Authors: Michael F. Stewart
Episode 1: Spark
Copyright Â© 2014 by Michael F. Stewart.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Michael F. Stewart.
First Nook Edition: 2014
Cover Art by Martin Stiff, Amazing 15
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual personsâliving or deadâis entirely coincidental.
To my wife, my life.
For whom I'd happily go terminal.
“Dying for a reason is
a good reason to live, Colonel.” General F. Aaron sat wedged between the privacy screen and my bedside.
Even though my brain was fuzzy from tfhe pain meds, the line still smacked as rehearsed. My wrists ached where I'd slit them, and my face itched despite the burn dressings applied to the right cheek, ear, and neck. I lacked the energy to look at him and stared at the naked bulb swaying from the tin ceiling. The fans roared; if not for the ever-present grit of sand between my bedsheets, I could have believed I was somewhere other than the U.S. Army's desert field hospital.
“But you haven't given me a reason,” I said. “All you've said is that you can give my death a purpose. That sounds like the pitch the insurgents give to the suicide bombers about all the virgins.”
“It's not the same,” the general snapped.
I turned. I learned the most about people when they're angry. His eyes were bagged, and the bags jittered as if barely able to support the weight of his eyes. Clearly the man wasn't well; nasal prongs stretched from his nostrils to a portable oxygen tank.
“How not?” His blotchy face reddened further, but I really didn't care how close I trod to insubordination. A month ago, I'd caused the deaths of eleven soldiers under my command in the same explosion that had raked my face. A few weeks later, I'd drained a bottle of pills, slit my wrists, and left my carcass to empty in the shower. He might have been more forthcoming if he'd known what I planned to do next.
“I can't be more specific, not until we have your mission.” He scowled and nodded to my wrists. “At least their suicide bombers believe they're sacrificing their lives for something greater than themselves.”
Feigning anger of my own, I rolled closer to him, my hand edging toward where his hip pressed against the mattress. “I'm not aiming for martyrdom, General, I just want to die.”
“And I'm not some Army chaplain trying to save your life.” The general leaned in tighter. Haggard lines creased his forehead and a nose more pitted than an Iraqi highway sucked for air. “Your liver and kidneys are fucked from the bucket of Tylenol you ate and you're refusing dialysis. You're going to die soon. I just want you to delay the inevitable.”
“Aren't we all doing that?” I pulled up the edge of the bedsheet.
Bits of brown flecked the whites of his eyes, their rheumy blue yokes glaring at me.
I admit it. I was intrigued. What possible purpose could this man have in delaying my death a week or so? Was it to escort me off the base? As a female colonel, my suicide would be a major embarrassment if news of it reached America. It was possible that this was simply a way to get me home without a body bag and a fancy funeral upon my arrival. But why not send in a shrink instead of an Army general who appeared to be as near to death as I was? Maybe they still needed time to design the press kit that would spin my death into a heroic act for the war effort. Whatever the shtick, I didn't like being played and intended to force the question.
“Most of us are more proactive in our delay tactics, Colonel.” His voice lowered, and he started to slump back into his chair. I used his momentum against him, shoving him the rest of the way down as I snatched the grip of his sidearm and wrenched the gun free of the holster. The general slammed back in the chair, clutching his chest.
“I tell you what,” I said, holding the pistol with both hands. He looked ready to bolt, cupping his heart and drawing rattling breaths. His reaction silenced my point. “I'm not going to shoot you, so don't go having a heart attack.” I snorted. “This is for me.” He watched the barrel as I swung it around to aim at my nose. I didn't like staring into the barrel, even though I was the one who held the weapon. “Here's the deal. If you don't give me a good reason why not to, I'll kill myself right now. And if you do give me a reason, and I don't buy into it, I'll still pull the trigger. Your secret remains safe. But, if you can offer me a good reason to live, I'll agree to more dialysis and I'll start following orders.”
Two-to-one odds I would be dead in thirty seconds.
I stared him down. My jaw cracked, and as I slid the barrel into my mouth I tasted the gun oil and the leather from where it had sat in the holster. I had exhausted a great deal of my limited energy taking the gun and pretending to be stronger than I felt. The general's eyes widened and drifted to the bandages at my wrists. He knew I'd do it. It would be messier than I wanted, and I liked the nurse whose job it would be to clean up. But the general knew I'd do it. My disease wasn't depression or PTSD; it was guilt, and there is no more insidious a cancer.
The general calmed, his eyes resuming their calculating stare. He leaned in so that he wheezed in my ear. With an angry sputter, he gave up the secret.
“We have a medium who can hear the dead.”
It wasn't a statement I expected from an Army officer with a prominent cross hanging around his neck.
With a gun in my mouth, I couldn't laugh, so I blew air around the gun barrel and choked on it. I must have managed to convey my disbelief because he continued in a harsh whisper, “For over a decade we've used a medium to connect with newly dead soldiersâterminals, they're calledâwho embark on a final mission to gather information vital to our country's national security. I want you for a mission.”
I drew the barrel out of my mouth, but only far enough so as to be able to speak. This was entertaining, and if nothing else it would be good to die laughing. “You do realize I'm an atheist?”
“Yes, and it doesn't matter.”
“I don't believe in life after death.”
“By definition there will be nothing to contact.”
The general leaned away and looked past me. “We're not quite sure what will happen to you.”
“I am.” The metal slid along the top of my teeth, and my mouth watered at the bitter taste.
“Hold on, Colonel,” he said. “What do you want? I canâ” He craned his neck to peer through a gap in the screens. “I can make things happen.”
I spoke with the barrel at my lips. “There's a difference between wanting to die and deserving to, General.” My voice dropped to a level just audible above the fans. “You may be able to talk to the dead, but I need you to resurrect them.”
He rubbed his eyes. He'd flown in for this meeting two days after I'd refused further treatment for renal failure. They'd delayed my transfer to Germany for him. Three stubby, gnarled fingers faced me. They were the digits of a very old man, though the general was only in his early sixties. My shoulders ached from the weight of the gun.
“Three reasons.” He wiggled the fingers. “In 2011 a suitcase nuke entered the United States of America and went on the black market. A terminal contacted three dead Russians killed while guarding the case and learned the identity of the first black marketer, who had betrayed one of them. Six hours later, we followed a trail leading to an apartment in Los Angeles where we found the nuke. Information at the site indicated the hand-off was to have been that night, and the bomb had been destined for a domestic terrorist cell.”
Impossible to prove or disproveâmy burn itched for a scratch, but I was committed to my course.
His middle finger.
“In 2012, the Virginia-class submarine
disappeared in North Korean waters. The discovery of a fully armed and manned attack submarine would have been an act of war. Contacting the dead allowed us to find and retrieve the weaponry without notice of the North Koreans.”
The last finger. I was listening.
“In 2013, we received intel that a cult was preparing a bioterrorist attack at a papal mass, but didn't have a clue as to the distribution mechanism. By tracking down a recently dead devotee, a terminal tricked her into telling us that a closet adherent owned the country's largest manufacturer of communion wafers.”
Three fingers again.
“The Terminals stopped a nuclear attack, a war, and a mass poisoning.” He smiled, but it only made him look wry. “Excuse the pun.”
If I hadn't heard about the
submarine, I might have pulled the trigger, but nothing that big happened without a ripple of information through the upper ranks. Because of the radio silence, the Navy hadn't a clue where the vessel had gone down, and everyone had shrugged amazement when they found it. I hated when the general's smile broadened, revealing yellow snaggleteeth.
“Is redemption like that worth a couple of months until we find you a mission?” he asked.
It was, but I shook my head. “Why do you need someone else to die? This psychic can just contact the dead, right? So she can work alone. Why do you need someone to hold the dead person's hand?”
He didn't blink, only leaned in even closer and grinned. “Sometimes the dead don't want to talk, Christine.”
I flushed with the familiarity but lowered the gun to rest on my chest, staring back up at the ceiling again. It rattled as an Apache flew overhead.
“Talking to the dead also has certain limitations,” he continued. “Over time, Attila has perfected the technique but it still requires the preconditioning of the agent. They need to be open to communication or the connection is poor.”
So the psychic was a he; I'd pictured a be-ringed, fat, voodoo woman. “Two weeks,” I said.
He weighed this before replying. “It's a deal. You'll be on a flight to New York City tonight. I guess you can opt out anytime.” He picked up the gun and I heard the release of its cartridge. “To show you I'm on your side, take this.” As I watched the fan whirl, something dropped on the bed beside me. It fell between a fold, and I didn't hunt for it. A few minutes after he left, the nurse moved a screen aside and entered with a kit.
“Doctor says we can take that burn dressing off, Colonel. You're healing well.” She lifted the box. “We also need to put a dialysis port in the right side of your neck. This is so we don't need to jab you each time.” She clasped her hands tight against the medical paraphernalia and hugged it to her chest. “I'm so glad the general convinced you.”
The woman had no idea what the general had convinced me of. But I was alive and that's something, even for someone who desires death. The decision to suicide is a moment in time; on the other side of that moment may be light, or a slide into an even deeper black.
Nurse Hickey sat her plump bottom on the bed, smoothing the sheets so that the general's deposit rolled free and tinkled on the concrete floor. She picked it up and held it between her thumb and forefinger.
When the early morning sun
blazed through the diner's windows and struck the man's grizzled profile, Agnes knew he was the killer. She hadn't picked up on it until the sun hit; slipping a menu in front of him, she was first distracted by the myriad of tattoos swarming up his arms. But tattoos were common even in her small town. The way he kept asking for more creamers had given her pause. A pyramid of empties stacked on the table. It seemed, well â¦ gluttonous. But it was the light that had
her the truth she was meant to see.
“Gord, ye'd better get back here.” With the sizzle of bacon on the griddle, she could barely hear herself speak into the receiver. “It's that fella who's been on the news there; that killer. He's sitting right in The Frying Panâ” Gord cut her off.
“Sure, I'm sure,” she added. “I'm calling you, ain't I?”
Despite the waves of fear, she pressed her fist into her hip and kept her tone even. The killer's face had graced the news almost every night for the past several months, coverage increasing with the body count. But up until last week, the murders had been out of state, remote. Then, the killings had traveled from Texas to Iowa, a higgledy-piggledy trail of broken necks and missing persons across America with a team of FBI agents in the wake.
Yesterday, a school bus of kids went missing. Agnes had felt her heart in her throat ever since. When word spread that one of the kids was the governor's twelve-year-old daughter, the political angle catapulted the story onto the international news and mobilized half the state searching for an abandoned bus.
In pictures, Hillar the Killer had blonde hair and a beard, but this man's head was shaven and his beard, dark brown and cropped, leaving only stubble and lightning-bolt sideburns. It was when the sun illuminated the back of his head, giving him a golden halo, that the resemblance grew obvious.
She hugged the phone to her ear. From the corner of her eye, she watched to see if he was looking, but he sipped his coffee by the window and worked at something on the table.
“Hold on. You may be happy as a pig in shit, Gord, but
ain't no hero.” She ran a palm down the front of her apron and listened while Gord tried to calm her. “What do I do?” The plea softened the edge in her voice.
“Guess I can.” She set the phone back in its cradle.
“Just feed him, he says,” she muttered to her fingers, which trembled. Minimum wage plus tips wasn't near enough for this job, but she tugged at the corners of the apron and slipped a stray wisp of hair back up into the net she wore.
The short order cook's ding made her heart leap. “Order up.” She gripped her chest.
He slid the mound of bacon, eggs, hash and sausage across the steel shelf. She looked at it like it was her last meal. She punched the toast up and eyed the butter before taking out the margarine and scooping out a dollop. Agnes wouldn't butter a killer's toast, but she wasn't going to keep the fat from his veins either.
Satisfied that the combination of saturated fats and greasy meat might just do the job the Iowa judiciary couldn't, she picked up a plate in each hand, as she had for the last fourteen years, and headed over to serve the country's worst serial killer a Heart-Stopper Breakfast.
His head down, the man scribbled on a napkin. He covered it when her sneakers scuffed the linoleum floor. The sunbeams through the window put his face in shadow, and it was as though she looked into a root cellar with only the light of a dim, dust-caked bulb to illumine the dark places. She squinted at the morning glare, worried it might augment the sheen of her perspiration. It's hot in the kitchen, she'd say if he asked.
“That's why I'm so sweaty,” she said.
“Pardon,” he replied, looking up. His palm hid the napkin.
“It's hot in the kitchen,” she stammered, flushing.
She looked away from him, her eyes moving to the canvas rucksack that shared the seat beside him.
“You all right?” His voice held a Southern flair, the kind that sounded genteel from a man in a suit, but redneck otherwise.
“Yer the Heart-Stopper, hun?” She produced the term of endearment as a squeak and managed the platter of meat well enough, but the plate of toast wobbled like a dropped coin as it settled, spilling its contents onto the table.
“Yeah, that's me.”
His fingers pressed into the bread, oil bubbling up around the tips of long nails. A tattoo snaked around his wrist and strange letters trailed down each of his fingers. The napkin he'd been hiding was uncovered now, reading like a family tree. Many of the names she'd heard before, but they seized her like hands at a throat: Gilles de Rais, the Black Knight, Rasputin, Le Barbe Bleu, Jack the Ripper, the Axeman of New Orleans, Oskar Dirlewanger, the Zodiac Killer. It ended with the confirmation she'd feared: Hillar the Killer. She gaped at the napkin, unable to look away, but knowing she must.
She swallowed under his gaze and shifted her eyes to stare into the sun, hoping her cousin would be here soon.
“Like any more coffee?” she murmured, feeling as though she floated. “Cream.”
“I asked if you were all right.”
“Yes, dear â¦” She didn't look down, watching from the periphery, like a spirit that hovers above an operating table, helpless to the drama below it.
He was reaching into the rucksack with one hand, and with the other, the greasy left hand, he snared her wrist.
“âCause, if I didn't know better, I'd say you've made me.”
She spoke fast and quiet. “I won't tell nobody.”
“Look me in the eye when you're talking.” A gun emerged from the bag, and she clenched her eyes shut and whimpered.
“In the eye!” he yelled.
When his voice rose, she knew she was dead. He didn't care about being found out. Three other patrons were eating in The Frying Pan; any one of them could have a phone.
“No!” She twisted, and her arm slid in his oiled grip, but then the fingers tightened further, vice-like and crippling, taking her to her knees. For the first time in six months, she prayed. She prayed not to God, but to see the sun tomorrow. One more day to set things straight between her and her mother. A chance not to regret just about everything in her forty-four years.
Lieutenant Gordon Handso was angry with himself. When Agnes had called, he'd been three minutes shy of The Frying Pan, driving the wrong way. He'd just finished a platter of flapjacks and one too many coffees. He'd relieved his bladder before leaving, and probably strode right past the killer with a nod of hello. If anyone found out, he'd be laughed out of town. But if on the other hand he arrested the most wanted man in the country, well, then he might just earn a parade. What he needed to do now seemed pretty darn clear.
Handso practiced what he'd say during the media interviews sure to follow the takedown.
Despite my lack of family, or perhaps due to that lack, I feel a special bond to Agnes. Like a sister. I had to act. Some people call that heroic, but I just call it risking my life to serve my country.
In the diner's lot were a white van, a battered Ford pickup, Agnes's Chevy hatchback, and a Lincoln looking low-class with missing hubcaps. Handso bet heavily on the van being the killer's.
With the sirens off, he pulled into the vacant car dealership next door. Gravel crunched beneath the tires of his Dodge Charger LX. Those kids had disappeared at a diner not much different from this one. Dust filled Handso's nostrils, filtered by a heavy mustache. His radio barked at him, Agent Volt calling the shots on what had become the largest manhunt in the history of the FBI.
Volt was in over his head. Initially, the retirement-track agent had led a small team from the Critical Incident Response Group, but with the recent kidnappings, the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team had thrust their hands into the pie. Now, he coordinated about thirty agents, hundreds of state troopers like Handso, and nearly a thousand volunteer searchers.
They'd had a tough time. Hillar seemed to move around more than most serial killers, slaughtered randomlyâover eighty missing persons attributed to himâand even though he was deemed psychotic by every psychologist CNN could drum up, his thinking seemed orderly to Handsoâno matter how many eyeballs Hillar popped out.
Handso was first on the scene. He could make his name forever, here. At thirty-eight with no kids, and no wife, Handso had only his gun collection to educate. If he wanted a legacy, it wouldn't be through twiddling his thumbs waiting for Volt while a killer shot up his cousin. Volt was conservative. The man had three months to make his twenty years of service anniversary and the full pension that went with it. While Volt desired safety, Handso craved action.
Handso swung the car door open, feeling exposed with his Kevlar vest still in the trunk. Quiet had settled over The Frying Pan lot, and the glare of light reflecting off the windows made him uncomfortable; it also made the glass one way. If Handso approached from the front, the killer would have a view of him, but he'd be blind to the killer. Handso cursed himself for not asking Agnes where Hillar and the other patrons were sitting.
Handso's trunk popped open; he struggled into the vest, and then tightened the strap of his ankle holster. At a muffled shout from inside the diner, he snapped erect. The CB was growling for him, but he'd turned the volume low.
He unsnapped the loop on his service revolver holster. The gun hadn't cleared the holster in nine months. The last time had been to scare a young hood waving a knife; then, the gun's safety had never moved. Now, he drew the Smith and Wesson M&P and flicked the safety off. Ready.
“We need him alive,” the radio crackled. “He's got eleven kids stowed away somewhere. Treat this as a hostage situation.” Handso smirked, wondering if Volt would call in HRT, too, and complete his law enforcement dictatorship. But Hillar had Handso's cousin. And Handso had the element of surprise, for now.
Heat already shimmered from the highway's blacktop, breaking the town water tower into blurry panels. No convoy of black SUVs screamed up the strip. Not yet. Handso reached through the window to grab the handset.
“This is Lieutenant Handso,” he whispered. “We've got an Active Shooter; I'm going âround back to secure the rear.” Procedure changed with an Active Shooterâhe had a duty to make contact as soon as possible. “Advancing on threat.”
He didn't stay for the response. He didn't dare turn on the radio stashed at his hip eitherânot while he crept up on a serial killer, not when his destiny was about to be determined. Given that the diner backed onto a warehouse and an industrial park, he would be better positioned to prevent escape via a vehicle by waiting where he was, but that wouldn't help those inside. Volt had surely barricaded the highway.
Handso skulked to the side of the restaurant, keeping clear of the windows, near silent as he stepped along concrete pads. He stalked, gun up. Another yell came from the restaurant, and the rear door thwacked shut. Pebbles crunched under heavy boots.
The man who chugged around the corner was red-faced, with cheeks puffed out and his chest heaving. Grease spattered his otherwise white chef's jacket. He grunted when he stared into the barrel of Handso's gun and his feet slid out from under him so that he landed on his ass. What little breath he had left blew from his lungs.
Handso used his revolver muzzle like a finger, placing it to his lips. The cook gave a quick nod, eyes wide as he climbed to his feet and ran. The trooper continued around the restaurant, creeping in through the spring door; the door groaned as it retracted. He eased it shut. Black smoke from a burning quick-fry steak stung his eyes. In the dining area, someone whined.
“Now hold still,” a man said. Distant. On the far side of the restaurant.
Handso crawled to the stove. The order counter above would offer him a view of two-thirds of the diner. His empty palm mashed through raw bacon strips and hash the cook had strewn over the floor.
“No, no, I wanna try something.” A grunt of frustration and a shriek of painâAgnes.
Handso stole a glance. Hillar the Killer was thick-set with strange sideburns. He wore a wife-beater that strained against muscle and tendon. While his gun pressed against Agnes's forehead, his other hand hauled her hair downward, forcing her chin up. Handso would have ducked, but Hillar was too intent on his victim. Two patrons hid beneath their table, a third huddled in the corner, holding a butter knife and a cell phone. With any luck, she'd be recording a video and the takedown would soon be on YouTube.
“Thatta gal, now look me in the eye.” Agnes did as she was told. A smile spread across Hillar's face. “Yeah, yeah, wider.”
The smoke streamed upward from the skillet, and Handso's vision blurred. A cough itched in his throat, and he fought it off by swallowing.
Hillar closed the distance between Agnes's eyes and his own. When his face was inches from hers, Handso shouted.