Excerpt - Sea of Crisis
Read the first three chapters of Sea of Crises
Nate Cartwright paused in the quiet hallway outside his condominium and listened intently. No sound came from the other side of the door. But that was misleading. He knew with an overwhelming certainty the moment he stepped inside he’d be under attack. With as much stealth as he could muster, he inserted his key in the door handle and slowly rotated it. He stood frozen for an instant. Then, in one quick motion, he swung the door open, took two steps in and braced.
There was nothing but silence.
Then he heard it.
From the deep shadows in the kitchen at the far end of the hallway came a sound he knew all too well. Suddenly, Buster flashed across the width of the corridor, his tiny paws skittering on the hardwood floor as he worked frantically to alter direction. Just before banging into the bedroom doorway, he managed to get himself turned, somehow staying upright on short splayed limbs. As he caromed off the door frame, he pumped his legs furiously, finally found purchase, and came hurtling down the hallway.
Nate had just enough time to set down his briefcase before Buster was on him, his front paws scrambling at the fabric of Nate’s slacks and his stub of a tail convulsing wildly. At his full extension, Buster barely reached Nate’s knees, but his relative lack of height did nothing to discourage his enthusiasm. Nate reached down with both hands and gave the dog an affectionate scratch behind the ears.
“Good to see you too, buddy.”
Then he gently lowered the dog, closed the front door and retrieved his briefcase. He strode down the hall to the den, Buster padding after him, panting happily, his paws making little tapping sounds on the floor.
The small den, which doubled as Nate’s home office, was dominated by a large floor-to-ceiling window. In the morning, the inky blackness beyond would dissolve to reveal an unobstructed view of the Santa Monica Bay. Now, however, the window merely framed a reflection of Nate standing in the pool of light from the desk lamp, his visage staring back at him intently from beneath heavy dark eyebrows - a perpetual look of solemnity that, try as he might, never seemed to leave him.
What had Anna called it? His “brooding omnipresence?” They’d both laughed at it back then. But it had always made Nate feel a little self-conscious. In the end, he wondered, had his seriousness driven her away? Not that it mattered. The two of them would never have lasted beyond law school. He knew that. And, anyway, it was so many years ago. No point in dwelling on it.
The man in the reflection looked as tired as he felt.
Nate set his briefcase on the desk and was removing his jacket when the phone rang. He glanced reflexively at the clock on the wall. Almost two in the morning. Who the hell would be calling at this hour?
He lifted the handset out of its cradle as the phone rang again and saw his brother’s number in the illuminated display. He stabbed at the talk button and put the device up to his head.
There was no immediate reply. In the background, Nate heard metallic voices echoing through a large space - the arrival of a flight being announced. United Airlines. Peter must be in an airport terminal.
“Peter?” he repeated.
“Nate, it’s me.”
Anxiety strained his brother’s voice.
“Peter, what’s wrong?”
“I think I’m in trouble.”
That got Nate’s full attention.
“What do you mean? Where are you?”
“LAX. And I’m pretty sure they’re here.”
“I don’t know.”
Nate took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “What do they look like?”
“I don’t know that either. Nate, I’m serious. Someone’s following me, more than one person. I can feel it. They followed me here from Minneapolis.”
Nate rubbed a hand over his face. This made no sense, and it was completely unlike his brother. “Why would someone be following you, Peter?”
Through the phone came another announcement over the public address system drowning out most of Peter’s next words. The only thing Nate could make out was: “...my project.”
“Peter, I didn’t get all of...”
“Can you pick me up?” Peter interrupted. “I know it’s late.”
“Of course,” Nate replied, already sliding back into his jacket. “I can be there in twenty minutes.”
“Ok.” Nate heard relief in his brother’s voice. “Hurry, please. I’ll be out in front of baggage claim, Terminal 6.”
At the front door, Nate stopped and looked back down at Buster. Eyes bright with excitement, the dog stared up at him. His tongue, actually longer than his tail, lolled out one side of his mouth.
Buster was, without question, the ugliest dog on the planet. He was the product of an insane mixture of breeds, predominated, as near as Nate could tell, by Dachshund and Rottweiler, though Nate suspected there was probably some Chihuahua thrown in for good measure. Buster stood on tiny legs that barely kept his hairless, low-slung torso off the ground. His head, in comparison to the rest of his body, was massive. Nate liked to tell people it was because Buster had such a large brain. In reality, Buster was not one of the brightest stars in the canine galaxy. He did, however, have a stout heart and a sweet personality. Nate had rescued him years before from the pound, and the little dog had repaid him with a fierce loyalty.
“Sorry, buddy,” Nate said, “got to do this solo. But I won’t be long, and I’ll be bringing back Uncle Peter. You stay here,” Nate waved a hand, “and guard the domicile. Ok?”
Buster emitted a short bark that came out more like a “hmmph.” Incongruously, in that crazy concoction of genes, Buster had apparently inherited some hound dog.
As Nate wheeled his car out of the subterranean garage and turned up Ocean Avenue, he replayed Peter’s call in his mind.
It wasn’t like his younger brother to become rattled. Though Nate still thought of Peter as a kid, the man was forty-six years old. For the past twenty years, Peter had worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, winning a number of awards for investigative journalism. He’d also written a pair of best-selling books, one on the international drug trade, another dealing with nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet era. He’d traveled from the jungles of Nicaragua to the frozen Siberian tundra. Along the way, he’d been jailed more than once, including a two-week stay in a rat-infested Burmese prison. And he’d managed to bear it all with an unwavering sense of humor.
No, this evening’s call was not like his brother.
Despite what he’d heard, or thought he’d heard, over the phone, Nate didn’t think Peter’s state of mind could have anything to do with his current project.
For the past couple of months, Peter had thrown himself into something he’d talked about doing for a long time. Something he’d only recently been able to get himself in the right frame of mind to tackle. The topic was close to both of them, and, though it came with heavy emotional baggage, Nate didn’t see how it could possibly cause Peter to start imagining he was being followed.
The subject was Apollo 18, the last of NASA’s manned lunar missions, and a catastrophe that ranked up there with the Apollo 1 fire and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. What made it particularly personal for Nate and Peter was the fact that the Apollo 18 commander, and one of the three astronauts who died in the tragedy, had been their father, Bob Cartwright.
It had happened on September 28, 1976. Three days before Peter’s tenth birthday, and a month before Nate’s twelfth.
Nate and the twins, along with their grandmother, had gathered in front of the television in the living room at their old home in Houston. Outside, reporters congregated on the sidewalk in front of the house, but Gamma refused to let any of them near the front door. She’d made it clear they were to stay off the property and leave the boys alone.
Nate had been old enough to understand the situation. The twins, maybe not so much, though Peter had always been sensitive and uncommonly attuned to things happening around him, so he might have had some appreciation for the perilous state of affairs. For Matt, it was just another exciting chapter in the saga of his father, the astronaut and sudden celebrity. And, of course, an opportunity to stay home on a school day.
A week earlier, the spacecraft bearing their father and his two crewmates had completed a successful transit to the moon and entered lunar orbit. On September 22, the module carrying Bob Cartwright and Mason Gale touched down on the lunar surface, and the two of them became the thirteenth and fourteenth men to walk on the moon.
As extraordinary an accomplishment as it was, it initially garnered little public attention. While the first moonwalk by the astronauts from Apollo 11 seven years earlier had captivated the world, subsequent missions to the moon had attracted an ever-decreasing audience. Odd, considering the incredible effort required to put men on the moon, the whole thing seemed like yesterday’s news, and the activities of Cartwright and Gale were conducted, for the most part, without media fanfare. That was, of course, until their last transmission.
The astronauts had been in the process of their first moonwalk, technically referred to as an EVA, or extra-vehicular activity. They’d retrieved the lunar rover from its storage position along the side of the module and were in the process of working their way across the ancient sea of the moon known as the Mare Crisium, or Sea of Crises, when Bob Cartwright uttered the words that, to this day, remained shrouded in mystery.
Cartwright had kept up a running commentary as the rover bounced along the uneven surface. He’d stopped briefly to allow Gale to retrieve a rock sample, and had just started the rover up again. There were a few seconds of silence before Cartwright, clear as day, said in a startled voice, “That shouldn’t be here.”
Then the video stream from the camera mounted on the front of the rover went to black, and the audio fell silent.
At the time, the command service module, manned by the third member of the Apollo 18 crew, Steve Dayton, was on the far side of the moon, outside radio contact and not scheduled to be within range of Earth for another twenty minutes. During that time, Mission Control tried unsuccessfully to raise the two astronauts on the lunar surface. When the module bearing Dayton emerged from behind the moon, attempts were made to contact him, also to no avail. All transmissions from the spacecraft had ceased, almost as if someone had pulled a plug.
Suddenly, Apollo 18 had captured the world’s attention. With no way of knowing what was happening on and around the moon, speculation abounded. Was it simply a failure of the communications equipment, or was loss of contact indicative of a larger problem? And what had Cartwright been referring to when he’d uttered those last mysterious words? Were the men still alive? Could they return to earth?
NASA scrambled, hasty plans drawn up for a rescue mission. But putting another team on the moon could take weeks... months.
To everyone’s relief, three days later, precisely at the scheduled time, astronomers on Earth confirmed a burn of the service propulsion system and, still in eerie silence, the command service module began its return transit.
On September 28, the world had been transfixed, awaiting first sight of the spacecraft. And, almost exactly when expected, in the clear blue skies over the South Pacific, only a few miles north of the anticipated entry point, a distant speck appeared, slowly morphing into the welcome sight of the Apollo 18 capsule dangling beneath the canopy of a trio of parachutes.
On the television, the steady voice of Walter Cronkite provided commentary as the vessel bearing their father majestically descended and splashed down in the calm waters north of the waiting navy armada. Images captured by cameras on one of the helicopters deployed from the U.S.S. Coral Sea showed navy divers jumping into the water near the capsule, inflating a large raft to accommodate the returning astronauts.
The first indication of a problem came just after the hatch was sprung. One of the divers perched on the inflated rubber collar encircling the capsule took a quick look inside and immediately pulled back, turning his head away with a grimace that was caught on camera. After a few seconds, he waved off the helicopter bearing the television crew. It turned back toward the carrier, leaving the newscasters fumbling for explanations.
As young Nate had watched that day, a feeling of dread had washed over him. He knew the news was bad long before any kind of announcement was made. The minutes, even the days after, were a blur. But Nate never forgot that gut-wrenching moment when he watched the diver look away. To this day, Nate could close his eyes and see it happening all over again.
Years later, Nate heard that the sailor who’d been the first to peer into the capsule had subsequently struggled with serious psychological issues. It had to have been difficult for him. He’d unwittingly opened the door to a smoldering coffin. The official finding was that the heat shield had failed on re-entry. The three men inside had been baked to a crisp, their bodies barely recognizable as having once been human. Everything within the capsule had been charred or melted, or both. The stench that assaulted the young petty officer had to have been overwhelming.
As bad as it had been for the diver, however, it could not have been anything compared to the final agonizing seconds of Bob Cartwright, Mason Gale and Steve Dayton. Their skin peeling off of their skeletons. Their bodies cooking in their own juices. Death a blessing.
Given the condition of the capsule’s contents, there had never been a resolution of the mystery surrounding the loss of contact with Apollo 18. What had those last few cryptic words uttered by Bob Cartwright meant? What had happened to the astronauts during those few days of radio silence? Of course, human nature being what it was, countless theories had been advanced, ranging from the pedestrian to the bizarre.
A small, but stubborn percentage of the population believed that the men must have encountered extra terrestrials. Others speculated that Cartwright had, at that moment, noticed something left on the rover when it had been packed into position on the side of the lunar module prior to launch, something that wasn’t supposed to have made the journey into space. Perhaps, it was suggested, whatever it was somehow interfered with the communications system when either Cartwright or Gale reached down to pick it up.
The most common and widely accepted theory was that Cartwright had simply seen some man-made debris. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had deposited a fair amount of junk on the lunar surface during the 1960s and 70s. The United States had successfully landed a number of unmanned probes on the moon. On each of six prior Apollo missions, the lunar module had been ejected and allowed to crash back on to the surface of the moon after returning its astronauts to the command module. The Soviets had, in turn, launched their own series of unmanned probes, and, though many of them had not made it to the moon, a number had. There was no record of any of those prior missions having resulted in the deposit of space junk in the Sea of Crises, but it was still possible. And it would have explained Cartwright’s surprise.
Of course, that didn’t account for the sudden loss of radio contact. With nothing else to explain that unusual event, the pundits had chalked it up to simple equipment failure.
One thing was certain. Unless and until man again ventured to the moon, something that did not seem likely to occur any time in the near future, this was one mystery that would remain unsolved.
No, Nate reflected, there was nothing about that bit of old history that could possibly explain why his brother was so spooked. It had to be something else.
At this late hour, with few vehicles on the road between Santa Monica and LAX, the drive didn’t take long. Nate quickly circumnavigated the airport, pulling up in front of Terminal 6 no more than twenty minutes after he’d hung up the phone.
Peter stood out front, his already slight figure further diminished by a canvas suitcase slung over one shoulder and a computer bag over the other. To Nate, his brother’s anxiety was obvious. In place of his normal impish look, Peter’s jaw was clenched, lips tightly pursed, eyes darting about. As Nate eased the car to the curb, Peter opened the back door and tossed in his suitcase, then he slid into the front passenger seat.
“Thanks. Sorry about the late hour.”
Though it was a cool October evening, a sheen of sweat coated Peter’s broad forehead below his receding blond hairline. As Nate pulled back out into the light traffic, his brother craned his neck, scanning the sidewalk and roadway.
“Want to tell me what’s going on?” Nate asked.
Still looking about, Peter replied, “Let’s get out of here, first.”
Nate took the ramp down to Sepulveda Boulevard and merged onto the wide thoroughfare, heading north. In the rear view mirror, he saw no other vehicles, either entering from the airport or on the street itself. They drove into Westchester, as near as Nate could tell, the only car on the road. The stores on either side were shut down, the sidewalks deserted.
“Peter, unless they’re invisible, I don’t think anyone is following us.”
For the first time since he’d gotten into the car, Peter turned to face forward and sat back in his seat. After a moment, he let out a deep breath and gave a rueful laugh. “You must think I’m nuts.”
“You did have me going there.” Nate shrugged. “Now, do you want to tell me what’s up? Let’s start with why you were in Minneapolis.”
“I flew out there to see Mason Gale’s sister and mother.”
“For your research?”
“Gale’s mother is still alive? She must be ancient.”
“She’s ninety-three, but she still gets around. Her daughter lives with her and helps take care of her.”
“So, did you see them?”
“I did,” Peter said. “But only for a couple of minutes.”
“You flew all the way out there, and you only saw them for a couple of minutes? That seems a little silly.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been trying to talk to them for a few weeks now, and they’ve been giving me the cold shoulder. I figured, if I show up in person, what are they going to do? Tell me to get lost?”
“So, what did they do?”
“They told me to get lost.”
“In so many words, yes.” Peter turned to face him. “Nate, they’re afraid of something. They were afraid to talk to me.” Slowly, he said, “I have never in my entire life seen anyone as terrified as those two women. They couldn’t get me off their property fast enough. I thought they were going to come after me with brooms.”
Nate thought about that. Finally, he asked, “Do you have any idea why?”
“Not exactly,” Peter said. He slid his computer out of the case and turned it on. “But let me show you something. Maybe it has nothing to do with their reaction. Then again, maybe it does. I’ll let you be the judge. You need to see this anyway,” he added.
Nate slowed the car and pulled into the deserted parking lot of a low-rise office complex. He parked and turned off the engine.
“When I decided to write about Apollo 18,” Peter began, “the first thing I did was submit a Freedom of Information request. It took a while, but I got quite a bit of documentation, including a few things that were previously classified. There were some photos.”
“Photos,” Nate repeated, an ominous chill creeping up his spine.
“Yeah,” Peter said. “I’ve got to warn you, this is a little tough to take.”
In the glow of the laptop monitor, Nate saw that Peter’s expression was grim. His brother rotated the computer so Nate could view the screen. At the moment it was a solid blue. Peter touched one of the keys, and the display immediately changed. It took Nate a second to realize what he was looking at. When he did, his stomach constricted.
The picture had been taken from just outside the capsule. It showed clearly the three bodies within. It was almost as if someone had staged the scene to generate the greatest amount of revulsion. The physical remains of the three astronauts were still seated on the wide bench, ostensibly strapped in, though the straps, if present, had melted into what was left of the bodies - grotesque caricatures of human forms, black, with bits of white bone and teeth here and there.
Nate knew that the body seated in the left hand commander’s position was what had once been Bob Cartwright. He closed his eyes. This was not how he wanted to remember his father.
“Damnit Peter. Shut it off.”
“Wait,” said Peter. “You haven’t seen it yet.”
Reluctantly, Nate opened his eyes as Peter set his cursor at a spot in the picture near the bottom of the hatch opening. Then he drew that spot out into a rectangular box about an inch high. He tapped the keypad, and, for a moment, the display was a blur. Then it came into focus, and the screen was filled with the portion of the original picture that had been inside the small box.
“I had this photo digitally enhanced,” Peter said. “If you look closely at the lip where the hatch door seats when it’s closed, you’ll see initials and three numbers.”
Nate leaned closer. He saw the notation “CSM-116” stamped into the metal.
“Each command service module was assigned a serial number,” Peter explained. “On the Apollo 17 mission, CSM-114 was used. The module for Apollo 18 was CSM-115, not 116. The module designated CSM-116 was supposed to be used on the Apollo 19 mission, which, as you know, was cancelled.”
Nate was still processing what his brother had just told him when Peter gave him a direct look and said, quietly, “Nate, that capsule was not our father’s capsule. And that body we buried thirty-six years ago was not our father.”
Raen and his men moved with a practiced grace, making no unnecessary noise. They’d long ago mastered the art of invisibility, whether they were in a noisy crowd or, as now, in a quiet, deserted setting. They knew and could anticipate each other’s movements. They were well-trained. And they were the best at what they did.
At the door to the condominium unit Raen halted. His two colleagues quietly assumed positions against the wall to either side, statuary to a casual observer.
From a pocket, Raen retrieved a narrow metallic device and slid it into the deadbolt slot above the door handle. With a paucity of motion, he manipulated the tumblers and shot back the bolt. The door handle itself had a lock. He again deployed the picking device. Identical to the mechanism above, this lock took but a second to spring.
Displaying an agility that would have impressed the most sophisticated of magicians performing up-close sleight-of-hand, Raen produced a pistol in place of the pick. The weapon was small, its size dominated by the silencer screwed into the barrel. In his hands, though, it was as deadly as a .357 magnum.
He crouched, and Dacoff silently swung the spotlight, mounted on a telescoping rod, into position above him. They’d already doused the lights in the corridor.
Anyone waiting inside when Raen opened the door would see only a blinding glare. Gunfire would likely be directed at the light. Of course, Raen couldn’t completely discount the possibility that another professional waited on the other side of the door, in which case he’d be exposed and probably killed. But that, he knew, was the nature of their business, and one of the reasons he was paid so well.
He did not hesitate. He swung the door open quickly, extending his gun hand and sweeping the interior with his eyes.
Ten feet inside the door, brightly illuminated by the spotlight, stood a squat dog with a big head. His mouth was open, and a long tongue extended nearly to the floor. As Raen performed his visual reconnaissance, the dog licked his own snout and swallowed. Then he again dropped his jaw, allowing his tongue to flop back out, and he stood panting, his rear end gyrating back and forth. There was no other movement inside the dwelling.
Raen entered, still crouched, ignoring the dog, which he knew was no threat. Ozaki came after him, a silenced machine pistol at the ready. When they’d cleared the doorway, Dacoff followed, examining the doorframe as he did for signs of an entry detection device.
Once he and Ozaki had confirmed that the other rooms were empty, Raen returned to the kitchen. Dacoff, holding a small electronic transceiver, was methodically sweeping the dwelling for listening devices. He signaled silently that he’d completed his inspection for motion sensors. With a dog roaming free, they hadn’t expected to find any, but, as with everything else, they took no chances. Raen collected the bag Dacoff had dropped by the front door and, from a side pocket, began removing a series of sharp implements, placing them on the kitchen counter. Ozaki picked up the dog and gave Raen an inquiring look. Raen nodded solemnly.
When the elevator doors opened, Nate was surprised to find the hallway in complete darkness.
“Someone forget to pay the electric bill?” Peter asked.
Nate shrugged. “Maybe there’s a circuit out,” he said, stepping into the gloom.
The elevator doors slid shut behind them, and they were plunged into a Stygian blackness. Perhaps it was because of their earlier conversation, but Nate was suddenly struck with a deep sense of unease.
He reached out and cautiously stepped forward, feeling for the far wall. When his fingers made contact, he set down Peter’s computer bag and ran his hand up the surface, searching for the light fixture he remembered was affixed at a point immediately across from the elevators. His fingertips brushed against the metal base, and he reached up with his other hand, cupping the glass sconce and feeling for the light bulb. He touched it, and it jiggled slightly. Gripping the bulb between thumb and middle finger, he gave it a slight clockwise turn.
The light came on.
He looked back at Peter. The expression he’d seen on his brother’s face earlier had returned.
Nate gave a quick dismissive wave of his hand. “Just kids,” he said. “They think they’re being funny.”
A woman with two teenage boys had recently moved in one floor below. Nate had seen the boys a few days earlier, riding their skateboards in the breezeway between his building and the one next door, just beneath the sign that read “No skateboarding.” It had annoyed him, until he realized he’d have done the same thing at their age.
“Really, Peter, it’s just kids being kids.”
After a moment, Peter nodded. Adjusting the shoulder strap on his suitcase, he said, “Let’s get inside.”
As they made their way down the hall, Nate paused at two other light fixtures and tightened the bulbs. He did likewise with the lamp just outside the door to his condo. He made a mental note to say something to the building manager. It was one thing for the kids to engage in activities where they could be hurt. It was another to create dangerous conditions for the rest of the residents.
He unlocked the door, pushed it open, and was again met with darkness. That’s odd, he thought. He was sure he’d left the light on in the den. He stepped inside, and his senses prickled.
A strange odor permeated the air. A musky scent, with a metallic tinge to it. He felt for the switch beside the door, found it, and clicked on the hall light.
He saw immediately that the left half of the floor at the end of the hallway was covered with something dark. Light from the overhead fixture shimmered off its surface. Slowly, Nate lowered the computer bag and took a couple of cautious steps forward. Around the corner to his left, the small kitchen island that contained the sink and dishwasher came into view. Above the island was a rack from which normally hung a collection of pots and pans. Instead of the usual kitchenware, however, there dangled a single large object. It was in shadow, and Nate again reached for a switch.
A series of lights came on, brightly illuminating the kitchen. The sight that greeted Nate caused him to gag, and he stepped back involuntarily, his shoulder striking the frame of the bedroom door.
“Oh my God,” Peter said from behind. His eyes were wide, and he’d put a hand up to his mouth.
Nate’s eyes darted from his brother back to the horrible tableau.
Suspended above the kitchen island was the mutilated body of a small animal, impaled on a metal hook, the point of which had been driven into the lower abdomen between the hind legs, its sharp tip poking out near the stubby tail. Drenched in dark crimson, strips of flesh dangled off the body in grotesque random patterns. The poor creature appeared to have been decapitated. Blood in copious amounts had poured out, collecting on the counter below, the overflow running down the front of the dishwasher and pooling on the floor in a mass of congealed maroon, almost black.
In the puddle on the counter below the hideous thing lay a dog collar. A green tag with the name “Buster” in florid script lay half-submerged in the coagulating mess.
Lightheaded, knees weak, Nate’s heart pounded in his chest; his stomach heaved. He shook his head, slowly at first, but then with vehemence as anger welled up through the revulsion. Breathing heavily, he looked back up at the gruesome remains, opening his mouth to vent his rage.
Then he stopped. He frowned, studying the corpse. Something about it was wrong.
He looked at Peter. There were tears in his brother’s eyes. Peter pulled away the hand that had been covering his mouth and said in a choked voice, “Buster.”
“No,” Nate said.
His brother started to say something else, but Nate held up a hand, cocking his head and listening intently. From behind came a faint scratching sound. Barely audible.
Nate whirled and stepped quickly into the bedroom. At the far side, the door to the master bathroom was closed. In rapid strides, Nate covered the distance, gripped the handle and pushed the door open. He stared for a moment at the floor tile. Then, to his immense relief, Buster poked his head around the door. His tail end jerking back and forth with excitement, the little dog emerged and did a quick figure eight through Nate’s legs before Nate was able to reach down and pick him up. Hugging him with relief, Nate carried Buster back to the front hallway, the dog wriggling in his arms and licking his face with unabashed gusto.
When Peter saw them, he blurted, “Thank God.”
The phone rang.
Peter froze and stared at Nate.
The phone rang a second time, sound reverberating throughout the otherwise quiet condominium from multiple extensions. Nate looked at the nearest one, which was mounted on the kitchen wall near the hallway. Unlike the hands-free devices in the den and bedroom, this was an older unit, the handset attached to its base by a long cord that dangled almost to the floor. There was no digital readout to indicate the source of the call. Not that it really mattered. Nate knew with a cold certainty that the person on the other end of the line had been in his home earlier, and he knew there would be nothing to learn from any such readout.
He handed the squirming Buster to Peter and stepped forward, lifting the handset and cutting short a third ring. He held the phone up to his ear, but said nothing.
There was silence on the other end. Nate waited. After a long moment, a man’s voice, deep and gravely, said, “Did we get your attention?”
Nate bit back a retort.
“That’s ok,” the man said. He spoke in a flat tone, with no accent and almost no inflection. “I’ll do the talking. You do the listening.”
“You didn’t need to do that,” Nate said quietly.
“Sure I did. You wouldn’t have taken me seriously otherwise. You see,” the man continued, and his voice took on a hard edge, “you need to know what kind of person you’re dealing with.”
Forcing a calm on himself that he didn’t feel, Nate reached his free hand up to the bottom of the handset, pinched the tab on the jack and slid the end of the cord out, severing the connection to the base of the phone. Holding it an inch away from the handset, he said, “Who are you?” and then he immediately slid the jack back in place.
“Who I am is not important.” The man seemed to hesitate halfway through the last word. There was a long silence. When his voice came again, it had, if possible, an even harder edge to it. It also, Nate realized, had a very distinct southern accent. “Don’t get cute with me, Cartwright.”
There was another pause. Then, returning to the same flat intonation, the man said, “Believe me, if it were my call, you wouldn’t even get this one warning. If I were you, I’d heed it. Because, if you don’t, I’ll be back. And this time it’ll really be your dog. And then it’ll be you and your brother. You’ll be last. I’ll make you watch the first two.
“Now,” he continued, “here’s your warning: Forget about Apollo 18. No more questions. No more investigation. It’s over. Done. Follow that advice, and you’ll live a nice, long life. Don’t, and I’ll be coming for you.”
The line went dead.
They took down the carcass, hook and all, and put it in a trash bag, which they then placed into yet another bag. The blood they mopped up with several towels, and those went into a separate trash bag. They wiped down the counter and cabinets, using copious amounts of disinfectant.
They worked in grim silence. After Nate had hung up the phone, he’d looked at Peter, tapped his ear and swung a finger around, indicating that there were listening devices. It was the only way the man on the phone could have heard him after he’d disconnected the phone jack. Peter had nodded his acknowledgement.
Through his shock, Nate had realized belatedly that the body hanging in his kitchen wasn’t a dog, but a pig. The person who set up the macabre scene had mutilated the ends of the legs, but the vestiges of hoofed toes were still visible. Nate hoped the animal was one that had been acquired from a butcher and not one killed in his home. There was no sign of the head, and he didn’t think the noise a squealing pig would have made could possibly have gone undetected by the rest of the building, so he felt reasonably certain it had to have already been dead before being brought in. He also doubted that the amount of blood deposited in his kitchen could have come from just the one animal, so he assumed whoever had staged the scene had brought the blood in a separate container.
Nate carried the two large bags to the trash chute in the small room next to the elevator. Then he packed an overnight bag. He’d carefully cleaned the collar, put it back on Buster and attached the leash they used for their walks. The little dog was delighted with the attention, his animation a stark contrast with the gloomy mood of the two brothers.
When they left the condo, Peter took a step toward the elevator, but Nate reached out, lightly touched his brother’s shoulder, and nodded his head in the other direction. He led Peter to the stairway, picked up Buster, and they wordlessly descended.
When they were three flights down, Nate stopped and whispered, “I don’t trust the elevator. For that matter, I don’t trust any place we’d be expected to go.”
Peter nodded. “What now?”
“I’m working on it. Better not talk in the car though.”
“What about the police?”
Nate had considered that. “I don’t think whoever did that is worried about the police, do you?”
Peter grimaced, then shook his head.
They continued down another five flights and stepped out into the garage below the building. As they approached Nate’s car, he studied it suspiciously. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. However, if a listening or tracking device, or both, had been installed, Nate knew it would take him longer to find than they could afford.
Fortunately, he had a backup.
When they pulled out of the garage, the sky was just beginning to lighten. It was early enough that traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway was moving well. At Overland, Nate exited and made his way north to Century City. His office was in one of the twin towers. He did not, however, intend to go to the office.
Considering he had a staff of one - and he was the one - he knew he wouldn’t be missed.
Nate had started out years before on a career track much different from his current one. An honors graduate from Northwestern, he’d had his pick of law schools, and he elected to go to the University of Chicago, staying close to the family home in nearby Indiana. When he took his law degree, he again had plenty of options, including offers from a number of top law firms throughout the country. He settled on a blue chip Wall Street firm and quickly established himself as one of the top young litigators in New York.
Shortly after Nate became a partner, the youngest in the history of the firm, the partnership decided to expand to the West Coast, and Nate was tapped to head up a new office in Los Angeles. At the time it seemed a good opportunity, and Nate agreed to make the move, swapping the small midtown apartment in which he’d spent little time over the previous few years for a beautiful new ocean front condominium, in which, it turned out, he wound up spending even less time.
Nate had always worked insane hours, routinely staying at the office late into the evening and working through the weekends. If anything, the move to Los Angeles intensified the demand on his time. He made good money, but it came at a heavy personal price.
He took no vacations, rarely socialized. Though he dated sporadically, he never was able to sustain a meaningful relationship. None of the women he’d gone out with had been able to understand, much less tolerate, the hours his schedule demanded. And, truth be told, he’d considered none of them worth making the effort to try to change.
At least that’s what he kept telling himself.
Then, when he had turned forty, it was as if he’d hit a wall.
His birthday was on a Monday. He arrived in court for an early morning hearing on a discovery dispute, one of those mundane battles that took place constantly in the give and take between attorneys. This one was over whether or not opposing counsel should have provided answers to interrogatories posed weeks before. There was no reason why the other side hadn’t responded. In the scheme of things, the questions hadn’t even been that controversial. The refusal to answer was just part of a game litigants played on a regular basis, forcing their opponents to incur fees, needlessly wasting the court’s time, and ultimately costing taxpayers money.
Suddenly, the thought of standing before the judge and participating in the charade had been too much for Nate. He asked the bailiff to pass a note to the clerk informing her that he’d become ill, and, just like that, he walked out. In the seven years since, Nate had yet to set foot again in a courthouse.
He’d managed to burn himself out, and he knew it.
Employing the same rigorous scrutiny he’d given to his cases, Nate re-evaluated his life. Fortunately, one of the things at which he had excelled as an attorney was making sense out of chaos. His talent at analysis had contributed to his always being in demand. Even though he’d carried his own heavy slate of cases and borne management responsibility for the office, he stepped in regularly to consult on his colleagues’ matters, particularly the complex ones with voluminous documentation and massive amounts of testimony. Nate, it turned out, had an uncanny ability to ferret out and connect sometimes wildly disparate facts, bringing into focus things that no one else could see. Lawyers at other firms clamored for an opportunity to engage Nate as co-counsel, even at the eye-popping hourly rate his law firm charged for his services.
What if, Nate had asked himself, he were to strike out on his own? He wouldn’t even have to practice law, a priority in his then-state of mind. As he’d mulled it over, a plan took shape.
He gave his resignation to the firm a week after his birthday. A month later, he opened the doors on a new venture, Cartwright Consultants. Since he was the only consultant, he worried that maybe the name was a tad presumptuous. No one seemed to mind, though, and he’d had plenty of business from day one.
Old habits being hard to break, Nate still worked like a dog. Of late, however, he’d found himself in unfamiliar territory, the rock-solid foundation on which he’d built his life shifting beneath his feet at weird and unexpected times. The latest upheaval had come a week before.
He’d returned to the office after a long day in El Segundo culling through records at one of the large defense contractors, his arms weighed down by the banker’s box full of documents he’d copied and was planning to review that evening. To his surprise, waiting for him in the small lobby of the executive suite he shared with a group of accountants was the woman he’d been seeing on and off for the past few months. She was dressed in a long blue silk gown, her honey blond hair done up in a way she’d never worn it before.
“Tell me,” she said when they made eye contact, Nate halfway across the threshold, awkwardly propping the door open with his back as he eased his heavy load through, “that your tuxedo is hanging in your office.” There was an almost pleading look on her face.
It took Nate a moment to make the connection. And, when it came, it was with a sour wave of recrimination.
“The charity thing,” he said softly.
He could see the hope in her eyes transition to something cold.
“The charity thing? Really Nate?”
He remembered her telling him that the star-studded gala - it was to be at one of the studios, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember which one - would be the social event of the year. And, yes, he had said he’d go. If work permitted. He hadn’t expected that it would though. And, of course, it hadn’t. But, then, he’d never told her that, had he? He’d just never... focused on it, which, he now realized with acute embarrassment was a mistake. One, he reflected with a sudden rueful clarity, he’d made too many times in the past with the women he’d dated.
They stood there for a long moment, neither saying anything. Finally, knowing it was lame, Nate offered, “I’m sorry, Jan.”
She looked away quickly. Then she turned, gathering from the sofa behind her a small purse and a long black wrap, the latter of which she threw across her neck. As she spun to face him again, she hurled one end of the wrap over a shoulder.
Her lips were pursed, and there was a new look to her eyes.
After a beat, she said, “It’s Jen.”
Nate felt as if he’d been slapped.
“Do you mind?” she asked, now looking at the door, which Nate was effectively blocking with his body and the large box.
Not knowing what else to do or say, Nate stepped back, pushing the door open further, and she breezed past him, a wave of perfume there, then gone. He watched as she stalked to the elevator controls and punched the down button several times. One of the doors opened, and she stepped half in before turning and giving him a fierce look.
“Get a life, Nate Cartwright,” she said. Then she was gone.
Turning off Century Park East, Nate entered the massive garage beneath the iconic twin office towers that dominated the Century City skyline. He drove down to the lowest level, at this early hour mostly vacant, and parked next to a black Ford Taurus. He shut off the engine and got out. Peter followed with Buster. Nate retrieved his bag from the back seat of his car, unlocked the trunk of the Taurus and placed the bag inside. With arched eyebrows, Peter did the same with his suitcase.
Without a word, Nate closed the door to his car, locked it, and made his way around to the driver’s side of the Taurus. He climbed in and started the engine. Peter slid into the passenger seat, Buster in his arms. After closing the door, he gave Nate an inquiring look. “This is yours, I hope?”
Nate nodded as he backed the Taurus out of the parking space. “It is, though you wouldn’t know it checking the registration. The official owner is a Nevada limited liability company. That company is owned by a corporation in Anguilla, a small island in the Caribbean that happens to have some nice corporate privacy laws.”
“And you own the corporation?”
Again, Nate nodded.
“Why go to all that trouble?”
“Occasionally, clients ask me to do a little research. It’s not exactly cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Nate added, with a self deprecating wave of his hand, “but sometimes it’s better to be anonymous. There’s a lot of money at stake in some of the cases I work.”
Nate steered the car up toward the exit onto Constellation Boulevard. “In any event,” he continued, “it’s coming in handy now.”
He pulled out of the garage, made a left turn, then turned again onto the Avenue of the Stars, headed back toward the Santa Monica Freeway. “We need to talk.”
Nate told Peter about the warning given by the man on the phone.
“So this is about Apollo 18,” Peter said finally. “What the hell?”
Nate shook his head. “I don’t know. But I damn sure intend to find out.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to do exactly what they told us not to.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
Nate glanced over at his brother. “Yeah, I’m afraid. But I’ll be damned if I’ll live my life that way. Someone’s hiding something. Something so important they’ll go to pretty much any length to keep it covered up. Something,” he added grimly, “that apparently involved our father.”
When they reached the freeway, Nate took the entry ramp and merged the Taurus into the eastbound traffic.
After a moment, Peter observed, “You seem to have a destination in mind.”
“So, where are we going?”
“Minneapolis. But first, we’re stopping in Idaho.”
Peter was silent for a long moment. Finally, he asked, “Do we have to?”
“Yes,” Nate said quietly. “Yes, we do.”
Raen turned the rental car off the highway and steered it through the opening in the rusted chain link fence. The gate, a dilapidated affair, was propped open as usual. He drove down the center aisle separating the small businesses to either side, passing a handful of auto repair shops and a furniture refinisher. He parked in front of the building at the end, a squat structure with a weather-beaten sign above the door that read “Zeke’s Auto Body.”
When he stepped inside, a bored looking young man seated behind a wooden counter peered up at him over the top of a newspaper. The place had a pervasive shabbiness. It looked as though the next time anyone took a broom to the floor or a dust rag to the counter would be the first. The front windows had been pasted over with a series of posters advertising various exotic automobiles, models whose owners wouldn’t be caught dead within miles of the establishment.
Hanging on the wall behind the young man was a calendar advertising a parts manufacturer, featuring a well-endowed woman leaning against the hood of a pickup truck, wearing only a tool belt. A large sign pasted on the wall announced, “In God we trust. All others pay cash.”
Once the door closed, the young man, his eyes now much more alert, tilted his head slightly to his left. Raen nodded, lifted the hinged section of the countertop, and walked through.
In the wall behind the counter was a small, narrow door. Raen opened it and entered what was, by all appearances, a closet. Shelves lined the back wall, filled, somewhat incongruously, with a collection of cleaning supplies. A mop and a broom hung from hooks to one side.
Raen allowed the door to close behind him. In the ceiling above, a dingy, dust-covered twenty-five watt bulb in an open fixture provided just enough light for him to see what he was doing. On one of the back shelves, at about chest level, sat an old metal pail. He pushed it to one side, revealing a cracked mirror bolted to the wall. He reached in and placed his right palm against the mirror. There was a slight buzz, followed by an audible click.
In a smooth motion, the rear wall, shelves and all, swung open on well-oiled hinges, revealing a brightly illuminated staircase with concrete steps leading down at a sharp angle. Raen stepped through and began descending. At a narrow landing, he turned and started down in the opposite direction. As he did, the rear wall of the closet above him swung shut, making almost no sound.
At the bottom of the stairway, he entered a tiny, bright chamber, the floor and ceiling of which each appeared to be one large square of light. The walls to either side were smoked glass, behind which Raen knew a series of cameras, conventional and infrared, was in the process of scanning him. In the wall straight ahead was a door. It had no handle. Instead, a small glass panel was inset at about chest height. Against this panel Raen again placed his right palm. As before, there was a buzz and a click, then the door swung open, revealing a broad corridor, carpeted and lit in a much more muted fashion.
A young man in a business suit stood on the other side. “This way sir,” the man said. “The director is waiting for you.”
Raen nodded and followed him down the corridor. He allowed no expression on his face. Nothing in his body language would have revealed to an observer that he was agitated.
A man of action, Raen hated being at headquarters, hated being around anyone that he had to treat as his ostensible superior. It was all the more aggravating being summoned back in the middle of an operation. The whole thing carried with it the suggestion of being called to the principal’s office, a stigma from a time past, a time long before Raen had become what he was: One of the top operatives in the most clandestine of the United States’ intelligence services.
It was known simply as The Organization. Few people outside of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were even aware of its existence. Its members were carefully culled from various branches of the military. They were all of a certain type: Loners, outsiders, most importantly, individuals who did not possess, for lack of a better term, the moral constraints that would prevent normal people from even considering, much less carrying out, the activities tasked to The Organization.
Raen knew The Organization was considered a necessary evil, looked upon by many of the few who were privy to its existence as a true abhorrence. He didn’t care. He loved what he did, what it allowed him to do. They could gnash their teeth, thump their self-righteous chests, rue the circumstances that required maintaining such a loathsome weapon. At the end of the day, however, there was no way they were going to give it up, to lose the flexibility it offered. And that was just fine with Raen.
In the outer room of the director’s suite, he paused while the young man escorting him knocked softly on the door to the private office and stuck his head in. A secretary sitting at a desk just outside alternately scanned a stack of notes lying next to her computer monitor and made strokes on the keypad. Raen didn’t acknowledge the elderly woman, but he knew who she was. Rumor had it Ruth Branson had been with The Organization since its founding, working for the succession of men who had served as its director. Though she also didn’t acknowledge his presence, Raen knew she was very much aware of his identity. And that was what was important.
“The director will see you now,” the young man said.
Again, Raen nodded. He stepped into the office.
The director sat behind a large oak desk, the top of which was empty, save for a laptop computer and a short stack of papers sitting immediately in front him. He had one of the pages from the stack in his hand and was reading from it when Raen entered. He continued reading for several seconds, ignoring Raen.
Doing a slow burn, Raen stood quietly in front of the desk and studied the man. He was in his sixties, with thinning gray hair. With the exception of his eyes, which were dark and penetrating, there was nothing about him that would draw attention - precisely the characteristic routinely cultivated in all of the men who served The Organization.
It was hard to be invisible when standing out in a crowd.
The director was known as Krantz. Each of the men in The Organization went only by a single sobriquet. As with his other colleagues, Raen had no idea what the man’s real name was, or, for that matter, anything about his life before joining The Organization. None of that was important.
Krantz, Raen knew, had been one of The Organization’s top field men for almost three decades, a long time in their line of business. Most of the operatives, or, more to the point, most of the ones who weren’t killed, retired after twenty or so years. By then, they’d made plenty of money and could afford to live out their days in relative luxury. Krantz, however, had evidenced no particular desire to leave the fold. When age had finally begun to slow his physical reflexes, he’d opted to stay in an administrative role, eventually inheriting the top position when the prior director had dropped dead of a heart attack a few years earlier.
Though he might have lost a step or two physically, Krantz’ mind was still as sharp as ever. Raen knew from experience that he had to be on his toes around him.
Finally, Krantz looked up at him and fixed him with those dark eyes. “Any update?”
Raen had filed his last report shortly after landing at Dulles. That had been about a half hour earlier. “No change.”
Krantz considered him for a moment. “How did the Cartwrights get away?”
“We still don’t know. We tracked them to the garage in the building where the older one works. But he never showed at the office. That means they left on foot or in another vehicle. There’s no record of either of them owning or having access to such a vehicle. We’re checking security tapes, but nothing yet. They’re not very high quality. We’re also monitoring banking and credit card activity. So far, again, nothing.”
Krantz nodded. Raen had not said anything that wasn’t in the prior reports he’d filed.
“Odd that they knew they were under surveillance,” Krantz observed.
Raen kept his face impassive. He had not mentioned in his reports that the elder Cartwright had disconnected the phone jack while they were talking, tricking him into revealing the presence of the listening devices they’d planted in the condominium.
“They both have much higher than average intelligence,” said Raen.
“Then you will not underestimate them again.” Krantz said it lightly, but it was a stinging rebuke. Raen nodded. Inside, he smoldered.
Krantz dropped his eyes to the paper in front of him for a moment, then looked back up at Raen. “There’s been a development.”
Raen was curious, but he waited patiently.
“It appears,” Krantz said, “that we have to deal with a third brother.”
“What third brother?”
“Peter Cartwright’s twin, Matthew Cartwright.”
That made no sense and had the unusual effect of catching Raen up short. He thought for a moment. He had personally gone through the dossiers on Nathaniel and Peter Cartwright. There was nothing in either file that suggested a third brother. He was certain of it.
He shook his head. “No,” he said with confidence, “there is no twin. He doesn’t exist.”
“That’s right,” Krantz said. “He doesn’t exist. The same way you don’t exist.”
It took a moment for the significance of that statement to sink in. When it did, Raen took in a sharp breath. “Shit.”
Krantz nodded grimly.
“Shit,” Raen said again. “How the hell was that not communicated to me?”
Krantz shrugged. “You know how it works. Once you’re invisible, you’re invisible. If you become visible, you become dead. We didn’t put it together until about,” he consulted his watch, “thirty-nine minutes ago.”
Raen was thinking fast, running cold calculations. “Where is he?”
“He’s been living in Idaho, near Pocatello.”
“Do we have assets on the ground?”
Krantz nodded. “Landing as we speak. A full action team. Led by Parker.”
Good, thought Raen. He was working through the logistics of getting himself and his men to Idaho when an important thought occurred to him. “Who is he?”
Krantz didn’t respond immediately. Finally, he said, “His operational name was Marek.”
“Shit,” said Raen for a third time. This time he really meant it.
Near Idaho Falls, Nate exited the interstate and pointed the car east. Though, on the long drive from Los Angeles, Peter had been his typically voluble self, as they began wending their way through the mountains of southeast Idaho he fell silent, staring out the side window. Nate didn’t need to ask why.
It had been over twenty-five years since Peter had last seen his twin brother, more years, Nate realized with a start, than they’d actually spent together. That, alone, was extraordinary, but it didn’t even begin to tell the story - a story that, to this day, Nate still could not reconcile.
Matt and Peter were identical twins. Almost impossible to tell apart. And, from the day they were born, they’d been inseparable. They possessed very different personalities - Peter, the happy-go-lucky jokester, quick witted, always the center of a crowd, and Matt the quiet one, a terrific athlete and dare-devil, equally as popular, though completely comfortable in his own space. In a strange, almost mystical way, however, they had always complemented each other.
Then, when the twins were in their senior year of high school, everything changed. Peter revealed that he was gay. Though Nate had suspected it for some time, it came as a complete shock to Matt. And he didn’t handle it well. At a time when Peter needed his closest friend, Matt turned his back on him. It was almost as if, overnight, Matt became a different person.
Matt started getting into fights at school, more than one of them, Nate knew, triggered by boorish comments from classmates questioning Matt’s sexuality. Always an excellent student, Matt’s grades plummeted during his final semester, and he almost didn’t graduate. Months before, he and Peter had both been accepted by Stanford on full scholarships. On the day after graduation, however, Matt enlisted in the army. He told no one what he was doing, and he didn’t bother to say goodbye, leaving only a short note on the kitchen counter. Years would pass before Nate again heard from him.
“Look,” Nate ventured, “I know it’s a little awkward.”
“No,” Peter said quickly, turning back from the window, “it’s a lot awkward. I understand why you think we need to involve Matt in this. But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t.” He turned again and, looking out the window, added, “I’m sorry to say this, but I wish he’d just stayed wherever the hell it was he went.”
Nate winced. He didn’t blame Peter, and he wasn’t surprised at his brother’s reaction. He knew deep down that Peter didn’t really mean it this way, but, effectively, Peter was saying he wished Matt was dead.
Or, put more accurately, still dead.
Nate had been in his senior year at Northwestern when he’d returned from a late class one spring afternoon to find a pair of officers in Army uniforms waiting in a car parked outside his apartment building. They’d brought with them the tragic news that his younger brother had been killed in a training accident. The helicopter in which he’d been riding, they explained, had gone down in the Gulf of Mexico. All on board had perished. They hadn’t even been able to recover the bodies.
Nineteen years later, Nate had almost had a heart attack when he climbed into his car late one evening after making an ATM deposit, and Matt was sitting in the back seat. Matt explained to Nate only that it had been necessary to stage his death for security reasons. He gave Nate a scrap of paper with a phone number on it and asked him to come to Idaho when he had a couple of days. Then, as quickly as he’d appeared, Matt slipped out of the car and vanished into the night.
A week later, Nate flew to Pocatello. Matt met him outside the airport and they drove to a cabin Matt had constructed in the mountains. Nate was full of questions, but Matt made it clear that he couldn’t talk about what he’d been doing for the previous twenty-one years. He also impressed on Nate the fact that no one else should know that he was alive. When Nate explained that he’d already informed Peter, Matt insisted that he pass along to Peter the admonishment that he was to tell no one else. And, he told Nate in no uncertain terms, he wanted no contact with his twin brother.
They spent a couple of days dancing around subjects they apparently couldn’t discuss. Nate revealed - or at least thought he was revealing - that Gamma, their paternal grandmother and the woman who’d raised them after their father’s death, had passed away in 1992. Matt, however, surprised Nate by telling him that, not only was Matt aware of her passing, he’d been at the funeral. Nate remembered the relatively small affair. There was no way, he knew, that Matt could have been present without his being aware of it. Nate chose, however, not to dispute it.
Nate tried to get Matt to explain what had happened to him after leaving home, but Matt refused to go into it. Any of it. It was as if Matt had withdrawn from the world. Something, Nate knew, had occurred. Something that had taken away a big chunk of his brother’s soul. He didn’t think it had anything to do with Matt’s falling out with Peter. In fact, the only times over the weekend Matt showed any emotion occurred when Nate endeavored, unsuccessfully, to get Matt to open up on that subject, and, even then, Matt’s reactions were extraordinarily vague. Anyone who didn’t know Matt the way Nate knew him would have missed the tinge of melancholy.
No, Nate reflected sadly, there were things about Matt that he still didn’t understand. As he steered the car through the narrow mountain passes, Nate hoped that, maybe, the silver lining in this new dark cloud would be an opportunity to finally bring some sense to all of the mystery. And, in any event, as Peter had acknowledged, there was no way they could avoid involving Matt in this.
Though Nate had been here the one time before, it had been in full daylight, and he’d not been driving. Now, with the sun low on the horizon, it was difficult making out landmarks, and he almost missed his turn, a narrow track leading off the two-lane highway at a point just beyond a bridge that crossed a small stream. After passing the spot, Nate braked, backed the car up, and turned it down the gravel path.
The lane led straight into a densely wooded area for a quarter of a mile before angling upward and beginning a series of sharp, hairpin turns that took them up the side of a mountain. They finally crested a ridge and, before them, constructed of stone and logs and surrounded by large evergreen trees, sat the comfortable-looking dwelling Nate remembered from his previous visit. He saw that a new covered porch spanning the entire front of the structure had been added. In the gloaming, Nate could make out wisps of smoke escaping from the top of the chimney. But no lights were visible in the house, and there was no other indication that anyone was home.
He parked the car in the large open area in front of the building, noting the absence of any other vehicles. As he stepped out, he realized that the temperature had dropped about twenty degrees from the time they’d last been outside, filling up at a service station north of Salt Lake City. He retrieved his jacket and started for the front door. Peter, with Buster on his leash, hung back.
When Nate gave him a look, Peter said, “We’ll wait here for now.”
Nate nodded and climbed the steps to the porch. He knocked on the front door. After several seconds and no response, he knocked again. A full minute passed. He looked back at Peter standing by the car. Peter shook his head. He was about to knock again, when a quiet voice came from the far corner.
“It’s good to see you, Nate.”
Startled, Nate turned. He’d heard nothing, yet there at the end of the porch, where there was no obvious point of access, stood his brother Matt. Nate paused a moment to regain his wits.
“That’s a neat trick,” he said, finally.
Matt shrugged. “Mountain magic.”
Matt had the fair hair and light skin he’d inherited from their mother. Though the twins barely remembered her, Nate saw her clearly when he looked at each of them, particularly in their open expressions, eyes sharp and penetrating. Nate, in contrast, had the dark, serious countenance of their father. And, at six-three, as their father had been, he was several inches taller than his brothers. People meeting the boys for the first time had wondered how they could possibly be related. But it was a question that never occurred to Nate. Quite simply, the twins were no less a part of him than his own limbs.
Matt stepped forward, and Nate did the same. Matt opened his arms, and they embraced. Then Matt stepped back and gave Nate a thorough appraisal. “You look good.”
Nate smiled, though he knew it was a weak effort. “I wish I felt good.”
Matt continued looking at him for a long time. Then he said, “Yeah, I figured there was a problem.” He paused, then made a vague gesture toward the car. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have brought him.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Peter called out. “I see you haven’t let your age interfere with your immaturity.”
Matt was about to respond when there was a sudden beeping sound. He stopped and reached into a pocket of the nylon vest he was wearing. He pulled out a small electronic device and studied it for a moment. Then he looked at Nate with arched eyebrows.
“Is anyone else with you?”
Nate shook his head.
Matt walked quickly to the front door, opened it and entered. After a moment, Nate followed.
Just inside was a small reading desk on which sat a computer monitor. Matt had his hands on the back of the wooden chair still pushed in under the desk. He was leaning forward, peering intently at the display on the monitor. Without taking his eyes off the screen, he said, “Damn, these guys know what they’re doing.”
He straightened and gave Nate a serious look. “We’ve got to go. Now.”
Nate’s heart jumped. The tension that had been with him over much of the past twenty-four hours returned.
Matt took a step toward the rear of the house, then paused and turned, an enigmatic expression on his face. He tilted his head toward the door. “Get him.”
Nate leaned out the door and gestured urgently for Peter. With a sudden look of alarm, his brother pushed himself off the side of the car on which he’d been leaning and took several steps toward the house. “What’s going on?”
“Someone’s coming. We’ve got to go.”
Peter glanced around as he reached down to pick up Buster. Then he turned and walked quickly back to the car, opened the passenger door and retrieved his computer bag. Slinging the bag over a shoulder, he ran to the porch and took the steps two at a time.
When Peter got to the door, Nate reached out, grabbed the computer bag and lifted it off his brother’s shoulder, throwing the strap over his own head. He turned and looked toward the back of the house. Matt was waiting for them near the end of the hallway, standing half in a doorway on the left hand side. It was a door, Nate recalled, that had always been locked during his previous visit. When they made eye contact, Matt nodded, stepped in and disappeared.
“Go,” Nate said to Peter, and his brother started toward the back of the house. Nate closed the front door, threw a curious glance at the computer screen Matt had been studying, then followed.
Through the doorway at the end of the hall was a set of stairs angling down to the right, headed toward and apparently extending below the rear of the house. Peter, Nate saw, had reached the bottom of the steps. And then he was gone. Pulling the door shut behind him, Nate began to descend.
The steps led down to a narrow passageway, lined on each side with cinder block walls. The floor and ceiling were concrete. Lights placed about twenty feet apart provided illumination. It had the appearance of a service tunnel and seemed to extend forever. Peter, Nate could see, was already a good thirty yards away, moving rapidly. He picked up his pace.
Nate wasn’t sure how far he’d traveled, but, after a couple of minutes, the floor angled downward. At the end of another long stretch, it again leveled out and, a short distance away, he could see an opening. As he got closer, he realized that it was similar to a hatchway on a naval warship. A heavy metal door on oversized hinges had been swung inward.
In the corridor just before the entryway was a small alcove occupied by a desk on which sat another computer monitor. Nate paused and studied it. On the screen was what looked to be a map, with a series of small illuminated dots scattered about. As he watched, the dots moved slightly.
Finally, taking care to duck his head so as not to strike the top of the low entrance, Nate stepped gingerly over the threshold, passed through the hatchway, and, straightening, was surprised to find himself standing in a large wooden structure with a high open-beamed ceiling. Weak late afternoon light filtered through gaps in the walls below the ceiling. Beneath his feet, a thin layer of hay covered a hard packed dirt floor. The air was ripe with the sickly sweet smell of manure.
Peter, still holding Buster, was looking about. “Yep,” he said, after a moment, “I always figured Matt probably lived in a barn.”
They were standing in what seemed to be a stall, the door to which was hanging open. Matt suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Horseshit,” he said, looking at Peter.
“No,” Peter said, immediately, “I really did always figure that.”
“Horseshit,” Matt said again, but this time he pointed at Peter’s feet. “You’re standing in a pile of horseshit.”
Peter looked down and immediately threw his head back in disgust. “Oh, for crying out loud.”
“Come on,” Matt said, “we don’t have much time.”
Nate followed Matt out of the stall. Behind him, he could hear muttering and what sounded like a shoe being scraped against one of the slats lining the stall. A few feet away, Matt stood near a large open door, holding the reins of three horses, each of which had been saddled.
“Matt, let me tell you...”
Matt shook his head quickly. “No time now. We’ll talk later.” He handed Nate one of the leather straps. “Hop on.”
Nate hesitated briefly. He hadn’t been on a horse since he was what? Five years old, visiting Gamma in Indiana. Awkwardly, he set his foot in the left stirrup, and, with some difficulty, pulled himself up, throwing his right leg over the animal’s large rear end, and settling into the saddle.
“You’re kidding, right?” said Peter, as he came up behind them.
“No, I’m not,” replied Matt, giving Peter a serious look. “Don’t tell me you’re too much of a sissy to ride a horse.”
“Too much of a what?”
“You heard me.”
Peter affected a dour expression. Then he put a hand out.
Silently, Matt tossed him the reins to one of the horses, a big black stallion. Peter held out Buster, and Matt took the dog, who immediately began licking Matt’s face. Peter stepped closer to the horse, lifted a foot and slid it into the stirrup. In one easy motion, he swung himself up onto the back of the large animal. He reached down, nodding toward the dog. Matt handed Buster up, and Peter easily cradled him in one arm. With his free hand, he confidently backed the stallion up a couple steps and turned him toward the open barn door.
“All right, Tonto,” he said. “Now what?”
With what appeared to be a barely suppressed grin, Matt slung himself into the saddle on the remaining horse. “Now, we ride.”
With Matt in the lead, they exited the barn and crossed a short meadow at a canter, entering the trees at the far end. The path they were on appeared to be well worn, and there was plenty of clearance above them and to the sides.
Bouncing uncomfortably on the hard, leather saddle, Nate didn’t so much ride the horse, as hang on to it. Fortunately, the animal seemed content to tag along after the one ridden by Matt. For fear of falling, Nate didn’t dare turn to look behind him, but he could hear the hoof beats of Peter’s horse following.
They kept a steady pace, not fast, but not slow either. The trail seemed to carry them slightly downhill. After several minutes, they came to a dirt road. Matt turned onto it and pushed his horse to a gallop. Despite the increased speed, Nate found the motion easier on his sore tailbone. They rode for what Nate estimated was about two miles before Matt suddenly reined in his mount, turned and guided it down a narrow lane.
Twenty yards in from the road was a windowless structure with a gated pen to one side. Matt jumped off, opened the gate, and led his horse inside. Nate gratefully climbed down and followed. Working quickly, Matt unbuckled the straps on his horse, lifted the saddle off and threw it onto a wooden platform. He slid the bridle off the horse’s head and hung it from a hook on the side wall of the structure. He then did the same with Nate’s horse. Peter in the meantime had unsaddled the black stallion.
“This way,” Matt said. Closing the gate as soon as they were through, he led them to a door at the side of the small building, which he unlocked with a key, then stepped aside for them to enter. Buster took the lead, pulling on his leash.
The building was a garage. There were two vehicles inside, one an old pickup truck with dented fenders and spots of rust peeking through the worn paint, the other a much newer SUV, black, with tinted windows.
Matt took a seat on a stool in front of a counter that ran along the rear of the garage. A peg board panel with a collection of hand tools hanging from it slid to one side, revealing a series of electronic screens. Matt reached forward and pulled toward himself a tray on which sat a computer keyboard.
With a couple of strokes, the map Nate had seen on the monitor just inside the entryway to the barn appeared on one of the screens. The same bright dots shifted slowly, seeming now to converge on a single spot. Two of the other screens came on, showing the front of Matt’s home from different angles. On a third, an interior view materialized. Nate assumed it was a room in the house.
Suddenly, a dark figure appeared on one of the screens, moving quickly along the base of the front porch. The display showing the interior flashed brightly and went dark.
Matt typed some commands, and the rest of the monitors shut off. He pushed in the tray holding the keyboard, and the wall containing the hand tools slowly slid back into place. He sat motionless, staring off into the distance.
Nate looked at Peter. He knew Peter was thinking the same thing he was. Somehow, the people who had paid a visit to Nate’s condominium the night before had followed them to Idaho. Nate wasn’t sure how they’d managed to do it. He and Peter hadn’t used their credit cards. They hadn’t made any calls. There was no way the car could have been traced to him, was there?
Finally, Matt stood. He nodded toward the SUV. “We should get going. It’ll take them a while, but they’ll eventually find this place.”
Nate reached a hand out and touched Matt’s sleeve. “Matt,” he said solemnly, “these are not good people.”
Matt gave him an odd look. “No,” he said after a moment. “No, they’re not.”