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THIRTY-NINE

July 3rd

They sat in the mostly empty hotel room and stared at the floor. Just like old times, John thought. The rug was faded and grimey. With the TV off, it was especially claustrophobic. But no one really wanted to watch the news. They were afraid what they would see. Going to the windows, they looked out. A police car passed underneath but continued on. From the bathroom, they could hear Cory weeping now and then, possibly in shock. She wanted to be alone. Maybe because she’d been right a lot the last few weeks and no one had listened to her.

John didn’t know. Didn’t know about anything anymore. All he did know was what he’d seen with his own eyes. Something impossible. That Katie, their leader, had fucked them. And… in a way, they’d fucked themselves. Suddenly everything they’d accomplished seemed trivial. Meaningless.

Shaking momentarily as he sat on the floor, he stared at the black fabric covered box in his hands. Opening it gently, he peered inside. At the two decorated blue spheres resting there. Picking them up with his fingers, he set them in the palm of his hand. And gradually started rolling them around. They chimed softly.

From the other side of the room, Viktor stared at him. Like he was observing a particularly vexing insect. Grimacing, John stood up and went out of the room, into a side room. Sinking onto the floor in a corner, he reached into his pocket and took out a prepaid phone. He had been carrying it with him around Europe for a month. He pressed the power button and the phone came to life.

He muffled the jingle with his clothes. The interface loaded and he activated the Internet connection. It worked slowly. He went to a search engine and searched for AIM Express. He was shown a link to it and he loaded the page. Now for his username and password. He inserted these and logged in. Long delay. He saw his buddy list. It was mostly out of frame. He scrolled right, painfully slowly. He scrolled down. The list was alphabetized. Nordictrax was not online. His eyes welled up. It felt like the world had dropped out from underneath him.

Bing-Bong!

“Just a minute! One second, Petey.” Jane Marshall set the phone down on the counter and jogged to the front door. She was off today and planning to go to the gym.

Bing-Bong!

“I’m coming!” She turned the brass lever of the deadbolt, pulled the door back, and looked out. A man stood on her front steps, in a dark suit. He appeared to be about fifty but had the fitness of a younger man. His face was utterly without fat. Behind him was another man, dressed the same way. Together, they looked to have the gentleness of a pair of rottweilers. She tried to smile.

“Can I help you?”

“Ma’am, my name is Orlando Shepherd. I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. May we come inside, please?” Her face blanched. She leaned to the side a little and looked past them. In the driveway, there were two black, mirror-smooth Chrysler Sebrings, radio antennas projecting out their backs like barbs. They looked terrifying. Oh no…

“Yes.”

She took a few steps back, anxiously. The men followed her, regarding her without comment, eyes unblinking. Evaluating the house dispassionately. The second man had on an earpiece with a clear cord that twisted downward before straightening out and vanishing into his jacket.

She took a deep breath and asked the one question no mother ever wanted to ask a law enforcement officer. “Has something happened to my son?”

“We don’t know, ma’am. We were hoping you might be able to fill in some blanks for us. When was the last time you spoke to your son?”

“About three weeks ago.”

“Where was that?”

“I was here. He called me.”

“Where from?”

“I don’t know. He’s supposed to be in Arizona, doing an internship with the Student Conservation Association.”

“Why do you say ‘supposed to be?’”

“He… he… Can I see some identification please?” The men withdrew their badges.

“Ma’am, it is very important that you tell us everything you know about your son’s whereabouts.

“Why, is he in trouble? Has he done something wrong?”

“I very much hate to tell you this, Ma’am. But we have reason to believe your son may be involved with a radical environmentalist group in Europe.”

“WHAT? RADICAL HOW?”

“Ma’am, a surveillance camera in a hotel in France took a picture of your son. So did a video camera in London. Our analysts, and the analysts of the British government, are fairly certain that the young man in the recordings is in fact your son. We also have fingerprints left by your son in London.”

She started to weep. “What did he do?”

“Have you watched the news at all today, Ma’am?”

“No! I was about to go to the gym!” She went to the phone. “Petey, I’ll call you back.” She hung it up.

“Well, for the last two months, it is believed that a group of individuals has been harassing businessmen throughout Europe and then publishing their exploits through the media. The group has since come to be known colloquially as Blackbody Six. Each incident has essentially shared a common theme. The individual being harassed is alleged to be carrying out activities that are environmentally questionable. Until two weeks ago, these activist activities were considered generally benign. But more recently, they have become much more sophisticated, and much more belligerent. Three days ago, a group of individuals detonated an explosive device at an agricultural facility in Spain and caused a water tower to collapse. One worker was severely injured and millions of euros of property was destroyed. Now yesterday, terrorists attacked a music venue in London. Several people were injured. At the same time, in Moscow, the computer systems of a major natural gas supplier were crashed in a targeted network intrusion.” She lost the ability to stand. The other man bent down and eased her into a crouch. She was sobbing.

“I can’t… I can’t… Oh God…!” Orlando stood over her, pausing.

“Ma’am, is your husband home?”

“DID YOU SEE ANOTHER CAR IN THE DRIVEWAY?”

“No ma’am, I’m sorry. Please calm down.”

“Why don’t you sit down.” The second man lifted her up and guided her into a chair. She shook her head.

“He said he was doing an internship… But from the beginning it didn’t sound right.”

“What do you mean?” the second man asked.

“It just didn’t sound right. I don’t know…” More sobbing. The agent gave her a few moments. “My daughter got into his computer and talked to a friend of his online. He said he was in Europe somewhere.”

“Your son was in Europe or his friend?”

“My son.”

“Do you have his friend’s contact information?”

“Yes. It’s on the refrigerator…” The second man walked over to the fridge and looked at it for a while.

“This one here, Scott Boles?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Ma’am we’re just going to jot this down, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Is your daughter nearby? Does she live in this town?”

“No, she’s a doctor in Chicago. She came home when I got worried about John.”

“Where is she now?”

“She went looking for him. I don’t know where she is. She’s supposed to call if she finds anything.”

“When did she leave?”

“A week ago.”

“Do you know where she initially went?”

“She said she was going to Paris. My son isn’t a bad man, officer. I don’t know what you think he’s caught up in but you have to believe me; he’s not a… TERRORIST! HE’S NOT!” The two men looked at each other, awkwardly. They were trying very hard to comfort her. This was a shitty day for a lot of people; they understood that. But one thing was certain. There was a very real possibility that the young man in the picture was in fact this woman’s son. And if the dots really were connected in the way they appeared to be, then the honest to God truth was, her son was, by definition, a terrorist. And, unfortunately for him, the maximum penalty for committing an act of terrorism, according to Spanish law, was life in prison. If he really was guilty, he could never come home.

The telephone rang. Mrs. Marshall went to the caller ID. It was Elle.

Rory McCarthy was drying himself in the shower when he heard a low flying helicopter approach. It instantly made him alert, as it always did. He froze, breathing slowly. It would pass. They always did. They were helping the firefighters. He slowly continued to dry his body off. But as he did, the noise didn’t subside. Putting the towel aside, he stepped out of the shower and dried his feet.

A deafening knock on his front door startled him. It took him a moment to recover. Another deafening knock.

“FBI!”

So. The moment had come after all. Rory hopped out of the tub and zig-zagged to his bedroom. Another loud knock. He pulled on a pair of boxers and opened the drawer to the nightstand, taking out his Sig Sauer. Already loaded, he racked the slide. He was about to pull on pants when he heard his front door tumble over. He ran to the bedroom door, closing and locking it and then ran back to the nightstand. He slid a spare magazine into his boxers and went to the window. Outside, the sky was dark as sackcloth. A hot wind blew over him, carrying with it the scent of burning wood. He pushed the window up all the way. It was old and of poor quality though and strained noisily.

Behind him, he heard, “CLEAR! CLEAR!” He got to work lifting up the screen. The screen resisted but he got it far enough up to fit through. Pushing himself through the window with his arms, he rolled on top of a hedge, landing on the ground in wood chips. He heard a door break open. Ignoring the pain from the wood chips, he got to his feet and ran towards the woods behind his apartment.

“HE’S RUNNING!”

Rory ran faster, the dry ground hurting his feet.

“FREEZE!” He didn’t. A few moments later, he entered the woods, stepping painfully onto some rocks and then feeling immense relief as his next footfall was on soft earth. He heard footsteps close behind him.

“DROP THE GUN NOW!” Rory felt his grip falter. But then he forced his fingers tighter. He ran faster, bounding over a downed tree. The footsteps remained close behind him. He ran faster still, stealing glances over his shoulder. Suddenly, Rory realized that the helicopter that had been hovering over his apartment was now following him. Rory was not an idiot. He knew that he probably couldn’t escape it. But still, he ran. Sharp fragments of wood cut into the soles of his feet, causing him excruciating pain. His pace was barely diminished.

After about fifty yards, there was a boulder poised above a shallow grade and Rory veered left behind it, heading downhill at a forty-five degree angle to the strike of the slope. After putting some distance between the boulder and himself, he finally slowed down to a jog to keep his chest from exploding. He looked around himself. Not seeing anyone or the helicopter, he risked a little optimism. However, his victory was short-lived. After two minutes, the helicopter reemerged from behind the trees. Fighting through an acute feeling of hopelessness, Rory started sprinting again. He was going to be free. So help him, God. Somehow.

A short distance later, the woods began to slope down sharply. Rory scrambled down the slope, losing his balance part way and nearly taking a spill. At the bottom was a wide downed tree suspended about a foot above the ground.

Not taking time to catch his breath, Rory scrambled on top of it. An instant later, a body slammed into him, knocking him over. He exhaled noisily, landing on a patch of pine needles with a thud. He raised his Sig Sauer but he was immediately grappled, his thumb twisted painfully until he felt it snap.

Rory Screamed. He punched air with his other hand. His arm was caught in a hold and directed painfully behind him. He was rolled onto his stomach, pine needles biting into his chest.

“FUCK YOU” he screamed, twisting his body. Another pair of footsteps became audible and someone came around the log.

“DON’T STRUGGLE!” the second person yelled. Rory continued to struggle. He felt the second person yank his arms hard. Cold metal closed around his wrists. The second man spoke into his radio, “Suspect in custody!”

“Copy,” he heard.

Rory continued to struggle. One of the FBI agents leaned on his back with his knee, holding him firmly to the ground. Rory fought against his weight with everything he had. But it wasn’t enough. After a few minutes of this, Rory let out a long exhale and relaxed his muscles.

Several minutes later, another FBI agent arrived and the first agent shoved his hand under one of Rory’s armpits. “Let’s get this asshole back,” he said. The weight lifted from Rory’s back and a second hand went under his other armpit. He was hoisted up. Once he was standing, he immediately began to struggle again. He felt their grips loosen on him momentarily. But they regained control over him with such rapidity, it instantly became clear to him that he wasn’t going to escape from them.

Reluctantly, gradually, he faced the grim reality. That his life as he knew it was over. He didn’t know whether the FBI had come here merely because they had discovered that he had done business with his mysterious contacts in Europe or whether they also knew what his contacts had sent him. But ultimately, either way, it wouldn’t matter soon. Everything necessary to damn him was inside his apartment, stored at a balmy thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit in two metal coffee cans. Fuck me, he thought.

As they walked back towards the society that would rob him of his freedom, Rory looked around himself. A deep feeling of desolation set in. He would never set foot in the woods again, he realized. It was a shame. His final memory of them would be marred by the memory of the jarring sound of helicopter turbines overhead. Of his hands handcuffed behind him. Of a pair of U.S. government stooges leading him like he was a dumb perp on Cops. It was a cruel last look.

After a few minutes, a new thought began to repeat in Rory’s mind. One he was unable to shut out. It was a sentiment he had a feeling would be with him for the rest of his life.

I should have killed myself, he thought.

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