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Hostage Zero

Harvey Rodriguez waited till daybreak before he ventured out to look at the body. He wanted to make sure that the men with the guns were long gone before he turned himself into a target, so he’d spent most of the night lying still in his tent among the trees, trying his best to remain invisible.

If he’d had a brain in his head, he’d have used the cover of darkness to scoot out of here, but every time he’d flexed his legs to move, he’d talked himself out of it. He’d used the time to plot his strategy.

On the one hand, he’d been living out here long enough to be running pretty low on everything, and even if the killer had stripped the dead man’s pockets clean, the corpse was likely to have something of value, if only a pair of socks that actually covered his whole foot. Or maybe a watch. Harvey’s ten-year-old Timex had crapped out a month ago.

On the other hand, when you’ve got no home and you make your living --- such as it is --- off the sometimes unwilling largesse of others, the last thing you need is to get yourself wrapped up in a murder case. It wasn’t as if he had people who could vouch for his alibi, you know? He could almost hear the interrogation in his head:

Where were you last night?

I was at home.

And where’s that?

Wherever I make it. Last night, it was in the woods out by Kinsale.

Right where a murder happened?

Yes, sir. That’s a hell of a coincidence, ain’t it? I was just lying there in my tent, and I heard somebody in the woods. I started to peek out, and then I heard a gunshot, and I ducked the hell back in.

Who would believe that? But running away would make it sound even worse. Harvey didn’t know many people, but nobody’s completely invisible. Sooner or later, somebody would find the body, and the homeless drifter would be the first suspect. Especially if the drifter was wearing the dead guy’s socks and watch.

Okay, stealing from the body was a bad idea. He wouldn’t do that.

If he were a better citizen, he’d have called for help, but in all fairness, he thought he deserved a break there. He’d chosen this spot as his camp precisely because it was in the middle of nowhere, which meant that “calling for help” had to be taken literally --- as in, cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling, “Help!” Hardly compatible with his plan to remain invisible.

Bottom line, he was screwed no matter how it turned out, but after all this time, he was by God going to take a peek at the body. He owed himself that much. Hell, the dead guy owed him that much after costing him a whole night’s sleep.

Finally, it was time. Taking care to keep quiet, Harvey crawled out of his last-legs Coleman camping tent and scanned the scenery. It had been a cool night compared to some of the sweltering nightmares of the past couple of weeks, but even now, he could feel the sun doing its duty to deliver a blistering day. It’s the way it was in this part of the world. At least winter was long behind and long ahead.

Winter was the hardest part of being Harvey Rodriguez.

People asked why he didn’t spend his summers walking to someplace where they didn’t have winters, but the truth was that he was now a Virginian through and through. In this part of the Commonwealth --- along the Northern Neck on the Potomac River --- winters were pretty mild. It rarely snowed, and nighttime ice almost always melted by midday. It was the rare day when he couldn’t pull something edible out of the river and rarer still when he couldn’t snare a squirrel or possum.

As he stretched to his full five feet eight inches, Harvey eyed his peeling Adidas but decided to leave them where they were. The rubber sole on the left shoe was about to give way to a hole, and he wanted it to last for at least one more rainy day. His eyes scanned the horizon as he adjusted the pull cord on the swim trunks he wore as shorts, hoping in vain to make them tighter. One thing about the hot weather: it was hard to keep weight on.

Making no sudden movements, Harvey turned a full 360 degrees, watching and listening for signs of danger. Satisfied that it was safe to move, he plucked his prized FBI T-shirt off the branch where he’d left it to air out overnight, and slipped it on.

Harvey walked carefully through the tall grass and scrubby bushes toward the water --- toward the spot where he presumed the body to be. He watched his feet. Poking a bare toe into somebody’s guts would be a disgusting way to start the day.

Something caught his eye, off at his eleven o’clock. He stopped in midstep and squinted. Had something moved? He didn’t think so. It was one of those intuitive things that hit him from time to time, and he knew to wait it out until his brain could unscramble it. All around him, nothing stirred but the breeze, gently waving the top of the tall seed-tipped grasses in an undulating ripple that made land look like water.

So what was it?

A phrase popped into his head: background anomaly.

When someone’s lying in wait --- or lying dead --- they think they’re concealed by the tall grass that surrounds them, and they’d be right if it weren’t for the background anomaly. When everything is waving in the breeze, the anomaly is the patch of vegetation that stands still. In this case, it was far more obvious than that. Harvey saw a very definite hole in the rolling surface of the grass --- exactly the kind of hole that a body would leave after it had been dumped.

As he closed the distance, he thought briefly about the footprints and other damning evidence he was leaving behind, but if it came to that, at least he could show that the path of footprints led directly to his tent. Plus, if footprints were an issue, there should be at least one other pair that would implicate the real killer.

He was still ten feet away when he caught the first glimpse of blue fabric through the moving blades of grass.

It was definitely a body.

He slowed as he approached the last couple of yards. “Hello?” he said. “Hey, are you okay?”

The dead guy didn’t move. If he had, Harvey may well have shit all over himself.

Nearly on top of it now, he could just make out the whole form. He gasped and clamped his hands over his mouth. Horror washed over him out of nowhere, gripping his insides and twisting them.

Without any thought or warning, Harvey Rodriguez did something he hadn’t done in too many years for him to remember. He started to cry.


July in Virginia.

Though the sun had set, the weather still hung like wet wool as the two men climbed out of their rented Chevrolet Caprice and closed the doors. They wore the standard uniforms of the FBI agents they pretended to be --- white shirts and rep ties under unimaginative pinstriped suits. Blue for the smaller of the two, and gray for his massive companion.

The big man --- Brian Van de Meulebroeke by birth, but Boxers to his friends --- pulled at his collar like a boy in church. “I swear to god, Panama was cooler,” he grumbled.

Jonathan Grave smiled. “At least we’ve got autumn on the other end of it,” he said. Back in the day when discomfort was part of their patriotic sacrifice to God and country, the two men had logged dozens of months in fetid tropics, but today’s Brooks Brothers uniforms made Virginia way less comfortable. The latex facial prostheses didn’t help.

Their destination lay half a block away, remarkable for its ordinariness. Low rise, and constructed of red brick trimmed in white stone, the Basin Jail looked like the result of a student architectural lesson gone bad. It might have been mistaken for a small elementary school or even a recreation center.

“That’s the stupidest looking jail I’ve ever seen,” Boxers said, nailing Jonathan’s thoughts.

“Here’s to thin walls and lax security,” Jonathan quipped.

Despite their FBI cover, they parked in the pay lot, just like everybody else. Boxers seemed annoyed as Jonathan waited for him to fish through his pockets for three quarters to feed the meter. “The hell am I paying for?” Boxers grumped. “You’re the bajillionaire.”

Jonathan said nothing. As the man who signed Boxers’ paychecks, his heart did not bleed for the big guy. He also knew that he’d see these six bits on Boxers’ expense report.

“Any questions on the plan?” Jonathan asked as they closed to within fifty yards of the target.

“Not a one,” Boxers replied. His role was anything but complicated. He was to walk around the facility to identify the strengths and weaknesses of its physical security, and to plot the most effective escape route. Lethal force was not an option in this first phase, but if the therapeutic application of high explosives proved to be necessary, that would be Boxers’ responsibility as well.

“Are you with us, Mother Hen?” Jonathan asked, seemingly to the air.

The voice in their earbuds responded with crystal clarity. “Always.” The voice belonged to Venice Alexander (Ven- EE-chay, and don’t screw it up), the woman who kept Jonathan’s life afloat administratively, and whose special gift was to make the electrons of cyberspace dance to music of her choosing. She had left countless IT and security managers around the world wondering how their “unbreakable” databases had in fact been broken.

Venice continued, “I’ve got the entire camera grid on my screens, and I’ve been recording for nearly an hour. As soon as you step through the front door, I’ll be able to wave hello.”

Approaching the main entrance, Boxers held back to remain outside the viewing perimeter of the exterior cameras. “Good luck, Boss,” he said. “And nice nose.” He split off and began his stroll around the perimeter.

Jonathan gave a wry smile. His disguise was a good one, filling his cheeks and expanding his nose to the point where facial recognition software would be stymied; but it wasn’t the kind of thing he normally used. As close as they were to their own backyard, this mission required him to take extraordinary precautions. He’d even donned contact lenses to turn his normally blue eyes brown.

He pulled open the right-hand panel of the double glass doors and stepped into a public reception area that had the feel of a seventies-era ski lodge. Rough-finished beige bricks dominated the walls, arranged edgewise in horizontal courses that rose from the brown tiled floor to the acoustic tiled ceiling.

The admissions officer --- it was the only title Jonathan could think of for the guy --- sat at the long end of the rectangular room, and as his guest entered, his expression showed annoyance. “Visiting hours are over,” the officer announced.

“Of course they are,” Jonathan said. As he reached into his pocket for his occasionally legitimate Bureau credentials, he got the sense that the desk officer had been expecting him. “Agent Harris, FBI.”

“Just what I need,” the officer said.

“Care to guess who I’m here to see?”

The officer twitched a shoulder. “Only federal rap we got is Jimmy Henry. Kidnapping and attempted murder.”

“That’s the one,” Jonathan said. He was close enough now to see his tag: DIANE. He hoped it was his last name, not his first.

The officer followed his gaze. “If you’re gonna make a crack, get it over with now,” he said. “That way, I don’t have to get out of my chair.”

“My name’s Leon,” Jonathan lied. “With a name like that, you don’t make fun of others.”

Male bonding. A beautiful thing.

“Go to the door,” Diane said, pointing with his forehead to a heavy steel security door. “I’ll buzz you in.”

Jonathan walked the path he already recognized from

Venice’s research. Just two hours ago, he’d been watching this very space from their offices in Fisherman’s Cove. The first door led to a security air lock dominated by a chest-high counter. In a different context, it would have looked like a bar.

“Can’t help but think you’re wasting your time,” Diane said as he entered the air lock from a door on the other side of the counter. He reached underneath and produced a long rectangular box. “I need your firearm and any other weapons. Jimmy Henry lawyered up first thing. Ben Johnson’s representing him. You know him?”

“Never heard of him,” Jonathan said. He drew a fifteen- shot 9-millimeter Glock from its holster on his belt, dropped out the magazine, and locked open the slide before placing the weapon and its ammo in the box. He noted the wall- mounted cameras near the ceiling, but saw no metal detectors.

“Well, Ben’s good at what he does. After he told that kid to keep his mouth shut, that’s exactly what he’s been doin’.”

“Hmm,” Jonathan said. “Can I speak with him now?”

“You sure you want to? Nothin’ he says can be used in court after he’s lawyered up.”

“Then I’ll just have to be careful what I ask, won’t I?” Jonathan mimicked the condescending tone he’d heard from dozens of federal agents over the years.

Diane raised a section of the deck and opened a door underneath to let Jonathan pass through. On the far side, he faced another heavy steel door. Diane plucked a phone from the wall and dialed an extension: 4272, Jonathan noted, though he didn’t know how the number could possibly help him.

“Hey Chase, this is Bill. I’m letting an FBI agent in. He wants to talk to the Henry kid.” A pause. “What, you think I don’t have a clock up here? I didn’t call him; he just showed up. Yeah, well, aren’t they all?”

He hung up the phone and then pushed and held a button under the counter. The lock buzzed, and Jonathan pulled the door open to reveal the fluorescent hell of the cell block. As he stepped across the threshold, he could feel the years of institutionalized fear and misery exuding from the reinforced concrete walls. Whether they were built by the Commonwealth of Virginia or by Saddam Hussein, pervasive misery was the common denominator of all prisons.

Another guard stood just a few feet away. His name tag read BATTLES. “You’re up late,” he said. “I thought you Fibbies only worked the day shift.”

Jonathan shunned the small talk. “I need to speak to Jimmy Henry,” he said. “Do you have an interrogation room?” It was a question to which he already knew the answer.

Battles’s demeanor darkened with the seriousness of the visitor’s tone. He pointed to a secured lockdown about a quarter of the way down the center aisle of the cell block.

“I’d appreciate you bringing him to me,” Jonathan said, and he started down the hall.

Battles trotted to catch up. “What’s the urgency?” he asked. “You guys usually call ahead.”

Jonathan ignored his question and walked to the door. “I want the recording devices turned off in the room while he’s with me.”

Battles pulled short. “That’s not how we do things.”

“Tonight’s different. Now how about we get done what needs to be done?”

Battles didn’t like this. It showed on his face. But he nonetheless unlocked the door and let Jonathan enter. “Sit here, and I’ll bring him to you.”

As Jonathan stepped inside, the door closed behind him, and the guard locked it. As if reading his mind --- as she often did --- Venice spoke in his ear: “Don’t worry about them recording you. I have their soundtrack control on my screen. Even if they leave everything on, I’ll be able to zero out all sound once Henry arrives.”

Knowing that she could see him, he acknowledged her with a subtle nod. Jonathan helped himself to the one bolted down metal chair that was not equipped with a ring to secure prisoners’ shackles.

Battles made Jonathan cool his heels for ten minutes or more. Jonathan noted the video camera high in the corner, and despite his makeup did his best to avoid looking at it.

The lock turned, and Battles escorted Jimmy Henry into the room. The nineteen-year-old prisoner stood around six feet and appeared beneath the orange jumpsuit to possess the build of someone who worked hard during the day. His dark brown hair was a sleep-twisted mess, and his eyes seemed sunken into his skull. Clearly pissed at being rousted from his bed, he knew better than to voice his objection.

“Sit down,” Battles said, pointing to the available chair.

Jimmy gave a sullen nod and shuffled his slippered, shackled feet over to the chair and sat. With arms pinioned to the waist belt of his shackle rig, he settled himself carefully. When you can’t catch yourself in a fall, you become supremely aware of how fragile your nose and teeth are. Once the kid was settled in, Battles attached the chain to the chair.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Jonathan said.

Battles glared, but continued with what he was doing. When all was secure, he said, “Pound on the door when you’re ready to send him back.” He locked the door behind him as he left.

Jonathan leaned back and crossed his arms and legs. “So, you’re Jimmy Henry,” he said.

“I already said I ain’t talkin’ to nobody,” Jimmy said. “This ain’t legal, bringing me out at this hour. It’s sleep deprivation.”

“The sound is down,” Venice said in his ear. “They did it on their own.”

“So, you know your rights, do you?” Jonathan asked, amused.

“Damn straight I do.”

“Uh-huh. What do you know about why you’re here?”

Jimmy glared. Silence meant silence.

“Good for you,” Jonathan said. “So you’ve really been quiet the whole time? You haven’t admitted to anything?” As he spoke, his voice showed an edge of approval.

Something changed behind Jimmy’s eyes as he cocked his head. His belligerence had dimmed.

“I’ll come clean with you,” Jonathan said. He unfolded himself and leaned forward until his forearms rested on the cold table. “But first I want you to understand that the quickest way to die is to piss me off. And the quickest way to piss me off is to repeat a word of what I’m going to tell you. Do you understand?”

Now Jimmy seemed amused. Jonathan was easily three inches shorter than the man he’d just threatened, and frankly didn’t look all that intimidating. But what he didn’t possess in physicality, he projected through the intensity of his glare. As Jimmy absorbed it, the smile went away. “Yeah, okay, I got you.”

“Be sure, Jimmy. There’s no room for error.”

“What the hell kind of FBI agent are you?”

Jonathan reassumed his comfortable posture. “Well, that’s the thing,” he said. “I’m not an FBI agent. I’m the friend you never knew you had. My job is to bust you out of here.”

Jimmy shot a paranoid glance over his shoulder toward the door. “What do you mean?” He’d dropped his voice to a whisper.

“I work for people who don’t want the details of what you did this morning to leak out. That leaves two choices: They can hire someone to kill you, or they can hire me to get you out. If I were you, I’d pick me.”

“But why?”

“Because you were the only one stupid enough to get caught. You get credit for youthful stupidity, which is why you’re still alive, but the offer to get you out expires in about three seconds. So, are you willing to cooperate or not?”

Another quick look over his shoulder. “How are you going to do it?”

“My concern, not yours. Just be ready to go at two a.m. And keep your mouth shut. I get paid for trying, not succeeding. If you betray me ---”

Suddenly animated, Jimmy shook his head. “No. God no, I wouldn’t do that.”

Jonathan took his time. He wanted to instill even more fear. “Okay, then. I’ll be coming back to visit around two. I need you to be in bed and as asleep as you can pretend to be. When you get up, dress just as you are now. Don’t try anything on your own. When the time comes, all you’ll have to do is what I tell you.” He stood. “I’ll see you in a little while.”

As Jonathan strolled to the door, Jimmy shifted quickly in his chair. “Wait. How do I know you’re telling the truth? How do I know I’ll be safe coming with you?”

“You don’t,” Jonathan deadpanned. “But consider the alternative. You’re a kidnapper, kid. If that guy you shot dies, that means a needle in your arm.”

“I didn’t shoot anybody. That was the crazy dude.”

Jonathan stopped him with a raised hand. “Save it. I don’t care. Not now, anyway. Keep on keeping your mouth shut, and everything will be fine.” He pounded on the door for Battles.

Chapter Three

The body was a little boy wearing torn pajamas, and Harvey hadn’t been prepared for that. The kid lay on his back with his eyes closed, a loop of duct tape around his mouth. His legs lay slightly askew, but his hands lay on his stomach, as if placed there by a mortician. Harvey was no expert in these things, but he placed the age at somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years old. Maybe a little younger. It was always hard to tell with kids this age.

The sudden rush of emotion had come from nowhere. Harvey found it embarrassing at first, and then he found it just human. He’d seen his share of death over the years, and after a while you sort of get used to it. But not with kids. If you can get used to that, then there’s no point living anymore. Slip to that level, and society has no use for you.

Harvey just stood there for a long time --- probably three, four, five minutes --- figuring out what he was supposed to do. It was one thing to leave some bum like himself out in the weeds to get eaten by buzzards and carried off a piece at a time by foxes and dogs, but you couldn’t ---

The boy’s chest moved. It wasn’t anything dramatic, but there definitely was movement.

As Harvey leaned closer, he saw that he’d been wrong. The kid wasn’t dead. His face had too much color. Stooping to his haunches, he grasped one of the boy’s hands. It was warm. With his own heart racing, Harvey dropped to his hands and knees at the level of the boy’s shoulders and felt his neck. With the tips of two fingers, he located the larynx, and then slipped his fingertips into the groove between the cricoid cartilage and the anterior border of the sternocleidomastoid muscle. He expected to find a weak thready pulse, but found a strong one, instead.

This wasn’t right at all. He lifted one of the boy’s hands from his belly and let it drop. It fell like a rock. The kid was out cold. A peek under his eyelids reveal pinpoint pupils. That meant drugs.

Harvey raised up straight, still on his knees. He again craned his neck, looking to see if help might have wandered by. Seeing none actually brought relief. This next step had to be done, but it would be a bitch to explain if anyone wandered by.

He had to make the kid naked.

There’d been a gunshot, for God’s sake. He didn’t see any holes or any blood on the pajamas, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any on the boy. Harvey’s hands trembled as he undid the four buttons of the pajama top and peeled it away. The chest and belly looked normal, though he noted light bruising high on his chest, inferior to the clavicles. The kid looked on the thin side, but there appeared to be no nutritional issues.

The speed with which Harvey’s skills returned amazed him. He used his fingers, left hand under the right as if making a forward dive into a swimming pool, to palpate the boy’s belly. It felt loose and malleable, so there was no significant internal bleeding. Liver and spleen were both normal size.

There comes a point where a lack of a diagnosis is as concerning as a troubling one, and Harvey found himself rapidly approaching that line.

Scooting to the child’s hips, Harvey slipped his fingers into the pajamas’ elastic waistband and slid the fabric down to his shins. Again, no sign of trauma, but he’d definitely entered puberty, and he definitely was not a practicing Jew. Feeling progressively more optimistic that he’d find no bullet wound, Harvey leveraged the kid’s thigh and ribs to roll him to his side, till he rested against Harvey’s kneeling thighs. He shoved the pajama top up to his shoulders to expose the entire posterior surface and issued a sigh when he saw that there were no signs of penetrating trauma. He returned the boy to a supine position and pulled his clothing back into place.

What else was there? Harvey wondered. He fought to recall his Marine Corps training.

Of course! His arms. With bullet trauma off the table, the arms made the most sense. Sure enough, as soon as he wrestled the boy’s left arm free from the sleeve of his pajamas, he saw an antecubital bruise. The injection point for whatever had knocked this kid out appeared as a bull’s-eye in the middle of a purple halo at the crease of his elbow joint.

Sixteen hours later, the boy still had not awakened. He’d stirred a few times, and in the last couple of hours he’d made some mumbling sounds --- all good signs --- but he remained unconscious.

Harvey recalled the list of drugs that could have such lasting effect and realized how lucky the kid was to still be alive. Risks remained for liver damage or renal failure, but with each additional sign of recovery, the risks diminished.

As time passed, the how of the kid’s situation mattered less, but the importance of the why continued to glow as brightly as ever. Anyone who was angry enough to inject an overdose of narcotics into a kid’s system and then leave him for dead in the middle of nowhere was likely to be a person who’d be mightily pissed to learn that he’d failed. It was exactly the sort of person that Harvey wanted nothing to do with.

If Harvey’d had a brain in his head, he would have run away from this kid like a bunny rabbit on fire, putting as much space as possible between the two of them before finding a way to call for help. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Fact was, he didn’t have a brain in his head. He’d decided instead to play floor nurse, monitoring the boy’s respirations and pulse, and making sure that if they faltered, he would be there to jump-start them.

And if the bad guys came back, well, that would just be the perfect ending to the perfect day, wouldn’t it?

He was so screwed.

The boy lay in Harvey’s tent now, in Harvey’s sleeping bag and under his mosquito netting. Now that night had returned, recovery was all up to the boy and God.

Harvey’s money --- as if he had any --- said that the kid would be fine after he slept it off. And then what?

Well, that was the question, wasn’t it?

Harvey could see the headline now: HOMELESS MAN FINDS PARTIALLY CLOTHED BOY. Jesus.

Forget all those worries from last night about being associated with a dead guy. Being found with a live boy was the stuff of national headlines. These days, the mere appearance of impropriety made you a pedophile. Been there, done that. Thanks, but no.

So, just what the hell was he supposed to do? Going to the police was a ticket to prison. Not even the kid himself could testify that he hadn’t done anything awful, so the cops would automatically assume that he had. Once they get that thought in their head, facts stop mattering.

After the first hour or two, when the kid still hadn’t stirred, and his pupils were still pinpoints, Harvey had come this close to leaving him to get help, but what would have happened if the kid’s vitals had crashed in the meantime? He’d have brought the police to the body of a boy who’d died in Harvey’s tent.

Thanks again, but absolutely not.

Welcome to the land of crappy choices, starring Harvey Rodriguez.

Harvey sat way forward on his nylon sling camping chair, tending to the Coleman one-burner stove and the pot of reheated coffee from lunchtime. To stay near the boy, he’d opted to dig into his emergency supply of canned tuna for both lunch and dinner, and he was hoping that the astringent twice-cooked java would take the dead fish taste out of his mouth.

The boy coughed.

Harvey spun his head. Coughing is a voluntary action that implies a higher level of consciousness. It meant that the boy was coming out of his coma.

Harvey left his coffee on the stove but turned the burner down as he pulled himself out of his chair and crawled back into the tent. He used a cigarette lighter he’d found in a trash can a month ago to light the single mantle of his propane lantern. Pulling the mosquito netting out of the way, he leaned in close to the boy’s face and held the lantern off to the side, trying to tame the dark shadows thrown by the kid’s facial features. He saw that the boy had ejected a bit of spittle onto his cheek, and he wiped it away with his thumb.

The boy twitched at his touch.

“Hey, kid. Are you awake?”


Harvey gently grabbed the boy’s shoulder and shook it.

“Hey, pal, come on and open your eyes.”

They fluttered.

“That’s it. Go ahead and open them. You’re safe. You’re okay.”

The boy coughed again, and as he did, he raised his head a little with the effort. He was close to wakefulness.

Harvey rubbed the shoulder more vigorously. “You’re almost there. Come on. Open your eyes. Let me know that you’re okay. Talk to me. I don’t even know your name.”

Wrinkles appeared in the boy’s forehead, and when his mouth twisted into a wince, Harvey moved the light away from his eyes.

“You’ve had a long hard day, my friend,” Harvey said.

“Open your eyes now and join the world.”

The lids parted, though it took a few seconds for awareness to arrive. The boy raised both hands to his face and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. For a few seconds, he looked like any other child waking from a long sleep, but then full awareness arrived. His hands shot back down to his sides, and the boy recoiled in terror, trying to roll away, but unable to flee from the tangle of the sleeping bag.

Harvey reached out to comfort him, but the boy yelled out at his touch. “Leave me alone!”

Harvey pulled back as if he’d touched a hot stove.

“Help!” the boy yelled.

Harvey felt a jet of panic. “Hush! Shit, kid, be quiet.”

“Help me! Don’t hurt me! Let go of me!”

It was the nightmare. Harvey shot a glance out the tent opening, half expecting a police officer to be standing right there. “I’m not touching you, kid,” he said at a harsh whisper. “Jesus, I saved your life. Cut me a break.”

The kid kicked at his covers, and the more he struggled, the more tangled he became. “Please don’t hurt me anymore.”

“Listen to me!” Harvey barked, loudly this time, hoping to startle the boy into sanity. “I’m not the one who hurt you. I saved you.” He raised the lantern parallel to his own face. “Look at me,” he went on. “I am not the one who hurt you.”

At first, it was as if the boy hadn’t heard him; he continued to wrestle with the sleeping bag as fear and frustration turned his efforts violent. Then, he stopped. It was as if Harvey’s words had traveled the slow route and had only just now arrived. He pivoted his head and scowled as he studied the man’s features.

“You’re safe here,” Harvey said, his voice soft again.

The kid darted his glance from one corner of the tent to another. “Where are they?”

“Gone,” Harvey said. “About twenty hours ago.”

This was a lot to process even when you were clearheaded. Given his drugged-up stepping-off point, the boy was having a particularly difficult time of it.

“You’re safe now,” Harvey repeated.

It was what the kid wanted to hear, but he wasn’t ready to trust the words. “Where am I?”

“As close to nowhere as a human being can get,” Harvey said. When the scowl deepened, he added, “You’re in the woods. In Virginia. Near the Potomac River, and the people who hurt you probably think that you’re dead.”

Cobwebs remained. “Am I dead?”

Harvey smiled. “Alive and well. And lucky to be that.” He extended his hand. “Harvey Rodriguez,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

The boy looked at the hand, but retreated some more. “Where did they go?”

Harvey kept his hand outstretched. “They’re gone.”

The boy shook his head. “That’s what they are,” he said. “Not where they went.”

Harvey chuckled and abandoned the handshake. “Fair enough. I don’t have an answer for you.” He recounted the events that led them to the present. “As surprised as you seem to be alive, that’s half as surprised as I was to find you that way,” he concluded. He allowed it to sink in, and then he extended his hand once more. “Let’s try this again. I’m Harvey Rodriguez.”

The boy accepted the hand. “I’m Jeremy Schuler.” This time, the friendly touch seemed to relax him.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Jeremy Schuler. Are you hungry?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Could I have some water?”
As Harvey poured water from a converted plastic milk jug into a metal coffee cup, he fought the urge to pummel the kid with questions. After all he’d been through, he needed time to orient himself to the present before Harvey dragged him back to the past. He handed the cup to Jeremy. “Sip, don’t gulp,” he warned. “Your stomach might not be as awake as the rest of you.”

The boy sipped and swallowed. “Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome.” He watched Jeremy drink until it became awkward when the boy became aware of being watched. “Tell you what,” he said with a single, gentle clap of his hands. “I’m going to leave the lantern here with you, and I’m going to go out there and cook some dinner. If you change your mind about eating, there’ll be plenty for you.”

While there was no critical medical need for the kid to eat right this minute, sooner or later he’d need sustenance, and sooner was better than later.

Harvey grabbed a flashlight from the piece of two-byfour that served as his nightstand, crawled back into the night and over to the surplus footlocker that served as his pantry. He spun the combination lock, lifted the hasp, and opened the lid.

Seeing as how Jeremy was his first company in five years, it only made sense to appeal to his young taste buds. He pulled out a packet of macaroni and cheese, courtesy of the United States Army. Last winter, on one of the truly cold days, Harvey had agreed to spend a night in a shelter. He hated the principle and he hated the crowds, but he was impressed with the generosity of the pastor of St. Katherine’s Church, who handed out cases of Army MREs --- Meals Ready to Eat --- to anybody who wanted one. They weren’t likely to put any restaurants out of business, but they tasted pretty decent, and on the days when you wanted to splurge a little, they came in handy.

Tonight, he decided to bypass the typical procedure of cooking the meal in its FRH (flameless rotational heater), and actually cook it on the stove. Somehow, food tasted better when a real flame was involved in the preparation process. He’d just gotten the water to boil when Jeremy appeared in the tent opening.

“Can I still have dinner?” he asked.

Harvey smiled and pointed to the camp chair. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said.

Excerpted from HOSTAGE ZERO © Copyright 2011 by John Gilstrap. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.

Hostage Zero
by by John Gilstrap

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Pinnacle
  • ISBN-10: 0786020881
  • ISBN-13: 9780786020881