The curtains on the farmhouse windows were all calico patterns.

That was oddly disconcerting.

Fitting for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old farmhouse, I suppose. But it didn’t match what I knew about my targets at all.

I tried to find that node, that calm space that I’d trained so many to find, but it just wasn’t there. I’d waited so long for this moment, for this peace, that I just couldn’t settle down and enjoy the process.

Lying in that tall dry grass with the gentle breeze to cover any motions I might make should have been settling, calming. I was in a perfect position, perfectly comfortable. It would have been nice to have a spotter along, but other than that it all felt flawless. Except that I couldn’t settle into the calm.

My mind flickered over the reason I was in that tall grass and an overwhelming wave of loss surged over me.

I couldn’t even remember Gabby’s laugh anymore.

I was sure I could remember it just a couple weeks ago, but it was all fading, even Tricia’s smile. Maybe I was the only one who remembered them at all. Sometimes I thought, if I could just get some sleep, some real sleep, I might get it all back.

The front door opened and a lone figure stepped out onto the broad wooden porch.

She was elegant, even in faded, stained blue jeans and an oversized, worn man’s Carhart farm jacket. One of the tan canvas ones. The wind toyed with her long silver hair for a moment, until she pushed it back behind her ears with a curiously girlish impatience. I hadn’t expected her to be at the house yet – she and the others were all due to arrive in an hour or two from a Thanksgiving vacation.

She glanced around for a moment then looked up – right at me. I could see her clear blue eyes through my scope as they settled on my position.

I tried to tell myself it was a fluke, but it was soon very clear, all too clear. She knew. She couldn’t see me, but she knew I was there. She seemed to resign herself and began to walk slowly toward my hummock.

It was a long walk – almost 700 meters by my scope – through the slowly waving sea of grass, and I watched her pick her way through it. She’d left the jacket unzipped and I could see she wasn’t wearing a vest, just a flannel shirt.

That was probably deliberate. The breeze caught her every now and then, and she’d clutch the tan canvas jacket closed reflexively for a few second to shield herself from the chill of the late November day. Then let it go to hang open, just as reflexively.

She wanted me to see she had no weapon, no vest.

A vest wouldn’t have helped any against the heavy rifle trained on her anyway, but it was clear she wanted to talk and wanted me not to feel threatened.

I scanned around me. There simply wasn’t anyone else. I had a clear view across the rolling fields in practical range, and except for this one, all of them had been cut for hay late in the summer, leaving them almost bare.

My puzzlement and curiosity had allowed her get to the bottom of the small hill and I watched her pause there. She carefully stepped over a dry creek where a sometimes-rivulet had dug a shallow trench. Her light blue boots were traced with colorful embroidery and sparkled with rhinestones, strangely at odds with her practical, worn farm clothes.

As she picked her way up the low hillock, I rolled up into a sitting position, leaving the rifle to rest, and drew my revolver. It’s pretty old school; nobody carries a revolver anymore, but this one was special. The Colt Pythons had always been among the finest revolvers ever made; they were works of art and I’d always wanted to have mine with me at the end.

And this was probably it.

I pushed the hood of my ghillie suit back and pulled the mask down.

She just glanced at me with a polite, distant, smile and a nod, then sat down a few feet away, looking over the farmhouse, with her arms around her knees.

We just sat there for an eternity.

“They won’t be coming, you know. It’s just me.”

Her voice was cultured, finishing school perfect, but almost lyrical despite the training.

“I figured that.”

We sat silent for another eternity, just watching the grass sway like ocean waves until the wind kicked up a bit as if it needed to do something to fill the void.

“I have coffee down at the house if you want some.”

She was so calm and centered. I suddenly felt like a kid playing soldier.

I holstered my revolver, stood up and picked the rifle up, folding the bipod as I slung it behind me.

She sat, slightly huddled in the oversize jacket, looking up at me with impossibly blue eyes.

I reached down to help her to her feet. She took my hand and slid up as gracefully and graciously as she seemed to do everything.

It was hard to believe that this was the demon that had killed my family.

The demon that I had hunted for so long and sold so much of my soul to reach.

We walked carefully down the small hill. She grasped my forearm to help herself over the small dry cut at the bottom, as if it were perfectly natural to do that.

I had a moment of concern as we stepped into the house, but it was empty. A battered military saber hung over the fireplace under a painting of some mostly-forgotten 17th century battle.

“We can sit in the kitchen or take a service to the parlour.”

“The kitchen would be fine.”

I leaned the rifle in the corner of the huge kitchen. The rubberized pad on the butt of the big M24A3 sniper rifle wouldn’t let it slip and fall, and I always had the Python if anyone showed unexpectedly. I’d only really need one bullet for her anyway. Now that the rest of the targets were out of reach, I didn’t really care what happened after that.

She hung her jacket on a set of hooks near the side door out of the kitchen and I hung my Ghillie poncho next to it, then sat on one of the high stools at the tall rough-cut table.

No point in being uncivilized.

She carefully poured rich black coffee into a couple of honest-to-God John Deere tractor mugs. I’d always figured her for fine bone china, but she seemed perfectly content with these as she slid on to a stool opposite me. She didn’t bother to put out cream or sugar.

She sipped a bit and closed her eyes for a second to enjoy it.

It was damn good coffee.

“Do you prefer Ken or Kenneth, or should I call you Colonel Howard?”

“Ken is fine.” I paused awkwardly, a bit off my game. “And you?”

“It’s usually Evelyn, but I’d rather be called Evie here if you don’t mind.”

I glanced around at the dried peppers and garlic hanging in strings along doorframes and off cabinets. Evie did seem more appropriate here.

“So how did you know?”

“Maria contacted us last night. She’s been watching you since the incident in Macao. The one with all those poor girls.”

I caught myself before I responded to that. She’d been at least partly responsible for what happened to “all those poor girls”.

As to Maria…

Deputy Director Maria Hawthorne of the FBI. I was hoping I hadn’t caught her attention.

Hope is not, as they say, a course of action; it was all I had though, I couldn’t be certain either way, and digging to find out would almost certainly have drawn her attention.

Depending on how deeply involved she was, there might be an HRT parked in the basement right now. Actually, even if she wasn’t involved, there might be a team waiting. Not that it could possibly reach Evie in time.

She continued on. “She was trying to figure out your angle, why an organization like yours would even be interested, and want to be in on that raid. She appreciated the help, but she started wondering about why after a while.”

“I needed the papers, shipping manifests, the contact lists, everything. She and her people were so tied up with getting all those girls to safe places, my guys on the ground had plenty of time to photograph all that.”

“She guessed that. She said a couple of people disappeared before she got to them.”

I nodded. “I needed more answers.”

Evie sipped a bit more.

“She finally figured it out. And guessed what you were planning on doing today. She had Homeland tracking your travel. They saw the plane ticket to BWI.”

I’d left too many clues over the years. It was impossible to avoid. I’d had to take chances, risks to get the information I needed and had the bad luck to trigger the interest of one of the few people that could have figured it all out.

I didn’t understand why Hawthorne hadn’t simply had me rolled up. If she’d figured out this much, she had to have known I wouldn’t be a risk to her agents.

“Who told you I’d be on that hill?”

“Maria’s… friend, Michael. Said it was the only sane place a real sniper would choose. He seemed to know more about your organization than anyone else.” She stopped for a second. “Given your reasons for this, I asked Maria to let me handle it.”

I closed my eyes against a surge of unwanted, nightmare images.

She drove on, unknowing. “I asked her not to interfere. Just to keep Emma and her family out of it. She didn’t like it, but she honored my request. Personal promises mean a lot to her. She really cares about Emma. Sometimes I think Maria is more her mother than I am.” Her voice faded at the last of that – reflective, saddened.

I wasn’t sure what she intended; maybe she sought pity, maybe nothing. It didn’t matter, nothing could help her in my eyes. If she’d failed as mother somehow, it was her choice – at least her daughter was alive. I hadn’t had a choice. I’d have given anything to get Tricia and Gabby back. To be a husband and father again. All I’d wanted was to be the best Dad ever.

I’d settle for vengeance, though.

If it was all I could have, then I’d take vengeance.

She looked down for a moment, studying the floor. “Your plan won’t work. You can’t hurt him through us. I know why you want to, but he simply doesn’t care about us at all. Not that way. We never emotionally mattered to him, and we really ceased to matter once he understood that Emma would rather die than be involved with him. With Reinhardt IG. My death might even make things easier for him.”

She closed her eyes and held her hand up.

“Sorry, that sounded kind of pathetic. I’m not trying to dodge responsibility. Or the consequences. My name, my family name, was on those companies, on those bank transfers. They were my responsibility and I just wasn’t looking. It’s inexcusable, really.”

I’d wondered if it was something like that. The pattern of death stretched much further back on his side, Reinhardt IG, than hers. But she was right, it was inexcusable.

Unforgiveable might be a better word.

“Emma and her family have a right to be out of this. She isn’t part of it.”

“If she’s not working for him, why has she infiltrated the FBI?”

She looked genuinely shocked at that.

“Oh. I never thought how that would look …” she gazed into her coffee for a second, watching the steam scud across the black surface, then swirl up and off. “She didn’t infiltrate the FBI, that’s where she was hiding. From him. From us, really. Where the money couldn’t really reach her. She hated us, hated the money. Hated the power. I don’t think she’ll ever completely forgive me for how she was raised. What we did to try to prepare her.”

She gave a wry smile “I’m lucky she lets me into the children’s lives at all.” She gestured down at her clothes “She thinks this is some kind of penance for me, like sackcloth and ashes.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It isn’t? Everything I’ve found makes it pretty clear that denim and flannel aren’t exactly what you’re used to.”

She shook her head, an honest smile lighting her face. “Not what I’m used to, but I’ve found out it’s what I want. Everything else seems so superficial.”

I soaked that in. It all rang true. I’ve been lied to by the best, at their most desperate. Not for very long.

And never twice.

If it was all true, and if I did survive this, I would have to figure out another way to hurt him.

She took my silence as a signal to keep talking. She shouldn’t have.

It very nearly killed her.

“I’m sorry about Patricia and Gabriella…”

“STOP.” I stood, slamming my hand on the table, an eruption, an almost uncontrollable surge of hate and anger welling up. Screams echoed in my head. The screams of my wife and little girl. Images of wreckage floating on the ocean flashed through my mind.

There had been a throw away comment in a news story that the passengers were “probably conscious for all of the ten minutes it took the struggling airliner to finally make impact after the bomb had gone off”; it was burned permanently into my brain, and it ripped into my sanity again. I had a vivid image of Tricia huddled protectively over Gabby, waiting, praying, for the salvation that wouldn’t come.

She flinched, stunned. Then stayed very, very still.

“You don’t get to say ‘sorry’ about them. You don’t get to do that. Not about Tricia and Gabby!”

For a second I felt the checkered wood grips of the Python against my fingertips.

She faced me, raising her chin slightly as if giving me permission. She didn’t look angry or scared. She just looked resigned.

It took all my strength to pull my hand from the grips.

Even she, as composed as she was, breathed a small sigh of relief at that.

I forced myself to sit back down, the screams in my mind fading slowly.

We just sat, rigidly staring across the table past each other.

She spoke first. Certainly couldn’t fault her for courage.

“Apologizing was a reflex Ken, I don’t expect you to accept one or even acknowledge it. You’re right, for some things there is no forgiveness.”

I closed my eyes for a second and breathed deep, the rich coffee scent calming me a little.

She started again. The woman was relentless. “It took me a long time to figure out even some of what was happening, and even longer to accept that Erich was that inhuman. Even when Maria explained it, I had trouble believing it. Because it meant I helped him, enabled him. Even if I didn’t know it”

Inhuman was an excellent word. Somewhere along the way, The Reinhardt, of Reinhardt Interessengemeinschaft – Reinhardt IG – had realized that the stock markets could be manipulated with a few small engineered ‘incidents’. The massive conglomerate that was Reinhardt IG was so large that different companies could exploit sudden changes in the stock market from different angles. A fire in an oil refinery, a mechanical failure at a pharmaceutical plant. An ethnic uprising in Africa.

Or the terrorist bombing of an airliner.

After I’d worked my way into position as the head of a Special Mission Unit that had always been more rumor than anything, I’d first used it to exterminate the terrorist group that had been tagged with the crime – only to discover that they’d merely been puppets.

But I’d still had that unit.

The convenient thing about a “Black” unit is that nobody looks too closely at it. Nobody wants to really know what it’s doing as long as certain lines aren’t crossed.

Because what you don’t know, you won’t have to testify to in front of Congress.

Once I’d confirmed the existence of the unit, I’d done everything necessary to become what was needed to lead it. Then it had found me. I’d reshaped the unit to suit my needs.

The unit still filled the niche it already had, but it grew more capabilities. Capabilities I needed. And I’d used those capabilities to pursue my agenda. If anyone ever figured out what I’d done, I’d likely be in prison for the rest of my life. Kidnapping, extortion, illegal surveillance. Theft on a particularly grand scale. The “extra-judicial” executions alone would ensure my permanent incarceration – although every one of those killed deserved it. I wouldn’t have innocent blood on my hands. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be accused of treason, although that admittedly depended on who defined it.

I’d recruited carefully. When the unit needed a new Senior Non-commissioned Officer, I recruited Sergeant Major Godek. It always struck me as odd that we actually became good friends. He’s pretty much the only one I’d had in the last three decades. I hadn’t sought him out solely for his obvious abilities, but because it had given me an informal link into the CUMULOUS programs through his sister, Donna. Ironically, it ended up allowing me to keep an eye on Emma Reinhardt and her progress at the FBI when Emma had married a CUMULOUS operative.

I’d decided on “an Eye for an Eye” for The Reinhardt – he’d lose his wife and daughter too. Before I killed him.

It’d taken me a while to track down Emma Reinhardt, and when I did, I found out that a terrorist cell in Turkey had nearly beat me to her.

Ironic. No other word for it.

She interrupted my reverie. “The only things he cares about are money and power. If you kill me, he’ll suffer a little, when the stock market fluctuates. I can’t really offer more than that.”

She left it at that, standing up to refill both our cups without saying a word.

“I assume Maria looked into my background. Did she tell you what I did before I applied for OCS and joined Special Forces?”

“She said something… Enlisted, I think, a Sergeant or something.”

“I was in Finance; a numbers guy. I enlisted to pay for my degree in Accounting. That’s how I know your death won’t really hurt him.”

She shook her head, then frowned pensively. “It’d be temporary; he’d recover everything and then some in a just a few weeks.”

“Reinhardt might even make money off it; big companies, financial institutions, can make money off good news or bad news.” I felt a grim smile start as a thought struck me. “If you live or die, Reinhardt will be fine, they’ll still make money. As long as they know.”

I sipped the last of my coffee.

“Its uncertainty, the “not knowing” that they can’t handle.”


I allowed Evie to write a note to her daughter, reminding her that Maria had promised not to interfere in any capacity.

When I told her to find some clothes to take with her, she was confused at first – unsure If I was really going to let her live. “I don’t have any clothes here – they’re at my house” She gestured to toward the east where I knew a small cottage sat.

“No, find something here.”

She pulled a box of tie dye skirts, blouses, T-shirts, shoes and beads from the closet of what was obviously a spare bedroom.

I must have looked baffled, and she just gave a sort of odd smile and said “Monica left these when Cat took that Fellowship in England. It’ll be another six months before she misses them.”

“Tie dye should be banned.”

“Believe me, nobody who knows me and sees me in this will believe it’s me.”

From what I’d learned of Evelyn Cabot, that was probably true.

I pulled a pair of jeans with rainbow colored peace signs on the back pockets, a mostly bright-blue tie dye blouse, a pair of little cloth dock shoes, and a heavily beaded denim jacket and tossed them on the bed.