs shot out from under my ass.” Suddenly, the big man’s eyes went wide and he cupped a hand over his mouth in mock embarrassment. “Did I just say a bad word?”

“Get stuffed!” Rot laughed, and then gingerly laid his head back on the pillow. He looked at the ceiling in frustration. “Could you, I don’t know, maybe tell me the parts I don’t already know?”

Sack only smiled.

“What?” Rot shouted.

“You, man.”

“What do ya mean, me?”

Sack sampled another spoonful and winked as he swallowed. “I mean you saved the friggin’ day. That’s what I mean.”

“Huh?” Rot mumbled through the ice cream in his mouth.

The big man slapped the bed, hard. “I thought you wuz wussin’ out on me, man. I thought we were goners ‘cause you found religion.”

Rot screwed up his face in confusion. “Are you gonna start makin’ sense anytime soon?”

Sack gave him a knowing look. “Got baptized, huh? Got all warm and fuzzy with the man upstairs, huh? You had me fooled, brother. I thought you wuz lost. You had me thinkin’ I was a dead man in the desert ‘cause you couldn’t do yer job.”

A picture was starting to form in Rot’s mind, a picture he wasn’t sure he wanted to see.

“After the bird went down, those desert rats came scurrying out of their holes from everywhere. All around us.” Sack’s description was animated. “There must’ve been fifty or sixty of ‘em. They shot off three or four more RPGs and I think I heard a heavy machine gun open up. Now, I don’t know how they took the chopper down ‘cause they couldn’t hit the left cheek of my grandmother’s—”

“Mule?” Rot interrupted.

Sack cleared his throat. “Anyway, I wuz down and one of the choppers wuz down but the other one worked just fine. Them mini-guns wuz just a hummin’. They prob’ly waxed twenty of the camel jockeys in the first two minutes. Dug ‘em right outta the rocks. The next thing I knew, there you were.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. You wuz standin’ over me and the hajjis wuz comin’ in. Ya took ‘em one, sometimes two, at a time.”

“I took ‘em?” Rot asked skeptically.

“You emptied every weapon ya had. Toward the end, you wuz usin’ just your bare hands. Nobody could believe the sand rats committed like they did, but the Stalker’s terp said they kept hollerin’ ‘bout takin’ us hostage. Imagine that? You an’ me, guests of Ali Baba himself.” Sack shook his head. “You beat those Pakkis down, man. Killed nine of ‘em that I counted before the rest ran off.” Sack shook his head again and smiled. “You really shook the sh—” He caught himself. “You saved my life, brother. Probably the lives of that Black Hawk crew, too.”

Rot gave Sack a doubtful look. “C’mon.”

Sack just stared back.

Rot smiled. “How could I do all that and not remember any of it?”

“Training, brother. It’s all about training, skill, and desire.”

Rot’s smile faded. He could see flashes of images but he couldn’t remember doing any of the things that Sack described.

“There’s more,” Sack said gravely.

“What?”

“The chopper pilot.” Sack made a distasteful face. “I guess he’s the sentimental type.”

“Oh, please.”

“He’s puttin’ ya in for a commendation. After all the interviews wuz done, they gave ya credit for killin’ eleven of the turban heads. I still say it was nine, but who am I to argue?”

Rot’s arms dropped to his sides, nearly tipping the bowl over in his lap. SEALs weren’t in it for the money, the glory, or bragging rights. They were in it for love of country and the brotherhood shared among teammates. Medal winners were regarded as show boaters unless they were awarded posthumously. But more than that, Rot was developing a conscience.

“What can I tell ya? He’s an Army puke.” Sack offered a half smile. “They’re talkin’ Silver Star. Maybe even the Navy Cross.”

Rot hung his head. “Oh, no.”

Sack pushed himself a bit closer. “No good deed goes unpunished, brother.”

Rot set the bowl down again on the table next to the bed as he reflected on their mission. He was still having a hard time taking it all in. An image of his wife drifted in, a welcome interruption. He remembered a discussion that he and Carol had had after his baptism, before they left Japan. She was aware of what he did on his deployments. She knew he couldn’t discuss details with her, so she did her best to offer him some encouragement.

“Rob,” she had said softly, “if God doesn’t want you to kill, then it won’t happen, regardless of your orders.” Her head had then leaned softly on his chest. “But just remember, David killed Goliath and many other men in the name of the Lord.” Suddenly, he was thankful that he had no memory of the event.

Sighing, he picked up the bowl and took another spoonful.

Why did I have to kill again?

2 Conundrum

27 August 2009

 

 

HIS UNIFORM WAS khaki and smartly pressed, his hands were held loosely at the small of his back, and his burden was weighing heavily upon his soul. Captain Bernard Walsh strolled through the hallways of the world’s largest building, the Pentagon. The fifty-year-old was small-framed but sturdy and slight in stature, standing only five foot six. He had been small for his age when he enlisted in the Navy at eighteen, and the other recruits had spared no expense to make sure he knew he was the runt of the litter. But it was his quiet personality and even temperament that had deceived them all into believing he was weak.

He was raised on a dairy farm in Cochran, Georgia. His mother had died as he was being born. His father, a Methodist minister, had little money to purchase modern equipment, so Benny and his three older brothers had worked that farm, and worked it hard. While growing up, he had also been consumed with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He read anything he could get his hands on. The combination of study and the long hours spent in the fields prepared him well both physically and mentally so that what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in stamina. While he had been able to complete only those physical tasks required to graduate from basic training, he outlasted the other men in any test of endurance.

In his early years, shipmates had been both confounded and amazed at his prowess concerning the opposite sex. His features, no one could deny, were striking. Cleanly shaven head, chiseled jaw line, and razor-sharp, gunmetal gray eyes that, it was believed, could see through bulkheads. He could pierce his adversaries through the heart, offer comfort to those close to him, or disarm the most disagreeable of sorts with those eyes. But with the ladies, it was the uniform that never failed him, and the “whites” always worked best.

Benny thought of himself as an extroverted introvert, being equally comfortable barking commands in combat situations or standing back at dinner parties observing the people around him while they hardly took notice of his presence. He had the uncanny ability to accurately size up anyone he came in contact with, and could do so in an instant. This fact was well known among the upper echelons, and there was no doubt in Benny’s mind that this was the reason he had attained his current assignment.

The halls Benny strode through were brightly lit, their gray floors polished to a high gloss. The walls had been painted stark white and were dotted with maps detailing both the interior and exterior of the building, placed there to assist newcomers in finding their way throughout the massive structure. There were paintings depicting various officers, battles, and machines of war from different periods spanning the more than 225 years of American history. And there were highly disciplined, heavily armed Marine guards whose intense stares, under different circumstances, would have made passersby by more than a little uncomfortable. Mounted in the ceiling at the center of every intersection were inverted domes of smoked glass that housed security devices of every type, monitoring the comings and goings of everyone who had business within.

The halls themselves were alive with activity. There were military personnel and civilians alike, running to and fro. Junior officers diligently making their way through the din to deliver important messages to their superiors. Vendors of all kinds hauling goods to restaurants, dining halls, snack bars, supply rooms, and janitor’s closets. And there was a myriad of voices intently discussing, curtly instructing, and heartily laughing all at once. Most were in motion; the few who were stationary caused Benny to deviate slightly from his course now and then. But he was at home in the commotion and easily tuned it all out. His thoughts were focused on the moral dilemma of his life.

He had taken the helm of his current assignment two years prior, and he worked at it with the same zeal he had displayed with every new command. But almost immediately, he had found this duty to be among the most challenging of his career. And time was running out. I like my job. Build me something that blows stuff up effectively and I’ll recommend it. But this? This is what they’re now calling weapons development?

He regarded man’s manipulation of God’s creations as an abomination. He’d noticed that throughout modern history people had used the argument that God gives scientists the intelligence and ability to produce drugs and techniques that can be used to improve quality of life. By that reckoning, he reasoned, God does the manipulating. It was true that people as a whole were being kept alive longer and longer. But as he continued his way through the controlled chaos of the Pentagon, his thoughts darkened. Unfortunately for some, far too long.

The situation at hand, however, went far beyond blood pressure medicine or hip replacement surgery. From what little he had been told about the project, Benny understood that it involved some form of genetic engineering. Manipulating life at a level that he believed belonged only to God. It had befallen Benny to evaluate candidates and then offer up some guinea pig for government scientists to play God with. And it only made matters worse that he had been kept in the dark about the true nature of the program.

The assignment had been completely voluntary. He could have simply turned it down and let someone else bear the responsibility. His career was winding down—twenty-eight years in and two to go. Unless he made admiral, which seemed unlikely. It would have been a simple thing for him to take on another assignment and coast to retirement. But that was not Benny’s way. As long as he had his hands in this project, he thought maybe he could do some manipulating of his own. After all, just like Benny, the chosen candidate would be a volunteer. This put him in a position to select individuals that he felt sure would choose not to participate. And in the back of his mind, he held out hope that if enough time passed, funding for the experiment would run out and that would be that.

But Margaret Kingsley, the incumbent senator from Wyoming, chairperson of the Armed Services Committee, and a shoe-in for reelection, was a rattlesnake of a woman. Once she sunk her fangs into something, she didn’t give up without a fight. And Project Pine Tree was her baby.

When Benny accepted the assignment, he was handed a list of likely candidates from among the uniformed services, and the bar had been raised as high as it could go. Two of the men he had served with personally and a few he knew by reputation, but many he didn’t know at all. Their jackets indicated they were all highly qualified and capable. They were members of Air Force Special Operations Command, Delta Force, Marine Force Recon, and Navy SEALs units.

Preliminary evaluations eliminated most of the men even before face-to-face interviews were conducted. For some, it was through attrition since they were assigned to other special operations. After all, in these perilous times warfighters like these were in high demand. But most failed to make the cut because of their psychological profiles. The program required a certain amount of combat experience, preferably covert and high-risk, and some men, once exposed to that type of combat, were changed forever. The list, which once contained dozens of names, had been narrowed down to two. There was a certain amount of pride for Benny in knowing that these two remaining candidates were the men he had served with. In fact, they would have been his top choices regardless of how he felt personally about the undertaking. But there was another, far more important quality these men shared, at least as far as Benny was concerned. Both of them were men of strong conviction, one Catholic, and the other Protestant. For these men, their Christian faith guided their lives. It was more than family tradition or church membership. Benny was confident that once they were told the nature of the experiment, they would each, according to their convictions, choose not to participate. The entire endeavor would then grind to a halt.

Benny slowed his pace a bit, nearing the first of his two destinations for the morning and hearing a familiar voice coming from a short distance behind him down the corridor.

“Captain? Captain Walsh, sir?”

Benny didn’t turn to acknowledge the young officer’s approach, but he stopped beside the solid black metal door bearing the nameplate he sought: Lt. Cmdr Daniel M. Carter, PhD.

He glanced over his shoulder and winced internally as he saw the young lieutenant Bill Murphy weaving his way around the other pedestrians. Bill was a good man, but he tended to take things a bit too seriously for Benny’s taste. Only three years out of the academy, he was eager to please but still wet behind the ears. And it wasn’t seawater.

Trotting the last few steps, the lieutenant snapped to attention. At six foot four, the blond-haired, green-eyed eager young man towered over the captain. Oddly, this gave the lieutenant a bit of an inferiority complex. He kept his eyes fixed on the bulkhead behind Benny, not wanting to look down at his commanding officer.

“Sorry, sir. I wasn’t sure exactly where you were, sir.”

“As it should be, Lieutenant.” Benny stated matter-of-factly.

Bill frowned. Since his posting to the captain’s staff, most of his time was spent tracking the man down. Benny was notorious for not carrying his phone with him. “The senator’s aide phoned and confirmed your lunch date … um, appointment … with the senator … Senator Kingsley … Mrs. Kingsley, sir.”

“Senator is appropriate, Bill.”

“Yes, sir. I called but you left your phone on your desk. I heard it ringing and I—”

“Are you ready, Bill?”

Bill gave the captain a confused look. “Ready, sir?”

“For our lunch date.

“Um … well … I … I didn’t … I didn’t know …” All the blood drained from Bill’s face as he pulled a small notebook from his breast pocket. Furiously, he began flipping pages, trying desperately to find anything even hinting that he would be accompanying the captain to lunch with the senator.

Benny smiled slightly in an attempt to calm the junior officer. “Relax, Bill. It was a joke.”

Bill forced an unconvincing laugh.

“Anything else, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir.” Bill closed his eyes tightly.

Folding his arms over his chest, Benny’s smile dimmed a bit. “Well, which is it?”

“Yes, sir. There is something else, sir.”

Benny waited for a moment, but the young man simply stood there. “Bill?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I want you to take a deep breath,” Benny instructed, attempting to coach the lieutenant through his next remark.

“Yes, sir.” Bill inhaled deeply, held it for just a moment and then slowly exhaled.

“Relaxed?” Benny asked, sincerely hoping to coax out what Bill was trying to say.

“Yes, sir,” he lied.

“Well?” Benny asked, his growing impatience visible.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. Your wife called and said her car is ready.”

Benny’s eyes narrowed. I’m gonna have to square this young man away, and soon. “Anything else, Lieutenant?”

“No sir.”

“That’ll be all.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Bill turned on his heels and marched back down the corridor. Benny was sure he heard the word “stupid” muttered several times as Bill disappeared around a corner.

Inside the office, the yeoman seated behind the desk stood immediately and snapped to attention. “Captain on deck.”

The young brunette had her hair pulled back in a bun and she wore no make-up, an obvious attempt to detract from her striking good looks. The nameplate on her desk read “Kimberly A. Mosley, Yeoman Second Class.”

“As you were, Yeoman.”

“Good morning, sir. The commander is expecting you,” she said with a smile. Benny nodded, signaling her to return to her work as he walked through the open door.

Danny Carter was standing at attention behind his neatly appointed desk. “Good morning, Captain.”

“At ease, Danny,” Benny said as he offered his hand.

Danny was only in his early thirties, but he had the reputation of being very good at his job. The six foot former Naval Academy shortstop certainly looked the part of an officer. His lean frame was well maintained, and he wore his light brown hair closely cropped. “It’s good to see you, sir,” he said with a smile. His sea-green eyes flashed as he firmly grasped the captain’s hand, affirming his words.

Benny settled himself into an overstuffed couch and took a moment to look around. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves, stuffed with tomes of every sort, partially obscuring the view out of the ordinary mullioned window. There was no surface in the office, apart from the floor, not covered with books. Except for the highly polished desk, which was devoid of even a computer. There were only Danny’s nameplate, a green-shaded brass lamp, a single brown file folder, and a Dunkin’ Donuts Styrofoam cup.

“The last time I saw you was at the admiral’s New Year’s Eve party, right?”

“I think so, sir. How’s Mrs. Walsh?”

“She’s well. She had a little fender bender last week, but no one was hurt.”

“Sorry, I hadn’t heard,” Danny said, genuine concern showing in his eyes.

Benny waved him off. “And how’s Carla?”

Danny smiled. The captain had a reputation for remembering the details. “She’s well. Thanks for asking.”

Benny painted on a serious look. “Did you know that there is no marble in this building?”

Danny was puzzled by the out-of-left-field question. “Really? No, I didn’t.”

Benny wasn’t usually one for small talk, but he was stalling. “That’s right. None at all. Well, maybe some plaque or statue somebody brought in here, but none was used in the original construction.”

Danny smiled slightly. Reading people was his job, and he could tell that the captain was uncomfortable. “Hmm,” was all he said.

“Know why?”

Danny shook his head.

“Because of the war. World War II. They broke ground on the Pentagon on September 11, 1941. Exactly sixty years to the day before Flight 77. Isn’t that something?” Benny paused for a moment as if he just realized the irony himself. “And at that time, just about all of the high-quality marble on the planet came from Italy.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yup, we were enemies. That’s why they didn’t use any marble in the Pentagon’s construction.”

Danny gave the captain a sideways look and acknowledged his acceptance of the marble fact by changing the subject. “What can I do for you, sir?”

Benny offered a half smile. He appreciated Danny for wanting to get right to the point, and it really didn’t make sense for him to drag this out any longer. After all, he had to have another conversation with another psychologist immediately after this one. “How’s business lately?”

Danny had returned from Germany a year ago. There, he had dealt almost exclusively with the needs of men and women suffering from PTSD. “Not too bad. Since I got back, it’s been pretty mundane. Divorce, parenthood, depression, that sort of thing.”

“How long has it been since you took Carla on a vacation?”

“Vacation? As a matter of fact, we just returned from Grand Cayman Island three weeks ago. Did some sailing and scuba diving.”

“Well, this will be more of an extended working holiday.”

Danny leaned back in his chair. “Working holiday? What did you have in mind, sir?”

Looking out the window at the blue sky beyond, Benny noticed some dark clouds gathering in the southwest. He wondered, not for the first time, if he should wait until after his meeting with the senator to assign Danny and his wife, another Navy psychologist, to the task he had prepared for them. But he knew his meeting with the senator would require an update of his progress, and she would expect him to present his final selections. Brushing those thoughts aside, he turned his attention back to the Danny. “I was thinking South Carolina.”

 

 

3 The Vice Chairman

18 June 2010

 

 

THE SOFT BLUE LIGHT from the clock of Sergeant Kelly Mueller’s patrol car was muted next to the myriad of other instruments vying for his attention. 5:47 a.m. Just over an hour until the end of his shift. Through the driver’s side mirror, he glanced at the welcome sight of light peeking over the horizon as he drove the loneliest section of Highway 96 in Houston County, Georgia. It had been a quiet night for the twelve-year veteran of the local sheriff’s department. He occupied his thoughts by resuming the list of things that needed to be accomplished before his head could finally hit the pillow.

“Time fer some coffee,” he said, unaware he had uttered the words out loud.

Kelly could already see the lights of the convenience store ahead, just across the railroad tracks. He had witnessed every stage of the new store’s construction during his patrols and had looked forward to its opening more than six months ago. It was nice to have the place in this remote area for snacks, bathroom breaks, and some light conversation.

As he pulled into the large, well-lit lot and snaked his way through the gas pump islands, he took note of the Mayflower moving van parked on the side of the building. It had been there all night, which wasn’t at all unusual. Even before the store first opened for business, there had always been a truck of some kind parked in that spot. It seemed odd to him at first, so he had asked Cindy, the manager, about it. She’d set his mind at ease, saying she had encouraged several of her truck driver friends to park there. She felt safer with the extra layer of security it provided. Still, it took a few months for that I’m-just-not-sure-about-this feeling that all cops have to pass into the recesses of his mind.

If it weren’t for the Mayflower truck and a Budweiser delivery truck parked along the opposite side of the building, the lot would have been empty. After finishing his usual slow circle of the property, he parked in front of the store where he could see Jackie and Stan, the night shift employees, finishing up their housekeeping.

I’m glad they stay open all night, but they sure don’t do any business until after daylight.

As he stepped from the car, Kelly was not an imposing figure, standing just five foot nine. But under his uniform he was a solid 180 pounds with the biceps to prove his mettle. His closely cropped light brown hair betrayed his military pedigree. Inquisitive piercing green eyes completed the cop package. As he closed the door, he couldn’t help but notice the pearl-colored Cadillac as it wheeled into the lot, disappearing behind the Mayflower truck.

“I’ve told her and told her not to park back there when it’s this early,” he whispered, shaking his head. “Out here in the middle of nowhere. Anybody could be hidin’ in them woods.” It had been a sweltering night, with the Georgia humidity already beginning to settle in for the summer. Kelly absently wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead as he walked slowly around the corner and waited to cast a disapproving eye on the Cadillac’s driver. He slid his thumbs into his utility belt, drummed his fingers impatiently on the patent leather, and stood next to the Mayflower truck as the car nimbly slipped into a slot next to two others in the back. For the first time, he noticed how dark the area was in contrast to the rest of the lot. The lamp in the corner over the cars flickered eerily as a petite black woman wearing casual clothes and the signature red Lightning Quik Mart vest stepped out of the Cadillac. If she can afford that car, then I’m in the wrong line of work.

“What’s it gonna take fer you to start listenin’ to me, Cindy?” he shouted over the truck’s engine.

“What?” she asked, screwing her face up in an uncomprehending frown as she walked toward him.

“Some redneck with a gun is gonna come out from behind one of them trees and take that flashy car from you. And maybe that ain’t all they’re gonna take.”

“No they won’t.” She smiled.

“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard from folks who thought like that right before somethin’ happens to ‘em?” Kelly sneered.

“I can take care of myself.” She patted the oversized brown leather handbag slung over her shoulder.

Kelly shook his head. Cindy Lattice was a retired police officer from up north, and he was well aware that she carried a nine-millimeter automatic for protection. But he still thought she was being reckless. “Okay, Quick Draw McGraw. Just remember, retired cops ain’t bulletproof.”

“Ahhh,” she moaned, waving him off as she walked past.

“Y’all need to get that light fixed. Especially if you’re gonna keep parkin’ in that corner.”

Cindy glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, they’re supposed to be out here in the next day or two to fix it.”

Satisfied, Kelly followed her inside.

“Good morning!” Cindy greeted, opening the door wide as she entered. “How are you guys?”

“Morning.” Stan, a man in his thirties with an athletic build and a mop in his hand, called back to her with a wave.

“Hey, Cindy,” Jackie answered with her usual infectious smile. She was a sweet-looking young blonde. Kelly had actually demanded to see her I.D. upon their first meeting, not believing that she was old enough to sell alcohol. “You’re late.”

“I am?” Cindy checked her watch. “I am not.”

“Hey, Officer Mueller,” Jackie greeted cheerfully.

“Hey, sweet thing.” Kelly made his way to the coffee machine.

The only other occupant of the store was a man in a khaki shirt with a Budweiser patch over the pocket. He came out of the walk-in cooler, pulling an empty hand truck. “Mornin’, Officer,” he mumbled as he passed, nodding at Kelly, who nodded back as he reached for a cup with one hand and a pot of steaming liquid with the other.

“Black and bold,” he said in anticipation.

“You got that right,” Cindy joked.

Kelly chuckled, took a sip, and turned back to where Cindy was busily doing something he couldn’t see behind the counter. He stood and chatted with the three employees as he absently watched the deliveryman haul load after load of beer into the cooler.

“Well, I gotta get back to the barn,” Kelly soon announced.

“Okay, sweetie,” Cindy said without looking up.

“See y’all next time. Thanks fer the coffee,” he said with a wave, heading toward the door.

“Be safe, Officer Mueller,” Jackie called behind him. “See ya next time.”

Walking out, Kelly took an almost reflexive look over at the Mayflower truck. Somethin’ just ain’t right. A moment later he shook it off. Cindy ain’t worried about it, I ain’t worried about it.

He climbed into the cruiser and was almost to the highway when curiosity got the best of him. He circled back around and pulled close to the Mayflower’s trailer, then rolled his window down and inched past as he studied it. He saw nothing unusual, but the hairs standing on the back of his neck just wouldn’t allow him to let it go.

Stopping next to the cab, he climbed out of the car. One thing Kelly hadn’t noticed before was a refrigeration unit attached to the trailer. Why would a moving van need to be refrigerated? He was studying the words “Climate Controlled” emblazoned across the unit in gold letters when the driver’s door opened, startling the deputy who instinctively reached for his sidearm.

The man who stepped down from the cab was dressed in a pair of dark boxer shorts and a gray undershirt. He appeared to be in his fifties, thin, about six feet tall in his bare feet, salt and pepper hair in disarray. His eyes betrayed a need for more sleep. “Is there a problem, Officer? The boss lady inside said it’d be okay for me to park here.”

This guy must be a light sleeper. Must’ve woke him up when I yelled at Cindy. Kelly hoped the man hadn’t seen him reach for his weapon. He eyed the trucker for a moment and then shook his head. What the heck am I doing? “Naw, it’s okay. I was just takin’ a look. I thought I saw a coyote run up under yer truck, that’s all,” he lied. “Go on back to sleep, partner. I’m sorry I woke ya up.”

Kelly took one more sideways glance at the truck and walked back around toward his cruiser.

“Is everything alright?” A female voice shouted.

Kelly nearly jumped out of his skin as he again grabbed the butt of his pistol. He didn’t immediately recognize the silhouette in the darkness, but the northern accent was unmistakable once it registered. “Cindy? Is that you? Girl, don’t do that! Not to a cop! Especially in the dark! Jeez! You could‘a given me a heart attack, fer cryin’ out loud!”

“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely.

“I might’ve shot ya,” he added for effect, though he was far too disciplined with a firearm for that. “What are you doin’?”

“Well, I saw you come around here and I wanted to make sure everything was alright.”

“Everything’s fine,” he said a bit sternly. “Now go on back inside.”

Rather than follow his instruction, she stood and watched as Kelly climbed back in to his cruiser and drove out on to the highway.

“That was weird,” Kelly almost shouted to himself. “Why’d she come out there like that?”

As the patrol car topped a hill, the sun’s rays nearly blinded him as they reflected in his mirrors. Shielding his eyes from the glare, he checked the clock.

“Six-eighteen,” he moaned. “Great! Now I’m gonna be late.” He had things to do.

 

[ * * * ]

 

 

 

STEPPING OVER TO stand next to Cindy as she watched the taillights of Kelly’s cruiser disappear over a hill, the truck driver asked, “What was that all about?”

“I’m sure it was nothing,” Cindy replied. “Sometimes he just gets a little suspicious, that’s all. Why? What did he say?”

The man shook his head. “Said he saw a dog or somethin’ run under the truck. But, he was gettin’ a little too close fer my comfort.”

“That cop’s getting too nosy for his own good.” A voice called from behind them, startling the two from their conversation.

Chills rode down Cindy’s spine. Looking back at the shadowy form, she recognized the silhouette of Air Force Sergeant Neil Covington standing next to the truck. Since coming to work at the store, she had seen him occasionally. Every time she did, she got the same sickly feeling in the pit of her stomach. Leaning over to her companion, she whispered, “He’s all yours. That man gives me the skeevies.” With that she waved at the newcomer and headed back to the store.

“Don’t worry, Covington. He didn’t see nothin’,” the truck driver assured him.

Covington simply stood there silently for several moments before he reached up and banged on the still-sealed rear doors of the trailer. “Okay guys. Let’s get this thing unloaded before Barney Fife comes back to take a closer look.” He stood there another moment, causing the driver to shift his feet uncomfortably, before he stepped back behind the trailer and out of sight.

The driver watched to be sure Covington was out of earshot before he mumbled, “Somethin’ just ain’t right ‘bout that guy.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THE SKY WAS CLOUDLESS and pale blue as Major Gregory Mathers leaned against the bumper of his silver Toyota 4 Runner and wiped his brow with a napkin left over from breakfast. It was proving to be a typically steamy morning in central Georgia, and the temperature had quickly risen into the low 90s. He had parked next to the flight line on the easternmost side of the airfield belonging to the 116th Air Control Wing. A squadron of Boeing 707-300 JSTAR aircraft lined the service way to his right where their ground crews dutifully went about the business of maintenance and equipment upgrades for the aging planes.

On the opposite side of the field, accentuated by the heat shimmering above the tarmac, were the main hangars and maintenance structures of Robins Air Force Base. There, several different types of aircraft—C-130s, C-17s, C-5s, F-15s—were rotated into the structures for varying degrees of maintenance and testing.

Yeah, I’m a doctor and they send me to a base with sick airplanes. Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.

When Greg completed his Air Force training, he had hoped that he would be posted somewhere like Ramstein, Germany, where he could work with soldiers wounded in the war-torn Middle East and eastern Africa. Or to somewhere exotic like Japan or South Korea. He would have even settled for Wright Patterson in Ohio, close to home, family, and friends. But instead, in its infinite wisdom, the Air Force had sent him to Georgia for his first operational assignment. And, to add insult to injury, he was not even practicing medicine. He was nothing more than a go-between, a paper pusher. A supply manager, of all things. An assignment more suited to an enlisted man, not a medical doctor. Greg had been appointed to this duty less than a month earlier, and his main concern thus far was maintaining the project’s inventory. The bulk of the wares were food and food prep materials, medical supplies, office equipment, and housekeeping provisions. But it was the other materials that kept him awake at night. If it was on the periodic table or anything associated with laboratory experimentation, it was on his grocery list. From aspirin to zinc, air purifiers to x-ray supplies.

Brushing those thoughts away, he turned his attention to the non-descript Gulfstream G450 that had landed moments before. The sun glinted brightly off the white and silver fuselage and signature oval windows of the aircraft as it taxied toward him. Greg was waiting to escort the newly elected senator and Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to the site of his current assignment, Project Pine Tree.

Greg was still unsure of just what role he was supposed to play within this project. Oh, he knew the material he was about to present to the senator. The mechanics of it anyway. That was not the problem. The problem was that he was a medical doctor assigned as a supply clerk to a classified, recently acquired civilian project. He had no knowledge of it beyond what was held in the warehouse, and his only point of contact with the project’s personnel, so far, was Dr. Juan Tiong, a veterinarian. There were times, late at night, that the implications of a vet being on the program made Greg more than a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe I don’t want to know what’s going on inside there.

Tiong, a mousey little man from the Philippines, diligently inventoried the entire warehouse every Friday from 0800 to 1400 hours. Everything Tiong did was meticulously calculated, right down to the type of pen he used. Greg learned early on to keep a good supply of them on hand. Tiong was notorious for losing them.

Okay, Greg mentally prepared himself, what kind of questions is this stuffed-shirt Washington type gonna ask me that I won’t be able to answer? Twelve years of school and residency at Ohio State and all I know about this thing is what they have in the kitchen for dinner and how many boxes of Biogel surgical gloves are on hand. Just let the contractors do the talking. They’re the ones on the spot here, not me.

Greg was a rather plain-looking man. Six foot, thin framed, with blond hair and blue eyes. He was dressed in a navy blue tee with an unbuttoned white short-sleeve shirt hung loosely over it, tan cargo shorts, and an Ohio State baseball cap. His daily uniform of late.

Smiling a bit nervously, Greg took a few steps toward the aircraft as it rolled to a stop, waving at the unseen occupants. Glancing back at his SUV, he remembered the two matching sets of Taylor Made golf clubs in the back, their custom bags complete with Air Force colors. Well, there’s always golf. Politicians love golf.

Shielding his eyes from the glare, he turned his attention back to the sleek aircraft. Its high-pitched turbines whined slowly down to an idle as the stairs were lowered, revealing a single passenger. Here we go.

The man was younger than Greg had expected, perhaps in his mid forties, dark brown hair, clean-shaven face, athletic build. He stood about five foot ten, carried with him a thin brown portfolio, and was dressed casually in penny loafers, blue jeans, and a red and black University of Georgia polo shirt.

A Bulldog, huh? What a redneck this guy must be. “Senator Kitchens,” Greg said, managing his best warm smile. “I’m Greg Mathers. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Welcome to Georgia. How was your flight?”

“Short,” Kitchens replied, with just a hint of a southern accent. His brown eyes glinted as he smiled and continued. “I didn’t even have time to finish the movie.”

“What movie was that, sir?” Greg asked.

Kitchens eyed him closely. “A joke. I’m sorry. My sense of humor loses somethin’ in the translation.”

Greg gave the senator a quizzical look.

“Major, isn’t it?” Kitchens firmly grasped Greg’s hand, smiling broadly. The smile of a politician. “Or, do you prefer Doctor?”

“Just Greg is fine, Senator. I don’t stand too much on formality, sir.” Greg gained a marginal amount of respect for the man, while, at the same time, trying not to look too uncomfortable. At least he knows who I am.

Kitchens’ brow furrowed. “Nonsense. Doctor and Major are both very respectable titles. You’ve earned everything that comes with ‘em. Don’t ever let anybody tell you different, especially somebody who lies for a living like a politician.”

Greg was taken aback slightly by the senator’s candor, but he recovered quickly. “It’s best if we maintain protocol and keep a low profile, so just Greg will do please, Senator.” Gesturing toward the car, he asked, “Shall we go?”

“Lead the way … Greg.” Kitchens walked to the passenger side. “But, if it’s gonna be Greg for you, then it’s gonna haf’ta be Kevin for me. You know, low profile and everything.” Kitchens winked. He knew the idea of a United States senator trying to maintain a low profile would be rather amusing to most.

“Yes, sir … Kevin.” The name nearly caught in Greg’s throat.

“Look,” Kitchens said as he placed a hand on the hood and quickly recoiled, scowling at the sun-beaten metal. “I’ve only had this job for a few months. I haven’t even gotten used to the title yet. And I don’t much care for pomp and circumstance either.” Climbing in, he noticed the golf bags and added, “You got a date, Greg?”

“Sir?” Greg’s face screwed up at the unexpected question.

Kitchens nodded toward the back seat. “The clubs. When’s tee time?”

“Oh, those. No, sir. I mean … I don’t have a date. The clubs are a gift for you and your wife, sir.” Greg turned his sometimes too-attentive eye to the senator’s hand, noting the absence of a wedding ring.

“A gift?” Kitchens’ confused look spoke volumes.

“From the base commander, General Stillman,” Greg answered, suddenly interested in the senator’s marital status.

Kitchens thought for a moment. “A gift from the general.”

“Yes, sir. What’s your handicap?”

The senator stared at the clubs. “My what?”

“Your handicap? How’s your game?”

A half smile intruded on Kitchens’ scowl. “I don’t play.”

“A politician who doesn’t play golf? That seems unlikely.” Greg winced internally. He had spoken before thinking and immediately wondered if he had offended the senator.

“Nope,” Kitchens replied without missing a beat. “Do you?”

Greg sighed, sensing that there was more to this than a simple misunderstanding. “Um, well, yes, sir. I do. As a matter of fact, I was on my high school team. How about your wife? Does she golf?”

Glancing from the clubs to Greg and back again, Kitchens asked, “Are those nice clubs?”

Greg couldn’t decide if the senator had ignored the question or simply hadn’t heard it. Determining that it was best just to let the subject drop, he replied, his smile genuine. “Taylor Made? Yes, sir. I’ve heard they are very good clubs. And the bags are custom made with Air Force colors. Very nice.”

“Oh yeah?” Kitchens’ shrug showed his disinterest in the clubs. “Of course, I ain’t sure about this. I am new to it all, but those may be just outside the guidelines, as far as the value of ‘em. I may not be able to accept ‘em.”

As he climbed behind the wheel, Greg watched the senator’s expression change from consternation to stoicism. So much for light conversation. “Well, I’m sure the general will be disappointed if you don’t.” It was all he could think to say. He decided to change the subject. “I’m at your disposal for the duration, sir. Is there anywhere you’d like to do or anything you’d like to see while you’re here? I think the air museum just added a few new things.”

“No, thanks. I didn’t come for the grand tour. Let’s just get on to the main event.” Kitchens pulled a folder from the portfolio.

“Yes, sir,” Greg said mechanically, turning onto the service road. “But they’re not expecting us until 1200 hours.”

“Just a short once over before lunch? Well, they may have to adjust their schedule just a bit.” Kitchens grinned at the prospect.

Greg wasn’t able to contain a smile. What a sight this should be. Doctor Tiong, Mister Meticulous, thrown off of his schedule in the middle of his inventory! “Yes, sir.”

“Kevin,” Kitchens corrected.

“Kevin,” Greg repeated, a bit more comfortably than the first time.

As they rode, Kitchens slid some papers and a pair of reading glasses from the folder. Slipping the glasses on, he read aloud, glancing occasionally at the sights as they passed. “Major Gregory,” he began, grinning again as he studied his driver, ‘‘Greg William Mathers, M.D. Princeton High School, class of ’96. Wright State College class of ’99, where you started out studying to be a nurse and then you transferred to Ohio State where you entered medical school.” Pursing his lips, Kitchens asked, “How’d that happen?”

Greg’s eyes were glued to the road as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Should’ve expected this. “Well, I always wanted to get into medicine and Wright State has a pretty good nursing program. Then, in the middle of my junior year my great-uncle passed away and left the family some money. My dad had a friend at Ohio State—”

“And the rest, as they say, is history,” Kitchens finished for him.

Smirking, Greg said, “Well, it was that or a Corvette.”

“Medicine is a noble career field, Doctor,” Kitchens assured him.

Their eyes met as Greg responded. “Yeah, but have you ever driven a Corvette?”

Kitchens’ widening smile helped Greg to relax a bit. “You graduated in the top five percent from Ohio State and entered the Air Force this past fall.” A frown replaced his smile. “Ohio has both Army and Navy ROTC programs, right?”

Chuckling, Greg relaxed even more. “I guess they couldn’t make up their minds.”

“So, why the Air Force?”

“Well, I started in the Air Force rot-c program at Wright State before I transferred. They helped pay the bills, too. So, I figured I owed them. Besides, I didn’t wanna be a grunt or a squid-eatin’ swabbie.”

“Squid-eatin’ swabbie?” Kitchens’ laugh startled Greg to such a degree that he nearly drove into the curb.

“Yes, sir.” Greg’s tone was almost apologetic.

Shaking his head in amusement, Kitchens continued. “Okay, so you were assigned to Robins and Project Pine Tree on twenty-four May, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And since then, you’ve done … what?”

“Well, other than inventory—”

“I’m sorry,” Kitchens interrupted. “It was rhetorical.” Flipping through the pages, he added, “I see what you’ve been doing here. My question is, why are you doing it? You’re a doctor, for cryin’ out loud. You should be off someplace”—his right hand swept toward the window—“doctorin’ somebody. You ain’t a supply sergeant. Why are your talents bein’ wasted here?”

Greg relaxed visibly as he heard a bit of a change in Kitchens’ accent. “I have no idea, sir. All I’ve been doing is shining a chair with my”—pausing, he noted the senator’s dubious stare—“pants,” he finished, a bit less crudely than he had originally intended.

Kitchens’ smile nearly took in his entire face. “Well Greg, at first glance, I’d say your assignment here is a serious misallocation of an extremely valuable military asset.”

“Yes, sir,” Greg replied, trying hard not to smile. I think I’m starting to like this guy.

“So, my question to you is, why do you think that they have you stationed here?”

Uh oh! What’s he looking for, here? Greg found an expectant look on Kitchens’ face. I take it back. I hate this guy. Biding his time, he feigned a distraction and took a deep breath, deciding to go with his original answer. “I have no idea, sir.”

After an uncomfortably long pause, Kitchens said, “Well, we’ll just have to find out won’t we, Greg?” He continued studying the documents. “Relax. I just like to know who I’m dealing with. I’m new to all of this too, remember?”

Greg’s shoulders drooped in defeat. “Senator, I really don’t know how much help I’m gonna be to you, sir.”

“I’m here to evaluate the operational validity of Project Pine Tree. Not you, Greg,” Kitchens assured him. “What that means is, I’m gonna decide if it’s worth it or not to invest the”—he paused, flipping to the desired page—“one hundred twenty six point eight million dollars a year into it.”

Stiffening immediately, Greg stifled a gasp. Wow. I need a raise!

“Now, that might sound like a drop in the bucket, and it’s only about three F-35s, but these things do add up.” Kitchens looked up to notice that Greg had driven past the guard shack, exiting the base. “Um, Greg, if I’m not mistaken, we just left the Air Force base that I’m visitin’ today.”

“Yes, Senator. We’ve left the base. The facility is offsite.”

“Offsite?” Kitchens repeated incredulously. “Offsite where?”

“There’s a facade off of highway ninety-six near the Ocmulgee River. A duck blind.”

Kitchens’ eyebrows arched in wonder. “A duck blind?”

“Yes, sir. It’s less than ten minutes away,” Greg assured him.

“Really,” Kitchens said in growing amusement.

Studying the senator, Greg added, “It’s a pretty good duck blind, sir.”

Doubt overshadowed Kitchens’ smile. “Better than an Air Force base, Greg?” A moment later, he began to chuckle. Then, noticing Greg’s quizzical glances, he began laughing out loud.

They rounded a cloverleaf and continued down the highway. Looking across the road to his left, Kitchens admired the vintage American and foreign aircraft displayed around the campus of the Air Force museum. At its center, a B-1 bomber was parked next to the entrance to the main building. “Pretty birds.”

“If you’d like to, Senator, we can tour the museum before you leave. They have a very nice World War II exhibit, I hear,” Greg suggested hopefully.

Kitchens returned his attention to the papers in his lap. “No thanks. Seen it.”

The look on Greg’s face rested somewhere between shock and anger. “You have? Have you visited Robins before, Senator?”

“Kevin,” Kitchens corrected him again. “Low profile, right?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

The sounds of the road droned on. Greg had already resolved himself to the fact that some questions would remain unanswered. But not this one. “Have you, sir?”

Kitchens, engrossed in the documents, responded to Greg vaguely. “Sorry?”

Greg shifted his position again. “Visited the base before?”

“Uh huh.”

“Okay,” Greg nodded, with a hint of frustration in his tone. “I hadn’t been informed that you were familiar with the area.”

“Well, I ought to be. I was mayor of Warner Robins for six-and-a-half years before I ran for the senate,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Shaking his head, it was Greg’s turn to laugh.

“Relax, Greg. Have you seen Kitchens Office Supply on Watson Boulevard near the Walmart?”

Having spent very little time in town, he lied. “Yes, sir. I think so, sir.”

Kitchens gave Greg his attention. “It’s family owned. Mama still runs it. Well, ever since I became mayor she’s run it. I ran it for a while after college. I know pretty much everybody in town. The locals, anyway. It’s hard to keep up with all the Air Force personnel comin’ and goin’.”

Greg couldn’t contain a smile. This guy! A U.S. senator, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, mayor of Warner Robins and a local business man to boot? What was up with all the “low profile” crap Tiong advised me about? “So … low profile?” The question hung in the air between them.

Eyes smiling, Kitchens said, “Could be … challenging.”

“Outstanding.” Greg said it out loud, though it was meant mostly for himself. At least his comfort level was increasing. He no longer felt it necessary to try to impress the man.

Turning his attention back to the road, he saw their destination appear in the distance. “We’ll be arriving at the facility shortly, sir. Oh, I almost forgot. General Stillman asked me to invite you to a late lunch. She said that it was your choice. Whatever you’d like.”

Kitchens’ surprise was visible, but Greg chose to ignore it.

The relationship that had existed between Kitchens, the civilian community’s political leader and her, the military authority in an Air Force town, had been stressful when he was mayor. Kitchens had no illusions that his recent appointment to the SASC would give him any leverage with the woman, at least when it came to personal matters. Well, she did get me the clubs. I guess I owe her a lunch. Smiling again, he took a moment to mull over his choices. “Tell Paulette I’d love to. I’ll meet her at White Diamond. There ain’t no barbecue like that in D.C.”

4 Monkey Business

 

 

SHE LOVES ME,” JUNE said with just a hint of an accent in her almost melodic voice, something akin to South African, but not quite. As she stared intently at the central computer screen among the trio of monitors occupying her desk, the corners of her mouth were curled into the slightest of smiles.

“Of course she does,” Don said with a tiny sliver of condescension in his tone. He drew his rubber band back and fired another Gummy Bear projectile at her from his desk in the corner of the room.  “But, just think of the ethics, Doctor! After all, she is your patient.”

Doctor June Phillips sat at her desk, which rested in the middle of the other desks in the corner of their work area. The office area occupied only one quarter of the space in the gymnasium-sized room. The various pieces of office equipment were set neatly in place, most of which were black in stark contrast to the white floor, walls, and ceiling of the lab.

Both of its occupants wore identical green hospital scrubs, the only clothes allowed inside the clean environment. The bland garments only added to the sterile feel of the place. When the team had arrived eight weeks ago, relocated from their lab at McMaster University School of Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario, the equipment had been carefully arranged in the center of the room. In short order, at June’s insistence, the workspace was moved into the corner to allow for the installation of a basketball hoop.

June frowned slightly as the candy smacked against the computer screen before her and then fell to the desk below, landing behind the hot pink keyboard that she had insisted upon bringing with her against the wishes of the professor. Picking up the candy, she said, “I don’t like the green ones.” But she popped it into her mouth anyway.

By most standards, June was a very attractive woman. At thirty-two, she stood five foot seven with a perfectly proportioned hour-glass figure, as her lab mate spared few occasions to point out. Shimmering light brown hair hung to her shoulder blades and nicely framed a fair complexion. She was restricted from wearing makeup of any kind, which she rarely did anyway. Her most striking feature was her sapphire blue eyes. With those eyes she had been known to stab men outright or simply melt their hearts, depending on the circumstances.

Her looks had been an obstacle when she was younger. As a result, she had learned to develop her relationships cautiously. She had seen colleagues build walls around themselves as a defense mechanism and as a way to gain the respect of their peers, both male and female, thereby losing themselves in a black hole of sterile personality and any hope of real friendships. Some of them became so wrapped up in their work that they actually lost interest in any kind of human interaction at all, other than professionally.

On the other hand, she had seen those whom she considered talented settle for lives of mediocrity in their pursuits of personal relationships when, in her opinion, it was far too early in their careers for them to do so. Or worse, throw their livelihoods away by making the mistake of starting families before they were ready in foolish attempts to satisfy meaningless urges resulting in life-altering consequences.

June was the purpose-driven daughter of Baptist missionaries serving in Africa. She was born in the city of Arba Minch at the base of the western side of the Great Rift Valley in southwestern Ethiopia, where her parents were assisting the locals in building a school. Her mother Mae, a gynecologist, and father Jonah, a dentist, also provided free services to the indigenous people as the other professionals in their group did. They traveled extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East. June became fluent in English, French, German, Amharic, and Arabic by the age of ten. It was then that her parents, following their meticulous plan for her upbringing, had enrolled her in Moffat’s School located in Shropshire, England, where she would receive a formal education as well as have an opportunity to spend time with children her own age.

In the beginning, the change had traumatized young June. She had been accustomed to an environment where she had the opportunity to form relationships with wild animals of all sorts as they were encountered in her various journeys. Her parents had given her the news while visiting the Comoros Islands off Madagascar, where she had befriended a ring-tailed lemur that she named Bobo. She’d insisted that he be allowed to sleep with her. However, Bobo had the annoying habit of sleeping all day and keeping June awake at night, which had dulled the pain of separation a bit.

Eventually, she had adjusted to her new environment at Moffat’s. It soon became obvious that June was quite a gifted child. She had excelled academically far beyond the other students in attendance. While she interacted well socially, she had formed no deep friendships. Her first love was always animals. Her spare time had been spent roaming the nearby forests in search of new friends and trying to teach the other kids how to interact with them. But she found that it was not something that could be taught. This connection to animals was her special gift, and hers alone.

Her potential had eventually become obvious, even to the most skeptical of instructors. Upon their recommendation, she was accepted to Sanford-Brown University in Ohio at the age of thirteen. There she had been allowed to participate in special projects such as private encounters at the Cincinnati zoo, as well as other hands-on activities in places such as the San Diego Zoo and the Woods Hole Science Aquarium. By the age of sixteen, she had experienced animals, both wild and domesticated, in a way few do in a lifetime.

She had quickly earned her bachelor’s degree in animal psychology and later, at Penn State, earned her master’s in philosophy. For the next five years, she had studied primates at many of the zoos in North America. During breaks in her studies, she had sometimes traveled with her parents as they continued their missionary work abroad, all the while never passing up the opportunity to find new animal friends. By the time she had reached her twenties, her interests expanded to include human friends as well. Even the occasional male human, though there had been nothing long-term or serious.

At twenty-seven, she had returned to Sanford-Brown to complete her PhD in ethology. At thirty, she had been approached by a representative of the United States Department of the Interior and offered an opportunity to “get the record straight” concerning the ethical treatment of test animals in the country’s various programs. She was promised full authority to supervise the treatment of animals used for experimentation at McMaster. Initially she declined, thinking it too horrific to consider. But shortly thereafter, she was inundated with requests from PETA members who had heard of the offer urging her to accept the position. Succumbing to the pressure of friends, she accepted the government’s invitation and began her work with the others involved with Project Pine Tree eighteen months ago.

She had only minor difficulties in her dealings with the test animal’s needs. The biggest problem was the fact that they were in captivity at all. A situation that, she conceded, she couldn’t change. Though she had to admit, compared with the stories she had heard, the subjects involved here were treated extremely well, and the administrators had assured her that upon completion of the testing the animals would be retired to live out long and happy lives on protected reserves.

“Don’t change the subject,” Don complained. “And that’s a myth, anyway.”

“What’s a myth?”

“About the green Gummy Bears.”

“That’s M&M’s, you goob! Not Gummy Bears.”

“What?” Don exaggerated a frown.

“That green M&M’s make you … you know.”

“Make you what?” He grinned.

Rolling her eyes, she wondered how he could draw others into conversations that were, at best, nonsense. “You’re right, it’s a myth.”

“What’s a myth?”

June turned to face him just as a Gummy Bear struck her on the cheek, sticking momentarily and then falling into her lap. “What are you, twelve?” She absently tossed the candy missile into her mouth. “But I do like the yellow ones.”

“Yeah. Twice now. And I’m workin’ on a third time.” Don beamed his best Cheshire Cat grin.

“Ugh! You, my friend, are incorrigible,” she moaned, turning back to her computer.

“I know you are, but what am I?” He lined up another shot.

Doctor Donald Cook leaned back in his chair. Despite his prosthetic right leg, he had the build of an athlete. His dark brown eyes, curly shoulder-length black locks, and olive skin hinted at his Mediterranean ancestry. A geneticist already involved with the project when June came on board, the thirty-five year old was born and raised in Alpena, Michigan on the shores of Lake Huron. The son, grandson, and great-grandson of loggers, he graduated from Alpena High School where he was on the Wildcat football team. A talented corner back and average student, his athleticism got him accepted to Michigan State University. It was there that he came alive, academically speaking. But not at first.

During the second semester of his freshman year, Don had suffered the tragedy of a deadly car accident. He was the sole survivor. As the designated driver, he had been chauffeuring three friends back to the dorm after an evening of drinking when a deer crossed the road, causing him to swerve and hit a tree. He had suffered a concussion and multiple broken bones. The most severe injury was to his right femur. Due to complications, his leg had been amputated at mid-thigh.

Investigators had found no evidence that a deer had been involved. The authorities questioned his story for several months. There had even been talk of a trial, but no charges were ever filed. His football career was over, and he was suffering from survivor’s guilt. He retreated from family and friends, and had come dangerously close to being expelled due to declining grades and the questionable circumstances of the crash.

It was then that his biology professor, Martin Sisk, took a special interest in him. The professor had an uncanny ability to sense the best attributes of his students, and he had seen great potential in Don even before the unfortunate incident. He began tutoring Don with all of his studies. In return, Don had promised to be diligent and make something of himself to honor the three who had died in the crash. With Sisk’s influence, his interest had turned to the sciences and, ultimately, genetics. He excelled in the field and had quickly earned a reputation as an out-of-the-box problem solver.

After earning his PhD at the age of twenty-seven, he spent some time wandering from project to project in search of a place to call home. Eventually, with no small assistance from Sisk, Don was hired as Professor Yeoum Chi’s research assistant. For nearly three years, he had worked under the tutelage of the project manager at McMaster. In that time he had proven himself, time and again, to be a brilliant scientist. It was whispered in the halls that the program would never have been remotely successful if it had not been for Don’s participation. In addition, it was Professor Sisk’s recommendation that had caused the Department of Defense to become involved, allowing the team access to some much-needed materials not readily available under the Department of the Interior. This brought the project to its current state of viability. June had joined the team two years after Don became involved, so she had missed out on most of the breakthroughs. She had also missed out on the questionable practices that had been necessary to bring them about. A fact that, given her convictions, Don was more than a little thankful for.

“Anyway, it’s unethical for you to fall in love with one of your patients.”

“I didn’t say that she was in love with me. I only said that she loves me.” A red Gummy Bear sailed over June’s head and onto the floor, where it joined dozens of others that lay strewn about.

“Well then, you’re leading her on.”

“Am not.”

“Are too, and Angelina can be mean.”

“Angelina is not mean.”

“She is so. She bites.”

“Angelina did not bite you.”

“I didn’t say she bit me.”

“Then why did you say she bites?”

“She bit Juan.”

“She did not!”

“Yes she did. Ask him.”

She started to turn and continue the argument, but conceded that Don was probably telling the truth. “Well, it’s only because he’s always poking and prodding her, poor baby.”

“Be careful how you say that and in what company,” Don said, painting on a serious face.

“Walked right into that one,” she sighed. “Did she break the skin?”

“No, but there’s a welt.”

“Where?” She immediately regretted the inquiry, fearing a lewd response.

“His left forearm.”

Dodged a bullet there. “What was he doing to her?” She asked with mild concern, but quickly realized she already knew the answer.

“Taking a sample,” they said it in unison.

“Why does he need so many samples now, anyway?” June whined as she laid her forehead on the desk. “We haven’t seen anything new since the testing was put on hold before the move! And everything was normal then!”

“Calm down. You’re makin’ dogs howl somewhere.”

“Poor baby,” June reiterated.

The conversation was inane and silly, but it was necessary to relieve the monotony of the everyday routine. Since the DOD had gotten involved and moved the project to Georgia, they hadn’t been allowed to leave the facility. Other than monitored phone calls, they had no outside contact except for military and government personnel. They had all manner of game consoles and a well-stocked game library. June had never in her life picked up a game controller, until week five. Now, serious injury would be risked by interfering when she was doing well on Tetris. There was a Blu-ray collection with more than three thousand titles and every satellite channel in existence, though June had blocked a few using parental controls, causing quite a protest from Don. They had a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator, and a cook at their disposal. But the longer they were there, the more cooking they opted to do themselves. There was a pool, hot tub, sauna, and the services of a masseuse upon request. All the comforts of home and then some, just no one else to interact with. In fact, the original team of nine scientists at McMasters had been reduced to five: June and Don, Professor Yeoum Chi, Dr. Juan Tiong, the team’s veterinarian, and Jimmy Bennett.

Jimmy held a master’s degree in computer science and electronic technology, and was responsible for maintaining all of the project’s equipment. He had also written many of the specialized programs needed for the project, making him irreplaceable, though the “powers that be” attempted to do just that on several occasions. Jimmy was a solid team player and co-worker, but he was also good at what he called “sticking it to the man.” As a Canadian, he wasn’t thrilled about working for the U.S. Government, even when it was the Department of the Interior. So when the DOD took over, he considered sabotaging the project outright. June had even been willing to go along with that idea, but in the end Don and the professor talked them out of it. After all, they had all invested too much time and effort not to go forward, regardless of who was paying the bills. That, and an obscene pay increase, had changed Jimmy’s mind. But in the eight weeks since the move he had ruffled more than his share of feathers among the “storm troopers” he had to work for.

And to make matters worse, they weren’t allowed to continue their present research. They had repeatedly been told that the next phase of the project was forthcoming, and that the next specimen would arrive soon. It had been bad enough being on hold for two months in Hamilton where they all had homes and lives. But being cooped up in this new lab could get nerve wracking. It was true that the experiment was a success. The results were clear and the science, barring unforeseen events, was proving to have longevity with each sample Doctor Tiong analyzed. But there was no clear answer to the question of the current holdup.

“We were supposed to be gone by now,” June added. “Gone to our new home, away from needles, and sleeping in a real forest. Not a fake one.”

“Are you kidding me? The zoologists in San Diego would give their left arm to have a habitat like we have here.”

She knew it was true. She had to give them credit. They had created an environment in this underground sanatorium that rivaled anything she had ever experienced. The best food, the best care, and all of the people who had access to the animals seemed to genuinely care for them. And the chimps responded favorably to the team as well. All except for Tiong. But he, above of all of them except possibly June, had the animals’ best interest at heart.

Sometimes Juan gets a bad rap. Maybe I should check on his arm. “What time is it?” June asked.

Don glanced at the clock on the wall. “Eight fifty-nine.”

“I guess Juan has started his inventory.”

“Yeah, I think he coerced Jimmy into helping him since the mysterious major isn’t here.”  Don had often speculated about the major. Only Tiong had been allowed to meet him. The others only saw him when Jimmy hacked his way into the security system. Don conjured a scenario with Greg Mathers as the real person in charge and not an Air Force officer at all. He was CIA sent there to evaluate them for another secret project that the government had in mind. This, of course, provoked Jimmy to outbursts of colorful mixed metaphors and open threats if he found out that anything of the like was true. In turn, this fueled Don’s imagination to the point that the professor had to intervene and assure Jimmy that none of it was even remotely true. As far as he knew.

June glanced around her at the Gummy Bears on the floor. “We’d better get the place cleaned up. We don’t wanna make a bad first impression.”

Don stood up and walked over to her desk, leaning in to look at the monitor. “You make a very cute couple.”

“I know. But she’s a one-man woman. And Brad’s a little jealous.”

“They must’ve had a late night.”

“They’re supposed to be on a reserve. No matter how nice it is for them in here,” June lamented.

“Well, maybe today’s visit will get that ball rolling,” Don offered. “Besides, you still haven’t gotten word back about where Paris and Charlie are going.”

June looked to the monitor on her left and scanned the camera around in the other paddock that mirrored the one that housed Angelina and Brad. The false vegetation and natural-looking terrain sometimes made spotting the chimps difficult, but after a few moments she found them near the artificial stream eating their breakfast of fruit and nuts. She glanced at the middle screen, where Angelina was beginning to stir, and then back. Zooming in on the females, she found it amazing that they appeared to be exactly alike, down to the smallest detail. Chimps all look the same to most people, but to a trained eye they are as different as one human is from the next. Even identical twins have subtle differences in weight and hair color, but not these two. They were identical, despite the fact that Tiong claimed he could tell the difference between them. The fact that the four could not be placed together broke June’s heart, but this one unexplained side effect of the experiment made that impossible.

“Let’s hope so,” June said, as she thought of something that her parents had always told her when she grew impatient: It’s all in Gods timing.

5 The Blind

 

 

AS GREG TURNED INTO the Lightning Quik Mart, Kitchens asked, “What’s the matter? You need gas?” He glanced at the SUV’s gauges.

“No, sir. This is it.”

“This is what?”

“The duck blind.”

Kitchens peered over his glasses at the young officer, wondering if this was Greg’s idea of a joke, then at the unlikely site of a classified DOD project.

It was a convenience store.

“The Lightning Quik Mart is the duck blind,” Kitchens said incredulously.

Greg couldn’t contain a chuckle. “Yes, sir. Pretty good, huh?”

The parking lot was full of vehicles. There were three semi trucks. One was a tanker delivering fuel to the store, its bright green tractor and sparkling silver tank trailer bearing the green logo of the Mathis Oil Company. Another was parked close to the building, its rear doors facing the highway. The third, with a white cab and trailer emblazoned with the red Lightning Quik Mart forked lightning bolt logo, was backed up to the front door where its driver was unloading wares. There were cars parked next to the gas pumps, more in front of the store, and another at the far end of the lot.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” Kitchens said, as another delivery truck pulled up next to the store.

As the two got out of the truck and started toward the front door, the senator asked, rather dryly, “Does it turn a profit?”

Ignoring the quip, Greg explained, “All of the trucks are ours.”

“Well, they need mufflers,” Kitchens complained over the noise of the engines. “And, they’re not at all concerned about the price of fuel, now are they?”

“How y’all doin’ this mornin’?” A short, burly man with several days’ growth of beard was wearing a green shirt and matching baseball cap bearing the Mathis Oil Company logo.

“Hi, Charlie,” Greg answered, playing his role as Lightning Quik Mart’s Regional Vice President of Marketing. The cover allowed him to park at the store for days at a time without arousing suspicion, and he had an office in the back. Leaning in close to the senator, he whispered, “He’s with us.”

Once inside, Kitchens quickly surveyed the store. There was a balding man in a gray suit getting a cup of coffee in the back. To the left, a young man wearing the olive green jumpsuit of an Air Force staff sergeant was looking over the store’s selection of over-the-counter medicines. On the right was a middle-aged woman with long brown hair and heavy make-up reaching for a soda from one of the coolers.

“They’re not with us,” Greg cautioned.

From all appearances, it was merely a convenience store with everything one would expect to find, from Corn Nuts to the aroma of hot dogs sizzling on the rotisserie. There was even a good selection of fishing supplies, including a room in the back of the store with a LIVE BAIT sign hanging over the doorway. Because of its proximity to the Ocmulgee River, the store had proven quite popular with local fishermen.

“Let me introduce you to the manager,” Greg said.

They neared the store’s check-out counter where two Lightning Quik Mart employees were standing back to back, one a young white man and the other a young black woman. “Welcome to Lightning Quik Mart,” they said in unison, with a decided lack of enthusiasm. They glanced up and then back to their task of checking off the deliveries that were being stacked on the floor in front of them.

“Good morning, Cheryl, Sean. Where’s Cindy?” Greg asked.

“In the cooler,” Cheryl answered.

“Thanks,” Greg said, and then whispered, “They’re two of eleven Air Force personnel that work here. Cindy is the only civilian.”

The sound of a female voice drew their attention as she emerged from the cooler, her distinctive Brooklyn accent leading the way. “How many times do I have to tell you, Tony? You can’t deliver here at nine in the morning. We’re too busy. You have to deliver either before six or after ten.”

She wore jeans, a white blouse, and a red Lightning Quik Mart vest. Her black hair was pulled tightly back, bound up with some type of multi-beaded barrette that allowed her pony tail to hang down to her shoulder blades. She waved a clipboard as she spoke, closely followed by a Hispanic man in his mid-thirties wearing the matching shorts and shirt of Lightning Quik Mart.

When the driver didn’t immediately acknowledge her, she added, “Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He went out the door, pushing his hand truck up the ramp to fetch another load.

“That man ain’t never gonna learn.”

“Good morning, Cindy,” Greg said. “I want to introduce you to someone. This is—”

“Cynthia Patrice Lattice!” Kitchens shouted, startling the major. “How the heck are ya?” He scooped her up in a warm embrace. “You better leave that man alone.”

“Mister Mayor!” Cindy shouted back, surprised by the visit from her old friend. Taking his hands, she stood back and eyed him wryly. “Or, should I call you Senator?” Heads turned as she immediately attracted the attention of the store’s customers and employees alike.

“How about Kevin?” Kitchens gave no thought at all to the store’s patrons.

“Kevin. It’s so good to see you,” she said warmly and then turned to the major. “Hey, Greg. I didn’t expect you today.” Cindy had been left out of the loop about the senator’s visit.

Greg glanced around with a concerned look. “Maybe we should go into the back.”

Cindy’s eyes widened in embarrassment. “Sorry, Greg.” She moved toward the back of the store, handing the clipboard to Cheryl. “We’ll be in the back.”

Kitchens caught the Air Force sergeant’s eye as he nodded and said, “Good morning, Sir.”

“Mornin’,” he replied casually.

The sergeant made a sideways move toward the employees and whispered, “Who’s that?”

Sean spoke without missing a beat. “Them? The manager and some big wigs from corporate.”

Greg paused at the door in order to listen to Sean’s conversation with the sergeant.

“I thought I heard her say senator.”

Greg grimaced.

“Really?” Sean managed to sound uninterested. “That one guy is Mr. Mathers, one of the VPs. I don’t know who the other guy is.”

Without turning, Cheryl added, “He used to be mayor of Warner Robins and is good friends with Cindy. He got hisself elected senator last year.” She sounded thoroughly unimpressed.

“Huh.” Sean glanced over at Cheryl and then to the sergeant’s items as he rung them up. “I don’t know. I just moved here a couple of months ago.”

The sergeant thought about asking if he could meet the senator, but quickly abandoned the notion when Cheryl added, “The last time he came in here, some Air Force dude asked him for his autograph and, honey, he nutted up! Got hisself in all kinds a trouble with his boss.” She looked the sergeant in the eye. “That man is a sho nuff jerk.”

With that, the sergeant quickly paid and left.

Greg closed and locked the door with a wry smile. Not bad.

From the brightly lit hallway, Greg could hear Kitchens and Cindy talking in her office. They obviously knew each other well. Greg didn’t want to eavesdrop, but the noise of the store’s machinery wasn’t enough to drown out their conversation.

“Anyway, I went to the interview, figured I’d see what the man had to say, you know? It was like any other interview except he just said, ‘we’ll be in touch.’ Boom! That was it.”

They sat casually on folding metal chairs in the crowded little office. There was barely room for three inside. Greg saw an empty chair but did not sit, deciding it didn’t look comfortable.

Besides, I haven’t been invited.

“And?” Kitchens asked expectantly.

“And,” she repeated, “a week later I got a call from my old captain. Someone from the government had been to see him and asked him a bunch of questions about me.” She glanced over at the major. “Greg. Sit down, boo.”

Kitchens pushed the chair forward. “Yeah, Greg. Have a seat.”

“I’m fine,” he said. He leaned back against the doorframe and attempted to tune them out.

Cindy continued. “Well, another week goes by and I get a call from the man. He invites me back for another interview, asks me how much I make, offers me double, yadda, yadda, yadda, I take the job.”

“Wow. Double?” Kitchens asked, understandably impressed.

“Well, I took it after I found out that I’d be working for the government. I had to take a few tests and sign a non-disclosure agreement, but for that kind of money and government benefits, except for holidays. You know this place is open twenty-four seven. And all I have to do is what I was doing at my other job, not ask questions, and keep my mouth shut. Child, please! And you know I love my president.” 

“I know you do. He’s a great man, isn’t he?”

“True dat, boo. True dat.” Cindy looked up at the major. “I don’t think Greg’s too happy with him, though.”

“Oh?”

“What?” Greg asked, his eyes darting from one to the other and back, suddenly interested in their conversation.

“Yeah,” Cindy continued. “You know, two kinds of folks can read people. Women and cops. And I’m both.”

Kitchens smiled.

“Greg can’t tell me anything about what he’s doing here, but ever since he arrived last month, I can tell he’s been frustrated.” She eyed Greg up and down as he attempted to melt into the doorframe.

“Now, what goes on behind his office door ain’t none of my business. I don’t wanna know. But I sure hope you came down here to give this man some good news.” She finished by giving the major a wink, making him sigh audibly.

After a short pause, Kitchens said, “Well, don’t you worry about Greg. One way or another, I think we’re gonna cheer him up.”

She only half heard what the senator said. “So, that’s my story. What’s up? What are you doin’—” She froze as it registered what Kitchens had said, startling her out of her reverie. They’re together. Oh, Lord, I hope I didn’t just mess up! She held up her hands, closed her eyes and said, “No, no, no. Don’t answer that. And don’t tell me a lie ‘cause I’ll lose respect for you. It’s none of my business.”

Kitchens’ smile vanished as reality returned to him as well. Their little trip down memory lane had caught them both off guard. I’m here to do a job, not reminisce. And Cindy realized it before I did. He took a moment to gather his thoughts. Someone he knew personally was involved in the business he had come here for. For Kitchens, things just got a little more complicated.

Fearing she had overstepped her bounds, Cindy changed the subject. “You didn’t know I managed another convenience store here in Warner Robins, did you Greg?”

“Really?” He feigned interest, understanding her potential dilemma.

“That’s right, on Watson Boulevard. I managed it for seven years. That’s where I met the mayor. I mean Kevin.” She looked at Kitchens coyly, completely regaining her composure. “I was right up the street from City Hall. Kevin came in my store every weekday mornin’ to get a newspaper and a soda. We’ve been good friends ever since, and that was right after I first moved here from New York.”

Kitchens stood up and spoke in a tone that was much more formal than it had been a moment before. “Cindy, it was great seeing you. Maybe we’ll be able to get together soon.” He extended his hand.

Taking the hint, Cindy stood up and grasped Kitchens’ hand, pulling him to her for a quick hug. “I’d like that,” she replied.

“Well, Greg, I think that we had better get started, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yeah, I better get back to work too.” Cindy walked back to the storeroom door. “I have two more deliveries due in today. You guys stop by for a soda on your way out.”

“This way, sir.” Greg gestured in the opposite direction. “All of this is just as it seems. Except that all of the personnel are airmen, federal employees, and civilian contractors. But, like Cindy, none of them have any idea what’s happening”—exaggeratedly, he pointed at the floor—“down there. With one exception.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, sir. The driver of the truck parked on the side of the building.”

“Really?”

“Come take a look at this.” They stopped at the end of the hall at another open door.

Kitchens saw that the room was essentially identical to Cindy’s office. He could hear the faint sound of a diesel engine through the wall.

“Have a seat. There’s much more here than meets the eye.” Greg raised his eyebrows for emphasis as he closed the door.

“Yes, I gathered as much.”

Greg’s smile faded. “Sir, I’m sorry. I mentioned the driver of the truck outside.”

“Yup?” Kitchens said, his patience wearing thin.

“Eight trucks are rotated in and out at different times of the day, each one painted differently to make them less noticeable. They have four functions. The first is to provide emergency back-up power for the facility. See, while the store draws power from the local electric company, the facility is supplied with power independently. Second, they help mask the sound of the diesel engines in the basement that provide primary power.”

Greg had the senator’s interest now. When he flew in that morning, he had expected to be driven to some out-of-the-way building on the base for this visit, not to some kind of James Bond clandestine facility.

Greg continued. “The third is to transfer personnel and supplies in and out of the facility.”

“Come again?” Kitchens asked.

“There are over a dozen technicians and security personnel down there at any given time. They are brought in that way so as not to arouse suspicion. Everything for the facility has to be delivered in those trucks.”

“They don’t just come in through the front door?”

“No, sir.”

“Then, how?”

“The forth function of the trucks is to provide noise cover for the facility’s other mechanisms.”

“Noise cover? What other mechanisms?”

Greg picked up the phone on the desk, punched in a code, and listened.

Kitchens barely heard a male voice say, “Stand by.”

Greg replaced the receiver and said. “Oh, and to answer your question, yes, the store does make a profit.”

The senator turned with a start when he heard the sound of metal bolts sliding into the door behind him. “What?”

“You asked me if the store turns a profit, when we were outside. When I did the numbers on the facility”—the senator wasn’t listening, but was staring at the door in stunned silence—“they also gave me all of the store’s financials. I had lots of time on my hands, so I did the P and L. Cindy’s a heck of a manager.” As Greg spoke, he was taking great pleasure in the senator’s reaction to what was happening around them. “Actually, she’s due a bonus.” He thought for a moment. “But then, I guess it’s easy to turn a profit when all of the employees are paid by the government. There’s no payroll expense, except for Cindy.”

The senator’s eyes were wide as he glanced around the room. The sound of machinery doing whatever it was doing to the structure of the room continued. And Greg was enjoying it.

A series of clicks emanated from the senator’s left. He turned toward the new sound just as the wall abruptly moved out away from the rest of the room. The sound of diesel engines was suddenly amplified and there was a thud, thud, thud as the entire wall disappeared into the floor. The space beyond was the dull gray cinder block of the outer wall, five feet from where the wall had been. A metal grated platform spanned the width.

Greg yelled over the din, “We have fifteen seconds, sir.”  He handed the senator a small plastic bag containing a set of earplugs, stepped on to the metal grate, and motioned for him to follow as he checked his watch.

When Kitchens didn’t move, Greg took his hand, pulling him out of the chair and forward. “Eight seconds,” he shouted as they moved onto the grate. Seconds later, the wall rose and returned to its former position. Kitchens froze, his back to the cinder block wall.

It was dark, but there was some light coming from below and to the right. Nothing was yet distinguishable. The senator fumbled with the plastic bag, placed the plugs in his ears, and shut his eyes, letting them adjust. The air was cool and dry with the slightest hint of diesel fumes. When he opened his eyes, he saw the major looking disdainfully at the unlit light bulb on the wall to Kitchens’ left.

Greg tapped the bare bulb to no avail. Turning, he smiled and motioned for the senator to move to his right and down the metal staircase that he could now see in the low light.

It led them down about twenty feet to a large room. Scanning around, Kitchens could see the room was square with cement columns placed strategically about to support the ceiling. There were pipes and conduits running in all directions around the room. For fuel and exhaust? He wondered.

Everything was featureless and gray, and the fluorescent lights around the perimeter did nothing but intensify the drabness. In the center were six diesel generators along with three rows of metal racks, thirty feet long and eight feet high, where row upon row of heavy-duty batteries were resting. Four gray conduits ran along the floor leading from the batteries and disappearing into a twenty-foot wide corridor to the north. Kitchens guessed that it was of older construction than the room itself, its walls being much rougher. It sloped downward slightly, descending deeper into the earth. At ten feet, the corridor’s ceiling was only half as high as the room’s, and was lit by more fluorescent lights along its length. To the right of the corridor were three golf carts parked in the northeast corner of the room. Next to the carts were six red tool safes, three-and-a-half feet tall, lined one next to another along the eastern wall, and a large seven by eight gray metal cabinet, its doors closed.

Greg was standing next to a metal platform that was resting flush with the floor. It was six by ten feet with three foot metal railings mounted on three sides. A chain was hung across the opening. Above it was a similar six by ten foot metal plate in the ceiling. The senator reasoned that the semi truck was parked directly above them and that this was the mechanism used to transfer personnel and supplies into and out of the facility.

Greg pointed to one of the golf carts and began moving in its direction. He climbed behind the wheel and, with the senator beside him, started down the corridor. As they drove away from the noise of the engines, they removed their earplugs.

“How far down are we going?”

“The corridor continues down to about three hundred feet but slopes back up to two hundred where the complex is located.”

Kitchens’ nerves were settled now, as he began prioritizing the myriad of questions he had in his head.

Greg allowed him some time to collect his thoughts. Due to the speed restrictions, it would take nearly fifteen minutes to go the three point three miles to the facility, so they had some time.

The air was damp and much cooler now, with a musty smell. Kitchens saw yellow markers on the walls, left and right, at what he guessed to be one hundred yard intervals. In the middle of each section was a barrel-sized opening near the ceiling covered with a metal grate. “Why does it go so far down and then back up?”

“The complex is located in an old bomb shelter built in the 1950s. This corridor was designed as a gas trap.”

“A gas trap?”

“Yes, sir. In the event of a chemical or biological attack, the entire corridor can be flooded.”

“Flooded?” Kitchens was slightly alarmed at the thought. “That’s why this place is so close to the river isn’t it?” It was then that he noticed the walls glistening with moisture and the large shallow puddles of water along their path. At what he guessed must be the midpoint of their journey, the floor changed from solid concrete to metal grates stretching the length of an entire one-hundred yard section. Beneath was a void, but it was impossible to tell how deep. A drain?

Greg saw concern on the senator’s face. “Not to worry. I think they flooded it once decades ago, but they probably stopped maintaining the pumps when the Cold War ended.”

That information did little to comfort the senator. “How much further is it?”

“About five minutes.”

“You’d better call the general and tell her I’ll meet her for dinner rather than lunch.”

6 Sistema Chac Luum

 

 

SO, THE FACILITY ACTUALLY is on the base. Or rather, under it,” Kitchens concluded.

“Yes, sir,” the major affirmed as he drove the last few hundred yards of tunnel.

“Then, why isn’t there an entrance on the base?”

“Well, sir, there is. Anyone who cares enough to ask knows where it is. It’s common knowledge.”

“Then why did we have to drive out to the store and come in this way?”

“Because the powers-that-be don’t want to call any attention to the work that’s being done here. They didn’t want anyone seeing personnel and materials going in and out of the place. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”

Before he arrived, Kitchens believed the cost of the project was due to the construction of the tunnel, but it was now obvious that the tunnel was much older than the generator room.

As if he had read Kitchens’ thoughts, the major continued. “The tunnel was part of the original construction. It led to an emergency exit that was hidden where the store is. The generator room was constructed along with the store.”

They had been steadily traveling for about six minutes when a wall appeared out of the darkness. At least it looked like a wall, dull gray like everything else. As they approached, a horn sounded, startling the senator as it reverberated through the tunnel. Yellow caution lights began flashing as the sound of heavy machinery mixed with the blaring horn.

“Sorry. I should have warned you about that.”

Kitchens was hardly paying attention to the noise as the wall ahead began to move. It swung slowly open toward them from right to left. The enormous door spanned the entire width and height of the tunnel. Its inner mechanisms resembled something he recalled seeing in a movie. There was a line of ten bolts going up the inside of the doorframe, each individual bolt six inches in diameter. On the wall, floor, and ceiling opposite where the door would line up was an equal number of sockets. The door itself was more than three feet thick.

“It weighs over twenty-five tons,” Greg explained.

Kitchens expected a team of armed guards to greet them from the other side. Seeing none, he was a bit disappointed.

The entire process of the door’s opening and closing took nearly three minutes. Beyond the entrance was a large rectangular room with incandescent bulbs burning on the walls, doing little to illuminate the space. Inside the nondescript room were seven more golf carts of varying designs. The two stored in the northeast corner had flat beds. Greg pulled their cart behind the others and parked. When he got out, he plugged the power cord into a socket in the floor and allowed Kitchens some time to process what he was seeing.

The senator stepped out of the cart and turned slowly as he scanned the room. There were pallets of material still shrink-wrapped and stacked against the western wall. Most had cardboard boxes, a few had what looked like medical equipment of some sort, dozens had white five-gallon buckets stacked one on top of another. There were antiquated hospital beds, wheelchairs, and two more toolboxes matching the ones in the generator room. A pair of pallet jacks and a number of other items the senator could not immediately identify were neatly stored out of the way, waiting to be of use.

The largest single item in the room completed the garage feel of the place. An Air Force blue 1959 Ford F-600 tanker truck was nestled in the southeast corner, shrink wrapped in clear plastic like the rest.

Kitchens walked over and peered through the film at the front end and studied it. It looked as if it had come directly from the assembly line. “Is there fuel in this?”

“Yes, sir, I believe there is, but all of the other fluids were drained out decades ago.”

Kitchens smirked. “We oughta have a yard sale. It would help pay for this place.”

Greg found the light switch in the north corridor as the senator was still studying the room’s contents. The fluorescent lights made the white walls of this new hall seem to glow in stark contrast to the gloom of the big room where Kitchens was standing. Twenty feet inside was another wall with a door in the middle resembling something on a submarine minus any kind of handle. Greg punched a code into a hidden keypad and the door slid open. Lights flickered on inside to reveal a small corridor stretching about forty feet with four similar doors on the right and left, ending in another submarine-type door, this one with a circular handle at its center.

As the senator approached, he noticed something he hadn’t seen before in the low light of the big room. There was a plaque hanging over the entrance with the foreign words Sistema Chac Luum.

“What’s that?”

“The plaque?” Greg asked, following the senator’s gaze.

“Yeah. Is it Latin?”

Greg moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with the senator. “No, sir. It’s Mayan.”

Kitchens frowned. “Mayan?”

“Yes, sir. It means red earth system.”

“Red earth system?” Kitchens repeated. The name made sense. Georgia was known for its red clay. “Why Mayan?”

Greg smiled, pleased with himself that he had taken the time to find out during one of the endless days of boredom since his posting here. “In October 2002, a guy named Schmitner discovered an underwater cave in Quintana Roo, Mexico, in the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. He named the cave Sistema Chac Luum because of the red earth in the area. So, when they reopened this complex, someone named it after that cave. You know, for red Georgia clay.”

Kitchens stared at him, dumbfounded that the major knew the answer in so much detail. If, in fact, he hadn’t made it up.

Greg again read the senator’s mind. “Combine Wikipedia with a whole lotta time on my hands, and voila.”

“Okay,” Kitchens said. “So, we go in there I take it?” He pointed to the open door.

“Yes, sir. We’ll change in there.”

“Change?”

“Yes, sir. Beyond the changing room is a clean environment.”

“Seriously?” Kitchens was amused by the whole idea.

“Seriously,” Greg repeated, gesturing for the senator to enter.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

C’MON, DOC,” JIMMY pleaded.

“You should have recorded it,” Tiong answered.

“I forgot.” Jimmy hung his head and fidgeted with his clipboard.

The two were standing in the middle of the main storeroom. Professor Yeoum Chi, the team leader, insisted an inventory be performed each Friday. And since their procurement specialist had been cut from the team, the responsibility had been passed to Tiong.

Doctor Juan Tiong was the team’s veterinarian. Though he was born in Manila, people often mistook him as Mexican because of his small frame and dark features. From an early age, little Juan had loved animals. A diligent student, he attended Brent International School where he also excelled at soccer. He received an athletic scholarship to the University of the Philippine’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where he received his doctorate in 2003. Soon after, his family pooled their resources and immigrated to the United States, settling in San Francisco. There they opened a small Filipino Grocery. Tiong did a lengthy internship from August 2003 to June 2005 at Westchester Animal Hospital outside of New York City. After that, he earned his certification from Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2006, and then moved back home to San Francisco where he joined a small practice.

Like June, he was approached by the Department of the Interior nineteen months ago and was asked to join the team after the unfortunate and untimely death of the program’s previous veterinarian. Tiong’s predecessor was traveling to McMaster, the original site of the project, when his vehicle slid off of the icy highway and hit an embankment, killing him instantly. Tiong had been assured that the project would last only eighteen months, and since the money they offered him was more than adequate, he agreed.

During the first few months at McMaster, he had often wondered if he had made a huge mistake. His duties were light. He’d had only one pair of chimpanzees to look after then, and they were in very good health. His biggest problem he had faced was the fact that Professor Yeoum had been a long-time friend of the previous vet. Yeoum had worked with the man for over eighteen years, ever since the professor had immigrated to the United States. Yeoum began to push all of the “messy” work onto Tiong, and was constantly critical of him. But after some time had passed, Yeoum began to warm up to him. Tiong suspected the man simply wanted someone older to relate to. At thirty-seven, the veterinarian was the oldest team member, next to the professor who was seventy-three.

“You forgot?” Tiong asked doubtfully. “Jimmy, there’s TiVo in your room and in the parlor. And,” he paused for emphasis, “you were the one who volunteered to help me, remember?”

“That’s before I knew how boring it was going to be. Besides, I didn’t know it was going to take hours and hours,” Jimmy whined.

“It takes as long as it takes every time. What made you think it was going to take less time today?”

Tiong usually did the inventory with the major. He could have easily done it by himself, and, in all likelihood, it wouldn’t take as long. But he decided this would be an exercise in patience for Jimmy, the youngest member of the team. Besides, he had gotten used to having someone to talk to, to break up the tedium.

Please, Doc,” the younger man pleaded, kneeling down and wrapping his arms around Tiong’s knees. “You can watch it with me.”

“I don’t like science fiction.”

“Oh, you’ll like this one. It has lots of exotic alien animals.”

“You’ve seen it, then?

Jimmy released the doctor and sat back on his legs. “Hello! Avatar is only the number one movie of all time.”

Avatar?” Tiong asked incredulously.

“Uh, huh.”

“You want to watch Avatar at ten o’clock?” Jimmy looked at his watch. “Yes. In seventeen minutes.”

“We have it in the video library.”

Jimmy’s shoulders slumped as he thought for a moment. “I think it’s broken.”

“I watched it with June on Tuesday. It was good.” Tiong removed a pen from his shirt pocket. “Kinda’ Dances with Wolves in space.” Seeing that Jimmy wasn’t going to give up, he turned his attention back to the medical supplies where they had left off.

“Does this mean I can go?” Jimmy asked hopefully.

“No.”

“C’mon, Doc. I hate busy work.”

“Go tell that to Yeoum,” Tiong said evenly.

Jimmy Bennett was the only member of the team who was Canadian, despite the fact that the project had been based originally in Canada. He was born in Saint Catharine’s, Ontario, the largest city in the Niagara Region, just ten miles northwest of Niagara Falls. His father was an attorney with the Niagara North Judicial District of Ontario and his mother was a member of the city council of Saint Catharine’s. He had attended Beacon Christian School where he developed a love for computers.

He was the geek of the group, a fact that had often gotten him into trouble. He had a bad habit of invading programs. Like, for instance, the complex’s security system, which made him quite unpopular with the security chief. But of the four remaining members of Yeoum’s team, Jimmy had been involved with the project the longest. The twenty-nine-year-old was recruited right out of the Niagara College of Applied Arts and Technology, where he had earned a master’s in computer science and electronic technology.

Early on, Jimmy had developed an intense dislike for the United States government after they “stole” a program he had written that not only integrated all of the project’s computer systems—which is how he gained access to off-limits programs—but also made them interactive, thereby streamlining the entire process. After this, Jimmy wrote a simple voice recognition program that would allow anyone he chose to interact with the system by voice command. He even gave the program a personality, a female personality, with a deceptively simple name. Software Integrating System, or SIS. What only he knew was that he had implanted a “bomb” that he could execute with a few simple keystrokes to render it and all connected systems useless.

Knowing better than to draw the Korean team leader’s ire, Jimmy changed the subject. “I thought you didn’t like sci-fi.”

Tiong smiled. “Hello? Number one movie of all time.”

Just then there was a beep followed by a man’s voice over the intercom. “Doctor Tiong, Major Mathers and his guest have arrived. They are in the dressing area and will be entering the supply room shortly. Mister Bennett, you will need to vacate the area, sir.”

Tiong checked his watch in annoyance. “It’s a quarter to ten. They’re not supposed to be here until twelve o’clock.”

“That’s a shame.” Jimmy feigned disappointment. “I guess we can’t finish the inventory now.”

“Oh well,” Tiong said, “we’ll just have to finish it later.”

Jimmy eyed the doctor. “I assume that by ‘we’ you mean you and the major, right?”

“The major will be tied up with the senator today. By ‘we’ I mean you and me.”

“Oooh, sorry, Doc, but uh, I have to finish up my diagnostic this afternoon,” Jimmy said, seizing the opportunity to escape. “I guess you’ll be on your own.”

Tiong wasn’t listening. He was checking off a mental list of things he had accomplished in preparation for the senator’s visit. Satisfied he was ready, he said to Jimmy, “You’d better get outta here.”

“Why? Can’t I meet the senator today, too?” he quipped. Jimmy couldn’t have cared less if he met the man or not.

Tiong gave him a knowing look. “The major.”

“Aw c’mon. I think it’s about time I met the mysterious major.” He pretended to yawn. He cared even less about meeting another jarhead.

Tiong started to speak again but was cut off by the intercom. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mister Bennett. The major is still off limits to all personnel but Doctor Tiong.”

“I forgot.” Jimmy’s irritation aroused as he raised his voice. “Big Brother is always listening.”

Tiong gave Jimmy a you-should-know-better look. “Out.”

Jimmy threw up his hands in defeat and started for the door. “Hey, Big Brother, wanna help me with SIS? She’s lonely, ya know. She could use another disembodied voice for some company after I wake her up.”

Tiong watched as the door shut behind Jimmy. Almost immediately a buzzer sounded behind him. Two men dressed in the same kind of green scrubs Tiong was wearing stepped into the supply room. Major Greg Mathers he knew. The other he recognized from television, a local hero of sorts. Senator Kevin Kitchens, Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The axeman, as he had become known since the team had learned of his impending visit. The man who would decide if the project would live or die. It was Tiong who spoke first. “Gentlemen. Welcome to Sistema Chac Luum.”

The senator regarded him warmly, extending his hand. “Good morning.”

“Doctor Juan Tiong.” Tiong smiled and accepted the man’s hand.

“Kevin Kitchens. And I believe you know the major.”

Tiong nodded. “How’s it going, Greg?”

“Good,” Greg replied with a grin. Like this ought to be!

“Are we interrupting anything?” Kitchens asked innocently. He enjoyed catching people off guard. Tiong glanced around the room, “No, no. We were just doing our weekly inventory. Nothing that can’t wait.”

Greg was disappointed. His hope of seeing the doctor upset or flustered by the interruption was dashed.

“We?” Kitchens asked as he looked around the room.

“Jimmy was assisting me,” Tiong answered.

The senator gave Tiong a questioning look. “Why did he leave?”

“I’m taboo to the other members of the team,” Greg explained.

“Ah.” Kitchens looked to the major. “Well, I think it’s about time you meet the other folks, don’t you?”

“Well … uh,” Greg stammered.

“One way or another, they’re gonna know you by the end of the day.”

“I don’t understand,” Greg said.

“One way or the other?” Tiong repeated.

“Fellas, I’m not one to beat around the bush. I’m here to decide whether this project continues or not, and I’ll be doin’ just that during the next several hours. Now Greg, you were sent here to join the team, pending the professor’s approval. He’s had three weeks, more than enough time to get that done, and he hasn’t even met you yet. I think it’s time for a face-to-face.” He turned to Tiong. “And Doctor, as I understand it, you committed eighteen months to this project, and eighteen months was up six weeks ago. Is that correct?”

Tiong looked to Greg for support, but found none. After four months of busy work and no further progress in the program, things were beginning to happen too fast for both of them. “The work we’ve done here is incredible. History making. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

“Well, my decision will be based on my meeting with two—or should I say four—individuals. If y’all don’t mind, I’d like to get on with it.”

7 Meet ‘n’ Greet

 

 

IF YOU DON’T QUIT, I swear I’ll sneak into your room tonight and hide your leg,” June threatened as she wadded up another piece of paper and threw it her attacker.

“I thought you liked Gummy Bears,” Don retorted.

“Yeah, well, I had a big breakfast.” She laughed as she watched her missile hit him squarely on the nose. Don’s head fell back and his arms went limp as he played dead. “And I’m not picking these up,” she added, pointing to the gummies on the floor. “You’re—”

Just then the intercom beeped and they heard a man’s voice say, “Good morning, Doctors. The senator has arrived and is on his way to your location.”

Don’s head snapped up, his eyes wide. “Oh, crap!” he shouted, and then he started to laugh.

“Pick ‘em up. Now!” June ordered through gritted teeth.

“Too late,” Don said, still laughing and not taking his eyes off of June as the door opened. She stared back at him as the visitors stepped inside, then turned and glared at the speaker in the ceiling. You could have warned us sooner.

The three newcomers entered. They couldn’t help but see the rainbow of candies on the floor as Tiong introduced them. “June Phillips, Donald Cook, meet Senator Kitchens and Major Greg Mathers of the Air force.”

June rose to her feet, placed an I’m-completely-oblivious-to-the-Gummy-Bears-on-the floor look on her face, and extended her hand to the senator. But her eyes were fixed on the major. Kitchens shook her hand and looked over at Greg, smiling.

“I think you’ve made a new friend, Greg.”

June blushed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” she managed, as she turned her attention to the senator.

Standing behind her, Don hadn’t seen the exchange but could guess what had happened. His eyes were also on the major as he offered his hand. “The mystery man at last. It’s very nice to meet you, sir,” he parroted, and then turned to Kitchens. “Senator.”

“Major,” June said curtly, verbally acknowledging Greg.

“Now that that’s over with …” Kitchens attempted to lighten the mood.

“Who are these men and what are they doing in my laboratory?” a male voice harshly demanded from the other end of the room.

Professor Yeoum Chi had entered the room unnoticed by the others, his raised voice startling the group. The senator quickly recovered and painted on a smile, hoping the professor hadn’t noticed he had been affected by the abrupt interruption.

Yeoum was alerted to the presence of the major and senator when they arrived at the convenience store. He chose to take on a dominant presence with them, as he always did with everyone. Dressed like the others in green hospital scrubs, he strode toward them quickly, an intense scowl on his face. The diminutive man’s gray hair betrayed some idea of his age, but that was his only feature that did. If Kitchens hadn’t already known Yeoum was in his seventies, he would have guessed him to be in his late forties. The professor’s exotic features were a clear indication of his Asian heritage, and his disposition was certainly in keeping with his reputation. But now, in his presence, Kitchens sensed something ominous about the man.

“Professor Yeoum.” Tiong stepped forward to head the man off. “Allow me to introduce Senator Kevin Kitchens of the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

Yeoum stopped short of the group, paying no mind at all to the candy on the floor. He folded his arms across his chest, squared his shoulders and looked Kitchens up and down.

“Professor.” Kitchens only nodded, knowing that if he offered a handshake it would be refused.

Tiong rolled his eyes, making certain that the professor couldn’t see him, and that Kitchens could. “And this is—” Greg stepped toward Yeoum with the beginning of the introduction, leading with his outstretched hand.

“I know who this one is.” Yeoum’s voice betrayed no sign of an accent.

Undaunted by the professor’s treatment, Greg let his arm drop to his side and smiled. He was enjoying himself. His day was shaping up very differently from what he had expected.

Kitchens smiled as the professor’s eyes wandered from him to the major in the uncomfortable silence that lasted long enough for the sound of the computer’s cooling fans to reach an almost deafening crescendo. It was June who broke the silence. “Can I get anyone anything? Coffee, Coke?”

“Yeah, we’ve got some Gummy Bears,” Don offered, reaching for the half empty bag on his desk.

“Donald!” June couldn’t help laughing as she scolded him.

Greg laughed, as did Tiong. But if the senator or the professor had even heard the exchange, neither showed it.

Forcing himself, Kitchens looked over at June. “Doctor Phillips. I found your file to be very impressive. Are your parents still missionaries?”

“Yes, sir.” She was impressed that the senator remembered such a detail. Is he letting me know that he cares or just that he knows? “They’re actually on vacation in Malaysia at the moment.”

“Never been there,” Kitchens commented.

“Neither have I.”

The senator frowned. “That’s a surprise, given the extensive travelin’ y’all have done.”

“Well,” said June, “my dad always said that the point of a vacation was to go somewhere you’ve never been before.”

Kitchens quickly changed gears. “No offense, but frankly, I find it intrigin’ that a woman with a PhD in ethology would be involved in a project such as this. What would Doctor Goodall think?”

Jane Goodall was June’s idol. The preeminent ethologist was part of the reason had June chosen to become one. “None taken. I would hope she would understand that my involvement with the animals here is only the beginning of my relationship with them.”

“Yes,” Kitchens acknowledged. “You’ll be tendin’ to the chimps long after they’ve been relocated.”

“That’s right.” Since he had opened the door on the subject, she took the opportunity to ask, “Do you know if they’ve found a suitable reserve for the others yet?”

Kitchens gave Tiong a sideways glance, “Why, yes they have. I don’t have the paperwork with me. The good doctor insisted that I leave my portfolio in the dressing room, but if my memory serves, they will be very happy at the North Carolina Zoo.”

June’s expression soured immediately. “That’s unacceptable. They can’t go to North Carolina.”

Kitchens cocked his head to the side. “Why is that, Doctor?”

June couldn’t tell if the man’s concern was genuine or not. “Because Brad and Angelina are going to Tanzania.”

“Brad and Angelina? Why, that’s very clever, Doctor.” Kitchens chuckled. “Why is North Carolina a problem?”

Don, seeing an impending battle coming, sidestepped out of June’s line of fire as she stiffened. “Because I’m supposed to oversee their transition into their new environments. How can I do that effectively with each pair of chimps separated by an ocean?”

Since Kitchens had anticipated this confrontation, he didn’t miss a beat. “The government will be pickin’ up all of your travel expenses, Doctor.”

“Travel expenses?” she repeated as a curse. “That’s not the point.”

“Now, Doctor.” The senator took on a softer demeanor, allowing more of his southern charm to flow through. “The chimps can’t all be sent to the same reserve due to the nature of one of the experiments side effects. Is that correct?”

June’s exasperation was growing. “It’s only known side effect. And we haven’t determined if it’s permanent yet.”

“Well, that may be true. And if it turns out not to be permanent, then we can place all of them in the same location. But unless it’s determined at some point that the animals will not be adversely affected, they must remain separated, yes?”

“Yes, that’s true,” she replied, as the logic of the senator’s argument began to dismantle her defenses. “But they don’t need to be on separate continents.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but Kitera Forest and Gombe Stream are the only reserves willing to take them as of now.”

June began to protest again, but the senator held his hands up disarmingly. “Doctor Phillips, I can assure you that we are not intentionally attemptin’ to make this a difficult process. This is simply the best we can do for now. The only alternative is to keep two of the animals here indefinitely. And in that case, I fear you will have the same issue. Perhaps, in the future, more suitable arrangements can be made.”

June settled a bit. She wasn’t happy, but what choice did she have? The senator’s implied threat was unpleasant at best. Once they were out of the facility, she wouldn’t have to deal with government bureaucrats. Then she could find suitable reserves herself.

Kitchens continued. “The good news is that the reserves will be prepared to receive them on the first of September.”

“The first of September? You mean we’re leaving.” June could hardly contain herself.

“They’ll be transported the last week in August.”

June beamed at the professor, but his expression remained unchanged. His dark eyes were fixed on the senator. Yeoum couldn’t yet determine whether the news was good, bad, or indifferent.

Kitchens turned back to Yeoum. “Professor, I don’t wanna take up any more of your very valuable time than I have to. If you don’t mind, I’d like to get started.”

Yeoum didn’t blink.

Tiong turned to the senator. “What would you like to see first?”

“Should somebody go and find Jimmy?” Don asked.

“He’s messing around with SIS,” Tiong answered.

Kitchens frowned. “Sis?”

“Software Integrating System. S-I-S.” Don said. Kitchens still looked perplexed.

“It’s the program that makes the entire experiment possible. Jimmy wrote it,” Tiong elaborated. “Only computers are capable of thinking fast enough to keep up with the processes that make it work.”

The professor scoffed. He knew that Tiong was right, but he didn’t have to like it.

“Thinkin’ computers?” Kitchens was still unsure as he looked back at Yeoum.

“Thinking super computers,” Don interjected. “Like in Jurassic Park.”

An amusing image from the movie popped into the senator’s head. “Well, let’s hope our luck here in the real world is better than theirs was on the big screen.” Giving Yeoum a sideways glance, he added, “There isn’t anything else runnin’ around in here other than chimps, is there Professor?”

Yeoum ignored the senator’s attempt at humor. “Luck has nothing to do with it.”

“Senator?” It was Tiong again.

“Doctor?”

“What would you like to see first, sir?”

Yeoum spoke up again. “I have not authorized that man”—he pointed accusingly at the major— “to be inside this facility.”

Greg, who had been quiet since they entered, suddenly felt all eyes focus on him. “Senator, maybe it would be better if I just stayed here.”

“Nonsense, Doctor. You’re a part of the team now.” Kitchens kept his eyes on Yeoum. “Assuming there is a team here at the end of the day. They need a medical doctor,”—he turned back to the major—“and you’re it.”

Finally! Greg thought. Not only am I gonna be an active doctor again, but I get to do it in a top-secret complex, underground. His thoughts changed from joy to confusion. And it has something to do with chimps?

“And to answer your question, Doctor Tiong, I’d like to see the latest results of this little endeavor. Take me to see the chimps.”

“Doctor Tiong,” Yeoum spoke again, “I require your assistance. I’m sure that Doctor Phillips and Doctor Cook can escort the senator and our”—he looked distastefully at Greg again“—new medical doctor around the facility.” He turned toward Tiong again. “Please accompany me.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked quickly to the door he had entered through and left the room.

“Does he always walk that fast?” Greg asked. Tiong shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and followed after the professor. “Duty calls.”

“He’s really a pretty nice guy once you get to know him,” June offered.

“Yeah, six months after you get to know him.” Tiong commented under his breath on his way out the door.

“I have no doubt,” Kitchens said with a smile.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JIMMY WATCHED THE monitor, one of six mounted above his desk, as the group moved toward the same door that the professor and Tiong had just exited through. He turned the volume control to mute. He had no interest in hearing the group ingratiate themselves to the senator, and he cared even less about anything Kitchens had to say. Although he had the ability to move the cameras remotely and follow their progress, he chose not to. He didn’t want security to be alerted that he had hacked into their system again. Three of the monitors were dark except for progress bars in the center that indicated the diagnostic was eighty percent complete. The screen on the bottom right had a frozen image of the video game he had been playing and the one above it was split into sixteen images taken from the complex’s hidden cameras. There were more cameras throughout the facility, but these were the ones he was interested in at the moment.

“What do you think, SIS?” he asked out loud.

A female voice responded over the speaker in the ceiling. “I think that, upon completion of my current diagnostic, I will be operating at ninety-eight point six percent efficiency.”

Jimmy smiled. He had programmed the computer to respond to any such non-specific query using a percentage equivalent to an average human’s internal temperature, to report normal functionality. He felt that it added to her “personality” when she responded in such ways.

“No, no. I mean about our visitors.” Jimmy was unable to contain a chuckle.

“Major Gregory William Mathers, medical doctor, United States Air Force—”

“No.” Jimmy cut SIS off before she gave him the biographies of the major and the senator. “I mean, what do you think is going to happen today?”

The female voice took on a sympathetic tone as it responded, “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, Jimmy. Could you please restate the question with more definable parameters?”

Jimmy’s smile faded. He’d been tinkering with the artificial intelligence for a year and it still couldn’t make small talk. “Nevermind.”

“Very well, Jimmy. I apologize for not being more informative regarding your inquiry.”

Jimmy watched as the group entered one of the two small labs leading to the chimp enclosures. He then looked back at the progress bars on the three screens monitoring the diagnostic.

“An hour and a half,” he sighed.

8 Yea or Nay

 

 

THE SENTATOR TOOK HIS time with the doctors as he toured the facility, asking many questions. He spent a fraction of his time trying to understand the cloning process that the team had developed over the past decades by viewing the equipment and materials that made it all work. Don was a good teacher, but the senator lacked the basic knowledge of biology to follow most of what the geneticist provided.

He also wanted to meet Jimmy Bennett, but the young man refused to respond to the knock at his door. Don made up an excuse, saying Jimmy was busy with program analyses, but Kitchens was already aware of the computer expert’s lack of enthusiasm when it came to authority figures. Especially U. S. government authority figures.

They spent most of their time with the chimps, although Kitchens interacted little with them himself. He preferred to observe them in their habitat, complete with the sounds of the jungle piped in through the speakers hidden throughout the rooms, and that seemed to suit the chimpanzees just fine. They took advantage of the extra time with the humans by playing with June and Don, as they usually did.

“Well, I must say I’m impressed, Doctors. Brad and Angelina seem to be as healthy as … well, as healthy chimps. They appear to be as playful and intelligent as Paris and Charlie.”

“The chimps did all of the heavy lifting,” June replied, tossing Angelina another grape as she was sitting on the ground next to her, holding a Cabbage Patch Kid. “They’re only of average intelligence. They’ve been versed in American Sign Language and can even add and subtract double digits.”

“That’s amazing.”

Kitchens watched Don and Greg play with Brad, tossing a yellow and green beach ball back and forth. The animals warmed to Greg almost immediately, and Greg was enjoying the interaction, although he was having a difficult time navigating some of the soft ground in the paddock.

“And,” the senator continued, “they are obviously very happy and well taken care of.”

June looked lovingly toward Angelina. The chimp placed her forehead on June’s. “They’ll be much better in a couple of months.”

“What do you hope to accomplish when they arrive at their reserves, Doctor?”

June thought for a moment before answering. “I’m hoping they’ll be able to live some semblance of a normal life.”

“C’mon, June.” It was Don. “What about Lucy?”

June stood up and looked at him with a measure of contempt. “Lucy wasn’t anything like our chimps.”

“Lucy?” Kitchens asked.

“Lucy was a chimp who was raised from infancy by humans,” explained June. “For years, she was treated as any other human child. They let her have her own room and watch TV. They even let her go to the refrigerator and pour herself a drink or get a cold snack by herself. She was one of the family.”

“Really. Was she like Michael Jackson’s chimp? Oh, what was its name?”

“Bubbles. And I’d really prefer not to talk about him if you don’t mind,” June said soberly. “When Lucy was about thirteen, her parents”—June practically spat the word—“got tired of her and sent her back to Africa. Well, she had absolutely no idea of what to do. How to act. She’d never been alone before. She’d never even seen another chimp.”

“What happened?” Kitchens asked.

“She got depressed. Just like you or I would. There were plenty of other chimps there on the reserve, but she was still alone. She avoided them because she didn’t know them.”

“The poor thing.”

“Finally, after two years, someone Lucy had known from her past came to visit her.  Well, when she saw him she ran over to him, so happy to see someone she knew.” June paused, looking around for Angelina who had wandered off. She found her a moment later in a corner, pretending to groom the doll. “Come here, baby girl,” she beckoned as she sat back down. The chimp was more than happy to comply. She looked up at the senator. “Lucy had been taught some American Sign Language, so she started signing over and over, ‘please help, out.’”

“Oh, no,” Kitchens said. “Well, these guys”—he gestured to Angelina first and then to Brad—“look like they’re pretty well adjusted to this place.”

June huffed. “Believe me, we’ve worked very hard to make that happen.”

Kitchens’ brow furrowed again. “And there have been no abnormalities of the internal organs? I know that has been the case with earlier cloning experiments.”

June found the senator to be quite knowledgeable about the subject. He had obviously done his homework. “None.” She looked the senator in the eye. “Trust me. If anything of the sort had ever become evident, I’d have had PETA, the ASPCA, Greenpeace, and anyone else I could think of here.” She snapped her fingers. “So fast your head would spin.”

“Well, I’m an animal lover as well, Doctor. I’d hate to hear news like that, too.” He smiled and looked at Brad, who threw the ball at Greg hard enough to knock the major off his feet. Brad, obviously amused, jumped up and down, hooting with glee.

“Honestly, Senator, when it comes to our chimps’ behavior, I can answer any question you have. Maybe even more than Juan. But as far as the cloning process,” she shook her head, “I have no knowledge, and I don’t want any.”

“Well Doctor, I can’t say I blame you there. But it’s an unfortunate fact that I must find out all of the dirty little secrets about this project.  Especially now that I’m gonna be so closely involved with it.”

June’s expression turned stoic. “Then you’ve decided to fund the project?”

“One more question, Doctor.” Kitchens said, completely ignoring her direct question, “About this side effect—”

Before he could complete the thought, she said, “There are no lasting effects. The babies”—a term that only she used when referring to the chimps—“simply lose consciousness. When we separate them from one another, they come around. It’s almost like they just take a nap.”

“And this only happens when the donor and the clone are in close proximity? When they can see each other?”

“Yes, sir, but we still have no idea why.”

Kitchens turned to face the door where they had entered. Standing there were Yeoum and Tiong. He hadn’t heard them come in, and June, who was already facing that direction, had made no indication that they had. The professor stood as he had before, arms folded, wearing the same scowl.

“What about you, Doctors? Any idea what causes it?”

Tiong glanced at Yeoum, but there was no sign that he might answer. He looked back at the senator. “We have a theory that the chimps’ primitive brains—”

“Oh, brother.” It was June’s turn to scoff.

Tiong continued. “Perhaps the chimp’s brain cannot accept the image of itself not behaving as it would expect.”

Kitchens’ lack of understanding was evident.

Tiong tried again. “It’s like … looking into a mirror. You see your reflection and it does everything that you expect it to do because it’s simply a reflection. It can’t do anything that you don’t expect.”

Kitchens shook his head. “But if I look at myself in my sister’s home movies, I don’t always see what I expect because I don’t remember what I did in them.”

“Yes, sir, but in two dimensions only. Not three. The animals have been shown digital images of themselves. Both stills and video. There was no such reaction.” Tiong’s frustration, as he searched for the right words, was growing.

Yeoum lowered his arms and took a step toward the senator, softening a bit in an effort to appear less confrontational. “The higher function of the brain of a human test subject is sufficient to allow us to suppose that the anomaly will not be present.”

June, who had turned her attention back to Angelina, heard the words and turned to face the men. A look somewhere between shock and amazement registered on her face.

Tiong also shot a look at Yeoum. “What did you say?”

The professor ignored the question and continued looking at Kitchens.

The senator, on the other hand, was looking from one face to the other. He found the words “human test subject” distasteful, but he was more disturbed by how the others reacted to them. The professor had said too much in defense of his work. The senator berated himself for not speaking to the Yeoum privately about the side effect.

Tiong looked from Yeoum to Kitchens. “Human test subject?”

Yeoum was more annoyed than concerned. “Doctor Tiong, would you and Doctor Phillips please go check on Paris and Charlie?”

“But—” Tiong started.

Kitchens laughed and changed the direction of the conversation. “Now, who came up with those names, anyway? Paris and Charlie? Brad and Angelina? I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t wanna get sued.”

Tiong looked at June, who shook her head slightly and then started for the door. Angelina went after her, but June held her hand up. “No, baby. Go and play with the boys, okay?” She forced a smile. “Go on, now.”

Angelina turned reluctantly, hooted a few times over her shoulder, and proceeded toward Brad, Greg, and Don who were still playing with the ball. She stopped long enough to grab her doll along the way.

Tiong followed June, leaving Kitchens and Yeoum to their private conversation.

Kitchens made sure the remaining men weren’t paying attention to their conversation, and then asked, “How do you know that, Professor?”

Yeoum frowned, unaccustomed to being questioned. “In my previous work, I experienced physical abnormalities, but no psychological issues. There were no associative neurological anomalies with any of my subjects.”

Yeoum hadn’t used the word “human,” but the senator had still heard it.

“Professor, I would appreciate it if you would keep the details of your previous experiments in North Korea to yourself. I’ll leave those demons for you to contend with, sir.” Kitchens couldn’t help but show his revulsion for the professor’s previous methods.

The professor showed a hint of regret. It was clear the senator’s words had stung him. Seeing this, Kitchens softened and took a moment before he continued. “I’m approving the funding, Professor. I’m”—he searched for an appropriate term—“excited … at the prospect of your work. I look forward to hearing about your progress in the coming weeks. However, I’d appreciate it if you could try to explain the process to me, as well as to the major, as he will be working closely with you and your team through the completion of your work.” He looked over his shoulder. “Major, would you care to accompany us?”

As Greg and Don turned to leave, Brad threw the ball at Don, hitting him on the back of the head and nearly knocking him down.

Yeoum wasn’t really unhappy with the major. He was, rather, unhappy that the military would now take over the project. He’d had complete sovereignty up until now, but he had always known this day would come. It was inevitable. But it also meant that he was as close as he had ever been to completing his work. He was on the cusp of accomplishing what his father had died trying to perfect three decades earlier.

Greg looked closely at the professor as he passed. The older man had a rare smile on his face. Maybe he’s not so bad.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

YOU HEARD IT TOO, didn’t you?” Tiong asked as they walked.

“I don’t know what I heard,” June lied.

“You don’t know—what are you talking about?” Tiong demanded. “Chi said ‘human test subject’.”

They entered the enclosure, and June closed the door behind them before she spoke. “He was probably talking about human organ cloning.” She proceeded further inside where the noise would mask their voices.

Paris had her Tickle Me Elmo and Charlie was hitting a blue and white beach ball towards the two as they came to greet them. But June ignored the chimps, sitting down next to one of the rock-shaped speakers and pulling Tiong down with her. She plucked a leaf from a nearby plant and turned toward Tiong. “Didn’t you hear what the man said?”

Tiong practically shouted. “Of course. I was standing right next to Chi. He said human—“

“Before that,” June interrupted him.

“Before that, when?”

“In the computer room,” June clarified. “Kitchens said the chimps would be out of here the last week in August. That means I’m out of here the last week in August.”

“So?” Tiong asked, thinking the news insignificant in comparison to what they had just heard.

So … if the chimps are gone, then what do they need a veterinarian for?” She paused to let the words sink in. “You and I aren’t part of the next cloning project. We’re here for the chimps. They don’t need us anymore.”

Tiong thought for a moment. His eighteen months were up. Being too concerned with what else was done after his departure wasn’t wise. Maybe it was time for him to go home and use the money he earned to get on with his life. He was about to concede when he remembered their orientation. “Wait just a second. I remember how you reacted when they told us this whole thing was about cloning.” He put his finger to his lips, looking thoughtfully at the sky-blue ceiling. Leaning closer to her, he spoke just above a whisper. “I seem to remember a certain Doctor Phillips going through the roof at McMasters. You practically broke a window trying to open it. I was expecting you to start shouting out, ‘They’re cloning in here!’ You were livid.”

“I know,” she admitted. “But when they showed us the results of Chi’s work, we both agreed that it could do miracles in restoring ecosystems destroyed by man’s exploitation.” She looked Tiong in the eye. “The babies are pristine. You’re the one always running tests on them. And you said the other clones were perfect in every way. They lived normal life spans, reproduced with no ill effects—”

“Yeah, but this is different,” Tiong protested.

“How? In what way?”

“Because the man just said—”

June cut him off. She didn’t want to hear the words again. “We don’t know what we heard. If they were talking about what we think they were talking about … well, I’m just gonna assume that they were talking about organ cloning.”

Tiong looked as if he would protest again, so she added, “The one thing both of us have come to realize over the past two years is that”—she touched him on his knee—“whatever we do, we can’t stop them.” She paused to let the words take effect.

Tiong’s shoulders slumped in defeat. He became silent. For several moments only the sound of water from the stream and the jungle noises coming from the speakers could be heard. Paris and Charlie had disappeared in the dense foliage, sensing the human’s anxiety. Finally, Tiong spoke. “I guess I’ve always suspected something else was going on here.”

“Me too,” June agreed. “I love the professor, Don, Jimmy,”—she took his hand— “and you. But that doesn’t mean I’m naive enough to ignore the fact that there had to be some bigger goal here. Maybe it’s time for you and me to get on with our lives.”

“I do miss San Francisco.”

“Not for long.” She smiled at him.

“Nine more weeks, huh?” He stood and offered her his hand.

“Just nine more.” Looking down at the stone-shaped speaker at her feet she added softly, “I just pray Jimmy didn’t hear what Chi said.”

9 The Car Ride

4 July 2010

 

 

STOP THE CAR!” CAROL shouted from the passenger seat as she kicked at the floorboard with her bare legs.

Rob gave her an incredulous look. “What is it?”

“Rob, stop the car now!” she demanded through gritted teeth. She was flailing wildly between her knees with her only available weapon, the bulletin she had collected from an usher as they entered church earlier that morning.

“What’s the matter?” Rob asked, deftly turning their Ford Taurus SHO off of Main Street into a parking lot and slamming on the brakes. Glancing over his shoulder he saw their seven year old twins, C. C. and her brother Christian, securely fastened in their seats with looks that betrayed a growing degree of concern as they stared at the back of their mother’s head.

“There’s a wasp in here!” Carol shrieked as she removed her seat belt, flung the door open, and jumped from the car all in one motion. “Get out! Get out of the car, right now!”

The kids began screaming and tugging at their harnesses, their eyes wide. Once free of their bonds, they reached for the door handles, but it was no use. The child safety locks were on. They pulled and pulled, but the doors wouldn’t open.

“Calm down,” Rob said evenly as their screams grew in desperation. “I don’t see it, Button. I don’t see a wasp.” He craned his neck to scan the interior. Then, as if it was coming in on cue, the reddish-brown insect rose with a buzz from the floorboard, struck the windshield and then slowly bumped its way along toward the driver’s side. Rob frowned. “There it is.” He glanced back at the children who were still screaming. “Hun, the kids can’t get out. The safety locks are on.”

Carol didn’t hear him. She was too busy running her fingers through her shoulder- length auburn hair in order to prevent the bug from taking up residence there. After a moment, she noticed Rob hadn’t moved. “What's the matter with you? Do you wanna get stung?”

Rob couldn’t help a smirk as he wondered if she would start undressing right there in front of the convenience store. Meanwhile, the instigator of their little disturbance flew lazily toward him. It landed on the armrest in between the front seats, where it began to wander aimlessly around the gray leather-clad lid of the center console. The kids, still in the back, screamed louder at the sight and began attempting to melt into their seats, having given up on escape.

Carol, finally realizing the kids were trapped, opened the door to allow them to scramble out. Christian turned to look at his father on his way out. “Get out of the car before you get stung, Daddy!”

The insect continued its wayward trek around the armrest, but for only a moment longer. In the blink of an eye, Rob slapped his palm down squarely, eliminating the threat. Looking at the lifeless insect, he felt just a hint of remorse. “Figures. I just detailed the car yesterday.”

Rob stepped out of the car and faced his family. He was not an exceedingly large man, standing just over six feet with an average-sized frame kept in shape by a rugged daily regimen. His closely cropped brown hair waved slightly in the breeze. His blue-gray eyes were hidden behind a squint in the noonday sun. Dressed casually, he wore a gray tee shirt with the word NAVY across the chest, tan cargo shorts, sandals, and a Texas A & M baseball cap.

After college, Rob’s first assignment in the Navy had been aboard the USS West Virginia, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. He joined the engineering crew there just before the Gulf War began in 1990. He had grown dismayed by his nonexistent role in the conflict and wanted desperately to acquire some combat experience. On a drunken bet, Rob had applied to Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL training, or BUD/S, at the Naval Special Warfare Training Center at Coronado, California. He was accepted, and, once there, he endured some of the most physically and mentally demanding training in existence in any of the armed services.

After more than two-and-a-half years of training, Rob had joined his team and served with the SEALs for just over eight years. During that time, he was deployed to numerous hot spots throughout the world and experienced more than his fair share of harrowing situations. Near the end of his time with his unit, he and Carol had started attending the chapel services on base while he was stationed at United States Fleet Activities at Yokosuka, Japan. After reevaluating his moral convictions, he made the decision that the responsibilities of a SEAL were no longer conducive to his personal goals, and he requested a transfer. It seemed that God himself was listening to their prayers as, quite unexpectedly, an instructor’s position opened at the Navy’s Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina, allowing them to return to their childhood home of Summerville.

Rob grinned at Carol across the top of the car, which did little more than exasperate her. She had the same expression as before, but her hair was now a tangled mess. Rob worked to keep a straight face, knowing that laughter would likely incite an explosive response. He took a deep breath. “It’s dead.”

Carol Tyler wore white shorts and a white and yellow striped sleeveless top. She was not much bigger than her young twins, her small frame standing a solid foot shorter than Rob’s. Her bright green eyes, freckled face, and tiny stature deceived people into thinking she was a decade younger than her forty-six years. Her personality was typical of her Irish heritage. She was long on love, enjoyed life to the fullest, and had many friends. But in her youth, her legendary temper had flared easily. She was in more control as an adult, but occasionally, when warranted, the Irish temper reappeared.

“You killed it?” She was a bit annoyed. Cocking her head to one side, she added, “What’d you do that for?”

Rob tried to think of the appropriate response as he watched her tentatively peek into the car. The mess on the armrest confirmed her husband’s claim. She wrinkled her nose and opened the glove compartment, removing a pack of the type of wet cleaning tissues that all good mothers kept close by in the event of an emergency.

Rob smiled widely. In that random moment his love for her seemed greater than it had ever been. He felt like a schoolboy catching a glimpse of his sweetheart from across a crowded room. He looked over at the twins and realized, as he did each morning, that he had been blessed with a family that he could hardly have imagined in his youth.

Before the birth of the twins, he and Carol had both been nervous about the prospect of becoming parents. So in preparation for parenthood, Rob and Carol hosted a foreign exchange student in their fourth year of marriage. In August of 2001, fifteen-year-old Karina Yevstafyeva from Yekaterinburg, Russia came to stay with them during the academic year. Only weeks after her arrival, they had experienced the tragedy of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Karina, so far from home, family, and friends, had bonded quickly with her surrogate parents during the shocking events of that terrible day and the days that followed. Their year together seemed to pass quickly, and when the time grew short they were all saddened. Karina looked forward to returning home to family and friends, but she was heavy-hearted to leave her American family. However, on the day before her departure, the pain of loss had been deadened significantly for Rob and Carol when they learned that Carol was pregnant.

Rob had later learned that one of the local churches in town had a sister church in Kamensk-Uralski, a city in the southwest corner of Siberia only about two hours from Yekaterinburg by car. They had joined the church’s mission team and had traveled there several times in the past seven years, meeting Karina’s family and attending the church that she had joined after her experience with Rob and Carol. They even invited her to spend summer vacations with them when she could.

Carol emerged from the car holding the tissue containing the remains of the wasp at arm’s length. Spying a trashcan by a gas pump island, she trotted over and deposited the makeshift coffin. Spinning around, she walked back, keeping her eyes fixed on Rob. “All you had to do was open all the doors. It would’ve flown away.” She turned her attention to the children’s clothes, which had gotten twisted during the emergency. “Well, so much for the quality of this outfit.”

Rob saw the torn front of C. C.’s little sundress. The bow had gotten caught on something in her scramble, and had pulled part of the collar away from the neck seam. “Well, she’ll probably outgrow it in a couple of months anyway.”

“Yeah,” she replied, grudgingly accepting his logic. She searched her purse for a safety pin.

C. C. began to whine. “But I like my sailor dress.” She then brightened a bit at a thought. “I bet Grandma can fix it,” she said.

Carol attached the bow and collar with the safety pin she fished out of her purse. “I bet she can, honey.”

Rob slapped the roof of the car. “Well, c’mon. Papa’s waitin’! Let’s go. Hurry up!”

“Hey, hey, hey! Watch the handprints, buddy. Don’t you forget whose car this is.” A mock threat was in her stare. They had bought the car two weeks earlier, and Carol had quickly claimed ownership. She helped the kids back into their seats.

“Well, I’m the one who washes it,” Rob replied, feigning injury.

“Yeah,” she chuckled, slipping into the passenger seat, “four times in two weeks.”

“I haven’t heard any complaints. Besides, I thought it was our car.”

“You mean like the Bronco is ours?”

Rob’s canary yellow and white 1969 Ford Bronco was a high school graduation present from his father. “Well, yeah. But you don’t like my Bronco.”

“Only because I need a ladder to get into the thing,” she retorted.

“Hey, since you named this one Scarlet, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t refer to Daisy as a thing.”

The kids giggled as the banter continued. Such “arguments” were commonplace during rides in the car.

Carol joined the giggling herself. “Well, daisies are mostly white anyway.”

“Only the petals,” Rob reasoned. “The middle part is yellow.”

Carol turned suddenly serious. “Did you remember the swimming stuff?”

“In the trunk.”

“What about the hot dogs? You know Christian won’t eat a burger.”

“Got ‘em.” Rob looked at Christian’s reflection in the rear view mirror. “I can’t believe that a red blooded American boy … my son … won’t eat a burger.” Christian stuck his tongue out in reply.

“You should try one,” C. C. advised her brother. “They’re yummy. With gooey cheese … and cat-soup …” She emphasized the point by licking her lips.

But Christian simply directed his tongue at her in answer.

“Christian, stop sticking your tongue out at people. It’s not nice,” Carol instructed without turning around.

The boy’s tongue darted back behind his lips. He had learned through distasteful experience that his mother had an uncanny talent for producing a bar of soap out of nowhere to rub on the exposed appendage.

It was quiet in the car for some time after the rebuke. Rob was considering turning on the radio when Carol asked, “Who all is coming today?”

Rob tallied the names. “Dad and Mary, Sack and his new girlfriend, Becca—”

Carol closed her eyes. “Please do not call him that in front of … ever.”

Rob used his closest friend’s partial nickname from years of habit. “Sorry,” he said sincerely. “He’s been Sack to me for almost eighteen years.”

Carol threw her head back against the headrest, then reached over and pinched Rob on the forearm.

“Ouch! That hurt,” he protested as he rubbed the affected area on the steering wheel, making the car swerve slightly back and forth.

“Who’s Sack, Mama?” came C. C.’s query.

Carol glared menacingly at Rob.

Quick on his feet, he constructed a lie. “No, no, honey. Daddy didn’t say Sack. Daddy said back, because … because Uncle Stacey is coming back from … where he’s been to come to Papa’s barbecue.” He looked at Carol, fearing a rebuke for lying. But she simply stared at him and waited to see if C. C. bought it.

“Hurray! Uncle Stacey is coming.” She reached over and grabbed Christian’s arm. “I like Uncle Stacey. He dunks,” she said excitedly.

Rob sighed in relief as Carol continued. “Becca? Do I know her?”

“No,” he replied. “Neither do I.”

“How old is this one?” she asked with a smile. She had a good idea of the likely answer.

“Twenty-four … twenty-five. Something like that.”

“What?” Carol laughed. “Will that man ever settle down with someone his own age?”

“No,” Rob said stoically.

“That’s how old Karina is.” She looked back at Rob, her smile fading. “I’ll kill him.”

“I know,” he replied. He knew she was only half serious. Though he wasn’t sure which half.

Carol was fond of Sack. After all, he had literally saved Rob’s life several times. She owed him. Not to mention the fact that Sack was the only member of his old team who would even speak to him since he left their ranks. She did allow herself to think his nickname.

“No,” she continued, “I won’t kill him. I’ll make him wish that I’d killed him.”

Rob didn’t doubt her.

“Who else is coming?” She asked.

“I assume your folks are gonna be there.”

“Yeah. They said they were coming. Anyone else?”

Danny and Carla.” He placed a bit more emphasis on these names.

Carol’s head snapped back. “Danny and Carla?” It was almost a gasp. She would have never guessed that the couple would be coming.

“Yup,” he replied, not looking at her.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Carol took a moment for her mind to switch gears. “Are you gonna ask ‘em?”

Rob’s smile faded. “Yup.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ARE YOU ABOUT READY?” Carla called from downstairs.

Danny Carter took one last look around his makeshift office in the townhouse where he had been living for more than ten months. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t left anything. They would be leaving South Carolina for good the next day, and he was being thorough, having checked the room three times that morning.

“Here I come.” He closed the door behind him. His wife was at the bottom of the stairs setting plastic bags containing an assortment of sodas that they had bought the night before on the floor next to the front door. She wore blue jean shorts, a white tee shirt and red flip-flops, the perfect attire for a barbecue. There was timeless beauty in her flawless mocha skin. Her short black hair, and the face that it framed, made him smile. How did I get so lucky?

He was dressed similarly in khaki shorts, a black tee shirt, and sandals.

He started down the stairs. “Everything packed?” He really didn’t need to ask. He knew how meticulous she was about such things.

“Yes,” she declared. Her smile nearly took up her entire face, revealing her perfect teeth. Her brown eyes shined brightly with anticipation as she turned to face him. “I can’t believe we’re actually going home.”

He scooped her up and spun her around. “I know, I know! We get to sleep in our own bed.”

“Cook in our own kitchen,” she added.

“Watch our own TV … in our own living room!”

“And eat at The Magic Gourd,” she finished, referring to her favorite Chinese restaurant.

The two were psychologists, Navy lieutenant commanders, who had been assigned this temporary duty in September of the previous year. It hadn’t been a typical assignment by any means. They were there observing and evaluating a candidate and his family for a classified DOD project. They hadn’t been told anything about the project. They were instructed to befriend the couple, perform an intensive psychological examination, and report their findings to Captain Bernard Walsh at the Pentagon. Danny often wondered if it was simply the fact that his office was in close proximity to the captain’s that had gotten him this assignment, or if the captain was being honest when he said that he considered Danny and Carla exceptionally talented professionals who came highly recommended.

The one hitch was that they couldn’t let the subjects know that they were being evaluated. This fact had made the couple uncomfortable in their assignment. Although they hadn’t hidden their identities and they continued their practices at the naval base in Charleston, it was understandably difficult for the doctors to perform their duty.

When they arrived in Charleston, it had been much easier than Danny had anticipated it would be for him to make fast friends with the potential candidate. When he had the occasion to invite the commander out for lunch one Friday, Danny mentioned that he was feeling a bit out of shape. It was widely known that Commander Rob Tyler had, at one time, been a SEAL. So he asked his new “friend” if he would teach him the SEAL workout routine. Rob was more than happy to do as Danny requested, but only if Danny committed to workout with him five days a week without fail.

Danny felt he was in pretty good shape, despite what he had said. So he agreed.

They’d met the following Monday at the physical training area on base at 0400 hours, and Danny had quickly realized his error. Rob’s SEAL workout was extremely intensive, and it was followed alternately by a five kilometer run or a one thousand yard swim.

By January, Danny had been able to complete the routine plus the run or swim. Carla had become quite adept at giving him post-workout massages. After six months, Danny had discovered that the recommended frequency for the workout was twice per week, not five times, as Rob had required. But by that time he had gotten accustomed to the routine. And he had to admit that he was in the best physical shape of his life. He had thanked the commander sincerely several times for his assistance. Carla had even playfully suggested that he try out for the SEALs, but Danny was profoundly relieved when he found out the cut-off age was twenty-eight.

Carla, on the other hand, had found it extremely difficult to get to know the commander’s wife. Although the four had gone out for dinner occasionally, Carla had gotten the feeling that Carol didn’t like her. The Carters had been assured that the assignment would take only six months, which seemed an inordinately long period of time for them to complete such a task. But time and again, the assignment had been extended because of Carla’s difficulty. It was only a couple of months ago that she had been able to get Carol to agree to a shopping trip, followed by a girl’s night out a few nights later. Ever since those events, Carla felt that they had become close friends.

But now they were going home.

Danny received the sealed envelope containing the commander’s orders by special courier the day before, and it was his intention to give them to him at the party.

Carla stood on her toes and kissed him. Then her mood dimmed a bit. “It’s kinda sad, in a way.”

“What is?”

She turned to pick the bags of soda up, but Danny beat her to them, making her smile again. It’s nice being married to a gentleman. “Carol and I have gotten pretty close. I’m gonna miss her. And I’ll miss those kids. They’re adorable!” Looking coyly at her husband, she gave him a wink. “Kinda makes me want one.”

“Okay, do you want Christian or C. C.?”

She slapped him lightly on the chest. “You know what I mean.”

He struggled to open the door, then stepped out into the warm, bright sunshine in the breezeway.

“Danny,” she almost shouted, stopping him in his tracks.

He turned to see her standing in the doorway, hands on her hips and wearing a pout. “How come every time I start to talk about kids, you clam up?”

He put the bags on the walkway, then walked to her and threaded his arms through hers and around her waist. When she didn’t immediately return the embrace, he took a deep breath and asked, “Do you know how much I love you?”

“How much? And don’t forget, I can tell if your lyin’.” She draped her arms over his shoulders.

“I love you so much … and I’m enjoying it just being us for a while. We’ve only been married for three years. I don’t wanna share you with anybody else yet.”

She smiled and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“Besides,” he added, “I haven’t gotten tired of you yet. I don’t need anything new in my life.”

Danny kissed her a little harder, and she melted into him in response. “We can be a little late …”

Carla pulled away and gazed into his eyes. “Tempting, but we’d better get this done.” After one more quick kiss, she pulled away from Danny and turned to lock the door. He gave her backside a couple of pats, then bent to grab the bags.

“The thing that’s gonna suck is telling them what we’ve been doing here. Rob and I have gotten pretty close, too.”

Carla laced her arm around his, taking his hand as they made their way into the parking lot. Opening the driver’s door of their red Jeep Wrangler, Danny placed the bags of soda in the back and closed the door as Carla got into the driver’s seat.

As he trotted around to the passenger’s side and climbed in, Carla asked, “Do you think they’ll forgive us?”

Danny sighed. “Would you?”

She looked at him thoughtfully but said nothing.

“Oops. Hold on a minute,” Danny said suddenly.

“What is it?”

“I forgot Rob’s orders.” He jumped out of the car. “Be right back.”

She watched him as he ran back into the townhouse, and then she locked eyes with herself in the rear-view mirror.

I wonder if that was a Freudian slip.

10 Repentance

 

 

CAROL CRINGED AS C. C. sailed up and out of the water, screeching as she went and splashing down a few feet away from where Uncle Stacey had thrown her. The big man let go a gravelly laugh as he watched her. Christian was already lined up to be launched next and Becca, Sack’s latest girlfriend, was waiting her turn behind him.

Carol wasn’t concerned about the children as much as she was Sack. Rob had taught the kids to swim at an early age, and they were quite adept at it. But Sack’s large solid frame displayed the many scars he had collected over his years in the Navy. He was standing waist deep in the pool. His bare barrel chest, muscled back, and tree-trunk arms were no strangers to a surgeon’s scalpel.  His hair was white as snow, which struck Carol as odd, since he was the same age as Rob. There wasn’t much left of it though, and he kept it closely cropped. But his mustache, while it was the same color as the hair on his head, was as thick as it was the day Carol met him fifteen years before. Sack’s past injuries were always a concern for Carol when he roughhoused with the twins.

“Does doing that hurt him?” she asked Rob from her lounge chair next to the kidney-shaped pool in his father’s back yard.

Rob was standing next to her, a croquet mallet in his hand, as he watched his twins in the pool with Sack and his young girlfriend. Three kids and an old man, he mused. He glanced at Carol and then back at Sack as he watched the big man propel Christian through the air to splash down noisily next to C. C. “If it does, he doesn’t care.”

The fourth of July had turned out to be a beautiful one. Wispy clouds could be seen here and there, punctuating the bluest of skies. The temperature had remained in the mid-eighties throughout the afternoon. A light breeze blew just enough to make the trees whistle and sway, like ballet dancers keeping time with the music playing in the background.

“It’s your turn, Rob.” It was Melissa, Carol’s mother. Rob was amazed and often commented that the older Carol got, the more she looked like her mother. And that was a compliment to both women. They both had the same auburn hair and petite build. And they both had those dazzling green eyes, though Rob teased his wife that his mother-in-law’s were a smidgen brighter than hers.

“C’mon, son, times a wastin’.” Carol’s father, Andy Carney, was a retired CPA. Over the years, his girth had grown right along with his retirement fund. His thinning salt-and-pepper hair was hidden beneath a Carolina Panthers baseball cap.

He and Rob had grown to be friends. Andy had been skeptical at first. Not of Rob’s love for his daughter, but for her future. SEAL snipers had a way of turning wives into young widows, often leaving them with children to raise alone. When Rob reported to his post at Naval Weapons Station Charleston, his father-in-law had, literally, thrown a party. He was as thrilled with Rob’s career change as he was with their move back home.

Andy nudged Rob’s father, retired Master Chief Petty Officer Theodore Tyler, standing next to him. “Ted, can you light a fire under that young man?”

Their host was five foot six with a solid athletic build. He hadn’t varied more than three pounds away from what he weighed when he was twenty-two. In his youth he had sported thick, wavy, jet-black hair, but it had long since turned silver. He was clean-shaven with piercing blue eyes, a feature he used to disarm the most disagreeable of sorts. A golden glove in the welterweight category in his younger days, he was still light on his feet. His fighting record was twenty-four wins, two losses and one tie. He had been a force to be reckoned with.

Acabe-se aqui, o filho,” Ted said. It was Portuguese for “get yourself over here, son.”

“I’m comin’. Keep your pants on.” Rob approached, trying to remember which way to hit the ball. He didn’t know the rules, but he figured he had to be a part of any game that used something called “wickets.” The others goaded him as he walked back to the game field that had been set up in the back of the yard between the pool and the encompassing six-foot privacy fence.

“I hope you’re a better teacher than you are a croquet player,” Ted commented in his typical deadpan manner.

“He must’ve gotten some smoke in his eyes when he was grillin’,” Andy chimed in as he put his mallet over his shoulders, draping his arms over it.

“Don’t pay any attention to them, Rob.” It was Melissa’s turn. “They’re just jealous because croquet seems to be the only thing you’re terrible at.”

“Thanks, Mom. I knew I could count on your support,” Rob said with a smile.

“No problem whatsoever. Would you like me to get you some eye drops?” she added, building on her husband’s remark.

Carol smiled. “Good one, Mom.”

“Hey.” Rob looked back at Carol. “Comments are only accepted from people who actually play the game. Not from people who wuss out.”

“Hey Rot, do ya want me to paint targets behind the hoops for ya?” Sack shouted from the pool.

Becca screwed up her face. “Okay, are y’all sayin’ Rob or Rot?” she asked in her thick Texas accent.

“Rot, darlin’,” Sack answered.

Becca’s expression didn’t change. “Well, why are y’all callin’ him that? That ain’t very nice.”

Sack smiled. “It’s a long but interestin’ story, baby.”

“And it’s not a very nice story, either,” Carol added from where she sat. She picked up her cell phone and checked the time. It was 6:22.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

CARLA AND DANNY had volunteered to go inside and prepare the desserts. Danny took the opportunity to retrieve the envelope from the Jeep that contained Rob’s orders.  Carla was in the kitchen just starting to scoop the wedges of apple, blueberry, and cherry pie onto paper plates when Danny came back through the front door. He looked at his watch.  “It’s almost six-thirty already.”

“I know,” Carla acknowledged as she dropped some cherry pie on the counter. “Dang it,” she said.

“Rob’s dad’s nice, isn’t he?” Danny asked as he wet a sponge to clean up the mess. “A little reserved at first, but nice.”

“What about that Stacey character? The one Rob calls Sack?” Carla asked. “He’s a monster! I’d hate to meet up with him in a dark alley.”

“I’d be cool with it,” Danny said confidently.

Carla looked over at him doubtfully, thinking he was being a little cocky. Danny smiled. “As long as he was standing next to me and not in front of me.”

“Uh huh,” Carla grinned. She thought a minute. “He sure likes ‘em young. His girlfriend looks half his age.”

Danny rinsed the sponge off and ignored that comment. I’m not opening that can of worms. “Rob has a heck of a nice family. His dad, Carol, the kids …” He let the words trail off.

Carla winked at him. “Changed your mind about one of our own yet?”

Danny only smiled at the comment. “I just hope the assignment we’ve been evaluating Rob for isn’t a dangerous one. That’s all.”

Carla laid the spatula in the sink. “I don’t wanna think about it. It’s not our responsibility. After tonight …” She paused as her expression turned to sadness. “After tonight, we probably won’t ever see them again anyway.”

Danny didn’t speak as he helped Carla with the desserts, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that his relationship with the SEAL-turned-instructor would continue. Over the months he had spent with Rob, he found a friend in him that he truly admired.

Maybe we can still be friends after all is said and done.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

CAROL WAS TALKING with Mary, Ted’s friend, as they watched the children play Marco Polo with Becca and Sack. She was impressed that the older woman always managed to keep her silver hair in some sort of stylish fashion.

Rob’s father had withdrawn socially following the death of his wife. He’d stayed at home for days on end, sitting in his recliner with the television as his only companion. He’d avoided people, interacting with as few of them and as infrequently as possible. Rob’s mother had died in a car accident while Rob was deployed with his SEAL team. He had been unable to attend her funeral. It took several years for him to come to terms with that fact. Some time later, he and Carol had met Mary Calhoun at the church that they now all attended. She was an outgoing woman in her sixties, around his father’s age. It wasn’t long before the prayers started flowing. Rob and Carol repeatedly invited Ted to church, but he had always declined. He would cite a laundry list of things around the house that needed his attention.

Finally, on Easter Sunday three years ago, they enlisted the aid of C. C. and Christian. Ted’s twin grandchildren were encouraged to beg and plead with their Papa to come to church. He finally agreed. Rob introduced him to Mary, and they were soon inseparable. Carol even believed that the master chief might propose marriage to Mary sometime in the near future.

Carol and Mary were startled by a blood-curdling scream as Sack threw Becca’s bronze bikini-clad body nearly halfway across the pool as easily as he had thrown the seven-year-olds before her. Her blonde head came within inches of the side of the pool.

“Be careful, Sack! You’re gonna kill the poor thing,” Carol admonished. She immediately cupped her hand over her mouth, realizing too late that she had used his nickname. She closed her eyes, hoping that no one had caught the gaff.

She should have known better.

From the croquette field, Rob shouted, “Who’s Sack, Button?”

Picking up on the game, Ted nudged Andy, who hadn’t a clue what it was all about and asked, “Sack, who’s Sack?” Andy simply shrugged and joined the others looking at Carol questioningly.

Mary couldn’t contain a snicker as she turned her attention back to the Southern Living magazine she had been flipping through.

Danny slid the glass door open and stepped out on the patio, followed closely by Carla. They each carried a tray of desserts. They heard the twins shout in unison from the pool, “Who’s Sack, Mama?”

Sack, who had been swimming underwater, emerged from behind them and, placing one hand on the top of each of their heads, proceeded to dunk them.

Becca was laughing. Melissa was looking from Carol to the children to Rob, who was trying to maintain his composure while grinning clownishly. Sack and the master chief shared a knowing look before the big man turned to Carol, who was still holding her hand over her mouth. He held his arms out wide. “I’m just a big ole’ sack o’ taters,” he said, just after the twins popped their heads out of the water and proceeded to climb him.

Carol, relieved that Sack had found a way to cover for her mistake, was impressed with the improvisation. She dropped her hand, smiled, and winked at him. “Nice.”

Their croquet game turned into a tournament as different players were periodically exchanged and substituted. As the sun began to set, Danny shot a defeated look at Carla. They had only planned to stay long enough for dessert, confess the news about their having observed Rob and Carol for the past ten months, and give Rob the sealed envelope containing his orders. Carla simply smiled and shrugged. Her-always-make-the-best-of-it attitude had kicked in.

But the Carters weren’t the only ones who had a task to complete before the night was through. Rob saw that the daylight was fading fast, and he still had a conversation to have with Danny.

Carol scanned the scene. The pool was empty. Sack, Becca, and the twins had long since toweled themselves off and gone inside the house. She could see through the patio door that the twins were draped over them on the couch, half asleep, watching television. Her parents were saying their “good nights,” citing Andy’s eight o’clock tee time as the reason for their departure. Rob was helping his father put the croquet set away and Mary, Danny, and Carla were busily cleaning up.

“Danny and Carla,” Carol said softly to herself. She really appreciated that they were helping with the cleanup. But as she watched, she wondered what their true intentions were. She, Rob, Sack, Ted, and Mary all knew that the couple had ulterior motives for their friendship. She also knew that Rob had been more than patient, going along with the charade. He said earlier in the day that he would get to the bottom of the situation tonight. She had no doubt that he would, one way or another. But as much as she tried to keep her distance from the two, she had really grown to like Carla and had begun to enjoy the time that they spent together. They shared, or at least seemed to share similar interests. They had a similar sense of style and humor. They enjoyed the same kinds of books, food, and movies, and Carla was wonderful with the twins. She seemed to be the type of friend that Carol could come to appreciate. But was it all just an act?

“What is it, Doll?” It was Ted. Over the years, Carol had gotten used to the man suddenly appearing out of nowhere. He had sidled up to her during her musings as silently as a church mouse and was following her gaze toward Carla, who was wiping down the tables where they had eaten.

Without looking at him, Carol answered, “Rob’s gonna confront them tonight.”

“And?”

“And, I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Because?”

This time she looked him in the eye. “Because they came here and invaded our privacy, offered us a false friendship and—”

“And you and Rob knew before they got here that they had been sent by the brass. You didn’t have to play along with them. You could have confronted them from the beginning.”

“That was Rob’s idea.”

Ted squared his shoulders and faced her. “As much as you tried to fight it, you and Carla became friends in spite of the fact that they were ordered here to do … whatever it is that they’ve been doing. Now, how’d that happen?”

Carol didn’t have an answer that she was willing to speak out loud. She wanted to be angry with them so that she wouldn’t feel the pain of loss she was sure was about to happen. She was trying to make herself mad at the Carters, and her father-in-law wasn’t making it easy.

“They came here on orders,” Ted reminded her. “People in the military do things every day that they wouldn’t normally do, because it’s their job. Rob understands that and so do you.”

“But, Dad—”

She began to protest, but the master chief cut her off without even blinking. “They had no control over the situation.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “You did.” Then he turned and walked toward the house just as silently as he had when he joined her.

She knew Ted was right. She had tried to resist Carla’s approach at first. And then fencing with her had almost become a game. But more recently, she had begun to feel a bond with the woman who had tried so hard to be her friend. Cursing herself for getting emotional about the situation, she turned toward Rob. She knew he was preparing himself for the confrontation. He turned to face Carol across the yard, smiled and nodded. She knew it was time.

“Danny and Carla.” She said it again under her breath. Her expression then softened a bit. “What a shame.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

HEY, DANNY.” ROB caught him as he was bringing a bag of trash out of the house through the open patio door.

“Yeah?”

“You and Carla got a minute?”

“Sure,” Danny answered. “Just let me put this in the trash.” Finally, we can get this over with. He was relieved at the opportunity to finish their business with Rob and Carol, no matter how painful it was going to be.

Carla heard the exchange, too. She laid the sponge that she had been using on the table and sat down as she noticed Carol walking toward her. Uh oh.

When the four were seated, Danny was the first to speak. “Before you get started,” he glanced at Carla, “we need to confess something.”

“Oh?” Rob sat back in his chair and laced his fingers over his mid-section. He looked at Carol. “Well, be careful what you say because ‘when words are many, sin is not absent’.”

Danny uncharacteristically shifted in the chair uncomfortably. He was a professional. He wasn’t supposed to get nervous. But this was a very different state of affairs than he was used to. He wasn’t in his office. He had lied—even if it was a lie of omission. And worst of all, he had come to respect and admire Rob and Carol immensely.

Carla, seeing Danny’s difficulty, spoke up. “We didn’t get transferred to Charleston.”

“You didn’t?” Rob asked as a smile grew on his face. Have they read my mind?

“No.” It was Danny again. “We’ve been on TDY.”

“Really,” Rob said flatly, his amusement growing.

Carol sat motionless and stone faced as she watched the three. She wanted to say as little as possible, letting the officers duke it out verbally if it came to that.

“Yes,” Danny said, not wanting to pass this responsibility on to his wife. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he glanced to Carol and then back at Rob and continued. “We were sent here to evaluate you. Both of you.”

“Evaluate us?” Rob feigned ignorance. “Evaluate us?”

“I’m sorry, Carol,” Carla said, looking at Carol. “We didn’t have any choice.”

“We did have a choice.” Danny corrected her. “But …” He searched for the words. “Captain Walsh said that you and he were friends.”

“Captain Walsh?” The mention of his friend and mentor confused Rob. “Benny Walsh?” The last he had heard, the captain was at the Pentagon in weapons development. What could he have to do with this?

Danny nodded, affirming Rob’s question.

“We’re friends.” Rob was somewhat on the defensive now. This was not at all how he had envisioned this conversation going.

Carla had a look of genuine remorse on her face as she searched Carol for some indication of her feelings. But Carol simply continued to sit silently as the conversation went on.

Danny continued. “We could have turned this assignment down, but Captain Walsh made it clear to me that it was something he considered very important. I think it was important for him personally, as well.”

Rob glanced over Danny’s head at the patio door. He saw Sack and his father there, watching as things unfolded.

Danny wanted to tell Rob that he was sorry. To explain that he had developed a deep sense of friendship with him. But he wouldn’t allow himself to say the words. He had been ordered to do a task and he had completed that task. That was all there was to it.

Rob contemplated Danny’s words for a moment. It made a boatload of difference that Benny was somehow part of all of this. In an instant, Rob was forced to alter his perspective of the past ten months, and of the couple sitting before him. He gathered his thoughts and organized them to a point where he felt in control again. He looked Danny in the eye and said, “We knew why you were coming here before you arrived.”

It was Danny’s turn to be confused. He glanced at Carla who was looking at Rob in disbelief. Turning back to Rob, Danny started to ask how they could have possibly known, but Rob stopped him. “I’ve spent comin’ up on twenty-four years in the Navy. I have friends all over the world, even Washington.” He looked the lieutenant commander directly in the eye. “I keep informed of what’s happening, especially when it involves me.”

Danny accepted the statement as fact. He had come to know that Rob was not a man to make bold claims he couldn’t back up. The only thing that confused him now was that Rob had gone along with the charade for so long. He furrowed his brow and asked, “If you knew, then why—”

“An instructor’s life can be a little …” He searched for the right word, “… boring.”

Again, Danny accepted the statement without question, but he became suddenly concerned that Rob might have been merely play-acting the entire time. He just as quickly dismissed the thought. Rob couldn’t have possibly hidden his personality from him for so long. No. He gave himself at least some credit as a psychologist. He glanced at Carol, who hadn’t moved. It was becoming clear why Carla had had such a difficult time trying to befriend Rob’s wife.

Carla turned her attention back to Carol. “You knew?” She still held a look of disbelief on her face.

It was all Carol could take. She stood quickly and looked into Carla’s eyes. “Don’t you dare try to make yourself out to be the injured party here.” She stuck her palm in Carla’s face and stormed off.

“That’s not—” Carla started. After watching Carol walk off in a huff, she stood up and followed, calling after her.

Danny watched the two go through the gate and toward the front of the house. He turned back to Rob with a look of great concern on his face.

“I’ll put twenty on Carol,” Rob said with a smile.

Danny briefly considered going after them, but Rob suddenly addressed him formally. “Lieutenant Commander Carter. Are you going to tell me what this whole thing has been about or—”

Danny held up his hands defensively. He stayed with the formality introduced by Rob with his answer. “Commander, I’m afraid I can’t tell you any more than I already have.”

Rob looked at him doubtfully. “You can’t or you won’t?” There was just a bit of an edge to his voice. He was growing tired and wanted to end the conversation, but to his satisfaction. Danny wasn’t cooperating.

Danny sensed Rob’s growing impatience and wanted to comply with his request. “We came here, observed you and Carol, and reported back to Captain Walsh. I don’t know what this is all about.” He produced the envelope containing Rob’s orders. “But I think this might answer some of your questions.” With that, he handed the envelope to Rob and stood. He was satisfied that his job was done and all he wanted to do now was collect Carla and get back to Washington. To get back home.

Rob accepted the sealed envelope. He knew Danny hadn’t read what was inside. He doubted Danny knew any more than he had already told him. He stood up and faced the man. “You were following orders.” It wasn’t a question.

Danny answered anyway. “Yes, I was.”

Rob studied him for a moment, and then he chuckled and said, “I’m impressed that you stuck with me during our workouts.”

Danny smiled. “It was challenging, I have to admit.” He tapped himself on the chest. “But I feel great.”

Rob furrowed his brow again. “You know, you’re only supposed to do it twice a week.”

Danny laughed. “I know. I found that out six months into it.” He gave Rob a sideways glance. “Couldn’t let an old man show me up.”

“Commander!” Rob shouted, suddenly serious.

Instinctively, Danny came to attention, “Sir?”

Rob put his face threateningly close to Danny’s. After a moment, he smiled widely. “I’m just messin’ with ya.”

Danny relaxed. He was ready for a dressing down right there on the spot. But Rob was a man with a dry sense of humor. His deadpan personality, obviously gained through the close tutelage of his father, changed gears faster than a stock car driver at the Daytona 500.

There was an awkwardly long silence as they stood there. Danny sensed something over his shoulder, and when he looked back he saw Sack and Ted standing on the patio, looking his way. Suddenly looking uncomfortable, they turned to go into the house, closing the door behind them. Sack returned to the couch where Becca and the kids had passed out, and Ted went to the kitchen where Mary was finishing up the dishes.

Something Rob had said earlier suddenly popped into Danny’s head. “Hey, what you said before, about too many words can be sinful, or something like that. That was a pretty cool line. Shakespeare?”

Rob smiled. “Nope. Solomon. Proverbs twelve nineteen. When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”

“Huh,” Danny said.

There was a creeaak from the gate as Carol and Carla came back into the yard, arm in arm.

Rob watched them as he cupped his elbows and frowned. “That woman has a feisty temper, but she cannot hold a grudge.”

Danny mimicked Rob’s stance. “Well, Carla can be pretty good at groveling when she feels guilty.”

“I’ve always found that groveling produces excellent results.”

“Jewelry works pretty good too,” Danny said with a straight face.

“Yeah, yeah,” Rob agreed. “Also, foot massages.”

Danny nodded. “I can see that.”

The girls saw them standing there and started to giggle. They joined the men again and the four talked for a few more minutes. Danny and Carla expressed their regret at having intruded on their lives. Carla vowed never to do this kind of work again. Carol asked if they could continue to be friends, and they all agreed. But this time, business would be business, and pleasure, pleasure. They were all disappointed when Danny announced that they were on a flight at oh six hundred the next day. So, the two couples said their goodbyes amid handshakes and hugs.

As they watched the Jeep drive away, Carol turned to Rob. “Becca kept asking everyone why Stacey calls you Rot.”

“What’d you tell her?”

She screwed her face up. “Nothing. That’s a disgusting story. You or he can tell her that one.”

Rob thought for a moment. “Naw, it adds to my mystique.”

“You mean mistake don’t you?” She turned and put her arms around his waist. With her face somber, she asked, “So, what’d ya find out?”

Rob reached for his back pocket and produced the envelope Danny had given him. He held it out for Carol to see. She had seen envelopes like it many times before. “CONFIDENTIAL: COMMANDER ROBERT ORSON TYLER, EYES ONLY.”

She looked at her husband. A tinge of disappointment showed in her green eyes.

Without a word, Rob used his thumb to open it. He pulled the documents out, unfolded them and read to himself.

“Please don’t tell me they’re sending you overseas again.”

Rob continued to read and then flip back and forth between the pages. Carol could see through the patio’s floodlight that the first page had only a single short paragraph on it, but she couldn’t make out the writing. The second page appeared to contain several lists.

“Okay, I won’t,” Rob finally said.

“Then, what?” Carol asked, even more curious now.

“Looks like I’m going to Washington.”

Carol scrunched her eyebrows together. “State?”

Rob looked back at the first page. “D.C.”

“Washington, D.C,” Carol said incredulously.

“Yeah,” he said, looking at her disdainfully. “And goin’ on a diet.”

11 Harry’s Tap Room

6 July 2010

 

 

ROB WORE HIS WHITE C-class short-sleeve uniform as he stood in the midst of a grove of paper-bark maple trees. The warm wind rustled noisily through the leaves in the mid-afternoon of this overcast day. He was standing on holy ground outside the Pentagon close to the center of the nearly two acre Pentagon Memorial in Washington D.C.

He glanced at his silver and gold Seiko. It was just after fourteen hundred hours. He always found the white face and silver hands of this watch more difficult to read than the Luminox model 3001 he normally wore, especially in the light of the outdoors. But the Seiko was a wedding gift presented to him by his father. Thus, he treasured it and wore it only on certain occasions. He thought that his first visit to the Pentagon in over a decade was about as appropriate as occasions got.

The orders he had received two days ago simply read that he was to meet with an old friend, Captain Benny Walsh, at the Pentagon for a late lunch this afternoon. He had flown commercially out of Charleston that morning. After a quick stopover in Atlanta, he flew on to Baltimore-Washington International Airport where a young ensign, Bill Murphy, had been waiting to pick him up.

Although this would be a very short turn-around, he felt he should at least take a minute or two to see the memorial and pay his respects to the fallen while he was in town. The memorial had been dedicated and opened to the public on September 11, 2008, in remembrance of the 184 victims at the Pentagon who lost their lives in the September 11 terror attacks seven years earlier. The monument itself was situated at the southwest corner of the building near the highway interchange.

As Rob stood among the trees, he tilted his head back slightly and closed his eyes, listening to the breeze and thinking of the souls who had died that fateful day. As expected, unwanted memories intruded on his solitude. Memories that he tried to forget, but that still haunted him nine-and-a half years later. He had still been attached to SEAL Team Six then. In fact, it was his last operational assignment while in their ranks.

It was January 2001 when he and Sack, his long-time spotter and friend, had been sent on a covert mission to Afghanistan. They were there to monitor one of the possible hiding places of the man who was now, at present, the most wanted man in the world. Osama bin Laden. That day, bin Laden had been in the crosshairs of his scope. But the kill order never came and the man lived on. Rob was certain that bin Laden had been instrumental in the 9/11 terrorist plot. Would it have made a difference if I had killed the man that day? Could I have prevented that massive loss of life and chaos? In the moment they had been stood down, Rob had felt only relief. Relief that the burden of taking another life was lifted from his shoulders. He had made the decision to leave the SEALs because he had become a follower of Jesus and no longer wanted to kill for a living. But the unknown results of a task not accomplished had troubled him since that awful day in 2001.

And to add insult to injury, September 11 was his birthday.

Members of the intelligence community had assured him that it wouldn’t have made a difference if he had killed the terrorist leader that day. One of bin Laden’s lieutenants would have taken over the organization, and the attack would have happened anyway. In fact, it was later proven that the mastermind of the attack was not bin Laden at all, but a man named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Still, all of the reassurance had come after the fact. There was no way Rob or anyone else could be sure that events wouldn’t have unfolded differently had he been given the order to carry out the mission all those years ago. If the U. S. military had ordered the kill that day, and thereby sent the message to all terrorists everywhere that they were at risk, that there was nowhere for them to hide—would that have changed the playing field?

Rob had since learned that no matter how much he wanted to stay in control of any situation, life was in God’s hands and his alone. He even came to trust that he didn’t have to understand. But the memories couldn’t be put aside.

Bill was standing about fifteen yards behind Rob. As he watched the superior officer, he wondered if the commander had known the person whose monument he was standing before.

The monuments themselves were benches formed to resemble the graceful swoop of a gull’s wing, arranged in rows according to the birthdate of the person it represented. There was one for each of the 184 people who perished on that day. Rob was standing in the row dedicated to the victims who were born in the year 1957.

The sound of a chirping robin perched on a nearby branch snatched Rob away from his thoughts. The red-breasted bird was happily singing, completely unaware of the significance of its surroundings. Rob considered that to be a good thing. Even after such an evil act, life continued in all of God’s many wondrous creations.

Ceremoniously, he snapped to attention and raised his hand slowly to the visor of his cover in salute to all of those who had been honored with the sculptures situated all around him. After a moment, just as ceremoniously, he lowered his hand to rest against his thigh. He then looked down and read the name of the man whose memory the bench nearest him had been dedicated to.

Sergeant First Class Jose Orlando Calderon-Olmedo.

He didn’t know the man. He knew none of those memorialized here. But he felt a kindred spirit with each of them, and a deep sense of indebtedness to both them and their families for the sacrifices they had made. He looked to his left and slightly behind. The benches had been positioned offset to one another. He read the name Sandra L. White. To his right, Patricia E. (Patty) Mickley. He considered reading the name on each bench to pay his respects to each person whose memory was honored here. But the sound of the ensign’s voice brought him back to the reality of his purpose for being in D.C.

“Excuse me for interrupting, sir.” Bill had moved up silently behind the commander. He spoke softly as he continued. “The captain is expecting you at fourteen thirty hours and it’s nearly a quarter past.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Rob replied.

He took one last long look around. “Rest easy, my brothers and sisters.”

With that, he turned and looked at the young man. “Lead on, McDuff.”

Bill did not get the joke. “Begging your pardon, but it’s Murphy, sir.”

“My apologies, Ensign Murphy.” Rob rolled his eyes at the man’s back as he followed him toward the building.

The ensign escorted the commander to the metro level of the Pentagon, which housed the food court.  They arrived at Harry’s Tap Room at precisely fourteen-thirty hours. The captain dismissed Bill with instructions to retrieve the commander in an hour to take him back to the airport so that he could catch his seventeen-thirty flight back home.

Rob shook the captain’s hand vigorously. He had no idea what this meeting was about, but it was good to see his old friend. “Good afternoon, sir. It’s great to see you.”

“You, too,” Benny said, smiling widely. “Let’s drop the formality just for lunch, shall we?” he added.

Rob was pleased to hear that their relationship hadn’t changed from its first-name basis. “If you’re game, I’m game.”

He had time enough to notice that Benny had one-third of a glass of what looked like iced tea in front of him before a young woman stood at the table dressed in a pair of black slacks and a blue oxford shirt with her first name embroidered across the pocket. “Welcome to Harry’s Tap Room. My name is Tiffany and I’ll be your server this afternoon. Can I get your drink order, sir?”

Rob estimated that she was in her early twenties and about five foot eight. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. Her blue eyes sparkled as she patiently smiled at him. Rob thought of Karina Yevstafyava, the Russian exchange student that he and Carol had hosted and become friends with so many years ago. She had been there with them on that Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The three of them had spent the evening watching the events unfold on television. Brushing those thoughts aside, he made himself focus on the more pleasant memories of their time together as a family. This served to dull whatever unpleasant memories he was harboring after his visit to the memorial. “I’d like water with lemon, please.”

Tiffany wrote on her black pad. “Can I interest you gentlemen in an appetizer? The Point Judith calamari is very good.”

Benny looked at Rob questioningly. “It’s on me.”

Rob picked up the menu that was waiting on the table in front of him and opened it. He looked from it to the captain and then answered, “I wouldn’t care for any, thanks.”

“Okay,” Tiffany said, still smiling. “Do you guys know what you want to order, or do you need a minute?”

Rob flipped a page in the menu, and then looked up at Benny. “Do you know what you want?”

Benny nodded. “Yeah, I had a minute before you sat down.”

Rob looked up at Tiffany and smiled. “I’ll have what he’s having.”

“We’ll have the roasted red pepper and crab soup to start and the chipotle barbecue chicken breast.” He turned back to the inside cover. “And go ahead and bring us the crispy shrimp appetizer as well.”

Rob’s eyes narrowed. “What about my diet?”

Benny looked slyly at Rob. “Have you started it yet?”

“Of course”—he tried to keep a straight face, but couldn’t help a smile—“not. But I was gonna start today.”

“Then, you’ll start tomorrow.” Benny gave Rob a knowing smile.

“Alright,” Tiffany said. “More tea, sir?” she asked Benny.

“Please.”

“Doesn’t she look like Karina?” Rob asked, watching the young woman walk away.

Benny glanced her way as she ducked into the waitress station. “I don’t remember. I only met her once at your Christmas party.” Looking back, he noticed Rob’s unbroken stare. “Watch it, pal. Carol would get jealous if she were here.”

Rob laughed. “She’d be lookin’ too. Karina’s like a daughter to us.”

Benny continued to regard Rob with some amusement.

Both of us,” Rob reiterated.

It took about ten minutes for their appetizer to arrive, and in another five the soup was delivered. The entrees quickly followed. They spent the next thirty minutes reminiscing about old times and catching up on each other while they ate. Benny did the lion’s share of the talking, since he was in the more interesting field of weapons development. Rob was more than a little interested in what the Navy was working on in terms of hardware. But it soon became clear that they weren’t anywhere near the subject of why the captain had ordered Rob to Washington. Unless it was to critique the lunch they had been served, which Rob found to be excellent.

Benny paid the check and thanked Tiffany with a thirty percent tip for her attentive service. He then checked his watch while Rob sneaked a peak at his own. It was nearly fifteen thirty hours. The ensign would be back to whisk Rob off to the airport at any moment.

Rob took the initiative. “Well, thanks very much for lunch, Cap.” Then he gave Benny a serious look. “But I’m sure this isn’t what you brought me up here for.”

Benny returned his stare, but was silent for a moment as if he was searching for the right words. Finally, he spoke. “Yeah. I’m sorry about all this, Rob, but this wasn’t something I could do without looking you in the eye.”

“You have my full attention.”

“I need to ask you to participate in a … program.”

“A program?”

Benny drained the last of his tea and shook his head. “Now, you must understand that it is completely voluntary. You have to be comfortable with saying no on this one. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

The captain stopped and forced himself to smile just a bit. “I have recommended that you be the subject”—he looked right and left, exaggerating the movement, then lowered his voice even though the dining room was nearly empty—“of an experiment involving genetic engineering.”

Rob’s eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” The captain didn’t want to say the words again.

“I’m not sure that I did.” Rob studied the captain. “Did you just say genetic—?”

“Engineering. Yes, I did.”

Rob’s face grew into a wide smile as he leaned back in his chair. “This is a joke, right? I’m being punked.” He looked around the room, expecting to see someone jump from behind a plant with a camera. “I’m being punked, aren’t I?”

Benny stared stone-faced at Rob, saying nothing.

Seeing the captain’s expression, Rob began to laugh uncomfortably. “What?”

Benny’s expression hadn’t changed. And he still said nothing.

Rob leaned forward, his voice nearly a whisper. “Captain, you aren’t serious.” It wasn’t a question. Rob simply couldn’t believe what he had heard the man say.

Benny was being as vague as possible. He figured the less Rob knew about the project, the less likely he would be to accept the assignment.

“That’s all I can tell you for now, Rob.” Benny’s expression softened a bit. “Now, I know it’s not much to go on and I also know that you might have some moral convictions about this that you may need to talk over with your wife.”

“My wife?” Never in his twenty-three years in the Navy had anyone ever advised Rob to discuss an assignment with anyone, especially Carol.

Bill entered the restaurant and came into Benny’s field of view. The captain picked up his napkin, gave his mouth one last wipe, and stood up.

Rob immediately followed suit, unsure whether the ranks were still dropped or not.

“You have until the end of the week to decide,” Benny smiled warmly. “Just email me yes or no by Friday.” With that, the captain extended his hand. “Have a safe flight home, Rob,” he added as he strode past.

As he saw the captain approach, Bill opened the door and stood aside as he strode out of the restaurant without so much as a nod. Seeing the captain leave, Tiffany came to the table to collect the remaining dishes. Rob hadn’t moved. He didn’t turn to watch Benny leave, and he hadn’t seen Bill come in and silently walk up behind him. He looked at the young woman, still confused. “What just happened?”

Tiffany stood there silently.

From behind him, Bill said matter-of-factly, “He does that to me all the time.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROB THOUGHT ABOUT his bizarre experience with the captain for the entire hour-long trip back to the airport. While waiting for his flight, he nearly missed his boarding call as he contemplated the events. He played the conversation in his head from beginning to end over and over during the four-hour flight.

None of it made any sense.

Throughout the entire encounter, Benny had seemed to be his old self. Unchanged from the last time the two had seen each other. And then, bam! His entire demeanor changed in the blink of an eye. He became so cryptic and unclear that Rob had half-considered he could be showing early signs of dementia.

Genetic engineering? And he seemed serious. Rob thought a moment. No, he didn’t seem serious … he was serious.

He walked to the main entrance of Charleston International Airport where Carol was waiting in the car at the curb to pick him up. The only conclusion he had reached so far was that he was not going to discuss the conversation, at least the genetic engineering part, with his wife.

He climbed into the car and saw the welcome sight of C. C. and Christian asleep in the back. The boy was still clutching his Gameboy and C. C. held her favorite stuffed animal, a penguin named Opus.

Rob slid into the passenger seat and leaned over to give Carol a kiss.

“How was your flight?” she asked while snaking her way into traffic.

“Confusing,” Rob answered honestly.

“Confusing?” Carol repeated the word with a smile. She cocked her head to one side. “Confusing?”

He returned her look. “Perplexing? Disorienting? How ‘bout consternating?”

“Okay, mister thesaurus. How ‘bout a deeper explanation than words that mean the same thing as confusing?”

Rob recalled the highlights of the conversation again, but he really wanted to let it go until morning. His brain was in need of a rest. “I don’t know. Benny was …”

“Confusing?” Carol finished his thought for him after he paused.

“Yeah. He was fine through most of lunch but towards the end, he just … I don’t know.”

“Is he alright?” Carol was concerned. She had known Benny Walsh for fifteen years. Rob had introduced him to her after they were engaged. “He’s not sick, is he?”

“No,” Rob answered, too quickly. “At least I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?” Her concern was growing.

“I’m sorry, Button.” He didn’t how to answer her. “Like I said, I don’t know. At first he was fine and then … pppphhhhtttt.” He made a raspberry.

Carol was silent as they drove through an intersection. She forced herself take Rob’s words at face value. She knew he wouldn’t be deliberately evasive, so she turned her questions to the more practical. “Well, did he give you an assignment?”

Rob grimaced. “Well, yes and no.” He felt bad. Every other time he had found himself in a similar conversation with her, he had been able to, at the very least, give her the news that he would be leaving. He’d be flying out on this date and returning on or about that date. But this time, Benny really hadn’t given Rob anything to go on.

Carol looked at him with a straight face. “Rob, you’re beginning to annoy me.”

“I’m sorry, Button.” He placed his hands on his knees and stared through the windshield. “I’m really not doing it on purpose.”

She couldn’t help but smile. He always had a way of relieving her stress even as he continued to be a pain in the butt. “Well, which is it, Hun … yes or no?”

“Okay.” Rob was trying to remember the conversation word for word. “This is what he said. He has recommended me”—he jabbed his thumb at himself, although Carol was too busy merging into traffic to notice—“to be the subject of a … project.”

Comfortable with her position on the road, she glanced over at him. “Was that it?”

Rob held his hands up in frustration. “Well, yeah, that … and that I have until Friday to give him a yes or no answer.”

Carol was looking from the road to Rob and back again. “He said he wants you to be in some kind of project and you have until Friday to tell him yea or nay?”

“Yup,” Rob said, slapping his knees.

Carol turned her full attention back to driving. She was less concerned about the situation, but still wasn’t satisfied. “Well, where is this project? Is it overseas?”

“He didn’t say.”

“When does it start?”

“He didn’t tell me.”

“How long is it supposed to last?”

“I don’t know,” Rob replied with a nervous laugh.

Carol’s brows furrowed. “Well, how the heck are you supposed to make a decision based on that?”

Rob pursed his lips and shook his head. “See what I mean?”

“Uh huh,” she replied.

“There is one other thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He said that I should talk about it with you.” I thought we weren’t gonna discuss it with her.

“With me?” Carol was mystified. She had long ago accepted the fact that there were certain things that a husband in the military couldn’t tell his wife. Even though, on a few occasions, Rob had confided in her some things that would probably cost him his career if the Navy ever found out.

“I know,” Rob said in frustration.

There was a long silence as they continued down I-26 to Summerville and home. They were both deep in thought. Neither was sure where to go next. They didn’t speak until Carol turned onto their street.

“I guess what you have to do is ask yourself whether Benny would ask you to do anything that would place you in danger—and a project doesn’t sound like it will—or if he would ask you to break your moral or ethical convictions.”

There was the term Rob wanted to avoid using in front of Carol. Moral convictions. Benny had mentioned the same. But what moral convictions had he been talking about?

She pulled into their driveway, switched off the engine, and looked him in the eye. Then, as if she had been reading his mind, she said, “If there’s anything that you”—she took a breath and continued—“that you can’t tell me about this, then maybe you should call and make an appointment with Associate Pastor Wallace.”

“Pastor Wallace?” At first Rob didn’t recognize the name. “You mean Brother Phil?”

Carol nodded.

Brother Phil was the associate pastor of Summerville Christian Assembly, where they were members. The idea threw Rob for a loop. They had been attending the church since they moved to Summerville nine years before. At first, they had only joined because they found out that the church had a good international missions program and that it had a sister church in Russia. Later, they had come to enjoy the staff at SCA, especially Brother Phil, who played along with Rob on the church softball team. But that was about all the contact he’d had with the man, apart from the occasional “hey” as they went to and from church on Sundays.

Briefly, Rob considered telling Carol that there was nothing in the world he couldn’t talk to her about. But he quickly dismissed that idea, because they both would have known it was a lie. No, he realized Carol was being a good military wife. She knew instinctively that there was something he wasn’t telling her, and she trusted Phil Wallace to give Rob some godly insight to help him make this decision.

He got out and opened the back door where C. C. was asleep. He picked her up, taking care not to drop Opus, as Carol retrieved Christian from the other side. He looked over the car at her in the darkened driveway. “Would you mind giving the church a call for me in the morning, Button?”

She smiled at him. “It’ll cost ya,” she joked.

12 Kingsley’s Legacy

7 July 2010

1225 hours

 

 

SENATOR MARGARET Kingsley, the three-term Democrat from the state of Wyoming and Chairperson of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sat across the white linen-clad table from Captain Benny Walsh in the dining room of the Sou’Wester restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Maryland Avenue in Washington, D.C. She was born in Georgetown, British Guiana in 1952, but her parents had immigrated to the Unites States when she was still an infant. Eventually, they settled in Casper, Wyoming, where her parents took whatever work they could get from the Catholic Ministries there. Her father, a taxidermist, soon opened up his own shop to service the locals and out-of-towners who hunted Wyoming’s fare.

The senator graduated from Natrona County High School in 1969, where she had earned a track and field scholarship to the University of Wyoming at Laramie. There she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science. Upon returning to Casper, she found work in the mayor’s office as county clerk and eventually worked her way up to county commissioner before her bid for the senate eleven years ago. A serious, uncomplicated woman and extremely to-the-point, she demanded much from her subordinates. And they were well rewarded for their efforts.

She was wearing a gray business suit and a pink blouse, which accented her medium brown skin nicely. But her complexion was also beginning to show some signs of the stress she found herself under. She wore her black hair short and her ears and hands were distinctly devoid of jewelry. She would have sworn that she had turned her cell phone off for the lunch engagement, but she said when it rang, “The show must go on.”

“I don’t care about any of that, Tom. That wasn’t in the deal,” she said, her frustration growing. Noticing that her staffer, Keri Wadsworth, was scribbling notes furiously in an attempt to keep up with the one-sided conversation, the senator put her hand on the girl’s steno pad to stop her.

Keri wasn’t what most people would consider attractive. Rather plain with her mousy brown hair pulled back tightly in a bun, she was slightly on the short and heavy side. Benny guessed that she was in her mid-twenties. Her dark, almost black eyes stood out even behind the horn-rimmed glasses she wore. She had on a black pants suit with a plain white blouse, completing her drab appearance. It reminded Benny of a nun’s habit. But the thing Benny found most annoying about the young woman was her habit of looking down when she spoke.

When Kingsley received the call, Benny stopped eating the sautéed red snapper he had ordered. The food was delicious, but he considered it rude to eat while she was talking on the phone.

“Well, he already agreed to the price. What he’s asking for is highway robbery.” She rolled her eyes.

The server appeared and asked, “More wine, ma’am?”

The senator was still engrossed in her conversation, so Keri took the initiative. “Yes, please,” she said with a nod toward Kingsley’s glass. Taking the bottle of Chateau Fuisse’ Pouilly Fuisse’ Les Brules from its tricycle-shaped bottle holder, the waitress filled the glass and then turned to the captain. “Sir?”

“No, thank you.” One glass was Benny’s limit when he was conducting business.

From what the captain could ascertain, the senator was having difficult dealings with a landowner over a particular parcel that the Air Force wanted in order to build a new maintenance facility.

“Well tell him that the additional eighty or so jobs this annex is going to provide to his community should make him very well-thought-of by the people there. And if that doesn’t work, tell him we can simply take the land. It’s his choice.” With that, she closed her phone and turned her attention back to Benny. “Pardon the interruption, Captain. Where were we?” she asked, splitting her attention between him and her crab bisque.

Benny smiled. “Not at all, Senator. I was explaining that the interview with Lieutenant Colonel Jefferson was unproductive. When I mentioned the nature of the program, he declined the invitation.”

“Well, who the fu…” She glanced at the young staffer who had begun taking notes again. “Who’s left? I mean, we started out with almost two-and-a-half dozen candidates and now were down to … how many?”

The captain painted on a serious face. “One, Senator.”

“One?” Kingsley dropped her spoon on her bread plate with a loud clang. “How can we be down to the last man?” She was incensed. “I wanted at least three candidates to be at the ready.”

The implications of that last statement hardened the captain’s resolve. So she wanted back-ups just in case, huh?

Kingsley saw the subtle change in his demeanor. She hadn’t gotten to where she was today without being able to read people. “To be ready when we bring the program into full production,” she added.

Production? What on earth were they going to produce?

Kingsley dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin as she sat up straight, matching the captain’s posture. She sized the man up before she asked, “Is your heart really in this, sir?”

Benny returned her gaze. “I will continue to perform my duties as ordered, Senator.”

Her eyes narrowed further. “Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious about what you’ve been selecting these men for?”

“A sailor doesn’t have the luxury of curiosity, senator. He simply follows orders.”

She took another sip of wine and leaned back. “What about this last man?”

“Commander Robert Tyler,” Benny stated matter-of-factly. “He’s a very good man. Out of the original list, he would have been my first choice.”

Was that it? Did the captain want his man to be the one? Was Walsh looking for a feather to put in his cap by having his “first choice” be the one who did the deed, so to speak? She smiled slyly. “Your first choice,” she repeated. “Then why has it taken so long to complete this process? It’s been a year-and-a-half.” She placed more emphasis on the latter statement, her annoyance growing.

Benny looked at the staffer whose attention hadn’t left her pad. She was patiently recording their words but showed no real interest in the subject itself. “I was not the individual who developed the selection process, Senator. I was simply the man who implemented it. As I understand it, this project”—he shifted his eyes back to Kingsley and smiled—“was of the utmost importance, and only the best-of-the-best candidate would be acceptable. I was giving my assignment its due diligence.”

Kingsley softened a bit. She was still wound up over the conversation on the phone and wasn’t giving the captain the respect he deserved. “Of course you are, Captain.” She leaned forward and managed a smile. “May I call you Bernard?”

“Benny. And yes ma’am, you may.” His expression didn’t change. He had to work for politicians. He didn’t have to like them.

“So, tell me about this Commander … Tyler, was it?” She forced herself to relax.

“Commander Rob Tyler. Former SEAL. A sniper. He holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, and he’s been an instructor down in Charleston for about nine years now.”

Kingsley’s arched eyebrows betrayed the fact that she was impressed with the man’s brief but varied résumé. “Sounds like a smart cookie. And a former SEAL, too?”

“SEAL Team Six, before their designation changed to DEVGRU. As I said, Senator, he was always my first choice. But I didn’t want to create an air of favoritism in the selection process,” he lied. If Benny had been on board with the genetic experiment he would have presented Rob first, and been done with it.

Kingsley bought it. “Don’t be silly, Captain. Everyone I’ve talked to has confirmed what I have always suspected. That you are a professional.” She took a sip of her Pouilly Fuisse’. “No one would have suspected you of anything inappropriate,” she lied. “But I do appreciate your attention to detail and sense of fair play.”

“Thank you, Senator.”

“Now, about Tyler. How old a man is he?”

“Forty-six.”

Kingsley’s eyes widened. “That’s kind of pushing the outside of the envelope, isn’t it Ben?”

The captain didn’t miss a beat. “Benny,” he corrected. “And I’d put Rob Tyler up against any ten men half his age. In addition, he has the operational experience that was required for candidacy, and more.”

The senator thought about protesting more but refrained. What was the point of putting the captain in charge of the selection process if I don’t trust the man’s judgment? “Have you met with him?”

“Yesterday afternoon.”

“And?”

“I’ve given him until Friday to decide.”

Kingsley finished her wine and waved the empty glass toward Keri, who immediately began scanning the room for the waitress. The senator sat back, again suppressing her frustration. This one candidate was her only hope of not having to go through the entire process again. And they would have to choose from among lesser men if he didn’t come on board. “How did he react?”

“I’m hopeful, Senator.” It was no lie. Benny was hopeful that Rob would decline and the program would shrivel up and die.

The server arrived and poured more wine for Kingsley. “No, thank you,” Benny said again as she held the bottle over his glass.

“Did you tell him about the promotion?” The senator leaned in after taking a sip. “At forty-six, he must be close to retirement. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the prestige of becoming a captain first. Not to mention the little bump in his paycheck to carry over with him.”

The idea of giving an officer—any officer—an unwarranted promotion was detestable to Benny. “I’m sorry, Senator. I don’t dangle carrots in front of my men to get them to do their duty. Even if it is voluntary. If he chooses to participate, well that will be the icing on the cake.”

Kingsley had to take a moment and a deep breath. She was unused to her subordinates not going above and beyond for her. But Benny was different. He was close to retirement himself and had nothing to lose. He had served his country with distinction and deserved everything he had earned. She did have to admit that she liked him. Not that she would ever let him know it. She turned toward her assistant. “Keri, honey, would you give the captain and me a few minutes? Go and get yourself a cup of coffee or something.”

Without hesitation, the young woman rose from the table. “Yes ma’am,” she answered, and walked toward the bar.

When she was out of earshot, Kingsley turned back to the captain. “Benny, I think that it’s time for you to get enlightened.”

“Ma’am?”

The senator took another sip of wine before she continued. “You see, this project is very important to me. And not just to me, but to the American people.” Her expression turned to one of thoughtfulness. “To tell you the truth, it’s going to be my gift to this country that has been so good to me and my family.”

Benny studied the woman intently.

“Imagine a world where no more of America’s sons and daughters need to be put into harm’s way. A world where our enemies would fight a foe that they could never destroy. A world where there would be no more fatherless or motherless children because their parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their country.”

Benny suspected where she was going.

“Well, I intend to give the United States just that sort of world.” She smiled brightly. “And, you are going to help me.”

“Ma’am?”

“Well, you”—she leaned in close—“but more importantly, your Commander Tyler. With his help … or to be more specific, his genes or DNA or whatever it is that they use, Tyler will be the father of a whole army of men ready to fight and die for us. We will never again feel the pain of our fallen soldiers.”

From the moment he was brought into the program, Benny had played out several possible scenarios in his head.  Without saying the actual words, Kingsley had just confirmed his worst fears. “You intend to clone Commander Tyler.”

“We intend to clone Commander Tyler,” she repeated with some degree of perverse satisfaction.

“In violation of international law.” He was still speaking in hushed tones, but he was clear. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement, an accusation.

Kingsley chuckled. “The United Nations can go to blazes. They are impotent. They have used our troops to do their dirty work for decades. That business is about to be over. It’s about time we start looking after our own interests and stop being the world’s police force.”

Benny couldn’t argue that point. He, along with many others in the military, had felt this way for years. That maybe it was time to stop looking out for the interests of others in the world who held the U. S. in low regard, including some who identified as friends, and start looking after our own affairs and those of our true allies.

But a word stuck in his mind. Army. An army of clones. It was like something out of science fiction. Benny doubted it would be possible. A dream that couldn’t come true. There had been too many problems with cloning in the past. Animals born with hideous deformities. Even when they weren’t apparent, there were internal problems. Abnormal organs and the like. No, God wouldn’t allow man to do such a thing. But his mind began to race anyway. If Rob chooses to participate, what would he be in for? He quickly dismissed the idea. No, Rob wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t. Benny was sure that he hadn’t given Rob enough information. There were far too many unanswered questions for him to make a decision one way or the other, and he would therefore decline. Then Benny’s mind came to another roadblock. The senator had said he was going to help, as well as Rob. He thought his part of the project would be done after the selection process. Even if Rob chose to decline and the selection process started over again, surely they would find someone else to do the choosing. After all, failure would mean that he had not been able to find even one man either capable or willing to participate in a year-and-a-half. He looked at Kingsley. “You said I was going to help. What did you mean by that?”

Kingsley drained her glass and returned the captain’s stare. “I asked the Defense Department to send an officer to the facility in Georgia to take operational command of the program. They tried to kill two birds with one stone by sending a snot-nosed young Air Force major, a doctor fresh out of medical school, to pull double duty as their medical doctor and command the team. It’s a good thing he wasn’t allowed any further than the supply room. Yeoum Chi would eat him alive.”

Benny didn’t know who that was, but he suspected that the wine had loosened Kingsley’s tongue. Does she even realize what she’s saying? Benny didn’t think so. But he was anticipating what the senator was going to say next.

“No, that dog just ain’t gonna hunt.” She dabbed the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “That’s why I’m sending you down there.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

9 July 2010

 

 

IT WAS FRIDAY MORNING at eleven hundred hours before Rob could meet with the associate pastor of Summerville Christian Assembly, Doctor Phillip Wallace, at his office on the church campus on Main Street. Phil’s appointment book had been full for the week, but when Carol explained the urgent nature of her husband’s request, he had rearranged his schedule and agreed to meet with Rob.

Brother Phil shook Rob’s hand. “It’s great to see ya Rob. Have a seat.”

Rob was uncomfortable. The office was unlike any that he had been in before. There were several bookcases with many statuettes, pictures, trinkets, and books. That wasn’t the unusual thing. What was unusual was the spiritual subject matter of most of them. The books had names like The German Church Conflict; Seven Practices Of Effective Ministry; The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power In Your Life. Rob had been in many book-laden offices in his time, but the theme of them had been quite different. Books Rob was more familiar with had titles like The Book of War: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man And A Bizarre Plan Fooled The Nazis And Assured An Allied Victory; Helmet For My Pillow: From Paris Island To The Pacific. Rob was much more comfortable with titles such as those. There were pictures of Phil with his family, others with church members, still others were of the pastor on mission trips to places that Rob could only guess at. It surprised Rob that entering the office affected him so much. He had come to terms with the spiritual dimension of his life years ago. I’m a Christian. I know what this is all about.

Or so he thought.

He began to wonder if he was the thing that was out of place in that room. Until he entered the small office, he felt perfectly comfortable in church. He had denounced his former ways as an abomination before the Lord. He had taken the lives of people without any regard for them or the families who loved them. Many of them were just like he used to be, men who killed. But at the moment he was struggling with the feeling that he was unworthy to even to stand in the presence of a true man of God.

Brother Phil himself, a distinguished-looking gentleman a few years Rob’s senior, added to his discomfort. His salt-and-pepper hair was short and neatly trimmed. He wore a pair of khaki cargo shorts and a multicolored plaid short-sleeved shirt and gold, wire rimmed glasses. He sat behind a cherry stained wooden desk with a glass writing surface, cut to match the size of the desktop. There were a number of books on it, the most prominent of which was the New King James Bible sitting just off center.

“Please, have a seat,” Phil repeated, unsure why Rob was still standing.

Slowly, Rob sat. He adjusted his posture, wanting to sit up straight to show respect for the man across the desk. “Thanks very much for seeing me on such short notice, Brother Phil.”

“Not a problem,” Phil said in a friendly, accommodating tone. “I just had to do a bit of juggling. Carol mentioned you had a deadline, and frankly, I was looking forward to getting to know you a little better. You guys joined the church several years back, and, except on Sunday I rarely get a chance to talk to you. Outside of softball practice, I mean.”

Rob shifted in his seat uneasily. “Well, you should join us on our next trip to Russia. There’s always plenty of time to talk and get to know one another during the flight and at the cottage where we stay.” He instinctively tried to put the pastor on the defensive by shifting the responsibility for their relationship on to Phil’s shoulders. He immediately berated himself for it, closing his eyes tightly for just a moment. You’re here for his help, idiot! And then he smiled widely, hoping that the pastor hadn’t noticed.

Phil took the comment in stride. “I might just do that. I’ve wanted to meet and talk with Pastor Yeosef and his family in Kamensk-Uralski in the flesh rather than just through email. Maybe I’ll join you next April.”

“So … how’s the wife?” Rob asked, unsure how to begin.

“She’s fine, thank you for asking. She’s getting ready for Vacation Bible School next week.” Phil sat back in his chair and laced his fingers on his abdomen. “And Carol? How is she? Oh, and the twins? Will they be coming to VBS?”

The question took Rob off guard. He honestly didn’t know if the kids would be at church the next week or not. “I don’t know.”

Phil looked at him quizzically.

“About the children,” Rob recovered uncomfortably. “Carol hasn’t mentioned it to me. But I intend to find out, believe me.” His head bobbed up and down as he held his eyes unnaturally wide.

Phil frowned.

Don’t over do it, stupid. The commander was unused to being nervous. It was an alien feeling for him. He had, ever since he could remember, been completely at ease in any situation no matter how stressful. He didn’t understand why he was feeling the way he was. He was acting clumsily and he needed to calm down.

Seeing his uneasiness, Phil took the initiative. “Do you mind if I open us up in prayer?” he asked.

“Please.” Rob was relieved. He laced his fingers together, bowed his head, and closed his eyes.

Under the circumstances, Phil decided that the Reader’s Digest version would be best. “Father in Heaven, I thank you for this time of fellowship with my brother Rob. I thank you that you have given him the confidence in me to seek out my council and I pray you give me the wisdom to offer your guidance to Rob with this very important decision that he must make today about his job. Most of all, I thank you for your son Jesus and the sacrifice that he made for us. It’s in his most precious and holy name that we pray, amen.”

“Amen,” Rob repeated. To his amazement, he felt a bit more at ease upon hearing those words.

“So,” Phil began. “What’s on your mind?”

Rob proceeded to explain his dilemma. His past as a SEAL sniper, his coming to the Lord with Carol while he was stationed in Japan, his career change and move to Charleston, the ten months of observation that he and Carol had been under, the cryptic orders given to him by the pair of psychologists that previous Sunday, and the bizarre experience that he’d had with Benny in Washington, all in as much detail as he dared. He even mentioned what he wouldn’t to Carol. That the captain had spoken about genetic engineering.

Phil listened to it all patiently and attentively, asking a question here and there, but letting Rob go on as long as he wanted to. The pastor’s expression was one of acceptance and understanding, and it did much to make Rob feel comfortable as he spoke. But when Rob mentioned genetics, Phil’s expression changed to one of concern.

When Rob finished, Phil was quiet as he organized his thoughts. Rob began to wonder if he should say something else, but decided against it. He had given the man a lot of information in the thirty or so minutes that they had been together, so he waited.

Finally, the pastor spoke. “Well Rob, I really appreciate your openness and honesty. I can only imagine what it was like for you in your earlier job. I’m glad that you had the opportunity to get into something more suited to your education and that it gave you the opportunity to move to Summerville and join us here at SCA.” He stopped and thought for a moment longer, swiveling back and forth in his chair a few times. He turned around and plucked a New International Version of the Bible from one of the shelves behind him and turned back to face Rob before he continued. “I’d like to read a passage or two, if it’s alright.”

Rob shrugged. “Please.”

“The first one is from Psalm one thirty-nine.” He looked at Rob and back at the Bible as he flipped through the pages. “I’m assuming the problem you’re having is with the experiment with genetics that your captain mentioned. Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Before I read this to you, I want to advise you to prayerfully consider what you’ve been asked to do. I mean, you didn’t give me much to go on, so I’m not quite sure that I’m gonna be able to help you much. But, I will try.”

Rob understood. With the limited information he had given the pastor, it was going to be difficult for him to give advice on what he should do. But maybe that’s not actually what Rob needed out of this meeting. Maybe he really needed to know how to approach God with it so he would handle it the right way.

Phil went on as he continued flipping pages. “And, I also know that you don’t have much time to decide so … ah, here it is. Psalm one thirty-nine, verse thirteen. ‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.’” He looked back at Rob compassionately. “See, God created us. And he is the one who is in control, ultimately. For man to try to manipulate the terms of our existence, well, that’s a no-no from a Christian point of view. Unless it’s to heal someone’s illness or injury. Then, maybe it’s debatable. There are some gray areas there.” Phil cocked his head to one side. “But it doesn’t seem to me that you know even that much about the project you’ve been asked to get involved in, do you?”

“Only what I’ve told you,” Rob said. After a brief pause, he added, “Well, the paperwork I received had a few things I was asked to start right away, in case I accept the assignment. A certain diet, an exercise regimen, things like that. But no specific details.

“I see.” Phil thought for another moment. “I like to use the analogy, ‘the runway lights of life’. You see, if we don’t follow the signs we’ve been given, then we will crash and burn like a pilot who ignores the lights of a runway. I guess the best advice that I give you, besides praying of course, is to consider what you know about your captain. Combine that with how you feel in your gut about what he’s asked you to do, and listen to what God says to you through your faith in him.” He smiled. “Wouldn’t it be great if he would just speak to us verbally? Then it would be easy.”

“That would sure work for me.”

Phil started flipping pages again and Rob looked at his watch. It was almost noon. He hadn’t realized that so much time had passed, and he had a lunch date with his dad. He was going to be late. “Well Brother Phil, I really appreciate your time and your advice, but I don’t want to take up too much of your day.” Rob was speaking honestly. He had found some peace that morning and the pastor had been a big part of it. He had a good idea of what he needed to do to prepare himself for the task at hand.

“Just one more second, if you don’t mind.” Phil was still flipping pages. “There’s one more verse that I want to leave you with. “It’s from the book of Matthew, chapter seven, and verse twelve. ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’”

The Golden Rule, Rob thought. And oddly enough, it fit the situation perfectly.

Brother Phil closed out their session in prayer, and the men stood and shook hands. “I hope our meeting has helped, Rob.”

“Well, you’ve given me a new perspective to look at this situation from. That just might be a good thing … I think.”

Phil smiled. “Trust God. He won’t steer you wrong.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

LATER THAT EVENING, Rob found himself staring at the blank email on his laptop sitting on his desk in the den. The address line read: [email protected] The subject line he had left blank. The cursor was beckoning him to type the single word that would answer the captain’s very cryptic question. Rob was leaning back in his chair in the darkened room illuminated only by the computer. He was chewing on a pen that he had taken from the World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug next to the computer. The children had been put to bed and Carol was watching the news in their bedroom upstairs. She had been giving him a wide berth for the past few days. On one hand, Rob appreciated her for understanding the difficulties he had been placed under. She hadn’t asked any more about the subject since the ride home from the airport. On the other hand, he hated having to make this decision without her input. Since he had left the SEALs, she had been involved in all of their important decision-making, and Rob wanted her to be involved in this one, too. But he knew that if he told her any more, she would have told him that she trusted his judgment when it came to his career, while secretly dreading the fact that Rob might be getting involved in anything that was remotely connected with genetics.

On the other hand, his long time friend, Captain Benny Walsh, had asked him to be a part of something that Rob thought might be a good thing for the Navy and for his country. Even if he only knew it by what he knew of the captain. Why else would Benny have asked him to participate in the project? Surely the captain hadn’t pulled his name from a hat. No, there was a process of elimination involved here. Benny hadn’t arbitrarily chosen him because of his good looks and sparkling personality. If the captain had chosen him to be a part of an important project that involved the defense of his nation, his countrymen, and his family, it was because he, Commander Robert Orson Tyler, was the best, most qualified candidate for the task.

But still … Benny had also made it clear that a “no” answer was completely acceptable.

His eyes were growing weary and he longed for the embrace of his wife. He stared at the cursor, blinking, waiting patiently for his entry, for his answer.

Reaching for the keyboard, he typed one word and then he clicked “Send.”

13 The Truck

12 July 2010

2345 hours

 

 

SPECIAL AGENT EDDIE Perez of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service sat next to the forward wall of the transport vehicle, which was nothing more than a converted semi truck trailer. Its dimly lit interior vaguely resembled that of a C-130 Hercules aircraft with a row of eight jump seats on either side, each with its own five-point harness, situated along the forward half of the trailer. In the back were shrink-wrapped pallets of goods stacked two wide and four deep, leaving the center of the trailer free of obstacles. In the middle of the floor was a six by ten hatch split down the middle. The scent mixture of freshly cut wood, fruit, and diesel fumes assailed Eddie’s nostrils, and was beginning to turn his stomach. He was dressed in his normal slacks, white button-down shirt, and herringbone sports jacket.

Seated around him were the members of his team. The Major Case Response Team, or MCRT, had been dispatched on special request from the Secretary of the Navy for this most unusual assignment. They were ordered to travel to Robins Air Force Base in central Georgia from their home base at Naval Station Mayport on the east side of Jacksonville, Florida just that morning.

Jo Turner, Eddie’s second, was seated directly across from him. She wore a gray pants suit and a yellow blouse. The butt of her Sig Sauer P220 Compact forty-five caliber pistol, which she preferred over the Beretta model 96 forty caliber the rest of the team carried, could be seen on her right hip under her jacket which was unbuttoned in the front. She claimed she didn’t need ten rounds to hit her target, and had proven it time and again on the firing range. Her short curly blonde locks were in disarray after the long car ride followed by the hour-long briefing that amounted to not much more than a refresher course in national security policy and the consequences of revealing anything to the outside world about what they would soon see. Her green eyes were closed. Maybe she was trying to get some rest as they traveled, but it seemed more likely to Eddie that she was feeling the same effects of the hideous potpourri. The thirty-seven-year old had been with NCIS for five years after being recruited from the Miami Police Department where she had worked vice for twelve years. She was quite attractive, with delicate features and a deceptively small five-foot-seven-inch frame. Eddie had doubted that she would last through her probation, but she had surprised the veteran who, at that time, was forming his first team. Early on, she’d made every effort to show Eddie up with her extensive knowledge and skills. After making special agent a little over a year ago, however, she had mellowed a bit toward him, preferring to take the newer members of the team to task.

To Eddie’s left was Cal Warren, the team’s probie. The twenty-five-year old had graduated from Georgia Tech in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He joined NCIS’s Internet Technologies department two years before, and was recruited by Eddie after he assisted with a case in which members of a terrorist cell kidnapped a naval captain’s ten-year-old daughter. The terrorists had demanded that the officer assist them with a plot to disable his own ship in the Persian Gulf. The perpetrators used the Internet to throw off their pursuers, and Cal had been instrumental in locating and rescuing the child. He had even risked his own life by chasing down one of the kidnappers who was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. Seeing the young man’s commitment and passion, Eddie couldn’t resist. He was a handsome young man, looking more like an athlete than a computer geek. He was dressed in Levis, a black tee shirt, and the herringbone jacket that had become his favorite after seeing Eddie wearing his. The mocha brown skin of his clean-shaven head was covered with sweat. Even with the refrigeration unit in the trailer, it had gotten stuffy in the poorly ventilated space. His hazel eyes, which justly reflected the compassion in his heart, were staring at the wall opposite him. Eddie thought maybe Cal was daydreaming.

Below the spot where Cal was gazing was the last member of the team that Eddie had brought with him. Geri Hughes had been with NCIS for six years since graduating from Florida State with duel degrees in general management and criminology. She was twenty-eight years old and had meticulously planned out her career in great detail by the time she joined Eddie’s team three years ago. She intended to become a team leader by the time she was thirty, and she was well on her way. She was a small woman with a pale complexion, but what she lacked in stature she made up for with intelligence. She was almost always serious, and rarely smiled. But she had an attention for detail beyond that of a run-of-the-mill field agent. She was good at putting differing items together and extrapolating scenarios that seemed fanciful at best at first glance, but more often than not turned out to be correct. She had proven to be a valuable asset to the team and a good agent with solid performances all around. She wore a navy blue pants suit, probably the same label Jo was wearing, with a bright red blouse. Eddie believed the bright color choice hinted at another side of her personality that none of them had broken into yet. She was looking at him intently when he locked eyes with her baby blues.

“It stinks in here,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Eddie mimicked her expression. “Well, we ought to be there soon.”

The sudden exchange woke Cal from his reverie. “They said it was only about ten minutes drive.”

Eddie looked at him stoically. “It’s ten minutes from the base, not from where we were at the logistics center.”

Working among young people made Eddie feel old at times, and this was one of those times. Cal and Geri were two of his youngest, least experienced agents. He had selected them for this trip because he wanted to give them some exposure to a not-in-my-comfort-zone experience. He wasn’t sure why his team had been sent on this assignment, but since he was informed that there wouldn’t be any heavy lifting involved, he thought it would make for a good training opportunity.

He himself had been with NCIS for ten years after serving with the Jacksonville Police Department Homicide unit for twelve. Before that, he had enlisted in the Navy right out of high school, where he spent eight years in the shore patrol. Being in law enforcement for three decades had cost him two marriages and countless relationships. He had been shot twice, both times since joining NCIS. He had given blood, sweat, and tears to the services. He wanted no more promotions, no more responsibilities and he was done job-hopping. He wanted to live out the remainder of his career as a field agent. Nothing more. At forty-eight, he was beginning to show the signs of middle-age spread. No matter how much exercise he did, it seemed to creep back on him. At five foot ten, he weighed a few cookies over 200 pounds. His black hair was beginning to gray at the temples and his sinewy face, scarred by a terrible bout of acne during puberty, was starting to look more and more weathered with age. In stark contrast to the rest of his face, which rarely changed expression, he seemed to smile most of the time. His gravelly voice completed the persona of a cop hardened by years of frustrating, thankless work.

They could hear and feel the truck decelerate and then turn sharply into what they hoped was their destination.

“Are we there yet?” It was Jo. She hadn’t opened her eyes, but her other powers of observation remained intact.

Eddie unbuckled his harness. “I sure hope so,” he said without looking at her. “That smell is gonna make me puke.”

The truck continued to slow and sway back and forth as it maneuvered into position. Finally, it stopped and they heard the sound of air brakes hissing, finding the perfect spot over the platform that was the entrance to the underground complex. The engine continued to idle as the sound of electric motors could be heard beneath them. They had been told that a black canvass sleeve would be lowered into position from the underside of the truck. It would conceal them as well as the material and foodstuffs that were being delivered.

The rest of the team, save Jo, unbuckled their harnesses, relieved that they would soon be exiting the trailer and breathing some fresh air. They stood and stretched. It had been a long day, and likely, it wouldn’t be over for some time.

“I guess so,” Jo answered herself, opening her eyes and looking at the other three.

There was a knock on the floor followed by the sound of the locking mechanism as the hatch’s two sides swung away. The sound of diesel engines was nearly deafening in the small space. A welcome cool breeze followed this. A man in his early thirties, wearing the uniform of a technical sergeant in the Air Force, was standing on a six-foot-by-ten-foot elevated platform with a three-foot railing around three sides. His fair face looked even lighter in contrast to his military-buzzed dark brown hair. Slowly, the platform rose until it was flush with the truck’s floor, muffling the sound of the engines. Its occupant glanced around at the four of them with dark, deep-set eyes. His gaze stopped when he locked eyes with Eddie. “Special Agent Perez?” He extended his hand. “I’m Sergeant Neil Covington, in command of the security team.”

Eddie noted the sergeant was wearing the military standard-issue Beretta 92 F pistol on his right hip and a radio on his left. He took the sergeant’s hand. “Let me introduce you to my team. Agents Cal Warren and Geri Hughes, and Special Agent Jo Turner.”

Covington shook each of their hands in turn and produced four small plastic bags containing earplugs from his pocket. “They always forget to issue these to new arrivals,” he said as he passed them out. “It’s a bit loud in the generator room.” As they inserted the plugs, he added, “If you all will step on to the platform, please.”

Eddie watched as Covington spoke into the radio and the platform began to descend. Once down, he ushered them over to the waiting golf carts. Cal and Geri climbed into a cart with an airman in the driver’s seat, while Eddie and Jo rode with the sergeant.

They chose to remain silent for the first half of the fifteen-minute trip through the tunnel. The two youngest team members seemed uncomfortable with their new surroundings, while Eddie and Jo took it all in stride. When they reached the middle of the passage and started across the drain, Eddie spoke. “So, what does the Air Force need with a Navy investigative team, Sergeant? This place is your baby, isn’t it?”

Covington smiled. “It could have something to do with the fact that the installation’s new commander is a Navy captain.”

Eddie chuckled. Without looking, he held up his hand as Jo slapped a five-dollar bill in it. Eddie had predicted that there would be a Navy man in command of whatever was going on here, but Jo thought it was that the Air Force needed help they couldn’t muster from within their own ranks. “What the heck does the Navy have going on in the middle of Georgia? Are there swicks running up and down a river somewhere near here?”

Covington looked at Eddie questioningly. “Swicks?”

Eddie smiled. “The best kept secret in the Navy. Special Warfare Combatant Crewmember. S-W-C-Cs. Swicks.”

From the expression on his face, Eddie could tell that the sergeant still didn’t understand. “They’re like SEALs, but with boats.”

“Special Agent, all I can tell you is that the work being done here is very important to some very high government officials. The captain wants to meet with you ASAP. I’m sure he’ll have the details for you.” After a brief pause, he added, “I guess they don’t have much confidence in Air Force security personnel and wanted you guys here.”

Eddie wondered if the sergeant harbored any resentment for him and his team. Would Covington and his men make things difficult? If he had any such feelings, he showed none of it. He appeared completely at ease with his place in the mix. Time will tell.

Fifteen minutes later, Eddie, Joe, Geri, and Cal, along with Sergeant Covington, were standing in the captain’s office. It was located in a part of the facility off of the garage area, where the security office and the guard’s personal quarters were located. The security personnel had no reason to enter the clean environment of the complex, which was outfitted with dozens of cameras. But most of them decided the food and the recreation area was worth the time spent in transition in and out of hospital scrubs.

“That’ll be all, Sergeant.” Benny rose from his desk to greet the newcomers.

The office was small. There was nothing on the gray walls, and a single fluorescent light fixture was mounted on the ceiling. Benny stood behind a small metal desk that sat in the center of the room, and in front of an unimpressive leather-bound chair, the type usually found in a doctor’s office waiting room. The cramped room reminded Benny of those on some of the ships he had served on. On each side of the door was a pair of folding metal chairs, leaving very little room for anything else. They went through the introductions and the captain invited them all to sit.

Eddie didn’t want to waste any time on formality. “What can we do for you, Captain?”

Benny leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together on his mid-section. “Just so we all know, I got keel-hauled into this job too. But, orders are orders.”

“Alright,” Eddie agreed.

“I arrived yesterday and saw what I had to work with. I requested you simply to augment the security here. All of the Air Force personnel, except for Covington, are bubblegummers. I wanted some experience here.”

“The director said this assignment was open-ended. How long do you anticipate needing us here?” Eddie asked.

“Hard to say. I’ve requested some more seasoned military personnel, so hopefully it won’t be long.”

Eddie shook his head. “All due respect, Captain. I don’t buy it. We’re cops. We don’t do babysitting.” He was unwilling to accept that he and his team would be used in such a petty manner. “Unless there’s some other reason for us being here.”

Benny smiled. He liked Eddie. The man was as no-nonsense as he was. Maybe even more so. “Could we have some privacy?”

On cue, Jo stood up. “C’mon, Probie,” she said as she walked out of the room. Geri had already taken the hint. Benny noted that as Cal rose he looked around the office uncomfortably before closing the door behind him.

“He’s a little claustrophobic,” Eddie offered.

Benny explained everything he knew about the project to Eddie, in detail. At first the special agent seemed unimpressed. He thought it was a bad joke until Benny collected the other NCIS agents and took them inside the laboratory. He introduced them to Professor Yeoum and Doctor Cook. The team continued their tour, even meeting the chimps. It was then that Eddie’s concern kicked in. He didn’t like terms like “classified” or “top secret.” In their current context, they had a morbid connotation.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THE OTHER OCCUPANTS of the facility had been in their living quarters asleep, as it was very early in the morning when the team arrived. All, that is, except Jimmy. The computer scientist had hacked into the security system again and was monitoring the group’s every move.

“Who are the newbies, SIS?” he asked the computer as he watched them on the monitor.

“According to security log-in,” the female voice answered pleasantly, “they are agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Would you like to know their names, Jimmy?”

“Great, first they moved us from McMaster to this friggin’ hole, then the storm troopers came to keep us all locked up in here, then the major, then this captain, and now more feds.” He sat back in his chair, propping his feet angrily up on the desk.

“I’m sorry, Jimmy. I didn’t understand your query. Would you like to know their names?”

“No,” he said curtly. “What are they doing here?”

“According to internal telephone records—”there was a brief pause and then Benny’s voice could be heard over the speaker—“I need a team from the NSA or NCIS here ASAP to help with security.  I can’t have just a half-a-dozen wet-nosed SPs guarding a project of this magnitude.”  There was a click and SIS stopped playback.

“It must be true, then.”

“What must be true, Jimmy?”

“That they found somebody, SIS. That we’re really going to do this.”

“I’m sorry, Jimmy. I do not know to what you are referring.”

He frowned. “You confirmed it yesterday, SIS. There’s a man coming here soon.” He paused, hardly believing it himself, even though this was what he had worked so hard to accomplish. The programs he had written, the years of work. Still, he hardly thought that they would actually accomplish the goal of it all. A smile crept onto his face. A feeling of both excitement and terror was growing in him, like when a roller coaster nears the top before the first drop. “We’re going to clone a human being.”

14 The Arrival

15 July 2010

 

 

SINCE THE ARRIVAL OF the NCIS team and the official word that the “test subject” would be arriving soon, the entire complex had become a beehive of activity.

Special Agent Perez had assigned Jo and Geri to remain inside the clean environment of the facility for the first twenty-four hours. He and Cal stayed with the rest of the security team outside in their offices, familiarizing themselves with the environment and the team members.

The scientific team of Yeoum, Don, Greg, and computer specialist Jimmy Bennett, assisted by June and Tiong (and occasionally, Jo and Geri) made preparations for the long-awaited continuation of their work.  Professor Yeoum had hoped that they would be able to begin within the month, provided the subject had been following the diet that he had prescribed. The professor’s demeanor and state of mind had changed dramatically since they had gotten the news. Benny and the NCIS team wouldn’t have noticed, but the rest of the team saw it immediately. The professor had always greeted newcomers to the group with disdain at first, especially the government or military types. But he took the major into their close circle soon after his initial objection. He was excited, bordering on giddy. Not only was he about to begin the experiment with his new human subject, but he would also be seeing the completion his life’s work, possibly within the next few weeks.

When Rob entered the facility, he was thoroughly unimpressed. He was too focused on what he was there to do, even though he had little idea of what that actually was. He had convinced himself that it must have something to do with cellular regeneration, but in what way he couldn’t imagine.

Rob was introduced to Professor Yeoum Chi first, who was waiting for him in the garage, and then the two joined the captain in his office. When they entered the small room, Rob was wearing his whites, hat tucked under his left arm, and he carried a small, leather bound Bible which had been given to him by Carol for just this occasion. To say that he was completely unprepared when he saw Benny behind the desk would be an understatement.

“Hello, Rob. It’s good to see you again.” Benny offered his hand.

“Sir.” Rob tentatively took Benny’s hand.

“Please have a seat, gentlemen,” the captain offered, noticing at once the Bible Rob carried.

Rob wanted very much to speak with Benny about his behavior in Washington at their last meeting, but it wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have in the company of strangers.

Yeoum could hardly contain himself. “I’m very excited about the prospect of completing my work, and now that you are here … well, I would like to thank you for your involvement.”

“You’re welcome.” Rob glanced at the professor, and then his expression changed to one of confusion. “I’m sorry. What?”

The professor’s smile dimmed a bit. “I was expressing my appreciation for your participation in my”—he glanced at the captain—“forgive me, our project. It will be the fulfillment of my life’s work … as well as that of my father before me.”

“That’s great.” Rob was half listening. He had made up his mind that he wanted to know as little as possible about what he was getting involved in. But now it appeared to Rob as if Benny had been holding all of the cards from the beginning.

Rob’s lack of attention was beginning to irritate the Korean. The frown that crept onto his face was more in keeping with his natural disposition. Yeoum had to suppress the urge to reach over and grab the commander. He wanted Rob to know how important his involvement would be, but at the moment he couldn’t even hold his attention. For Yeoum, the implications were mind-boggling. He had never before considered personal gain from his work, but the prospect of his name being as well known as the likes of Pasteur, Einstein, and Armstrong was quite appealing. That reward alone would befit the years of sacrifice he had made to complete it. He was about to speak again, but the commander interrupted him. Rob still focused his gaze on Benny. “I could not be more excited at the prospect of getting started, Professor. But would you mind if the captain and I had a private moment? I’d appreciate it very much.”

Yeoum scowled. He looked from Rob to Benny and back again. He concluded that the man would continue to insist if he protested. “Certainly, Commander,” he said, drumming his fingers on his thighs for a moment. “If you’ll excuse me?” He directed the question to Benny.

“Of course.”

With that, the little man stood and strode quickly out of the room, closing the door behind him.

There was a deafening silence in the room as the two men eyed each other. Rob raised his hands, palms up. “What the heck?”

Benny was fighting the lump that had grown in his throat. He felt as if he had betrayed his friend. But it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Rob wasn’t supposed to be here. He said nothing.

“Last week, I fly up to D.C. to have lunch with my old friend and everything’s cool. We’re chillin’, eating, having a few laughs. And then, all of a sudden you pull this Jekyll and Hyde routine on me, ask me to get involved in some kind of genetics experiment, and then walk off and leave me standing there.” He paused to allow Benny to respond, but the captain made no indication that he would do so. “I mean, couldn’t you have given me a little more information?”

Benny slumped back in his chair. “You were supposed to say no.”

“I was supposed to say no? What the … why … when were you gonna …?” Rob was dumbfounded. He sat back, trying to make some sense of it.

“I’m sorry Rob. You were supposed to say no.”

“You mean to tell me that you asked me to get involved in something that you wanted me to turn down?”

The captain nodded.

“What? You thought that if you dangled a few morally questionable words in front of me that I’d have a crisis of conscience and say no?”

“I was counting on it.”

The two sat there staring at one another. Rob could see that Benny was sincere in his apology. Truthfully, the captain looked troubled enough to break out in tears. Rob took a minute to organize his thoughts and then approached the situation from the opposite end. “What am I here to do, Benny?”

There was no other way to say it. He took a deep breath. “They’re going to attempt to clone you.”

Rob sat in his chair, a blank look on his face. He heard the words but he refused to believe them. Of all the possibilities he had run through his mind, none of them had him being cloned. “They’re gonna what me?”

“They are going to clone you, Rob.”

Rob began to smile. He had that same feeling he’d had at the Pentagon a week before, that it was a joke. He had to admit that it would be one of the most elaborate hoaxes in the history of hoaxes, but that seemed just as plausible as what the captain had just said. Benny’s expression hadn’t changed. He still looked as tortured as he had when he first said the words. Rob’s smile disappeared. His mind began to race. He knew little about cloning except he had once heard about a sheep that had been cloned years ago. He recalled vaguely a news program where the case for cloning organs for patients in need of transplants was debated. The doctors and scientists had made that idea seem reasonable. He had seen a movie or two that had clones in them. But they were science fiction, weren’t they? There was another short silence. “Okay, I think that I heard you say that they’re gonna clone me. Is that what you said?”

The captain nodded. He was nearly unable to speak. The lump in his throat had swollen when he witnessed Rob’s reaction.

“Just to clarify … they’re going to clone … me?”

“Yes.”

“Like Boba Fett in Star Wars?” Rob asked.

Benny summoned his strength and cleared his throat. “I don’t understand the process. And I never saw Star Wars. The professor can tell you all about it if you want to know. But I’ve seen the results. I have to admit that they’re impressive to say the least.” Since his meeting with Kingsley, Benny had spent some time considering her ultimate goal, and he had to admit that some aspects of the idea was attractive.

“The results?” Rob tried to regroup, to filter each word and its individual meaning, and then put them back together in a form that made some sense.

“I’ll let the professor show you.”

“Who cares about the results?” Rob regained control of the emotions that stampeded him moments before. He tossed his Bible on the desk. “It’s playing God!”

Benny was silent. The captain had had the same thoughts when he was approached with the assignment. Benny was the son of a Methodist preacher. He knew how the church felt about such things. And he knew that Rob was a Christian. There was no middle ground for them when it came to any form of genetic manipulation. This was not the way Benny had seen this play out. He had known Rob would react this way, but he had expected the reaction to come sooner.

But there it was, sitting on the desk between them. The reason Benny worked to find men who would turn up their noses at the idea. The reason Rob had left the SEALs to take the instructor’s position. Benny understood it clearly, and he had done all he felt he could do to discourage Rob’s participation without being untrue to his position as a Navy captain. Any more, and it could have jeopardized his career.

“You were supposed to say no,” Benny said again.

Rob scoffed. “You didn’t give me anything to go on. Only that you wanted me to do something and that it involved genetics. With that little to go on, I couldn’t say no to you.” He placed particular emphasis on the last word.

“How could you say yes to something like that?”

“I was saying yes to you, Benny. Because it was you asking. Not for any other reason.”

Silence again. It was a no-win situation for Benny. He had been charged with finding someone to get involved with something that he had personal revulsion for. He’d worked hard to select men that he was sure would balk at the idea. And Rob had chosen to participate based on his loyalty to his friend who had asked him to do it.

At last, Rob spoke again. “Can I still back out?”

Benny’s eyes narrowed. His remorse had been replaced with deep concern. “If you want to withdraw, you still can. Heck, I’ll walk out of here with you.” Benny stood and leaned forward. “I just want to make a few things clear. There are some very powerful people involved with this. Very powerful. People who truly believe that the results of this experiment could change this country for the better. Believe that in their bones.” He softened slightly. He wanted to prepare Rob, not intimidate him.

“Yeah,” Rob agreed, “but for who’s benefit?”

“Yours, mine. Our kids. One thing I will tell you. The people who are pulling the strings are doing all of this with pretty admirable intentions.” Benny came around the desk and half sat on the corner. He paused a moment. I cannot believe that I’m defending this. “And one thing I can guarantee you. There is nothing going on here, with or without your involvement, which is in any way harmful to anyone. I give you my personal assurance on that.”

Rob looked at his Bible again. He had been a believer all his life. There were things done throughout history in the name of science that were abhorrent to most people, some of them in direct contradiction to the church. But he was forced to wonder if those things were in conflict with God’s Word. He had read through the Bible once, and even had a few favorite books, chapters, and verses. But he couldn’t remember reading anything on this subject. After all, God had allowed men to develop medicines that changed people’s lives for the better. The Lord had allowed doctors to develop the skills necessary to cure individuals of polio, measles, typhoid, and many other diseases. Could this just be the latest in a long line of breakthroughs that men had made, and would continue to make in the field of medicine that would, ultimately, make life livable for countless people? In the past, he had based his decision-making on what was right for his country, his family, and his career. But now, he had to consider another aspect. What do I do here, Lord? He was looking for a real answer.

At the end of it, science, medicine, and the needs of people who Rob didn’t know weren’t of any consequence to him. The debate raging within him boiled down to just two things. Morality and loyalty. “Well, why me? Why was I chosen?”

Benny sighed. “Simply put, you’re the best.”

“C’mon.”

“Believe me. The process of finding a candidate with your mental and physical qualifications, combined with your education, training, and field experience, wasn’t easy, my friend. We started evaluating eighteen months ago when the initial list had a couple of dozen names on it.”

“What about them?” He was looking for a way out. His convictions he now left somewhere behind him. He didn’t want to use his faith as a crutch to shirk his responsibility. He still wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of being cloned, but he couldn’t just walk away. He needed an out. He needed a reason to leave and still feel that he hadn’t let anyone down, especially Benny. It didn’t matter at this point that Benny had gotten him into this mess.

“To be honest, some declined. Most were eliminated because of the results of their psych eval. Some were already involved with other special access projects, and a few got killed.”

“Leaving how many?”

“Leaving you.”

“Me? Please don’t tell me I’m all that’s left?”

“If you walk out now, the program will fall apart. But it’s more important to me that you do what your gut tells you to.”

But Rob wasn’t concerned at all about what his gut was telling him. The captain was getting short. How could he let his friend, so close to retirement, go down at the end of his career with a failure on his record because of him? He didn’t need to see evidence of the success of the project to help him to make up his mind. The question of his involvement was too basic for that.

“And no one and nothing gets hurt by this?”

“Absolutely not.” Relief washed over Benny as he thought that Rob had decided to bow out, to obey his moral convictions, misinterpreting Rob’s question.

Rob had other ideas. Do unto others

Standing, he turned and opened the door. “Professor?”

Benny smiled. He was ready to call Kingsley and give her the bad news. As much as a part of him may have wanted to see the end results of the experiment, he didn’t want to coerce his friend into doing it. This would be for the best, no matter what the career consequences were.

Yeoum appeared at the doorway with his trademark scowl, arms folded.

The captain picked up the phone and asked the guard on the other end for an outside line, but his stomach dropped to his feet as he heard Rob speak to the professor.

“Okay, when do we get started?”

15 Meet Chloe

 

 

OVER THE NEXT WEEK, Rob was subjected to a regimen of examinations and physical tests. They collected several samples of DNA, the most uncomfortable of which was the lumbar puncture when Greg withdrew some cerebrospinal fluid. The nausea that had followed had Rob bedridden for the rest of that day. The rest of the tests were quite standard.

On the day of his arrival, he had learned of the contempt that Jimmy had for him, and for the military in general. The young man spared no expense in making the commander as uncomfortable as possible during the initial testing. “The best is yet to come,” Jimmy had promised. But Rob declined to hear any of the details of the procedure until later.

Yeoum was extremely pleased that Rob was in as fine a shape, both physically and mentally, as he was. He had been following the diet of fruits and vegetables as ordered. The professor had even announced that the cloning process could proceed a full week ahead of schedule, due to the commander’s state of fitness.

Rob was sitting on the all-too-familiar examination table in only his boxers as the doctors—Yeoum, Don, and Greg—discussed how the next day’s events would unfold.

“I would have never believed it if anyone had told me there was a sailor out there who had no tattoos,” Greg joked.

“Hey,” Rob played along, “you can’t improve on perfection.”

The men laughed, even Yeoum. It seemed there was nothing anyone could do to ruin the professor’s mood since work had resumed. He laughed and joked, however poorly, right along with the rest of them. The other members of the team were unnerved at first, save the major who had not experienced much of his darker side. But after a few days, everyone became accustomed to the lightened atmosphere in the lab.

“We’ll start at noon tomorrow.” Yeoum turned to Rob. “Commander, it is imperative that you do not consume anything other than clear liquids after six o’clock this evening, and then have nothing to drink apart from water after midnight. Understood?”

The butterflies in Rob’s stomach, such an unfamiliar feeling a week ago, suddenly felt as if they were playing the drums to the tune of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” as the UCLA marching band was warming up in his spleen. He looked at the clock behind the diminutive man. “Two seventeen. I got me some eatin’ to do. Hey Doc, how ‘bout I start off with the house salad with ranch dressing, followed by a nice thick porterhouse, medium rare, a little Lea and Perrins on the side, a baked potato with the works, some steamed asparagus, and for dessert, a slice of New York style strawberry cheesecake?”

Yeoum smiled. “My, doesn’t that sound nice. I tell you what. After tomorrow, you can have anything you want. Anything. But today, you just stick to the salad.” He held up his finger as a warning. “No dressing.”

“Aw, c’mon Doc. Even a condemned man eats a hearty meal, right?”

“You are hardly a condemned man, Mister Tyler.” Yeoum’s tone indicated that he was done with the discussion, and he changed the subject. “Up to now, you haven’t asked a single question about the procedure. Would you like Doctor Cook and Jimmy to explain the process to you now?”

He had put this off as long as he could. “Why not?” Rob attempted to hide his discomfort as he hopped off of the table and donned his scrubs.

“Alright! We’re taking him to the torture chamber,” Jimmy said sadistically.

Don, standing beside Jimmy, backhanded him on the arm.

“Ow!” Jimmy massaged his bicep. “That’ll leave a mark.”

“Don’t mind the idiot,” Don said to Rob. “He’s just a Canuck.”

Jimmy immediately snapped to some semblance of attention and began singing “Oh Canada.” Don stuffed a pair of surgical gloves into Jimmy’s mouth, nearly losing a fingertip in the process.

“This way,” Don said as he proceeded out the door.

Rob put the scrub covers over his shoes, and followed him down the hallway.

Yeoum and Greg were busying themselves straightening up and returning equipment and utensils to their proper places as Jimmy spit the gloves on the floor, grinned at Rob’s back, and started after him. The professor grabbed him by the arm and looked at the gloves on the floor.

“It was the dark-skinned guy with the long curly black hair,” Jimmy said innocently.

Yeoum’s gaze didn’t change, and Jimmy knew it wouldn’t. He cocked his head, smiled widely, and picked up the gloves, depositing them in the bio-hazardous waste container. “Buh-bye,” he said happily as he left.

Jimmy had given up on his attempt to intimidate the commander after he had hacked into the Navy’s database and took a look at Rob’s record. Seeing that he was once a Navy SEAL, he did some research into just what that meant. After discovering the number of enemy kills Rob had acquired, he concluded that it would be best not to irritate him too much. A little teasing would have to do.

Don led them down the corridor where it ended with another door, this one locked. He punched a five-digit code into a hidden panel in the wall and the door slid open, revealing another changing area, smaller than the one at the entrance of the facility, with only four dressing rooms.

“Really?” Rob asked.

“Really. We even get to wear masks in there. This lab is absolutely contaminant free.”

Rob and Jimmy entered the chamber and Don closed the door behind them. The three showered—again. They then dressed in fresh scrubs, which included a plastic jumpsuit that zipped up the back, surgical masks, gloves, hairnets, and shoe covers. Meeting back in the hallway, they proceeded to another door at the opposite end of the compartment.

Rob had an image in his mind of another brightly lit room with tables full of beakers, test tubes, microscopes, and all manner of gadgets, charts, and other equipment. The kind of things he had seen in laboratories before. But when Don opened the door and the three stepped in, there was none of that.

The room itself was small, measuring fifteen feet square. When Rob first stepped in, the floor under his shoes felt odd. Looking down, he could see in the low light that it was carpeted. Decontaminated carpet? Is that even possible?

On the far wall was a bank of television monitors, all dark. On the right were three computer stations that were on but displayed only blue start-up screens. Close to the center of the room were two rather comfortable looking black leather recliners angled slightly toward each other with a small wooden pedestal table between them. On Rob’s left, there was a glass wall with another step-over threshold door in the middle of it, but he couldn’t see anything beyond that.

There were recessed lights in the ceiling, but only the one in the center was lit, giving off a soft white glow.  Jimmy went to one of the computers and immediately started tapping keys.

Don stepped over to the glass wall, motioning for Rob to follow. Slowly, as the light in the enclosed room increased, he could tell that the ceiling, walls, and carpet were mauve.

“Who did the decorating? Mary Kay?” Rob asked, drawing a chuckle from the others.

“Let’s start with this,” Jimmy said. The light in the enclosed room began to increase, but bathed it blood red, adding to the submarine feel of the room.

“Who’s in there, Captain Nemo?” Rob’s second nervous quip garnered another laugh from the other two.

The room on the left was of equal size to the one they were in, but it was filled with equipment. Through the doorway Rob could see a chamber on the left side that was featureless except for a computer keyboard and monitor mounted on it next to a glass portal, which was closed. On the right side of the room was what appeared to be a large aquarium of some kind. It was resting on a featureless stainless steel frame three feet high. The tank itself was another three feet high. It was rectangular, about ten feet by four feet. The long side was parallel with the glass wall. It was three-quarters full of some kind of milky liquid. Behind it Rob could see that there were hundreds of plastic hoses attached to the wall, each about a half an inch in diameter, and connected to the back of the tank.

“This is gonna be a piece of cake, Commander,” Don said, trying to relieve some tension.

“Yeah! No worries, Neel,” Jimmy chimed in behind them.

Rob looked at Jimmy. “Neel?”

“Don’t worry about it. Canadian slang,” Don said.

“Yeah, it means that you’re a really cool Yank, eh?” Jimmy added with a grin.

“Uh huh.” Rob turned back and found Don pointing toward the chamber to their left.

“There’s where you’ll be spending about six hours of your day tomorrow. We call her Chloe.”

“Chloe?”

“I’ll explain later.”

Rob’s eyes knitted together. “Six hours? What is it?”

“That’s the specimen chamber … and you’re the specimen,” Jimmy explained without ceremony.

Don shook his head. “You know Bennett, the devil has a special place for people like you.”

“What?” Jimmy protested innocently. “That’s what it is.”

“Actually, all bad people are going to the same place.” Rob looked disdainfully at the chamber, trying hard not to imagine what went on in it.

Don gave him a strange look. “Do you know what a mass spectrometer is?”

“An instrument that measures the masses of concentrations of atoms and molecules.” Rob turned to look at Don, who was still looking at him strangely. “CSI,” Rob offered in explanation.

“Okay. Then think of this as a mass spectrometer on steroids. See, the average human body, weighing seventy kilos, is made up of six point seven times ten to the twenty-seventh power of atoms.”

“What’s that in dog atoms?” Rob asked matter-of-factly.

“A lot. And Chloe here is gonna look at every single one of yours tomorrow. Sort of.”

Rob gave Don a doubtful look. “Every atom? Every one?”

“Yes.” Don attempted the short answer.

“How is that possible when atoms are always in motion?” Rob frowned.

“I could explain it to you, but it’s very technical.”

“I have a master’s degree in nuclear engineering.”

Don sighed. “Do you really wanna know?”

Rob paused for effect, staring at the chamber. “No.”

“Anyway, by tomorrow afternoon, Chloe will know more about you than is known about anyone else on earth. A side benefit is that if you have anything going on inside of you that you should know about, we’ll be able to tell you.” He gave Rob a sideways glance. “If you want to know.”

“Some things are better left unknown,” Rob said stoically. “Will I be knocked out during this?”

Jimmy answered Rob’s question. “‘Fraid not, Neel.  Unfortunately, you gotta be awake the whole time. And you hafta stay as still as possible.”

“Why?” Rob asked doubtfully.

“Because,” Jimmy smiled, “if you start to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and warmer and fuzzier, and warmer—”

“Enough, Jimmy,” Don interrupted. “It’s just a precaution, Rob. That’s all.”

Rob thought about asking what the precaution was against, but thought better of it.

“One more thing,” Jimmy said, painting on a serious look. “You’re gonna be nekked.”

“Naked?” Rob looked at Jimmy again. “Not even a hospital gown?”

“Nekked,” Jimmy repeated.

Rob turned to Don. “How about a blanket? Or a sheet?”

Don gave Rob an apologetic look. “I’m afraid not. There can’t be anything inside the chamber but you when we start the process.”

“And somebody is responsible for checking inside the thing for bugs, right?”

“That would be me.” Jimmy waved vigorously at Rob, grinning from ear to ear.

Rob’s expression changed from that of confusion to one of alarm as he pointed at Jimmy. “He’s—”

I’m the hardware guy.” Jimmy sang to the tune of the Tums jingle.

“That’s enough, Jimmy,” Don demanded more seriously. He looked back at Rob. “Don’t worry.  Nothing will happen to you if the chamber is in any way contaminated.”

“But you said—” Rob began.

“All precautionary,” Don assured him. “It would only affect your clone.”

“Nekked, nekked, nekked,” Jimmy repeated over and over, like an obnoxious teenager.

Rob ignored him. “Still—” Rob began to protest, but Don interrupted.

“And if anything like that happens, we can terminate the procedure early, before he becomes viable.”

Rob didn’t like hearing the terms Don was using. Words like “he” and “your” were uncomfortable to hear in reference to the clone. Since the captain had told him his purpose for being here, he had made a concerted effort not to think about the potential results. He thought for a moment. “Is that why I can’t eat or drink anything before?”

“Yes. You can’t have anything in you either. Well, at least not much of anything.”

“So you hafta have an enema,” Jimmy added.

Rob gave Don a disgusted look. “That sucks. How cold is it gonna be in there?”

Don couldn’t contain a chuckle. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep it comfortable for you.”

“That is my job, too,” Jimmy sang, to the same Tums tune.

Rob hung his head. After a moment he turned his attention to the liquid-filled tank on the other side of the room. “What is that?” he asked.

“That’s the nursery. That’s where we’re going to make the magic happen.”

Rob glanced at Don and then back at the tank. “Where the—”

“Where the clone is born,” Jimmy piped up.

Rob could see Jimmy’s reflection in the glass, twirling gleefully in his chair. “What’s that liquid in it?”

“Amniotic fluid,” Don said.

“Like in a woman’s uterus?” Rob wrinkled his nose, his apprehension replaced with curiosity.

“Yes, with a few extra things thrown in for good measure.”

“Is it synthetic?”

“Nope.” It was Jimmy again. “It’s the real deal, Neel.”

Don nodded. “Yeah, it’s real.”

Rob screwed up his face in disgust. “Well, whose fluid is it?”

“Yours,” Don said.

“Mine? How could it be mine?”

“We manufactured it.”

“How?”

“What did you think we took all those samples for?”

Rob smirked. “I don’t have amniotic fluid. I have man parts.”

“Its all still in there, Commander.”

Rob frowned. “Why is the tank so big? Isn’t the”—he searched for any other word, but he couldn’t find one—“clone going to be a baby?”

Don smiled. “Not with this method. We’ve avoided the growth process entirely. The clone will be, in every respect, a perfect replica of you, as you are today. Well, tomorrow, to be precise. Except for things like scars, like the one on your lower back.”

“How did you get that one?” Jimmy asked.

“I can’t remember,” Rob said truthfully. He had been shot while on a clandestine mission nearly ten years before, but he had no memory of the event. He only knew what Sack had told him. Besides, the mission was still classified.

But Jimmy already knew how the commander got the scar, and a few others like it.

Don spoke up to get them back on topic. “Imagine a man your age that has sclerosis of the liver from heavy drinking. He needs a transplant. Well, it would do him no good if he had to wait fifteen or twenty years for a clone to reach maturity. He’d be dead by then. Using this method, we can grow the clone to full maturity in a week, harvest all of its organs, and then terminate it while never having given it consciousness. It’s both efficient and humane.”

Rob nodded. He thought, albeit briefly, that the way Don described it, the endeavor could actually be a good thing. The knowledge allowed him to relax a bit more.

“Your clone will be as much you as, well, you are. He may even have some of your more recent memories. From the time we woke them, Angelina and Brad recognized and responded to all of us exactly the way Paris and Charlie did. They knew us.”

“Wait a minute. I thought you said that you wouldn’t wake it up.”

Don berated himself mentally for the slip. “Well … we’ll need to make sure he’s functioning properly.”

Rob accepted the explanation, but he had that doubtful look again. “But what if it has … cloned … memories? Which, by the way, is just way too creepy.”

Don smiled with reassurance. “He probably won’t remember anything from more than the past day or two.”

“But it will have memories. How is that even possible? I mean, I kind of understand the cloning stuff. Well, I thought I did before you said that it’s going to be an exact copy of me, all grown up and everything. But cloned memories?”

“Everything within the human body is either chemical or electrical.” Don dumbed it down. “There are over a hundred elements in us.” He pointed at the tank again. “See those hoses that are connected to the ports on the wall?”

“Yeah.”

“Each one of them is ready to feed the necessary raw materials to an umbilical that you can’t see inside the tank. It’s the same process we used to produce the fluid and grow the umbilical.”

“You’ve got an umbilical cord in there?” Rob’s concern was replaced with fascination.

“We grew an umbilical in there, but it’s not a cord. Your clone will start out attached to the umbilical and then grow from there, to put it much too simply. When his body is complete, it will detach itself, leaving an exact replica of your navel as it is now. The umbilical is ready to start the process of clone building any time now.”

“But, I’ve only been here a little over two weeks. You haven’t scanned me yet.” Rob’s confusion was growing again.

“We grew it yesterday in a matter of hours using one of the DNA samples that we collected,” Don replied.

“Then, why can’t you do the whole thing like that? Why the scan?”

“Because amniotic fluid and umbilicals are infinitely less complex than, oh, say your brain and nervous system and other organs.”

Rob sighed again. “Makes sense I guess. If you grew the umbilical in hours, how long will it take to grow the clone?”

“Like he said earlier, just under a week,” Jimmy answered. “Thanks to me.”

“Thanks to you?” Rob asked doubtfully.

“Believe it or not,” Don said with a smile, “Jimmy wrote and applied the program that integrated all of the computer systems, making the whole project possible.”

Jimmy pulled his surgical mask down, then breathed on his gloved fingertips and pretended to polish his nails on the front of his plastic suit.

“He even figured out a way to create this fog of computers—”

“It’s a cloud of computers. Not a fog,” Jimmy corrected. “And I didn’t create it, I just found a brilliant way to use it.”

“This cloud of computers that draws on the computing power of the Internet to speed up the process. I don’t understand it. But that’s what makes it all possible.”

“Greater minds than yours have tried and failed, Doctor Cook. So don’t feel bad,” Jimmy chided him.

“I knew that they must’ve had a reason for you being here other than comic relief,” Rob said, feeling a bit more like his old self again. “It’s a good thing you have a real job, Bennett. Because if you tried to make a living on stage, you’d starve.”

“Buh dum chi.” Jimmy timed the rim shot impeccably. He had to admit that there was something about Rob that he liked.

“Without Jimmy, the professor might never have seen his work completed,” Don said appreciatively.

Rob saw in Don a satisfaction in the knowledge that Yeoum would be rewarded for his decades of effort. He had noticed the father-son relationship the professor had with Don, and with the rest of the team as well. Including Doctors Juan Tiong and June Phillips, whose purpose in the facility precluded Rob from having an occasion to speak with since introductions were made.

“That’s about it,” Don concluded. “After we wake him up, the professor will interview him there”—he pointed to the recliners—“ to find out what he knows, whether he has any memories, if he can speak, that sort of thing.” Don patted Rob on the back and said with more than a little excitement, “Just think, Commander Robert Tyler. One week from tomorrow, you will be able to see yourself in a way that no other human being in history ever has, God willing.”

God willing. To Don, it was just an expression, like saying “good luck.” A hopeful verbalization, meant only to invoke success in a particular undertaking.

But Rob knew one thing beyond certainty. No matter what plans humans concoct, God’s sovereign will always comes through.

16 Monkey See, Monkey Do

25 July 2010

 

 

ROB SPENT THE NEXT few hours of his time exploring the complex. To his disappointment, he found no signs of life. The cloning team was busily making preparations for the coming day’s activities, and June and Tiong were tending to the chimps. Even the rotating pair of NCIS agents had made themselves scarce.

The facility had a cold sterile feel to it, similar to the atmosphere of an old hospital. He was about to give up and retire to his quarters when he happily stumbled upon the parlor and the computer center. And more importantly, the basketball goal, exercise equipment, and entertainment venues within the center.

After working up a sweat shooting baskets, he toweled off and headed to the parlor. The room was half the size of the computer center, but its ceiling was lower at a standard eight feet. The walls were of cherry-colored wood paneling on the northern half, which was the living area. Stainless steel was on the south walls, which contained a well-equipped kitchen, including a cappuccino maker, popcorn machine, bread maker, and even a pizza oven. The stainless steel counter wrapped around the perimeter, where a wide variety of foods rested or were stored underneath. All of the appliances were stainless steel, as was the island in the center of the workspace where a six-burner stove and grill were located. Over it, surrounding the hood fan, was a frame where every kind of cooking utensil that Rob could imagine was hanging.

Rob’s eyes came to rest on the oversized, stacked refrigerator-freezer that beckoned to him. He was trying hard to maintain his discipline, remembering Yeoum’s promise of “anything you want” after tomorrow’s scan.

He turned his attention to the other half of the room. The focal point was hanging on the far wall above a narrow eight-foot-long table, which was decorated with an arrangement of flowers. From the 65-inch television, a news anchor cheerfully reported the day’s topics of interest, though the sound was muted. The floor was carpeted in a thick chocolate brown. Four brown leather loveseats and six matching recliners were spaced out to allow their occupants to have an unobstructed view of the screen. There were small, plain, dark wooden tables interspaced between them, one of which had a remote control resting on it. On either side of the tv were three six-and-a-half-foot high bookcases, each containing a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction titles by some of today’s most popular authors. On the floor was a plethora of gaming consoles, their controllers strewn about. The entire area was lit by recessed ceiling fixtures, which bathed it in a warm yellow light that completed the homey feel.

“The only other thing this room needs is a fireplace. Don’t you think?” He turned to face June and Don who had quietly entered the room.

June nearly jumped out of her skin when Rob spoke, unaware that he was there. She closed her eyes and folded her arms over her chest in order to gather her composure.

“We weren’t trying to sneak up on you, Commander,” Don said.

“It’s after hours, Doctor. You can call me Rob.”

“Have you met Doctor June Phillips?”

“Like two ships passing in the night. When I arrived.” He nodded toward June. “Doctor.”

“I thought we were dropping the titles,” she admonished him. “Call me June.”

“June, then.”

“I think it would look good under the tv,” she added, smiling.

“What would?” Don asked.

“The fireplace,” Rob explained. “There’s a decided lack of a woman’s touch in here, June. Some art work would really spruce the place up.”

June took a few steps toward Rob as Don turned on the lights in the kitchen and headed to the refrigerator. “Anybody want a water?”

“Sure,” Rob said.

“Yeah, I’ll take one, too,” replied June. She turned back to Rob. “I don’t plan on being around long enough to have any further influence on the decor.”

“‘Further influence?” Rob asked.

“Yeah. My contribution was the basketball goal.”

“Nice, Doc. Maybe we can play a round of horse sometime,” Rob suggested.

“Careful, Rob,” Don warned. “She’s a ringer.”

“Well, what’s the point if there’s no challenge?”

“I may just take you up on that,” June replied, smiling widely.

“Maybe we can recruit Jimmy and play some two-on-two,” Don said.

Rob smirked. “I’ll take June. Jimmy will be picking himself up off of the floor too much to be of any use to me.”

The other two chuckled at the implied threat, and June asked, “Aww, has he been that bad?”

“Worse,” Don confirmed.

“He’s nothing I can’t handle,” Rob said.

Don joined them in the living room. He handed one of the bottles to June and tossed the other to Rob before plopping down into one of the loveseats nearest the table with the remote. As he reached for the controller, he munched on a handful of grapes and began flipping channels, but he left the sound muted.

“I know how to handle Jimmy,” June stated with assurance.

“So do I,” Rob grinned.

Deciding to break the ice in some way other than discussing Jimmy’s demise, June asked, “What hoops did you have to jump through to get furloughed from the labs?”

“I had to promise not to break my promise,” Rob answered slyly.

“What promise?”

“My diet.”

June cocked her head questioningly.

“It seems the professor thinks I’m one of your chimps. He’s had me on nothing but fruits, vegetables, and vitamin supplements. With a heavy emphasis on bananas.”

“For potassium,” Don chimed in. “Because we don’t want you cramping up during the scan tomorrow. And don’t forget plenty of water, too.”

June looked at Don as he popped another grape into his mouth. “Tomorrow? I thought it was going to be another week.”

“You can give the credit to super stud over there. This man,” he gestured toward Rob with a grape, “is in excellent physical condition for a man my age, let alone his.” He added with a wink.

“Please, Doctor,” Rob said in mock embarrassment. “You’re gonna make me blush.”

June furrowed her brow and pursed her lips. “Ooh, a regular Arnold Schwarzenegger macho man, huh?”

“I prefer to think of myself as an Audie Murphy type.”

“I used to watch his movies with my parents when I was a kid,” she said, nodding approvingly.

“What’s your favorite?”

The Red Badge of Courage.”

To Hell and Back.”

Don frowned. “Who?”

Rob’s smile vanished, drawing laughter from June as she sat on the arm of the loveseat opposite Don. Realizing he would get no answer, he went back to his channel surfing.

“So, do you work out a lot?” June asked.

“Well, being in the military, I have to maintain myself physically. And over the past few months, I had occasion to put in a little extra time.” His smile returned as he remembered the excruciating five-day-a-week routine he had punished Danny Carter with.

“Has Juan taken you to see the babies?”

“Babies? Oh, you mean the chimps? No, I’m sorry to say that visiting with the babies hasn’t been high on my list of priorities since I got here. I’ve been … busy.”

“You’ve got some time tonight. I’d be happy to introduce you,” June suggested.

“Maybe after I have dinner.” He started toward the kitchen. “Can’t eat anything after six o’clock.”

“That stinks,” June sympathized. “’Til when?”

“Tomorrow night. Then it’s party time,” Rob said, clapping and then rubbing his hands together. “There’s gonna be steak and a baked potato and—”

“At the earliest, tomorrow night,” reminded Don. “So long as the scan is successful.”

Rob stopped in his tracks. “What?”

Don grimaced, “Didn’t the professor tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“Well, if anything goes wrong with the scan—”

“What could go wrong with the scan?” June and Rob asked simultaneously.

June looked from Don to Rob and back again. “I thought you only needed to do the scan once. That’s all it took with Paris and Charlie.”

Don looked threateningly at June. “Thank you,” he mouthed.

“Did we leave something out during my orientation, Doctor?” Rob asked turning toward him.

Don had strict orders not to discuss the side effect with Rob under any circumstances. Don had protested at first, believing that the commander had a right to know. But Yeoum had reminded him that the unwanted effect had only manifested itself in the chimps. None of the other test animals had shown any sign of it. Even if the effect presented itself in the “human test subject,” as the professor had referred to Rob, they needed only to keep the donor and clone apart. Yeoum had emphasized that if it was made known to the powers-that-be that this “little wrinkle” exists, it could spell the end of their work and ruin them both. Once the human was cloned, they could revisit the issue of the side effect, if necessary.

“The other subjects were under anesthesia during the scanning process.”

“Why? Why them and not me?”

Don needed an answer that would satisfy Rob but not send any red flags June’s way. Before she and Tiong had arrived, Don and the professor had used some questionable techniques to advance their work. He wouldn’t risk not being able to complete the project. At any cost. Finally, with an exasperated look, he said, “Did you ever try to make a chimp lay still for six hours?”

June made a distasteful face. “Ugh! I forgot it takes six hours.”

“And if something does go wrong tomorrow, how long will it take you to find out?” Rob asked with a menacing smile.

“Oh, we’ll know immediately. SIS will tell us.”

“Sis?”

“Remember, I told you that Jimmy integrated all of the computer systems together? SIS is the acronym for the command program. Short for Software Integrating System.”

Rob digested the new information. “You’ll know immediately?”

“Immediately, even before the scan is complete,” Don said reassuringly.

Rob begrudgingly accepted the explanation and turned to the refrigerator. He opened the door and quickly slammed it shut again.

“What’s the matter?” June asked. “Are you alright?”

Rob gave her a mournful look. “There’s cheesecake in there. Strawberry cheesecake. No wonder I’ve been craving it.” He raised his voice. “One of you guys must’ve eaten some and then you came around me and it oozed out of your pores or something.”

June couldn’t help laughing. Reaching past him, she said with a curt smile, “If you’re very, very good tomorrow, you can have some. Excuse me.”

Rob took a couple of steps away. “Now, June we don’t know each other very well, but if you take that you-know-what out of there, we are gonna have a problem.” Rob emphasized his point by pulling a paring knife from the wooden knife block.

June frowned. “Relax. I just want some grapes.”

Rob selected a honeydew melon from the basket on the counter and then grabbed a cutting board and started slicing through the fruit to begin preparing himself a fruit salad for dinner.

June plucked a cluster of grapes from the crisper as she chomped on the one lone grape from the bottom of the drawer. She hadn’t noticed that two of the grapes had fallen on the floor and rolled in Rob’s direction. She turned on her heel and started back to the living area.

Rob shifted his stance, crushing one of the grapes under his heel, which caused him to lose his footing enough to plunge the tip of the knife into the base of his left thumb. Reflexively, he pulled it out, causing it to bleed profusely.

Ignoring the pain, he looked at the floor. “Um, Doctor Phillips. I think part of your snack escaped.”

June stopped half way to her seat, turned and saw Rob reaching for a towel.

“Oh, I’ll do that,” June said, thinking that he intended to clean up whatever mess she made. She trotted back to the kitchen and looked at the floor where Rob was standing. She saw the grapes and a few drops of blood, and then watched as Rob wrapped his left hand with the towel. “Oh, Rob! Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry! Did you cut yourself?”

“Just my thumb.”

“Oh,” she groaned. “Is it bad?”

“It’s okay, I’ve got another one,” he smiled.

June was so filled with concern and guilt that she got her hands tangled with his trying to help, so Rob gave up and let her do the work. Looking at the substantial cut, she stated flatly, “You’re gonna see Doctor Mathers.” It wasn’t a request. She wrapped his hand back up, took his other hand and dragged him all the way from the parlor to the major’s sickbay, apologizing every few steps along the way.

Don, intent on his channel surfing, was completely unaware that the incident had even happened.

Just over an hour and twenty minutes later, after an x-ray of the injured appendage and satisfied that there was no nerve or tendon damage, Greg stitched up the wound as June squirmed uncomfortably at the sight. Rob had refused any kind of medication other than topical ointment, fearing that it might cause a delay in tomorrow’s scan.

“I’m so sorry, Rob,” June repeated, yet again.

“It’s fine. I’ve suffered far worse, believe me. Besides, it was half my fault. I should have checked the floor for grapes,” he replied, still smiling. Then he turned to the doctor. “What about the sutures, Doc? Will they have any effect on the scan?”

Greg checked his work again and thought for a moment, “From all that I have studied about the process in the short time that I’ve been here, none at all. I used polyglycolide thread.”

“Polyglyco-who?”

“Its absorbs into the body and the materiel is disposed of naturally. I’m sure that when it gets scanned, it’ll just dissipate and get absorbed into the clone.”

“Should you tell the professor what happened?” June asked.

Greg smiled wide. “No. That won’t be necessary. I’d rather not upset the professor’s apple cart. Especially now that I’m on his good side.”

“If I had wheels, I’d be an apple cart,” Rob joked. “And I’d rather not risk having to stay here any longer than is absolutely necessary. I have a family that I’d very much like to get home to.

June pretended to draw a zipper across her lips as an acknowledgment.

Greg gave a few brief instructions, telling Rob to stop by in the morning so he could check on the wound. Rob and June then started back toward the parlor.

“I’ll fix you some fruit salad. It’s the least I can do,” June said.

“What time is it?”

June stopped. “I don’t have a watch, but it’s about six I think.”

“The professor said I couldn’t have anything to eat after six. Only water.”

“We can sneak somethin’ in. I won’t tell,” June guiltily suggested, batting her eyes.

“Oh no. I am not gonna do anything to violate his orders and give him an excuse to delay the scan.”

June’s face turned gloomy again. “You’re just trying to make me feel worse, aren’t you?”

Rob laughed, “Believe me, Doctor, if I wanted you to feel bad, I have thirteen years of marriage faux pas that I could draw from to do it.”

She smiled.

“I’d just tell you that those scrubs make you look fat or something.”

June snapped her fingers. “We can go and see the babies!” she suggested excitedly.

Rob fixed his gaze on a point on the wall above June’s head. “Great.” His lack of enthusiasm was evident.

June rolled her eyes. “C’mon. You’re gonna love them.”

“Do they take well to strangers?”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Do they bite?”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, and then she remembered. “Well, only Doctor Tiong.”

“Why did they bite him?” Rob’s concern was growing.

They didn’t. Angelina did.”

“Angelina did?” Rob repeated, wide eyed.

“You have had a recent tetanus shot, haven’t you?” she asked as she continued dragging him down the hall.

Three hours later, they were still sitting cross-legged in the manufactured jungle of Paris and Charlie’s paddock. The foliage was real, and all of the sights, sounds, and smells of a rainforest surrounded them. It wasn’t raining, but even that could be simulated. The light had faded, and had mimicked an actual sunset. They played with the chimps in the artificial outdoor evening.

“They’re just like kids, aren’t they?” Rob said as he tugged the Tickle Me Elmo doll Paris was pretending to groom. She grunted and pulled it away. Rob laughed. He pretended to reach for Elmo again and had his hand batted away.

“They are kids,” June replied. “Paris and Charlie are only five.”

“So, they were the donors for Brad and Angelina?”

“Yes. If I didn’t tell you, could you tell them apart?”

They had spent the first part of their visit with the other pair. He glanced from Paris to Charlie, who was dangling from the large central tree while clutching the blue and white beach ball with his feet. Remembering his earlier visit with the cloned chimps, he answered, “Well, I’m no expert, but no. I can’t.”

“Well, I am an expert and I can’t either.”

“Really? Are they that similar?”

“Identical.” June held her arms out and Paris happily hopped over and sat in her lap, “In fact, the only way I can tell them apart is by this.”

Rob watched as the doctor parted the hair on the left side of the female’s neck. He leaned in close and could make out the serial number that was tattooed there: AT-300687923.

“Their tattoos are different?”

“No. Paris and Charlie have the tattoos. That happened before I got here. Angelina and Brad were cloned after I got here. They don’t have tattoos. I wouldn’t allow it.”

Rob had wondered what business June, an ethologist, had here in the most unnatural of places for two pairs of chimpanzees. But now that he had a chance to spend some time with her, he was beginning to understand.

“It’s funny, though,” June said as she hugged the chimp.

“What is?”

“Even though they’re like augmented super twins, Angelina is a bit more affectionate toward me than Paris ever has been, even though I’ve been with her and Charlie for a year and a half.”

“How long ago were they cloned?”

“December. They were our Christmas presents. Brad was born on the tenth.” A tear formed in the corner of June’s eye. “Angelina came two weeks later, on the twenty-forth, Christmas Eve.”

“Were you there when the professor woke them?”

“Yes. Well, with Angelina, I was.”

“But not with Brad?”

“No, I was sick. Yeoum wouldn’t let me near him.”

“Maybe it’s like an animal in the wild seeing its mama for the first time. Maybe she imprinted on you in some way.”

June sniffed and turned away.

Fearing he had touched on a sensitive subject, he changed it to one more pleasant.

“Cook told me you and the chimps would be leaving soon.” He couldn’t have known it, but that was another sore area.

June was still not satisfied with the living arrangements for the chimps, but choosing to ignore her own misgivings, she simply said, “Yup. The first of September.” She placed her hand on Angelina’s chin, gently turned her head and kissed the chimp. Angelina promptly stuck out her tongue, licking June on the mouth. June scrunched up her face. “I told you, no Frenchies,” she said, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. Angelina turned to Rob and displayed a toothy grin while nodding her head.

Rob nearly fell over laughing.

June set the chimp down and stood up. “It’s getting late.”

Rob stood and looked around. “The night is still young, Doctor.” He really didn’t have anything else to do that night, and he suspected that he wouldn’t sleep well. “I’m gonna go see what’s on the tube. Wanna come?”

June looked at him doubtfully before she answered. “I’ve enjoyed our time together Commander, but, uh …”

At first confused, Rob caught on quickly. He held up his hand, showing June the only item that he refused to take off until the actual work had to be done. His wedding ring. “Happily,” he said with a smile.

June blushed for just a moment and then it was gone. “Well, the babies need their rest and I have an early morning.”

“Yeah,” Rob said. “Well, I don’t have to be at work until noon tomorrow.”

“Can you find your way back to the parlor, then?”

“I think so.” He walked toward the door. Out of the corner of his eye, Rob glimpsed something. By the fluorescent light coming from the exam room, he saw a spot in the corner of the paddock that was disturbed. Curious, he squatted down, moving some of the brush that was piled up.

“What is it?” June asked.

Rob offered a half smile. “There must be twenty pens under here.”

17 Snug as a bug

26 July 2010

 

 

IT WAS 4:00 A.M. WHEN Rob went to bed. He tossed and turned for hours, unable to settle his mind as the moment of truth approached. As a last resort, he prayed that God would allow him some rest to prepare for the taxing day ahead, and finally, he drifted into a deep sleep. He woke up at ten-thirty to the sound of knocking at his door. For a moment he forgot where he was. Pulling off the covers, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and rubbed his face. Slowly, he recognized his assigned quarters, which resembled little more than a hospital room. He was surprised that not only had he gotten some sleep, but also that it was his most restful sleep since he had arrived. He could even recall some remnants of a pleasant dream that was rapidly dissipating from his memory like mist in the sun after a summer rain.

Knock, knock, knock.

“Commander Tyler. Rise and shine. Today’s the big day.” It was Greg.

Dressed only in his boxer shorts, he hopped off of the bed and staggered over to the door, yawning as he opened it. “Mornin’.” He covered his mouth with the back of his hand.

Greg was holding a stack of white washcloths in one hand and a gallon of clear liquid in an unlabeled plastic bottle in the other. “Oh, good. We were hoping you hadn’t showered yet.”

Rob gave him quizzical look.

“None of us thought about it yesterday,” he said, handing the items to Rob. “They’ve never had to tell a subject not to bathe before a scan.”

Rob held up the bottle. “What is this?”

“Alcohol.”

Rob looked at him dubiously.

“For washing. No soap, toothpaste, deodorant, cologne. No chemicals.”

“Great.”

“I’ll need you in my office in an hour,” Greg said cheerfully.

Without comment, Rob nodded and closed the door. Annoyingly, his stomach began to rumble, as it had already been empty for nearly twenty-four hours. Why did I skip dinner last night? he thought scornfully. And then a brief but sharp pain reminded him as he tossed the washcloths onto the bed. He looked disdainfully at the cut on his left hand, which had a slight red halo around it. Opening the door again, he shouted, “Hey, Doc!”

Greg popped his head around the corner. “What’s up?”

“I think I may need something on my you-know-what.” Rob held his injured hand up.

Greg nodded. “Stop by my office before you head to the lab. I got just the thing.” And then he was gone.

Rob closed the door and looked at the bottle again. With a resigned sigh, he removed the cap and sniffed. The fumes burned his nostrils, and made his eyes water and roll back into his head. He held the bottle at arm’s length, took a deep breath, and picked up one of the washcloths.

“Great.”

A little over an hour later, he was in his scrubs in the dressing room leading to the laboratory. Greg was there too. Rob had met the doctor in sickbay, where he had applied some antimicrobial ointment to the cut and performed the other unpleasant but necessary task of the morning, the enema.

As he stood there, the butterflies in his empty stomach had returned with some severity, but he wasn’t hungry anymore, which was an unexpected benefit. He was nervously waiting the signal from Jimmy that the professor and Don were ready for him, when a question popped into his head. “Why do they call the spectrometer Chloe?”

“Excuse me?” Greg asked.

“The mass spectrometer?”

Greg stared blankly at Rob.

“The big, huge, sideways phone booth-y lookin’ thing that’s gonna scan me. Why do they call it Chloe?”

Greg shook his head. “I didn’t know they did.”

Rob had forgotten that Greg had only recently joined the cloning team.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JIMMY WATCHED ROB closely from his office and thought of the night before. As was his custom, he had gone to the parlor late that night after all the others had retired to their rooms. He had gone into the kitchen and made a late-night snack and then planted himself in front of the television in one of the recliners. It was then that he had noticed Rob seated in the one next to him. It had startled him at first, but he had soon realized that the commander was deep in thought. Several minutes later, Rob acknowledged his presence after Jimmy had tried to sneak the remote control from his lap.

The two hadn’t spoken much during their hours together, but last night Jimmy had done some thinking. He began to realize that Rob was just an ordinary man. A man who would participate in what could ultimately amount to the greatest medical leap forward in history. Jimmy had decided that Rob probably had many doubts and misgivings about his involvement. As he’d watched Rob, still and contemplative, he’d considered apologizing for some of the remarks that he had made in a blatant attempt to make Rob uneasy. But in the end, he had decided against a show of weakness. Instead, he made a mental note to go easy on Rob for the rest of his time inside the facility.

As he now stared at Rob’s image on the monitor, Jimmy found himself feeling sorry for him. He hadn’t experienced this emotion with any of the other test subjects. Even Paris and Charlie. Jimmy couldn’t understand it. Yeoum had assured him, like the others, that the chimps’ side effect was the result of the anesthesia. They weren’t using any, so Rob should suffer no ill effects. So why do I feel sorry for him? He’s gonna be fine.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

INSIDE THE SECURITY office, two airmen monitored a bank of more than two dozen screens, each with a different view of the complex. The convenience store, the interior rooms, and the main entrance of the fallout shelter on the base were all displayed. No angle was left unwatched. The centermost screen showed the dressing room, the same image that Jimmy was watching.

Benny, Eddie, and Cal were there, along with Sergeant Covington who was standing with his arms folded in the corner of the room nearest the door. All eyes were glued to the main screen.

“He looks nervous,” Eddie commented.

Benny huffed. “Wouldn’t you be?”

Cal was smiling behind Eddie and Benny. He was barely able to contain himself. “I am so stoked! Can you believe we’re about to watch a man get cloned for the very first time in history?”

“What’s the contingency plan?” Eddie asked, ignoring the young man.

Benny glanced at him and then back at the screen. “If anything goes wrong that can’t be handled locally, we load Rob into the truck back at the convenience store and take him to Greg’s office in town. It’s set up as a sleep study. From there, we’ll call an ambulance to take him to the hospital, where the major has privileges. He will come and check on Rob there.”

Their conversation was interrupted when they heard Rob on the monitor.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ARE YOU A SPIRITUAL man, Major?” Rob asked.

Greg was taken off guard. “Not really.”

Rob was compelled to do something that he did rarely outside of his own home. In the nearly three weeks that he had been inside the complex, he had spent more time reading his Bible than he had during the previous six months. On the day he arrived, he had started the New Testament from the book of Matthew, chapter one. When he had awoken this morning, Rob had read Paul’s words from book of Romans. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

He needed to pray.

“Well,” Rob said, feeling suddenly embarrassed. “I’m a Christian. It’s kinda sad if you didn’t already know that about me, but I am and I need to do something here. I need to pray.”

“Alright.” Greg, unsure of what to do, closed his eyes, lowered his head, and began to wonder how long this would take.

Rob cleared his throat. “Heavenly Father, I ask for your forgiveness of my sins and thank you for the many blessings you have allowed in my life. I thank you for the fellowship of Greg, Jimmy, Don, June, Juan and the professor, who I have spent so much time with lately, and the security police protecting this program, and Special Agent Perez and the other NCIS agents that are here. I ask that you bless both them and this undertaking, and that your will be done here today and in the future with its results. I humble myself before you and pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

DID HE JUST PRAY for me? Eddie stared at Rob’s image on the screen. None of his team had spent any time with the commander, and frankly, he hadn’t given him a second thought. He didn’t know Rob, and he didn’t want to know him. This was just an assignment that was keeping him away from his own bed. But something changed when he heard Rob pray. Something tugged at his core and began to gnaw at his very being in a way that made the old lawman feel uncomfortable.

The other men found themselves drawn into the prayer as well, especially Benny. Even the two airmen had gotten caught up in the simple words Rob had spoken. Like Eddie, they were moved. All except for Covington, who stood motionless, arms still crossed in front of him, peering intently at the men on the screen.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JIMMY WAS BRINGING the systems online. “Are we ready, SIS?”

“Systems are one hundred percent,” the female voice responded. “Power is fluctuating between one hundred four to one hundred seven percent. Flow simulations are good. Materials are good. Nursery is priming. Environment will be optimal for structure commencement in approximately five hours, forty-seven minutes, fifty-two seconds. Chloe is ready to receive test subject Robert Orson Tyler, Commander, United States Navy.”

“SIS, I need you to make a syntax change. Calling the mass spectrometer Chloe is acceptable. However, it is no longer acceptable to refer to Commander Tyler as test subject or any other synonym. Understood?”

“Understood, Jimmy. What is the acceptable term or terms to reference the—” SIS was stumped. The computer system had been programmed to use the term “test subject” from the time that the applicable software had been written. It couldn’t “think” of anything else to call Rob.

“Refer to him as Rob or Commander Tyler.”

“Confirmed,” SIS said. “Chloe is ready to receive Commander Tyler.”

Jimmy smiled again, wider this time. “Maybe we better work on that one for a while, huh SIS?”

“Whatever you say, Jimmy,” the almost melodic voice responded.

“Okay, Jimmy. We’re ready down here.” Don’s voice came over the intercom.

“Right.” Jimmy punched a sequence of keys. “Here we go, SIS.” It was 11:57.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

IN THE DRESSING ROOM, Jimmy’s voice came over the intercom. “Okay, they’re ready for ya, Neel.”

Greg placed a surgical mask over his mouth. “I’m gonna take you to the chamber. Before you step in, you’ll need to disrobe.”

Rob nodded as he put his own mask on.

“Don’t take the mask off until you’re inside … what did you call it?”

“Chloe.”

“Inside Chloe. Make sure you toss it out before the door closes. After that, just lie down and stay as still as you can until the scan is complete.”

“That’s it?”

“That should be it,” Greg said, as he turned to open the door.

“Good morning Commander Tyler, Doctor Mathers.” A pleasant female voice greeted them over the intercom as they entered.

“June?” Rob asked, uncertain of the voice and suddenly self-conscious about undressing.

“That’s the computer,” Greg said.

I hope I don’t hear that voice the whole time. What would Carol say? Rob thought humorously, trying hard not to think about the coming event.

Greg hurried him through the open glass door to the spectrometer, but Rob’s curiosity got the better of him. He walked over for a close-up view of the nursery. The entire tank was sealed. Rob could see a shadowy mass attached to the back wall. Reddish brown in color, at its base it was as big around as a dinner plate and then it tapered out about four inches to a three inch concave face at its center.

“Is that the—”

“Umbilical? Yes,” Greg answered from the doorway.

Rob turned back to Chloe, smirking behind his mask. “That’s gonna be one heck of a bellybutton.” He then tossed the garments out behind him.

The major was already closing the outer door when Rob began to undress. He laid his clothes on a corner bench that he hadn’t noticed the day before.

“Commander Tyler.” It was Yeoum. “I am compelled to thank you once again for your participation in this program. Six hours from now, you will begin to see the results of your efforts.”

“Provided you all do your diligence, and get it right the first time,” Rob said.

“I’m afraid that depends more upon you than us, Commander. You must refrain from as much movement as possible, I must remind you.”

“Yeah I get it. Just don’t pipe in any kicking tunes. I may get the urge to boogie a little bit.”

“Nope,” said Don. “There won’t be any music or sound of any kind while you’re in there. The sound waves could disrupt the scan.”

Rob looked disdainfully through the glass at them. “That wasn’t on the brochure.”

“My apologies, Commander,” Yeoum said unconvincingly.

No wonder there was a psych eval. I may go nuts by the time this is over. “So I’ll be alone with my thoughts. For six hours. Great.”

He stepped into the spectrometer, ducking his head to fit through the opening. The inside seemed to glow. It was well lit, but Rob couldn’t tell from where. Its surfaces were cool to the touch, but not uncomfortably so. The interior was cylindrical, four feet in diameter and eight feet long with a concave floor. The black outline of the human form was traced where Rob was to lie. At its head was a rather uncomfortable-looking cradle.

“I wonder if this is what a Vienna sausage feels like?”

He lay on the floor and settled his head in the cradle. “Snug as a bug in a really big rug.”

He heard Don say, “Try not to go to sleep.” The glass door closed with a hiss and his ears popped as the pressure equalized. After a minute, he could hear the muffled sound of electric motors and felt machinery moving in the floor. It moved slowly back and forth, spreading out to his left and right.

“No turning back now, I guess,” he said out loud and then he began to think about the lyrics to Don McLean’s American Pie as he settled in for the duration.

18 Idle Hands

26 July 2010

 

 

ROB WAS RELIEVED BEYOND measure when the successful scan was finally over. Provided the growth process went well, his part in the experiment was complete. It was still necessary for him to remain inside the complex, but his mobility within was greatly increased. He was even given permission, over Yeoum’s initial objections, to go as far as the garage and the security office.

Just after the scan, he spent a few hours in the computer center. He then attempted to wear himself out by exercising and shooting hoops, and later found himself alone in the parlor, still feeling restless. It seemed that the more he worked out, the more restless he became. Those not involved with the cloning had busied themselves throughout the scan and then retired to their quarters early. Since his appetite for the big meal he had dreamt of before the scan was gone, he settled into a recliner with a bowl of popcorn, a soda, and the television remote.

He was still flipping channels when two young airmen attached to the security detail wandered into the room. It wasn’t uncommon for a few of the security policemen to come inside, especially the animal lovers, during their off-duty hours.

“Good evening, sir,” they said as they went to the kitchen in search of a snack.

“Evenin’ fellas. Catch anything?” Rob asked cheerfully, grateful for the company.

They stopped and gave him a perplexed look. “Sir?”

Rob watched their expressions change to confusion accented with concern. “A joke, gentlemen.” They smiled tentatively and went about their business.

Rob continued to scan through the channels. Finding nothing interesting, he settled on one of the late night talk shows.

The airmen, one with a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream and the other with an even larger bowl heaped with freshly popped popcorn, came stiffly to the living area, unused to the stranger’s company. “Mind if we join you, sir?”

Rob looked at them seriously. “Only if you’re sharin’.” He smiled to lighten the mood.

As they watched whatever happened to be on, the airmen relaxed. Having only seen the commander on the security monitors, they didn’t know what to expect. But they quickly found him to be down to earth and easy to talk to. They even began to appreciate his quirky sense of humor.

The subject soon turned to old cars. The three weren’t surprised to find that they shared this common interest. Rob told them about Daisy, and how much he enjoyed working on the Bronco. One of the airmen told the story of how he, his uncle, and his father had restored a French blue 1972 Triumph TR6 convertible to showroom quality the summer before he enlisted in the Air Force. The other had a similar story about a 1949 Ford Coup that he and his brothers had chopped and made into a low rider.

Rob glanced at the clock. “Wow. It’s three o’clock and I’m still not tired.” He rolled his eyes. The prospect of staying in the place for six more days with nothing to do was unappealing at best, but to suffer insomnia too? It was too much. Looking back at the television, he saw an ad for a local car repair shop. “Hey guys, you like to work on old cars, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Rob stood to his feet and rubbed his hands together. “C’mon. I’ve got a project for us.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

DURING THE NEXT FIVE days Rob had very little contact with any of the cloning team. They were diligently monitoring the clone’s progress and rarely left the lab. Jimmy occasionally wandered through the parlor late at night, but was invariably summoned back to the lab by Don or the professor who needed this process scanned or that progress monitored. Poor Jimmy’s work was never done.

As for the others, any combination of five, except Eddie who seemed to be keeping his distance, could be found in the parlor during the evenings for an impromptu poker tournament. As it turned out, Tiong was the shark in that tank. Rob got his wish to play horse with June several times, and Jimmy had attempted, when he could find a few spare minutes, to show him how to play some of the video games in the library.

Rob was mildly concerned with the slight but persistent shortness of breath he began experiencing. He attributed it to nerves, even though he hated to admit that he was anxious. At times, he had to concentrate in order to take a deep satisfying breath. Don invited him several times to come see the clone’s development, but he refused. He simply wasn’t comfortable with the idea.

When he woke up on day six, Rob felt claustrophobic. He longed for wide-open spaces and blue sky. He daydreamed about swimming in the warm ocean, and made himself a promise to take Carol and the kids to the beach when he got home. He was sitting in the parlor reading his Bible when Jimmy’s voice came over the intercom.

“Good morning, Walmart shoppers. The time is now eight o’clock a.m. The clone is ninety point four three seven percent complete. Estimated time of awakening is twelve forty-three a.m. Monday morning. While you’re here, check out the deli for some great deals on salami and Black Forest ham. Thank you for shopping with us.”

“Wow. He is incredibly annoying.” Rob stared at the speaker in the ceiling. He turned his attention back to his reading. He had made some real progress during the week and was up to the book of James, his favorite in the New Testament. Its chapter one message of persevering through trials was, he felt, especially poignant for his present situation.

“Morning,” June greeted as she came into the room, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She had just woken from a nap after getting up early to attend to the chimps.

“Mornin’,” Rob replied after finishing the verse he was reading. “I made whomp cinnamon rolls. You’re welcome to ‘em.”

“What the heck are whomp cinnamon rolls?”

“The kind that come in a can. When I was a kid, you had to whomp them on the counter to open them. Now you have to use a spoon.”

June smiled through her sleepiness. “Thanks.” She washed her hands and scanned the long countertop, spotting the rolls on a platter covered with a paper towel. “Having a problem with flies here inside this clean environment, are we?”

“Haven’t seen Jimmy this morning,” he replied with a straight face.

She poured herself a glass of milk, selected one of the icing-topped rolls, and joined Rob in the living area. She plopped into the loveseat next to him, tucking her feet under thighs. “What’cha reading?”

“My Bible.”

“No kidding. Which book?”

“James.”

June thought for a moment. “‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.’”

“‘Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything,’” Rob recited, finishing verse four.

“Any special meaning to those verses for you?” she asked, obviously referencing the process going on a few rooms away.

“I just happened to be in James,” he replied. “But, yes, they aptly fit this … situation.”

They spent the rest of the day visiting the chimps, playing board games, and talking—anything to take Rob’s mind off of things. While playing basketball, the shortness of breath began to intensify. He was able to maintain control with some effort, but June noticed that he was uncomfortable. Late that evening, they met back in the parlor to watch a movie. Without warning, Don erupted into the room, nearly taking the door off its hinges. He had a huge smile plastered on his dark face. It was the first time that either of them had seen him since Monday. He scanned the room and found Rob and June standing in the living area, their alarmed expressions dimming his excitement a bit. “What’s wrong?” June asked.

Don clapped his hands together. “Nothing’s wrong. In fact, everything’s perfect.” He trotted towards them. He started to hurdle the recliner in front of him, but decided against it, considering his prosthesis. “Today is the big day. Well, technically it’ll be tomorrow, but it’s within five hours now.”

Both June and Rob tensed, but for different reasons.

“You guys have got to come and see! We’re over ninety-five percent, now. He’s got hair!”

Rob flinched involuntarily. The detail was more than he wanted to know.

“We heard Jimmy earlier,” June said, sitting down. She fixed her eyes on the television as Rob gave Don a doubtful look.

Don danced around the chair, barely able to contain his glee. He ended up face-to-face with Rob, his hands on his shoulders, something that he would never have done if he weren’t stoked with adrenalin. “You gotta come.”

Rob looked past Don, scanning around for the remote control. The shortness of breath that had nearly been forgotten returned as he did.

Don frowned. “Don’t you want to see the fruits of your labor?”

“No.”

“Why don’t you take me? I’d like to see.” June was attempting to get Don’s attention off of Rob, more than anything else. She had been curious about the procedure when they had cloned the chimps, but she hadn’t developed any enthusiasm in Rob’s case. Once it had been established that Rob was a committed husband and father, she had spent a good deal of time with him. She now thought of Rob as the older brother she never had.

Don grabbed June by the hand and dragged her out of the room.

Slumping back into the chair, Rob considered his Bible. No matter how much he had read and prayed about his decision to be a part of what was happening here, he had received no answer, no insight pointing to right or wrong. He knew that prayers weren’t often answered in a perceptible way. That their results could go unnoticed until much later, once there was time to reflect upon them.

At first, it gave him some comfort. Nothing had ever happened to him, good or bad, that hadn’t resulted in his eventual benefit in some way. But he also realized that life’s storms had a way of sneaking up on people when they were least prepared. Sitting there, he remembered a conversation he had had with a priest during the process of his confirmation when he was thirteen. “In life we must endure many storms,” he recalled, speaking the priest’s words aloud in the empty room. “If the waters are smooth today, you must keep watch on the horizon for the dark clouds, and listen for approaching thunder.”

It had been some time since he endured a storm.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JUNE GAZED INSIDE the nursery and stared at the shadowy form within as music played softly in the background. Yeoum believed that the clone could hear within the confines of the chamber, just as a developing fetus hears sounds through its mother’s flesh. Music was, he believed, a necessary element in the development of the new life. He had even begrudgingly agreed to intersperse his classical choices with a limited selection of Don’s own favorites from the 80s and 90s.

Partially hidden by the translucent liquid was a human form. Its size and shape looked to be the same as Rob’s, but details, other than a pink coloration and the darkness of the hair on its head, were impossible for June to determine.

“Can you believe it?” Don whispered, holding his thumb and forefinger a hair’s breadth apart. “We’re this close.”

“Have there been any complications?” June asked.

“None,” Don grinned.

June stared in morbid fascination at the ghostlike outline. The realization of her fears was right in front of her, but she held on to the hope that humans would prove far too complicated to duplicate, even under the watchful eye of SIS. The computer had complete control of the process, introducing the building blocks of protein sequences and other elements at the precise nanosecond required. No human possessed the skills to come close to what Jimmy’s software could do.

“Great,” June said unenthusiastically.

Don didn’t notice her blasé attitude. “It’s been even smoother than it was with Angelina. It’s taken a little longer, not so much because of the size differential as it is the complexity of the cerebrum. Your chimps are smart, June, but humans will always be smarter.”

She was mildly insulted by both the slight against her babies and the fact that Don thought she wasn’t already aware of the fact. “Present company excepted.”

If Don heard the insult, he ignored it. He remained intent on the contents of the tank, much as a cheetah might study a baby gazelle with a pronounced limp. “This must be close to what God himself sees.”

A chill ran up June’s spine at his words. She found them to be more than a little disturbing. “Please, don’t talk like that.”

Again, he ignored her. “Can you imagine what this will mean to medicine? The good it will do?”

June remained silent, unable to forget Rob’s reaction to Don’s exuberant conduct an hour before. Would it really do the good that Don was prematurely bragging about? She leaned in close, her breath fogging a small patch of glass, and whispered, “Are you going to save the world?”

Earlier that afternoon, Yeoum had stood and stared at the nursery. Here was the culmination of over sixty years of work begun by his father, a daechwa in the North Korean Army. Yeoum himself had achieved this same ranking of senior colonel before defecting to Canada in 1991 at the age of 54.

He had worked with his father at the military hospital in Pyongyang, beginning as a young boy. Funded by the administrations of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il, the “Human Enhancement Program” was an extremely high priority endeavor for the North Korean government, which was eager to field the world’s largest army. He’d been given unrestricted travel privileges, surpassing even those of his father, which had allowed him to attend foreign seminars and conferences that he deemed necessary to further his work. It was in Montreal, where he had made subtle inquiries on previous trips, that he had left his delegation and had sought political asylum.

He had been given permanent residency, but was afraid for his life. So he reluctantly accepted an offer of employment from the United States in exchange for his continued work in the field of cloning. It was eventually an arrangement he came to enjoy. With the resources made available to him, he was able to make steady advancements and add team members essential to his success.

He had been conditioned from an early age to ignore the test subjects of his experiments in North Korea, regardless of species. There was no possible way for him to remember how many had been sacrificed over the decades in pursuit of the elusive quest of cloning. The faces had long since faded from memory. Until more recently, that is. Agonizing screams from the past had begun to make their way back into the professor’s conscience as the present project developed. Through the increased use of alcohol, Yeoum had managed to squelch them temporarily. But even that had been losing its effectiveness of late.

That is, until the day that Commander Rob Tyler had walked into his laboratory. Yeoum considered Rob’s mere presence his vindication, his penance fulfilled. All of the suffering that he and his father had caused would be justified if only one person could be helped through the use of his work, and that of his team.

Turning, he faced Don and Greg as Jimmy announced, “The time is now four p.m. and SIS has reported that the clone’s expected completion time remains twelve forty-three and twenty-four seconds. The clone is now ninety-four point three percent complete.”

Greg and Don had been watching the professor. They were all physically exhausted, having slept little during the week, but Jimmy’s announcement raised their energy level considerably.

“It won’t be long now,” Greg said, his excitement causing a wide smile.

Yeoum wasn’t listening. He was looking at Don. Of all of his team, Don was the one the professor had the most affection for. He was the one whose brilliant thinking had gotten the program, which had come to a complete halt, back on track nearly two years before. He extended his hand. “It is a bit early to be congratulating ourselves, gentlemen. However, it does appear that, thus far, our work has been successful.”

Don grasped the older man’s hand. “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” he said. But, I hear her clearin’ her throat!”

“Professor, how much time do you think it will take to evacuate its lungs and initiate breathing after the umbilical cord separates?” Greg asked.

Yeoum smiled. “Why, Doctor Mathers, you surprise me. I should think a former lifeguard could answer that question.”

The major shifted uncomfortably. It hadn’t really been a serious question, but just an attempt at joining in their conversation. He started to respond, but the professor cut him off.

“Relax, Major. Everything is going just as it should. And, I have made a decision.”

Greg eyed the diminutive man warily. “Decision? About what?”

“It is no longer appropriate to call our new friend it.” Yeoum looked past Greg as he studied one of the computer monitors. “In the past, I have allowed other members of the team to name the new creation. In this case, I will name him myself.”

“Have you decided on a name, Professor?” Don asked.

“In honor of our donor, I will name him Orson. The commander’s middle name.”

“I like it,” Greg said.

Don nodded his approval.

“Also,” Yeoum continued. “Although your time with my team has been short, Major, I have decided that I will allow you to write the book on the work that has been done here.”

Don slapped Greg on the back. “Congratulations, man!”

Greg was taken aback. He found the “honor” of being allowed to write what would amount to a cloning textbook a bit underwhelming. It was a book that only a very select group of people would be allowed to read.

“Wow,” was all he could think to say.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JUNE STOPPED BY TO check on the chimps before heading to the parlor where she would wait with Rob until the time came to wake the clone. Finding them asleep, she started to leave but found herself compelled to look in the corner of Brad and Angelina’s paddock. There, she found a small disturbed area. Moving the brush away, she was perplexed to find a pile of pens. She counted them. “Twenty-seven,” she said softly.

“That is just too weird,” she said out loud before heading to the parlor.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROB WAS SITTING IN the parlor trying hard to focus on the television as June lay curled up napping on a nearby loveseat. Everyone else had retired hours before, each leaving instructions to be awakened before the clone was. An ominous feeling had been steadily growing in Rob’s consciousness as strange noises inside his head threatened to reach their crescendo. The shortness of breath had returned with a vengeance. His knuckles were white as he gripped the leather-clad arms of the chair he sat in. He was having a great deal of difficulty containing an explosion of emotions as he felt like he was being pulled apart. His Bible was in his lap, open to the book of James, but he was unable to concentrate enough to read the familiar text. He was gripped by confusion and fear. I must be having an anxiety attack! It seemed an impossible concept, but he had no other explanation. He considered waking June, but refused to submit to his own weakness. Oh my God! Please help me! Jesus, please help me! He started to hyperventilate, only vaguely aware of the sound of leather ripping from the chair, as the seams of the arms gave way. His Bible hit the floor as he rose to his feet searching the room desperately, but for what? He didn’t know. His eyes came to rest on a clock somewhere in the room, the red numbers of its digital display stabbing at his eyes.

It was 12:43.

19 Storms

 

 

ORSON’S UMBILICAL CORD separated as expected, and the team completed the process of draining the nursery at precisely 12:43 a.m. Greg and Don stood ready to dismantle the tank in order to remove the clone. A gurney stood ready to receive him, and they had a set of scrubs ready for him to wear.

With the chimps, it had taken an hour after removal for the subject to become fully awake. Yeoum and Don were expecting another uneventful transition. Greg, on the other hand, hadn’t been present when Brad and Angelina were born. An occasional unsolicited grin betrayed his excitement as he forced himself to treat the situation as he would any medical emergency.

“Quickly, gentlemen,” Yeoum said, masking his own enthusiasm as the other two went to work. The panels came off quickly. All seemed normal. Then, suddenly, something completely unexpected happened as they attempted to lift his slippery body onto the gurney. Orson began to convulse.

“What’s happening?” Yeoum shouted from the outer room. But Greg and Don were too intent on their patient to respond. “What’s happening?” Yeoum demanded again, rushing into the chamber.

“I think he’s choking!” Greg grabbed Orson by the shoulders to turn him on his side as Don threw a towel over him.

“Is this normal? Did we bring him out too quickly?” Greg shouted without thinking, not hearing the others’ confused exchange.

Anger flashed in the Korean. For an instant Yeoum considered berating the younger man, but he quickly dismissed the idea. There was much more serious and immediate work to be done.

The convulsing continued as the three men used all of their combined strength to keep him from falling to the floor. Orson vomited fluid from his newly formed lungs, took a chest-rattling breath, and began to sputter and cough. His eyes were open wide, revealing fear and confusion. He began to tremble violently as Don threw more towels over him. The professor took hold of his head, forcing the clone to lock eyes with him. He was spat on for his trouble. Yeoum took it in stride as he searched for some sign of recognition in those eyes that were seeing for the very first time.

The fluid combined with the brightness of the outer room made Orson squint as he tried to focus on the form in front of him. Yeoum could see that he was trying to speak, but only one word escaped his lips in a rasping whisper.

“Carol?”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROB CONTINUED HIS aimless pacing, his Bible forgotten. What’s happening to me? There was an explosion of pain in his chest and he gagged uncontrollably. Am I having a heart attack? His chest and lungs burned, and then there was a stabbing pain in his head. He feared his skull might burst. Clutching at his chest with one hand and his head with the other, he staggered to the kitchen and felt the coolness of the floor on his bare feet. Sweat poured down his face as he gasped for each breath and began to quake wildly. Then came a sense of serenity, the feeling of weightlessness. The air around him seemed as thick as maple syrup. And then, cold. Colder than he had ever been. He began to shake even more violently. He lost his footing, but felt hands supporting him. As if from far away, he heard a voice.

Carol?

Somehow he found the sink, but his hands were shaking so violently that he couldn’t get water to flow. His body was wracked with the pain of a thousand knives as he tried to steady himself. A bowl half full of stale popcorn hit the floor as he groped around for something to help him maintain his balance. He grasped desperately for a pot hanging from the frame above the food prep island, but it was unable to support his weight. One of the fittings in the ceiling came free, sending pans and utensils to the floor with a loud crash!

June nearly fell off of the loveseat at the sound. She rolled to her feet and tried to focus on the source of the racket. Finally, she saw Rob writhing on the floor.

Oh, God help me! She ran. “Rob! Rob, honey! What’s wrong?”

His entire body was quaking violently. June thought he must have been having a seizure. She found a wooden spoon and forced it between his teeth, taking care not to get bitten. His skin was glistening with perspiration and his body shook furiously. Looking into his eyes, she found them wide in confused desperation. “Carol?” he mumbled as the spoon fell to his chest.

“No, sweetie, it’s June.”

“Carol?” He asked again.

“Rob! Can you hear me?” she yelled. Tears streamed down her cheeks, as he showed no sense of recognition. “Stay right here,” she said, standing. “Don’t move.” She sprinted out the door and down the hall screaming, “Help! Juan! Agent Perez! Somebody help!”

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ORSON SHUT HIS EYES tightly, trying to sort out the sounds around him. Even though his eyes were shut, he could see vividly. He was staring up at the ceiling, but his equilibrium was telling him that he was lying on his side. He was soaking wet, and yet parched. He tried to make sense of his situation. He could tell that his ears and nose were stopped up, which forced him to breathe through his mouth. And yet, he smelled popcorn. He turned his head but was unable to change his view. His eyes began to ache from the strain even though they were still tightly closed. When he opened them, his vision immediately blurred. He could vaguely make out three shadowy forms moving around him, overlaid on the ceiling. There was a distant voice.

“Can you hear me?” Yeoum asked.

“I can hear,” he said. “Who—”

“You’re alright. Calm down.”

Orson focused on the image of an Asian man, but it was a shadowy image at best, superimposed over the ceiling. He closed his eyes again. “Professor?”

“Holy crap!” Greg exclaimed. “He knows the professor. He has memories.”

“It’s alright. You’re among friends,” Yeoum said.

“Friends,” Orson repeated.

“Yes. We’re your friends,” Yeoum reassured him.

“June?” Orson asked.

“No. Doctor Phillips isn’t here. Would you like us to get her?”

“June, what’s happening?” Orson asked, ignoring the Korean.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JUNE LED TIONG AND Eddie into the kitchen. They heard Rob talking, but the only word June could make out was “friends.”

“Yes, Rob. We’re here,” June said, thankful that he had stopped quaking.

“June?”

“Yes, Rob?”

“June, what’s happening?”

“You fell. Juan and Eddie are here,” she said, placing a pillow beneath his head.

“What happened, Rob?” Tiong asked.

“I don’t know.” His eyes fluttered. “Don? Greg?”

Tiong gave him a confused look. “They’re not here, buddy. They’re in the lab.”

Suddenly, a horrified look erupted on Rob’s face. Placing his clenched fists over his ears, he screamed desperately, “What’s happening to me?”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

WHAT’S HAPPENING TO me?” Orson screamed and then he slumped, unconscious.

“No!” Yeoum screamed.

Greg checked for a pulse. “He’s alive.”

Yeoum wasn’t listening. He slammed his fist into the floor. “Decades of work. My life’s work!”

Don grabbed the professor and stood him up. “It’s okay. He’s okay. He’s alive.”

But the diminutive man didn’t hear him. He was selfishly thinking of his own predicament. What will they say? Will they let me continue my work? Will they continue the funding? Had this all been for nothing?

Don spun Yeoum around. He gently but firmly pushed him against the wall, holding him there. “Professor!”

The Korean’s eyes burned with rage. He balled his fists, preparing to strike. He kicked at his assistant’s prosthetic leg in rage.

“Professor,” Don said more urgently, still holding him against the wall.

Slowly Yeoum allowed the words to sink in. He regained his composure.

Don smiled at the professor. “It’s alright.”

“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, shall we?” Greg was rolling Orson’s limp form on to his back. “I could use a hand, guys.”

“What happened?” Don asked.

Greg gave him an incredulous look, “You’re kidding, right?”

“Okay, what do you think happened?”

“Well,” Greg started, “I’m pretty sure he passed out.”

Don frowned and started to speak again, but Greg continued. “Can you help me get him on the gurney?”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JO TURNER AND GERI Hughes joined Benny and the others in the security office.

“Back that one up a few seconds,” Benny ordered. They stared at the central screen, watching as the image of the nursery reversed and then started to play. Yeoum, Greg and the major were supporting the clone’s convulsing form. They heard the clone say, “I don’t know. Don? Greg?”

“Right here,” Greg replied.

“What’s happening to me?” the clone screamed and then collapsed.

“What happened?” Jo asked.

Ignoring her, Benny instructed, “Now back the other one up to the same time index.”

The airman complied. On another screen monitoring the kitchen, June, Tiong, and Eddie were kneeling around Rob.

“What happened, buddy?” Tiong asked.

“I don’t know. Don? Greg?”

“They’re not here, buddy. They’re in the lab.”

“What’s happening to me?” Rob screamed and then collapsed into their arms.

“What happened?” Jo demanded, drawing a piercing stare from Benny.

“One helluva cluster fu—” He cut himself off.

Jo backed down a rung. “Well, are they alright?”

“I don’t know.” Benny stabbed the intercom button with his middle finger. “Perez, professor, are your situations under control?” His eyes switched back and forth between the screens.

“For the moment,” Yeoum answered.

Eddie and Tiong moved Rob’s wilted form to one of the loveseats as June followed. Eddie stared at the speaker in the ceiling. “I have no idea.”

“I need the two of you in the store room, ASAP!” Benny barked. It was no request.

As Benny left, Jo asked, “Could somebody please tell me what’s going on?” She was ignored again.

“Back them up again, Airman,” Covington ordered.

Jo found Geri’s questioning stare, but the young agent simply shrugged.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

EDDIE WAS ALREADY there when Yeoum and the captain entered the storeroom. Benny hadn’t taken the time to change into scrubs, which, under different circumstances, would have drawn an angry response. But Yeoum held he his tongue.

Benny was glaring at the professor. “Can you explain what happened in there?”

Yeoum took up his typical defiant stance. “A setback.”

Eddie shot the little man a surprised, frustrated look.

“A setback!” Benny repeated angrily. “Professor, that setback in there is my friend.”

Yeoum scoffed at the comment, being completely unaware of Rob’s condition. “Come now, Captain.”

Benny turned his attention to Eddie. “What about you?”

“Like I said, I have no idea. Doctor Phillips was with the commander in the kitchen when it happened.”

“When what happened?” Yeoum asked in both annoyance and confusion.

Ignoring him, Benny continued with Eddie. “What we saw in security was …” He was at a loss for words.

“What did you see?” Yeoum demanded.

Benny shot the Korean an accusing look. “We saw Rob and that thing that you made in there freakin’ out, convulsing, saying exactly same thing, at exactly same time, and then they both …” He paused. In his haste, Benny failed to inquire whether his friend was alive or not. “Well, I assume that they both passed out.”

“Both?” Eddie and Yeoum asked in unison.

Benny yelled at the intercom. “Security, patch me through to the parlor.”

“Go ahead, Captain.”

“Doctor Tiong, what is the condition of Commander Tyler?”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

IN THE LIVING ROOM area, June and Tiong had been joined by Cal Warren.

“He’s alive, but unconscious, covered in perspiration, but doesn’t seem to be feverish,” Tiong answered. Glancing over at Cal, he added, “Honestly, sir, I have no idea. We called Doctor Mathers, but he hasn’t responded.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

BENNY STABBED A finger at Yeoum in an unspoken order. “I’m afraid the major is otherwise occupied, Doctor. I’m sending the professor to you now. Get the commander ready to move.”

“Where are we moving him, Captain?” June asked.

“Out,” Benny replied.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

COVINGTON HIT THE intercom button. “Captain, you’re not thinking of moving them out of the complex?”

“Get off the line and put me through to the lab, Sergeant!” Benny barked.

The airmen made the connection without regard to Covington. “Go ahead.”

“Major, what is the condition of your … patient?”

“He’s alive, but unconscious. I don’t know what happened,” Greg stammered. “I really need to get him to a hospital, Captain. I don’t have the equipment—”

“We’re already in motion, Greg. You and Cook throw some clothes on it and get it to the garage. We’ll have a gurney waiting. Are you going to need any assistance?”

“We can handle it, sir. Jimmy’s here. We’ll get him there as quick as we can,” Don replied.

“You’ve got ten minutes, gentlemen.” Benny started moving again. “And Major, check on the condition of Commander Tyler when you get there. He’ll be meeting you.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

IN THE LABORATORY, Greg gave Don a puzzled look. “Commander Tyler? I heard them call me but—”

“We kinda had our hands full,” Don cut him off.

“What is going on?” Jimmy asked. He had heard the end of their conversation with the captain and was still taking in the scene before him.

Don finished dressing Orson. “Jimmy, find out what you can from SIS. We need some information, fast!”

Jimmy cursed his inaction. He should have been working already. “SIS, have you been monitoring the situation?”

“Of course, Jimmy.”

“What is Commander Tyler’s current condition?”

“I’m afraid that I only have a limited amount of information concerning Commander Tyler’s current condition through visual records provided by the security feeds.”

“Discontinue commentary. Answer further inquiries directly,” Jimmy stated curtly.

“The commander is unconscious and in route to Captain Walsh’s ordered location.”

Jimmy watched as Don and Greg lifted Orson from the gurney to a makeshift litter that would make moving him through the laboratory compartments easier. Unsatisfied with SIS’s answer, but knowing that it was all he was likely to get, he moved on. “What happened to the clone subject?”

“Immediately before extraction, there was a spike in neural activity which resulted in premature consciousness. Upon subject’s removal, all monitoring systems except visual records were disengaged according to protocol specifications.”

“Is that all you can tell me?” Jimmy asked, his frustration growing.

“Please make specific inquiries.”

“Thanks for nothing!”

“Don’t worry about it Jimmy,” Don said. “Give us a hand, huh?”

“He needs an MRI,” Greg said.

“How’s he doin’?” Don asked.

“His pulse is racing, his respiration is shallow and rapid. And he’s still got some fluid in his lungs.”

“At least he’s alive. Let’s go!” Jimmy said.

In their confusion and haste, none of them noticed the sutured cut at the base of Orson’s left thumb.

20 The Tangled Web

 

 

COVINGTON’S EYES DARTED from screen to screen, watching the activity in the parlor, laboratory, and warehouse as the events unfolded. He heard the captain’s orders and knew he had to move quickly. As the airmen remained glued to the security monitors, he slipped out of the room.

He quickly made his way to his personal quarters, locking the door behind him. On a small gray desk next to his bed were two computer monitors, their split screens displaying various views of the complex. He took note that it was raining heavily on the outside as he habitually removed his sidearm and checked the magazine, then chambered a round and replaced it. Opening the desk’s center drawer, he removed a cell phone, a thumb drive, and a micro earpiece that he inserted and activated. “Foxtrot-three-four-one-two-two-seven-three, confirm?”

“Alpha-foxtrot-three-four-one-two-two-seven-three, confirmed,” the female voice answered immediately.

With infinite calm, he spoke. “Flash flood. I repeat, flash flood.”

“Acknowledged,” the voice replied.

Covington half smiled at the irony of the code as he watched the torrent of rain outside the convenience store. Closing the drawer, he turned to the computer and inserted the drive. He tapped in his authorization code and then a sequence that would initialize the security override to open the blast door in the tunnel as well as the secret wall in the generator room, among other things. Stepping over to the closet, he glanced at his watch. He opened the closet door and removed a second, identical pistol. He checked the magazine, chambered a round, and slid it under his belt at the small of his back. Finally, he pulled his rain poncho from the closet and slipped it over his head.

He checked his watch again. It was 01:13.

“Twenty-nine minutes,” he said softly.

Back in the hallway, two more airmen met him. They had been awakened by the others when things seemed to be spiraling out of control. “You men secure the facility,” he ordered. Then he ran for the garage.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

BENNY HAD THE TWO flatbed golf carts and two regular carts organized when the others arrived, enabling them to load the unconscious forms of Rob and the clone quickly. He ordered Covington, via the intercom, to prepare the transport truck for their arrival and to secure a pair of radios.

“Greg, is your vehicle still at the store?” Benny asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. You run blocker for the semi on the way to your office. We can call an ambulance for Rob from there.”

“Jo and I are coming along,” Eddie declared as he turned to Cal. “You and Geri help the SPs secure the facility.”

“Okay, boss,” Cal replied.

“I’m coming too,” June said.

Benny didn’t object, but he watched as Yeoum climbed into one of the golf carts. “No, Professor. You’re staying here.”

Yeoum shot him an angry look. “I will accompany my patient.”

Benny took note that the man said “patient,” as in singular. “Get out of the cart.”

“I refuse,” Yeoum stated flatly.

Benny nearly punched him in the face. It took all of his composure to keep his anger in check. “So help me, Yeoum—”

Don interrupted Benny to address Yeoum. “Maybe you should stay here, Professor.”

Yeoum continued to stare at the captain for a moment and then looked over at Don. Seeing the concern in his eyes, Yeoum reluctantly climbed out.

Benny stared at the Korean. “Doctor Cook, Mister Bennett, you’re with me.” He climbed into the cart where Yeoum had been.

“If June’s going with you, I had better stay here. Someone needs to look after the chimps,” Tiong reasoned, not knowing when any of them would return.

“Very well,” Benny replied.

The last to arrive was Covington. Benny looked past him for more security. Finding none, he made a mental note to square the sergeant away later.

Covington checked his watch. More than twenty minutes had passed since he called in the flash flood. He was working hard to hide his frustration. Where are the cleaners? He jumped on the cart with the NCIS agents, making a mental note of where they carried their weapons. He resolved himself to the possibility that he may be forced to complete the task alone.

Eddie had changed into his regular clothes and the captain was in his uniform, but the rest were still wearing scrubs. Greg and Don did what they could to monitor the vital signs of their patients during the journey through the tunnel, while the others remained mostly silent.

“C’mon!” June repeated occasionally, verbally willing the carts to go faster.

When they reached the generator room, Greg assisted them in loading the limp forms into the trailer and then raced up the stairs to the store above. The others did what they could to make the two comfortable, and then settled themselves in.

As soon as everyone was secure, the truck began speeding down Highway 96. The pouring rain made it difficult for the driver to see in the darkness of the unlit road. Fortunately, there was never much traffic this time of night.

Greg reached his SUV just as the truck pulled onto the road. He jumped in and wiped the rain from his face, then started the engine. As he threw it into reverse, the tires found little traction on the wet asphalt. They spun noisily, throwing water and steam into the air, as he pushed the pedal to the floor. He nearly hit one of the gas pumps as he left in his effort to catch the speeding transport.

“C’mon, Greg!” he said to out loud. “You’re no good to them dead.”

He sped after the truck, fishtailing as the Toyota exploded onto the road. The taillights of the big rig were already a half-mile ahead of him, so he stomped the gas pedal and quickly made up the distance. The rain made the conditions treacherous, but the road remained clear. Upon reaching the semi, he pulled into the oncoming lane and passed it.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THE DRIVER OF THE truck noticed the headlights in his mirrors approaching rapidly from behind and wondered if it was the police. He hadn’t been told of Benny’s plan and didn’t know that the major would be running blocker for him. He continued to watch as the headlights of the fast approaching vehicle grew in the mirror and then saw the SUV pull into the east bound lane in order to pass. As it went by, he breathed a sigh of relief and turned his attention back to the road ahead … and the pair of deer directly in his path.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

DEPUTY KELLY MUELLER slowed to less that forty miles per hour as he drove down the storm-swept highway. He had nearly reached the Lightning Quik Mart and could see the glow of its lights across the railroad tracks. The clock on the dashboard read 2:07 a.m.

“Time fer some coffee.”

He was thankful that he hadn’t been called to assist with a multiple car pileup twenty miles away on Interstate 75 as he pulled into the lot. He saw no cars at all, but what he didn’t notice was that there was no truck parked along the building’s eastern side. He snaked his way through the gas pumps and pulled into the space nearest the door.

Donning his plastic-covered hat, he got out of his cruiser and trotted toward the brightly lit entryway.

“Evening,” he called into the open doors as he paused under the overhang to shake some of the rain off. Just then, a bolt of lightning flashed behind him, followed almost immediately by the loud crack of thunder. Nearly taken off his feet, he didn’t notice when he received no response from inside. He saw Stan and Jackie, the two night shift employees, standing together in the middle of the store staring at him in shock.

“That one almost took my boots off,” Kelly laughed as he made his way to the coffee machine.

The two said nothing, but simply watched.

“Y’all been busy tonight?” he asked, suspecting that they hadn’t.

As he poured, he turned to face the two and met their unblinking stare. They hadn’t moved from the spot where they had been standing when he came in. Even Jackie, who was always happy to see everyone, was stone faced and silent.

“What’s up with you two? Scared of a little thunder?” Kelly joked as he took a sip.

“Yeah, that last flash … it was … pretty close.” Stan didn’t care about the weather. He and Jackie were still stunned at the sight of Greg tearing through the store a few minutes before, offering no explanation, in a mad dash to follow the transport truck.

“Yeah, I … just hate thunder storms,” Jackie added, smiling uneasily.

Suddenly something didn’t feel right to Kelly. He was in the store at least twice a shift, and he knew these two pretty well. As well, that is, as you can know convenience store clerks. He had never seen them act this way. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he began to suspect that he might have interrupted something. “Is everything okay, y’all?” He gripped the butt of his Glock and scanned the empty store.

Seeing the deputy’s reaction, Stan spoke up. “Yeah, no problems,” he said, walking to the bait room in the opposite corner of the store.

“Are you having a slow night, Officer Mueller?” Jackie asked.

Her painted-on smile made Kelly even more uneasy. “Yeah, nobody’s out on the roads in this mess.”

Thinking quickly, Jackie opened her cash register, removed the bills, placed them in an envelope, and dropped it in the safe.

Kelly turned and made a slow circuit around the perimeter of the store. He watched Stan push a mop bucket out of the bait room and start dry mopping the floor in front of the door.

He completing his inspection, but he was still not completely comfortable. “Are you sure everything’s alright?”

Looking up from the magazine that she was pretending to read, Jackie smiled brightly. “Everything’s cool. Wow! That lightning was random, wasn’t it?”

“Looks like it’s letting up,” Stan said from the front.

“I guess I better get back out there,” Kelly stated as he headed for the door.

“See ya later,” Stan said as he left.

Back in his patrol car, Kelly reflexively glanced over at the truck that was always there. Only this time, for the first time ever, it wasn’t there. Intrigued, he backed out and rolled around to inspect the area. “Huh,” he said incredulously. “First time for everything.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

GREG THOUGHT HE saw something out of the corner of his eye as he pulled in front of the tractor-trailer, but he couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the driving torrent and claps of thunder. So he didn’t notice when the semi struck the deer. With no sign of traffic ahead, he continued speeding down the highway. Glancing in the mirror, the image seemed odd. He could only see one of the truck’s headlights. “Great! If a cop sees one of the headlights out, especially in this weather, he’ll get stopped for sure.” But then he noticed something else. He was steadily pulling away from it. He took his foot off of the gas and the Toyota began to slow, but the headlight wasn’t getting any closer. Rolling to a stop, he turned the SUV around and headed back up the road.

As he approached, he could see that the truck was no longer on the road, but looked like it had pulled over onto the shoulder. When he was close enough to see in the darkness of the rainy night, he realized that it was lying on its side in the shallow ditch.

A steady stream of expletives issued forth from the doctor’s mouth as he slammed on the brakes, sliding off the road and nearly running into the overturned cab.

Grabbing a flashlight from under the seat, he jumped out and ran to the cab. The windshield was all but gone and the driver was nowhere to be seen. The interior was spotted and streaked with an uneven coating of something dark. Blood? A single hoofed appendage jutted through the steering wheel. Shining the light at the back of the sleeper cab, he saw the antlers of a dead buck, and underneath was the impaled driver.

“Oh my God!” he moaned as he turned his attention to the trailer.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROB WOKE TO THE steady beat of his throbbing head, his body riddled with a dozen other minor injuries. He opened his eyes but was unable to see. There was something heavy pinning him down. His nostrils were filled with exhaust fumes. There were sounds of creaking metal, groans, an occasional cough, and something else. Was it raining? It was nearly pitch black. After allowing time for his eyes to adjust, they came to rest on a row of jump seats lying on the deck.

I’m in the chopper. That’s what I get for trusting the Army to fly us outta here.

Using one of the seats for leverage, he found it firmly attached to the bulkhead. We rolled.

The pain inside his head was still intense, but it was subsiding and his mind was clear. He remembered seeing Sack go down. “Sack?” he called out weakly.

“Rob?” He heard a female speak, almost in his ear.

“Where’s Sack?” he asked in the darkness as the bulk under him began to move. His body had been the only thing that had kept June from crashing into the wall when the truck went over.

“Rob, honey. Are you alright?”

Did she just call me honey?

“Rob, can you hear me?”

“Yeah, I can hear,” he answered, scanning the interior. He could make out other crumpled forms around them. He spotted his Beretta lying next to him. His mind shifted into combat mode as he retrieved the weapon. He was in danger and there were people around him who were injured, possibly dying. Forcing himself to push Sack’s situation aside, he started to concentrate on more immediate concerns. He pushed himself up and found the woman’s hand.

“C’mon, we gotta get outta here,” June said urgently.

He spotted a rectangular opening, three feet by ten feet, and started toward it. A heavy rain was falling outside.

Raining? If anything it should be snowing. It’s January for Pete’s sake. But that wasn’t the only thing that was wrong. It was all wrong. He wasn’t wearing his ghillie suit. In fact, he couldn’t tell what it was he was wearing. It was loose fitting and short-sleeved. His combat webbing and gear were gone. Everything but his pistol. Did the other Blackhawk pick me up and then it went down, too? How long was I unconscious?

He couldn’t see much of the woman who was pulling him toward the exit, but he could tell she wasn’t wearing a flight suit. Her hair was long, definitely not regulation, and she wasn’t carrying any equipment. None of it made any sense. He watched the woman crawl through the low opening and followed. “I need a sit rep, soldier. Where’s Sack?”

June turned, looking back at the opening as Rob crawled through. The rain quickly soaked her scrubs. Did he just call me soldier? “You want a what? Who’s Sack?”

“My observer, big guy, mustache, poor attitude. He was shot.”

As he finished the sentence, he felt as if someone stabbed him in the back of the head with a white-hot poker. He went to his knees, dropped the Beretta in the mud, and nearly passed out as he screamed in agony.

When June saw the pistol, her first instinct was to grab it. “Where did that come from?” But then she realized that it must be the sergeant’s. He must have lost it during the crash. Ignoring the weapon, she grabbed Rob by the shoulders instead. “Rob? What happened? Did you hit your head?”

The pain was unbelievable. He had never experienced anything like it. His stomach turned and his vision blurred again as he fought through it. I can’t pass out again. People need help. With all of his strength, he struggled to open his eyes but found that he still couldn’t see.

June saw Benny’s head peek through the opening in the trailer. He had a jagged gash on his temple that was bleeding profusely, but his eyes were clear when they came to rest on her. “Doctor Phillips? Is that Rob?”

“Yes. He’s hurt.”

Benny climbed out of the trailer and knelt beside his friend. The rain stung his wound as it washed the blood away from his face, quickly staining his khaki uniform red. “Rob? Commander Tyler?”

If Rob heard him, he made no indication of it. He was still clutching at his head, fighting through the pain.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

COVINGTON OPENED his eyes. He felt some pain in his shoulder but ignored it. Sitting up, he assessed the situation. The truck had overturned and the trailer was dark. There were people around him resting in grotesque and somewhat comical positions. He felt for his sidearm and found it still holstered on his hip. But when he checked for his backup weapon at the small of his back, it was gone. Next to him he found a female form underneath another motionless body. He checked for a pulse and found none. The lifeless woman wasn’t clothed in hospital scrubs, so he quickly deduced that it was Jo Turner. He smiled at his good fortune, reached into the fallen woman’s jacket, and withdrew her Sig Sauer along with the two spare clips that she carried. Outside the hatch in the floor of the trailer, he could hear voices over the sound of the rain. He chambered a round in the Sig and started crawling toward the opening. He could take care of the others inside the truck later.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

BENNY SURVEYED THE area. To his right, he saw Greg’s SUV parked near the cab, its headlights illuminating the area around him. The driver’s door was open wide. There were no lights up the road in either direction. He stood up and turned back toward the truck just in time to see the grimace on Covington’s hooded face, his eyes fixed on Benny’s chest.

Benny heard the deafening sound and felt the pain of the first two shots, but not the third, as Covington squeezed off a round in between the captain’s eyes.

June fell away from the sound of the shots, landing on her backside. She felt the warmth on her face but it failed to immediately register that she had been showered with the captain’s blood. Confusion set in as she watched Benny crumple in a heap. “Captain?”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THROUGH HIS STUPOR, Rob heard the shots too and then felt the weight of Benny’s body fall against his back. He glimpsed the Beretta on the ground in front of him. Acting on instinct, he reached for it. And then there was only pain and confusion.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JUNE WATCHED IN stunned amazement as Rob reacted to the shots. In one smooth motion he somersaulted forward and came up kneeling between her and where the shots had come from. With one hand still clutching his head, he fired two shots and then two more so quickly that she only heard him fire twice.

And then, he fell.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

DANGER! RUN! GO! ROB felt something familiar, comforting, but nothing he could focus on. His body was moving on instinct, reflexively. Not of his own volition, but with a purpose. There was a deafening sound before him and then another. His hands went numb momentarily and he felt himself gripping something tightly. He was vaguely aware that he was lying on his back when he heard a different voice, a female voice.

“Rob!”

He felt himself being pulled. His head still throbbing, he found himself on his feet again.

In front of him was a small truck. Between him and the vehicle was a woman who was pulling him steadily toward it. There was the sound of gunfire behind him and he spun instinctively and fired the pistol that he was dumbfounded to find in his hand.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JUNE GLANCED BEHIND her and saw a dark form taking cover at the rear of the overturned truck. Turning her attention back to the silver SUV before her, she pulled Rob that much harder, opening the passenger door when they reached it.

“Rob! You have to help me,” she screamed as she shoved him inside and closed the door.

She looked back in terror as the ghostlike figure behind the overturned truck fired again, hitting the windshield of the SUV. Making her way to the driver’s side, she kept as much of the Toyota between herself and the gunman as she could. The driver’s door mirror and window shattered, stopping another bullet as she dove through the open door. The engine was already running, so she threw it in reverse and stomped the accelerator. Gravel, mud, and water showered the cab of the semi where Greg, having heard the gunshots, had taken refuge.

Greg couldn’t tell who was driving as he watched his 4 Runner speed backwards up the road and then spin one hundred-eighty degrees, heading west and into the night. Hearing no more gunfire, and with the rain letting up, he rose cautiously. Walking slowly around the overturned tractor, he was startled by the sight of a shadowy form standing over what appeared to be a body, silhouetted by the flashing blue lights of Kelly Mueller’s patrol car.

21 Naïveté

 

 

THE DRIVER OF THE black van eased his foot off the accelerator as he and its other occupants watched the headlights of the approaching vehicle intently. Windshield wipers pumped hard to clear their view as the heavy rain continued to fall. The approaching vehicle was almost on top of them before they could discern that it was not the lights of a big rig.

“SUV,” one of them said as it passed them by at high rate of speed.

The rain slackened up a bit as they continued toward the blue lights of a sheriff’s patrol car flashing in the distance. Slowing again, they studied the scene. There were caution flairs burning on the road in order to guide drivers safely past the wrecked semi that was lying on its side in the ditch.

“Is that it?” the driver asked as he rolled to a stop just past the truck.

“Dunno,” one of the men whispered from the back.

“There’s another guy over by the trailer,” another said.

“Could be the driver,” the first suggested.

“Or another cop,” the second reminded them.

“Can’t tell,” still another said.

“More blue lights on the horizon behind us,” the driver informed them.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

DEPUTY MUELLER NOTICED the van stop. He assumed they were considering whether they were obligated to render assistance or not. But Kelly had already radioed for assistance and was grateful when the van slowly continued on down the road. There was a lot about this accident scene that needed explanation, and he didn’t have time to deal with civilians.

“Thanks anyway,” he said, not loud enough for the occupants to hear, even if they had been listening.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

WHEN A VAN CAME to rest beside the Lightning Quik Mart, the rear door opened. A man jumped out and trotted back toward the road. He was Asian, dressed in a black business suit and black gloves, and he carried a black ski mask. The rain had almost passed, making visibility much clearer. He peered up and down the road, confirming that there were no approaching vehicles, and then trotted back.

Four men wearing black fatigues and equipment-laden backpacks exited the van. They were carrying Belgian-made Herstal P90 machine guns and Beretta side arms. Masks similar to the one that the man in the suit slipped over his head covered their faces. They ran two-by-two to the front door, three entering and one remaining at the door as the van wheeled around to the back of the building.  The suit joined the man at the door and produced a laminated document from his breast pocket. Unrolling it, he entered the store and flipped the power switch at the top of the doorframe to the “off” position.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

STAN AND JACKIE WERE taken completely by surprise. They had paid no attention to the van when it pulled in, too busy discussing Greg’s mad dash just minutes before, followed by Kelly’s untimely visit. When the men stormed in and the two realized the danger they were in, they considered going for the weapons hidden behind the counter. But by then it was already too late.

“Don’t! We’re not here for you,” one of the men hissed as he leveled his weapon at Stan’s chest.

“Storeroom,” one of the others said. The two were ushered through the door.

At the same time, the man in the suit pushed the front doors closed, then pulled a key from his pocket and locked them. The other man produced a roll of clear tape and handed it to the suit, who quickly taped the page to the glass. It read:

 

Public Notice: By order of the Houston County Probate Court: Business closed and contents sealed pending inventory for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THE LONE AIRMAN THAT was left in the security office hadn’t noticed the black van either. Moments later, all of his video screens went dark. He verified that they still had power, but the pictures were gone. Thinking it was caused by the storm, he flipped the intercom switch. “Security here. I’ve lost all of my feeds. I’m blind up here. Secure outer doors and be on your toes.” To himself, he nervously said, “What else is gonna go wrong?”

What he couldn’t have known was that the only speaker that carried his announcement was the one inside the security office.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THE SUIT AND HIS PARTNER found the others already inside the major’s office. A bewildered Jackie and Stan were guided down the stairway to the generator room. They were astonished. Neither had any idea what was going on under the store, and couldn’t have imagined what they were witnessing. Despite the almost deafening noise of the diesel engines, Jackie’s initial fear was replaced with excitement as she took the scene in, in wide-eyed wonder.

Stan, on the other hand, was a bundle of nerves. He watched two of the masked men kneel beside conduits running down the middle of the floor and into the tunnel. They efficiently went about their work, planting small explosive charges around them. He glanced at Jackie and, once he got her attention, nodded to the tunnel entrance.

The young woman studied the descending passageway and smiled, mouthing the word “Cool.”

They were ushered around an odd-looking platform in the floor with hand rails around three sides and a chain draped across the fourth side, and into a corner of the room as the masked men produced night vision goggles and put them on.

“What the heck is goin’ on?” Stan mouthed to Jackie, who smiled like a child at an amusement park and shrugged.

The group gathered tightly together and one of the men shouted, “Prepare for detonation!”

They heard the muffled pop over the steady drone of the engines. A moment later the lights went out. Seconds after that, emergency lights kicked on and the airmen were lead to the tunnel entrance where a pair of carts with flatbeds were parked rather haphazardly. There they were separated, each on a different flatbed.

Jackie grinned from ear to ear as they started their long ride into the darkness of the tunnel, but Stan wasn’t nearly as happy about their situation as she seemed to be. In the master sergeant’s seventeen years of service, he had never heard a story that started like this one and ended happily.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

AFTER A FEW MINUTES passed, the pain in Rob’s head was completely gone. But he was still suffering some residual effects of the trauma from what had to be a blow to his head. He felt mostly nausea. His vision and his mind had nearly cleared. He was able to assemble his thoughts into something close to cohesion, but his senses were lying to him. He found himself looking out the windshield of a vehicle, the darkened landscape rapidly passing by down the unfamiliar road. Droplets of rain were hitting the glass and, from the look of the two-lane highway’s surface, he could tell that it had recently rained.

Where in God’s name am I?

Looking down, he saw he was wearing what appeared to be a soaking wet set of green hospital scrubs that were covered in mud. His left shoulder was aching, so he absently massaged it as he watched what he could see of the landscape as it passed. He noticed that there were tall trees, evergreens it appeared, lining both sides of the road.

This sure doesn’t look like any part of Afghanistan I’ve ever heard about.

The only sound, other than the road rushing under the wheels, was that of the driver’s rapid breath. He watched the woman by the light of the instrument panel. She was also dressed in scrubs and covered in mud. Her hair was matted and hanging in strings to her shoulders. He guessed she was in her early thirties, but in the low light, he couldn’t make out much detail. She was staring, wide-eyed, straight ahead. She trembled violently, and although she was wet from the storm, he didn’t think she was shaking from cold on this humid summer night.

He turned his attention to the speedometer. Though it was difficult to see from his angle, it appeared that they were traveling over ninety miles an hour. Reflexively, he buckled his seat belt.

“Miss?” He spoke calmly, but there was no indication that she had heard him. “Miss?” He repeated, snapping his fingers. But even that didn’t draw her attention. When he touched her gently on the shoulder, she jumped at the unexpected contact. She snapped her head around and locked eyes with him, jerking the wheel slightly to the left and sending the vehicle over the centerline. Rob glanced at the road ahead. Seeing that they were fast approaching what he hoped was an empty intersection, he gently took hold of the steering wheel and guided the SUV back over into the correct lane.

The woman kept both hands tightly on the wheel and continued to stare at him with unblinking eyes.

“Eyes on the road, Miss,” Rob said, smiling. “We don’t wanna have an accident, do we?”

None of this was making any sense. Minutes before, he and Sack were about to board a helicopter in Afghanistan. A firefight had broken out and Rob saw his observer get shot. One of the choppers crashed and then … he tried to remember what happened next but he couldn’t. He could still smell smoke and gunpowder, and he could hear gunfire and screams mixed with the angry voices of men speaking what sounded like Arabic. He could feel the concussion of explosions and the cold mountain air in his lungs. There were flashes of light and pain. There were faces he didn’t recognize, the panicked feeling of drowning, the coolness of rain on his skin, and then … he was in a car, with a stranger staring at him in … what? Confusion? Fear? He couldn’t tell, but as she continued to guide the speeding SUV through the darkness, he took some solace in the fact that she appeared to be as out of place as he felt.

Regaining a portion of her composure, June nodded her acknowledgment and turned her attention back to the road.

“Maybe you should pull over,” Rob suggested.

She was in a state of shock. Raising his voice, he spoke more forcefully. “Doll, I need you to slow down.” Looking at the speedometer again, he saw that they had topped one hundred.

June blinked several times and glanced at the instruments. Her eyes grew even wider. She took her foot off the accelerator. Rob now saw her fear, bordering on panic. She was struggling simply to get hold of her emotions as she scanned around for a suitable place to pull over. Finding a large parking lot, she pulled in, drove to a dark area away from the road, and stopped.

Reaching over, Rob expected to find keys dangling from the steering column. When he didn’t find any, he noticed a button on the dash that was glowing green and read “ENGINE START STOP. ” He pressed the button and killed the engine.

“Huh,” he said, puzzled at the sight of the button. He shifted position and felt something on the floorboard. He found a pistol and picked it up. The acrid smell of gunpowder told him that it had been recently fired. He ejected the magazine and cleared the chamber. By the weight of it, he estimated that there were no more than six rounds left between the clip and the bullet in his hand. Replacing the cartridge in the magazine, he slid it back into the Beretta. When he looked back at the woman, he found that she was staring at him, not at the weapon, as he would have expected. Her expression changed to confusion, but she just sat there.

In the heat of the moment, she hadn’t considered which Rob she was fleeing with, only that there was a madman with a gun who had just killed the captain, and seemed intent on killing them as well. She had acted on instinct when she dragged him to the SUV that was parked there with the engine running, like a gift from above. Now, she was in a quandary. The man beside her had a gun, which put him in control. And yet he had a strange sense of calm, considering the situation. In his eyes there was no recognition, and yet he seemed to be in complete control of his faculties. He sat there grinning slightly, silent and unmoving.

Is this Rob Tyler or am I running with the clone? The question gnawed at her, and she needed an answer. Settling back in her seat, she made a conscious effort to control her breathing. After a few uncomfortable moments, she cleared her throat and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, now that we’re stopped.” He smiled disarmingly. Now that she was calm, he felt a strange sense of familiarity with this woman that he didn’t know.

It wasn’t exactly the answer that she was looking for. “Are you hurt?”

“My shoulder’s killin’ me, but—” He paused. His embarrassment was evident. “Do we know each other?”

I don’t know, do we? She wasn’t sure how to respond, but decided to proceed with caution. “Yes. Of course we know each other.”

Rob looked at her skeptically. “How?”

“We work together.”

“Work together? Where?”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. “We’re colleagues. Friends,” she assured him.

“We’re friends?” he asked with an apologetic shrug.

June nodded. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

His boyish smile disappeared. Does she know more than she’s letting on?

“Do you remember the crash?” she asked.

An image of the Blackhawk, its blade nearly slicing him in two when it hit the ground and rolled on to its side, popped into his mind. “Yes.”

June smiled. “What about Walsh? Do you remember Benny Walsh?”

Rob thought of his conversation with Sack. “Walsh told Sack that I was leaving.”

June’s expression went from a hopeful grin to a confused frown. “Sack?”

“My observer, big guy, mustache, poor attitude.”

June leaned back against the door. She had no idea who Rob talking about, so she waited.

Seeing her reaction, he asked, “Where am I? Where’s Sack?”

What if this is the clone and it has disjointed memories of Rob’s life? She remained silent.

His demeanor changed in an instant. “Where am I?” He asked forcefully.

“Georgia,” she answered as calmly as she could.

“Georgia?” If they were in the small eastern European country, that would explain his surroundings. Had something else gone wrong during the extraction? Were we forced to improvise? Trying to make sense of it only made him more confused. “What happened? Why didn’t we go back to Tajikistan? How long was I out?”

June’s eyes went wide in confusion. She had no idea how to respond.

“What happened? Where’s Sack?” His frustration was growing.

June’s mind raced. She feared that if this was the clone, the side affect might have manifested itself here in some unexpected way.

Unsatisfied with her silence, Rob hefted the pistol to his chest menacingly. “Look, lady—”

June wasn’t impressed. She decided that it might be best to lay it all out on the table. “I think that we’d better compare notes,” she said, looking intently at him. “My name is Doctor June Phillips.”

She spent the next thirty minutes explaining all that had happened since the two met, from the cloning project to all of the details that she could remember of their conversations, even those about his wife and family. Rob listened intently to the tale, asking a question here and there to clarify. But for the most part he remained silent. He knew none of the people that she mentioned except his wife and Benny, and knew nothing about any experiment. One detail disturbed him, though, more than all the rest. She told him that he had kids, a boy and a girl. Twins, in fact. But he had no memory of them whatsoever.

“So, what’s the last thing you remember?” she asked again.

“The last thing that I remember before being in this car was being in a firefight in Afghanistan.”

“Afghanistan. You never told me anything about Afghanistan.”

“Well, don’t feel bad. It was a secret. But that’s the last thing I remember. We were being picked up by the chopper—” He stopped. “You said we’re colleagues. Are you in the military?” He eyed her suspiciously.

“No, but I work for the government.”

“What’s your security clearance?”

She thought about it, but she honestly couldn’t remember. “Um … it’s like, classified, I think.”

“It’s, like, classified, you think? What are you, like, a valley girl?” He used a rather derogatory term from the eighties.

“What?” she asked, not understanding the reference. But that was the least of her concerns. She needed to get a feel for who he was and how much memory he had. “What year is it?”

He was put off guard with that one. “What?”

“Just answer the question, please.”

“Two thousand one.”

June’s eyes widened. “Two thousand one?”

Rob smiled. “Why? What year is it in your world?”

“So George W. Bush is president.”

He gave her sideways look. “Uh huh.”

“And nine eleven?”

He frowned. “Nine eleven?”

“September eleventh?”

That, he recognized. “What’s my birthday got to do with anything?”

It was her turn to frown. “Your birthday?”

“Yeah. September eleventh is my birthday.”

“And that’s all?”

His frown returned. He was tired of the senseless questions. “Yes, that’s all.” He sighed heavily. It was time for her to start doing some answering. “You said that we’re in Georgia. The state, right?”

“Yes.”

“And, that there’s a military base around here somewhere?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know where.” She stopped listening to him and started thinking. She was encouraged that he had memories from as far back as 2001. From all that she had been told, she would expect the clone to have memories from the week before Rob’s scan at best, but definitely not from nine years ago. However, the prospect of him having moderate-to-severe memory loss could prove equally devastating to their current situation. There has to be a way to determine if this is Rob or the clone. And then she remembered the cut on his hand from the accident with a paring knife the day before the scan. “Let me see your hand.”

Rob was taken aback. “What?”

“Your left hand. Let me see it,” she demanded as she turned on the overhead light.

“I asked you a question,” he said in annoyance.

“Let me see it!” she snapped, gritting her teeth.

Not really understanding why, he held out his hand.

Turning it so she could see the base of his thumb, she grinned. There it is! A wave of relief washed over her. She leaned in and grabbed him around his neck, drawing him into a hug. “Oh, Rob! Praise Jesus! It is you.” She was ecstatic.

Rob was thoroughly confused. He awkwardly returned the hug, patting her on the back. “Who were you expecting? And what’s so special about my hand?” All he could see was a small sutured cut that he had no idea how he had gotten. He looked at her smiling warmly back at him. He still couldn’t confirm anything she had told him, but he couldn’t ignore the evidence of his own senses. There was no doubt he wasn’t in Afghanistan. And there was another strange detail in her story. She referred to Benny as a captain. The man he knew was a lieutenant commander.

“Tell me about this captain.”

“About what happened tonight?”

“Yeah. What was his name?”

“Walsh. Benny Walsh.”

The name hit home. He knew Benny Walsh. How could she possibly know him? “And you said he was a captain?”

“Yes.”

Rob quickly did the math. He hadn’t seen Benny in some time, but he couldn’t have made captain in such a short span. “Well, I know Benny, but I know him as a lieutenant commander. What did you say happened to him?”

June’s expression changed to a combination of fear, sadness, and horror. As she covered her mouth with her hand, tears started streaming again. “He killed him. He shot him in the head. I saw—”

Rob held up his hand to silence her. “Who killed him?” he asked, not wanting to believe her.

She sniffed and wiped her face with her mud-covered sleeve, smudging her cheek. “I don’t know. He was wearing a poncho. I couldn’t see him. I’ve seen death before, but never that close.”

“Think,” he pressed.

“The only person in the truck who had a poncho on was the Air Force security guy.” She tried desperately to recall his name, but it escaped her. Unlike the other security personnel, he had never entered the lab. She had only met him once, when he had arrived. She shook her head.

Rob’s thoughts were beginning to lose what little cohesion they had. “You said that there’s a base close by.”

Taking the hint, June started the SUV. “Yeah, but the sergeant … he’s in the Air Force. What if—”

Rob held up his hand again to silence her. “What if it’s the Air Force that’s trying to kill us?”

Rob had paid little attention to the truck they were in up to this point. But when the dash lights came on, he noticed the screen at its center. At first he thought it was part of the stereo system, but as he studied it he noticed a compass with the letters GPS below it. He stiffened. “We better go, now!”

“Okay,” June said tentatively, not understanding his sudden urgency.

He pointed to the screen. “That’s a global positioning system?”

“Good idea! You can search for someplace for us to go while I drive.”

What June didn’t think about was that GPS devices hadn’t become popular until recently. They weren’t widely used in early 2001, the time that Rob was apparently living in.

“Bad idea.”

She shot him a confused look. “How come?”

“Because if we have a GPS device, then whoever might have the ability to track us.”

As if entering on cue, the sound of a speeding vehicle, followed by a screech, shattered the still of the night. A black SUV slid to a stop on the road barely 500 feet away.

The hairs on the back of Rob’s neck stood up. “We’re in danger.”

They watched in fascination as the vehicle wheeled around, headlights pointed in their direction, as its driver ignored the road and came barreling over the curbs, shrubs, and anything else in its path. The GMC ripped up gravel and turf alike as it careened toward them.

22 Playing chicken

 

 

THE BLACKHAWK HELICOPTER had been buzzing the scene of the crash for nearly ten minutes with its spotlight illuminating both the truck and the woods to the north. But Eddie was hardly aware of any of it as he squatted next to the body of Captain Benny Walsh. Holding up the mud-caked sheet that Officer Kelly Mueller had used to cover Benny’s lifeless form, all Eddie could think about was the face of Special Agent Jo Turner. His partner and friend of five years was dead, and at the moment that was all he cared about. After several long minutes of staring at nothing, Eddie’s eyes at last turned to focus on the body before him. Benny was dead, and he was not the victim of some senseless accident like Jo was. This man that Eddie barely knew lay in the mud, undignified and discarded like refuse, the victim of an unknown assailant, loose somewhere in the woods of Houston County, Georgia. Benny had been murdered in cold blood.

Like most of the others, Eddie had been briefly knocked unconscious when the truck overturned. He had awoken battered and bruised, and bloody from a cut above his right eye. As he had gone about checking the others for signs of life, he had discovered Jo’s body. He had also discovered that three of the truck’s other occupants were missing. June Phillips, Sergeant Covington, and either Commander Rob Tyler or his clone were nowhere to be seen.

After happening on the scene and finding Benny’s body, Kelly’s first order of business had been to secure Greg Mathers, who was wandering aimlessly about the area, to the truck with handcuffs until he could sort things out. Next, he had found Eddie climbing out of the trailer.

When Kelly started asking questions, Eddie had immediately identified himself as a federal agent and, upon verification, had taken over the scene. He’d had Greg released so that he could attend to the injured, and then had ordered the other deputies that Kelly had radioed for to close more than 16 miles of Highway 96, from Highway 247 to Interstate 16. He had then requested assistance from General Stillman and the Air Force to secure the crash site. When the base commander dispatched her personnel to deal with the situation, she had angrily assured Eddie that she would be personally overseeing the disaster.

Eddie squatted there, staring at the body without uttering a word until Kelly asked, “Special Agent, are you alright?”

Eddie heard the question, but he honestly didn’t know how to answer.

“Are you okay, Special Agent?” Kelly repeated.

Eddie stood without speaking and looked past the deputy. He saw Jimmy Bennett cradling his left arm and Don Cook clutching his right side. Both had been injured in the crash. They were still in their scrubs, leaning against a patrol car, and they both had the same look of confusion and disbelief on their faces.

Kelly accepted the fact that Eddie wasn’t going to answer, so he gestured to the captain’s body. “Did you know him? Was he a friend?”

Eddie considered the question as he looked back at Benny’s body. He had gotten to know the captain about as well as coworkers could in the nearly three weeks they had been together, but he couldn’t call Benny Walsh a friend. In fact, at the moment he felt no more emotion for this man than he did for any of the victims whose untimely demise he had investigated. “Not really.”

“Well, I’m sorry anyway.”

Eddie nodded.

“What about the woman?”

Anger welled up in him now. Not at the deputy, but at himself. He was responsible for the loss of his partner. He took a slow, deep breath. “Yeah, we were friends.”

Seeing Eddie fight to keep his emotions in check, Kelly nodded but kept silent. They had been waiting for the Air Force security personnel to respond for more than twenty minutes and thus far, they hadn’t seen anything but the chopper. “Look, Special Agent. I know this is your crime scene, but is there anything I need to notify my people about? I mean, it’s been almost half an hour. Do I need to put out a BOLO for your people?”

Eddie had no idea how to answer the deputy’s question. Those who were missing were of great concern, considering the fact that one or more of them probably killed Benny. But he couldn’t compromise protocol by giving too much information to the local sheriff’s department. He checked his watch. It was 3:02 AM. How much longer will it be before base security arrived?

A moment later, his question was answered as the sound of engines approaching caught their attention. They turned to face a column of vehicles, topped with flashing blue, red, and amber lights, speeding from the west.

Eddie shoved his hands into his pockets. It’s about time.

In the lead was a white security police sedan followed by two ambulances and a myriad of support vehicles. Kelly strained his eyes against the lights to see into the first car, guessing correctly that Colonel Talbot, the security police squadron commander himself, would come. “Don’t worry. This guy’s alright,” he told Eddie.

Eddie wasn’t worried.

The colonel exited the car quickly. He was wearing desert fatigues but had no sidearm, which Eddie would have found odd had he not been preoccupied by the thoughts of Jo’s death. The officer walked toward them as he surveyed the area. His hawkish features gave him an air of complete control. He was in his early forties with sandy-colored hair, and he carried his one hundred eighty pounds on his five-foot-eleven frame with an easy confidence. He extended his hand. “Special Agent Perez?”

“That’s right,” Eddie answered, his hands still in his pockets.

Under the circumstances, the colonel gave little thought to the special agent’s lack of pleasantries. “Jim Talbot. Looks like we’ve got a situation here.”

“You could say that.”

“Good morning, Kelly,” Talbot acknowledged the sergeant.

“Colonel,” he replied.

Talbot turned his full attention to Eddie. “I’ve briefed my people about the sensitive nature of this event, and they are all professionals,” he said reassuringly, his Texas accent giving away a hint of his personality.

“I appreciate that, Colonel.” Eddie watched the Air Force paramedic crews grabbing gear from their vans as Greg directed them to the injured.

“My orders are to take command of the scene and transport you and the others to the hospital. Immediately after that, you’ll be interviewed by the base commander General Stillman.”

Eddie didn’t blink. He expected the Air Force to take over. “My partner is in the truck. I’m staying until the M.E. arrives.”

“When you’re ready, then,” Talbot said.

“Thanks,” Eddie replied.

“Kelly, I’m gonna need you to hang out here with me for a while,” the colonel said, turning his way.

“No problem,” he answered. The two walked over to where some of the men had begun the process of photographing the scene.

Eddie joined Don and Jimmy as they were being looked after by the new arrivals. He was uncharacteristically thankful that all of this was now in someone else’s hands.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THE BLACK GMC WAS closing the distance fast as it roared across the parking lot, its headlights bouncing wildly up and down with every parking block that the driver charged over.

“I’ll drive,” Rob said calmly, reaching for the door handle. But before he found it, June had the SUV moving … and headed straight for the other vehicle.

“Ever played chicken?” she asked.

“Been a while,” Rob said, replacing his seat belt.

Seconds apart now, the driver of the GMC seemed intent on ramming them, but June timed it perfectly. She swerved right, then left around it, and then accelerated toward the road.

“These fellas are serious,” Rob said grimly.

“Which way?” she asked. They heard the GMC’s tires screech again as the driver wheeled around to begin the chase.

“Right.” Rob chose that direction for no better reason than that the GMC had come from the left. He watched as the black SUV slid around to start after them, white smoke billowing behind it, trying to find traction on the wet pavement.

“Good tires on that thing.”

June took a bit more care bullying her way over the curbs and landscaping, striking only a few of the concrete blocks. “Remember, I don’t know where I’m going,” she stated calmly.

Rob, impressed with the change in her composure, looked over at her. “Just drive,” he said with a smile. “Navy,” he said. “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.”

At that, she gave him an incredulous look. How can he be so calm?

“Tough crowd. Just drive fast, you’re doin’ fine.” He turned to see the more powerful GMC rapidly close the distance between them.

June looked back and forth from the rear view mirror to the road. As they rounded a curve, she saw through the trees the lights of a convenience store at the coming intersection.

“There’s a store. Should I stop?”

“Nope,” Rob said as the GMC slammed into the back of the Toyota. Glancing over, he saw that June had taken the hit in stride. I’m beginning to like this girl. “Been in many demolition derbies, have we?”

“You have no idea,” she answered, half smiling. “Who are they?” she asked, weaving the SUV in an attempt to keep their adversary from pulling next to them on the narrow two-lane highway.

Well, since I was in Afghanistan until about forty minutes ago … “I have no idea, but there’s more than one of them in there.” He unbuckled his seat belt and climbed into the back.

“What are you doing?” June asked.

“Seein’ if I can scare ‘em.”

The two vehicles burst through another empty intersection. Each time they did, June was forced to steer wildly to keep their adversaries at bay. She was dismayed that there was no traffic to run interference with. Glancing at the GPS, she saw that they were approaching another intersection as the GMC struck them again, shattering the back window.

Brushing off shards of glass, Rob looked at his weapon in despair. Only six rounds. Gotta pick my targets carefully. He leveled the 9mm at the driver’s side of the GMC’s windshield and squeezed off a round. It bounced away harmlessly.

Bulletproof. “Maybe not so carefully.”

He adjusted his aim and emptied the remaining bullets into the GMC’s grill, hoping to hit the radiator or some other vital component. His action produced the same result. Nothing.

The next impact made both SUVs swerve violently back and forth, but June continued to impress her passenger as she recovered quickly.

Rob climbed back into the front seat. “We’re in trouble.”

June looked at him skeptically. “Ya think?”

“No, I mean we’re in real trouble.”

“Whadaya mean, real trouble?”

“I think that thing is armored. It probably weighs six tons.”

The tires of the Toyota squealed in protest as June turned the wheel violently, propelling them around a curve and through another intersection in an unsuccessful attempt to shake their adversaries. “Armored? Who are these guys?” June wasn’t aware of the fact that she had turned on to a five-lane highway until the GMC surged ahead, quickly slamming into the driver’s side of the Toyota. “Hang on!” she shouted. She slammed on the breaks and then went quickly back on the gas. The back of Rob’s head nearly smashed into the dashboard, but the force of the acceleration that followed slapped him back against the seat. June looked back at her mirror, smiling as they shot past the GMC. But that smile quickly faded as the behemoth rushed back to within inches of their bumper.

“Did you mean to do that?” Rob asked incredulously.

“Crap!” she yelled.

“Yeah. Don’t try that one again, okay?”

“Back seat driver,” she admonished.

She couldn’t keep the GMC from wheeling around them on the five-lane, but she anticipated their next move and slammed on the brakes again. The bigger SUV hit the Toyota squarely on the side instead of forcing them into the intended pit maneuver. June’s hands danced on the wheel and her feet did the same with the pedals. Another driver may have lost control, but she was able to hold the road and even regain the lead.

“Okay, I’m gonna just let you drive then,” Rob said stoically.

But the GMC was on them again and maneuvering for another hit. Without hesitating, June hit the brakes again, having the presence of mind to shift the truck into neutral to prevent the engine from stalling. They both watched as their foes crossed inches in front of them, only to lurch off of the road. The driver of the larger vehicle worked hard to regain control, but lost some ground as a result.

“Nice!” Rob shouted excitedly. “You may have to do it again, but quick.” He watched the GMC come at them again from behind.

June’s smile disappeared as she looked in her rear view. “Looks like I don’t have a choice.” Looking ahead again, she saw another intersection, this one with several businesses lining each side of the road. “Should I stop at one of these?”

“No! Just keep goin’!”

Once through the intersection, June saw a grove of trees ahead on the right. She slid the Toyota to the left and watched their adversary pull alongside for another attempt at a “pit.” But at the last possible moment, June stood on the break pedal with both feet, turning the wheel as she did. The 4 Runner began to spin clockwise as the GMC came at them. It almost passed by harmlessly again, but at the last second it clipped them in the front. The deafening sound of crunching metal assailed them. It appeared as if the Toyota’s entire engine compartment disintegrated, making their clockwise spin even wilder. But June had misjudged the distance to the trees. Instead of smashing into one of them, the GMC dove into the drainage ditch. Water from the recent downpour exploded into the air as the SUV connected with a concrete driveway that crossed over the ditch. The truck’s momentum carried enough energy to flip the heavy vehicle completely over, landing upside down and spinning a hundred feet before coming to rest in the middle of a resident’s front yard. Motion sensors triggered floodlights, and the whole area was suddenly brightly illuminated.

The Toyota continued its spin until it turned a complete three-sixty, coming to rest on the road, facing west again.

Lights came on and curtains were pulled back inside the house, silhouetting one of its residents as they looked out at the carnage on their lawn. Rob watched as the driver’s door of the GMC opened and a man dressed entirely in black slowly climbed out. “We have a survivor,” Rob said, opening his door.

“What are you doing?”

“I want some answers.”

June turned her attention back to the rear view. In the distance, a set of high beam headlights could be seen. Rob saw them too as he climbed out.

“Maybe it’s the police,” June said hopefully.

Rob’s keen eyes recognized the shape of the lights. “Not unless they drive Humvees.”

“The Air Force?”

“We better go,” he instructed, a bit too calmly for June’s liking.

“How are we gonna go? The car’s ruined,” she said woefully, gesturing to what was, from her prospective, a nonexistent engine.

Jumping back in, Rob reached over and pressed the start button. To June’s amazement, the Toyota came to life. “Engine’s fine,” he said. “At this point, I don’t care who they are. There’re too many people tryin’ to kill us! Let’s go.”

“What about lights? It’s dark. Do we even have any? The cops’ll stop us for sure.”

“Auxiliary lights under the bumper,” he said without missing a beat. Turning toward her, he smiled. “Can we go now?”

As June started down the road, Rob turned his attention back to the lights behind them. He knew that a Humvee’s top speed was around ninety miles per hour, and after what he had just witnessed he was confident in June’s ability to outrun them. He continued to watch as it stopped at the crash site and a single figure climbed out, but they were too far away to make out who it was.

Rob forced himself to relax and look over at his chauffeur.

Feeling his stare, June looked back at him, suddenly self conscious. “What?”

“What was your name again?”

“June … June Phillips.”

“Where did you learn to drive like that, June Phillips?”

As she turned her attention back to the road, a girlish grin crept onto her face. “Ethiopia.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

INSIDE THE OFFICES of the Manhattan Temporary Service located in a professional park off of Highway 54 in Morrow, Georgia, Toni Blackburn vigorously chewed a wad of bubble gum while sitting at her desk in her combination work/living space. She was staring anxiously at the computer monitor in front of her. Next to the desk was a small table with a laptop computer that she used for Internet research. The young woman had been only twenty-three and fresh out of college when the CIA recruited her two years before. She was a graduate of the University of Georgia where she had obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Resource Administration and Development. She had been offered a position within the clandestine agency and, after completing her training, was assigned to the Atlanta field office as a logistics coordinator.

She was small and short, and would have been a rather plain-looking girl if it were not for her Gothic style. She wore her hair dyed jet-black, shaved about two inches up on the sides and back, with the rest hanging coarsely down to the small of her back. The hair was a stark contrast to her pale complexion. The black eyeliner that she wore around dark brown eyes gave her a gaudy, mysterious look. She was perversely proud of her seven piercings. Two in each ear, two in her nose, two in her lower lip, and a tongue stud. She wore a black tee shirt and black overalls. A pair of black combat boots completed the costume.

Chris Montgomery, the deputy director of the Atlanta field office, stood behind her. He was also staring intently at the computer’s monitor. At five eleven, he was showing the inescapable signs of his 61 years. His eyes were weathered gray, and accented by deep crow’s feet. His hair, the same color as his eyes, receded more with each year. The moderate spread around his middle betrayed him to be a man who had long ago given up on most physical activity. He was dressed casually in blue jeans and a peach polo shirt.

To Montgomery’s right stood his assistant, Simon Pew. The young man had been with the agency since 2004. His enlistment in the Army, which included a short stint in its elite Delta Force where he had served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently, in South Korea, had ended when he was approached by “the company” and opted to join their ranks. He stood five foot nine with black, closely cropped hair and green eyes. He had been dressed a bit more formally than his superior, in a gray business suit, but the events of the past couple of hours had him shedding his jacket and paisley tie, throwing them unceremoniously on the floor.

The screen was split into sixteen views of the underground complex. They watched as Bravo team carried out the various tasks necessary to remove evidence. The team members had a row of unconscious forms lined next to one another on the floor, preparing to take them to the garage for transport.

Over the past few days, Toni, Montgomery, and Pew had waited patiently for the waking of the clone, anxious to see the results of the decades-long experiment. They had watched as the commander and his “twin” had some kind of psychotic episode. They had heard Covington’s call for flash flood, the code that would initialize the cleaners. They had watched their screens helplessly as Rob and the clone were taken from the facility before Bravo, who had been delayed by a car accident during the storm, could arrive. They had witnessed the unfortunate demise of one of the Air Force security guards at the hands of Bravo, and the gassing of the persons left in the lab. They had heard Covington’s report of the truck accident and of the death of one of the NCIS agents. But none of it concerned Montgomery as much as the death of Captain Benny Walsh. Things were not proceeding as planned.

Montgomery turned away from the desk and rubbed his face. He had been assigned to project Pine Tree when it was moved from Canada to Georgia. Pew had been approached by an operative of the North Korean government, known to him from his time in the Army. Back then, Pew had let it be known that he was available for extracurricular activity, so long as the price was right. The North Korean operative eventually approached Pew and asked him to return one of their citizens, as well as a few of his companions, to his homeland. Pew’s plan required the involvement of Montgomery in order to be successful. In return, the two were to receive a life-altering sum of money and a one-way ticket to the non-extradition country of their choice.

Montgomery had spent thirty-two years in the CIA after the Navy. His career had cost him three marriages and alienated him from his four children. He had attempted to buy their affection, but that had only resulted in the draining of his savings account. Since he had only four years left until retirement, the prospect of living off of what little the government would provide him for his service fueled his enthusiasm for the idea.

He was now beginning to regret that decision.

They were caught off guard and mournfully ill prepared when the situation inside the bomb shelter deteriorated so quickly.

“Anything?” he asked Toni.

She popped her gum, and then answered, “No. Nothing since Covington picked up Rigby.”

Montgomery considered the girl for a moment, pleased with his choice in hiring her. He’d had enough time in his position that the agency took little interest in his recruiting practices or choice of candidates. This was her first operational assignment, but the events that had taken place thus far were exactly like those she had trained for. She reported the deaths with as much emotion as she would have used reading a grocery list. The woman had little regard for the people involved. That was how Montgomery had disciplined her. We don’t get emotional.

But that was of little comfort to him as he considered the situation. There were at least four people dead. One of the primaries was missing, along with Doctor Phillips. One of the other primaries was in the wrecked semi truck that had Air Force personnel crawling all over it, and Don Cook and Jimmy Bennett had been whisked away to the hospital. His well-orchestrated plan had shattered into a million, million pieces. Worst of all, it seemed that somehow his superiors in Virginia were also aware of what was happening.

“What about the major’s car?”

Toni shook her head. “No. They must have found the tracking device. There’s been nothing since I lost the GPS signal.”

“Simon, a word please,” Montgomery said.

The men stepped out of the room into the business office of their “front.” When they were out of earshot, Pew whispered, “Walsh is going to be a problem.”

“I know. The agent, too. This was supposed to be a simple sweep and clear, and it just got very high profile.”

“Too many things went wrong. We were unprepared,” Pew replied.

“You’re telling me.” Montgomery rubbed at a kink in his neck. “That idiot Covington.”

“What do you expect? He’s not a professional. He wasn’t trained for this kind of thing, but he was all we had to work with.”

“I still didn’t expect this.”

“Should we call Bravo team off?” Pew asked.

“Are you forgetting who we’re dealing with? Those aren’t CIA operatives down there. They already have the professor. They can’t be called off.”

“Calm down.”

“Calm down? Are you out of your mind? They are gonna crucify us. Either Langley or the Koreans. Take your pick!”

Pew let Montgomery take a few deep breaths before he spoke again. “Bravo isn’t in communication with anyone but us, so neither party knows anything yet. We’ve got some time to cover our tracks.”

Montgomery pointed toward the back room. “That girl in there knows that four people are dead, and that two of them were murdered!”

Pew smiled. “We trained her to expect that. She’s not going to do or say anything that we don’t want her to.”

Montgomery knew he was walking a tightrope, but now it was fraying on both ends. “We’ll have Rigby eliminate Covington, or the other way around. Then we can implicate them.”

Just then, Toni’s cell phone rang. A moment later, Montgomery’s own phone vibrated. The display showed the 703 area code of Langley, Virginia. He opened and quickly closed the flip phone. “Bad signal.”

Pew’s own phone rang. “Langley,” he said. “We can’t all have a bad signal.” He answered the phone.

Montgomery watched as Pew listened, glancing at him occasionally. “No sir. I haven’t gotten to the office. Is something wrong? Yes sir. I’m pulling into the parking lot now. Let me get inside and I’ll call you back.” He hung up before the person on the other end could object. “An analyst was monitoring our feed.”

“They know,” Montgomery said matter-of-factly.

“Relax, I planned for this.”

Montgomery looked at him in disbelief. “You planned for this?”

“Let’s take it one step at a time. We can’t do a thing about Cook and Bennett. We know Doctor Phillips and either Tyler or the clone are in the major’s car and are heading south.”

“Why would they go south?” Montgomery wondered aloud. “Why not go to the local authorities?”

“Well, they may have seen Covington, an Air Force sergeant, kill Walsh,” Pew speculated. “And then they find themselves in a car chase with persons unknown? They probably don’t know who they can trust. My guess is that they have friends or family somewhere down in that part of the country.”

“Who?” Montgomery asked. “Phillips doesn’t have any family in the country at all and Tyler’s people are in South Carolina.”

“We’ll get Toni on that. In the mean time—”

“Deputy Director!” They were interrupted by Toni.

“What is it?”

“That was Director Casas in Langley, sir. She wants you to call her ASAP.”

“What did she want?” Pew was playing ignorant, stalling.

“She said they have been monitoring the situation in the lab and she wants to know what you’re doing about it.”

“What have you heard from the assets?”

“Alpha and the remaining Charlie are proceeding south behind the major’s vehicle.”

“Why would Tyler and Phillips go south, Toni?”

“I don’t remember reading anything about Phillips having anyone in that direction, but there was something in Tyler’s file about Apalachicola.” She turned around to face them as the two stepped back into the office, “But there’s a really big variable here.”

“What do you mean?” Pew asked.

“It depends on who Doctor Phillips has in the car with her,” said Toni. “If she has Tyler … well that’s one thing. But if she has the clone—”

“I’m not following you,” Montgomery said.

Toni, unlike her superiors, had studied the details of the operation during her long hours of doing nothing but monitoring the activity within the facility. “If she has the clone, well, the clone won’t have any memory except for maybe a week at most. That means that its only memories will be of Tyler’s last few days before they scanned him. It won’t know anything outside of the laboratory. It’ll be lost. Phillips would be the one making their travel decisions.”

“How do we find out which one is with her?” Montgomery asked.

“Until we’re sure, I think we have to assume that she has the real Tyler with her.”

“I need to know if either one of them has any friends, family, a house, some land, a car, or a favorite petting zoo anywhere in the region where they’re heading,” he demanded, “but I think it’s doubtful they’ll continue in that direction. They’ll probably head to a naval base or South Carolina. What about Bravo?”

“They’ve secured the facility and are preparing to transport.”

Montgomery put his hand on the seat back of her chair and studied the screen. “Which ones?”

“The chimps, Professor Yeoum and Doctor Tiong.”

“The chimps?” Montgomery asked incredulously.

“Why would they take the chimps?” Pew asked.

“Probably because Tyler and the clone aren’t there,” Montgomery reasoned, “but why Tiong?”

“If they’ve taken the chimps, then they’ll need him to take care of the animals,” Pew reasoned. “What about the others in the lab?”

“All but one of the Air Force personnel, and the NCIS agents, are alive and secure,” Toni reported. “They’re tranqued and being moved outside. They should be found in a day or so.” She smiled widely, unable to contain her excitement. “I can see why you guys like your jobs so much. I mean, it’s been really, really boring up to this point, but now”—she closed her eyes and held her arms out wide—“this stuff is so cool!”

Montgomery sighed. She was far from the professionals that he had worked with before. But then again, that was one of the reasons he’d recruited her. There were three things she did well—logistics, research, and following his orders. And now he was depending on her for information to track the fugitives. He needed her, at least for now.

Montgomery sat on the unmade bed in the corner. At least we have Yeoum, Tiong and the chimps. They ought to be worth something.  He looked at the girl again. “Turn Alpha around and send them back to the safe house. Tell them to sit tight there. As soon as you can establish secure communication with Rigby, I need to talk to him.”

“Gotcha.”

Montgomery turned to Pew. “I better call Casas and give her a status report.” There were many ways to spin the facts.

23 What Goes Around …

 

 

COVINGTON RAN AS FAST and as far he was able toward town, stopping when he finally saw a set of headlights in the distance. His shoulder was throbbing from the wound he had suffered in the exchange of gunfire with Rob, but he was relieved that it had passed through the meat, missing tendon and bone. He staggered out on to the road and began waving down the unsuspecting driver.

The man saw blue lights flashing on the horizon and assumed that there had been an accident. Upon seeing the rain-soaked man wearing an Air Force uniform, he meant to pass him by and let the emergency crew provide the stranger with assistance. But when the sergeant fell on the road in his path and lay very still, he knew that he was trapped. He rolled to a stop.

“Great! Now if I don’t help the cops’ll arrest me.” Grabbing a flashlight that was stowed under his seat, he got out. Tentatively, he approached the prone figure. “Hey, buddy. You alright?” When there was no response, he took a few more steps. “Hey man, help’s on the way. Hey, can you hear—”

In the blink of an eye, Covington aimed and fired two rounds into his reluctant helper’s chest. Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, he dragged the man’s body just past the wood line and then turned to discover that his new ride was a bright yellow Hummer H2. He looked back at the dead man. “Could you have possibly been driving a more conspicuous car?” He climbed in and wheeled the big vehicle around, speeding in the direction of the fleeing couple.

Miles up the road, Covington came to the scene of an accident. A black SUV was lying upside down in the front yard of a man who’d had the unfortunate experience of being shot by the driver of the wrecked GMC, the thanks he had received for trying to help the victims.

Martin Rigby was still dazed from a blow to his head and bleeding from a gash on the left side of his nose that he had suffered when the SUV flipped. Covington found him wandering down the road, a gun in his hand, having just shot the homeowner whose yard he had landed in. When Rigby finally came to his senses, he was grateful for being picked up by the sergeant, but unable even to secure himself in the vehicle without Covington’s assistance. After settling Rigby in the Hummer, Covington did a cursory inspection of the wreck and found that its other occupant was wedged between the passenger seat and the doorframe, dead and impossible to move.

“Always wear your seat belt, my friend,” he scolded the dead man as he collected his weapon and spare magazines. Turning his attention to the man who was laying in the wet grass, he checked for a pulse. “Lucky you,” he said when he found one, not sure if he felt relieved or threatened by the revelation. But he was unconscious, so Covington was satisfied that the man would have few tales to tell to the police when he awoke. He considered checking to see if anyone else was in the house, but the sirens in the distance told him it was time to leave. He jumped back in the Hummer, sped off down the dark road, and told his new partner, “Get Toni on the line.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROB HAD BEEN DRIVING south on Interstate 75 for nearly an hour and a half, stopping only long enough for them to choose which direction they should go. By the time he wheeled into a truck stop in Tifton, Georgia, the volume of questions floating around in his head had become innumerable.

The parking lot was large and, thankfully, sparsely populated. He maneuvered the SUV around its entirety to make a mental note of all the exits, and then proceeded to a secluded spot under a couple of trees on the side closest to the interstate and away from the semis parked in rear of the building.

He checked the clock. It was 4:17 a.m.

Earlier, Rob had instructed June to use the car’s navigation system to plot out a course to Apalachicola, Florida. She hadn’t understood his choice of destinations, but she had done as he asked and had found what looked like the most direct route. Rob couldn’t explain why he was compelled to go to the small town on the Gulf coast, but he’d remained adamant.

When she had finished, he had pulled off the road, disabled the GPS, and searched the Toyota for any other devices that they could be tracked with. It hadn’t taken long to find the magnetic gadget hidden under the rear bumper. He’d considered placing it on another vehicle, but had decided to smash it instead. No need to drag anyone else into this mess.

He sat for a long time, staring through the cracked windshield as the occasional early bird stopped in for fuel. All the while, June watched him. He was trying to make sense of his compulsion to go to Florida. He didn’t remember ever going there, but he had fleeting thoughts and disconnected images flashing through his mind. It was like trying to remember a dream. There was something in Apalachicola that he needed desperately. But he had no idea what that something was. The only thing he was sure of was that the feeling was centered in the pit of his stomach and growing stronger as time passed. That, and a foreboding sense that they were still in danger. Nearly an hour had passed when he looked over at June and found her quietly studying him. “We’ll stay here and get some rest until we can find another car, an older one that they can’t track. Why don’t you climb in back and stretch out.”

June looked at him incredulously. “Don’t you have questions about what I told you?”

He chuckled. “You have no idea.”

“Well?”

“Now’s not the time.” He began rummaging under his seat, hoping to find an atlas or anything that might help them on their journey.

June was dumbfounded. “Less than two hours ago, I told you that you lost nine years of your memory, that there’s an exact copy of you out there somewhere, and that we’re running from who knows who trying to kill us … and you don’t wanna talk about it? What else are we gonna do?”

Rob didn’t find anything of any real use except a tidy stash of money in the glove compartment. “I don’t know. Sleep?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Try.”

“Tell me about your wife.” She wasn’t that interested in Carol at the moment. She just wanted to get an idea of what he could remember.

With an exaggerated sigh, he accepted the fact that she wasn’t going to give up. After a moment, he smiled his first genuine smile since the chaos started. “Okay … June, what is it you want to know?”

“Your wife. Tell me about her.”

“He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.”

June smiled slightly. “From Proverbs.”

Rob nodded. “Proverbs 18:22. I read that at our wedding, after we took our vows.”

“Did she read anything?”

“Something out of the book of Job as I recall.”

June laughed. “My parents are missionaries in Africa.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Where do they serve?”

“In Ethiopia. In fact, that’s where I was born. A little town called Arba Minch.”

“So it was your daddy who taught you how to drive like a maniac?”

She gave him a superior look. “Now, why wouldn’t you assume my mama taught me?”

“Your mom, then?” he asked apologetically.

June smiled. “Neither, actually. It was the chief of a Tuareg Imashaghen clan who was friends with the people in the village.”

“How old were you?”

“Eight.”

Rob looked at her skeptically. “Eight?”

“Yup,” she replied proudly and then added, “I’ve had a few refreshers since then.”

“So, what makes Tuaregs such good drivers?”

“Well, they’re nomads. They get harassed and robbed by a lot by people claiming to be Sunni Muslims. Either convert to Islam or pay a road tax. Chief Taderfit didn’t want to convert to Islam. He didn’t want to be a Christian either,” she added, smiling. “But believe me, Mom and Dad tried. Imashaghen means ‘the free people.’”

“Free, but lost,” Rob said.

June shrugged. “So, you’re a religious man.”

“Religious, no. I was born Catholic, but I got baptized by a Methodist preacher in a non-denominational base chapel last month, right before Christmas.” Then he made a face, something between a revelation and amusement.

“What is it?”

“Well, if what you’re tellin’ me is true, then that was nine years ago now. I wonder how I turned out.”

June thought the question profound. What would anyone think of a future self, given the opportunity to see it? What would I have thought of my life to this point?

She was less than thrilled with her conclusion.

They stared silently at each other for some time after that. Rob noticed a quality in her eyes that made him feel uncomfortable. Clearing his throat, he leaned back against the door. He held up his left hand and said, “Happily.”

June blushed. “You said those very words to me a week ago, Commander Tyler,” she said. And then, she noticed that his wedding ring was missing.

Seeing her confused look, he suddenly saw that the most important piece of jewelry he possessed was gone. “Where is it?” He turned on the overhead light. “I gotta find it.”

June stayed silent. How could he have lost his ring? Did I make a mistake? Is this the real Rob? Have I been imagining—? June’s thoughts were interrupted when she saw the stitches on his thumb again, exactly as she remembered. Relieved, she said, “You must’ve lost it in all the confusion.”

“Carol is gonna kill me,” he lamented.

June smiled and attempted to comfort him. “Oh, honey, under these circumstances, I’m sure she’ll understand.”

Rob’s willingness to talk ended with the revelation of his lost ring, so June decided it best to take his suggestion and try to get some sleep.

She woke with a start when Rob touched her on the shoulder. Her body ached from sleeping in the cramped confines of the back of the Toyota, having used a headrest from one of the seats for a pillow. She realized her thirst as she sat up and brushed her hair, damp from the heat, from the side of her face. She didn’t remember falling asleep or even lying down as she rubbed the kink in her neck and sat up. Her stomach growled. She needed a serious shower and change of clothes. The sun was low in the sky as she saw Rob sitting in the driver’s seat looking back at her. “Wakie, wakie. Our new ride’s here,” he said. He looked again at their prize.

Following his gaze, all she saw a young man she guessed to be no more than eighteen with stringy, shoulder-length blond hair, dressed in a pair of worn out cut-off cargo shorts and a dirty white tee shirt, pumping gas into a seventies model Ford barely fifty feet away. His car looked like a wreck. It was covered with gray primer with hints of pale yellow peeking through here and there. It rested on tires with huge chrome wheels that, in June’s opinion, made the car look hideous. Surely Rob didn’t mean that car. Close by were a couple of kids skateboarding among the parked cars.

June was climbing up to join Rob in the front when he opened the door and shouted, “Hey, kid!”

One of the teenagers stopped skating to look over at them.

“Come ‘ere.”

The young man walked to the bumper-less front end. “Yeah?”

Rob opened the door wider. “Here’s fifteen bucks. Go in there and buy me a map of Florida. You can keep the change and I’ve got another ten for ya when you come back.”

The kid looked doubtful. “Seriously?”

“And some crackers,” added June.

Rob fanned the bills out.

Seeing the cash, the teen said, “I’ll do it for fifty.”

“Fifty!” Rob and June exclaimed in unison.

“Take it or leave it,” the kid said with a straight face.

Rob narrowed his eyes as he counted out the total he was holding. “I’ll give ya forty. No more.”

“Done.” He held out his hand.

“Oh no,” Rob shook his head. “Fifteen now. The rest when you come back.”

The teenager accepted the down payment. Dropping his skateboard to the ground, he turned and skated towards the store, ignoring the calls of his friend.

Rob shook his head. “Greedy kid.”

June settled herself in the passenger seat. “What time is it?”

“It’s almost seven thirty.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“All day.”

“What? Seven thirty p.m.?”

“See that car?” he said, ignoring her outburst.

“Yeah?” she said doubtfully.

“That’s our ride.”

June smiled “You have got to be kidding me.”

Rob smiled. “Nope. That’s the one. When he got out, he didn’t have the keys in his hand. They must still be in the ignition. All we need is for him to go into the store to pay.”

June’s smile faded. “You’re not serious. That thing won’t get us fifty miles.”

“When he drove in, it was purring like a kitten. It looks like crap, but I’m betting that it’ll get us there,” he assured her.

June was still skeptical. “It’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”

Rob gave her a doubtful look. “Would you report that thing stolen?”

“If it was mine and someone stole it, I would.”

Rob scoffed.

They watched as he continued to pump gas.

“That thing must have a huge tank,” June commented.

“Twenty-two gallons,” Rob said. “My dad had one like it. A Gran Torino.”

“Is that why you want this wreck? Because your dad had one?”

Rob only smiled.

Finally, the young man with the stringy hair finished pumping the gas and hung up the nozzle. When he started toward the store to pay, he was moving slowly and coyly, methodically attempting to impress a car full of young girls who had pulled in front of the store and taken notice of him. At the same time, the skater was returning with what Rot sincerely hoped was a map of Florida.

“Now we need some godly timing.” Rob handed the kid the balance of his promised payment and then waving him away. “Don’t forget to share.”

“Hey, where’s my crackers?” June called after the kid, who kept on walking. June then turned and stared at Rob. Godly timing, huh? I wonder if Catholics have a patron saint of car thieves.

“Get ready.” Rob closed the door. They watched as the driver of the Ford flirted with the girls, every now and then looking back at and gesturing to the Torino.

“That boy loves his car.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Go and flirt somewhere else, why don’tcha?” June said.

“Be patient,” Rob said. Minutes later, the kid resumed his course into the store with one of the girls in tow.

June opened her door, but Rob grabbed her arm. “Wait.” The young man took one last admiring look at the old car and then disappeared inside.

“Now,” Rob said.

They trotted over and wasted no time jumping in. Rob looked at the ignition and his heart sank. “Where’re the keys?”

“What now?” June asked, and then they heard a low, threatening growl from the back of the car.

Rob looked into the mirror. The rear seat had been removed, and crouched in the trunk was the largest pit bull he had ever seen, with teeth bared, ears flat, and saliva pouring from its mouth as it glared at the back of his head. “June—”

“Aww, c’mere baby,” she crooned.

He looked over in horror. She had turned in her seat and was beckoning to the dog with an outstretched hand. “What are you doing? Are you crazy?”

The dog barked wildly and lunged at Rob. June intercepted, grabbing the dog’s collar. “No, no, baby. He’s our friend. It’s okay.”

Rob, finding the door handle missing, was half way out the window when June grabbed his pant leg. Thinking it was the pit, he kicked wildly, nearly falling backward and causing June to recoil. “Oh crap!” he cried.

“Wait, Rob. Look,” she said.

He stopped squirming and looked back into the car. The monstrous dog was licking June’s face, its stub of a tail wagging happily. “What did you do?”

“He just wanted to be sure that you weren’t trying to hurt me.” She scratched the mutt’s chest.

“Do you know this dog?” Rob asked, confused.

“I do now.”

Rob slowly settled himself into the seat again, and then, hearing the pit let out a low growl, froze.

June smiled. “Oh, don’t worry. He won’t hurt you.”

Rob didn’t know if she was talking to him or to the dog as he forced his nerves to settle. “We still have a little problem,” he said as he considered hot-wiring the car.

“No problem,” June said as he heard some jingling.

He looked over and saw a set of keys dangling from the dog’s collar. Looking to June, he asked. “Would you—?”

“Oh, sure.” She removed the keys and handed them over.

“The Lord sure does work in mysterious ways,” he said as he started the car.

24 Called on the Carpet

 

 

EDDIE WAS STARTLED awake as the general came back through the door into her office. He was lying on the leather couch where he had been since early that morning when he was escorted there by base security. The headache that had subsided enough to allow him some much-needed sleep was just beginning to make another appearance as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He touched his bandaged forehead, which proved unwise, and he winced in pain as a result. Glancing at his watch, he was surprised to find that it was 7:43 p.m.

He took a moment to familiarize himself once again with his surroundings. The office was large. He guessed that it was twenty by thirty, its walls covered with cherry-colored wood paneling. There were a number of prints, photographs, and certificates decorating the walls, typical of what would be expected in the office of a high-ranking officer. The desk was centered on the room’s only window, which was full of bright sunshine as it faced west in the waning hours of the summer evening. The surface of the desk was sparsely decorated, with a model of a B-2 Stealth bomber being the dominant feature. Before it, near the edge, was a green marble and brass nameplate that read “Brigadier General Paulette J. Stillman, Base Commander.” Behind the model was a laptop computer just to the right of center. Next to it was a white, triangular, well-used ashtray bearing the red, white, and blue CINZANO logo. On the corner of the desk was an oddly generic-looking lamp that was switched off. Bookcases flanked the window behind the desk.

The burgundy leather couch that Eddie was now sitting up on was facing the desk, directly in the center of the room, flanked by two matching Queen Anne chairs, one on each side, with matching dark, wooden pedestal ash trays between each and the couch. Behind Eddie and to the left of the door was an eight-foot maple table with only a speaker phone at its center, surrounded by six more of the Queen Anne’s. In the opposite corner was a nearly six-foot-tall rubber tree plant.

The general had given strict orders that Eddie was to remain inside the room until she returned. She emphasized the point by posting two guards outside the door. Stillman was frustrated with the special agent’s stubborn insistence that he couldn’t provide her with any information pertaining to the truck or its contents, or even why it was in Georgia for that matter. It had taken her most of the day to work her way up through the red tape to find out who could release Eddie from his silence. When she reached the top, she was intimidated by just how high up this went.

She was a handsome woman in her late forties, standing five foot eight, with shoulder length, strawberry blonde hair that Eddie correctly suspected was just out of regulation. She was wearing desert fatigues and an intense scowl as she sat glaring at the special agent. She tossed the cap that she had been carrying, adorned with a single star, on the desk. She studied Eddie for the briefest of moments, and then picked up the phone. “Senator? Yes, ma’am.” She shoved the receiver in Eddie’s direction.

“Hello?” His voice was barely audible. Clearing his throat, he repeated the greeting. “Hello?”

Eddie listened politely to the statement of concern and remorse offered by the woman on the other end of the phone. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Thank you, Madam Senator.”

Stillman sat back in her chair and stared unblinking at Eddie as she listened to the one-sided conversation.

“But Senator, I’m compromised. I’m too close to the victims. I think you would be better served if—” He paused as the senator interrupted him. “Senator, one member of my team is dead and two are missing. I’m sure Colonel Talbot and his team can conduct—” Another interruption. He sighed. “Understood.” He set the phone back on the desk.

Stillman replaced the receiver in its cradle and sat back with her arms folded in front of her, giving Eddie an expectant look.

“She’s ordered me to take lead on the investigation,” he said disdainfully. He closed his eyes and began massaging his temples, taking care not to touch the bandaged area.

Stillman was dumbfounded. These were not the results she was looking for. “Not until I get the results of the ballistics analysis,” she said, still scowling.

Eddie pulled his Beretta from under his jacket, ejected the clip and placed them on the desk.

She watched him skeptically. “And even then, you can count on Talbot being there every step of the way.”

“It seems I don’t have any choice in the matter, since my team is …” He paused in contemplation, then started again. “Since my team is short.” He looked up at Stillman. “Believe me, General, I don’t like this any more than you do.”

Stillman frowned. “I assume she authorized you to bring me up to speed.”

“She did.”

She sat forward and smiled slightly. “I’m all ears.”

Eddie explained what he could, but Kingsley had ordered him to keep certain details of the project to himself. When he was through, he thought the general might burst a blood vessel.

“You mean to tell me that there is an entire laboratory under my base, being supplied with men and material from my base, and I wasn’t considered worthy enough to be in the loop?” She barely contained her outrage.

Eddie held up his hands in apology. “Don’t shoot the messenger. It wasn’t my idea.”

The general couldn’t help a smirk at the man’s deadpan delivery. But anger flashed as she stood and stabbed the intercom button. “Lieutenant, I want my squadron commanders in my office thirty minutes ago.” She snapped her finger angrily off the button. “Somebody on this base knew what was going on and when I find out who it was …” She let the sentence trail off as she stared threateningly at Eddie.

Eddie stared back, expressionless and unimpressed.

A thought came to the general. Perez is just a pawn in this game. He has suffered a loss, and all I’m doing is focusing my anger on him. “I’m sorry about your agents. Especially Turner,” she offered sincerely.

Eddie nodded.

Coming nearer in an effort to defuse their time bomb of a conversation, she sat on the edge of the desk. “Just what, in God’s name, are they doing down there that’s so dang secretive? Building a flying saucer?”

Eddie was stone faced. “A cloning experiment.”

There was a brief period of stunned silence before she repeated the words. “A cloning experiment?”

Eddie simply nodded again.

“What? Like mice and sheep?”

“No, General.”

“What then?”

“A man.”

“You’re telling me that you’ve been cloning people on my base?”

Eddie held his hands up again. “Not we. I’m just supervising security.”

“Well, how many clones are you keeping secure down there?”

“None, now.”

“The truck,” she stated.

Eddie nodded.

Her expression changed to shocked amazement. “How many?”

“One clone and its donor.”

“Where are they now?”

He shrugged. “Not sure.”

“You’re not sure? What do you mean?”

“They got separated.”

“Cut to the chase,” she demanded.

“There was an … incident.”

“An incident?”

He explained what happened, concluding with, “I think we have the original. Bennett, Mathers, or Cook can tell you for sure.”

“You think?” Stillman asked doubtfully. “What about the other one? What about the clone?”

Eddie shrugged. “We have no idea.”

“What do you mean you have no idea?”

“There are three people missing, besides Doctor Phillips and the … other … Tyler. We don’t know where they are or why they’re missing. When we find them we’ll find some answers.”

“Who’s looking for them? Talbot hasn’t mentioned anything to me about a search.”

“The local LEOs are on that.”

“Who are they looking for?”

“Doctor June Phillips. She was tending to the animals.”

“Who else?”

“The security chief, Sergeant Covington.”

“Well that might answer a few things. He must be on their trail.”

Eddie looked through the window at the sun hanging low on the horizon, shrouded by clouds. “I need to know more about your man Covington.”

“Talbot’s people are working on that.”

“Good.”

Stillman followed Eddie’s stare out the window. “Well, we’ve got three dead and three missing. Who do you think shot Captain Walsh?”

Eddie shrugged. “The only people in the trailer who were armed were myself, Jo Turner, and Sergeant Covington. My weapon hasn’t been fired. Jo’s Sig is missing and … I have no idea about Covington. I’m betting the killer used Jo’s gun. Has your sergeant checked in?”

“I’ve never met Covington. I’d never even heard his name until today. He transferred in a few weeks ago from Elmendorf. And no, he hasn’t checked in.”

“Well, that either makes him dead—”

“Or a suspect,” the general finished.

As they considered the grim prospect, Eddie asked, “How are the others?”

“They’re all alive. Mathers is seeing to Bennett, that little—” she shook her head. “The little punk has a broken arm. We took him to the base hospital. Cook ruptured his spleen and needed surgery. We sent him up to Macon. The other one, Tyler, has no apparent injuries, but he hasn’t regained consciousness. We’re sending him over to Houston Medical Center for an MRI.” She considered Eddie for a moment. “We do know one thing. The crash was an accident.”

“What caused it?”

“A deer went through the windshield. That’s what killed the driver.”

Eddie took it in stride.

“Your M.E. and forensic scientist are at the morgue. They arrived this afternoon.”

“Very well.”

“The NCIS director wants updates every four hours. Talbot will keep me updated.”

Eddie nodded.

She wagged a threatening finger at him. “You tell your people that if there’s anything down there that’s hazardous or puts my people in danger—”

“To be on he safe side, why don’t you keep your people out of there and out of my way,” he interrupted.

She looked at him doubtfully. “Not on your life.”

He shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

Stillman smirked. “How long will it be before we can get that mess off the road and open it up again?”

“Depends on how good a job your colonel has done.”

Now, then.”

“I’ll let you know. I need a vehicle.”

“I’ll call the motor pool and arrange something. It’ll be ready by the time you get there.” She then added, “I’ll have Talbot redeploy to the complex. How do they get in there?”

Eddie headed for the door. “I’ve got a pretty good idea, but I was inside the truck. I couldn’t see a bloody thing, but the entrance shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

“Oh. Special Agent Perez?”

Eddie turned in the doorway to face her.

“I want to see your Korean professor as soon as possible.”

Eddie smiled and then nodded as he closed the door.

Stillman sat behind her desk and removed a pack of cigarettes from one of the drawers. She lit one and drew hard. An evil smile grew on her face as she contemplated her choices of remote bases. After all, she wanted the officer who was responsible for supplying the facility to be as uncomfortable as possible.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

EDDIE ARRIVED BACK AT the accident scene and took a moment to survey the carnage. The sun had set as he stood by the overturned trailer. He peered in and saw Air Force personnel scouring every square centimeter of the now well-lit space. Eddie tried hard to remember any details about the accident, but through the fog of pain he could only vaguely remember hearing shots as he struggled to regain consciousness.

The colonel’s team had done a thorough job of collecting fingerprints and evidence, all of which had been delivered to Malik Ghazini, who was Eddie’s forensic scientist, at the workspace he was given on base. It had most of what he needed, but some of the more detailed analyses would require more specialized equipment. Doctor Alan Gentry, the team’s medical examiner, had wasted no time at the local civilian hospital conducting an autopsy on Captain Benny Walsh.

“Agent Perez, Colonel Talbot needs to see you at the Quik Mart, sir,” a young eager- looking lieutenant informed him.

Eddie took one last look around. “Very well. Get this place cleaned up so they can open the road.”

“Yes, sir.”

When he arrived at the store, he saw several trucks on the lot. There was a tent near the front door of the building where the drivers were being detained. Dozens of Air Force personnel scurried about doing various tasks. As he got out of the car, Eddie noticed that one of the semis was parked next to the building where the secret entrance was.

Talbot met him at the car. “Okay, Special Agent, the scene is yours and I am at your disposal,” he informed Eddie stoically, accepting the order to turn the investigation back over without question.

“What have you found so far?”

Talbot smiled. “I’ve found some relief that all this is back on your shoulders. Other than that, we had to break into the store. It was deserted. We dusted for prints and found … well, a lot. It is a convenience store.”

“Well, all the employees were your people. They probably buttoned things up and went underground.”

“No, sir. Not my people. I knew nothing about this place. We did find this, though.” He handed a laminated parchment to Eddie.

“A bankruptcy notice?”

“Taped to the front door.”

“Not very convincing.”

“I figure somebody just put it there to fool imbeciles,” the colonel stated matter-of-factly. “We found what we think is one of the entrances to the complex inside an office, but we haven’t figured out how to open it yet.”

“Mather’s office. It has to be opened from the inside.” He looked at the colonel. “Do you have any C-4?”

“Left it in my other suit.”

Eddie headed toward the truck on the east side of the building. “I never went in through the office. But I’m pretty sure I can find the other entrance.”

Watching Eddie, Talbot followed. “All the civilian drivers claim they’re just working stiffs. But something about them just don’t smell right.”

“Trust me, Colonel. They don’t know much, but they know something. They’re all civil service. The driver of this truck knows the most.” Eddie gestured to the semi parked next to the building’s east side. “You didn’t check inside?”

“It’s all civilian property. We can’t touch it without probable cause.”

“I can,” Eddie assured him.

“This many people, this well organized. How high up does this thing go?”

“To the stratosphere, Colonel.”

“Call me Jim.”

25 Just in Case

 

 

TIONG AWOKE WITH A pounding headache. He could tell, even through the chemically induced haze, that he was in a dimly lit room. Was it a room? It felt like it was moving. There was a high-pitched hum. Maybe truck tires speeding down the highway. He could hear the sound of a compressor as it kicked on somewhere behind him. There was a vibration, shaking now and then, and it was cold enough that he could see his breath. Through the brain fog, he tried to recall and make sense of the recent events as they had happened.

Someone had alerted him and told him that Rob was in some kind of distress, and then there was a mad dash to get him and the newly awakened clone out of the complex, and get Rob to a hospital. He and the professor had been left behind, along with most of the security personnel, and two of the NCIS agents, Geri Hughes and Cal Warren. The captain and the others had left in the transfer truck. Soon after, four armed men dressed in black and a fifth man in a business suit had entered the facility. They had taken Stan and Jackie captive, and then they had herded everyone into the parlor where they tossed in canisters that spewed some kind of gas, choking them and then … he was here. He rubbed his eyes and then immediately regretted it as the residue of the gas that was already stinging his eyes intensified. Then he noticed the soreness in his left arm. As he rubbed his bicep and inspected the area as best he could in his dim surroundings, he discovered multicolored welts as well as several needle marks that had scabbed over. A single incandescent bulb in the center of the ceiling illuminated the enclosure.

Scanning around, his eyes came to rest on a bottle of aspirin that was on the metal floor next to the mattress he was laying on. He removed the blankets that covered him and slowly sat up, making the throbbing in his head increase. Wrapping the blankets around him to ward off the cold, he picked up the aspirin and scanned about. “I’m in a truck.”

He was still unable to completely focus. He rubbed his temples, and then heard an unfamiliar voice with a thick southern drawl. “Take some aspirin. It’ll help.”

Startled, he looked unsuccessfully for the voice, immediately regretting the sudden movement. “Who is that?”

“I guess ya can call me … Schultz. Yeah, call me Sergeant Schultz.”

“Sergeant Schultz?”

“Yeah, like from Hogan’s Hero’s. Wadn’t he the one who always got tricked into doing all the dirty work?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Where am I?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Doc. Yer among friends.”

Popping the lid off the bottle, Tiong dumped a few of the pills in his hand and looked around. “Well, that’s good to know. I’d hate to be in the back of a truck, waking up from a chemically induced coma”—he glanced at his bicep—“having been drugged against my will, going who knows where with a guy who wasn’t friendly. That would be tragic. I don’t suppose that you have any water?” Before he finished speaking, he heard something sliding across the floor. A bottle of darkly colored Gatorade bounced off the mattress. “I only like the green kind.”

The disembodied voice chuckled. “That stuff’s better for ya ‘n water.”

“I guess it would be kind of pointless to ask if it’s safe to drink.”

“If we wuz gonna poison ya, we could’a done that while you wuz asleep. Don’t worry, Doc. Where y’all are goin’, they made it real clear they want you alive and healthy.”

“Oh yeah, and where’s that?”

“To be honest, I don’t know where y’all are gonna end up. But if I did, I’m perty sure they’d want me to keep it a surprise.”

Tiong smiled. “You know, you said I was among friends and I have to admit that, although I’ve never been kidnapped before, you have to be the friendliest kidnapper in the state, if not the entire country. Really, if any of my friends ever wants to be kidnapped, I’m recommending you. Do you have a resume’ or something I could take with me?” When he finished, his eyes, finally adjusting to the low light, came to rest on the man sitting on the floor about ten feet away leaning against one of four large crates stacked two high and marked “Caution: Live animals.” He was wearing blue jeans and a plaid button-down shirt. Lying on the floor next to him was some kind of long gun. A rifle or shotgun, Tiong guessed.

“Aw, Doc. That stung just a little bit. I didn’t kidnap ya. I’m just keepin’ y’all company fer the ride. Are ya hungry? I’ve got some jerky and granola bars.”

“No, thanks. Don’t have much of an appetite just now.” Tiong looked around the trailer. He noticed what he thought was a pile of blankets in the corner, but upon closer inspection he saw a hand sticking out from under them. He started to crawl towards it and checked to see if his captor would object.

“I hope he’s okay. Don’t know what they used on the little feller, but he hasn’t moved since they put him there.”

Tiong checked for a pulse as he pulled the blankets off of the unconscious form of Professor Yeoum Chi. Finding a strong, steady heartbeat, he breathed a sigh of relief. “How long have you had us in here?”

“Tsk, tsk, now, Doc. You ask a lot of questions. Are you always like that?”

“Only when I don’t know things. I’m funny that way.”

“Well, just relax. We got a long way to go. I got some cards and a checker board so we don’t get too bored on the way.”

“To where? Oh, I forgot, you don’t know.”

Schultz shrugged. “They never said where they wuz takin’ y’all. I just know we’re droppin’ y’all off at the docks.”

“The docks … as in a shipyard?”

“Yup.”

“What shipyard?”

Schultz took a swig from his own bottle of Gatorade. “We’re headin’ to the sunshine state, Doc.”

“Florida?”

“Naw, California.”

“That would be the golden state, Sarge.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. Why California?”

“Shoot! That’s a easy one,” Shultz laughed. “We’re goin’ to California ‘cause that’s where I’m gettin’ paid.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THE NEEDLE ON THE GAS gauge was floating between empty and the one-quarter full mark as the Torino passed the sign in the darkness that read “Apalachicola City Limits: Population 2,207.”

Rob whispered the Lord’s Prayer just loud enough for June to hear as he guided the car down the street. He had an eerie feeling of familiarity, seeing the sights and smelling the salty air. It brought back memories of his exploits in the Navy, as well as childhood vacations at the beach.

Against June’s initial objection, they had decided it would be best to drop the dog off around the corner from the convenience store before they had resumed their trip. He could have been good company, and he may have been useful if they ran into any undesirables, but he had a family. They couldn’t take the kid’s car and his dog, too.

The clock on the archaic instrument panel was broken, its hands stuck on 4:29, but by June’s reckoning, it was sometime after 11:00 p.m. She watched Rob scanning the town, a puzzled look on his face as they moved at a snail’s pace down Prado Street. Thankfully, the traffic was light, even for the tourist community on this summer evening.

“Anything familiar?” she asked.

“Everything’s familiar. I just don’t have any idea why.” The feeling in the pit of his stomach was guiding him, and nothing else. He could feel an approaching intersection beckoning him to turn north. He clicked the turn signal on.

June remained silent as he turned on to 25th Street and proceeded nine more blocks, turning left onto Bluff Road. Rob’s eyes searched the signs above the businesses on the right side of the road, squinting to see in the low light. Before long he found what he was looking for and turned into the driveway.

June read the sign. “Bluff Road Storage.”

They came to a stop in front of a metal gate. Out the driver’s window was a small keypad on the wall with a sign that read “24 Hour Access. Input Your Pin Here.”

“What’s your pin?” she asked.

He gave her an uncomfortable smile. “I have no idea.”

All at once, a series of numbers flashed into his head. He tapped them in, and to their amazement, they heard the sound of an electric motor as the gate slid open.

The place was dark. There were some lights mounted to the metal structure, but most of them were broken or burnt out, making them dependent on the headlights of the Torino. They drove slowly in, taking note that the gate closed again once they were clear.

“How did you—?” June started.

He shrugged. “Look around for a flashlight.”

“How did you know that code? Have you been here before?”

Rob turned his attention to the numbers painted on the locker doors, not sure which one he was looking for. “Apparently.”

They reached the end of the driveway and followed the building around to the right. June found a flashlight underneath the seat. She clicked the button and shined its light at the numbers over the doors as they passed them.

Rob was getting frustrated. He had no idea how he knew the pin code to open the gate. He repeated the numbers over and over to himself, trying to find any significance to the combination, until he realized that there was a familiar pattern. He stomped on the break, bringing the car to a stop with a jarring jolt and looked into June’s wide eyes.

“Did you find the one that you’re looking for?” She asked, just a bit unnerved.

“Four, six, zero, two, four, zero.”

“Huh?”

“Zero, four, two, zero, six, four.” He said the numbers in reverse. “April twentieth, nineteen sixty-four! Holy cow. That’s Carol’s birthday!”

“Carol … your wife, Carol?”

“Yup. I have been here before. But when?”

“Are you getting your memory back?” she asked hopefully.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. On the road I was having flashes, images of things here in town. Buildings. Signs, like the one out front. But I can’t make sense out of most of them.”

“Any idea what unit you’re looking for?”

“Not a clue,” he answered as he inched the Ford forward.

They completed another circuit, and then they rolled to a stop in front of unit number forty-eight. Rob shut off the lights, but left the car running. He climbed through the window with June following close behind. She was hoping for another keypad, but instead, hanging there on the latch was a heavy-duty combination lock.

“You must know it. Maybe it’s the same as the gate,” she said.

Rob nodded and closed his eyes. To his dismay, no numbers came to him as before. He tried the same numbers that opened the gate, backward and forward, but to no avail. After a few more attempts, he shook his head. “Get the keys and see if there are any tools in the trunk.”

June did as she was asked and opened the trunk. Inside were not one but four red toolboxes filled with all sorts of tools.

“Oh, man,” she said.

“What is it?” Rob asked, joining her as his eyes settled on a pair of three-foot-long bolt cutters.

“I hope all of this gets back to the owner when they find the car,” June said, regretting even more her recent career change to assistant car thief.

“I hope so, too,” he agreed. Stealing the car was necessary, but Rob still felt guilty. He made a silent vow to make it up to the young man if at all possible. He grabbed the heavy bolt cutters. Returning to the locker, he wrestled the tool in place and applied a fair amount of force. The lynch pin snapped, dropping the lock to the concrete. Rolling the door up, they peered in.

The ten by twenty storage room was surprisingly empty. On the back wall were cases clearly labeled “MEALS READY TO EAT” and other durable foodstuffs piled up from floor to ceiling. In front of it were several large boxes filled with camping equipment and other items. In the middle of the floor sat a large leather-clad trunk and four suitcases. On the wall there was what appeared to be a map of some kind taped to the corrugated aluminum. Above, a string hung from the single light fixture in the ceiling.

“Pull the door down, please,” Rob requested.

June did as he asked and Rob tugged the string, illuminating the unit with the light of the bare bulb. He checked the suitcases first. Finding them unlocked, he unzipped one of the bags and flipped it open. Inside was an assortment of men’s clothing, all of them his size.

June followed suit and opened one of the other cases. She found clothes belonging to a young girl. “Are these your daughter’s?”

Rob didn’t look up, nor did he answer. He wasn’t ready to deal with that particular subject. He checked the bag for anything other than clothes and found a shaving kit, some packages of trail mix, a Bible, and a manila envelope containing several passports, all of different identities and nationalities but with his picture. His. June moved on to one of the other bags and found similar clothes to the first one she had opened, but for a boy about the same age. Rob opened the remaining bag and found women’s clothes. All four contained similar items to what Rot found in the first suitcase.

“Why would you keep clothes for you and your family in a storage room four hundred miles from where you live?”

“I guess I’m paranoid,” he said. He was becoming more and more convinced that she had told him the truth about his predicament. “Just in case I felt that my family was in danger and I needed to leave in a hurry, I’m assuming.” He eyed the trunk, already suspecting what he would find inside.

“You remember?”

“No. But I have … I had a locker like this one before. When I was stationed in Japan. But I don’t know why I would have put this one here.” He turned his attention to the children’s bags. “Could you hand me the kids’ passports?”

Hesitantly, June gave one of each over to him.

He stared at them for a long time. If their dates of birth were correct and not a fabrication, they would be seven years old. It seemed odd that their U.S. passports were missing until he recalled that, while in Japan where he had retained a similar locker, he had kept his and Carol’s legal documents at their residence. Easy access for short-notice travel. And, as with his own forged papers, each of the children’s foreign passports had different names, further alienating them from his memory. “What are their names?”

The sadness in his eyes was apparent and June could only imagine what he was feeling at that moment. “Christian and um … Caitlin Cecily. But you always called her C. C.”

“Seven years old and I can’t remember them.”

He held the passports there for another moment and then gently handed them back to June.

“It’ll come back,” June said, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“They look like their mother, praise God for that.”

“Amen,” she agreed with a grin, attempting to lighten the mood.

Rob turned his attention to the trunk. Inside he saw exactly what he expected. Two Heckler & Koch MP5s, a favorite close-quarter weapon of the SEALs, two Beretta pistols, boxes of ammunition, a short-wave radio, and a box that Rob knew without opening it contained various medicines, first aid supplies, and water purification tablets. There was a pair of night-vision goggles, and tucked into a corner were two Luminox dive watches. The last item was a box that contained stacks of one hundred dollar bills that amounted to fifty thousand dollars.

“Were you going to start your own coup? What’s all the cash for?”

“Mad money. All of it’s for the unknown, my just-in-case stash.”

“Looks to me like you were preparing for World War Three.”

He turned to face her. “I was.”

With their backs to each other, they changed out of their well-worn scrubs and into clothes from the suitcases. Luckily, Carol liked loose fitting items, but even at that June found them small. She found a pair of jeans with some stretch that she managed to get in to, though they were inches too short, and a royal blue cotton tee. As for the shoes, there was no way that she could she could fit them, so she was forced to keep on the slippers she had been wearing. Rob assured her that they would find some clothes for her in town.

They unloaded the toolboxes from the trunk to make room for the supplies that Rob felt he would need, and then turned their attention to what they thought was a map taped to the wall. It turned out to be an aerial photograph of the local airport with all of the buildings and runways labeled. The third of five hangers at the south end had a star drawn on it and some writing that Rob recognized: 1966 DeHavilland DHC-2 MKIII Turbo Beaver.

“That’s my writing.”

“Is it some kind of a code?”

Rob smiled. “No, it’s an airplane.”

“Well, that makes sense. We are looking at a picture of an airport.”

“Actually, it’s a float plane.” he said, not sure how he knew it.

“A float plane?”

“The kind of plane that you can land on the water.” He pulled the map of Florida from his back pocket.

June’s expression turned grim as the wheels in her head began to turn. They had been in such a rush to get to Apalachicola that she hadn’t considered what they would do once they got here. “What are you thinking?”

Without taking his eyes off of the map he asked, “Are you hungry?”

“What?” June cocked her head.

“I’m starving. I feel like I haven’t eaten in two days.”

June thought about it. “We haven’t.”

“I could use some rest and a shower, too.”

“Yeah, you really could,” she said, nodding as an exaggerated agreement.

Rob smiled. “How ‘bout we get something to eat and find a room for the night … with two beds … and get some rest. We can go at this again tomorrow.”

“Okay,” she said apprehensively.

“Look,” he said gesturing to the storage room. “We can hide the car in here.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m sorry. What was it again?”

“What are you planning to do, Rob?” she asked, frustrated with his obvious attempt to dodge the question.

“Did you ever see Raiders of the Lost Ark?”

“Of course. Who on earth hasn’t?”

“Remember when they were in Cairo and they were trying to get the ark away from the Nazis after the plane blew up?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I’m doing what Indy did.”

“What’s that?”

“Makin’ it up as I go along.”

26 No Honor Among Thieves

2 August 2010

0638 hours

 

 

IT WAS THE NEXT morning before investigators were able to enter and explore the darkened facility under the convenience store. They found the diesel engines in the generator room still running, but the damage done to the conduit made it immediately evident that the complex had been compromised. Emergency lights had long since run out of juice, so the investigators were forced to inspect the pitch-black facility by flashlight until a team of electricians arrived to get the main power back online.

Eddie was standing in the security office where the single body that remained in the facility was found. Jabrani was the young man’s name, Senior Airman Mike Jabrani. During the weeks he spent inside, Eddie had learned that Jabrani had dreams of joining the Air Force special operations command and its para-rescue unit. Their primary focus was to rescue downed pilots. Here was a young man whose one hope had been to serve his country by saving others, but his dreams and his life had been snuffed out in an instant.

When they found the blast door in the tunnel standing open, Eddie’s fears had been confirmed. They had also found that all but three of the complex’s doors had been wedged open. The doors to Jimmy’s office and the two that led into the cloning chamber were still sealed. It was obvious that there was much more going on here than what happened out on the road.

At least we didn’t find everyone dead. Surely whoever did this wouldn’t have carted all but one body out.

He deduced that the assailants, whoever they were, had come for one of two reasons. Either some government agency had been monitoring the experiment with orders to act in the event of an incident, or some other entity had somehow learned of the project and was poised to take advantage of an opportunity to gain access to the facility, and its personnel and technology. In either case, he and everyone else who had been riding in the trailer were also targets.

Did the truck crash simply provide a diversion with unintended and tragic consequences? Or was it the psychotic episode with Rob when they woke the clone? Could it all just be a case of bad timing?

The bank of security monitors was dark. The hard drives of the computers that stored the digital images had all been removed. Any hope Eddie had of retrieving the imagery was lost.

“God help us,” Talbot said as he entered. Seeing Jabrani’s body, he crossed himself. “How many people were down here?”

“Agents Hughes and Warren, Professor Yeoum, Doctor Tiong, and seven airmen, not to mention the two who were running the store. For pity’s sake, even the chimps are gone.” Saying the words out loud was more than the special agent could take. Without warning, he lost control of is tightly guarded emotions and slammed his fists on the desk, raking them across the top. Keyboards, papers, and everything else that happened to be there flew against the wall.

Talbot wasn’t prepared for the sudden outburst, and instinctively reached for his sidearm, which wasn’t there, as he backed away from the distraught man.

Eddie continued his tirade by kicking a chair over and then he finished by angrily slamming his fists on the desk several more times as he growled, nearly toppling the rack of monitors.

Keeping his eyes tightly closed, he gritted his teeth. Eddie fought to think his way through his rage, and the pain that he was feeling over the loss of his team.

Talbot remained silent for several minutes before he asked, “Any ideas?”

When Eddie turned around, Talbot saw that the bandage on his forehead was soaked with blood. “You’re bleeding again. Maybe we should get you to the hospital.”

Eddie shot him a tense look. “I have an idea.”

“What’s that?”

Eddie remembered that there was another computer in the complex where the security system’s imagery might still be stored, and it was inside one of the rooms that the perpetrators hadn’t gotten to. “Get Jimmy Bennett down here.”

They learned that Jimmy was still at the hospital and wouldn’t be released until later in the afternoon at the earliest, so they joined the other investigators gathering evidence inside the complex. They confirmed that the parlor was the center of whatever activity had gone on in the place the night before. There was evidence of a struggle, and some kind of chemical residue coated nearly everything within. More of the residue was found inside the chimp paddocks.

“What do you make of it?” Eddie asked.

Talbot frowned as he scrutinized the plastic baggie containing a leaf collected from inside the habitat. “No idea, but it won’t take long to find out.” He handed the bag to one of his men. “Get this to the CDC and ask them to expedite an analysis.”

“Yes, sir,” the airman replied as he spun in his heel and trotted out of the room.

Several hours later, the same airman caught up with them as they were comparing notes with the other investigators. “Colonel, the sheriff’s deputies have reported some things that happened last night that are just too coincidental.”

“Report.”

“About a mile and a half west of the accident site, they found the body of a local. The family lives in one of the houses nearby. By all accounts he’d been working a late shift on base last night. His vehicle is no where to be found.”

Eddie gave Talbot a knowing look. “Do they have a BOLO out on it?”

“Yes, sir. Shouldn’t be too hard to spot. It’s a bright yellow Hummer.”

“You said things.” Talbot prodded. “What else?”

“A few miles further, there was another accident. An SUV flipped and landed in some poor guy’s front yard. The homeowner said that her husband went out to see if he could help and got himself shot for his trouble.”

“Shot? Who shot him?”

“We don’t know yet. He was transported to Macon, and is in surgery as we speak. The wife was calling for help when she heard the shot. When she got outside all she saw were tail lights disappearing up the road.”

“The tail lights of a yellow Hummer, I’d wager,” Eddie said grimly.

“Did they find anything in the truck?” Talbot asked.

“There was a body inside. White male, thirties, black hair, but no ID. No paperwork in the truck either. Even the VIN numbers were missing. Oh, and no weapon. The locals have a deputy there. When the homeowner wakes up—”

“We can’t let the local LEOs get too deep into this,” Eddie said.

“I’ll get a handle on it,” Talbot assured him. “Anything else, Airman?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Bennett is on his way.”

“Finally!” Eddie said. “Maybe we can get some answers.”

“Well sir, Mr. Bennett was rather adamant that he’d be of no use here.”

If Eddie’s expression could have hardened more, it would have. “Really.”

“Yes, sir.” The airman shuffled his feet under the special agent’s stare. “He was quite adamant, sir.”

When Jimmy arrived in the generator room, even the colonel couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. His left arm was encased inside a pale blue cast, his thumb and fingers exposed. His right arm was in a sling with a sprained wrist. His eyes were black and blue, and his nose was broken, forcing him to breath through his mouth. He was covered with bruises and minor lacerations. Apparently, he had taken the brunt of the abuse when the truck jack-knifed. But the person escorting him was someone Eddie was actually happy to see.

“It’s good to see you M,” Eddie managed a weak smile.

“Wish I could say the same, boss.” He was dressed in his trademark black suit, white shirt and black tie, accentuated by his dark brown eyes, black closely cropped hair and olive skin. “Any word?”

“Not yet.” Eddie studied the young man’s dour expression. “Colonel Jim Talbot, meet Malik Ghazini, my forensic scientist.”

Talbot nodded.

“We just call him M,” Eddie explained, “because he dresses like one of the Men in Black characters.” He turned his attention to the Canadian. “You look like crap, Bennett.”

“You should see the other guy,” Jimmy replied stoically. “Don’s injuries weren’t as bad as they thought. They were able to perform laparoscopic surgery to fix his spleen. He should be up and about in a day or two. What about our other patient?” Jimmy asked, glancing at Talbot.

Eddie shrugged. “He’s still unconscious at the local hospital. Mathers is keeping an eye on him. What’s this I hear about you not wanting to help us out?”

Jimmy gestured toward Ghazini with his shoulder and immediately regretted it as a short series of sharp pains assaulted him. He grunted, and then spoke. “I tried to tell yer man here that I can’t do anything from here—”

“We’ll see.” Eddie cut him off, turning back to Ghazini. “What did you find out, M?”

“Doctor Gentry completed the autopsies on Jo, Airman Jabrani, and Captain Walsh,” he said matter-of-factly.

“And?”

“You were right. He’s almost certain that Walsh was killed with Jo’s gun. We’ll be sure when ballistics come back.”

Eddie found no satisfaction in the confirmation. “What about Jo?”

“She died instantly in the crash,” Ghazini answered succinctly, unwilling to dwell on the subject. “The airman was double-tapped in the heart and shot once in the head with a nine millimeter.”

Eddie took some solace in the fact that Jo hadn’t been murdered and, more importantly, that she hadn’t suffered. Still, he felt responsible. “What about the lab?”

“There isn’t much. From what I was told, whoever they were, they were professionals. There isn’t a single hard drive left. No prints other than those of the personnel, and they policed their brass. Whoever they are, they’re professionals. But there are two doors that we haven’t been able to open.”

“Those would be the ones to the cloning chamber and my office,” Jimmy offered. “I wrote my own security program. They were immediately sealed for forty-eight hours when the power was disconnected. The storm troopers didn’t know about it,” he added, looking at Talbot.

Ghazini gave Jimmy a strange look. “Cloning chamber?”

“I’ll explain later,” Eddie assured him. “Why forty-eight hours, Jimmy?”

Jimmy smiled slyly. “In case things weren’t going in a direction that I wanted.”

Twenty minutes later they all stood in the complex’s security office. “There’s nothing here,” Jimmy complained.

“Like I said,” Ghazini said unsympathetically.

“Well, can’t you hot wire something together? You are the computer whiz,” Eddie said impatiently.

“No, you don’t understand. There’s nothing here for me to hot wire. All of the hard drives are gone. I tried to tell you guys that I could do more from the outside. But no, you were in such a big hurry to get me back down here.”

“Jimmy,” Eddie started.

Talbot was shaking his head as his cell phone began to ring. He stepped into the hallway to answer it.

Eddie, thankful for the distraction, closed the door.

“So, what’s this about a cloning chamber?” Ghazini asked.

“It’s a long story, but that’s what was happening down here.”

“Cloning?” Ghazini asked incredulously.

Jimmy piped up. “Oh, it’s not diabolical or anything. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”

Ghazini gave the Canadian a doubtful look. “Obviously there was a concerted effort for full disclosure here.” He turned back to Eddie. “Humans?”

Eddie shook his head. “Human. Singular.”

Ghazini nodded. “Even one would still be against the law.”

“Yeah, but we have bigger fish to fry. So I need all of your head in this, okay?”

“You got it, boss.”

Eddie turned back to Jimmy. “How’s our boy?”

Jimmy used a foot to pick up an overturned chair and plopped into it wincing as he did. “Greg says he’s positive the real Commander Tyler is in the hospital. He even showed me where he stitched up a cut that Rob got a few days ago before we scanned him. That’s the good news.”

Eddie looked skeptical. “I’m not sure I’d call that good news. If we have the real Tyler, then that means Doctor Phillips is out there somewhere running around with the clone, assuming she’s still alive.” He was giving June the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t want to believe that she was involved in Benny’s death.

Jimmy continued. “The bad news is that he’s still in a coma and they haven’t been able to figure out why. He didn’t have any bumps on the head or anything else. Nothing to explain the coma.” Jimmy knew there might be another reason why the commander hadn’t awakened, but decided to keep it to himself.

The door opened and Talbot stepped back in. “We found your missing agents.”

Eddie’s eyes went wide, “Where are they?”

“Are they alright?” Ghazini asked.

“They’re fine. A little hungry, dehydrated, and eaten up by mosquitoes. But fine. They were tied up in the woods about two hundred yards behind the store next to a dirt road, along with the rest of the missing personnel.”

Eddie started for the door but Talbot held up a hand to stop him. “They’re being transported to the hospital. They’re gonna need lots of Benadryl and a day or two of rest.”

Ghazini sighed and cracked a rare smile as he slapped Eddie on the back. “Cal, maybe. But not Geri. They probably had to tie her to a gurney to get her into the ambulance.”

Eddie felt some sense of relief at the news, but was still concerned. “What about Yeoum and Tiong?”

“They’re all that we found.”

Eddie nodded.

“We also got the chemical analysis back from the CDC,” Talbot continued.

“And?”

“Ever heard of something called Kolokol-one?”

“Nope,” Eddie shook his head.

“I have,” Ghazini said. “It’s a synthetic opioid used as an aerosol incapacitating agent. And it’s Russian.”

Eddie gave Talbot a doubtful look. “The Russians?”

“During the Cold War,” the colonel confirmed.

“What’s an opioid?” Jimmy asked.

Ghazini ignored him, but still answered the question. “Enough of it will knock you out anywhere from two to six hours.”

“That explains how they got them out of here without much trouble,” Eddie said. “What on God’s green earth is going on here?”

Just for a moment there was silence before Ghazini spoke again. “Where do we go from here?”

“Jimmy’s lab,” Eddie replied, as the colonel’s phone chirped and he stepped out again.

“I’m telling you, without a computer I can’t do a thing down here for another”—Jimmy checked his watch—“eighteen hours or so.” He looked at Eddie. “Even I can’t override my security program. That was the whole point.”

Eddie glared at the Canadian.

“All I need is a computer with Internet access. And somebody to actually listen to the words that are comin’ out of my mouth.”

From outside they could hear Talbot’s raised voice. “Say again. You’re breaking up.”

Eddie watched the colonel close the door. “Well, Jimmy, I want you to try anyway.”

“Try what? I’m telling you I can’t get into my office. Which one of those words do you not understand, Agent Perez?”

“Maybe we should just get him a laptop, boss.” Ghazini suggested. “Mine’s in the truck.”

Eddie’s controlled persona was beginning to show some signs of desperation. He was convinced that Jimmy was hiding something, and he wanted to know what it was. “No. It’ll take us an hour to get back outside. We’re here now.”

Talbot opened the door again. “That’s it for now, folks. We’ve been ordered out of the complex.”

“Ordered out?” Eddie asked. “By who?”

“General Stillman.”

“Wait just a minute. This is an active crime scene. My active crime scene,” Eddie protested.

Talbot looked genuinely empathetic. “The order came down from the Secretary of the Air Force. My hands are tied. We have to go, now.”

“Well did they even offer an explanation?” Eddie demanded.

“I know it’s friggin’ irregular, but I have no choice. I received a direct order.”

“We have to try to get to Jimmy’s computer,” Eddie pleaded.

Talbot’s patience was running out. “Look, Perez, I already ordered my people out.”

“I can get in from the outside in no time,” Jimmy reiterated, knowing that no one was listening to him.

“We can start fresh in a few hours as soon as we find out what this snafu is all about,” Talbot assured Eddie.

“Ten minutes. That’s all I want. Just give me ten minutes.”

“What do you think you’re gonna accomplish in ten minutes?”

“Give me ten minutes, and I’ll show ya.”

Talbot shook his head. “Why am I doin’ this? Okay ten minutes. Not one nanosecond more.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

COVINGTON AND RIGBY spent a day resting and tending to each other’s wounds, the most serious of which was Covington’s shoulder. He had been correct that the bullet had passed through the meat without striking bone, tendon, or ligaments.

The following day, Toni arranged a vehicle and new credentials for them to use in the next phase of the disastrous operation that was becoming more and more improvisational. The two would pose as Homeland Security health services inspectors in order to gain entry onto Robins Air Force Base. Dressed in business suits, they passed with ease through the gates, obtaining a map and directions to the base’s water treatment facility from one of the guards.

When they walked through the door of the main building, they found a man dressed in the blue jumpsuit of a civilian employee napping at one of the desks. The drone of machinery had masked their entrance, but the two weren’t trying to be stealthy.

Rigby cleared his voice loudly and the man woke with a start.

“Good morning,” Covington said cheerfully. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he produced a wallet containing his identification and some papers.

They could see the name Bill embroidered on the man’s jumpsuit when he leapt to his feet and faced the two suspiciously. “Who’re you guys?”

Covington smiled and held up the open wallet. “I’m Inspector Bentley and this is Inspector Harvey,” he said as he motioned to his partner. “We’re with Homeland Security. We’re here to inspect one of your buildings.”

Bill snatched the ID from him and eyed it like a liquor storeowner who had just gotten his license back after losing it for selling to minors. He looked the men up and down, and wrinkled the brow of his balding head in annoyance. “What’s this all about?”

“We need to have a look inside”—Covington checked the papers—“building two nineteen.”

“Two nineteen? The only thing in two nineteen is an old pump control board. They ain’t used fer nothin’. We prime ‘em once a month, but that’s it. There ain’t nothin’ in two nineteen.”

Covington looked at his paperwork again. “Are you sure? Because it says right here that we need to inspect building two nineteen.”

Bill’s expression showed that he wasn’t happy. “Look fellas, my supervisor ain’t here so y’all are gonna hafta come back later.”

Rigby spoke up. “Just take us to two nineteen. We won’t be five minutes.”

“C’mon man, do us a favor. We have six more inspections to do today,” Covington added.

Bill eyed the two for several seconds and then snorted as he picked up a ring of keys from his desk. “Don’t think my union rep ain’t gonna hear about this.” He turned and stomped toward the door. “Union rules say y’all can’t do no inspection without a member of management here.”

The three men exited the large building as Bill continued to grumble. They walked about one hundred fifty yards to a small ten-by-ten brick building, really more of a shed, near the perimeter fence at the extreme eastern end of the base.

Bill turned to face them. “I been workin’ here for twenty-two years and I don’t think these pumps have ever been used. We use the building mainly for storage.” When he turned back to open the door, he didn’t notice Rigby reaching into his jacket. The door opened with a creak. Inside was an assortment of gardening equipment on one side and bags of fertilizer, pine bark chips, and mulch piled on the other. A metal rake fell over and hit the concrete floor noisily.

Bill sighed. “Let me get some of this—”

The sentence went unfinished as Rigby leveled his pistol at the back of the unsuspecting man’s head and squeezed off a round. The attached silencer muffled the weapon’s report. Before Bill’s body could fall, Covington shoved it inside as they entered. Rigby put two more rounds into Bill’s heart and closed the door behind him as Covington stepped over to the control panel on the back wall of the enclosure.

But he didn’t stop there.

He whirled about and dove for the floor just as Rigby pointed his semi automatic at his back. Covington had his own weapon, or rather Jo Turner’s Sig Sauer, out and he began firing, not taking the time to aim. In the enclosed space, the sound was deafening as he unloaded the pistol into the near darkness. He immediately dropped the empty magazine to the ground and inserted another. There was no sound except for the ringing in Covington’s ears as he allowed his eyes to adjust to the low light.

Rigby wasn’t by the door any more. There were, however, three narrow streams of sunlight coming through the metal where he had been standing. Covington couldn’t see Rigby at all from where he landed behind the bags of gardening supplies. Allowing himself to breathe again, he rose to his knees. Peering over the stacks of mulch and fertilizer, he saw a dark form crumpled on the floor. He walked slowly around, keeping the Sig trained on the center of the motionless form. He felt around for a light switch and flipped it on. Rigby’s eyes were wide in death as his lifeless hand still clutched the pistol. Covington smirked at his would-be assassin. “Enjoy your trip.”

The rush of adrenaline quickly wore off, and he felt the bite of pain in his shoulder. As he reached up and massaged the wound, there was the wetness of blood under his clothes again. He checked himself for additional wounds and was relieved to find none.

How in the world had Rigby missed? He shook his head at the man’s still form.

Sighing heavily, he went back to the panel on the wall.

It had four rows of twenty control boxes stretching from wall to wall, each having two buttons, one red and one green. Next to them on the extreme left was a panel where there were three lights, one red, one white, and one green. Above them was a large frame with a heavy gauge switch in the OFF position. It was labeled “Master ON/OFF.” He pushed the lever to the ON position. The white lights on the smaller boxes below lit up.

27 The Flood

 

 

JIMMY WAS AWKWARDLY tinkering with the door controls to his office for several minutes, wincing occasionally from the pain in his wounded appendage, when Colonel Jim Talbot said, “We need to leave. Now.”

Ignoring the colonel, Eddie asked, “What about it, Jimmy?”

“There’s no power getting to the controls.” He shook his head. “I can’t release the magnetic lock. I’m telling you, it won’t open until I programmed it to … in about seventeen hours.”

Eddie glanced at Talbot. “Well, that’s just great!”

Talbot sighed. “I gave you ten minutes and it’s been fifteen. This has just been a waste of time. Let’s go, gentlemen. Now.

As Jimmy rose, he gave Eddie a knowing look. “I’ll be able to access my computer from the outside in under an hour.” He shot a suspicious look at the colonel. “And even if my hard drives get stolen, it won’t make any difference. I’ve backed them up off site. I won’t lose a thing.”

Talbot scoffed at the obvious implication, but chose not to comment. He had his suspicions about what was going on and who might be behind it, and those suspicions were very similar to those of Eddie. He hadn’t even finished the thought when he heard an unfamiliar sound in the distance. A sound like something out of a World War II submarine movie.

Ahhwooogahhh!

It blared out over and over again, and then they heard something else. A male voice was speaking in a slow, calculated cadence, but they couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“What the—?” Ghazini began.

“I have no idea,” Talbot said, looking as confused as they all felt.

The men started moving toward the sounds with Jimmy bringing up the rear. It wasn’t long before they all realized that the din was leading them directly to the garage.

“That’s outside the labs,” Eddie remarked, picking up his pace.

Ahhwooogahhh!

As they passed through the dressing room and into the garage, the automated voice’s message was counting down every fifteen seconds. “Flood controls activated. Flooding will commence in six minutes.”

“Flooding?” Jimmy was wide eyed. “They’re gonna flood the tunnel!”

Eddie shot an angry look at Talbot.

“Don’t look at me,” he said innocently. “I’m down here too.”

“It was your general who ordered everyone out, wasn’t it.” It wasn’t a question.

Talbot gave Eddie an angry look. “And if I had insisted that we leave when I got that order, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

Eddie scoffed and started to respond, but Ghazini interrupted him. “Who cares whose fault it is? What do we do?”

“We don’t have enough time to get to the generator room. It takes fifteen minutes to get through the tunnel,” Eddie lamented.

“We’re gonna be trapped down here?” Jimmy asked.

“Aw, c’mon,” Ghazini said. “This is too much, man!”

“Will the blast door close?” Jimmy eyed the still-open tunnel on the far side of the room.

“It’s been disabled,” Talbot told him. “But I don’t know if that’s good news or bad.”

“Why?” Jimmy asked.

“Because if it doesn’t close it could flood the entire complex,” Ghazini said.

“That’s it,” Eddie said calmly. “They want to destroy any evidence that’s left down here.”

“Well, they must be in here with us because the place was designed to be flooded from the inside,” Jimmy said.

“No, no,” Talbot piped up. “They tested the system once back in the fifties to make sure everything worked properly before they ever assigned any personnel for the inside. There’s a control board somewhere over at the water treatment plant.”

Ghazini gave him a questioning look.

“Would you wanna be down here the first time they flooded it, not knowing if you were gonna get out or not?” Talbot said in answer to the unasked question.

“What difference does that make?” Eddie moaned. “We can’t get half way out in six minutes!”

An image flashed in Jimmy’s mind. “There may be a way! C’mon!” He was off like a shot across the large room.

Ghazini was fast on his heels with Eddie and Talbot in tow, all more than willing to entertain any plan that might get them out.

“I saw Tyler and some of the guards working on this while we were monitoring the cloning process,” Jimmy shouted as he ran. When he reached the far corner of the cavernous room, he painfully grabbed at the plastic that was loosely covering the tanker truck that had been stored there so many years before. Seeing where Jimmy was going, Ghazini grabbed the plastic, threw it back over the cab, shoved Jimmy through the driver’s door and climbed in behind him. Talbot and Eddie watched as they started frantically searching around the inside.

“Jimmy, what are you thinking?” Eddie yelled. “This truck hasn’t run in decades!”

“Flood controls activated. Flooding will commence in five minutes,” they heard the voice announce over the intercom as the antiquated horn continuing to sound its warning.

“I hope that’s four, fifty-nine, fifty-nine!” Talbot said.

“I can’t find them! I can’t find them!” Jimmy screamed as he looked at the other men, “Help me! I can’t find them! A wild look was in his eyes.

“Can’t find what?” Eddie said as he jumped in the passenger’s side.

“The keys!” Jimmy shouted desperately. “We need the keys! I know it runs! I saw them move it!”

“Calm down!” Eddie thought for a moment. “Gotta be.” He reached up and flipped the visor down.

A single key fell into Ghazini’s lap. Grabbing it, he slid it into the ignition and prayed. Talbot was standing beside the truck, shaking his head doubtfully as the automated warning blared in their ears in deafening succession. But they were all stunned when the old tanker’s engine came to life on the first try. Ghazini smiled and pushed the gearshift into first, then let off of the clutch too fast and the engine stalled.

Talbot jumped in, pushing Eddie on top of Jimmy as the three gave their driver an alarmed look. “Malik!” they said in unison. Their plea was barely audible above the siren’s wail, but Ghazini didn’t need any more motivation. He pushed the clutch in once more and turned the key. This time the engine turned over but didn’t start.

“Oh, God help us!” Talbot said, crossing himself.

“Don’t flood it, M!” Eddie instructed, trying unsuccessfully to keep his voice calm.

“What?” Ghazini didn’t understand the term. Since the advent of fuel injectors, flooding a vehicle’s engine was unheard of. Ghazini had never driven a vehicle with a carburetor.

“Get your foot off the gas!” Eddie shouted.

Ghazini complied and turned the key again. The engine turned over twice more without success and then, on his third attempt, it roared to life again.

“Let off the clutch slow,” Eddie said.

“I know how to drive!” Ghazini drew looks of astonishment from the other three at his unproven claim.

The truck lurched and nearly stalled again, jerking back and forth. Jimmy howled in pain as Eddie’s body crushed his sprained wrist. Slowly, they began to roll more smoothly as Ghazini turned the oversized wheel. Not having power steering, it seemed to Ghazini as if the truck was fighting him. “Jeez, this thing is hard to turn.”

“Let me drive!” Eddie shouted, grabbing the wheel.

“I got this!” Ghazini protested as the truck began to pick up speed. It rolled to the left in a wide arc and they all held their breath as the long front end narrowly missed clipping the corner of the wall of the tunnel. Ghazini hit the gas and the engine sputtered, coughed and backfired as they started down the three-plus mile tunnel to the generator room.

They heard the voice on the intercom fading behind them as they went. “Flood controls activated. Flooding will commence in four minutes.”

“Go! Go! Go!” Jimmy shouted as he tried to squeeze out from under Eddie.

The heavy truck’s acceleration was agonizingly slow, but they were picking up speed as they proceeded down the slope of the tunnel.

“C’mon you lard ace!” Jimmy yelled as Ghazini shifted into second gear.

Eddie looked at the speedometer as it crossed the twenty-five-mile-per-hour mark. “We’re not gonna make it.”

“Give it more gas!” Talbot shouted.

“It’s on the floor,” Ghazini shot back.

“Just drive, M,” Eddie stated calmly with a steadying hand on the dashboard, knowing that their fate was in God’s hands.

“I can’t breathe!” Jimmy protested.

Eddie rolled his eyes. “If you can talk, you can breath.”

“Easy for you to say. You don’t have a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound dead weight sittin’ on ya.”

“Seriously?” Talbot said incredulously. “You wanna make jokes now?

Eddie couldn’t contain his smile as he stared into the distance at the pitch black ahead. “Turn on the headlights,” he said, keeping his voice even.

Ghazini’s eyes danced around the steering column. “Where are they?”

“On the front of the truck,” Jimmy quipped.

Eddie threw his weight back on to the young Canadian. “I thought you couldn’t breathe.”

“Yer gonna break my arm again,” Jimmy said in genuine distress.

Talbot couldn’t help a chuckle. “That ought’ta shut him up for a while.”

“It’s a knob on the dash to your left. There’s a button on the floorboard by the clutch for the high beams.”

Ghazini found the black knob and pulled it, illuminating at least some of the darkness. The truck was picking up speed, and Jimmy decided to keep any further comments to himself. He did, however, make a mental note to remind the others later that he was the one who saved them by remembering the truck. Assuming they made it out at all.

The needle on the speedometer continued to steadily climb. Forty. Forty-five. Fifty. Fifty-five …

“That’s it, that’s it,” Talbot said.

The man’s voice on the intercom had faded into the distance behind them, but the horn continued to blast as they accelerated ahead. They were all thankful that the tunnel, which looked a good deal smaller from inside the large truck, was a straight shot.

“Just keep your foot on the floor, M,” Eddie said evenly.

Talbot began counting off sections as they passed the yellow stripes. After the tenth section, he started to eye the openings near the ceiling warily. “We’re at a thousand yards.”

“How many to go?” Eddie checked his watch.

Talbot quickly did the math. “About forty-eight hundred.”

Eddie knew that the first and last thousand yards of tunnel had none of the pipes used in the flooding. But it had taken them just over a minute to reach that mark. He glanced at the speedometer. It read seventy miles per hour and climbing slowly as they continued down the grade, deeper into the ground. They would reach the mid point and the drain in just under a minute, and then the tunnel would begin its steep incline. From there, they would need to travel over a mile to get above the level of the pipes. Eddie calculated that they would have less than two minutes to get there. Silently, he began reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

They all fell silent as the tunnel began leveling off and they came to the drain. As they crossed over the metal grates, the sound that the tires made was an unsettling reminder that they were only half way out. But seconds later, they were back on bedrock and the tunnel began to rise steadily into the distance. Conversely, their speed began to rapidly decrease. Ghazini kept the accelerator on the floor, but to no avail. “C’mon!” he urged the old truck.

“Lord, help us.” Talbot listened to the engine as it began to protest against the strain.

Ghazini couldn’t understand what was happening outside the cab. He felt the truck being buffeted by wind and, in between the rising and falling pitch of the siren, they could hear an odd sort of whistling all around them. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Eddie asked just as his ears popped from the growing pressure.

Jimmy was holding his nose, also trying to find relief. The pipes that fed the water from the river to the tunnel were long, nearly a mile in places, and they were filled with air that needed to go somewhere as the water moved through them.

“What now?” the colonel asked, his sinuses aching as the truck’s ancient engine began to sputter.

“Please God—”Jimmy said, checking his watch. They were rapidly running out of time.

The colonel turned his attention to the passenger side mirror. In the gray distance behind them, he could see a horizontal pillar of dark water appear at nearly ceiling level. It crashed against the opposite wall and disappeared into a cloud of mist. “We should have stayed in the lab,” he said, eying the tunnel ahead. Suddenly, another pillar appeared just ahead of them. It pummeled the opposing wall and roared like a freight train as water began hitting the truck.

Ghazini had no time to react as the force of the water pushed the truck into the wall. Bang! The impact was followed by the screech of rubber and metal as it made contact with the rock. The steering wheel jolted violently out of his hands. He fought to regain control as they passed through the rush of water. They continued to lose speed as the aged drive train fought against the steady upward grade of the tunnel. Wisps of steam could be seen escaping here and there from under the hood while droplets of oil and antifreeze began to dot the glass of the windshield before them.

Ghazini searched for the windshield wiper control but couldn’t find it. Giving up, he focused on the tunnel ahead. “How much further?”

“Too far!” Talbot said.

“Just drive.” Eddie kept his voice calm.

There was another explosion of water as they passed under an opening. Brown liquid spewed into the tunnel behind them.

“Sixteen!” Talbot shouted. He had been counting down the last sections as they passed. “We’ve got another three hundred yards to go.”

As they reached the middle of the next section, the old truck’s valiant attempt to carry them to safety came to an end. As it began to shudder violently, the engine died. A cloud of steam billowed from the engine compartment from every possible exit.

“Perfect!” Eddie shouted.

“That’s all we’re gonna get,” Ghazini said as they rolled to a stop. He stomped on the break but the only thing that happened was the truck began to roll backwards. “Um, guys—”

“Jump!” Eddie shouted as Ghazini and Talbot opened their doors.

Taking care not to be hit by the door, Talbot dove out, hitting the floor like a gymnast and rolling away. He was followed by Eddie, who had Jimmy by the belt, as Ghazini made his escape on the opposite side. They saw the truck pick up speed and slowly cross the tunnel towards the wall to their left.

“How much fuel is in there, Jimmy?” asked Eddie.

“I don’t know. It felt pretty sluggish. From all the sloshing around, I’d say that it’s at least half full.”

The truck was about fifty yards away and rapidly approaching the wall. “Run!” Eddie yelled.

It impacted at an angle and the tanker began a violent skid along the side, tearing a light fixture out of the wall as it did. A shower of sparks erupted when the conduit supplying the light with power broke off and punctured the tank.

BOOM!

The explosion knocked the men off their feet. As they watched, an orange fireball engulfed the tunnel. In the same instant a column of water erupted from the pipe that was between the expanding ball of flames and the four fleeing men, deadening the concussion with the pressure of the air and water rushing into the passageway. They quickly picked themselves up and scrambled up the incline, passing under a pipe just as another column of water burst forth from it.

There was less than a hundred yards to go now. The three younger men were outdistancing Eddie. Continuing to pump his legs, he watched as Jimmy and then Talbot passed the last pipe with Ghazini on his heels. Eddie could feel the wind in front of him, carrying with it the scent of a spring rain.

All at once, a pillar of brownish liquid burst forth, knocking him off his feet just fifteen yards behind the others. They watched in horror and feared that Eddie would be swept away in the torrent. But Eddie, filled with adrenaline, was quickly on his feet again. He dashed to the wall on his left where the current wasn’t as strong and scrambled beneath the deluge to the other side, and to safety.

Once clear, he turned to look back down the tunnel. He couldn’t see through the gray mist that the water was starting to rise a few hundred yards away, but he knew it was there. He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard the colonel’s voice yelling over the din, “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Eddie nodded, then checked himself to be sure what he had said was accurate. Then, looking back at Talbot he added, “I gotta get me another job.”

28 On the Edge

3 August 2010

 

 

COVINGTON!” MONTGOMERY shouted. “What about Rigby?”

Toni had an uncharacteristic look of concern when she answered. “He’s down.”

Montgomery’s mind went into overdrive as he considered the implications. Covington surely knew Rigby had been given orders to eliminate him, and he had to know that the orders had come from him. Or had something else happened? Were the men confronted on the base? Did they accomplish their mission? “What did he say?”

“He’s calling in, requesting instructions.”

“What?” He hissed.

Toni couldn’t help but smile. “I know, right?”

“Put him on speaker. When we’re finished, delete the call.”

Toni turned back to her computer and tapped a few keys. “Go ahead, Alpha.”

“Is the deputy director on the line?” Covington’s stress-filled voice asked.

“I’m here, Neil. You’re on speaker. Go ahead.”

“We accomplished our objective. But we had a complication.”

“Oh?” Montgomery said in an almost too-pleasant tone. “What kind of complication?”

“I told Toni … Rigby’s dead. I had to kill him.”

“What?” Montgomery feigned surprise. “What on earth happened?”

“He tried to kill me. I had no choice.”

“Well, why would Rigby try to kill you?”

There was a pause, and then Covington said, “What happened wasn’t my fault. If it’s anybody’s fault, it’s Rigby and the other Charlie. They’re the ones who screwed up and let Tyler and Phillips get away.”

“Neil, I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.”

There was another pause. “I’m not stupid, Director. I know he was acting on your orders. But I did you a favor by getting rid of that incompetent waste of skin. I’m much more valuable to you than he ever was.”

Montgomery arched his eyebrows in speechless amazement. Why is he calling? Is he threatening me? Will he come after me? Toni looked at him wide-eyed in astonishment as well. This is a problem that I have to solve quickly.

“Hello?” Covington broke the silence.

Montgomery cleared his throat nervously. “What do you intend to do, Neil?”

“Find Tyler and Phillips. That’s what I have to do, right? To get back in good graces.”

“Wait one, Sergeant.” Montgomery gestured to Toni to mute the phone.

“What do you think he’s up to?”

Toni scoffed. “I think his elevator quit going to the top. He knows that you wanna kill ‘em, but he wants to keep workin’ for ya. I mean c’mon, that’s pretty stupid.” Montgomery gave her a dispassionate look that made her straighten in her chair. “He sounds like he’s out of control, desperate. I mean, how would you feel if you knew the CIA was gunning for ya? I think he’s wettin’ his pants as we speak.”

“Could you spare me the allegory and just tell me what you think he’s gonna do?”

Toni rolled her eyes and said, “Well, he knows he can’t run from us, but he could turn himself in to the Air Force or the local cops for protection. If that happens—”

“Yeah!” Montgomery cut her off with the wave of his hand, suddenly annoyed at the very sound of her voice. He had to get Covington under control, or the rapidly deteriorating situation would spiral out of control and drag him down with it. “Get Simon on the other line.”

Montgomery ran through the list of possible locations where they believed Rob might go, searching for the least likely. He and June were last known to be heading south, but he considered it unlikely that they would continue in that direction. He was sure that the commander would double back and head to South Carolina and his family, or to a naval base, maybe Jacksonville, to find help among his Navy friends. But he wanted to send Covington somewhere else. Somewhere he could be easily found, but more importantly, where he could be easily set up.

“What did you find out about Tyler’s ties to Florida? Some property or a vehicle or something?” Covington asked Toni.

She began tapping keys, and then she scrutinized the information being displayed. “Not the commander. His father. There’s a plane registered in the name of Master Chief Petty Officer Theodore Brenden Tyler at the Apalachicola Regional Airport.”

Something clicked in Montgomery’s mind. “Why would Tyler’s dad, who lives in South Carolina, keep a plane in Apalachicola, Florida?”

“I spoke to the airport manager. He told me Tyler’s father uses it to take people island-hopping in the Keys. As of yesterday, it was parked in the hanger.”

Montgomery knitted his eyebrows in confusion. “Island-hopping? Is it a sea plane?”

Toni shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“Find out. And have a satellite tasked over Apalachicola ASAP.”

“That’s gonna attract a lot of attention, boss,” Toni warned.

Montgomery smiled. “Don’t you worry about that, Miss Blackburn. We’re searching for a rogue here. A rogue who’s killed a captain in the United States Navy.”

Toni’s faced displayed a wicked smile. “Consider it done. Want a BOLO out on Covington?”

Montgomery thought about it. “Not yet. We’ve been taken by surprise. We want to find out what he’s up to before we send everyone after him.”

Toni winked. “Okie dokie.”

Tyler’s father houses a seaplane on the coast of Florida. Montgomery considered the possibilities. There was something about the new information that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He would send Pew with a team to eliminate the threat of Covington, but there was absolutely no reason he couldn’t use him to do some legwork first. He reached over Toni and punched the mute button. “Still there, Neil?”

“I’m here.”

“Okay, good.” He tried to sound annoyed, which wasn’t difficult under the circumstances. “We’ve had a very serious breech here, Neil. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes sir, I do but—”

“No buts,” Montgomery said, cutting him off. “Somebody had to pay the price for what happened. Rigby and his partner did screw up and so did you. You should have contained the situation before the personnel left the complex. They never should have been allowed to get into that truck. Just look what happened.”

“But—”

“No excuses, soldier. You dropped the ball. But that’s history now. You need to put it out of your mind.” Montgomery hoped he wasn’t pushing the desperate man too far over the edge, but he had to at least sound firm.

There was a pause before Covington asked, “How can I make this up to you, sir?” Covington was still confused, but also hopeful of the direction the conversation seemed to be going in.

“Neil, we are professionals. Rigby proved you’re right. You are more valuable to us than he was. We sent him for you and you took him out and completed the mission. But we’ve got bigger fish to fry. We need to fix this. Do you understand? We have to tie this off.”

Another pause. “Yes sir.”

“Is your head on straight, Sergeant?”

Covington cleared his throat. “Yes sir.”

“Because we need to act fast. If you can’t handle this, I need to know now.”

“No, sir.” Covington’s tone changed from one of fear to hopeful recklessness. “I can handle anything you need me to do.”

“This is your one and only chance to prove to me that you’re the right man, soldier. But if you fail …” Montgomery let the words trail off.

“I won’t, sir. I’ll do whatever you need.”

“Okay, Neil, I’m trusting you. Where are you now?”

“I’m in the car. I just left the base.”

“Good. We’ve gotten some pretty good intel that Tyler and Phillips are heading to Apalachicola, Florida.”

29 The Best-Laid Plans

3 August 2010

 

 

BY THE TIME THEY WALKED the two-plus miles to the Best Western Apalach Inn, it was well past midnight. The doors were locked and there was no sign of life. But inside the vestibule at the lobby entrance they discovered a telephone with instructions to call the night laundry attendant. The woman was hesitant to let them in at first, but quickly changed her mind when Rob flashed a one hundred dollar bill before her eyes.

After a shower and a raid on the hotel’s vending machine, they got some much-needed sleep. The next morning they were thrilled to discover that the hotel had a hot breakfast bar. They drew some odd looks from the staff as they made repeated trips to refill their plates, after going a day and a half without food.

After breakfast, they walked into town. June found a store where she bought a change of clothes. Rob used the time that she spent shopping to visit several other stores where he gathered a grocery list of needed supplies. They included bleach, acetone, a pair of glass mixing bowls, a funnel, a plastic squeeze bottle, some bottled water, and a backpack. He grabbed a bag of ice at a convenience store as they walked back to the hotel.

When June asked what the materials were for, he only said, “You’ll see.”

They returned to the hotel room with their bags just after one o’clock. Rob had no sooner closed the door when June spoke. “Okay, Tyler. You’ve had some time. When are you gonna let me in on what you’re planning?”

Rob opened the room’s only window, closed the drapes for privacy, and sat in one of two chairs flanking a round wooden table in the corner. He took a moment before he spoke. When he finally did, his expression was somewhere between amusement and apprehension. “I’m going to take that plane and fly to the Keys.”

“Fly to the Keys?”

“That’s right.”

“Are you crazy? You’re not a pilot!”

“Yes I am, actually.”

“Rob, we had a lot of conversations before all of this happened and you never told me you were a pilot.”

“Maybe you didn’t ask.”

She thought about it for a moment and conceded. “Maybe I didn’t. But that’s a pretty big detail to leave out.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot of things I didn’t tell you about. Heck, there are things my wife doesn’t know about me.”

June wondered for a moment what other secrets he had, but quickly dismissed the thought. “So, you’re a licensed pilot.”

“Didn’t say I had a license.”

“You don’t have a license?”

“I don’t have a hunting license either, but I know how to skin a deer.”

“Who taught you to fly?”

“Friends.”

“Friends?” June repeated.

“Navy friends, Army friends, Air Force friends, Marine friends. I got a lotta friends,” Rob said. “Plus, my dad’s a pilot. I actually have more time in helicopters than in fixed wings, but I’m pretty sure I can fly the one at the airport.”

“You’re pretty sure?”

“There’s something very familiar about it ever since I saw what kind of airplane it is.”

June shook her head and sat on the edge of the bed closest to him. “This is unbelievable. Okay, so you’re one hot shot, Top Gun, Maverick of a pilot and can probably fly rings around Tom Cruise. Why fly to the Keys?”

He sighed. “I need to get someplace where I can think, and I can’t do that if I have to keep looking over my shoulder.”

“And you’ll be able to think in the Keys?”

“Probably not, but I can find transportation from there to somewhere that I can.”

“Like where?”

“Like Belize. Or Brazil maybe.”

“Brazil? Like in South America?” she scoffed.

“Last time I checked.” Suddenly, he was distracted. He looked past June at the wall behind her. She turned to see what had gotten his attention but there was nothing. “What is it?”

He laughed. “I just remembered the twin’s fifth birthday. After church we took them to Carolina Ice Palace. I wanted to teach them how to skate. But Carol,” he shook his head, “she wasn’t happy about it at all. See, Carol can’t skate, so she was worried they’d fall and hurt themselves.” He looked at June. “You know how really over protective mothers can be when kids are that age.”

June looked at him, dumbfounded. Nine years of his memory were missing, but he was telling the story matter-of-factly like anyone might. “How old did you say they were?”

“It was their fifth birthday. Anyway, I told her that it would be just like when I taught them to swim—” He froze as his smile disappeared.

“Rob?”

Several minutes silently passed as he stared into space, smiling occasionally. June gave him some time, hoping his memory was indeed returning, until she finally broke the silence. “Rob, are you alright?”

It was as if he was seeing June for the first time. “I remember my kids. Christian and C. C. I remember them skating at the Ice Palace.”

June was ecstatic. “That’s great!” She jumped up to give him a quick hug. “What else do to remember?”

He tried hard to recall other details. But just like it had been in the car ride on their way to Florida, the images were random, disjointed. Many had no meaning at all, no context. Representations of people and places he didn’t know. But somehow, they felt familiar.

June saw his growing frustration and became concerned. Taking him by the shoulders, she smiled. “Well, you’re making progress.”

He shook his head. “I’m trying, but …”

“Don’t push it. Those memories of your kids came back. Give it time and I bet it all comes back to you.” She let go. “I was afraid I was going to have to start calling you Jason Bourne.”

Rob frowned. “Who?”

“From the Bourne … never mind. What are you doing?”

He ignored the question, stood up, and gestured to the chair where he had been sitting. “You sit here.”

June complied. For the next two hours she watched as he carefully mixed the ingredients he had purchased, using one of the glass bowls. As he worked, he would periodically blurt out some detail from his life. Some June had heard in earlier conversations. Most were events involving family. Birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and other scenes from his past. There didn’t seem to be any pattern or chronology to the order of the memories, but they were only of people and places that he would be very familiar with.

June was fighting her own battle as she listened. [_Do I go with him to the Keys, then South America, and then who knows where? Or do I stay and try to figure all of this out with … someone. But who can I trust? The local authorities? The Air Force? NCIS? Whoever is after us can’t possibly have a hand in every facet of law enforcement across the country. And I need to get back to the babies. What about Don and Jimmy? They were in the crash too. They may have been hurt. And then there’s Juan and the professor. I can’t fly off with Rob to who-knows-where. But … can I just leave him? _]Agonizingly, she made her decision.

“Rob,” she said, interrupting his musings.

“Yeah?”

“I can’t go with you.”

“Huh?”

“To South America. I can’t go to South America with you.”

He smiled. “I don’t want you to.”

“You don’t?” she asked, surprised that his words stung so much.

“No. It wouldn’t be right. Me being married and all.”

“Oh,” she said, suddenly understanding.

“Besides, you don’t have a passport.”

“Oh,” she repeated. “I guess that would make travel kinda difficult.”

“I want you to go to the cops. Tell them … oh, you know what to tell them. It would probably be better if you didn’t give them a whole lotta details, though. Who do you think you can trust that was inside the project?”

She thought for a moment. “Perez. Agent Eddie Perez, the NCIS guy.”

Rob couldn’t remember any of the players. “Sure. He’ll do. Just don’t tell them where I’m going.”

She looked at him disappointingly. “Rob.”

“Sorry,” he said, giving her a knowing look. “But I am gonna need your help.”

Her heart lifted. “You do?”

“I need you to drive the car to the airport tonight.”

“Where are you going to be?”

“I’ll be plowing the road.”

June gave him a confused look.

“I’m gonna make sure there are no obstacles between you and the plane.”

She went from confused to concerned in nothing flat. “You mean like security guards?”

Rob nodded.

“You won’t hurt anyone will you?”

“Trust me. I’m quitting …” He closed his eyes in frustration. “I quit the SEALs because I didn’t want to hurt people any more. I’m not gonna hurt anyone.” He turned back to his mixing bowls. “I hope.”

He poured some of the contents of the first bowl into the empty second container and stood back with a look of profound satisfaction.

“Are you finished?”

“Just about.” He stepped into the bathroom and poured the contents of the second bowl out.

“Are you gonna tell me what it is?”

He poured the remaining liquid into the plastic bottle and quickly screwed the cap on. “Chloroform,” he smiled triumphantly.

Later, they ordered some take-out from a nearby restaurant and waited until nightfall before Rob called the front desk to arrange for a taxi. Hanging up the phone, he felt something tugging on his heartstrings from the inner recesses of his mind that he was becoming more and more familiar with. He needed to pray.

“Let’s bow our heads,” he said.

June smiled and willingly complied.

“Heavenly Father. Please forgive us our sins. Thank you for your many blessings. For those that we realize and for the ones that we don’t. Thank you for the gift of June’s companionship, for her wisdom, her patience … and Lord, especially for her driving skills. Thank you for keeping us safe and forgive me for not thanking you sooner for that. I ask that you place a hedge of protection around us and the people we encounter as we do what we must tonight. And I ask your forgiveness for it, too. Lord, there is no plan except your plan, and I submit that I only want your will to be done.”

He was about to finish when June spoke. “Father God, thank you for Rob’s friendship and I ask that you bless him in his travels. I ask that you take him where you want him to go and keep him safe. And God, please keep his family safe as they suffer through this trial. Give them strength to endure. We ask these things the most holy name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

“Amen,” Rob repeated as he grabbed the backpack.

When the cab arrived, they passed through the lobby on their way out and the hairs on the back of Rob’s neck stood up. The hotel desk clerk tried, unsuccessfully, to look nonchalant when she gave them a nervous smile. Once outside, Rob checked up and down the street for prying eyes in the darkness. He found none. He instructed the driver to take them to Bluff Road Storage, but he continued to scan around for anything out of the ordinary. As they started up the street, he didn’t notice the headlights of the Mercury as it pulled from the parking lot two hundred yards behind them.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

DO YOU WANT ME TO wait?” the driver asked, sticking his head out the window.

“I really don’t know how long we’re gonna be so we’ll call when we get finished.”

“Well, it’s gettin’ kinda late and I gotta sit somewhere. I’ll just turn the meter off and wait here till I get my next call.”

He was a friendly old man, but it didn’t fit into the plan for him to remain there.

“No, really. We may be a few hours. I appreciate it, but we’ll call when we’re ready.”

“Suit yourselves,” the driver replied as he slowly drove away.

June was at the keypad near the gate. “What was the code to get in?”

“Four, six, zero, two, four, zero.”

She punched in the numbers and the gate began rolling out of the way.

Taking a more direct route to unit forty-eight than the previous night, Rob continued to scan around for anything unusual.

“Calm down. You’re making me nervous,” June chided.

But Rob’s sixth sense was speaking to him now. Something gnawed at him like a Texas tick on a mangy hound dog. When they reached the door, it was just as they had left it.

“See, nothing’s changed,” she said reassuringly.

But Rot wasn’t listening. He was peering into the darkness back the way they had come. “Something’s not right.”

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Doctor Phillips?”

June looked in the direction of the unfamiliar voice, but the voice in Rob’s head told him to look in the other. When he did, he barely caught a glimpse of the shadowy form slipping back around the corner at the end of the row, sixty yards away.

June, however, had her eyes fixed on the silhouette approaching them. He was wearing a suit, but that was about all she could tell.

“Doctor Phillips? Commander Tyler? Oh, I’m so glad that I found you! Are you alright?”

“Don’t turn around,” Rob whispered to June. “There’s someone at the end of the building behind us.” He leaned in closer. “When it happens, don’t think. Just put your back against the door and make like a shadow. Then as soon as you can, get in the car and drive to the airport. Let me know you understand me by saying sure.”

When it happens? When what happens? “Sure, we’re okay,” she answered. “Who’s there?” she called to the stranger.

Rob stepped in front of June defensively, keeping his left hand behind his back. When the man closed to within fifteen feet, he said, “That’s far enough.”

The stranger stopped and held his hands out innocently. “Whoa! Take it easy, Commander. It’s Simon Pew. Special Agent Simon Pew, NCIS.”

“Well, Special Agent Simon Pew, why don’t you toss me some ID?”

“Not a problem.” Pew reached into his jacket.

“Easy.”

Pew smiled, though he doubted Rob could see him. He slowly removed the wallet from his breast pocket and tossed it over.

Rob flipped it open. It looked real enough in the poor light. “Do you know him?” he asked just loud enough for June to hear.

“No. Never heard of him.” She turned to Pew. “Where’s Agent Santiago?” She pulled a name out of the air to see if Pew would lie.

Pew shook his head. “Don’t know any Santiago, but Special Agent Edward Perez sent me to find you. And you two didn’t make that easy, let me tell you.”

June started to breathe a sigh of relief, but then something didn’t seem quite right. “Perez’s name is Eduardo, not Edward,” she whispered.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Rob took a step forward and shrugged off the backpack. “Boy, are we glad to see you!”

In an explosion of motion, Rob rushed Pew, leading with his shoulder. Pew attempted to dodge him, but wasn’t fast enough. Pumping his legs furiously, Rob connected with Pew’s midsection. He lifted the man off his feet and slammed him down onto the pavement.

Even though Rob had tried to prepare her, June couldn’t help an abbreviated screech, surprised by the sudden motion. Then, doing as he had instructed, she whirled around and backed into the door with a loud bang. She looked away from where the men were brawling and saw another man dressed in black running up the driveway toward them. He had already covered half the distance, and she could see he was aiming some type of handgun in her direction.

“Rob!” she shouted, glancing back. She quickly abandoned the thought of any help as Rob and Pew continued their struggle. She squatted, keeping as close to the door as she could, as she began rolling it up.

Rob couldn’t help a perverse grin when he noticed Pew’s expression as he laid there, eyes wide and desperate to take a breath. It was a mixture of anger, confusion, and pain. “Not quite what you were expectin’, huh?” He reared up and smashed his elbow into the middle of the man’s chest with a sickening crack as sternum and ribs shattered. In one motion, he knocked Pew’s hands away, pulled the pistol from its holster under his jacket, and rolled to his right. He came up half kneeling and facing June. She thanked the Lord when the door opened easily, as she had forgotten the lock was missing. She covered her ears, too late. Rob found the dark form with the sites of his weapon. He fired two shots nearly too fast for a human to distinguish one from the other. June looked back at the man in black, expecting he was the shooter. She was shocked to see him fall to the ground. Surprised and relieved, she watched the gun sail out of his hands and slide across the driveway away from him. With her ears ringing, it took several seconds for her to hear his agonizing screams.

Remembering Rob’s instruction to get to the airport, she turned to the darkness of the storeroom only to see another form moving fast from behind the car. When her eyes locked on the syringe in her foe’s hand, she grabbed the rope tied to the door handle and dropped, using her weight to close it. But the man’s arm protruded from underneath, stopping it in the crook of his elbow.

“Rob!” she yelled as she lost her grip and fell on her rump.

Rob watched the man in black crumple, screaming and clutching his leg. Rob’s aim had been true. He glanced at the sound of June’s voice. There was a flash before his eyes as he was kicked in the back of his head.

Pew landed on his knees as he watched Rob tumble forward from the impact. He tried to breathe and grimaced from the pain in his chest. Never before had he fought an opponent who had inflicted such damage so quickly. He tried to stand, desperate to put up a defense, but couldn’t find the strength.

Rob wasn’t able to focus, but he was able to use some of the energy Pew had spent in the attack to roll over his shoulder. He came up, facing Pew on one knee. He had enough presence of mind not to fire again so as not to draw unwanted attention. He ejected the clip, locked the slide back and tossed the weapon behind him. He heard a loud bang and looked to the storeroom as another man dressed in a suit stepped out into the alley from the storage locker. On the ground in front of him was June crawling like a crab backwards to get away from this new adversary. On her other side, Rob saw the man in black dragging his injured body toward her.

The new attacker was moving quickly, reaching for her with one hand as he wielded the hypodermic with the other. June let out a pathetic, “No!” She tried to scramble away and then she felt something on the ground behind her. Grabbing it, she swung at her attacker just as he found a firm grip on her ankle. She delivered a glancing blow across the bridge of his nose. He recoiled and let go as blood gushed freely from the injury and he was momentarily blinded. June looked at her weapon, the pistol that the man in black had been carrying, and then pointed it at her disorientated assailant.

Rob came to his feet and covered the short distance between himself and Pew in the blink of an eye. Pew was still kneeling with his head hung low as he tried to fill his lungs when Rob kicked him in the face. Pew fell over heavily and lay still in an unconscious heap. Rob turned his attention back to June only to find the woman on her back pointing a gun at her attacker. “June!” he shouted, but a fraction of a second too late.

When she pulled the trigger, she closed her eyes in anticipation of the shot. But the bang she expected didn’t come, only a muffled pop. She looked up at her foe and saw a patch of red on his chest. She squinted, trying to discern what had happened. The patch of red bounced too and fro as the man began to stumble backward, still clutching his nose. He dropped the syringe and moments later fell heavily to the pavement.

“June!” Rob shouted again, startling her attention away from the crumpled body. “Nine o’clock!”

“Nine o’clock?” She failed to understand.

Seeing Rob rushing toward him, the man in black stopped moving and held his hands up in defeat. “I’m done.”

June reacted to the voice only feet away by grabbing the barrel of the gun and clubbing him in the head, knocking him out cold. “Is that all?” she asked, looking back at the darkened storeroom.

“I hope so,” Rob said, satisfied that no one else was left to continue the melee and relieved that there had apparently been no witnesses. He bent down and plucked out the four inch long black dart tipped with a red feather that was protruding from the chest of the man who had threatened June with the needle. He offered her a hand up and gave her an approving look as he handed the missile to her.

“What?”

“Not a bad shot for an ethologist.”

“Thanks, it’s my first”—she searched unsuccessfully for a word—“whatever this is.”

“Just one question, though.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“How come you didn’t go to the airport like I said?”

Minutes later, they had the unconscious men inside the cramped space of the storeroom. Rob used a small amount of chloroform to be sure that the man in black and the man with the needle would sleep the rest of the night away and June tended the man in black’s wounded leg. They agreed not to gag them, fearing that the man with the broken nose might suffocate. When they were finished, Rot splashed some water on Pew’s face.

“Rise and shine honey, it’s time for some pillow talk.”

Pew peered through swollen eyes at Rot and coughed. Rob winced empathetically when he saw Pew grimace.

June, who was standing behind Rob holding the backpack, grimaced as well and said, “Please don’t hurt him.”

“Well, it’s a little late for that, don’tcha think?”

“Well, just don’t overdo it.”

“I’ll try,” he replied sincerely, attempting to ease her sensibilities.

“Commander,” Pew wheezed, “we’re here to help.”

“Save it. Now, my friend here,” he motioned with his head behind him, “she doesn’t want me to hurt you … anymore.”

Pew whimpered as he nodded his agreement.

“Now, I myself have no such misgivings, so if you don’t tell me what I want to know”—he paused for effect—“this is gonna be a very long night for you.”

Pew shook his head. “No more. Please. Can’t breathe.”

“Good. I see we understand each other. That’s a good thing. Now,” Rob frowned and looked back at June. “What do we wanna know?”

“Where’s Covington?” she asked.

“Where’s Covington?” Rob repeated, looking at Pew.

“Don’t know.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.” Rob straightened Pew’s tie and placed his thumb in the middle of Pew’s chest. “That was only question number one and you’re already not cooperating. You know, they say communication is the cornerstone of any relationship. I’d say you and I are getting off to a pretty rocky start.”

“Rob—” June started to protest, but Rob waved her off.

Pew shook his head more vigorously and immediately paid the price for it. “Don’t know. I swear!”

“Don’t swear, Simon. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”

“I … don’t know. We … came here … looking for … him,” Pew said between gasps.

“I don’t think I believe you.” Rob applied a small amount of pressure to his sternum. “And I’m not in a very good mood tonight.”

“Please. He went … rogue. He’s … off the grid.”

Rob removed his thumb, surprised by how much he was beginning to pity Pew. “Okay, let’s say that’s true. What are you doing here?”

“We … were sent … to bring … Covington back. To arrest him,” he lied.

Rob scoffed. “And it was just dumb luck that you just happened to stumble on June and me?”

“Yes.”

Rob put his thumb back on Pew’s chest, but applied no pressure.

“Please!” Pew pleaded again. “Please. I don’t … know anything … else.”

Rob snarled, gritted his teeth and leaned in face-to-face, “I haven’t asked you anything else yet! If you’re here lookin’ for Covington then what’s he doing here? And what’s with all the recreational drugs?”

Pew started to cough, his breath rattling in his chest and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

June touched her companion on the shoulder. “Rob. This is a waste of time. The police or somebody worse could be on their way right now. We need to go.”

Rob thought it unlikely that the police would come after so much time, but he nodded his agreement.

As Rob stood, Pew said, “Tyler, your family—”

Rob’s anger welled up in an instant. He seized Pew by his jacket. “What about my family?”

“Rob, don’t. Please,” June begged, tugging at his arm.

Pew tried to scream but his breath was taken from him. Rob, seeing the man in agony, eased him back and let go. Regardless of what the man had planned for them earlier, he was helpless now, in agony and fighting to just to take a breath. Rob withdrew the cloth that he had previously dosed with chloroform from the backpack and placed it over Pew’s face just long enough for him to slip into unconsciousness. When he looked back at June, he found her staring at Pew with tears in her eyes.

Slinging the backpack over his shoulder, Rob fought back the impulse to apologize to her. “Are you ready?”

30 Parting Ways

 

 

ROB HAD METICULOUSLY formulated a plan to cut through the fence to gain access to the airfield, but as they drove away from the storage facility, he decided he would ride along with June to the main gate instead.

“I thought you had this intricate plan all worked out. ‘Plow the road,’ you said.” June glanced his way.

“I did.”

“What about security guards?”

“There aren’t any.”

June looked at him doubtfully. “There aren’t any? How do you know that?”

He shrugged. “Just do.”

“If there aren’t any, then why did you make the chloroform?”

Again, he shrugged. “Came in handy at the storage place.”

June couldn’t deny his logic. “So we’re just gonna drive up to the main gate, and then what?”

“I guess we’ll see when we get there.”

June stopped at an intersection. “Which way?”

“Right.”

June did as instructed, turning onto Apalachee Street. “Should I turn the lights off?”

“You’ve seen too many movies,” Rob chuckled. “No, you might hit somethin’.”

June had trouble reading the street signs on the unlit road. As they made their way through the small residential area, she began to think Rob had her going in the wrong direction. But soon the trees thinned and she could make out the airfield’s radar array ahead. They passed a parking lot and stopped in front of the gate in the chain link fence that surrounded the airfield.

“This must be the place,” Rob said, climbing out of the car. June followed suit and they met at the gate. There was an electronic keypad similar to the one at the storage facility. She gave Rob a skeptical look. “Don’t tell me …”

He shrugged again and punched in a series of numbers and the gate began to slide open.

“You’ve been here before too, haven’t you?”

“I guess so,” he said just as he noticed headlights coming up the road behind them.

June turned to face them as well. She watched as a Jeep pulled up behind their car and two occupants stepped out. The one who looked to be in his late forties was wearing jeans and an orange Florida Gators polo shirt, and holding a flashlight. The other was much younger, wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a white tee shirt. June figured he couldn’t yet be out of his teens. Father and son?

“Can I help you folks?” the older man asked, walking up to the driver’s side of the Torino as he studied them by its headlights.

“We were just—”

“Mister Tyler? Is that you?” the young man interrupted.

Rob had no idea who these men were, so the young man’s unexpected recognition startled him. “Um … yeah. Yeah, it’s me.”

The older man gave him a confused look. “You didn’t call.”

“I’m sorry. My cell phone died.” He didn’t know what else to say, and he was feeling at a bit of a disadvantage.

“Sorry I didn’t know who you were,” the older man said, looking disdainfully at the Torino. “And I didn’t recognize the car.”

“Yeah,” Rob replied, giving the old beater a loving look. “I just picked her up. Got a lotta restoration to do. Dad had one just like it when I was a kid. It’s a surprise for him.”

“Well, she needs a lotta body work,” the man said, shining the light through the open window. “How’s she run?”

“Purrs like a really big kitten,” Rob answered with a grin.

“Has she got a Windsor or a Cleveland?”

Rob scoffed. “I wouldn’t have bought her if she didn’t have a Cleveland.”

The teenager spoke up. “You gonna be taking your dad’s Beaver out?”

Well, that explains that. “Probably in the morning. I just wanted to show her to my friend June, here.” He gestured in her direction.

“That is a sweet plane,” the young man nodded. “Mister Tyler senior took me up in it a few times. He even let me fly it a little ways.”

The older man offered June his hand. “Tom Bradford,” he said and then he gestured to the boy. “This is my oldest, Lincoln.”

“Hi,” Lincoln waved as June smiled at him.

“I’m the caretaker here. We live just up the road in the house on the corner.”

June smiled and shook his hand. “Doctor June Phillips.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Well, Tom,” Rob said, “I appreciate you comin’ and checking us out to make sure we belong. Makes me feel good about keeping Dad’s plane here, knowing you’re on your toes.”

“No problem.” Tom grinned as he looked from Rob to June and back again. “Just do me a favor and give me a call if it’s after hours next time, huh?”

“Sure thing, Tom. Sorry we got you out of the house.”

“Thanks again,” June added.

Tom waved as he wheeled the Jeep around and headed back up the road.

“You’re dad’s plane?”

“I know,” Rob grinned wickedly. “Now I don’t feel quite so bad about stealing it.”

When they got back in the car June drove them through the gate, which closed behind them. They came to a fork in the road. “Which way?”

“Left, and then left again,” Rob instructed, following his instincts.

June did as instructed and they found themselves on the airport’s tarmac. They could see in the darkness a cluster of buildings along the flight line that ended with a row of five hangars.

“It’s the middle one.” Rob pointed in the general direction.

June rolled slowly along, finally stopping in front of the hangar’s open door.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

TOM AND LINCOLN HAD just reached their driveway when they saw another car, a Mercury Grand Marquis, turn onto Apalachee Street and head toward the airport.

“Not another one,” Tom said in exasperation. “Do you know that car?”

“No, sir. Maybe they’re with Mister Tyler.”

As they watched, the car drove toward the gate a little too fast, and then proceeded to push right through it.

“Holy crap! If they are, he’s in a lot of trouble.” Tom pulled his cell phone from his pocket.

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JUNE WATCHED AS ROB organized the items that he had selected for his journey. It was true that she had made the decision not to go with him to South America, but she was feeling somewhat miffed about the fact that he had made no attempt to convince her otherwise. It made no sense for her to accompany him, but up to now, she felt he had needed her if for nothing more than moral support. Who am I kidding? For crying out loud, the man is a U.S. Navy SEAL. He doesn’t need me. I’m just acting like a little girl about it. And besides, I need to get back to the babies.

Brushing away those thoughts, she turned her attention to the planes parked inside the hangar. “Do you know which one it is?”

“Is there more than one with pontoons?” he asked, rummaging through the trunk of the car.

“No.”

“Then it’s the one with the pontoons.”

She saw it parked on the left side, nearest to the door. It was an elegant-looking single-engine plane. It made the others seem plain by comparison, not to mention small. Sitting atop the landing gear under the pontoons, it towered over the other aircraft. June had seen its type before when she was a child in Africa. She and her family had flown to Madagascar in one similar to it, though this one seemed a good bit smaller than the one she remembered, and that plane was painted canary yellow. In the low light, this plane’s hunter green and white paint job appeared gray and black. She walked slowly around the plane, admiring its lines before she climbed onto the starboard pontoon and peered through cockpit window. She was admiring the clean uncluttered appearance of the instrument panel when she heard a man’s voice behind.

“Doctor Phillips.”

She froze as her heart skipped a beat. Slowly, she turned to see a shadowy figure standing in the open doorway of the hangar, silhouetted in the moonlight.

“It is you, isn’t it?” The man sounded more than a little relieved.

“Who are you?” She looked around for Rob, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“It’s Neil. Neil Covington.”

Her heart dropped and her breath was stolen away. Flashing through her mind was the horrific vision of Benny being shot in the head, his warm blood showering her in the rainy darkness, and his lifeless body falling into the mud. She started to tremble, and felt queasy as her throat constricted. He was wearing a suit, but she couldn’t make out much detail. His hands were empty. He had been standing easily, nonthreatening, before he took a few tentative steps inside. She could hear the smile on his face as he spoke to her as if the two were old friends.

“Ah, Doctor Phillips, I’m so glad that I found you. Are you alright?”

June’s knuckles were white, clutching the plane’s strut. She scanned around the immediate area for something—anything—that she could use as a weapon. There was nothing that she could reach before he would be on her. “What?” It was all she could think to say. Her mind turned to clay, gripped with fear. She took a few deep breaths. “What do you mean? How did you find me?”

Covington was completely at ease as he spoke. “Oh, I guess I got lucky. But I’m surprised he remembered this place.”

“He who?” June asked, knowing he was referring to Rob.

“Orson.”

June knitted her eyebrows together in genuine confusion. “Who?”

“That’s what the professor named him when they took him out of the nursery. Orson. That’s his name.”

“Named who?”

Covington decided to try a different strategy, one he hoped would put June even more on the defensive. “The clone you’re trying to steal. Where is he?”

June shook her head. “What are you talking about? Trying to steal?” She looked straight at him. “You killed the captain.”

He ignored the accusation, trying to keep her off guard. “Has he hurt you?”

The question didn’t make any sense. She felt as if she was losing control. Again, she tried to turn the tables on the assassin. “You killed Captain Walsh,” she said forcefully.

“I had to, June.”

“What do you mean you had to?”

“I was there to protect the others. I was security chief. I knew what the two of you were up to. I had to kill him.”

“The two of us?”

“It’s over, June. I’m taking you back to face up to what you’ve done. What you and the captain did.”

She shook her head, stepping off of the pontoon. “I don’t believe you. You’re crazy. You’re gonna kill us.”

“Where’s Orson, June?”

“I don’t know.” She stepped backwards, deeper into the hangar. And it was no lie. She was desperate to find her companion, whatever Covington called him.

“Well, he must be here. Why else would you be?”

She didn’t have a good answer for that one, so she remained silent.

Covington took a few more steps toward her. She back-peddled faster, nearly tripping over something on the floor. He stopped and held his hands out. “It’s okay. This doesn’t have to get any more complicated. I don’t want you to get yourself hurt. We just need to get going.”

“Going? Where?”

“Back to the complex. The others are waiting.”

“The others?”

“Yeah. The professor, Doctor Cook, Jimmy.” He paused, and then added, “and Commander Tyler. They’re all anxious to see how the … how Orson fared through all this.”

“Couldn’t tell you how he fared.” Rob’s voice startled both of them in the darkness. “But I’m just fine, thanks.”

Covington smiled, and looked deeper into the hangar. “Orson? We need to go, buddy.”

“Only my mama calls me Orson. And you ain’t her.”

Covington gave June a puzzled look. “Does he think that he’s Tyler?”

“He is Tyler.”

“No, June,” Covington shook his head. “This is the clone. The commander is in the hospital.” He nodded to the back of the hangar where he believed the voice had come from. “Does he have Tyler’s memories?”

“Of course.” It was a half-truth, but there was no reason to mention the memory loss. “He is Tyler,” she repeated.

“That’s incredible.” Covington was genuinely astonished. “Yeoum said he wouldn’t. How far back can he remember?”

“Don’tcha hate it when people talk about you like you’re not in the room? I know I do,” Rob said.

Covington smiled again. “Sorry about that. Look, Orson, I don’t have any weapons.”

“All that tells me is that one of us is armed and one of is a liar,” Rob replied.

“Why don’t you come out where we can see each other?”

“Can’t think of a good reason not to. Just as soon as you, very carefully, using the thumb and forefinger of your left hand, reach around and take out that weapon that’s tucked under your jacket at the small of your back and drop it on the floor.”

Covington smiled. Slowly, he reached around and produced Jo Turner’s Sig Saur. But instead of dropping it, he leveled it at June. “You did say only one of us is armed.”

June started to bolt but stopped in her tracks when Covington shouted, “No, no, no Doctor Phillips. I’d prefer it if you stayed right where you are. Orson, listen to me. I don’t want to hurt either of you. But the fact remains that we need to leave here. There are some people who want to see you.”

“Well, I’m shy and June doesn’t make house calls. She’s not that kind of doctor.”

Covington couldn’t zero in on where the voice was coming from. He started toward the port side of the plane, keeping the 40 caliber trained on June. “You’re a clone, Orson. The real Tyler is—”

“Not likely,” Rob interrupted. “My folks would have told me when I was thirteen at confirmation.”

“Do you mean to tell me you have memories from that far back?”

“You have no idea.”

“Is that how you knew about your father’s plane?”

“Well, you know what they say. You only steal the planes of those you love.”

“Do you have other memories from your childhood?” Covington was surprised at his own curiosity.

“Yes and no. But I do remember when dad gave me a BB gun for Christmas one year. I nearly shot my eye out, just like Mom warned.”

“Those are false memories, Orson. They’re not your own. They belong to the real Rob Tyler.”

June was trying to find Rob’s voice, but it seemed as if it was coming from all around her. She took a single step toward the tail of the plane.

“I’m gonna have to insist you stop calling me that,” Rob said, conversationally.

“It’s your name, Orson. The one Chi gave you when you were grown last week.”

“You know, you’re really kind of an annoying person. I can see why June doesn’t think too highly of you.”

“My apologies. But seriously, we need to get you back to the lab.”

June took another step.

“I can’t. I have a lunch date with Castro tomorrow.”

Covington laughed. “I gotta say, for a clone you have an unusual sense of humor.”

When June took another step, she saw Rob’s dark form half kneeling on top of the fuselage of the Beaver, his hands cupped around his mouth, throwing his voice toward the ceiling.

Covington noticed June’s movement. “Now, Doctor—”

She dropped and rolled under the tail, narrowly avoiding smashing her head into the fin that she hadn’t seen under the rudder.

Covington lunged after June, only to have Rob’s full weight crash down on him.

Rob’s timing was perfect. He slammed his knees into Covington’s back just below the shoulder blades, throwing him into a toolbox near the tail. The pistol sailed into the darkness.

Rob landed on the balls of his feet and tucked into a roll, coming up in a defensive crouch.

Covington regained his balance and grabbed the heavy toolbox. He used its weight to pull himself away from his attacker. Using it as a shield, he pushed it toward Rob.

Ever alert, Rob was on Covington’s heels, jabbing over the box and connecting with his cheek. But it was only a glancing blow, as Covington flinched at the last second. When he did, he noticed an oversized box wrench on top of the toolbox. He grabbed it and back peddled, launching it at Rob’s head. Rob ducked, and the missile sailed harmlessly past.

“You killed my friend,” Rob accused. “Now it’s your turn.”

“I was doing my job. Protecting you,” Covington snarled, unconvincingly.

June was making her way to the back of the hangar, hoping to find the pistol, when she saw the next best thing. She picked up a chemical fire extinguisher and pulled its metal pin, spinning to face the combatants.

Rob had used the element of surprise to his advantage, but it was less effective than he had hoped as Covington regrouped and went on the offensive. He wasn’t clumsy or reckless. This was a man who had training. His eyes were focused as he fiercely came at Rob in an elegant state of controlled violence.

Rob found a clearer spot in the floor, away from the plane. I may have underestimated this man.

In a blur, Covington launched a flurry of kicks and punches that the SEAL was able to deflect, even returning a few of his own. But the assassin had thrown Rob off balance and had him on the defensive.

An instant later Rob darted sideways, putting the strut of the wing between himself and Covington. Using it as a pivot, he kicked out with both feet, catching Covington in the midsection. Covington doubled over and staggered back, but remained on his feet. Rob charged in, grasping him around the waist and lifting him in an attempt at a body slam. As he did, Covington clubbed Rob’s back with his doubled fists. The two went down in a heap, but Covington used their momentum to roll on top. He was unable to find firm footing so he carried through bringing his elbow down hard on Rob’s sternum. Rob heard an unmistakable snap and felt an explosion of pain within. The air was blasted from his lungs. Remarkably, he maintained the presence of mind to rear back and kick at the assassin’s face. This time, the blow was solid. Covington, who was not yet on his knees, rolled heavily away from Rob.

Rob rolled on his side toward his assailant. Every attempt to breath was excruciating, but his training had taught him to ignore it. All in one motion, he jumped to his feet and found his opponent on one knee facing him. He watched as Covington spat blood and teeth to the floor. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he glared up at Rob.

“Had enough?” Rob asked, the simple act making him wince.

Covington’s smile was bloody. “Wow! I am impressed. You really turned out well. Muscle memory, reflexes, self-control. I bet the professor could never have imagined that you’d be this … this … whole. And a real challenge to boot!”

“That’s what clean living and a good exercise regimen will do. It requires discipline though. And perseverance,” Rob said indignantly. He had his back to the open hangar door. In the dim light, June crept up behind Covington, the extinguisher’s nozzle pointed at his head.

The assassin stood slowly, revealing a .38 caliber revolver. He pointed it at Rob. “They want you alive. But they failed to mention whether they cared if you had a hole or two.”

Rob smirked. “You know, June’s right behind you. I’d …” His sentence trailed off as he watched in horror as his ploy backfired. The sergeant spun around, the .38 leading the way. June reacted without thought. She squeezed the trigger and shot the chemical powder into Covington’s face, blinding him. His eyes burned and he couldn’t breathe, but he still managed to pull the trigger.

Rob couldn’t see through the cloud of white that enveloped the scene before him. He rushed to the place where the assassin was standing and crashed into him as the gun went off. The two went down again, but this time Rob was on top and had his knees firmly planted. Ignoring the pain in his chest, he clenched his hands into a double fist and raised them above his head. With his remaining strength, he slammed it into Covington’s face. He knew he had hit home when he felt the crunch of the man’s nose as it snapped. The force of the blow sent Covington’s head into the concrete floor hard, and he stopped moving.

Rob found June lying next to him. She had dropped the extinguisher and was clutching her right bicep.

“June, are you alright?” he asked, checking the assassin for life.

“What do you think? He shot me!”

Feeling Covington’s weak, but steady pulse, he turned to June. “Let me see,” he said, grimacing with every word.

June moved her hand and looked away. “Oh, I’m gonna puke. Why did you tell him I was behind him?”

“Sorry,” he said, checking her wound. Thankfully, it was just a graze. “Just broke the skin,” he said as he tore the sleeve from her blouse to make a bandage.

“Ohhh,” she moaned.

“Go ahead and throw up. You’ll feel better.”

June readily complied with Rob’s suggestion as he finished wrapping her arm.

Looking back at Covington’s motionless form, Rob became aware of the sound of sirens in the distance. “Time to go.”

June looked up at him and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. Her stomach felt marginally better but her arm throbbed with every move. “What’s the matter?”

“Listen.”

She focused her senses through the pain. “You think they’re coming here?”

“I don’t know. Somebody could’ve heard the shot. Doesn’t matter, I can’t take the chance.” He grabbed the last few items from the trunk of the car and tossed them into the plane.

“That was like fourteen-and-a-half seconds ago!” June protested. “They can’t be that close already.”

Rob ignored her. “I gotta go.” He paused long enough to make eye contact. “Take care of yourself, June.”

“Wait!” June said as she tried unsuccessfully to stand. “How will I find you?”

Without turning back he shouted, “I’ll find you.”

With that, he removed the wheel blocks and climbed into the cockpit. Looking back at June, who had managed to regain her balance and was standing beside the plane, he wondered briefly if he would actually ever see her again.

As the engine roared to life, June thought about waving but decided against it as Rob taxied out of the hanger. It was then that she first noticed the flashing blue lights of the police cars through the window, the sound of their sirens getting closer and closer. A wave of regret and fear washed over her. She looked at the bloody, powdery mess that was Covington. Seeing he hadn’t moved, she relaxed and began to wonder again about the fate of the others. How were her babies? And how about Professor Yeoum, Don, Jimmy, Tiong, and even Greg Mathers. They were her only friends, the only people besides her parents she really cared about. She looked back at the plane that continued toward the runway. No, they are not my only friends.

She thought about Commander Rob Tyler. In some ways, she felt even closer to him. He seemed more like family. Her emotions welled up within and she felt tears streaming down her cheeks as she watched him maneuver the plane onto the taxiway. She wanted desperately to go with him, but the pain in her arm and another wave of nausea wouldn’t allow her to move. What’s going to happen to him? Will they hunt him down? Will they kill him? “Please take care of him, God,” she prayed.

With her arm throbbing, she glanced over at the blue lights flashing through the trees and then back at the plane. She leaned against the hangar and slid down to a sitting position. Feeling queasy with her strength waning, she glanced lazily over at the patrol cars as they emerged onto the tarmac, their lights flashing and sirens blaring. She smiled weakly and closed her eyes. “I think I’m just gonna let you guys come and find me.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

THROUGH THE STARBOARD windows, Rob saw the headlights of the police cars closing in behind him. They were passing the hangers and fanning out in pursuit. He gunned the plane down the taxiway towards the runway and turned to the north so violently that the plane’s starboard wingtip nearly hit the concrete. He straightened the plane out and when the port wheels touched down again he realized that he had left himself less than a third of the runway.

“Lord, please don’t let me fowl up!”

As he checked his speed—fifty knots, fifty-five, sixty—he started to believe that the old Beaver still had the guts to get him into the air, even in the shortened distance.

“C’mon! You can do it, baby!”

Sixty-five, seventy, seventy-five …

He could see the plane’s shadow from the patrol car’s headlights cast on the trees that towered above directly in his path. Looking to his left and right, he saw the deputies maneuvering around the plane in an attempt to block him. Turning his attention back to the fast-approaching trees, he prayed, “Please, Lord! Please don’t let me kill me!”

Using his remaining strength and fighting through the pain in his chest, he yanked on the yoke so hard that he feared it might snap off. To his astonishment the plane lifted easily off the ground and began a rapid climb. By a much too narrow margin, the plane cleared the treetops and he banked port, descending to an altitude of fifty feet just as soon as the terrain would allow on a heading that would take him toward the Gulf of Mexico.

“Now, let’s just pray they don’t have anything to follow me with.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

JUNE WATCHED THE PLANE disappear behind the trees. Closing her eyes tightly, she prayed it wouldn’t crash. When she opened them again, she saw three of the patrol cars racing in her direction. The first one stopped next to the Mercury, but the other two slid to a screeching halt next to the Torino. As the deputies climbed out, they didn’t immediately notice June where she was sitting next to the hangar.

With her remaining strength, she shouted. “Hey! I’m over here.”

The deputies trotted over with guns drawn. “Let me see your hands!” one shouted.

She tried to lift them, but the pain and weakness had her too close to passing out. She dropped them to her lap instead. Seeing she was injured, the closest deputy asked, “Are you alright, Miss? What in blazes is goin’ on here?”

June was fading fast and didn’t hear the question. Groggily, she mumbled just loud enough for them to hear. “My name is Doctor June Phillips and I have information concerning the murder of a captain in the United States Navy.”

31 A Prayer for the Helpless

04 August 2010

 

 

THE SENATORS WERE having a very bad day. Kingsley and Kitchens sat at the table in a private dining room of the Sou’Wester restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington D.C. They finished what they could of their lunch. Their more-than-efficient waitress had cleared the dishes away and they found themselves staring at one another in utter silence. The project that was so important to them, each for their own very different reasons, had fallen apart and lay before them like the carcasses of the animals that died to provide their meal. A mere three days ago they were receiving very favorable reports from Professor Yeoum concerning the experiment. Success seemed assured and they were preparing to celebrate.

That is, until the inconceivable had happened.

An agent or agents of some unknown entity had compromised the project. There were seven dead, including an NCIS agent and Captain Benny Walsh. Professor Yeoum, Doctor Tiong, Doctor Phillips, the clone, and Security Chief Sergeant Covington were all missing. The CIA, the Air Force, the Navy, the FBI, and local civilian authorities in Georgia were conducting investigations.

“So much for my new medical research complex,” Kitchens sighed, breaking the silence.

“So much for our careers. Kingsley shot back with a disgusted look. “Seriously, what are you more concerned about, your community or your job and reputation?”

“I think those two go together.” Kitchens glared across the table. “I got suckered into all this for the good it would do for my community, my state. You told me it’d bring seventeen hundred new jobs to middle Georgia. And you assured me that everything was under control.”

I assured you?” she scoffed. “No, Professor Yeoum assured us both that everything was on track. Not me.”

“Lower your voice,” Kitchens whispered. “Reporters eat here too. And can we please stay on topic?”

“Well, aren’t you just the quintessential man of noble character? Such concern for your community’s well being and being diligent in keeping me safe from prying eyes, all at the same time,” she spoke through clinched teeth.

“Do we really have time for this?”

Ignoring the question, she continued to rant. “That’s all I need. Some so-called journalist to get a whiff of this and start digging around.”

“Margaret!”

She gave him a scornful look. “I was making my bones here in D.C. when you were making mud pies in your sand box! Don’t presume to warn me about my town, Mister Junior Senator! And just what topic is it that you’d like to stay on, Kevin?”

Kitchens remained silent. He was the one who had strayed away from the main point of their discussion.

Kingsley took a sip from her glass of water. She was beginning to regret the fact that she’d chosen to forgo her favorite wine. “Seven people are dead. And we, that is you and I, are ultimately responsible.”

“No. You are ultimately responsible. I’m just a junior senator from the state where you wanted to conduct this … this—”

“Would you please shut your backwoods-hick, kudzu-chewin’, Georgia good-ole-boy mouth and let me think for a minute?”

Kitchens fell silent for several more minutes. As Kingsley contemplated her next move, he had time to regret the fear that he had revealed to her by trying to shift the blame her way.

When Kingsley spoke again, she did so matter-of-factly. “We need to keep Perez on a very short leash. Both him and Talbot.”

“Jim Talbot is Stillman’s eyes and ears. As long as he’s involved, she’s involved. And she don’t like gettin’ her toes stepped on.”

“Well, then. We’ll just have to make sure she understands the gravity of the situation. After all, this whole thing took place on her base. She needs to make sure she keeps her mouth shut too, or she could find herself in the middle of a career-ending controversy.”

Kitchens smiled. “Absolutely. As for Talbot, he and his people are, for the time being at least, reporting to Perez. And Perez is reporting directly to me. As of now, you and I have direct control of the investigation.”

Kingsley scoffed again. “You mean other than the CIA, the FBI, the JAG office, and the locals.”

“They’re not getting anything we don’t want them to get. Perez understands what we want, I can guarantee you that.”

“What about the homeowner who was shot? Is he alright?” Kingsley asked, not sure what condition she would prefer him to be in.

“He’s in stable condition at the hospital. The local sheriff and police chief have been sniffing around, but they won’t get anything from him.”

Kingsley gave the younger man a doubtful look, but decided to remain silent about his assumption.

“Our biggest problems are Phillips, the clone, Yeoum and Tiong. I think it’s safe to assume that Phillips is with the clone and that the professor and Tiong are together. The question is where they are.”

“Really? You figured that out all by yourself?” Kingsley wasn’t concerned about Tiong. If he and the professor were together, they would be found in short order. What their condition would be when they were found, she couldn’t guess. What perplexed her was where June had taken the clone and why. From everything Yeoum had told her, the clone would have little or no cognitive abilities. Its mind would be a complete blank except, perhaps, for some of Rob’s more recent memories. What was she doing? She looked at Kitchens. “What’s Perez had to say about the mole? Who does he suspect?”

“His working theory is either Covington or Doctor Phillips,” answered Kitchens.

“That’s a pretty short list, considering how many people are involved.”

“My money’s on Phillips. I never liked having an activist involved in this.”

Was the ethologist tree hugger in on it? Did she team up with her environmentalist friends to make some political statement about saving the animals? “Why not the professor?” Kingsley asked. “Maybe he’s gotten homesick.”

“All Yeoum cares about is his research. He’d never do anything to jeopardize his work.”

Kingsley took another sip from her glass. “My father always told me that in any mystery, it was either the most likely or the least likely suspect. My money is on Covington or one of the other security guards.”

“Why not Tiong?” Kitchens asked.

“How is Perez going to proceed?” she asked, ignoring his question. Kitchens narrowed his eyes and was about to ask again when his cell phone rang.

Kingsley watched as he answered and listened intently, trying to hear the voice on the other end.

“That’s great news Eddie! Great news! Any leads on Mather’s car?”

“What?” Kingsley asked, anxious to hear something positive.

“What about the”—he caught himself before he said the word—“Mister Tyler?” He listened, and then continued speaking into the receiver. “Okay. Keep me posted.”

“What’s happened?” Kingsley asked.

“Bennett managed to get into his computer files,” Kitchens reported. “He had the security footage backed up. As it turns out, only the tunnels got flooded. Air pressure inside kept the water out of the labs, but they still haven’t learned much more than what we knew before. They need to get inside. They think that the south tunnel can be pumped out by the end of the week, giving them access.”

“The end of the week? Why so long?”

“Well, there’s over fifty million gallons of water in there, and that’s just the south tunnel. Double that for both tunnels. Shoot, when they were flooded the river practically dried up.”

Kingsley sat back and rolled her eyes. “Another very public event that will need an explanation,” she moaned.

Kitchens smiled. “That one’s already covered. The USGS recorded a quote seismic event unquote, and has already explained it away as a sink hole.”

“Well, thank God for small favors.”

“Amen to that.”

“Was there something about Mathers’ car?”

“Yes. The police found it at a truck stop in Tifton, Georgia. A man and a woman were seen driving away from there in a stolen car on Monday afternoon.”

“Where’s Tifton?”

“It’s about an hour south of the base.”

“So, they’re heading south? What on earth is that woman up to?”

“We’re about to find out,” Kitchens said. “Eddie and his team are on their way to Apalachicola, Florida.”

“They found Phillips?” Kingsley asked hopefully.

“She turned herself in to the local sheriff last night.”

“And the”—she caught herself—“Tyler?”

“All Perez said was that he isn’t with her.”

She rolled her eyes again and her shoulders slumped. “Wonderful. Just when I thought our luck was changing.”

Kitchens had to suppress another smile. Even under these circumstances, he was enjoying watching the woman squirm. “Paramount to our concerns is that we keep the president outside of this.”

“The president isn’t in this,” she reminded him.

“Doesn’t matter. If he gets connected to it now …” He let the sentence trail off, its implication plain.

“Well, we may have to dangle one of the joint chiefs, probably Piedmont of the Air Force,” Kingsley said, hardly believing the words had actually escaped her lips. She was in uncharted territory now. It was self-preservation at any cost. She cradled her forehead in her hand. “And Tyler is still in a coma?”

“Yes, as of an hour ago.”

She lowered her voice further. “And the major is positive that they have the real Robert Tyler there in the hospital?”

“Absolutely.”

“How can they be sure if he’s in a coma?”

“I’m no doctor. He says there’s physical evidence, something about scarring. I’ll take his word.”

Kingsley glared at Kitchens. “You tell Mathers I want proof positive.”

“Unfortunately, until he does wake up, we have to go with what we have.”

“So, are we seriously proceeding under the assumption that the clone is on the run?”

“Until it’s found, that’s the game plan.”

She shook her head. “It would be impossible to make this up.” She thought a moment. “Maybe that’s the one thing that we can use to our advantage.”

“What’s that?”

“The fact that nobody will believe it.”

Kitchens paused for a moment. “Maybe it’s dead.”

“We should be so lucky.” She shook her head. “Like you said, we have to proceed under the assumption that the clone is out there, somewhere. But make no mistake, Kevin. We have got to tie this off.”

Kitchens laughed, drawing a penetrating stare from the senior senator. “We can’t tie it off. It’s gone too far. There are too many people … too many agencies involved. I told you to let the Air Force handle it. But no, you catered to Walsh and got NCIS involved, and look what it’s gotten us.”

Kingsley continued to stare, but she knew he was right. In her zeal to get to the finished product, she had gotten sloppy. “Haste makes waste,” she said under her breath.

“Excuse me?”

“Something else my father used to say. Haste makes waste.”

“Sounds like a wise man.” His comment was laced with sarcasm.

Ignoring his attitude, she smiled at the memory. “He was.”

“Are you planning to go down there?”

Her eyes opened wide in surprise. “To Georgia? Are you out of your mind? I ain’t goin’ south of the Mason-Dixon till this mess gets straightened out,” she said, butchering his accent in an attempt to mock him.

Kitchens smiled and nodded, satisfied with the answer. “Well, maybe it’s time I did.”

Kingsley’s ears perked up. “What are you talking about?”

Kitchens simply smiled silently.

“Do you see an opportunity here, Kevin? What did you have in mind?

“Well, it is my ole stompin’ grounds. If I go back home, nobody will suspect a thing. And I might be able to … expedite things.”

“What will you tell Perez?”

He displayed a politician’s smile. “I’ll tell him he’s doin’ an outstandin’ job, and that we’re gonna make any and all resources available to him. And I’ll tell him to keep up the good work.”  He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. “Margaret, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m an up-and-comer. I need to make my bones. And from some friends here in D.C. I know you picked me for that very reason. That, and because a rookie senator from the south is easy to discredit in some”—he picked up his nearly empty glass and took a sip—“unsightly scandal.”

Kingsley wondered at the man’s sudden boldness, a quality she had thought he sorely lacked.

“You’re a very powerful woman, Misses Kingsley,” Kitchens continued. “You have a mountain of important tasks on your plate. Let me take care of this bit of unpleasantness for you.”

“And I can, at some future date, take care of some things for you, in a like manner that you handle this one?”

Kitchens made note of the implication. “Nothing as messy as the current situation, I can assure you.”

She looked at him doubtfully. “Are you sure you’re not getting in over your head?”

He sat back and grinned. “Ma’am, we have a way of doin’ things in the south. I’m sure you can appreciate that. You’d be better off not knowing all the details, though.”

Kingsley started to relax. Now that Benny was dead, a sad fact but one that she could use to her advantage, she was no more attached to this situation than Kitchens was. Why not let the Georgia boy put himself out on a limb, and at his own request at that?

She picked up her glass again and winked. “Alright.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

INSIDE ROOM 6434 OF the Houston Medical Center in Warner Robins, Georgia, registered nurse Lorraine Jackson was reading the chart of the male patient who had been admitted three days before by an Air Force doctor. For some reason, she took a special interest in his case. He seemed to be perfectly healthy apart from a few bumps and bruises. He was in his mid forties, but in extremely good physical condition. He had been the subject of a sleep study when everything that could have possibly gone wrong went wrong, and he inexplicably lapsed into a coma. And to make matters worse, he had fallen out of bed, striking a table with his head on the way to the floor. But there was something else about the man. He was different from her other patients in a way that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, and something told her she should pray for him. Being the good Baptist choir member that she was, she had even made it a request at her weekly Bible study.

She paused for a moment at the foot of his bed and bowed her head. “Lord, please watch over this man. Let your grace and healing pour over him like water and restore his strength. Give him the ability to rise from the confines of this bed, if it’s your will Lord. Let him walk out of here and back to his life, so he can be a good and faithful servant for your glory, God. It’s in the precious name of Jesus that I pray these things. Amen.”

She checked his vital signs and then moved to fluff the pillow under his head. She took a moment to search his face for any signs of waking. Seeing none, she began to work his joints to keep his muscles lithe. “You are just gonna have to wake up soon, Mister Tyler. These things ain’t gonna like it if you don’t get up and do some exercise pretty soon,” she added, picking up his arm and flexing it. “Now I know it’s a little early yet for physical therapy, but you don’t mind if I give you a little extra TLC now, do you?” She searched his closed eyes for any kind of response, but got none. “I didn’t think so.” Replacing his arm, she walked around the bed. “I ain’t gonna be able to keep you on my floor for very much longer if you’re just gonna lay here. Pretty soon, somebody is gonna want this bed and they’re gonna send you to rehab. You ain’t gonna like that so you better go on and wake up now.” She frowned and patted him on the belly. “And I’ll bet you’re gettin’ pretty hungry, eatin’ nothing but what we feed you through these here tubes.”

As she turned to leave, she nearly hit the floor when she heard him ask, “You don’t have any cheesecake do you?”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

YEOUM WOKE A FEW HOURS after Tiong. He listened as Tiong explained their predicament and introduced him to the self-named Schultz. They discovered all of their electronic devices had been removed, along with their shoes and socks, while they had been unconscious. This made it difficult to keep track of the time, and any thoughts of attempting to escape from the moving truck were very unpleasant. They were only able to guess how long they had been inside the trailer when they stopped for fuel and had a changing of the guard. They surmised that at least two days had passed since they were abducted. To make matters worse, all of the parties concerned, both captives and their hosts, were becoming more and more irritable in the deteriorating conditions within, having a pickle bucket for a toilet and only granola bars and Gatorade for sustenance during their journey.

Other than Schultz, their captors had proven profoundly unfriendly and much less chatty. On several occasions, Tiong had requested he be allowed to check on the chimps, but their captors had flatly refused. Even after attempting to explain the side effect that caused unconsciousness when the clones and donor chimps were too close to each other, not to mention that they had had no food or water for days, they remained unconcerned. Tiong worried about possible unknown ramifications, but there was nothing he could do.

Not long after waking and during a guard change, Yeoum had gone into a tirade of threats that were silenced by a new man with the butt of his AK-47. The still-unconscious Yeoum was bound and gagged. Tiong feared that the blow might have killed the aging man, but the Korean proved to be made of hardy stuff. He had only remained unconscious for about ten minutes, but he was kept in his bonds until the next guard in the rotation took his turn.

Yeoum and Tiong sat on one of the thin mattresses near the front of the trailer as the man who was guarding them, an older and dirtier man than Schultz, sat near the doors. He had forbidden them to speak or walk around, threatening to tie them up if they chose to ignore his orders. But eventually, his attention turned to the deck of cards that he had been playing solitaire with.

“How are you holding up, Professor?”

Yeoum was sitting in his customary manner of late, crossed legged and with his arms folded. “I have endured far worse than this, Doctor Tiong.”

“Good,” Tiong said, amused by the old man’s consistent defiance. He wondered briefly what it would take to truly intimidate the diminutive man, but decided finally that he’d rather not know. Noticing the guard glaring in their direction, Tiong found a rivet in the floor to stare at until the man turned his attention back to his game.

“Why do you think they’re taking us to California?” Tiong whispered.

Without thinking, Yeoum responded, “I assume that, given the situation on the border, they will attempt to take us out of the country. Assuming we are not already in Mexico.”

“Why do you think that they’d take us to Mexico?”

Yeoum remained silent. He had concocted a theory about their present situation early on, but was reluctant to share it with Tiong.

“Professor?”

Yeoum turned to Tiong and said with a hint of finality, “I am afraid, Doctor Tiong, that my past has finally caught up with me.”

Tiong looked at him quizzically. “I don’t understand.”

“There are elements of my life I have kept hidden from you and the others. Elements that have consequences that are extremely unforgiving.”

“What are you talking about, Professor?”

Yeoum ignored the question, choosing to disclose the information in his own manner. “My only regret is that you will suffer my fate as well. I never wanted that.”

“What fate?”

“You believe that I am originally from the Republic of South Korea?”

“Well—” Tiong started.

Yeoum shook his head, cutting him off. “I am a Daechwa, A senior colonel in the Army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” He turned to look at Tiong. “North Korea. I defected from my home country in 1991. I no longer wanted to participate in the cloning project that was initiated by my father. Their methods were … cruel.”

Tiong nodded.

“You suspected this?”

“No, Professor. I didn’t suspect. I was already aware.”

It was Yeoum’s turn to give Tiong a confused look. “How?”

Tiong smiled. “Let’s just say that there are certain elements of my past that you are unaware of.”

“Such as?”

“In due time, Professor. In due time.”

32 Loose ends

09 August 2010

 

 

EDDIE WAS REUNITED WITH Geri Hughes and Cal Warren after their short stay in the hospital. The three left late on Wednesday afternoon to travel to Florida, having learned of June’s surrender to the Apalachicola Sheriff’s Department. The junior agents, along with the others found in the woods behind the Lightning Quik Mart, proved to be of little use in providing information about their ordeal. They knew even less about the whereabouts of Doctor Tiong and Professor Yeoum. Kolokol One had been used to knock them unconscious. EA-3167, an anticholinergic deliriant, was then used to keep them that way for an extended time. Any memory of the assault had been completely erased.

Air Force personnel were diligently pumping water from the tunnels, but the task of removing tons of mud and other debris to clear a path for foot traffic to Sistema Chac Luum would take days, perhaps even weeks. The good news, reported by Greg, was that Rob had regained consciousness and was showing all the signs of a full recovery. Greg and Don had spent a good bit of time with Rob as he lay in his bed, and were convinced beyond doubt that their patient was the real Rob Tyler.

It was mid morning on Monday before Rob returned to his hospital room after an MRI scan. Greg had embellished a bit on his resume’ and had refused the assistance of a neurologist, fearing a local doctor might ask too many questions concerning the circumstances leading to Rob’s condition. He was satisfied and more than a little relieved that, considering the yet undetermined brain trauma Rob had suffered, the commander’s head would soon be in tiptop form.

“Is there any way y’all could sneak me a couple of cheeseburgers or somethin’ in here? What they’ve been bringin’ me wouldn’t keep a squirrel alive,” Rob lamented as he reclined on the bed.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Don said.

Greg eyed the two in warning. “Forget it. At least until the last blood analysis comes back.”

“Aw, c’mon, Doc!”

Greg gave Rob a stern look. “Would you prefer not to get outta here tomorrow? You wanna stay a few extra days for another round of blood work?”

“No contraband, Doctor Cook!” Rob said in mock annoyance. “Honestly Doc, I don’t have a clue where Doctor Cook comes up with this stuff. I mean, you’d think a geneticist would know better!” He looked back at Don. “What were you thinking?”

Greg smiled. “What was I thinking? Alright, now how ‘bout telling me how you’re feeling.”

Rob straightened himself, taking a moment to make sure his hospital gown wasn’t revealing too much. “A whole lot less discombobulated, that’s for sure.”

“Tell me again, what’s the last thing you remember?”

“Okay,” Rob said with a sigh, annoyed that he was asked to go through it again. “I was in the parlor with June, Jimmy, Special Agent Perez, and you. There were some other people there too, but I’m not sure who. Anyway, we had been playing cards, and I was cleaning up, by the way. And all of a sudden, I started feeling like I was drowning or something. I was having hot and cold flashes, couldn’t catch my breath, and then, I woke up in this bed. Nurse Lorraine was talking to me about something, I can’t remember. I must’ve passed out again.”

“What about when you were unconscious? Can you remember anything else about the dreams?”

Rob gave Greg a doubtful look. “I really don’t understand—”

Greg held up his hand at him. “Just humor me.”

Rob sighed. “Like I told you before, I was having a really vivid—I don’t know if it was a dream or if it was just a memory—of my last assignment as a SEAL.”

“What happened?” Don asked.

Rob’s face displayed disappointment. “Now, you both know that’s classified. If I tell you that I could be sent to prison.”

“Okay,” Greg said with a reassuring smile. “I just had to find out if you’d slip up, that’s all. Now, try and get some sleep.”

“But Doc—”

Greg held up his hand. “And I’ll see to getting you out of here and back to your family tomorrow.”

Rob folded his arms and painted on an exaggerated smile, but said not another word.

Greg turned to Don. “So, are you heading back over to the lab?”

Don took the hint. “Yeah. They should have a path cleared by this afternoon.” He turned to Rob and patted the foot of the bed. “I’ll be back before you leave tomorrow. Okay, man?”

“Don’t be late ‘cause I ain’t waitin’,” Rob said.

“I’ll be here, don’t worry.”

“I won’t,” Rob quipped. “I’ve seen enough of you people.”

As the doctors turned to leave, Rob asked, “What about June? Will I be able to say goodbye to her?”

“Sorry Rob,” Greg answered with a frown. “Probably not. She’s got her hands full with the chimps. I think she may already be in Africa with Paris and Charlie.”

“That was quick. I thought that they were gonna be moved at the end of the month.”

Greg shrugged. “Under the circumstances …”

“Well, can you make sure that she gets my number? I’d like her to meet Carol and my kids.”

“You never mentioned anything about inviting us over to meet the family,” Don said, feigning injury. He then looked to Greg. “I think we’ve been slighted.”

“Don’t go away mad, Doc—” Rob started.

“Just go away,” the three said together.

“We’ll see what we can do,” Greg said, chuckling. They walked into the hall and pulled the door closed behind them. Greg found an empty room and the two stepped in, Don closing the door for some privacy.

“How’s he holding up?” Greg asked.

“I really don’t like lying to him. Did you know he and Walsh were friends?”

“No. It’s gotta be hard for him.”

“I don’t know if he buys the story about the captain dying in the crash.”

“I know, but orders are orders.” Greg then cocked his head questioningly. “So?”

Don shook his head, “I don’t know what to make of it. I mean, I’m no neurologist.”

“Yeah, but you heard him?”

“I heard, but maybe he’s just confused. There was a lot going on.”

“I guess,” Greg said. “But he was alone with June in the parlor when it happened. And then she ran and got Tiong and Perez. There wasn’t anybody else in there. You and Jimmy were with the professor and I was in the lab.”

Don looked at Greg skeptically. “I think you’re reading too much into this. His mind was Swiss cheese for almost seventy-two hours. There’s no telling how screwed up his memories got.”

“That’s what I’m thinking, too. I just needed to hear your point of view.”

“That being settled,” Don said, “orders or not, do you think it’s wise letting Rob think that the clone didn’t survive?”

The major frowned. “For all we know, it didn’t. It’s not with June. It has no memories, no point of reference. Where could it be?”

“I don’t know. That’s the point.”

“Look, the guy has been through enough. He’s going back home, and from what he’s told me, he’s retiring from the Navy. He’s done his bit for king and country. Let’s just let him leave the service with some peace of mind to enjoy it.”

“How would you feel if you were in his shoes?” Don asked. “’Cause I’m pretty sure I’d want to know about the possibility that the clone’s alive, at least.”

“Well, I can tell you without a doubt that I wouldn’t.” He slapped Don on the shoulder. “Ignorance is bliss, my friend.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

BY YEOUM’S RECKONING, he, Tiong, and the chimps had been inside the trailer for the better part of four days. They were only allowed out for occasional bathroom breaks in out of the way spots, under the cover of darkness with a minimum of two men guarding them. At times, during the excruciatingly boring journey, they could hear one chimp or another begin to stir and whimper inside its crate. Tiong was getting more than a little concerned about their condition despite the IV fluids that had been administered daily. He could only imagine what damage might be being inflicted on their brains as long as they remained in close proximity. But their captors remained stoic about the plight of the animals.

Each day at an appointed time, Schultz took his turn in the trailer. Tiong and Yeoum found him to be a pleasant change from the other nameless men, even after he had been reminded by his compatriots not to get too friendly with the cargo. But after trying four hours of silence each day, he would inevitably break down and return to being his friendlier self.

On the morning of the fifth day, they had an unusually long stop. Shultz climbed into the trailer just as the sun was breaking on the horizon. He waited stone-faced until the doors were secured, then he smiled and asked, “Y’all doin’ alright this mornin’?” He was cradling his shotgun in the crook of his left arm, but draped over his right was a yellow raincoat they hadn’t seen before.

“We’ve been better,” Tiong lamented. “I thought you said you were taking us to California. It feels like we ought to be in Australia by now.”

“Oh, don’t worry. We’re almost there.”

“Great,” Tiong exclaimed, feigning excitement. “I always wanted to see a kangaroo!”

Schultz smiled. “Yer too funny Juan. Naw, I meant that we’re almost to the docks.” He produced a white paper sack from under his raincoat and handed it to Yeoum, who immediately handed it off to Tiong, having no interest in whatever was inside. “Here. When we stopped fer breakfast, I got y’all a couple of sausage‘n’ biscuits and hash browns. Sorry I couldn’t get ya somethin’ ta drink, but the other guys would’a noticed. They’re a mite cold, but I figured they’d be better‘n’ granola bars.”

“After nearly ninety-six hours of nothing but horse feed”—Tiong opened the sack and inhaled deeply—“this it the best-smelling stuff in all of human history.” Even Yeoum perked up at the aroma filling his nostrils. Tiong removed a couple of sandwiches and the hash browns, handing one of each to Yeoum.

“There’s some jelly in there too, boys. I like mine with strawberry m’self,” Schultz said.

Tiong took a bite of the fried potatoes and his eyes rolled back. “Ohhh! That tastes so good.” Yeoum was also grateful for the menu change. He took a bite of biscuit, savoring each morsel. But when their captor reached inside the raincoat again, he eyed Schultz warily.

“Look what else I got, Professor.” He withdrew a travel-sized folding chessboard. “I don’t know how ta play, but I figured you and Juan wuz getting’ tired o’ solitaire and rummy and Uno, stuff like ‘at. Look!” He opened it, revealing all of its pieces neatly nestled away in tiny foam compartments, “They’re magnetic! So you can play even if it gets bumpy,” he said, smiling. He handed the game set to Yeoum.

“Thank you,” Yeoum said curtly. He took the board and laid it on the floor, taking another bite of hash browns.

“Hey, Schultz,” Tiong said. “You know, that sounds stupid. Do I still have to call you Schultz?”

“’Fraid so,” he frowned. “That’s the one thing that the other fellers kept sayin’. That I better not tell y’all my name. That y’all’d turn me in to the cops if I did.”

“Aw, c’mon, man. Do you think that we’d do that?” Tiong asked innocently.

Schultz gave him a rare knowing look.

“Okay, have it your way.” Tiong took another bite. “How come you’re being so nice to us?”

Schultz looked down at the floor. “I don’t know. I ain’t got nuthin’ against you fellers. Emmitt said—” His eyes flew open wide when he realized his mistake, but he not-so-quickly made something close to a recovery. “That’s his code name. Emmitt. Like I’m Sergeant Schultz, he’s Emmitt.”

“Okay,” Tiong said.

“Anyway,” Schultz continued. “I figure, we’re almost to”—he stopped himself—“the place, and I didn’t know when y’all’d get another good meal.”

It was all Yeoum could do not to make a derogatory remark about their “good meal,” but he allowed Tiong to continue without interruption.

“So California isn’t the last stop then?”

Schultz shook his head. “I don’t know. They didn’t tell me.”

“Well, thanks for being so friendly to us,” Tiong said as he stood. “I really appreciate—” In a flash he covered the short distance between them and grabbed the shotgun, knocking Schultz to the floor.

The man stared up at Tiong in utter disbelief as he chambered a round and leveled the weapon at his chest.

“But I thought—”

“Shhh!” Tiong held a finger to his lips. When it was clear that Schultz understood his predicament, he added, “Would you like a biscuit?”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

DON STARED AT THE images Jimmy had up on the monitor inside the communications trailer in the parking lot of the Lightning Quik Mart. The Air Force had begrudgingly turned over temporary custody of the equipment to Eddie’s investigation with the assurance that Colonel Talbot would take responsibility.  Don was becoming more and more impatient as Jimmy tried to enhance the resolution of an image from the lab just after the clone was removed from the nursery. “Look at the right side of his back below his kidney.”

Don studied the picture. “Perez is going to kill you if you don’t come up with something usable. What’re you focusing on this stuff for? We know what happened.”

“Look,” Jimmy snapped. “I’ve spent five-plus days going over the security feed. There’s nothing usable from the time of the attack, and there’s only about eight minutes before they spray-painted the lenses that we can see anything at all. Talbot says it’s next to worthless.”

“Well, have you at least made any headway figuring out who impersonated General Stillman? Who called and ordered all of you out of the complex?”

“Not yet,” Jimmy said, his frustration growing. “It was piggybacked on at least a dozen satellites, but it originated in the southeast, that much I’m sure of.”

Don whistled. “Whoever it was would have to be pretty capable to pull that off.”

“What I’m tryin’ to show you here is a lot more important! Fer cryin’ out loud, would ya just shut up and look?”

Don frowned at the Canadian and turned his attention to the monitor again. “Okay, so Orson has a dimple on his butt. So what?”

“SIS,” Jimmy spoke into the microphone. “Split the screen and display the copy of Commander Tyler’s physical condition report, including all known scars.”

“Right away, Jimmy,” the female voice replied as the requested material flashed on the screen.

“That’s not a dimple.” Jimmy pointed to a diagram of the human form showing Rob’s scars. “He was shot there nine years ago on some classified mission.”

Don scrutinized the area. “It does look more like a scar, now that you mention it.” He straightened up, and they looked at each other. “I still don’t understand why this is so important right now. There are people dead and missing that you should—”

“Shhh!” Jimmy tapped some keys, bringing up a different image, this one of Orson’s left hand. “Greg was emphatic about how sure he is that the real Commander Tyler is here and the clone was with June. He even kept pointing out the cut on his hand that he stitched up right before the scan.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen it and I’m convinced, too,” Don said, not understanding where Jimmy was going. “Maybe you should go and talk to Rob yourself.”

Jimmy punched some keys and zoomed in on the image. “Look at this.”

Don tried to focus on the blurry image. Batting his eyes, he realized what he was seeing. There was a dark spot on the fleshy part of Orson’s hand, between the thumb and index finger. He smiled. “Nice one, Jimmy. It looks good, like Rob’s scar in fact, but not too much detail. You had me going for a second there.”

Jimmy stood. “That’s not me! That’s real!”

Don’s expression soured. “Seriously, Jimmy, this is no time for practical jokes. Perez will hurt you if you keep wasting time on stuff like this.”

“But—” Jimmy tried to protest but he was startled by Talbot’s unexpected voice.

“Stuff like what?”

They turned to see the colonel climb through the open door.

“Stuff like what, Jimmy?” Talbot asked again, leveling his gaze on the Canadian.

“Umm.” Jimmy scrambled to clear the screen. “It’s nothing. You’re right Doctor Cook. I should be doing some serious work.” He smiled nervously and looked at the colonel. “I was bored. Been staring at the security images for so long, I needed to have some fun.”

Don eyed his reaction closely. Sure, Jimmy could get himself into hot water with the Air Force for goofing off. He has several times already, but he wouldn’t be intimidated by Talbot over something like this. He thought about his conversation with Greg at the hospital and his concerns about the man who was recuperating there, the man they believed to be Rob Tyler. He suddenly found it impossible to stop the wheels in his head from turning.

Talbot, however, had more pressing concerns. Keeping his face grim, he looked at Don. “The FBI found the professor and Doctor Tiong.”

“Where?” they asked in unison.

“Inside a cargo container sitting on the dock in Ensenada, about to be loaded onto a ship bound for China.”

“China?” Don asked. “Who was taking them to China?”

“We don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Jimmy shouted in his normal disrespectful tone. “How could you, with all your spy satellites and interdepartmental United States friggin’ cooperation possibly not know?”

Talbot shot him an angry look. “Watch yourself,” he warned. “The rednecks who were driving the truck didn’t know who hired them. They were paid in cash and were either too smart or too stupid to ask any questions.”

“Are they alright?” Don asked.

“They’re fine, physically.”

“What do you mean ‘they’re fine physically’”?

“Well, Tiong seems fine, but Yeoum hasn’t said a word. The only person he’ll talk to is Tiong.”

“Well, that’s no surprise,” Jimmy said, giving Don a knowing look. “When will they be back?”

“Not for a while,” Talbot replied. “They want to see Perez and he’s still tied up with Doctor Phillips in Florida.”

“What about the chimps?” Don asked.

“They were with them in the trailer,” Talbot answered.

“Thank all that’s good in the world,” Don sighed. “Are they okay?”

Talbot nodded again. “As far as I know,” he said. “That only leaves one individual unaccounted for.”

“Orson,” Don said.

“You mean June doesn’t know where he is?” asked Jimmy.

“Either doesn’t know or won’t say,” answered Talbot.

“June wouldn’t keep it from Eddie if she knew,” Jimmy scowled.

“And you would know this for certain, how? You’ve known the woman for what, less than two years? She is an environmental activist, isn’t she?”

“Hold on just a minute,” Don interrupted. “Let’s not go off half cocked and start pointing fingers. She’s been with Perez and his team for five days, and I haven’t heard that she’s been placed under arrest.

“And any moron would know that an activist wouldn’t have anything to do with animal experimentation,” Jimmy added.

“Unless it suited her agenda,” Talbot shot back.

Jimmy didn’t have an answer for that one, so he changed the subject. “How did the FBI find Juan and the professor?”

Talbot smiled. “Well, it seems that Doctor Tiong left a few things off his resume’.”

33 In the Beginning …

11 September 2010

 

 

JUNE WAS JOSTLED FROM her musings when she realized that the Mazda Miata she rented was bouncing to the rhythm of her nervous leg. When she forced herself to stop, she felt her fingers tingling. She was gripping the gearshift so tightly that her knuckles were white. Releasing it, she rubbed her hand vigorously on her thigh to start the blood flowing again. She looked at the house across the street from where she was parked. Rob had made her memorize the address when they were on their excursion to Florida, just over a month before.

She’d barely had time to get a good night’s sleep in the hospital before Special Agent Eddie Perez, accompanied by Cal Warren and Geri Hughes, had arrived in Apalachicola. She had been very forthcoming to both the NCIS agents and the local sheriff about the events that had transpired after the truck crashed, as well as the fact that she had no idea who she could trust. But Eddie had been in no rush to make her feel too comfortable until she had answered all of his questions and he was satisfied with what she had to tell him. She had spent the next week sequestered in a private room while Eddie coordinated with local investigators in examining the storage facility, the hotel room where she and Rob had stayed, the stores they had visited, and the hangar at the airport. The Coast Guard had found the plane itself off of Stock Island in the Florida Keys the day after he left, which was the same day an area marina reported that a sailboat had been stolen.

Everyone involved had been stunned by her story. She told Eddie everything that Rob had told her of his plans to go to South America where he could formulate some kind of plan, but she had not a clue where he might go from there. She was relieved when they informed her that of all the people who had been in the truck when it crashed, the only casualties besides Benny were Jo Turner and the driver. When she asked about the rest of her team and the clone, Eddie told her that they were all safe, but he wouldn’t provide any details.

She learned that Covington’s injuries were severe enough that he had been transported to a trauma center in Jacksonville, where he was in intensive care. Initially, there had been some doubt whether he would recover at all. But he did, and it did much to strengthen June’s position when he refused to answer questions and immediately invoked his right to counsel.

It was a week later, after being held in protective custody and subjected to countless interviews with a multitude of government agencies, that Eddie had told her the fate of the others in the truck and what had happened inside Sistema Chac Luum. He’d also told her about the cross-country adventure that the professor and Tiong had been subjected to, along with her “babies.” The most shocking news of all, though, was that Rob had recovered from his coma. He had been released from the hospital and allowed to return home to his family. June insisted that they had made a mistake, and that the real Rob Tyler was still on the run somewhere in South America. So adamant was she that they forced her to under go everything from lie detector tests to a battery of psychological examinations over the next two weeks. But she remained convinced. No matter how much they insisted, even assuring her that the entire cloning team agreed that the man who had been in the hospital in Georgia was Commander Rob Tyler, she wouldn’t be swayed from her belief. They tried explaining it away using her own words. That she had actually been with the clone, that their theory about it only retaining Rob’s most recent memories had, instead, worked in reverse. They claimed that the clone retained only base memories of his past. In the end, she lied and agreed with their conclusions, but only to gain her freedom. Even then she had been instructed, under threat of imprisonment, not to attempt to contact any members of the cloning team, Rob, or his family under any circumstances. It was further dictated to her by Senator Kitchens himself that if she spoke of any of the events during her time with project Pine Tree with anyone at all, she would find herself in a very unpleasant place for the rest of her existence. She was to go about the business of getting on with her life. She was forced to accept the fact that she would never see any of them again.

She had collected her belongings and had been given her mustering-out pay, including a hefty bonus. She had then set out to return to work with the chimps in their new homes. One pair went to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania. The other pair was sent to Kitera Forest Reserve at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, which was only a four-hour drive from Summerville. Besides being dehydrated and hungry, once the chimps had been recovered and separated, they didn’t seem to have any lasting effects from their ordeal.

Regardless of the threats that had been issued, she felt she would never have closure until she saw the man living in South Carolina with her own eyes, and spoke with him. She needed to know, if only for herself, what the truth of the matter was. Undaunted by the possible consequences, she woke up early that morning and made the drive, vowing to get to the truth or die trying.

The sound of children playing caught her attention. Looking over, she saw the pair, a boy and a girl, with fair, freckled faces and bright orange hair, playing ball with a yellow Labrador retriever in the front yard. Her heart nearly skipped a beat at the sight. Rob’s description of them was dead-on. “This must be the place. You came this far, you can’t back out now,” she said out loud. She glanced at the dashboard. The clock read 10:17 a.m. I’ve been here for half an hour. If I don’t go soon, somebody’s gonna call a cop.

She checked over her shoulder for what seemed like the thousandth time to be sure that she hadn’t been followed, then looked back and watched the children scamper into the garage. The pair were followed closely by the trotting lab. She waited for a few minutes to see if anyone would come out. When no one did, she reached for the door handle, wincing when the pain in her bicep reminded her why the doctor had recommended that she wear a sling for a further two weeks to allow the gunshot wound to heal properly. But she found it to be more of an inconvenience than it was helpful.

She got out and slowly made her way across the street, taking care not to step on the manicured lawn. As she approached the open garage door, she heard the unmistakable sound of children giggling from behind a yellow 1969 Ford Bronco parked next to a maroon Ford Taurus. “Hello?” she called, inching her way to the opening.

All at once, the kids burst from the shadows, each armed with a massive squirt gun.

“Oh, please don’t shoot me!” she screamed.

Too late. The kids took deadly aim and proceeded to hose her down from head to toe, laughing hysterically all the while. June tried in vain to ebb the flow by holding her hands in front of her, but with no success. When the torrent subsided, and the laughter died down, the boy screwed up his face. “Who are you?”

Wiping her face with her sleeve, she was thankful that the weather forecast was on the cool and breezy side, and she had decided on a pair of jeans and a red and white flannel shirt instead of the sundress that she had been considering. “Is this the Tyler residence?”

The little girl’s jaw dropped as her brother asked, “You’re not here for daddy’s party, are you?”

June had no time to answer before a door inside the garage opened and a woman’s voice was heard. “Who are you two murdering now?”

From behind the Bronco came a petite woman with shoulder-length auburn hair, dressed in jeans and a Hawaiian blouse. She took one look at the drenched woman and then at her children who were attempting, unsuccessfully, to hide their watery weapons behind their backs.

Looking back at the stranger, Carol couldn’t contain her grin. “I am so sorry! We’re having a birthday party today for my husband and they must’ve mistaken you for one of our guests.” She glared unconvincingly at the twins, which did little more than elicit more giggling. “Let me get you a towel.”

After fetching several hand towels from the laundry room, the embarrassed but amused mother of June’s attackers continued to apologize.

“It’s okay,” June insisted. “I work with animals. Believe me, I’ve been covered in much worse.”

“Is there something I can do for you?” Carol asked as she helped June dry her hair. “Other than dry cleaning, I mean.”

“Are you Carol Tyler?”

“That’s me. And if you’re selling something, I guess I’m obliged,” she said cheerfully.

June looked again at the twins. “And that would make you C. C. and you Christian, right?” She looked at each one in turn.

The kids bobbed their heads up and down as they heard the door in the garage open again, and a familiar voice call. “Carol, are the kids with you? ‘Cause I lost sight of ‘em.” As he came around the Bronco, Rob froze. “June?”

June was wide-eyed at the sight of him. She tried to speak, but was unable to formulate words.

Carol looked from the stranger to her husband. “You two know each other, I take it?”

“Button, this is June. From, you know, from Georgia,” he answered.

Carol turned back. “Doctor Phillips? June Phillips?”

June summoned strength enough to speak and extended her hand as she found her voice again. “It’s very nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much.”

Carol shook hands, a confused smile on her face. “Likewise.”

“What’re you doing here?” Rob asked, and then thought the question sounded rather crass. “I mean, it’s great to see you, but—”

June’s astonishment turned to embarrassment. “I’m sorry I showed up unannounced. I forgot that it was your birthday. Maybe I should come back another time?”

“No, no,” Rob said, drawing a confused look from Carol. “I didn’t mean it like that.” He noticed the towels and the fact that she was drenched for the first time. “Do we have anything she can change into?”

“What?” Carol was confused, but looked back at June. “Sure. Come inside and we’ll get you some dry clothes.”

Minutes later, June found herself alone with Rob, sitting in the family’s living room. There were toys strewn about, and a VeggieTales movie was playing on the muted television. She was wearing one of Rob’s bathrobes, as Carol had thrown her clothes into the drier. An uncomfortable tension hung in the air as they sat there in silence. June was in a chair and Rob was on the couch. Above the TV was a mantle where a number of family pictures were displayed. June stood and picked one up to study. “You have a beautiful family … Rob.”

“Thank you very much,” he replied. He could feel that she was uncomfortable, but chalked it up to this being her first meeting with Carol and the kids. “How are the chimps faring?”

“They’re well, considering. Each pair is adapting to their new environment and they seem to be making the transition fairly well.” She had seen the scar on his hand when they first entered the house. When she did, her uneasiness had been replaced with resolve. She squared her shoulders and looked into his eyes, determined to get some answers. “South America, huh?”

Rob knitted his brows together. “Excuse me?”

She leaned toward him. “You told me you were going to South America so you could think. When’d ya get back?”

“South America?” He shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“C’mon, Rob. Just tell me what all of this has been about. I deserve that much, don’t I? Was this really all about me? Did someone order some kind of experiment to see how I’d react under stress? Or what?”

“Are you feeling alright?” he asked, searching her face.

“No, Rob. No, I am most definitely not feeling alright.” She rested her head on the back of the chair, gazing up at the ceiling. “I’m sorry I broke the rules and came here. I might be going to prison for the rest of my life if they find out, but I’m here now. The least you could do is tell me what all of this was for.”

“All of what? June, you’re not making any sense.”

“Oh, you guys did a really fine job with everything. The lab, the truck crash, your fight with Covington was very convincing. Oh, and shooting me was a nice touch.”

“Shooting you? June, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

“Is everything alright?” Carol asked as she rounded a corner carrying a pitcher of iced tea and some glasses.

“I really don’t think so.” Rob eyed June warily.

June watched as Carol placed her tray on the coffee table. “Is this what your husband does for a living? Help the government screw with people’s lives?”

“Rob, should I call somebody?” Carol asked, not taking her eyes off of June.

“Yeah,” June’s eyes narrowed, “go and call Walsh. He’s in charge isn’t he?” June’s agitation was growing. “That was a good trick too, making me think he was killed.”

Rob stood and stiffened. “Benny Walsh is dead. He was killed in the crash.”

“Sure he was,” June smiled. “But you’re getting your story mixed up now, aren’t you Commander? If you’re really in the Navy.”

“Yes I am. I’m on terminal leave now. I’m retiring.”

“Of course you are. Better keep your facts straight. Except Walsh didn’t die in the crash. He was shot right in front of me. I had fake blood all over me.”

“What?” Rob said incredulously. “Benny was shot?”

His reaction silenced her. She was taken aback by the genuine emotion in the man’s eyes. What she saw in those eyes made her blood curdle. She saw rage.

It took all of a second for Rob to regain his composure and when he did, he spoke in a tone that sent chills up June’s spine. “Doctor Phillips. Up to now you haven’t made any sense, but you’re about to.” He took a step toward her.

“Rob!” Carol grabbed him by the arm.

June didn’t know what to say. Rob was in complete control of the situation, and whatever it was that she had begun to suspect was melting away like snow in a blast furnace. Confusion was beginning to overwhelm her. She had come here to see the clone, to find out why they were conducting this elaborate ruse. But the man standing before her was Rob Tyler, she was sure of it. And yet she was sure that the man she had been with in Florida was Rob. There was plenty of time for him to get to South Carolina while she was being held, but what was the point of it all?

“Lady,” he stabbed a finger at her, “you had better start talkin’.’”

She ignored the implied threat and tried to understand the only horrifying conclusion that she could make. She bit her lower lip. “Do you remember the night before they put you into the scanner?”

“What? Um, yeah, we went and visited with the chimps.”

“Before that,” June prodded.

“You mean when I cut my hand?” he asked, reflexively looking at the fading scar.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t understand,” Carol said, more annoyed than confused. “What does this have to do with anything?”

“What’s this all about, June?” Rob asked impatiently.

June put her head in her hands and stared at the carpet. When she lifted it again she looked at Carol. “How much does she know?”

“I don’t keep secrets from my wife any more,” Rob said, putting his arm around Carol.

June’s expression remained blank as she considered the possibilities. Finally, she asked, “What did they tell you happened to the clone?”

“That it died, that the experiment was a failure.”

She stood up. “I have to go.” She started for the door.

“Wait,” Carol said. “What about your clothes?”

Rob followed. “Wait a minute!” He grabbed her sleeve, spinning her around.

“Don’t touch me!” she shouted.

Rob recoiled from the unexpected reaction. “June you’re obviously upset, but you’re still not making any sense. It’s me. We’re friends. Now tell me, what happened to Benny?”

“It’s you, huh? It’s you, right?” She was shaking and tears were welling in her eyes. She couldn’t process what her senses were telling her.

“Rob, should I call someone?” Carol asked again, fearing June was having some kind of emotional breakdown.

“Give me a minute, Button,” he answered. He tried to take June by the shoulders, but she jerked away from him. “June, tell me what’s going on!”

“Who was it that told you that the clone died?”

“Greg and Don.”

She looked at the floor. “They’re in on it too.”

Rob frowned. He was trying to be patient with the apparently unbalanced woman, but he wanted answers. “In on what? June, what happened to Benny?”

She didn’t hear the question and time seemed to stop. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “They lied to you, Rob. That’s not what happened.”

“What? What do you mean?”

She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her courage. When she opened them again, she turned and grabbed Carol by the arm. Her voice wasn’t much more than a whisper as she looked into her eyes. “The clone lived.”

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

ROB WAS SITTING AT GATE T-2 in Rio de Janeiro-Galeão International Airport. He was staring at the Sky Chef truck just pulling away from the TAM Airline Airbus 320. The ground crew finished transferring passenger luggage from the carts to the belly of the red and white aircraft. He glanced at his watch, its radial face set to local time. It read 11:50 a.m.

“Happy birthday,” he said to himself unenthusiastically.

Reaching down, he unzipped one of the compartments of his carry-on bag that was sitting at his feet and withdrew a package of trail mix. Using his teeth, he tore it open and began munching on its contents. Across from him he noticed a woman staring at him as she sat with a small child of about eight years who was smiling at him. She leaned over and whispered into the boy’s ear. Rob’s Portuguese was terrible, but he got the gist of what she was telling the boy when she imitated the way he had used his teeth to open the package.

“Bad example,” he said. “Arrependido.”

The woman turned away, but the boy continued smiling. Rob returned the smile, then turned toward the window as he tried unsuccessfully to picture his children, and wondered when he might see Carol again.

He had made a few inquiries into June’s whereabouts using Internet cafés throughout the city, but came up empty. In the weeks since he left her in Florida, he hadn’t been able to learn anything new about his situation. But as much as he had wanted to, he hadn’t tried to contact family or friends. His frustration had grown, and as time went on he was forced to concede that he couldn’t handle the situation on his own.

He needed help.

His thoughts, once again, returned to his family. He wondered what they might be doing at that moment. Are they mourning the fact that I’m not there to celebrate my birthday with them? Are they at Carol’s parent’s house or maybe dad’s? What had they been told about my absence? Had they been told anything at all?

Reaching into his bag, he removed the satellite phone he had purchased from a black market dealer a week before. He decided it was time he made contact with someone in his family. Even if they, whoever they were, had tapped their phones, they couldn’t possibly track him down before the plane was in the air. He wouldn’t be returning to Brazil any time soon, so he deemed it fairly safe to make the call.

Over the intercom came an announcement. “Atenção por favor, vôo de Linha Aérea de TAM JJ “três cinco quatro cinco” a Sau Paulo está embarcando agora na porta t dos. Attention please, TAM Airlines flight JJ three-five-four-five to Sau Paulo is now boarding at gate T two.”

As people around him gathered their belongings and started for the boarding passageway, he dialed the number and placed the phone to his ear. It took several moments to connect so he glanced up at the television mounted to one of the support beams and saw the sickening scenes of the September eleventh tragedy that had happened nine years before. Scenes like them had been shown repeatedly all morning long, and he was experiencing the same emotions as he had on that fateful day so many years before.

“Hello?” an unfamiliar female voice answered, startling him back to the present.

“It’s … it’s Rob,” he said tentatively.

“Well happy birthday, birthday boy!” she said enthusiastically.

Rob gave the phone a strange look. Did I dial the wrong number? “Thank you. Is Ted Tyler there?”

“Ted Tyler?” the voice repeated. “No. He went over to your house. He left twenty minutes ago. He should be there by now. Why are you being so formal, Rob?”

“Crap!” He ignored the woman’s question. “I need to leave him a message.”

There was a brief pause. “Well, can’t you just tell him when he gets there?”

Rob’s confusion was growing. Maybe she thinks I’m someone else. But then, she had wished him a happy birthday. “This is Rob,” he repeated.

“Well of course you’re Rob. Who else would you be?”

Rob shook his head. “Look, I don’t have time to explain right now. Just tell Ted that I’m okay, but that I’ll be gone for a while. Then ask him to relay that to Carol and the kids, okay?”

There was another pause. “Well, what about your party? Aren’t you going to be there?”

He was beginning to wonder if the woman was stricken with some form of dementia. “I think I must have the wrong number.”

“Well Rob, I don’t understand. Who were you trying to call?”

“Who is this?” he asked.

Who is this? Rob is this some kind of a game? It’s Mary.”

He had no idea how to respond. “Just … give Ted the message, alright?”

“Well, I don’t understand, but okay,” She said with just a hint of exasperation.

“One more thing.”

“What’s that, hun?”

“Tell him to pray for me.”

“Oh Rob, you’re in our prayers every day.”

“Okay, I gotta go.” He looked back at the plane as passengers were boarding.

“I’ll be over in about an hour,” she said. “I’m just finishing up decorating your cake.”

Rob could hear her smile clearly through the phone. He thought about saying something else, but had no idea what. “Goodbye.”

“Bye, bye birthday boy! See you in a bit.”

He listened until he heard the click that told him the connection had been terminated, and then he turned off the phone. As he put it back in his bag, the woman’s voice came over the intercom again, repeating the boarding call.

The flight was far from full, and most of the other passengers had already boarded. He made his way to the counter and handed the ticket to the attractive woman at the doorway wearing the airline’s uniform. “Welcome aboard Senhor Pray. Enjoy your flight,” she said with a heavy accent as she handed the ticket back.

Os meus agradecimentos,” he replied.

As he walked down the boarding ramp, he was comforted by the fact that at his destination was a person he trusted without reservation. Someone unknown to anyone outside of his family and close circle of friends, and who had the means to help him find some much-needed answers to some very important questions.

Silently, he began reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

 


Mirrored Man: The Rob Tyler Chronicles Book 1

Navy Commander Rob Tyler is a former SEAL who is close to retirement. He is looking forward to spending some quality time with his family when his friend Captain Benny Walsh asks him to be the test subject in a genetic experiment, something Tyler has strong moral convictions against. He balks at first, but in the end, out of loyalty to his friend, he agrees. In the midst of this, a hostile foreign government has infiltrated the cloning facility located beneath an Air Force base in central Georgia. Using new technologies, a team of scientists creates a clone of Tyler that is identical in every respect. The clone even believes that it is the real Rob Tyler. When both Tyler and the clone suffer a traumatic psychological event that leaves one in a coma and the other with a nine-year lapse in his memory, the scientists attempt to move them to a better-equipped medical facility. But on the way to this facility, a vehicle accident combined with an attempt by the hostile agents to steal the cloning technology sets an incredible stage. Among the tangled confusion of the wreck, no one is certain which is Rob Tyler and which is the clone. Henceforth, the two will be forced to travel down very different paths.

  • Author: GJ Fortier
  • Published: 2016-08-31 17:05:24
  • Words: 116059
Mirrored Man: The Rob Tyler Chronicles Book 1 Mirrored Man: The Rob Tyler Chronicles Book 1