Most people return from a stressful business trip with a certain relief, believing home is the best place there is, eager to be embraced and surrounded by the environment they created for themselves. But since Douglas didn’t really consider the airy, modern apartment on Massachusetts Avenue near Lockerbie Square and close to downtown Indianapolis his home, he experienced no infusion of good feelings or sudden rush of warmth or safety. Since he’d left Youngstown after college, gone to Vietnam, relocated to Chicago, and then gone on the move, he’d had no conception of home—just a series of dull apartments in cities to which his heart held no emotional ties.
The complex where he currently lived catered largely to the newly divorced, so he’d been able to rent the place fully furnished. The few personal objects scattered about—a year’s worth of hardcover books and some cassette tapes of classical music—were temporary; he’d chosen them with no thought of permanence. He could leave them tomorrow without a pang. He’d done it before, several times. Like the nomads of the desert, relocation was his way of life.
Douglas could afford no excess baggage, emotional or otherwise. He’d lived in six different places during the past five years, and when it came time to move to the next location—never his decision but always made for him—he left each city without so much as a backward glance or a twinge of nostalgia. They were all as one to Douglas—interchangeable movie multiplexes, interchangeable shopping malls, and interchangeable television news and weather personalities with sprayed hair and forced, insincere smiles.
The new names and identities, the new credit cards and passports and driver’s licenses, were mysteriously provided for him each time—and he didn’t ask questions. Questions were not part of the deal.
He was a temporary man.
He poured and slugged down a glass of orange juice. He wasn’t hungry; food was difficult to swallow until he worked his way through a kind of emotional decompression. After he’d eventually come to terms in his own mind with the death of Father Joseph Benveniste, he would treat himself to a big restaurant dinner, consumed with several martinis or a bottle of wine in solitary splendor at a table in the corner.
He slipped a Tchaikovsky tape into the player and gave himself over to the music’s pleasures. Then he picked up the phone.
It took him five minutes to access all the information he wanted, and he couldn’t stop the nerves jumping and hiccuping while he waited, even though he had no cause for uneasiness.
Og had never failed him before, and he had no reason to believe that this time would be any different.
Sure enough, when he’d recited the number code he’d memorized years ago, a slightly accented voice told him what he was sure he’d find anyway: seventy-five thousand additional dollars had been deposited by wire transfer to his account at a small, discreet bank in the Cayman Islands.
He was rich.
Not big rich, not Rockefeller rich—but for an aging army vet with no advanced education beyond a bachelor’s degree, goddamned rich.
At the beginning, five years ago when he’d first been contacted by telephone and the faceless voice had introduced itself with one syllable, he’d demanded to know what kind of name “Og” was. Now, reflecting on it, he winced at what a smart-ass he’d been, and how fortunate he was Og had not taken umbrage, instead patiently explaining to him that “Og” was a code name and that’s all Douglas needed to know.
Of course, back then he wasn’t yet Douglas; he was still Dominick Candiotti, of the Youngstown Candiottis. He’d been Nick to his friends, Nicky to his family—but there was no family left anymore. His father had been a wage slave on the melting floor of the steel mill—but he and his wife were long dead. So were his two brothers, Alfonso and Father Richard, the priest. Not only a temporary man, but alone.
In the military, classified information was on a “need to know” basis, and he applied that philosophy to the situation. If the man chose to be called Og, it was fine with him. Dominick/Douglas was a trained soldier who accepted what his superior officers told him, carrying out their orders without question.
All he cared about now was serving his country and getting paid handsomely for doing so. As for the work itself, he had done the same thing during the Vietnam War, courtesy of the Phoenix Force, a group most Americans had never heard of. His “sanctions,” as Og referred to them, might be one of Ho Chi Minh’s personal janissaries here, an overstuffed Chinese general there, and once a Viet Cong radical with a propensity for publicly slamming the United States and threatening to drop a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles.
Theirs were quick and quiet deaths with a minimum of fuss and a well-reconnoitered escape route—but in Saigon he’d earned only a major’s salary. Now he enjoyed a much better payday.
The seventy-five K was always wire-transferred anonymously to his numbered Cayman Island account after each completion of an assignment. An additional thirty-five thousand, less regular IRS, FICA, and local tax deductions, was deposited into a checking account under his current name, which changed each time he switched locations. Payments were issued by an entity called the Brownstone Group, out of Washington, and were used for his rent, his food and clothing, maintaining his car (a new one was purchased for him each time he changed cities and identities), and whatever incidental expenses he might incur while carrying out his duties, including travel and lodging and necessary materials. He lived frugally, but not penuriously. There was more than sixty thousand dollars of “walking-around money” he’d not yet spent.
In his five years with the Brownstone Group, his sanctions had numbered fourteen in all, counting Philadelphia. That meant over a million and a quarter dollars in the Cayman account. In the meantime, he’d put his entire life on the back burner. Moving as he did, there was no room for emotional attachments, not even having a dog. He’d thought about getting a dog years earlier and was more or less settled on a pit bull. Then he was recruited.
To him the compensation was more than worth the sacrifice. In another year or two, when he hit forty-five, he planned to retire and head for someplace in South America, where his money would last longer and he could live in relative luxury for the rest of his life.
But he wasn’t ready yet. He had no idea what the Brownstone Group was—whether it served the Justice Department, or connected to State or Defense or the National Security Agency. Perhaps it was a secret offshoot of the CIA, which he thought likely, or even the Secret Service. Og told him the organization was clandestine, elite, classified top secret, and under the deepest cover imaginable, and that only a handful of the most powerful government leaders in the United States were even aware of its existence.
It fell to the Brownstones, as Og called them, to deal with the master criminals and malefactors who’d managed to slip through the cracks and move from within the normal jurisdiction of the justice system—traitors, racketeers, even murderers who were well beyond the reach of the law. The Brownstones’ job was that of a star chamber, only on a fully national scale.
The one thing on which Og had insisted was that he use a different modus operandi each time so the authorities would not perceive a pattern and think a serial killer was on the loose. That caveat sometimes taxed Douglas’s creativity. Therefore, he was particularly pleased with the logistics he’d employed in the Benveniste sanction just completed. Inside the confessional at St. Catherine’s, he’d mumbled a few unintelligible words, and when Father Benveniste pressed the side of his head against the screen, the better to hear him, a single strong, slightly upward thrust beneath the ear through the mesh with the sharpened end of the screwdriver driving directly into the brain, had accomplished his task neatly and without sound. So expert was the coup that the screwdriver’s point never touched bone.
However, even a non-Catholic knew there was something special, almost unworldly, about priests. After all, his eldest brother, Richard Candiotti, had been a beloved priest—Father Candy—and he, too, had died in the church. So Douglas felt a little strange about his latest sanction.
He stayed in his apartment that night and the next, ordering Chinese food and pizza deliveries by phone and spending his time in a darkened living room, looking out his window, drinking vodka on the rocks, and listening to classical music. He napped, falling asleep where he sat and awakening in the morning stiff, sore, and with an unaccustomed sense of unease.
He didn’t call it guilt, though. That concept Douglas put aside long ago.
It was just after 11:30 on Wednesday night when his phone finally rang. He answered with annoyance and relief. He didn’t bother looking at the caller ID screen, because he knew it would say only “Out of Area.” And he knew who was calling—only one person in the world possessed his number.
He opened the unit and jabbed the activation button, not even bothering to say hello. “About time.”
“Who else would it be?”
“It went all right? Philadelphia?”
“You know it did.”
“As a matter of fact, I do. It made national TV and the newspapers. Snappish this evening, eh? Are you upset about something?”
Douglas sat down on the sofa and stretched his legs out, wiggling his toes. “Not really.”
“That’s like being a little bit pregnant. You’re either upset or you aren’t.”
Douglas searched for words but didn’t find them. Finally he said, “A priest.”
“I warned you it was a priest. It didn’t seem to bother you.”
“Yes, it did. I just didn’t say anything.”
“You’re a fallen-away Catholic, Douglas—an atheist.”
“That’s hardly the point. I would have felt the same way if it were a Pentecostal preacher. Or a rabbi.”
“It just might be a rabbi someday.” Og’s tone was impatient. “Don’t turn wussy on me.” The sigh coming through the receiver was weary and put upon. “I told you about Benveniste when we first talked. Sexual abuse of schoolchildren and altar boys is an entire subterranean culture. The world will hear about this for decades.”
Douglas said, “And this is the business of the federal government how?”
Og took time to answer; when he did his voice was frosty, far beyond his usual cool, precise way of speaking. “Questions aren’t in your job description. This is no Washington think tank. It’s a quasi-military operation—something you were damn good at in Vietnam, as I recall, or I wouldn’t have approached you in the first place. You’re given plenty of leeway for creativity, planning, and execution, but at the end of the day your only job is to follow orders.”
“Understood—but I’m not making sausages on an assembly line.”
“You’re paid well,” Og said stiffly. “Very well. If we want you to make sausages, you’ll make sausages.”
Douglas said nothing.
“You still like your job, don’t you?”
Douglas sighed audibly. He might have been a patriot of sorts, a lonely and disaffected Captain America, toiling all by himself on the side of the angels, but he couldn’t imagine anyone—at least anyone sane—actually liking to kill people. “It pays my bills,” he said.
“Good. We probably won’t need you for a few months. Just take life slowly. Relax. Get laid. Go somewhere warm and beautiful, and forget about things. We’ll even pay for it if it’ll clear the cobwebs out of your head.”
“There are no cobwebs in my head.”
Douglas could actually hear and sense the other man’s smile—a death-mask smile, a satanic rictus. “I’m very glad to hear you say that,” Og told him.