"Where y' headin' for lunch, Nathan?"
"Not sure, Rockstar. Got errands to run."
"You're gunna end up eatin' junk food."
"Yeah, more than likely."
"Headstone's gunna read, 'here lies a Snickers bar.' You know that, don't you?"
"I do. And it'll sit right next to yours, which'll say, 'here lies a nagging pain-in-the-ass.'"
The two shared a laugh as they parted, a nice way to start the lunch break. Bill, Nathan's counterpart and friend, headed toward his favorite health food store. His nickname rose from the long bank of hair he kept for the occasional undercover work. He didn't mind. Life on the homicide squad required sacrifices, and Bill's long hair was his gift. A minor irritation.
Nathan Ramsey's gift was dedication. He practically lived in his office, a fact not lost on his wife and two kids. It strained his marriage, by his own admission. But he was doing what he loved. He'd been a cop since his early twenties. Later this year he'd even celebrate his thirtieth anniversary.
First stop, the dry cleaners. His phone rang just as he opened the door to his sedan.
"Yes?" he quickly answered, donning his Bluetooth headset so he could talk while he drove. He didn't bother to look at the caller ID, thinking it Rockstar, calling to agitate him about his diet.
"There's a bomb in your car," a dark voice announced. "Do everything I say, and you'll live."
"You heard me."
"Knock it off, Rockstar. I've got too much to do."
"I'm not your partner, Nathan. Open the glovebox."
He complied, still grinning over what he assumed was a practical joke. But what he discovered shocked him. Obviously, it was no practical joke, as this ruse would've clearly stepped over the line. Seems the small storage area had been gutted to encompass a bomb. A very complicated bomb. First appearances pegged it as C4, yet he couldn't be sure without further tampering. Wires crisscrossed the device like a Phoenix roadmap. Sharp edges of shrapnel protruded from the exterior, and electrical tape secured various mechanisms at each end. A receiver decorated one side, a battery, the other.
Nathan swallowed. He knew when he was in trouble.
"OK, you've got my attention."
"Follow my directions exactly. Deviate at all, and this will end quickly."
"You'll do twenty years for this," Nathan announced. "Minimum."
"Only if I'm caught," the voice responded. "I never will."
"You sound sure of yourself."
"No offense, Detective, but I'm way ahead of you. Always have been. Check out the passenger-side visor." Nathan obeyed, immediately glancing to his right. There, fixed below the visor, was a small camera pointed straight at him.
"So you're not only a criminal, but a voyeur as well."
"Don't patronize me, Nathan. I'm just letting you know I'm observing your movements. There are four more cameras just like it hidden throughout your car, so don't think you can destroy one and we'll lose touch."
Nathan nodded. "I see. You're very thorough."
"Hell, I'm just getting started. I've also got a GPS attached to the chassis. You'll drive the route I tell you, or..."
A long pause caused Nathan to think he struck a nerve.
"Just don't force me to demonstrate, OK?"
"I can't promise that."
The voice got angry. "Yeah? Who's in control here?"
"That's right. Don't forget that. The device in the glovebox has no timer. It cannot be bypassed, circumvented, or rendered inert. It responds to me, my detonator only. If tampered with, it will activate. Understand?"
"Good. Never underestimate the extent of my preparation. This has been in the planning stages for quite some time. And don't think our time together won't be allowed to reach its rightful conclusion. It will. I've got all the bases covered, with more backup and contingencies than you could imagine. Success...or failure...depends on you."
Nathan squirmed under his apprehension. The seriousness of the situation finally began to take hold. "I understand."
"I thought you might."
"Who are you?"
Silence. The pause was more irritating than anything else.
"A friend? This is no way to treat a friend."
Nathan quickly went to work, searching his mind for the right tactics. He could try to feign despair with the hope of eliciting an emotional response. It had been effective in the past, albeit with less sophisticated sociopaths. But this was no ordinary foe. Matching wits could be a bad idea.
"Why are you doing this?"
After a lengthy gap, Nathan realized he may have just made the first mistake. Worse, though, was the response, which appeared more raspy and haunting than before.
"You know who I am."
Nathan questioned his past. He'd been promoted to homicide over fourteen years ago, but recent budget cuts whittled his department down to bare bones. Hell, twenty-seven cases had crossed his desk in the past twelve months alone. At least nine of them remained unsolved. Yet, the voice sounded familiar. Indeed, the very manner in which he spoke sent shivers down the captured man's spine. It took a while, but he did know who he was.
"How are you, Leonard?"
"It's been a long time, but it's hard to forget a man who so savagely murdered his ex-wife. Shot her through the back of the head if memory serves."
Nathan could hear Leonard smile through the speaker.
"A glorious day. The sentence was carried out exactly as intended."
"As decided by what jury?"
"By the jury of decency and moral character," Leonard yelled, angry at the implication. He spat his words as he spoke. "I personally witnessed the extent of her adultery. Her heart reeked of betrayal, her guilt, unequivocal. When she wasn't violating the sanctity of our marriage, she was wearing the selfish face of pretense. She had no remorse, and no thoughts for anyone other than herself. Hers was a soul too ugly to bear."
"You had no right..."
"Yes, Detective, I did. It was my duty to rid the planet of her diseased being. I did us a favor."
"Am I 'spose to thank you?"
Leonard ignored the slight, instead choosing to bark instructions.
"Left on Seventh."
Unable to formulate a plan, Nathan did as he was told. He had no choice. He searched his mind for the details regarding Leonard's case, but it was ten years ago when they found his wife face down in a pool of her own blood. Leonard hadn't been seen since, and aside from a positive ID, nothing else was known. He was crafty, never hiding the fact he killed her, nor that he'd ever be found. He was right. The file had been sitting in the "cold case" cabinet for the past eight years.
"Where are we going?"
"Left on Jefferson, then an immediate right."
Nathan knew that corner. It was a parking garage for the baseball stadium. Maybe that would give him the chance he needed, as the quality of transmission for the cell phone usage would be stressed under all that concrete. Maybe the camera would quit working. A brief window of opportunity, but at this point, it was all he had.
"Chase field, huh?"
"Park in the garage. It doesn't matter where. I've installed boosters on each floor. I won't lose you."
So much for opportunity. The window just slammed shut. But there had to be a weak spot somewhere in the armor of his determined foe. He'd have to be shrewd.
"So what brings you out of your hole? Why such a big risk? We'd've never found you, Leonard, but now..."
It was worth a shot. Yet the deafening roar of silence grew intolerable. Frustrated, he parked his car on the lower level, as it was off-season, and no event was scheduled at the ballpark.
"Under the passenger seat is a maintenance badge and a backpack. Clip the badge to your lapel."
Nathan had no choice. He was being watched. "Damn!" he thought. "He is prepared."
"The bomb is portable. Place it in the pack."
Still a bit in shock, he fumbled with the backpack.
"Do it now!"
Nathan was growing anxious. Leonard had disappeared from the radar for so long, he'd forgotten how resourceful he was. The fact that Nathan would be carrying the very implement of his own destruction unnerved him. So, as much as possible, he decided to play it cool and not antagonize his captor with poor attempts at deception. Leonard was too smart. He'd have to find a more creative method of escape.
"What is it that you want, Leonard?"
"You'll find out soon enough. Now, the camera on the visor is portable. Clip it to your waistband so it points at your face."
"OK, I understand."
An opportunity suddenly reappeared. It was Nathan's only chance. He seized it. As he pretended to fumble with the camera he quickly typed out a message on his Blackberry. He habitually laid it on the seat, frequently using it as he navigated around town. "9-1-1," he typed. Then, instinctively, he pushed the button that transmitted his GPS coordinates. Lastly, he grabbed a portable radio and slyly slipped it into his waistband behind him. It was all he could think of, and all he had time for without creating suspicion. He stepped out of the car, backpack in hand.
"Now, do everything I say and you'll live to tell the story. Take a wrong step, and...well, at least it'll be quick." Nathan nodded. Heroics would have to take a back seat at this point, with compliance as the most prudent action. He hoped his message would get through. He hoped it would be understood.
"You can't kill me, Leonard. I'm your entertainment. What would you do without me?"
"In the side pocket," he explained, ignoring Nathan's attempts at conversation. "Is a series of keys. Grab the one labeled 'entry.'"
"Walk under the Seventh Street bridge and bear left. The key will let you in the door labeled 'Staff Only.' Enter the maintenance elevator on your right and push the button that says 'air handlers.' Got it?"
"Uh...yes, I understand."
"Oh, and Nathan?"
"You're not that entertaining."
It didn't take long to reach the floor housing the massive air handlers at the ballpark, near the roof. "OK, now what?"
"Are you afraid of heights, Detective?"
"Good. Take the catwalk to your left and make your way to the south side. One of your keys is labeled 'AH #4.' Stop at the door with the same name and go in."
Nathan nodded as frustration began to get the better of him. "What the Hell's going on, Leonard?"
"Settle down, Nathan. You'll know soon enough."
It was a long walk past a series of "humming" mechanical rooms, presumably generators used to produce the enormous energy demanded by the air conditioning system. He finally came across a door labeled AH #4. By now irritation had set in. Nathan didn't hesitate. He opened the door.
"Left side. Sit in the chair near the back corner. I've got a few questions to ask before we move on."
"Are you serious?" Nathan couldn't believe his ears. "Have you lost your mind?"
"How's the family?" Leonard asked after sufficient delay. "What's been going on with your son, Corbin, these days? And how about little Amy? Still in gymnastics?"
"I swear, if you've..." Nathan swallowed hard. "I'll kill you."
"Answer the question Detective."
Nathan was close to reaching his limit. He took a deep breath.
"They're good. Corbin starts little league soon, and yes, Amy is still in gymnastics. Why?"
"Just curious, I guess."
"You've been doing your homework, I see."
"Yeah. I think it's wise to study your adversaries, don't you?"
"I suppose it is, Leonard."
"What about Carlie? What's new with your beautiful bride?"
Nathan hated the idea of a sociopath delving into his personal business. It went a little too far, even for Leonard. "She's fine. Busy with the kids all the time, but none the worse for wear."
"You're both busy people, aren't you? Careers, family...guess you don't get much 'quality' time together, huh?"
"No, not much."
"Your career keeping you away from home, Nathan?"
"Sometimes, cutbacks and all."
"How's your relationship with your boss? What's his name again?"
"Joey. Joey Sorento. It's fine. Don't see him much, though. He grants me a lot of latitude, why do you ask?"
"Just wondering, I guess."
"I'm good at my job. I'm sure he's been happy with my performance."
An awkward silence ensued, puzzling Nathan. He felt compelled to advance the stalemate. "Satisfied Leonard? Let's get on with it."
"Sure. I'm ready...you?"
"OK then. Listen very carefully. You've been very cooperative thus far. Keep it up and you'll go home tonight. Do exactly as I tell you. I'd rather not splatter your essence all over downtown Phoenix."
"The last key in the pocket is labeled 'roof access.' See the metal ladder permanently fixed in the corner? Climb it and use the key to unlock the padlock, lift the hatch, and go to the roof. I'll be watching."
Nathan readily obeyed. Dry air, hot and stagnant, greeted his advance. Once on the roof, the sounds of a major city echoed against the desert background of South Mountain. Sirens could be heard. Commercial planes flew close overhead. He spied a stool near the edge with a medium-range telescope bolted to its wooden surface. It obviously pointed out something of interest. Something distant.
Leonard ignored his question.
"You're a dedicated man, Nathan. A bit too driven, though. Life is passing you by. All those roses are still waiting to be smelled."
"Go ahead. Look. See what your dedication has done just for you. Your reward for all that hard work at the office."
Nathan didn't care for the tone in his opponent's voice. It was cynical. Sarcastic. He quickly stepped up to the telescope and squinted into the eyepiece. It was aimed through the window of a sparsely appointed office, located somewhere within the vast warehouse district of south Phoenix. It would be difficult to pinpoint. The view was of two people, each tied to a chair, obviously imprisoned, their heads down.
"What do you want from those people? Why have you kidnapped them?"
"Look again, my friend. Look close."
Nathan pressed his face against the eyepiece, adjusting a knob with his right hand to improve his focus. It was of a woman. The other, a man. They were tightly bound and gagged. Slowly, he recognized the man's identity. It was the clothing that gave it away. Joey Sorento always wore the same two suits, rotating them as he mixed in different shirts and ties. Nathan held his gaze as he spoke, barely flinching.
"What in the world can my boss do for you, Leonard?" he asked, angry.
No response. It was irritating.
He concentrated his focus on the other captive. The woman. She looked familiar, but he was thrown off by the dark shadows draped across her body. It wasn't until the woman picked her head up that he recognized her. Composure abruptly left the scene, professionalism compromised. It was Carlie, his wife.
"Leonard," he begged, "whatever it is you're trying to prove, she has no part. Let 'er go. You don't target the innocent."
Leonard's voice was soft, raspy. "Underneath the stool is an envelope taped to the bottom. Retrieve it, and inspect its contents."
Nathan didn't hesitate. A new sense of urgency took center stage. It was personal now. "I'm tired of games, Leonard," he mumbled. "It's my wife down there."
"Remember, you have a bomb on your back. The detonator sits in my hand. Appease me, or I'll scatter you all over town. I am calling the shots, remember?"
Nathan nodded into a muffled silence.
"Now, open the envelope."
He obeyed, revealing no letter, only pictures. Must've been fifteen to twenty of them. Nathan settled down and focused, taking a professional approach as he inspected each one. It didn't take long for his expression to drift from intrigue, to one of shock, anger, and devastation. As he continued to flip, his blood began to boil, eventually surging to extremes.
"No," he screamed. "It can't be."
Before him lay a series of shots, taken at different times, different days. All were of Carlie and Joey, smiling, entwined together in compromising positions, and in various stages of dress...and undress. Betrayal drifted through Nathan's heart.
"She's been having a torrid affair with the man for well over a year now," Leonard whispered. "They laugh at your ignorance."
He shoved the pictures into his back pocket.
"I can't believe it."
"Do you see now," he continued, "how hard work and dedication can reward you?"
"I'm a bit upset right now, Leonard. Forgive me if I fail to cipher life's lessons at this particular moment. Let me process. Allow me to digest."
"I'm sorry, but we can spare little time for reflection. Our mission together has yet to be completed."
"What do you mean?"
"Did you think I brought you here just to reveal this? You kidding me? No, we're not done. Does your watch have a stopwatch function?"
The distraction did him some good. "Yes."
"Good. Now get a hold of yourself. I'm going to ask you an important question. But first, we need to start our 'timers' simultaneously. On my mark, push the 'start' button on your stopwatch."
"K." Nathan scrambled through the various options. "I'm ready."
"Done. What now Leonard?"
"You have seven minutes to answer the following question. Take as much time as you need, just so long as it doesn't exceed seven minutes. Understand?"
Nathan nodded. "What's your question?"
He swallowed, puzzled at the question. "What?"
"You heard me. Which one?"
"I don't understand the question."
"OK, listen very closely. In my hands I hold a high-powered sniper rifle. I've got a laser sight alternating equally between the two of them. I've ranged the shot, and practiced it through exhaustion. I'm ninety-nine percent accurate in these conditions, and I can assure you, death will be instantaneous."
"You can't be serious."
"Six minutes, thirty seconds."
"I don't choose either one. I refuse to answer the question."
"Then you will not leave the roof alive. Enjoy the view."
"Gamble if you want. Either way, someone will not make it through the next six minutes. It's your choice."
Nathan was defiant, yet perplexed by an inability to solve the puzzle. He peered through the lens of the telescope once more. The distinct red dot of a laser bounced between his wife and boss. The sight was overwhelming. His pulse skyrocketed. Sweat poured from his temples.
"How can I choose?" he asked, incensed by the predicament. "It's a no-win situation."
"Five minutes, fifty-two seconds."
"Let's talk this over, Leonard. There must be another way! I appeal to your sense of reason."
"Your wife betrayed you, my friend. She's of weak character. Took advantage of your misguided devotion to your career. Your crime was one of neglect and stupidity. But Carlie? She violated moral judgment, you see, a line that should never be crossed."
"Maybe she felt trapped."
"Yeah? Well, the tables have turned." He was screaming again, stunned at Nathan's seemingly callous attitude. "I can't believe you! I guess you'd rather be the one trapped. Make your choice, Nathan. I reject your indecision and grow tired of your impotence."
"Alright." Leonard was foaming, clearly frustrated over a reaction he didn't expect. "The rules have changed. You now have five minutes and ten seconds. If you fail, then I will make the choice. And believe me, I will not fail. Congratulations, you'll live."
Nathan knew he had to gather himself. Sanity teetered on the edge. "I understand."
"What could possibly cause you to make excuses for them? What of this Joey Sorento? Why protect him? He's such an asshole. Have you ever met his wife, Kelly?"
"Sweet lady. True, real. How does a jerk like him find a woman like her?"
"I don't know. How does anything happen in life?"
"How indeed. Four minutes, twenty-nine seconds."
Doubt took its seat at the table. No amount of training could've prepared Nathan for this moment. His voice rose. "You can't possibly expect me to make such a choice. At least grant me more time. You owe me that."
"I owe you nothing. At this very moment your friends are going over your car with a fine tooth comb. Very clever. I'm not sure how, but..." Leonard paused, irritated with his apparent oversight. "In just over four minutes, I will squeeze this trigger and be gone. You have a decision to make."
Nathan fell back into a heap of random thought. The pressure was unbearable, the act, unsolvable. "Don't say another word. I know how much time I have."
As he collapsed, he sat immersed in contradiction, bombarded by right and wrong. Yet the solution was there, standing between the two. Eventually, the image became all too clear. So he made his choice, declaring his battle won. His weapon? The truth.
"You're right about him, but wrong about her. He is an asshole, but she is a caring, loving woman. I forced her to seek that which I could not provide. She needed to feel love again. Passion had been missing in her life for too long, so she buried it, hoping someday for release. It never came. She contained herself as long as she could."
"What are you saying?"
"I was blinded by my own ambition, deaf to her signs. It was my career that mattered most. My family...my wife...was an afterthought."
"You did not commit adultery, Nathan."
"Yes, Leonard, I did. I loved my job more than her."
"No, it's the truth."
"You still love her? She betrayed your trust, cheated on her promise."
"It's me who's guilty of neglect. I am the one you want. When I stand up, take me out. I have made my choice."
"Yes, you have. But it's the wrong choice."
Nathan ignored him. A tear fell as his heart strained to accept its fate. Yet he'd come to terms with his revelation. Courage alive, he stood tall on his feet. "Make it fast. Make it painless."
Leonard's anger was incurable. He yelled into the phone wired to his ear. "I will not! That option has been rescinded. You shall live with this moment permanently seared into your memory. It is your punishment. You now have thirty seconds to make a new choice. Make the most of it...or I will."
Confusion flooded Nathan's capable mind. He'd already made his decision. It would be difficult to change now. He walked over to the telescope, and spied into it one last time. If he was to send someone to their death, then he should have the courage to witness it.
"Five, four, three..."
"Kill him," Nathan screamed. "Shoot that bastard!"
He never took his eyes from the viewfinder. The image was clear. Joey Sorento's chest heaved in and out, then exploded as the bullet found its target. He, along with the chair he was bound to, flew violently backward. Nathan was sure death was quick and efficient. He heard a whisper.
"Nathan? You still there?"
"We will meet again. Until then, good luck."
The line went dead. Just that fast, it was over. Nathan quickly seized the portable radio hidden behind him. The irony did not go unnoticed. Duty still called him first. He summoned the police, directing half of them to a location of which the accuracy he could only guess. Bill "Rockstar" was the first to reach him.
He shook his head. Words were hard to come by. Tears stained his badgered mood.
"Sorento's dead. I killed him."
Bill turned ashen, disbelief spilling from his expression. He didn't hesitate. "Come on Nathan, let's get out of here."
The station was buzzing with activity. It was late that afternoon and the word was still trickling in. Gossip hung thick in the air as doubt stood hand in hand with truth. Nathan sat in a conference room, smartly secured by the chief of police himself. Bill sat with him, trying to make sense of the story.
"Have they found them yet?"
Bill shook his head. He put his hand on his friend's shoulder as a gesture of reassurance. "Not that I'm aware of. They're to let us know immediately, I made sure of that."
Nathan looked up, eyes beet red. "Thanks."
Just then a man poked his head in the door, motioning for Bill to exit the room.
"Stay calm, my friend, I promise I'll be right back."
Nathan nodded, convinced his career was over. Minutes passed. Suddenly five men walked into the room, grinning from ear to ear. Nathan knew all of them. They were from his department. Bill spoke first.
"What I'm about to say will shock you, Nathan. Bear with me."
It didn't sound good. He braced himself for the worst. Trembling, he looked into his friend's eyes and searched for something positive. For meaning. For anything that might help.
Bill broke into laughter. "They've been found. They're alive, both of them."
"What? Not possible. I saw it happen. It was a kill shot."
"It was a squib, Nathan. A thin cable was rigged to jerk him backward the instant the squib went off. The whole thing was a Hollywood special effect. They're OK. Both of them!"
"You've got to be kidding."
"No. Carlie had a squib on her chest as well, with the same rigging behind her. They're bringing them in as we speak."
"Relax, Nathan. It's over."
"I...I don't believe it."
Just then a knock was heard at the door. Gwen, Captain of the bomb squad, poked her head in, chuckling. "It was a fake. Looked real, but just a fake. He really put a lot of time into it, though, you could tell. The craftsmanship was first rate."
Sheila squeezed herself between Gwen and the door, envelope in hand. As the squad's administrative secretary, she always took care of her "extended family." Her smile was contagious. Even Nathan succumbed.
"This came for you by courier," she said, handing him the envelope. "It's sealed, but we swept it. It's clean."
"I suggest we clear out of here and give Nathan and Carlie some room. She'll be here any minute."
Bill was the last to leave. "If you need anything, I'll be right across the hall."
Nathan nodded as he closed the door. "Thanks Rockstar," he whispered.
At last he was alone. He took a deep breath, briefly relaxing before taking a hard look at his life. He glanced at the envelope in front of him. "Detective Ramsey" was scrawled across its face. He froze. There were very few men who called him "Detective." He quickly tore the envelope open.
He was amazed.
"By now you know it was all a ruse," the letter began. "Yet let me assure you, there was a profound method to my madness. I've watched you from afar, studying your habits for years. Purely benign, of course. The intent was selfish, to steer my way clear of your capture. But I soon began to appreciate your dedication, and your commitment to excellence. We have that in common. Yet something about your habits disturbed me. It wasn't until I discovered your wife's infidelity that it became clear. Your workaholic ways had caught up to you.
"Years ago, I judged my own wife as a drain on society. She was not fit to inhabit such a beautiful world. So I made the decision to save us from her evil. It was the right course of action then, just as it would be today. I have no regrets. But it was my choice, and mine alone, just as the problem before you is yours. My goal was to elicit your true feelings regarding your life, and what is really important. I hope it worked.
"Extreme? Yes, it was. But it was the only way to discover your inner self. No other method would have allowed you to uncover the truth. I assume you'll see her soon. You now have a new choice to make: destroy those pictures or lay them on the table in front of you.
"I've come to think of you as a friend over the years. Believe me when I say, good luck."
Nathan felt his back pocket. The pictures were still there. He shoved Leonard's letter into the same pocket. That part came easy, it was his next actions that were difficult to imagine. Yet it wasn't long before a soft knock was heard. He looked at the ceiling, hoping it might tell him what to say. It didn't.
Carlie poked her head in the door, a nervous smile etched upon her face. Her hands were trembling, her breathing, erratic. Guilt flowed from her eyes, genuine, real. She said nothing, allowing Nathan the opportunity to dictate the mood. She owed him that courtesy, and at that point, it was all she had. Eventually, after sitting across from him at the conference table, she reached out for his hand. She reached out for forgiveness.
For better or worse, the ball was now in his court. He wasn't sure whether to thank Leonard or curse him, yet the fact remained: life's direction would be decided in the next few minutes. Expressionless, he issued a verdict no jury should ever have to deliberate.
He began by returning her smile, then shattered the tension with a warm embrace. He knew it would be a long and difficult repair. But he also knew the fault lay with them both, and assigning blame was pointless. Priorities would have to shift, dedication change focus. It was an important first step. Life would begin anew.
For both of them.
He made his decision.