Blowback Chapter 1

The sun peeked into the room, crept slowly across the floor, bathed ornate furnishings and marble colonnades in orange warmth, and finally met the suite’s occupant, a lone, slumbering man, early forties, fit, handsome, tangled in bedsheets and snoring.

He stirred. Consciousness returned slowly at first, his mind awash in exhausted fog, until his involuntary waking stretch sparked painful protest from battered limbs.

Reality set in. His stomach tightened. His pulse quickened. Dread settled over him.

Tomorrow had become today.

His last day on earth.

He would have pleaded with the gods and the fates, but he knew them to be fabrications of weak and frightened minds. He would have pleaded with them — the extremely human objects of his frequent rumination, the subjects of his permanent waking nightmare — but he had vowed never again to beg or grovel. He was a different man now.

And it wouldn’t have done any good. They were immovable. No quarter. No mercy.

He turned his face to the window, squinted into the painful dawn light, felt his limbs tremble, his bowels loosen. He drew a strained breath. Perspiration formed on his brow. His mind reeled, tumbling between denial, defiance, and petrifying fear.

He thought of her, the way she’d looked the last time he saw her, the last time he would ever see her: white silk draped lazily, provocatively, over exquisite curves. Eyes of fierce blue, ablaze with fear and anger. Dark hair draped over her face. The bitter taste of betrayal on her lips.

A wrong never to be righted.

A sacrifice she would never know or understand.

His sacrifice.

If this was redemption, then redemption be damned, he thought.

The phone rang. He jumped. Adrenaline avalanched through his innards. His mind froze in fright. Mother of God, it’s already starting.

It rang again. He stared at it, willing his wits to return, willing fortitude and backbone and courage. He wasn’t going to go out a sniveling, groveling mess. Maybe he’d lived that way once, but never again.

“Hello,” he said, his voice far less unsteady than his gut.

“James Hayward?”

“Yes,” he lied. It wasn’t his name. Ironic. How many years had he tried to escape himself, to outrun his self-inflicted torment; how many years had it taken for him to master himself, to finally inhabit his own skin? And now, on the last day of his life, the last people to speak to him wouldn’t even use his own fucking name.

“You are ordered to proceed.” The disembodied male voice spoke in clipped, no-nonsense tones. American, but with no distinguishing regional accent. Ex-military, the man provisionally called James Hayward decided, wondering instantly why his mind would bother with trivia under the circumstances. “Do not deviate. You are now and will remain under surveillance until termination.”

Termination. How artfully apropos, Hayward thought. And cute. Anger flashed, but he let it pass. “I understand.”

He ended the call, rose, let the bedsheets fall at his feet, and walked unsteadily over the marble floor to the shower. He started the water, stepped in, trembled under its heat, felt the water’s soothing calm for the last time. And maybe truly felt it for the first time. Death really seemed to put life in perspective, he mused with an idle detachment that seemed inappropriately irreverent. But then, what the hell was an appropriately reverent thought to entertain, just before dying?

He turned off the water, stepped out of the shower, stood before the mirror, regarded himself. The mid-life paunch was gone, replaced by muscular contours, his stooped, apologetic posture replaced by a confident, capable stance. Hair once stringy and long was now close-cropped, and a wastrel’s padded jawline had given way to the carved hardness of an operator.

But the biggest change was in the eyes. They were clear, hard, purposeful, understanding.

None of which would do him any good today. Today wasn’t for clarity or hardness or purpose. It wasn’t for action, for striving, for victory. Today was for atonement.

Bitter atonement, at that. But there was no other way. At least, no other way that seemed palatable to the man provisionally called James Hayward.

He took one last look at what he had made of himself, watched weary sadness reconquer his eyes. He sighed. “Fine pickle you’ve made for yourself,” he heard himself saying. It sounded small, inane, a waste of breath, a waste of time.

Breath and time. Suddenly his most precious commodities.

He dressed. He left his 9mm Smith & Wesson under the pillow and his little Ruger 380 on the nightstand. He wouldn’t need either of them. And they might complicate things. Feeling their comforting heft might plant seeds of revolt, might entice him to do something foolish, might prevent him doing what he knew he must.

He glanced at the hotel room key card, and at the keys to the rented Maserati. He left them both perched atop the ornate Oriental dresser. He palmed an ID badge, covered in Chinese characters, adorned by a photograph of a Westerner’s face. He slipped the ID card into his pocket, inhaled, stepped out of the hotel suite door.

He strode out of the hotel and into the morning sun, its indifferent and oppressive warmth settling heavily over the towering bustle of Singapore, and reached into his pocket to retrieve a cell phone. He tapped a memorized message, one last bit of sick humor at his own expense, to a number he’d come to know and despise: “The end begins.”

**************

Nine and a half thousand miles away, a phone buzzed. It rested in the pocket of a man dressed in a black suit, seated in a church pew.

Sam Jameson turned toward the disturbance. One row ahead and two people to the right. Government drone of some sort, reaching into his pocket to silence the phone. Sam scowled, but her annoyance was short-lived. Her mind was otherwise occupied.

Her gaze returned to the casket. It was made of polished aluminum, with stainless steel rails for the pallbearers’ hands. It was beautiful, simple, and elegant.

And small. No larger than four feet long. Not nearly big enough for an adult. The sight of it, and its awful, devastating smallness, caused a lump to choke Sam’s throat.

The aggrieved sat in silence in the first row, smothered and bowed by pain, mere feet away from the tiny, still body inside the coffin. Sam watched them in their agony, heart breaking for them all over again.

The little girl’s picture stood atop a simple memorial display next to the casket. Blonde curls, bright, beautiful eyes, enormous smile, all innocence and cuteness and goodness and joie de vivre. The wrongness of it stabbed Sam in the chest.

Sam’s own devastation haunted her, stole her breath, settled in her stomach like a stone, as it had countless times over the past four days. It didn’t matter what everyone else said. She knew the truth. The words assaulted her from within: I did this. I put her in that box.

A pipe organ thrust out a dirge. Mourners sang with weak voices. The dead girl’s family sat in numb stillness. Sam fought nausea and exhaustion, struggling not to fall once again into the abyss that had swallowed her over and over. My doing. My failure. My fault.

The priest spoke, his smooth, melodic tones profaning the raw, gaping wound ripped into the mourners’ lives. He spoke with contrived certainty about the unknowable, aiming at comfort, but leaving only emptiness and loss as the echoes faded into the old cathedral. The organ started again, dredging up more muted singing, and then it was over.

The little girl’s father steadied his wife, small and frail and wrecked, and the two made their way to the back of the church, walking slowly, hollowed eyes cast in the distance, faces pale and haggard.

Sam followed their progress, the evidence of their suffering weighing more and more heavily on her heart as they drew nearer. She held her breath.

The man’s head turned. His eyes met Sam’s. His face changed. Grief and misery gave way. In their place came deep, seething, murderous anger.

Sam felt herself wither. Air escaped her lungs, but she couldn’t draw a breath to replace it.

Rage held the man’s face for a brief eternity, then relinquished its grasp. His visage softened again. Sadness and distance returned to his eyes. He turned away, tightened the grip on his wife’s arm. They walked slowly out of the church.

Tears streaked from Sam’s eyes. She rose, unsteady, and walked on wooden legs to the exit, mumbling apologies as she moved against the flow of mourners queuing to offer heartfelt platitudes to the bereaved.

A cold drizzle seized her as she stepped out the church’s side door. Frosty wind from the Potomac chilled the center of her, left open and vulnerable in her grief and guilt.

She walked slowly in the wrong direction. Her car was parked a block away, downwind, but Sam stepped into the teeth of the cold breeze, west along H Street, a few hundred meters from the White House, feeling the wind’s punishment on her face, feeling the rightness of this small suffering in light of the devastation she’d wrought.

One miscalculation. One mistake. That’s all it took. That’s all it ever took.

She rounded the corner, barely noticing as she brushed against a passerby, a man in a black suit. It didn’t register that she’d seen the same man just moments before, seated one pew ahead and two people to the right of her in St. John’s Episcopal Church, fidgeting to turn off his buzzing cell phone.

And she didn’t notice the small object he slipped into her coat pocket as they passed.