Zach Castelianos reached into the pocket of his faded blue denim shirt, took out his Ray- Bans, and propped them on the bridge of his nose.
He switched the small, nondescript duffel bag from his right hand to his left as he stepped out of the JFK International Arrivals Terminal into the harsh glare of the Indian summer sun.
Jesus, it was hot. Ninety degrees, maybe more, even in late afternoon. Typical crazy New York weather. After ten hours in the chilled air of an aging 737, his reaction to the blast of heat was almost visceral.
So was the sweet pleasure of being home.
The realization still came as a surprise.
Zach was a man who had never really called any one place home. Growing up an army brat, moving a dozen times as a kid, landing wherever his father, a spit-and-polish Marine Corps Sergeant Major had been posted, enlisting in the Corps himself at seventeen, being chosen, two years later, for SOCOM—Special Forces Command which had ultimately become MARSOC—Marine Corps Special Operations Command— and, man,, the service could create more acronyms that an advertising agency on steroids—had taken him around the world half a dozen times, almost invariably to countries with names that ended in “stan.” Four years later, he’d been recruited into The Agency. Same story, different agenda, the kind of stuff that made for worn-out punch lines to stupid civilian questions—What do I do? Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you—though there was a degree of reality behind the joking responses.
Put all that together, it meant that he’d never spent enough time in a single town or city to consider it home.
New York was the closest he’d ever come.
There was something about the city—the sense of anonymity he felt in being just one of eight or nine million people, the soaring skyscrapers and deep concrete canyons juxtaposed with the unlikely sprawl of Central Park—that gave him a sense of belonging, or as much as sense of it as a man without roots could ever imagine.
Zach walked briskly to the car pickup area outside the terminal.
He’d gone from leasing an apartment to buying one. A condo perched so high over Manhattan that the view from its endless glass walls and wide, wraparound terrace was pretty much what you’d see from a helicopter.
If anybody had told him he’d actually want to own a place of his own when he’d left The Agency four years ago, he’d have laughed.
All he’d known back then was that part of saying goodbye involved more than handing in his resignation. It also meant leaving D.C. and his rented townhouse in Georgetown.
It meant starting fresh.
He wasn’t an introspective guy. The inclination to plumb the depths of your head or your soul or what a Zen master he’d known in Japan had referred to as your inner self was for people with time on their hands.
Still, something had told him that he had to move on. For him, that meant a new location. A city, a big and impersonal city where he could put the past behind him.
He’d considered San Francisco. He liked the hills, the Bay, the moodiness of its rolling fog. He’d given thought to London, too, with all those narrow streets, the taverns that had been serving dark stouts and crisp ales for hundreds of years. Paris was a favorite of his—the Seine winding sinuously through the ancient streets, the wide boulevards, the sense of history around every corner.
In the end, New York had won out.
He liked its take-no-prisoners attitude.
It was the right place for a man like him.
So he’d signed a one-year lease on an apartment in Soho mostly because of its narrow streets and old buildings, but between the gaping out-of-towners and the laughably trendy shops, his fascination with the area had rapidly diminished. Besides, he needed outdoor space. Green space to walk in. Run in. Open space where you could see trees, grass, something wilder than a pigeon.
He’d headed uptown, took a sublet near Riverside Park. It was nice but the park was too small, too confining. Plus, by then he’d started Shadow Inc., and the time he spent traveling between the sublet and the offices he’d taken in a building just off Madison in the 60’s seemed wasteful.
Shadow took most of his time.
Not that he minded.
He loved what it was becoming, a high-tech security firm where he could utilize the techniques and tools he’d learned in Special Forces and The Agency, and add new techniques without having to wait for some Pentagon desk jockey or congressional committee to approve them.
By the end of his fourth year in Manhattan, he knew it was time to move again. He knew exactly what he wanted—a high rise with glass walls and an unimpeded view of Central Park, and the comfort of crowded streets far below.
At that point, he also knew one more thing and it was a shocker.
He was rich.
Hell, he was rolling in money, meaning he could have the high rise, the glass walls, the view.
Shadow had taken off like a rocket. No advertising. No gimmicks. Just a few quiet words to a few people and clients were stacked up like planes in the landing pattern over JFK.
Zach made some phone calls to people he’d worked with over the years, people he’d learned to trust not just in theory but in balls-to-the-wall practice, and Shadow was no longer a one-man operation but an elite team.
With an elite clientele.
If you ran down the Fortune 500 list, then checked out the Forbes list of the hundred wealthiest individuals in America, you were looking at an amazing number of names on Shadow’s very hush-hush client roster.
Zach’s baby had grown up fast.
He’d known that he needed legal counsel from someone not just smart but someone he could trust. Not always easy, based on things he’d seen. Plus, it had to be someone who would take one look at what Shadow was and understand that it had nothing to do with installing nanny cams or trailing cheating husbands.
There was only one lawyer he’d even considered contacting. It was a guy he’d known at The Agency, someone he’d actually worked with a couple of times. They’d left The Agency within months of each other; Zach had headed north, Caleb Wilde had headed west and opened a law practice in Dallas. Zach did some quiet investigating. Caleb’s practice was not only world class, it was also discreet. In fact, Zach and he shared some of the same clients.
What better recommendation could there be?
Zach phoned him.
“I need some legal advice,” he said.
Caleb flew to New York. They met for drinks and dinner and talked well into the night. They went to Zach’s office; Caleb pored over all the data he needed to see. At dawn, over coffee, bacon and eggs at a diner on Tenth Avenue, they shook hands and Caleb became Zach’s attorney.
A week later, another handshake, and Caleb’s brother, Travis, became his financial adviser, though ‘adviser’ was too simple a term. Travis Wilde was a financial genius. Under his guidance, Zach watched the enormous amounts of money Shadow generated turn into a serious fortune. What else could you call it when you could plunk down cash for a four bedroom, five- bath condo on the fiftieth floor of a new glass tower at Fifty-Seventh and Fifth?
So many changes and all at blistering speed.
Now, he had a new life… except for the times he let the old one intrude.
On this hot October afternoon, he was back from just such a situation. Idly, he wondered when The Agency would stop using such a monstrously stupid word for a mega screw-up.
The Director had contacted him. They’d flown him into a place people were frantically flying out of, and he’d done what had to be done. He had no doubt about that, but it had been tough, even brutal; it had reminded him of what he’d grown up knowing.
The world was filled with lies, liars, and deceit.
A smart man never trusted anybody.
His father had told him that and taught it to him the hard way. It was probably the only thing he had to thank the old man for and if he ever had the misfortune to see him again, he’d have to tell him so.
It was too late for second-guessing and too hot for cheap philosophizing. And where in hell was John? Frowning, Zach peered the length of the pickup lane where his driver was supposed to meet him. He’d called him on his cell as soon as the plane had touched down.
“I’m here,” Zach had said, as if that weren’t self-evident, and John had said yessir, he’d be right there, but if this was his idea of five minutes…
Zach swiped the back of his hand across his forehead.
It was like this each time he returned from handling a “situation” for The Agency. He came home pumping adrenaline, nerves jagged after being reminded, as if he needed reminding, that the world was not necessarily a good place.
The heat didn’t help.
Zach pulled off his denim shirt, unzipped the duffel and stuffed the shirt inside. Beneath it, he had on a black T-shirt that was a couple of days beyond not just needing a visit to the laundry but crying out for it.
He suspected he didn’t exactly smell like a field of flowers but it wouldn’t matter; he wasn’t going to be around people from this point on.
It had been different on the full-to-the-last-seat airplane where the shirt had been a small blessing, keeping the fat guy to his right and the even fatter one to his left as far from him as possible. After the past ten days, he’d had had enough of people to last a lifetime.
The plan had been that he’d have a cargo plane all to himself on a secondary runway at what remained of a still-functioning airport somewhere east of Istanbul and west of Aleppo, but the plan had been aborted, no reason given, and a contact had come up to him and said that someone would meet him at the entrance to the main terminal and walk him through immigration.
Actually, the skinny geek who’d sidled up to him looking as nervous as a cat at a dog show had not walked him through anything. They’d walked around it instead.
Once the guy got him past the building, he’d handed him the small duffel Zach had left at the safe house days ago. Everything that said he had a life back in the real world was inside it. A wallet stuffed with bills. His cell phone. His driver’s license. His beautiful Born-in-the-USA passport.
“It’s all there,” the geek had said in a voice as thin as a thread.
Zach had ignored him, zipped open the duffel, nodded at the sight of all his stuff, then scribbled his name on the receipt the guy held out. Receipts, even in the middle of “situations.” Typical Agency crap.
They’d started walking toward a vehicle that might have been a Jeep in another life. They got in and the geek drove him across the field to a commercial jet that bore a logo Zach had never seen before. He’d climbed the steps to the cabin and stepped into an aluminum tube crammed with people wearing the desperate faces of those who aren’t sure they’re actually going anywhere until the instant they do.
Zach understood that.
It was the way you felt when you were lucky enough to find a way out of what was rapidly becoming a war zone.
The cabin had filled with murmurs of relief when the plane finally trundled down the runway and lifted off.
Now, half a world and ten hours later, he was in a place where passengers bitched if a flight was delayed by an hour.
Man, he was not in a mood fit for humans, but why would he be?
And it wasn’t only what he’d lived through during the past ten days; it was the bitter knowledge that the Director had, after all, been right.
“You can leave The Agency, Castelianos, but it won’t leave you.”
That was what he’d said when Zach had marched into his office, tossed a one-line letter on his desk and said, “I quit.” Then he’d leaned forward, his green eyes fixing on the director’s mild hazel gaze. “And you’re wrong. I’m done with you. With this place. This life. You got that? I’m done!”
A truth when he’d said it, but a lie when he’d tried to live it.
The question was, why? How come he couldn’t leave it all behind? The Director was so goddamned smug, so certain, so full of anecdotes about all the boys and girls, as he called them even when they were in their thirties and, hell, their forties, all of them who learned they needed The Agency, its discipline, its purpose…
“Stop it,” Zach muttered.
A white-haired woman standing nearby looked at him. He worked up what he hoped was a polite smile. Evidently not. Her gaze swept over him, she went a little pale and moved away.
Great. What wonderful claims to fame. Scaring old ladies and doing dirty jobs D.C. would never acknowledge.
Zacharias Castelianos, unsung hero.
Where was John, goddammit?
Zach stepped off the curb and checked the oncoming cars.
Why had he accepted that first mission? He was not an egotistical man; he was a practical one, and that meant that six months later, when he got the first call that said there was a job to be done and only he could do it, he’d laughed off the attempted flattery and disconnected while the Director was still speaking.
After a couple of hours of pacing, while he went over and over the few details he’d been given, he’d called himself a name that was not respectful of motherhood, reached for the phone, dialed the number and code he’d never forgotten and said, OK, he’d take the assignment this once. Only this once.
He should have known there was no such thing as once.
A pair of suits, busy talking to each other, jostled him. One of them looked at him as if to say the mild collision had been Zach’s fault.
And changed his mind.
“Sorry,” he said quickly, grabbed his pal by the elbow and hustled him away.
Zach bit back a laugh. This time, he hadn’t even had to talk to himself to rate that reaction.
Maybe there were advantages to smelling as if you hadn’t showered in weeks, or to having days of stubble on your jaw, or needing a haircut badly enough that your hair curled on the nape of your neck. Maybe it wasn’t a terrible thing to wear a grimy shirt, stained jeans and ankle-high work boots splattered with dried mud and probably worse, at least if you wanted people not to bother you.
Or maybe it was just him, six-three of leanly-muscled male with what was probably a do-not-fuck-with-me look on his face. That was what they’d called it in his MARSOC unit and then in The Agency, that been-there, done-that, definitely-do-not-want-to-talk-about-it glacial stare that glittered in a man’s eyes like frost on a window pane after he’d seen things better left unspoken— and done some of them, as well.
Zach felt a muscle knot in his jaw.
Maybe it was time to give this life a rest. Hell, time to give it a bypass. What had sent him fleeing The Agency was his growing inability to keep his assignments at a mental and emotional distance. Getting involved, feeling somebody’s pain sounded good if you were into playing acoustic guitar. In the real world, getting involved ended up with you making mistakes or lying awake nights playing the “what if?” game or, even worse, wanting something you could never have.
No fucking more.
He was done with playing the Lone Ranger. It was time to grow up. Stop trying to change the world, and—
And where in hell was his car?
Zach took his phone from his pocket. He’d kill time doing something useful. There were voice mails and a few text messages waiting. He scanned the texts. None were urgent. Neither were the voice mails.
Only one was of any interest. It was from a woman he’d met at a conference in D.C. last month.
Hi, she said, it’s Sari. I had a great time. Give me a call and we’ll get together again.
Zach grinned. It certainly had been fun. He’d especially liked her saying, straight out, that she wasn’t looking for anything more than that. Yeah, he’d definitely get around to taking her out again.
The next message wasn’t worth a response. It was from the self-important Realtor who’d cornered him at that same conference.
Hello Mr. Castelianos. This is Roger Bengs. I had the pleasure of meeting you and discussing the possible sale of your condo…
Mr. Castelianos, hello, this is Roger Bengs again. I hope you got my prior message…
Hi there, Mr. Castelianos. I’m calling on behalf of Roger Bengs about the sale of—
The voice was female, brisk and businesslike with maybe the slightest hint of a long-ago, left-behind southern drawl. Probably Bengs’s secretary. Zach didn’t wait to find out. He hit delete, hit it again when he heard a second message from her, and vowed that he’d never deal with Bengs even if he were the last Realtor left on the planet.
The guy was not just a pain in the ass, he was also a liar.
They hadn’t discussed any such thing.
Bengs had approached him during the cocktail party held the first night of the conference and introduced himself. He had somehow learned where Zach lived and after a minute or two of small talk, he’d launched into his pitch.
“You know, Mr. Castelianos, those condos are hot! If you wanted to sell…”
“I don’t,” Zach had said politely.
“But if you did… We are an experienced firm, Mr. Castelianos. We’d be delighted to handle your listing.”
“I’m sure,” Zach had said. “But I’m not interested.”
Not clearly enough, apparently. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to hit delete. Maybe he should have sent a reply, something slightly more specific, like No effing way.
A horn beeped and he swung toward the sound.
There it was. His red Porsche Carrera, pulling up next to him in the pickup lane, looking like the thoroughbred it was in the long line of black limos, nondescript sedans and house-in-the-country SUVs.
He opened the door, tossed his duffel bag into what passed for the back seat, went around to the driver’s side as John stepped out.
The men shook hands.
“Welcome home, sir.”
“Thanks.” Zach dug in his rear pocket, took out a neatly folded wad of bills. “And thanks for bringing the car.”
John nodded gravely and accepted the money. One thousand dollars.
He’d been with Zach for three years; he knew the ritual, knew better than to try to wave away the cash.
“It’s my lucky charm,” his boss had said, the first time John had made the attempt.
John was ex-army. Not ex-Special Forces—which he figured his employer had been even though Zach had never said so—but he’d seen his share of things. He understood the value of lucky charms. His boss’s involved this exchange, the Porsche Carrera for a taxi whenever he got back from what he invariably referred to as “some business to take care of,” the extravagant tip, his employer with a look in his green eyes that hinted at things better left unsaid.
“You can take the night off.”
John nodded again. That, too, was part of the ritual. Far as he could tell, his employer never went anywhere the day or the evening he returned from these infrequent trips. Often, the next morning, there’d be take-out boxes in the trash from a little Thai restaurant, maybe an empty bottle of Johnny Walker Blue or Macallan 25, though he’d never seen his boss drunk.
Come to think of it, he’d never seen him out of control at all. No highs. No lows. Just, on rare occasions, an almost frightening stillness…
“Yes. Thank you, Mr. Castelianos, sir.”
Zach rolled his eyes. John flashed a rueful smile.
“I’ll see you in the morning. Sir. I mean, Zach.”
Zach nodded. His hands were already wrapped around the steering wheel; his foot hovered over the clutch. His impatience to set the car free was almost palpable.
“Watch out for the cops, boss.”
Both men grinned. Then Zach checked for traffic and the Porsche shot away from the curb. He shifted the gears, throttled down to a more reasonable speed and headed for the Van Wyck Expressway.
Traffic was always bad on the roads leading into Manhattan from Long Island, but it seemed worse than usual this evening. Cars were lined up as if the Expressway were a giant parking lot.
He got off after a couple of exits, wove through a maze of side roads until he hit an area filled with factories and empty streets. He shifted, put his foot down on the gas pedal and took the Porsche to a speed that was still well below what he knew it was capable of doing. The momentary burst of speed, however abbreviated, had been what he needed.
He could feel some of the tension ease from his muscles. The long flight, its cramped confines, and the rush of adrenaline and endorphins that had accompanied him the past ten days had all taken their toll.
He needed a change. Something different. A couple of weeks of doing nothing.
He needed more than that. He needed to believe in something again.
He had, once upon a time. He’d believed in his country, right or wrong. In his heart, he still did. The problem was that the people who made the decisions that ruled his country seemed increasingly intent on making them for their own gain.
Talk about philosophizing…
Zach eased his foot off the gas and pulled into the debris-littered parking lot of an abandoned factory building. He turned off the engine and scrubbed his hands over his face.
Something wasn’t working in his life. You didn’t have to be a man who gazed into your own navel to realize that.
He had a lot of money. He had a home in the sky. He had medals and ribbons and commendations. He accomplished things people said were important, even vital. And…
And there it was, that nagging question he’d been trying to avoid.
He’d seen a shrink one time. A couple of times, actually, after a particularly intense operation he’d led when he was still in MARSOC. His commander had thought it might be a good idea.
The shrink had listened to him talk. Tried to listen, anyway, but Zach had not talked. Not about anything more than his lack of desire to do so.
“I’m not someone who spills his guts,” he’d said. “I don’t unload on others.”
“Is that what you think connecting with another person is?” the shrink had said. “Unloading? Spilling your guts?”
Zach had shrugged.
“I work out my own problems. I always have.”
“What about things that aren’t problems? Do you ever share your feelings?”
“I’m not the touchy-feely type.”
“How do you get along with your family? Are you close?”
Another shrug. “I haven’t seen my old man in years. I used to call my mother once in a while, but she’s gone. There’s nobody else.”
“Is there a woman in your life?”
“What is this, an episode of Dr. Phil?”
“I take it that’s a ‘no.’”
“I have lots of women in my life, Doc. And I fail to see what any of this has to do with my military service.”
“It has to do with you, Zach. Your emotional removal from yourself.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means you keep everything bottled inside. It means you need to learn that showing emotion isn’t a sign of weakness. It means that loneliness can be destructive to your soul.”
“Christ! What are you, Doc, a chaplain in disguise?”
That time, it was the shrink who’d shrugged.
“I’m using the word ‘soul’ advisedly. If you prefer, I can talk about your psyche.”
Zach had risen to his feet.
“What we can talk about is not wasting each other’s time after today,” he’d said, holding out his hand. “I’m assuming you’ll tell my commander that I can get back to work ASAP.”
The doctor had risen, too. The men shook hands.
“I’ll tell him that,” he’d said, “but I’m telling you that if you don’t let down your defenses pretty damned soon, you’re going to reach a point at which you can’t.”
Zach had smiled. “‘Desperado,’” he’d said. “An old Eagles classic, Doc. Sounds as if you wrote the lyrics.”
And why was he remembering all that crap now?
Zach sat up straight, started the Porsche and headed back toward the highway.
Home. A long hot shower. A healthy belt of first-rate Scotch that he’d down, neat, on the wraparound terrace while he lay sprawled in an oversized lounger and watched the sky go from pale gray to black, or as close to black as it ever got in Manhattan.
The glow from thousands upon thousands of lights all but wiped out the night sky.
Growing up, he’d lived in places where the sky was like a vast black silk canopy shot through with stars. Kuwait. Saudi Arabia. Alaska. He’d done missions in the mountain passes of Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
There’d been times those beautiful night skies were the only things that were beautiful.
Back to Philosophy 101.
Zach slowed his speed as he approached the entrance ramp for the Van Wyck. It looked a little better than it had half an hour ago. He merged the Porsche into traffic, then got it all the way to 45 miles per hour.
Pathetic, but an improvement.
With luck, he’d be home in less than half an hour. He’d get that shower, the whisky, the city sprawled beneath him.
He felt the last bit of tension slip away.
It was good to be home.