Crazy Hal’s trip had been fairly monotonous since he picked up his load outside Sacramento...until he saw her. The trucker had gassed up his eighteen-wheeler and stopped at the weigh station near Laramie a few minutes before and was back on the interstate. He and his rig, which he named The Blue Lady, had been on the road for more than thirty six hours with twelve to go. Definitely time for another pick-me-up, Crazy decided. He grinned to himself at what he liked to call his ‘daily treat’ – a couple of snorts of meth. Just ahead he spied one of his favorite spots, an abandoned two-lane highway that was virtually unused since the completion of the interstate and where a long-forgotten roadside picnic area waited around the second bend. It was a place forgotten by most everyone, except Hal. His rig sighed to a stop at the top of the exit ramp. As he turned right and the eighteen-wheeler struggled to gain speed up the ascending grade, he saw a small red convertible sports car that seemed to appear from nowhere. In his side mirror, he could tell it was a woman, watching as the wind whipped about her long brown hair. For the first few minutes, Crazy was puzzled by her actions. She stayed dangerously tight to his rear bumper as their lone vehicles climbed the mountain road. No one was coming in the opposite direction and she certainly had the power to pass, Crazy thought. Why the hell is she on my ass? Once The Blue Lady crested the hill, the car finally emerged and entered the opposite lane. She passed him fast. He didn’t get a good look at her face, but Crazy managed to catch a glimpse of a bronze thigh, a tight skirt as red as the car and a billowing sheer white blouse. Her horn gave a few high-pitched flirty beeps as she pulled ahead and back into the southbound lane. The woman gave a playful wave and gunned her engine. The car sped out of sight over the top of the next hill. His primal thoughts were aroused. The brief encounter left Crazy with several full blown fantasies to play out in his mind. Even though nothing might come of his imaginings, Crazy would keep an eye out for the red sports car, and the little hottie behind the wheel, for the rest of the afternoon. The trucker’s vivid thoughts about the woman stayed with him until he came upon a short taper of road. He slowed and pulled in where the familiar sign depicted a white picnic table on a background of blue. As always, the area was deserted. With the brakes engaged, Crazy pulled his duffle bag from the back bunk to the passenger seat. He reached in and retrieved the vial of methamphetamine, along with the miniature metal spoon he kept inside it. Crazy grimaced as he took two snorts of the powder in each nostril. There were the random drug tests required by the federal transportation department, but Crazy didn’t worry much about them or his habit. He kept a fresh bottle of a putrid-tasting drink hidden away under the sleeping berth at all times. The mix of herbs and other drug-masking chemicals, which he bought from a paraphernalia shop back home, had always proven effective in the past. Also, the random tests were typically administered in truck-stop restrooms. Crazy had become a semi-expert in doping, using soap, air fresheners and other chemical ‘helpers’ hidden beneath his fingernails to mix with his urine to hide his occasional recreation from inspectors. Sufficiently braced, Crazy got his rig back on the state road and in twenty minutes he was merging onto the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70. Once well outside the congested highways of downtown Denver, the mountains fell away and the driving became faster. He owned his rig, a Kenworth powered by a Caterpillar engine equipped with thirteen-speed overdrive. Crazy removed the governing mechanism from the engine when he bought it. Without the inhibitor, he could push it well over one-hundred miles per hour when necessary. The extra speed came in handy for certain jobs, especially when he was competing against company-owned vehicles for routes. But he kept both his exhilaration from the meth and his urge to accelerate in check. Crazy maintained the speedometer around ninety as long as the radar detector was quiet. About ten miles from the Kansas border, Crazy spotted the red sports car again. It was ahead of him in the left lane. The Blue Lady was gaining on it. As long as the highway stays flat, I’ve got the chance to get alongside her, Crazy thought. Maybe she’ll want to hook up. His imagination raged with possibilities. He floored the gas pedal. The car was getting closer, almost as if she was slowing down so he could catch up. At a distance of three car lengths, Crazy started to roll down the window. The glass was halfway down when the red car suddenly exploded with speed. While most of her face was obscured by her blowing brown hair, he caught her reflection in the car’s rearview mirror as the ragtop sped away. Crazy saw her laughing. “Damn woman’s teasing me,” he said aloud. He relaxed his leg on the accelerator and fumed about her until he crossed the Kansas state line and, finally off the interstate for the day, decided to focus his attention on the night ahead. He was ready for a meal, as much beer as he could consume and, if he was lucky, a roll in the sack. And he knew just the bar where he might find that opportunity. He leaned toward the window to look himself over in the side mirror. A slightly sinister grin glared back at him. His blue eyes were lightly etched with bloodshot from lack of sleep and methamphetamine, but Hal saw none of that in his reflection. “You good looking som’bitch,” he said aloud. “Tonight’s your night!” The smell of cow manure started to permeate the inside of the cab. The air conditioner had succumbed to the odor generated by the miles of cattle ranches that bordered the highway as he approached the outskirts of Dodge City. Crazy flexed his arm above the shifter to shake the usual ache in his forearm. He slowed to await two passing cars then turned into the entrance of the motel lodge. The hydraulics hissed and moaned as he maneuvered to bring the truck to rest at the far end of the parking lot, carefully lining his rig up alongside five others.
Crazy gathered his lighter and pack of cigarettes from the passenger seat. After a quick side-to-side glance out the windows to ensure he wasn’t watched, Crazy slipped the vial of meth into his front pocket. He felt for his wallet, grabbed his fatigue-green duffle bag and extricated his six-foot frame from the sticky leather seat. He climbed down from his cab to the gravel lot and locked up The Blue Lady for the night. Crazy pulled up on the loops of his blue jeans as he stood beside his rig, which made his slight beer belly even more pronounced. He surveyed the other rigs and the flat terrain of Kansas then took to a swagger as he crossed the lot toward the manager’s office at the motor lodge. He checked in and paid his forty dollars for the night. Once in the motel room, Crazy took a quick shower and shaved again to erase his five o’clock shadow. Afterward, he wet his head and slid the razor carefully to ensure the stubble was gone from his ‘dome.’ Satisfied with the man in the bathroom mirror, he carefully tapped out a thin line of white powder from his vial onto the sink counter and inhaled it with precision. “That’ll do it,” he said aloud. “A good bump to keep me going for the night.” The sun was ebbing behind the mountains when Crazy left his room. The majesty of the western sky, painted with brilliant strokes of orange and pink above faint purple mountain peaks, was lost on the trucker as he made his way across the main street toward Witchburner’s Bar. When he was lucky, and his broker had the right truck routes available, Crazy jumped at the opportunity to make a stop-over at the honky-tonk. And, like previous trips, Crazy tried to schedule his stop on either Thursday or Friday, hitting the nights he had scored with ladies in the past. He discovered Witchburner’s by accident years before, when he was twenty-six and working his first trucking job for a seafood distributor. Although nearly a decade had passed, Witchburner’s hadn’t changed much. Resurrected by a Massachusetts transplant who had run a bar of the same name near Boston, it still had the same worn dollar bills stapled to the walls that Crazy remembered from his very first visit. The dark wooden floors showed the scuff marks from a million pairs of two-stepping boots. As before, the familiar stench of spilled beer was in the air, though Crazy knew it would soon be replaced by the smell of cigarettes and cigars as the evening progressed. A hamburger plate with greasy fries came and went, along with the six-pack of bottled beer in a bucket. Crazy consumed it over two hours as he watched the honky-tonk fill with truckers, bikers, farmers and other locals. By the look of the crowd, it would be a good night. Thursday was ladies night, when the ‘back-country’ young women came down from the even smaller towns and surrounding farms to have a good night of two-for-ones, live music and dancing past midnight. The draw was much the same on Fridays, too – only the drinks were full price. Tonight’s band was The Dueling Crypts, its name air- brushed on a cloth banner draped above a cramped stage in the corner. After Crazy watched enough from the table, he left a two- dollar tip and shifted to the bar. He ordered a shot of Jack Daniel’s and another beer. The first round went quickly. Crazy ordered another and began an hour of trading small talk with farmers, cowboys and cowgirls as he held court from a barstool. It was just after ten o’clock when Witchburner’s entered the typical Thursday night frenzy Crazy remembered so well. Cigarette and cigar smoke floated and hung at the ceiling like a toxic fog. The band started its second set. The bass line, drums and lead guitar pulsed as the Dueling Crypts drew two- steppers and younger grinders to the dance floor, along with the occasional older couple that joined in to rekindle the disco magic from their youth. The music, conversation and yelping from the pool tables in the game room clashed in crescendo of sound that converged at the bar. Added to the overriding speed high, the beer and shots were beginning to take hold. Crazy was buzzed, but oblivious that he was starting to leer at the dancing couples and those who came and went from the bar. Most ignored his stare as they ordered their drinks, while some were vaguely aware that the stranger at the bar was close to becoming a belligerent drunk if a diversion didn’t soon come his way. So far, each woman Crazy hit on during his hour ‘on patrol’ begged off, opting for their boyfriends or other locals they knew better, and certainly not the strange, talkative trucker with the wild eyes. The agitation showed on Crazy’s face. He rubbed his hand over his freshly shaved head. This sucks, he thought to himself. Those bitches. “Give me another one and tab me out,” Crazy said abruptly to the bartender. He nodded with a smile, hiding his relief that his DWI-in-the-making would soon be on his way. But Crazy’s irritation was forgotten when he looked into the long, horizontal mirror behind the bar and noticed a woman looking directly at him from across the room. She was seated at a table near the entrance. Dark eyes with a nice sparkle. Cute face. That was all he could see through the crowd that stood behind him at the bar. Crazy looked away, took a short pull on his beer and then swiveled on the bar stool. He craned his head to peer around the pockets of people to get a better look. She was gone. The table was empty. Then, he spotted her in the crowd. Was she walking his way? As she approached, he noted she was younger than he, maybe late twenties, and had a dark complexion. She smiled at him. Crazy was confused. There was a look of recognition in her eyes. He looked over her face, then down to her short, black skirt and her smooth light-chocolate legs, amply exposed from mid-thigh to the black straps of her Espadrilles. “You don’t remember me, do you?” she said in a firm, controlled voice with a slight trace of a foreign accent. “Honey, I don’t think I’d forget a girl as pretty as you,” Crazy replied with a grin. “You drive a truck with a blue cab, don’t you?” “Yes...yes, I do. But I don’t think we’ve met before.” “We haven’t actually met. I passed you earlier today...tooted my horn and waved...back before the interstate. Saw you a couple of times.” “That was you! In the red car, right?” “That was me,” she replied. She looked sheepishly down at her feet then back at Crazy. “I’m sorry I blew you off the second time...when you came up on me. I was just having some fun, you know, playing around. Hope it didn’t make you angry.” “Oh, I figured I just scared you,” Crazy lied. “Anyway, I should be thanking you. Seeing you was the only interesting thing that’s happened since I left out of California. It’s a pretty boring trip. I just decided to take a break from the wheel a few minutes ago. The road’ll still be there in the morning!” She laughed. “I’m glad you came over to say hello,” Crazy continued. “I’d never known it was you. I could only see your brown hair,” he lied again, remembering the dancing nylon skirt flitting high on her thigh. “My name’s Hal. My friends call me Crazy.” “My name’s Deena. That’s an interesting nickname...Crazy. How did you get it?” “I really don’t remember when I got hung with it. I just do some crazy things from time to time, I guess.” “What about tonight?” she asked quizzically. “Well, not anything to go to jail over, but I’m always out for a little fun. Can’t always be out walking the dog.” “Walking the dog?” “That’s what we call driving a big rig, honey. Dragging the wagon, tanker hanker, carrying a reefer…there’s a lot of ways to say it, depending on what you’re carryin’.” “That’s cute.” Crazy noticed the man had left the barstool behind her while they spoke. He leaned across, put his hand on the empty stool and pulled it over for her to take a seat. “Sit down and I’ll give you the low-down on trucker lingo,” he said. “I’ve got a million of ‘em.” The young woman settled atop the barstool beside him. As she did, Crazy realized she definitely wasn’t white. She’s an Indian or something, he thought, and she definitely doesn’t fit with the typical Witchburner’s crowd. She wiggled on the stool until her body faced slightly toward him. Crazy saw something in her deep brown eyes. She leaned over. Her mouth drew close to Crazy’s ear. She cupped it with her hand to block the loud music of the band. The move offered him a fleeting view of cleavage as her thin, beige blouse fell forward. “I’ve got a secret,” she said. “I like a little fun, too. That’s why I’m here.” She sat back and giggled, looked toward the dance floor and back at Crazy. “When I heard the music, I had to come over and check it out,” she said. “The people here aren’t so plastic, so superficial, like they are at home in L.A. Quite different out west, isn’t it?” Crazy, now encouraged with his prospects for the night, came alive with conversation. He launched into a dissertation on the different cities he had visited and delved into his observations on traveling the country as a trucker. Deena listened intently, smiling and laughing at his stories as the trucker poured on the charm. The two exchanged small talk for about twenty minutes, making observations about the people on the dance floor, the price of the drinks (which she thought a bit pricey for the location) and the quality of the band. A lull finally fell in their conversation. Crazy was enjoying the band’s rendition of Sweet Home Alabama when Deena unexpectedly leaned over again. “This place is getting too noisy,” she whispered in his ear. “Let’s take a break for a few minutes. Is there another place where we can go to party in town?” Crazy was taken aback, but his expression didn’t show it. “Darlin’ Deena, you're readin’ my mind,” he said conspiratorially. “How about I buy you and me another round and we can take a walk. There’s another pub down the street and we can check it out before it closes.” “Sounds good. But I’ve got some wine and beer in a cooler back at the motel. Why don’t we get out of here for a few minutes, have a drink there where it’s quiet, then we can check out the other bar? They’re all open until one o’clock, right?” “They are and that sounds like a plan. Hot damn, I like you more every minute,” Crazy exclaimed with a grin. “I think I’ll start calling you ‘Crazy,’ too.” With that, the trucker quickly flagged down the bartender, paid the bill and the two made their way toward the exit. They dodged flailing arms and butts as Crazy cut a path along the edge of the dance floor until they reached an open area near the bouncer’s station and were out the door. Crazy held her hand as they crossed the parking lot and the two-lane highway. He noticed her palm was more calloused than he expected given her feminine looks. As the couple walked beneath the humming orange neon motel sign, the young woman moved slightly in front of Crazy to lead the way. The sound of the band faded as they rounded the corner of the outside corridor and stood at the door of her motel room. As she looked into her purse for the key, Crazy had a fleeting worry. Maybe she and some ‘friends’ are planning to roll me, he thought. It’s happened before. She doesn’t know me at all...seems a bit too trusting...and to bring me to her room so quickly after meeting up. It doesn’t make much sense. Crazy looked over the parking area. There was no one loitering around. That reassurance, along with the drugs and alcohol, swept away his momentary caution. And when she opened the door and they entered the empty room, he was satisfied there was nothing to fear. The sparse amenities were similar to those in his room on the opposite end of the motel – a chest of drawers and wall mirror, queen bed with a nightstand and reading lamp, and a television bolted to the wall. It had the same putrid green carpet on the floor, with a narrow remnant on the aisle that led to the bathroom. The door shut behind them with a loud click. “Let’s get those drinks,” she said. She opened a plastic cooler to reveal a six pack of beer and several twist-top bottles of red wine. “The beer may be a little warm. Do me a favor, will you run and get some ice for us?” “No problem, darlin’. Just don’t forget to open the door when I get back.” Crazy left with the plastic ice bucket and returned a moment later. The door was slightly ajar. He stepped inside the doorway to see she had taken a seat on the bedside, her shoes off, with a glass of wine in one hand and extending him a beer with the other. “Now that’s a wonderful sight,” said Crazy, dumping the ice in the cooler and taking the wet can of beer from her hand. “A beautiful woman with a brew for her man. I love America.” “I think it’s still cool enough to drink. The others can get cold while we wait. “I’m sure it’s fine.” He sat beside her, toasted her glass and threw his head back to take several gulps of beer. He put his hand on her knee, stroking the soft, bare skin above her knee before he put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “You’re so warm,” she purred, nuzzling her head against his chest. “Warm? You’re making me hot.” She laughed and took another sip of wine. Then, as she leaned toward him again, her blouse fell forward as if she was taunting him with her breasts. “You’re sweet,” she said and cut her eyes at him. “You’re kind of sexy, yourself.” Crazy suddenly felt faint. The room began to blur. He shook his head qui. y side to side to right his vision. “What’s wrong?” she said. She shifted away from him. “Are you okay?” “I think I’ve just caught a major buzz from all the beer,” Crazy said. “Give me a second...I think I just need to put my head down for…,” his voice trailed off as he started to fall backward on the bed. The woman was ready. She grabbed his beer can and held it upright as he collapsed, ensuring no residue spilled on the sheets. The drug worked well...much more quickly than she anticipated. She looked at Crazy for a moment then calmly placed their unfinished beverages on the nightstand. She stood, nonchalantly straightened out her sheer black skirt and retrieved a cell phone from her purse. “Now,” she said simply into the phone. She moved expertly to the nightstand, took the beer can and glass into the restroom and emptied both into the sink. She cleaned them thoroughly. She took a washcloth and sprayed it with a perfume atomizer that sat on the counter. She vigorously rubbed the sides of the can and the glass with the cloth to remove any fingerprints and tossed both into the trash can. She looked over the bathroom intently, then turned off the light switch with the bottom of the perfume bottle and returned it to her purse. She busily cleaned up what little there was in the room, since she had arrived only a few minutes after the truck driver. The young woman picked up an empty black suitcase and sat it next to the cooler and her purse. She walked over and stood over Crazy’s body, then suddenly pulled her hand back and slapped him hard across the face several times. “Fat, stupid dog,” she spat out in Arabic. She dug into the trucker’s front pocket to retrieve his keys, then bent slightly and pushed hard with both arms to roll his large body over on the bed. Pulling out a portion of the bed sheet, she covered her hands and wrestled Crazy’s bulging wallet out of his tight back pocket. She thumbed through the contents, removed the cash, rubbed the black leather briskly several times with the sheet and threw it on the bed. The young woman tucked her shoulder-length dark hair behind her ears. Her brown eyes narrowed to slits. She methodically studied the room once more for any traces she could have missed. Satisfied, she thoroughly went through the ritual she had planned. To the dresser. Purse into the suitcase. Sit the suitcase and cooler by the door. To the bathroom. Retrieve the atomizer and a tissue. Spray and wipe down the counter, faucets and doorknob. Finished in the lavatory, she repeated the same rubdown on the knob and deadbolt lock on the entry doors. The interior was complete. She sprayed the tissue once more, put the atomizer in the cooler and slowly opened the door. She peeked out and scanned the walkway and parking lot. Still deserted. She slid the briefcase and cooler out into the corridor and carefully wiped the outside knob. She put the used tissue in the cooler, shut it tight, then picked it up along with the suitcase and walked casually down the corridor toward the rear of the motel. The faint music of the band came back into earshot as she crossed the back parking lot. As she reached her car, a pick-up truck pulled up beside her. There were two men inside. The passenger window came down. With no emotion on her face, she passed the cooler to the bearded passenger, who opened it and retrieved Crazy’s keys from atop the ice. The woman nodded and unlocked her car. She threw her suitcase inside and slid into the seat quickly. She started the red coupe and drove toward the front of the motel. Her car spit gravel as she accelerated west on the two-lane highway, reversing the route she followed to track the trucker. As the coupe disappeared from sight, the passenger in the pick-up truck was already inside the cab of the eighteen- wheeler. The Blue Lady cranked to life and inched slowly out of the parking lot. The truck followed as the rig turned east and maintained a quarter-mile distance behind it. The illumination of the streetlights diminished as the two vehicles traveled into the desolate farmland of Kansas. About ten minutes from town, with no other vehicles in sight, the red and white lights on the rig went dark and it veered carefully onto the shoulder to turn onto an unmarked dirt road. The pick-up truck followed suit; its headlights doused as it trailed The Blue Lady. The cloud cover extenuated the darkness. The vehicles kicked up very little dust as the drivers patiently traveled the bumpy, pot-holed trail. They slowed to follow a gentle slope and slight turn before they reached a dead end. The two vehicles circled to park behind an abandoned farmhouse. There, four twenty-foot U-Haul Trailers were waiting. Their hoods faced flush against the dilapidated wooden structure and their back doors were open. Each trailer was filled with large white boxes. Four men stood in the darkness, watching as the rig hissed to a stop. The pick-up truck pulled in alongside The Blue Lady and its driver stepped out and approached the men. “We have four hours until daybreak,” he said with authority. “Let’s go!” The other driver was already out of the cab and at the back door of the trailer. He tried several of Crazy’s keys on the padlock until it unlocked. He popped the metal lever loose and slowly pushed the accordion-like steel door up its double tracks. Inside, hundreds of white cardboard boxes were stacked to the ceiling and packed tight to the interior walls of the rig. The boxes were identical to those in the travel trailers. All six men set to work. After removing the first row of boxes inside the truck, three of the men stepped up into the truck bay. The other three men formed a chain, stacking the boxes alongside the wall at the front of the U-Hauls. The sounds of the night, interrupted only by the occasional howl of a coyote or hoot owl, provided a serene backdrop to the grunts of the sweaty men as they hustled to complete their work before sunrise. It was three hours after dawn when the sunlight beamed through the vertical break in the dark green curtains to fall on Crazy Hal’s face. The brightness, along with the mounting sound of highway traffic, stirred him from his stupor. Crazy forced his eyes open to stare at the dingy white ceiling. He rolled over tentatively and winced as his key-ring caught him in the ribs. He let out a curse, fumbled for the keys and gathered them into his hand as he lay lengthwise on the bed and stared at the curtains. Where am I? What happened? The questions came in waves in his half-wakened state before memories of the night before flooded his mind with a vengeance. “That bitch,” he said to the empty room. “That lying little bitch.” Crazy felt for his wallet. It wasn’t in his back pocket. He pulled himself up and groped around the cheap polyester bed covers. He panicked momentarily before he saw the square of black leather on the floor at the foot of the bed. As he reached down the room began to spin. He caught himself on the bed, and then slid along the sheets to sit on the floor and thumb through his wallet. Credit cards gone. CDL still there…and the medical card, thank God. But no cash. “She rolled me, dammit,” he shouted, just as angry at himself for being such an easy mark. “Dammit! I’m such a dumbass!” Crazy’s first thought was to call the police. But although he was holding speed, it was the embarrassment that she had taken advantage of his stupidity that led him to nix the idea. I’ve got a twenty dollar bill stashed in the truck, he thought, so at least I have some cash ‘til I make Nashville. I’ll get my old lady on the phone. Tell her my wallet got lifted at the bar. Found it this morning. Just have her cancel the cards. At least I left my cell phone in the cab. Gas? About 800 miles left to go. Should have enough to make it. He looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was a few minutes after nine. I can still make the scheduled drop, he thought. I’ve just got to fight through the nausea and get back on the road. I can be there by eight tonight if I get moving. Crazy stood slowly and steadied himself. He checked his pockets once more to ensure nothing else was missing. A cursory look around the room revealed no trace that Deena, or whatever her real name was, had ever been there. He left the motel room and walked gingerly down the corridor. He stepped out from the sidewalk as he rounded the corner, reassured to see The Blue Lady in the same spot where he parked her. He repeatedly cursed the girl and his grogginess as he made his way back to his room. After a quick cold shower, Crazy put on the same clothes. They reeked of booze and smoke. Oblivious to the smell, he grabbed his duffle bag and headed to the front office. The trucker was surprised to find the same manager on duty, seated behind the counter as if he hadn’t moved since Crazy checked in at the motor lodge. “Hey, buddy,” Crazy said softly. “I met a lady last night...picked her up at Witchburner’s. She left something personal in my room.” The manager gave him an incredulous look. “Really, I’m serious.” Crazy winked and flashed a knowing smile. “She was in room 103. We spent some time together. Her name is Deena. Did she leave a phone number on the registration?” “Alright, let me see,” said the manager with a slightly disgusted look. He flipped through the registration cards in the Rolodex. “Well, there’s a phone number here, but you said the name was Deena?” “Yeah…that’s what she told me.” “Well, looks like she was lying to one of us ‘because she registered under another name. I’ll write down the number for you, though.” As the manager scribbled the number on a slip of paper and passed it across the desk, Crazy already knew no one would be at the other end of that phone call. Crazy thanked the manager, shoved the note into his front pocket and walked out of the office with a dejected look until he reached his rig. Its metallic royal-blue hood still glistened from the morning dew. Another worry struck him as he approached the cab. Crazy walked to the doors of the trailer. The padlock was there. He tried it twice. It was bolted tight. “Well, at least she didn’t get into my rig,” he said aloud as he climbed into the cab. The engine coughed to life and The Blue Lady lumbered through the lot behind the motor lodge and back out onto the highway. Crazy never noticed the odometer. It registered twenty three more miles than it did when he pulled in for another unforgettable night at Witchburner’s Bar.
Chapter One Constant Reminders October 7, 2001
Parker Glynn felt dead inside and he damn sure wanted to keep it that way. The corporate board rooms and luxury hotel suites he knew from before seemed a lifetime away at Ginger’s Place. The bar was a holdover from forty years ago, back in the days when Florida had hundreds of drive-thru liquor stores attached to small, dark pubs where drivers once drank and drove with impunity. The drive-thru windows had been torn down long ago, but Ginger’s remained. Outside, black silhouettes of seductive women were displayed in fake windows on the second floor to entice customers off A1A. Their images reminded Glynn of the legendary sirens of the sea who beckoned to sailors of old. With Ginger’s, these dark witches called out to lost souls on the highway. I certainly fall into that category, Glynn reflected. Glynn looked into his drink then glanced at the exposed silver ductwork above the bar. His eyes followed it around the corner of the ceiling as it drooped along the tops of the liquor bottles to disappear behind a gaping hole in the wall. Certainly they could improve the joint, he thought. But the ambiance is fitting. Mirrored beer and liquor ads on the walls disguised the aging pine paneling. A few bikers, beachcombers and rednecks yelped occasionally as they hovered around a single pool table in the rear of the bar. Sunday night at Ginger’s...a great dive for losers, Glynn thought. Losers like me. The woman behind the bar brought him his third Maker’s Mark and water. She wasn’t into making conversation either, which suited him fine. It had been two weeks since he left New York City, and all the while Glynn had held to his self-imposed exile from human interaction. The last week was spent in Jacksonville Beach, holed up in his RV most of the time except for an occasional
stroll around Beach Marine to look over the boats along the docks around the marina. His excursion to Ginger’s marked the first day Glynn ventured far from the solitude of his motor home. Earlier that afternoon, Glynn had finally consumed the last of the shrimp he purchased from a roadside vendor in Mayport when he arrived on the coast. Mayport was located a few miles north on A1A, an odd place where old and new Florida seemed to clash – a fishing village juxtaposed with Coast Guard cutters, large transport ships and mega barges and all competing for space as they traversed the mouth of the St. Johns River. While he didn’t find a suitable campsite in Mayport, the image of the waning fishing village stayed with him. In some ways Ginger’s Place was very similar, Glynn reflected. Mayport, with its shrimpers clinging to an industry their ancestors forged on the sea while commercial development slowly encroached on their way of life, and Ginger’s Place, a bar with a décor frozen in the sixties trying to hold on to its heyday while its clientele was slowly siphoned away by the restaurant chains and newer, hipper entrants to the bar scene. Glynn felt melancholy at the thought. He also felt a sense of pity for both. Whatever glory they had was long past. Progress. Technology. Time. Each had a hand in their slow demise. Was it the innocence of the era they represented, or perhaps his youthful naiveté he longed for again? The days when life seemed fresh. All the simple pleasures. What happened to that young, vibrant man who was so full of wonder, so empowered by life, that person who looked at every job, every challenge, as an adventure, not as an ordeal? Glynn dipped his index finger into his drink and absentmindedly stirred the ice cubes. There was a time when he would have been in awe of a thousand dollar dinner at the top of Chicago’s Hancock Building, a play on Broadway, or a week vacationing at the Atlantis on Paradise Island. But as the money came and his client list became more prestigious, Glynn lost that wide-eyed innocence. The seduction of success is slow and insidious, he thought. I lost focus on what was important – my family – not my
business. I didn’t have to fulfill every want. I thought I was invincible. What was I thinking? His wife, Teresa, and their child, Amy. Both gone forever. It should have been me, he thought. I deserved to die, not them. Not the innocents. And Taliah, my big mistake, he thought. If anyone should be dead, it should be her...and me along with her. She might as well be dead now, he reflected. She vanished without a trace. Glynn swallowed the rest of his drink and motioned the barkeep to bring another. He wasn’t the kind of man to run from a problem, but that was before 9/11. Too much to handle. The loss of his family, the guilt of the affair and the nagging suspicion he was somehow complicit in the attack. Only the liquor helped deaden his mind to the memories. Escape from the city was the only option. He cared nothing for the job anymore. It was the only course that made sense. Drop out for a while. Find his center. Search for some way to cope. After he bought the motor home in New Jersey, Glynn journeyed down the eastern seaboard. Quantico. Cherrystone. Charleston. Savannah. One-night stays at the private campgrounds where few tourists were around, then back to the blessed solitude of the road. Glynn had never heard of Jacksonville until the day he crossed the Georgia-Florida border and saw signs for the city along the interstate. After he drove past the city’s downtown skyline, he saw the exit for Beach Boulevard. The words sounded serene and safe. The image it provoked called to him. The boulevard led him to State Highway A1A, then on to Mayport where Glynn discovered there were no RV parks to be found. Faced with the Blackbeard ferry that crossed the river and led back into Georgia, Glynn turned back toward Jacksonville Beach and the marina. The RV hadn’t attracted any curiosity since he arrived at Beach Marine. The marina parking lot was busy by day. At night, Glynn left only a small reading light on inside, which made the motor home appear dark and uninhabited from the
outside and, so far, ignored by police who patrolled there after midnight. Glynn’s frequent ‘night terrors’ still brought him out of sleep in a cold sweat, but he found the view of the quiet marina calmed his nerves. A canopy covered the wooden boardwalk that surrounded the retail shops of Beach Marine. The Yacht Sales store. Last Flight Out, with its novelties and sports tee- shirts in the window, chocked full of plane and boat memorabilia. The bait shop. All closed for the night. The darkened storefront, with boats pitching lightly in the background, made for a tranquil scene. “Hey, Suzy, turn on the TV!” shouted one of the men at the pool table, interrupting Glynn’s thoughts. “Put it on the news somewhere.” “Since when did you start watching the news Billy,” the bartender asked sarcastically as she searched for the remote control. “Which station?” “Don’t care. One of the news ones. Ya’ know we started bombing today?” “Bombing who?” “Those Towelhead Bastards that did the Twin Towers.” The bartender found Fox News and adjusted the volume. The anchor gave sparse details about the U.S. assault as he voiced over a map of Afghanistan that identified the area of attack. “Dammit,” Glynn whispered to himself. “Can’t get away from it...even at this dive.” He took the last pull from his drink, called for the check and paid his bill. The sea breeze was cool under a clear night sky as he crossed the street to the RV. Even though the bourbon didn’t seem to faze his driving ability, he traveled along the side streets as much as possible to lessen the odds of being pulled over by the police. At first, Glynn planned to head back to the marina and crash, but he realized he was out of bourbon and the liquor stores were closed for the night. He would need more alcohol to sleep without the nightmares. He returned to A1A and headed a few blocks south to the other bar he spotted earlier in the day.
The Monkey’s Uncle was situated in the interior corner of a strip shopping center. Glynn remembered there was a theatre in the same shopping center and it had a huge parking lot, at least for the beach. With a wide expanse of open space in the center, Glynn easily navigated the RV into two empty parking slots. From the look of the place during daylight, Glynn expected it would be relatively dead on a Sunday night. So, he was surprised to open the front door to a wall of noise and a bar full of people. A dee-jay worked from the front corner near a dance floor while a twentyish crowd congregated around the rectangular bar and milled about the pool tables and video games in an adjoining room. Glynn edged up to an open spot at the bar, flagged down one of the frazzled barmaids and ordered a bourbon and water. Being one of the oldest people there, he felt invisible. At least there are no signs of 9/11 here, he thought. Young people talked and laughed among themselves. Smiles. Couples flirting, kissing, dancing, laughing with friends, smoking and driving with impunity, and all seemingly oblivious to the recent attack – as he wished he could be. The happiness and energy of the crowd reminded him of his wedding reception. The location had been very different, outside the town square of Jackson, Wyoming, but the party atmosphere was nearly the same. Glynn winced at the memory. As he surveyed the crowd, Glynn loathed their happiness. Glynn leaned on the bar and watched the spectacle for a few more minutes. He ordered one more drink and paid his tab. He had seen enough. As he maneuvered through the crowd and made it outside, Glynn shook his head in disgust. His anger dissipated to sorrow as he crossed the parking lot. He began to cry softly. The streetlights blurred and shimmered. He wiped his eyes as he reached the RV. Once inside and safely away from the human race again, he went to the restroom and flipped on the light. He looked back at the weeping man in the mirror. “What am I going to do,” he cried aloud in an anguished plea. He sat down on the closed toilet seat and buried his head in his hands.
“I can’t bear it anymore. Everything reminds me. Everything...,” his voice trailed off in a whimper.
When Nate Tyree turned from the captain’s chair on the rented sport boat to see his new bride, he saw the sexiest scene he thought he’d ever beheld in his life. Jennifer leaned forward over the back of the boat and shook her head. Her black hair was especially curly as it danced in the wind of their ten knots on the ocean. Nate followed her body from bottom to top. She stood with her shapely bronze legs slightly apart. The one-inch gap between her knees tapered slightly to reach a half-inch where her legs came together at the bottom of her bikini – a minimal white piece of fabric with only a large orange star on the right cheek to add a bit of color. That suit hugs each side tight and nice, Nate thought with a wry smile. She has the most beautiful ass in the world. Jennifer was oblivious to Nate’s admiring eyes. As she ran her fingers through each side of her hair to ensure they were drying equally, Nate could almost feel his hands on her body again – as they had been an hour before…and for so many times before that since arriving in Grand Turk. The first three days of their honeymoon, a weak, slow-moving tropical storm allowed for several enthusiastic episodes in their hotel room. Sex was definitely different since the commitment had been made. There was no hesitation, guilt, or false flattery to get her into his bed now; just a knowing look or glance and they were in the sack, exploring each other further. Slow and compassionate, or hot and passionate, it was more satisfying now. At least it seemed that way to Nate. His eyes feasted on Jennifer’s sexy body. He briefly turned ahead to ensure the smaller group of cays around the Turks were still a safe distance away, then looked back again to linger on her a few moments longer. She pulled her jet-black hair back between her shoulders. Still damp, it fell in coils of ringlets below her shoulder blades in feminine perfection. “Paradise,” Nate said to himself, the sound of the sea wind passing so loud that it dimmed the words so that only he heard them in his head. “Damn, this is paradise.” As he sat at the wraparound captain’s chair, Nate’s knees still ached from their lovemaking on Cotton Cay that morning. The two had explored the island the day before with a group of tourists. It was the first break in the weather, clearing to blue skies so they could resume their itinerary. After breakfast in bed in their oceanfront room at the Osprey Hotel, they pulled on their swimsuits, hailed a cab on Duke Street and traveled south from Cockburn Town (Nate loved the name). They drove for about ten minutes, passing the Grand Turk Cruise Terminal along the way. The driver explained that Carnival Cruises had recently completed a major restoration there; in a short time, they arrived at Governor’s Beach. The driver directed them out to a section of the beach where a private tour company awaited. The tour operator had already boarded the other passengers. The couple climbed into the wide diving boat and sat down on the last open spot on the bench seat near one of the two outboard motors. Marjoe, a twentyish island native, introduced his mate, Ian, who gave a brief and entertaining ‘rules of the boat’ presentation. Ian explained how to use the ‘head’ below deck, pointed out the plastic barrel filled with ice and bottled water, and went over the planned activities for the morning excursion. After a few comments from the guests and some jokes from Marjoe, he turned up the volume on the reggae music. Marjoe bent over the rear of the boat and the two motors coughed to life as Ian retrieved the anchor. The other guests included two other couples, in their early twenties like Nate and Jennifer, and a family of four. The air was still cool, and with the added wind speed and the constant sea spray as the boat slapped down after each wave, the beleaguered father had to deal with his wife and two girls, about ten and twelve years old, as they complained of the cold and shivered under their beach towels. Despite the chill, the water was beautifully blue and the air was crisp and clean. They had barely lost sight of Grand Turk when Cotton Cay appeared ahead. Marjoe throttled down in the approach to a secluded, pristine beach. The crew dropped anchor in about four feet of water and cut the engine. Each guest slipped on a facemask and stepped into the cool sea. Once they were all off the boat, the group snorkeled for about thirty minutes. When their time was over, Ian stayed aboard while Marjoe waded ashore to gather up the fins and facemasks. He dumped the gear into plastic pails filled with saltwater, hauled them back to the boat, then led the entire group on a short walking tour of the area. They followed a well-worn path from the beach, trying to stay close enough to hear Marjoe’s oft-repeated history of the islands. “The tourist guides and textbooks say the Turks and Caicos consist of forty islands, but Ian and I can tell you there are many more than that, some uncharted, that make up the island chain. As you snorkeled, you probably noticed how clear the water is and how easy it is to see the beautiful fish and coral. Snorkeling is one of the favorite activities here, along with sunbathing. Oh, and feel free to ask questions along the way. I’ll try my best to answer them.” The wide swath of sand turned into a rocky dirt path and narrowed to a width that allowed only two people to walk side-by-side comfortably. “The island is named for one of the cactus varieties that grow here called a ‘turk’s-cap’ and a Lucayan term, ‘caya hico,’ which means ‘string of islands’,” Marjoe said. “Even though many of you probably consider us to be a Caribbean island, we’re technically in the Atlantic Ocean. Explorer Ponce de León was the first to discover the islands before he went on to explore around St. Augustine in Florida. There were natives here before the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, but they were enslaved to work in Hispaniola in the West Indies, which is the second-largest island in the Caribbean behind Cuba. So, these islands were virtually uninhabited until the 1600s. After that, the islands passed among the Spanish, the French, and the British. We’re now a British Overseas Territory.” The group reached the height of the path where it straightened to parallel the beachfront. There were a series of dilapidated, abandoned wooden structures in the distance surrounded by thirty or more dark green plants soaring high into the sky, with others scattered haphazardly over the entire landscape, as if they’d been left behind by a giant playing pick-up sticks. “What are those things?” Nate asked, pointing at the tops of the plants. “I’ve never seen anything like them.” “The scientific name is Agave americana, but they’re commonly referred to as century plants,” Marjoe replied. “However, even that’s an exaggeration. They live about ten to twenty years, but the plant is interesting because it blooms only once in its lifetime. As you can see, some shoots can reach as high as forty or fifty feet. Then the plant dies. However, this species produces new sprouts that will take over and grow to maturity, repeating the cycle. The old buildings you see there were once used to process the plants.” “What were the plants used for?” Nate asked. “The islanders processed them into threads to make clothes and rugs, which were their major products traded hundreds of years ago,” Marjoe said. “Nearly every part of the plant had a purpose. Its stem was used like a joist inside primitive houses, and its spikes are very sharp, so they were used or sold as sewing needles. The juice in it, its residue, called ‘chuff,’ was made into adobe to build homes. They even processed the juice to create wine and mezcal, too, which is like tequila.” As Marjoe continued responding to the various questions about the islands, Nate slowed his step and Jennifer, who was holding his hand along the walk, stopped and looked at him. He smiled, squeezed her hand, and kissed her on the cheek. “I think we should come back here tomorrow and explore the place some more,” Nate said. “But not with the tourists,” he added with a sly grin. “Just what do you have in mind?” she asked, with a knowing laugh. “You’ll find out tomorrow.” After the tour, Marjoe ushered the group back to the boat, making sure he and Ian kept to the schedule to maximize their profits. To keep in sync with the cruise schedule, they offered three such excursions each day big ships arrived. They had to allot enough time to arrive on Grand Turk one hour before the last tenders shuttled passengers back to board the last ship to leave port. Once they landed at Governor’s Beach, the rest of the group left for other destinations. Nate and Jennifer rented a couple of lounge chairs, bought some Cokes at the snack bar, and found a spot on the more secluded side of the beach. The couple smoothed sunscreen in places where the sun was most punishing, and spent the early afternoon sharing fresh memories about their wedding, held less than a week before, the new house they were about to rent in Silver Springs, and Nate’s impending promotion at the Transportation Security Administration – interspersed between long sighs and observations about the beauty of the islands. More than once, after looking out over the light blue waters, Jennifer sank back in her lounge chair and mused, “We picked the perfect place for a honeymoon.” It was about three-thirty and both were getting hungry. Although it had been a sexually satisfying cloistering, having been trapped inside for the two previous days, the last thing they wanted to do now was go back to the Osprey Hotel to eat. Beating the cruise ship tourists off the beach before all the cabs were grabbed in the rush back to board, Jennifer put on a see-through white wrap over her one-piece swimsuit. Nate picked up her beach bag, and the two nabbed a waiting cab to the Sand Bar – a place nearer to their hotel that had been recommended by the concierge. The Sand Bar was all they had hoped for: the quintessential beach restaurant and bar, built with rustic wood and featuring a patio area overlooking the water and a simple bar that opened to the beach. It was ideal for swim-ups and walk-ups. They ate burgers and homefries and, their hunger at bay, ordered two rum punches and spread out towels on the sand. They swam, reapplied more sunscreen, and talk of their future. The couple stayed until the sun dipped below the ocean’s horizon and the turquoise water turned to black, before they surrendered to the combination of sun and alcohol. They staggered up to Duke Street, cabbed back to the hotel, had another drink at the hotel, and climbed into bed for giggly, drunken lovemaking. The first thing the next morning, after Nate came to, he let Jennifer sleep while he took it upon himself to make new plans for the day. The tourist excursions are okay, he thought. But I want to do something where it’s just me and her exploring the island…among other things. She’d like it. Their love of traveling and adventure was one of the things they had in common, and what had brought them together in the beginning when they were part of a group hiking the Appalachian Trail while college juniors. Since then, they had learned to snow ski in Vermont, parasailed in Nuevo Vallarta in Mexico, and roughed it with some primitive camping on Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast. Neither was afraid to try anything new. Nate had piloted boats, from pontoons to Sea Rays, and part of him wanted to get out and explore Grand Turk and a few of the surrounding islands. And one thing he visualized was going back to some of the abandoned shacks on Cotton Cay, blanket in hand, and make love to Jennifer, as the century plants burst into the sky around them. It was a sexual fantasy, for sure, but one he couldn’t get out of his mind. He was also glad that he’d kept his boating license in his wallet, and not left it at home. Nate inquired at the front desk and was put in touch with Sea Doo Sea Rental and, after a bit of negotiation on the types of vessels available, he secured their boat for the day. The shop carried Sportsters and Challengers, but Nate selected a 2006 Islandia Sea Doo with twin Rotax motors, snap-on cover, two drop-down swim ladders and a Bimini top – complete with a head, CD player with four speakers and a depth-finder. He stopped by the hotel restaurant, got two to-go breakfasts and talked the kitchen manager into making some sandwiches for their lunch. He took the bag of goodies back to the hotel room and sat on the patio until eight-thirty, when he couldn’t wait any longer. Nate gently poked Jennifer’s exposed elbow and shared his ideas with her when she awoke…initially groggy, but then wide awake, excited by the plans and impressed with his ingenuity. She was even more excited when they arrived at the Cockburn Town Dock an hour later to see the Islandia waiting for them, a sporty vessel with red racing lines and bright red Bimini top. When they boarded and she noticed he had stashed a blanket from the hotel room in his backpack, along with wine and beer that he’d smuggled from their large ice chest in the room, Jennifer smiled at his craftiness. Once they idled past the buoys and began motoring south, she recognized the scenery. Cotton Cay was in the distance, the century plants now familiar to her from their excursion the previous day. Upon approach, she could see white petals from atop the ones in bloom gently drift down, like a tropical snow, with every morning breeze. Nate took the craft past the spot off the island where they had stopped before, finding a small cove that looked to be closer to the plantation. He smiled mischievously at Jennifer as he dropped anchor and secured the aluminum ladder on the side of the boat. “Are we going to go exploring again?” she asked. “In a way.” Nate put on a tank top, wrestled the knapsack on his back, and climbed out first, helping Jennifer navigate the water. He looked around once more to ensure there were no other boats nearby. They put on swim booties and went ashore. Nate held her hand as they followed a break in the dunes to the footpath where their guide had ended the tour the day before, this time continuing further down the path toward the old plantation homes. The wooden buildings were deteriorated to the point where the ceilings were long gone, with only small sections of some walls remaining. There was one building that had been partially constructed with stones. Its three walls, about six feet in height and width, made an enclosure that offered the discreet location Nate wanted. From the shadows cast inside, Nate guessed the wall on the eastern side would shield them from the sunshine for about another hour – plenty of time for his fantasy to become a reality. Nate pulled off the backpack and took out the blanket. He spread it out in the corner. He pulled Jennifer close to him and gave her a long probing kiss, his hands moving down to her bikini bottom. He could feel the passion well up inside him as she responded in kind, pushing her breasts into his chest. His hardness aroused her. “I’m so hot for you,” she whispered breathlessly. Nate held her hands and Jennifer lay down on the blanket. He knelt beside her and gave her another long kiss. His right hand squeezed her breast, his fingers tightening slightly on her nipple before moving down to tug at her bikini bottom. Jennifer’s hands went to her sides, and she slipped off the small garment, spreading her legs slightly as Nate explored. She moaned. Nate’s hands braced above her head. He shifted atop her. Jennifer’s fingernails scraped his muscular back as he plunged inside her, panting into her black hair. He closed his eyes, nearly unaware of the surroundings – feeling her body and greedily pounding her into the blanket and the cold hard sand beneath them. When it was over, the exhausted lovers rested on the blanket for a while until the sun began to peek over the stone wall. Nate leaned over and opened the bottle of wine. He poured a single cupful, and the two took long, leisurely sips until it was gone. Upon wobbly knees, the couple left their discreet love-making spot and strolled slowly back to the boat. The lust had subsided. But now, as Nate looked at her again, the memory of the hot passion – now fueled with the cabernet that sloshed in the pit of his stomach – made him wonder if she was willing for one more go of it while they still had the boat. Perhaps at the end of the day, he thought. The Islandia sped easily through the small swells as Nate piloted the boat due east, first toward a larger island several miles in the distance. But as the land mass got closer, Nate noticed a very small island barely visible on the horizon to the south. With still nearly three-quarters of a tank showing on the dial, there was plenty of fuel to make it. As they approached, they thought it was deserted. There were no structures of any kind on the sliver of land in the middle of the ocean. The perfect place for a picnic, he thought. As he drew the boat closer, he could see that most of the beach was rocky, covered with driftwood and scattered with old root systems that jutted out and upward in contortions shaped by the salt water and the tides. Instead of the smooth ascending beach areas they were used to seeing, most of the edge of the coastline was made of short tapers of sand, which abruptly became a steep bank of about three feet that had to be traversed before stepping upon the island. It was the most unappealing shoreline they’d seen since arriving in Grand Turk. Jennifer remained in her appealing pose, staring off the back of the boat, enjoying the wide ocean view in the wake. Nate noted a couple of ‘No Trespassing’ signs as he circled the island to check out the southern approach. It did look secluded. There were breaks in the dense tree line a few yards beyond the shoreline. Other than the warning signs, the island seemed virtually untouched by civilization. A spit in the ocean. Certainly, a quick stop for lunch wouldn’t be an issue, he thought. Probably some company had put the signs up to make sure people knew someone owned it and to keep squatters from laying a claim. As they rounded east to the southern side, he spotted a small patch of sand nestled in a cove that would be the ideal place to stop. “Here we are,” Nate announced. “Ready for lunch?” “Love it. So, what do we have to eat?” “Only sandwiches and chips. But we do have some wine left and a couple of beers, though they’re probably a little warm by now.” Nate drew down the throttle, maneuvered near a contorted tree stump sticking up from the sand, and cut the engine. He dropped the ladder once more, climbed into the shallow water, and tied the boat to the exposed root with double slipknots to ensure the boat was secure and nearly immobile. The backpack was retrieved, and the two were on the shore. He unfurled the blanket again, the wrinkled blue fabric reminding them both of their passionate interlude earlier within the plantation walls. The sun was high in the sky. He smoothed it out on a relatively flat area in the shade. They ate and talked about what they wanted to do when they returned to the marina. Dancing sounded like fun, so they agreed to see the concierge as soon as they returned to find out where they could have dinner and then boogie on the island. When they finished, Nate left the bread scraps for the gulls and tossed the paper wrapping in the backpack. “Let’s check out our private honeymoon island, and then we’ll head on back,” he said. “Shouldn’t take long to walk this cay.” The landmass was quite small, only about a half-mile wide. They walked along the natural paths. Other than trees, underbrush and a few rocks, there was nothing to see. They encountered an increasingly rocky terrain, which forced them to follow a path cut between the rocks and the beach line. Jennifer occasionally picked up a piece of interestingly sea-formed driftwood or noted a plant they’d hadn’t seen before, but beyond the usual insects and a few birds, it looked like most every other island. They were about halfway around the island when Nate noticed the glint of light, like a mirror, coming from the foliage deep in the brush. “Wonder what that is?” he mused. Nate released Jennifer’s hand and pushed aside the bushes and tree limbs ahead, squinting until he reached the source of the reflection. He bent to his knees and shifted some of the leaves around. His fingers touched something metallic behind the plants. Some twigs snapped to his right. The sunshine glinted on the steel blade of a machete that shot out from the trees with the speed of a striking snake. The blade severed Jennifer’s neck cleanly and with precision. Her eyes froze. Blood erupted from the base of her neck as her body collapsed on one of the large boulders, and her head rolled toward Nate’s feet with eyes open, blank and distant, then came to a stop. An anguished scream burst from Nate’s mouth as he witnessed his love, his future, die before his eyes. He didn’t move, in a state of shock at the sight. Nate saw the eyes of the killer, his head and mouth shrouded by a red-and-white Bedouin headdress. The killer’s squat, hard body took three fast steps forward, crouched low, his dark arms went back, and the machete cut through the cool island air. The end of the blade sliced across Nate’s face, making a diagonal slash down the right side of his jaw. The violent stroke crossed his lips, slicing his left nostril and mangling his left eye. As the edge of the blade continued its movement downward into the large palm fronds that hung from above, a thin line of blood was thrown along the bright green fanned leaves. The second sound that came from Nate’s throat was the wail of a wounded animal. His hands immediately went to cover his injured eye as the blow turned his body away from the attacker. Nate had struggled to his knees to start to run when the machete blade struck a fatal swipe to the nape of his neck, slicing his spinal cord. His young hard body fell into the coarse sand with a sickening thud. His head lay on the ground, his body unable to move as he heard a rustling in the surrounding brush and two voices talking in a language he didn’t understand. Nate’s left eye was open and blinking wildly, tortured with the view of Jennifer’s long black hair now stained in scarlet red and barely visible in his fading periphery. Then, there was the odd appearance of a deck shoe and fatigue-green pants leg before him as the machete blade fully severed his head from his body and the world exploded away.
Chapter Two The Fatal Flaw
Burton Tyree could still feel the wetness of his jacket along his spine when he reached his third-floor office. He stripped it off and hung it on the back of his leather chair, sitting at his desk just before one o’clock on a Monday afternoon. “Damn humidity,” he cursed under his breath. It had been unseasonably warm for late May in Washington, D.C., and the political climate was just as uncomfortable for the intelligence chief. The camaraderie between both parties after the 9/11 Attacks had quickly dissipated as the presidential race for 2008 was now in full swing nearly two years before the nation would vote. Congressmen who had supported President George W. Bush’s call for war in Iraq now had cases of opportune political amnesia as they contended for frontrunner status for the Democrats, while Republicans competing for the nod to replace lame-duck Dick Cheney for the number two slot on the presidential ticket were also less than enthusiastic about getting too chummy with the administration. It may have made for good, shallow media fodder, but the political environment made for uneasiness and more polarization among intelligence leaders. Now, they were second-guessing their actions and less willing to engage in any mission that might cause the administration and their president any embarrassment. The same was true of their subordinates, who were now under more extreme pressure to not make a mistake in the field. Five years out from the attack on the Twin Towers, al-Qaeda had been severely beaten back in most corners of the globe, but Tyree likened the group to a cancer, surgically removed from one section of the world, only to leak out in another and – if unchecked there – to spread again without warning. Although there had not been any major al-Qaeda attacks since the bombing of London’s public transit system the previous summer, there were plenty of other attacks that weren’t generating the big headlines, but deadly all the same. According to the latest intelligence, the militant jihadists were shifting their focus to the original al-Qaeda base in the region along the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the same area where Osama bin Laden was thought to be in hiding along with his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. There, the jihadists were building on the experience and tactics they’d learned in Iraq. The move was apparent in the number of suicide bombings taking place in the region. Only twenty-seven had occurred in border areas the previous year, compared to what would eventually be one-hundred-plus by year’s end. Tyree suspected it would get even worse when Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf would soon announce the deal he’d made. In brokering a ‘peace accord’ with pro-Taliban militants in the country’s remote tribal areas along the Afghan border, Musharraf was essentially giving the Taliban free rein to move between Afghanistan and Pakistan. John Negroponte, the United States’ first Director of National Intelligence, had shared with Tyree that allowing al-Qaeda operatives to reorganize in the area would lead to stronger operational connections and promote other relationships, radiating outward from their secure hideout in Pakistan, to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. And it wasn’t as if al-Qaeda needed any help on that front. The terrorist group’s continued reach into other countries was already disturbing. In Algeria, its Salafist Group for Preaching & Combat declared an alliance with al-Qaeda. In Egypt, though not claimed by the terrorists, an April hotel bombing in a Sinai resort town had unmistakable similarities to an al-Qaeda strike – a sign that the group’s tactics were being adopted by other radical clusters. In Indonesia, the release of radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir from prison earlier that summer showed the weakness of the country’s counterterrorism laws, which did not bode well for the U.S. to maintain safety in the region. As the head of Jemaah Islamiyah, a major terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda, Bashir had been involved in the killing of more than 250 people, including those in the 2002 bombing of the Bali Hotel. And now, he was free. In Iran, al-Qaeda remained small but extremely vicious in its attacks – especially on civilians. The United Nations estimated that 34,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in Sunni/Shiite violence, most of which had been fomented by al-Qaeda. It wasn’t as if the U.S. hadn’t had some great successes, but each one seemed to have set the stage for a more worrisome blow-back. The former head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was dead, but he would likely be replaced by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who was known to be just as evil and an intense follower of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri as his predecessor. The Philippine military, which was proving to be a staunch ally in the fight, killed one of the two top members of an al-Qaeda-linked militant group. They were expecting to either capture or kill the group’s deputy, Abu Sulaiman, which would render the group ineffective. Still, Tyree expected that the U.S. would continue to train Filipino soldiers and that they would regularly engage Abu Sayyaf militants. There were other successes. Saudi Arabia thwarted the bombing of an oil-processing plant, and raids and gun battles throughout the country netted more than 100 suspected al-Qaeda militants. The kingdom could do more to curb terrorism, mainly by stopping the flow of militants and funds across its borders, but this was a start. In Somalia, after a failed al-Qaeda attempt to kill the country’s interim president, Islamists were on the ropes. Earlier in the month, the military in Yemen prevented bomb attacks at two oil facilities that, according to intelligence consulting firm Stratfor, were probably commissioned by al-Qaeda. Twenty-three suspected al-Qaeda fighters escaped from prison in February, but the government caught up with – and killed or captured – many of them. Whether those remaining would regroup was still up in the air. Tyree was cautiously optimistic about his sphere of influence: fighting terrorists in the United States. North America saw no al-Qaeda attacks, thwarting plots set on Chicago’s Sears Tower and New York’s transit system over the summer and arresting several people in the process. Although it was still unclear how serious such plans were, they had been stopped. More troubling to Tyree, though, was that al-Qaeda could recruit so many home-grown followers in America. Britain was already dealing with the issue. MI5 had identified 200 groupings or networks of terror cells involving about 1,600 individuals. The access to wealth and freedom of movement was making Europe a primary recruiting base for al-Qaeda – the same attributes that could make matters worse in America. “Well, let’s just worry about today,” Tyree said aloud. “We’ll deal with tomorrow when it comes.” He stood over the front of his desk and went through his in-box first, where his secretary Edie Morgan knew to print and place the most immediate memos that had come through his email while he had been out that morning. He took a pen and made a note on a couple of the pages, arranging them in two stacks by order of importance. The vent from the air-conditioning cooled the sweat in his armpits and down the back of his light-blue dress shirt, now wrinkled by the three-block walk from his favorite restaurant. The shirt of the head of Homeland Security’s H.I.4 had been starched and crisp that morning when he had arrived at the Capitol to unveil the department’s revised plan to relieve a beleaguered border security force and close some of the worst infiltration corridors along the border with Mexico. The briefing with members of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Committee couldn’t have gone worse. If only we could have come up with the plan about six months sooner and before we got caught in the next damn election, Tyree thought. He absentmindedly ran his hand through his thick, white hair several times – a habit he was unaware he repeated when he was worried – then unfolded the notes he had crammed into his back pocket on his way out of the Capitol building, and threw them on his desk. “Dammit,” he groused. “Short-minded politicians, all of ’em. They don’t give a damn about America, just their own political hides.” Tyree had been a wet-behind-the-ears Marine at the end of the Vietnam conflict, where he’d seen political expedience at its worse, and he’d dealt with his fair share of political idiots in both parties during his rise through the intelligence ranks. However, through it all, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, he always found there were enough fair-minded politicians…who loved their country more than their party…who could be called on to do the right thing for America when the time came. After the comments he’d heard that morning, he was actually worried that a line had been crossed and that many of the Democrat committee members would willingly choose to turn the other cheek at the expense of the country’s security to thwart any plan advanced by the administration, and thus embarrass the president and further their chances to win back the White House. Tyree wasn’t even through with his lunch before he heard that word of his presentation, and the committee’s refusal to approve the plan, had been leaked to the media by someone who’d opposed it at the meeting. “Mr. Tyree,” Edie’s voice came over the intercom. “Your one-fifteen appointment is here.” The intelligence chief moved around the desk and, checking to ensure the back of his suit jacket was dry, thrust his arms through its sleeves quickly and pushed the button on the intercom box. “You can send him in now, Edie.” Dr. Dorian Levy was one on a panel of twenty psychiatrists and psychologists who worked exclusively with H.I.4 to assist in the evaluation of agents. While most were either current or former military personnel, Levy was one of the few civilian doctors on the panel. Although he was young, in his early thirties, and without the medical pedigree of some of the others, he had earned Tyree’s utmost admiration for his work since joining the panel in 2002. He had provided a nearly perfect assessment of the mental state of each agent Tyree had asked him to interview. “Good afternoon, sir,” Levy said. “To you as well, Doctor. Enjoying the heat wave?” Tyree shook his hand. “Just trying to stay inside and keep cool.” Dr. Levy closed the door and took one of the two chairs facing the desk as Tyree sat down behind it. From his previous meetings with the man, the doctor knew Tyree would be conversational for only about thirty seconds before he got down to the point of the meeting and began his string of detective-like queries to ferret out the information he wanted. “So, have we been keeping you busy?” Tyree asked. “You have indeed, though it has been slowing down as of late,” Dr. Levy said. “Looks like you may have enough case officers on board now to deal with your investigations in the States. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but I’ve been pulled in to do similar work for the CIA now, though that work has been a bit different in scope.” “I’m aware of it,” Tyree said. “I recommended you to help our friends in foreign intelligence. Thought you did a good job for us and could assist them in their recruitment process. They’re always in need of a number of case officers, especially those who speak Farsi and the like. Never can have enough.” Dr. Levy grinned to himself at the use of the euphemism ‘case officers.’ It made them sound like they held low-level positions, when in fact they were highly-trained professionals, well-educated, typically fluent in several foreign languages, and tasked as ‘handlers’ of operations to recruit foreign spies to act on behalf of the U.S. for the CIA. In the case of Homeland Security’s Section H.I.4, the term referred to civilians chosen to act on the section’s behalf in conducting investigations within the United States and its territories. For H.I.4 agents, the doctor was often called upon to review those agents selected for the status of nonofficial cover, or NOC. While the NOCs with the CIA were typically not who they appeared to be, with deeper cover stories and backgrounds developed to help them move around a foreign country and escape detection, H.I.4 had a mix of NOCs – those who were ‘fake’ and those who were ‘real’ – actual civilians with real professions who offered them legitimate covers. Since most had not been trained as generalist security officers through the Security Officer Recruiting & Training program, referred to as SORT, or the extensive IQ and psychological testing required before entering SORT, it was Dr. Levy’s job to administer the testing of the latter through an extensive interview process he’d developed upon his own recruitment. “I must admit I was surprised to receive just one NOC to review this last time,” Dr. Levy said. “I’m used to getting a ream of files to review.” “I had some specific concerns about Parker Glynn, based on what happened the last time we sent him out,” Tyree said. “As you read in the dossier, he happened upon a terror cell a few months after 9/11 and was nearly killed trying to stop an attack in Northeast Florida if an FBI agent hadn’t interceded. Holds on to a good, strong hatred of al-Qaeda after his wife and child died in the Towers.” “I know,” Dr. Levy said, pulling a file from his satchel. “I did a consult with Dr. Marks during his sessions with him after he lost the girl…Michelle O’Connell…the girl who helped him stop the attack.” “I wasn’t aware of that,” Tyree admitted. “Oh, yes,” Dr. Levy said. “Dr. Marks is usually very cut-and-dried with his assessments, but he did ask me to assist because of the extenuating circumstances.” Dr. Levy shuffled through the papers until he found his notes. “Ah, yes, an interesting case, indeed,” he said. “Glynn was unaware his mistress was part of a terror cell. After Glynn foiled an attack planned in Florida, she tracked him down and ended up murdering Ms. O’Connell, then Glynn killed his former mistress. Very messy affair. It was a wonder Glynn was able to hold it together after that. But after his sessions with Dr. Marks, he and I agreed that he was worth holding on to. During his initial testing, Glynn proved to be highly intelligent and very resourceful. He has many of the attributes we look for in our NOCs.” “I agreed, at least at the time,” Tyree said. “That’s why I gave him several diplomatic missions and a few things to investigate for us. Glynn did quite well. But the last time we sent him out…well, I’ve had some concerns since then and just felt it was important for you take another look at him.” “If I may speak candidly, sir…” “You know the answer to that already, Dr. Levy. I’ve got enough ‘yes men’ around me as it is.” “Well, he was successful in stopping an incredibly inventive attack against our agricultural capacity. It could have been a near-catastrophic blow to our industrial output and really put the country on its heels…” “And Glynn damn near got killed twice in the process,” Tyree interjected. “If it hadn’t been for the shadow agent we assigned to him…” “…which is standard operating procedure with a civilian agent assigned his first time out, if I remember my manual correctly…” Dr. Levy saw the scowl move quickly across Tyree’s face. While the doctor meant to hold his ground, he didn’t want to come across as insubordinate. “…am I correct, sir?” the doctor quickly added. “Somewhat, Doctor. However, we hadn’t identified a specific terror target and it was fact-finding in nature. I was just lucky to have sent a back-up. My major concern is that he was given specific instructions to infiltrate the Singh organization, find out what happened to Dr. Singh, report back to us and let command decide what to do.”
As he placed the shiny, new repair parts in the far corner of the room and arranged the pieces to ensure they would reflect enough of the dim incandescent ceiling lights to be seen, Bob Davis didn’t know why he was doing it.
The act was something he was compelled to do. What he wanted, for some vague purpose.
His knees ached when he extended his large frame upward from a crouched position to stand. The man stared at the valve extension and pump interceder. The eight screws that would hold each unit in place were also shiny and new. He spread them about the concrete floor with his foot until he was sure they caught the light.
Billy’s sure to spot these when he makes his rounds tonight, Davis thought.
The dank smell of interior walls of the dam filled his nostrils. The man’s vacant blue-grey eyes took in the scene.
Next, the ceiling,
A six-inch-wide steel chain hung from a pulley mechanism above.
It’s still too high, Davis reasoned.
He walked toward the bank of controls on the opposite wall and found the small wooden stool the dam operators used when they had to check the pressure gauges at the top of the array.
Davis picked up the stool and strolled back and positioned it directly below the chains and carefully stepped up onto it.
He stretched both arms upward. His shoulders ached. They always did toward the end of his three-to-eleven o’clock shift, which had ended thirty minutes before.
Davis pulled the loop of chain down from either side. He could feel the tension of the retracting mechanism in the ceiling as he drew the chain until it hung about six feet from the floor.
Satisfied, he returned the stool to its previous spot.
The oval of chain dangled like a noose in the cool, dark subterranean control room in the center of the dam.
Is there anything else I need to do to prepare? Davis thought.
As his eyes darted past the colored lights on the control panel along the wall, his mind flashed back to the cruise ship and the colorful, blinking slot machine.
It was months before; Davis couldn’t recall how many.
He sat a few stools down from Billy Harding. It was just minutes after The Victory reached international waters and the captain had announced the gambling deck was open for guests.
A slight smile came to Davis’ face when he recalled Billy’s glee at hitting a row of sevens on the nickel slot.
After more than four years of working together at the San Luis Dam, he had never seen his co-worker smile like that. His child-like reaction to winning a few dollars from the one-armed-bandit was out of character for the man who treated his safety job so seriously while on the clock at the dam.
The paychecks were good, but most of the hourly employees who worked at the state of California’s department of water resources were hard-pressed to save the money to afford a ten-day sea cruise.
The state’s ethics policy restricted government workers from receiving gifts valued at more than one-hundred dollars, but not the ability to take advantage of a one-year performance incentive program established for select government employees in fiscal year 2003.
Called the Public Productivity Project, or P3, and funded through the generosity of The Singh Corporation, P3 was aimed at increasing productivity in the public sector – especially among employees who worked to maintain and enhance the country’s infrastructure. To facilitate the project, the company created an incentive program that could be accessed by select state governments.
The P3 pilot program was introduced in only fifteen states, including California. Employees who developed and implemented plans that either saved taxpayer money through value engineering, or through the modification of job tasks so they could be accomplished more safely or effectively, had the chance to win the trip of a lifetime – a free cruise or Singh Corporation common stock that represented the same value.
Bob Davis, a structural engineer who had worked on several of California dams, water systems and aqueduct projects over his career, had identified long-obsolete government rules that had the unintended effect of slowing down the completion of water renovation projects state-wide. Working with the agency’s governmental affairs personnel, he crafted legislative changes that removed the flaws with only minor modifications to state regulations.
Billy Harding had spent fifteen years in the state water division’s human resources department before a staff reorganization forced him to take a safety position. The new role required him to travel to pumping stations, dams and other project offices all across California.
Through the work experience he had at various water facilities throughout California, Harding proposed reorganizing the safety department to add more oversight of the state’s water-related operations, which would reduce the number of employees while decreasing costs at the same time.
Both projects were among those approved as ‘P3 Worthy’ by a joint committee made up of twenty people – all individuals hand-selected by the Singh Corporation.
On the job, Davis and Harding were barely acquaintances – nodding occasionally to each other when they passed in the corridors of the plant or exchanging pleasantries in the break room when their schedules overlapped. While they did make friends with other winning government employees, mostly from California, as the only two workers from the San Luis Dam Operation, they gravitated to each other more often than not during the cruise.
To the consternation of their wives, spouses weren’t allowed on the cruise, only the employees who were beneficiaries of the Singh Corporation’s generosity.
By the time the cruise ended, they knew the names of each other’s spouses (Louise and Jean), where they had lived as children (Escondido and Yountville, California) and shared other details of their respective jobs.
In short, they had become good friends.
When the trip began, Davis and Harding didn’t realize they had each earned the cruise until they saw each other while boarding a 727 in San Francisco. The Delta flight took them to Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, then onto Miami International, where they ran into each other again outside baggage claim and decided to share a cab to the cruise terminal.
Once the taxi traversed the dense pedestrian traffic of downtown Miami in late afternoon, they saw the port ahead.
Since neither had ever taken a cruise, both men were awed by the sheer size of their temporary home for the next ten days.
The Victory was a tremendous vessel to behold.
Registered out of Panama, the 130,000-ton ship was just over a thousand feet in length. It was the largest anchored at port that afternoon – and could play host to more than thirty-six hundred passengers.
Their cabbie maneuvered through hordes of arriving and departing passengers to deliver the men and their suitcases outside the chaotic entrance that led to the terminal building.
Amid the confusion of thousands of first-time and veteran cruisers (some disembarking, others hustling across the parking lot to find the proper entry point), the men spotted the sign for The Victory. Davis and Harding stepped into line together.
Once through the initial check-in, where a happily-obese African-American woman eyed their driver’s licenses and waved them through the security checkpoint, they lost each other beyond the conveyor belt that spit their luggage from the x-ray machine.
Inside was an expansive pre-boarding area filled with thousands of other passengers. Aisles separated by red stanchion ropes coursed with people of all races, sizes and nationalities, moving through the separate queues that meandered through the lower level of the terminal building.
They followed their fellow passengers as they were funneled into shorter lines, then grouped alphabetically by their last names. When each reached the check-in counter, they were greeted warmly by cruise personnel, given their personalized identification badges and herded up the last escalator that took them to the covered gangplank leading into The Victory.
It was a few hours later, after Harding’s big win at the slot machine, that the men ran into each other again: this time in a throng of nearly three hundred people – all beneficiaries of the P3 Awards – at a welcoming event held at a mid-ship hospitality suite hosted by the Singh Corporation.
They sampled shrimp cocktail, hors d’oeuvres with interesting flavors neither had experienced, and strange meats balanced on toast points – all heaped on round plastic trays and served up by a small army of ship staff moving through the crowd with efficiency.
As their appetizer and beverage trays were depleted, the waiters and waitresses moved haphazardly through the crowd, disappearing into the background only to reappear moments later, seemingly from nowhere, with more food and drink for the devouring crowd.
Drinks were served in tall, colorful hard-plastic cocktail cups with names that embodied the essence of a Caribbean cruise: Yellowbirds, Mai Tais, Goombay Smashes and Hurricanes, along with the Victory at Sea, a special concoction of rums, grenadine and papaya juice created especially for their first day out of port.
The Singh Corporation sponsored the event, but very few of the winners expected to see the company’s president and board chairman, Dr. Rishikesh Singh. It was well known that the doctor was still convalescing, as he had been since the crash of his private jet in India. So, the attendees weren’t surprised when his wife Sumera took to the podium to greet the crowd midway through the two-hour event.