LAYNE PARRISH ALWAYS loved a good rumpus. Nestled in a cramped bed next to a little girl named Cameron, he flipped to the last page of Where the Wild Things Are.
“Daddy,” she said.
“Yes, little one.”
“Why did Max go home? Why can’t he stay with wild things?”
“Because he missed his family.”
Cameron stared at the page, an illustration of the protagonist sailing across the water toward home. Pale brow creased, her face riddled with confusion. Thinking. Her eyes were kaleidoscopic puddles of blue crystal, glistening under the meager light of the bedside lamp. The young child readjusted herself on the twin bed, and Layne had to pivot his weight to keep from slipping over the side.
“He missed his mommy and daddy?”
Layne nodded. “He did.”
In his pocket, a phone buzzed. He slipped it out to find a call from an unknown number lighting up the screen. Unknown to the phone companies, but Layne had a strong suspicion who was on the line.
The same person who had been calling and texting him relentlessly for the last two days.
“Daddy, put it away. You said no more screens.”
“You’re right,” he said as he jabbed it back into his pocket. “Watching screens after dark makes our eyes cross, right?” He crossed his eyes and let his tongue loll out.
She giggled and poked his chest with a finger not much bigger than a toothpick. “Daddy, stop.”
Cameron traced one of those fingers along his arm, gliding across one particular section of the tattoos that covered from wrist to shoulder. A cherub in the middle of his forearm, obscuring a gunshot wound from long ago. The cherub now appeared faded and blurry on his forty-year-old arms.
The phone squirmed inside his pocket again, demanding attention. A repeat call. This time, though, he ignored the eager person on the other end of the line.
“It’s time for bed,” he said.
She pondered this for a moment and then frowned. “Are the wild things going to get me?”
“You’re a wild thing,” he said, and his fingers leaped to her belly for a tickle. She cackled, writhing, and he instantly regretted it. Bedtime was supposed to be calm time. But, he couldn’t resist torturing such an easy target.
“Okay, okay, little one. Time for bed, for real.”
She pushed out a breath, the remnants of tickle energy fading. Her lids were heavy, her motions thick, like a person wading through swampy water. She was an inch away from sleep. Layne anticipated no bedtime false starts tonight.
“I love you much, Daddy.”
He kissed her forehead as he drew the covers up to her shoulders. “And I love you much, little one.”
He sneaked across the room and rested a hand on the light switch. “I’ll be right downstairs, okay?”
Layne flicked out the light and stole one last look at her, a miniature head nestled on a Thomas the Tank Engine pillow. He closed the door behind him as his phone buzzed yet again. Didn’t bother to take it out.
Next, a knock came at the front door, downstairs. He paused for a moment in front of his daughter’s room to make sure she wouldn’t call out. No way she was asleep already, but maybe she hadn’t heard it. The excitement of someone coming to the door would turn bedtime into a circus requiring a whole new set of little kid cool-down routines.
She made no sound. No vibration through the door.
Layne held perfectly still until another knock came. He wasn’t unreachable in this small town, but he almost never had visitors. And never unannounced or after dark. The neighbors knew about bedtime policy and wouldn’t betray Layne’s evening ritual.
He hustled down the stairs, past the fireplace, and through the living room to the front door. Keeping his large body close to the wall, he eased toward the framed art print of a stretch of highway cutting across a Nevada desert. Three motorcycle riders blurred with speed, the stark highway underneath them rippling with heat.
After lifting that off the wall, he accessed the hidden vault behind it. He pressed his thumb against a small pad in the lower left corner. A moment later, it clicked and then opened. Inside were two Glock 19 MOS with Trijicon RMR sights, and four extra magazines. He loaded a magazine into each pistol but left them inside the safe.
He inched toward the door and slid open a small cover on the other side, revealing a six-inch LCD panel connected to a video camera concealed above the front door. With squinted eyes, he tapped the screen to wake it. A hefty sigh then escaped his lips. A tall brunette with curly hair posed on his front porch, wrapped in a heavy winter coat. Shivering against the flakes of snow cascading down around her.
He gritted his teeth and shut the wall vault. Re-hung the framed poster.
Layne opened the front door. “Hello, Daphne.”
“Let me in?” she said, grimacing. “It’s cold as hell out here.”
“It’s December at eight thousand feet. Obviously, it’s cold.”
She strutted inside and hooked a heel to kick the door shut behind her. Spent a couple seconds unspooling the scarf around her neck like a mummy unwrapping herself. “I don’t know why you insisted on Colorado. And not even somewhere sensible like Denver, but way the hell up here in the backwoods.”
“What can I do for you?”
She let her coat slip off her shoulders and crash to the floor. Layne did not miss the fact that she was wearing a form-fitting business suit, one that amplified every one of her curves.
Daphne strutted around the living room, rubbing her hands together and casting narrow eyes at the decor in his house. It wasn’t much, but Layne didn’t care about decorating. He cared more about child-proofing the electrical outlets and making sure Cameron had plenty of space for her toys, which littered the floor like grenade shrapnel.
As she glanced into the kitchen, she grinned at his refrigerator. “Still adding to your magnet collection, I see.”
Layne said nothing.
Daphne paused before a framed print of the Denver skyline hanging above the modest television in the living room. “What do you have to drink?”
He shook his head. “We’re not doing that. Why don’t you just tell me why you’re here, so I can politely refuse and send you on your way.”
“Aww, Boy Scout,” she said, mock-pouting, “you really need to work on your conversational skills. I haven’t seen you in so long, and all you have to offer me is hostility and bitterness?”
“You know when you drop a lobster into a cold pot and then slowly turn up the heat, so he doesn’t know he’s boiling? That’s how this feels right now.”
Wearing a wry grin, Daphne sashayed across the room and slipped her hands around Layne’s waist. “This is a far cry from how you used to greet me after a long absence. Remember the Radisson in Houston? I thought we were going to break the bed.”
“I just put my daughter down for the night. She sometimes doesn’t sleep well at this altitude so I would like to sit in my recliner and drink a Fat Tire while I read my book. After that, I’m going to bed, so I can be ready when she wakes up to go potty two or three hours from now. How can I hurry this conversation along so I can get to my alone time faster?”
She removed her arms and stepped away from him. “Fine, dear. I’ll get to the point. You’re needed for something, and it’s important. Give me two minutes, and I can lay it all out for you.”
He shook his head, feeling the familiar burn of a headache ignite behind his eyes.
“You’re not even curious?” she said. “Not even a little?”
“You have to trust me, Layne. I can tell you most of it now, and the rest when we’re at our destination. This operation is something that affects you personally.”
“I’m not interested. I appreciate you coming all this way, but it was a wasted trip.” He pointed up at the ceiling, toward the room where Cameron slept. “That’s the only thing that affects me personally anymore.”
“We don’t have time for this cat-and-mouse foreplay.”
“No cat and mouse. There’s nothing you can say to make me jump back into that life, and whatever is at stake here, you can get your own people to handle it. I’m done.”
Daphne chewed on her lower lip for a second, then sighed. “You’re making a mistake.”
“I can live with that.”
“Hundred percent, this is your final answer?”
He stared, stone-faced. Figured he’d said all he needed to say.
“So be it.” She dropped into a crouch to pick up her coat, slipped it on, and carried the scarf in her hand as she marched toward the door. Layne opened it for her, saying nothing as she exited.
When the door had closed, he stood there watching the LCD screen as she shuffled through the snow toward the street. A brief pang of guilt thumped his chest. That he should have agreed to hear her out, at least. She’d come a long way, and it couldn’t have been for no reason.
But, then again, Layne didn’t do this kind of work anymore. He’d left that life behind years ago for something simpler. Something less dangerous.
He continued to study her tiny avatar on the screen as she reached the edge of his yard. Couldn’t see what car she’d arrived in.
As she shucked snow from her shoes, Daphne lifted a phone to her ear. Her head peeked back toward his front door as she mouthed some words into the phone.
He could see it in her eyes.
His finger jabbed the button next to the LCD screen to change the view. First, it cycled to the camera at the side of the house, then to the rear porch. At two black-clad shadows, breaking into his back door.
Their footsteps padded across the threshold, into his house.
He spun around as he felt the first pinch. A jab in the side of his stomach, like a heavy-duty mosquito bite. His eyes flicked down to see a stick no longer than a match jutting from his shirt. An instant of wooziness struck him, and his vision filled with stars.
Through his living room, Layne could see two figures slinking into his kitchen from the back laundry room. Both dressed head-to-toe in black, one man and one woman. The female had an arm extended, a device like a pistol in her hands. Stun dart gun. Layne turned back toward the wall safe next to his front door when the second pinch happened, this one in his back. Like a needle jabbed into his spine.
He wrenched a hand back to pluck the dart from his skin. Wobbling on his feet, not sure if he could keep himself upright for much longer. His eyelids fluttered.
The two figures in the kitchen continued to advance. Layne spun and raced toward them. He swerved along the way, bumping against his recliner. Could barely keep his eyes open. His hands felt like meat dumbbells hanging from his arms.
From around the corner by the fireplace emerged a third assailant, same attire. Layne pivoted and drove his shoulder into the man’s chest, knocking him back against the wall.
He noted one odd thing: aside from the stun dart pistol, they’d brought no other weapons.
Not here to kill him.
He ducked down and swept the nearest attacker’s leg, knocking the man off balance and sending him to the floor. The third pinch hit him, this time in the shoulder blade. The world spun. His chest tightened while his limbs flopped, feeling out of control. Couldn’t raise his arms.
His eyelids wanted to slam shut. His body weighed a thousand pounds. He sank to one knee, a few inches away from the man on the floor, now incapacitated. Layne struggled to draw in a breath as the weight of his own frame succeeded in pulling him to the floor.
Layne rotated onto his back as he fell to the carpet. The ceiling swam, and his mouth lolled open. Two figures loomed over him, both of them wearing dark fabric over their faces. Layne made one last attempt to swipe at a nearby ankle before his eyes closed completely.
AT FIRST, Layne couldn’t see. He experienced the revival of his senses in quick succession, but at first, each one was a shadow of what it should have been. He could hear something akin to a repetitive drone fading into his ears, then he felt his skin. Something touching it, like a fan, or maybe a breeze. He was on his back, judging by the pressure on his hips and shoulders.
The oddest thing was the warmth he felt. The humidity. Pores accustomed to dry, open air now felt slick and clogged.
This wasn’t South Fork, Colorado.
With some effort, he fluttered his eyes a few times to find himself staring at a ceiling with a revolving blade fan. The fan made him nauseous, so he closed his eyes again. Drew in a deep breath, heavy and thick. His arms engaged, and he lifted them to wipe his face a few times. He could smell salt in the sweat he’d dabbed from his brow.
After a few breaths, the queasy feeling in his stomach abated.
Last thing he remembered, he’d been at the South Fork house, had just put his daughter to bed—
He pistoned up into a sit, panicked. Heart racing. Flashed open his eyes to find himself inside what looked like a bedroom. No windows, only a dim lamp cutting through the room’s darkness.
No, that wasn’t right. There was a single window in the room, covered with a heavy brown curtain.
The room contained a bed, nightstand, and a dresser. On top of that dresser sat a folded piece of paper, with the single letter “L” written on top. The piece of paper was pointed in his direction, beckoning him.
That could wait a minute. First priority was self-defense and a threat assessment.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and planted them on the floor. The carpet was warm, his feet achy and sore. He eased over to the curtain and discovered it was stapled to the window frame.
He was wearing only boxers. His eyes searched around the room for a weapon. Nothing immediately came into view. He considered breaking off a leg of the nightstand to use as a spike, but the splitting of the wood would make too much noise. Sequestered in this room, he couldn't predict the scope of what he’d find outside the only visible door.
Layne picked up the lamp to check the weight, but it was made of plastic or some other material too flimsy to use as a weapon.
There had to be a better option. He sneaked across the room and opened the sliding closet door, hoping to find a tool set with a hefty screwdriver.
No such luck. The closet was bare except for a few clothes hangers. Layne grabbed a wire hanger and bent it around his palm, sharp end sticking out between his index and middle fingers. A crappy weapon, but better than nothing. It might slice a throat if he hit the target in exactly the right spot.
Layne wobbled across the room toward the dresser. He snatched the piece of paper from the top and opened it.
I imagine you’re furious. That’s to be expected. The room you’re in right now is not secure. Please leave and go down to the beach hut marked #58. It’s right outside the apartment.
He gripped the paper. Beach hut? Where the hell was he?
More details of his last lucid moments flooded back into awareness. Daphne coming to visit him. Her making a phone call on her way out, and then seconds later, those three thugs filling him with a toxin heavy enough to knock him out. They’d been lying in wait at his back door.
Daphne had anticipated Layne would refuse her and then would require force to comply with her wishes. She knew him too well.
But what about Cameron? They’d knocked him out and kidnapped him with his daughter asleep upstairs. That was too much, even for Daphne. A line that couldn’t be uncrossed.
He opened the top drawer of the dresser and found a pair of correctly sized cargo shorts and a short-sleeved polo shirt. No wallet or keys. The possessions he’d had on him before those people had invaded his house were nowhere to be seen.
He slipped on the clothes as he opened the other drawers to find them completely empty. Even with the clothes on, he felt naked. Layne slinked across the room and held his hand on the knob. He half-expected it to be locked, or to find more of those black-clad figures in the hallway outside. The hope that he might locate his daughter was slipping fast.
But the door wasn’t locked. He creaked it open to a hallway on the other side, with pastel walls and thick carpet underfoot. Natural light spilling across his vision from unseen windows.
Daytime. How long had he been out?
He peered into the hallway and listened for any sounds. Nothing but that repetitive droning sound.
“Cameron?” he said. “Little one, are you here?”
Only the echo of his voice came back.
With a deep breath, he raised his wire hanger weapon and readied himself for a fight.
He leaped into the living room of this small apartment to see a place devoid of any decorations or furniture. Nice, but empty. And now, he understood exactly what the droning sound was: the ocean. Through the window of this spartan living room, he stared out at the curve of an orange beach with foamy white suds pelting the shoreline. Hundreds of people sunbathing. Umbrellas casting shadows. Girls in bikinis smacking volleyballs over nets rippling in a slight breeze.
His head grew woozy again, but only for a second. A pulse of tension throbbed behind his eyes. Was that feeling jet lag?
Layne eased across the carpeted room and stumbled on a pair of size thirteen sandals sitting on a square of tile in front of the door to the outside. He slipped them on and then stepped out into the bright sunlight. Had to raise a hand to shield himself from its power. Blinked a few times.
Not only humid here, but breathtakingly hot. The kind of hot that sucks the air right from your lungs and makes your skin sizzle, even in the shade.
He stumbled a few steps forward, off the tile porch and into the beige sand of the beach. Gulped air as seagulls cawed overhead.
What the hell was happening here?
And then, his eyes followed a collection of people on the beach, many of them pointing and hoisting phones to snap pictures of something occurring in the distance.
Layne raised his other hand to block out the sun so he could follow their gaze. Took his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the brightness of the sand and waves.
A little ways down the beach, he saw what they were all watching: a kangaroo hopping through the sand.
THE KANGAROO HOPPED, big floppy feet kicking up sand with each leap into the air. Little T-Rex arms wiggled near its chest as the roo traversed the beach. Head like a deer, pointy ears.
Okay, so this was Australia. The people snapping pictures and pointing were tourists. A beach, so somewhere along one of the coasts. He’d never been to the red continent before. Sydney? There was no opera house in sight, and he knew of no other landmarks.
Behind him were houses and apartments and a few taller buildings. In front was the ocean. Between sat an orange beach littered with people. Layne Parrish was unaccustomed to feeling so lost and out of sorts. Out of control.
He had no choice but to take the next action available to him. The note had said something about beach huts.
He stumbled forward across the beach as his sandals whipped grainy particles up onto the backs of his legs. Warm and grating on his calves. Had been a long time since he’d been to a beach, and never in this level of heat.
He now understood the grogginess running through his brain to be jet lag and possibly leftover chemicals from those darts they’d used to take him down. But how he’d gotten here and how long he’d been here were still mysteries.
Daphne knew the answers, and he had a feeling he would find her at this beach hut, whatever that was.
Ahead and to the right, Layne spotted a series of tiny, colorful buildings with flat roofs, like storage sheds. They butted up to the beach. The note had said to find hut #58. He approached the back of them and rounded the nearest one, marked #49. The next was #50. He stumbled along the beach huts, kicking up sand, searching for #58.
He had to work harder to breathe, in the thickness of this air. The heat was already punishing him, sending beads of sweat from his short hair down into his eyebrows. Droplets plunged to their deaths in the oddly colored sand.
He found #58, a bright pink hut with a few pieces of spray paint graffiti and a single roll-up door as a garage would have. Padlock sitting on the door. Instinctively, his hand went to the pockets on his new shorts, and he felt a small indentation in his left pocket he hadn’t noticed before.
He fished it out and broke the paperclip into two pieces to make it suitable for lock picking. He jabbed both ends into the lock and fished them around. In about five seconds, it clicked and opened.
After a pause, he whipped off his shirt and wiped down the area, then he wrapped the shirt around his hand to open the door.
A whistling sound behind him cut the air. He turned to find two young girls in bikinis, blonde and tanned, grinning at him.
“Won’t you be late for your firefighter calendar shoot?” said the one on the left, and they both devolved into hysterical laughter.
“Flex for us,” said the other one.
Layne gave them a wave and opted not to reply so the conversation could end. They both blew him kisses and skipped away after lingering for a few more seconds.
Once he was alone, Layne took a last look around before opening the door. No one was paying attention to him. Aside from these two teenage fans, everyone else was too busy enjoying this sunny day.
Took Layne a moment to realize that since the seasons were reversed, December in Australia would be summer here. That explained the brutal heat.
He lifted the roll-up door about three feet and then ducked underneath it, then let the door roll closed behind him. Found himself in a ten by ten shed, lit by an LED light on a chain up above. The only other objects in the room were: a wooden chair, a desk opposite that chair, and a laptop sitting on top of the table. Finally, next to the laptop was a stack of what looked like money. Non-American currency, with small, transparent windows, made from a thick material. Almost like plastic. The bills were yellow and had a large number 50 printed on each. At least thirty or forty of them.
Layne slid into the chair. He used the hand wearing his shirt-glove to lift the lid of the laptop. The screen faded in from black to display a Notepad text file, with this message typed in the middle of the page:
Please wait for call.
A cursor blinked next to the text. In another few seconds, the program Skype jumped into focus, with a familiar jingle and an incoming call message. With his shirt glove, he tapped on the space bar to accept the call.
Daphne Kurek’s face appeared, framed by her curly hair. Layne fumed, but silently. So many phrases popped into his head at once, he didn’t know which one to choose. Better to let her make the first move and then calculate his response.
Daphne lifted a hand to offer a little wave, which jerked across the screen due to the poor internet connection. Like it was skipping frames.
Her face filled most of the Skype window, but Layne could see she was sitting against a simple white background, most likely a wall. Probably didn’t want him to know where she was.
“You’re angry,” she said.
He unclenched his jaw. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Before you start yelling—”
“Where is my daughter?”
Daphne held up her hands in surrender. “Cameron is totally fine. One hundred percent fine. She’s with her mother, and she will stay with her mother for the next four days. She was asleep when we collected her in South Fork, and she woke up at your ex’s in Denver the next morning. Had no idea about any of it.”
“I need proof.”
She frowned. “You’re serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. I want to see what she’s doing, right now.”
Daphne blew out a frustrated sigh, then she leaned out of frame. She whispered to someone, then nodded. “Okay. It’ll take us a couple minutes to get a drone into range.”
“Why four days?” he asked.
“Because someone is going to assassinate the governor of Victoria.”
He wracked his brain to remember what he could of Australian geography. Wasn’t much. Then, it clicked into place. “So that’s where I am. Melbourne.”
She nodded. “You’re in Frankston, to be exact. Just south of Melbourne. And if you want to fit in, you better learn how to pronounce it like Mel-bun, not Mel-born.”
Layne sat back and grunted as he tugged on his lower lip. A nicotine craving blossomed in his chest. “I can’t believe you, Daphne. After everything I had to do to get away from you people. After the absolutely catastrophic way we left things, and you pull this shit? Is the end going to justify the means this time?”
“I get it. But I’d like you to hear me out. There’s a lot more to this story than you might think.” She turned her head to the side, listening to someone. “Stand by, Layne. One second.” Then, she scrolled through her phone and held it up to the camera. There, from above, he watched his ex-wife standing in a park playground in her neighborhood in Broomfield, north of Denver. A moment later, his daughter came rushing down a nearby slide, her arms in the air. Wearing her bright red parka, the one he’d bought her last month.
His heart ached at the sight of her. Even from this height, he could read the smile on her face.
“This is live?” he said.
Daphne nodded. “In a way. It’s live to you, but it’s yesterday afternoon to them.”
“Prove it to me. I want you to pan over to the warehouse across the street from the park. Pan over to it and focus on the big tree in the parking lot.”
“Fine.” She tapped on her phone and then held it up. She raised her eyes off-camera at whoever was controlling the drone, and it did as Layne had asked. Made a sweep into the air, showing the glass manufacturing building across the street. Big tree, doused with snow.
“Believe me now?” she said.
“Am I killing the governor, or stopping the person who’s going to kill him?”
“Stopping,” she said with a smirk, lowering her phone. “The governor is getting on a flight five days from now, to arrive in Pakistan. There is an immense amount of secrecy surrounding this flight, and it has a lot of people worried.”
“Why is the governor of Victoria going to Pakistan?”
“We’re not sure why, but we’re working on finding that out. Whatever the reason, someone is trying to make sure it doesn’t happen. Your job is to stop that person.”
“Why can’t you talk to the governor?”
She shook her head.
“Okay, then why don’t you kidnap him? Keep him under wraps for a few days? That seems to be your specialty lately.”
“Surprisingly, the governor’s office has been antagonistic to us. Not willing to take our meetings or even acknowledge the existence of his travel plans.”
“Maybe you’re not as charming as you used to be.”
“We have theories about what’s going on in Pakistan, and it’s all quite chaotic right now. We’re trying to muddle through the data, but we’re running out of time.”
Layne flexed his hands. “So try harder.”
“We’ve done all we can through official channels, even tried going above his head. He’s not interested. This speech is too important to him, and he won’t accept help from outside. We’ve tried to get local police involved, but they refuse to believe their security can be compromised.”
“Maybe you should trust them to do their jobs. Either way, I don’t care. I’m not interested in taking on a new assignment. So, why don’t you tell me where my passport is, and I’ll be on my way?”
Daphne sighed and rolled her head around her neck a couple times. “Please, listen to me all the way through. This job is more than just a job. I tried to explain it to you in Colorado, but you were stubborn, as usual.”
“I don’t care, Daphne. If you won’t give me my passport, then I’ll handle it on my own. I’m going to end this call now and find out where the US embassy is. Please let this be the last conversation we ever have.”
He reached to close the laptop, but she threw her hands up. “Wait! One more minute. Let me tell you the rest. I promise you will want to hear this.”
Layne withdrew his hand and let it drop into his lap. “You have sixty seconds.”
“There’s a reason you were given this assignment. There’s a reason we couldn’t let you say no. There’s a reason why we kidnapped you from Colorado and threw your unconscious body on a cargo plane and escorted you to a country halfway around the world.”
“And what is that?”
“The person trying to kill the governor of Victoria is your brother, Randall.”