Chapter One


Friday, 11: 59 p.m.
Peaks Island, Maine

It was nearly midnight and Alberta Haskell couldn’t fall asleep. From her bed, she listened as the storm continued to rage along the island’s southwesterly shore. The frigid winds, peppered with pellets of freezing rain, snaked through the storm windows, making her shiver from beneath her heavy quilt.

Alberta was worried, and once again, she sat up in her bed, peering outside for a hopeful sign of her cat. In the darkness, the island seemed so much more desolate— almost haunted. The storm had the eerie effect of turning back the hands of time. As if it were three centuries before the present; when members of the Abenaki tribe had fished for cod and mackerel along the sandy beaches of the island’s southern shore.

Now, however, the restless seas crashed along the jagged rocks of Torrington Point, echoing like bomb blasts in the winter darkness.

The small boats, moored at Pete’s Marina, were violently tossed as if they were nothing more than plastic toys in a bathtub, and the gale-force winds snapped small tree branches, scattering them like toothpicks near the ferry landing.

Alberta wasn’t sure what to do. She couldn’t get her son’s voice out of her mind. When she had talked to him yesterday, he sounded as if he had been drinking again. He was a grown man and a naval officer, what could bring him so easily to tears?

And to top it all off, she couldn’t find her cat. Precious couldn’t stay out all night. Not in this storm!

Refusing to give into her gnawing fears, she pushed aside the quilt, and with a frustrated sigh— she reached for her slippers.

Alberta tried flipping on the light switch in the hallway. The power was out. She cursed the darkness, feeling more frightened with each passing second. For a moment, she stood very still and drew in a giant breath, forcing herself to remain calm. She had lived alone, in the same house, for some thirty-four years. This was certainly not the first time that a fallen tree, somewhere on the island, had knocked the power out.

She bundled her robe a bit tighter, making her way carefully, in the darkness, toward the kitchen. Alberta opened the back door just a bit and the swirling night air brushed past her, filling the kitchen with its chill. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty. . .,” she called out, refusing to give into her fears or acknowledge that the storm was drowning out her voice.

“Come on, Precious. . .come here, boy. . .kitty, kitty, kitty.” There was no response from the darkness and she sighed again, dreading what she would have to do.

Alberta Haskell was one of the last few remaining natives on Peaks Island. The house, which her husband had purchased as part of a retirement plan, was worth a lot more now, but she refused to sell it, despite the generous offers from men like Ricky over at Island Realty.

She despised the city people who were buying up every last scrap of available land on the island. She refused to give in, or to surrender to the greed that was washing over the island like a driving, late-December snow.The damn mainlanders! They were destroying her childhood memories, bringing their high prices and noisy automobiles to place she considered Heaven on Earth. No! She would not sell, and that was final. But still, they tried. God above knows, how they tried.

Ever since Paul had died, 35 years ago, the house represented all that Alberta had left of a life she once cherished. Even her son, David, wanted her to sell the old house and move to his home in Maryland. She would have no part of that. As long as she could cook her own meals, Alberta wanted to be near her husband’s waiting spirit. They were meant to be together, and no amount of money would ever change that.

Besides, she didn’t need any money. Paul had left her very well off. She owned three small cottages on the west side of the island, and they generated enough income to take care of the property taxes. The rental payments, combined with Paul’s government retirement benefits, stock portfolio and substantial savings, provided Alberta with all the money she could ever want. She lived simply. She didn’t bother anyone, and they didn’t bother her. That was the way she liked it.

The gray, shingled cape overlooked the island’s southern shore, over the waters of  Casco Bay and westerly toward Cape Elizabeth and the Portland Headlight. Although Alberta kept the inside of her home meticulously clean, the yard became an eyesore each winter season, waiting patiently for spring when the Henderson’s son, Joey, would mow the lawns and trim the hedges. By Labor Day, however, the yard would begin its annual transformation into a sea of weeds, and unruly brush.

Alberta’s mind was racing. Besides her son, her cat was the only living thing she cared about. Where was he? She closed the kitchen door, ignoring the puddle of rain that had pooled onto the linoleum floor and searched for her flashlight.

The light settled her nerves, and she shuffled back toward the bedroom.

Knowing that prolonged exposure to the cold was going to aggravate her arthritis, she put on an extra scarf and a thick, wool sweater under her jacket. She laced her boots tightly and left the bedroom feeling ready to brave the elements.

She was careful as she made her way down the wooden stairs of the front porch. There were still patches of ice in the places where the snow had stubbornly melted. Clutching the railing for support, Alberta tried to ignore the soaking rains. Her glasses instantly fogged, and she was angry that age had taken such a toll on her body.

Swinging the flashlight in all directions, Alberta could feel the fear building and her  mind seemed to be playing tricks. The trees looked much more like taunting skeletons, and the sea-grass swayed and coiled like angry serpents. She was suddenly very cold, and she tried to swallow her growing fears. She wanted to cry, and retreat to the safety of her home, but Precious was out here, and she just couldn’t leave him to freeze.

She removed her glasses, rubbing the lenses with her wet mittens. This didn’t help much. She could feel the cold, traveling down the back of her neck but she moved on through the yard— still searching— determined to find her cat. “Here, Precious. . . come on, kitty, kitty. . .”

Despite the storm, darkness and her own confusion, she was suddenly sure that she could hear Precious meowing from somewhere close by. Stupid cat! Why didn’t he just come inside? The meowing was growing louder, and Alberta ignored her fears, gingerly stepping forward, squinting in the darkness for any sign of her cat. Her boots cracked the frozen, top layer of snow, and she moved the flashlight left and right. Nothing. Where could he be?

Alberta stumbled toward the rear of the house. Sometimes Precious curled up between the silver LP tanks near the back porch. As she moved closer, she heard a different sound that made her stop in her tracks. Someone or something was breathing  right behind her. She didn’t want to turn around, but she couldn’t help herself.

As quickly as she could manage, she turned to face the shadow of the stranger in her yard. “Who are you?” she cried, startled by the man’s raised arm. He never answered, and Alberta dropped her flashlight just before the darkness took her over, one last time.

From beneath the back porch, a narrow set of green eyes watched as the stranger walked out of the yard, disappearing into the envelope of the storm. Precious curled himself into a tight ball of fur, protecting himself from the wind and rain. It was going to be a long night, and he knew that there was no one left to let him inside.

 Saturday, 2:34 a.m.
Washington, D.C.

Stewart Derry was sound asleep when the phone on the bedside table began to ring. He had been snoring, and he insides of his throat felt parched and clogged by tiny driplets of saliva. Stewart was a man very familiar with phone calls in the middle of the night. He switched on the bedroom lamp and rubbed his eyes, fumbling for the phone as it rang again. As usual, Stewart was sleeping alone. He considered it a small price to pay for being the man closest to the Leader of the Free World.
Before the third ring, he had his throat cleared and the receiver in place. “Yes?”

The voice on the other end of the line sounded serious, if not apologetic. “Mr. Derry, I’m sorry to bother you at this hour— but I thought you should  know.”

Stewart was instantly wide awake and he swung his feet over the edge of the bed. The caller was Vice Admiral Henry Garland, chairman of the National Security Agency. “Know what?” Stewart demanded impatiently, checking his watch.

“We’ve taken care of the first problem.”

Stewart’s mind was reeling. “Henry, you shouldn’t have called me here!”

“We’ve secured the line, sir.”

Stewart considered the possibilities of what he was being told before responding. “What about the second problem?”

“We’re still working on it.”

Stewart rolled his eyes. “Two hundred and thirty-four billion dollars a year, and you guys can’t trace a simple e-mail message?”

“There were complications.”

“Henry, I don’t give a rat’s ass about your complications,” Stewart barked. “We need to solve that second problem, and we need to solve it now. Do you understand me?”

“‘I’m crystal clear. We’ll do whatever it takes.”

Stewart didn’t want to hear those words spoken out loud.  “Let me know when all of the loose ends are wrapped up,” he said in a much softer tone.

“Yes, sir,” the admiral replied, no longer attempting to hide the disdain he felt for this civilian before hanging up the phone.

Stewart hung his head, sitting in silence for a moment before picking up the phone again. Without a second though, he dialed the secured number to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “Get me the President,” he said.

And so, it had started.


Copyright, 1997

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