Authors: Robert Liparulo
Tags: #Thriller, #ebook, #book
Logan rolled onto his side. “'Night.”
At the door, Hutch switched off the light. The moon and a streetlamp conspired to keep the room well lit. He moved toward the window.
Dillon's small voice reached him: “Could you keep the blinds open . . . please?”
“Oh, come on,” Logan said.
Hutch paused, didn't say a word.
After a moment, Logan said, “Oh, all right.”
“Night, guys,” Hutch said, and shut the door.
Hutch looked in on Macie. The lights were out, and he heard rhythmic breathing. He was closing the door when she called to him.
“Thought you were sleeping,” he said. He went in and sat on her bed.
“I like them, Laura and Dillon,” she said.
“They like you back, I can tell.” He pulled the blanket up to her neck.
Her eyelids drooped. “Sing me a song.”
“Scoot over,” he said, nudging down beside her. “âPuff'?” he asked. She liked “Puff the Magic Dragon,” especially when he changed Little Jackie Paper to Little Macie and the land of Honah Lee to Highlands Ranch, the Denver suburb where they lived.
She shook her head. “âSunshine.'”
He began to stroke her hair and quietly sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Before the third verse, she was out.
In the kitchen, Hutch poured two glasses of merlot. It was cheap stuff, but he liked it. He brought the wine to Laura in the living room. She was on the couch again, watching the fire, which had died to a few spindly fingers.
He handed her a glass. “You seem to have found a favorite spot,” he said.
“I like fire.” Her eyes sparkled in the glow. “It's always beautiful.”
“Unless it's burning something you don't want burned.”
“Even then,” she said. “Socrates' destructive beauty. Speaking of . . . this is a beautiful house.”
“It's a rental,” Hutch said, sitting beside her. “Best one I could afford. I wanted the kids to be in a safe neighborhood.”
But that wasn't all he liked about it. As a one-story ranch, it looked bigger than it was. The garage doors opened on the side of the house, so they didn't mar the Mediterranean styling of the facade. And the driveway arced from the garage to the street, leaving a big front yard. Columns flanked the front porch. None of this truly mattered to Hutch, except that it rankled Janet to see him in a nice home and gave her boyfriends one less thing over which to stick their noses up at him.
He held up his glass. “To you and Dillon.”
“To all of us,” she said. Their glasses clinked. She shifted to face him. “I have to say, you look great, really fit.”
He looked at the fire. “I got into working out a bit to burn off frustration.
There's been a lot of that, investigating Page.”
She frowned. “Did that guy call back, the one who called you at the restaurant?”
“Dorian Nichols. No.” He shook his head. “And he may be my best angle into Page's crimes.”
“He was a lead psychiatrist at Outis. I'd spoken to him a few times, but he didn't want to have anything to do with me. About a month ago, he quit. Three days ago, police found his family slaughtered in a rental house in Eureka, California.”
Laura covered her mouth. “How terrible.”
“Wife, two boys, a little girl. News reports said police suspected Dr. Nichols of the crime, but he'd disappeared. I figured he really had flipped out or Page had got him.”
“Then he calls you.” She sipped from her wineglass. “What did he do at Outis?”
“I found a bio from a lecture he gave about a year ago. Said he worked with software designers and military training specialists to maximize the effectiveness of tactical drills. Stuff like that.”
“That's part of Page's voodoo, how he makes such efficient soldiers in months instead of years. You know how the military uses video games to train pilots and now even ground forces?”
“I've heard something about it.”
Hutch nodded. “Apparently, Page has taken video-simulation training to a new level. He's got at least four concrete things going on. I don't know how they fit together, but I suspect they do.” He held up his index finger. “He's been recruiting the best video game and virtual reality programmers from other companies. Right now, his video game company puts out only two games a year, but he's staffed to produce four times that number. What are all those programmers doing?”
He held up a second finger. “Outis soldiers are growing increasingly
aggressive. Remember hearing about the soldiers who tore through Fallujah, shooting at civilians they claimed opened fire on them? New Outis soldiers. Twenty-one dead. Several women, children. The soldiers kept driving until they were back at their base. One investigator noted that they displayed a marked indifference for their victims. There have been mounting reports of similar violence by Outis soldiers. How does that happen, that one company churns out such ruthless people?”
Finger number three: “The ages of Outis's recruits and the contractors it puts into the field has plummeted. It's not unusual for kids to go there right out of high school and hit the battlegrounds by nineteen or twenty. Used to be, Outis would recruit only seasoned military men in their late twenties, early thirties.
“And four, Dr. Nichols's degree is in child psychology. Years ago, he published studies on the effects of war and violence on adolescents. Then his emphasis seemed to skew toward how young soldiers psychologically handled being in battle. The last reference to his work I found addressed how boot camps could adjust their regimens to more effectively prepare young soldiers to handle the warrior life, including killing. That's about the time he began working for Outis. I haven't been able to get numbers or even anecdotal evidence, but I'll bet Outis has a good number of people like Dr. Nichols on the payroll.”
He polished off his wine.
Laura thought about it. She said, “So you think Outis is recruiting young people because-what?-they're more open to psychological manipulation?”
“There may be moral considerations as well,” Hutch said. “Their ideas of right and wrong are still developing at that age. I think, too, young people are more susceptible to the influence of video games. They know how to play them, and they readily accept them as part of life. Dr. Nichols added something else to the equation, something that I had considered, but thought, Nah.”
Hutch said. “It's one of the terms he told me to research. It refers to Chinese methods of coercive persuasion. It literally means âto wash the brain.'”
Laura flinched. “What?”
“I'm not saying Jim Jones or David Koresh. This is something more sophisticated, less . . . I don't know, less obvious. Subtle. But think about it: child psychologists who specialize in training soldiers, video games, more aggression-which some people will tell you equates to a better warrior.”
Laura held her palm to her forehead. “My head hurts.”
“Tell me about it,” Hutch said.
The doorbell chimed.
Hutch scowled at Laura. Checked his watch. “After eleven.”
It rang again and Hutch went for it, convinced now it was Janet, back for round two. Whatever she said, he wasn't giving up Logan and Macie this week. No way.
He pulled the door open. His boss from the newspaper stood outside, a strange expression on his already unusual face. Larry was fifty years old but had the wrinkle-free, hairless face of a fifteen-year-old. He had a child's large eyes and the hint of buckteeth. The glow of the porch light gave him a jaundiced appearance.
“I wanted to tell you in person,” Larry said, striding past Hutch. “I don't know how I feel about it, so how could you know what to do?”
“Feel about what? Larry?”
Spotting Laura, Larry stopped in midstride. A big grin pushed his cheeks into rosy balls. “Laura Fuller. I forgot you were coming.”
Uncertain, Laura smiled and hooked her hair over one ear. She set her glass on the coffee table and stood.
Larry moved in, extending his hand. “It is such a pleasure to meet you.”
“Laura,” Hutch said behind them, “this is Larry Waters, a good friend.”
“And his editor,” Larry said. “Sometimes I think he forgets that part.”
Hutch said, “Larry, what are you doing here this late?”
Larry pulled off his overcoat and dropped into the La-Z-Boy.
Hutch and Laura sat on the couch facing him.
Larry folded his coat neatly on his lap. He patted it down, then said, “Okay, I got a call. Brendan Page's assistant, secretary, somebody. He's agreed to meet with you.”
“Right away. Tomorrow. At his headquarters in Washington state. But only tomorrow, she was very clear about that. What did you do? What magic button did you push?”
Hutch gaped at Laura. He said, “Nichols.” Had to be. The same call that had sent Hutch to his office for half the afternoon, and had gotten Laura and Hutch talking about his investigation . . . Page had somehow found out about it. Page's sudden interest in him could not be a coincidence.
Maybe the trigger had been Hutch conducting Internet research on the other term Nichols had given him: Genjuros. Or one of the people Hutch had called about it, including a few of Nichols's former colleagues. He hoped for the doctor's sake it hadn't been his call to Hutch that had caught Page's attention-that would mean Page had a bead on Nichols's location.
Larry said, “This is it, buddy. You've been trying to get a sit-down
with him for a year.”
Hutch stood and paced away from the sofa. He looked at the darkened hallway leading to the bedrooms. “I can't,” he said. “I've got the kids this week.” He turned back to Laura. “You and Dillon. I can't just leave.”
“Don't worry about us, Hutch,” Laura said. “Do what you have to do. Maybe Janet could take the kids back.”
Hutch shook his head. “It took me six months to get joint custody. Something like this . . . taking off for work-not even work-she'll find a way to use it against me, try to get sole custody again.”
“So don't tell her,” Larry said. He looked from Hutch's gaping expression to Laura's and back. “It's one day, up and back. Laura can watch them for
“Uh . . .” Laura said. “I guess.”
“Parents have babysitters,” Larry continued. “It's not like you're leaving them alone. Hutch, we're talking Brendan Page here. Faceto-face.”
“I can watch them,” Laura said. “That's not a problem. But, Hutch, isn't your whole point that the man is dangerous?”
“I thought of that,” Larry said. “That's what had me going back and forth. But the more I think about it, if Page wanted to get Hutch, he wouldn't do it this way, calling me, asking Hutch to meet him there.”
Hutch nodded. “He'd do something like rig my brakes. Make it look like an accident.”
Laura said, “I know it's none of my business, but I don't like it. That guy really, really scares me.”
Hutch retrieved his wineglass from the table, saw it was empty, and set it back down. He looked pleadingly at Laura and said, “I can't not do this. It's my chance to see his headquarters with my own eyes. To get a read on the man, maybe draw him out some, get him to say something that will help me put the rest of the puzzle together.”
She reached out and grabbed his hand. “Then do it. Dillon will understand. And Larry's right, I'll just be the babysitter for a day.”
Hutch frowned. “It couldn't come at a worse time.”
“But it came,” Larry said. “You never thought it would. But listen, don't give him any clues about what you know. Nothing. Guy like that, prone to violence? You never know where his tipping point is. What will be the one person you talk to, the one thing you say that makes him decide that his life would be easier dealing with your disappearance than dealing with you?”
Lying in the darkness of his bedroom, Michael thought he might be going crazy. He could not stop his mind from reeling out snippet after snippet of memoryâall of them seeming random, none of them lasting more than a few seconds. Here he was meeting Ben, his team leader, for the first time. The elation he felt upon breezing through the video game Outis recruiters had asked him to play. Tearing open a Christmas present, then giving his dad a bear hug for scraping together enough to buy a used Xbox 360.
And right when he started to discern a pattern to his churning thoughts, something like learning how to ride a bicycle without training wheels would present itself. Mint chip ice cream on a sugar cone. The dead boy bleeding at his feet. His dad escorting him for the first time to an Outis dorm roomâsaying, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Mastering the weapon of a video game still in developmentâand the following week Colonel Bryson handing him that very weapon in real life. Feeling the pressure of a trigger under his finger, the kick of the recoilâhow it felt like Hawthorne, his childhood cocker spaniel, scurrying to get out of his arms. The child he'd shot, howâlooking like an adult through the visorâhe'd crashed against the television. Little-kid cartoons on the screen.
Each memory felt like a punch: two jabs to his face, one to his gut. Over and over. Even the sweet imagesâthe bicycle, the ice creamâcut him with their innocence. He felt so far removed from them, from their simple joys. And thinking of them now made the harsh memories even harsher.
He could not stop sobbing. He tried to be quiet, but his tears wanted to scream. His inhalations stuttered with effort. Exhaling, he moaned or cried out, depending on the horror of the memory, the severity of its blow. He was on his side in bed, curled up, hugging himself. His face was wet, as was the pillow under his cheek.