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By Philip Donlay
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2015 Philip Donlay
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Donovan heard the helicopter long before he could see it; the sound echoing off the granite cliffs told him the chopper was coming low and fast. Probably the forest service. Several fires had been touched off by lightning a few days ago and aerial activity had picked up in the valley.
The morning sun has just peaked above the mountain tops in southwest Montana. Donovan was thigh deep in the cold water of the Bitterroot River, working his casts upstream toward an eddy and the big cutthroat trout he'd seen feeding on the surface. He made two false casts and then set the dry fly perfectly so as to drift naturally within striking range of the cutthroat. The fish inhaled the fly and Donovan set the hook and began stripping line to keep the tension. The fish powered downstream, using the current to take back the line that Donovan had fought to win. Forced to move downstream to stay with the fish, he maneuvered past a fallen log when the unmarked helicopter burst from behind the cottonwoods and made a tight turn overhead.
Donovan forgot about the fish, dropped his fly rod, and reached under his left arm for his holstered .40-caliber Sig Sauer. There was no need to jack a shell into the chamber. The gun was always ready. Slowed by his chest waders, Donovan ran up the path toward the cabin. He caught another glance of the helicopter through the treetops. Slowed to nearly a hover, Donovan was convinced they were landing in the clearing next to his cabin, effectively cutting him off from communications and the remainder of his arsenal. There was no cell phone reception this far up the West Fork river valley and, in a rare lapse, he'd left his satellite phone in its charger.
The whine from the helicopter's turbine engine eased back to idle, telling Donovan it was on the ground. From the size of the helicopter there wouldn't be more than five on board, including the pilot. The Sig held fourteen rounds. Donovan slowed his pace, his rubber-soled wading boots moving him silently toward the intruders. He watched as a solitary man stepped out of the helicopter, seemingly unafraid. He was tall and solid, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. His dark glasses made recognition impossible. Donovan guessed he was in his early thirties, both of his hands were empty, but he could easily be carrying a concealed pistol. In Montana, he would be the exception if he wasn't. The pilot sat behind the controls and made no move to exit the machine as the engine idled.
"Mr. Nash!" The man called out in the direction of the river. "We saw you as we flew over. I'm a friend of your wife, Dr. Lauren McKenna. She sent me to find you. It's urgent we talk."
Donovan surveyed the scene, two men against his fourteen rounds. He'd spent months practicing with the Sig, and was confident that if the interlopers caused any problems, the advantage was his. He lowered the Sig to his side and walked into the clearing. For Lauren to enlist someone to track him down from his self-imposed exile was more than worrisome.
"Who are you?" Donovan called out as he neared, mindful of the spinning rotor blades.
"I'm Special Agent Gregory Charles, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I understand my intrusion, but please holster your weapon."
"As soon as I see some ID," Donovan said, as he closed the distance between them while holding a position that allowed him to keep an eye on both men.
Agent Charles slowly reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out his FBI credentials. He handed them to Donovan. "Dr. McKenna told me to expect this kind of greeting. I know what you've been through and, actually, I don't blame you, but we're losing valuable time. Can I brief you in the air?"
Donovan handed Agent Charles his ID and slid the Sig back into its holster. "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what this is about. Start by telling me how you know my wife."
"I once did liaison work with the Defense Intelligence Agency. I met Lauren while working with her department on some classified matters. Since then, she's needed a few favors from inside the Bureau, as you both have. This is another of those favors."
"What's her boss' name?"
"Deputy Director Calvin Reynolds."
"Okay, why are you here?" Donovan felt his mistrust of the man diminish. He at least knew the right names.
"First of all, I need you to understand I'm not here in any official capacity. Today's my day off. Lauren called me early this morning. She said she'd chartered a helicopter and asked me to come get you."
"How did you know where to find me?" Donovan couldn't drop his suspicions. In the last year he'd almost been killed by a terrorist, and most recently, an enemy from his past had nearly destroyed everything Donovan held dear. People he cared about had died. That's why he was out here in the wilderness of Montana—he'd needed some perspective.
"Three months ago she alerted me to the fact that you'd rented this place. As a favor, she asked me to keep a general watch on the activity down here in the valley."
"Sounds like her," Donovan replied, not knowing whether to be touched by the gesture or pissed off that she was having him watched. "Now, what does my estranged wife think is so important that she's sent you out here to get me?"
"A Stephanie VanGelder is in Guatemala on a photo shoot. She's missing. It's a suspected kidnapping."
The words sent a sick icy chill straight to the pit of Donovan's stomach. He resisted the urge to lean over and put his hands on his knees for support. Stephanie was one of Donovan's closest friends—she was like family, a younger sister—they'd practically grown up together. She was the niece of William VanGelder, the man who Donovan thought of as his father.
"What can I do to help?" Agent Charles asked. "Do you need assistance to close up the house? We're flying from here to Missoula. A chartered jet will be waiting to take you to Washington. Your wife has made all the arrangements. She told me to tell you William needs you, but that he doesn't know you're coming."
"Give me five minutes to grab a few things and we'll be out of here," Donovan said as he turned and ran for the house. The moment he was inside, he shed his fishing vest followed by his waders. He ran to his bedroom, slipped on a pair of khakis, a clean shirt, a pair of loafers, grabbed the go-bag he kept packed for emergencies and tossed it on the bed. He slid in the framed picture of his daughter Abigail he kept on his nightstand, his Sig, and two extra clips of ammo. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and stopped. He was lean and hard from a summer of chopping wood, hiking and fishing the Bitterroot Mountains. He was toned and strengthened, and in better shape now than he was at thirty. His full beard was peppered with gray, as was his hair that easily fell past his ears, a by-product of cutting himself off from civilization. A few weeks earlier he'd turned fifty, but the reflection was that of a younger man. He'd shave and get a haircut when he could. He made a mental note to call the real estate agent and have her come and close up the house. He zipped the leather bag, snatched his briefcase, wallet, phone, and keys, then ran for the helicopter.
When the pilot spotted him, the turbine engine immediately began to spool toward full power. The moment the door was closed and he was strapped in his seat, the helicopter lifted off, pivoted smartly, and began to accelerate down the valley.
Donovan wore a headset against the noise of the helicopter. He stared at the shadow of the helicopter as it raced across the trees, rivers, and hay fields of Southwestern Montana. Lost in the maelstrom of his thoughts, he inevitably spun back in time to when he'd last seen Stephanie. It had been a little over three months ago. They'd been together in the San Juan Islands in Washington state. He'd been there to pay his final respects to a friend, and Stephanie had shown up unannounced and helped him through a difficult time. She ended up staying with him a week. She'd traveled with him to Montana and helped him set up the leased cabin. They'd talked at length about death and transition, his separation from Lauren and the state of his marriage. They also spent hours discussing her return to professional photography. He'd urged her to pick up her camera again, and to get back out in the world. She was a brilliant artist. A decade ago, her photo reporting from Africa, chronicling child soldiers, had put her in the running for a Pulitzer. The fact that she'd been shooting pictures in Guatemala made him feel even worse, as if his nudging had led to her disappearance.
He couldn't imagine what his longtime friend William must be going through. Stephanie was all that was left of his family and the two were close. He doted on her, as would any uncle.
Donovan thought back to when he first met Stephanie. They were just kids, brought together because his family was close to her Uncle William. She grew up in London, but spent almost all of her summers with William—Donovan remembered her natural grace and athleticism were trumped only by her keen artistic talents. From the time she was ten, she always carried a camera that her Uncle William had bought for her, taking pictures of everything except other people. Her habit of waving him out of her field of view was maddening, and he could remember trying to peek into her shots, only to receive a verbal tongue lashing. In the end, what Donovan most liked about Stephanie was that she could mix and float in and out of any different social setting. A proper upper-crust debutant one moment; the next, yelling and cursing at him they chased each other through the trees and meadows on his family's country estate in Northern Virginia.
When he was fourteen, Donovan had lost his parents at sea. He'd been the only survivor as their private yacht, caught in a storm, began to break up and take on water. It had been William who'd flown halfway around the world to be at his side after he'd been thought lost, and, not long after that, Stephanie had made it clear that she was there for him as well. In those dark days, she once described to him that she felt like they were cousins, and then later revised her position and pronounced that they were more like brother and sister. She was one of the few bright spots in a very difficult time in his life. Donovan loved her and would do anything for her.
She'd been instrumental in getting him to talk about the loss of his parents. William tried, as did many others, but it was Stephanie who got through to him, helped him honor his grief, yet keep pushing forward. Two years later, her own family was killed in an automobile accident on the M4 outside London. It was July, and Stephanie had been with him and William in Virginia when they received the news. The three of them boarded the Concorde, and Donovan remembered the depths of her sorrow and loss as they flew to England faster than the speed of sound.
They each had seen how quickly the universe could snuff out the life of a loved one, and the specter of that violence created an even tighter bond. As time had passed, the one element they always had in common was the fact that they were both identically wounded.
Donovan noticed the change in the sound and speed of the helicopter. Missoula airport was straight ahead. After Donovan said his good-bye to Agent Charles, he walked across the ramp toward what looked to be a brand new Falcon 900, the airplane that would have him in Northern Virginia in three hours.
He settled into his seat and his thoughts drifted not to Stephanie, but to Meredith Barnes. A woman he'd loved and lost twenty years ago in Costa Rica. Instead of suppressing the inevitable memories of Meredith, he allowed his guilt, anguish, and rage to wash over him. It was a volatile mixture that threatened to undo him, but it also provided an almost divine focus and clarity of purpose. Meredith was dead and Stephanie was alive. Despite what William, or Lauren, or anyone else thought of his current emotional state—Donovan promised himself that nothing on earth was going to stop him from going to Guatemala. Regardless of the cost, he'd do everything in his power to save her. The clock was ticking, and rescuing Stephanie became as important as if he were trying to save his own life. He'd do whatever it took—even if he died trying.CHAPTER 2
Donovan deplaned in front of the Eco-Watch hangar at Washington Dulles International Airport. He'd spent his time on the chartered flight on the computer, pulling up everything he could find about Guatemala. He'd found it odd that Stephanie's disappearance wasn't mentioned in the news. He'd debated calling Lauren, announce his arrival, but since she was the one who set it up, she knew damn well when he'd land. He decided to wait and talk with her in person.
He let himself into the hangar. On Sunday, no one would be around, which suited Donovan. The hangar was home to Eco-Watch's two highly modified Gulfstream jets. The Spirit of da Vinci was out of the country on a research mission in Africa, and the Spirit of Galileo was flight-testing a new instrumentation platform in California. Donovan operated under the title of Director of Flight Operations for Eco-Watch. Very few people knew that he'd not only founded the company, but that his hidden fortune also funded parts of the private research organization. Besides the two Gulfstream jets, Eco-Watch operated two ocean-going research ships, and the keel had been laid for a third. One was based in Hawaii and served the Pacific Ocean arena; the other called Norfolk, Virginia, its home port and sailed the Atlantic. Both the Eco-Watch Aviation and the Eco-Watch Marine divisions were booked months and sometimes years in advance.
Donovan walked into his office and found it exactly as he'd left it all those months ago. Michael had taken over the day-to-day operations, and all that waited on Donovan's desk were several pieces of personal correspondence. He turned to go, but hesitated at the sight of a picture taken the day Eco-Watch had begun. Twelve years earlier, he and Michael had arrived on the ramp outside with the very first Eco-Watch Gulfstream. Standing in front of the jet was the first handful of employees, but the person truly responsible—was missing. Donovan's thoughts once again spun back in time to Meredith Barnes, the woman he couldn't ever seem to bury.
It seemed a lifetime ago they'd met, but in ways it felt like yesterday. In all that time she'd remained the same—the dead earn that privilege. She was still twenty-eight years old, an intelligent, fiery redhead with emerald green eyes and freckles. A brilliant woman who'd changed the world. First, by her environmentalist themed bestseller, One Earth, then, by her wildly popular television show and string of documentaries about saving this one planet we live on—Our One Earth. She became larger than her accomplishments. She became the face of an exploding environmental movement. Part celebrity, part television star, part global emissary, Meredith flew into the face of any and all opposition to accomplish her goals. Her followers, fueled by a media that loved her, ensured that her message was received by nearly everyone on the planet.
Robert Huntington at the time was a rich, brash young man who'd been elevated to CEO of his family's oil company. He was smart and driven, a shrewd businessman, as was his late father. Robert was also smart enough to surround himself with the best and brightest men in the business. He was a playboy, a high visibility partier in Hollywood. It wasn't unusual for his picture to be on the cover of a business magazine the same week he was on the cover of the gossip tabloids. He always seemed to have yet another beautiful A-list actress on his arm, while his wheeling and dealing propelled Huntington Oil into a major powerhouse in the global energy business.
When Robert Huntington met Meredith Barnes, sparks flew. She very publicly tore up a three million dollar check he'd written toward her environmental causes and threw the pieces in his face. The media went wild, and Robert Huntington felt as if he'd met his match.
Their relationship progressed slowly and steadily, until they both acknowledged their feelings for one another on a romantic night in New Orleans. Robert had been at a conference dealing with offshore oil platform safety reforms. Despite heavy opposition to his costly recommendations, Robert had promised that Huntington Oil would proceed without a consensus to help create a zero-tolerance attitude toward any type of oil spill.
Excerpted from Aftershock by Philip Donlay. Copyright © 2015 Philip Donlay. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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