Doug stood at the foot of the bed watching Annie sleep wondering how his life had come to this moment. Ten years gone. From where he stood right now it felt like another life entirely, not his and Annie’s life. They’d been happy, hadn’t they? Or was it all some sort of illusion. Now, suddenly all his hopes and dreams were in jeopardy. Annie had come under the spell of some terrible darkness, factions beyond his worst nightmares wanted his firstborn for reasons yet unclear, De Roché wanted him dead; the hammer blow could come at any moment. The man might not be mortal, perhaps he wasn’t even human. And if he wasn’t human then what of Annie? If she’d come from the seed of a monster then what was she? And what of their unborn child? Suddenly there were far too many questions without answers. Grief wanted to drive him to his knees, but he knew now, more than ever before in his life, that he had to be strong.
He drew the bedcovers up over his sleeping wife, careful lest he wake her. He’d only gotten a few hours of restless sleep. They’d made love until nearly dawn, tumbling, struggling, coupling and uncoupling in the dark until they were nearly delirious with fatigue. They were both scared shitless, each for their own reasons; Annie, the past; Doug, the future, and they’d been attempting to scatter their demons with the power of obsession. As a result, Doug’s demons only burned brighter within him. He could only guess as to Annie’s.
He picked up his trousers from the tangle of clothing on the floor and slipped them on. He felt for the airline ticket he had bought yesterday and tucked into the breast pocket of his new jacket. For a moment he panicked. It wasn’t there, but then he discovered it in the opposite side of the jacket.
He’d been startled awake by something shortly after falling into an exhausted sleep, and he’d lain for a long time trying to puzzle it out. When he’d forced his mind to focus on identifying it, he saw black flapping images with cold red eyes. Birds, bats, fluttering demons. They were one and the same; ugly tumors at the center of Doug’s very existence.
He looked over at the door.
The burden is now yours. You are the chosen one.
He didn’t understand what those words meant now any more than he had the moment the dying old priest had uttered them.
Follow your heart.
His heart, his plan, had simply been to find and stop those who would destroy his home, his family, his future. Those who would rob him of everything he had ever dreamed of. Is that what the old man had meant by follow your heart?
One of those destroyers, he knew, hid behind the walls of this very house, and if he could find proof of his intentions he would bring the proof back to Annie so that she too could see the true face of the monster hidden inside the man.
Leaving Annie was probably the most difficult thing he’d ever done. He had the feeling that when he walked out that door he might never see her again. But the old priest had told him that if Annie and the unborn child were to be saved it would have to be this way. Was he supposed to believe that? Was he supposed to trust the words of a dying old man? The truth was, he did, and he did not know why. Had it been the undeniable sincerity in the old man’s voice? Or was it because he had known Doug’s true heart better than Doug himself had known it?
He’d said that there would be a great test, and if he survived he would have the direction he needed. If he survived. There were no guarantees. It all seemed so crazy.
And what of Annie? Would she be safe remaining here with a father who might be in cahoots with the Devil himself? Doug didn’t think so, but whatever persuasive powers he might have once had over Annie were now being eclipsed by a greater power. What happened yesterday at the cemetery had not been a natural occurrence. The bullet that should have killed De Roché, the bullet that passed straight through his heart, had done no damage at all, and now, less than twenty four hours after putting his wife in the ground, De Roché was most probably planning his future as king of the world; it was as if Rachel’s death and Annie’s coming home had been the catalysts necessary for De Roché’s continuation. But in the final analysis none of this actually mattered. The old man at the cemetery had been right when he’d said Doug must follow his heart, because his heart told him to put as much distance between De Roché and himself as was humanly possible.
So without the benefit of further thought Doug opened the door and slipped quietly out of the room.
He tiptoed through the upstairs hallway to the top of the stairs, stopping and listening, careful lest he encounter De Roché, the man who might not be a man at all.
Halfway down the stairway he stopped abruptly . De Roché’s voice sounded from the direction of his study, and there were both humor and vitality in it, sending a chill scurrying down Doug’s spinal column and reaffirming his suspicions about the man. Stealthily, he made his way down the stairs, through the foyer to the door, where he slipped carefully out into the new morning. He scanned the yard looking for some sign of life. There was not a living soul in sight, but that did not mean he wasn’t being watched; this place had ears and eyes; he knew it without a doubt.
Doug walked purposefully down the drive toward the gate, expecting the hammer blow to come at any second. He stopped at the gate, gazing through it at the lane he hoped would lead him back into the world. There were no keepers this morning, and the gate was closed. He scanned up along the wall but saw nothing. No security guards. No dogs with glittering teeth and silent voices. He turned and looked back across the dew-covered lawn to the gray stone mansion, paying particular attention to Annie’s bedroom window. He had an unsettling vision of Annie succumbing to whatever persuasive forces lived within those walls. Had she finally come home to stay? He wiped the thought from his mind; it made him feel sick and helpless.
“I’ll be back, Annie,” he whispered. “You can count on it.”
He turned and gingerly tested the gate. What the hell, he thought. Electrocution is as good a way to go as any. But instead of frying him to a crisp, the gate began to trundle open. He turned again scanning the guardhouse for signs of life. There were cameras mounted there, but he saw nothing alive. Still, he understood that his every move was being monitored. De Roché was no fool. If he’d wanted him dead, he’d be dead.
As the gate closed behind him, Doug stepped beyond the walls of De Roché Manor and back into the world.
Several hundred yards down the lane he turned left and walked into the woods, carefully marking his way through thick undergrowth. At the base of a particularly large cypress tree he stopped and looked around him. He saw no one and heard nothing except birds calling in the trees. He dropped down onto his hands and knees and began digging in the soft, sandy soil at the base of the tree. He extracted the object wrapped in a soft piece of fabric. He had hidden it there yesterday after returning from buying his airline ticket. He opened the fabric and stared. It seemed to pulse mildly, but it could have been his imagination. He closed his eyes then opened them. The object did not change color or shape.
There are those who believe it is the path to God, the old priest had said.
The path to God? Doug thought. This? How? Why?
It is a fragment from an ancient weapon.
Without warning, Doug was attacked from above by a large black bird with beating wings and a single crimson eye. It slammed into Doug’s chest, attaching its talons to the fabric of his jacket. Its bill pecked and grabbed the artifact from Doug’s hand. Doug smashed his closed fist into the bird’s body. The creature dropped the object and fell away, landing on its back among the palmetto bushes, its misshapen talons flailing wildly skyward. Doug lunged at the vile creature, fully intending to kill it with his bare hands. But he’d lost sight of the artifact, and when he turned to retrieve it, the creature found its opening, righted itself, and lifted into the air, cawing loudly as it sped away. Doug watched it go as he remained on his knees waiting for his heart to settle down. With hands that shook, he retrieved the artifact from where it had fallen to the ground, wrapped it back in the soft cloth and dropped it in his jacket pocket, vowing that he would never again be so careless with it. He got to his feet and continued on his way.
It was slow going along the dusty lane that passed through quiet, deserted citrus groves and dark cypress swamp. It took more than half an hour to reach the boulevard. Although he kept close watch for one-eyed birds he was not bothered again. Finally he reached the boulevard, giving a sigh of relief for having been allowed to get this far.
Traffic zoomed past in either direction. He picked the south-traveling traffic and stuck his thumb out. Vehicles streamed by in an endless procession. Finally, a van with Florida Dreams fancily air-brushed on its side panels pulled over onto the shoulder, sending dust puffing up into the air in a choking cloud. Doug ran and opened the door. A kid with long, stringy, brown hair sat beating his hands on the steering wheel in time with the loud music that blasted out of the stereo.
“Hey, amigo, jump in,” the kid shouted, smiling infectiously. But now Doug could see that he wasn’t a kid at all, just some wannabe hippy in his late thirties or early forties.
“Where you headed?” the guy asked.
“Tampa International!” Doug had to shout to be heard above the music.
The guy reached for the radio and turned down the music. “Sorry about that, man. You get t’ groovin along with the tuneage and sometimes you forget how loud the shit is.”
“Yeah,” Doug said, “happens to me all the time.” The day had warmed considerably and he took off his jacket. He was looking over his shoulder for a place to put it.
“Just shove some of that shit out of the way and drop it anywhere,” the guy told him.
Doug saw that the van was loaded with tons of electronic equipment.
“Name’s Jeff Dean,” the guy said, seeing the look on Doug’s face, “and this is my mean surveillance machine.”
“Got into this shit a couple years back,” Jeff Dean explained. “Work for three or four private investigators. Mostly divorce cases. You know what I’m talking about? Hey, what can I say, it buys the beans.”
“You’d never know it from looking at the outside,” Doug said commenting on the van’s general appearance.
“That’s the main idea, amigo. Just some old hippy, come down to Florida for a bunch of fun and sun. No one’s the wiser.” Jeff Dean shot Doug another wide grin.
“You know how to use all this stuff?” Doug was amazed.
“Don’t seem the type, right, amigo?” the guy said grinning again. “Like I said, that’s the general idea. If I seemed the type, well, wouldn’t get away with much, now would I? Actually I’m some kind of genius. Least that’s what my mom tells me.”
“Name’s Doug,” he said, offering his hand. Jeff Dean shook Doug’s hand vigorously. He pulled the van out into traffic and soon they were moving south on Alternate 19 toward Clearwater. “You can take me as far as you’re going. Appreciate the ride.”
“Hell,” Jeff said. “I’ll take you all the way. Got to cross over the bay sometime today anyway. Might as well be sooner as later.” He reached in his pocket and fished out a card, handing it to Doug. Doug quickly scanned the bold black lettering. It said, ‘Jeff Dean, Professional Surveillance’ and stamped on all four corners surrounding the lettering were speakers with waves emanating from them. “If you ever need to spy on anyone just give ole’ Jeff a call. I can tune into your living room from half a mile away and hear ice melting in your highball.”
Jeff Dean slapped the wheel and laughed. “You wouldn’t believe some of the unbelievable shit I’ve heard.”
“If you lose the card the number’s easy. I’m out of Clearwater, so as long as you got the Clearwater exchange the rest is easy. 1776. Just like the ole’ American revolution. No problemo.”
Doug stared at the card for a long moment.
Jeff Dean gave Doug a sidelong glance. “Put it in your pocket, amigo. Never know when you’re gonna need some surveillance.”
Doug stuck the card in his shirt pocket.
The guy yapped all the way to the airport, and when he dropped Doug off he said, “Adios amigo, stay cool and watch your back.”
Doug closed the door feeling both melancholy and uplifted. It was the first dose of sanity he’d experienced in more than two days, yet there was something about the encounter that intrigued him, as if it had been more than coincidence. Ah well, it was comforting to know that there were sincere, if not entirely sane people left in the world.
He went through the terminal, received his boarding pass and promptly forgot about Jeff Dean and his mean surveillance machine.
Rick Jennings stood in the airport terminal waiting area watching the television monitor, which was tuned to CNN. He could not believe what he was hearing and seeing. Possible Presidential candidate, Edmund De Roché was shot and wounded at his wife’s funeral yesterday. The gunman, who apparently acted alone, had been shot and killed by one of De Roché’s security personnel. The gunman was an elderly man who had not been carrying identification. The FBI was now in the process of trying to identify him through other means. The camera panned to a shot of De Roché kneeling on a mound with Annie, his daughter, kneeling at his side. Jennings scanned the shot looking for Doug but did not see him.
The news clip went on to say that De Roché’s wound hadn’t been serious and that he had been taken to a local medical center where he’d been treated and released.
Furthermore, it seemed the media had learned of Doug’s and Annie’s house explosion and were trying to draw a correlation between De Roché’s wife’s murder, the attempt on De Roché’s life, and the apparent attempt on his daughter’s life in Maine the morning before. The belief was that factions were trying to derail De Roché’s presidential hopes.
Derail was an understatement, Jennings thought. Even so, it was the same correlation he had been trying to draw since all of this started. And he was at as much of a loss in explaining it as was the media. Nothing made sense. He wondered what would happen if the press picked up on Spencer’s suspicions that Doug was somehow connected to the strange murder of a New Hampshire family and the disappearance of their child. But that was too far out there for the media to draw any sort of correlation, wasn’t it? As far as Jennings knew, the only two people who suspected a connection at all were him and Spencer.
He’d tried calling Spencer twice this morning at the number he’d left with Rosemary, but had received no answer and no voice mail. What the fuck was going on? What kind of game was Spencer playing? Nothing made sense.
Jennings decided he was not going to hang around and wait another minute longer. He’d booked a flight to Tampa and he would go directly to the source. He would find Doug and Annie and bring them back physically if he had to.
His flight was called. As he began making his way toward the security gate his cell phone rang. Anxious, he pulled it from his jacket pocket looking at the caller ID. The number told him nothing. He answered it.
“Rick, this is Doug.”
Jennings heaved a massive sigh of relief. He stepped aside to let others behind him go through the security checkpoint. “Doug, Christ, I’m glad to hear your voice. Where are you?”
“Tampa, just getting ready to board my flight for home.”
“Why didn’t you call me sooner? I’ve been worried sick about you.” Jennings stepped away from the line and began pacing the waiting area.
“It wasn’t possible, Rick. Listen, a lot has happened.”
“I know they tried to kill you.”
“Yeah,” Doug said. “And they’re not through yet. De Roché wants me out of the way.”
“Shit! You think it was him?”
“Christ, are you safe?”
“I don’t know.”
“Listen, Doug, the FBI’s looking for you. You might have a better chance if you just turn yourself in.”
“Not on your life!” Doug exclaimed, his frustration nearly boiling over. “There’s some sort of sick conspiracy or something going on. I know that sounds paranoid, but I’m not kidding and I’m not taking any chances. It’s bigger than anything you can imagine. It’s somehow connected to all the shit that happened when I was a kid.”
“I think you’re right about that,” Jennings said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I’m pretty sure the government is interested in you.”
“I’m not sure yet, but it’s possible they’d like to use you.”
“Yeah, you know, try to figure out what makes you tick.”
“Listen, Doug, I’m wondering if it’s safe for you to get on a plane.”
“I don’t know what else to do. If they’re going to kill me, I can’t imagine they’d try it with all those people . . . .” His voice trailed off as an odd thought struck him. He remembered looking for his airline ticket this morning and finding it in the opposite pocket from the one he remembered placing it. He was certain that De Roché knew about the object. That’s why he’d hidden it in the woods outside the estate’s grounds. And he would not have been surprised if someone had gone through his pockets looking for it while he slept. If so, then they knew his flight number.
“I’m here, Rick. Listen, I think I’ll be safe, at least until I get to Boston. Tell me something. If the FBI wants to nab me, why haven’t they done it?”
“Good question. Something doesn’t add up.”
“You sense it too.”
“It’s more than a sense. Doug, there’s something I need to tell you, but not on the phone.”
“It happened again, didn’t it, Rick?”
Silence on the other end of the line.
“The little girl’s been calling out to me. If I don’t find her I think I might go crazy.”
“Listen to me, Doug. You’ve been through this before and there’s nothing you can do. Right now your biggest job is to stay alive.”
“Where are you now, Rick?”
“Funny you should ask. I’m at the Portland Airport getting ready to board a flight for Tampa. I had planned on coming to Florida and bring you back by force if I had to.”
Doug sighed. “Don’t go near that place, Rick. It’s evil. That man is evil.”
“Is Annie with you?”
“No. She stayed with her father. I didn’t want her to stay, but it was her decision. I just hope it was the right one. I think her father is exercising some sort of control over her.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know. She’s acting weird. Listen, there’s a lot you don’t know about De Roché. Stuff I’ve never talked about.”
“He’s very clever. He’s got some sort of gift. But there’s more.”
“I have this thing . . . this artifact. It was given to me by the man who shot De Roché.”
“Jesus, Doug, an artifact? What sort of artifact.”
“I’m not actually sure, but I think it has something to do with all the shit that’s going on. And there are others who want it. This is going to sound crazy but I think it has some kind of power.”
“Power?” Jennings said.
“Yeah, I think it might lead me to the little girl, and all the others that disappeared.”
“Christ, Doug, don’t do anything stupid.”
“I won’t, but it’s why I need to get as far away from De Roché as possible. He’s been searching for the artifact and I think he knows I have it. In any event I’m fairly certain Annie will be okay there for a while.” Doug’s voice faltered again as the dying old priest’s words came back to him: Do not take your wife. She is stronger than you know. She will take care of her own.
“Doug, are you there?”
“Yeah, Rick, when I’m sure it’s safe I’ll go and get her. That’s all I can say right now.”
“Listen, Doug, is your flight coming into Boston?”
“Yep. Two and a half hours, give or take.”
“My flight is scheduled to land in Boston in about 45 minutes,” Jennings said. “How about I take it and hang around until you get in. I’ll meet you there and we’ll rent a car and drive up to Maine together. It’ll give us a chance to talk things over.”
“Yeah, Rick, I’d like that.”
“Doug, I’m sorry about everything.”
“Don’t be. None of it was your fault.”
“Yeah, I know. I just want this nightmare to be over.”
“Me too, Rick. You don’t know how much.” After giving Jennings his flight number and hanging up the phone, Doug pulled the heavy scrap of fabric from his pocket, opened it and stared at the object for a long moment. It was neutral now, inert. There seemed nothing unusual about it, just a small hunk of ancient metal in an exceedingly classic form, worn smooth from centuries of handling. What are you? He wondered. Why are you in my possession? He gave a quick and guarded look around him, considered pulling the chain around his neck and wearing the artifact, but at the last minute decided against it. Instead he wrapped it up and dropped it back in his jacket pocket. He glanced around once again before heading for the gate, wary of anything unusual; suspicious body language, strange expressions. He decided he was no good at detective work. Everybody and everything looked maddeningly normal.
In Portland Jennings rushed back to the boarding gate and made it to security.
The place was empty. “You’re a little late, sir,” the attendant said with a frown. “They’ve already boarded, and they’re pulling the gate back.”
Jennings pulled out his badge and ID, showed it to the attendant. “This is police business,” he said. “I need to be on that flight.”
The attendant picked up the phone and made a call. “Okay,” he said and hung up. “No problem, they’re putting the gate back. Right this way, sir.” The attendant rushed him through. Jennings lumbered into the tunnel toward the waiting aircraft.
As he was settling into his seat he felt edgy and his mind was heavy with thought. Something was wrong. He felt it in his bones. He could not in a million years have guessed just how right his instincts were. If he’d known what would happen over the course of the next several hours he might have lost his mind.