Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
The Columbus Code
By Mike Evans
Formats and Prices
- ebook (Digital original) $24.99 $32.99 CAD
- Hardcover $30.00 $38.00 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 15, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
Winters ran his hand over his damp upper lip. His nerves were on overdrive, jacked up on adrenaline and five cups of coffee. Raids used to be the thing that kept him from getting bored. He actually looked forward to them. But today dread was more the mindset than anticipation.
Time to do this thing. He pushed open the car door and stepped out. He could feel his hair stand up in the wind, even as short as he kept it. You could always count on wind in the Bay Area. Wind and hills and fog.
But today was sunny. Eye-burningly clear. Still nippy, though. There was always that chill in the air. Who was it, Mark Twain, who said the coldest winter he ever spent was the summer he spent in San Francisco? Winters grabbed his jacket from behind the seat, shrugged it on, and walked toward a black SUV parked farther up the street.
The neighborhood was situated not far from the East Bay. Most of the houses were built in the 1920s Craftsman style. Bungalows, really, although any of them could be sold for seven figures now. It was all about location.
Winters’ hands felt tacky as he rubbed them together. In his twenty years in the Secret Service he’d participated in more clandestine raids, more down and dirty arrests, more classified operations than he could remember. This one, though . . . He glanced around for the nearest bush in case his stomach rebelled.
The passenger door of the SUV swung open and Taylor Donleavy stepped out, sunglasses in place, shaved head oblivious to the wind. He was a computer forensics expert who spent most of his time in the Service’s technology lab, immersed in a world of terabytes and programming code. Donleavy should have been the one ready to throw up in the shrubbery. But he looked the way Winters used to feel before this kind of operation—chomping at the proverbial bit but trying not to look like it.
“Did they show you the house?” Winters asked.
“Yeah.” Donleavy had a raspy voice. If he hadn’t been a buddy, Winters would have called him a geek. Actually, he did.
“It’s that one, right?” Donleavy gestured to a low, one-story bungalow four houses away, near the center of the block.
“Come on, Donleavy, don’t point.”
Donleavy looked cluelessly at his index finger, then shrugged and went on. “Looks too peaceful, doesn’t it?”
It was hard to believe that in that unassuming two-bedroom abode, half a dozen Russians had infiltrated the online transaction system for worldwide retailer Galliano’s and had obtained millions of credit-card numbers and associated user information files. While the neighbors thought the Russians were making borscht and tending the roses, they were actually using day-trader software hacked from some low-budget investment firm to generate millions of small investment purchases. What the neighbors didn’t know, a retired schoolteacher from Spokane did—or at least he got suspicious enough to file a complaint with the Secret Service.
“It’s not gonna be peaceful on the inside,” Winters said close to Donleavy’s ear. “Just do your thing and get out. I know you’re all hot after being part of this but—”
“I know. Seize the—”
“Shut up, Donleavy.” This was why Winters hated taking a non-agent on a raid. But he had to. Only somebody like Donleavy could make sure the computers were seized intact so the whole case wasn’t a bust.
Another car door slammed across the street and Lonnie Smith joined them. Although he was an agent, he looked a lot less obtrusive than Donleavy in a plaid flannel over a green T-shirt and a Giants ball cap taming a mop of curly, prematurely gray hair.
“It’s a go,” he said, grinning. Smith always smiled, no matter the circumstances. It stretched his gray mustache into an almost-grimace.
“You sure they’re in there?” Winters said.
“Yeah. All eight of them.”
Winters tried not to let his eyes widen. “Eight? I thought there were only five.”
“Snipers have been in place since yesterday,” Smith said as if he were expanding the guest list for a dinner party. “They count eight.”
Winters began to sweat again—this time the icy, barely wet perspiration that paralyzes every muscle. “There can’t be eight,” he said through his teeth. “I’m not ready for eight.”
Smith’s mouth extended into a mirthless, white-toothed grin. “It’s eight, buddy. If you can’t handle it—”
“No, I can’t! I can’t! It’s not what I signed up for!”
Winters thrust his hands forward, reaching for what, he didn’t know. His heart raced and panic seized him at the thought of entering that house, but his fingers grasped nothing except thin air and the pale light slitting between the slats of the bedroom blinds. After a moment, he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, trying to remember where he was, then collapsed back on the bed and pulled his pajamaclad knees into his chest. What was it now—fifteen nightmares since the raid? He wouldn’t have counted them if Archer hadn’t told him to. She’d also told him to report to her when he had another . . . what did she call them? Episodes? It was a dream, not a psychotic episode. And he wasn’t calling her.
Winters glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table. He was surprised the thing still worked, seeing as how it had awakened him every morning in high school and he was now forty-five. Mom never changed a thing.
It was only 6:40 a.m., which meant it was 3:40 in San Francisco. Dr. Archer wouldn’t appreciate a call from Winters at this hour unless he was suicidal. Not that she hadn’t questioned him about that possibility after every session for the last two months.
Besides, this day wasn’t about him possibly dying. It was about Mom actually dying, which she’d done two days before without giving him, Ben, or Maria any warning. Three days ago she’d called to tell him not to forget Uncle David’s eightieth birthday. Now he was waking up in his boyhood room on the day of her funeral.
“Yo, Johnny,” a husky voice called. “You awake?” That question was followed by a loud banging on the door.
“I am now,” Winters replied.
The door was forced open, the settling of the house over the last fifty-five years having rendered it jammed. His brother, Ben, younger by fifteen years, entered with his usual swagger. The kid still carried himself like the Bowie High football captain—head cocky, arms held out to the sides in half circles because they were too buff to touch his ribs, blue eyes making sure everybody was looking at him.
“You were passed out when I got in last night,” Ben said.
“I wasn’t ‘passed out.’ I was asleep like normal people.” Winters threw back what covers were still in place after the dream and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Ben stepped forward, playfully batting at Winters’ head. “No, man,” he quipped, “you’re not normal people. You’re Secret Agent Man. S. A. . . .”
Winters stopped listening and stifled a groan. Ben had been ten years old when he joined the Service and back then it was cute when his kid brother bragged about his status and talked about it nonstop when they were together. Now it bordered on obnoxious. No, actually it had gone beyond obnoxious, especially since Ben had decided to follow in his footsteps.
Winters got to his feet and gave Ben a halfhearted hug.
“You hear anything?” Ben asked.
“About my challenging that last set of interviews.”
Winters feigned a yawn and squeezed past him. The room had gotten smaller since they were kids. “No, I haven’t, and nobody would tell me anything anyway.”
“I was hoping you’d know something.”
Winters stopped, hand on the doorknob, and turned toward him. “Ben. Brother. We came here to bury our mother and all you can think about is your job interviews?”
“No, man, I’m thinkin’ about Mom, but—”
“Give it a rest,” Winters said. He pried the door open, then walked down the hall to the bathroom. It was pointless to add that during Ben’s endless stay with him in San Francisco, Ben had bombed the preliminary interviews because he went into them acting as if he were already an agent packing heat. His rejection was a done deal, but there was no convincing Ben of that.
When Winters returned to the bedroom, Ben was sitting on the edge of the bed, studying a family photo taken on the day Winters graduated high school—back when Ben was two. He was now looking more like a guy who had just lost his mother.
“I never felt like I knew her as well as you did,” he said. To his credit, his voice was thick and soft.
Winters leaned against the dresser. “I think we knew two different Moms. She changed a lot after Pop died. And how old were you when that happened? Five?”
Ben gave a glum nod. “She was all into the past. Last couple of years I lived here she spent more time in the attic than she did down here.”
Winters shuddered involuntarily. Ben made it sound as if the feisty, food-pushing mother he knew had turned into something out of one of filmmaker Brian De Palma’s psychological thrillers. “What do you say we celebrate her in her best days?” he said.
Ben wiped his nose with the side of his hand and nodded. His eyes were already mischievous again. “Hey, did you get grayer since I was out there?”
Winters ran a hand over the hair he knew was turning more salt-and-pepper daily and glanced over at his brother. “Did you lose more of yours?”
Ben had their father’s receding hairline, though he was far from bald. He reached out for Winters’ midsection. “Is that a little soft spot there? What happened to your six-pack?”
Winters’ face was impassive, but the comment struck home. If they didn’t let him get back to work soon he was going to lose his edge. “I hope you brought a suit,” he said, changing the subject.
“Oh, yeah. Hugo Boss, brother. Mom would be proud.”
No, Winters thought, she would tell him he was a moron for spending money he didn’t have. “Put it on,” he said instead. “We need to get there early.”
“Hey, is Maria here?”
Why didn’t he just push all of Winters’ buttons? Were they that obvious? “She’s meeting us at the church,” Winters said. “And she’ll beat us there if you don’t get a move on.”
Winters was lying, of course, though it seemed Ben didn’t notice. He knew Maria would wait until the last possible moment to show up. And not because she didn’t love her grandmother.
Maria Winters looked up through a panel of thick hair and glared at her assistant. “What are you doing?” she asked.
Austin wafted a lanky arm toward the door—again—and said, “I’m trying to get you out of here, ma’am.”
“Do not call me ‘ma’am,’” she said, though she knew it was useless. He was not only from Mississippi, but he loved to needle her. “I want to finish this travel stuff,” she continued. “I’m barely going to get back before we leave for Barcelona.”
His eyes narrowed, making his already thin face look even skinnier. Spikes of hair the color of bran completed the effect: Austin looked as if he were about to levitate to the ceiling with her briefcase in his hand.
“I can finish the travel stuff. It’s my job to finish the travel stuff. You shouldn’t even be touching the travel stuff.” Austin set the red briefcase on the desk and tapped it. “You’re just stalling.”
Maria dragged her fingers through the loose curls that would droop the minute she hit the sidewalk. It had been drizzling in DC all morning and probably was in Maryland too. Why did it always rain the day of a funeral? Couldn’t people be buried when the ground was dry?
“Seriously,” Austin said.
She looked at Austin again. For a twenty-three-year-old guy, he was pretty sensitive. She’d wondered more than once why he was working in a high-pressure law firm when he should be doing grief counseling or something. He’d been counseling her ever since Friday when she’d received the news about Abuela right here in this room.
“You need closure,” he said now.
“I know. What I don’t need is my family.”
“But they probably need you.”
“I doubt that very seriously. What they need is the opposite of me.”
“Whatever. I already called you a cab. You have just enough time to make your train.” Austin’s hazel eyes softened. “You can do this. You know you can.”
“‘Can’ is one thing,” Maria said. “‘Want to’ is another.” She stood and took her spring trench coat from him, then picked up the briefcase. “Promise you’ll finish this?”
“If you don’t go I’m going to cause a scene.”
Maria couldn’t stifle a smile, though it faded as soon as she stepped into the hall and plowed headlong into Bill Snowden. She didn’t have time for one of Snowden’s monologues, but you didn’t put off the boss. Not this one, anyway.
“Where are you off to?” he asked, dark eyebrows tending toward each other. Maria was sure the man had them waxed.
“My grandmother’s funeral.” Maria backed toward the elevator as she added, “I sent you an e-mail.”
“Oh, right,” he said as he nodded. “Sorry for your loss.”
Uh-huh. There was no “sorry” in Snowden’s dark eyes. The striking contrast with his very-white hair should have made him handsome, but Maria never found cold men attractive.
“Well, here, take this with you.” Snowden thrust a sheaf of papers into her hands. “Final details for the Catalonia meeting. You’ll go straight there when you land in Barcelona, so take some Ambien or something for the flight. You’ll want to sleep on the way over.”
Maria bit off an As if and nodded, still making her way backward to the elevator. She also forced herself not to say, You couldn’t have sent me this by e-mail? She didn’t have to look at the pages to know that most, if not all, of it was handwritten in his inimitable scrawl—in pencil, no less. That was why she went to law school and was hired on at this prestigious firm at age twenty-five—so she could decipher her boss’ handwriting like a 1940s stenographer.
“See you in Spain,” he said as she stepped onto the elevator.
The doors closed, squeezing him out of sight. “Bye-bye,” she whispered.
Yeah, she sighed to herself, sometimes it is, as Austin would say, “wa-a-a-ay hard” to be professional.
The closer the MARC train drew to the stop, the less Maria wanted to think about going to Abuela’s house without her there. She had always been there—before and after the event by which Maria marked everything. Her mom’s death. Abuela had been a constant—the summers when Maria went there to stay after—the Christmases the whole family spent there before. The house would still smell like paprika and saffron. Abuela had been making paella for a church supper the last time Maria talked to her. Maybe her smell would still be there too. Dove soap. Jergens lotion. Downy. But without her there, it would only taunt—Maria knew that.
And then there would be her father . . .
Him she couldn’t think about or she’d head straight back to DC. Maria’s fingers shook with anger even now as she opened her briefcase and pulled out the papers Snowden had given her. But as her eyes scanned the pages, her mind turned to work and very quickly her body relaxed.
Maria’s firm, Gump, Snowden and Meir, represented Catalonia Financial, an international corporation with headquarters in Barcelona, Spain. Catalonia was currently acquiring Belgium Continental and wanted Snowden there to finalize the deal. Snowden never went anywhere without a full entourage, and he’d asked Maria to be part of it this time. It was her first overseas trip since she joined the firm in December, fresh out of law school, and even though his invitation had been last minute it still seemed like one of those only-happens-once things—until she lost Abuela.
“You’re doing so well!” Abuela said to her on Easter weekend when she’d heard about the trip. They’d spent the weekend coloring eggs and eating ham and putting lilies on the grave of Abuelo, the grandfather Maria never knew. Abuela had taken Maria’s face in both hands and said exactly what Maria knew she would say. “Your mama would be so proud.”
Fourteen years after the fact and they were still crying. Abuela had always grieved as if Maria’s mother, Anne, was her own daughter. She definitely grieved more than Dad had . . .
Maria blinked away the blur in her eyes and went back to the notes. Emilio Tejada, president and CEO of Catalonia Financial, would conduct the meeting himself and she would have to take notes rather than record the session. “Tejada’s a tough bird, set in his ways,” Snowden had written.
She couldn’t think about “tough old birds” right now either. That was how her Uncle David referred to Abuela. Everything was leading back to her.
Maria’s mind continued to wander and finally she crammed the papers into her briefcase, then sat quietly watching the raindrops stream sideways on the window of the racing train. She almost knew more about Abuela than she did about herself. Her father had even suggested during their stilted phone conversation that she should give the eulogy.
Was he the most insensitive creature ever to inhabit the planet? Maybe he didn’t know that this was the first funeral she would attend since that awful September day when they buried Mom.
Or maybe he didn’t know her at all.
Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church was a ponderous old place that had changed as little as Winters’ mother had in the years since he had been an acolyte there. He had carried the cross up the aisle nearly every Sunday because he was the only teenager left in the parish. The congregation had consisted largely of octogenarians back then, mixed with the few faithful younger people like Olivia Winters who were devoted to the denomination. He couldn’t imagine what was still holding it together.
But it was actually a fairly young priest who met him at the door when he and Ben arrived, dripping umbrellas in hand. He might have been Ben’s age, though he was visibly more mature. But then, who wasn’t?
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Father Todd. Is the family all here?” he asked after the introductions had been made.
Ben brushed past him and peered between the swinging doors into the sanctuary. “I don’t see Maria,” he said.
“How long do you want to wait?” Father Todd asked.
“Until my daughter gets here,” Winters answered.
“Uncle David’s in there,” Ben said when the priest had left them. “How’d he get here?”
“They brought him over in the van from the nursing home. His wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the trunk of my rental car.”
Ben gave him a lopsided grin. “You’re still cheap.”
Winters had spent only four hours with his brother and he was already wishing he’d—
Just then, the door to the narthex opened and a figure clad in a white trench coat and carrying a red briefcase slipped in and tossed back a mass of honey-colored curls. Winters’ throat tightened. His daughter looked just like her mother—liquid gold eyes peering through the semidarkness, head held high and almost haughty, hand reaching for her hair. Just as Anne had, Maria signaled her mood by whatever her hand was doing to her hair.
When she saw him, her fingers clawed at it and any hope of a smile disappeared from her face. That was too bad, because Maria had a marvelous smile that Winters thought upstaged the sun.
“Hey,” he said and walked toward her. She didn’t pull away from the kiss he placed on her forehead, but he felt her stiffen. “You okay?”
“Am I okay? No, Dad, I’m not okay.”
Winters sucked in air. “I meant from the trip up here. You were cutting it a little close and I thought maybe you ran into trouble.”
He was lying and she knew it. He saw the disbelief flicker through those limpid eyes. It wasn’t what he wanted to see.
“Are we ready?” Father Todd asked.
“We are.” Maria crossed to him and put her arms out. To Winters’ astonishment he pulled her into a hug and held on.
“She loved you,” he said into her hair.
She nodded, suddenly sobbing. Winters felt a sinking sensation in his chest.
The service was everything Abuela wanted, Maria was sure. Traditional Episcopal liturgy. The same hymns they’d sung together at Easter. A sermon by Father Todd, whom her grandmother always referred to as “the young rector.”
“You captured her beautifully,” she said to him afterward.
“That wasn’t hard to do,” he said. “What you saw was what she was.” His eyes misted. “And what she was—that was something.”
Maria could have hugged him again. He might have been “the young rector” to Abuela, but he was pretty much her fount of wisdom when it came to God. She wished they had more time together.
“Come to the house, Father?”
Maria bristled at her father’s voice. Brusque. Clipped. As if every word were part of an order.
Father Todd declined. Maria wished she could, but there was no getting around the reception at Abuela’s house. The women in her circle had probably already descended on the place with cream-of-soup casseroles and comfort desserts. And if her Uncle Ben had anything to do with it, the wine would be flowing freely. At the very least she wanted to keep him from getting plastered for Abuela’s sake. She’d convinced her friends her younger son had all but, to use an Austin phrase, “hung the moon.”
Abuela had always said she didn’t want anyone at the graveside, watching them “drop me into that hole,” so the limousine took Maria, her father, and Uncle Ben directly to the house. The ride would have been silent if Uncle Ben hadn’t bantered the entire time about absolutely nothing. Maria watched the muscles twitch in her father’s cheek. For once they were in sync.
She’d been right about the food and the elbow-to-elbow crowd crammed into Abuela’s two-story clapboard house. Her ancient great-uncle, David, was already ensconced in his wheelchair in the living room with a glass of merlot in one hand and a cigar in the other. Maria marched toward him and removed both, replacing them with a kiss on the cheek.
“That stuff won’t kill me!” he protested. “Smoked and drank all my life and never sick a day. Now they put me away in some home and look at me—sitting here like a fossil.”
Maria didn’t bother to argue with that logic and headed to the dining room to fix him a plate. As she rounded the corner, she all but collided with her father, who was standing in the dark hall with his forehead pressed to the wall.
“Dad?” she said.
He recovered well. He always did. His penetrating dark eyes came back from wherever his mind had been and he slid his hands into the pockets of his slacks. Maria steeled herself for the prying questions and the lecture about whatever answers she gave him, no matter what they were.
“Nice service,” he said.
Maria nodded. “Just what she would have wanted.”
“You’d know that better than I would.”
Was that a trace of regret she was hearing?
“Did you know?” he asked.
“Know . . .”
“That she was sick?”
“She wasn’t. Not that I was aware of.”
“So she just died in her sleep at seventy-two.”
“It was the way she would’ve wanted that too.” Maria pulled her hair back in a handheld ponytail that collapsed the moment she removed her hand. “She always said when it was her time to go, she just wanted to fall asleep one night and not wake up.”
“She usually got what she wanted,” Winters said. “I wish you’d agreed to an autopsy, though.”
“I didn’t want her cut open. She died with dignity and I wanted to keep it that way.”
He gave a soft grunt. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“What does that mean?”
“You get what you want, too, don’t you?”
Maria brought herself up to her full five-eight height. “No, Dad,” she said. “I don’t.” She spun around and started toward the kitchen.
- On Sale
- Sep 15, 2015
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Worthy Books