Authors: Robert Liparulo
Tags: #Thriller, #ebook, #book
Ian waved a hand at Page. He had other business on his mind. “Our guy at Purdue intercepted a call from Nichols. You were right: he tried to avoid the keyword system.”
“What got him?” Page said.
“He used your name. That, coupled with
within three words of
“We got a location?”
“Pay phone in a town called Pinedale, California, between Redding and Eureka. Fireteam Alpha's on its way there now. Shouldn't be too hard to find him.”
“Who'd he call?”
Ian grinned. “Your favorite journalist.”
“Hutchinson?” Page shook his head. “Dog with a bone.”
“Eventually the bone splinters.” Ian rocked back in his chair.
Page said, “Guy's only been a nuisance until now. But if he's talking to Nichols . . .”
“He won't be . . . not anymore.”
“I mean, if he's making this kind of contact, he's wormed his way in. It's only a matter of time before he's calling his big-media friends and the feds to show them what he's found.”
Ian pressed his lips together, thinking. “Journalists don't mean anything, Brendan. You know that. Witnesses are one thing. Employees with loose lips an even bigger thing. But the media sniffing around . . .” He pulled on his mustache. “Part of the territory.”
“Hutchinson is a witness,” Page reminded his friend.
“Of Declan's lunacy, not
.” Ian smiled. “None of his suspicions was corroborated. That case is closed. He's nothing.”
Page smoothed his hair back, thinking.
“If anything,” Ian added, “slip him some cash.”
“Not this guy. He thinks he's on a crusade for justice.”
“So what are you thinking, take him out?”
Page nodded slowly.
“Might not be such a good idea,” Ian said. “Not on the heels of this whole Nichols thing. Besides, who
know he's got you in his sights? You're the first person they'll suspect.”
Page sighed. Ian was right. The way they'd handled Nichols was a bit of overkill. Reckless. He had simply been too eager to put his men through the paces, to give them the experience they needed and take care of a potentially devastating problem at the same time. He thought again of the methamphetamine cook sampling his own brew. It was never
he was going to OD, but
“Look,” Ian said, “we counsel clients about this sort of thing every day. What's the objective?”
Page opened his hands. “Get him off my back. Shut him up.”
“He wants to put you away, and you don't want to be put away.” Ian pushed himself up in his chair and crossed his legs. “You have a conflict. What are the tenets of conflict resolution?”
Page smiled at his friend's analytical approach. “Diplomacy. Threat.
Use of force.”
“Well,” Ian said, “it's clear your asking him to go away won't work. And you don't think he can be bought off.”
Page shook his head.
Ian raised his bushy eyebrows. “Why jump right to use of force, especially when it could cause the equivalent of an international uproar, maybe retaliation?”
“In this case, from the media, the authorities,” Page agreed. “But, Ianâguy like Hutch, he doesn't scare easily.”
“Neither does Iran or North Korea,” Ian said. “You have to find out what he cares about more than he cares about putting you away. You've done your homework; I can't imagine you don't already know the answer. The next step is figuring out how to deliver the message. How loud do you have to yell? Sometimes all the U.S. has to do is send a secretary of state. . . .”
“And sometimes they have to position a fleet of destroyers and aircraft carriers off the coast,” Page said.
“Let 'im know you're serious. And have the means and willingness to back up your threats.”
“Ian, I knew there was a reason I keep you around.” Page hefted himself off the couch. “Get a couple teams ready. Put . . . ah, what's his name, Mitch? Daniel?”
“Michael,” Ian said. “I don't think . . .”
“Right back on the horse, Ian,” Page said. “Don't start talking like Nichols, now.”
“You know me better than that.”
“Okay then.” Page walked to the door. He said, “Look, we'll ease him back in. This'll be a reconnaissance mission, no contact. Happy?”
“A little better,” Ian said. “No firepower?”
“Since when does an Outis squad not pack?” He shrugged. “What good's an aircraft carrier without any aircraft?” He went to the door and turned back. “Remember what Sun-Tzu said. Keep your friends close . . .”
“And your enemies closer.”
“I have to get ready,” Page said, opening the door. “Company's coming.”
Hutch carried a big bowl of popcorn into the living room. Laura had taken a position on the couch, looking comfortable with her leg tucked under her. She watched hearty flames consume a log in the fireplace. Dillon came up behind him, his own bowl in his hands. The boy was warming up to Hutch again, going on about life in Fiddler Falls: how fourth grade didn't seem much different from third, since all of the town's twenty-eight elementary students shared a single room; how last summer he'd helped old man Nelson stock and clean his mercan-tileâ“For real money!”âand how the town was still rebuilding the structures Declan had demolished with his satellite weapon.
Hoping to change the subject, Hutch said, “What did you think of my office building?”
They'd driven by the Denver newspaper agency's downtown digs on their way to the restaurant.
Dillon made a face. “Kinda ugly.”
Hutch couldn't disagree. It was an eleven-story structure that looked as if it might have been made out of white Legos. On one side of the facade rose a scaffoldlike structure with green-tinted panels. It could have been stacked balconies off low-rent apartments. “It's nice inside, though,” Hutch said.
Dillon scrambled into a big La-Z-Boy next to the couch. He crossed his legs Indian-style and parked the bowl of popcorn in his lap. He said, “In Fiddler Falls, everything is five minutes awayâwalking! It took us ten minutes just to get from your work to the restaurant, then a
to go from there to your house. I timed it.” He tapped the big watch on his wrist.
Hutch saw that it was his hunting watch, which he had given Dillon before heading home last year. “Hey, you still have it.”
Laura said, “Tell him it's okay to change the alarm time, or at least turn it off.”
“It's good luck!” Dillon said. He looked at Hutch. “Remember how it woke us up when we were hiding in the cabinetâearly enough for us to get away before the bad guys woke up?”
“Early enough? That wasâwhat?âfour in the morning?”
“Four in the morning,” Laura confirmed, sounding exasperated. “Four o'clock, every morning,
Hutch moved around the coffee table and sat on the couch beside Laura. He raised his eyebrows at Dillon, who simply shrugged. He asked, “So do you get up that early?”
Dillon shook his head, an emphatic
Laura touched his knee. “We went back to the mine. He found one of the arrows you lost there. He has sort of a collection of . . . mementos, I guess you'd call them.”
The puzzlement on Hutch's face must have showed. She gave him a half shrug and put her index finger to her mouth in a way Dillon couldn't see.
Hutch said, “You're into a new school year now. How's that going?”
“Like nothing changes,” she said. “I'm still teaching third, fourth, and fifth grades, so only a third of the faces are new. I love it. They're great kids.”
Hutch said to Dillon, “Does she cut you any slack, being your teacher and all?”
The boy made a face. “Are you kidding? The teacher's kid can't do
wrong. It's not so cool.”
A slight lisp still clung to his
s, and Hutch smiled at that. To Laura he said, “And you're getting by all right, it seems.”
She frowned, but nodded. Her eyes flicked past him to her son. She said, “We're doing okay, aren't we? Some days are better than others.”
Dillon said, “We have a new constable. I don't like him.”
Hutch nodded. Dillon's father had been the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's only representative in Fiddler Falls. The natural response to Dillon's statementâ“Why don't you like him?”âwas a place Hutch didn't want to go. Most likely, the boy didn't like him simply because he wasn't his father. Who knew what kind of emotions would come pouring out of Dillon if he tried to explain?
The silence stretched out until Hutch thought his uneasiness would have been obvious to a toddler.
Dillon hopped up. “I gotta pee,” he said, running for the bathroom.
Hutch laughed. “I remember when Logan was that age. He always waited to use the bathroom until it was an emergency.”
“So he'll outgrow it soon?”
“I think they reach an age when not quite making it in time is embarrassing enough to get them moving sooner.” He shifted on the sofa to face her. He whispered, “So what's this about Dillon collecting things? It must be a painful memory for him.”
Laura shook her head. “Of course losing his father is painful beyond measure. But right after it happened, I started steering our conversations toward finding the silver lining, you know? Not that there ever could be anything good about Tom's death, not in a practical sense, to a child.” She thought a moment. “Not to me either. We talked about how bad things happen to good people, but God has a way of, I don't know, redeeming even the worst things life throws at us.”
“âYou meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,'” Hutch quoted.
She nodded. “That got us looking for the good things that came out of that horrible situation.”
She slapped his knee. “Like meeting you. It may have been during the worst time of our lives, but we met you all the same. You kept Dillon safe, and in the end saved all of us.”
Hutch shook his head. “No, it wasn't like that.”
“Well, think what you want. You became a good friend to Dillon. You have a lot of the same qualities Tom did. You have a strong sense of right and wrong and a burning need for justice. You're kind and . . . are you blushing?”
“Me? Nah, a little warm's all. The fire's heating up the room too much.”
She smiled sweetly, which he was sure only made his face flush more.
, he thought.
been alone too long.
Laura said, “Dillon lost his father but found a man who treated him like a son. That you came into his life at the same time his father left us made Dillon bond to you. It took some of the pain away. I don't know, it's just . . . as bad as the bad is, it doesn't mean the good isn't good.”
Hutch shook his head. “And then I go and stop calling. What an idiot.”
“Don't be so hard on yourself,” Laura said. “You invited us here. You're staying in contact with Dillon. And whether you take credit or not, we're alive. That's the biggest thing we're thankful for and what we've focused on since then. We survived. That's why Dillon started his collection. Not because we lost our husband and father, but because we're still here. It makes Tom's sacrifice mean something. Every time Dillon and I do something that makes us feel aliveâkayaking down the Fond du Lac or kissing each other good nightâwe honor his sacrifice, we honor him.”
A tear broke free from one eye and streaked down her cheek. A sad smile found her lips, and she wiped her face.
“Why are you crying?” Dillon asked, putting the brakes on his bounding entrance.
“Just talking about Daddy, sweetheart. You know how I get.”
He came around the coffee table and wrapped his arms around her neck. They squeezed each other for a long time.
Hutch looked away, but couldn't keep from turning back. He felt both awkward and privileged to witness their love for each other. He had written countless columns about people whose jobs sent them wading into the muck of human misery. Emergency room nurses and doctors, homicide detectives, social workers. Many of them developed bleak outlooks on life and lost touch with the beautiful things that made the horrific ugly in the first place: they spent so much time in the dark, they forgot about the light.
Hutch had become one of them. His children, and Laura and Dillon's love now, were bright flashes in the darkness he'd pulled around him by delving so deeply into Page's world.
Mother and son parted. Laura sniffed and brushed away more tears. She ruffled Dillon's hair. Obviously trying for lightheartedness, she tossed some popcorn into her mouth. She grabbed another handful and stood. “I think I'll go freshen up a bit,” she said.
She started around the couch, but was stopped by a pile of unopened boxes. “You moved in
“Six months.” Hutch eyed the boxes as if they were tattling on him. “Stuff I don't need, I guess.”
Laura backed up and crossed between the coffee table and the TV. She said, “But you do need a
of video games, I noticed. How many different systems you got here?”
“Only an Xbox 360 and a PlayStation.” He paused, then added with exaggerated meekness: “And a Nintendo Wii.”
She tossed a few pieces of popcorn at him.
He threw up his hands. “The
,” he said.
“And they get everything they want?” Her mock scowl turned into a knowing smile.
“Well, actually . . .” Hutch said, “yes.”
“Whoa,” Dillon said. “Cool.”
Laura walked on toward the hallway that led to the bathroom. Over her shoulder she said, “You're spoiling them because of the divorce.”