Read an Excerpt
The Gamma Option
By Jon Land
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Jon Land
All rights reserved.
THE FIGURE SLID through the night, the low-lying sea mist making him seem more phantom than man as he approached the isolated townhouse. He had stolen a skiff and ridden it across the bay from the mainland. In order to avoid detection by possible security personnel, he had cut the engine and paddled the last stretch to McKinley Estates' private dock on Great Diamond Island.
It was not a place where he would have expected to find Blaine McCracken, but then it was difficult to tell what to expect from McCracken if truth was to be gained from experience. That McCracken was on the island was not in doubt; the problem was getting to him without being noticed. The townhouse was off by itself, in a grove at the head of a bank that looked out over the water. A single outside light shone down from the porch illuminating the front walk. The figure elected to make his approach from this point, using the light instead of tempting the darkness at the back of the townhouse.
Security systems became the problem now. McCracken would have several of them set to alert him to unwarranted approach. The figure eased forward, cloaked in the rolling mist. A waist-high brick wall surrounded the townhouse; an opening gave access to the front walk. The electric eyes built into the wall on either side of the walk appeared to be mere imperfections in the brick, one high and one low to prevent leaping over or ducking under to bypass the system.
Of course the walk itself might be wired, sensitive to weight which would trigger an alarm. The freshly sodded grass inside the wall would be watched over as well, probably by ultrasonic waves. The figure understood the limits and constraints of such systems. He knew there would be a single weakness to exploit, a foot-wide strip on either side of the walk that acted as a buffer between the two systems preventing overload and shortcircuiting.
The figure eased himself over the brick wall, and placed one foot gingerly behind the other with barely a row of single grass blades separating them from the walk. He proceeded to move forward tightrope style toward the front door. He kept his arms close to his sides, resisting the temptation to extend them for balance. At last the porch was within reach. The figure held his breath. He could tell by the way the boards were placed that the porch and steps leading to it were wired. The most difficult task of all thus lay before him: to get the door open and deactivate the final alarm system while balanced precariously on the threshold.
The figure reached out and grasped the beam supporting the overhang of the porch. Wasting no time, he vaulted up and over the railing and projected himself forward through the air. He rotated his body so his feet would reach the threshold an instant before the rest of him hit the door. He managed to latch on to the brass doorknob just as his feet touched down. With that in his grasp to cushion him, the figure was able to absorb most of the impact as his upper body thumped weakly against the door.
All the same he held his breath, half expecting an intrusion alarm. When there was none he set to work immediately on the locks, three of them, all strictly top of the line. But he had never known a lock that couldn't be picked and had the knob ready to turn in barely a minute. Now came the toughest part of all. Still balanced precariously on the threshold, he had to crack the door and disable the entry alarm at the same time. The alarm activating plunger would be placed low on the hinge side of the door. Stretching to the maximum extent of his muscles, the figure could just reach it with his left hand while holding on to the doorknob with his right.
First he removed a small square of putty from his pocket and reached down again with his left hand. The plunger would remain depressed until the door parted from it entirely. The figure started the door slowly inward, easing the putty into place a little at a time until it covered the whole of the plunger, holding it in its slot even without pressure from the door. Then the figure eased the door open the rest of way and slid inside with some of the sea mist trailing behind him.
A key pad before him with bright red light warned of the final security system, which would include a motion detector. The figure had the tools to bypass it, but he reached out first and pressed a sequence of four numbers with his index finger. The red light flashed green, and the figure allowed himself a smile.
Not like McCracken to be so foolish.
The moonlight through drawn glass curtains over a bay window that overlooked the water provided what little light he needed now. The stairs rose just to his right. The matter was finished so far as the figure was concerned, the rest a mere formality. McCracken's bedroom would face the ocean, and when he reached it all pretense of subtlety would be abandoned.
The figure crept onward, almost to the head of the stairs now, careful with each step, silent as the night that had delivered him here. He had barely reached the top and started to turn when the slightest motion froze him; no, not a motion so much as a shifting in the air, a breeze passing through an open window. The figure had just begun to slide on again when something cold and hard touched the back of his neck. A distinctive click sounded as hammer met pin.
"Bang," said McCracken.
"I've got to hand it to you, Henri," Blaine said when they were back downstairs. "You haven't lost a step in all these years."
Dejourner shrugged in the darkness. "Apparently, mon ami, I have lost something."
Blaine preceded him back down the stairs and hit a pair of switches which activated recessed and track lighting throughout the first floor.
"Looks better with the lights on, old friend," he said and led Dejourner past the galley kitchen into a living area furnished in rich dark leathers. Oriental rugs in many shades lay on the polished hardwood floors. What might have been the dining alcove was dominated by custom-built cherry bookshelves packed with leatherbound books.
"I've taken to reading them," Blaine said, following Henri's gaping eyes.
"I must say, Blaine, that when my sources placed you in Portland, Maine, I was surprised and worried, but this—"
"Don't sell the city short. Riverfront redevelopment is a way of life around here. Take a look."
Another flip of a switch illuminated a deck with a clear view to the sea.
"Got a pair of bedrooms upstairs and a full gym in the basement. You know, I've got five apartments scattered around the country, but I seem to have settled here. Maybe it's because the long winter gives me an excuse to be isolated. Might try Canada next, who knows?"
"Then please excuse me for disturbing you."
"Solitude is fine, but the winter was long enough."
Blaine sat down in a leather chair that faced out to the deck. Henri Dejourner settled into the couch adjacent to him against the far wall. A brilliant landscape painting hung above it.
"I gotta tell you, Henri, no man could have negotiated my security systems better. It was a real treat watching you work again. The only one I can't figure is the alarm code. How'd you guess it?"
"Simple, mon ami. I pressed 1-9-5-0, the year of your birth. Since it's exactly twenty years after my own, it's easy to remember."
"Don't remind me. Turning forty wasn't exactly the happiest day of my life."
"And how do you think I felt turning sixty?"
McCracken couldn't say how Henri felt, but he looked marvelous. His still-full hair was the same shade of gray it had been when they had last met, and his frame, though small, remained lean and taut.
"And in spite of everything," the Frenchman said, "you were still lying in wait for me the whole time, laughing to yourself no doubt. You're still a magician, mon ami."
"Johnny Wareagle's the magician, Henri. I rely on more traditional aids. Like a harbormaster named Abner who saw you make off with the skiff. He gave me a call."
"Ah, knows what to look for, does he?"
"He certainly does." After both of them had shared a smile, Blaine added, "You enjoyed yourself tonight, didn't you?"
Dejourner smiled fondly. "I miss the old days. When was it we met, Vietnam in '70 or '71?"
"'Seventy on the crisscross. I was on my way in and you were on your way out. And it wasn't Nam, it was Cambodia."
"For that, of course. For tonight, I'm not so sure."
"Who were you testing tonight, Henri, you or me?"
"There would be no reason to test you, mon ami. I have kept tabs."
"Then you should have known that the last party that showed up on my doorstep unannounced went swimming."
"You gave him a life jacket, of course."
"Sure. I made sure his seatbelt was fastened before I made him drive his car into the bay. About a month ago I think it was. Figured he might be coming back for a second dunking. Abner keeps an eye out for me."
"You haven't changed, mon ami. That's good."
"The fact is I wouldn't have needed Abner a few years ago or these damn security systems either. I'm slipping. My last few missions haven't gone too well. I think I came here to hide out for the winter. Now I'll probably go somewhere else."
Dejourner waved him off. "You've never looked better."
"But I'm starting to have to work too hard at it. Gotta run faster and faster just to stay in the same place."
Dejourner was nodding. "As I recall, you spent five miserable years quite literally in the same place."
"No offense, Henri, but I learned to hate your country during those years."
"No offense taken."
"You made that time bearable. I was stuck sorting paperclips, but you saw fit to throw some real work my way. It's too bad our countries weren't enemies; we could have exchanged prisoners."
"With intelligence communities, enemies would be an accurate description. I was able to convince my superiors to let me use you only after persuading them it would make their American counterparts look bad. Such a rat race! You are lucky to be out of it."
"Still a rat, I'm afraid." Dejourner shrugged.
"Listen, I meant what I said about what you did for me back then, Henri," Blaine said. "I owe you. I don't forget my debts."
Dejourner grasped his meaning and waved his hands dramatically before him. "Non, mon ami. I have not come here to request one of your famous favors."
"Well, you sure as hell didn't fly across the ocean to play a game more fit for recruits many years younger than us."
"Please, Blaine, this is not easy for me. There is something I must tell you and I don't know how. I spent the flight over rehearsing a dozen speeches. None of them worked."
"Why don't you try number thirteen on me now?"
"It's not that simple. As many times as I rehearsed, I almost decided to just take the next flight home. I'm not sure I have any business being here. I'm not sure I have any business bringing you this news."
"We're friends, Henri. Friends always have business doing whatever they want."
Dejourner grimaced as if the words bottled up inside him were causing genuine pain. "You recall a British woman named Lauren Ericson? You met her—"
"In London thirteen years ago. Let's see, that would have made me twenty-seven: five years out of Nam and four operating in the same theater as you. Things were less complicated then."
"The woman, what do you remember of her?"
"A knockout. Thought she was a model at first but she turned out to be a doctor, studying to be an orthopedic surgeon, as I recall. I was working with the British rounding up AlFatah operatives. We were on speaking terms then."
"Yes. Lauren and I were an item for three months or so and then she broke it off. That's always the way it is for me."
"Did she tell you why she broke it off?"
"She told me the same thing I've heard over and over again: I was a lot more fun to be with before she learned everything about me because she knew everything wasn't all and she didn't want to know it all. In a nutshell. My turn now, Henri. Where is this leading?"
"She died two months ago."
Blaine wanted to feel grief but found it hard to muster any for someone he hadn't seen in thirteen years.
"You haven't come here to inform me I was mentioned in her will."
"In a sense I have, mon ami. Lauren Ericson is survived by a son. He's yours."CHAPTER 2
THE NEWS HIT MCCRACKEN like a hammer blow, knocking the breath hard out of him.
Dejourner had a memo pad out and was reading from it. "The boy's name is Matthew. He's three months past twelve and is enrolled in the third form at the Reading School in Reading, England. He is at present a boarder at the school after having lived the rest of his life in the village of Hambleden twenty-five minutes away."
"How did Lauren die?"
"Does the boy "
"No, mon ami. He has no knowledge of you. Lauren told him his father deserted them."
"Then he does have some knowledge of me."
The Frenchman eyed him sternly. "Your shoulders are still broad, Blaine, but don't expect too much of them. She made the choice for reasons you understand as well as I. As near as I can figure, she broke off the relationship when she learned she was pregnant."
"Because she felt no father was better than—"
"One who could never be happy living a normal life "
"A sane life, you mean."
"Call it what you will, but she knew it wasn't for you. A child was the last thing you needed, and she understood that enough to do what she felt was right."
"There always is. The practical side—and Lauren was a practical woman. If you knew of the boy's existence, then so might your enemies. Once she elected to have the child, Lauren could not permit that. So the gesture probably was not aimed so much at you, as what you had given her."
"Given her?" Blaine rose from his chair, strode to the window, and stared out at the nearby waters as he spoke. "We ate lots of dinners, saw lots of shows, and had plenty of fun. I didn't mean to give her any more than I took."
"Apparently the child changed things."
Blaine swung around. "I think she mainly wanted a child, and there I was, ready and willing." He smiled ruefully at his reflection in the glass, observing the scar which ran through his left eyebrow and his eyes that were blacker than the night. "Hope the kid got her looks anyway."
"You've seen him?"
"I checked up on him at the school, made the proper arrangements for his boarding and the like."
Blaine closed the gap between them and watched the Frenchman's eyes waver. "Wait a minute, Henri. Suddenly I'm getting the feeling that your stake in this is deeper than you'd have me think."
Dejourner sighed deeply. His face looked flushed. "It is why I struggled so long and hard before coming to you, Blaine. Lauren was my niece."
"Then you "
Dejourner rose to face him, having to look up to meet his eyes. "You needed someone. So did she. Yes, I arranged it. And what it did for you at the time proved I was right. You were like a son to me, and I saw what that awful war had done to you. It stole from you your youth and set you on a path that denied honest sharing, compassion, love if you wish. I knew that path because I walked it myself." The Frenchman's expression grew somber. "I was almost fifty, single and alone, having known only love for my country, which as you often have told me can be a cold and callous partner. You had to see the other side. I had to show it to you."
"When did you learn of the child?"
Dejourner looked away. "I didn't know it was yours."
"But I didn't know!" Then, more softly, he added, "I supposed I did not want to know. I did not learn the truth until a covenant in her will reached me with the entire story. Lauren had grown up an orphan. She did not want the same for her son."
"Then she expected me to—"
"She expected you to be true to your own heart. She knew the kind of man you were, that you would do what was right and fair. I'm not sure, no, I am sure she had no desire for you to approach the boy. She merely wanted to insure his future would be watched over by someone she trusted." Henri's eyes reached out toward him. "You must do what is right and fair for the boy, but you must also do the same for yourself."
"A rather difficult combination to achieve under the circumstances."
"Your heart will guide you, mon ami."
"You don't really expect me to walk into the boy's life now, do you?"
"I expect you to do what is right. And whatever you choose, it will be right. I have done my part. I have stayed true to my conscience as well as Lauren's covenant."
"And by so doing, you may be exposing the boy to the very things she wanted to avoid when she—and you—chose not to tell me he existed."
Excerpted from The Gamma Option by Jon Land. Copyright © 1989 Jon Land. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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