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First pages

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Abraham Lincoln

1.

Flashing red lights, intense and urgent.

A jolt of fear as the highway patrol car accelerates towards her.

Some people say the police are involved in the killings, Melody thinks. Some people say it’s the reason so many women remain missing.

She pulls to the side of the interstate highway.

Was I speeding? she wonders.

She knows she hasn’t been concentrating on the road. She’s been watching snapshots of seemingly random mental images: snow drifting over beach sand; a young girl running into ocean waves; a dark hallway in an abandoned high school; naked bodies hanging from the gym’s ceiling, agony on their faces, a woman screaming….

A yard and a half of dirt separates the highway’s shoulder from a deep slope ending with a wall of trees. The top third of the trees rise above the road’s asphalt surface.

Every few seconds another vehicle speeds past her, rush hour traffic coming to an end.

Long jagged fingers of clouds separate earth from sky, menacing and grey.

Melody looks at the clouds, thinking, darkness over the land.

She searches her purse for her driver’s license, becoming increasingly annoyed. Wallet, no. Change purse, no. The rest of my purse, no. What about my briefcase, the glove compartment, the console, under my seat? No, no, no and no. Where is it?

The officer knocks on the passenger side window, startling her. Melody hits the button and the window slides into the door. He stands just a foot from the drop-off.

“Evening.” He’s in the standard highway patrol outfit of the dark Stetson hat with sunglasses and a tan uniform; he has the standard officer’s body, tall and powerful, face impassive, strong chin and sharp features.

“Driver’s license and insurance card,” he says, briefly glancing into the back of her SUV, one hand resting on the holster.

“Was I speeding?” Melody asks.

“Just the documents, please. You don’t need the registration. I’ll get that from the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

She hands him a paper insurance card. “I can’t seem to find my license.”

“You have one?”

Anger flashes in the muscles of her face, quickly contained. “Yes, of course I do.”

The officer frowns, looking carefully at the insurance card.

She’s taken the safety class and knows the information will be part of her driver’s record. “I have a conceal-and-carry permit,” Melody says. “My gun is in my purse.”

“Loaded?”

“Yes.”

The officer reaches through the window and grabs the large black purse. He removes the compact handgun, slides out the clip and ejects the cartridge from the chamber. He puts the gun and clip back into the purse and slings it over his shoulder.

“Please step out of the car,” he says. “Watch out for oncoming traffic when you do so.”

“Was I going that fast?”

“Please.”

And if I don’t? she wonders. Are you going to shoot me? According to some people, it’s a real possibility.

She checks the rearview and side mirrors, glances back and opens the door, getting out, making sure she keeps her hands visible to him.

“Walk around to the front of the vehicle and put your hands on the hood.”

Her hands touch hot metal and she winces slightly.

His hands pat beneath her underarms. Her jaw clenches and her muscles tense and she wants to turn around and kick the bastard in the groin as his hands lightly travel down her side. But she keeps still, knowing he outweighs her by a hundred pounds or more and he has a gun.

“Turn around, hands in the air.”

Breathing hard, a trickle of sweat on her neck, forcing herself to keep from glaring at him. The officer says nothing, finishes his search and steps away.

“Please walk to my vehicle.”

He follows her. The cherry top bathes her in strobing light, accentuating the darkness of the clouds.

The officer opens the back door. “Please sit inside.”

Trying to keep her voice level, she asks, “Am I under arrest?”

“Please, while I check your information.”

Why can’t you do this while I sit in my own car? she thinks. No, it’s okay. Maybe he’s worried I have another gun. Okay.

There used to be steel bars between the front and back seats - now there’s bullet proof glass. There are no buttons to lower windows or unlock doors. She watches in the rearview mirror as he punches information into the computer jutting from the center of the dash, glancing from her insurance card to the screen.

Her heart races, her body trapped between doors she can never open on her own.

He’s speaking into his radio but she can’t hear what’s being said.

Did I forget to pay a parking ticket? Melody wonders. Did he run my license and find there’s a bench warrant out on me because of some fine I’ve forgotten about?

What is he going to do to me?

She had heard stories at work from female co-workers of highway patrolmen pulling over young women and making them sit next to them while they wrote the tickets. Sexual harassment, Melody had thought. But those woman had been in the front seat, where they could open a door.

She glances about, the north and southbound lanes separated by a grassy median, a tree wall on both sides of the road to hide neighborhoods, a sign announcing lodging, gas and food a mile ahead.

Her exit. Home.

The officer steps out of the car and walks back to her SUV. He sits behind the wheel and he must have taken the key fob from her purse because he starts the car and rolls up the windows. Outside, as he walks back the SUV’s rear lights blink twice.

He’s locked my car! she realizes. He’s going to leave it there! Is he really going to arrest me? For what?

“Hey!” she calls when he sits behind the steering wheel and she knocks on the reinforced glass with her fist. “Hey, what are you doing?”

The officer ignores her and pulls onto the highway.

This is nonsense! she thinks. “Hey!” pounding and shouting, “Let me out! Where are we going?”

Melody kicks the back of his seat but a solid steel plate prevents the blows from reaching him.

She had left her cell phone in her purse.

“Damn it!”

A sudden urge to somehow drive her hands through the bulletproof glass and gouge out his eyes with her thumbs….

Any thoughts of relaxing flee deep into her subconscious.

She waits, seething.

2.

The patrol car pulls off the highway at the next exit. Around her, normal life. People wait at a crowded car wash while attendants with hurried motions clean windows and wipe away stray droplets of water; across the road, a patient walks into a building advertising a dermatology clinic; at a strip mall besides the building, a couple walk from a Thai restaurant to a movie theater.

The steak house closed months ago. ‘For Rent’ signs are plastered on the restaurant’s exterior and a large sign sticks up from the ground. Expensive landscaping has been annihilated by tall weeds, growing unchecked. The officer pulls into the parking lot and drives behind the vacant building. Two men wearing dark suits and aviator sunglasses flank the back entrance.

The officer opens the car’s rear door.

“Please step out,” the officer says.

“I’m not going anywhere. What’s going on?”

 “Please. There’s someone who needs to talk to you inside the restaurant. You’ll be fine.”

“This is kidnapping!”

The officer waits.

“I’m not getting out until you tell me what’s going on.”

“You can sit in the car as long as you want,” he tells her firmly. “But you’re not going to be released until you talk to a man inside the restaurant.”

“So I’m under arrest?”

“Please,” he says.

“And if I don’t? Are you going to Taser me?”

“Please.”

She tries to keep her face neutral but her heart pounds and her mind begins to shut down, a heaviness spreading through her head and she’s falling deep into a place where she will lose control, someplace dark and menacing and she knows she has to do something now.

“Fine.”

Melody gets out of the car.

One of the men in dark suits opens the door and ushers Melody inside.

They pass two more men in suits as they walk through a kitchen, many of its appliances gone, leaving empty spaces between counters. Dirt-free paint on the walls outline where refrigerators and cabinets once stood. Melody can see the seating area over a ledge where the cooks used to place finished dishes. Her eyes are drawn to a portable lamp on the center of one of the tables.

A man beckons from the table.

She looks around, surrounded by armed men, furious but back inside herself and she sits in a leather upholstered chair, firm cushioning on its seat and back.

“So?”

“My name’s Farrell,” the man says. “I hope you’ll forgive me for the way I had you brought here. But we need to talk and I couldn’t give you the chance of refusing.”

If not for the wheelchair one would think he is the paradigm of fitness. Broad shoulders angle to a narrow waist, muscles in his arms push against his suit jacket as he moves, with a tan face with black hair and obsidian eyes.

He isn’t sweating like everyone else in the restaurant.

She’s still breathing hard, muscles tense.

“I understand you’re angry but please let me have me a few minutes of your time.”

“Are you with the police or the FBI?”

“No.”

“Am I under arrest?”

“No.”

“Then drive me back to my car.”

“Not yet,” he answers. “I can’t let you leave here, until we talk.”

“This is kidnapping.”

“This is for your own protection.”

“What?”

“I’m one of the few people on Earth trying to keep you alive.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Melody says.

Farrell reaches for a silver briefcase and places it on the table. He rotates it so its latch faces Melody.

“Can I see your driver’s license?” he asks.

“I don’t know where it is.”

“Can you tell me the last time you saw it?”

She exhales deeply, closes her eyes, searches for a reason not to tell him but can’t think of any.

“I don’t know.”

“No matter.” He opens the briefcase and her driver’s license is covered by Plexiglas reinforced with steel wires.

“I don’t understand. Is that a duplicate?”

“No. And it expires in three weeks.”

She leans over, glancing at the license. Her photo had been taken six years ago. She looks the same.

“What did you do with your temporary driver’s license when it expired? What do you normally do with expired credit cards? Do you cut them in half and throw them away?”

“I use a paper shredder.”

“Then this license will exist for another three weeks. And then, normally, you would have destroyed it.”

“What?”

“Do you know where we found your license?” Farrell asks.

“What do you want?” Melody asks.

“We found it in a desolate area of the Mojave Desert. A part of the desert which has never been settled, as far as we know.”

The Mojave Desert is over 20 hours away. She’s never even driven through it.

“You found my license in the desert?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe you.” She stands, arms folded across her chest, still surrounded, the room getting hotter, suffocating.

Farrell nods. “As you may know, Edwards Air Force Base is located in the desert. This is classified so please keep it to yourself. One of our bombers on a training mission exploded in midair. We think it was shot down but we’re not completely sure. That bomber’s payload included two hydrogen bombs. They didn’t explode but they broke apart and a large area was bathed in radiation. We found them during the removal of irradiated ground.”

“You found my driver’s license?”

“We found mass graves. At present we think there are more than ten thousand skeletons. So far the ones we’ve examined are all women. All fairly young when they died.”

A skipping of her heart beat, just once, uncertainty on its way towards fear although she doesn’t know why.

Women disappearing, she thinks. Bodies found in parks and rivers and abandoned lots. Murderers roaming the land.

“The bomber crashed about seven years ago and the graves were found five years later. Our scientists have carbon dated about nine hundred of the skeletons so far and other experts are working to identify them. We found your skeleton in one of the mass graves with the driver’s license beside it. Your body and driver’s license had been buried over five hundred years ago.”

 

3.

Her mind sharpens and she’s fully present, thinking, confused. Why?

“Who are you?” Melody asks.

“I’d tell you who I work for but it would mean nothing to you,” Farrell says. “Consider me a representative of the Federal government. For now you’re going to have to trust that I’m on your side.”

Glancing behind her, men in suits staring, no way out.

“This isn’t funny,” she says. “I don’t understand the joke.”

“Please, sit down.”

One of the men places a water bottle on the table and waits a few feet behind her.

“Please.”

Sweat runs down her neck, wetting the back of her blouse.

Farrell looks at her calmly. He has yet to raise his voice. In fact, he talks so softly that she strains to hear him.

“Please.”

“I’m not a fool,” she says, reluctantly sitting down. She doesn’t want to drink the water because she doesn’t want anything from them but she twists open the cap and swallows anyway.

Farrell pulls a photograph from one of the briefcase’s pockets. It shows a slender cylinder of silver twine, tapered at the ends and splotched with dark marks like bruises.

“We found this attached to a skeleton’s knee in the same grave where we found your license and body. It’s made of Gortex and it’s used as an artificial ligament. The company etches serial numbers on its products. We checked. This device was implanted during a surgery on a female soccer player a number of years ago. That player disappeared, seemingly without a trace. Are you following me?”

Melody holds the water bottle with both hands, quiet, leaning forward.

“They didn’t make Gortex five hundred years ago,” Farrell says. “They didn’t have the medical knowledge or equipment to reconstruct knees five hundred years ago.”

“I’m supposed to believe all of this because of a photograph and because you found my driver’s license somewhere?”

“We’ve been following you for the past eight days, taking traces of skin and hair you left behind. Like from the IHOP restaurant you ate at last week, where you had breakfast. Blueberry pancakes and a fruit cup, right? The DNA matches. That skeleton in that grave is yours.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“And you weren’t just buried,” Farrell tells her. “We think you were tortured and murdered and your body tossed in that grave. And we know this happened over five hundred years ago.”

 

4.

“Can I go now?”

She hates herself, thinking she sounds like a frightened little girl, but to Farrell she’s calm and her body language projects confidence, even with the sweat and the effort to keep still.

He’s not surprised. He expects her to be calm. The background check revealed a woman reserved and intelligent, detail oriented and, for reasons unknown, mostly alone. A boyfriend but no close friends. She works in the backroom of an architectural firm that designs sports arenas and stadiums, managing payroll and retirement funds and project accounts. If not at work she’s usually at home. Or at the gun range, twice every week.

Why the interest in marksmanship?

Farrell and his people don’t know.

He picks a computer case off the floor, removes the laptop and places it on the table so they can both watch the screen. It’s in sleep mode; he wakes it and opens a video file.

“Like I said, our people are working on the skeletons. You weren’t the only person we identified. The first woman agreed to round-the-clock surveillance and a security detail. I had three men move into her home and we installed cameras in every room. Luckily, she lived alone, without a family.”

Footage of a large master bedroom from a fairly new house, with a plush light blue carpet and windows three quarters the size of the walls.

A woman enters from the bathroom, toweling her hair, wearing a white t-shirt and loose boxers. She’s lovely, brown hair and a lithe figure. She has the television tuned to a reality show featuring triplets in the male escort business. A flick of a switch and flames leap in the fireplace. She stands with her back to it, arms loosely at her sides, watching the show.

Her body trembles and anguish on her face, muscles apparently contracting, her body seizing like an engine out of oil.

The air in front of her body shimmers.

A silver dot appears before her abdomen, growing outward, becoming an oval of silver light shrouding her body. Her form appears as the oval turns translucent. She opens her mouth and raises her hands and there’s a moment when they can hear her scream and then she and the silver oval are gone.

“This is like The Blair Witch Project,” Melody says slowly. “Found footage. Well done.”

“We examined the bedroom, every inch of it. We took air samples and did the same for the rest of the house. We came up with nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary. No indication of whatever happened to her. We had a drone in the sky above her house, tasked to follow her. We went through every video, taken from above and from every room, frame by frame. Nothing.”

“I don’t have much money,” Melody says. “But how much do you want?”

“You need to trust me.”

She realizes, Brad.

With contempt she flings the water bottle towards the kitchen, liquid spurting, standing, knocking the chair away from the table.

“Tell him to go to hell,” she says, eyes on fire.

“Who?”

“You damn well know who, with his conspiracy theories and nonsense. I’m done with this. Shoot me if you want but I’m leaving.”

The man in the suit takes hold of her arm.

“Let go of me!” she shouts and searches the room for cameras and microphones.

“I know you’re watching!” she yells. “Knock it off!”

Fists clenched, feet apart, subconscious taking over, mind receding. Flight or fight. Fury blossoming.

They’ll stop this game eventually, she tells herself. And then I’m going to put a bullet in Brad’s chest.

“Do you have plans for the evening?” Farrell asks, calm and composed.

“None of your business.”

“We can have you home by dawn. And if you want, when we’re done, we’ll leave you alone.”

“Home from where?”

“The mass graves.”

 

5.

On the ride to the executive airport he talks about black ops, people working off the government’s books, no congressional oversight, little executive oversight, no paperwork of any kind, everyone paid in cash. No paystubs, no W-2s, no requirement to even file tax returns.

“You’ll have to trust us,” he tells her.

She ignores him.

Ice now encases emotions. She goes along, knowing at some point Brad will tire of the game and when she sees him she can kick him in his balls.

They fly on a Gulfstream Global 7000. Melody sits by herself in a white lounge chair, swiveling to peer out a window at the silver wing sweeping backwards, ending with an angled fin pointing up to the night sky. She refuses food and water and won’t talk to any of them.

The plane descends towards a private airfield and a runway laid atop desert sand.

They disembark, Farrell lowered by a vertical lift and the pilot brings the jet into the sole hanger where several technicians in blue overalls begin inspecting the aircraft.

From there a white and blue helicopter looking like a giant tram car with blades takes them deeper into the desert. It’s still dark and the helicopter flies with just a few blinking lights, the details of the ground below mostly glimpsed because of starlight.

Like the jet, the helicopter is handicapped accessible. Farrell locks his wheelchair in place beside Melody’s seat.

The two men in dark suits have yet to say a word to her. They don’t stare in her direction but they’re not reading or watching anything and she knows she’s in their peripheral vision. Neither tries to hide the shoulder holsters, handguns beneath each armpit.

Melody rebuffs Farrell’s few attempts to talk to her. Floodlights beam from the helicopter’s undercarriage as it descends towards a concrete pad. Chain link fences topped with barbed wire surround the landing field, three house trailers and other portable buildings.

There must be dozens of them, Melody thinks.

Carnival size tents project out from the landing field like ripples in a pond.

“Most of the pits are just seven or eight feet deep,” Farrell tells her. “But we found one with separate layers.” He wheels beside Melody, the earth compacted and leveled and it’s not often that one of his men must exert extra effort to push the chair forward. “We are being exposed to radiation from the bombs but we’ll be okay so long as we don’t stay more than an hour or so.”

Two figures wearing bulky orange suits step down from one of the trailers and one connects a hose to a water tower and the other begins spraying the helicopter with a clear liquid.

“These are the graves,” Melody says, suddenly unsure.

“The Air Force found the first one by accident and after uncovering twenty bodies or so brought in imaging equipment. We think we’ve located all of them.”

“All women?”

“We’ve yet to find a male. Almost all show signs of a violent death.”

She struggles with the scope. It’s not the worst of the Earth’s killing fields, she knows. Not even close. Ten thousand dead: almost a ridiculously small number when compared to the corpses, some burned to nothing but bits of ashes left to mingle with dirt and wind, left in Germany, Poland and the Ukraine; in Cambodia and Rwanda; in Indonesia and China.

“We think we’ll find that each woman we identify was reported missing and never found,” Farrell says. “Or will be, sometime in the future.”

He doesn’t continue but she thinks, does this have something to do with the disappearances or the killings?

She had looked up the statistics when she moved into her home, for the first time living by herself. 70,000 women are reported missing in the United States each year. Many are found alive and well. Many are found as corpses. And many are not found at all. At the end of last year there were over 21,000 cases of women reported missing and still not found.

21,000, Melody thinks. And according to Farrell’s story one of them eventually will be me.

And those are just the women reported missing in the United States since the mid-1970’s, she knows. As to women gone missing before, how many, not just in America, but from every country, on every continent? How many would that be? How long back should one go to compile a number? To Columbus and the discovery of The New World? To the Dark Ages? Even earlier? To the very dawn of man, seventy centuries ago?

“Where did you find the license?” Melody asks, shivering slightly, dust and dirt particles from the helicopter’s landing sprinkling about, tickling her nose.

Dust coated with death, she thinks.

Something about the site tugs at her, interests her….

He points and she follows him to a tent several hundred yards away. They slip inside. Skeletons, almost all of them complete, scattered haphazardly, some atop others. It’s as if the corpses weren’t carefully placed but tossed into the pit, to land wherever they may.

Bones have clearly been broken in half on most of the skeletons, arms or legs or ribs.

She expects small crosses or other religious markings but instead there are small placards by each skeleton like the kind diners would put on tables to signal waiters, each with a number in black.

Farrell waits for her to speak, watching her. He knows her age but realizes that seeing her in person, she gave scant clues. You could say she is fifteen or twenty-five or a young thirty. True blonde hair cut to a blunt bob guarding the sides of her face and curling underneath her chin, blueberry eyes, apple blossom skin with a button nose; standing three inches above five feet, curves on a body weighing just one hundred ten pounds. In the photographs he has seen of her, she rarely smiles. Her eyes look out onto the world with unease.

Strings tied to rebar divide the pit into pie shapes, each also numbered.

“What number, for the license?” she asks.

“It was at sixty two. In area six.”

Just a small black placard with white numbering by five feet of dirt. The skeleton had been removed. No mention of her name.

She’s numb.

“How many have you identified?”

“Seventeen, most thru a national database of missing woman. All but you and the woman from the video had already been reported missing. For the woman in the video, she’d been raped in her teens and we found her matching DNA sample on a FBI data base.”

“What do you tell the families?”

“Nothing.”

“What? You haven’t told them?”

“What do you want us to tell them?” he asks. “The truth? Would they believe it? Or should we move the bodies and fake crime scenes?”

“You told me.”

“Because you’re living. But the families of the missing? We couldn’t keep this quiet if we told the families. And we have no idea how to explain it anyway.”

“So the families believe their daughters or wives are still missing? They still have hope?”

“I suppose.”

Melody turns and walks on the paths between pits, occasionally ducking into one of the tents. More numbered placards, more skeletons.

Even Brad wouldn’t go this far, she knows. The police car and these actors and even the plane and helicopter – sure, he’d shell out the cash for that production. But all of this death?

“How many have you watched die?” Melody asks.

“Just the one,” Farrell answers.

“So basically you’re with me so you can watch me die?”

“You’ve already died,” Farrell says. “Remember, you died five hundred years ago.”

 

 

*

They fly back, landing a few hours before dawn.

On this flight, they talk. She asks questions. He provides few answers. None of it makes sense.

She’ll humor him, she decides, but knows none of it is possible.

Time travel?

Wouldn’t it be easier to just burn the bodies in a pit, in the present?

Were any other identification papers found? Driver’s licenses, employee badges, student ID’s?

Who did this?

Why?

He’s patient. He acts concerned.

He’s the government, she thinks. Or with something like the government. He wants this to be true. If all of this is real he wants whatever did this and whatever power it possesses.

Out of all of his answers, one stands out.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Richard L. Becker is a writer living in the Midwest with his family. He is the author of seven novels, including Dying Time. His novels, Hell Beckons and The Catch, were published by Midnight Frost Books.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
How a woman whose been hiding from life is forced to confront the world and find a place for herself in it.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
It's never too late to act.
Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
Gravity's Rainbow, Dog Soldiers and Marathon Man.

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