The sound of a ringtone nearly jumped Doug out of his seat. He had been totally unaware that there was a cell phone in the car until that very moment. He searched around and found it beneath the seat, tried to see who was calling but the numbers were blurred. Doug realized that he was weaving on the road. He was in no condition to drive and figured it would be only a matter of time before a cop spotted him. Behind him headlights approached, a horn blared and the car pulled around him, the driver shaking his fist in the air.
Doug’s numb fingers groped the telephone, searching for the talk button. He pressed it and put the phone to his ear.
“Vogel!” barked an angry female voice. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Lucy?” Doug said.
“Who is this?”
“Oh my God, Doug. What happened? Are you all right?”
“They came after me. I had to run.”
“Those bastards!” Lucy exclaimed. “Doug, I have to find you before they do.”
“I’m on some highway near—”
“Don’t say it!” Lucy cautioned. “They’re probably listening.”
“Are you safe?”
“I don’t know. They know we’re both alive. That can’t be good. I’m on the move. I need to find a way to reach you without giving away either of our locations, but we’ve got to figure out something soon. They’ve got global positioning devices and god-knows-what-else. I’m sure they’re trying to track us as we speak.”
“Tell me what to do.”
“Jesus, I don’t know. Listen, how bad are you. Can you continue much longer?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I injected myself with morphine and it’s making my head fuzzy.” Doug looked down and saw blood leaking through the front of his shirt. “One of the wounds is open. My vision is blurred.”
“Shit,” Lucy said, “let me see, let me see.”
“How familiar are you with this area?” Doug said, desperately grasping at straws.
“Very, but I told you, they’re listening.”
“I don’t care. I am going to die if I don’t get help. You’re my only hope.” He was now coming onto a section of highway with a reduced speed limit. Either side was littered with strip malls and convenience stores, most of them closed. Doug was looking from side to side as he drove trying to locate some kind of landmark that Lucy might know but might take the others longer to figure out. There was the usual array of fast food restaurants, MacDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, but nothing that stood out as unique. Then suddenly he saw it. He slammed on his brakes and turned the wheel hard right, pulling into a nightclub parking lot that was closed and deserted.
“You remember on that first day in the hospital when you came to see me, you told me about your organization and how they lived and worked?”
“Yeah, but . . .”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
“Okay,” Lucy said suddenly. “Yes, I do remember.”
“Don’t say it,” Doug cautioned, hoping against hope that Lucy was familiar with the place he had found. “I’m there right now.”
“Oh, God, yes, I know,” Lucy said suddenly. “I’m less than ten minutes from where you are. How will I find you?”
“Just come. I’ll find you.”
Doug looked up at the black-painted marquis above the nightclub’s front entrance. In big, bold gold letters it said, SHADOWS. He pulled the car around to the back parking lot, which bordered onto some woods, got out of the car and waited.
In an office somewhere deep in an underground bunker, technicians were busy running programs on several sophisticated high-speed computers. The computers had taken the phrase, “live and work,” the words that had been overheard in Doug’s and Lucy’s conversation, and were running series after series of possibilities. So far nothing concrete had come up. The small, but powerful-looking man with the close-cropped blond hair, pacing, watching the monitors carefully, was offering other possible pieces of the puzzle.
“We live and work,” he said, and as soon as it was out of his mouth a technician would punch in the extra word. “I live and work. We live and work at. He said, how, didn’t he?”
“Yes, sir,” one of the techs replied.
The man the technician had referred to as sir was Jack Spencer, AKA Spence, AKA Boss Man, one of the Project’s main workhorses in the field of paranormal investigations. Spencer wasn’t a scientist, however; far from it. He was a tough and ruthless ex-CIA man who knew how to get results when it came to finding people who sometimes didn’t want to be found. The Project was a secret government organization that had been around since World War II. His cover was FBI, most people believed that’s what he was, and that’s what he wanted people to believe. The Project was a non-entity. It didn’t exist any more than Area 51 existed. Their mission, like The Brotherhood of the Order’s, was the investigation of anything to do with paranormal activity; aliens, ghosts, demons, strange machines and craft, angels, devils, magical artifacts, mass murders, religious cults, to name just a few. But unlike the Brotherhood of the Order, the Project was a pragmatic organization with a pragmatic mission: find a constructive way to use these paranormal phenomena—real or fantasy—for the greater good. In recent years the Project had zeroed in on a particular artifact that was in some way connected to the present mark in his sights.
Even though Jack Spencer had seen some extremely peculiar things while working for the Project, he didn’t have any use for paranormal phenomena. Hell, he didn’t even believe most of it. Bunch of loonies and quacks, as far as he was concerned. Nevertheless, he worked for people who did believe, and one thing Spencer was, was loyal. He took his job very seriously, and he was dedicated to the point of fanaticism. When he had a mark in his sites, such as he did now, rarely did he let go until the mark was in custody. Beneath him was a team of crack experts in a variety of investigative fields and technologies; computer geniuses, field agents, private contractors, all intensely loyal and sworn to the utmost in secrecy.
The two guys who’d fucked up royally earlier tonight were both out. Just like that. Soon they’d be history if they weren’t already; two more casualties in a war that had no conscience, a battle between the forces of good and evil. They’d failed on three counts: first they’d unnecessarily killed an innocent; second, McArthur had escaped; and third, they’d failed to find the object that Spencer’s superiors had so desperately wanted to possess. Jack Spencer could give a shit about the object. He knew what it was, or what it was supposed to be. He didn’t buy the bullshit about it, though. No matter. He was a good soldier and he would do his job.
He leaned in toward the monitor, and in a very deliberate and cadenced diction, he repeated Doug’s code words, “‘You told me about your organization, how they lived and worked.’ How would an organization such as The Brotherhood of the Order live and work,” he asked rhetorically.
“Not very well any more,” one of the techs said with a humorless smirk. “Most of their leaders are dead.”
“That’s beside the point,” Spencer snapped. “And don’t kid yourself; the organization is alive and well. They’ve been around for centuries. Just because a bunch of flatulent old priests got themselves slaughtered doesn’t mean they’re done with. They’ve got professionals all over the world. Now focus!”
“They work in secret,” offered another of the techs.
“Yes, that’s probably what they have believed all these years, but we know better, don’t we?” A small, derisive smile touched Spencer’s thin-lipped mouth. “No matter, they’re scholars who take themselves very seriously and would probably use something that fit their own romantic image of themselves.”
“We live and work in secret,” he said. “Put a ‘the’ at the end of ‘we live and work in,” he instructed.
A tech immediately did as he’d been told and the computer began spitting out possibilities, thousands of them, starting alphabetically and finding every known word in the English language. There were millions, of course. No matter, the computers were running through the list in nanoseconds and each time it would hit upon a logical possibility it would catalogue it and list it on a separate screen. The ones that were not logical were passed over. In less than a minute it had reached the S’s and a second later the word shadow appeared on the screen.
“Hold it,” Spencer said. “What about shadows. We live and work in the shadows. That makes sense. Do a run on local businesses, see if you can come up with something that has that name.”
“Shadows?” one of the techs replied. “Not necessary. I know the place. It’s a nightclub over on Dunhill Boulevard.”
Spencer picked the phone up and made the call.
Behind Shadows there was a small stand of woods, perhaps one hundred yards deep where beyond Doug could see the lights of another boulevard. A litter-strewn path—probably made by children or bums or both—snaked its way through the woods between the boulevards. Doug walked that convoluted path now, deciding it would be better to wait for Lucy under cover. He tucked Vogel’s gun into his belt, turned and waited, watching for car lights. He didn’t have long to wait. A vehicle pulled into the front lot and then swung around to the back of the nightclub. In the illumination of street lamps he could see that it was a dark-colored late-model Ford sedan. “Shit,” he said, chiding himself for not asking Lucy what she drove. Probably wouldn’t have told me anyway, and wouldn’t have blamed her. He crouched in the shadows waiting for the door to open and the dome light to come on so that he could identify the driver. Beyond the club he could see down the boulevard as another car, nearly identical to the first one, pulled up to the curb.
He knew then that they’d been had. What was he to do? If Lucy showed up and did not spot the deception, then she’d be in as deep as he was. Several cars passed by out on the street but the distance was too great for Doug to identify the drivers.
Two men exited the car in the lot and carefully approached Vogel’s car, guns drawn. Doug backed further up the path into the woods and crouched like a wounded animal. The gunmen, one on each side of the car, yanked open the driver and passenger side doors, guns pointed.
The pain inside of Doug flamed suddenly, taking him to his knees. The entire chest-wound bandage was wet with new blood, and droplets of it were leaking from the soaked shirt and splashing to the ground. Given the amount of pain, the blood loss and his weakness, Doug was quite certain that he wouldn’t be able to last much longer. And now he was seeing double, and triple. He remained on his knees beside the path for a long moment, head bowed, breathing in shallow bursts, trying to quell his rapidly-beating heart.
Out on the boulevard several other cars were slowing down. He put his head up, hoping against hope that Lucy wasn’t foolish enough to just pull into the lot. He had lost sight of the two gunmen and wondered where they had gone. Doug could not think straight. He figured that it would be only a matter of minutes before they came along the path and found him. What would he do then? He decided he would kill if he had to. He’d do almost anything to get out of this insane nightmare. He needed to heal so that he could go and find the wife and unborn child that he loved so desperately. He’d made a terrible error in leaving them behind in that other world that seemed oddly like a dream now. These thoughts were burning images in his mind, forcing him to focus, and spurring him into action. He heaved himself shakily to his feet and forced himself to move. Looking down the path from where he’d come he saw no one, so he turned in the opposite direction and began walking, taking one agonizing step at a time. He had taken just three steps, however, when a shadow loomed up in front of him. He raised the gun when a voice urgently whispered, “Doug, it’s me!”
Lucy had spotted the Fed vehicles and came in from the other side. Saying no more she took him by the hand and began gingerly leading him out of the woods.
From somewhere not too far behind them an authoritative voice commanded, “Stop right there!” A spotlight came on, casting their shadows forward in monstrous over-exaggeration.
Lucy began to run, pulling Doug along; Doug staggered behind her, feeling like a dream-runner but feeling little else. Gunfire erupted and bullets whizzed past their heads. Doug heard the squealing of tires on pavement and the roar of several engines revving in the distance. It was all like a dream now. He was not sure how far he could run; stumble was more like it, for with each step he took he was surprised to still be standing. Was he standing? The feeling was nearly gone from his body and the consciousness from his mind.
“Come on,” Lucy prodded. “Just a few more steps and we’re there.”
Doug did not know how he’d done it, but suddenly they were out of the woods. Lucy was throwing the door of a gold-colored sedan open and shoving him onto the back seat. He fell in prone, lying down on soft leather; he was quickly slipping beyond the realm of conscious thought. Lucy was now getting into the driver’s side. Doug heard more shooting but in his mind they were just cap guns being fired from some distant and dreamlike carnival gallery. He was dimly aware of bullets pinging on metal. Then the car was in frantic motion. Lucy maneuvered out of the lot and onto the street, bumping the curb and skidding sideways. Doug did not know whether or not they were being pursued, and he had passed the point of caring.
“Doug! Can you hear me?” Lucy screamed.
He could not answer her. The world was going away in slow radiating waves. Down a long dark tunnel it went in a spiral, and Doug supposed it was an okay place to go. There didn’t seem to be anyone shooting at him down there, and that was just fine by him. There wasn’t much he could do in this world anyway.
No damned use to anyone.
Better where I’m going.
And less painful.
“Doug, don’t do this to me!” Lucy screamed, her voice desperate with fear. “Don’t you fucking dare die on me!”
Doug heard the words but just barely, and he was a little amused at their implications. Die? What a laugh. He’d already died once, hadn’t he? Some keen sense told him it was so, the knowledge coming at him like a fast-moving train from the depths of the tunnel. Ah, well, what difference did it make if he died again? Everyone thought he was dead anyway, including Annie, and she was the only one that really mattered.
“Doug, please talk to me!” Lucy’s voice was as distant as the far end of that dark tunnel.