Conjuring Darkness

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Darkness, Book 1

Melanie James

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-944003-56-2

Copyright © 2016, Melanie James.

All rights reserved.

Prologue

Gilgamesh, why are you wandering? Life which you look for, you will never find. For when the Gods created man they let death be his share and life they withheld in their own hands. Gilgamesh, fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy, dance and make music day and night. And wear fresh clothes. And wash your head and bathe. Look at the child that is holding your hand, and let your wife delight in your embrace. These things alone are the concern of men.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Akkadian Tablets 1900 BCE

Akkadian Empire 2300 BCE (The territory of present day Kurdistan)

The sun rose high in the pale, blue sky over the flourishing rows of green that were carefully arranged to sip from the nourishing streams that ran through the valley of Belash, The Farmer. A father and his daughter waded through the tall stalks that waved with their hefty treasure. “Annah! Annah!” The high pitched voice yelled. Annah smiled at the sound of her mother’s voice. Her outstretched arms tapped against the tall grain as she ran to the house. Belash smiled as well. His youngest daughter was nearing her sixteenth year, and he thought about how much she reminded him of her mother, with the same black hair and contagious laughter.

Annah could see her mother standing in front of the small mud-brick house as she neared it, but her pace slowed to a stop. Belash caught up to her and quietly took the lead because his wife was not alone. Four men dressed in the uniform of the temple guards stood in front of the house. When Belash asked if there was a problem, the guards told him the purpose of their visit. “Annah has been picked to join the priestesses at the temple of Inana. She will be assisting in the preparations of the rituals and the offerings.” Belash nodded to the guards before turning his attention to Annah. “Daughter, the Gods have blessed you with a great opportunity.”

Annah’s smiling face had been replaced with one of shock. “No! Father! I don’t want to leave here. Remember, I will be marrying the shepherd boy in the next planting season. Please! Tell them!”

Belash was firm with his response. “No daughter, you cannot refuse.” The farmer’s tough bearded face softened as he put his arm on her shoulder and comforted her. “Besides, it is only for three harvests. Then you will return and marry the shepherd boy. In that time you will learn to make the sacred writings on the tablets. You will learn the incantations so the Gods and spirits will be at your assistance. And of course, you will bring a great honor to our house.”

“Yes, what your father says is true! There is no need to worry. You are only going as a servant to the priestesses, after all. Do not act like you are a sacrifice. They have assured me that we may visit with you on the temple days as well.”

Annah looked down at the ground and silently wiped away her tears. The men took her by the hand and led her away down the trail. Before they left the valley Annah turned back and looked at the little house so far away. She saw her parents one last time as they waved their farewell.

The seasons came and went, and as they did, the days the people gathered at the temple came and went as well. Each temple day brought a visit from Annah’s parents as well as the shepherd boy that Annah had come to love and dream about. Annah found out that her duties to the priestesses were more domestic than she had expected. Still there were many opportunities to learn, and a quick learner she was. Annah managed to learn much of the code they used when writing down magic spells and incantations. She also accidently came upon a secret about the head priestess that she was afraid could threaten the entire kingdom.

While preparing for one of the ceremonies Annah came across the head priestess reciting an incantation. It was an incantation that Annah had never expected to hear. The priestess was secretly dedicating her sacrificial offering not to Inana, but to a powerful and forbidden demon. She spied on all seven of the priestesses for months and found out much more. She planned to warn the shepherd boy on his next visit.

On the next gathering at the temple Annah quickly sought the boy out. It was easy for her to spot him in the gathering crowd. The year of his seventeenth harvest season had been good to him, and he towered above the others. She had noticed how his lanky frame had transformed. His shoulders had broadened and his arms were strong. When she ran to him she wanted to call his name, but it was forbidden for her to say the name of her betrothed until they married. It was believed that if she were to say his name out loud, a vengeful spirit may find the name on the Tablet of Destiny and remove it. She led the boy behind a large stone pillar at the front of the temple and pulled him close.

She looked at his long black hair hanging over his strong bronzed shoulders, and she longed for the days when she could do more than just gaze into his deep dark eyes. “I have to tell you something. The priestesses are not performing the rituals to Inana! They are witches! Witches that allow themselves to be possessed by forbidden ancient demons. In time they will have conjured all seven of the demons, and they will have brought them into their bodies. They will restore the demon’s old temple in the northern wilderness. If they succeed, they will become a powerful force that will destroy the empire and that will be the downfall for our Goddess of the Moon, Inana.”

The boy was shocked. “How can they be stopped? Shouldn’t we tell somebody?”

“The only ones that will be able to stop them are the priests from the city of Mari. I think the priestesses suspect I have been watching them. I am asking you to tell my father. He will go with you to the priests and the leaders. I must stay here or I will be hunted down.”

The boy opened his dark blue cloak and took a pendant that hung around his neck and placed it on Annah. “Here, this will protect you from the evil magic and from demons. I will go to your father. We will have these hags tied down in the desert and burned by the Sun God.”

Annah waited for many anxiety filled days until one afternoon, she found herself surrounded by seven priestesses completely covered in their hooded black cloaks. They bound her and dragged her from the temple. She saw them take a small piece of wool from a clay jar and when they placed it over her face, there was nothing but darkness. She opened her eyes and found herself in a different temple.

To her horror she saw, tied to the circle of giant stone columns, her beloved shepherd boy barely alive. On either side of him were the dead bodies of her parents. Using every ounce of energy she could muster, Annah screamed and called out a frenzied curse. The curse was filled with every bit of dark magic she had learned. She ripped the pendant from her neck and threw it down, into the dirt. Before the priestesses thrust their knives into her, she called on a forbidden demon of her own. She shouted for revenge and then as she faded into the darkness, she tasted a bitterness so strong that it seeped through her soul.

Chapter 1

Lexi quickly glanced in the mirror hanging on the wall. It was more of a habit than anything, much like the halfhearted effort she took to run her fingers through her shoulder length auburn hair before she headed out the door. Just like every day before, she deftly gathered it in a quick ponytail, shouldered her bag, and grabbed her keys.

Before opening the door, she tapped the old gold ring that she wore on the small finger of her left hand against the brass door knob. The ring was the only thing she owned that had been her mother’s, and she never took it off. After she made a few more clinking sounds a fuzzy black cat came bounding down the stairs. A series of rapid thumps resonated in the old house. They were the telltale signs of a very spoiled and very portly feline.

In a cartoon-like scene the cat’s back legs slipped as it skidded across the dark wooden floorboards and around the corner. The cat gained traction and speed as it bolted across the faux Persian runner, and then it came to an abrupt stop. The cat looked at Lexi with a wide eyed stare as if it were trying to hypnotize Lexi with its bright yellow eyes. The cat sang out a single “meow” pleading to come along for the day. “Hello there, Allie cat. Okay fine, you can come along, you bowling ball with a tail.” Together they walked out the front door.

The familiar squeaks from the worn wooden boards on the front porch comforted Lexi. She had been living in the old Victorian style farmhouse for just over a year. The realty agent was more than optimistic when he described it as a piece of history, a fixer-upper, and a handyman’s dream. He told her that it was a steal at the price and anyone with a little gumption could turn this diamond-in-the-rough into a polished gem.

Lexi learned later that the do-it-yourself old house shows on television were just as misleading as the agent had been. Anything that exceeded Lexi’s skill level and budget had to wait. Still, Lexi was proud of her creativity and the improvements she had accomplished.

When her sister saw pictures of the place, she thought it was a style created by accident. Her actual words were, “It looks like a bargain-mart truck crashed into a flea market. Then some drunken elves picked up the debris and decided to throw it all over your house, Lexi!”

Lexi smiled as she remembered Kate’s voice. It had been so long since she had seen her. She wondered how Kate was handling the grief of losing her husband, Kurt two years ago. As she opened the door to let Allie into the truck, she looked up into the large tree that reached a long arm towards her bedroom window. There was an owl in that tree the night before. Lexi recalled how it looked then as she peered through her bedroom window. She had seen the owl as a horned silhouette against the full moon. It chanted a few lonely notes into the night and then sat still and silent as if it were gazing back at Lexi.

As she replayed the scene in her head she felt a chilly uneasiness once again. She wondered why the owl seemed to bother her. Well, it’s not there now. Aren’t owls an omen for something? An ancient symbol for sure. I’ve got to remember to ask Kate about it the next time we talk. To Lexi, things like omens were simply trivia topics, and they held no useful purpose, other than to spur one’s curiosity.

Lexi’s old truck bounced and jolted its way down the deserted highway towards town. Allie stretched herself across the faded and cracked dashboard to soak in the morning sun. Lexi loved driving across the open plain towards the mountains on the horizon. After so many years of feeling stifled by the crowded and humid east coast, this new open place renewed her thirst for adventure.

Southwest Montana was a spotless sheet of paper just waiting for her to write her own future. The last thing she wanted was to be confined into one of the expected roles of the citizens in the sprawling cities. To have had accepted a fate like that would have killed her very soul. Lexi thought that too many people were already forced to wade through a pool of hypocrisy in order to survive.

For some people, picking up and moving cross country into a new life might be considered a fool’s journey, but for Lexi it was a purposeful step taken into the unknown. Montana was one of those places where she felt a person could be propelled into anything. As soon as she had received her bachelor’s degree, she found a little dusty corner bookstore for sale on an online listing, and she bought it…sight unseen. The two made their epic journey from Virginia to Montana a year prior. The ever faithful Allie was a good listener when it came to Lexi’s singing and travel commentary.

An entire year had gone by and Lexi started to feel something that was a bit unexpected, boredom. That first year was chaotic and busy, but Lexi relished in the challenge as she took on the repairs to her house and opened her store. Now that her life had finally settled into a routine, she found herself missing the hectic, yet satisfying feeling she got from conquering each new task. Lexi longed for something truly exciting and adventurous to happen to her. It seemed to Lexi that perhaps the only romance and adventure she could expect to find, would probably come from between the covers of her cherished novels.

Lexi pulled up to the curb and parked in front of her store. The large glass windows displayed an array of carefully selected new books. She had arranged some hiking guides, a few local western books, and a very visible display of books about fly fishing. In a town like this, you had to know who the paying customers were, if you expected to keep the lights on. The mountains, parks, and blue ribbon trout streams in the area attracted exactly the type of people Lexi wanted to get through her door. Large red letters prominently showed the name: “THE LEXICON, Books & More, Lexi Salenko, Owner.”

She followed her usual sequence of turning on the lights, radio, and computer. Allie made a half-hearted attempt to be on mouse patrol as she strolled between the display racks. Once the cat felt satisfied that she had reasonably completed her duties, she transformed into a fluffy black ball on a bookshelf.

The store was small, but it had some additional space in a loft section that was accessible by ornate wrought iron spiral stairs. The upper area made a cozy place for various collectable antique books that sold surprisingly well. The old, red brick walls of the store were decorated with framed poster art that was inspired by classic literature. Lexi looked around and felt satisfied with the niche she had created for herself in Montana. Even though it depleted the remaining balance of the trust fund left to her by her parents.

The front door swung open and rang a string of small bells that dangled from the frame. A red haired, green eyed Marcie bounced to the register. Marcie’s daily arrival always brought a smile to Lexi. She leaned as far over the counter as she could, letting her long loose red curls fall forward. She planted a wet kiss on Lexi and boisterously laughed at Lexi’s reaction. “What the hell! Marcie?”

“Just checking. I guess you’re straight after all, Lex. I was kind of hoping the rumors were true. I mean if you weren’t then I would have a bunch of questions for you.” Marcie laughed again and walked toward the undisturbed Allie.

“What!” Lexi cawed. “So now, who is behind this rumor?”

Marcie continued to stroke Allie’s silky black coat and turned to Lexi. “Who knows? Just look at what other people see when they look at you. You’re never seen with a guy, even though you are hot as hell. You have this subtle mysterious foreign British accent. You have your own business and your own house. Face it, you intimidate the guys around here. So of course, rather than just admitting they are substandard excuses for men, they chose to run their big stupid mouths. Of course that tire changing incident probably has something to do with it also. Remember the way you went all ninja on that guy?” Marcie said as she roared with laughter.

“How could I forget? I’m sure I’m legendary for my man-hating skills now.”

“You pepper sprayed him Lex, and kicked his junk all the way to Canada. Legendary is a good word. Legendary ball buster!”

Lexi remembered the incident that played out shortly after her arrival in town. Her truck had a flat tire, and she found herself stranded on a dark country road. The only light came from the flashlight she placed on the ground. A house was nearby, but was it was dark and quiet and Lexi didn’t think the job required any help. While she was busy working to jack the vehicle up a large shadowy man appeared next to her. He picked up the four way lug wrench that Lexi had left on the ground next to her.

“You look like you could use a man right about now, little lady.” He said. Lexi turned and was shocked by the menacing appearance of him holding the lug wrench. Instinctively the self-defense training her bother-in-law, Kurt had given her kicked in. She leaned back on one hand, balancing herself on the heel of her bent leg. She lifted her other leg and spun around in a swift sweeping semicircle. Her foot hit the back of his ankle with full force.

The stranger’s feet flew out from under him as he landed with a grunt. Before he could utter a single curse Lexi had drawn a canister of pepper spray from her bag, and doused him as if she were trying to kill a deadly spider with a can of bug spray. The coup-de-grace was a lightning quick kick to his crotch. In a scene only likely to be watched on a zombie apocalypse movie a woman in an ankle length nightgown ran out of the house, and down the drive toward Lexi. As she neared the car, Lexi noticed the green pasty skin of her face. There was a chorus of children’s screams that followed her like a flock of unseen harpies. They were pleading and begging for his life.

It became clear to Lexi that the frightening woman had been attempting some sort of badly needed facial, but was interrupted by the commotion outside. She screamed at Lexi, and cursed her as if she were a female demon that she was trying to compel back to hell. The zombie bride gathered her huddled sobbing mass of a crushed husband, and led him back to the house.

She only turned back once to utter some additional curses to ensure the damnation of Lexi the demon. The children’s pleas had become curses equally as abusive as their mother’s. Her last fading sounds were the orders she screamed at her brood on the porch as she ushered them into the house.

“But don’t feel too bad,” Marcie continued. “I heard that she threatened him a few times since then. I guess she dragged him out of a bar one night and told him she was going to have that bookstore bitch go crazy on him! So you’ve got all that going for you, Lex.”

“Don’t worry about me, Marcie. I certainly don’t need a man to get through life, and to be honest, I don’t find them all that entertaining. Take a look at that last date you set me up on. He took me to Mario’s, that trendy new Italian bistro. That was fine, except when the waiter asked if we wanted a cocktail. He started doing tequila shots. TEQUILA SHOTS, Marcie! Who does that at a romantic upscale restaurant? He started to puke for Pete’s sake. I don’t think he ever noticed that I got up and walked out. Thanks, by the way, for picking me up that night.”

“What are friends for? The list of available guys around here is pretty short. There is one guy you could try out, but from the stories that I’ve heard. Well, let’s just say if you want to get a little from him, you might as well ask for an apology up front and be done with it. Save yourself two minutes of disappointment if you know what I mean. So I guess that just leaves me, baby!” Marcie gave Lexi a quick kiss on her cheek.

“Oh and don’t forget Yoga class tonight! Be there, or die, or something.” Marcie laughed and headed for the door. Lexi whipped Marcie on her ass with a nearby cat toy wand as she walked away. “If I decide to switch teams you are first on my list, Marcie.” Lexi playfully went along with the theme of her joke, and she watched as Marcie blushed and bounced out the door. “Crazy kid.” Lexi whispered.

Allie jumped down from her perch and leapt up onto the counter. Her tail wrapped around Lexi’s arm, trying to elicit a gift of treats. Lexi stroked Allie Cat’s furry head. “Marcie knows I am not looking for anything, right? We’re good,” she thought to herself. She knows that trust is really hard for me to grant to anyone. After all, she is one person I have allowed myself to open up to, so I know she gets it. When it comes to love, I may not have any experience or know what to look for, but I sure as hell know what I DON’T want. I’ve seen plenty of examples of that misery. Thank God for Marcie. Even a loner like me, needs a best friend like her.

Lexi glanced in the mirror behind the display case. She felt comfortable with how she looked. She didn’t often wear make-up or spend too much time with her long locks. She wasn’t self-conscious of her body. She had always had a petite frame, but not bony. She had ample sized breasts and a cute face. The feature she admired most was her emerald green eyes, because they looked exactly like her mother’s. Her only complaint was that at 5’2”, she wished she could be a little taller. Lexi never wanted to be a super-model anyway. She preferred her cute rounded features to the scary sunken faces on those high cheek-boned, collagen lipped things that graced the covers of magazines. She was a little embarrassed when she received compliments, but at least it fueled her self-esteem and she was getting better at accepting them.

The bells on the door announced a visitor and Lexi turned to see who was coming in. She had seen the delivery man a hundred times before and she always wondered the same thing. He seemed much too old the way he huffed and puffed from address to address. He had the look of someone who wished they were doing something else. Maybe it was retirement he looked forward to. Maybe he resented his superiors that were old enough to be his grandchildren. The old man placed a large brightly colored envelope onto the counter and held up a small palm sized piece of technology. After he punched in some numbers, he held the device out to Lexi for an electronic signature. Lexi noticed that the envelope had been badly torn and was taped together. It had black smudge marks that looked like it had been run through broken machinery and then left on a road to be run over by every delivery truck that was able to move.

A good opportunity for sarcasm was never wasted by Lexi, “Do you normally destroy the packages before delivering them, or is that an extra charge?”

“Sorry ma’am. That’s just the way it came to me. You have to sign for it. If anything is damaged, you have to claim it online.”

“I bet it’s a real handy user-friendly process too.” Lexi mumbled, as she looked at the envelope in front of her, curious to see what this could be.

She thought briefly about the delivery man again as his truck careened around the corner and down the street. She turned her attention to the badly damaged package. What is this? She thought. The senders name is Kate, but why is this coming from an address in Israel? That’s how lives are completely turned upside down by mailmen and delivery people, complete strangers going about their business, never knowing what they have left behind in their wake. This could be the door to adventure or to a nightmare.

She yanked the thick paper tab that ripped a thin plastic ribbon from the envelope. Lexi reached into the newly ripped opening and fished out a handwritten letter. It had been largely destroyed by what she imagined was some mechanical T-Rex that was on a strict diet of important packages. Along with the letter, there was an index card that had a couple of phone numbers and a brass key taped to the back.

Hah! The Key to adventure! Lexi set the letter down in front of her and saw that it looked like her sister’s familiar neat handwriting, but the lines seemed skewed. Kate would never have skewed her lines like that, unless she was in a hurry. Lexi flattened it out on the counter and began to read. The mangling machine had damaged the letter so badly that Lexi had a difficult time making out all of the words. Some areas were completely illegible and were at best partial sentences.

Lexi,

I hate to ask you this but I really have no choice. Right now I’m in Haifa Israel visiting Dr. Jakub Meier, but I am on my way to Turkey soon to do some research at the Gobekli Tepe site. I need some help. I know you are settled in your new place and very busy, but you are the only one I can trust. I need you to go back to our place in Arlington. The key that you have received came off of my key chain and it is for the drawer in Kurt’s old desk at the house. In there, is a notebook that has the contact information and the instructions on how to get a hold of a man named Kidd. Kurt had once told me he is the only person that he could trust outside of the country. He said if any of us ever got into something serious, to get a hold of Kidd. (This part was badly damaged and unreadable) Mr. Kidd will help you.

Go into the safe in my bedroom closet. I had it set to the same numbers as ALWAYS. Inside, there is a very old coin. That is the thing I need you to bring. Do not let anyone see it. Don’t let anyone know you have it. Take as much cash out of the safe as you need.

That coin is (unreadable) and you need to (unreadable) Haifa Israel.

Once you get a hold of Mr. Kidd, you need to have him escort you with the coin (unreadable). We cannot use our cell phones. Remember what Kurt told us about cell phones?

Kidd. To get ahold of Mr. Kidd. You can only call him from the phone on Kurt’s old desk, because it is secure. Use the instructions that Kurt left in case we ever needed help. Tell him that Kurt said it was time to return a favor. Then (unreadable)

Book a flight (unreadable)

That old coin is actually a (unreadable)

Love you, Sis

“Christ! Really Kate? You can’t call? Were you drunk or asleep when you wrote this?” Lexi shouted loud enough to call Allie to attention and then she looked at the letter again to check the date. Lexi’s heart started to race when she realized that this letter had been written six weeks ago. She grabbed her cell phone and immediately dialed Kate’s cell. A dozen attempts only brought the same response. “Please leave a message after the tone.” No cell phones? What the hell are you involved in, Kate? “Kurt! Of course! No cell phones.”

She had always thought Kurt allowed his job to cast a shadow of paranoia over their house. Long before snooping by the NSA became fodder for news outlets and activists, Kurt had told them that if ever they had to hide from someone to never use their cell phones. The new smart phones and tablets with all of their features had been a gift to the NSA, and they exploited them to a greater extent than what the news had even reported.

Kurt told them that the old land lines had been routinely monitored for decades, so they weren’t any better when it came to keeping secrets. He firmly believed that only securely encrypted satellite communications could be trusted, but only to a point. Oh Kate, you had to go and marry a damn spy. Now he’s gone and I have to go round up another one for you.

For Lexi, this letter was a call to action. She opened her laptop and booked a next day flight to Washington D.C. with a rental car to be ready at the airport. Her next step was to call Marcie.

Lexi’s mind was running faster than her mouth could articulate her thoughts. “Marcie, I need you tonight. I mean—I need you to come over, meet me at my place around seven and be sure to bring whatever you need to stay over tonight.”

“Whoa! Hold on. I thought you knew I was joking around today when I said that leaves just me. Well I-.”

Lexi cut Marcie’s joking voice off in mid-sentence, “Seriously Marcie, something is happening with Kate. I need to fly back to Virginia tomorrow and I could really use your company at my house tonight. Plus, I kind of need you to take care of Allie Cat for me. Not to mention the store and my house. Please?”

“Of course Lexi, I’ll be there. See ya at seven.”

After the call, Lexi thought about Marcie. She realized that Marcie was not just her only friend, but her first true friend. She had always read about friendships like that. Girls that bonded like sisters. It seemed strange, but this was what love felt like. Not in an erotic sense, but in the sense that their lives were becoming intertwined.

She knew that Marcie also brought something special to her life that she had been missing. She showed her that it was just fine to lighten up and express her emotions. They had met one night right after Lexi had bought the bookstore. Lexi was setting up display racks near the front of her new corner bookstore, when a car flew right past the stop sign at the corner. The car slammed directly into the passenger side of a pickup truck.

Lexi ran out to the scene while simultaneously hitting the speed dial key for 911 on her phone. Marcie slipped out of the driver’s seat of the truck apparently unhurt, but badly shaken. The driver of the speeding car was instantly killed. Lexi never saw who she was or what she looked like as her body was crumpled and twisted under the wreckage that had previously been the steering column and dash.

While firefighters and paramedics worked around the badly wrecked car to determine if anyone else had been inside, Lexi sat on the curb with Marcie. She did her best to comfort the sobbing girl, until a paramedic came over and checked on her. Marcie told Lexi that she had just moved to Dillon, just as Lexi had done. Before long Marcie was running the store on the days that Lexi was busy at the college, and on other days she worked as a barista at the coffee shop across the street from the bookstore. To use Marcie’s words, they had literally met by accident and became companions for life.

The next thing for Lexi to do was to start searching the internet for the place that Kate mentioned, Gobekli Tepe. She had heard about it but knew little about it, other than that it was some sort of ancient ruin site in Turkey. After wading through a plethora of UFO and alien theories that frustrated her internet search, she focused on the type of research her sister would have taken into account. From the peer-reviewed archaeology journals available she was surprised to learn that it had only recently been excavated.

All of the experts were still trying to learn exactly what Gobekli Tepe was. So far their conclusions were simply speculation, since the original builders left no written text behind and no other historical records of other cultures mentioned this place. Most of the experts seemed to agree that Gobekli Tepe was at one time a cultic center, inhabited by the religious elite of some unknown culture in the ancient Mesopotamian region that went through Iraq, part of Syria, and part of Turkey. There were mystical and sacred items found within the circular walled structures, including large T-shaped stone monoliths that had been covered with carvings of intricately designed animals, as well as what appeared to be sacrificial altars.

Lexi looked through her inventory list and found a couple of reference books on cultures associated with Mesopotamia. She remembered how her sister would always drone on about the history of the Fertile Crescent and how it was the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. Over the millennia this area was the home to the Sumerians, as well as the Akkadian and the Babylonian Empires.

After feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information Lexi wished she would have paid closer attention to her sister’s incessant lectures, because she still only had a vague memory of hearing about the region and those cultures. By mid-afternoon, Lexi had her fill of history studies and closed her shop. She cradled Allie in her arms, and with a trove of books in her bag, she headed home for the day.

Chapter 2

The setting sun cast its magic spell through the window and Lexi’s living room transformed into a mystical place, bathed in orange light that was tinged with rose and purple. The old drab room was her favorite place to lay back on her couch and daydream, like she did when she was just a young girl. She had been transported back in time to an age where one would expect to find a magical fairy in a mystical forest. Her reverie was abruptly shattered as Marcie’s voice called through the front screen door. “Hi Lex, I’m here!”

“Hey Marcie! Come on in. I’m in the living room.” Lexi invited her to join her on the couch.

Marcie asked “So what is-.”

Lexi cut her off. “Just wait, I love these last few minutes of the day.”

Marcie quietly obliged, until the room darkened. “So, you went home and got stoned?”

“No, goofball! I have always taken just a little time every day to relax my mind and stop thinking. The best I can anyway. It is sort of hypnotic or trancelike and it seems like it pulls the stress out of my head. I guess I’m just weird like that, but it helps me to focus better.”

“Alright Lexi. Well, when you’re done hypnotizing yourself, let me know. Then can you tell me what is going on?”

Lexi went over the events that happened earlier in the day and the mysterious letter that arrived. As Lexi’s best friend, she already knew about Kate and Kurt and had learned the biography of Lexi’s life.

“What is so mysterious about it, Lex? Think about it. She went off on her research trip, realized that the coin back home was something that might fit in over there and wants you to bring it over. You’re the only other person that can get it from the safe or even go into her house. Am I right? She probably doesn’t trust it to go in the mail and she wants you to come over and do a little sisterly bonding over a pile of old rocks. Hey! Maybe that coin is worth millions or something!”

She thought for a bit and added, “She wants Kurt’s old spy buddy to act as a private security guard to go along and make sure you are okay. You are her only family too, you know. I’m sure she wants to be certain that her little sister will be in good hands.” Marcie thought for a few seconds about the best way to twist her own words to lighten Lexi’s mood. “Who knows? Maybe he will be good with his hands!”

Lexi smiled and silently let Marcie’s synopsis of the situation seep in to her head, to see if it covered all of her concerns before adding, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Still, it seems odd that she would say that ‘we’ needed this dude along for the trip. I mean, this is the guy that Kurt said we should get ahold of if we were in any trouble. He didn’t recommend him solely as a travel guide.”

With a sassiness only Lexi could pull off, she added “Or as a gigolo for desperate times!”

“Ha! One more thing, and I want to say this in the nicest possible way, Lexi. She knows how you sort of…” Marcie stopped herself short.

“Go on, just say it,” Lexi gave a tight smile.

“Well, let’s face it. You’re always trying to conquer what life throws at you. I think that is actually the most admirable quality about you, but sometimes you have to know when to just let the tide come in and let it wash over you. You never know what good fortune could be coming your way. There was that time when you locked your keys inside your truck with Allie inside, remember? That’s an example of what I’m saying. Remember that hot piece of cop came along to help? When he paid you a compliment and tried to ask you out, you could have just went with the flow, but no. Not you! You turned him in for sexual harassment. The guy ended up moving away. Adam, I think his name was. Wrong conclusion. You possibly thwarted the forces of fate. It’s okay to let the wind push you in a different direction once in a while.”

Lexi laughed and replied, “I know. I wouldn’t say I am a control freak, though. I don’t get hung up on pet peeves, you know what I mean? I’m not annoyed by the little things in life or the habits of other people. I just feel that my entire childhood was left to what you called the forces of fate and fate was not very kind about it. I would rather not have to live like I am on the defensive and trying to shape my life by constantly reacting to things. I want to have control of my destiny, while at the same time I look forward to excitement and adventure. My paradox, I suppose.” Lexi thought more about what Marcie said.

“I’ll keep it in mind and at least try to think ahead a bit, before I do anything that would create a disaster. I promise. About that cop though, let me give you the whole story. You would have been a little leery of that guy too. I never told you the line he laid on me when he got Allie Cat out of the truck. He was holding her and stroking her fur, then he said he would be glad to help me out with my cute pussy anytime I needed. Yeah, that was harassment!”

“What? You never told me that. You’re nuts. Don’t take a cheesy come-on from a guy for sexual harassment. If that were the case, just about everyone I know would be guilty at some point and I’m including myself in that group too. I would’ve been making sure he had my number, my email and my address, not to mention my Facebook, and Twitter info. Hell, I would have thrown a cheesy one-liner right back at him. Something like, ‘Well maybe next time, I’ll let you come over and pet my pussy and maybe even feed her a treat.’ You don’t have to worry about him now. I heard now he is off the market anyway. Married to some damn nurse. Lucky bitch.”

“Oh, YOU would say that back to him! It’s not my style, kiddo. Now let’s go over some stuff for the store, and the house. You can stay here if you like. I would really prefer it if you could.”

After they had discussed enough of the details for Marcie to act as Lexi’s proxy, they prepared to head for bed. Marcie was setting up a place to sleep on the couch, while Lexi was in the bedroom changing into her usual nighttime attire, a simple cut off tank top and her underwear. It was perfect for the warm summer night.

Outside the bedroom window Lexi heard the gloomy call of the owl that had been there the night before. The silhouette against the last shade of the evening’s pale light unnerved Lexi. The shape eerily resembled a human head with short horns that slightly curved up. Earlier in the day when she had been flipping through a book about archaeological sites in the Middle East, she remembered seeing the image of an owl on more than one piece of ancient art. Her focus at the time was on the general region and she never took the effort to look up the significance of the owl, but she was certain that it was an important symbol for the people that originally built Gobekli Tepe.

She couldn’t seem to tear her eyes from the owl and tried to convince herself that the curved horns were simply the tufts of long feathers and nothing more. Large spooky yellow eyes appeared from the shadow hanging in the tree. They looked directly at her and when another series of lonely notes sang out, she thought that it was communicating a message or perhaps, even chanting a spell. I have got to quit being so imaginative. I’m letting that thing creep me out now. She turned away from the window and when she looked back, it had flown away.

Marcie walked in through the door of the bedroom and noticed how Lexi looked shaken by something. She padded over and took Lexi’s hands in hers. As Marcie gently massaged them, Lexi unexpectedly began to blush. “What’s wrong, Lex? Are you getting nervous about this trip? You don’t have to go you know, you always have a choice.”

“No Marcie, it’s not that. There is this owl that shows up outside in the tree every night lately. I’ve never been creeped out by an owl or anything for that matter, but this thing seems like it’s…”

“Like it’s what, Lexi?”

“It’s stupid, really. It seems like it’s watching me…and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it seems like it is trying to say something to me. Weird, right?”

“It’s just a bird, Lex. Of course it seems scary, that’s exactly why they use owls as often as bats, spiders, witches, and shit on the covers of those stupid Halloween books you sell in your store.”

“Uh, would you mind staying in here with me tonight?” Lexi asked timidly.

“You mean I don’t have to sleep on your lumpy couch. Yay! Come on let’s get you in bed.” Marcie looked around the room and in her typical lighthearted fashion, commented on Lexi’s decorating choices. “So, did you do this on purpose, or are you color blind?”

Lexi’s room reflected the spirit of a girl that comfortably lived alone. Unconstrained by others’ opinions, Lexi had painted her room in purples. Each wall had been gifted its own shade. When Lexi had told her sister about her paint scheme for the bedroom the phone was silent for a full minute. When she finally spoke, Lexi immediately picked up on the tone of false concern in Kate’s voice.

“Really Lexi, I think it is time for you to get in to see a shrink. Why would you choose to turn your bedroom into a tomb for Barney?” While it didn’t meet Kate’s approval, the color scheme was perfect for Lexi. The soft shades of purple were carefully chosen from her evening sunset sessions. The colors provided a perfect background to the framed prints of pre-Raphaelite paintings that she had selected.

Centered against the largest wall was an enormous ancient wooden bed that Lexi picked up from an antique store in town. She loved the Victorian look so much that she eventually acquired an entire bedroom set of that style.

Marcie climbed up onto the bed and retrieved Lexi’s hairbrush from the nightstand. Lexi followed her onto the plush comforter.

“Okay Lex, turn around and let me brush your hair for you.” Lexi sat cross legged with her back to Marcie. Marcie began to brush Lexi’s hair in long slow movements. Lexi felt Marcie’s breath on her neck. She was surprised and confused at the unexpected tingling feeling of arousal that was building inside of her. Lexi could feel that Marcie seemed to have a subtle erotic aura about her. As quickly as the feelings crept up, she forced them right back out of her mind and body.

Suddenly Marcie announced, “Alright, let’s get some sleep, you’ve got a long day ahead of you.” They laid down, side by side in the dark. “How long will you be gone, Lexi?”

“I don’t expect to be gone more than a week. Ten days maybe.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go along? I’m sure we can find someone to watch Allie Cat. Just shut the store down. What do you say?”

“Sorry Marcie, I really need you to keep things open here. Plus, I would be a nervous wreck with Allie being with a total stranger. I tell you what, I promise the two of us will take a road trip someplace fun when I get back.”

Marcie rolled over and laid her head on Lexi’s shoulder and put an arm around her waist. Her tender touch comforted Lexi and she fell into a deep sleep.

Lexi’s dreams carried her to a sandy desert. It was night and she held a flaming torch that lit the path before her. Large gray stones that had been cut into rectangular shapes were arranged so that they formed a circle. Each of the stones was the size of a coffin. She walked around the stones and counted seven of them.

In her dream-like vision she thought that there was something on each stone. A small object had been placed there but she couldn’t make out what it was. She continued to walk around the stones. Suddenly, a black shrouded figure of a woman appeared in the light of the flickering torch. Her face was hidden by the loose hood of her gown that flowed around her. The woman did not move or speak. Lexi was compelled to continue walking around the stones, even though she tried with every fiber of her muscles to turn and run. The mysterious woman spoke to Lexi in a hissing voice. “My sisters are waiting.”

Lexi replied, “Waiting? Who are you? Where are your sisters?” The woman did not answer. Lexi asked, “What are they waiting for?” The woman silently pointed her cloaked arm out into the empty dark desert. Lexi heard several whispering voices that came from the shadows that lay just beyond the torch light that danced around her.

Lexi was startled by the realistic frightening dream and felt grateful for Marcie’s warm soft body embracing her from behind. Lexi held Marcie’s arms close to her chest and felt comforted enough to fall back to a peaceful sleep. This time she had no desire to push away the feelings that led to more enjoyable dreams.

The morning light had released the night’s magic spell on the room and from Lexi’s mind. She was already up getting dressed and ready for her trip. Marcie was laying on the bed with Allie in her arms. “Hey, I have to head out now. I’ll call when I get there and see how everything is going here.”

Allie jumped from Marcie’s embrace and walked over to Lexi. Her soft tail lovingly curled around Lexi’s leg and she bid her farewell. As their goodbyes echoed in her mind, Lexi headed off to take on this adventure that Kate had thrown into her lap. Her thoughts about travel details were pushed aside by renewed concerns for her sister. Waves of questions had begun to batter her mind about what was ahead. It didn’t help that she would be traveling alone. It was times like that when small worries seemed to mushroom into complex problems, building on each other until it was difficult to clearly find any answers, only more questions.

After she boarded her flight to D.C., she felt mentally exhausted and was overpowered by sleep. She dreamt that she was in her bed alone and the window was inexplicably left open. In the distance a dog was barking as if someone dared to trespass on its territory. The curtains were blowing and she got up to close the window. When she looked outside she saw the owl’s silhouette. This dream owl was much larger than life and there was a reddish glow from its eyes. She heard someone knocking at her front door, softly at first, but the sound became more insistent and then violently loud. It seemed as if someone was pounding on the door with both clenched fists with all of their might. The pounding ceased and Lexi sat on her bed in the dark.

It took all of her will to move off of the bed and make her way to the open window. As often happens in dreams each one of her movements was excruciatingly slow and difficult. When she finally arrived at the window she slammed it down and returned to her bed. Something scratched at the glass of the window. It clawed repeatedly and the scratching sound grew louder.

The plane’s tires screamed under the pressure as the flight touched down. The sudden jolt woke Lexi from her nightmare. Her heart pounded from the fear she felt in the dream.

Lexi looked out and thought about how the airplane had so easily reduced her once epic journey west, to just one effortless afternoon backwards to her old home. She picked up her rental car and drove the still familiar paths through Arlington. She felt comforted by the sight of the large ranch home, with its mature trees that stretched out arms of green. “Welcome home Lexi,” she said out loud.

Standing at the front door she fished in her bag for her crowded keychain. She still had her old keys and she surprised herself at how easily she identified the right key and opened the locks. It seemed as if she had only been gone for a day.

A wave of sadness washed over Lexi. The comforting feeling of seeing her familiar old home was washed away by the reminder that Kate was not there and Kurt had left their lives so long before. Once she opened the door a thought flashed through her mind. What if Kate is actually home? Probably not, but I wish. She called out “Hello? Kate, it’s me! Lexi!” Her words seemed to hang in the air in the quiet house. Well, worth a try I guess. Tears pooled up in her eyes and she took a deep breath to shake off the lonely feeling.

She wasted no time and immediately went to the bedroom closet. The combination was simple to remember thanks to Kate’s clue. The numbers corresponded to the months and days of their parents’ birthdays. The inside of the safe had a couple of drawers and a big compartment underneath.

She pulled open one of the drawers and retrieved an envelope. Inside, she discovered the old coin mentioned in Kate’s letter. The size of the coin surprised her. She imagined that it would be small, like the ancient Roman coins she had seen. While those old relics were only the size of a penny or smaller, this coin was twice the size of a silver dollar and more than twice as thick. It was heavy and she wondered if it was made of gold. Its finish was smoothed by the centuries but its golden luster still shined.

She carefully studied the markings on it. One side had an intricate design that appeared to be an ornate seven pointed star. Toward the outer edge were several symbols that looked like they could be Hebrew, but she wasn’t sure about that.

She flipped the coin over and saw the image of a woman with large wings that stretched out from her back. Her hands were pointing down with palms turned outward in front of her and the head had two curved horns. The feet were not human, but those of a bird of prey. The talons dug into the flesh of a captive animal. Lexi presumed that it must be a lion.

The surface had several of the same kinds of symbols. They had as little of a meaning to Lexi as the ones on the other side. The coin made Lexi feel uneasy and she felt a chill run up the back of her neck. She gently set the coin back into the drawer as if it were something fragile or dangerous.

The larger compartment had a door that she opened. She was greeted by a pile of cash. The money was all counted and bundled with paper wrappers according to denomination, just like the ones she saw at the bank. There were 100s, 50s, and some 20s that totaled $90,000. “Holy cats!” Lexi shouted out loud.

She whispered, “Kate, why would you keep all of this cash in this safe and not in some bank account? What were you expecting to need it for? Maybe this was Kurt’s idea.” She closed up the safe with the thought that it would be better to leave everything inside, until it was needed.

Her next step was to make contact with the man that was apparently going to be her security guard for the trip. Her eyes filled with unshed tears as she walked into Kurt’s old home office. It was strange how everything looked like he had just walked out of the room and would be back any minute. Lexi realized that Kate still couldn’t bring herself to pack up anything. She had simply decided to leave the room alone to defer renewed grief for another day. Kurt’s old desk chair had a black leather swivel chair with a tall back. Lexi always thought it was the most comfortable chair ever designed.

His polished mahogany desk still held a calendar and displayed the date he died. Several pictures were on the desk. The most prominent was a snapshot taken of Kurt with Kate, smiling as if they had eternity before them. Randomly placed frames held more pictures of him, some with other men, all armed to the teeth. Some of them were in the desert and some were in jungles. These were the remaining fragments of Kurt’s danger filled days as a CIA operative.

Lexi took a minute to look at the men, trying to decide if any of them would be the man she was going to meet. Every one of them were sculpted masterpieces of muscle. She pulled the key that she had received in the package out of her pocket and slid it into the silver drawer lock.

The drawer contained various papers and a single manila folder. The folder had a yellow post-it note that said, “Kate, here are the instructions if you ever need to reach Kidd in an emergency.”

Lexi removed the envelope from the drawer and laid the contents out before her on the desk. There was a sheet of paper that had a phone number with an area code that Lexi recognized as Miami Florida as well as step by step instructions on how to call and identify who she was and what she needed. She also noted an index card with the name of a bank in Switzerland with a couple of sets of numbers.

Oh God, I can’t imagine having to do business like this on a daily basis. Following the instructions, she dialed the number from Kurt’s old desk phone. The call picked up on the other end with a recorded message that said, “Please stay on the line.” While Lexi waited she looked over the framed pictures on the desk again. Some interesting looking guys on here, I wonder which one will be for me? Each one is hotter than the next. This is way better than shopping for shoes online! Wow! I would love to have a guy like that. Her eyes were drawn to a tall muscular man with dark hair and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in a week or maybe two. He was bare-chested and a leather shoulder holster that held a large silver pistol hung from his broad shoulders. She nearly drooled at his solid muscular chest and his well-defined abs. Lexi picked up the frame and looked closely at his face and then down to his waist.

The phone made a series of clicking sounds before an older woman’s voice interrupted Lexi’s ogling, “Osprey Group, please state your customer ID.” Lexi glanced at the instructions and gave out the number. “Thank you, you must be Kate Karnstein. How may I help you?” Lexi decided that perhaps she should just let the woman assume she was in fact Kate.

“I was given instructions to specifically ask for the assistance of a Mr. Kidd. Can you please tell me how to reach him?”

“Mr. Kidd is not available in your region. We only set up face to face meetings with our clients. If you wish I can arrange a meeting with our representative in Maryland.”

“No, I have been told that I specifically need Mr. Kidd. Is there any way I can meet with him?”

“Yes there is, but you will have to take a flight to Medellin Colombia. I’ll set up the flight and instructions for the meeting and send it to the fax number at your location. You must follow them exactly once I make the arrangements, so that Mr. Kidd can pick you up at the airport in Medellin. Now, please verify the bank account and release authorization for our prearranged contract amount.”

“Prearranged contract amount?”

“Yes, Mr. Karnstein has a contract for services with us and a part of that is an arrangement for the funding.”

Lexi gave her the bank information from the instructions that Kurt had left and then waited for the fax machine to print the incoming message. After a few minutes she realized that staring at a machine had absolutely no effect on it.

What the hell am I getting into? Maybe I should have brought Marcie along. What would she tell me? Probably, “Just remember it is just a flight, meet with this guy that you can trust and you will both go on to meet Kate and everything will be fine.”

She realized that night had fallen and thought to call Marcie to see how things were going. After a couple of tries, she left a message. She’s probably working late at the coffee shop or off at the tanning salon.

The fax machine came to life and sheets of paper slid out and fluttered to the floor. Lexi quickly gathered them up and looked over her travel arrangements. The flight to Medellin didn’t depart for four days. “This is bullshit! I don’t have that kind of time to wait.” She dialed the number back to plead with the faceless woman, only to reach clicking noises then a dial tone. She noticed that the papers had a local phone number to contact Mr. Kidd in Colombia.

She quickly dialed it, only to find that it was restricted to calls coming from within Colombia. Lexi hated to be put into a situation where she had no control and felt it was time to do things on her terms.

She contacted the airlines and scheduled a new flight to leave in the morning. Well Mr. Kidd, I hope you aren’t too busy because I am arranging this meeting. Outside the window Lexi heard a strange noise. It sounded like branches cracking. She looked out and felt panicked. There on a branch was an owl. It looked like the same kind that had been outside of her window at home. Her response to overcome fear was anger. She threw open the window and shouted at the owl, “Get the fuck out of here bird! Leave me alone!”

She closed the window and turned back into the room. The day’s events played heavily in her mind. Physically and emotionally exhausted and unable to keep her eyes open much longer, she decided to sleep in Kate’s bed. Her plan for the morning was to gather up some of the cash, the coin and then make her flight. She knew that she needed a good night’s rest.

The following morning she rose early, packed the coin and a few personal items in her backpack. She also packed a few days’ worth of clothes into a small suitcase. Marcie had returned her call and reported that everything was fine. Lexi pursued the adventure with a renewed vigor and with a sense that she had finally gained some control of her fate.

She made the flight to Miami along with her connection to Colombia. Her plane landed uneventfully in Medellin. The customs officers grilled her on her reason for arrival, to which Lexi simply responded for tourism. One of the men made Lexi uneasy as he kept looking at her as if he were trying to identify her. She hastily walked out of the airport to the lines of taxi’s, which were all taken. All she wanted was to just get a hotel room and then figure out how to meet Kidd. Lexi looked around and felt excited to be in Colombia. It was like nothing she had ever seen or imagined.

The open space in front of the airport was packed with people and the different language made it seem as if Lexi had found herself in the midst of a swarm of bees. A middle aged man dressed in shades of khaki and white approached her. He wiped the sweat from his brow and spoke English with a strong accent “Señorita, instead of a taxi, I have a car for hire. I will be your guide and I can take you anyplace you like in town.”

“Right now, I’m looking for a nice hotel. If you can take me to a four or five star hotel in a good and safe part of town, I’ll gladly take your offer. Can you do that?”

“Si Señorita. Certainly, my car is right over there. She walked across the street with him to the large black sedan and opened the back door. As soon as she climbed in she knew she was in trouble. Two men were in the back of the car. A thick sweaty hand covered her mouth and she could feel that the skin was rough and rasp-like. Another man held her tight by pulling her arms back behind her. She could smell the stench of alcohol and tobacco on them. The hand on her mouth had a bitter and salty taste that seeped into her mouth. She tried kicking wildly to get the door to stay open, but it was too late. She felt the car moving and was panicked by the realization that they were now speeding away out of the city.

Chapter 3

There isn’t anything that can prepare a person for actually getting shot at. No, getting shot at was not like the movies. There, among the cacophony that accompanies the battlefield of fiction a single shot rings out. The hero ducks behind a handy obstacle just in the nick of time. Somehow, among the mass of confusion he miraculously maintains complete focus and intuition of knowing just which shot is aimed at him.

For Kidd it was nothing like the old movies on TV. Those were the days, long ago. The faded old couch with fabric that couldn’t be described as quite tannish, or greenish, or brownish.

It was more like a hideous mixture of all of them. As if some blind and drunken upholsterer had stretched something that resembled a soft burlap, over cushions that were rejected by the cushion factory because of their odd and lumpy shapes. In fact, these were the scars only achieved after a lifetime or more of dogs that slept, cats that scratched, and kids. Kids that made forts of the cushions and teenagers that lounged as if the couch were a hammock.

Long ago banished to the basement the couch was the place that he would comfortably set up his ideal home theater. The old TV in a cabinet that looked like a dresser, but wasn’t, also bore the scars of time and cats. This was the time when a quiet summer night felt magical.

The ancient rounded glass screen crackled alive with the war of ants in the snow, until a picture appeared. Old Westerns, War movies, and a final home for the alien invaders that once could only be found in some dusty drive-in.

No, it wasn’t like those old movies at all. He and his team had been furiously firing their weapons at the rebels, who were darting for cover and exchanging fire back. The sounds of more than one grenade’s explosion joined in the deadly symphony until his ears were deafened and every nerve was concentrated on delivering accurate fire.

The bullets were simply invisible and when his arm and leg were grazed by them, it was as if some unseen diabolical spirit was cracking a whip of razor wire across his skin. Like a snowball fight, it was the unseen and unexpected ones that got you.

Kidd was crouched in tall grass on the edge of a forest that hid red mud hills and it went on forever. Next to him were his three teammates and a woman of perhaps twenty-five years old. She was beautiful. Her shorts and khaki shirt were soaking wet and covered in mud. Her auburn ponytail was draped over her shoulder and her soft white face was streaked with sweat and bits of debris from the forest. Her ball cap was dark grey and had a single yellow “W” on the front. As she nervously made a slight smile to him, he wondered what the “W” stood for. Wisconsin? Washington? Maybe just “W” as in “What the hell just happened here?”

What happened was, the client who had come to Colombia to meet him had gotten herself kidnapped by a group of low level cartel thugs. What the hell is so hard about following simple instructions?

Two sweaty men covered in mud broke through the thick brush toward them. Kidd reached for his shoulder holster and drew out an ivory handled, silver revolver. The instant the criminals spotted the weapon they seemed to know Kidd, at least by reputation. They lowered their weapons to their sides and shouted back into the forest to any of their remaining compatriots to cease fire. The two men yelled several apologies and then ran back into the dense brush.

Kidd was operating under the understanding that the woman was Kurt’s wife, Kate and not Kurt’s sister-in-law. Kidd looked at her, curious to finally meet Kurt’s wife. So this is Kurt’s wife? A little young to be married to an old guy like him!

She seemed awfully young for Kurt. His thoughts were broken up by the sound of rotors chopping away at the humid air, like a machete missing its mark. Two olive drab helicopters quickly appeared over the trees and gently landed on the grassy field. As if trying to escape the fury of a tornado the group made a crouching walk against the wind and into the helicopters.

The girl and Kidd went in one helicopter, while the remaining three men climbed aboard the other. They were barely inside when the machines lifted up and back over the trees. Kidd reached into a small backpack and pulled out a small device. He punched in a few characters on the keys to announce that they were done and pulling away.

He handed the grateful girl a water bottle and thought about the exorbitant amount that Kurt had kept on deposit with Kidd’s organization to be used as a retainer for any emergency. It was expensive to have the convenience and security of an armed and global 911-like response at your disposal.

Kurt had once said to Kidd that he and his friends were nothing more than pirates, thieves, and smugglers, but when the chips were down, they were the ones he wanted on his side.

One million bucks pays for plenty of peace of mind. Kidd looked at the girl and thought. You look damn cute, but you look like every penny of a million bucks of trouble for me. Kidd figured that for Kurt it was probably worth it and more to keep this entire incident very quiet.

She wasn’t supposed to have been in the country this early. The message he had received said to expect Kurt’s wife to arrive and discuss a case about her missing sister, but not for another 3 days. Information could sometimes get garbled but he had double checked the date and time of the arrival. It seemed odd to him that Kurt would have sent his wife down alone.

There was much more to this situation and Kidd knew that the best option was to get this woman’s story, before he started to make calls back to the home office. It was way too early to make any sort of assumptions. He would get his answers from her in due time. At least she had the smarts to quickly dial his contact number and leave the line open long enough for him to realize that she had been grabbed. With the blessings of GPS tracking he knew right where to meet the kidnappers and he was backed up by some of his best men, with plenty of firepower.

He looked at her again and then told her, “I need your cellphone, camera, any electronics you have with you.” She opened her small backpack, apparently relieved that she still had it with her after all that had transpired. She pulled out her phone and handed it over. Kidd quickly pulled the battery out and by habit he looked over the phone for anything unusual.

The thick jungle canopy swelled and sank over hidden rolling hills and then finally, over one last ridge along a deserted coastline. By now the two helicopters had gone their separate ways. The helicopter carrying Kidd and the girl hovered over a level clearing atop a rocky bluff that displayed a good view to the sea before them. The helicopter set down just long enough for them to jump out with a couple of duffle bags and backpacks.

The noisy chopper lifted up and disappeared over the horizon, while the two gathered their bags. Kidd led the girl into the forested hillside and down a winding path until they came to a larger dirt road, where they stopped. Silently, Kidd walked over to the side of the road and into the thick brush. He pulled back a large camouflage net that had kept his brown jeep hidden.

There was no roof, only a windshield and a roll bar. He picked up the bags and tossed them into the back. He looked over to her gave her a smile and said, “Hop in and I’ll get you someplace to catch your breath.” She climbed in the passenger side and noticed how the road looked like nothing more than a river of red mud and rocks that wound through the trees. She locked her seatbelt as tight as she could.

The jeep jolted off bouncing and turning. Classic rock music crackled through the speakers. She had been wondering what the mysterious Kidd would look like since she started this trip. There were just too many Hollywood stereotypes to choose from so she left her mind’s canvas blank until she actually met him. It appeared that he was in his early thirties no more than thirty-four, no less than twenty-seven she guessed. She was twenty-five and she figured that if they were from the same decade they could at least speak the same language. She took another look at him and then thought about it for a minute.

He seemed less like the James Bond that she imagined, but not quite the Magnum P.I. she had imagined either. He did have the unbuttoned Hawaiian print shirt and the sunglasses though. Lexi liked his short, but thick head of black hair atop a face with rugged handsome features. Yet somehow he still had a bit of boyish cuteness about him.

His body was covered in hard lines of muscles that were breathtakingly defined, but certainly not bulky like those over inflated body builders. His biceps were bigger than any she had seen and his shoulders were very broad. She could barely take her eyes off of his chest until the breeze pulled back his unbuttoned shirt. She blushed at her own reaction to seeing such well-defined abs. She was glad that she had put her sunglasses on so he wouldn’t notice how she was checking him out. She turned to look ahead at the road.

Why should it matter what he looks like, this is business anyway. A guy that looks that hot is guaranteed to be a conceited prick. Lexi still had not gotten a look at his eyes and she was curious to get a better view of his face and find out if he matched any of the pictures on Kurt’s desk. She looked back and since she couldn’t see his face, she let her eyes wander down his body. I’d love to run my hands or tongue all over that. I thought only photo-shopped guys in magazines looked that hot.

She knew for sure she had to be blushing as she looked down at his shorts and saw the visibly large bulge on the inside of his thigh. She looked back at the road ahead. Holy cats! Holy cats! Is that all him? No way!

She remembered Kurt telling her that some of his younger friends had broken away from the military and the government to work more in the freelance field. Mercenaries, soldiers-of-fortune he called them.

The rapid change in scenery took Lexi’s breath away. Sunlight flashed through the cover of greens until it suddenly broke open to blue. Before them waves crashed over a rocky shoreline that met a steep bluff. Lexi imagined it to be a green fortress wall against the sea.

The jeep slowed to a stop. She looked up at the wooden stairs that went up and left to a landing, and then up and right to a deck that was perched some forty feet above them. There, attached to the deck was a single story wooden beach house.

The wood siding had only remnants of chipped and faded blue and green paint common to coastal houses in that region, although the majority of the colors had long ago surrendered to the sea air. The windows were wide and covered with wooden slat shutters. The screen door looked as if it had seen plenty of abuse.

Kidd opened the screen door and unlocked the deadbolt on a heavy wooden door. “Welcome to my humble shack. Nothing fancy here but it’s pretty comfortable and it’s my home.” The room was open and airy. He raised the shutters and blinds to allow sunlight to stream in through many large windows. A warm salty breeze gently came in from the sea to join them.

Lexi looked about the room. Several tall green leafy plants were scattered on the dark and worn wooden plank floors. Comfortable furniture of wood and wicker surrounded a large Persian rug. The walls were faded gray wood and well covered by shelves and assorted objects. She couldn’t quite ascertain whether they had been set out for display or just left wherever they had been set down. There were a few oriental statues, Greek vases, African masks, and more. In any case, she liked the fact that while it wasn’t dirty it was filled with the man’s things that were so varied. It spurred her curiosity about him.

“So this is the lair of a secret agent for hire? It looks like a nautical antique shop.” She said. Kidd didn’t answer her. He was out on the deck and it sounded like he was talking to someone outside. Probably on his phone. She thought.

The main room had a few doors that opened to what she presumed to be a bedroom and some closets. The living room was separated from a spacious kitchen by a peninsula countertop. The kitchen seemed like it was better organized than her own and she wondered if Kidd enjoyed cooking. It was hard to imagine a man like Kidd making a soufflé. She watched Kidd walk into the kitchen. She guessed he was about 6 feet tall. Maybe an inch or two taller. She had not known many men in her life and she had never been to the house of a man that lived by himself. She was intensely curious.

“Can I offer you anything? Something to drink? Water, iced tea, coffee?” He asked.

“Iced tea would be perfect, thank you. So how long before I can get back to civilization?”

“Well, a day at least but that depends on why you came down here to begin with. Of course, around here the weather can have a lot of say in it too. I will have to take you by boat up the coast until we can reach a rendezvous point, or someplace to fly out from.”

He held a glass and poured the tea from a pitcher. He turned his head slightly and raised one eyebrow. He walked toward her and she looked at the leather shoulder holster that held an ivory handled silver revolver with a noticeably long barrel. It reminded her of something out of an old Western. “Now what would you shoot with that?” She chuckled.

“Bad guys. Werewolves maybe.” Kidd smiled, “actually it’s unlikely I’d shoot it at anything. Really it’s all about presence.”

“Presence?” She said, with an arched brow.

“In this line of work nothing can be more intimidating than a big gun.” He winked and smiled.

Did he just wink at me? I don’t think I’ve ever been winked at. What’s up with those eyes anyway?

She noticed that he was already performing before her. Strolling up to her shirtless, save the brown shoulder holster against his tanned thick chest. This is the guy I was checking out in the pictures! She finally got a good look at his eyes and figured out why they seemed unusual, one eye was green and the other was blue. “I think I get it.” She said.

“Perhaps, if you’re lucky.” He laughed with yet another wink and handed her the glass.

“Ha ha! Very funny. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it takes more than a big barrel and a cheesy one-liner for me. Although, I’m sure you get plenty of company up in your little love nest.”

Kidd couldn’t tell for sure if she was playing along or being sarcastic. “I’m sorry, I have a habit of keeping things lighthearted and honestly you are my very first female guest. So congratulations!”

“Um okay, I’ll buy that.” Lexi smiled at him and was amused at how he seemed genuinely sorry when he thought he may have offended her. She decided to let him know that she didn’t mind his playfulness. “And—just for the record, a big pistol is a pretty good start!” She winked back at him and was rewarded with a beaming smile.

“Seriously I need to know a few things. In case the bad guys decide to come looking for you. What am I up against here and how did a nice girl like you end up with an old bum like Kurt?”

“Well I have a little confession, maybe two.” She said softly while carefully gauging his reaction. “I’m not Kate. That would be my older sister. My name is Alexandria, people call me Lexi. I’m here to meet with you about finding my sister. She sent me a letter which was odd enough that she didn’t call. Even though we haven’t seen each other in a few years, we would still each drop everything and go to the end of the earth for each other, even to Medellin Colombia.” She hesitated and watched him look around the room.

“Okay keep talking,” pausing as he recalled her name “Lexi. Some people just call me Kidd, but my first name is Ryan.”

“The letter only said that she needed me to explicitly follow her instructions.” Lexi pulled the folded and tattered letter from her backpack and handed it to Kidd. “Here take a look it’s pretty badly damaged. She has been out of the country for a few weeks now, apparently working on some sort of archaeological research.”

Her face looked saddened and Ryan picked up on it. “It was mailed from Israel. She told me what she needed, but the letter was badly damaged before I received it. She wanted me to go to her house, pick up an old coin from her safe and have you come with me to bring it to her.” She watched as Ryan looked over the letter. He held it up to try to see if he could make out the illegible parts.

Ryan interrupted, “and you didn’t think it was a good idea to just ask Kurt what was going on?”

“No. You don’t know, do you?” She waited, collecting her thoughts before breaking the news to him. “I’m sorry, but Kurt has been dead for almost two years now.”

Ryan’s hands dropped to his side and he looked at Lexi. “What? How? I haven’t heard a thing.” Ryan stared out the window, silently looking at the sea as he processed the unexpected news about the fate of an old friend. “Wow I guess I really have been off the radar a little too long. Tell me what happened. Please.”

“Sorry, I thought you knew. It wasn’t an accident though. The medical examiner listed his death as suicide but Kate never believed the findings. I have a hard time believing it. You knew Kurt, I mean, that is completely out of character. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. It just didn’t make sense.”

Ryan sat on the arm of a worn leather chair. “I know it seems out of character, Lexi. I can tell you Kurt was one of those career Special Forces and CIA guys. It may sound corny, but they have this unspoken warrior code of conduct.”

“A warrior like you?” Lexi said softly.

Ryan nodded. “Yes and no. I’m not like Kurt. I lack the patriotism and devotion to government. Well anyway, these are the most intelligent focused and stable people you will meet. The dark side that comes with that is a lust for danger and an addiction for adrenaline.

Kurt was older than me. He was just finishing up his tour as a CIA liaison with the Naval Special Warfare Command when I was the youngest guy just starting out on my SEAL Team. He taught me a lot. One thing that he and all the rest taught me by example was their ethos.

I guess you could compare the mindset to the old samurai. It wasn’t just some pledge or oath. It was an entire way of life that they expected each other to live by. The center of it all was honor. Honor to themselves and to each other. If ever they felt they had broken the way of life,” Ryan paused as if he didn’t want to finish, “Well the Samurai would…”

“I know, ritual suicide. So you think that is what drove Kurt to it?” Lexi asked.

“I have no idea. I just wanted to let you know that the act of a suicide could actually be in line with his character and statistically they have a higher suicide rate because as their lives go on, they may find themselves unable to comply with the almost impossible code of conduct. Now, exactly what happened? Who found him and how did they say he did it?”

Tears welled up in Lexi’s eyes as she struggled to speak the words that didn’t want to leave her tongue. She hated discussing the subject more than anything. Kurt was more than a brother-in-law to her. He was the brother she had always yearned for.

Ryan gently took the back of his finger and wiped the tears from Lexi’s cheek. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be so—.”

“No, no. It’s okay. Well it’s not okay what happened but I haven’t talked to anyone about it in so long. He was a part of my life also, for many years. I think of how hard it hit Kate. She sealed it all up inside and now I’m afraid it’s eating her alive.”

Lexi stopped to wipe her eyes and took a deep breath to regain her composure. “Anyway, he used a gun. It looked like he simply drove out to a forested park and shot himself. That’s where some park ranger found him. The feds handled the entire investigation themselves. It took a long time and they picked Kurt’s life apart looking at every detail…our lives too.”

“That’s normal for people with national security clearances. If there’s a suicide they are double checking, triple checking to be sure there was no blackmail or espionage that he could have been involved in. They also need to be certain that no classified information that he was privy to could have been compromised in any way. Did anyone tell you if they found anything out of the ordinary?”

“They said that there was nothing out of the ordinary, but I did snoop on them and listened in on them when they were in his office.”

Lexi’s eyes lit up and she looked at Ryan. Her tone changed from somber to astonishment. “How could I not remember? They were looking into a trip he made to Israel quite a few years ago. I don’t know when it was, but for some reason that was one thing I heard them mentioning as it was NOT on official business. You know he traveled a lot. That was the only trip that concerned them. Now Kate has gone to Israel! That must be what she is up to. Trying to figure out something about Kurt’s death or something he was involved in. She is looking for answers herself! I don’t know what she hopes to find or why she is heading to some archaeological site, but at least her stop in Israel seems like it has to do with Kurt.”

“It could be. I’d say with some confidence it at least has something to do with Kurt, but we can’t assume anything. Don’t forget that for both archaeologists and anti-terrorism specialists Israel is one of those places that pulls them in like a magnet. So it wouldn’t be too surprising to find out that both Kurt and Kate had gone there at different times for unrelated reasons.”

Lexi admired Ryan’s level-headed reasoning. “I suppose you’re right. Still, I’m going to keep both scenarios in mind for now.”

“And it doesn’t explain the coin. Do you know if that coin was around anyplace where the investigators would have looked at it or taken it to examine it?” Ryan quizzed her.

“Not that I know of. I just found out that the coin existed the other day. I never heard them mention it, but they may have been looking for it and just didn’t want to say anything to us. They tore through everything so I have no idea where it was hidden during all of that. I know that Kate put it in the safe later on after they completed the investigation, or they would have found it.” Lexi took the coin out of a camera case in her backpack and handed it to Ryan who examined it. He handed it back to her after looking it over for just a short while. His reaction was nothing more than a simple shrug of his shoulders.

“Pretty big for a coin. Strange looking too. I guess we can’t worry about it yet, not until we find your sister. I’ll get a hold of some people and find out where she has been traveling, and I can get a good idea of where she is now and what she is doing. Now for my next question.” Ryan looked at her and spoke with genuine concern. “Why in the hell did you disregard your instructions from my company? That was pretty risky for you. Good thing I got your call and was able to track you!”

“Honestly, I had no patience to sit in Virginia for four days waiting while my sister is missing. I took matters in my own hands and flew down here. It’s not like I planned to get grabbed by those goons!”

“Well, you’re lucky you got a hold of me. I guess I don’t blame you. The home office likes to leave a large window for travel to be sure things are in place, but they don’t do a very good job of taking the travelers concerns into the equation. Now, meeting you in a firefight well, talk about presence! I hate to see what sort of war you would start just going to pick up your dry cleaning!”

Lexi laughed and replied “Well, I have a reputation for disaster.”

“Seriously. You actually managed to get yourself nabbed and rescued in the time it takes most people to unpack their suitcases. At least nobody was hurt. Well, nobody but me.”

Kidd smiled as he glanced at a piece of gauze taped over the spot that a single bullet had barely grazed his shoulder and another similar wound on the calf of his leg.

Pointing to his phone on the coffee table he said “By the looks of my checking account it appears your sister was prepared to pay well. Now go on, tell me what else you know and tell me more about yourself. I need to know more. Have a seat, please.” He made a sweeping motion with his glass to invite her to the couch as he sat in the chair.

He certainly did need to know. He had to admit that he admired her. Suddenly he saw a glimpse of a trait that many people talk about but few people could actually pull off, bravery. She was in way over her head, but her strength overcame that by far. She wasn’t about to let anything stop her from fulfilling her sister’s wishes.

A thought came to Ryan that perhaps he was pushing too hard, especially after all she had just gone through. This could wait a little longer. She looked exhausted and Ryan knew she needed to rest. “You know what? This can wait until morning. You are perfectly safe here. We can’t get out of here today anyway. The bedroom is right there and it has its own bathroom. Just make yourself at home and crash in my bed for tonight. I promise it’s clean. No bugs and it’s really comfortable. I’ll stay out here tonight.” Ryan walked away scratching the stubble on his chin and wondering about the sudden effect Lexi seemed to be having on him.

The sunlight had faded away through the pastels of evening and into darkness. Something was outside. Lexi heard several steps on the deck. It has to be Ryan, she thought. I’m not even going to look. If it’s an owl I am going to lose my mind.

She looked in the bathroom and the thought of a relaxing shower seemed inviting, but the large four poster bed covered with mosquito netting was calling her with more urgency. She was drained. She tried to collect her thoughts on the day but she couldn’t process much more. I think Kate was right to have Ryan come with me on this. I think I trust him and he’s certainly not bad to look at either.

The blades of a large ceiling fan swirled around overhead. They were barely visible from the crack of light that crept under the door and they reminded her of the helicopter blades from earlier in the day. An image appeared in her mind. It was the way Ryan had looked at her with a warm smile when she really needed it. Her thoughts became a soft cloud that faded into the distance and then sleep.

Ryan opened the door and went out onto the deck. His faithful dog that had been patiently waiting to come inside nudged him for affection. He eased himself into a large comfortable chair, dropping one hand down to pet his friend. The moonlight left a long ribbon of pale light on the water. Ryan watched the shimmering black water and started to think about something Lexi had said.

What was it that she had called me? A secret agent for hire. Was that a compliment or an insult? I hardly think I am anything like that. I wonder what she thinks of me.

He listened to the invisible waves lightly breaking on the beach below. It had taken a long time to think of the beach as anything but peaceful. He had spent twelve years as a Navy SEAL, and for him the open beach was the danger zone. The most vulnerable time for a SEAL was making it through the shallow water and across the open sand completely exposed. He had to be unseen and unheard. He thought of Lexi and wondered now which of them was more vulnerable.

He had left the Navy to create a team of specialists. Specialists that would perform the impossible and do it according to their own rules and by their own choice.

His mind drifted back to Lexi. What the hell was it about her that kept pulling at him? He had certainly found plenty of women, but none he had met ever felt like they could be the one that he could spend his life with. After all, in Ryan’s mind the ideal woman didn’t exist. She would have to be close enough to admire, but distant enough to always maintain just an air of mystery. She would have to be independent, smart, funny, passionate, and brave. He hadn’t found any that met those standards and he wasn’t sure if he had even bothered to try.

He supposed it was safer this way after witnessing so many tragedies. People that were overcome by grief over unimaginable loss. A broken hearted toddler crying at the death of a parent. A mother’s tears for the death of her child. A woman sobbing uncontrollably at the loss of her mate. No. He would have no part of that. Ryan convinced himself that he was destined to travel the world untethered. Love would be nothing more than an anchor around his neck. Romance was a physical act of foreplay to heighten the desire and then to cut and run in the afterglow.

Ryan thought about it all and kept going back to the same conclusion that he had come to lately. He had purposefully withdrawn from society to avoid having to maintain relationships that ultimately ended up with someone getting hurt. He had started to notice the price he paid. His friend had taken his own life two years ago and he didn’t even know about it. Beyond the sad news she brought him about Kurt, Lexi’s arrival had shaken his firm resolution to remain distant from all people. He was still trying to figure out if it was her that had suddenly made him yearn for companionship and love or if he was just that lonely.

The large Newfoundland dog next to him placed his giant slobbery head to rest on his lap. He ran his fingers through the thick soft fur and scratched by his ears. “Sorry Buddy. I didn’t want you to jump all over our first house guest, and I don’t want you getting all attached to her either. I doubt we’ll see anymore of her after this job is done.”

Buddy, like most Newfoundland dogs was an accomplished swimmer and diver. He loved the surf and could even leap into the water from a low hovering helicopter. More than once Buddy had waited patiently by a hidden boat for Ryan to return from a mission. There were a few times when he had to help rescue a person by dragging the life jacket though the water with his powerful swim. Buddy’s greatest accomplishment was the time he saved two young children from a swollen river at the nearby fishing village a year ago. Ever since that day, he had become a welcome guest in the village at any time of day or night. On those visits, he would be treated like royalty and he was always provided plenty of cleaned fish to eat and bones to gnaw on. On a mission like today Buddy spent the day lounging under a tree or laying in his own personal hard plastic wading pool.

Ryan thought about where he was. The ocean before him was the gateway to the world. It was an accident he supposed that he was what he was, not to mention where he was. All of his younger years he was a daydreamer full of the curiosity that gnawed at him relentlessly. Perhaps it was finally time to move on once again.

Joining the Navy wasn’t some patriotic act for him. He recalled a warm summer afternoon on the porch of his grandfather’s farmhouse. His great Uncle had stopped by for a visit. He was transfixed as he listened to his Uncle tell tales of journeys to the South Pacific before WWII. With his stories, he painted exotic places that the young boy could picture as if he were looking through ancient copies of National Geographic. He knew right then he would become a chivalrous explorer of places, people, and things. This is how he saw himself and how he justified staying aloof from any and all relationships.

Lexi again came to mind. He needed to know how much danger would be coming their way. There was also another possibility concerning Kurt’s death, that he hadn’t told Lexi. There was no way to know yet how any of this could play out. His main concern was to know if he could trust her first. Mistrust of people was not just some character trait of his. It was a survival trait.

Still, he was intrigued by the possibility that Lexi was for real. He would give it some time while he looked for any clues that this was some sort of trap. He got up and went inside with Buddy. “Sleeping on the couch tonight Buddy. Stay out of the bedroom.” He nodded at the closed door.

 

End of Extended Sample

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