December, 1991 . . . . .
He was wandering rather aimlessly through the town's Christmas bazaar when it happened. The hair at the back of his neck stood on end in a feeling he recognized instantly.
Resisting the impulse to turn around, Max Keenan continued his meandering trek through the stalls and vendors, looking for a spot from which he could unobtrusively study the crowd. Finally, he found a music store with a rack of sale items arranged in front of a large window. He bent over the display and pretended to study the CDs and cassette tapes as he glanced into the reflection the plate glass provided.
His blood ran cold.
A face he hadn't seen in thirteen years – one he'd hoped never to see again – was in the crowd behind him.
For the next twenty minutes, the man known as Matthew Brennan pretended to be unaware of his silent follower and continued to act like any other father out shopping for last minute Christmas gifts. He made a few purchases and then headed away from the shops.
A silent warning blared in his head as he approached his car from the rear.
That damn bumper sticker. And if they trace the license plate . . .
Decision made, Max walked past the car and kept walking until he noticed another vehicle left unlocked.
Thank God for trusting souls.
Careful to keep his movements easy and natural, he opened the door, tossed the shopping bags into the back seat and slid inside, then bent over as if he were retrieving something from the glove box. Instead, his fast hands worked quickly beneath the dash to hotwire the car's ignition. When the engine roared to life, he sat up, glanced casually over his shoulder and pulled into the flow of traffic.
Within five minutes, careful scrutiny through his rear-view mirror picked up the car tailing him.
He drove slowly through the streets of the small town, carefully following every traffic law as he scanned his surroundings and waited for the right opportunity. That moment came as he approached a large, busy intersection just as the traffic light facing him turned yellow. At the last minute, he hit the gas and raced through the light. The car behind him was trapped by the flow of traffic.
Max sped through one street after another until he was completely sure he'd lost his pursuer. A multi-story parking garage caught his attention; he turned in, quickly found a spot and raced into the connecting office building's lobby in search of a payphone.
A few miles away, Christine Brennan hummed softly as she hung the last of the Christmas decorations and stepped back to admire her work. The harsh buzz of a kitchen timer, followed almost immediately by the ring of a telephone, interrupted the moment of appreciation. Hurrying, she grabbed the phone from the wall and sped to the kitchen to remove a hot cherry pie from the oven.
"Torpedo." The voice on the other end was harsh, low and insistent. "Hawkins Field, by the pond, twenty minutes. Alone."
For a moment, she stood frozen.
It had been thirteen years since they'd discussed that code word. Surely . . .
Her head shook in denial. "No."
"Torpedo," Max repeated. "Twenty minutes. Alone."
"Alone?" She blinked in surprise as she tried to wrap her head around the shocking developments. "Why -"
The line went dead.
Christine's eyes blurred with tears as she fumbled for her purse and keys. When she had both in hand, she stood at the bottom of the staircase and with a deep breath, forced her voice into a semblance of normalcy.
"Yes?" The answer came from behind a bedroom's closed door.
"I have to go out for a minute. I . . ." Her throat closed, making speech impossible for several seconds. "I love you," she managed finally.
"Okay. Love you, too."
She gripped the keys in her hand hard enough to crack the simple plastic fob that dangled from the metal ring. After one last look around the pretty little house, she walked out, leaving the front door unlocked.
Ten minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot next to the small pond. Max was already there, standing on the bank, staring at the water. When he turned to face her, she was shocked to see tears streaming down his face.
Her heart sank.
When she approached, he pulled her into his arms and for a few minutes, they simply held each other. Suddenly, he pushed away from her and ran to the back of her car.
Without answering her sputtered demands for an explanation, Max held out his hand for her keys, opened the trunk and pulled out the tire jack. While she watched, he knelt on the rough pavement and scraped away all traces of the school's name from the bumper sticker that proclaimed their daughter's brilliance as a student.
"Matthew, what –"
The words faded away when he removed the license plate and replaced it with the one from the vehicle he'd stolen earlier.
She watched it all in disbelief.
"No, not now," she whispered. "Not now. Please, not now."
"They found us. McVicar is here." He slammed the trunk shut. "Get in the car."
The doors were barely closed before he pealed roughly out of the parking lot. To her surprise, instead of heading back to their little house, he drove toward town.
"What are you doing?" she asked in confusion.
"I'm trying to find the son of a bitch who saw me. He has to see us leave. He has to follow us."
His eyes flickered in a continuing circuit from the road in front of him to the side streets they passed to the rear view mirror.
"What?" Christine stared at him in shock. "Why do we want him following us? We should go home and . . ."
Her eyes opened wide in horror when she realized what he was doing.
"We're leaving the kids? We're just going to leave them?" Her voice rose hysterically. "No! We can't do that! Tempe's only 15!" She broke down, sobbing. "We can't just leave them alone! Why can't we take them with us again?"
The use of the name she hadn't heard in thirteen years ripped away her last, faint hope that this was all something . . . else. A test. A joke. Anything other than the destruction of the life and home and family they'd managed to build together.
"Ruth, if they catch us, they'll kill us." His jaw was hard, his tone implacable as he forced the truth on her. "The only way to save the kids is to leave, to lead these guys away. We'll come back!" Max reached for her shaking hand and squeezed. "She'll be fine. Russ is 19, he'll take care of her. You know he will. And as soon as it's safe, we'll come back. I promise. I promise. We'll come back."
She didn't believe him.
"How do you know they'll be okay? How do you know McVicar won't . . . what if he gets to them? What if he finds them and hurts them? We have to protect them!"
Max shook his head. "They want us, not the kids. It was just bad luck that he saw me today. If the bastards knew more about us, if they knew where we were, we'd already be dead. This way, we lead them away, we get in the clear again and then we come back. When it's safe."
A glance in the mirror brought a look of malevolent satisfaction to his face.
"There you are, you bastard. Now let's see if you can keep up."
With a squeal of tires, he hit the accelerator and sped down the road to the interstate ramp.
Beside him, Ruth sobbed, fist in her mouth, her face turned to the window. Each mile that passed beneath the wheels was another hole from which her heart bled out.
"How did they find us?" she whispered raggedly.
"I don't know," came the grim answer. "But I'm going to find out."