“Are you in?”

It’s been 16 years since I heard that voice, every last minute of them wishing I never would again. Every time the phone rang, each time someone would approach out of the blue to ask if I knew the time, whenever someone would sit down in the seat next to me on a bus or plane. Always, without fail, I felt the familiar clench deep within, that stab of uncertainty that maybe they would open their mouth and this voice would come spilling out.

“Who is this?” I asked, already knowing the answer as surely as I knew my own name, but having to ask the question just the same. “What do you want?”

A moment of silence passed, enough time sliding by that someone more capable might chuckle or even scoff at the questions, but no sounds pass over the other end of the line. To do so would likely require a level of humanity I’m not sure this man possesses.

Not now, maybe not ever.

“Don’t do that,” he replied, his voice neither scolding nor disappointed, edging closer to annoyed. “You’re better than that and we both know it.”

We did both know it, just the way we both knew one day he would call, making good on a promise he made to me a long time ago.

“How did you get this number?”

Again there is a pause, this one a little longer, his own way of letting me know that his patience was fast running out.

“Are you in?” he asked again, pushing past my questions. Whether he doesn’t want to answer or simply doesn’t care that I wish to know I can’t be certain, though I have a pretty good idea what the response is.

This time it was my turn to ignore a question, my eyes sliding shut, the darkness enveloping me, taking me back almost two decades before. Doing so seemed to ignite every other sense I had, the smell of blood and cordite finding my nose, the taste of sweat and bile reaching my throat.

Standing in the empty kitchen of my home, I could feel the jungle humidity on my skin, the grit of soil beneath my fingertips.
“I hoped you were dead,” I whispered. “Even fooled myself into believing it a time or two, back before…”

I didn’t bother finishing the sentence. There was no need to.

“No such luck,” he replied, the words barely out of my mouth before he fired back, “but you would be if I hadn’t been there that day.”

I knew he was only trying to goad me, to raise my anger, taunting me into snapping back at him. It was the exact way he handled our only previous conversation, the same way he did when he frequently showed up in my nightmares, the only part of that hellish day my subconscious can still retain with complete clarity.

“You do remember that, don’t you?”

Not a day goes by that I don’t remember, more than once having wished that he had just left me there, that my fate would have been decided by someone, anyone, but him.

“I do.”

“And you remember what I said?” he asked, it becoming apparent that he was enjoying himself, his voice transitioning into something akin to a purr.

The plastic casing of the phone moaned slightly in my hand as I squeezed it, feeling the tension begin in my elbow, every muscle and tendon in the lower half of my arm clenching tight.

Of course I remember what he said. I have heard it in my head no less than a million times since.

“And then we are even?”

“The slate is clean,” he replied, though whether there is any veracity in the statement or he is merely putting me on, I have no way of knowing.

What I do know is this son of a bitch has been an unwanted presence in my life long enough and if I don’t stop it soon, there’s no telling what he’ll want from me in the not-too-distant future.

It ends now. It has to.

“I’m in.”

 
 
Chapter One
Meyers Jacoby lived for this shit. Always had. Over the years it had taken on a dozen different venues, ranging from ball fields to battlegrounds, but always the end result was the same, providing that fix he so desperately craved.
Raw, unbridled adrenaline.

The kind that could only come from standing at the epicenter of a crowd. The sort that surged through the nervous system, setting hairs on end and forcing goose pimples to the surface of the skin. Sprang forth from having the ability to do something that so many others wanted to be able to, but knew they never would.

Standing in front of the floor length mirror in his hotel room, Jacoby slid the solid blue suit coat up over his shoulders. He folded the collar down carefully behind the starched neck of his dress shirt and made sure the Windsor knot of his red patterned tie rested perfectly between the lapels. Gave one final tilt to the American flag pin that was positioned just to the left of his heart.

The last thing was a pat along the hair above either ear, making sure it laid flat against skull. Rotating his head forward and back, he checked to ensure there were no creases in his hairline that would insinuate thinning, even under the harshest of overhead lights.

He was, after all, now on the north side of 50, where a graceful transition to silver was accepted, even expected, but losing any could not be tolerated.

Regardless what anybody might say, no one wanted to vote for a guy embroiled in an ongoing battle with male pattern baldness.

Moving back another step, Jacoby started with his shoes, their soles resting atop thin carpet with a plain grey pattern. Sliding his gaze upward, he took in everything before him, a full three seconds passing before his focus came to face forward, his own eyes drilling back into him.

Slate grey, just as his father’s had been, and his father’s before him.

Mercifully, it was the only thing he has inherited from either one. Even added together there was no way they could ever match what he had been able to in half the time, tonight being just one more example of that.

Just thinking about it caused the itching inside him, the yearning for that adrenaline spike he wanted so badly, to rise a little closer to the surface.

Soon, but not quite yet.

Releasing his own gaze, Jacoby made one more appraisal in the mirror. Taken as a whole, it was a look he could do without. He hated the color red, even more the cheap metal object affixed just over his breast bone.

Truth be known, he had never cared much for suits, preferring to spend his time in silk, or even better, nothing at all, showing off the body he worked so meticulously to maintain.

For the sold-out ballroom awaiting his arrival downstairs though, this was the only possible look he could dare wear, an ensemble put together only after conducting the most exhaustive of public research. Everything about it, from the cut to the color, was done to resonate in just the right way, leaving an impression long after the lights dimmed and he was on his way to the next campaign stop.

Exactly 10 minutes before the hour, a terse knock sounded against the door, pulling him from his thoughts. Nothing more than a pair of short tones in quick succession, it was followed by the sound of the automated lock being released, the hinges creaking just slightly as it swung open.

As it did so, a host of outside sounds could be heard, the low din of movement and the omnipresent drone of voices finding his ears, accompanied by a short gust of warm air. Just as fast all three faded away as the door swung closed and Wade Rummel entered, a thick folder in hand.

“Good evening, sir,” he said in greeting, his deep baritone sounding louder than necessary in the quiet room. If one were to only hear it they might assume Rummell a large man with a barrel chest and thick midsection, carrying the necessary trappings to produce such a grumble.

In truth, he stood several inches shorter than Jacoby, his wiry frame still the exact same size it had been for 30 years and counting. Steel colored hair was buzzed just shy of a flattop and wire-rimmed glasses rested on the bridge of his nose.

“Wade,” Jacoby responded, turning away from the mirror. In three quick strides, he crossed in front of the bed and accepted the folder from Rummel, cradling it against his left forearm and flipping it open with his right hand. “How’s it going down there?”

“Excellent,” Rummel said, the answer one of two that the man gave to almost every question Jacoby ever asked, the other residing at completely the bottom end of the spectrum.

Never anything in between, one of the things Jacoby had always appreciated about him. An Army man through and through, there was no such thing as shades of grey.

Things were either excellent, or they were shitty.

While Jacoby had always been somewhat glad that the service had not instilled the same narrow view of the world into him, it was exactly the sort of thing he was looking for in a second-in-command. Someone that saw things through a clearly defined framework, providing the perfect foil for his own nuanced system of dealing with things. When his time in the military had ended and politics looked to be his next platform, it had not taken him long to look up the old gunnery sergeant.

Together they had traded in camouflage fatigues for dark colored suits, fighting battles that somehow managed to simultaneously be even less, and infinitely more, bloody.

“Your wife is just about to wrap up,” Rummell said. When Jacoby cocked an eyebrow upward, he continued, “They are eating up every word she says. Loving all the stuff about family values, strong moral character, the usual rigmarole.”

Moving his attention back to the file before him, Jacoby muttered, “Yeah, well, we are in the Deep South. You’ll get that.”

In quick order he rifled back through the assembled preparatory pages before him, refreshing facts that had long since been drilled into him, trying to catch a few last tidbits that he might be able to slip in. Despite having spent more than a year just a couple hours away at Fort Benning, this was his first trip to Atlanta in quite some time, certainly so in this particular line of work.

As annoying as the briefing folders could be, they were a necessary evil. He had come too far to be derailed by something as simple as a misstated factoid now.

“Age?” Jacoby asked.

“Older,” Rummell said, “mostly white.”

“Mostly white,” Jacoby whispered to himself, “meaning…”

“Meaning stick to the high points. Church, fiscal conservatism-“

“Social security,” Jacoby finished nodding his head. “Stay away from gun control and welfare. Throw in the fact that I was a military doc. Got it.”

Content that the information was drilled in, as much now as it ever would be anyway, Jacoby slapped the folder shut. Began to extend it to Rummell before thinking better of it and tossing it onto the bed.

“We roll in three, sir,” Rummell said, turning on a heel and exiting the room just as fast as he had entered.

Standing rooted in place, Jacoby waited until the door closed behind him, swallowing up another burst of warm air and noise. Again he closed his eyes and moved his attention towards the ceiling, allowing the impending moment to wash over him, lighting him up from within.

There was a reason he found himself in this exact position. It was why he now wore an expensive suit and was about to stand in front of a thousand people, all paying inflated prices to eat bad hotel food and drool over his every word while so many others from his past had fallen by the wayside.

It was what had enabled him to land the beautiful woman that was currently downstairs setting the stage for him, and gave him access to any other he might desire whenever she wasn’t around.

Not everybody could do what he did. They didn’t have the abilities he possessed, certainly weren’t privy to the unshakeable faith he had in them.

Retracing the few steps he’d taken just moments before, Jacoby again stood in front of the mirror. He tugged at either lapel, making sure his jacket rested just so across his chest, before pulling in a deep breath through his nose.

“Just remember,” he whispered, “you live for this shit, and you are going to be the next Vice-President of the United States.”

 
Chapter Two
The sound of the screen door in the kitchen slamming shut echoed through the house, the familiar din of wood smashing against wood audible, no attempt made to catch it as it swung back into place. It still hung in the air, loud, ominous, as a new noise took over, the click of boot heels against a hardwood floor.

In a steady sequence they moved through the home, growing ever closer, my mind tracking their approach as they descended the narrow hallway before stopping at the threshold of the door to the bedroom. There they stopped, a shadow passing over the room as their owner paused, sliding her hands into the front pockets of her jeans and leaning a shoulder against the door frame beside her.

The feel of her stare weighed on my shoulders, obviously present, though not a single word crossed her lips as she stood.

As always, I had both the opportunity to explain if I wanted to and the assurance that no pressure will be applied if I didn’t.

All of this I processed through my peripheral vision, not bothering to look up as I jammed the loose assortment of garments strewn about the bed into a canvas duffel bag. With little regard for space or tidiness, I stuffed them in one after another, content to dig through at a later date for anything I might need.

A few feet away, the red digital alarm clock announced it was just a few minutes after 7:00, the sun outside paying it no mind as it already sat well above the horizon, rising fast. Streaming in through the windows framing either side of our bed, it hit my right side square, the light so bright it forced my eye to nothing more than a slit as I packed.

This year, summer has decided to come early to west Texas, shoving spring aside like a schoolyard bully, raising temperatures more than 30 degrees in just a couple of short weeks. The early reports promised that by noon the thermometer will be north of 70, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was already there, with several more hours of climbing still ahead.

Combined with the adrenaline I have felt since the call came in more than five hours before, it has my body temperature running much higher than normal. Already my t-shirt stuck to the small of my back, beads of sweat moving down the side of my face, smudging every item as I wadded them into the dark green bag.

Not that I particularly care about that either. A little bit of sweat and a few wrinkles was just part of the daily uniform for a man running his own ranch.

Despite knowing she was standing there, I continued to work in silence, the entire process of packing lasting just seven minutes. By the time I was done, the bag contained enough items for five days away, including an extra pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts, and a handful of clean socks and underwear.

Considering my next destination was much further north, I also included a plain sweatshirt and a long sleeve t-shirt, a canvas jacket in the truck if things got really cold.

Once everything was inside I jerked the zipper closed, already hating the sight of it sitting before me, hating even more that it had to be packed at all. Gripping either end, I lifted it from the bed and slung the strap of it across my shoulder, feeling the half-empty duffel against my thighs as I stared out the window.

The sun was so bright I was forced to pinch my eyes almost completely shut as I gazed out, the bronze orb now sitting a full inch above the horizon. Its rays reflected off the morning dew, illuminating the world in a color saturation that seemed almost cruel given what I was about to do.

Whatever that may be.

“He called,” I said, my attention still aimed outside. My fingers twitched just slightly as my nerves jumped at the sound of my own voice, my body comprehending the words I’d just said.

A moment of silence passed, no response of any kind coming from the doorway, the floor still mine to proceed with as I chose.

Just as it always was.

Just the same as I would do if the roles were reversed.

Shoving a loud breath out through my nose, I finally turned back to face the door, the right side of my body cooling as I stepped away from the direct sunlight to regard the person standing before me.

Still with one shoulder pressed against the doorframe, Rae Sommers stared back at me, her face void of expression. I knew that just beneath the surface was a tempest of thoughts and questions, each one hermitically sealed away, never to be revealed unless absolutely necessary.

Despite the early hour, her jeans and boots were already lined with mud and spotted with water, the bottom side of her grey sports bra rimmed with sweat. A thin sheen of moisture coated her skin, accentuating the ridges etched across her torso, the sharp angles of her cheekbones and jaw line.

Bits of straw clung to the blonde ponytail hanging down over one shoulder and extended from the thin wisps of hair above either ear.

“He called,” I repeated. “He, as in…”

“I know,” she replied.

The better part of a decade separates us in age, though sometimes I am forced to wonder which one of us in fact older. Both have lived a life that few others can ever fathom, have seen things that no person should ever have to, witnessed the depths that humanity can truly succumb to.

We would both be foolish or liars to try and pretend that those accumulated experiences didn’t weigh on us both.

I like to think we are neither.

“I don’t want to go, but have to,” I said, as much for myself as for her.

“I know,” she repeated.

Her response barely registered as I cast my gaze to the ground, trying to find the words to explain, wanting her to understand exactly why I was now standing in our bedroom packing a bag. Raising the heel of my boot, I prodded at the corner bedpost with my toe, hearing the gentle tap of the sole against the wood, trying to make sense of things myself.

“It’s just…” I began, my voice trailing off for a moment as I tried to grasp the words to employ, attempting to have them make sense. “For years now this has been there, just beyond the edge of my psyche, so much so that at times I can’t help but wonder if it was ever real to begin with.”

Even to my own ears the response sounds whiny, pleading, the realization pushing a bit of angst through me, my jaw clenching as I lash at the bedpost one more time before dropping my foot back into position.

No part of me wants to be going. I hate that I’m now standing in my bedroom about to drive away, that one phone call after so many years has had this effect.

Hate even more that this conversation is now taking place.

Rae and I had just two rules when she found me three years prior.

No questions, and no expectations.

I know without a doubt that if I had driven away an hour earlier, doing it while she was still tucked away in the barn, that there would have been no ill will, no hurled accusations of malicious intent.

I would never have done that, though, and we both knew it. There might not have been any expectations, but there was damned sure too much respect between us to ever handle things in such a manner.

My lingering, though, wasn’t for her. It wasn’t to say goodbye or even to try and fit in one last romantic tryst before taking off.
It was to try and get a handle on things, to gain acceptance in my mind of what had taken place, to steel myself for what lay ahead.

Only then would I be able to actually do what needed to be done.

“I know,” she said a third time, drawing me from my thoughts, pulling my attention up towards her. “Just do one thing for me.”

The statement surprised me a little, though it shouldn’t have. It was directly in tune with everything she ever said, fitting perfectly against the framework of her that I already had worked out in my mind.

Under different circumstances, her response might have brought about a smile, or at the very least a smirk. Instead, my face remained impassive, my eyebrows rising just slightly as I nodded in acceptance of whatever condition she was about to impose upon me.

“Take Clarice with you.”

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