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P A P E R T I G E R

A President‘s Agent Novel
by
Greg Marion







Paper Tiger Copyright © 2012 by Greg Marion.
Kv3
Excerpt from Red Sky Morning copyright © 2012 by Greg Marion
All rights reserved.
Except for brief passages quoted by a reviewer in a newspaper or magazine or as permitted
under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this book may be reproduced, distributed,
or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system
without the prior written permission of the author. This book is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author‘s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locals, or persons, living or dead, is
coincidental.
Thank you for respecting the author‘s rights.

Cover of Paper Tiger by Greg Marion – Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved.

Author‘s website: gregmarion.com
Email: gregmarion@outlook.com
The author is not responsible for websites not owned by the author.
ISBN-13: 978-0-9914141-1-6
ISBN-10: 099141411X



Dedication

This book is dedicated to my wife, Rose, who has long
encouraged me to be a writer.
And also to my mother, the late Elaine Marion, who taught my
brothers and sisters and I to appreciate literature from the time
we were old enough to turn pages.




Author‘s note

Though the terrorist group described in Paper Tiger is a product of my
imagination, I believe that some of their motives and goals closely
resemble those which inspire actual acts of terrorism we hear of in the
world today.
Though no internationally accepted definition for terrorism exists
just yet, the term is usually used to describe violent acts designed to
exploit fear and are perpetrated for political, religious, or ideological
goals, often with complete disregard for human life.
It seems that hardly a day goes by without at least one act of
terrorism taking place somewhere in the world. Sadly, the victims of
these crimes are often the weak, the innocent, or even young children
who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My purpose in fictionalizing and writing of a terrorist group is not to
foster veneration for their violent actions, nor is it simply an attempt to
delight readers, but rather to point out that greed, selfishness, and
cowardice are always at the core of their agenda.
Countering this scourge is in the interest of all nations, and I pray
that the strategies and actions currently being implemented to combat
terrorism will be successful, and that a mentality which is respectful of
the brotherhood of man along with a passion for freedom and human
rights will one day reach around the world.
May God help us in this.

Greg Marion



―The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely
tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide
to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure,
the process, is its own reward.”
~Amelia Earhart






-PROLOGUE-
Monday, December 22, 2014
Scottsburg, Virginia


“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots
and tyrants.”
~Thomas Jefferson


The stars in the eastern sky had begun to fade, one by one, signaling
the arrival of a new day. For some, this would be a bright and
promising new chapter in life‘s great book. For others, a grim and
unexpected ending.
The predawn light cast itself gradually over the clearing of thick
brown grass at the rear of the great lodge, which had been built high
upon the distant hill long ago.
Daniel Morris adjusted his night-vision binoculars, then looked up
at the lodge, checking again for movement. On the second-floor of the
house, a light came on. Moments later, another. He listened carefully
for sounds, noticing his breath as he exhaled into the frigid air.
At the edge of the clearing, he spotted a thick, fallen tree. He
crawled over to it on his belly, cautious to avoid being seen or heard.
When he had reached the spot, he rolled onto his back and rested for a
brief moment. He looked up through the bare branches and noticed a
dark and ominous cloud moving quickly from the north. Carefully, he
rolled back onto his belly and raised his binoculars over the top of the
log, peering up at the lodge once again. A downstairs light had been
turned on, which Morris knew was in the kitchen.
Several minutes later, he heard the sound of a screen door shut and
saw a small group—three men—as they made their way down the wide
stairs at the rear of the lodge and began to head across the clearing.
Each man was carrying a rifle and wearing the required orange hunting
vest.
Morris glanced down at his own rifle, a Weatherby .460, and gave it
a cursory inspection. As the men reached the center of the clearing,
one of them waved to the others, said a quiet word or two, then
headed off on his own.
This, Morris knew, was probably Martin Van Essen.
Morris adjusted his binoculars once again and zoomed in on the
man‘s face, recognizing him from the numerous photos and videos he
had studied. He watched carefully as Van Essen reached the edge of
the woods and proceeded down a narrow path leading into the thick of
the forest. Once Van Essen was out of sight, Morris looked around,
then stood to remove his black poncho, which he quickly folded and
placed into one of the pockets of his hunting jacket. He also took a


moment to roll the black ski mask up from his face, forming it into a
small hat covering only his head. Using a thin branch, he stirred the
leaves on the ground where he had lain, then left to follow Van Essen.
While stepping cautiously and quietly through the narrow trail,
Morris thought about this assignment, his first since being hired. He
wondered why his employer wanted this particular man, age 41,
eliminated. In truth, Morris knew little about Van Essen, other than
that he had a comfortable home located only forty minutes from
Langley. Thus, Morris suspected that Van Essen was a company man.
Probably a CIA field agent, he thought. Or perhaps a double agent.
Morris checked his watch and saw it was 7:15 a.m. The sun would
rise in about ten minutes. As he glanced upward, however, he could tell
that the daylight would be abated by the dark clouds now covering the
sky.
As he continued along the trail, Morris recalled receiving the
assignment by way of his newly implanted communication device,
which had been surgically inserted under the skin of his auditory canal.
This small apparatus, only about the size of a pea, allowed him to
receive messages from his employer. In addition, it allowed him to
make brief recordings. The device was controlled by a special ring
which Morris wore on his right third finger. One side of the ring was
made of platinum, which could be held close to the implanted device
to begin recording. The other side, which appeared to be inlaid with
gold, was used to stop the recording or turn off the device entirely.
Morris was told that he was one of the first men in the world to have
one of these implanted.
About one hundred yards ahead, Morris spotted Van Essen standing
at the top of a hill. Quickly, Morris ducked behind a tree and watched
as Van Essen continued walking until he was once again out of sight.
Morris glanced around for a moment, then headed up the hill. This,
the prestigious James River Hunting Preserve, consisted of over 7,000
acres of private hunting land. Morris knew that only a few hunters
would be on the property this close to the holiday. He also recognized
that it was just as important to finish the job as it was to do so without
being spotted. According to the financial records which Morris had
accessed, Van Essen had been coming here each Christmas season for
almost ten years.


This, however, would be his last hunting trip.
While proceeding quietly up the slope, Morris noticed that large
snowflakes had started to fall. As he finally reached the top of the hill,
he crouched down and looked around. Using his binoculars, he
scanned the area below. At the bottom of the hill, he saw that the
woods gave way to a large clearing of snow and tall grass. As he
focused, he spotted a large whitetail buck in the distance. The animal
had a rack of perhaps twelve points, and probably weighed well over
two hundred pounds. Morris searched the lower hillside and soon saw
Van Essen, who had apparently spotted the deer too and was preparing
to take aim from behind a thick tree.
Morris stood and began to move closer to Van Essen. As he
stepped from the trail, he failed to notice a long, dry branch lying in his
path. As he stepped onto the branch, it snapped with a loud cracking
sound. At that, the deer looked up for a brief moment, then darted
away. With a few quick leaps, the buck disappeared from sight into the
thick woods.
Morris looked down at Martin Van Essen, who he noticed was now
looking up at him. For a long tense moment the two stared at each
other. Finally, Van Essen breathed a deep sigh, then shook his head
and turned away. As he began to step toward the clearing, Morris
looked around. Seeing no one, he raised his rifle and put his eye into
the scope. Once he had his target in the crosshairs, he prepared to pull
the trigger.
Suddenly, Van Essen stopped and turned to see that Morris had his
weapon raised and pointed at him. Before he could react, however,
Morris squeezed the trigger and fired one shot.
The bullet found its mark, striking Van Essen in the left chest.
Looking through the scope, Morris watched his victim fall to the
ground, face up. He then lowered his rifle and looked around once
again before he dashed down the hill.
Once he had reached the body, he made a quick assessment and
deduced that the bullet had pierced Van Essen‘s heart. He pulled his
hunting glove from his hand, leaving his thin latex glove in place. He
carefully assessed the victim for a pulse or respirations, but there was
neither.


Quickly, Morris removed Van Essen‘s wallet from his pocket and
checked it to be sure. His Virginia Driver License showed he was
Martin Van Essen. Date of birth: February 26, 1973. Date of death, he
thought, December 22, 2014.
Morris slid the wallet back into Van Essen‘s pocket. As he began to
turn away, he looked and saw that the victim‘s right glove had a trigger
seam, and that his fingers were outside the glove. This, of course,
would be normal for someone who was preparing to fire a rifle.
Looking closer, however, Morris noticed that Van Essen was wearing a
ring on his right third finger. He crouched down and saw that the ring
appeared to be platinum on one side and had a gold inlay on the other.
Seeing this, Morris quickly turned Van Essen‘s head to one side and
glanced into his ear. There, he noticed the telltale bump at the bottom
of his ear canal.
At that, a sudden chill came over him. At once, Morris jumped to
his feet and ran back up the nearby hill from where he came.
Trembling, he stopped to glance back at the body for a brief moment,
then shook his head in grief and continued running. If he could escape
unseen, his first assignment would be a success, and this dark chapter
would be behind him.
In his heart, however, he mourned. He felt a sense of overwhelming
anguish and regret, knowing he had just shot and killed one of his own
kind. A rare and endangered species at that.
A President‘s Agent.



-PART I-
Six years later.
Saturday, August 1, 2020
Tokyo, Japan


“In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned
that way.”
~Franklin D. Roosevelt



Chapter 1

The flight had been unusually rough. I had to deal with plenty of
turbulence, a snooty flight attendant, and a crying baby who required
four diaper changes in the last two hours. I‘m not complaining, I‘m just
really looking forward to getting off this plane.
I looked up and saw the flight attendant coming down the aisle, and
I knew she would find something to tell me.
―You‘ll need to put your tray table in the upright position, Mr. Van
Essen. We‘ll be landing soon.‖
See? Even in business class I get picked on.
Anyway, I was about to land in Tokyo, which was about the last
place I wanted to be aside from this plane. Not that I have anything
against a busy city of 40 million, but with the summer Olympics in full
swing it was going to be standing room only.
The things we do for our kids, right?
Before turning off my reader, I glanced through a few photos of my
daughter, Chandis, who was the reason why I was taking this trip.
Chandis had been a shoe-in for the U.S. Gymnastics Team and had
been training hard for this week virtually every day for the past eight
years. During tryouts, however, she severely sprained her right ankle
and, sadly, did not make the team.
Nonetheless, she and her mom, my wife Jessica, have been here
since the opening ceremonies to help cheer on her friends. I hoped
that this would put some closure on something that I knew must have
been devastating for a fifteen year-old girl.
After the pilot‘s announcement, I slipped the reader into my small
carry-on bag under the seat and checked my seat belt. The flight
attendants, I noticed, had taken their seats and buckled in as well. After
a minute or so, the bright city lights of Tokyo came into view below us.
We continued our descent and I heard the engines slow as the pilot
made a few adjustments. I leaned my head back and prepared for the
landing.


As the rear wheels touched down, a sudden shockwave exploded
through the fuselage. All at once, the sound of twisting metal roared
through my head. I looked in time to see the right landing gear
assembly as it ripped from the plane. The wing then slammed solidly to
the ground, emitting a fireworks display of sparks and flames while
swinging us off the runway and across the airfield.
I was jolted forward and my head smashed into the seat in front of
me. After that, I was tossed sideways against the window. In that
instant, I saw the landing gear that had detached was now tumbling
through the air. It crashed violently into the tail of the plane with
tremendous force. Upon impact, the rear of the plane erupted into
flames and exploded away from the main body.
The plane was being tossed up and down and I gripped onto my
seat with all my strength. Around me, passengers were screaming in
terror. I looked and saw the right wing erupt into a huge ball of fire. It
then ripped away from the plane as we skipped and bounced across the
grassy airfield.
Behind me, I felt a rush of air as the skin of the fuselage began to
peel back and shred from the plane. Dead ahead, I could see the
control tower and could tell we were on a collision course with it. I
braced myself as the plane spun across the ground. Seconds later, the
front of the plane crashed into the tall tower and exploded into pieces.
The seat in front of me broke from its mounts and fell back onto me,
crushing my left shoulder. At that moment, the roof over my head tore
open. I looked up to see the top of the tower leaning over sharply and
could tell it was about to fall my way.
In an instant, I unfastened my belt and climbed up on top of my
seat. Once there, I reached and pulled myself through the hole in the
roof. As I climbed, I felt a sharp piece of metal gouge into my inner
thigh. With no time, I let the metal tear through my skin. After that, I
slid off the roof of the plane. Once I hit the ground, I rolled, then
stood and hobbled away from the wreckage as fast as I could. As I
turned around, I saw the huge control room come crashing down onto
the aircraft. The front of the plane including the section where I was
seated was crushed flat. The ground shook, and I fell forward, landing
on my face. As I stood to move further away, I felt the Earth continue
to move and fell to the ground again. All around me, I noticed


buildings shaking while fences rattled, vehicles rocked, and light poles
swayed about. I realized only then that I was in the midst of an
earthquake.
I tried to stand again, but soon found myself dizzy. While my vision
narrowed, I looked at my pant leg, which I saw was torn. Beneath that,
I saw blood squirting out from an artery. I sat and held my hand firmly
over the wound while I took deep, steady breaths and tried to remain
conscious.
Moments later, the ground stopped shaking and I watched while
travelers and airport personnel scurried about. One of them, a young
Japanese man, ran over to me. Seeing that I was alive and seemingly
well, he ran to look for others in more urgent need. I continued
watching while fire trucks, ambulances, and emergency vehicles hurried
about with their lights flashing and sirens wailing. While I watched this,
I thought about my daughter, Chandis, and my wife, Jessica, and I
hoped they were safe.
Eventually, the young Japanese man I had seen earlier returned.
After assessing my wounds, he waved an ambulance over. Before long,
a team of medics had my bleeding under control and my thigh and
hands bandaged. They also pointed to my left upper arm, which was
throbbing, and let me know that I had probably fractured the bone
there. They also pointed to other parts of me and explained a few
things in Japanese that I did not understand. The medics placed my
arm into a sling, then handed me a bottled water and began to leave.
When I protested, one of them turned back and managed to convey to
me, ―No hospital!‖ and then left. After letting that roll around in my
head for a moment, I realized that the hospital was no more.
I felt thirsty and drank the bottle of water in seconds. After a few
minutes, I felt well enough to walk, so I climbed to my feet and began
heading toward the terminal. When I was about halfway there, I knelt
down and vomited some of the water. The pain in my left arm was
becoming more intense and it was hard to think of anything else.
Nonetheless, I was determined to find where my wife and daughter
were, and I was praying they were all right. I took my phone from my
pocket and turned it on. Once the phone powered up, I saw what I‘d
expected: no cell service.


I was shocked to see how much of the main terminal had collapsed.
I managed to enter through an access door on the ground level, then
climbed up a flight of stairs taking one step at a time. After reaching
the top, I limped to the other side of the terminal and then out onto
the roadway. From there, I could see that the entire center section of
the huge building had collapsed, crushing dozens, perhaps hundreds of
people under it. I staggered over to where emergency workers and
volunteers were working to sift people out from under the wreckage.
I noticed there were a dozen or so bodies lined up along the curb,
each covered with a sheet. I watched for a few minutes as the rescuers
pulled another victim from under the rubble. After they had
determined the person was dead, they wrapped the body in a sheet and
laid it in the row beside the others. As they did that, I heard a phone
ring, and saw one of the rescuers pull a cell from his pocket and begin
speaking. I checked my phone, and saw there was cell service in this
spot.
Quickly, I pressed Chandis‘s number, hoping she was somewhere
where a call would go through. As I held the phone to my ear, I heard
another phone ring somewhere behind me. I turned and looked along
the roadway, but saw no one. As the ringing continued, I stepped
closer to the curb where the bodies were laid out. There, the sound
seemed to grow louder. As Chandis‘s phone went to voicemail, I ended
the call and quickly redialed. Again, a phone began chiming right
behind me. I soon realized, to my horror, that the sound of the
ringtone was coming from under one of the sheets.
Oh God, I thought to myself, please not her.
Frantically, I listened over the row of bodies until I found the source
of the ringing. I pulled my injured arm from the sling. A deep feeling
of dread came over me and I held my breath as my trembling hand
pulled the sheet from the victim‘s face. Before my eyes lay my young
daughter, Chandis, bloodied, but nonetheless beautiful.
―No!‖ I cried aloud. ―Oh God—please no!‖
I swept my child into my arms and wept like I had never wept
before. Through my tears, I looked into her eyes and saw that the life
was gone from them. I looked up and called to God again as I held her
tight. A few of the rescuers gathered around, but no one spoke a word.


Then, suddenly, I thought of my wife, Jessica. Gently, I lay
Chandis‘s head onto the pavement and wiped some of the blood-
soaked strands of hair from her pretty face. Tears fell from my eyes
onto her forehead, and I wiped those away, too. I then pulled the sheet
from the person beside her, and saw that it was not Jessica. I placed the
sheet back over the person‘s face. I stood and moved to the next body
and looked under that sheet, but that was not her either.
If Chandis was here, I thought, her mother would have been with her.
Desperately, I began moving from one body to the next, pulling the
sheets back to see if one of them was my wife. Some of the faces were
unrecognizable, so I pulled those sheets completely back to be certain.
The rescuers were obviously disturbed by this, but no one dared stop
me.
After I had checked all of the bodies, I walked back to where
Chandis lay and sat beside her, holding her small hand in mine. As I
looked up, I saw a team of rescuers carrying yet another body, the body
of a woman.
I jumped up and ran over to where they were laying the victim onto
the ground, and I could tell even from a distance that it was Jessica. As
I arrived at her side I fell to my knees and held her. For a moment, she
gasped, and then coughed weakly. While I held her bloodied head in
my hand she opened her eyes and looked up into mine. She struggled
to speak and coughed again. I turned her head gently to the side and
allowed blood to run from her mouth.
She then looked back at me with desperate eyes. ―Where‘s…where‘s
our baby? Where‘s Chandis?‖
―She‘s okay,‖ I told her, which of course was a lie.
She studied me for a moment. Though I tried, I couldn‘t hide the
truth from my face and she knew me well enough to see it. At that, she
sobbed for a moment, then began gasping for air.
I shook her in my arms and begged her, ―Jessica—hang in there!
Stay with me!‖ I felt her body becoming limp in my hands. ―Chandis is
fine,‖ I cried. ―She made it!‖ But she knew that wasn‘t true.
I watched as her eyes slowly rolled back. Moments later, I sensed
that her spirit had left her body and I knew she was gone. I knelt


beside her for a long while, weeping and calling out to God, but again
to no avail.
Just like that, she and Chandis were gone forever and nothing on
Earth would bring them back.
After some time, one of the rescuers came and spoke to me. She
was a young girl and had a pad of paper and a pen with her. She
crouched beside me and softly said, ―I‘m sorry, sir, for your loss.‖
I looked at her and nodded.
She waited for a long moment before she inquired, ―What was her
name, if I may ask?‖
―Jessica,‖ I replied. ―Jessica Van Essen. She was my wife.‖
She wrote that down.
The young woman seemed very patient and understanding, which I
appreciated. After another long moment she asked, ―She was an
American?‖
I nodded once again and then pointed over to where Chandis‘s body
lay. ―And so was my daughter, Chandis Van Essen.‖
She glanced over to where I pointed, and then at me again before
adding the name to her list. After that she asked, ―May I have your
name, sir, if you don‘t mind?‖
I turned my eyes from my wife and looked around at the wreckage
and chaos surrounding us. There were flashing lights, smoke, and the
sounds of sirens and panic everywhere. People in despair were holding
each other and weeping, and there was a feeling of death and utter
sadness hanging in the air. I looked over at a group of rescuers who
were carrying yet another victim out from under the rubble. I also
looked at the row of bodies and saw that it was becoming longer.
Finally, I looked at the woman. ―My name is Craig Van Essen.‖ I
thought for a moment and added, ―But don‘t write that down.‖



-PART II-
Five months later.
Friday, January 1, 2021
Washington, D.C.


“You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”
~Harry S. Truman


Chapter 2

From the North Portico, I stepped into the State Floor Entrance Hall
where I was soon greeted, surprisingly, by the First Lady. She was
wearing an elegant evening gown and welcomed me graciously. I
introduced myself, of course, and was shown to a table of hors
d'oeuvres and refreshments.
―Help yourself to anything you like, Mr. Van Essen,‖ she said,
smiling politely, ―and Happy New Year.‖ Before she left, she turned to
me and mentioned, ―We‘ll gather in the State Dining Room for dinner
at six. In the meantime, I‘ll let Mark know you‘re here.‖
I smiled back at her and nodded, though I had no idea who Mark
was. Actually, I had no idea why I had been invited to the White House
at all. In fact, my fellow agents thought I had concocted the whole
thing. Until I showed them my invitation, that is.
A group of musicians were seated to one side and playing classical
music while a few couples mingled and worked the crowd. I walked
over to the south end of the room where I stepped through the door
and looked up and down the long, bright red-carpeted Cross Hall. On
the opposite side of the hall was the unique and elliptically shaped Blue
Room, which was decorated at this time with a large ornate Christmas
tree.
I walked across the wide hall and entered the room. As I began to
look around, I saw three young ladies standing near the tree. They were
dressed in formal gowns and each was holding a fluted champagne
glass while giggling and whispering back and forth to each other. As I
walked close, one of them turned to me and asked, ―So, are you a
senator or a Secret Service guy or what?‖
She was a tall, attractive girl, though I could tell she was young, only
about twenty or so. I could also tell she‘d had more than one glass of
champagne already. ―Neither,‖ I replied. ―I‘m with the Department of
the Interior.‖
She looked around the room and told me, ―Well, you did a good job
with the place.‖


I laughed at her joke, then stepped over and introduced myself, ―I‘m
Craig Van Essen. Happy New Year.‖
She raised her glass and gazed at me with wanting eyes. ―Happy
New Year, Craig. I‘m Meagan.‖
I smiled and asked them, ―What brings the three of you to the
White House?‖
A second one spoke up. ―We were recipients of the President‘s
Scholarship. The President always invites the new graduates to the
White House on New Year‘s to celebrate.‖
―Congratulations on your graduation.‖
She smiled at that and introduced herself. ―I‘m Patty. Patty
Deangelo.‖
Patty, Meagan, and I chatted for a minute or so. After that, I turned
and looked at the third girl, who I could see was very petite but by far
the prettiest of the three. She was dressed in an elegant red gown and
had on a pearl necklace, which looked lovely against her light brown
skin.
She saw that I had noticed her and extended her tiny hand. ―Happy
New Year, Mr. Van Essen,‖ she said. ―I‘m Raquel Richards.‖
Just then, I heard footsteps coming from behind me and I turned to
see a man whom I thought I recognized from the TV news.
―Craig Van Essen?‖ he asked.
I nodded.
―I‘m glad you could make it.‖ He held out his hand. ―I‘m Mark
Westfall, the White House Chief of Staff.‖
We shook hands. ―It‘s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Westfall—‖
―Please, call me Mark.‖
―Okay, Mark.‖ I took a moment to introduce him to Meagan, Patty,
and Raquel, and then asked him, ―Was it you that invited me here
tonight?‖ I glanced around and admitted, ―I‘m not exactly sure why
I‘m here.‖


―Officially, it was the President that invited you,‖ he explained,
―though I may have had something to do with it.‖ He turned and
waved at an older couple as they passed by, then told me, ―You and I
have some important business to discuss, Craig. Can we go to my
office?‖
―Of course.‖
He and I once again wished the young ladies a Happy New Year
before we excused ourselves.
I followed Mark back to the Entrance Hall. There, we headed down
a flight of stairs, then out through the Palm Room to the West Wing.
From the West Colonnade, we passed security guards and entered a
corridor. I followed Mark through the maze of halls until we had
reached his large office on the far southwest corner of the wing.
He motioned to a cushioned chair near the fireplace. ―Have a seat,
Craig, and make yourself comfortable.‖
Mark sat on a chair opposite me and mentioned, ―You must be
wondering why on earth you‘ve been asked to be here tonight. Right?‖
I nodded. ―That may have crossed my mind.‖
He sat forward and began to explain, ―We have a special situation
that‘s come up, and we think you‘ll be able to help us.‖
―By ‗we‘ you mean…?‖
―The President, the Vice-President, and myself, of course.‖
―What‘s it about?‖ I asked. ―How can I help?‖
His tone became more serious. ―First of all, let me explain that
we‘ve read the reports of what happened to you—to your family, that
is—in Tokyo. The President and the Vice-President asked me to again
convey their deepest sympathy concerning your loss.‖ He added, ―I
offer mine as well.‖
I nodded. ―Thank you.‖ I remember seeing a bouquet from the
President at Jessica and Chandice‘s funerals five months ago, and I
knew that was probably arranged by Mark Westfall.


Mark continued, ―As you know, Craig, the Tokyo earthquake was a
world tragedy. In fact, the timing of it has a lot of people wondering.‖
He looked at me, waiting for me to comment.
―It did seem like quite a coincidence,‖ I told him, ―especially since
the Olympic games had just started. Some people, I suppose, might
wonder if the earthquake may have somehow been…manufactured.‖
He nodded. ―Correct. In fact, the President is one of those people.‖
I pointed out, ―To my knowledge, the CIA already has a team
investigating that. I happen to know that an extremist group based in
Sweden—‖
―They call themselves ‗Skilja‘ or ‗The Skild,‘‖ he said, ―which I‘m
told is Swedish for Distinct or The Separate. I‘ve read the report on
them—and so has the President.‖
―Do you think they‘ve invented some way of manufacturing an
earthquake?‖
He shook his head. ―As far as I know, they‘re just a paper tiger. I
don‘t think they‘d have the money or resources to develop something
that…‖
―Deadly?‖
He nodded. ―Let‘s hope not anyway.‖ He informed me, ―Last week,
several members of the Skilja were captured while trying to break into
the EU Parliament building in Belgium.‖
―I didn‘t know that.‖
―Few people do.‖ He continued, ―The Skilja are political radicals
focused on trying to keep the world from globalizing and uniting. I
guess they see the European Union as a problem.‖
―What does that have to do with me?‖
He leaned back on the couch and appeared to be in deep thought
for a moment. Finally, he asked, ―What would you think if we sent you,
by yourself, on a mission to try to determine if the earthquake was
man-made or not? Would you be open to that?‖
―Certainly,‖ I replied. ―But wouldn‘t you just arrange this through
my boss at Langley—or the director?‖


―They can‘t know about it, Craig. This is too secret—even for them.‖
I looked at him curiously.
He explained, ―You wouldn‘t be working for the CIA any more,
Craig. You‘d be working directly for the President himself.‖
That caught me by surprise. ―You want me to quit the CIA?‖
He nodded.
―How would that work?‖
Mark leaned forward and asked, ―Have you ever heard of a position
known as The President‘s Agent?‖
I chuckled. ―Yeah, I guess I‘ve heard of it, but it‘s just…it‘s not
real…‖
He looked at me with a solemn expression.
I cleared my throat. ―It‘s real?‖
Again, he nodded. ―Like I said, you‘d be working directly for the
President. Only he along with the Vice-President and I would be aware
of your employment. Interested?‖
I thought for a moment and asked, ―Why me?‖
―Besides your obvious personal stake in this, there are a few other
things that make us feel you‘d be the right person for the position. To
be perfectly frank, you come with no strings attached—―
―Which is a polite way of saying I have no family, right?‖
―I hope that doesn‘t seem too—‖
―It‘s fine. Don‘t worry about it.‖
―Also, you‘ve been described as a man of good judgment.‖
―The CIA says that about all of its agents.‖ I smiled and added,
―Whatever good judgment I may possess comes mostly from the
experience gained by having first demonstrated poor judgment.‖
He grinned.
―And I‘d be assigned to find out what actually happened in Tokyo?‖
―That would be your first mission.‖


All this had caught me quite by surprise. ―How long would the
President need me?
―That depends on the voters. You‘d be his agent until either his one
or two terms are over.‖ He lowered his glasses down onto the end of
his nose and continued, ―After that, Craig, as a reward for a job well
done, you‘d be placed into a high position in industry, finance, or
maybe politics—‖
―No politics for me, thanks.‖
He chuckled at that and had to agree.
I told him, ―If you could promise to get me back into the aerospace
industry when I‘m finished, then I‘m definitely interested.‖
―Consider it done.‖ As he stood and shook my hand, he told me,
―I‘m glad to have you on board, Craig, and I‘m sure the President and
Vice-President will feel the same.‖ He stepped over to his desk and
used a digital key from his pocket to open a cabinet. From the cabinet
he removed a black aluminum attaché case. ―This will be for you,‖ he
said. ―The agents upstairs can hold onto it while we‘re dining.
Whatever happens, don’t lose it, okay?‖
―Okay. What is it?‖
This contains secret codes for your new foreign accounts, plus
passports, IDs, website and server passcodes—all the usual spy stuff,
or so I‘m told.‖ He added, ―You‘ll also be receiving what we call an
ICD, which is an Implanted Communication Device. It‘s a tiny thing
that goes under the skin of your auditory canal—in your ear, that is.‖
That sounded painful. ―What‘s that used for?‖
―It‘s like a built-in telephone, sort of, and you can record sounds on
it, too.‖ He let me know, ―It‘s how the President will communicate to
you your missions.‖
I nodded. ―Is that how I‘ll contact him, too?‖
―Actually, no,‖ he replied. ―For deniability purposes, you can never
contact any of us in any way. You can never mention to anyone that you
work for the President, either. In fact, after tonight, we‘ll probably
never see you again. Your intelligence reports will go directly to the


secured web server we‘ve set up for you.‖ He added, ―The passwords
and the information about that are in the attaché case.‖
I let all that roll around in my head for a moment, then asked,
―What about money? Is that—?‖
―The codes and passwords for that are in the attaché case, too. Like
I said, ‗Don‘t lose it.‘‖
―If it‘s money, I‘ll guard it with my life.‖
He chuckled at that, then told me, ―A man will be visiting you in
your hotel room tomorrow morning to insert the ICD and then test it.
Sometime after that, you‘ll hear from the President concerning the
details of your first mission.‖
I nodded in agreement.
He paused for a moment, then asked, ―Can I ask you a personal
question, Craig, if you don‘t mind?‖
―Ask away.‖
―According to your file, you were once part of NASAs astronaut
corps. Right?‖
Here we go. ―That‘s correct, Mark.‖
He cleared his throat. ―Why exactly did you leave? I mean, you
spent all that time in training, then…‖
As I remembered back, a grin came to my face. ―It‘s a long story,‖ I
replied, ―but, basically, an Astronaut named Tom Bennett and I
thought we‘d pull a prank on the Corps Commander, who was, for lack
of a better description, an asshole extraordinaire. Apparently, he didn‘t
share the same sense of humor as Tom and I, so you could say it kind
of backfired on us.‖ I added, ―You had to be there.‖
He looked at me in an odd way, then glanced at his watch. ―Hey, it‘s
almost dinner time. We‘d better get going or the First Lady will kill us.‖
As I stood to leave, I asked, ―The people they arrested from Skild;
why are they being held?
He stopped and turned to me. ―Have you ever heard of Oberwald?‖


In fact, I had. I knew that Oberwald was a prison set up primarily
for Europe‘s terrorists, and was located in a remote area of southern
Switzerland. ―I‘ve heard of it. Is that where they are?‖
―Yep. Nine of them, anyway.‖
Again, I went to thinking. I knew the authorities in Europe could
not interrogate the prisoners without their legal representatives present.
After a moment I asked, ―What if I wanted to be temporarily placed as
a prisoner at Oberwald? Could you arrange for that?‖
He shook his head and chuckled. ―No, I can‘t do that, Craig.‖ He
then looked at me and grinned wryly. ―But I‘ll bet our boss can. Let‘s
go meet him.‖ Mark gave me a pat on the back and we headed to the
State Dining Room.
The New Year, I thought, was starting off with a bang.
Little did I know what an understatement that would turn out to be.



-PART III-
One week later.
Monday, January 25, 2021
Oberwald, Switzerland


“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.”
~Franklin D. Roosevelt



Chapter 3

Well, Oberwald wasn‘t so bad. It appeared to be a new facility and
remarkably clean, though a lot smaller than I had anticipated. My first
week as a jailbird went fairly well, though I still hadn‘t learned as much
as I‘d hoped about the mysterious group, the Skilja.
I was placed in a cell with a big Swede named Bjorn Gundersen, one
of the group‘s members. Bjorn looked to be in his early fifties. He was
broad shouldered and strong-looking with spikey blondish hair and a
long beard. He told me he‘d spent most of his life in the shipping
industry, working on cargo ships. Other than that, he never mentioned
anything about his family, his background, or his education, though he
seemed to be one of the smarter ones I‘d met. Maybe the only smart
one. Lucky for me, he spoke English, although with a funny accent.
When I first arrived, Bjorn warned me that the meals were laced
with something. At first, it sounded like he had said ‗laxatives,‘ but then
I realized he was saying ‗sedatives,‘ which made more sense—except
for the night they served borscht. I noticed that the prisoners did seem
slightly sedated and sleepy most of the time, the only exceptions being
our two annoying neighbors in the next cell, Carl and Werner.
I‘d been in two fights so far, both of them with those idiots. In the
last fight, I received a black eye and a broken lip from Werner, and
from me he received a very sore fist. Hopefully, he learned his lesson.
Anyway, I soon discovered that the Skilja‘s leader had not been
captured and was in hiding and still running the group‘s business. My
cellmate, Bjorn, claimed he was not an actual member of the group,
which is probably the story I‘d go with, though he did admit he could
relate to the group‘s core beliefs.
According to Bjorn, the Skilja believe that the world‘s nations and
people groups were separated long ago by the man upstairs, and they
were meant to stay separated. Bjorn explained, ―The Skilja members
maintain that all attempts to unite the world in currency, language, and
other ways are all acts of defiance in the eyes of God. They also see
those attempts as a means of ushering in the reign of antichrist, thus
bringing about the end of the world.‖


I was going to ask how they felt about the Olympics, but I decided
to hold off on that.
Bjorn continued, ―Their goal is to put an end to the European
Union as well as the United Nations and all entities that promote
globalization.‖
For a small group that probably had zero funding and no political
friends, I felt they really had their work cut out for themselves, though
I kept that to myself, too.
As usual, our cell door opened at 7 a.m., and Bjorn and I headed to
the mess hall for breakfast along with the other men. Altogether, I
counted thirty prisoners, all of whom were in here for committing at
least one act of terrorism. Except me, of course. All the violent acts
I‘ve perpetrated were totally legal.
While Bjorn and I stood in line for our breakfast, I saw that two of
the prisoners were stationed behind the counter and helping to serve
meals. One of them, I noticed, looked around and gave Bjorn a subtle
thumbs-up signal, to which Bjorn nodded in return. I wasn‘t sure what
that was about, but we were given a bowl of Bircher muesli and a
carton of milk.
We sat at a table next to Nigel Adams who also spoke English,
though with a Brit accent. Over our cereal, Nigel, who was either full
of shit or simply pompous, commented that he, Bjorn, and I seemed to
be the only educated ones in the facility. In conversation, he asked me,
―What‘s your background, Craig? You‘re an educated man, I can tell.‖
Well, I didn‘t know why he was asking, but I wasn‘t going to let him
or anyone else here know too much about me. I told Nigel, ―I did a
little of this and that. I went to college—but it was a miracle that I
graduated.‖
He smiled politely. ―I‘m sure you‘re being modest. What school did
you attend?‖
―Oh, just some local colleges. No place you‘ve ever heard of, I‘m
sure.‖
Well, Nigel must have figured he wasn‘t going to squeeze me for
more than that, so he turned to Gundersen and gave it a shot. ―How
about you, Bjorn?‖


―Same as Mr. Van Essen,‖ Bjorn answered. ―No place you‘ve ever
heard of. Why do you ask?‖
Nigel shook his head. ―Just trying to have a conversation, really. I
don‘t mean to pry, but we chaps are stuck here together, aren‘t we?‖
After I had finished my meal, I stared out through the drab, barred
windows on the other side of the mess hall. It was freezing outside and
I could see that a light snow was now beginning to fall. I looked over at
Bjorn who‘d just pulled out a deck of cards. I was hoping that Nigel,
who I‘d been told was not a member of the Skilja, would move to
another table so I could be free to find out more about Bjorn.
The three of us played a few hands of Swedish Rummy, which I
soon learned is the same thing as Crazy Eights. Bjorn was lucky and
won the first three games. Finally, Nigel excused himself and went to
use the toilet.
After Nigel left, Bjorn and I decided to play one last hand. While
looking down at his cards, he mentioned, ―I studied Geochemistry at
Stockholm University.‖ He then looked up at me and added, ―After
that, I sailed to your side of the sea where I attended Columbia.‖
―Really? What did you take while you were at Columbia?‖
He thought about that and laughed to himself. ―I was young, so I
think I spent most of my time taking American girls to bed.‖
We both chuckled at that.
He then looked around and whispered, ―Condensed Matter
Physics.‖
Well, that struck me as interesting.
Bjorn then looked at me and said nothing, which was my cue to tell
him about myself.
I leaned forward and said in a low voice, ―I didn‘t want Nigel to
know this, but I have a degree in Engineering from Texas A&M, and a
Masters from the Air Force Institute of Technology.‖ I glanced around
and added, ―I also completed Astronaut Candidate Training at NASA.‖
Bjorn nodded. ―Very impressive, Mr. Van Essen.‖
―I took a few American girls to bed, too.‖


We both chuckled again.
He then told me, ―I know my reasons for keeping things from our
friend Nigel. What are yours?‖
I exhaled deeply and shook my head. ―Just a feeling really. I guess I
don‘t trust him.‖
He nodded. ―You and I share the same feeling.‖ He set his last card
down and grinned. ―But not the same luck.‖
I looked at his hand, which was another winner. ―I guess it‘s not my
lucky day.‖ I folded my remaining cards which he shuffled together
and then slid back into his pocket.
Just then, Nigel came to the table and asked Bjorn, ―May I borrow
your deck of cards, mate? The blokes at the table over there look a bit
bored.‖ He pointed his attention to where a few members of the Skilja
group looked like they were ready for a nap.
Bjorn looked where Nigel was pointing, then turned to me and
whispered, ―See what I mean about the sedatives?‖ He pulled his
playing cards from his pocket and began to hand then to Nigel. As
Nigel reached to take them, Bjorn pulled back and warned him, ―If you
don‘t bring these cards back within an hour, I‘ll have your little nuts cut
off. Understand…mate?‖
Nigel cleared his throat. ―Easy, Bjorn. I‘ll have them right back to
you. Don‘t worry.‖
After Nigel walked away with the deck, Bjorn and I laughed under
our breath. After a while, Bjorn lowered his voice and asked me,
―When you arrived at Oberwald, did the administrator speak with
you?‖
I nodded. ―He told me to behave myself and avoid relationships
that involve sex.‖
Bjorn grinned at that, then asked, ―Did he say anything to you about
the Skilja?‖
The correct answer to that was no, but I told Bjorn, ―He did, but
only in conversation. From what I could tell he didn‘t seem too
concerned with the group.‖ I then remembered what Mark Westfall


had said and added, ―He told me the Skilja were more of a paper tiger
than anything, and nothing to be feared.‖
Bjorn chuckled at that and shook his head. He then looked at me
with a more serious expression and asked, ―Tell me, Craig; what do you
think about what I told you about their cause? Does it seem silly to
you, or…?‖
Actually, it did, but I wanted to squeeze him for more information.
At the same time I didn‘t want to appear too eager, so I told him, ―I
understand about the power of God, Bjorn, and I understand what you
said about the problems with globalization. I just think it‘s too late to
reverse the direction the world has already taken.‖
―I tend to agree with that,‖ he said, ―though if the group had a way
of gaining the attention of the world, and in turn the ear of the decision
makers, then perhaps mankind would have a chance. The Skilja would
only need the correct assets and motivation to accomplish this.‖
Apparently, I had the right cellmate. In fact, I felt my first mission as
the President‘s Agent had taken a turn for the better. Now I just
needed to find out more about the ‗assets.‘ In a low voice I asked, ―But
you‘re not actually one of them, right?‖
―No,‖ he whispered in reply, ―but I do sympathize with their cause.
I try to offer them advice at times.‖ He leaned forward and added, ―If
there was a non-violent way of achieving their goals—with no
bloodshed or destruction—I would join them.‖
―I don‘t think it can be done,‖ I said. ―The world has gone too far.‖
He leaned back and seemed to think about that. After a moment, he
told me, ―Perhaps there is a way, my friend. If you and I were to put
our heads together, surely we could come up with a solution.‖ He
offered, ―You should consider working with me on this.‖
I motioned to the prison walls around us. ―I would, Bjorn, but you
have to realize that Oberwald is now our world.‖
He smiled at that, then leaned forward again and whispered, ―After
tonight, the world out there is ours.‖ At that, he motioned to the
windows where I turned to see snow gently falling. ―Join me,‖ he said.
―There is room for another.‖
I thought about what he was saying. ―Tonight?‖


He nodded. ―It is now or never, my friend.‖
He and I looked each other for a long moment. I wasn‘t sure what
he had planned, but I had a feeling it wasn‘t going to be anything
terribly stupid or desperate.
Finally, I told him, ―Count me in.‖
* * *
In the mess hall that night, Bjorn instructed me not to eat or drink
anything. Before our mealtime was over, he and I offered our food to
the guys seated next to us who gladly traded us for their empty plates.
About an hour later, everyone but us began complaining of stomach
discomfort and nausea. Soon after that, people were lined up at the
toilets to vomit. The guards became increasingly worried about the
situation and decided to send all the prisoners back up to their cells.
When we got to our jail cell, the two guys next door, Carl and
Werner, were both complaining of illness.
In a hushed voice Bjorn told them, ―We‘ve been poisoned, all of
us!‖ While we watched, Bjorn produced a small plastic catsup packet
and carefully opened the end of it. Instead of catsup, however, the
packet was filled with eight small oval-shaped pills.
He held them out and told me, ―This is the antidote. Take four of
them, quickly. Put them under your tongue and let them dissolve.‖
I grabbed the pills and did as he said.
Bjorn then took the remaining four pills himself. After that, he
opened a second packet of pills and reached over to the next cell.
―Take four of these, each of you. No more, no less—and be quick
about it.‖
Werner, the one that gave me the black eye, looked at Bjorn
suspiciously. ―How do I know this is not the poison?‖
―Look at everyone,‖ Bjorn replied, pointing his attention toward the
other prisoners moaning in their cells. ―We‘ve all been poisoned, you
fool! Take those now. Put them under your tongue or you will die!‖
He and Carl looked at each other for a moment, then put the pills in
their mouths.


―Where did you get those?‖ I asked. ―And what are they?‖
Bjorn laid down on his bed. ―Though we are in a prison we still
have friends. Now lie down quickly, Van Essen, before you fall and
hurt yourself.‖
I looked at my small bed and took his advice. As I felt the last of the
medication dissolve, I turned to him and asked, ―What were those
things, anyway?‖
He turned to me and whispered, ―They are a medicine called
Abstryl, a powerful narcotic. In the dose we just took, the medicine
should knock us out for a good while. When we wake up, my friend,
we‘ll either be dead or will have escaped.‖ He smiled and added,
―Either way, we‘ll be free from this place.‖
I thought about that and hoped I‘d wake up and find myself back
home and realize that all this was just a bad dream.
But today, I remembered, was not my lucky day.



Chapter 4

All at once, I woke up and began coughing violently while at the same
time gasping for air. During this, my eyes had watered and everything
was blurred, but I could see enough to tell that I was in the back of a
moving vehicle, a van, and that it was still dark outside. I turned onto
my side and coughed harder, trying to clear my lungs. A feeling of
nausea came over me and, seconds later, I vomited onto the floor.
After that, I felt someone patting me on the back. I wiped my eyes
and turned to see Bjorn Gundersen looking at me.
I caught my breath, then cleared my throat and asked him, ―Are we
dead?‖
He managed a smile. ―I‘m afraid, my friend, that that great
adventure has eluded us—at least for the moment.‖ He asked, ―How
do you feel?‖
I had to think about it. I looked at Bjorn again and realized he was
sitting atop an ambulance gurney. From the waist down, I could see he
was inside what appeared to be a body bag. I then looked down and
was shocked to see that I was lying in one as well.
Bjorn saw the look of astonishment on my face and began to laugh.
He explained, ―Our good friend, Axel Thorsen‖—he pointed to the
driver of the van—―came up with this idea.‖
―Body bags?‖
Bjorn explained, ―It was clever, really. Posing as a medical examiner,
Axel arrived at the prison during all the excitement and found you and
I unconscious in our beds. After a careful assessment, he declared us
dead.‖
I felt a bump as the van passed over a set of railroad tracks. We then
held on to our gurneys as Axel slowed down and navigated a turn.
After that, Bjorn continued, ―Once we were bagged and loaded into
the Coroner‘s van, our friend Axel gave each of us a shot to wake us
up again.‖ He took a long sip from a thermos and handed it over to
me.


I reached with my right arm and took the thermos. As I did, I
noticed that the muscle at my shoulder was sore and I figured that was
the injection site. ―A shot of what?‖ I asked.
Bjorn reached beside his body bag and grabbed a small empty vial
and replied, ―This is called Noloxone, and I think we each got about 10
mg.‖ He looked at me. ―We now have nothing to fear, Mr. Van Essen.
We have risen from the dead.‖
I asked Bjorn, ―What about the guys in the next cell, Carl and
Werner?
―Unfortunately for them, they took a different kind of sedative than
we did—the kind that you don‘t wake up from.‖ He grinned wryly and
explained, ―Their deaths made it easier to pass us off as being deceased
as well.‖
I nodded at that while trying to suppress my shock. After taking a
sip from the thermos, which I discovered was coffee, I turned to the
driver and mentioned, ―Thanks for bringing us back from hell, Axel.
We owe you one.‖
He glanced up at the center mirror and nodded his head, so I
guessed he understood English. I also guessed that Axel was about
thirty or so. He looked lean with brown hair, warm eyes, and a round
bearded face. To me, he didn‘t fit the role of an accomplice in a prison
break. He could easily pass as a medical examiner though.
Just then, I heard the sound of a European-style police siren and I
could tell it was coming from the road ahead. As the car sped by our
van, I saw Axel lean forward to watch it in his side mirror. Once he
was satisfied that it was not turning around to come after us, he
focused his attention back on the road. As he did, he realized too late
we were headed into a curve. He hit the brakes hard and turned the
wheel sharply, sending the clumsy vehicle into a spin on the icy road.
In the back, Bjorn and I were being tossed around.
Suddenly, the van slammed violently into a guardrail, sending both
Bjorn and myself flying out of our gurneys and body bags and
sprawling onto the floor.
Finally, the van came to a stop. Bjorn yelled out something in
Swedish while we wiggled ourselves out of our warm body bags. The


three of us then went outside to assess the damages. It was still
snowing and I noticed that an inch or two had accumulated on the
sides of the highway. The road itself looked icy. As I checked the van, I
saw that the right rear fender was crushed in and pressing against the
tire. Just as Axel arrived to examine the damage, I turned and saw
headlights coming our way.
I pointed to the fender and told Bjorn, ―Have Axel pull this out so it
doesn‘t rub on the tire. In the meantime, you and I need to get back in
the van.‖ I gestured to our orange prison overalls which made us stand
out like…well, like escaped prisoners.
He understood that and barked the message to Axel in Swedish.
After that, he and I climbed back into the van.
From inside, we could feel the vehicle jerking from side to side as
Axel pulled at the fender. That stopped as we heard a car pull up next
to us. Carefully, Bjorn moved to the console between the two front
seats and flipped it open. From inside, he removed two handguns
complete with shoulder holsters and spare clips, and handed one to
me.
I removed the gun and looked it over while listening to Axel and the
person in the car sharing a conversation. The handgun was a good old
Glock 9 mm, one of my all-time favorites. Behind the driver‘s seat,
Bjorn found two coats and a bag of clothes reserved for us, and we
began quietly changing.
After a minute or so, I heard the other car drive away and the van
began swaying from side to side once again. After we had finished
dressing, Bjorn pounded on the side of the van, signaling Axel to give
it up.
Axel ran to the front of the van and jumped in, then glanced back at
Bjorn and me and let us know, ―We‘re not too far.‖ At that, he threw
the shifter into gear and hit the gas. We could hear the tire rubbing
against the fender, and it sounded awful, but at least we didn‘t have far
to go.
Smoke was soon rolling out from the wheel well along with the
pungent smell of burning rubber. About one minute later, just as we
slowed to make a left turn, the tire finally blew. Axel turned and


glanced back at us nervously, then pulled well over to the side of the
road.
We all climbed out again. I looked around and saw we were close to
another railroad track, and there seemed to be a narrow riverbed
paralleling it on the far side. Bjorn and Axel discussed things for a
moment before Bjorn turned to me. ―Axel says that our other vehicle is
only half a kilometer this way.‖ He pointed down the road.
I thought for a moment and suggested, ―Before we leave, we should
move the van so it‘s out of sight.‖
Bjorn agreed. He climbed in and drove the van slowly forward, with
the blown rear tire clunking along. He then took a right turn onto a
side road where the railroad tracks crossed the highway. There, he
parked the vehicle against a high concrete wall where it would be
difficult to see.
From there, the three of us began trotting down the road while
watching both ways for more cars. Soon, we arrived at an area where I
saw a large two-story building on the left. A well-lit sign read ―Hotel
Walser‖ and Axel stopped there. After catching our breath for a
minute, we followed Axel through the long parking lot to where he
stopped at a vehicle, a Volvo XC60.
―This is the one,‖ Axel told us. He pressed the key to unlock the
doors and we piled in—them in the front, me in the back.
Wasting no time, Axel backed out of the spot and we headed out.
Instead of turning back where we came from, we turned left and
continued on the road, which was named Nufenenstrasse—or
something equally ridiculous.
Anyway, the road took us through a narrow valley before climbing
steeply up the ridge of a mountain. My ears popped as we drove
higher. We then began winding back and forth through sharp, hairpin
turns.
After about five miles of that, Bjorn turned around and let me
know, ―We‘re almost there, Craig.‖
―Almost where?‖ I asked. ―We‘re not staying anywhere near here are
we?‖


Bjorn grinned. Just as he was about to answer that, a vehicle
appeared from behind a curve ahead and sped past us. Bjorn and I
both turned quickly to see if it was a police car. Just as it was about to
disappear behind another curve, I saw its brake lights come on and the
vehicle came to an abrupt stop.
Bjorn saw that too and said something to Axel. As we rounded the
next sharp turn, Axel flipped our lights off and slowed down. After his
eyes had adjusted, he sped up for a moment, then took an abrupt right
turn. I looked and saw that we were now heading down a steep, narrow
service road, which descended into a vast, treeless valley below. Behind
us, I watched as the other car‘s headlights drove past the service road
entrance and continued along Nufenenstrasse. Or was it Nufenstrasse?
Anyway, my ears popped again as we descended further. After
another mile or two, we arrived at a small deserted parking area and
stopped there. The snow had stopped falling and the sky was beginning
to clear. Low in the west, the moon‘s white light illuminated everything
around us. As we climbed out of the car and headed out of the parking
area, I saw a large frozen lake at the bottom of the valley below.
Axel gestured to the lake and let me know, ―This is Griessee.‖
Well, that didn‘t sound too good.
Bjorn turned to me and explained, ―That, I guess, is the name of the
lake. Lake Griessee.‖
That did not help much, but I followed them down to the lake
anyway. As we walked closer, I saw that a high concrete dam, about a
thousand feet wide, had been built along the north side of the lake with
a walkway spanning the length of it. The frozen lake was about a half-
mile long and perhaps half as wide. The moonlight glistened across its
slate-colored surface while a light wind blew silvery snow about like
dust.
As we proceeded across the walkway, I let Bjorn and Axel know,
―This is really fascinating, guys. I‘m so glad we picked this spot for our
escape.‖
Bjorn seemed to enjoy keeping me in the dark. After a moment, he
stopped and pointed to a steep-sided Alpine mountain on the opposite


side of the lake. ―Do you see the base of that mountain, Mr. Van
Essen? Do you know what that is?‖
I looked and shook my head. ―The Matterhorn?‖
He laughed out loud and told me, ―That, my friend, is Italy.‖
I looked at the mountain for a moment. ―I always thought it was
shaped more like a boot.‖
He laughed at that one too, then gave me a firm pat on the back and
continued walking.
As we drew closer to the end of the walkway I asked, ―Is this the
plan, Bjorn? We‘re going to walk to Italy?‖
As he stepped from the walkway onto the frozen lake he turned to
me. ―No, Mr. Van Essen. That would be almost impossible from
here.‖
Axel nodded in agreement.
Bjorn added, ―Besides, I think we‘d freeze our dicks off if we tried.‖
At that, I nodded in agreement.
He and Axel then walked around a corner and gestured me to
follow them. As I rounded the corner I drew a startled breath. Before
me was an airplane.
Bjorn grinned widely. ―I think it would be much better to fly, don‘t
you?‖
I began to laugh as I studied the plane. ―This is an old Republic
Seabee, isn‘t it?‖
Axel was impressed by that. ―You know your planes.‖
I looked at the small aircraft and informed him, ―I was once a pilot.‖
I walked around the odd-looking craft while Bjorn and Axel went
about removing the tie-downs and window covers.
The retractable gears, I saw, had been fitted with skis, which was
something I had never seen on one of these before. The Seabee was an
amphibious plane, so the bottom of the fuselage was designed with a
hull like a boat complete with a small rudder in the rear. This would


allow the plane to land on water. With the gear lowered, it could land
on a standard runway—or, as in this case, on ice.
―Who landed this here?‖ I asked.
Axel turned to me and raised his hand proudly.
Bjorn let me know, ―Axel is not an experienced pilot.‖ He thought
for a moment and asked, ―Would you be able to fly a plane like this?‖
I looked at him and saw he was serious. Before answering, I walked
around the plane again while looking over the broad wings, the rear
prop, and the ailerons. I opened the left-side door and climbed in.
―There‘s only one way to find out,‖ I answered. ―Hop in.‖
After we were all seated, I took a few minutes to orient myself.
I fastened my seat belt and turned to Axel. ―I always wanted to fly a
plane.‖
He smiled nervously, no doubt wondering if I was joking or not.
I made a few adjustments, then turned the key, flipped on the
ignition, and pressed the starter switch. Slowly, the propeller began
spinning and the engine sputtered for a moment, then died. The
temperature was probably only around twenty degrees, so I knew this
was going to take a minute. I made a few more adjustments and tried a
second time. Again, the engine sputtered for a moment before it died.
Bjorn leaned forward from the back seat and informed me, ―There
is no contingency plan, Craig. If this thing doesn‘t start, we may well
end up walking to Italy.‖
―But you said we‘d freeze our dicks off.‖
―Just get this thing running.‖
I explained, ―So you know, Bjorn, this ‗thing‘ is about 75 years old.
It takes a lot of foreplay to get her juices going.‖ I wasn‘t sure that he
understood that, but the plane seemed to. As I hit the starter switch
again, the engine popped, backfired, and missed a few cylinders for a
few seconds, then suddenly roared to life as a thick cloud of dark
smoke rolled out from her exhaust pipes.
I let the engine warm for a few minutes while I familiarized myself
with the controls and watched the exhaust gas temperature gauges. The


fuel tanks were three-quarters full, so I assumed that Axel had filled up
nearby before landing here.
I turned and looked back at Bjorn, who was tightening his seat belt.
I spoke loudly over the sound of the motor. ―I think she‘s ready now.
What‘s our destination, Mr. Gundersen?‖
―South,‖ he replied. ―Stay as low as you can—and no lights!‖
Axel pointed to the ADF box and gave me a thumbs-up, letting me
know that our destination coordinates were already set. After another
minute, I brought the rpms up and we began sliding across the ice.
Once I had the plane positioned into the wind, I pushed the throttle
lever all the way forward and we started gaining speed. At once, the
plane began rumbling and vibrating as we moved along and the wings
began shaking wildly. The noise level inside soon became almost
deafening. I looked ahead, but with all the vibration and no lights to
guide me, I knew it would be difficult to gauge exactly where the ice
ended and where the rocky shoreline began.
After what seemed like a long time, we finally approached the speed
where I could pull up. I glanced over at Axel for a moment. By the
look on his face it seemed he was either terrified or was having a
seizure. At this point, the entire plane was juddering and pounding
over the ice like crazy. I gave it another few seconds for more speed,
then another few seconds just to mess with Axel. I then pulled back
gently on the control. The vibration stopped at once, my cue that we
were airborne.
None of this was particularly scary for me, but if it had been, this is
the part where I‘d relax my sphincters. I exhaled deeply and glanced
over at Axel again. He turned and gave me a nod of approval, though
he looked flushed. His expression told me he was still clinching his
butt cheeks. I was sure that flying here and landing on that frozen lake
must have been a harrowing experience for him.
I slapped Axel‘s arm and let him know, ―So far, this is the best
prison escape I‘ve ever been on.‖ I gave him a big grin.
While he processed that, I continued climbing to a comfortably low
altitude of about two-thousand feet, then swung south after clearing
the mountain. After that, I leveled off and turned again to Bjorn.
―Welcome to Italy, Mr. Gundersen. How far south are we heading?‖


―Our destination,‖ he replied, ―is just beyond Lake Como. It‘s a
small lake, about the size of the one we just left—though not frozen.
It‘s called Lago di Annone.‖
At that, Axel passed me a map which had the flight route
highlighted. I flipped on a small light and looked over the map for a
minute, then told them, ―From what I can gauge, we should reach our
destination in about forty-five minutes or so.‖ If we don’t slam into a
mountain, I thought. Hey, it‘s the Alps, right?
Bjorn leaned forward again and asked me, ―Do you think you‘ll be
okay landing this thing?‖
I smiled. ―It‘s a little late to ask, but I‘m sure we‘ll be all right.‖
He nodded.
To further comfort him I turned and added, ―I think we‘ve been
zipped into enough body bags for one day.‖



-PART IV-
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Rome, Italy


“Wisdom oft times consists of knowing what to do next.”
~Herbert Hoover




Chapter 5

With the help of the remaining moonlight as well as a light wind and
clear skies, our landing on the small lake in northern Italy went fairly
well—other than the fact that I had made a slight miscalculation on our
approach altitude.
We had spotted Lake Como from the air, which honestly would
have been hard to miss. We followed it straight to little Lago di
Annone. As I made my approach and eased off the throttle to touch
down, the plane slowed faster than I had predicted and we dropped
about ten feet onto the frigid water. Unfortunately, that was about nine
feet more than I was expecting.
Besides jarring our spinal columns, the left pontoon tore off along
with part of the wing itself, which almost caused us to capsize. As soon
as it happened, Bjorn and Axel jumped up and hung themselves out of
the right side door to balance the plane while I scooted to the right-
side seat and brought us to shore.
I was just waiting for Axel or Bjorn to make a cute comment like,
‗Hey, nice landing,‘ or ‗Where‘d you learn to fly?‘ To my surprise,
however, no one said a word.
All this, I suppose, would have been more frightening if we weren‘t
escaped convicts and our adrenaline levels weren‘t off the charts.
Apparently, when you have risen from the dead and feel lucky just to
be alive, little things like crash landings and broken wings don‘t seem
like such a big deal.
Anyway, the train ride from Como to Rome went much smoother.
We traveled first to the city of Milan where we each enjoyed some
terrific cappuccino before changing trains. From there, we headed to
Rome, arriving at the Roma Termini railway station just before 11 a.m.
According to Bjorn, we would be able to relax in the sprawling city
without looking over our shoulders constantly. Nonetheless, he and
Axel stopped at an old-style barber shop where they had their beards
shaved off and their hair cut short. After that, they bought baseball
caps and sunglasses from street vendors just to be sure they were not
recognized.


As for myself, a pair of sunglasses sufficed—especially after seeing
how stupid Bjorn and Axel looked. I was not sure what arrangements
Mark Westfall or the President had made for my incarceration, but I
doubted they were monitoring things too closely from Washington. If
they were, they would probably be shocked to find that I had taken
part in a jailbreak and was now on the lam.
Either way, the authorities here in Europe surely knew I‘d been
planted at Oberwald and they probably wouldn‘t be too worried about
finding me. Until I had a chance to gather more information from
Bjorn Gundersen, I hoped they were not too worried about finding
him, either.
After our disguises were completed, Axel gave us each a new
passport, which looked pretty authentic. He also gave each of us a wad
of money, about 3000 euros, along with keys to separate apartments
and directions to each.
As I took my key from Axel, he gave me a piece of advice, ―Try to
keep away from the police—and stay off the…‖
―The grid?‖ I guessed.
―Yes, yes. The grid. No computers and no phones, please.‖ He
looked at Bjorn and me and smiled. ―I‘d hate to see you wind up back
at that awful prison. Next time, they might wonder if I am really a
medical examiner.‖
We both chuckled at that and Bjorn assured him, ―Don‘t worry, my
friend. There won‘t be a next time.‖
Axel nodded. ―Your apartments are both located on quiet streets,
though not far from Piazza Navona.‖
The Piazza, I knew, was close to the Pantheon. It was also one of
Rome‘s more popular attractions for visitors and a lively spot for street
performers, vendors, and pickpockets.
Axel continued, ―Try to stay at the apartments so I can find you.‖ In
a low voice, he added, ―Tjuren is putting together a new plan for the
group and will probably want your advice.‖
Bjorn thought about that, then leaned close to let me know, ―Tjuren
is the leader of the Skilja. His name means ‗The Bull‘ in Swedish.‖


The Bull? ―Is he someone you‘re sure you can trust, or…?‖
He smiled at that. ―I don‘t know.‖ He turned to Axel and asked,
―Axel, my friend, do you think this Tjuren fellow is a man we can
trust?‖
Axel seemed to find that amusing. He turned to me and answered,
―Only if he‘s not drinkin‘.‖ He and Bjorn chuckled at that.
Well, I couldn‘t wait to meet this guy. Maybe I‘ll buy him a drink.
Bjorn informed me, ―His actual name is Amol. Amol Thorsen, and
he is my good friend.‖ He then gestured to Axel and added, ―He is also
Axel‘s father.‖
Well, that surprised me. I wondered what it would be like to be the
son of an international terrorist. My dad, on the extreme contrary, had
been a legal advisor for the CIA for almost twenty years. Though when
you really think about it—
―Tjuren is not actually here in Rome,‖ Axel informed me, ―but I
assume he will be in contact with us before long.‖ He explained, ―Right
now, it would be too dangerous for Bjorn to travel, especially to
Sweden, so the two of you may be here for some time.‖
Well, Daddy can forget that drink then. Still, I hoped I would have
some opportunities to find out more about the Skilja—and especially
about their ‗assets‘ that Bjorn had mentioned. The President‘s mission
for me was to determine whether the Tokyo earthquake was a natural
disaster or somehow manmade. So far, the Skilja were the only lead I
had, and their mighty warlord, Tjuren, just might hold the information
I was looking for.
After thanking Axel and ensuring him of our trust, however
wavering that may be, Bjorn and I headed in the direction of the
nearest bus station. Before we had gone far, Bjorn looked over his
shoulder and saw that Axel was walking in the opposite direction. He
quickly grabbed my arm and pulled me into the alcove at the entrance
of a bookstore. From that spot, he peered back and watched to see
where Axel was heading.
―We must follow him,‖ he whispered to me.
I looked through the store window and saw an elderly man inside
sitting behind the counter. He was watching us and seemed concerned.


―Follow him where? To his apartment?‖
Without taking his eyes off Axel he replied, ―We would be wise to
know where he‘s headed, don‘t you think?‖
―I agree.‖ What happened to trust?
After a moment, Bjorn and I emerged from our hiding spot and
began following Axel, though from a good distance. Now and then,
Axel would glance back over his shoulder, but Bjorn and I were quick
and managed to remain unseen. At one point, Axel surprised us by
turning suddenly and retracing his steps. He did this for a short
distance before turning back again and continuing on his way. This, I
knew, was an old but effective technique to assure that you are not
being followed. Fortunately for Bjorn and me, we were able to duck
into the entrance of a restaurant before being sighted.
We continued following Axel for a few blocks along Via Torino
until he came to a stop in front of a set of wide wooden doors. There,
he took a moment to look around. Satisfied that no one was watching,
he used a key to open one of the doors and slipped in.
From behind a high staircase, we watched the door for a few
minutes before walking back the way we came to the bus stop at Via
Nazionale.
While waiting for the next bus, I asked Bjorn, ―So, do we head to
our apartments now? Do you think we‘re safe?‖
He considered that for a moment and then let me know, ―Yes, I
think we can trust young Axel.‖
―How about his father? Now that Axel isn‘t around you can tell me
the truth.‖
He nodded. ―Amol Thorsen and I have known each other since we
were children. Though he and I do not always agree, we have always
managed to maintain a degree of respect for each other.‖ He looked
away and added, ―Also, he is married to my sister.‖
Oh. ―So Axel is your nephew?‖
He let out a short grunt. ―Not quite,‖ he replied. ―From what I
understand, Axel‘s mother was a ship‘s whore.‖ He looked at me and
clarified that. ―A prostitute on a cargo ship.‖


Just then, our bus pulled up and Bjorn and I boarded. The ride took
us west for about ten minutes, stopping several times along the way.
Soon on the left, I recognized Piazza Venezia and the inimitable Altare
della Patria, which is often referred to by foreigners as ―the wedding
cake.‖ We also passed some ancient ruins, some of which I realized
were actually apartments buildings, before reaching a magnificent
church where we turned north. After a few hundred feet, the bus
pulled over. I recognized from the directions Axel had given me that
this was my stop.
Bjorn and I stepped off the bus and followed a maze of narrow
streets until we arrived at my apartment on Via della Posta Vecchia.
Across from the apartment was a small outdoor café with about a
dozen tables and white plastic chairs. Bjorn and I entered through the
large black double doors, which opened into a receiving room fronting
a stairwell entrance. I checked my directions and found that my room
was located on the third floor. I also noticed there was no elevator.
―Go up and take a look,‖ Bjorn suggested. ―I‘ll wait here.‖
I headed up the narrow staircase to the third floor. I tried the key on
my door, which worked, and I left the door open while I stepped in to
look around. The apartment itself was old, I could tell, but looked as
though it had been renovated and refurnished recently. The living
room featured a couch and a leather recliner which both faced a large
TV mounted on the far wall. The kitchen was small, as is typical for
Europe, and featured bright red appliances and cabinets. The
bathroom, too, was microscopic, but would do.
Across from the kitchen, a brick and mortar archway opened to the
bedroom, which consisted of one large bed along with a clothes
hamper and a narrow closet. The temperature outside was now almost
sixty degrees, so I took off my jacket and hung it in the closet.
As I stepped out of the bedroom, I heard the sound of voices
coming from the hall. Right away, I could tell that they were my brand
of people: Americans. As I left the apartment I encountered them, a
young couple who were preparing to head downstairs.
The young man, who looked to be about thirty or so, nodded at me
and switched to Italian: “Buongiorno.”
―Good morning,‖ I replied.


The girl, who seemed much younger, looked at me. ―You must be
an American, right?‖
I nodded. ―I‘m visiting from Virginia. How about you two?‖
―I‘m currently a sailor in the Navy,‖ the young man replied, ―but
from New Jersey originally.‖ He looked at the girl and asked, ―Where
are you from again, Paige?‖
She gave him a frown. ―I told you last night, I‘m from Brooklyn.‖
She smiled at me and asked, ―Do you have a name?‖
―It‘s Craig, and it‘s nice to meet you, Paige.‖
The young man introduced himself as Mike. As he and I shook
hands, he offered, ―Paige and I will be at the plaza tonight, somewhere
near the south corner. Come and join us if you‘d like.‖
―I‘ll let you buy me a drink,‖ Paige joked.
I smiled. ―I don‘t know what my plans are, but I‘ll join you there if I
can.‖
From the bottom of the stairs we headed out to the street where
Mike and Paige waved goodbye. I saw that Bjorn had walked over to
the small café and was checking their menu. He spotted me and began
walking up the road toward the plaza. As I joined him, I asked, ―Did
you want to grab a bite from that café?‖
He shook his head. ―The waiter was kind enough to point out a
grocery store up this way. I‘d prefer to pick up a few things there, then
head to my apartment.‖
Before we reached the plaza, we found the grocery. From the
outside, it looked like a hole in the wall. Once inside, however, I was
surprised how huge the place actually was. I first went to the wine
section and picked out a few Italian reds. These were dirt cheap
compared to what I would pay back home. After that, I grabbed some
table grapes, a few African oranges, and a selection of olives.
From the deli, I found some of the bare essentials I knew I‘d need,
such as a tub of marinated mozzarella cheese, a box of crackers, and a
jar of pickled herring. After that, I grabbed a few items from the
toiletry section and I was set.


Bjorn noticed my selections and nodded in approval. I saw that he
had made some similar choices including, of course, the red wines and
the olives.
Once we were done shopping, Bjorn and I cut across the south end
of Piazza Navona, which was crowded with tourists. From there, we
followed Axel‘s directions to a street named Via del Governo Vecchio.
After walking one block, we arrived at Bjorn‘s apartment. The doorway
looked much like mine, though the street was busier with pedestrians
and vendors everywhere. Next to Bjorn‘s apartment was a pizzeria with
outdoor seating. I got a whiff of the enticing aroma rolling out of its
doors and felt my stomach growl.
Bjorn used his key on the door and the two of us went inside. As I
stepped in, I was surprised to find that this was the actual apartment,
and there were no stairs or other units accessible from this doorway.
Other than that, the apartment seemed similar to mine in size and
amenities.
Bjorn walked through the place quickly and then began putting his
groceries away.
―Do we have any plans for today?‖ I asked. I was hoping that Bjorn
and I would have a chance to talk about things. Like earthquakes for
example.
Bjorn drew a weary breath and let me know, ―I think I‘ve done
about enough for one day, my friend.‖
Well, that was an understatement—especially when you thought
about everything that had transpired since we woke up in body bags.
He continued, ―I‘m going to snack on a few things and then try to
get some sleep.‖ He suggested, ―Perhaps you should go home and do
the same.‖
―I think I will,‖ I replied, though I planned to try some pizza from
next door first. Plus I wanted to walk over to the Pantheon.
―We should hear from Tjuren within a few days,‖ he said. ―I‘m not
sure of your plans, but perhaps he will be able to help you.‖
I nodded.


―I should warn you, though: Tjuren will almost certainly try to
persuade you to join his group, the Skilja, before he offers to assist you
further.‖ He smiled and added, ―If you refuse, do not be surprised if he
then demands to be compensated for engineering your escape from
Oberwald.‖
I had already concluded that this Tjuren guy was a real bastard. It
was Bjorn Gundersen, however, that I had yet to figure out.




Chapter 6

As I stepped out of Bjorn‘s apartment, I had an instant craving for
fresh baked pizza. I went straight to the small restaurant next door and
sat myself in a corner. Once there, I ordered a Pizza Margherita and a
glass of Chianti. While waiting for my meal, I kept an eye on Bjorn‘s
door to see if he had other plans for this evening. I also thought about
what he had told me about Tjuren, and wondered if he was being
honest with me about him and his son, Axel. The three of them, Bjorn,
Tjuren, and Axel knew little about me and so far had asked few
questions. Naturally, I had come up with a cover story for why I was at
Oberwald. I was sure that Tjuren would ask about that, plus a few
other things if I offered to join the Skilja.
It‘s hard to cover every track, especially these days with everything
being computerized and digitalized, and I knew that if Tjuren dug deep
enough in the right places, he might find something linking me to my
previous employment. And that, of course, would be the end of Craig
Van Essen.
After finishing my pizza and Chianti, which hit the spot, I headed
back to my apartment building where I went upstairs to my room and
put away the groceries. I looked over at my bed for a moment but felt
it was too early for sleep, so I grabbed my jacket from the closet and
went back downstairs. I decided to take a walk through the nearby city
square of Piazza Navona, which I knew was one of Rome's liveliest
spots.
In the center of the square, I stopped at the famous Fountain of the
Four Rivers, which was surrounded by tourists, then walked from there
to the northern end of the plaza where I strolled past another famous
landmark, the Neptune Fountain. Across from the fountain, I spotted a
row of artists and vendors with their products on display. One of the
vendors was a slender and attractive woman who looked about my age,
maybe younger. As I glanced at her, our eyes met and she smiled
warmly.
I didn‘t want to appear prudish, so I made my way over to her
vending stand, which featured paintings and photographs of the plaza
and the fountains, as well as a selection of cheap jewelry and watches.


She greeted me in accented English, so I figured she knew how to spot
an American. While I took a moment to look at a black sports watch,
my mind was busy thinking of a way to start a conversation. From the
corner of my eye, I noticed she was now smiling at another guy near
the fountain, and I turned to see him smiling back at her.
Having discovered her game, I decided to cancel my romantic plans
for her. Nonetheless, I went ahead and purchased the watch anyway.
After forking out eighty euros, I asked her for walking directions to the
Pantheon. Though I couldn‘t quite understand her reply, I thanked her
and began walking in the general direction she‘d pointed. I walked
south past more vendors until I reached a pedestrian corridor that
connected to a main road on the other side. I followed this before
heading through a few narrow alleys and past grand churches and
buildings until finally arriving in front of the ancient and magnificent
Pantheon.
Admission was free, which surprised me, so I walked through its
marble columned portico and into the main building. As soon as I
stepped inside, I felt the temperature drop a few degrees. I looked up
to see the oculus or great eye, an opening at the top of the dome
originally intended to allow the smoke from offerings to escape. The
Pantheon was originally built as a temple to the pagan gods before
becoming a Catholic church. I also knew that it was the burial place of
numerous kings and dignitaries, including Raphael, the great artist of
the High Renaissance. I stood in the center of the rotunda and took a
moment to consider how many people had come here and stood at this
same spot over the past two thousand years. As I thought about it, I
remembered that during our vacation to Rome my wife and daughter
had stood here themselves.
I went back outside and wandered the quaint and narrow roads of
Rome, which was one of my favorite things to do here. The fragrant
aromas of baked goods, Italian cooking, and grilled meats were always
tempting. Before long, it was becoming dark and I could feel the
temperature dropping quickly. I zipped my jacket and began heading
back in the direction of my apartment.
When I reached Piazza Navona, I saw the crowds of tourists had
now found seats at the numerous outdoor bars and restaurants
positioned along the east side of the plaza, and there were street


performers working the crowd along with numerous musicians and
bands playing for tips.
When I approached the southeast corner, which was close to my
apartment, I spotted the young American couple I had met earlier,
Mike and Paige. They spotted me, too. Paige waved to me excitedly
and directed me to a chair beside her at a small table.
As I greeted them and sat, I saw that a small street band was setting
up and were busily preparing their guitars, amplifiers, and
microphones. I couldn‘t help but notice the lead singer, who was a
rather shapely young woman. She looked fairly attractive, I suppose, if
you like Italian supermodel types. She had long black hair that looked
just right with her black leather skirt, long legs, and high-heel boots.
―Try not to stare too hard,‖ Paige advised me. ―You‘ll get cross-
eyed.‖
―What? I was just admiring the…the Moor fountain over there.‖
She gave me a smirk.
―It‘s a historical landmark.‖
She laughed under her breath. ―I‘m pretty sure you were studying
another Italian landmark.‖ She showed me her empty mug. ―Wanna
buy me a beer?‖
I waved a waiter over. I wasn‘t sure what Mike‘s relationship with
Paige was, but I doubted that he would mind my contributing to her
delinquency. I asked her, ―How old are you, anyway?‖
She rolled her eyes. ―Why does every guy think they have to ask me
that?‖
―Uh…so we don‘t go to jail?‖
―She‘s eighteen,‖ Mike assured me. ―That was the first thing I
checked, too.‖
Paige let out a deep breath.
As the waiter made his way to our table, I read what was printed on
his t-shirt and chuckled to myself, which Mike seemed to notice.


After taking our order for three large beers the waiter proudly
showed Mike his shirt, which read: Se non ti piace il nostro servizio, si prega
di abbassare i vostri standard.
After the waiter stepped away, Mike leaned over the table and asked
me, ―What did his shirt say, Craig? Could you read that?‖
―I don‘t know much Italian,‖ I replied, ―but I think it said
something like: ‗If you don't like our service, please lower your
standards.‘‖
He chuckled at that and let me know, ―My standards are pretty low
already.‖ He then glanced over at Paige and quickly added, ―Except
with women.‖
Good recovery, Mike.
The waiter returned with our order and the three of us drank and
chatted for a while. I learned that Paige and Mike had met only last
night at a nearby club. I also learned that Mike was leaving tonight for
his boat, a Navy ship, which would be sailing out at the crack of dawn.
While we chatted, I noticed that Paige was subtly shifting the focus of
her attention from Mike, who she knew was as good as gone, to me,
who was old enough to be her…uncle.
I looked at Paige while she sipped her beer and saw that she had
pretty brown hair and a cute face with full makeup, but I knew I wasn‘t
about to lower my standards to that of a teenager.
Just then, the band began playing and I turned to see the black-
haired beauty strumming a guitar as she began singing. As I studied the
girl, I realized that she was probably only eighteen or so herself. For her,
I thought, I would make a one-time exception.
Paige interrupted my thoughts and asked me, ―How can she dress
like that? It‘s freezing, and she‘s wearing a miniskirt.‖
―That‘s why she‘s moving her hips all over like that—so she can stay
warm.‖ I added, ―That‘s how you can tell she‘s a professional.‖
She grunted at that. ―A professional what?‖
Anyway, while the band played, the three of us talked more and I
could tell we enjoyed each other‘s company. Above us, the moon cast
its light over the plaza, creating a festive feeling to the otherwise frigid


night. I noticed that our beers had emptied themselves and I ordered
another round. Paige was becoming friendlier with me as the evening
rolled on, and I sensed that Mike didn‘t care.
Before long, while I watched my new favorite singer moving around
and keeping warm, I felt Paige‘s hand on my leg, and it was inching
straight for my middle part. Mike was focused on the singer, so I
leaned close to Paige‘s ear and whispered, ―You‘re a pretty girl, Paige,
and I like you, but you‘re simply too young for me.‖ I took her hand
from my loins and slapped it playfully.
She giggled at that, and went back to nursing her beer.
Before long, the band took a break and Mike got up to leave a tip on
their collection vase, which was set prominently at center stage. He
then came back to the table and told us, ―I have to head back to my
ship now. If I‘m late, they‘ll kill me.‖ He added, ―I‘m already in enough
trouble as it is.‖
―Trouble for what?‖ Paige asked.
Mike shook his head and made no reply to that. He then mentioned,
―It was great meeting you Craig. Sorry I have to run.‖
As we shook hands, I thought about Mike for a second. He seemed
like a sharp-thinker, and he and I seemed to have a few things in
common. I looked him in the eye and told him, ―When you‘re ready to
leave the Navy, I want you to look me up. If you‘re good, you should
be able find me and, if you‘re interested, I might be able to help you
out with finding a job in the private sector.‖
―Sounds great. What kind of business are you in, Craig?‖
―Right now, I‘ve got a temporary thing going,‖ I said, ―but I hope to
be back in the aerospace industry before too long.‖
―Wow. I‘ll definitely take you up on that offer. Thanks. It‘s Craig
Van Essen, right?‖
I nodded at that and mentioned, ―You never told me your last name,
Mike.‖
―It‘s Brennan.‖


Paige guzzled down the rest of her beer and grabbed her backpack
as we all got up to leave. She tugged at Mike‘s shoulder and I overheard
her ask him, ―Where am I supposed to stay tonight?‖
Mike looked at her, as though he had not thought about that.
―Oh…I…‖ He glanced at me for a moment, and then reached for his
wallet and told her, ―Maybe there‘s a hotel near here, or—‖
―What about your apartment?‖ I asked.
Mike looked at me and appeared concerned. ―That was ours only
for one night,‖ he explained, ―and the new people probably moved in
already.‖
I glanced at Mike‘s thin-looking wallet and suggested, ―Paige can
stay with me tonight‖—I looked at her—―if she doesn‘t mind sleeping
on the couch.‖
Paige lit up. ―Great! That‘s perfect!‖
At that, Mike seemed relieved and slid his wallet back into his
pocket. The three of us then headed to my apartment, which was only
a block away. Once there, I walked up the stairs and left the door open
for Paige who needed a few minutes to say good bye to Mike.
Later, she arrived at the apartment and I showed her the couch
which I had set up with pillows and blankets.
She looked at the couch for a moment and then offered, ―Are you
sure you don‘t want to share the bed?‖ She smiled coyly.
Most of the apartment‘s lights were out, though the white
moonlight was creeping in through the windows. I studied Paige for a
moment, who obviously wanted a man tonight, and noticed that she
looked attractive in the way the faint moonlight fell upon her face and
glistened on her hair.
As she stood there, she looked down and began unbuttoning her
shirt. Though I was half-tempted to help her with the rest of the
buttons, I held my hand up. ―Stop!‖
Paige looked up at me, somewhat surprised.
Though I had been in mourning for a while and hadn‘t been with a
woman during all that time, something in my mind told me that the


next woman I‘d bed after my wife wasn‘t going to be a deprived
teenager.
I stepped over to her and held her shoulders while I kissed her head.
―I don‘t want to be your sex friend,‖ I told her, ―but I‘d like to be your
friend. Can we do that?‖
She seemed embarrassed, I could tell, but she shrugged and
answered, ―I guess so. Do I have a choice?‖
―Actually, no.‖
―That doesn‘t usually work between guys and girls.‖
Well, she had a point there. I thought about that for a moment and
told her, ―It does if you‘re working for me.‖ I explained, ―I‘m here in
Rome on business, and I could use an assistant. Interested in a job?‖
She studied me for a moment and could see that I was serious.
―Exactly what kind of business are you in, Craig?‖
―If you take the job, you‘ll need to start calling me ‗Mr. Van
Essen‘—especially if we‘re in public. Okay?‖
―Uh…okay.‖
―I work for the government as an independent contractor. I‘m
usually hired to analyze international security issues.‖
She thought about that. ―So, what, you‘re a spy?‖
I laughed at that, perhaps too hard. ―A spy? Oh, God no. I just
study groups or people and report on my findings.‖
She looked at me with a puckered brow. ―Sounds a lot like
espionage to me, but…whatever. How much do I get paid?‖
―For now, you‘ll be working for room and board. If you turn out to
be a good assistant, we‘ll discuss things further.‖
Paige looked as if she was considering this. ―Well, since you didn‘t
try to fuck me, ‗Mr. Van Essen,‘ I guess I can trust you. At least for
tonight.‖
We both smiled at that, and she stepped over and kissed me lightly
on the cheek. ―Besides,‖ she said, ―you only live once, right?‖
―If you do it right,‖ I replied, ―once is enough.‖





Chapter 7

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

I had left my bedroom window open only an inch, but that was enough
to cool the entire room, which was great. It was also enough to allow
the noise from the street below to wake me several times during the
night, which was not so great. As I lay there half-asleep, I could tell
that the early morning light had arrived and had begun to shine over
the city. Soon, I detected the distinct aroma of cappuccino as it drifted
through the air from every restaurant, coffee shop, and kitchen in
Rome.
I also noticed the faint sound of a woman breathing beside me, and
I could feel the warmth of her body against my back, which felt good.
A quiet battle was being waged between my conscious mind, which
thought I had had enough rest, and my subconscious mind, which felt
I could use another few minutes of sleep.
Just then, the sound of a moped buzzing through the narrow road
below put an end to the battle. As one of my eyes popped open, it
became clear to me that I was not alone. I slowly turned to see that
young Paige O‘Neill had crawled into my bed during the night and was
sound asleep beside me.
Somehow, I wasn‘t entirely surprised.
I slid quietly out of the bed and headed to the bathroom. There, I
performed my usual preventative maintenance program of shaving,
showering, and brushing. I then returned to the bedroom again to find
Paige still sleeping. I dressed quietly and went downstairs in search of a
much needed cappuccino. When I reached the street, I looked up and
saw the sky was overcast and could feel the air was damp and heavy. It
was a drab-looking morning, but I was glad to see that the café across
from my apartment was open for business. A small crowd of coffee
drinkers were gathered around, so I headed straight there.
I waited in line for a few minutes until a stout-looking middle-aged
woman took my order. She wore a nametag that told me her name was
Myrna, and she looked like she could use some caffeine herself. I


forked over three euros, and she quickly whipped up a small, steaming
cup of heaven. I took a good whiff, then started sipping. In that same
moment, the whole city of Rome became instantly more beautiful and
even the people around me seemed slightly better looking. Except for
Myrna.
As I stood there enjoying my drink and my surroundings, I was
surprised to see Bjorn Gundersen walking out of the entrance of my
apartment and heading up the street. I gulped the rest of my
cappuccino and went after him.
As I caught up with him, he turned and greeted me, ―Ah, there you
are, Mr. Van Essen!‖ He stopped to pat me on the back and said, ―I
see you‘ve met a young lady.‖ He pointed his thumb up to my
apartment and grinned.
Oh God, she must have answered the door.
I tried to explain, ―Uh…she and I aren‘t actually involved in any
way, Bjorn, just so you know—‖
―It‘s all right, my friend,‖ he assured me. ―This is Rome, the city of
love, correct?‖
Actually, I think that‘s Paris. I tried again to explain, ―I just don‘t
want you to think that the girl and I have something going, you know
what I mean?‖
―All right. I understand. But I think you are doing better than me. I
slept by myself last night—and my apartment was freezing.‖ He poked
me and added, ―I‘m sure you were warm, though.‖
Okay, it was time to change topics. ―What brings you to this neck of
the woods, Bjorn?‖
He glanced around for a second, as though he was looking for trees
and bushes, so I realized that choice of phrase didn‘t translate too well.
I rephrased the question, ―Why did you come here? Is everything all
right?‖
―Oh, yes, everything seems to be all right,‖ he replied. ―I wanted
you to know that I found a message in my apartment. It was sent by
Tjuren, of course, and it seems he wants me to meet with one of his
contacts this morning.‖


―Where is the meeting?‖
He pointed in the direction of Piazza Navona. ―There is a café up
ahead at the plaza: Caffè Barocco. According to his message, I am to
go there at 7:30 a.m. and wait for the contact to find me.‖
―I see.‖ I glanced at my watch, and saw that it was 7:05 already. I
asked, ―Is this good news?‖
He shook his head. ―Not exactly,‖ he replied. ―Though it is to be
expected. I‘m sure Tjuren will want some form of compensation for
aiding in my escape.‖
―What would he want from you?‖
―Nothing I‘d be willing to provide, but it would be an insult not to
meet with his contact. I have nothing to give Tjuren, other than my
friendship and my thanks.‖
I nodded at that and asked, ―Is there anything I can do?‖
He thought about that for a moment and soon came up with an
idea. ―At the café, perhaps you can sit at a nearby table and observe, if
you don‘t mind.‖ He looked at me and suggested, ―If you bring your
young girlfriend along, the two of you will appear as tourists or lovers.‖
―She isn‘t my girlfriend, Bjorn, or my lover, but I‘m sure she‘ll be
glad to come along.‖
―Thank you, my friend. I will see you there—but remember to act as
though you don‘t know me.‖
―I‘ll try to remember.‖
I left Bjorn and headed back to my apartment where I walked in and
found Paige dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, looking in the refrigerator.
―Get dressed,‖ I told her. ―We have a job to do and we need to be
there in ten minutes.‖
She turned and looked at me in surprise. ―It‘s only, like, seven
o‘clock. What are we going to do?‖
―We‘re going to a café for breakfast where we‘ll act like we‘re
tourists. While we‘re there, I want to observe a meeting between an
associate of mine and a contact. Can you handle that?‖
―Sure,‖ she replied. ―Is your ‗associate‘ a spy, too?‖


I let out a breath. ―Look, Paige, if I were a spy, I‘d simply tell you
instead of—‖
―No you wouldn‘t. If you did, you wouldn‘t be much of a spy,
would you?‖
Okay, she had a point. ―Look, I don‘t have time to argue. Just throw
on some clothes so we can leave, all right?‖
She grabbed her bag and headed to the bathroom. While she was in
there, I went to the bedroom and took my gun and holster from the
closet. I slipped the holster over my shoulder, fastened it, and then
took a moment to perform cursory inspection of the weapon. Once
done, I put my jacket back on and waited for Paige.
After a few minutes, she emerged from the bathroom dressed in
black stretch pants and a grey hoodie. ―I didn‘t have time for makeup,‖
she told me. ―Do I look all right?‖
―You look fine,‖ I lied. ―Let‘s get going.‖
She followed me down the stairs and outside, where I began walking
briskly up the road to the plaza. I turned to see Paige about thirty feet
behind me, so I slowed down and waited for her. Once she caught up,
I reached for her hand and we began walking side by side. I noticed she
was smiling, so I explained, ―Just so you know, we‘re posing as lovers,
which is why we‘re holding hands.‖
―So, it would probably be good if we stopped and kissed for a while,
like, for show, right?‖
―Don‘t push it, Paige. We don‘t have to be that convincing.‖
After we‘d walked further, she asked me, ―Are you married?‖
―I‘m a widower. My wife passed away about five months ago.‖
She stopped and looked at me for a moment, then all at once gave
me a hug. ―I‘m sorry, Craig.‖
―Don‘t worry about it. Now let‘s go.‖
Within minutes, she and I found Caffè Barocco, and we sat
ourselves at a small table facing the plaza. A waiter came over and I
ordered cappuccinos for both of us, along with cornettos, which is


what some Italians call croissants. My last cappuccino was rushed, so I
planned to nurse this one.
While Paige and I waited in the cool of the morning, I could see the
shadows on the buildings across from us slowly receding as the sun
rose higher. I put on my sunglasses and looked around. Vendors, I
noticed, were setting up shop, preparing for another day of business.
Groups of pigeons wandered about the plaza while a few brave ones
ventured close to the café, looking for crumbs.
After a minute or so, Paige turned to me and asked, ―So, am I
working as your assistant right now, or does that start later?‖
―As long as you‘re awake,‖ I told her, ―you‘re on the clock.‖
―Really?‖
I looked at her and continued, ―Speaking of which: when it‘s time to
sleep, you need to stay on the couch. Understand?‖
―I couldn‘t sleep on that awful thing.‖
―Why? Because it was uncomfortable?—or because a man was
available in the next room?‖
She seemed think about that, then told me, ―A little of both, I
guess.‖
At least she was being honest. ―Don‘t climb into my bed again, or
you‘re fired. Understand?‖
She rolled her eyes. ―Yes, Craig.‖
―It‘s Mr. Van Essen, remember?‖
Just then, the waiter appeared with our breakfast. At the same time,
I spotted Bjorn as he approached the café.
―That‘s him,‖ I whispered to Paige. ―My associate.‖
She nodded and whispered back, ―He looks like a spy.‖
I shook my head. It was going to be a long day, I could tell.
After serving Paige and I, the waiter went over to Bjorn‘s table and
took his order, which sounded like biscotti and a cup of espresso. I had
no idea how long it would be before Tjuren‘s contact arrived, but I told
Paige to go slow with our tiny meal.


After a few minutes, the waiter delivered Bjorn‘s order, then
stopped to ask Paige and me if there was anything else we would like. I
requested a biscotti for Paige, just in case the contact person was late. I
mentioned to Paige, ―I could spend an hour trying to eat one of those,
if I had to.‖
―What are they, anyway?‖
―A biscotti is a really hard cookie, though you could also use one to
drive a nail into concrete.‖ I warned her, ―Don‘t try to bite into one, or
you could chip a tooth. You have to soak them in your coffee first.‖
Just then, I saw her eyes dart to the right and I turned to see a
woman approaching Bjorn‘s table. From the corner of my eye, I could
see she was wearing a wide scarf around her neck and a suede vest over
a sweater along with black denim pants and knee-high walking boots.
She had long brown hair, I could tell, but her face was mostly hidden
by a wide brimmed felt hat and huge sunglasses.
The waiter returned with our biscotti, then stepped over to Bjorn‘s
table again. I heard the woman greet Bjorn in English before ordering
an espresso in Italian. I was not sure yet, but from her English I
guessed that she was American, though with a faint European accent.
While Paige soaked her nail driver, I repositioned myself to have a
better look. I saw that the woman had removed her sunglasses,
revealing a young, pretty face. Behind the hat, scarf, and winter clothes,
I could tell she was an attractive lady.
―You‘re going to go cross-eyed again,‖ Paige whispered.
I turned my attention to my drink, and took a few sips while I
listened.
After chatting for a moment, the woman explained that she had a
message to deliver, and pulled a small envelope from her large purse
and set it on the table. She also pulled out a cell phone and placed it
beside the envelope.
―What‘s the phone for?‖ I heard him ask.
―I have no idea,‖ she replied. She then made it clear to Bjorn that
she did not know the contents of the message, the purpose of the
phone, nor the identity of the sender. ―I‘m simply a messenger,‖ I
heard her say, ―and I was asked to deliver the envelope and phone to


you. After you read the message, you are to tell me either yes or no—
and nothing else—and then I am to leave.‖
Bjorn glanced at the envelope and phone. He then mentioned to
her, ―Feel free to order breakfast. I think I‘d enjoy the company of
such an attractive young lady.‖
―I‘m afraid I must be leaving soon,‖ she told him, ―but thank you.
Could you please read the message and give me your answer?"
Bjorn persisted, ―Perhaps dinner tonight?‖
She smiled. ―Please. I need you to tell me whether your answer is
yes or no.‖
―Very well, then.‖ I watched discretely as Bjorn tore open the
envelope, pulled out a short note, and read it to himself. When he had
finished, I saw him draw an exasperated breath as he tucked the note
back into the envelope. After a long moment, he finally replied, ―That
bastard.‖ He then looked over at the woman and said, ―Tell him my
answer is no.‖
I watched as the woman stood from the table. She smiled politely
and said, “Grazie e arrivederci” Thank you and goodbye. She turned and
walked away.
I looked at Paige and whispered, ―Can you follow her without being
seen?‖
She splashed down the rest of her cappuccino and nodded. ―I‘m on
it.‖
Paige waited until the woman was well away before she stood from
her chair and started after her.
I gave Bjorn a minute, and then asked, ―What did the ‗bastard‘ say?‖
He shook his head. ―Tjuren is making demands that he knows I
cannot…‖ He stopped for a moment and appeared to be in deep
thought. He then slammed his fist on the table and yelled something in
Swedish, which I assumed was an obscenity.
At that, the waiter looked at us and began heading over.
Bjorn then turned to me with fire in his eyes and told me, ―Go find
that woman!‖





Chapter 8

The lady messenger was headed across the plaza. With one eye on her,
I pulled out a fifty euro note and handed it to the waiter. I told him,
“Mantenere la gratuità.” Keep the tip.
I then headed after her.
A light drizzle had begun, so I reached back and unzipped the hood
from the neck of my jacket and pulled it over my head. At the other
side of the plaza, I spotted Paige and could tell she was trying to appear
inconspicuous as she followed our target. When Paige turned and saw
me following, she noticed the hood on my head and pulled hers up as
well.
I noticed the woman had glanced over her shoulder a time or two,
but hadn‘t yet performed any of the usual maneuvers I‘d expect a pro
to use. This meant she was either an amateur and didn‘t realize she was
being tailed, or she was a pro and wanted us to know where she was
going.
I was really hoping she was an amateur.
Soon, she entered a narrow corridor on the west side of the plaza
beside the church of Sant'Agnese. Paige stopped there and crouched
down while pretending to tie her shoe. I walked quickly through a field
of vendors and tourists until I reached the other side. Once there, I
peered carefully around the corner of the corridor.
Paige stepped beside me. ―There she is,‖ she whispered, pointing at
the woman.
The two of us watched as she reached the road at the end of the
corridor were she looked around for a moment. She then turned right
and continued walking.
―I‘ll take it from here,‖ I told Paige, ―and I‘ll see you back at the
apartment.‖
―Bullshit. We should both follow her in case one of us loses her.‖
She looked at me and smirked. ―You probably just want her phone
number anyway.‖


―What?‖ At that point, I didn‘t have time to argue, which I knew
would be futile anyway. ―Let‘s just find where she‘s going. We‘ll split
up, and I‘ll go first. Understand?‖
Before Paige could argue with that, I headed down the corridor and
soon reached the far end. I stepped beside a café table and glanced
around the corner where I could see our target about two hundred feet
ahead of us. I signaled Paige to come quickly.
Just as I was about to step out onto the road, I looked and saw that
the woman had stopped suddenly and turned around. I froze where I
was and signaled Paige to wait. Patrons of the small café had stopped
sipping their espressos and were gawking at Paige and I from under
their umbrellas, no doubt wondering what we were up to.
The lady messenger didn‘t seem to notice any of this and continued
walking. I waited a moment before I stepped out from behind the
corner and began following her again. While she chose to walk in the
street, I kept to the sidewalk on the left, which provided plenty of
cover with all the cafés, mopeds, and big potted plants along the way.
Before long, she came to an intersection where she stopped for a
moment. I quickly ducked behind a parked car where I was able to
observe her through the vehicle‘s windows. As she began walking
again, a gust of wind came and blew her hat from her head. I watched
as the hat was carried by the wind across the small intersection and into
the path of a motorized scooter. Before the woman had time to react,
the scooter came zooming around the corner. The rider seemed to see
the hat and tried to swerve around it. Nonetheless, he was unable to
avoid running it over.
The woman seemed dumbstruck for a moment, then produced an
umbrella from her purse. She opened the umbrella, then raised it over
her head and continued walking.
There were few hiding places around, so I waited a minute. Once
she was well ahead, I crossed the intersection and stood at a vending
stand, watching her from the corner of my eye.
From the main road, she turned right at a pedestrian walkway, and
then left at another narrow road. As I started after her again, I noticed
Paige strolling up the opposite side of the road. She looked over at me
and shrugged, signaling that she had lost sight of the target.


I pointed to the road on the left and Paige headed straight there,
stopping at the corner to tie her shoe again and looking down the road
as she did so. After a moment, she stood and hid herself behind the
corner while waving me over.
I walked out onto the road and picked up the woman‘s hat, brushing
the mud from it with my hand. I then walked quickly to where Paige
was hiding and stood next to her. She whispered to me, ―I think your
girlfriend reached her apartment. Look.‖
Cautiously, I peered around the corner with one eye. Halfway up the
road, I saw our target remove a key from a potted plant, then use it to
unlock a door. After looking around and seeing no one, she placed the
key back in its hiding spot and entered the building, closing the door
behind her.
At this point, I was fairly certain that our target was an amateur.
After a moment, I told Paige to follow me and we began walking
casually down the narrow road. When we were halfway to the
apartment door, we stopped and stood beside a row of parked scooters
where we pretended to be engaged in conversation. I kept one eye on
the woman‘s apartment and the other on the upstairs windows,
checking for any sign of movement.
After a few minutes, Paige whispered, ―Have you seen anything
yet?‖
I shook my head. ―I‘m going in. If I don‘t come back or signal you
within ten minutes, you‘ll need to get out of here—and don‘t go back
to the apartment.‖
―Are you trying to get rid of me?‖ she asked.
I gave her a look. ―I‘m trying to protect you. If I wanted to get rid
of you I wouldn‘t have hired you as my assistant.‖
I walked over to the potted plant and quickly found the key. With it,
I opened the door to the apartment building and went in. The receiving
room was poorly lit, and I could see there was no elevator. I could also
see a row of small bronze letterboxes built into the wall at the far end
of the room. I walked over to the boxes and saw that eight of them had
the names of residents printed on their labels, while the remaining two
were blank. The blank ones, for now, were my primary suspects. One


of those apartments, 2-C, was on the second floor while the other,
apartment 3-A, was on the third.
With the woman‘s hat in my hand, I headed up the stairs while I
unzipped my jacket and pulled the hood from my head.
When I reached the second floor, I walked as quietly as possible to
the door of the first suspect apartment. Just like the receiving room
downstairs, the hallway was poorly lit. I positioned myself low to the
floor and looked for clues that the woman had been here, but saw
nothing.
I headed upstairs.
Outside of apartment 3-A, I crouched low and studied the floor. It
was difficult to see anything, so I positioned myself in a way that
allowed the faint light from the end of the hall to reflect across the
floor. After a few seconds, I found what I was looking for. A drop of
water.
I fixed my hair quickly and then knocked. After a moment or two, I
noticed a shadow moving beneath the door as she approached.
“Chi è?” she said. Who is it?
I cleared my throat. ―I brought you your hat, ma‘am.‖
―What?‖
―You left your hat in the street, ma‘am, and I‘ve brought it to you.‖
I heard a lock turn and she opened the door, which was her first
mistake. I was a complete stranger, and though I wasn‘t here to hurt
anyone, she didn‘t know that. As she opened the door a few inches, I
noticed the security chain had not been latched, which was her second
mistake. I held up the hat for her to see while wearing a big, friendly
grin.
―Oh, my goodness,‖ she said, noticing the hat. She then looked up
at me and smiled. ―I can‘t believe you brought this to me.‖ At that, she
opened the door all the way, which, of course, was her third mistake.
I stepped forward and quickly dismissed with the smiles and
pleasantry. I told her firmly, ―I need to talk to you about the message
you just delivered.‖


Her smile disappeared too, and she seemed at once shocked.
Quickly, I pushed my way through the door and closed it behind me.
In a low voice I assured her, ―I‘m not here to hurt you, ma‘am, but I
have a few questions that I need to ask.‖ I directed her attention to a
chair. ―Please, sit down.‖
She was stunned by this intrusion, I could tell, but she sat in the
chair while I remained standing in front of her.
―Who are you?‖ she asked. ―Did you follow me here?‖
Her hands, I noticed, were trembling as she clutched her hat. I
carefully moved my left hand into my pant pocket, which opened my
jacket enough to allow her to see my holster. As her eyes fixed on that,
I told her, ―I‘m a government agent.‖ That was true, sort of. I then told
her, ―You may be in danger, ma‘am, and I‘m here to protect you.‖
Well, that wasn‘t necessarily true—but it sounded good. I crouched
down to where our eyes were level, then assured her, ―You can trust
me.‖ That, of course, was a lie.
―What kind of agent are you?‖ she asked.
Well, that was a fair question. I certainly wasn‘t about to tell her I
was the President‘s Agent, so I thought quickly and came up with a
good one: ―I‘m working with Interpol, ma‘am, under an
intergovernmental commission to track down a group of dangerous
terrorists.‖ I asked, ―Do you know the man you met with at the café
minutes ago?‖
She seemed speechless for a moment, and finally told me, ―I…I
don‘t know him at all!‖
I was still crouched down, and as I looked into her green eyes I
could see that she was either telling me the truth or she was an
excellent liar.
She continued, ―I was told to…to just deliver a letter and a phone to
him—but I have no idea what it‘s all about.‖ Her lower lip began to
curl up as she told me, ―I don‘t know what any of this is about, I
swear!‖ At that, tears began to fall from her eyes and she covered her
face with her hat. ―Oh God. What have I done?!‖
I stood and went over to her refrigerator. Inside, I found a cold
bottle of Perrier which I opened and brought to her. While she sipped,


I stepped over to her window and looked down. On the street below I
spotted young Paige and I tapped at the window. When she looked up,
I waved to her and signaled that everything was okay. She gave me a
thumbs up, blew me a kiss, and began walking away.
―Who are you signaling to?‖ the woman asked.
―That was the rest of my team,‖ I told her. ―I signaled them that
we‘re okay here so they can stand down.‖
―Goodness. How many people have been watching me?‖
I ignored that and sat on an ottoman facing her. I studied her for a
moment and asked, ―What can you tell me about yourself?‖
She seemed caught off guard by that. She wiped her eyes and
replied, ―I‘m sure you know everything already.‖
I shook my head. ―Actually, we discovered you only recently. We
don‘t even know your name.‖
She looked at me in doubt and let me know, ―My name is Michelle
Fontaine, and I‘m an American.‖
―Where in America do you live?‖
―New York City.‖
I nodded. ―What are you doing in Rome, Michelle?‖
I‘m under contract with Cambrelli-Milan. I was here for a shoot.
―Is that, like, a modeling agency, or…?‖
She rolled her eyes. ―Yes, it is.‖
Well, excuse me. I looked at her for a moment and had little doubt
that she could be a model. I then looked at her Perrier and asked, ―Can
I have a sip, if you don‘t mind?‖
She handed me the bottle, and I noticed she‘d stopped trembling.
―It‘s hot in here,‖ I said, wiping my forehead. ―May I take off my
jacket for a few minutes?‖
―Of course.‖
I told her, ―I‘m wearing a holster‖—which sounds nicer than saying,
‗I‘m carrying a loaded gun.‘—―and I don‘t want to frighten you.‖


―It‘s okay,‖ she said. ―I spotted the gun as soon as you came in.‖
I removed my jacket and hung it on a hook near the door. I then sat
back down and told her, ―I‘m sorry that I had to barge in here like that,
but we had so little information on you that we weren‘t sure if you
were a terrorist or—‖
―Of course I‘m not,‖ she said. ―I despise violence.‖
―Me too, which is why I‘m trying to nail these guys.‖ I asked, ―How
did you get mixed up in this?‖
She drew a weary breath and let me know, ―It‘s a long story.‖
Well, I was in no hurry and I could look at her pretty face and jade-
green eyes all day. ―Take your time.‖
She began, ―Girls in my occupation normally work under visas, as I
am doing here in Rome. I knew I had to get out of modeling, and one
day one of the producers came to me. He introduced me to a
seemingly nice man who he thought could help me get into
broadcasting.‖
―What about modeling?‖ I asked. ―Why would you quit that?‖
―Look at me,‖ she said, gesturing to herself. ―I‘m thirty already,
which is well past the retirement age for models.‖
I did as she said and looked her over. ―I think you‘re quite lovely,
Miss Fontaine.‖ And that was an understatement.
At first she seemed surprised by that comment, and then
embarrassed. She waved her hand at me and smiled widely. ―Oh, you
don‘t know anything.‖ She then continued with her story, ―Anyway,
this seemingly nice man turned out to be not so nice at all. He
appeared to know the broadcasting business though, and supposedly
had connections with the BBC and the American networks. At first, it
seemed that he sincerely wanted to help me. Soon, however, I learned
that he was only interested in helping himself.‖
―He wanted favors first, right?‖
―Yes,‖ she replied. ―Initially, I thought he might be interested in,
you know…‖ She looked at me.
―Sexual favors?‖


―Yes. Thank you.‖ She took a breath and went on, ―I made it clear
to him that that sort of thing was completely out of the question. As it
turns out, all he wanted was for me to run simple errands for him,
which I agreed to do.‖
―What kind of errands?‖
―Like what I did today,‖ she replied. ―Delivering messages to
people. I also did other things, such as opening accounts at banks,
checking safe-deposit boxes, and mailing things. I never knew anything
about what I was dealing with, and I never asked.‖
―What about the broadcasting jobs? What happened to that?‖
―Well, Nigel kept putting that off and stalling until I finally—‖
―Did you say ‗Nigel‘?‖
―Yes. That‘s his name. Nigel Adams.‖
I wondered if that was a coincidence. I asked Michelle, ―Can you
describe him for me?‖
―Of course. He‘s about your height, six foot, and about your age,
which I‘m guessing to be around mid-forties—‖
―Forty-four.‖
She smiled at that and continued, ―He‘s Caucasian and has very
short receding blond hair, though it‘s partly grey, a bit of a hook
nose…‖
Sounds familiar. ―Does your Nigel have a British accent, by
chance?‖
She seemed surprised by that. ―He does, in fact. Do you know
him?‖
―He and I may have crossed paths.‖
―Really? Where?‖
In prison, actually, but I wasn‘t going to tell her that. Rather than
answer her question, I told her, ―I‘m starving.‖
―Oh. Can I get you—?‖
―Can I take you to lunch, Michelle?‖


She glanced at my gun. ―If I say no, are you going to shoot me?‖
―I might.‖
She smiled. ―Then in that case, I‘d better go change.‖
As she headed to her bedroom, I asked, ―If you had to pack your
things, would it take long?‖
She turned and looked at me curiously. ―Everything I have fits into
one suitcase. Why?‖
―Maybe you‘d better start packing.‖



Chapter 9

Michelle was right, and everything she had really did fit into one
suitcase. Of course, the suitcase weighed around 250 pounds, but it
was still less than I expected—especially considering she‘s a fashion
model. She and I left her apartment and headed north, which I knew
would take us away from Bjorn Gundersen, Axel Thorsen, and, of
course, Paige O‘Neill.
Right now, I felt like I had a small chance with Michelle, like maybe
one in fifty. But if she found out that I was sharing my apartment with
a trampy little eighteen-year-old, those odds would probably drop to
about one in a billion.
I had explained to Michelle that her apartment was no longer safe
and that she had unwittingly become involved with a group of
international terrorists. I wanted to protect her, so I convinced her to
relocate to a different part of the city until I came up with a better plan.
That way, I could keep in touch with her while I learned more about
Bjorn and Axel, as well as my old prison pal, Nigel.
Plus, I wanted her to myself.
Anyway, she had changed into a clingy dark grey dress, a nice black
leather jacket, and strappy heels which, to me, looked too high to be
wearable—though she walked like she was born in them. Her long legs
were hard for any guy to ignore. Including me.
―Is this a date?‖ she asked, smiling.
―I think so—if that‘s what you‘d like.‖
―I‘d guess I‘d like it to be a date.‖
Well, that made two of us. I was in the middle of an important
mission and I wasn‘t about to fall in love or start anything serious, but
I found her interesting nonetheless. I guess I believed her backstory,
too—at least what I had heard so far. I wanted to get to know her
better just to be certain she was everything she said she was. It‘s just
smart to make sure a person isn‘t an axe murderer before you start
sticking your neck out for them, right?


Michelle and I continued chatting while walking along her quaint
street, and I noticed the drizzle had stopped and there were more
people out than earlier. I was pulling Michelle‘s suitcase behind me
which was equipped with wheels, and I was glad for that. Especially
since she‘d apparently packed her lead brick collection. I was also glad
when I spotted a taxi parked at the end of the street.
As we approached the taxi, a black Mercedes SUV, the driver
hopped out and helped me load the heavy bag into the rear
compartment. Luckily, he understood enough English to know what I
wanted. I handed him a hundred euro note and told him to take us to a
nice hotel, five stars, and preferably near the Vatican or Castel
Sant'Angelo. These locations, I knew, would put Michelle on the other
side of the river, which was far enough from Nigel but easy for me to
get to. Plus, there would be plenty of things for her to see and do there
while I was busy with my other mission, which I had almost forgotten
about.
The driver told me about a nice place, the Gran Maria on Via del
Gianicolo, which was only about a thousand feet from Saint Peter‘s
Square in Vatican City. ―It‘s expensive,‖ he told me, and then rubbed
his fingers together in case I somehow did not understand that.
―Perfetto,‖ I told him. Perfect.
After we climbed in, the driver pulled out of the parking area and
took a left onto a busy four-lane road paralleling the Tiber. Like all
Italian taxi drivers, he floored it as soon as he could. Before long, we
flew past Ponte Sant'Angelo, the iconic pedestrian bridge which
connects to Castel Sant'Angelo. In the distance, I could see the dome
of Saint Peter‘s Basilica. At the next bridge, we turned right and headed
out of Old Rome and into the Vatican District, which, to me, looked
just as old.
Within minutes, we arrived at the Gran Maria where we turned into
the circle drive and pulled up to the entrance. The hotel had an
impressive entrance surrounded by vast gardens, fountains, and
modern sculptures. A valet appeared at once and carefully removed
Michelle‘s brick collection from the trunk while she and I entered the
lobby, which seemed massive enough to fly a plane around in.


On the way to the check-in desk, I spotted an ATM and excused
myself while Michelle helped herself to a complimentary glass of juice
at a side table. With two transactions, I quickly withdrew four thousand
euros from my Swiss account, which still had a balance of around two
million dollars. I stuffed the cash in my pocket and headed to the desk.
Michelle was speaking to the clerk in French, which sounded
incredibly sexy. The clerk‘s nametag, I noticed, read ―Lucia.‖ I also
noticed that she was rather attractive herself, and I figured that if things
did not work out with—
―What type of room did you have in mind, Craig?‖ Michelle asked
me.
I asked Lucia, ―Do you have a room available with a view of the
Basilica?‖
She checked her computer and let me know, in English, ―Yes sir,
and those are premium rooms, which are quite comfortable.‖
―That‘s what I want,‖ I told her, and then handed her three one
hundred euro notes. ―This is for you to keep, Lucia, for yourself.‖ I
explained, ―I‘m paying cash and have no identification. Is that okay?‖ I
gazed into her pretty eyes and my sixth sense told me that she would
go for it.
She looked at me for a moment, then glanced at the three hundred
euros. ―That‘s not a problem, sir.‖
See? Anyway, I paid for a couple of days and was offered a glass of
chilled champagne, which I accepted. When our check-in was finished,
I discretely handed Michelle a folded stack of bills, about two thousand
euros.
―What‘s this?‖
―That‘s for your expenses. They have a spa here that you might
enjoy, and a gym.‖
She glanced at the wad for a moment. ―Thank you, Craig, but this is
really not necessary. I have—‖
―Don‘t worry about it,‖ I insisted. ―First and foremost I want you to
be safe, but I also want you to be comfortable while you‘re here.
Okay?‖


She shrugged and dropped the bills into her purse, then turned to
me. ―I saw you looking at Lucia. Do you think she‘s pretty?‖
How did she spot that? ―Who? Oh, the clerk?‖ I turned to look
back at the desk, then lied, ―Honestly, Michelle, I didn‘t even notice
her.‖
She studied me for a moment, then let me know, ―You can come up
and have a quick look at the room if you like.‖
I was hoping she would say exactly that. I relieved the valet of
Michelle‘s luggage, tipped him, and followed her to the elevator. After
we got in, she cleared her throat, and I thought I heard her softly say,
―This is one of the places where I‘d like to get laid.‖
―Uh…what did you say?‖
―I said, ‗This is one of the nicest places I‘ve ever stayed.‘‖
―Oh. Yeah, it‘s beautiful.‖
―I hope you don‘t think I‘m the kind of woman that brings men to
her room.‖ She turned to me and asked, ―You don‘t think that of me,
do you?‖
―Of course not.‖
She made no reply to that, so I took the opportunity to lie further,
―I hope you don‘t think I‘m scheming to get you in bed, either. I just
find you attractive and enjoy being with you.‖
―You‘re probably lying,‖ she said, ―but since you paid for the room,
which was quite generous by the way, I just thought you‘d like to have
a look. The view must be magnificent.‖
―I‘m sure it is.‖
She seemed to be in thought for a moment and then asked me,
―You aren‘t married, are you?‖
―No.‖
She glanced at my ring finger. My wedding band, of course, was
gone, but the skin where the ring had been still looked pale. ―Are you
sure?‖
―I wouldn‘t lie to you about that, Michelle. I‘m a widower.‖


―Oh.‖
I could tell she was about to say something like the usual ‗I‘m sorry,‘
or maybe ask about what happened, but she stopped herself. She did,
however, look at me in a subtle way that told me I might be one step
closer, which was good. This was my current mission within a mission
and I was sure the President would approve. He seemed like that kind
of guy.
She and I soon arrived at the room, and I think we were both
impressed. The décor featured modern furnishings, a cool-looking
glassed-in bathroom, and huge close-up gallery prints of Michelangelo‘s
Sistine Chapel paintings. From the balcony, we could see the dome of
the great basilica nearby as well as the hotel‘s immense private gardens
below, which seemed like an oasis in the midst of the great city. The
sun was beginning to peek out from behind the clouds and it was
turning into a beautiful day in more ways than one.
―This place is beautiful,‖ she said. ―Thank you.‖
I smiled and nodded.
―Now, how about that lunch you promised me? I‘m famished.‖
―The sun is coming out,‖ I told her,‖ and it looks like a nice day. I
know a decent courtyard bistro that we could walk to from here. I
think you‘d enjoy it.‖
―Right now, Craig, I could eat out of a trough. Let‘s go.‖
From the hotel, we crossed the street and headed through sunlit
roads paved with old porphyry stones until we reached Via della
Conciliazione, the main thoroughfare which leads directly into Saint
Pater‘s Square. Our destination, La Veranda, was located to our right,
and I escorted Michelle into the lobby.
After being welcomed by the maître d', I requested a table for two in
the grand courtyard and we were escorted there. Our table was located
under a shade tree and covered by and a wide umbrella and also
positioned near a running fountain. After being seated, Michelle
removed her sunglasses, revealing her lovely green eyes. She took a
look around.
―This is beautiful. How did you know about this place?‖


―It‘s pretty famous,‖ I told her, though it isn‘t. In truth, my late wife
had discovered La Veranda, and she and I had shared a memorable
candlelit dinner here. This was during our one trip to Rome—though I
wasn‘t going to tell Michelle about that. I had mourned Jessica long
enough, and I thought coming here would be a mentally healthy way
for me to put final closure on that relationship. Plus, I wanted to
impress Michelle.
After a few minutes, our waiter arrived wearing a white long sleeve
shirt and black dress pants. He handed each of us a large menu and set
out a basket of warm bread, letting us know that it was from the
Roscioli bakery, wherever that is. Michelle nibbled at some of that
while we both decided on the same entrees: a brandade of cod and
mixed salad, followed by a course of simple risotto with seafood. I also
ordered a bottle of something called Est! Est! Est! Falesco 2018 for no
other reason than that it had an interesting name. It has been my
experience that by the third glass they all start to taste like fermented
grapes anyway.
The sun was fully out and it was beginning to warm up, though
Michelle and I were not about to take off our jackets. I noticed a few
wintering birds, warblers mostly, flying from tree to tree. They were
watching us in hopes that we would drop some crumbs of Roscioli
bread on the ground, or maybe our wallets.
The waiter soon delivered our wine and poured us each an ounce.
Michelle studied it while swirling it around in her glass for a moment to
stir the bouquet. She then smelled it deeply before tasting. She did this
so naturally that I could tell she understood a few things about
etiquette. This also told me she might be slightly out of my league,
though I felt I could fake it enough to get by.
Maybe, if I was lucky, she preferred men who were a little rough
around the edges. At the moment, I was an escaped convict, a fugitive
with a fake passport, and I was carrying a concealed, loaded, and
unlicensed semi-automatic weapon. All that, I figured, made me about
as rough-edged as you get.
Michelle took another sip and asked, ―What kind of agent did you
say you were?‖


Actually, I couldn‘t remember what lie I had told her, so I replied,
―I‘m the kind of agent who believes your story, and wants to be sure
you‘re kept safe.‖
She seemed to doubt that. ―Are you a secret agent?‖
I let out a laugh. ―A secret agent? No, of course not.‖ I took a quick
sip of wine and changed subjects, ―Tell me about your career as a
model. That sounds more fascinating than what I do.‖
She smiled at my evasion. ―I don‘t know about ‗fascinating,‘ but do I
enjoy traveling. Modeling provides that.‖
I swirled my wine around in its glass and told her, ―A famous
person once said, ‗I love to travel. It‘s a way of meeting new people,
learning new cultures, and opening the gates of new cities.‘‖
―Who was that?‖
―Genghis Khan.‖
She laughed at that and continued, ―Modeling has been a lot of fun,
I admit, and I‘m fortunate to have made many friends and to have
been successful in a difficult industry.‖ She took another sniff of her
wine, then added, ―But I‘m also fortunate to know when it‘s time to get
out.‖
I nodded. ―Tell me more about Nigel Adams. I‘m wondering…why
did you continue working for him?‖
She turned away for a moment and appeared to be in deep thought.
She then looked back at me and answered that, ―He was a man full of
hopes and promises and I suppose I was naïve. I believed him, which
was foolish of me. I was determined to get out of modeling and I
wanted a career with more…‖
―Future?‖
She nodded at that, then looked at me and confided, ―I was also
afraid.‖
―Afraid of what?‖
She drew a breath and told me, ―The more I knew him, the more I
realized he could make trouble for people if he wanted to.‖ She leaned
back in her chair and explained, ―He was always cordial with me, of


course, but I listened to how he spoke to others and I knew he could
threaten people and use extortion tactics if he chose to.‖ She added,
―He could have ruined me, professionally, or made it hard for me to
get a visa, or…‖
―Or worse, right?‖
She looked at me and nodded, though subtly.
At that moment, our waiter arrived with our first course. After he
had set out our meal and left, I poured some more wine into our
glasses. In a low voice, I told Michelle, ―One last thing and we can
change subjects…‖
She was about to grab a fork, but stopped herself and smiled at me
politely.
I continued, ―You‘ve been dealing with some dangerous people,
Michelle. I want you to stay off the grid for a while. That means no
phone calls, no computers, no Facebook or Tweets—none of that,
okay?‖
She looked into my eyes and held my hand for a moment, which I
was not expecting. She then leaned close and whispered, ―Thank you
for protecting me, Craig. I feel safe with you.‖
As we looked into each other‘s eyes, I felt a faint connection, and I
was sure she did, too. I gave her hand a squeeze, kissed it, then smiled
and let her know, ―Now, Miss Fontaine, you may eat your lunch.‖
She laughed.
While she and I enjoyed our meal, I took a moment to ask, ―So,
what part of New York City are you from?‖
Gracefully, she dabbed her mouth with her napkin and replied, ―I
have an apartment on the upper east side. It‘s on Lexington and 46
th
.‖
―Nice.‖
She nodded at that and added, ―My agency provides it.‖
―Lucky you. That‘s close to Grand Central Station, right?‖
She seemed surprised at that. ―Yes, actually, it‘s only a block away.
Have you lived in the city?‖


I shook my head. ―No. I‘ve just been here and there. A bit of
everywhere, I suppose.‖
She looked at me as if in doubt. ―You‘re going to be a hard one to
figure out, Craig.‖
Well, she was right about that.
By the end of lunch, I realized that we had drank the whole bottle of
Est! Est! Est! whatever, and my head was spinning slightly. I thanked
our waiter as I paid our bill in cash and left him a decent tip. Maybe
too decent.
Once outside, I spotted a street vendor, an elderly woman peddling
flowers from a bucket. As we passed by her, I slid a stack of euro coins
into her hand and selected a red rose.
―Grazie,‖ the woman said to me with an almost toothless smile.
I handed the rose to Michelle, who smelled it. ―Mmm. Thank you,
Craig. How nice.‖
―I‘m glad you like it. Do you mind if I hold your hand while we
walk?‖
―Is that for the purpose of my protection?‖
I nodded. ―Partly.‖
She thought about it. ―I don‘t even know your last name.‖
―Van Essen.‖
She looked at me, then held her hand out and asked, ―Am I safe
with you, Mr. Van Essen?‖
She probably wasn‘t, but I didn‘t want to scare her off. ―I won‘t let
anything bad happen to you, if that‘s what you‘re wondering.‖
―I‘m trusting you.‖
Well, I appreciated that, though I knew better than to trust myself.
We walked hand in hand for a while and soon arrived at the same
narrow road we had taken on the way here. A group of children were
now playing in the street, kicking a soccer ball back and forth. As we
approached, the ball rolled past one of them and was coming straight
toward Michelle. As she stopped, I put my foot forward in front of her,


caught the ball with toe of my shoe, then flipped it into the air and
landed it into my hands.
As I returned the ball to the children, I turned to Michelle and
mentioned, ―See how I protect you?‖
―My hero. Now I know I‘m safe.‖
We both smiled at that, then continued our walk through the quaint
streets of old Rome. We spent time chatting about things and making
small talk, which was a good way for us to get to know each other. As
we walked, Michelle asked, ―So, how many times have you been to
Rome?‖
―Just once before.‖
She paused for a moment but could not resist asking, ―Were you
with someone then, or…?‖
―I was here with my wife and daughter.‖
She stopped walking. ―Oh…‖
I looked at Michelle and let her know, ―My daughter, Chandis, and
her mother were both killed last year. They died within minutes of each
other in the Tokyo earthquake.‖
―During the Olympics?‖
I nodded.
―Oh my. I just—‖
―It‘s all right,‖ I told her, and then took a moment to explain, ―I‘ll
always miss them, of course, but it‘s been over five months. At this
point, I‘ve decided I‘m done with mourning and am now ready to go
on with my life.‖
She looked at me for a second, and then gave me a warm hug. After
that, we continued walking, though it became noticeably quieter. Part
of me was wishing I had waited to tell her about Jessica and Chandis,
while the other part was glad it was out in the open.
Before long, we found our way back to the hotel gardens and we
decided to stroll amongst the beautifully landscaped flowers and trees
for a few minutes. I pointed out a group of sparrows I saw drinking


water from one of the fountains, and we watched them for a minute or
so.
From there, we walked further into the garden and soon came upon
a life-size modern sculpture depicting a nude couple in embrace. It was
a beautiful work of art, I thought, or maybe it was just the feeling of
romance in the air. I noticed the woman in the figure appeared to be
leaning back, almost as though attempting to avoid the man‘s advances.
―If you look at it,‖ Michelle observed, ―it‘s almost like he‘s attacking
her,‖
―It looks that way, but if you look closely you can see she‘s wearing
a smile—and nothing else.‖
―Like, she wants him, but doesn‘t want to be too…?‖
I nodded. ―That‘s what it looks like.‖
She studied the sculpture for another moment, then told me, ―Hold
me like that for a minute…so I can see how it feels.‖
Well, I liked where this was going. ―All right. But we‘ll have to take
our clothes off to get the full effect.‖
She giggled at that one, either due to the wine or because I am so
charming and witty. She then moved closer and I held her in my arms
and leaned her back. As I did so, I bent forward and kissed her gently
on the cheek. After that, I lifted her so we were upright again and
asked, ―How did that feel?‖
―It was okay,‖ she answered, ―but you were right—we‘ll have to try
it with our clothes off.‖
See why I love art? ―We‘ll need to go someplace where we can be
alone.‖
―I agree.‖ She pointed to the fountain behind me. ―I feel like those
guys are watching us.‖
I turned to see a line of sparrows at the fountain and they were all
looking straight at us. ―Those little perverts.‖
She smiled at my comment, then glanced over at the hotel and
appeared to be in thought.


―I don‘t want to impose on you,‖ I told her, which, of course, was a
lie. ―I can take a cab back to my apartment, if you—‖
―You could do that,‖ she said, ―or you could just follow me.‖ She
smiled and touched the rose to my cheek. ―But do whatever you like.‖
At that, she leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth, then turned
and headed in the direction of the hotel.
I watched her for a moment as she strutted away. My head was
spinning even more at this point and it seemed as though the
temperature had suddenly become warmer. Though it may have been a
stretch, I decided right then that learning more about Michelle
Fontaine was a new and essential element of my mission.
Also, as an experienced agent and spy I knew how important it was
to always follow every lead wherever it may take you.
I followed her to the hotel.


Chapter 10

I‘ve come to learn that real men desire only two things: danger and
toys. For this reason, they usually seek after women, which are, in all
certainty, the most dangerous playthings of all.
I entered the hotel and spotted the desk clerk, Lucia, as she crossed
the lobby. Now that she was out from behind her desk I could see she
was not quite as trim and attractive as I had originally thought. Or
maybe I was comparing her to Michelle. Anyway, she noticed me and
seemed to tell I was in a hurry.
―Is everything all right, Mr. Van Essen?‖
I smiled and nodded to her as I continued walking. Just then, a
thought came to me and I stopped and asked, ―Who do I see about
having some champagne sent up to Miss Fontaine‘s room?‖
She smiled. ―I think I can take care of that for you. Any particular
champagne?‖
―Better make it the good stuff—on ice—and pronto.‖
I turned and hurried to the elevator. I was a man on a mission.
Literally.
Once upstairs, I went to Michelle‘s door and knocked.
―Who is it?‖
In jest, I replied, ―I have a special delivery package for a Michelle
Fontaine.‖
As I spoke, the door across the hall opened and a young couple
began to step out of their room, each of them wheeling a small suitcase
behind them.
Michelle replied, ―I‘m looking through the peephole and I don‘t see
a package.‖
I turned and smiled politely at the couple, then told Michelle, ―You
can‘t see it from the peephole. Let me in and I‘ll show it to you.‖
―Whatever it is, it must be very small.‖


Apparently, the young couple must have understood English as I
heard both of them giggle under their breath while they headed down
the hall.
―It‘s not…look, just let me in, okay?‖ I tapped on the door again
and told her, ―I ordered champagne for us.‖
―Chilled?‖
―Yes. Now open the door.‖
After a few seconds I heard the door click. As it began to open, I
pushed my way in. Once inside, I decided to take a chance and act the
role of the tough guy. I smiled in a way that she‘d know I was playing,
then quickly grabbed her by the scarf around her neck and forced her
up against a wall. As the door closed behind us, I stared into her eyes
for a moment, then looked at her lips and began to kiss them while my
grip loosed from her scarf. I moved my hand down her back and
forced her waist close to mine. I could tell she was still unsure if I was
angry with her or just playing around. In fact, she was probably
thinking about calling security.
I can have that effect on women.
After a few minutes, I removed my jacket and tossed it over the
back of a chair. Michelle stepped over to me and we embraced again. I
thought about being gentler with her, but since things were going the
way I wanted, I stuck with being rough.
With one hand I grasped the hair at the back of her head and ran my
nails across her neck while we kissed. She seemed to respond well to
that, so I pushed her up against a side table and sat her on top of it as I
leaned over her.
―You seem very rough,‖ she told me. ―Maybe I shouldn‘t have
opened the door.‖
She was right about that.
―Perhaps I shouldn‘t have invited you up to my room, either. I
hardly know you.‖
She was right about that, too.
She looked into my eyes. ―But I can tell that you‘d never hurt
anyone.‖


Well, two out of three wasn‘t bad.
I was wearing my holster and soon noticed her fingers running over
the knurled grips of my handgun while we kissed. I whispered into her
ear, ―The gun and holster I‘m wearing—they turn you on, don‘t they?‖
She did not reply verbally to that, but looked at me in an impish way
that answered the question. After a moment she pushed me back, then
stood from the side table and asked, ―What about what I‘m
wearing?‖—she gestured to her clothes—―Is this a turn on for you?‖
I looked her over. ―Nope. I don‘t like it.‖
―You don‘t? What is it you don‘t like?‖
I pointed to her scarf. ―To start with, I don‘t like that thing.‖
She slowly unwrapped it from her neck and tossed it over the foot
of the bed.
That was easy. I pointed to her vest. ―I don‘t like that, either.‖
She slipped out of the vest and smiled at me in a sexy way before
dropping it to the floor.
I wondered how far I could go with this. ―The dress has to go.‖
She smiled again while I watched her reach behind herself and
pulled down the zipper. She then slowly removed her arms from the
sleeves and then slid the dress over her hips in an extremely seductive
way before dropping it to the floor and kicking it aside. I was really
enjoying this.
―What about my bra?‖ she asked.
It was a beautiful black lacy thing with bright red silk sown into it
and, honestly, the nicest looking bra I had ever seen on a woman. ―I
hate it.‖
A few seconds later, that was on the floor, too.
She stood before me wearing only expensive-looking black lace
panties and high heels. I had never seen a woman more beautiful, and I
knew this would be a night to remember. Well, afternoon, anyway. My
heart felt like a drum beating hard in my chest. I was breathing pretty
hard, too. In fact, everything seemed pretty hard, including—


―What about my shoes?‖ she asked.
I looked at her strappy high heels while she stood there, posing for
me like a model. Actually, she was a model. The shoes, I thought, were
sexy and made her long legs appear even longer. ―I like those,‖ I said,
―so I guess they can stay.‖
Just then, there was a knock on the door and I told her, ―I think our
champagne just arrived.‖
―You take care of that,‖ she said as she stepped into the bathroom.
I checked the peephole, then quickly removed my gun and holster
and set them aside before opening the door. The smiling delivery guy
wheeled in a small cart with two fluted glasses, a covered tray of hors
d'oeuvres, and, of course, the champagne, which was nestled in a
bucket of crushed ice. I tipped him and pushed him out the door.
Michelle heard the bottle pop open and came out of the bathroom.
She was dressed apropos, in my opinion, still wearing only her black
panties and heels. She stood for me while the golden light radiating
from the window and blinds cast shadows which rolled over the curves
of her body. She watched me while I poured champagne and said,
―You can be nice when you want.‖
I handed her the champagne.
She took a small sip and then set the glass down. Noticing my
shoulder holster was missing, she mentioned, ―I see you‘re unarmed.‖
I stepped close to her and ran my fingers down the side of her neck
and over the top of her shoulder. I let her know, ―I always carry more
than one weapon.‖
She smiled at that and glanced down. ―I see that you‘re pointing it at
me.‖ She kissed my neck, then asked, ―Are you planning to be rough?‖
Well, I didn‘t really have a detailed plan, but I nodded.
She drew herself closer and whispered into my ear, ―Be nice.‖
I wasn‘t sure whether she meant for me to be nice, which I could
do, or if being rough would be nice, so I asked, ―You want me to be
gentle?‖


She looked at me and nodded, then put her lips close to mine.
Almost at once, we melted into each other‘s arms and began to kiss.
My hands ran over the skin of her back, which felt like satin to touch. I
held her even closer and could tell she liked being naked in the arms of
a fully clothed man, but that wasn‘t going to last much longer. I
stepped back for a moment and began unbuttoning my shirt.
―Help me with these,‖ I told her, gesturing to the rest of the
buttons.
She smiled coyly and grabbed me by the belt, which she began to
unbuckle. As I removed my shirt and threw it aside, my pants fell to
the floor. Wasting no time, I kicked those aside and quickly took off
my socks and underwear. We then held each other again.
Holding Michelle in my arms and kissing her was beautiful, but after
a few minutes of that I felt we were ready for the next step in our
relationship. At least I was. I picked her up and held her in my arms,
then carried her to the bed. With one arm, I yanked the sheets aside
and then lowered her onto the mattress. I then climbed in next to her
and began kissing the side of her face, then her neck, and then, of
course, her breasts. As I did this, my right hand began to remove her
panties and she helped me by lowering them the rest of the way and
then off.
Michelle had a thing for concealed weapons. She soon found mine
and began playing with it while I continued caressing her. After a
minute or so, I couldn‘t wait anymore and found myself positioned on
top of her.
As we made love, I noticed that my senses becoming heightened
and more selective. While all my aches and pains seemed to vanish,
other things were becoming more noticeable, such as the fragrance of
her perfume, which I liked. I also became aware of a soft amber light
now filling the room from the lowering sun. I noticed her subtle gasps
as I moved within her as well as the silky feel of her hair as I held her
head in my hand. I was only faintly aware of the heels of her shoes as
they occasionally dug into my back.
She heard me wince and asked, ―Did I hurt you?‖
I didn‘t want to complain, so I grinned and replied, ―Right now,
Michelle, you could hit me with a crowbar and I wouldn‘t feel it.‖


She glanced around for a moment as though she was looking for a
crowbar, then relaxed again.
After a few minutes, I felt her muscles begin to tighten. After
gasping for a few breaths of air, she began kissing my face until I was
finished, too.
Mission accomplished.
Both of us were breathing hard and we took a minute to allow our
brains to restart. As I rested my head on her chest I could hear her
heart pounding and noticed her skin was wet with sweat. Once we had
caught our breath, I repositioned myself beside her and she turned to
face me, smiling.
The sun was now low in the sky, and the reddish light glowed
through the window and cast itself subtly upon her pretty skin. I
looked at her body for a long moment, then her face, and soon found
myself gazing again into her jade-green eyes. What had just happened
between us, I knew, was somehow special, and I had a feeling in my
heart that this was just the beginning.
I was hoping she felt that way too.


Chapter 11

I think sex is an important, beautiful, and integral part of life. It‘s at the
very core of the human experience and one of our most basic and
primal connections with nature.
And I always go along with nature.
Michelle and I spent the next hour or so talking while lying in bed,
and I managed to do most of the listening while she did most of the
talking. This worked well for me since I was more interested in her
than myself and I was curious to learn all I could about this woman.
Also, almost everything I would say about me would have to be a lie.
It‘s not an ethical dilemma or anything; I just have a hard time
remembering which version of what bullshit I told who, and it can be
exhausting trying to keep track of it all.
I need to come up with a system.
After a while she asked me, ―Isn‘t your team going to wonder what
happened to you?‖
Right now, my entire ‗team‘ consisted of one person: Paige O‘Neill,
who was probably only wondering whether I had gotten laid or not.
―They‘ll survive without me for a few hours,‖ I told Michelle. ―I‘ll just
explain that I had to pin down a witness.‖
She giggled at that and asked, ―Shouldn‘t you call your supervisor or
something? I‘d like you to stay here with me, but I don‘t want you to
get in trouble.‖
―I don‘t actually have a direct supervisor,‖ I told her, which was true
if you don‘t count the President of the United States. ―Most of the
team, including myself, aren‘t carrying phones or using computers on
this mission.‖ I took the opportunity to tell her, ―You need to take the
same precautions. The moment you use your phone or check your
email or glance at a social media site—they‘ll be able to locate you.‖
―Who‘s ‗they?‘‖
―‗They‘ are the people you‘re involved with, Michelle, including the
person you gave the message to. These are dangerous people, and I
want to protect you from them.‖


She seemed to think about that for a moment. ―How do I know
they weren‘t trying to protect me from you? Perhaps you’re the
dangerous one.‖
She had a point there, however convoluted, so to settle the issue I
rolled on top of her and held her wrists down firmly on the mattress.
―You‘re right,‖ I said. ―I am dangerous and I want to hurt you.‖
―I think you just want to fuck me again.‖
―Maybe.‖ Definitely.
―If I open my legs will you promise not to hurt me?‖
I kissed her and smiled. ―I‘ll make no such promise.‖
* * *
After we had finished round two, I felt dehydrated and vitamin
depleted. I pulled myself to my feet and brought the tray of hors
d'oeuvres and the champagne to the bed. Once she and I had refueled
ourselves with fluids and vital nutrients, we both passed out.



Chapter 12

Thursday, January 28, 2021

At around 5:00 a.m., I woke up fully rested and full of vim and vigor,
though I could see that Michelle was still out cold. Quietly, I scooted
out of the bed and grabbed my clothes, then took a pad of stationary
from the desk and stepped into the bathroom where I wrote her a brief
message:

Miss Fontaine,
You looked so comfortable that I could not bring myself to wake you.
I’ve gone to check in at work and hope to return soon. In the meantime,
remember to be careful and keep a low profile.
I look forward to seeing you again and hearing your pretty voice.
Amore,
Craig

Confident that I was the only Craig she knew, I left the note next to
the sink. I then dressed myself and slithered out the front door without
a peep.
At the front desk I ordered a cab, which arrived quickly. Fifty euros
and ten minutes later I was back at my apartment where I found Paige
asleep in my bed. Normally this would be a no-no, but since I hadn‘t
been home there was no reason for her to sleep on the couch. At least
she hadn‘t dragged some guy from the Piazza to the apartment. I could
tell that Paige was a bit on the promiscuous side. But then, who was I
to judge, right?
I was craving a cappuccino, so I headed back downstairs and went
straight to the café across from my apartment, which was already open
for business. It was still dark, and I noticed the full moon was low in


the western sky and casting an eerie white light over the small square
fronting the café.
I ordered one cappuccino for myself and one to go for my team,
who I intended to wake up soon. Outside the café, I sat at a table and
looked up at the stars in the sky, contemplating things while sipping my
drink. I thought about Michelle Fontaine and hoped that she wouldn‘t
be hurt that I had left without saying goodbye. For her own safety, I
thought, it might be best if she headed back to the states. Hopefully,
I‘d be able to meet up with her again over there.
I also thought about young Paige O‘Neill, and wondered if I was
putting her in danger by involving her as my assistant. I considered
sending her on her way, too.
Finally, I thought about Bjorn Gundersen, and wondered what was
in the message he had received from Michelle. The next part of my
mission would be to find out what I could about that.
I finished my cappuccino, which hit the spot, then went back
upstairs to the apartment. Once there, I made no effort to be quiet.
After removing my jacket and holster I went to the bedroom. As I
entered, I saw Paige crack one eye open and glance over at me.
In a groggy voice she mumbled, ―Sorry, but I couldn‘t sleep on that
awful couch.‖
―It‘s okay,‖ I said. ―Here, I brought you a cappuccino.‖
She opened her eye again as I approached with the drink. At that,
she sat up in the bed and allowed the bed sheet to fall, revealing her
small bare breasts.
I let her know, ―You‘re supposed to be my professional assistant, so
you need to cover up.‖
Paige pulled the sheet back over her chest and shrugged. She then
took the drink from my hands and asked, ―So, did you get what you
were after?‖
―Uh…what do you mean?‖
―Like, did you fuck her?‖


I gave her a stern look. ―Look, Paige, let‘s get this straight from the
start: we‘re not to involve ourselves or comment on each other‘s
personal lives in any way, okay? Let‘s keep it professional.‖
Paige took a sip of the drink and muttered, ―Then you did fuck her.‖
She looked up at me and shrugged, then added, ―That‘s my
professional opinion.‖
I sat at the foot of the bed and tried to remember, for the life of me,
why I had hired this girl. Just then, I heard a loud knock at the door.
I stood and told Paige, ―Get dressed, quick, and whoever this is:
don‘t say anything—especially about the girl.‖
Quietly, I went to the door. Through the peephole, I could see it
was Bjorn Gundersen and I let him in at once.
As Bjorn entered, he removed his scarf and unzipped his jacket as
though he planned to be here for a while. Right away he looked at me
and asked, ―Did you find the girl?‖
―I spoke with her for a moment or two,‖ I replied, ―but she
managed to slip away.‖
―So…she‘s gone?‖
I nodded.
―Did she know what was in the message?‖
―She swore to me that she was instructed only to deliver the note
and the phone. She said she had no idea who you were or what the
message was about—and I believed her.‖ I added, ―I have an idea,
though, who might have put her up to it.‖
As I spoke, Bjorn heard a noise from the bedroom and peered
around the corner just in time to see Paige‘s breasts as she pulled a
sweater over her head. He then turned to me and grinned.
Now that we‘d both had a good look at Paige‘s tits, I closed the
bedroom door and asked Bjorn, ―What did the message actually say?
You seemed troubled about it, to say the least.‖
He sat himself on the couch and I took a chair facing him. He then
rubbed his forehead for a moment and explained, ―I know the location
of certain…assets. Assets that the Skilja would like to get their hands


on.‖ He looked at me and added, ―Tjuren, their leader, is demanding
that I provide him the location of these items.‖
―Have you tried to contact him?‖
He shook his head. ―No. That would be too dangerous right now.‖
He leaned back on the couch and explained, ―He and I had an
agreement: that we would destroy everything to prevent it from falling
into the wrong hands.‖
I hesitated, but then took a shot, ―What is it you were going to
destroy?‖
He studied me for a moment, then replied, ―It would be better, my
friend, that you never know.‖
I nodded, though I disagreed.
Just then, the bedroom door opened and Paige stepped out. I didn‘t
want her to be in on this conversation so I asked, ―Could you do us a
favor and run to the café for a couple of coffees?‖ I held out a fifty
euro note.
She grabbed the bill and winked at me. ―Sure thing, Mr. Van
Essen.‖ At that, she put on her coat and went out the door.
Bjorn and I smiled at that and then went back to conversing. I asked
him, ―Whatever the ‗assets‘ are, why don‘t you just destroy them
yourself?‖
―I fully intend to,‖ he replied. He then looked at me with remorseful
eyes and confided, ―I should have done so when I had the chance,
before I wound up in Oberwald. In fact, I regret that I ever created
such a monstrous—‖
Just then, the cell phone in his pocket chimed and he pulled it out.
As he read the incoming text message, he stood from the couch and
appeared suddenly filled with rage. He squeezed the phone in his hand
as he reread the message and I saw his face turning red.
―The bastards!‖ he yelled.
―What is it?‖


He looked at me. ―They have my sister, Ella.‖ He glanced at the text
again and explained, almost in disbelief, ―They are holding her until I
tell them the location.‖
―She‘s been kidnapped?‖
He seemed not to hear me and muttered to himself, ―I will kill him
for this.‖ He then held the phone up for me to see and replied, ―She‘s
being held hostage, and they are giving me twenty-four hours to
comply with their demands.‖
I didn‘t bother to ask ‗Or what?‘ but I had a fairly good idea.



Chapter 13

After reading the text message again, Bjorn looked like he was going to
crush the phone in his hand. Suddenly, it rang, startling both of us.
Bjorn looked at me, and I nodded.
Reluctantly, he answered the call. He listened for a moment before
asking, ―Ella? Is that you?‖ He then began speaking in Swedish. I could
tell it was his sister on the line, and Bjorn appeared frustrated and
concerned as he spoke. After about thirty seconds, the call ended while
Bjorn was mid-sentence.
Bjorn appeared distraught and looked at his phone for a moment
before turning to me. ―They have Ella,‖ he said, ―and she is here, in
Italy.‖
―Where? In Rome?‖
―She told me they lured her into coming here to see me, but when
she arrived in Rome she was met by a man who took her somewhere
north of here—and now she is being held captive.‖ He looked away
and added, ―She sounded terrified.‖
He was about to throw the phone across the room when I yelled,
―Wait!‖
He held himself from throwing it and looked back at me.
―We might need that to find them,‖ I said, and then made a
suggestion, ―For your sister‘s sake, maybe you should just tell them
where the items are hidden.‖
He seemed to consider that for a brief moment, but then shook his
head. ―No. Never.‖
I decided to take a chance and offered, ―If you tell me the location,
I‘ll go and destroy…whatever it is.‖
He drew a breath and looked me in the eye. ―I‘m sorry, my friend,
but I can trust no one with that knowledge, save myself. Besides, the
bastards might not release poor Ella if they learned that we did such a
thing.‖


So far, Bjorn had confided that he alone knew the location of
certain ‗assets,‘ and that they were not only something that he regretted
creating, but also something ‗monstrous.‘ Apparently, Mark Westfall
and his friends at the White House had been right about the Skilja all
along. Unfortunately, they didn‘t know enough about Bjorn
Gundersen. Tjuren, obviously, was the Skilja‘s leader, while Bjorn, it
turns out, was probably the brains of the organization. From what I
could tell, he was the creative force behind the group and, if my
suspicions were correct, he may have come up with a way to initiate an
earthquake.
I thought about all this for a moment, then told Bjorn, ―I might
know the identity of the man that your sister met here in Rome.‖
―Who is it?‖ Bjorn demanded. ―Tell me, so I can kill him after I‘ve
cut his nuts off.‖
I studied Bjorn for a few seconds and could easily picture him doing
that. I let him know, ―Yesterday, when I questioned the woman, she
described the man who sent her to give you the message and the
phone. According to her, the man‘s name was Nigel.
Bjorn seemed surprised by that and sat back down.
I continued, ―She described Nigel as tall, about six-foot, Caucasian,
and around my age. She also mentioned that he had short hair, a bit of
a hook nose, and a Brit accent.‖
―That sounds like our friend from Oberwald—that prick.‖ He
thought for a moment and then asked, ―How would he have escaped?‖
―Perhaps Nigel has the same friends we have,‖ I replied. ―And
maybe he‘s working for your brother-in-law, Tjuren.‖
Bjorn‘s face grew redder now, and I could see a vein bulging on his
forehead.
―When I find Nigel,‖ he muttered, ―I will slit his throat and feed
him to the dogs.‖ He seemed to ponder the situation for a moment,
then stood and told me, ―Grab your gun and holster. We have a friend
to visit.‖
Well, I had a good idea who that might be: our soon-to-be ex-friend
Axel Thorsen.


As Bjorn and I hurried out of the apartment, we passed my soon-to-
be ex-assistant, Paige, as she headed up the stairs with our coffees. To
her credit, she said nothing as we rushed by, which told me she had the
capacity to know when to shut up—unlike some women I have known.
This mission was becoming too dangerous to have her around and I
planned to send her packing as soon as I got back.
The second we stepped out of the building, Bjorn began heading
east.
As we walked along at a fast pace, I said to him, ―I assume we‘re
heading to Axel‘s apartment.‖
―We are,‖ he replied. ―And you can also assume that he‘ll be
surprised to see us.‖
I nodded in agreement as we continued heading east. Bjorn, I could
tell, was in no mood for chit-chat and I wondered what he had in mind
for poor Axel. Whatever it was, I was sure the kid would soon be
wishing he had left us in Oberwald and was back home in Sweden. I
had packed my handgun per Bjorn‘s suggestion, plus I‘d had a nice
cappuccino earlier—so I was ready for practically anything.
As far as I was concerned, I was happy to be involved with anyone
or anything that had to do with ‗the assets,‘ and the sooner I located
them, the sooner this mission would be over. If my suspicions were
correct and it all had something to do with a machine or device that
could start an earthquake—like the one that leveled much of Tokyo
last summer—then locating all the devices and putting the Skilja
behind bars would accomplish several goals: For one, the death of my
wife and daughter would be avenged, as well as the hundreds of others
that died with them. Besides that, finding and destroying the devices
would prevent future terrorist plots, which was the only real purpose
for such a thing. I felt sure that if I played my cards right everything
would fall into my hands, God willing.
Ahead, the predawn light began to slowly brighten the sky as the
stars faded one by one into the day. As we walked past the Pantheon, I
broke the silence by asking, ―So…what‘s our plan for when we get
there?‖
He continued walking in silence for a moment or two before he
finally answered, ―I just hope the little fucker is still there.‖ He then


glanced at me and mentioned, ―Axel has a handgun, so we‘ll need to
take possession of that right away.‖
I nodded. ―And then?‖
―And then we‘ll negotiate with his father.‖
As I thought about things, it occurred to me that Bjorn might try to
take Axel hostage. That would be the most effective way to negotiate a
trade for his sister and was probably the course of action I would take
in such a situation. We had an advantage, of course, since Tjuren was
unaware that the two of us knew the location of Axel‘s apartment.
After another ten minutes or so, we reached Via Torino and went
straight to the apartment. Bjorn pounded loudly on the door several
times before we heard a voice from inside.
―What? Who is it?‖
―It‘s us,‖ Bjorn replied. ―Open the door, Axel.‖
A long moment passed until we finally heard the lock click. As soon
as the door began to open, Bjorn pushed it the rest of the way and we
both walked in.
Bjorn looked at Axel, who we‘d obviously woken up, and asked,
―Are you alone? Is anyone else here?‖
―It‘s just me here,‖ Axel replied as he rubbed his eyes. ―How did
you know where I—?‖
―Never mind that,‖ Bjorn interrupted. ―Where is your gun?
Quickly!‖
Axel‘s eyes turned and glanced in the direction of his bedroom. ―I
have it hidden. Why do you—?‖
Before he could finish, I headed straight to the bedroom where I
found his gun, a Glock 9 mm, hidden in the first place I looked: under
his pillow.
As I came out of the room I held the weapon out for Bjorn to see.
He turned to Axel and asked, ―Do you have any other weapons?‖
Axel seemed confused by all this, but managed to answer, ―No. All I
have is the handgun. Why? What‘s wrong?‖


―Something urgent has come up,‖ Bjorn said. ―I need you to contact
your father for me—right now.‖
Axel appeared surprised. He hesitated, then told Bjorn, ―It‘s too
early. He‘s still asleep, I‘m sure.‖ He glanced at me, noticing his gun in
my hand as I slid the safety lever back and forth. ―What‘s so urgent
that it can‘t—?‖
―You will contact Tjuren right now!‖ Bjorn demanded. ―And don‘t
argue with me again or I will cut your tongue out.‖
Axel seemed shocked by that and his face flushed as he stepped
back. His eyes then began to dart around the room as I moved closer
to the door, which was the only exit. Finally, he went to a small desk
where he sat and turned on his tablet. His fingers were trembling as he
worked the touchscreen.
I asked Axel, ―How do you know that your communication won‘t
be traced?‖
Without looking from the screen he informed me, ―This is going
through three dummy computers on two continents. It would be
almost impossible to trace—even for an expert.‖
Bjorn peered over Axel‘s shoulder as the young man video-phoned
his father, Amol Thorsen, a.k.a. Tjuren. After a minute, the call was
answered and I saw the image of an older, bearded man as he appeared
on the screen.
Axel and Tjuren looked at each other for a moment before Axel
finally spoke. “God morgon,” he said to his father. Good morning.
―Indeed,‖ Tjuren replied. ―Where are you?‖
Axel let him know, ―I‘m at my apartment in Rome.‖
―Do you realize what time it is?‖
Bjorn stooped down so Tjuren could see him on his screen and then
told him, ―It‘s time you and I had a talk, Amol.‖
Tjuren was obviously surprised. ―Bjorn. What are you doing there?‖
Bjorn turned to me and reached out his hand for Axel‘s gun, which
I gave to him. Tjuren watched in horror as Bjorn placed the barrel of


the gun against Axel‘s head. ―I came here to blow your son‘s brains
out, that‘s what I‘m doing here.‖
―Stop!‖ Tjuren cried. ―Are you mad? Take the gun away from his
head at once. Why are you—?‖
―I‘ll count to five, my friend, and if you don‘t tell me where you
have Ella, I‘ll pull the trigger.‖ He began counting, ―One.‖
―Your sister? Ella? I have no idea—‖
―Two.‖
―Bjorn, please, I don‘t know where Ella is. You must believe me.‖
―Three.‖
―Stop! For God‘s sake, Bjorn, put the gun down and explain
yourself!‖
―Four.‖
I watched as tears began to run down from Tjuren‘s eyes, and also
Axel‘s. Tjuren begged Bjorn, ―Please, Bjorn—not my son! Oh God,
please no!‖ He took a breath and told Bjorn, ―I‘ll kill myself right here
for you to see. Just don‘t hurt Axel, I beg you.‖
Well, I didn‘t know Tjuren at all, but he seemed like he meant it. I
was convinced that if he knew anything about Bjorn‘s sister being held
hostage, he would have come out with it right there.
Bjorn stopped counting and demanded, ―Tell me about Nigel.‖
Tjuren seemed shocked to hear that. ―Nigel?‖ He pleaded, ―Please,
Bjorn, can you just put the gun down and I‘ll explain everything I
know.‖
Bjorn stared into the screen for a long moment, then lowered the
gun.
Tjuren drew a deep sigh. ―Thank you Bjorn.‖
―Don‘t thank me yet, Amol.‖ Bjorn grabbed a chair and sat down
beside Axel. ―I want you to tell me everything you know about the
bastard. And if you leave anything out‖—he waved the gun in front of
the camera—―well, this thing might go off and hurt someone.‖ He
glanced at Axel and then looked back at the screen.


Tjuren wiped his eyes for a moment and then began, ―His name is
Adams. Nigel Adams. He came to me after you were arrested and
convinced me that he believed in our cause.‖
―And you believed him?‖
―He was very…convincing, and he—‖
―Tell me you did not take him into the fold,‖ Bjorn said.
Slowly, Tjuren‘s eyes looked down. ―I‘m…I‘m afraid I did, my
friend.‖
―Then you are a fool.‖
Tjuren nodded and continued, ―Nigel told me he had important
connections in England and Scotland and elsewhere. He knew
important people who believed what you and I believe. He convinced
me and the others that he could—‖
―Describe him to me,‖ Bjorn demanded.
―He‘s…well, he‘s from London. He‘s tall, I suppose, and has a large
nose like a hawk.‖
Bjorn glanced back at me for a moment and we both nodded. He
then turned back to Tjuren. ―Did you tell him about my invention,
Amol? Please, I pray that no one knows—‖
―He knew already,‖ Tjuren explained. ―When he came to me, he
seemed to know all about the devices, and about you.‖ He then began
to add, ―He also seemed to know about what we‘d done—‖
―I‘m not alone here,‖ Bjorn interrupted. ―I brought Van Essen with
me and he‘s right here, so be careful what you say.‖
―Van Essen? What is he doing there?‖
―I‘ll ask the questions,‖ Bjorn replied firmly. ―Tell me, how did
Nigel escape from Oberwald? Did you help him?
Tjuren seemed confused. ―Oberwald? I don‘t know anything about
that. Was he there?‖
―He was,‖ Bjorn replied, ―and now the son-of-a-bitch is in Italy,
which brings me to the topic of my sister…‖


Tjuren assured Bjorn, ―I told you, my friend, and you must believe
me, I know nothing about my dear Ella except that I haven‘t seen her
for some time.‖
―If you had been a decent husband, Amol, perhaps she—‖
―Please, Bjorn,‖ Tjuren pleaded, ―don‘t open old wounds—
especially in front of Axel. Right now I need to know why you are
asking about her. Tell me what is going on so I can help.‖
Bjorn paused for a moment and then asked, ―Did you send Ella to
Rome to see me?‖
―No, of course not. Why do you—?‖
―Then it was your friend Nigel that lured her here.‖
―To Rome? For what reason?‖
Bjorn exhaled slowly and replied, ―I‘m afraid he wants the location
of the devices, Amol, and to force my hand he‘s taken Ella as a
hostage. Right now, to my knowledge, they‘re somewhere north of—‖
Just then, the phone in Bjorn‘s pocket began to ring. He pulled it
out and looked at the screen for a moment. After the forth ring, he
turned to me as he answered the call and asked, ―Who is this?‖
Bjorn stood from his chair as he listened to the caller before he
asked, ―Is this Nigel?‖
As the caller replied, Bjorn made eye contact with me and nodded.
He then told Nigel, ―If you harm one hair on her head, you bastard, I‘ll
cut your tiny balls off and feed them to you before…‖ He stopped
speaking and listened for a long moment until the call ended.
As Bjorn slid the phone back into his pocket I asked, ―Where is
he?‖
From the tablet, I heard Tjuren‘s voice asking, ―Who was it, Bjorn?
Was it Nigel?‖
Bjorn stepped into the camera‘s view and looked at Tjuren. ―It was
him,‖ Bjorn replied, ―and he has poor Ella.‖
Tjuren, I could tell, was concerned and seemed unsure what to say.
Finally, he told Bjorn, ―I‘m sorry, my friend. I‘ll do whatever it takes to
help you get her back.‖


Bjorn snorted. ―You‘ve already screwed things up enough, haven‘t
you?‖
―I‘m sorry, I…‖
Bjorn stooped down close to the screen. ―And you should be sorry,
you imbecile.‖ He then put his face even closer and told Tjuren, ―If
anything happens to Ella, I promise I‘ll slit your throat after you‘ve
watched me strangle your son.‖
―Please, Bjorn, don‘t—‖
―And this,‖ Bjorn said, ―is for bringing Nigel Adams upon us.‖ At
that, he swung the back of his powerful hand against the side of Axel‘s
head, sending him flying out of his chair and sprawling across the floor.
Quickly, Bjorn grabbed the tablet and aimed it down at Axel, allowing
Tjuren to see his son laying on the floor, trembling and in tears as a
trickle of blood ran from the side of his mouth.
Bjorn then dropped the tablet and stormed out of the apartment.



Chapter 14

I left poor Axel lying on the floor, bleeding, and hurried to catch up
with Bjorn, who was marching at a fast pace. I walked alongside him
and decided to hold off on questions until he‘d had time to cool off.
Within minutes, the two of us arrived at a bus stop just as a city bus
pulled up. We were the only ones there, and Bjorn signaled the driver
to go on.
As the bus pulled away, Bjorn turned to me and said, ―These
bastards don‘t realize what they‘re dealing with.‖
I liked where he was going with this, so I kept my mouth shut and
waited for more.
Bjorn seemed deep in thought for a while, then turned to me again
and mentioned, ―Our friend Nigel will pay for this with his life—and
will get nothing from me.‖
Finally, I spoke up, ―I‘m here to help, Bjorn, if you need me.‖
He studied me for a moment and sighed deeply. ―Right now,‖ he
confided, ―you may be the only one I can trust.‖
Am I good or what?
He continued, ―Nigel has demanded that I meet him tonight at
midnight.‖
―Where‘s the meeting place?‖
―In the village of Manarola, which I believe is…perhaps three hours
north of here by train.‖
That sounded familiar. I asked, ―Manarola is one of the Cinque
Terre villages, right?‖
He nodded. ―Nigel demands that I arrive on the train connecting
from La Spezia at 11:12 p.m.—and no earlier.‖
I knew that the Cinque Terre, or ‗Five Lands,‘ consisted of five
coastal villages located along a rugged but scenic portion of the Italian
Riviera, and La Spezia was the city nearest them.


Bjorn looked at me. ―I would ask you to join me, my friend, but I‘m
afraid it will be too dangerous for—‖
―I‘m going.‖
Bjorn seemed to think about that for a few seconds, then grinned as
he patted me on the shoulder.
Right then, from the corner of my eye, I spotted movement on the
street behind us. I turned just in time to see a young woman as she
ducked behind a staircase.
Paige.
Bjorn could tell that I‘d seen something and turned. ―What is it?‖ he
asked. ―Is it Axel?‖
I shook my head.
―Are we being followed?‖
―I thought I saw—‖
At that moment, Paige peered out from behind the stairs.
Bjorn saw her too and said to me, ―It appears your little girlfriend
has been keeping tabs on you.‖
―It appears so.‖ I sighed heavily as I waved to Paige, signaling her to
come join us.
―Why would she be following us?‖
That was a good question. ―She‘s just an innocent girl,‖ I told him,
―an American, and she had nowhere to stay.‖
―So…she chose to stay with you?‖
I nodded. As Paige began walking toward us, I thought about letting
Bjorn believe that she and I were lovers.
―Can she be trusted?‖
I shrugged. ―I think so, but I don‘t want her involved in any of—‖
―Of course not,‖ Bjorn said.
As Paige approached us and stopped, I asked her, ―Did you think
we weren‘t going to see you?‖


She shrugged and played dumb. ―I don‘t know.‖
―Why were you following us?‖
―Well, you guys left in a hurry. I guess I wanted to see what was so
important.‖
Bjorn and I glanced at each other for a moment and I told him,
―This exquisite young lady is Paige, who I‘m sure you remember from
my apartment.‖
Paige smiled at the compliment.
―It‘s good to see you again,‖ Bjorn told her as he shook her hand
gently. ―You shouldn‘t follow people like that, not without their
knowing.‖
The smile left Paige‘s face. ―I‘m sorry.‖
Bjorn looked into her eyes for a moment and asked, ―Who do you
work for?‖
Paige seemed unsure how to answer that, but finally told him, ―I
don‘t work for anyone, Mister. Why do you ask?‖
Bjorn studied her again. ―I have trust issues.‖
―Join the club, honey.‖ Paige patted him playfully on the arm. ―I
don‘t trust you, either.‖
At that, the two of them looked into each other‘s eyes for a long
moment. Finally, a grin spread over both their faces as they began to
accept each other for what they were: total strangers with nothing in
common.
Paige asked, ―So, where are you guys headed, anyway?‖
I glanced over at Bjorn who told her, ―It would be better, young
lady, if you don‘t know too much about us.‖
―Well, you don‘t have to worry about that. I don‘t even know your
name.‖
Bjorn forced a smile. ―Let‘s keep it that way.‖
Just then, another bus pulled up and Bjorn told me, ―I think we
should head back to your apartment and put together a plan.‖


At that, the three of us climbed in and sat near the front, and Paige
cozied up close to me. She whispered into my ear and asked, ―Do you
really think I‘m exquisite?‖
I whispered back, ―Let‘s keep it professional, okay? This is just an
act.‖
She gave me a wink and kissed me on the cheek.
Bjorn noticed her PDA and laughed under his breath.
The bus took us west along the same route Bjorn and I had taken
on Thursday. We again passed Piazza Venezia and the Wedding Cake
before reaching the large church where we turned north. Minutes later,
we arrived at our stop where we got off the bus. From there, we
walked through a maze of narrow streets until we reached my
apartment on Via della Posta Vecchia.
Once upstairs, Paige headed to the micro-bathroom to shower while
Bjorn and I seated ourselves in the living room. It was still early, about
eight a.m., though it felt later than that.
Bjorn let out a breath and told me, ―I need to find a way to rescue
Ella without putting her in danger.‖ He looked over at me. ―Any
ideas?‖
I thought about that and told him, ―One of us should go ahead on
an earlier train and report back on the situation.‖ I asked, ―Did Nigel
tell you where the meeting would take place?‖
―He did. I am to arrive at Manarola by train at 11:12. From there, I
am to take the coastal trail heading to Riomaggiore, which is the next
village to the south. He assured me that by midnight we would meet.‖
Bjorn sat forward in his chair and asked me, ―Why do you think he
picked such a strange location?‖
―It‘s the perfect spot. During the day the trails connecting the
Cinque Terra villages are filled with tourists. At midnight, however, no
one would be around, and Nigel would be able to see you approaching
from a good distance.‖
―I‘m sure he‘ll be taking every precaution.‖
―He will be,‖ I agreed. ―Nigel knows that one side of the trail
consists of a steep vertical wall with impossible terrain, while the other


side is a steep cliff dropping straight into the Mediterranean. There will
be no police or surveillance around and no way for you to escape.‖
―I see.‖ Bjorn rested his head in his hands for a moment.
I added, ―Nigel will probably enter the trail at Riomaggiore and head
toward Manarola, meeting you in the middle as you come from the
other direction.‖
Just then, Paige appeared from the bathroom wrapped in a towel.
―I‘m done,‖ she informed us and headed to the bedroom.
Bjorn looked up to see her and then asked me, ―Perhaps the girl
should go there ahead of us to check things out. She could—‖
―I don‘t want her involved,‖ I told him.
Bjorn reminded me, ―She already is involved.‖
―Not really. She knows nothing. She‘s just a—‖
―Who knows what she may have overheard while we were inside
Axel‘s apartment, right?
―No.‖
He ignored that and continued, ―Besides, we‘re not asking her to do
anything dangerous. We‘ll just put her on the noon train from Roma
Termini and ask to report what she sees on the trail. What‘s wrong
with that?‖
From the bedroom, Paige emerged still wrapped in a towel. She
looked at me and asked, ―Yeah. What‘s wrong with that?‖ She then
turned to Bjorn and asked, ―You want me to go where?‖
Bjorn looked at me and took my silence as a cue to proceed. ―We
are thinking of sending you on a train to check out a location for us.‖
―When do I leave?‖
―Go get dressed,‖ he told her, ―and close that door. I don‘t want
you listening in on us, understand?‖
Paige sneered at that and spun around, then headed to the bedroom
and shut the door firmly.
Bjorn and I smiled at that and he told me, ―I‘m sorry about that.‖


―It‘s okay, but why don‘t I just go ahead and take the train there
now? I can report back to you if I see anything unusual.‖
He shook his head. ―I‘m sure Nigel will be armed, and he won‘t be
alone in this. We‘ll need to make things even. I want you on that train
with me, my friend, and you‘ll be armed.‖
As I thought about that, he added, ―If you think this will be too
dangerous for you, I can—‖
―I‘m going,‖ I said. ―If it weren‘t for you, I‘d be at Oberwald eating
borscht for the next ten years.‖
He smiled. ―If they let you live that long.‖
At that moment, Paige stepped out of the bedroom fully dressed
and brushing her hair. ―I wasn‘t listening this time,‖ she told us. ―Did I
miss anything?‖
Bjorn and I glanced at each other for a second. I then turned to
Paige and explained, ―We have a small favor to ask of you, and it‘s
okay if you say no. We‘re thinking of sending you on the noon train
from here to a small village called Riomaggiore, about three or four
hours north of here.‖
She shrugged. ―Sounds okay with me. What‘s in Riomaggiore?‖
―I‘ll explain the details later but we may need you to check out a
walking trail connecting that village and a neighboring one called
Manarola.‖
Bjorn spoke up, ―We‘ll let you know what to look for, and if you see
anything‖—he held up his cell—―I want you to text me.‖
Paige looked at the phone. ―Is that the phone the messenger lady
gave you yesterday?‖
―It is. Why do you ask?‖
Paige stepped over and took the phone from Bjorn. She turned it
over and looked at the back of it for a moment, then pressed the sides
carefully and popped the rear panel off.
―What are you doing?‖ Bjorn demanded. ―If you break that, I won‘t
be able to—‖


―Don‘t get your panties all in a twist,‖ Paige told him. ―I know what
I‘m doing.‖
That didn‘t make it through the translation channels too well, so
Bjorn looked at me.
―Just give her a minute,‖ I told him. ―She isn‘t going to break
anything. Right, Paige?‖
Paige smirked and commented, ―You guys have, like, serious trust
issues, don‘t you?‖ She then turned to Bjorn and held out the phone
while pointing to the battery. ―See this?‖
Bjorn looked. ―That‘s the battery.‖
―The top part‘s the battery,‖ she told him. ―What‘s that thing
connected to the bottom of it?‖
While Bjorn studied the phone, I got up to take a look. Attached
along the lower section of the battery was a small device made of clear
plastic. It also had a thin wire coming out of it that wrapped around
part of the battery housing. I knew at once what it was, but I let Paige
explain.
―It‘s a friggin homing beacon,‖ Paige told Bjorn. ―Whoever gave
you this phone wants to keep tabs on you.‖
He shook his head in disgust. ―It seems everyone does.‖
After studying the tiny device for another moment, he asked her,
―How did you know this? How did you know to look—?‖
―My mom works in the court system,‖ Paige explained. ―People on
parole are sometimes given phones like and have to carry them
everywhere. This way, their officer can keep track of where they‘ve
been, when they were there, and for how long. Plus they can call the
parolee on it at anytime.‖
Bjorn considered that for a moment, then told her, ―Remove that
damned thing and flush it down the toilet, or just—‖
―Before you do that,‖ I said, ―maybe we can use it to our
advantage.‖
―How is that?‖


I turned and asked Paige. ―These things are also tracking
transmitters, right?‖
―Right.‖
―And whoever planted it won‘t be looking for a pretty young girl to
be carrying it, will they?‖
Paige smiled and then asked, ―Who‘s ‗they?‘‖
―Never mind that.‖ I turned to Bjorn and continued, ―We can
replace the battery in the phone with a regular one and send Paige to
Manarola with this.‖
He considered that and asked, ―How will that help us?‖
I pointed to the tiny device. ―These things work by crowdsourcing;
sending a ping to other similar phones that come near it. That way,
whoever planted this thing will be able to determine its approximate
whereabouts on a map.‖
Bjorn seemed to understand this and asked, ―And what if there are
no similar phones near it?‖
―Then they can use a directional antenna to locate the phone‘s
tracking transmitter.‖
Paige seemed confused and asked, ―How does that work?‖
―A directional antenna, or radio direction finder can be used to
determine where a radio signal is originating. In this case, someone
could use such a device to find where this transmission is coming
from.‖ I added, ―If someone is using a directional antenna, you‘ll be
able to tell.‖
―How would I tell?‖
―Well, they‘ll be carrying a small device, which you probably won‘t
notice, but you won‘t be able to miss the big H-shaped antenna
connected to it.‖
She thought about that. ―So, what if I spot someone walking around
with one of those?‖
―Then you‘d shut off your transmitter.‖


To that Bjorn added, ―And try to follow that person—this time
without being seen.‖
I considered that and nodded in agreement. ―Just don‘t put yourself
in danger,‖ I said, ―and remember, Paige, you do not have to do this.‖
―I‘m going,‖ she replied. She looked at Bjorn and me for a moment
before asking, ―Are these people you guys are dealing with, like,
dangerous or something?‖
―I looked her in the eye. ―Extremely.‖
Bjorn told her, ―It‘s very risky, and perhaps you‘re too young for—‖
―I said I‘m going,‖ Paige insisted. ―I just want to know what I‘ll be
dealing with when I get there.‖
―We don‘t really know,‖ I told her.
At that, Bjorn stood and turned to Paige. He seemed to be searching
for the right words for a moment, then finally told her, ―My dear girl; it
is true. We don‘t know what to expect.‖ He smiled, then placed his
hand on her shoulder and added, ―That is why we are sending you
first.‖



Chapter 15

To her left, the light of the afternoon sun shimmered brilliantly over
the sea as the train continued its way up the Mediterranean coast. Paige
O‘Neill looked into her makeup mirror for a moment, then leaned
back in her first class seat and rested her tired eyes.
So far, the trip had been uneventful but still pleasant. No one was
seated next to her, which she liked, and the steward had brought her a
small bottle of wine to go with her lunch—and hadn‘t asked to check
her id. Things wouldn‘t be so comfortable once she reached the
Cinque Terre, she knew, but for now she was enjoying herself.
As she relaxed, Paige thought about her new friend and boss, Craig
Van Essen. She wasn‘t sure, but she figured he was probably some
kind of spy or intelligence agent. She was attracted to him despite their
obvious age difference, and wished she had been able to seduce him
like other men she‘d encountered. Nonetheless, she respected him for
resisting her numerous flirtations, including her climbing in bed with
him.
She also thought about Craig‘s mysterious friend, who seemed
somewhat angry and distraught. He was a foreigner, she could tell, and
an intelligent, powerful man, but she was glad that she knew little about
him—and was intent to keep it that way, at least for now. In fact, she
appreciated that neither Craig nor his friend had revealed much about
what they were involved in or what exactly was going to take place
tonight in the small village of Manarola.
The less I know, she thought, the better.
As she considered these things, she felt the train begin to slow
down. Soon, it came to a stop at a large station. A sign outside told her
that this was the city of Pisa, which she knew was the home of the
famous leaning tower. A number of passengers disembarked here while
only one person, a young man, got on. As he entered and walked up
the aisle of her section, Paige took the opportunity to look him over.
She guessed he was about thirty or so, and noticed that he was tall and
had rugged handsome features. She hoped he would ask to sit next to
her.


If nothing else, she thought, at least I’d have someone to talk to.
The man walked to the front of the car, then turned back. At her
aisle, he stopped and gestured to the seat beside her. “E 'questo posto?”
―Uh…what?‖
He switched to English. ―Is this seat taken?‖
―Oh. No, it isn‘t. Please…sit down.‖
―Thanks.‖
Paige nodded.
The man smiled politely, then directed his attention to his tablet as
he began to read.
―My name is Paige, by the way.‖
He turned to her. ―I‘m Jay,‖ he said, then focused back on his tablet.
So much for someone to talk to, she thought.
Soon, the train started moving again and passed slowly over a wide
river, then picked up speed. Paige looked out the window for a few
minutes, then leaned her seat all the way back and let herself relax.
Later, she awoke as the train began coming to a stop and was
surprised to find that she had dozed off. The steward gestured to her,
letting her know this was La Spezia, her stop.
Jay had already grabbed his things and was headed for the exit. Paige
yawned and stretched for a moment, then removed her backpack from
under her seat. After that, she put on her jacket and hat and headed
out.
As she exited the train, she made her way through the crowds of
tourists, many of whom were in groups. She saw Jay walk ahead to the
regional train depot and figured, like herself, he‘d be taking the short
ride to one of the Cinque Terre villages.
Paige stood back from the tracks and took a look around. The clock
at the station told her it was 3:27 p.m. Behind her, she saw a young
couple with backpacks photographing themselves using their cell
phone. She noticed two men in blue uniforms who were busy carting


boxes of freight from the train to a nearby truck. Ahead, she saw a tour
guide leading his small group in the direction of the depot.
As the tour group moved on, Paige spotted a young man leaning
against a wall. He was wearing a worn brown leather jacket with its
sleeves cut off to show off his tattooed arms. His spiked black hair was
shaved short on the sides and he was wearing sunglasses. She looked
closer and could tell he was staring down at a small handheld device
and seemed to be aiming it from one direction to another.
While Paige began walking toward him, he pointed the device in her
direction and looked up at her for a moment. It was then that she
noticed the large H-shaped antenna and knew at once what it was: a
radio direction finder—and he had it locked on her signal.
Discretely, Paige reached into her pocket and felt around until she
located the small transmitter that she‘d removed from Craig‘s partner‘s
cellphone. She slid the transmitter‘s micro-switch to the off position.
After that, she took a moment to check her makeup with her small
mirror and began heading toward the young man.
At first, he was focused on the indicator screen of the device and
hadn‘t noticed Paige as she walked up and stood next to him.
―Hello?‖
He was startled by that and looked up at her.
Paige smiled warmly. ―Hey, I like your jacket.‖
He smiled.
She wondered if he understood English. ―Do you have a cigarette?‖
she asked. ―I‘m dying for a smoke.‖
He shook his head. ―I don‘t smoke, but they sell cigarettes inside the
station.‖ He gestured to the building behind him.
She noticed an accent and asked, ―You sound like you‘re from
England.‖
―London.‖
She nodded as she brushed her hair back with her hand. ―They
won‘t sell cigarettes to me,‖ she told him. ―I guess you have to be
twenty-one to buy smokes in Italy.‖


He looked at her for a moment and explained, ―I‘d buy you some,
but I need to keep an eye on this thing.‖ He pointed to the device.
―What is that?‖
―It‘s, uh…a cell phone reception finder,‖ he replied. ―I work for the
phone company.‖
She knew that he was lying, but smiled and told him, ―I‘ll watch it
for you while you go to the store for me, okay?‖ At that she pulled out
her wallet and held out a twenty euro note.
He held up his hand, refusing the money. ―It‘s okay, I‘ll buy.‖ He
handed her the device and instructed her, ―Just point this at the train
and watch to see if the red light comes on. All right?‖
Paige smiled. ―I think I can handle that.‖
―Um…okay. I‘ll be right back.‖
She smiled. ―What‘s your name, anyway?‖
―They call me Logan.‖
―Thanks, Logan.‖
As he stepped through the door of the station, Paige turned and
watched him through the front window as he headed toward the
sundries store inside. Once he‘d gone far enough, she quickly folded
and lowered the large antenna. She then began walking away from the
main station and toward the regional train depot. After a few steps, she
broke into a run.
She reached the train in a matter of seconds, then ducked into a line
of tourists who were waiting to board. Just as she was about to enter
the train car, she turned and saw Logan running in her direction.
Quickly, Paige pushed past two woman and made her way to the
front of the car. The two women and some others yelled in anger at
her, but she ignored that and moved forward to the next car.
From his seat, Jay watched as Paige ran down the aisle. He could see
she was out of breath and seemed to be running from someone. As
Paige ducked into a lavatory, Jay stood and turned to see Logan as he
stepped onto the train. He could see that Logan was winded too, and
was apparently looking for Paige.


Jay stepped to the front of the car and stood outside the lavatory
while Logan searched the train car.
In desperation, Logan called out to the passengers, ―Did anyone see
a young girl come running in here? Anyone?‖
The two women who‘d been pushed aside directed his attention to
the forward car, and he quickly made his way there. He began checking
each seat and all the luggage closets until he arrived at the lavatory
where Jay stood.
―Anyone in there?‖ Logan asked Jay. ―I‘m looking for a thieving
little bitch who just stole something from me.‖
―That‘s my wife in there,‖ Jay told him. ―Now get the hell out of
here.‖
―Your wife, eh? What‘s she look like?‖
Jay stepped forward and looked down at Logan, who took a step
back. ―It‘s none of your business what she looks like,‖ Jay said. ―Now
get out of here before I break your face.‖
Logan turned and looked at the other passengers for a moment as if
considering his options. He then turned and headed away, continuing
to search through the rest of the car until the train was about to pull
out. Finally, he stepped to the door and held up his middle finger at Jay
and shouted, ―Fuck you, asshole.‖
At that, Jay began to head toward him just as he jumped off and ran
away. Before Jay reached the door, it automatically closed and the train
began moving forward. He let out a breath and smiled at the other
passengers, all of whom seemed to be staring at him in awe.
As the train picked up speed, he went to the door of the lavatory
and knocked. ―It‘s okay, Paige. He‘s gone.‖
A moment later, she opened the door and peered out to see Jay.
―It‘s you!‖ she said, smiling. ―I was wondering who my hero was.‖ She
then stood on her toes and gave him a kiss. ―Thank you, Jay.‖
At that, all the passengers in the car broke into applause.
Embarrassed, Paige followed Jay to his seat and sat next to him.


After a moment, Jay turned to Paige and asked, ―What was with that
guy anyway? What did he want with you?‖
She shook her head. ―If I told you, you wouldn‘t believe me.‖
―Try me.‖
―All right, here goes.‖ She looked into his eyes and told him, ―I‘m a
spy.‖
Jay seemed to consider that for a second and then laughed. ―Yeah,
right.‖
Paige shrugged. ―I knew you wouldn‘t believe me.‖ She then asked
him, ―What about you? What‘s your story?‖
―I‘m on vacation.‖
―By yourself? That‘s pathetic, isn‘t it? What‘s with that?‖
He shook his head. ―If I told you, you wouldn‘t believe me.‖
Paige smiled. ―Shut up and tell me.‖
He hesitated for a moment and then confided, ―I was traveling with
my girlfriend until yesterday.‖
―What happened?‖
―She ditched me.‖
―Why?‖
―Well, she met another guy while we were in Rome, and…‖
―It‘s okay,‖ Paige said. ―At least everything worked out.‖
He looked at her. ―What do you mean?‖
―Well, you found me, didn‘t you?‖
Jay laughed at that. He then looked at her for a moment and asked,
―How old are you, Paige?‖
She reached over and slapped his shoulder. ―Why does everyone
think they need to ask me that?‖
―Uh…‖
―I‘m old enough to make you forget all about your dimwit ex-
girlfriend. How‘s that?‖


He laughed again. ―How‘d you know she was a dimwit?‖
―Duh! She left you didn‘t she?‖ She then changed subjects and asked,
―Which one of the Cinque Terre villages are you going to? Tell me it‘s
Riomaggiore.‖
Jay shrugged. ―I‘m not sure yet, but I was thinking about—‖
―Get off at Riomaggiore with me. I need to check the coastal trail
between there and Manarola.‖
―Check it for what?‖
―It‘s spy stuff. Just hang with me, okay? I need a body guard.‖ She
leaned over and whispered in his ear, ―I‘ll make it worth your while.‖
At that, she smiled coyly as she rubbed his arm for a moment and then
put her hand in his.




Chapter 16

Paige and Jay chatted for a few minutes, then got off at the first Cinque
Terra village, Riomaggiore. From there, they headed straight for the
coastal trail.
―This place is beautiful,‖ Paige said, observing the colorful old
houses built one on top of the other against the steep coastal
mountains. She squeezed Jay‘s hand and let him know, ―I‘m glad you
came with me.‖
―Did I have a choice?‖
Paige slapped him on the shoulder, then pointed ahead. ―There‘s the
trail. Via dell‘ Amore.‖
―The Way of Love,‖ he translated.
After climbing a set of stairs, they rounded a turn where they saw
the Mediterranean glimmering before them.
Look at that,‖ Paige said. ―It‘s so blue, isn‘t it?‖
Jay nodded in agreement, then looked at Paige and grinned. ―I‘m
almost glad I came.‖
Playfully, she slapped him on the arm again. ―You don‘t know how
lucky you are.‖ She took him by the hand again and they proceeded
along the trail.
―What are we looking for, anyway—if I may ask?‖
―No, you may not ask,‖ Paige replied. ―But since you did, my job is
just to report anything suspicious.‖
―Like what? A nuclear bomb or a—?‖
―Let me worry about that. Your job is to be my bodyguard—and
bodyguards don‘t ask too many questions.‖
―Who do you supposedly work for? The CIA or something?‖
Paige stopped walking and looked up at him. ―That sounded
suspiciously like another question.‖
―Sorry.‖


―Give me your cell phone.‖
―Okay, boss.‖ Jay pulled out his phone and handed it to her. ―Who
are you calling?‖
She tapped on the screen for a moment and then told him,
―Headquaters.‖
―You mean—?‖
―Langley.‖
He laughed. At this point, Jay wasn‘t sure whether Paige was serious
or not, and wasn‘t sure whether he wanted to know.
As Bjorn answered, Paige looked over at Jay and held her finger to
her lips, signaling him to be quiet.
―Are you there yet?‖ Bjorn asked her.
―I‘m on the trail between Riomaggiore and Manarola right now.‖
―Good.‖
―I see you found a new battery for your phone.‖
―Yes. What have you found so far?‖
There were other people, mostly tourists, walking the trail. Paige
glanced around to be sure no one could hear, then told Bjorn, ―I found
one of those radio things with the big antenna you guys told me
about.‖
―Where did you see it?‖
―Last time I saw it, it was in my backpack.‖
―What? How did you—?‖
―Never mind that. The important thing is that people are already
looking for you—and I think that‘s a bad sign, right?‖
Bjorn made no reply.
Paige continued, ―I‘m heading to Manarola now, and I‘ll call again if
I see anything else.‖ She then thought for a moment and asked,
―How‘s Mr. Van Essen?‖
―He‘s fine. Why?‖


―I just wanted to be sure you haven‘t poisoned him or something.
You have issues, remember?‖
Bjorn let out a laugh. ―My dear girl, right now you and Mr. Van
Essen are the only two people in the world I feel I can trust.‖
―Good. Keep it that way.‖
Again, Bjorn made no reply, so she told him, ―It‘s almost five
o‘clock. I‘ll contact you again at seven sharp unless I have something to
report in the meantime.‖
―Thank you, Paige, and be careful.‖
―Of course,‖ she replied. ―I‘m just a tourist, right? What could
happen?‖
Bjorn laughed again and ended the call.
After that, Paige took a moment to delete the call record from the
phone and set the alarm to sound at seven. She then entered some
more information into the phone and handed it back to Jay.
―Everything all right back in Virginia?‖
Paige thought she detected a hint of sarcasm in his question, but
replied, ―Just the usual spy stuff that you‘re not supposed to ask
about—bodyguard.‖
Jay laughed under his breath. ―Sorry.‖
After that, the two continued walking north while taking time to
admire the scenic beauty around them. Soon, they arrived at a place
where a rest stop was being constructed at the side of the trail. There,
Paige and Jay stopped and stood at an overlook positioned atop a sheer
cliff. They looked out at the rocky coastline and crystalline waters of
the Italian Riviera to the west, and the jagged mountainside with
countless small terraced vineyards to the east.
―I love this place,‖ Paige commented.
Jay took a deep breath of fresh air and agreed, ―It is beautiful.‖
Paige put her arms around Jay‘s neck and looked up at him. ―I don‘t
know your last name.‖
―Cavanagh,‖ he replied. ―It‘s Jay Cavanagh.‖


―How about me, Mr. Cavanagh? Do you think I‘m beautiful, too?‖
He gazed into her pretty brown eyes for a long moment and reached
his arm around her thin waist. ―You are,‖ he told her. He then pulled
her close and kissed her lips.
Just then, a neatly dressed young man approached them. He said to
Jay in a loud voice, ―Excuse me, sir, but I need to talk to this girl.‖
Jay released Paige and turned to the man. ―Who the hell are you,
and what do you want?‖
The man ignored that and pulled a cell phone from his jacket. As Jay
moved toward him, the man stepped back and spoke into the phone,
―Logan, listen, it‘s Finn. I think I found the girl.‖ At that, he held the
phone up and pointed the camera at Paige.
Logan was on the other end of the call and saw Paige on his screen.
―That‘s her!‖ he shouted. ―That‘s the little bitch!‖
Finn looked up at Jay, who stood several inches over him and told
him, ―Step aside. I need to search that girl‘s backpack. Understand?‖
―You‘re not searching anything,‖ Jay told him, ―and if you don‘t like
that, I‘ll break your jaw.‖ He moved further forward and added,
―Understand?‖
Finn tried taking a step to the right, but Jay blocked him. ―Get out
of my way, bud, or I‘ll—‖
In a blur of motion, Jay landed his fist solidly into Finn‘s jaw with a
quick right jab. Finn fell back and onto the ground, but scrambled to
his feet after retrieving a short knife, a dagger, from a sheath on his leg.
Finn rubbed his jaw for a few seconds, then jumped at Jay and
swung the knife at his face.
Before he could react, Jay felt the blade of the dagger slice above his
right eye.
By then, a small crowd of tourists had gathered, and a few of them
screamed as they saw a thin stream of blood run down over Jay‘s face.
While Jay held his hand over the gash, Fin lunged forward again,
this time swinging the knife toward Jay‘s waist. Jay moved quickly and
dodged the attempt, then swung his leg firmly into Finn‘s groin.


Finn dropped to his knees for a moment in obvious pain. After a
few seconds, however, a fresh dose of adrenaline hit him and he
managed to leap to his feet again, swinging wildly at Jay.
Jay stood between the attacker and Paige, who had her back to the
rail and a rocky hundred foot drop behind that.
Finn swung forward again and yelled to Paige, ―Just toss me the
backpack, you little thief! Toss it to me and I‘ll let you go!‖
Paige pulled the backpack from her shoulders and threw it to him.
While keeping one eye on Jay, Finn bent down to check the
contents.
Just then, Paige heard a dull thunk. She looked to see that Finn had
fallen forward and seemed to be lying unconscious beside her
backpack. Behind Finn was an older woman proudly holding a piece of
wood from the construction site.
―Run!‖ the woman told Paige and Jay. ―Get out of here before he
wakes up.‖
Jay looked at Paige in amazement, and then turned to the woman.
―Thanks, ma‘am.‖
She waived the board and smiled widely. ―Don‘t mention it.‖
Quickly, Jay knelt beside Finn and took the knife from his hand. He
also saw his cell phone on the ground and grabbed that too, along with
the backpack. He then looked up at Paige.
―Oh baby,‖ Paige said to him, ―you‘re cut pretty bad—and
bleeding!‖
―Don‘t worry. I‘ll get it stitched up later.‖ He glanced back at Finn,
who seemed to be waking up. ―Right now, I think we need to get out
of here.‖
The group of tourists stepped aside as he and Paige darted from the
scene and headed back down the trail in the same direction they‘d
come.
After a minute or so, they slowed to a fast walk. As he caught his
breath, Jay held up the dagger for a moment and prepared to toss it
into the sea.


―Wait!‖ Paige cried. ―We might need that.‖
Jay stopped himself and handed the knife to Paige. ―This is a rather
dangerous job you have.‖
She nodded.
―Is it always like this?‖
―I don‘t know,‖ she replied as she slid the blade into her backpack.
―This is only my second day.‖




Chapter 17

A dazzling full moon hung like an ancient lantern in the night sky. I
looked down to see my shadow casting itself sharply upon the walkway
which seemed to glow in the silvery light. Just as Nigel Adams had
instructed, Bjorn and I had arrived at the village of Manarola on the
11:15 train. We were now heading from the station to the rendezvous
point, which was somewhere on the walking trail connecting Manarola
with the next Cinque Terre village, Riomaggiore.
As we arrived at the trailhead, we found a sign posted across the
entrance between two traffic cones, indicating that the trail was closed.
As he kicked the cones and the sign aside, Bjorn turned to me and
mentioned, ―This is Nigel‘s work, no doubt, to make certain we are
alone. I‘m sure there is a similar sign on the other end as well.‖
As we began walking, a frigid gust blew in from the sea, chilling us. I
zipped my jacket all the way to my neck and saw Bjorn do the same.
Soon, we encountered a descending stairway and I felt the cold steel
barrel of my handgun slapping against my crotch. I expected that Nigel
would not be working alone tonight, and that he knew enough to have
us searched when we arrived. From my experience, guys don‘t usually
check another guy‘s private parts too carefully in a pat-down. In fact, I
was counting on it.
I was also hoping they wouldn‘t find the dagger tucked into the sock
on my right inner ankle, either. My assistant, Paige, had come across
the thing and had enough foresight to leave it hidden for Bjorn and me
to find at the train stop in Riomaggiore.
Arriving at a meeting like this while carrying two weapons would be
a gamble, I knew, but I also knew it might help level the playing field if
we pulled it off.
As we reached the bottom of the stairs, Bjorn‘s phone rang. He
looked at the screen and let me know, ―It‘s your girlfriend.‖
In a low voice he answered the phone. ―Have you seen anything?‖


Bjorn listened to Paige for a moment, then told her, ―You‘ve done
well, young lady, and we‘re thankful. Now, I want you to get out of
here as quickly as possible.‖
He listened again for a moment, and I heard him tell her, ―Good.
Stay with him for now and don‘t let anyone see you until you head to
the train station tomorrow.‖ Before ending the call, he added, ―And
don‘t call this phone again.‖
Bjorn stopped to erase the call record and let me know, ―I think
your girlfriend may have found a new lover.‖
Well, that didn‘t surprise me one bit. ―What else did she say?‖
―She said she spotted a woman being escorted by three men, and
they entered the trail from the other end.‖
―Was it your sister?‖
―She said she couldn‘t see the woman‘s face.‖
I thought about that and asked, ―Where was Paige calling from?‖
He began walking again and told me, ―She and her new boyfriend
found a room for the night.‖ He glanced back at me and added, ―She
said she is nursing a knife wound he received earlier.‖
She was probably nursing more than that, I thought.
As we walked along in silence, I took a moment to try to mentally
put everything into perspective. I actually learned this practice during
my CIA training, but I never really tried it until now.
The main objective in my mission, of course, was to find out who, if
anyone, had the blueprints for a device that could artificially initiate an
earthquake—like the earthquake that killed my wife and daughter in
Tokyo. So far, it seemed that Bjorn Gundersen might be that person. It
also seemed that Nigel Adams, like me, was after the same thing.
Obviously, he was trying to obtain the same information as me—only
by using a more drastic technique. I knew that it was important to keep
Bjorn alive, at least for now. Nigel and his friends, however, were
dispensable.
As far as I was concerned, so was Bjorn‘s sister.


While I was contemplating all this, it occurred to me that I might
not make it through tonight‘s little get-together. To be truthful, after
losing Jessica and Chandis, a small part of me was ready to go. Another
part of me, however, was willing to try to start a new life—and
hopefully a life that included Michelle Fontaine, though I knew that
would be asking for too much.
I‘m not into payback, or what my old criminal science teacher
referred to as ‗the retribution cycle,‘ but I knew one thing: if I was
going down tonight, I wasn‘t going alone. If revenge ended up being
the only card I had left to play, then I was ready to play it.
As we continued along the trail, I heard the sound of footsteps and
turned to see a guy following about eighty feet behind us. In the
moonlight, I could tell that he had a ski mask covering his face and was
dressed all in black. Somehow, he didn‘t strike me as a tourist.
We soon rounded a curve in the trail and encountered a second guy.
He was a big fellow and I could tell right away he was heavy into two
sports: weightlifting and bodybuilding. Like the first guy, he‘d also
picked all black attire for the occasion, including a ski mask.
The big one held his hand up, signaling Bjorn and I to stop. We
stopped. As the other guy closed in behind us, the big one turned and
gave a short whistle to someone ahead on the trail, who I hoped would
be our old prison buddy, Nigel.
I just love reunions.
Anyway, the big fellow looked at the two of us and asked, ―Which
one of you is Bjorn?‖
―I am,‖ Bjorn replied.
He looked at me and asked Bjorn, ―Who the hell is this?‖
―My bodyguard,‖ Bjorn told him. ―Is there a problem with that?‖
He let that roll around in his head for a moment and I began to
suspect he wasn‘t the sharpest tool in the shed. I guess it‘s hard to find
good help these days.
He gestured to the guy behind us who gave Bjorn and me a shove.
After that, he instructed us, ―Off with the jackets, gentlemen.‖


Well, it was chilly out, but Bjorn and I complied and handed over
the jackets. After they‘d searched them and found nothing aside from
Bjorn‘s cell phone, the big guy had an epiphany and asked, ―Are you
guys carrying?‖
I crossed my fingers and told him, ―No.‖ This was the truth, sort of,
since I wasn‘t actually carrying anything, so to speak. If he‘d asked if I
had any weapons in my possession, then I would have been forced to
fib.
The body-builder barked an order to his partner behind us, ―Search
him, Finn.‖
It‘s always good to put a name to the face.
Finn nudged me in the back and told me, ―Raise your hands.‖ As I
did, he started patting me down.
I noticed that both these guys had Brit accents, so I guessed Nigel
had brought in cheap labor from mother England. This made sense, I
guess, especially considering Italy‘s complicated labor laws.
In the meantime, the big guy started frisking Bjorn, who wasn‘t as
polite and accommodating as me, and that‘s when a few nasty things
started happening at once.
While the big guy tried to get Bjorn to raise his arms, Bjorn became
impatient and told him, ―I don‘t have any weapons, you damned fool!
Take me to my sister—now!‖ He then did something unexpected and
started calling out, ―Ella! Are you there, Ella?‖
While that was going on, another unexpected thing occurred. As
Finn was busy frisking me, he happened to run his hand all the way up
my leg. Well I, for one, didn‘t like being fondled like that. At the same
time, I doubted Finn was expecting to find a gun stuffed into my
underwear, so I guess it was an equally awkward moment for both of
us.
Since the jig was up, I figured it was time to play my ace card. While
I reached into my undies to whip out my weapon—my gun, that is—
Finn grabbed me and managed to pull me to the ground. In an instant,
he wrapped his arm around my neck and began choking me while
yelling to the big guy, ―He‘s got a gun!‖


I tried thrashing from side to side, but Finn‘s arm stayed locked
around my throat. With all my strength, I managed to raise my right leg
high enough to where I could grab the dagger. Quickly, I yanked it
from my sock and swung the point of the blade over my shoulder and
right into Finn‘s eye.
He let out a piercing scream which almost deafened my right ear. At
once, he released me and held his hand to his eye. This gave me the
chance to spin around and jab the blade into him again, this time into
his left chest. While he gasped for air, I grabbed him by the collar and
pulled him from the ground. With a little help from adrenaline, I lifted
him up over the railing and pushed. I watched as he tumbled down the
side of the jagged cliff to the rocky coast below.
I really don‘t like being fondled.
That done, I turned to see that the big fellow now had Bjorn in a
headlock. As he turned my way, I threw the knife right at his open
mouth, landing the sharp blade in the back of his throat. The shock of
that caused him to release Bjorn, who wrestled out of his grip. We
watched him gagging with the handle of a dagger sticking out of his
mouth. Without hesitation, Bjorn slammed the knife with the back of
his hand, forcing the blade through his vertebrae until the point of the
blade could be seen coming out the back of his neck.
At that, the big fellow dropped like a rock, though he continued
twitching and jerking on the ground. Just then, Bjorn and I heard a
woman‘s voice in the distance. ―Bjorn! Help!‖
As I pulled out my gun, Bjorn cautioned me, ―Be careful with that,
my friend.‖ He then called out, ―Ella! I‘m here!‖ and began running in
her direction.
I followed behind Bjorn and saw a man step out from under a rock
overhang which partially covered the trail up ahead. As he moved into
the moonlight, I could see he had a gun held to a woman‘s head and
she was struggling to free herself.
―Stop!‖ he shouted to us, and Bjorn and I stopped in our tracks.
Bjorn called to him, ―Put the gun down, you bastard. I‘ll give you
what you want.‖


At that, the man stepped out further until the light of the moon fell
upon his face.
Nigel Adams. The prick.
―Step back,‖ Nigel ordered us, still holding the end of the gun‘s
silencer to Ella‘s head. ―I don‘t want anyone else getting—‖
Just then, the woman stooped down and thrust her elbow into
Nigel‘s stomach. I watched as he bent over in pain. Nonetheless, he
managed to reach down and grab Ella by the arm. As the two wrestled,
I heard the sound of a gunshot. Bjorn seemed paralyzed for a moment,
then he and I watched in horror as Ella fell from Nigel‘s arms to the
ground.
Nigel looked down at the woman for a moment and seemed in
shock over what had just happened. He then looked at the smoking
gun in his hand before his eyes raised and met with Bjorn‘s.
―Oh God. I‘m…I‘m sorry!‖
Bjorn ignored the apology and began running toward him. In an
instant, Nigel spun around and headed down the trail at a full sprint. I
raised my gun to shoot, but Bjorn‘s body was in the line of fire.
As Bjorn reached Ella and knelt, I saw I had a clear shot. Ahead on
the trail, Nigel was about to round a turn. I aimed and fired. The 9 mm
bullet hit flesh, I could tell, and Nigel grabbed his buttocks and fell to
the dirt. Before I could get another shot, however, he managed to jump
to his feet again, then scrambled around the curve and out of sight.
I ran over to where Ella lay and saw that Bjorn had placed her head
onto his lap. I knelt beside her and could tell she was an attractive
woman with short blonde hair and pretty facial features. She appeared
to be resting, though I had a feeling she was already gone from this
world. In the stark moonlight I watched her chest for signs of
breathing but saw nothing. I wanted to ask Bjorn how I could help, but
he seemed to be somewhat in shock, which was understandable.
After a long moment, he looked away and turned Ella‘s head to one
side for me to observe.
I leaned forward to take a look, and saw right away that much of the
right side of her skull was missing, as were part of her brains.


Bjorn turned her head back as it was and looked at me with eyes
that seemed dead to the world. ―Go get that bastard,‖ he told me, ―and
bring me his head.‖
―We both need to leave,‖ I told him. ―Come with me, Bjorn. We
can‘t stay here with all these...uh….‖
He seemed deep in thought for a moment, then explained, ―Where I
am going, my friend, you cannot follow.‖ Tears then began to fall from
his eyes, and he lowered his head and began to weep.
I wasn‘t sure just what he meant when he said that, but as an
escaped fugitive I didn‘t think it was a good idea to stick around with
all the dead bodies lying everywhere. I mean, we‘d have some serious
explaining to do if we were caught. I walked back to where the big
fellow was lying and grabbed our jackets from the railing.
Just then, I looked to the north and saw a couple of flashlight beams
slicing through the darkness and could make out the figures of
uniformed police coming down the trail. One of the beams shined
against the rock wall beside me and I ducked quickly.
From there, I stayed low for a few seconds, then darted back to
where Bjorn was seated with Ella. I whispered, ―The cops are on the
way! We need to leave, like, now!”
Bjorn managed to pull himself together. Quickly, he gave his sister a
final kiss, then set her head gently onto the ground and climbed to his
feet.
―This way,‖ I said in a low voice, and the two of us started running
as fast as we could to the south.
Apparently, I was in better running shape than Bjorn Gundersen
and before long I was hundreds of feet ahead of him. Ahead to my left,
I spotted a faint footpath leading off from the main trail and up the
hillside. I figured there was a good chance that more cops might be
headed this way from the other end, so I changed course and took off
up the hill.
As I reached the halfway point of the slope, I looked back and saw
Gundersen. He glanced up at me for a second, then continued running
along the main trail. I thought of following after him, but then caught


sight of a flashlight beam coming from behind him. I turned and
sprinted the rest of the way up the hill.
At the top, I found a wide concrete platform, which appeared to be
part of a ventilation system for the train tunnel below. From that
vantage point, I could see the trail and most things around me fairly
well, though I felt it would be difficult for anyone to see me. After I‘d
rested and caught my breath, I pulled out Bjorn‘s phone from his
jacket and entered a code to redial the last call.
A man answered, and sounded like he‘d just woke up. ―Uh…hello?‖
―Can I speak with Paige, please?‖
―Who‘s this?‖
―Her employer.‖
There was silence for a moment before Paige came on the line,
―Craig?‖
―Paige, are you okay? Are you somewhere safe?‖
―I am now. How about you and your friend? Did your meeting, or
whatever it was, go all right?‖
―It went better than I expected,‖ I told her, ―but listen: I want you
to leave for Rome in the morning.‖
―I just got here.‖
―You‘ll need to be on the 7:30 train,‖ I said, ―and you might want to
disguise yourself a bit—just to be safe.‖
―Uh…all right. What about—?‖
―I‘ll meet you at the Roma Termini station at noon.‖
―Right. Is it, like, okay if my friend comes with me?‖
I thought about that. ―I guess so, but you‘re flying out of Rome at
2:20 p.m.‖
―I am? To where?‖
―To JFK. You‘re going home.‖
―What? Why? I just—‖


―It‘s become far too dangerous for you to be here, Paige. I need to
get you out of Italy, ASAP.‖
―She seemed concerned about that. ―But what about working for
you? Am I still…?‖
―Don‘t worry. You‘re still employed.‖
―For how long?‖
I thought about that. ―Until I‘m dead or you quit—whichever
comes first.‖
―Well, try not to die, okay? At least for my sake.‖
―Okay. Don‘t quit, either.‖
―Quit? Are you kidding? I love this!‖
I chuckled at that and asked, ―You didn‘t tell your friend about your
job did you?‖
―No.‖
Her ‗No‘ didn‘t sound too convincing. ―What did you tell him? You
didn‘t let him know about—‖
―He knows I‘m a spy.‖
―A spy?‖ I drew an exhausted breath and reminded her, ―We‘re
analysts, Paige. You can‘t go around telling people we‘re spies—
understand?‖
―Well, he totally saved my life, like, twice.‖
I heard her turn from the phone and say to her friend, ―It‘s my boss.
He says I‘m an analyst and not a spy.‖
In the background I heard her friend‘s response. ―Yeah, right.‖
I let out another long breath. ―Look, Paige, we‘ll talk about this on
the way to the airport. In the meantime, try keeping your mouth shut.‖
―Yes, Mr. Van Essen.‖
I paused for a moment, then told her, ―I‘ll see you at the station. In
the meantime, be safe.‖
At that, I ended the call and looked down the hill. On the trail
below I now spotted two cops walking at a fast pace while searching


with their flashlights. I ducked down and crept back from the edge of
the concrete. By now, of course, they‘d discovered the slaughterhouse
Gundersen and I had left behind and I figured it wouldn‘t be long
before they had helicopters combing these hills.
In the center of the ventilation system I spotted a thin manhole
cover. I crept over to it and slowly pried it open, being careful not to
make a sound. I then took a peek inside and saw a short vertical ladder
descending onto what looked like a large cable tray below, with a
service platform alongside it. I climbed in and pulled the cover back
over the hole as I went down the ladder. There was light reflecting
from the train tunnel below, and it was a lot warmer here than it was
outside. Still, I was glad I‘d brought the jackets.
I rolled Bjorn‘s thick jacket into a makeshift pillow, then lay on the
platform covering myself with mine. It would be an hour or two before
the trains started rolling through and I figured it would be a good time
to get some rest.
I closed my eyes and pictured the lovely Michelle Fontaine and
wondered if she had thought of me today. For her own protection, I
had to convince her to head back to the States for a while, at least until
this whole thing blew over.
I then considered Nigel Adams. He was probably pretty pissed at
me right now, and I would be too if someone had shot me in the ass. I
wondered who he worked for, what his intensions were, and how he
had found out about Bjorn Gundersen‘s little secrets.
I thought about Bjorn, too, and could only guess where he might be
right now. I also wondered what he meant when he muttered, ‗Where
I‘m going you cannot follow.‘ Hopefully, he wasn‘t going into hiding
before I had the chance to find where he‘d hid…whatever it is he‘s got
hidden.
I also thought about my young assistant, Paige O‘Neill, and I was
glad she had a new man in her life—at least for one night.
And that brought me back to thinking once again about Michelle
Fontaine. I admit, I was intrigued by her and I couldn‘t keep her out of
my mind. In truth, I wondered if it was too soon to start feeling that
way about someone. I also wondered if it wasn‘t a bad idea to even
start anything serious with someone right now. I‘d just begun working


on missions for the President, and who knows where I‘ll be next week,
or the week after that, or if I‘ll even live that long.
Nonetheless, I felt she was fascinating and beautiful. I wanted to see
her again. I wanted to look into her eyes and hear her voice. I wanted
her in my life—and for a lot longer than just one night.



Chapter 18

Friday, January 29, 2021

To most, the stale scent of a passenger train, along with the endless
rumble and rocking, can be nauseating. And Bjorn Gundersen was no
exception to this. He felt exhausted, having caught only a few minutes
of sleep since he left Riomaggiore. He was out of his medications and,
as a result, his thinking was a bit off. His pills would calm his nerves.
They would help him to control himself and behave more predictably.
They would also keep him out of trouble.
Now, he thought, was not the time for any damned pills.
Outside, a light drizzle had begun to fall and Gundersen saw dark
and ominous clouds blotting out the sun. A chill filled the air.
Combined with the dampness, he could feel the cold all the way to his
bones. He knew that Van Essen had grabbed his jacket, which also had
his cell phone. He trusted that Craig had sense enough to destroy the
items or move them as far as possible from the crime scene.
He pulled a thin blanket up around his shoulders, which exposed his
blood-stained pants. Looking down and seeing that, his mind went to
poor Ella, who had been his only sister and his last living relative.
His heart grew heavy.
Soon, his thoughts turned to his three adversaries: Nigel Adams,
Tjuren, and Axel Thorsen. He thought about what they‘d done. He
thought of how he and Ella had been both betrayed by them. He
thought about what he now had to do. What they‘d forced him to do.
At that, his heart grew cold. They would all pay, he thought. And with
their blood.
He glanced over at the passenger seated across the aisle. He was an
older man and appeared to be asleep. He was also wearing a
wristwatch, and Gundersen could see it was almost eleven in the
morning.


Just then, the old man‘s eyes opened and he looked at Gundersen.
The man glared down at Gundersen‘s blood stained pants and a look
of disgust came over his face.
Gundersen lowered the blanket over his legs and glared back with
piercing eyes until the old man turned away.
Minutes later, the train came to a stop at Genoa‘s Stazione Pricipe,
and Gundersen disembarked carrying only his blanket. From the train,
he headed directly to a men‘s lavatory. There, he went to one of the
sinks and tried blotting Ella‘s blood from his pants using the blanket
and cold water from the faucet.
As he worked at this, he felt his heart burning with rage. Thoughts
came to him, terrible thoughts, and he tried to push them from his
mind.
The world will pay, he thought.
After a minute or so, a young man entered the bathroom. He was in
his early twenties, Gundersen observed, and tall and lanky-looking. He
had on jacket, a ball cap, and a tattered backpack, and wore his long
hair in a braided ponytail.
The young man glanced at Gundersen as he walked past, and saw
the blood stains. ―That time of the month, huh?‖ he joked.
Gundersen could detect an American accent. He looked up at him.
―What was that?‖
―That time of the month,‖ he repeated. ―You know, like you‘re
havin‘ a period?‖ He grinned. ―Whatever it is, it looks pretty gross,
dude.‖
As the young man turned and stepped toward one of the urinals,
Gundersen leaped forward and grabbed him hard by his ponytail and
yanked. With his ample strength, he pulled the young man backward,
then gripped the front of his jacket. He then spun him around and
thrust him solidly against the urinal.
―Do you think that‘s funny?‖ Gundersen demanded.
The young man was in shock, and his mouth trembled but no words
came out.


―What if I was covered in your blood right now? Would that be
funny?‖
―I‘m…I‘m sorry dude. I‘m just totally—‖
―I could kill you right here, you sniveling bastard.‖
―I didn‘t mean anything negative, like…‖
Just then, another man entered the bathroom. He stopped in his
tracks as he spotted Gundersen holding the young man over the urinal.
He recognized the fury in Gundersen‘s eyes and the look of terror on
the young man‘s face. Quickly, he spun around and went back out the
door.
Gundersen looked back into the young man‘s eyes and saw his
pupils narrowing. His face, he saw, had become white and his body
shook with terror. Gundersen drew a deep breath, then loosened his
grip and lowered the young man back to the floor.
While still looking into his eyes, Gundersen told him, ―Forgive me.
I‘ve had a bad day so far.‖
Still partly in shock, the young man managed a faint smile and a
stunted laugh. Just then, his smartwatch lit up and beeped.
―You have a phone?‖ Gundersen asked. ―Give it to me.‖
The young man looked down at his smartwatch, then reached into
his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. With trembling hands, he
handed it over.
Gundersen took the phone and ordered him, ―Wait right there.‖ He
then tapped at the screen a few times and placed a call.
On the other end, Isak Olstrom set down a dripping ladle and
answered his cell. ―Who the hell is this?‖ he asked.
―Is that any way to greet your only friend?‖ Gundersen asked. ―It‘s
me, you old fool.‖
―Bjorn? Where are you? My God, where have you been?‖
He told Olstrom, ―I‘m at Stazione Pricipe right now, in Genoa. I
assume you‘re on the Agnes Ann. Am I right?‖
―Where else would I be?‖


―And the ship is here, right?‖
―She is being loaded here at Porto di Voltri as I speak.‖
―Excellent.‖
―Is everything—?‖
―I need you to drop what you‘re doing and come for me,‖
Gundersen told him.
―Uh…okay.‖
Gundersen glanced over at the young man, then lowered his voice
and told Olstrom, ―I‘ll need to be smuggled past the guards. Can you
handle that?‖
Olstrom laughed. ―You‘re asking an old pirate if he can smuggle one
man past a couple of Italians? Please, Bjorn, give me a little credit.‖
―I‘ll be waiting out front,‖ Gundersen said. ―Tell no one I am here
and be sure you are not followed.‖
―Can you tell me what‘s going—?‖
―I‘ll explain everything when you get here.‖ At that, Gundersen
ended the call, then deleted the record of it from the phone.
He then turned back to the young man, who hadn‘t budged from
the spot in front of the urinal. Gundersen could see that he‘d wet
himself during the ordeal. He pulled a couple of Euro notes from his
pocket, two hundreds, and handed the bills to the young man along
with his phone. ―Are you going to be okay?‖ he asked.
The young man nodded nervously as he grabbed the money and the
phone. ―Can I go now?‖
Gundersen looked him in the eye. ―You may go, but do me a
favor.‖
―Okay, what?‖
―Don‘t mention a word about me to anyone.‖
―Yeah, like, no problem, man.‖
―You never saw me. Understand?‖


―Totally.‖ As the young man stepped past him and pushed the door
to leave, Gundersen let him know, ―If you mention a word of this, I‘ll
track you down and cut your throat.‖
The young man looked at Gundersen, then nodded and darted out.
Gundersen went back to cleaning the blood from his pants for
another minute or so, then headed from the bathroom to the front of
the large station. Once outside, he spotted a long bench positioned
under an awning. There, he sat alone and waited for Isak Olstrom.
As the minutes passed, Gundersen looked around and saw a few
nearby shops including a liquor store, a souvenir shop, and a
newsstand. After a while, he noticed himself shivering, so he stood and
walked over to the liquor store. There, he went inside to warm himself
until Olstrom arrived.
As he wandered through the rows and shelves of bottles, his eyes
fell upon a bottle of American bourbon from the state of Kentucky.
This, he remembered, was his favorite poison before he‘d quit
drinking. He thought about it for a long moment, then turned and
walked away. As he reached the door, however, he thought again and
went back to the shelf, grabbed the bottle, paid the young girl at the
counter, and headed back outside to the bench.
The drizzle had now turned to a light rain, and Gundersen felt the
damp cold creeping into his bones once again. He looked around to be
sure no one was watching, then reached into the paper bag and opened
the bottle. Discretely, he raised the bourbon to his lips and drew a long
sip. The alcohol burned his throat as it went down, and he thought it
seemed much stronger than he remembered. A few sips later, he began
to feel his bones warming.
After what seemed to him like a long while, Isak Olstrom pulled up
driving a white Nissan cargo van. Gundersen climbed in.
He first adjusted the heater, then looked over at Olstrom and
noticed his long beard had become greyer since he‘d last seen him. His
hair, too, looked unkempt and his belly was hanging over his lap. ―You
look like hell, my friend,‖ Bjorn said. ―You‘ve aged ten years.‖ He
smiled, then handed his old friend the bottle.


Olstrom took the bottle, opened it, and drew a long swig. ―It‘s good
to see you too.‖
Gundersen made no reply.
Olstrom studied the bottle. ―American booze? When did you start
drinking again?‖
Gundersen ignored that too and asked, ―What took you so long to
get here? I was freezing to death.‖
Olstrom sealed the bottle and placed it into the console, then put
the gear selector in drive and pulled away from the curb. ―Your old
partner showed up just as I was about to leave. I didn‘t—‖
―Tjuren?‖
Olstrom looked at him. ―That‘s your partner, right?‖
―He‘s at the ship? The Agnes Ann?‖
―He‘s on board as we speak, along with his idiot son—‖
―Does he know I‘m here?‖
―I told him nothing, Bjorn. I told no one you are here, not even the
Captain.‖
―Bergstedt is still Captain, right?‖
Olstrom nodded. ―Last I heard—unless there‘s been a mutiny since
I left.‖
Gundersen thought about things while Olstrom drove. After a
minute, he grabbed the bourbon from the console and took another
swig. He then wiped his mouth and told Olstrom, ―Pull over for a
moment, my friend.‖
Olstrom pulled the van to the side of the road and stopped.
―Call the Captain,‖ Gundersen told him. ―Tell Bergstedt to arrest
Tjuren and Axel.‖
Olstrom looked Gundersen in disbelief. ―What? Why—?‖
―You heard me,‖ Gundersen replied, and then explained, ―Tjuren is
no longer to be trusted. He is now our enemy—and an enemy of the
Skilja.‖


Olstrom hesitated for a moment, then pulled out his cell phone. He
looked at the face of the phone for a moment, then turned and looked
again at Gundersen. ―Can you tell me first what is—?‖
―I‘m afraid Tjuren has betrayed all of us, my friend. He has been
playing us for fools.‖ He pointed to his blood-stained pants. ―This is
the blood of my poor sister.‖
―Ella?‖
Gundersen nodded. ―Tjuren is responsible for her death.‖ He
leaned back in his seat and continued, ―He also conspired to have
many of our brothers and I arrested and imprisoned. I alone escaped
and must stop him before he exposes us all. He has become a
monster.‖ He handed the bottle to Olstrom.
Olstrom considered what Gundersen had said and asked, ―Why
would he…what would make him do this?‖
―The son-of–a-bitch wants the devises.‖
―Do you mean your—?‖
―Yes,‖ Gundersen replied. ―They are both on board, correct?‖
Olstrom nodded. ―Of course. They are exactly as you left them.‖
Gundersen thought for a moment and commented, ―Tjuren is here
to steal them, I‘m sure.‖
Olstrom nodded in agreement.
Gundersen looked at his old friend and asked, ―How did he know
to look in the Agnes Ann?‖
Isak Olstrom took a long swig of the bourbon, then replied, ―I can
assure you, Bjorn, I don‘t know. Perhaps you should ask Tjuren that
question.‖
―I intend to.‖ Gundersen pointed at Olstrom‘s phone and told him,
―Call Captain Bergstedt.‖
Olstrom tapped at the screen for a moment, then handed the phone
to Gundersen.
Gundersen spoke with the Captain for a few minutes. By the end of
the conversation, Captain Peter Bergstedt had assured Gundersen that


Tjuren and Axel would be placed in custody at once and held until he
arrived.
―Don‘t let either of them near a phone, a computer, or anything. Do
you hear me?‖
―Aye aye, Mr. Gundersen,‖ Bergstedt replied. ―May I ask, sir,
what—?‖
―I‘ll explain later, Peter. Just take their things and lock them up until
I arrive.‖
There was a long pause before Peter Bergstedt finally answered,
―Aye aye.‖
At that, Gundersen ended the call.
―What did he say?‖ Olstrom asked.
―He said, ‗Aye aye.‘‖
Olstrom nodded at that, then asked, ―What is to become of
Tjuren?‖
―He will be making a wish, I am sure.‖
―What do you mean?‖
Gundersen turned to Olstrom and told him, ―He will soon wish he
had never been born.‖



Chapter 19

Isak Olstrom arrived at the security checkpoint. He rolled down his
window and waved his ID at the guards. One of the guards pulled his
hood over his head and approached the van. After scanning Olstrom‘s
ID badge, he looked inside the van for a moment and asked, ―Where
did you go? You were only gone a few minutes.‖
―I needed some kitchen supplies.‖
―Like what?‖ the guard asked. ―I don‘t see anything up here.‖
Olstrom pulled the half-empty bottle of bourbon from the console.
―I needed some cooking sherry.‖ He smiled at the guard and offered
him the bottle.
―Get that away from me!‖ the guard sneered. ―You smell like a
drunken pig. You shouldn‘t be driving.‖
―Let me get to my ship and I won‘t be driving anymore.‖
The guard glared at him for a moment. ―Wait here.‖ As he turned
and walked back to the guardhouse, Olstrom heard him mutter, ―Filthy
Swede.‖
Olstrom watched as the first guard discussed the situation with his
co-worker, and then made a call on his phone. After a minute or so,
the guard returned to the van.
―I spoke with your Captain, a Mr. Bergstedt, and he is very
unpleased. Did you tell him you were leaving the shipyard?‖
Olstrom shook his head. ―He‘s a busy man.‖
―So am I,‖ the guard replied. ―In fact, if I had more time I would
have you arrested.‖ He leaned closer and looked into Isak Olstrom‘s
eyes. ―Do you know how much that would cost you?‖
Olstrom drew a deep breath, then reached into his pocket and
pulled out a few bills. He rolled them tightly and set them
inconspicuously on the edge of the door as he looked away.
The guard placed his hand over the bills, then quickly pocketed
them. He told Olstrom, ―Go straight to your ship and report to your
Captain—and don‘t let me see your face again.‖


Olstrom gave the guard a one-finger salute as he hit the gas and
drove into the shipyard. After he was well away, he tapped on a sliding
door between the seats, signaling Gundersen.
After a few seconds, Gundersen slid the door open and wiggled his
way out through the small opening. ―You stupid bastard,‖ he told
Olstrom. ―I couldn‘t breathe in there—and you had to keep taunting
that damned guard.‖
―He wanted a bribe,‖ Olstrom explained. ―What could I do?‖
Gundersen crawled over the console and climbed into his seat.
―You could have kept your mouth shut, you old fool,‖ he replied.
―You could have been arrested and I‘d have been stuck in here.‖
The rest of the ride was mostly quiet. Olstrom reported to
Gundersen which of the crew were trusted Skilja members and which
were not. He drove slowly endless past rows of shipping containers
until they finally arrived at Porto di Voltri, where the Agnes Ann was
moored. Ahead, Gundersen could see the ship, a German-built 250
foot cargo vessel.
Olstrom turned onto the slip, dropping Gundersen at the ship‘s
boarding ramp. There, he was met by Captain Bergstedt who escorted
him aboard.
―Do you have them?‖ Gundersen asked the Captain.
―Yes sir,‖ Peter Bergstedt answered. ―We took their belongings, as
you ordered, and placed them in an empty twenty-foot container.‖
―Is it locked?‖
Bergstedt nodded. ―I also have a guard posted. I‘ll take you there
now.‖
Gundersen followed the Captain through a maze of corridors, then
out to the cargo area. Once there, Bergstedt led Gundersen to a solitary
container, set aside from the others. There, the Captain took a moment
to introduce Gundersen to one of the ship‘s security guards, Gustav,
who was a chubby young man with narrow eyes and a dark red
birthmark covering much of the left side of his face.
After briefly acknowledging Gustav, Gundersen turned and asked
Bergstedt in a low voice, ―The guard—is he one of us?‖


Bergstedt nodded. ―He is.‖
Gundersen studied the young man for a brief moment and saw that
he was carrying a sidearm, a large knife, and what appeared to be a
Taser. He asked Gustav, ―Do you know who I am, son?‖
―Uh…you‘re Bjorn Gundersen, and you own this ship.‖
Gundersen nodded. ―Are the prisoners tied up?‖
―No, but I could—‖
―Find some rope, son, and have someone help you bind their arms
and legs. After that, tie them to the far wall of the container.‖
―Aye, sir.‖
―And remove their clothes.‖
Gustav glanced over at Bergstedt for a second, who gave him a nod.
He then looked back at Gundersen. ―Aye.‖
―And don‘t tell them I‘m here,‖ Gundersen added. ―I want that to
be a surprise.‖
As Gundersen and Bergstedt stepped away, Bergstedt asked in a low
voice, ―Can you tell me what this is about, Bjorn? The crew will soon
be asking and I‘ll…I‘ll need answers.‖
Gundersen glanced back at the container and let Bergstedt know,
―This, I‘m afraid, is the dissolution of a partnership.‖ He slapped the
Captain on the arm and told him, ―Take me to my quarters. I‘ll explain
everything tonight.‖
―The ship is leaving within the hour. Will you be sailing with us?‖
―Unless someone stops me.‖
At that, Bierstadt took a deep breath and led him upstairs to his
quarters. After having his personal items cleared from the room, he
asked Gundersen, ―Is there anything else?‖
―Yes, Peter. What is our schedule? Our next port, that is?‖
―Lisbon, sir. Then New York.‖
Gundersen considered that for a moment, then told him, ―We might
have to skip Lisbon. Can that be done?‖


Bergstedt nodded. ―It‘s a bit late, but…yes. I suppose we‘ll have to
unload a few containers—‖
―Do it.‖
―Aye aye.‖
―I‘ll also need the pad set up for the chopper. Can that be done?‖
Bergstedt shrugged. ―Once we‘re underway, I suppose. Who are you
flying in?‖
―A friend of mine, if I can locate him.‖
―And Emerald? She‘s not the pilot, is she?‖
―Yes, actually.‖
Bergstedt rolled his eyes let out a breath. ―Please, Bjorn. You know
that woman brings bad luck with her everywhere she goes.‖
Gundersen glared at him.
―Of course, it‘s your boat.‖
―Thank you for remembering that, Captain.‖
Bergstedt opened the door and prepared to leave. ―Is there anything
else?‖
―I‘ll need some clothes.‖
I‘ll arrange for that.‖
―Good. Now wait outside while I clean up. Then you and I will pay
the mighty Tjuren a visit.‖
Bergstedt stepped outside, closing the door behind him. Gundersen
then went over to the small bathroom where he washed his face with
soap and warm water. He looked at himself in the mirror for a
moment, then turned away, not liking what he saw. After toweling
himself off, he headed out the door.
He and the Captain proceeded back downstairs, walking past several
crew members, some of whom made a quick salute or greeting. Soon,
they arrived on the main cargo platform where Gustav and another
young crewman were locking up the container.
―Are they tied up?‖ Gundersen asked Gustav.


―As you ordered, sir.‖
―Let‘s open it up and see what we have.‖
At that, the two men unlatched the steel doors and swung them
open.
Inside, Bjorn could see Tjuren and Axel tied against the far wall.
They had both been stripped of their clothes, and were squinting to see
who it was.
―Behold,‖ Gundersen called out, ―the great and mighty Amol
Thorsen—or Tjuren, as he is known.‖
Tjuren called back, ―Bjorn? Is that you?‖
―It is, my old friend.‖
―Have you come to free us? These animals used a Taser—‖
―Actually,‖ Gundersen interrupted, ―I‘ll need to ask you a few
questions first.‖
Tjuren looked at him in dismay, and then pleaded, ―Ask me
anything, Bjorn, but let my son free. Please, for the love of—‖
―Quiet!‖ Gundersen told him as he stepped closer. He could see
that the years had been even harder on Amol Thorsen than himself.
Tied naked to the cold steel wall, he looked weary, aged, and defeated.
His usually well-trimmed beard was overgrown, as was his hair. His
skin was pale as snow and Gundersen saw that his jaw trembled.
He then stepped in front of young Axel Thorsen, who seemed
almost in a state of shock. Gundersen drew a breath and untied Axel
from the wall. He then knelt down and removed the rope from his
ankles.
―Thank you, Bjorn,‖ Tjuren said. ―I‘m glad someone here has their
head screwed on straight.‖
Gundersen ignored that and proceeded to untie Axel‘s wrists. He
saw that the young man was shaking from head to toe.
Tjuren asked Gundersen, ―Please, Bjorn, what‘s this all about?‖
―I‘ll tell you what this is about, old friend.‖ He pointed to his pants.
―Do you see this? Do you see all these stains?‖


―It‘s too dark in here,‖ Tjuren replied. ―What am I looking at?‖
Gundersen stepped forward and grabbed Tjuren by the hair, forcing
him to look down. He shouted, ―This, you bastard, is what is left of
Ella‘s brains.‖
―But Bjorn, I don‘t—‖
―Look what you‘ve done!‖
―I‘m sorry. I…I—‖
Gundersen swung hard, striking Tjuren across the face with the
back of his hand. As he did, a tooth flew from Tjuren‘s mouth and
ricocheted against the side wall.
―Father!‖ Axel called out. He looked at Gundersen and begged him,
―Please, don‘t hurt—‖
―Shut up, you worthless piece of shit!‖ Gundersen yelled, pointing
his finger at Axel‘s face. ―Don‘t you utter another word!‖
Gundersen then stepped forward and grabbed Tjuren by his beard.
―What did I tell you I would do if anything happened to my sister?‖
A tear fell from Tjuren‘s eye, followed quickly by another. ―Please,
old friend, do what you want to me, but let my son go free.‖
Gundersen leaned forward and whispered, ―We both know it is too
late for that.‖
―No! No, Bjorn—I beg you!‖
Gundersen released his grip on Tjuren, then stepped back,
positioning himself behind young Axel.
Tjuren yelled to his son, ―Run Axel! Save yourself—quickly!‖
Axel turned around and saw Gundersen standing behind him.
Before he could move, Gundersen grabbed him by the wrist, then
quickly spun Axel‘s arm behind his back. He then locked his free arm
around Axel‘s neck, crushing his windpipe with his wrist.
Tjuren screamed for his son‘s sake while Axel struggled, swinging
his arms and legs wildly. Gundersen, however, kept his powerful arm
wrenched around the young man‘s neck. Before long, Axel‘s legs gave
out and he dropped to his knees. Gundersen knelt behind him,


continuing his stranglehold until Axel‘s eyes rolled back and his body
went limp.
After that, Gundersen stood behind Axel and gave his head a sharp
twist. The repulsive sound of cracking neck bones resonated
throughout the small container and seemed to echo against the steel
walls.
Gundersen looked up at Tjuren, who was crying out in horror, and
rolled the body forward where it landed at his feet.



Chapter 20

Rome was cold, damp, windy, and drizzling. A perfect day for flying.
That‘s what I told Michelle, anyway.
As we approached the airport security checkpoint, she leaned close
and asked me, ―Are you going to miss me, Mr. Van Essen?‖
I slid my hand around her waist and whispered, ―I‘ll be thinking of
you with every beat of my heart.‖
She smiled at that, then gave me a kiss on the lips.
Paige rolled her eyes and commented, ―You guys are ridiculous, you
know.‖
Michelle and I laughed.
Paige then put her arms around Jay and asked, ―Are you going to
miss me, Mr. Cavanagh?‖
―Maybe,‖ he joked. ―Once you‘re gone I guess I‘ll know.‖
―You‘d better!‖ She tapped her finger over the butterfly bandages
on his right eyebrow.
―Ouch! Hey, that hurts.‖
She smiled. ―That‘s what you get.‖ She then pulled him close and
kissed him.
Michelle shook her head and grinned at that, then asked me in a low
voice, ―Where did you find her?‖
―It‘s a long story,‖ I whispered back.
She looked at me. ―The two of you were never….‖
―No.‖
We looked into each other‘s eyes for a long moment. She then
turned and headed to the security line. Once there, she called to Paige,
―C‘mon, we‘ll miss our flight!‖
Jay and I stood and watched for a minute while the two women
disappeared into the crowd.
Jay asked me, ―Do you think they‘ll be safe?‖


―Once they‘re out of Italy, yeah.‖
―Do you have any of your people watching them on the other end?‖
―People? What people?‖
―Paige said you‘re some kind of secret agent or something.‖
I laughed at that and then assured him, ―I‘m just an analyst for a
security company, and Paige is my assistant.‖
―Right. And what happened in Riomaggiore was what? Analysis?‖
I shook my head. ―I think Paige just has an overactive imagination.‖
―Among other things.‖
We both chuckled at that.
I turned to Jay and let him know, ―I appreciate what you did for
Paige back at the Cinque Terre, Jay.‖
He shrugged. ―It was nothing.‖
―Well, I think it was something. When I‘m done with this current
gig, I might be contacting you.‖
―About what?‖
―About some interesting opportunities. Stuff that you‘d be just right
for.‖
―Like secret agent stuff?‖
I laughed again, which was becoming my trained response to that.
―No, but you can believe that if you like.‖
―Oh, I almost forgot….‖ He reached into the pocket of his jacket
and pulled out a small device. As he handed it to me, I could see it was
the small transmitter Paige had removed from Bjorn‘s cellphone, and
its micro-switch was in the off position.
―Paige probably meant for you to have that.‖ He smiled and added,
―I think she said it was from Q division.‖
We both laughed.
I slipped the device into my jacket pocket and asked, ―What
happened to the radio direction finder?‖


―Was it a handheld thing with a big antenna?‖
I nodded.
He gestured in the direction of the terminal. ―I think it‘s on the
plane. Did you need it?‖
―No…just wondering.‖
After that, he and I shook hands and went our separate ways. I went
to the taxi stand and took a cab from the airport to my apartment. On
the way there, I thought about my current situation. First and most
importantly, I‘d managed to convince Michelle and Paige to leave
Rome, at least until I could assure their safety, which at this point
might be a while. Secondly, my primary leads, Bjorn and Nigel, had
both disappeared—one with a 9 mm bullet in his ass. I had secondary
leads, namely Axel Thorsen and his father, Amol, but I had the feeling
they were clueless as to the location of the devices. Nonetheless, they
might be able to explain what the devices actually were.
In the meantime, I decided to work from my apartment where I
could try to find if Nigel had sought medical treatment anywhere and if
Bjorn had been spotted or picked up by the police. The apartment was
the one location where Bjorn could know to look for me, and I
wouldn‘t be surprised if he was there right now. As far as I knew, I was
still high on his list of people to trust, though that could change at any
moment.
The cab dropped me off near the Piazza, and I walked through the
narrow streets until I‘d reached my apartment building. I looked
around for signs of trouble. Seeing none, I went in and climbed the
stairs to my unit. Once there, I drew my gun and quietly turned the
lock. Quickly, I pushed the door open and followed the gun barrel
through the apartment until I was sure I was alone.
A little paranoia can keep you alive, while too much will keep you
from having any fun—and also from completing your mission.
I put my gun on the counter, flipped on the lights, and went straight
to the fridge. I filled a plate with a few grapes, which were still fresh.
Also, some olives, a piece of marinated mozzarella, a couple of pickled
herring, and a dozen crackers. To go with that, I poured myself a glass
of wine and sat down.


Just as I was about to pop a dripping piece of herring into my
mouth, a knock came to the door. I dropped the fish onto the plate
and grabbed my gun. Silently, I stepped over to the door and peered
out through the peephole. Outside the door was Myrna, the stout-
looking middle-aged woman from the café across the street. As usual,
she didn‘t look too happy, but she didn‘t look like trouble, either. I put
the gun aside and opened the door.
―Are you Van Essen?‖
―I am.‖
Myrna pulled out a small piece of paper and handed it to me.
I glanced at the paper, which I could see was a handwritten note.
―Who wrote this?‖ I asked.
―I did,‖ she replied. ―A man called the café and asked me to write
this and slide it under your door. I saw the light on, so I came up.‖
―Did he tell you his name?‖
She shook her head. ―He said you‘d understand what it means.‖
I read the message. When I‘d finished, I pulled a fifty note from my
pocket and handed it to her. ―Grazie.‖
She grabbed the bill. ―Prego.‖
I closed the door and read the note again.

Mr. Van Essen,
I hope I find you well, my friend.
If you’d like to join me for boating, head to Roma Urbe and look for
SE-HEB.
See you soon.

Roma Urbe, I knew, was a small airport located north of here while
SE-HEB looked like aircraft registration numbers. I went to the table
and wolfed down some herring with crackers, gulped the glass of wine,
and tossed the rest of the food back into the fridge. I then grabbed my
jacket, slipped the gun into the pocket, and hit the door.


Minutes later, I was in a Mercedes taxi heading north on Via Salaria.
According to the driver, Roma Urbe was only about five miles from
Piazza Navona, but it would take at least thirty minutes to get there due
to the traffic.
―Too bad it‘s not closer,‖ I told him. ―We could just get on a plane
and fly there.‖
While the driver let that sink in, I thought about the note, which I
knew had to have been from Bjorn Gundersen. The letters SE-HEB, I
knew, had to be some kind of aircraft registration—especially since I‘d
be looking for them in an airport. SE, I thought, was probably a
country code, possibly Sweden, while the letter H might stand for
helicopter. Or maybe Hindenburg. What he meant by ‗boating,‘ I
wasn‘t sure, but I knew Gundersen owned cargo ships.
Whatever it was, I was glad to have one of my primary leads back on
my radar screen. My next objective would be to find out what the
devices Bjorn spoke of actually are. If they are what I think they are, I‘d
need to find them and destroy them.
In the meantime, I‘ll also destroy anyone that gets in my way.



Chapter 21

The driver turned left into the entrance for Roma Urbe airport and
drove a few hundred feet until we‘d reached the runway apron.
He turned and to me. “Dove?” Where to?
―Helicopters.‖ I spun my finger and explained, ―You know, Chop-
chop-chop…?‖ From the look on his face I could tell that didn‘t
translate too well.
Just then, I heard the sound of a helicopter above us, and the
driver‘s face lit up. “Oh, elicottero! Chop-chop-chop!”
I smiled at that and watched through the window as a nice maroon
and black Bell 505 descended from the sky. The craft hovered over the
landing pad for a moment, then set down gracefully.
I paid the taxi driver and hopped out. It was cold and drizzling, so I
pulled up my hood and headed toward the chopper. I walked through a
row of small planes and crossed the taxiway until I was within about
eighty feet of the craft. There, I stopped and waited. On the tail boom
I saw tall lettering that read SE-HEB, which told me this was the right
machine. I also noticed a prominent warning next to the tail rotor that
read DANGER - KEEP AWAY. In retrospect, that may have been
God‘s way of trying to tell me something.
After a moment, the pilot flashed the landing lights on and off,
signaling me to approach.
I lowered my head and darted to the craft, then grabbed the right-
side door lever and opened the door. I looked up and was surprised to
see a lady pilot, and an attractive one at that.
She flipped a couple of switches on the dash, then turned to me.
―Craig Van Essen?‖
I nodded.
She smiled. ―Get in—you‘re letting the cold air inside!‖
I climbed, shut the door, and buckled up.
―Now I‘m freezing!‖ she shouted.


I shouted back, ―You‘re the one who has the fan running!‖
She giggled at that as she pointed to a set of headphones in front of
me. ―Put those on!‖
I put them on.
―Can you hear me?‖ she asked.
I position the microphone and answered, ―Loud and clear.‖
―Good. Now hang on to your butt!‖ At that, she glanced around for
a second, threw a few more switches, and hit the throttle.
Immediately, we began a rapid vertical takeoff and I felt the herring
in my stomach dive into deeper waters. As we ascended, I recalled
something my old avionics instructor used to say: ‗Once you are
actually in flight, it‘s too late to wonder if this was a good idea.‘
The pilot tapped at the right tail rotor pedal until we were facing
west, then gradually moved the cyclic stick forward. Once we‘d reached
a proper altitude and speed, she relaxed in her seat and turned to me.
―How are we doing?‖
I leaned over and looked around at the floor.
―Did you lose something?‖
―Just my spleen,‖ I replied. ―Don‘t worry about it.‖ I turned to her
and let her know, ―Nice takeoff, by the way. You should think about
working for NASA.‖
She smiled.
―Are your landings anything like that?‖
―Yeah, only in reverse.‖ She swept her long blonde hair over her
shoulder. ―I‘m Emerald, by the way.‖
―Nice to meet you.‖
After a moment, she adjusted the wipers, then unzipped her jacket
just enough that I could see her—‖
―Do you know where we‘re going?‖ she asked.
―Me? You‘re the pilot. Don‘t you know?‖
―Bjorn didn‘t tell you?‖


―Nope.‖ But I was glad she brought up the name ‗Bjorn.‘
―Then I guess you‘re in for a surprise.‖
That would probably turn out to be an understatement. I asked, ―Is
it raining where we‘re headed?‖
―Not yet. It should be clear skies for a while longer.‖
It was quiet for a while, and the sound of the turbine and the
beating sound of the blades were working on me. I let out a yawn.
Emerald saw this and made a suggestion, ―You should lean back
and take a nap, sweetie.‖
―Are you sure you can fly this thing without me?‖
She tried not to smile. ―I‘ll manage.‖
I leaned my seat all the way back, then closed my eyes and tried to
ignore the noise. Choppers have their place, of course, but I‘ve always
preferred fixed-wing aircraft, which slice through the air as they glide
along. To me, helicopters don't actually fly at all—they simply beat the
air into submission. I mean, these things are really just a million parts
rotating around an oil leak waiting for metal fatigue to set in. If one
bolt fails, a helicopter will quickly take on the same aerodynamic
properties as a common household brick.
Despite all my knowledge of aviation, the laws of gravity, and bricks,
I managed to nod off.
As I fell into a deep sleep, I remember having a dream. If I can
recall correctly, I dreamed that I‘d gone to an antique helicopter fly-in,
only to find that nobody showed up. Or something vaguely like that.
Anyway, I reopened my eyes about thirty minutes later to find that
the rain had stopped and I could see sunny skies up ahead. I put on my
sunglasses, then glanced down and to see a rugged landmass below us.
Emerald let me know, ―That‘s Corsica you‘re looking at.‖
―Yes, of Corsica.‖
I caught her holding back a grin.
I turned and asked her, ―Are we heading anywhere near Monte
Carlo by chance?‖


―Yeah. Why?‖
―Can we swing by one of the casinos? I‘m feeling lucky.‖
―Do you have any money?‖
―No…but you strike me as a woman of means.‖
―Sorry, sweetie. We‘ll have to put a pin in that one.‖ She turned to
me and smiled. ―But there‘s a lot of other things we can do for
pleasure.‖
Goodness.
Well, I needed to change the topic so I quickly glanced over the
gauges. I could see we were now heading west-by-northwest and
cruising at 130 knots. I asked Emerald, ―What‘s the range on this
thing?‖
―360 nautical miles,‖ she replied. She looked down at the
instruments for a second and let me know, ―We should reach our
destination in about an hour—just around sunset.‖
―And where is our destination?‖
She pointed ahead. ―That-a-way.‖
Cute.
She glanced over at me. ―So…how do you know Bjorn, anyway?‖
Well, we were cellmates until we escaped, but I wasn‘t going to tell
her that. ―We‘re just acquaintances, really. What about you?‖
She raised her eyebrow. ―If you‘re not going to tell me anything,
why should I tell you?‖
I thought about that, then decided to let her know, ―Bjorn and I
were in prison together. We were cellmates until we broke out.‖
She glanced at me and let out a long sigh. ―Wow. Well…that
explains a few things.‖
―What about you?‖
She checked the gauges once again, then answered, ―I was a chopper
pilot in the army until I was discharged.‖ She looked at me and added,
―Dishonorably.‖


―What did you do to be discharged?‖
―To be honest, I murdered someone.‖
―That would do it.‖
She grinned. ―Actually, I murdered two people, but they only found
out about one.‖
Well, that was a weird thing to hear someone admit. ―You might
want to keep that under your hat.‖
―You‘re right, Craig. I shouldn‘t have said anything.‖ She turned to
me. ―Now I‘ll have to kill you, too.‖
―I‘m already dead inside,‖ I told her, ―so it wouldn‘t matter.‖
She continued, ―Anyway, when I got out I learned that Bjorn and
his partner were looking for a chopper pilot. I told Bjorn the truth
about everything, included both of the murders, and he hired me on
the spot.‖
―I think he appreciates honesty.‖
―I think he just likes bad girls—and he needed someone like me to
do his dirty work.‖ She shook her head and asked me, ―How did we
get on this topic?‖
―I just asked what the range was on this thing. You took it from
there.‖
She giggled at that as she unbuckled her seatbelt. I watched while
she unzipped her jacket and removed it, then looked at me and gave
me a friendly smile. She was wearing black leather biker pants, a thin
strappy top, and a heavy concentration of tattoos. A woman of virtue.
Emerald was no spring chicken, either, but her hills and valleys were
still in all the right places. The mountains, too, from what I could see.
She told me she was approaching forty, and I couldn‘t help wondering
from what direction.
The bright tattoos covered both her arms and much of her upper
body, and they more than vaguely resembled a zoo from hell. Her ink
collection was anything but feminine or dainty, and featured skulls,
serpents, flames, and even the devil himself, who seemed to be looking
straight at me with dark, evil eyes.


To stop myself from gawking I kept my eyes facing forward. To the
west, the sun was now low in the sky and I could make out the coast of
the fabulous French Riviera in the far distance. I didn‘t know my exact
destination yet or what I kind of trouble I was getting myself into, but I
wasn‘t overly worried. In my heart I knew that Chandis and Jessica
were watching over me from high above.
The devil and hell, however, seemed to be watching me from the
next seat.



Chapter 22

Thirty minutes later, the western sky had turned from light blue to
brilliant shades of orange and violet as the sun dipped into the distant
horizon and shimmered over the glassy smooth Mediterranean. Just
ahead, I could see the coastal lowlands and broad sandy beaches of
southern France.
Emerald began a slow descent and I soon noticed a cargo ship
below. The ship appeared to be stopped in the water and I could make
out a brightly lit landing pad mounted atop a stack of shipping
containers near the foremast. As Emerald continued her approach, I
saw her flash the chopper‘s running lights on and off. Seconds later,
the landing pad lights repeated this, signaling her to proceed.
On the starboard side of the ship I spotted a loading crane in
operation, and it seemed to be lowering something into the sea. I
glanced over at the instruments and made a mental note of the
coordinates. This area of water, I knew, sat atop the Saint-Tropez
canyon, which featured some of the steepest underwater sea cliffs in
the Mediterranean.
Emerald used the radio to make a brief communication to the ship.
She then swung around and began a steady approach toward the pad
from the port bow. I could see some of the crew, boatswain, and
seamen, leaning against the rails and waiting for us. As we drew closer,
I could also see the name AGNES ANN spelled out in large white
letters across the forward side of the ship. I wondered how many
sailors Agnes had to befriend to get a boat like this named after her. Or
maybe she was Gundersen‘s mother.
I gave the ship a good look-over. Generally, seagoing vessels don‘t
worry me too much, except that they can be the perfect place to whack
someone over the head and dump them overboard. They also have big
propellers that can chop things into a million pieces, and huge freezers
too, where by the time someone found you you‘d look like Otzi the ice
man. But maybe I was overthinking.
Anyway, a minute later, Emerald made a smooth touchdown
precisely in the center of the pad and immediately began to shut down
the turbine engine and everything else with it.


I took a look around. Why I was here I wasn‘t sure, but I was sure
glad to be here.
―How was that for a landing?‖ she asked me.
I looked around and feigned surprise. ―Oh, we landed? Wow, that
was smooth.‖
She laughed. ―Okay, Mr. Van Essen, you can hop out now.‖
I unbuckled, then removed my headset and climbed out. Before my
feet touched the platform, four crewmen were on the scene, fastening
the craft to flush deck fittings using heavy nylon straps.
I paused to wait for Emerald but saw she was busy with the post-
flight checklist. I made my way over to the forward side of the pad and
climbed down an aluminum ladder to the main deck. As I reached the
bottom of the ladder, I heard a familiar voice from behind me.
―Welcome aboard, Mr. Van Essen.‖
I turned around to see Bjorn Gundersen.
He grinned. ―Once again, we find ourselves in the same boat.‖



Chapter 23

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The next morning I awoke refreshed and feeling as though I‘d slept
just about enough. I also felt Feli‘s small warm body pressed next to
mine and I could tell she was still asleep.
The crew of the Agnes Ann, I learned, had a long-standing tradition
of keeping two young girls on board, and these girls were paid by the
crew for their specialized services. Apparently, this sort of thing had
been going on for so long that no one, other than an occasional guest
such as myself, seemed to think anything of it. Bjorn Gundersen
considered himself an excellent host by assigning young Feli to spend
the night with me in my private cabin, and even picked up the tab.
Feli was young, probably around twenty or so, and had dark brown
skin, long black hair, and a cute Thai accent. Last night, when she
arrived at my room, I told her that I was too drunk for sex—though
I‘d actually only consumed a few sips of cognac—but explained that
she could sleep beside me to keep warm. As much as I appreciated
Gundersen‘s friendly gesture, I wasn‘t about to jump ship, so to speak,
from bedding a woman the caliber of Michelle Fontaine to banging a
common ship‘s whore.
I suppose that someday, like when I‘m ninety and laying in a nursing
home bed, I‘d regret not fucking her little brains out when I had the
chance. I then laughed at that thought, knowing I‘d never live that long
anyway.
I slithered out of the bed quietly, only to find that Feli was a light
sleeper.
―Where are you going?‖ she whispered.
―I‘m starving. Do you want me to bring you anything to eat?‖
She thought about that. ―Meli and I aren‘t allowed to eat breakfast,‖
she told me, ―or snacks.‖
―Why is that?‖


―The steward wants us to be thinner.‖
Meli, I knew, was the name of the other young girl, and I figured she
probably wound up spending the night with Gundersen. I had also
come to learn that Meli and Feli weren‘t their actual names, but just the
given names the crew had always used for whichever girls were hired to
be onboard at any given time. Another long-standing tradition, no
doubt.
Anyway, I headed to the galley and met a few of the crew members
who seemed curious about who I was and what I was doing on board.
I introduced myself as a business associate of Mr. Gundersen‘s, and
that seemed to satisfy them. At least for now.
I also met the chief cook, a dreary-looking old sea dog named Isak
Olstrom, who made sure I knew he‘d worked for Bjorn Gundersen
‗since day one‘—whatever that meant. He was also curious to know if I
was satisfied with Feli‘s performance last night.
―That‘s really none of your business,‖ I told him.
―Actually, sir, she is my business.‖ Isak went on to inform me that
he was the person in charge of the two girls. On top of that, he was
responsible for keeping track of who paid how much to sleep with who
on what night and where.
How did he find time to cook?
Isak also explained that I was not to bring either of them snacks
since both girls had been putting on too much weight lately, which he
apparently felt would be bad for business.
I glanced down at Isak Olstrom‘s paunch, which was hanging over
his belt, and offered him my opinion, ―You could probably cut down
on the snacks a bit yourself, don‘t you think?‖
He cleared his throat, then grinned out of the side of his mouth and
let me know, ―No one trusts a skinny cook, sir.‖ At that, he excused
himself and headed back to the kitchen.
He must be the most trusted man on board, I thought.
I grabbed some coffee and drank it down while I piled a plate full of
sausage, eggs, breakfast rolls, and some fruit, then headed back to my
cabin. On the way there, I took a moment to admire the magnificent


sunrise, which seemed to be turning much of the eastern sky a
magnificent auburn color.
I took the plate to Feli, who was more than thankful. While chowing
down, she promised she wouldn‘t tell anyone I‘d brought food to her,
and also promised she‘d keep it our secret that we‘d only slept
together—sans sex. She also let me know that she thought I was
handsome looking, and that if I ever wanted to ‗do it,‘ I wouldn‘t have
to pay for it.
I took that as a compliment, and gave her a small kiss on the
forehead.
Feli and I rinsed off together in the small shower. After that, she
dressed herself while I shaved and then went on her way. While I
dressed into my same clothes, I looked out the porthole and spotted
Gibraltar in the distance. I pulled on my pants and stepped outside
where I leaned against the rail and took in the sight. It was sunny and
clear and the sea was still calm, but I knew that would change soon.
Last evening, Gundersen had told me that the Captain expected a
storm to greet us as we entered the Atlantic. He also told me that we
had a four day sail from there to our destination, which I learned was
New York Harbor.
The moon was full last night, and Gundersen had more than a few
drinks in him. He was also in a talkative mood and I hoped he would
become loose-lipped about certain things, like earthquakes and hidden
devices, but I had no such luck.
He did, however, explain to me the purpose of us taking the ship to
New York: ―Essentially,‖ he told me, ―you and I need to put as much
distance as possible between us and what happened at Riomaggiore—
not to mention Oberwald—and a cargo ship like this is by far the
safest and best way for us to do that.‖
I had to agree with that line of logic, especially since I was in no
position to argue.
Gundersen also confided to me how it was that he came to own a
fleet of ships: ―Tjuren‘s father was a good man,‖ he explained. ―He had
worked hard and risked everything to start the business many years
ago. Eventually, he came to own three large ships, including this one.‖
He stamped his foot on the deck. ―When we were only teenagers, he


put Tjuren and me to work operating the ships, and he was soon
impressed with my abilities and dedication. Before long, we became
like father and son. The old man sent me to college while Tjuren chose
to stay with the business. While I was away, he and Tjuren kept me up
on business affairs and came to respect my opinions and advice. When
he was told he was ill and had only a short time to live, the old man
decided it was time to turn over the business to Tjuren, his only son.‖
He then leaned close to me and let me know, ―One ship, however, this
very one, he left to me as a parting gift.‖
I think a lot of people confuse their imaginations for memories,
especially when booze is in the mix, but I felt Gundersen was telling
me the truth. I remember seeing a melancholy look come over his face
as he spoke.
He continued his story, ―Over time, Tjuren and I expanded the
business. We were able to negotiate the purchase of two of our
competitors, and at one time owned as many as sixty ships between
us.‖ He added, ―In those days, Tjuren and I were as brothers. We
trusted each other and there was a great deal of mutual respect. He and
I…we were invincible.‖
For a long while, I stood at the rail and watched the distant shore go
by as I pondered the things Gundersen had told me. Suddenly, a loud
bell rang from the helm, interrupting my thoughts. I asked a passing
crewman what the bell indicated.
He smiled at my ignorance and let me know, ―That means we just
passed from one sea to another.‖ He patted me on the arm and added,
―Welcome to the Atlantic Ocean, mate.‖
As he said that, I looked to the northwest and saw a long dark cloud
forming in the far distance. As I looked, I remembered something my
brother Martin had once told me in regard to his time in the Navy:
―Simple things,‖ he told me, ―can be learned in the calm. Great things,
however, are usually learned while in the midst of a storm.‖



Chapter 24

The sight of land had long faded from the horizon. Darkness had now
begun to fall, and we found ourselves sailing into a dense fog, which
soon surrounded the ship.
Gundersen had been drinking all day. Though he behaved himself
around me, he was becoming increasingly demanding and belligerent
with the crew as each hour passed.
After lunch, he invited himself to join in on a card game between
Isak Olstrom and two of the crew. He had numerous outbursts until a
gust of wind blew some of the cards from the table in the midst of the
game. I watched as he stood and threw his cards down, then kicked the
table into the crewmen, knocking both of them from their chairs.
One of the men jumped to his feet and drew a fist.
Without blinking an eye, Gundersen glared at him and told him,
―Go ahead. Give it your best shot.‖
The crewman hesitated for a moment, then backed off.
After that, Gundersen ordered Olstrom to toss the dinner
preparations he‘d begun into the sea. He demanded that Olstrom make
a special dinner, a feast for all the crew to enjoy that evening.
Olstrom came to me and pleaded, ―Please. Can‘t you do something
to stop him from drinking? He won‘t listen to us, and we can only take
so much.‖ He glanced around and added, ―With his condition, he
should never touch a drop.‖
―What condition is that?‖ I asked.
―His mind,‖ he replied, gesturing to his own head. ―The alcohol and
his pills do not mix, as you can well see.‖
―What are the pills supposed to be for?‖
He looked around and replied in a low voice, ―Those are prescribed
to treat his illness. Gundersen is a madman without them.‖
I let Olstrom know, ―As far as I‘m aware, he‘s not taking his pills
anymore.‖


He looked at me as though in shock, then shook his head. ―Then we
are all in grave danger.‖ At that, he receded back to the confines of his
small kitchen.
Maybe he was right. When we arrive in New York, perhaps there
will be men in white coats waiting for him. They‘ll have a small cup of
pills and will take him somewhere quiet and peaceful. Somewhere with
gardens and benches and rooms with soft, padded walls. Until then,
we‘d just have to stay the hell out of his way.
I watched Gundersen as he staggered into the mess hall. As he
stepped inside, his foot became caught on a chair leg, causing him to
stumble and almost fall. In a fit of rage, he grabbed the chair and
carried it outside where he threw it over the rail and into the sea. He
then stared back at the crew and yelled, ―Anyone else want to try to
trip me? You‘ll go overboard as well!‖
The men quickly disbursed. I caught a glimpse of Emerald, who I
could see was with Meli. She shook her head in disgust and the two
headed back to her room.
Gundersen looked around and could hear the murmurs of the crew
as they cleared out. He was drunk, but not so much that he didn‘t
know he was making a fool of himself. I watched as he took a deep
breath to calm himself, and then another. After that, he spotted me and
waved me over. As I approached, he told me, ―Come, my friend. I
have something important to show you.‖
Hopefully, this was what I‘d been waiting for.
Gundersen grabbed a blanket from a deck chair, and I followed him
down several stairs, through a few halls, and out to the upper cargo
deck.
The fog moved across the deck in an eerie way and appeared almost
ghostly in the dim lighting. A guard passed us, giving Gundersen a
hasty salute as he hurried by. After that, we noticed one of the crew, an
older sailor with a ring hanging from his nose, who gave us a quick nod
as we passed. Soon, we arrived at a shipping container, a small twenty-
foot long steel box that had been set aside from the others.
Quietly, Gundersen removed a bolt from one of the levers on the
end doors. As he did this, he turned to me and said, as if in warning,


―This is what happens to traitors, my friend.‖ He then lifted the lever
and pulled the right side door open.
As he did this, I was immediately hit by a strong odor and I stepped
back. Gundersen, however, seemed unaffected. He opened the left side
door and went right in.
Once inside, he pulled out a small flashlight and handed it to me. I
took short breaths using my mouth only while I tried to acclimate
myself to the horrid smell. It was the smell of death.
I shone the beam of light around. As it fell upon the far wall, I
stopped in my tracks. There, to my horror, was a grown man. He was
fully naked, pale white, and shaking from the cold. I could see his
hands were bound with rope and tied to a panel at the front wall. I
could also see dried blood on his ragged beard.
He squinted his eyes from the light and called out, ―Bjorn? Is that
you, my old friend?‖
―You and I are no longer friends.‖
As the two exchanged words, I lowered the beam from the man‘s
face and saw urine and feces on the floor. As I lowered the beam of
light further I saw a body sprawled across the floor and drew a startled
breath.
Gundersen glanced over at me and must have noticed the look of
dread on my face.
I could see that my hand was trembling as I held the flashlight. I
looked over the body and could see it was that of a young man, though
his skin was pale and grey. I took a shallow breath and stepped closer.
As I shone the light upon the young man‘s face I could tell at once
who it was.
I turned to Gundersen. ―Axel?‖
―My only son,‖ the man muttered from the wall.
I looked up at him. ―Are you Tjuren?‖
He nodded. ―I am what is left of him. Who are you? Are you Van
Essen?‖
―I am.‖


He turned to Gundersen for a moment and commented, ―You are
drunk, Bjorn. I can smell the alcohol on your breath from here.‖
―Shut-up, you old fool.‖
He looked back at me. ―You cannot allow him to drink, Mr. Van
Essen, or you will find yourself like me, a prisoner.‖ He looked down
and added, ―Or, more likely, like my poor son, Axel.‖
Gundersen seemed to ignore that as he stepped forward and draped
the blanket over the prisoner‘s shoulders.
Tjuren looked at Gundersen and pleaded, ―Kill me now, so I can be
with the Lord, and with Axel.‖
―Your father is surely with the Lord,‖ Gundersen replied, ―but
heaven holds no place for traitors or—‖
―Nonsense, Bjorn. I‘m no traitor, and neither was—‖
―Shut your mouth!‖ Gundersen yelled back. At that, he pulled a
long knife from his pocket and unfolded it. As I stood and watched, he
grabbed the end of Tjuren‘s penis and held the blade across the shaft.
―A traitor you are,‖ Gundersen told him, ―and an ignorant fool. I
can cut your dick off right here and now.‖ He then let go of the man‘s
penis and said, ―I‘ll spare you that, though, and show you mercy only
because we were once allies.‖
I could see Tjuren was shaking even more now, though he seemed
to have accepted his predicament. He was at the hands of a drunken
madman and it was useless to try to talk his way out of this.
Gundersen then reached down and grabbed Tjuren‘s scrotum and
pulled it forward.
―Perhaps I should cut your balls off,‖ he said while pressing the
edge of the blade over the sack.
Tjuren said nothing, but stared coldly into Gundersen‘s eyes.
Gundersen let loose his grip and stepped back. ―I‘ll spare you that,
Tjuren, only out of respect for your father.‖ He added, ―Too bad you
are not more like him.‖
―If my father could see you now, he—‖


Before he could finish, Gundersen swung and struck the back of his
hand solidly across the side of Tjuren‘s face.
―That,‖ he told him, ―is for bringing Nigel Adams upon us.‖
I saw a trickle of blood coming from Tjuren‘s nose, and he looked
over at me in despair.
Just then, Gundersen thrust the knife into Tjuren‘s abdomen, and I
saw the long blade go all the way in. He glared into Tjuren‘s eyes for a
moment, then gave the blade a sharp twist before pulling it out.
I watched as the man‘s eyes rolled back and he began to writhe in
spasms while gasping for air.
Gundersen leaned close and told him in a low voice, ―That is for my
sister.‖ He then cut the ropes from Tjuren‘s hands and feet and
allowed him to fall to the floor beside Axel.
With no sign of remorse or regret, Gundersen turned and walked
away. As we reached the door of the container, he turned to look back
and gave his old friend a parting word.
―You can consider our partnership…terminated.‖
He then slammed shut the doors.



Chapter 25

Isak Olstrom pulled out all the stops. With coaxing from Bjorn
Gundersen along with some help from the crew, he managed to serve
up a feast of grilled steak, which appeared to be London Broil, along
with sautéed mushrooms, and mashed sweet potatoes. This was served
alongside pickled gherkin, and lingonberry jam. In addition, each plate
was topped off with half a Tristan lobster tail with a slice of lemon and
a small tub of drawn butter.
The crew were certainly impressed, as was I, though I could sense
enough tension amongst us to create a small vortex. Nonetheless,
everybody dug in. After seeing poor Tjuren and Axel, my appetite was
almost nil, but I still put down a few bites. I was seated across from
Feli, which I guess was all right for visual stimulation, though our
conversation was limited to say the least. Discretely, I scooted my plate
over to her and she slid her empty one to me.
No wonder she likes me.
The Captain was still warning the crew of an upcoming storm. For
now, however, the fog had lifted and the clouds were giving way to
brilliant stars amidst a near-full moon now rising in the eastern sky.
Though it was cold, we were all keeping warm enough with endless
refills of tawny port wine, which Olstrom had pulled out of hiding.
Gundersen, however, had his own bottle of poison, which appeared
to be whiskey, and he showed no signs of slowing down. Captain
Bergstedt had joined him at his table for a few minutes until I saw him
gracefully dismiss himself and head back to the helm. He brought his
plate of food with him, of course.
After everyone had finished their meal, Olstrom proudly brought
out the pièce de résistance, which were large platters of pannkaka,
which were basically Swedish pancakes. These were stuffed with diced
apples and served with fresh whipped cream. These disappeared as fast
as they were served—but Feli let me know they were delicious.
By the time we reach New York, I thought, she’ll be 200 pounds.
While everyone was enjoying the dessert, Bjorn Gundersen stood to
raise a toast. He tapped his glass with a spoon, then began, ―I‘d like to


thank everyone for joining me tonight.‖ He cleared his throat and
continued, ―I‘d also like to thank everyone for putting up with me
today. I have not been well. If I have insulted any of you, I ask your
forgiveness.‖ He paused for a long moment to look over the small
group. ―Many of you, particularly those who have been around for a
few years or more, knew my sister, Ella.‖
I saw a few heads nod.
Gundersen continued, ―It brings me great pain to announce that my
dear young sister has been taken from this Earth, and is now with our
Lord.‖
I heard a few gasps from the group, along with some hushed
chatter.
―Her killer, however, has been captured.‖
This time, the chatter wasn‘t so hushed, and one of the older sailors
stood. He looked to me like a hardened man with dark sunken eyes,
scraggly hair, and a gold ring pierced under his nose. ―I knew Ella,‖ he
said, ―and it breaks my heart to hear this.‖ He paused to glance around.
―It breaks all of our hearts.‖ He then asked, ―Who was it, Bjorn? Who
was her killer?‖
Bjorn held his hand up to quiet the group. ―Everyone here needs to
know, Alrik, and I am here to tell you all. It was the same man that had
me arrested and jailed.‖
Most everyone seemed startled.
―It was the same man who brought an outsider to infiltrate and
corrupt our group.‖
Alrik called out, ―Who is this devil?‖
Gundersen paused for effect, then went on. ―This devil is the same
man who positioned himself most effectively within in our group‖—he
raised his voice—―and for years we called him our leader!‖
The group seemed shocked by that.
Alrik cried out, ―What are you saying? Is this our dear Tjuren you‘re
talking about, Bjorn?‖
Gundersen locked eyes with Alrik. ―I‘m afraid it is.‖


At that, everyone shook their heads in disbelief, and I could tell the
crew was finding this hard to believe.
―What have you done with him?‖ Alrik shouted. ―Where is he
now?‖
―That‘s enough from you, Alrik!‖ Gundersen shouted back. ―Sit
down and allow me to speak.‖
Alrik remained standing in defiance, and I had a feeling things were
about to escalate.
―You‘ve killed him, haven‘t you? Alrik yelled. He spun around and
looked at everyone. ―He‘s killed Tjuren!‖
―He lives, still!‖ Gundersen shouted. ―But he is a traitor, and
deserves death for deceiving all of us!‖ He slammed down his glass and
marched straight to Alrik. Once there, he put his nose right up to the
man and told him, ―It is Tjuren who is responsible for Ella‘s death, and
he—‖
―You‘re a liar, Bjorn! Tjuren loved your sister, and I know—we all
know—he would never raise a hand against her.‖
For what it‘s worth, this Alrik fellow struck me as a man who
possessed the always ill-fated combination of a low IQ along with a
distorted sense of loyalty. From my experiences, men like this can be
trouble. They didn‘t become this way out of mere misfortune or from
tough breaks along the way. They‘re just dumbasses.
Gundersen glared at him. ―Then you are a fool.‖
At that, Alrik stepped forward and shoved Gundersen with both
arms, sending him crashing onto a table and then to the floor.
I stood to look at Gundersen, who was now sprawled out and
covered with food. It appeared that his little toast wasn‘t going as he‘d
planned.
He quickly stood and pulled up his sleeves. I could see fury in his
eyes, and I was pretty sure I was about to witness a murder.
I whispered to Feli, ―Head to your room, quickly.‖
She was too engrossed in the action to oblige, but asked me, ―Aren‘t
you going to do something?‖


I told her, ―When two tigers are fighting, it‘s the man sitting in the
tree that wins.‖
She nodded.
Alrik knew enough to see that Gundersen was going to be a
challenging opponent and wasted no time. Quickly, he ran straight at
Gundersen, colliding into him at a full charge.
Before he could react, Gundersen was thrust solidly against a door.
Though he lacked quickness, I knew Gundersen had no shortage of
might. Alrik threw a left uppercut, which caught Gundersen square in
the jaw. Before he knew it though, Gundersen had hold of the man‘s
left arm. With his powerful hand, he crushed Alrik‘s thin wrist. Then,
with a powerful move, Gundersen dropped and slammed the man‘s
arm over his knee.
The gruesome snapping sound was heard by everyone.
While Alrik dropped to the floor to writhe in pain, Gundersen stood
over him and yelled, ―Are we finished—or do I need to break your
neck, too?‖
The man was holding his arm, oblivious to Gundersen‘s question.
Gundersen stood back and ordered Tim, who was one of the
security guards, ―Take that piece of filth to the infirmary.‖ He glanced
back at Alrik and added, ―And keep him out of my sight.‖
As Tim worked to remove Alrik, Gundersen headed back to his
table, swept some dust and crumbs from his shirt, then grabbed his
glass again and addressed the group. ―Now, where was I?‖
Despite all the ugliness that had just transpired, everyone had to
laugh at that one, including me.
―Before I‘m interrupted again,‖ he continued, ―I‘d like to raise a
toast to sweet Ella.‖
Everyone raised their glass and replied, ―To Ella.‖
As we all sipped, Gundersen let us know, ―I would also like to
announce that I am placing myself in charge of our group, and I ask
for your loyalty to me and to our mission.‖


There was silence for a long awkward moment before a bearded old
geezer seated behind me spoke up, ―I‘m with you.‖
That was followed by another affirmation, then another until it was
pretty much unanimous. I thought for a moment and realized I‘d just
witnessed a transition in power within what I considered to be a
potentially dangerous extremist group.
Feli, of course, was oblivious to what was going on—except for her
meal. She‘d finished the plate of food I given her, as well as the apple-
stuffed pannkaka, except for one last bite, which she slid over to me. I
helped myself to that as I continued listening.
After thanking the group for their pledge of support, Gundersen did
something unexpected. He cleared his throat once again and began
another announcement, ―I would also like to ask each of you to
welcome into our group my close trusted friend and our ally, Craig Van
Essen.‖ He pointed to me.
A few people applauded while some others looked my way before
nodding their head. Near the galley, I saw Isak Olstrom, the cook, and
he was staring at me with a look of disdain before he turned away. I sat
there with a frozen expression on my face while I tried to hide just how
weird this was for me.
Gundersen wasn‘t done, though. He continued, ―Van Essen and I
managed to escape from prison together. He has proven himself to be
my most trusted associate, and a man of great wisdom and cunning.‖
Everyone was now gazing at me, and I felt like a germ under a
microscope.
―I ask you to support me in my choice of Craig Van Essen as
second-in-charge of the Skilja.‖
I almost choked on my pannkaka.




Chapter 26

It was truly an evening to remember—and I had a feeling it wasn‘t over
yet.
As I headed to my room, I turned to see little Feli following behind
me. She flashed a smile and quickly caught up.
―Where are you going?‖ I asked.
―Don‘t you want me to come with you?‖
Well, that sounded kind of funny, I mean hearing it from her.
―Don‘t you have somewhere to be?‖
―Not for, like, thirty minutes. Maybe an hour.‖ She smiled again.
I thought about that for a moment. I also thought about Michelle
Fontaine—who I knew was about five-thousand miles from here right
now. Inside me, everything was suddenly confused, especially my blood
flow, and I knew how that can affect a man‘s thinking. Nonetheless, I
shook all the naughty thoughts from my mind and told her, ―I just
need some sleep, sweetheart. You run along.‖
Just then, I saw Emerald coming down the hall toward us. She had a
glimmering look in her eye, and I could tell she had the same ideas in
her head as Feli. Is pannkaka an aphrodisiac or something?
Feli turned to see Emerald and quickly headed off.
―That‘s right, sweetheart, you run along,‖ Emerald told her. She
then leaned herself against my door and looked at me with big blue
eyes. ―So…how does it feel to be second banana?‖
I shrugged.
―Just who are you, anyway? And how did you—?‖
―Look, Emerald, this whole thing is a surprise to me, too. Right
now, I just need some rest and some time to think.‖
She tossed her hair over her shoulder. ―Is that why you sent Feli
away?‖ Or maybe you‘re just being faithful to someone…?‖


I guess I was trying to be faithful, but I also knew that if dicks had
wings, Feli would be a major airport. I told Emerald, ―I just want to get
some rest. Okay?‖
Emerald placed her hand on my shoulder and then ran her finger
slowly down my chest. She looked me again with her ice-blue eyes,
which I could now tell were actually colored contacts, and asked, ―Are
you going to send me away, too?‖
I was about to reply to that when I looked and saw Bjorn
Gundersen approaching.
Emerald turned to see him coming and quickly pulled her hand
away.
You don‘t appreciate fresh air until someone spoils it, and
Gundersen arrived smelling like a Scottish wake. He smiled at both of
us, then advised me, ―Be careful my friend, she can be overly
demanding—especially in bed.‖ He added, ―Ask anyone.‖
Well, I could tell that struck a nerve. Emerald seemed flustered for a
moment, then turned and gave Gundersen a hard slap across the face.
―You‘re a pig!‖ she told him, then stormed off.
Gundersen seemed shocked by that at first, but then chuckled and
let me know, ―I‘d fire her if she wasn‘t such a good pilot.‖ After that,
he gave me a firm pat on the arm and told me, ―I hope you don‘t mind
my making you second-in-command. Was that a shock for you?‖
I shrugged. ―I didn‘t know what to say,‖ I replied, ―but it‘s an honor
to—‖
―I need someone I can trust,‖ he interrupted. He then glanced
around and lowered his voice. ―Half these bastards would throw me to
the sharks if they thought it would profit them.‖
―And me with you,‖ I added.
He thought about that and nodded in agreement. He then leaned
close and whispered, ―Once they learn that Tjuren is gone—and they
come to know of the crimes he committed—they will then accept us.‖
Well, I didn‘t want to rock his boat, so to speak, but I couldn‘t resist
adding, ―If we manage to live long enough.‖


That got him thinking again, I suppose. After considering my
comment he made a suggestion, ―Perhaps you have a point. We should
keep an eye out for signs of trouble.‖ He gave me a serious look and
added, ―I wouldn‘t want one of us to end up with a bullet in us.‖ At
that, he gave me another pat on the arm and headed off.
Quickly, I ducked into my room and locked the door before anyone
else decided to show up.
Later that night, as I lay in bed, a thousand thoughts began racing
through my mind. I thought about Tjuren, who I guessed was probably
dead by now, and about his poor son, Axel. I thought about Emerald,
too, and wondered where she fit in to all this. More than anything else
I thought about what Bjorn Gundersen had said to me—particularly
his concern that one of us might end up with a bullet in us.
I knew if that was going to happen, there was nothing either of us
could do to prevent it. No matter what you do, the bullet with your
name on it will get you.
So too can the ones addressed ‗To Whom It May Concern.‘



Chapter 27

Sunday, January 31, 2021

That night, while deep asleep, I had a strange and vivid dream.
I dreamt I was aboard a small boat sailing on a river. Along the
shore I saw tall palm trees and exotic flowers while birds and brightly
colored butterflies filled the air. I remember it was a beautiful place, a
tropical paradise.
Soon, the boat pulled to a landing platform at the river‘s edge. I saw
no one around, save for my older brother, Martin. Seeing him again
after so long was a pleasant surprise and I went to him and asked,
―Where have you been hiding, Martin?‖
He looked at me and grinned, then leaned close and whispered, ―It‘s
a secret, Craig. It‘s all a secret.‖
I thought that was odd. Nonetheless, he and I left the river‘s edge
and found a trail leading through a dense rainforest. Soon, we found
ourselves at the mouth of a wide cavern. The cavern, I recall, was filled
with lush greenery, and narrow beams of golden sunlight shone down
through the tall trees surrounding us.
As my brother and I stood before the cave, I let him know, ―I‘m
glad you‘re here, Martin.‖
He smiled.
―Everyone has missed you, including me.‖ I smiled at him and
added, ―It‘s good to have you back.‖
His smile faded and he let me know, ―I can‘t be here long.‖
―Why?‖
He looked around, then shook his head and whispered, ―It has to be
kept secret, Craig.‖ I could see a look of desperation in his eyes, and it
was mixed with regret. ―You can‘t just leave,‖ he told me, ―not until it‘s
over. Not until—‖


Just then, I felt myself being knocked to the ground. Suddenly, I
awoke from my dream and opened my eyes. A huge wave had swept
into the ship‘s starboard side, and I realized I had been tossed from my
bunk.
I heard a couple of screams from nearby, maybe from Meli and Feli.
All at once, a bright bolt of lightning flashed, followed by a loud clap
of thunder, which stopped my heart for a moment and shook what was
left of the sleep from me.
I dressed myself, then put on my jacket with the hood over my head
and went outside. Though the ship measured 250 feet, we were being
tossed about like a canoe. I could see that a wicked wind was driving
the rain to where it was almost sideways, though the deck above
sheltered me from most of it. Still, I had to hold onto the rails to keep
from being swept around.
It was about three in the morning, I guessed, and I figured we‘d
probably reached the Azores by now, though I could see nothing
through the storm. I looked out into the darkness and let the cold air
fill my lungs.
Minutes later, as I turned and stepped from the rail, another flash of
lightning lit the sky and the sound of thunder exploded in my ears,
startling me again. I grabbed onto a steel post as I caught my breath,
then headed in the direction of my room.
From the shadows I heard a craggy voice, ―What‘s the matter, lassie
girl? Are you afraid of a little squall?‖
I looked to see a figure stepping out from the darkness.
―Maybe you shouldn‘t be out here…alone.‖
His polished nose ring glittered in the dim light and I could tell it
was Alrik. In his eyes I noticed an evil gaze.
A strong gust of wind caught me and I held onto the steel post
firmly. ―Go to your room,‖ I told him. ―You‘re drunk.‖
―Fuck you. I don‘t take orders from Yanks—nor from little girls.‖
―You‘re the one wearing a ring in your nose.‖
He snarled at that and spit at my feet.


I warned him, ―Spit at me again, Alrik, and I‘ll toss you over this rail.
Understand?‖
He laughed. ―Don‘t threaten me, you—‖
―Your arm is broken, you dumbass. Don‘t make me break the other
one. Just back away.‖
He grinned. ―Who do you think you are? You think this is your
ship?‖ He lowered his voice and went on, ―You think you and
Gundersen can do away with old Tjuren and just take over?‖
―You‘re drunk.‖
―Maybe,‖ he admitted, ―But I know what you‘ve done to him. One
of the guards told me you‘ve got him and his boy stripped naked, and
tied—‖
―Enough, Alrik!‖
He laughed again. ―I‘m tellin‘ the crew. I‘m tellin‘ everyone, you
hear? Everyone will know the truth about you—you murderer!”
I‘ve seen men like this before. Dumb, drunk, and pissed to the gills.
A loaded grenade just waiting for someone to pull their pin. Once that
happens, of course, Mr. Grenade is no longer welcome. ―Step aside,‖ I
told him. I began walking in the direction of my room.
He stepped into my path and glared at me. ―You have to walk
through me, faggot.‖
I guess I don‘t take well to being taunted. I stepped forward and
swung at him with a left hook. He was quick though, and managed to
duck it. With a fast right uppercut, he landed a blow under my jaw, just
like he‘d done earlier with Gundersen.
And just like Gundersen, I was going to break a man‘s arm tonight.
Before I could reposition myself, Alrik threw himself into me,
slamming my back into the rail. From that, the wind was knocked out
of my lungs, but I managed to see a right hook coming my way.
Quickly, I ducked the punch, but wasn‘t fast enough to keep him
from yanking my hood over my face and pulling me down. With his
knee, he kicked me in the face before I could pull away. I stood and


then stepped forward with a strong right jab, which landed solidly into
his nose.
And that landed him on the deck.
He held his hand over his face for a moment, then glared up at me.
―You bastard!‖ He reached into his pocket and pulled out an old
folding knife. Before he could open it though, I stepped forward and
kicked it from his hand, sending it tumbling over the side of the ship
and into the sea.
―No!‖ He jumped to his feet and looked over the rail. ―That was my
father‘s!‖ he cried.
―You‘re lucky I didn‘t choose to cut your head off with it.‖
He turned from the rail and looked at me with the eyes of a serpent.
I decided I‘d had about enough of Alrik and turned to head to my
room.
―I‘ll get you!‖ he called out.
I turned and gave him a look, then continued on my way.
―I‘ll get you when you least expect!‖ he yelled. ―You‘ll wake up with
a knife in you!‖ He then stepped forward and spit at me.
I felt the spray of saliva hit the back of my jacket and my left
hand—and that did it. I spun around and darted straight at him. Before
he could think to move, I plowed into him with all my weight. In my
rage, I grabbed him by the right arm and slammed it over the rail. At
that, the familiar sound of snapping bones came to my ears.
His face instantly turned white and he gasped for air. I grabbed him
by the collar and took a brief moment to decide his fate.
He glared at me and laughed. In his final act of foolishness and
defiance he spit again, and this time into my face.
I looked at the steel rail behind him as my grip tightened. He wasn‘t
laughing now. He could see the fury in my eyes, and I could now see a
look of terror in his. There would be no act of mercy. I had no final
words for him. Nor was I in a listening mood. With no further ado, I
thrust him upward over the rail, then pushed. In desperation, he tried
frantically to grasp the steel rail using his broken arms, but it was not to


be. I watched as he fell headlong into the darkness and hopelessness of
the frigid sea below.
I took a long, deep breath to calm myself and looked down at my
right hand. On the front of my knuckles I could see the shape of his
nose ring, which had left a deep mark indented into my fist.
After rubbing my knuckles for a moment, I looked back at the rail
and thought about what I‘d just done.
Once the pin is pulled, I thought, the only thing you can do is throw the
grenade and cover yourself.
I turned and headed back to bed.


Chapter 28

Monday, February 1, 2021

In this business, you have to take one day at a time. Sometimes,
however, I feel like I‘m attacked by several days all at once.
The previous day‘s rainstorm had finally subsided, but not until late
in the evening. Surprisingly, Alrik‘s disappearance went almost
unnoticed. The guards did a cursory search of the ship and concluded
that he‘d been swept overboard by the storm. Either that or he had
taken his own life after his humiliation at the hands of Bjorn
Gundersen.
Personally, I was okay with either theory.
So far, today was proving to be just as challenging for the crew.
Though the rain had ended, the strong winds and high seas remained.
At dawn, the helicopter‘s tie-downs required reinforcement, and then
one of the loading cranes became loose, which kept some of the crew
members busy for hours.
Two days of high seas had my stomach feeling like a punching bag.
Because of that, I stuck to a strict diet of black coffee and fresh air
while Gundersen continued with his whiskey. This, of course, made
him a belligerent asshole to be around, so I avoided him as best I
could.
Around mid-day, I headed to the mess for coffee number four.
Gundersen was there and had ordered a special plate of food from Isak
Olstrom. He saw me as I entered and had Isak prepare the same dish
for me.
Olstrom peered out from the galley and asked me, ―Are you sure
you‘re going to eat this?‖
Gundersen heard that and told him, ―Just do as I say and don‘t ask
questions! Understand?‖
Olstrom nodded and went to work on the meals.


While we waited, Gundersen sat himself at a long table beside Meli
and Feli, who were taking what was probably a much needed break.
Also seated at the table was Emerald, who smiled at me, and then
excused herself as Gundersen sat. He waved me over and I took a seat
across from him and the two girls.
He looked over and Meli and Feli and asked, ―How‘s business?
Have the men been treating you well?‖
Both girls giggled at that and looked away.
He then looked at the knuckles on my right hand. In a low voice, he
said to me, ―I think I‘ve solved the mystery of our missing person.‖
I glanced at my knuckles, which still had an obvious mark from
where I‘d landed my fist into Alrik‘s nose-ring. I told Gundersen, ―I
think he must have been swept overboard or maybe he jumped. Either
way, he got himself in over his head.‖
He grinned. ―He was a loose cannon, the old bastard. At least we
don‘t have listen to him running his mouth anymore.‖
Minutes later, Olstrom came to the table carrying two plates. Both
were filled with steaming hot stekt stromming, another Swedish dish
which I learned was made from specially seasoned herring fried in
butter. This was served with a side of mashed potatoes and lingonberry
jam.
Gundersen dug in, while I continued nursing my coffee. The sight
of the herring floating on a pond of butter was becoming too much for
me to look at so I slid the plate over the girls. They glanced over at
Gundersen, who seemed focused on his own meal, then looked behind
to be sure Olstrom wasn‘t watching before they started picking away at
it.
After a minute or so, Olstrom came storming out of the galley.
―Stop!‖ He went to the girls and grabbed the plate from in front of
them. ―Who gave this to you?‖ He looked at Gundersen, then me.
―I couldn‘t eat,‖ I told him, ―so I—‖
―You…you are not to feed them! I told you!‖ He gave me a vile
look and headed back to the kitchen carrying what was left of the meal.


After that, Gundersen looked up from his meal and whispered to
me, ―He‘s crazy as a loon.‖
It was almost amusing to hear Gundersen, of all people, refer to
someone other than himself as crazy. If I had to guess, I‘d say he didn‘t
exactly have both oars in the water himself.
He paused for a few seconds, then added, ―He is loyal, though, and
one of the few I feel I can trust.‖
Right. I wasn‘t sure where Isak Olstrom‘s loyalty lay, but I knew
Gundersen had made a fatal error by putting his trust in me. I was
committed to one thing, and that was to find if there was a connection
between this group and what had happened in Tokyo. If putting a knife
in Gundersen‘s back and sinking this ship right here would move the
mission forward, then I‘d do it. As long as I didn‘t go down with the
ship, that is.
After that, I headed back to my quarters and lay on the bed. I‘d
borrowed an e-reader from the recreation room, and began reading an
old Ian Fleming novel. He wrote of a bygone era when manners
mattered and women seemed happy to be playthings. When phones
were stupid and people were smart. A forgotten time when spies played
by the rules.
While I read, the ship continued to sway from side to side as it
continued through the rough seas. The rhythmic tossing and turning
were wreaking havoc on the ship itself, and also my stomach. I began
feeling nauseous again, and closed my eyes to rest.
An hour or two later, I was awakened by the sound of voices and
footsteps from upstairs. I got up and went outside, where I saw it had
begun to drizzle yet again. On the deck above, I could see that some of
the crew were standing outside of Meli and Feli‘s room, and there
seemed to be some kind of commotion going on.
I hurried up the stairs to the next deck and went to the room. I
wove through the small crowd to see Gundersen standing just inside
the door. He waved me to come closer.
―They‘re sick,‖ he explained. ―The rough seas are taking their toll on
the girls.‖


I stepped inside to see Meli, who was lying on her bunk. Her eyes
were rolled back and she appeared lethargic. Captain Bergstedt was
there and had a damp cloth over the girl‘s forehead. I walked over to
the small bathroom, where I found Feli kneeling before the toilet. She
was panting and had a string of green bile hanging from her chin.
―What happened?‖ I asked her.
Slowly, she looked up at me with bloodshot eyes and simply shook
her head.
I knelt beside her and put my hand on her shoulder. Her usually
smooth brown skin looked almost grey and felt cold and clammy. I
asked, ―Did you take any kind of drugs or anything?‖
Again she shook her head.
―What about Meli? Did she do—?‖
―No!‖ she replied. ―We don‘t do…drugs…‖ Just then she knelt
forward, gasped for air, and then began to dry heave again. While she
did that, I went to her bunk and grabbed a bed sheet.
I waited a minute or two. When she was done, I covered her with
the sheet and asked, ―Was Meli vomiting like that too?‖
She nodded.
―Did the two of you eat anything?‖
She seemed to think about that and then replied, ―Just…just what
you gave us. That‘s all.‖
I stepped out of the bathroom and knelt beside Captain Bergstedt at
Meli‘s bed. I put my fingers on the girl‘s wrist and could feel only a
faint, thready pulse. She looked pale and I could see she was struggling
to breath. To me, she appeared to be at death‘s door.
I asked Bergstedt, ―Do you have a sick bay on this ship?‖
He nodded. ―Upstairs.‖
―Is there oxygen?‖
―There should be. Do you think that would help?‖


―It wouldn‘t hurt,‖ I replied. ―You need to put both of them on
oxygen and start them on IV fluids right away.‖ I asked, ―Where‘s the
medic?‖
Bergstedt looked at me. ―I‘m the medic, I guess. That is, unless you
know anything about—‖
―I just know they‘ve both been vomiting and seem dehydrated. Let‘s
get oxygen and fluids started and we‘ll go from there.‖
As he and the crew began transferring the girls to the sick bay, I
went to Gundersen and asked, ―How are you feeling?‖
―Me? I‘m fine, my friend. Why do you ask?‖
―The girls had the same meal you did, but they both look like they‘re
ready to die.‖
He thought about that. ―You gave your meal to the girls, right? Did
they eat it?‖
I nodded. ―They cleaned the plate.‖
―Had you eaten any of it?‖
I shook my head. ―Not a bite.‖ Thank God.
He considered that further, then patted me on the arm. ―Come with
me.‖
I followed Gundersen back downstairs we headed straight to the
mess. As we entered the galley, we saw Isak Olstrom dumping the
liquid contents of a small bottle down the sink. He was startled as he
turned to see us and dropped the bottle into the sink.
Gundersen pushed Olstrom aside and grabbed the bottle, which I
could see still had an ounce or two remaining. He took a whiff of the
contents and asked, ―What is this?‖
Olstrom seemed tense. He hesitated for a moment, then replied,
―Just some old ingredients I found lying around. I was emptying the
bottle so I could—‖
―Damn it, Isak, tell me what this is or I‘ll make you drink it!‖


I could see Olstrom‘s hands begin to tremble as he turned and
glanced at me for a moment, then back at Gundersen. ―Just…old
ingredients.‖
Gundersen swung and backhanded the old man across the face,
which landed him on the ground. Gundersen then took a large ladle
from the counter and dipped it into one of the fry vats. He held the
dripping ladle of boiling oil over Olstrom and warned him, ―Tell me,
Isak, what kind of poison did you put in the girl‘s food? What is in
this?‖ He held out the small bottle.
Olstrom trembled in fear but made no reply.
I watched as Gundersen poured the ladle of searing hot oil onto
Olstrom‘s head. The old man let out a loud, almost earsplitting cry.
Just then, two of the ship‘s security guards came hurrying into the
mess. One of them I recognized as Tim, and the other was the chubby
one with the birthmark on his face. They came up behind me and
peered into the tiny galley to see Gundersen standing over Olstrom,
who had now curled himself into the far corner of the floor.
―What‘s going on here?‖ Tim asked.
Gundersen turned and pointed his finger at him, ―This is none of
your business! Get out—now!‖
Both guards both took a step back, but remained close to the door.
Gundersen kicked Olstrom in the back of the head, then got down
on one knee beside him. ―Tell me what you put in their food, you old
fool! Is this some kind of poison?‖
Olstrom began sobbing. After a moment, I heard him mutter a
reply, ―It wasn‘t meant for them.‖ He then raised his head and glared
over at me and cried, ―I told you not to give them food, damn you!
Why did you have to do that? Why did you…?‖ He then lowered his
head and returned to sobbing.
Gundersen took a moment to let all this sink in. He then pulled
Olstrom to his feet and demanded, ―Why would you poison him? Van
Essen is on our side!‖
Olstrom was trembling and terrified, but managed to reply,
―I‘ve…I‘ve been at your service for thirty years, Bjorn.‖ He glanced


over at me for a moment and continued, ―Who is he to come along and
make himself second in command? Why should he, an American, be—
?‖
Gundersen backhanded the old man across the face again, then
grabbed him by the hair on the back of his head. In his fury, he
plunged Olstrom‘s face into the vat of boiling oil.
I stepped back in shock as both guards came running in. By the time
they reached him, Gundersen had pulled Olstrom out of the oil and
was beating his scalded face with his fist.
Together, the guards managed to stop Gundersen and pull Olstrom
out of the galley.
―I want him off this ship—now!‖ Gundersen ordered them. ―Do
you understand me?‖ He started for them.
One of the guards, Tim, jumped to his feet and drew his gun. ―We
have to stop you, Mr. Gundersen, or we‘ll…we‘ll have to arrest you.‖
Gundersen stopped in his tracks. ―What are you talking about? This
is my ship, you little—‖
―We‘d be forced to place you under house arrest, sir, if you kill this
man…like, in front of us.‖
Gundersen took a step back and drew a breath. ―He poisoned the
girls! Van Essen and I found him emptying the bottle of poison down
the sink.‖
Tim slowly lowered his gun and nodded. ―We‘ll do an investigation,
Mr. Gundersen.‖
* * *
There are lots of things in this world that are edible. Some things,
however, are only edible once.
That night, young Meli‘s condition worsened. Her breathing slowed
further and she soon began having seizures one after the other.
Through that, she became progressively weaker and less responsive
until she finally passed away at around seven p.m. There was no dinner
served that night, nor was there laughter or conversation to be heard.


She was buried at sea before a pale rising moon while her friend, Feli,
continued her own decline.
Olstrom finally admitted to the guards that he‘d added a mixture of
aconite extract and cyanide to my plate, which I‘d unwittingly given to
the girls. We had no treatment or antidote for this on board. Aside
from Gundersen, the two guards, and myself, no one knew about any
of this. Except, of course, Isak Olstrom.
By dawn, he was nowhere to be found.



Chapter 29

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

At about four p.m. on Tuesday, young Feli went to meet her maker.
At sunset, we gathered to bury her body at sea. I looked around and
was surprised how many of the crew appeared to be grieving her death,
including Emerald. There was sadness in their eyes, far more than I‘d
noticed for either Alrik or Isak. And this was for a young girl they
barely knew, a ‗ship‘s whore‘ as she was called, while the two missing
men had toiled alongside most of this group for decades.
In Gundersen‘s eyes, however, I saw no sadness or grief. There was
no sign of remorse or sorrow. I saw only bitterness, and this seemed to
be growing in him more and more each day.
After the burial, Gundersen came to me. In a low voice he asked,
―Have you heard any murmuring from the crew?‖
I shook my head. ―How about you?‖
―I‘ve heard nothing either.‖ He let me know, ―Apparently, the
guards know how to keep a secret. As far as I know, no one suspects
the girls were poisoned.‖ He patted me on the shoulder. ―I‘m just glad
it wasn‘t you, my friend.‖
In truth, so was I. I asked Gundersen, ―What‘s the plan for New
York?‖
He smiled at that and replied, ―First, you and I will need to acquire
new identities, and I have reliable contacts there who will assist us with
that.‖
I nodded.
Gundersen continued, ―After the ship is unloaded, I‘ll gather the
group together and explain to everyone our plan.‖ He told me, ―This
will include you, of course, and it will be a great day for the Skilja—and
hopefully for the nations of the world.‖
That struck me as strange. ―What do you mean by that?‖ I asked.
―Maybe you should let me in on the plan now, Bjorn.‖


He looked at me for a long moment, almost suspiciously, but I
didn‘t look away or blink. Finally, he patted me on the shoulder again
and assured me, ―All in good time my friend. For now, I ask only for
your patience.‖ He grinned and added, ―The Skilja are not terrorists.
We want only to promote what is best for the world. We are merely
‗paper tigers,‘ remember? Therefore, we are nothing to be feared.‖
I thought for a moment, then took the opportunity to ask him about
something that had been bothering me: ―When Emerald and I landed
on the ship, I noticed something being lowered into the sea. What
was—?‖
―Again, my friend,‖ he told me, ―all in good time.‖ At that, he
reached around me and gave me a powerful hug. ―You and I have
cheated death more than once and yet here we are. We should be
happy just to be alive and free.‖
This wasn‘t quite what I wanted to hear, but I was in no position to
press the issue. Not with Bjorn Gundersen, anyway. I needed to find
someone who was willing to talk.
Gundersen walked off and I headed back to the mess for another
cup of coffee. Emerald was there, and was busy making a fresh pot.
She smiled at me as I entered and moved her long hair back from
her face. ―I don‘t know who made it,‖ she said, ―but that last batch
tasted like poison.‖
Maybe it was. On that subject, I asked her, ―Who‘s the new cook
going to be? Any rumors?‖
She shook her head. ―Whoever the Captain throws an apron on, I
guess.‖ She looked at me and joked, ―Actually, you might make a good
ship‘s cook. I‘ll put in a word for you with Bergstedt.‖
I chuckled, knowing that I‘d probably end up killing more people
than Olstrom.
I saw that Emerald was wearing all black, including the black leather
pants I‘d seen before, plus a matching jacket and a pair of heels. Maybe
she was in mourning? As the coffee began brewing, she glanced around
and then let me know, ―Feli told me about you.‖
―About me? What did she say?‖


―That you were kind to her.‖
―Does that surprise you?‖
She grinned. ―And that you let her simply lay beside you to stay
warm.‖ Emerald looked at me and added, ―She admired you for that—
more than you know.‖
I wasn‘t sure how to reply to that, so I didn‘t.
Emerald took my cup and filled it. As she handed it back she leaned
close to my ear and whispered, ―Tonight, Craig, I want to lay beside
you—‖
I turned and looked into her eyes and could tell she was serious.
―—and I‘m not taking no for an answer.‖
Somehow, this caught me off-guard. I thought about her offer for a
moment. Though I had a feeling of commitment for Michelle
Fontaine, I had to start thinking about my mission. It occurred to me
that Emerald had been associated with both Gundersen and Tjuren for
years and had been part of their inner circle. Perhaps sharing my bed
might allow me to squeeze out of her a few answers to my many
questions. Perhaps I could also gain a glimpse into the inner workings
of the Skilja. Perhaps I could look at myself tomorrow with a clean
conscience and find my soul still intact.
Perhaps, though, that was asking too much.
I whispered into her ear, ―My door will be open.‖
For dinner that night, some of the crewmembers warmed a pot of
stew and laid out the makings of sandwiches for everyone. The sea had
calmed some, as had my stomach, and I managed to put down a few
bites. I looked around, but Emerald was nowhere to be seen.
Later that night, I lay in my bed reading. It was close to midnight
already and I figured that Emerald was going to be a no-show. I turned
off my e-reader and went to the porthole of my room, wearing only a t-
shirt and a pair of sweatpants I‘d found in the closet. As I stood at the
window, I could see the light of the rising moon shimmering over the
vast sea.
Just then, I heard my door open and I turned to see the faint
silhouette of a woman standing in the doorway. She closed the door


behind her and walked toward me. Under her coat I could see she was
wearing a long white robe and white slippers.
Emerald.
―It‘s late,‖ I told her. ―I figured you weren‘t coming.‖
She ignored that, then pulled her coat off and set it aside. She then
loosened a strap from her waist and pulled open her robe. In the faint
moonlight, I could see she was wearing nothing under the robe. I could
also see that she was beautiful, though in a devilish way, and I was
looking forward to practicing my spy craft.
She then stepped over to me and put her arms around my neck,
then kissed my ear and whispered, ―Am I worth the wait?‖
Well, that was going to depend on how much information I could
extract from her, but I wasn‘t going to tell her that. Instead, I held her
firmly and kissed her as I breathed in her perfume. A few seconds later,
her robe was on the floor and she was pulling my shirt off. Her skin
had been chilled from the cool outside air. Nonetheless, it was smooth
to touch.
Soon, our hands were all over each other and she began pulling my
sweatpants down from my waist. I reached down and dropped them to
the floor, then kicked them out of the way.
I was fully naked now, and she kissed my neck and chest for a while
as she proceeded to do other things with her hands. Once she felt I
was ready for action, she whispered into my ear, ―I want you to fuck
me right now.‖ She kissed my ear with her tongue and added, ―I‘ve
wanted you so bad since I first saw you.‖
To me, Emerald was a source of information that I needed to tap.
Still, to be completely honest, a part of me wanted her too—and not
just for professional reasons.
She took me by the hand and pulled me over to the bed. After
kicking off her sandals, she lay herself down with her legs open and
invited me to join her. There was just enough moonlight that I could
see her thin, pretty body, though it was covered almost everywhere
with tattoos. Fortunately, it was just dark enough that I couldn‘t clearly
make out the details of all the devils, bats, and serpents which I knew
were gawking at me.


Deep inside me, a dark corner of my heart was beginning to enjoy
this. In my brain, I knew she was a career criminal, a murderer, and
probably a petri dish of germs. My brain, however, wasn‘t the one
making the decisions right now.
To my knowledge, no woman had ever described me as a gentle
lover, and I wasn‘t about to start playing the part of Mr. Nice Guy
now—especially with this woman. Before long, I had her head batting
against the wall at the end of the bed, which I thought was great. After
a minute of that, she pushed me onto my back and positioned herself
on top of me, her long hair hanging in my face. I pushed her hips upon
me and forced her movements with one hand. With the other, I
grabbed the back of her head as we kissed. This went on for a while,
and during this time I allowed myself to become intoxicated with the
combination of her perfume, her perspiration, and her general body
stink.
After a few more minutes, she arched upward as our muscles
tightened and trembled. Passion consumed us until we finished
together, then fell into each other‘s arms, exhausted.
After we‘d each caught our breath, we looked into each other‘s eyes
and laughed.
―See how I always get what I want?‖ she said.
―I wanted you, too,‖ I told her, which was regrettably true.
―Only after I threw myself at you.‖ She looked around for a
moment and asked, ―Do you have anything to drink in here?‖
I wasn‘t sure that I could walk yet, so I pointed to a small dresser
which was bolted to the far wall. ―There‘s a bottle of cognac in the
drawer right over there.‖
Emerald wiggled off me, then climbed to her feet and staggered
over to where the bottle was and brought it back to the bed. She
wiggled the cork for a few seconds without success, then handed it to
me.
With a quick yank, I popped the cork out.
―Wow. You should fight crime.‖
I smiled at the irony of that and handed her the bottle.


She took a quick swig and made a face. ―Kind of sweet.‖
―The wine?‖
―Well, I wasn‘t talking about your love-making, Craig. That was
anything but sweet.‖ She took a second sip, then leaned over and
whispered, ―But I thought it was good.‖
Good? That’s it? I took a sip and then pulled a sheet over us.
Emerald signed sleepily and said, ―I assume you have a girl waiting
for you somewhere out there.‖
―I don't have a girlfriend, if that‘s what you prying at.‖ Though I do
know a girl who might be pissed if she heard me say that.
She began to climb out of bed.
―Where are you going?‖ I asked.
―Back to my room,‖ she replied, then smiled and joked, ―Or maybe
to visit one of my other lovers. Why?‖
I shrugged. ―I thought you‘d be staying longer, that‘s all.‖
She grabbed the bottle from my hand and drew another sip. After
that, she wiped her mouth on her arm and joked, ―We‘re just using
each other for sex, right?‖
―I guess so, but it‘s cold in here, too.‖ Plus I have all these questions
I need to ask.
She grinned and lay her head on my chest. ―Okay. Five more
minutes—and you‘d better tell me I‘m beautiful.‖
―I‘m beautiful.‖
―Say it!‖
―You‘re beautiful, Emerald.‖
She looked into my eyes. ―It‘s so true.‖
I reached down and slapped her hard on the butt, which had to
sting.
―You‘re going to get me horny again with that.‖
―Sorry.‖


I figured I should change topics, so I asked, ―What do you think
Gundersen has planned for when we get to New York?‖
She shrugged. ―I have no idea.‖
Okay. Well, I guess that would have been too easy. I thought for a
minute and asked, ―I wonder why he picked New York of all places?‖
She yawned and replied, ―That‘s just where the ship was headed.
Just be glad we‘re not going to Nigeria or someplace.‖
This interrogation wasn‘t going as planned. Before I could think of
another question, Emerald began breathing in a way that told me she
had dozed off. I coughed abruptly, which woke her up, and asked,
―When we get to New York, what are you supposed to do?‖
She yawned again. ―I dunno. I guess we‘ll…find out…‖
I waited for more until I noticed she was back to doing the sleep-
breathing thing again.
Well, so much for this plan. As a spy, sometimes you have to try
different things until you find what works. Of course, if something
doesn‘t work the first time you just try again until you get what you
were after. I ran my hand over Emerald‘s hair and felt her warm body
against mine.
I‘d have to try this again later.



Chapter 30

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Bjorn Gundersen climbed the stairs to the upper deck. Behind him, in
the light of the glowing bow lantern, he noticed a few flakes of snow
falling from the dark sky above. He watched for a minute, then entered
the compass bridge.
It was the change of shift, 0400, and the chief officer and deck cadet
were taking report from the second officer. The three men turned to
see Gundersen entering and saluted as he approached.
Gundersen returned the salute.
The chief officer immediately detected the smell of alcohol. Hoping
this was just a friendly visit from the ship‘s owner, he asked, ―How can
we help you, Mr. Gundersen?‖
―We‘ll be arriving in New York soon,‖ Gundersen replied. ―I‘d like
the cadet to make a visual inspection of the rigging, the anchors, and
such.‖
―Aye, sir.‖ He looked at the young deck cadet, a trainee, and gave
him a nod toward the door.
As the cadet stepped away, Gundersen told him, ―Oh…and ask the
Captain to meet me here on the bridge at 0430, if you don‘t mind.‖
The cadet nodded. ―Aye, sir. 0430.‖
After the young man had put on his gloves and jacket and left the
bridge, the second officer explained, ―My shift is completed, Mr.
Gundersen. Is my presence required?‖
Gundersen thought for a moment and told him, ―I‘d like you to
help make preparations to drop the second devise.‖
He hesitated, then asked, ―The same as we did near Saint Tropez?‖
―Correct.‖
―How much time do we have?‖


Gundersen asked, ―How long before we reach this spot?‖ He
handed the second officer a small crumpled piece of paper with a series
of numbers and letters scribbled on it.
The officer entered the coordinates into one of the navigation
computers. After a few seconds he replied, ―One hour, twenty minutes,
sir.‖
―Then that‘s how much time you have.‖
―Would you like us to change course for that destination?‖
―Yes. And stop the ship when we arrive.‖ He added, ―I want the
drop to be quick, and then we‘ll be on our way.‖
The chief officer glanced at the second officer for a moment, then
asked Gundersen, ―What if we‘re asked by the authorities why we‘ve
deviated and stopped?‖
Gundersen shrugged. ―Report that we had a loose crane motor and
that we stopped outside the shipping lane for a quick repair.‖
The second officer began to mention, ―The broken motor has
already been repaired...‖
Gundersen shot him a look.
―But…we‘ll go ahead and fix it again, sir.‖
Gundersen nodded. ―Good. When Captain Bergstedt arrives, let
him know I‘m in the navigation room.‖
―Aye, sir.‖
Gundersen stepped through a door at the rear of the bridge and
entered the chart room. There, he seated himself at a small console. In
front of him was a large tablet computer and a Bluetooth keyboard,
both of which he knew operated separately from the ship‘s network.
Gundersen opened a new file and thought for a long moment. He then
typed in a name for the file: Paper Tiger.
After staring into the screen for a few minutes, he began to
compose a brief message. When he had finished, he read over it once
and hit save. He then read it one last time:



A Warning to the nations.
People of the world, you have been kept blind by your leaders, seeing
things as if through a dark glass. Soon, however, you see things clearly, as
if face to face. The Creator separated the nations for mankind, and for a
divine purpose. As the nations of the world continue to ignore this and as
they work blindly to unite themselves one to another, the power of evil
increases. We call upon the nations to turn from wickedness, to close your
borders to outsiders, and to keep your languages, cultures, and traditions
from mingling with those of the world. Only then, will the evil one be kept
at bay. Only then will peace and prosperity come to us all.
Heed these words, for the time is at hand.
On August 1
st
, the world saw Tokyo crippled. Tonight, New York City.
Soon, the Mediterranean nations, then the California Coast and onward
until the world learns the truth and turns from its wicked ways. The
United Nations and the European Community must be banished, the
international space station must be abandoned, the Olympics games must
be halted, and all attempts to further the cause of a united world must be
stopped before all hope for peace is lost.
May the nations come to remember this evening’s events as being the
catalyst for a new beginning, a time of hope, and a call to faith. After
11:00 p.m. tonight, the floodwaters will come. A city will fall and many
will be lost. But from darkness will come light. From chaos will come
order. From death will come life anew.
The Skilja.

As he finished reading, Gundersen heard a tap at the door and
looked over to see Captain Peter Bergstedt entering.
―Is everything all right?‖ the captain asked.
Gundersen closed the file and let Bergstedt know, ―It will be after
tonight. In the meantime, we have work to do.‖
Bergstedt nodded. ―I see we‘ve changed course.‖
―Yes, and for good reason.‖ Gundersen stood and stepped over to
the navigation table, which featured a large illuminated digital map of
the world. Using the controls, he tapped at the screen and zoomed in


on the New York area. He then pointed to a spot in the Atlantic about
thirty miles or so east of Brick, New Jersey. ―Do you know what this
is?‖ he asked.
Bergstedt shrugged. ―It appears to be an undersea trench of some
kind.‖
―Yes. This, my friend, is the Hudson Shelf Valley, and the target
spot for the second device.‖
Bergstedt looked at Gundersen, then back at the map. ―What is the
depth there?‖
Gundersen grinned. ―Only 120 feet.‖
Bergstedt studied the map for a minute. ―How did you decide on
this spot, if I may ask?‖
Gundersen pointed out a vast undersea canyon, which defined the
outer edge of the continental shelf extending north from the New
Jersey coast, then making a near right-angle bend at the prehistoric
river mouth of the Hudson. ―This wedge you see here is known as the
New York bight. Its physical, biological, and hydrodynamic
characteristics are extraordinary.‖ He pointed to the area at the right-
angle of the bight and explained, ―All along here, the water drops quite
sharply from a depth of only 240 feet to over 3000.‖
Bergstedt nodded. ―Quite a drop.‖
―Yes. But this wedge formation, I‘ve learned, is what concerns the
experts. It is believed that a powerful storm, such as a precisely placed
hurricane, could create a strong surge along this formation to the west,
laterally along the southern coast of Long Island and straight into
Lower New York Bay.‖ He placed his finger on the location of the bay
on the map. ―Do you know what that would mean, Peter?‖
Bergstedt looked again at the map. ―In the right conditions, this
wedge formation would leave little outlet for the surge, which, I
believe, would lead to widespread flooding.‖
―Correct.‖
―Has this ever occurred?‖
―Yes, once, but that was 128 years ago. The surges from that storm,
however, reached over thirty feet.‖


Bergstedt drew a breath and asked, ―Are we expecting a hurricane,
Bjorn?‖
―No, Peter. But we can certainly expect an undersea earthquake.‖
He looked at Bergstedt and pointed out, ―Under the right conditions:
an incoming tide, a low pressure system, and westerly winds, I would
anticipate seeing Central Park under at least twenty feet of water.
Perhaps more.‖
Bergstedt seemed shocked by that. ―That would be more of a tidal
wave than a surge.‖
―Perhaps.‖
Bergstedt thought for a moment and asked, ―Are you sure, Bjorn,
that this is what we want to—‖
―Yes, I‘m sure. This is the time and everything is lined up for us. We
have the device ready to place. We have the perfect weather system, the
right winds, and tonight, an unusually high tide.‖
―Tonight?‖
―Yes, my friend, tonight we proceed with the plan.‖ He studied
Bergstedt for a long moment and asked, ―Can I count on you, Peter?‖
Bergstedt thought for a moment. ―To be truthful, I‘m concerned
about the potential death toll.‖
Gundersen looked down. ―So am I, but I am convinced that the
actual number of deaths will be quite low.‖ He looked at the map and
zoomed in on the metropolitan area. Pointing to lower Manhattan, he
explained, ―Most of the affected area will be business and industrial,
and the flooding will occur late at night when these businesses are
closed. A great percentage of the residents here live in tall buildings,
which should be safe.‖ He walked over to Bergstedt and assured him,
―The lives we save in the long run, in a world of peace, will far
outnumber those who will be lost tonight.‖
Bergstedt nodded.
―Can I count on you?‖
―Won‘t they come looking for us, Bjorn?‖


Gundersen sighed. ―That would be most unlikely. If they were to
somehow find us, I promise to take full responsibility. You and the
crew have done nothing wrong. There are hundreds of us now. After
tonight, I‘m sure there will be many thousands of followers, but only I
know the secrets and workings of the devices. No one but myself
knows anything of how they are constructed, how they work, and, for
the most part, what they are capable of. Am I right?‖
Bergstedt agreed.
―Besides,‖ Gundersen continued, ―they‘ll never think to look for a
ship. And even if they did, there will be no evidence on board to prove
anything. The device we lower into the water today is the last one.
There will be no more, I promise you that.‖ He looked Bergstedt in the
eye. ―Are you with me?‖
Bergstedt considered all that and replied, ―Yes.‖
―And the crew?‖
Bergstedt smirked. ―The fools would follow you to the edge of the
Earth, I believe.‖
Gundersen smiled at that, then pointed to the tablet at the small
console. ―I‘ve prepared a brief message, which will need to be sent
discretely to our media contacts as well as the members of the Olympic
Committee. You‘ll find the contact information with the message
stored in a file named Paper Tiger.‖
―When would you like that sent out?‖
Gundersen thought. ―One hour—no—thirty minutes before I
activate the device. That means you would send the message at exactly
10:30 p.m. After that, be certain to delete the file and toss the tablet
overboard.‖
―When do you intend to explain your plan to the crew?‖
―I will meet with them before I leave the ship tonight.‖
―Where will you be going?‖
―While the Agnes Ann is being unloaded, Emerald and I will take
the chopper to a landing platform on the East River. At the
appropriate time, we‘ll fly over the site of the device, activate it using a
remote radio signal, and then land ourselves back on the ship. By then,


you and the crew will be well underway and outside of the danger
zone.‖
Bergstedt nodded and looked away.
―Are you all right, Peter?‖
―Yes. This is just…a bit much to grasp, but I‘m all right.‖
Gundersen patted Bergstedt on the shoulder. ―Sometimes, my
friend, the most effective action requires great boldness.‖
―I know, but it‘s hard to understand—‖
―Don‘t worry,‖ Gundersen assured him, ―everything will soon be as
clear as a bell.‖ At that, he turned and left the room.
Bergstedt looked down at the map of New York City and drew a
weary breath. The moment when everything becomes clear as a bell, he thought,
is usually the same moment you realize you’re screwed.



-PART V–
New York City

“When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck to
crush him.”
~Franklin D. Roosevelt



Chapter 31

I awoke, not from the constant rumbling noise of the propellers, but
from the lack of it. I listened carefully and realized the drive system had
been disengaged and the ship was drifting slowly to a stop.
Emerald was still lying on top of my left side with my arm wedged
tightly under her ribcage. She apparently hadn‘t moved all night and
was still breathing the same subtle sleep breaths—which was better
than snoring. It was still dark outside, but I could see an occasional
snowflake passing by my small portal so I was pretty sure we weren‘t in
the Bahamas.
I tried gently wiggling my arm out from under Emerald, but she was
positioned in such a way that I‘d have to roll her to the side or use
some kind of leverage to free myself. After lying there a few minutes,
my arm started feeling numb and a tingling sensation in my fingertips
told me the circulation to my hand was cut off. Just as I was about to
shove her off to the side, she took a deep breath and gently
repositioned herself—just in time to save my hand from decomposing.
Quickly, I rolled out of the bed and started pulling my clothes on.
As I dressed myself, I heard the sound of the drive system engaging
and I felt a slight forward inertia as we began moving again. I stepped
outside and looked around. The sky above was black and starless, snow
was falling, and a steady westerly wind chilled me to the bone.
On the deck below, I spotted one of the deck officers who I
recognized as the second mate. In a low voice I called down to him as
he strolled by, ―Hey! Why did we stop?‖
He looked up at me for a moment and replied, ―We had to make a
repair to one of the crane motors. It‘s all fixed now.‖
―I thought that was repaired already.‖
―So did I,‖ he said and then continued on his way.
I walked around to the other side of the ship and noticed the lights
of a city in the far distance. This, I knew, had to be New York and I
figured from this distance we‘d reach the harbor within a few hours.


I headed down to the mess where I found some of the crew sitting
around, along with Bjorn Gundersen. As I walked in, I noticed that
their chattering came to a sudden halt.
―Up early, aren‘t we?‖ Gundersen asked me.
I saw he was holding an empty shot glass in front of him, which I
thought was kind of late for last night and a little early for today. ―I
heard the ship come to a stop,‖ I said. ―The silence was enough to
wake the dead.‖
Gundersen made no comment.
I pursued that further. ―I understand the crane motor broke again.
Is that why we stopped?‖
The crew glanced over at Gundersen, who let me know, ―Well, it‘s
fixed now.‖
This bugged me. On the ship I was just a passenger, but I was
supposed to be the number two man on the Skilja‘s totem pole.
Nonetheless, I sensed that the guy whose job it was to refill the toilet
paper dispensers knew more about what was going on here than I did.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and stood near a space heater while
the men went back to chattering. They were speaking Swedish, mostly,
but I suspected they were discussing where to go to find replacement
prostitutes. Maybe they should look for a new cook while they‘re at it.
Better yet, they should try finding prostitutes who also know their way
around a kitchen.
Anyway, I didn‘t feel overly welcome, so I refilled my cup and
stepped out on the deck where I watched the falling snow drift by for a
minute. After that, I headed back to my room.
Emerald was still asleep, so I slipped into the small bathroom where
I first showered myself, then stepped over to the sink to shave. As I
lathered up, Emerald tapped at the door and squeezed in. She was still
naked, and gave me a hug from behind while I was hunched over.
As she sat herself down to pee, I pointed to my cup and offered,
―Coffee?‖


To my surprise, she smiled up at me, then grabbed the cup and took
a couple of long swigs. After that, she cleared her throat and let out a
loud belch, then looked up at me again and giggled.
―Well, good morning!‖ I told her.
She giggled again.
As cute as all this was, I couldn‘t imagine a woman like Michelle
Fontaine performing so much as one step of that routine. Not in front
of me, anyway.
In the bathroom light, I noticed that Emerald looked a lot less
enticing than she did last night. Of course, that may have had
something to do with my now being able to make out all the spooky
details of her tattoos. Also, I felt like I‘d fully satisfied my dark little
fantasy of having sex with a woman of low caliber, so I could mark that
shameful accomplishment off my bucket list.
At least now I could look at a woman like this and say, ―Been there,
done that.‖
While I continued shaving, Emerald went out and dressed, then
excused herself and left to her room. I finished dressing and decided to
walk upstairs to the top of the bridge castle.
Once there, I stood leaning against the forward rail and took a look
around. Ahead in the distance, I could see the lights of the city which
were much more distinct and clearer now than they were earlier. I
looked behind and could see the faint pre-dawn light beginning to glow
on the far horizon.
I breathed in the fresh salty air. As much as I enjoyed being at sea, I
was looking forward to the unique aromas of the city, especially those
of the savory pizzerias and falafel stands as well as the appetizing curry
kitchens and musty Irish pubs. I was looking forward to solid ground,
traffic jams, and crowded streets. More than anything though, I was
looking forward to seeing Michelle once again.
After last night, I thought, I will never stray again.
A few minutes later, I heard the sound of footsteps and turned to
see Bjorn Gundersen approaching. He stood at the rail beside me for a
minute or so and then commented, ―You‘ve found my favorite spot,
Van Essen.‖


―It‘s beautiful up here.‖
He nodded. After another awkward pause he said to me, ―Sorry
about the way that went earlier, in the mess.‖
I shook my head.
―It‘s just that the men aren‘t ready to accept you yet.‖ He added,
―They just need time.‖
I made no reply to that, so Gundersen continued, ―After tonight,
though, things will be different, Thing will be better.‖
―How‘s that? What happens tonight?‖
He seemed to consider that for a few seconds, then told me, ―I‘ve
written a message to the people of the world. It the message, I
described basically what we, the Skilja, believe in. I described how the
world needs to turn from evil and turn from all plans of unifying.‖ He
paused and then added, ―It‘s a call for peace.‖
How nice. Of course, that would have sounded more genuine if it
had been spoken by someone who hadn‘t spent the last few days
drinking bourbon, stabbing his ex-partner in the gut, and terrorizing
the crew. I asked him, ―Who are you planning to send it to? The
world‘s governments?‖
―God no. They‘re the main problem.‖ He looked at me and
explained, ―I‘m having the message sent to all the news media and
social networks we can find. That way, the message will reach the
people.‖
That seemed harmless. ―Do you think they‘ll listen?‖
He drew a deep breath. ―They‘d better.‖
I was about to ask, ‗Or what?‘ when Gundersen turned and headed
back downstairs. I waited a few minutes before I followed him.
By sunrise, the Agnes Ann had received harbor privileges and
entered the waters of the Lower Bay. Soon, we passed under the
immense Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and sailed through the narrows
into New York Bay. From there, we sailed north until we reached the
Red Hook Container Terminal, which was located in West Brooklyn
directly across from Governor‘s Island.


I didn‘t see the Governor anywhere on his island, but I did look
across to the money side of the river where I saw the endless rows of
majestic skyscrapers. Even though it was freezing cold and snowing, it
felt good to be back in America. This was the land of milk and honey,
the home of cheeseburgers and warehouse stores and big cars. I
couldn‘t wait to get my feet on dry land. Even snow covered land
would do.
A tugboat arrived on the scene, and expertly shoved us into the
correct spot. Once we‘d docked, the whole deck department suddenly
snapped out of their semi-comatose state and came alive. They began
marching onto the deck carrying tools and rigging like they were on a
mission from God. While the cargo-cranes were manned and prepared
for operation, I saw that a group of three men and a lady had come
aboard to make an inspection.
I kept to myself, but I could see that the lady and one of the men
were dressed in dark Port Authority uniforms, which were not too
flattering. They were greeted by one of the deck officers and taken
straight to the bridge. Their job, I assumed, was to review the cargo
information, bills of lading, and the crew‘s various documents. This
would include things like passports, work permits, and such. In the
shipping industry, the Port Authority officers were charged with being
the sole line of defense in preventing such things as unclaimed
firearms, escaped fugitives, international terrorists, weapons of mass
destruction, and the bodies of recent murder victims from being
brought into the country.
Like any of that would ever happen.
The other two characters that came aboard were dressed in all black
and seemed to be with harbor security. Or maybe the mob. They also
seemed to know Bjorn Gundersen quite well. One of them was a huge
powerful-looking guy with a shaved head, no sense of humor, and neck
like a gorilla. The other fellow looked more like a part-time male
model—the type who might slip into regular-guy clothes and visit
cargo ships while between photo shoots. He had long hair, a five
o‘clock shadow at eight a.m., and was wearing expensive-looking
sunglasses even though it was completely overcast.
From the rail, I watched as the stevedores and dock workers on the
pier made preparations for unloading the containers from the ship


using a massive portainer crane and other equipment. The snow has
stopped, but I could tell that the wind and cold weren‘t going
anywhere. After a few minutes, I heard voices from behind me and
turned to see Gundersen approaching with the two men from harbor
security.
Gundersen called to me, ―Craig, I‘d like to meet two associates of
mine.‖ He walked up to where I was standing and gestured to gorilla
neck, who I now noticed stood almost a foot taller than me. ―Allow me
to introduce my long-time friend, Luis Lacorde.‖
While Luis and I shook, I felt a couple of my knuckles crack.
Gundersen then introduced me to Mr. Hollywood. ―And this is
Diego.‖ He patted young Diego on the back and added, ―I would trust
him with my life.‖
From the looks of him, I didn‘t think I‘d trust him with even my
hair gel. But maybe I was prejudging the guy. Maybe I should give him
the benefit of the doubt. Then again, no.
Gundersen then let me know, ―Luis has been a great asset to me, as
well as the Skilja. He has inside contacts with people who will provide
you with all new identification.‖ He explained, ―By this, I mean a new
social security number, an authentic passport, and a new driver
license—all of the highest quality.‖
Luis spoke up and assured me, ―Our stuff isn‘t cheap, but what we
make is impossible to distinguish from the real thing.‖
Somehow, I doubted that. I turned to Gundersen and mentioned,
―What about the passports we received in Rome? They looked good to
me.‖
―They were good enough for us at the time,‖ he told me, ―but they
could be proven to be fakes if analyzed by an expert.‖
―I see.‖
Gundersen went on, ―With your new identification, you could start
a new life, my friend.‖ He explained, ―I hope, of course, that you will
choose to stay with the Skilja and work with us on our quest.
Nonetheless, I want you to know you are free to go and live your life as
you wish.‖


It sounded almost as if I was being laid-off, but I wasn‘t going to
walk away after all I‘d been through. Not yet, anyway. I told
Gundersen, ―I appreciate that, Bjorn, but I plan to stay on for a while
longer.‖ I grinned and added, ―Consider it a debt of gratitude.‖
He grinned in return and gave me a solid whack on the back which
almost made me cough up my coffee. ―Excellent!‖ He then turned to
Luis and instructed him, ―Take Mr. Van Essen to your people and
provide him with everything he needs—and spare no expense.‖ He
added, ―He is my most trusted ally.‖
Ha. My old CIA instructors would be so proud of me.
Diego stayed behind, perhaps so his hair wouldn‘t become flat,
while Luis and I left the ship and headed to his car, a black Cadillac
Escalade. Before I could buckle up, Luis hit the gas and we peeled out
of the parking lot and headed into the jungle. Brooklyn, that is.
Being the President‘s Agent, I should always be ready with a quick
answer for any suspicious foe who might be wary of my intensions.
Nonetheless, I was really hoping that Luis Lacorde and his friends
wouldn‘t be asking me too many questions or probing for information.
Luis asked, ―So, Craig, how the hell do you know Bjorn
Gundersen?‖ He turned and glanced at me as he drove. ―You‘re not a
spy are you?‖
I laughed, which was now my standard response and modus
operandus to that line of question. I then asked, ―Why would anyone
want to spy on Bjorn? What‘s he got to hide?‖
Luis also laughed, which may have been his standard response, too.
―Are you shitting me? He has more skeletons in his closet than a priest
in Boy‘s Town.‖ He looked over at me again.
I was keeping my eyes on the road since Luis wasn‘t, and I told him,
―To answer your first question, I met Gundersen in Switzerland. We
were inmates.‖
He smiled, but I could tell he was genuinely surprised by that.
Before he could start questioning me about that, I asked him, ―Do
you know anything about a friend of Bjorn‘s, a woman named
Emerald?‖


He looked over at me yet again, and this time wasn‘t smiling. ―Tell
me that crazy bitch is not on that ship.‖
―So you know her?‖
He first chuckled, then came right out and asked, ―You didn‘t fuck
her, did you?‖
I didn‘t answer that, which sort of answered that.
He shook his head, then joked, ―Just so you know, she‘s rated E—
for everyone.‖
I half-smiled at that while I wondered what I was rated. Maybe I was
a G, like, for general audiences.
After a few minutes, Luis hit the brakes hard and pulled into a
bleak-looking industrial area filled with rows of old dilapidated
warehouses that were lined up one after the other. Soon, Luis arrived at
the loading dock of one and stopped. He looked around for a moment,
then pressed a garage door opener on his dash. I watched as the large
rollup door slowly opened. As soon as it had opened high enough, Luis
hit the gas and barreled through as he pressed the button again, closing
the door behind him.
I looked around at the rusted I-beams and broken out windows
everywhere. ―Nice place you‘ve got here.‖
―Thanks. I have a cleaning lady that comes in once a year—keeps
the place neat as a pin.‖ Luis continued to the far end of the long
building where he stopped and got out.
As I climbed out, Luis asked me, ―Are you nervous?‖
―Not any more—now that you‘ve stopped driving.‖
He smiled at that and told me, ―I like you Van Essen. I hope you
live longer than most of Gundersen‘s friends.‖
I chuckled, though I wasn‘t sure if he was joking or not. I looked
around at the inside of the dark, cavernous building and was reminded
of something I‘d learned from an older agent I‘d once worked with.
He‘d warned me, ―The further you get yourself into a mission, the
further you‘ll find yourself from that warm fuzzy comfort zone where
you started. Right now, that comfort zone existed only as a distant
memory of a faraway place.


And it was moving further from me every minute.



Chapter 32

In under an hour, Luis Lacorde‘s crack team of business associates has
whipped up for me a new biometric passport, a genuine-looking New
York driver license, and a Social Security card—laminated.
His associates actually turned out to be his two brothers, Ellis and
Max. Like Luis, both of them were over six-foot and it looked like they
all worked out in the same gym, though I had the feeling that Luis was
the head of the Lacorde crime family.
Ellis, who appeared to be the youngest one, told me the IDs were
guaranteed to be as good as the real thing.
I asked him how that guarantee worked.
He thought that was cute and assured me, ―Basically, pal, if any of
your IDs are discovered to be fake and you tell the authorities where
you got them, we‘ll find you and kill you. Guaranteed.‖
They all thought that was funny.
Anyway, we were finished, so Luis and I went back to the car and
left the warehouse. As we drove away, Luis asked me, ―Where to?‖
I wasn‘t expecting that, so I thought for a second and told him, ―I‘d
like to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Can you drop me off near
there?‖
―Walk? What the hell do you want to walk for? I can drive you
across.‖
―I just got off a ship after six days at sea. Believe me, Luis; a walk
would do me good.‖
―Whatever floats your boat.‖ On that subject he asked me. ―You
know how to get back to the ship?‖
―I think I‘ll manage.‖
―I wouldn‘t be late if I were you. Gundersen said he‘s addressing the
crew tonight, and he expects everyone to be there.‖
―Including you and Diego?‖


―We wouldn‘t miss it. We‘re both curious to see what the crazy
bastard‘s got planned.‖
They weren’t the only ones, I thought.
From the Flatbush Avenue extension, Luis turned left onto Tillary
Street. After a couple of blocks, he pulled over in front of an AT&T
phone store. He pointed to a walkway positioned in the center of the
upcoming intersection and informed me, ―That‘s the Brooklyn Bridge
Promenade right there. Go knock yourself out.‖
―Thanks, Luis. I appreciate the lift.‖ I climbed out of the car and
started walking to the intersection. Once I had the signal to walk, I
headed straight for the promenade. From the corner of my eye, I saw
Luis pull away from the curb and drive off. I continued to the
promenade entrance and stopped. There, I stood for a long moment
and took in a deep breath of frigid New York air. To me, it was a long-
awaited breath of freedom, having been surrounded by Gundersen and
his goons for the past week. It was a relief to finally be alone and out
from under the microscope.
I waited a full minute to be sure that Luis was far enough away and
then headed back to the phone store. There, I walked in and was
greeted at the door by a young woman who had a big smile, big-
rimmed glasses, and a big set of…lungs. In her hands she was holding
a big tablet.
―Good morning. Can I help you, sir?‖
―I hope so,‖ I replied. ―I‘d like to call someone here in Brooklyn.
Do you have a phone I can use for about two minutes?‖
―Uh…we have cell phones on display, but they‘re not really for
making calls. Did you want to buy one?‖
―If I have to, I guess so.‖
―Which type of phone would you like?‖
―I don‘t know.‖ I pointed to the first cell phone I saw. ―Does that
one sound clear when you‘re talking to someone?‖
She shrugged. ―I think so.‖
―Can I call someone to try it out—just to see if the sound quality is
okay?‖


She glanced around and saw that her co-workers were busy. ―I guess
that would be okay, like, for a quick call.‖
I smiled. ―Thanks.‖
She stepped a few feet away for a moment while I dialed a local
number. After a few rings, a young woman picked up. ―Hello?‖
―Paige? Is that you?‖
―Mr. Van Essen? Where are you? Are you okay?‖
―Believe it or not, Paige, I‘m in Brooklyn and, no, I‘m not okay. I‘m
freezing my butt off.‖
―Are you shitting me?‖
―I‘m serious. It‘s so cold that the Starbucks on the corner is serving
coffee on a stick.‖
I saw the store clerk hold back a grin.
Paige seemed to think about that for a moment. ―No, I mean, like,
what are you doing in New York? Did you finish your spy mission?‖
I made a deep, groaning sound like I was about to cough up my gall
bladder. ―I‘m not a spy, remember? I‘m a security analyst.‖
―Oh yeah. What happened to your friend Bjorn? Are you guys still a
team?‖
―I wouldn‘t say that, but he and I just arrived here by ship. It‘s a big
cargo vessel named the Agnes Ann, and it‘s being unloaded down at
the Red Hook Container Terminal right now.‖
―A cargo ship? There must be a story there.‖
I made no reply, so she asked, ―Have you called your girlfriend yet?‖
―If you mean Michelle, I plan to call her next.‖
―I‘m flattered that you thought of me first.‖
―You‘re my professional assistant, remember?‖
―Does that mean I still have a job?‖
―As long as you don‘t tell people I‘m a spy, then yeah.‖


―Good. I‘ve been bored out of my mind since I left Italy. What do
you need me to do, boss?‖
―I just need you to be available and keep your phone handy. Just in
case.‖
―In case what?‖
I considered that for a few seconds and then let her know, ―I have a
feeling something major is going down tonight. Just what that is, I
don‘t know, but I intend to find out.‖
―Do you want me to come meet you or—?‖
―Not now, and don‘t go anywhere near the ship unless I call for you.
Understand?‖
I heard her sigh. ―Yes, Mr. Van Essen.‖
―Good. I‘ll contact you again this afternoon and update you. All
right?‖
―All right,‖ she replied, and then asked, ―Do you still have the little
transmitter thing we took out of your friend‘s phone?‖
I reached my hand into my jacket pocket and there it was. ―Yeah,
why?‖
―I still have the radio direction finder contraption that I stole in
Riomaggiore, and—‖
―You kept that?‖
―Well, I wasn‘t going to leave it in Italy. If need be, I could use that
to find you. Just be sure to turn it on.‖
―That‘s not going to be necessary,‖ I assured her. ―Just be near your
phone in case I need something.‖
―Yes, Mr. Van Essen.‖
―And Paige…‖
―What?‖
―These are dangerous people we‘re dealing with. Don‘t start messing
around near that ship, okay?‖
―Okay.‖


―I‘ll call you this afternoon.‖
―Okay. In the meantime, you should call Michelle.‖
―I will, if you let me off the phone.‖
―Promise me you‘ll try to get laid, all right?‖
―Why do you say that?‖ I asked.
―You sound tense, Craig, plus you were on a ship for a week. I‘m
sure cargo ships don‘t have any women on board.‖
Obviously, she‘d never taken a spin on the Agnes Ann. I cleared my
throat and asked, ―Why do you always have to talk about sex?‖
―I don‘t know, but you‘re a lot nicer person after you‘ve gotten
some. Promise to try, all right?‖
―Right. I promise to have sex. Now goodbye.‖
I ended the call, then looked over at the sales girl who now looked
blushed.
She smiled awkwardly and asked, ―Um…did it sound okay?‖
―It sounded great,‖ I told her, ―but I‘d like to test it one more time.‖
At that, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a hundred. I glanced
around for a second or two before discretely handing it to her.
She seemed surprised by that, but then grabbed the bill. ―Go right
ahead and try another call, sir.‖
―Thanks.‖
I dialed Michelle‘s apartment. As the phone rang, I thought about
the last time I saw her. I thought about her innocent eyes, her perfect
skin, and her beautiful face, and I realized how much I‘d missed her.
In that same moment, the memory of my night with Emerald
suddenly flashed through my mind. I could see the look of lust in her
eyes, the devilish tattoos covering her naked body, and her long blonde
hair dangling in my face while we used each other.
I looked down at the phone for a few seconds, and then ended the
call. I placed it back on its display rack and thanked the sales girl before
I stepped outside. I took a deep breath before I headed back to the
promenade where I began the long walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.


I needed to stretch my legs, that was for sure, but I also needed
some time to cleanse my mind. I felt dirty, which was something I
wasn‘t used to. To be honest, I was ashamed of all the lustful thoughts
and feelings I‘d had lately—not only for Emerald, but for young Feli,
too.
As I walked, I wondered how committed I should be to Michelle
Fontaine. After all, we‘d only known each other a short time, and we
had only spent one night together. Still, I knew in my heart that I
wanted to spend more time with her. In truth, I wanted to spend the
rest of my life with her.
I wasn‘t sure how Michelle felt about me, or if she‘d be willing to
wait for me until the President‘s term in office was completed. There
was no commitment spoken between us, only the look in each other‘s
eyes and a feeling between us that could not be described. In my heart,
I was sorry I‘d allowed myself to be unfaithful to her and I wondered if
I‘d ever forgive myself.
One thing was for sure: it was never going to happen again.
* * *
From a distance, Luis focused his binoculars as he watched Craig
walking in the direction of the bridge. Once he was sure that he was far
enough away, Luis got out of his car and walked over to the phone
store. Once there, he walked in and was greeted at the door by a young
woman holding a tablet.
―Good morning. Can I help you, sir?‖
―Yes ma‘am.‖ He showed her his security badge and asked, ―Can
you tell me if that man that was just in here used one of your phones?‖
―Excuse me?‖
He repeated himself. ―Did the man that was just in here ask to use a
phone?‖
She hesitated, then pointed to the display. ―He used that one.‖
―Thanks.‖ Luis put his badge back in his pocket and stepped over to
the phone. He tapped at the screen for a moment and quickly
navigated to the call log screen. He saw the last call made was to


somewhere in east Manhattan. He pulled out his own phone and
entered the number in his memos.
The sales girl asked, ―Is everything okay? Was that guy, like—?‖
―A criminal?‖ Luis asked. ―That‘s what I‘m trying to find out.‖ He
looked back at the phone and saw that the first call Van Essen had
made was to a phone located in Brooklyn. He saved that number as
well, then thanked the sales girl before he left.
Outside, he thought for a few seconds, then stepped around the
corner and looked out at the promenade. In the distance, he could see
Van Essen, and could see that he was still walking in the direction of
the bridge. He pulled his phone back out and pressed one of the speed-
dial keys.
Seconds later, his brother Ellis answered, ―What‘s up?‖
―I‘m following our friend, Craig Van Essen.‖
―Anything suspicious?‖
―I don‘t know,‖ Luis answered, ―but I don‘t trust the guy.‖ He told
Ellis, ―I want you to find out what you can about a couple of calls he
just made.‖
―You have the numbers?‖
―Yeah.‖ Luis recited the numbers from his phone and told Ellis,
―Call me back when you find out who he called, understand?‖
―Yeah. What are you going to do?‖
Luis exhaled sharply and replied, ―I‘m going to follow the bastard.‖



Chapter 33

The walk did me good, at least mentally. Physically, though, I was
freezing and worried that I might wind up with pneumonia. Plus I was
starving. Oddly, there were no falafel stands, hot dog vendors, or even
a coffee shop on the bridge, so I figured I could always start one of
those businesses if this President‘s agent thing doesn‘t work out.
I took the walk ramp all the way down to Center Street, which is
one of several streets here in the quaint, rural hamlet known as
Manhattan Island. I passed City Hall Park and headed north for a while
until I spotted a taxi near Foley Square. It was one of those bright
yellow Nissan NV200 cabs that are hard to miss. I hailed it down.
The driver pulled over and I hopped in. Through the intercom I
told him, ―Take me to Lexington and 46
th
Street.‖ I was going to say
please after that, but I didn‘t want to sound like I was from out-of-
town. The driver hit the gas while I went straight for the heater
controls, cranking the temperature all the way up.
While I sat back and enjoyed the blast furnace, I glanced around at
the interior. It appeared clean and was surprisingly roomy with a flat
floor and lots of legroom. It also featured a transparent roof panel so
you could look up and see the skyscrapers. Maybe an occasional
jumper.
There was also a small TV screen mounted on the panel behind the
driver‘s seat, which was turned to an all-news station. I watched for
about two minutes, my personal tolerance limit for that, then clicked to
the camera shot of the driver. As soon as I saw him, I wanted to switch
back to the news. According to the permit posted above the TV, his
name was Yousef. He had a long beard, bags under his eyes, a big nose,
and sunken facial features. In fact, he looked like a talent scout for a
cemetery. Using the intercom, I told him, ―Nice cab.‖
He glanced over at the camera on the dash and nodded in
agreement.
―New York has the best taxis, doesn‘t it?‖
He nodded again and added, ―And the best drivers.‖
I let out a laugh. ―That‘s a good one.‖


He glanced at the camera and appeared confused.
I asked, ―Where are you from, Yousef?‖
―I am originally from Pakistan, sir. I am new to this country.‖
I nodded. ―Welcome to America.‖
―Thank you, sir.‖ He paused for a moment as he performed a tricky
lane change, then managed a joke, ―Most people tell me, ‗Welcome to
America—now go home.‘‖
I chuckled at that. ―How do you like New York so far?‖
―So far, so good,‖ he replied, with a thick accent. ―The new mayor is
really cleaning up the streets.‖
―Really?‖
―Yes. In fact, the murder rate in the city is at a thirty-year low.‖
―Wow. With rates that low, just about anyone can afford a murder.‖
He glanced over at the camera while he thought about that, and
then finally smiled. ―Veddy funny, sir.‖
Once we‘d reached Astor Place, Yousef turned right for a short
distance, then left again onto 3
rd
Avenue. Around us, we were
surrounded by tall buildings which cast further darkness over the
already dim streets.
I could tell that Yousef had a keen sense of humor, so I asked him,
―Do you know how many New Yorkers it takes to build a skyscraper?‖
―No, sir. How many?‖
―None o‘ your business.‖
He let that roll around in his head for a while, then said, ―I‘m afraid
I do not understand, sir.‖
―You will,‖ I assured him. ―In time you will.‖
As we approached 45
th
street, I looked ahead and could see that
traffic was at a standstill. We were only a block from Michelle‘s
apartment, so I told Yousef, ―Pull over here.‖
He pulled to the curb and I paid him the fare plus a decent tip. As I
started walking, I spotted a coffee shop on the corner and stopped for


a moment to thank God. I went inside where I took a good whiff. I
could smell coffee, of course, plus the aroma of sizzling bacon, fried
sausage, and other forms of animal blubber and food byproducts. I
didn‘t have time for any of that, so I purchased a bagel and a large
coffee. I thought about buying one for Michelle, too, but remembered
she was a fashion model and that something as simple as a bagel could
put an end to her career. Besides, I‘d probably eat it myself before I
made it to her apartment.
I took a few sips of my brew, then grabbed my bagel and went back
outside. Already, the hot coffee was crossing my blood/brain barrier
and I could feel myself beginning to perk up. This was important,
especially considering that the next phase of my assignment would
include a quick rendezvous with Michelle. I still considered Miss
Fontaine to be a key part of this mission and I was glad I was the
President‘s Agent. That meant I didn‘t have to explain that to any
supervisors or review boards.
A few doors down from the coffee shop I spotted a florist, and I
stopped in to pick up a single long-stem rose, which I planned to give
to Michelle as a reminder of our time together in Vatican City. After
that, I crossed the street and continued toward Lexington Avenue. In
front of one of the apartment buildings, I noticed a doorman wearing a
long overcoat and gloves. He was standing there with a bored look on
his face. Or maybe he‘d frozen to death during the night and nobody
had noticed yet. It happens here. The TV news program I‘d watched in
the taxi reported on how the looming threat of a New York City
doormen's strike had been averted at the last minute. I guess the
doormen realized that going on strike would actually require more
work than what they're doing now.
Anyway, I downed the rest of my coffee and took a few bites of my
bagel, which was delicious, and kept walking. Soon, I arrived at
Lexington. Across the street I saw a few police cars pulled over with
their lights flashing and I could hear the siren of an ambulance in the
distance as it headed this way.
This explained all the traffic.
I walked partway up the street and realized that the place with all the
commotion also happened to be Michelle‘s apartment building. Right
then, a bad feeling came over me. I tossed the bagel, the rose, and the


empty coffee cup and made my way through the line of cars to the
building entrance. A small crowd had formed, and everyone stepped
back as the ambulance arrived.
An NYPD cop was at the door and appeared to be busy monitoring
who was coming and going. I also saw a doorman inside, and he was
speaking with an elderly woman who seemed concerned about
whatever it was that was happening. I poked my head in the door just
as the doorman and the woman ended their conversation and I waved
him over. As he approached, I saw his nametag and asked, ―What
happened here, Douglas?‖
―I‘m sorry, sir, but I can‘t discuss anything about that right now.‖
I pulled a fifty out of my pocket and held it out. ―Can I go up to my
girlfriend‘s apartment?‖
Douglas glanced at the money and let me know, ―Sorry pal, I can‘t
allow anyone in or out. You‘ll have to speak to the officer.‖ He nodded
to the cop on the sidewalk. As I slid the bill back into my pocket he
asked, ―Who‘s your girlfriend?‖
―Michelle Fontaine.‖
He appeared a bit startled by that and told me, ―You‘d better come
with me.‖ The two of us stepped over to the cop on the sidewalk, and
Douglas explained to the officer who I was here to see. This, of course,
wasn‘t a good sign.
―Has something happened to her?‖ I asked. ―What‘s going on?‖
The cop asked me, ―What‘s your girlfriend‘s room number?‖
―1404.‖
He looked me over for a moment and then said, ―Okay. Let‘s see
some ID.‖
I pulled out my brand new driver license and handed it to the
officer. He looked at it for a minute and then spoke a few words into
his radio. During this, the ambulance team hurried by us with a gurney
and a couple of emergency equipment bags. A few seconds later, I
heard some indiscernible chatter come over the cop‘s radio speaker. He
listened and made a quick reply, then looked at me and said, ―Sir, I


need you to take the elevator straight to room 1404. They want to talk
to you.‖
―Who?‖
He was about to answer that, but then stopped himself and simply
said, ―Just go.‖
Obviously, something terrible had happened. I took a deep breath
and went through the doors, then headed straight for the elevators.
When one of the doors opened, I stepped inside and pressed the
button for the 14
th
floor.
I felt my heart sink even further as the elevator began its ascent and
I found myself already breathing hard. After what seemed like a long
time, the elevator reached the correct floor and a bell dinged while the
doors slowly opened.
As I stepped out into the corridor, I could tell right away where the
apartment was. Standing out in the hall, I saw a short, stout-looking
woman. She appeared visibly shaken and was giving a report to a
female police officer. As I approached, the officer looked over at me.
Before she could ask, I stopped and explained, ―I came to this
building to visit my girlfriend, Michelle Fontaine. The officer at the
door told me to come up, and that someone here would talk to me.‖ I
asked, ―Can you please tell me what‘s going on?‖
The officer spoke a few words to the woman and then excused
herself as she stepped over to me. She asked, ―What apartment does
your girlfriend live in?‖
―This one right here. 1404.‖
―Can you describe her please?‖
I cleared my throat. ―She‘s Caucasian, about five-nine, one-hundred-
ten pounds, long brown hair—‖
―You said ‗Caucasian‘?‖
―That‘s right.‖
The officer lowered her voice and explained, ―The housekeeper‖—
she gestured to the stout-looking lady—―came into the apartment and


found a woman unconscious on the floor. But the victim didn‘t look
Caucasian to me.‖ She asked, ―Does your girlfriend have a roommate?‖
―I don‘t know. This is my first time to the apartment.‖
Just then, I heard the elevator door ding and I turned to see the
most beautiful sight I could imagine. Michelle.
She hurried over to me and gave me a hug. ―Craig! When did
you…?‖ She stopped herself and asked me, ―What‘s happened?‖
I told her, ―You don‘t know how good it is to see you. A woman
was found unconscious in your apartment. Do you—?‖
―Oh my God! Jasmine?‖
The officer asked, ―Is she a friend or…?‖
―Jasmine Ko is my roommate. Is she okay?‖
―The paramedics are inside with her now.‖ She lowered her voice
and let us know, ―We found a bottle of pills nearby.‖
Michelle held her hands over her face. ―Oh God!‖
I held Michelle while the officer asked a few questions. After that,
Michelle went over and spoke with the housekeeper and gave her a
warm hug.
A few minutes later, the paramedics rushed Jasmine out of the room
on the gurney. I could see that she was pale as a ghost and still
unconscious, but at least the medics weren‘t taking their time, which
would have been a red flag. They hurried to the freight elevator and
Michelle and I followed closely behind them. While they waited for the
elevator, one of the paramedics, a young woman, asked Michelle, ―Are
you her roommate?‖
Michelle nodded. ―Which hospital is she going to?‖
―Mount Sinai,‖ the young woman replied. She then glanced at
Jasmine and asked Michelle, ―Isn‘t this Safire, the model?‖
Michelle hesitated, then stepped forward and told her, ―Keep that to
yourself, please. Her real name is Jasmine Ko.‖
Just then, the elevator arrived and the large door raised open.


The young woman assured Michelle, ―I won‘t tell anyone, ma‘am.‖
At that, they wheeled the gurney in and pressed the button for the door
to close.
Once they were gone, Michelle and I walked back to her apartment.
The police had a few more questions and asked Michelle and the
housekeeper to contact them if they had to leave town any time soon,
or if they thought of anything that might be pertinent. After they‘d left,
Michelle spoke with the housekeeper again for a few minutes, then
thanked her, paid her for the week, and sent her home.
Once that was finished, Michelle and I went into her apartment.
While she rested on the couch, I helped clean up some of the mess that
the paramedics had left and made us a pot of coffee. The apartment
was spacious and nicely decorated in contemporary design with bright
colors and funky patterns.
After a while, I brought Michelle her coffee and sat next to her on
the couch. She leaned over to me and I held her close.
―I can‘t believe she did that,‖ Michelle said, ―But I shouldn‘t be too
surprised.‖
―What do you mean?‖
She thought for a minute and explained, ―I‘ve worked with Jasmine
for a couple of years already, but she‘s only been my roommate for,
like, a month or so—and for most of that time I was in Rome.‖ She
looked at me, ―From what I‘ve heard from the other girls, she‘s tried to
kill herself before.‖
I thought about that and asked, ―Did something happen in her life
to make her want to…you know…‖
Michelle shrugged. ―I‘m pretty sure she‘s just crazy.‖
I took a sip of my coffee and asked, ―Why did the paramedic
woman ask if she was ‗Safire?‘‖
―That‘s Jasmine‘s professional name. I guess the paramedic must
have recognized her from a fashion magazine or something.‖
―Do you have a professional name?‖
She shook her head. ―No. I think that‘s just silly.‖


―It‘s not silly if your real name is something like Gretchen von
Reikhausen.‖
She let out a laugh, then sipped at her coffee.
Michelle and I sat on the couch for a while, and I decided it would
be best to be truthful and tell her about everything that had happened
since I last saw her. This, I knew, would be a true test of our
relationship, but at least I wouldn‘t be living a lie. With Michelle,
honesty would be my policy. Of course, I skipped the part about
spending the night with Feli and how she offered me a free rain check,
but that she and the other prostitute died of poisoning before I could
cash in on that. I also sidestepped the whole thing where I broke a
guy‘s arm before I threw him overboard. She didn‘t need to know
about that—nor about Tjuren or Axel for that matter. I‘m a secret
agent, so I couldn‘t just blab about how I suspected that my jail-break
buddy Bjorn Gundersen had built some kind of weapons of mass
destruction, and how I was made second in command of an
organization of international terrorists. Most importantly, I made no
mention of Emerald, nor did I make any reference to any members of
the opposite sex whatsoever, including Paige.
However, I did tell her how I saw some snow falling while we were
coming into port, which she thought was interesting.
It was great to be holding Michelle close and getting all this off my
chest. Nonetheless, Jasmine‘s failed suicide attempt had put a dent in
my plans for the morning, and I could tell that Michelle was in no
mood for romance or anything fun right now, which was
understandable. At least I hadn‘t found another rooster in the
henhouse.
Of course, maybe there was a lot of shit she wasn‘t telling me, right?
Anyway, I decided to head back to the Agnes Ann before my
absence became too suspicious. As Michelle walked with me to the
elevator, I let her know, ―I expect to be finished with my current
assignment soon.‖
―Is that good?‖
―Well, I was hoping we could spend some more time together
before I‘m given a new job, which could be anywhere.‖


―Couldn‘t you request to be stationed in New York?‖
―I want to be with you more than anything,‖ I replied, which was
completely true. ―But I have no control of where the next assignment
will be.‖ This was true, too. ―I‘ll tell my boss that I insist on being
stationed in New York.‖ This, of course, was a complete lie.
She and I rode the elevator down to the lobby. There, she entered
my information into Douglas‘s registry book. This way, he‘d know it
was okay to let me in when I came back to visit. I‘d have to remember
to check later to see if any other guys had made the same list.
As Douglas opened the door for me to leave, a female news reporter
spotted Michelle and hurried over. Behind her, one guy was holding a
light, which he was shining into our faces, while a second guy was
pointing a camera at us.
―Are you Michelle Fontaine?‖ the reporter asked. ―The model?‖
She seemed shocked by this. ―Yes, I‘m Michelle Fontaine. Why are
you—?‖
―Is it true that your roommate, Safire, tried to kill herself today? In
your apartment? What can you tell us about that?‖
Michelle looked at me and I told her, ―Don‘t say anything.‖ I then
gestured for her to go back upstairs while I walked past the reporter.
Seeing that Michelle had ducked back inside, the reporter turned to
me and asked, ―Are you associated with Safire in any way, sir? What
can you tell us about these two models? Please, sir. Just a minute of
your time.‖
I didn‘t reply to that and kept walking. I headed down the street for
a while until I found a subway entrance. There, I went downstairs and
checked out the subway map for a minute. I then hopped on the train
to 42
nd
Street and Bryant Park. From there, I changed trains and rode
the next one all the way to the East River, and then through the tunnel
to Brooklyn. I stayed on until the train reached the Carroll Street stop,
where I got out. From there, I walked for a few minutes until I spotted
a private cab who agreed to take me the rest of the way to Red Hook.
On the way to the ship, I thought about what I should expect
tonight. Like Luis and Diego, I was curious to learn what Bjorn
Gundersen had up his sleeve, and I had a feeling he was up to no good.


On the outside, it would appear that Gundersen wanted to let the
world know about the Skilja and their hopes for a future of peace
through national independence. On the inside, however, I believed he
wanted to tell the world much more than that. He was an angry
monster and wanted to send a message about his own power and the
strength of his organization. He wanted to use intimidation, lies, and
fear tactics to build an army of terrorists and an unbreakable chain of
fanatical followers. He would force the leaders of the world to give in
to his demands, while using me as part of that chain.
One thing he was forgetting, however, was that no chain is stronger
than its weakest link.



Chapter 34

Ellis Lacorde ended the call. He then sat back in his chair for a
moment and thought about what he was just told. He turned and
glanced over at the TV screen for a moment and drew a weary breath
and dialed his brother‘s number.
Luis picked up his phone and saw the caller ID. He answered,
―What is it?‖
―Where are you?‖
―I‘m pulled off to the side of 42
nd
Street. Van Essen just ducked
into a subway on the corner of Lexington.‖
Ellis thought about that. ―He‘s probably heading back to the ship.‖
―Let‘s hope so. Did you track down those phone numbers I gave
you?‖
―Sure did. One of the numbers belonged to a chick named Michelle
Fontaine.‖
―Is she anyone special?‖
―You could say that. If you Google her you‘ll get about fifty-zillion
hits.‖ He added, ―She was also on TV a few minutes ago.‖
―By any chance, did that have anything to do with cops and
ambulances?‖
―Yeah. Apparently, this Fontaine chick and her roommate are, like,
famous models. This morning the roommate tried to kill herself with a
handful of pills and was found unconscious.‖
―Uh…okay, so—?‖
―So the news people need a story, and you know how they always
jump on that shit, Right? Anyway, the TV news showed the pill-popper
being rushed out of the apartment building on a stretcher to a waiting
ambulance. Like you said, cops everywhere. After that, the news lady
tries asking Fontaine a few questions, and she blows them off.‖
―I don‘t blame ‗er. So…?‖


―So guess who they show on TV coming out of the apartment with
Fontaine? Your buddy Craig Van Essen.‖
Luis thought about that. ―Okay, so the man‘s banging a fashion
model. Something wrong with that?‖
―Nothing at all. In fact, after seeing her, I‘d bang her too—except
for one thing….‖
―Like, that she wouldn‘t be interested in a big, dumb—‖
―Except that Gundersen has seen this chick before. In Rome.‖
―How do you know that?‖
―Because I just sent our friend Bjorn photos of Fontaine, and he
recognized her right away. He sounded pretty pissed, too. Gundersen
tells me she‘s been working in cahoots with Van Essen. Apparently,
Van Essen has had our friend Bjorn duped this whole time.‖
―Then Van Essen‘s a dead man.‖
―No shit. And the chick‘s future doesn‘t look too bright, either.
Gundersen wants you to bring her to the ship right away.‖
―And how am I supposed to do that?‖
―Try using your charm,‖ Ellis replied. He chuckled at that and
added, ―Just don‘t try impressing her with your sense of humor.‖
―Fuck you, Ellis. What‘s her apartment number?‖
Ellis gave his brother the number and let him know, ―Gundersen
wants her brought in alive, so don‘t do anything nasty.‖
―You know I‘d never hurt a woman.‖
Ellis chuckled again, this time even louder.
Luis asked, ―Did you find anything on the other phone number I
gave you?‖
―Yeah. That number belongs to another chick, this one goes by the
name of Paige O‘Neill.‖
―What‘s her story?‖
―Well, you‘ll love this: according to Gundersen, O‘Neill was with
them in Rome and was shacked up with guess who?‖


―Van Essen?‖
―Bingo. This O‘Neill chick, who‘s only like eighteen years-old, had
our friend Bjorn believing that she was on his side. In reality, she, Van
Essen, and the model were playing him like a toy puppet.‖
Luis shook his head. ―What does Bjorn want to do about O‘Neill?‖
―He wants me to handle that.‖
―You‘re not bringing her to the ship, are you?‖
―No. He just wants me to take her out—and I don‘t think he meant
on a date.‖
Luis let out a breath and pondered all this. ―This shit is getting too
deep too fast. Fuck Gundersen, I think we should pull out now and cut
all ties.‖
―That‘s what I told Max, and he said we should leave it up to you.‖
He paused for a few seconds and added, ―There‘s one thing, though.‖
―What‘s that?‖
―Gundersen just dropped another million into our account.‖
There was a long moment of silence before Luis finally spoke up.
―In that case, tell Max we‘re in.‖ At that, he ended the call. Without a
moment of hesitation, he put the car in gear and hit the gas.



Chapter 35

Luis Lacorde parked his black Escalade far enough away, then put on a
black wool cap and reading glasses before he climbed out of the car.
He used a fake parking card for the meter, then headed straight to
Michelle Fontaine‘s apartment building. As he walked, he could feel a
light drizzle beginning to fall and was glad his jacket was the
waterproof type.
At the door of the building, he flashed his security ID badge to
Douglas, the doorman, and told him, ―I‘m an associate of Craig Van
Essen, and I need to speak with one of your residents.‖
Douglas nodded. ―Would that happen to be Miss Fontaine?‖
―That‘s correct.‖
Douglas considered that for a moment, then told Luis, ―Step
inside.‖
At a side table in the lobby, Douglas used a phone to dial Michelle‘s
room. After a couple of rings she picked up. ―Yes?‖
―Miss Fontaine? It‘s Douglas. I hope I‘m not interrupting anything.‖
―Not at all, Douglas. What is it?‖
―Well, there‘s a man down here who says he‘s an associate of Mr.
Van Essen, and he‘d like a word with you.‖ He added, ―He showed me
his badge.‖
Michelle paused to think, and then told the doorman, ―All right. Let
me speak to him.‖
Douglas handed the phone to Luis, who asked, ―Is this Miss
Fontaine?‖
―This is she.‖
―Ma‘am, I‘m sorry to trouble you.‖
―No trouble. How can I help you?‖
―I‘m an associate of Craig Van Essen. Craig and I work together and
he‘s asked me to come speak to you.‖
―About what?‖


―He wants you to come with me, ma‘am.‖
―What? Why? Where is Craig?‖
―An urgent matter has come up. Mr. Van Essen is on his way to the
Agnes Ann as we speak. We are—‖
―The Agnes Ann? Is that the ship?‖
―Yes, ma‘am. We‘re to rendezvous with Mr. Van Essen there. I‘d
like us to leave as soon as possible.‖ He added, ―I have a car close by.‖
―What‘s the urgent matter? What has happened?‖
―I‘m not sure I can discuss the details of that with you, ma‘am, but I
can tell you that Craig is worried more about your safety. I‘m sure he‘ll
explain everything when we reach the ship.‖
She considered that and asked, ―How do I know you‘re who you say
you are? How do I know if you‘re actually Craig‘s associate?‖
―He gave me your phone number, Miss Fontaine.‖ Luis recited the
number to her, then added, ―He also told me that your roommate was
found unconscious in your apartment this morning, and that it was
quite a scare for you.‖ He paused and added, ―I hope she‘s going to be
okay.‖
―I hope so, too,‖ Michelle replied. ―Who is it that you and Craig
work for anyway? The FBI, or…?‖
―I‘m not at liberty to answer that ma‘am. Perhaps you should ask
Mr. Van Essen that question.‖
―He won‘t tell me, either. I have to assume you‘re with the CIA or
something.‖
Luis made no reply.
Michelle thought about this for a long moment. Finally, she exhaled
slowly and told Luis, ―Damn it. I‘ll be right down.‖



Chapter 36

Years ago, when I first started with the CIA, I was paired with an older
fellow who was supposed to show me the ropes. Like most agents his
age, he had seen too much over the years. By the time he got to me, he
had become world weary and cynical, which could only be expected.
He did, however, manage to hold on to his wry sense of humor. I
remember him telling me, ―The statistics on sanity are not good.‖ He
explained, ―According to the experts, one out of every four Americans
is suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of three people
you know. If they seem okay, then it's you.‖
I took a moment to consider that. To me, Michelle Fontaine seemed
perfectly normal, but her roommate Jasmine Ko, or ‗Safire‘ as she was
known, was obviously out to lunch and needed to be either placed in
an institution or sent back to wherever she was from—if they‘d take
her. Luis Lacorde seemed okay, other than being a Neanderthal. Still, I
wouldn‘t be at all surprised if he knew off the top of his head the
precise location of a few shallow graves or had a glass jar hidden
somewhere with someone‘s brains in it. Most importantly, at least to
me, was the fact that Bjorn Gundersen‘s cheese had slid off his cracker
and he was now on the whiskey train to Neverland.
The driver dropped me off at the security gate and I paid him.
There, the guards checked my ID, then called the Agnes Ann to be
sure I was still on their list of invited guests before letting me through.
The cold wind was still blowing. As I made the long march to the
ship I looked and could see that about half the containers of cargo had
been unloaded. Interestingly, when you transport something by car, it's
called a shipment, but when you transport something by ship, it's called
cargo.
Anyway, as I got closer to the ship I began thinking about what
might be in store. I had a feeling that tonight would prove to be a
pivotal point in the mission and there were three possibilities: One, I‘d
find that Gundersen‘s devises have nothing to do with earthquakes,
and I‘d have to abandon this lead altogether. Two, I‘d find that
Gundersen‘s devises have everything to do with earthquakes, and I‘d


have to kill Gundersen and confiscate the devices, or three, the shit hits
the fan and everything goes to hell in a hand basket.
In truth, curtain number three was most likely, but I always prefer to
remain an optimist. Therefore, I was shooting for possibility number
two followed shortly by number three.
When I arrived at the ship, one of Gundersen‘s guards, the chubby
one with the not-so-flattering birthmark, waved me by. Once onboard,
I saw Diego standing near the entryway. I noticed he‘d finally thought
to remove his sunglasses—probably after walking into a wall or
something. He looked me over for a moment, like he was sizing me up,
then let me know, ―Gundersen‘s up on the bridge.‖
I nodded.
As I walked by, he turned and asked, ―Where‘d you go?‖
I looked over my shoulder and told him, ―That‘s none of your
business.‖ I stopped and walked back to where he was standing and
put my face in his. ―Why do you ask?‖
To my surprise, Mr. Hollywood didn‘t so much as flinch, so he
either had more balls than I‘d given him credit for or he was a moron.
Nonetheless, I wasn‘t going to take any form of shit from him, no
matter how trite.
He looked me in the eye and calmly replied, ―It‘s my job to know
where people are—and don‘t get in my face when I ask questions.‖
―Starting now, it‘s your job to stay out of my sight.‖ I let out a grunt
and then turned and headed up to the bridge. I pulled my hood down
and combed my hair back with my fingers. Behind me, I heard
footsteps and I had the feeling that Diego was following me. This
could be good, like he was just doing his job, or bad, like I was on
someone‘s shit list and needed to be followed.
I thought of first stopping at my room and grabbing my handgun,
just in case, but I figured that if I actually had made the list and was
now outside Gundersen‘s circle of friends, that would be gone from
there anyway.
As I entered the bridge, Captain Bergstedt was on his way out and
said nothing as he stepped past me. Looking out through the big front
windows was Bjorn Gundersen, who also barely acknowledged my


presence. It was uncomfortably quiet for a long moment while he
stood watching the crew rigging the containers and running the cranes.
Finally, he glanced back in my general direction and asked, ―Did you
have a nice time out there?‖
I noticed that he left off the words ‗my friend‘ from the end of that
sentence, which was unusual for him. I also noticed that he was
avoiding eye contact with me, and I had a feeling that either he was
plastered or I was on his shit list. Or both.
I put my hands in my jacket pockets. ―It‘s freezing out there,‖ I said,
―but I managed to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.‖
He made no reply to that. Obviously, something was up and I
wondered if they were on to me. Slowly, my mind was switching into
self-preservation mode and ideas began flying through my mind. In my
jacket pocket, I could feel the small transmitter device. Using my
thumb, I turned it on. Gundersen‘s attention was still focused on the
view outside, so I reached up and discretely set the transmitter atop a
sill plate over the door.
Just as I did that, Gundersen turned around. His eyes were held low
and he seemed not to notice that I‘d just placed something up there.
He told me, ―Let‘s go down to the deck. Follow me.‖ He walked past
me and out the door.
From the bridge, he led me through the maze of narrow corridors
and down several flights of stairs. Soon, we were on the main cargo
deck, which looked a lot different now with most of the containers
unloaded. I could still see the lone twenty-foot container, the same one
that we‘d left poor Tjuren and his son in, and I wondered if their
bodies were still in there—though I doubted it. I was fairly sure that
Tjuren and Axel were somewhere at the bottom of the deep blue sea
right now, along with Isak Olstrom and my buddy Alrik. Not to
mention Meli and Feli. In fact, it occurred to me that the deep blue sea
was becoming crowded with corpses lately.
Toward the bow, I could hear the sound of the handling crane in
operation, but I couldn‘t see any of the crew from our position and
they couldn‘t see us. My bad feeling about being here got worse.
Just then, I felt something strike me in the back of my right knee. I
dropped and turned to see Diego behind me with what looked like a


club in his hand. As I landed on my knees, I felt a second blow land
across my right shoulder. This time, I lurched back in pain and saw one
of the guards, the fat one, who also had a club. I gasped for air, then
struggled to stand. As I did, Gundersen stepped up to me, then
stooped down and punched me hard in the gut.
This knocked the wind out of me and I couldn‘t breathe for a
moment. I was hunched over, and finally dropped to my knees again.
Though I was in severe pain, my mind was still in self-preservation
mode. I managed to take a deep breath and pulled my right foot
forward. Using what adrenaline I had, I jumped up and headed straight
for Gundersen. Before he could dodge me, I managed to wrap my left
arm around his neck and began beating the side of his head with my
right fist as I dragged him to the deck.
Suddenly, I felt one of the clubs crack into the back of my head and
everything went black. In that instant, just as I let loose of Gundersen‘s
neck, I felt a sudden shock run through me like a bolt of lightning.
Every muscle in my body stiffened like a board and I dropped to the
deck. I felt what seemed like a knife piercing my heart and the pain was
unbearable. I screamed but no sound came out. Though I was
trembling and had lost all motor skills, I was fully aware of what was
happening: I was being tasered.
At this point, it was safe to assume I‘d made somebody‘s shit list.
After what seemed like a week of Mondays, the current stopped and
I felt like a puddle of goo on the floor. Gundersen was pissed, of
course, and he stepped over and kicked me on the side of the head. I‘d
been tasered before, which had been part of my CIA training, but
never for as long as what I just went through. I knew that the first
thing I needed to do was to get the Taser gun away from the idiot
guard. From the corner of my eye, I could see him looking over at
Gundersen and also spotted the thin yellow wires running from the
gun to my shoulder.
Quickly, I took a deep breath and rolled to my right as fast as I
could. My coordination was off, but I managed to spin around and get
hold of the wires. Before the guard could react, I managed to grab the
wires and pull hard enough to yank the Taser gun from his hand.


That done, I staggered to my feet and started again for Gundersen. I
saw a brief look of fear in his eyes as I lunged at him again. Before I
got to his throat though, Diego and the guard had the clubs out and
managed to beat me to the ground once again.
While I lay on the deck with my head spinning, Diego placed his
foot over my neck to keep me from trying anything. I saw that the fat
guard had the Taser gun back in his hand, and I knew my chances of
getting that thing from him again were slim.
I heard Diego‘s phone chime. He answered the call and muttered a
few words, then hung up and told Gundersen, ―They‘re on their way
down.‖
Gundersen nodded. He then got down on one knee and looked me
in the eye for the first time since I boarded today. He snickered and let
me know, ―You have more fight in you than I expected, Mr. Van
Essen—if that‘s your real name.‖
―Get your two goons off me,‖ I told him, ―and I‘ll fight you man-
to-man, Bjorn.‖
He snickered again. ―I don‘t think that will be—‖
―What‘s wrong? Don‘t you have the balls?‖
He told me, ―I think you‘ve been injured enough for now, but
perhaps I‘ll take you up on that later.‖
―There is no later,‖ I told him. ―The Feds are on to you, you
dumbass.‖
He began laughing, and I heard Diego laugh along while his heel
dug into my neck. Gundersen then leaned forward and said, ―I think
you are a liar, and that I am the one who is on to you. So perhaps you
are the dumbass.‖
―If I were you Bjorn, I‘d—‖
―Shut up!‖ he yelled. ―I know that you and your lady friend in Rome
were working against me, so don‘t try to lie to me.‖
―What are you talking about? I never—‖
―I told you to shut up!‖ I saw him glance up at Diego, who stomped
his foot on my head and then pressed his heel harder into my neck.


Gundersen continued, ―I know about Michelle Fontaine. I know
that the two of you conspired together, along with the young girl,
Paige. Because of you, my sister Ella is dead.‖
I told Gundersen, ―We had nothing to do with that, and there is no
conspiracy.‖
Gundersen didn‘t seem to like hearing that, and he signaled the
guard to squeeze the trigger on the Taser.
My body went rigid as the current bolted through me, and I felt as
though a knife was passing through my heart once again. Again I tried
to scream and again nothing came out. Finally, the sadistic bastard let
off the trigger and I lay there in uncontrolled spasms while gasping for
air.
Somehow, Gundersen thought this was amusing and laughed at me
while I struggled to catch my breath.
I looked up at Gundersen, who looked blurry, and told him,
―Michelle…and Paige…are innocent. They don‘t know anything.‖
Gundersen leaned closer and let me know. ―We know how to find
your friend Paige, and the little whore will soon have her throat slit.‖
―No! She doesn‘t know anything!‖
―It‘s too late for her,‖—he looked up behind me and grinned
widely—―and, apparently, it is too late for Miss Fontaine as well.‖
Just then, I heard a woman‘s trembling voice call to me, ―Craig? Is
that you? What‘s going on?‖
Diego lifted his foot from my neck. I took a breath and managed to
prop myself up on one elbow and turn my head. Behind me, I saw
Luis, and he was holding Michelle by her hair. I also saw that he had a
gun pointed to her head.
This time, I didn‘t need a jolt from a Taser to feel the pain in my
heart.



Chapter 37

I looked at Michelle, who was, of course, terrified. Gundersen leaned
toward me and said, ―I don‘t want her brains all over my nice ship. Do
you understand?‖
I nodded.
Just to be sure, he called to Luis and instructed him, ―If Mr. Van
Essen makes one move in the wrong direction, do not hesitate to shoot
her.‖
He then told me, ―Come. I think you know where we keep traitors
on this ship.‖
I followed Gundersen to the same twenty-foot container where he‘d
locked up Tjuren and Axel earlier. Diego and his fat friend stayed right
behind me, one with a club ready and the other with his finger on the
Taser trigger. As Gundersen unlocked the doors, I told him, ―Let the
girl go, Bjorn. I can promise you she knows nothing.‖
He looked at me and shook his head. ―And I should trust you? I
should believe your promises? I think not.‖
―She‘s only—‖
―She brought me the message from Nigel Adams!‖ he yelled. ―She
has been working behind my back—with Nigel and with you!‖ He took
a couple of breaths to calm himself and told me, ―I trusted you once,
and you betrayed me. You are a traitor and a spy. You will not stop me
or the Skilja from completing our mission.‖
Gundersen opened one of the doors, and I could smell the stench
of death along with human waste coming from inside. The last thing I
wanted was for Michelle to be thrown inside there, so I tried pleading,
―You don‘t understand, Bjorn. I was only—‖
As I spoke, he spun around and backhanded me across the side of
my face. At once, I was knocked to the ground. It was a solid blow and
I felt dazed for a few seconds.
―I do understand,‖ he told me. ―I understand never to trust an
outsider again—especially an American.‖


I felt like the walls were closing in, but I managed to tell him, ―Kill
me.‖
―What did you say?‖
I took a breath and repeated myself, ―Kill me…but let her live.‖
He snarled at that and asked, ―Did you and Nigel let Ella live? Did
you show her mercy?‖
―I had nothing to do with that—or with Nigel.‖
From behind, Michelle cried out, ―We haven‘t done anything! Why
are you—?‖
―Shut your mouth!‖ Gundersen yelled, ―or I‘ll have him shut it for
you!‖ He pointed to Luis, who was still holding a gun to her head.
He then stepped closer to me and let me know, ―You and this
woman, this whore, are going inside this box where you can think
about all you‘ve done. Between the two of you, you can decide who is
to blame.‖ He paused for a moment and then added, ―Don‘t worry,
Van Essen, I will kill you soon enough. Before this ship leaves tonight,
this container will be at the bottom of the river.‖
He then turned to Diego and the guard, gave them a nod, and
walked off.
Once Gundersen was gone, Diego whacked me on the back with his
club. ―You heard the man. Into the box.‖
I winced from the pain, then struggled to my feet and stepped
toward the container. Once I was close, the guard pulled the Taser
wires out of my back and Diego used his foot to shove me the rest of
the way in. I landed face first and felt my front teeth scrape against the
cold steel floor. Seconds later, I heard Michelle scream as they threw
her beside me and slammed the doors shut.
It was dark inside, and the stench was almost unbearable. I heard
Michelle weeping. She then called to me, ―Craig?‖
―I‘m right here,‖ I replied. I held my arms out and scooted across
the floor until I felt her. She grabbed my hand and then threw her arms
around me. She was trembling and breathing rapidly and I could tell
she was on the verge of going into shock.


―What…what‘s happening, Craig?‖
I knew there was nothing I could say to make it all better. I held her
tightly and said in a low, calm voice, ―Try to take a couple of slow,
deep breaths.‖ I patted her on the back for a moment and could hear
her breathing slow a bit.
There was a thin ray of light coming from between the doors. She
turned to it and asked, ―Are they going to leave us in here?‖
I could tell she needed some words of comfort, so I lied, ―My
people know where I am. I‘m certain someone will come for us before
too long.‖
I continued holding her tightly and she seemed to relax further.
After a minute or so, she sniffed a few times and asked, ―What‘s that
smell? It‘s awful.‖
Just then, we both heard a groaning sound from the far end of the
container.
―What was that?‖ she asked. ―Someone else is in here.‖
Tjuren?
My eyes had only begun to adjust to the darkness and I couldn‘t see
much of anything. I let go of Michelle and began crawling on my hands
and knees, feeling around. I then heard another groan and went right
to it. Lying in the far corner, I felt a body wrapped in a blanket.
―Tjuren?‖ I asked. ―Is that you?‖
I seemed to have startled him. He turned to me with slow, jerking
movements and replied, ―It is I.‖
―Who is it?‖ Michelle called out. ―Did you find someone?‖
―It‘s a friend,‖ I told her. ―His name is Amol Thorsen—but he is
known as Tjuren.‖
I sat beside him and helped wrap the blanket around him more
tightly. ―I‘m surprised to find you alive.‖
He snorted at that.
I asked, ―What have they done with Axel‘s body?‖


He thought for a moment and then answered, ―One of the guards
took him, and promised he‘d be buried properly at sea. He also
brought me water and some food.‖
―Can you tell me what he looked like?‖
He thought again and told me, ―He was a young, thin-looking
fellow…and he had a beard, if I recall.‖ He then asked, ―Who is with
you?‖
I let him know, ―God hasn‘t abandoned us, Amol. He put us in here
with an angel.‖ I called to her, ―Michelle, come sit with Tjuren and I.‖
As she crawled over to where we were sitting, Tjuren asked me,
―Where are we? I heard the cranes running.‖
―New York Harbor,‖ I told him. ―The ship is being unloaded.‖
He shook his head. ―Oh God. He‘s going to go through with it.‖
―Go through with what?‖
―Has he told you about the devices?‖
―He mentioned them, but never told me what they are.‖
He drew a weary breath, ―They may as well be from the darkest
corner of hell. Bjorn spent years trying to come up with a way to do it.
Then one day—‖
―A way to do what?‖ I asked.
He paused for a long moment, then cleared his throat and replied,
―To make the earth move, of course.‖
―Like an earthquake?‖
―Precisely. Didn‘t Bjorn explain any of this to you?‖
―No, he didn‘t.‖ I asked him, ―Did he happen to use one of these
devices in Tokyo? During the—‖
―During the Summer Olympic games,‖ he said. ―I‘m afraid the
answer to that is ‗yes.‘‖
―That was a manmade earthquake?‖
He nodded. ―That was Gundersen.‖ He explained, ―The device had
only been scientifically tested once, and that was done secretly in a


remote part of Sweden by Bjorn and I. That test resulted in only a
small tremor. Bjorn had predicted a similar small quake in Japan, which
we hoped would serve as a warning and also draw attention to our
cause. But, of course, as you know all too well…it didn‘t work out that
way. Bjorn had underestimated how fragile the Earth‘s surface was in
that part of Tokyo—‖
―My God.‖ I drew a deep breath.
Michelle spoke up, ―Craig, you told me that your wife and daughter
were killed in that earthquake. Is he saying they were murdered?‖
My head was spinning upon hearing all this, which was too much
too fast. I told her, ―Ask Tjuren that question.‖
Tjuren coughed a couple of times and then answered, ―My dear girl,
it was never our intention to hurt anyone. Nonetheless, many innocent
people died as a result of our foolish and impulsive actions.‖
―Were you part of that?‖ she asked. ―Were you involved?‖
He seemed to think about that for a few seconds and then told her,
―I‘m ashamed to admit it, but I was quite involved.‖ He then turned
slowly to me and said, ―I know, sir, after…after losing your family that
it‘s far too much to ask, but, perhaps—‖
―I forgive you.‖
―Wha…what did you say?‖
―I said, ‗I forgive you.‘‖
At that, he seemed speechless for a long moment before he slowly
began to weep. This he did quietly at first, then aloud. Michelle, too,
became deeply saddened by what she‘d heard and began to cry along
with him.
Listening to them weeping while thinking of Jessica and Chandis
softened my heart as well, to the point that I soon felt one small tear
fall from my eye.
Perhaps two.



Chapter 38

I felt the back of my head and realized I now had a good-sized lump
from being whacked with a club. I could also feel a major headache
coming on, which sucks, but it did take my attention away from my
right shoulder, which really ached. I hadn‘t heard a crack, but I
wondered if something there might be broken. Still, as long as I could
move my arm I was okay since it took my mind off the fact that all my
muscles were aching and twitching, which I guess was the normal after-
effect of being electrocuted a couple of times.
What was more painful than anything though, was knowing that
Michelle was now involved in all this. That, and knowing what
Gundersen was about to do to her and being unable to stop him.
I finally knew what the devices Gundersen spoke of actually were,
and it turns out Mark Westfall‘s suspicions were right all along.
Gundersen, in his genius, had designed and built a machine that was
somehow capable of creating an earthquake. I now knew that Jessica
and Chandis‘s deaths were not an accident. I also realized that this
weapon—which was capable of unthinkable destruction—was in the
hands of a madman.
I let all that sink in for a while and then asked Tjuren, ―How was
Nigel Adams involved in all this?‖
He coughed again to clear his throat, and began, ―Bjorn and I had
prepared a message…‖ He began coughing again, this time harder.
Michelle felt his forehead and told me, ―He‘s burning with fever.‖
I felt his head, which did seem warm. ―He‘s lost blood and probably
has an infection,‖ I told her. ―He was stabbed in the abdomen earlier
with a knife.‖
―What? By who?‖
―Gundersen,‖ Tjuren said, answering her question. ―Worst of all, he
killed my son, just so he could tear my heart in two… which he did.‖
He paused a moment, then stated the obvious, ―Gundersen has
become quite insane.‖


―I‘m sorry about your son,‖ Michelle told him. ―I cannot imagine
your pain.‖
He made no reply to that and continued explaining, ―In Tokyo, we‘d
prepared a message for the world to hear, and I sent one copy of it to a
contact of mine at the BBC and another to the head of the Olympic
committee just before Bjorn initiated the earthquake—‖
I cut in, ―But the message wound up being confiscated and kept
from public knowledge. Right?‖
―I believe that is correct. Nonetheless, Nigel Adams seems to have
obtained a copy of it. Somehow, he and his people managed to trace it
to me.‖
―That explains a few things,‖ I said to him, and then asked, ―Who
does Nigel work for, anyway? Do you know?‖
He groaned. ―Everything he told me turned out to be a lie, but I
now suspect that he was some kind of British agent all along. Maybe
MI6.‖ He continued, ―After winning my confidence, he quickly learned
that it was Bjorn who had invented the device, and that he alone
understood the complex workings of it.‖
―Why was Nigel in prison with us? Was that part of his plan?‖
Michelle was surprised by that and asked me, ―You were in prison?‖
Uh oh. I placed my hand on her shoulder. ―I can explain all this—‖
―You‘d better.‖
Tjuren had waited for his turn to speak, and now answered my
question, ―I believe it was Nigel that arranged to have Bjorn and
several members of our group arrested and placed in Oberwald. I
suspect his plan was to befriend Bjorn while in prison and then coerce
him into revealing the location of the devices and how they work.‖ He
added, ―Nigel never expected that Bjorn would escape from
Oberwald—though he did, along with you.‖
Michelle asked me, ―So…you‘re an escaped prisoner?‖
I was sure Michelle was upset enough about being brought to this
ship and tossed into this steel box. I think she was even more disturbed
to find that her new boyfriend hadn‘t been too forthcoming about
things. I was already in the doghouse, so to speak, and I knew if she


and I somehow got out of this alive I‘d have a lot of explaining and a
lot of bullshitting to do. Mostly bullshitting.
In reply, I told her, ―I‘ll explain everything later. Please trust me.‖
It was quiet for a moment, then Tjuren asked me, ―For what reason
did the ship come to a halt this morning? We seemed to have stopped
for about ten minutes or so.‖
―I don‘t know. When I asked Gundersen about that, he refused to
tell me.‖
―Was anything unloaded from the ship at that time? I thought I had
heard a crane running.‖
―I‘m not sure. Why?‖
He seemed to be in thought for a moment and then replied, ―I
believe he may have lowered one of his devices into the sea.‖
―Into the sea? Why would he do that?‖
―I‘m afraid he plans to initiate an underwater earthquake.‖ He let
out a long breath and then explained, ―Bjorn once spoke to me about
the undersea topography outside New York harbor. I remember now
that he seemed excited about what he had discovered. He described it
as being ―perfect‖ for his machine. A perfect place to initiate—‖
―An earthquake?‖ I guessed.
―Worse. If Bjorn‘s calculations were correct and all went as planned,
the device would create a flood surge that would, in theory, destroy
most of the city.‖
Well, that was worse.
In her innocence, Michelle asked, ―Why would he—or anyone—
want to destroy New York?‖
―That has been his intended target for some time,‖ he told her.
―New York is the home of the United Nations. In Bjorn‘s mind, and
even mine I suppose, the UN building represents the antithesis of all
we believe in.‖
I asked, ―Your people wouldn‘t want to see it destroyed though,
would they?‖


―Of course not,‖ he replied. ―Our group, the Skilja, are on a mission
of peace. Nonetheless, I suspect that Bjorn, in his madness, would still
target it if given the chance.‖ He thought for a moment and added,
―He has probably persuaded some members of the group, the weaker
minded ones, to go along with his plan.‖
Michelle asked, ―Who would follow a madman? Who would go
along with something horrible like that?
―History proves that if properly motivated and convinced that they
are doing God‘s will, men can be led to commit unthinkable atrocities.‖
―But still…‖
―Bjorn Gundersen is surely mad,‖ he continued, ―Nonetheless; his
arguments can be most convincing, my dear.‖ He paused in thought
for a moment and then admitted, ―I have caught even myself being
persuaded by his clever words.‖
I asked, ―What did Nigel want the devices for? What was his plan?‖
―I can only assume that he hoped to prove that what happened in
Tokyo was an act of terrorism…though he and his employers may
have had other motives in addition to that.‖
―For their use as a weapon?‖
―Possibly.‖
―Does anyone beside Gundersen know how the devices work?
Where are the plans for these things kept?‖
―There are no plans or schematics of any kind,‖ Tjuren told me.
―Everything is inside Bjorn‘s head. As far as I am aware, no one else
knows anything.‖
I considered that, then asked him, ―How are the damned things
activated? Are they on a timer, or…?‖
―No,‖ he replied. ―Bjorn designed them to be set off by remote
control. That way he can decide if and when to activate them.‖
―Even when they‘re underwater?‖
―They are designed in a rather clever way,‖ he answered. ―They each
have a receiver with a long cord fastened to the top of the main
apparatus. The fastening agent is made of simple hardened sugar,


which slowly dissolves when exposed to salt water. Once dissolved, the
receiver will float up to the surface where it waits to receive a
transmission signal.‖
―That is clever.‖
He had no comment to add, so I asked, ―How close would he have
to be to transmit to the receiver?‖
He thought about that and let me know, ―With a good transmitter,
maybe twenty miles.‖
Well, I was sure Gundersen had a good transmitter, but I was also
fairly sure that the device had been submerged at least forty miles or
more from the harbor, judging from how long it took us to travel from
the spot where the ship had stopped to the harbor. Of course, with a
helicopter, he could position himself directly over the thing if he
wanted. This reminded me of what I saw when Emerald and I first
landed on the ship. I asked Tjuren, ―Would he have any reason to place
one of these devices in the Mediterranean?‖
He exhaled deeply and then replied, ―I pray not. There are places
there that would be very susceptible. An undersea earthquake in that
region, if properly placed and timed right, would be…catastrophic.‖
I considered that and asked, ―Would it have made any difference
where he placed the device? Did it need to be in deep water, or…?
―Bjorn would have placed it in or around an area of seismic
weakness or, if possible, close to an undersea ledge for maximum
effect. He would also wait until just before the peak of high tide to
activate the device. Once again, this would be for maximum effect. That
is why—‖
Just then, we heard the doors of the container unlatch. After that,
they swung open and their rusty hinges squeaked as our eyes squinted
from the light. Three figures strode toward us. I was really hoping this
was the police and they were here to tell us that Bjorn Gundersen was
dead and that they‘d brought fresh bagels for us.
Once my eyes adjusted to the light, I was disappointed to see
Gundersen standing in front of us. From the look in his eyes, I didn‘t
think this was going to be a friendly visit—and I didn‘t see any bagels,
either. Diego was standing just to his left, and I noticed his hair was


still perfect. I also noticed he was holding a gun and had it aimed at
me. To the right of him was the chubby guard, the stupid one with the
large birthmark who had tasered me earlier. I could see he still had a
club hooked onto his belt and had a fresh Taser pointed in our
direction. My direction, actually.
Gundersen stepped forward and got down on one knee. Before he
got the chance to say anything crazy, Tjuren turned and begged him,
―Please, my old friend, stop what you are doing. It‘s not too late, Bjorn.
You can stop now, before—‖
―I‘m surprised you are still alive, you old fool,‖ Gundersen said.
―And I‘m also surprised you are not delighted with what I am about to
accomplish.‖
Even over the stench of urine and feces, I could smell booze rolling
off Gundersen and I knew it would be useless to try to reason with a
walking brewery.
Tjuren shook his head and replied, ―You will accomplish nothing
but senseless destruction, Bjorn.‖ He sighed and added, ―You have
become a terrorist. You must understand that they will find you.‖
He laughed at that. ―Just like Tokyo, they won‘t know what hit
them—other than a natural catastrophe. Mother Nature strikes again.‖
He laughed at that.
The bastard. I thought that if I could move my feet under myself, I
could leap forward and probably get a hold of him. If I had a few
seconds, I could probably break his neck—or at least try to gouge his
eyes out. Right now, I‘d be willing to risk being Tasered again just for
the chance to kick him square in the crotch. Unfortunately, as soon as I
tried to reposition myself, the idiot guard stepped forward and pointed
the Taser into my face.
Tjuren shook his head and told Bjorn, ―They will know, Bjorn. You
are forgetting that Nigel Adams is still out there—and he hasn‘t
forgotten the name Bjorn Gundersen.‖
Well, I‘d bet Nigel hasn‘t forgotten the name Craig Van Essen
either, especially when he sits down or wipes his ass.
Gundersen ignored Tjuren‘s warning and told him, ―He will be
looking for earthquakes, not what I am about to produce.‖ He leaned


forward and reminded him, ―It was you that allowed Nigel into the
fold. Because of you, you old fool, my sister—‖
―I‘m afraid you are the old fool, Bjorn. If you proceed with your plan
of destruction, they will hunt down every last one of—‖
―Shut up!‖ Gundersen shouted. He didn‘t want Diego or his idiot
guard to hear this insolence, so he told Tjuren, ―If you say one more
word, I‘ll kill you here and now. Don‘t test me‖
Michelle decided to try to reason with Gundersen and explained,
―This man is already dying. He needs to be taken to a hospital at once.‖
Gundersen forced a smile. ―You may shut your mouth as well, my
dear, or I will strangle you in front of your boyfriend.‖
At that, I made a quick mental note: First chance I get, I‘m going to
cut his fucking head off.
Gundersen then turned to Tjuren and informed him, ―I have
prepared a message to be sent to our media contacts, as well as
everyone on the Olympic Committee.‖ He then grinned in a sinister
way and said, ―At eleven o‘clock tonight, everything changes.‖
Tjuren heard that and replied, ―I can only hope that these mindless
thugs of yours will have enough sense to stop you before then.‖ He
then glanced first at Diego and then the guard and shouted to them,
―He is a monster and madman! Kill him before he kills millions!‖
―Damn you—I told you to shut up!‖ At that, Gundersen stood and
grabbed the club from the guard‘s belt. Before anyone had time to
think or react, he swung down hard with the club and delivered a fierce
blow to Tjuren‘s head. Then another and another.
Michelle grabbed onto me and screamed into my ear. During that, I
could feel blood spattering onto me. I looked up to see Diego with his
gun held out and pointed at me, just waiting for me to lift a finger in
protest. The guard still had his Taser pointed at Michelle and me, too,
but I noticed he was looking down at Tjuren‘s bloodied face and
seemed to be almost in shock.
I was angry inside; so much so that I could feel pure adrenaline
rushing through my veins. They had me pinned down for now, but I
knew that if I ever got out of this box alive, I would hunt Gundersen
down.


Even in the dim light, I could see that Gundersen‘s face was red and
contorted. His eyes were bulging, too, and he was breathing hard. He
looked at Michelle and me and barked, ―Get up—both of you!‖
At this point, Michelle was sobbing uncontrollably and I was sure
she was almost in shock herself. I told Gundersen, ―Fuck off.‖
He didn‘t like being spoken to that way, especially in front of his
goons, so he warned me, ―Get up—or I‘ll Taser your little girlfriend in
the tits.‖
Well, I wouldn‘t put anything past him, so I stood. As I did,
Gundersen took a wild swing at me with the club. I ducked back down
and felt the end of the club pass just over my head. He then swung
again, this time in a downward sweep. Quickly, I reached out and
caught the end of the club with my right hand.
The instant I did that, Diego stepped forward with his gun. This
time, however, it was pointed down at Michelle‘s head. ―Drop it!‖ he
told me. ―Let go of the club right now or the girl gets the bullet!‖
I let out a long breath while I held firmly to the club. I looked into
Gundersen‘s bulging eyes. Neither of us blinked.
Diego warned me, ―You have one second!‖
I waited a full second and let go. Gundersen and I were still eye-to-
eye and I told him, ―If you didn‘t have your babysitters here, I‘d have
caved your skull in just then.‖
He snarled at that. ―You really think so?‖ he asked. ―Let‘s do it
then.‖
―You‘re on.‖
He glanced over at Diego and the guard. ―Both of you—get back.
Leave Van Essen and I to fight.‖
I knew this would be my one and only chance.
Cautiously, Diego and the guard took one step back, and then
another. Nonetheless, they still had their weapons drawn and aimed.
I glanced down at Tjuren for a second, and could see that the side
of his forehead was bashed in and there was a trail of blood running
down the side of his head. I looked back at Gundersen and told him,


―This is supposed to be between you and me. Order your morons to
lower their weapons and back off.‖
Just as he turned to pass that message along, Emerald appeared at
the door. Gundersen looked over at her.
She studied the scene for a moment, which probably didn‘t look too
good. She also seemed to make brief eye contact with me, then at
Gundersen and let him know, ―The chopper needs to be moved off
the containers.‖
He nodded at her. ―Then move it.‖
―The rest of the crew is gathered for your meeting,‖ she said. ―It‘s
just a hunch, but I think they‘re expecting you to be there.‖
He nodded again. ―I‘m on my way.‖
After Emerald stepped away, he turned back to me. While slapping
the end of the club in the palm of his hand he said, ―Too bad I‘m out
of time, Van Essen. I would have loved beating you to death with
this.‖ He then began to leave.
I called to him, ―You have time, Bjorn—or is it that you don‘t have
the balls to fight me alone?‖
I was hoping to get him to come back, but instead he laughed and
waved the club as he stepped outside.
―Come back!‖ I shouted. ―Just you and me—man to man.‖
As Diego and the guard began to close the doors, Gundersen turned
back and assured me, ―Don‘t worry, Mr. Van Essen. Before long, you
and your lovely accomplice will find yourselves at the bottom of this
harbor.‖ He grinned widely and added, ―And soon after that, you will
be joined by many, many others.‖
I could hear him laughing aloud as the doors shut. As for myself, I
didn‘t think this was funny at all. That doesn‘t mean I don‘t understand
irony. It doesn‘t mean I don‘t have a sense of humor, either. It just
means I‘m not crazy.




Chapter 39

A light wind continued from the east, along with an occasional gust of
frigid air. With it, she could detect the faint scent of diesel fumes
coming from the loading trucks and lift vehicles nearby. She glanced
down and checked the signal again, then took hold of her binoculars
and gazed out at the ship being unloaded in the distance. After taking a
moment to focus, she could make out the name AGNES ANN spelled
out in large white letters across the forward side of the ship.
Soon, she looked and saw that the cranes had come to a sudden
stop. After this, she heard what sounded like the loud whine of a jet
engine coming to life. Minutes later, she was surprised to see a
helicopter lift off from a pad at the rear of the ship. She watched as it
continued upward to an altitude of about five hundred feet. Once
there, the craft positioned itself and began heading north.
She focused the binoculars again, then followed the helicopter
carefully for a minute until it had reached a spot upriver, just two piers
away, where it began a gradual descent. It continued dropping slowly
and gracefully against the distant backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and
countless Manhattan skyscrapers until it finally touched down on a
small heliport, which appeared to extend from the end of the pier and
out into the East River.
It had begun drizzling again, and the thin sheets of ice and piles of
snow were slowly melting into puddles over the vast shipyard. A
sudden gust startled her as cold droplets blasted against her exposed
face. She wiped her face on her sleeve, then looked around again.
Between where she was standing and the ship, a distance of about one
thousand feet, stood a small guardhouse positioned at the side of a
gated entrance. Two uniformed security guards wearing florescent
green vests were checking each vehicle coming through.
A clock on the side of the guardhouse let her know it was 4:40 p.m.,
and she figured the guard‘s workday would be winding down soon. To
the north, she noticed a group of dockworkers walking together and
could see they were headed toward a large building. She looked around
for a second, and then started in that direction. Walking quickly,


though not so much as to be noticed, she soon caught up with the
group. She watched as the person in front of the line held a card near a
reader, waited a moment, and then pushed open a steel door. On the
door was a sign posted in bold capital letters which read
EMPLOYEES ONLY.
Keeping her head down, she did her best not to be noticed as she
followed everyone through the door and into a large break room. The
center of the room was filled with tables and chairs. On a wall to her
left, she noticed that a large TV was turned on and playing what
appeared to be a tournament basketball game, and a few of the workers
had directed their attention to that. On her right was a bright blue
Pepsi machine, and beyond that she spotted a long rack where hard
hats, safety vests, and coats were hung on hooks.
She stepped over to the Pepsi machine and pulled out her debit
card. From the reflection on the front of the machine, she could see
that most of the group were either heading into the locker area located
at the far end of the break room or had gone out to the docks through
the back door to her right. She waved her debit card over the reader,
then selected a Pepsi and grabbed it from the dispenser. After that, she
grabbed a yellow hardhat and an orange vest from the rack and exited
unnoticed through the back door.
As she entered the dockyard, she pulled her wool hat from her head,
then pulled her hair up and placed the hardhat over that, quickly
adjusting the hat size with a knob positioned on the back. That done,
she slipped the vest over her jacket and tried to appear nonchalant as
she headed out across the yard and toward the pier.
While walking, she popped open the soda can and took a sip. Just
then, a large white pickup truck pulled beside her and slowed down.
The driver, a rugged-looking fellow of about forty or so, lowered the
right-side window, then leaned over and asked her, ―Where‘re you
heading?‖
The girl turned and pointed. ―To that ship right there, the Agnes
Ann.‖ She then smiled and asked, ―Hey, can you give me a ride?‖
Before the man could think of a reply, she opened the door and
hopped in. She pointed to the Agnes Ann and told him, ―Thanks. I‘m
glad I didn‘t have to walk.‖


He looked at her for a few seconds, then began driving in the
direction of the ship. After a moment, he turned and asked,
―So…what‘s your name, anyway?‖
―Paige,‖ she replied, and then changed the subject, ―Hey, I like your
truck. What do you do, anyway?‖
He laughed at the question and told her, ―I‘m a longshoreman,
sweetheart. What‘d ya think?‖ He looked at her for a moment and
asked, ―What do you do? I haven‘t noticed you around here before.
And where‘s your security—?‖
―I left it on the ship,‖ she said, cutting him off. ―That‘s why I need
to go back.‖
―Oh…‖
She smiled demurely and added, ―I‘ll keep it glued to me next
time—don‘t worry.‖ She then gave him a wink.
―Uh…yeah. This place is real strict—‖
―Tell me about it.‖
―You know, we‘re supposed to contact security if we catch anybody
without their badge.‖
―Well, don‘t do that or I‘ll, like, get in trouble for leaving it behind.
My boss will be pissed.‖
―Who‘s your boss?‖
―Craig Van Essen.‖
―Who the hell is that?‖
―He‘s the guy that‘ll be pissed if he finds out I forgot my badge.‖
He seemed to think about that, then told her, ―Well…all right, but
just be careful not to misplace that thing next time, okay?‖
―Okay. Got it.‖
A minute later, the driver pulled beside the Agnes Ann and slowed
to a stop. Paige thanked him for the ride, then climbed out and looked
around. Moments earlier, while approaching the ship, she‘d seen one
person walking up the personnel-boarding ramp. Now, as she looked
around, she noticed there was no one securing the entryway.


―Do you want me to wait?‖ the driver asked, interrupting her
thoughts.
―Uh…no. I‘ll probably be in there for a while—but thanks anyway.‖
He gave her a nod and pulled away.
With some apprehension, Paige glanced around one last time and
took a deep breath. Without further hesitation, she strode quickly to
the entryway and headed up the ramp. Once she‘d reached the ship,
she crossed a wide threshold, then went through an entranceway and
stepped into a dark antechamber where she took a moment to stop and
listen.
Hearing nothing, she proceeded into the belly of the beast.




Chapter 40

Though she was nervous, Paige O‘Neill continued slowly into the ship.
She stepped softly as she entered a wide, dimly lit corridor. To her, it
seemed strange that no one was monitoring the ship‘s entryway. It was
also eerily quiet onboard and she began to wonder where everyone
was.
She stopped for a moment and again pulled the radio direction
finder from inside her jacket. After raising the large H-shaped antenna,
she turned on the device and began to move it slowly from left to right.
She could see a reading, which was fairly clear, and could tell it was
coming from one of the floors directly above her.
Where the corridor ended, she turned left and discovered a narrow
staircase. Using soft steps, she made her way up the stairs all the way to
the main deck.
Once there, Paige ducked into a small alcove and listened again for
any signs of activity. Hearing nothing, she checked the directional
antenna and could tell that Craig‘s radio signal from coming from her
left.
Without a sound, she stepped out and watched the signal readings
as she walked along the deck. Near the end of the deck, the signal
suddenly changed as though she‘d walked past it. She stopped and took
a few seconds to look around. Across the river, she could see the dense
concrete forest of high-rise buildings covering the southern tip of
Manhattan. Many of offices in those buildings were beginning to light
up as the grey skies darkened further with the coming of night.
Beside her, she noticed a large observation room fitted with wide
tinted-glass windows reaching from one side of the ship to the other,
each with wipers mounted on the outside. This, she knew, would have
to be the bridge. From the radio signal, she also knew this had to be
the location from which Craig‘s transmitter beacon was emitting.
Paige tried the door to the bridge and was surprised to find it
unlocked. Stepping in, she took a moment to glance around and found
there was no one inside. Across the front of the wide room were two
main consoles, each with monitors, buttons, lights, switches, and a few


conspicuously empty chairs. There was also a station with what
appeared to be a large round radar screen. Between the two consoles
was the helm, which was fitted with an unexpectedly small wheel, and
behind that was a wall filled with more lights, switches, and an array of
complex communication and navigation equipment.
She looked down at her directional antenna and began following its
signal, which led her to a door on the port side. The signal seemed to
be coming from above the door, which, to her, didn‘t make sense.
Nonetheless, she pulled one of the chairs from the console over to the
door and stood up on it. She then reached up and ran her hand along
the sill plate over the door where she soon discovered the tiny devise.
She climbed down from the chair with the transmitter in her hand
and immediately recognized it as Craig‘s. Just then, one of the ship‘s
radios chirped out a garbled communication, startling her and causing
her heart to jump. She tossed the small transmitter into the trash along
with her signal finder and headed back out to the deck.
Once outside, Paige leaned over the rail and could see light coming
from one of the large rooms below. Listening, she thought she could
hear the sound of voices coming from there as well. As she headed
back to the stairs, she wondered why Craig would have hidden the
transmitter—and why in such an odd location. She also wondered what
he‘d meant when he said he felt ‗something major‘ could be going
down tonight. He‘d warned her to stay away from the ship though, of
course, she‘d chosen to ignore that piece of instruction. Moreover, he
had warned her that the people he was involved with were dangerous,
though she had given little thought to that as well.
Until now, that is.
Only now was she beginning to understand how precarious her
situation actually was. She knew Bjorn Gundersen was near, either on
board or somewhere close to the ship. She didn‘t trust Gundersen, and
had every reason to believe that Craig didn‘t have much faith in him
either.
After finding the transmitter, Paige was concerned that something
terrible may have happened to her boss, Craig. She was also beginning
to worry that something unpleasant could happen to her if she were
caught sneaking around—especially if Gundersen discovered her. She


was aware that, if caught, she could be arrested and charged with
trespassing. At this point, however, she was starting to think that she
might not make it off the ship alive.
She pushed those thoughts out of her head as she returned to the
staircase. Silently, she descended one flight and stopped to look
around. Slowly, she stepped down the hallway and peered around the
corner. From there, she could see the same large lighted room she had
spotted from upstairs. She could also see where all the missing
crewmembers were. Looking through the windows, she could tell that
a meeting was being held and that the whole crew appeared to be in
attendance. Bjorn Gundersen was standing at one end of the room,
and she could make out the sound of his voice as he spoke, though he
was speaking in another language.
Paige looked around the room for any sign of Craig Van Essen, but
he was nowhere to be seen. Just as she put her head out further around
the corner, one of the crewmembers in the room turned and seemed to
lock eyes with her.
At once, Paige ducked behind the wall and ran back to the staircase.
She wasn‘t sure if she‘d been spotted or not, but she wasn‘t going to
take any chances. As swiftly as possible, she headed down the stairs to
the next deck. On the way down, she heard the door of the meeting
room swing open abruptly and could hear voices coming from behind
her.
She now felt certain she‘d been seen and could tell they were
coming to find her. At the bottom of the stairs, she looked around
before darting toward a narrow hallway to her right. At an intersecting
corridor, she turned right again, then left, and soon found herself in a
maze of passageways and halls. Behind her, she could hear male voices
and the sound of heavy feet approaching fast.
Desperately, she tried one of the doors, which was locked, then
another, which was locked as well. She could tell that whoever was
following her was very close, and she could hear by the sound of their
footsteps that they were about to round the corner.
Paige dashed to the last door and tried it. Luckily for her, this one
opened. She ducked in quickly, then closed the door softly behind
herself. Once inside, she could feel her heart pounding as she stepped


backward into the darkened room. She thought of locking the door just
before she saw a group of shadows whisk past the narrow opening at
the door‘s bottom edge.
She stood frozen for a moment. As her eyes adjusted to the
darkness, she could tell she was in one of the cabins. Realizing that
someone could walk in at any moment, she glanced around and then
felt her way into a small bathroom. In the dim light, she could make
out a standup shower to her left.
Just then, she was startled by the sound of the door swinging open
as someone burst into the room. The lights to the main cabin flipped
on. She then heard a stern male voice call loudly, ―Hello? Anybody in
here?‖
Without a sound, Paige stepped into the shower and closed the door
behind her. Inside the shower stall, she noticed a large towel hanging
on a peg. Quickly, she grabbed the towel and draped it over the
translucent Plexiglas door. She then pressed herself tightly into a
corner.
At that moment, a shadow came over the entry to the bathroom and
she watched nervously through an uncovered section between the
doorframe and the towel. A figure emerged, and she could tell it was
the figure of a man.
The man stood for a moment, then spoke in a calm voice, ―Anyone
in here? You can come out now, and no one‘s going to get hurt.‖
Paige had no way of knowing if the man was aware of her presence.
She knew he could be here simply on a hunch since the door to this
room was the only one that had been left unlocked.
She continued watching in silence while taking slow, short breaths.
Suddenly, the man flipped on the light switch and stepped close to the
shower door. After a moment of hesitation, he pushed the door open.
Paige was crouched down in the corner behind the door, frozen in
fear, moving only her eyes. She held her breath and felt as though her
heart had stopped as the man peered in and glanced over at the other
end of the small shower. He then closed the door and began to step
away.


As the door shut, the towel slowly slid down and fell to the floor.
Paige remained perfectly still and watched in terror and the man turned
to look. Through the translucent glass, he seemed to be staring directly
at her. Seconds hung in time before he finally turned away and headed
out of the cabin.
Paige was trembling and frightened, but remained silent and still for
more than a few seconds before she finally took a deep breath and
stood up. After waiting a moment to allow her nerves to calm, she
wiped her eyes and thought about her situation. With no way out other
than the one door, she knew that she couldn‘t risk hiding and waiting
in the cabin much longer.
Besides that, her intuition told her that something had happened to
Craig, and that he might need her help. If that was true, she figured she
had little time to waste. As she considered things further, she realized
that if she was wrong about all this, then the worst she could expect
would be that Craig might be upset at her for disobeying his orders and
send her home.
She looked at her right hand and noticed it was still trembling.



Chapter 41

I‘m not sexist. Well, not that sexist. Nonetheless, I feel it‘s safe to say
that, generally speaking, woman tend to react differently in a crisis
situation than men do.
While that might be a huge understatement, I still had no idea how
Michelle might react once reality sinks in and it dawns on her that this
big, cold steel box is actually a deathtrap and that we aren‘t getting out
of this thing alive. Maybe when that time arrives she‘ll become angry,
and I wouldn‘t blame her. Or maybe she‘ll have a mild psychotic
episode and try to beat the door open. Or maybe she‘ll just withdraw
into a corner and quietly wet herself—which is probably what I‘d do if
I wasn‘t so dehydrated.
Or maybe, just maybe, she‘s wondering how I’ll react once it dawns
on me that this big, cold—
―How are we going to get out of here?‖ Michelle asked, interrupting
my thoughts.
I‘m usually prepared with a quick answer, but I had to dig deep into
my much-used bag of bullshit for this one. ―Just hang in there,‖ I told
her. ―I‘m sure my people will be here soon.‖
As you well know, ‗my people‘ consist of the President of the
United States, who was probably sipping sauvignon blanc right now
while dining on roast pheasant. His mind would be more concerned
with missile codes, next week‘s press conference, and the lady reporter
with the nice legs than he would be with me or my whereabouts. It was
safe to assume that the vice-president was equally oblivious to my
existence and was probably busy dreaming that his boss had a serious
though undiagnosed heart condition. And good old Mark Westfall, the
White House Chief of Staff, had surely control-alt-deleted me from his
list of people to remember ten minutes after I stepped out of his office.
Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Out of respect, I guess I should include my young assistant, Paige
O‘Neill, in that short list of unlikely saviors. Unfortunately, my last
orders to her were to stay away from this ship—not that she‘d be able
to get near this thing anyway. If I understood how her simple mind


worked, and I‘m pretty sure I do, she was probably busy thinking about
something to do with sex. In fact, if I recall correctly, her last piece of
advice for me was that I needed sex.
Well, I don‘t think that‘s going to happen.
In the meantime, I had to resign to the fact that this was the end for
us and that this coffin-shaped container—with us in it—would soon be
dropped over the side of the ship where we‘d find ourselves with the
fish, some seaweed, and maybe a few other bodies that were already
down there. I mean, this is New York, right?
Just then, a sharp clanging metallic sound began striking against the
outside of the container and startled the three of us. As the sound
echoed around us, Michelle asked, ―What‘s that? What are they doing?‖
I made no reply, but went to the door where I peered through a
narrow crack in the door seal gaskets. In the dim light, I spotted one of
Gundersen‘s guards as he passed by. It was the fat, stupid one, and I
could tell he was in the process of rigging the container to be lifted.
This, of course, was bad news.
Tjuren answered Michelle. ―From the sound of it, my dear, I‘d say
that someone is attaching lifting lugs to the top corners of the
container.‖
―For what?‖
―I can only assume they are planning to move us and our little
home.‖
―Move us where?‖ she asked, though I‘m sure she must have had
some vague idea tucked somewhere in the depths of her subconscious.
At least Tjuren and I did, though we weren‘t about to discuss that
gloomy topic right here and now.
I went back to where Michelle was and sat next to her. I patted her
on the back and assured her, ―They‘re probably just moving us to a less
conspicuous spot.‖ Like the bottom of the East River, for example.
―You don‘t suppose they‘re actually going to…‖
―Just relax,‖ I told her. I held her close and smelled her hair for a
moment, then softly kissed her cheek. After that, I whispered into her
ear, ―Everything is going to be all right.‖


It was a rather welcome lie, I‘m sure, and easy on the ears. But a lie
nonetheless.





Chapter 42

Paige pressed her ear against the cabin door and listened carefully.
Satisfied that there was no one outside, she opened it an inch and
peeked out into the hallway. Seeing no sign of anyone, she quietly
slipped out of the room and found her way back to the small stairwell.
Near the landing of the stairs, Paige stopped in her tracks and
cringed as she spotted a large black rat sniffing around in the shadows,
seemingly oblivious to her presence. Its wet fur glistened as it passed
under a ray of light, sending a chill of repulsion over her. As she
reluctantly entered the landing, the creature became startled and
scampered off in the opposite direction.
She calmed herself for a few seconds, then pressed against the near
wall and moved along slowly as she listened for sounds. Coming from
the top of the stairs she heard the faint sound of voices. Quickly, she
ducked into a dark and narrow recess in the closest corner. From
above, she could hear the sound of footsteps, which were soon
followed by the moving shadows of what seemed to be a large group
heading her way.
As the footsteps grew louder, Paige looked and saw the rat once
again as it scurried out from under a crevice on the far side of the
landing. To her horror, the creature stopped, then darted across the
floor and slipped into the same tiny niche where she was hiding.
Paige was aghast, but managed to stifle a scream while the group
descended the stairs from the floor above. As the crew members came
into view, she held her breath and pressed herself as far into the
darkened recess as she could. At her feet, she could feel the wet fur of
the rat brushing against her ankles as it moved nervously about.
Suddenly, the animal pawed at her leg. She tried to contain herself, but
couldn‘t keep from letting out a short yelp.
At the sound of that, one of the crewmen turned and glanced in her
direction. Curious, he stopped for a brief moment, then continued with
the rest of the group as they made their way across the landing and
down the next set of stairs.


Trembling, Paige drew a slow, quiet breath and tried again to calm
herself. Through all this, she managed to keep an eye out for Craig on
the off-chance that he might be with the group. After the last of the
men had walked passed her and disappeared down the stairwell, Paige
gasped for air and kicked at the rat until it ran out of the niche and tore
across the landing and out to the deck.
Paige listened again. Once she felt it was safe, she peered out from
the dark corner and drew another deep breath. At that very moment,
the ship‘s horn sounded from above, letting out an earsplitting blast.
For a few seconds, Paige stood trembling and partially disoriented. Her
ears were ringing and she felt her heart pounding hard in her chest.
After pulling herself together, she stepped slowly from the stairwell
and moved over to the rail at the edge of the deck. Looking to the
stern, she could see that a large tugboat was preparing to move the ship
from the pier while a few of the remaining hands assisted with the
rigging. The rest of the crew had left the ship and she could see they
were now heading to a transport bus which was waiting for them at the
end of the dock.
Within minutes, the tug crew expertly inched the huge vessel away
from its place at the pier. During this maneuver, Paige made her way
quietly from the port to the starboard side and watched as the ship
moved slowly to a long, narrow floating pier which was positioned
further out in the river. Once the ship was secured to the new location,
most of the running lights were shut down. Soon after that, it became
eerily still and silent onboard.
The tugboat captain signaled the remaining Agnes Ann crew with a
quick toot as it headed downriver to assist an incoming freighter. From
above, Paige watched while the deck hands headed down to the
floating berth where they boarded small transport boats which took
them to the main pier and the waiting bus.
Once they were gone, Paige began to search again for signs of Craig.
She headed back up the stairs, returning to the bridge castle. As she
stepped out of the stairwell, she was greeted by a blast of frigid air. She
moved cautiously along the deck aware that there would be at least two
guards on board watching the ship. She was also aware that she‘d been
lucky so far not to be caught, but knew her luck wasn‘t going to hold
out forever.


Soon, she heard a distant whining sound which seemed to be
coming from the main deck. Silently, she crept along the outside of the
bridge, remembering to stay below the windows where she‘d be hidden
in the shadows and out of sight.
At the front of the bridge, she looked over the rail to the main deck
below. On the port side, she could see one of the cranes was being
operated and it seemed ready to lift a small container. Paige watched
for a moment. She thought it was odd that a container would be
moved while the ship was away from the loading pier, and especially
when almost the entire crew had left for shore. Still, she understood
that container ships often move their cargo about and for various
reasons.
She turned from the rail and decided to head back downstairs and
take a look at the vast storage area below deck. Just as she stepped
away, a faint sound came to her over the shrilling whine of the crane
motor. Quickly, she spun around and held her hand to her ear as she
leaned again over the rail. Once again, she heard a distant, desperate
sound cutting through the cold night air and she knew at once what it
was.
A cry for help.



Chapter 43

After darting down the stairs, Paige ran as fast as she could across the
main deck in the direction of the crane operator, who she could see
was seated inside a small compartment, his back facing her. She yelled
to him to stop before noticing he was wearing a set of hearing
protectors over his ears.
Paige hurried past the crane station and leaned over the rail. Below
her, she could see that the container was almost completely in the
water. Just as it was about to go under, she heard another desperate cry
for help, and it sounded to her like a woman‘s voice.
Seeing Paige, the man at the controls stopped the crane and stepped
out of the small compartment. As he climbed down a short ladder, he
heard Paige calling to him and he removed his hearing protectors.
At the top of her voice, Paige yelled to him, ―Pull the container up,
quick! There‘s someone in there!‖
He ignored the request and walked straight toward her.
―Didn‘t you hear me?‖ Paige asked. ―Pull the container out of the
water—now!‖
―Who the hell are you?‖ he asked, slowly drawing a bright yellow
Taser from his side holster.
Paige studied the man for a brief moment. From the tag on his
jacket, she could see his name was Gustav, and he was one of the
ship‘s security guards. Gustav was a big, heavyset guy and she couldn‘t
miss the large wine-red birthmark on one side of his face. She thought
quickly and replied, ―I‘m a friend of Bjorn Gundersen, and you need to
do what I say, right now.‖
The guard shook his head. ―I take orders only from Gundersen or
the Captain—not from strangers.‖
Paige glanced over the rail once again, and could see that the
container was still under water. She turned back to the guard, who now
had his Taser aimed at her. She glanced down and saw a red laser dot
moving around on her chest, then looked up again with a frown and
warned him, ―I wouldn‘t pull that trigger if I were you.‖


―Why not? Obviously you‘re a spy or an enemy of some kind.‖
She lied, ―Mr. Gundersen will kill you if you harm one hair on my
head.‖
With his left hand, Gustav pulled out his phone from his pocket and
checked it. ―Then why hasn‘t he called me, or sent a message?‖
The guard didn‘t seem easily persuaded, so Paige told him, ―Help
me pull that container out of the water, then we‘ll discuss details.‖
As she stepped in the direction of the crane, the guard moved
forward and shoved her to the ground. He glared down at her and
shouted, ―Stay right where you are or I‘ll pull this trigger, understand?‖
Paige lay there for a second, staring up at Gustav. She noticed there
was someone creeping up quietly behind him and it looked to her like
another security guard. This one was thin, had a short beard, and was
signaling with one finger to his mouth for her to be quiet.
At that, she looked back up at Gustav and raised her hands in
surrender. ―Don‘t shoot,‖ she told him, then looked back again at the
other guard, who had now drawn his club and seemed ready to attack.
She had no idea who he was, what he wanted, or who‘s side he was on,
but she was in no position to do anything but hope for the best.
Gus noticed that Paige had focused on something behind him, and
he turned just in time to see the end of Tim‘s club coming his way.
Quickly, he ducked in time to miss being struck by the club as it swung
over his head. Gustav then straightened himself and aimed the Taser at
Tim‘s chest. Before he could pull the trigger, however, Tim swung
again and delivered a blow to Gustav‘s wrist. At that, the Taser flew
from his hand and dropped to the deck.
Gustav let out a short cry of pain, then lowered himself into a
martial arts stance. In a blur of motion, he landed a hard kick into
Tim‘s chest, sending him crashing to the deck. Before Gustav could
move in for another kick, Tim used the momentum of his fall to roll all
the way back and leap up onto his feet again. Tim shook himself off
for a second before he crouched down and ran straight into Gustav,
tackling him to the deck.
Tim knelt over Gustav with one hand on his throat. With the other
hand, he raised the club and prepared to bring it down at Gustav‘s


head. To Tim‘s surprise, however, Gustav managed to grab the end of
the club with his outreached hand and yanked it from his grasp. Gustav
had the weapon now and he swung quickly at his opponent. He
managed to hit Tim solidly across the side of his head, knocking him to
the ground.
Gustav jumped to his feet and stood over Tim, who appeared
disoriented from the blow to the head. As Gustav raised the club to
deliver the death blow, his body suddenly jerked and he dropped the
weapon to the ground. Spasms raked through him as he stiffened from
head to toe. His mouth hung open in a silent scream as his eyes bulged
in horror.
From the floor of the deck, Tim looked up and watched Gustav as
he shook wildly for a moment before falling forward and landing face
first onto the deck.
He then noticed two thin yellow wires connecting from Gustav‘s
back to a Taser gun, which Paige was holding firmly as she stood over
her victim, her trembling finger still squeezing hard on the trigger.


Chapter 44

The inside of the container was black as ink, and the ice-cold water
stung like a swarm of angry hornets.
I was holding Michelle in one arm and Tjuren in the other, and we
all gasped for air as the water level rose up to our necks.
―Let me go,‖ Tjuren told me, his voice trembling. ―Let me
go…please…so you can save yourselves.‖
Ignoring that, I lifted Michelle and him higher until the water finally
rose over my head. As I tried to swim to the top, Tjuren used what
strength he had left to push himself away and break free of my grasp.
Before I could go after him I needed oxygen, and I pushed myself up
to the remaining pocket of air.
As I filled my lungs, I could see nothing but heard Michelle gasping
in short, panicked breaths.
―Tjuren let go of me,‖ I told her. ―I need to go after him.‖
―Go!‖
―Will you be all right?‖
―Get me out of here…and I‘ll be fine,‖ she replied. ―Now go!‖
I took a deep breath and dove into the darkness, feeling my way
along the steel sides and floor of the container. In the near-freezing
water I felt my oxygen running out quickly. I ran my hands along the
floor for a moment, then felt my lungs burning for air. I searched for
another few seconds, then turned and swam back to the spot where
Michelle was treading water.
I rose up to the small air pocket, which was even smaller now. After
a few breaths, I held onto Michelle‘s arm and told her, ―I can‘t…I can‘t
find him.‖
She was still panting, but told me, ―I‘ll go check.‖ At that, she
quickly broke away from me and pushed herself under. I took a deep
breath and followed her, feeling around for any sign of the old man.
After a minute, Michelle and I found our way back to the tiny air


pocket, which was now only a few inches from the ceiling of the steel
box.
We continued treading water and shivering uncontrollably as we
held each other. In the meantime, our tiny air space became smaller
yet. Before long, when there were only a few breaths of air left, I began
to hear Michelle crying.
I told her, ―I‘m so sorry.‖
A brief moment passed and I realized that our air supply was about
gone. I heard Michelle take one last breath before replying, ―It‘s okay.‖
Before she slipped away, she managed to whisper, ―I love you.‖




Chapter 45

I took my last breath of air and felt myself shaking in the freezing
water while fragments of my life, including visions of things I‘d done,
people I‘d know, and places I‘d been all passed before my eyes in a
split-second.
Just then, I felt myself being pulled down by a sudden and
unexpected inertia as the whole steel box seemed to move sharply
upward. I continued holding my breath for a moment, then pushed
myself back up to the top. There, I realized that the air space was back
again and that the container was being lifted up out of the water.
Quickly, I reached down and grabbed Michelle by the arm. I pulled
her up near the ceiling and held her head in the air pocket, which was
becoming larger as water poured out through all the openings, broken
seals, and vents. I couldn‘t tell if she was breathing, but I filled my
lungs and gave her a rescue breath to be sure. Within seconds, she
began coughing loudly, which was about the most beautiful thing I‘d
ever heard.
The water level inside continued dropping. Soon, I could keep my
mouth above water while standing on my toes. Holding Michelle up by
the waist, I asked, ―Are you all right?‖
She seemed to think about that for a moment, then asked me,
―What‘s happening?‖
In truth, I had no idea why we‘d been pulled out of the river, but I
told her, ―I think my people finally found us.‖
Before she had a chance to comment on that, we suddenly found
ourselves being tossed about as the water around us began to roll to
one side, then the other. Apparently, the crane was moving us back to
the deck and the remaining water rocked back and forth making it feel
like we were inside a huge washing machine. I held on to Michelle and
tried to keep her head above water without being banged around or
knocked out by the steel walls and ceiling.
Seconds later, I felt the container touch down solidly on the surface
of the deck. Just as the water inside began to settle, someone pulled up


on the door levers, causing the doors to burst open like a floodgate. All
at once, the water and everything inside—including us—dumped out
onto the ship‘s deck.
In all the chaos, I lost my hold on Michelle and soon found myself
sprawled out across the deck. After waiting a brief moment for my eyes
to adjust to the light, I looked up to see the young, freckled face of my
unlikely savior, Paige O‘Neill, who was beaming down at me. I looked
to my right and spotted Michelle, who was sitting up and coughing
more seawater from her lungs. After a few seconds, she looked over at
me and managed a trembling smile.
I then remembered Tjuren, and turned around to see him laying
naked and face down against a floor drain. I began crawling over to
him as quickly as I could. I saw that Tim, who I knew was one of the
ship‘s guards, was also hurrying to his aid.
Tim and I reached Tjuren and turned him over, and we both knew it
was too late. His skin appeared pale grey and his skull appeared
fractured from where Gundersen had beat him. He was cold as ice with
no sign of breathing. I helped position him properly while Tim began
CPR.
After a minute, I turned to see Michelle, who now was covered with
a thick blanket. Paige brought a second blanket for me, and draped it
over my shoulders while I helped with Tjuren.
Tim continued CPR for a few minutes before I told him, ―That‘s
enough. You can stop now.‖
He stopped compressions and looked at me.
I explained, ―I‘m pretty sure he was ready to go, and I don‘t think
he‘d want us bringing him back from where he is now.‖
We took a moment to honor poor Amol Thorsen. Having lost a
child, I knew he had died more from a wounded heart than from
anything else.
After that, Tim took Michelle and me to a warm cabin where we
were given dry clothes and hot coffee. The two of us were still shaking,
partly from spending so much time in freezing cold water and partly
from the trauma of having come so close to death.


We stood together with our blankets wrapped around us, and I held
Michelle in my arms like I was never going to let go.
Post-trauma reality sometimes creeps in, while other times it hits like
a freight train. All at once, Michelle began weeping and I felt a warm
tear fall from her eye and run down the side of my face. After a long
moment she sniffled, then whispered to me, ―I thought I‘d never see
you again.‖ She sniffled a couple more times and continued, ―I thought
I‘d never get the chance to tell you how I feel about you…and that I
love you.‖
I looked into her eyes, then smiled and let her know, ―I‘ve been in
love with you from the first moment I met you.‖
She smiled back at me, then laughed at that while continuing to
weep at the same time. We stood there for a few more minutes, silently
celebrating.
Finally, I whispered to her, ―We need to get off this ship before…‖
Michelle nodded, acknowledging what I was saying without my
having to finish. We tossed the blankets onto the bed, then put on the
clothes and jackets that Tim had provided for us and headed back out
to the deck.
There, I first spoke with Paige, who was justifiably proud of herself
for tracking us down and saving us—despite my firm orders for her to
stay away from the ship.
―You so owe me, Mr. Van Essen,‖ she said with a big grin.
I patted young Paige on the back and reminded her, ―As my paid
assistant, everything you did falls within the scope of your job duties—
including using your intuition to defy my orders and come looking for
me.‖
Michelle nudged me and let me know, ―The girl saved your life—
and mine. I think you owe her, Craig, and big-time.‖
‗Big-time‘ was one of those cliché and overused words I hate. I
needed to reward Paige without her thinking what she done was above
and beyond the call of duty—though it was. Or that I‘d be forever in
her debt—though I probably should be. I looked at Paige and told her,
―You‘ve always been entitled to the benefits of being my assistant.
You‘ve just never asked what they were.‖


―What benefits?‖
―Besides your salary, which is generous, I‘ll pay for your college
education—including all expenses—as long as you maintain at least a
3.0 average.‖
I saw a smile come to her face, and caught Michelle nodding as
though she was impressed with that.
I continued, ―In addition, I‘ll buy you a car of your choice upon
your graduation as long as you agree to continue with me as my
assistant.‖
―What if the car I want is a Mercedes?‖
―Then it‘s yours—upon graduation.‖
Shrewdly, she turned to Michelle. Using my ally to negotiate against
me, Paige asked her, ―Do you think it‘s fair, like, after everything I‘ve
done, that I have to wait until—‖
―All right,‖ I said, foreseeing my defeat, ―you can have the car
now.‖ I pointed my finger at her and began, ―Just don‘t smash it up, or
drink and drive, or let it get towed…‖
Before I could continue, she hugged me and kissed me on the
cheek. ―Thanks, Mr. Van Essen! I knew you were a softie.‖
Softie? Well, I needed to change topics big-time, so I looked at Tim
and told him, ―You and I will need to take care of Amol Thorsen‘s
body.‖
―I‘ve done that already,‖ he said. ―While you and Miss Fontaine
were changing clothes, I took the liberty of transporting the body to
the ship‘s morgue.‖
Wow.
He went on, ―In addition, there was another security guard, one of
Gundersen‘s underlings, who was a definite threat—‖
―Was it the chubby guard with the…?‖ I pointed to the left side of
my face.
Tim nodded at that. ―Gustav.‖ He continued, ―He‘s handcuffed and
locked in a holding cell right now.‖


―I Tasered the livin‘ crap out of him,‖ Paige added, proudly. ―He‘s a
human spark plug now.‖
I held back a grin and asked Tim, ―Did you check his phone?‖
―I have it right here,‖—Tim patted his pocket—―and so far no
calls.‖
Was this guy efficient or what? I should make him my second
assistant. I told him, ―In that case, we should exit this ship ASAP. I
need to take the ladies to somewhere where they‘ll be safe.‖
Tim had that covered, too. ―I have a boat downstairs,‖ he said. ―The
four of us can head downriver.‖ He pointed to a jetty about a half mile
beyond the main pier. ―Once there, we can go ashore for help.‖
I appreciated that, but I had to let him in on a small part of a big
secret, ―I don‘t have time to explain, Tim, but I just want to get
Michelle and Paige to where they‘ll be safe. The last thing we want is to
get the police involved.‖
He seemed to mentally and efficiently digest that for a moment. He
then suggested, ―Let‘s head down to the boat. Once we reach shore,
the three of you can do what you want.‖ He looked me in the eye and
added, ―I‘ll keep this from the cops, too, if that‘s what you want.‖
I gave smart Tim a nod. Maybe he was hoping I‘d buy him a
Mercedes too. Not happening.
Anyway, the four of us left the main deck and went from there to
the outside staircase, which we took straight down to the long floating
pier. Docked inside a small slip at one end was a nice eighteen foot
center console with a small 4-stroke outboard motor. I help the ladies
aboard, then removed all the dock lines while Tim warmed up the
motor. After I jumped in, we pulled out of the slip and were soon
underway. I wanted to make it to the jetty unseen, so I asked Tim to
leave all the lights off, which he did.
Tim handled the wheel like a pro, and the little outboard was nice
and quiet. Ahead to our right, we could see Governor‘s island, which
was nicely lit up using taxpayer dollars. To our left, we could see the
main dock, which now had a new ship being prepared for unloading. I
didn‘t think anyone would be able to see us this far from shore, and I
hoped no one would have a reason to be watching. As far as old Bjorn


Gundersen knew, Michelle and I were now as good as canned tuna at
the bottom of the river—along with his ex-partner.
Paige was sitting at the console next to Tim, and seemed to be
working on him. After a few minutes, she gave Tim a break and leaned
forward to ask me, ―So, what‘s the plan? What are we doing next?‖
―There is no ‗plan.‘ I just want to get you and Michelle away from
the ship, and somewhere safe from Gundersen and his stooges.‖
―Then what?‖
―Then that‘s it.‖
―What about Gundersen?‖ she asked.
―What about him? You and Michelle just need to lay low until we
know he‘s been apprehended.‖
―You should go after the son-of-a-bitch.‖
I made no reply.
―Is it all right to call him a son-of-a-bitch,‖ she asked, ―or is that,
like, an insult to bitches?‖
Michelle was seated next to me, and I heard her chuckle.
I cleared my throat and told Paige, ―That sounds kind of vulgar.‖
She explained, ―I‘m from Brooklyn, where we speak Brooklynese,
okay? Cussing and vulgarity are part of our primary language. You can‘t
converse without the two.‖
I suggested, ―You should to learn to speak like a lady, like Michelle.‖
At that, Michelle let out a laugh. She turned around and told Paige,
―Obviously, he hasn‘t heard me when I‘m angry.‖
―You should go blow his brains out,‖ Paige told me. ―Does that
sound better?‖
―Still too vulgar.‖
―Then I give up.‖
After that, Paige seemed to be thinking about something and asked
me, ―Did Gundersen have a helicopter on the ship?‖
―Yeah. Why?‖


―I saw it take off earlier, when it was still daylight.‖
―Where did it go?‖
―It took off from the back of the ship, then went to a heliport right
there.‖ She pointed off the port quarter to a long pier which appeared
to be less than a mile upriver. ―That‘s where it landed.‖
―Are you sure?‖
She nodded.
Okay, then I do have a plan.
We continued toward the jetty with the cold wind blowing in our
faces. I was looking forward to getting Paige and Michelle to safety. At
the same time, I was working on a plan that would probably get me
into trouble.
Tim was still being cooperative and efficient, and agreed to escort
the ladies by taxi to where Paige‘s aunt and uncle lived, which she said
was a ritzy brownstone located in Dyker Heights, about three miles
from the jetty. In the event that I was unable to stop Gundersen, this
should also be out of the possible flood zone. I think. Hopefully, it was
at least a three-story.
Tim also agreed to let me continue using the boat after they all got
out, though Paige and Michelle didn‘t know about that yet. I think Tim
really had his heart set on a Mercedes.
Before long, we reached the long narrow jetty where Tim pulled up
rather efficiently beside a steel ladder which led up to the dock. After
tying the boat, I helped Paige up the ladder first, who was followed by
Tim. After that, I gave Michelle a kiss, whispered a few things in her
ear, and sent her up the ladder as well.
Once she reached the top, I began to untie the ropes.
―What are you doing?‖ she asked.
―I‘ll have to meet up with you later. In the meantime, stay with Tim
and Paige, okay?‖
―What? Where are you going?‖
―I‘m going after Bjorn Gundersen.‖


―Why?‖
―I have to stop him,‖ I said, which was true.
Well, she couldn‘t argue with that. She made a frown and told me,
―I want you back in one piece, Craig Van Essen.‖
―I will be,‖ I assured her, though I knew that wasn‘t necessarily true.
―You be careful.‖
―I will,‖ I lied.
Paige didn‘t appear too surprised as she stared down at me from the
dock. ―What are you going to do to him?‖
I turned the key and started the motor, then looked up told her,
―I‘m going to blow the son-of-a-bitch‘s brains out.‖


Chapter 46

They say mistakes are proof that you are at least trying. In this
business, mistakes can also be a sure way to get yourself and those
around you killed—whether you‘re trying or not. I wanted to stop
Gundersen before he destroyed New York City and murdered about a
million people. That was right up there at the top of my to-do list for
tonight, and there wasn‘t going to be a lot of room for mistakes.
I was also hoping to survive the night so I could see Michelle again,
though that might be pushing it.
I kept the boat cruising at half-throttle and stayed about 100 yards
from shore as I headed up the river toward the small heliport that
Paige had spotted earlier. With any luck, I‘d find Gundersen there and
I‘d have the chance to crush all of his hopes and plans—and his skull
while I was at it.
I was counting on the element of surprise. This was mainly because,
with the exception of Tim‘s night-stick and my sharp sense of humor, I
was unarmed. Earlier, Tim had offered me a set of handcuffs, which I
politely declined. I wasn‘t planning on taking any prisoners tonight.
I thought about what I should expect when I arrived at the chopper.
Hopefully, I‘d be able get to Gundersen before he could pull out his
gun—assuming he had one. I‘d have to remember to watch out for
Emerald, too, who seemed like the kind of girl who never left the
house unprepared—and I‘m not talking about having a purse full of
condoms.
It was a relief to have Paige and Michelle in safe hands. Now that
that was taken care of, I was able to think more clearly about what was
left of my mission. I felt remarkably calm, which was odd, considering,
and I figured I was subconsciously saving my adrenaline for later,
waiting for when I‘d really need it.
The night sky was black and starless. A frigid wind was still coming
in from the east and I had to compensate for it at the wheel. After I
passed Governor‘s Island, I took in the magnificent Manhattan skyline,
which was now shimmering in the night. I then looked up at the ship,


the Agnes Ann. For some reason, it appeared smaller and less daunting
from this viewpoint, though I knew I‘d be happy if I never saw it again.
I then turned and glanced over to the main pier where I saw that the
ship docked there was now being unloaded. Standing on the near end
of the pier, I noticed a big guy, and he seemed to be looking at me with
binoculars. I also noticed he was standing next to a black Escalade, and
I realized at once who it was.
Luis Lacorde.
And there was the adrenaline moment I was waiting for.
Right here was where the shit would start and where the men would
be separated from the boys. In this kind of work, you can take all the
courses you want, read all the field training manuals in the world, and
have a dozen spy gadgets charged-up and ready to go—and still not be
ready. If you don‘t have what it takes, if you don‘t have that special
indefinable something deep inside that you have to be born with, then
this would be the time to consider a career change.
For me, well, I was the President‘s Agent, and this is where I earn
my paycheck.
Immediately, I hit the throttle and veered the boat straight toward
where Lacorde was standing. Naturally, he wasn‘t expecting this and
took a few steps back, then glanced around before he reached into his
jacket and pulled out what looked like a huge handgun. Big guys, I‘ve
noticed, always think they need a big gun, which is just stupid. Right
now I‘d settle for a pellet rifle.
Just before he squeezed off a shot from his cannon, I swerved hard
to the left and ducked behind the huge cargo ship. There, I was
invisible to him for the moment, but I knew I‘d have to deal with him
face to face before I could get to Gundersen.
The only way to get Luis Lacorde was to keep doing the unexpected.
He was big, like a caveman, and with a small brain to match. Having to
think things through probably slowed him down. When I reached the
far end of the cargo ship that divided him and me, I did the one thing
he‘d never predict: I backed off the throttle and eased around the
ship‘s bow. Then, I quickly reversed the boat to the end of the pier and
grabbed onto a thick rope hanging down from above. Holding the


rope, I placed the gear lever into forward and inched the throttle to
about one-third.
Holding onto the rope, I pulled myself up out of the boat as it
headed away from the pier. I hid myself in the shadows under the
dock‘s short overhang and watched as the small boat slowly made its
way out into the East River.
About twenty second later, just as expected, I heard Lacorde‘s SUV
come screeching to a halt right above me. As he hopped out of the
vehicle I noticed his huge shadow over the water and I could tell he
was talking on his cell phone.
I heard him yell to the person on the other end, ―Just get here now!‖
That was followed by, ―Yes, I saw him with my own eyes!‖
After that, he apparently hung up and pulled out his gun once again.
The gunshot sounded like a mortar round exploding, and I saw the
bullet splash into the water behind the boat. He then fired a few more
rounds, though with no better luck.
While the boat moved further into the distance, I heard the sound
of a motorcycle skidding up to where Lacorde was standing, causing
bits of sand and gravel to land in the water in front of me.
The rider spoke with Lacorde for a moment, though I couldn‘t
make out much of what was being said. After that, I heard Lacorde
climb back in his car and peel away. I could still see the shadow of the
motorcyclist above me, and I decided to make my way around to the
back side of the dock platform.
Quietly, I stepped along the narrow ledge until I reached the corner.
Suddenly, I slipped on a slick piece of concrete. Before I could regain
my balance, my right foot splashed into the water. Quickly, I pulled
myself around the corner. From there, I peered back and could see the
shadow of the rider as he stooped down to see what the sound was.
With great caution, I moved my right eye close to the corner where I
caught a glimpse of his face.
It was Diego. And his damned hair was still perfect.
Further to my left, I spotted a concrete stairway leading up to the
top. I crept silently to the stairs and went up on my belly, one stair at a


time, until I was close to the top. There, I could see Diego clearly and
he was only about fifty feet away. Better yet, he had his back to me.
I took a look around and saw no one, so I climbed to my feet and
took the club from my belt clip. Taking soft, quick steps, I crept up
behind Diego while he busied himself tapping away at his phone
screen. He seemed like a busy fellow and had probably been in the
middle of having his nails done when Lacorde called him out here.
As I got close, he suddenly slipped the phone into his jacket and
started the engine. As he was about to put on his helmet, he glanced
into his right side mirror and must have gotten a glimpse of me
sneaking up from behind.
In an instant, he pulled a gun out from under his jacket and turned
to point it at me. As he did, I was ready with the club. I swung
sideways at his wrist, which sent the gun flying to the ground.
He dropped the motorcycle on its left side and rolled away in a
flash. The engine was still running on the bike, a BMW enduro, and the
shift lever apparently popped into gear so the rear wheel was spinning
and flinging gravel into my face.
I wiped my eyes and looked over at Diego and saw he was now
crouched in a karate stance. Before I could react, he jumped over the
motorcycle and spun around, landing a chop into my throat. I fell to
the ground gasping, but managed to hold onto the club as I scrambled
back to my feet.
It was a fair hit, so I wasn‘t too pissed. One point for Diego.
I then turned and ducked just in time to avoid a fist in my face.
Before Diego could step back, however, I swung and cracked the club
solidly into his right knee. One point for Van Essen.
I managed to take a quick breath as I watched him drop to the
ground. Before he could do any more harm, I swung the club at his
back shoulder.
He surprised me by rolling away from the attack. Before I knew
what was happening, he managed to turn and swing his left leg under
me, then, unexpectedly, he kicked me in the groin.
Now that pissed me off. For that bullshit, he gets one point
deducted.


I rolled to the side in agony for a few seconds. After that, I climbed
to my feet while I mentally handled the pain. I did this by holding my
breath, biting my lip, and pushing the thought of it out of my mind—
none of which did anything to help me feel better. What did help was
to charge right at the bastard like a linebacker while smashing the side
of his head with the club. I went ahead and gave myself two points for
that.
Diego was down for the count, but I wasn‘t done yet.
In the midst of my rage, a crazy idea came to me. I grabbed him by
the hair and dragged him to where the motorcycle tire was still
spinning. I held his face in the spokes for a second or two, then tossed
him aside.
Now I felt better. At this point, I considered myself the victor. If I
counted right, it was Van Essen twelve, Diego negative four. Or
something like that.
I looked over at him and felt no remorse for what I‘d done. He
would never model again, that was for sure, but he could always find
work as a motorcycle safety spokesman, right? Anyway, that‘s what he
gets for kicking me in the ‗nads. That was also his little reward for
helping Gundersen lock Michelle, Tjuren, and me inside the container.
He was lucky I didn‘t rip his head off. That would have been a forfeit.
I pulled his phone from his pocket and flung it out into the water. I
also grabbed his gun from the ground and checked it. It was a nice
Ruger 9 mm compact with ten in the clip, plus one in the chamber. I
placed the gun inside my jacket.
As you can surely tell, I‘m all about safety, so I put on Diego‘s
helmet, though I thought it smelled like woman‘s hairspray inside. I
then pulled his bike up from the ground while holding the clutch lever.
It was still tender in the land down under, so I climbed on rather
gingerly.
Just as I was about to take off, I checked my mirror and saw
Lacorde‘s SUV approaching fast. With any luck, he‘d assume I was
Diego, especially with the helmet, and the bloody-faced guy on the
ground was no one to be concerned with.
Of course, not even Lacorde is quite that stupid. I hit the throttle.





Chapter 47

Though polite society teaches us otherwise, sometimes it takes more
than determination or a sense of purpose in order to accomplish
something. Having great strength, speed, and agility isn‘t always
enough either. Sometimes, it just takes having more guts than your
opponent. More backbone. More balls. This was one of those times.
I needed to beat Luis Lacorde to the heliport where I hoped
Gundersen would be waiting. With its peppy 1200cc power plant, my
new BMW enduro bike made me feel like I had a rocket in my ass as I
tore across the shipyard. I glanced over at the blur in my small mirror
and was surprised to see that Lacorde was gaining on me nonetheless.
Of course, his gas-guzzling Caddy probably had a five-million cubic
inch motor, so he should be able to do one-fifty even if he‘d had a
nine-foot snowplow bolted to the front.
Ignoring the patches of ice here and there, I aimed the bike between
a couple of containers lined up in the midst of the shipyard—a space
wide enough for me, but too narrow for Lacorde‘s unwieldy mastodon.
Once through, I kept the throttle twisted as I headed straight toward a
partially opened security gate at the corner of the shipyard. I could see
a worried-looking guard standing in the opening, and he was waving at
me frantically. I wasn‘t sure, but I think he wanted me to stop—like
that was going to happen.
He jumped out of the way just as I sped through the small opening.
After that, I hit the brakes while pitching the bike sideways, then
downshifted and wove through a tight intersection. Right behind me, I
heard a crashing sound. It sounded suspiciously like a Cadillac SUV
ramming through a gate, and guessed that Lacorde was right behind me
again.
Wasting no time, I took a sharp left onto narrow Hamilton Road,
which I soon discovered was a one-way street. I realized this when the
driver of an oncoming car spotted me and went straight for his primary
weapon: his horn. In true New York fashion, the driver also flashed his
hi-beams at me. With a helmet I couldn‘t hear much, but I‘m sure he
didn‘t forget to roll down his window and treat me to a few words of
endearment while he was at it.


After racing past the car, I turned to look and was surprised to see
the Lacorde family truckster just fifty feet behind me. At this rate, he‘d
be able to flatten me before I made it to the next intersection. To my
right, I spotted a toll road heading into a tunnel. This, I knew, was the
Hugh Carey Tunnel, which leads under the river, under Governor‘s
Island, and comes out in southern Manhattan. I wasn‘t as concerned
with destinations right now as much as I was in losing Luis Lacorde.
Before my pal Lacorde could turn me into road kill, I swerved to the
right, then hit the brakes and went sideways. Quickly, I turned into an
entrance lane heading to the tunnel. Fortunately, one of the toll booth
lanes was clear and I blasted right through and went straight into the
tunnel. As I did this, I knew that a traffic-cam will have automatically
snapped a shot of the bike‘s license plate and a computer was already
processing a hefty citation which would be sent to the registered
owner.
Ha.
I rode into the tunnel. Here, I figured I could use the bike‘s small
size and maneuverability to lose Lacorde for good—if I hadn‘t already.
After a few hundred feet, however, I spotted trouble. New York kind
of trouble. Traffic.
Just then, as I hit the brakes, I looked back and spotted my buddy in
the familiar black behemoth, and I was sure he had me in his
crosshairs. The stopped cars ahead were too scattered over the narrow
lanes to ride through, and I‘d be at risk getting stuck within firing range
of the relentless bastard‘s big cannon.
Seeing no other alternative, I stopped, quickly downshifted, then
revved the engine while holding the front brake. This trick allowed me
to remain almost stationary while I spun the bike ninety degrees or so
to where I was now facing the left wall of the tunnel. Lacorde was
barreling toward me fast—too fast, in fact—and I could tell he was
planning to flatten me like a piece of meat into the line of traffic.
Just as he hit his brakes and began skidding in my direction, I
released the front brake. The bike leaped forward out of the way. At
the same time, Lacorde slid behind me right into the row of cars,
crashing the front of his nice Caddy into the ass-end of an even nicer
vehicle, a Maserati convertible.


I was sure that this failure, along with the prospect of increased
insurance premiums, had Lacorde pissed. As I hit the throttle and
began heading quickly back in the direction I came, I saw Lacorde
jump out of his car. To my surprise, he pulled out his gun right there
and immediately fired a shot, which sailed past my head and blasted a
hole into the tiled wall to my right. With the second shot he got luckier
and hit my rear wheel. At once, the air exploded from the tire and I
lost control, dropping to the ground and rolling while crashing my left
knee into the concrete.
As I slowly climbed to my feet, I looked back and saw Lacorde with
his big gun raised and pointed right at me. Before I could think to
react, I saw him pull the trigger and I braced myself for the inevitable.
Instead of a loud bang, however, the gun must have made a faint
clicking sound. The idiot was out of bullets.
For a brief moment, Lacorde had an even dumber look on his face
than usual. I wasn‘t sure what would happen next until he tossed the
gun onto the front seat of the wrecked Caddy and started running
straight at me. The dumb look on his face had now turned into an
angry-looking knotted mass of veins and teeth.
Upon seeing this, I limped back to my bike as fast as I could and
hopped on—not quite so gingerly this time—and pressed the starter.
The motor sputtered a few times, then died. I took a split-second to
curse the world, which it deserved, then tried again. This time, the
motor started right up, then died once more. I looked behind me and
saw Lacorde, who looked like a raging rhino coming at me, and knew I
had about five seconds to do something. I knew five seconds wasn‘t
quite enough time to pull my gun out and get a shot off. Besides, I was
saving the bullets for Gundersen anyway, so I trusted my weak faith in
German engineering and pressed the starter button one more time.
Fortunately, the motor started—and stayed started—and I twisted
the throttle so hard I thought I might snap the cable. Lacorde was
close enough that I felt him grab the rear fender for a second. He was
forced to let go as I accelerated, but continued running after me as I
sped back up the ramp and out of the tunnel.
A bike like this can ride on low tire pressure just fine. Even though
my rear tire had a bullet hole and no air, it still moved along well


enough, though I knew I‘d have to keep the speed down and watch out
for big bumps.
I was going the wrong way again, and had to quickly dodge another
oncoming car. This time the driver was a woman. She was quick and
immediately swerved out of our way. She then slammed on the brakes,
blew her horn, and gave Lacorde and me a friendly Welcome to New
York gesture—a one-finger salute.
Neither of us had time to return her greeting as we neared the
tunnel entrance. Amazingly, Lacorde was only about a hundred feet or
so behind me, so I steered the bike to the right where the tunnel ended
and sped across the short median. There, I first looked for oncoming
cars, then merged nicely into the line of vehicles exiting the tunnel.
As I approached the toll booths again, I slowed and looked back.
Behind me, I saw Lacorde sprinting at full speed down the median and
he didn‘t appear to be slowing down. I was about to overtake the car
ahead of me when I saw him run into the lane of traffic coming out of
the tunnel. Unlike me, however, Lacorde wasn‘t safety-minded enough
to know to look first and he ran directly into the path of a fast-moving
city transit bus.
I watch as the bus driver nailed her brakes while laying on her horn,
which must be the standard operational procedure here. Lacorde
looked just in time to see the grill coming at him, but a bit too late to
jump out of the way.
I was glad I‘d worn the helmet, especially after crashing, but I wish I
could have heard the dull thud sound when the front end of the bus
slammed into him. Seeing it, though, was satisfying enough.
After that fiasco, I pulled up to the self-pay booth and paid the toll
in cash. I felt like I should leave a tip, so I put a fifty in the machine
and left the change.
Well, Diego and Lacorde were down for the count, and the world
was now a better place. At least for me. This, of course, was the easy
part of the hard part of my mission. I had a feeling that stopping Bjorn
Gundersen would be different.
True, the man was crazy as a shithouse rat. Unfortunately, he wasn‘t
stupid.





Chapter 48

In truth, nobody cares what you did yesterday or what you are going to
do tomorrow. What is important is what you are doing now to solve
the problem. Right now I was on my way to visit my old friend, Bjorn
Gundersen. He was the problem. Until I come up with a better
solution, I was going to follow Paige O‘Neill‘s humble advice and go
blow his brains out.
That should fix the problem. Simple, right?
Anyway, I figured that unless Gundersen started taking his
medications again and had a change of heart—which was highly
unlikely—he would probably be waiting for the tide to be just right
before he and Emerald took the chopper out for a spin. Though old
Tjuren wasn‘t certain about it, he had figured that Gundersen would
probably need to be within twenty miles of the device for a radio signal
to reach it and activate the detonator. I wasn‘t sure exactly when the
tide would be right for Gundersen‘s calculations, but I hoped he was
still waiting at the heliport.
After the scene in the tunnel, I figured the NYPD folks might be
looking for someone who fit my exact description. To play it safe, I
headed toward a big construction zone that I‘d seen north of where the
Agnes Ann had been unloaded. From what I could tell, the site
extended along the shoreline all the way to where the heliport was
located.
A light drizzle had begun again, and I wiped the visor on my helmet
before I stopped my bike and got off at a corner of the construction
area. There were warning signs on the silt barrier fence which
surrounded the property, posted every two inches to ward off
trespassers and to maybe to keep the local mobsters from burying
bodies in there.
I picked a spot where the black fabric on the fence was partly
ripped, and helped it by ripping it the rest of the way to the ground. I
climbed back onto my bike, started it, then squeezed through the
opening and rode up to the top of a steep dirt pile. From up there, I
was able to clearly see the heliport at the end of a pier about a
thousand feet away. I thought I could see Gundersen‘s chopper, a


maroon and black Bell 505, though it was too dark and drizzly to be
sure.
Locking the rear brake, I slid the bike down the front of the mud
pile, then began picking my way through the maze of concrete forms,
heavy equipment, and trailers. When I was about half way to the
heliport, the lights inside one of the trailers came on and I turned to
see someone step out of the door. This was probably the night
watchman, and I noticed he was holding a megaphone.
Even with my helmet on, I could hear him yelling to me, ―Stop right
there! Stop now or I‘ll call the police!‖
I was sure he‘d be calling the police whether I stopped or not, so I
hit the throttle and sped through a mud puddle, then shot across a long
section of old concrete until I reached a long, high pile of gravel. I rode
that to the top, then carefully down the other side. There, I
maneuvered between a few stacks of drainage pipe until I arrived close
to where the next pier began.
I looked around and knew this had to be the pier with the heliport
at the end, so I followed a narrow trail to the side of it, then popped
my front wheel over the ledge and rode up onto the pier itself. Up
ahead I could see yet another guard shack. Everything here seemed to
be either guarded, gated or both.
Where‘s the trust, right?
Aside from the guard shack, there was also a big chain link fence
dividing the heliport area and its expensive flying machines from the
riffraff and the general public, neither of which included me. I was a
busy man, so I rode right up to the gate next to the shack. On the
other side of the gate, I saw a black chopper descending out of the sky
and preparing to land. More importantly, I could see Gundersen‘s
chopper on the far end of the platform. With its dark glass and all the
drizzle I couldn‘t make out who was seated inside it, but I could see
that the rotor was spinning fast and it looked like they were preparing
to take off at any second.
A guard stepped out of the small shack and approached me. As he
got closer, I lifted my visor and said to him in a loud, authoritative
voice, ―I‘m a federal agent. I need you to open this gate at once.‖


The guard, who looked like a timid fellow, seemed shocked. He
opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a word I told
him, ―I don‘t have time to answer questions. Open the gate now—
understand?‖
He seemed perplexed, as if opening the gate for an armed,
dangerous-looking guy on a stolen motorcycle might be grounds for
some kind disciplinary action. If I were him, I‘d just call the cops and
let them handle the so-called ‗federal agent,‘ but I guess I‘m different.
That‘s why he‘s a security guard and I‘m not.
I told him, ―I need to stop that guy in the maroon and black
chopper before he can detonate a bomb.‖ I looked the guard in the eye
and told him again, and in no uncertain terms, ―Open the fucking
gate!‖
He looked as though he might wet himself, but finally did what I
wouldn‘t have done and went into the shack and hit a button, opening
the automated gate mechanism. I gave him a quick nod as I dumped
the clutch and tore into the heliport at full throttle.
I wasn‘t sure whether Gundersen and Emerald had seen me coming
or not, but I heard the whine of their engine increase and saw the tail
of the chopper begin to lift. I couldn‘t grab my gun while weaving
around the other helicopters on the way to theirs, but I knew I had to
do something to stop them from getting away. I slowed for a second
and ducked as I passed under the spinning rotor of another chopper,
the black one that had just landed, then sped up again.
I was heading straight at Gundersen and Emerald now and could
see their faces through the tinted Plexiglas. I could also see they were
just beginning to take off and I had to come up with a way to stop
them—and fast. I considered riding the bike straight into them, but
then pictured myself plastered to their windscreen. I also pictured
Emerald being undeterred by that, flipping the wiper switch on before
continuing with her flight plan.
Ignoring higher intellect, I followed my primal instincts which told
me to go full speed. Just as I got within fifty feet of them, I stood and
jumped off the bike. As I fell and tumbled across the landing pad, I
saw my nice BMW crash right in front of where Gundersen was seated.
Bull‘s-eye.


This probably caused him to drop a log into his drawers. The nose
of the cockpit was smashed in, but Emerald continued her takeoff. As
she did, I noticed that my motorcycle had wrapped itself around the
right skid.
From the landing pad, I watched as they gained altitude while I
removed my helmet and tossed it to the side. I had no way to know if
they could see me or if they recognized me, but if they did, they‘d have
to be more than a bit surprised.
I was hurting from the fall, mainly at my knees and elbows, but I
could still move well enough to reach into my jacket and pull out my
gun. I flipped off the safety and aimed right at the engine
compartment. I fired two quick shots, then noticed just in time that the
motorcycle had worked its way loose from the skid and was dropping
from the sky—and I was ground zero.
Quickly, I rolled out of the way just as the machine crashed into a
million pieces onto the platform, missing me by mere inches. In that
same instant, the bike‘s gas tank exploded, showering me with a spray
of flaming gasoline.
At once, I wiped my hair and face, then began to roll across the
ground in a desperate effort to extinguish the flames. As I did this, I
saw the pilot of the black chopper running toward me. Thankfully, he
was carrying a portable fire extinguisher. Without a moment‘s
hesitation, he blasted me from one end to the other with CO2. After
that, he knelt beside me and patted my burning clothes for a few
seconds, making sure I wasn‘t going to burst into flames again.
After a few seconds, he asked, ―Are you all right?‖
I wasn‘t sure if I was, but I nodded anyway.
―I called the cops already. They should be here soon.‖
As soon as I could, I caught my breath and told him, ―I’m the cops.
I‘m a Federal agent.‖
―Well, sir, you‘re lucky to be alive.‖
I nodded. ―Thanks for putting out the fire.‖
―No problem.‖
―Now I need to borrow your helicopter, if you don‘t mind.‖


He began to laugh, then realized I was serious. He looked at me and
said, ―Sorry, pal, but I can‘t let you do that. That helicopter isn‘t mine.
It belongs to—‖
―I don‘t care who it belongs to.‖ I climbed to my feet, checked my
gun, and began staggering in the direction of his chopper.
For some reason, the man seemed troubled by this and told me
again, ―I can‘t let you take that aircraft without the permission of—‖
I turned and told him, ―You‘re not letting me take it. I‘m stealing it.‖
―Uh…I can‘t let you steal it, either.‖
I stared into his eyes and told him the truth, ―If I don‘t stop that
other chopper, about a million people in this city are going to die.‖
―What?‖
―I don‘t have time to explain.‖ At that, I continued limping toward
the black helicopter while I took the opportunity to check again that
the safety on my gun was set.
Noticing my gun, the man thought for a moment and asked me,
―Can I at least fly it for you?‖
As I reached the aircraft, I opened the door and explained, ―In all
probability, I‘m going to be shot down over the Atlantic Ocean and be
killed.‖ I looked at him and asked, ―Do you want to be part of that?‖
While he searched for an answer I climbed in and shut the door.
Quickly, I buckled up and looked at my reflection in the windscreen.
I noticed a trace of smoke coming from my collar, and patted it until it
stopped. I also noticed flashing blue lights in the distance, and I figured
the NYPD were heading this way.
To be honest, I hadn‘t flown a chopper in a long time. I glanced
over the gauges quickly and tried to remember what I knew about
flying one of these stupid things. I started the turbine, which came to
life at once with a long loud howl. I put on my headphones to save my
eardrums, then checked my fuel levels, pressure gauges, and such in
preparation for takeoff.
While the engine warmed, I looked to the dark, starless sky and took
a few seconds to think about what I was doing. They say a truly brave


man acknowledges the strengths of his opponent. In that case, I‘ll try
to remember to do that for Bjorn Gundersen.
After I‘ve killed him, of course.



Chapter 49

Churchill once said, ‗Success is not final; and failure is not fatal…‘
Well, what Winston said may be true some of the time, but not all
failures are learning opportunities. If a million New Yorkers die and
Manhattan is flooded under thirty feet of water because I failed, then
I‘d call that a fatal fuckup.
Talk about pressure, right?
Winston also offered some hard advice for the worried and
despondent of his time, ‗If you‘re going through Hell,‘ he said, ‗keep
going.‘ Well, I think some things go without saying. As for me, I felt
like I‘d been stuck on the Hell Turnpike all day, and I haven‘t spotted
any exit ramps or rest stops yet. Not that I was looking.
Anyway, I positioned my feet on the pedals and got a feel for the tail
rotor. With one hand on the cyclic stick and the other on the collective,
I hit the throttle and began my ascent. As I was getting used to the
controls, I leaned into the cyclic too far, then overreacted a bit. This
caused me to press on the left pedal slightly, which made me look like
an idiot to anyone that was watching from below.
Fortunately for me, I didn‘t give a shit.
After a few gentle pulls here and pushes there, I had it down. Once
I‘d reached an altitude of a few hundred feet, I pushed the stick
forward and headed after Gundersen and Emerald.
I could see the lights of their chopper ahead in the distance, and I
brought the RPM‘s higher in an effort to catch up. I doubted they were
too worried about being followed, and I was hoping that Emerald was
at cruising speed, which would give me a chance to catch up to them.
Won‘t they be surprised?
I was getting the hang of flying this thing, and a lot of what I‘d
learned long ago was coming back to me. In flight school, I remember
being told that the real knack of flying a chopper is learning how to aim
at the ground and miss. Hopefully, I had that part thoroughly down.
In the meantime, I was freezing, so I found the heater controls and
made a quick adjustment. After that, I played with the controls until I


thought I had the airspeed about maxed out. I then sat back and waited
to catch up with the other chopper, at least to where I was within
shooting distance.
They say there is a fine line between bravery and idiocy—and I felt
like I‘d been walking that line all day.



Chapter 50

Whether you‘re a solider, an astronaut, a spy, or whatever: if you‘ve
ever been sent on a vital mission—especially one where innocent lives
hang in the balance—you know that when things get nuts and it all
comes down to you, a funny phenomenon often occurs. Your life, the
living breathing part of you, takes the passenger seat, so to speak. The
familiar stranger now behind the wheel is focused on only one thing:
the mission. And he doesn‘t seem too concerned about the whole
‗living breathing‘ thing.
I knew that I had to stop Gundersen, and I had to do this before he
could activate the machine. I was now certain that this was what he and
the crew had lowered into the sea just before we arrived in New York.
Knowing Gundersen, he would surely do the same deadly thing he‘d
done in Tokyo. That is, he would have selected a geographically
unstable and susceptible spot to place the machine.
If what Tjuren told me was right, Gundersen could use a simple
radio frequency signal to begin the whole process. Once activated, the
device would cause an earthquake to begin below the surface. This, in
turn, would cause the already prone area to quake and collapse beneath
the weight of the sea. Under the right conditions, New York would be
hit with a surge of unthinkable proportions. There would be no
warning, no time to evacuate, and no way to stop it.
Luckily for me, I‘d stolen a bigger and more powerful helicopter
than my adversary‘s. This, plus the fact that Emerald was maintaining a
steady cruising speed, allowed me to catch up with them before we
were over the ocean. I waited until I was positioned about two-
hundred feet above them before I pulled out my only weapon: Diego‘s
little 9 mm compact. I‘m sure it went well with his purse.
I popped open a small vent on the side window, then dropped
down closer. I had my lights off, but I knew they‘d hear me soon if
they hadn‘t already. I had to get a few shots off before Emerald could
begin evasive maneuvers.
Once I was about fifty feet above them and to their right, I held the
gun out through the vent and squeezed off four shots. It was difficult
to aim through the small opening, but I tried pointing two of the shots


in the general direction of the engine compartment, which I knew was
located close to the fuel tanks. The other two shots were aimed at Mr.
Gundersen himself.
Seconds after this, their chopper banked hard to the left. In a
remarkable maneuver, Emerald managed to bring her altitude up and
swing toward me while maintaining the same forward direction.
Right after that, I saw a small flash of light, which was immediately
followed by something that sounded exactly like a bullet traveling
through one side of my cockpit and out the other. This, of course, was
followed by more flashes and more funny sounds.
I‘ve learned that there‘s no such thing as a small firefight. This is
especially true when bullets are blasting holes in your cockpit, missing
by mere inches such vital things as hydraulic lines, fuel tanks, and your
skull. Even though it was just me against them and we were using only
handguns, it felt like World War III had broken out.
This type of situation is where a really high-power weapon would
have been handy—like something that‘s belt-fed and mounted on a
steel turret. Or maybe, for example, something heat-seeking that fires
out of a big launcher at the flip of a switch. Or anything with the words
‗warhead‘ or ‗anti‘ as part of its description. But no. This is the real
world, and I‘d have to settle for my little handgun and its one clip of
cheap ammo—both of which were probably purchased from a
discount sporting goods store with a ten-percent off coupon.
Suddenly, I noticed a faint clunking sound coming from behind me.
At once, I checked my gauges. I‘ve learned that the longer you stare at
the gauges, the less time it takes them to move from green to red, so I
concentrated on keeping near Gundersen while staying out of his line
of fire.
This got hairy fast, especially since Emerald was a much more
experienced chopper pilot than me. The two of us were playing the
same dangerous game of chicken while trying to get each other lined
up for a decent shot. Soon, we were banking hard, swinging from one
side to the other and swerving left and right. It‘s good to remember
that in a chopper, running out of pedal, fore or aft cyclic, or collective
are all bad ideas. Any simultaneous combination of these can be deadly.


For a brief moment, Emerald hesitated while she was still in my
range of fire. Without wasting a second, I pointed my gun back out
through the vent and fired four more shots. This left me one last
bullet. If I‘d counted right, that is.
It might sound crazy, but I actually consider myself to be a lucky
guy—especially to have been selected for this job. To me, it's the
chance for escapism and an adrenaline rush. Aside from the basic
mission, that's essentially what being an agent should be about. The
thrill. It‘s what you dream of in this business. Some agents are stuck at
a desk all day while others comb through garbage dumps, old files, or
paper shredders looking for clues. Right now, I was an escaped
prisoner with fake IDs flying a stolen chopper while shooting at another
chopper using a stolen handgun. So far, I‘ve been sedated, beaten with
a club, Tasered a few times, almost poisoned, almost drowned,
wrecked a stolen motorcycle, got karate chopped and kicked where it
counts, caught on fire, and been shot at several times. Plus a bunch of
other shit. But if the mission succeeds, I save New York. So you can
see why I consider myself lucky.
I‘d be even luckier if I could find a few more bullets.



Chapter 51

I didn‘t want to start celebrating just yet, but it looked like I might have
got lucky with that last shot. I could see a nice cloud of white smoke
beginning to pour out of the jet exhaust as well as the entire engine
compartment. I think I may have also seen a few bright red sparks spit
out of the turbine, which could spell serious engine trouble down the
road.
There is an old theory which states that the louder the sudden bang
in the helicopter, the quicker the pilot‘s eyes will be drawn to the
gauges. If that was true, then the many warning buzzers, flashing red
lights, and spinning dials on Emerald‘s instrument panel now had her
undivided attention.
There‘s an even older theory which states, basically, that unless you
can completely escape the Earth‘s gravity, you are eventually coming
down.
Emerald and Gundersen were about to put that theory to the full
test as they would soon be running out of thrust, airspeed, altitude, and
ideas all at once. Hopefully, they‘d be out of ammo, too.
With a tight grin on my face, I continued watching as they began a
rapid descent—dropping from the sky as if they were in a big hurry to
reach the crash site before anyone else.
A minute later, Emerald was preparing herself for every chopper
pilot‘s number two worst nightmare: an emergency landing. I suppose
number one would have to be either a high-altitude engine seizure or
an emergency landing inside an active volcano—but what are the odds
of that?
Anyway, I followed her down to where we were only about two-
hundred feet above sea level. Any lower than that and we‘d need sleigh
bells. We both maintained that altitude for a minute as we traveled
south over a narrow channel, then over a populated area close to the
ocean. Once she reached a wide sandy stretch of beach, Emerald
dropped even lower and swung east, staying parallel with the shoreline.
White smoke was now rolling even heavier out of the rear of the craft,
and I was sure they were having trouble breathing inside there.


Finally, Emerald set it down hard on the sand, though everything
still looked in one piece from what I could tell. I knew from the nearby
roller coaster and amusement rides that this had to be Coney Island
beach.
I was more accustomed to the controls now, and I swung past them
and landed like a pro in the soft sand about a hundred feet away.
Quickly, I killed the engine and climbed out with my gun raised and
pointed at them. Emerald was standing outside her aircraft already,
near the tail section. I looked closely and noticed a gun in her right
hand. That, and a few other things led me to conclude that our
relationship was on the rocks.
Actually, I had hoped she and Gundersen would be on their knees
right now, coughing and hacking from the smoke and fumes.
Unfortunately, the cabin and flight deck must have been designed to be
sealed from the engine compartment. Damned engineers.
Gundersen finally opened his door and hopped out. He checked out
a fresh bullet hole behind the cabin door and then glanced over at me
for a moment, like it was my fault. He then went to the tail where
Emerald was standing, out from under the spinning main rotor. In one
hand he held a portable radio with an antenna, and I knew this had to
be the transmitter. The fact that he was still holding it told me that he
had not yet activated the earthquake device. At least I hoped he hadn‘t.
I‘m not good with math equations, but I knew I had only one bullet
left and there were two of them, which was bad. They had no idea how
armed or unarmed I was, but that didn‘t make things better. If I was
lucky, they‘d used up all their ammo in the dog fight and the gun
Emerald was holding was for cosmetic purposes only.
First, I pointed my gun at Emerald and yelled, ―Drop the weapon—
now!‖
To my surprise, she tossed it into the sand in front of her.
Gundersen seemed unconcerned about that and just stood there in
front of the tail rotor, which also was still spinning. I pointed the gun
directly at him and yelled, ―Your turn, Bjorn. Drop the transmitter.‖
He gave me the finger.
―Drop it now or I‘ll shoot!‖


Instead of following instructions, which seems to be a point of
contention for him, he did something unexpected. In a flash, he
stepped in front of Emerald and snatched her gun from the sand. He
then stood and prepared to take a shot at me.
Quickly, I aimed at him and squeezed the trigger. In that same
moment, he ducked down while Emerald remained standing directly
behind him.
Through the thin puff of smoke from the end of the barrel, I saw
that Emerald had taken a headshot. In the CIA, some of the guys liked
to say, ‗It‘s not the bullet that kills you, it‘s the little hole it leaves
behind.‘ In that case, I guess Emerald died from having one hole too
many.
Coincidentally, the shot landed her in what was surely her favorite
and most familiar position: flat on her back and with her legs open. I
didn‘t actually know her all that well—and I don‘t mean to speak ill of
the dead—but something told me she would have wanted it that way.
From the nearby boardwalk, I heard yelling and turned to see two
cops running our way with their weapons drawn. I was running out of
time, so I pointed my now empty 9 mm at Gundersen. ―Drop it,‖ I
yelled, ―or you‘re dead!‖
Undaunted by that, he flipped me the bird again, then raised his gun
and fired a shot.
I heard the bullet hit something behind me, like the cabin door.
Somehow, I managed not to flinch and called to him again, ―Put the
gun down, Bjorn, or I‘ll—‖
Before I could finish, he fired another shot. This one hit me in the
chest and I was knocked back against the fuselage of my chopper. I felt
the gun fall from my hand as I gasped for air.
Almost at once, I could see the walls closing in and I fell to my
knees while struggling for a breath. Nonetheless, my mind was alert
and I was aware of what had just happened. I was also aware that I was
about to die, and that in doing so I had failed my mission, which was
the worst part.
From my knees, I fell onto my left side. Though I was reduced to
tunnel vision, I could still see Gundersen. He was wearing a big smile


now, knowing he‘d won our little shootout. I watched as he blew the
smoke from the end of his barrel and took a step back.
As he did that, he suddenly tripped over Emerald‘s body. I watched
as he lost his balance, then took more steps as he stumbled back. To
my shock, he fell backward into the still-spinning blade of the tail
rotor. The sharp blade caught the top of his head and started chopping.
Blood, brains, and bone fragments flew everywhere until almost his
entire head was gone. Before my vision went completely black, I saw
the radio transmitter fall from his hand as his decapitated body
dropped to the ground.
Though I was in great pain and gasping for air I was still aware of
my surroundings and most of what was going on. Nonetheless, I
couldn‘t control my facial expression. If I could, I‘d have put on a big
silly grin right there.
My eyes closed all on their own and the pain in my chest seemed to
fade away. I wasn‘t ready to die just yet, not without seeing Michelle
one more time. At the same time, part of me was looking forward to
seeing Jessica and Chandis who I knew would be waiting for me on the
other side. I was also looking forward to seeing my brother Martin.
Oddly, he and I will have suffered the same fate—a bullet to the heart.
A moment later, I heard the voice of one of the cops that had come
running to the scene. ―Just hang in there,‖ he told me. ―An ambulance
is on the way.‖
I wondered, as I lay there in a weakened state, how many other
President‘s Agents had heard those same words.



Chapter 52

A while later, I woke up and saw that I hadn‘t actually reached the
other side—unless the other side looked exactly like the back of an
ambulance. There were two guys there with me who looked more like
paramedics than angels. One was kind of pudgy-looking while the
other was more fit and trim, and together they reminded me of a
before and after photo for a diet ad.
The pudgy one was checking my pupils with a flashlight.
I asked him, ―Did you go to school for this?‖
He seemed surprised that I was not only awake, but talking. ―I sure
did,‖ he replied. ―Why do you ask?‖
―Because you‘re looking in the wrong place. I was shot in the chest.‖
He glanced over at Mr. Fit and Trim, then told me, ―Just relax, sir.
You have a serious injury.‖
―No shit,‖ I replied. ―Now listen: there‘s an underwater bomb out
there—‖
―Please, just try to—‖
―Shut up and listen!‖ I told him. ―Right now, this is more important
than whether I live or die.‖ As concisely as possible, I described to him
and the other paramedic what I knew about Gundersen‘s earthquake
device. I also told them where it could be found and explained that
they needed to report all this to the authorities as soon as we reached
the hospital.
I also explained that there was an identical device planted on the
floor of the Mediterranean, near San Tropez. I gave them the
coordinates for that one, which they wrote down. On top of that, I
described to them what I knew about the crew of the Agnes Ann, and
that most of them needed to be arrested or brought in for questioning.
I remembered to mention where Gustav was being held, too. In
addition, I told them about the location of the body of Amol Thorsen,
who I would always remember as Tjuren.
Lastly, I gave them the address of where Michelle, Paige, and Tim
were holed up, and asked that they be informed of my whereabouts.


After all that, the paramedics looked like they could use some
medication themselves. I realized that for the uninitiated, that much
information that fast was probably a bit overwhelming. I asked the
pudgy one, ―Hey, by any chance is there, like, a Starbucks on the way?‖
―Huh?‖
―Have you ever tried one of those Caramel Macchiato things?‖
―Uh…I think we should just go straight to the hospital. Maybe you
can ask for a coffee when we get there.‖
―It‘s not for me. I was thinking about you guys.‖
They both thought that was funny.
Fit and Trim then leaned forward and asked me, ―May I have your
name, sir, if you don‘t mind?‖
I turned my eyes from him and looked around at all the medical
equipment surrounding me. There were tubes and wires everywhere.
Through the rear windows, I could see flashing lights and I heard the
sound of the siren blaring. We seemed to be traveling at a high speed,
but I wasn‘t sure that we‘d make it to a trauma center in time.
Finally, I looked back at him. ―My name is Craig Van Essen.‖ I
thought for a moment and added, ―But don‘t write that down.‖



-EPILOGUE-
Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Four years later.
April 15, 2025.


“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.”
~John F. Kennedy



Every now and then, something fails to fail, and we call it success.
I had no reason to doubt that a new President‘s Agent was out there
somewhere. He was probably alone and busy stealing something—or
borrowing it with no intention of giving it back. He was probably
trying to remember which lie he‘d told whom, how many bullets he
had remaining, and what his current cover story was—all the while
formulating a contingency plan in case all hell were to break loose. And
it will.
He was probably afraid and worried for his life. And he should be.
Right now, he was probably beginning to wonder how he had
gotten himself into this. And how he‘d get himself out.
Somehow, I managed to survive my missions, which began with
Bjorn Gundersen and continued with all the others until the President‘s
term was finally over. I was alive, so by that alone I suppose the whole
thing could be considered a success. At least by my definition.
Physically, I was still in one piece, which was kind of a miracle. My
heart, however, was deeply scarred—and not only by a bullet. In my
role as an agent, I came to know many secrets. Too many, to be
honest. Some of these secrets are fascinating and mysterious. Most,
however, are unpleasant, while a few turned out to be so frightful and
horrid that I wish I‘d never come to learn of them.
My mind is now filled with vivid images, including memories of the
terrible things I had seen and the unspeakable things I had done during
those years. The lies I told, the deaths I caused, and the many crimes I
committed, along with an endless trail of betrayal, deceit, and
destruction, would be with me always like a deep stain; a bloodstain
that fades slowly over time but is never completely gone.
Of all the things I‘d done, and all the places I‘d been, and all the
faces I‘d laid eyes on during all those years, nothing stands out more in
my mind than the memory of the time I first saw her. I believe in God
and in angels. And I believe God sent an angel to me that morning. He
sent an angel to let me know that I was loved. An angel to fill my
dreams. An angel to give me hope and make me wish to live when it
seemed there was nothing else worth living for.


He sent her into my heart, His most beautiful angel, and for that, I
should be forever grateful. He‘d taken Jessica from me, and my
daughter Chandis as well. But He‘d left enough room in my soul to
love still, and I pray each day that He never take anyone from me
again.
Today is special, as it is my wedding day. Today I will marry my
angel, my gift from heaven. In a few hours, before family and close
friends, I will vow to love her forever—and I will with all my heart.
Today, I will vow to protect her—and I always will, even with my own
life. Today, I will gladly give to her all that I am and all that I will ever
be. For me, this has been true since the day I first saw her and will be
so until the day I die.
As I lay there, I noticed the rain had finally stopped and thin rays of
morning sunshine were now streaming through my bedroom window.
There was a sweet fragrance in the air coming from the many flower
gardens and plush plumeria trees surrounding the beautiful estate, and
I could hear the sound of countless birds singing from the trees.
I climbed out of bed and walked to the bathroom. In the mirror, I
could see the old scar on my chest from where I‘d been shot, and I
thought about my brother. I remembered that we hadn‘t always agreed
on things. Nonetheless, Martin and I had managed to maintain a great
respect for each other. In fact, I considered him to be one of the finest
person‘s I‘ve ever known. He would have loved the estate as well as
Kauai itself, and I‘m sure he would have also been impressed with my
bride-to-be.
After I‘d shaved and showered, I went to my closet and began to
dress for the big day. As I was buttoning my shirt, a knock came to the
door and my dad soon appeared, having let himself in.
―That was some storm last night,‖ he said to me. ―Did you sleep all
right?‖
―I had, like, five glasses of wine last night, remember? I can barely
recall going to bed.‖
He smiled. ―They say that rain on your wedding day is supposed to
be a good sign.‖


―That may be true,‖ I replied, ―but a fortune teller once told me that
it‘s bad luck to be superstitious.‖
He smiled again.
I looked at my dad. Though his hair had long ago turned white, it
was nonetheless full. He was still strong and fit and had the walk and
posture of a younger man. His eyes, however, appeared weary. He‘d
dedicated his life in service to his country and asked for little in return.
In doing so, he had allowed himself to see too much of the world‘s
darkness. Like me, he‘d glimpsed too many times into the minds of evil
men and into the hearts of the wicked and into the souls of the lost
and forsaken.
He had been a willing part of an organization whose foundations
were based on lies, trickery, and deception. An agency so powerful it
could make its own rules one day, then break them the next, and with
no apologies or explanations.
He had lost many close friends. He had lost his oldest son, and had
lived to see my wife and daughter buried as well. Like me, he had his
own dark secrets hidden somewhere deep inside his heart. Secrets, I‘m
sure, that no man should ever be required to bear.
I slipped on my jacket, then turned to my dad and confided, ―I was
thinking about Martin earlier.‖
He nodded. ―Me too. He wouldn‘t have missed this for the world.‖
I looked at myself in the mirror for a moment. While I adjusted my
collar I asked, ―Do you mind if I ask you something?‖
―That depends. What‘s your security clearance?‖
I grinned. ―It‘s about Martin.‖
―Go ahead and ask.‖
―There are a lot of things about his death that seem…‖
―Suspicious?‖
―Yeah.‖
―I agree. What‘s your question?‖


I considered that for a moment, then asked, ―Do you know who
Martin was working for before he died?‖
He paused for a moment as he glanced around the room.
―Don‘t worry, Dad, the room isn‘t bugged.‖
―Sorry. Old habits.‖ He then cleared his throat and let me know,
―I‘ve never told anyone this, but I got myself in trouble at work before
I retired.‖
―What happened?‖
―To tell the truth, I got caught looking through some of Martin‘s
files.‖
This surprised me.
―In fact, that‘s what caused my abrupt retirement.‖
I looked at him. ―Why didn‘t you ever tell me?‖
―You had enough to worry about without being dragged into my
problems. Besides, Craig, you know I was sworn to secrecy.‖
I let a moment pass, then asked him, ―What did you find out?‖
―Well, I‘m pretty sure your brother was no longer with the CIA
when he died.‖
―Who was he working for?‖
―There was nothing specific about that in his files, but I found one
internal note explaining that he was working outside the agency.‖
―They were spying on him?‖
―Of course they were,‖ he replied. ―The note also explained that he
was still involved in some sort of espionage—extremely top secret
stuff, apparently—though exactly who he was working for was never
stated.‖
―Maybe they didn‘t know.‖
―That was my conclusion.‖ He drew a deep breath and asked me,
―What do you make of it?‖
I thought for a moment and replied, ―Maybe he was involved in
some kind of covert operation.‖


―I‘ve thought about that possibility,‖ he said, ―but I can‘t think of
even one reason why that would cause him to have to leave the CIA. I
mean, they practically invented covert operations.‖ He then pointed to
his watch and asked, ―Isn‘t there someplace we need to be?‖
I looked at the time. ―Holy smokes. Let‘s get out of here.‖
Dad and I headed outside where a limo was waiting to take us from
the estate to the Wailua River, which was only a few miles away. Once
there, a wedding boat transported the two of us, along with some of
our family and close friends up the river to the beautiful Fern Grotto.
My lovely bride-to-be was there, which was a good sign, and everything
seemed to be in place and ready to go.
I stood beside the pastor while I waited for the bride to join me at
the mouth of the grotto. As part of the ceremony, a small group of
musicians were nearby and singing a beautiful Hawaiian melody while
strumming their ukuleles and guitars. During this, I glanced over at my
father who looked at me and gave me a simple nod of approval. I felt
surprisingly at ease standing there, though my mind was still
preoccupied with the things he had told me earlier.
I looked out at the small gathering of guests and spotted Paige
O‘Neill, who was one of the bridesmaids. She gave me a pretty smile,
then turned and continued conversing with her escort, Jay.
While I waited, I thought again about my brother Martin. I
pondered the events surrounding his death and the series of
happenings that occurred during his final few years. I realized now that
he had probably left the CIA sometime around late February to early
March of 2009, though he‘d told none of us about it. While I thought
about this, it also occurred to me that he‘d taken his new position only
a few short weeks after the new President had been inaugurated.
Based upon that, and what I knew about Martin, and from what my
father had told me this morning, I came to a sudden and startling
realization: In all likelihood, Martin had been a President‘s Agent.
And that explained everything.
I also thought about the cause of his death: a gunshot to the chest
delivered from a high power rifle. I remember the date, December 22,
2014. I also recall that it had been ruled a hunting accident, though


none of the other hunter‘s boots matched the prints found nearby. In
addition, none of their guns matched the bullet that killed him—
reportedly a .460 magnum, one of the world‘s largest, most powerful
shoulder-fired cartridges. It was also reported to be a clean shot and
directly to the heart. In addition, no shell casing was ever found.
At that, I came to a second and even more troubling realization:
Martin‘s death, in all likelihood, had not been an accident.
As I thought about this, the musicians stopped briefly and then
began playing a different tune, which was the wedding march—
Hawaiian style. One of them blew into a horn, a ceremonial Pu shell,
while the rest of the group began strumming their instruments in
rhythm. Aside from the music, I could also hear the sounds of birds
chirping and singing all around us as they flew about.
I turned to see her walking toward me with her proud father at her
side. To me, she looked like a vision from heaven and lovely indeed. I
felt my throat tighten. Thin rays of sunshine were streaming down
through the branches and leaves of the tall trees and the golden light of
it fell gently upon her. A delicate Hawaiian lei hung loosely over her
tanned shoulders, and I watched as a soft breeze blew through her dark
brown hair, which was adorned with bright and fragrant plumeria
flowers.
I had never seen a more beautiful woman in my life.
As she strode gracefully over the rocky surface of the grotto she
looked up and our eyes met. I felt my heart skip and I drew a deep
breath. In that same instant, I felt a sense of unspoken connection, a
bond, so to speak, that I‘d never felt with anyone before. It was as
though something special, something ethereal and magical had
somehow reached across a great expanse and touched my soul—and
somehow I knew she‘d felt it as well.
I found myself lost in her brilliant green eyes as she approached. It
seemed suddenly warmer and could feel my heart beginning to beat
hard in my chest. She took her place beside me and we held each
other‘s hands. I can remember knowing for sure that I was the luckiest
man in the world. As the pastor began, Michelle turned and looked at
me once again, then smiled warmly as she squeezed my hand. At that, I
put all my troubles out of my mind.


For now.
The End.



The following is a preview of
RED SKY MORNING
A President‘s Agent Novel by Greg Marion



Sunday, October 6, 1963
La Ascención, Nuevo Leon, Mexico


Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain
to miss the future.”
~President John F. Kennedy



In his mirror, Clayton Donovan saw only a cloud of dust. He looked
ahead and saw a bleak, windswept landscape and beyond that the
unknown. He knew, however, that even the most desolate places can
often be filled with possibilities.
With one hand on the wheel, he wiped a drop of sweat from his
forehead. He glanced back and forth between the radio dial and the
dirt road ahead as he searched carefully for a signal.
The fourth game of the World Series was well under way and he was
having trouble picking up a broadcast this far from a major city. He
turned for a moment to look out the passenger-side window and saw
that the sun was now low in the sky, and would be setting within the
hour. In the distance, Clayton noticed more of the now-familiar dust
devils swirling here and there across the parched and barren terrain. He
was glad that the sweltering heat of the day was finally behind him and
was looking forward to the arid coolness of the desert evening.
His vehicle, an inconspicuous ‘54 Chevy pickup, had a strong
engine, an automatic transmission, and was fitted with a custom
camper shell on the bed. Other than being noticeably cleaner than
most of the other vehicles he‘d seen on this road, it fit in.
He turned the radio dial slowly clockwise, passing over a few
Spanish music stations until he found it. Clayton turned the volume all
the way up and listened intently. This year‘s World Series featured the
New York Yankees playing against the Dodgers, who had famously
moved out of Brooklyn a few years ago to become the Los Angeles
Dodgers. Most New Yorkers, Clayton Donovan included, were still
having trouble accepting that.
The radio announcer at Dodger Stadium reported that the score was
still 0-1 with the Yankees behind at the top of the seventh inning. The
signal was fading in and out, but Clayton could hear the announcer
describe that the Dodger pitcher, Sandy Koufax, was about to deliver a
pitch to the Yankee batter, Mickey Mantle. After the pitch, Mantle
swung and connected with the ball. Clayton heard the roar of the
excited crowd as it almost drowned out the voice of the announcer:
“It’s a hit…a deep hit out between center and left field!” the announcer yelled.
“It’s going…going…”
At that moment, the radio signal faded out and was gone despite
Clayton‘s frantic attempts to tune the station back in. After a minute or
two, he let out a deep breath and turned the radio off, refocusing his
thoughts on the mission that lay ahead. In a few minutes, he‘d be


arriving at the small, secluded village of La Ascención—known to the
locals as La Chona.
Seeing no other vehicles on the road, he pulled well off to the side
and came to a stop. Clayton pulled up his left pant leg and took a
moment to refasten the straps of his aluminum leg brace. His western
boots had been custom made and fitted with a zipper on the left inside
to accommodate the brace while helping him look the part.
He stepped out onto the road and pressed his hand over another
painful wound, located just under his right ribcage. After checking for
rattlesnakes and scorpions, he walked to the back of the truck. He
opened the camper shell and retrieved two official-looking adhesive
decals. Each read Secretaría de Agricultura, Department of Agriculture.
He peeled the backing off each decal and placed one on each door.
That done, he climbed behind the wheel once again and pulled back
onto Mexican Federal Highway 61, driving until he finally arrived at the
small village.
Upon reaching the town plaza, he noticed a group of about ten
teenage boys who were gathered around the park benches. He stopped
the truck and placed his cowboy hat on his head, then rolled down his
window and called out to them, “Señor Ignacio Soto?”
They gazed at him curiously, having never seen a gringo in their
village before. One of the boys, an older one, seemed to understand.
He walked over to Clayton and asked, “Señor Soto?”
In passable Spanish, he replied, ―Yes, the house of Ignacio Soto,
please.‖
The boy muttered a few words in Spanish, then walked out in front
of the truck waving for Clayton to follow. After two blocks, he pointed
Clayton to a tiny home at the end of a dirt street, indicating that this
was the home of Señor Soto and family.
“Muchas gracias.” Clayton pulled out a few Mexican centavos. He
handed the coins to the boy and then drove forward, parking the truck
where its decals were visible from the home. The sun cast his long
shadow as he walked carefully to the front door. His fractured left leg
had been healing well so far and he was hoping not to aggravate the
injury.
He knocked and waited. Soon, a woman of about fifty or so came to
the door, opening it only a few inches. Almost at once, Clayton
detected the savory aroma of wood-fired cooking and homemade


tortillas, which reminded him of his empty stomach. He tipped his hat
and addressed her, “Buenas noches Señora.” Good evening, madam.
The woman looked at him from head to toe with suspicious eyes.
“Buenas noches,” she replied, leaving out the Señor.
Clayton Donovan was far from fluent, but he could communicate
Spanish well enough to suit his needs. He explained that he was an
American working as an official for the Mexican government in Nuevo
Leon. The woman seemed to doubt that but, nonetheless, continued
answering his questions.
He asked the woman if she knew the whereabouts of Ignacio.
She was hesitant, but explained that her husband was a cattle
rancher and would be home, as always, after sunset.
In Spanish, he asked her, ―He found a machine?‖
“Si,” she replied, nodding in agreement. She went on to explain that
Ignacio had discovered a strange contraption buried in the hills behind
his ranch. She also explained that her husband felt that it was
something of great importance and had reported the find to the
officials. She then asked Clayton if that was why he was here.
“Si Señora,” he told her, and asked, “¿Dónde está la máquina?” Where is
the machine? He turned and noticed that her neighbors, two young
girls, were now peering curiously and smiling at him from their
doorway. As he waved at them, they giggled and quickly ducked back
inside.
At that, Soto‘s wife frowned gravely. Nonetheless, she led him
around the outside of the house to the rear of the small property. To
the east, the mountains rose up from the desert floor and extended
north and south for miles. Señora Soto described the location of her
husband‘s cattle ranch. She also described where Ignacio had found the
machine, pointing to a high, narrow ridge.
That was all he needed.
Clayton studied the topography of the ridge and its surrounding
features. He then thanked Soto‘s wife for her help and explained, as
best he could, that he and his assistants would be back in a few weeks
to check on the find. He also warned that the machine could be
dangerous, perhaps even a bomb, and advised that everyone stay far
away from it until the officials have inspected it.
As he began to leave, a neighbor, a thin man of about forty,
approached him. The man seemed to object to Clayton‘s presence and


began making threatening statements while pointing at Clayton and
shouting.
At first, Clayton wasn‘t too concerned, being about a foot taller and
probably a hundred pounds heavier than the neighbor. He presumed
that the man was opposed to an outsider, especially a gringo like
himself, appearing at the woman‘s home while the husband was away.
He could also see that the man‘s anger was steadily escalating and was
concerned that this could soon turn into a scene.
The man stepped closer to Clayton and began to repeat himself
when Soto‘s wife finally cut him off. “Cállate, estúpido!” Shut up, stupid!
At that, the neighbor became further annoyed and began to shout
insults and accusations at both Clayton and the woman.
After he‘d heard enough, Clayton grabbed the man by the collar and
lifted him from the ground with one hand. He looked him in the eye
and told him calmly, “Cállate, Si?”
At this, the man began to tremble with fear, but managed to nod in
agreement.
Clayton set the man back on his feet, then pointed to a nearby chair
and told him firmly, ―Sit!‖
He sat.
Clayton thanked the woman once again, tipped his hat, and left.
While heading to his truck, he kept one eye on the house to be sure
that Estúpido didn‘t run home to grab his gun and do
something…stupid.
After that, he headed back through town. As he approached the
plaza again, he noticed that the group of boys were now standing in the
road. Clayton knew that they were waiting for him and his pocket full
of centavos. He slowed to a stop while the group ran to the truck and
gathered around.
“Señor! Dinero por favor! Dinero!” Mister! Money please! Money!
Clayton laughed at that, then reached into his pocket and pulled out
a handful of coins. The group cheered as he passed them out, one by
one. To the older boy who had helped him find Soto‘s home he
handed a crisp five-peso note, instantly making him the wealthiest boy
in town. At that, the group went wild while cheering and chasing after
Clayton for blocks until he finally sped away. Once out of the village,
he turned left onto the highway.


After a few hundred yards, he pulled over to the side of the road
and parked. There, Clayton used his binoculars to study the mountains
and trails around Soto‘s ranch.
He then leaned back and relaxed, waiting until he was certain that
Ignacio had headed home. The sun was growing low on the horizon
and he watched the sky as it subtly changed colors from yellow to
orange, and then to a deep crimson. Soon, the stars began to appear in
the east while a cool and gentle breeze carried the smoke of dozens of
wood fires from the village through the evening air.
Clayton checked his watch and saw that it was now 6:40. He started
the truck and drove up the road until he spotted a rocky mule trail
heading toward the mountains. He turned there, then maneuvered the
truck carefully over the bumpy path for some time. Before long, he saw
the barbed-wire fence which he knew marked the perimeter of
Ignacio‘s small cattle ranch. He also knew, thanks to Soto‘s wife, that
the máquina would be located high up on the ridge directly behind this
fenced piece of land.
The distinct smell of fresh manure came to him as he made his way
around the east end of the small ranch and up the foothill of the
mountain. The narrow road wove around small trees, desert flowers,
and countless cactuses. He shifted into low gear and proceeded up the
hill slowly and cautiously, aware that the narrow ridge dropped off
sharply on each side. Skillfully, Clayton steered the truck around
numerous rocks and ledges, and over small desert bushes that
scratched noisily along the undercarriage.
Soon, it became too dangerous to drive further. Clayton stopped
and reached under the seat. From there, he retrieved his handgun and
holster and carefully stepped out of the cab. After fastening the holster
to his belt, he went to the back of the truck and retrieved a small
battery-powered flashlight and a kerosene lantern. He lit the lantern
and held it out while studying the ground for signs.
Before long, Clayton discovered mule tracks along with some fresh
droppings, and began following the tracks on foot. After a few
minutes, he needed to catch his breath. Just as he stopped to rest, he
heard the frightful sound of a rattle coming from behind him. Turning
slowly, he held out the lantern and spotted a huge diamondback. The
venomous creature had wound itself into a tight coil, facing him from
only six feet away. Hissing wickedly, it shook its tail in warning.


Without hesitation, Clayton Donovan flipped open the strap of his
holster and drew his .45 automatic. He aimed the barrel at the serpent‘s
head while it showed its fangs and glared at him with piercing eyes. He
pulled the trigger and fired. In an instant, the serpent‘s head exploded
from its body. The sound of the gunshot echoed through the
mountains, sending bats and birds flying wildly in all directions.
Clayton slid the gun back into its holster and continued up the hill.
After another hundred feet or so, he noticed human footprints on
the trail and knew this was where Soto had dismounted. Clayton
followed the footprints down from the crest of the ridge and along a
precarious narrow ledge. After about fifty feet, he spotted something
unusual ahead and held his lantern higher. There he saw it resting upon
a large flat stone, buried partially into the steep hillside.
A wheel.
After inching along the remaining ledge, Clayton climbed up onto
the stone and set the lantern down near the find. He saw that some
fresh dirt had been dug out from around it. He now saw there were
two bright alloy wheels, each about eleven inches in diameter. The alloy
itself showed little evidence of corrosion or wear. Though the light
from his lantern was poor, Clayton could see some of their intricate
machinery and detail. The hubs appeared to be connected to a main
body, which was mostly buried.
Clayton paused briefly to take it all in. From the looks of it, the
device had probably been resting at this spot for hundreds, perhaps
thousands of years. Under different circumstances, this would be
considered an historical moment. Nonetheless, he felt sure that he
would be one of few individuals who would ever lay eyes on it.
Wasting no time, he headed back to the truck where he grabbed his
digging equipment: a tarp, a small rock pick, and a collapsible shovel.
He carried the items up to the dig site and, once there, began to
unearth the machine. Using the pick, he gently poked away at the small
rocks imbedded above it. Once that was finished, he used the pointed
shovel to remove the dirt, first from around the body of the machine,
and then from around its other wheels. After that, he grasped the
machine with both arms and carefully lifted it from its burial site. From
there, he placed it onto the opened tarp, then wrapped it tightly and
carried it down to the truck. Using a length of rope, he secured the
machine inside the bed.


Clayton made sure to gather all of his supplies and quickly loaded
everything into the back of the truck. While closing the tailgate, he felt
his abdominal wound begin to throb. He pressed his hand over the
wound as he studied the terrain behind him. He could see that the
truck would have to reverse down the hill for a few hundred feet
before the path was wide enough to turn around.
He climbed in and released the parking brake, then began to back
slowly down the dark and precarious slope. To see behind, he turned
and hung his upper body out of the cab through the opened door.
Almost at once, severe pain shot from his wound. To Clayton, it felt as
though he‘d been knifed again.
The pain quickly became almost unbearable. Clayton winced as he
pulled himself back into the cab. There, he grabbed onto the steering
wheel with both hands. He saw his visual field narrowing rapidly as his
consciousness began slipping away. He hit the brakes, causing the truck
to careen sideways in the loose dirt. He turned the wheel sharply. The
truck, however, continued to veer and skid across the rocky path.
As it gained momentum, Clayton realized that the truck was heading
toward the edge of the ridge.
In desperation, he threw the shift lever into the drive position and
stepped on the accelerator. The rear tires spun as a cloud of dirt and
gravel flew out from behind the truck. Despite that, the vehicle
continued out of control until it lunged headlong over the edge. The
truck was airborne for a few seconds before landing with a loud crash.
Propelled by gravity and momentum, it then began bouncing down the
steep, rocky hillside. As the truck descended into the deep ravine,
Clayton lost consciousness and collapsed at the wheel, then fell across
the seat.
After barreling over countless rocks, sharp ledges, and bushes, the
vehicle finally reached the bottom of the dark ravine where it rolled to
a stop. As the noise and dust settled, Clayton‘s consciousness slowly
returned. While pressing his hand over his aching wound, he reached
and turned off the ignition switch. After waiting a full minute, he
climbed out of the vehicle and staggered to the back of the truck to
inspect the contents inside the bed.
Satisfied that the machine was still secure, Clayton grabbed the
flashlight and walked slowly around the vehicle while checking for gas
leaks and damage. A cursory look under the hood revealed only heavy


dust and some cactus debris. Underneath, he saw the oil pan had been
dented, though it appeared to be functionally intact.
Clayton took a moment to look up at the steep ridge. In the pale
light of the moon, he could make out the fresh path the vehicle had
created on the way down. Part of him was glad that he‘d been
unconscious through the ordeal.
Using the flashlight, Clayton studied the site of his knife wound.
There was no blood or discharge to be seen, though he realized that he
could be bleeding internally.
Clayton Donovan understood well the risks and dangers his job
presented, especially lately. Nonetheless, he felt that tonight‘s discovery
would make it all worthwhile—provided he could get himself and the
machine over the border.
After several tries, the motor finally started, coughing a few times as
a cloud of heavy smoke poured out of the tailpipe. Clayton revved the
engine until it finally smoothed out, then began to drive out of the
ravine.
The waning three-quarter moon cast an eerie light across the dry
desert floor as Clayton cautiously made his way over the rugged terrain
until he finally reached the highway. There, he turned right and looked
to see the village of La Chona fading in his mirror.
One of the front wheels was wobbling and he could feel the
vibration on the steering wheel. Clayton continued along, although at a
reduced speed. The pain at his side had lessened somewhat and he
took a deep breath before reaching down to loosen the straps of his leg
brace.
After that, he thought about a name for the machine and soon came
up with Rueda, a Spanish word meaning ―wheel.‖ Satisfied with the
name, he sat back and prepared himself for the long trip ahead.
In the city of Monterrey, he had a Chevrolet panel van parked and
waiting. After the vehicle swap, he planned to transport Rueda over the
border at Laredo, Texas, and then continue on to Dallas. There, it
would be stored in a secured facility until it was decided how and
where it would be studied, and by who. His employer, he knew, would
be in Dallas for a campaign trip on November 22, and could see the
machine then if he chose to.
In the meantime, Clayton Donovan would focus on recuperating
until his next mission as the President‘s Agent.



End of Red Sky Morning Preview



The Author

Greg Marion is a long time resident of Maui, Hawaii and a licensed
RN. He is a graduate of University of Hawaii Maui College and a
member of the International Thriller Writers and the International
Screenwriters' Association.
Besides writing fiction, his interests include reading, graphic art,
stand-up paddling, snorkeling, hiking, and travel. Greg and his wife
have three grown children.

For more, check out his website at gregmarion.com or his Facebook
site at https://www.facebook.com/gregmarionbooks



A note from Greg Marion:

I sincerely hope you‘ve enjoyed reading Paper Tiger as much as I did
writing it. In case you didn‘t know, things are changing a bit for writers
and reader‘s reviews are becoming increasingly important, especially for
newer authors. If you feel inclined, please submit an honest review for
this book and others you read.
Aloha,
Greg



Acknowledgements

As always, I‘d like to put my lovely wife Rose first in line for a big
thank you. Her patience, advice, and many words of kindness and
encouragement were indispensable to me while I wrote Paper Tiger. Plus
I‘d probably be in the doghouse if I didn‘t thank her in writing.
I am also grateful to my rag-tag group of first-draft readers,
including my friends Jack and Kekoa, my sister Linda, my son Sean,
and my brother Brad, all of whom offered great suggestions and helped
me greatly by pointing out spelling mistakes, grammatical blunders, and
general screw-ups. Good job, guys.
Last but not least, I‘d like to thank the readers of my first book, Red
Sky Morning, whose kind reviews and many positive comments helped
encourage me while writing this book.
Mahalo to everyone.