by Daniel Whyte III
with Daniel D.P. Whyte IV
After the events of The Cover-Up, Timothy Tedesco resigns the governorship of Virginia to focus on repairing his family and preparing for a presidential run. But putting broken relationships back together is harder than he thought it would be. He must also vanquish demons from his past and endure the fallout from a legal battle that threatens to take away the little that he still holds dear.
Chapter 1 — Deon
Afghanistan, Ten years earlier
The hot sun beat down on the mountainous Afghan landscape as Deon Kyle crawled out of his foxhole and started scrambling up the narrow ridge as fast as he could. He held the radio tightly in his hand, a rifle banging lightly at his back. The distress call had come from his twin brother, Dane.
The radio crackled again. “Falcon Scout Team to command. We’re taking fire on all sides. Requesting immediate back up.”
Deon’s foot caught against a stone and slipped over the edge of the ridge. He grasped for purchase, found his footing, and hurtled on.
When the radio crackled again, he just heard gunfire and shouting. Why wasn’t command responding?
Deon saw his goal about twenty yards away — the command tent. His platoon had been sent to covertly establish and guard an outpost on the mountain. The day before, the lieutenant had sent scouts to map the area. Dane had been one of the scouts; Deon had stayed with his own squad guarding the area that would soon be a base for a U.S. Army division. Now, the scouts were under attack by the Taliban.
Deon knew he was putting the covert mission at risk. He kept his head low and ran across the open space to the command tent. Not waiting to catch his breath, he thrust aside the flap and burst inside.
Lieutenant Mason and the rest of the command team looked up, startled. “Kyle? What are you doing here?”
“Why aren’t you sending support for the squad team? They’re taking fire,” Deon said.
Sitting at a makeshift desk with a map spread open in front of him, Mason shook his balding head. Though he was only in his mid-thirties, he had a rapidly receding hairline. “We have to let them fight it out. We can’t afford to give up our location,” he said.
“We have to do something! My squad can go; we can be there in ten minutes,” Deon pleaded.
“No,” Mason said. “And, Kyle, you have already disobeyed your orders — that’s the third time this year, I recall. You’ve left your post. I suggest you return to it before you are stripped of your rank.”
The radio in Deon’s hand crackled. He could hear Dane’s voice, but couldn’t make out what he was saying above the shouting and gunfire. “My brother’s out there,” Deon said. “If they die, it’s on you, Lieutenant.”
Mason stood up. “We are on a mission here. Your brother is a part of that mission. He’s out there doing his job; I order you to get back to your post and do yours.”
Eight hours later, Deon watched as a U.S. Army truck carrying eight body bags trundled out of the outpost and back to the main base. In one of those bags lay his brother, Dane.
Chapter 2 — Timothy
Virginia Governor Timothy Tedesco took his seat before the General Assembly’s Gubernatorial Inquiry Committee. His legal counsel William Creighton sat on his right. His former wife’s sister, Mallory, sat on his left. He didn’t know why she insisted on coming, maybe because he was the only connection that remained to her now dead sister.
Looking in the mirror that morning, Timothy thought the strands of gray in his slick black hair had multiplied rapidly over the past few months. His dead gray eyes fixed on the chair of the Committee, Paul Cochran, a Democrat and his nemesis, who was smirking satisfactorily. He would enjoy this.
As for Timothy, he would tell the truth, or at least as much of the truth as he thought necessary.
The committee room was filled with reporters, political aides, and ordinary citizens. The whir and click of cameras had started up as soon as Timothy walked in, but now had subsided. Everyone looked somber, occasionally sharing a whisper with their neighbor. Some citizens had shown up to support Timothy. The governor appreciated that. But he still felt alone.
Well, not totally alone. Timothy twisted the wedding band on his finger. It was the second one he had worn. The first he had buried in the casket with his wife, Meredith, when she had died of cancer. This second one came from his union with Elise Cunningham (formerly Elise Mason). It had not come without heartache, though. Their affair had begun late in his wife’s illness. Elise’s pregnancy had complicated things. After Meredith’s death, Timothy quietly married Elise in a small ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion. Of course, this caused no small stir in the press when the news leaked. Elise gave birth to a baby boy whom she named after her former husband, Oliver Mason. However, the baby was sick: he had Edwards syndrome, a condition that carried with it heart abnormalities, kidney malformations, and other internal organ disorders. The baby had died within weeks of its birth.
In spite of that,Timothy, who often wondered if there were any honest things left in his life, knew that he loved Elise and that she loved him.
Cochran lifted the gavel and let it down. “The Committee will come to order,” he said, even though no one had been talking.
Cochran read a statement from a sheet of paper and then proceeded with his questions.
“Did you or did you not have an intimate relationship with Elise Mason while she was married to the late Lieutenant-Governor?”
“When did this relationship start?”
“About two and a half years ago.”
“Did the Lieutenant-Governor ever confront you about this relationship?”
“No, he did not.”
“Is it accurate to say that, to the best of your knowledge, he did not know about this relationship?”
“Yes, I believe that’s accurate.”
“Based on hospital records, Oliver Mason died right around the same time Elise Mason would have become pregnant presumably with your child. Did his death have anything to do with your desire to cover-up your affair?”
“Did you order that Oliver Mason be killed?”
“No. I had no ill-will toward Oliver Mason whatsoever.”
Chapter 3 — Deon
One year, three months ago
There was silence in the car as Deon and his mother drove up the path that led to the entrance of Dublin Cemetery as weary gray clouds scudded across a rain-swept sky. They had done this together on the same day every year for the past nine years following Dane’s burial there. Deon’s mother fidgeted with the bundle of yellow flowers she brought each year. Deon brought nothing…just hate, and anger, and bad memories of the reason why he left the Army, joined the Navy, became a SEAL, and then left the Navy and became a private contractor after a single tour in Afghanistan.
Deon felt as though he let his brother down. He felt as though he had let his mother and father down. (His father had died within two months of Dane’s death.) Even though they were twins, Deon, who had been born two minutes earlier than Dane, felt responsible for his brother. Dane had never showed an interest in the military until Deon joined the Army. In a way, Deon had gotten Dane killed. His PTSD counselor told him that such feelings of grief and self-blame were normal for returning soldiers. But, for Deon, there was another emotion that he was struggling with — revenge. He wasn’t the only one who had gotten his brother killed. Lieutenant Oliver Mason (now a four-star general and the lieutenant-governor of Virginia) had as well.
“We’re here,” Deon said to his mother as he got out and stuffed his cell phone in his pocket. There was only one other car in the parking lot.
They walked slowly to Dane’s grave — the eighth marker on the ninth row. The white marble stone that rose above the ground was identical to hundreds of others. The epitaph read: Dane Anderson Kyle — Son, brother, soldier.
Deon’s mother stooped and set the flowers down in front of the marble slab. Deon stood with his hands in his pockets — anger, regret, revenge boiling together inside him. His phone vibrated against his fingers. He pulled it out and looked at the called ID.
“Mom, I have to take this,” he mumbled, stepping away from the grave.
Three minutes later, he came back, placing his hand gently on his mother’s arm. “Mom, something came up that I have to take care of. We have to go.”
“Something you have to do for the governor?” she asked.
Deon hesitated. “Yes,” he said. It’s also something I have to do for myself and for Dane.
Six hours later
Deon waited at the crossover on the highway a few miles outside of Richmond in the pitch black of night. Although he had the air condition on in his nondescript black sedan, he was sweating behind the ski mask pulled down over his face.
He had already radioed his partner from the private military contractor firm that managed his jobs to ascertain the location of the gap in the guardrail on the overpass. It would be a tricky operation — one that would need to be carried out with skill and precision, nothing his training as a Navy SEAL left him a stranger to. But still…
“He’s coming,” his partner’s voice crackled over the closed, short-wave radio.
Here goes, Deon thought as he switched on his headlights and pulled into the road going the wrong way on the highway. The car heading toward him matched the description he had been given — a black Buick Verano; the driver: Oliver Mason. Behind the Verano, Deon’s partner accelerated and tapped the Verano on the bumper.
Mason slammed on the horn and swerved to the left, the side of his vehicle squealing against the guardrails.
Almost, Deon thought. Almost.
Squinting into the Verano’s headlights, Deon could see Mason shielding his face from the glare.
Deon’s radio crackled again. “Now. Get in there,” his partner said.
Deon pressed on the gas pedal. As he accelerated closer to Mason’s vehicle, he could see the panic in his face. For a brief moment, Deon thought about pulling off his ski mask and showing Mason his face. Deon wanted him to feel the same helplessness that he had felt when Mason had told him he wouldn’t send backup when Dane’s scout squad was under attack by the Taliban.
Mason was clenching the steering wheel tightly, sweat trickling across his forehead. Just a few more feet, and the vehicles would collide.
At the last instant, Mason swerved hard to the left to avoid a direct collision.
Time seemed to slow down as Deon brought his sedan to a screeching halt. He watched as Mason’s vehicle turned nearly vertical as it slipped off the overpass and hurtled into the darkness below.
The job was done.
When his partner was out of sight, Deon got out of his car and walked to the gap in the guardrail. On the pavement beneath, shrouded in shadows, he could just make out the crumpled form of the vehicle, the moonlight playing eerily on the metal.
Revenge mission accomplished.
Chapter 4 — Timothy
Timothy stood looking out one of the large bay windows in the front of his family’s country home. It was morning, and the sun had risen, promising a day of sweltering heat. Out of habit, Timothy was wearing black slacks and a white dress shirt, but he had dispensed with the tie. His sister-in-law, Mallory, was fixing breakfast in the kitchen.
At the end of the inquiry into the lieutenant governor’s death, the state’s investigative commission had censured him, banning him from involvement in politics in Virginia for sixteen years. He had been released from house arrest and had moved out of the governor’s mansion; it had stopped feeling like a home several months prior. Gray clouds had overshadowed the residence during the final days of his stay there. What wasn’t coincidence was Tamika and Timothy Jr. deciding to stay away from the mansion during their father’s hearing. To make matter’s worse, Timothy and Elise were barely speaking. They both were still grieving the death of their infant son and neither one dared break the quiet mourning that the other seemed to be going through.
So, Timothy stood alone looking out at the pasture spread out before him. He could see as far as the edge of their neighbor’s property where sheep and cows grazed. When Timothy had inherited the Tedesco family homestead from his father, he had sold off all their livestock. But, now, he was thinking of building up the estate’s holdings once again. Maybe get some cows, a few sheep, a dog or two. He hadn’t had a dog since childhood.
Maybe he’d even plant some crops. Some of the neighbors grew corn, soybeans, and tobacco. One had a vineyard.
After all, Timothy had nothing better to do. Not unless one counted writing a book as a better way to spend forced retirement. No sooner had his inquiry wrapped up than he had three book deals on his desk. He had received three more since he’d moved back to the country property.
So, his choices were cowboy, farmer, or writer. None looked too attractive.
A dirt and gravel path curved around in front of the property. Timothy contemplated this road as a path of possibilities before him. He could go one way or the other. Without a task before him, he was beginning to feel caged. For twenty-five years, he’d been a man with things to do, places to go, and people to see. Now, all of that had been taken away. The path of possibilities seemed to lead to nowhere.
Timothy was about to turn away from the window when a dust cloud rose up at one end of the path. He thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, so he took a second glance.
He had not been mistaken. A black sedan ambled up the path toward the front of the house. Timothy hadn’t been expecting visitors. He frowned as the driver, a young man hopped out and spun on his heel to open the back door.
Out stepped the last person Timothy had expected to see.
Chapter 5 — Timothy
The woman who stepped out of the car was in her early sixties, but she looked at least ten years younger. Her hair was black and curly; it hung down to her shoulders. Even after all these years, Timothy wasn’t so sure it was dyed. The lines on her face weren’t tiresome but elegant. Despite the heat the day promised, she wore a black coat that hung down nearly to her ankles. She walked steadily on black heels up the stone walkway that led to the front door.
Timothy, still standing by the window, watched transfixed. Of all the days…
The doorbell rang once, but it took a second ring for Timothy to move. He walked to the door, took a deep breath, and opened it.
“Ma?” he said.
“Yes, Timothy. Who else would it be?” The woman, his mother, peered past Timothy into the house. “Well, are you going to make me stand here all day, or what?”
Timothy stepped aside quickly, holding the door open as his mother stepped in, her heels clacking on the marble floor. She took off her coat and hung it on a peg by the door then turned slowly, surveying the living room with a critical eye.
“What are you doing here, Ma? California getting too hot for you?” Timothy said.
“Can’t I come visit one of my babies when they’re in trouble?” Angela Tedesco walked slowly around the room, observing the paintings on the wall.
“I don’t need your help,” Timothy said. There was a reason why, after his father’s death, he didn’t mind that he and his mother lived on opposite coasts.
“I’m not talking about you,” Angela said sharply. “I heard about what happened to my grandbaby.”
“He’s not your baby anymore. You spoiled him,” Timothy said.
“I’m the only mother that boy has ever known. While you and Helene were out chasing your dreams or goals or whatever you call what you were doing, I was here with Cat every day.”
Timothy held up a hand. “Let’s not argue. There’s nothing you can do for Demas anyway. He’s in a coma in the hospital.”
“There is something I can do,” Angela said. “I can sit by his bedside, hold his hand, talk to him — like any mother would. He’ll hear me.”
“Fine.” Timothy returned to the entrance, retrieved his mother’s coat, and held it open for her. “And after you have your visit, I will personally make sure you are on a plane back to California where you can stay out of trouble.”
Angela slipped her arms into the coat. “If only you knew the trouble I’ve been getting into in California…”
Timothy grabbed his keys and wallet. “Mallory, tell Elise I’m skipping breakfast,” he called out.
As he opened the front door, his mother turned to him. “Have you heard from Phillip Obermann, by any chance?”
Timothy froze, his throat tightening. “Obermann is dead, Ma,” he said. “You know that.”
“That’s what the feds think I know,” Angela said. “But the truth is much, much different.” She turned to her son who was still standing in the doorway. She patted his chest, just above his heart. “You still have great, great things ahead of you Timothy.”
Chapter 6 — Demas & Jia
It was an autumn evening. The wind was strong, rustling the leaves in the trees in the nation’s capital. The streets of the city were clogged and noisy as people made their way from work, to restaurants, to home.
Golden light gleamed from the windows and doors of government buildings where important people made important decisions.
None of them knew what was coming.
High over the Atlantic Ocean, three streaks of light moved westward at supersonic speeds. They looked beautiful — like stars falling, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Except they weren’t just falling. They were heading straight for the city.
And they weren’t stars.
Jia stepped away from the hospital bed as a doctor and two nurses rushed in. “It’s happening again,” she said. By “it”, she meant her husband, Demas, was going into convulsions. His head thrashing back and forth; hands and fingers tensing rigidly. The doctors had to keep him strapped to the bed lest he hurt himself. They told her he was in a deep coma as a result of the bullet that had grazed his head and fractured his skull. But Jia had never heard of a person being able to move so vigorously during a coma.
Jia stood by, hands clasped over her mouth and nose, as the nurses worked to register his vitals. Her long black hair, which was normally shiny and silky, looked dry and tired. The past few months had been hard on her. She had been distraught when she learned Demas was shot three times as he was leaving the Tedesco Industries headquarters. She thought he’d been killed. At first, she’d been relieved when he survived, but after months of him in a coma, she had begun to seriously consider the doctor’s suggestion of turning off life support. (“It’d be putting him out of his misery and you out of yours,” the doctor had said.)
That was until the brain wave monitor at the hospital detected abnormal brain activity — the exact same time Demas had begun having convulsions. They lasted for a few minutes at a time and seemed to happen at random every few days. Jia had become hopeful. Clearly, her husband wasn’t dead, but nothing else seemed to have changed.
After a period of bewilderment, the doctors came up with a drug to calm Demas’ body when he entered one of his episodes. It also ended the activity in his brain, at least temporarily.
They were getting ready to inject him once again when Jia saw something that made her heart stop and then begin beating faster than it had been beating before. “No, stop!” she said, grabbing the arm of the nurse who was holding the syringe.
The doctor and the other nurse looked at her.
“I saw… I saw… He opened his eyes,” Jia said. It had only been a little flutter of his eyelids, but she’d noticed.
The doctor and nurses looked at Demas who suddenly seemed to be calming down. His head stopped thrashing and rested on the pillow. His arms and legs relaxed, his fingers uncurled and rested limply. The brain monitor was no longer showing abnormally high levels of activity in Demas’ mind, but it still indicated that some action was ongoing.
“Well, that’s…” the doctor started to say.
Demas opened his eyes.
Jia gasped and threw herself on her husband, hugging him (as best she could with him being tied down). “I never… I never thought I’d see your eyes again,” she said, overwhelmed with joy. The doctor and nurses wore relieved but still uncertain smiles.
Demas’ lips moved, as though he were trying to say something. He licked his lips and swallowed hard. It took him several tries, but Jia smiled encouragingly, one arm over his head. Finally, he found words.
“Who… who are… you?”
Jia pulled away uncertainly. “I’m Jia. Your wife. We’ve been married for a year and eight months.” She held out her hand, showing him the ring on her finger.
“I don’t… I don’t know you,” Demas said slowly. “But someone has to warn them.”
Chapter 7 — Timothy
The drive to the hospital was not unpleasant. Timothy tried to get more information about what his mother had been up to since they had last seen each other — a huge task considering that had been over twenty years ago.
“What’s got Obermann on your mind? His people bothering you again?” Nathan asked as the driver turned onto the farm-to-market road that led to the highway.
“No, they’re not bothering me, Timothy,” Angela said. “And if they were, I could handle it.”
“Dad thought he could handle them, and look what happened to him,” Timothy said.
“Your father’s death was not Obermann’s fault,” Angela said, her face turned to the window. “And contrary to what you may think, Obermann isn’t a bad man.”
Timothy shook his head. “All these years and you’re still defending him. You, of all people, know what he did to this family.”
“It’s all in your perspective, Timothy,” Angela said. “You can make anyone into a villain if you look at them a certain way.”
“But he is — was — a villain,” Timothy said. “Mobster, money laundering, hiring hit men. Getting in bed with him was Dad’s ultimate mistake.”
“Like I said, it’s all in the way you look at things,” Angela repeated. “What your father, Obermann, and I and a few others were trying to do could have changed the world for the better. It could have worked — created hope and unity where there was only despair and disunity.”
“But the lies, the manipulation. If that’s your idea of hope and unity…”
“You’re hardly in a position to talk about the vices of others,” Angela said, cutting off her son with a sharp look. She sighed. “Your father got cold feet in the end. The whole operation started to fall apart.”
“He sued Obermann,” Timothy said. “Not exactly a panic move.”
“It was foolish and hasty.”
“Maybe he finally saw Obermann for who he really is,” Timothy continued. “Obermann got scared when Dad turned on him, and he did what he’s always done: eliminate his enemies.”
“I’m tired of this,” Angela said. She leaned forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Drive faster.”
“He’s going seventy already, Ma.”
Chapter 8 — Timothy
When Timothy and Angela arrived at the hospital, Jia was waiting for them outside the hospital room. She wore a pensive, frustrated expression, her arms folded across her chest.
“What’s happening? We heard he woke up,” Timothy said as he rushed in.
“He did, but he doesn’t remember me,” Jia said. “He doesn’t remember anything. He’s talking some nonsense about saving the world.”
“Poor thing,” Angela said soothingly, rubbing Jia’s arm. “Let’s have a look at him.”
Timothy and Angela let themselves into Demas’ room. He was laying in the hospital bed, his upper body raised slightly, his eyes closed.
“Demas,” Timothy said quietly, touching his son’s hand.
His eyes flew open. He jerked away, startled. He stared at Timothy like he was a stranger — a dangerous stranger.
Angela sat down on the other side of the bed. She patted her grandson’s cheek. “Demas, dearie, don’t say you don’t remember me.”
“I don’t,” Demas said. “I don’t know who you are.” He brushed Angela’s hand away from him. “I don’t know any of you people.” He looked down at the bed. “Where am I? When am I gonna get out of here? They lock the door at night so I can’t get out.”
“You’re in a hospital, son,” Timothy said. “You were shot — in the head. You’re suffering memory loss.” He motioned to himself, Angela, and Jia who had followed them inside. “We are your family.”
Demas looked bewildered. “I don’t have any family. I never had any family.” He threw the covers off and sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed where Angela was standing. “You’ll help me get out of here?” he said. “You’ll help me? I have to warn them.”
“No, no,” Angela said. “Sit down. Tell us what you remember. The very last thing you remember — anything at all.”
Demas stayed seated, his fingers pressed against his forehead.
“What is your name?” Angela said.
Demas looked at the medical identification band on his wrist. “De-mas Chris-to-pher Te-des-co,” he read slowly.
“Does it mean anything to you?” Jia said, her tone pleading.
“No… It’s not my name.”
Jia sighed in frustration and turned away to the window where midday sunlight filtered in through the thin curtain.
“Think,” Angela said. “Tell us you remember something.”
Demas thought again, fingers to his forehead. He stared at Angela. He stared at Jia. He stared at his father. Something flickered in his eyes. He pointed. “I know… I’ve seen you before. You are going to save the world.”
Chapter 9 — Timothy
When they arrived back at the Tedesco Estate, Angela and Timothy were arguing over whether or not Demas really had recognized his father.
“It’s a little boy memory,” Angela said. “Every boy wants his father to be a hero.”
“So, you’re saying twenty years of his memory is wiped out and he’s a little boy again,” Timothy said as he unlocked the front door. “No, something else is going on.”
“Tamika?” Timothy looked up, surprised to see his daughter leaning over the banister. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder and a duffel bag resting on the step at her feet. “You’re home.”
Tamika shrugged. She dropped the backpack and came down the stairs. “Yeah, I had to come home some time. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course, not. I never wanted you to leave. But I know why you did,” Timothy said. He hugged his daughter. “Gonna tell me where you were?”
“We stayed with our cousins until school let out and then — “
“We?” Timothy asked.
“Yeah, Timmy’s here too,” Tamika said, motioning toward the stairs. “Timmy! Get down here!”
“Thank God,” Timothy said.
Tamika looked past her father as Timmy came down the stairs. “Grandma?” she said, surprised.
“Oh, Ma was just getting ready to leave,” Timothy said.
“No, I’m not,” Angela said, taking off her coat and hanging it on the rack. “Not when my grandchildren are home.”
Timothy and Elise ate a late breakfast in the kitchen as Angela caught up with Tamika and Timmy in the living room.
“I take it you aren’t too pleased with your mother being here,” Elise said.
“You take it correctly,” Timothy said, as he sliced the sausage on his plate.
“Why? I’m sure she’s harmless?” Elise said, stirring sugar in her coffee.
Timothy snorted. “You don’t know her. She’s more trouble than it’s worth.”
“You think it’s coincidence that Tamika and Timmy came home on the same day,” Elise said. “Maybe it’s providence — a sign. You said you’ve been looking for one.”
“It’s more like a mixed signal,” Timothy said. He paused as laughter came from the living room.
Elise smiled. “Don’t hear much of that around here. We might become a big, happy family again.”
Timothy shook his head. “We might be a big family. But not a happy one. Not yet.”
Chapter 10 — Timothy
The doorbell rang at the Tedesco residence.
“Are we expecting visitors?” Timothy asked from his seat at the dining table where the family was eating breakfast.. He sat at one end with Elise and Mallory on one side, Tamika and Timothy Jr. on the other, and his mother Angela at the other end.
“No, but I’ll get it,” Mallory said. She got up to answer the door and came back a moment later, telling Timothy, “It’s for you.”
Timothy wiped his mouth with a napkin and went into the living room where he found his former chief-of-staff Kent Rogers waiting.
“Good morning, sir,” he said.
“Morning,” Timothy said. “I thought I was clear. I told you I would contact you when I was ready to discuss possibilities.”
“I know, but they won’t stop bugging me about it,” Kent said. “If I can tell them you said no, maybe they’ll leave us alone.” He handed Timothy a letter printed on formal stationery.
Timothy held the sheet at arm’s length as he scanned it, gradually drawing the paper close to him as he read each line carefully. Halfway through, he muttered something to himself. When he finished reading he folded the letter up, twisting it between his fingers.
“I can easily write a letter telling them you said no,” Kent said uncertainly.
“We won’t reply just yet,” Timothy said. “This is a big decision, not one that should be made quickly. Sit on it for me. I still haven’t decided where I’m going to spend my energies with all this… free time that I have now. So, I’ll be thinking it over.”
“Thinking what over?” asked Angela from the dining room entryway.
“Ma.” Timothy hadn’t realized she had been listening
“The party chairman wants Timothy to consider the ticket and run for president in the next election.”
“To ‘consider the ticket’,” said Timothy, using the exact words from the letter.
“Oh, well, that’s a sign,” Angela said.
“No, it’s not a sign.” Timothy ran his hand through his hair. This was what made his mother so frustrating. This was what forced them apart. Go to college here, she said. Don’t date that girl. Marry this girl. Run for your father’s Senate seat. Hire this campaign manager. “I’m leaning towards no,” Timothy told Kent. “I don’t see why they’re still asking.”
“Maybe they see something in you that even you can’t see.” Angela lifted her chin and looked levelly at her son. “It’s something you should seriously consider. Opportunity doesn’t knock twice.” She turned and went back into the kitchen.
Kent sniffed. “My mother was the same way,” he said. “God rest her soul. She’s dead now.”
“At least you can say that,” Timothy said. “I’m not sure my mother has a soul to lay to rest.”
Chapter 11 — Jia
“Mrs. Tedesco, I’m just looking out for your best interest,” the doctor said. “Your husband is really not fit to be living in your home. It’s best that we keep him at the facility.”
“I know. But you said it was up to me,” Jia drew herself up to her full height to look the doctor in the eye. “I can take care of him. He’s my husband.” She looked past the doctor into the big glass window. Demas sat in a sterile room in hospital-assigned whites. His eyes darted around, unfocused. He squinted as though seeing things that no one else could. His lips moved intermittently.
“You’ll also be the one responsible for everything that happens to him and everything that he does to others.”
“You said that already.”
“You have to understand: we don’t know what’s going on inside his head,” the doctor continued, “His brain activity is normal, sometimes even hyper, but it’s just not translating into his cognitive perception. He can’t communicate with you. We don’t even know how much he’s understanding us.”
“It’ll be fine. I told you,” Jia said. “I can handle it.” She wasn’t sure she could, especially not with a baby coming. She was just beginning to show.
“Okay, just doing my job, lady.” The doctor pulled a clipboard out of a plastic holder on the door. “Here are the discharge papers for you to sign.”
Jia took the clipboard and signed her name to a trio of forms.
“Mrs. Tedesco,” a male voice addressed Jia from down the hall accompanied by quick footsteps.
Jia looked up. “Peter, hello.” Her husband’s vice-president was dressed in an ill-fitting suit. His tie was loose and square-framed glasses squatted on his face.
Jia handed the signed forms back to the doctor.
“I came to see if there was any, uh, improvement,” Peter said. He glanced toward the window of the room where Demas was being held. “Oh.”
“He’s being released. I’m taking him home today,” Jia said trying to strike a hopeful tone. “But he won’t be ready to take over his duties again anytime soon.”
“Yes, that’s what I came to inform you about. The board has elected me CEO of T.I. — temporarily, of course.”
“Sure,” Jia said. “Please, do what you need to do. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
“Certainly,” Peter said. “My sister, Maggie, is a mental therapist. I think she could be of some assistance to you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“I’ll put you two in touch.” Peter nodded as he walked away. “Best of luck.”
The door to Demas’ holding room opened and a nurse led him out. Jia took a deep breath and wiped her suddenly sweaty palms on her dress.
“He’s all yours,” the doctor said.
Demas was muttering to himself as he came out. He faced Jia and the doctor but wasn’t really looking at them. “Someone has to warn them,” he said. “Someone has to.”
Chapter 12 — Jia
Jia stood in the doorway of the spare room. She had planned on turning it into a room for the baby. But now it would be a room for her husband. Her patient. Her baby’s father.
The nurse who had ridden along to escort Demas home called from the front door.
“Okay, bring him in,” Jia said. She hurried through the living room to the front of the house to watch.
The nurse led Demas up the steps and across the threshold. When Demas tried to shake her off, she held him fast.
“No, let him go,” Jia said.
Demas stopped in the entranceway and looked around as though seeing the place for the first time. Jia hoped that he would recognize something that would trigger his memory.
Demas gazed up at the chandelier. “Stars,” he murmured. “Stars falling.” He shook his head as though awakening out of a stupor. “No, not stars. Something else.”
He walked slowly down the hall and into the opening of the living room. He looked around at the navy colored couches, the gilded lamps, the wildlife paintings on the wall. “What is this place?” he said.
“It’s your home,” Jia said.
“I don’t have a home.”
“It’s your new home then,” Jia said.
Demas seemed to accept this. He looked at her fully and then walked around the living room, stopping by the fireplace. He looked at the framed pictures on the mantel. Pictures of him and Jia from when they were dating, at their engagement party, and from their wedding. “You are everywhere I am,” Demas said picking up one of the pictures. His eyes narrowed with suspicion as he took a step toward Jia. “What are you trying to do to me?” He held the photo up threateningly.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jia saw the nurse step into the room. She had something metallic in her hand. It was about the length of a ruler. It looked like a weapon.
Jia shook her head sternly at the nurse. “I’m trying to help you,” she told Demas.
“Help me?” Demas looked around as if he were just remembering something, but he lowered the picture. “I don’t need any help.”
“You do,” Jia assured him.
Demas held up a finger. “Yes. I must tell them. I must. The stars are coming.” He furrowed his brow and shook his head. “No, not stars. Something worse.”
Fighting the feeling of bewilderment, Jia put her hand on her husband’s arm. “Yes, I will help you with whatever you need,” she said. “Now, let’s go to your room.” She guided him out of the living room.
. . .
“The doctor asked me to give you these,” the nurse said carrying in a plastic carton and setting it on the living room table. She held up two prescription bottles. “These are for his headaches. He’s been getting them about every other day.”
The nurse held up another bottle. “This is a mild sedative, just in case he gets too aggressive. It will make him drowsy for a few hours. You can put it in water or any drink. And this,” she said, picking up the long metallic object, “is a stun wand. If anything goes wrong, this will knock him out cold. Just press this button right here.” She pointed to a blue tab. “It won’t hurt him. But it’s for your own safety.”
“I don’t think I’ll need that,” Jia said.
“It’s my job to give it to you,” the nurse said. “And here’s my number, in case you need anything else.” She looked up at Jia as she placed a business card down on the table. “If I were you, second year of marriage with a baby on the way — and my husband has lost his mind, I would be freaking out right about now.” She smiled. “You are a braver person than I am.”
Chapter 13 — Timothy
Timothy climbed the stairs to the study — one of the few rooms he had yet to enter since he had come back to the residence permanently. After six years in the Governor’s Mansion, he still felt out of place in his own home. He was in a holding pattern — just waiting for something to happen.
Unlike the rest of the house, the study was cramped. When he lived at the residence permanently before the governorship, he never used the room, and only rarely entered it. It had belonged to his father and held too many troubled memories.
One trait of his father’s which he hadn’t picked up was his voracious appetite for reading. Three shelves crowded the corners at one end of the study. They were stuffed with books worn out from being well used. Two cloth wingback reading chairs sat in the middle of the room on an oval rug. A large desk stood at the other end with barely enough room to squeeze around it. An old Eastman Johnson painting hung over the wall above the desk chair. The small window between the shelves and the desk looked out on the woods to the south of the property. The brown stained curtains stood slightly apart. Everything was coated in a thick layer of dust.
Timothy squeezed around the desk and sank down into the chair. Dust motes rose up in a swirl around him, tickling his nose, forcing him to sneeze. His eyes watered. Looking around him, he noticed what at first appeared to be a patch of sunlight on the desktop. But the sun’s rays from the narrow opening in the window couldn’t reach that place. He looked again and realized that what he was seeing was the actual wood of the desktop itself — without the coating of dust that covered everything in the room. The bare space was in the rough outline of a person’s palm.
Timothy realized that someone must have been in the room recently. Tamika and Timmy would have had no reason to. Maybe Elise. Mallory might have come in to clean.
Timothy got the distinct feeling that whoever had entered the room had come in looking for something. He stared at the palm print on the desktop and then began opening and closing the four drawers in the desk. The top left drawer was empty. He shut it quickly and sneezed as a small wave of dust rose up. The drawer beneath that one held small wooden figurines of animals — the ones his father had carved for him when he was a boy. How they had got in this drawer he didn’t know. He felt a tinge of emotion as he wondered if his and Elise’s late baby would have enjoyed playing with them, but he quickly shut the drawer and moved on. The drawer on the top right held half a dozen ball-point pens that began rolling when he opened it up along with a stack of paper, yellowed with age. He shut that drawer and moved to the last one. It stuck when he tried to pull it open and he had to yank it out.
Here was something interesting.
Chapter 14 — Timothy
Timothy stared down into the drawer. A small, rectangular wooden box intricately carved with vinework sat at an angle in the bottom of the drawer. He reached down and picked it up. He could tell from the dust-free rectangular shape left behind that it had been down there for a long time, preventing the dust from collecting beneath it. He turned the box over in his palm. Barely any dust clung to it. It had been recently handled.
A tiny gold clasp was open on the long edge of the rectangle. Timothy flipped the lid open only to find a smooth velvet mold with a depression in the middle. He traced the shape of the depression. It had held a key — and recently.
Timothy stood up, closed the box, and set it on the desk, his mind awash in questions. Did the box belong to his father? Had he put it in that drawer? Why would someone come looking for it now? And what was the key for?
As he pondered this, a scraping noise caught his attention. He looked across the room in the direction from which the sound had come. It came again, like someone dragging wood across carpet. Then he noticed that the shelf across the room was moving, inching open like a door.
Timothy watched warily from behind the desk. He wondered if it would be good for him to have a gun. The shelf kept inching open until a dark gap appeared behind it. There are secret rooms in this house?
The next moment, the absurd scene seemed to make sense when Timothy’s mother emerged from behind the shelf. Angela paused when she caught sight of her son. Timothy threw up his hands and sat down, staring at her. Angela adjusted her hair. She had streaks of dust on her skirt and jacket and an old-fashioned copper key in her hand.
“What gives, Ma?” Timothy said. “You didn’t come here just to check on Demas. You wanted something from this house. I knew I should have never let you stay here.”
“Last I checked, the house is still in my name,” Angela said as she stepped out from the opening. “You haven’t bothered to change it, have you?” She started to shove the shelf closed again but paused to look at Timothy. “No. You haven’t,” she said confidently.
She was right. His father had turned over the residence to his mother in his will. When Angela had moved to California, Timothy had taken over the house, but never got his name put on the deed. “What is behind that shelf?”
“Some things of your father’s,” Angela said, giving the shelf a final shove. There was a loud click when the secret door was shut firmly. “I just needed to see them again.”
“Things like what? A Batsuit?”
“Be serious.” Angela came toward him brushing dust streaks off of her skirt. “Your father was a complicated man. And his legacy is not set in stone. Now, it all depends on what you become.” She held the key up in front of her face, and then set it down with a smack on the desk. The metal against wood rang out dully, a swirl of dust motes rising in the air around it.
Angela turned and left the room.
Timothy was left staring at the key.
Chapter 15 — Jia
Jia found that getting Demas settled in was easier than she had anticipated based on the doctor’s warning. She didn’t have to feed him or dress him or help him in the bathroom. He was fully capable in those ways. And he was content to sit and watch her with mild interest as she cooked or cleaned.
The real problems came when she tried to communicate with him, telling him who she was, who he was, and who they had been together. He repeatedly pushed back, denying everything she told him.
“We weren’t married. How could we have been? I don’t know you.”
Jia took off her ring and showed it to him.
“Beautiful,” he said.
“You gave it to me on our wedding day,” Jia said.
“Liar. There was no wedding day,” Demas said. “Stop trying to make me believe things that aren’t true.”
“But it is true.” Jia sighed, feeling like a total stranger had taken up residence in her husband’s body. She decided to try a different tack. “What is your name?”
“You keep calling me Demas and Christopher, but…” He struggled to think, lines furrowing in his forehead. “That’s what you call me,” he finished with a shrug.
“When were you born? What date?”
“I wasn’t ever born. Why is that important?” Demas said.
Jia squeezed her eyes shut in frustration.
“Why are you doing that with your face? Is something wrong?” Demas said.
Yes, something is very wrong with you, Jia thought. “No. I’m sleepy. I’m going to bed,” she said. “You should to.”
“You mean I should go back to the room you made for me in this house?”
“Yes.” Jia watched as Demas went into the room that they had planned for their baby and shut the door. She turned the lights off in the kitchen, and went to lay down in the master bedroom. She stared up at the ceiling, one hand resting on her stomach. She had been praying for a breakthrough with Demas. Whatever he was suffering from — memory loss, trauma, some kind of mental block — she definitely wanted him to come out of it before the baby arrived. She didn’t think she could bear seeing her child growing up in the same house with a father who didn’t know that child was his own.
The constant worry kept her up for hours after she had retired, and tonight was no different. She assumed that Demas had been sleeping fine. He was always awake and waiting for her in the morning and he didn’t seem to be suffering from sleep deprivation. Still, she had never gone to check on him at night.
Getting no sleep herself, she got out of bed, put on her slippers, and went back downstairs. She hesitated in front of Demas’ door. A dim light glowed beneath the entrance, but that could be coming from the curtains being open. However, it didn’t explain the scratching noises.
Jia turned the knob quietly and slowly slipped the door open. Demas wasn’t in bed. He was hunched over the desk in the room. An array of sheets of paper were spread out on the desk, and he was writing or drawing feverishly on one of them.
“Demas, what are you doing?” Jia stepped into the room.
Demas spun around, startled. “No, you can’t stop me.” He held out his hand as if to block her from coming nearer. “They have to know.”
Jia froze. It wasn’t his words that gave her pause. It was his face. His eyes were rolled back in his head, exposing the whites, pale and eerie.
Jia staggered from the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
Chapter 16 — Jia
Jia stopped in the hall, leaning against the wall to catch her breath. She glanced back at Demas’ door, wondering if he would come out after her. After a few minutes, she crept back quietly and listened. She could hear the scratching noises going again, frantic and persistent.
What was he writing? If he was writing, that was a good thing, right? Jia started to wonder if her mind was playing tricks on her. Maybe she’d only imagined seeing his face like it was something out of a horror movie. Maybe all the warnings she’d heard from the doctors and nurses were weighing too heavily on her mind. She shook her head and went back to her bedroom. She hesitated at the door a moment and then decided to lock it behind her.
Later that morning, Jia awakened to delicious smells. It was early. The last strips of yellow sunrise were still in the sky, slipping in between the opening in the curtains. Jia knew she hadn’t put anything in the slow cooker the previous night, so she gathered her robe around her and headed downstairs. She paused at the entrance to the kitchen and looked in.
Demas was at the stove and there were scrambled eggs — nearly done — in a pan. He was whipping them up with a spatula. There was a dusting of flour on the counter and an assortment of spices that had been pulled down from the cabinet.
When the eggs were done, Jia watched as Demas picked up each of the spice bottles. He turned them over in his hands, seeming to read the labels carefully before opening each cap and dumping a little on his outstretched fingers and tasting it. He made faces at most of them and, seemingly not finding what he was looking for, he put them all back in the cabinet. He looked carefully around the kitchen until his eyes alighted on the refrigerator. He went over and opened it, pulling out the Parmesan cheese. He read this bottle carefully, tasted a little on his fingers, and nodded as though this were what he had been looking for. He went back to the stove.
While he was occupied — and not causing any harm — Jia tiptoed away and slipped into Demas’ room. The bed was unmade, so apparently, he had been sleeping some. Jia headed straight to the desk. The surface was empty except for a lamp and half a dozen pencils. She opened the single drawer in the middle of the desk revealing a thin stack of paper.
Jia drew the stack of paper out of the drawer, setting it on the desktop. She flipped over the first one. It was a pencil drawing of her father-in-law, Timothy Tedesco, highly detailed. It was just his face on the right side of the sheet. The rest of the page was blank. Did this mean Demas was remembering his family again? Remembering what had happened to him?
Footsteps in the hallway made her spin around.
Demas stepped into the doorway carrying a plate full of scrambled eggs. He looked surprised to see her, but then noticed the papers on the desk.
“You’re not supposed to be looking at those,” he said.
Chapter 17 — Timothy
Timothy sat staring at the key for a few long moments. He picked it up and looked at it. It was possible his mother had been bluffing, so he tried to fit it into the depression in the key box.
It fit perfectly. This was real.
A hundred different ideas about why his father would have a secret room in the house spun through his head. And are there other secret rooms in this house waiting to be uncovered? Timothy picked up the key again and looked from it to the bookshelf that hid the secret door. There was a part of him that wanted to toss the key back in the desk drawer and let the past stay there. But doubts about his mother’s true intentions kept him considering the possibility of opening the door. Although she had said she had come to see about Demas, she hadn’t actually gone to visit him and Jia after he was allowed to go home from the hospital. Whatever was down there, if his mother thought it important enough to know, Timothy figured he had a right to know too.
He picked up the key and strode to the bookshelf. There was a place where one book had been removed and another book was now leaning in its place. He pushed the leaning book aside, exposing a smooth circular black surface. He brushed it with his thumb and then pressed it. The bookshelf shivered and then started to slowly grind open. It left a cavity about three feet wide in the wall.
Behind the wall, there was an old looking, carved door. Timothy expected it to be rough and worn with age, but the wood was still smooth. The doorknob, which had a keyhole beneath it, looked large and cumbersome. He fitted the key into the hole. It went in roughly, and he turned it one way and then the other before trying the door. The door didn’t budge. He went back to work on the key, twisting it this way and that, turning it upside down and trying to fit it in that way.
Finally, after a good deal of negotiating with the lock, Timothy felt something click inside the door. He pushed against it, and it swung open a little, revealing a wall of woodwork. Pushing it open all the way, Timothy saw a flight of stairs rising up to meet him. He wondered if his father had written about this secret part of the house in his journals. But his mother had taken those with her when she left for California.
Timothy started down the narrow steps. They creaked and groaned under his weight. He thought he could feel the rotting tear wood deteriorating beneath him. As he went down, it became increasingly dark. Should have brought a flashlight. Instead of turning back, he kept going, bracing himself against the wall to feel his way down.
Finally, his feet hit a different surface. Something soft. Carpet, perhaps.
Timothy rapped twice on the wall, and listened as the sound re-echoed. He appeared to be in a big room. He felt around in the darkness for some kind of light switch, but to no avail. Instead, his hand fell on something solid — a small table, perhaps. He felt it blindly and was just about to give up and go back up the stairs when his fingers brushed a cylindrical object. He grabbed it before it could roll away. It was a flashlight. Perhaps, his mother had left it behind. He felt for the switch, and flicked it on.
Chapter 18 — Peter
Peter Miller had gotten used to wearing suits over the past couple of weeks. But he still couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder. Ever since the attempted murder of his boss, Demas Tedesco, the shadows had him jumpy. He adjusted his glasses as he peered out of one of the grime covered windows of the abandoned warehouse in southern Virginia.
“Since when did I start holding meetings with potential contractors in abandoned warehouses?” he muttered to himself. He was used to the black leather seats, smooth mahogany tables, and LED screens of a Tedesco Industries boardroom. But his new suitors didn’t like to draw attention to themselves.
Peter walked over to a large mechanical contraption that was just beginning to rust. He didn’t know what the machine had been used for, but at least it had a flat surface. He set his portfolio down on it and started arranging the buying contract, prototype mockups, and production timetables. As the former head of innovation for T.I., he knew every iota of the specs for the Hyper-Stealth Laser Carrying Missile (or LCM-18, as it was referred to internally). He had been pushing for it to be developed for a couple of years. The problem was it cost a boatload — more like an aircraft carrier load — of money, and until some superpower wanted to bankroll it, it would always remain in the realm of paper, printouts, and mockups.
But now, Peter had found that buyer. Potential buyer, to be exact. As he finished laying out his presentation, he heard the noise of a vehicle drive up in the gravel outside. Doors slammed. Voices sounded, speaking a language other than English. Feet crunched over gravel. The entrance to the warehouse rolled back slightly and three men walked in.
“There he is,” the first man said exultingly. Short and balding, he wore a black suit and a white shirt without a tie. He spoke with a Russian accent.
“Mr. Kursinska,” Peter said, reaching out to shake his hand.
“Please, call me Anton,” Kursinska said. He motioned to the two men behind him who both wore sunglasses. “This is Lukyan and Markov. Lukyan is for security. But you will like Markov. He handles the money.” Kursinska grinned.
“Yes, I see.” Peter shook hands with the other two men. Lukyan appeared to be disinterested, but Markov removed his sunglasses and went to stand behind Anton who was looking at the weapon design specs. The two spoke together in Russian for a few minutes.
Finally, Anton said, “Peter, my friend, everything appears to be in order. And Markov says it will cost even less than what we are willing to pay. I will be taking these back to the Ministry—”
“No,” Peter interjected. “Those are proprietary designs. Until we have a deal, I can’t let you take them out of the country. I can fax them to—”
“No, no. No fax,” Anton said, wagging his finger in the air. “And don’t worry. We have deal. Secret deal. We already keep our end of deal.”
“What? We haven’t signed anything.”
“Ah. Deal signed with blood, yes?” Anton nodded as though he expected Peter to know what this meant. Peter just felt cold growing in his stomach as Anton continued. “Remember, we tell you we deal only with you to get these weapon. You say you not head of company. Well, are you head of company now? Are you?”
“Yes,” Peter mumbled, as realization dawned.
“See,” Anton said. He pointed to himself, Lukyan, and Markov. “We make you head of company. So we have deal, yes?”
Chapter 19 — Peter
Peter sat in his modest office at Tedesco Industries’ headquarters. (He had decided against taking Demas’ office.)
After refusing to let the Russians take his weapons designs, they had left the warehouse — but it was clear they weren’t happy. Peter had spent the next few days in a panicky sweat, wondering what would happen next. They weren’t the type to just take “no” for an answer. The masked man caught on security footage shooting T.I.’s former CEO had been a Russian operative hired by his potential buyers. When he had received a note of congratulations the same day the board voted him the new CEO, he should have known something was awry.
But things were settling down now — he hoped. He hadn’t heard from Anton since that evening in the warehouse. Demas was back home now, hopefully nearing recovery. Maybe all of this would blow over soon, Demas would return to the company, and he would hopefully be out of the sticky position he had gotten into.
Too much hoping.
Peter picked up the phone and dialed Jia’s number. “Mrs. Tedesco, Peter Miller here.”
“Oh, hi,” Jia said.
Peter tried to take the measure of her voice, but he detected no particular signal in her tone. Or maybe he was just too nervous to pick up on it. He plowed ahead. “How’s Demas?”
“He’s…fine,” Jia said.
“If you’re asking if he’s remembering things now,” Jia said, “the answer is still no. Unfortunately.”
“Oh,” Peter said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“But, he is, um, functioning well,” Jia said. “He’s capable of taking care of himself. I don’t even have to watch him like I thought I would. But it’s like someone else has taken over his brain.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He’s been making these weird drawings.”
“Oh?” Peter said, not sure if he should sound interested.
“Like weapons and people I’ve never seen before,” Jia continued.
Peter sat up straight in his chair. “What kind of weapons?”
“Missiles, bombs, I don’t know. It’s worrying. Demas never showed any talent for art before.”
Peter’s heart beat a little faster. “Let me speak with him, please.” He waited as Jia called Demas to the phone.
“Demas, sir,” Peter said.
“Who is this?” it was Demas’ voice, but without the confidence, the slight arrogance, that Peter had grown used to.
“I hear you’ve been drawing missiles,” Peter said, hoping he didn’t sound like he was talking to a child.
“Jia told you that? She wasn’t supposed to tell.” Demas’ voice was low and dangerous.
“No, no. It’s not her fault,” Peter said. “I make weapons for a living. I’m interested in yours.”
“Maybe you are one of the bad men then,” Demas said thoughtfully.
“What bad men?”
“The men who send the weapons from the sky — the death stars.”
Weapons from the sky. Death stars. Jia had said Demas had been drawing missiles. Was it possible?
“I shouldn’t be talking to you,” Demas said.
“No, wait,” Peter said, but a moment later, Jia was back on the phone.
“Mr. Miller.” Her voice was a mix of uncertainty and guarded hope.
“Jia, can I come over later today?” Peter said. “I think he may be remembering something.”
Chapter 20 — Timothy
The glow of the flashlight illuminated the big underground room. A large, circular table dominated the middle of the room. It was surrounded by seven high-backed, wooden chairs. A brass chandelier swung from the ceiling. Timothy found himself wondering why it hadn’t fallen down yet. Four small tables, each with a lamp on its surface, had been placed in the four corners of the room. A thick layer of dust clung to everything and the air held a musty odor.
Timothy’s attention was drawn to the banker’s box in the middle of the round table. Its lid was slightly ajar, as though someone — his mother, most likely — had recently opened it. One of the chairs was turned slightly away from the table as though someone had recently sat in it.
Timothy strode to the table and removed the lid from the box, his fingers becoming coated with a fresh layer of dust. His eyes fell on a framed and faded full-color photo. He picked it up.
In the photo, seven people were standing, staring back at him. The expressions on their faces varied from pleased to determined. Timothy immediately recognized his mother and father standing next to each other in the second row. They were young; the photo must have been taken at least thirty years prior. His father, James, glasses askew with curly black hair brushed back from his face, gazed lovingly at his mother who was smiling at the camera. To their right, looking on with what appeared to be approval, was Philip Obermann. Even back then, he had white hair and mischievous eyes. His hand was on James’ back as though he were trying to get his attention. Timothy couldn’t help but imagine a dagger in his grasp.
To Phillip’s right was a Japanese man, older than the rest of the people in the photo. Timothy felt like he had seen him before, but he couldn’t remember his name.
On the first row, three more individuals stood. An African man: bald, in a pinstripe suit and expensive-looking shoes. Beside him was a short, stout man with tufts of white hair at the sides of his head. He wore a long-jacketed suit and had one jeweled hand resting on his protruding stomach. He was the perfect image of what Timothy imagined a greedy banker would look like. Beside him, the last of the seven, was an Indian woman in a purple Sari and long, flowing pants. Her right arm looked different from her left, and Timothy figured it must be a prosthetic.
Who were these people? Why were they all together? Why were his mother and father with them?
Timothy set the framed photo aside. There were a handful of unframed photographs beneath them in the box. The first was of Obermann and the African man at a ribbon-cutting. Then, the Japanese man applauding at some kind of award ceremony. The Indian woman in a hard-hat standing in an unfinished building surrounded by construction workers. Again, his mother and father at some kind of gala. This event, he vaguely remembered: it was the victory celebration for his father’s Senate campaign.
Timothy set the rest of the photos aside. Beneath these were what looked like clippings from newspapers and magazines. Before he could get to them, however, a noise sounded from the entrance. He turned to find his mother stepping into the doorway. “I knew curiosity would get the better of you,” she said.
Chapter 21 — Peter
Before leaving for Jia’s house, Peter texted his wife, Belinda, to let her know he was going to be late for their daughter’s soccer game.
Again?, she texted back almost immediately.
Yes, unfortunately, Peter wrote. Something important re: Demas. Can’t wait.
Peter was worried that whatever lucidness Demas had been showing would fade. He didn’t want to let a possible breakthrough slip through his hand.
As he left the parking lot in his silver Taurus, he double-checked his rearview mirrors to make sure he wasn’t being followed. His eyes slipped to the woods on the other side of the T.I. compound where Demas’ would-be assassins had come from and vanished into. What secrets did the shadows between the trees hold now?
A chill ran over his shoulders, but he focused on the road ahead. He was not looking forward to the commute back to Charlottesville. He had considered moving his family closer to headquarters, but his wife had said no. On top of that, she had banned him from bringing any work home, except for the occasional phone call. So, he typically left as early as he could in the mornings — before Charity left for school — and cut off at four p.m., so he could be home in time for dinner.
His phone buzzed on the seat beside him. He picked it up. It was another text from Belinda. This is the face your daughter makes when she’s getting negative energy because of your absence tonight. She had attached a photo of Charity in her soccer gear pouting into the camera, her black hair partly braided.
Peter chuckled to himself. He didn’t see the dark green Humvee accelerating behind him. He tossed the phone down with a start and swerved right to avoid a sidelong collision. He skidded into the gravel and came to a stop on the side of the road.
Whew! Close call.
He looked up, expecting the Humvee to be a good piece down the road ahead of him, considering the speed it was going. Instead, the Humvee had driven onto the gravel and was backing up toward his car.
Oh no. Peter fumbled with the gear, trying to put the car in reverse. Just as he was trying to turn back onto the road, the Humvee clipped his front fender bringing him to a stop once again.
Peter scrambled for his phone to call 9-1-1, but it had bounced onto the floor board of the passenger’s side. The front door of the Humvee opened, and Peter looked around for something he could use as a weapons, if it came to that. (It was a sad fact, but weapons designer Peter Miller had no fighting skills whatsoever. He didn’t even carry a gun. When he was a child, he much preferred video game wars to street fights.)
A tall man in sunglasses emerged from the Humvee. Peter realized with dismay that he was one of the men who had been with Anton at the warehouse. But which one? Lukyan or Markov? Judging by the gun-shaped bulge underneath his arm, it was the former.
Lukyan slowly approached Peter’s vehicle holding a manila envelope and something else in his hand. He tapped on the window. Peter waited a moment to compose himself before rolling the window down.
“Anton has message for you,” he said, handing him a miniature audio device, about the size of his thumb.
Peter took the device, his hand trembling a little. His finger hovered over a triangular silver button. “If I press this button, am I going to blow up?” He thought of Belinda and Charity. “Because I really don’t want to blow up today.”
Chapter 22 — Peter
“If that were a bomb, I wouldn’t be standing this close to you,” Lukyan said as he leaned against Peter’s open car door. The car was tilting into the ditch at the side of the road. Lukyan nodded encouragingly. “Listen,” he said.
Peter closed his eyes and pressed the tiny button on the device. Anton’s voice sounded through the recorder. “Mr. Miller, we try our best to work with your company. But you are making things quite difficult. We offer you all the money you asked of us for production of the LCM-18. Even more than we think is necessary. I tell you, my superiors in Moscow need to see contract. It is only way we finalize deal.”
So? Peter looked at the recorder, then looked up at Lukyan who pulled a manila folder from his coat and handed it over. Again, he nodded encouragingly.
Peter set the recorder down and opened the envelope. There were more than twenty sheets of paper — copies of bank transfer receipts for large sums of money, purchase orders for weapons, grainy images of the company’s R&D director alongside smiling scantily clad women, and photographs of Tedesco Industry executives shaking hands with people Peter did not immediately recognize.
Anton’s voice came through the recorder again. “The files my aide has delivered to you are irrefutable proof of corruption on the part of four of the senior executives of your company. Your board chairman has set up a shell corporation and is using it to supply cheap weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. He is turning quite a good profit and has the money deposited into a bank account in Bermuda.”
Peter flipped back through the sheets to the banking papers. They were indeed stamped with the HSBC Bermuda logo and had his board chairman’s name in the “account holder” field.
“Your chief financial officer recently went bankrupt,” Anton continued. “And he has been embezzling money from the company to pay his own debts.”
Peter turned a few more pages and, sure enough, he saw what appeared to be a faxed copy of a Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing with his CFO’s name on it.
“Your acquisitions director has been caught on tape bragging about bribing the U.S. ambassador to Brazil in order to get him to give a favorable recommendation of your company to the Brazilian military.”
Peter remembered the large order of munitions from the Brazilian Armed Forces. He hadn’t expected to get that deal. Was bribery and manipulation the real reason why it had come through?
“And then there’s your research and development director who was caught on tape cavorting with prostitutes in a nightclub in Canada,” Anton’s voice continued.
“If you do not allow me to take the contract and the weapons designs back to my country, all of this information will be released to the media at a rate of — What do you think is appropriate? — one scandal a week? Yes, four weeks of hell for your company.” Anton paused. “Mr. Miller, you must honor our deal.”
Peter looked up to protest to Lukyan. But he was already walking back to his vehicle.
Chapter 23 — Timothy
“What is all this stuff?” Timothy said. “Who are these people?”
“We were called The Framework,” Angela said as she sat down at one of the seats at the round table. She picked up the photos Timothy had set aside. “There was seven of us recruited by Obermann nearly, oh, three decades ago.”
“Why you? I mean, why you seven?”
“Obermann was a visionary. He thought we could do some good in the world.”
“That doesn’t answer the question,” Timothy said.
“Patience.” Angela raised her hand as she looked at the photograph. Timothy thought the emotion that registered on her face could only be described as love and longing. She hadn’t shown much emotion over her husband since his funeral.
“He came to us because of who our parents were, who our families were. Bill Tedesco, your grandfather, was well-endowed financially and had a hand in every winning presidential campaign since 1960 and countless numbers of Senate and House elections. His wealth was your father’s inheritance. And I just happened to be married to him.” Angela raised a finger. “But that wasn’t happenstance. My father, Bradshaw Woodward, had his eye on a Senate seat and he wanted Bill’s money to buy it for him. My parents literally ran me into your father and hoped that sparks would fly.”
“Did they?” Timothy asked. He had never heard this story before.
“Not at first,” Angela said. “But we were married within the year.”
“Did you love him?”
Angela twisted the wedding band on her finger thoughtfully. “I learned to. But that doesn’t matter now.”
“How does any of this matter now?” Timothy said.
“Because we failed.” Angela looked downcast.
“Failed how?” Timothy sat down across from his mother.
Angela placed the photo flat on the table between her and her son. She pointed to Obermann’s face. “International investor, real estate magnate. You already know about him.”
“Also had a private mafia-style army that he may or may not have used to eliminate his rivals,” Timothy said. “Yeah, I know about him.”
Angela ignored this. She pointed to the Japanese man. “Akio Komatsu, biophysicist. He owns pharmaceutical companies on three continents, focused not just on healing, but on enhancing human life around the globe.” She pointed to the African man in the pinstripe suit. “Anane Sarr, Oxford professor and childhood education pioneer. His unique educational platform is being implemented in England, Egypt, and South Africa.” She pointed to the pudgy banker. “Desmond Hasanic. No one ever knew what his business was exactly, but wherever there was money, he seemed to be involved. At one point, he was poised to be the head of the International Monetary Fund.” Angela tapped her finger on the Indian woman. “Radha Goda, a bioengineer and programmer. She was probably the most brilliant of us all. Between her company and Desmond’s money, they were going to turn the Indian subcontinent into an oasis of renewable energy — and from there, the world.”
“So, what happened? You said you failed. How?” Timothy asked.
Angela shuffled in the stack of photos, and pulled out one that Timothy had missed. It was of a man’s face, silver hair, and thin, arched eyebrows. “Adam Chronis,” Angela said. “Obermann trusted him — at first — but no one else did. Everything started to go south when he joined The Framework. All of our dreams, all of our goals. Ruined.”
“Why are you telling me all this? Why does it matter now?” Timothy said. “You came down here because you wanted me to find this. Why?”
“Because we failed,” Angela said. “But you don’t have to.”
Chapter 24 — Peter
Peter had never felt himself in a stickier situation. His hands trembled a little as he pulled back onto the highway after Lukyan had drove off. He pressed the button on the voice recorder again to see if there were more to the message, but there wasn’t. Anton had made himself perfectly clear.
As he drove, Peter glanced over at the folder containing purported evidence of unseemly activities by four high-ranking members of his staff. He had never suspected one of them of the allegations Anton had produced. But, somehow, he had dug up what seemed like proof that, at least, raised the need for verification. Peter wondered how he would go about doing that without raising the suspicions of his staff. He picked up the envelope and stuffed it into the glove compartment.
Then, he thought of something. Anton would be expecting a response. He pulled into a 7-Eleven and found Anton’s number in his phone.
“I thought I would hear from you soon,” Anton said when he picked up.
“I got your, um, threats,” Peter said.
“It didn’t have to be that way. If only you had honored our deal.”
“We don’t have a deal, not yet. And we won’t have a deal if you go through with these threats.”
“I don’t see how that hurts us, either way,” Anton said.
“You have to give me time to investigate these accusations on my own,” Peter said.
“I give you time. Two days,” Anton said. “My superiors will not wait any longer. Then I must hear from you.”
“You do realize that if you tarnish the name of Tedesco Industries, you will harm yourself if you continue to try to do business with us,” Peter said.
Anton was silent for a moment. He clearly hadn’t thought of that. “That seems true,” he said finally. “But there are other ways to twist an arm. Still. Two days. I need to hear from you.” The phone beeped as the call ended.
Peter sighed and got back on the road to Jia’s house.
. . .
“Sorry I’m so late,” Peter said as Jia shut the front door of her house behind him. “I got held up on the way over here.”
“No problem,” Jia said, wringing her hands. “But I actually don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see Demas right now. He’s been… disturbed ever since you called.”
“Oh, well, I can come back another time,” Peter said.
Jia picked up a handful of loose leaf papers from a side table. “I managed to pull some of these from his room before he locked himself in there. It’s just a little bit of what he’s been drawing.”
Peter took the papers and began looking through them. Some he couldn’t make anything out of. In one, he could see a city and what looked like missiles heading for it. Then he got to the drawings of the people.
“I only recognize the one of his father,” Jia said. “Maybe you might recognize some of the others.”
Peter kept looking through the papers. He flipped past one that gave him pause. So he flipped back to it, and this time it gave him chills. The drawing bore an eerie resemblance to Anton Kursinska.
Chapter 25 — Timothy
“Ma, you’re insane,” Timothy said. “You cannot possibly think that I am going to pick up the pieces of what you and your buddies were doing decades ago and carry on. No way.”
“You aren’t doing anything else, right now,” Angela said.
Timothy didn’t know what to say to that.
“What we did as The Framework — and what we hoped to do — was not just about us,” Angela went on. “It was about the future. About our children and our grandchildren. Yes, when we began, some people didn’t understand that. They were looking for, at maximum, a ten year return on their investment. Not us. We were looking at forty years, sixty years, a hundred years down the road. How will the good we do now affect future generations?”
“I don’t see how any of this has to do with me,” Timothy said.
Angela reached across the table and placed her hand on her son’s arm. “Because, whether you want to believe it or not, you are a child of The Framework. You don’t think we made plans for who would carry on our work? We knew we wouldn’t live forever.”
“Well, if you planned on me taking it over, you forgot to tell me before it all went to pieces,” Timothy said.
“There’s a lot you weren’t told,” Angela sighed. “Admittedly, our hubris didn’t allow us to anticipate failure so easily. So many brilliant minds, so much potential.” She seemed wistful. “But failure doesn’t mean death. The pieces of The Framework can be brought back together under a strong leader. That’s what it needs.”
“You said Obermann wasn’t dead. Why aren’t you talking to him?” Timothy said.
Angela gave him a piercing look. “You’ve been blaming Obermann for your father’s death for a long time now,” she said.
“Are you going to tell me again that it was an accident? That he shouldn’t be blamed?”
Angela shook her head. “No. Your father wasn’t accidentally killed… and he wasn’t murdered.” She paused. “He was martyred.”
“Oh, is that supposed to make it better? Dad died for a cause? He died because he believed so much in The Framework? Is that the story now?”
“Your sarcasm is getting old, Timothy,” Angela said sharply. “You need to accept the truth.”
“Then stop lying to me,” Timothy said, hoping he sounded sincere.
“Adam Chronis killed your father.”
“That’s the truth,” Angela nodded.
“How do I know?”
Angela looked around the dark room as if looking to see if someone else was around to address her son’s concerns. “Because I’m telling you.”
“Adam was a threat to The Framework. Your father tried to oppose him. We all did, but James most bravely. Adam was obsessed with guiding The Framework. He believed in some radical measures that not all of us were willing to take. He hated that we all looked to Obermann for guidance. So he tried to tear us apart, tear us down.” Angela paused. For the first time, Timothy saw what could only be described as fear in her eyes. “He made us turn on each other. There was so much fighting. The only thing that brought us together was knowing that we had to stop him.”
“What happened to him?”
Angela shook her head again. ”He had a dark soul, that one.”
“Did he ever get caught?” Timothy said.
Angela shivered . “We stopped him, but he got away. Sometimes, I still feel like he’s out there. Watching us. Waiting… For something.”
Chapter 26 — Peter
Peter had arrived home feeling distinctly confused. He tried to convince himself that his mind was playing tricks on him, but when he got home and compared Demas’ drawing with photos of Anton Kursinska in Russian media, the likeness was undeniable.
But how much stock could he put in anything Demas produced considering his non-ideal mental state? Still, when Jia told him that Demas had asked for paint, he encouraged her to indulge him.
If Demas was indeed beginning to remember things from his life, then this would mean he had come in contact with Kursinska before. Peter wanted to know if this was, in fact, true. Perhaps, Kursinska had tried to cut his weapons deal with Demas and Demas had refused. So, Kursinska had gotten rid of Demas. And, now he thought he could threaten and bully Peter into giving him what he wanted.
But, why? Why did the Russians want these weapons so badly? Why was Peter willing to jettison a good deal on a technicality? He could hand over the weapon designs and let the Russians do what they claimed they needed to do.
Peter put his head in his hands as he sat at the desk in his home office. Belinda and Charity had already gone to bed.
He was tired of thinking. But he had to figure something out. Heavy is the head… This is what I get for becoming CEO. I should have encouraged George to take it.
As if to remind him that his troubles were greater than he thought he could bear at the moment, Peter caught sight of the folder Lukyan had hand-delivered — the folder that contained evidence of corruption at the highest levels of Tedesco Industries: embezzling, illegal side-deals, bribery, immorality. Unbelievable, Peter thought. He had to face these people almost every day.
Peter placed the stack of paper on his scanner. As the pages ran through the machine, he looked through his address book for an old contact, a private investigator. Finding a number, he placed a call.
“This is Steele,” a voice answered.
“Donovan, this is Peter Miller. Sorry to call you this late.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m working anyway. What can I do for you?”
“I’m sending over some files that I need you to look into. Apparently, some of my people are not on the up and up. You’ll see. Everything I have is in there.”
“Uh-huh,” Donovan said.
“And for heaven’s sake, if there’s any possibility that any of this is not true, please let me know quickly.”
Chapter 27 — Jia
The morning after Peter’s visit, Demas didn’t come down for breakfast. Jia knocked on his door, but he told her to leave him alone. So Jia did. She figured he was just in one of his moods and that he would be back to normal — or at least what passed for normal — within a few hours.
She waited anxiously to hear something from Peter about the drawings he had left with the previous night. He didn’t say he would contact her, but she could tell he had noticed something or someone in them. She didn’t know if this was good or bad. She wanted some good news, wanted him to tell her that her husband had remembered something significant. Curbing her expectations was difficult. The doctors had told her that progress in Demas’ recovery, if any, would be incremental.
What she needed was a distraction, something to occupy her time. After Demas had nearly been killed, she had taken a leave from her teaching position at the elementary school to stay with him in the hospital. Even though he had been in a coma, she did not feel good about leaving him for any length of time. But maybe now was a good time to go back to work.
Jia picked up the phone to call the school’s personnel director.
“It’s another perfect day at Standerson Elementary, where we are always learning. This is Anne. How may I help you?” Jia had always thought Anne’s voice could only be described as sweet.
“Hi, Anne. This is Jia.“
“Jia!” Anne exclaimed. “I haven’t heard from you in forever. I mean since you left, but it feels like forever.”
“I know. I’m ready to get back to work now,” Jia said.
Jia hadn’t thought about that. “Say, Monday?”
“That’s great. I’ll pencil you back into the schedule and let the substitute know,” Anne said. “We’ve missed you around here and we’ve been praying for your husband. Now, how are you really doing?”
“I’m well. Um, I’m pregnant. That’s new.”
“Yay.” Anne’s voice dropped to whisper-shout level over the phone and Jia imagined that other people had entered her office, but her voice suddenly rose. “Guys, Jia is pregnant,” she proclaimed. Jia could hear cheers and applause over the phone. “Oops,” Anne said. “Did you want to announce it some other way?”
“No,” Jia said. “That was perfect.”
“And your husband is home now, so that must be…” Anne trailed off.
“It’s…interesting. He’s not one hundred percent yet. But…” He’s hardly like himself, she thought. “We’re working it out,” she finished.
“We will keep praying for him,” Anne said, her voice full of conviction. “And when’s the baby shower?”
“I have not planned that far ahead,” Jia thought. When do I hold a baby shower? She made a mental note to order some maternity books on Amazon later that evening.
“I think I’m the one too far ahead,” Anne was saying. A sudden noise from the direction of Demas’ room had distracted Jia.
“Anne, I have to go,” Jia said hastily, not waiting for a reply before hanging up.
She got up and knocked on Demas’ door. No answer.
She turned the knob. It was locked from the inside, but the outer knob was the sort that could be opened with a fingernail or with a coin. She dug her fingernail in and turned. The door swung open and Jia stumbled on the threshold.
The four walls of the room were awash in painted color, still damp from the look and smell of it.
Demas was lying on the floor, looking sweaty and exhausted. “I did it, Jia,” he said. “I did the whole thing.”
Chapter 28 — Peter
Peter drove his car into the downtown parking garage as the dusky sky slipped toward the black silk of night. He navigated to the third level, looking into the shadows for Donovan’s compact black car.
He didn’t have to look long. The investigator was leaning against a concrete pillar, cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, face lit up in the brief, fiery flicker of a cigarette being lighted. Peter pulled into the parking space beside Donovan’s car and got out. The late summer night air was thick with humidity.
“Well,” Peter said.
Donovan took a long drag on his cigarette. He pulled a folder from underneath his arm and tossed it on the trunk of Peter’s Taurus. Loose pages fanned out of the open edge of the folder. “I don’t know what kind of mess your company has gotten itself into, Peter,” he said.
“It’s only been my company for a couple of months,” Peter said.
“Yeah, well. You should have done this due diligence before you agreed to take over.”
“Sorry, I’m not you,” Peter said. “You gonna talk or not?”
Donovan took another long drag and blew the smoke out between his teeth. He dropped the cigarette and stomped it with his boot. “Everything in the files you gave me checks out. You’ve got an embezzlement scandal, a bribery and corruption scandal, an ethical misconduct scandal, and a good ol’ prostitution scandal. You’re going to be the talk of Washington for weeks, if not months. I talked to some fixers I know and there’s no way you get out of this without major egg on your face.”
“I know,” Peter said. “I just needed to make sure what’s been told me is not fabricated in any way.”
“Oh, it’s not,” Donovan said. “But something’s not adding up. Why all of this? Why now? There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?”
“No. I gave you everything I had.”
“Come on, man. Don’t try to out-connive a P.I. I do this for a living.”
Peter shook his head. “You’re right, you’re right. There is some stuff I can’t share with you. Someone’s trying to twist my arm with all this.”
“There’s always ways of dealing with that,” Donovan said.
Peter thought back to the days when he and Donovan had gone to school together. Donovan often stepped in to defend him from bullies. “Yeah. But I have to do this on my own.” Peter picked up the folder and gave it a shake. “No need to add another complication to the pile.”
Donovan grunted and started to light another cigarette.
“You’ve been helpful as usual,” Peter said. “I’ll have your payment wired into your account in the morning.”
As Peter drove home, he tried to think of the dilemma with the Russians as an opportunity to clean house at Tedesco Industries, a way to purge some bad actors. He’d let everything hit the fan. Of course, he would have had nothing to do with it. And he could easily spin the scandals as the byproduct of a corrupt corporate culture allowed by ex-Governor Timothy Tedesco and his son, Demas.
Peter Miller would be the new face of the company, swooping in to expunge evildoers and save the military’s third-largest weapons contractor from ruin.
It was solid as such plans go.
As if on cue, his cell phone rang. Peter knew before looking at the screen that it was Anton Kursinska. He answered, ready to put his plan into action.
Chapter 29 — Timothy
“You’ve been acting as if the weight of ten worlds is on your shoulders these past few days,” Elise said as she and Timothy sat on the veranda on the back side of the Tedesco residence.
“I’m trying not to,” Timothy said, forcing a smile. He sat in a deck chair with one of his father’s leather-bound journals in his hands. Elise stood beside him, her hands on his shoulders, gently massaging. Timothy looked up. The dying rays of the sun streaking over the mountains hit Elise’s face full on, bleaching her Bahamian features, but lighting the circle of burgundy hair as though she were a sun unto herself.
“Well, you’ll have to try harder,” Elise said. “I think we need a real vacation.”
“I think, technically, we are on vacation,” Timothy said.
“Better,” Elise said. “We need an awaycation. We just need to get away from Virginia for a while. The air’s too thick here.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Timothy said. He knew she meant thick with memories and pain, not stuffy summer air. His first wife, Helene, had died of cancer, but some would argue that she had also died of his neglect. While she lay sick, first at home and then in the hospital, he had focused all of his attention on his job as governor. He told himself then that his ability to compartmentalize was what had enabled him to succeed thus far in life — first at Tedesco Industries, then as a senator, and finally as governor. But now he began to consider that this was not strictly true. At any rate, he did not plan on making the same mistake twice. He wanted things to stay good with Elise. And if an “awaycation” could ensure that, he was game.
But right now, it wasn’t the world that was weighing him down; it was all the information his mother had dumped on him during her visit. It was mostly new to him. He had never heard of the Framework before. But growing up, he knew his parents were considered influential. He had spent time at corporate galas and political watch parties. At times, it had seemed like the suits his mother made him wear became like a second skin, and he was a molting lizard, itching to get out.
He had learned to play his part well, though. He smiled for the photos. Shook hands with the strangers — including two presidents and one Canadian prime minister — most of whom were older white males. They seemed to blur into one, monochrome image. When the smiling and shaking hands portion of these events was over, he siphoned as much soda and chips as he could and slipped away to a quiet room, or behind a curtain, or in a dark corner, hoping not to be disturbed as he watched DVDs of old Westerns on a laptop. Still, he couldn’t escape witnessing the occasional disturbing reality like a state senator exchanging a suitcase full of cash with a known South American drug lord or the White House Chief of Staff getting far too handsy with the president’s wife.
Even after his father’s suspicious death, Timothy’s mother kept up a steady itinerary of events. He noticed that more of the same people started to come around frequently, one of them being Phillip Obermann.
It had all been a blur then, and he had been glad to escape it by going off to college. At least he thought he had escaped it until his second year when he realized that his mother was still pulling strings — strings that led to his breakup with Killeena Kyle, the start of his relationship with Helene, a degree in political science, and his internship on a gubernatorial campaign where he realized he really liked the rough and tumble of political machination.
Still, in all those days, he had never heard of the Framework.
Now that he knew the truth, or at least what his mother had told him was the truth (he suspected she had left out a detail or two), he wondered what he should do about it.
This Adam guy, whom his mother said had really killed his father, was still out there. Hunting him down and making sure he was punished for his father’s death was a noble goal. But Timothy had watched enough movies to know that vengeance didn’t always satisfy the soul. Besides, he was sure his mother would have been more blunt if that’s what she wanted him to do. But bluntness was not her way.
Timothy shook his head. Why did he care what his mother wanted? There had been plenty of manipulation and suggestion from her side. But he didn’t know what he wanted either. Which was why he had been reading his father’s journals. Perhaps, the old man had left behind something he could take for guidance and direction.
He opened the journal he now held, brick-colored and gold-clasped, absently registering that Elise had left him alone in the early night.
Chapter 30 — Angela
The hot California sun beat down on the Sacramento International Airport. Afternoon rays reflected off the control tower and glimmered up off the pavement.
Angela Tedesco stepped off the private jet and put on a pair of sunglasses. The glare of the sun made the airport buildings shimmer. Angela sort of missed traveling.
Back in the day, back before her son had become governor of Virginia, this had been her life. The traveling, the meetings, the galas, the fundraiser, the back-room planning, the unseen political wheeling; she had loved it. Now she was feeling that buzz again.
When Timothy was elected governor, she thought her work was done. With the Framework generally disbanded, Angela had stepped back from her public (but unseen) engagements. And when the middle of Timothy’s second term came around, she had quietly contacted the party about the nomination for president.
But then the whole fiasco with Oliver Mason’s suspicious death, Timothy’s affair with Elise, and the Cover-Up happened. Unfortunately, by the time Angela had caught wind of the matter, it was too late for her to do anything about it. She’d know immediately that the leak to the media bore the fingerprints of an embittered woman — Killeena Kyle. If Angela had still been in her son’s loop, she would have been able to make the whole matter, including Mrs. Kyle, go away. As it was, it was remarkable to her how long Timothy had been able to keep the matter under wraps; he had at least some of his mother’s cunning. The eventual collapse of the Cover-Up, her son’s resignation, and the State Senate inquiry spurred Angela to start pulling strings again. She had plenty of connections and plenty of people who owed her favors.
This brought her to deplaning at the Sacramento International Airport in the afternoon heat.
As she stepped off the bottom step of the stair truck onto the concrete, a black sedan slinked up alongside her. It was the kind of non-fancy, but professional ride used by men and women of importance who like to go about their affairs without drawing attention to themselves.
The driver didn’t get out as usual, but the back door opened. Angela looked in before getting inside.
“You weren’t supposed to show up here,” she said to the elderly, white-haired man who was sitting in the backseat. Angela was glad for the air condition that breezed through the car’s leather interior.
“I know. I just couldn’t help myself,” the man said. “It’s almost like the good old days again.”
“That was your problem in the good old days — you couldn’t help yourself,” Angela said. “And the old days weren’t that good.”
“They were days of hope and purpose,” the man said. He paused. “I was hoping you had brought your son.”
Angela rolled her eyes. “You know he hates your guts.”
“No fault of my own,” the man said opening his hands. “You didn’t stick with the agreed upon truth.” They were nearing downtown Sacramento now. Taller buildings started rising around them, casting long shadows over the street.
“What we did back then was necessary,” Angela said.
“Yes, I agree.” The man paused. “But I have been busy. I’ve had my liaison in contact with the party chair, applying a little gentle pressure.
“He’s on board. What came of your endeavors?”
“What I expected,” Angela said. “I still think revealing the Framework was risky. It could work against us, but old-fashioned political persuasion would have been useless. It was our only play. Give him a few days. If I know my son — and I do — he’ll reach the desired conclusion.”
“Good, good,” the man said. “We should reach out to our allies now.”
“No,” Angela said. “They need to come on board of their own accord. They’ll know what’s up when they hear Timothy’s decision. We need some good news to tell them anyway. Any word on Adam?”
The old man shook his head. “Nothing. If I had to bet on it, I’d say he’s dead. It’s not like him to go this long without making his presence known if only to torture us with the knowledge that he’s still out there.”
“Nothing we do is safe while he’s alive,” Angela said.
“Something is,” the old man replied. “Hope. Against adversity and enemies, it springs true.”
Two Months Later
Chapter 31 — Killeena
Killeena Kyle turned into the driveway at the Greensville Correctional Facility where her husband Deon was an inmate.
Her husband who once worked for her arch-enemy, Timothy Tedesco.
Her husband who had stolen her moment of revenge.
Her husband who had tried to kill her.
Well, Deon claimed that he had only wanted to injure her in order to stop her from going to the press. But she ended up in the hospital for months with broken ribs, a broken leg, a bruised head, and a sketchy memory of the previous forty-eight hours. Of course, Deon had been operating on the orders of his boss, which made it all the more ironic that he would be the one to take up her cause.
But Killeena hadn’t asked him to do that. The glorious revenge was to be hers and hers alone. Only it hadn’t worked out that way.
In another irony, the fallout from the scandal ended with Deon being the one sent to jail for murder. After the State Senate inquiry into the matter, the governor got off with a resignation, an admission of conduct unbecoming of a public servant, and a censure from holding political office in the state for the next ten years. Killeena was pretty sure he was back at his family’s estate, living it up with his new bride, Elise. (The child that had come out of their affair had died, and Killeena genuinely felt bad about that.)
Her husband, meanwhile, was in jail. In a turn of events that Killeena found hard to believe, Deon testified that the governor hadn’t ordered him to kill Lieutenant Governor Oliver Mason to cover up his affair with Mason’s wife. (He had only been ordered to injure him too.) But Deon apparently had his own desire for revenge against Mason who had been his commanding officer in the Army when he served in Afghanistan, and he had taken license with the governor’s orders. Killeena figured that Deon and Timothy had worked this story out ahead of time, and Deon was again playing his role, as loyal to his boss as ever, even if it was to his own detriment. Either way, Timothy’s fellow party members had the most seats on the Inquiry Committee, and they were all too glad to take any excuse to let their man off easy. In their minds, he was still politically valuable. People could forgive adultery. Murder? Not so much.
Shortly after her release from the hospital, Killeena had decided that she was done with it all. Done with seeking revenge on Timothy Tedesco for leaving her just to please his mother. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t as clear cut as that. But Timothy would have never met Helene unless Angela had introduced them.) Done with her job teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University. Done with her life in Richmond altogether. She had driven from her new home in Denver to see her husband one last time.
Ten minutes later, she sat in front of the glass divider in one of several visitation booths inside a long, dimly-lit room. The walls were all concrete and a security camera hung from the corner of the ceiling. The door at the end of the room buzzed before opening. A correctional officer came out.
“You said you had something to give the inmate,” he said.
“Yes.” Killeena handed him an envelope with her lawyer’s return address on it. The guard took it and went back through the door.
On the other side of the glass, a door opened and Deon, wearing a black and white jumpsuit, was ushered in by another officer. He was fully shaven, and his eyes held the look of a man who had spent more than a few sleepless nights. He forced a half-hearted smile as he sat down and picked up the phone.
Chapter 32 — Killeena
Killeena waited a few seconds before picking up the phone on her side of the glass. She wondered why she felt bad about following through with this part of her plan. Sure, she had fallen in love with Deon. But Timothy had introduced them to each other. And considering how badly things turned out, she could only think that was a part of Timothy’s plan to tangle up any attempts she might make to get back at him. In order to be completely done with Timothy and that part of her life, she needed to excise even this. She picked up the phone.
“Hi,” Deon said, his voice dry. “What’s wrong?” He must have seen the conflict on her face.
“Nothing,” Killeena said. “I’m fine. How are you?”
“Fine, I guess.” Deon shrugged and looked up at the walls and ceiling. “Not many ways to be inside of here.”
“I just came to let you know that I’m making some, uh, changes,” Killeena said.
“Okay?” Deon said slowly.
“I sold our house. It’s too big and lonely for one person.”
“What about Gary?” Deon said. Gary was their silver Labrador.
“You sold Gary?!”
“No, no.” Killeena shook her head. “I gave him to your mother.”
Deon looked relieved. “Okay, what else?”
“I quit my job at the university. I want something less demanding.”
Deon nodded. “It’s your life.”
“And there’s something else I need to tell you.” Killeena pinched the finger on her left hand where she had once worn a ring.
“Tell me,” Deon said.
Killeena hesitated, searching for the right words.
On the other side of the wall of visitation booths, a door opened, and another correctional officer walked in. He was holding sheaf of unfolded papers and the open envelope Killeena had given him. He set them down in front of Deon, dropped a pen on top of the pile, and left the way he had come.
Deon picked up the envelope and looked at it. Killeena watched as his brow furrowed in confusion as he read the address. He scanned the first page and turned to the second, his eyes clearing with realization. He dropped the pages on the table and asked, “You want a divorce?”
Killeena looked away, unable to bear the hurt in his eyes. “Yeah,” she said softly.
“You know why,” Killeena said.
“I told you. I was never trying to kill you.”
Killeena laughed. “Yeah, you said you only wanted to hurt me. Well, you did.”
“But I did the right thing in the end,” Deon said. “I did what you wanted.”
“You didn’t do what I wanted. You did what you thought would save your own ass,” Killeena said. “Then you pled guilty to murder. Now you’re in here for the next twenty years. And you know what? The man you did it all for got off scotch free. He never cared about you.”
“I thought at least you did,” Deon said.
“I did,” Killeena said. “But not anymore.”
Killeena let out a huge sigh as she dropped the sealed envelope containing the signed divorce papers into the mailbox at a Post Office in Richmond. She tried to tell herself that she wasn’t having second thoughts; but she was having other thoughts. Maybe she needed to get back out of the state of Virginia and back to her new condo in breezy Denver in order to regain clarity. In the meantime, she turned on the radio to drown out her thoughts.
The radio in her car was still set to one of the local news stations she used to listened to. “In politics,” the host was saying, “former Governor Timothy Tedesco announced today that he will seek his party’s nomination for president. Surprisingly, he has already received backing from three state officials—”
The report ended as Killeena punched the button to turn off the radio.
Chapter 33 — Peter
“Are you telling us that, before you took over Tedesco Industries, you were not aware of any of the company’s deals with Brazil?” the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee asked.
Peter rubbed his eyes before answering. He was sure the chairman—who had what he, in his elementary school days, would have called a “snooty” face—had asked that exact same question in about ten different ways within the past ten minutes. “Yes, that is correct,” Peter said.
“What is correct?” the chairman said in a tone of mock exasperation. “That you didn’t know before or that you didn’t know at all?”
Peter blinked in confusion. That’s what I said. Politicians were expert word twisters. He leaned toward his legal counsel seated beside him and conferred in a low tone before turning back to his microphone. “What I said in the written testimony that was submitted to the Committee is correct. Tedesco Industries is a huge company. And before I became CEO, I was not particularly aware of any weapons shipments to Brazil.”
“You were not particularly aware,” the chairman said. “Just like you were not particularly aware of the rogue employees who were shipping your weapons to terrorist groups, Hezbollah and Hamas.”
“Again, the company offers its sincerest apologies,” Peter said. “Everyone who had ties to our Middle East shipments has been terminated. And the employees involved in this situation have been handed over to the appropriate authorities. We stand ready to do everything in our power assist the U.S. government in the recovery of those weapons.”
“Yeah, well, you can tell the Israeli people that when U.S.-made weapons are used to kill their citizens,” the chairman said.
Peter was keenly aware that the chairman was playing up to the nearly two dozen reporters and photographers seated across the room in the press gallery. Peter had to keep reminding himself that he had fully expected the government inquiries into the illegal goings-on at Tedesco Industries. Over the past two months, he had been public and aggressive in his effort to weed out the corruption that had taken root in the company—now his company. So far, at least according to his PR department, the company’s public image was holding up and their stock hadn’t taken too much of a hit. And, most importantly to him, he hadn’t heard from those damned Russians again. Only a few more weeks of this type of scrutiny and he could breathe easy.
“I will allow the representative from Massachusetts to ask his question before we adjourn for two hours,” the chairman was saying.
The bespectacled representative cleared his throat and smoothed his graying combover with one hand as he leaned toward his mic. “Mr. Chairman, in the course of our investigation of Tedesco Industries, we have asked the company to provide a record of all contacts with foreign powers over the past three years,” he said.” As we reviewed this material, one thread of communication stands out that is particularly concerning. In the time period mentioned, Tedesco Industries has had a high level of contact with Moscow and Russian military and intelligence organizations. That being said, considering what has transpired with this company, I move that this Committee ask that Tedesco Industries supply open access to recently closed and ongoing deals to supply weapons to foreign powers.”
Speak of the devil.
Peter turned to his legal counsel who looked equally surprised. He leaned toward his mic to say something, but the chairman spoke first.
“Thank you for that recommendation,” he told the Massachusetts representative. “This Committee will take it under consideration.” He slammed a gavel on his desk. “We adjourn for two hours. Please be back by two p.m.”
“Now what?” Peter asked his counsel as they both hustled out of the hearing chamber amid reporters’ shouted questions and the shutter-click of cameras.
“We’ll handle this,” the counsel said. “There are multiple legal obstructions that we can raise. We can conduct an internal investigation—yes, another one—and provide the findings, but then we waive attorney-client privilege which could be bad if the Committee recommends that the Justice Department bring charges.”
The sound of heels click-clacking rapidly on the Capitol’s marble-floored hallway pierced the general hubbub around them. Peter looked up to find his assistant Megan running toward him with his cell phone in one hand.
“What now?” Peter asked as she reached them.
“You have an urgent message from your—” Megan paused. “Um, your wife?”
Peter thumbed his way to the text message screen. There was one from his wife’s number: We need to talk. -Belinda.
And then another in all caps: NOW.
A video was attached to the message. Peter tapped to play.
His heart slammed once inside his chest and then stopped. Belinda’s face filled the tiny video screen. Loose strands of her brown hair were plastered to her sweat-slicked forehead. She was shouting—trying to say something as she leaned toward the camera. But Peter only heard muffled screams because a hand was clasped firmly over her mouth.
Chapter 34 – Peter
“Slow down,” Denis yelled from the back seat of Peter’s Taurus. He slid across the seat grabbing for his suitcase which had fallen on the floor.
“Can’t,” Peter said as he wrestled the steering wheel, maneuvering the car around a curve.
“We really should slow down,” Megan said. “You’re gonna get pulled by the police before you even get there.”
“Don’t care about the police.” Peter punched the horn on the steering wheel as he zipped past a stream of cars waiting at a turn signal.
“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” Denis said. An hour earlier, he had been attending a Senate hearing in the Capitol as Peter’s legal counsel. Then, during the break for lunch, his boss had gotten a text message from his wife. The next thing he knew, Peter was running down the Capitol steps, yelling at his pilot over the phone to get the plane ready for takeoff ten minutes ago. Of course, the whole thing had been caught on news cameras and was now being cycled through the TV media, with the more alarmist headlines blaring, TEDESCO CEO MELTDOWN AT CAPITOL. Now, they were back in Virginia, zipping through the Montpelier streets, endangering other drivers as Peter called his daughter’s school, yelling at whoever was on the other end of the phone to keep her inside, not let anyone else inside until he got there, and to call the local police while they were at it. God help the poor soul on the receiving end of such frantic commands.
“I’ll tell you when my daughter’s safe,” Peter said. He made a sharp turn, kicking up gravel as the car skidded into a middle school parking lot. A handful of vehicles were lined up in the spots designated for teachers.
“What are we doing here?” Denis said, getting out and slamming the door.
“You two stay here. I promise I’ll explain,” Peter said. “I’m going to get Charity — if they haven’t taken her — and then…” He shrugged. His dark hair hung raggedly on his perspiring forehead. His eyes were empty of everything but fear. His tie hung loose around his neck, the top button of his dress shirt had long ago popped off.
Megan suspected he had sprained his ankle in his run down the Capitol steps. “Sir, you’re in no condition to go inside,” she said.
Peter took a step, stumbling as he started to protest.
Megan waved him off. “Stay here.” She turned and walked into the school.
“So?” Denis said.
Peter, slumping against his car, explained to his counsel about the deal with the Russian military, how they wanted the new missiles signed over without notifying the U.S. government, how, when he refused, they threatened to retaliate by exposing unseemly deeds by Tedesco Industries executives, and how he thought he had outplayed them by exposing those deeds before they could.
“That’s what’s really going on here?” Denis asked, one hand on his balding head. “You should have told me. I would have recommended that your family be placed under protection.”
Peter didn’t know what to say.
The school doors opened and Megan came out holding Charity by the hand, a Hello Kitty backpack bouncing on her back. Peter had told her, before he left for Washington, that she was too old for it.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?” Charity asked as she ran to her father. “Is something wrong with Mom?”
Only partially relieved, Peter dropped to one knee to hug his daughter. “Well, she’s — um…”
The spin of multiple sets of wheels spitting up gravel interrupted Peter’s attempt at an explanation. Four vehicles spun into the parking lot, forming a semicircle around Peter, his daughter, and his employees. Several men jumped out. They were dressed in street clothes and baseball caps, but Peter could make out the telltale bulges at their sides. One of the men approached him slowly, a sardonic grin on his face. Lukyan maybe?
“So, you got here first for little — what’s her name? — Charity?”
Peter stepped in front of his daughter, blocking her from view. “This is unnecessary,” Peter spat. “My family has nothing to do with the business. Nothing!”
“We will let Anton decide that.” Lukyan beckoned toward Charity. “You must come with us little dochka.”
“No!” Peter said, extending one arm to shield her. “How did you find this place?”
Lukyan looked off toward the sunset. “Oh, we just had to beat wife until she gave up address,” he said casually.
Chapter 35 – Killeena
Killeena Kyle had left the state of Virginia, and now, sitting in a Denver java house, she was thinking she should have left the country altogether. Since finalizing her divorce from Deon, she had used her savings to purchase a new wardrobe (she had burned all her old clothes) and traded in her Acura for a black pickup.
Now, she was attending to her job search. She had submitted resumes to the Denver Post and the Mile High Times as well as a few regional community colleges. Even though she had lined up a few interviews, she wasn’t too enthusiastic about the opportunities. She really wanted to leave every vestige of her old life behind — including her careers in journalism and academia. But, unless some hidden talent lay hidden within her waiting to emerge, she didn’t have any other skill sets. Now, she was reduced to clicking through search results on how to make money blogging.
But that wasn’t her largest irritant. That honor belonged to Timothy Tedesco and his redemption story presidential run. It seemed she couldn’t get away from it no matter how hard she tried. Room service at the condo where she was living had helpfully shoved the Denver Chronicle under her front door. Headline: Tedesco Unaffected by Company Scandal, Sees Bounce in Favorability. When she attempted to get the newspaper service removed from her room service, the receptionist canceled the option, then cheerfully informed her, “We’ll still deliver it anyway. We get one for every resident each morning.”
Killeena wasn’t ashamed to admit that she was hoping he would be beaten. But among his own party’s primary contenders, he was a wolf among prairie dogs. And the opposition had so far presented a cadre of boring career politicians. Put together, there wasn’t enough fire among them to light a candle.
Right now, Timothy’s face was plastered across the TV screen mounted above the center of the cafe. He was speaking at a campaign event in some backwoods Iowa town. Thankfully, the gentle buzz of conversation, typing, and caffeine-fueled energy drowned out the low volume of his words. Elise was standing beside him, smiling—like she belonged there. Killeena remembered the day they were married. She had attended the ceremony, but later wished she hadn’t. It was her personal Red Wedding, a massacre of her heart. She couldn’t help the feeling, a hot flash—there one moment and gone the next, that it could have been her on that stage beside Timothy—it should have been her.
Someone sitting down at the table across from her brought her back to reality.
“It’s crowded in here. You mind?” said a man who looked like he could be Anderson Cooper’s twin.
“Free country. Sit where you want,” Killeena said.
The man chuckled. His Mediterranean blue eyes shone as he smiled. Killeena held his gaze.
“Adam,” the barista called from the counter.
“There’s my order,” the man, Adam, said. Killeena felt a small sense of triumph when he broke eye contact first to go and collect his drink.
“So that’s me,” he said when he sat down again. He held up his cup, showing where the barista had written his name on the side. “Adam.”
Killeena shrugged. “I’m Killeena.”
“Last name Kyle?”
“Um, yeah?” Killeena said. “I mean, not anymore.”
Adam waved this last comment off. He took a sip of his latte, and set his cup down on the table between them. There was something decisive about the simple motion. His blue eyes grew sharp. “Aren’t I lucky? Just the woman I planned on running into today.”
Chapter 36 – Peter
Peter lunged at Lukyan, punching, kicking despite his sprained ankle. “What did you do to here? Where is she?” he yelled.
Lukyan easily fended off his blows. “Calm down, Peter. No need to fight. You come with us and we take you to her. See?”
“If you hurt her, I’ll—”
“We did hurt her,” Lukyan said. “What are you going to do about it?”
Peter didn’t have a comeback. He seethed quietly, eyes bloodshot with anger. Charity sobbed behind him.
“Ah, dochka is crying,” Lukyan said in mock sympathy. “Let us take her to her mother.”
“Let them go,” Peter said motioning to Megan and Denis.
“Of course.” Lukyan motioned for his men to let Peter’s assistant and legal counsel out of the circle they had formed.
Denis quickly ducked into the driver’s side of Peter’s car, looking severely disturbed. Megan appeared to be on the verge of tears.
“Sir, I’ll call you, um, later,” Denis said as he fumbled with the keys, afraid Lukyan might change his mind.
“I’m sorry you both had to get caught up in this,” Peter said.
“Yeah, I am too,” Denis muttered as he started the engine.
Peter put his arm around his daughter. “Let’s go.”
“No, Daddy, don’t go with them.” Charity pulled at her father’s suit jacket, now wrinkled and unkempt. “I don’t want to go with them.”
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Peter soothed. “We’re going to see Mother, okay? We have to go with them.”
“That’s right,” Lukyan said, motioning toward the waiting vehicle.
A two-hour drive into Virginia Hill Country found Peter, Charity, Lukyan, and the others pulling into the driveway in front of a stern, three-story, gray brick mansion.
“What is this place?” Peter asked. During the trip, his mind had aided his courage by conjuring images of his wife shackled in a dingy, underground, rat-infested hole. Now, he looked across a green lawn toward a cast iron fence. On the other side of the fence was another mansion and another beyond that. The houses were clearly aged, but they bore an aura of quiet grace. Across the street, an elderly couple strolled—only pausing briefly to glance over at the strange party unloading in front of the gray mansion. Two dachshunds trotted at their heels.
“This is old residence for Russian diplomats,” Lukyan said. He smiled, clearly enjoying the terror he knew had been going through Peter’s mind. “Still belongs to us. Your government likely has forgotten it exists. They never bother us here.”
“Take me to Belinda.”
Lukyan led the way into the mansion. The living room was spacious and well-furnished with rich, scarlet carpet, and gilded chairs. Russian opera wafted from an outdated cassette player on a small round table. Beside the table was Anton Kursinska. He was slicing an apple on a small plate. A bottle of vodka sat open beside it.
He looked up as Peter walked in. “Ah, my friend, you arrive just in time for a snack. I told you, negotiations not finished.”
“These aren’t negotiations,” Peter said. “You kidnapped my wife, tortured her, tried to kidnap my daughter.”
“Torture?” Anton looked at Lukyan. “My comrade has a tendency to exaggerate. I assure you, we only did what was necessary to see that we arrive at this place. Here.” He motioned toward the center of the room with both hands. “Together. So we can talk. Negotiate. You and me.” He speared an apple slice with his knife and lifted it. “Apples? Vodka? Man like you must be hungry after running down so many stairs.” He mimed a man running and burst out in laughter, pointing across the room to a television on mute.
Peter watched himself hurrying down the Capitol steps, taking them two at a time. He didn’t care. He marched across the room and grabbed Anton, still laughing, by his shirt and slammed him against the wall, ignoring the shuffling and clicking behind him that told him Lukyan and his men had raised their guns and aimed them at his back.
“Daddy,” Charity screamed. “No.”
“You think this is funny?” Peter snarled at Anton.
The laughter drained from the Russian’s face. “Funny? No. Not funny at all.”
Chapter 37 – Peter
Peter slowly backed away from Anton, his heart hammering with the adrenaline of confrontation. Anton straightened his jacket and looked smug. “Where is she?” Peter demanded.
Anton waved a hand, still holding the knife, a sliver of apple still hanging from it. “She is in this house. But you won’t see her unless you give me what I want.”
“I won’t deal until I see her,” Peter said.
“Of course you won’t,” Anton said. “That’s why you’ll see her first—in a way.” He motioned to Lukyan who went into the kitchen and came back with a tablet. He held out in front of Peter.
The screen flickered on and Peter could see his wife, Belinda, sitting in a wooden chair, her hands clasped on her lap as if in prayer. Her head was down and her long black hair shielded her face. She shivered as if cold. At least she was alive.
“Belinda!” Peter shouted at the tablet screen.
“She can’t hear you,” Anton said. He came to Peter’s side and flicked a finger over the screen, zooming out on the view, and revealing two guards with rifles standing a few feet apart on either side of his wife. “You don’t give me what I want, she dies,” Anton said, snatching the tablet from Peter and tossing it back to Lukyan.
“Mother!” Charity screamed as Lukyan caught the device. He held it for a moment, and then walked over and handed it to Charity.
“Here, dochka. Sit down and be quiet,” he said.
Charity snatched the tablet from Lukyan and stepped away from the group of men standing in the living room.
Anton made his way back to his seat, took a sip of vodka, and motioned for Peter to sit in the chair across from him.
Charity sniffled as she looked at her mother on the screen. “Daddy, just give him what he wants so we can get Mother back,” she said.
Peter looked at her. “I’ll do what I can, dear,” he muttered as he sat down.
“Do I need to elaborate on my terms again?” Anton said.
Peter shook his head. “No. You want the LCM-18s—which I must again remind you are prototypes commissioned by the U.S. military.”
Anton waved a hand irritably, as if he’d heard it before.
“What I don’t understand,” Peter continued, “is why you want them so badly. Why can’t you just wait until the official unveiling at the APAN defense conference next year?”
“Because, by then, you’ll have gotten the U.S. government to buy your missiles, and you won’t put top-grade stuff on the market,” Anton said.
“What do you plan on doing with them?” Peter said.
“What do you think?” Anton said. “Why do you care? You should be trying to get your wife free. Or do you love your big bombs more?”
Peter flinched. “That’s not…” He trailed off thinking. He shouldn’t have run off from the Capitol like he had when he got the message from his wife. He should have reached out to his military contacts for help. He shouldn’t have confronted Anton empty-handed. The sound of a vehicle pulling up outside and a car door slamming snapped him back to the present. “Look, even if I hand over the missiles, there’s no way you get them out of the country undetected.”
“I have way,” Anton said. He motioned to the front door as it swung open.
Chapter 38 – Peter
Peter turned to the front door. An elderly, white-haired man was standing there, his large frame filling the doorway. He looked to be pushing seventy. His lips were curled in a tight, enigmatic smile. He had a briefcase in one hand. His sharp eyes twinkled, amused, at Peter.
Peter shook his head, squinting as he turned back to Anton. Now he was seeing things. The last time he had laid eyes on the man in the doorway was eight years ago—at the man’s funeral. Peter took a deep breath and turned back to the front door. The man was still standing there.
“Hello, Peter,” the man said as he strode in. He had the same easy gait and congenial spirit that Peter remembered.
Peter pressed his fingers against his closed eyelids until colors burst behind his eyes. In the midst of his private kaleidoscope, all he could see was the man in the coffin being lowered into the ground. “What…are…you doing here…Phil?” he said, his words coming out with difficulty.
The man, Phil, set his briefcase on the couch beside Charity and clicked open the clasps. “Why do you think I’m here?” He paused. “I’m here to ensure that my daughter gets out of this situation you’ve gotten her into—alive.”
“But…you’re dead,” Peter said. “I saw it. They put you in the casket. They put you in the ground. I know this.”
“I’m not the first one to come back from the dead,” Phil chuckled.
Charity stared at the man as he pulled papers from his briefcase, momentarily distracted from her mother’s silent form on the tablet screen. “Are you, like, my grandfather?” she said.
“No, he’s not.” Peter jabbed a finger at Anton. “I don’t know what this is, but it needs to stop right now.”
“Calm down, Peter,” Phil said. “You’re overreacting. I’m just here to help everyone get what they want. You will get your wife and little Charity will get her mother. My friend, Anton, will get his missile. And I—well, I don’t know what I want—but I can go back to being dead if you like.”
“And how are you going to help?” Peter said. Phil, his father-in-law, was standing only a foot away. Peter could feel the warmth coming from his body—or maybe it was his own blood boiling in his veins.
It was Anton who spoke next. “You asked me how I would get missiles out of the country undetected,” he said. “This man is answer. He and I—good friends, long time.” He made the OK sign with his left hand. “He pulls strings for me in America. I help him. It works out.”
“How?” Peter demanded.
“It’s better if you don’t know,” Phil said. He laid out the sheaf of papers he had pulled from his briefcase on the table between Peter and Anton. He pulled a shiny, expensive-looking pen from his pocket and held it out. “I’ll just need your signature, son.”
Chapter 39 – Phillip
“Grandpa,” Charity said, patting the sleeve of Phillip’s suit jacket uncertainly, “are you an angel now?”
Phillip Obermann chuckled. He sat on the couch in the living room of the Virginia mansion. The Russians had left earlier. Peter was still sitting at the little table, stunned, swallowing down Anton’s leftover vodka in large gulps. Belinda sat in the chair across from him, her hair tied back from her face. She was okay—weary and worn out, but okay.
“I don’t think anyone would describe me in such heavenly terms,” Phillip said. “But I have my good moments.”
“Are you really my grandfather?” Charity asked for the fifth time.
“Yes,” Philip answered just as patiently as he had before. “Belinda, didn’t you show her any pictures of me?”
“Yes, I did,” Belinda said, watching Peter warily out of the corner of her eye.
“See,” Phillip said, smiling down at Charity, one arm around her shoulder.
The girl squirmed. “But you were dead,” she whispered.
“No, he wasn’t,” Peter said loudly, the drink sounding in his voice. His face was drawn and tight. His eyes rimmed red from stress and lack of sleep. “He lied!” He pointed at his wife. “You lied too! You all lied! For eight years!”
“We admit that,” Phillip said. Belinda nodded.
“Why did you come back now? And why make me think you were dead in the first place?”
“First question: I came back to save my daughter before you screwed everything up,” Phillip said.
“I was just trying to do the right thing,” Peter said. “And now look what I’ve done—sold secret weapons to one of America’s great rivals.”
“It’s not your fault,” Belinda said, placing her hand on his arm.
“She’s right,” Phillip said. “You’re just an element in a much bigger plan.”
“Small comfort,” Peter said, taking another swig of the vodka. “Guess I’ll be joining my former executives in jail soon.”
“No, you won’t,” Phillip said. “I’ll see to it that nothing happens to you because of this.”
“Small comfort,” Peter said again. He stood up and glowered at his father-in-law. “Answer the second question. Why did you fake your death?”
“Remember Nathan Tedesco, the father of your former boss?” Phillip said.
“No. Never met him. What does he have to do with anything?”
“Only everything,” Phillip said, leaning back on the couch. He clasped his hands over his stomach. Charity had fallen asleep beside him, slumped over on the couch pillows. “He died under suspicious circumstances, and people thought, for years, that I had something to do with it.”
“Did you?” Peter said.
Phillip didn’t answer the question. “Things got dangerous for me, for Belinda, for you, for Charity. She was just four at the time. I had to do something. I couldn’t let the people who were coming after me bring harm to you and your family. If they thought I was dead, I knew you’d be safe.”
“Why did you tell her and not me?”
“Because I knew you could bear it,” Phillip said. “And I didn’t want to burden Belinda with such grief. Besides, I figured that, in time, she’d let the secret out.”
Peter grumbled. “Apparently, she’s more like you than you thought.”