One Day Earlier
THE WATER cascaded over Thomas Hunter's head and ran down his face like a warm glove. It was just that, water, but it washed away all his concern and anxiety and set his mind free for a few minuets. He'd been here a while, lost in a distant world that hung on the edge of his mind without any detail or meaning. Just escape. Pure escape, the closest he ever got to heaven these days.
A fist pounded the door. "Thomas! I'm outta here. You're going to be late."
A mental image of a much older Kara flashed through his mind. She was graying, perhaps in her fifties, and she was asking him to take her with him. Just that: "Take me with you, Thomas."
And then the image was gone. He blinked under streams of water, suddenly disoriented. How long had he been here? For the briefest moment he was at a loss as to how he'd even gotten here.
Then it all came crashing in on him. He was in the shower. It was late morning. His shift at Java Hut started at noon. Right? Yes, of course.
He shook the water from his head. "Okay." Then added, "See you tonight."
But Kara was probably already out the door, headed to her shift at the hospital. The thing about his sister: she might only be in her early twenties like him, but what she lacked in age, she more than made up for in maturity. Not that he was irresponsible, but he hadn't made the transition from life on the streets in Manila to life in the States quite as smoothly as Kara.
He stepped out of the shower and wiped the steamed mirror with his forearm. He ran both hands through his wet hair and examined his face as best he could with streaks of water clinging to the glass.
Not bad. Not bad, chicks dug a little stubble, right? He'd lost some of his edge over the last couple years in New York, but Denver would be different. The troubles with loan sharks and shady import partners were behind him now. Soon as he got back on his feet, he would reenter society and find a way to excel at something.
In the meantime, there was the coffee shop he worked at, and there was the apartment, gratis, thanks to Kara.
He dressed quickly, grabbed a day-old sugar donut on his way out and headed up Ninth, then through the alley to Colfax, where the boutique coffee shop better known as Java Hut waited. The Rockies stood against a blue sky, just visible between high-rise apartments as he made his way up the street. Mother was still in New York, where she'd settled in after the divorce. It had been a tough road, but she was set now.
Indeed, the world was set. He just had to put some time in, regroup, and let life come to him as it always had, with fistfuls of dollars and a woman who could appreciate the finer things in life. Like him.
Okay, only in his dreams at the moment, but things were looking up. Maybe he'd finally get back to one of those novels he'd written when his dream of conquering the publishing world was alive and well.
Thomas entered the coffee shop two minutes past noon and let the door slam shut behind him.
"Hey, Thomas." The new dark-haired hire, Edith, smiled and gave him a wink.
Okay ... interesting. Pretty enough. But being a magnet for trouble, Thomas didn't make a habit of flirting with women he knew nothing about.
She tossed him a green apron. "Frank would like you to show me the ropes."
"Okay." He stepped around her and behind the counter.
"We close together tonight," she said.
Right. Frank had started up these ten-hour shifts a week earlier. "Okay."
He refused to look at her, knowing what was on her mind already. It was the farthest thing from his mind.
The day passed quickly and he managed to close with her without either betraying his general disinterest in her or offering any encouragement. But showing her the ropes, as she called it, had taken longer than usual, and he didn't get out till ten thirty that night.
He headed down the street, headed for the apartment. Another day, another dollar. Not fistfuls, but at least it was steady. More than he could say for his, uh ... more ambitious gigs. All was good. All was ...
But then suddenly all wasn't so good. He was walking down the same dimly lit alley he always took on his way home when a smack! punctuated the hum of distant traffic. Red brick dribbled from a one-inch hole two feet away from his face. He stopped midstride.
This time he saw the bullet plow into the wall. This time he felt a sting on his cheek as tiny bits of shattered brick burst from the impact. This time every muscle in his body seized.
Someone had just shot at him?
Was shooting at him?
Thomas recoiled to a crouch, but he couldn't seem to tear his eyes off those two holes in the brick, dead ahead. They had to be a mistake. Figments of his overactive imagination. His aspirations to write novels had finally ruptured the line between fantasy and reality with these two empty eye sockets staring at him from the red brick.
That wasn't his imagination, was it? No, that was his name, and it was echoing down the alley. A third bullet crashed into the brick wall.
He bolted to his left, still crouching. One long step, drop the right shoulder, roll. Again the air split above his head. This bullet clanged into a steel ladder and rang down the alley.
Thomas came to his feet and chased the sound in a full sprint, pushed by instinct as much as by terror. He'd been here before, in the back alleys of Manila. He'd been a teenager then, and the Filipino gangs were armed with knives and machetes rather than guns, but at the moment, tearing down the alley behind Ninth and Colfax, Thomas's mind wasn't drawing any distinction.
"You're a dead man!" the voice yelled.
Now he knew who they were. They were from New York. Right? He had no enemies in Denver that he was aware of. New York, on the other hand ... Yeah, well he'd done a few stupid things in New York.
This alley led to another thirty yards ahead, on his left. A mere shadow in the dim light, but he knew the cutaway.
Two more bullets whipped by, one so close he could feel its wind on his left ear. Feet pounded the concrete behind him.
Thomas dove into the shadow.
"Cut him off in the back. Radio me."
Thomas rolled to the balls of his feet, then sprinted, mind spinning. Radio?
The problem with adrenaline, Makatsu's thin voice whispered, is that it makes your head weak. His karate instructor would point to his head and wink. You have plenty of muscle to fight, but no muscle to think.
If they had radios and could cut off the street ahead, he would have a very serious problem.
One access to the roof halfway down the alley. One large garbage bin too far away. Scattered boxes to his left. No real cover. He had to make his move before they entered the alley.
Fingers of panic stabbed into his mind. Adrenaline dulls reason; panic kills it. Makatsu again. Thomas had once been beaten to a pulp by a gang of Filipinos who'd taken a pledge to kill any Americano brat who entered their turf. They made the streets around the army base their turf. His instructor had scolded him, insisting that he was good enough to have escaped their attack that afternoon. His panic had cost him dearly. His brain had been turned to rice pudding, and he deserved the bruises that swelled his eyes shut.
This time it was bullets, not feet and clubs, and bullets would leave more than bruises. Time was out.
Short on ideas and long on desperation, Thomas dove for the gutter. Rough concrete tore at his skin. He rolled quickly to his left, bumped into the brick wall, and lay face down in the deep shadow.
Feet pounded around the corner and ran straight toward him. One man. How they had found him in Denver, he had no clue. But if they'd gone to this much trouble, they wouldn't just walk away.
The man ran on light feet, hardly winded. Thomas's nose was buried in the musty corner. Noisy blasts of air from his nostrils buffeted his face. He clamped down on his breathing; immediately his lungs began to burn.
The slapping feet approached, ran past.
A slight tremor lit through his bones. He fought another round of panic. It had been five years since his last fight. He didn't stand a chance against a man with a gun. He desperately willed his pursuer's feet to move on. Walk. Just walk!
But the feet didn't walk. They scraped quietly. He had to move now, while he still had the advantage of surprise. He threw himself to his left, rolled once to gain momentum. Then twice, rising first to his knees, then to his feet. His attacker was facing him, gun extended, frozen.
Thomas's momentum carried him laterally, directly toward the opposite wall. The gun's muzzle-flash momentarily lit the dark alley and spit a bullet past him. But now instinct had replaced panic.
What shoes am I wearing?
The question flashed through Thomas's mind as he hurtled for the brick wall, left foot leading. A critical question.
His answer came when his foot planted on the wall. Rubber soles. One more step up the wall with traction to spare. He threw his head back, arched hard, pushed himself off the brick, then twisted to his right halfway through his rotation. The move was simply an inverted bicycle kick, but he hadn't executed it in half a dozen years, and this time his eyes weren't on a soccer ball tossed up by one of his Filipino friends in Manila.
This time it was a gun.
The man managed one shot before Thomas's left foot smashed into his hand, sending the pistol clattering down the alley. The bullet tugged at his collar.
Thomas didn't land lightly on his feet as hoped. He sprawled to his hands, rolled once, and sprang into the seventh fighting position opposite a well-muscled man with short black hair. Not exactly a perfectly executed maneuver. Not terrible for someone who hadn't fought in six years.
The man's eyes were round with shock. His experience in the martial arts obviously didn't extend beyond The Matrix. Thomas was briefly tempted to shout for joy, but if anything, he had to shut this man up before he could call out.
The man's astonishment changed to a snarl, and Thomas saw the knife in his right hand. Okay, so maybe the man knew more about street fighting than was at first apparent.
He ducked the knife's first swipe. Came up with his palm to the man's chin. Bone cracked.
It wasn't enough. This man was twice his weight, with twice his muscle, and ten times his bad blood.
Thomas launched himself vertically and spun into a full roundhouse kick, screaming despite his better judgment. His foot had to be doing a good eighty miles an hour when it struck the man's jaw.
They both hit the concrete at precisely the same time, Thomas on his feet ready to deliver another blow; his assailant on his back, breathing hard, ready for the grave. Figuratively speaking.
The man's silver pistol lay near the wall. Thomas took a step for it, then rejected the notion. What was he going to do? Shoot back? Kill? Incriminate himself? Not smart. He turned and ran back in the direction they'd come.
The main alley was empty. He ducked into it, edged along the wall, grabbed the rails to a steel fire escape, and quickly ascended. The building's roof was flat and shouldered another taller building to the south. He swung up to the second building, ran in a crouch, and halted by a large vent, nearly a full block from the alley where he'd laid out the New Yorker.
He dropped to his knees, pressed back into the shadows, and listened past the thumping of his heart.
The hum of a million tires rolling over asphalt. The distant roar of a jet overhead. The faint sound of idle talk. The sizzling of food frying in a pan, or of water being poured from a window. The former, considering they were in Denver, not the Philippines. No sounds from New York.
He leaned back and closed his eyes, catching his breath.
Fights in Manila as a teenager were one thing, but here in the States at the ripe age of twenty-five? The whole sequence struck him as surreal. It was hard to believe this had just happened to him.
Or, more accurately, was happening to him. He still had to figure a way out of this mess. Did they know where he lived? No one had followed him to the roof.
Thomas crept to the ledge. Another alley ran directly below, adjoining busy streets on either side. Denver's brilliant skyline glimmered on the horizon directly ahead. An odd odor met his nose, sweet like cotton candy but mixed with rubber or something burning.
Deja vu. He'd been here before, hadn't he? No, of course not. Lights shimmered in the hot summer air, reds and yellows and blues, like jewels sprinkled from heaven. He could swear he'd been ...
Thomas's head suddenly snapped to the left. He threw out his arms, but his world spun impossibly and he knew that he was in trouble.
Something had hit him. Something like a sledgehammer. Something like a bullet.
He felt himself topple, but he wasn't sure if he was really falling or if he was losing consciousness. Something was horribly wrong with his head. He landed hard on his back, in a pillow of black that swallowed his mind whole.
And then ...
And then Thomas Hunter dreamed, and the world would never be the same.
THE MAN'S eyes snapped open. A pitch-black sky above. No lights, no stars, no buildings. Only black. And a small moon.
He blinked and tried to remember where he was. Who he was. But all he could remember was that he'd just had a vivid dream.
He closed his eyes and fought to wake. He'd dreamed that he was running from some men who wanted to hurt him, presumably from New York. He'd escaped like a spider up a wall. Then he'd stared out at the lights. Such beautiful, brilliant lights. Now he was awake.
He sat up, disoriented. The shadows of tall, dark trees surrounded a rocky clearing in which he'd been sleeping. His eyes began to adjust to the darkness, and he saw a field of some kind ahead.
He stood to his feet and steadied himself. On his feet, leather moccasins. On his body, dark pants, tan suede shirt with two pockets. He instinctively felt for his left temple, where a sharp ache throbbed. His fingers came away bloody.
He'd been struck in his dream. He turned and saw a dark patch glistening on the rock where he'd fallen. He must have fallen, struck his head against the rock, and been knocked unconscious. But where was he? Maybe the knock to his head had given him amnesia.
What was his name? Thomas. The man in his dream had called him Thomas Hunter.
Thomas felt the bleeding bump on his head again. The surface wound above his ear matted his hair with blood. It had knocked him senseless, but thankfully no more.
He lowered his hand and stared at a tree without full comprehension. Square branches jutted off from the trunk at a harsh angle before squaring and turning skyward, like claws grasping at the heavens. The smooth bark looked as though it might be made of metal or a carbon fiber rather than organic material.
Why did this sight disturb him?
"It looks perfectly good."
Thomas spun to the voice.
A redhead dressed in blue trousers stood on a rock behind him, looking at a small puddle of water nestled in a boulder at the edge of the clearing. There was something strange about the water, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Did ... did he know this man?
"The water looks clean to me," the man said.
Thomas cleared his throat. "What's ... what happened?"
"I think we should try it."
"Where are we?" Thomas asked.
"Good question." The man looked at him. A thin grin twisted his lips. "You really don't remember? What, you get knocked in the head or something?"
"I must have. I ... I can't remember a thing."
"What's your name?"
"Thomas. I think."
"Well, you know that much. Now all we have to do is find a way out of here."
"And, umm ... I know this sounds crazy, but what's your name?"
"Seriously? You don't remember?" The man walked over to the water and knelt on one heel.
"Bill," the man said absently. "My name is Bill." He reached down and touched the water. Brought it to his nose and sniffed. His eyes closed as he savored the scent.
Thomas glanced around the clearing, willing his mind to remember. Odd how he could remember some things but not others. He knew that these tall black things were called trees, that the material on his body was called clothing, that the organ pumping in his chest was a heart. He even knew that this kind of selective memory loss was consistent with amnesia. But he couldn't remember any history. Couldn't remember how he got here. Didn't know why Bill was so mesmerized by the water. Didn't even know who Bill was.