More and more his father could be found holed up back there. Gray suspected he was not so much hiding from the world as circling the wagons, seeking a solitary place to protect what remained of his faculties, finding solace in the curl of oak from his wood planer or turn of a well-seated screw. Yet, despite this manner of meditation, Gray recognized the growing fear behind his father's eyes.


"I'll let them know," Gray mumbled.


As Painter departed, the last of the straggling partygoers followed in his wake. Some stopped inside to wish his mother well while Gray said his goodbyes to the others. Soon he had the porch to himself.


"Gray!" his mother called from inside. "The trash!"


With a sigh, he bent and recollected the bin with empty bottles, cans, and plastic cups. He would help his mother clean up, then bicycle the short way back across town to his apartment. As he let the screen door clap behind him, he switched off the porch light and headed across the wood floor toward the kitchen. He heard the dishwasher humming, and the clatter of pans in the sink.


"Mom, I'll finish up," he said as he entered the kitchen. "Go rest."


His mother turned from the sink. She wore navy cotton slacks, a white silk blouse, and a damp checkered apron. At moments like this, harried as she was from an evening of entertaining, his mother's advancing age suddenly struck him. Who was this gray-haired old woman in his mother's kitchen?


Then she snapped a wet towel at him and broke the delusion.


"Just get the trash. I'm almost finished here. And tell your father to get inside. The Edelmanns do not appreciate his nocturnal woodworking. Oh, and I've wrapped up the leftover barbecued chicken. Could you take that to the refrigerator in the garage?"


"I'll have to make a second trip." He hauled up the two plastic sacks of garbage in one hand and cradled the bin of empty bottles under his arm. "Be right back."


He used his hip to push through the rear door and out into the shadowy backyard. Carefully climbing down the two back steps, he crossed toward the garage and the line of garbage cans along its flank. He found himself moving with a soft tread, attempting to keep the clink of bottles silenced. A Rainbird water sprinkler betrayed him.


He tripped and the bin of bottles rattled as he caught his balance. The back neighbor's Scottish terrier barked a complaint.


Crap. . .


His father swore sharply from the garage. "Gray? If that's you . . . gimme a goddamn hand in here!"


Gray hesitated. After one near shouting match with his father this evening, he didn't want a midnight encore. Over the past couple years, the two had been getting along fairly well, finding common ground after a lifetime of estrangement. But the past month, as some of his father's cognitive tests began to slide downward again, an all-too-familiar and unwelcome brittle edge had returned to the taciturn man.


"Gray!"


"Hold on!" He dropped the garbage into one of the open cans and settled the bottle bin next to it. Girding himself, Gray crossed into the light flowing from the open garage.


The scent of sawdust and shop oil struck him, reminding him of worse days. Get the goddamn strap, you piece of. . . I'll make you think twice about using one of my tools. . . get your head out of your ass before I knock you clear to . . .


His father knelt on the floor beside a spilled coffee can of sixpenny nails. He was brushing them up. Gray noted the streak of blood on the floor, from his father's left hand.


His father craned up as Gray stepped inside. Under the fluorescent lights, there was no denying their familial ties. His father's blue eyes held the same steel as Gray's. Their faces were both carved into the sharp angles and clefts, marking their Welsh heritage. There was no escaping it. He was becoming his father. And though Gray's hair was still coal black, he had a few gray hairs to prove it.


Spotting the bloodied hand, Gray crossed and motioned his father to the back sink. "Go wash that up."


"Don't tell me what to do."


Gray opened his mouth to argue, thought better, and bent down to help his father. "What happened?"


"Was looking for wood screws." His father waved his cut hand toward the workbench.


"But these are nails."


His father's eyes lit upon him. "No shit, Sherlock." There was a well of anger in his gaze, barely constrained, but Gray knew it wasn't directed at him lor once.


Recognizing this, he remained silent and simply gathered the nails back into the coffee can. His father stared down at his hands, one bloody, one not.


"Dad?"


The large man shook his head, then finally said softly, "Goddamn it. . ."


Gray offered no argument.


When Gray was young, his father had worked the Texas oil fields until an industrial accident had disabled him, taking a leg off at the knee, turning an oilman into a housewife. Gray had found himself bearing the brunt of his frustration, always found wanting, never able to be the man his father wanted him to be.


Gray watched his father stare at his hands and recognized a hard truth. Maybe all along his old man's anger had been directed inward. Like now. Not so much frustration with a son as a father's anger at failing to be the man he wanted to be. And now once again, disability was slowly taking even that away.


Gray sought some words.


As he searched, the roar of a motorcycle sliced through any further contemplation. Down the street, tires squealed, vandalizing asphalt with rubber.


Gray straightened and placed the coffee can atop the bench. His father cursed the rude driver, probably a drunken reveler. Still, Gray swept an arm and doused the garage lights.


"What are you—?"


"Stay down," Gray ordered.


Something was wrong . . .


The cycle appeared, a black and muscular Yamaha V-max. It roared into view, skidding sideways. Its headlamp was off. That's what had set Gray's nerves jangling. No spear of light had blazed up the street, fleeing ahead of the engine's growl. The cycle was running dark.


Without slowing, it skidded sideways. Rear tires smoked as it tried to make the sharp turn into their driveway. It hesitated, balanced, then ripped forward.


"What the hell!" his father barked.


The rider overcompensated for the turn. The bike bobbled, then the bump of the curb sent the vehicle careening to the side. The rider fought for control, but the rear fender caught the edge of the porch step.


The bike went down in a showering skid of red sparks, becoming yet another Fourth of July display. Thrown, the rider shoulder-rolled end over end, landing in a sprawl not far from the open garage.


Farther down the drive, the bike's engine choked and died.


Sparks blew out.


Darkness descended.


"Jesus H. Christ!" his father exclaimed.


Gray held a hand back for his father to stay in the garage. His other hand pulled a 9mm Glock from an ankle holster. He crossed toward the prone figure, all dressed in black: leather, scarf, and helmet.


A soft groan revealed two things: The rider was still alive, and it was a woman. She lay curled on her side, leathers ripped.


Gray's mother appeared at the back door to the house, standing in the porchlight, drawn by the noise. "Gray . .. ?"


"Stay there!" he called to her.


As Gray approached the downed rider, he noticed something lying steps away from the bike, its black shape crisp against the white cement of the driveway. It looked like some stubby pillar of black stone, cracked from the impact. From out its dark interior, the glint of a metallic core reflected the moonlight.


But it was the glint of another bit of silver that caught his eye as he stepped to the rider's side.


A small pendant around the woman's neck.


In the shape of a dragon.


Gray recognized it immediately. He wore the same around his own neck, a gift from an old enemy, a warning and a promise when next their paths crossed.


His grip on his pistol tightened.


She rolled from her shoulder to her back with another small groan. Blood streamed across the white cement, a black river forging toward the mowed back lawn. Gray recognized a raw exit wound.


Shot from behind.


A hand reached up and pulled back the helmet. A familiar face, tight with agony, stared up at him, framed in black hair. Tanned skin and almond eyes revealed her Eurasian descent and her identity.


"Seichan . .." he said.


A hand reached to him, scrabbling. "Commander Pierce . .. help me .. ."


He heard the pain in her words—but also something he'd thought he'd never hear from this cold enemy.


Terror.


 


 


 


2


Bloody Christmas


July 5, 11:02 a.m. Christmas Island


JUST ANOTHER LAZY DAY at the beach . . .


Monk Kokkalis followed his guide along the narrow strand. Both men wore identical Bio-3 contamination suits. Not the best choice of apparel for strolling along a tropical beach. Under his suit, Monk had stripped to a pair of boxer trunks. Still, he felt overdressed as he slowly baked inside the sealed plastic. Shading his eyes against the midday glare, he stared out at the nearby horror.


The western bay of Christmas Island frothed and churned with the dead, as if hell itself had washed up out of the deep. Mounds of fish carcasses marked last night's high tide. Larger hillocks of shark, dolphin, turtle, even a pygmy whale, dotted the beach—though it remained hard to tell where one began and the other ended, flesh and scale melted into a reeking mass of bone and rotting tissue. There were also scores of Seabirds, contorted and dead, on the beach and in the water, perhaps attracted by the slaughter only to succumb to the same poisoning.


A nearby blowhole in the rock spewed a fountain of sludgy seawater with a ringing bellow, as if the ocean itself were gasping its last breath.


Ducking under the spray, the pair of men worked north along the beach, traversing a narrow trail of clear sand between the foulness of the tidal zone and steep jungle-shrouded cliffs.


"Remind me to skip the seafood buffet back on the ship," Monk mumbled through the rasp of his respirator. He was glad for his suit's canned air. He could only imagine the reek that must accompany this tidal graveyard.

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