Authors: Craig Schaefer
“What?” I said.
“Looks like we’re not done getting chewed out today,” she said. “Linder just landed at Logan airport.”
Linder didn’t want to meet at the Boston field office, which was fine by me. We weren’t the most welcome people there at the moment. Instead, he called us to the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. It was a monument from the Roaring Twenties, a towering thousand-room hotel shaped like a wedge of stone. I imagined it was the sort of place where you’d put a foreign dignitary or an ambassador up for the night.
We met up with April and Kevin in the lobby. Kevin looked like a dog who’d just been whacked with a rolled-up newspaper. From the sharpness of her eyes behind her gray steel bifocals, April looked like she’d been doing the whacking. She sat back in her wheelchair, chin high, cold and silent.
Jessie stalked toward Kevin, her lips pursed in a tight line, her hands clenched at her sides. I rushed to keep up with her, putting a steadying hand on her shoulder. She shook it off.
“I know,” Kevin said, turning to face us. “I messed up—”
“That’s not even the
for what you did,” Jessie said, dropping her voice low. “What were you thinking?”
April held up one finger.
“Jessie, I’ve already spoken to him about it, and he understands his mistake. There’s no need for further reprimand.”
“What were you
?” she repeated, ignoring April.
Jessie already knew the answer, though. She had to know. I knew.
,” Kevin said through gritted teeth. “I mean,
didn’t, but he could tell us where Roman Steranko is. I couldn’t let him get away. Look, worst-case scenario, we got a gunrunner off the streets. What’s the problem?”
“Not only—” Jessie said. She took a deep breath, fighting to control herself. “Not only did he not know where Steranko is, you blew that, too. He’s got a genuine excessive-force claim. You know what that means? He’s gonna get a pass in exchange for shutting up about it. A slap on the wrist. And you know what happens next?”
Kevin didn’t answer. He stared at her, lips slightly parted, frozen.
“It means he’s back in business. Selling guns to muggers, stickup men, and worse. The kind of people who
them on innocent civilians. Hell, you want a really personal example? Maybe the next time somebody takes a shot at me and Harmony, it’s with one of his guns. Every weapon he puts into circulation from now on is one that
have been stopped if you’d kept your head straight out there. And every bullet that comes out of those guns, and every dead body that drops with one of those bullets in them? That’s on you, too.”
Kevin didn’t say a word. He looked shell-shocked, standing there unblinking, petrified. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Hey,” I said softly, “it’s okay. We all make mistakes. You just need to understand that when we’re in the field, every decision matters. Working for Vigilant means handling a lot of power. We make big decisions—but that means big consequences, too. It’s not a license to do whatever we want. When we forget that, people get hurt.”
He whispered, his voice on the edge of breaking. “It was my fault. Losing Steranko in the first place.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“The tap.” He swallowed. Hard. “The tap I put on Vukovic’s phone. It should have been undetectable. Like glass. Steranko must have found it—that’s the only way he would have known to cancel the meeting and warn Vukovic.”
I shook my head. “How is that even possible? It was a phone tap. You do those in your sleep.”
“Have you read his file? Harmony, you don’t know what this guy is capable of. He’s got a perfect eidetic memory.” Kevin tapped the side of his forehead. “He sees something—once—and it’s locked in his head forever. One in a billion people has that kind of brainpower.”
“You’re not exactly a slouch in the brainpower department. What was it that landed you in Witness Protection? Hacking the Gambino family’s bank accounts? I’ve seen you do things with a computer that boggle my mind.”
“I didn’t say I’m not good at what I do. I’m great at what I do.” His shoulders sagged. “He’s . . . just
Jessie’s expression softened, her glare fading as she gave a tired shake of her head.
“He’s not better than
. He’ll make a mistake, Kevin. And when he does, we’ll be there.” She glanced over at the elevator banks. “Come on. Normally I don’t mind keeping Linder waiting, but this isn’t a good day for it.”
Linder’s escort was waiting for us the second we stepped off the elevator on the sixth floor. A man wearing dark glasses and a translucent plastic earpiece, its coiled cord winding down to disappear inside the lapel of his charcoal suit coat, stood like a statue to the left of the doors. His twin held a post about twenty feet down the hall, outside a suite door. They looked like Secret Service; I wondered if Linder had that kind of pull. It wouldn’t have surprised me.
The second sentry moved to block our way as we approached the suite. “Hold up,” he said, one palm raised and the fingers of his other hand pressed to his earpiece. “Sir, we have four arriv—Yes. Yes, sir.”
Without another word he slotted a key card and opened the door, waving us inside.
The suite was bigger than my apartment, an expanse of beige-and-blue diamond-checkered carpet leading to windows with a view over Boston Commons Park. The colonial furniture in the sitting nook had been hastily rearranged in a loose semicircle, and the dining table pushed into one corner to make room for a standing screen and a projector wired to a slender chrome-shelled laptop. Heating vents rumbled softly, keeping the autumn cold at bay and flooding the room with drowsy warmth.
“Sit,” Linder said. The door swung shut behind us, leaving the five of us alone together.
“Regarding your performance today—” he started to say as we took our seats.
“That was my fault,” Kevin said. “Jessie and Harmony had nothing to do with it.”
Linder froze. He slowly arched one eyebrow, staring at Kevin.
“Yes. It was your fault. I’m not impressed, and I’m going to be spending the bulk of my weekend covering for your sloppy work and explaining why you were conducting an unsanctioned field operation to my superiors in DC. What I was
to say, however, if you’d please not interrupt me again, is that we don’t have time to discuss it right now. A situation’s come up. Top-level crisis.”
He strode over to the laptop, leaned in, and tapped a few keys. The projector flared to life and cast a grainy image across the screen. The front page of a scanned document, covered in faded stamps and scribbled dates.
, read big block letters, just above a drawing of an Egyptian sphinx on top of a wire-frame globe: the seal of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
“This is a top-secret document, firewalled behind very limited sensitive-compartmented clearance,” Linder said. “It was not easy to obtain.”
The projector flickered. Now we were looking at a faded photograph shot from outer space, catching sunlight as it washed across the vast blue face of Earth. The planet wasn’t the focus of the shot, though: something was out there, amid the starry void, something small and blurry and dark.
Linder gestured to the screen. “Are any of you familiar with the so-called Red Knight satellite?”
“Folklore,” April said, a note of disdain at the edge of her faint Irish accent. “It’s a conspiracy theory, of sorts. According to the tale, the Red Knight was first sighted by an astronomer in 1954—three years before Sputnik. Neither we nor the Russians could have possibly launched a satellite at that time, though. The technology didn’t exist yet.”
Another flicker of light. Another photograph. Newer, crisper. Closer. The satellite on the screen looked like its namesake: metallic crimson and sleek, curved like the horse-head knight in a game of chess.
“This was taken eight months ago,” Linder said. “The Red Knight is real, and certain agencies have been reliably tracking it since the mid-1980s. Most of the public story is carefully strewn misinformation, designed to reduce credibility.”
Jessie leaned forward in her chair, frowning at the screen. “
misinformation? Who’s leading the cover-up?”
“Not us. We aren’t the only shark in these murky waters, Agent Temple. Every now and then we brush up against another deniable operation inside the government. We attempt to keep those brushes as soft and as brief as possible. Vigilant Lock isn’t looking to make friends, and there’s no indication their agenda is in line with our own.”
The next slide was a list of equations so dense they made my eyes water. Paragraphs of calculus underneath a chart showing a declining bloodred curve.
“Last week,” Linder said, “the Red Knight collided with a small piece of space debris. No serious damage that we can tell, but it spun into a decaying orbit. It’s coming down.”
The equations flipped to one side, replaced by a topographic map.
, read the bottom of the map. A black circle looped around a stretch of green and rugged land. Linder gestured to the screen.
“According to the trajectory calculations, it will land here. Somewhere in the vicinity of Deschutes National Forest, not far from the Cascade Mountains. It will make Earthfall within two days. Your mission is to locate the crash site and any debris that survives atmospheric reentry.”
April and Jessie shared a glance. When Jessie raised her hand, she voiced what we were all thinking.
“I’m going to ask the obvious question,” she said. “Why us? Vigilant Lock was created to deal with occult threats. So somebody built a satellite with tech three years ahead of its time? Okay, that’s
, but that’s not
. Why not let NASA or the air force deal with it?”
Linder was silent for a moment.
“What you are about to see,” he told us, “is a photograph accidentally taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on June 19, 2006. The main camera was immediately brought off-line, and the image was scrubbed from the public record and branded with category-one yankee white clearance.”
My spine stiffened. The only people awarded that level of security clearance are officials who work in direct contact with the president.
The photo made me think of the aurora borealis. A shimmering cosmic cloud enveloped the satellite, glowing in shades of deep violet and nightingale blue. It should have been beautiful. Should have been. But as I stared at the image, a crawling sense of unease squirmed in the back of my mind. There was something wrong, something terribly wrong. I studied the cloud, seeing more of it now. The contours, the gaps, the suggestion of two empty pockets shaped like—
“Eyes,” April breathed, seeing it, too. “It’s not a cloud. It’s a
“This next one came from an NSA spy sat in 2011.” Linder clicked a button and advanced the slide. “To date, it’s the clearest shot we have.”
The angle was perfect. Just the right distance, just the right focus to take it all in. A contorted face made of colored gaseous light, hovering over the Red Knight. Its expression was unmistakable: absolute, furious rage.
The face was screaming.
“I had the lab boys crunch some numbers,” Linder said, “using the camera distance, speed and trajectory, planetary references, and so on. According to their best estimate, that entity—the part of it we can see, at least—is roughly two kilometers tall.”
Jessie slumped back in her chair. “Jesus,” she muttered, eyes locked on the screen.
“It’s not always present. But, ever since the first sighting, it’s been picked up once a year. Always in the same place, always brushing up against the Red Knight like a fly drawn to an electric light. Whatever this entity is, it appears to be attracted to the satellite.”
“Once a year?” I asked.
“Once a year,” Linder said. “In the fall. The exact day varies, but it inevitably appears near the satellite within a one-month window. Our best estimate is that it’s due for another visit within one week at the very latest.”
“One week before it comes looking for the satellite,” Kevin said, “that’s about to land
. On Earth. So when that thing comes back around again . . .”
Linder clasped his hands behind his back.
“And that, Agents, is why this mission just became Vigilant Lock’s number one priority. While we don’t know its ultimate intentions, under the circumstances I’m designating the Red Knight apparition as Hostile Entity 141.”
I was relieved when he advanced the slide. I didn’t want to spend another second looking at that face in the stars. It reminded me of a photograph, from a book I’d read as a girl, of a blue whale passing underneath a rowboat. Just a silhouette in the shadows, but so much vaster than the tiny human above it. Too vast.
The next photograph was down at Earth level, a candid sidewalk shot in what looked like downtown Manhattan. The man on display was graying at the temples, dressed in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows.
“This is Agent Lawrence, from Beach Cell. They’re much like your cell, Agent Temple, but a bit more . . . orthodox, and technically focused. Beach is deep undercover on an unrelated assignment, and it’s too dangerous to pull them all out. I’m making an exception for Lawrence: he’s a trained astrophysicist. He’ll rendezvous with you in Oregon, equipped with up-to-the-minute telemetry data, and provide assistance in locating the crash site.”
“And our part?” I asked. “Beyond locating it.”
“If we’re very lucky,” Linder said, “the Red Knight will burn up on reentry, but I never plan on luck. I want you to examine whatever survives, quickly document whatever you can for our records, then destroy the debris by any means necessary. The satellite is acting as some kind of beacon. You’ve seen what it calls. We
want it broadcasting from American soil.”
I hated to ask my next question, but I had to do it.
“And if this entity, whatever it is, manifests at the crash site?”
Linder nodded toward Kevin. “Then I hope you’re better at witchcraft than your young colleague is at driving a surveillance van, Agent Black, because your abilities are going to be the
thing standing in its way.”
I thought, feeling a sudden lump in my throat as I swallowed.
“Leave your service weapons with me,” Linder said. “You’ll be flying commercial, and I strongly recommend using civilian cover. Agent Lawrence will bring your firearms to the rendezvous, along with a few useful pieces of equipment.”
“You said certain agencies have been tracking this thing since the ’80s,” Jessie said. “If Vigilant isn’t the only group monitoring the Red Knight, everybody knows it’s coming down, right?”
Linder pointed at her. “Precisely. You can fully expect that you won’t be the only hunters in those woods. That’s why it’s imperative you get there first.”
“What can you tell us about the others?” I asked. “What are we up against out there?”
“Mostly government assets unaware of Vigilant’s existence. You may encounter NASIC scientists, possibly with air force support.”
“Mostly?” April said, catching the hesitation in his voice.
“That . . . other shark, sharing our waters, that I mentioned earlier. All I can tell you is that they are, like us, a black-budget agency with considerable unlisted resources to draw upon. Their human assets appear to be heavily private sector, with tendrils in the military, CIA, and NSA. Their goals are at this time unknown.”
Too pat. Too easy. I knew Linder well enough to tell when he was holding his cards to his chest. I shifted in my chair, locked eyes with him, and shook my head.
“What else?” I asked. “And don’t tell us it’s on a need-to-know basis. If there’s a covert threat out there, we need
you’ve got on them.”
He paused, weighing his words before he spoke.
“Two months ago, cell designation Redbird was on a mission in Miami. Their reports indicated strange interference—unexplained surveillance, hiccups in their electronic equipment, a vague sense that they weren’t the only operatives on the ground. They thought I’d sent in another team to covertly check on their work. I hadn’t.”
“And?” April asked. “What happened?”
Linder took a deep breath.
“They went off grid. Later, the members of Redbird were found by local police in the belly of a derelict cargo ship. They’d been bound at the wrists and ankles, made to kneel in a row, and executed. Each body had two bullets in the back of the head, at point-blank range.”
None of us said a word. There wasn’t anything
“As I told you,” Linder said, “we aren’t looking to make friends. And neither are they. Move swift and move
. If you can gather any information on the opposition, do so, but not at the risk of our own operational security. We don’t know how much hard intel they’ve gathered about Vigilant Lock. Let’s keep that amount as close to zero as possible. Any other questions?”
Jessie and I shared a silent look. We nodded at the same time.
“We’re on it,” Jessie said, pushing herself up from the chair. “Let’s roll, kids. We’ve got a satellite to burn.”
“I’m sending flight details to your phones,” Linder said. “You’re airborne in two hours. I’ve also arranged housing at a wilderness lodge on the shore of Suttle Lake, not far from the expected crash zone. Agent Lawrence will make contact with you there.”
As we headed for the door, Linder cleared his throat.
“Oh, Agent Temple? Just . . . one more thing.”
Jessie turned, glancing back over her shoulder.
“I’ve been reviewing your report on the Talbot Cove incident,” he said. “Good work, as always. I was just wondering, by any chance, did you happen to interview a local man named Douglas Bredford while you were there?”
Jessie smiled. “Nope. Never heard of him. You know me: if it’s not in the report, it didn’t happen.”
He nodded, his face an expressionless mask.
“Just checking,” he said.
“Why?” she asked. “Is he a person of interest?”
He hesitated. His gaze shifted left, and down.
“His name came up in an unrelated dispatch. Just thought I’d ask. Have a safe flight, Agents.”
None of us said a word until we got to the elevator, and the brushed-steel doors slid shut to seal us in.
“Does he—” Kevin started to say.
Jessie shook her head, tight. “Uh-uh.”
He got the hint and fell silent. Linder had ears all around him, and we weren’t sure just how far his hearing could reach.
We sat in a row of hard, gray plastic seats, under a glowing American Airlines sign in white and cherry red. Digital clocks ticked down the long, slow minutes until boarding. Jessie drummed her fingers on a plastic armrest. She wasn’t good at waiting. Kevin kept his face buried in his phone, while I sat back and took in the sparse clumps of fellow passengers scattered around the concourse. Trying to read faces, read intentions.
“‘Just . . . one more thing,’” April recited, her voice dry as she rolled her chair around to face us. “Do you think our beloved taskmaster was
imitating Columbo, or was it merely a happy accident?”
“You think he knows?” Jessie asked.
April gave a humorless chuckle. “My dear, you’re asking the wrong question. But no. His body language was hesitant, and he waited until we’d almost left because he didn’t want to ask the question in the first place, then he shifted into avoidance mode. He suspects we made contact with Bredford, he absolutely suspects, but he isn’t certain. More importantly, he
the answer to be no. Now, what does that tell us?”
We’d met Douglas Bredford on our investigation in Talbot Cove. He was a walking train wreck, a drunk and despondent ex-cop turned sorcerer coasting his way to liver failure in a cheap backwoods bar. The alcohol never got the chance to kill him, though: the bomb somebody planted in his trailer did the job just fine.
Bredford had dropped a name—
. I thought it sounded suspicious, and Kevin had one of his hacker buddies check it out. He didn’t just find something: he
woke something up
. Kevin’s contact had to flee across three states and burn a fake ID to get away, while encrypted e-mail flew across government servers from coast to coast. All of it dedicated to a single question:
Who is asking about Cold Spectrum?
Bredford’s parting gift came courtesy of his next-door neighbor, who’d been given an envelope to deliver to us. Douglas knew he’d been marked for death; part of me wondered if we were his method of suicide. He had to know that once he poked his head up, whoever he’d been hiding from all those years would come after him with a vengeance. Maybe he’d picked going out with a bang over a slow death from the bottle. The envelope he’d left behind was stuffed with pictures, including one of Linder with a red-ink bull’s-eye drawn around his face.
“We know that whatever Cold Spectrum was, Linder was involved somehow,” I said. “And we know the bombing was meant to silence Douglas Bredford. They—whoever
is—want this story to stay buried.”
“Which means anybody who had contact with him is gonna get sanitized,” Jessie said.
Kevin held up a finger. “Uh. Sanitized?”
“Scrubbed clean off the earth,” Jessie said, “just like Bredford was. But Linder doesn’t want that to happen. Sure, we’re a little unorthodox and we might leave a mess or two behind for him to clean up, but we get the job done better than anybody else he’s got. So it’s in his best interests to believe we never crossed Dougie’s path.”
“As long as we make it possible for him to do so,” April said. “If we’re too obvious in our inquiries, on the other hand . . .”
She left the rest unspoken.
“So,” Jessie said, changing the subject, “here’s how we’re going to play this mission. We’ve got no reason to be in Oregon on federal business, and we need to keep a low profile for obvious reasons, so I want us all working under civilian cover. April, did you get Harmony’s paper sorted?”
April reached back. A beige canvas tote bag emblazoned with the National Public Radio logo hung over one of her chair’s handles. She slung it onto her lap and pulled out a long manila envelope, passing it my way. I tore the flap as neatly as I could and peeked inside.
“Our usual civvie cover is a company called Oceanic Polymer,” Jessie told me. “It’s solid, been registered and in good standing in the state of New York for about seven years—apparently it’s a leftover from some old undercover DEA op. Linder scooped it up and turned it into a Vigilant asset.”
I fished out a handful of business cards, blue on artfully faded cream, with a wavy logo. “Marilyn Fischer,” one read, “Director of Finance.”
April gestured to the card. “The main company line goes to an answering service and an operator trained in providing just enough information to assuage suspicious inquiries. As long as no one tries to physically visit the company headquarters—which is a rented post-office box in Queens—it should hold up to moderate scrutiny.”
“I’m an accountant?” I asked.
“Your real degree was in forensic accounting, right?” Jessie asked. “Figured that identity would suit you if you have to get into any conversations about your backstory. I’m the director of sales, Auntie April is human resources, and Kevin’s an IT tech. And we are . . . hmm. I’ve got it: we’re on a mandatory company outing and team-building exercise. Hiking, camping, tightrope walking, trust falls, all that fun stuff. We’re gonna leverage our synergy by thinking outside the box and becoming brand innovators.”
With a wry smile, April held up a finger. “Request to be exempted from tightrope walking.”
“Denied,” Jessie said. “We’re all in this together. We need all hands on deck if we’re going to make our fourth-quarter margins.”
“Jessie,” I asked, “have you ever actually worked in an office?”
“Nope, but I watched all nine seasons of
I started to reply, paused, then nodded. “Actually . . . yeah, that’s good enough.”
A distorted voice warbled over the terminal speakers, announcing the first boarding call.
Kevin held back a little as we rose, hesitant. “Hey,” he said softly.
Jessie glanced at him. “Yeah?”
“Are we . . .” He stared down at his sneakers. It took him a minute before he managed to look her in the eye. “Are we . . . okay? I mean, after everything that happened today.”
She started to say something, paused a second, and shrugged. Then she swatted him across the back of the head.
we’re okay,” she said.
“Damn.” Kevin winced, smoothing his rumpled hair. “That
“Yeah. Stupidity should be painful. That’s how you learn not to be stupid. C’mon, we’ve got a flight to catch.”