Two all-American families are plunged into the nightmare of human trafficking in this spine-chilling noir.
When he isn’t playing softball or coaching Little League, Jim Barry is quizzing his five-year-old on batting averages. He is a persuasive ambassador for America’s pastime, so much so that a foreign neighbor asks him to teach his son how to play. One tragic swing of the bat later, the boy is dead and Jim’s whole world is reduced to an impossible choice: Hand over his own son as a replacement, or die alongside the rest of his family.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a young boy is abducted and his single mother vows to do whatever it takes to bring him back. At the intersection of these two tragedies, a sinister network is exposed, and the deadly, all-consuming passion of familial bonds revealed.
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By Robert Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Rob Ryan
All rights reserved.
Harry darling tried to wind the clock back as he stared at the photographs laid out on the desk in front of him, back to when he had a rank, men under his command, a sidearm and a burning sense of duty. Not to mention a notion of right and wrong, black and white, before grey bled into the picture, blurring the line between the two. That was what he was dealing with now. The days when the grey came into his life.
He had spread the eighteen six-by-eight black-and-whites before him as best he could, crowded and overlapping, some threatening to fall from the desk top onto the floor. They offered varying degrees of clarity, here pin sharp, showing every pore in the face, every whisker missed by the morning shave, there displaying the fuzzy, snatched furtiveness of old pornography.
He stared hard, waiting for the heady rush of unwelcome memory, but time would not move. Stubbornly his reality stayed put, stranding him in the front room of his rambling home in a suburb of North London, with the rumble of cars doing the evening rat-run rather than the squeak of armoured vehicles, the smashing of glass from the recycling collectors, not from the systematic looting of property, the footsteps above him the headlong, almost-falling-over run of a one-year-old, and the more confident steps of his older sister, not the scrabble of panicked figures trying to escape wicked, arbitrary death. Bath time soon, the clomping reminded him. He should go up.
The voice on the other end of the phone jerked him back to the reason he was trying to make this temporal transference.
'Give me a minute.'
Darling redoubled his efforts, squinting now at each visage in turn, trying to get just a flash of an image, of the man in the picture in a different context, a machine pistol at his waist, that carnivorous look in his eyes, the strange misshaped nose, the smell of fear and death and atrocity steaming off his body, framed in the lenses of high-powered binoculars, the freshly painted skull and crossbones on the wall behind him glistening red and obscene. Still nothing came.
It had been too long. Now he wore pinstriped suits and had to force himself to go to the gym once a week to keep a cap on his weight, creeping up because of corporate dinners and informal interviews. Once he had had thirty men under his command, now he had three hundred, but being a personnel director in the City was a tad different from army life. He was trying to make the jump to an alien world he no longer had access to.
'Roy, look I'm sorry, but—'
'It's important, Harry.'
He heard a squeal of joy from up above and wanted to get off the phone. Roy Krok was also from that other world, one that didn't recognise or care for his kids, the kids he swore he would never have after he had seen the pain, and the agony, they could bring. It had taken him five years to realise that he was unlikely to experience in Highgate the kind of suffering he and Krok had once seen. Now he was sorry he had waited so long, especially when he saw fathers twenty years younger running around the park, while he worried about his knee giving out whenever he kicked a ball to his son. 'I know, Roy. I know.'
'You don't sound convinced.'
'Who are you these days, Roy?'
'Who am I?'
'What are you?'
'Same old, same old. State Department.'
'So why are you in New York?'
'This is where the most visa fraud is. Immigration and Naturalization Department, one of the busiest in the country.'
'So you're on visa fraud now?'
A touch of evasiveness. 'Um. It's a means to an end.' The tone suggested Harry shouldn't be asking these questions down an unsecured line.
Darling knew Roy Krok would be working for some strange sounding little unit within the State Department, one that was a shape and name shifter, coming up with new goals and acronyms every six months. It kept the prying eyes on their toes—'One thing about the Freedom of Information Act,' he remembered Krok saying, 'Is you gotta know what question to ask and who to address it to. So we keep changing the address.'
'Roy, I have to go. I wish I could help.'
'You still can, Harry. Look, you're the only guy we know who saw him.'
'Excuse me?' He could picture Krok at this moment, shirt sleeves rolled up, playing with the cigarette he wouldn't be allowed to smoke, big bullet head still shaved close, the stubble of fair hair flecked with grey now. He would bet he wasn't spreading around the girth, though.
'Bullshit. He was around for months, almost a year. I only saw him through some bins, Roy. Binoculars. I simply do not believe you can't find anyone else who knew what he looked like.'
'OK, I'll rephrase that. You are the only reliable guy we have—impeccable credentials, no axe to grind. Credible witness. Not someone who could be accused of a vendetta or hysteria. There are no photos of him, Harry—he had the last guy who took one beheaded—'
'Roy—I found the bloke.'
'Oh, yeah. Shit, Harry. I know I Fedexed a whole stack of photos, but I got a gut instinct about five of them, and there are two who smell real bad. I want you to come over.'
'Here. I want you to stare them in the eyes.'
'As in a line-up?'
'No, more casual than that. You'll bump into them on the street, in the elevator, on the subway. Full back-up from us. But when you see him, smell him, you'll know. Either that or you ain't the same guy I knew.'
I'm not, he wanted to say. Far from it. He wasn't sure those senses that Krok was talking about even existed any more, if they ever did. 'I should have got a sniper up there and shot him. Nobody would've known.'
'Man, nobody this end would have blamed you. But you didn't. British officer, rules of engagement, and all that bullshit.'
'Is this official?'
'If he's here he has committed visa fraud.' There was something in his voice told him it was still personal. And that Roy was in a hurry. Why rush at it now, he wondered?
'Is that all you can get him on?'
'It'll get us to the plate. Get me up to bat. I just need to be sure. If we go with the wrong guy, the real one'll just slip away, straight down into the sewer like the turd he is. Look, you won't have to travel coach, and we'll VIP you. Meet you on the tarmac airside—'
'Collect me at the gate, Roy, I don't want all that melodramatic black limo stuff.' He realised he had fallen straight into it.
There was just a hint of suppressed elation in Krok's voice: 'Is that a yes? You'll come?'
He thought about taking leave for a week or maybe even two just as the salary review was imminent, about abandoning Sarah with the kids when Jessie was about to start nursery school and hesitated. Then he looked back at the photographs and felt a sudden jolt. Number six. The bulky, balding guy getting out of a cab, face blurred, features indistinct. But maybe. Strip away seven years and twenty pounds, it could be him. He grabbed his nose and squeezed his nostrils, as if trying to prevent the smell that had hung everywhere back then from entering, the cloying, choking smell of burnt hair and bone, the one it took thirty minutes under the shower to scrub away.
He closed his eyes and, finally, he did flash on that day. Just for a second, he saw the Warrior personnel-carrier in front of him lift as if pulled on a string, the percussive slap of the mine's detonation reaching him a moment later, followed by the rolling thunderclap of high explosive punching his ears. The vehicle left the ground and started to rotate, slowly displaying its underside, before landing on the roof with a sickening, crumpling sound, bouncing once, and coming to rest, the creaking and groaning of torn metal mixed with the unbearable shrieks of the injured inside.
That was when he had scaled a wall and scanned the village ahead for the minelayers and seen that man, the one who might be on the table in front of him now, standing before the spray-painted symbol of his murderous paramilitary unit, suitably crimson on the whitewashed wall.
'Harry? You still there? Is that a yes?'
'I suppose it is,' he found himself saying.CHAPTER 2
The building was on one of the new roads that spring up around Scottsdale every few months. The community simply kept growing, sending new tentacles into the scrubby desert, or subdividing existing block systems to create new housing and malls. Wendy drove around several junctions before she got the right address. Solutions Inc was located in a new two-storey adobe-style structure between a bookstore and a bank, with a small parking lot around the back.
She hesitated before turning in, so long that she jumped when someone honked her to get a move on. Too late to stop now. She parked up, checked herself in the mirror, and prepared for the blast of the summer heat as she left the air-conditioned cocoon of the Saturn. She hoped Pete was all right, that Duke was looking after him OK, then put him out of her mind. This was mostly for him, after all.
Wendy walked briskly towards the entrance of Solutions Inc, knowing if she hesitated she would start melting in the heat, her prim two-piece spouting unladylike dark patches. And she had to be cool and controlled for this one, something she hadn't been for a long time.
The receptionist led her straight through a maze of what looked like hastily constructed offices, with electrical and computer and telephone leads snaking haphazardly across the floor. It wasn't what she expected. She had imagined clinical, steely. This looked like an overworked tax audit office.
She was led into a cubicle where a forty-ish woman in a white overall stood up and took her hand. 'Miss Blatand. I'm Marion Volker. Thank you for coming. Can I get you something? Coffee? Soda?'
She declined. The rituals of pouring coffee or opening a soda would fluster her. She could feel the woman's eyes examining her as it was, making her jittery. 'You must excuse the mess out there. Business is ... well, booming. Which is good news for you. Demand has never been higher.'
Wendy managed what she hoped was a positive smile. Volker picked up a form she recognised, one that was the size of the Phoenix yellow pages. It had taken her two days to fill it in, and a lot of phone calls.
'I'm afraid I couldn't complete all the sections on my grandparents. About illnesses.'
Volker flicked to that page. 'Yes, but they both lived until they were into their eighties. Very good. I have to be honest with you, Miss Blatand, but three, maybe even two years ago we would not have been seeing you. You are twenty-nine, and we find that demand drops off considerably after thirty. Also you ... well, you already have a child. You know, college students are our most common applicants.'
'That's what I want the money for. To go to college.'
'Well good, that's nice to hear. Anyway, those restrictions do not apply in this case,' she lowered her voice conspiratorially. 'You are blonde blue-eyed of strong Swedish stock from—uh—'
'Minnesota. You are what the market wants right now. It's a terrible cliché, and I wish we could help some of the ... darker women who come in. But it's market forces. Now, Wendy, can I call you Wendy? Wendy, are you clear about the procedure?'
'I did, you know, read the literature you sent.'
'I am afraid by law I am obliged to go through it again, and get you to sign a release.'
Volker started the litany, trying hard to keep the I-speak-your-weight tone from her voice. 'For three weeks you will have to inject your stomach with a drug called Ergon. What this does is put your ovaries into a state of stasis. Basically they won't be working, and none of your egg follicles—you know what they are? Good. None of your egg follicles will ripen. Then you will inject FSHs, what we call follicle stimulating hormones, into your hip. Your eggs will then start to ripen, like a clump of grapes. Eight days of that, and then HCG, human chorionic gonadotrophin, and boom, your eggs are ready for collection.'
'Does that happen ... here?' Wendy waved her arm around the office.
'Good grief, no. You think we move the telephones off the desk and clear a space every time one of our donors comes in? You will go to the Solutions Fertility Facility, which is three blocks away. We have to put you under, and then the eggs are simply hoovered up, fertilised and implanted. But the last bit needn't worry you, Wendy. Now, I am also obliged to tell you by law that some research—not backed up by subsequent studies—but some research suggest the chemical stimulation of the ovaries increases the risk of ovarian cancer down the line. We can refer you to the papers in question if you wish. Do you have any questions?'
She knew about the cancer scare, had decided that the five years she smoked from seventeen to twenty-two were probably more of a risk. 'Yes. It said in your literature about ... gifts.'
'That is right. Gifts. Our standard fee to you is seven thousand dollars per session. We don't recommend more than four sessions, incidentally, and reserve the right to refuse further extractions at any time. Is that clear? Now, the question of gifts is between you and the client. It has become a ... convention for girls with certain attributes—let's say blonde hair and blue eyes for the sake of argument—to be offered bonuses if the eggs take. You may find several clients contacting you and offering these various inducements. These can be ... considerable. I only have one comment. Get it in writing, and get it looked over by a lawyer. Anything else?'
'Do they get to interview me? The women I mean.'
'Usually both wife and husband, but I don't think you have anything to worry about there. You have no prior convictions do you?'
'A criminal record of any kind.'
Volker laughed for the first time. 'Well, I suppose speeding could be a genetically inherited trait.'
'Why do you want to know?'
'Increasingly clients are asking about the donor's circumstances as well as their genetic profile—do they drink, take drugs, steal, have promiscuous sex? Not all our behaviour is a product of our environment. So I am afraid that we try to exclude anyone with a criminal background.'
'I'm a single mother.'
'But my mom wasn't, so it hardly runs in the family.'
'Relax. It isn't a criminal offence. Not yet, anyway. And the explanation in here about your boy—'
'Pete, and the tragic death of your fiancé will satisfy everyone.'
Wendy felt herself blush. Her so-called fiancé was shacked up with her sister somewhere in Chicago as they spoke. After a stupid, stupid party he had managed to have sex with both of them consecutively, without the other's knowledge, something that won him a hundred-dollar bet, and got them both banged up. She and Joanna had always done everything together—sports, books, dating, their periods and, it subsequently seemed, their ovulation. Even Mr Superstud could only marry one of them, and he chose Jo. Wendy had left before Pete was born and moved south, falling down the country like a pinball, bouncing off cities and towns, until she came to rest in Tucson.
'So when do I start?'
'As soon as a client selects you from the candidates. Which won't be long. But before that, one more little formality. I am afraid where the academic records are incomplete, like yours, clients do like to see an IQ test. It won't take long.'
Excerpted from Trans Am by Robert Ryan. Copyright © 2001 Rob Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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