The term “tent” was generous; the entire structure was an assortment of threadbare fabrics upheld by wooden beams and dead branches. While it offered shade it did nothing to protect from the brutal sandstorms that ravaged the area. The old man greeted the sight of it with a grunt; it was hardly fit for human life.
But he doubted what resided here was human.
Wrapped in a flowing robe, the old man plodded across the Sahara. He carried only a satchel. His guides, local men, were happy to stay with the camels and not come within fifty yards of the place. While most of his Arabic had long deserted him, he still recognized “cursed” when he told them their destination.
As he neared the tent he saw a thin figure seated on a cinderblock beneath the shade. The figure stood as he approached; the old man could almost feel the thing smiling at him.
With his heart pounding from anticipation, he stepped inside. His vision darkened in the shade, and although he blinked several times to adjust his eyes nothing changed. How could he forget? The last time he saw this apparition, now decades past, it had been around a fire that inexplicably failed to illuminate the figure’s face. Then, as now, its face remained obscured in shadow, regardless that it stood an arm’s length away. In these unholy places even the laws of physics could be disregarded.
“You tempt death by returning.” The figure’s voice hadn’t aged in three decades: same unplaceable accent, same eerie quality.
“I’ve been dead for thirty years,” the old man replied. “I’m here to live again.” He saw the glint of teeth. A smile?
“The one who brought you before—what became of him?” The old man kept silent. “I see. How?”
“They always die first,” the figure chuckled. “The consorts, the ones who bring. Greedy enough to thirst for power, weak enough to be killed by it quickly. Always.” The old man shifted, uncomfortable. The figure’s grin widened. “Surely you didn’t think you were the first. Or that you’ll be the last.”
The figure didn’t answer. Instead, it retrieved a small tin container from the sandy floor.
“This is for your vessel.”
The old man took the tin and opened it; inside was a sheet of ancient white parchment that pulsed like a slow-beating heart. The old man closed the tin with a gulp and placed it into his satchel.
“What do I do with it?”
“Place it over the face of your vessel and activate it.”
“How do I do that?”
The figure now held a small wooden box. Inside was a small white porcelain bowl.
With it was a tiny stake, black as night.
“The same way you open the portal for your champion.” The figure was smiling again. “Under the light of a full moon. And with a bit of the other stuff.”
The old man stared.
“You can’t mean...why would they need—”
The figure giggled; it sounded like small birds being killed.
“It’s ironic, is it not? Blood is life. No matter what side you’re on.”
The old man breathed through gritted teeth. He then stuffed the tin into his satchel alongside the box.
“And not a moment more,” the figure replied. “One word of caution. Once the portal is open, it’s open to all. If the darkness is given a vessel it will use it.”
“That won’t happen.” The satchel was unnaturally warm against the old man’s side. “When it’s over I won’t be able to return any of this.”
“These things always find their way back to me. They’ll be ready the next time one of you comes to make a deal.”
The old man’s mouth tightened.
“I said it’s over. I’m ending this.” Anger fueled his certainty. But this time the figure didn’t smile.
“No, you’re not,” it said. “You’re praying your champion will.”
Then it smiled again.
Furious, the old man stomped back into the scathing sun.
CHAPTER ONE - Sunday Night
For all its luxury, the snow-covered cabin was a mere 6,000 feet above sea level, and Dominick Reinhart knew that was well-shy of “top the world” status. But Wrightwood, California was much closer to LA than the Himalayas, and looming over the city was an indulgence too delicious to forgo—even if the San Gabriel mountains had nothing on Mount Everest. The words of his grandmother came to mind: “Boy, sometimes you just gotta use what you got.”
Dominick sipped his hot cider. He and his mentor had been sitting in silence for nearly five minutes, with only the moonlight between them. What words could capture the moment? Victory—tangible, heart-pounding, life-affirming victory—defied description. Talking about it would be like trying to paint a portrait with hues that had escaped the color wheel.
The metaphor was poignant. Color—specifically the pigmentation of his skin—had long fed conversations about him. He had been a black MBA, then a black businessman, and was now a black executive. It was as if his race was a herald who traveled ahead to inform all in earshot that a Black man approaches. But now, with victory upon him, even his herald had gone silent. The only color anyone cared about now was green.
Satisfied, Dominick absorbed every nuance of now. The cabin’s front porch, where they sat, afforded them a commanding view of the forest hills around them. The log in the fire pit popped beside them. The wind, crisp and gentle, wafted across his cheek. It was tranquil, beautiful, and most of all, quiet.
“What happened to Miller?” Mr. Wellington’s voice cut through the silence with surprising urgency.
Dominick spared him a glance. Mr. Wellington knew what happened to Miller—the part that mattered anyway.
“I mean how did you do it?” the old man added. “How far did you go?”
“The circumstances preceding Miller’s resignation—his voluntary resignation—are best kept between the parties present at the time.” Admittedly, it was perhaps the sweetest corporate kill of Dominick’s career. But given this “corporate kill” had almost become literal and could have resulted in the involuntary ending of Carson Miller’s life, pride would defer to prudence.
“I don’t need deniability. I need to know I’m right about you, even if it’s too late.”
Dominick’s jaw tightened in confusion, but he saw only resolve on the older man’s face. Dominick leaned in close and spoke softly.
“Oppo found something. Illegal gambling. Dog-fights, cock-fights, bare-knuckle cage matches.”
“You blackmailed him?”
The investigating firm had warned against it; besides being dangerous, it could be construed as an obstruction of justice. But Miller—pompous, well-connected, and son of a former United States Congressman—would never withdraw from consideration over dirty laundry. His proud Kentucky family had once owned people who looked like Dominick; so rolling over under threat of blackmail and ceding the corporate throne to Dominick, a black man, was more than Miller’s ego would bear. So Dominick took the risk.
“The gambling ring is on the FBI’s radar,” Dominick continued. “They had Miller under surveillance. I let the criminals know.”
“You told them he was an informant.”
“They arrived at that possibility themselves.”
“You could have gotten him killed.”
It was true. Hours earlier, when Dominick watched the two career criminals climb into the chauffeured Town Car carrying him and Miller, he knew the already-high stakes had escalated to that of life or death. He was proven correct about this in short order. How much should he tell the old man?
That afternoon Dominick and Miller were exiting the Johnathan Club, LA’s posh gathering place for the city’s power-brokers, with Miller delighting in what he believed was his countdown to victory. His hubris made setting the trap both easy and gratifying.
“There’s a car outside taking me back to the office,” Dominick told him. “If you want to come along.”
“Sure,” Miller said, his voice loud from the night’s whiskey. “Given that you’re about to be one of my direct reports, I’m happy to give you some of my time.” He laid a condescending hand on Dominick’s shoulder. “Make sure you have the support you need.”
Dominick smiled back. “Get your hand off me.”
Miller withdrew his hand with an easy, arrogant laugh. “I’m going to enjoy this,” he said to no one.
Minutes later, with Dominick and Miller in the backseat, the driver of the Town Car made a special stop under the freeway. There, lurking like wraiths in the darkness, were two mob men. The first was an enforcer who squeezed his bulk next to Miller; as he did the butt of his pistol became visible under his sport coat. The second, the apparent mob lieutenant, looked more like a CPA with his small stature, balding head, and glasses. The driver, who’d been hired by the criminals and was likely one himself, rolled up the tinted windows and cruised along.
“Carsie, baby!” the small bespectacled man announced as he got in the passenger’s seat. “How the heck are you?”
As expected, Miller was confused at the presence of his mobster friends, but he was unaware of any federal investigation and thus more annoyed Dominick had been digging into his dirty secrets than anything else.
That was when the “CPA” pulled out a pistol.
“Check him,” he told the enforcer.
“Fellas, what the hell?” With the enforcer’s rough hands on him, Miller’s voice was loud and higher-pitched.
“You mind not yelling, Carsie?” The bespectacled man motioned with the pistol. “My ears, yeah?”
Miller’s mouth slammed shut. The enforcer soon concluded his search.
“Clean. Except for this.” The enforcer held up a tiny ziplock bag containing white powder.
“Let it snow.” The balding man’s voice was humorless.
Miller, attempting calm despite the perspiration beading on his forehead, gave the bespectacled man a nervous smile.
“Listen, I don’t know what dickhead here told you, but—”
“Carsie?” the balding man cocked the pistol and aimed it at Miller. “Shut. The fuck. Up.”
Miller’s breath seized in his throat and his head rocked back, as if increasing distance from the gun’s barrel might provide additional safety.
With his gun angled in Miller’s direction, the balding man turned to Dominick. “You expect me to believe this pencil-neck fucktard doesn’t know anything about the feds being up his ass?”
“He doesn’t know what state’s evidence even means.” Dominick kept his voice neutral in spite of his elevated heart rate.
“Fair point,” the bespectacled man nodded. Then, ever-so-slightly, the barrel of the gun edged towards Dominick. “Problem is, there’s another possibility, yeah? You could be a better actor, sent to save his ass. And both of you are working with the feds.”
Dominick’s eyes shifted to the barrel of the gun and then to the two eyes behind it. Anger lumped into his throat. The past refused to stay dead.
Dominick laughed, but it wasn’t the nervous laughter of the fearful. Lord knows he’d seen that received badly, both on the streets and in the boardroom. His was hard, defiant laughter. He couldn’t get himself killed, not now, not when he was this close.
“I say something funny?” The bespectacled man’s voice was low, dangerous, and the enforcer shifted. Heedless, Dominick kept his eyes drilled on the bespectacled man’s own.
“You compared me to this asshole. That’s the best joke I’ve heard all day.” Dominick leaned forward, his face in a snarl. “Let’s get something straight, gangster-man. I don’t care about you. I don’t care about Miller. I don’t care about feds, dog-fights, cage-fights, or whatever the hell else you got going. I care about the job I’m getting tomorrow. It’s already taken more from me than you ever could.”
It had gotten too personal. He needed to distract himself, so he glanced over at Miller. He was sweating so much he looked like he was melting.
“Me save Miller’s ass?” Dominick continued, turning back the gunman. “If you put a bullet through his thick skull right now, my life would move the fuck on.” A small whine escaped Miller. “Would it be inconvenient? Yes. Worth the heat you’d get for killing a former congressman’s son? Probably not. The end of the world? Please.”
His heart throbbed so hard he felt it in his face, but Dominick kept his eyes on the balding man and away from the insistent black hole of the gun. The balding man considered. Then he shrugged.
“One way to find out.” He pointed the gun at Miller’s head. Miller instantly squealed and cowered, his hands raised to protect his head.
Dominick didn’t blink, or even look Miller’s way. When the bespectacled man held the gun steady but didn’t fire, Dominick remained still. After a moment the small man smiled and lowered his weapon; Dominick wasn’t surprised. The tactics of the street never changed.
Miller was hyperventilating. The bespectacled man chuckled as he put away his pistol.
“Carsie, Carsie, you wet noodle! Relax, your buddy here saved your life.” He patted Miller’s cheek good-naturedly. “Had to make sure. Business, yeah? We’ll drop him off and then grab a drink.”
They pulled over to drop off Dominick a few blocks later. He was grateful to keep his lunch down in the interim. Before getting out of the car he turned to Miller.
“Withdraw from consideration,” Dominick said. Thankfully, his voice didn’t crack. Miller, his shell-shocked face as grey as a winter sky, didn’t respond. He could have passed for a corpse. Later he resigned from the company altogether.
“A couple parting words.” The bespectacled man, his voice cheery, rolled down the window as Dominick got out. “If the boys come around, this never happened.”
“And congrats on the job. Honestly. But it’s just a fucking job. There’s more important things in life, yeah?”
He motioned to the driver and away they went. Dominick caught a glimpse of Miller’s pallid face before it vanished into the night, and with it went Dominick’s final obstacle. He’d won.
He puked on the sidewalk. He laughed between spasms, even as he tried to avoid getting vomit on his $2,000 Oxfords. He’d done it, at last.
A gaunt toothless man lumbered his way like an extra off the set of The Walking Dead. Wiping vomit from his lips and still grinning, Dominick gave him three twenties and patted him on the shoulder before walking on.
Remembering all of this, Dominick rocked back in his seat and considered. With a decided shrug he related the story to Mr. Wellington. The old man shook his head.
“You could’ve been killed. Both of you.”
“It was the riskiest play I’ll ever make. But if I’m not strong enough to ignore a gun in my face and tell a killer to kiss my ass, how could I ever run this company?”
“This isn’t Detroit.”
“And yet, the same games persist. You think Miller could have done that?”
They both knew that answer. Miller had involved himself with criminals, but he would always be a member of American aristocracy. His backbone would always be fortified by personal wealth and family privilege—not character. He would never be a leader who could relate or inspire.
He would never be Dominick.
Dominick settled into his seat and smirked. He’d earned it, goddammit.
“You want to tell me why you needed to know? And what you meant about being right about me even if it’s too late?”
Ignoring the question, Mr. Wellington searched Dominick’s face.
“You want this more than life itself.” It sounded like an accusation.
A stab of buried pain wiped the smirk off Dominick’s face. He stifled it, but it left an angry aftertaste in his voice. “At this point what else is there?”
“Then it has to be you. I’m sorry in advance.”
“Sorry? For me having my dream?”
“Nightmare,” the older man whispered, as if to himself.
Dominick cocked his head. “I don’t follow.”
“No. In one sense I’m counting on that.” Disgusted, the older man tossed his mug off the porch and into the night. His lined face now looked pained, and his bright green eyes studied the darkness like those of a restless panther. “What exactly do you think is happening tomorrow?”
Dominick resisted the impulse to blink. What he thought was happening? Miller’s resignation guaranteed it.
Dominick faced his mentor to look him in the eye, but the older man kept his eyes on the darkness. Nonetheless, Dominick let his words be undergirded by the steel of all the sleepless nights, all the strategizing and glad-handing, all the sacrifices and compromises and defeats.
“Tomorrow I take the reins of TJ&D. I accept what it is, and I then guide it toward what it can, will, and should be. As only I can, as taught by you.”
Mr. Wellington’s eyes hardened further.
“’What is’ is the grandest lie of all creation,” Mr. Wellington said loudly, as if his audience extended beyond the porch. “It is the greatest shame of my life.” He turned to Dominick with burning, urgent eyes. “The company is a liar and a killer. It killed me. In two days it’ll kill you too.”
Dominick was stupefied. “You’re kidding.”
With a grimace, Mr. Wellington left his chair and went to the porch railing; as he turned his face skyward, the light of the full moon gave him an eerie glow.
“What is your greatest weakness, in my eyes?”
“Arthur, you’ve lost me. What happens in two—”
“We’re running out of time!” Mr. Wellington spat. “You’re smart, you’re determined, you’re ambitious, and yet you still have a sense of humanity. You are my champion, my dream made flesh in every regard but one. What is it?”
Dominick was aghast. What was all this?
“You mean your view of me being narrow-minded?”
“You lack faith in things unseen,” Mr. Wellington almost yelled as he turned towards Dominick. “And now I fear...”
His mouth snapped shut. Even as he glared at Dominick with blistering urgency, it was clear whatever words completed that sentence would remain unsaid. Mr. Wellington’s gaze returned to the moon.
Dominick’s exasperation waned. There it was, at last: cold feet.
“Point taken.” Dominick knew the first step was to validate his mentor’s feelings. “And it’s true, I’m more inclined to read profit pools than read auras. Much to Antoinette’s dismay of late.” His disarming smile was ignored. “But I’ll still make you proud. And if you’re concerned the board might—”
Mr. Wellington laughed with a bitterness Dominick hadn’t often heard during their two-decades together.
“The board may be a nest of vipers, but after a time one learns to wear proper gloves and gaiters when handling them.”
Dominick’s understanding of the moment evaporated. Nest of vipers?
“How are they a nest of vipers? You appointed them.” Dominick imagined them on a tennis court, and himself executing an impressive backhand stroke.
“Tell me what you know of Wallace Purdie.”
This was an odd return (a moonball maybe?) but Dominick prepared for his return volley nonetheless.
Wallace Purdie was a larger man than Dominick, both in stature and influence, and older by ten years. Wharton-educated and with a laugh that paralleled his girth, he was a major player in the telecommunications industry. As a deal-maker, he’d brokered agreements that lined the pockets of shareholders and executives from Beijing to Silicon Valley to Wall Street.
On a personal level, Wallace was almost larger-than-life itself. He ate enough for two men (sometimes three), but he prided himself on the size of his tip equaling the size of his plate. He was quick to laugh and often made jokes at his own expense. Dominick had met Wallace’s high school sweetheart-turned-wife Janice at two different fundraisers for community causes.
He’d been on the board of TJ&D for nearly six years. Often loud and never subtle, some chafed at his Fred-Flintstone-in-a-Brioni suit presentation. Nonetheless, he was an affable man and a consistent ally, and by no criteria of which Dominick was aware did Wallace Purdie merit the designation “viper.”
He related all this to Mr. Wellington. Dominick thought his thorough description of Wallace would soften the strange, calloused expression his mentor now wore.
It did not.
When Mr. Wellington replied it was with a dull, measured tone. Dominick tried to identify the type of stroke his mentor employed to retain the tennis metaphor, but the more Mr. Wellington spoke the more the tennis court melted away.
“Wallace Purdie currently possesses thirteen, yes, thirteen pre-paid multi-year memberships to extreme pornographic websites on the very edge of legality. Each of these thirteen is bundled with additional sites, so the true total is exponentially higher. One site he frequents features women who are defecated upon and then forced to gag on men’s genitalia until they vomit. African-American women. From it he has downloaded nearly a terabyte of material. Last year he spent over five hundred thousand dollars in strip clubs in Las Vegas and New York, and he purchased more than alcohol and table dances. Two of the dancers who privately entertained him—one of whom was underaged—have since gone missing. Two months ago he became an angel investor in a company that advertises itself as ‘the leader in facial humiliation.’ And then there’s the pedophilia.”
Mr. Wellington’s eyes remained on the darkness as he continued.
“Wallace Purdie is a racist, a pervert, a misogynist, and a predator. I suspect he’s a murderer. He hates you. Yet he presents himself as your friend and a ‘good ol’ boy’ who made it rich. That he is capable of this duality is proof that he is capable of anything, and thus he should be trusted as far as he can be thrown. And at his size that isn’t far at all, is it?”
It wasn’t until Dominick exhaled that he realized that he’d been holding his breath. He recoiled. If any of this was true, the resulting implications far outweighed the condemnation of a big, fat, jovial, wealthy, intelligent, fun-loving, racist, perverted board member.
The questions spilled over each other. How could Mr. Wellington, even with all his resources, come to know such private information about another powerful businessman? Even if he could legally discover this, which itself was unlikely, why would he want to invade Wallace’s privacy? In what universe was that in-line with TJ&D’s “Principles in Action,” which Mr. Wellington had extolled for decades? How long had he known? Why mention it tonight, when Dominick would go before the board in less than twenty-four hours for their approval?
These questions clamored over one another, screamed, waved their hands for attention. But the most potent question lingered behind. This silent lingerer was also the most undeniable, the most insightful, and the most likely to shatter Dominick’s world.
What had been spoken flew in the face of everything he’d known Mr. Wellington to represent. For it to have been said with seriousness and sincerity, then it was not by the man he’d come to know as intimately as a son might his father. So the most important question was the most simple: who was the man before him?
How long he stared at Mr. Wellington in open-mouthed silence, he’d never know. But at some point Dominick’s awareness of his vision returned, and he saw the greying man staring at him with hard, despairing eyes that now looked satisfied.
“Now you’ve begun to understand how much of a lie it all is. Be careful.” Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his coat, Mr. Wellington left the railing and re-approached Dominick. “We’re out of time. Take off one of your gloves and give me your hand. And close your eyes.”
Dominick didn’t move. He wanted to seize control of the moment, his moment, his night. He would demand answers; he would make it clear that now he was the one in charge, and as such he would put TJ&D onto his back and carry it to dizzying new heights no matter how delusional the old man’s mind or cold his feet.
Yet when he looked into his mentor’s aging eyes the desperation there stole Dominick’s indignance right out of him. Dominick opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but before he could speak Mr. Wellington shook his head.
After a dumbfounded moment, Dominick set down his cider mug and did as he was asked.
With his eyes closed, Dominick’s sense of hearing sharpened. He heard rustling from Mr. Wellington’s coat, then the snap of something opening. There was more rustling, and then silence.
He felt Mr. Wellington take his hand, then heard the old man take a breath.
A prick at the tip his pointing finger yanked Dominick’s eyes open and he instinctively tried to pull his hand away. But Mr. Wellington held it firm. The older man held a tiny black stake, presumably what he’d used to stab Dominick’s finger, and now wiped a dimple of blood from his fingertip into a small white bowl.
The inside of the bowl started to pop and sparkle.
“What the hell?” Dominick cried. Mr. Wellington released Dominick’s hand and closed his own around the bowl as he stuffed it into his coat. With grim eyes he met Dominick’s confused gaze.
“You have forty-eight hours to right the ship, or you’ll go down with it. I pray I haven’t just killed you. Or worse.” A tear left Mr. Wellington’s eye. “Find my granddaughter and tell her I’m sorry. Vincent was my fault.”
Heat rushed to Dominick’s face and his jaw unhinged.
The man wearing Mr. Wellington’s skin walked into the cabin without another word. The oak door closed behind him with a thud.
Dominick’s heart throbbed in his throat. Something rattled; his hand was shaking and thus tapping against the arm of his now-forgotten chair. He stilled it and took several deep breaths.
The outcome of this battle wasn’t in doubt. He would gain control, stand, enter the cabin, and calmly quote one of his favorite films and ask Mr. Wellington what in the blue fuck was that. He would get to the bottom of this. In the end, even in the paralyzing haze of outrage, he was clear he would win.
Until it happened for the first time.
A voice spoke as clearly as Mr. Wellington’s own.
He’s lost his mind, it said.
Dominick jumped to his feet.
His voice was ragged, but no one answered.
Furious, he circled the chairs and peered around the porch. Spies? Now? Here? Having overheard that? Had they been recorded? Panic bloomed in his chest at the thought of their conversation going public.
He left the porch and searched the snow-covered front lawn. He found no one, nor found any footprints. He returned to the porch and searched overhead for a speaker. There must be a source somewhere. The voice sounded close enough to touch.
Then a new question occurred to him, and with it came a strange stab of uncertainty: was he sure that he heard that voice with his ears?
A loud crash from inside pulled his eyes to the cabin. Within a breath he was running to the door.
On television being air-lifted to a hospital is an expeditious, even exotic event. But an hour after Dominick had found Mr. Wellington unconscious on the living room floor of the cabin, his aging mentor had barely made it onto the gurney. The helicopter thundered on the cabin’s expansive front lawn as the medical team made their final preparations to get him moving. As the paramedic and the nurse made their adjustments, their leader (the “retrieval physician” Dominick had been told) came his way.
“He’s stable now, but in a comatose condition. His heart attack has been confirmed.” The man had a shockingly pink face. “We’ll move him now.”
Dominick, having retrieved his cider mug, now gripped it with both his hands. Its smooth hardness helped remind him that this unfathomable night was still, in fact, reality.
The doctor (retrieval physician!) continued speaking and Dominick heard himself replying. His mouth explained how Mr. Wellington was famously healthy in his habits, but Dominick’s mind had frozen on what the doctor said.
Heart attack. Comatose.
Mr. Wellington didn’t smoke, rarely drank, ate little red meat, and saw his doctor regularly; he hadn’t taken a sick day in at least two years.
The word sent a tremble through him as if whispered by an abusive lover. It was an awful word from the same nightmare Mr. Wellington inexplicably mentioned; it was a word Dominick had forced from his mind. Yet here was another doctor in his face, using it again.
The doctor (retrieval physician!) rejoined his team as they pushed the gurney through the cabin’s front door. Dominick followed them as if dreaming on his feet. Like an actor on a proscenium stage, he had a vague awareness of what his next lines were supposed to be. He knew highly effective people / leaders / winners / guys-who-did-important-stuff-and-should-be-respected-accordingly recovered quickly from seeming adversity. But this was different. “Seeming adversity” looked like a major investor pulling out at the last moment, or negotiations taking an unexpected turn, or the FTC moving to block a previously-approved acquisition. It didn’t include encountering the impossible mere hours before the most important meeting of his career.
His mind drifted to what Mr. Wellington had said; it was a mad string of mysteries looping around like rope about a dead man’s throat.
‘What is’ is the grandest lie of all creation.
The company is a liar and a killer. It killed me. In two days it’ll kill you too.
Now you’ve begun to understand how much of a lie it all is. Be careful.
Dominick shook his head. Be careful?
We’re out of time. Take off one of your gloves and give me your hand.
Dominick reflexively looked at his finger, as if it could explain its part in this bizarre evening. Already there was no sign of the prick, but Dominick’s confusion didn’t need one. Yes, that happened. His mentor stabbed the tip of his finger and extracted blood.
He looked around at nothing in particular while his mind grappled with the growing list of questions. The little white bowl was part of the mystery. What substance popped and sparkled when mixed with blood? What the hell did Mr. Wellington do?
Dominick was outside now; he trailed the medical team as they wheeled Mr. Wellington towards their majestic blood-hued helicopter on the front lawn. They were halfway to the helicopter when a pair of headlights pulled onto the lawn. The black Range Rover crunched to a halt and a thin woman in a silver coat and furry cap hopped out and trotted towards them.
Without pause she ran to the gurney. The nurse (retrieval nurse?) turned to keep the new arrival from interfering, but upon reaching them the thin woman stopped, stared at Mr. Wellington’s unconscious form, and let them pass without a word. Dominick walked to her side and they both watched the medical team meticulously load him into the helicopter.
The rotor blades thundered, and both Dominick and the woman turned away as the snow-tipped wind howled around them. The helicopter soon lifted into the air and plunged into the darkness; within moments only a blinking light marked its path. Agitated silence soon enveloped them.
He turned to her. She was almost silhouetted by the Rover’s headlights, with only the light from the cabin to illuminate her tight face. As numb as he was, he knew he should say something supportive; god only knew what she felt.
“What did he say? Before he collapsed, what did he say?” she pre-empted him. She had her father’s brilliant green eyes, but now they looked at him in a flat, dull fashion. He’d come to hate that look.
“He wasn’t himself.” Dominick suspected that was the understatement of the year.
“Don’t dance. What did he say?”
“It’s private, I’m sorry.” He didn’t have the faintest idea of how to retell the conversation even if he could. He replayed another one of Mr. Wellington’s mysterious proclamations in his head: Wallace Purdie is a racist, a pervert, a misogynist, and a predator. I suspect he’s a murderer. “But he wasn’t acting like himself.”
He knew he should tell her Mr. Wellington had mentioned the kids. But he couldn’t. Not yet. Instead, he reached out to cup her body into his; if she wouldn’t offer a hug he’d take one.
“Don’t.” She brushed his hand aside. Surprise-turned-outrage spiked in his chest.
“What the hell is your—”
“I’m moving out.”
“I want a divorce.”
The entire moment around him, and all of his bodily functions, froze.
Time took a moment off. The wind still blew the golden strands of her hair; her thin, lip-gloss- coated lips were still pressed tight with little lines of tension at their edges; her defiant eyes still stared into his; his heart still pounded at an alarming rate.
And yet nothing moved at all.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m done pretending. With him gone there’s no point.”
“Pretending? What do you—”
“You only married me to be his son.”
This stabbed into him like a butcher knife; before he could gather a response, she began backing away.
“My lawyer will call you,” she said. “We need to find Violet and tell her.”
She turned and stomped towards the Range Rover—the Range Rover he bought her, his mind recalled.
“Antoinette!” He followed. Without thinking he grabbed her arm. “Antoinette!”
“Back off!” Again she batted away his hand—this time harder. Nearing delirium, words flew from his mouth.
“You can’t do this! Not now! There are expectations! Expectations!”
“Oh, expectations, poor you!” she screamed. “I have some new expectations for you. Expect me to live my life again! Expect me to be with someone that will touch me! Expect me to stop being the solution to your daddy issues!”
Of their own will his hands shot out to grip her shoulders, as if to shake some sense into her. But as he made contact she slapped him.
The brief flash of white and warm sting on his cheek induced a daze; disconnected, he watched her eyes blaze and nostrils flare. Neither of them spoke.
She held his stare for a moment and then jumped into the SUV. Within moments she was gone.
The stillness of the moment somehow sharpened his senses. The darkness was a cloak he felt on his skin. The air bit at his face. His stomach was alive with emotion.
And then it happened again.
Bitch! We’ll make her pay.
He jumped in surprise. It wasn’t a thought—it was an audible, independent, and unfamiliar voice. And even though he instinctively looked around for a speaker, there was no doubt it had come from inside his head.
Yes, it said “we,” plural, as in “he and another.” Except he was deep in the snowy woods with no one else. Maybe it was he who was losing his mind.
He strode towards the cabin, his determination now engaged. He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed. A crisp female voice answered on the first ring.
Normalcy, at last.
“Relay to Dr. Roth and the board that he’s comatose and being air-lifted to Cedars-Sinai. Heart attack per the retrieval physician. I’m en route to there in less than ten. Also, tell Baxter to sweep the hospital room. Immediately.”
He pushed through the cabin’s front door and entered the front room. In moments he’d gathered his clothes.
“And send someone for the rest of his things here.”
“Of course. Are you all right, sir?” Her bright, familiar voice with its slight Virginia twang was touched with concern.
He stopped and looked into the mirror. The gray dissenters in his beard were poking out of his face, and his deep brown eyes were touched with the pink of bloodshot. But he was still himself.
Antoinette’s voice in his head made him wince: Back off!
“I’m fine. Thank you. And get Terrance on the phone for me, as soon as humanly possible.”
“Absolutely, sir. Is there anything else I can do?”
“That’ll be all.” He disconnected the line. Bags in hand, he strode for the door—then stopped.
Dropping the bags, he rushed to the living room, where he’d found Mr. Wellington. He checked the coffee table, the end tables, in between the cushions of the couch. Nothing. His anxiousness rising, he strode to Mr. Wellington’s bedroom, unzipped his bag, then searched his belongings. Had Dominick’s moment of distracted shock cost him? Did Mr. Wellington still have them on his person? But then he unzipped a side pocket of one of Mr. Wellington’s bags and spotted a small wooden box. Dominick pulled on his leather gloves and opened it with a snap; sure enough, inside was the white bowl and tiny black stake Mr. Wellington used on the porch. Both were clean.
Dominick wrapped them into a pocket square and headed for the door.
By the time he reached the front porch, he had a plan. The tiny bowl and blade had come from somewhere, and Dominick was confident modern forensic science could uncover their origin. That could shed light upon Mr. Wellington’s riddles.
When Dominick reached the rented Town Car, his other plans were taking shape. Antoinette, ever the attention-hungry performer, needed reassurance. In a way her outburst made sense; with succession looming he’d been neglecting her. Add Violet’s absence and the tension of their marriage, of course she would go stir-crazy alone in their big house. Of course she would overreact.
He would schedule a trip to St. Lucia, to the resort she adored with en-suite infinity pools overlooking the Caribbean. They couldn’t go immediately, not with her father comatose and things in tumult. But he would get it scheduled. That would help.
When he started the car, he could already envision her begrudging smile as he handed her the plane tickets and a lavish bouquet of white roses. Warmth returned to his face.
He shuddered at the uninvited memory of the word, and his visualization faltered. Obviously, the stress of the bizarre night had taken a surprisingly quick toll on his mind. But it didn’t change anything. He was no one’s victim, least of all some mental traitor temporarily loosed by tragedy.
He shifted the car into gear and sped onto the road.
He again focused, but discomfort lingered around the fact that she’d hit him. That was a new low. He shook his head and accelerated.
He started down the mountain. There were two fronts to the surprising new war. His deteriorating relationship with Antoinette was the first. The second war front was farther-reaching and more complex: the vacuum of leadership left by Mr. Wellington’s sudden ill-health. He built TJ&D and had served at its face for more than three decades. For many in the company he was a father-figure, and they would react badly to his heart attack. Reassuring them would be one of Dominick’s first actions as de facto CEO.
Further, other details of Mr. Wellington’s exit strategy hadn’t been outlined—at least not outside of Mr. Wellington’s head. How would they deal with the accelerated time frame? That question needed an answer immediately; key members of the board needed to be consulted.
What had Mr. Wellington called them? A “nest of vipers?”
Maybe there was a third war front: solving the mystery behind what Mr. Wellington said. Was there a brain disorder preceding a heart attack that could bring on nonsensical speech?
Mr. Wellington hadn’t been loopy in the slightest, though. At the end he was as intense as ever, as if his words danced on a razor’s edge. What he said about Wallace was shockingly specific. And for him to mention the kids…
An ache bloomed in Dominick’s head as he remembered his mentor’s parting words: please find my granddaughter and tell her I’m sorry. Vincent was my fault.
Dominick dismissed the thought. He’d handle that mystery in time; the corporate family came first.
He’d taken one hand from the wheel to initiate a call when motion on the street caught his eye. Lightning fast, a dull brown figure leaped into his path. He jammed on the brakes, and the ABS brought him to a smooth stop bare inches before impact.
The deer turned its majestically-horned head his way.
Dominick’s exasperation swelled as he breathed down the adrenaline. He jammed the horn. The deer didn’t budge. Dominick banged the wheel, then jammed his horn again.
“Move! Move! Move!”
He punctuated each syllable with a blast of his horn. Despite the staccato bleating, the deer only stared at him and flicked its ears.
Dominick got out of the car. He raised his arms and waved them at the beast, but the deer stood its ground. Dominick had long enough to wonder how he’d get it to move before there was an explosion of light in his head.
The deer, its huge black eyes swallowing his own, slanted before him. The earth pitched. The Town Car’s hood rushed towards him. He tried to put out his right arm to catch himself, but it felt limp, powerless. There was a thump a moment later, and before the black came Dominick thought it all proof he was dreaming.
He sees only white. Engulfing, consuming, suffocating white.
“I pray you do not die in vain,” a female voice says.
The contours of a face emerge from the white abyss. A little girl. Red hair. Familiar. She looms above Dominick like a ghostly giant framed in brilliant, blinding white. But she’s not looking at him. So familiar.
“It’s not my death that concerns me,” a man replies. “It’s his.”
The red head looks down at Dominick with her lips a thin line of worry. She then looks away again with a shake of her head. Wait—is that Sherrill McKinnen? Then something changes. Something inside. Dominick sees her with new eyes.
Yes. That’s Sherrill McKinnen.
She’s in Mr. Honor’s homeroom class too. Her and Evan Ward are the only two white kids in fourth grade. Dominick didn’t like her; in second grade she took Carlos Bautista’s pencil box and blamed it on a kindergartener. What second grader tries to get kindergarteners in trouble?
“The vessel you selected does not easily assist our cause,” Sherrill McKinnen said. “They have history. I fear madness may take him in short order.”
“That’s why you have to succeed.” The man’s voice was insistent. “You can’t fail him.”
“My commitment is absolute,” she replied. “My faith in his ability to retain his sanity is not.”
“He’ll adapt. And he’s strong. You’ll see.”
Dominick tried to sit up, but it was hard. Why was he feeling so heavy? What happened?
Shapes and colors materialized as the blinding white loosened its grip. His BMX bike was in the grass. Its red knobby wheels were upside down in Mrs. Larrimore’s lawn. Ma said Mrs. Larrimore didn’t cut her grass like she was supposed to. Her husband had run away, Ma said. Dominick didn’t know grownups ran away. Dogs did that.
“He will soon reconnect the memory,” Sherrill McKinnen said. “When he does their forces will be upon him, far sooner than I can arrive. His strength will be tested.”
“He was never safe. But now he has a chance. Now we all have a chance.”
Dominick was sitting up in the grass now. There was a man there, facing Sherrill McKinnen; that’s who she was talking to. It was funny; Dominick couldn’t see the man’s face because of all the light, but he somehow seemed nice. He looked at Dominick and offered his hand. Blinking in the sun—wow, it was bright—Dominick took it and stood.
“I can’t see you,” Dominick said to the man. He blinked stars from his eyes; he must have fallen off the bike pretty hard.
Both Sherrill McKinnen and the man he couldn’t see looked up sharply. Within seconds, the all-consuming white decayed to a dead grey.
The man turned towards Dominick. Now his face was shrouded in growing darkness.
“We’re out of time. Again. Good luck, son. I’m—”
His voice trailed off, even as his lips continued to move; voiceless, the man was now fading away.
Sherrill McKinnen spoke from behind him.
“Go in peace.”
In a breath the man was gone—faded from view like smoke in the night.
Confused, Dominick turned to Sherrill McKinnen.
“What’s going on?” Dominick’s voice was touched with fear.
“It has begun.”
The moment the words left her lips, the scene changed. Dominick was walking now, and Sherrill McKinnen was with him. They were on Monica, the street she lived on. But they weren’t really walking together; she was ahead of him, stomping through the snow and swinging her arms in stiff anger.
Then he remembered what was going on. She was being stupid. She was always being stupid. That’s why he didn’t like her.
Another Sherrill McKinnen stood on the corner across the street watching them with a look of concern. But she was dream-like, hazy. The real Sherrill McKinnen was up ahead; she was walking fast to make him mad.
He stopped and scooped up some snow and packed it. It wasn’t slushy enough to make a real snowball, but it would do. He chucked it and it sailed past her shoulder.
She spun around with her face a livid pink.
“You are so stupid!” she screamed. “I hate everything about you!”
“Girl, if I wanted to hit you, I woulda hit you! Stop walking so fast!”
“If you want it back you have to walk fast, you stupid idiot.” She resumed her almost-run. “We have to get there ‘fore my step-daddy gets back.”
Dominick trotted to catch up. He didn’t want to get too close to her, though; the last thing he wanted was for people to think they were friends. He kicked the snow in frustration. He would never trade with Tavares Ford ever again. This was all his fault.
“Wait here.” She left him on the sidewalk and ran into her house. Why hadn’t they shoveled their sidewalk? It was already freezing over.
A moment later she came out with his Nintendo cartridge—the one he’d given to Tavares Ford, the one she should have never had. She was handing it to him when a green Buick slid to a halt in front of them and she looked at it in horror. Dominick turned around and was roughly pushed aside. Sherrill McKinnen screamed.
“You bringing boys to my house now? Like a little ho?” The man grabbed her by her hood, yanking her red hair in the process.
“No, it’s not like that!” she shrieked. “We’re not even friends! Tell him!”
The man, his cheeks red with liquor, stared at Dominick with uncut hatred. Dominick tried to speak, but the blaze in the man’s eyes held him in mute horror.
“Tell him!” Her voice was shrill, desperate.
Dominick’s mouth worked in a futile attempt to say something, anything, when the man snarled.
“Not like that, huh?” In a deft motion the man backhanded Sherrill McKinnen. Dominick watched her spin like a rag doll into the snow; the man then turned to Dominick and pulled a small black pistol from his coat.“You get outta here. And if I see your little ass around here again, I’ll kill you. You understand me?”
Dominick, panting, crying, still couldn’t speak.
“I said do you understand?” The man took a step towards Dominick.
In an instant Dominick was off running at full speed, his face wet with tears. Sherrill McKinnen screamed again, but he didn’t dare look back.
Again he saw the other Sherrill McKinnen, the dream-like one, standing on the corner with her face a hazy look of worry.
Much closer, however, was something else. It was heavy, dark. And even though he was running, it wrapped itself around his neck and drew beside his ear.
“Coward,” it sneered.