Jack hesitated for a moment, calculating the risk of distracting Romero before reaching over and swatting the tarantula from his friend’s shoulder. The huge spider tumbled out of the jeep. To Jack’s relief, Romero kept his eyes aimed ahead for as long as it took to make sure the jeep avoided the cecropia that appeared in their path, only turning to raise an eyebrow in Jack’s direction once the tree was behind them.
“Believe me, you don’t want to know,” Jack said.
Romero held the look for a while longer, then turned his attention back to the road ahead.
That road was the 156, the only even marginally serviceable route for those traversing the northernmost three hundred kilometers of Amapá. Most of the 156 had disappeared behind them as they neared Oiapoque, the jeep churning up red clay, bouncing over terrain that, back home, Jack would have described as prime off-roading territory. As if to punctuate that thought, the jeep’s right front tire dropped down into a hole, sending a shower of moist red clay into the air. He barely grimaced as some of that shower landed on him; after almost five hundred kilometers he’d given up trying to preserve the integrity of his clothes.
As the jeep navigated a sharp curve, the first sign he had seen in more than a hundred kilometers came into view, the faded wood placing Oiapoque less than twenty kilometers ahead. Then the sign was gone, leaving nothing to prove that anything existed beyond the rain forest, save the road the jungle was ever working to reclaim.
The branches of mammoth kapoks hung over the road, their pods dangling in patches like ripe fruit amid the leaves. Intertwined with the kapoks were other lesser trees, many so snuggly placed against their larger cousins as to provide as solid a wall as any a man could make with brick and mortar. And among this tangle of limbs and leaves that wove a cover over the rain forest, insects and animals in types and numbers Jack could hardly fathom made their homes.
The tenuousness of humankind’s foothold in this formidable place was enough to humble even a seasoned traveler, but rather than continue to ponder the question, Jack reached for the travel bag between his feet, fishing around until he found a cigar, a Dona Flor he’d picked up in Macapá.
Romero watched as Jack cut and lit the cigar, not saying anything until he’d released the first puff of smoke to the jungle. “Since when do you smoke cigars?”
“Since the day Jim and I pulled that fifteen-hundred-year-old Mochica headdress out of that royal tomb in Peru,” Jack said.
At the time, it was the most valuable artifact ever discovered in the country, and Dr. James Winfield, who was lead archaeologist for the dig, had pulled two cigars from his breast pocket the moment the headdress was packed safely for travel. Considering the magnitude of the find, Jack couldn’t refuse the celebratory token.
“As I recall, that artifact was worth 1.5 million,” Romero said.
“Closer to two,” Jack said.
“An occasion worthy of a fine cigar, indeed.”
Jack took another puff as the jungle passed by on either side. He glanced over at the Venezuelan.
“How does Espy feel about men who smoke cigars?” he asked, trying to keep a smile from touching his lips.
Romero didn’t say anything right away. In fact, the only evidence that he’d heard the question manifested itself in a reddening of his ears. It was a reaction that reminded Jack that while Romero was a friend, his temper was often unpredictable. And he was very protective of his younger sister.
“I think the more accurate question is how she feels about men who are forced to eat their cigars for even entertaining ideas about another man’s sister,” Romero said.
Jack chuckled, yet he knew enough to let the matter drop, a decision that coincided with the jeep rounding one last corner to reveal their destination—opening up before them, the whole of it, in a single instant.
They drove in above Oiapoque, a border town where the streets and buildings lay clustered closely together along the river that shared its name. At first glance, the place looked as if it had been ravaged by a natural disaster, a flood pushing through long ago and leaving behind red silt to mark its passing, filling the streets, staining everything the water touched. Just when Jack figured the town to be dead or abandoned, he saw movement. As Romero gave the gas pedal a nudge to send the jeep in the direction of the river, Jack could see the people who gave the place life.
As the 156 widened, the results of the wet season became visible. Deep ruts had been cut into the slope, sending the jeep bouncing and dipping until finally they reached a spot where the road leveled out. Heading deeper into town, Jack took a long draw from the cigar and watched as people stopped to view the jeep and to size up the visitors. Oiapoque was remote enough to make every visitor an opportunity, and the locals seemed to be experts at assessing the nature of one’s need. Because outsiders wouldn’t go through the hassle of traveling all the way here if they didn’t need something.
Before long, most observers dismissed Jack and Romero, and of those whose gazes lingered, all were men who looked like the kind it would be wise to avoid. It gave Jack a moment’s pause to consider that these were just the sort of men he and Romero had come to see.
When they reached Oiapoque’s version of Main Street, it seemed to him that everything worth doing in the place had been crammed into a few square blocks. Shops of various sorts sat almost atop each other, a curious mix of modern-looking establishments with a European flair, along with other storefronts and vendor stalls that had a more local flavor. But the shops were secondary to the people who began swarming the jeep, a great many of them calling out to Romero and Jack, offering a variety of services, their French and Portuguese forming a carnival-like cacophony.
Romero maneuvered the jeep to the side of the road, spurring a more intense movement of entrepreneurs toward the vehicle, but the Venezuelan’s glower quickly dispersed them. Thus freed, Jack and Romero stood on the road for a few moments, taking the place in, Jack’s eyes seeking out someone who might convey them to Saint George, which was located across the expanse of water separating two nations.
There was something of the Wild West to Oiapoque. Its people, left to their own devices, had created something wholly unique—and maybe even a little dangerous. Jack decided he liked it. Save for the ubiquitous red clay his boots kicked up, which coated everything and everyone.
He took Romero’s grunt as agreement.
“I’d say we have as good a chance of finding a ferryman there as any,” Romero said, nodding toward a tavern that also had caught Jack’s eye, mainly for the group of men gathered beneath its overhang.
As Jack and Romero drew nearer, the odors of fried food, stale beer, and cigarettes wafted through the tavern’s open door, along with the hum of conversation and the occasional clink of glass. He saw the look on Romero’s face, understanding that Taberna da Esquina was the kind of place to which he could lose his friend if they lingered. So he quickly made use of his rusty French to see if he could find someone willing to take them across the river.
Less than a minute later, he had secured the services of one of the locals, who immediately started off in the direction of the jeep. But when Jack moved to follow, he noticed that his friend seemed rooted to the spot.
Romero’s eyes were fixed on the tavern entrance.
“Our meeting is more than an hour off,” Romero said. “A ten-minute river transit should allow time to enjoy some of the fruits of this lovely town.”
Jack didn’t answer right away because, in principle, he couldn’t fault the argument, but pragmatism eventually reared its head. “We can either stay here for a drink and let Paulo get there first, allow him to set things up how he wants them, or we can delay gratification, beat him there, and maybe have time for a nice Malte Barrilete.”
Romero turned that around for a time, wearing a frown that told Jack he was without a rebuttal. He grunted again, then turned away from the door. “Fine. Even if I think you’re being overly optimistic if you expect to find bourbon of that quality this far from Macapá.”
With Romero in tow, Jack started after their Brazilian Charon, who had stopped to wait for them. Soon they reached the marina, where they navigated a cursory customs checkpoint.
It was his first good look at the Oiapoque River, a waterway that wound like a ghost through trees that stood like sentinels along its banks—except where towns like Oiapoque had staked claims along its length, the trees pulling away before converging again downstream. They boarded a small boat and pushed away from the dock. And it wasn’t long before Jack could make out their destination on the far bank, watercraft landing and departing at a series of piers that seemed much more orderly than the ones they’d left behind.
When they reached the other side, the ferryman tied off and then led the way up the pier. He stopped before reaching the border checkpoint, where Jack parted with some of the meager funds he had left before heading with Romero into French Guiana.
According to Paulo, the name of the place was Chez Modestine, though the sign hanging above the door was weathered enough that Jack had to identify it by a scant few discernible letters. Like the rest of Saint George, Chez Modestine had a lethargic look to it, with no sounds coming through the tall, narrow open doorway, and a handful of locals lounging on the wooden deck that wrapped around the two-story building.
Inside, it was a different story. The place was packed with nearly every seat occupied, both at the bar and around the scattered tables. About half of the patrons wore the uniform of the largest employer in town, the French Foreign Legion, and hardly any of them so much as glanced at the newcomers.
Jack and Romero shared a look and then started toward one of the back corners of the large room, toward an empty table. They hadn’t quite reached it when Jack saw that their attempt to arrive early hadn’t worked out.
Paulo Azevedo was a small, slight man whose body seemed like some taut wire. Jack had only met him once before, yet Romero’s successful business dealings with the man had convinced Jack to come along, to engage in one of the less seemly sides of archaeological fieldwork. Outside the classroom, the line between legitimate archaeology and treasure hunting could get blurry. Most archaeologists, however, were able to intuit the position of that line and keep themselves on the proper side of it. It wasn’t until Jack met Romero—a man who made his living procuring rare items for people with the means to pay handsomely for them—that Jack ever considered engaging in a meeting of this sort.
Paulo sat at a table in the corner opposite the one Jack and Romero had been aiming for. The two men with him—both much larger than Paulo—had similar enough facial features for Jack to deduce a familial relationship. Fraternal hired muscle. Paulo’s eyes were on the foreigners. He was smiling, a cat-that-caught-the-canary smile, and Jack couldn’t help feeling irritated that he’d beaten them there.
He changed direction, catching Romero off guard, and slipped into one of the two empty seats at the table, directly across from Paulo. He offered a disarming wink to one of Paulo’s men, whose only response was to regard Jack as one might a bug. But when Romero slid into the other seat, Jack felt a bit better about the playing field. While both of the men the Brazilian had with him were imposing, there was something about the Venezuelan that suggested danger beneath a refined exterior. Paulo’s guys seemed to sense it immediately. Both shifted in their seats, eyes moving to Romero.
No one spoke right away, and Jack found himself starting to hunt around for what Paulo was to have brought, seeking out something the right size and shape. Meanwhile, Romero flagged down a serving girl and ordered for both of them—the Malte Barrilete for which he’d held out little hope. Not seeing a conspicuous bundle, Jack returned his attention to Paulo. The Brazilian had eyes like a lizard; Jack didn’t think he’d blinked since the moment he and Romero had sat down.
“I trust the trip was uneventful,” Paulo said in English, with only a hint of an accent.
“We made it here in one piece,” Jack answered.
“Where’s the dagger?” Romero asked, getting right to the point.
Paulo smiled again, showing a prominent gap between his front teeth. Instead of answering the question, he took a drink of whatever local brew he was working on. Jack responded in kind, sampling the Malte Barrilete. Then Paulo set his drink down and reached a hand beneath his jacket. Jack tensed, but when Paulo pulled his hand out, he was holding the dagger.
Jack’s eyes locked on the dagger to the exclusion of all else. It was double-edged, a bone hilt beset with emeralds and rubies. Jack found it stunning. He extended a hand, but Paulo pulled the knife back.
“If I’m going to spend the kind of money we’re talking about, I need to see it,” Jack said.
After a moment, Paulo extended the dagger. Jack took it from him, trying to keep his excitement in check, concentrating on giving the thing a clinical review. A line of jewels ran along the hilt, which scintillated even in the dim light of the tavern. The gems alone were worth twice Paulo’s asking price. He turned the dagger, letting the light play off the stones. The bone hilt had been dulled by time. As Jack ran a thumbnail along it, he saw the markings. He brought the dagger closer. They were near the base of the weapon, a series of lines running along the bottom edge, hieroglyphic in their design. He frowned. He couldn’t remember anything from his research that mentioned text on the dagger.
From across the table came the sound of a throat clearing. Jack glanced up, caught Paulo’s impatient eye. He looked back at the weapon, studying the mysterious etchings on the hilt. Then, with a sigh, he looked at Romero and nodded.
The Venezuelan leaned over and retrieved the bag. He placed it on the table.
“Fifty thousand, as we agreed.”
Jack felt the tension increase, even as the patrons around them remained oblivious to what was transpiring in their midst.
“Unfortunately,” Paulo said, “I think we’re going to have to renegotiate.” He smiled that gap-toothed smile again.
A second later, Jack saw the first gun come out, then another immediately after. He glanced at Romero. This was generally the point when Romero lost his temper and tried to throw a punch or two. Invariably they would walk out without the dagger orthe money. But what he saw on his friend’s face caused him to do a double take. Instead of anger, he saw complete calm—nothing to indicate he was at all bothered by what was happening.
And then he glanced down, saw white knuckles gripping the table. “Great,” he muttered, right before Romero flipped the table over.
The next few moments consisted of shouting, glass shattering, and cursing in both Spanish and Portuguese. At one point, one of Paulo’s men raised his gun, aiming it at Romero’s chest. Jack leaped into action and tackled the man from behind, taking him to the floor and kicking away the gun. Then he heard more glass breaking, after which he saw the first flames.
The bar went up quickly, the flames moving with incredible speed, shooting up the wall, making inroads across the ceiling.
“Romero,” Jack yelled over the sounds of the fleeing crowd.
Romero turned toward Jack, who was pointing to the fire. Romero’s eyes went wide—right before he took a right hook to the cheekbone. Jack winced for him, but Romero made short work of his assailant and started to follow Jack toward the door. He was halfway across the room when Jack saw him stop and look back.
“Romero,” he yelled again. Even Paulo’s men had given up the fight in favor of flight. Romero and Jack were the only ones left in the building, which was coming down around them. Jack called out again, but Romero either didn’t hear him or he was ignoring him. Jack saw him staring at something across the room.
It was the dagger, lying on the floor, with flames dancing around it. It was beautiful. But it wasn’t worth dying for.
“Romero,” Jack shouted, louder this time.
Finally Romero’s head turned and his eyes found Jack. Wild, feverish eyes. Then a beam crashed down between them, flames rising like a solid wall. Jack lost sight of his friend, but when he rushed forward to where he’d been, Jack found himself struggling to breathe. Still, he lingered for a little while longer, hoping to see Romero emerge from the fire and smoke. But when his lungs could no longer take it, he had no choice but to head for the exit.
As soon as he ran outside, he was grabbed by several pairs of hands and led away. Someone put a cup of water in his hand. Yet his attention remained focused on the building, completely engulfed now. It took a moment for him to realize that shock was threatening to overtake him. The cup tumbled from his hand.
Then something caught Jack’s eye. At first he couldn’t quite make it out, only that it was something inside the smoke, moving alongside the building. He watched, transfixed, until the figure broke away from the wall, then took on a shape of its own. It was Romero. Several people hurried toward him, giving him aid as they had Jack.
Jack rushed over to join them. He grabbed his friend by the shoulders. “What happened to you?” he shouted.
Romero coughed and said, “I went out the window.”
Jack pulled him away from the crowd, made him sit. “Are you okay?”
Romero nodded and waved off Jack’s concern. Then he beckoned him to come closer. He pulled his coat open, just enough for Jack to see the dagger. Romero grinned, eyes shining.
Amazed, Jack returned the smile, but even as he did, he recalled the image of Romero inside the tavern, and the look in his eyes was an expression Jack had never seen before. For some reason, despite the heat, he shuddered.
Ellen, North Carolina—Present Day
As Jack took the last few steps down to one of the sidewalks of Evanston University, leaving the venerable ivy-covered edifice of Whittenborough Hall behind, it occurred to him that he might be getting old. And that estimation had nothing to do with his physical state, which was better than average, despite a knee that had given him trouble for the better part of twenty years. Rather, it was the fact that the last ten minutes of the Archaeology Ethics class he’d just finished teaching were some of the most intellectually stimulating he’d spent in the classroom in a long while—and yet he could already feel the subject matter slipping away in favor of the cigar and porch that awaited him at home.
It hadn’t been too long ago when a question like the one raised by one of his students—about the disposition of plundered artifacts during wartime—would have kept him in the lecture hall for an after-hours debate. Such a question might even have spurred him to hours of research later, toiling away, a half-eaten bowl of cornflakes at his elbow. But Jack knew that was unlikely to happen today. Instead he would file the topic away somewhere in his brain, in a nice secluded spot from where it would occasionally raise its hand in an attempt to get his attention. And at some point, maybe years down the road, he would pull it out, dust it off, and start a new book.
He released a sigh just as a student walked past, heading toward the building he’d just left.
“Hey, Dr. Hawthorne,” the young man said.
The Evanston University campus wasn’t large, and the student body barely topped four thousand, which meant just about every face was familiar, even if the names were not. That was the case here, so instead of saying anything, Jack nodded and gave him a little wave.
Once the student was gone, Jack slowed his steps, finding himself taking deep draws of the spring air, picking out the strong scent of Bradford pear blooms on the breeze. There was something about Evanston that made him appreciate the spring in a way he might not have in some other place. The perfectly manicured grass, the obsessively cultivated flower beds, the way Evanston was nestled within the confines of picturesque Ellen, North Carolina—the season seemed to grant the university and its faculty and students a unique energy that sent ripples across the beautiful campus.
Even though Jack had to cross the entirety of the campus, it took him less than ten minutes to reach his home. The Colonial Revival–style structure, which was much too large for his tastes, sat amid a handful of similar gambrel-roofed faculty homes around the perimeter of the university. During his first teaching stint at Evanston, he lived in a small third-floor apartment closer to downtown—an apartment with spotty hot water and carpet that smelled of old cheese. The only times Jack would venture this way were those occasions when Duckey invited him to dinner. Looking back on those years, he was reminded of how often his friend, and dean of his department, would extend that invitation. In retrospect, it was just possible Duckey was worried about Jack’s diet, which at the time consisted mostly of pancakes and breakfast cereal.
Today, after years of living in the house, Jack still found it strange that he and Espy and the boys lived barely a stone’s throw from Duckey’s place, even though his friend’s house was located well back from the road with mature trees surrounding it, allowing him at least the illusion of isolation.
The street was quiet as he reached the driveway. He could hear the barest strains of music floating through an open window, something with a Spanish flavor, he thought. He stooped to pick up a small plastic bag next to the mailbox, a rock and a piece of paper inside—a solicitation for baby-sitting, or pressure-washing, or lawn care. As he straightened, his knee let him know that it was going to be one of those nights when the dull pain that normally made an appearance during his walk home would linger longer than usual. What cheered him, though, was the thought that the knee gave him a good excuse to spend the evening relaxing on the porch.
When he entered the house, the music he could only just make out from the driveway assailed him with renewed vigor, and although he’d suffered through countless iterations of South American pop bands during nearly ten years of marriage to his Venezuelan bride, he never seemed to develop an appreciation for the music of her homeland.
He could hear Esperanza in the kitchen, a series of sounds that told him she was able to shed her classroom responsibilities early. Heavy class loads, as well as late classes for both of them, made those times when one of them could get into the kitchen to prepare a proper meal relatively rare.
He proceeded down the hallway, glancing into the family room on his way to the kitchen. The former was unoccupied, and when he reached the latter, he found something that made him smile. Espy was making arepas. It wasn’t specifically the menu, though, that amused him. It was that she was dancing to a Franco DeVita number, dancing a salsa between the kitchen’s island and the stove, where she dropped spoonfuls of cornmeal batter into a frying pan. The batter sizzled in the pan, and Espy used a spoon to corral it into a perfect circle before turning back to the island. It was at that moment that she saw Jack. After adopting an embarrassed look for the briefest of moments, she winked at him and then turned off the music.
“You didn’t have to turn off Franco,” he said, only half joking.
She answered with an insincere scowl as Jack crossed to the island, where she’d already arranged steak, feta cheese, tomato slices, and avocado.
“Arepa llanera,” he said with appreciation. “What’s the occasion?”
Jack was familiar with all the ways one could make arepas, most of them having to do with the items that were ultimately stuffed into the cooked dough. For the sake of convenience, their family usually opted for ham and cheese. The fact that Espy had taken the time to marinate steak and pick up avocado suggested at least a minor celebration. But as soon as he asked the question, he remembered Jim’s appointment earlier that day.
Espy could see that he’d made the connection, and she offered the same sad yet hopeful smile that was seldom far from her.
“His lungs look okay,” she said. She lifted a cutting board from the island and dropped it into the sink. “But his weight is still low.”
Hence the arepas, Jack said to himself. Steak arepas were Jim’s favorite, and the boy could usually be counted on to eat more than one.
“Clear lungs, that’s good news,” he said, though he realized she already knew that. So instead of saying anything else, he made his way around the island and wrapped her in an embrace. When he let her go, his wife’s eyes were moist.
“He’s in his room,” Espy said, anticipating the question. Then she turned away to tend to the frying dough. Jack lingered for just a moment, pondering how strange all of it still seemed, but then he turned to go find his son.
He took the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor, a hand on the curved railing. He paused at the door to Jim’s room, his mind forming a picture of what he was doing inside. And when he gave a single knock and opened the door, he found the image an accurate one. His son was at the desk that Duckey had bought for his last birthday. It was an antique, large, made of walnut, and more than three hundred years old. Jack had resisted doing the research to find out how much the thing cost, but he knew it was an extravagant purchase, and he suspected that Duckey had bought it for the same reason all of them did many of the things they did for Jim. That thought was one he didn’t want to consider at the moment, so he pushed it away and entered the room.
Jack paused after taking a single step, studying his son’s profile. It had always amused him that Jim looked more like Espy’s brother than he did Jim Duckett, the man in whose honor he was named. Of his two sons, Jim was the one with the more pronounced Latin features, and he could see hints of Romero in him, especially as he grew older. Even so, there were bits of Duckey he could see in his younger son too—most notably his sense of humor, which was more ribald for an eight-year-old than Jack was often comfortable with. Yet it was a character trait that had served Jim well, considering the lot he’d been dealt.
Over the last few years, Jack had learned more than he ever thought possible about cystic fibrosis, and about all the progress doctors had made in the treatment and management of the disease. Early on, he’d been encouraged by the knowledge that many CF patients lived reasonably healthy lives into their forties. That initial encouragement, though, was what had made Jim’s situation harder for Jack to handle—the fact that the disease was progressing with unusual speed through the boy’s body. And so the doctors who’d examined him had tried to prepare Jack and Espy for the strong possibility of losing him before he reached his eighteenth birthday.
Jim hadn’t yet looked up from whatever he was reading. Jack supposed he was used to his father wordlessly watching him, as if he were some phantom that would disappear if Jack looked away. It was something Jack tried to keep to a minimum; a father should do his best to avoid passing his own fears on to his children.
As if in silent agreement with that thought, Jim finally looked up and flashed Jack a smile.
“Hey, Dad,” he said, and as always, Jack found himself listening for anything in the sound of the boy’s voice that would signify fluid gathering in his lungs. But the fact that he wasn’t coughing, that Jack couldn’t hear him wheezing even when silent, told him that Jim was still riding the relatively healthy wave he’d been on for the last few months.
“Hey, pal.” Jack crossed to the desk to see what he was reading, and Jim turned it so his father could see the cover of a Batman comic.
“Nice,” Jack said. “‘Arkham Asylum’ is a good one.” Then he frowned, considering that he was supposed to do something parental here. “Aren’t you a little young for that?”
Jim’s answer was a shrug and a crooked grin, as if he knew he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t, yet also understanding that the one who’d caught him was a co-conspirator.
“I got it from Alex’s room,” Jim said. “And he’s only ten.”
While Jack wasn’t sure the logic worked, he decided not to press the issue, recalling his own stash of comic books when he was his son’s age. Admittedly they were a bit campier than the current darker fare, but he was well acquainted with the one Jim was reading and couldn’t think of anything that might give the boy nightmares.
“Does Alex know you borrowed it?”
Jim returned the same shrug and smile, a twinkle in his eye, and Jack couldn’t help but smirk in return. While he and Espy had kept much of their past from the kids, both boys knew some of the broad strokes. And since Jim was his son, Jack could imagine the path the boy took to rationalize taking the comic book from his brother’s room. Something about it not being stealing if he planned on putting it back, eventually. Jack thought that, of his two sons, Jim—the more intuitive—could see a glimpse of the treasure-hunting mentality behind the practice of archaeology.
When Jack left Jim’s room, he felt better than he had when he’d gone in. And the smell of steak cooking downstairs ensured that his mood would see no further decline that evening.
Although it was the sort of quiet that made a man think he could hear his own heartbeat if he listened attentively enough, Jack almost didn’t hear his phone ringing. But at some point the intrusive chirp made its way through his defenses, pulling him back from a thousand miles away. When the ring came again, he found that he had a choice to make—either answer it and lose the atmosphere he’d conjured over the last few minutes, or ignore it and hope whoever was on the other end would content himself with leaving a message. He was leaning toward the latter as the last ring died off. He waited to see if another would follow it, but as the seconds ticked by, it seemed the caller had opted for voice mail.
He resettled in the chair and took a puff from his cigar, only now noticing the built-up ash that told him he’d been lost in thought for a while. Through the screen door, Jack could hear Espy moving about in the kitchen. He smiled and adjusted his feet on the rail.
He was just about to lose himself back into relaxed mode when his phone started ringing again. Jack sighed and, shifting the cigar to his other hand, fished around in his pocket until he found the phone. He didn’t recognize the number, except that it had a local area code.
“Jack, I need you to listen and not ask any questions. Got it?”
It was the tone of Duckey’s voice, more than what he was saying, that brought Jack’s feet off the porch rail.
“That counts as a question,” Duckey said. “And we don’t have time for many more of those, so just shut up and listen.”
He waited a second, perhaps to make sure the admonition stuck, before speaking again.
“Alright. I need you to go inside, grab your family, and get them out to your car.”
Jack was on his feet and heading toward the door, his friend’s words still ringing in his ear, which was a testament to their shared experience. Jack also thought it said something about Duckey’s ability to infuse urgency into what was otherwise a calm, measured statement.
“What’s going on?” Jack asked as he opened the screen door.
“That’s question number two,” Duckey said. “And I promise I’ll answer it, and any others you might have, but later. Right now the only thing you should be concentrating on is getting that family of yours out of the house. Understood?”
A great deal of history existed between the two of them, a history that included Duckey saving Jack’s life more than once. He knew he owed Jim Duckett more than he could possibly repay. And he trusted him completely.
“Good,” Duckey said. “You don’t have time to grab anything but yourselves. Cash if you have any handy. Passports if you don’t have to go hunting for them. You may not be able to use them anyway, but they’re good to have just in case.”
Jack had entered the house, the screen door swinging shut behind him, when Esperanza looked up from the book she was reading, a cup of tea on the breakfast-nook table. Whatever she saw on Jack’s face provoked an immediate response. She closed the book and stood, staring at him.
“Once you’re out of the house, you need to pick up a new phone,” Duckey said. “And make sure you pay cash for it.”
“Got it,” Jack answered, even as he tried to think of any cash they had in the house. He looked at Espy, who was clearly waiting for an explanation, one he couldn’t give her. “I need you to find any cash we have handy,” he told her. “And our passports.”
“Only if they’re handy,” he heard Duckey say.
“Only if they’re handy,” Jack repeated to Espy.
Jack could see Espy processing the information. He suspected there were a number of ways this could go, most of which would cut into the time that Duckey seemed to think was so precious. One of the things he knew about his wife, though, was that she had shared in most of those experiences that had necessitated Duckey’s help in years past. It was that history that caused her to nod and begin the task of gathering their meager funds.
“How much time do we have, Ducks?”
“My guess is no more than ten minutes. When you get your new phone, find a way to get the number to that person you used to work with—the one who lived in your old apartment building.”
Jack was on the verge of saying Angie’s name when it occurred to him that Duckey never forgot anything. If his friend hadn’t said the name, there was a reason he didn’t want it said out loud. That told Jack that Duckey thought the call was compromised, and that suggested his friend had willingly put himself at risk.
“Understood,” Jack said.
“All we can hope for right now is that we stay ahead of them. It can take a while for them to get a track in place. So if we forward phones enough times, we can probably end up with a secure connection.”
Jack knew that Duckey wouldn’t have him do this unless there was real danger. Yet he couldn’t end the call without asking the question. It was a question he’d hoped he would never have to ask, and one that the passage of time had convinced him he wouldn’t have to—so much so that he and Espy had gotten rid of the tactical ready bags years ago.
“It’s about the bones, isn’t it?”
Even as the question left his lips, he knew it was the only answer. There were few episodes in his past that would warrant a flight from his home, and only one with enough open ends to make it a good candidate. When one was hired by a billionaire to locate the bones of a biblical prophet, and when locating those relics meant stealing them from an ancient society organized to keep them safe, and instead of giving them to the man who hired you, you buried them in the desert and let the billionaire die rather than allowing him to play God, you spent a long while afterward looking over your shoulder.
Jack knew that Duckey would be anticipating the question. Still, the silence that greeted him was weighty. He could almost see his friend running a hand through his hair.
“Yes,” Duckey said after what seemed a long time. “Now get your family out of there. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
The phone in Jack’s hand went dead. He kept it at his ear for a few seconds, as if that could help him absorb how drastically his life had changed in such a short span of time. When he pulled the phone away, he started to put it in his pocket but then hesitated. Instead he set it on the kitchen island and headed toward the family room, where Jim and Alex, oblivious to what had just happened, were engaged in electronic sibling rivalry.
He met Espy in the hallway. She had a decent collection of cash in her hand, but Jack’s eyes were drawn to the other thing she held. Without a word she extended the handgun toward him. He paused for only a second before reaching for the Glock and tucking it into his waistband. He then took Espy’s hand and gave it a squeeze.
Less than three minutes later, the family was gathered at the front door, the boys in light jackets and clutching the few items they couldn’t leave without. As Jack looked at them, the one thing that really struck him was that none of them appeared to be frightened, even with him running around like a lunatic. That alone told him there was a lot of Espy in both of the boys, a realization that made him smile.
“Let’s go for a ride, boys,” he said.
Espy opened the door and the boys started after her, but then Jack remembered something.
“Give me a minute,” he said to Espy before turning and bounding up the stairs. In Jim’s room he found the boy’s nebulizer and medications, and he suffered a pang of guilt that he and Espy had almost walked out the door without them. Wherever they ended up, Jim was going to need his medical supplies.
When he rejoined the family, he saw Espy eyeing what he’d gathered up, and Jack could almost read her thoughts. It wasn’t the first time the two of them had been forced to run; it was just the first time they’d had to do so with so many other considerations.
Soon they were all in the car and pulling out of the driveway. Jack deliberately avoided wondering if it was the last time he would see this house that he’d grown so used to. He glanced over at Espy, who more than anyone in the world could understand what he was thinking, but her face was a blank slate.
It wasn’t until they were a few hundred yards down the street that he saw the black SUV behind them, running without lights. He wouldn’t have noticed it had he not been looking. It stopped in front of Jack’s house, and then the distance made it impossible to see anything more. But he knew that people dressed in black would exit the vehicle and take the house apart, looking for something he hadn’t seen in a very long time, something he never wanted to see again.
He looked at the clock on the dash: 9:30. Duckey was wrong. It was seven minutes.
It was because he was looking at the clock that he didn’t see the other SUV slip in behind them. It wasn’t until he glanced at the rearview mirror that he noticed he could no longer see the road. Then something hit them from behind.
There was a crunch of metal. The impact threw Jack back against his seat and then his body came forward, his head coming down hard on the steering wheel. When he straightened, he couldn’t see the road for the stars swimming in front of him. What cut through the confusion, though, were the cries coming from the back seat. Jim and Alex were buckled in; they shouldn’t have been hurt. But they were scared now.
Jack willed his vision to clear and looked over at Espy, who was holding her head. His wife gave him a pained nod to tell him she was okay. Only then did he look back, just in time to see the SUV closing in for another strike.
“Hold on, boys,” he said. He shifted gears and punched the accelerator, allowing the V8 of their aged-but-still-dependable BMW to do its work. They took off like a shot, right before the SUV would have hit them a second time. Jack shifted again, and in short order put some distance between them.
They were racing down a narrow residential street. Jack knew that if they were going to get away on speed alone, he would have to find a wider, open road. As if to validate that thought, he saw the SUV begin to close the distance again. It occurred to him that if this was some organized team, then they probably had rides with a bit more power than normal.
The faculty homes were behind them now, the university campus receding. And then they were in Ellen proper, entering an area with more traffic, with businesses to attract college students popping up on either side of the street. He had to downshift as the BMW came up fast behind a pickup. After a glance past the truck, he swerved into the oncoming lane and accelerated. Yet the SUV followed suit and seconds later was close behind them again. Until Jack could get through town and out onto the state highway, he doubted he would be able to lose the SUV.
It didn’t help that he was operating blind. He didn’t know anything about the people who were trying to run him off the road, or what their objectives were—not beyond what Duckey had already confirmed. The only solid piece of information he had was that Duckey considered them dangerous enough to instruct him to leave his house on a moment’s notice. And for now, that was all he needed to know.
They were heading deeper into Ellen, and Jack thought he was driving too fast for the increasing number of people on the streets and sidewalks, many of them Evanston students patronizing the restaurants, movie theater, and coffee shops.
There were cars parked along each side of the road, and as Jack approached an intersection, the signal light flipped to yellow while he was still a good ways off. He didn’t even look to Espy before depressing the clutch and shifting to fourth, praying to God that someone didn’t step out from between the parked cars. The signal went to red well before the BMW shot through the intersection. Behind him, Jack heard a screech of tires but no sound of impact. He looked in the rearview and saw that the SUV had been forced to slow down to avoid cross traffic, but the driver had proceeded through the intersection, ignoring the red light.
“It may be safer to stop,” he said to Espy. “We’re in the middle of town. I don’t think whoever it is can just load us into their truck and drive off.”
His wife seemed to consider that, her eyes moving to the side mirror. She turned back to him. “Can we take that chance?” Jack knew she was referring to Jim and Alex. When he didn’t answer right away, she added, “It’s Duckey. We both know he wouldn’t tell us to run if there was any other option.”
Jack knew she was right. Duckey’s counsel had never once led him astray. He nodded silent thanks to Espy, whose own counsel had saved his life a time or two.
“Check their seat belts,” he said. He looked in the rearview. The SUV was less than fifty yards back. Without asking why, Espy swiveled to view the boys’ belts, reaching back to make sure they were fastened.
They were now nearing the center of Ellen, the SUV almost on top of them. They hit another intersection, the light green this time, and shot through it, weathered brick buildings speeding by on either side. Jack’s hands were tight on the wheel, and his pulse raced as he imagined any one of the people on the sidewalks darting in front of the car.
“Jack,” Espy yelled.
He saw it a second later. A minivan, parked in front of a line of restaurants sharing a single façade, had started to pull out. The BMW was much too close, and moving too fast, to avoid hitting it. Jack slammed on the brakes and heard the tires shriek in protest. He spun the wheel to the left, trying to will the car into the oncoming lane, praying there was no one coming. The next few seconds were a blur, the clearest thing about them the moment of impact. It was a blow that nearly took him from his seat, throwing him in Espy’s direction, but the seat belt held, momentarily pinning him between the two front seats. Somewhere along the way he’d lost the wheel, but it didn’t matter. The car was now in the hands of greater forces.
It seemed like an eternity, those two seconds of violence, the rear passenger quarter panel crumpling. But then it was over and, somehow, they were on the other side of it. The steering wheel was spinning back to the right, and by instinct, Jack grabbed for it. The BMW was still moving, though the engine was threatening to stall. It was instinct again that depressed the clutch, downshifted, and corrected the car’s momentum, bringing the BMW back to the proper lane.
Jack’s heart was racing again as he picked up speed, and he couldn’t help but glance in the rearview mirror to see how the minivan fared. Which was when he witnessed the black SUV run headlong into the stalled minivan. Wide-eyed, Jack watched the minivan driven forward, going sideways under the bull rush of the other vehicle. There was a metal-on-metal scream, and then the minivan completed its turn, its back end snapping into the line of parked cars on the other side of the road. The driver of the SUV, with the way now clear, tried to stop his counterclockwise spin but overcorrected. The front tires broke to the right at a sickening angle and the truck began rolling, its windshield shattering.
Jack kept the BMW moving forward, his eyes scanning the wreckage behind them, watching as the mangled SUV disappeared from sight. The sudden silence that settled over them felt strange. He shifted his eyes down to find Jim and Alex, both of them frightened but holding it together. Next to Jack, Espy turned to make sure the boys were okay—giving them a good once-over, taking their hands, forcing eye contact. Jack heard words of motherly assurance. It was only after she’d satisfied herself the boys were fine that she turned back to him.
He spared her a short look, his adrenaline keeping him focused on the road ahead. But in that brief exchange, Jack saw a hundred questions, hardly any of them he had answers for. This was a place he and Espy had been before, which was why she swallowed every one of those questions for the time being. And that left him free to do what was necessary, to concentrate on staying one step ahead of whoever was after them.
For that, though, Jack knew he needed help. And there was no one better positioned to provide that than Duckey. With that thought in mind, Jack set off in search of somewhere to purchase a few cheap disposable phones.
At some point it had started to rain. Jack wasn’t sure when it had happened; he couldn’t remember even turning on the wipers. But as he pulled off SR74 and onto the gravel road of the small airfield, the light rain created rivulets tracing their way down the windshield. The road had been absent any other vehicles for almost thirty minutes, and as the headlights of the much-abused car arced out over the airfield, there wasn’t even a hint of movement.
The boys were asleep in the back, having lost the fight with adrenaline and fear about an hour out of Ellen. It hadn’t taken them long to start asking questions, but they’d only done so after the first stop to pick up the disposable phones, after Jack thought they were far enough away from the carnage behind them.
The problem Jack faced was that he had no idea what to say to the boys. How did one explain a pursuit by ghosts from his past?
He’d checked in with Duckey a few times, but their conversations had been brief, only long enough to create some communication moats between them and anyone who might have been listening. And to arrange a flight.
The airfield had a single runway, designed for small aircraft. The tower was dark, as were the field’s two hangars. The gravel crunching beneath the car’s tires sounded louder than normal as they neared the buildings. There wasn’t another vehicle in sight, no sign that another human being had been there in a long time. Jack looked at the dashboard clock. It was approaching midnight. He and his family were late in getting there, and he started to wonder if Duckey’s friend had already left, thinking they weren’t going to show.
Next to him, Espy scanned the flatland. In the darkness, Jack couldn’t read her evaluation, and she didn’t comment. He took her silence as tacit agreement that they needed to continue on, even if she was beginning to get the feeling, as he was, that there was danger lurking in this quiet place.
Not long after leaving the outskirts of Ellen, Jack had filled Espy in on the call from Duckey that had sent them running. She’d absorbed the scant information and then, after a nod, settled back to see how things played out. She had a different set of priorities now than she did years ago in Australia, where the two of them buried the bones of Elisha rather than turn them over to Jack’s employer, and those priorities were sleeping in the seat behind them.
They were almost at the hangars before Jack saw the cracked door, a gap of no more than three inches through which he could see the faintest of lights inside. He stopped the car and cut the engine, and the silence that followed was just about total, save for a hint of labored breathing from Jim, a slight rasp. Jack didn’t move for several seconds but just sat and studied the hangar, more a weathered shed with large swinging doors. Then, without asking Espy to remain in the car with the boys, he opened the door and stepped out into the night air, leaving the keys in the ignition.
The rain was cold on his neck as he took his time walking to the hangar door. Once there, he peeked through the crack. He couldn’t see much of anything, not even an undefined shape. Understanding that whoever might be inside saw the headlights as they drove up, not to mention heard the sound of tires on gravel, he put a hand on the door and gave it a shove. It slid more readily than he’d expected, moving as if on a well-oiled track, revealing the source of the dim illumination—a single utility work light hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Beneath the glow of the light, a man was leaning into the cockpit of an airplane. Once Jack had stepped inside the hangar, escaping the rain, it took the man several seconds to acknowledge him. Even then it took almost a full minute before the man pulled back from the plane and turned toward Jack.
“You must be Jack,” he said.
“Which makes you Russell,” Jack answered.
Russell Hodges stepped forward, giving Jack a better view of a man around his own age, maybe a few years older. He wore worn jeans, a rumpled shirt, and cowboy boots. Hodges smiled and offered Jack a hand, and even if the man hadn’t been a friend of Duckey’s, it was the kind of smile that would have won Jack over anyway.
“Jim tells me you’re in a bit of trouble,” Hodges said.
Jack smirked and shook his head. “Duckey’s always had a talent for understatement.”
At that, Russell’s smile took on a different aspect, almost conspiratorial. “They don’t make many like him.” Then Hodges looked past Jack, to the open door and to the car where Espy and the boys waited. Jack turned around and saw that the younger one, Jim, was awake now, his face pressed to the window.
“Precious cargo,” Russell said.
“That they are,” Jack agreed. “And tired cargo.”
Russell chuckled and gestured to the plane. “She’s just about set. And once we’re up in the air, she flies pretty smooth, so you folks should be able to catch a nap while we’re getting you someplace safe.”
“I don’t suppose Duckey’s suggested a destination?”
Russell shook his head. “My impression is that he’s going to work that out with you.”
Until Russell said it, Jack hadn’t given much thought to where they would ultimately end up. It was enough to keep moving and let Duckey direct him. Now, though, he realized that he and Espy had some serious decisions to make.
“All that’s important right now is that we get this bird in the air,” Russell said. “We can figure out the rest of it after that.”
The “bird” was a twin-engine plane, a sleek-bodied six-seater, its tail adorned with the Piper logo.
“It’s a Seneca V,” Russell said, noticing that Jack was looking the plane over. “Had her about a month.” He ran a hand over the wing. “Just about have the kinks worked out of her.”
In the past, Jack had taken more than his share of flights in planes that were little better than flying tubs—planes that flouted the laws of physics every time they got airborne. So he knew the plane in front of him was not for the faint of wallet.
“I don’t know how Duckey talked you into this but I can’t thank you enough,” Jack said.
Russell waved him off. “Jim and I go back a ways and I couldn’t remember if I owed him a favor or if he owed me one. So I figured I’d err on the side of caution and build some equity.”
“Do you mind if I ask how you know him?”
“The Company” was Russell’s simple response, and Jack knew right away not to expect elaboration. Even Duckey rarely talked about his CIA days, despite his and Jack’s long friendship.
“Give me a minute or so and then I can taxi the plane out of here. Then you can pull your car in. That’ll keep it out of sight for a while.” Hodges grabbed a rag and began wiping his hands. After a few moments he looked up, a grim expression on his face. “They’ll find it eventually, though.”
In that moment it occurred to Jack that Russell knew more about the people who were after him than he did himself. Which meant that Hodges and Duckey had talked over a few things while Jack was in transit.
“Any chance you can let me in on the secret?” Jack asked, half expecting the man to tell him to take it up with Duckey. So he was a little surprised when Hodges answered.
“The Company,” he said again, the corner of his mouth taking a rueful turn.
Jack’s initial response was silence, and it took a while before he realized that was because, of all the entities Russell might have mentioned, the CIA was far from being on the list. It was also a revelation that sent a shiver up his back, and explained Duckey’s almost frantic phone call. He opened his mouth, but Duckey’s former associate cut him off.
“Before you ask, I have no idea why they’re after you. And, frankly, it’s none of my business.”
A statement like that left little else to say, and so Jack nodded and started to head back to the car. Then something occurred to him. “You said they’d find my car. Won’t that mean they’ll know it was you who helped us escape?”
Russell chuckled, shook his head. “I wouldn’t worry about that. This hangar belongs to them. And one of the things my former employers taught me was how to use available resources without leaving a trace.”
He laughed then, and Jack couldn’t help but smile as he walked back to the car.
When he slipped back in, Espy communicated everything she needed to with a single raised eyebrow.
So Jack responded with a gesture that did about the same thing: a shrug. It took less than a second before he understood his mistake.
Although the passing years had tempered a bit of Esperanza’s legendary fire, there were times when Jack caught a glimpse of the woman who’d once traipsed around the globe with him, and who wasn’t afraid to dole out a punch or two along the way. In fact, there were times he was amazed that he’d survived those early years reasonably intact. Now he could tell that his response had awakened that younger, nonmaternal version of his wife, if only in the fierceness he saw in her eyes.
“Uh-oh, Mom’s mad,” Jim said.
“I’m not really sure how this is my fault,” Jack tried.
Espy didn’t say anything right away. Instead she just looked at him, with the same steely, unflinching gaze that had often brought the boys to obedience without her having to say a word. And under that gaze, Jack felt like a ten-year-old. He was just about to speak when she beat him to it.
“I know it’s not your fault,” she said, “but I have to hold someone responsible for the situation we’re in, and you’re the only one handy.”
“Okay, I can see how this is at least partially my fault,” Jack said, trying to head off her anger. “If I hadn’t gone looking for the bones, then this wouldn’t be happening. But in my defense, I haven’t done anything recently to cause the CIA to come after us.” He paused to weigh the validity of that statement. “Okay, maybe the occasional box of Cubans Duckey gets me every so often, but beyond that—”
A voice from the back seat interrupted him.
“What bones?” Alex asked, his voice heavy with sleep.
Jack turned toward the boys. “I promise I’ll explain, guys. Someday. But right now we have to get ready to take a little trip.”
Alex pointed at the plane. “Where are we going?”
“Yeah, where are we going?” Jim repeated.
“It’s a surprise,” Jack said, and the boys seemed to accept his response. When he turned back to Espy, to see if the sidebar with the boys had allowed sufficient time for her anger to disperse, he was greeted by a wholly different expression—one that prompted a raised eyebrow. “What?”
“What’s this about the CIA?” Espy asked.
“Oh, that.” Jack took in a long breath, releasing it as he considered how things had changed even since they’d arrived at the airfield. He was just about to tell her what he’d learned from Russell when he remembered the other two members of their party. He glanced in their direction, then back at Espy. “How about we talk about it once we’re in the air?”
He could see that she was reluctant to let the matter go, her eyes promising him that the conversation wasn’t over. Jack was saved from pondering that, though, because Russell emerged from the hangar and slid both doors open wide.
“Why don’t you take the boys and get them buckled in,” Jack said to Espy. “I’m going to touch base with Duckey and see if he has any thoughts about our destination.”
As Espy exited the car with the boys, Jack pulled out one of the disposable phones, punching in Duckey’s number.
“Okay, how about we figure out how to get you out of this mess?” Duckey said before Jack could get a word out.
“Hey back,” his department head returned. He sounded tired. “I assume you’re in the air?”
“Not yet. Espy’s getting the boys loaded up now.”
“Good. So now we just need to figure out where you’re going.”
“I have an idea or two along those lines, but first can we back up a bit?”
“You’re right,” Duckey said. “There probably area few things we need to get out of the way first.”
“Maybe a few,” Jack agreed. “For starters, why is the CIA interested in the bones?”
“Did Russell tell you that? Because he’s only partially right. The man who’s after you is Marcus McKeller. He’s an agent, but this isn’t a CIA project.” Duckey paused. “He’s a rogue agent, Jack. He doesn’t report to anyone.”
Jack absorbed that, wondering if that was a better or worse state of affairs. “Why is he after the bones?”
“I did some digging when I started to hear things,” Duckey said. “It seems his wife has cancer. Bad prognosis, maybe two months.”
“I guess that’s as good a reason as any,” Jack said. “But how did he find out about them?”
“To put it in the simplest terms—the diversified business interests of the late Gordon Reese.”
Jack considered that, and it didn’t take long before he understood. When ailing billionaire Gordon Reese hired him to find Elisha’s bones some thirteen years ago, the world knew him primarily as a technology magnate, and yet someone with his kind of money had his hands in many pots. “Reese did some work for the government,” Jack posited.
“Not just somework,” Duckey said. “Reese Industries has contracts with just about every government agency. And from what I’ve been told, some of those contracts involve top-shelf projects—the kind that require pretty high security protocols.”
Jack nodded, his eyes moving to the plane. Espy was getting herself and the boys situated inside the aircraft. “Okay, I get that. Because Reese’s company does some hush-hush work for Washington, the government keeps an eye on them. But Reese has been dead for more than a decade. Why is your agency friend only coming after me now?”
“Listen, Jack, just because he’s Langley doesn’t mean he’s a friend of mine. I’ve been out of that line of work for a long time. I hardly even know anyone over there anymore.”
Jack decided not to remind him that, apparently, he still had contacts enough to give him advance warning that someone was coming to Jack’s home.
“As to why nothing’s happened sooner, my guess is that it’s just simple bureaucracy. When Reese died, someone in Washington probably got nervous about the state of Reese Industries, even though he’d essentially ceded control to his son almost a year before he kicked it.”
“They were worried that a man who knows he’s dying might be a security risk,” Jack said.
“So they went through his files,” Duckey added. “And not just his business files, his personal ones too.”
“I’m not going to get into how I feel about their ability to do that.”
“You have no idea, believe me. When you’re talking a company the size of Reese Industries, you’re getting into a volume of data that would rival the Library of Congress. My guess is they did a keyword scan on everything, and anything that didn’t get a hit would have been set aside.”
“So Reese kept information about the bones in his personal files, which were then copied over to a government server.”
“Where it sat unnoticed until, as best as I can tell, about two months ago,” Duckey said.
“When Marcus McKeller discovered it,” Jack said.
“I started to hear some things a while back. Someone asking questions. I still have a few friends over there, and they let me know.”
“And now McKeller’s looking for me because Reese’s notes told him I’m the last link in the chain of possession.” Jack said it more to himself than to Duckey, working things out in his head. “I guess what I’m having a problem with, Ducks, is why he wouldn’t just come and ask me. I mean, if you send a few CIA agents to someone’s house, they’re usually pretty forthcoming. Why the heavy-handed approach?”
“A threat to one’s loved ones can make a man do crazy things,” Duckey said. “Also, since this is an off-the-books op, McKeller couldn’t rely on his CIA status to get you to cooperate.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Jack said.
“There’s something else, Jack,” Duckey said. “I told you that McKeller’s gone rogue, which means he’s not using CIA personnel for this. He’s paying outsiders. Some of them will be ex-Langley, others probably retired cops.”
“Mercenaries,” Jack said.
“Something like that.”
Jack released a sigh. “Well, tell me about this guy. What am I facing here?”
“National Clandestine Service,” Duckey answered. “Under normal conditions, he would know where you are even before you know that’s where you’re going.”
Jack knew he was tired because that almost made sense to him.
“And he’s good at his job. A real technical wizard. Meaning he’ll be managing this thing by himself, using only the resources he knows he can trust.” Duckey paused. “You couldn’t have done much worse than tangle with this guy, Jack.”
“Thanks for the pep talk,” Jack said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“But at least if he’s working solo, he can’t use the entire array of CIA tricks he’d normally have at his disposal.”
“Probably not,” Duckey said. “Don’t fool yourself, though. Even if all he has are the people who were in and out of your house in less than five minutes, you’re still in serious trouble.”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “How do you know how long they were in my house?”
“Because you live about a hundred yards away from me, and I did used to do this sort of thing for a living, remember?”
“Something I’ve been thankful for, and more than once,” Jack said. A wave from Russell caught his eye, prompting Jack to hurry. “So tell me about your friend Russell.”
“About as decent a guy as you’ll find,” Duckey said. “And a good pilot. Don’t let the hand fool you.”
Jack frowned. “The hand?”
“He lost it to an IED in Iraq,” Duckey explained.
Jack found his eyes moving to the plane again. Espy was descending its stairs. She caught Jack’s eye and then headed back toward the car. As his wife drew closer, Jack looked past her, finding Russell Hodges doing something at the back of the plane. He couldn’t see the man’s hands at the moment, but then he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about them when they were talking together earlier. For some reason, he felt something dark and cold settle in his stomach. “Ducks, does he use a prosthetic?”
“Sometimes” came the reply. “He has one of those hard plastic ones. Nothing fancy. Why?”
Espy had almost reached the car, and Jack shifted his focus until he caught her looking back at him. Then he directed his attention back to Hodges, who’d emerged from behind the plane. He went up the aircraft’s stairs. Jack thought he saw two perfectly normal looking hands. Just before Hodges climbed into the plane, he turned and looked toward the car. Jack saw a hint of something in his expression, maybe a smile.
Espy had a hand on the door handle when Jack dropped the phone. She’d slipped the gun into the console between them, and Jack reached for it. He opened the door just as Espy opened hers. He didn’t pause to answer her puzzled query before starting for the plane.
He heard the engines rumble to life, the twin propellers spinning.
It had been years since he’d held a gun with the willingness to use it, years since the events of his life had conspired to make him welcome the feel of the cold metal in his hand. There had also never been an occasion in which a man who Jack knew was not named Russell Hodges stood between him and his boys.
This other man must have seen him coming because, before Jack reached the plane, he appeared again at the aircraft door. He raised a gun toward Jack.
Jack raised his own gun and almost squeezed off a shot, and it took everything in him to keep from doing it, knowing the boys were in the plane.
“Jack?” Espy called from behind, but her husband didn’t answer, his attention wholly on the man who stood between him and his children. Whoever he was, he didn’t shoot, although he had as clear a shot at Jack as he could want.
Jack took a step closer. The man calling himself Russell Hodges extended his gun, and Jack stopped moving. Behind him, Espy had gone silent, likely having put the pieces together.
“So, what now?” Jack asked.
“You put your gun down and climb aboard and I take you to meet someone who has some questions for you,” the man said.
Jack was shaking his head before the man—apparently some kind of mercenary—had finished. “I have a better idea. You let the boys go and you can take me wherever you want.”
The man shook his head. “You don’t have the high ground, Dr. Hawthorne. Your only option at this point is to do exactly as you’re told.”
As much as Jack hated to admit it, he couldn’t argue the point. “Who are you?” he asked, since it was clear the man was not Duckey’s friend. Jack stopped himself from considering what that meant for the missing Russell Hodges.
“Someone doing a job” was the response. The man gestured again with his weapon. “Now drop the gun.”
Jack took a deep breath, coming to the realization that he didn’t have much of a choice. He was just about to lower the gun when his eye caught movement from the plane, from behind the mercenary. He caught a glimpse of brown hair, a black jacket—Alex’s jacket. His heart jumped into his throat, but he clamped down on the shout that wanted to escape. He moved his eyes back to the enemy, locked them there. “I need some assurances. I need to speak to your boss. He has to convince me there can be some end to this that my family and I can walk away from before I get on that plane.”
He felt, more than saw, Espy step up next to him. She had to have seen Alex. Jack’s son was slipping up behind his captor. Jack saw his face for just a second, a mix of fear and resolve.
It took a moment before the man responded to Jack’s request, and he did so by putting a hand in his pocket and withdrawing a phone. He flipped it open, glanced down.
There was a flurry of movement behind him—Alex rushing. Jack’s son hit the mercenary hard. The man pitched forward, Alex’s weight taking him halfway out of the open door. But before he fell from the plane, the man reached out and grabbed the doorframe. His phone clattered to the tarmac.
For just an instant, Jack had a full view of his older son, the boy clearly framed in the doorway. He was breathing hard, a look on his face that seemed to express surprise over what he’d done. He was looking at the man he’d hit, but his eyes soon moved to his father. Jack stepped forward.
Before he could close the distance, the mercenary regained his balance. Jack saw the man’s arm swing back, saw it catch Alex under his chin. The blow sent the boy flying back into the recesses of the plane. Jack heard Espy scream.
Jack shut the sound out. The mercenary filled the doorway, his attention pulled in another direction. Jack had a clear shot. He brought the gun up, steadied it. And hesitated. He couldn’t pull the trigger. If he missed . . .
The moment was gone, and before Jack could take another step forward, the man had brought his own gun level. Jack could hear Espy choking back a sob, yet he couldn’t look away from the man and from the plane that held his injured son.
Then the nameless man did something unexpected. Keeping his attention on Jack, he crouched and reached for the stair pull. He had the stairs retracted before Jack could register what was happening. The aircraft’s door was closing, and only then did Jack’s legs begin to move. He rushed toward the plane, but the door was shut and locked before he could make it there. Seconds later the plane began to roll.
A wave of panic came over Jack. He ran alongside the plane, pounding on the door as it taxied away from the hangar. He was shouting, but his words were lost to the increasing sound of the engines. He backed away, thought to circle around to the cockpit window, to try to get a shot off. But as he moved to get around the wing, to avoid the deadly propellers, the plane’s pilot executed a sharp turn and began accelerating toward the runway.
Jack’s panic had turned into real fear—a fear unlike any he’d ever known. As the plane picked up speed, he tried to keep up, running alongside it like a madman. He held the gun helplessly in one hand while with the other he banged on the cold metal of the aircraft. It didn’t take long for the plane to leave him behind, to leave him watching the gap that widened between him and his sons. By the time the plane reached the runway, it was too far ahead for Jack to do anything but stare as its pilot opened the throttle and lowered the flaps.
Before long, the plane was in the air.
Jack stood frozen on the tarmac, watching the plane become a vanishing point in the dark sky. From behind him came the sound of Esperanza’s unchecked sobs.