Jerrod was playing absent-mindedly with his pancakes when Parker asked, “What does he want?”
He had jumped them from Parker’s house to the motel room, where they had talked into the early hours of the morning. Parker listened to their story, asked a lot of questions, held the device — it didn’t respond to him either — went on and on about how they couldn’t trust the government, and finally admitted that they probably didn’t have any other choice. Eventually they turned in for the night.
Now they were seated at a table on the patio outside Herbie’s House of Pancakes in a shopping center not far from the motel in Williamsburg, working on a late-morning breakfast.
Trish looked up from her plate. “You mean Dr. Joe?”
“Yes. What does this Dr. Joe fellow want? What’s his agenda?”
It was a clear day, the sun was warm, people were out and about, and Jerrod had a throbbing headache. He had not gotten enough sleep. He kept waking up in the middle of bizarre dreams, and then his mind would race all over the place, flitting from random thought to random thought, until he dozed off again. He had read somewhere that dreams were the brain’s way of integrating new information into long term memory by creating connections between old memories and new memories. He figured that was what his brain was doing, desperately trying to make sense of everything that had happened over the past few days.
Trish said, “He wants us — Jerrod, I mean — to help him stop the assassination.”
“With the device.”
“Okay. Then what?”
Jerrod washed down a mouthful of pancakes with coffee and set the mug on the edge of the table in hope that someone would refill it; he needed more coffee. The strain of the last few days was exacting a toll; he was exhausted; physically, mentally, emotionally. He had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole and landed in a world where the old rules did not apply and the new rules still eluded him. How had he gone from a quiet, uninteresting life in Bozeman to alien and assassinations in Williamsburg, Virginia?
Trish answered Parker, “After that we wait for the aliens to show up so we can give it back to them.”
Jerrod stuffed another fork full of pancake into his mouth and almost spit it out as his mind registered how nonchalantly Trish and Parker were talking about aliens coming to retrieve their device. As though there was nothing unusual about that. As though it was the sort of thing that happened every day. He swallowed a laugh along with the pancake. Their waitress — a woman maybe in her fifties — filled his empty coffee cup as she swept past. She definitely deserved a tip.
“Really.” Parker said. He loaded the word with sarcasm; he was good with sarcasm. “You think he has the authority to decide to give up the most powerful weapon in the world? Without talking to anyone about it?”
That was a good question. Surely Dr. Joe would be under obligation to turn the device over to his superiors. Or at least tell them about it. In fact, he would probably get into a whole lot of trouble if he didn’t.
Trish sounded a bit irked. “If he was going to take it away from us, wouldn’t he have done it already?”
“Not necessarily,” said Parker. “Jerrod is the only person he is sure can use the device. He might be able to find someone else it will respond to. But then again maybe not, or maybe not in time. He needs Jerrod. He needs Jerrod to trust him, to believe that he’s going to let him keep the device, to believe that he’s going to let him give it to the aliens. Assuming the aliens ever show up.”
Parker finished off a glass of orange juice and set the glass down with a clunk. “Once the President is safe, all bets are off.”
“You think he is stringing us along? That he will betray us?” She sounded seriously irked now, although Jerrod wasn’t sure whether she was irritated that Dr. Joe might be deceiving them, or angry that Parker thought he might be deceiving them. He suspected the latter; Trish had taken a liking to the old man.
“Here’s what I think,” said Parker. “Once we are in that safe house, we will find ourselves effectively under house arrest, constantly watched by McClellan’s people. They will be presented as our protection team. But in truth their job will be to ensure we do not abscond with the device. When the time is right, they will take it away from us, and the United States government will be in possession of a — ”
“— of a very dangerous piece of technology,” finished a woman standing beside their table. Jerrod nearly jumped out of his chair; he had not seen her approaching them. She was taller than Trish, with straight brown hair tied back in a pony tail, and wore a simple white shirt and jeans. She sat down at their table and placed both hands in front of her, fingers interlaced. Jerrod opened his mouth to tell her they were having a private conversation, but she spoke first.
“You don’t know me, Mr. Max, but I’m here to offer you your life back.” She glanced at Trish and added, “Both of you.” She frowned at Parker, but otherwise ignored him.
“Excuse me,” Jerrod said. “Whatever you’re selling, we aren’t interested. We’re having — “
She pushed a photo ID across the table toward him. “I am with the United States Department of the Navy. I am authorized to offer you complete immunity from prosecution for the crimes of which you stand accused.” She paused while Jerrod peered at the ID. It looked authentic enough. Not that he knew what a Department of the Navy identification card should look like.
“And a one hundred thousand dollar finder’s fee,” she added.
Jerrod gulped. “A hundred thousand dollars? For what?”
Jerrod stared at her, digesting what she was saying. As usual, Trish’s mental digestive system was faster than his.
“What makes you think we still have it?”
A look of concern spread across the woman’s face. “Oh, dear. I do hope you didn’t give it to McClellan. He is not a man you should trust.”
“I didn’t say — ”
Jerrod put his hand on her arm. “Ms. Hollander,” he said, re-reading the name on her ID before pushing it back across the table. “I don’t know who you are, and I have no reason to trust you. In fact, if you really are with the Department of the Navy, I have every reason not to trust you. If I had the artifact, I would certainly not give it to you.”
Her expression turned cold. “Mr. Max, I strongly encourage you to reconsider. You have proven yourself a resourceful man, but you have no idea what you are up against here. Assuming you are not currently in possession of the artifact, which I don’t really believe, I am sure you can get it back. Especially since your lives — ”
She stopped as her eyes focused on something behind him. She pursed her lips. Jerrod turned to see what she was looking at.
The man walking toward them was dressed casually and looked to be in his fifties, with graying hair and tired eyes. He was almost as tall as Jerrod, but more muscular. A reddish scar formed a path across the right side of his face, running from near the top of his ear, across his cheek, down to the corner of his mouth. He did not look like someone Jerrod would want to meet in a dark alley late at night. Or in broad daylight, for that matter.
He grabbed a chair from another table, plopped it down at theirs with the back facing the table, and sat straddling it. He looked confident and at ease, but the light blue jacket he wore was open, revealing a handgun holstered at his waist. His eyes never left the Navy woman.
“Hello, Bridget,” he said. “How’s tricks?”
Her eyes widened and she tensed like a predator getting ready to pounce on its prey. Or like a hunted animal getting ready to bolt. Jerrod couldn’t tell which. She composed herself, but remained tense.
“Ash. What a pleasant surprised.” Her tone suggested it was anything but pleasant. “I was just offering these two young people a chance to get their lives back. But that’s not something you’d be interested in, is it? To you they’re expendable. Pawns in a game of chess. Easily traded for some minor positional advantage.”
There was obviously no love lost between these two, and Jerrod thought for a moment they might pull out their guns and start shooting at each other. Instead, Hollander turned her attention back to Jerrod.
“Mr. Max, this is a one-time offer. If you walk away from it, you and Miss Womak will go to prison, and we will get the artifact back anyway. Don’t throw your lives away for nothing.”
Jerrod thought about if for a few moments and said, “We’ll take our chances.” He felt Trish tense.
Hollander stood and picked up her identification card. As she turned to leave she said to Ash, “Commander Atwood sends her regards to Dr. McClellan.”
Parker let out his breath with a whoosh as she walked away. “Who the hell was that?” He looked at Ash. “And who the hell are you?”
Ash kept his eyes on the receding figure. “You can call me Ash. Dr. Joe asked me to keep an eye on you folks. I was told there would be two of you.” He turned an expressionless gaze to Parker. “Who are you?”
“Parker is a friend of ours,” Jerrod said. “Who was she?” He tilted his head in the direction the woman had gone.
“Bridget Hollander. She works for Jennifer Atwood, the woman pursuing you.” He paused. “And the artifact.”
Parker said, “Was she carrying a gun too?”
Ash showed them a brief smile, which was gone almost as soon as it had appeared. “Not that I could see. But I’m sure she was not alone. No doubt Vincent had her covered.” He looked at Jerrod. “He probably has you in the sights of a sniper rifle right now.”
Trish’s face turned pale, her eyes searched the mall store fronts. “Where? What should we do?”
“Nothing,” Ash said. “If Atwood wanted Jerrod dead, he’d already be dead. If she can get the artifact without killing anyone, she will. Less messy that way.”
“And if she can’t?”
“Then things start to get messy.”
* * *
The safe house turned out to be an apartment on the sixth floor of a high-rise. The elevator from the underground parking garage required a key card and pin number, which also got them into the apartment. Ash called Dr. Joe on the drive over and updated him. From his tone, Jerrod gathered that Ash thought they had been exceptionally foolish to have been out in public like that. He was probably right. Jerrod was still grappling with the idea that they were being pursued by some very serious people and that their lives were quite literally at risk.
The apartment was clean and tidy, furnished in a utilitarian style, with mostly grays and silvers. A breakfast bar separated a small kitchen from the living room, which contained a long, black leather couch on one side and two plain upholstered chairs — one maroon, the other olive — on the other side. Two straight-backed chairs stood guard on either side of a tall hutch, which had a large-screen TV above and cupboard doors below. In front of the couch sat a coffee table. Behind the upholstered chairs a ranch slider opened out on to a deck.
A hallway led to a full bathroom and three bedrooms. He assigned Jerrod and Trish a bedroom with a queen sized bed and another ranch slider opening on to the same deck as the living room slider. Parker got a room with two twin sized beds.
An hour after they arrived, two new people showed up. The man carried three paper bags into the kitchen and began emptying their contents out on to the counter.
Ash introduced the woman. “This is agent Kwan.” She was of Asian descent, though Jerrod couldn’t narrow it down any further.
She stepped toward Trish and extended her hand. “Please. Call me Leena.”
She held up a large paper bag. “I didn’t know what you had by way of girl things, so picked up some stuff on the way over.”
Ash pointed toward the kitchen. “That’s Erickson.” Erickson paused to nod in their direction and went back to putting away the groceries he had taken out of the bags.
“Dr. Joe will be here around five,” Ash said. “I’ll be out for a while as well. Erickson and Kwan will stay here. Their job is to protect you.” He smirked. “And see to it that you don’t get into any more trouble.”
Jerrod and Trish both looked at Parker, who rolled his eyes. If Ash noticed, he didn’t let on.
Kwan opened one of the cupboards in the hutch and pulled out a game console, which she set up on the floor. “Anybody up for a Halo beating?” She said.
Parker shrugged. “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” Neither Jerrod nor Trish mentioned that Parker was deadly at this game. Trish was first to drop out. Jerrod followed her a while later. Parker and Kwan duked it out for a couple more hours before she admitted defeat. By that time, Erickson had put together a chef salad for lunch.
“Spaghetti and meatballs for dinner tonight,” he said. “That all right with everyone?”
* * *
Half a mile away, an unshaven and shabbily dressed man who could easily pass for a vagrant, lay flat on a high-rise roof top. He studied Jerrod Max through the scope of a high-powered rifle resting on a low tripod. A gentle squeeze of the trigger and Jerrod Max would be dead. But that wasn’t the mission. The mission was to recover the artifact, with minimal casualties.
“Never confuse the mission with killing people,” Mr. Black had said. That wasn’t his real name, of course. Vincent never did know his real name. He was a master sniper brought in to teach Vincent, Ashton, Bethany and Margo the strategy and tactics of a sniper.
“Eliminating a target might be the mission,” he said. “But more often than not, the mission does not require eliminating anyone. If you can accomplish the mission without killing anyone, so much the better; leaving dead bodies around is messy and unprofessional. The cleanest mission, the most beautiful mission, the most elegant mission, is the mission that unfolds without a glitch and with the least amount of collateral damage. The perfect mission is the one you complete without anyone knowing you were ever there.
“Patience and planning are the key. Think of the mission as a work of art. Plan out every detail, leave nothing to chance, manage time and place so that every advantage falls to you and every disadvantage falls to your target. Then, when you execute, everything will unfold like a thing of beauty, a thing you can take pride in.
Vincent took pride in his work. Assassinating people from a distance was only one part of their training. Vincent knew dozens of ways to kill people up close and personal as well. He also knew how to kill them before they knew they were being killed, with poisons or lethal traps for example. He knew how to trace and track people without them knowing he was there. He knew how to arrange their deaths so that someone else took the blame. He knew many things, all of them dark and dangerous and deadly. Vincent was a master of his trade.
He pushed a button on his cell phone and put it to his ear.
“Where is he?” Atwood asked.
“An apartment building outside Alexandria. Probably a safe house.”
“He has the girl with him. And the boy, Parker. There are two other people there as well, besides Ash.”
“Who are they?”
“I don’t recognize them. Probably part of McClellan’s team. I’ll send pictures to Terrance.”
Several seconds passed. She said, “McClellan should have stayed out of this.”
“How do you want me to proceed?”
Another pause. Then a sigh. “Make Mr. Max an offer he can’t refuse. Terrance and I will fly out this afternoon. By this time tomorrow, we should have the device. And Vincent …”
“Don’t kill anyone unless there is no other way.”
He put the phone in his pocket. Minimal collateral damage. That made things more challenging, but Vincent didn’t mind. He liked a challenge.