Mitchell Jones's Labor Day wouldn't be filled with parades or barbecues, and he didn't get the day off from work. He was thousands of miles from home, sitting quietly at a kitchen table in a small house in Malmo, a city on the southern coast of Sweden.
His assassin-like stillness was only occasionally interrupted to check his watch, or dispassionately stroke his long, graying beard. The beard, along with his wiry frame and dark, vacant eyes, gave him a resemblance to a certain infamous terrorist. This made flying commercial virtually impossible. But for his job with Operation Anesthesia, he didn't have to.
As Sunday night slowly morphed into Monday morning, he patiently read his favorite author-Herbert Spencer-while waiting for the Lerner family to return from the United States. The news the Lerners received from the US doctors was no doubt life-altering, but little did they know that Mitchell Jones was about to really change their lives forever.
Based on eighteen years of experience, he didn't expect a confrontation. He knew the Lerner's minds would be too cluttered to notice the obvious signs someone broke into their home, such as the lights he arrogantly left on, or the lingering odor from his chain-smoking. But if one did occur, he was under direct orders to take everyone alive.
This went against Jones's natural instinct to shoot first and ask questions later. A philosophy that got him fired from his old job at the CIA. But Operation Anesthesia didn't see it as a black mark on his resume. In fact, it was the reason they originally sought him out all those years ago. But sadly, like most things, their survival instincts had softened over time.
He took an extended drag on his cigarette, attempting to relieve some of the pain that was a souvenir from a recent mission in Iran. A mission that went awry, to say the least. Sixty percent of the area from his chest to his feet was burned from the fiery helicopter crash. The cigarette wasn't a very good anesthetic.
Not even the best spin-doctor could heal the colossal failure of Iran. Any mission where you are presumed dead, and that's the good news, was not one for the time capsule. But thanks to Jones's survival instincts, he and his boss, Franklin Stipe, were preparing a dramatic rise from the dead. A resurrection in which Stipe would likely portray himself as the brave hero, leaving out the part where Jones guided him to safety, and avoided the cruel fate of the others they left behind.
But he smiled anyway, exposing his cigarette-stained teeth. He knew Stipe wouldn't be in power much longer. His inevitable fall was dictated by the laws of nature, or what Spencer so brilliantly termed, "the survival of the fittest." A concept wrongly credited to Darwin and his theories of evolution. Herbert Spencer actually coined the phrase in his 1864 masterpiece, Principles of Biology.
In it, Spencer created the model that applied his law of "survival of the fittest" to society. He warned that humanitarian impulses had to be resisted, as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature's laws. This differed from Stipe, who sought useless elements such as glory, acceptance, and credit. As did the culture of Modern America, which embraced concepts like love, happiness, and religion. It chipped away at its inherent survival skills, softening the society, and making it a target for its predators. But of course, that was the reason Operation Anesthesia was created in the first place.
The front door creaked open and a weary-looking family entered-two-and-a-half-year-old Petr sleeping in his mother's arms. Their bright blond hair didn't appear to be dimmed by the life-changing news they had received on their trip, but each step they took was marked with exhaustion. Jones was sure the physical didn't even compare to the mental strain of trying to grasp Petr's diagnosis.
Upon reaching the kitchen, they were met by Mitchell Jones and his 9mm Glock. He coldly explained to the Lerners that their trip had just begun and it would be in their best interest to quietly cooperate. The father declined the offer, yelling, "Aldrig i helvete"-no way in hell-and Jones could kiss his behind, "Kyss mig i arslet."
Jones went right for his weak spot, knowing a little Swedish of his own. "Jagt skar av dina ballar om du inte haller kaft," he calmly stated, threatening to remove the man's testicles.
The man stood down.
He knew the mother would be tougher. They always were. When it came to their children they were true survivalists like himself, willing to fight to the death. So he immediately went with a pre-emptive attack-threatening to kill Petr.
There would be no need to bind and gag them. He used a concoction created for Operation Anesthesia by one of the world's leading neurologists, which would temporarily paralyze the body, including voice. And when Jones expertly injected each of the family members with a syringe containing the paralyzing drug, it didn't surprise him that young Petr didn't wake, or even flinch.
He effortlessly loaded the drugged family into the rented SUV he had parked two houses down on the quiet street. He then drove out of Malmo, over the modern Oresund Bridge, and into Denmark. In Copenhagen, a private plane waited to bring them to the home base of Operation Anesthesia. It would be the Lerner's home for the rest of their lives.
It was the end of the road.
It was the end of the road for Billy Harper, both literally and figuratively.
From the literal standpoint, the end of the road was a well-groomed cul-de-sac in New Canaan, Connecticut with stately mansions staring back at him. The figurative was much more complex and hurtful.
His old high school football coach used to drill into his head that you should never look back because someone might be gaining on you. And whenever Billy glanced into his rearview mirror, what he always saw gaining on him was his past. But ironically, as he looked through the front windshield at the children playing on the lush lawns, his past was straight ahead, and the pain began to rumble. The figurative.
He gathered his emotions the best he could and rumbled his 2001 Jeep Cherokee down a dirt driveway, which was hidden between two majestic mansions that anchored the cul-de-sac.
The Cherokee was a lot like him-it wasn't that old, and still looked pretty good on the outside, but had a lot of hard miles on it and could break down at any moment. He bounced along the strip of gravel, kicking up dust and rocks, and rattling his few remaining possessions that were strewn throughout the vehicle. Billy glanced into the infamous rearview mirror and saw the cul-de-sac disappear from view.
He arrived at a white picket fence. In the center of the fence was a wrought-iron gate with BEVELYN FARMS imprinted on it. He passed through the open-gate onto a paved driveway that circled in front of an arch-shaped, red barn, typical of the New England countryside. A large silo stood next to it like its overprotective big brother.
Billy parked in front of his new home, and exited into a sun-drenched afternoon-a record high temperature for the tenth of September. In a dramatic twist from the morning rain showers, the sky now looked like Monet had brush-stroked it with oranges and reds, and the smells of Saturday afternoon barbecues filled the air. It was as if the once-dreary day was given a fresh start. Billy took a deep breath, and then headed toward what he hoped would be his own fresh start.
He passed an 800-series black BMW, confirming that this place might be just a bit out of his price range. He still wasn't sure why they had rented the cottage to him at such a bargain cost. Just rich people doing some charity work, he guessed.
Chuck Whitcomb answered the door, wearing a SPEAK SLOW I ONLY SPEAK CANADIAN T-shirt and mesh baseball hat. Standing almost six-foot two himself, Billy didn't have to gaze upward to look many in the eye, but Chuck was at least six-foot-six. He reminded Billy of many he encountered growing up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Honest working-class folks who slaved in the local mill all week so that they could spend their Friday night cheering-on Billy Harper, the local hero of the moment. Based on the ritzy neighborhood, Billy had expected someone more resembling his swanky former in-laws.
Chuck affably greeted Billy and led him into the barn, which actually had been converted into an exquisite home. Billy was just as impressed as he was last Monday, on Labor Day, when he came to view the guest cottage the Whitcombs were renting.
Billy followed Chuck into an expansive open area. The interior was dominated by heavy timber of a honey color. Large wood beams shot horizontally across the room, giving it a secure feel. A cathedral ceiling soared up two stories, arching at the top. To his left, a spiral staircase led to a second floor overhang that reminded Billy of a balcony in an old-time movie theater. On his right was an elaborately decorated, but comfortable looking living room area that featured a large fieldstone fireplace.
"Carolyn is upstairs with a little fever and Beth is setting up for the birthday party tomorrow. So it'll be just you and me," Chuck said as he pulled Billy toward the kitchen.
Billy nodded hesitantly, still expecting Chuck to come to his senses about renting him the cottage.
The country-style kitchen was an impressive blend of wide-beamed wood flooring and whitewashed wood trim. An adjacent breakfast nook ushered in streams of powerful sunlight through oversized windows, which reflected off a cluster of copper pots and pans that hung over an island stove in the kitchen.
Beth Whitcomb stood at the kitchen sink washing a plastic cereal bowl. She was probably no older than mid-twenties, about ten years Chuck's junior. Her strawberry blonde hair was cut into a simple bob with box layers, and light freckles dotted her fair skin. She wore a flowered sundress filled with pinks and greens. But while the dress was soft and breezy, her stony demeanor was anything but carefree.
Chuck walked to his wife and hunched downward to give her a mood-changing kiss on the cheek. "How's my girl?"
She actually smiled. "Do you mean me or Carolyn?"
"I know how amazing you are-how's she doing?"
"Fever's down-taking a nap upstairs."
As Billy observed Chuck and Beth, he thought he'd put the story together since his initial visit last week. Beth was a Boulanger. In fact, she and her sister, Dana-who had set up his meeting with the Whitcombs-were princesses in the Boulanger Kingdom. He figured that Beth married Chuck, the common man, to be her court jester. But Billy knew that one day the princess would realize that she preferred a prince. And she wouldn't be satisfied to just leave-she'd take his most cherished possessions with her-the ones that touch the soul. It was a story Billy was too familiar with. And it wasn't a good story. As a writer, albeit an unpublished and penniless one, he knew a good story contained suspense. He already knew how this story would end-there was no suspense.
Chuck pulled out two perspiring bottles from the refrigerator, receiving a dirty look from Beth.
"Beer, eh?" he offered in his Canadian twang, and Billy accepted the bottle of Klein's Beer. Noticing the label, he almost laughed out loud at the irony-he just couldn't escape from the past.
As he twisted off the top, Billy could feel Beth's glare on the back of his neck. When they first met last week, her first words to him were, "When I pictured who my sister would send us to look at the cottage, you are exactly what I imagined."
"What's that?" Billy had asked.
"The good looking, T-shirt and jeans type. The wavy hair, the charming smile, and oh, Dana loves a cute dimple."
Billy touched his dimpled chin, briefly impressed with himself, before noticing Chuck's slumping body language. Billy realized he was about to take a punch-line across the nose.
"But of course there is the other side to Dana's men," Beth continued.
"Her men? She's my agent, not my girlfriend. I think you have the wrong idea."
Beth rolled her eyes, as if to say she'd seen this movie before. "Dana's men are always starving artists who end up living off of her like parasites.
They also just got out of some complicated relationship, and have a fifty-fifty shot of having a drinking problem."
It was obvious to Billy that she wouldn't rent him the cottage at gunpoint, even if he could afford it, which he clearly couldn't. So he decided he was done being shit on.
"Divorce became official about a year ago. I do have a job at the Shoreline Times here in New Canaan, which Dana got for me, although I don't have the four thousand a month you're asking for rent, not even close. And lastly, I don't have a drinking problem. I happen to like drinking-it's not a problem!"
At that point it would've taken a miracle from above for him to be moving in six days later. And that's exactly what happened.
A sudden thunder boomed through the air, and cascaded down from the balcony overhang. Billy looked up to witness a small girl barreling down the stairs like a precocious barrel of energy. As she did, she let out an innocent giggle that bounced off the acoustics. She wore a denim dress with butterflies embroidered upon it, and her tiny sandals looked as if they'd fly off her feet as she bounced down the stairs at an excited pace.
The first thing Billy noticed was her eyes-two big saucers of hazel. Her brown hair was in double ponytails that jetted from both sides of her head. Her apple cheeks resonated with joy. When she reached the bottom, her eyes locked on Billy and her face scrunched, seemingly in deep thought.
She reminded him of the character Boo from Monsters, Inc.-the little girl who accidentally got stuck in the world of monsters. Carolyn Whitcomb wasn't an animated character, but her demeanor was definitely animated.
"Who are you?" she finally asked, her voice containing a slight muffled lisp. When she opened her mouth, exposing her tongue, Billy understood why.
"I'm Billy, what's your name?"
She stuck her chest out proudly and stated, "I'm Carolyn Whitcomb, but you can call me princess."
There was nothing pretentious about the statement. It actually reminded Billy of an innocence he once knew. Their bond was instant, and the princess would eventually cast the deciding vote as to whether Billy would be offered the cottage.
It was a decision that still baffled him. Not just because he couldn't afford the rent, but also because part of his rental agreement was that he would care for Carolyn during the day. By the looks of things the Whitcombs could afford a team of nannies, but that still wasn't it. What he found most odd was that they never asked him the basic background questions-the ones about being arrested for a violent crime-which when he would refuse to answer, his silence would've convicted him, and ruled him out of any such responsibility.
But now less than a week later, he was preparing to move in.
Thunder once again crackled from above, and like a flash of lightning striking twice, Carolyn fearlessly scampered down the stairs, her voice booming off the acoustics, "Billy-did you come to play with me?"
Chuck impeded his daughter's dash, swooping her into his arms.
"Billy is moving into the cottage today, princess."
"Can I help?"
"Are you feeling better?"
"Why don't you tell Billy how old you're going to be tomorrow."
She flashed the three most inner fingers on her small hand, and then took attendance. Upon discovering she missed one, she manually raised her pinky finger. "I'm gonna be foe."
Billy smiled to match hers. "Four? And not even one gray hair?"
She laughed. "You're silly."
Still holding her in his huge arms, Chuck planted his face into hers.
"And not even one wrinkle."
"That's 'cuz I wear sunblock so the ubee rays don't get me!" she exclaimed, her voice climbing octaves in a scale-like cadence: Do-ra-mi-fa-so.
Beth remained the party pooper. She walked to her daughter, all business, and placed the palm of her hand on her forehead. "Fever's gone," she announced to Chuck.
He nodded as if it were the expected conclusion.
"Can I help Billy move in, Mom, can I?" Carolyn negotiated.
Beth's face contorted, as if she were thinking long and hard about it, but eventually gave in. It seemed the princess always got her way in the end.
Carolyn lit up like a Christmas tree. "Then what are we waiting for-I'm not getting any younger!"