Friday, November 21, 2014

Fallout Chapter 10

Nadira held the video camera, her hand shaking. She tried to steady it, but then thought, I didn't want to be filming this in the first place.

She didn't even want to look at what was going on in front of the camera, but she had to in order to make sure there were no faces in it other than that of the victim, as Gray had instructed.

She thought of him as the victim now. She could never forgive him for what he had done, but he had become human to her in the past two days. Against her will, she had come to see him, not as a ruthless killer, but as a man who had his own ideas, reasons, and feelings. In any case, she would never have gone this far, even in the midst of her worst hatred.

Jason hung by his injured arm, his skin sheened with sweat, brown hair plastered over his forehead. Across of the scars from the day before, large bruises had formed on his chest and back. Gray had taken over the whipping from Akim, who had taken a break outside, and was now sauntering around him, taunting him with the possibility of the next blow. Into the end of the short rope, he had embedded shards of glass and nails that had been lying around the shed.

So far, Jason had not given Gray the satisfaction of a single word. Only his eyes were eloquent, following Gray wherever he moved, burning with defiance.

Gray swung the whip forward. It raked across Jason's chest, ripping a bloody path across his skin.

Sickened, Nadira fought the urge to turn away. I have to keep filming, she thought, though she wasn't sure why. Why did they need to document this? She would have thought the less evidence of their presence, the better. But Gray seemed to have his own agenda, as dictated by their mysterious, nameless contact, who had helped Nadira find "Kohl's" true identity after the trail ran cold.

It still baffled her as to how her contact had found her, and found out what she was after; he seemed to have unlimited resources, except when it came to finding the agent himself. His motives were simple: he'd wanted to partner with her in order to gain his share of the weapon. The only stipulation was that she would never know his identity, contacting him only through his anonymous cell phone number. But now he'd sent this man, Gray, apparently dissatisfied with her inability to get any information from Jason.

Not that Gray was faring any better.

Blood now streaked Jason's chest, welling up from numerous slashes. The whip thwacked down once more, catching against his skin. Gray yanked it off and stood, blood dripping from the whip to pool at his feet.

Gray stepped behind Jason's back.

"Nadira, I want to get some footage from this side now."

"Hasn't he had enough?"

"I will be the judge of that. Besides, he has said nothing yet."

"He needs a break, or he won't be able to speak."

"We will stop after this. Then you can upload the file to my computer."

"I still don't see why we need to record this."

"My employer has his reasons. If you want his continued assistance, you will comply with his orders."

"His orders? I work with him, not for him."

"Of course. But without his assistance, how far do you think you would have gotten?"

Not far, she thought. But that doesn't mean he can treat me like an employee. Does he believe that I am the lesser partner? If so, does he think he's entitled to the larger share? I started this. He should be grateful for that.

And now, this is getting out of hand…and there isn't much I can do about it.

The whip cracked across Jason's back, drawing more blood. Part of her longed to grab the whip away and stop this. Or order Akim to make Gray stop—

If he stops, though, will I get the information that I need?
she wondered.

But how much am I really willing to sacrifice for this unknown commodity? Should I just stand by and watch as this man is tortured half to death? It's not like I'm doing it myself. But I am benefiting from it. Isn't that almost the same as if I were the one wielding the whip?

For the first time, she contemplated just leaving. Giving up on this, letting her contact have the weapon.

But if she left, she would have gotten this far for nothing. All her work, all her searching, would be in vain.

And so she stayed, and uploaded the video to the computer. Even as she did, though, she thought, There has to be a way to do this without ripping into a man and taking his humanity from him, piece by piece…and, by my complicity, shredding my own humanity in the process.

The clock on the wall chimed one-thirty. About this time yesterday, Whit had discovered that his son had been kidnapped. And in all those hours, he had slept for maybe three.

After studying the photo for about two hours after Might had called, there was nothing else he could do, so he came to his son's house. He hadn't touched anything because it was a crime scene, except that he'd lay down in his son's bed, exhausted. But he still hadn't been able to go to sleep, so he'd sat in front of the computer, waiting for the file that Might had said he was going to send.

It had never come. Whit had fallen asleep in front of the computer at about 5 a.m. and slept till 8. He'd jumped awake, and thought all that had happened was just a nightmare.

Until he saw the mess the room was in, and reality had slammed back into him.

My son has been kidnapped. He is being tortured. For my sake.

He hadn't even gone to church this morning; he wouldn't have been able to pretend that everything was all right when it wasn't, since he couldn't tell anyone what was going on. Plus, he was exhausted. Besides not sleeping much, barely eating except for picking some things out of his son's cupboard, all this had taken its toll on him.

I'm not as young as I used to be, he thought. But as I heard someone say once, when you start thinking you're old, real old age starts overtaking you

That's another reason to exchange myself. My son still has so much life ahead of him.

The phone rang into the silence. He jumped. Then pressed the phone to his ear.


"Whit!" It was Connie. Relief washed over him. "Are you okay? I haven't heard from you today."

"I'm fine."

"You don't sound very good."


"I mean—"

He smiled. "It's okay, Connie. I just…didn't sleep much last night."

"Me either. I couldn't stop thinking about Jason.

"I...was glad I had a headache, so I could just lie in bed, and not have to pretend everything's okay. But I'm feeling better now. Do you want some company?"

"I suppose I would. If you wouldn't mind."

"I'll be right over. Are you at your house?"

"I'm at Jason's. Do you know where it is?"


There was a beep. Call waiting. "Connie—I have a call. I think it might be Might."

"Oh—I'll call back. Wait, I have a call too."

He answered the call; it was Might, or whatever he called himself now.

"Good afternoon. I've sent you a file with some riveting new footage."

"Listen, Might—"

"It's Will."


"You may call me Will now."

"Might—and Will. I see. Both have double meanings."

"You're quick for an old man."

"Yes, well, I'm the same 'old man' you tried to go up against last time."

"I know. You were good. But this time, I have you at a distinct disadvantage. And you and your son are just two small pawns in the middle of a grand master's strategy."

"So this isn't about revenge?"

"Revenge? Maybe, just a little. But mainly, I know you. I've read up on your file. You have something I want, and I know how to hit you where it hurts."

"Who are you, really?"

"That, my dear Whit, you will never find out. No one will, until I have the world in my hands."

"It's the world you're after? That game's been played before."

"Not like this. I am snatching up piece after piece, before anyone else even realizes they're in the game."

"I see why you'd want Zephyr. That's also why I can't give it to you."

"Maybe you'll change your mind once you see what has been done to your son. The pain he is in." Whit hated how casually Will talked about what he was doing to Jason.

"I will exchange myself for my son."

"Noble gesture. But I won't be able to take you up on that."

"Why not?"

"Because that's not how this game is played.

"Open the file, Whit. The next time I call, I expect you to have made the right decision."

After he hung up, Whit leaned his head in his hand, feeling faint. He had been counting on giving himself up for lost, but Might, or Will, had dismissed his offer without consideration.

But it made more sense now. Will wasn't just a hacker. Getting Zephyr was part of a larger plot for world domination. If not for the program, Whit might have dismissed Will as all bluster. But with Zephyr in his possession, even a moderately resourceful person would be able to make a large step toward his goals. It was that powerful a program.

I shouldn't have been involved with it in the first place, he thought. But I didn't know of its capabilities when I started. And then, I was so invested in its completion, I was blinded to the fact it had little real world application, beyond its parasitic nature.

Dreading what he'd find, he checked his inbox. Sure enough, there was a new email with an attachment.

He opened it.

At first the shaky video aimed down at the floor. Then, it swung upwards, revealing Jason, hanging by his wrist—

Pain shot through Whit's heart. He knew there was more to come.

Two men took turns beating him with a knotted rope. The camera never showed their faces. After a cut in the film, something must've been added to the rope, for when the makeshift whip dragged across his skin, it left more than bruises. By the end, Jason's arms, back, chest, even face were torn and bleeding.

Whit couldn't imagine the pain he was in. Still, something gave him hope. His eyes. They were not listless, broken; they blazed with defiance, showing that it was still the Jason he knew. The one who would never give up.

No matter what, he didn't want his son to have to go through this. Alone.

No, he was not alone.

Heavenly Father, protect my son. Make your presence known to him in that place. Show him—somehow, in all that darkness—show him the depths of your love.

When Connie called back, he found out she had gotten a call from Will too, along with a shorter version of the video file on her phone. She was so upset she could barely drive, though she was already on her way over.

After letting her in, he sat with her on Jason's couch in the middle of the destroyed living room.

"It's my fault," she said, tears streaking her face over her freckles. "I mean, he said it was my fault. He told me—it was because I found out, that they did that to him. And he said if I told anyone, he'd kill Jason. I should've just left it alone, but I had to see what you were doing in that room and now—" She shook her head, eyes closed.

Whit squeezed her shoulder. "Connie, it's not your fault. Will is the one doing this.

"If anything, it's my fault. I should've been more careful, and closed the door to the secret room. I didn't think anyone was there…But it goes further than that. I created Zephyr. If I'd've known this would happen, I'd've destroyed it completely, even though it wasn't mine to destroy.

"It's too powerful. What it does is…enslaves other programs. In theory, it could spread throughout the world like a virus, taking over every computer that's connected to the Internet.

"The only thing that matters now—is that I can't give him the program. But I can't let my son bear the consequences for something I did."

Connie sniffed. "We…could look at the video some more. I don't want to ever see it again, but maybe it'll give us some clues."

"We didn't get any clues from the picture, but you're right. There's a lot more to work with in the video. No matter how careful Will might have been, there might be something that gives him away."

Over the next hour, they played the video over and over. Connie had to get up several times, unable to face Jason's torture again and again. Whit tried to focus as much as possible on the background; it pained him to see his son being whipped before his eyes. But if there was a chance they could save him…

There was nothing about the place he was held in that looked familiar to either of them. It was built out of some dark boards, and there was a shelf with some rusty tools on it. A board behind him had a knothole that looked like a star, but that was the only thing distinctive about it.

Connie suggested they take a break, and Whit agreed. He needed some fresh air. They walked about a mile down to McCalister Park. Whit thought it was interesting that, without even intending to, he naturally gravitated toward Whit's End. As if it was more of a home than his own.

They sat down on a bench to rest. Birds flitted through the trees, singing. Beyond the frame of maples branches, Odyssey was bathed in golden sunlight, the people inside its buildings and homes innocent of the horror that three of its citizens were facing.

Whit wished there was some way to know where Jason was, some way to rescue him. He didn't want his little boy to have to go through another night away from home, in a strange place, enemies surrounding him and hurting him.

This was the worst nightmare for a parent. It didn't matter that Jason was grown up. He was still his son, his and Jenny's youngest. Their baby boy. He remembered Jenny, holding him after he was born, glowing with happy exhaustion, her red hair tumbling down over her shoulders, and that tiny little bundle with dark brown hair…

"He has your eyes," Jenny had said. And Whit had held him, kissed him, and wanted nothing more than to protect him from everything evil in the world—

I'm sorry Jenny, he thought. I couldn't keep him safe….In fact, in more ways than one, I'm responsible for his fate…

Perhaps it is best that I give Will the program. We can always try to get it back—trace it to its source. Catch this criminal, make him pay for what he's done.

Connie nudged Whit's shoulder. "It's Emily," she said.

Emily pedaled up on her bike. "Hi, Mr. Whittaker! Hi Connie!" She slid to a stop and jumped off. "Even though it's Sunday, I thought you might be at Whit's End. I'm glad I found you!" She held a package in her hand.

"Hey—you guys okay?"

"Neither of us slept very much last night," said Connie.

"Oh." She sat down beside Connie, and looked at Whit. "You know how I was on a case and you told me not to get carried away? Me and Matthew spied on my neighbors, and we heard that grinding noise again last night. We….kind of trespassed, but we thought it was okay because we thought they were counterfeiting money.

"Then, just as we were looking in the window of the basement, somebody came around behind us. It was a woman. She told us her name was Mrs. Steward, and she invited us in to eat cookies and milk. It turns out, her son was home for the first time in ages, and he was using the tools in the basement to finish something his grandfather had been making. Here. Here's a picture." She showed them a picture of a wood carving. It was a galloping horse that looked almost like it was in motion. Something about it was familiar… "Her son's learning how to make them like her grandfather did. His name was Zebulon."

Something clicked. "I remember a Zebulon...who used to make carvings like that. Something happened to him…"

"That's the other part of the story. He made all these wood carvings for the kids around town. But one day there was a huge storm, and his house fell down the mountain in a rockslide. He kind of went crazy after that, and Mrs. Steward's mother had to take care of him. Only recently she found some old pictures of what the house used to look like, and Zebulon's workshop. She's trying to understand him, in order to forgive him for how he acted when she was growing up.

"Here's some of the pictures."

She handed them to Whit, and he flipped through them. One caught his eye. The tool shed, decked out with toys and shiny new tools. Next to a half-finished running horse was a knothole in the shape of a star.

The exact same shape as the one in the shed where Jason was being held.

The cabin had been near Odyssey. Forrest Mountain.

Whit breathed a prayer of thanks.

"Thank you, Emily."

"For what?" she said.

"For being an excellent detective."

She laughed, as if she didn't quite believe him. Then she dashed off into the bright sunlight in the west.

Whit turned to Connie. "I think I know where Jason is."

"I saw it too," she said, her eyes sparkling with the same hope that filled his heart.

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