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Fast-moving clouds were mirrored in the puddles of standing water left by a late afternoon rainstorm. Halogen fixtures set on tall poles spaced fifty feet apart painted the landscape an unholy orange-blue.
A solitary figure dressed entirely in black slipped through a vertical slit in the tall hurricane fencing topped with loops of concertina wire. The fence surrounded a forty-acre lot beside a train yard where several hundred steel containers had been stacked and ordered with Mondrian-like precision. Here and there the painted steel skins of some of the boxes showed brown fingers of rust from years of exposure to the weather.
The man dressed in black, a thirty-year-old whose name was Patrick Taylor, slipped a hand-drawn diagram from inside his jacket and checked the inventory numbers on the closest container, then moved swiftly to the next one. Hours earlier, he had copied the coordinates from a scrap of paper he'd found secreted in Colonel Bryce's safe. Opening his cell phone, he dialed a number he called only when he was alone and in a secure location. As he waited for the number to be answered he inspected the padlock using a small Mag-Lite. The lock was substantial; it would take some coaxing to defeat.
When his handler didn't answer, Taylor assumed he must be on another call, and allowed himself to be routed to a voice mailbox. At the request to leave a message, he said, "This is Dog. I'm hooking up the thumper now. Just going to take a peek to make sure it's all in this box, then I'm leaving it up to you guys." He closed the phone and pocketed it.
He attached the GPS tracker to the steel foundation by means of a magnet. The tracker would allow the special task force to follow the shipment to its destination. Maybe that team would grab the receiving parties when they took possession, or perhaps they'd follow the cargo to the end users--terrorists all over the world and homegrown militias with the resources to buy the latest devices of death and destruction. Taylor's sole responsibility was to stay close to the colonel, to collect the names of people the man met with, then report to his handler. Locating the first shipment of high-tech weaponry was a godsend--icing on the cake.
Taylor had been undercover for eight long years, most of those spent building a faultless background and credentials for an operation like this. Eight years of being someone he wasn't just so he could be of use to his government. He had spent the last three of those eight years getting close to one man and gaining his trust. Three years to find out Colonel Hunter Bryce, a decorated hero, could actually betray his country for money.
Flashlight between his teeth so he could see, Taylor used his lock picks to open the padlock. As soon as he opened the door, he saw that the container was empty. Well, empty except for a sheet of plastic, which had been laid out like carpeting over the rough plywood floor.
The sound of breathing alerted Taylor to the fact that someone was standing just off his left shoulder, at his seven o'clock.
"Lieutenant Taylor?" a familiar voice asked. "What are you doing here?"
Ice filled Taylor's stomach. He turned, already deciding what his next words were going to be. He had not expected to run into Colonel Bryce, but nobody could think faster on his feet than Patrick Taylor. The colonel's face was lit with ambient light from the halogen fixtures, so Taylor could see the quizzical smile the colonel was wearing. Taylor put on a confident smile and started. "Colonel Bryce, I know you're--"
The razor-sharp blade of the survival knife Colonel Bryce had carried during his years in the field severed Taylor's windpipe, his jugular vein and carotid artery. Taylor crumpled, landing hard on the floor of the empty container, the thud of his body echoing within the space.
Colonel Hunter Bryce used his gloved left hand to wipe the fine droplets of blood from his face. He cleaned his blade on Taylor's pant leg before he replaced the weapon in its nylon scabbard.
The colonel retrieved the GPS tracker that Taylor had placed and put it in his victim's open mouth. Then he grabbed Taylor's collar and dragged him deeper into the steel container.
Before Bryce left, he stopped and spit on Taylor's face. Every man the colonel killed won his mark of disdain. Then he walked off into the shadows, whistling softly.
Two hours later, the ATF and FBI agents followed the GPS signal to the locked container. They noticed the fresh blood leaking from the closed door, pooling on the ground, so they opened it.
The night watchman told the agents he'd heard someone whistling in the darkness out beyond the fence.
"I think it was what the seven dwarfs in Snow White sang," he told them. " 'Whistle While You Work.' "
2 Charlotte, North Carolina Eleven months later
Five-letter word for good-bye.
Lucy Dockery put the paper and pencil down on the bedside table. She liked solving crossword puzzles, but filling in words from clues was too easy. She loved better to build them from scratch, putting her thoughts and feelings into short clues. After she constructed a puzzle, she would file it away in her cabinet, unsolved. The inch-deep stack of pages was a journal of Lucy's life for the past year.
From her earliest memories, her parents always seemed to be working the crossword puzzles in The New York Times, other newspapers and magazines. Much to their delight, Lucy had begun crafting her own puzzles at an early age to entertain them. Their praise helped her build her self-confidence to bridge a painful shyness.
Later she made crosswords for Walter. She designed them so that he had to first solve the puzzle and then play with the order of the words until they made up a coherent message. She remembered the one that worked out to say, Congratulations sir after many fun years of playing around with that wand comma a baby is growing inside Lucy. Eight down was _____ in the sky with diamonds. Although Walter loved a challenge, Lucy felt no need to make them complicated or too difficult.
She still wrote puzzle-grams to Walter, but he was no longer able to solve them.
As a child, she'd been told that any time you say good-bye to somebody it could be the last good-bye. She had never really believed that something that happened in a fraction of a second could change everything in her life forever. You automatically tell a loved one to "be careful" until it becomes as meaningless as "see you later." Walter would often reply with, "But dear, I was looking forward to being reckless."
Lucy was bone-weary. Looking back, it seemed to her that her energy and enthusiasm for life had been boundless before the accident. And while Walter was beside her, she had felt invincible and filled to the brim with anticipation of a future--an ideal family nestled in a perfect world.
She knew other mothers of small children complained of tiredness due to washing, cooking, cleaning, and all the million things you had to do daily, but the weakness Lucy felt was different. Lucy didn't have to cook, or clean, or even watch her own child if she didn't feel like it. And when did she feel like it? How many times had she--while propped up in her bed, or lying on the couch--watched like a member of an audience while her son interacted with one of his sitters, her father, or the maid?
Lucy and her father shared the services of a woman who cleaned their houses three times a week. She had a list of competent babysitters to choose from. She subscribed to a gourmet service and once a week a chef prepared all of Lucy's and her father's main meals and put them into the refrigerator or the freezer, labeled.
Lucy had a very nice house, five thousand square feet of modern appliances and every convenience. She had a BMW X5 and a Lexus sedan in the garage. There was more than enough room in the place for her and Elijah, and everything was paid for, thanks to Walter's obsessive desire to take care of his family. Her husband had carried a disability policy as well as one that paid all of his debts upon his death. He had a third insurance policy for two million dollars that carried an accidental-death clause that doubled that amount. Thanks to Walter, Lucy had plenty of everything except what she needed most--Walter.
She'd been an odd-looking youngster, with big aqua eyes, a high forehead, and a narrow chin. The boys in the first grade called her "alien." As she grew older that oddness evolved into "exotic." Even when teenage boys suddenly found her attractive, she had still felt like an odd duck. She had dated several boys in high school, gone steady twice, but she had never fallen in love but once. She knew that there was only one Walter Dockery, and anyone coming into her life after him would be less.
For three months after the accident, Lucy had lain in bed in the darkened bedroom she had once shared with Walter, crying and taking pills to make her sleep. For the year since, Lucy's depression had taken the form of apathy, chronic fatigue, and difficulty making decisions. Her doctor said her depression would run its course as her grief lessened. He even had a list of the steps she could expect to pass through, like it was a disease with a progression of symptoms and even medicines to make it bearable.
Modern people took a pill to combat grief. Indians suffering the same pain took off a finger. Lucy didn't take mood-altering pills because Elijah was her most effective medication.
Since he had been an infant when Walter died, Elijah wouldn't remember anything about his father except what he was told.
At seventeen months her baby was walking and talking a blue streak. He used recognizable words, but mostly they came out embedded in a string of nonsense, which Lucy knew was his attempt to mimic conversation.
Elijah was a beautiful child, curious, affable, even-tempered, and, it seemed to Lucy, better coordinated than most of the children his age. He loved being read to, which Lucy did when she felt up to it. He watched more TV than he should--something Lucy had always sworn that her children would never do. But it was just easier to let the TV babysit. Some days, after Walter died, even little Elijah seemed too heavy a weight for her to lift.
Lucy rubbed her eyes and considered watching a late-night talk show.
Night, after Eli was asleep, was when she missed Walter the most. Sleeping alone was a problem because she had grown accustomed to having his warm, familiar body beside her. She missed having him to hold on to as the darkness closed in--to press her back against, or to spoon with, or to nudge when his snoring awakened her. She missed playing with him before they went to sleep and waking up to his fingertips tracing the line of her leg, stomach, and her breasts. Familiar lips nibbling on her shoulder, kissing her neck, her nose . . .
Lucy wasn't suicidal, but she fantasized often about waking up in paradise wrapped in Walter's embrace. Together for eternity . . . But that would mean that Elijah would be an orphan, a young man raised by his grandfather. Sometimes Lucy thought that might be best for him.
If a sitter was spending the night, Lucy could take a tablet to put her to sleep. Otherwise she lay in bed all night thinking, berating herself, longing for something she'd never have again. What if she took a pill to sleep and Elijah woke up and she didn't hear him cry out for her?
Life was fragile.
People could die.
It happened all the time.
Throwing back the covers, Lucy left her bed to look in on her son, to reassure herself that he was breathing. Since Walter's passing, she'd had a terror that she might go into the boy's room to find his little body wrapped in cold blue death.
The carpeting silenced Lucy's approach as she opened his door wider and slipped inside. At the side of the crib she reached down and rested the backs of her fingers on his forehead. The night-light allowed her to study his chubby pink cheeks, his perfect lips, and the chin with the beginnings of Walter's cleft. His little fingers were curled tightly into his palms. His chest rose and sank slowly with the precision of a Swiss watch. Eli's fat little feet would grow narrower as they lengthened. His squat frame would stretch to six feet or better. His curly locks would straighten. Imagining him as an adult was easy since she was familiar with the genetic models he was constructed from.
She leaned over and kissed him gently, whereupon he shifted his legs and opened and closed his hands. She was tempted to pick him up and carry him to her bed, but she resisted, remembering Walter's admonition that such an action was to be avoided for the child's sake. It had something to do with building a healthy self-image, a solid foundation for later independence. Walter had been raised in a large family of fierce competitors. Her husband had been the youngest of seven overachievers. Walter was the best of the brood, and he'd achieved without seeming to try very hard, or allowing a drive to succeed to consume him in the way it had his siblings and parents.
Lucy went to her bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. When she turned off the water, she heard the sound of a floorboard or a ceiling beam creaking. The house, built in 1880, made plenty of odd noises as it settled, or from changes in the weather. She heard Elijah fussing, and wondered if she had wakened him after all. She would have to stand beside the crib and rub his back to get him back to sleep.
She left the bathroom and went through her bedroom into the hallway. The night-light seemed to have burned out again. She walked into Elijah's bedroom and looked down into the crib. To her shock, his crumpled blanket was there, but he wasn't. She heard him say "Momou" behind her and was wondering how he had climbed out of his bed, when she turned to see that her son was in the arms of a giant of a man who stood there in the doorway.
Lucy cried out in horror.
The huge man rushed from the room and Lucy raced after him.
"No!" she yelled out. "Stop! Give him back!"
She ran through the doorway. The man carrying her son was thundering down the stairs.
As Lucy passed the guest room there was a bang of the door hitting the wall as it was flung open, and a powerful arm grabbed her around the chest and constricted her lungs. She was aware of Elijah screaming downstairs and the fetid breath of her captor on her neck. She screamed, clawed, and writhed until a powerful hand holding a cold cloth covered her mouth and nose.
Within seconds, Lucy Dockery fell into a silent darkness.
From the Paperback edition.