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Chapter 1 – There She Goes

Few things in this world are more soul-crushing than facing a parent’s disappointment. For Yoonie Brandt, fate had multiplied the devastation through timing.

The door opened, a nurse stepped out, looked around briefly and spotted Yoonie. “Dr. Brandt?”

“Yes.”

“Your mother will see you now,” spat the nurse, not bothering to disguise her contempt.

Get in line, thought Yoonie, pushing the door open. “Thank you.”

One of the suits crowded in before she could close the door.

“Really?” she asked irritably.

“Orders, ma’am.”

Whatever annoyance Yoonie may have felt for the intrusion dissipated immediately upon seeing her mother. Only three months had passed since the diagnosis, but in that time Hye Kim-Brandt had shriveled into a pale husk of her former self.

“Mommy,” whispered Yoonie, pulling a chair close to the bed. “You look well.”

“More lies,” returned the older woman, refusing to look at her daughter.

Yoonie’s eyes stung as she gingerly removed the newspaper from her mother’s hand. Yoonie folded it in half to hide the headline—Researcher Faked Results—and dropped it into the waste bin.

“Who is this?” asked Hye, nodding toward the man at the door without making eye contact.

“He… he’s just a friend, Mom.”

“Lies upon lies.”

“Mom, I… even if it was all true, it’s too late to help you. It was always too late. I never said—”

“I believed in you,” Hye said bitterly.

Stomach twisting, Yoonie changed the subject and tried to sound happy. “You’re being transferred to a better place today, Mommy.”

The two sat in miserable silence until Yoonie leaned forward and took her mother’s hand.

The touch seemed to impart strength into the fragile older woman. She turned and stared fiercely into her daughter’s eyes. Speaking in Korean, the dying woman begged, “Tell me it’s not true. Everything they say, it’s all lies. You’d never do those things, never!”

“Mommy, I love you,” Yoonie whispered in English, tears now rolling down her cheeks. “Let’s talk about where they’re moving you to. It’s called—”

The older woman’s grip tightened as she switched to German. “Speak to me! I know your heart. We didn’t raise you this way.”

Yoonie bit her lip and hung her head. There was no way she could make this right, not in any language.

 

Chapter 2 – Crack of Doom

Three years later

In this world of digital records, fingerprint databases, surveillance cameras, and passive facial recognition systems, few are ever able to truly disappear. Rarer still, those who manage the feat twice in a single lifetime. The man known as Joseph T. Kettleman was about to do exactly that, though he didn’t know it yet.

He was preparing to wrap up a perfectly ordinary weekend just as he always did, with a ride up the Ortega River to a secluded fishing hole. The only mildly unusual thing was that his wife was already awake.

“Morning, Joe,” Carolyn said brightly. “Made you some coffee.”

“Morning, sweetheart,” he said, slipping his arm around her waist and kissing her cheek. “Going with me again?”

He held his breath.

“Oh, no. I don’t think so,” she said disdainfully.

Too late, the damage was already done. Joe dug in his pocket for the bottle of antacid.

Last Sunday had been a disaster. Despite his warnings that she would hate it, Carolyn had insisted on going with him. Apparently some article in Cosmo had convinced her that she needed to take an interest in the things he enjoyed.

Despite his better judgement, Joe had relented. The thirty-minute ride out had been fine, Carolyn barely saying a word, but that had just been the calm before the storm. The fog had been thick and she’d almost seemed to share Joe’s reverence, quietly watching sleepy docks slide by. Her only complaint had been about why they couldn’t have taken one of the bigger boats.

Carolyn had always hated the bass boat. He’d bought it two years ago, but last Sunday was only the second time she’d been on it, even though she was the one who had talked Joe into buying it. He’d been ready to pull the trigger on a sixteen-foot Carolina Skiff when she’d asked the salesman to show them the most expensive bass boat on the lot. That turned out to be a Ranger Icon which was still painfully boring, but must be better because it was ten times more expensive.

Joe was not a flashy guy, a point that annoyed Carolyn to no end. She had tried to talk him into a Porsche, and then been furious for weeks when he’d come home with a pickup truck.

“Oh my god, you’re the only person on the whole island with a hick-mobile!”

The ‘whole island’ amounted to about fifteen houses. It was a man-made island—part of a much larger neighborhood—that had been severed off by deepening the low-lying portion of a parcel of land that jutted out into the river, creating a canal that separated the island from the rest of the neighborhood.

Kettleman would never have found the house, had he not been introduced to his wife-to-be. Carolyn had just received her Florida real estate certification when they met three years ago. He was looking to lower his profile and had settled on Jacksonville.

Jacksonville fit the bill perfectly. It was small enough to stay off the radar, large enough to conduct business. The deciding factor had been the profitability of a shipping interest in Mayport that he’d acquired the year before. For that reason, he had become familiar with Jacksonville during his frequent trips down from Atlanta.

Needing new office space, he bought an old building in the heart of downtown, off Hemming Plaza, and moved into a condo in Riverside to oversee the renovation.

Carolyn had been introduced to him by one of the contractors, her brother. The brother, Jacob Tatem, had been one of four names flagged during hiring. Tatem had a checkered record that included dings for petty theft and check kiting. But he was a competent craftsman and cheap, so Kettleman gave him the contract anyway.

The introduction to Carolyn had been a clumsy trap. Jacob had pulled him aside and was pretending to be confused by some aspect of the drawings, kept asking about the same thing, only from a different direction each time.

Stalling.

And then in fluttered Carolyn, a more beautiful butterfly he’d never seen. She was wearing a clingy, floral sundress and white strapped sandals, twirling about the room excitedly.

“I did it, I did it!” she sang out, grabbing her brother’s hand to swing around him. Even her sweet, southern twang was delicious. “I’m officially a real estate agent!”

Kettleman was enraptured. The whole room smelled like the gardenias on her dress. Didn’t matter that he was being manipulated. Didn’t matter that yesterday he’d been on the phone discussing arrangements to transfer some key employees down to Jacksonville while Jacob was standing right there, listening. And it didn’t even matter when, two days later, Martin Goodall pointed out that Carolyn had actually received her license six weeks earlier, pointedly not on the day she’d met Kettleman.

He knew he was being set up. It didn’t matter. The moment he laid eyes on her, a spell was cast and logic took a backseat to desire.

Barely two days later, Carolyn was appointed as the buying agent for the employees transferring from Atlanta. Everybody has to start somewhere, so Kettleman saw no harm in giving her a break. The only minor hiccup was that she had a fixation on two particular areas of town—Avondale and Ortega—and was stubborn, almost obstinate, about showing properties in less expensive areas like Mandarin or Flemming Island. San Marco was apparently ok, though she steered everyone away because the area was “mostly new money”.

To offset the push in real estate prices, he’d had to raise the housing stipend for his employees. Small price to pay, though, for the fun he was having.

A whirlwind romance began, one that lasted only a few weeks before Carolyn started dropping hints about which cut of diamond—a marquise—she prefers. The two were engaged a few weeks later, then married in Aspen shortly thereafter.

The first time Kettleman put his foot down was when he refused to pay more than two million for a home. Carolyn begged and pleaded, but he held his ground. If she insisted on living in Old Ortega, then it couldn’t be on the water. She pouted, stamped her feet, withheld affection, pulled out all the stops. It was a stormy two weeks, but he rode it out.

Eventually Carolyn settled for Ortega Forest. Poor-tega, as she called it because it was not in Ortega proper.

“But the island is nice,” she’d said. “And we’ll be on the water.”

For Kettleman, crossing the little cobblestone bridge onto the island and seeing the house for the first time was very similar to meeting Carolyn that first day. Without ever looking inside, he knew right away he had to have it.

Buying the house had pleased his wife as well, killing two birds with one giant bag of stones. But keeping her happy had proved more difficult. One of the signs that she wanted something was unexpected kindness—for instance waking up early and brewing coffee for him, as she had this morning.

Kettleman eyed his cup suspiciously. “If you’re not joining me, why you up so early?”

“I’m meeting Meg and Joani at the Metro in a few minutes,” she said, glancing at her watch.

Joe’s brow furrowed. Despite the deep summer tan, Carolyn had the sleeping habits of a vampire. Her girlfriends as well, especially those two. Did the Metro Diner even open this early?

He decided to let it go. Anything was better than what he’d thought initially, that she was going to give fishing another try. Counting his blessings, Joe hastened his routine to get out the door and onto the boat before she could change her mind.

The Ortega is a lazy tidal river. Tidal because it’s attached to the St. Johns which flows north through the city of Jacksonville and empties into the Atlantic at Mayport. Twice a day the Atlantic pushes back, causing the St. Johns to stymie and its murky waters to rise.

The tide was rising as Kettleman set the tension on the line and settled in after his first cast of the morning. Good thing Carolyn wasn’t here, he’d already spotted three gators. There was one lazing in the reeds, not twenty feet from the boat.

Carolyn was Jacksonville, born and raised. Made no sense to him that she was so afraid of the wildlife, but she was. She really seemed to hate the river. She had pushed for a speedboat, but never skied. She’d insisted he buy not one but two jet skis—in case they had guests—though she refused to ride either. She’d pushed for the Sea Ray, but insisted on flying down both times they went to the Keys.

Pretty much the only time that yacht got used was when there was a huge event downtown—like the Georgia-Florida game—and she wanted to make a big entrance. In Jacksonville, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Georgia-Florida game. Every year, the football rivalry between the universities filled the stadium to its capacity of seventy thousand. Almost as many showed up without tickets just for the tailgating, which was rightfully billed as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party”.

For the last three years, Kettleman had been paying ridiculous money for premium docking during Georgia-Florida weekend, right in front of the Landing. The Landing was a large mall—filled with bars and restaurants—in the heart of downtown on the St. Johns, and played host to much of the partying. Carolyn and all her friends would spend the whole weekend on the yacht, looking like rockstars.

Joe didn’t mind, it made his wife happy. That’s what a husband was supposed to do, make his wife happy. Right? Besides, it was only money.

And that was the key to the relationship. Kettleman never understood women, but he understood money. Until meeting Carolyn, being good with one did not help with the other.

He didn’t have any close friends, but he’d learned to network for business and that generated plenty of acquaintances. He was easygoing, affable, and well liked, despite the fact that he was a man of few words. He was good looking—tall, dark hair, dark eyes, athletic build—and very well established, financially speaking. In the eyes of those who knew him, Kettleman’s one failing was that he was single. And this was a problem many sought to fix by setting him up with a relentless procession of blind dates. The matchmaking might never have ended, had marriage not closed the door for good.

Now, there were two men in a small boat approaching at about twelve knots, ignoring the fact that this was a ‘No Wake’ zone. Joe had been coming out here for two years and hadn’t spotted a single manatee, despite what the sign suggested. The boat abruptly slowed to idle speed.

He’d been on plenty of dates. And many of those dates had led to subsequent dates. It wasn’t that he was bad with women, just that…

What the hell are these clowns doing?

He recast the line, this time intentionally in their direction. There was plenty of room out here. But they didn’t take the hint, and kept right on coming.

“What’s biting?” asked the skinny one conversationally, killing the engine. It coughed and sputtered before dying.

“Nothing yet,” Kettleman answered, biting back on his irritation, munching on a mouthful of antacid. “Catfish and bass out here, usually.”

“Hey, I know you,” said the shaggy-haired gent. “Joe, right? Joe Kettleman.”

Kettleman’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t recognize the speaker, nor the other. And something was off. The way they were dressed, the way they’d crunched in on his space—now less than twenty feet away, almost on top of his line.

“Yep, guilty as charged,” he admitted, setting down his rod. “Sorry, can’t say I know you.”

“That’s alright, you can a have a beer anyway,” said ‘Shaggy’, turning and leaning away, then back with something in his hand. “Catch.”

“We ain’t close enough, Jim!” shot the skinny one.

Before Kettleman could agree, Shaggy leaned forward and tossed the object underhand. It landed on the carpeted deck, rolled toward Joe, and dropped into the captain’s seat.

Not a beer.

A grenade.

GRENADE!

Kettleman froze for a split second, mind not believing what the eyes were seeing. The eyes might have lost the dispute, were it not for the action on the other boat. Both men had taken cover.

Joe leaped up, took two quick steps, and then fell overboard, tripping before he could dive.

Good thing, too. The water was shallow, maybe four feet. He lost a shoe in the thick mud trying to put distance between himself and the boat.

Nothing happened. No explosion.

Kettleman stopped. Was this some kind of joke?

“Are you kidding me?” howled somebody. “It’s a dud. A gawd damn dud! You stupid son of—”

“How’s I s’posed to know! I paid damn near two grand ‘cuz they said…”

Nope. Not a joke.

Kettleman stopped listening, started swimming. Right for the reeds where the gators were. Contrary to popular belief, alligators are less dangerous than people. People with grenades, anyhow. And fifty yards on the other side of the reeds, just a quick climb up the bank and he could disappear into the woods beyond.

The would-be killers were cursing at each other, struggling with a stubborn engine that refused to turn. About the time it started, Joe reached the patch of reeds. The alligator was already gone, gliding away. The water became very shallow, so he stood up and tried to run. But his feet sank in, deep.

Suddenly, gunfire. One shot after another, just as fast as the trigger could be squeezed. So loud, each shot seemed to shatter the air itself. Kettleman dove for the muddy waters, bullets whizzing by.

Shaggy was shouting for his cohort to stop shooting. “S’posed to be an accident, an explosion! Idiot!”

Kettleman was belly-down in the mud and shallow water, using elbows and knees to push through the reeds toward the deeper channel that separated him from the bank. Suddenly the mud dropped away and he could swim again.

“What the hell we s’posed to do if I can’t shoot his ass?”

“Take over. Get up ‘side him.”

The bank was still thirty yards away when the skinny guy navigated around the shallow and glided up beside Kettleman. Nowhere to hide, he dove down as deep as he could.

When he came up for a breath, Shaggy took a swing with a metal baseball bat. Kettleman’s shoulder took most of the hit, but the glancing blow to the cheek was explosive. When he dove down again, he was seeing stars.

Joe stayed down as long as he could again, this time swimming under the boat. They heard him come up and switched sides, but Kettleman was just outside of swinging range.

“Give it up already,” growled ‘Skinny’, pointing the revolver at Joe. “I’m over this fucking game. ‘Bout’a just shoot your ass.”

Kettleman was treading water. “How about we just call it a day?”

Skinny chuckled. “Nah, sorry friend. Cain’t do that, neither.”

“This is about money, right?” asked Kettleman, stalling as he weighed options. He had counted four shots. “I have money. Lots of it.”

“How much?”

“No, dammit,” growled Shaggy. “We done been paid, just shoot the fucker and be done with it.”

“But that’ll mess everything up, right?” asked Joe, treading backward slowly. “What happened to using the bat? Shoot me and that’ll leave bullets in my body. Cops chase bullets.”

Skinny shrugged. “They ain’t tracing this gun.”

This was it. Joe was experiencing the final moments of his life.

“Ok, sure. Right. But what about…” stalled Joe, mind racing for anything that could delay the inevitable. “What about—”

KA-BOOM.

The gentle rocking of Joe’s boat had caused the grenade to fall to the floor—jarring loose a metal burr and allowing the spring-loaded striker to drop. A full three minutes after the grenade had been thrown, it finally decided to go off.

The deafening shock of the explosion set both killers in motion and their boat to rocking, dumping Shaggy overboard. Almost on top of Kettleman.

Seizing the opportunity, Kettleman grabbed a fistful of hair, yanking the man closer and down. Shaggy’s swearing was cut off abruptly as he went under, sucking in water.

“Shit!” bellowed Skinny, frantically searching for the pistol that had fallen from his hand.

Desperate for air, Shaggy was clawing at Kettleman’s face.

Up came Skinny, gun in hand, firing off the last two rounds without taking the time to level out his aim. Nevertheless, both bullets found a mark.

Kettleman had been hit, hard. He was underwater, feeling like he’d taken a punch from Holyfield right in the chest. When he surfaced, he was face to face with Shaggy. The man was sputtering, clasping his neck, blood spurting through his fingers.

Bracing for the pain, Kettleman heaved himself over the hull of the little boat. The sudden motion caused Skinny to drop a box of ammo, scattering bullets everywhere. He gave chase as Kettleman lay there, trying to overcome the agony. Skinny’s desperate fingers dropped three rounds, but did manage to get one in.

Too little, too late. When he looked up, the bat was already on the way. It caught him on the temple, splitting open a long gash in his scalp.

Joe dropped the bat and plunked down on a bench, eying Skinny warily. The man was breathing, but out cold. He would have been dead, had Kettleman been able to use two hands for that swing.

Joe tossed the gun overboard, just to be sure.

The only sound was that of the idling engine. Shaggy was floating in the river, face down. Blood tinted water was spreading out. Wouldn’t be long before the gators caught the taste.

Kettleman was bleeding from the shot to the chest, but not fast. And no bubbles in the blood, so the bullet hadn’t hit a lung. The wound was high and well off-center. He was light-headed and his breathing labored, but mostly from exhaustion. Ten months of avoiding the gym—thanks to the acid reflux—had taken its toll.

He was exhausted, but he wasn’t dying.

How could he make this go away? The gators would get Shaggy. And Skinny too, were he to get pushed into the drink. But how long would that take? A day or two? This spot was secluded—tucked away on a small branch off the Ortega—but it was not unknown. There was a good chance…

Joe remembered his boat. Looking over, he could see the nose protruding out of the water, aft hidden beneath the surface.

No way that was going away easy.

Kettleman leaned forward, wincing as he flipped open the cooler. Pinching a bottle of water between his knees, he unscrewed the cap with his right hand. He downed it in one long pull, eyeing Skinny.

This time more cautiously, Kettleman leaned forward again and went through the man’s pockets, producing a wallet and a cell phone. In the wallet was a driver’s license with Skinny’s picture on it. Terrence Casey.

The cell was a flip phone. A burner. Surprisingly smart for a couple of morons.

Kettleman tossed the wallet overboard but set the phone aside. Kneeling down, he grasped Skinny’s belt and heaved the man up, over, and into the water. The agony from the effort was so intense that Kettleman almost went over himself.

When it passed, Kettleman moved to the tiller. Using his knee to balance the phone, he dialed a call. Phone between shoulder and ear, Kettleman eased the throttle forward.

“Martin it’s me, Joe,” Kettleman told the voicemail. “Need you to run a name for me.”

 

Chapter 3 – The Suffering

Kettleman had been stabilized at St. Vincent’s, but then immediately transferred to UF Health for surgery. The bullet had hit a rib and then split apart, going in two directions. Though both had missed vital organs, two operations were required to fish the fragments out. His left shoulder was deeply bruised, but not seriously injured. Most of the pain came from the fractured cheekbone, which made eating and speaking very difficult.

But that was a good thing because—with very little effort—Kettleman was able to play up the pain convincingly and limit detectives to a very short conversation. They got little out of him, other than permission to take Kettleman’s fingerprints and dust his hands for gunshot residue.

On the first day, anyway. But by the second day, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had located his sunken boat and two bodies nearby. The brief story Kettleman had given appeared to be checking out, but they weren’t letting on yet. The more senior of the two detectives, Tanya Gates, wanted to take a solid pass at him, just to see what she could rattle loose.

Gates was becoming more and more irritated, watching visitor after visitor come and go.

“Since when does JSO have to sit on its hands before talking to a suspect in a double homicide?” she growled.

“You better dial it back, right now,” warned her partner, Tony Ramirez. “I just made this squad, I ain’t going back to Narc.”

Gates folded her arms across her chest. “Big shot or not, if he steps even one inch off that story I’m taking him down.”

“What’s your damage?” shot Ramirez. “No gunshot residue on his hands. Fingerprints only on the barrel from picking it up, just like he said. Gunshot residue only on the hand of the body with blunt force to the head, just like he said.” He paused, looking up. A woman in scrubs had been pacing nearby and was now in earshot. He lowered his voice before continuing. “Both vics have mile-long records, and this guy is squeaky clean.”

The woman in scrubs walked away.

“Too clean,” muttered Gates.

Ramirez shook his head. “You see monsters in the shadows, I see a guy living right.” He turned to look her in the eye. “It’s simple. He was out fishing, minding his own business. A couple swamp rats show up, looking to try concussion fishing. They tell him to leave, he refuses. An altercation starts and gets out of hand. Simple. What other possible explanation could there be?”

“Maybe it’s not all just happenstance. Maybe he went there to kill them. Or maybe they were there to kill him.”

“Right. With a grenade?” She didn’t answer. “Look, if you can explain the grenade, I’ll back any play you want to make. Otherwise, you better take it easy in there.”

A nurse knocked on the door, then went in. A few moments later, an older man in a suit stepped out and left.

Five minutes after that, the nurse stepped out again. She glanced around and spotted the pair. “Are you with JSO?” Ramirez nodded. “He said to send you in.”

When the detectives stepped into the suite, Kettleman’s wife launched into the gracious hostess routine, offering to buzz the nurse for drinks or snacks or anything they wanted.

“No thank you, ma’am,” said Ramirez.

“And if you don’t mind,” added Gates, “we’d really like to speak with your husband alone.”

This displeased Carolyn deeply. She blustered about until Kettleman spoke up.

“It’s ok, sweetie,” he said soothingly. “They’re just doing their job. You’ve been here all day, why don’t you go on home and get some rest? Visiting hours are over, anyhow. I’ll be alright.”

She fussed and made some more weak protests, but finally relented.

As soon as the door closed, Gates placed a digital recorder and a mic on the night stand. “Alright, from the top,” she said.

“Sorry, Mr. Kettleman,” offered Ramirez, despite the lack of protest. “One more time, just for the record. After this, hopefully we won’t need to bother you anymore.”

“This time, let’s start with the day before the incident,” Gates said thinly.

“Sure, ok. Saturday. Let’s see,” Kettleman said. “I was—”

The phone beside the bed rang loudly. Kettleman looked to Ramirez. To Gates’ dismay, her partner shrugged.

Kettleman picked up the phone. “Grand Central, how can I help you?”

“You got company?” Martin Goodall asked.

“Yep, sure do.”

“Can they hear me?”

“No. I’m feeling a lot better today. But listen, can I call you back? I have some nice folks visiting at the moment.”

“This can’t wait,” Goodall said. “You need to know, trust me.”

“Ok, but make it quick. I’ll be back tomorrow, business can wait.”

“I followed a hunch. That name you gave me, Terrence Casey. He did three months with Carolyn’s brother, Jacob. It’s your wife, man. She wants you dead.”

Kettleman smiled, pretending to be listening patiently as he reached for the bottle of antacid beside the bed.

“You hearing me, Joe? It’s your wife.”

“Well, I agree those numbers don’t sound good, but I don’t think—”

“I can prove it. The other guy on the boat, his name was Paul Bianchi, wasn’t it?” Silence. “Wasn’t it?” Kettleman popped a handful of tablets into his mouth and crunched them up. “Sorry, man. I wish it wasn’t true.” More silence. “Do you want me to take care of this?”

This did get a response from Kettleman. “No, absolutely not. It’s my account, I’ll deal with it.”

“Right. Ok. About that other thing, the surgeon.”

“Yes?”

“Lawrence sent a polite letter reminding her about the repercussions of violating doctor-patient confidentiality. It was hand-delivered about a half hour ago, right there in the hospital.”

Kettleman breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, there you go. Things have a way of working out, don’t they? I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Without a goodbye, Kettleman dropped the receiver on its base.

“Ok,” he said, turning his attention to the detectives. “So Saturday? Let’s see, in the morning—”

“Business troubles?” asked Gates, sensing blood in the water despite Kettleman’s stoic disposition.

Kettleman chuckled. If they wanted to talk business, he didn’t care. There was absolutely nothing for him to worry about with that. Now that the surgeon had been handled, Kettleman was happy to talk on any subject they wanted. The only minor problem that remained was his wife, but she wasn’t exactly a criminal mastermind.

Kettleman spent the next half-hour answering questions about his businesses. Though he kept his answers short, he answered them all honestly. Eventually the junior detective lost his patience and intervened, directing the conversation back to the matter at hand. An hour and a half later, Gates ran out of questions.

The moment the door closed behind the detectives, the woman in scrubs—the one who had been pacing earlier—pushed it opened again.

Kettleman’s surgeon, Dr. Samuels. And she was furious.

“Who do you think you are?” she demanded, slamming the chart to the foot of the bed. “How dare you threaten me!”

“Ma’am.”

“I worked my butt off to get where I am, and no lowlife—”

“Ma’am, please.”

“Four years undergrad, four years post-grad, six years of residency!”

“Calm down, please. I’m sorry. Really. Please, let me explain.”

“You… I don’t… you…,” she stammered, so furious she couldn’t even put together a coherent sentence. But then she did: “I shouldn’t even be here. I should have just passed this off on the attending. But I wanted to be the one to tell you.” She grew quiet and her eyes hardened. “See this?”

She held a tablet above his head, pinching the screen to zoom in on the image.

It looked like a sonogram to Kettleman. “Am I pregnant?”

That did it. Caught off guard, Samuels laughed despite herself. And it completely ruined the moment for her. One joke, one little attempt at levity, and he was suddenly human to her again. It let all the air out of her tires.

“No, you’re not pregnant,” she said quietly.

Kettleman smiled, eyes warm and friendly. And apologetic. “You’re a professional, I should have respected that. I am so—”

“It doesn’t matter. Whoever you really are, whatever you’ve done, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“No, really. Please let me—”

“Mr. Kettleman, this is a tumor,” she said, tapping the screen. “You have cancer.” She gave that a moment to sink in before continuing. “You’re scheduled for release at 9am, but they’ve already set up a consultation with an oncologist at Mayo Clinic. You can go straight from here to there.”

Kettleman was quietly processing. After a moment: “What kind of cancer? And how far along is it?”

“The tumor is in the lower part of the esophagus,” she said softly. “As for the prognosis, I’m not an oncologist. They’ll have to run tests.”

She was holding back, Kettleman was sure of it. Blind with outrage, she’d come in aching to see him get what he deserved. But then she’d come to her senses, reverted back to being a physician, and stopped herself short.

“I understand cancer isn’t your specialty,” he said. “But… should I be worried? Is it bad? Is it treatable?”

Rage had been replaced by rational thought and Dr. Samuels was feeling exposed. Dangerously exposed. She’d overstepped the attending, just by entering the room. Dr. Patel was going to be furious when he discovered his patient already knew about the tumor. Whatever reprimand she received was going to be compounded by the fact that she had not yet turned over the letter from the patient’s attorney.

She had to get out of this room. Fast.

“Yes, cancer can be serious,” she answered, shifting feet uneasily. “Your oncologist will need to do a biopsy to be more certain of the type of cancer, and what types of treatment are available.”

“More certain?” Kettleman parroted.

Damn. She paused at the door, looking back.

“Yes, more certain. You have a preliminary diagnosis, now you need to see an oncologist.”

She turned to leave.

“Am I going to die?”

Hand on the door handle, she paused for a long moment. “Talk to your oncologist.”

She wavered. Then opened the door.

“Do you like your job, Karen?” Kettleman asked, low and cold, using her first name intentionally. He needed the angry bitch back. “Then you better close that damn door and sit your ass down.”

She froze in the doorway, weighing options. Stepping backwards, she closed the door in front of her and turned to face him. “Excuse me?”

“Lady, I can pick up this phone and—”

“And do what? Call your attorney? Sue me because you have cancer? Sue me because I didn’t tell the police you’d been shot before?”

“That happened nearly twenty years ago and had nothing to do with—”

“It wasn’t in your chart. You’ve also had your appendix removed, and that wasn’t in your chart either.”

“None of that is relevant to what happened the other—”

“Right,” she scoffed. “Go on then. Pick up the phone, call your little attorney. And I’ll make a call, too.”

Despite himself, Kettleman chuckled. He had to admit, she was pretty sharp. And ballsy, calling his bluff like that.

“Ok fine,” he said. “Clearly, neither one of us wants the other to pull the trigger. So how ‘bout you just sit down for a moment. I won’t bite, promise.”

“What do you want?” she demanded.

“Just talk to me for a minute. Without my phone, without my laptop, I don’t have access to the internet. You’re my only source of information right now. I’m going to be laying here all night, staring at the ceiling. Come on, Karen, please.”

This time the use of her first name was intended to humanize, not disrespect.

“I’m a trauma surgeon, not an oncologist. I’m not even your primary, I should never have come in here,” she admitted.

“My lips are sealed, I promise,” he assured. “I won’t tell a soul.”

She sighed. “It’s too late. You already know, so tomorrow morning when Dr. Patel comes—”

“Don’t worry. I’ll do the whole ‘oh gee, that’s awful. Am I gonna die, doc?’ routine again. He’ll never know, I promise.” She leaned her head to the side, thinking. “Please, Karen. This is off the record. Just come sit down, talk to me like a person.”

Karen hovered at the door reluctantly for a moment, then crossed the room and sat on the foot of the bed. She leaned toward him. “I’m sorry, it doesn’t look good. Again, I’m not an oncologist and tests will need to be run. Without a biopsy, I can’t be sure.” She paused. “But it doesn’t look good.”

“Can it be treated?”

“When it’s caught early, sometimes.” She pointed to the bottle of antacid on the nightstand. “How long have you been using those?”

Kettleman shrugged. “A year or so.”

“Ever see a doctor about it?”

He shrugged again. “I just thought it was reflux or whatever. My work is stressful.”

“Are you some kind of hitman?”

“For crying out loud, that’s what you thought? No, absolutely not. I swear, what happened when I was a kid had nothing to do with—”

“Is your name really Joseph Kettleman?”

He grew quiet. “I think we both know the answer to that.”

“So you are a criminal.”

“I use a name I wasn’t born with. Has karma decided I deserve the death penalty for that?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but yes. You have a very aggressive form of cancer, and the tumor is already quite advanced. I’m sorry.”

“How long do I have?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. The oncologist will—”

“A year or two?”

“Oh, no. Definitely not. I mean, I don’t think so anyway.”

“A few months? Weeks? Days?”

“Honestly, we’re way outside of my specialty here.”

“Karen, please.”

She sighed. “Three months, maybe six? The right treatment will probably add a few months. And there’s always clinical trials. You clearly have money, so you might…”

Kettleman sighed, closed his eyes, and settled back on his pillow, fingers crossed behind his head. Without opening his eyes, he smiled warmly. “Thank you for being honest with me, Karen.”

The doctor stared. She wasn’t an oncologist, but as a trauma surgeon she been saddled with the unfortunate duty of delivering devastating news on countless occasions. Denial, anger, begging, pleading—those reactions she understood.

But not this.

Upon hearing he’d soon be called home, this man seemed almost relieved.

The next morning, the man known as Joseph T. Kettleman took the news that he has cancer very poorly. He cursed Dr. Patel as a “know-nothing quack” and demanded to be released immediately.

When Carolyn arrived, her husband was already gone.

 

Chapter 4 – No Hard Feelings

Strange as it might seem, I don’t know my real name. Jeffry, I think. That’s just a guess though, based on some vague memories of being called ‘Jeffie’ when I was very little. But I’m not sure. Nor do I know my actual age. On paper—as Joseph Tyler Kettleman—my age is thirty-seven. But I’m probably a couple years older. Or a bit younger, maybe.

For the first half of my life—the part after ‘Jeffie’ but before Kettleman—I was Jonathan Sturgis. That name was given to me by the man who raised me, Jim Flint, after he killed my parents.

Well, my father anyway. I’m not sure who killed my mother. But it happened right in front of me.

As I listened to the melodic click-clack of tracks passing beneath the train, I thought back on that night. It was so long ago, the memories were little more than a patchwork of moments. What I remember most starkly was the blood. Everywhere. And my mother’s eyes, open and vacant. And shaking her, trying to wake her up.

The first time I heard Flint speak, it was cold and quiet: “No women, no children.”

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

I was misted with blood and the man standing over my mom and me—and two others—dropped to the floor. One was screaming.

BOOM.

No more screaming.

I don’t remember being afraid, but I was very little. Two or three. Maybe four. Flint had dropped his weapon and scooped me up.

As an adult looking back now, I can see that Flint had very little choice. Whatever my real father had done to call down the wrath of the Mafia, Flint had done as he always did. He could not have anticipated the presence of a child in the remote cabin.

And once the job was finished, he couldn’t very well leave the little boy—me—to starve to death. So he took me with him.

Why he didn’t just drop me off in front of a church or something, I’ll never know. Guilt?

Flint was not a typical hitman. He was a Texan, learned to kill in the military. When the government stopped paying, he found other ways to make a living doing what he was good at.

For whatever reason, Flint took it upon himself to see that I was taken care of. The first few years we were alone mostly, though there was a woman—Ms. Jen—that he would leave me with for a week or two on occasion.

Then came the boarding schools. I became Jonny Sturgis sometime before enrolling at St. Stephen’s in Austin, Texas. The backstory I learned, and held true to, was that my parents had died in a car accident and that my uncle, Flint, had been appointed guardian.

Flint wasn’t mushy, wasn’t much for words, but he looked after me as if I were his own. I rarely stayed on campus over holidays, and I spent every summer with him until he died when I was seventeen.

I loved those summers. I’d spend the entire school year counting down the days. Every summer, we’d travel for the first three weeks. One summer it was England, the next Germany, then Italy, then Australia. As I got older and could keep up, we got off the beaten path: hiking in Tibet, rafting in Peru, camping in Alaska.

The second half of our summers were far tamer, but just as much fun for me. We’d fly into Albuquerque, New Mexico, rent a car, and take a three-hour ride north to a sleepy little town called San Rosell. The next morning he’d send me to an old used bookstore and he’d go off for supplies. When he came back, we’d drive out to old man Sancho’s ranch.

There, we’d load up two mules while Sancho saddled the horses for us. He was a nice old guy, Sancho, and I think he lived alone. He was eager for conversation, always begged us to stay for lunch. But Flint was just as eager to get on the trail and always begged off politely.

“We got a long ride ahead of us, Sancho. Maybe next time?”

And he was right, it was a long ride. We typically spent the better part of three, sometimes four days, meandering through the barren terrain of the Bisti Badlands to get to the cabin.

The same cabin I was headed to, right now. The cabin where I would spend the final days of my life.

A door opened behind me on the train, so I eased back to look comfortable, dropping my eyelids to little more than a slit. The car was mostly empty, only six other passengers. A mother and young son, toward the front. An elderly man, sitting directly behind them. Across the aisle and back a couple rows, a young woman, maybe nineteen. Directly across from her, two Army recruits on leave.

I was keyed up, waiting.

After a moment, I could see the conductor’s reflection in the window stopping beside me. He moved on when I didn’t acknowledge him. I’m sure he thought I was asleep.

Maybe I should get some sleep. It had been a rough week and tomorrow would bring plenty of punishment. No way it was going to be easy riding a horse, not in this condition.

The pain wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. I was still taking the muscle relaxers—and the antibiotics, of course—but I’d been able to stop taking the pain meds two days ago. It was bearable, as long as I didn’t make any sudden moves. The stitches didn’t bother me much at all, but the broken rib and cheekbone ached constantly. Even that was bearable, though.

Surprisingly, it was the bruised shoulder that gave me the most trouble. My left arm was in a sling, and for damn good reason. Anytime I tried to use it even a little, I’d find myself humbled, and quick. Driving had been difficult, at best, and done mostly with one hand.

But I wasn’t supposed to be driving, anyhow. No traveling of any sort.

“Two weeks in bed, no exceptions,” Dr. Patel had said, tagging alongside my wheelchair, desperately trying to get me to take the release papers. “To the bathroom and back, period. That’s the only time I want you out of bed.”

Unfortunately, lounging around for a few weeks was a luxury I could not afford. Not with a conniving wife in the next room, just looking for an opportunity to finish me off. No, I had to get as far away as I could, as fast as I could. Suck it up, buttercup. There’d be plenty of time to rest in a few days.

I felt terrible about how I’d treated Dr. Patel that morning. Poor guy, he never saw it coming. I’d waited patiently through his inspection of my wounds, then let him speak positively about the condition of those wounds as he worked up the nerve to tell me about the tumor.

The moment he broached the subject, I laid into him as if he had caused my cancer, personally. Unlike the surgeon, Patel did not crumble beneath my barrage of questions. He stuck to his guns, insisting that further imaging and a biopsy would be required before a definitive prognosis could be given. His evasiveness was irritating, helping to make my fury seem genuine.

As bad as I felt for this bit of theatre, I had things to do and I didn’t have the time to be sitting around being all touchy-feely with him and that grief counselor he’d brought to the room.

I needed to be long gone when Carolyn showed up.

Carolyn.

I felt bad for her, too. What a shame. If even the tiniest sliver of her outer beauty had reflected inward, she would have been the sweetest, kindest, happiest woman alive. But then she wouldn’t have wanted me.

Right after we bought the house, I went out and bought a lawnmower. Stupid, I know. Just seemed like the kind of thing a normal guy would do. And normal was the one thing I’d never had but always wanted.

Of course, Carolyn had poo-pooed the whole thing, griped about how cheap I was. I tried to explain why I wanted to mow the yard myself, but I’ve never been too good with words. She kept bringing everything back to money, how I was too cheap, how I needed to live a little.

But it wasn’t about money. I could care less about money. I could care less about anything, really. I could set the world on fire and walk away, without ever looking back.

Exactly as I was doing now.

Well, the walking away part anyhow. I’d been careful not to light fires, despite the urgings of those who were helping me.

By the time I arrived in DC to see my attorney, Isaac Lawrence, Martin Goodall had already forwarded irrefutable evidence that Carolyn had sent those men to kill me. Goodall had done so under the presumption that I’d need help persuading my wife to accept a quiet divorce settlement.

But I didn’t want a divorce. Rather, I was there to make final arrangements. I put my business holdings into a trust, naming a successor to oversee them in my stead. This was largely a do-nothing position as each of the subsidiaries were self-contained, each with its own management. My personal holdings went into another trust, one that would pay out annually to a third trust.

The sole purpose of that third trust was to take care of Carolyn, paying out a generous monthly allowance for the rest of her days. When she passed, both the business and personal trusts were to be liquidated and the funds were to be donated to two local museums, MOSH and the Cummer.

“Are you out of your ever-loving mind?” demanded Lawrence the moment I explained the function of the third trust. “You don’t want Goodall to take care of her permanently, fine. At least turn me loose. I will rip that bitch’s life to shreds!”

“Careful,” I’d said, quietly.

“Joe, she’s evil. The woman is evil. ‘Bitch’ is about the nicest damn word I can think of. Don’t make me do this, Joe. Look what she did to you!”

I shrugged. He waited for more.

When none came, Lawrence got the message. “Alright, alright. It’s your money, you’re the boss.”

The door at the front of the train opened and the conductor came back in.

I glanced at my watch and shut my eyes. Two hours to Albuquerque.

 

~ END of Chapter 4, END of Preview ~

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