He was on his way home, a leisurely trip driving back roads in rural Georgia.
A sudden encounter with a young teen interrupted his trip.
He’d just completed a job, and the last thing he needed was a passenger.
Especially a kid as a passenger.
From Niceville to Pascagoula, Mississippi, was about the same 150-mile distance as it had been from Aldon to Niceville. It didn’t take as long driving there, however, because we could take I-10 almost all the way.
I didn’t have any reason to head for Pascagoula other than it was in a different state than the one we’d been in, and it was on the Gulf. I was ready for a break. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I still had to resolve Colt’s situation, but there was an idea nagging me in the back of my head. It was a long shot, and for it to come together would take some planning and working things out, but first, I thought both of us had earned a rest and some down time. All work and no play and all that, even if Colt was as far from being a dull boy as I could imagine.
Pascagoula would be good for that. It was another city I’d passed through once or twice. I thought it would be perfect for us, a couple of tourists just ending the summer before school started again, looking for sun and escape. No one seeing us would know just what we’d recently escaped from—and still were escaping from if Colt’s dad was as persistent as I thought he might be. Colt knew things his dad didn’t want anyone else to know. Colt posed a threat. I doubted a man as vicious, inhuman and cunning as Colt said his dad was would just sit back and wait to see what was going to come of that threat.
Colt was in his 15th year of life and had never been out of Georgia. Now, in only a few days, he’d been through more adventure than most boys would encounter in a lifetime, and we were just now entering still another state. His head should have been whirling, but looking at him, he seemed just as grounded and composed as ever.
He saw me looking over at him. “Are we there yet?” he asked in a whiney voice, then grinned at me. He’d become very comfortable with me, even though we’d only known each other, what, three days and nights? We were just beginning the fourth day. Maybe when you’d been seconds from being in a car crash with someone, been shot at, killed someone, moved and hidden a dead body, and set someone up to take the fall on a murder rap—maybe that and the fact we’d shared those adventures made the time seem longer and the two of us closer.
Or maybe there was just some chemistry between us. I didn’t see how that could be. I’d never had much use for kids and none at all for teenagers, most of whom were a holy mess as far as I’d seen. But this one…
I had to admit, I cared about this one.
“Yeah, about there. You’ll like Pascagoula. Lots to do. I think we’ve earned a vacation.”
He didn’t say anything, just smiled a contented smile. Fitz leaned forward from the back seat and licked his face, and Colt laughed.
I didn’t think there was any way Colt’s dad could find us. And so, I found a motel in Pascagoula that accepted dogs, registered as Mr. and Mrs. Fogarty with son and daughter, got a room with two queen-sized beds, and spent the next few days being tourists.
We kayaked, which Colt took to right off. We paddle-boated, which would have strained the legs of a normal man, though I was OK with it. Mostly. We went shrimping on a boat with other tourists. We swam in the gulf, then rented some snorkeling equipment and tried that, but the water was too murky. We took a land tour looking at water birds. We toured a US Navy facility, went aboard some warships, saw how the officers and enlisted men lived. Colt said he’d prefer being an officer. We took tours of the marshlands and bayous nearby. We found a water park, and Colt seemed like a 14-year-old boy for a few hours; he found a family of nine kids—nine—all of them boys, some of whom were around his age, and he was friends with them two minutes later and spent all our time there with them. We went parasailing off a speedboat in the gulf; actually, he did that while I stayed on the ground with Fitz. We ate at great restaurants. We slept like babies. At the end of the week, four days after we’d arrived, we were both relaxed and touristed out and ready to move on. This was our last night in Mississippi.
Which was good, because I got a call from my boss. We were at the motel after another long day in the sun and water. Colt was taking a shower before bed. Fitz was already sacked out in the middle of their bed. I was on mine, working on my computer, and so put the phone on speaker.
“Hi, Jim. You OK to talk?”
I turned the volume down. “Yeah, for a couple of minutes at least. What’s up?”
“Got an assignment. Shouldn’t be too hard. Not for you, at least. A little role playing. Get some info on people trafficking, turn it over to the heavy hitters, they take over. Maybe a week. San Francisco this time.”
“Uh, I sort of need to finish something up down here. When did you want me?”
There was a pause while I thought. I hated ever saying no to my boss. I did what he wanted me to without hesitation. I liked to be that accessible. I liked him to know that he could rely on me. Well, after several years of that, maybe it had bought me some wiggle room.
“Can it wait just a bit? What I’m finishing up needs resolution, and it’s really important.”
He was silent, but then I heard a sigh. “How long?”
“A week should do it. It’s pushing things, but a week, probably.”
More silence. Then, reluctantly, “You’ve always been there for me. This can wait, but not too long. OK, you’ve got your week. I can use it to set things up a little tighter on the other end. I really hope you can get whatever it is done by then or I’ll have to put someone else on this one, and you’re tailor-made for it. Is there anything I can do to help you out on whatever it is you’re doing?”
I smiled. That’s the kind of boss everyone should have. “As a matter of fact, there is…”
When I hung up, I sent off a couple of quick emails and then saw Colt coming from the bathroom, rosy-cheeked from the shower. Except he was frowning, and the frown didn’t improve the image at all.
“What?” I asked, closing my laptop.
“I was letting the water run in the shower while brushing my teeth.”
“So, who’s Jim?”
Uh oh. Well, it wasn’t the end of the world. It was against all tradecraft to tell him anything at all, but, well, we’d see. In the meantime, I had other things to do.
“Colt, we’ve got a long drive ahead of us tomorrow. We’re out of here early. We’ll grab some breakfast and then hit the road. I haven’t told you where we’re headed. I’m still not sure myself but should have some answers tomorrow morning. For tonight, I’m beat, so are you, and I want to simply go to bed. We can talk in the car tomorrow, and depending on an email I expect will be waiting for me when I wake up, I should have some things to tell you about. On the road. Not tonight.”
He was watching me intently. “And the ‘Jim’ part? You’ll talk about that, too?”
“We’ll talk about that, too. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“OK,” he said and pushed Fitz to the side so there was room for him to get into his bed.
There were emails for me when I woke up, including one from my boss. It said what I’d assumed it would say. Now I had to do a little investigating myself, and if that showed what it should, I could see light at the end of the tunnel. Just a flicker, but I was eternally optimistic. If one was assertive, things seemed to work out, and no one ever called me passive.
There was another email, a reply to one I’d sent last night to a friend in the FBI. My agency did mostly information-gathering of the sort where pulling warrants couldn’t be done. You need evidence to pull warrants. We then worked with the FBI during takedowns, identifying who was who and sometimes helping out when the physical stuff got hairy, which it did more often than one would expect. The FBI has access to all sorts of information about our citizens, both good people and bad. It was that email I was going to discuss with Colt first.
As soon as we were out of town on the highway, US 90 heading northeast, he turned to look at me. He didn’t need to say anything.
“OK, where do I start? With Jim, I guess.”
He was silent.
“All right, I told you my name was Kent Lewis. It’s a cover name, a cover identity. When your brother asked for my ID in Crocker Corners that first night, that’s what the ID showed. I told you that was my name because I didn’t really know you, wasn’t sure what would happen in the next hour or day; we’re taught to be pretty careful. We’re not supposed to reveal who we are or what we do to anyone.”
“But I thought we…” He stopped, and I saw his face had fallen. I knew what he was thinking.
“You thought we’d become friends, maybe more close than friends, and that I’d be honest with you. And I have, Colt, I really have, except for my real name and what I do. And I’ll tell you my name. I simply haven’t before because there was no reason to. But, it’s Jim Fowler. However, you can’t slip up and call me that. You have to call me Logan.”
That got him! He jerked his head back up and said, ‘Logan?!”
I laughed. “Yeah. Logan Fairchild. And not only that, you’re Logan Fairchild, the 3rd. My son and heir.”
“Yeah. We’re going back to Georgia under assumed names.”
He didn’t look particularly happy hearing that. Back into the fire after leaping out of it—and miraculously without having been singed. But, to keep him from thinking about it too much, I launched into some information that my boss would probably kill me if he knew I’d mentioned—and to a boy at that.
“I work for the Federal government, Colt. I won’t tell you the name of the agency or what part of the government it’s attached to, but I’m a Federal agent who works undercover. I never carry an ID associating myself with the government or that gives my real name when I’m working. My job is to infiltrate groups that we’ve heard or think are subversive, that could be or are planning activities against our country and our citizens. I’m pretty good at it. I was a theater major at college and was recruited because of that. That, and because I was a college wrestler and knew how to handle myself. When I’m on a job, I dress the part and act the part of someone the groups in question would be interested in taking aboard. Most of the groups I get for assignments want more people involved, their group to be bigger, and most of the people who are attracted to them are people with a bone to pick with the government or society as a whole. It’s easy for me to take on that persona.
“The problem is, the leaders of the groups are always suspicious. And if they determine you’re a fake, you can end up being dead. You can also end up wishing you were dead before you are—during questioning. So it’s dangerous work. But it’s vital to the national interest, too. Why do you think we haven’t had any small suitcase nuclear bombs yet? We’ve been part of the reason, but no one knows we exist. You’ve probably heard that all the rules have changed since 9-11. Well, I’m part of that change, part of a national security apparatus that operates in the dark. The mission I just came off—hey, look, I’m sorry, OK? But I’m not supposed to tell anyone anything about my missions.”
He was silent, taking that in, but not for as long as I expected him to be.
“You were driving through my part of Georgia because you’d just come off a mission?” Colt’s voice had what I’d expect a boy his age to have in it. Excitement. Eagerness. He was thinking of the adventure, not the peril. “Someone wanted to blow up Georgia?”
“I was. I was driving through Georgia, which turned out pretty good for you, I guess. But the mission was way far away in another part of the country entirely. When I’m done with a job, I disappear. And how could one disappear more entirely than to visit southwestern Georgia?”
He nodded. Then looked at me curiously. “So what are you doing now? Waiting for another assignment? Another mission?”
I nodded. “Yes. In fact they want me right away. I told them I was busy.”
He understood. “Busy with me. That’s why you said you had to find a place for me, and it wouldn’t be with you!” He sounded very subdued. Then he looked up. “How long do you have?”
“A week?! You’re going to dump me somewhere in a week? What, you think you’ll find my mother in a week? And you don’t even know if she’d want me or if I’d like her! You don’t care!”
“Of course I do! You can’t believe that. Don’t start acting your age! But anyway, I think that ship’s sailed. I don’t know if this will be hard for you to hear or not, but we’re honest with each other, and you should know.”
I glanced at him, and he looked mostly the same as always. But not entirely. He was a little mad, a little defensive. Not liking to talk about my leaving him.
“Colt, I had a friend at the FBI run a check last night on your father. I did it to get the name of your mother. I told him I was trying to locate her, and when he got the name, to forget about your father and see what he could find out about her.
“He did that. He learned her name, married and single, and traced her. And what he found out is upsetting, but to me not surprising. She was an only child of a poor family and wanted to get out as soon as she could. She married your father when she was only 17. She had three sons, and after having the third, all mention of her ended from all the files and sources the FBI has. My contact couldn’t find anything about her under her maiden or married name after the year 2000, the year you were born. Which is suspicious because the FBI has the ability to track people in this country that is second to none. They have access to just about every database there is, some of them even legal! The FBI even has a lot of success when people change their names because usually they slip up sometime, somewhere. But with her, she just fell off the charts.”
Colt was listening but didn’t seem upset. I saw that and went on. “What makes it worse is, soon after you were born, probably shortly after the time she told your father she was leaving, her parents were both killed in an automobile accident. A truck ran them off the road. Smashed into the side of their car and forced them over an embankment. It was a hit and run and was never solved.
“To me, both the fact that any record of her ended at that point, along with the lives of the only two people in the world she could call on for help is suspicious and suggestive. And that’s because she was in the same position you’re in now: she knew too much. And you know what your father was planning to do to you. I think he succeeded with your mother.”
“You think he killed her?”
I didn’t, and told him so. “I think that’s when he either brought Braken on board or already had him on call for this sort of thing. I think Braken was his enforcer. So I think your father arranged for his wife, your mother, to be killed. I doubt there’d be any way we could prove it when it happened so long ago, but that’s what I think happened. Braken probably did it.”
Colt thought about that for a while, then turned to me. “So if she can’t take me, what are you planning to do with me?”
“I have an idea. I’m not ready to share it with you yet. I have to find out whether it would work, and there’s a lot to be done before that. Stuff to be done in Georgia. That’s why we’re headed to Atlanta.”
“Atlanta? Really? I’ve never been there.”
“You’d never been to Pascagoula, either, and that worked out pretty well. I think you’ll like Atlanta. We’re going to stay there in style. At the Ritz Carlton Buckhead. A five-star hotel. Probably has cute bellboys. Certainly has a swimming pool and video games room for guests your age. But we won’t be there long. Probably one night. We’re on a tight timeline now.”
I expected him to be excited, but maybe to a kid of 14, one hotel is like another. I could see he was still upset about not knowing what was to become of him. To calm him down, I got him talking. Got him telling me all about growing up in Fredericksville, about the life he had there, the school he went to, the friends he had—about all the good things he could think of. I was trying to distract him and felt that focusing on what had been good rather than bad should do that. As in all things, he wasn’t a bit shy to talk about himself. He talked at length, and when he started to sound sad, realizing he’d probably never see things again that were so much a part of him, I told him he was good at making friends and reminded him of the boys at the water park and how quickly he’d been accepted. I told him if he ended up living in a bigger city, he’d probably have a better chance of meeting another gay boy and that the schools there would probably even have clubs for gay kids; he’d fit right in. Or maybe he’d find a hot girl that turned him on. The world would be wide open for him, and bigger cities in Georgia weren’t quite as provincial as many of the smaller ones like Fredericksville.
He told me all about himself and his life. I asked questions now and then to keep him going. He talked a long time. Even said some things I needed to know.
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