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The Temporal

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[THE TEMPORAL
**]Book One of The Temporal Series

Clay Boutwell
Previously published under the name CJ Martin

Published by Kotoba Books at Shakespir

Visit the author’s website at http://www.CJMartinBooks.com

Copyright © 2012-2016 Kotoba Books

 

 

 

 

 

Other Titles

 

 

Tanaka and the Yakuza’s Daughter

 

Two Tocks before Midnight
(An Agora Mystery)

 

The Penitent Thief (An Agora Mystery)

(An Agora Mystery)

 

The Temporal
(Book One of The Temporal Series)

 

A Temporal Trust
(Book Two of The Temporal Series)

 

COMING SOON

 

The Peace Party Massacre (An Agora Mystery)
Tanaka, Sons of Redemption

Tanaka and the KAL 007 Mystery

 

See http://www.CJMartinBooks.com for the latest information.

 

 

 

Special Thanks to:

 

E.C. Smith, the author of Bitter Dawn of the Harbinger of Light Series
Tom Cormany, the author of [The Goldilocks Incident
**]And to Dr. Robert P. Bodnaryk for his many helpful suggestions during the preparation of the MS.

Prologue

Four Months Ago…

Bushehr, Iran

With his right hand, Fakhr al Din reached for a large chunk of white cheese. He had lost his little finger, but was blessed by Allah to still have retained the full function of the other three and his thumb. The explosion had been greater than anticipated. In the end, however, the mission was completed successfully. He allowed his hand to momentarily hover over the cheese, giving him a chance to admire its marred form—his small sacrifice for the cause.

The lighting in the room was dim and set primarily above the food on the table. His surroundings were completely in shadow, but that shadow was not void of eyes watching and fingers gripping weapons. There were two guards ready to give their lives to protect the great imam of the Bushehr Province in Southern Iran.

He took a generous bite of the cheese while enjoying the heavy aroma of garlic in the air. The garlic paired surprisingly well with the hint of fragrant mint and thyme flowing from a gift basket in front of him. He had received many such gifts since an anonymous spokesman from his Warriors of the Sword had, through Al Jazeera, publicly taken credit for the latest bombing in Sderot, Israel. Of course, on CNN International and in English, Fakhr al Din himself had categorically denied any involvement in the “atrocious and unfortunate event.”

Even with the satisfying thought of the local popular support and the current pleasant refreshments, the imam hated to be kept waiting. He tossed the remnants of a half-eaten chunk of cheese onto the table and gave his disorderly beard a tug. Hamim, his head of security, was due for a report on local threats. He was twenty minutes late.

Last week, at Hamim’s request, the imam had ordered the killing of an innocent boy to remind the locals of the holy mission with which they were all entrusted: to protect Fakhr al Din. The boy’s parents had been quite cooperative. It was amusing to him how quickly planted evidence persuaded the father to disown his son, the infidel. As the youth was dragged away to sentencing, his father led the frenzied chants of condemnation. The whole matter, of course, had not been the imam’s personal desire. But he had to periodically remind the neighborhood of their sacred duties.

Where is Hamim?

The Americans had taken an increased interest in him. He, however, felt sure his current safe house was secure. Two dozen loyal guards were on the grounds. The latest surveillance equipment continuously monitored every inch of the compound. A well-hidden tunnel that exited into the kitchen of a nearby house was an escape route of last resort. In addition to all this, he had a more traditional security system stationed at the three entrances and trained to discover explosives—his Belgian Malinois dogs. These precautions would afford him the precious minutes needed to facilitate an escape should the enemy breach the front gates.

Fakhr al Din grabbed his pita filled with lamb shawarma, but before he could bite, the door flung open.

“Hamim, where have you been?”

But it wasn’t Hamim.

Two strange men—Westerners wearing sunglasses and dark suits—stood in the doorway. He could see another shadowy figure in the distance beyond the men. A woman?

“Guards!”

Two of the imam’s men, unseen and hidden by the shadows, stepped into the thin light. Brandishing their AK-47s, they let off a few rounds before they were silenced no more than two seconds after they began.

Fakhr al Din was left with his mouth agape and without comprehension of what just happened. He had heard the rat-tat-tat of the weapons to his left and right, but what he saw straight in front of him defied understanding. Instead of blood and flesh ripped by bullets, he saw, for the briefest of moments, the two dark men’s hands go from their hips to level with the incoming bullets. The motion—if it could be called motion—was quicker than his brain could process. It was as if their arms were in one position and then in the next moment, up to meet the bullets.

He heard the sounds of a dozen rounds ripping into and ricocheting off of the walls, furniture, and glassware around the room—but not into flesh.

In the next instant, the cleric, still looking forward, saw only the figure that had been behind the two men. The two black suited men had vanished, leaving what he could now confirm to be a woman. Her fiery-red hair was free and not held back by the traditional hijab head-covering. She was beautiful and terrifying.

Where are my men?

He turned left and then right to see the two dark strangers holding his men by the throat. His men were off the ground, struggling to breathe.

Fakhr al Din looked at the table. His SIG P226 was next to the cheese. With the quickest of motions, he jerked his hand out, slapping it on the hard wooden surface where the gun had been a second ago. The woman had closed the two dozen feet within that timeframe and now held his weapon—its muzzle was directed between his eyes.

He heard the sound of bodies pounding onto the floor and again turned to his left and then right. His guards were now on the ground, facedown. Their necks were tightly held by the intruders who each had one knee digging into their prisoner’s back. The dark men turned their heads toward the center of the room. Although the dark sunglasses concealed their eyes, they both were clearly looking to the woman, waiting for her command.

“What—what do you want?”

“A chat. A private chat,” she said with a smile, causing the Iranian to shudder. “Tell your men not to disturb us.”

The imam was at a loss. He felt her cold fingers breach the hairs of his beard and gently lift his chin. Her motion first closed his opened mouth and then raised his entire head to meet her eyes. With the other hand, she held up his gun. Depressing the magazine release, she let the clip fall with a clunk onto the table.

“Tell them to go.”

Before he realized it, she had the gun lifted directly above her head. A single shot expended the remaining round, ejecting the spent casing and filling the small room with an explosive sound. It somehow seemed louder to the imam than had the bursts of the AKs. Bits of clay and plaster rained on Fakhr al Din, covering the table and cheese. She was gone.

“Tell them to go—now.” The woman, having moved to his side away from the debris, startled him. He jerked his head in her direction. Her voice was soft, silky even. If it weren’t for those eyes that seemed to drill violently and deeply into his soul, she might appear peaceful and sublime, like an angel.

“D—don’t disturb us,” the imam said to the men, keeping his attention fixed on the woman’s face. As terrible as they were, he feared to wander too far from those dark, piercing eyes; they were captivating. “Tell the others to not disturb us!” Dirt and flakes of plaster dropped from his beard as he barked the order.

She flicked two fingers. Her two men immediately released their prisoners and returned to a standing position with their hands cupped in front like pall-bearers awaiting their duty. The guards on the floor rolled away from their captors, coughing.

“Go!” the woman shouted with a force beyond what seemed humanly possible.

The two men jumped to their feet and made for the door.

“Now,” she said as she casually walked to close the door, “I have a job for you. A job that I’m sure you will find to be most satisfying.”

The Present Day…

Donata desu ka?—Who are you?”

Her long-fingered hand darted up with grace, grabbing air as if she could touch the visage of the man standing in front of her in her dream.

She only required five or ten minutes of sleep daily and yet this dream had continued for over half an hour. She had already kicked off the top futon and her head was far from the pillow. Sweat dripped from her brow.

“Do you not see me?”

She always remembered her dreams which seemed to begin immediately with her loss of waking-consciousness and fade away when her body’s need for sleep was sated.

Particularly vivid were the dreams with him in it. His name was a mystery to her, but his face—she could recall it with exquisite detail and on command.

Her eyes fluttered, then opened with the full realization that she was not awake. Her mind projected the dream world onto the wooden ceiling above.

“Who are you?” she repeated.

The man stood two dozen feet or more away and was enveloped by an obscuring cloud—a first for a dream with him in it. Even still, her keen vision discerned a panic within his eyes.

How different this dream was. The man had always brought peace to her heart—not conflict and now… this horror. In previous dreams, the man recognized her. But now, she was invisible to him.

The man began to run. He was running from something and in her direction, but his position remained unchanged as if on a treadmill. He craned his neck over his shoulder in search of his pursuer.

She sharpened her vision and dared to peer beyond the man in search of the nightmare from which he was escaping. A moment later, he vanished. She was puzzled at first, but then she realized she had moved ahead of his position and was seeing what he saw. She was facing his nightmare directly.

As the scene gradually came into focus, she saw a street. It was in slow motion, but people were fleeing in terror. She squinted her dream eyes hard until she saw what they saw. A fireball.

Then it all disappeared. There was nothing but white.

“Sa—mu—el,” chanted a chorus of disembodied voices echoing from within the whiteness. It was a calm, sweet sound, a multitude of voices singing in unison like a well-trained choir. The echoes receded as the gentle whoosh of the ocean at eventide.

She answered, anticipating the meaning. “Samuel Williams, the one at the hospital.”

She understood and allowed it all to slip away. The white of the dream world gradually turned gray and then gave way to the dark brownish grain of the wood above her head.

PART I

Suteko

Chapter 1

[Tokyo, Japan
**]

Sam exited the cramped elevator feeling great—better than he had in months. His new boss was suitably impressed with his résumé and apparent work ethic. His soon-to-be coworkers—most younger than he by a decade—were pleasant and the office coffee was good and strong. He was now officially an English teacher in Japan.

Slim, but not skinny, Sam Williams was impeccably groomed. He cut an impressive figure with his inexpensive but carefully tailored suit and a constant public smile that disarmed strangers—all of this worked well to mask his inward insecurities, the accumulation of a lifetime of simply not being good enough.

The events of the past few months only brought those issues closer to the surface, not quite enough to breach his defenses, but enough to drive him to Japan. He ran his fingers through his black crew-cut length hair, blinked his gray eyes, and shook his head free of thoughts of the past. He had his future ahead of him and that future was here.

After a farewell nod to the oblivious receptionist—a young girl with a Canadian accent and purple streaks in her otherwise blonde hair—he reached for the door to leave. She didn’t take notice of him. She was far too busy jabbing on her keitai—cell—to one of her friends.

His friends… Recently divorced, his wife left him for a friend, a friend he had introduced to her. His other friends, spineless as they were, tried to play Switzerland. In a crushing moment, Sam came to realize that he had no true friends or anchors back home. He had lost his friends, his wife, and with his wife, he also lost his job, a job at his father-in-law’s creamery.

His mother was dead. Relations with his father had deteriorated to the point that he might as well have been dead. The man he considered to be more like a father, Mr. Richards, had also passed away two years ago. With his divorce finalized, Sam only had one thing left: Japan, the country he had lived in for five years as a child. His Japanese was far from fluent, but he knew his tofu from his miso and Sam still felt he had connections even if he knew no one in the country.

To the young Sam, the five years spent in Japan had been a lifetime. Growing up as a son of a naval officer, he hadn’t stayed in any other place more than eighteen months. Always moving and meeting new strangers, Japan was the only place he wanted to go to now that he was totally and utterly alone.

Opening the poster-cladded door, he saw a sudden avalanche of water plunging to the earth from a sunless sky—typical for an August in Japan. When he had entered the building earlier to meet his new boss, it had been sunny, hot, and humid—also typical.

He looked through the pouring rain to the mid-town Tokyo street in front of him. It could have been one of a million streets in any large Japanese city. Telephone and power lines swayed by the harsh wind hung low like vines on concrete trees that were they themselves pelted by the nearly horizontal rain. The erratic weather perfectly matched his recent manic change of moods. He smiled. In it, he felt, he had found an odd camaraderie.

Sam had landed at Narita airport the previous day. He’d had time to shave, shower, and slip into a fitful night’s rest after the long flight. He had nicked himself shaving and had a difficult time getting comfortable on the hard mattress in the tiny hotel room his school had reserved. But he had made it to Tokyo. At least there was that much.

While still standing in the doorway and several feet from the downpour, a cool, wet mist slapped his face waking him from any possible remnant of slumber or jet lag.

Sam studied the scene a moment longer, drawing in the cool, moist air. He looked down at his sparkling black oxfords and then back up to the street in front of him. He dropped the smile and pulled his arms up into his chest. He realized the shoes would have to wade through several puddles before reaching a taxi—if he could find a taxi. Sam was particular about his shoes. His old mentor, Mr. Richards, always said, “The shoes make the man. Be a man, Sam.”

The English conversation school happened to share an awning with a corner convenience store. As Sam entered, a blast of cold air from a vent made him shiver. He eyed a display of a dozen or so umbrellas on sale for five hundred yen, tax included. He grabbed one and walked directly to the clerk. It was a cheap, poorly made umbrella; one of the tips of the ribs had already broken off. He noticed that fact just as he was handing the clerk a big five-hundred yen coin. Had he been in the States, he probably would have demanded a replacement, but his mood was affected by the rain and his new surroundings.

Arigatou—thanks,” he said and left the store in search of a taxi.

Tokyo seemed less busy and much smaller than his memory or media-shaped imagination had led him to believe. But it was the rain keeping people inside or hurrying them by on the sidewalks. The rain made things seem small, dark, and distant.

With the umbrella hoisted above his head, he stepped into the downpour and considered waiting it out in the next door—and ever present—McDonald’s. He shook his head and hailed a cab instead.

Confirming his theory, he instantly felt smaller and… wet. The umbrella was barely wide enough for his broad shoulders; the far ends of Sam’s suit coat were soaked before even getting to the taxi.

Rushing to avoid the rain, he forgot that Japanese cabs have automatic doors. Even though his leg was smarting from the impact, he apologized profusely to the cab driver with a series of stunted, quick bows. The driver just nodded and held up his right hand for a few seconds, never looking back or even making eye contact in the mirror.

“Hotel Washington made onegaishimasu.” Without a word audible to Sam, the robot-like driver cut the wheel and the cab was swallowed by the stream of traffic. Sam hoped the slight wiggling of the driver’s unusually large left ear indicated his request was understood.

The windshield wipers whooshing back and forth, up and down were like a great maestro passionately conducting a symphony in perfect time. Occasionally, the orchestra seemed to lag behind the unflappable conductor—even still, it was a melodious sound.

The rain pelting the roof was the percussion; the engine, only audible during acceleration, was the string section building up to a crescendo and then quiet again as a supportive element in the background; there were of course horns and other street noises adding to the music. The wipers continued whooshing with a solid rhythm.

He felt a building anger. It had been just a few months ago in April, he reminisced, when he took his wife to New York City. A few days of vacation leave and a long weekend made for nearly a week to get things right with his wife. Things had been getting better and he was sure the surprise trip would cement those better things. It was amazing his boss—his father-in-law—had allowed him the vacation time. But then again, the man would do anything for his daughter.

It had been their ninth wedding anniversary and he had especially surprised her with tickets for the opera at the Met with orchestra premium seating. The opera was Madama Butterfly—he had learned on their first date that it was the one opera she had always wanted to see. It was all a complete surprise. At the time, he congratulated himself for pulling it off so flawlessly. It was a page right out of Mr. Richard’s playbook: “Show the lady some class,” Sam’s mentor would say.

There was one moment in particular that came to mind. On stage, the young geisha Chocho-san renounced all for the American Pinkerton’s love and, as a result, was renounced by all as well. Pinkerton deceitfully comforted her tears with “sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep” even as his thoughts were on his return to America to marry another.

It was at that moment that Sam noticed her right hand wiping a tear from her cheek. He had been startled to see his stoic wife so moved. Perhaps it was the music—he had thought—or the underlying emotions bubbling to the surface that are always inherent to anniversaries.

But she was seeing him then…

It ended as quickly as it had started. There was no applause. The windshield wipers took one last bow before retiring off stage. The rain was over.

Moments later, the driver cut hard across two lanes of rain-swept asphalt and came to a stop inches from the curb. The abrupt arrival snapped Sam’s attention forward. A dozen feet ahead, he saw a large awning with the English lettering, “WASHINGTON HOTEL” in bold white against a deep blue background. Looking to his right and up as far as his window allowed, Sam saw nothing but building—the hotel was at least ten stories high.

The driver mumbled something in Japanese and crooked his meter so Sam could see the fare. The bored look on the driver’s face from the reflection in the rear view mirror suggested what he meant was “Pay me and get out.”

Sam was surprised to find his fists clenched as he thought to reach for his wallet. Relaxing his hands and even managing a smile for the driver, Sam handed him a few thousand yen notes. Exiting the cab, Sam was careful to avoid a large puddle directly at his feet. It almost didn’t matter, his shoes—the ones Mr. Richards had bought for him several years ago—were already soaked.

He spent the rest of the evening drying in the hotel’s bar and later in his room watching Japanese television. There was a slap-stick do-anything-for-fame show on that made him laugh despite his melancholy and the language gap.

Sam didn’t sleep well that night. He chalked it up to jet lag—had to be the jet lag.

Chapter 2

Sam’s new job would begin later in the month. This gave him time to find an apartment and, of course, time to explore Japan. The hotel concierge helped him order shinkansen—bullet train—tickets to Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. The return trip would be a scenic route back through the Hokuriku area in central Japan.

It was August, the time of the Obon festival when everyone traveled, the concierge warned. Sam was fine with that. He wasn’t in a particular hurry and thought it therapeutic to be around crowds of unfamiliar distractions.

The next morning at the station, with a little help from a kind and elderly gentleman and a kid eager to practice his English, he found the correct train and waited in a line that led him directly to his seat.

The train was packed with at least forty passengers in his car. With each stop, some got off, some got on—an even exchange, more or less. Sam just focused forward on the salt-and-pepper—mostly salt—hair of the passenger in front of him and the crinkly paper bib the hair rested on. Like Sam, this passenger seemed to be in for the long haul.

Sam moved his eyes down a few inches. He snickered when he read the English written on the emergency exit chart below the bib. It read, “There are no exits.” Working through it, he saw the Japanese text added the all-important “in this car” that was missing in the translation. English mishaps on signs were common even for large corporations like Japan Railways, but Sam took it as a personal message, a comic reminder of where he was in life.

Aided by the lullaby of the incessant click-clack of the track and the gentle, but continual whoosh from the air vent above, his mind continued to wander aimlessly in search of an anchor. At times it seemed he didn’t have the strength to stop it from latching on to his wife—his ex-wife.

The announcement music began, snapping him back to reality. A tinny, speaker-tainted voice announced the next stop in Japanese.

Two elementary school girls giggled at seeing “Fuji-san” for the first time. Sam closed his eyes and was back in his childhood. It was a happier time. He and his classmates had climbed that active volcano several times. He was ten, eleven, or maybe twelve then, the age of wonder where future possibilities seemed boundless. Back then, friends came easily and when they left, they left with only a few tears and no permanent scarring.

Living in Shizuoka Prefecture, it was his school’s yearly summer field trip. Well, the bus would drive them up to level four and they would hike to level five. This is how they “climbed” Mt. Fuji. Still, even this short hike was enough to exhaust the young Sam. The air was thin and with every step, it became thinner. These were, however, some of the best days of his life. He wondered what became of his friends from so long ago. He couldn’t remember a single name, but he clearly remembered the laughter.

Thoughts of his classmate’s laughter and the tossing of volcanic rock at the crows gave way to fleeting images of recent events mixed with absurd abstract notions that seem so sensible to a half-asleep mind.

He saw the smiling face of Mr. Richards, the man Sam believed had saved his life. Before meeting his mentor, Sam was content to do nothing more than survive. Mr. Richards taught him industry, patience, and most of all, a burning desire to improve his life, to become a better man. He felt he had overcome the anger and violence of his past, but with Mr. Richard’s passing, the divorce, and his father’s subtle rejections, the darkness had returned.

The announcement music brought him back to the train. Osaka was just ahead.

He got off and did the touristy stuff, not really sure about his direction. He came across and boarded an English tour bus. He heard all about Osaka Castle and that big crab in mid-town Osaka. But his mind kept wandering stateside. The smile on his face betrayed no emotions as he looked through the window of the bus and pretended to listen to the recorded tourist spiel, but the betrayal, the anger was all too real. For the moment, nothing could penetrate this shroud of darkness—not even the sharp pincers of that giant crab.

A day or two later, he boarded a train to get to Kyoto and found a hotel for the night. After that, it was Hiroshima, but it was no matter. His mind was ever sinking, and his spirit was crushed under the weight of failure and betrayal. Useless! His wife had often called him that. No change of scenery reciprocated a change of mind. But onward he went.

Hokuriku was different. He took local trains stopping at every minor town. A businessman in his forties sat next to him all the way through Fukui Prefecture. Unusually bubbly and eager to strike up a conversation with a foreigner, the man provided a welcome distraction from Sam’s melancholy. The man had been on a week-long business trip; a week away from his family. The businessman stepped off at Eiheiji in northern Fukui leaving Sam alone again.

Family… By the time Sam was two-and-a-half, his family had moved three times. When he came to Japan at the tender age of eight, he hadn’t been in one place for more than eighteen months. Compounding his inability to develop real relationships with children his age, his father was always a distant figure in his life, always a disciplinarian, rarely a comforter and never a friend.

This move to Japan—this homecoming—was supposed to change things for the better. It must. In short order, Sam got off the train at Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. This August morning in Japan was like any other: humid with no healing breeze. He found an information desk at the station and asked for an English guidebook to the sights around Ishikawa.

He had been here once before. His parents took him to Kenrokuen—one of the three great gardens of Japan, he remembered his mother saying. As a child he glossed over the controlled natural beauty of the garden. At thirty-five, he would have another look.

A young girl, surely on her first summer job, took his money and handed him his ticket and a booklet. It had a full-color photo of the park in the winter, just as he had remembered it. The snow-covered rock gardens, stone bridge, and roped trees he saw as a child instructed him how beauty—and by extension, love—needed to be restrained and cultivated. But it was now a hot, eternal summer and the trees were left naked and free. This led his thoughts back to his wife; had he been too controlling or not enough?

Following the instructions on the tourist guide, he left the gardens and took a bus to Noto Peninsula. Noto, from the map on the guide, boldly poked out the top of Ishikawa Prefecture into the Sea of Japan. Sam always wanted to be bold; it just rarely worked out that way.

They stopped at a small building that served as a bus stop. Sam stepped out and after moving away from the other departing passengers, he took a deep breath. The sounds and smell of an unseen beach were strong; the beach was clearly nearby. He could even taste the salty water in the air.

The Japanese characters on a paper pinned to a board caught his eye. He started to ask someone what it meant, but thought it better to leave the mystery intact for now. He found a scrap piece of paper in his pocket and began jotting down a rough representation of the kanji to look up later.

He had only copied a single character when a clock chimed and distracted him. He heard it ring one, two, three… He knew it had to be ten o’clock, but he continued counting anyway… six, seven, eight…

Somewhere between nine and ten, time stopped. The earth, a hungry lion, groaned. There seemed to be a pause, a preamble to the inevitable, like the moment after an orchestra tunes but before the performance begins—an overwhelming silence.

In a moment seemingly outside time, he relived his birth. He didn’t have time to think of the oddity of it. In fact, it seemed there was no time involved. It was more of a holistic feeling; not a thought or memory, but something he just understood instinctively. He experienced his mother’s mixture of extreme pain and joy, seemingly opposite feelings in perfect harmony.

Then the rubber band snapped.

All the pent-up energy imploded inside him. Time had no hold on him. Sam, for that one moment, seemed to float outside his body; see all things, hear all things. His senses were heightened and time slowed, if it existed at all. A terrible sound; of trumpets; a thousand percussion; brass instruments; simultaneously striking a crescendo of vastly discorded notes. The sound waves were even visible to Sam’s eyes as they blasted him with extraordinary force into a newly formed cavity.

The building next to him collapsed and showered him with debris and large chunks of earth.

Chapter 3

Looking around, Sam thought he had to be in the States. The buildings up and down the street were American style with English lettering. But something was wrong. There was smoke, confusion, and a teary-eyed mother searching frantically for her child. An explosion. Screams. Some horn was blasting, building in volume and depth. Sam arched his neck in the direction of the sound. A creeping darkness encroached upon the corners of his field of vision like an old-time photograph marred by the sun and time.

Something was terribly wrong.

Another explosion. More screams. A gaggle of school children ran down the street toward him. In the distance beyond them, there was a ball of fire consuming everything in its path—as high as the sky, as wide as the buildings containing it. It grew larger heading—no, aiming—directly for Sam. His legs defied the command to move. He threw up his arms in a futile attempt to fire-proof his face.

Sam awoke with a gasp of air and labored breathing. After a few blinks, he realized that he was in a hospital room, and through the half-curtained window, he could see it was a moonless night. A bathroom light above the mirror gave the room a subtle illumination—the kind that make shadows seem to be more than shadows.

He noticed there was an antique night drawer opposite of the bathroom. The large sliding door to the room was closed. A thin, translucent bag in the trash can near the door twitched ever so slightly. There must be a draft. But then his eyes and ears made out a fan on the floor quietly circulating the air.

As his breathing returned to normal, he heard a voice to his left. A woman was speaking quickly and softly. He could only recognize scattered Japanese words here and there.

Ikanakereba naranai—I must go…”

He turned but saw nothing.

Another voice, this time of an older man, came from the direction of the window. Sam jerked his head quickly, adjusting his eyes to the darkness. He heard one word:

Shinu—die?”

Sam circled the room, moving his head left, right, up, and down, but he saw no one.

Just then, the door cracked open, and he heard a third voice say, “Shitsurei shimasu. Excuse me.” The door slid open fully. A man, very much real, walked in. The bathroom mixed its dull light with the bright hallway and Sam could see the well-lit contours of a doctor.

“Ah, you are awake. We were very worried.”

Sam watched a shadowy arm reach for the wall plate and snap the room’s light switch on. The fluorescent fixtures buzzed to life, creating a suddenly bright but stale atmosphere in the room. The impeccably clean walls, ceiling, and even bed sheets were pure white, making Sam feel like he was either in an insane asylum or else stranded in the Arctic. Despite the comfortable room temperature, he instinctively pulled the blanket tighter.

Sam squinted his eyes and looked at the doctor. The man, also dressed completely in white, appeared to be in his mid-forties; his still dark hair had one-inch strokes of gray accents at the temples. To complete the picture, he wore a stethoscope draped around his neck. He smiled broadly and seemed pleased to be there.

“Doctor, wh… what’s going on? Where am I?”

“You were very lucky. Do you remember earthquake?” The doctor continued with his smile. He seemed to have the habit of raising his left eyebrow like Mr. Spock when speaking.

Sam was unclear what happened at the beach, but yes, he nodded, it must have been an earthquake.

“It was shindo six—on the Richter scale, I don’t know, but it was big,” he said, again raising an eyebrow. “We found you the next day. In fact, how do you say, the center of the earthquake was close where you were, maybe exactly where you were. A small hole opened under you and things fell over you. We had dogs and one of them found you. There was some fear of the tsunami but it’s okay now.”

The doctor’s smile didn’t fail. It seemed he was very pleased that his English was being put to such good use. It was fairly rare for the doctor to have a patient with whom he could practice his English. It was a small village and the tourists were usually healthy.

“Ah, pardon me. I am Doctor Watanabe. And more important, you seem to be in good shape. You have some bruised ribs and mild dehydration, but considering, you are in excellent health. I’m not sure why you were out so long—I did not find any evidence of head trauma. Just be sure to drink plenty of water.”

Next to a pitcher on the side table was an upside-down cup. The doctor flipped it over and poured Sam a drink.

Sam took the small cup and drained it in one gulp. For a few moments, he just looked at the empty cup unable to process what had happened.

“Are you all right?” The doctor’s smile changed to a concerned frown which caused the eyebrow to flutter. “Do you have any pain?”

Sam shook his head and focused mind on the current situation. The earthquake made sense; the voices did not.

“No. Arigatou. I’m fine. Doctor, are… are there other people in this room?”

Dr. Watanabe seemed puzzled at first, but quickly stooped under the bed and obligingly peeked in the closet.

“Nope. I believe we are alone.”

“I know this sounds crazy, but I heard a woman over there and an older man at the window just before you came in.”

The doctor’s big smile returned.

“I’m sure you heard a patient in the next room. This is an old hospital. The walls are quite thin. We Japanese have a saying, ‘The walls have ears and the paper walls have eyes.’ Better not tell any secrets here!”

With that he gave a big chuckle. He told Sam to get some rest and that he would be around in the morning. A nurse would be on hand if needed. Her English wasn’t great, he said, but better than the day nurse’s.

Sam, slightly reassured, smiled back. The doctor turned off the bathroom light, and as he slipped out, he pulled the door shut. “Shitsurei shimasu—excuse me,” Sam heard muffled from the hallway.

Sam closed his eyes, half expecting to hear the previous conversation continue. It didn’t, and Sam soon drifted off into a deep and pleasant sleep.

Chapter 4

“Samuel Williams-san?”

Not being sure if the velvety voice was that of an angel or someone from the other side of the thin walls, Sam opened his eyes with caution. The room was all a blur, but it was daylight, and he could make out the figure of a Japanese woman in a kimono standing in the doorway of his hospital room. His eyes were still adjusting, but even without his glasses, he knew he was looking at a beautiful woman in her late twenties. Even so, her bearing was that of a far more mature lady.

“Samuel, can you hear me.”

“Yes. Sorry. I… Do I know you?”

He didn’t like admitting the fact that he had no clue who she was. She certainly wasn’t dressed as a nurse and her English pronunciation was spot on. He thought about what the doctor had said and decided she couldn’t be the day nurse. A pleasant thought crossed his mind: Perhaps he was suffering from a mild case of amnesia like in the movies. Maybe this was his girlfriend? His wife? Did they have children?

“No, we have never met.”

Sam couldn’t help but let out an unhappy sigh.

She was calmly composed, and yet Sam saw in her eyes a sense of extreme relief as if she had just discovered some long lost treasure. The corners of her mouth turned ever so slightly, forming a reassuring smile when she spoke.

“I am Suteko.”

Sam noticed his glasses on the side table. Amazingly, they not only survived the earthquake intact, but seemed to be in better shape than before. He ran his fingers over the cool metal and realized someone must have cleaned the lenses and straightened the frames while he was out.

He put the glasses on and noticed she had advanced to the bedrail. She was indeed beautiful.

Sam thought how some women were beautiful at a distance—imperfections obscured by space and poor eyesight. Others, more rarely, became more beautiful the closer they were. She was of the latter.

There was something else. She seemed familiar, nostalgic even.

He thought of a reoccurring dream he’d had since childhood. In the dream, there was a woman standing and welcoming him, always smiling. He would never see her face—or at least he would never remember her face upon waking—but he knew her intimately. Within each dream, Sam experienced an overwhelming sense of love—a love incorporating all the connotations of the word from the basest to the highest form: lust—admiration—devotion—mania—all-encompassing—totally unconditional—love.

He would have the same dream every few months. While married he felt ashamed and tried his best to stop the dream both out of a desire to be true to his vows and because he knew he would never feel that full intensity in real life.

He certainly couldn’t say for sure that she was the woman in his dreams, but this was the first time the dream came to mind when meeting someone.

Stumbling, he said, “I… I’m Sam.” He looked deeply into the woman’s eyes, the eyes that seemed so familiar. “But I guess you know that. How do you know that?”

Widening her smile slightly, Suteko squinted her eyes. Her hands were cupped in front, lightly touching her obi belt. Her hair was down and rested on one shoulder. The kimono was tight and brightly colored. She was elegance in person. Again, that dream came to mind. Something about the way she just stood there…

“Tell me Sam, have you noticed anything… unusual?”

She looked up and in, deep into his eyes. Sam’s own gaze didn’t falter for a moment even as he felt she was examining him, looking for proof that he was the one she was looking for. There was something about her that disarmed him, made him feel at home—like his childhood memory of Japan, like the reoccurring dream.

Anything unusual? Sam’s smile faded. He had almost forgotten about that awful dream and those voices of the previous night. The doctor’s explanation of the sounds of patients next door seemed so plausible the night before. Now, he could not be so sure.

He remembered the man’s voice at the window. Pulling himself up—his ribs were merciless—he fumbled off the bed. Stumbling more than walking, he maneuvered to the window. His room was several floors up. He had thought perhaps he was on the ground floor and the voice was of a midnight stroller in the garden. There was no garden.

Sam’s eyes widened; his hand tugged his chin.

“You’ve heard something, haven’t you?”

Lost in thought, her voice startled him. Sam turned to face her, dropped his shoulders, and raised his hands instructively.

“The doctor did say the walls were thin.”

“Sam, you heard the Echoes of Eternity. That’s what I like to call them.”

“Echoes?”

“It is similar to what many call déjà vu. The echoes that you experienced are a… more complete variant of this phenomenon.”

“What?”

“Do not be alarmed. You will come to find them… comforting even. You are never alone even after a hundred years of wandering. You can hear them best when relaxed and focused. In time, you will be able to almost call them on command.”

“Who are you? What are you talking about?”

“I am a friend. The voices are echoes of the past—or the future. The past is set, but the future voices can change. At least that is how it is from our earthly perspective. I believe it is hearing and sometimes seeing the temporal past or future from the viewpoint of eternity. Eternity is existence outside the bounds of time—”

“Wait, look lady, I’m not into this paranormal type of discussion. I…”

“You have dreamt of me, haven’t you?”

Sam sucked in a gulp of air; his head suddenly swarmed as if he had just completed a run and was experiencing a powerful runner’s high. He stumbled the few feet to the edge of the bed and fell into the mattress.

She walked around his bed, moving past him and stopping at the window. Pulling back the curtains fully, a flood of light instantly covered the room. With her back to Sam, she touched the glass, and leaning, she peered out as if looking for something.

“It’s not paranormal in the sense of psychics or aliens. In fact, I would argue it is more normal than the strict materialist’s limited viewpoint of what they call ‘normal.’ You believe in intelligence don’t you? You believe in the laws of nature and the laws of logic? These are things that are beyond the material. Things you can’t touch, smell, taste, or hear and yet they are without question real. These are things with perfect order and are universal, existing everywhere equally.” She turned to face Sam and spoke forcibly. “I’m not talking about little green men; I’m talking about the true reality—the perspective from eternity.”

She let her hands fall to her sides and then softened her expression. She moved closer to him.

“You did hear voices, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me, how did it happen? When did this all start?”

Sam told her of the earthquake and the eerie yet lucid memory of his first moments of life. Unconscious tears began to snake around his nose. He did not know why, but he felt no shame.

Pressing one hand on her wrist to hold the sleeves in place, she gently touched his shoulder with the other. Somehow this simple touch filled his being with comfort.

“I don’t know all the answers, but I believe that we are able to hear these voices because at least for that moment, time holds us prisoners no more. The past, present, and future that we and others experience within time are all viewed from an eternal present.”

“Why did the voices say what they said to me? Was it a message directed at me?” Sam asked.

“The voices are like tape recordings of past or future events of people and things in a particular location. We cannot interact with them, but knowing the time and place can teach us much.”

She wanted to tell him more, but she sensed he couldn’t take it. The tears were rolling down Sam’s face. He never cried in public, not since he was eight going to camp and leaving his parents for the first time. He, too, realized he was absorbing too much, too fast.

It wasn’t just facts he was absorbing. He was experiencing a metamorphosis. The warm cocoon spun by Suteko. Growing pains. Changes. His mind still battling with that something deeper, suddenly gave up and let go.

“Rest, Sam. I will come again tomorrow. We have much work to do and not a lot of time.”

She pulled back the sheets and gently encouraged him to lie down.

“I thought we were dealing with eternity—existence outside time?”

“You are a quick study. Alas, our existence is on this earth in time, the temporal. I suppose the echoes help us cheat a little, but being temporal beings, we are still bound by time.”

“I… I have slept so much and yet I am exhausted. But I don’t want you to leave. I don’t understand…”

Seeing the exhaustion and curiosity in his eyes, she sat on the edge of the bed next to him.

“It is all right, Sam. I am here. Close your eyes.”

She stroked his hair softly with the tips of her fingernails, the same way his mother did when putting him to bed as a child. He closed his eyes and let out a long sigh.

“Rest.”

She was seated in a wooden chair next to the bed when Sam awoke hours later. Their eyes met in silence for what seemed to be minutes.

“You never answered my question,” Sam said, breaking the silence. “How is it you knew my name and knew about me? Was it the voices?”

“No, Samuel, those who spoke the voices never knew we would hear them. We cannot interact with them.”

She stood and turned toward a beautiful plant on the window sill. Sam had not noticed it before. He wondered if someone brought it in while he was out. Did she bring it in?

She spoke to the plant. “Like you, I’ve had a reoccurring dream. There has been a particular dream that has given me more comfort than anything else.”

“What is the dream about?”

Suteko turned back toward Sam and leaned over him.

“You.”

Chapter 5

San Francisco

He had acquaintances but no friends. His neighbor next door thought they had invented the word “ass” just for him—she told him so to his face. Even the pastor who ran a soup kitchen two doors down did his best to avoid the “ass.” It wasn’t that the man was mean; he was just horribly inconsiderate. Anyone meeting him for the first time parted knowing he had a severe superiority complex.

He didn’t mind; he thought them all boorish morons.

Todd McGregor may have had a dark mind but his complexion was so light it looked as if he was allergic to sunlight. None of his acquaintances at the Watering Hole bar—the closest thing he had to friends—knew exactly how old he was, but considering his continual bragging about his radical associations in the sixties, he had to be pushing sixty himself. At school, he surrounded himself with college-age—mostly female—kids. He liked them young and impressionable.

He wore his round, granny-styled glasses on the tip of his nose, imagining himself to be John Lennon’s disciple. He often peered out beyond his spectacles and down at his students, peering and powering over them like a large vulture towering over his prey. He liked to control others, and the classroom was the ideal environment.

It happened on a Friday afternoon as McGregor was wrapping up his final lecture for the day.

McGregor began pulling his books and materials together seemingly absentmindedly while secretly listening to a conversation between two students. He had tutored Michelle McIntyre in the library a few times and wanted to again today—badly. He needed to look busy until the guy she was talking to went away.

They were whispering something too low for McGregor’s ears. Then, suddenly, the guy broke away from her, snapped his fingers, and clicked, “K. I’ll see you at Alamo Park Friday night.” Turning around toward the door, the boy left with a big, goofy smile on his face.

McGregor saw his chance.

“Ah, yes. Michelle, do you have a second?”

She was a sweet girl who saw the good in everyone, even when it was non-existent.

“Yes, Professor McGregor,” she said while hurrying to finish gathering her books.

“Now, I told you. There is no need to be overly formal with me.”

She didn’t like the last time they were alone—he didn’t touch her, but his mannerisms and intimate eye contact spoke of his intentions. She knew what he was about to suggest, and her mind raced to think of plausible excuses.

“Michelle, I don’t want you to get a low grade. You have great potential, but you need to study harder.”

“Yes, sir.”

She was honestly grateful for his help the first time, but the second and third time felt weird. She knew she wasn’t the worst student in the class, but she never saw him approach anyone else.

“I have a short faculty meeting in five minutes, but I am willing to stay a bit longer to help you out today.”

“Ah, that is so kind of you and all, but I…”

By this time they were the only two left in the classroom. He softly placed his hand on hers, instantly silencing her.

McGregor lowered his voice and leaned in slightly.

“I would hate for your grades to suffer due to insufficient attention given to your studies.”

She pulled away. Unsure of what to do or say, she said nothing, turned around, and walked out the door.

Seeing her leave like that, McGregor grew a bit uneasy. He regained his composure, however, and even smiled with the thought that she was a quiet girl who wouldn’t dare tell anyone about his advances. After all, he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Chapter 6

Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan

Sam slept soundly through the night. The twittering of morning birds lodged in a tree outside his hospital window broke his slumber.

Once awake, he bolted up expecting to see Suteko, but she was not in the room.

Sam felt his forehead with the back of his hand. It was warm. He wondered if he had a slight fever—or perhaps he was feeling the rush of blood to his head from arching up so suddenly.

Either way, he decided that Suteko must have been nothing more than a dream. No woman in reality could possibly be that beautiful and that graceful. His reoccurring dream had simply been modified to the current environment. There was also that weird conversation which felt like it was more from a dream than reality.

Sam pulled his legs to the side of the bed and managed to stand. For the first time since waking up in the hospital the day before, he thought about his wallet, keys, and personal effects. Everything was perfectly safe on the table next to his bed, including the nearly 50,000 yen he had in the wallet. His neighbor back home hosted exchange students, and one from Japan was fond of telling anyone who would listen that Japan was very “safety.” And so it is, thought Sam.

A piece of paper wadded up next to his wallet caught his eye. He unfolded it to discover the character he had copied down just before the earthquake. Having no interest in looking it up, he threw it back down on the table carelessly.

Though a little wobbly, he managed to scuttle to the bathroom mirror. This was the first time he had seen his face since the earthquake. He looked and felt older. There were even a few new gray hairs poking out from his temples and among the stubble of hair on his chin and sides. The resemblance was clear; he was beginning to look like his old man. The thought made him spit into the sink. He turned on the water and cupped his hands, hoping to wash away the negativity.

But the cold water splashing his face only woke him to the harsh reality of where he was in life. Recent memories came flooding in. Sam bowed his head between his two large shoulders, water dripping from his nose and chin; his arms were braced on the sides of the sink holding his weight. Just as he was thinking of some smart alec comparison to Atlas holding up the world, he heard a voice.

“You must come with me to America.”

Startled, Sam swiveled to see Suteko standing in the bathroom doorway. His memory had not been corrupted by a good night’s sleep. She was real and as beautiful as he remembered. She had changed into western clothes—jeans and a button up long-sleeved shirt. He grabbed a towel to swab the excess water and pat down his wild bed-hair.

Seeing her in a kimono the day before—or had it been a week?—made him think that the Japanese had a monopoly on beauty and fashion. And yet, here she was no less beautiful and dressed with clothes that could have been bought at Walmart.

“Suteko—you are real?”

“Very much so. How do you feel, Sam?”

Sam motioned to the bed and she moved back, allowing him passage. As he made his way to the bed, Sam saw her face change.

She moved to the table next to the bed, and pointing to the piece of paper, she asked why he had written that character down.

“I saw that back at a small bus stop just before the earthquake. I think it is the first character of the name of the town I was in. I wrote it down thinking that I’d look it up later, but after all this, it’s the last thing I’m interested in.”

“Amazing.”

“What?”

“This is a very common character and means ‘details’ or ‘small.’ But more than that, I always see it written somewhere in the dream with you. Always.”

He just stood there not even sure what to say.

“Where did you say you saw this?”

“At Noto Peninsula. Near a bus stop. But, wait… What was the first thing you said?”

“I said that we must go to America and soon. I was hoping you would be able to go today. But your paper here has caught my attention. You must take me to Noto hanto—Noto Peninsula first.”

“Wait. Look, I wouldn’t mind going anywhere with you, but I just met you. This is crazy. On top of that, I feel awful sick. But even if I felt fine, I have a job and commitments in Tokyo.”

She approached him with care and with a look on her wrinkle-less face that radiated compassion. The palms of her hands reached out to his cheeks. She paused just short of touching him. Sam instinctively closed his eyes and soaked in her warmth despite the fact there was no actual contact.

She had the strangest effect on him. It was as if she was giving off healing and calming energy. The weight of failure that had so burdened him a few seconds before seemed somehow trivial.

“I have already taken care of that. I took the liberty of getting your contact information from the nurse. Your boss was very understanding considering your accident.”

Opening his eyes, he said, “I don’t know anything about you.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, for starters where did you come from? How do you speak English so well? I mean, you are like a native—better than a native.”

“I lived in the States for a few decades, spent some time in England, and…”

“Wait. You—you can’t be much more than twenty-five. How is this possible?”

“Sam, I have lived a long time. I remember the fall of the shogunate. I actually saw Commodore Perry and his black ships. I was just a child then, but I remember.”

Sam’s mind told him that this was impossible—that this was absurd. Perry opened Japan to the Western World in the 1850s. He knew he should thank this stranger for her kindness and then get on the first train to Tokyo—to his job and his future—but something deeper within him urged him to believe the words of this woman whom he had just met.

“There are certain realities beyond the temporal world. We humans are very often blind to the eternal and consider the current moment in time as the only reality.”

It was absurd, but here was the woman he had dreamed about for so long. A woman who knew all about him. And then there were those voices… Sam fell to the bed focusing all his energy on trying to make sense out of all this.

“As time drew on, it took less and less of its toll on me. I soon noticed that my friends were aging much faster than I was. Their wrinkling skin was in stark contrast to my smoothness. At first, it was a running joke among us—‘Baby Suteko’—but eventually, the consensus was I had been cursed. None of my friends would have anything to do with me.”

She sat on the bed next to him.

“One day, my mother, then in her sixties, took me on a trip and we never came back. She died shortly thereafter; I haven’t stopped moving. I would occasionally find a town to settle in for ten, maybe twenty years, but never longer.” She paused, lost in thought of countless days past. “Today, Tokyo affords me the chance to blend in. I can move across town but keep my bank accounts in order for the most part.”

“This is insane. H-how did you find out about me?”

“I didn’t know you were the man in my dreams, but a few months ago while visiting an old friend here, I heard the voices and realized someone would come to be in this very room who could hear them too. That person would be a survivor of an earthquake and an English speaker.”

She touched his cheek and Sam was surprised to realize that he had closed his eyes. He felt as he did at that moment during the earthquake—within a cocoon, warm and safe even as his understanding of the world was shattering. Suteko lowered her hands, and he slowly cracked open his eyes as he heard her speak.

“Tell me, which bus stop did you find this character?”

“It was near the first train station in Noto. I can’t remember the names, but there was a Youth Supermarket in sight and it was near the beach.”

“I should be able to find that.” Suteko could see he needed more time to heal and adjust to the timeless gift he was given. “Sam, please wait here. I will go check this out and call for you soon.”

Sam wanted to argue that he was well enough to go with her, but he realized he needed more rest and going off with a strange woman because of a dream she had still didn’t sound very rational.

“I’ll wait here for you,” Sam said as he sat down on the bed, his eyes forlorn and his neck supporting a slumped-over head.

“I won’t be long.”

She leaned over to kiss his forehead. A kiss from this stranger seemed to be the most natural of things to him.

Sam’s eyes followed Suteko out the door. After she disappeared beyond the nurse’s station, he fell over and pulled the covers around one shoulder, letting his weight fall onto the bed. His toes were exposed, but he left them as they were. Even the simple action of trying to slip his toes under the edge of the sheet required too much energy. Sleep quickly overcame all the worrying thoughts and questions that had crowded his head.

Chapter 7

When Sam awoke, it was night. He wouldn’t have noticed the dark figure hovering over his bed had it not moved. But it did, and Sam froze from this unknown terror. The figure was silent save for the occasional exhalation. Sam could hear the flow of air slowly escape from its nose—or from where a nose should have been.

The man-like figure had a face, but Sam’s eyes couldn’t fix on any details. It wasn’t the darkness or the fact that Sam didn’t have his glasses on, but something else prevented him from seeing the man clearly. It was as if a blurring field existed between the man and Sam’s eyes. He could see objects lit by the bathroom mirror light in sharp detail, but not the stranger’s face.

“Who—who are you?”

The stranger shifted and then stood stock-still, the rough contours of his mouth never moving. He was wearing dark clothes and an even darker overcoat. An overcoat in August in Japan?

Sam’s nose then discovered a slightly putrid smell that grew more offensive the longer the man stayed there. It was like the smell of a rotting carcass or that of washed-up fish decaying on the beach.

Sam began to pull himself up and away from the figure before him. The bedsprings groaned under his weight, but no amount of effort could separate him from that dark figure before him, silently watching, still as death.

Then the man moved. In a slow and deliberate motion, the stranger lifted his right arm and, leaning over, placed it firmly on Sam’s forehead forcing him back into the bed. The hand, heavy and dark, pushed Sam deeper into the mattress. Struggling, he realized he could only move his eyes.

Sam then realized that there were others.

Two or three other dark figures moved out of the shadows and surrounded Sam. They seemed to be there to observe—or perhaps to aid the first dark man should Sam prove to be more of a struggle than was expected.

The man’s left hand shot up to reveal a syringe. Sam lost control of his arms as he watched the man insert the needle into his median cubital vein. He could feel the sting to his arm, but his body refused any impulse to move. His arm just lay flat and motionless as if it wanted to aid the man.

Sam, helpless as he was, watched as the syringe filled with red liquid. It took a moment before his muddled mind realized that the liquid was his own blood. That sudden realization made Sam jerk his head back. In response, the figure in front of him seemed to grow larger but not nearer.

At first, Sam thought his eyes were being tricked by the blurring. But, no, the creature that had been a normal man’s size had indeed grown taller and bigger.

The figure removed the needle with his now oversized hand and turned his attention to Sam’s face. As before, Sam could only see that the man had eyes and a mouth, but he could not lock on any detail. The head tilted as if in inspection. After a few seconds, the stranger removed his right hand from Sam’s head and turned his gaze away.

Sam’s eyelids began to flutter as if he was about to blackout. His hands, now half-way obeying his will, went up, trying to grab the man whom Sam could no longer see. The hands flirted about in vain, grasping at air, slowing with each successive strike. Then, as his strength left him, his eyelids locked shut and his arms fell to his side, flopping on the bed as a fish too long out of water.

It was still pitch-black when Sam awoke with a fright. He bolted out of bed, gripping his chest as if he were experiencing a heart attack. His breathing was hard and irregular, but it was no heart attack.

Had it been a dream?

Could his overactive imagination have concocted a strange dream involving a faceless man that could grow in size?

Sam looked down at his left arm—the arm the man had drawn blood from. Tilting it toward the soft light from the bathroom, he saw that there was an itchy, red area that could very well have been where the needle went in.

It hadn’t been a dream…

Sam jumped out of bed and slapped the room’s light on. He took a moment by the light switch to catch his breath and think.

No, that’s absurd. A faceless man who grew in size? There had been no monster; it was simply a nurse coming to draw some blood for a test. His sleepy mind had grafted parts of reality into a nightmare. Either way, the soothing light confirmed that he was now alone in the room.

Somewhat relieved, Sam moved toward the bathroom to wash his face. The refreshing water helped. He decided to ask a nurse about getting some new clothes. They had dressed him in a hospital gown, but he hadn’t changed since arriving, and after this latest nightmare, he smelled of dried sweat. He had at least two changes of clothes in his backpack, but a new hospital gown still sounded more inviting. He would also ask if there had been any blood tests…

“Williams-san. I’m glad you are awake,” the doctor said, appearing out of nowhere and wiping fresh beads of sweat from his forehead.

Sam was surprised to see the doctor standing in his room; it was after midnight. Sam walked to the doctor while patting his face with a towel.

“Oh, Doctor.”

“I have good news.”

Sam noticed the doctor was sweating and seemed nervous.

“You are in good enough shape to be let out.”

“That is good news. Will it be in the morning or can it wait until tomorrow afternoon? I’m waiting for a friend…”

“I am afraid,” the doctor interrupted, “that you will have to leave now.”

“Now? It’s midnight.” Sam was shocked and stood there stammering before continuing, “I’m not from here and don’t have a place to stay. Do you have an empty room or even a couch I could use just for the night?”

“No empty room and someone very sick is waiting for this room.”

“Couldn’t I crash on a couch in the lobby?”

“Crash?” the doctor said, raising his eyebrows. He shook his head side to side violently while stammering, “I… I’m sorry, but hospital rules do not allow non-patients to stay at night. I’m sorry. Let me help you gather your things.”

“How much is the bill?” Sam asked while the doctor neatly gathered his few belongings together.

“The bill? Oh, that has been taken care of for you. You needn’t worry.”

“I don’t understand. Who?”

“Here you go.” The doctor had hastily packed Sam’s items into his backpack and was nudging him out the door.

“Wait. I have my hospital gown on. Let me at least change into my own clothes.”

This request seemed to make the doctor nervous, but he handed the backpack to Sam.

“All right, but hurry.” The doctor, as if realizing that he had spoken roughly, added, “I must remind you, someone needs this room very soon.”

“Of course.”

Sam shook his head and began unzipping the backpack as he shut the door to the bathroom with his shoulder. He pulled out a plain white T-shirt and his jeans and slipped off his hospital gown.

What’s going on? Sam thought about the doctor’s nervous behavior. This was not the conduct of a doctor caring about a patient. Sam was feeling better, but he would have appreciated a little advanced notice of the eviction.

Exiting the bathroom with “street clothes” on, he noticed the doctor in the doorframe hurriedly motioning for Sam to follow. Sam did so in shock. Japanese hospitality had never been so sterile.

“Doc, can you at least tell me where the nearest hotel is?”

Shirimasen—I don’t know. Ask a taxi. Really, we must go. I’m sorry.”

The doctor was already around the corner and, with a nervous finger, repeatedly pushing the button to call the elevator. Sam didn’t even have time to form a response. The doctor seemed to be a completely different person from the kind, patient, and talkative man from just a day before.

Sam watched the doctor enter the elevator. With one hand, he held open the doors while the other motioned for Sam to enter quickly. Heading toward the elevator, Sam noticed that three of the four rooms he had passed were empty.

Chapter 8

Bushehr, Iran

Fakhr al Din was on the terrorist watch list, but with a secure video-conferencing connection, being physically present for the meeting was not a necessity. In fact, no two participants were within a hundred miles of each other.

The meeting had been short but filled with good news. All cells had reported in and all had completed their tasks. It had been a long past few months, but all that had been required of him had been accomplished; everything was in place. There had been no mistakes. There was no cause to expect any outcome other than total surprise for the enemy.

There had been, however, a heated discussion regarding their benefactors. Once it was learned that the financiers were not Muslim and that their orders had been ultimately dictated by a woman, several leaders had expressed extreme concern despite the seemingly limitless supply of funds and support. “Can we truly trust these people?” asked one of them known as the Strangler. This was a question not far from the imam’s mind, but a question he would not dare verbalize. He had assured the group with great believability that he had fully researched the financiers’ background and funding sources. He told them he was left completely satisfied regarding their intentions, and that to question any further was to question the imam’s authority.

The truth was, however, he knew only what the red-headed woman told him, and that was next to nothing. He didn’t even know her name. He also didn’t know the name of the American he had entrusted with the chemicals and equipment. He was risking it all for the woman.

The meeting closed in time for the imam’s evening prayers and for the other participants, their morning prayers. An hour later, the imam decided to retire early.

Fakhr al Din slipped into his large bed and, pulling the silk bed sheet tight to counter the late August night’s chill, he closed his eyes. As his mind relaxed, he let slip the random thoughts and reminisces that eventually transform into dreams.

But before the dreams came, his nose caught a scent that pulled him back to the waking world.

It was a faint smoky smell.

He opened his eyes but stayed still, listening and waiting. There were no sounds, just the smell of smoke growing in intensity little by little.

His eyes darted to his right where he sensed the smoke was coming from. There was nothing but black—a darkness not revealing any shapes or details.

The imam had the sudden realization that he was not alone when a small red light poked through the darkness. The smoke was not from a fire but from tobacco. It had the particular scent of the Luckies that he favored. Smoking was frowned upon within his sect; the fact that he preferred American cigarettes made this a doubly secret pleasure. He kept a pack hidden in the nightstand in the corner to his right, where the smoke and that light originated.

He leaped off the bed and away from the smoke, rushing to the doorway with two objectives in mind: to turn on the light and to grab the SIG P226 hidden on a shelf above the door.

As his left hand flipped the switch illuminating the room, his right flew to the shelf—an empty shelf.

“Had I been an assassin,” said a silky voice beyond the bed, “the six guards in the adjacent room would have been quite embarrassed tomorrow morning.”

Fakhr al Din turned with his jaw dropped. The woman, his employer, was sitting on a chair in the corner, smoking one of his cigarettes. She blew out a stream of smoke that resembled a tornado on its side. The smoke hit the tiled wall beside her and quickly disappeared into the grouted edges.

“You know, smoking is terribly bad for your health. And… Lucky Strike? A curious choice. An American brand. And did you know that it was heavily marketed to women in the thirties and forties.” She paused to let out a gruff laugh. “The great Imam of Bushehr smoking an American woman’s cigarette. Paints a pretty picture, doesn’t it?”

The man stood near the doorframe wondering whether he should call for his guards or to pretend to be happy to see her.

“Of course, you have already proven your willingness to submit to a woman.”

His hand fingered the doorknob.

“Keep the door closed and sit down.”

“How—?”

“The door. Move away from it and sit down.”

He had seen the woman’s power before and did not want a fresh demonstration. The imam complied, sitting on the right side of his bed maintaining a ten-foot distance from the woman. She continued puffing on her cigarette, seeming to wait for him to begin.

“Who are you people?”

“Friends,” she said quickly, almost before he finished asking. She took the cigarette from her right hand and wedged it between two fingers of her left. Her free hand then went into the inside pocket of her jacket. “Or perhaps, enemy of your enemy is closer to the truth.”

Using her right hand, she pulled an envelope from the pocket. With a flick of her wrist, the envelope went flying into the air and landed on the bed inches from the imam.

Before turning to the envelope next to him, he watched as she returned the cigarette to her right hand and took another nearly silent drag. He then picked up the envelope and examined it. It had a peculiar wax seal that was embossed with a skull and a sickle. He was certain it was for theatrics, but if she wanted to intimidate him, she was succeeding.

He knew the contents had to be payment for his services, but he did not dare break the seal to count the money while in her presence. He gently placed it on a bed stand unopened and then nodded appreciatively.

The woman smothered the cigarette, reshaping it into a deformed butt on a nearby dresser; there had been no ashtray. 

“Did you meet with my man?”

“Yes.”

“And he is in possession of the device?”

“Yes.”

“Good. You will find half of your payment in that envelope. You’ll hear from me again soon,” she said, beginning to stand. 

“Wait. Answer one question.”

She said nothing, but stood there impatiently waiting for him to continue.

He collected his thoughts so his question would be laced with the most respect. The last thing he wanted to do was to provoke any nonverbal reaction from her.

“You have extraordinary strength. You have incredible speed and agility. I have dozens of men and dogs all around and yet here you are. Why use us? Why not plant the bombs yourself?”

The woman smiled, but said nothing for over a minute. Her face remained unchanged and fixed on him.

He quickly regretted asking. He was normally in charge and was skilled at dominating any person. But not her. A sudden sweat broke out. He felt as if he had made an unforgivable mistake; a mistake that could cost him his life. 

She slowly lifted her right hand to the tip of her sunglasses. 

“Nev… Never mind. It is none of my business.”

“Good. I’m glad we see eye to eye. I will be in contact,” she said, removing her glasses completely. 

He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A gray mist seemed to creep in from the edges of his eyesight and then quickly turn into a dark mass of thick fog. It was the kind of fog he had experienced as a young man studying at university in London, deep and bewitching as the decadence of Western civilization often is. It was not, however, a fearful fog. Something about it was soothing and…distracting. 

Distracting from reality.

He fought to dispel the cursed woman’s tricks. His hands flew in random directions in an attempt to scatter the fog away. His head shook violently and he closed his eyes tight.

But even then, he could still see her eyes.

Minutes later—after he had thoroughly given up any hope of escaping those eyes—he relaxed his hands and let his shoulders go limp. Opening his eyes, he saw that no fog remained. The woman was gone and his bedroom was as before. 

Only one thing felt different. His hand was weighted. Looking down, he saw that he was holding his pistol.

Chapter 9

Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan

Sam stepped outside, leaving the lobby and the strange doctor behind. He took a step toward the street in search of a taxi when he realized that he didn’t even know the name of the hospital. He would need that information to give to the cab driver when returning to meet Suteko in the morning.

Turning to examine the lettering above the entrance, Sam recognized the two characters for “hospital” but little else. Shrugging, he turned back to the street. He would memorize the street layout and just point the driver in the right direction.

The hospital was a fairly small building positioned alongside a narrow street. The light from the entrance reached to the pavement, but even that and a nearly full moon couldn’t keep Sam from tripping on the curb. He had been lost in thought about what had just happened in the hospital room. The doctor’s odd behavior and…that dream. Sam caught his footing and readjusted the backpack.

“‘Ask a taxi,’ the doc said. What taxi?” He straightened his shoulders and turned down toward the lights of a faraway intersection, his best chance for a taxi.

He tried to push away the bubbling anger at the doctor’s sudden unfriendly turn. The man had been so kind and considerate. But the coldness was so sudden and absolute. The overly friendly doctor from that morning turned into someone seemingly only concerned with kicking Sam out as soon as possible. Sam tightened his fists, took a deep breath, and looked around.

The narrow street was empty save for an occasional non-taxi vehicle whizzing by. The hospital wasn’t quite in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn’t in a part of the town frequented by taxis either—at least not at this hour.

“The doc could have at least called one for me.” Realizing he was talking to himself a second time, Sam shot a few glances over his shoulder. Some stubble from the beginnings of a beard rubbed against the padded shoulder strap from his backpack, reminding him he needed a shave and a long shower. He turned his head around, scanning the scene, until he was certain no one else was out. Sam took the opportunity to vent his frustrations without embarrassment or explanation. “A taxi, he says,” Sam said and stepped toward the darkening path toward the intersection.

His anger decreased with each draw of the deep night air. It was cool and clean and didn’t smell of sanitizer. The light breeze caressed his cheeks and unsettled his hair, reminding him he was alive and no longer confined to a stale hospital room. It was a refreshing moment. He looked over the landscaped tops of bushes bordering the sidewalk and saw the reflection of the bright moon against a rice paddy that went right up to the edge of the hospital, a very Japanese hospital.

He began looking around for any sign of life. He remembered Suteko and wondered when she would return; he longed for her return. Questions about Suteko overcame any lingering anger. Who was this woman? Why did her crazy words seem to have such resonance with him?

Taking a few steps forward, he saw some movement in the bushes ahead. A creeping fear spidered over and within his chest, but he soon breathed easily. It had simply been the wind. The few still young sakura cherry trees planted on the roadside also swayed ever so slightly, confirming it had been the dull evening breeze.

Sam sighed, letting the tension flow out with his breath. It felt good to let it all out, but then he remembered her. Should he have waited on the bench outside the hospital? Would Suteko come tonight? No, it was well past visiting hours—it was after midnight. Surely she wouldn’t come until the morning. Visiting hours probably wouldn’t start until eight, anyway.

He kept looking at the largish intersection a few blocks away. He would find a taxi, get to a hotel, and then return to the hospital by eight in the morning.

But what would he tell the taxi driver? Would he understand English? Outside Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture wasn’t exactly a metropolis, and English-speaking cab drivers wouldn’t be in huge demand. Sam began to piece together his beginner level Japanese. Hotel is “hoteru.” “Hoteru kudasai.” No, no. That’s “Please give me a hotel.” “Hoteru onegaishimasu.” He mouthed the phrase a few times, practicing. “Hoteru onegaishimasu.” But which hotel? The closest hotel. “Ichiban chikai hoteru onegaishimasu.”

Satisfied he had constructed an understandable sentence, Sam picked up his pace toward the intersection. While walking, he thought about what to do in the morning. He would wait outside the hospital for Suteko. If she didn’t show up by lunch time, he would leave the hotel name and room number with the receptionist.

His imagination was on automatic, reconstructing Suteko’s face. Her silky black hair was being buffeted by the light breeze in his imagination. The angled jewels of her eyes glittered and her nose wrinkled as a polite smile upturned the corners of her mouth upon seeing him. “Sam,” he imagined her saying as she cupped her long, delicate hands in front of the obi of her brightly-colored kimono. She was probably five foot two or three and, to Sam, she was the embodiment of beauty.

A rustling sound to his left derailed his ungovernable thoughts just before he could discover more about the girl of his dreams.

Too loud for just the wind…

With a jolt, he broke into a light jog toward the intersection and away from that sound. Whatever animal was in the bush, he wasn’t keen on discovering it. There were mountains nearby. Any number of wild animals could be out. A bear, a tanuki, or just a cat.

Somewhere midway between the now dim hospital light and the streetlamp at the next intersection, he heard a voice to his right, deep within the bushes.

“Saaamuel.”

It was a dark whisper, the kind of voice kids might make in a cemetery to scare passersby.

“Who’s there?” Sam said as his nose picked up an unpleasant and somewhat familiar smell. It was the same stench he had experienced… with that dark man—the smell that resembled rotten flesh. It hadn’t been a dream. …the nightmare in the hospital. It hadn’t been a nurse.

Sam’s pace increased. His feet pounded the pavement, quickly matched by his heart rate. He desperately sought the light—however far—from the upcoming intersection.

“We neeeed you, Saaamuel. Shee needs you.”

This time, the speaker’s vocal cords vibrated, letting out a louder sound. It seemed to be the same voice but now the sound came from behind. Sam turned his head while continuing toward the intersection. The only thing he saw was the now distant hospital light.

“You are the one shee wants—”

His feet were on automatic, about to shift into a panicked run when Sam turned his head forward again and stopped.

“—the one wee have been waiting for.”

About ten feet ahead of him stood two hooded figures silhouetted by the light from the intersection. The light from behind made it impossible for Sam to see their faces or catch the slightest detail beyond their black silhouettes. Even with the best lighting, Sam knew he wouldn’t be able to see their ever changing faces. The dark figures stood motionless, hunched over with arms extended, and blocking his path.

“Saaamuel.”

The voice wasn’t from the two figures, but again from his rear.

Sam wanted to scream, “Who are you?” but no sound escaped his frozen mouth.

The bushes were to his right, the street to his left. There were no cars or other people around, nothing but the voices behind and the hooded figures directly in front of him.

Sam felt his knees grow weak as he determined to make them bend toward the street. It wasn’t just his knees. The rest of his legs and body resisted his will also.

The two figures lurched forward toward him, gloved hands reaching. The beings didn’t move their legs but somehow the hooded figures were closer. Sam heard some rustling behind him and on the other side of the bushes where there should be nothing but a five-foot drop-off and a watery rice paddy.

“Saaamuel.”

Sam felt a sudden series of pricks to the back of his neck. As his body went limp and fell to the ground, he saw himself quickly surrounded by four dark creatures each with arms reaching out above him. His eyes fluttered as what little light there was disappeared into a rich and soothing black.

Chapter 10

San Francisco

Bill was growing impatient. Becky, his girlfriend, was supposed to meet him at a quarter to eight. It was now pushing eight-thirty. The tickets in his pocket had been expensive and were quickly becoming worthless. She had been late once or twice before, but never this late.

They were to meet at Alamo Square Park, on the corner of Steiner and Hayes. There was a big oak there that made a convenient meeting spot—about halfway between their respective homes. They had met under that same oak numerous times over the two years they had been dating. It was their tree.

Bill ran a hand through his shoulder-length dirty-blond hair and looked down the road that led to her apartment. Normally, he arrived after her. It was unusual to see the naked oak without Becky smiling and sitting on one of the large exposed roots. He propped up one of his shoes against the tree trunk and focused his eyes into the distance. He saw many cars and pedestrians, but tracing the route up to the faraway intersection that she would have to cross, he saw no Becky.

He had already called and left two messages. A third would be to admit that he needed her. At eighteen, he was a man, free and in control. Bill went from feeling slightly hurt to angry to somewhat liberated. He was thinking of moving on—had his eye on a blonde in his biology class. But he kept thumbing his phone, wishing it would ring, as if it were Aladdin’s Lamp.

He walked around the park to bide the time, careful to always keep the tree in sight. He looked at the faces of the people he saw, but none belonged to Becky. Returning to their tree, he once again propped a foot up and decided to wait a little longer before leaving.

Thirty more minutes passed and realizing the concertgoers were probably preparing to go home themselves, he threw the worthless tickets to the ground and made the decision to leave. His feet began to walk, but his eyes kept returning to their tree. He kept the tree in sight until he could barely see it for the cars and lampposts. He paused a few moments more and sighed. Turning his head for the last time, he let the tree slip away beyond his sight.

Upon waking the next morning, Bill grabbed his phone from beside the pillow and checked his messages—nothing. He did the normal get-ready-for-school duties distracted. Last night, he liked the idea of asking out someone else, but the realization that he would actually have to do it wasn’t nearly as appealing. He liked Becky and was willing to forgive just about anything. Still, to save face, he decided to go to school pretending to have had it with her. Surely, she would beg for forgiveness.

His mother had left the cereal out for him as usual. She worked the morning shift most days and was nearly always gone before Bill awoke. He didn’t feel like cereal or anything actually. His stomach was a gnarled mess because of Becky. Now that he had time to think about it, she had been unusually cold to him recently. She didn’t return his call the other night and her usual ear-to-ear smile seemed less boundless yesterday morning.

The school was about a mile away with smooth pavement. He rode his skateboard on most days, but decided to walk today. He needed time to sort things out and the calm air would do him good.

Approaching the school grounds, he noticed the flag was at half-mast and a few of his classmates were standing at the entrance with sober and ashen faces. A few classmates farther down were actually embracing. As he sulked on, he could hear the faint sound of sobbing intensify.

One of his friends spotted Bill and immediately ran to him and embraced him.

“Oh, man, I am so sorry.”

Bill could feel his pulse in his neck; his hands were clammy white.

“Becky… she’s dead.”

Chapter 11

The killer was on the move.

The stars were out and a half-moon provided a little too much light for his comfort. He let out a stifled cough as a test. And then another one. Was there someone lurking about looking for him? He could never be too careful; the park was dangerous after dark and he was alone—waiting for his companion, his true love. He heard nothing, and looking around, he saw nothing.

Pulling back a few dense branches, he leapt into his Fortress of Solitude. There, he was invincible and all-seeing. His fortress was a thicket near two palm trees and a path that led to a tennis court; it was safe place away from the park lights. Yet, from his vantage point, he could distinctly see up and down the path. During the day, it wasn’t impressive, but at night everything changed. The shadows kept it totally hidden from sight.

He wasn’t sure when his companion would arrive, but he was patient. Indeed, he had spent several nights here waiting since the First One.

His mind jumped back to the First One. It had been an accident—it really had been. If it hadn’t been for that fallen branch… she might still be alive.

“The First One,” he said in a voice just loud enough to startle his ears.

He thought back.

It had been a rough day at work. No one appreciated his talents and a drive was his way of dealing with his anger from countless subtle rejections. The worms!

It had been a moonless night with only a touch of a breeze. He had the windows down despite the mugginess, perfect for letting go and experiencing the night with all the senses.

He was driving down a street in a neighborhood near Alamo Park. It was a path he had passed by often, but he had never taken the time to explore.

He had spotted her silhouette ahead and slowed down to examine her. Is it her? As he passed by, he got a good look at the details. No, it isn’t her—this one was younger and more petite. But still, she was very pretty. Thinking for a moment, he put on the brakes and backed up to speak to the “other” her. She smiled but said, “No, thank you.” Seeing the smile as a coy “yes,” he got out of the car and gave her another chance. He didn’t fail to notice the smile had disappeared.

The neighborhood was mature but it still had a few vacant lots. Immediately to their side was one such lot. A few dogs were barking at various distances and directions. The closest overhead light was a few hundred yards away; his headlights shone in her face. She froze.

He kept making more overt advances trying to shake her coyness.

“Stop! I said…”

He grabbed her arm. She wrested free. “Freak!” she shouted and started to run away.

It was then he noticed that branch on the sidewalk.

By the time he caught up with her, his car was a few dozen feet behind them. It took some work, but he soon had her in the back and spun out of that neighborhood. As he left, he noticed not a soul out. A few lights were on, but he didn’t see anyone in the windows. Surely someone heard, he thought. But no one came looking. Perhaps they ignored the sounds thinking it was merely a lover’s spat—as it truly had been. But the dogs noticed and understood. Their angry barking continued within his memory.

He drove fifteen miles outside the city limits. He first thought that a long stretch of nothing would be a fitting place to hide the body, but he remembered how Native Americans honored their prey. They killed, but like him, they only killed out of necessity. They, so he had heard, said a prayer to the soul of the dead and gave it a proper ritual burial.

The thought triggered a memory of an ancient and off-road cemetery. Slamming on the brakes, he turned the car around. The tires shot out tiny rocks and a large cloud of dust.

She was light and young, probably only sixteen or seventeen. The body was easily carried over the small wooden fence. She waited for him under an old oak near the entrance area while he went from tombstone to tombstone looking for the oldest grave. There was an old streetlamp near the road that buzzed on and off with flying insects appearing and disappearing with the light.

He used the backlighting from his cell phone to read the dates. It took a good twenty minutes, but he was confident he had found the right one. He carried her over and gently rested the girl against the headstone, covering the inscription. Imagining himself as a shaman, he said a few words out of respect to this unknown girl.

On the way home, he anxiously listened to the radio—nothing. He stayed up for the eleven o’clock news—the body was discovered, but the police had no suspect, no clues. A news reporter on the scene interviewed the grave keeper who had found the body. The keeper locked the gates at nine-thirty each night; the body surely must have given the man a serious fright. Grinning, he thought he had probably missed him by no more than half an hour.

He slept like a boy the night before summer camp—fitfully excited. The morning news had further details, a name. Becky, it was. He was so excited he didn’t catch her last name. He was tempted to call the news station to get her full name, but his survival instincts stopped him. The police were still stumped despite finding clear tire tracks and a few size twelve boot prints. Just to be safe, he called in sick and drove two counties over to replace his tires and find a dumpster for his boots.

That was last Wednesday, and the police still had not contacted him.

From that experience, he had learned a few things.

First, he would carry plastic sheets in his car. The car had been a mess to clean up. Second, he would be more selective. The First One—an unknown girl—clearly was a mistake. Third, he would bring his own stick.

Back in the park, he heard footsteps but no talking. Someone alone? Could it be her—the One he was waiting for? Then, he heard a second pair of feet rushing in.

“Michelle—wait up. I didn’t mean it…”

The killer was beside himself with glee—it was his companion, his true love; the girl stopped just in front of his hiding place. He could smell her.

“I told you I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“Look, I know I was a jerk, but I was just playing. Give me another chance. I…”

“I can’t deal with this now. I need to think, clear my head.”

“Promise me you’ll call.”

She turned to the jerk. The killer could see her profile clearly through a tiny break in the foliage. Her hair was tucked behind the ear he could see. It was a gloriously sad face.

“If you leave now, I’ll consider it.”

“I’m leaving—just… call me, okay?”

Exit Romeo. Amazingly, she stood motionless until the jerk was totally out of sight. Then she fell, squatting to the ground and sobbing like a little girl having lost her favorite doll.

She needs help, he thought, my help.

There she was, literally within his reach. He paused. The jerk might come back to console her… But he didn’t.

In a sudden explosion, he grabbed her. One hand covered her mouth and the other grabbed her chest, binding her arms, closing the circle. In a single moment, she was in his fortress. She was his. He was every bit as surprised as she was that he had done it. But it was destiny. How else could she know to stand just there? How else could he console her but by actualizing their inevitable oneness?

He was behind her shushing, consoling—trying to provide what the jerk couldn’t. But she was screaming—muffled screams of course, but screaming nonetheless.

“Shut up! Don’t you see that I love you?”

More muffled screams. He didn’t want to hurt her, but it was destiny. His left hand moved from her chest to her neck. Her hands were free now, but he was stronger. It was destiny; he had no choice in the matter.

Chapter 12

Japan

Sam heard noises before he saw anything. He was able to discern only vague shapes and textures. Everything was nearly pitch black even though he was fully aware that his eyes were open. Running water and a distant clanging of metal seemed to indicate someone was washing dishes on the other side of a wall. Dishes? Or could it be someone sharpening knives?

In time, Sam’s optic nerve relayed more information of the room’s dim light to his brain. With the light now registering—however poorly—he realized he was staring at a wooden ceiling and that he was flat on his back, unable to move. Some unknown object—heavy and warm—lay across his chest and draped over his legs.

Sam’s mind searched his most recent memories. He remembered an evening outside the hospital. Last night? The distance in time seemed to have no meaning and yet the memory came back as if it were happening once again. The shrubbery in his mind again swayed with the wind. Odd disembodied voices from multiple directions echoed in his head. It was his memory, of course, but it was no less real in the moment.

Mentally retracing his steps, his last memories before waking were disturbing. The black-hooded creatures in front of him had vividly returned to his mind’s eye, startling him every bit as much as they had the night before. He remembered a prick in his neck and relived that instantaneous sense of complete loss of strength.

They took me someplace. They took me here.

Sam began to panic or at least he would have panicked had it been possible. His fingers and toes trembled but failed to move beyond a nervous, twitchy motion. He needed to sit up and find a way to escape, but his body simply ignored his commands.

The doctor… Sam’s thoughts moved back to the sweating, nervous man who had kicked him out of the hospital. They had gotten to the previously kind doctor… and now they had Sam.

After dozens of attempts and with great effort, Sam managed to fling his right arm over his belly. His muscles seemed to have atrophied; even simple movements required the utmost concentration and strength.

His eyes looked down. The heavy, warm object on his chest appeared to be a blanket. A blanket? The weight of his two arms, now on his left side, helped twist his torso vertically. Sam found himself on his side. He also managed to drop the left side of his face into a pillow he hadn’t known was there.

Sam heard the sound of running water stop. There was the screech of metal upon metal. It must be knives—it had been knives being sharpened.

Sam, knowing his survival rested on stealthy actions, paused a few seconds, drawing in long but shallow breaths. Sucking in air was a chore. His throat felt constricted and his tongue was swollen, filling his mouth. His lips were dry, and his tongue, despite its size, felt just as dry.

He was someone’s prisoner and he had to get out of there. He thought it remarkable that they hadn’t taken the time to chain him to the bed. Perhaps they knew the drug would still be rendering him helpless?

After another great exertion, he felt his legs begin to drop off the side of the surface he was on. A fleeting sense of joy was quickly replaced with horror. There was a momentum to the movement that had his upper torso uncontrollably following his legs. Panic coursed through his body as he realized he couldn’t manage his arms well enough to prevent his whole body from falling flat to the floor.

A loud thud and a painful moment later, Sam heard the sound of feet rushing from the other room, then the sound of a now familiar voice.

“Sam! Are you all right? Please don’t try to move.”

It was Suteko. Sam couldn’t see her, but he had no doubt it was the voice of the woman of his dreams—Suteko, an angel to his rescue.

Her voice continued, filled with concern. “They gave you something inducing paralysis. It will take some time, but it seems to be wearing off.”

She scooped him up into her arms and placed him back in the bed as if he were as light as a feather. The blanket that had fallen with his body was quickly draped over him once more. Sam’s mind was foggy and his body had no control and yet, his only thought was of wonder at her amazing show of super-human strength.

Suteko, Sam thought, but could not speak.

She leaned over, her hands caressing his cheeks gingerly. She saw the terror in his eyes and that he wanted to speak but couldn’t. Her heart melted as she tried to calm him.

“It will be all right. You were attacked. I arrived in time to scare them off. I know you have many questions. I don’t have many answers, but I promise you,” she said, looking at him with serious eyes, “we will discover them.”

While stroking his hair, she smiled. Hope somehow surged throughout Sam’s unfeeling body. There was something to her touch that brought much comfort.

“Sleep, Sam. You will feel much better when you awake.”

Sam tried to nod, but contented himself with the realization that he was able to close his eyes. His eyelids were heavy and unlike the rest of his body, they obeyed him without struggle.

Chapter 13

San Francisco

Tonight, Professor McGregor was ready. He spent the latter part of the afternoon carefully layering his backseat with plastic. He had a shovel in the trunk and a box of latex gloves just under the passenger seat. It had all been bought in cash with the transactions hours apart and at different locations.

It was past ten at night as he killed the engine and lights, letting the car coast off the side of the dirt road and into a natural garage of shrubbery and trees.

The women’s dormitory he found was about an hour north of his apartment. It seemed ideal. There was a park adjacent and the school was small—smaller than his community college even. He hadn’t actually been there before, but Google Maps made casing the location safe and easy.

From his current parking spot to the entrance of the dorm would take no more than ten minutes on foot—even carrying someone on his shoulder. He exited the car, keeping it unlocked. He may have to flee quickly and locking the doors would only slow him down. Besides, he reasoned, it was a safe, low crime area.

Satisfied that all was ready, he started off into the woods toward his goal. Keeping to the shadows, he more or less headed due east. Occasionally, he would stop to listen to the sounds of his surroundings; he was especially interested in any unnatural sounds like those of other humans.

Human beings had blood on their collective hands. Overpopulation, deforestation, pollution, anthropogenic climate change—the list of man’s sins were long and damning. McGregor understood this. As a human being himself, his personal penitence came in the form of decisions about his lifestyle: recycling, buying earth-friendly products, and most of all educating his students. But all that paled in comparison to the service he would do tonight.

This evening, he would offer to Gaia the greatest sacrifice he could: one less human being to contaminate the earth. He knew also that targeting young women would reduce the number of breeders—a far more effective sacrifice than killing even several males.

Reaching the edge of the park, he could see the dormitory’s light ahead. He began to slow his pace, careful to keep deep in the shadows and remain silent.

Looking up, he watched as the entrance to the dorm opened. A girl stepped out. McGregor’s heart began to beat faster. This was it—this was what he had been called here for.

The girl didn’t walk far before stopping. She quickly turned on her heels and seemed to be heading back to the dorm. For a moment, McGregor was disappointed. But then she stopped, huddling over a bit. Her face and hands were hidden from McGregor’s view.

Was she crying? Did she need consolation? Absolution perhaps?

Just as suddenly, the girl turned back into view. He could see her now. She hadn’t huddled over to cry. She had stepped out to have a smoke.

It was a confirmation—a sign even, McGregor realized. This human not only breathed out carbon dioxide, but other poisons too! This was exceptionally good news for two reasons: the girl was most likely alone, smoking primarily being a solitary activity. And she would be there for a few minutes, plenty of time to accomplish his mission.

He moved light-footed down the line of the park until he was flush with the entrance of the dorm. If he was careful, he could sneak behind her and grab her without her knowing.

And then what? McGregor thought, momentarily morphing into a deer caught by the intriguing headlights of the girl. And then I’ll gag her and carry her to the car. His right hand patted his left hand’s wrist. He was wearing half a roll of duct tape, and feeling it there reassured him that he was now ready.

The girl looked light—maybe 110 pounds—and perhaps would even go willingly?

McGregor weighed his options: surprise or seduction?

He had a high opinion of himself with regard to the fairer sex, but his last two encounters hadn’t worked as well as he had hoped. He decided that the element of surprise would be better. After all, he didn’t have a history with this girl and developing a rapport would take time.

Leaving the shelter of the shadows, McGregor made his decision. Footfall after footfall seemed to grow louder and less natural than the noisy crickets and light wind. Perhaps it was just his seasoned ears overacting; she wouldn’t hear him. Closing over half the distance, the girl hadn’t turned save to flick a few ashes to the side.

He moved close enough to smell her smoke. It was intoxicating.

He was quiet, but suddenly not quiet enough. The girl turned around; he stopped. Their eyes met without a word exchanged between them. He crooked his neck slightly to one side. She dropped her cigarette, not bothering to snuff it out with the sole of her shoe. He began his final approach.

“Who are you?”

He wanted to savor the moment without spoiling it with speech.

“What do you want?”

McGregor’s mouth opened but he remained speechless.

She took a step back. He was between her and the dorm. The area was fairly well lit, but it was overcast and with the light behind him, he felt certain that she could not discern any of his facial features or—more importantly—his intentions.

She took off. She ran in a direction away from the dorm, but also away from the safety of the wooded park. This was unacceptable.

McGregor caught up with her quicker than he thought he would be able. Wrapping his arms around her, he stopped her advances as they tumbled to the ground.

It was her screaming that caused the back of his right hand to slam into her chin. This seemed to exasperate the situation. She was now screaming and kicking.

“Quiet!” he said, pushing her to the ground. He peeled off a length of the duct tape from his wrist as she continued her attempt to squirm away from him. The boot on his right foot slammed down on one of her ankles keeping that leg at bay. His hand fell on her bloodied mouth, partially covering it with the tape.

She continued screaming somehow even louder through the gaps of tape and hand.

Ripping another piece of the tape from the roll on his wrist, he repositioned his legs in order to arrest the movement of her other leg. He applied the tape to her mouth more securely just as he heard some shouting behind him.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

McGregor’s head turned to see some guy running to disturb their intimacy. McGregor’s survival instincts overrode his sudden anger at being interrupted, and he jumped off the girl, sprinting to the woods and leaving his prize behind. He continued to hear shouts behind him. The guy wasn’t alone and he was calling for more help.

As he entered the wooded area, McGregor risked one last glance behind him. He saw the girl being helped up by someone while two others were running full-speed for him. They looked athletic; McGregor at sixty-three was anything but. Still, he had the advantage of a head-start and knowing where he was going through the dense woods.

The branches he had so carefully avoided during his initial approach tore into the skin on his arms and legs. The sounds of nature were completely silent; human sounds—angry human sounds had replaced them.

Every tree he passed seemed to be pointing its branches at him. He thought he heard a birch yell, “Here he is!” An ancient oak left one of its many roots exposed, causing McGregor to momentarily stumble. “I’ve slowed him down a bit!” If nature had abandoned him, what reason did he have for continuing? The animals and insects that had been so deafening earlier were silent. No doubt they too were wishing to aid his pursuers. There was no breeze as there had been earlier to suck up and eliminate any stray sound as he fled.

The angry human voices behind him had grown in intensity and number. Still, the opening where he had parked his car was just ahead. He jerked his hand into his right pocket, fumbling for the keys. He cursed as his slippery-from-sweat fingers failed to separate his car key from the jumble of apartment and school keys.

Just then, he heard a sound—was that a siren? His mind imagined cops waiting for him at his car. His feet began to drag, defying his will to move. The voices behind him continued to grow in volume. He had to take the chance and get to his car.

After a pause to settle his nerves, he leapt out from the woods, slamming his torso unexpectedly into the hood of his car. Using the momentum to his advantage, he was able to roll over the hood and land on his two feet in front of the driver’s side door. A moment later, he was seated and the key was in the ignition.

From his rear view mirror and through a cloud of dust, he could just make out several angry, dark figures running unsuccessfully to catch up with his speeding car.

Did she see my face? McGregor’s mind began to race along with the roaring engine. Did the worms chasing me get a good look at my clothes? My car?

McGregor began to replay the event in his mind. She couldn’t have seen me. She had closed her eyes after he grabbed her and the light had been behind him. The fools who had chased him never got close enough to see him. It was dark and they had not been in a position to even get a glimpse at his license plate.

Suddenly confident, he slowed his car to normal highway speed and began to look for a late-night Denny’s for some early breakfast.

Chapter 14

Japan

Sam slept most of the next day. When he awoke that afternoon, he felt like a new man; he had complete control of his body and only felt slightly weaker than usual. The swelling of his tongue had subsided and he could actually swallow without the slightest discomfort.

Sitting up, he noticed Suteko had bandaged his arm. One of those creatures must have injured it, and although he couldn’t see through the bandage to be sure, it stung like a deep wound.

His bare feet touching the cool tatami mat flooring made him feel alive. He remembered as a child running his hands back and forth with the grain of the straw. The feel of its silky smoothness and the grassy smell of a fresh mat were two of his strongest early memories and quite impossible to resist.

“Sam, are you… feeling all right?”

Suteko having heard some stirring found Sam squatting down with his nose to the tatami and hands rubbing her floor.

Using the bed post for stability, Sam stood up with more than a touch of embarrassment.

“Oh, great. Actually, I feel great.”

“Can you walk?” she asked with a smile.

Not knowing the answer himself, Sam let go of the bed post and took a few steps.

“Good. Are you ready then?”

“Ready?”

“Ready to go to New Orleans.”

“New Orleans?”

She shuffled to the next room, reappearing seconds later with a tiny laptop. Sam surmised the screen was not much more than six inches wide.

“Have you ever seen this place?”

She had the street view on Google Maps up. The screen showed an old four- or five-story building. There were two small trees decorating the entranceway.

Sam’s eyes grew large. “Where is that?”

“You’ve seen this building before?”

“Yes. I’ve seen this. Can you show more of the street view?”

Suteko pulled the laptop back, swiped a few gestures on the trackpad, and handed it to Sam.

“Like this?”

“Yes,” Sam said, his eyes full of recognition. “And you, also, know this street, don’t you?”

“It is the street in your nightmare, isn’t it?”

Remembering the destination Suteko had mentioned, Sam asked, “Yes. Is this in New Orleans?”

She nodded.

“How on earth did you figure that out? Did you live in New Orleans a hundred years ago when this building was built?”

“No, I have never been to New Orleans. Your drawing of that character was the clue.”

“How so?”

“I was curious why you would jot down that particular kanji. It was, after all, associated with you in my dreams. It never made sense to me since it is a common character simply meaning ‘details’ or ‘small.’ But you were interrupted and only wrote one of the three characters that you saw.”

“Yes, by the earthquake.”

“But had you not been interrupted, you would have written the kanji for New Orleans.”

With her other hand, she pulled out a piece of paper with the following written on it:

“I thought foreign place names were always written in katakana.”^^1^^

“That is correct. But kanji was used for many place names before the Meiji Restoration. Eventually, katakana took over for ease of use.”

“But this isn’t the era of the shoguns. Why were these kanji written on a bulletin board?”

“It was an advertisement for a nineteenth century book that someone was wanting to sell. It asked if the reader could read the kanji. The seller thought it would pique a potential buyer’s interest.”

She set the laptop and paper down on the bed and turned around to retrieve a large, old book from a nearby dresser.

“You bought the book?” he asked as she handed it to him.

“Yes, open the book to the chapter on New Orleans.”

The book was all in Japanese. Sam began to flip through, but except for a few masterful illustrations, he had no clue what any chapter was about, let alone where the New Orleans chapter might be.

“Where the bookmark is.”

“Ah, sorry.” He flipped to the page and was astonished to see the building sketched out. Under the illustration was a caption in English reading, “Anderson Theater.”

“That’s the same building!”

“Yes, I believe that is where we will find the bomb that caused the explosion we both saw.”

“How so? Why? This makes no sense.”

“From our temporal perspective, I suppose it doesn’t make sense. But we have been given this message and to ignore it would be criminal. Lives are at stake.”

Sam couldn’t understand the logic but there was no denying the building on the computer and in the book was the very same building he had seen in his dream.

However strange the circumstances behind the decision to go to New Orleans, he found himself actually wanting to go. Looking up at Suteko, Sam realized there was an even greater motivation than simply wanting to understand the meaning of a dream. He needed to know where this was going.

He no longer could be satisfied with a future as a low-level English teacher in one of the million English conversation schools in Tokyo. He thought of his old friend, his mentor, Mr. Richards, who had many times told Sam to be ambitious, to think well beyond his immediate circumstances. Sam looked Suteko squarely in the eye and nodded. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt she was his future.

“All right. But before we go, I need to know who or what those things were that attacked me?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I have heard stories of dark creatures—angels of darkness. But I have never experienced one, and I do not know what they would want with you.” She cast her gaze downward and furrowed her brows deeply. After a deep breath, she nodded, continuing, “However, finding that out is one reason I would like us to go to the States. There is someone I want you to meet. He will have the answers we seek.”

“We will need to buy some tickets, then.”

She smiled, making Sam feel a bit uneasy.

“Already done,” she said, flaunting before Sam’s eyes an envelope with the Japan Airlines logo.

Chapter 15

San Francisco

The Californian sun was checked by a deep layer of cloud cover and a dull drizzle. The two men wearing suits and trench-coats took to the second flight of stairs as if they lived there. Mrs. Felds, McGregor’s neighbor, noticed that both of the strangers wore large rimmed fedoras and pitch-black sunglasses. With dress gloves on, it was hard to see any skin.

The two dark men were chatting between themselves and away from Mrs. Felds. As they passed by, one of them fiddled with his keys as if he was too preoccupied to acknowledge her existence.

She turned her nose. One or both of the strangers gave off a strange smell. It wasn’t particularly offensive, but it was strange—like a mixture of cheap cologne with a touch of skunk.

She had been out watering her plants; she often watered her plants when she heard people coming up the stairs. The metal stairs shook violently against the side of the old building when so much as the weight of a cat took to the second floor. With her apartment being the first after the stairs, it was an infallible early warning system.

She was especially interested in people that appeared as if they were going to visit McGregor next door. Mrs. Felds knew better. McGregor had no friends, and therefore every visitor would be potential gossip fodder. A bill collector, a jealous husband, a bounty hunter—the possibilities were deliciously endless.

The two men continued toward McGregor’s door with their faces turned toward each other and away from her. She worked her neck hard, trying to get a look at what kind of face would visit her jerk of a neighbor. With the trench-coat collars up and what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to ignore her, she saw nothing.

While neglecting her flower pots, she managed to get her slippers wet from spilling the watering can. She cursed and began shaking one of her slippers off her foot as the two men knocked on McGregor’s door. They continued ignoring her while they waited, enjoying the dank scenery in a direction away from her.

The nosy neighbor entered her apartment as McGregor answered his door.

McGregor looked terrible. It was nine Saturday morning, but by the bags under his sunken eyes, McGregor must have been working on the assumption it was still late Friday night. His bathrobe was tattered, but functional. Beyond McGregor was a dark, cavernous living space. Windows were either blinded or taped. Not a light was on and no stray sanitizing sunbeam could penetrate the back of the apartment.

The blast of daylight from the opened door caused McGregor to squint as he tried to make out who the two men standing in his doorframe were.

The aroma of cheap vodka poured from his mouth as he spoke.

“What do you want?”

“Good morning. We were wondering if we might have a few minutes of your time.”

The two men stood smiling. McGregor snarled as he lifted his hand to his brow trying to dam the unwelcome flood of light.

“I’m busy,” he said and began to shut the door with his other hand. A leather boot and glove prevented the door from closing entirely. Strong fingers wrapped around the slightly warped wooden door and effortlessly pushed McGregor back into his cave.

Moments later, the door was closed with three men inside. One of the intruders walked about, hunched over with hands clasped around the small of his back, searching for something. The other man partially lifted the blinds at a window, allowing a small measure of light in. He then engaged McGregor.

“It won’t take a moment. And I believe it is to your advantage to listen to us.”

McGregor stood dazed, uncertain what just happened. “I’ll… call the police…” His voice was slurred and sounded uncertain.

“I don’t think you want to do that, now do you?”

“I mean it. You can’t just break into a man’s home like this.”

“If you want to call the police, I will not prevent you. However, I am certain the police will be more interested in finding you than protecting your rights.”

“Look, I am simply a professor at a local community college. You may have read about my activities when I was a teenager, but I can assure you, I’m much more docile…”

“We know about your recent nocturnal activities,” the man said removing his sunglasses revealing a dark eye that seemed to go deeper than space should allow.

McGregor stunted a laugh. “What? Look I’m just a…”

“The police will soon know it is you, too. It is just a matter of time before they come knocking. You were sloppy with the first one, my dear boy.”

McGregor’s jaw dropped and his head gave an involuntary shake.

“We can help. Join us and we can make all this go away.”

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“We are… an association interested in investing in the future.”

“Why me?”

“You are a true believer,” said the other man from within McGregor’s bedroom.

“You don’t have any family to speak of—you have a brother in Kansas, but you haven’t spoken to him in years,” continued the other man in front of McGregor.

“How do you know that?”

“You should be proud, professor; we simply did our homework.”

McGregor grabbed a bottle off a counter and sat down on the kitchen stool, slumped over and resigned. He had emptied the vodka from it the night before, but he felt like he needed to hold on to something.

“There are very few guarantees in life, Mr. McGregor. But I’m here to offer you one of them,” the man said with what seemed to be a smile. “If you were to join our association, obey our will, we would be in the position to offer you power beyond all imagination. A seat of power few in history have held. Nebuchadnezzar, the Pharaohs of Egypt, Hitler—didn’t know this kind of power.”

“I think you have the wrong person.” McGregor momentarily put the empty bottle to his lips and swiveled his body toward the kitchen table.

“No, we have been watching you and feel confident in our decision. Join us and you will have the power to fulfill all your desires—even the ones unfairly taken from you recently.”

“Power?” McGregor’s stupor faded momentarily. “What power?”

“Power to actualize your dreams. Power to make the world a better place for you and all other peace loving individuals. Do our bidding and I assure you, wealth inequality will be a matter of historical curiosity. You will be the harbinger of the new future. A future where all who live will adore you.”

“Look. I may be drunk, but I’m sober enough to know this is a joke.”

“I assure you,” the tall man said while removing his hat, “this is not a joke.”

McGregor was bewildered by the man’s eyes. Without his glasses and his hat, the eyes seemed to glow and grow into tiny suns brightening McGregor’s darkness. He saw angels dancing, leaping from the man’s eyes to his and then back again.

For a moment, McGregor thought he saw the girls he had murdered appear in front of him. Then he was sure. Yes, they were now beautiful angels. He watched as they smiled and mouthed McGregor’s name repeatedly. They wanted him. It was a sweetness McGregor had never known before, addictive and desirable, growing in potency.

In a moment it was all gone: the angels, the sweetness, the tiny suns. The tall man had returned his sunglasses to his eyes and fitted his hat squarely on his head. McGregor set the bottle on the table and stood.

“Give me more of that.”

“But of course. All in good time. However, if I am to give something to you, it is only fair for you to give me something in return.”

“Anything.”

“What would you be willing to do to affect the world change I referred to earlier?”

“Anything.”

“Even kill people?”

“Have I not already done that for the good of nature?”

“Even kill a lot of people?”

McGregor was silent.

“You will kill a lot of people, but those who are left will adore you.”

“How is that possible?”

“Leave that to us. We have arranged for everything except what you must do. Will you be able to leave today?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course. You could surrender to the police or… die.”

“What about my job?”

“In a few weeks, the reasons for your disappearance will be evident to your boss and colleagues. They will even adore you for it.”

“And this power, what exactly is it?”

“After an unfortunate incident involving the current resident of the highest office in the land, you will become the next President of the United States.”

Chapter 16

New Orleans

It was mid-afternoon when Suteko and Sam landed. They had to wait while the giant 777 taxied to the terminal area. The seatbelt light came on and faded; as if on command, everyone in the plane stood and stretched.

“You didn’t sleep much. I don’t think I noticed you napping at all.” Sam worried that her jet lag might be bad.

“Actually…” She said, keeping her voice to a whisper, “I don’t sleep anymore. Well, not much anyway. I can get by with a couple of five minute cat-naps a day.”

Sam was certainly not yet blessed with that gift. He felt like he could sleep for days. He closed his eyes and indulged himself a bit while standing and waiting for the line to move. She continued to tell him that she also had experienced increased fatigue at the beginning. Sam was glad to hear that what he was experiencing was “normal.”

“Sam,” she said in a barely audible voice, “if for some reason I get delayed, you must go to this address.” She slipped him a business card, hiding it under her palm as if its contents were top secret. Sam glanced at the card. Above the address was “R.J. Accountants.” There were no phone or fax numbers printed. There was only an address with the apartment number 201 on it.

“This is a Manhattan address?”

“Yes. Promise me you will go. If you see me taken somewhere, you must go.”

“Nothing’s going to happen, but even if it did, shouldn’t I stay around New Orleans?” he said with a look of concern betraying his confident words.

“No. We have friends there. You will need their help. The old man will help. Just show him this card. He’ll know. Ask for the old man. He sought me out after my mother died and taught me how to listen to the echoes. He can do the same for you.”

Happy to be moving in the line out of the airplane, Sam smiled at Suteko before realizing she was frowning. Her face was dejected, paralyzed even. Becoming aware of his stare, she snapped out of her worries and mirrored his smile.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “What’s the worst thing? You get deported and I follow you on the next flight.”

“No,” she said in a voice a little too loud and much too stern. She smiled at the couple in the aisle behind them before turning back to Sam. “If I… have to take a vacation, you must take care of business. Just remember to relax and listen to the echoes. Seek out the old man; he will teach you how to hear the echoes better. I have never felt destiny tug this hard.”

Suteko bowed slightly to the Japanese stewardess and exited the plane into the walkway, Sam following.

They maintained silence until the walkway opened into a much larger room. In front of them was a line for U.S. citizens and one for foreign nationals.

Sam pulled Suteko to the side away from the rush to line up.

“Back there you said ‘destiny.’ I didn’t think you believed in destiny.”

“Obviously, we each have choices to make. However, there are things that must take place.” She thought for a few moments and then added, “English has a wonderful, yet underused word: ought. I can walk away if I want to, but I know it is my—our duty to stay. We ought to do what is right.”

“Suteko, I…”

She interrupted his words with a soft touch on his cheek. For a moment, Sam lost all sense of being. Her touch removed every ounce of pain and fear that had begun to creep down his spine at the thought of their potential separation.

“Let’s go,” Suteko said. “You go first.”

Sam looked to his left—a long line snaked around several corners for foreigners. To his right was a single file line with twenty other Americans at most. Sam turned to Suteko to give a parting thought when she pulled out her blue American passport and gave him a gentle nudge to the right.

“How…” He stopped mid-sentence realizing it was better not to ask.

The power of her healing touch mere seconds ago faded as they both entered the American line. Sam grew nervous, but tried to calm down to listen to the echoes from the future. Perhaps he could hear if she was going to run into trouble.

The line was quickly emptying and he wished it would slow. Their time together was so precious, and despite his best efforts to keep his thoughts optimistic, he feared they would soon part.

“Maybe you should go first,” Sam said, attempting to be the gentleman but in a voice more akin to a scared little boy.

“No. If something happens to me, you must make it out of here. It is best to pretend you don’t know me. I promise I’ll explain everything once we are through.”

The two silently took a step forward as the American directly in front of them was allowed entry onto American soil. Sighing, Sam bent down to tie his shoelace. His shoe had a knack for coming undone at just the right time.

“Next.”

Sam yanked his shoelace tight and approached the man, presenting his passport and airline ticket.

The official, saying nothing, flipped through its pages while glancing at a computer screen. Seconds later, Sam returned his stamped passport to his pocket and was through customs.

Suteko stood before the silent official. Sam sunk into a corner again playing with his shoelace, this time pretending. Glancing up, he tried to gauge the official’s expression. It was different than when he had gone through. The customs officer took long gazes at Suteko and then typed something on his computer.

This was taking too long.

Moments later two security guards approached Suteko. Both held their right hand to their pistol but did not draw. Sam watched from a distance and could not hear distinctly what the guards were saying. One grabbed her by the arm and the other cleared a path heading to a back door.

Sam was frantic. She turned to him and mouthed one word: “Go!”

Sam made some effort to pull his eyes away from the image of Suteko being forcibly pulled away from him. Nothing, however, could break his eye contact. Nothing until the guard holding her arm followed her gaze and mouth movements to Sam in the corner. She had quickly looked away from Sam, but it was too late.

The guard slapped his partner and pointed directly at Sam whose frightened face screamed accomplice.

Sam jumped up and, with a brisk walk, exited the room. A few moments later, he had melted into the crowd of a busy airport.

Chapter 17

Sam was lost. Suteko had been his anchor and now she was gone. Since she came into his life, he had not given a single thought to any grand plan much less the next moment. He didn’t know what the future held, but from the moment he met Suteko, he knew his life had radically changed.

It was all so surreal. The parallel dreams, the realization he had known her before, the supernatural powers she possessed… He had so much to learn and so many questions.

Her words came flooding back.

Seek out the old man.

Reaching for that precious business card, Sam rushed to the nearest airline ticket booth. The next flight to LaGuardia was in twenty-five minutes. Luckily, there were a few seats left in first class.

A credit card charge and fifteen minutes later, he was seated in a lush window seat next to a rather large woman who would most certainly not be comfortable in coach.

The large woman was busily reading a little Reader’s Digest magazine with a cute puppy on the cover. Sam, not wanting to violate their unspoken mutual isolation pact, turned toward the window. He felt sweat beading on his forehead. He must stink something awful, he thought as he closed his eyes and began to replay the events of the past few minutes.

Memories of Suteko mouthing “Go!” dominated his thoughts. A feeling of utter despair returned, but only for a moment as his mind went further into the past. The terror of that moment slowly morphed into the more pleasant memories of the Suteko in his reoccurring dream. There was no question. Suteko was the woman of his dreams. She had always been the woman in those dreams.

Sam remembered telling his father about the dream—telling his father about Suteko! He was only seven or eight at the time and the young Sam stumbled over his words trying to convey the unspeakable and intense feelings the dream stirred. But he had to tell someone.

Sam wouldn’t understand the meaning of the reoccurring dream until he was grown and had actually met Suteko, but the child knew whatever it meant, it was important. His father had listened to Sam’s impassioned speech through the pages of his morning newspaper. When Sam had finished, his father lowered the paper slightly and, peering over the top, he said in a flat, disinterested voice, “It’s just a dream. Do your homework, boy.”

It had been a heartbreaking moment. From then on, Sam closed his emotions to others. No one could possibly understand and therefore it was silly to attempt to express himself. He never told his mother. He didn’t even tell Mr. Richards even though the dream came in greater frequency as his marriage fell apart. All he knew now was he would need to find Suteko again.

Sam found himself cracking his knuckles. A nervous habit, one he often did when lost in thought. Shaking them out, he slipped his hands into his pockets. Sam was startled when his right hand fell upon a bundle of twenties paper-clipped to a piece of paper. Unfolding the paper, he saw that it simply read, “Go to the old man. I am fine.”

Sam wondered when Suteko had given him the money and this message. Had she known she would be detained? Had she heard it from the echoes? Would he ever see her again?

Landing in LaGuardia Airport, Sam asked the woman at the information desk for the best way to get to the address on the business card. She told him a shuttle bus would be there momentarily to pick up passengers for Grand Central Terminal. From there, a taxi could take him to his destination in fifteen minutes.

He thanked her, bought the ticket, and waited outside. A few minutes later, a large vehicle with “LaGuardia Shuttle Bus” written on the side appeared. He hopped on and, finding a back seat, sunk low.

The trip was uneventful, but it brought back memories of the last time he was here. He had flown into JFK then.

His wife spilled her peanuts all over the aisle. Feeling sorry for her, Sam had leaned over to help pick the nuts up. His wife pushed him back into his seat and snapped at the nearby stewardess, blaming her for the mess. She often lashed out in anger when embarrassed or on the defense.

As thoroughly embarrassed as he had been at the time, Sam couldn’t help but smile now. It was funny how being around Suteko made thoughts of his ex-wife seem less painful, comical even.

Arriving at Grand Central, Sam found an eager taxi driver waiting at the bus terminal. Ten minutes of light traffic later, a row of tenements appeared. The driver pointed at one of them and said that was where his destination should be.

As the taxi sped off, Sam appraised the old building in front of him. An old building for an old man. He wondered why someone so respected by Suteko would choose to live there.

The building had clearly been high-end once but time had done its damage. The brickwork was finely constructed, but the ceiling of the entrance was stained from what looked like smoke. What wood there was around the edging looked decayed or damaged by termites.

Approaching the apartment entrance, Sam was struck by a sudden feeling of weakness. His strength had left his entire body at once, leaving him barely able to stand.

He staggered and grabbed hold onto the brick wall for stability. It was as if he was experiencing an earthquake, but nothing outside shook; the shaking was from within.

He heard whispers and then shouts. Screams replaced the shouts. He sensed some presence nearby and that it was evil. The whispers returned, replacing the screams. He was already emotionally drained; the echo and the creeping darkness at twilight time combined to confuse Sam completely.

Then it all stopped. He continued to lean against the brick wall, hoping it was truly over. Somewhat recovering, he lifted his head to see the entrance. He violently shook his head trying to regain his composure.

What was that?

It had been the strongest “echo” since he first heard the voices in that Japanese hospital room. He couldn’t tell what it meant, but he had a feeling it wasn’t good.

“Samuel. It is good to meet you.”

Sam turned his head to see the face of an old man wearing a bowler hat. It was only then that he realized the stranger was holding him up, preventing him from falling. Sam strengthened his legs and stood straight, releasing himself from the man’s hold.

“Are you the… old man?”

“I am the one you seek. I’ve been waiting for you.”

Sam nodded, not sure what to say.

“Come, boy, let us walk while you fill me in. Spare no detail.”

Sam followed the stranger as they moved down a busy street filled with parked cars, shabbily clothed pedestrians, and zooming taxis. The old man’s voice sounded familiar somehow, but he said very little, preferring to listen to Sam talk instead.

“Sir, I do not understand what is happening, but the authorities at the airport stopped Suteko. I didn’t want to leave her, but she gave me orders to go find you should something happen to her.”

“You did the right thing, boy,” the old man said with his eyes looking down. His hat had a wide brim for a bowler; it kept his eyes hidden. “But tell me, how did this all begin? Do you hear voices? Speak swiftly. Time is short.”

“Yes. There was an earthquake. I woke up hearing voices. Then Suteko appeared and I realized I had dreamt of her before. She says I am in a reoccurring dream of hers too.”

“Interesting. But that isn’t the only dream you’ve had, is it?”

“No, sir. That’s what led us here. I’ve had a nightmare and apparently Suteko has also.”

“Go on.”

“Death. There is a bomb that goes off and people start dropping one by one. I just watch helpless and unable to move.”

“Yes, I have seen this too, but where will this take place? Where is Suteko going?”

“You do not know?”

“I would like to know what you know—for confirmation.”

Sam hesitated. A hint of aggression had slipped into the old man’s voice. Yet, this had to be the man Suteko sent him to. This old man knew Suteko; he knew Sam heard voices and had dreams; he knew everything that would indicate he was on their side and yet, something bothered Sam.

“Come on, Samuel! Tell me where.”

“What is the name of the business on your card?”

“My card?”

“Yes, the card I got from Suteko about you. The name of the business and the number that is on your name plate at your apartment.”

“Lives are at stake, boy. Tell me now.”

There was a distinct growl in his final words. Sam took a step back as the man’s facial features shifted. It was slight, but to Sam, his face looked like the moment an old television loses its signal while changing channels.

A gnarly hand reached from within the man’s sleeve. A second later, the hand was on Sam’s shoulder. Making use of a pressure point, the old man had Sam instantly on his knees.

The pierce of sudden pain caused Sam to throw himself backward, managing to escape the man’s thumbs. Sam continued his fall to the ground behind him but instead of losing control, his hands found a firm foundation. His legs flung wildly around, finding purchase in the old man’s stomach.

The attacker fell backward, but did not hit dirt. He arched his back in a way that resembled a Slinky toy. His momentum accelerated and shifted from his legs to arms and then back again. The man seemed elastic, lengthening and contracting at will. With a strong push off the ground, the attacker was—in a single moment—standing erect again.

Sam stood unmoving and dazed. No one can move like thatleast of all an old man.

The elastic man with a bowler hat grabbed Sam’s throat, giving Sam no time to respond.

“You will tell me where the others are!”

Sam felt his feet arch up as he struggled to keep his footing. The man’s arm was exceedingly strong and yet appeared so thin, old, and fragile. Somehow, Sam’s arms were useless, just dangling to his sides. His legs also defied his command to kick. The old man’s grip had a slight paralyzing effect. Sam’s mind clouded.

“Where!?” The hand tightened its grip.

“Others?” Sam’s voice was little more than a whisper.

“The Temporal—Where?”

The arm lifted Sam completely off the ground. Choking and unable to get oxygen to his brain, Sam began to black out. His arms were useless, but as the blackness crept over his eyes, his ears caught some outside noise.

Chapter 18

Washington DC

Agent Cobbs was a tough man. He worked out three days a week and was down at the shooting range the other four. He had spent some time on the border dealing with smugglers, kidnappers, and the average poor Mexican or Peruvian wanting a better life. He prided himself that he never gave up until commanded to. His subordinates feared him. Failure was never an option—even if it was by his unyielding standards that made that failure inevitable. Still, he nearly always got the job done and was highly regarded by most of his colleagues at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and then later, Homeland Security.

His cell rang while he was out walking his dogs. His only family were these two terriers. Cobbs liked terriers—small dogs that think they can take big dogs. The call was from his secretary saying he had to report to the office securely and immediately.

He had been in Washington for some six years now. He couldn’t get used to the bureaucracy and politics inherent to the region. He missed the field. He was a man of action—not of words, papers, and political correctness.

Thanking his secretary, he turned around and headed home. At the perimeter of his property, he knelt down and unleashed the dogs. They knew their boundaries and followed him directly to the front door, ignoring the temptations of the big world around them.

Dropping the leashes in a container just inside the door, Cobbs poured a small glass of straight Bacardi before heading to his office.

The phone on his desk was a voice over secure IP box that connected to his boss’ private network. It was only used in case of emergencies and when discussing highly sensitive matters.

Setting down his empty glass, he pressed a button initiating the secure connection and indicating to his superiors that he was available and waiting for their communication.

Fifteen seconds later, the speaker beeped and a man’s voice came on line.

“Cobbs, there is a situation at MSY. We need you on the next plane to New Orleans.”

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, MSY, was very familiar to Cobbs. He had grown up in New Orleans and had always considered it his home even though he had moved away four decades before.

“What kind of situation?”

“A Japanese woman holding a faked US passport escaped custody when some security types pulled her away for questioning.”

“What? Did she kill someone?”

“No. She vanished.”

“Yeah, she got away, but why call me?”

“No, Cobbs, she literally vanished into thin air. She was there about to be cuffed for not answering their questions and a moment later she was… gone.”

Cobbs suppressed a laugh but let a silent smile fill his face. There was a faction among the higher-ups who didn’t like him. They thought he had been promoted too often and too fast. Washington politics leaned toward cronyism rather than meritocracy and Cobbs was sure someone would love to see a blot on his otherwise pristine résumé.

“Maybe these officers had a bit too much to drink?”

“There were dozens of witnesses. I’m sending the details to your PDA now including eTickets for a flight in an hour. Get your ass on that plane.”

Cobbs dropped the smile. “I love you, too.”

Cobbs landed at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport a little under three hours after the call. The head of security was waiting for him as he walked out of the ticket gate. The man was tall and lanky and wore a standard airport security uniform. A wisp of shirt hung untucked over the belt on his left hip.

“The name’s Smith and boy am I glad you’re here. We think there was a man with her. We chased him, but he had too great of a head start and got away.”

“You mean, he did a disappearing act too?”

“No, I mean, he escaped, but not like the girl. She literally disappeared before my very eyes,” he said, jabbing two fingers toward his eyes. “…in thin air.”

“Have you gone through the video footage?”

“Ah, no,” Smith said, tucking in his shirt and trying his best to pretend this wasn’t an oversight. “I, we decided to wait for you before doing anything that could impede your investigation.”

Investigation… Why do they do this to me? Agent Cobbs was now certain his bosses were trying to make him look bad. It is just this sort of misunderstanding that could really mess up a career.

“All right. Get me to the video surveillance room.”

“Right this way, sir.”

Smith spoke into a microphone inside his cuff, alerting security that they were coming and to have someone cueing the video feeds to when the woman escaped.

Cobbs looked around the surveillance room. It was decked out with the highest high-tech equipment—from the 1980s. The monitors were all CRT—tiny and heavy. A few of them actually had color images. The room smelled of burnt dust and… cheese. A slightly heavy-set man was sitting in a swivel chair munching on some cheese curls while waiting for Cobbs to initiate the conversation.

“Are there cameras in the area where she disappeared?”

“Oh, yeah. That was in customs,” the man said as he placed the snack bag aside and licked his fingers. The technician then swiveled toward the computer keyboard and completed the thought, “It is actually the most heavily covered area in the airport. We have three camera angles. I’ll display all three and synchronize them to the timeline.”

“Good. Show me the moment she… disappeared.”

Despite the antiquated feel to the room, the deft operator, once free of cheese curls and conversation, was able to quickly pull up the incident. Three monitors came to life. Each monitor showed a room with weary travelers waiting their turn. As the video progressed, the man pointed a fat finger at an Asian woman.

It was as Smith said. She was there about to be taken to a room for holding and then she wasn’t. There was no jerky motion or change in position of the people around the woman. The video didn’t appear to have been tampered with. Or if it had been, the prankster had done an impressively good job within an impossibly short amount of time. There were three angles to work with, and each had varying distances and covered over two dozen people.

“Hold it. Go back.” Cobbs was particularly interested in camera number one. Camera number two had her back and the third camera was too far away to catch any detail. “Can you replay that at half speed?”

The operator obeyed. Cobbs saw nothing different at half speed. She was there and then she wasn’t.

“Okay, let’s go frame by frame and zoom in on her location with camera number one. What’s the frames per second?”

“Only fifteen. Sorry.”

Cobbs watched as one frame had her standing with her right arm crooked and her head facing the camera. Zoomed in, the image wasn’t the sharpest, but the woman’s features could be clearly seen. The next frame showed an empty space where the woman had been standing.

“Go back and forth between those frames.”

The people around her registered virtually no change, but she somehow had vanished completely.

“Hold it. Look at camera number three. Frame one, please.”

Agent Cobbs examined the screen. The camera was too far for details, but he could see her crooked arm and the side of her face.

“Do you want me to zoom in?”

“No, I want to see the wide angle as is,” Cobbs said with his eyes glued to monitor number three. “Frame two.”

Smith felt a sudden flash of heat as he realized what Agent Cobbs had discovered.

“She is still there. Isn’t she, Agent Cobbs?”

“Yes, Smith. Yes, she is.”

It was a faint blur and at least five feet away from her original position, but there was her shadow. The shadow of a woman with hair in mid-lift from running.

“This is impossible,” said an incredulous Smith.

“Impossible and yet you witnessed it and are seeing it replayed now. Somehow, within one-fifteenth of a second she moved five feet. Next frame.”

The operator obeyed, unable to speak from surprise.

“And another one-fifteenth of a second she moved about fifteen feet. Look there. She’s accelerating.” Cobbs pointed to a small section of the screen just at the edge of the third camera’s view. “There is a human-shaped blur there. It is even lighter than the previous frame.”

Cobbs put a heavy hand on the operator’s shoulder.

“You say she was with a man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Show me.”

Tapping on the keyboard, the man at the computer managed to push the video back two minutes before the woman had vanished. The man was talking to the woman. By their interactions, it was clear they were together.

“Hold it. Zoom in on camera number one. Get his face.”

Cobbs held his hand flat in front of the heavy-set man at the computer indicating he wanted to keep the video frame as is. He just stood there staring, memorizing the man and woman’s features.

“Print me a picture of their faces.”

Handing the operator a card with a FTP drop box login information on it, he said, “Upload all the video feeds to here. I think you have found something… interesting.”

Chapter 19

New York City

In an instant, Sam was free from his attacker’s grip and on the ground coughing. His hands flew to his throat trying to massage precious air into his dry lungs.

What was that?

From the side of his eye, Sam saw what had caused the man to let go of his throat. Another old man—strikingly similar in appearance—was attacking the first old man. He couldn’t work out who was winning the fight, but they seemed to be more or less equally matched. Despite the aged appearances, both men were quick and agile.

Pulling himself upright, Sam watched as the attacker gripped the second man’s throat and began to lift him off the ground as he had so easily done to Sam. Sam knew he had to get out of there, but something compelled him to stay and watch. He wanted to help his savior, but that man now seemed as helpless as he had been before the assailant.

What could he do?

Instead of resisting, the stranger, while being held up by the attacker’s fist, pulled a small object out of his pocket.

A light, a flame! So bright in the darkening twilight.

For whatever reason, the light repelled the attacker in an instant. The flame caused the man to falter, let loose of his prey, and fall backwards shielding his eyes with bony arms and hands.

Sam opened his eyes after an abnormally heavy blink. Sam was no longer seeing two men. The aged wrinkles of the first attacker gave way to silky smooth, yet pale skin. The bowler hat was gone and in its place, wild bright red hair was flying loose in nearly every direction.

Sam’s original attacker was now a woman.

Her face seemed even more threatening than it had been as a man. Her lips were pulled back, baring clenched and grinding teeth as she hissed curses at the old man. Wretchedly evil, her wide eyes betrayed a sense of having let slip a deep secret.

Stunned by the absurdity of what had just happened, Sam just stood there.

“Kaileen?” Sam heard his savior say. At the sound of that name, the attacker shook her head and with a desperate look, dropped to the ground, and disappeared into the darkness as if she was nothing more than a pile of leaves blown away by the wind.

After another blink, Sam saw that the attacker had vanished completely. His savior, the other old man, was approaching him with an arm extended.

Sam’s eyes were blurred, but he got his first good look at the man. Sam’s first impression had been correct. This old man bore a remarkable resemblance to the woman’s appearance before she had attacked him.

“Can you stand?”

Sam didn’t quite catch the meaning of the words; everything was muffled.

“Can you stand, Sam?” the man repeated.

“Yeah. I think so.”

Sam took the man’s arm and felt his body move in an upward motion until he was on his own two feet.

“Come,” the man said curtly. His face was hard; some great concern weighed heavily upon him.

Sam watched as the man turned without further comment and headed back to the apartment. To anyone having not witnessed what just occurred, he would seem to be simply an old man taking an evening stroll with slow but steady steps. His movements were in stark contrast to the fluid motion of battle a few seconds before.

Not sure what to do, Sam obeyed, following without a word. It was a mixture of curiosity and fear that moved his feet in double time to catch up with the man.

Once they reached the apartments, Sam decided he should risk a question.

“Just what is happening? Who was that back there?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” replied the old man.

“Wait. You can’t just order me around without some sort of explanation.”

“Quiet and follow me.”

Crazy old man…

Sam’s sour look was ignored by the old man who simply continued walking. Remembering the fiery-headed woman, Sam shook his head in wonder and then followed behind him. They entered an enclosed stairway and the old man took to the first step. Sam jumped in front of him, stopping his climb.

“Look, thank you for saving me from that man… woman… or whatever it was, but I really think I deserve some answers before I keep following you.”

The old man propped a foot on the second step and pivoted to face Sam. “Mr. Williams, at this point, I’d be quite content to just leave you to Kaileen, but I don’t think you would enjoy her company.” He waited for a response; Sam just stood there dumbfounded. “I’m going up to my flat for a rest in my recliner. If you’d like to join me, I’ll consider explaining some details after you fix me some camomile tea.”

Sam’s eyebrows rose, not sure how to respond. It didn’t matter, the old man had already nudged Sam to the side and was making his way up the stairs with stunted steps, just as an elderly man with arthritis and tired bones would. Hearing some street noises outside, Sam reconsidered his ultimatum and quickly followed.

It was pathetic, he knew. In his marriage, Sam would try to take command of a situation imagining himself like a strutting peacock with his plumage on display. Instead of following, though, his wife would walk over him as if he were a featherless chicken. Since the divorce, that’s how he felt in life in general.

As strong and quick as the old man had been during the fight, Sam watched him nurse each step one by one with a hand firmly gripping the handrail. No one else was on the stairs yet the echoes of their cautious footfalls gave the feel of a parade.

“Shouldn’t we hurry? Couldn’t that woman come back?”

“I think not. Her secret is out.”

“Her secret?”

The old man stopped before room 201 and turned to face Sam as he put key to keyhole.

“She isn’t supposed to be alive.” Even though the old man was facing Sam, Sam understood the man spoke more to himself. “She isn’t supposed to be. I must think on this. The implications are massive.” He shook his head and faced the apartment.

The door creaked open and the man returned his keys to his pocket. He motioned silently for Sam to enter. Sam slipped inside and the door slammed shut after the man. Sam heard the sliding and clanging of metal as the old man engaged several locks.

But Sam’s mind was elsewhere.

A strange smell flooded his senses. It was not unpleasant, but it had a deep woodsy feel. It made him recall something from his childhood. He couldn’t quite make out what it was, but it was familiar and comforting.

Sam’s attention turned to the decor. There were no fewer than three crucifixes, one for each bare wall. The fourth wall was completely covered with books, hundreds of old leather bound books. Other than a well-worn recliner and a large globe in a corner, there was little else in this small living room. Sam could see two closed doors that led to unknown areas of the apartment.

He wondered if the leather bound books were the source of that nostalgic smell and he took a step toward the bookcase to find out. When he was a young boy and they lived in Hawaii, his father had had a set of leather bound Shakespeare plays with commentary. The eight-year old Sam would often pull one down and pretend to understand what he was reading.

“Do you know who I am?” the man asked after he finished locking the door.

Sam jolted back to face the old man and away from the bookcase and that nostalgic smell.

“I’m terribly sorry, no. Suteko gave me this card,” Sam said while pulling the crumpled card from his pocket. “She didn’t say your name. She only said you were an old… An older gentleman.”

“Yes, I am an old man. A very old man.”

“Older than Suteko?” Sam said carelessly, letting out her secret.

“Let me see that card,” replied a gruff voice ignoring the question.

“If you don’t mind, could you tell me what the name of your business is?” Sam asked, pulling back the card to his chest. “The other man couldn’t tell me and then he attacked me before becoming a… she.”

“You followed me up into my room—my securely locked room. This means you trust me to some extent and yet you ask the same question that set off that creature, huh?”

Sam realized following a stranger into a room on the second floor of a secluded apartment wasn’t the smartest course of action. But the man had saved his life and he had entered the apartment with the same number as on the card. Something about this man was different—in a good way—even if terribly odd.

Just then, the old man burst out with jolly laughter. The laughter quickly dispelled any lingering fear Sam may have had. That fear was now simply confusion.

“My son, R.J. Accountants is a front for all this.” His hand waved around the walls of books and crucifixes.

“This?” Sam wondered what kind of secrecy would necessitate manufacturing business cards with an alias. The old man simply nodded as if it required no verbal explanation.

“So, is your name RJ?”

“Yes! Of course. RJ, then.”

After examining Sam’s puzzled face for a few moments, the old man changed the subject.

“What did the woman want from you?”

“The woman or the old man?”

“She is a most vile serpent—if it is truly her. It looked like her; it felt like her, but I dare not make reckless assumptions. What did she want?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Think! What did she do? What did she say? Did she ask a question?”

Sam remembered the question she had asked that had made her angry when he couldn’t answer.

“When she was… an old man, she asked about my dreams.”

“What exactly did you tell her?”

“I… I mentioned there was a bomb about to go off. She said she knew but wanted me to tell her where the bomb was—where Suteko would be going. But I didn’t answer—I’m not sure that I could have.”

“I see.” The old man was lost in thought. Concern flooded his face when Sam interrupted him with a question.

“RJ, what is the Temporal?”

“My dear boy, you and I are the Temporal,” he said quickly. “But did she mention the Temporal?”

“Yes. She asked me where the other Temporal were.”

“A strange question to ask someone who didn’t even know that he himself was a Temporal! And a dangerous question for the queen of the Nephloc to pose. Very dangerous.”

Nephloc?

There was a long silence as RJ moved to one of the bookcases and slid over a few tomes from their place. He then inserted a bony hand into the newly formed space. His hand soon reappeared holding a long, cherry wood pipe and a small wooden box. With the thumb of his other hand, he flipped the lid up. After stuffing several pinches of tobacco into the bowl of his pipe, he placed the pipe in his mouth and asked, “Do you know what eternity is?”

Sam watched as the old man’s hand slipped into his pocket and reappeared a second later with a match. With a fluid motion, the match went up from his pocket to striking the bookcase and becoming a flame.

Sam realized that the smell which had invoked the nostalgic memories was not from the old books but the pipe. His father would sneak a smoke in his study now and again, much to the chagrin of his mother. Young Sam had associated the sweet smell with the row of Shakespeare on his father’s bookshelves.

“Yeah.” Sam snapped his attention back. “Eternity is a very long time.”

After a few long draws which seemed to make his face more thoughtful, the old man said, “Wrong. Just the opposite, in point of fact. It is the absence of time.” The old man’s voice was crusty but calm. “Just as a potter exists outside the pot, God created time and space and He exists outside of both. This existence is called ‘eternity.’”

Sam sat silently. If it had been a few weeks back, Sam would have argued the old man to the floor just for the hell of it. But things were different now.

“I’m blessed with the ability to witness time and space from God’s viewpoint. You can too. Isn’t that right, Sam Williams?”

“How do you know my name?”

Sam remembered RJ had called him by name earlier. But so had the attacker…

“You don’t know by now?” the man said while settling into his oversized recliner—the only major piece of furniture in the room. “And yet, I find it peculiar you don’t know my name. Suteko wouldn’t have sent you to me unprepared.”

“There… was a problem at the airport. Uh, your name isn’t RJ?”

The old man made a whistling sound and said, “Go on.”

Sam cleared his throat and continued, “Security pulled her aside. Shortly before landing, she told me to go to you should something happen.”

“Most unfortunate.” After a few puffs of smoke and glazed eyes of reflection, the old man continued, “In the history of the universe, there have been only a handful of moments when time and timeless eternity has come to share space, colliding. This causes a great deal of confusion from our point of view, but there exists total order from eternity’s viewpoint. That union of total order and temporal confusion is what gives us our gifts.”

Sam’s mind was crowded by questions. Looking into the old man’s sunken eyes, Sam spoke the first question that came to mind, “Sir, if I may ask, how old are you?”

This seemed to startle him. RJ pulled the pipe from his mouth and repositioned his body to face Sam more directly.

“How old am I, you ask? Well, son, I’m old like Tithonus, whom the Greeks said was granted eternal life but not eternal youth. At least, that is how I’ve felt for the past millennium.”

Sam would have thought the man a loon had it not been for the past few days and… Suteko.

The old man paused and then suddenly drew his brow in tight, as if he had just heard some terrible news. “Give me your wallet.”

“My wallet? Why?”

“Yes. Your wallet. Just do as I say.”

“Now, hang on…”

“Sam, if you are to stay here, you need to follow my rules. Your wallet.”

Sam pulled it out and began flipping through the twenties Suteko had left him in his pocket. “I get it,” he said as he pulled three twenties out. “How much…”

But before Sam could finish, the old man had grabbed the entire wallet and dumped out all its contents on the floor.

“What the… Listen old man.”

The old man was on the floor rifling through the cards, bills, and odd receipts while mumbling something to himself. Once he had organized all the contents into piles, RJ grabbed all of Sam’s credit cards, stood, and moved to the small table near his recliner. Opening the single drawer, he pulled out a pair of scissors. Before Sam could issue an objection, the old man cut the three plastic cards into several strips.

“Hey! You can’t do that.”

“You used your credit card to get here.”

“Well, yes. I mean, I didn’t know Suteko had given me any cash then and it really is a cashless society, but… Wait a minute. You think the police are tracking me?”

“Think? I know. An Agent Cobbs is coming. Let’s just hope that Suteko comes first. It is important that you two leave together.”

“How do you know?”

“You must listen to the echoes.”

“What do we do? Should I leave? Suteko is gone.”

“We wait here. She will be here soon.”

“How do you know? They might deport her. And this Cobbs, he might be here now.”

“I will listen for Cobbs. Don’t worry. And regarding Suteko, have patience and…faith. She will come, my son. Just don’t do anything else stupid.”

Sam did not know what to say so he just stood there with his mouth agape.

“And now, how about that tea?”

Chapter 20

Over the next few days, Sam stayed with the old man, learning and waiting. His fear of the coming Agent Cobbs lessened as he came to trust the old man’s abilities. He discovered much about a type of reality he hadn’t known even to exist a month before.

“Now,” said RJ a day after Sam arrived. The old man bent over to lock his eyes on Sam’s. “What is time?”

“Time?” Sam repeated weakly.

“Yes, yes. Time. Define it.”

Sam thought for a few seconds and said, “Wow. I’ve never thought about that. Maybe something to do with the movement of the sun and moon?”

RJ let out a belching laugh and then quietly sat down on the floor next to Sam. Sitting with his legs crossed, Sam was surprised to see how limber the old man was.

“No. If time was dependent on our sun or moon, it wouldn’t exist outside our solar system. Try again.”

Sam thought harder. “I’ve heard people talk about the ‘flow of time.’ Maybe something to do with movement. Or limited movement since time can only go forward.”

“Yes, yes. Good, boy. Movement. But can time really only move forward? The past can and often does affect the future. But did you know the future can very often affect the present and sometimes—albeit rarely—also affect the past?”

Sam was getting used to this weird kind of discussion. This talk reminded Sam of one of Mr. Richard’s more philosophical talks. He had started off talking about baseball, but somehow he ended up discussing the nature of morality.

“RJ, how can the future affect the present? If something hasn’t happened, it doesn’t exist, does it? I don’t get it.”

“Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was an early sixth century philosopher. A good man, imprisoned out of jealous rivalries. His master treatise was called Consolation of Philosophy. In it, he spoke of a great chariot race. The charioteer sees the turn ahead—the future—and adjusts the present by pulling on the reins.”

“That’s just reacting to your environment.”

“Yes, you are the acting agent that causes the future to interact and modify the present. But what if we move beyond the limitation of the actor who is stuck in common time only? What if an eternal and outside force became the time agent? What if an observer in the stands at the chariot race could influence the present or even the past based on what he knows of the future?”

“Is that how we have these powers? Some outside observer playing with time?”

RJ raised an eyebrow. “What’s the definition of time?”

“Uhh…”

“You said it earlier. Go ahead.”

“Movement?”

“Yes! Or perhaps a better word is ‘change.’” RJ smiled broadly. “Yes, time is change,” he said, standing and heading toward the kitchen. “Good talk, Sam.” Disappearing around the doorframe, he shouted, “I need a coffee. You want anything?”

Such was a typical conversation. But RJ also had Sam do exercises that would augment his powers and help Sam control them.

Several times a day, RJ would have Sam close his eyes and practice…breathing.

“That’s it Sam. Just relax. In and out,” the old man would say waving his hands about in a circular motion. “Now, close your eyes and relax.”

After a few minutes of breathing, Sam said, “Okay. Should I be in the Lotus position or something?

“No. Just breathe.”

Another five minutes later. “How about now?”

“Hmm?” The sound was from across the room.

Sam cracked open an eye and saw the old man lost in a book while seated in his recliner.

“Uh, RJ?”

“Hmm?” The old man casually looked in Sam’s direction. Upon seeing Sam, he hurriedly put the book down and stood. “Oh, yes. Yes, you may stop the exercise.”

Stop the exercise?

“But…I was only breathing.”

“Well, continue doing that,” RJ said sounding absentminded, “but normal like. We’ll continue your training in a few hours.” He quickly retired into one of the rooms and didn’t reappear until the next day.

RJ would often make off-handed predictions like “a storm is coming,” and despite having no weather report or a clear view of the outside, sure enough, a storm would come.

His premonitions were remarkably accurate.

The old man’s skin was pale as if he rarely—if ever—got any sun. But by his knowledge of obscure places around the world, Sam knew he was no hermit. And yet, Sam never saw him leave the apartment. Twice, someone came to the door and the man had Sam hide in a closet in the back. Each time, Sam was certain it was Agent Cobbs even though the old man assured him otherwise. As soon as he was allowed to come out of hiding, Sam saw groceries on the kitchen floor, but the old man was alone.

“I know,” Sam said one evening after a light meal, “that you and Suteko are incredibly strong and we can hear these echoes and all that, but what other super powers do you, we, have?”

The old man laughed. “Super powers, eh?” He began flapping his hands like a bird. “Do you expect me to fly and have X-Ray vision?” He squinted his eyes, pretending to see through Sam.

“No, I mean…”

“Of course. From a human perspective it may seem to be super power, all this. But it is simply the influence—a side effect—of contact with eternity, timelessness. Just continue the exercises I taught you. More will come.”

The exercises did gradually morph into something more than breathing in and out. The old man taught Sam to attune his senses to the normally imperceptible quantum changes happening all around him.

People only notice sweeping and accumulated changes like comparing twenty-year-old photographs to the aged person’s current appearance or the deterioration of an abandoned car after many sun-soaked years. That much was obvious. But what of the momentary, step-by-step acts of senescence? Or the moment when chemicals act and the metal begins to rust? Sam began to recognize the reality of this change and learned how to modify what was happening within varying flows of time.

RJ would set a clock in front of Sam and have him concentrate on the second hand. Many times, Sam felt time was sluggish, but a few times the second hand stopped. He was sure of it. Sam counted what should have been five seconds and suddenly the hand clicked forward a second, breaking his concentration. The old man was overjoyed.

The exertion had only lasted a few minutes, but Sam was exhausted. He wiped his brow from sweat and asked, “What…can we do besides hearing the echoes? Will I also become strong and not need sleep?”

“In time.” He laughed at his own joke eliciting a polite smile from Sam’s confused face. “Yes, as time slows its ravaging of your body, you will become strong. And I believe you have noticed your need for sleep has diminished greatly during the few days you have been here.”

“Yes, I think I am almost normal—I mean, what used to be normal. Last night, I slept eight hours and I feel great. It seemed only a few days ago that I needed twenty-five hours.”

Sam told the old man of his experiences in that Japanese hospital. The horrific experience of a man with a face upon which he could not focus. How he was attacked by several of these men outside the hospital. How the old man who changed into an agile woman attacked him.

“What were these creatures? Suteko just guessed they were ‘angels of darkness’ whatever that means.”

“They are Nephloc. The woman who attacked you, she is a leader over the Nephloc.”

“Nephloc?”

“Nephloc are creatures that cannot abide light. Once human, these pitiable creatures are doomed to rot off their corruptible flesh until their souls are made absolute slaves to pure darkness.”

Images of RJ fighting the red-headed woman came back to Sam’s mind. RJ had defeated his attacker with an awesomely bright light.

“I remember now—you used light to repel the creature who attacked me.”

“If it had been a Nephloc, she would have screamed from the pain. We were lucky that it was enough to startle her, to reveal who she really is,” the old man said while reaching into his pocket. “Take this.” He tossed his cigarette lighter to Sam.

“This? This is what you used?”

“A little light dispels great darkness. Insurance and a mighty weapon, it is.”

Sam marveled that the powerfully bright light he had witnessed had simply been the flickering flame of a tiny lighter. He slipped it into his pocket with a nod of thanks to RJ.

“Tell me more about these Nephloc. Where do they come from? Why did they draw my blood—what do they want from me?”

“Dark, vile creatures. They are damned, cruel, and twisted. Lost, they are and their only purpose is to keep men lost, to enslave them. They roam the earth and the temporal universe in search of a way to sate their thirst and lusts.”

The old man leaned in closer to Sam, examining his eyes as if in a staring contest. Sam averted his eyes but the old man continued to stare, seeming to not notice Sam’s discomfort.

“As for their interest in your blood… I do not know, but you have piqued my curiosity. I will research and meditate on this.”

The man broke away from Sam’s eyes and dropped into his recliner. Despite the oddness of it all, Sam had a growing respect for RJ. The old man reminded Sam much of Mr. Richards. It was not so much in mannerisms—Mr. Richards had been reserved and soft spoken, RJ was anything but. They were, however, both interested in helping Sam improve his life and very assertive in how Sam should achieve those improvements.

“And that smell. The Nephloc that attacked me had a stench that started very slight, but quickly became unbearable.”

“Yes. The smell of rotting flesh. These are spiritual creatures locked in a dying physical world.”

“But the woman, she had no foul smell—at least, none that I noticed.”

“Yes,” the old man said, standing and moving to the bookcase for his pipe. “This was a different sort.”

“Is that why she could appear as you and then as that young woman?”

“Yes. She is very dangerous. The Nephloc are servants of darkness—they do not think for themselves, only for their masters and their lusts. Young Nephloc with flesh still to rot are easily startled and tend to go out in groups. But mature Nephloc and others such as the one we encountered are different. Be careful. The creature had great interest in you.”

Sam thought back to that night when a few of the weaker Nephloc overpowered him with ease.

Seeing concern wrinkle Sam’s face, the old man quickly added, “There are always options for the good guys.” He had a twinkle in his eyes. “Even the Nephloc know they will lose.”

The old man turned to his bookcase again and finished stuffing his pipe.

“It is, however, very disturbing how bold these creatures have become. To come out in the open and risk so much to get to you. Perhaps they know that time grows short.”

The old man turned back to Sam, looking him over as if inspecting a high-priced item and wondering by what measure its worth was determined.

“There is something about you that they want. I’m blind to it now, but take care of yourself, Sam. You are a wanted man. And you are wanted by the most vile creatures imaginable.” RJ returned his focus to Sam’s eyes. “Do not worry too deeply, Sam. You are among friends. Suteko and I will protect you. And soon, you will be more than able to protect yourself.”

Suteko. How can this old man know for sure she will come? Sam moved over to the corner that contained the stand-alone globe. It was set on a four foot metallic stand.

“How many of the Temporal are there?” Sam asked while fingering Spain. Waiting for an answer, he let the globe spin, blurring countries and oceans into a bluish gray hue.

“There are very few. It seems one of us appears about once or twice every hundred years. You, my son, are our newest member. It is always quite exciting when we find someone new.”

“Are there others here in the States?” He stopped the globe and the tip of his index finger covered New York City. Sam’s eyes widened as he saw what appeared to be the old man’s face materializing over the dot that represented the City.

“Other than me, there are four that I know of.”

“No.” Sam spoke with conviction and kept his eyes locked on the green colored land mass representing the United States on the globe. His mouth opened and shut while wordlessly counting.

“No?”

“Sorry… I don’t understand it, but looking at this globe, I see faces. I see your face here and another face nearby. There are four other faces. Wisconsin, Florida, California, and in Texas. And I know their names, their addresses, their…” Sam looked up from the globe, meeting RJ’s stunned face. “I know their favorite color.”

“Most extraordinary.” The old man flew to Sam’s side with the eagerness of a schoolboy having discovered a new way to torment girls. “Yes. Yes. I know of the ones in Wisconsin, California, and in Texas, but I was not aware of anyone in Florida.”

Sam’s face showed a mix of horror and confusion. “What is happening to me? What does this mean?”

“It means, my boy, that you have a special gift, a very special gift.”

“Is this what the Nephloc wanted of me?”

“There is no doubt this information would be most desirable to them. The woman demon must have known. But you told her nothing, right?”

Sam nodded in the affirmative.

The old man relaxed slightly. “Perhaps she isn’t certain that you have this gift. But I doubt she will give up. They would be very interested in you even if they only suspected you possessed such a gift. That blood. They may have ways of confirming your abilities with a blood sample.” The old man paused to light his pipe. After a few puffs, he continued. “A list of the Temporal in their hands would be devastating. I think it would be wise for you to keep this gift to yourself. Don’t even tell Suteko unless you feel you need to. The fewer who know, the less likely the knowledge will seep out.”

Sam nodded that he understood.

“Can the Temporal—can we be killed?”

“Most assuredly. We are not immortal and we do age. I was in my thirties when I was initiated into the Temporal, but by my wrinkles and wizened features, one would assume I am in my seventies. However, instead of killing us, I suspect that they would try to turn us.”

“Turn us… into one of them?”

“Yes. Evil seeks more evil partly to validate itself, partly to become stronger as a group. In the end, it will be of no matter. They will lose. But much unnecessary death and destruction would result should your talents be discovered. Much death.”

They spoke no more that day. RJ said he had to go out for a few hours and then handed Sam a finely-crafted, but hand-written book from the shelf in what appeared to be Latin and translated English in the margins. It was filled with esoteric proverbs and sayings somehow entirely fitting for the old man.

Flipping to a page toward the back of the book, Sam read in neatly printed script:

The eternal present is like a slice of common time. It may be a slice of past, past potential, or many possible futures.

Below that, someone, presumably the old man, had scribbled:

One’s ability to modify the flow of time does not remove responsibility for the current moment in common time. While much latitude must be given to those who cannot see the angelic host, Arthimas cannot be excused.

When Sam asked RJ who Arthimas was, the old man excused himself and ignored Sam for the rest of the day. He sat in a corner meditating for hours. His eyes were closed, but on occasion, his mouth moved. Sam tried to get the old man’s attention a few times, but it was as if he had totally shut off from the waking reality. Sam eventually gave up went back to the book and then to bed in the adjacent room he had come to call home. The next morning, RJ greeted Sam warmly as if nothing had happened.

Sam waited and looked for Suteko’s appearance. Every day, the old man assured him she was coming. Every day, she failed to appear.

But Sam learned to listen. The old man would tell him to breathe slowly and listen between breaths. Listen for the Echoes of Eternity. Feel the slipping time as if catching the falling sand in an hourglass—each grain of sand was a slice of the eternal present.

As the days came and went, Sam’s ears grew sharper; his control over the echoes became stronger and more accurate. One day, he realized he could tune his ears to have the echoes sound on command. The old man was ecstatic with glee saying he had never heard of a young Temporal who had progressed so far, so quickly.

But this brought Sam no satisfaction. The one voice he yearned to hear was silent. He could not hear her.

Chapter 21

Agent Cobbs had names. Sam Williams was the guy who got away but didn’t disappear. Yoko Aoki was the woman who got away by disappearing. This was undoubtedly an alias. Her American passport was a fake—hence the reason for pulling her aside at customs.

But Cobbs knew Sam Williams was a real name.

The man had used his credit card—a card that had a ten year history—to get to New York City. More importantly, Williams had used that same card to get a taxi to his destination. After tracking down the cab driver, Cobbs knew which building the man had entered into a few days before. The delays in attaining a warrant had irritated Cobbs to no end. He knew if he had received it when he asked for it, the two—or at least Williams—would already be in his custody.

Now, however, any activity on William’s card went straight to Cobbs.

While waiting for the warrant, he had two plainclothes NYPD officers staked out across the street watching everyone who came in and out of that building. He figured even if the man wasn’t there, it was possible that the woman still might come.

Meanwhile, Cobbs spent his time at the library or scouring the internet for anything that could explain what he saw on that video feed from New Orleans.

The closest thing he found was a website that reportedly taught the ancient Egyptian art of invisibility. One, it claimed, could will oneself invisible. All the website required to unlock the mystery was a $49 charge to a credit card.

As before, Sam was told to hide in the back closet. Someone was knocking at the old man’s apartment door.

The other two times took less than a minute before the old man came to get him. This time, it was taking longer. Sam heard noises made indistinct and muffled by the many coats around him. He strained his ear to the wall that separated him from the rest of the apartment, but he couldn’t make out anything. Minutes passed. A distinct fear began to creep within Sam.

He heard a scream—or something like a scream from the other room.

The old man was in trouble.

Sam made the decision to help RJ. The old man had, after all, saved his life. Sam was stronger now. He had stopped the second hand! He could hear the echoes more clearly now. He could help. He needed to help.

Rushing out, Sam no longer tried to keep quiet but hoped his loud footsteps would be enough to scare the attacker away. It could be a young Nephloc. However terrifying in appearance, young Nephloc, he had been told, were easily frightened. He pulled out the lighter that he had religiously kept in his right pocket and readied himself.

Flinging the door to the front room open, Sam nearly tripped over himself.

It was not an attacker. The sounds he had heard were not screams at all. They were sounds of merriment and great relief. Sam straightened, blinked, and stood stock-still holding the flickering lighter.

Suteko was back.

“Oh, Sam.” She rushed to Sam and, lowering his arm with the lighter, she embraced him. “I so desperately wanted to see you these past few days.”

“You, you’re alive!”

“Of course. Didn’t Marcus tell you I was coming?” She gave the old man a mildly reprimanding look. The old man held up his hands as if he was blameless in the matter.

“Marcus? Well, RJ here told me you were coming but he gave me no reason why he knew that. Did you call him to tell him you were on your way?” Sam realized he hadn’t seen a phone, cell phone, or any communication device—not even a computer. It seemed the highest technology around was the bound book.

“Marcus is the most experienced of us. He has a closer relationship with eternity than I or anyone else I know. Sometimes it causes him to forget social etiquette within time and this mundane world,” Suteko said, stepping back to give Marcus a loving pat on the back.

“Why did it take you so long?” asked Sam.

“I couldn’t have gone with you. I left you a note—did you not get it?”

“A note? Oh, I thought… I thought you had placed that in my pocket while I was sleeping on the plane—before we landed.”

“I am sorry. I could have explained more, but I did not want to do anything that could have endangered you. Being seen with me before the incident was dangerous enough. And I couldn’t have joined you on the plane to Manhattan.”

She pulled the two men in closer, forming a triangular huddle. “Sam, I found the building, the one with the bomb.”

“Did you disarm the bomb, child?” asked Marcus.

“There was nothing there. The explosion we saw in our visions is yet to come. I waited a few days to see if the place was being watched, but I saw nothing unusual.”

“What do we do?” Sam shook his head almost succumbing to despair.

She took Sam’s hand, causing every ounce of fear and uncertainty to disappear. He marveled how her touch always seemed to immediately dispel stress and pain. No one else had ever had that effect on him.

“You needed to spend time with Marcus. He is an excellent teacher. I can see already that you have learned some control over the echoes. I didn’t mean to stay away so long, but I decided to hitch-hike most of the way—just to be safe. I had very little cash and the last safe credit card I had, I had already used once in Japan. It was too risky to use a quicker mode of transportation.”

“My dear children,” Marcus said with a suddenly pale face. “I am sorry to interrupt… But you must leave. You must leave now.” Marcus’ voice wavered as he warned them of the echoes he had just heard.

“What is it Marcus?” Suteko asked, sensing the urgency in his face and cracking voice.

“Agent Cobbs is searching for you. If you are to stop the bomb, you must make sure he doesn’t find you here. Later, yes, but not here, not now.” Marcus pulled an envelope from his pocket and said, “Take this.”

Suteko accepted the gift and asked, “Where is he?”

“Near. He has two policemen waiting for you downstairs with a warrant for your arrest. Undoubtedly they reported Suteko’s arrival to Cobbs. Quick, to the fire escape.”

Suteko followed Sam as he lifted the window open and began to climb out onto the outside open steel grating. Sam hesitated. They were only on the second floor, but it seemed much higher from the window than it had from the ground.

There were knocks on Marcus’ door.

“Hurry!”

Sam swallowed his fear and rushed outside and then looked down to the second floor platform. He felt a tug to his shirt and realized Suteko was wanting him to go up, not down.

He was about to argue that going down was the only thing that made sense when he saw a police officer turn the corner of the building and shout something while pointing in their direction. Sam quickly followed Suteko up to the third floor and then to the roof.

“Okay, now we’re trapped,” Sam said, desperately looking for some way out.

“Not even close.” Suteko grabbed Sam’s arms and he felt dizzy, as if moving aimlessly through a dark tunnel. She cautiously removed her touch as Sam’s bearings told him they had somehow moved to the roof of an adjacent building.

“What… what just happened?”

“We jumped. Come on.”

“We what?” Sam said. “Who we?” But Suteko had already taken off toward a small enclosed access door in the middle of the roof. He watched as she pulled her knee up and then it was suddenly down, next to her other leg. But the door to the stairwell had been kicked in.

“Come on, Sam,” she said and vanished into the dark enclosure.

Sam stood there for a surreal moment, running his hand over the bristles on his chin. He heard shouting from below and then quickly ran to the stairs after Suteko.

Chapter 22

To New Orleans

Paid for with a prepaid Visa from Marcus, Suteko and Sam left on an Amtrak from Penn Station directly to New Orleans. It was a thirty hour trip, but Sam spent very little of it sleeping. The shock of what had happened on Marcus’ rooftop keep Sam’s adrenaline working overtime, well beyond the moment of danger. In addition to that, his body was learning to adjust to his timeless gift. He was feeling stronger and far more confident—especially now that he was with Suteko again.

During the ride, Sam asked question after question, trying to make sense of what was happening to him. She explained that the Temporal could on occasion manipulate the flow of time and that is what she had done on the roof. That is what she had done to escape in New Orleans.

He had slowed the second hand on a clock. She had teleported them to a different building.

“As time slows, gravity is stretched.” She pulled her hands out from a cupped ball into a wide, hugging gesture. “And as a result, it is weakened.”

“You mean, you can fly?” Sam tried to mask his seriousness with a soft laugh.

“No. Gravity is affected, not negated. I jumped.”

“While carrying me?”

“Yes. I suspect you will find lifting heavy objects even within time’s standard flow is much easier than it once was.”

Sam attempted to process what had happened. She had picked up a nearly two-hundred pound man, leapt into the night, and landed on the rooftop of a building dozens of feet away. For Sam, it had been a blink of the eye. He was on Marcus’ roof and then he wasn’t.

He remembered Suteko lifting him up off the floor in Japan after that horrible experience with the Nephloc in front of the hospital. She had done so as if he weighed less than a feather. He had thought she was incredibly strong, but she was manipulating gravity in time.

Going beyond their abilities, they spoke of their respective pasts and interests. Sam told Suteko about his childhood, his relationship with his father, and about his surrogate father, Mr. Richards. To reciprocate, she told him stories of moving to foreign lands in the 19th century and how she was looking forward to trying a genuine New Orleans beignet. She had had one at the Cafe Du Monde in the Kyoto train station once and had fallen in love with the pastry.

They left the train terminal and began walking toward the taxi area as curiosity got the better of Sam. “Suteko, do you know how many of the Temporal there are?”

She shook her head. “I’ve, of course, met a number of us, maybe a dozen or so, but as for the exact number, I think only the old man knows.”

“You’ve never asked him?”

“No. I’ve never thought it necessary. The less we all know about each other the better. Of course, I enjoy meeting others—as I did you—but it is safer for us to be spread out.”

“Safer? What do you mean?”

“You do remember the dark creatures that attacked you in Japan, don’t you?”

“How could I forget?”

“Did you ask Marcus about them?”

“He called them the Nephloc.”

“Nephloc.” Her face flashed with recognition.

“You know what they are?”

“I’ve only heard stories. I wasn’t even sure they existed. But yes, I know of them.” She stopped walking as if to organize her thoughts before speaking, “That would explain the complexity of what we are up against. Sam,” she said, turning her full attention to him, “We will find and stop that bomb in New Orleans, but we must keep a sharp eye out for any danger. You must stay close to me.”

He smiled, mirroring his inner delight at hearing her command. She did likewise, took his hand, and began walking again. “The cab area should be just over there.”

Minutes later, Sam and Suteko were in a taxi and zooming toward their destination. Approaching the area, both Suteko and Sam were captivated by the scenery. It wasn’t the beauty of the architecture, but the odd familiarity and closeness they both felt to a place that neither of them had ever been.

Sam was with the woman of his dreams in a place he’d had nightmares about. It was a strange feeling, a mixture of completed joy with a stale, lingering feeling that there was a dangerous puzzle yet to be solved.

They paid the driver in cash and stepped out of the cab toward the building they both knew would soon house a bomb capable of killing dozens if not hundreds of people.

“Come on. Let’s just confirm the bomb is there and then inform the police. The building is just up ahead.”

Sam’s eyes focused on the surroundings. The scenery’s familiarity overtook him. He lost any memory of the fear of being arrested or even being near a potentially lethal bomb. It was like reliving the dream, the nightmare; it was something he had to experience whether or not he wanted to. He mentally replayed the events and began walking toward the building from which he knew at some point, people would drop down dead.

As he walked, his vision suddenly narrowed. Sam stopped and heard Suteko ask him what the matter was. But he was too absorbed in the moment to answer. It was like he was looking down a semi-translucent tube where his focus was only sharp in the center area. His peripheral was blurry and in that blur, the events of the dream were overlaid against the current reality.

He saw people in his vision running across the street. Other people under the blur—those in the present—strolled casually, talking happily while window shopping. The few cars that were on the road in the vision layer were stopped and the drivers were fleeing. Sam turned his head toward the source of the panic and saw an old man fall down dead.

Then, just as suddenly as it had come, his vision went away and he only saw the present reality. A mother was strolling her baby; a store owner was shouting something to a potential customer; a few pigeons were nested on a window ledge on the second floor of some gray building. He focused forward. Suteko was directly in front of him on the tips of her toes trying to get Sam’s attention.

“Yeah,” Sam said. He noticed the terror or at least deep concern in Suteko’s eyes. “Yeah, I’m all right. Come on.”

Sam took her hand and crossed the street. He wanted to get closer to the exact position he was in the dream. He didn’t take the time to explain what he was doing. It was too strong of an impulse to ignore even for a second. Suteko tried to ask questions, but she followed quickly when she saw the determination in Sam’s eyes. After some effort, he found the spot from which he had witnessed the explosion in the dream.

“Sam,” Suteko said, her eyes bulging. “This is where I was standing in my dream. Exactly this position.”

Sam nodded. Both of their perspectives had been from the same vantage point—only two feet apart. Sam looked up at the building in the distance. He took a step forward.

Suteko held her hand out and prevented him from walking farther. “Shh… Listen. Close your eyes. Let’s stop a moment here and listen to the echoes.”

Suteko and Sam spent the next few minutes standing still, listening. People passed by making comments at the odd couple, but their words went unnoticed by the two.

Sam felt a breeze but not from the wind. His body was moving swiftly but his feet were stationary. It seemed there were a multitude of vehicles with sirens approaching and then receding from all directions. He heard the Doppler effect of a beautiful arrangement of frequencies coming and going all around. He was experiencing the vision again, but this time, he was actually where he was supposed to be and could feel it and hear it as well as see it.

Then the motion in the vision all stopped.

Suteko was in front of him pointing to some distant object. It was a puff of smoke. It poured out from a door, from some old building ahead—it was the building they had seen in that old Japanese book.

“Do you see it?”

“Yes, Suteko.”

Immediately, they were back in the present.

“Hurry. It will happen very soon. We need to confirm the bomb is there now and then call the police.”

She took his hand and they began to run toward the building that would—at some point in the near future—spew out deadly smoke.

The old Anderson theater building had been converted into a multi-office complex. It was a Sunday and the offices were closed, but a sign on the building stated the front door was open daily from eight in the morning to ten at night. They entered the public area and, remembering their dreams, they realized the bomb would be detonated from there—the first floor.

No one was around and the two spent the next fifteen minutes searching. There was a large metal desk against a wall that could hide a suitcase bomb, but a quick search revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

The only other possible place for an object larger than a mouse was behind and under a large stairwell. Above, there were three closed doors on the second floor. There were paintings on the walls and two potted plants near the entrance, but no other obvious place. Nothing had changed since Suteko had seen it days earlier. There was no bomb.

They tried the three office doors but the doors were all locked.

“Should we… break in?” asked Sam in an uncertain voice.

“No, I sense the explosion will originate from this open room. Probably under the desk. I remember seeing a flash of fire and then smoke in the dream. We wouldn’t see that from any of the adjoining rooms.”

“Then, what do we do?”

“I don’t know,” she said while pushing the door open to walk outside.

“You aren’t supposed to say that—you are supposed to know everything.”

She turned to look him in the eye. “No, Sam. I know very little. I’m just like you even if I have more experience.”

“What if the Nephloc win? What would happen?”

She smiled in a way that provided little comfort to Sam. “Remember, we were given this gift and this vision to stop these senseless deaths from occurring. And if that isn’t comforting enough, just know that, ultimately, they can’t win the war.”

“Yeah, that’s what RJ—Marcus believes. But can they win the battle?”

“Yes,” Suteko sighed, “they can win the battle.”

She pointed across the street at a cafe. “For now, let’s wait there. I can call a friend of Marcus’ to get any information he may have and you can keep an eye on the target.”

Sam settled into a padded, but still somehow uncomfortable, chair. With his coffee and beignet in hand, He alternated his view from the entrance of the building to Suteko who was outside talking on a cell. Traffic was heavy, people were taking Sunday strolls on the sidewalks. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like how it was in his vision.

Suteko returned shaking her head. “Marcus has nothing. He only wishes us well. All we can do is wait.”

It seemed so normal, so peaceful, as mid-day turned to late afternoon. They spent the next three hours watching from the cafe, walking up and down the block, standing in front of a street-performer with a saxophone, doing what they could to pass the time while keeping an eye on the building.

“Do you have any idea what we are looking for?” Sam asked.

“Actually, you have more experience with Nephloc than I do. Perhaps you can tell me? I was a good distance when I scared those Nephloc away in front of the hospital that night. I only saw black shapes. At the time, I had no clue what they were.”

“Neither did I. Black shapes… That is probably the best way to describe them. They wore dark clothes—heavy clothes even in the heat. Marcus said they are highly sensitive to light. I suppose the clothes are to protect their skin from any light.”

“Did Marcus say anything more about them?”

“Suteko, I was attacked by one of their leaders, a woman.”

“A woman?”

“Bright red hair, she looks to be no older than you appear, but I assume that too is an illusion.”

“Red hair… So you saw her face?”

“I saw her faces.”

Suteko just looked at Sam and waited for him to elaborate.

“She can change her appearance, Suteko. She approached me pretending to be Marcus. When I resisted, she changed into her—what I think is her natural or at least default appearance. Marcus said she was very dangerous, much more so than the regular Nephloc.”

“This just doesn’t happen, Sam. I’ve heard stories, but in those stories the Nephloc are timid creatures who only attack the weak and helpless. They don’t risk discovery unless there is something they really, really want.”

The two waited one more hour sipping coffee and trying to appear as if they were two lovers waiting out the heat of the day.

“Let’s find a hotel,” Suteko said, seeing a heavy sleepy look cover Sam’s face. “I can’t be sure, but the timing in the dream seemed to be mid-day. Plus, the manager will lock the building soon, and we will draw suspicion if we loiter here too long.”

“Yes, but it is strange they would choose mid-day since the Nephloc are creatures of the night.”

“I suspect that they have human allies.”

“In that case, our job of spotting the bomber just became much harder.” Sam crossed his arms and let out a long sigh. “Now anyone who walks into that building is a suspect.”

They waited until the building was locked and then found an old hotel a block away. Suteko pulled the book from her backpack to study while Sam settled into the bed. The number of hours he needed to sleep had greatly diminished, but when he became sleepy, he was intensely sleepy and fell asleep quickly. It was a little after midnight when his eyes would no longer stay open.

Chapter 23

New Orleans

Sam awoke a little before seven in the morning. Suteko was gone, but she had left a note saying she was off buying breakfast and that he should stay there. She showed up shortly thereafter with two large cups of coffee and a bag of donuts, bagels, and waffles.

“I didn’t know what you would want for breakfast, so I brought a few choices.”

“Thanks,” he said, grabbing a bagel and a packet of cream cheese. “Did you check out the location this morning?”

“Yes,” she said, shaking her head. “Nothing’s changed, but we need to go. The building will open at eight—thirty minutes from now. I have heard some strange echoes. I fear it will be today.”

The two seated themselves in the coffee shop to watch for any activity across the street. They had seen only two people turn into the building. Both times, Sam or Suteko had walked outside to investigate and saw that person entering one of the locked rooms. Both individuals had clearly been tenants and not the bomber.

Sam was up ordering his third cup of black coffee for the day when he noticed someone walking across the street carrying a large bag with some department store logo on it. Before the man was even near the old theater, he knew that was the bomber. He just knew it. Sam ran back to Suteko’s table before his coffee was ready. “It’s him.”

“Who? No one has entered…”

“Watch—that man will enter. He is the one.”

“How do you know?” she said as they both began to rush toward the door.

Sam knew it was his gift. He could tell the man had been around and influenced by the Nephloc, similar to how he knew about the Temporal when looking at the old man’s globe. The man was human, but it was clear to Sam that this was their guy. The man, wearing round, antique-style glasses, looked to be in his sixties. He walked slumped over and with his head down, but even at that distance, Sam could discern the evil intent in the man’s mind, the result of having come into contact with the Nephloc.

“He was carrying a large bag that seemed heavy, and I think I’ve seen him in my dreams.” Remembering the old man’s warning, he didn’t tell her that he was able to sense the Nephloc’s presence. “It’s him. Let’s call the police and get out of here.”

But before they could, a voice growled in front of them, blocking the exit. “Where are you going, Samuel Williams?”

They had been too engrossed in discovering the bomber. They had forgotten to watch for Agent Cobbs. He had found them and while it wasn’t in sight, he was gripping his service pistol hidden in his coat pocket. His other hand held up his credentials. They were the only customers, but the barista meekly retreated to a back room.

“You too, lady, whatever your real name is. Hands behind your back and on your knees. And lady, if you disappear, I’ll be sure the law has no pity on your accomplice boyfriend here.” Sam gave Suteko a puzzled look and then quickly obeyed the agent’s commands.

Cobbs approached them cautiously. Sam could see two plainclothes officers waiting outside flashing their credentials at passersby and warning them to stay clear.

“You are making a mistake. There’s a bomb. We just saw the man entering the building across the street to plant the bomb.”

“Sure there is. I suppose you brought the bomb from your checked luggage?”

Sam realized Agent Cobbs would never believe them.

“No,” Sam said with a voice trying to imagine how a terrorist might sound. “We… we are part of a terrorist cell. We were ordered here to set the bombs. Others brought the explosives. We haven’t any time! You must stop it.”

Suteko looked at Sam and nodded her approval.

“If you set the bombs, why do you want to stop them?” Cobb’s grin that had oozed superiority quickly switched to a grimace.

Seeing Sam’s blank stare, Suteko spoke up. “The end plan was for us to escape. We are not doing that right now. I don’t want to die when the bomb goes off.”

“All right you son-of-a-bitch, if you are lying—so help me God.” He leaned down, grabbed Sam’s arms, and cuffed them behind his back. “Lead me to your bomb.”

Sam nodded but looked at Suteko.

“I just want you to know one thing. I’m right behind you and I’m not afraid to use my pistol,” Agent Cobbs said and nudged him toward the door. “You,” he said, pointing at Suteko, “stay here with these two gentlemen. And remember if you disappear, I have your friend and these two officers aren’t fast enough to stop me from hurting him.” The two policemen entered and after flipping the open sign on the door to read “closed,” one of them motioned for Suteko to sit.

Heading to the door, Sam tried to relax enough to hear the voices. He had become fairly proficient at it, but in the present extreme situation, he was failing completely. He had to guess: the desk or the stairwell—or was it there at all? Was the man he saw really the terrorist? He had been so sure, but now nothing seemed certain. Just before stepping out, he turned back and asked, “The bomb, Suteko—where is it?”

“It is under the stairwell. Sam, you were right. It is the bomber,” Suteko said, listening to the echoes. “Be careful. He is armed.”

Sam nodded as he turned to face a bomb in front of him; behind him was a federal officer with a gun. Sam took a deep breath and then led Cobbs to the crosswalk.

“Mr. Williams, you will go first and tell your goon to lower his weapon. Remember I have a weapon at your head and despite all this friendly chit-chat, I’m not in a good mood.”

“The gunman doesn’t know me. He will shoot me if I go in first.”

“You’re a smart kid. You’ll think of something.” He nudged Sam forward. “Cross the street.”

McGregor had been too busy setting up the device to notice the commotion across the street. He screamed as Sam was pushed through the door followed by an agent with a gun. McGregor grabbed the SIG P226 the woman had given him and let off three shots with a shaky hand before the two intruders could take shelter behind the desk.

McGregor had a secret gun fetish. He had always dreamed of holding a smoking gun, imagining the smell and the pose to be something heroic. Happiness is a warm gun.

Thankfully for Sam, dreaming was all the experience he’d had. The three bullets lodged deep into the door frame.

Through the metal legs of the desk, Sam could see two canisters near a tiny mechanical device. The whole thing, canisters and all, could be held in two hands. On its side was an LED clock indicating the bomb was to go off in thirty-six hours.

Suddenly the 36:00:00 changed to 00:00:60 and a countdown began. McGregor had activated the panic button.

Grabbing a vase on the nearby table, Cobbs let it fly across the room, shattering against the ceramic tile. McGregor instantly turned in the direction of the crash and let off another shot. He was about to pull the trigger another time when Cobbs fired three rapid rounds. McGregor crumpled to the floor.

But the countdown continued. Forty-four seconds…

Cobbs grabbed Sam and shoved him toward the bomb. Sam toppled over without the full use of his hands which were still cuffed behind his back. His face met the hard dirty tile floor.

Thirty-eight seconds…

“Disarm it—now!”

“I can’t. I swear. This isn’t my bomb. We came here to stop the bomber! I can’t,” Sam shouted, struggling to lift himself off the floor with his arms bound by handcuffs.

The terrorist had done a job. He had been in the process of bolting the device down. Although he only had one bolt in place, removing the bolt and finding a place for a safe explosion wasn’t an option. The bomb wasn’t about to move and Cobbs was no bomb guy.

Twenty-five seconds…

“Move it!” Cobbs said as one hand grabbed Sam’s arm and yanked him to his feet.

Sam and Cobbs ran out the door and back into the street yelling for people to evacuate.

Sixteen seconds…

Screams. It’s a bomb! A mother was frantically searching for her child.

Sam’s shoulders bobbled back and forth with his hands still restrained behind. Suteko had followed the police officers out upon hearing the commotion. Sam ran to her shaking his head. “The bomb… it is going to go off.”

Just as he finished speaking—as if on cue—a bright light sparked out of the old theater. It seemed incredibly bright, but only for a moment. The flame withdrew as quickly as it appeared.

Sighs of relief echoed throughout the vicinity. The bomb had malfunctioned, and other than the bomber, there had been no casualties. The dozen or so pedestrians nearby exchanged their panicked looks for smiles and then congratulated each other. They had escaped what seemed only seconds before to be certain death.

Sam smiled at Suteko who immediately held up her hand in a way that made his heart stop.

Sam watched in helpless horror as an elderly man in a wheelchair who happened to be nearest to the old theater curled up and fell off his chair. Next was a woman; she fell dead almost as quickly.

Sam watched, completely unable to do anything as the domino of bodies began to topple toward them.

Chapter 24

Suteko grabbed Sam’s shoulders and met his eyes. Her face stole his attention away from all distractions, from all the death around them. In a moment, if one could call it that, they were the only sentient beings. Sam heard a slight ringing in his ears—the tinnitus he’d had since childhood. He was otherwise surrounded by complete silence. The oddity of the silence struck him to his core. No street noises, no wind, no screams—just complete silence.

Turning his head toward the source of the explosion, Sam saw in the distance one man in the process of falling over. The man appeared to be stuck, unable to move. He was, however, stuck in thin air; it was as if somewhere between beginning to fall and completing the fall, time had stopped. Likewise, there was a bird stuck in midflight and a boy with both feet off the ground running from the explosion.

The air immediately around him, however, wasn’t still, not completely. Tiny beads of water, warbled everywhere around him. Occasionally, a turn of his head would splash a prism of color into his eyes. The word surreal came to mind. That, and beauty.

Suteko touched Sam’s shoulder and pointed ahead. Agent Cobbs was a statue, his frozen lips in the process of hurling silent curses toward Sam and Suteko.

Suteko moved to Cobbs and searched his pockets. Finding his keys, she removed the handcuffs from Sam. She walked in front of him and gently massaged his irritated wrists.

“Sam,” she said in a soft voice that seemed extraordinarily loud within the context of the complete silence. “We need to leave.”

“Leave? What’s going on? Why isn’t everyone moving?”

“If you concentrate hard enough, you can sometimes experience a stronger encounter with eternity.”

“You mean you can stop time?” Sam asked in childish wonderment. The world seemed so strange with no breeze, no human chatter, no birds singing—only that constant ringing in his ear told him that he was still alive.

“No. Time continues within its proper context. We are merely visitors outside of time.”

It made no sense to him, but at this point, Suteko could say, “up is down” and he would at least consider it possible. She had modified time once before on Marcus’ rooftop. But this time, he was a witness and participant to the actual experience.

“Sam, we need to move. We were granted a stay, but time will pull us back like gravity. Help me carry Agent Cobbs. We must take him to safety.”

Sam followed Suteko’s finger and positioned himself in front of the agent. Suteko gently nudged the agent forward. Cobb’s stiff body fell into Sam’s arms. Suteko, in a surprisingly quick motion, lifted Cobb’s legs. Sam caught the man’s weight, gripping his hands around the armpits. He was amazed how light the muscular and fully-grown man seemed. It was like carrying a plastic mannequin filled with air.

“Quick. Away from the explosion area.”

“Why not take a car?”

“Things still caught up in common time can’t move.”

“We are moving Agent Cobbs, aren’t we?”

“We are carrying Agent Cobbs. Now go, quickly!”

Sam shifted his arms so he could face the direction he was moving. Agent Cobbs seemed to float in the air for half a moment as Sam repositioned his grip. Once again, he marveled how light the man seemed. Had he become as strong as Suteko? Perhaps weight and gravity really were subject to time.

“Why are we helping the guy who is hunting us down?”

“Did you not hear the echoes just then? Agent Cobbs will help us stop the bombs.”

“The bombs? You mean, ‘the bomb’ and it has already gone off.”

“There are more.”

“More? When were you going to tell me about this?”

“If you had your ears open, you would have just heard the future Agent Cobbs tell us that.” Suteko composed herself, removing some of the edge from her voice. “This is the beginning, not the end.” She seemed to hurry her words as she hurried her feet. “There are more, Sam. There are more.”

PART II

Kaileen

Chapter 25

New Orleans

Through the smoke—patches of which still hung thick in the air—a woman with long, curly blood-red hair strolled down the sidewalk as if she owned the city. On her feet were the finest pair of Prada high heels, blue suede and purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue with a credit card owned by a man who was now, sadly, deceased. Her oversized sunglasses and wrinkle-less face gave the false impression of a woman in her twenties; she had, however, the mien of a mature lady who knew what she wanted and was on the march to get it.

The clack-clack of her heels reverberated off the glass storefronts. There were also sounds of coughing in the distance. She stepped over and around two bodies lying on the sidewalk. Only two? She had expected more. There were no cars around; the area had been more or less vacated. She heard sirens in the distance, but that would not be a threat; they would be long gone before the police arrived.

She entered the building. Through the thick smoke—it was most potent there—she saw the outlines of McGregor, face down on the floor lying in a pool of his own blood.

“Pitiful,” she said as she entered. Stepping across the room, she was careful to avoid planting her six-inch stiletto heels into the uneven valley of grout between the tiles. Reaching McGregor, she knelt down and turned him over. His cheeks were dirty and smudged by blood; his eyes were shut, but she could hear the shallow breaths of a dying man.

There were two blotches of red seeping through torn cloth indicating he had suffered two bullet wounds, one in his arm and one in his left shoulder. She unbuttoned his shirt, exposing the wounds.

With her right hand, she reached for the knife strapped to her leg. A quick, shallow slice of the ulnar artery just below her left wrist began a blood flow that was quickly dammed by her supernatural healing abilities.

With her right index finger as the brush, she used the palette of her left wrist to apply the red pigment to the bullet holes. Rubbing one of the entry points with the tip of her forefinger, her blood reacted with his to induce a sizzling sound and a mild smoky smell. After a few circular motions, she lifted her finger and moved to the next wound.

The two bullet holes vanished, leaving only a trace of drying blood and grime from the floor. She finished by buttoning his shirt and adjusting his collar.

With a swift motion, she scooped him up. His body seemed weightless as she flew across the room and out the door, twisting her torso to maneuver the body out head first.

Once away from the smoke and death, she stopped at a bench and leaned over. She gently set him down so, other than a slumped head, he appeared to be sitting upright and waiting for a bus. A shallow breath was accompanied by a weak guttural groan.

Hands flew to his cheeks and her mouth was an instant later attached to his. She began to breathe into the near corpse causing the chest to rise like an inflated balloon. He responded with a meager cough followed by a deep draw of breath. McGregor had a look of utter confusion, but he was alive.

“Who…” A raspy cough prevented him from finishing the question.

“Quiet. You have much work yet to do. But we are pleased with your service so far.” Her voice was raspy, like an over-smoked torch singer just past her prime.

McGregor remembered the events leading to what should have been his death.

“But—there were guns—I was shot!” He felt his arm and his shoulder but he experienced no pain, not even the slightest discomfort. He felt better than he did during his college days, the last time he exercised regularly.

“My colleague told you we would help you. You fulfilled your part and so have we.”

The men—back at the apartment.

“Show me your eyes!” McGregor’s voice was pure thirst, like that of a thirsty man stumbling toward an oasis.

She smiled as her right hand grasped the frame of her sunglasses, peeling them off.

McGregor was at a loss. Her eyes were beautiful, like the glittering sands of a pristine beach at twilight. Then came the stars. He gazed deeper, farther. The man at his apartment also had stars, but these were more primal, more satisfying. McGregor couldn’t pull away even if he had wanted to—he was witnessing the birth of an angel.

In the middle of a constellation, there was a woman. She was floating in space without any visible footing. McGregor couldn’t understand what was holding her up. He couldn’t see her feet and there was nothing but black beneath her. Her long, flowing white dress resembled a nineteenth century tea dress with its transparent yoke of chiffon over beautiful layers of silks and satins underneath. The rippling dress covered the area that should have been her feet.

The angel leaned forward, arcing her head to reveal her eyes which were passionately locked on his. She appeared to be in motion, moving toward him. His heart fluttered in embarrassment and anticipation.

Then she changed.

Her face turned red. White light shot out of her eyes and into his, blinding all that he could see except what was in his extreme periphery.

With his vision impaired, he couldn’t be sure, but he felt that she was raising her arms and that her hands each held something. The arms were moving in small circular motions that increased in swiftness as the vision progressed. He could only hear a constant whoosh and see a blur of motion in the corners of his vision.

Fear had overtaken the gnawing anticipation and desire, but he still could not break his gaze or move his feet. The angel stopped broadcasting the light and McGregor could now clearly see that she was holding two very sharp long-bladed daggers. She had also moved much closer to McGregor; her face was bloodied. Upon closer inspection, that single face somehow was an amalgamation of the faces of the girls—the bloody faces of the two girls he had murdered.

“No! Help me.”

“You didn’t help us,” said the woman in a voice resembling a duet.

“I… I wanted to help you, Becky, Michelle!”

“Now it is our turn to help you.”

The angel crossed her arms in a pose resembling that of a mummified pharaoh before lashing out, blades forward, in the direction of McGregor’s neck.

McGregor found himself flat on the ground, looking up at the red headed woman who had returned her glasses to her face. His hands were on his neck, but it was not moist with blood or cut by the blades he had seen.

“Would you like to see more?”

“No—No, ma’am.”

“Get up. We have work to do.”

Chapter 26

After carrying Agent Cobbs through several blocks of the streets of New Orleans, Suteko said that they had gone far enough. They carefully set him down against a wall, his body conforming to the angle of the brickwork.

Sam was amazed that his muscles were not sore nor were his legs tired from carrying a full grown man for so long.

“Stay here. I won’t be long.”

With that, she ran away faster than he had ever seen her move, faster than he had ever seen anyone move. She turned the corner with a blur in the direction of the old theater. She returned after what seemed to be ten minutes—although Sam knew there was no proper way to measure time, with its flow having been stopped.

“Sorry, I had to move as many of the others away from whatever was released by the explosion.”

Suteko grabbed Sam’s hands as she had done before. In an instant, Cobbs animated with a startle, birds chirped, and a breeze already mid-blow splashed against their faces.

“What the…?! What did you do to me?”

Cobbs was surprised, confused, terrified even. One moment he was looking down at Sam with the coffee shop behind him. The next moment, he was looking up at Sam with trees and a swing-set behind him. He had been standing; now, he was sitting against a wall. He searched Sam’s eyes for answers, but Sam had only a slightly less puzzled look on his face.

Suteko quickly leaned over, touching Cobb’s shoulders. “Please do not be afraid. You are safe.”

“Where am I?” Cobbs brushed away Suteko’s soothing touch and began groping up the brick wall behind him, trying to stand.

“The bomb went off. We took you to safety.”

“Did I pass out?”

“No.”

Sam looked at Cobbs’ utterly confused face and wondered how Suteko would explain the inexplicable.

“No, I realize this will be hard to grasp, but…”

“You stopped time, didn’t you?” Cobbs said, surprising the two fugitives.

Now it was Suteko’s turn to look puzzled. “Yes, sort of.”

Cobbs was standing now. A confused look still remained, but the fear had vanished.

Cobbs stepped back. Letting his hand fall to his belt, he pulled his pistol from its holster.

“I don’t know what your intentions are, but you are both under arrest.”

“Yes, I understand. I broke your laws, but our purpose for coming was to stop this bomb, to save lives.”

Cobbs held the gun at a forty-five degree angle between Sam and Suteko. Sam backed up a step, but Suteko stood motionless.

“Looks like you failed spectacularly,” Cobbs said, keeping the gun up.

“There are other bombs.”

“Other? Why didn’t you report this to the authorities?”

“I only just learned about the multiple bombs,” Suteko said in a calm voice—too calm for Sam’s raging nerves; being held at gunpoint didn’t seem to faze Suteko. “We had hoped we could stop this one before anyone needed to know. Besides, what would we tell them? We had a dream about a bomb?”

“Is that how you knew about this bomb and that there are others?”

“Sam and I both had the same dream. A little research led us here. But the fact that there are other bombs, I learned from you—a you from some time in the future.”

The reference to a future Agent Cobbs didn’t throw off the present Agent Cobbs.

“That man back there. Who was he?”

“We don’t know. We had no idea what to expect.”

“There could be more bombs,” Cobbs said lowering his pistol somewhat, but not completely. “I noticed the countdown was originally set for thirty-six hours before he must have pressed a panic button.”

“A coordinated and simultaneous attack would certainly cause wide-spread panic.”

“Look,” Cobbs said while re-holstering his weapon. “I don’t know what is going on, but you had opportunity to escape or to do me harm and you didn’t. You could have removed my weapon and you didn’t. As crazy as it sounds, I believe what you say is true and that you wanted to prevent the bomb from going off. I don’t understand it, but the video feed from the airport shattered my understanding of reality. Help me stop the other bombs, and I will do my best to make the customs incident go away.”

A cell phone that Sam didn’t know existed began to buzz from within Suteko’s pocket.

“Yes.”

She nodded and then pressed “end” not five seconds after answering.

“I have an email waiting for me. The old man has found something out.”

“The old man?” asked Cobbs.

“A friend of ours. You undoubtedly met him in New York.”

“Oh, the crazy old man—finally something that makes sense. Yes, we had a chat.”

Suteko smiled and pulled up the email app on her phone. She then moved to create a huddle where the three could read it together.

His name is Todd McGregor. A professor at Coastway Community College (SF, CA).

Some other cities are: Boston, NYC, New Orleans, and DC. Prob only one per. There may be other cities…

This information came costly. Have Cobbs make good use of it.

“Me?” said Cobbs. “How did your friend know my name?”

“The same way we knew about the bombs.”

Cobbs crossed his arms. “He must have been the guy who tipped me off about your location. He said you were his friends and he wanted me to help you. Of course that was the farthest from my mind until now.”

Sam looked at Suteko. “Remind me to thank Marcus for almost getting us killed.”

Suteko pointed to her phone. “This must be a list of targeted cities.”

Sam shook his head free of thoughts of the old man and asked Cobbs, “Can you have the security heightened in those cities?”

“Based on what? An email? What are the targets? Should people walking into a supermarket be frisked? We need more specific information before we start a panic.”

“Then, we work with the name,” Suteko said. “We need to find out about this McGregor. We have less than thirty-six hours. I suggest we visit California.”

“Shouldn’t we examine the bomb site before leaving?” Sam asked.

“Leave that to the Hazmat crew,” Cobbs said. “There is no guarantee it will be safe for hours—maybe days. That’s time we simply don’t have. I can pull the strings necessary to be kept in the loop.”

Suteko nodded. “Let’s go.”

An hour later, the three were waiting in a line with tickets in their hands. A few hours after that, they landed at the San Francisco International Airport.

Cobbs thought it best to simply tell his superiors that a recent transaction on Sam’s card meant they were heading to California and that he would follow them. Until he understood enough to be able to say something without sounding crazy, he decided this was the best course of action. Besides, getting permission often got in the way of doing what had to be done.

“The site in New Orleans is clean now,” Cobbs said after ending a phone call. “Whatever the bomb sent out—they are still working on what it was—it dissipated quickly. The death toll is exactly two. I would have expected much more—at least a dozen people were fairly close to the explosion.” He looked at Suteko. “Let me guess… You had something to do with that? My contact reported a few people who claimed to have been near the building and yet were a block away an instant after the explosion. And that sounds mighty familiar to me.”

She smiled in response and Cobbs continued thumbing his phone, checking email. His screen lit up with detailed data from the scene.

“And now let me guess,” said Sam, “one of the two deaths was Todd McGregor.” He only wished McGregor’s end had occurred a few hours earlier.

“That’s what is puzzling. I shot him twice at least, and he was inches away from the bomb. If he survived the bullets and the explosion, the chemical, whatever it was, it released would have been most potent at his location. And yet his name isn’t on the list of recovered dead. And even if your old man got his name wrong, the two victims don’t match the bomber’s age or sex. Most peculiar, there weren’t any bodies in the building where the bomb went off,” Agent Cobbs said with severely crumpled eyebrows.

“He wasn’t wearing a gas mask. Could… his body have been scorched into nothing?” Sam asked, hoping for some logical explanation.

“There was an explosion—we all saw the flash, but the report states there was only limited damage to the building. The explosion couldn’t have been very big. I would expect a singed or even crisp body, but according to my contacts, there wasn’t even a body. Still, the list may not be complete.” He turned toward Suteko. “Was he… one of yours?”

“One of mine?”

“Yeah, you know. Super powers, stop time, that sort of thing.”

“No. He couldn’t have been. But I think you overestimate what we can do. I have only been able to step outside time so completely as I did twice in my life. It is a rare gift that cannot and should not be taken lightly.”

“We have just over thirty hours before doomsday. Let’s get to Professor McGregor’s college and talk to his buddies. My contact will call back in a few with the perp’s home address.”

“Are you with law enforcement too?” The man’s high, girlish voice seemed oddly mismatched with his large body. Dr. Philip O’Conner was the Coastway Community College president.

Cobbs looked at Sam and Suteko before answering, “No, I’m with Immigration Services, but was Professor McGregor wanted by local law enforcement?”

“Not local. The feds. They wouldn’t tell me what exactly it was about, but they looked serious. Professor McGregor has been gone for two days. No word from him, no canceling his classes. He just vanished.”

“What did he teach?”

“Well, we had him across the board—remedial English, English Lit, Social Studies, things like that, but his main interest was Arabic studies. He was well sought out, I hear, for his expertise on Islam and the Arabic language.”

“And yet he taught remedial English at a small community college—no offense,” said Cobbs.

Cobbs’ phone vibrated in his pocket indicating a new message. Glancing at the screen, he suddenly put the phone away and said, “Thank you for your time.” Holding up the card Dr. O’Conner had given him, he added, “If we have further questions, can I reach you at this number?”

The principal nodded as Cobbs motioned for Suteko and Sam to follow. They did so with some reluctance.

Once out of earshot of the school president, Sam asked, “Why didn’t we ask more questions about McGregor? Shouldn’t we at least get his home address from Dr. O’Conner?”

“No need. I have that now,” he said holding up his smart phone. “But we wouldn’t have been able to find anything without a warrant—unless you use your super powers to enter without me watching or knowing—but now we may be able to legally search.”

Before Sam could ask another question, Cobbs had his phone to his ear. They only heard his side of the conversation, but it was clear he was trying to get a contact of his to get them access to McGregor’s investigation files and a warrant to enter his home.

“There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. I suspect we will learn a lot more and learn it faster by reviewing his investigation files. Then we can bother Dr. O’Conner with any follow-up questions. Besides, my contact is usually fast and well connected. We need to start heading over to McGregor’s apartment.” Cobbs was now picking up his pace as he led them to the school parking lot and to their rental, a beat-up Honda Civic.

Sam opened his mouth to ask something when he was interrupted by Cobbs’ phone.

“Yes. Uh-huh. Good.” The call lasted only a few seconds but Cobbs’ blue eyes were sparkling. “Let’s go.”

Chapter 27

New Orleans

McGregor followed the mysterious red-headed woman a few blocks and then turned a corner where a black limousine was idling. With unsmiling lips, she told him to get in. He was prepared to do anything she said as long as she kept her sunglasses on. And yet, inchoate sparks of desire burned inside him. Fear had kept the lust at bay, but he knew he would want the fire in her eyes again no matter the consequences. He knew it would be soon.

She sat next to him in the back; through the thick crimson curls, he could only see the profile of her nose and the dark rim of her sunglasses. She lifted her head slightly, revealing rich, succulent lips. McGregor tingled with hunger and desire.

She pressed a button and the darkened window between them and the nearly motionless driver whirled down obediently.

“Go.”

The partition window returned to its closed position and the car inched forward. McGregor could not see the driver or the road ahead. The windows to his left and right were dark enough to make the bright morning seem to be early evening or perhaps mid-morning with a thunderstorm rolling in.

McGregor watched as block-shaped people walked and shopped as if nothing had occurred. It made him think how easily distracted uninformed humans can be. Even if they knew of the disaster that just befell some of their fellow human beings, how many hours or days would it be before they began shopping and gossiping again?

Then the scenery changed.

The people faded into the gray buildings and the structures lost the little color they had. The car seemed to be picking up speed. This dull wash was then replaced by magnificent colors flashing before his eyes. Reds, yellows, and greens. Through the windows to his right, left, and behind—his head jerked in various directions—McGregor saw what appeared to be beautifully colored leaves falling from a grand oak on a brisk autumn evening.

And then mere seconds after it had begun, it all stopped. The colorful whirlwind and any sense of motion from within or without the car stilled.

“Take this list to the editor.” She held out a 9×12 envelope. “Tell her you have knowledge of when and where the next bombs will go off.”

McGregor looked at the woman as if she was speaking ancient Phoenician.

“Leave your name for your alibi, but state emphatically that you want no credit. You only want the truth to get out.”

“But…”

“You are a helpful citizen, doing the work the police won’t. The press will love you. Tell them you had tried to warn the police, that you had called 911 to warn them. But they didn’t listen.”

“But I haven’t…”

“Yes, you have. Just do as I command.” She touched the brim of her glasses causing McGregor to nod fiercely in obedience while grabbing the envelope. “Good. You will explain that you came across this information online, that a Middle-eastern friend of yours had passed the knowledge on to you. You had not believed your friend until you saw on the news that a bomb had gone off in New Orleans. It was a day earlier than your friend had said, but clearly the information was more than a coincidence.”

“But, wouldn’t she be suspicious since I’m already in New Orleans?”

She smiled and said, “Look out the window and tell me what you see.”

McGregor was startled to see the window automatically roll down even while the woman’s hands remained in her lap. The building directly out his window was huge, but his eyes fell upon the writing above the doors. The gold lettering read: “Los Angeles Times 145 South Spring Street.”

“H—how?”

“Go. Tell them you have information regarding the terrorist attack in New Orleans. Warn them of the list. Tell them you expect other cities will experience the same within thirty-six hours. Tell them the information is on condition of anonymity but that you felt compelled to do what is right.”

McGregor nodded.

“Remember,” she said, lowering her sunglasses enough to allow him to see the reflection of stars shimmering off the dark glass. Her voice echoed in his head, filling him with confidence and purpose. “You are Professor McGregor. The world needs you. You are a concerned citizen. You alone can warn them. You alone can stop these bombs from going off. Go!”

The woman’s glasses once again slid up the bridge of her nose and covered her eyes. As the stars disappeared, McGregor found himself stumbling backward, falling onto the street curb. The car was gone a moment later.

Instead of a feeling of embarrassment, McGregor stood up, brushed off his pant legs and while gripping the envelope tightly, he smiled. He knew what to do; he was a new man. He was Todd McGregor, the savior of mankind.

Chapter 28

San Francisco

Cobbs flipped the switch and verbalized the first thought that came into his head. “This place is a dump.”

Even with all the lights on and the curtains pulled back, McGregor’s apartment was a mess, a dark man-made cave, dank with obscene odors. Empty beer and soda cans were scattered throughout the rooms; a single trashcan sat virtually unused in the corner. When they had turned on the lights they heard various scurrying sounds that sounded too large to be cockroaches.

Sam was speechless. Even now as a bachelor, he couldn’t imagine living in such squalor.

Cobbs had intended to knock on the neighbor’s door after going through his apartment, but before they had even topped the stairs, Mrs. Felds was outside ostentatiously watering her plants.

A conversation had ensued. They learned McGregor almost never had visitors which, she had said, “made the men the other day so peculiar.”

Cobbs noticed Sam and Suteko take particular interest as Mrs. Felds’ described the men. They had clothing covering nearly every part of their body—gloves, overcoats, and excessively wide-brimmed hats—and they had seemed to intentionally hide their faces from her. Then there was the “peculiar and hideous smell one of them had. Like cheap cologne with a touch of skunk.”

Other than a remarkably comprehensive knowledge of McGregor’s rare visitors, Mrs. Felds didn’t really know much about him. He normally was home by six except for the weekends where he would often come home after midnight drunk. According to Mrs. Felds’ detailed notebook, which she conveniently kept in her blouse’s pocket, he had done so every weekend for the past six months.

“What I don’t get,” said Cobbs as they closed McGregor’s door behind them, “is the report my buddy sent me didn’t mention anything about his supposed Islamic expertise. You would think that would be most relevant to the case.”

Examining a dust-clotted air filter that McGregor had changed, but failed to discard, Sam said, “Maybe his expertise was under the radar. His teaching schedule certainly had nothing to do with Islam.”

Cobbs shrugged his shoulders and continued to search the apartment. Sam followed, looking for anything that might tell them more about who the terrorist was. They had made it to the far room—the bedroom—before they realized Suteko had not followed them. They rushed back to the front room, the kitchen area. She was standing there with her arms slightly outstretched and her eyes closed.

“Suteko…”

“Shh… Listen, Sam. Listen.”

Sam mimicked her stance and closed his eyes. After a few moments to calm his mind, he saw something. From the black behind his eyelids, he watched a dark gray shape float by. It was like the blurring of light behind a thick curtain. The block shape was in motion, perhaps walking. As he further relaxed his eyes, ears, and mind, the shape sharpened, taking on more definition.

Then another dark gray shape appeared. He could see now. The gray shapes were people. The hats, the sunglasses, the gloves—these were McGregor’s visitors, the Nephloc. He had a hard time focusing, but the area that should contain the mouth on one of them was moving. Like an old film with the audio and video not quite in sync, his eyes saw movement before his ears registered any sound.

But the sound came.

First, it was all muffled, incoherent blasts of reverberation. With some concentration, the echoes began to almost sound like language.

Then he heard it.

“President…”

Sam heard the word distinctly. The words following, however, reverted to mumblings.

President? An attempt on the president’s life?

Sam redoubled his efforts; his mind focused and he began building a barrier between his mind and his five external senses, trying to give priority to his inner intuition. He would not allow any noise, touch, smell, taste, or sight to break his concentration.

“Beyond your imagination…”

His mind was racing with excitement and terror. He had learned to control the echoes as one would tune into a faraway radio station—tweaking the knob this way or that to bring the reception into greater clarity. Without utmost attentiveness, the sounds would quickly devolve into meaningless mumblings.

“True believer…”

Yes! The man who was speaking lifted a stump of gray that Sam quickly understood to be the man’s right arm. The hand reached to his eyes and removed something. What was it? What else could it be? Glasses. The gray disappeared and was replaced by a pure black, a black unlike any Sam had seen before. No, the intensity reminded him of something—it was like the terrible sound of trumpets he had heard during the earthquake. The colors had been equally intense, although visual instead of audible. In the distance, stars began to poke through the sheer black. Beautiful stars. A multitude of stars. Voices sounded again.

It was then that Sam heard it:

“President McGregor…”

Sam’s eyes jacked opened. Gone were the stars, the curtain, and the gray men. Gone were the voices. He had lost it all upon the shock of those last words.

He was panting shallow but rapid breaths. He felt beads of sweat roll down his cheeks—or were those tears? He had no idea how or when, but Cobbs and Suteko were at his side supporting him, each holding an arm and staring at him with looks of shock and concern. His legs felt unstable.

“Are you okay?”

Sam nodded without fully comprehending the question. They maneuvered him to the only chair in the kitchen area.

“What did you see?” asked Suteko.

“I saw the two men.”

“Mrs. Felds’ visitors?” asked Cobbs.

“Yes. Hat. Gloves. Gray everything. Everything was gray—except the eyes. Dark, dark pitch-black eyes. And then stars.”

“You saw stars?” Suteko rushed in front of Sam and looked into his eyes as if she were a doctor observing how his pupils would react to light.

“Yes. Only for a moment. Before that, I heard a few scattered words, but after the stars, I heard one of them say, ‘President McGregor.’ Then everything went away. I’m afraid I… I lost all concentration from the shock of those words.”

Suteko straightened and looked at Cobbs.

“We must contact the old man.”

“Suteko,” Sam said, feeling almost as if he could stand by himself. “What does this all mean? Is that what you saw?”

“No.” She looked him directly in the face with a look of horror mixed with excitement. “No, Sam. I did not see that. I didn’t see or hear anything other than shadows and whispers. I now know why they wanted you and why I was sent to find and protect you. None, from among the Temporal, have ever been able to do this.” She moved in front of him and, grabbing both of his arms, she said, “Sam, you alone can hear echoes of the Nephloc.”

Chapter 29

“Mr. McGregor, I’m Agent Hearn and this is Agent Gally. Please have a seat.”

McGregor sat down and took a sip from the still hot coffee the secretary had brought him earlier. He was wearing sweatpants and an old T-shirt. His hair looked like it had never met a comb; by the stubble on his chin, it seemed he was still improving on the five o’clock shadow from the previous day.

“I’m very sorry for my appearance,” McGregor said by way of introduction. “But I think you will understand why I didn’t waste any time changing my clothes when you hear what I have to say.” A theatrically nervous hand finger-combed his hair into place.

“Our associate downstairs said you have some information regarding the bombing in New Orleans. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir, but I think there are other bombs and that the one in New Orleans went off prematurely.” McGregor took a sip of his coffee to hide the smile. The two agents were looking at each other with obvious interest.

McGregor thought he must have had the greatest alibi in history.

He had set off the bomb mere hours before and here he was thousands of miles away framing some terrorist patsy to the FBI.

“You see, I teach history and social studies at a college just outside of San Francisco, but my main interest and specialty lie in Middle Eastern studies. I have been doing some research for a book on modern al-Qaeda splinter groups. I am most interested in Shi’ite Muslim extremists who have adapted the Sunni al-Qaeda playbook.”

He took another sip from his coffee, thoroughly enjoying playing these agents who desperately wanted him to get to the meat. He’d, of course, had no experience or knowledge regarding Islam prior to meeting the woman. She had filled him with innate knowledge unlearned and yet it had been indelibly seared into his memory as if he had spent years in serious study.

“Yes, go on, Mr. McGregor.”

“Oh, yes. This morning—two hours ago, in fact—I was on Skype to interview Fakhr al Din, an extremist whose militant group is called, ‘Warriors of the Sword.’ He is from the Bushehr Province in Southern Iran. He is very important within the Shi’ite world and… Well, I think it best to just show you.”

McGregor lifted his backpack to his lap and pulled out a small USB thumb drive.

“I always record my Skype interviews. A matter of habit to aid my research.”

Upon hearing that, one of the agents quickly left the room and returned with a 13-inch MacBook Air. Seconds after plugging the thumb drive into one of the USB ports, a video of a Skype session began playing.

“Please remember,” McGregor said while the video showed Skype connecting, “I had to act like I was one of them.” He coughed. “For research, you know.”

The two agents nodded and turned their attention to the small laptop screen.

Salaam, Mr. McGregor. Tomorrow will be remembered as the day the Great Satan began its inevitable downfall.” The voice coming from the laptop speakers was heavily accented, but in English.

As-Salamu Alayka.” This was McGregor’s voice. The video only showed the terrorist, but the recorded audio was of both ends. “May it be as you say. But should I be concerned? Am I in any danger?”

“No, my friend. Out of respect for you, your city will be spared… for now.”

“What will happen?”

“You know I cannot say. But the Strangler assures me that—Allah willing—many Americans will die.” The voice paused momentarily to let the words sink in. “After tomorrow, no one will remember Osama bin Ladin. The name Fakhr al Din will be on everyone’s lips. Of the righteous, there will be blessings. The cursed will curse as only they know how.”

“I hope you will reserve an exclusive interview with me once your fame has been established.”

“Nothing would give me more pleasure. However, you will have a heavy responsibility. Many Americans are waking from their demon’s spell. Many will be responsive to our message. But you—you, Mr. McGregor—will have to interpret my words so those fools will understand. Soon, America will be a curiosity of history and the ways of Allah will reign supreme!”

“May it be according to your words.”

“Tomorrow, I shall give you your first official interview. Peace be upon you.”

The video ended abruptly. Had McGregor continued to record, the agents would have seen a most unusual sight. The face of a battle-worn terrorist would have morphed into that of beautiful woman, a stringy gray beard into long red curls. Just the thought of her excited him. She was deadly and powerful, but something about her stirred him to his core. As horrific as her eyes were, he wanted them; he wanted her.

“Mr. McGregor.”

“What?” McGregor snapped forward.

“I am sure you realize how important this information is. Right after the explosion in New Orleans, someone leaked a list of cities and claimed there is at least one bomb in each of those cities. The news agency in question was not willing to hold the story even to save lives, but I didn’t think it had been released yet. Were you aware of this?”

“I’m sorry, but I wasn’t. Once I finished the Skype session, I began thinking of whom I should share this with, but after I heard about the New Orleans bomb, I gathered my things and headed right here.”

“You said you believed there were multiple bombs and that this bomb went off prematurely. How did you know that if you didn’t see the news article?”

“Yes, I was guessing on the multiple bombs because Fakhr al Din never exaggerates and by his words, it sounded big. I surmised that the bomb went off prematurely, because he said it wouldn’t happen until tomorrow.”

“He mentioned, ‘the Strangler,’ who is that?” asked one of the agents.

“I believe the Strangler is an operative somewhere in the D.C. area. I have been keeping a record of all the names that are mentioned in my communications, but I’m afraid they are all code names and I have very little hard data.”

“Any information you have would be greatly appreciated.”

“There is a folder on that thumb drive with a document detailing all I know.”

“Thank you Mr. McGregor. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”

“Ah, yes, one more thing. I believe there are at least two non-Muslims working with the Warriors of the Sword here in the States. An American man and a Japanese woman. I don’t have enough evidence to be conclusive, but their names pop up more often than would be statistically a coincidence. You’ll find their information in that file as well. Again, I don’t want to falsely accuse someone, but… well, I’m sure you will do your job.”

McGregor left the building with the knowledge that the woman would be pleased. He yearned to see her again. And when he did, he would take his well-deserved reward. He would look into her eyes.

Chapter 30

A thorough search of McGregor’s apartment turned up precious little. It became painfully obvious that the man had little regard for his health. In addition to soft drink containers and candy bar wrappers sprawled across the floor, there were dirty clothes, books, and the occasional syringe. His bookshelf held mostly adult DVDs and some old VHS tapes but no VHS player.

Feeling like they had accomplished nothing, the three headed out to the apartment parking lot.

“It is almost as if a cleaning crew came in before us,” said Cobbs as he spotted their Honda. “Someone doesn’t want us to learn anything about who McGregor really is. There was no computer to sort through files, no personal journal to read, and nothing handwritten—not even a grocery list on his refrigerator.”

Sam hadn’t noticed it, but it was true. There was nothing that could inform them about McGregor’s motivations.

As they approached the rental car, Cobb’s cell warbled in his pocket. He took the call while pulling out his keys. Concentrating on the phone conversation, he just stood there with the key inches from the car door lock, ready to be inserted. After a few mumbled monosyllabic words and rapid fire questions, he said, “Let me know if you have anything else, Paul,” and closed the phone.

He turned to Suteko and Sam. “That was an old friend of mine—Paul Simmons from the Bureau. The bomb in New Orleans was set off prematurely—thirty-six hours earlier than McGregor had planned, right? I just learned that there was to be a conference on Middle Eastern policies on the third floor of that building. It would have taken place exactly thirty-six hours after the bomb was planted. The conference was only supposed to host a few dozen attendants, but the names are all A-List.” He leaned in to emphasize his words. “A-List.”

“That, Agent Cobbs,” Suteko said, sounding as if waking from a dream, “isn’t too surprising, but this gives us a lead. We have a list of cities and we know what message they wanted to send in New Orleans. Get your men on finding similar events occurring at that time in the other cities.”

“They are already on it,” Cobbs said as he began to thrust his keys forward. “I’ll…”

“No!” Sam yelled, lurching forward and slapping Cobb’s hands away from the car. The keys flew from his hands and clinked to the ground. “Something has been here.”

“Yes,” Suteko said with a sudden concerned expression on her face. “I hear strange echoes too.”

“What? What was here?”

Sam jerked to his left and then right, his eyes wide and frantically in search of someone or something. The apartment building was small, but the half-filled parking lot was large enough to hold about fifty cars. One border was wooded, providing cover for anyone wanting to hide. Another border was a street and the other two sides were buildings, one being the apartment building itself. Sam kept looking, searching for something Cobbs and even Suteko didn’t know was there.

“Talk to me boy—what do you mean something was here?” Cobbs didn’t like being the one with no information. He liked it even less now that the main source of intelligence seemed to be coming from Sam’s head.

“Two Nephloc. Well, one Nephloc and one… something else. They were here very recently. Don’t touch the car. It isn’t safe.”

Cobbs pulled out his weapon, a Glock 23. Suteko had spoken a little about these Nephloc, a kind of evil version of her: physically strong, but helpless to do only the evil its master bids. He began to swing his weapon wildly looking for any movement around the few cars and foliage.

Sam motioned to Cobbs. “Put that away. It could call attention to us. It is useless against them.”

Suteko looked at Sam with a raised eyebrow.

Sam didn’t seem to notice. He was beginning to accept certain unlearned knowledge that came from somewhere beyond his five senses. He was focused, completely absorbed in discovering the Nephloc that he alone knew lurked nearby.

“I know you are there!” Sam’s eyes were narrow and focused on the shrubbery. “Show yourself!”

While Sam continued to search for the Nephloc, Cobbs carefully knelt to look under the car. A foreign object—no doubt a hastily attached car bomb—was attached beneath the fuel tank.

In a voice calm and low, Cobbs stood and backed up. He said, “We need to move away from the car now.”

Sam was too busy scanning the area and failed to register the urgency in Cobb’s voice.

“Bomb. Get…”

The sound of the explosion punctured Sam’s ears. Before he could turn to try to understand what had just happened, his body absorbed a wave of energy; what couldn’t be absorbed sent Sam flying into a nearby Prius. His legs hit the hood of the car with bone-shattering force. The top half of Sam’s body folded, slamming his face into the glass of the windshield while the bottom half followed over and behind. He was instantly on the ground—on the other side of the car.

Seconds or minutes later, Sam heard Suteko’s voice calling. It was her voice, but it echoed.

“H…here.”

Suteko appeared and knelt beside Sam.

“Sam, can you move?”

He was face down on the pavement looking at the tire of some white mini-van. He coughed, feeling the grate of rough asphalt and tiny pebbles against his chin. His eyes were functional but stung as if a gallon of salt water had been poured over them. Looking down, he could see a bloodied arm with a large gash. He was surprised to see its fingers begin to curl up; then he realized the fingers were obeying his will to move and the bloodied arm was his.

He attempted to straighten his leg. His right leg moved, but it shot powerful and pulsating waves of pain to his brain. Uncontrollable screams of agony flew from his mouth.

“Hold still.”

Suteko ran her hands up and down his legs, feeling and gently massaging.

“This may hurt a little.”

Not giving him any time to respond or prepare, she gripped his left leg with both hands and pushed hard. He heard a cracking sound that was followed by a new wave of pain. Sam was surprised to hear screams—his screams.

“I’m so sorry,” she said as Sam’s rapid breathing returned to normal, “but your body had already started to heal and setting your broken bone now was critical.”

He looked down at the arm again—his arm—and noticed the blood had already stopped. The wound also seemed smaller and scar tissue was beginning to form.

“What’s happening?”

“Being affected by eternity, one of our gifts is accelerated healing. Look at your arm. The surrounding cells are multiplying in seconds what would take days for others.”

The pain had lessened to a dull ache. He had nearly forgotten the intensity of the last few moments.

“Yeah, I wish I had this when Billy Barnes beat me up in fifth grade.”

She smiled and asked, “How is your leg now? Can you move it?”

He moved his leg again. This time there was only slight pain. It was remarkable how quickly the pain had become mild discomfort. “Yes, much better.” He started to smile before remembering Cobbs. “Cobbs! Where is he?”

Suteko’s smile faded. “He… he’s gone.”

“What?”

“He was killed instantly.”

Sam forced his arms to his side and pushed. He managed to sit up and then stand before falling to the ground in excruciating pain.

“Shh. Shh. Don’t stand. Just rest a minute. Give yourself time enough to heal.”

“Cobbs… No. It can’t be… A future Cobbs told you through the echoes about the multiple bombs.”

“He did that already. He reported to us what his office knew. That is what I heard. Those words…”

Sam stood once more, this time taking it slow. He gradually shifted weight from his hands on the Prius to his feet. He looked over at the remains of their rental car. It was sitting on its tires but touching the car next to it. The force of the explosion had lifted and moved the front end a few feet. Cobbs, who had been closest, didn’t have a chance.

Walking around the car, he saw that Suteko had carefully positioned him on the pavement, his hands by his side and legs straight.

“Cobbs…” Sam tightened his fists. Then, Sam’s eyes focused and reddened from anger. “The creature.”

“It’s not here. I don’t hear the echoes of anyone’s presence but our own.”

“No. One left. The woman left. One remains. The one she commanded to stay, watch, and report back. It learned how to silence its thoughts, but it is near and watching us.”

“How do you know?”

Sam put his finger to his mouth demanding silence, and he crept behind a row of cars. He headed determinedly toward the wooded area. Once free from the cover of cars, he stood tall and broke into a jog. His leg had fully healed or if it hadn’t, his focus prevented the pain from slowing him. As he approached a bank of shrubbery, he disturbed a few birds. The birds shot out and up making loud noises. Sam was not distracted. He kept his eyes straight ahead.

Suteko caught up with him, but she couldn’t see what he saw. He held his hand up, motioning for her to stand still but be ready.

“I see you.” Sam’s voice was serious and without hesitation or doubt. Suteko still saw nothing.

Suteko was about to pull him forcibly from the area. Sirens were soft in the distance, but growing louder and nearer. They needed to get out of there. But before she could move her hand to pull Sam’s shoulder away, she heard a growling voice from the shrubbery.

“Saaaamuel. Do not thrust usss into the light! It was not usss.”

“I know. You are only a tool, but you are no less culpable. Tell me where the one who did this is and I’ll leave you be. Where is the one who attacked me in New York? Where is the one who killed my friend? Where is she?”

Shrieks of terror, high-pitched and bloodcurdling, came unseen from the greenery. Suteko frantically scanned the brush. Sam kept his face and eyes steadily forward.

“Sheeee—Don’t speeak of sheee…”

Suteko looked at Sam. His face was insistent, completely focused on something in the shrubbery, something Suteko could not see.

The sirens were growing louder.

“Sam, we have to go. The police…”

It took a moment, but Sam heard the sirens too. He nodded and spoke to the bushes, “Tell your boss, I am coming for her.”

“Shee wishes it to be so, Samueel.”

Sam turned and began running toward the street. Suteko followed him wondering what had happened to him.

Sam was amazed how fast he could run. His eyes were having a hard time keeping up with the rapid change of environment around him. The gray blur of buildings changed to a green blur as they passed a small park and then back to gray again. It felt incredible. Not only was there no physical pain, but it was as if his body was a hundred times stronger. The sudden exertion made him feel even more powerful.

Then, he lost his footing. He felt a blow to his chest as if hit by a maul hammer. Sam tumbled into the pavement and rolled over a flower bed before finally crashing into a newspaper box. The impact caused two of the metal box’s legs to pull up its bolts from the concrete.

“What’s wrong with you? You need to get a hold of yourself. Someone could have seen you!”

Sam looked up to see Suteko’s face. She was mad—her face was blood red. He had never seen her emotions flare up to such an extent.

“I… I was just…”

A few people turned a corner and saw Sam on the ground leaning against the tumbled newspaper box. He was dirty and panting. Suteko smiled awkwardly at the pedestrians. They quickly turned the other way.

“Look,” she said, relaxing her eyes slightly; her tense shoulders dropped. “I realize your body is adjusting and you are experiencing all it is to be one of the Temporal, but you must exercise self-control. It is essential that we don’t call attention to ourselves.”

“I’m sorry. I… It is just all this is so new. And that Nephloc back there. The thoughts—the disgusting thoughts it had. I just had to get away.” Sam carefully stood up while trying to shake the Nephloc from his memory.

“You could hear its thoughts?”

“You couldn’t? It was so loud.”

“Sam, I think your gift is special.” She let go of the anger completely and smiled, approaching him with a held-out hand to help him maintain his footing. “None of the Temporal have this ability.”

In an instant, her touch cleansed him from the evil thoughts he had heard; it made him forget that Cobbs had just been murdered or that the police may soon be looking for them as suspects in his murder. He raised his dirtied hands to meet her face.

“Suteko, you don’t know how… amazing it is to have met you. I’d be lost without you.”

He thought about his mother and Mr. Richards and even about his ex-wife. Everyone he had cared about had left him. He realized that Suteko, a woman he had only just met, was all he had and, really, all he wanted. With the dream in mind, he knew she was all he ever wanted.

She looked on Sam and nearly laughed. His clothes were ragged; his face was discolored. But his eyes and words of utter seriousness kept the laughter at bay. With her hands, she lovingly brushed the dirt, grime, and dried blood from his cheeks.

Sam was taken aback by her beauty. Just like the first time he saw her, his heart beat a little faster and he felt funny—awkward and completely at ease all at once. Her long black hair crowned a perfectly proportioned face with gem-shaped eyes. He was sure he looked terrible, but he imagined she couldn’t look better had she just left a beauty salon.

“You are so beautiful.”

She pulled away, blushing. He grabbed her hand and gently pulled her back to him.

“Suteko. I want to tell you…”

Sam stopped when he saw her blush had given way to a pale look of horror.

“We’re too late.”

“What?”

Sam turned around, looking where she was pointing. The broken newspaper box that he had collided into was twisted and on its side. Even still, the Los Angeles Times front page headline was clearly in view.

MULTIPLE BOMBS YET TO BE DISCOVERED.

Chapter 31

Sam and Suteko spent the rest of the day trying to learn more about McGregor. Finding him was their only hope for stopping the bombs and staying off the FBI’s ten most wanted list.

Sam felt stronger and more confident in his abilities, but without Cobbs, it seemed like the two of them were alone against the world. They didn’t have access to law enforcement information, nor did they have a badge to get them into places or the authority to question people as part of an official investigation. Worse, Suteko was still wanted for immigration violations and Sam as an accomplice. Without a champion within the system, they had little hope of clearing their names.

But they had a mandate, and with that mandate, they had the drive to see it through.

And they were Temporal.

They required little sleep, could move fast and undetected, and could listen to the echoes. That, and they had the old man.

The newspaper article had very little information other than a list of cities that matched Marcus’ list. It also stated that the New Orleans bomb had gone off a day before it was supposed to—something they already knew but was potentially panic-inducing for the general public.

“So what do we do next?” Sam’s face betrayed his confusion and despair.

“We contact Marcus.”

Sam nodded in agreement before remembering he hadn’t seen a phone anywhere during his stay in the old man’s apartment.

“Does he have a cell? I didn’t see a phone, a computer, or for that matter, any technology from the last millennia.”

Suteko burst out in laughter. It was the first time Sam had seen her laugh—really laugh. Her laughter previously had been controlled, politely covering her mouth with a dainty hand or handkerchief. It was a welcome relief after Cobbs’ tragic death.

“What?”

“No, no,” she said, still laughing. “The last time Marcus had any modern technology was in 1936 when I gave him a radio. I remember it well. It was an Emerson phonograph and radio combination unit. Brand new. It had a beautiful walnut finish and even a clock on the front. I paid $29.95 for it—back then, a handsome sum of money.”

“So, how did that go—or should I ask?”

“How do you think? He threw it out the window.”

The old man was even more eccentric than Sam thought.

“Wow. I’m not sure if I should laugh at that or say ‘I’m sorry.’”

“You can do both. The odd thing is, he makes an exception with combustion engines and anything that goes fast, as you will undoubtedly learn. In general, however, technology and Marcus do not mix. As for how to contact him, he has a ‘calling service.’ I call a friend of ours and that friend relays the message to Marcus.”

“It would be far more efficient if he just had a phone like the rest of humanity.”

“Of course, but then it would be too easy. Marcus very often already knows the message anyway. He prefers to let the echoes tell him.”

Suteko had the phone to her ear listening to it ring unanswered. After the fifth ring, she frowned.

“Unlike Marcus,” she said to Sam, “John carries his cell phone with him everywhere. He always seems to answer before the first ring.”

“John Matthews—in Brooklyn…” Sam knew the name just as he knew all the Temporal names. He caught himself as he remembered the old man’s suggestion to not speak of his gift—not even to Suteko.

“Yes, how did you know?”

But before Suteko could receive an answer to her question, the phone went into voicemail and she turned her full attention back to the phone call. Suteko left a short message to her “Aunt Suzie” asking for a little cash to come home for Thanksgiving.

“Now, we wait,” Suteko said after cutting off the call.

They spent the entire afternoon wandering the streets pretending to be tourists while thinking about what to do and hoping for a call from the old man.

But no call came.

While they were still near McGregor’s hometown, they decided to head to the San Francisco Public Library for a little local research.

At the library, they spent several hours searching online and going through old newspapers hoping to find any information about McGregor. The principal had mentioned McGregor’s expertise in Arabic, but the few newspaper references to Professor McGregor of Coastway Community College had nothing to do with Arabic, Islam, or anything more interesting than being his school’s representative at a 1996 academic fair. Even more puzzling, Cobbs had also mentioned that the official investigation files also failed to mention any interest he may have had in the Middle East.

His name and location pulled up many hits online, however. He may not have been surrounded by friends in real life, but he was active on the popular social media sites and his YouTube channel had over a hundred videos—mostly of him issuing political screeds. Again, nothing he wrote or spoke about referenced Arabic or Islam, supposedly his main academic interest according to the school president.

“Sam, it could be because I’m using a cell.”

Suteko’s voice pulled his attention away from the library computer.

“What?”

“I just realized John may not have answered or called back because I’m using a cell. I’m sure it is clean, but John might know about our legal… difficulties and may not want to take a chance. I’ll go find a pay phone—we have to get in touch with the old man.”

“All right. I’ll be here reading this paper a young college student by the name of Todd McGregor wrote on the inherent racism within the US judicial system. Lucky me. The man posted everything he ever wrote on his Facebook page. If it is like his other stuff, it will be both fascinating and grammatically challenged.”

Sam didn’t think twice about her leaving. He was, after all, in a large public place and at only seven in the evening, it was still filled with people. His confidence in his abilities also meant a reduced dependence on Suteko for protection and guidance. He was learning what it meant to be a Temporal.

A few minutes later, Suteko returned.

“Samuel—We need to leave.”

Sam looked up to see a frantic-looking Suteko. She was holding a travel atlas.

“That was fast…”

“It isn’t safe here,” she said while gently nudging Sam off his chair and toward the stairs leading to the first floor and the entrance of the library. “I think there is something here.”

“Yes,” said Sam, suddenly worried. “I don’t know why I didn’t sense it before, but one of the Nephloc is near—very near… But how did you…”

“No time. Here, take this.” She handed him the atlas as they rounded the corner to the stairs. “The old man needs a list of all the Temporal in the western hemisphere. Open the atlas to the bookmark.”

Opening the book, he saw a two page spread of the continental United States and portions of Canada and Mexico. He stopped at the top of the stairs.

“Wait. Suteko, something is wrong. Let’s think this through while we are still in a public place. If the Nephloc are here, they won’t expose themselves to so many people and something just doesn’t feel right. The old man knows of all the Temporal in the United States.”

“All I know is what he said, but maybe you are right about staying. Let’s go back upstairs and find a quiet and unused table for privacy. Just tell me where they are.”

Sam nodded. They headed back upstairs and took the first right, barreling down a row of bookcases that dead-ended with a small table and two chairs. Sitting down, he looked at the map. Soon, his eyes began to play tricks on him—or so it seemed. The letters under the dots were dancing; the colors brightened and then faded like a shooting star. Then a tunnel began to form from the corners of his eyes, shrinking inward. It created a circle with the epicenter meeting his focus. The tunnel continued to become smaller until the circle of clarity in the middle was just a pinhole.

Then he saw it.

Names, faces, numbers, and minute details flew into Sam’s mind. It wasn’t like seeing a photograph or reading words, but somehow, the brightening and fading colors conveyed information directly to Sam’s brain, bypassing language altogether. He wasn’t reading and then understanding through a two-stage process; he was knowing directly.

“There are six living in the States. Of course, there’s Marcus and John Matthews in Brooklyn. Peter Knowlings, Houston, Texas; Sarah Evans, Tampa, Florida; Thomas…”

Sam pulled his eyes away and closed the book.

“Wait! Something isn’t right.”

“Of course not. You said so yourself—there is a Nephloc around. Now, get back to work!”

“Wait… It isn’t just any Nephloc. This is the one who attacked me in New York—this is the one who planted the bomb that killed Cobbs—we should go downstairs in the open among the people.”

“Good. Your senses have become more attuned. But we stay here. Work!”

Sam suddenly realized Suteko knew of his gift. Marcus wouldn’t have told her, would he?

“How did you know I had this ability?”

“The old man told me.”

“But you were gone no more than two minutes. Could you have found a pay phone and gotten him in two minutes?”

“I am fast and the old man was expecting me…”

“No.”

Sam knew something was wrong. The old man specifically told him to tell no one about his talent—not even Suteko. He began to stand and move away from this woman. The woman who had attacked him in New York—She could change her appearance.

Then he realized the painful truth.

Sam looked to the stairs and made a break for it.

She anticipated his move and grabbed his shoulders, stopping him. Pushing down, she prevented his knees from locking in a standing position. He fell into a chair so hard, it almost shattered.

The way she gripped his shoulders rendered his arms useless. It was the same feeling as in the park when this woman, posing as a man, had attacked him. She was powerful. Even with Sam’s increased strength and abilities, he had no choice but to obey. He clenched his teeth to prevent a cry of pain from slipping out. His arms flopped uselessly at his sides.

“What is your name?” Sam asked between grunts and heavy breaths. He needed to know his enemy. He began memorizing her signature, the information her presence somehow gave off and Sam could somehow sense. He was absolutely sure that the creature behind him was the same who had killed Cobbs and had attacked him in New York City. Kaileen, Marcus had called her, Sam remembered. Kaileen.

“Continue.” Her grip relaxed but she did not remove her hands from his shoulders entirely.

“No.”

The intensity of her grip returned. Sam’s body went limp. One of her hands wrapped around his neck, slowly squeezing. “Tell me more names,” her voice said in a loud whisper. “The list is not complete!” She placed several fingers on Sam’s forehead. His mind began to swirl. He felt his thoughts accessed and manipulated by someone other than himself.

Then came another voice from the end of the bookcase.

“Sam?” It was Suteko, the real Suteko. Not caring for library protocol, she raised her voice. “Sam!”

The woman in front of Sam released her masking energy. Her long, black hair became, in an instant, curls of bright red. Asian eyes enlarged and turned nearly as red as her hair. The enemy jerked her right hand, releasing a flash of metal from within the cuffs of her jacket. The blade, once firmly in place between her thumb and two fingers, flew from her hand with the slightest flick of her wrist.

Suteko managed to slow time enough to see and anticipate the flying metal’s path. She grabbed a book from the shelf and positioned it to catch the flying object. The knife bored into the book until its sharp point pierced the back cardboard and leather cover and stopped. She tossed the book aside and was in front of her enemy before the book hit the ground.

The red-headed woman attacked first. Her right hand rebounded from flinging the knife and was instantly swinging back toward Suteko’s face. Tightening her fingers into a fist, the creature’s attack became a powerful backhand.

Suteko saw the direction of the incoming backhand. With her arm, Suteko blocked the woman’s fist and, after slowing the blow, she slid her hand down to the red-headed woman’s wrist.

Grabbing the attacker’s wrist with both of her hands, Suteko twisted with all the strength she could muster. She knew that controlling the wrist yields control of the body. With a push downward, Suteko would have the woman on her knees and under her control as long as she continued with her fleshy body.

The red-headed woman must have realized her wrist was in a compromising position. She screamed loud enough for Suteko to feel the force being expelled from her mouth. The distraction was enough for the woman to free her hand. She pushed off her legs and leaped into the air, flying above Suteko’s head and kicking off the metal rods of the ceiling. Large squares of ceiling tiles fell on Sam and Suteko as she made her escape.

A number of people who had appeared to gawk down the bookcase row now found themselves flat on the floor having been knocked down by the fleeing woman.

Sam and Suteko wasted no time. After making sure no one was seriously injured, they rushed downstairs and out the door. It was pitch-black outside and the red-haired woman was nowhere in sight.

“I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her!” Sam shouted into the empty evening air. It was clear the woman was gone.

Suteko put a shaking, but loving hand on his shoulder that helped ease the anger out.

“Suteko,” he said, turning his full attention to her. “I knew she was there in the library. I… I was just blinded by the thought of being with you.” He took her hands in his.

She soothed his mind with a kiss to his cheek.

“Sam, I managed to get John. He is on his way to the old man now. I hope to hear from Marcus within the hour.”

Chapter 32

McGregor’s information regarding “The Strangler” was more thorough than he had lead the FBI agents to believe. While it did not include a physical address or phone number, he had catalogued an impressive list of IP addresses and aliases the Strangler had used recently online. By cross-referencing various Islamic related forum posts, it became increasingly obvious that the Strangler was Abdul “Mike” Hamid—a man very familiar to the Arabic speaking cyber-spies in the Bureau.

Within an hour, the Strangler was in custody. Initially reticent, Hamid opened up when shown evidence compiled from McGregor’s file and the Bureau’s own investigation. He named names and listed cities—the same cities as in the Los Angeles Times article, but swore he had no more detailed information.

Four of the five cities Hamid mentioned had obvious or high-profile targets. The last day of a US-Israeli convention, a Holocaust museum opening, a national conference for a mega-church that had been a bit too public about their support for Israel, and a reelection rally for President Franklin. DC, on the other hand, was a terrorist wonderland of targets. Housing all three seats of government and many tourist traps, the bomb could be anywhere in the city.

From the FBI’s perspective, the article by the Los Angeles Times listing cities with potential bombs had been a unmitigated disaster, nigh short of treasonous. Citizens were panicking. Accidents and looting were epidemic as many residents of the cities on the list scrambled to leave. The only positive result was that most of the high-target events had been subsequently cancelled. Even if all the bombs couldn’t be found, it was hoped the number of casualties would remain low.

By studying the location of the New Orleans bomb and its distance from the target, federal, state, and local authorities in each of the five cities began a massive Easter Egg hunt. One by one, the bombs were discovered. All of them, but the one in DC.

The Strangler suddenly remembered details of the DC location when loaded up into a van by two agents wearing gas masks. He was told they were going to the opening of the Rwanda genocide remembrance at the Holocaust museum in Richmond. Loud enough for Mr. Hamid to hear, the two agents were ordered to take him to the location, chain him to the railing in front of the museum, and then leave. The bomb had already been found and dealt with, of course, but the Strangler was led to believe otherwise.

The DC target turned out to be a small protest rally for energy independence that was to take place in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In a thick bunch of shrubbery, capital police discovered a small box that was set to spew out its poison into the lungs of tourists and protestors.

Once the canisters had all been secured, the government sent messages to media outlets emphasizing that while the threats had been credible, all bombs had been accounted for. The Strangler, after being presented with carrots and severe sticks depending on the verity of his information, confirmed that all bombs had indeed been found.

Americans were still warned to be extra vigilant, particularly over the next twenty-four hours. One government official let slip that a professor from a community college outside San Francisco had been responsible for stopping the threats.

No name was given, but the wheels had been set in motion.

Chapter 33

Sam and Suteko spent the rest of the evening listening to the echoes and searching for the red-headed woman. Sam had indeed felt her presence in the library and that evil had been very near. But he had been fooled by her appearance, disarmed by what he thought to be the woman he cared about more than any other.

Had he looked at Kaileen close enough, he would have seen minute modulations in color and texture. Morphing was not a perfect representation; it did not need to be. Politeness and social mores can work against the good; after recognizing someone, few give others more than a cursory glance.

Sometime early in the morning, Suteko and Sam decided to stop at a corner restaurant for some breakfast. While Sam was sipping coffee and deciding between pancakes or scrambled eggs, Suteko’s attention was fixed on the television on a wall.

“Sam,” she said, placing her hand on his arm, pulling his thoughts away from food.

“Listen, Sam.” She nodded toward the television. Two newscasters were talking on a couch on some informal morning news show. Despite the casual setting, they had serious, yet somewhat forced cheerful expressions.

“…will be a press conference at ten this morning,” said the male announcer.

Behind the two announcers, a series of monitors were silently playing video from the New Orleans bombing. A marquee scrolled at the bottom of the screen reading, “BREAKING NEWS—A second terrorist cell has been broken up by the FBI…”

“And that will be at the Los Angeles Conference Center,” said the woman dressed in a suit with an unusually large flower pinned to her pocket.

“That’s right, Jane. America will finally get to meet its hero. The mystery man will reveal himself.”

The camera cut to a close-up of the woman.

“Representatives from federal law enforcement agencies have stressed that they do not think this press conference is a good idea. While stopping short of legally restraining him, they are none too happy about it.”

The camera returned to a wide-pan. The muted video behind them was now showing the president silently answering questions from the press.

“Yes. If it is true that he single-handedly gave the authorities the intel to bring down several terrorist cells—and that that information not only led to the arrests of dozens of terrorists, but also disrupted tens of millions of dollars from their operations—revealing himself may not be the smartest move, Jane.”

“Especially if they fail to find and stop all the bombs that were reputedly placed by these cells.”

The marquee continued with, “Bombs discovered in all cities mentioned by Los Angeles Times article. It is believed all bombs have been found and disarmed…”

“That’s correct. This move could be seen as someone putting personal fame over the safety of others. Authorities are playing down any remaining danger and they are urging everyone to remain calm, but there is still a case for Americans everywhere to be extra vigilant and…”

“Sam,” Suteko said, splitting his attention between the television and her. “If we leave right now, we can get to the news conference in time.”

Sam nodded. After paying the check for their coffee, he followed Suteko outside. She had already found a taxi.

Sam and Suteko walked briskly down the hall to the conference room where the interview was being held. It was a quarter after ten and the press conference had already begun. The room was large, but with the number of reporters and equipment in the room, it seemed small, stuffy, and hot.

They could hear laughter as Suteko pushed open the door.

“Thanks, Bill—from the Times. I’ll have to remember that one,” said the man behind the podium, the hero.

There was more laughter.

“Maybe…” the man said, allowing his round eyeglasses to slide down his nose slightly. He peered out across the room, searching for a reporter to call on. His eyes fell upon a blonde whose name he had made a point to remember; he had plans to offer her an exclusive one-on-one interview. “Let’s see. Heidi Braun, from Der Spiegel.”

“The guy sounds more like a polished White House Press Secretary than your average concerned citizen,” said Sam to Suteko in a whisper.

“Have they announced his name yet?”

Sam halted a moment before answering, “There’s something familiar.” He turned to face Suteko. “I think he was in my dreams. Do you remember seeing him before?”

She turned back to the man at the podium and gently shook her head back and forth. “No.”

Sam mentally replayed his dreams, but despite the familiarity of the speaker’s face, he could not remember dreaming of the man. No, Sam had seen him somewhere else… Not in a dream. And there was something else. Sam sensed this man had been in Kaileen’s presence.

“How did you warm up to Fakhr…” shouted Heidi Braun.

“Fakhr al Din. Yes, well, as you know, I spent many years honing my Arabic pronunciation. One of his brothers was my conversation partner on a learn Arabic website. Once I found that out, I kept pressing him to introduce us. Finally, he did.”

“Suteko. I remember.”

He turned to her and recalled the nervous little man that had pressed the panic button on the bomb in New Orleans and killed two people. That man bore only the slightest resemblance to the confident lion of a man now standing behind the podium, but Sam was absolutely certain.

“McGregor. Suteko, that is McGregor.”

Something about Sam and Suteko’s suddenly ashen faces caused McGregor to notice them. With a shriek and a pointing finger, McGregor shouted into the microphone.

“Them. Those two! They were involved in the plot. Stop them!”

They were still in the back of the room, but at least a dozen reporters and a few police were behind them, blocking their exit. Somehow everyone in the room seemed to understand exactly whom McGregor was pointing at.

Suteko grabbed Sam as she had moments after the explosion in New Orleans. Time didn’t stop, but it wasn’t normal either. It seemed to speed up and then dramatically slow as if someone accidentally pressed fast-forward and then over-corrected by pressing rewind a few times more than intended.

A uniformed police officer had his eyes locked on them and was heading their way. His motions were incredibly slow, but his hand was at his side, touching his holster.

Suteko shook Sam and said, “Go!”

Sam nodded that he understood but remained still, fascinated by the eerie scene unfolding around him. There were over a hundred people in the room and in each, he sensed a restless panic and rage, albeit in absurdly slow motion. His senses were heightened too. He seemed to be able to actually smell the fear and feel the anger.

An anger that was directed at him.

A large man next to Sam was slowly raising his arms and positioning his legs in a clear attempt to tackle Sam. The whole slow-motion action seemed comical to Sam. He just stood there dumbfounded watching the slow-moving automatons until he felt the hand of someone touching him from behind and it was not Suteko.

Sam then realized what Suteko had said and turned on his heels, slapping the man’s fat hand down as he would swat a fly.

Then, the most extraordinary thing happened.

The man’s arm and body reacted to Sam’s slap within Sam’s time. The man who had overextended himself, followed the direction that Sam’s slap had sent him, twisting his torso to the left and then straight down.

In a matter of seconds, his stiff body fell into several people beside him. Like a bowling ball hitting stationary pins, the man’s body knocked over two people who, in turn, hit others. People were falling too fast for their minds and bodies to prepare. Wrists would be broken; people’s faces would smash into the floor. They wouldn’t be able to comprehend what had occurred from their perspective in time. And there was nothing Sam or Suteko could do to stop it.

Suteko grabbed Sam’s hand and, carefully maneuvering around the people, pulled him outside before allowing time to return to its normal flow.

Perhaps it was because of the attempt on McGregor’s life. Or perhaps it was because the public liked a man who seemed to have all the answers. After the press conference that was interrupted by two terrorists, McGregor became an instant star. The nearly one hundred reporters who witnessed the event, saturated the evening news.

They all said the same thing. Two assassins had come for McGregor. When he called them out in the crowd, they went berserk as they fled. These dangerous terrorists had used the panic and general confusion to their advantage. Dozens of people were injured—two hospitalized although later released. But thankfully, the reporters all concluded, McGregor was able to escape unharmed.

He made consecutive appearances on the evening news shows and a late night comedy show. Even with the constant publicity and hectic media schedule, he seemed just as perky during the early morning news interviews.

The FBI agents who had originally met him had highly recommended that he deny any knowledge or involvement considering his close ties with those responsible. These people were murderers who had wanted to kill hundreds if not thousands of Americans. It was certain that these terrorists would not hesitate to kill him. The talking heads concluded that the FBI’s warning had proved prophetic at the press conference.

But even after escaping death, McGregor dismissed their concerns in interviews saying that “dying in truth was far better than living a lie.” It was a quote that was on everyone’s lips for the next few days.

As the days passed and it gradually became clear that all of the bombs had indeed been found and disarmed. McGregor, now thoroughly covered by the media and adored by the American public, was invited to the White House for a meeting with President Franklin and Vice-President Hollenbeck.

Chapter 34

“What happened back there?” Sam was out of breath but glad to be alive.

“I tried to slow time, but I wasn’t able to do it well enough.”

Sam was constantly amazed at Suteko and what she could do. But perhaps even more amazing was her talk of manipulating the flow of time didn’t unnerve him at all anymore, not until he stopped to think about it.

“You’ve got to teach me that trick.”

She smiled and then shook her head. “I really don’t know. I just concentrate on the present and visualize it as a sphere. Then, I try to grab it. Once I do, I hold on to it.”

“You did a great job in New Orleans.”

“Yes, I can’t explain it, but in New Orleans I felt as if I ought to have stopped time. And it did—we seemed to have been completely outside time.”

“Can all of the Temporal do this?” Sam asked as he wondered what it would feel like to totally visualize and capture the present. It had been a part of Marcus’ exercises, but until this moment, Sam hadn’t understood the significance.

“I assume. The old man told me slowing time was possible, and although I’ve only done it a few times in my life, it…”

The phone in Suteko’s pocket began to vibrate. She pulled it out and motioned for Sam to lean in to hear too. It was John’s phone number—Suteko’s friend and the one way to contact Marcus. Suteko had assured John earlier that her cell was clean and untraceable.

“Suteko, this is Marcus. I need for you two to stay where you are or get someplace safe near your current location. Don’t attempt any public transportation or use any form of communication until I arrive. Send your location by post to our agreed upon PO Box.”

Furrowing his brow and spreading his arms out to indicate a question, Sam mouthed, “Is this the real old man?” The woman in the library had sounded exactly like Suteko.

Suteko nodded and held up a finger.

“Marcus. There was a Nephloc with the ability to change its appearance and mimic voices. It tricked Sam into thinking it was me last night. I must ask you a question to verify your identity before giving you our current position.”

“Understood. Go ahead.”

“In 1936, I gave you a present which you proceeded to throw out the window. What was it?”

“Not this again.” The voice sounded aggravated and ornery but insistent on being heard out. “Shall I buy you an antique radio? How many times do I need to apologize?”

“Oh, Marcus. Just one more time. Always, one more time.”

“Now look, you know good and well that I had serious concerns regarding radio waves and personal health back then. The technology was new and untested!”

Suteko leaned over to Sam and whispered, “He believed radio waves floating around the ether simply wasn’t natural.”

“And furthermore…”

“Okay, Marcus, dear old Marcus, I know you when I hear you.”

Sam could see in Suteko’s honest smile that she was enjoying this. As for Marcus, Sam wasn’t too sure.

“Suteko… John is dead.”

“John?” Suteko stammered, not sure how to get out the words. “John is dead?”

“Yes. It is imperative that you get…”

“Stop. Wait. What happened? How did John die?”

“It was made to look like a suicide.”

“That woman,” Sam said, suddenly realizing his carelessness had caused John Matthews’ death. She had learned of John’s existence in the library through him.

“We are getting too close and they wish to stop us. And I was just informed that the hero who helped the FBI stop the bombs was none other than Todd McGregor.”

“Yes,” Suteko said. “We were at that press conference. I don’t know how he survived. Sam saw him shot and his proximity to the bomb meant he would have had a large exposure to the chemicals it released. This has to have something to do with their plan. But why go through the trouble of setting up bombs if they didn’t intend to explode them?”

“A diversion and a way to put their man in the spotlight. Remember the Nephloc crave followers; dead humans are no good to them. I have an idea, but I must find out something before I say anything further.”

“When can we meet?” asked Suteko. Sam could see the worry on her face.

“Soon. I will meet you as soon as I can. It could be upwards of a month. But stay low, safe, and out of the spotlight. Use Sam to watch for me. He should be able to know where I am.”

“How? How did you know he could do that? I didn’t…”

Sam put his hand on her arm. “The old man was the one who discovered that I had this gift… or curse or whatever it is. He asked me to not reveal it to anyone, not even you.”

She nodded as if she understood.

“Okay, Marcus. We’ll stay low and wait for your arrival.”

“Marcus,” Sam spoke with great hesitation. “I… I’m afraid John’s death is my fault.”

Suteko turned her head at Sam’s words.

“The creature in the library—when I thought she was Suteko—asked for a list of the Temporal. I only gave her a few names before I grew suspicious, but one of the names was John Matthews.”

“I see. And what other names did you speak?”

“I… I can’t remember. One or two of the others in North America—maybe all of them. I… just… can’t…”

“Yes, you can,” said Marcus in a tone more unnerving than encouraging. “You can remember and you will. Their lives are at stake.”

“I know.” Sam was trembling under the weight of the realization that he had aided a murderer.

Suteko put her arms around him and the trembling stopped.

“I mentioned your name, but of course she already knew your location. I told her John was in Brooklyn. The man in Houston and the woman in Florida. That’s it. I’m sure of it.”

“Good boy. I will warn them immediately. I do not know the woman in Florida, but I have contacts I trust in Orlando. They will approach her and warn her.” After a pause, he added, “And Sam, if she is who I think she is, deception is all she knows. She is seduction and trickery incarnate. It was not your fault. Stay safe. Stay in the light and await my appearance.”

Chapter 35

Bushehr, Iran

Fakhr al Din stumbled down an unlit alley. He fell onto the rough pavement, blindly tripping over some metallic object. His foot sent the object clanging into the darkness. His left hand landed on something soft. A thick viscous substance oozed between his fingers; he jerked the hand away in disgust. As he stood, he wiped his sticky left hand on his pants and then gave it a good shake in the air. The nearest streetlamp barely penetrated this far into the alley, but as his eyes adjusted, he saw that the soft object on the street was a cat; a dead cat with its guts poured out on the ground and now dripping from his hands and his pants.

He had been in hiding since the video surfaced of him admitting involvement in the plot well before the bombs were to go off. He had received death threats for giving the Americans time to successfully discover the bombs. Many had accused him of simply wanting to garner personal fame at the expense of the cause.

The video also showed him revealing the nickname of the man in charge of the operation—the Strangler. Because of this video, the entire operation had been compromised and one of the Warriors of the Sword deep within enemy territory was in danger of being captured—if he hadn’t been already. If that happened, much could be lost. He feared the plot had already totally unraveled.

The only success was in New Orleans. But that bomb had gone off prematurely and the casualty list included only two enemy names.

What was most infuriating to Fakhr al Din… it was not him in the video.

It was a look-alike who sounded remarkably like him. Not only was the video all over the internet, but also all the news sites were reporting the CIA had compared voiceprints from previously known recordings of Fakhr al Din and they had confirmed the voice in the Skype recording was a 98.6% match, a statistical certainty.

He wasn’t sure whom to fear more: his own men or the red-haired woman. Because of this impostor and the lies of the American press, she would naturally think it was him on that video.

That video.

He had seen it himself. The room behind the impostor was dark, but there was no doubt that it had been his bedroom. Also, the man did bear a remarkable resemblance to him.

My bedroom. The woman.

Then he understood.

He had been played from the beginning.

Could the woman have orchestrated this? She had powers beyond his imagination. She was fast, strong, and could seemingly pop in and out of existence. She had been able to get into his bedroom before. Why couldn’t she also pose as him and mimic his voice?

Fakhr al Din clenched his raised fists as curses flew out of his mouth. Who were these people? From where did their powers come?

He felt weaker than he had ever felt in his life. He had no allies—only enemies. And the people who would ultimately kill him were his erstwhile friends.

No.

He would go to Hamim and explain his situation. He’d had no choice. It was a setup. He would humble himself and prove his loyalty by submitting to the authority of the Bushehr council. They would understand. His guards would attest to the woman’s demonic powers. But even if they didn’t accept his testimony, he was a walking dead man. If he had to die, he would choose to die honorably among his brothers even though he was innocent.

Fakhr al Din walked two blocks until he stood before a tall, thin green structure with two public pay phones, one on each side. He walked to one of the phones, lifted the handle, and paused before dialing Hamim—the man who had been in charge of his security.

His mind wavered. Couldn’t he just run? He had hidden accounts with enough money to live comfortably until old age. He had the knowledge and means to disappear completely.

No.

He had decided to die with honor and that was what he would do. But before his finger could press the first number, a pale hand from behind appeared and gripped his wrist.

In an instant, his arm went over his head and into an unnatural position behind his back. Before his nerves could inform his brain of the pain from a horribly dislocated shoulder, the other pale hand pressed its flat palm on his chest and pushed with more force than seemed possible from the meager distance it had to strike.

The terrorist lost consciousness as his body slammed into an uneven brick wall. While he would never again regain consciousness, his body would later be found with a gun inches from his lifeless hand. The gun would have his fingerprints on it, and a bullet discharged from its chamber would be found lodged in his brain.

Chapter 36

Washington DC

President Franklin took to the podium while most of the thousand dollar-a-plate supporters were still eating.

“I know emotionally charged, thrilling, and beautifully worded orations tend to encourage indigestion, so I’ll try to keep things brief and as boring as possible.”

While patches of polite laughter rippled through the audience, Carl, his speechwriter, cringed from the wings of the stage. The president had improvised his intro. The president often strayed from Carl’s scripts at these informal fundraising events. He was only slightly relieved to hear authentic laughter even if it wasn’t very enthusiastic. He risked a peek behind the curtain to observe the faces of the president’s most ardent and affluent supporters.

“I could stand here and recount the many accomplishments of the last three and a half years, but you already know all that and reiterating common knowledge will only bore you.”

The president wore a frozen smile that Carl first interpreted as masking a forgotten line. Then, he realized the president was simply timing his punch line—another improvisation.

“But as boredom is good for one’s digestion, I’ll just mention a few.”

Again, the polite laughter, but this time more enthusiastic.

“You know, for example, that we managed to cut taxes across the board without adding a single penny to our national debt. Our energy policies have resulted in lower gas prices while not forgetting our commitment to renewable energy. I bet you didn’t expect to pay a buck eighty-five for a gallon of gas again in your lifetime, huh?” Over enthusiastic applause, he added, “Perhaps for a liter of gas, but not a gallon!”

The president was back on script. Carl had mouthed the last two sentences in sync with his boss. While the president had made major edits to Carl’s work, he at least kept Carl’s favorite two lines. The huge applause made the speechwriter smile as he realized that half of his audience probably had never pumped a tank of gas in their lives.

“Excuse me.” The voice was soft and came from behind and in the dark.

Carl whipped around, startled that anyone was there. Backstage security was tighter than Uncle Scrooge’s fist hoarding a shiny new penny. He rushed over to the woman. She had long, curly red hair—extraordinarily bright, surely dyed. Her age was hard to guess, but Carl figured mid-twenties. Decent figure.

The speechwriter’s first overall impression was that she was pretty but not strikingly beautiful. And yet, as she smiled at him, it became increasingly hard to turn away or even to speak.

She wore a provocatively short skirt matched with a tight and low cut blouse. Her eyes were hidden by large black sunglasses that somehow didn’t seem out of place even in this darkened hall. The glasses sat tight on her nose, a nose that wrinkled slightly as she smiled. Even without seeing her eyes, he had the sudden and odd realization that he was madly in love.

Being the president’s head speechwriter came with certain amenities; parties and social activities with many beautiful young women was one of them. Yet, somehow to this twenty-eight year old bachelor, this woman—who was now stirring all kinds of new and unexplored feelings within him—made all other women seem unattractive. For a moment, Carl forgot about his job—his career.

Shaking his head as if waking from a dream, he said, “I’m… very sorry, Ma’am, but this area is restricted. If you don’t mind, please…”

“What is your name?” she asked, ignoring his words.

“Carl—but I must…”

She took a step forward and removed her glasses. Those eyes. Those marvelously beautiful eyes. Once again, he succumbed and allowed love—or at least lust—to overpower him. At that moment, nothing else mattered. His job, the speech, the president… Nothing mattered but her eyes.

“You… are so beautiful,” he said, his voice cracking as if under stress.

The woman’s smile grew as she lifted her arms and hands to caress his now bright red cheeks. Her eyes and lips were mere inches away.

“So beautiful. Your eyes are like the darkest, richest wine.” The dam was breached. Words that would have seemed corny and certainly absurd an hour ago, came flowing out. The poetic comparison seemed entirely appropriate for gazing into the eyes of his true love for the first time.

“Wine—yes. Drink deeply, my love.”

Carl was in another universe. He sensed there was darkness all around him, but a comforting light made him feel safe and warm. The woman was there in the light—or perhaps she was the light. His eyes were still adjusting and nothing seemed to make sense, but he welcomed it nonetheless.

“Take this, Carl, my love,” she said, backing up a step.

He hadn’t realized it, but she had removed her hands from his cheeks. Her hands were now holding an oddly shaped box. It wasn’t square—as was his first impression—but two rectangular shapes molded together as one object. Carl couldn’t understand how the two rectangles were fastened together, but they were.

His eyes returned to hers while accepting the object and feeling it with his hands. It was startlingly cold compared to the warmth he felt emanating from her eyes. The warmness prevented him from looking down at the object even though his curiosity was burning.

“This way.”

He felt her hands on his hands, soft, but oddly cold—so unlike the incubating warmth of her eyes. Then she pushed, not roughly, but as if to give encouragement. She turned him until he was facing away from her. His first impulse was to resist and turn back to her eyes, to her warmth. The object was losing whatever warmth it had by the second. Soon, he felt it would be like trying to hold an ice cube to bare skin. But she shushed him as a mother would do to calm a crying baby.

“Shhh… Carl. It is all right. You can make it all right, love. You can make everything all right. I am here. Lift your hands.”

Carl tried to obey, but every inch it rose in height seemed to double the object’s weight.

“I… can’t. It’s… It is too heavy.”

Carl was crying, but he couldn’t understand why. The object began to burn his fingers from the cold. It really had become ice on his exposed skin.

“It’s so cold. I can’t…”

“Shhh… Yes, you can. It is all right. Now lift.”

He felt her arm begin to reach around him as in a one arm embrace, a finger ran down his arm slowly from the tip of his shoulder until it landed on his right index finger, his trigger finger.

“There. Just squeeze, my love.”

After the bullet left the barrel, the speechwriter continued standing still. He was alone backstage and holding a now warm gun, the only warmth that remained. She was gone. Her eyes, gone. Tears rolled down his cheeks from eyes that seemed to be glossed over and vacant. He smiled, feeling as though he was floating.

Then came the impact of someone flying in from the direction of the stage. The sound of the mysterious gunshot was still reverberating in his head as he was tackled to the ground. The gun flew from his hands and his head hit the carpet.

While on the ground, he blinked, clearing his eyes somewhat. He saw a dark ceiling. The only light came from the direction of the stage where the president was speaking—where the president had been speaking.

He could no longer hear the president.

Now he heard other voices. Several people were shouting something. After a few moments, his mind registered the meaning of one of the voices.

“The President is dead!”

Chapter 37

California

Sam and Suteko hitchhiked to a small town on the edge of the desert and found a widow who had a room to let. They presented themselves as newly-weds—Sam, out of habit, still wore his wedding band and Suteko kept her naked ring finger out of the sight of Mrs. Phillips, the eighty-one year old proprietor.

Mrs. Phillips was greatly affected by the news of the president’s assassination. She had been in her early thirties when President Kennedy was assassinated, and during that first week of staying with her, she seemed to talk of nothing but the similarities between President Franklin and JFK.

The day after Vice-President Hollenbeck was sworn in, he was greeted by overwhelming support from both parties. It was as if September 12th, 2001 had happened all over again. Members of congress—regardless of party affiliation—marched out onto the steps holding hands. They sang the national anthem and prayed for President Franklin’s family and peace for the country. Washington was almost civil.

The president’s killer remained speechless. It was as if he was in shock and could not speak. People were clamoring for a death sentence; citizens were demanding answers and justice.

And then, much to the surprise of the nation and the FBI, Todd McGregor held a national press conference, eagerly covered by all major media outlets. There, he asked for calm and patience before making the startling statement that the assassin had not worked alone and that there was a connection with the president’s murder and the recent bomb threats. He once again begged for everyone’s patience as he worked with the authorities to bring those responsible to justice.

It had been a short announcement, but he stayed for nearly thirty minutes answering questions. He wouldn’t comment further on the announcement and the reporters soon focused their questions on McGregor himself—his history; his personal likes and dislikes; what he thought of his newly found fame.

As with the last time McGregor stepped into the limelight, the public couldn’t get enough. Many thought it was refreshing to see an open and honest man actually informing the public of what was going on behind the curtain. National and local law enforcement had varying public opinions on McGregor’s press conference, but in private, most of the nation’s law keepers were furious he would leak seemingly everything they knew and many things they did not know.

Two days after the press conference, the largest Islamic terrorist cell ever discovered was brought down in Arlington, Virginia, and over twenty members were arrested. When pressed by a reporter, the colonel in charge of the operation grudgingly admitted that most of the intel was thanks to McGregor.

Evidence linking Carl Bhat, the president’s speechwriter, to the cell was overwhelming despite his seemingly American-dream life story.

Carl had been born in Pakistan, but his parents, both being doctors, moved to the States when he was a baby. The wealthy New York suburb of Scarsdale was his home. He grew up, earned his doctorate in journalism at Columbia University, and interned with Senator Filfrond, a family friend. Upon the senator’s retirement, he was recommended to then-Senator Franklin, the future President of the United States. It had been a sudden, meteoric rise for the bright young man and the nation was left simply wondering why.

In yet another non-sanctioned press conference, McGregor laid out the evidence in damning detail. Papers and computer documents found in Mr. Bhat’s apartment were shown linking him to the Virginian cell. After the raid, evidence of Mr. Bhat’s involvement was also found in several cell hideouts. McGregor presented as the clincher the fact that the assassin’s father was of Pakistani descent. While one had to go back two generations to find it, Mr. Bhat’s grandfather had been a devout Muslim. After the press conference, even Carl Bhat’s best friends were convinced—at least on national television—that the apparently irreligious Carl must have been a closet radical Muslim.

McGregor was riding high. Every day, it seemed, Mrs. Phillips’ newspaper and television sets were filled with McGregor mania. The latest was that the sixty-three year old bachelor had received a dozen marriage proposals once the public learned he was unmarried. The day after that article, McGregor’s proposals numbered in the hundreds.

Mrs. Phillips was herself a huge McGregor fan. It took all of Sam’s self-control to keep from lashing out in anger every time she mentioned her hero’s name.

Then one day, Sam felt it. The long wait had ended.

They spent most of their time inside their room or on Mrs. Phillips’ property. She had several acres of peach and pear orchards and they had volunteered to help tend to them. Assisting the motherly Mrs. Phillips made the time pass, but it also instructed Sam why he was risking so much. He was here to help all the Mrs. Phillips out there, even if they were oblivious to the danger, even if they unwittingly adored the source of the danger.

He rushed outside into the orchard in search of Suteko whom he found on her tip-toes with a fruit picker in her hand, trying to reach a high peach. Sam had learned to attune his mind to his gift; it was as if he had a Temporal and Nephloc radar running constantly in his head. He marched through the woods directly to where he knew Suteko was.

“Suteko, we should head back.”

“You know, it is a little unnerving that you always know where I am. Maybe I should require you to wear a GPS bracelet at all times.”

Sam ignored her comment and said, “The old man—he will be here very soon.”

“Are you sure it is him?”

“Oh, yes. His signature is as obvious as a skunk two feet away from a bloodhound!”

She smiled and the two ran back to the house to await Marcus’ arrival. Suteko had mailed a coded message to a PO Box in New York City giving Marcus their location weeks before.

After the usual greetings and a mention of a certain antique radio, Marcus’ smile turned stale and he said, “Kaileen is back.” Sam knew that name. He knew that it belonged to the red-headed woman, Cobbs and John’s murderer.

“What?” asked Suteko. “How is that possible? She was banished. You said you saw her in chains and falling into the fire.”

“I did, but her presence is loud among the echoes. I can feel her anger… and her power. She has grown in power.”

“Is this Kaileen a Nephloc?” asked Sam.

“Yes and no,” said the old man not entirely satisfying Sam’s inquiry.

Sam turned to Suteko with a look that begged for an explanation.

“What he means, Sam, is that she is a leader of the Nephloc, but she was once every bit as human as you and me. She doesn’t act like most Nephloc. Light doesn’t harm her, and she doesn’t shy away from people. In other words, unlike the Nephloc creatures she commands, she is strong and isn’t easily frightened away.”

“And, umm,” Sam said, “She also doesn’t have their foul odor.”

Suteko nodded and then her face turned pale as she verbalized what Sam already suspected, “Marcus… was she the one in the library—the one who changed to appear as me?”

“I can think of no other with such sophisticated morphic abilities.” His head bowed; his eyes and eyebrows came together in deep thought.

Sam now had a definite name for Cobb’s killer. He felt anger well up inside. He turned to the old man and read his face. “She frightens you. Is she too powerful for us?”

“I am not afraid that she might prevail,” Marcus said and then lifted his head to meet Sam’s gaze. “She won’t ultimately. But she isn’t easily stopped. It is obvious that she is hunting us.”

“Why?”

“We alone stand in her way. And I have no doubt that she wishes to turn some of us. If even one of the Temporal is deceived into following her, the damage to humanity could be vast. That is why she wants that list in your head, my boy.”

“Bring it on. Together, she won’t stand a chance,” Sam said with no little anger in his voice.

“Do not underestimate her strength and her powers of seduction, young Sam.” The old man had moved into Sam’s personal space, positioning his face inches from Sam’s. “You have too little practice shunning evil. Kaileen is evil perfected.”

Sam thought of Cobbs, his responsibility for the death of John, and then his fists relaxed. “So, what can we do? Warn others and hide?” Sam asked, backing away from Marcus.

“No, we take to the offensive! We leave in the morning.”

“To Washington?”

“No! To San Francisco.”

Chapter 38

Washington DC

Two hours and thirty-six minutes after the death of President Franklin, Vice President Hollenbeck was sworn in as President of the United States. He had been quickly escorted to the White House and, later that evening, he gave his first speech from the oval office to the American public.

After that speech, President Hollenbeck retired to the temporary Executive Residence. Smiling, he fixed himself a healthy glass of brandy and set it on an ancient dresser. Removing his suit coat, he put on a silk robe that was in the bedroom closet and slipped his left hand into its cutaway pocket. Grabbing the glass with his right hand, he broadened his smile and swirled the drink under his nose, enjoying its aroma, a celebration of his recent promotion.

“Congratulations, Mr. President.”

The voice so startled him that he dropped his drink, shattering the glass and spilling the expensive brandy over freshly steamed carpet.

Backing up against a wall, he shouted, “Who are you?”

“Do not be alarmed, Mr. President. I am not here to harm you.”

The woman moved closer, seductively planting one foot in front of the other and allowing her shapely hips to sway slightly as she approached. Keeping her head down but her eyes up and fixed at him, she stopped barely a foot away from the president.

“On the contrary, I want to help you be remembered as the president you should be.”

Her hands ran up his chest, slipping over the slick silk until her fingers rested on his shoulders. Hollenbeck didn’t resist, but he was also too shocked to speak.

“You see, I can help you get things done.”

“Secur…” He wanted to call for the guards that he knew were only a few dozen yards away. But something about her movements disarmed him. She made him comfortable and filled him with desire. “How did you get in here?”

She leaned over to his right ear and, brushing his earlobe with her lips, she whispered, “Mr. President, I will see to it you have riches and popularity among the citizens of the world. Would you like that?”

His mouth was open, but he could only manage a nod to the affirmative.

“Good. I will do that for you. But would you do something for me?”

Her left hand touched the back of his neck and began its long ascent up his scalp, running her fingers through his salt and pepper hair. Her fingernails tickled his skin, causing his eyes to flutter in ecstasy.

He nodded again but otherwise stood stock-still, enjoying her touch.

“Good.”

Her hands pulled away from him as she backed away a few feet. A second later, he was staring into her eyes. Swirling swarms of black liquid seemed to fill her eyes and then leap to his. She said nothing, but he understood what he must do.

A blink later, he was alone. The woman was gone. The only proof of her existence lay on the floor—shattered shards of glass and spilt drink.

A day later and thousands of miles away, Suteko read in Mrs. Phillips’ newspaper that President Hollenbeck had chosen his vice-president. Both Houses of Congress were expected to confirm the selection with an easy majority vote. Mrs. Phillips, upon hearing the news, clapped with joy and called Sam and Suteko in from the orchard shouting the good news. It was a quite natural selection, after all. Todd McGregor was, in fact, most responsible for discovering the killers behind the murder of President Franklin.

Chapter 39

“Come with me.”

McGregor knew that voice well. He felt the tingle of excitement build as he turned to watch her open the door and walk out of his hotel room. Her sudden appearances no longer frightened him. No, she had something he wanted, something he had not received for a long time. He clearly remembered the glory and desire from within her eyes, but he had all but forgotten the horror.

“Do you remember the promise my colleague made to you back in your apartment so many weeks ago?”

McGregor nodded, halfway hoping she would remove her glasses.

“But how could I possibly run against Hollenbeck? It would look most ungrateful. He was the one who asked me to be his vice president.”

She smiled and leaned over as if she was about to kiss his nose. Instead, she licked her lips and said, “My dear boy, don’t worry about that. Hollenbeck will not run for the office. And he will be more than happy to endorse you.”

“This is insane.” McGregor stopped. The woman also stopped and turned to hear him say, “It’s true I have become powerful and my fame is far more than I could have ever dreamed of—it is as you predicted. But to be president. It will never work…”

She smiled broader and then lifted both hands toward her glasses. “I have something to show you,” she said, gently lifting the frame of her glasses from her face.

“No,” said McGregor, but he did not turn away. He felt a smile erupting. He wanted her eyes. As terrifying as they were, he needed her eyes.

Tearing the glasses from her face, she yelled, “Come and feast!” Her voice echoed loudly in the distance as all went black.

When he awoke, he saw the dark figure of the woman addressing a crowd. He could not see beyond her, but by her arm movements and the volume of her voice, she seemed to be addressing a large audience.

Leaning one hand on a wall that turned out to be damp rock, he managed to sit upright and look around. It was dark behind and to his sides. The only light came from beyond the silhouetted woman in front of him. He could see well enough to know that he was in a small dark and damp cave. He could only assume the opening in front of the woman was to a vast auditorium.

The woman heard his movements and turned to McGregor.

“Ah, our hero awakes!”

McGregor heard massive cheering from what seemed to be thousands of voices. The sounds entered the cave and echoed against the rock walls around him, tearing into his very soul.

“Come, McGregor. Come reveal yourself to your adoring servants.”

McGregor shook his head violently to better clear his mind and then stood up. The area he was in was very small. He had to lean forward slightly to avoid hitting his head. The questions of where he was and why he was there quickly disappeared. He saw what the woman was addressing.

Thousands—if not millions—of dark-hooded creatures were tightly congregated in an expanse that seemed impossibly large and yet it was all an enclosed area. McGregor wondered if they were in some vast, underground cavern. Blotches of a bluish-green light from an unknown substance smeared on the rock walls emanated from various points, spreading an uneven light. It was not bright, but it was enough for eyes adjusted to the dark to view all of the auditorium. Every inch of the ground was occupied by creatures screaming in a frenzy.

As McGregor shuffled forward, the dark figures immediately let out a singular shout and then fell silent. McGregor feared that the cave would collapse from the enormous sound, but even the walls seemed to be supporting him. The fear quickly turned to awe. He was the object of their adoration—of their worship. As he looked on, their black left arms rose in a simultaneous salute. The sound of the sudden ruffling of a multitude of cloaks was short, but deafening. McGregor just stood there, marveling.

“They are here for you. Smile. Here are your adoring fans, ready to do your bidding.”

McGregor smiled, then raised two clenched fists in a show of power. In response, the voices of thousands shouted until the frenzy became a pulsating chant. As the chant gradually came into sync, McGregor became increasingly confident. It soon was clear that they were chanting his name, “McGregor! McGregor!”

The chant went on for fifteen minutes without weakening or wavering before the woman shouted into McGregor’s ear, “Is this sufficient? Have you feasted enough on their praise for one evening?”

It seemed the audience would have been content to continue the worship for many hours more, but after McGregor nodded, the woman stepped forward and held up her hands. The crowd went silent almost instantaneously. With the sound of thousands of boots hitting the ground, the creatures followed by falling to one knee as a single man.

“My children,” the woman said in a calm but thoroughly resonating voice, “in a few short weeks, we will own the world, and the Temporal trust shall be destroyed.”

Chapter 40

California Desert

Sam and Suteko thanked Mrs. Phillips for allowing them to stay and for her home-cooked meals. After paying the bill along with a few twenties as a tip, they made their way to the car Marcus had brought. It was a 1969 Ford Mustang convertible with a red body and a solid black top. Sam was utterly shocked to see Marcus behind the wheel and actually enjoying the thrill of driving. The image was complete with a newsboy cap on his head, a tweed overcoat on his back, and chamois gloves gripping the wheel and eager to get back on the road. Sam was about to make a comment when Suteko did a quick knife-cut finger gesture to her neck.

A few hours later, they were back in San Francisco and near Coastway Community College where Todd McGregor had worked.

“We will begin our search here,” said Marcus without much explanation. Suteko and Sam followed the old man to the entrance gate of the school.

Sam had been patient, letting Marcus have his way, but questions were becoming increasingly hard to suppress. A murderer was on the loose and this murderer was thought to be a hero by the public. Whatever plan the Nephloc had devised, McGregor had some part to play in it. Sam hated that they were wasting time in California when he knew McGregor, the murderer, was in DC.

“Marcus. We’ve been here. We searched his apartment, met his neighbor, and learned he is a first class slob. What do you hope to learn now?”

“Patience, my son. Listen to the echoes. Without accurate information, the best intentions yield the worst consequences.”

Sam turned to Suteko, hoping she would lend support to his cause, but she already had her eyes closed and by her breathing pattern, Sam knew she was listening deeply to the echoes. Sam sighed and began calming his mind and controlling his breathing also.

At first as he let the echoes come, he only heard the sounds of students, loudspeaker announcements, and other noises of the past commonly heard on any college campus. Then he began to concentrate on McGregor’s name and face—a face he had come to know very well thanks to Mrs. Phillips television and newspaper clippings.

His mind searched deeper for a match. He couldn’t see as one sees naturally through the eyes, but even still, the echo patterns were almost visual. They could also be sorted and organized. The closer the proximity, the clearer and easier to manipulate they were. His mind moved in space and time to adjust the patterns into clarity. Sam was just outside the campus, but he could hear the echoes of a professor McGregor a quarter of a mile away in a building, down a hall, and in his classroom. He wasn’t sure when he was listening to, but he had a feeling it was fairly recent—maybe only a few weeks ago.

Now that he had the location and knew the specific pattern to look for, it was a simple matter of listening forward and backward in time. Surely, something said or done would be helpful—a place, a hobby, a friend’s name.

Minutes passed and all three of the Temporal continued to listen and sort through the echoes but without finding anything interesting. Then, Sam heard Suteko whisper a single name, “Michelle.”

Sam began again in earnest, sorting and searching for a match with the names McGregor and Michelle in mind. There were many commonalities. McGregor seemed to have called on her and spoken to her far more than his other students.

Michelle… Who are you?

He heard McGregor suggest an after-class study session. Sam continued moving ahead in time but couldn’t hear McGregor or Michelle after that point—perhaps that was his last day at school? He listened to the other students after that.

Sam’s eyes opened wide.

“Michelle,” he said out loud, waking Suteko and Marcus, “was murdered.”

Sam looked at Suteko whose eyes were wide with surprise. She had heard the name Michelle and knew she played some part, but this was most unexpected.

“Yes,” said Marcus who already had his eyes closed again. “Yes, Michelle was murdered.” His lips smacked as if something sticky was on his tongue. “She was murdered by McGregor. Good, boy. Listen to the echoes before that point. There must be some clue. How did he get to her?”

Sam closed his eyes and was once again there with McGregor inviting Michelle to a study session. He jumped back a few minutes. McGregor was silent, waiting. Waiting for what? Michelle. Michelle was talking to someone—a boyfriend. He will meet her at Alamo Park. Just then, Sam felt something strange go off in McGregor’s head. A thought! He could hear thoughts from the past! Or at least feel thoughts. Alamo. Michelle. At the Alamo, we will be one.

Sam’s eyes remained closed, but he voiced what he knew. “At Alamo Park, McGregor killed Michelle. I… I know where it is. I can see him map his way to the park. I can hear him plan how he will find her. He went there—I hear the echo of her muffled screams.” Sam’s mind was racing, trying to keep up. “Plastic in the back. There was plastic… A stick… This was not the first one.”

Sam lost it and was back in the present. He had heard too much.

“This was not his first murder,” Sam said, panting.

Marcus met Suteko’s eyes. “Well done, boy,” Marcus said with an enthusiasm not tempered in the least by the morbid context. “Well done, indeed! Let’s go.”

Chapter 41

Washington DC

“My fellow Americans,” President Hollenbeck began his address to a camera in the Oval Office. Also in the room were the technical and camera crew, the Secretary of State, and his Vice President, Todd McGregor.

“A week ago, our nation suffered one of our history’s most trying moments: the loss of a president. O Captain! My Captain!”

Hollenbeck pulled to the side giving the effect of concealing a tear with his hand.

With the election only weeks away, the media had constantly hounded Hollenbeck to announce his candidacy. He knew what he had to do the moment he met that woman, but ever the political animal, he had timed the announcement for its most poignant effect.

He would die for her. Turning down the presidency was a small matter in comparison. And with her promises of riches and respect, his decision was an easy one.

After several seconds of silence, the president lifted his head again and said, “Many have asked me to run for the office. The timing is unfortunate, but it is a question that you, the American citizen deserve to have answered.”

He paused, looking squarely into the camera.

“The Twenty-fifth Amendment demanded that I should step up to fill the shoes of one of the greatest presidents this country has known—or at least that I should attempt to do so. But it does not require that I seek a full term once President Franklin’s term expires. My fellow Americans, I will not seek the presidency in November.”

He paused again and then nodded slightly as if to cement his decision.

“I will, however, make an endorsement. He has not sought this honor—that of being the president, but it is an honor that now seeks him. Clearly, if we have learned one thing these past few weeks, it is that we need a leader who can face terrorism head on. We need an executive who has the experience and the knowledge to defend this great country of ours. No other issue is more important today.”

President Hollenbeck appeared strong and confident. To the millions of viewers recently stricken by threats of terrorism and the death of a beloved president, his words had weight.

“My fellow Americans, I can think of no person better qualified to protect America from the terrorism that has too often besieged our shores than my vice president. I hereby announce my support for Todd McGregor as the next President of the United States.” Once again, Hollenbeck paused before finishing by saying, “Thank you.”

The talking heads on the news channels went crazy. Everyone had expected President Hollenbeck to seek the office. He had, throughout his career, been exceedingly ambitious and had often talked about going for the highest office.

Once the shock of Hollenbeck turning down what everyone assumed to be a sure thing had passed, the conversation moved to McGregor. The consensus was that while the choice of McGregor would have seemed odd, ridiculous even, only a few weeks before, he would now be a shoe-in. The people were wanting someone outside Washington and someone tough on terrorism. McGregor, more than anyone else, was a perfect blending of those qualities. He had shown the makings of a strong executive through his public press conferences and by privately working with law enforcement. Not only that, but he was without question the most popular man in the Western World.

Chapter 42

San Francisco

“Are you sure it was here?” asked the old man after Sam led them to a specific spot within Alamo Park. They stood on a sidewalk, facing some bushes. By the spacing of streetlights, it did appear the area would not be well illuminated at night. The thick bushes would easily provide cover for someone to hide. Down the path about a hundred feet was a tennis court. Sam was sure this was the location.

“Yes. This was his Fortress of Solitude. This is where he felt invincible and all seeing. This is where he waited for her.”

“Very well,” said the old man taking both of their hands. “Follow my lead.” Suteko touched Sam’s hand and he held fast to Marcus’. “Grab the present—now!”

Sam had seen Suteko do this several times. But this time felt different. He wasn’t yet sure why, but it was different. This time, there was absolutely no movement. Sam was sure he wasn’t helping very much, but he could feel time slow and then stop completely. He could sense that the present moment was no longer marching forward.

“Good,” said the old man. “Now, let’s move the present back to that night. Sam, find Michelle.”

Sam never broke his concentration but somehow, he heard and understood every word Marcus spoke. He began grabbing the present and sliding it over. It was as Suteko had said. The present could be visualized as a malleable sphere. Touching it with his mentally projected hands, he gave it a little push.

He realized he had moved to a present that had occurred only yesterday. He snatched another moment and flicked it hard, sending it away with a new present taking its place. He had gone too far, but they were closer now. One more adjustment and… Michelle.

There she was. He didn’t see her or hear her, but he knew he had the right place and time. The boy from the class had just left. She… she was crying. Sam, Suteko, and Marcus could all hear her sobbing before Marcus grabbed hold of that moment and didn’t let go. Time stopped once more.

“Good.” It was the old man’s voice. “You can open your eyes now. I have it.”

Sam and Suteko cautiously opened their eyes. He almost screamed when his natural eyes saw the girl, standing there still as a statue in the pale moonlight. They were actually there, existing in the past. He was seeing Michelle—frozen in time and seemingly so alive—moments before she was to be murdered.

It all looked entirely natural. He took a few steps around her, examining every angle. Even strands of her hair lifted and separated by the wind were as still as death. The colors around him, his depth perception—everything appeared as if it were true reality occurring at that moment. Everything, but the fact that nothing was moving and that he was looking at a girl from the past seconds before she was to be murdered.

“You can’t do anything for her now, Sam.” Suteko had seen the concern in his face.

“But she looks so real, so alive. I…”

“I’m afraid Suteko is right, my boy. We are simply visitors,” said Marcus. “Now, relax and concentrate.”

As in New Orleans, the scene was surreal. No brush of a breeze on their cheeks. No sound of birds in the trees. No cars honking their horns. Nothing was heard or felt. Nothing but their existence outside of time.

But this was far stranger, far more wondrous. They were existing in a present not of their own. They were experiencing a moment that occurred weeks before.

Sam saw that the old man was holding something in the palm of his hand. He couldn’t make out what it was. With the way time was being held back, he didn’t want to risk breaking Marcus’ concentration even as his curiosity grew.

“Now, let’s ease this forward.”

Sam felt the light puff of a breeze before it accelerated to its natural strength. The sobbing resumed. Sam risked opening his eyes again to watch her pitiable face. There was another sound. Rustling of leaves. Someone—McGregor—was behind the leaves waiting.

Then the killer took action.

It happened so fast. Michelle was sobbing alone and then screaming in the bushes with McGregor’s sleeve over her mouth. Sam watched, gasping. He looked around, but there was no one around from the past—no one to help. Even with his eyes wide and his heart racing, Sam did not break his concentration. Suteko and the old man had their eyes closed, but Sam just had to look as he leaned into the bushes.

“Shut up! Don’t you see that I love you?” It was the voice of the killer.

Hearing McGregor’s words was strange. Sam had become well acquainted with the voice of McGregor on television. And yet, this voice had a darker feel. It was the voice of an insecure and yet demanding man, very different from the confident and borderline arrogant voice of McGregor the hero.

Sam could not see far within the bushes, but he knew what was happening. McGregor suppressed her cries and began pressing down on her throat.

“It’s me. Professor McGregor. I’ve been waiting for you. Say you love me!”

He pressed harder. She moaned something muffled and unintelligible.

“I love you! Why do you look at me like that?”

McGregor continued pressing and declaring his love until Sam heard only the sound of McGregor’s breathing and felt the odd sensation of the beating of a single heartbeat from the past.

Sam couldn’t control his emotions; he pulled away and covered his face with cupped hands. He began to shiver as if he were freezing. The shaking seemed to affect the sound he was hearing. McGregor’s pulsating heartbeat pounded louder and faster. Soon, Sam realized the sound he was hearing had moved from his ears to his own heart. His blood pumped in sync with the sound. Louder. Faster. And… together with McGregor’s pulse. The blood… Sam felt as if the blood vessels in his neck were bursting.

“Wake up, Sam!”

Sam’s eyes were open, but his vision was blurred.

“Sam, look at me.”

Sam’s eyes came into focus. He could see the concerned faces of Marcus and Suteko looking down at him. He was on the ground and Suteko had her arms around him, supporting him.

“I’m… sorry.”

“No, my boy. You did it! Now, to DC!”

Sam was utterly confused, but he got up and hurried to follow the old man who had already began a brisk start toward their parked car two blocks away. Suteko ran up behind him and grabbed his hand. She smiled and kissed him on his cheek. He was grateful—he needed to feel warmth, flesh, and confirmation that he was still alive. Her kiss also cleansed his contaminated thoughts; he had felt McGregor’s mind and had not walked away unscathed.

Marcus occasionally said, “Well done, boy!” or “Excellent, Sam.” Sam tried to ask what it was that had made the old man so happy, but Marcus either didn’t hear him or was just ignoring the question. The experience had been terrifyingly real to Sam, but with Suteko glowing beside him, he almost wouldn’t mind doing it again. Almost.

Chapter 43

Marcus had amassed great wealth over the centuries. Keeping a low profile with meager living conditions allowed him to quietly support the world’s Temporal. But if needed to spend on himself, he had the resources to hire a private jet and a pilot. And that was exactly what he did.

To Sam, Marcus was full of surprises. An old man with the agility and strength of a sprinting bodybuilder; adverse to technology in general and yet drives red-hot convertibles. And, by overheard conversations with the pilot, he seemed to also have an in-depth layman knowledge of aviation and the latest in jet technology.

During the flight, Suteko slept her usual ten minutes. Sam followed suit. While he no longer needed massive amounts of sleep, he still required more sleep than Suteko. When Sam awoke, his first image was that of the old man hovering over him, inches from his face.

“Ah, he awakes!”

“What?” Sam said, rubbing his eyes. He felt like he had a full night’s sleep and yet they were still in the air when he awoke. This meant no more than a few hours could have passed. “Did I sleep long?”

“Years! At least, that is how it seemed,” said the old man. “Suteko insisted that we wait for you to wake without disturbing your beauty sleep.”

“No, Sam,” said Suteko, giving Marcus a disapproving look. “You slept only a few minutes more than I did. Marcus is just anxious about my dream.”

Sam searched his memory for any remnant of a dream. He remembered none.

“Sam, you must be on your guard. I saw Kaileen searching for you.”

“Kaileen?” Sam parroted, still in the process of waking.

“The friendly librarian.”

“Ah, lovely,” Sam said while rolling his eyes as if the sarcasm in his voice wasn’t enough.

Suteko looked upon Marcus with compassion in her eyes before continuing to Sam, “You must be careful. But, providing the dream is a true echo—and I believe it is, we know where she will be at some point.”

“But you yourself said the future can change.”

“That is correct and the dream may not even be an echo. It could just be my overactive subconscious getting jealous over other women wanting you.”

For a moment, it seemed no one else was on the plane. Sam wondered if Suteko had managed to stop time, but he continued to hear the roar of the engines.

Then with a clearing of his throat, Marcus said, “Before you two love birds get to a point where I cease to exist, we need to resolve this minor issue of someone wanting you—indeed all of us—dead.”

Sam averted his eyes to look out the window, but Suteko just sat there smiling.

“Now, Suteko, please describe the location. If we can find the place you saw, we might have the upper hand.”

“I can do better than that, Marcus. I know the address. My dream began on the street. I followed her past a sign that said Constitution Avenue and into an apartment building that I would surely recognize. The room number is 306.”

“Good,” the old man said while standing. “We have an advantage then. Not much, but I pray it will be enough.”

As the old man began to walk toward the cockpit, Suteko said, “Where are you going?”

“Three’s a crowd,” he said, smiling. “Enjoy your time together. You will have precious little of it until that demon Kaileen is stopped.”

Chapter 44

Washington DC

Standing in front of a full-length mirror, McGregor was making a final adjustment to his bow tie when he simultaneously heard a voice and saw a shadowy figure appear behind his reflection in the mirror.

“You’ve grown arrogant.” The voice growled impatiently.

McGregor spun around so fast, he almost lost his balance. It was Kaileen—the woman who had pulled him from the site of the bomb in New Orleans and had groomed him to be the man he had become. He had no idea how she did it, but as long as she gave him the drug he needed—her eyes—he didn’t care when or where she appeared.

The woman continued. “The election is still weeks away, and yet you act as if you are already the president.”

McGregor relaxed his shoulders. “Did you not see the latest Rasmussen poll? Seventy-two percent support me in my bid for the presidency. Seventy-two!” McGregor turned back to the mirror, smiling as he began to fidget with his bow tie again. “I have the sympathy vote, the national security vote, and of course the countless dimwits who are just fed up with the Washington inbreeds.”

His smile widened. Even seeing her angry reflection next to his in the mirror couldn’t keep him from feeling good.

“Do not let your guard down. I sense much weakness in you still. It will not be an easy task to keep you from saying or doing something stupid.”

He shot a glance behind him half-stung by her words, but then his attention returned to his beautiful image in the mirror.

“You worry too much,” he said, patting his already perfectly groomed hair. His full head of hair, however gray, was a source of pride for him.

Before he could blink, the woman was between him and the mirror, and her right hand held his throat tightly.

“Never underestimate the enemy. And never take my words lightly. Never!”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” he said, managing to voice his thoughts only after she loosened her grip.

Satisfied, she removed her hand, letting him drop to his knees coughing.

“Two of the Temporal know our plan. They will come for you.”

“For me?” Suddenly, there was fear in his eyes. “Is it that Williams and his Japanese girlfriend? The ones at the first press conference?”

She nodded. “I saw them in San Francisco at your apartment digging up dirt from your sloppy past.”

“I… I will make it a matter of national security. They… they are already wanted by the authorities. Tell me where they are—I’ll have the CIA on them before you…”

“Don’t be stupid. I will take care of the problem.” She began pacing slowly as if in deep thought. Her next words sounded as if they were personal thoughts accidentally voiced. “It is unlikely they will attempt to assassinate you. But they will try to get you to say or do something incriminating. That would be too easy…” She moved closer to him and focused on his eyes. “Stay low. Limit interviews to friendly media sources. Do not go out in broad daylight.”

McGregor was hypnotized by her eyes, but he didn’t see the stars. He only saw darkness—no light. It was only after she peeled her eyes from his line of sight that he thought about what she had just said.

“Huh? Why avoid daylight?”

“Have you not noticed that you are wearing sunglasses constantly now? Does not your skin sting like a mild sunburn when exposed to the sun’s light?”

He hadn’t thought about it, but it was true. He had never worn sunglasses much before, but lately his eyes stung and the discomfort was only relieved with dark eyewear. His hands, face, and neck did feel strange at times, but he hadn’t thought about it enough to discover the source of the irritant.

“What’s happening to me? Am I… sick?”

“Don’t be pathetic.” She moved closer, directing a finger in his face. “And do not be ungrateful. You have received everything you have ever wanted: fame, power, love, respect. Did you not expect certain trade-offs? Your outside is simply manifesting what is inside.”

“What else should I expect?”

“You should expect that I will kill you slowly and painfully if you do not keep your mouth shut. We have come too far for you to screw it up now. Keep a low profile and only take on what you must as a candidate.”

He nodded, knowing her threats were not empty.

“Think before you speak and act. I will not be here to clean up your mess. I must go hunt your hunters. I hear them even now. I will stop them before they come near, but you must watch what you say. The election is yours to win or lose. We have risked much to get you this far. And I assure you, losing will involve more than just your hurt pride.”

“I…” McGregor began to speak to an empty room. Kaileen had vanished and left him feeling weak and vulnerable. He hated her, and yet he wanted her. He needed her eyes, and she had not given them to him this time.

Then, he realized that it was a lie. The weakness that she had accused him of began to change into something else.

He realized he didn’t need her. All he needed was himself. He was McGregor! The savior! His emotions and thoughts turned darker. With eyes full of anger, he looked at his reflection in the mirror. He was strong—stronger than that damn woman would admit. He would be a smashing success at the midnight gala. As the star of the show, he would present himself as the man equal to the task. And should the Temporal come for him, he would take care of them without her.

Three knocks on the hotel door turned his head.

Through the peephole, McGregor saw one of his minders. He opened the door a crack but kept the chain on.

“What?”

“Sir, a messenger just delivered a letter for you. I apologize for the late disturbance, but it was marked urgent,” the Secret Service agent said, holding up the letter and sticking it partially through the two-inch door opening.

“Uh,” he said, taking it and closing the door.

The envelope was addressed to “Prof. Todd McGregor.” Under his name simply read, “URGENT.”

Within seconds, the torn envelope was on the floor and the unfolded letter was inches away from his nearsighted eyes. The letter had two names, a location, and an invitation:

Becky Sanders
[Michelle McIntyre
lobby]
come alone for a chat

McGregor’s hands began to shake as images of the two girls he had murdered formed and then floated among the words on the page. The faces and words jumped at him.

No.

He expected wild accusations and threats to his future, but not this. This was the past—the old McGregor. The old McGregor was dead.

He steeled himself, remembering the woman, Kaileen. She had called him weak, pathetic. He was not weak. If there were threats to his presidency, he would find them and then destroy them. He would handle this, and the public will love him even more for stopping these additional threats to America.

But first, he had to get rid of his two minders, the secret service assigned to protect him. With his right hand, he grabbed the handle of his upright suitcase and flung it on the bed. Carefully hidden under his clothes, he pulled out an object wrapped in leather. Unrolling it, he examined his gift from his countless slaves from the cave—the Nephloc warriors who would be under his command once he won the election and certain events necessitated martial law. The object was a glove that housed dozens of tiny needles and a serum designed to induce instant paralysis and fear. He had no desire to hurt his protectors, but this was a meeting he needed kept secret.

Chapter 45

Kaileen

Kaileen’s appearance changed dramatically as the elevator descended eleven floors. She was no longer wearing a flowing black dress, but a police uniform. Her face, while still recognizably feminine, had a tougher look. Her hair was now up and hidden beneath a blue United States Capital Police cap. She stepped out and took a moment to revel in her impending success, the culmination of all she had planned and worked for.

She had spent hundreds of years since her resuscitation growing in strength and relearning the dark arts. She owed much to her lord, but with her growing Nephloc army and a handful of Temporal defectors, she felt increasingly confident she could overpower even him. She would gain the list from Sam’s head and then kill him with the rest of those who dared refuse her.

She could strongly feel Sam and Suteko’s presence as her hunt began.

Samuel Williams was irritatingly loud. He was new to the Temporal and had not yet learned to control his thoughts. The woman, Suteko, was harder to hear, but she was with the man. When they talked, thanks to Sam’s inexperience, at times Kaileen could actually hear their conversation.

They mostly seemed to speak of insignificant things—the weather, past travels, what to eat, and other daily concerns. This seemed strange to Kaileen. She would have thought they would be discussing how to stop McGregor or, more importantly, how to stop her—the assassin who was coming for them.

Surely, they know. And yet, the more she listened in, the more she became convinced they did not know.

More than their words, she was interested in their location. They were near. She could feel them; she heard Sam’s words grow in intensity as she left the hotel.

The policewoman walked two blocks toward Sam’s voice, stopped, and then turned around. The direction of Sam’s voice had changed. He was so loud the echoes let out false readings, making it hard to pin down an accurate direction.

She spent several minutes concentrating until she was certain of the origin of the voice. Every block she walked, she had to stop and adjust her ears.

Soon, the voice was unmistakably near. Turning a corner, she spotted an old apartment building that she knew housed her enemies.

Sam had information she needed. She would kill the woman, gain the information from Sam, and then make him join her or he too would die. Suteko would never turn; it would be a waste of time to try. But with Sam, she sensed opportunity. There would remain no serious threat to both her immediate plan with McGregor and her ultimate plan for control of her order.

She entered the building and climbed three flights of stairs. Turning the corner, she stopped in front of room 306. She knew her prey was behind the door. Sam’s thoughts were beyond loud. It was as if he wanted to be found.

The fool.

Even better: it sounded like Suteko had left him alone—gone on some errand, no doubt. She knew the Japanese woman was the more powerful of the two. Without her experience and guidance, the man wouldn’t stand a chance.

She almost felt regret. He simply had not had sufficient time and training to control his thoughts better. Had this mission not been so terribly important, she would have given him more time to mature—for the sport of it.

She pulled out a small razor-like object that began to glow red. She inserted it in the slit just above the deadbolt. Within seconds, its temperature reached 1600 degrees Fahrenheit, and the metal softened and then spilt from the door. A breath of air from her mouth cooled the surrounding area before the door could catch fire. She had been quiet enough. Sam’s thoughts continued unabated—he was thinking of going to Japan with Suteko.

The careless fool.

She silently twisted the knob and prepared herself. A flick of her wrist and the door flew open.

“Hello, Kaileen.”

Instead of a surprised younger man, however, she saw an old acquaintance waiting for her.

“Marcus—I should have known.”

The old man was standing at the ready and in a standard fighting stance: his body turned, knees bent, and hands up. It was a facade; he had spent most of his energy emulating Sam and Suteko’s unique patterns. It was all he could do to appear strong and battle worthy.

The momentary surprised look was quickly replaced by pure hatred.

“Very clever. But where are your children…” The words spewed out like molten lava, heavy and burning.

Marcus saw a flash of recognition dash across her face.

“McGregor,” she said, understanding that she had fallen for their diversion and that her plan was in danger of collapsing. With a pointed finger directed at Marcus, she said, “I will come back to kill you, old lover.”

She disappeared. Flying out the room, she turned down the hall toward an east window. Her speed didn’t give the glass and metal enough time to slice into her morphic clothes as she leapt from the building and onto the hood of a parked car three stories below, setting off the car alarm. She made a perfect landing and neatly rolled into the street. A car was approaching, honking. Her outstretched hand pushed fiberglass, metal, and plastic three feet into the engine block, causing the airbags to deploy.

Heading down the stairs, Marcus took care to not destroy the doors as he approached them. As worn-out as he was, he knew Kaileen would be gone by the time he hit the street. He knew, however, that there was only one place she could be heading, and he had to get there before she did.

Chapter 46

McGregor was in the lobby mere minutes after receiving the clandestine note. He was pretending to read a newspaper. Propped up inside the newspaper was the piece of paper with the girls’ names written on it. Reading and rereading the blackmailer’s note helped calm his nerves. He remembered their beautiful angelic bodies that he had helped create. After taking care of this current threat, he would demand Kaileen show him her eyes as a reward—he would demand to see the stars and the girls, his creations.

Even close to midnight, the lobby was well-lit and soft piano music trickled from a host of unseen speakers all around. The environment calmed the killer’s nerves and prepared him spiritually for meeting his Temporal foes.

Out of sight of the lobby, Sam and Suteko were in a hallway listening to the echoes. They were most interested in any sign that McGregor wasn’t alone. Sam didn’t sense any of the Nephloc in the vicinity, but McGregor also had the Secret Service protecting him. The murderer was, after all, a high-risk presidential candidate. A bullet from a gun held by a human would be just as deadly as a Nephloc. There was no one obviously with him. The lobby was largely empty—the hotel having been cleared for McGregor and his entourage.

With a nod from Suteko, Sam left the hallway and she headed for the stairs. Before he realized it, he was sitting across from McGregor whose eyes had strayed from his newspaper to meet his coming blackmailer.

Upon seeing Sam, McGregor stuffed a piece of paper into his pocket and set his folded newspaper on a coffee table next to his seat. No one else was nearby as their eyes locked.

Sam was wearing a fake moustache, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat, and darkened glasses. The moustache looked surprisingly real—but he wasn’t sure he even needed the disguise. Since their first meeting in New Orleans, both men had undergone significant changes. McGregor had been nothing more than a nervous little mouse of a man, barely conscious of his surroundings. McGregor’s now confident eyes betrayed no sense of recognition, but it was certainly possible he had learned to hide his feelings well.

“Mr. Vice President, one million dollars.” Sam kept his voice low and his words to the point. He wanted McGregor to see this as nothing more than simple blackmail.

“What? I’ve done nothing wrong. You have the wrong guy.”

Sam tossed a manila envelope with a piece of tape over the flattened clasp. It landed in McGregor’s lap.

“What’s this?”

“Evidence. One million dollars and the two copies of the recording will disappear.”

“Who are you?”

“A concerned citizen,” Sam said, trying hard to imagine himself as Harry Callahan only without the comfort of his Smith & Wesson.

McGregor ripped open the top of the manila envelope and dumped its contents into his lap. A lone USB thumb drive fell out. McGregor looked up at Sam. “Shall we go to my room? I have a computer there to view the files.”

“You will want this to be a private meeting, Mr. McGregor.”

“Of course,” he said, pausing with a broad smile before standing. “Shall we?”

Sam nodded and stood, following McGregor to the nearest bank of elevators.

Sam continued to listen. He was now extremely familiar with McGregor’s pattern. He couldn’t read McGregor’s thoughts in real-time, but he could feel his intentions. He heard new echoes that suggested McGregor knew—or at least suspected—who Sam was, but it wasn’t because McGregor remembered his face from New Orleans or Los Angeles; McGregor had been forewarned to expect them… by Kaileen.

A woman in a maid’s outfit looking late for work slid between the closing doors of the elevator and ended up in front of the panel. “Which floor, gentlemen?” she said after catching her breath.

Sam let McGregor answer even though he knew McGregor’s room number, “Eleven, please.”

The woman pressed the eleven button and quickly returned her gaze to McGregor.

“I know… Mr. McGregor? It’s you, isn’t it?” The woman became uncontrollably excited. “I can’t tell you what an honor it is to meet you! My parents are huge fans. They won’t believe—you must give me your autograph—please!” Her eyes were wide with excitement.

He nodded as she fished a pen from her pocket. Handing him the back of a stray receipt and the pen, McGregor signed his name and gave it back to the woman with a wordless smile.

The elevator stopped on the sixth floor and beeped. As the doors opened, the woman backed out continuing to sing his praises. McGregor maintained his smile until at last the door closed.

“We wouldn’t want to disappoint your fans, now would we?” said Sam, pointing to the thumb drive that McGregor was nervously fingering.

“You are unarmed, of course?”

“Of course.” Sam lifted his hands, inviting a pat-down. McGregor ran his hands up and down Sam’s sides and over his pockets until he was satisfied.

He then removed a small device and began moving it up and down Sam’s body.

“What’s that?”

“Just want to make sure you are playing fairly.”

Sam smiled. He had turned down an earplug and microphone to communicate with Suteko, preferring instead to listen to the echoes. The old man’s influence had saved him from being discovered.

The elevator stopped and beeped again, this time on the eleventh floor.

“Follow me,” said McGregor as he slipped the device and thumb drive into his pocket. They entered the hallway and turned a corner that led to his room.

There was no one in the hallway. Sam attuned his ears to the echoes, searching for any sign of a trap. Where were the Secret Service? Sam slowed his mind and listened harder. He heard Suteko and her thoughts were soothing.

The Echoes of Eternity encouraged him with every step. He heard nothing out of the ordinary.

Sam had come a long way since arriving in Tokyo just a few months before. But despite his growth, he felt the pressure; if he failed now, a terrorist may very well become the next President of the United States. Sam refocused on the echoes and Suteko’s thoughts; he was here to blackmail and stop a murderer.

McGregor swiped his hotel key card and, holding the door open, ushered Sam in.

“Would you care for some Scotch? A beer perhaps?”

Sam noticed the bodies of two men in suits and ear plugs leaning against a corner wall. The expected Secret Service agents…

Calm. Don’t screw this up.

“Nothing to drink? Well, the laptop is just over here.”

There were two queen beds in the room. The laptop was on a nightstand between them. McGregor invited the blackmailer to sit on the opposite bed.

The computer had been in sleep mode, and the two men each breathed heavy but wordless breaths while it revived. The thumb drive held a single audio file. McGregor double clicked the file and a media player loaded. He kept a cursor over the volume bar to make sure it was loud enough to be heard a foot away, but not farther.

The audio began with footsteps but no talking. There was a light breeze blowing into the mic. McGregor’s face remained proud and unfazed.

Then he heard it. McGregor instantly knew what the recording was.

Michelle—wait up. I didn’t mean it…”

It was a male voice—Michelle’s beau, the obstacle McGregor had to remove to get Michelle to love him. For a moment, McGregor’s face betrayed him—the face of a hurt little boy rejected by his mother. He quickly turned away from the blackmailer and inwardly seethed.

I told you I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

But hearing her voice—alive!—was exhilarating. He had seen Michelle several times since that night—in Kaileen’s eyes—but this was her voice while she was still alive. Who recorded this?

Look, I know I was a jerk, but I was just playing. Give me another chance. I…”

I can’t deal with this now. I need to think, clear my head.”

Promise me you’ll call me.”

At this point, McGregor’s memories of the event took over. He saw half of her face so clearly. He had to stifle the urge to reach out to touch her. Golden puffs of hair were tucked behind her ear. It had been a gloriously sad face.

If you leave now, I’ll consider it.”

I’m leaving—just… call me, okay?”

She had stood there so still until the jerk left out of sight. She then squatted to the ground, sobbing like a little girl who lost her favorite doll.

McGregor’s hand reached out unconsciously. His present will was no longer strong enough to pull it back. That weakened will, however, was screaming for him to wake and deal with the blackmailer. The woman, Kaileen, would be most displeased. But he couldn’t resist listening. He was once again with Michelle. He wanted to hear what came next—the climax—and couldn’t help but smile in anticipation.

Violent sounds of rustling leaves and branches slapping his arms and face reverberated through the laptop speakers and in his memories.

He had invited her into his fortress, but she was struggling as if she didn’t want to be there—as if he were a monster—as if he wasn’t her savior from that jerk or from a cold, hostile world. McGregor heard his own voice shushing her, trying to calm her and show her his love. He was the hero she needed. All the rest of the world saw that—why couldn’t she? No one else but he could provide that kind of total love.

McGregor heard a click, but its meaning didn’t register. He was still there in that moment with Michelle. She was so silent, so beautiful. He no longer heard the sound of the breeze or the staccato song of a mockingbird.

The present McGregor could hold it back no more. “Shut up! Don’t you see that I love you?”

Then there was silence for what seemed like days before the blackmailer spoke.

“That is exactly what you said the night you took the life of Michelle McIntyre.”

“Shut up!” McGregor’s words sounded weak even though he was shouting.

“Had I continued the recording, we would have heard your voice saying those same words, isn’t that correct?”

McGregor buried his face in his hands.

“You also killed Becky Sanders, a young girl just starting out in life. You took the life of two innocent girls and now you pretend to be some hero. You are, in fact, more responsible for what happened in New Orleans than anyone else, isn’t that right? You were there. You set up the bomb.”

“Shut up.” His voice was not loud, but its strength had returned.

“The money, Mr. McGregor.”

The bed groaned as McGregor’s weight left off the springs. He walked with confidence toward the bathroom.

“I’ll wash my face and then we will transfer the money online. You will destroy that?” he said, pointing to the computer. “How do I know you won’t come back asking for more?”

“You don’t. I can only give you my word,” Sam said, remembering a line from some forgettable late night movie.

Sam watched as McGregor walked to the sink, cupped his hands, and splashed his face multiple times. He shook his hands free of any remaining water and wedged his face into a towel, patting it dry.

“You win. I will just need to get my password from my briefcase under the bed.”

Sam hoped Suteko had been right… He still couldn’t read McGregor’s thoughts in real-time, but the hatred lacing McGregor’s voice was impossible to miss.

A moment after disappearing over the side of the bed, McGregor reappeared with a Glock and a sneer.

“You really thought you could trick me? Huh? Samuel Williams?” McGregor quickly closed the distance. He was now holding the gun inches from Sam’s head. The gun violently bobbed up and down, but Sam sat still and said nothing. “I’ll tell the Secret Service some damn Arab group tried to set me up. I’ll give them that recording and tell the world I was blackmailed because I saved the world.” His hands shook more. “I saved the world! I did! Who would they believe? Huh? Me, their savior, or you—a confirmed terrorist!”

“A savior? You didn’t save Michelle—or Becky.”

“Shut up!”

“You were not their savior.” Sam stood firm. The quivering gun was now pointing at Sam’s heart.

“I,” McGregor said, half-choking on a draw of breath, “I loved Michelle.” He nodded his head multiple times. “I’ve seen her. I’ve seen her several times since then. She is more beautiful now. I helped create that new beauty. I can see her again and again. I just…”

McGregor was terrified of the angels, but they were beautiful—more beautiful than anything he had seen on earth.

A lone tear began to bubble from one of McGregor’s eyes.

“I’m sorry…” McGregor said as he stood back a foot and raised the gun. He had regained his composure and even some of his strength. “I’m sorry, but I cannot be your savior.”

McGregor closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.

Chapter 47

A hotel clerk behind the desk had been quietly watching the Asian woman sleep in a lobby recliner. He had an hour to go before he could clock out and looking at a pretty face helped the time go by.

He wondered how old she was. She was young but seemed to have an ageless dignity even as she slept in that comfortable chair. He was both envious of the sleep she was getting and of the man whom she was undoubtedly waiting for.

He sighed and turned to the paperwork in front of him. He tried doing actual work as often as his eyes would allow—just in case his manager was watching—but his gaze kept returning to the woman.

She now wore a large smile that startled him. Her eyes were still shut and her position in the chair had not changed. But she wore that gigantic smile…

Suteko’s smile had not broken her concentration. But by listening to the echoes, she was sure that the old man was all right. She heard his voice. She heard Sam’s voice echoing too. She was sure both of the voices were from the future. The plan seemed to be working.

The clerk continued to watch, intrigued by this mysterious woman and her sudden smile. But just as suddenly, the woman’s face fell dark. Seeing the change, the clerk almost rushed to her aid. Not only were her eyes now wide open, but that amazing smile had turned to a stern, pained expression. She stood up quicker than he could imagine was possible. The woman was fully awake and looked around, panicking.

“Are you all right, Ma’am?” he said, projecting his voice.

Then…she simply disappeared.

Suteko had the sudden realization that something had not gone according to plan. Something awful had just happened. Something was terribly wrong. Sam, don’t do it…

Click.

Sam smiled. Even if he hadn’t heard the echoes, he would have trusted Suteko with his life.

She had entered McGregor’s room while they were in the lobby. There, she both unloaded the pistol and set up surveillance cameras at various points in the room. The entire scene had been recorded and streamed live to Agent Simmons at the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Cobbs had mentioned Paul Simmons as someone he trusted enough to contact. He had been killed before he could give them a phone number or address, but information gleaned from Cobbs’ cell phone enabled them to contact Simmons. He had been the last call Cobbs had made and the only name the agent had mentioned.

Simmons had not been told who the callers were or even what the situation was about specifically, but out of respect for his fallen friend, Simmons sat in front of a computer connected to a video stream and waited. For what seemed to be hours, all he saw was a series of still images of a darkened room.

Then, the lights came on and Simmons realized he was viewing various angles of some unknown hotel room.

Voices. Before he saw the face, Simmons recognized the first voice: Todd McGregor, the one man more than any other whose face and voice were in the news constantly.

Simmons had been watching alone in his office, but as soon as McGregor appeared, he was on the phone and sharing his screen with several intelligence and security people.

Click.

“Did you really think we would let you have a loaded gun?”

“Y… you,” stammered McGregor. “Curse you—Samuel!”

“I prefer Sam.”

Sam closed the distance to his enemy in less than a second. He knocked the gun from a shaking hand and had his own hand around McGregor’s throat. In a flash, the killer’s body was against a wall—a wall that had been ten feet behind him. McGregor’s body went limp, his useless hands lifeless at his side.

“You killed innocent girls. You are responsible for two more deaths in New Orleans. You are in league with the demon who murdered a friend of mine. Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you now?”

McGregor was barely conscious. He was unable to speak or even comprehend the question. His feet kicking, desperately seeking solid ground.

A streak of rainbow color saturated the room and manifested itself between Sam and McGregor.

“Don’t do this, Sam.”

Suteko had one hand on Sam’s cheek and the other on his arm, the arm connected to McGregor’s throat.

“Sam, look at me. Let the authorities handle this. Let’s clear your name.”

Sam turned to her and then, after a moment of hesitation, back to McGregor with renewed rage.

“Sam, clear my name.”

Her words hit Sam hard. He loosened his grip and let McGregor drop. The killer rolled away, wheezing on the lightly carpeted floor.

“It’s over, Sam.” Suteko allowed herself a half-hearted smile.

Sam spent a few seconds catching his breath before his face turned dark.

“No.” He rushed to the door. “No, it is not over.” Sam’s fists clenched. “She’s coming,” Sam said, turning to face Suteko. “Kaileen will be here soon.”

Suteko’s face paled. “Marcus,” she said, shaking slightly. “Did… Is Marcus all right.”

Sam took her hands and squeezed. “Yes. I can hear him. He is warning us—loudly. We must get McGregor out of here.”

Suteko turned toward McGregor who was cowering in a corner. With a sweep of her hands, she scooped the killer into her arms and flew out the door. Sam followed close behind.

They were in the hall when the red-headed woman stepped out of the elevator. Her motion was so fast, that it was as if she had exited the elevator already running at full speed. She dropped and rolled into their view. As she righted herself, her wrists flicked outward. Sharp metallic projectiles launched from both opened palms. She swiftly followed behind.

Sam pushed Suteko and McGregor into a door to their left. The impact bent the metal frame enough for them to fall within and away from the incoming projectiles.

Leaning to his right, Sam was easily able to dodge one of the blades. Another ripped across his upper left shoulder, sending blood and cloth into the air.

Before he could think about the pain, however, the woman was on him, hitting him with the brunt of her hunched-over shoulder. The collision sent Sam flying twenty feet behind and into the outer wall, his legs and feet all the while ripping carpet and flooring. During the flight, his fingers scrambled and reached in vain for any hold, any way to slow his backward motion.

His back hit the wall, knocking the air out of his lungs. His ears heard a series of loud creaking and cracking noises that seemed to come from all around him. He realized it was the sound of his flesh and bone hitting sheetrock, wood, and then brick, slowing his movement but not stopping it entirely.

His fingers finally caught hold of something, halting his motion. One hand held a steel girder braced by the outer brickwork. His other hand had several fingers deep into wallpaper and drywall.

He felt the cool outside air against his back; it was soothing to his open wounds but horrifying to his mind. The cool air meant very little separated him from the outside of a tall building. He only had a moment to assess his situation—through blurred and dusty eyes, he saw the bloodied arms, hands, and fingers that kept him from falling eleven floors.

“Oh, Samuel. What I would have given you!”

As Sam opened his eyes from a blink, he caught sight of Kaileen’s elbow growing large until it slammed into the side of his face.

“And yet, you spat on me.”

The pain was becoming unbearable and Sam’s left hand lost its grip. His back felt broken and his legs felt trod over by a Mack truck, but he was still holding on with his right hand. He couldn’t tell if his legs were inside, outside, or buried under the flooring.

“Your secrets will be mine, regardless.”

He tried to open his already swollen eyes again but couldn’t. He felt another blow send his head back into something hard. He could only imagine that his head had hit the outside of the building as he was falling the eleven floors to his death. Through closed eyes, he saw sparkling stars but little else.

Her fists planted themselves on either of Sam’s ears. Although painful, it told Sam he had not fallen outside the hotel—not yet. When she squeezed, high-pitched ringing joined the sparkles. Blind and deaf, his only good sense—touch—simply reported intense pain. That and he could also feel the woman’s cold hands convene around his throat. It was comforting to his burning throat—a little like the cool balm on a wound. The only other consolation was equally disturbing: the outside air he could still feel on his exposed back.

But then she began to squeeze.

Even the one sense still operative suddenly ceased to function. Sam felt no pain; he felt no burning or coolness. Even the intense ringing faded into silence. The sparkles also were leaving him. Soon, there was nothing, nothing but black.

“Sam. Sam, can you hear me?”

It was an echo and as faint as a muffled radio seeping in through a room beyond a wall.

Opening his eyes, he was surprised to be able to see at all, let alone see the face of the old man looking down at him.

“Sam, we must go. Can you move?”

“Move? I’m alive?”

“Yes, Sam, you are alive. I came in time, but Kaileen escaped.”

Sam realized it was Marcus speaking.

“Marcus—I think I can move.”

“All right. I will lift you. Let me know if there is any pain.”

Sam grimaced as he felt Marcus feeding his hands and arms under his body. There was pain—much pain, but he knew it could have been a lot worse. He was grateful for the pain. It was a blessing to be able to feel at all.

“It’s fine,” Sam said. “I can take it.”

“Good because security will be here soon and I really don’t want to have to explain all this.”

And then Sam suddenly remembered the woman of his dreams. “Suteko? Suteko! Where…”

“I’m here Sam. Don’t worry. I’m afraid Kaileen took McGregor, however.” Marcus headed toward the stairs with Sam in his arms. From the corner of his eye, he could see Suteko smile, however faintly. She had a cut below her right eye and she held her left arm as if it was injured.

Sam closed his eyes and let his mind drift. He barely noticed as Marcus carried him down eleven floors of steps in less than a minute.

Chapter 48

One Week Later…

“Sam…”

It was a whisper, but loud enough to reach him in his dreams. He opened his heavy eyes to a darkened room. It may have been midday, but with the thick carpet drapes in his hotel room, it felt like it was night. The only light seeped in from around and under the mostly closed bathroom door.

After the encounter with Kaileen, Sam needed more sleep. Sam saw this as a setback, but he was feeling better every day. He seemed to be recovering from more than mere physical injury. Sam slept the entire first day. The next day, he required eight or nine hours. And now, a week later, that voice had interrupted him an hour into his sleep period.

He waited a few seconds and then, after hearing nothing more, closed his eyes again. His body needed more rest.

It had been a long week.

The day after the incident, McGregor’s body was found in a hotel bathroom. He had taken a bullet to his head at close range. The media was reporting it as a suicide and the public had mourned for him as they had President Franklin. He had, so they said, succumbed to the pressures of stardom. But with Kaileen still at large, Sam wasn’t so sure it was that simple even after the suicide note was confirmed to have been written in McGregor’s own hand.

Sam’s injuries had all but healed within a few hours of fleeing the hotel—the battlefield as Marcus called it. Sam’s accelerated healing had compressed what should have been a few months in the hospital to a few hours in the care of his friends. But the nightmares lingered and his need for sleep increased. If it hadn’t been for Marcus and Suteko…

Suteko.

They hadn’t spoken of their future together. Too much was going on and they were all focused on Sam’s recovery. It went far beyond a physical recovery. He had experienced the thoughts and intentions of pure evil. Cleansing would take time and effort. Her touch was his medicine, but not a complete cure.

Relaxing his arms and legs under the sheets, he saw Suteko’s face in his mind and followed her deeper into a dream. It was a kind of waking dream where he felt fully aware of his surroundings and, for the most part, in control of his actions. He was about to relinquish control when his ears heard the voice again.

“Sam…”

It was a female voice. Immediately, Suteko in the dream faded and then disappeared completely. He mourned losing her face in the dream—the first good dream since the incident—but he soon became aware that it was the real Suteko calling him, waking him.

His heart beat a little faster at the thought. He wanted to sit down with her over a drink or two and just talk. It seemed like he had known her for years and yet their adventure had started only a few months before in a hot Japanese August. The stress of recovery and the incessant demands of both politicians and law enforcement had made quiet time all but impossible.

Sam opened his eyes. His head was so muggy. It was hard to think straight, but it was her. She was inches away, sitting on the side of his hotel bed. He had not even felt the movement of the mattress as it gave way to her weight. It was as if she had always been there. Sitting and watching him sleep. Perhaps she had been there all along like at the hospital in Japan.

Suteko.

A little light from the cracked-open bathroom gave the contours of her dark hair beautiful highlights. He could just make out her facial features, but the soft light was playing tricks on his eyes. He wasn’t sure if she was smiling or grimacing. He was still half-asleep. His mind warred with a body that was demanding more rest.

“Sam, lay your head on my lap. Allow me to massage you—to touch you.”

Before he could respond, he felt his head being lifted and then placed on something soft. He closed his eyes as her fingers ran through his hair. Her fingers were cool, almost cold as if she had been handling ice. It was oddly soothing. She continued to massage his shoulders, driving him back deeper into dreamland.

“Sam, look over there, in the corner.”

He opened his eyes and was surprised to realize he was now standing. He was even more surprised when he figured out that he was not in DC in his hotel, but inside the old man’s apartment in Manhattan. Sam squinted his eyes and looked toward the corner. He saw the globe.

Suteko took his hand and gently pulled him forward.

“Come, my love.”

He followed, although he had no feeling below his waist. He simply could not feel his legs moving—he wasn’t even sure he had legs. But in an instant, he had moved to the globe and was looking at Suteko across from it.

Suteko placed two fingers on the Atlantic Ocean—Sam noticed her fingernails were long, much longer than he had remembered. In a flash, the fingers swiftly flicked the surface of the globe. Countries, oceans, and colors were all a blur. After a few seconds, her hand fell, stilling the globe’s rotation. Her index finger pointed to India.

“Tell me, Sam. You can see them. Tell me.”

Sam understood and began speaking names and places as he saw them. The Temporal. She would move her finger north, south, west, or east and he would begin again.

But his mind often drifted and his dreams would take him elsewhere. Recent locations and events played heavily in his dreams. In one moment, he was in San Francisco and then, in the next, his mind replayed the bombing in New Orleans. Each time, Suteko’s face appeared and forcibly dragged him back to Marcus’ apartment and that globe. She was insistent that he continue and stay with her there in front of the globe.

After many minutes, the finger was positioned over the Washington DC area. Sam stumbled.

“Too many.”

“What, my love?”

“I see you, me, the old man, and…”

Sam blinked and shot up from bed. He was back in the hotel room in DC, sitting up in a sweat-soaked bed. Suteko was on the bed next to him with a curious look on her face. He saw a flash of anger steal across her eyes.

“And you…”

“What do you mean, my love?”

“You—are not Suteko.”

The woman smiled and placed her right hand on his thigh.

“Look me in the eye and tell me you do not love me—that you do not desire me.”

Sam was lost. Her eyes were beautiful—strange, but beautiful.

“Samuel, you know I love you,” she said, licking her lips. “Say it.”

It was Suteko’s appearance, but those were not Suteko’s eyes. Suteko’s eyes were kinder; these were burning and yet utterly compelling. Sam looked deeper. Her eyes were magnificent. Not Suteko’s but magnificent and somehow familiar.

“You… not Suteko.”

“Who I am is of no importance. It is only that we are here now. Drink deeply, my love. Today, we fulfill our destiny. I was wrong to have sought your hurt. Together, we can remake the world in our image. Together, we will.”

Sam saw stars appear. A memory suddenly came to his mind. He knew why her eyes had seemed familiar—not the same, but similar. Stars… He had seen stars at McGregor’s apartment. The stars in the Nephloc’s eyes. The globe. The other one in DC was… Kaileen.

“No!”

Sam pushed Suteko off the bed and, rolling off the other side, he leaped for the door. In an instant, Kaileen was on him. The two fell to the lightly carpeted floor. She no longer pretended, her red hair tickling Sam’s cheeks. She had him pinned down. Her small frame was deceptive; she had the strength to keep him and several other grown men in place. She was smiling, her eyes bulging.

“Oh, Samuel. How much pain could have been avoided had you just chosen me instead of her. I could have given you far more than she is worth. Far more!”

“What do you want?”

“Your head.”

She arched her neck and moved close enough for their noses to almost touch. Her eyes bore down on him. Sam weakened and looked back into her eyes. He saw desire and, for an instant, his whole being wanted to give that desire what it wanted, no matter the cost.

Sam shook his head, breaking the trance. His mind was freed, but Kaileen was still on top of him, holding his body prisoner. He had personal knowledge of the demon woman’s strength and especially with his weakened state, he knew he could not prevail physically. He closed his eyes tightly and turned to the side.

“Suteko.” It was a whisper, but was quickly followed by a shout. “Suteko! Marcus!”

Her right hand, palm flat, hit his chest with a force that knocked the breath out of Sam. He had to struggle to refill his lungs with enough air. There would be no more shouting for help.

“Relax. This won’t hurt, love.”

Sam kept his eyes shut tight.

He felt his arms still pinned, but somehow she had both hands on his cheeks, turning his head toward her again. Her thumbs dug into his eye sockets and then released quickly. The sudden pain and then relief caused Sam to open his eyes wide. It was enough to make eye contact, enough to convince him to stare.

As her right hand moved to his forehead, he began to melt into her eyes again. Her fingers, spread wide and bent, touched his forehead and upper cheeks. He felt a rush of uncontrollable thoughts fly into and out of his head. Images and sounds and tastes and feelings began a motion that was impossible to track.

Just as he felt he could no longer maintain consciousness, he heard a loud noise. Unlike the other noises and sights, this noise was from outside and not a product of his mind.

He felt his forehead instantly loosed from her grip. His eyes were also clear. He saw that she was no longer on top of him. He was free from her bewitching gaze and her hold.

He was even more surprised to see his arms straight out in front of him. In his arms, he saw strength and determination that had not failed him—even if his eyes had strayed, his deep-seated will prevailed. The red-headed woman was thrown through the wall and partially into the bathroom across the room. He had managed to not only break from her eyes but to strike back as well.

“What’s going on?”

It was Suteko—the real Suteko—and she was standing in the doorway.

“Watch out!” shouted Sam.

Kaileen turned the corner and then lurched out the door and into the hall, knocking over Suteko before she could process what Sam had said.

“Kaileen,” said Suteko with more than a hint of anger in her voice. She was helped up by Marcus and the two rushed to Sam’s side.

“My boy, did she hurt you?”

“No… My chest hurts, but I’ll be fine.”

Marcus helped him sit up straight while Suteko went to get him some water.

“Sam, can you tell me where she is?” asked Marcus as Suteko arrived with the glass.

Sam closed his eyes. He now knew her pattern and what to look for. Why he didn’t realize it earlier—he had been asleep and his dreams had betrayed him. He would learn to listen even in his sleep; he would learn to watch for Kaileen at all times.

“Yes. She is near, but leaving fast. Two blocks from here. 92nd street intersection. Heading east.”

In a flash, the old man was gone.

Suteko sat next to him and began massaging his arms. In contrast to the fingers of Kaileen, Suteko’s hands were warm and therapeutic.

“Is Marcus stronger than she is?” asked Sam.

“Marcus may look old, but don’t let that fool you. He knows things she doesn’t. Don’t worry.”

She leaned over, giving him a kiss on the forehead. Then, she fell down next to Sam against the wall of the hotel room, placing her arm around him. They spent the next few minutes in silence, content to hear nothing more than their own breathing.

Epilogue

President Hollenbeck stayed true to his word and did not seek the office. His supporters were en masse encouraging him to run. They said, quite correctly, that not running would be handing the election to the other party. He played the noble statesman in media interviews, choosing the public good over his private ambitions.

Inwardly, however, he was seething.

The promises of that woman were nothing. McGregor was dead and so were Hollenbeck’s political aspirations. The FBI was quietly investigating what he knew and when. McGregor’s true nature and involvement were to be released to the media upon conclusion of the investigation. Hollenbeck knew there could be implications, even if only circumstantial.

The Speaker of the House, Brad Gardner who only a week before was labeled the “zombie candidate” was sworn in as president the following January. He had no love for President Hollenbeck, but once it was clear Hollenbeck had done nothing illegal, President Gardner approached Hollenbeck and they co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging the nation to move on.

Suteko and Sam were pardoned by the outgoing Hollenbeck who knew good publicity when he saw it. It soon became obvious that they were not terrorists and while the public could not know the entire story, it would only be a matter of time before the two would be hailed as heroes.

They quietly returned to Japan. There, Suteko received some unwanted attention when some enterprising newspaper reporter uncovered the name of the “unnamed Japanese national” who had been pardoned by the president and was believed to have helped Todd McGregor expose the terrorists.

From that, questions of her origins arose. She had documents proving her Japanese citizenship, but when Yomiuri Newspaper reporters searched for her parents—hoping for a scoop—it was discovered that they didn’t exist. Allegations of identity theft and increased attention from the press, made it clear that she could no longer stay in Japan.

The press in Japan had a field day, but without official charges and the validity of her citizenship not being in question, the government could not prevent Suteko and Sam from leaving.

After a long consultation with Marcus in New York City, it was decided that a meeting of the Temporal needed to be called. Suteko could hide and forever wander. Or the existence of the Temporal could be carefully revealed to the leaders of certain nations giving them protection and a way to live openly. One way or the other, in the internet and digital age, anonymity for the Temporal was increasingly becoming a lost cause.

In Marcus’ apartment, Sam sat down before a world map that Suteko had spread out on a table. Marcus, with a pen in hand, wrote each name and location in a different script and varying code as Sam spoke.

Once finished, the old man stood.

“For the two thousand years that I have walked this earth, I never thought this day would come. Our existence as a secret may no longer be possible. In order to protect Suteko, as well as us all, we may need to trust a few outsiders.” He paused, holding up the paper filled with the twenty-six coded names and addresses. “This simple piece of paper is worth more to Kaileen than all the riches of Solomon.”

He carefully folded the paper and slipped it into an envelope. Sam half expected Marcus to seal the envelope with melted wax. He was slightly disappointed when Marcus instead used a small piece of tape.

“Our primary concern is protecting our Temporal brothers and sisters. We must instruct the President about a kind of reality that is unknown to him. This is no longer simply an internal affair, but a danger that could affect all of humanity.”

Sam began to think of the past few weeks, the past few days. The short-lived and tragic friendship of Cobbs; the pain of seeing a bad man adored by good people; the physical trauma his body had absorbed…

The threat—McGregor and his bombs—had been dealt with, but Sam knew Kaileen would not give up. Sam had something she wanted.

Suteko’s hand slipped around Sam’s right arm forming a chain and filling him with peace. It wasn’t the kind of peace to make him forget his troubles; it simply shored up the strength within him and helped him to cope.

Sam looked at Suteko, smiled, and then turned his attention back to Marcus’ speech.

“Gather your things. We begin tomorrow.”

About the Author:

CJ Martin, originally from Florida, spent several years in Japan learning the language and soaking up the culture. Many of his stories draw from this experience.

The Tanaka series of short stories and novels explore one Japanese man’s desire to protect his family and end the cycle of violence prompted by a group of revenge-minded yakuza. Betrayal, murder, timeless friendship, and family secrets abound, delving deep into Tanaka’s past.

In the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Agora Mysteries is a series of novelettes written from the perspective of Mr. Carl Brooks, the last surviving member of the legendary Agora Society. Using his considerable intellect and knowledge of esoteric matters, Mr. Brooke cleverly thwarts criminals and solves cold cases. Look for Two Tocks before Midnight, The Penitent Thief, and the Peace Party Massacre in the series.

The Temporal is a supernatural thriller about a group of people with special, almost super-hero abilities and a dark group of creatures called the Nephloc. Book two of the Temporal series, A Temporal Trust, is available now.

Please contact the author at [email protected] or visit his blog at: http://cjmartinbooks.com

Your comments and questions are most welcome.

KOTOBA BOOKS
PO BOX 3726
Lake City, FL 32056-3726

SEE THE NEXT PAGE FOR AN EXCERPT FROM BOOK TWO.

A SPECIAL EXCERPT FROM

[A TEMPORAL TRUST
**]Book Two of The Temporal Series

BY

CJ Martin

Chapter One

“How many of them, boy?”

The old man’s eyes were wide, his mouth hanging open as if still in the process of releasing his last word. Sam couldn’t tell if it was from fear or simply the anticipation of the moment.

Sam closed his own eyes and shut out the world around him. Patterns soon emerged within his mind that represented Nephloc—the dark creatures under the enemy’s control.

“Three—no, four,” Sam said, opening his eyes and turning to Marcus who was not twelve inches away. “And they are closing in fast.”

Seeing a burgeoning smile, Sam determined the wide eyes were revealing anticipation and not fear.

Sam looked down from the rafters upon which they were hiding and watched as Suteko walked casually around a chair on the floor below. She wore her long, silky hair back in a ponytail. Her clothes were loose to enable quick and varied movements. She was dressed for battle.

She was the bait.

It had been Marcus’ plan, and Sam was dead set against it. He had finally found Suteko, and the best plan they could come up with was to have the woman of his dreams become the lure to entice the Nephloc—waking nightmares—into a trap.

But it was the Temporal’s only hope; they had no knowledge of the enemy’s plan and they desperately needed intelligence. All they knew was the Nephloc would be coming and that meant opportunity.

Brushing Sam’s fears aside, Suteko understood this was their best chance to gain information, and she willingly submitted to the plan. Kaileen—the presumed leader of the Nephloc—was on the move, always one step ahead of the Temporal. No one would be safe until she was stopped. If they could just get some hint of her location, this whole matter could be behind them; Sam and Suteko could have a life together.

The call-out by Marcus was answered by fewer than he had hoped. Many Temporal, individualistic by nature, had not been fond of the idea. Others understood the danger and were arranging transportation. The time table varied for those planning to come. Some were willing to leave immediately. Others required weeks to settle local accounts.

Ian Cooke and Catherine Porras were the first to arrive in Washington DC. Even before Marcus’ invite, they were intent on paying the old man a visit. While nothing concrete had happened, both Ian and Catherine had experienced a number of strange parallel dreams. Consulting Marcus in person seemed appropriate. Hearing of the threat only solidified their decision.

But they were not without their disagreements. Ian had a past with both Suteko and Marcus, and Catherine was unstable and highly suspicious of Suteko’s motivations.

Ian and Catherine’s dreams and visions had been filled with dark creatures. These evil beings were searching for something. After some discussion, they both agreed that the object of the enemy’s attention was Suteko. From this interpretation, the current plan was decided upon.

In their visions, Ian and Catherine had both been shown a specific location. They were certain the attack would take place there. They had no address, but both had a vague sense of the area and felt they could find it.

Marcus consulted with President Brad Gardner who sent Lieutenant Scott Harrison. Harrison worked in close liaison with the Pentagon and the Secret Service as a facilitator, someone who organized meetings and had the authority to make what needed to happen happen.

Following Ian and Catherine’s instructions and making ample use of Google Maps, they soon discovered the location. Remembering their visions, they immediately recognized the outside of the house. When they stepped inside, the interior was exactly like their dreams as well. Only their guide, Lieutenant Harrison, was surprised to discover the house was actually a Secret Service safe house; the others nodded as if some intricate puzzle had been solved.

With its few rooms and exposed rafters, the building was more of a cabin than a house. It sat atop a small hill and a good half mile away from the nearest neighbor. The north side of the hill had the lone access road and provided an unobstructed panoramic view—perfect for watching for any intruders.

The lieutenant was told only Suteko would require lodging at that location. It wasn’t that Lieutenant Harrison was untrustworthy—he seemed to be of the highest moral character—but the Nephloc, through nefarious means, would somehow learn that Suteko would be alone in this place, and they wanted to plant as many seeds as possible to lead the enemy to that conclusion.

They had been waiting for over a week, each night careful to make it appear as though Suteko was alone and vulnerable.

And now, the time had finally come. Ian and Catherine’s visions had proved prophetic.

Up in the rafters, Sam shot a glance at Ian. Marcus was next to Sam near the doorway, but Ian was positioned in the middle of the room, looming over Suteko’s chair.

Ian had seemed quite taken aback by the dreams. Sam had noticed it. Ian gave Suteko more than a fair share of his attention. The subtle glances… the readiness to agree and take Suteko’s side no matter the context. While he certainly appreciated Ian’s concern and protection, Sam began to suspect Ian had more on his mind than simply preventing a nightmare.

It wasn’t that Ian was a bad guy. The first time they met, they seemed to have hit it off. But a few days later, Ian was a totally different person. Sam didn’t put it together at first, but he suspected it had something to do with Suteko.

“Suteko,” said Sam in a voice just above a whisper, “thirty seconds.” He had let the thoughts of recent events run too rampant. Sam had to get control of himself within the moment—anything but total success was unacceptable.

The old man, who was near Sam, asked, “Which direction?”

“They are circling the building,” Sam whispered, drawing his finger around before pointing at the window and then to the door.

Ian’s face hardened. His right hand squeezed a wooden beam a little too hard, sending bits of wood pulp to the floor. He was above and to the right of Suteko, about six feet from Marcus and Sam.

“Steady.” Marcus’ face was resolute, his voice little above a whisper. “Ian, watch the window. Sam and I will focus on the door. No talking.”

Ian and Sam nodded and concentrated their attention on their respective targets. Suteko sat down on the single wooden chair in the middle of the room. After glancing upward, she alternated her eyes between the curtained window and the solid oak door. Sam wondered how she could be so composed.

A screeching sound, like that of a barn owl, thundered nearby, causing the window to rattle.

Sam touched the old man’s shoulder and got his attention. He flashed out three fingers in the direction of the door and one at the window. The old man nodded, and Sam turned his attention back to the door.

A minute passed and Sam began to worry. He sensed the four creatures were just outside the door and window of this small cabin, but they were not moving.

Ian waved his hand in Marcus’ direction and then signed a silent question with his right hand. After reading the sign language, Marcus leaned over to Sam and whispered into his ear, “He’s asking what’s going on?”

“The Nephloc are outside the door and window, but they are just waiting for some reason.”

“Can you read their thoughts?” asked Marcus in a voice just over the hum of a nearby air vent.

After making sure his legs and arms were solidly on multiple beams, Sam closed his eyes and concentrated. He allowed his body to relax. Gray patterns, dark and unclear, floated before his closed eyes.

Faces appeared and grew in detail. He began labeling the patterns. Doing so organized what he saw, preventing confusion. He saw Marcus, Ian, and Suteko. He noted Catherine’s pattern several hundred meters away. No doubt, she was watching and also listening to the echoes while waiting for the signal.

He turned his attention to the middle area just outside the small building. There, he saw four dark patterns that resisted his attempt to bring them into greater detail. He could see nothing more than gray shapes. The enemy was emitting some kind of barrier that prevented Sam from learning more.

It was like viewing a television channel that had been scrambled; he could see that something was there, but its content was a mystery. He had never encountered this kind of resistance and was unsure of its meaning. But he knew one thing: these creatures were their hunters, the Nephloc that had come to harm Suteko.

His anger burned enough to momentarily disrupt his concentration, but he soon had the indefinite shadows back into view. He saw no further detail, but he could at least monitor their movements.

As Sam quieted his mind, the nature of the information he was receiving from the four dark shapes changed. It all seemed meaningless—garbled data missing the beginning or the key portion that could unlock the overall meaning of the message. But it was information, and information meant intelligence.

Sam tried a different approach. He stopped trying to listen or view their thoughts as one would hear or read language. Instead, he attuned his senses to their hearts. These Nephloc had been well trained. They were masking their thoughts—or else, someone was masking their thoughts for them. They could not, however, hide their feelings, their pure evil intent.

There was something else that Sam sensed… fear.

Sam whispered into Marcus’ ear, “They want confirmation Suteko is here and alone. They sense a trap.”

Suteko looked up at Marcus. He signed a message to her. She nodded and began singing, slowly and softly. It was a Japanese lullaby just loud enough to penetrate the door in front of her.

[Mori no fukurō ga iimashita
Watashi wa mori no mihari yaku
Kowai ōkami, Kitsune nado
Kosasenai kara, nenne shina
_ Gorosuke ho- ho- Gorosuke ho- _]

Sam was enchanted by Suteko’s voice and the Japanese words, very few of which he understood. He knew it had something to do with an owl in the forest standing guard against terrible wolves and foxes. He knew the Nephloc were listening and were likewise interested in the sound. He just hoped they didn’t know about the owls watching and waiting for the foxes.

He began to see movement in the patterns and shapes on the map in his mind.

The Nephloc were responding to her voice. It was working.

Then, Sam’s muscles tightened. He could sense that they were counting down. Marcus and Ian looked to Sam as he held up five fingers and folded one for each second that passed.

He closed his fist. Suteko stopped singing.

Two loud bursts blasted from the direction of the window and door. There was an explosion. Shattered wood and glass fragments went flying into the air, showering the chair that Suteko had quickly vacated.

The door splintered, but it took a large, gloved hand to punch through and pull out enough of the wood before the Nephloc’s enormous frame could enter. The monster that came through was colossal, dark, and by any definition powerful.

Still up in the rafters, Sam could see that the one at the window had already entered completely. Marcus held up his hand in view of Ian and Sam. The creatures were moving cautiously, and he wanted all four inside the room before springing the trap. If one escaped, total control of the situation would not be possible.

Suteko was prepared for battle. Although only one of the three at the door had fully entered the building, the Nephloc from the window was closing in on her. It was swaying to and fro as if injured, dragging its feet heavily over the tiled floor. Each stride produced a metallic scraping sound unpleasant to the ear. Adding to the general discord, it also let out a sustained growl with each exhalation. A black, gloved hand reached out toward Suteko’s position.

Sam kept his eyes on the Nephloc closest to Suteko. It was big. Comparing its height to the rafters, Sam guessed it was nearly eight feet tall or at least it would have been had it not been slouching.

The stench it brought with it was every bit as impressive as it passed under Sam’s location. This Nephloc still had much flesh to rot off.

The whole scene was even more frightful to Sam than the time several smaller dark-clothed Nephloc had attacked him in front of a Japanese hospital. They had drawn his blood and overpowered him, but it had been dark, and he was now seeing their appearance in the clear artificial light.

Ian ignored the old man’s still-held up hand and jumped down from the rafters, landing behind the one Nephloc who had entered via the window. His right hand caught the neck of the creature. With a twist, Ian sent its head down hard into the floor.

Marcus sighed and also dropped down. A second later, Marcus and Sam were facing the single Nephloc that had managed to get through the door. It turned and, along with the other two enemies, began fleeing outside.

Marcus pushed a button on a keyring signaling Catherine to leave her observation perch and give aid. He then flashed outside, leaping into the air. His fist plummeted into the nearest Nephloc trying to escape.

Sam followed and caught the Nephloc that was reeling from Marcus’ attack. With a show of great strength that surprised even him, Sam threw the Nephloc against the outer wall of the building. As Sam let the creature fly, he used that split second to glance at Ian.

Ian was on top of the Nephloc that had come in through the window. It was on the floor, and Ian landed blow after blow into its face and chest. Suteko was beside him trying to get him to stop. Ian didn’t acknowledge anyone else’s presence; all that existed was him and the enemy.

But even more fascinating for Sam was the creature itself.

The Nephloc under Ian had been so large, and yet now, it was nothing more than a sniveling mess frantically trying to avoid Ian’s blows. The beating this Nephloc was taking would have killed any human. And yet, there was no blood, only a pulp of flesh and bone.

But it was experiencing great pain.

The sounds of high-pitched screeching filled the small building. Ian’s eyes were burning as he jumped off that nearly unconscious Nephloc and headed toward the one Sam had just brought in. That Nephloc was now against the wall attempting to position itself as far away from the coming avenger as possible.

The captured Nephloc were poor reflections of what they had been only a minute before.

“Enough!” The old man’s voice boomed, stilling the fists and turning the heads of not only Ian, but everyone else in the room. Marcus had returned with the third Nephloc in tow. Releasing it, the three Nephloc cowered together in a tight group making stunted, bowing motions directed at their Temporal captors. They were cornered and defeated. All possible exits were covered by Temporal who were clearly stronger than they. This was a happy surprise for Sam who had imagined the enemy would have offered a much fiercer attack.

Marcus shot a disapproving glance at Ian who was once again sporting clenched fists and was in mid-stride toward one of the creatures. The old man repeated, “Enough. They are defeated and will have quarter.”

Sam stepped in front of Ian, stopping his advance and daring him to continue. After a few ponderous breaths, Ian lifted his fist. Sam stood firm, but pulled his shoulder in slightly. With a cry louder than the explosions that had opened the window and door, Ian turned and slammed his fist into a nearby wall.

The old man nodded and said, “Hold them here while I help Catherine capture the last one.” Marcus then flew out the door with a speed faster than the eye could process.

1 Katakana is one of the phonetic writing systems in Japanese. It is used primarily for foreign names and loanwords.


The Temporal

ETERNITY: Existence outside time After his wife leaves him for a former friend, Sam Williams moves to Japan to start his life over. But a quiet life was not to be. A devastating earthquake in central Japan sends eternity crashing into time, enabling Sam to hear echoes of the past and even the future. Through the echoes, Sam and a mysterious Japanese woman learn of a terrorist plot that could plunge the world into turmoil and position a murderer as the leader of the free world. They alone have the knowledge and ability to stop the plot. But even with eternity on their side, can they stop it in time?

  • ISBN: 9781311522641
  • Author: Clay Boutwell
  • Published: 2016-01-14 00:40:25
  • Words: 73002
The Temporal The Temporal