The phone started ringing a few minutes after two o'clock in the morning. Jack Harper immediately woke up but just stared at the landline phone silently cursing the old girlfriend whose suggestion it had been to add a 24/7 emergency contact number on both his website and yellow page listing. She had been a blond television reporter working at one of the local Denver stations. Despite being an excellent television journalist most of her colleagues at the station thought her ability to draw viewers came from her piercing green eyes and superbly athletic body. This conspiracy of small-minded and jealous people lead to her being assigned light, human interest stories that did nothing for her career. Jack never admitted to anyone, including himself, but their relationship for him had long moved beyond her obvious physical qualities and talents between the sheets.
It still hurt that they had parted ways after she received a lucrative job offer at a television station down in sunny Miami. She left Jack and cold and snowy Denver behind so fast it caused the windchill factor to drop an extra ten degrees that winter morning.
For the two years after she had driven off to pursue her career while enjoying colorful drinks and tropical breezes the only phone calls Jack got were from cranks trying to be funny and more than a few drunks who for some reason thought the number was for a taxi service. Several times Jack thought about having the line removed but only while busy doing other things, and of course during those idle moments the task completely escaped his mind.
After ten rings the answering machine picked up and played the message Jack had recorded telling the caller to leave their name and number and that he would get back to them shortly. Jack continued to look at the compact device sitting on his nightstand with a combination of indifference and slight irritation waiting for the caller to say something. Even though the line remained open allowing him to hear background noises that suggested a major highway was nearby the caller said nothing. Just before Jack was about to hit the button that would sever the connection the caller spoke.
“Hello...Mr. Harper you don't know me but my name is Carol Briggs and I found your number in the phone book and I desperately need your help.” After years of being a private investigator Jack could tell this Carol was scared and probably alone. After making the first statement she fell silent again creating an eerie state of tension with Jack unconsciously moving closer to the phone. Something inside Jack's mind loudly whispered to him that this woman was indeed in great danger.
“My family,” she began again, “went missing eight days ago and now I know someone is after me. For reasons I can't explain over the phone I don't trust the police so I ran but I need help. Please pick up, I know my life is in danger.”
Without really thinking about it, Jack snatched the remote phone off the main answering machine portion of the device. “Yeah, this is Jack Harper. Where are you now?” He asked while creating a mental checklist of things to bring to meet this woman.
“Thank God,” Carol Briggs said breathlessly. “I'm at an abandoned gas station off Interstate 25 near Heritage Hills.” She then went on to tell Jack the number of the exit she took to leave the interstate.
“Yes, and I've parked my car behind the station.”
“Great, I'm on the way but it will take me close to an hour to get to your location. Now this is going to sound crazy and I know it's cold but I want you to find another place to hide nearby. I'll be driving a blue Mustang and I'll blink my lights after I pull into the parking area. Don't expose yourself until I get out of the car.”
To Carol, the truck stop diner Jack brought her to was like something from the family vacations she and her siblings suffered through as children. Instead of her family going to such places like Disney World or other huge theme parks her father and mother took their three children on long road trips exploring every cheesy roadside attraction and state park they encountered. Likewise, they would invariably stop at seedy little diners to eat while mom and dad sat together plotting some new course towards another bizarre but boring destination. Carol could still feel the childhood resentment at being hauled around hundreds of back roads, but now as an adult she actually missed those times.
Several minutes passed before the waitress showed up to serve some much needed coffee and to take their order. For whatever reason the waitress seemed intent in engaging Carol in small talk despite the fact it should have been clear to a blind person that she clearly didn't want to be bothered with idle conversation. This allowed Jack a moment to ponder the differences between the two women.
The waitress looked like a true long-time food service warrior. Jack figured she was in her mid-forties and given the ease she poured his coffee without spilling a drop while listening to Carol give her food order she had probably worked here for at least a decade. A wide but lackluster smile totally devoid of feeling along with tired and haunted eyes all but confirmed her life had been a long, weary struggle.
On the other hand, Carol Briggs basic appearance, if you discounted the recent turn of events, screamed mindless but ultimately an unremarkable and mundane suburban life. She was in her mid to late thirties and had the soft hands and nails of someone who used various household rubber gloves for working in a flower garden to washing dishes. While the waitress had the look of someone used to long struggles Carol's eyes couldn't contain the look of utter and unbelievable shock at the recent events that had befallen her. Carol's clothes also spoke volumes about her lifestyle. They could have come from any number of slightly upper end department stores nominally catering to white suburban dwellers who wanted to look unique but yet not exceed neighborhood standards of decorum. When you added everything up Carol was one of those decent, pleasant but not highly educated individuals whose exposure to strange and tragic events came strictly from a television drama.
“Now, tell me why I left my warm bed in the middle of the night and raced down a good portion of Colorado and why you drove all the way from Colorado Springs to call me” Jack said smiling as he grabbed the mug of coffee the waitress had just filled.
Carol took a sip of her own coffee savoring its almost Herculean strength letting its warmth invade her body. “Like I said in the car, I was scared. Eight days ago I left the hospital where I work and return home to find my family missing.”
“You said the house was in perfect order?” Jack asked purposely interrupting her train of thought.
“Yes, at first I just thought that Michael, my husband, must have cleaned up but it was early evening and he and my son would have, should have actually, been long home. When I couldn't reach Michael on his cell, I phoned his work to see if he was on a service call and decided to take our son, Paul, with him. He's a copier technician and occasionally has to go repair some client's equipment after normal business hours. They're usually pretty routine, so once and awhile he'll take Paul for a little father and son outing.”
“And your husband's employer told you he wasn't on a service call.” Jack said repeating the rushed story she had told him as they sped south on Interstate 25.
“Yes, so I called several friends and neighbors searching for them. No one had seen them since Michael left to take Paul to school that morning. By this time I was getting scared, so I called the police but they immediately told me there was nothing they could do until the next day.”
“Now tell me again what made you think you were in danger and that the police couldn't be trusted?”
“The next morning two police detectives show up at my door asking questions about my husband. They were in plain clothes but presented badges and official looking identification so I let them in figuring someone decided to look into his and my son's disappearance early. They asked simple questions about whether my husband might have been having an affair, suffered from mental health issues, or had an enemy who might want to hurt him or our son. A few of the questions irritated me but none of them seemed out of bounds. Things became weird when the one who called himself Barnes received a phone call on his cell. The call was brief but something was said that caused Barnes to tell his partner, Wilson, they had to leave immediately. They didn't ask for my husband or son's picture nor did they leave me a business card, say when they would return, or even give me a phone number so I could call them. As I am opening the front door to let them out Wilson asks his partner if they should go ahead and take me.”
“Take you?” Jack repeats looking at Carol. “Could they have meant to the police station?”
Carol takes a deep breath staring down into her coffee. “I don't think so,” she says, “there was a strange look on this Wilson's face that scared me. More to the point, Barnes was beginning to nod his head yes and was reaching for something under his sports coat when several of my neighbors walk up on my front steps. They were there to see if I needed anything and probably to learn something about Michael and Paul. This Barnes and Wilson then run out the house covering their face with their hands and get in their car and drive away.”
As he listened to her story, Jack begins to feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. “You told me in the car that you then called the cops and reported the incident with them telling you that they hadn't sent anyone to your house?”
“Yes, they said since twenty-four hours hadn't really passed yet they weren't going to send anyone till that evening. By this time I am beyond terrified, so I ask a few of my neighbors to stay with me. After that, three further events begin to suggest that I have fallen into a surreal nightmare. The first being the arrival of Mrs. Carter to my house, she's an old widow woman who lives at the end of my street. The neighborhood grapevine being what it is, she had heard what was going on and came down to tell me she saw Michael talking with a man the day before in the parking lot of the shopping mall close to our house. She then told me this unknown man showed Michael something that flashed and seemed to stun him for a moment. Michael apparently quickly recovered because about a minute of so later Mrs. Carter said my husband and son were willingly leaving with the man in his car. Just seconds after that she sees Michael's car leaving the parking lot but not the person driving it. Mrs. Carter admitted the encounter looked strange but it all happened so fast and no one seemed in distress she didn't think anything of it until she heard neither had returned home.”
“Tell me about the second thing that pushed you over the edge to call me.” Jack said finding himself actually perplexed.
“When the police finally arrive at my house to gather information on Michael and Paul they show up in force. I am interviewed for several hours and asked hundreds of questions with a team combing through my house as if they were searching for drugs. During all this one of the police technicians hooked the digital answering machine up to a laptop and started retrieving deleted messages. One of them was a person who didn't give a name but wanted to meet Michael and me in the shopping mall parking lot the next morning and that we had to bring Paul. Just as soon as the person stopped talking a high pitched noise started blaring from the answering machine speaker that sounded like cats being tortured. It was so bad it gave everyone nearby a headache.”
“And you said this message was addressed to Michael and you?”
“Yes, but there was staffing issues at the hospital and I had to go in early. The answering machine time stamp had the message being recorded thirty minutes after I left the house.”
Jack didn't know what to make of the answering machine but the third item Carol mentioned in the car was the one that worried him. “Tell me about the man who showed up at the hospital.”
“I had walked down to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast when my cell phone rings. It one of my friends on the floor I was working, she said a strange man had just left the nurse's station asking for me. She described him as this amazingly good looking but a hulking and intimidating figure. When asked his name I was told he said Joaquin Weiss. I go back up to meet him and while he is pleasant and friendly claiming to be a long lost friend of my husband's he gave me the creeps. There were a lot of people on the floor then and I could tell it bothered him. He soon left and I largely forgot about the event, a nurse is always busy at work, but I saw him again a couple of days after Michael and Paul disappeared. I was at the grocery store and I caught him staring at me. I dropped everything and ran to my car. When I pulled out into the street I had to stop momentarily because of traffic, it was then I glanced over and saw this figure come running out of one of the grocery store side doors. This person was sprinting towards my car inhumanly fast.”
Carol stops for a moment as the memory of events begin to overwhelm her. “ I didn't know what to do, the police didn't seem trustworthy and this strange man seemed like something from a bad spy movie. So I drove until I believed myself far enough away to be safe for a couple of minutes. It was then I looked for a pay phone. I began searching through the phone book when I stumbled across your listing. Something compelled me to call even though the advertisement seemed cheesy.”
“Describe this Joaquin Weiss to me,” Jack said suddenly and looking agitated.
“He looked a little younger than me and was at least six-foot, four inches, with a muscular body, the type an Olympic athlete might have after years of training. He wore his brown hair like someone in the military, short but with style. The face was chiseled and intense, like an evil Brad Pitt.”
Because of the nearby and constantly busy interstate the diner was crowded despite the ungodly early morning hour so Jack didn't want to pull out his pistol. Luckily, Carol's back was facing her stalker so this Joaquin Weiss didn't immediately notice her as he scanned everyone in the dining area. This allowed Jack to tell Carol to carefully stand up without exposing her face and then maneuver her towards a rear exit.
“Lean heavily on me like you're tired or sick,” he whispered to Carol. A further piece of luck had the diner's restrooms situated down a short hall that had a ninety-degree turn with two other doors, one an emergency exit and the other leading to a store room with yet another door leading outside. That is where Jack and Carol's luck ran out. Both had door latches with automatic alarms that would sound if a key wasn't used to deactivate them first. And as expected, there was never an employee around when you desperately needed one.
Stymied for a moment not wanting to trigger either alarm, Jack tried to look casually around the corner to find out what Joaquin was doing. Sure enough, he was coming straight towards them with only a couple of waitresses and customers walking around to slow him down. For a second Jack was overwhelmed with the utter certainty that this was a very bad man and that if Carol fell into her hands a immense amount of poop would massively impact a huge fan affecting far more people than seemed believable.
“He's coming towards us, right,” Carol said leaning up again the wall trembling.
“Yeah,” Jack said ignoring the question as to how Joaquin found them in the first place,” but I don't want to go through those doors just yet. He's probably got backup covering every exit. I want to give his people something else to think about for a few seconds.”
Once clear of other people Joaquin's pace picked up and he stepped into the short, straight segment of the hallway. Jack then suddenly turned the corner and fired two rounds into their pursuer's chest then one into his right leg just above the kneecap. A head shot would have been ideal but somehow Jack knew their stalker's reflexes wouldn't have allowed him to raise his weapon up enough to cleanly fire off the round. Jack settled for possibly fatal chest wounds and if that didn't work the slug going through Joaquin's leg would prevent him from running for a good while.
Both doors offering escape for Carol and Jack were the heavily reinforced type made of steel and it was Jack's hope that whoever was working with Joaquin would dash to the front entrance to find out what had happened instead of trying to beat down a huge chunk of metal. After the shots, the diner itself dissolved into a state of chaos with patrons running for the most obvious door. Carol herself was shaking life a leaf ready to bolt with only Jack's firmly holding onto her arm preventing a premature exit.
Glancing down at Joaquin, Jack saw the man-thing writhing in pain on the floor with blood seeping around his wounds. But one thing was clear, it wasn't dying, if anything he was trying to stand up and probably would have if his right knee and upper leg was in anyway capable.
“One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi...now!” Jack yelled, pushing Carol towards the rear stockroom door.
After busting through the door the only thing that greeted them was the cold early morning air and just a hint of light coming from the eastern horizon.
Old habit had Jack park his Mustang in the rear of the diner parking lot, and it served him well allowing the two quick access to the car. Unfortunately a clean getaway wasn't possible, as Jack opened the driver's side door he heard the pounding of footsteps coming towards him. Working only on years of training and instinct he turned, raised his pistol, and fired at the person coming towards them. Jack had time to register the sight of his round going through the skull of a hulking blond, Nordic type throwing him backward. The massive creature fell to the ground and it was immediately clear that at least he would never get up again.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” Carol asked as Jack quickly settled into the driver's seat, started the car, and drove away.
“I'm former FBI, didn't you see that mentioned on my phone book listing?” Jack said while accelerating out of the parking lot and towards the interstate.
“You said your first encounter with Joaquin was on the hospital floor you worked and then at the grocery store you shopped? Jack asked back. “Any chance he tagged you with some sort of tracking device, like dropping something in your pocketbook?”
Carol turned around in the seat and looked back at Jack as if he said the most astonishing thing imaginable. “When I introduced myself I first put my food next my pocketbook.” She went silent after that staring off into the space realizing how she had exposed herself.
Jack could tell she was starting to go into shock. “Hey, stay with me now!” He said reaching over and grabbing her shoulder. “I'm assuming we've skipped the interview part and that you have decided to hire me.”
Carol turned to look at him without saying anything, she was a totally lost soul who understood she had become involved in something she couldn't begin to comprehend. “What are we going to do? I have no money beyond what I have with me, how am I going to pay you?”
Jack just grimaced as he began to slow down the car. “First thing, and you're probably not going to like this, we have to lose the pocketbook and everything in it except you identification and pictures of your family. As for the second question, that Joaquin has seen me, I'm just as involved in whatever this is as you, so money is not an issue now.”
After slowing down, Jack stopped the car on the side of the interstate pleased that for the moment traffic was non existent. Carol willingly handed over the pocketbook except for the items he said she could keep. He quickly left the car and threw the purse off into an empty field and was back in the car and heading south again in less than a minute.
“Where are we going now?” Carol asked more than a little nervous now after realizing that while people were apparently out to capture or kill her, she now was depending on a complete stranger for her safety and to help find the answers as to why this was happening.
“I have a friend of a friend who owns a cabin high in the mountains, it's about as far off the grid it can be and still have power. We'll be safe there for at least a few days. From there we will begin to play forty questions to try and find out why this is going on. Needless to say you'll have to be patient and completely honest with everything I ask you because I will be getting very personal.”
Carol looked over at Jack and nodded, it was the first time she really examined the man who had already done so much for her. He appeared to be in his mid-forties and could best be described as your average American male. Her best guess was that he was a few inches over six-feet with sandy blond hair that was beginning to thin. And while he was obviously fit, it was clear middle-age was slowly encroaching on him. It was slightly disconcerted to Carol that her possible savior didn't readily fit the mold of the standard movie action hero.
“You said you're former FBI, tell me why you left the bureau.” Carol asked not sure she wanted him to answer honestly.
“Nothing really spectacular or scandalous,” Jack said, “my marriage went to hell and not long after that I was reassigned to a department that investigated white collar crime. The only thing more boring and depressing than listening to continuous wiretaps of Wall Street bastards bragging about the super model they're about to bang or the newest yacht they've purchased is how they get away with robbing billions from the government or small-time investors. In that line of work you quickly realize most of those expensively dressed and styled leeches don't view anyone but their own kind as human beings deserving of respect. To them the middle and working classes are at best a resource like iron, timber, or any other commodity to be used then tossed away.”
“So you became a private investigator?” Carol said more to herself than Jack, subconsciously happy that his departure wasn't for some moral failing or corruption. Seconds later Carol leans over towards the passenger side car door resting her head on the window and falls fast asleep.
Jack looked over at Carol and almost decided to wake her back up, but didn't. For the briefest moment he actually considered dropping Carol off at some bus stop leaving to her to her own devices. Whatever was going on here was totally out of his league. His usual cases involved divorces stained in bad blood, running surveillance on possible corrupt business partners, insurance fraud, child custody, and the occasional missing person. He had no idea how to deal with indestructible, human-looking monsters that for some reason wanted to capture a suburban housewife and mother.
While in the FBI, Jack had heard rumors of two agents who specialized in bizarre cases but he never believed the incredible stories. But deep down he knew it was impossible for him to abandon Carol, despite her outwardly placid suburban demeanor there was something about her that didn't make sense. More to the point, surreal and quite dangerous events were going on behind the scenes of normal life and people in power were apparently doing their best to hide it from a distracted and incurious population. If one thing constantly drove Jack, it was mysteries and one of the biggest had landed firmly in his lap.
Despite the bitter cold of the early Colorado morning, Jack Harper sat outside on the porch of the cabin he and Carol Briggs had taken refuge two days before after fleeing the roadside diner and the human-looking monsters that were pursuing them. Next him was a table where two legals pad lay containing all the information about Carol and her family that he had gathered after long drawn out hours of questioning the woman. Just a few inches after that was his pistol, fully loaded, with a round in the chamber and the safety off.
After arriving at the cabin Jack started interviewing Carol about her husband working on the theory that he was hiding something in his past that including human-looking creatures with incredible strength and stamina. But after hours of intense questioning Jack was dealing with the disturbing possibility that Michael Briggs was just the suburban living, copier technician, middle class guy she claimed. This prompted Jack to change tactics and start reviewing Carol's life for anomalies that might suggest she or someone in her family might have a hidden past.
There was one relatively minor inconsistency both Carol and her husband shared, neither had any close family members. Carol did have siblings but had not seen or talked to any of them since their parents had passed away in a car crash about ten years before. Supposedly there was some extreme bad blood concerning the disposition of her parents' estate resulting in Carol and her siblings all taking legal action against the others. As for her husband, Michael spent his childhood being raised by his maternal grandparents who had long since passed away. Neither instance was that out of the ordinary, Jack himself didn't have any close family. But in Carol and Michael's case, he couldn't help but feel it was all a little too convenient as far as past histories were concerned, hence the reason he was now keeping his pistol within easy reach. Carol Briggs continued to have that “deer caught in the headlights” look of someone barely dealing with the both the tragic and surreal aspects of recent events but Jack was now harboring a nagging suspicion about his middle class client.
Jack knew this particular case had long since passed the point were he should have punted it to a person in actual authority, something inside him couldn't quite yet allow him to take that course of action. While Jack had expended everything he could do while hiding in a cabin on the side of a heavily wooded mountain, he had contacts who could do more.
“Hey Jack,” Carol said after cracking open the front door, “you want some breakfast?”
Jack knew Carol was puttering around the small kitchen so he didn't react suddenly. “Yeah that would be great,” he said. Since coming to the cabin Carol had alternated between becoming totally distraught, fearful of what had become of her husband and son to being consumed in any activity she could find. Which usually meant cooking meals or cleaning the cabin.
The cabin itself was exactly as Jack expected, it was less a survivalist hideaway but more than a simple retreat for someone wanting to get away from the city. The actual owner lived in Denver and made his living as an investment banker who fancied himself as a bit of a master playboy. Jack knew the guy used the place mainly for seclusion for both professional and personal reasons. The former being the times he needed to review financial data and the later so he could entertain the latest in a series of married women he liked to seduce. The small sanctuary was isolated on the side of a heavily-wooded mountain and boasted a plentiful supply of canned goods, dried meats, and a private well. Despite the amenities favoring those inclined to leave civilization behind it was still attached to the local electrical grid which allowed the banker to access the internet.
Thirty-minutes later Jack is back inside and sitting on the couch gulping down a plate full of re-hydrated scrambled eggs watching the television. By this time the morning news is on and both Jack and Carol found it quite disturbing. Not for the news items they reported but for the things they barely or didn't mention at all. The restaurant Jack and Carol shot their way out of two days before had long since been forgotten. Given the number of people that were in the building it would have been impossible for the news services not to learn of it, but the official story reported on the news was that it was a gang-related shooting involving a bad drug deal.
The basic report was vague but what details the news agencies did report strongly suggested that someone with influence was doing their best to cover everything up with a huge pile of disinformation. Even more disturbing was that Carol's disappearance, occurring after that of her husband and son had never been mentioned on the television news or newspapers. All this told Jack was that before he could turn Carol over to some authority he would have to find one that could be trusted.
“What are we going to do Jack?” Carol asked from the small kitchen where she was eating her breakfast.
“I've got some feelers out with people who can help us.” Jack said leaving out the part that these feelers was a computer hacker acquaintance that was delving far deeper into Carol and her husband's past than he could personally hope to accomplish. Jack watched Carol's carefully crafted brave face quickly begin to crumble to the point she excused herself and retreated to the cabin's small bedroom. Jack thought to himself that if she was willfully hiding something linking her to the creatures her despair was the best acting job he had ever seen.
With Carol in the bedroom Jack took a few moments to clean everything up and think. The thing that scared him most of all was the memory of the security cameras looking over the parking lot of the restaurant they had to flee. Any decent investigator could do much to find their quarry with that little bit of information. The fact that Jack and Carol were dealing with some sort of super-human only meant they would have to move that much sooner.
This raised the question as to what he would do if in fact Carol was somehow connected to the creatures that were certainly looking for him now just as much as his client. The creature going by the name Joaquin Weiss, he had shot twice in the stomach and once in the knee, didn't seem the type that would easily bury the hatchet. After Jack shot Joaquin and watched it fall to the floor of the restaurant it looked at him with a hate that was all consuming. It was only the severity of the bullet wounds that prevented Joaquin from standing up and killing Jack right there.
As Jack put the last dish away he heard a beeping noise coming from one of the pockets of leather jacket. He immediately knew it was his the special encrypted satellite cell phone he used for calls he wanted to make sure were heard only between him and the caller, in this case the computer hacker looking into Carol's family. He moved swiftly and quietly snatching up the jacket and going outside before answering the call.
“Yeah this is Jack Harper,” he said, “what have you got for me Roy?”
Roy Hernandez was a thirty-something computer geek who desperately wanted to go back in time and live like the hippies of the 1960's. The few times Jack had actually been face to face with Roy it was clear that while the man was certainly a computer genius he was also dealing with several severely loose screws in his head. Besides his long hair and unkempt beard the guy wore only raggedy tie-dye t-shirts and cut off blue jeans. Adding to the persona was the overwhelming smell of marijuana that hung over him like a cloud. These traits all added up to a guy who while possessing a master's degree from MIT was extremely paranoid of all authority figures. Roy's appearance, demeanor, and opinions about authority figures seemed so over the top that Jack actually considered the possibility that it was all an act meant to make him easy to disappear into the background static of the rest of humanity if the need to arose.
“Jack,” Roy said, “I'm not sure what you've gotten yourself into this time but this woman Carol Briggs is probably very bad news. I snooped around the usual sites like birth records, educational history, the IRS, and even the Colorado DMV and it all looked normal for both her and her husband. But then on a whim I backtracked and looked at the code surrounding those records. Jack up until eight years ago this Carol Briggs you're involved with nor her husband existed.”
“Wait a minute Roy,” Jack said wanting him to confirm what he thought Roy had just stated. “Tell me that again slowly so I fully understand.”
Roy signed heavily, “Jack old buddy, the records I found are fully authorized by the various agencies and they go back to the birth dates you gave me. But someone inserted them into the databases just over eight years ago, what I'm saying is prior to that Carol and Michael Briggs must have dropped out of the sky.”
“Are we talking witness relocation and new identities created by some federal agency?” Jack asked.
Roy stopped briefly to catch his breath. “Jack I'm not only skipping town, I'll being changing my own identity so don't try and contact me again. I'd advice you to disappear as well, this whole situation sticks like shit with a bad case of gangrene.” Immediately after that the line was cut leaving Jack's worst fears confirmed.
“Just what in the hell have I gotten myself involved with,” Jack said out loud to no one but the trees. For the first time since receiving the early morning phone call from Carol, he was now feeling all the possible available courses of action had been narrowed down to none. Jack had long since conceded to himself that one of his worst flaws was an innate stubbornness that bordered on the extreme. It was this flaw that had ultimately created a massive chasm between him and his former boss in the FBI who had become close to a father figure for him.