FBI Special Agent Jackson Crowne is flying his Cessna over the Appalachians with a very important passenger – Dr. Timothy MacLean, renowned psychiatrist, their destination Washington, D.C. Upon their arrival, the FBI will protect the doctor – and find out just who wants him dead.
But Agent Crowne doesn’t make it.
In Washington, D.C., FBI special agents Savich and Sherlock are eating breakfast with their son Sean when Savich’s boss, Jimmy Maitland, calls with the news that Jack radioed in a mayday in the mountains near Parlow, Kentucky. He helicopters Savich and Sherlock there to see what’s happened.
Jack Crowne is not only a very good pilot, he’s also lucky. He manages to bring his plane down in a narrow sliver of a valley and haul the unconscious Dr. MacLean from the burning wreckage before it explodes. Their crash is witnessed by Rachael Abbott, a young woman on the run from really bad trouble.
When Savich and Sherlock arrive, they find Jack and Rachael in the Parlow clinic and Dr. MacLean comatose in the Franklin County Hospital, prognosis unknown. But what is known about Dr. MacLean is that he has an incurable disease called Frontal Lobe Dementia that causes the victim to act and/or speak without censoring, e.g., ‘did you know your wife is sleeping with your boss?’ As the disease progresses it causes the victim to become even less restrained, all without realizing his words can cause great harm, or fear at what he could reveal. As the psychiatrist with an impressive patient list of Washington movers and shakers, this could present a huge problem. There have already been three attempts on Dr. MacLean’s life. One of his patients is very afraid that what the doctor knows wil become common knowledge. It is up to Jack, Savich and Sherlock to find out who is behind the murder attempts, and keep Timothy alive.
And Rachael’s secrets? It all revolves around her father Senator John James Abbott of Maryland, a man she knew only a few weeks before he was killed in what was ruled an accidental death. But Rachael knows it wasn’t.
She thought she swallowed because her throat burned hot, as if splashed with sharp acid, but she wasn’t sure because she couldn’t think clearly. Her mind felt dark, as heavy and thick as chains, and she knew the darkness was deep as well, and knew to her soul there was violence just beyond it. She smelled something rancid, oil with a layer of rot and decay. What was that smell? What did it mean? Her brain wasn’t clear enough yet to figure it out. But she knew she had to, had to fight it or—what? I’ll die, that’s what. I’ve got to get myself together, I’ve got to wake up, or I’ll die.
The smell grew stronger, and she wanted to vomit. She knew she had to be awake or she’d choke to death. She had to move, to wake up.
She swallowed again, nearly heaved when the acid in her throat mixed with that rancid smell. She tried to breathe lightly, concentrated all her energy on opening her eyes, on feeling her body, on tearing herself out of the black shroud where she was unable to move or speak. Her head felt heavy, her throat burned, and her mind—where was her mind? There, gnawing at the edges of he rbrain, were sharp bits of pain and fear, sweeping away confusion, coming closer, breaking through the numbness.
She heard voices. Mr. Cullifer’s voice? She didn’t think so; his voice was very distinctive, like wet gravel underfoot. But she couldn’t make out who they were or what they were saying, if they were male or female. But she knew that what the voices were saying was bad. For her.
The smell was so strong it burned her eyes and her nose. Suck it in, suck it in, get yourself together. She breathed deeply, ignored the nausea, and at last she felt her brain jitter, felt edges of consciousness spear up, tear through the black.
It was dead fish she smelled, overwhelming now, and the smell of boats, of diesel fumes overlaying wet.
They were picking her up—who were they?—carrying her, her feet, her arms, and she breathed in the fetid odor. Keep breathing, keep breathing. She heard wooden planks creak, heard night sounds—crickets, an owl, the lapping of water.
Her eyes flew open when she went airborne. She hit the water hard on her back. The slap of pain snapped her back into her brain and her body. Instinct made her draw in a big breath before the water splashed over her face, closed over her head, before she was slowly dragged to the bottom. Move, move. But she couldn’t. Though her hands weren’t tied, a rope was wrapped around her chest to hold her arms at her sides. Her feet were tied and tethered to something heavy—a block of cement, she knew instinctively. Too many Mafia movies. They didn’t just want her to drown, they wanted her to disappear forever, like she’d never existed, never come into their lives.
She didn’t want to die. I’m not going to die.
She was tied to the cement with the same thick rope that bound her ankles tightly together. She could do this, she could. She quickly shimmied away the rope around her chest, then her fingers went to work. They were clumsy, but it didn’t matter, she didn’t want to die, and she worked frantically. Surprisingly, she could see in the water, knew it wasn’t all that deep because she sensed the moonlight above and it was enough. She dug her fingernails under the knot and patiently, so patiently, worked it loose. Her chest began to burn. She ignored it, concentrated on the knots.
Because she’d been the captain of her swim team in college, because she knew how to control her breathing to maximum effect, she knew her time was running out. The drug she’d ingested hadn’t helped. She knew she couldn’t last much longer. It was so hard to keep her mouth shut, to keep from breathing. Her eyes were blurring, the water shimmering, the pressure in her chest building and building until it nearly burst her open.
I’m not going to drown, I’m not going to drown. The knot came loose. She kicked off the cement block and shot to the surface. When her head cleared, she wanted to haul in a huge gulp of air, but forced herself to take short, quiet breaths through her nose. She had to hold very still, trying not to ripple the water for fear they were still there, staring down where they’d thrown her in, watching for bubbles, waiting, waiting until they knew she couldn’t still be alive. They’d wait, oh yes, they’d wait to make sure they’d erased her.
Her brain was in full gear again. She heard the light lapping of water against the pilings of a wooden pier. They’d walked out onto the pier and thrown her out into the water, believing it deep enough. She eased back under the water and swam under the pier to hide behind the pilings.
She surfaced very slowly, very quietly, wanting to suck in so much air she’d never run out again, but she only let her face clear the surface. She forced herself to take calm, light breaths. She was alive. Slowly, her breaths became deeper and deeper. She filled her lungs. It felt wonderful.
She heard voices again, but couldn’t understand any words because they were moving away now. Men? Women? She couldn’t tell, she only knew there were two of them. She heard feet clomping on the wooden pier, heard a car engine, heard the car drive away. She swam out from under the pier and saw the taillights of a car in the distance.
Good. They thought they’d killed her.
How had they drugged her? For a moment she couldn’t think, couldn’t remember, couldn’t picture what she’d eaten or drunk earlier. She’d eaten dinner by herself, in the kitchen. The wine, she thought, the bottle of red on the table that she’d opened. Where had it come from? She didn’t know, hadn’t paid any attention.
She smiled. What none of them had realized was that she’d drunk only a bit of the wine. Any more and she’d be lying dead at the bottom of this lake. No one would know where she was. She’d just be gone. Forever.
She pulled herself out of the water, shivered as she slapped her hands against her arms and looked around. There were no houses, no lakeside cottages with narrow docks and tethered boats, only a two-lane road winding off into the distant darkness. She shuddered with cold and shock, but it didn’t matter. She was alive.
She came upon a sign: Black Rock Lake. Where was Black Rock Lake?
It didn’t matter. She had two legs that worked fairly well. She began to walk in the same direction as the car.
It seemed like forever, but maybe it was only fifteen minutes when she saw the lights of a small town—Oranack, Maryland, according to the small black-and-white sign.
It was late. She didn’t know exactly how late because her watch had died in the water. She walked through the deserted town, her eyes on a neon sign that beamed out in bright orange—Mel’s Diner—all glass so you could see back to the swinging door to the kitchen.
Two people sat in a booth next to the glass, a limp waitress standing beside them, a pen poised over her pad. She saw a taxi sitting outside the diner, saw the cabbie at the counter drinking coffee, and she smiled.
When the cab pulled into Jimmy’s driveway, she asked the driver to wait and prayed they hadn’t taken her purse. The alarm wasn’t set, thank God, and the window to her bedroom was still cracked open. She found her purse downstairs on the kitchen counter, where she’d left it earlier that night. Was it really only three, four hours ago? It seemed a lifetime.
Thirty minutes later, she took one final look at Jimmy’s big red-brick Georgian house, built in the thirties, the centerpiece of this well-tended neighborhood, nestled among huge oak trees on Pinchon Lane. She’d never had the chance to think of him as her father, to call him Father; she wondered now if he would remain Jimmy forever.
She’d had only six weeks with him.
She drove her white Charger through the quiet streets until she reached the Beltway. She knew where she was going and also knew she’d be crazy to try to drive through the night, because she was so exhausted she was shaking. But she had no choice. She ate two candy bars, felt a brief spurt of energy. She had to think, had to plan. She had to hide. She forced herself to drive through the night, surviving on hot coffee and a half dozen more candy bars and, at eight A.M., stopped at the Cozy Boy Motel off the highway in Richmond.
She awoke fourteen hours later, groggy at first, every muscle in her body protesting, but her strength was surging back. Fear, she thought, an excellent energizer.
She wasn’t about to go to her mother’s house. She wasn’t even going to call her. No way would she put them in that kind of danger. She realized with a sort of depressed relief that she had no close friends to call, to tell them not to worry about her. She hadn’t kept up with friends she’d made in Richmond. As far as she could think, there was no one to even wonder where she was. Mrs. Riffin, Jimmy’s longtime housekeeper, was even gone now, having retired the week after Jimmy’s death. No one, she thought, no one to worry, to wonder. Jimmy’s lawyer might wonder in a sort of intellectual way where she was, but she doubted he’d press it. As for Jimmy’s siblings, if they believed she was tied to a concrete block at the bottom of a lake, they certainly wouldn’t say anything.
Could Quincy and Laurel have been involved? Jimmy’s brother and sister—unbelievably, her uncle and aunt—hated her, wanted her gone—but murder? Yes, she thought, they were capable of anything. Maybe there were others who didn’t want her around, but murder? She always came back to Quincy and Laurel.
She meandered along back roads in Virginia until she ended up the following morning at a small motel in Waynesboro. She knew where she was going, but then what? She watched local TV news, listened to the radio, and thought. She heard a retrospective of Jimmy’s political life on PBS. Even though he hadn’t been a liberal, they’d been mostly positive in their assessment of him. They probably hadn’t meant to, but Jimmy came across as a larger-than-life figure, charismatic, dedicated to public service. If only they knew, she thought, Jimmy had been so much more. And there was the other thing. No, she wouldn’t think about that right now. She couldn’t. It would wait.
She listened to the vice president speak of Jimmy’s ex-wife, his two daughters, but nothing about her, nothing about his other daughter, the one he hadn’t known existed until six weeks before he died.
She leaned down to rub her ankles where the rope had been bound so tightly, and for an instant, she couldn’t breathe. She smacked he palm against the steering wheel, got herself together. She looked out over the dark Virginia fields, the line of trees, unmoving black sentinels in the night, and thought, If you two maniacs tried to kill me, then I hope you’re happy, I hope you’re making toasts to each other on my removal, the one person who can make your lives very unpleasant. Yes, drink up.
Until she was ready to take them down.