PrologueIndian summer The forest near Santa Lucia, California Three years earlier
He was late.
He checked his watch and the illuminated digital face glowed eerily in the pitch-dark forest.
He'd never make it in time and would draw attention to himself, something he could ill afford.
Picking up his pace, he jogged along the uneven terrain, running downward in this stretch of low wooded hills, far away from civilization.
Far away from discovery.
The sounds of the night crept into his brain: the rustle of autumn leaves in the hot breeze, the snap of a dry twig beneath his hurried footsteps and the thunderous pounding of his own heart, thudding wildly, pumping adrenaline through his veins.
He sneaked a glance at his wrist, the face of his watch registering midnight. His jaw tightened. Perspiration seemed to pour from every inch of his skin and his nerves were strung tight as an assassin's garrote.
Slow down! Don't announce your presence by crashing through the underbrush like a wounded stag! Better to be a few minutes late than to destroy everything by making a clumsy racket.
He stopped, drew in several deep breaths and smelled the tinder-dry forest. Beneath his dark clothes he was sweating. From the hot night. From his exertion. From a sense of anticipation. And from fear.
He swiped at the moisture in his eyes and drew in a long, calming breath. Concentrate. Focus. Do not slip up. Not tonight.
Somewhere nearby an owl hooted softly and he took it as an omen. A good one. So he was late. He could handle it.
Once his heartbeat had slowed, he dug into the pocket of his tight-fitting jacket, found the ski mask and quickly pulled it over his head, adjusting the eye and nose holes.
Looking downward he saw the first flicker of light in the shadows. Then another.
They were gathering.
His heart nearly stopped.
But there was no going back, not now. He was committed. Just as they were. There was a chance that he would be caught, that they all would, but it was a risk they were all willing to take.
He continued his descent.
As a full moon rose higher in the sky, he jogged the final quarter mile through the stands of live oak and pine. Forcing his heartbeat to slow, he slipped around a final bend in the trail to the clearing where the four others waited.
They were all dressed like he was, in black, their faces covered by dark ski masks. They stood about three feet from each other, in formation, what would be a circle as soon as he joined them. He felt all the hidden eyes stare at him as he stepped into the spot that completed the ring.
"You're late," a harsh voice whispered. The tallest was glaring at him. The leader.
Every muscle in his body tensed. He nodded. Didn't reply. No excuse would be acceptable.
"There can be no errors. No delays!"
Again, he inclined his head, accepting the rebuke.
"Do not make this mistake again!"
The others stared at him, the offender. He kept his eyes trained straight ahead. Eventually they all turned their attention to the leader who was slightly taller than everyone else. There was something about him that emanated power, a fierceness that came through-something that said he was a man to be respected ... and feared.
"We begin," the leader went on, mollified, at least for the moment. With one final glance around the circle, the leader bent down to the ground. With a click of his lighter, he touched the small flame to a pile of twigs which crackled and caught. Small, glowing flickers of fire raced in a predetermined path. The smell of burning kerosene caught in the wind. One sharp point of fiery light became defined, then another as the symbol ignited, a blazing star burning on the clearing.
"Tonight it ends." The leader straightened, taking his place at a tip of one star point. They each stood at the end of one of the projections, their boots dangerously close to the flames.
"Everything's in place?" the person to his right asked in a hiss.
Man or woman?
He couldn't tell.
"Yes." The leader glanced at his watch. There was satisfaction in his tone, even pride, though his voice was still disguised. "You all know what you need to do. Tonight Ryan Carlyle pays for what he's done. Tonight he dies."
The latecomer's heart clutched.
"Wait! No! This is a mistake," another one of the group argued, as if a sudden sense of guilt had claimed him. Or was it a woman? The dissenter was certainly the shortest of the lot and was wearing clothes baggy enough to be deceiving. He was shaking his head as if grappling with his ethics. "We can't do this. It's murder. Premeditated murder."
"It's already been decided." The leader was firm.
"There must be a better way."
"The plan is already in motion. No one will ever find out."
"As I said, it's been decided." The whisper was scathing and cruel, daring the dissident to argue further.
All the unseen eyes turned on the one who had found the courage to object. He held his ground for a fraction of a second before his shoulders slumped in reluctant acceptance, as if there was nothing he could do. He argued no more.
"Good. Then we're all in agreement." The leader shot the protestor one final glance before outlining the simple but effective plan to put an end to Ryan Carlyle's life.
No one asked a question.
"We're in agreement?" the leader checked. There were nods all around, aside from the one dissenter. "We're in agreement?" the leader demanded again harshly. The dissenter gave up his fight and hitched his chin quickly, as if afraid to utter even the slightest protest.
The leader snorted, satisfied, then moved his eyes from the objector to each member standing at a point of the star before zeroing in on the latecomer again.
Because he'd arrived a few minutes after midnight, the appointed time? Because of a basic animal mistrust? He felt the weight of the tall man's stare and met it evenly.
"You all know your assignments. I expect you to execute them flawlessly." No one spoke. "Leave," the leader ordered. "Separately. Each the way you came. Discuss this with no one."
As the flames in the star began to spread, searching for other sources of fuel, each of the five conspirators turned from the fire and disappeared into the forest.
He, too, did as he was bid, rotating quickly, ignoring the thundering of his heart and the sweat covering his body. Inside he was thrumming, his senses heightened. He jogged upward and hazarded one glance over his shoulder. Straining to listen, he heard nothing over the sound of his own labored breathing and the sigh of the wind as it rushed through the surrounding trees.
He was alone.
No one was following him.
No one would find out what he had planned.
Far below, in the clearing, the fire was beginning to take hold, the fiery star splintering and crawling rapidly through the summer-dry grass toward the surrounding woods.
He didn't have much time. Yet he waited, eyes scanning the dark hillside, the seconds ticking away. Finally he heard the faraway sound of an engine starting, and then, barely a minute later, another car or truck roared to life.
Come on, come on, he thought, glancing at his watch and biting at the edge of his lip. Finally the sound of a third engine, barely discernable, revved to life, only to fade into the distance. Good.
He waited for the fourth vehicle to start.
A minute passed.
He lifted his mask and mopped his face, then pulled it over his head again. Just in case.
Another full minute ticked by.
What the hell was going on?
He felt the light touch of fear burn down his spine.
Don't panic. Just wait.
But it shouldn't take this long. Everyone should have been desperate to flee. Through the trees he spied the growing flames. Soon someone would see the fire, call it in.
Maybe the leader had changed his mind, considered him a risk after all. Maybe showing up late had been a far worse mistake than he'd imagined and even now the leader of the secret band was stalking him, closing in.
Fists clenched, every sense alive, he searched the darkness.
Don't lose it. There's still time. Again he glanced at his watch. Nearly twelve-thirty. And the fire below was taking hold, crackling and burning, racing through the undergrowth.
His ears strained as the smell of smoke teased his nostrils ... Was that the sound of a car's engine roaring to life?
Five more minutes passed and he stood, sweating, muscles tight, ready to spring.
He couldn't waste another minute and decided to risk his plan. Swiftly he began running up the trail again, heading toward the little-used logging road high above, but at a fork in the path, he veered sharply right. Heart pounding, his nerves twisted and jangled, he angled along the side of the hill. His muscles were beginning to ache with the effort when he finally saw the abyss ahead of him, a deep chasm cut into the hillside.
He was close now. Could still make it.
Without hesitation, he found the large tree he'd used as a bridge earlier and carefully eased his way along the rough bark and through the broken limbs to the other side of the cleft. Far below, the fire continued to take hold, the flames glowing brighter, the smoke rising toward the night-dark heavens.
At the root-end of the log, he jumped to the ground, picked up another trail and followed it unerringly to a boulder the size of a man. Five paces uphill he found a tree split and blackened by lightning, cleaved as if God Himself had sliced the oak into two pieces. At the base of that split trunk was his quarry.
Hands and ankles bound, tied to one side of the tree, mouth taped shut, his prisoner waited.
He flicked on his flashlight, saw that the captive's wrists were bloody and raw, the skin sawed by the ropes as the man had tried to escape.