Chapter 3: Family Ties
Amber drove west from Fairfax, pushing the car through thick afternoon traffic for nearly an hour. As they drove, Oliver filled her in on his adventure in Iceland.
Everything had gone well, he explained, until he had reached the cave where the shard of cold metal, the object of his hunt, had lain hidden. There, he had nearly been killed by a concealed deadfall and the animated corpses of three Viking warriors. Despite being low on ammunition, and here Oliver treated Amber to a lengthy rant on the difficulty of purchasing ammunition in Iceland, he had dispatched the ghouls and successfully captured his prize. Then had come the unpleasantness with his expedition partners as they had attempted to steal the shard from Oliver, but he had managed to slip away and leave them stranded on the ice.
It was a token of their long friendship and shared experiences in the South American jungle that Amber saved her mockery for Oliver’s inability to secure sufficient firepower and choose reliable partners, rather than his claims of fending off undead foes. Normally, when relating the tale to an editor or acquaintance at a party, Oliver would have excised the supernatural aspects of his adventure, but he knew that Amber would believe him. After all, it was she who had cleaned his wounds after an encounter with a particularly pissed off snake god in the jungles of Brazil.
Amber eventually pulled off the main highway and began navigating along winding roads that wound through rolling hills and deep valleys. Oliver was familiar with this area, if not this particular road, from having grown up on the family estate in Loudoun County, west of Washington D.C. The valleys between the hills were crisscrossed with streams and narrow roads that connected the patchwork of small towns. The hillsides were covered in vast tracts of pastureland for beef cattle and racing horses, as well as the large homes of the wealthy landowners whose political machinations were perhaps even more famous than the products of their pastures.
Oliver had grown up on one of those farms. His parents had made a comfortable fortune breeding some of the best race horses on the East Coast and had carved out a name for the Lucas clan amongst the Washington elite long before he had come along. As a child, he had spent many an evening helping the horse wranglers in the stables and most weekends exploring the fields and woods of the family estate. When Amber joined the family she became his companion in many of those rambles, injecting their escapades with a shot of exoticism from her intimate knowledge of Mayan mythology. It had been a good childhood, and in many ways Oliver regretted not visiting his family more often. The chasm between him and his parents wasn’t very wide, but it was deep and bridges had grown few and rickety over the last decade.
It had all started when Oliver had chosen to follow in the footsteps of his dead uncle and study history and archaeology at the college of William and Mary in Williamsburg, rather than launch a career in politics or finance through studies at Georgetown. His father had taken the news in stride, encouraging Oliver to “dig deep” and learn all he could about the past. His mother, on the other hand, had long hoped that her son would carry the family name to greater heights of fortune and influence, so she took the news rather poorly. He had been a diligent student, however, and had nearly managed to win back her approval when he had fallen from grace with such publicity and force that even his father had refused to speak with him for six months.
“We’re here!” Amber exclaimed, breaking Oliver out of his reverie.
She braked sharply and turned the car into the gravel drive of a large house that stood at the head of a cluster of buildings near the top of a hill. The house was painted a faded goldenrod yellow with pale blue shutters over the windows. The wide front porch was screened in and adorned with simple white support columns. Wide granite steps led down to a series of stepping stones between the stairs to the gravel driveway. A dozen or more cats were lounging about the place, sitting on the stone retaining wall, curled up in the grass, or batting at stalks of catnip growing in clumps throughout a flower garden that stretched along the front of the porch and around the corner of the house.
“What is this place?” Oliver asked. “Did my parents move while I was away at camp in Iceland?”
Amber giggled and shook her head. “Of course not. This is the Rabbit Warren, a cozy little bed and breakfast nestled in the hills of Virginia wine country, only minutes from the highway and just outside a lovely little community of stuffy antique dealers.”
Amber pulled the car around the back of the house and parked it between two large black SUVs. “The perfect place for a romantic getaway with your spouse, or a private tryst with the intern of the month.”
“Something tells me not all of that is in the advertising materiel.”
Amber shrugged and flashed Oliver a wicked grin. “I just call it how I see it.”
Oliver grinned back at her, then his face grew somber as he asked, “Why are we here? My parents’ place is just as close to D.C.”
“My best guess would be that this is neutral ground.”
“Your father wasn’t specific, but I got the impression that he won’t be the only person at this little heart to heart. Honestly, I’m not sure if he’s offering you a patron as a conciliatory gift, or using your unique skill set to gain leverage with someone.”
Oliver nodded, chewing silently on the inside of his lip.
In answer, Oliver pushed the car door open and climbed out into the sticky heat of the afternoon air. Amber followed and the two of them walked together back along the path to the front steps of the house.
Passing through the screened porch they entered a large sitting room decorated in shades of yellow and blue, with dozens of small framed sketches of rabbits hung all over the walls. The room smelled heavily of cedar from a set of smoking incense sticks arranged artfully on the coffee table in the center, between the overstuffed yellow paisley love seats.
“Nice place,” Amber commented.
Oliver shrugged. It was a bit frilly for his taste.
A short, plump woman with gray hair and a broad smile came bustling into the room and greeted them with enthusiastic handshakes. “Welcome to the Rabbit Warren. I’m Gwen Owen, the owner of this fine little inn. How may I help you on this lovely day?”
Oliver shook her hand and smiled. “Charmed, Gwen. My cousin and I are here to meet someone. Elderly man, dark hair, thin as a stick and about twice your height.”
“Oh! You must be Oliver. Can’t believe I didn’t recognize you from the photo. Mr. Lucas told me to expect you.” She turned to Amber and pulled her into a hug. “And you must be Amber. I’ve heard so much about you both.”
Amber stiffened briefly, startled by the sudden familiarity, but quickly recovered and managed to return Gwen’s hug with what passed for enthusiasm.
“You know my father?” Oliver asked.
“Know him? We’re old business associates!” Gwen enthused, gesturing for the two of them to follow her through a doorway and down a hall. “We met at some fundraiser in town and it turned out that we both had something the other needed. He had connections and I had a quiet place where people could arrange to meet in private.”
She led them through a gleaming steal and granite kitchen to what appeared to be a large broom closet. She opened a circuit breaker panel set into the wall and flipped several switches. There was a soft hum and the rear wall of the closet slid back and up, revealing a set of brightly lit steps leading down to a heavy steel door.
Gwen stepped aside and gestured for Oliver to go down the steps. He thanked her and did, descending the steps without hesitation. Amber made to follow him, but Gwen held up a hand. “I’m sorry dear, but Mr. Lucas said that only Oliver could come to this meeting.”
Oliver paused and turned around. “Then why did you even let her see the steps?”
Gwen smiled. “Oh, she’ll be allowed down soon enough, I wouldn’t deny her a peek at the room, but my clients pay for discretion and this particular gentleman needs to leave before Amber is allowed down there.”
Amber grimaced and waved Oliver on. “Don’t worry Ollie, I’ll just have a cup of coffee and wait. Make sure you let him know I’m annoyed though. I don’t like playing messenger without knowing whose messages I’m carrying.”
She turned and disappeared from the doorway. Gwen flipped a switch and the false wall lowered back into place at the top of the steps.
Oliver sighed and continued down the steps. It wasn’t like this was out of character for his father. Michael Lucas was a good man, despite their differences Oliver would be the first to admit that, but his concepts of honor were perhaps a little more flexible than average. He had convinced Amber to lure Oliver to this meeting, and offered Oliver’s services to someone without consulting him, so it wasn’t inconceivable that he would bar her from the meeting if it suited his plans. The man would never harm Oliver or Amber, but he wasn’t above using them as tools.
Oliver reached the bottom of the steps and tried the knob on the door. Locked. A glance told Oliver that the door was set in a heavy frame, which was probably anchored deep into the concrete surrounding the door. He knocked, knuckles sounding loud on the heavy steel of the door, then looked directly into the domed glass eye of the peephole.
The door swung silently open and Oliver found himself face to neck with a muscular man in a dark suit. A wire coiled from his left ear into the collar of his jacket and Oliver immediately noted the gentle bulge of an under arm holster. He looked up into the man’s square face, noting the cold intelligence of his eyes. The man’s expression remained blank as he looked Oliver up and down.
“Are you armed?” His voice was much softer than Oliver had expected.
“I just got off an international flight and was shanghaied into this meeting by my darling little cousin. So, yeah, I’ve got an arsenal in my back pocket.”
“Don’t fool yourself Oliver. That little girl probably has more firepower in her car than our Secret Service gentleman here.” Oliver’s father appeared behind the guard, a drink in one hand. “It’s him, Ted. Frisk him if you must, but let’s get this meeting started.”
The guard nodded slightly and stepped aside, gesturing for Oliver to enter the room.
It was surprisingly bright and pleasant for an underground room, especially after the caves Oliver had been crawling through just a few days before. Comfortable white light filtered through panels set in the ceiling to illuminate a sitting area with four high backed leather chairs arranged around a polished wood table. The walls were painted a soft eggshell white, which extended into the thick carpet on the floor. One of the chairs was occupied, judging from the dark gray pinstriped pant legs that Oliver could see past the body of the guard.
The legs uncrossed and a man leaned forward to set a thick glass of dark liquor on the table. Oliver’s eyes widened and one eyebrow moved up in surprise, but he stepped casually around the guard and extended a hand to the gray haired man.
“Senator Wheeler, now this is a surprise.”
The Senator rose to his feet, flashed a charismatic smile, and shook Oliver’s hand enthusiastically.
“It’s good to meet you boy. Your father has just been filling me in on some of your little adventures.”
Oliver glanced at his father, who winked at him over the rim of his glass.
“Seems to me you’ve been having quite the adventure of your own. I’ve been out of the news loop for a couple weeks, but the last I heard, you were your party’s last remaining hope for a respectable nominee.”
The Senator laughed and settled back into his seat, snagging his glass off the table and bringing it to his lips in a single smooth action. He sipped at it, licked his lips, and said, “Things certainly have advanced since then. In fact, I am the nominee now, hence Ted over there.” He stabbed a finger of his drinking hand in the general direction of the large Secret Service guard standing in front of the door and continued. “However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have some concerns about the general election. It’s never easy going up against an incumbent, no matter her popularity.”
Oliver felt something brush his elbow and turned to see his father holding out a glass of the same dark liquor the older men were enjoying. He took the glass and sniffed at it suspiciously.
“Jack. Good solid bourbon,” Senator Wheeler said.
Oliver sipped at dark liquid. It burned this lips and tongue before slipping down his throat and spreading a fire through his chest. He made a face and set the glass on the table before dropping heavily into the armchair across from the Senator. His father walked around and settled quietly into the chair directly facing the door. Oliver slid the glass towards his father and looked inquiringly at the Senator.
“What can I do for you, sir?”