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Point and Shoot
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Charlie Hardie finds himself in a steel box, tubes and wires attached to his body, trapped inside a satellite parked in orbit 500 miles above the Earth. He’s got a year’s supply of food, air, water, and no communication back to Earth, and must complete his 12 months’ duty or his wife and son will have an “accident.”
But when someone all-too-familiar docks on the satellite, informs Hardie he’s sitting in a veritable zero-G vault containing the world’s most dangerous secrets, and forces a crash-landing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hardie must decide whether he’s come face-to-face with the partner he needs to save his family — or with his nemesis. After years of exile, Hardie’s arming up….and heading home.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale
Canto XVII, lines 58–60
And if you still can't see the light
God's gonna buy you a satellite
Grab your gun.
Oh God, where's your gun?
This isn't going to have a happy ending.
—Morgan Freeman, Se7en
Near Brokenland Parkway, Columbia, Maryland—Seven Months Ago
A TWENTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD HUNGOVER intern with a broken heart saved the day.
The intern's name was Warren Arbona, and he was in a stuffy warehouse along with five other interns scanning endless pieces of paper and turning them into PDFs that nobody would ever, ever fucking read. The whole operation was strictly cover-your-ass. The interns' bosses wanted to be able to tell their government liaisons that, yes, every page of the flood of declassified documents they released had been carefully read and scanned by an experienced member of their legal team.
"Experienced" = interns who'd been on the job for at least two months.
The new president had made a big deal about declassifying everything, the shining light of freedom blasting through the deceptions of the previous administration. A democracy requires accountability, he said, and accountability requires transparency. Which sounded awesome.
But before the PDFs could be uploaded, the president's intelligence advisers insisted that no sensitive secrets harmful to the security of the United States would be leaked to the general public. This still was the real world.
So a white-shoe law firm specializing in government intelligence was retained to painstakingly review every line on every scrap of paper.
Nobody in the firm wanted to deal with that bullshit, so they put the interns on it.
And Warren Arbona, the intern in question, wouldn't have noticed a thing if it hadn't been for his cunt ex-girlfriend. He couldn't help it. The name just jumped out at him.
He stopped the scan and looked at the paper again. Were his eyes playing tricks on him?
Nope. There it was.
No, it wasn't Christy's dad. Her dad was named Bruce or some such shit. Balding. Big asshole. Deviated septum and beady eyes. But this Charlie guy was an uncle, maybe? Some other relative? Warren had no idea.
And really, who the fuck cared. Christy didn't matter anymore; he'd do best to put her out of his head and finish up with this scanning so he could go home and get good and drunk again.
They were all working inside the abandoned warehouse set of a canceled television show, Baltimore Homicide. The rent was absurdly cheap, and the set already had the delightful bonus of real desks and working electrical outlets, thanks to a subplot featuring a fake daily newspaper office.
So all the law firm had to do was arrange for the reams of paper—nearly three trucks' worth—to be backed into the building, plug in a bunch of laptops and scanners, and then set the interns loose. See you in September, motherfuckers.
The working conditions were less than ideal. While an industrial AC unit blasted 60,000 BTUs of arctic air into the fake office via ringed funnels, the warehouse itself had diddly-squat in the way of climate management. So every time you left to drag in another set of files, you baked and sweated in the stifling summer heat. And then when you returned, your sweat was flash-frozen on your body. No wonder everybody was sick.
Warren had been fighting a cold since May, when he first started scanning the documents. He believed that if he polluted his body with enough tequila, the cold virus would give up and abandon ship. So far, it hadn't worked.
But the tequila also helped him forget about Christy Hardie.
Now the name popped up, and Warren couldn't help but be curious. He started to read the document, which was a deposition.
Seems Charlie Hardie was an ex–police consultant turned drunk house sitter who was later accused of snuffing a junkie actress named Lane Madden.
Warren kind of wished someone had snuffed Christy after she confessed that she'd been blowing his best friend for, oh, the entire first year of law school.
Anyway, Warren remembered the Lane Madden story from a bunch of years ago. Apparently she'd been raped and killed by this house sitter guy who used to be a cop and kind of lost his mind. But the rest of the deposition was kind of boring, so Warren stopped reading and fed the pages into the scanner. Yes, they were all supposed to eyeball each page—even the partners weren't foolish enough to tell the interns to actually read them. But Warren and his colleagues dispensed with the eyeballing crap somewhere in late May. If fingers touched a page, it was considered read. Osmosis, they decided.
Warren looked at the clock. Just two more hours until his brain went south of the border.
But at fifteen minutes until closing, something strange happened.
Warren saw the name again, in another deposition, from another year.
The same fucking dude!
But a totally different file!
To have the same name pop up…with the same surname as his skanky cunt ex-girlfriend…well, that was too big a goocher to ignore.
There wasn't time to read it all, so Warren broke a series of federal laws by stuffing the relevant pages into his North Face backpack and slipped out of the building a few minutes early. He made his Jose Cuervo run, put his feet up on a wobbly Ikea coffee table that was improperly assembled, and settled in for an evening of reading.
Now when Warren had started the scanning project, the partners had told him to look out for anything "unusual." Like what, Warren had asked.
You know, they'd said. Unusual.
This seemed to qualify.
Charlie Hardie, it seemed, had also been involved in a top-secret military project years before he'd been accused of killing that actress. And not just your usual creepy top-secret military project. This one messed around with you at a genetic level and resulted in…well, that was the frightening part. Few survived, and the project was shut down. Dumb fucking luck? Not likely. Warren didn't believe in synchronicity. Exhibit A seemed pretty clearly linked to Exhibit B.
This made Warren's night, because all summer he'd been dreading the idea of not reporting a single thing to the partners. This would prove he hadn't been dicking around all summer (even though he had). This was a genuine catch. This was justification for his summer. For his entire life.
The next morning he pushed the scanner aside and wrote a short memo, including his thoughts on the Charlie Hardie depositions, then copied it and Fed Exed it to the partners.
The partners, also happy to be able to report something to their friends in intelligence, passed it along.
This document would later be known as the Arbona Memorandum. Its shock waves would be felt around the globe.
But at first, it started with a brutal mass slaughter in Philadelphia.
One Mile Outside Philadelphia—Now
Of all the shocks Kendra Hardie had endured over the past few hours—the dropped call from her son, the chilling messages on the alarm keypad, the thudding footfalls on the roof, the wrenching sounds in the very guts of her house, the missing gun, and the awful realization of how quickly her situation had become hopeless—none of that compared to the shock of hearing that voice on the other end of the phone line:
Kendra's mind froze. There was a moment of temporal dislocation, distant memory colliding with the present.
Could that really be…you?
It sounds like you, but…
Can't be you.
But then how do I know, deep in my soul, that it is you?
"Are you there? Listen to me, Kendra, I know this is going to sound crazy, but you have to listen to me. You and the boy are in serious danger. You need to get out of the house now and just start driving. Drive anywhere. Don't tell me where, because they're definitely listening, but just go, go as fast as you can. I'll find you guys when it's safe."
Kendra swallowed hard, looked at the face of the satellite TV receiver. Three thirteen a.m. A little more than four hours since she'd stepped into her own home and into a living nightmare. Eighteen hours since she'd last seen her son. And almost eight years since she'd last heard her ex-husband's voice. Yet there it was on the line, at the very nexus of the nightmare.
"Kendra? Are you there? Can you hear me?"
"I'm here, Charlie. But I can't leave."
"You have to leave, Kendra, please just trust me on this…"
"I can't leave because they've already called, and told me I can't leave."
Earlier in the evening Kendra had been out with a friend downtown, at a Cuban restaurant on Second Street in Old City, but found that she wasn't really into the food, didn't want to finish her mojito, and was tired of hearing about her friend's first-world problems, such as arguments with interior decorators and the headache of maintaining three vacation homes on the Delaware shore. Kendra excused herself and just…left. Paid for half of the tab and split, handed the valet her stub, and drove back to the northern suburbs, leaving poor Derek to complain to somebody else about having too much money. Maybe one of the Cuban exile waiters would give a shit.
It had been that kind of listless, annoyance-filled week, and Kendra now felt foolish for thinking that a night of moderate drinking and inane conversation could turn that around.
During the drive home her son, CJ, called. He told her he was just calling to check in—which was just about as unusual as the president of the United States dropping you an email to see how everything was going. CJ didn't check in, ever. As CJ grew to manhood, he became increasingly like his father, complete with the delightful ability to cut off all emotional circuitry with the flick of an invisible switch. All the abuse her son had been dishing out over the years hardened her into exactly the kind of mother she'd vowed never to become. The kind of mother who said things like:
"Cut the shit, CJ. What happened?"
"Nothing, Mom. I just…"
Mom. Oooh, that was another red flag. CJ hadn't called her Mom in…months? CJ barely spoke to her, and when he did, it was little more than a grunt.
Now a tiny ball of worry began to form in Kendra's stomach. Was he hurt? Was he calling from a hospital or police station? Her body tensed, and she prepared to change direction and gun the accelerator.
"Where are you?"
"I'm at home, everything's fine. Look, Mom, I know this is going to sound weird, but…what did you do with Dad's old stuff?"
"What? Why are you asking me about that?'
First Mom, now…Dad!? For the past seven years, CJ hadn't referred to his father as anything but "asshole" or "cocksucker" or "psycho." Before Kendra had a chance to hear CJ's answer, the phone beeped and went dead. NO SERVICE.
Kendra continued in the same direction but gunned the accelerator just the same, all the way up the Schuylkill Expressway, then the endless traffic lights up Broad Street and finally the hills and curves of Old York Road out to the fringes of Abington Township. Home. She didn't bother pulling the car into the garage, leaving it parked out on the street. Something in CJ's voice…no, everything about CJ's voice was completely wrong. Dad's old stuff? What was that about? Why did he suddenly want to see the few possessions his father had left behind? The thought that CJ might be drinking crossed Kendra's mind, but his voice wasn't slurred. If anything, it was completely clear and focused, in stark contrast to the moody grunts she usually received.
And whenever CJ did go on a binge, his heart filled with raw hate for this father, not fuzzy nostalgia.
The alarm unit on the wall to the left of the door beeped insistently until Kendra keyed in the code. She closed the door behind her, locked it, then reengaged the system. It beeped again. All set.
"CJ, answer me!"
And then began the nightmare.
No CJ, not anywhere. No trace of him in his room, no tell-tale glasses or dishes in the sink. The house was exactly as Kendra had left it when she left for Old City earlier in the evening. Had CJ even called from home? The call had come from his cell, so he could be anywhere right now.
Not knowing what else to do, Kendra tried him again on her phone, but still—NO SERVICE. What was that about? She could understand a dropped call when speeding down the Schuylkill, as if a guardian angel had interfered with the signal to prevent you from sparking a twelve-car pile-up on the most dangerous road in Philadelphia. But in her own home?
Maybe she could get a better signal outside. Kendra went back to the front door and keyed in the code. Two digits in, however, her finger stopped, and hung in midair before the 6 key.
The digital readout, which usually delivered straightforward messages such as SYSTEM ENGAGED or PLEASE ENTER ACCESS CODE, now told her something else:
STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE
"The fuck?" Kendra muttered, then lowered her finger for a second before blinking hard and stabbing the 6 button anyway, followed by the 2. Which should have disengaged the system. This time, however, there was no reassuring beep. There was nothing at all, except:
KENDRA, THAT WON'T HELP.
DON'T MAKE A SOUND.
NOT UNTIL WE CALL YOU.
And Kendra, much to her own disgust, did exactly as she was told, staying perfectly still and silent…
…for about two seconds, before realizing fuck this and grabbing the handle of her front door. She twisted the knob, pulled. The door didn't move, as if it had been cemented in place. What? She hadn't put the deadbolts on when she'd come in just a minute ago…
The phone in her hand buzzed to life. There was SERVICE, suddenly. The name on the display: INCOMING CALL / CJ.
Oh thank God. She thumbed the Accept button, expecting to hear her son's voice, maybe even hoping he'd call her Mom again.
But instead, it was someone else.
Now, four agonizing hours later, during which Kendra heard the sounds of her own house being turned against her…she was listening to the voice of her ex-husband—an accused murderer long thought to be dead. And he had the audacity to be grilling her!
"They called me and said if I left the house I was dead."
"Who told you that? Who told you you were dead?"
"A woman. She didn't give her name."
"Did you call the police? Anyone at all?"
"They told me not to call anyone, or do anything else except wait."
"Wait for what?"
There was a burst of static on the line, and then another voice came on the line. The one who'd called four hours earlier, from CJ's phone.
The evil icy-voiced bitch queen who had her son and who claimed to have the house surrounded.
"Hey, Charlie! It's your old pal Mann here. So good to hear your voice after all this time. Well, that magical day has finally arrived. In about thirty seconds we're going to kill the phones, and the power, and everything else in your wife's house. We've got her surrounded; I know every square inch of every house in a five-block radius. You, of all people, know how thorough we are."
Charlie ignored the other voice.
"Kendra, where's the boy? Where's Seej?"
Seej: Charlie's old nickname for CJ—See. Jay. Over time, shortened to Seej.
"Shhhh, now, Charlie, it's rude to interrupt. You're wasting precious seconds. Now I know what you're going to say. You're going to tell me that if I touch one hair on your family's head, you'll rip me apart one limb at a time…or maybe some other colorful metaphor? Well, you know, that's just not gonna happen. Because you lost this one, Chuck. There's not going to be any cavalry rushing in, no last-minute saves, no magic escapes. And you know what's going to happen next?"
What should have been going through Kendra's mind at this moment was something along the lines of:
Charlie, where the hell have you been, and why have you surfaced now? The last time we spoke it was stupid and petty conversation about a late credit card bill and I think the last word I spoke to you before disconnecting was whatever.
Charlie, why didn't you call me before tonight? Do you know how many late nights I stared at the ceiling, trying to physically will you to call me? Not to change anything or explain anything, but just to tell me what happened? Do you know how hard the not knowing was? How much it consumed me over the years, digging in deep, way past the regret and guilt and into the very core of me?
But instead Kendra thought:
Goddamn you, Charlie.
Goddamn you for doing this to us.
"What's going to happen next is," the ice bitch queen continued, "your family's going to die. And there's not a fucking thing you can do to stop me."
If Kendra had any doubts that the voice on the other end of the line belonged to her husband, they vanished when he spoke again. Because his words were infused with a rock-hard defiance that had once been familiar to her, over a decade ago.
Charlie Hardie told the ice bitch queen, "I can stop you."
Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.
Low Earth Orbit—Three Days Ago
THE TRANSMISSION WAS supposed to start at 12:30 p.m. universal time, but by 12:55 it became clear that wasn't going to happen.
Hardie told himself it was just a little trouble with the signal. Someone down there was diligently working on the problem, and pretty soon he'd be seeing his family on the monitor. Just a few more minutes. They wouldn't leave him hanging much longer, right? This was the only thing that kept him going, and they knew it. They wouldn't mess with him like this. That would just be cruel.
After four hours of being frozen stiff, Hardie unstrapped his legs to stretch them. Starting at 1:00 p.m. UT he had a checklist of duties to perform. They had better start the transmission soon. Otherwise…
And then the transmission began.
One hundred and sixty-six miles below, life went on.
Below, on the surface of the earth, at almost 10:00 a.m. eastern standard time, which was three hours behind universal time, Kendra was making chicken soup. Both she and Seej were fighting colds. Kendra had already taken apart the chicken and was now chopping thick carrot slices. Her furious motions made Hardie nervous—her fingers moved so quickly, chop chop chop chop chop chop chop, even though her fingers were curled under, just like you were supposed to do. Still, fingers could slip. And if something should happen…
Seej was in the living room, holding up an imaginary gun-sword thing and blasting and slashing away digital opponents on a flat screen. Hardie had no idea what the boy was playing. The last video game he could remember the kid playing, more than a decade ago, was something involving Italian plumbers and giant magic mushrooms. What the hell kind of game involved a gun and a sword? If a gun didn't do the job, did you really need the sword to finish off the bad guy? And why slash at him with a sword if you've got a gun at your disposal?
Still the boy was enraptured. Nothing real, except the sick delight on his face. You could tell when he got off a particularly gory shot, because his eyes lit up in a certain way. Partly appalled, partly amused. Much as Hardie didn't want to admit it, he looked like the kind of kid who might shoot up a school someday.
This was Charlie Hardie's family. Right there in front of him. Flesh and blood, living their lives, struggling with their problems.
For the past nine months, Charlie Hardie's life boiled down to mind-numbing routine. Open eyes. Crawl out of the harness that held him in place while he tried—and failed—to sleep. Evacuate bladder in a separate harness setup—which up here entailed a seventeen-step process. Climb over to the control panels. Check the levels, comparing the numbers against the ones in the manual, even though he knew them by heart. Stand to eat a bland meal, because sitting made his stomach hurt too much. Wash self with moistened towelettes. Do sit-ups and pedal an ergometer to get strength back. Push the same sequence of buttons again. And again. And again. A monkey could do this. But they didn't want any old monkey.
They wanted a monkey named Charlie Hardie.
It had been a year since Charlie Hardie almost shot that nice woman in the face.
And every day in this cramped-ass satellite, Hardie thought about what life would have been like if he had shot that woman in the face. Probably would have been short. As in "a few seconds long" short—because if he'd killed that woman, her armed minions would have blasted the meat from Hardie's bones with a dazzling array of heavy artillery. A few seconds may even be generous.
Instead Hardie had agreed to not shoot the woman in the face, and to surrender to the Cabal and pretty much do their bidding.
The Cabal…oh, they had so many names. When Hardie first encountered them, he knew them as the Accident People who worked for the Industry. Back then they'd nearly killed him…but he'd hurt them bad, too, scuttling a deal worth billions and really pissing them off. So much so that the incident (a) stole five years of Hardie's life, and (b) stuck him in a secret prison and forced him to be the warden. Needless to say, this really pissed Hardie
- On Sale
- Apr 30, 2013
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Mulholland Books