About Getting Caught
It Didn’t Happen: A Novel (Working Title)
Part One: October 10th
Chapter 1: The Man Upstairs
“We need to get out of here. All of us.”
“Don’t say that. We can’t go back.”
“Why not? Look at them, looking up here, fiery eyes. Waiting. Waiting for answers I can’t give.”
“A little more time. You never said it would be first thing in the morning.”
“I know. Guess I just assumed.”
“Sure. We all did.”
“Weird how that works. Everyone thinking the same thing.” He dragged in a few more uncomfortable breaths. The converted barn serving as their home for the last six months was shrinking. There was an ominous weight to the air, probably something akin to the heaviness that hovered over those huddled inside the Bastille or the Alamo, just before those places became more than anonymous, crappy old buildings.
Something imminent was rounding the corner.
Just not the thing he predicted.
He hazarded another cautious peek through the curtain. She put her arms around his waist, rubbing his stomach with calloused hands, pressing a pensive kiss to the back of his neck. Her concern was palpable; perhaps more so than his. “Have you heard a message?” she asked quietly. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? Anything would be helpful.”
Resentment almost pulled him away, but desperate self-preservation won the moment. He was beyond exhausted. It was supposed to be over, yet there they were.
Compelling as running might seem, the fortitude of her embrace wasn’t something to be abandoned. It was the only thing holding him up, physically and spiritually. Cinching him together with implacable love and faith. Perhaps, also, with a helping of her own private desires.
“You know what’s funny?” he asked, tilting his head back take in more of her smell.
“I’m surprised you’re finding anything funny just now.”
“Got to say, not the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” She patted his stomach. It was flatter. That little layer of adipose common to men in their late thirties was a thing of the past.
“You know what I mean. Never expected to be hungry again. Thought that worry was relegated to the dustbin.”
“It’s still early,” she said, checking her watch as an alternative to looking outside. It was becoming her only line of defense, and the more she said it, the more she could sense her own desperation coming to the fore.
Down below, they could hear the door slowly opening and closing. The deliberate nature of the entry made the identity of the arrival obvious.
“Are you up here, Paulson? Lydia? Did you go in the Storm?”
She could feel his shoulders slump. He patted her hands and freed himself from her grasp, turning to face the stairs that led up to the loft. “Still here, Rhett.”
“Are y’all decent?”
“C’mon up, little brother.”
Rhett plodded up the stairs and into their living space. There was no door to the upstairs loft; hence Rhett’s apprehension. He’d walked in on Lydia in a state of undress some months back. It scared her half dead and managed to add a new trauma to his already scarred psyche. “Boy, I don’t know,” Rhett said, mumbling with his hands burrowed somewhere between his shirt and overalls. “The Storm not coming’s got most everyone nervous as all get out.”
“It’s still early,” Lydia snapped. Her brother-in-law’s face went flush and he closed his eyes, shaking his head.
Paulson tried to avoid flashing a chastising look at his wife. He walked over to his brother and rubbed his golden buzz cut, kissing a spot where hair would never again grow. “Everything’s going to be all right, buddy. I’ll go out and talk to them. Say something reassuring.”
“Boy, I don’t know,” Rhett whispered, tears in his eyes. He was still smarting from Lydia’s hot tone.
“Hey, pal,” Paulson said, holding the faltering head level with both his hands. “Give me a sit-rep. Cut the bullshit, yeah soldier?”
“Andy Hood and his family?”
“Stirred up. Confused but not crazy. Probably need watching. I’ll get on it.”
“Take it easy, now. What about Ida Jean?”
“Didn’t get eyes on. Everyone else is out there, save her. Maybe in her cabin, or maybe the Storm took her.”
The report was delivered evenly. Given a thing to do, his brother was his old sturdy self. The one who’d followed Paulson to Afghanistan to fight for code and country, before the fight had taken what it had.
“What about Elson?”
Rhett seemed confused by the inquiry, but forged ahead. “Normal, I’d say. Smoking his pipe like always—walked by him just now. Drawing in that journal. He’s a hard one to read on a normal day.”
“Understood. The rest?”
Paulson turned momentarily and sighed at Lydia, still holding his brother’s face. “We can’t be jumping to anything yet.”
“Yeah. Just the waiting—boy, I don’t know.”
“Thanks,” Paulson said, offering another quick hug. “Proud of you. You’re a good man. My favorite brother. Don’t forget it.”
Rhett’s freckled cheeks against went red, this time a healthier hue. “I’m your only brother.”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“What are you going to—”
“Go on down. Say I’ll be out there in a few. Don’t worry. Things are gonna be just fine, pal.”
It was obvious that Rhett wanted to throw out another Boy I don’t know, but one last look at Lydia had him lumbering for the stairs, tongue jammed against the back of his teeth.
Paulson walked over to the bed and grabbed a flannel shirt hanging off the footboard. Lydia was standing rigidly in the center of the room, hands atop her head, ready to burst. If her state of mind was any sort of barometer for what he was going to have to face, things weren’t looking good.
As much as he wanted to fight it, he knew it was coming the second his left eye started to twitch. He unsnapped his shirt almost to the bottom and wrestled his feet inside his boots, desperate to avoid looking at his wife. When he collapsed onto his back, she almost didn’t notice. There wasn’t the usual violent crash associated with one of his spells. No knocked over lamps or cracked knees. Just a soft landing and a few muted convulsions underneath a light poof of dust.
Paulson James. How are things in Crazytown, Texas?
“Where are we?”
Complicated question, but you know that. Anyway—where does it look like?
“Looks like the mountains,” James chattered, feeling a chill on his arms, wondering if the place or the sensation was really real. As many times as this happened, it was always the first thing he thought. “What’s with the fishing poles?” he asked, teeth still clattering together.
I thought you might want to catch something. It’s like spiritual virtual reality. Add something more physically interactive, I thought. Just an idea. You used to like a little angling, I was told. I could see it. I can see it right now, actually. Eh. Let’s not get bogged down in space and time. One of my pet peeves with you people. Linear is so not cool.
Paulson glanced at his interlocutor with a disdainful smirk before scanning his surroundings. His feet were dangling off an old wooden bridge. There were snowcapped peaks on either side. Underneath an icy stream ran deep and steady, singing out a consistent low note. “You told me today was the day, Levi. What are we doing here?” Paulson figured on seeing his Messenger again, but not like this. Their next encounter was supposed to take place in the Great Beyond, burdens gone. Maybe God at the end of the table, offering a toast so profound only God could come up with it. Perhaps a few of the Saints and Martyrs, sharing war stories.
Don’t let your line run too far out.
“Levi? Seriously. And what’s with the accent?”
Biloxi, Mississippi. 1930s. Figured I’d try it out. Sort of a redneck musicality to it.
Why? Oh, because of the face? I’ll have you know that this is a composite of fourteen different Japanese action stars. Whipped it up myself. All very handsome men.
“Not saying otherwise.” Paulson rubbed his eyes with his free hand, feeling a headache coming on that was real in any dimension.
Look, there’s been a delay. This kind of stuff happens. Things you need to do yet.
“A delay? Nobody’s going to listen to me back home. You can only predict our last day on the planet once. People start losing faith in the batter after strike one.”
Levi scratched his perfectly managed gray goatee and whipped his pole around like a paintbrush, attempting to goad a fish toward the lure. He was dressed as he always was. A corduroy sport jacket and board shorts. On his feet he wore military combat boots with no socks or laces. He was the homeless guy who all the other homeless guys felt sorry for.
You get more than one strike, Mr. James. Consult a history book. Or a baseball game. People have a capacity for gullibility that you fail to grasp.
Paulson braced at the sound of Levi using the word gullibility. It made him feel like the charlatan he promised his people he wasn’t—the nutjob he prayed he hadn’t become.
You’re getting mad. Easy, big guy. Integral or expendable as you are, I still have a pretty big checkmark in the seniority column. Hundreds of millennia. Don’t want to pull rank. Just a reminder.
“What am I supposed to do? Is it ever going to actually happen? What do I say to those people?”
Levi threw his rod into the river and turned squarely to Paulson.
Just once. Just once I’d like for you to consider my feelings.
“I’m supposed to feel sorry for an Emissary of God? You have powers. You get to hang out in Heaven. All the secrets are at your fingertips.”
I can see in your soul. We’ve been over this. It’s almost automatic, but it’s not an automatic blessing, if you can follow. Just now—I had a good look. Dark. You are a classic narcissist. Projection. Deflection. It’s dawning on me—kind of a jerk, Paulson James.
“I don’t even know if you have feelings to hurt.”
See that right there. You think because we operate on separate metaphysical planes of existence, you get to treat me like the “other.” It’s like talking to a Republican.
“Enough, Levi. Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
Paulson’s face remained unchanged. Like he was waiting for the actual answer.
I’m serious. You have to go back. That’s all I was told. Probably some unfinished business you need tending. Or not. Could just be a scheduling thing.
Paulson took a swing at Levi. He hadn’t made an aggressive move since coming home from the war. Now here he was, fishing in an ontologically iffy setting, having a go at a supernatural being.
I’m gonna let you have that one.
Levi disappeared and then reformed on Paulson’s other side, quick as Biblical Mercury.
You need to get your emotions in check.
“Sorry.” The apology came fast and humble. Levi’s little show of otherworldly power wasn’t done idly. Crazy as the thrift store ambassador was, he was also packing serious fire and brimstone. “Please. Just give me something I can tell them.”
We’re gonna let you work it out for the next little bit. It’ll be good for your character. Little advice. Get things on track with Lydia. Happy wife, happy life. Little simplistic, but can’t hurt.
Levi smiled and lit up a cigarette. After an overemphasized drag, he blew the smoke straight up and gave James a playful look, slicking back his greasy black hair.
Paulson’s hands went stiff, like a person’s hands just before they start strangling someone. He shook them out and did his best not to roll his eyes. “Okay. I just wish—”
It was warm in his ear. He could feel his eye still twitching, but couldn’t see anything. Not long and he realized Lydia was whispering something soothing to him as he struggled between states of being. He hated that she had to watch. No matter how many times she tried to reassure him, he imagined it was like viewing a bad actor being possessed in some movie about found footage exorcisms.
The eye went back to stasis. His vision corrected itself to seeing the here and now. “How long?” he asked, throat cracking dry.
“Ten. Maybe twenty seconds. I barely had time to get over here.”
His wife got off the bed and yanked him up to a sitting position. They’d gone through the routine enough times for her to be versed. She placed a hand on his crotch.
“It’s okay,” she returned, getting up to fetch some fresh underwear and jeans. “What’d he say?”
Paulson held out his hand for the clothes. Debriefing was hard enough and being covered in piss was just a little too much. “Said that we’re going to be here a little longer. Said that everyone would understand.”
Lydia answered by smacking her husband across in the face with a pair of boxer briefs.
“Sorry if I’m not your biggest fan at the moment. We could have a riot on our hands.”
“What if your brother had seen?”
“And we get these little pieces. All that, and how many times have I really let you have it? Don’t put limits on my feelings. It’s gross.”
“Paulson,” she said, squaring up next to the bed, arms crossed like a little drill instructor.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered, stepping up to put on his fresh clothes. Levi’s. It was a reminder that he couldn’t tell her everything. Those were the rules. Whatever was happening, there were rules. “You’ve been strong for me. Stronger than me. Always have been.” James wasn’t just telling her what she wanted to hear to make the moment easier. Lydia had always been the rudder, even before all this. They’d been a power couple, on the rise in Texas business and society, but it was her will and positivity that had carried them along. She was forged hard to life’s challenges, clawing her way to prominence at a leading commercial real estate concern, managing a path through the old boys club, dignity intact. With her unflagging encouragement, he’d broken through as a motivational speaker, sought by everyone with enough money to pay for his time; high-end corporations to national high school football conferences to international sales conventions. He could work a room. Thousands would sit enthralled, listening to practical advice like it had come from a stone tablet. Now his audience was less than a hundred—they listened to spiritual revelations more or less like it was what one did to better their day-to-day.
Chapter 2: Sentinels
“Guess it didn’t quite work out how you wanted. That about sum it up?” Agent Jordy Phelps from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives hurled the question skyward with his usual high-pitched, incendiary tone, sweating through the backside of his skin-tight Wranglers. “I mean—it’s getting damn near noon time. If I’m the Lord—Lord knows I’m not—but if I’m the Lord, I’m not waiting half the day to lift off my chosen people. Just don’t seem to compute.” Phelps squinted at the cresting Texas sun, pulling the brim of his cowboy hat level with his overgrown black eyebrows. “You ever gonna get to talking? Hell, man. Ain’t part of you happy? Or don’t you get those type feelings?”
The subject of the agent’s criticism was a man in his fifties named Theodore. He was the one everybody at the ATF field office called “The Lookout.” The sinewy, bearded figure sat or stood in a wooden tower near the gate to the compound, watching the road and the edge of the property. He never spoke, save one word: “Blessings.” Other than that, you weren’t getting anything out of old Theo. He was a sentinel. He was one of those silly soldiers standing guard outside Buckingham. He was Idris Elba from Thor—that’s what Phelps liked to call him—Hamdoll—that’s how it came out of Phelps’ lips, anyway.
A car door slammed closed behind and Phelps turned to see his boss getting off a call. Agent Wolf Becker looked at the junior agent and then up at the tower. “Has he said anything?” Becker asked, flat and authoritatively. He was the senior man at the Fort Worth ATF office. That put this problem square in his lap, but if any fed was built for it, he was the guy. Wolf Becker had the equanimity of a cup of water, at least to the casual observer. Whatever Phelps was—Becker was the opposite.
“No, sir. Nothing after ‘Blessings.’ Hamdoll’s doing his usual bit.” Becker tilted his head, watching Phelps as he talked. The young agent made strange movements with his right hand when he spoke. Pointing, waving, but generally having nothing to do with what he was saying. Becker had learned to ignore the habit. Mostly.
“Then what are you on about? Becker inquired. “I could hear you from inside the car.”
“I was trying to establish—you know—establish a thing.”
“Wow. As if you lifted procedure straight from the training manual.”
Phelps pulled his hat down another inch and wiggled his free hand. “Well.”
“In half a year the man has shown no crack in his will. Not so much as a hairline fracture. He’s impervious on a microscopic level. What’s your reasoning for starting in today?”
“Come on, Becker. You know. I ain’t stupid.”
“Pretend I’m stupid.”
“Today’s the day.”
“Well, if any of these wackos are going to become pervious, figured on it being right about now.”
Becker didn’t much like Phelps. He was pretty sure the younger man was a born racist full of resentment at being under the command of a black academic. Most agents were ex-service or former local law enforcement, but Wolf Becker had taken a different path. He did a stint as a criminology professor before joining the bureau. It was an unusual road, but despite it or because of it, he was a highly effective investigator and one of the most level-headed brains in the ATF. All that said, he didn’t wholly disagree with the simpleminded Phelps. If the dam was going to break, today would be one you’d probably have marked on your calendar.
“It’s not inevitable,” whispered the head agent.
“What’s that?” Phelps asked, spitting onto the gravel road and adopting a bemused look.
Becker walked toward the gate, away from his subordinate, staring at “The Lookout.”
“Guess I’ll leave you with your thoughts then,” Phelps said, overemphasizing his accent and kicking rocks as he made the way back to the car. “Taxpayers don’t pay me enough to be mindreading in this heat. I’ll be enjoying the A/C while you and the freak play the silent game.”
It’s not inevitable, Becker thought, resting his arms on one of the rusty gate’s bars.
That’s what everyone was thinking. The situation had tragedy written all over it. A big piece of private property in Texas with a herd of toe-the-line acolytes made anyone with a pulse go to one place: Waco. The head of the ATF in Washington was soiling himself on an hourly basis, afraid of another public relations catastrophe that would leave an indelible mark on the collective American conscience for all of time. The FBI was breathing down everybody’s throats. No surprise there. The Texas Rangers and local police knew the property and a lot of the people living on the compound. For the hometown badges, the investment was personal; they weren’t too keen on letting another group of folks go up in smoke. Blame would go to Becker and the federal task force, and at that point he wouldn’t be in any position to argue. He’d resign in shame and failure. A life dedicated to stopping bad things from happening would be forgotten by everyone he’d ever met, until the point where he’d forget it himself. God would be a refuge, but what if Dana left? His faith might dissipate. The drinking. Harder this time. It was all laid out, those dark possibilities. To an outside observer, perhaps it appeared the die was cast.
Screw the die. He could work this out. Wherever his mind was, Becker knew he needed at least as much resolve as the man in the tower. Calm. Peace under fire. A sentinel. Easier said than done, but he was absent choice.
The ATF man felt a vibration in his pocket and let out a sigh as he answered the call. “Hey there, Paulson,” he said, turning away from Theodore and the watchtower. “What do we do now, old friend?”
Chapter 3: MRI
The Membership was gathered in the mess hall. It was the largest building on the property, right in the center, with all the surrounding structures radiating around it. Paulson James was smoking near the back wall, standing alone under the shade of a thick oak. He could hear the clamor emanating from inside. The sound of discontented hearts. The sound of his Lydia trying to quell their uncertainties using a temperamental, feedback-prone PA system. A bit like a crowd that’s been waiting in the rain all day after you tell them their favorite band isn’t showing up. The change was frightening. The Membership was comprised of some of the most docile and benevolent people Paulson had ever met, save a few surly-ish outliers. Currently, they sounded like the Hell’s Angels riding a particularly strong crank high.
Understandable. Their band didn’t show up—God being the band.
“I don’t know what to do now. This isn’t the best time, Wolf. The day’s not even over yet.” James lit up another cigarette and smoked it down like it was his last, listening to unoriginal advice from his old college buddy. Frankly, he expected better. “How long have we known each other?” Paulson asked, turning away from the cafeteria. His eye started twitching. Standing in front of him, going in and out of focus, was Levi the Messenger. He was wearing shorts and had swapped his combat boots for the cowboy kind. The ensemble was topped off by an oversized Hawaiian shirt. The wardrobe was almost as arresting as his presence.
You shouldn’t be talking to the ATF. More important things to do.
The Messenger’s words sounded squelched, like they were coming through an old car radio. Paulson was frozen in place, cigarette hanging by the little bit of wet on the inside of his lip. Before he could respond, Levi was gone. “What the shit!?”
“What’s wrong?” Agent Becker asked, voice full of genuine worry, fearing the worst.
“He never comes here. I always go to him. Or he takes me. Or whatever.”
“Are you seeing the guy—the emissary character—is that what you’re talking about?”
“Yeah. He just... right here. In Texas.”
“So he’s gone?”
“Yeah. Came and went. I don’t understand.”
“That’s okay, PJ. Things get a little out of hand sometimes. What’ve we been talking about lately?”
“We’ve been talking about a lot of things lately, Wolf.” The Membership’s leader was taking fretful little steps in random patterns. Little figure eights. Flattened circles. Eccentric squares.
“Do you trust me?” asked the agent.
James turned around and was startled once again. “Holy crap!”
“What?” Becker asked.
“Everything’s fine. Keep the jackboots back. I’ll ring later.”
Paulson ended the call and gathered up an exasperated breath. He tried to light up another smoke, but couldn’t stop shaking.
“I’ll get that,” said Dr. Davis Dade, taking two steps forward to grab the lighter out of James’ hand. “Seems like you’re about to burst. And you shouldn’t be smoking.”
“Don’t know if you noticed, Doc. Things—little bit crazy around here. They’re ready to tear me to pieces. The feds could be on the march. I’m seeing things. Then the whole not being in Heaven thing.”
“Yeah,” the doctor said, putting his head down. Paulson could see the gaping bald spot toward the back of Dade’s scalp. The skin was red and looked irritated. Too much time in the sun. It made Paulson feel sad. Poor Davis. Lifted from a beautiful life of country clubs and never having to be outside for more than an hour. Now this; rashes and unfulfilled prophesies. “That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about,” the doctor said, gathering himself up to face his leader. Paulson studied Dade for the thousandth time. The doc was a weird little fella. His head was too big for his shoulders and his face was too small for his head. He once told Paulson that his incongruous looks helped spur him to great heights in the medical field. He figured money and success would make up for his aesthetic inadequacies. Something like a blind man being able to hear the notes better than someone with sight. Turned out, he was right. Dade’s wife Julie was a knockout. “Not that women go for money and security,” the doctor once joked with James.
Paulson liked Dr. Davis Dade. He was mostly a self-aware type. A rich man able who in the end was able to assess his boundaries and weaknesses with honesty. His short, slight build was kind of annoying; you couldn’t hear him when he was sneaking up—but that was hardly something that merited castigation.
“So what’s up?” Paulson asked, looking over Dade’s to the cafeteria. There was still that lion’s den to contend with. “Why aren’t you back in there with the natives?”
“Remember a couple months ago?” the doctor asked.
“You’ll have to be more specific.” Paulson was acting aloof. More than usual. He sucked his cigarette and scratched his dampening hair. The nerves and the driving sun were beginning to take their toll. “What about two months ago, Doc?”
“C’mon, PJ. The MRI.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Nobody wants to talk about their MRI.”
“No—I mean—we already talked about it.” Paulson blew a stream of smoke over Dade’s patchy head. It was hard to shift focus from the red spot. It looked like a rash that would only spread. James thought about the irritation that was already spreading through the camp. It made him long for loneliness in a way he hadn’t felt for a long time.
Dade cocked his chin up and crossed his arms, skinny legs stiff with newfound resolve. “I wasn’t honest.”
“About the MRI.”
“We’re still talking about the damn scan? Move on, Davis.”
“I can’t.” The little doctor took a deep breath, walking through a cloud of Paulson’s smoke without flinching. “It wasn’t clean.”
“What’s that mean—not clean?”
“You have a tumor. Pretty big one, actually.”
“I’m not, actually.”
“Well this isn’t funny.”
“Before you get too upset, try to understand.”
Paulson took a half step and made like he was going to walk away, but he couldn’t let the conversation end there. “Let me understand. We snuck out of here in the middle of the night to get my noggin looked at—”
“You wouldn’t stop about the headaches.”
“To get my noggin looked at, just so you could lie to me about the results?”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“Sorry if my summation doesn’t square with your fragile sense of decorum.”
“I can see you’re losing it. We should probably continue this later.”
“Don’t lecture me about my temper, Doc.” James placed a hand on the little physician’s shoulder and gave enough of a squeeze to demonstrate his ire. “You know, I never used to have a temper. Not at all. Turns out, might be the giant brain tumor eating away at my gray matter.”
“That’s not impossible.” Dade was bending from the pull of Paulson’s grip.
“And everything that’s happened—all of this—could just be the hallucinations of a madman with a damn medical condition.”
The doctor ripped himself away from Paulson and turned to face the gym. The clamor was only growing louder. “I figured it didn’t matter, PJ.”
“Explain the sense of that.”
“I knew it might kill you, but I figured we were supposed to be gone by then.”
“Ain’t cutting it, Doc. First, you know damn well that a brain tumor can cause people to act weird—real weird. Second, you wouldn’t have come out here to tell me unless you felt guilty.”
“I’ve always felt guilty, but I’ve always had faith. Still do. God could’ve put it there. The tumor is like an instrument.”
“Oh God.” Paulson pulled his cigarette pack from his front pocket and chain-lit the next. “You sound crazy, Davis. You’re the kind that makes it easy for those assholes out there to call us a cult. I’m supposedly head nutcase, yet you’re giving me the creeps.”
“I know this is a lot to take in.”
“Sure you do. We all have tough mornings.” Paulson barely finished the sentence. He buried his fist into the physician’s soft stomach and shoved him down into the wild grass like he was nothing at all. “Shit,” he whispered, walking away while Dade rolled and writhed around, grasping for oxygen with terrible, grating gasps. “Shit,” James repeated, holding out his hand. “Stand up and calm down. You’ll get your breath back quicker.”
The doctor abstained from hailing the physical as everything, so you resort to physical violence.
“What!?” Paulson called out.
There’s some sort of poetry in there, I think. Oh—outstanding leadership strategy. Maybe we picked the wrong guy after all.
Holding the doctor up, James whipped around, expecting to see Levi. There was no one.
“What?” Dade asked, confused by the sudden change in orientation.
“Nothing,” Paulson said, pulling grass from his friend and doctor’s head. “I’m sorry for hitting you.”
“No, it’s not okay. You’re a faithful guy, Davis. Sure your heart was in the right place. You’re going to have to explain to me exactly why a lie on that level seemed a good idea.”
“That’s great. But seriously. The finer points. Good soul as I know you to be, it was a weird decision.”
“A tumor doesn’t explain everything else that’s happened. Everything else that you did.”
Paulson took a second to try to remember the entirety of the last six months. Davis had a point. A tumor didn’t explain the rest. Didn’t even come close. The doctor’s logic suddenly became less ridiculous, though still hard to understand.
“The Storm’s still coming,” Dade said. “I know it is.”
“Yeah,” James said, steadying his friend. “The Storm’s coming.”
Chapter Four: Last Year’s Lydia
Lydia James sat behind her husband on the little mobile stage, watching him quell the membership. He’d entered through the back with a literal cloud over his head, smelling like a derelict pool hall, projecting little to none of his normal casual handsome cool. Nevertheless, he was once again doing his thing. The crowd had been close to riotous. Not now. She slipped away, picking up a few words here and there, mostly lost in herself.
“The day ain’t over yet. And it’s no time to panic. That’s not what we do here. This is not a bunch of weirdoes. You guys and gals are some of the most accomplished and wonderful people I’ve ever met. Don’t go freaking out.”
Lydia heard them chuckle. Paulson had probably flashed one of his self-effacing smiles their way. She couldn’t see. Instead, she looked down at her hands. They were covered with wear; blisters and callouses in the bends of her fingers. Layers of dirt underneath her trimmed fingernails. What would last year’s Lydia James say to the present day version? Last year’s Lydia. She almost laughed out loud at the thought.
“We aren’t the same people that came here six months ago, but that doesn’t mean we’ve devolved. Am I right!?”
Last year’s Lydia would’ve snuck out the backdoor. She’d have never gotten close to a strange place on the outskirts of Fort Worth, surrounded by knots of wide-eyed religious nutters. But last year’s Lydia hadn’t seen the things she’d seen. The things that her husband had done. A strong dose of belief coursed through her veins, mixed in with the pragmatism that made her so successful in her career. The belief wasn’t necessarily welcome, but it was there and there was no denying it.
Though she still tried.
Another look at her hands.
“Y’all can call me names. Go ahead and do it. Out loud and now, if you’re feeling it. Heck, I bet there’s nothing you haven’t called me that I haven’t called myself ten times a day and twenty on Sundays! Haha! Twenty on Sundays. That’s not even a thing, but here I am, facing the fire, facing the light in each and every one of your eyes.”
They were laughing now. She put her head down, impressed but not surprised, yawning as her thoughts drifted to six or seven hours prior. Lydia had been crawling around down by the creek, through dirt and burrs and mud, looking for a bear, armed with an Alaskan Winchester Model 70. Being her last night, she was determined to find the animal. I’m going crazy, she thought, clapping mindlessly after the applause had already died down. She never told Paulson about the bear, mostly because she thought it might not be real. Bears weren’t a thing in North Texas, especially this close to the city. There was no way it would just be wandering through the property, and yet, Lydia had seen it at least ten times.
Or she was barking mad.
“One thing I know. We’re not crazy. Not one single solitary person here is anything but a good old-fashioned red-blooded American of sound mind and body. Don’t tell yourself otherwise.”
Lydia had never found the bear, despite her many attempts to stalk it in the night. It felt more like the bear was stalking her. I’m barking mad. Last year’s Lydia would call for the orderlies and the padded room if she could see what had become of her.
“Doubts are natural. Let’s take a good lunch and breathe. Talk to one another like you know how. Don’t make everything about us and the Storm. Let’s just be friends for a little bit before we get all riled up again. And no, Chester. That’s not me using women words. You old dog.”
Lydia crossed her hands in her lap and smiled as the Membership rose and applauded. She rose too, but as the crowd smiled and hugged she found herself on the verge of tears. It was the bear. She wanted to see it and know that it was real.
“You okay, Lyds?” Paulson asked, walking up to give her a hug.
“I’m fine,” she said, blinking away. “That message—really something, Husband.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Thanks. I love it when you call me Husband, by the way. It’s like you’re in the supporting cast of Witness. Maybe one of those bonnet things…”
“I don’t want to hear a segue into another one of your Harrison Ford fantasies.”
He laughed. She could always make him laugh, but right now it was easy. He was coming off a speech. A time when he was Teflon to the hardness and a welcome mat for any positivity that might be coming his way, regardless of circumstance prior or previous.
Despite her knowing that he was merely basking in afterglow, she was genuinely relieved. Hours ago they thought this might be the tar and feather show; now at least he’d bought them some time.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked, taking her hands. “I can’t believe gardening does this to you. It’s like a contact sport.”
“I’m fine,” she said, slipping his grip and kissing him on the cheek. “Think I’ll talk to Janie. See how she’s doing.”
Lydia hopped off the stage and took a labored breath, Glad as she was to not be lambasted by the Membership, she wanted to be taken in the Storm as much as anyone. More than anyone. If the delay lasted much longer, present day forty three-year-old Lydia was going to have to break a serious slice of news to her husband: on the doorstep to the afterlife, she was at last pregnant with their first child.
Chapter 5: Bored With the Board
At the ATF field office in West Fort Worth, things were abuzz. Wolf Becker didn’t have an exact number, but there was more or less a legion of overdressed FBI agents milling about, looking busy on their cell phones. He always wondered who they were talking to with their concerned, scrunched faces.
One could never tell with the FBI. Good agents for the most part, forgetting the odd simpleton dispersed randomly throughout any collection or herd. There were so many and they seemed able to replicate by spontaneous mitosis; whatever vetting process was in place, nature and the law of averages were bound to let a few clunkers pass muster unchecked. The ATF was a mom and pop operation by comparison and therefore a much harder place to hide ineptitude.
Turning by a series of cubicles toward his corner office, he bumped into a red-cheeked young officer with the Texas Rangers named May Dukes. She was carrying a stack of files and managed to adjust her grip before they scattered to the floor.
“Nice save,” Becker said, holding his hands out in case anything spilled from her grasp.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, now fully confident in her payload. “Sorry about that. Was just on my way to see you.”
“Really?” Becker asked. “Where exactly?”
“Your office. For the—the meeting.”
“I’m heading to my office right now,” he said, slowly raising a long finger to point it over her shoulder.
“Of course,” she said, cheeks reddening more. “This whole thing isn’t what it looks like.”
“That you don’t know where the hell you are or what the hell is going on?”
“Exactly,” she said, looking like she wanted to melt into the lifeless gray government-issue carpet.
Becker took half of the files out of her hands. “Take it easy on yourself, Dukes. This is my operation and I can barely find my feet these days. Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
Ranger Dukes turned and followed Wolf Becker, biting her lip in frustration. Of all the people running around there that day, he was the one person she was interested in impressing. So far not so good.
“Do these task force soirées get you pumped, Dukes?” he asked flatly, stopping in front of the glass door. “They get me pumped.”
She hid a muted smile and nodded quick and short, meeting his eyes with a strange mix of apprehension and eagerness. “Not sure how to answer, sir.”
“Your relaxed shoulders and the fact that your hands are in your pockets. Indicators leading me to believe this isn’t something you take all that seriously.”
He made no great attempt to change his bearing. Just tilted his head back slightly and sharpened his eyes; she inferred he was waiting for more.
“On the other hand, as a less experienced member of the law enforcement community and dogged member of this task force, I’m almost inclined to disagree with you.”
“But I would never do that—disagree with you—sir.”
Becker showed a rare, unfettered smile. Dukes returned with the slightest of winks. “Yeah. You’re gonna be fine.”
“Thank you, sir. I really like my job.” She looked down and was fifteen again. She’d never seen a flash of teeth or portion of charm from Becker. He was winning when he wanted to be; handsome if one was to ever really consider it.
“I can tell you got a nose for the hunt. Few improvements with your directional abilities and you’ll probably make a first-rate cop.”
She smiled at the rapport they seemed to be building, but quickly forced her face back to serious, nodding her little nods and blinking away a layer of tension as they entered the office.
“Guess you guys couldn’t wait to get going today,” Agent Becker said, smiling tacitly as he maneuvered behind his desk in the corner. He stood there, hands on his hips, looking over today’s players. Mostly old faces. One new one. He said a quick hello to Brad and Phil, his point guys on the Paulson case. They were mustached and in their forties, physically strong but in great shape. Typical, experienced agents with years on the job. They appeared calm but ready for anything, trying to mirror their boss.
The FBI liaison offered a curt wave and “howdy” toward Becker, laboring in vain to seem local. The U.S. attorney didn’t get up—her face was buried in the case file—she was a sharp but overworked Latina woman who had seen a wider range of cases than anyone else in the room. “Governor,” he said, shaking the big hand of the man standing like a statue on the other side of his desk. The politician was doing a poor job of hiding his displeasure; it was obvious to everyone in the room that he was put out—to not be the first addressed was a breach of protocol or at the very least, proper decorum. “Hey Dukes,” Becker said, holding a stare on the politician. “Come meet Governor Biggs.”
Everyone adjusted in the limited space, allowing Ranger Dukes the opportunity to shake the hand of Texas’ chief politician. She smiled and nodded six or seven times before speaking; short bursts of dutiful word groupings—something about it being an honor. Her head was cocked back, like a front row movie patron. The governor was a massive figure and had something of a presence, but Becker imagined the spry Ranger Dukes would see through the façade posthaste. Biggs was a dolt during sunshine and a led vest in stormy seas.
“I know you don’t like me being down here, Wolf,” began the governor, talking too much with his hairy hands, “but maybe it’s good to have reminders. We all need reminders—am I right?” Everyone in the room muttered in the affirmative, unsure if the question was rhetorical. Biggs was given to loose banalities, making it difficult to conclude when he was looking for a real answer.
“It’s not about what I like or don’t like,” Becker said, standing tall with his arms behind his back. He wanted to appear deferential, if only to expedite the meeting.
“Today’s the day,” the governor said. “Am I right?”
Another oblique inquiry, but less than usual. It gave the ATF agent a moment’s pause. He picked up a ballpoint pen and dropped it with a thud on his day planner. “It’s another day, if that’s what you mean.”
“I think you know what I mean. Paulson’s people—still here. At least they didn’t kill themselves like those other dumb bastards.”
“They never said they were going to kill themselves. Can I ask where you got that notion, Governor?”
“Don’t get your blood up, Wolf. I don’t need people giving me notions. I come by them all on my own.”
God knows that’s true, Becker thought. And God help us.
“As far as we can tell, the situation is stable and contained. Nobody’s hurt, and to this point no laws have been broken. I’d like to dissolve this task force and send all these people back to where they can do something productive. This isn’t a standoff.”
“Not yet,” said Governor Biggs.
“Despite your trepidations, you seem insistent on turning this into something bad. Snakes can be avoided. I suggest we don’t go kicking over rocks.”
Governor Biggs let out a heavy breath. It smelled like the results of a gallon of coffee and a carton of cigarettes. Everyone in the office reeled as much as they could without being rude. “Can we bring in the board?” Biggs asked, snapping his fingers and turning toward the door. “Young lady,” he rasped, snapping again in May Dukes’ direction, “do us a solid and get the board with all the pictures.”
Wolf Becker craned his head around and threw a glance with widened eyes at his boys Brad and Phil. They could read the simmering impatience just under their boss’ visage as they waited for Dukes to return with the board.
Becker hated the board.
It was industrial-sized and made of cork, for hanging up pictures and little notecards with thumbtacks. Little strings were occasionally tied from one tack to another to indicate a connection between two objects or points on the board. There was also a map and a piece of paper that reminded everyone in the office how many days they had until “Loony Liftoff.” It was the large circle in the top right corner that Becker spotted as Dukes struggled to push it through the door.
“There she is,” said Biggs, opening his jacket and placing his fat red thumbs in the little pockets of the gray vest his mistress had picked out for the day. “She looks like some fine work. Wheel her all the way in here, honey.”
“Governor,” Ranger Dukes managed, enlisting the help of Brad and Phil to properly position it in the middle of the room.
This frigging thing, Becker thought, finally slumping into his chair.
Becker hated the board. They only had it in the office at the insistence of Governor Biggs. The politician apparently took in more than his share of crime shows—shows where a big visual aid was requisitioned to show all the conspirators and all people sitting on their asses at home who and what was going on with the case.
The Resident Agent in Charge took a breath, releasing the tight fists that he’d unconsciously clenched. Every time a superior came in, they wanted to see the board as well. It wasn’t just Biggs. But that look of glee on his big frying pan face—
“Have you made contact today?” asked Susana Rogelio, the U.S. attorney. She knew the facts and didn’t need the pictures and the map.
“I have,” Becker said. “Our boy seems a little surprised, but he’s holding it together. With a little time, this thing peters out.”
“I know you grew up with this wackjob, Wolf, but by God—it’s like you’re on his side all the time. This deal—she’s a big’n. Gotta get her reeled in.”
“I’m not on anyone’s side, Governor. A safe and peaceful resolution is my only aim, and until I think that Paulson James or anyone else on that property is a danger to themselves or anyone else, I’m going to cling tenaciously to that end.” There was enough volume and bite in Becker’s speech to genuinely shock Governor Biggs.
Rogelio snuck a little smile toward the ATF agent. Everyone else tucked smaller, like waiting on a shelling from the enemy.
Biggs’ shifted focus to Dukes. The ranger’s breath was finally calming after bringing in the board. “What do you think, honey?”
“I think that Agent Becker is well-equipped and well-informed to handle the situation.”
“It is, Governor. And every bit of insight and intelligence we have on the membership says that they are peaceful, law-abiding citizens that simply have beliefs outside the range of normality.”
“Well,” Biggs said, puffing out his already prominent chest with a face full of condescension, “little lady. When somebody winds you up, you let loose pretty good.”
The U.S. attorney decided to step between the lines before Biggs could go full nuclear with his sexism. “What about our guy inside? You get a chance to talk to him today—oh shit.”
“Anyway,” Becker said, standing up and pulling out his phone. “Have to take this. Governor if you don’t mind, I’m going to step into the next room.” He was already moving as he motioned for Dukes and Rogelio to follow him into the adjoining office. It was unoccupied except for stacks of banker boxes.
He held the phone up to his ear until closing the door. The ranger and attorney wore puzzlement on their faces. “Do you realize what you just did in there?”
“Sir, if you want me to apologize—”
“Oh I want you to, but not just yet. I’m talking to you, Susana.”
She already knew what she’d done. The lawyer couldn’t bring herself to raise her head. “Shit shit shit,” she said. “I was—there’s nothing I can say, Wolf. It was a mistake.”
“Oh no,” Dukes whispered, turning to Rogelio. “Oh no.”
Becker wanted to scream, but the entire conversation had to be restrained for the governor’s sake. “Let me see if I get what just happened in there,” he whispered with all the force his nature would allow. “You decide to make yourself proud and your presence felt, and Rogelio steps in to defend—by talking about the one damn thing we don’t talk about.”
“I’ll take myself off the case,” Rogelio said, covering her mouth. She was on the verge of a breakdown, reeling from a cascade of embarrassment and shame. “Get reassigned. It’s the right thing to do.” Her voice was quiet and quivering. Becker leaned against the door and shut his eyes. Dukes crossed her arms and sat on a stack of boxes.
“No. Run and hide another day, Susana. Biggs and that FBI lackey have our one secret. Now you’re going to convince them to keep it.”
“How do I know they can be trusted?”
“We trusted you, Rogelio.”
As accomplished and successful as she was, Becker’s retort was a final straw. The lawyer started crying silently into her hand.
“Maybe we pull him out. It may not even matter. It’s not like he’s a plant inside the mob.”
“I’d rather not hear from you for a good bit, Dukes.”
“Go back in there and tell them we’ll be right in. Brad and Phil are probably about to soil themselves. Just say I’ll be back and explain everything.”
“Of course.” Dukes was nodding and blinking at a fierce clip as she walked out.
“I can’t believe it,” Rogelio said, making a noble effort to gather herself. “I can’t believe what just happened.”
“We deal with it, Susana.”
“How do I even go there? To get loose with a source is fucking first day bush-league bullshit.”
Becker wasn’t much for listening to self-loathing, but Rogelio was getting mad. He preferred mad to defeated. “The man’s a moron and he had my blood boiling. It’s some sort of an idiot-savant thing. He gets people off their game. You don’t get elected by a large majority of the state on big oil and big bank contributions alone.”
“Hell, I was already blowing a gasket. The kid—running her mouth—it’s like we’re all in panic mode.”
“You think it’s that big zero on the board? Don’t tell me it’s nothing.”
Becker let a half a minute go by, thinking about the stupid board and the big zero. Mostly, he was thinking about their guy on the inside. He was pretty good about checking in, but nothing so far.
The Agent in Charge met the pacing attorney and steadied her with a firm hand on each shoulder. “It’ll be fine, Susana. Hell—maybe we can make this work to our advantage.”
“What are you talking about? How’d that even work?”
“Trying to be optimistic.”
“Sunny isn’t exactly your style, Wolf.”
“Saying I’m grumpy?”
“No. Just—you’re you.”
“I sound on the bland side.”
“God. This is the greatest day in foot-in-mouth history.”
“Well, go on and get it together. Convince Biggs and the Feebs that the inside source was a planned disclosure, but don’t tell him the name. We still have that, for now. You can do this, Susana.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to get a hold of the son of a bitch. Day zero isn’t the one you take off.”
Chapter Six: Gone
Elson Cantrell sat cross-legged in a circle, drawing into a little journal as the talk swirled about him. It was nearing sundown, and people were expectant. He was quiet, and nobody questioned him about it. He didn’t like making his thoughts known in groups if it could be avoided. Elson’s pipe hung from the side of his mouth; he was down to smoking once a day, but the familiarity of the instrument helped satiate his oral fixation.
Cutting back. Planning ahead. It’s what made him the loneliest soul in the Membership. And then there was Sofia. She was talking now, sharing her innermost thoughts with the group. Elson didn’t know if it was love, and even if it was, she’d never overlook his grand deceit. Since joining the Membership, he’d become closer and closer with her, but it was all predicated on his truthful intent in being there. Elson didn’t know if that colored everything a lie or not, but not finding his deceptions to be forgivable himself, he doubted Sofia would either.
“I think that maybe this is a test to humble our hearts,” Sofia said to the others. Her voice was so pure in its pleading. An honest voice, from one who actually expected the world to honestly listen. It was like medicine and music. Cantrell drew her face as she talked. Bunched underneath a big oak tree, he sketched as the branches swayed, lighting her beauty different with every caprice of the wind. There was nothing nature could do to lessen the loveliness of her features. He listened on, feeling the urge to shed a tear. Forty years of living and hardly a single cry to remember, but those forty years hadn’t included Sofia. “We’ve all seen,” she continued. An extended interval of sunlight threw extra notice on her dark brown eyes, big and open as the heart that guided them. “What we’ve seen we didn’t ask for. None of us asked for this. I think we owe it to God and to Paulson—we owe it to ourselves to steady our resolve.”
She placed her soft white hand around the arm that was steadying his journal and gave a gentle squeeze. They touched heads gently as he added the final strokes to his sketch. She smiled as he held it up for her to see.
“Flatterer,” she whispered, not wanting to interrupt the next to speak.
He leaned close. “If there’s any justice in the rendering, you’re the flatterer.”
She pushed him away playfully but he held his posture, getting closer still. “I’ll be back, young lady. Need to stretch my legs and—see to a few things.”
“I didn’t say that. You went there on your own.”
“Just go,” she whispered, tapping his knee with the end of her slender fingers as he slipped away. It wasn’t a difficult escape. Everyone was in a state that he was having a hard time putting words to. Was there a word that fully covered a shared belief that every second might be your last on Earth?
“Real life,” he said to himself. “Heightened.” He made his way to back to center of the camp. Looking in all directions, he entered his cabin and pulled out his cell phone. After placing the chip back in, he waited for it to boot up.
There were no messages. Never were. He pressed on the only saved number.
“You had me anxious.”
“Sorry. I get it, but there hasn’t been a second of alone time today. Think you can understand, Wolf.”
“I talked to him this morning,” Becker said. “He seemed—well, hell if I know how he seemed.”
“I’m going to find him. He’s a creature of habit—right now he’s shooting hoops in the little indoor court out here.”
“Don’t push it. Can’t have you blown.”
“He trusts me, Wolf. Much as anyone right now. I’ll be cool about it. The guy probably needs someone to talk to. He was pretty amped up at the big meeting today.”
“Nothing insane, but clear enough, he’s facing the fire.”
“He’s right about that. And it’s coming from all directions.”
“Thinking I maybe start easing my way there.”
“You mean there? Maybe you didn’t hear. I want your cover intact.”
“It’ll be a shock, but telling him I’m ATF won’t send this guy over the edge. I’m the one on the ground. For a person under this pressure, he’s pretty damn poised.”
“Put that out of your mind. I just want to get through the day.”
“Any rumblings? Dissent?”
“There’s a few playing fast and loose with their emotions, but that’s to be expected. I’ll report anything seriously troubling. You know I will.”
“I don’t like waiting all day to hear from you. Be better about it. We’ve got a lot of worried people here.”
“As long as nothing crazy happens, we should be fine.”
“Nothing crazy,” Becker repeated, taking his time with the words. “I just want this thing over with.”
“And telling him who I am might be step one. Well—you know what I think.”
“Of course, Elson. You haven’t shut up through this whole thing, except when I need you make a damn call.”
“All right. I’m gonna try for a chat. I’ll touch back tonight.”
As soon as the line went dead the SIM card was out and the phone was securely in his pocket. Cantrell took off his boots and replaced them with high-tops, stuffing his jeans under the tongue.
He kept his head down as he walked around a line of cabins identical to his own, keeping a brisk pace. Nothing hinged on it, but he’d feel better if his encounter with James was private.
The door stuck a bit as he stepped inside. Paulson had a rack of balls next to him on the opposite end of the court, shooting threes. Elson let him finish out his set before saying anything. “Hey, PJ. Mind if I join in?”
Paulson turned, surprised but not irritated. “Come on then, Cantrell. Help me gather up these balls. Maybe you can offer some pointers.”
“Being black doesn’t mean I know everything about basketball,” Elson said, smiling as he passed the half court line. He didn’t know if the joke was appropriate today or any other day, but he’d never been cautious with Paulson. It didn’t feel right to start now. “They say it has something to do with the wrist. Backspin and whatnot.”
The two men finished shagging and shook hands next to the rack. “Seriously though,” James said, dabbing sweat from his forehead with a towel that looked unwashed. “You didn’t play?”
Cantrell took a ball from the rack and stepped behind the line, tossing up a perfect shot and flipping his wrist after the ball dropped through the net. “Of course I played. I’m tall. Athletic. African American. It’s compulsory. Otherwise people would’ve talked.”
“Talked about what?”
“Don’t say you don’t know. You know everything, P.J. Uncomfortable or not.”
James held a funny smile, tilting his head at Elson. “You’re just messing with me now, aren’t you?”
Cantrell broke from his stern expression and smiled warmly. “I am, sort of. Totally, actually. Completely messing with you. Except for the wrist thing. That’s serious.”
James put up a shot that rimmed in and out. “You’re a funny guy, Cantrell. Where’s the pipe?”
“My back pocket.”
“You must really want to talk, coming in here with an unencumbered mouth.”
“That’s a giveaway, huh?”
“I don’t blame you. Sitting around in circles is probably getting old. Especially today.”
“Think I just wanted to check on you.” Cantrell was good at using whatever language the situation called for, but it was always ideal to stick as close to the truth as possible. Saying he wanted to get a fix on Paulson’s state of mind was damn near nail on the head.
“What time is it?” Paulson asked. The change of direction and tone wasn’t desperate, but it was enough of a drift to make Elson a little uneasy. He looked at his watch and felt soft. Not long ago he’d spent two years undercover with a perpetually unhinged crew of cranked-up psychos running drugs and guns back and forth across the Rio Grande. The idea of being nervous around a nutty white guy shooting baskets in jeans was almost laughable.
“You nervous?” asked the leader, bouncing the ball with a snarky sort of confidence.
The bouncing stopped. The agent meant to overstep. He didn’t like being called out on his own temperament—lashing back a bit seemed the thing to do. It was instinct. Uncomfortable or not, he wouldn’t sweat. Something years undercover had taught him. The other guy was always first to break. He knew it to be true; if it wasn’t, he would’ve been buried in a shallow grave years ago.
James threw up a shot with one hand, not even bothering to look at the goal. He looked into Cantrell’s eyes. They were almost exactly the same height, well over six feet. “I’m not sure where to go from here,” Paulson said, words absent any affectation.
“Well,” Cantrell replied evenly, “the day’s not over yet.”
“I wish to God it was.”
Elson took his hand away slowly and nodded, trying to figure out the what was underneath Paulson’s last statement.
“I can see the wheels turning, Mr. Cantrell. More than anyone here, I’ve got you pegged as the busiest brain here.”
“Maybe, PJ, but busy doesn’t mean productive. Be lying if I said it wasn’t mostly white noise. Coming from who knows where.”
“I can relate.”
After that, there was a lengthy pause. Cantrell rubbed the stubble on his face while James stood straight, looking up at the exposed insulation attached to the high ceiling. For a few moments they were the only two men on the planet, locked in limbo. Paulson had a renegade though that maybe they’d been taken by the Storm and a big empty building was God’s version of purgation.
“It’ll work out. I know I’m not the one usually handing out advice, but we’ll get by.”
“You think?” James didn’t sound incredulous. It was almost like he was suddenly and strangely apathetic.
“I gotta think,” Elson said, moving toward the rack of basketballs.
“Nobody’s going anywhere today.”
The ATF man stopped dead. “How can you be sure?”
James was red-faced and dimpled. “Sure as I can be sure of anything, I’m sure.”
Cantrell was interrupted by the harsh clapping of the door coming open at the other end of the gym. Two men came running in, heaving and sweaty.
“What’s wrong?” Paulson asked.
“Charlie and Danielle Hood are gone.”
Chapter Seven: Searching
Elson was behind Paulson James, following him step for step on the way to the fire pit. It was near dusk. The Membership had reassembled once word had spread of Charlie and Danielle’s disappearances and a thorough of search of the eighty acres had been conducted. Cantrell could see the agitation climbing on the back of James’ muscled shoulders as they bobbed up and down over the unleveled terrain. The undercover agent took special notice of James’ hands—he kept shaking them out, only to clench them again. Elson didn’t think asking the leader for his thoughts was too smart an idea, but then, surprisingly, he didn’t have to.
James did a quick turn and reached for the cigarettes in his front pocket, forcing a skidding stop from Cantrell. “I’m going to advise everyone to leave.”
Elson might’ve been unconsciously anticipating a thousand things, but this wasn’t one of them. He looked around and saw nothing but tall grass leaning lazy in the warm wind and a few intractable mesquite tress on either side of the makeshift trail. Leaning in he whispered, “You think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s what you’ve been hoping for since the day you got here, isn’t it?”
Elson struggled to conjure an adequate reply. He watched James light a cigarette. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Which part? My telling everyone to get out, or me accusing you of wanting this whole thing to just—sort of go away.”
“I know you work for the ATF, Elson. Maybe it’s never been made official. I guess you’re like the Fed’s little experiment. Whatever arrangement you have, I know enough.”
Cantrell had the frame of a sprinter—powerful arms and even more powerful legs. He thought to make use of his physique, either to subdue Paulson James or to take off running and never look back. An overwhelming wave of adrenaline swept from his brain down to the rest of his body. With fight or flight at loggerheads, he was rendered absolutely motionless. “Let me explain, PJ.”
“It’s pretty obvious,” James said. “You’re here to keep watch on things. Make sure Becker stays in the know. He obviously doesn’t trust me. That’s what he’s always saying. How he trusts me. All this time, having a plant right here in the Membership. People,” he said, taking a final drag from his Marlboro. “People, Elson. It’s one of the reasons I was looking forward to pulling up stakes.”
Even in the failing light, Cantrell knew he must’ve looked like a whipped dog. “You’ve been wise to me a long time?”
“Since about the day you got here. I had a lot of money and resources before all this. Still do, actually.”
“And in your figuring, I guess you didn’t figure on me having a guy on the outside who could dig deep enough to find out about your storied career.”
“Don’t feel bad. Ain’t like it was a Google search. Should be proud—it took my guy almost a whole day to send me your dossier. Is that the word for it? Dossier?”
“You didn’t tell Agent Becker that you knew. Why?”
“Because it didn’t make any difference to me, and if it gave him piece of mind, figured it couldn’t do all that much damage. You weren’t mounting any insurrections.” James started laughing. Cantrell thought it sounded strange. Sarcastic. Sad maybe. It was hard to say; his powers of discernment had fled. “We were going away, so I figured, you’d wake up and see the rest of us gone. Maybe your punishment would be that you missed out.” He stopped laughing and lit another cigarette. It was his second pack of the day and almost half were gone. “Would you believe me if I said you weren’t the first thing on my mind morning noon and night?”