“A 405-page report sponsored by the US National Science Foundation calls for a broad-based research program to improve human performance leading to telepathy, machine-to-human communication, and enhanced intellectual capacity.”
“US Report Foretells of Brave New World,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 07-20-02
A light drizzle peppered the windshield of the ’68 Ford pickup as it rolled nonchalantly into the parking lot of Shop Right’s Grocery in Springdale.
As the truck crept slowly over the asphalt, the old man wrestled the transmission into first gear and manuevered the vehice forward to a gentle rest against the railroad-tie bumper. Nobody seemed to notice as Joe slid from the truck bed and made his way through the parked vehicles, to the east wall of the country store and a canopy of unkept hedges. Joe was familiar with the hideout. He’d seen local kids playing inside and around the bushes before.
It had been two weeks since he first met Buck and Tater. During that time he had grown to respect the old man, and, though he hated to admit it, attached to the guardian fur ball too. Together, they decided he would conceal himself beside the country store until Buck’s bimonthly shopping event was concluded. If the gossipy clerk who stood behind the counter repeating every rumor he ever heard asked no probing questions, Joe would assume Buck and Tater were in the clear and that he could move on, that he had not endangered them.
A half hour passed before the little bell hanging from a wire above the entry jingled. A voice inside the building hollered through the door, “See ya next time, Buck!”
“Uh-huh,” the old man said, pushing the neatly stacked cart toward the rusty pickup.
A few minutes later, as if on cue, Tater barked, the signal that all was okay. Joe heard the truck start, then sputter off down the highway.
What he didn’t hear was the interdimensional breach simultaneously unlocking across the road. Invisible beings stepped through the space-time portal: angels, tall and magnificent, eyes burning like lamps of fire. The golden-skinned figures made their way across the road, toward the grocery, automobiles driving behind, in front of, and through them as they went.
“There’s Garth now,” the taller of the two angels said, raising his finger in a flash toward a young man exiting the store. The hearty twenty-five-year-old he was pointing at would play a small but important role today.
“Okay, Justice, I see him,” Swift replied. “I’ll start the sequence as soon as he’s off the deck.”
Garth Pumphrey, six feet tall and usually sure-handed, was surprised when he dropped the Mountain Dew. It was as if somebody knocked the twenty-ounce bottle from his hand. Now he stood in his designer jeans and watched the plastic container roll toward the end of the building, picking up steam as it coasted along the slanted parkway, finally bumping into what appeared to be a boot jutting out from the brush.
Was somebody hiding in the hedgerow?
Garth stepped toward the beverage.
“Hello-oooh,” he said in a singsong voice. “Somebody there?”
The leather boot withdrew into the shrubbery like a moray eel into its refuge.
Whoever was in the bushes wasn’t interested in company, and that was okay with Garth.
“Ah…listen…no sudden moves now…I’m gonna reach over and get my soda…”
“I don’t want any trouble…so don’t try anything…’cause I know karate…”
Garth’s “I know karate” threat sounded all too familiar to Joe. He peeked through a break in the leaves.
“Garth? Is that you?”
Scrutinizing the poorly maintained plants, Garth tilted his head and looked into the hollow.
He was flabbergasted at what he saw.
After two weeks unaccounted for, beaten and bruised, his lifelong friend Joe Ryback had returned.
In Arizona, Nettie Ryback sat at the breakfast nook and stared from her self-appointed watchtower by the window as clouds slowly darkened the midsummer sky. It wasn’t the monsoon season yet, just a freak storm and another day alone.
On the radio, B. B. King was singing “The Thrill Is Gone.”
Striking a match, she touched it to a candle’s wick near the windowpane. The soft glow of the flickering firelight cast faint wavering shadows against a pastel yellow ribbon tied to the candelabra, a reminder from her husband of his promise to return, a promise she knew he could never keep.
She recalled the night he placed the bow on the candleholder. It was pouring down rain like today. She believed it when he said he’d be back. Just a short run to the base to meet another officer was all. He’d be gone one hour, tops.
That was five years ago. Eighteen hundred and twenty-five days ago. At least fifty million tears ago.
Wincing, she stroked the moisture from below her doe eyes and leaned back against the chair, sipping slowly from a slender glass of Cabernet, savoring the crisp taste of the fermented grapes with slow delight. Her dependency on the vine had evolved to outright friendship over the last few years—a frequent invitation to chemical obscurity that alleviated her pain, if only for a while.
Yet not her tears. Never her tears. She was such a melancholy baby when she remembered Clarence—his kind, hazel green eyes and thinning black hair; his clean-shaved face framing a broad, honest smile; his strong masculinity complemented beneath his off-duty black Stetson. Even at middle age he had been disirable to her. Everything about him was as intoxicating as this wine. Her need of him now was as strong as the day they fell in love, stronger perhaps than her passion for life without him.
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She rubbed her finger along the edge of the glass and dabbed a bit of the alcohol behind her ears.
Nice perfume, she thought. Deadly perfume.
Having thus begun this day’s episodic ritual of numbing her wounded soul, her thoughts strayed now—like they had recently—from Clarence to her missing son, Joe.
For more than a week she had told herself he would reappear at any moment. It wasn’t the first time he’d vanished only to pop up in some obscure locale later on. Yet after two weeks, her hopes for his safe return were starting to feel as puny as the promises she’d clung to during the terrible days leading up to her husband’s discovered corpse—promises as empty as this bottle would soon become.
Leisurely, she tipped the delicately shaped chalice toward her face and smelled the welcome aroma.
A drink was what she needed to alleviate the fear, followed by another one.
Yet before the Cabernet could reach her open mouth, a shadow moved over the trees near the walkway and a creak spread through the deck outside.
Her head started to spin.
She knew it wasn’t the liquor. The day was early yet.
Sitting forward, she felt primal fear roll over her, black and mindless.
Her intuition screamed. Something dreadful was coming her way. She had the uncanny feeling she was being watched.
Another thump, and something knocked on the front door.
She froze, glancing at the entry. The lock was set and the safety chain was fastened. The windows were secure, too. Yet it would be easy enough for a determined man to kick his way past the deadbolt.
If only she had installed that bar thing across the door Joe wanted.
After all, she was alone in the house most of the time. No precaution was unreasonable. Someone had murdered her husband, someone never identified, his reasons never known.
He could be out there, studying her, plotting.
Another knock, louder this time.
Gooseflesh crawled on her arms.
Against her better judgment, she rose to her feet and tiptoed to the door. She looked through the peephole. Two men were on the deck: a young, clean-cut marine security guard, and a middle-aged man in a black suit.
And something else.
Strange, unnatural silence.
No neighborhood dogs barking; no birds chirping; not even a cricket sound.
Leaving the chain hooked, her pulse pounding, she surprised herself by seizing the knob and cracking the door a little.
She peeked at the solid young man on the deck.
“Good morning, ma’am. Sorry to disturb you. Would you happen to be Mrs. Annette Ryback?” the officer asked.
His voice was familiar, looks too, probably one of the base kids Joe grew up with. She calmed a little.
“I am,” she said, not mentioning that some people knew her as Nettie, her nickname.
“Joe Ryback’s mother?”
Her pulse quickened again. “Yes. What’s this about?”
“May we come in for a moment?”
She checked the uniform for authenticity. It looked real, though she knew such things could be purchased at a military surplus store.
“Of course, gentlemen,” she said after a second.
Unhooking the chain and swinging the door aside, she invited the officer in.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said politely. “My name is Skip Stevens and this is Special Agent Apol Leon. Mr. Leon is looking for your son, Joe.”
“Yes, ma’am. Do you happen to know where we can find him?”
Though relieved they weren’t harboring bad news about Joe, something felt wrong, antagonistic. Reciting the awful truth, she simply said, “No.”
Not only had Joe been missing since visiting her two weeks before, but at the time he had claimed that he was onto something, a lead involving high-ranking officers and cover-ups that might connect to his father’s murder. She had warned him to be careful, to leave things to trained investigators. Putting himself at risk wouldn’t change the facts anyway, “Except maybe to get you hurt, too,” she had argued. Nevertheless he had carried on about the whole mess, as though it was his duty to solve the mysterious crime. Now, sure enough, uniformed men were looking for him.
“No idea, huh,” the soldier pressed.
Before she could repeat the answer, the man in black entered the doorway and gazed at her suspiciously. Though she couldn’t see his eyes due to the sunglasses he was wearing, a cynical expression clearly insinuated that he thought she was lying.
“None whatsoever,” she said flatly.
For reasons she didn’t entirely understand, her eyes darted across the living room to an exquisitely handcrafted eighteenth-century hardwood table. On top of it sat an evenly worn Douay version of the Bible. It called to her as if it were alive, pleading for her to resume the study of it, to reclaim its authority. Why had she felt this now?
As if sensing evasiveness, Apol raised his right hand and repositioned the expensive Armani glasses on the bridge of his nose. In a deep, snakelike hiss that took Nettie by surprise, he said, “Mrs. Ryback, you are aware, are you not, that concealing a fugitive is a federal offenssse?”
Instantly regretful she had gone against her instincts by allowing the men inside, she made a slow examination of the skeptical agent in the doorway: approximately six feet tall, raven black hair combed hard to one side reminiscent of Adolf Hitler, he had pockmarks on his face and arms and a small scar or mark on his forehead that looked like numbers.
“I…I am,” she responded, warning herself to be careful what she said. Anybody as unabashed and as lacking in common manners as this man was probably dangerous. Her husband once told her that unchallenged authority ruined some men, causing them to take particular thrills from controlling people. To discover what made such people tick—to define their truest and deepest character—give them power, he had said, and watch what happens. The outcome was typically megalomania.
“And you’d never challenge such authorities by hiding your ssson, would you?”
“It’s a sssimple question, really. Your son. You wouldn’t be keeping him from authorities, aiding and abetting him would you?”
“What authorities? You?”
Apol’s cheek twitched, as if he was unaccustomed to being questioned, especially by a woman.
“I can assure you, Mrs. Ryback, it would be a mistake to doubt my authority in this matter,” he said dryly. “My need of your ssson has to do with an above-top-secret undertaking for the United States Government. As a former Lieutenant Colonel’s wife, you understand the term ‘classified,’ don’t you, Mrs. Ryback?”
Of course she did. Who was this man anyway, arriving here without an appointment and talking to her like she was a child?
“It has come to our attention that Joe may be in possession of stolen government property. Specifically, a confidential item related to…the project I’m overseeing.”
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Nettie amazed herself by blurting, “Don’t be ridiculous. Joe’s not a thief. He wouldn’t steal anything from anybody.” She could feel herself shaking even as she said it.
“Yet he’s chosen for sssome reason to violate the law by refusing to surrender the classified material to proper authorities,” Apol shot back.
The dark man, powerful or not, was quickly wearing out his welcome. Nettie crossed her arms and glowered. “Just what evidence do you have that my son is involved with this…situation?”
“Eyewitnesses for one, video for another.”
“Eyewitnesses? Video? Antiquated junk that’s easily faked.”
Apol tilted his head and ambled toward her, his face grim now, seething, his temples pulsating on both sides, a peculiar sneer cutting on his lips. Even his walk was inexplicable. The way he swayed was unlike anything Nettie had seen before, every stride reflecting indisputable authority, at least in his mind.
She felt like a cornered rabbit too afraid to run.
Noticing a photo of her late husband strategically positioned on the fireplace mantle, he abruptly stopped, tapped the frame of it with the tip of his finger, and looked at her again.
“Ahh, Lieutenant Colonel Ryback, a fine officer indeed. Served his country well, didn’t he. It was a terrible day for all of us when he was assassinated, yesss?”
Placing his hand over his heart, he puckered his lips. “Personally, I was deeply moved when he was killed…”
Although she could hardly believe it, the man in black sounded callous, as though he was mocking her husband’s death right here in her home.
“…and the mystery surrounding his unfortunate ssslaughter…”
Did he actually lick his lips!? Was he salivating!?
“It’s never been sssolved…has it?”
The terribly insensitive remark enraged Nettie. Somehow—she wasn’t sure just how—she controlled herself. Her eyes narrowed to angry slits as she glared at the stranger, determined to hide her fear.
Her anxiety seemed like honey to him. He continued toward her, slithered actually, his face noxious now, as if feeding on her pain.
“Did you know there are those who believe your ssson could be in similar danger?”
She placed a hand over her mouth. The threat was veiled, but she understood it. “W-what are you saying?”
“I’m saying your ssson is in over his head. If I can find him, I can protect him, but I may need your help. You don’t want to see him come to any harm, do you, Mrs. Ryback? You wouldn’t resist me, would you?”
The dark agent’s head jerked, and something unseen drifted through the room.
A sharp, intrusive vibration was in her inner ears.
Buzzing, swarming, stirring, like angry particles of static electricity.
Now her thoughts were spinning.
Her mind was…was…being searched!?
She stumbled backwards, tripping, falling, her shoulder catching a lamp on the way down, knocking it with a hard whack to the corridor that ran along the stairs, shattering the bulb into a thousand powdery shards.
Who, or what, was this man!?
Officer Stevens rushed to help her.
“What’s the matter, Nettie,” the man in black said menacingly from behind them, his lips stretching eerily, grinchlike. “Sssomething wrong?”
He knew her nickname! Had she given it to him!?
Blinking in confusion, half mad with fear, hands quaking as if swatting at invisible flies sent by Baalzebub to bore into her brain through the channels in her ears, Nettie stuttered, “I-I-I think it’s time you men leave! I don’t know anything about this m-matter. I can c-call…can call…if I hear anything…”
“Uh-huh…you do that,” Apol hissed as she stood and backed away. “Here’s my card. The number’s on the bottom. Anytime, day or night, call me…and the sssooner the better.”
Turning a hundred and eighty-degree arch, Apol placed the contact information on the fireplace’s mantle and quickly walked outside.
Officer Stevens was visibly shaken, obviously unsure what had occurred. He picked the larger pieces of the broken lamp glass up and handed them carefully to Nettie.
Faltering apologetically, he said, “Don’t…don’t worry, Mrs. Ryback. I’m sure everything will work out.”
He turned and pursued Apol outside, closing the door behind them.
Nettie heard a verbal confrontation on the sidewalk to the street before a vehicle started and drove away.
Slumping to the floor, bursting into tears, her eyes drifted uneasily to the top of the fireplace mantle. Photos of her family sat there, neatly tucked inside the antique metal frames she enjoyed collecting. In the middle of them was the one Apol had desecrated with his touch—a black-and-white photo of her and the kids standing with Clarence. Decked out in full military uniform, on her husband’s face was the rigid look of marine devotion. His large hand rested gently above her hip. She could almost feel it now, pulling her close, promising to protect her.
She clung to that image as it dawned on her. Something dark and beyond her control was closing in.
UP NEXT: THE GRAY HIDEAWAY