Behind the Book
Normally, I come up with book ideas in small, mundane increments. I start with a subject I’m interested in, research it, and consider scenarios that might work as a plot. So far, most of those ideas have had one thing in common: they’re big. Whether it was the deaths of thousands of drug addicts, the implosion of the tobacco industry, or a crooked presidential election, my books always seemed to have enormous things at stake not only for the characters, but society in general.
Fade is different. The idea started more as a character than a subject matter. I was interested in creating a complex anti-hero who would loom large enough to completely overshadow any plot I came up with—no matter how fast and furious.
Enter Salam al Fayed. Fade to his friends.
He is as funny as he is violent and can go from completely calm to completely nuts in the blink of an eye. Bizarre as he is, though, his relationships are even stranger. His closest friend is also his primary target. And he keeps trying to figure out a way to get a date with the woman cop chasing him. In a nutshell, he’s a truly likeable, incredibly fun guy who just happens to have the minor quirk of being a barely repentant mass murderer. Not an easy character to hold together and make believable.
In the end, though, it was an interesting challenge. By shedding the complex geopolitical plots I’m known for, it was possible to draw in my focus and give the problems of a few individuals the same weight as a plot that could kill millions.
At first, the sound didn’t seem like much—a quiet crunching that barely managed to penetrate the heavy curtains flapping across his open window. Fade stopped breathing and turned his head in the darkness, listening intently. A raccoon? No, the sound, though quiet, had a certain weight to it. Another black bear looking to get at his garbage can? Maybe. Or maybe it was Hillel Strand, coming to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Fade pictured aiming a twelve-gauge at that closely shaved face and blowing the smug expression right off it. Of course Strand was unlikely to ever make a personal appearance. He’d undoubtedly send a team of former Special Forces guys more qualified to persuade Fade to see the error of his ways.
But he’d decided not to let that happen. Instead, he’d take out as many of Strand’s men as he could before they finally put a bullet in him. A fittingly violent and futile end to a violent and futile life.
The sound didn’t come again and Fade closed his eyes, concentrating on the image of Hillel Strand with a shotgun barrel a few inches from his nose. Maybe that was a dream world he could insert himself into. Something a little closer to reality.
He’d barely settled back on the mattress when he heard another quiet crunch, this time close enough to discern detail. The depth and length of it confirmed his suspicion that its source was heavy. The possibility of the soft pad of a bear’s paw, though, was lost in the sound’s crisp edge. Based on his considerable experience, that particular attack and decay was only caused by one thing. A boot.
Fade remained motionless on the bed, realizing suddenly that he wasn’t in the mood for this tonight. He had undoubtedly just entered the last half hour of his life and all he could think about was how much trouble dying was going to be. A sure sign of having lived too long.
The man rather sloppily creeping up on him was getting close enough to force a decision. Fade had a pistol and the temptation to just shoot half-heartedly at whatever face appeared in his window was fairly strong. But then all that preparation and money would have been wasted. Seemed like a shame.
He quietly slid the blanket off his legs and crawled across the room. Keeping the fluttering curtains in his peripheral vision, he stood and stretched his arms overhead, unlatching a small door cut into the wall that led to his attic. It opened smoothly on brand new hinges and he swung himself up into it on a slightly creakier spine.
The “command center” he’d constructed didn’t have the aesthetic grace he normally strived for, but time had been short and sacrifices had to be made. He lay down in something that looked disturbingly like a badly welded steel coffin with no lid and ran his finger along the edge of a bank of small monitors in front of him. Finally finding a switch, he flipped it and was immediately bathed in a dim green light that he’d made sure wouldn’t be visible through the door.
He turned on the rest of the monitors, careful not to bump a series of switches he’d screwed to a piece of plywood or the heavily modified model airplane radio control lying next to him. After checking the neatly arranged M16, combat knife, and 9mm pistol, he refocused his attention on the small screens.
The images were surprisingly detailed. It was uncanny what you could get off the Internet these days. Most of the stuff was measurably better than the supposedly state-of-the-art stuff he’d worked with at the CIA only a few years before.
Honestly, he was surprised they worked at all. It had seemed likely that the team sent for him would be jamming the radio transmission from the cameras he’d set up. Using hard-wired ones had just seemed like too much trouble. Stranger yet, was that the generator he’d set up in the basement hadn’t kicked on. His power hadn’t been cut. Maybe he’d lost his touch. Maybe he was hiding from a squirrel.
The squirrel didn’t materialize but a man in black fatigues holding a small assault rifle did, running up beneath the night vision enabled camera hidden above Fade’s front door.
A few moments later, there was motion on nearly every screen and he silently scanned them, watching men settling into the obvious positions that he’d created by digging a few natural swales in his yard and breaking off a number of strategic tree branches. Once they were settled in, two more men appeared at his back door, taking positions on either side of it. Fade eased his nose a little closer to the far right monitor, trying to see if anyone was covering his workshop but lost interest when he realized that he’d forgotten one obvious item. Clothes. It looked like he was going to make his last stand in a pair of Bugs Bunny boxer shorts. At least they were reasonably new.
The monitor set up in a tree that would offer a sniper a perfect view of the front and sides of the house was still empty, which seemed kind of strange. Did they have some new techie gizmo that made that vantage point unnecessary? One of those unmanned things that hovered over the battlefield like a blimp over a football game? Were those things armed now? Something didn’t feel right.
He propped himself up on his elbows and managed to shrug. Based on the ultimate objective of this operation, it wasn’t really worth getting in a twist over the details. Besides, he’d never been one to worry about technology. Sure, it had its place in large theaters, but in situations like these it just tended to split people’s focus. Assuming, of course, that whatever gadget you were relying on hadn’t gotten a little dirt in it and stopped working.
Truthfully, he’d bought the monitors he was using based completely on their fun factor. If he’d known they were actually going to work, he’d have bought more and put a few farther afield. Was Strand out there somewhere within reach? Probably not. But Matt Egan would be. He’d be directing this little pageant, which pretty much guaranteed that Fade’s time on this earth was coming to an end. Egan possessed an unusual combination of creativity and anal-retentiveness that had been truly confidence inspiring when Fade was working for him. But now it would undoubtedly prove deadly.
He tried to imagine lining his sites up on Egan and pulling the trigger but found it a much harder image to conjure than the one starring Hillel Strand. He tried again, but couldn’t get past centering the crosshairs. Faced with it for real, though, he told himself, he’d goddamn well take the shot.
One man in the front and one in the back slipped through their respective unlocked doors simultaneously. Fade switched to interior cameras and watched them do an initial sweep of the living room and kitchen before being followed by their two comrades. The remainder of the team stayed outside, one in front and the other in back, both lying in the comfy indentions provided for them.
Fade continued to toggle back and forth through his interior cameras as the four men moved cautiously through his house. After a complete sweep, they relaxed a bit and began to turn lights on. As promised in the glossy brochure that had accompanied them, the amazing little cameras adjusted automatically to the new light levels. And they’d even been on sale.
Two of the men had taken up positions in his living room and the other two in his bedroom. They seemed to be just standing at the foot of his bed while one of them chatted into his throat mike.
Fade had access to both rooms—the bedroom through the attic door and the living room through a panel he’d cut in the ceiling. The question was what should he do with that access. He assumed they’d looked up the architectural details of the house, so it seemed likely that they would suspect he was up there. Were they trying to draw him out? Of course. It was clearly a trap, but what kind of trap? They were just standing there with their guns hanging at their sides. What was that sneaky bastard Egan up to?
He watched one of the men in the living room walk over and examine a heavy piece of steel plate with a handle welded to it lying on the floor in front of a large fireplace. He didn’t seem to know what to make of it. In the bedroom, one of the men had taken off his gloves and was moving toward the bed, likely to see if it was still warm. Another attempt to draw him out?
Fade smiled and shook his head. This was all ego—he just didn’t want to be outsmarted. Best to keep in mind the end result he was after: Essentially lots of gunfire, a few cool explosions, and his own death. If he stayed up there much longer, the only thing he was going to die of was curiosity.
Grabbing the M16 next to him, he lifted himself out of his steel coffin and threw open the attic door.
The dust blowing off the deserted dirt road was almost enough to blind him, but Fade left the window down anyway. From a weather perspective at least, the morning had turned out beautifully—still air almost completely lacking in humidity beneath a cloudless sky. He leaned forward and turned the car’s underpowered CD player up another notch. In his experience, it was almost impossible to be depressed when listening to the Go-Gos. The Ramones and The Monkees were a close second and third, but he was convinced that a giant loudspeaker playing Beauty and the Beat could bring peace to Congo.
The trip odometer turned over twenty miles and Fade skidded the car to a stop in the quickly diminishing shade of a tree.
“End of the line.”
Karen Manning lifted her face from the car seat and looked up at him, eyes registering the fear that she wouldn’t let her face show.
“Oh. Sorry, bad choice of words.” Fade leaned over her and threw the passenger door open. A solid shove sent her rolling into a dense patch of weeds next to the car.
He stepped on the gas, accelerating quickly enough for the door to slam itself shut and did a one-eighty in the road, leaving a cloud of dust that almost completely obscured the woman struggling to her feet with her hands cuffed behind her.
As he passed, she tripped on something and rolled down into a dry creek bed. It was kind of a pathetic scene and, as he watched her in the rear view mirror, he started to think maybe he was being overly harsh. Jamming his foot down on the brake pedal, he slammed the car into reverse and pulled up even with her, once again creating a nearly opaque cloud of dust.
She was letting out an impressive stream of obscenities as she tried to extract herself from the creek bed without the use of her hands and Fade jumped out of the car to help.
“Mouth like that, you should have been in the Navy,” he said, grabbing her under one arm and hauling her to her feet. “Do you have a key for the handcuffs?”
Her eyes shifted almost imperceptibly toward the breast pocket of her shirt and he reached for it, but she jerked back.
“You sure? It’s gonna be hard to get those things over your boots and even harder to take the boots off. How about if I promise that under no circumstances will I enjoy a single moment of feeling you up?”
“You just stay away from me.”
He reached through his car’s back window and pulled out a liter bottle of water, which he dropped on the ground. “It’s twenty miles straight back up this road to the main highway. You look pretty fast, but it’s gonna get hot today and that’s not a lot of water. Watch your pace and try to stay in the shade where you can.” He turned and started to climb back into the car.
“Wait. You’ve got to give yourself up. You’ve got no chance.”
Fade smiled and looked back at her. “I don’t get your logic.”
“You just killed a bunch of cops and they’re going to pull out the stops to get you. Give yourself up now and let me take you in. I’m willing to personally guarantee your safety. Then you’ll have a chance to get a lawyer and tell your side of the story. If you honestly thought you were being attacked and were in danger, a jury will listen to that.”
“I don’t think so. Thanks for the offer, though.”
“Where are you going to go? What are you going to do? By now, there are pictures of you all over the TV. The police will be in the process of contacting everyone you ever knew and looking into everywhere you’ve ever been. That’s no way to live.”
“As sad as it sounds, it’s a step up for me.” He tried to get back in the car again but she actually moved to block him.
“More people could get hurt.”
“I can almost guarantee it.”
He grabbed her shoulders to move her aside, but as he did, his cell phone started to ring. Sighing quietly, he pulled it from his pocket. “Probably Mrs. Melman wondering why I haven’t delivered her daughter’s hope chest. Woman’s driving me nuts…”
The number registering on caller ID didn’t look familiar and the fact that he didn’t have any friends, combined with the fact that his number was unlisted, suggested that the call related in some way to last night.
“Look familiar?” he said, holding the phone up in front of Karen.
“My boss’s direct line.”
“What’s his name?”
“You made that up.”
“Why would I lie? That’s really his name.”
Fade shrugged and pressed the phone to his ear. “Good morning, Seymore.”
The silence on the other end suggested that this man’s mother indeed had named him Seymore Pickering.
“Am I speaking to Salam al Fayed?”
“I want to know where Karen Manning is. Has she been harmed?”
“I wouldn’t really say harmed. A little dented…”
“I want to talk to her.”
“Relax, Seymore. She’s fine. You have my word.”
“Then you won’t mind putting her on. As a gesture of good will.”
Fade rolled his eyes and held the phone up to Karen’s ear. She glanced at his car, probably considering blurting out a description but then wisely thought better of it. It seemed likely the cops had the description already anyway.
“Captain? I’m fine.”
Fade pulled the phone back. “See? You should try to be more trusting.”
“You have no reason to keep her or hurt her, Mr. al Fayed. She was just doing her job. As a former soldier, you should understand that.”
“I want you to let her go.”
Another confused silence. “Uh, what do you want in return?”
“Nothing that I can think of.”
A third silence. This guy wasn’t exactly a riveting conversationalist.
“I want you to turn yourself in, Mr. Fayed. I can guarantee your safety—”
“It’s al Fayed and let me stop you there. I’ve already been through this with Officer Manning. So why don’t we just cut through the crap. Here’s the situation, Seymour: I’ve got a couple of things I need to do and they don’t include getting a lethal injection. You’ve got some freak running around Virginia killing young women and making you look like a jerk. So why don’t you focus on that for a while and stay the hell away from me. In return for that small favor, I can pretty much guarantee you I’ll be dead in a month.”
“You know as well as I do that I can’t just ignore this. Even if I wanted to.”
“Yeah, I guess not…” When Fade spoke again, his voice had softened slightly. “Look, I’m sorry about your men. Tell their families that. Tell them that they fought really well and showed a lot of courage. I don’t know if they’re going to want to hear that. Probably not. What I’m trying to say here is that I don’t want to get into it with any more of your guys. But if they start shooting at me, I’m going to shoot back. And I almost never come up on the short end of those kinds of exchanges.”
Fade hung up and threw the phone back through the car window. “It’s al Fayed, you dick,” he mumbled to no one in particular and then slapped Karen on the shoulder. “Catch you later.”
Her eyes widened again in that nearly imperceptible way that was kind of endearing.
“It’s just a figure of speech,” he said as he slid behind the wheel. “You need to lighten up.”
Most of the spotlights bolted to the decaying brick buildings were broken, adding to the post-Armageddon atmosphere and making it difficult not to trip over the debris littering the ground. Egan continued carefully forward, getting close enough to read the building number on an old machine shop and confirming that he was still moving in the right direction.
The road came to a T and he took a deep breath before running across an exposed thirty-foot stretch and slipping behind a Dumpster. His heart was pounding harder than could be justified by the brief burst of speed and he stayed there for a moment, willing it to slow. The buildings lining either side of the street gave the impression of bunker-like mini storage units. There were no windows and no conventional doors in any of them—just a single metal garage-type door centered in each facade.
Egan leaned around the Dumpster and squinted at another number, then ducked back under cover. Billy had called him an hour ago with the address obtained from the Internet service provider Fade had signed up with. It was less than thirty feet away.
His heart rate rose again and he cursed silently to himself. This had just never been his thing. Fade used to say that combat focused him—made him forget all the bullshit the modern world crowded into his mind. As far as Egan was concerned, though, combat was all about being cold, wet, and scared while people tried to kill you. And all for less than you could make working at a gas station.
He rolled onto his stomach and focused on the second door on his right. It was closed and there was no light bleeding around it, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Were Fade and Karen Manning inside? Or was it a trap? Fade might have recognized the hopelessness of his situation and used his credit card to bring his enemies to him. In fact, he might be standing on the building across the street with one of those stock hunting rifles he’d used to such effect all over the world.
Despite the darkness and unseasonably cool temperatures, Egan could feel the sweat beginning to run down his back. Realistically, he had two options. He could wait there and hope Fade showed his face before morning when people would undoubtedly be curious as to why there was a guy with a gun behind their Dumpster. Or he could go get his car and use it as a battering ram against the garage door in hopes that he could surprise his old friend.
After careful consideration, Egan came to the conclusion that, while both plans sucked, the first sucked slightly less.
His shoulders were beginning to ache and he lay out flat, resting his cheek on the hand not wrapped around his gun. A little bit of luck. That’s all he needed. Just a little bit of luck.
After about a half an hour of complete silence, his phone began vibrating. He checked the incoming number nervously, expecting it to be Fade informing him that he had his scope all lined up and was about to put a bullet through his skull, but it turned out to just be Billy.
“What?” Egan whispered.
“Al Fayed used his card again! About twenty minutes ago. A grocery store a couple miles from you.”
Egan relaxed a bit at the realization that Fade probably wasn’t within rifle range.
“What did he buy?”
“Dunno. Damn store closed right after he used it. But he spent fifty-eight bucks.”
“Hillel just got back to the office—he looks like he got beat up or something, but he’s not talking so I have no idea what happened… Anyway, his goons are here too and they look available. You want me to send them out to back you up?”
Egan let out a quiet breath. In theory it would have been nice to have a couple of talented operators on the rooftops, but based on his last meeting with Strand, it seemed likely that he would accept nothing less than the deaths of both Fade and Karen Manning. It might have also occurred to him that it would be fairly convenient if Egan ended up shot, too. He knew a little more than Strand would be comfortable with and would make a more compliant scapegoat if he were a corpse.
No, the worst case scenario for him would be getting killed alongside Fade. If he was destined to die here tonight, he wanted to go out knowing that Fade would continue to chase Hillel around until one of them dropped. Vindictive? Sure. But he had a right.
“No. I’ll deal with this myself.”
“Are you sure, Matt? I mean, I know you did okay at the hospital but last time this guy had a home field advantage…”
“Thanks for reminding me, Billy. I feel a lot better now. Really.”
“I just don’t want anything to happen to you, man.”
“Look, I’ll give you a call in an hour to check in. If you don’t hear from me… Well, you’re probably not going to.”
He turned off the phone and inched to his right a bit, replacing his view of Fade’s building with a view of the only street leading up to it.
Another half an hour passed before a high-pitched metallic rattle became audible. The sound continued to get louder as whatever was making it moved closer, and Egan concentrated on keeping his breathing even and his family out of his head.
The dark shape that began to emerge from around the corner was initially unidentifiable but the sound it made was strangely familiar. A shopping cart. His educated guess was confirmed when the light from the machine shop glinted off it.
The man pushing it was wearing a baseball cap that shaded his face and a formless jacket that effectively hid his build. He seemed to be leaning a little harder on the cart than he should have been and still his limp was plainly evident. Egan had noticed Fade favoring his right leg at Elise’s show. Was it him?