Authors: J.W. Bouchard
AN ALAN LAMB THRILLER
Copyright © 2016 by J.W. Bouchard Cover by Dane
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Science never solves a problem without creating ten more.
—George Bernard Shaw
Howard Sitka awoke
at 6:30 in the morning and followed his usual routine. He was nothing if not a creature of habit. A man you could set your watch by.
By 7:00 A.M. he had showered, shaved, and brushed his teeth. He had taken an extra five seconds to gaze at himself in the mirror above the bathroom sink. The years hadn’t been unkind, but at fifty-three, they weren’t as kind as they once had been. The wrinkles on his forehead and surrounding the corners of his eyes were more pronounced. His once black hair had gone a shiny shade of gray. His wife, Nancy, told him the gray made him look distinguished. Howard secretly believed that this was her euphemistic way of telling him that he was getting old.
He slipped into a gray suit and a navy tie.
At ten after, he sat down at the kitchen table and enjoyed a slice of wheat toast (with raspberry jelly), one egg (over easy), and two strips of bacon (crisp but not burnt) as he browsed the news on his Samsung tablet.
It was a Wednesday. Hump day. Late August. The year was 2024.
If the forecast was to be believed, the temperature was supposed to climb into the high nineties by early afternoon.
Howard enjoyed having the early morning hours to himself; enjoyed the empty house, the daily sliver of peace and quiet; the all-too-brief sabbatical from the hustle and bustle of his job as president of Mellencott Bank, where, unbeknownst to the majority of the clientele, there was always a fire raging. So many fires, in fact, that he often joked that he must have been a firefighter in a past life.
He wasn’t one to place blame, but secretly he believed that it all boiled down to having an incompetent staff. Unlike the old days, you could no longer pay a person fifteen dollars an hour and expect quality performance. The most you could hope for was a modicum of common sense.
But most days that seemed to be asking for too much.
His smartphone rang.
flashed across the screen. He answered, said hello, but didn’t receive a response. He repeated the word several times and was greeted by nothing but dead air. Call disconnected.
The phone call got him thinking about what kind of circus he would have to contend with that day. Got him thinking how thirty years at Mellencott had passed in the blink of an eye, and that time showed no signs of slowing down. He remembered the old days, the high school days, when he had been the lead singer in an alternative rock band and had dreamed of being the Next Big Thing. How he and his bandmates would one day tour the country and play sold out shows at places like Madison Square Garden and the Manchester Arena.
Of course, reality hadn’t allowed him to go on dreaming for too long. Before he had known it, he had finished high school and the band had dissolved. Howard had graduated from the University of Georgia with a Masters in Finance, had moved back home, and had eventually had to settle for a bank teller job at Mellencott.
For many years, he had dreamed of doing something more spectacular with his life. It was a dream he had held onto, but these days he kept it in a secret place in his heart.
By the time he had reached thirty, he had started to have doubts as to whether he would ever realize his dream, but had still clung to it like a man clinging to a life raft.
By forty, chances had seemed slim. He was a man stuck at sea with land nowhere in sight.
And when he hit fifty, he had finally had to admit to himself that that ship was never going to sail.
Perhaps he hadn’t achieved those lofty dreams of childhood, but he chose to rationalize by telling himself that he had
. He had married, had raised two kids, and had worked his way up the Mellencott corporate ladder until he practically owned it.
And now his life consisted of roughly forty-five minutes of quiet time seated at the kitchen table before he walked out the front door, slid behind the wheel of his 2023 Cadillac, backed out of the driveway, and headed off to work.
Was it really such a melancholy kind of life?
He told himself he shouldn’t complain – things could have been far worse.
Think about it…
He hadn’t had to deal with death or divorce, so in the greater scheme of things he should just buck up and be content with the way his life had panned out. After all, he was only a few shorts years away from retirement, and regardless of what anyone said about keeping yourself busy in order to ward death from your doorstep, Howard had his sights set on nothing but rest and relaxation once he said farewell to Mellencott. Maybe he would travel the country. Hell, why not the
? He was far from destitute. What was the old saying?
You can’t take it with you.
Nancy liked to say he was a dweller. That he liked to mull things over, agonize over the details. She said he wasn’t a risk taker.
But Howard knew better. He was a
. Big difference there. Similar in the respect that both required looking into the future, but a dweller would only dwell and get nowhere, whereas a planner planned and then executed that plan. He wondered if, statistically speaking, a dweller was more likely to suffer a heart attack than a planner was.
At 7:50, Howard rinsed his plate off and placed it in the dishwasher. He grabbed his leather briefcase and headed for the door. When he opened it, there was a man standing on the other side of it.
The man looked familiar.
Familiar because he looked like Howard. But not just
Howard – he appeared to
Howard. The man could have been his twin. Howard could have been staring into a mirror.
He opened his mouth to say something, but the man facing him swung his arm around and brought something hard crashing down against the side of Howard’s head.
Howard thought about the color gray. He thought about the gray of his hair and the matching gray of his suit and the hazy gray shroud that had seemed to settle over his life as he had gotten older.
But these thoughts of gray were short-lived. Because as he drifted off into unconsciousness, all he saw was black.
A time zone
away and a day later from where Howard Sitka was being attacked in the doorway of his own home, Alan Lamb was waking from a dream. It was the same fuzzy dream he had had countless of times before. The dream about the accident. The car accident had happened ages ago, nearly twenty years now, and the memory of it had always been hazy. He could recall the car hitting the guardrail, sparks flying, breaking glass…only he didn’t know if any of those details of the event were actual memory or figments his imagination had conjured to help him deal with it.
He had been eighteen years old at the time, and had been lucky to walk away from it (that’s what all the doctors had told him, and everyone else seemed to echo that sentiment).
In truth, he hadn’t walked away from it as much as he had
away. Alan remembered being broken. Remembered the sight of his own blood and how it might have made his stomach churn if that particular organ hadn’t already been on fire with an immense pain that had had him praying for a swift death.
Alan had spent eighteen days in the hospital. He had suffered a laceration to his chin, a fractured back, a broken ankle, and a gash on his right temple that had later formed into a jagged red scar. Over the years, it had become a topic of conversation now and again. People always asked how he had gotten the nasty scar. Alan’s token response was that he had been in a serious car accident a week before he was supposed to graduate from high school. And he left it at that. Even if he had been in the mood to elaborate, he wouldn’t have been able to. He remembered very little of it.
Over time, his mind had subconsciously tried to fill in the details, but it was hard to know whether any of it was based in reality. The injury to his head had left him with a kind of amnesia, wiping out a small but specific range of time from his memory. He could remember his childhood, but his high school years, the three or four years leading up to the accident, were like a VHS tape that had been inserted into the VCR and played back one too many times. There was a lot of fuzz.
He was thirty-four now. The car accident that had nearly robbed him of his life was a million miles away, nothing but tiny fragments scattered across the twisted highway of his brain. He had six titanium screws in his back, between the third and forth lumbar vertebrae. The laceration to his chin had healed nicely, barely visible unless he brought his face close to the mirror. The only noticeable reminder of that tragic event was the crescent-shaped scar at the top of his temple, and even that was partially camouflaged by his hairline.
Alan had missed his high school graduation. On the stage where his fellow classmates gathered for the ceremony, there had been only an empty chair where he should have been. Around the same time they would have been walking across the stage to accept their diplomas, Alan had been in the hospital learning to walk again.
But he had healed quickly. He remembered that. They had sent him home with a walker, which he had ditched within hours. Doctor’s orders had prohibited him from operating a motor vehicle for four months, but he had elected to ignore that advice, and was driving his Chevy Corsica around two weeks later. Nowadays, he scarcely remembered that he was walking around with metal implants; had long ago ceased cracking the joke about how he was half robot.
It was 8:15 A.M.
He had overslept and didn’t have time to perform any of those morning rituals which separate us from our ape ancestors. But the primitive part of his brain was functioning, prodding him out of bed and propelling him into his clothes, reminding him to clip his badge and his gun to his belt, sending him out the front door to the battered old Ford Taurus which occupied its usual spot in front of the seedy motel called the Patriot Inn, where he had resided for the last six months.
It was hot. Already seventy-five degrees and humid. He could feel himself starting to sweat almost immediately. He hurried into the car, started the engine, and cranked the air conditioning up to full blast.
Traffic wasn’t bad that morning as he drove down Dodge. Not great, but at least it wasn’t stop-and-go the way it was some days. Omaha was one of those growing cities that still hadn’t succumbed to all the undesirable aspects that one had to contend with in the larger cities like L.A. or New York.
But it’s well on its way,
Alan’s head was pounding by the time he turned off of Dodge onto 14th and took it to Farnham, toward a cluster of nondescript buildings with matching faded gray facades. They all but screamed the fact that they served as home to any number of local, State, and federal agencies.
He parked the Taurus and headed into an eight-story sandstone building and rode the elevator to the seventh floor. Floors one through six were dedicated to the local field offices of the F.B.I. The two remaining floors served as the main headquarters for the Genetic Crimes Bureau, or G.C.B. for short.
The offices on the seventh floor were sparsely furnished, most of the furnishings and other equipment were outdated, hand-me-downs from several of the more well-funded agencies that they shared neighboring space with. As far as federal law enforcement agencies went, the G.C.B. was the new kid on the block, and no one was anxious to throw hard-earned taxpayer dollars on an entity that still didn’t have a proven track record. Thomas Gant, Special Agent in Charge and Alan’s immediate supervisor, said that, in essence, they were fighting for their lives. They were operating within a narrow five year window in which time they would either justify the agency’s existence or would ultimately be responsible for its premature demise. In the latter case, it would mean Alan would be job hunting again. At this stage of his life, he wanted a place he could really hunker down and serve out the rest of his days until he reached retirement. Job hopping was a younger man’s game.
Are you calling yourself old?
Being thirty-four didn’t mean he had one foot in the grave, but it felt like a far cry from twenty-three. Ever since he had turned thirty, the machinery had started to show its age. It had meant an entirely new set of aches and pains; the end of an age where he could still fool himself into believing he was invincible (as if the car accident when he was eighteen hadn’t already planted that notion in his head). He firmly believed that the human body was equipped with a built-in self-destruct mechanism. Only it didn’t self-destruct all at once. Instead, it chose to wreak havoc in carefully measured doses. Needless to say, he wasn’t looking forward to forty.
Lucy Holloway was seated at her desk in Alan’s office.
Lucy was a mousy-looking girl in her late twenties. Her ivory skin looked as though it had never known sunlight. She wore glasses. No make-up. She was attractive in a plain sort of way. Alan secretly believed that she had the makings of a real stunner if she would only put the necessary effort into it. She served as a secretary not only to him, but to several of the other agents in the office. Her daily tasks included typing up reports, doing research, and, in general, serving as a friendly shoulder to cry on when things got tough. And like most of the support staff in the building, she longed to one day have the opportunity to jump into the sandbox and be a field agent like the big kids.
As Alan entered the office and sat down behind his desk, he said, “Don’t say it.”
Lucy gave him an inquisitive look. “Say what?”
“You were going to tell me that I was late. But, as it happens, I was already aware of that.”
“You know that’s what I was going to say, huh?”
“I assumed you would, yes. So tell me,” Alan said, “does that fall under the predicting human behavior category, or is it one of your psychic abilities?”
Alan liked to get his jabs in where he could. On the surface, Lucy came across as a down-to-Earth girl, but Alan knew better. She was highly superstitious. She also believed in psychics, spirits, telekinesis, reincarnation, alien abduction, and pretty much any other odd assortment of weird phenomena that a person could think of. It was a facet of her personality she kept under wraps around strangers, but once you got to know her, she seemed to open up and let her freak flag fly. Alan didn’t believe a lick of it, but found it strangely entertaining. Lucy was always good for a laugh, even if it wasn’t her intention to be funny.
“That’s very funny,” Lucy said, peering over her glasses at him. “You think it’s all bullshit, but just you wait. Not everything can be explained. Not everything is black-and-white.”
“Maybe not where you live, but those are the only two colors in my world.”
“Which pretty much makes you a blind man. You’re missing out on a lot by being so narrow-minded, Alan.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“It’s called karma.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means what it means,” Lucy said. “Gant wants to see you.”
Lucy nodded. “His exact words were ‘as soon as he gets in the office.’”
Alan stood up from his desk.
“He didn’t sound angry if that’s any consolation.”
“Did you finish the Lancaster report?”
“I put it in your Dropbox this morning. The file is named
“What’s on the agenda for today?”
“Is that your passive aggressive way of asking me to fetch your coffee?”
“I would never ask you to stoop to that level.”
“Good,” Lucy said. “Today might not be the best day to turn over a new leaf. I started my period.”
“Lucy, there are some things I don’t need to know. That’s one of them. Did Gant sound pissed?”
“I wouldn’t say pissed.
“I can handle disgruntled.”
“Maybe bring him a cup of coffee. A kind gesture can go a long way.”
“That’s what my mother always used to say.”
“Was it the dream again?”
“The reason why you were late. Was it the dream?”
Alan nodded. A while back, he had made the mistake of mentioning his recurring dream about the car accident to Lucy. He should have known better. Given her bent toward mysticism, she had been very opinionated on the topic of dreams and their meanings.
“Maybe you should see somebody about that,” Lucy said.
“I don’t know. A therapist. Or maybe a dream interpreter.”
“A dream interpreter? Does such a thing exist?”
“Have you ever heard of the Internet?” Google it.”
“It might help. Dreams have meaning.”
“Is that right?”
“Sure. Like people who have reoccurring dreams about losing their teeth. Usually that means that in waking life they are stressed out about money.”
“And sometimes a dream is just a dream.”
“Except for when it isn’t.”
“I’m going to go get that coffee now,” Alan said.
coffees,” Lucy reminded him. “One for your superior. Break the morning ice.”
Lucy was an odd duck. Alan reminded himself of that fact on the way to the breakroom. Odd duck or not, he chose to heed her advice.
He filled two Styrofoam cups with coffee, left them black, and proceeded to SAC Gant’s office.
The lackluster appearance of the office fit Thomas Gant’s personality perfectly. He was a no-nonsense man of fifty that could come off as unusually gruff. There was something initially off-putting about his direct and to the point manner, but Alan had grown comfortable with it over time. In fact, sometimes Alan was downright grateful for it.
During his years in law enforcement, he had learned the politics involved and had learned to play the game. Gant seemed to hate playing the game as much as he did. It was an unspoken rule in the Bureau (at least as long as Gant was around) that you spoke nothing but the truth, and whatever that truth was, you better be able to back it up with fact and logic.
As long as you understood that philosophy, Gant was nothing but a slightly overweight teddy bear with a receding hairline and breath that smelled of spearmint-flavored chewing tobacco.
Alan placed one of the cups of coffee on Gant’s desk and slid it over to him before he sat down.
“I’ve got a new one for you,” Gant said, sliding a manila folder across the desk.
Alan took a sip of his coffee and grimaced.
“What’s with that face? You allergic to work or something?”
“No,” Alan said. “The coffee. It’s bad.”
“Oh.” Gant seemed to view this as a challenge and took a sip of his own coffee. He pulled the cup away from his lips and scowled at it. “Jesus, your assessment was right on the money. About as tasty as raw sewage.”
Gant took another drink of coffee and scowled again. He appeared determined not to let it go to waste.
Alan picked up the folder and combed through it. “Not much here,” he said. “A bank robbery? Isn’t exactly in our wheelhouse.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Wheelhouse or not, the FBI put it up for adoption. It’s your baby now.”
Alan went through the contents of the folder again, this time giving it more than a cursory glance. A simple bank job wasn’t something they normally handled. “Howard Sitka,” he said, reading from the report. “Augusta, Georgia. Fifty-three. President of Mellencott Bank.”