Authors: Michael M. Hughes
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Hydra eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2014 by Michael M. Hughes
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Hydra, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
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colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.
Cover design and illustration: David G. Stevenson
At first, Denny Huffington thought the metal pressed hard against his face was his mother's cane. But that didn't make any sense. His mother never woke him by shoving her cane in his face. His brain, fogged from deep sleep, quickly awoke to a primal rush of adrenaline as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
No, it wasn't a cane. It wasn't his mother standing next to him, either. It was a man. A man shoving a very long and deadly-looking pistol into his jaw.
“Shhh,” the man with the gun whispered.
“Please,” Denny croaked. The word was barely a dry whisper. Why hadn't his security alarm gone off? He set it every night, without fail. After what had happened in Blackwater, he even kept it armed during the day. And where was the dog? Why wasn't Ulysses barking his head off?
“Shut up,” the man whispered again. “Say another word and I'll shove this gun down your throat and blow your intestines out your ass.”
Denny nodded slowly. The man with the gun was coming into focus, but he was wearing a ski mask. Only his mouth, taut and thin-lipped, and his glassy eyes were cut from the dark fabric. He was wearing a tight black jacket, too. Like some kind of ninja. But his accent was familiarâmost definitely this ninja was from West Virginia. He'd toned his accent down, but it was still there.
“Now, listen. I am going to ask you a few questions. You'll answer
of them. Quietly. Or else you and the old lady in the next room both leave this house in body bags. Understand?”
Denny nodded again.
“Okay. I'm going to sit next to you in this chair. You're going to answer me quietly and with absolute honesty. No holding back. I used to do this for Uncle Sam, so I
when someone's bullshitting me. You hold back anything and our conversation will end very quickly. Am I making myself clear?”
The masked man pulled up a chair. “Good. Let's start at the beginning. You knew Ray Simon. You also wrote on your blog that you know he didn't kill anyone. That you were one hundred percent sure he wasn't a killer.”
“Yes,” Denny said. His voice felt like it was coming from someone else. “He didn't do it.”
I can't lie. Not with that gun aimed at my face.
“Then tell me what happened that made you so sure.”
He told him. Everything. In short, frightened bursts. About Crawford and Lily and how Ray had gotten entangled with them, and they had hunted him. How Ray had been blamed for the murders of Crawford and his friend Kevin. And Crystal, nineteen years old, her mutilated, sexually violated corpse tossed like a garbage bag in a Dumpster behind the Walmart. The sleazy TV shows had a field day with that, especially the leaked photos of the autopsy that had spread all over the Internet.
“You don't think he killed them?” the gunman asked.
“No. Not the Ray I knew. He wasn't a killer.”
“And you follow the conspiracy sites. The ones saying it was an Illuminati ritual. That Ray is just the fall guy.”
Denny nodded. “A lot of important people died that day. When you connect the dotsâ¦I think there's something to it. It was big.”
“What about Ellen Davis? And her son? You don't think he killed them?” The masked eyes shifted to the gun, then to Denny. Growing even colder and more intense. So
is what he was really interested in. Ellen and William. And then Denny recognized the voice. It hit him like a brick in the face, though he desperately hoped he didn't show it. A voice from high school he could never forgetâa deep voice that had tormented him in the halls between classes and in the locker room while his head had been shoved into a sink full of sodden jockstraps.
“No. He cared about them both. He would never hurt either of them.”
The gun barrel reflected a shard of moonlight from the window. The curtain was askew, and the window open a couple inches. So that's how he got in. Somehow the man had disabled the alarm and just climbed right in the bedroom window. Jesus. And the stupid alarm had cost a fortune. Denny prayed poor Ulysses wasn't lying dead in a pool of blood. Or choked on poison.
“So you thinkâ¦they're still alive?”
“I don't know. I think they could be. But there's someoneâ¦a womanâ¦who would know.”
“Yes.” And she most certainly would know. She was the one who had escaped death. Her name was never mentioned in any of the news reports. And from what Ray had told Denny before he disappeared, she wouldn't be the type to leave any loose ends that might unravel the cleverly concocted cover-up and framing of Ray. She was far too devious. “If they are alive, she will know.”
Silence. Nothing but crickets outside and his mother's oxygen machine in the next room. It felt as if time had compressed into an eternity. The man with the gunâSteve Davis, Ellen's ex-husband, former marine, and tormenter of the awkward and closeted high schooler Denny Huffingtonâsmiled. “Denny, old pal, I know you know who I am. You always were a smart kid. Smarter than me, for damn sure. So before I go I need you to promise to forget everything that happened here. Our entire conversation. My little visit never happened. Because if I find out you said anything to anyone, it won't be such a nice visit the next time. Your little doggie won't just be sleeping off a couple of pills.”
“I won't say anything.”
“I know you won't. I know you'll do what's best for you and your mother and your puppy. Just like I want to do what's best for my wife and my boy.”
But they're not yours anymore.
Steve smiled again. “Good. Now just one more thing and I'll say goodbye. I want you to tell me everythingâ
âyou know about Lily.”
Ellen stepped into their house and threw a basket of laundry across the room. Socks, shirts, and William's briefs scattered across the floor like flowers. She was shiny with sweat. Her dyed blond hair was turning dark brown at the rootsâsomething she wasn't allowed. It was too risky. The Brotherhood didn't like that, as she was certainly aware. She was supposed to be a natural blond. Just like the photo on her fake passport.
“Goddamn this,” she said.
She'd been volatile in the past few weeksâgoing from distant and numb to fits of screaming and angry crying jags. Then back to silence. Ray had gone out of his way to be kind and patient, but it seemed the kinder and more patient he was the more furious she got.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
Ellen froze. “What's wrong? What
It was coming. Finally. The big one he'd feared but knew was inevitable. All of the compressed anger and frustration she needed to release. He just hoped it didn't crush him on its way out.
“Ellen, it's okay. It'sâ”
“No. It isn't fucking okay. Not at all. I feel like I'm gonna crawl out of my skin.”
He knew the feeling, too, of courseâthe constant thrumming of low-grade fear and anxiety. Especially when they were in a city, or anywhere near tourists with cameras. Or when the Brotherhood said it was time to pack up quickly and leaveâor to just flee with nothing, as they'd had to do once in Belize, just grabbing William from the beach and piling into their VW van. Only to start all over again in some other strange, alien place.
Fear ruled every moment they weren't asleep. And often when they were.
She glared at him. “But it's William I'm worried about. Do you know what I found under his bed?”
Ray shook his head.
“A knife! The knife I thought I lost. My nine-year-old son who can't even have a goddamn birthday party because he doesn't have any goddamn friends. So scared he keeps a knife under his mattress.”
And probably wisely.
But he couldn't say that. Ray held his arms out. “Come here.”
“No.” The ice in her voice stopped him. “No. I need to say this. And you need to listen.”
So be it. Whenever they fought like this, he felt her drifting a little bit farther away, as if she were in a boat getting smaller and smaller against the horizon.
Of course it's hard,
he wanted to say.
Do you think I ever wanted any of this to happen?
All he'd wanted to do was have some sort of normal life. As normal as they could make a life for as long as they could make it last. What had happened in Blackwater hadn't been his fault. Every step he'd taken there had been exquisitely orchestrated by Crawford and Lily.
And then his face reddened with shame. He couldn't blame Ellen. She had every right to hate this. Anyone would hate itâthe constant agonizing fear and worry, the uprooting and moving and lying. If she hadn't met him she'd still be waitressing at Doris's while William drank milkshakes and wrote his robot books in one of the empty booths. He'd probably be on book six by now. Living like a normal kidâwell, not normal, really, but normal in his own hyperintelligent, wildly creative way. When Ray had been a kid, boys like William were bullied nonstop for their geeky pursuits. Nowadays they grew up to write comic book movie scripts and live in Hollywood mansions.
A truck passed outside, blaring amplified political rants in Spanish. A looped, monotonous, breathless screed about how the candidate was a real hero working to help the poor. Which is what all the candidates said, of course. The same truck had passed by twice already in the last hour, as if sheer repetition, or maybe just fatigue, would buy the candidate a few votes.
He'd picked up on the language pretty quickly, but Ellen was still struggling. She hated her inability to speak beyond simple phrases, especially to other women, and that had made her isolate herself even more.
When the noise subsided Ellen sighed and wiped at her eyes. “He's saying weird things, too. And having more nightmares. It's like he's speaking in tongues when he wakes up. It's freaking me out.”
Ray nodded. “It's been hard for all of us. Which is why I think we should consider it. What they'reâ¦offering.”
“No.” She looked at him now. “I told you. That is not on the table, Ray.”
“Mantu says it's not that bad. There are other women there. English-speaking women. Even some kids. William could make some friends.”
“No way,” she said. “William is not going to be a prisoner for the rest of his life. Neither am I. We're not living like rats in a hole.”
He looked at her feet, at the sandals she'd bought at the market. They were covered in fine yellow dustâa dust that got on everything and never really went away. “Not that this is any kind of life for a kid.” She laughed, miserably, two tears rolling down her face in tandem. “Or for anyone.”
He wanted to hold her but knew better. Months ago it had been different. Through Belize and Nicaragua they'd sometimes fall asleep wrapped around each other, limbs entangled like young teenage lovers. It had been a honeymoon, of sorts, despite all the fear hanging over them, and Ray wondered if the constant anxiety had even heightened their intimacy. Mantu had told them repeatedly to be less conspicuously affectionate in public. “Jesus, you two! Can you draw more attention to yourselves? How about keeping your hands off each other for ten minutes? Not just because it ain't safe, but because you're making me want to puke.”
But ever since they'd moved to this hot, dark, and dully furnished house in a dusty little town in Guatemala with an open sewer just down the road, they barely touched each other. At most they'd share a tired, loveless kiss at night before rolling over and passing out, exhausted from a day spent scurrying around like skittish rabbits.
“Ellen, we'll figure it out.” It was a lie, and it tasted bitter the minute he said it. He had no way out. No answers. And lately the Brotherhood had been dropping hints through Mantu. And coming from Mantu, those hints were anything if not blunt. “Things might be better if you separated for a while,” Mantu had said. “Everyone thinks the two of them are dead. No one's looking for them. But
Rayâyou're on the front page of the fucking FBI website.
the one that's putting them in danger. If you love that woman and that boyâand I know you doâthe best thing you can do is come with me. Give them time to relax a little and live a normal life. A little time away might be good for all of you.”
But there was no way he could leave them. If she didn't want to go with him to the Brotherhood refuge called Eleusisâand who could blame her?âhe wasn't going anywhere. This long journey from Blackwater had melted them into one another, like three clay pots in a kiln that had collapsed into one mass and fused together. And no matter how bad it got he couldn't imagine not being with them. Lily was still out there, after all. Looking for him, to be sure, but that meant they were all in danger.
“But if you want to bring them, they're welcome,” Mantu had said the last time the two of them were alone. “We need you as much as you need us right now. Jeremy needs your help. And you'll be safer. All of you.”
But Ellen had wanted no part of it. She hated the jungle climate, the blinding heat, the constant bugs, the endless bouts of stomach sickness, the relentless dust. She hated having to throw used toilet paper into a little trashcan instead of into the toilet. She hated having Ray and William speak for her at the
because her Spanish still came out with a West Virginian accent. The idea of living in a fortified compound in the jungleâno matter how physically safe they would beâwas out of the question. As much as she hated the running, she feared being trapped in a cage even more.
He couldn't blame her at all. She was still young, and the idea of never being able to step outside of four walls was a bitter thing to swallow.
Ellen wiped her eyes and laughed. “Look at me. I've lost fifteen pounds. Look at my hair. I look like a boy. I can't talk to anyone without sounding like an idiot. You can't even call me by my real name until we're locked in our bedroom, and half the time I can't even remember it anymore. I can't do anything unless your goddamned Brotherhood says it's okay.”