Hey, boys and girls. This is the the long chapter I promised you, the last of my five chapters in five nights. From here on out the heat is on for Doug and Annie as they race toward the final confrontation with the Collector and the startling conclusion to Soul Thief.
Merry Christmas. I hope you all have a great holiday season.
Doug was dreaming of his mother. Since her death he had dreamed of her often, so he was not surprised that he was dreaming of her now. What did surprise him was the nature of the dream. She was standing on the front porch of their new house—a house he had never seen let alone lived in, but in the years following his parent’s death had conjured its splendid image so many times that it had become real in his heart—and she was calling to him as he rode away on his bicycle.
“Doug,” she called, “You didn’t forget to put the object around your neck, did you? Remember, it will help to protect you, keep you safe.”
Her words nearly jolted Doug from his sleep, for it was in that instant, after three weeks in a coma and nearly another two weeks of recovery which had included hours of conversation with Lucy Ferguson and other staff members, that he finally remembered the object. Why had he not remembered it sooner? Better still, why hadn’t Lucy or another staff member mentioned it? Perhaps because it was gone before Lucy had found him shot on the restroom floor. No, impossible. It was in his jacket pocket wrapped in a soft piece of flannel cloth. Maybe they had found it and assumed it was nothing and simply discarded it. Or perhaps it was in a drawer or cupboard with his wallet, or maybe it was still in his jacket pocket and the jacket was hanging in a closet somewhere. But the jacket would have been bloody from his gunshot wounds and they might have thrown it away. The thought caused panic to rise in Doug’s sleeping heart.
But Doug wasn’t just remembering the object. Suddenly he was remembering everything; the dying man who’d given it to him and the incident surrounding it. The Brotherhood of the Order. That’s the organization he’d said he belonged to. It was the same organization that Lucy claimed to work for. Nearly two weeks of conversation with her and she hadn’t let him in on the joke. There was something terribly wrong here.
“Doug, wake up. You must hurry.” It was his mother again and she sounded frightened, her voice filled with urgency.
He suddenly realized he was awake. But now he could hear other sounds, a chorus of strident voices. He opened his eyes and stared. It was nighttime. There was no question about that. There were no lights on in his room, only the open door where from beyond dim illumination spilled in. He heard a muffled scream—a woman’s scream—and what sounded like a tray of instruments falling over. He looked around him at all the tubes and monitors, wondering if he could survive without them. His question was answered as moot at the sound of a determined male voice demanding, “What room?” There was no doubt that its intent was menacing. Doug rolled over, the movement ripping the IV needle from his left arm. The explosion of pain in his chest was excruciating. He nearly screamed. He pulled tape and needle from his right arm and sat up, throwing his legs over the side of the bed. They felt like two chunks of dead cordwood. The room began to spin wildly. He tried to ignore the sensation, grasping the edge of the mattress firmly with both hands, easing himself to his feet, forcing himself to breathe evenly. His weak legs trembled beneath him and he wondered if he was able to take even a single step. Another strident voice followed by a scream of agony spurred him into nearly impossible action. He took one, then two steps. In the dim light spilling in from the corridor he spied a wheelchair against the wall behind the door. He took three more shaky steps, turned and fell into it. Footsteps pounded in the corridor, and he heard two male voices. Using the strength in his arms, he wheeled back to the bed, hastily pulled the covers down, inserted the pillows and re-covered the bed, making it look vaguely like a person might be lying beneath the covers. He ripped a needle from one of the tubes and quickly wheeled back behind the open door, fisting the needle as one would a knife.
A shadow fell across the threshold, then a second. He raised the hand that held the needle, keenly aware of his chances of survival if these intruders meant him harm. The shadows were unmoving for a long moment. Doug froze, barely breathing. His heart pounded madly in his chest. He wondered if the intruders would hear it. His upper body was wrapped tightly in bandages and he could feel the vague mutterings of pain as the drugs from the feed bags began to wear off.
One of the intruders stepped silently into the room. From Doug’s vantage behind the door he could see the man’s back. He wore a trench coat and a pair of black shoes. His hair was short and gray, neatly trimmed around the ears. Doug knew the look. He’d seen guys like these before. These were some sort of government guys, federal agents; no doubt about that. The phrase ‘Men in black’ rose in his consciousness. Making the connection jolted him like an electric shock. Jesus, he thought. Is it true? Could the government somehow be involved in all this? What the fuck is going on? He held the needle high, ready to plunge it into the man’s back if necessary. A fine film of sweat covered him. He tried not to breathe, but the pain was worsening and he was weakening. His heart hammered in his ears.
The man raised his right arm. In it he held a gun with an attached silencer sleeve. It was aimed at Doug’s bed.
“What are you doing?” The second man—the one who’d remained in the corridor—the one Doug hadn’t yet seen—said in an urgent whisper.
“The boss man said to kill him only if necessary. He wants him alive.”
“I know what he said.” The man promptly pulled the gun’s trigger three times in quick succession. The gunshots, although silenced, seemed loud in the closed space of the room. Three small black holes appeared in the bed sheet. Doug stopped breathing.
“Are you crazy, Rusty? They’ll have us crucified for this.”
The man named Rusty took three quick steps toward the bed, reached down and ripped the sheet off. Doug held the needle high, his legs tensed; he was ready to spring from the chair.
Close by came the cacophonous wailing of approaching sirens.
Rusty gave a sinister laugh. “See,” he said, pointing at the bed. “He’s been moved. They knew we were coming. God knows where the artifact is.”
“Our orders were to find that artifact and to take McArthur alive,” the man in the hall said.
Rusty rifled quickly through the drawers of the stand next to the bed. “It’s not here,” he said, “and neither is McArthur. The woman must have it.”
“That’s what the boss man was afraid of,” the second man said. “Somebody tipped her off and she got McArthur out of here.”
The building’s fire alarm went off with ear-piercing dissonance only adding to the cacophonic din of the approaching emergency vehicles.
“We’re too late, the second man said. “They can’t find us here. Come on, let’s move.”
Rusty turned and stopped abruptly, looking directly at Doug. Some instinct that Doug was totally unaware of until that moment caused something in his mind to bear down with painful pressure. He stared the man directly in the eyes, unblinking until something gave way in his brain and a constellation of exploding stars exploded across his vision. The pain was blinding. Rusty’s face went suddenly slack.
“What the hell are you waiting for?” the second man said. “Let’s go!”
Rusty did not answer. He walked briskly past Doug, through the door and out of the room. Doug fell back into the chair, his head nearly splitting with intense agony, his body trembling. Finally he began to breathe again. He heard running footsteps retreating into the distance. When he thought it was safe he wheeled himself around the door and out into the corridor. He felt wetness on his mouth and realized that his nose was bleeding. He wiped the blood off with the sleeve of his night shirt, looking up and then down the corridor. The coast seemed to be clear. There was a nurse’s station not far to his left so he wheeled toward it. Behind the counter he found Donna Sanchez lying on the floor in amongst a spilled tray of instruments. There was a small hole in one side of her head and a large exit wound in the other. The wall behind where she’d been standing was painted with sprays of blood.
“Bastards!” Doug said, nearly exploding with rage. He wheeled toward a medicine cabinet on the far wall, ripped it open and rifled through it until he found what he was looking for; several hermetically-sealed syringes and a bottle of morphine. He put the stuff in his lap and wheeled back around the counter toward the elevator. The fire alarm stopped abruptly, leaving a vacuum inside the hospital corridor that was at once claustrophobic and eerie. The approaching sirens were warbling louder now, approaching with swiftness and Doug realized that he had to get away before they found him. He wasn’t safe anywhere, even in the hands of the supposed good guys.
He stopped in front of the elevator door, seeing that he was on the fourth floor. The elevator was moving up toward him. Doug knew now that he could not trust anyone. The men who had been sent to capture him were almost certainly agents of the United States government, and they would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. They’d killed that woman in cold blood. He knew that if local authorities found him they would turn him over to them. He was, after all, supposed to be dead, the victim of a horrendous plane crash, a suspect in the disaster. If he were found alive he would be detained, questioned, imprisoned. All of the above and probably more. It would be only a matter of time before someone else made an attempt on his life, and how many lives did he have? There was some sort of conspiracy afoot that he had no understanding of. He must find out what it was, and the only way of doing so was to be free. He wheeled frantically toward the stairwell and blasted through the exit door. He listened for footsteps, but above the wailing of the sirens he could hear nothing. Tucking the syringes and the morphine in the pocket of his night shirt he eased himself out of the chair. His legs felt stronger now but he suspected he was running on adrenaline, and his strength would probably be short-lived. He tried not to think about what awesome power had caused that man to look directly at him and not know he was there. He remembered clearly what the man in the corridor had said just before he’d looked at the man in his room: Our orders were to find that artifact at all costs. Doug reached his hand up to his neck feeling for an object that wasn’t there. Of course it’s not there. You were shot. You’ve been in a coma for six weeks. It was in your jacket pocket instead of around your neck where it should have been? He remembered the dream of his mother and realized that it had most probably saved his life, and how the memories had come rushing back on him like a tidal wave leaving him breathless and giddy in their wake. He remembered everything now: the dying man that had passed him the object and the words he had spoken. Now the artifact was gone. Dear God, it was lost, maybe forever. It had been entrusted to him and he’d screwed up and lost it. He looked back toward the room, knowing he could not risk going back up that corridor. He felt terrible. But how the government knew about it, and what they wanted with it, he could not even venture a guess? Had those men actually been agents of the U.S. Government, or something else entirely? Who was the person they had referred to as the ‘Boss Man’? He suddenly realized that there were way too many questions and not nearly enough answers, and asking them now was only succeeding in hurting his brain, and probably putting his life in further jeopardy. As his predicament came into sharp focus, panic began to seize him. He stifled it, knowing that survival depended on him keeping a rational face on his situation. He knew that there was no time to ponder any of this now. He had to get out of the hospital if he expected to survive.
Holding onto the metal banister he eased himself down the lighted stairwell on shaky legs. The outside walls appeared to be made of tinted glass and beyond there was nothing but darkness. He wondered if they were out there watching his careful descent, ready to grab him as soon as he stepped through the door. But he couldn’t think about that. He had to move. After he had descended three floors he began to wonder why he had not encountered another living soul. At the bottom he had two choices. He could turn left and go into the hospital’s ground floor, or he could turn right and leave by the exit door. If he left the hospital where would he go? He had no idea where Whitehall Virginia was. He had no money, no clothes and he was still badly injured. Nevertheless, the choice was a simple one: freedom. He pushed out through the exit door and found himself on a walkway bordered closely by blossoming Rhododendrons. He was obviously at a back entrance because there was no activity out here and the distant parking lot appeared empty. The night was dark. There was no moon, and the stars were brilliantly-cut diamonds set against the black curtain of a sky. He estimated the temperature to be somewhere around 40 degrees. It was still spring and even in Virginia the night air felt chilled. He was wet from sweat, shivering madly and his ass was hanging out of the night shirt. He realized that he had to find clothing and shelter soon or he would die of hypothermia.
It appeared that Donna Sanchez, the now dead nurse, had been telling the truth when she’d told him he was at a university hospital for he could see campus-like buildings in the distance. The hour was probably late for there were few lights in the windows. Some of these buildings he knew would be dormitories, sorority and frat houses. Perhaps he could find clothing or shelter among them. He reached the end of the walkway and set off across a deserted parking area on shaky legs. But he soon had to stop. The pain inside him was now excruciating. He took one of the syringes from his pocket and removed the sterile package that encased it. From his other pocket he extracted the vial of morphine, inserted the needle into the nipple and pulled back several CCs of the pain-killing drug. Too late he saw headlights approaching at speed. He knew that he had been spotted and there was no time to escape. He simply wasn’t strong enough. Tucking the partially-filled syringe and the vial back into his pocket he hobbled toward a line of trees that bordered the lot. The car came straight at him. He put his arm up to shield his eyes from the bright headlights, knowing that if the vehicle’s driver meant him harm, he did not have the strength to jump out of the way.
The car swerved suddenly and came to a skidding halt beside him. The passenger-side door flew open and in the dome light’s glow he saw Dr. Vogel sitting behind the wheel.
“Get in,” Vogel said. “Hurry! We don’t have much time.”
Doug fell into the seat beside the doctor and the car sped away.
“What the hell’s going on?” Doug said, breathing arduously.
“They know you’re alive.”
Vogel said nothing.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Where?” Doug insisted, suddenly not trusting Vogel. Hell, he was through trusting anybody. Vogel sat staring straight ahead, sweat beading his brow. They turned onto a nearly deserted four lane and sped off. When the car passed the sign that said Langley, Doug said, “Let me out!”
“Afraid I can’t do that.”
“I said let me out!”
“I have my orders.”
“Orders? You son of a bitch!”
“If you think you can get away, you’re crazy. If you think you can beat them you’re even crazier. They’ve threatened my family. I have to do this, you know. They always win. That’s just the way things are.”
“Who are they?”
Vogel frowned. “Your guess is as good as mine. Jesus. I just do what I’m told.”
“What do they want?”
Vogel emitted a short laugh that sounded more like a wretch of agony. “Christ, I don’t know. Maybe you have something they want.”
“Something powerful. A new kind of weapon. They want to control it. If they can’t do that, you’re dead. It’s either one way or the other with them. No room for negotiation.”
“Are you talking about the artifact?”
Vogel frowned. “Artifact? I know nothing about an artifact.”
“What weapon then?”
Vogel gave Doug a sidelong glance. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I swear, I don’t know about any weapon.”
“What about all that stuff you’re capable of seeing, of doing?”
Doug nearly laughed. “Oh, Christ, that? Why now? They’ve known about me for years and I’ve never been bothered. “What’s changed?”
“This is just a guess, but it’s probably because they never had a plausible reason to touch you before. Hard working upstanding citizen. Now you’re a terrorist. You brought down an airliner. They can do anything they want with you and with the homeland security laws the way they are, well, they don’t even have to let you talk to a lawyer.”
“But I’m not a terrorist,” Doug said. “I didn’t bring down that plane.”
“You’re barking up the wrong tree. I don’t care.”
“Jesus Christ.” Doug put his head back against the seat-rest breathing laboriously. He was finally beginning to understand some things. Vogel was probably dead on. He had the power to see things. With his sight he had the power to perhaps alter some aspects of the future. If a person knew something bad was going to happen then that person could perhaps prevent it, or at least be prepared for it. That was real power, a power he’d never considered using. But they had, oh yes indeed they most certainly had. They wanted to use him. They’d been looking for an excuse to get their hands on him since he was a child. They wanted to stick needles in him, put electrodes on his head, try and enhance his ability for their own ends. But worse they wanted to prevent him from threatening the status quo by using it himself or sharing it with other factions. Now they had a tangible reason to hold him for as long as they wished. Had it been De Roché who’d brought down that plane or had it been someone else? Doug shivered at the thought. He was now starting to have serious doubts about everything.
Another terrible thought struck Doug. They knew about his unborn child. There was no doubt about that. Everybody knew about it. Perhaps that’s what they really wanted. What if he had passed his ability on to his child through genetics? Ability, hell, your affliction isn’t an ability, it’s more like a curse, this little voice spoke up inside his head. But in the final analysis what did it matter? The reality of it was, the power inside the child, given the circumstances of its heritage, could be ten times what Doug’s was. If they took it from birth then they could train it to be loyal, do things their way. Breed more of them. But he knew they’d have to get to De Roché first and Doug began to seriously wonder if De Roché had the resources to adequately protect Annie and the child. Then a terrible thought struck him. He knew De Roché wanted the child. What if De Roché was in cahoots with them? What if he had been from the beginning? What if Annie was expendable? Was De Roché capable of wasting his own daughter? The answer to that question chilled Doug to the marrow.
“You will never be allowed to wield the power on your own,” Vogel said. “Trust me.”
“But I don’t want to wield anything! I wouldn’t even know how. I just want to be left alone, lead a normal life.”
“Never going to happen,” Vogel said. “They’ll bury you. They’ll always be afraid you might sell to the highest bidder. Wake up. They have no scruples and they don’t believe anybody else does either. You know how governments work.”
“But all I’m capable of seeing are tragedies.”
“You can see the future, my man. What government wouldn’t want to control that kind of power?”
“But I can’t even control it. It comes unbidden, at the most inopportune moments. And it has something to do with a creature I don’t even know is real.”
“They’ll figure it out. Don’t worry. They have ways. Drugs, hypnosis . . . torture.” He said the last word in a way that nearly froze Doug’s blood in his veins. “And besides,” Vogel continued, “you’re still barking up the wrong tree. It’s not my problem. All I have to do is deliver you and they’ll leave me and my family alone.”
“You’re a fool if you believe that, Vogel.”
A cloud of doubt crossed the doctor’s face. Doug saw it clearly before it vanished. Vogel was in too deep to turn back now. Doug could see it, plain as day. He was a dead man, and somewhere deep down he knew it. He was just going through the motions, hoping to buy a little more time before the axe fell. They were probably holding his family hostage right now. His world as a doctor, healer of men had always been a tidy and rational one. The world of corrupt governments and the power junkies who ran the machinery of those governments was as alien to Vogel as living underwater. His association with such men had come by chance. Now he was desperate. Now he was a man underwater.
“I can’t let you take me to them,” Doug said.
“I don’t think you have a choice. You’ve not fully recovered and you’re no match for this.”
Doug looked down. Vogel held a pistol and it was pointed in his direction.
“What about Lucy?” Doug asked.
“What about her?”
“Was it all a lie?”
Vogel frowned, shaking his head. “I imagine she’ll be dead by morning, probably already is, in fact.”
“But why? Jesus Christ!”
“She’s an idealist. She thinks that religious organization she works for—The Brotherhood of the Order, or whatever the hell she calls it—is going to save the world. She believes it’s such a carefully guarded secret.” Vogel laughed. “The government’s been onto them for years. Wire taps, GPS satellite feeds, the whole nine yards. You think they’re going to let a resource like that go unchecked?”
“But she told me she was confident of their security.”
“Get real, man,” Vogel said letting go of the pistol and dropping it clumsily into his lap. “This is a post-911 world. There are no secrets. There is no security.” Although he was sweating profusely Vogel seemed overly confident of Doug’s inability to act. He swung the wheel hard right and turned onto a paved lane that was bordered closely on both sides by woods. There were no signs marking the lane. Doug didn’t know the lay of the land here. He had no idea how far they actually were from CIA headquarters or even if that’s where Vogel was taking him. In any event, it was time to get off the pot. In his lap he carefully held the vial of morphine he’d begun filling just before Vogel had picked him up. He pulled back the syringe’s plunger with his left hand while holding the syringe firmly with his right, filling the reservoir with what he hoped would be an overdose of the powerful drug. The hand holding the syringe came out of the pocket of the Johnny, and before Vogel could react, Doug had plunged the needle into the side of the man’s neck and depressed the plunger. Vogel screamed like a girl and let go of the wheel. The car skidded wildly and went off the right side of the lane careening toward a row of small trees. Doug snatched the pistol from Vogel’s lap. Vogel was busy scratching at his neck trying to pull the needle free, screaming wildly, his eyes bulging madly. With one hand, Doug grabbed the wheel and spun it back onto the lane. With the other he took the pistol and held it to Vogel’s head. “Pull over,” he said, but it was clearly too late; Vogel had slumped forward onto the wheel, unconscious or dead. Doug did not know which. It didn’t matter. The doctor was toast anyway. Doug reached over and turned off the ignition, holding the wheel straight as the car coasted to a stop.
The pain was screaming inside Doug now, but he had to ignore it. There wasn’t time for distractions like pain. He got out and went around to the driver’s side, pushed Vogel’s limp body to the passenger side and got behind the wheel. He was shaking wildly as he put the car in reverse and swung around. When he got back to the main highway he turned right and drove for several miles until he spotted a pullover. The place was deserted. Beyond the pullover there was a tote road leading into a stand of tall pine trees. There were picnic tables and hibachis set up along the way. Doug drove in about a hundred yards, shut the engine and the lights off. The world was silent. The clock on the dash showed the time as 3:00 AM. He sat behind the wheel trying to catch his breath. With shaky hands he drew three and a half CC’s of morphine into another syringe and gave himself a shot in an arm vein. The relief was nearly immediate. Once he had stopped shaking, he got out and limped around to the passenger side, opened the door and began undressing Vogel. The man was a little heavier than Doug and the clothes were loose-fitting, but he thought they’d do until he could find something better. Once dressed he put the night shirt on Vogel and eased him out of the car, leaning him against a tree. He’d gotten quite a dose of morphine but the man was still breathing and Doug thought he’d probably be all right once it wore off. That’s when the poor bastard would wish he was dead.
After that was done, by the light of the dash, Doug went through Vogel’s pockets. He found a wallet with about seventy dollars in cash and several credit cards. This would be enough to get him far away from here. He started the car and backed out of the parking area, quite aware of the fact that every cop in the land would be looking for the vehicle. As he sped south on Virginia interstate 70, Vogel’s gun on the seat beside him, he was already formulating a plan to ditch the car and find another means of transportation.