It was two o'clock in the morning when Monica awakened me. I had fallen asleep in the courtyard late in the afternoon, curled up on the cushioned porch swing in the corner. She was excited about something and was telling me to hurry into the dining room. Groggy and confused, I stood and followed her into the house. She was waiting by the table when I got there with a little smirk on her face. She held out her cell phone, obviously trying to temper her excitement. "Here," she said in a staccato tone, "it's Frank. He has something to tell you." I stared at her for a moment, wanting to take her happiness for what it was, but I had grown too cautious over the past weeks and prepared myself to hear news that was less than what I could hope. "Hello?" I asked, as I put the phone to my ear, bracing myself. "Kate? It's Frank. It's over. We've got him," it was the first time I had heard Frank so happy when he spoke to me. 'Caught him?" I asked, still afraid to draw my own conclusions. I needed to hear him say the words directly to believe they could be said at all. "Yes. Carter. He's in custody. We got him and Renauldi just a few minutes ago. It's over. He and most of his men are off the streets now. It was easier than we thought it would be considering how Carter is. But Renauldi led us right to him." I just stood there listening for a long time, unable to say anything or think anything. The idea that it could be over, that I could move on, was almost too overwhelming to comprehend. It had only been a few weeks but it felt like a lifetime of hiding and fighting and fear, and I was not sure I could go back to the way I was before. "Kate," Frank's voice startling me back into reality, "Kate, did you hear me?" "Yes," I said softly, feeling the tears welling up inside like the suppressed floodwaters behind a fragile dam. "I heard you." "Good. We'll be back in a few hours with the rest of the convoy to pick up you and Monica and head back towards Chicago." "What convoy? You mean you're bringing him here?" "Don't worry, Kate. He'll be in an armored van with guards plus he'll be restrained. You won't have anything to worry about." "You're sure?" "Yes, I promised you safety and that's what you'll get. We would never do anything to endanger you." "Okay. Fine." I said, knowing had no choice in the matter and feeling little comfort in Frank's promise. We said our goodbyes and I set off to pack up my few belongings and Monica began packing up equipment. Despite his promise, the convoy did not arrive until late that afternoon around four o'clock. At the head of the line were two state troopers followed by the van Frank and Cody left in. Behind them was another car, a black sedan with darkened windows. Then came an armored van, also black, without windows in the back and two officers in the front cab, one holding a shotgun in plain sight. At the end of the line were two more state troopers. It was a grim sight despite the fact that the one van held Carter and several of his men, meaning I was safe for the moment. Monica and I stood on the front porch as Frank, Cody, Jake, and Alex stepped out of the first van. They were all still dressed in their field gear. Each was draped in black and strapped down with Kevlar, their weapons still holstered and their radios still on. They all wore expressionless faces and were obviously still keeping their guard up, especially with the enemy so near. After a few minutes Frank approached us silently, looking back over his shoulder several times in the short distance. He looked concerned about something but as he stepped up onto the porch he gave us a weak smile and nodded at Monica who then disappeared into the house. I knew immediately that something was going on that they had conveniently forgotten to tell me. Tired from lack of sleep as well as from the tedium of their silence I broke the silence between us. "Okay, just cut to the chase. What's wrong? Something isn't right, I can tell. So just stop the bullshit and tell me the truth," I said, louder than I had planned, attracting the attention of a few state troopers. Frank looked back at them and then turned back to me, placing his hands on his hips. He stepped closer towards me and bent his head down, hovering just inches from my ear. "I'm just concerned about Carter. The way he gave himself up, something's just not right." He turned back towards the van containing Carter. His jaw was set and his eyes narrowed as he stared at the men standing around the van. "You mean he just turned himself in? No fight?" "There was short fight, a little gunfire, but nothing compared to what he was capable of doing. We followed Renauldi to this warehouse, we watched Carter walk in and sent the team in. They were shooting at us before we even saw them. It was like they knew we were coming. We pushed them back into this storeroom and they just gave up. There was a back exit that wasn't covered but they didn't try to get out. They just gave up their weapons and quit the fight. I could tell by the faces of the men that Carter had ordered them to give themselves up. They looked as confused as we did. But we took him anyways. He has something planned Kate, he has to. Maybe I should send you ahead of us. Wait until you get to Chicago before we leave here, just in case." "No," I said, shaking my head, "I'm not doing that. I'm leaving here with you. There are not enough people to guard two groups out of here. I'm safer with everyone else. I'm not waiting anymore. We end this now and we just take whatever comes and move on." Frank looked at me, smiling as though what I was saying was in someway amusing. "What? What's so funny?" "You," he answered flatly. "You're becoming quite the strategist. Not to mention fearless." "I'm not fearless. Far from it. I would rather just face my fears now, all at once, than suffer through them the way I have the past few weeks. I'm done with the torture." I could tell he wanted to argue the matter further, but he just nodded his head and squeezed my shoulder gently as he went into the house. I stood by the door, watching the van, wondering what Carter had planned for us. I felt what Frank sensed and I agreed. As little as I knew of him, I knew Carter would not just give himself up the way he did unless he thought he could get something from it. It simply eluded us what he could gain from his own capture. Within the next hour everything was loaded up in the field van and we were heading out. Frank road with me in the black sedan as the line of vehicles returned to their original order and the police cruisers took the head and end of the line. We headed off down through the trees that lined the country road. It was the first time I noticed the road. It was poorly paved and crumbling along the sides. It was barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. The trees overhead were low and bare of their leaves, the scattered pine trees offering the only hint of green along the landscape. The road wound around outcroppings of rock and dipped into steep valleys. Occasionally the bare trees would allow the glimpse of the dying sun hanging low on the horizon, burning steadily against the approaching darkness. There were scattered farmhouses in the valleys below and unmarked gravel roads branched out up into the hills and dropped out of sight along ravines. The snow had fallen steadily for hours now, it's thick blanket of cold, stark ice smothering the ground on both sides of the road. It was just starting to stick to the road as the day's heat had begun to fade and a cold wind blew across its surface. I shivered despite the warmth of the car and pulled my coat around me tighter. The sound of the black nylon rubbing against itself and the cushion of the puffy down was comforting, almost like an extra wall between Carter and myself in the van behind us. Frank sat next to me, but was distant. He was looking out the window, his elbow propped up on the ledge, and with his head tilted back slightly was methodically rubbing his chin with his thumb and forefinger. His brow would occasionally furrow and then relax. I knew he was thinking about Carter and what he had in store for us. I also knew he would never relay his fears to me. Gently, I reached my hand out towards his as it lay on the seat and squeezed it softly. My hands felt so cold against his. He turned, slightly startled, and then smiled softly as he took my hand completely in his and brought it up to his lips. I closed my eyes as he softly pressed his lips against the back of my hand, the warmth resonating through my arm. Then, just as softly, he touched my knuckles to his cheek and then brought our hands back down to the seat and turned back towards the window. Part of me wanted to curl up next to him as I had done before, but I knew that at that moment I could not. So we stayed as we were. Two people staring away from each other, each of us leaning against opposite doors but reaching out to each other, anchored to one another. We drove in silence for another half hour through the hills, the sun just a sliver as it peaked between the skeletons of the trees. The woods closed in quickly and darkened faster than the open valley below. The road began to level off eventually and the curves softened as we slowly descended. We had just turned a corner and could see the road straighten out ahead of us when we heard the thunderous roar of an explosion. I did not see at first what had happened. I looked up ahead of us as the tremor rumbled through the car. I had just caught a glimpse of the ball of fire in front of us before the driver swerved. The field van, with Frank's team inside, had swerved and braked hard to avoid the burning heap of metal ahead of them. The two state trooper patrol cars had been annihilated. They lay atop one another, mangled and twisted, flames quickly building impenetrable walls around them. We knew instantly they men inside were dead. The field van, in it's desperate attempt to miss the chaos in front of it, had spun sideways on the thin ice and flipped over on it's side. For what seemed like hours, the sound of breaking glass and the sparks from the metal frame grinding into the pavement were the only thing I could see or hear. But it took only seconds before they came to a stop. Our car ended up spinning in the opposite direction from the van but came to rest quickly. The van and cars behind us had a little more time to stop and were able to avoid the building mass of vehicles. Frank jumped from the car as soon as it came to a stop, yelling at me over his shoulder not to move. The driver followed him towards the burning cars and overturned van. I sat alone in the car sideways, with one knee on the seat and the foot of the other leg planted firmly on the floorboard. I was bracing myself between the backs of the front and back seats, looking frantically back towards the cars behind us and watching as Frank opened the back of the field van and our driver climbed up to open the other driver's door. They began pulling people out as quickly as they could, each person staring with amazement at the wall of flames in front of them. Despite the appearance of the crash, the team made it out safely, and crouched down alongside the van for cover. The state troopers and the agents guarding Carter remained in their vehicles, I could see them looking up and down the road and surrounding hills trying to find to source of the explosion. Frank, crouched low to the ground, scuttled over as close to the burning cars as possible, I assumed looking for any signs of life but his eyes never left the ground next to the pavement. He brushed aside some snow and then looked off into the woods. He turned suddenly and made his way back to his team. He spoke to them for a few moments and then ran over to me. He slipped into the backseat next to me and motioned for me to get down low, close to the seat. "There's line laid out alongside the road," he whispered as he bent down to my level. "What kind of line? What do you mean?" "Explosives. Essentially the cars hit a landmine. They triggered the explosive when they drove over it." "You mean someone laid a bomb in the middle of the road? Anyone could have driven over it! What the hell are they thinking?" I screamed, sitting up straight again, staring at the fire ahead. "Kate, get down," Frank ordered, pushing my head down again. "I know they could have, but the point is it was meant for us. It means someone is out here waiting for us and probably watching us right now." "Then why aren't they doing anything? Why are we just sitting here?" "We can't turn around on this narrow road. We'd have to back the cars up for about a half-mile before there'd be enough space turn around. Plus, we don't know where they are; they'd probably hit us before we made it too far. We need to secure this position and see what they have planned." "Are you crazy? We're sitting ducks here! At least if we try moving we have a chance. God, Frank, we're in the middle of an ambush and you're telling me we're just going to sit here and take it? Like hell we are! I'm not dying here Frank, not after all that's happened." "Just relax. We're not just going to sit here and let them kill us, Kate. We have to assess the situation before we can act." I could not believe what I was hearing. Frank was trying to ration this whole thing out as though we had all the time in the world. I knew he was trained to handle these things calmly and to think his actions through, but I had resigned myself to death once before and had no plans of doing so again. And then we heard it. At first it was just a light whistling sound but it grew louder as it got closer. Then, from behind us came a massive explosion that was soon followed by another. The reverberation sent a shockwave through the car as shrapnel crashed through the back window. Frank threw himself on top of me, trying to shield me from the debris. As the heat retreated, we sat up to see Jake running towards the car. "They're RPG's! They just took out the other two cruisers!" he yelled as he jumped into the front seat of the car. "They came from up the hill." "Are you sure?" Frank asked sternly, his calm demeanor diminishing quickly.

"Yeah, I followed the smoke trails up into the trees but I can't see who fired them." "Wait!" I yelled at the both of them, completely lost in the exchange. "What's an RPG?" "It's a rocket propelled grenade. They launched them from somewhere in the woods. Just think of it as a mini-missile," Jake explained breathlessly as he scanned the woods to our right. "Then shouldn't we get out of the cars, if that's what they're targeting?" "No," Frank answered flatly, "Not yet. They want us to scatter and try to hide in the woods. That way they can get to Carter easier to release him and come after us individually. We have to wait them out here as long as possible." No sooner had he said the words than the bullets began raining down on the center vehicles. Throwing ourselves down on the floorboard, we were blind as to where the bullets were coming from. All I could hear was the shatter of glass, the thud of the bullets as they impacted the sides of the car, and the miniscule pop of a sonic boom set off by the bullets that zipped past our heads. The barrage of fire went on for several minutes before I realized that part of the noise was coming from our own people, still crouched down by the van, as they returned fire. Again the attack was coming from the right side of the car, from somewhere up on the hill. It finally occurred to me why they were only attacking from the one side. They were trying to draw us out of the cars and force us down the embankment on the other side. Frank had been right. If we had tried to run we would either have ran directly to them or straight into the trap. "They want us to flee down into the ravine," Frank yelled to Jake in the front seat who was helplessly trying to get a shot in. "I noticed!" he yelled back. "We need to get everyone to the other side of the road, but we need to stay together." Jake nodded and Frank gave him cover fire as he slid out of the car and raced back to the rest of the team. Frank grabbed a radio in the front seat and confirmed with the drivers of the armored van what they were going to do. Then, without another word, Frank opened his door, backed out of car slowly, then grabbed the back of the collar on my coat and pulled me out of the car in one solid motion and deposited me against the wheel. I curled up as small as I could as I felt the heat from the bullets as they flew past my ankles. "Kate," Frank yelled to me as he fired his weapon across the seat and through the broken window on the other side, "You have to run to the other side of the road and get down behind a tree. Don't go too far down the bank, just a few feet, and wait for the rest of us to regroup." I stared across the road at a large tree that was just over the drop-off from the pavement. It was only a couple meters but it looked like a mile. I looked up at Frank who was intensely committed to the firefight. I wanted to argue the idea but knew it would do no good. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, exhaled, and then ran a straight line to the tree I had set my sights on earlier. I could hear the bullets hitting the pavement at my feet and pushed myself forward just a little faster. I crashed into the snow and leaves at the base of the tree and slid down onto my back. I lay there for a few minutes before I could summon the courage to look back at the road. From my vantage point, all I could see were the tops of the remaining vehicles and the orange glow of the fires now burning from each side. Slowly, I stood up behind the tree, keeping my body pressed against it as tightly as I could. I peered out onto the scene before me. It looked so surreal. Against the advancing darkness of the night the trees had blackened. They looked like solid shadows arranged along the hillside. The fires lit up the road like theatre lights causing the shadows to dance. The snow was still falling and the white backdrop only added to the drama. For a brief moment I felt completely detached from the action, like I was watching a movie. It had become a familiar feeling. I could no longer hear the bullets as they flew by me and hit the surrounding trees. I did not jump anymore when something inside the burning vehicles would cause a secondary explosion. I just watched calmly as the heavy metal bodies buckled and heaved under the attack of the flames. I could see a few people in shadowy profile alone, crouched down alongside cars. I never saw anyone follow me to the trees. Suddenly, I felt someone grab the back of my jacket and then I was pulled down to the ground. I turned to face my assailant, prepared to fight, only to find Jake squatting down behind me. "You better stay down," he said firmly, a slight scowl across his forehead as he peered out from behind the tree. "We're waiting for Frank and Alex." I looked to my left and not five yards away was Monica and Cody, watching the road with their guns drawn. They had dove for cover apparently, about the same time I did and I never noticed them I was so caught up in my own safety. I looked towards the armored van. All the doors were open but no one was around. I looked to my right expecting to see the guards with Carter and his men. But there was nothing but trees and snow. "Jake," I said turning around, "where's Carter?" "What do you mean?" he asked, poking his head out the other side of the tree, practically lying across me to do so. "Carter and his men? The guards? Where are they?" "They must have dove for cover somewhere," he said, unsure of his answer and still scanning the scene for signs of them. "Two guards and how many men?" I asked, but he did not respond at first. "Jake! How many men?" "Six counting Carter. We took five of his men into custody." "Six people against two? They couldn't possibly cover six men in this chaos!" "Well, we weren't exactly expecting this, now were we?" he shot back, irritated at my questions and his uncertainty. "We have to get Frank over here. He has to know they're missing." "We don't know they're missing. They could be anywhere." "Yeah, I know, that's the problem. They could be anywhere. And those guards could be dead by now. This was all a set up from the beginning Jake, don't you see that? Carter gave himself up because he knew he could get us into this position to finish what he started. This is why Frank was nervous about taking Carter into custody. He knew something wasn't right." "Well, that could all be true. But right now we have to focus on those shooters and getting the rest of our people over here." I turned back towards the road. I could see Frank and Alex crouched down next to the exposed undercarriage of the van, taking shots as they could get them. After a few moments they made a mad dash for the trees and crash landed between those of us watching. Frank looked around frantically, trying to get a sense of who had made it to cover and who had not. "Where's Carter?" he yelled to Jake. "I don't know. We lost track of the Carter's men and our agents when the shooting began. They could still be in the van." "I doubt that. The doors are open. Our people would have gone for cover...if they got out." "What if they didn't?" I asked, pushing into the conversation. "What if they're dead and Carter is on the loose? If he planned this then we're right where he wants us. We could be dead already." "We haven't lost yet. We just have to figure out what he's planning. He obviously wants us to split up. That would be his best bet if he were planning to capture or kill us. So we need to stay together as best we can. We stay in a group and move down the ravine a bit more. Then we start moving in the same direction the cars were. With any luck we'll make it to better cover. Has anyone tried to call for back up?" "Yeah, a couple of times," Cody answered from behind Frank. "Signal's being jammed. I'm guessing Carter's behind that as well, he seems to have that evil-maniacal-cellular-phone-jamming type of persona." I smiled in spite of the situation and could tell from the look in Frank's eyes that he too was amused but trying to ignore Cody's attempt at humor. He gave Cody a stern glance before he continued talking. "Alright, we move together down the ravine a few more yards. Then we start moving in the same direction as the road," Frank announced to the group. I could tell that Jake did not like the plan. Something about it troubled him but he said nothing as we all began to move down the ravine. We were walking in a line, Alex at the head and Jake covering us from behind. I walked, slightly crouched down, between Frank and Jake. There was little light to see by and as we moved further away from the fires there was even less. The slope was steep and the leaves and snow made progress slow and troubled. I slipped several times, each time leaning down into the side of the slope to steady myself. I dug my bare hands into the icy dirt so many times that I could no longer feel my fingers. But I ignored the pain and cold, too worried as to who may be following us in the darkness. We marched in silence for about fifteen minutes, when we came upon a gravel road that descended from the main road down into the dark ravine below. Frank stopped the team at the edge of the road. It was not very wide but it was wide enough to make it dangerous to cross. It was decided we would cross one at a time as Jake continued to monitor the woods behind us. Alex, Cody, and Monica made a swift procession across the road, and arrived on the other side safely. Frank put his hand on my back and signaled that it was my turn now that there was adequate cover on the other side. I nodded in response and positioned myself on the edge of the road, ready to dart to the other side, when I saw the shadow in the middle of the road. The bright lights of a large vehicle were shining down the gravel road. There was someone standing in front of the truck, staring down into the ravine. I froze in my crouched position staring up into the lights. For a brief moment the image of the proverbial deer in the middle of the road flashed through my mind. I tried to slink back towards cover, but it was too late. I heard someone yelling inaudibly and saw the scurrying shadows of feet around the vehicle. Suddenly from behind us, two large searchlights lit up the woods, flooding the trees with light and illuminating our exact location. Frank yelled to team members on the opposite side of the road to run for cover. As they began to make their retreat, gunfire once again exploded through the air. The team did not return fire but continued through the maze of trees until they reached darkness once again. In the meantime, Frank, Jake, and myself had flattened ourselves against the ground trying desperately to shield ourselves from the hail of bullets that was condensing on our location. After a couple minutes the guns were stopped. There was silence for a moment as we waited for the firing to begin again. There were more inaudible commands being barked from the top of the road and the sounds of running on the gravel. We knew they could easily see us and I assumed the feet were heading our way. I turned my head enough to see the surface of the road. It was empty and the scuffling sounds were slowly fading. I turned back toward Frank and Jake. They were signaling to one another using hand gestures I did not understand. After a brief pause to look back at the lights behind us, Frank looked back to me. "We're going to back track along the ravine and then head towards the bottom. Then we'll try to make our way out of here," he whispered. "Are you nuts?" I whispered back, almost shrill in my tone. There was no way I was heading back towards where we had come from. We had hardly made it out alive the first time. Now we had and unknown number of people behind us at the controls of floodlights. They had guns and could see us perfectly while all we could make out of them was an occasional shadow. "Kate, it's our only chance. I don't think there are more than four men behind us. We would have spotted a large group tracking us before. If we cross the road they'll mow us down," "What do you think they'll do if we walk straight toward them? Throw us a party?" "They won't shoot at us." "And how do you know that?" I asked worried at what he might say in response. "Because we won't be trying to escape," he answered plainly, as though from that little piece of information I should understand completely what he meant. "Then what are we going to do?" "We're going to give ourselves up." I stared at him in disbelief. I felt my shock would have been obvious, even in the pitch black of night. But I was certain he could read me perfectly in the scattered rays of light that were beating through the trees like a battering ram. "Are you out of your bloody mind?" I asked slowly, deliberately, meaning every word seriously. "No, I'm not. Listen, if we surrender, and walk towards the men behind us to do so, then Carter will tell them not to shoot. He wants to do the job and I'm guessing he's up by the truck. So he'll tell them to apprehend us and bring us to him." "And that's a good thing?" "Yes. Because if there are as few men back there as I think there are, then we stand a good chance of taking them out and getting past Carter. If we don't surrender, then we won't get anywhere close." "What about the rest of the team? Won't they come back?" "Probably. But we can't wait for them and they wouldn't be able to take down all of these men on their own. This is the only chance we've got right now." I sighed after hearing his last statement. I was tired of running, tired of fighting, tired of being in a constant state of terror. I just wanted it all to be over and part of me thought that if Carter did capture us, then maybe he'd finish it quickly and I would not have to suffer through anymore of his games. But when I looked back at Frank I knew he would not let me give up because he would never give up. I thought his strength and assurances would be enough to get me through all of it, but I was beginning to see that I could not leech courage from him. My survival was dependent on my abilities alone and I would have to find the strength to live. I nodded to Frank, my silent signal that I was willing to try his plan, but secretly I was praying that Carter would not open fire as soon as he saw us move to stand. Slowly, Frank brought himself to his knees and raised his hands in the air. Jake soon followed and then, after a moment of hesitation, so did I. The lights felt like a thousand eyes looking right through us and we finally stood. We moved so slowly, so deliberately, that it barely felt like movement. We turned together, facing the lights behind us, ignoring the vehicle and men in the road. We then began to walk toward the blinding lights and the faceless men behind them. Frank stood between Jake and myself. I was a couple steps behind them watching their every move, unsure how far we were really going. I suddenly felt dwarfed by Frank's demanding stature and the shower of light before us. We could hear the muffled sounds of radios and walkie-talkies as we approached but no one said a word to us until we finally stopped, standing just in front of the lights. Three men moved forward and walked around behind us. They were each carrying rifles and jammed the barrels into our backs, silently ordering us behind the lights. As we stepped around the lights we finally got a good look at our captors. There were four men total, just like Frank had suspected, each toting a rifle, handgun, and large Bowie knife. They were dressed in black cargo pants and black military sweaters. They looked exactly like the men from the college. But this time they were not wearing masks but tight black skullcaps and their faces were smudged with dark camouflage grease. Suddenly I felt the sweep of a thousand images of that day take over my mind. I closed my eyes, trying to collection my wits about me. I could not allow myself to panic and give in to my fear. If this plan was going to work I would have to be part of it completely. That undoubtedly meant I would have to fight these men just as Frank and Jake would. We were marched over to a tree and told to drop our weapons on the ground. Frank and Jake did as they were told, but deliberately dropped them as closely to their feet as possible. It became obvious that the men holding the guns were barely men at all. They were once again young and just out of their teens. Just like that boy had been in the boiler room. The first one I had killed.

I was beginning to see how Carter was able to get so many soldiers under his command. They were most likely wayward boys with little going for them in life, probably all in and out of juvenile detention, maybe worse. Then Carter comes along with his money and tales of glory and promises of a better life. He takes them under his wing and they become his unwitting slaves. My fear began to turn into pity as I watched the men in front of us trying to figure out what to do. They were obviously receiving directions over their radios and two had removed themselves to talk over how they would get us over to Carter. The two remaining kept their sights on us intently but it was apparent that they were scared. Nervous sweat dropped off their foreheads and rolled into their eyes. They blinked periodically trying to keep down the sting of the salty sweat as it burned in their eyes. They fidgeted quite a bit as well. Shifting their weight from one foot to another, stealing concerned glances at one another. Frank sighed heavily as he watched them. I knew exactly what he was thinking. They were the threat and they had to be removed. But they were just kids at the same time. Just as Johnny had been that day I killed him. The image of the pretty girl in the photograph he carried floated before me as I looked into the eyes of the gunman directly in front of me. The other two men had now begun arguing with one another. One was concerned that we were not bound. The other was reminding him that they had nothing to use as restraints, they were not expecting us to surrender. But the first was unwilling to try to walk us the relatively short distance to Carter's vehicle still sitting in the middle of the road, without restraints of some kind. This confusing continued for several minutes. I began to wonder why Carter had not come to retrieve us himself and why Frank had not yet made an attempt to escape yet. But both of those questions would soon be answered. One of the two men arguing suddenly fell silent and motioned to the other to do the same. He put his hand to his side of his head, apparently trying to hear what was being said over his radio through the tiny earphone. He mumbled something back and turned towards the rest of us. "Carter's coming down," he announced uncertainly. "I don't think he's too happy. Apparently we should've shot them where they stood." One of the men holding the guns turned around to face the messenger. "Well, then why don't we just go ahead and do it now then," he suggested arrogantly, trying to keep up his tough-as-nails persona. But before he could turn back around Frank and Jake jumped into action. I was as startled as our captors as Frank lunged at the man in front of Jake and me the other. They were so surprised by the attack that they did little to counter it. They took them down quickly, disarming them each in one easy motion. The whole event felt like slow motion as I watched in shocked silence. I looked up as I remembered the other two men. In their own brand of shock they were unable to bring up their weapons smoothly. The one closest to me dropped his rifle and as he bent to retrieve it, Jake took aim at his partner and sent him flailing with one shot to the chest. The other man, finally able to pick his weapon up, turned towards me trying to bring his rifle up level enough to fire at me. I dropped to the ground, feeling in the darkness for the gun Frank had dropped. I found not more than a couple of feet from me and brought it up to aim as steadily as I could. Down on my knees, I sat back on my feet and leveled the handgun at the man in front of me. At the same time he gripped his rifle, at last ready to fire. Without a second thought, I squeezed the trigger and sent four bullets toward him. His got off one shot before two of bullets hit him square in the chest and the other two in his left leg. But this one shot was wasted as it flew past my head and into the tree behind me. I felt a sharp sting and then a burning pain on my right cheek and knew instantly that his shot was not that far off. It had grazed the side of my head, skipping off my cheekbone. Another inch and it would have entered my skull.

I watched as the man fell backwards onto the ground, an expression of surprise and pain frozen in his darkening eyes. I brought the gun down to rest at my knees as I watched him fall. Slowly I looked at the ground before us. There lay four young men that had no business being in this situation and should have had decades of life before them. But now they were dead and they had Carter to thank for it. It was that thought that brought me back to the present reality. Carter was coming down the hillside already and the sound of gunfire would only motivate him and his men more. Frank and Jake were desperately grabbing up the dead men's guns and ammunition. Frank grabbed one of the handguns and an extra clip of ammo and tossed it to me. I dropped the first gun like it was a toy and tucked the clip in my jeans pocket. Frank and Jake were silent as they turned away from the bodies and ran towards me. Frank grabbed my arm and brought me to my feet as he simultaneously pushed me in front of him and down the ravine. "Stay in front of us," he yelled, "Move down to the bottom of the ravine as fast as you can. Don't look back." I did exactly as he said and started running as best I could down the steep embankment. Grabbing the trees to keep myself from sliding down the hill uncontrollably, I skidded to a halt at the bottom landing in a small stream. Frank and Jake were not far behind me and soon came splashing into position next to me. "What now?" Jake asked breathlessly as he watched the hillside. We could hear the men coming after us but could not see them. The lights were still visible at the top of the ravine but they were quickly extinguished. "Carter will move his vehicles down the ravine so they can use the searchlights. Our best chance is to try to climb up the other side of the ravine. With any luck there will be better cover." "Wait. There's no certainty there's anything on the other side of that hill but more woods. What if we back tracked along the stream towards the cars? Maybe we can get one out and drive out of here." "No, Kate we can't do that. Carter will have left men there to make sure we didn't get to the cars." "What about the gravel road? If it comes down the ravine than it has to pass this stream so there must be a bridge of some kind. We could cross there and try to meet up with the others." "No Kate!," Frank yelled impatiently. "We can't get to any bridge before Carter can drive there. We have to get over this hill." I shook my head in defeat, resting my hands on my hips as a struggled to catch my breath in the cold night air. Frank took the lead up the steep hillside and I quickly followed. Once again Jake took up the rear, trying desperately to see Carter and his men somewhere in the woods behind us. It was a struggle to climb up the ravine side. The leaves were loose and slippery and the recent rains had left nothing but mud underneath. Now the snow was coming down a little heavier but the trees were still shielding us from most of it. We were half way up the ravine when the first sounds of gunfire began to echo along the walls. The three of us dropped to our knees, losing ground on the unstable substrate with such sudden movements. Jake slid for several feet before regaining his footing. He was left wide open, lying on the ground, searching for his weapon. Carter's men spotted him before he could find the gun and opened fire. Jake dove for cover behind a patch of bare thorny bushes just in time. Frank grabbed the back of my coat and pulled me up next to him. "Keep moving. Don't stop. I have to help Jake," he directed me as he took for a tree near Jake's position for cover. I paused for a moment, wanting to stay them, knowing I would only be a burden. So I turned and started to make my way up the ravine the rest of the way. I could hear the sound of Frank and Jake returning fire behind me but I never looked back. I made it to the top of the ravine, exhausted and breathless, clutching at the cramp in my right side. I noticed that I had torn my coat in several places and the white down filling was slowly working it's was out. I grabbed at the zipper and quickly removed the coat, tossing it down the ravine. My only thought was that the feathers could be used to track me. I know now that white down on white snow in the middle of the night would be pretty close to impossible to track, but I was not thinking straight and knew I had to keep my tracks as hidden as possible. I finally stood, my back against a tree, facing away from the ravine. It was then that I got my first good look around. I was standing on the edge of the gravel road that had made its way up the opposing side of the ravine. I looked up and down the road but there were no visible signs of Carter or his men and their vehicles. Across the road, there was a small field about a half-mile wide. It sloped gently down into the valley and as I looked to my right I noticed that I could see straight down between the hills. The snow had indeed begun to build in intensity. The flakes were large and wet but they were starting to make visibility poor. I stared intently at the other side of the field and could just make out the shape of a building. There was a faint light in one of the windows and smoke rolling out of the chimney. It had to be a farmhouse. I could only hope that meant some kind of safety and more importantly - a phone. I couldn't cross the field directly; there was a fence along the roadside. Six foot posts with five lines of barbed wire strung between them. And to my utter dismay an orange sign bright enough to read in the weak moonlight.
"DANGER! Cattle Fence. High Voltage." An electric fence. Of course. Carter himself could not have planned this any better. I almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. It seemed the Fates had plotted against me at every corner. Every time I found an out, another wall was thrown up. Now, there was six-foot electric fence that I did not stand a chance a scaling. I looked down the gravel road to my left. It had to lead in the direction of the farmhouse. I could see it curve to the right about twenty yards ahead and disappear into more trees. It was my only chance. The gravel would help hide my tracks since the snow was still disappearing in the spaces between the large rocks and I would stand less of a chance of getting lost and walking straight back to Carter. Unfortunately this also meant I would be out in the open most of the time, or at least close enough to the road that should they drive through, they would see me before I would see them. I could not hear any cars on the gravel, which was a relief. I could still hear gunfire in the ravine and knew that I could not wait to see if they made is safely to the top. My only shot was to get to the farmhouse and call the police, to get some kind of backup to Frank and the rest of the team. So, I took a few uncertain steps down the road, and then, still unable to hear approaching vehicles, took off in a dead run along the edge of the road. I ran flat out for about fifty yards, following the road as it curved through the woods. I turned my head to look back several times, but there were no lights and no signs of anyone behind me. As I came around one corner I was shocked to see nothing ahead of me but black. I stopped running and stared before me, trying to let my eyes adjust to the light. Through my erratic breathing and blurred vision I saw what eventually revealed itself to be a covered bridge. It was perched precariously over a severe ravine whose stream had obviously dried up years ago. I assumed from the position where I thought the ravine was located that I must be at the head of the valley, which meant I was at least half way across. At least I hoped I was. The serpentine fashion of the road had caused me to lose any sense of direction. I took one last look behind me as I started my approach towards the bridge. I followed the road as it edged its way along the ravine and turned sharply into the mouth of the bridge. A new terror filled me as I stood at the side of the bridge, still out of sight from anyone who may be inside. I pulled the sleeves of my black knit top over my hands, a nervous habit I had had since childhood. I was suddenly all too aware of how thin it was and how low the neckline was. I could feel the cold air hitting my chest and penetrating it with a vengeance as I struggled to breath. I brought clenched fists together and raised them to my chin. I tried to breath into my hands, hoping the dark material covering them would help shield my lungs from the icy cold air. But my breaths were just as cold and painful. I clenched my hands together under my chin, resting my head on them, looking down at the ground. Every part of me told me that crossing that bridge would be a death sentence. It terrified more than the gunfire behind me. I reached slowly toward the waistband of my pants pulling the cold steel of the gun away from my skin and gripping it firmly in my hand. I was staring down at it when I noticed that I could no longer hear the gunshots from the ravine. I listened hard but all I could hear was the deathly silence of the dark woods. I resigned myself to crossing the bridge. It was the only way to get help. In my heart I knew that the reason there were no more shots being fired was because Frank and Jake had been killed. I tried not to think about it, but a brief moment of tears came anyway. I quickly wiped them away with my shirtsleeve and took several deep breaths. I cleared my mind of any thoughts other than making it across the bridge. I leaned my head back against the worn wood and steadied the gun in the center of my body, my arms stretched out and the gun pointing towards the ground. I peeked around the corner into the bridge briefly. All I could make out was the first few feet from the entrance. I noticed that the roof had caved in long ago and the moonlight and snow were leaking in. The floor of the bridge looked sturdy, as much of it as I could see. I leaned in again, this time chancing a glance down the entire length. Much of the roof had fallen away on the left side and I could see the end clearly. No one was visible inside and no one appeared to be waiting on the opposite side. I took a few slow steps onto the bridge, my eyes darting from side to side, trying to peer into the shadows. I was a few yards in when I decided it was safe to cross and I was definitely alone. I picked up pace, running a little sideways, trying to keep an eye behind and before me. I still had a death grip on my gun, keeping my arms extended and down, just like I had always seen it done in the movies and on television. It is amazing what you can learn by watching endless reruns of COPS and more than one too many war movies. My legs were beginning to give up the fight and I was having trouble keeping up my pace. I was tripping in the darkness with every other step, the toe of my Nike's catching on the warped floorboards of the bridge. I was more the half way across when I heard it. A car. It was still a good distance away and definitely behind me, or so I thought. I slowed down to walked backwards as I turned around to watch the direction I had come from, my gun raised and leveled at the opening of the bridge. The sound of the vehicle got louder as it approached and I soon realized that the echoes of the bridge were playing tricks on my hearing. It was not long before it was obvious that the vehicle I heard was coming from the opposite direction. I turned around to face it just as it appeared at the end of the bridge behind me. The bright headlights surprised me but I held my weapon straight out in front of me and stood my ground. I honestly thought it was someone from the farm. I had no idea that while I was making my ascent up the ravine that Carter had driven past me at the top, unaware I had not yet made it up the side of the slope. But as I watched the figure behind the wheel of the large black SUV step out of the vehicle and walk up to the front of the car, just behind the lights, I knew that was exactly what had happened. It was Carter. He was standing there with his hands in the pockets of his beige pants, the bottom corners of his khaki jacket pulled to the sides, exposing the white turtle neck underneath. He looked like he had just stepped out of GAP catalog and he had a smug smile on his face as he stared at me. He looked me up and down. My mud caked jeans, my water soaked running shoes, and my tattered top must have been a pleasing sight to him. I was trembling fiercely, trying to keep the gun aimed at him. I had every opportunity to shoot him. I wanted to shoot him. But I was not yet a murderous monster as he was and my conscience would not let me shoot him in cold blood, no matter what he had done to me. I could not kill a man that was just standing there looking at me in cold silence. "Well, Miss Connor," he began suddenly. I jumped a little at the sound of his voice. "We meet again. I must say you look about the same as I left you in that boiler room. But I guess we know that looks aren't everything, don't we?" I said nothing in reply. I only grip the handle of the gun harder. He took a couple steps back and reached into the cabin of the truck, turning off the lights. I blinked a few times trying to adjust to the sudden change in light. I found him back in the same spot leaning against the side of the truck. "That's better," he said, pleased with himself for something unknown to me. "No need for those blaring things is there? Plenty of light in here. Don't you think?" I stood silent, trying to ignore his comments, knowing he would only try to use his words against me. "What's the matter Miss Connor? Why don't you just shoot me? I'm unarmed and alone. Then you could move on, take the truck, and make for that farmhouse and call for help." He paused momentarily, tilting his head inquisitively. "Of course, that really won't do any good. I've already been to that house. They said they hadn't seen anyone. They swore they weren't hiding you in there. But I didn't believe them. The house should be fully lit by now and burning well. Those poor children. I guess I should have believed them. Obviously, they weren't lying to me were they?" He narrowed his stare, the smug smile returning as he tilted his head down a little. I knew what he wanted to achieve by telling me that story. True or not, I had to ignore it. There was nothing I could do if he was telling the truth and no reason to react if he was lying. All I could do was put the farmhouse out of my mind and hold my ground. He took a few steps out and was between me and the truck. I wanted with all my heart to just unload the gun into his body and then reload and have at him again. But that would have made me just as bad as him. I tried to quell the storm of anger that was rising within me. "Tell me Miss Connor, did you happen to make it to your friend's funeral? You know that pretty little thing from the college. Oh, now what was her name? Oh yes, Vanessa...Vanessa Parkins. Sweet girl. Another bad judgment call on my part. A real shame. But, did you? Manage to make it to her funeral?" he tried to look as though he was seriously having a conversation. But I could see the look in his eyes. He was enjoying the affect the mention of Vanessa's name was having on me. I gripped the gun as hard as ever, breathing heavily, trying to hold back the tears. "Oh that's right," he began again, "You didn't make it, did you? You were locked down in that hospital weren't you? Oh well, let me tell you about it. "It was lovely. Tons of flowers. Lots of people. Her boyfriend was there. Peter was his name? Yes, he was terribly distraught, threw himself on top of the coffin just before they lowered it in the ground. Very dramatic," he laughed as he said it and I wanted to kill him even more. "So it's just a game to you then, isn't it?" I forced the question out between clenched teeth. "No my dear, that's where you're wrong. It's never been a game. Revenge is never a game. It's very serious." "Revenge for what? I didn't do anything to you and neither did Vanessa." "Oh no, most certainly you didn't do anything to me. It was Donovan, your precious Donovan. He was the only one that I ever wanted to destroy. He took my beautiful Mercedes away from me. He killed her, so I kill him. It's very theory. But you know, life is complicated and things never go quite as planned. Trigger-happy kids, uncooperative hostages, and obstructive little girls like you. They all factor in but you can't plan ahead for them really. Now it's all very personal. My agenda to kill Donovan and yourself. Donovan's agenda to protect you and kill me. And now your agenda to save yourself and kill me. You see? I'm the one at odds here, not you." He shrugged his shoulders as though it were all so simple and common. I hated him for his complacency and he knew it. He wanted me to hate him. That hate would blind me and he could control me. But I did everything in my power to prevent that. "You and Donovan have an interesting little thing going there, don't you?" he continued. His knowing about Donovan and myself did not surprise me. After the night in the safe house I had learned that no place was completely safe and had taught myself to expect everyone to know my business. I may have been in hiding but my activities and background had to be known by everyone that had contact with me. So Carter's admission of knowledge of Frank and I was nothing that could have shocked me. "Maybe, " I answered, as coolly as I could. "Doesn't really matter anymore, does it? None of it matters. Not me, not Donovan, not even you. It's not about revenge, it's about your bloodlust, and you'll take it wherever you can get it. You'll take it out on me, Donovan, his team, even a defenseless family living quietly in a farmhouse." It was my turn to push the emotional envelope with him. "You never gave a damn about Mercedes. She was just a pawn in your little game. Keep up the family values charade. I'm sure the day she died you must have been so relieved." "You don't know anything about Mercedes. You can't imagine what she meant to me. I forbid you to speak her name!" He was getting more and more excited with anger. "Yeah, she meant a lot. So much that you lead her into that warehouse and to her death. Oh, not physically, but you brought her there. You knew there could be trouble and you let her come with you anyway. You're so angry with everyone for her death, but really, you're the only one to blame. It's you fault she's dead." I could see the expression on his face change dramatically in the pale blue light that crept in through the roof of the bridge. He was angry, irate even, but then something changed. He did not take the bait. "Well, young lady, I must admit that your little speech almost worked. I appreciate the armchair psychiatrist routine, but it won't work. Don't think I haven't blamed myself for Mercedes' passing. On the contrary, I have blamed myself. I do blame myself. In many ways. But the fact remains that your Mr. Donovan is the one who killed her. Not me. He planted that agent in my team. He created the monster, now he has answer for its actions." I was not surprised my mental tactics failed but I was disappointed to say the least. I was out of ideas and the only option left was the gun I still held in my outstretched hands. Our eyes were trained on one another, uncertain what the other would do. Then we heard the sound of another vehicle making it's way toward the bridge. My heart sank. It was over. I had hesitated too long and now Carter would win. Frank was dead and soon, I would be too. I heard the car approach the end of the bridge behind me. I saw the headlights illuminate Carter and his truck and I could see the smug grin of victory on his face. But I still kept that gun trained on him. They would have had to kill me first before I would drop that weapon. Perhaps I hoped they would. If I gave up voluntarily I would undoubtedly be subjected to all the same tortures I had been exposed to in the boiler room. Only this time, the torture would be for fun. I heard the door of the car behind me open and close and could just faintly make out the sounds of footsteps on the bridge floor. I did not look back to see who or what was behind me. But as I watched Carter steadily, I noticed his expression change again. It went from the arrogant to confused to utter and complete surprise. I was confused myself as I watched him but I could not turn around. I did not want to risk the chance that he might have been playing a trick on me, so as to let my guard down. "Carter," I heard a voice cry out from behind me. I knew the voice instantly but was too afraid to turn around. "Carter, it's over. You've lost," Frank announced as he took a few more steps toward us. "Just give it up. It's not worth any more lives." "That's where you're wrong Donovan. I can't give up and it is very much worth as many lives as it takes to get back at you for what you've done," Carter said, greatly flustered from Frank's appearance. He seemed to forget all about me as he locked his stare on Frank. "Come on Philip. What can you accomplish now? Your men are all either dead or in custody and you're standing here with two guns aimed at you. What's left?" Frank asked as he edged his way toward us. His steps were slow and deliberate, but for the wrong reason. Carter began to respond, but he was cut short as the sound of splitting wood echoed through the bridge. I turned quickly to see Frank's foot sink into the hole that had just opened up beneath it. His ankle caught instantly and he was momentarily thrown off balance. Down on one knee he tried to free his foot with one hand while trying to keep his gun trained on Carter. But I had given Carter the opportunity he was looking for. In my moment of concern for Frank, I had brought my weapon down and turned my back on Carter. Before I could react, he had grabbed me from behind and twisted the gun out of my hand. He wrapped one arm around my neck and jammed the barrel of the gun against my left temple with the other. Instinctively I threw my hands up, grabbing the arm around my neck, trying to pry it off. "Well, now look who's holding all the cards, Donovan," Carter cried out. "Forgive the obvious joke, but seems to be I have your Queen of Hearts now don't I?" He laughed, amusing himself only. "So?" Frank said, still watching Carter but trying frantically to free his foot. "You kill her. I kill you. I still win. Those are the cards Carter. Like I said, it's over." "Ah, come on now Frank," Carter teased, "I know you better than that. You're a top-notch hostage negotiator. You don't lose people you're sworn to protect. Goes against everything you stand for. You'd die for her if she were a stranger. I can only imagine what you'd try now, 'cause we both know she ain't no stranger." Frank looked at me, desperate for some idea as to how to save me. But I looked down. I did not want him to risk his life to save me and I did not want him to see the terror in my eyes. My arms were free, as were my feet. I made the silent decision to try and fight my way free of Carter's grasp. With my left hand I hit Carter's left forearm, sending it and the gun straight up into the air and away form my head. As he tried to counter this action, I dropped with all my weight down to the floor of the bridge. The surprise of this caused Carter to lose his balance and stumble back, releasing my neck in the interim. I pivoted as I stood back up, now facing Carter, and grabbed his hand as he brought the gun back down. He managed to push the gun down between us, both of us struggling with both hands for control over the weapon. We were locked in the battle, staring into each other's eyes intently, when the weapon fired. The explosion between us surprised us both and the sound carried across the bridge and down into the valley, the echoes chaotic and charged. I heard Frank scream my name, but I could not respond. We stood, the struggle leaving us both, staring at one another. One of us frozen with shock, the other frozen with pain. The gun dropped to the floor but I could not hear it. I only felt its release from our collective grip. I felt colder than I had ever felt as the life slipped away and darkness fell. With one last breath and one last step backwards, Philip Carter fell to the ground for the last time. Soon after, I fell too. But not from a wound, from sheer shock, fear, and surprising relief.
********** "That was the last time I would see Philip Carter in the flesh," my mother announced unceremoniously. "I found out later that the team had regrouped and managed to call for assistance. They had taken out Carter's men and then set out to look for me. I went back home, a new home mind you, and after a while of tending to my own demons, set to the task of caring of your grandmother. I saw Frank as frequently as possible, especially after you were born." "How long after you escaped Carter was I conceived?" I asked, trying to be mischievous. Instead I was the one who was once again surprised. "Nine months," she answered, a little smile escaping her serene expression. "You were conceived in the safe house compound just days before Carter was captured." "Why didn't you and Frank get married?" I asked, that feeling of a stolen childhood creeping back on me. "Who said we didn't? We were married two months after you were born by a justice of the peace in a private ceremony. Only your grandmother and Jake were there to witness. There isn't any paperwork. It was never legal in the literal sense. It never could have been." "So he pretended to be a friend of the family and grandma played along as well?" "Yes. She knew we loved each other very much but it was impossible for us to be together in any traditional sense. So I continued my research from here and Frank moved the team to D.C. so he could be closer in case we needed him. There were many times I needed him and he needed me. I wish I could make you understand how dangerous you're childhood really was. I'm sure if you think back there are things you don't understand. Things you've chalked up to misinterpreted memories of a child." "What do you mean? What kind of things? What happened?" I asked, my interest newly relit. "Oh, Michael, not tonight. There are so many ways for you to find the answers to those questions and I don't have the energy to tell you anymore. I need to rest now." I could see from the look in her eyes that she was telling me the truth. She was exhausted and I helped her into bed. I gently folded her robe in half and laid it across the back of her chair as pulled the covers up over her chest. I kissed her softly on the forehead and told her how much I loved her, how sorry I was about my behavior, and that I understood everything now and could never really be angry with her. She smiled peacefully and went to sleep. I watched he quietly for a few minutes and then silently turned off the lights and shut the bedroom door behind me as I walked out of her room.
********** My mother died on October 18, 2045. We found her in the morning and an ambulance was called to the house. She was pronounced and taken away from the house she had loved so dearly. Two days later her funeral was held. In her will she specified where she was to be buried. I was surprised when I went to check the site that it was located in a small cemetery on the hill only a few miles from the house. Most of the stones were over a hundred years old, I noticed as I walked though the row. The caretaker had directed me to the back of the rows and as I reached the spot I was surprised yet once more. The site my mother had indicated was actually a conjoined site. The pain I felt as I read the stone was double that which I had felt the morning she died. The simple light gray granite stone was engraved at the top with the mathematical symbol for infinity, the horizontal figure eight. I took the meaning in this place to mean eternity, forever. The words on the stone both saddened and encouraged me. It read:
Here Lies
Beloved Husband
Devoted Father

Beloved Wife
Devoted Mother

I would later have the following added to the base: Courage is not measured by how many times one may conquer pain, but by how
many times one may prevent it.

The funeral services at the gravesite were held at sunset so that my mother could share on lat sunset with those closest to her. Clarissa was there. She had been amazing through everything, especially in the consolation of my wife, who had lost a mother for the second time. As the daylight faded, we turned to leave my parents to the peace and rest that they deserved. I smiled inside knowing they were now together and no one could change that. As we made our way back to the car, I noticed Clarissa talking to two men and a woman standing at the back of the line of cars. I escorted Melissa to the car and excused myself to join this mysterious group. As I approached they all turned towards me and watched in silence. "Michael," Clarissa began when I reached them, "I'd like to introduce you to some people. This is Cody, Alex, and Jake. I believe you've read about them." I stared at the trio in mild shock. They were all in their late sixties and it took me a moment to imagine the team young and doing the work my mother had described. "Your mother was an amazing woman. I'm sorry to see her go," Jake said, bravely freaking the awkward silence. "Thank you," I said after the other had repeated their sincerest sympathies. "I miss working with them," Cody said softly, staring at the grave contemplatively. "Working with who?" I asked. "Your parents," he answered, obviously surprised by my question. "We worked with them when you were very young." "Oh, the Carter case. No that was before I was born," I said, thinking he had confused my age. "Yes, yes. Then too. But after you were born as well. Your mother was quite the little spitfire," he said, smiling to himself. "Certainly kept Frank on his toes and worried sick half the time." "Mr. Connor," Alex began, shooting a warning glance in Cody's direction," your parents, both of them, worked together for many years while you were young. I would have thought they would have told you by now." I stared at Clarissa in mild shock, hoping she would offer more information. But she only stared back in silence, her jaw locked stoically.

"Well, Mr. Connor," Cody said, a meager smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, "It appears you parents were better at keeping secrets than we gave them credit for. I think it's time we got to know each other, " he said, putting his arm around my shoulder as we walked toward the cars. "Have I got a story to tell you..."