Jay Burchell and Will Traveler have defeated the rogue arm of The Fourth Branch, but something still needs to be fixed.
Fanfiction inspired by the show "Traveler" and by creator David DiGilio's "closure" blog.
Disclaimer: Traveler does not belong to me.
(With grateful appreciation to StoriesThatNeverWere for her encouragement and her superb beta-read.)
As blue sky dissolved into purple, and then purple into black, the peaks of the Colorado Rockies faded and flattened until they blended with the surrounding darkness of space. Stars blinked into existence, bright in the clear mountain air, but still dim pinpoints high above. And the sliver of glittering moon wasn't yet strong enough to penetrate the shade below.
But even as night spread a cloak over jagged summits and plunging valleys, a glittering jewel emerged in the midst of the dark void. High on the southern slope of a mountain, light poured from the expansive windows of a sprawling stone mansion. Its multiple square towers and imposing arched entrance gave it the appearance of a neoteric castle.
While the majestic mountains were the product of multiple geological forces spread over millions of years, the architectural splendor of the house might be said to be the product of one man. Many designers, builders and craftsmen had contributed to the project, but the guiding vision belonged to the real estate magnate best known by his one-word nickname: Baron.
Inside his home that blazed brazenly in the dark, the Baron was in the process of creating something of far more importance than a house. He was sculpting civilization.
Everything in the Baron's home was of large proportion. The master bedroom tower occupied more square feet than the average American home. The kitchen would have serviced a mid-sized restaurant. The media room had seating for thirty-six
The dining room was more a dining hall. It stretched across half the width of the second level. The gilded ceiling was graced with three designer light fixtures, so unique and artistic that visitors thought they should be displayed in a museum. The room was transformed as needed, to become an ornate banquet hall, a reception area for large parties or even a ballroom.
Tonight's furnishings were more modest than usual. Perhaps because the guests didn't require grandeur to be impressed. It was simply five round tables scattered about one end of the room. While each table had settings of bone china, delicate crystal and fine linen, there were no centerpieces, no floral displays; not even napkin rings.
However, when it came to food, the Baron never practiced restraint. The thirteen-course gourmet meal took several hours to serve and consume.
During the early courses--appetizer, soup and salad--the floor-to-ceiling windows on the south and east sides of the room had provided spectacular views of the surrounding scenery. Light faded as diners gorged on dishes that included fresh mountain trout, veal kidneys with mustard sauce, and carrot mousseline. By the time the flame was lit on the Bombe Alaska, the only view worth noting was that of the elite diners themselves. The Baron operated in circles as rarified as the thin Colorado air.
The catering staff had worked with quiet efficiency throughout the meal. But after the dessert dishes were cleared from the room, they climbed into their vans and drove away, with plans to return in the morning for a final clean up. The resident domestic staff had been dismissed some hours earlier. Left with only a half dozen trusted associates, who provided the minimal security needed in such a remote location, the owner and his guests had the privacy they desired.
Hushed conversation echoed through the chamber as the Baron directed the diners to the bar on the north wall. The wine racks held only the rarest, most respected vintages. The brandies and cognacs gracing the shelves would have pleased the most discerning palate. There were Scotch whiskies, Russian vodkas and even a few bottles of Passion Azteca tequila. Everything was the best that money could buy.
The absence of a bartender didn't faze the guests, who helped themselves in orderly fashion, one table at a time. Some detoured past the cigar box on the way back to their seats, and soon the elegant room was filled with the quiet murmur of voices and the distinctive smell of Gurkha HMR.
One guest avoided the bar. When the evening ended, Jay Burchell faced a seventeen-mile drive over winding mountain roads. He wanted his full wits about him for that. He'd cut himself off an hour earlier after his third glass of wine.
Seated at the lowliest of the five tables, Jay tugged at his tie and tried not to look as bored as he felt. Will's disappearance had left him essentially alone, since the other occupants of his table had as little interest in talking to him as he had in talking to them. They were cordial enough. They'd greeted him warmly and with enthusiasm. They just didn't have anything in common.
For a time Jay entertained himself by trying to identify as many of his fellow guests as possible. The Baron had assembled an impressive collection of powerful individuals. Jay put names to the faces of politicians, business moguls, a university president, and the editor of one of the most respected newspapers on the east coast. While the rest of the group may not have been immediately recognizable, he knew they were equally influential.
Since Will had slipped away, leaving his dessert to melt into a puddle on his plate, Jay was the only stranger in the room. The other forty three diners– mostly men, with a few women sprinkled in– were well acquainted with each other, which wasn't surprising. They were the leaders of a secret society that was as old as the United States itself. It was known as The Fourth Branch.
Devised by the founding fathers to guide and nurture a fledgling nation, The Fourth Branch was made up of the wealthiest, most aristocratic families in the post-Revolutionary colonies. They were, to put it simply, America's royalty. Membership in the organization was passed down from father to son and sometimes daughter. All members were rich and well educated as befitted the organization's purpose. It was set up as protection against rule by a rabble that might or might not know what was best for the country.
Throughout the decades, The Fourth Branch had manipulated as needed to allow the new nation to flourish, until it became a shadow government that used its considerable power and influence to rule behind the scenes, sidestepping elected officials at will. But as happens with most multilevel hydras, internal dissension threatened the branch in the late twentieth century, when opposing factions fought for control. A group headed by the Freed family wanted to turn the country into a near dictatorship. While the other faction, with the Baron as its leader, hoped to return the branch to its original roots, a benevolent presence that guided with a gentle hand.
The long struggle had ended just a few weeks earlier with the deaths of the Freed family's heirs, President Shears and his equally culpable vice president. Tonight's dinner was to celebrate the event and toast the restoration of order.
Jay almost couldn't believe his struggle with the rogue faction of The Fourth Branch was over. During the two years and ten months since he'd been falsely implicated in a terrorist bombing, he'd been a fugitive on the run, gone underground to search for the elusive Fourth Branch, and finally had ended up serving as one of the Baron's moles in Shears' corrupt organization. A few weeks weren't enough time to recover from the prolonged stress, and Jay still sometimes woke in the middle of the night filled with tension and despair.
Jay's wife of a year, Kim Doherty Burchell, was doing a better job of adjusting to the peace they'd long desired. So much so that she had refused to attend tonight's dinner. Their "other life" involvement with The Fourth Branch was over, she'd said.
And while she'd tactfully not voiced the other reason for sending her regrets, Jay knew what it was. Will. She had never stopped associating Will Traveler with the loss of her and Jay's baby in that squalid Central American prison where she'd been taken after helping Jay avoid capture by the FBI. She wasn't comfortable around Will. She grew sad; she grew angry.
When she was forced to be with Will, her eyes said it all. She remembered Yale, the two years Will had shared a house with Jay and with Tyler Fog, pretending to be their friend while he was plotting to betray them.
Kim understood that Will had been a pawn himself, a disposable chess piece in The Fourth Branch's covert schemes. And she knew that he'd done his best to clear Jay's and Tyler's names, risking his life time and time again in the process. But none of that made up for his betrayal.
Jay could only hope that time would heal the rift. Because he knew he couldn't choose between them. A world without Will was as unthinkable as a world without Kim. Shared danger had sealed a strong friendship, made them closer than brothers, and perhaps even, more intensely intimate than lovers. Their camaraderie had grown stronger even in the worst of times. Perhaps especially in the worst of times.
One year earlier...
"Jay, he's dead," said Will from where he crouched at Jay's shoulder. "We can't do anything. We have to go. Now."
"You bastard!" Jay took his hands off Tyler's bloody chest and swept his right fist around to connect with Will's cheek. "You bastard," he repeated, ramming Will with his shoulder and causing him to topple over onto his back. Jay fell on Will, pinning him down with his weight while punching him over and over. "This is your fault. You got us involved in this mess. Your fault."
"I know." Will raised crossed arms to protect his face, but otherwise didn't do anything in his own defense. "You think I don't know it. I can't go back and change what I did, but I tried to get your lives back. And I tried to stop Tyler from coming here. I tried." And suddenly, inexplicably, tears were pooling in Will's eyes. Jay had never seen him cry before.
Jay's arms stopped flailing. He heaved himself off Will's chest, but couldn't find the strength to stand. He ended up sitting on the floor, tucked between Tyler's body and Will. Will's upper lip was split and bleeding from where Jay's ring had gashed it. Will's arm was shaking as he used his sleeve to mop the blood and tears from his face.
"Will," Jay clasped his friend's hand, gently, consolingly. "We have to go. Come on." He tightened his hold on Will's hand and got them both to their feet.
They staggered out of the room, arms about each other's shoulders. Jay didn't know who was supporting whom, but he knew they were both leaving something precious behind. And the only thing they had left was each other.
Jay blinked back to the present. Tyler. The Baron had promised to endow a scholarship at Yale in Tyler's name. It wasn't nearly enough, but it was something.
A hand to his shoulder drew Jay out of his reverie. He turned to face Will standing above him.
"Where have you been?"
"Here and there," Will answered as he took his seat. "What were you thinking about, just now?"
"I thought so. I recognized the look. I miss him, too." He made an encompassing gesture with his left hand and arm. "I can tell you this, he wouldn't put up with this stuffiness. He'd have us somewhere livelier."
Jay didn't doubt that. "Somewhere with gorgeous women and loud music."
"So," Will said, "what are we doing here? Can you believe any of this?"
"No." Jay brushed his fingers on a path that started at the black bow tie at his neck and ended at the black cummerbund about his waist. "This penguin suit feels about as natural as a gorilla costume. Though I must say, you look perfectly at ease in yours."
"Well," Will said, preening, "elegance does come naturally to me."
Jay punched him lightly on the arm. Ever the actor, Will flinched and grimaced in response.
"Wait a minute," Jay said, studying Will more closely. "That's not the tuxedo jacket you had on during dinner."
"I know." Will squirmed slightly. "I got something on the other one. It's lucky the Baron ordered several for me to choose from."
"So that's where you've been, changing clothes. You might have said something."
"And have you realize I'm a slob?" Will pointed to the podium that had been set up at the head table. The Baron was standing in front of it, shuffling through note cards. "He's getting ready to speak, which means this is almost over. Thanks for coming."
"I couldn't let you suffer through this alone."
"I was counting on that."
Will's surprisingly serious tone took Jay by surprise. He'd expected a teasing response. Was Will still thinking about Tyler? It appeared as if something was amiss. Will's face was strained, in a pale, sad, haunted way that caused a chill to run up Jay's spine.
"Is something the matter?"
"Other than anticipatory boredom...?" Will winked, banishing the momentary sense of gloom. "No." A tapping sound sent his head swiveling back to the podium. "It looks like the big show is about to begin."
"Ready or not," Jay whispered as Colorado real estate baron Conrad Mailer began to speak.
"I'd like to thank all of you for joining me here on this auspicious night. I know many of you have traveled great distances, and some have had to rearrange complex schedules to be with us. But I'm sure we would all agree that the occasion justifies the inconveniences.
"For the first time in four decades The Fourth Branch is not torn by strife and discord. Just two weeks past, our own John Braxton," he nodded to the silver-haired man seated at his right, "was sworn in as President of the United States, replacing the corrupt regime of the late President Shears with an administration dedicated to honor, integrity and democracy."
A flurry of clapping swept the room as President Braxton stood and launched into an obviously prepared speech. It was unmemorable political banality that Jay had heard before. While it lasted less than fifteen minutes, it felt as if an hour had passed before Conrad Mailer returned to the podium.
Mailer leaned forward slightly, attempting to be more intimately connected with his guests. "The balance of power has been restored," he said, in a cool, assured manner that reminded Jay of Will at his most authoritative. "We are now able to return to our original purpose, that of protecting and preserving our great country." The clapping began again; this time accompanied by a few modest cheers from the younger members of the organization.
When the room was again quiet, Mailer continued. "One of the reasons I invited you here tonight was to join me in honoring someone who was instrumental in ensuring our victory. He made many sacrifices and voluntarily put his life at risk to further our cause. He is a man of promise. A man whose ingenuity and bravery allowed him to combat overwhelming odds. A man I am proud to call a friend. Mr. Jay Burchell."
"Did you know about this?" Jay gritted out of the side of his mouth as he rose to his feet amidst another wave of clapping. Will responded with a "not me, I'm innocent" look that might or might not have been faked.
"Thank you," Jay said out loud. "I appreciate your kind words," and quickly dropped back into his seat. If a speech was expected, they were going to be disappointed.
"As modest as he is admirable." Mailer pointed his right index finger at Jay. "Mr. Burchell, we're expecting big things of you. The Fourth Branch needs men of your vision and determination."
Whatever the Fourth Branch wanted, Jay and Kim had already decided that their association with the branch was over. Their ambitions had mellowed over the years. New York held too many sad memories, and the big city allure had lost its magic. They wanted something quieter, a community with a slower pace.
Lost in his own thoughts, Jay hadn't noticed that the room had gone silent. Mailer had turned his back on his guests. He was looking out the window, staring into the darkness beyond as if he could still see the peaks and valleys that were no longer visible. When he pivoted to face his audience, the granite of the mountains was mirrored in his gray eyes.
"I apologize for the momentary lapse," he began, his voice slightly hoarse with emotion. "This last part of our evening together is more meaningful to me than any other moment of my life. It represents hopes and dreams that I was never sure would come to fruition. When I voluntarily denied myself a place in my son's life, it was because I knew that the coddled child of a millionaire would be of little use to The Fourth Branch. I was taking a risk. While I kept a close eye on his development, while I provided him with a tutor that I hand-picked out of dozens of possible candidates, not even the most careful nurturing comes with any guarantee. But now I can say with humble certainty that my experiment turned out better than I ever expected. Credit for that goes to only one individual. A war hero. A civilian hero. My son and heir, Stephen Mailer."
"Stephen," he gestured Will forward.
Will obliged. Smiling and seemingly perfectly at ease, he walked slowly to the podium, brushing his fingers over the hands that stretched out to shake his.
Those who didn't know him well, and Jay judged that to be everyone in the room except himself, would see a charming man with sparkling blue-gray eyes. He was slight of build; unimposing to the casual eye, which was a mirage that Will cultivated on occasion. Sometimes it was to his advantage to have people underestimate him.
Will- Jay could never think of him as Stephen- only revealed as much as he wanted, and often most of that was fabrication and half truths. And it was always carefully crafted to present a particular image. Will was a chameleon. There were days when Jay doubted that Will knew who Will Traveler really was.
With an infectious grin, Will took the place vacated by his father, who remained standing to Will's left.
"I'm not much for speeches," Will said. "I've always thought a man's actions were more important than his words. But tonight during dinner I looked around and thought about your individual accomplishments. And I knew then that there was something I wanted to share with you before the evening ended."
Will turned slightly. Light from the nearest chandelier caught the scar that sliced through his left eyebrow and creased the cheek below. In that moment he went from meek and mild to fearsome warrior. His expression hardened, his eyes blazed. "I love my country," he said in a level tone that somehow managed to thunder through the room. "I would sacrifice anyone and everyone to keep it safe and secure." He paused and looked from table to table, seemingly meeting the eyes of everyone in the room before continuing, "I give you that pledge without any reservation." He reached around to pump his father's hand, then abruptly left the podium.
There was a moment of silence, then applause that started slowly but quickly built to a crescendo. Will navigated the return path without glancing right or left. On this trip he didn't acknowledge any of his father's influential friends, but kept his eyes directly on Jay.
A bit dramatic, Jay thought with an inner grin, but it appears to have carried the day. Conrad Mailer's associates were bursting with approval as they abandoned their chairs and began to mill about.
"A chip off the old block."
"The Freeds wouldn't have lasted a day if he'd been born thirty years sooner."
"I've heard rumors about his exploits in the Middle East."
Will didn't stop when he reached their table. He hooked his arm through Jay's and propelled him out of the room.
"I have something for you."
Will led Jay down the wide staircase to the bottom level, then guided him to the coat room off the grand foyer. He stooped low, reached behind a boot rack and pulled out a briefcase. He knelt there for a second, bent over. As he slowly got to his feet he half stumbled before righting himself. Will's co-ordination was impeccable. He never lost his balance. So Jay found himself studying his friend with a critical eye. Was it the murky light in the cloakroom or had Will's complexion grown paler by a shade or two?
Before Jay could give it another thought Will handed him the briefcase, saying, "There's a dossier on The Fourth Branch inside. A genealogical chart for every family, data on the current membership, a history of its activities, its statement of purpose. Also, recordings of a dozen conversations I've had since I arrived here."
"What? Why are you giving this to me?"
"It still needs to be fixed."
The chill that Jay had felt earlier returned tenfold. "We already did that. You're the future of The Fourth Branch. I trust you, Will."
"The Fourth Branch, right or wrong, has no place in a democracy. It has to end."
In his heart and in his mind Jay knew Will was right, but still he hesitated. "Where did you get the documents?"
"From Conrad's safe." He smiled wearily. "The esoteric education he arranged for me included a course on safe cracking."
Jay didn't buy Will's attempt to make light of the situation. He knew him too well. Will looked and sounded exhausted. This plan to betray his father was more stressful than he was willing to admit. "He's your father," Jay said, gently. "You've just found each other."
"I'll make sure he understands." Will rested his hand on Jay's shoulder and leaned into him to get him moving.
"Why tonight? Why not two days ago? Or next week?"
"It had to be tonight. With the faithful wandering about, Mailer turned off the security system. He didn't want them tripping alarms and getting the impression that he didn't trust them."
"Did you know he planned to do that?"
"Yes. He told me when he was organizing the dinner." Will directed Jay to the door. "Take the briefcase to Judge Michael Delaney; he was the Federal Prosecutor at Rosalind Freed's trial. He's in Denver at a convention. He'll know what to do with the information."
"You want me to go now?"
"Yes. Pick up Kim at your hotel then drive straight through to Denver."
"Come with me." Jay couldn't pinpoint the sense of his unease, but it was flowing through him like a high voltage current.
"They might suspect something if I leave. I'm meant to spend the weekend, to get to know Conrad's friends and associates."
"What if he realizes the files are missing?"
"I'll deal with it. Now go. Kim is waiting for you."
"It has to be this way. For Jan."
The old litany. Jay took up his part. "For Jon."
They finished it together. "For Tyler."
Jay started to open the door, then turned back to Will. "I'll see you..."
The valet had left with the rest of the staff, but Jay didn't have any trouble finding his rental SUV. There were only four cars in the small square in front of the garage. The limousines that would pick up guests not spending the night weren't scheduled to return for another hour.
The keys were on the seat. Jay powered it up and followed the well-lit curving driveway to the imposing gate. The guard on duty waved him through.
This isn't right, Jay thought as he drove away. Will could very well lose his father over this. Jay knew what it felt like to lose a father. We should talk to Mailer; he'll see reason. He'll disband the branch on his own.
With a steep slope on one side and an abrupt drop off on the other, Jay had to wait until he spotted an area with a rare bit of shoulder to pull off the road. His intention was to turn around, but he decided to check the contents of the briefcase first. After switching on the overhead light, he flipped open the case. The first thing he saw was red stickiness clinging to some of the documents. Not just any red stickiness. Blood.
Maybe the blood of the person who had packed the briefcase?
Observations crossed and tallied, forming a picture in Jay's mind. Will had winced when lightly punched on the upper right arm. He'd merely brushed his fingers over the hands that wanted to shake his on the way to the podium. He'd reached around his body and pumped Mailer's right hand with his left. He'd always been on Jay's right side when he'd been pushing and pulling him along. He'd changed his tuxedo jacket because "I got something on the other one."
Frantic, Jay yanked the cell phone out of an inner pocket, punched it on, and pressed a familiar speed dial code. Reception was iffy in the mountains, and he breathed a sigh of relief when he heard a ring.
"Did you get out?" Will asked when he picked up.
"Yes." Jay could hear shouts and popping noises in the background. He put the car in gear and swung the wheel around. "What happened to your arm?"
"Uncle David came in when I was opening the safe. Uh..." It was the softest of sounds. Something between a faint cry and a grunt, it was an indication of distress. It set Jay's heart to racing. He pressed harder on the accelerator.
"Will! Will, talk to me. What's happening? Are you all right?"
There was a period of silence that felt like a year, then, finally, "It's just a little nick... But it won't stop bleeding. Did I tell you...? Uncle David found out that the pupil is better than the teacher."
"I'm on my way back. I'll be there soon." Jay saw the gate just ahead, the mansion above it and to the left. "Five minutes," Jay promised.
"I... exposed my right arm. Knew he wouldn't be able to resist. It left him vulnerable to..." Will's voice that had been soft to begin with was close to breathless. Jay had to strain to hear him. "They're coming. I have... to be sure. Take care of the briefcase. And... yourself. Jay, I'm sorry."
The explosion was sudden and immense. Its dragon's roar reverberated from peak to peak. Tongues of flame spewed from blown-out windows and licked the night sky.
Jay stared at the inferno and screamed a single word. "Will!"
Washington, D.C., three weeks after the Colorado bombing...
Jay sat slumped on a cold metal bench, staring out at the river. The sky was gray, the air heavy with moisture. If he ended up soaked, Kim would scold him for going out without raincoat or umbrella.
She hovered over him these days, more concerned about him than about her upcoming delivery. Jay tried to reassure her, to tell her everything was all right, or would be that way soon, but his vague assurances weren't convincing.
A large piece of driftwood floated by. Then another, a smaller one. Geese waddled over to the bench. They were probably used to people feeding them and squawked when he ignored them. As he was shooing them away he spotted a man in a beige raincoat and brimmed hat approaching from the south. He was tall and walked with the easy grace of a lifelong athlete. Gray streaked his dark hair, but his face was creaseless beyond some mild crow's feet at the corners of his eyes. He was Judge Michael Delaney, and Jay had been expecting him.
He walked directly to the bench and sat down.
"Thank you for meeting me," he said.
Jay shrugged. "I didn't have anything better to do."
"Yes, I understand your job offer was rescinded when you weren't able to begin work as scheduled."
Anger burned away the numb sensation that Jay had been feeling. He turned to face the other man. "Especially when they heard I was being held for questioning in connection with the Colorado bombing."
"You were spotted leaving the scene not long after the explosion. It's not unusual that the authorities would want to question you."
"For six days! I was locked up like a terrorist, not permitted to call a lawyer, or to see my wife, or..." Jay cut off. They'd not permitted him access to the news, either.
He stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and returned his attention to the river. "You know why I left, so that I could deliver the briefcase to you."
"That's what you told me. It could have been a cover story."
"Is that why you wanted to see me? Are you going to have me arrested again?" He stretched out his arms. "Bring on the handcuffs. I'm used to them." Oh god, that sounds like something Will would have said. Am I taking on his personality? One of his personalities?
"That's not why I'm here. I'm here to tie up loose ends. The FBI has closed the case, but I'm still curious about a few things."
Closed the case? Jay thought back to earlier that morning. He'd been on the Internet; he'd checked the news. Glancing at Delaney, he said, "I hadn't heard that they'd closed it."
"The agent in charge will make the announcement at a press conference this afternoon."
Delaney reached into an inner pocket of his coat and pulled out papers that were folded together. "Do you know why you were released when you were?"
"No." That had puzzled Jay. Just hours before he'd been freed, the FBI had acted as if they still believed him to be guilty.
"It was because of this." Delaney passed over five sheets of paper. The top two comprised a letter to Judge Delaney. The third sheet was a list of ingredients that Jay guessed would make a bomb when mixed together. Next to each item was the name of a store; no doubt indicating where the purchase was made. The last two sheets were floor plans of the second and third levels of Conrad Mailer's Colorado residence.
Jay felt himself choking up as he read the letter. "Will sent this to you?"
"Yes. It arrived two days after the bombing. As you can see, Stephen Mailer claimed responsibility for the bombs. There were two of them. He provided details of the construction and told us where he purchased the materials. The circles on the diagrams indicate where they were placed. It seems he wanted to be sure you weren't blamed for his crime. We had to verify that it was from him, and that everything he said was true and consistent with the event. It all tallied, so there was no reason to hold you. The FBI is convinced that Mailer acted alone."
"But to have mailed that letter, that means..." Jay sucked in a breath, "it means he planned to kill them all along."
He'd thought, hoped, that the bombs were Will's way of being thorough. There was no denying they were there and ready to be used. But Jay had talked himself into believing they were a contingency plan that Will was forced to use when his original plan went awry.
As Jay had pictured it, something had gone wrong after he'd left. Someone had realized what Will had done. Perhaps they'd found David Fancher's body? During Jay's last conversation with Will, Will had intimated that he'd killed Fancher, the man who'd come into his life at age twelve and tutored him in the art of war.
"I thought he was backed into a corner. I thought he triggered the bombs to protect me, and the briefcase."
"I know that's what you told the FBI, and I'm sure you believed it at the time. But it appears as if it wasn't an accurate assessment. The letter sustains that the bombing was premeditated and predetermined. It seems your friend was more ruthless than you realized."
Jay opened his mouth to deny the accusation, but closed it again almost immediately. Will was ruthless when someone or something he cared about was in danger. Or when someone he loved had been hurt. He was also one of the gentlest people Jay knew. These were some of the many contradictions that made up Will Traveler.
Thinking back to the dinner, Jay recalled Will's speech. Will was talking to me that night, Jay realized, as well as to them. He said he would sacrifice anyone and everyone, and that's what he did. He was warning them, while preparing me for what was to come.
Delaney's harsh assessment that Will was ruthless still required a rebuttal. "Will was a true patriot," Jay said. "He did what he thought was best for the country."
"But to kill them when he already had the evidence that you brought to me...?"
"It's not what I would have done," Jay admitted. "I would have put my trust in the justice system. But that wasn't Will's way."
He stood, paced to the river and back, then climbed the rise behind the bench. He looked into the city, especially at the spire of the Washington Monument and the dome on the Capitol. As he studied those symbols of democracy, he played with Will's letter and the accompanying documents. Will was a patriot, something which Delaney could never fully understand.
"Have you heard of Krav Maga?" he called down.
"It's a combat system used extensively by the Israelis. I've read about it."
"Then you know it assumes no quarter and emphasizes maximum threat neutralization," Jay said as he walked thoughtfully back to the bench. "Beginning in childhood, Will was trained in Krav Maga. He didn't wound an enemy if that left the enemy in a position to cause harm. The documentation would have wounded The Fourth Branch, but it wasn't guaranteed to defeat them. Will wanted to make sure the organization could never threaten democracy again."
"But Krav Maga also teaches soldiers to do what needs to be done… and then escape." Delaney tapped his fingers on the bench. "DNA testing came back yesterday. One of the bodies matched the blood on the documents you turned over. The man you knew as Will Traveler is dead."
Jay barked out a laugh. "You thought he wasn't? He was in the house when it exploded. The ones who survived were either outside or exploring Mailer's wine cellar on the lowest level. The guards wouldn't let me near the house, but I watched as they gathered the survivors in the driveway. I was there. Will wasn't with them. I would have seen him. There wasn't anywhere else to go, not the way the house is tucked onto a ledge with sheer cliffs on all sides. The driveway was the only way out."
Jay lowered his eyes to where his fingers were crushed about the diagrams of Mailer's house. "I would never have left if there had been a chance that he'd survived. He was hurt before the bombs went off. I would have found him, helped him, briefcase and evidence be damned. He was my friend."
"Yet you asked the FBI about survivors time and time again."
"I was hoping for a miracle. Or maybe just not ready to accept the truth."
Abruptly, Delaney changed the subject. "We're putting a security lid on the bombing and on The Fourth Branch. The official report will read that a loyal follower of President Shears was seeking revenge. The country has been through enough, losing two presidents to violence in less than a month."
"I won't contradict that report."
"I didn't think you would."
"What about... what about the body?"
"Will Traveler doesn't exist." Before Jay could protest, Delaney held up his hand. "Did you read the part of the letter about Afghanistan and Iraq?"
"Yes. Will didn't talk much about what he did over there, but I assume those dates and locations were places he'd served, and that he put them in so you'd know the letter was from him."
Delaney retrieved his wallet from his back pocket and set it on his lap. "His letter solved a puzzle that has made the rounds of veterans who served in the Middle East since the conflict first started in Afghanistan. At each of those times and places mentioned by Traveler, members of the military were in harm's way. They were rescued by a single soldier. The description was always the same but the name on the uniform wasn't. As word of miraculous rescues spread, they began to call the mystery man Nightingale.
"We faxed Traveler's picture to a dozen of the troops who had been rescued by Nightingale. They all identified Traveler as the man who had saved them."
Opening his wallet, Delaney pointed to a picture. "My daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter," he said. "My son-in-law served in Iraq. He was manning a checkpoint that came under attack. They were running low on ammunition when Nightingale swooped in and opened fire on the insurgents. Rob knew Traveler as Private McCauley. He wanted to thank him, but there was no record that McCauley existed, not in all of Iraq."
Slipping the wallet back into his pocket, Delaney said, "There can't be a public service, but I'll see to the remains."
Jay gave the slightest of nods. It was all he could manage.
Delaney took the letter out of Jay's hands. "I'll need to keep this." He tucked it away and rose to his feet. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Burchell."
As he walked away Delaney glanced back over his shoulder. "One more thing, I have an opening on my staff. If you're interested in an interview, give my executive assistant a call in the next couple of days."
A job interview? A way to guarantee he'd keep his mouth shut, maybe. Or possibly it was a sincere offer. Either way, and even though he had a wife and soon a child to support, Jay knew he wouldn't make that call. There was something more important, something that would preclude his working in the office of Judge Michael Delaney.
Putting his hands on his knees, Jay pushed himself to his feet. But rather than heading inland to where he'd left the car, he walked to the water's edge. He pulled two sheets of paper out from under his jacket. Will's letter. Jay had slipped it under his coat after climbing the embankment, while his back was to Delaney. Then he'd crumpled the remaining three sheets to make them appear thicker.
Without the letter there was no hard evidence to connect Will to the bombing.
Will had looked beyond the years and recognized that The Fourth Branch could again threaten America. Jay had looked into the future and saw the possibility of Will's guilt coming to light. He wasn't going to let that happen. Will deserved a better legacy.
Slowly and methodically, he tore the letter into small bits and dropped them into the swirling currents.
As he watched the river carry the evidence downstream, Jay, I'm sorry whispered through his mind and brought him back to that night...
He had no recollection of opening the SUV door or getting out. But suddenly he was racing up the mountain road, fueled by a panicked urgency, yelling Will's name. Even from a distance, he could see that the fire was intense; gray smoke roiled into the night sky.
It felt like it took forever to reach the gate. A band had tightened about his chest. It wasn't breathlessness; it was dark, fearful certainty.
'Jay, I'm sorry,' kept echoing in his head.
'Damn you, Will,' he replied, 'it isn't enough to be sorry.'
He desperately wanted thirty minutes back. This time, he'd drag Will to the car and make him leave.
Continuing up the steep driveway, he berated Will in his mind. 'Why didn't you tell me the truth, about your injury and your plan? We could have done something different. Something together. We'd have worked it out.'
He just wanted Will back and found himself begging and pleading with any Supreme Being who might be listening. 'Just let him survive. There are things I never told him.'
He was close enough to feel the heat from the fire when someone tackled him. And then he was the one being dragged. He fought, thrashing out with hands and feet, until their words penetrated his consummate grief. "We need to help the injured. Promise you'll stay here."
Left sobbing on the pavement, he scrutinized each face as it passed by. The guards had brightened the security lights that lined the driveway. It was as bright as if the sun had been high in the sky.
People straggled by; sometimes supported by someone else. But it was never the one person he wanted to see.
Then the parade ended and he knew there was no one left.
Part of him wanted to stay where he was until his body petrified into a form as dense as the mountain itself, but Will had left him with a charge. He needed to get the briefcase to Denver. He knew that emergency personnel would have been called. If he were here when they arrived, they'd take the briefcase. It might never reach Delaney. He didn't want Will to have died in vain.
Dead. He could admit it now. DNA tests had confirmed what his heart already knew.
The future was going to unfold whether he was ready for it or not. Which wouldn't happen until he let go of the past.
The letter was gone. Will was gone.
Jay gave a small salute before turning away from the river, forever.