Saturday, May 16, 2020

Getting to Know Your Characters

Some writers make up elaborate "dossiers" and biographies for their characters before they start writing -- like the lists of "traits" we were supposed to compile for sixth grade book reports. I have always found that the only way I can get to know characters is to start writing them.

A perfect case in point is the hero of my new thriller White Crow. He was originally introduced in the sixth Henry Kennis mystery, now slated for a June 2021 release. I hadn't given Mitchell Stone much thought -- or page space -- when I wrote his scenes in Nantucket Penny. I knew the rough outlines -- retired spy, coming home to Nantucket to take up residence at Police Chief Henry Kennis' badass sidekick. Spenser has Hawk, Elvis Cole as Joe Pike, Kenzie and Gennaro have Bubba Rogowsky. Kennis needed some muscle on his side.

Several scenes in Nantucket Penny are described in White Crow, but from Mitch's point of view. The delay in publishing Penny has allowed me to revise those scenes. I know Mitch much better now, after writing him for 250 pages, and I'm glad to have the opportunity of correcting the earlier larval version of him I attempted a year ago when I was working on Penny. In the climax of that book, Kennis is about to shoot the villain -- currently helpless and disarmed, cringing on his knees in front of the anger-crazed police Chief. Mitch breaks Kennis's wrist with a kick as the Chief squeezes the trigger. The shot goes wild. When the red haze clears, Kennis has to live with the fact that he was willing to commit murder -- but he's been spared the reality of actually committing the crime.

For clarity I should add that the cringing villain in question, Todd Fraker, had been planning to take revenge on his childhood tormentors -- including Henry's fiance, Jane Stiles -- by putting them on trial and hanging them from a gallows on Coatue, the narrow strip of barrier beach across the harbor from Nantucket town. Mitch planned the rescue operation, using kayaks for a stealthy approach. Until this morning I had never given a second thought to the gallows itself, and I was actually planning to "cut and paste" the brief post-mortem chat between ex-spy and police Chief, which takes place a few days after the climax of the book.

Here's how that scene originally appeared in Nantucket Penny:

Mitch Stone appeared at my door the next morning, routing his daily run through Darling Street.
            He stood on the little deck at the top of the front stairs. “You okay, Chief?”
            “I’m fine.”
            “I was there, man. Remember?”
            “I’m fine.”
            A small smile. “Good to hear.”
            “The Staties wanted to know if I was pressing charges against the individual who broke my wrist.”
            “What did you say?”
            “I told them I was going to call your girlfriend, find out what kind of beer you drink, and buy you a case of it.”
            He shrugged. “No need.”
            “Thanks, anyway. For yesterday.”
            “That’s what friends are for. To protect us from ourselves.”
            “So we’re friends now?”
            “If you want. I’ve had a lot of attrition in that area lately.”
            “That sounds ominous.”
            “Let me just say this, Chief. I’ve been where you were. I’ve done what you did.”
            “Any regrets?”

            “Now and then. But I was always on my own – no back-up, no support. You had me. I gave you a second chance out there. That’s a blessing.”

Here's what I came up with this morning, many months and many pages later, three quarters of the way through Mitch's book. I should add that among the things I discovered about Mitch in writing White Crow was that he was the kind of person who would rescue a teen age runaway, and wind up adopting him. Ricky Muller went from a casual thought to a major figure in both Mitch's life and the book that features him. I was surprised and reluctant, but like most people, I let Mitch take the lead. 

Anyway, here's the scene from Crow. 
As you could probably guess from the cliff-hanger last sentence, this is the end of a chapter ...

          Mitch drove back to Coatue to pick up the last kayak.He stood on the far side of the yellow crime scene tape strung between the shack and the gallows. Two uniforms lounged beside their blue State Police SUV.
The noose was still dangling from the upright cross beam.
          It was an obscenity.
          And two nights later, it burned to the charred dune grass. You could see the torch from all over the island. Some people said you could see it from the  mainland. Technically a case of arson, trespassing and malicious destruction of property, the investigation of the crime was cursory at best and wound up shelved  as unsolved.
          Mitch brought it up when it stopped by Chief Kennis’ house on Darling Street a few days later.
          “Any idea who might have set that fire, Chief?”
          Kennis smiled. “We suspect Muslim terrorists. Or possibly, disgruntled immigrants. Those are some bad hombres.”
          “I was thinking of guerilla real estate brokers. A gallows across the harbor tanks the property values.”
          “I’ll look into it.”
          A companionable silence bloomed between them. A gardener’s truck rattled past toward Pine Street.
          “Did Jane bring marshmallows?”
          Kennis shook his head. “No Hershey bars, no graham crackers. The occasion was a too somber for s’mores, Mr. Stone.”
          “Of course. Sorry.”
          “They told some stories, put out some grass fires, passed around a flask of scotch and went home.”
          “Quite a day out there.”
          “The Staties wanted to know if I was pressing charges against the individual who broke my wrist.”
          “What did you say?”
          “I told them I was going to call your girlfriend, find out what kind of beer you drink, and buy you a case of it.”
          He shrugged. “I like Kronenbourg. But it’s hard to find on Nantucket.”
          “There’s a lot that’s hard to find here.”
          Mitch nodded. “Big Macs, fountain pens and ammunition.”
          “Among other things.” A lady walked by with two pugs on the leash. Kennis nodded to her. She smiled and lifted a hand.
 Kennis turned back to Mitch. “So what brings a world traveler like you to Nantucket?”
          “What brings an LAPD cop to Nantucket?”
          “My ex-wife’s family were summer people for years.”
          “Summer people.”
          “You say that the way I say ‘shoplifters’. So I assume you grew up here.”
          “You don’t assume anything, Chief. After the school shooting you did your research. You know everything there is to know about me. You know my father was an abusive drunk. You know I was suspended from fifth grade for throwing snowballs at a police cars. You pulled my Marine Corps service record. You have my whole life on your computer.”
          “Until 2009, when you disappear off the face of the earth.”
          Mitch shrugged. “Well, I’m back.”
          They eyed each other quietly, a steady assessing stare. And they came to their silent agreement: Mitch wasn’t going to answer any more questions and Kennis wasn’t going to ask them.
          Instead he hoisted his cast from its sling. “Thanks for your help.”
          “We have a saying in the Marines, Chief. Two is one and one is none. You gotta have back-up. Nobody hacks it alone.”
          Some kids on bikes rode by on Fair Street, shouting and laughing.
          When they were gone Mitch said, “You think their parents know what they’re up to today?”
          “I certainly hope not.”
          Mitch squinted up at the cloudless early autumn sky. “Beautiful day.”
          “Yeah. Looks like things are back to normal finally.”
          “Don’t jinx it.”
          “Good point.”
          But it was a little too late.
As Mitch was driving back to Quidnet that afternoon, Ricky Muller was two miles away in a friend’s guest cottage, overdosing on oxycodone.

That's the Mitch Stone I know. What a difference a year makes -- and what a luxury, to be able to make these changes. Nantucket Penny was originally scheduled to come out in less than a month, with my vague notion of Mitch Stone permanent and indelible as an ink stain on a silk couch.
And the gallows still standing! 




Saturday, April 04, 2020

"White Crow" Facebook serial


September 7th 2019

Mitchell – If you’re reading this, I am very likely dead, though I suppose there is some small, heartening chance that we are sitting together over a dram of Jameson’s Black Barrel, chuckling over my morbid fatalism, as I read this gloomy note aloud. For the moment I am alive and dead at once, Schrödinger’s cat in a sealed Embassy envelope, and hopefully a “hep” cat, as my Beatnik uncle used to say.
Did I make you smile, there, dear boy? I always treasured being able to do that, just as I treasure being able to muster a smile myself, even at a moment as dark as this one.
To wit: I am now convinced that Bradley Constable and his cohort at the  NSA’s Clandestine Action Directorate are attempting to undermine, and discredit the Central Intelligence Agency, as one part of a larger scheme to dismantle the entirety of what certain individuals have taken to calling “The Administrative State”. As to the people behind CAD and their ultimate purpose, I can only speculate, though we both know which dangerous foreign actors would benefit most from such a disruption of our institutional governance.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, months or years from now, the danger facing us this morning is critical and immediate. An encrypted private communication from CAD asset Nicholas Borolino, sent at great personal risk, has confirmed my worst suspicions. I only fear that it has come too late, with you and Darren incommunicado at Kilzilay Square. The actual purpose of your operation was to very publically humiliate the CIA, who were to be blamed for your calamitous misadventure. An ancillary benefit of this stratagem, or perhaps a central feature of it, was to be the elimination of Longbow as a functional entity. If we no longer exist, and have never been officially acknowledged, no blame for this mission can be deflected onto us, and our friends in Langley will have to take full responsibility for our blunder.
According to Borolino, the server farm in Idaho backing up all our files has been destroyed by a chemical fire, our operatives in five countries involved with CAD operations have been rounded up and executed … I managed to send an alert to our unassigned assets. Those with the resources to disappear will do so, I hope. The operation was meant to include you and Darren, and may well have. I am uncomfortably aware that I may be writing these words for no one and to no purpose.
However, I choose not to dwell on that prospect. Both you and Darren have proved spectacularly hard to kill in the past.
I know that I will be questioned, to disclose the identities and whereabouts of all Longbow personnel; I know just as well that I could never stand up to the “enhanced interrogation” techniques employed by the intelligence community.
But don’t concern yourself about that. If they come for me here, I will be dead before they arrive.
The only remaining evidence that Longbow ever existed lies in  your hands, along with everything a DOJ lawyer would need to disable the CAD and arrest its executive cadre for war crimes, international narcotics trafficking,  numerous human rights violations, and of course high treason. Bradley Constable  only met you once, no one else at CAD has ever seen you, and even Brad never learned your real name or even your nationality, as Longbow employs assets from half a dozen countries, all of whom speak English at the “Native speaker” fluency level. One Dutch operative, whom I have reason to think escaped the CAD dragnet, studied English in Texas and speaks with an alarmingly authentic South Houston accent. The closed-cell operation structure of Longbow means that no operational team is aware of any other, so no, even if captured and tortured, no one can identify or locate you.
In other words, dear boy, this is your white crow.
These files and documents represent your final line of defense. I suggest turning them over to a randomly selected lawyer with a simple DIRT protocol. Set the Designated Interval Report Time trip wire for one week, choose a trusted media outlet to receive the information – the Intercept?  The Washington Post? Al Jazeera? Perhaps all of them.. That will be your best insurance.
I know your first impulse will be to turn these documents and files over immediately. I beg you not to sacrifice yourself in this way. Frankly, I’m not even sure it would do much good. You would only slow the process down, not stop it. Still, while the documents remain hidden and the results of making them public remain unknown, these people will fear you. That by itself might save your life.
You’ve given the last twenty years to the service of your country and your country hasn’t done very much for you in return – not that you ever asked. You’ve always been a hero. I know that better than anyone. So this is my final request: Be an ordinary man for a little while. I will die happy if I can believe that some good has come from this ruinous betrayal.
Take your life back, and live.
You’ve earned it.


Deitz returned with a can of beer in his hand. Mitch half-stood to pass him the  letter. Extending his arm drove a needle into his bruised ribs. The pain seemed to focus his sorrow and his rage. The hate thundered through him --  an express train through a local station -- deafening the ears, battering the nerves in a blast of filthy wind. He sat as he had stood during those trips to the city as a boy, hands jammed over his ears, waiting for the train to pass, waiting for the assault to end.
He wanted to kill them all – Constable and the rest CAD gangsters, and all the politicians who backed them and the money people behind the politicians, all of them.
But it was pointless. Walter was right.
Walter – writing that letter, minutes ahead of the attack, with saxitoxin pill sitting on the desk beside him. He could have run, and left his agents to be captured or killed, he had the resources to disappear, Mitch had seen the beach house in Costa Rica, purchased by a shell company years before, untraceable.
Instead Walter had chosen to remain, to hide the files and documents, to secure his protégé’s future, to scrawl a last message -- unhurried, unflappable, with all of his old self-denigrating charm, the wry smile that dismissed sentiment and self-pity. This was a person who as a twelve year old boy, fleeing a house fire, returned to gather up his sister’s Breyer plastic horse collection, including the treasured Appaloosa foal that had fallen under the bed. 
Walter hadn’t changed. People didn’t, he always said that. It was true. He had remained that valiant little boy, right up the moment of his death.
And he had been left, anonymous and abandoned, piled on the floor to be hauled away like trash.
Dietz handed him back the letter. “What a guy.”
They sat in silence for a few seconds, then Dietz said, “What’s a white crow? I didn’t get that part.”
“Wait was obsessed with the concept of the Black Swan -- ”
“The ballet movie with Natalie Portman?”
“No, the book by Nassim Taleb.”
“You lost me.”
“Taleb defines a Black Swan as --  it’s  an unpredictable event, something huge and bad that comes out of nowhere and fucks everything up – an earthquake, Pearl Harbor,  9/11. We can’t cope so we try to come up with reasons and explanations –like those conspiracy theories about 9/11. Or blaming yourself for the blow out that caused the car crash.”
“I should have checked those tires.”
“The tires were fine. The truck was overloaded and the night was hot. Then you hit a pot hole that hadn’t been there two days ago. It was nothing but bad luck, Darren.”
“Okay so what does that have to do with Walter’s crows?”


“Walter always believed in the opposite of the Black Swan – the good thing that comes out of nowhere and makes things better. Unexpected blessings. Like all the stuff scientists discovered totally by accident – penicillin and corn flakes, insulin and super-glue. Or something like Dunkirk. Hitler could have wiped out the entire British Expeditionary Force in two days, and for some crazy reason he didn’t. Or winning the lottery. Or check this out --Vicki Fleishman’s grandfather almost ran over a Colonel when he was delivering mail at Fort Lejeune. This was late September, 1950.  He was court-marshalled and sent to the brig. He was sitting there when his company was sent to Korea. Two weeks after they arrived, the Chinese crossed the Yalu River and re-took Seoul.  It was a huge offensive – thousands of casualties. Every single member of Gus Fleishman’s unit died at Chosin Reservoir. But not Gus. He was stuck in a North Carolina stockade. Gus got his discharge, and married his high school sweetheart, and had five kids, and one of them had Vicki. I would call that a White Crow for me.”
“And Longbow disappearing, along with all the evidence of our existence … that’s a White Crow for us.”
They sat still in the dry cool air-conditioned apartment for a minute or two, contemplating the bizarre, inexplicable vagaries of hazard and luck. Walter was dead, Longbow was finished.
And they were free.
Finally, Dietz said, “So what do we do now?”
“What do you want to do?”
Dietz took a long pull from his beer, pondering the question. “Well … I have a quarter of a million dollars,  a small arsenal, a case of Gran Patro Burdeos tequila, two passports, and three girls named Melina … all waiting for me in Athens.”
“Three girls named Melina?”
“Always pick girls with the same name, brother. No mistakes, no confusion, no hurt feelings.”
“You’re a prince, Darren.”
“Anyway, I guess I’ll hole up in Athens for a while. See what happens. How about you?”
Mitch didn’t need to think about it. He’d known his answer before he finished Walt’s letter.
“Me?” he said. “I’m going home.”


Berat Yavuz, bulky in a rumpled white suit, with a gritty stubble on his face, and a gold tooth in the middle of his predatory grin, smacked the rickety table between them, like a judge with a gavel, and said, “This will cost you a great deal of money my friend. A very great deal of money.” He looked like the classic corrupt official of the Levant, an Orientalist cliche at least a generation out of date. Mitch couldn’t resist the obvious response. “Baksheesh.”
“No! This is no disreputable underhand bribery trick. This is the true cost of doing business. Let me tell you a story. When I was a boy growing up in Aksaray we had a wonderful butcher and he was in love with my mother and I would go in and he would give me the night’s dinner – rare cuts of beef, the shoulder tender and the sirloin flap, wrapped in brown paper -- and I never had to pay a thing! Of course I didn’t. My mother had an account there and paid monthly. Who knows if she ever paid at all, the little man was so smitten! The result my friend, was I grew up completely innocent of the cost of beef! Please – I knew it wasn’t free! Of course I did. But it was not until I moved back into the neighborhood, and took up my mother’s apartment after she died, that I truly understood. The first meat bill demolished me! So much money for so little. And that is your situation now, Mr. Osman Baykara, which is of course not your real name. Mother is dead and now you must pay for your own beef.”
Mitch sat back, listening, taking in the plain white-washed cinderblock walls and the narrow window that showed a line of trucks waiting to enter Bulgaria at the Hamzabeyli/Lesovo border checkpoint, their engines idling in the brooding late afternoon heat. Beyond them, chain link and razor wire, and scorched fields rolling out like a dirty carpet to the foot of the distant hills.
Inside the hut, a ceiling fan stirred the toxic air. Yavuz lit another cigarette, a  Sobranie  – obviously a cherished personal luxury, along with the American cologne and the well-worn Italian shoes. His cheap nokia phone pinged with a text. He pulled it out of his pocket, unfolded it for a moment, and then stood.
“I have a small problem with some uninvited guests. I will return shortly. I leave you with this thought – something slightly in excess of 58,000 Lira. Ten thousand dollars, if you like. In cash.”


Mitch shrugged as the door closed behind the bulky official. The mingled smells of sweat, Brut aftershave and tobacco lingered in the unventilated little room. Ten thousand was manageable. He had thirty in the trunk of his car from the stash at the Ankara safehouse, and he had actually expected to pay more. In fact he hadn’t known what to expect. An arrest at the border, or simple and unceremonious bullet in the back of the head, were not out of the question. If his cover was blown, if Yavuz’s cover was blown, if Walter had over-looked some piece of incriminating documentation, left some crucial computer file undeleted, if someone in the safehouse, Carmody or that kid Blake, had talked before the CAD killed them … but speculation was pointless and this checkpoint was his best bet to exfiltrate himself from Turkey. It was all a coin toss, and it looked this one this one had come up heads.
In fact, up to now the trip had been relatively easy. First, there was getting Walter’s Opel Manta from the underground parking in the City hotel – a squat, ugly cube of brown cement, dominating a square block of the Yildizevler neighborhood, just a short walk from the safe house. Walter was paid up to the end of the year and the man in the booth was lost in his iPhone and scarcely looked up as Mitch drove past, flashing his ticket. The car was Walter’s secret, and he had always been sure the the CAD and the NSA knew nothing about it. His tradecraft was good, but Mitch wasn’t sure that anyone’s tradecraft was good enough to evade the massed computer power of America’s secret agencies. Mitch knew he would have to get rid of the Opel at some point. But first things first – the Manta would serve to get him out of Turkey. That was enough for now.
Driving west from Ankara on the D 200, the city had unraveled gently into  broad swaths of ploughed farmland – miles and miles of flat green fertile earth running all the way to the low mountains on the horizon. He seemed to be going back in time as well as distance, passing small villages of white washed buildings and road side stands selling plums and apricots from the straggling orchards. He passed man-made hills covering ancient Roman burial sites, lonely road signs that seemed to point nowhere, but few signs of life -- the occasional figure far away in a field, dressed all in black despite the baking heat, lifting an arm in acknowledgement, a stray dog, a shepherd with a scrawny herd of goats.  Only the big eighteen wheel trucks roaring by or passing him in a battering gust of wind, located him in the twenty-first century.
The wide empty landscapes and the hot dry rush of air through his window scoured his mind clear and he was happy to occupy himself with nothing but the steering wheel under his hands, the pedals at his feet and the road ahead of him. He had a lot to think about, but thinking could wait.

Driving down off the Anatolian plain into the hive of Istanbul and the cool air from the Sea of Marmara, Mitch’s escape started to feel bizarrely like a holiday. The high rise apartment in the Atakoy section of Bakirkoy, near the giant glass and steel American hotels, with its fractured view of the water, made him feel more like a business man stealing a free weekend, than a spy on the run. He checked the building out carefully, parked ten blocks away, and completed several SDRs from different directions before he ventured inside. But the Surveillance Detection Routes had satisfied him that the place was clean, and the giant bath tub and the king sized bed were exactly what he needed after the long dusty drive.
He slept for twelve hours, took his breakfast at Lades, where the menemen, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and red peppers, served with hot crusty bread and a dose of granular Turkish coffee, remained as delicious as he remembered. He watched the tankers and cruise ships, the barges and caiques on the Bosphorous, gulped the cool briny air, and as always when he found himself in this strange, half modern half Byzantine city, toyed with the idea of staying. But he knew too many people here, and too many others might recognize him. The sad fact was, much as he loved Europe, no city on the continent was safe for him anymore.
And so, the drive to the border crossing at Hamazbeyli.
The hot dry barren route north west out of Istanbul, the modern road somehow elevating and separating him from the scorched land around him, like a causeway over a dry lake bed, quietly buoyed his decision and his mood. He needed to see the ocean again, his ocean – the harsh cold steel Atlantic. And after hours of circular arguments about refugees and gas prices on Acik Radyo and abrasive Turkish pop on Kral FM, he needed to hear English spoken again, even if it was only the nagging voice of NPR droning on about politics, death and money, which had been the primary public radio topics when he left the country seventeen years ago.
So he was ready when Berat Yavuz slumped back into the interrogation room, wiping his forehead with a dirty handkerchief. “Sorry for the interruption. A truck supposedly carrying construction materials was in fact packed tightly Syrian women and children.”
“What did you do?”
The unshaven face split into an irresistible impish smile. “My friend, I sent them on their way, with twenty gallons of water and several baskets of somewhat wilted stone fruits. Not much, but the best I could manage at short notice.”
Mitch stared at him. “You could go to jail for that.”
“I will be sure to add it to the list of my offences! But I suspect any God who has earned the right to be the object of our prayers would approve. We have both served the Devil long enough. And both of us will be gone soon, retired from the life, yes? I have only lingered here this long because I suspected there might be some of our mutual friend’s strays,  fleeing the country. I owed him this small service. But I suspect you are the only one.”
“I don’t know. I hope not.”
“I will not have the opportunity to find out. This window is closing. I will take your good American cash money and be long gone by this evening.” He sighed. “The end of an era. History will tell us if it was a heroic or a tragic one. Or just a muddle.”
Mitch smiled. “Maybe  -- all of the above?”
“A heroic tragic muddle! You have just defined humanity in three words, my friend. So let us leave it at that.”


Driving south through Macedonia and Albania, heading for Durres and the sixteen hour ferry crossing to Ancona in central Italy on the reliably shabby and overcrowded Adria ferry, Mitch found himself speeding on the long stretches of wide empty road between the small towns, and taking the hairpin turns in the high Dinaric and Rhodope ranges as if someone was chasing him. But no one was chasing him.
He had no mission, no time-table, no deadline. There was no one to check in with, no reports to send – just the rough beautiful mountain landscapes and the cool alpine air. This was what Walter had been talking about. It was unnerving. The ground where orders and duty, obedience and obligation, had connected him to the earth fell away -- and in his mind he stumbled backward, fleeing the sinkhole. Looking over the edge into the endless possibilities of an untethered life gave him nothing but vertigo.
But the driving felt good. The long run down to the Adriatic coast through the towns of cluttered white houses with terracotta roof tiles set into the green rocky hills set his mind at ease. The narrow roads and the responsive V6 engine under the hood of the Manta returned a sense of control and power. He accelerated on the long straight runs in the valleys, loving the surge of speed that slammed him back against the seat. But there was no rush. He slowed down, pulled over beside a waterfall to stretch his legs. There was nothing waiting for him at Durres but the seedy, derelict Adria ferry to Ancona, with its torn seats and tepid coffee.
The next afternoon, standing at the rail, eight hours into a sixteen hour trip, after a night at the pink sugar candy Kristal hotel, he had finally relaxed. They were out of sight of land and Mitch thought of all those ferry trips to Hyannis on the Nantucket and before that the cramped tin-can Uncateena, ridiculed by his father as “the greyhound of the sound” – and he was talking the grimy bus, not the graceful racing dog.
Mitch had treasured those few minutes in the middle of the crossing, when there was only water on the horizon. The view set his mind free. He could have been anywhere in the world – heading for Portugal mid-Atlantic, steaming toward Samoa, or even crossing the Adriatic to Italy, as he was now.
            Mitch had Walter Fleming’s exfiltration route memorized – north through Italy, west to France, skirting the Mediterranean coast into Spain, a stop at the Barcelona safe house for fresh papers and cash, then the flight from El Prat airport, where Longbow subcontractors would expedite the customs and ticketing, nonstop to Vancouver.  Yet the next morning, after a cramped night’s sleep on a hard bench under a salt-caked window – Mitch could sleep anywhere – he had driven off the boat and turned south, toward Rome.
It had occurred to him, walking the deck in the fresh humid breeze, sipping a tepid bitter espresso from a Styrofoam cup, that he had spent years crisscrossing Europe without ever pausing to see the sights. He had always been working, with no time for a walk around of the Coliseum or the Louvre, and frankly no real interest, with his mission-ready blinders on. The last time had had been in Paris Notre Dame was on fire and all it meant to him was a possibly lethal traffic jam, snarling his escape route. Well, he was done with all that.
            It was time to be a tourist.


Mitch did tourism right, strolling the Piazza Navonna, wandering the Coliseum, gaping up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, eating a couple of excellent meals, staying one night at a small pensione where he paid cash for a cramped attic room with a spectacular view of the Tiber, and then driving on to Florence and Milan, and even farther out of his way, north through France, to Paris.
            It was in the Louvre, keeping a respectful distance from the curiously unimpressive Mona Lisa (her little smirk annoyed him) when he saw the woman with the Lightship basket.
The coincidence amused him, though he had heard stories throughout his childhood of Nantucketers meeting up in strange, far flung places --  Petra, the Galapagos islands, a volcano in Hawaii. The Louvre seemed mundane by comparison, though it was a natural temptation for someone whose local museums didn’t feature much beyond harpoons and the very type of basket the woman was holding in the crook of her arm.  Yes, Nantucket actually had a basket museum … just the sort of self-fetishizing yet oddly endearing absurdity that had driven Mitch away from the island in the first place; and somehow managed to lure him back.
He took the woman’s presence as an omen and a beacon.
He was thinking about approaching her when he saw the thief.
The bald little man was wearing black Adidas and a blue nylon windbreaker over a UCLA t-shirt, and he moved like and dancer. He slipped open the scrimshaw lid of the woman’s little purse, and removed her passport in less than three seconds.  He was good. Mitch thought of his boyhood friend Mike Henderson, whose father – a grizzled, old-school painting contractor – ever doled out only one compliment: “Looks like you’ve done this before.” 
            This pick-pocket had obviously done it before.
            The woman never felt a thing.
She was engrossed by the tour guide speaking through her ear buds. Her husband was equally oblivious, dozing on his feet, scrolling aimlessly through his iPhone.  In a second the guy would be gone. He was already angling for the opening in to the next gallery and the stairs beyond that led down to the galleries on the first floor. Mitch took off, ang;ling his fade away from the CCTV camera perched high on the wall, walking just fast enough to intercept the thief, then bounding the last few feet, grabbing him and twisting his arm behind his back.
The man’s outrage was flawless. “Que faites vous? Enlève-moiles mains!”
Mitch spoke softly. “Donnez moi le passport, et je vous lesserait partir. Vous avez cinq seconds.” He tightened the arm lock, and started counting down. At three, the guy reached into his jacket pocket and handed over the precious document. What was such an item worth on the black market these days? Ten thousand dollars? Twenty?
Easy come, easy go.
So the pick-pocket went, sprinting into the crowd, dodging between the tourists and disappearing down the stairs. It didn’t matter -- he must know he’d gotten off easy.
And the day was young.


Mitch walked back to the woman, paging through her passport. Olivia Cummings, of 167 East 78th Street, New York, NY. Visas for Germany, Spain, Italy and Monaco, as well as France. The full European tour. They’d been traveling for more than six weeks. He tapped her shoulder and she flinched. He held up the passport, and she pulled her ear buds out.
 Mitch took a calming step backward. “Someone just took this out of your lightship basket.”
“What? Who did – what are you talking about?” She snatched the passport out of his hand opened it to verify that it was hers, and glared at him. “How did you get this?”
Mitch offered a friendly smile. “I took it.  From the man who stole it.”
The husband looked up from his phone. “Does this guy look like he needs to steal your passport, Livvy?” He turned to Mitch. “Thanks, buddy. Quick thinking on your part. Looks like I was kind of asleep at the switch there. Checking the email. They never let you alone.” He extended his hand and Mitch shook it. “Bruce Cummings, good to meet you.”
The woman looked at him and seemed to see him for the first time. “I’m sorry I got upset. You took me by surprise.  But thank you. Thank you so much. That was an extraordinary thing to do.” Her, face pinched with thought for a second, pushing her cheeks up, not quite closing her eyes. “You said Lightship basket. You must be from Nantucket!”
Mitch nodded. “Born and bred.”
“That’s incredible. Halfway around the world!”
Bruce pulled out a business card and handed it over. “We just bought a house on Cliff Road. Come and see us. Any time.  I owe you a drink.”
“Thanks. I might just take you up on that.”
Olivia beamed at him, still over-compensating. “Do! Please do.”
Mitch slipped away before they could invite him to lunch, and an hour later he was driving south out of Paris toward the Spanish border, thinking about Bruce and Olivia Cummings.
The whole incident had been disturbing and bizarre, totally at odds with the rules that had governed his life for decades. The first rule was stay invisible. Walter had always said Mitch had the perfect set of features for foiling facial recognition surveillance – ordinary and unremarkable. “He looked like, you know, a guy, a regular guy,” someone had said during the eye-witness interviews after a particularly messy rendition op in London. The best CCTV coverage in the world had picked up no trace of Mitch that day, and the other first-hand reports had all sounded the same: “Seemed like a nice-looking bloke. Don’t exactly recall.”
“It’s your mutant power, kid,” Walter liked to say. “You’re the invisible man! Just don’t fuck it up by making yourself memorable.”


Mitch had always kept his head down and his face averted, walking past the odd hold-up or traffic accident, when he knew he could have stopped a crime with one blow or kept a stranger’s heart beating with CPR. He had watched a Russian pop star choke to death in a St. Petersburg Israeli restaurant called Bekitzur when a simple Heimlich maneuver could have saved her. But there were paparazzi loitering outside and the last thing he wanted was his picture in the newspaper.
None of that had struck him as wrong. He had a job and his job had its priorities. Should a first responder rushing to a hostage situation pause to stop a mugging? Anonymity was one of his weapons, and no soldier willingly gives up such a crucial part of his arsenal.
That was how it seemed. That was what he told himself.
And he hadn’t changed his mind, exactly, or experienced some moral epiphany. But he had chased down the pickpocket and given back Olivia Cummings’ passport, and he had done it by reflex, as Mike Henderson’s father had leapt in to help a rival crew when a full gallon of exterior oil tipped off a ladder. Mitch had helped that day, too, along with Mike and the other guys, pitching in without being asked because they had all been there themselves and they knew they would be again. Later, Mr. Henderson said, “You know it’s funny. That guy underbid me, hired untrained guys with no insurance. I should have done nothing. It would have been poetic justice. Well, justice anyway.”
“So why did you help?” Mike asked.
His dad shrugged. “It was a paint spill, kid. You gotta clean up a paint spill.”
Mitch had lost that instinct, or it had been trained out of him.
But now, as he ditched Walter’s Opel near the Gare Du Nord where it was sure to be stolen, and purchased a bike for cash, hanging out on the Voie verte along the Canal l’Ourcq in the Parc de la Villette where he knew he could find dedicated cyclists, going through the motions of his own habitual tradecraft (A bike sold for cash would be impossible to trace),he wondered who he had become, or if some older version of himself had surfaced, one that saw people and places, not targets and traps.
He had plenty of time to think about it, riding the basic red Pinarello ten-speed south by the D roads along the Loire, stopping at leisure in the old towns along the way, Nevers, Dardilly, LePins to St Gilles, tacking toward the coast at St. Cyprien-Plage, then up into the mountains, over roads with no cameras, disappearing into the Pyrnees and finally, more than two weeks later, into the busy crowded streets of Barcelona.
 He spent the night at the attic apartment safe house above Sortidor Square in the Poble Sec neighborhood, ate his Tapas and drank the house special vermouth at the little café on the street level. The next morning, he collected his papers and money, packed his few clothes, spray painted the Pinarello black and left it at a public bike rack, and rode a taxi to the airport, no uber, no cyber trail. And all the while, the thought continued to nag at him: what the hell was going on?
 Had he turned into some kind of touchy-feely do-gooder? He certainly hoped not. Because the sad fact was, that helping hand Samaritan nice guy was a liability. Every generous impulse was a distraction and a danger. Mitch might have quit the business, but the business hadn’t quit him – and in that business, taking your guard down when you thought you were safe was a classic and time-honored way to get yourself killed.
The Barcelona Airport was a perfect example.


Some loud-mouthed American tourist was yelling at his wife and slapping his son. A few seconds of behavior modification, which would have probably just made things worse in the long run anyway, would have distracted Mitch at a crucial moment and he might have missed the fact that Walter’s people at the airport had all gone missing. Oscar, in security; fat, bearded Marcel who had always whisked him through customs; Jorge, the operations manager – all of them had been replaced by stiff sharp military personnel who had been trained to look for people like Mitch, and indeed, given the purge of Longbow undercover assets, very specifically for Mitch himself. Fortunately, if Walter was right, none of them knew what he actually looked like. If his papers were solid he could pass for one more ordinary American trying to get through the line and grab a stiff drink on the other side.
It would be a good test, though. Escaping the airport if Longbow security protocols failed would be close to impossible. There was an escape route through the luggage handling area, but it might be blown if Walter’s whole network had been swept up. People talked, people gave up their friends and allies, especially if they believed their friends and allies were dead. They talked for money, to look important or to get immunity, and they talked to stop the pain. There were dozens of ways to cause unendurable agony. The human body was nothing but a mass of vulnerable nerve endings. The idea that torture never really worked was mostly promulgated by people who had never felt hot metal pressed against a fresh burn.
So Mitch shuffled along the security line, keeping his face carefully tilted away from the CCTV cameras as always, and flicking the tip of his thumb with his pinky as he plotted his mostly futile escape plans. The crowds would be helpful. Hostages might get him outside, and stealing a car as it idled at the loading zone curb would be simple. It all depended on how sharp the security people were, and to Mitch they looked sleepy and bored. Once out of the airport he would have to dump the vehicle quickly, and make his way back to the safe house. Then what? Lay low for a few days and try again, driving to Lisbon perhaps, or Madrid, with fresh papers. A couple of SDRs around the square first, of course, but if the apartment had been found. tlhey would have –
“Anything to declare, sir?”
He looked up, shook his head tiredly. “Nothing.”
“Enjoy your trip.”
“Thank you.”
And it was done. Mr. Everyman had passed through the gaps in airport security once again, like a draft of cold air through a crooked window. He was safe. The flight to Vancouver was long but routine, the Canadian border casual and porous.
He was almost home already.
He would buy a cheap used car for cash, pick up some weapons at a gun show, and complete the easy drive to Massachusetts in less than a week. No more diversions or detours, easy as pie.
Or, as it turned out, “Easy as pie crust”.
That was what his mother always said when he underestimated a problem. “And anyone who’s ever tried to make a nice flaky pie crust knows exactly what I’m talking about.” As usual, his mom’s warning was right on the money.
The old touchy-feely Mitch Stone was back, and there was no getting rid of him now.


            The first incident began with a girl selling her father’s rifle at the Coeur D’Alene gun show.
Mitch had driven down from the border in the old Jeep Cherokee he’d bought in Vancouver, heading south east through Winthrop, Grand Coullee and Wilbur, beside deep lakes in the shadow of high snow-capped mountains, the window open to catch the flood of icy early autumn air, staying the night in Spokane and crossing into the narrow northern tab of Idaho that separated Washington from Montana early the next morning.
With all his guns stowed in the safe at the Barcelona safe house, Mitch needed weapons. A quick online search led him to the outdoor quarterly market at the Kootenai fairgrounds, just over the border. He parked in the dirt lot and wandered the big tables set out below the steep pine woods that marked the edge of the National forest. There was a chill in the air and he could see his breath as the morning fog burned off. He heard the standard griping – the admission fee was too high, the vendors were scarce, some of the ammo was defective. But it was better than nothing.
Mitch bought a pair of comfortingly familiar Medford USMC Raider fixed-blade combat knives from a grizzled vet who grunted “Semper Fi,” and took four hundred for both of them. He waved the handful of hundreds back at Mitch and said “Cash, brother. It’s the only way to stay free.”  Mitch nodded and moved along, hefting and sighting various firearms, finally settling on a Chiappa triple threat 12 gauge shot gun and ten boxes of ammunition, factory-sealed. The seller, a massive bearded guy in a MAGA hat, thanked him for his service (people always seemed to know).
The last item on Mitch’s shopping list was a beautifully reconditioned Sig Sauer P226, along with a couple of magazines and a good supply of 9x 19 parabellums, which he bought from a white-haired grandmother baby-sitting two little boys. “Lovely gun,” she told him. “The Navy SEALs swear by it.”
He grinned. “Marines, too. But we know how to shoot it.”
She shook her head, amused by the inevitable inter-service rivalry. Her family had probably been Navy for three generations, and she had no desire to exchange more of the old banter. She just wanted to sell her stock and get home before lunch. Walking away, Mitch added up his brief shopping spree. It had cost him less than four thousand dollars, ammo included.
He was thinking about a late breakfast, heading back to the Cherokee, when he noticed the girl.
She was small and wiry, moon-faced with a stubby nose and a spray of freckles framed by a mass of curly red hair. She was dressed in a pea-coat over jeans and a checked shirt, with work boots that looked like they had seen had seen a lot of work. She was pulling a Marlin 1893 Winchester special carbine out of the backseat of her car, a green Subaru Forrester that he recognized from the parking lot of his motel.
The Marlin was a fine rifle, with a fold down ladder sight. No doubt it had “Special smokeless steel” etched into the barrel. Mitch’s shooting mentor, home-town gun nut Jake Gritzky, had owned one of them for many years. Mitch guessed the girl could get close to a thousand dollars for it out here this morning.
He paused to watch her progress and instantly picked up the first two hunters. They must have recognized her Marlin also, and done the same math. Two big long-haired bruisers, they looked like brothers, one wearing a ski hat and a heavy wool turtleneck sweater under a light weight down jacket with Cottonwood Butte STAFF on the back, the other sporting a Seahawks ballcap and a barn coat. Both of them had plenty of room for concealed carry. Ballcap twitched his head slightly to the side, and two guys at the next line of tables caught the gesture. The thin one with the pot belly sticking out from his down jacket tapped the fireplug with the shaved head and goatee beard, then all four were in motion,  sauntering along, maybe fifty feet behind the girl, angling toward her from two sides, hunting in a pack, like grey wolves.
Mitch knew exactly what they were thinking. This girl was about to render herself disarmed and cash-heavy. She was out-numbered four to one, out-weighed by a total of least seven hundred pounds. The Washington State plates on her Subaru broadcast she wasn’t a local, and she’d obviously driven to the gun show alone.
In other words, the perfect prey.


The girl found a buyer, a tall wide-faced Shoshone indian wearing a thick grey hoodie with the Duck Valley Reservation logo on the chest. Mitch watched as he tried to work a trade, offering a Mauser sporter 7x57. The girl shook her head – she wanted to sell. Finally he opened his metal cashbox and pulled out eight hundred-dollar bills. The girl hesitated, then took the money. Mitch backed away as she headed toward him. He studied a display of antique flintlock and percussion pistols as she moved past him.
They would take her at her car.
He walked quickly and matched her stride as she cleared the tables and started across the parking lot.
“Excuse me,” he said.
She turned and scowled up at him. “What?”
“Those four guys back there are getting ready to rob you.”
She pulled up the edge of her pea coat, revealing a police .38 special. So, not quite disarmed. “I can handle myself.”
“I believe that. But it’s four to one. Let me walk you to your car. They’ll back off. These guys don’t want trouble. They’re looking for an easy smash and grab.”
She blew out a breath. “Fine.”
They walked to her car. She climbed in, keyed the engine and rolled down her window. “Thanks, Mister. Sorry if I was rude back there. I guess I’m a little tense lately. What you did wasn’t necessary, but it was neighborly, and I appreciate that.”
She drove off and he saw the four men pile into a dusty extended cab Ford F350. These guys weren’t quitting and there was no way girl could outrace their truck. Maybe they were interested in more than the rifle.
Mitch eased over to his Jeep and waited while they pulled out.
Everyone in the convoy kept their distance and they had traveled about ten miles east on route 90 when a cop rolled off the shoulder and started following the girl. The line of cars was following her at exactly 75 miles an hour – against a posted 65 mph speed limit. Maybe she had seen the guys in her rearview; maybe she wanted to get pulled over. Fifteen miles later the cop finally hit the flashers. The truck had no choice but to keep moving and Mitch did the same.
He drove on to his motel parked out of sight and loaded his new Sig Sauer. He had developed another theory about her speeding in front of the cop car, and if he was right, the girl was more oblivious than he’d thought. While he waited for her to arrive he checked his phone for other motels. He only found two, and this one was the most convenient to the Kootenai fairgrounds. It wouldn’t take the boys in the F350 long to track her down. They were locals. They knew the area, they probably knew the people who ran the motels. On the bright side, maybe the girl had already checked out and was on her way home.
He climbed out of the car, jamming the gun behind his back under his coat, and walked to the side of the main set of rooms, where he had a good view of the parking lot.
It cost him nothing to wait.


The girl pulled into the motel parking lot five minutes later, and Mitch caught up with her at the door to her room. “Did you get new tires recently?”
She was back in defensive mode. “What are you doing here? Did you follow me?”
“I got here first. I’m in room 218, upstairs.”
“So, anyway – did you get new tires recently?”
She gave him a baffled squint. “Yes I did, as a matter of fact. But how could you possibly --”
“That’s why the cop stopped you.”
“Because it’s illegal to have new tires?”
“Because yours are the wrong size. You got them cheap from some discount garage, am I right?”
“Well, it didn’t seem that bad. And they were like half price.”
“Yeah well. They’re giving a false read to your speedometer. You thought you were going 65, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “I wasn’t, though.”
“No big deal. Just drive ten miles an hour slower than the speedometer until you get home and buy some new tires.”
“That cop must have thought I was crazy.”
“He’s one ticket closer to his monthly quota. That’s all he was thinking about. But you weren’t speeding intentionally to draw his attention, so you probably didn’t notice the big blue Ford truck behind you.”
“Should I have?”
“It’s the boys from the gun show.”
“Yeah but – I mean … they must have driven on.”
“They’ll find you. And this is the most obvious place to look”
“Now you’re scaring me.”
She glanced around the parking lot. “So what should I do?”
“What you were going to do anyway -- pack up, check out and go home. I’ll keep an eye on you. Go – now. You might actually beat them if you move fast enough.”

The girl, her name was Melody Biggers, went inside to throw her clothes into a canvas bag and collect her toothbrush. She had already paid for the night before, so she left her key on the dresser with a ten dollar tip for the house-keeper. She had done a lot of that work herself in the last few years, mostly at the Hyatt in Spokane, and she had always been baffled by the people who stiffed the maids. Did they think the cleaning people were over-paid? Was there a problem with the hospital corners? Would they like to check out an actual hospital for comparison? She laughed at that, touching the gun at her waist, then stepped out of her room into the late morning chill.
The four men were waiting for her.
For a second she thought of dodging back into the room and calling 911, but you needed to dial zero to get an outside line and by the time she did that, the men would be inside with her. The lock was flimsy and the door was hollow-core. And the bed would give them ideas.
“Time to pay up, cutie,” the big one in the Seahawks cap said.
The one who might have been his brother added, “We got a tariff on out of state sales.”
The pot-bellied side kick grinned at her. “Yeah. A hunnerd percent tariff. That how we’s winning the trade war.”
Goatee took a step toward her. “And that’s just the start with a hottie like you.”
Melody gritted her teeth. She should have known they wouldn’t need to see the bed to get that idea. The horseshoe configuration tightened as the men shuffled toward her, guns out.

Melody pulled the police special and assumed the Weaver stance, gun braced and feet apart, sideways to the target. “That’s enough. Back off.”
Seahawks cap took another step. “So, you’re going to shoot a man in cold blood, in broad daylight? I don’t think so.”
The big one in the watch cap nodded. “Plus, you pull the trigger, and one of us shoots you in the knee cap. You’ll be too busy screaming to fight us off, and you’ll never walk right again.”
She stared him down. “But one of you will be dead.”
Seahawks gap took another step. “I’d call it a Mexican stand-off but I’ve never known a Mexican who could stand his ground.”
“You’ve never known a Mexican at all, you dumbass redneck piece of shit.”
“Hey! Watch your mouth or I’ll --”
But he never got to explain what he was going to do.
He lurched forward and pitched face first into the asphalt, his gun skittering away. He lay still as a corpse, unconscious and concussed, bleeding into the parking lot from his shattered nose.
Mitch kicked him over onto his back so he wouldn’t drown in his own blood, then stepped away to cover the others. “Now it’s three to two. And, FYI – a Mexican taught me that move, and he could kick all your asses one handed while he was scrolling through La Cronica de Hoy on his cell phone.”
There was a long moment of baffled silence.
“This aint none of your business,” Pot Belly said.
“Yours either. The lady sold a rifle. You want to make some money? Sell your own rifle. Or get a fucking job.”
Five people, five guns, seconds away from a bloodbath. Hands shaking, fingers twitching, arms getting tired. Cars passed on the road. Far above them Mitch could pick out the faint distant hum of a plane heading east for Billings or Missoula. The chill windless air smelled of pine sap and car exhaust. Mitch cut his eyes between the three men, back and forth, waiting for a movement. Finally the tension fell apart, toppling like a cheerleader pyramid, unable to sustain the pressure of all those feet on all those shoulders, all those shaky knees.
Watch-cap lowered his gun first. “This is bullshit.”
Mitch nodded. “Not worth dying for.”
Goatee was outraged. “The fuck is going on? We’re just gonna let her go?”
“She’s going,” Mitch corrected him. “You’ve got nothing to do with it. And I’m going to let you go, son. Because killing you would be like running down a dog on the highway. Hitting him shows him he shouldn’t be crossing the road, but it doesn’t do him much good, you know? Him being dead and all.  Alive, you might learn something. So think about what happened today. And scoot.”
They picked up their friend, shambled back to their truck and drove away. Mitch watched until they were out of sight.
“Thank you,” the girl said. “I’m Melody Biggers.”
He walked over and shook her hand. “Mitchell Stone.”
“Nice to meet you.”
They stood quietly in the dry cold afternoon sunlight. A panel truck rolled passed, and then a Jefferson Lines bus.
“That was brave just now, Melody.”
She shook her head. “I was bluffing. That guy was right. I couldn’t shoot him. I don’t think so anyway.”
“Even braver then.”
“Easy to be brave when you got no choice.”
“Not really. Most people panic.”
“Is that why they’re always being told not to?”
He smiled. “Pretty much.”
“Do think those guys will really learn anything from what happened?”
“Probably not. Except – check your six before an ambush. They’ll be more careful next time.”
“Oh great.”
“Maybe the next girl will pull the trigger.”
“Let’s hope.”
She took a step and hugged him. He put his arms around her gently. She was trembling. That always happened after a firefight – even when not a single shot was fired.
She spoke into his shoulder. “Listen would you like to maybe have lunch with me or dinner, or a drink or something or just come to bed with me and make love for two days and drive home and meet my parents and get married and have ten kids and die in each other’s arms when we’re a hundred and two? Or go get some coffee? Or something?”
He kissed her forehead. “That all sounds great. But you’re not in the right state of mind to jump into bed with anyone right now -- much less pick out fiftieth anniversary presents.”
“They’re gold. You get gold on your fiftieth. I was thinking about some 24-karat champagne flutes.”
He took her hands and stepped back so they could really see each other. “You need to be more picky, Melody Biggers. And I’m taken.”


The hitch-hiker’s opening salvo: “Thanks, buddy, you’re a life-saver a real life saver. You can’t believe what happened to me today, it was just, it was crazy, what a fucked-up crazy morning, Jesus.”
“Well, that part’s over. Now you can set things right. Where you headed?”
“North, just north for now. Away from this fucking bullshit town.”
Mitch shrugged. “It helps to have a destination.”
“Okay, Wilkes-Barre, okay? You get on 80 to 82 north.”
“That’s on my way. But you could have just taken an uber.”
“Yeah right. That would work if I had a non-maxed out credit card or enough money in my bank account to cover the trip. Then I’d really be rolling in style. Get myself a limo.”
The guy subsided into a mute, self-pitying sulk, and that was fine with Mitch. He preferred the silence anyway. They drove along. A few minutes after they got onto interstate 80, he saw the second hitch-hiker -- a skinny red-headed sixteen-year-old with a back pack. The boy was wearing a grey Steelers hoodie, blue jeans and muddy hiking boots. He looked miserable and exhausted. Mitch started to slow down.
“Keep going,” the passenger barked. “Fuck that kid. Drive on.”
He was giving orders now, suddenly in charge. Mitch didn’t have to look to know he had the gun in his hand.
“What’s going on, buddy?”
“What’s going on? I’m stealing this car and leaving you by the side of the road and taking it to a chop shop and getting some money. That’s what’s happening.”
Mitch nodded. “How much do you think you’ll get for it?”
“Enough. Get off the highway as soon as you can. Take the next exit.”
They passed a sign advertising various fast food outlets off the highway. Food and lodging two miles. “You look like you could use a meal. Sonic? Chick-fil-A? Five Guys? I’ve been away for a while. What’s good?”
“Just keep driving.”
“Okay, okay. But let me tell you something about guns. They distort your perceptions. You think you’re safe, so you take stupid risks. You think you’re dangerous, so you punch above your weight. The most likely outcome with a gun is that it gets taken away from you. Or you shoot yourself by accident.”
“Or you control the situation.”
“Here’s the exit, get over.”
Mitch swerved hard into the exit-only lane and the motion tilted the hitchhiker toward the steering wheel. Before the guy could correct, Mitch had snapped an arm across his chest, taken the wrist, bent it backward and yanked the gun loose. He slowed down coming off the highway, flipped the gun into the back seat. “Sorry, but I did warn you. Five Guys or Chick-Fil-A?”
The guy seemed to assess his chances of climbing over to retrieve his gun and slumped back, giving up. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his head against the car window. “Five guys?”
“Sure. I like the idea of five guys starting a restaurant and coming up with that name.”
“How did you do that? Take the gun away like that?”
“Talent and practice. Gotta have both.”
“You gonna call the cops on me?”
“Nope. I’m gonna buy you lunch.”


Half an hour later, sitting at a table in the big airy restaurant with a paper cup of wide French fries between them, Mitch let the guy wolf down his burger and gulp down his coke, then said, “So what’s the story?”
“What do you mean?”
“Guy in a decent suit, obviously hasn’t missed any meals, trying to jack cars on interstate 80. There’s gotta be a story.”
“It’s stupid.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Okay … it started with parking tickets. That’s the stupid part.”
“You didn’t pay them.”
“I meant to pay them. I was planning to. I just never got around to it.”
“How many tickets?”
“Ten I guess. Maybe twelve. I had to park on the street for my job. I work at this coffee place in Morningside, The Daily Grind. Funny, huh? Doesn’t sound very appealing.”
“Hey, we had a show store in my home town called ‘The Athlete’s Foot, so.”
“Anyway, all they have there is on-street parking, and you have to move the car every two hours. Sometimes it gets busy and I can’t get out, or I just forget.”
“And tickets get more expensive when you don’t pay them.”
He nodded. “When I applied to renew my license they told me I had to pay all the tickets and penalties first, and by that time it was up to like twelve hundred dollars. I couldn’t pay that! So I was driving without a license, which meant I couldn’t get the car registered and without the registration I couldn’t get it inspected.”
“Yeah.” He took one of the last French fries.
“You want more?”
“Thanks, I’m good.”
“So anyway, let me guess – every time you got in the car you were playing highway roulette and freaking out whenever you saw a cop.”
He sighed. “I got pretty good at evasive action. But I didn’t realize I had a broken tail-light.”
“That’s the stupid part – sorry, what’s your name?”
“Clayton. Clayton Richards”
“Well that was the stupid part, Clayton. You got careless there.”
“Yeah and I got caught. They took me to the station in handcuffs and impounded my car. My ex-wife had to get the fifty dollars bail from one of those pay day loan sharks. I owe them about a grand now. There’s no end to it.”
“An old friend of mine used to say you get punished for being poor in this country.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Like … you need what? Around two grand? So you steal somebody’s shitty jeep and he calls the cops and they put out an APB and pretty soon you’ve got those flashers behind you and you take off. Now it’s a high speed chase and maybe resisting arrest and you’re look at five to ten at Albion.”
“All because there’s no parking at work.”
Mitch finished his iced tea. “It’s not fair.”
Clayton rested his forehead on one palm, and jammed his eyes shut for a second as if he was fighting a headache. “Yeah, well. What ya gonna do?”
Mitch pushed back from the table a little. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you twenty five hundred dollars cash. And you’re going to take care of business and get back to your life.”
“Pay those fines, get your car registered. Then get it out of impound and inspected. Pay back your wife and the loan sharks. Then you’re back at square one. Which aint great – but it’s the only numbered square for a reason.”
            “Why? Why would you do that?”
            “Why not?”
“I don’t get it. I mean -- who has twenty five hundred bucks in cash lying around?”
Mitch smiled. “Bad people.”
“So you’re bad?”
“People can change, Clayton. That’s the whole point. For both of us. It requires a little effort, that’s all.” Mitch pulled out his phone and googled late parking fines in Pittsburgh. “Looks like you have to go to the parking court. 240 Fourth avenue, downtown Pittsburgh. Can you find that?”
“Then let’s go.”
When they shook hands outside the court house, the guy unexpectedly pulled Mitch into a hug.
“Thanks man. I mean it. Thank you.”
Mitch pushed him gently out to arms’ length. “Get that money into the bank, Clayton. It’s crazy, walking around with so much cash in your pocket.”
“Oh yeah? How much cash are you driving around with?
Mitch just smiled.
Helping Clayton turned out to be a minor detour – he was cruising east on route 80 again by two in the afternoon, looking forward to an uneventful run across Pennsylvania and New York, up into Massachusetts and home.
Three hours later, he met the kid.


He had stopped for an early dinner at a truck stop Subway, near Lake Ariel. The restaurant was uncrowded at five o’clock – the only other patrons were two long-haul eighteen-wheelers, a frazzled looking mother with a pair of twelve year old boys, and the kid he had seen hitch-hiking outside Pittsburgh. The boy was alone, nursing a glass of water and a bag of Doritos. He looked even worse than he had that morning, the dark circles under his eyes painfully obvious under the glare of the fast food fluorescents. He finished his little bag of chips and then sat staring at the crumpled plastic, supporting his temple on his fist. He closed his eyes, and then jerked his head up; he had nodded off there for a second.
The owner came around from behind the counter and walked over to the boy’s booth. “You okay, kid?”
The boy stared at the Formica table top. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look so hot.”
“I told you, I’m fine.”
“You gonna order some food? I mean, you can’t just sit here all night with a bag of chips.”
“Maybe later.”
“You can’t just loiter here, son. We have vagrancy laws in Pennsylvania.”
            “I’m not loitering. I’m trying to decide what to eat.”
“For two hours?”
The kid looked up and offered a disarming smile. “Everything looks so good.”
Mitch sat forward. He was starting to like this kid.
“You should try the sweet onion chicken teriyaki. That’s today’s special.”
The kid shook his head. “That sounds a little too complicated for me.”
“Maybe I should talk to your parents. Where’s your Mom and Dad?”
“Good question.”
“How old are you? I’m betting sixteen years old. That’s underage. You can’t travel alone.”
“I’m eighteen.”
“The hell you are. You’re a runaway. One of those teen age runaways.”
Another laser smile. “I prefer to think of myself as a hobo.”
“I’m calling the cops. Your folks are probably worried sick.”
“Well, you got the ‘sick’ part right.”
“They’ll be glad to get you back   .”
“They haven’t even noticed I’m gone.”
“We’ll see about that.”
He pulled out a cell phone, poked in a number.
Mitch was up and moving before anyone answered the call, before he could even make sense of his own impulse.
He stood toe to toe with the owner. “The boy’s with me.”
“Bullshit. What’s his name?”
“Ricky,” the kid said.
Mitch nodded. “Ricky.”
“Ricky Muller,” the kid added.
“Ricky Muller.”
He stared down at the owner. He had about three inches on the guy. The man worked a truck stop restaurant. He knew how to scope out a situation, and this one was tipping out of his control. And what was wrong with that? The last thing he wanted was a bunch of cops barging into the place, making everybody nervous. The truck stop had a Burger King, too. And there were no cops in there.
“I don’t want any trouble,” he said, finally.
Mitch gave him a tight-lipped half smile. “Good. The boy will have the meatball marinara sub, and a large coke. Sound good, Ricky?”
“And a large coffee for me.” The owner just stared at him, “Today,” Mitch prodded gently.
“Yeah, okay. Coming right up.”
They sat quietly for a minute or two. Then Mitch said, “So what’s your plan?”
“I’m supposed to spill my guts now, tell you everything?”
Mitch shrugged. “Well, not everything.”
“For the price of a meatball sub?”
“Hey -- I got you a coke, too. I may even throw in a cookie.”
Ricky tilted his head toward the counter. “You gotta pick the stuff up. They don’t bring it.”
Mitch stood walked to the register. He paid for the food and came back to the table with a tray. “So – Boston or New York?”
Ricky took a bite of the sandwich and grimaced. “No wonder that sex freak on the commercials lost weight here. No one can eat this shit. I mean, what is this cheese?”
Mitch sipped the weak coffee. “My guess -- you’re heading for Boston.”


Mitch studied the kid. “If you were going to New York you’d have been hitching on route 70. That’s a straight shot from Pittsburgh.”
“My uncle Bob lives in Medford.”
“There you go – Bob’s your uncle.”
“Yeah – what?”
“It’s an old English expression. Around a hundred and thirty five years ago, an idiot got a big job in Ireland because his uncle, a guy named Robert Gascoin-Cecil, happened to be Prime Minister of England. Uncle Bob.”
 “So – nepotism.”            
“Hey, it’s good to have a hot-shot uncle.”
“I don’t. But he said I could visit, so …”
“Better than nothing.”
“Where’s your dad, again?”
“I never said. But he’s in jail.”
“Selling drugs?”
“Getting caught selling drugs.”
“Three times.”
“Uh oh.”
They sat quietly for a minute. The kid finished his sub.
“Does Uncle Bob know you’ll be staying?”
Ricky lifted his coke cup and put it down again. “No.”
“Does he even know you’re coming?”
“I thought it should be a surprise.”
Mitch shook his head. “This is starting to look a little sketchy, kid.”
“I guess. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”
It looked like he was about to cry. Mitch took a gulp of his cooling coffee. Black water. But it was something to do. “Look here’s the problem. I let you go now, they can charge me with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I take you with me, it’s kidnapping.”
The kid shot him that disarming crooked smile again. “I won’t tell.”
Mitch decided. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m taking you home to your mother.”
“Well, Dad is out of the picture.”
“Pretty much.”
“So where are we going? Where do you live?”
The kid slumped. “Locust Grove Trailer Park. Just outside Etna, route 8, north of the city. Real beauty spot, you’re gonna love it.”
Mitch started to stand but the boy grabbed his arm. “Wait – mister --? ”
“Stone. Sorry. Mitchell Stone.”
“Good to meet you. Listen, Mr. Stone, Mitchell … You really helped me out here. You stepped in and you didn’t have to. I appreciate that. You made a judgment call. That was cool. So what I’m saying … if you see my mom and Carl, her boyfriend Carl, and you see how fucked up they are, and you get it why I ran away, will you help me? I mean, just take me to my Uncle’s place? That’s all. You said it’s on the way. But I mean, if everything looks good to you at Locust Grove, we’re good, you’re off the hook. It’s totally your call. That sounds fair, doesn’t it? Just see for yourself.”
Mitch nodded. “Let’s go.”

Twenty one

The trip back to the trailer park required driving the length of the state. It had been a long day for both of them, so Mitch found a motel around the halfway mark, outside of Bellefonte, and got them a pair of rooms. He let Ricky into his first.
“I’ll be right next door.”
The kid looked around the little room. “Wow, privacy.”
“I won’t be standing guard. You can take off if you want. I won’t chase you down.”
Ricky flashed his weaponized smile. “You need to have more faith in people.”
“Faith is a trap, kid. I trust the people who earn it. Get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The kid was still there at eight in the morning, and they got back on the road by eight thirty. They stopped for breakfast at an iHop. Ricky wolfed down two smokehouse combos and an order of brioche French toast; Mitch ate two poached eggs on rye, looking on with awe as the boy tore into his meal, privately dismissive of a pancake place without maple syrup and always suspicious of restaurants that featured pictures of the food on the menu. Fuck it. He knew he was a snob. His own breakfast was fine --an egg was an egg. And it was good to see the boy eat.
Ricky dozed off  after a few minutes on the highway. Mitch let him sleep. By early afternoon they were cruising through Etna, and the kid was wide awake.
Locust Grove turned out to be all right – a self-proclaimed “mobile home park” offering water and sewer hook-ups and trash collection service, all for around two-twenty a month. Not exactly the high-rent district, but the place looked reasonably clean and well-maintained, with white trailer homes dotting a big grassy field cut with dirt driveways and set off by a ragged forest of what looked like swamp ash and maple. Not a locust tree in sight.
            Ricky directed Mitch to the far end of the lot, where a rusty double-wide stood among broken lawn furniture, a battered Weber kettle grill and an old Chevy Malibu on cinderblocks, surrounded by a scatter of parts and tools.
            “Home sweet home,” the kid said. “Carl’s been working on that car since before he bought it.”
            Mitch laughed. “Quite a trick.”
            “Come on, let’s get this over with. Meet the family.”
            Mitch parked at the far side of the dirt clearing. “It’s like two in the afternoon. Aren’t they working?”
            “Yeah, right.”
            They climbed out of the car into the hot, dead-still afternoon. Someone had started a barbecue fire, and the sweet toxic smell of charcoal took Mitch back to the lazy beach cookouts of his own childhood. They approached the trailer, walking the packed dirt side by side, but Mitch went up the two steps first.
            The trailer door was flimsy, and Mitch pulled it too hard. It slapped into the chipped aluminum side of the “mobile” home – an odd term, since the giant vehicle looked half sunk in the ground and unlikely to ever move again.
            Immediately he heard the sounds of a soap opera, a “daytime drama” as his mother had insisted on calling them – the lulling rhythm of exposition and first names, the odd pauses and ominous inflections. Someone’s secret twin brother was on trial for murder, no doubt. And the lawyer was having an affair with the other twin’s wife. Mitch had always been amazed at the number of murders they could stuff into in one little soap opera town. The whole population must be on continuous jury duty. Nothing had really changed since his childhood. It seemed so quaintly antique. Somehow, in the world of streaming video and on-demand everything, soap operas had survived. What could you say? People needed stories.
Ricky’s mom wore a dirty flannel robe and bunny slippers. Carl, in food-stained “Wife beater” t-shirt, because, of course, what else?, sat at the narrow kitchen counter farther on, with a bottle of peppermint schnapps, scrolling down the internet on his cell phone. The place smelled of old socks, rancid bacon and cigarettes. A full ash-tray overflowed onto the little table where Mom had set up the TV – an absurdly perfect cliché still-life.
Ricky eased around him and inside. Carl looked up from his news feed with undisguised annoyance and contempt. “Fuck are you doing here?”
Mom picked up the remote and lowered the volume on her show. “Aren’t you supposed to be summer school?”
“I dropped out of summer school and ran away from here. Aren’t you supposed to notice shit like that?”
“Don’t talk to your mother that way.”
“Right, Carl. That’s your job.”
Mom seemed to wake up. “Who’s that man?”
“My new social worker. From CPS. He’s investigating my home environment. Making sure my Mom gets dressed before noon and my step dad doesn’t call in sick for day-drinking.” He glanced over at Mitch with a theatrical presentation of alarm, eyes wide. “Ooops.”
Carl pushed his chair back and stood. Mitch calculated the man’s physical threat level – six foot one, 230, most of it fat. Probably a high school linebacker once upon a time. Soft hands, clumsy movements, reflexes fuzzed by anger and booze. Not armed; not a problem. Carl stumbled around the table. “I’m gonna kick your ass, you fucking punk.”
“In front of the social worker?”
“I’ll kick his ass too, how about that?”
Mitch said, “No.”
Everything happened fast after that.
Twenty two

Carl lunged at Ricky. Mitch deflected the big man and sent him crashing into the wall of the trailer. The place rocked as Mom launched herself at Mitch, screaming “Don’t you touch him!” He caught her wrists, and Carl jumped him from behind. Ricky grabbed the half-full bottle of schnapps off the table and clubbed Carl with it, the crack like a homerun hit with a metal bat. Carl dropped to his knees and then to his hands and knees. Ricky was hauling back for another blow. Mitch pushed Mom back into her chair and took the kid’s bottle away, mid-swing.
Mom screamed, Carl slurred something like “Tearing ya fucking head off piss down ya throat.”
Mitch pushed Carl flat onto the floor with his foot and pressed a restraining palm to Ricky’s chest. “That’s enough. No one’s killing anyone today.”
The kid was in shock, near tears. He must have felt that blow all the way to his shoulder. His mother was crying in front of him. The soap opera droned softly in the background. The reek of spilled Jägermeister stained the air.
The kid stared at Mitch. “See?”
“Yeah, kid.” He turned to the door. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Mom got to her feet. “Don’t you dare take my son away from me! I’llthe cops on you!”
“No you won’t.”
Mitch helped the kid down the two stairs to the dirt, walked him back to the Jeep and helped him in to the passenger side. He climbed in himself, keyed the ignition and drove out of the trailer park slowly. They were half way back to route 80 before they spoke again.
“Sorry,” Ricky said. “I’m really sorry. That sucked so hard. I didn’t think – I mean, I knew what they -- but – it …”
“I saw what I needed to. Don’t worry about it, kid. I’ve seen worse.”
They were headed east on 80 when the kid said “Now what?”
“Now I take you to Uncle Bob.” He rocked on the seat to pull out his cell phone, and handed it over. “No more surprises, though. Call him first. Before your mother does.”
“Yeah, right, sure. Okay. Good idea. Thanks.”
He held the phone for a second, then seemed to gather his will. He touched the numbers and waited while it rang on the other end.
“Hey Bob, it’s Ricky. Good, I’m doing good. No – it’s … that’s what I’m calling about. Well, I came back. No, no. No. I split again. They – look, Bob, it never changes, they – I’ve tried. And anyway, since when are you – That is such bullshit! She’s your sister! You were the one who – okay. Right, yeah. I get that, but, how am I – that’s the point. That’s what I’m trying to tell you! You said give it a chance and I did. I gave it a million chances! You said I could live with you if – what? How do you – there’s no point if I -- Mom says – I know that! That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I’m sixteen now and I get to choose who I live with. And I choose you.  It doesn’t matter. You’re sill family. . Wait, what? How do you mean? Hold on … I don’t – you’re like fifty years old! How can you even – I know you are. I know that. But --- so … what’s the NROTC? Okay … and you got your papers? When did this happen? Wow. Jesus, Bob. I know you missed the Navy, but I mean … Well, sure, I guess. That makes sense. I mean, if – No, that’s great. That’s really great. When do you leave? Oh, so … yeah. Okay. Well … send me a postcard or something. Yeah … love you too. Bye.”
They drove in silence for a few miles.
Finally Mitch said, “Sounds like your Uncle Bob just signed up with the Merchant Marine.”

Twenty Three

Ricky studied the seat between his legs. “He’s a steam engineer. He was a bilge rat and an A-ganger in the Navy, that’s all he ever talks about. The Pacific fleet! Anyway, he was mustered out in the big drawdowns after 9/11 and he always said he was going into the Merchant Marine. I thought it was bullshit but I guess he really did it. He ships out tomorrow morning.”
“Shitty timing.”
“You won’t even get to see him before he goes.”
The kid said nothing and Mitch saw he was crying. He had his eyes jammed shut, trying not to make a sound. The sobs came out like hiccups.
“Ricky --”
“I’m not going back there. I can’t go back there. You can’t make me.”
“I wouldn’t try.”
“They’ll put me into the system. I’ll wind up in some group home, they’re like prisons, Mitch. Or some creepy foster family. I’ve read all about these foster families. It’s so fucked up.  Kids are just a business to them. And that’s the good ones. Tons of them are in jail for child abuse. I’m serious.”
Mitch said nothing. He got off the highway at Lewisburg and slowed down drove through the Amish country. They passed old farms and old farmers with horse and buggy teams. He pulled in at a lake just off the road and turned off the engine. The big elm trees shaded the parking area and the masses of leaves shifted in the wind. They were just starting to turn. Far out on the lake, a pair of motor boats skimmed the water. It looked like they were racing.
Mitch and the boy sat quietly in the car. They listened to the faint growl of the outboard motors, a dog barking from somewhere behind them, raucous birds in the trees.  Somewhere out of sight some kids were playing and the high-pitched screams set Mitch’s nerves on edge. He steadied himself. The kids were fine. They were having fun.
“What are we doing here?” Ricky asked finally. “Why did we stop?”
“We need to talk.”
“Oh boy. That’s never good.”
“No, no, I didn’t mean to …Sorry. That came out wrong. I’m kind of new at this.”
“Talking to kids?”
“Among other things.”
Ricky swiveled on the seat to face him. “So what’s up?”
“I have proposal for you.”
Mitch had made his decision but it didn’t feel that way. It was more like something he had known from the moment he stood up for the boy in the restaurant, or before that, when he saw the boy hitching, or even before that, before he knew the boy existed. It was like joining the Marines, when he wasn’t much older than Ricky was now. He’d been a jarhead before he knew the word, a grunt in boot camp before he ever left home, a soldier chasing a war.
“What?” Ricky said. “What proposal?”
Mitch turned. “Stay with me.”
“My sister just got divorced, mostly because her husband didn’t want to have kids. I’m the only family she has left. We own a big house on a little pond with plenty of room. Come to Nantucket and stay with us.”
“So you’d like … adopt me?”
“Something like that. Susie knows all the rules. She did the research when she found out she couldn’t have kids of her own. It’s called ‘Guardianship’, which is good. I like the sound of that.”
The kid smiled. “Of course you do.”
Mitch smiled back. “You’re getting to know me.”
They sat, watching the boats.
“Are you serious?”
“As a negative biopsy report. Which is a good thing, FYI.”
They stared at each other. In the distance, the boats cut out their engines, settling in to drift. Even the birds seemed to quiet down.
“What if your – what if Susie doesn’t want me?”
“She’ll want you.”
“What if she doesn’t like me?”
“She’ll love you.”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t take it personally, kid. It’s just who she is. She can’t help herself. It’s her nature.”
“Loving random strangers?”
“Taking in strays. Stray humans especially.”
“Well, that’s me.”
“So is it a deal?”
The kid squinted at him. “It’s a crazy deal. What do you get out of it?
“That’s what we’re going to find out. You in?”
The kid nodded. Mitch stuck out his hand and the kid shook it. “I’m not calling you Dad.”
“That’s a relief.”
“I like it when you call me kid, though.”
 “Okay, buckle up. We’re back on the road.”

Twenty Four
They were just south of Scranton on route 80 when the kid said, “That stuff you did at Locust Grove – that fighting stuff. Can you teach me that?”
Mitch shifted lanes to pass a truck. “Sure I can. You’d be a good student. No, seriously, you did okay back there, yourself. Good reflexes, good instincts, taking advantage of the circumstances. My old boss used to call it SOS – sense of the situation. You’ve got that, which is lucky for you, because there’s no way to teach it.”
The kid grinned. “Oh. The schnapps bottle.”
“That was quick thinking.”
“And you had zero hesitation, that’s the main thing. That’s huge. It was like a pick six. For me, that’s the most exciting play in football, because you can never prepare for it. The ball just bounced off the tight end’s helmet A great player physically re-sets in an instant, grabs it, sees an opening and breaks for the end zone. Touchdown.”
“Like James Harrison in the Superbowl.”
“I was thinking more of Jamie Collins in the playoffs.”
The kid snorted. “Patriots fan.”
“You’re heading for Patriots country kid. Watch out.”
The cruised for a while, comfortably back in the middle lane, then the kid said. “I took Carl down with a bottle of Jagermeister. That’s some kind of serious Karma happening there, Chief.”
“Instant karma – drive-thru Karma.”
The kid laughed. “Drive-by Karma.”
“Whoa. Take it down a notch. The worst that happens to Carl is a mild concussion, maybe some headaches.”
“I nailed him good, though.”
“You did. He was about to blindside me and you saved my ass. So thanks for that.”
“Any time.”
Mitch decided he wanted to relax and spend some money, so they stayed that night at the Blake Hotel in New Haven, in a big airy room with two queen sized beds. It was a handsome old building near the Yale campus and they strolled the city, enjoyed a couple of classic cheeseburgers on toast at Louis’ Lunch, wandered around the University eavesdropping on conversations and wound up at the Yale art gallery to check out the Picassos, Mondrians and Rothkos. The kid had never seen any of it, and knew nothing about twentieth century painters, or any painters. He seemed most impressed by the fact that gallery was free, though there was a Frederick Remington bronze that caught his eye, and he was briefly captivated by a Winslow Homer watercolor of a deer drinking from a stream.
The kid might not know much, but he had good taste.
That night, after dinner at Hamilton Park (celery root and leek soup followed by grilled trout for Mitch, a double order of shrimp cocktail and a crab melt for the kid, finished off with a slab of the five-layer chocolate cake with whipped cream), they went up to their huge room, showered, watched the most recent James Bond movie on the flat screen TV, and then crawled into the gratuitously, gloriously comfortable beds and slept like a pair of sled dogs.
Sometime before dawn, Mitch heard Ricky get up. At first he thought the kid had to go to the bathroom, but it soon became clear that he was on a mission. He rummaged through Mitch’s old Marine duffel bag and backpack, removed some files and Mitch’s pocket flashlight. When he took the luggage into the bathroom, he brought Mitch’s wallet also.
            Mitch smiled into his pillow and rolled over. Smart kid.
            Tomorrow was going to be interesting.