Chapter One



As a child I was terrified of the night. Darkness, like the heavy heat and humidity of the tropics, would wrap itself around me and squeeze the breath from my lungs. I felt that way now.

I'd known that my parents would protect me at all costs, so I had learned to control my irrational fear of the dark long before I reached my teens. But this was different. This was not an imaginary monster or zombie hiding under the bed ready to leap at me. This was very real. And it was compounded by a second inner turmoil— anxiety over not having the slightest idea where I was.

My eyes were wide open as I lay on my back, but there was only blackness in every direction. It seemed apparent I wasn't outdoors because not a single sound was reaching my ears. Not a mechanical noise or even a cricket chirp.

And the air was perfectly still, not to mention nauseating. I couldn't remember where I'd been or what I'd been doing to land me in this predicament. I held my breath and strained to hear the slightest noise, but it was as quiet as— a tomb. A new fear suddenly filled my mind. I must be in a tomb, I thought. I had been buried— buried alive if the extreme pain in my head and the sensation of a beating heart were proof of life. The surface on which I rested had the cold, hard feel of polished marble, and when I tried to stretch out my left arm, it encountered something vertical, flat, and cold after traveling no more than a few inches.

Most people had enemies, many of whom might work to tarnish good names through rumor and innuendo, or possibly even flatten the tires on a car in the dead of night. But my enemies were the sort who would gleefully make me dead in an instant if they had the opportunity. I couldn't stop myself from hyperventilating, even knowing it would more quickly use up whatever oxygen was available in the confined space.

I knew I had to get my breathing under control, so I forced myself to calm down and breathe normally. Okay, I thought, when I'd accomplished that difficult task, first things first. Determine the size of your tomb. I slowly moved my hands and arms upward, expecting they would quickly encounter whatever covered my resting place. When they met no resistance, I became even more perplexed.

Since there appeared to be space above me, I decided to make an attempt to stand and learn the limits of my confinement. But first I had to turn over. When I tried to roll to my right, I was again blocked from movement. The obstacle was cold to the touch.

But unlike the blockage on my left, the one on the right side wasn't perfectly vertical. In fact, it was unusually shaped. I cautiously ran my right hand over it in an attempt to identify the reason for such unusual construction. When recognition came to me, I almost laughed, but stopped myself immediately because I realized my situation might still be extremely grave, even if I wasn't yet in a grave. The object my right hand had encountered was the base of an ordinary toilet, which most probably meant I was lying on the floor of a bathroom. But whose bathroom? I pondered. And how did I get here?

Just knowing I was alive and in someone's bathroom removed much of the anxiety and confusion from my mind, but I still had more questions than answers. I managed to turn over, and while accomplishing that simple feat, discovered I was clothed only in a tee-shirt and shorts. I also learned that I was covered with some kind of slippery and obnoxious liquid.

My hands slipped out from under me as I tried to get to my knees, and I pancaked back down onto the floor. On my second attempt, I managed to get to my knees and then climb to my feet, all the while feeling around in total darkness. I discovered a sink, then began running my hands along the walls. Once I located a door it was a simple matter to find the room's light switch.

As I toggled the switch to the 'on' position, spasms of excruciating pain stabbed at my eyes like red-hot pokers, causing me to shut them as tightly as I could. I was tempted to turn off the light, but I knew my eyes would slowly adjust if I kept blinking, allowing a little more light in each time.

My dilated pupils finally began to adjust and the pain lessened somewhat with each quick, partial blink. When I was finally able to see through squinched eyes, I peered around the bathroom. Nothing in the blurry image seemed familiar— for a few seconds. Then it dawned on me. I was in the hotel room I'd rented because my apartment was cordoned off as a violent crime scene.

At the very least, the blood and brain tissue that embellished the walls and floor in and around my home's bathroom had to be thoroughly cleaned away before I could return. The bodies were long gone, of course, but the horrific mess and the considerable damage from gunfire remained.

As full vision returned, I surveyed the hotel bathroom in an attempt to discover where the god-awful smell was coming from. When I glanced towards the mirror over the sink, I learned the source. It was me. Or more specifically it was coming from me— although the floor was making a significant contribution. At some point I had apparently upchucked all over the front of myself.

Then, during my recent attempt to rise, I had further spread the mess all over my body, plus the walls of the bathroom. My hair was thickly matted with vomit, and it covered the floor near the toilet bowl. I assumed I'd been attempting to reach the ceramic depository when my stomach decided it could no longer wait to regurgitate its contents. I remembered then that I'd been drinking pretty heavily. Distillery and winemaker advertisements showing people drinking alcohol and having fun wisely never exhibited the aftermath of extreme excess.

This was the first time since my college days I'd gotten sick from alcohol consumption. I wasn't even this drunk the night I learned my parents had been killed in a car accident—perhaps because, although I mourned the loss of my mom and dad, they had been killed on the other side of the country and I hadn't actually seen the bodies at that point. This time I had seen the mutilated body of my best friend. In vivid Technicolor.

It wasn't the first time I'd seen violent death. As a direct result of my new career, I'd been forced to make some small reductions in the world's population on occasion. But this time was different. I have plenty of enemies. I don't have that many close friends.

After washing the spew from my face, hands and arms, I hydrated as much as possible with cold water using one of the plastic cups on the sink. I was on my third cupful before I realized I hadn't yet removed the sealed plastic bag around the cup. I then removed my vomit-saturated tee-shirt and shorts, and rinsed them repeatedly in the sink. Turning my attention to the bathroom itself, I used my just rinsed tee-shirt as a cleaning rag and begin wiping the walls wherever I'd touched them. After several additional rinses of my tee-shirt and a like number of cleansing swipes, the walls looked clean, so I turned my attention to the disgusting mess on the toilet and floor.

After flushing the bowl, I used the shirt to wipe the floor and remove most of the mess, depositing the spew directly into the bowl and flushing. I wiped the floor three more times before all trace of the regurgitation was gone. Lastly, I used a bath towel to dry all surfaces. With the former contents of my stomach removed and flushed down the sink drain or toilet, the overhead fan began to make headway clearing the air of the foul smell.

My underclothes then got a thorough cleaning in the sink with soapy water before being rinsed, squeezed, and left on the ledge of the sink to dry while I climbed into a steaming hot shower. The spray felt so wonderful that I didn't want to get out but finally turned off the faucets and pulled back the curtain.

My head was still throbbing when I emerged from the stall, dripping water all over the floor I'd recently dried, but I felt significantly better overall, until I looked at my reflection in the mirror and saw my face and hair. I had several days' beard growth, but that was understandable. I hadn't shaved since the morning I left my hotel in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. My hair was squeaky clean from several treatments of shampoo but looked as if someone had dropped a wet pile of dark straw on my head. My shaving kit was on the sink counter, so I took care of that chore first. Unfortunately, the comb was missing from the kit, and I assumed it was out in the bedroom. I realized as I stood there contemplating my next move that I was actually dreading leaving the small, now clean, room. I didn't believe for a second that the rest of the suite was neat and orderly. But it wasn't going to clean itself, so I opened the door and stepped out into near-darkness. The only light was coming from the widows, and it was dim at best.

When I flicked on the wall switch in the bedroom, I was relieved to see I was alone. I didn't remember having— or even wanting— company, but then I didn't remember anything after the first two bottles of wine. I must have been so distraught that I lost all focus for a while.

The bedroom was a mess, of course, but not quite the disaster I'd been expecting after seeing the bathroom. At least I didn't vomit out here. I retrieved some clean underwear and slacks from my suitcase and clothed myself, not realizing until then how badly wrinkled everything was from having been jammed into my suitcases for several days. I shrugged and located my comb so I could tend to my wet hair before picking up the assorted apparel and other items strewn about the small suite. When I was finished, the room was presentable. The six empty wine bottles I'd found scattered around the suite, including the one I'd found sitting upside down amid the dying flowers in a vase on the coffee table, were now in the wastebasket. Five of them bore a label that declared their vintage as 1997 Mascarello Barolo, while one was a '98. The 1997 was a vintage I had recently become particularly fond of. The thought was both a happy one and a sad one because it reminded me of Mia. My Mia. My beautiful Mia— the young Greek beauty whom I'd met while on a short voyage from the U.K. to the Netherlands. She was only the second woman I'd ever taken completely into my heart and one of the loveliest women I'd ever met. I'd fallen in love with her the first day of our encounter. Several days later she'd professed undying love for me as well. That was just two days before I'd witnessed her hopping into bed with another man.

I recalled buying the first three bottles of wine but not the latter. However, there was a receipt on the dresser that included a delivery charge. I'd probably ordered the second allotment of wine from the same Rare Spirits Liquor Store where I'd gotten the first batch, and they'd sent it over to my hotel. It appeared they must have run out of the '97 and substituted one bottle with the '98. By the sixth bottle, I wouldn't have known the difference. At several hundred dollars a bottle, it had been an expensive drunk.

The hands of my watch indicated it was just after four twenty a.m., and the date function showed it had been a little more than two days since the firefight in my apartment. I remembered every second of the event and of the debriefing that followed. I also remembered the six hours after the debriefing was over, more or less, but not much after that.

w w

It had been early morning by the time the initial crime-scene work was wrapped up at my apartment following the incident. The FBI had immediately assumed responsibility for the investigation. In case I'd forgotten to mention it, I'm FBI. Taking responsibility for a case was standard practice whenever an FBI Special Agent was involved in a shooting that might be related to a criminal investigation.

I'd been told to report downtown to give a statement regarding the events of the evening. I learned much later that the New York State Police, NYC Police, and New Jersey State Police had been invited to attend the interview, watching from behind a two-way mirror in the interrogation room. The Jersey police were there because one of the dead thugs had admitted to having killed a scientist who lived and worked in New Jersey. The Jersey police had been investigating that death ever since the body had been found floating in the Hackensack River a couple of weeks before I returned from Europe. The early morning traffic had made travel downtown an exasperating experience.

When I'd arrived at Federal Plaza, I looked as if I'd been a victim of the shooting, but it was only because the clothes I wore had been heavily splattered with the blood of the two thugs I'd shot at extremely close range and had then been thoroughly saturated with the blood of my friend whom I'd held in my arms as he died. The guards at the first-floor entrance stared at me with wide eyes as I put down one of my suitcases, held up my identification, and then walked through the metal detector. I was still carrying my two Glocks, so the equipment beeped loudly as I passed through.

Since I'd had the presence of mind to bring the two packed suitcases that had just accompanied me back from Europe, I'd been given time to clean up. After taking a long shower in the locker room next to the Bureau's gym and putting on clean clothes, I felt ready for whatever they planned to throw at me.

"I told you to stay out of that investigation," ADIC Sobert said loudly as soon as I'd entered the interview room and taken my seat. The timbre of his voice indicted he was plenty upset.

"Sir, you told me that less than an hour before I entered my apartment and was jumped by two goons from Staten Island. I assure you I had not begun any investigation on my own in the interim."

"How do you know they were from Staten Island?"

"They said they were working for Delcona. Everyone knows that's his turf."

"So you never mentioned the case to anyone between the time we spoke and when you were attacked."

"No one. After I left your office, Osborne and Snow gave me a lift home. They can confirm we never spoke about it. And once I arrived home, I didn't speak to anyone about anything before I entered my apartment and got jumped by the big one called Diz."

"Okay, James. Tell your story to the interviewer."

"I can probably type it faster than I can say it, sir."

"Do it our way, James."

"Yes, sir."

"Philbin will conduct the session," Sobert said, then left without another word.

w w

Special Agent Philbin had entered the interview room a few seconds later. I assumed he'd been watching from behind the two-way mirror where cameras, sound recorders, and various other types of monitoring equipment were already recording every micro-second of the interview.

"Why don't we start with you telling me exactly what happened from the time Osborne and Snow dropped you off at home last night," Philbin said.

So I started with the moment I'd entered the outside door of the building and finished with the arrival of NYC cops responding to numerous 911 calls from neighbors reporting a gun battle. The entire incident had lasted less than ten minutes, so it was almost a second-by-second description.

"That's your whole story?" Philbin asked, looking at his own scrawled notes.

"Yep," I said. I hadn't lied about anything. I had omitted several minor points though. I'd said that Diz was apparently looking for something, which was true, but I never mentioned that he'd found a small matchbox in my pocket, or that he had ordered me to activate the piece of paper he'd found inside. And there was one thing more I hadn't fully divulged.

In relating the events in my apartment, I'd said that my friend had blindsided Diz's companion, then knocked Diz backward against the apartment door with a shoulder to his chest before jumping into the bathroom and locking himself in. That was all true, but I had omitted that my friend had grabbed the paper out of Diz's hand, then flushed it down the toilet. Since I was the only survivor of the shootout, there was no one to contest the accuracy of my statements.

"What's this thing Diz was looking for?" Philbin asked.

"He said Morris Calloway had reported giving me something when I went to Paramus. He also said he had killed Calloway."

"How?"

"He didn't say, and I was in no position to perform an interrogation. I was too busy trying to figure a way to survive the night. Diz only said he had 'offed that geek.'"

"Offed?"

"Those are his words, exactly."

"What was it Calloway gave you?"

"Morris gave me nothing. I went there seeking information and left with nothing more than I arrived with. He couldn't answer my question."

"He didn't give you a package or anything?"

"How many ways would you like me to say the same thing? Morris gave me nothing. Morris didn't give me a package. I received nothing from Morris. Morris never even offered me a jelly donut. Morri…"

"Okay, James." Philbin said, interrupting. "I get the picture. So why do you think Calloway would have told them he gave you something?"

"You want me to speculate?"

"Yes. Speculate."

"Perhaps he knew they were going to kill him and figured I was equipped to take them down. A sort of 'revenge from beyond the grave' motive."

"Was Calloway that calculating?"

"Who's to say what anyone would be capable of under those circumstances?"

"Why did you refuse to accept the package when Morris offered it to you?"

I sighed loudly at Philbin's poor attempt to use the Reid interrogation technique by hitting me with a question that contradicted a previous statement I'd made in order to confuse me and trip me up. I picked up where I had left off a few seconds earlier. "Morris never offered me a jelly donut. He never offered me a cup of coffee. He never offered…"

"Okay, okay, James. Enough."

"Rephrasing a simple question altered to add an implicit suggestion that I'd committed perjury earlier isn't going to get you a different answer, Philbin."

Philbin glared at me, then calmed and smiled. "Sorry. You know all the tricks, don't you?"

"I received the same training at Quantico that you did. I don't claim to know all the tricks, but I don't need to. I've been completely honest about the meeting with Morris. We can remain here all day and into the night with me answering the same questions over and over, and the answers won't change. Morris gave me nothing, and I gave him nothing, despite what anyone might suspect. All we did was talk for about an hour, and then I left. What he might have told someone else, and for what reasons, won't change that."

"Preliminary reports suggest that both of Delcona's men had already suffered fatal wounds when you decided to decorate your apartment walls with their brain matter. Why?"

"Fatal doesn't mean dead until their hearts stop beating. Both were down but not out. Yes, they probably would have died from the first wounds, but before that happened they might have been able to take me with them. They were trying to do exactly that when I administered the final wounds."

"Administered the final wounds? Is that how you describe murdering two men?"

"It's a better description than the one you used. I was protecting my life. I make no apologies for that. If they hadn't continued to make an effort to kill me, I wouldn't have had to 'decorate my apartment walls with their brain matter.'"

"You always shoot to kill, don't you?"

"Always?"

"You killed a man on the North Sea a few weeks ago with three forty-caliber slugs to the chest and another in Spain a week ago with two slugs to the chest after shooting him in the shoulder, a wound that left him unable to even hold his weapon. You don't take prisoners, do you?"

"I do what's necessary to survive. The encounter with the assassin in Spain wasn't our first meeting. He had tried to kill me in a hotel bathroom in Amsterdam. On that occasion I'd been able to incapacitate him without shooting him, and disarm him. And, for the record, after I shot him in the right shoulder and he dropped his pistol, he picked it up with his left hand. He might have been ambidextrous."

"Or you just didn't want him coming at you a third time, so you finished him off at your second encounter."

"What's this about, Philbin? The British police and the Spanish police agreed that I was only defending myself. Neither filed charges against me."

"I've been a Special Agent for fourteen years and have never once had to fire my weapon in the line of duty."

"Bravo. Your point being?"

"Perhaps you didn't have to use yours either. Perhaps you just like killing people when it can be justified."

I knew what Philbin was doing now. He was trying to make me so angry I'd slip up and tell him something I didn't intend to. I said calmly, "I get no satisfaction from taking the life of another human being. I only do what's necessary to preserve my own."

Philbin knew I was onto his game. Bad cops and former cops are the most difficult to catch and prosecute because they do know all the tricks and procedures. Philbin scowled at me, then stood up and left the interview room.

w w

I'd been left sitting alone in the interrogation room for about twenty minutes, and I assumed the various law enforcement groups wanted to discuss the information I'd just reported. I had nowhere else to be, so I leaned back in the chair and thought about where my life was going from that point forward. The more I'd thought about it, the more depressed I became. The loss of close friends or family, either from death or simply the breakup of personal relationships, can create an enormous void in a person's life. They sometimes felt as though everyone was suddenly gone.

It wasn't true of course; I still had many friends. But the sense of loss could be so acute at this point that some people decided they didn't even want to go on. I believed I was stronger than that, and I also knew the overwhelming sense of loss would diminish with the passage of time and as I established new relationships. Hell, I was only thirty-one-years-old.

I would just pick up the pieces of my life and continue. Even if I was to be separated from the FBI, I still had my writing career, as weak as that had been, with a slightly distant-but-solid relationship with fans of the free stories I posted online. Most importantly, my finances were rock solid. The recovery fees I'd received from my sideline work had enabled me to begin seriously looking for a co-op in NYC. As everyone knows, buying property in Manhattan doesn't happen without a sound financial footing.

My reverie had been interrupted by the return of Philbin. "Okay, James, ADIC Sobert says you can go for now."

I'd left without saying anything further, but I wondered how I'd done with the stress-monitoring equipment. There could be no doubt that I was under stress. I had just killed two human beings, after all, or at least what passed for human beings in some places these days, so I imagined any stress level of my testimony would be acceptable as long as there were no serious spikes during the questioning.

After retrieving my suitcases from the locker room, I'd headed for the elevators. The security folks in the lobby again stared at me as I passed them and crossed to the exit doors. I managed to hail a cab at the curb, and the cabbie popped the trunk but didn't offer to assist me with my suitcases.

I'd instructed the cab driver to head to a wine shop where I knew they handled the better vintages, and I learned I was in luck. The proprietor said he had the Mascarello Barolo I was looking for. He disappeared into the back and was gone for what seemed like five minutes, but when he returned, he had three bottles of the wine in his arms.

After paying for the spirits, I'd returned to the waiting cab and asked the driver to take me to a midtown hotel. For a few hours I wanted to forget the day's events. At least as much as possible.

I hadn't really intended to get blind stinking drunk, but that's apparently what happened. I couldn't help but wonder if I'd stayed in the hotel for the entire time or possibly gone out and done something I'd deeply regret later. I wished I could remember.

End of Chapter 1


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