David Kent builds suspense and paranoia to a fever pitch in this heart-pounding conspiracy thriller, his debut novel. Twist by electrifying twist, a secret government agenda comes to light -- and one man fights to survive.
About the Author
David Kent is the author of four Department Thirty thrillers. His acclaimed debut novel, Department Thirty, was also one of the bestselling eBooks of 2003; other novels in the series include The Mesa Conspiracy, The Black Jack Conspiracy, which won the 2006 Oklahoma Book Award for Fiction and The Triangle Conspiracy. He grew up in Madill, Oklahoma, and is a former press secretary and media adviser to several congressional candidates. Under his real name of Kent Anderson, he worked as a broadcaster for twenty-seven years, and is now in marketing with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra. He has three sons, and lives in Oklahoma City.
Visit his website: davidkentauthor.com.
Read an Excerpt
Ryan Elder knew something was wrong the minute he stepped off the plane and saw his mother standing in the terminal.
She hated anything to do with flying and avoided airports with a childlike fear. This was Ryan's third year away at college and she'd never once come to the airport to see him off, nor to pick him up. That task always fell to his father.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year, and people were elbowing their way quickly through Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport. Even the name of the airport made his mother nervous -- Ryan wished he had a dollar for every time she'd pointed out the folly in having an airport named after a man who'd died in a plane crash.
Ryan clutched his carry-on and folded his coat over his arm. Why is she here? he asked himself, then shrugged his way into the main corridor of the terminal.
"Tell me," he said.
"Tell you what?" his mother said, a little too quickly.
He looked down at her, nearly a foot shorter, with her fine, handsome Slavic face: the olive complexion, the still raven black hair, the cobalt eyes. Anna Elder was a tiny woman and her frame looked as insubstantial as melting snow, with the exception of her hands. Those hands, with their long tapering fingers and nails groomed with exceptional care. Ryan noticed the fingers of her left hand were manipulating the air at her side, as if searching for just the right notes on an imaginary violin.
But her eyes were everywhere -- on the terminal floor, the windows, the signs overhead. Everywhere but on Ryan.
"You two aren't very subtle," Ryan said. "Did someone die?"
"If someone died, don't you think we'd tell you?" Frank Elder said, taking Ryan's carry-on.
His father and he were the same height and build -- six-three and slender -- and had the same face, thirty-five years apart: smooth and symmetrical, ruled by a long, sharp nose. The hair and eyes were the same too, light brown on both counts. The only differences were the creases on Frank Elder's face and the fact that his brown hair was quickly surrendering to the gray, though Ryan had lately begun to discover a few gray threads of his own.
Frank clasped Ryan's shoulder for a moment -- a strange, uncharacteristic gesture -- as they moved through the airport. God, he looks old, Ryan thought.
"Well, you're not telling me a damn thing, so I don't know," Ryan said.
The eyes -- all over the place. Looking for something? Ryan wondered.
"Are you sure -- " he said.
Anna sighed. "A mother wants to see her son come into town." She shrugged, though it looked more to Ryan like she was trying to hunch into herself. "It's time I got over this silly thing with airports, yes?"
Her accent had thickened. Most of the time, little of her native Czech language could be heard in her voice -- only general American dialect, with a dollop of an Oklahoma drawl. But when she was worried or angry, the Czech asserted itself with a fury.
They threaded their way out the front door of the terminal into Oklahoma November: fifty degrees, gray skies, and wind, always the wind. When Ryan had left L.A. that morning, it had been sunny and twenty degrees warmer. He shivered and tugged down the sleeves of his UCLA sweatshirt.
"Aliens," Ryan said suddenly.
His parents both stopped and looked at him.
"Remember Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the aliens took over people's bodies but you couldn't tell just by looking at them? I'm thinking that's what's happened to you two."
"Ryan -- " Frank said.
"Or try this one -- it's something in the water. Some of those big hog farms up in the Panhandle dumped a bunch of sludge in the river and it came right downstream, got into the water supply, and presto! The Elders turn into two different people!"
Ryan grinned at them, then his face froze. Neither of them laughed. They didn't even smile.
Throughout the half-hour drive home, his parents sat as still and quiet as mourners at a funeral in an unfamiliar church. They didn't talk about Ryan's classes or his father's job or his mother's students. They watched street signs and listened to muted classical music on the car radio, until his father pulled the car into their unobtrusive subdivision on an unobtrusive street in the suburb of Edmond.
As they got out of the car, Ryan looked at his mother. She was ghostly pale, disconcerting on someone with her complexion.
"For God's sake, you two," he said. "Talk to me. This is crazy. First Mom shows up at the airport for the first time in recorded history and now no one will say anything. If you're trying to get my attention, you've certainly got it. Just tell me what's up."
His mother took his arm at the front door of the house. A gust of wind kicked up, swirling leaves at their feet. A bird called somewhere over the back fence. Ryan and Anna both looked toward the sound. They shared an extraordinary sense of hearing.
"Grackle," Ryan said.
"Just one," Anna said. "He's been around for a few days. But just the one."
Ryan shook his head. "Too weird. Have you started the goulash?" His mother's authentic Czech goulash was a Thanksgiving Eve tradition.
Anna waited, her head cocked as if she were waiting for the grackle to call again. "Can you believe it?" she said. "A single grackle in November."
Ryan turned toward her. Her eyes were focused up and away from him, as if he weren't there, as if she were seeing something other than gray autumn sky and the ordinary roof of their ordinary house. Frank, standing a few steps away, was statuelike.
Almost unconsciously, Ryan began digging at the cuticle of his left thumb with his index finger. The back of his neck started to feel hot.
These are not my parents, he thought with startling clarity.
"Mom? Mom, did you hear me? Are you -- "
"Anna," his father said, almost whispering.
Anna turned her head slowly, first to Frank, then to Ryan. "Goulash."
"Remember?" Ryan said.
Anna stared at him, empty-eyed. Ryan took her hand and squeezed.
"I wonder where that grackle went," his mother said, then untwined her hand from his.
"Mom -- "
Anna shook her head and blinked several times. When she looked at Ryan again, her eyes were more alive, some of the old animation coming back to her face. "Oh...the goulash. You know, you won't believe this, Ryan, but I ran out of paprika. Maybe you could run to the store and get some. Frank, give him some money. Take my car."
"What? But I -- "
Then his father was shoving a twenty-dollar bill at him, his father who was so tight fisted that he never carried cash. "I'll take your bag in," Frank said.
"Go on," Anna said. "If you want to help me make it when you get back, we'll get started."
"Okay." He took the coat from his father, still in a haze of confusion. "Maybe when I get back, we can start all over again and you can tell me what this is all about."
Frank flinched as if he'd been poked in the ribs with a sharp knife.
Ryan raised the garage door and unlocked his mother's car, a no-nonsense black Taurus, three years old. He climbed in and started the engine, then felt a tapping on the glass.
He rolled down the window and his mother leaned in. He caught her scent, soap and shampoo and the vaguest bit of the White Shoulders she always wore. It was the smell of her, ever since he was a small child. For a moment he was ten years old instead of twenty.
She leaned over him and whispered, "Remember these eyes."
"What?" Ryan said. "What are you talking about? Mom?"
His mother pulled slowly away from him. Ryan's head swiveled as if it were being pulled along a track. He met her eyes, so utterly deep and so blue, striking under the black hair. He held her gaze for a long, silent moment, until he knew she wasn't going to say anything else.
Ryan backed the car out of the garage and into the street.
He drove down Santa Fe Avenue to Danforth Road, wading through one-lane traffic. At Danforth, he turned left and passed what seemed like acres of construction equipment on both sides. Bulldozers, earth movers, cranes -- now all quiet, lined up like dinosaur carcasses. Orange and white markers closed off parts of the street. Mounds of brick-red Oklahoma earth rose phoenixlike from the ground. He'd never thought he would miss that red clay, but now that he'd been away from it, he found that he did.
Fifteen minutes later, standing in line with a tiny container of gourmet paprika in his hand, he heard a thump, then another, then another. Heads turned toward the door of the supermarket.
"Explosion," said the elderly man behind him. "That's what that was."
Ryan paid for the paprika, got his change, and ran to the parking lot. People were gathering into little groups, pointing west. Back toward Santa Fe Avenue, a mile away.
Tendrils of thick black smoke thundered into the gray sky, then were sucked into the clouds. He thought he saw flames. Sirens sounded from far away. Horns honked. He heard a single shout.
A slow, stinging burn started in Ryan's stomach. His hands began to shake. He dropped the car keys twice before getting his mother's car onto the road. He was halfway to Santa Fe when the traffic began to back up. Now he could see the flames, close to the road, the smoke drifting like a homeless person across the orange and white construction markers.
Traffic came to a standstill. He got out of the car, still clutching the white plastic grocery sack with the paprika. The driver of the pickup truck ahead of him was also standing in the road.
"What happened?" Ryan said.
The man pushed his Edmond Memorial H.S. cap back on his head. "Someone plowed into one of those bulldozers sitting there by the side of the road. Then, boom! Must have hit a gas tank."
Ryan began to run along Danforth. Six cars farther down, he began to feel the heat from the fire. Three more cars and he saw the police blockade, half a dozen officers in the street, two fire units, an ambulance.
"What happened?" he asked an officer.
"Get back to your car, young man," the officer said.
"But I -- "
"You'll be safer in your car. Go on, now."
Ryan shouldered past him.
"Hey!" the cop yelled.
Ryan broke into a run again. Now the fire was making him sweat. Gasoline filled the air, along with the smell of burning meat.
He slipped and fell into a puddle of water by the shoulder of the road. He could see it: the hulking remains of a car, its nose smashed into a bulldozer, the flames consuming both and spreading to the other construction equipment. Even the red mound of earth he'd noticed before was on fire.
Then, voices. A man's, high-pitched, excited:...and I came out of the 7-Eleven, and they'd pulled out, pointed northbound, then they sort of angled the car, and...and they never stopped. Just floored it, and..."
Ryan stepped closer. He recognized the voice. There! On the far side of the intersection, talking to a knot of police officers, was Dean Yorkton, his parents' nearest neighbor. He was some sort of an engineer, a pudgy, aging bachelor. Ryan remembered he had gadgets all around his house. Ryan moved closer. Yorkton was looking around wildly -- then his eyes found Ryan. He pointed. His hand went to his mouth.
The officers started toward Ryan. First at a walk, then a jog.
"No," Ryan said.
He heard Yorkton's voice, talking to someone else: "They never slowed down, took that bump and just plowed straight ahead. I'd just come out of the 7-Eleven. I just don't know...I talked to them both just this morning...."
The officers were nearly upon him. Thirty yards, twenty.
Ryan spun away, back toward the fire.
He ignored the voice and stepped back toward the flames.
"Wait a minute, son! Don't go there...."
He jogged around the side of the fire, until he was staring at the back of the car. A firefighter in full protective gear grabbed his arm. "Get back!" he shouted through his face mask.
Ryan wrenched his arm free, skittering around the other side. He felt his face blistering.
He heard Dean Yorkton's voice, farther away, but as clear to Ryan as if it had come through Bose stereo speakers:...just looked crazy, I tell you. Eerie, weird..."
Ryan chewed on his knuckles. The flames were working their way slowly toward the rear of the car. He blinked, his eyes stinging. He caught a flash of color: there, on the bumper, was the bright blue-and-yellow sticker, just beginning to melt: ASSOCIATED MUTUAL INSURANCE -- SERVICE AND INTEGRITY!
His father's company.
Ryan ran around the burning car until he was even with the passenger door. The footsteps behind him intensified, more in number and faster than before.
His hair felt singed. So did his mind. His heart thrummed in his ears.
He opened his eyes wide and finally saw the two charred husks in the front seats of Frank Elder's car.
Ryan screamed as the two firefighters and two police officers tackled him around the waist and began to drag him away from the fire. He screamed until he swallowed smoke and his lungs began to feel as though they too were on fire.
He barely noticed the oxygen mask when they slipped it over his face. He didn't hear their questions. He didn't notice Dean Yorkton putting his arm around him. He didn't even notice his friend Jeff Majors, also home from college for Thanksgiving, running toward him half an hour later.
He saw, smelled, tasted, felt nothing but the smoke. He finally leaned against the side of the ambulance, realizing his hand ached. He looked down and saw why. He was still clutching the grocery sack with the tiny container of paprika in it. Spice for a meal that would never happen.
Ryan put his head between his legs and vomited.
At the police station, his senses gave out one at a time, all except his hearing, that exquisite sense he'd inherited from his mother. He caught snippets of several conversations:
"...ruled as a suicide..."
"...no other living family..."
"...he can sleep at our house..."
"...waited until the boy came home from college to do it..."
"...such good people. You just never...."
There was a crush of people -- police, fire department investigators, his friend Jeff, Jeff's father, and Frank Elder's old friend and attorney Jack Coleridge, a man Ryan had known all his life. People touched his shoulder, people gave him Styrofoam cups of water, an EMT took his vital signs. Someone mumbled something about shock. "No shit," someone else mumbled.
An hour passed. Then two and three and four. He answered a few questions. Finally Jack Coleridge steered him outside. It was already dark, the air was cold, and the wind had decided to be brutal. Coleridge shook his hand and said in a shaky voice that he'd take care of everything.
Ryan was suddenly, acutely aware of two things: the fragrance of White Shoulders as his mother had leaned in the window of the Taurus back in the garage; and the words she'd whispered in his ear before he drove off to buy paprika. Remember these eyes, she'd said.
Then Jeff Majors was at his side, saying something about spending the night at his house. Ryan couldn't think anymore, and he let Jeff lead him through the cold wind toward his car.
Copyright © 2003 by Kent Anderson