Special Agent Dan DeLara was in his office at the DEA, sitting behind a desk messy with papers and files. When he saw Larry, he stood and extended his hand. Larry moved the briefcase he was carrying to his left hand and took it.
“Did you have any trouble finding my office?” he asked, nodding as he sat down again at the rat’s warren of cubicles outside his door.
Larry shook his head. “No. The agent downstairs gives good instructions.” He fingered the visitor’s badge clipped to his pocket. “I wasn’t sure they’d let me in.”
“They wouldn’t have except I told them I was expecting your call. It’s better you came in person.”
“You said we needed to talk. I happen to agree.”
DeLara motioned for Larry to sit in one of the chairs in front of his desk.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, Agent DeLara. I need your help.”
“What kind of help, Mr. Wheeler?” The man sat forward in his chair as if interested in what Larry had to say, his face expressionless except for a gleam in his heavy lidded eyes.
“Francis X. Marley hired a woman to follow me. She was kidnapped today by a man I saw going into Winston Wainwright’s house two nights ago.”
“Whoa! Back up!” DeLara sat back in his chair and held up his hands as if he were defending himself against a frontal attack. “That’s a hell of a beginning. Let’s start again and take one thing at a time. First, why would anyone, much less the esteemed senator from Virginia, have you followed?”
“It’s a long story and it’s gonna to sound like I’m nuts, I know, but please, just hear me out.“ Larry hesitated.
This was the crucial point. If DeLara believed he was crazy, there was no hope of getting Jill back. There wasn’t much hope anyway, but without help, he knew he hadn’t a chance in hell.
“All right. Go on.”
“I’m not sure I can make you understand because I’m not sure I do myself.” He took a deep breath before continuing, “I was released a few days ago from a private hospital. Shit, call it what it really is, a mental hospital.”
DeLara almost imperceptibly straightened and glanced quickly at the door. If the man across from him were suddenly to lose it, was there anyone around to help? He casually opened the drawer to his right and took out a lined canary pad and a pen, ostensibly to take notes. He left the drawer open so he could quickly get to the weapon that was lying there if it should become necessary.
Now, Larry didn’t hesitate but rushed on as if trying to spit venom from his mouth. “They said I had a breakdown when my family was killed in an accident.”
DeLara relaxed a bit. “I can understand that,” he said, nodding in sympathy.
“No, no. You don’t. What I mean is that’s what they told me and that’s what I came to believe. “
“Came to believe.”
“Yeah. The thing is, Agent DeLara, I have what they call retrograde amnesia. I can’t remember most of the last five years, at least I’m told it was five years, but it could be less. I’m not sure. My memory is coming back, slowly, in bits and pieces, but mostly it’s still a blur. I don’t remember getting married. I don’t remember having a son. They told me I did, but I don’t remember them at all.” He added apologetically, “None of this is making sense, I know.”
“It’s different, I admit, but it happens.”
“Now, here’s where things get really weird, weirder. Jill, my girlfriend, said my oldest and closest friend, Mike Casey. . .”
“Luis’s friend? The one that was murdered?”
Larry nodded, “That’s right. Mike told her I’ve never been married and he would know. I’ve known him forever and he would’ve been my best man.”
In frustration, Larry’s hands began patting his pockets for a pack of cigarettes. He didn’t remember giving them up, but then he hadn’t in recent memory smoked. Regardless, right now he desperately wanted one.
“I don’t know what to think anymore,” he continued. “Sometimes even I think I’m crazy. God knows the police would.”
The agent nodded, but his raised eyebrows belied his willingness to believe. “Go on.”
“I thought this all started,” Larry began, “when I saw a guy grab a woman off the sidewalk at the Cliff House.”
DeLara’s tired looking eyes opened a little bit wider, “Did you call the police?”
“Yes, of course. Wait, let me continue,” he said when the agent leaned forward. “Later, I saw the same man walk into Wainwright’s house.”
“How did that come about?” DeLara questioned, doubtfully, as he began making notes on the lined pad.
“Let me get back to that later, agent. It gets better, I promise. We, Jill and I, watched the house, and when the guy came out, we followed him to see what he was up to. There was an accident and his town car went into the Bay, but no one came up.”
“You were there?”
Larry nodded. “The next morning the police dragged a body up. Jill and I met with Luis to look at the body to see if we recognized him. Only, when we left, a car tried to run us down and Luis was hit.”
DeLara shrugged, “Random act. Drunk driver.”
“I thought so, too, but later Jill confessed that she had recognized the body. He worked at the hospital I was in. She was a nurse there, and she was hired to keep tabs on me when I got out.”
“This is your girlfriend?” DeLara asked sarcastically.
“I didn’t know all this when I met her,” Larry answered defensively. “When she told me, naturally, I was hurt and angry. She left and that’s when she was kidnapped.”
“How do you know she was kidnapped? You two had a fight. She left of her own accord.”
“We had a fight, yes, but that’s not it. I saw her forced into a car at gunpoint. What would you call it?”
DeLara looked skeptical. “Did you actually see a gun?”
“The guy shot at me.”
“And you saw him at the house of Winston Wainwright, the publisher?”
“Actually, there were two of them. The one with the gun I’d never seen before, at least not his face, but the guy that pulled her into the car, yes. Definitely,” Larry nodded.
Dan DeLara was experienced in reading people. He had been doing this for over twenty-five years and had a feel for when someone was blowing smoke up his ass. He studied Larry, trying to sense whether or not what he was hearing was the truth. What he saw was a man who was calm and self-possessed but who had an urgency about him that spoke of truth. DeLara believed him or at least, believed that the man himself believed the story he was telling.
“Did you call the police?”
Larry shook his head slowly.
“Another kidnapping in less than three days? Any chance they would have believed me?”
“So you came to me.”
“I didn’t know where else to go. Luis said he’s been working with you on something really big. His words. So I figured maybe you’d be willing to help me.”
“Because you think what he was doing with us is connected to what happened to him?”
“No, not at all. I think the hit and run is connected to what has been happening to me. You have more resources at your disposal than I do, and since I obviously can’t call the police, I thought maybe you’d be willing to help just because of what he has done for you in the past.”
“Okay. Say I’m willing to help you. What makes you think it was connected to you?”
Larry opened the briefcase and placed the picture that he had taken at the airport, as well as Luis’s file, on the desk. He took a small magnifying glass from the briefcase and handed it to the agent.
“Do you recognize this man?”
Dan DeLara took the glass, held it over the picture, adjusting the distance between the lens and his eyes until the face became clear. He whistled and looked at Larry with renewed interest.
“This is the guy that kidnapped Jill,” Larry explained. “He’s the one I saw at Cliff House and going into Wainwright’s house, and he’s also the other guy from the limo that went into the Bay night before last.”
“Vladimir Wulf. This guy is suspected of at least six murders here in the States and God knows what else. I know Interpol would love to get their hands on him, as well. The word is that recently he has been working for a new drug cartel. The trouble is we don’t know any more about it. You’re sure it was him you saw at Wainwright’s house?”
Dan DeLara studied the file for a minute, picking up each piece of information and reading it carefully. He was not aware that the picture of Marissa had been removed.
“So,” he said, “Vladimir Wulf is connected with Winston Wainwright, college roommate of Francis Marley, super patriot and war hero. Kind of coincidental, wouldn’t you say?”
“Marley flew a rescue helicopter in Viet Nam, I believe. Decorated for it.”
At the word roommate Larry’s eyes had narrowed with interest. “How do you know all that?”
“We know everything there is to know about our new ‘drug czar.’ Or, we thought we did; we had to vet him before his appointment by the President. But what we don’t know is how all this relates to you.”
“Jill said Marley is my godfather. But believe me; I never had a godfather. I have absolutely no memory of ever meeting him.”
“Okay. . .,” the agent said slowly, giving Larry a chance to continue.
“A godfather I never had, a wife I never married, an accident that never really happened. Why would someone do this to me, DeLara? I’ve been going over it and over it trying to make some sense out of it, but I can’t.”
Confusion and frustration played across Larry’s face. He rubbed his fingers back and forth across his mouth. It was obvious that he was in real distress and wasn’t playing a part to arouse a sympathetic response to get some help. Larry’s eyes were focused on the calendar at the edge of the desk, but his mind was replaying scenes from his recent memories, trying to find some grain of reason in them.
DeLara now believed that at least some of what he was hearing was true. The question was, how much?
“Who told you about the accident and your family?” he asked after a long pause.
Larry pulled his eyes from the calendar and looked at the agent. “The doctors at the hospital. Since I couldn’t remember anything, I had no reason to doubt them.
“And Miss. . ., your girlfriend.”
“Miss Thornton told you about Marley being your godfather.”
“Did she ever mention Wulf, by that name or any other? Did she seem to recognize him?”
“No. Never. But I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu the first time I saw his face, like I had seen it hovering over me, flat on my back. I don’t know. Like I said, maybe I am crazy.”
The agent closed the file. He stood and extended his hand to Larry. “Thank you, Mr. Wheeler. I appreciate your bringing this information to us. You can be sure we will make good use of it.”
Reluctantly, Larry stood. He looked at DeLara’s extended hand but didn’t take it. Finally the agent dropped it.
“I don’t think you understand,” Larry said. “I didn’t bring this to you because I want out of this. This is my game, but I need help. I’ve got to find Jill.”
“This is not a game, Mr. Wheeler. These men kill anybody who gets in their way. They don’t even think twice.” He smiled condescendingly. “And about Miss Thornton, don’t worry. We’ll find her.”
Larry stared at DeLara for a moment, but the agent didn’t flinch. Finally, Larry dropped his eyes as if he were giving in.
“I guess you’re right. You’re the professionals. I’d probably just get in your way. Thanks for your time, agent. You will let me know if you find out anything about Jill, won’t you? You can get me at Luis and Mike’s place for the time being.”
Larry picked up his briefcase, turned and left the office. Dan DeLara stared impassively after him. He waited a minute then walked to the door and checked to see that Larry had not lingered nearby. Satisfied, he returned to his desk, picked up the phone and dialed a number. After several rings the other end picked up.
“I just heard a story,” he said with barely controlled excitement into the receiver, “and you’re not going to believe it. Luis Ybarra’s friend just handed me a four-star, class A, gold plated link between Vladimir Wulf and... Yes, you heard me right, Vladimir Wulf,” he paused for effect, “and our boss, the new drug czar. No. I’m not shittin’ you. Get in here. We’ve got work to do.”
Outside the building Larry paused and looked back at the door he had just left. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and took out a picture. It was the one of Marissa Ruiz that he had removed from the file before giving it to DeLara. He looked at it for a moment and then replaced it, patting the jacket over the pocket.
“And,” he muttered to himself as he looked up in the direction of Dan DeLara’s office window, “I’ll let you know if I find out anything.”