STRATAGEM Chapter 19
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
HOWARD COUNTY, MARYLAND
‘TERRORIST’ WAS ONLY THE FIRST WORD in the CNN list of suspected crimes under Derek’s name on the television. He blinked in disbelief as the scrolling marquis spewed out the terms biological agent, murder, Federal Authorities, abduction…
“Derek,” Mom said, her jaw fallen open. “That’s not your driver’s license on TV, is it?”
“It is. But I swear, I didn’t do anything like that.”
Next came the picture of the kidnapping victim.
“That’s me!” Paige said, pointing to a photo provided by the NYPD. “I’m on TV!”
Everything Mom and Paige said from that point faded into the background as he tried his best to take in what the reporter said about him. They were connecting him to the plane crash, the deaths and infection of hundreds in Manhattan by use of a biological agent, the abduction of Paige, and the murder of police officers and hospital staff.
“…even listening to me, Derek?” Mom said, her voice uncharacteristically intense.
“What? Oh, sorry. I just—I can’t believe what they’re accusing me of.”
“How could any of that be possible?” She said, trying to keep Paige busy with the puzzle they were working on by handing her another piece and pointing to the place it belonged.
“I wish I knew why they’re blaming me. All I know is that I woke up, a plane crashed in Central Park, I found Paige barely alive and brought her to the hospital where everyone was dead—”
The floodgates were failing. Finally able to put to words all the events of the day, Derek didn’t feel better, only relieved. Still, the stress constricted his chest like a python, tighter and tighter with each word he spoke. “Buildings were exploding, burning, and when I tried to take her away from the danger, I got arrested.”
“Oh my goodness, Derek. You got arrested?”
“Somehow everyone around us in the police station fell dead and I got away…look I know this sounds insane but that’s what happened. I don’t know why I—why we’re all alive, but I had to get away from the city and…” he looked at Paige, then turned back to whisper, “Her parents are dead, and this couple that came for her—!”
He measured the next words. Mom might turn him in herself if he described the grotesque couple posing as Paige’s parents as zombies, or if he told her how they had survived getting run over by a car and exhibited superhuman strength after that.
“Yes?” Mom said, concern filling her countenance.
“They…they weren’t her parents, and they were trying to hurt her.” He squeezed his eyes and fists shut in frustration. “No one will ever believe me!”
Someone touched his hand.
Derek opened his eyes.
“I believe you, Derek,” Paige said, her eyes round and filled with as much compassion as a five-year-old could muster.
He hadn’t expected that. Tears filled his eyes but he wiped them before they could escape. “Thank you,” he said and knelt to hug her. She hugged him back in such a manner that belied her apparent oblivion to the experiences she’d shared with him today.
For the first time since they’d met, she seemed to connect with him on an intuitive level. “Mommy and Daddy are in heaven, aren’t they?”
Derek pulled her in tight. “Yes, Paige. I’m sorry.”
“I knew it when I saw them this morning. I was just too scared to cry.” She buried her head into his chest and wept softly.
He patted her back, stroked her soft hair gently. “It’s okay, you go ahead and cry.”
“Derek, whatever’s happening,” Mom said, wrapping her arms around them both, “I believe you.”
He leaned in and touched his forehead to hers. “You have no idea how much I needed that.”
“But you’re in some trouble.”
“He didn’t do anything bad,” Paige said. “He was nice. And he uses the magic words a lot.”
Mom smiled. “Well, that’s always good to know.”
“I’ve got to figure out what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure the FBI or Homeland will be coming for me. I need to disappear for a while.”
A bell dinged in the kitchen. Mom stood and went over. “Come, eat something while we talk it over.”
The fresh aroma of pot roast and baked potatoes wafted through the kitchen. Derek pulled out a chair for Paige and then helped Mom bring the potatoes over. They all sat and Mom prayed a blessing over the food.
“…and Lord, thank you that you are with Derek, wherever he goes, and whatever comes his way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
“Amen,” Derek said, as did Paige, to his surprise. He had grown up in the faith, never really turned away from it, but in recent years became so involved with his struggles to become a published author who could make a full time living doing so, he had drifted. It wouldn’t be accurate to call it rejecting, it was more like growing apart a little bit more every day until one day, you’re more used to not being in a relationship than being in one.
Nevertheless, coming home had always been a pleasant reminder of the one attribute of God that Mom and Dad had instilled in Derek’s heart since childhood—unconditional love.
“Don’t be shy,” Mom said, serving Paige a helping of the roast, “eat up. You’re probably starving.”
“Like Marvin,” she said. “That’s what Daddy always says…” her gaze fell and lips quivered. “I mean, used to say.”
“Oh, Sweetie…” Mom went over and gave her a hug. “I’m sorry.”
Paige looked up at her. “Mrs. Storm?”
“I know you are. You wanna tell me about it?”
“Those people back at the police station…they were scary.” She turned to Derek. “Please don’t let them take me.”
“No way I’m letting anyone take you,” Derek said. “Did you see me fight that man back and drive away like crazy?”
“Yeah, you were like…like Spiderman.”
“I wouldn’t go that far…but yeah, I was pretty awesome.”
Mom swatted his arm. “Don’t you worry, Paige. We’ll take care of you.”
“Can I have a cookie now?”
“Before dinner? Of course!” She turned to Derek and nodded over to the tray next to the oven. “Would you mind?”
Derek stood. “Yes, Ma’am! Cookies before dinner, Ma’am!”
Paige giggled. Good sign.
He brought the entire tray, placed it on the table, and sat back down. Paige’s eyes lit up with anticipation.
“Help yourself,” Mom said. “Everyone needs chocolate chip cookies now and then.
Paige grabbed one and without hesitation bit into it. “Mmmm.”
Something landed heavily on Derek’s leg. He looked down to find Hulk standing with his forepaws on his thigh, mouth cracked open and tail wagging. “Oh, now you like me?”
“Hulky wants a cookie!” Paige said, her hands and face adorned with chocolate stains.
Derek grabbed one, looked straight at Hulk…then took a bite. “Mmmm…that is good.”
Hulk pushed forward, barked, and wagged even harder.
“Who’s the good boy?” Derek said. “All right, you’re the good boy. I mean, you did try to take out Zombie Guy.”
“Zombie?” Mom said.
He broke off half of the cookie and gave it to the Corgi, who immediately snatched it, climbed down, and proceeded to wolf it down. “Just an expression, Mom.” He turned to Paige and smiled. “There’s no such thing as zombies.”
She smacked her lips and licked her fingertips. “What’s a zombie?”
“Me, before coffee,” Derek said.
“I know a really good attorney,” Mom said, and picked up her flip phone. “Let me give him a call.”
“Mom, no!” Derek said, surprised at his own abrupt reaction.
She regarded him with a puzzled expression.
“I need to keep you out of all this.”
“What do you mean?” Mom said.
“For some reason, someone’s trying to pin all those accusations on me, and whoever or whatever it was who did what they did to Paige’s parents seem to be after her too. Are they connected? Who knows? But the last thing I want to do is get you involved. That’s why I have to leave as soon as possible.”
She sat there contemplating for a few seconds. Then she said, “I’ll come with you.”
“What? No, Mom. you have to pretend that you never saw me—haven’t seen me since the last time I came home, understand?”
“But I can help.”
Hulk climbed back up on Derek’s knee, wagging his tail with such anticipation Derek could feel his entire body swaying. Without taking his eyes from Mom’s he reached over and gave him another cookie.
“He’s gonna get the runs,” Mom said.
“Look, Mom. The best thing you can do is buy me some time. Other than Sabine, you’re my closest living family member. So you’re the first person they’re going to want to question about me.”
“So, you want me to lie?”
“Lyin’s bad,” Paige said as she patted Hulk’s head.
“I just need you to run interference for me while I figure out what’s going on,” Derek said, though how exactly he was going to do that escaped him, presently.
“Fine.” Mom gave him a sympathetic look which meant she was conceding. “Wait here.”
“Be right back.”
He watched her scurry out of the kitchen leaving him with Hulk and Paige, both riddled with chocolate stains on their faces.
“Where are we going?” Paige said.
“I’ll figure it out, not to worry.”
“I wish your mommy could come with us.”
“Me too,” Derek said. “But it’s not good for her.”
“Can Hulky come with us?”
“Hulk belongs to my sister. I think I have to leave him here so she can come get him when she comes back from her trip.”
“You have a sister?” Paige said.
“Yup.” Her quarantine should be over any time now. He’d have to speak with her preemptively and as soon as possible to fill her in lest she come at him with the Spanish Inquisition.
Mom came back with a black Jansport backpack. She handed it to him. “Take this, you’ll need it.”
“What is all—?”
“And this too.” She handed him a key. “Do you remember that old cabin Dad used to take us to?”
“Grandpa’s cabin by the lake?”
“It doesn’t have a listed address, and no one but our family knows about it. You’ll have to rough it while there, but it’s an option.”
It was accessible only by foot. Thankfully, Derek knew the path well. “What’s in the bag?” He found the answer when he opened it. Thick stacks of cash filled the main compartment. “Mom…”
“That was Dad’s emergency kit. You guys always made fun of him for being a doomsday prepper.”
“We were kidding, he wasn’t that bad.”
“Well, he was always prepared for everything. Money is just one part of it. Whatever else is in there is for you to use. He’d want you to.”
Just then, the lights in the house flickered so briefly no one seemed to notice.
But Hulk let out a low pitch growl and turned to the door. His tail and head went down into a stiff horizontal line.
“What’s the matter, boy?” Paige said.
Hulk walked slowly out of the kitchen.
“Crazy mutt,” Derek said and got up to follow him. Mom and Paige did the same.
“You guys stay where you are,” Mom said, and went to the front door. As soon as she unlocked it, Hulk stood in place and proceeded no further. He looked on from a distance.
“Be careful,” Derek said, taking Paige by the hand.
Mom opened the door. It was getting dark outside and none of the street lamps had turned on yet.
Hulk started barking.
“Hulk, no!” Derek crouched down and rubbed his chest to calm him. Hulk stopped barking but continued to let out a subtle growl.
“Hello?” said and opened the door wider. “Oh, Maggie! It’s you!”
Perhaps a neighbor, a friend, a piano student’s mother—didn’t matter, Derek took Paige and Hulk back into Dad’s office, shut the lights, and closed the door leaving a small crack open to hear the conversation.
“Come on in,” Mom said.
No, Mom. Don’t.
“Oh, thanks. But I can’t. I was just walking driving by when I noticed that Ford in your driveway. Everything all right?”
“No, no. Everything’s just fine. My car’s in the shop. That’s a rental.”
Derek let out a slow breath. Thank God.
“So you’re doing ok, then?”
“Yes, Mags. Thanks for looking out for me, though.”
“All right, then. But call me if you need anything, will you?”
“Count on it. And thanks again for checking in on me.”
The door closed.
Derek went to the window and slipped two fingers between the blinds to open a space enough to look through. This Maggie person seemed to be about Mom’s age. She walked back to her car parked in front of the driveway. But just before she got inside, she looked back at the house.
What Derek saw next sent a chill through his entire body.
Under the shadows where Maggie’s dark silhouette stood, before she got inside and drove away, her eyes flashed with blue light for a couple of seconds.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.
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