Nine days ago.
William Strickland was still getting acclimated to this new life, whatever this new life was. His current one felt like a recently awoken-from dream, the fog of restless sleep still clinging to the edges of his vision. He’d awoken in this strange, but familiar bed and discovered the hidden arsenal in his basement only about twenty-four hours ago and now he calmly traced back his most recent memories, trying to dig up any phantom of a thought regarding his wife and two daughters.
Did he even have a wife? Did he even have two daughters? He couldn’t put the pieces together, but he’d seen those pictures on the wall, and he was there with them, and certainly looked like the father he’d always dreamed of being.
The portrait he’d seen hanging in the upstairs hallway had him front and center, surrounded by the three females of varying ages. His ransacking of the files in the basement office revealed some tidbits of information, but just the basics. Military history, car payments, mortgage, and other gruesome details that every red-blooded American has to deal with. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and meticulous file keeping, he knew who he was, but that didn’t go a very long way towards explaining where his family was and what had happened to him beyond the past twenty-four hours. The chemical make-up of William Strickland was of a man who consistently maintained effortless control over his emotions and his feelings. This felt like a drastic shift in his very genetics.
Sliding his swivel chair back along the concrete basement floor of his office, Strickland stood and walked towards the back door leading out to his yard. He’d reached the limits of what he could learn inside and figured it was about time to explore some of the area outside. He reached the back door and slowly twisted the knob.
“Heads up, Day Watch…we’ve got movement!”
The compact binoculars dropped from the narrow dark eyes, a sweep of blond hair replacing it, barely escaping from underneath a tight-fitting black knit cap. Dark eye black was streaked just below each eye, mixing with smudged face camouflage. The man looked back, barely seeing the other two men in his team as they pulled quickly and quietly backwards into the thick woods surrounding the large colonial home. The blond-haired man dropped into a crouching jog as he moved to join his teammates, quickly finding shelter in the wooded terrain around the large house.
Strickland slid out the back door with the grace of a cat burglar, sliding left as his eyes scanned right, revealing a vacant yard. Thinly cut grass sloped down into a hill on his left side, where it ended in a pavement driveway that led down to a garage attached to his basement. He closed his eyes and listened keenly, not hearing any signs of civilization, just birds and rustling leaves. He was truly out in the middle of nowhere.
Crouching down low to the grass surface, he pressed his hand tight to the dirt underneath and just listened, enjoying the peaceful solace of his remote location. His eyes remained trained on the woods surrounding his property, and the young man was suddenly very aware that he was surrounded by foliage thick enough to harbor enemies. Were there enemies?
There always were.
Strickland slipped the Glock automatic pistol out of his holster and clutched it in his hand as he walked across the yard. He had barely noticed the transition from holstered pistol to his hands, and the weapon felt like an extension of himself. Holding it at a low angle, he gripped it tightly in his right hand, his left hand gently cradling it as if he had done it countless times before. It wasn’t movement, it was habit. He saw no signs of infiltrators, heard no rustling of trees, and smelled no stench of gun oil or sweat. The perimeter had looked clear, yet somehow he still felt ill at ease. He walked towards the other side of the hill behind his house and froze. What was that? Just as he had crested the small hill, he caught a glint. A brief shine. Something in the woods.
His heart pounded inside his chest. Thin streams of sweat trickled down over his narrowing eyes, as his head swiveled slowly like a mechanical lighthouse bulb looking for potential shipwrecks.
However, it didn’t find any. The longer he stood there staring, the more convinced he had been that it was only his imagination. For all he knew, he was sleeping off a hangover, but even before his mind formed the thought, he shook it free. He couldn’t fool himself. Those weapons were there for a reason. He reached the back door and slid inside, immediately feeling a sense of comfort and safety once embraced within the wood frame house again.
“That was too damned close,” breathed the bald-headed man as he walked low through the thick woods behind the large two-story house.
“We’re clear, Burndock, okay? That’s all that matters,” the blond man replied harshly. They were a good 300 yards back into the woods and moving at a swift pace ever since Strickland had seemed to catch a glimpse of them. The three black-clad soldiers moved in a coordinated motion. Each one shifted off the other two, covering areas of the woods as they walked, speaking through small Bluetooth earpieces that clung to the side of their heads. The path they travelled made for a strange fluid river of black tactical gear through the thin forest slowly walking northwest towards the nearest dirt road. If anyone had driven down that road, they would have seen a rundown yellow van parked there, and likely thought nothing of it. On the side of the vehicle was painted the simple town logo for Norwood, Vermont and the official state license plates only further backed up that disguise.
The blond man held up his right hand in a fist indicating a quick stop in their forward progress as he neared the edge of the woods where the van was parked. With the goggles pressed up against his eyes, he scanned the nearby area, both visually and with infrared and determined the coast was clear. Seconds later, the van pulled a quick three-point turn and headed back down the road towards civilization.
Burndock was on the radio as soon as the dirt road roughly transitioned to pavement a few miles from the Strickland residence.
“Day Watch reporting in, home base.”
“Talk to me,” the man in the black suit and tie said as he removed his finger from the speakerphone button.
“We made visual contact. Acknowledge subject is awake and moving. Seemed disoriented, but still on top of his game.”
“We observed him in his home rifling through his drawers and filing cabinets, looking like he was searching for something. When he finally made it outside, he was packing heat and wearing a tac-vest.”
“Hmmm… good instincts.” It was almost an internal comment as the well-dressed man looked up at the ceiling. “He didn’t see you, I take it?”
There was hesitation on the other end.
“Burndock?” He leaned forward, closer to the phone, his eyes narrowing.
“No, sir. We were not made. He looked as if… he looked like he caught sight of something just as we were pulling out, but it was more of a casual glance. He definitely did not see us directly.”
“You’d best be certain of that fact,” said the man, with a not-so-slight hint of malice in his tone.
“Look, boss,” said the bald man, snaking the receiver out of Burndock’s hand, “we’re cool. He didn’t see shit.”
“Continue surveillance, Day Watch. You’re professionals. Act like it.”
With an almost angry flick of his finger, he punched the speakerphone button and disconnected the call. He stood, straightening his tie, and turned towards the large window that sat behind his polished oak desk. The building was in the center of a small town. The population wasn’t enough that it could be considered a city, but it had a series of large office buildings, mostly owned by the local Ivy League school. Standing in his third floor office, he overlooked the hustle and bustle, and could just glimpse the school campus down Main Street.
The building was completely nondescript, just how the National Security Agency liked it, though there was no record that they even owned this building. Technically, the agency the well-dressed man worked for wasn’t even the NSA; it was a subgroup that didn’t have a proper abbreviation, but for all intents and purposes, he was an NSA employee. He smirked as he looked out onto his town. It was early still, but the Strickland experiment was already leaning towards success. Time would tell just how much success.
William Strickland forced himself awake at just before five o’clock the next morning, desperate to claw his way out of another haunting dream. In his dream, he was in the mind of a hungry beast as it clawed through the trees and brush looking for… looking for what? Woodland smells seared his flaring nostrils, and bitter copper frothed at the corners of his mouth as his narrow eyes darted back and forth, suddenly able to see everything. It was a red whirlpool of scattered and broken images all swarming together into a vicious single-minded task.
Standing slowly, Strickland walked to the nearby window and eased open the curtain bracing himself against a light haze of a dawn sunrise. Sweat glistened on his forehead, and even though he had managed to escape his dream world, there was still a rapid thrum coming from his chest signaling danger and anticipation. His muscles felt tight and strained from his routine nightmares, but still he decided to go for a morning run to help clear his head. It was a crisp day that felt like a New England fall, and the wilderness called to him.
“We got us an early riser, boss,” said Mathis as he looked back at Burndock who was bringing up the rear. They had just arrived on post at the edge of the backyard woods. Just as they were setting up for Day Watch, Strickland exited the front door and jogged down the road, heading south.
“Damn, man,” Burndock grumbled, suddenly realizing that they were going to somehow have to keep up with this now moving target.
And it was a moving target. A fast moving target.
It started off as a routine morning jog, a slow and even pace across loose gravel and dirt. His breath came in short and winded gasps, and he immediately wondered just out of shape he was. It had taken him mere moments to find a pair of running shorts and a compression shirt in the dresser in his bedroom, so he was certain that he was a routine exerciser, but somehow this process felt foreign to him. Slowly, he picked up the pace, his feet scraping and nearly slipping on the loose gravel, his legs pumping back and forth, muscles tugging underneath his tight skin. His heart picked up its own pace, whacking the inside of his chest with a steady thrum. Slowly, his breath regained its natural rhythm as the trees around him began to lose focus. As he ran, he could no longer pick out individual trunks or groups of leaves, he couldn’t see specific groups of bushes or even singular large rocks sitting on the side of the road. Suddenly everything was becoming a faded blur of motion, and the wind began picking up around him. Instead of a gentle breeze, it was a fierce, knifing stab across his face, and he had to squint his eyes to push through. His breath was coming regularly and even, and he felt as if he was jogging lightly, then his slipping feet struck pavement and caught hold, throwing him forward. Blurring along the edge of his vision became streaking as Strickland looked at his own legs in disbelief as they carried him down the road at a furious pace. His feet were slapping dirt and road, and unexpectedly he was moving along at great speed. Not just great running speed, but great speed. Driving speed. His mind raced and he had to concentrate to slow down his rapid pace, easing up to a slow jog that felt much more reasonable. Stopping at the side of the road, he glanced backwards, his eyes wide, surprised at just how far he had come in such a short time. His eyes went down and he looked at himself in a state of disbelief. For whatever weird circumstances had been surrounding Strickland over the past 36 hours, this was by far the weirdest yet, but it was also exhilarating. His heart was slamming, his lungs burning, and he felt this strange sense of absolute euphoria from the chemicals in his brain enhanced by extreme physical activity. Drawing in a slow breath, he collected himself and then broke into a full-on run. If he’d had a full head of hair, the wind would have blown it back in a refreshing wave of cool autumn air, but as it was, the push of breeze on his face did the trick nicely. He wasn’t sure exactly how fast he was running, but his mind drifted back to a triathlon bike race down a particularly steep slope. Strickland couldn’t be sure if that was a memory, or his mind just trying to rationalize this extraordinary experience. The most amazing thing was as fast as he was running, he barely felt winded, and his legs were not straining as one might expect them to be when exceeding human limitations for running speed. As the trees grew to a muddled green and brown blur beside him, he saw a small wooden sign on a post outside a gap in those same trees.
Norwood Pool 1 Mile
The sharp white blast of memory burst in the back of his head at the mere sight of the sign, and quite unexpectedly, he saw two young girls jumping in a natural pool of water on a hot sunny day. It was serene and peaceful. A young woman watched over them, both coaching the younger one to swim, and keeping a motherly watchful eye on the older as she leaped from an outcropping of rocks into the smooth glass surface—
The memory took him completely by surprise, and tears swiftly stung his eyes as he lost his focus and suddenly stumbled along the mix of rock and pavement road. His feet skidded on the loose gravel as he tried to reach back into his mind and just touch that memory, just for one more second, but then his foot struck a rock and he sprawled forward. As his momentum carried him into a potentially deadly stumble, he instinctively pressed his chin to his chest, curled his back, and dropped into a forward roll, striking the rough pavement with his right shoulder. He winced as pain laced up his shoulder and down his back, flesh tearing and burning, but as he rolled furiously and scrambled back up to a crouching position, he realized that the crash could have been significantly worse. Strickland crouched there on one knee, the strain of the quick run catching up to him, breathing in ragged gasps. His eyes were closed as he tried to recall that sudden flash of recollection, but it had faded away even more quickly than his tears took to dry in his eyes.
Strickland stood, stretching slightly, his breath already slowing back down to even. As he tried to think whether he wanted to head back home or not, he saw another sign just a little ways down the road.
Norwood Downtown 5 Miles
Unlike the pool, this sight drew no reaction from his memories, but he suspected that he might be able to find some answers downtown. This was his hometown, right? Bending over slightly, he dusted the dirt and gravel from his knees and prepared to continue his run, though he made a mental note to keep it at a more normal pace.
He considered himself a sound sleeper, but years of conditioning had trained Richard Grace to have an immediate response to the sound of his phone vibrating on the nightstand next to him. At 5:30 a.m., his reaction this morning was especially visceral.
“Whaddya got?” He barked into the phone.
“Better damn well be.”
“Subject is on the move, sir. He woke up at around 5:00 a.m. this morning and decided to go for a morning ‘jog.’”
“There could have been. Our boy wasn’t jogging so much as sprinting. For nearly three miles straight. Luckily I don’t think anyone spotted him.”
Agent Grace sat up, rubbing his eyes. His view from inside his small bedroom was not nearly as enjoyable as the one looking over the college town, but it was good enough on a government salary. “Okay, good enough. Where is he now?”
“Approaching downtown. Guy ran over eight miles in a little more than 30 minutes. Was that part of the plan?”
“This guy,” Grace said in a sudden breaking New York accent that only emerged when he was sufficiently annoyed. “Don’t worry about the plan, Burndock. Just keep watching.”
Agent Grace flipped off his smart phone and set it back down on the small table next to his bed. He glanced over at the empty space next to his ruffled sheets and besmirched himself for still bothering to look when that side of the bed had been empty for nearly three years. His Ivy League education had been enough to parlay him into a top-shelf government intelligence job, but not all the higher education in the world could make him a devoted husband. Now he had been sent back North where his college career had begun, most likely because of his past connections here. The fact that one of the high-level members of his current operation was a graduate of the local medical school didn’t hurt, and the NSA had many slithering undercurrents throughout most of higher education. Wouldn’t the conspiracy theorists love to know that?
Agent Grace chuckled. The prestigious local medical school named after Dr. Seuss? Go figure.
Nonchalantly, he scooped up the pistol that rested on his nightstand and carried it with him into the bathroom, sliding it softly on the sink counter. The agent’s morning routine consisted of a 20-minute cold shower, where he relished the cold blast of water pushing aside the thick fog of early morning. Under the sheath of brutally frigid liquid, his mind clarified the events of the morning. He couldn’t wait to review this tape.
Strickland’s casual jog grew even slower as the trees gave way to houses and he found himself trotting along a concrete sidewalk instead of a dirt path beside the road. He hadn’t been jogging for very long, surprising him that he’d gone five miles in such a short amount of time and with such relative ease. The houses along this main street were nice, a sign of the relative affluence of this small town Vermont neighborhood. Ironically, he wagered that most of the homeowners throughout this stretch of pavement likely had come north from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York drawn by the desire to live a simple, small town life. Life in this small town sure didn’t seem simple to him right now.
Up ahead, he spotted what looked like two fuel islands in a parking lot. The roof of a small convenience store slowly came into view as he passed a yellow house on his right. Cars were milling about, preparing for their early morning commute, and it was the normal hustle and bustle. With slight hesitation, he approached the store, keeping on the sidewalk. This was a small town, after all, and certainly someone here had seen him or talked to him before. Better yet, certainly they knew his family. His mailman, his doctor, even the guy who mowed his lawn. Someone here had answers, he was sure of it.
However, the reception was surprisingly non-existent. He weaved through parking lot traffic and a rush of people converging on the small single entryway to the store, and even walking up the slight concrete ramp into the building offered no hint of recognition. Scanning the eyes of every person he passed along the way, he searched for some sliver of recollection; anything that could prove to him that he really existed and wasn’t just some strange phantom mingling with these normal people. Nothing happened.
Strickland filled up a small cup of Green Mountain Coffee and grabbed a copy of the local newspaper, dropping some cash on the belt and leaving with a nod of thanks to the cashier. Just another nameless face he could not remember. Soon he was back out on the sidewalk facing the town green, and the small elementary school sat in a proud brick building behind it. It had the brickwork of a century’s old single schoolhouse, with its multiple expansions in the decades since. He knew there must have been parent/teacher conferences in this small building, but this entire scene before him might as well had been on the surface of Mars.
Casting his eyes to his right, he noticed a small wooden bench, so he sat down, eased the cup of coffee onto the sidewalk at his feet, and flipped open the local newspaper. Just above the flipped newspaper, Strickland’s narrow eyes scanned the immediate area, searching for anything that could answer any of the questions bumping around in his brain. One building did stand out among the others, however. Just across the street from the bench was a large town hall, and in small town Vermont, such a building held many secrets. For a few moments, he sipped at his coffee and watched the town hall above his newspaper, casually flipping the pages as if reading. The passersby took no notice, but the two men dressed in black within a nearby sedan certainly were paying close attention. As they watched, the man appeared to finish his coffee, then stood and shoved both the empty cup and the newspaper into a nearby trashcan. Proceeding across the street, his glare focused intently on the building in front of him, and then seconds later, he was inside.
Burndock dialed up the familiar number yet again. “Agent Grace, subject has just entered the local town hall. Please advise.”
“What are you afraid of, Agent?” Grace asked, trying to temper his irritated tone. “What can he possibly find in the town public records that could harm us?”
“Understood, sir, but our prime directive is to keep him on a certain path. He’s been at this for less than 36 hours and he has greatly deviated from that path.”
“This is the entire point of this exercise, Agent. Let it ride. Do not interfere unless there is potential harm to our program or the general public, in that order.”
Grace tapped his earpiece silent and shook his head. These field agents were nothing like he was back in the day, very incapable of thinking on their feet. In his mind, this operation was fluid and a fascinating experiment in the human condition. Every decision that Strickland made spoke volumes about the way the human mind worked, and Grace relished every moment. This op could get him kicked straight up top.
Burndock crossed his thick arms over his broad chest that had served him well as a linebacker for Ohio State University. Unlike many of his peers, his impressive academic talent evenly matched his athletic skill, and both served him well in his current employment with the NSA. Sure, his physical state landed him more field duties than a normal analyst might end up with, but he was okay with that. He had to admit, though, the Strickland op was getting under his skin. Knowing just a little bit of the background of what happened to William Strickland gave Burndock an uneasy feeling. What bothered him most about the operation wasn’t what Strickland was being put through; it was more the casual way in which Agent Grace handled the potential negative impact on the agency. Strickland was given a long leash, and the operation hinged on this one unstable guy whose next move was wholly unpredictable. How could that be a good thing? His trust in his boss and confidence in his intelligence were the only things currently keeping this operation on track.
Inside the town hall, Strickland made a quick path to the town clerk and smiled skillfully at the large woman who stood behind the counter looking mistrusting. As he approached, walking through a narrow doorway just to the left of a large hall window, his eyes scanned the area cautiously. Almost immediately, they had locked in on a small door at the end of the hallway marked “Private – Authorized Entry Only.”
“How can I help you, sir?” the large woman behind the counter asked with a glare.
“I need access to some public records, please,” Strickland replied, knowing somewhere in his mind that Vermont’s Freedom of Information regulations were incredibly transparent.
“Can I ask the purpose of this request, sir?” the woman asked, making no sign that she intended to comply with this random request.
“I’m looking for minutes from the school board meetings. The recent budget they passed doesn’t jive with what we’ve heard in the past.” Even as he was speaking the words, Strickland was impressed with his on the spot thinking.
As for the woman? She was suitably unimpressed. “Sir, we need a written request and at least two separate forms of identification. Can you provide those to us?”
Strickland flashed a grin of embarrassment. “Ah. I was afraid of that. I was just out for a jog and left my identification at home,” he motioned to his running attire still patched with marks of sweat.
“Well, honey,” the woman said, with a clear echo of superiority and false kindness, “you just come on back when you can bring me those things, ‘kay? Then we’ll talk.”
Strickland smiled sheepishly and turned around, then walked down the hall towards the small door marked “Private” that he had seen earlier. It was a simple oak door with a regular lock in the knob, no deadbolt or padlock, and no clear sign of electronic alarm.
“Hey, honey!” came the voice behind him.
Strickland turned. “Is there a men’s room in here?” he asked.
The woman nodded and pointed towards the ceiling. “Upstairs. There’s nothing for you down there.”
He acquiesced and walked back towards the town clerk’s office, then continued, walking up the small flight of stairs he had come down and straight for the exit.
“All right, he’s moving,” said Burndock quietly to Agent Halifax who sat in the seat next to him, blond hair swept over his forehead.
“Are we pursuing?” Halifax asked, but Burndock didn’t immediately reply. He watched Strickland closely as he left the town hall and walked back up Main Street. His look was focused and intense. Something about it made Burndock more than a little unsettled.
“Hold back. I think he’s heading back home. No use in pursuing right away. We saw how fast this guy moves. Give him about twenty minutes then head back to post. Mathis is back at Day Watch already, so he’ll give us the heads up when he arrives.”
“Twenty minutes? It must be a ten-mile trek back to his house. You think he’ll get there that soon? The dude is obviously fast, but…”
The look on Strickland’s face burned into Burndock’s mind. “Yeah. I think he will.”
Sure enough, less than twenty-five minutes later, Strickland’s pounding feet brought him up the dirt road to his gravel driveway and carried him to his front door, sweat pouring over his white running shirt in slick streams. He slowed to a walk as he reached the front door and halted for just a minute to bend over and grab his knees, taking a moment to catch his breath. Amazingly, a moment was all it took, and then he swung the door open and went inside.
The first place Strickland went was the secret arsenal in his basement office, which was quickly becoming the place he felt most at ease. For the next several hours, he sat on the floor, disassembling and reassembling his weapons. His hands travelled over the smooth metallic surface of the guns on their own accord, as if he had done it a thousand times before. The irony was not lost on him that he had no idea where his kids went to school, but he could field strip a SCAR 17 assault rifle in less than ten minutes flat.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat there working through every pin, screw, and chamber of the weapons in that room, but the sun had set and the birds had stopped their crooked chirping. Realizing that he should get something to eat, Strickland rose to his feet and walked up the stairs to the kitchen, but he could only stare aimlessly at the assortment of food in the refrigerator. All he wanted was sleep. Rubbing his temples, he staggered to his living room couch, tumbled onto it, and fell into fitful rest.
“Jesus, what is with this guy?” Breer lowered his night vision goggles as he stared at the Styrofoam cup sitting in the holder beside the steering wheel of his sedan.
“What?” The second man in the car asked, lowering his own cup and scowling down at it. “Christ, this town doesn’t even have a friggin’ Starbucks.”
“Dude just spent the last four hours field-stripping machine guns and crashed out on the couch,” Agent Breer said to Jackson Lewis, the field agent sitting next to him. “Hasn’t slept in his own bed in two days.”
“Train wreck is what he is.”
In some cases, the NSA contracted out to a third party to take care of their “light work” and now, Night Watch at the Strickland house was considered light work.
“We got any backup tonight?” Lewis asked the man in the driver’s seat as he pressed the button and slid down his window.
“Just us two, Jackie.”
“What’s the deal with this shmuck?” Jackson asked as he dumped his lukewarm coffee out the window and onto the grass.
“They don’t pay us ta know. Just ta watch.”
Jackson hit his seat lever and leaned back, closing his eyes. Both he and Breer worked for a private security company out of New York City. Honestly, they hadn’t been crazy about picking up this detail in the first place. The money was great, and the travel wasn’t terrible, but they were both city boys and working up in the wilderness was enough to drive them both nutty. Lewis held out his hand and Breer flopped the night vision goggles into it as the passenger pushed open his car door and stepped out into the brisk early morning air. Glancing at the clock on the car dashboard as he stepped out, he noted the 3:45 a.m. time and once again wondered exactly what had brought him to this point. Three more hours… only three more hours.
“This shit is worse than police work,” Breer growled.