Dr Joshua Greenberg pulled the rental Honda in off the highway and into the parking lot of the roadside diner. Grabbing his briefcase from the passenger seat, he climbed out and groaned. He’d been on the road a long while. He stretched and rubbed his eyes.
A Freightliner truck roared past with a blast of wind and a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. The doctor turned towards the diner and slowly, stiffly, climbed the two steps up to the entrance. The place was quiet – a few sullen truckers and a couple of families taking a late lunch. He took a booth in the corner, settled on the red vinyl seat and ordered coffee. He didn’t feel like eating. The brown liquid that the waitress shoved under his nose wasn’t really coffee, but he sat and drank it anyway.
He sat there for thirty minutes, staring at his hands on the table. He should be moving on. They’d be expecting him back at the facility, to deliver the package to Jones. It was still two hours’ drive away.
He gave a short, bitter laugh.
He glanced down at the briefcase next to him on the seat. Reached across, unsnapped the catch, dipped inside and came out holding the little bottle. He set it down on the table in front of him. It was amber glass and held just under 100 millilitres of clear, slightly viscous fluid. There was no label. It looked innocuous enough. It could have been anything, some kind of innocent herbal remedy even. But he knew that if he were to empty the contents into the bubbling coffee pot behind the counter, every cup served out of it would make its drinker a candidate for the nuthouse within a day.
First they would become unusually chatty and uninhibited, happily revealing even the most intimate secrets about themselves. Then the drug would go to town on the unconscious mind, liberating every shred of darkness from inside – every repressed fear, every angry or bitter emotion, every disturbing or violent thought. It would all come flooding out, overwhelming the conscious mind in a wave of rage and paranoia and grief and terror, the whole spectrum of the most extreme emotions a human being could experience, all at once, relentlessly, for hours.
There was no stopping the feedback loop. Madness was the inevitable result, and there was no antidote.
He shuddered. And he was on his way to hand this over to Jones to give to an innocent young woman. To ruin her for ever.
He sank his head into his hands.
He knew perfectly well how. One small mistake, building on the errors of his past that he thought he’d left behind. One small mistake had ruined everything.
Joshua Greenberg had come from a poor background and spent his life trying to make up for it. His father was a Detroit factory worker and his mother cleaned offices. The two of them had worked their asses off to put their only child through college. He’d done them proud, graduated in medicine and gone on to specialise in neurology and psychiatry. At the age of forty-eight, he was a successful man with his own New York private practice and a lectureship at Columbia where he was head of his department. The big house in the Hamptons had two acres, pool and stables and it was everything his wife, Emily, had ever wanted. His two teenage daughters had the Arab horses they’d always wanted, and he’d built a luxurious annexe onto the house so that his elderly, proud parents could be close by.
The ghost from his past was something that he’d never thought would catch up with him again. It had been in his freshman year at college, the first time away from home for a nervous eighteen-year-old. His roommate had been Dickie Engels.
He’d never forget Dickie. He was a lawyer’s son, and the two years he had on Joshua had been spent travelling around France and Italy, places that seemed as far away as the moon. Compared to Joshua, Dickie was a true man of the world. He smoked Sobranie Black Russians, knew about wine and had read Tolstoy and James Joyce. For six months Joshua worshipped him from a distance, fervently hoping his burning feelings wouldn’t show. Once, tipsy after drinking the first champagne of his life, he’d been on the verge of kissing Dickie. It had never happened, but soon afterwards Dickie had asked to be transferred to another room. Then, a few months later, Joshua had met Emily and the shameful incident was forgotten. He moved on and got on with life.
Until James happened, fourteen months ago. He remembered clearly the first time he’d laid eyes on his dazzling new student. The thick black hair, the satin skin, the deep brown eyes. Suddenly the old feelings had started returning. It started taking over. It wasn’t just a crush. And the beautiful young man seemed to feel the same way, taking more than a casual interest in his overweight, middle-aged lecturer. Joshua had initially tried to avoid him, and evaded the repeated invitations for ‘coffee sometime’.
Then one day, Emily had announced to Joshua’s horror that she planned to organise a party at their home for all the first-year students. There was no way out of it, and Emily could be very forceful. It would have looked odd to protest.
The night of the party had been stormy and thundery. Joshua had been mixing himself a drink in the kitchen when he felt something brush his arm. James had crept up behind him. They’d kissed in the flash of the lightning from outside.
Joshua was smitten. After that first night they’d started meeting up in his car in the college parking lot. It was crazy, looking back. James had never gone all the way with him – always found a reason to get away when the petting got heavier. Joshua had taken to hanging around outside the student’s window at night, hoping for a glimpse of him, telling Emily he was working late.
One day, James wasn’t there any more. Joshua was told he’d transferred to UCLA. He never heard from him again.
But he’d had bigger concerns than a broken heart. The day after James’s disappearance, the devastating package had arrived in the mail. The photos were crisp and the faces unmistakable. The note was short and to the point. The doctor would be contacted and his co-operation appreciated.
At first Joshua had felt compelled to explain everything to Emily. She’d understand. But then he realised that no, Emily would not understand. Emily would flip. She’d leave him, take away his beautiful daughters. He’d lose his home. His parents would be mortified beyond words. Then, no doubt, the pictures would find their way under the noses of his employers at the university. His teaching career would be over, and the scandal would be sure to wreck his private practice too.
It had been a few weeks before he’d been contacted again. The phone call had lasted twenty minutes and the instructions had been clear. He’d said to Emily he was going away to a seminar. Someone had dropped out at the last minute and he was needed.
That was the start of quite a few unexpected seminars that took Joshua away from home for weeks at a time. He never really knew who his employers were. The money was generous, and he tried not to think too much about what they were making him do.
The sessions took place in anonymous grey buildings across the country. It was always more or less the same. A car would pick him up at the airport. The men in suits would drive him in silence and he’d be ushered to some quiet, empty room where the subjects were being held. Some of the experimental behaviour modification programmes involved weird pharmaceuticals and brainwashing techniques. Joshua was required to evaluate subjects’ state of mind, conduct tests, administer treatments that he’d never even heard of before. He never knew who the men were. He tried to persuade himself all this must be in the interests of his country. But sometimes at night he’d wake up covered in sweat at the memory of the things he’d seen and helped carry out.
Once or twice he’d tried to break away. Then out came the photos again, and the threats.
But this time was different. This was worse. The approach had come through a different channel. The place he’d been called away to, out in the Montana wilds, was dark and run-down. The whole setup wasn’t right. The subject wasn’t some sullen prisoner that he could convince himself was some threat to homeland security. She was just a slip of a girl, and he was being coerced to destroy her. Jones terrified him. They all did – even Fiorante, the tall, attractive auburn-haired woman who was the youngest and sole female agent on the team. She might be beautiful, but he was damn sure she was deadly.
Joshua stared again at the bottle on the table and he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He was going to get her out of there. And then he was going back to New York and tell Emily everything. Let the chips fall. He didn’t care any more.
He left the diner and continued on his journey, planning what he was going to do. He stopped at a small town on the way and found a little general store where he bought what he needed and hid it in the back of the car. Then he followed the long, winding road out into the wilds.
The hotel loomed up in front of him as he parked the Honda near the entrance. He stepped out, got his things from the car and buttoned up the long overcoat he was wearing, then walked briskly up the steps to the glass doors. Punched the security code into the panel on the wall, waited for the click and pushed through the door.
The familiar, detested smell of the place hit him as he strode through the dingy corridors. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. He checked his watch, sweat breaking out on his brow. His heart was thumping rapidly.
He made his way quickly up to the top floor, to Zo?’s door. The same big man in the dark suit was standing there as usual, eyeing him as he approached.
‘What’s with the heavy coat, doc?’
‘Got a chill,’ Joshua said. He sniffed for effect.
‘Maybe coming down with flu. Can you let me in?’
‘You’re not scheduled to see her,’ the agent said.
‘I just realised,’ Joshua stammered, ‘I left my BlackBerry in there.’
‘No signal up here anyway, doc.’
‘Sure. But I need it. It’s got important stuff on it.’
‘Careless,’ the agent said.
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘One minute,’ the agent said. ‘No longer.’
‘Thanks.’ Joshua smiled weakly and pushed through the door. It shut behind him and he heard the click of the lock.
Zo? had been sleeping. She sat upright in the bed, eyes wide at the sight of him standing there with his hair a mess, not in his normal white coat.
‘I’m not supposed to be here,’ he whispered. ‘Do as I say and don’t ask any questions. I’m getting you out of here.’
The agent was thinking about his coffee break when he heard the commotion from inside the room. He cocked his head and listened for a moment, then unlocked the door and burst inside.
The girl was lying on the floor beside the bed. Her knees were drawn up to her chest and she was shaking violently. The guard stared down at her.
The doctor was kneeling on the floor next to her. He glanced up in alarm. ‘She’s sick. Really sick.’
‘What the hell happened?’ the agent asked, horrified.
‘Some kind of episode,’ the doctor said. ‘She woke up when I walked in and the next thing I know, she’s convulsing. Wait here – I’ve got some medication in the car.’ He jumped up and headed towards the door.
‘What do I do?’
‘Do nothing. Don’t touch her. Just stay with her.’
The agent stood and stared at her. Her whole body was shaking, rigid. Her hair was wet. She was foaming at the mouth. His mind was suddenly full of what they’d do to him for letting her get sick on his watch. Thank Christ for the doctor.
That was his final thought.
Joshua had stepped out of the room. He’d quickly unbuttoned the overcoat and drawn out the baseball bat that had been thrust through his belt, the handle trapped under his armpit. He strode back into the room, holding the bat in both hands. His mouth was dry. He’d been a reasonable ball player in college. The thought of smashing a bat into a man’s head made him cringe, but he’d no choice. He swung hard and felt the horrible thud vibrate down the shaft. The agent crumpled to the floor, face down.
Zo? scrabbled to her feet, spitting foam and undissolved pieces of Alka-Seltzer. She stared down in horror at the spreadeagled body of the agent.
‘Hurry,’ Joshua whispered. He dropped the bat. Took off the overcoat and wrapped it around her slender shoulders. Seizing her arm, he led her out of the room and locked the door behind them.
Zo? was glancing frantically this way and that as he guided her down the corridor and towards the backstairs that nobody ever seemed to use. She was weak from captivity and lack of exercise, and breathing hard as they ran down the stairs. He kept a tight grip on her arm. His own heart was hammering frantically.
Next landing down, he glanced furtively out of the fire doors and saw that the corridor ahead was deserted. He jerked her arm and they ran on. She stumbled, and he helped her to her feet.
‘Slow down,’ she wheezed.
‘I can’t. We’ve got to get out. It’s not far now.’
A door opened to one side, and suddenly Joshua found himself face to face with the female agent, Fiorante. They both stopped dead, eyes locked.
But the woman didn’t move. Didn’t say anything.
Something told him to keep running. He pressed on quickly, dragging Zo? behind him.
‘She saw us.’ Her voice was panicky.
He didn’t reply. The entrance foyer was just up ahead. He was running hard now.
Ten yards to the entrance foyer. Five.
His hand was on the cold steel handle of the front door.
Then a voice cut through the empty building.
‘Just where is it you think you’re going, Doctor?’
Joshua whirled around. Jones was standing a few yards up the corridor. Beside him was the Fiorante woman. Two more agents were running up behind, pistols drawn.
Joshua yanked his car key from his coat and pressed it into Zo?’s hand. ‘Blue Honda,’ he panted. ‘Just go. Get out of here. Now.’ He knew they wouldn’t shoot her. He didn’t care about himself, not any more.
Jones stepped forward, his gun held loosely at his side.
‘Go!’ Joshua yelled at her.
‘There’s nowhere to run, Zo?,’ Jones said calmly as he walked up closer. He was smiling. ‘It’s a wilderness out there. You’re safer here with us.’
Zo? stood frozen in the doorway. She stared helplessly at Joshua, and then at the agents. The woman agent wouldn’t meet her eye.
Then Jones took three more steps and she screamed as his strong fingers gripped her wrist and yanked her hard away from the entrance. He flung her into the hands of the two other men. She fought and kicked, but she was weak. They held her by the arms as Jones turned towards Joshua Greenberg.
‘Don’t hurt him,’ she pleaded. ‘Don’t -’
As the two agents dragged her back up the corridor, she heard the shot and threw her head back over her shoulder to see the blood splatter up the glass door and the doctor slump to the ground at Jones’s feet.
She screamed all the way back up to her room.