The Consultant: Chapter 55

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A day later, Jung-Ho—partly to his own surprise, partly not—found himself telling another woman about the impending coup. 

What’s wrong with me? he wondered.

But he knew what was wrong with him: He was already in his early thirties, and he had no woman—none he could call his own, at least.

Not that he had never been with a woman. He had told Barry Lawson that there was no prostitution in the DPRK. And that was an honest assessment, so far as a Westerner like Barry Lawson would understand the term. 

During the reigns of of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, there had been rumors of the Kippumjo, the “Pleasure Brigade”. These were—if you believed the rumors—hand-selected 14- to 20-year-old virgins. They were trained in the arts of pleasure, and then dispatched to the service of high-ranking party officials. At the age of twenty-five, members of the Kippumjo were shuffled into arranged marriages. 

About 2,000 Pleasure Brigade girls were said to have existed, until the Kippumjo was disbanded, shortly after the death of Kim Jong-il.    

Jung-Ho had never been near the level of power that would enable access to the Kippumjo—if it ever existed at all, that was. He had once considered asking his father about the rumors. Colonel Tak would be in a position to know. 

But that would necessitate another, more uncomfortable question: Had his father ever partaken of such pleasures? Jung-Ho cringed at the very notion. There were some things that a son did not want to know about his father.

There were other, more unsavory options, short of the quasi-mythic Kippumjo. There were young women in the DPRK who sold themselves near train stations, often for only a few won

But the laws against participating in or patronizing such commerce were strict, and the punishments harsh. Jung-Ho tried to avoid such desperate measures. He had patronized the train station women on a handful of occasions, in order to dispel the constant aching in his loins. But the experience always left him nervous and unsatisfied. 

Unless you were at the very heights of power, the only real way to secure safe, constant access to a woman’s body in the DPRK was to marry. And stuck here in the Yang Suk Foreign Friends camp, Jung-Ho had met few marriage prospects. For this reason alone, he was often bitter that he had not been assigned to a post in one of the DPRK’s urban areas.

The most desirable woman in his midst—other than the impossibly resistant Anne Henry—was Mi-kyung. 

Jung-Ho was not surprised that Barry Lawson had fallen for her ruse in the restaurant of the Ichiryu Hotel in Osaka. (Jung-Ho had helped plan the entire thing, after all.)  Stronger men than Barry Lawson would have succumbed to Mi-kyung under those circumstances. 

Even now, sitting in the visitor’s chair of his little office, Mi-kyung was maddeningly desirable. Even in her uniform, with her long, lustrous black hair pulled back into a bun.

“You said you wanted to talk to me?” Mi-kyung asked. 

Her manner was polite, but not overly friendly. Jung-Ho had long sensed that Mi-kyung was less than fond of him. She probably sensed his desire. Was it that palpable? 

Yes, perhaps it was. 

Jung-Ho silently cursed Anne Henry.

“Yes,” Jung-Ho said at length. “Forgive my boldness, but I have always felt that the two of us have achieved…a level of trust.”

For a moment Mi-kyung said nothing. But he would get her talking. Jung-Ho was almost certain that he saw into the mind of Mi-kyung. She was smarter than most—and certainly smarter than that idiot, Commander Cho.

“I suppose so,” Mi-kyung said. “We are comrades, of more or less the same rank.”

Jung-Ho realized that he was about lay all his cards on the table, and thereby make himself completely vulnerable. He would have to make sure that it was worth the risk.

Mi-kyung, he knew, had—or once had—a lover in Russia. North Korea and Russia were on friendly terms, as they had been during the Soviet era. Mi-kyung had met her Russian boyfriend through liaison work she did with the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR RF. 

But how serious was it? Did this man have a claim on her? 

There was only one way to find out. He had to ask.

“That boyfriend of yours,” Jung-Ho said abruptly. “What is his name?”

“You mean Yuri,” Mi-kyung said. 

“Yes, the Russian.”

Mi-kyung bristled. She sat up against the back of the chair.

“Why all of this interest in my personal life?”

Why? Jung-Ho wanted to shout. He was now thirty-two years old. It was time for him to get married, and have children, hopefully at least one son.

He still believed that Anne Henry could be persuaded—if grudgingly. But a wise man, Jung-Ho knew, always leaves himself at least one backup plan.

Without being too obvious, Jung-Ho studied the swell of Mi-kyung’s breasts inside her uniform.

She would not be a bad second choice.

She might even be a good first choice.

“No reason,” Jung-Ho replied.

“I somehow doubt that. But if you must know: Yuri and I haven’t seen each other in months. He’s been transferred to Syria; and my work is unlikely to take me to Russia again in the foreseeable future. So I believe that our relationship is concluded. In the end, it will be nothing more than a ‘fling’, as the decadent imperialists would say.”

Good! Jung-Ho thought triumphantly. Now, on to the next point. 

“You despise Commander Cho, is that not true?”

This question, too, had been abrupt—and Jung-Ho had intended it that way. He wanted to gage her reaction. 

“You’re taking us in a very dangerous direction, Jung-Ho. For all you know, I’m Commander Cho’s spy. For all you know, I’ll report you within the hour, and you’ll be kneeling in a cell, with a pistol against your head.”

“Perhaps,” Jung-Ho allowed. “But I think not. I think, moreover, that you’re far more intelligent than you let on.” 

Mi-kyung looked directly into his eyes. “You flatter me, Comrade Tak.”

“No,” Jung-Ho said. “Not flattery. Just an honest assessment.”

“So,” Mi-kyung said. “I somehow have the feeling that you have something to tell me.”

Jung-Ho paused to consider. So far, he had engaged in mildly treasonous talk, but it was nothing that he couldn’t easily deny. If he told her about the conspiracy, then he would be irrevocably at risk. Mi-kyung was not Anne Henry. Whereas Anne Henry was isolated from authority in the DPRK, Mi-kyung could walk into Commander Cho’s office and report him at any time. 

Jung-Ho’s eyes wandered again to the swell of her breasts inside her uniform. 

He could always wait. There was no real reason to tell her now, to lay all of his cards on the table. If the coup succeeded, then he could use his newfound power to win her over. 

There was no hurry.

But then again, the coup would create many newly powerful men in the new DPRK, wouldn’t it? Mi-kyung would reward trust and loyalty, he reasoned. She would remember the man who had first thought of her.

“Yes,” Jung-Ho said. “I do have something to tell you.”

She raised her eyebrows. “So tell me. Or don’t tell me. It’s up to you. But I have no time or patience for games.”

“All right, then…”

Jung-Ho proceeded to tell her the basics of the coup plot. He only slightly exaggerated his role in the plan. It was important for her to grasp that his status would change, though…That he would be elevated.

When he was finished, he let out a sigh and asked her, “What do you think?”

To his relief, she smiled. “It sounds to me like you are going to be an important man, Jung-Ho.”

Jung-Ho could not fully contain his glee. He felt a smile break out on his face. “I will do my duty for my country. No more, no less.”

“Very well, Jung-Ho. And when you do your duty, you will remember your old friends, correct?”

“Of course,” Jung-Ho said. 

“I had better get back to my post,” Mi-kyung said, standing. “Commander Cho keeps me constantly in his view.” 

She rolled her eyes significantly as she said this. Jung-Ho wondered: Did that scrawny little monkey have aspirations of bedding Mi-kyung? 

At his age, would he even be able to get it up? 

Mi-kyung turned toward the door. “We’ll talk more, you and I,” she said. 

Chapter 56

Table of contents

The Cairo Deception: Chapter 3

There were five of them in total. They were sitting at the bar, directly opposite Jack, and across the room. 

Ali Abber, a notorious Cairo gangster, and four of his henchmen. They were sitting on bar stools, with their backs to Jack. Jack could see their faces in the mirror behind the bar.

Ali Abber was sitting to the left of his men. Jack had never had the displeasure of making Ali’s acquaintance, but he knew him by reputation. Many people in Cairo knew Ali Abber by reputation. 

Ali Abber was short and stocky, in his early thirties. His black hair was close-cut and thick. Ali’s face was bisected by a long diagonal scar that ran from just below his right eye, to the left corner of his chin. The scar was said to be the product of a childhood knife fight. According to the stories, Ali Abber had been a boy of twelve at the time of the fight, and his opponent had been a grown man. Ali Abber had gotten the scar, but Ali had gutted the grown man. 

Or so the stories went. Jack saw no reason to doubt them.  

Jack had not seen Ali and his men enter the bar. It seemed to him, though, that they had appeared there directly in his wake.

A coincidence, to be sure, but not the only one. Jack feared that he had been deliberately betrayed. 

It had all started with a quarrel with Tahmid, the man he had hired to serve as his digging assistant, guide, and interpreter. Jack had dismissed Tahmid after finding the garnet. He had no further need of the Egyptian man’s services, after all.

Jack had given Tahmid a bonus when he terminated his employment. The bonus was more than Jack could afford, given the meager cash reserves that he had brought to Egypt with him. 

“Is that all, boss?” Tahmid had asked. 

When Jack had asked him what he meant by that, Tahmid had replied, “What I mean, boss, is that you’re a rich man now.” Jack had been less than discreet about what he was digging for out in the desert. As a result, Tahmid had some grasp of the garnet’s worth.

Jack had reminded Tahmid that he wouldn’t be rich until he returned to the United States and found a buyer for the garnet. This was true. He couldn’t give Tahmid cash that he didn’t have. 

His assistant had walked away, but he was clearly unconvinced by Jack’s explanation.

And then just yesterday, Jack had seen his erstwhile assistant, Tahmid, in the bazaar district, talking to this same Ali Abber who was now sitting at the bar. 

Jack had watched, out of sight of the two men, as Ali had slipped Tahmid a handful of Egyptian pounds.

The exchange was technically none of Jack’s business. He had no claim on Tahmid—especially now that Tahmid was no longer in his employ. If Tahmid now wanted to work for one of the most notorious hoodlums in Cairo, that was his business. 

It was, however, an odd coincidence: Ali Abber and his men showing up at this bar—a bar that Jack was known to frequent—the day after he had seen the disgruntled Tahmid talking to Ali.

Jack was pretty certain that Ali and his men had not been in Rossi’s Bar when he’d entered. They had come in after him.

As if they had been following him.

Jack reminded himself that the garnet wasn’t the only significant object that he had on his person tonight. Also in one of the interior pockets of his jacket was a Model 1911 45-caliber pistol. The M1911 had a seven-round cartridge. 

One round for each man at the bar, with two rounds to spare.

Jack was no stranger to rough-and-tumble dealings among men. He had served in the U.S. Army during peacetime. He had been in his share of scraps—especially during his boyhood in Indiana. 

But he had never killed a man before. And he didn’t want to start tonight, not if he could help it.

Moreover, any sort of gunfight in a bar would set in motion consequences that Jack could not predict or control. Even in the Wild West that was Cairo. To simply remove the weapon from his jacket, and display it in a threatening manner, would bring consequences. Most men in Cairo were armed, in one way or another. But there were rules about such things. And one rule was: You didn’t brandish semiautomatic handguns in a crowded bar.

Then another coincidence occurred. Ali Abber turned around on his barstool. He was about to make eye contact with Jack—or so Jack thought—when:

“Hey, you! get out of here!” yelled a voice very close to Jack’s ear. 

Chapter 4

Table of contents

The Cairo Deception: Chapter 1

Jack McCallum thought: I am in one of the most dangerous bars in Cairo, and I have a fortune in my pocket. 

Of course, all of the bars in Cairo were dangerous, or most of them, anyway. Now, late on a Saturday night, Rossi’s Bar was filled with prostitutes, gamblers, and any number of men who would gladly slit your throat for a few Egyptian pounds.

The item that Jack had in the pocket of his leather jacket might be worth several hundred thousand dollars or more. 

Who knew?—It might even fetch a million. 

Jack sat alone at a small table in a corner of the darkened bar. He was nursing a glass of bourbon. A Lucky Strike cigarette slowly burned in the ashtray before him.

Rossi’s Bar was billed as an Italian bar, though the owner, Jack happened to know, had no particular affiliation with Italy. On the far wall, there was a cheesy mural of men wearing striped shirts and broad-rimmed hats, pushing gondolas through the canals of Venice. On another wall, the flag of Italy. 

Jack wondered how much more time would pass before the bar’s theme and decor would have to be changed. Italy was a loaded topic in Egypt. Three years ago, in 1935, Italy had invaded the nearby country of Ethiopia, or Abyssinia. 

Egypt still enjoyed some protection, as a result of its relationship with the British Empire; but the Egyptians were rightly worried about Italian ambitions in North Africa. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, openly compared himself to the emperors of ancient Rome. Mussolini expressed a desire to recreate the Roman Empire in the twentieth century.

The world was a troubled place, Jack knew, as it entered the tenth month of 1938. The nations of Europe were all nervous about not only the ambitions of Mussolini, but also those of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. 

In the Far East, the Japanese were waging a war of aggression in China. Last December, Japanese forces had entered the Chinese city of Nanking, where they had murdered tens of thousands of Chinese civilians in cold blood. Japanese soldiers had also violated untold numbers of women and girls. 

Journalists were calling the incident “the Rape of Nanking”. Jack had read perhaps a dozen newspaper articles about the atrocities in China. They were hair-raising and saddening. 

I would like to save the world, Jack thought. But first I’m going to go home to Franklin, Indiana. I’m going to pay off my parents’ debts. Then I’m going to set myself up with a farm, or maybe a business. 

I’ll have enough money to save part of the world, Jack thought, if that’s what I want to do. And I’ll have plenty of time. I’m only twenty-five years old, after all. 

If I can get out of Cairo all right—and then out of Egypt—I’ll be set for life.

Chapter 2

Table of contents

Our House: Chapter 4

After 1120 Dunham Street, Jarvis took them to one other house. It was a ranch home that both Clint and Jennifer quickly rejected for a number of reasons. The house was outside the Mydale school district, the floor plan was awkward, and there was a suspicious smell in the basement that might have been cat urine.

“We really want to find a house in the Mydale school district,” Jennifer reiterated, as Jarvis drove them back to the real estate office. “That was a big factor in our selection of you as our agent. Your office is located in Mydale.”

Jarvis looked in his rearview mirror before responding to Jennifer, who was seated in the back seat of the Lexus with her husband. “And I thought it had something to do with my personal appeal.” The remark could have been interpreted as either routine salesman’s banter, or yet another attempt at flirtation. 

Unseen by Jarvis, Clint smirked and shook his head. Jennifer replied: “You’re very charming, Mr. Jarvis, but please don’t forget that we really want a house in Mydale.”

“Duly noted,” Jarvis said. “We won’t be looking at any more houses that don’t have a Mydale mailing address, or that fall outside the Mydale school district.”

Mydale was a bedroom community that had been mostly rural only twenty years ago. Though technically incorporated as a city of 30,000, Mydale was actually a part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area. Despite the development spree of recent years, Mydale had not lost its feel of semirural prosperity; and there remained working farms a few miles beyond its borders. 

Located twenty miles northwest of downtown Cincinnati, Mydale was far enough away to maintain its separate identity, but close enough to allow for an easy commute to the larger city, where both Clint and Jennifer worked. 

But most of all, Mydale was known for its above-average schools. The town had been fortunate enough to attract a series of industrial parks in the early 1990s, and the tax revenues from the resident businesses allowed the Mydale school district to recruit the best teachers, to offer all the latest and most innovative educational programs. 

In the parking lot of Jarvis Realty, Tom Jarvis invited the Hubers to come in for refreshments and additional discussions, even though he must have known that the day had reached its natural conclusion. It was past two o’clock, and they had to pick up Connor. 

They had left him at Clint’s parents’ house. As was usually the case, Jennifer’s parents would theoretically have been a babysitting option, but Connor—with the typical candor of a six-year-old—made no secret of the fact that he preferred the company of Grandma and Grandpa Huber over that of his maternal grandparents. 

This needled Jennifer a bit: Clint’s father was an older version of Clint—affable, not terribly serious, and vaguely childlike himself. Her own father, meanwhile, had been a partner in a Cincinnati law firm. Hank Riley loved his only grandchild, Jennifer was sure, but he was often stilted and remote when it came time to actually interact with him. Seventy-hour workweeks had absented Hank during much of her own youth. Jennifer’s fifty-seven-year-old mother, Claudia, meanwhile, seemed to be in denial about the very concept of grandmotherhood. Since turning fifty, Claudia had gone on a plastic surgery binge: botox, facelift, and even a mentoplasty on her chin. Jennifer often joked with Clint that breast implants were likely next on the list.  

“Another time,” Clint said, shaking hands with Jarvis. “We’ll be in touch, though. Thanks for your time today.”

The realtor shook hands with Clint and then with Jennifer. “You’re welcome. If I can answer any additional questions, or set up any additional showings, let me know.”

“And just to confirm,” Jennifer said, “the Dunham Drive property is still on the market.”

“It is,” Jarvis allowed. “Unless Deborah Vennekamp decides otherwise.” 

“I’m sure Mr. Vennekamp will want to have a say, too,” Jennifer replied, proud of herself for not defaulting to the self-consciously feminist position. Moreover, the Richard Vennekamp in that portrait hadn’t looked like the sort of man who allows his wife to make all of the family’s major decisions.

Jarvis smiled enigmatically. “You haven’t met Deborah Vennekamp.”

Chapter 5

Table of contents

Our House: Chapter 3

“And here we have the basement,” Jarvis said, leading the way downstairs. “Watch your step.”

They stepped gingerly down the basement staircase, their eyes taking time to adjust to the darkness. This was the last stop on the grand tour. Clint and Jennifer had by now been through the entire first and second floor, and made a circuit around the front lawn and back yard. The last of these revealed unexpected surprises: a deluxe tool shed that warmed Clint to the house considerably, and several rows of hedges in the back yard. These would provide both privacy and a natural enclosure in which Connor could play.

“Basements are usually the least exciting part of any house,” Jarvis said. “But the basement is important to some people. I’m sorry to say that if you were hoping for a basement-level recreation room or entertainment space, you’ll be disappointed.”

“The floor is dirt!” Clint said, once they were all down the stairs. This was true: Jennifer looked down at her feet to see a floor not of concrete, as she had expected, but hard-packed earth. The rest of the basement was equally basic from what she could see: The bare walls were unpainted brick. The only illumination provided down here came from a few widely spaced light bulbs. She looked up at the ceiling, and saw nothing but shadows and bare rafters.

“It is a dirt floor,” Jarvis said, confirming Clint’s observation. “Keep in mind that this house was built right before the U.S. entered World War II—in 1940. Dirt basements are more or less unheard of in any house built since the 1960s, and rare even before that in Ohio. There are usually too many drainage problems to allow for that in this part of the country. Dirt basements are more common in New England, where the soil is rocky and rainfall levels are lower. But even there, it’s mostly something that you see in older homes.”

“So this turns to mud when it rains?” Clint asked.

“No, not at all,” Jarvis said. “You’ll recall that we had a heavy rain earlier this week, and look at this floor.” The realtor kicked the floor with the toe of his penny loafer. “Dry as a bone. This house was built at the top of a hill, so the water all runs downhill, away from the basement. If you take a look at the walls, you’ll see that there is no evidence of water damage. But that’s something that the house inspector will be able to confirm for you. That is—if you decide to make an offer on this house.”

“Oh, I think we’ll definitely be making an offer,” Jennifer said. She was now way past the seduction stage. She had fallen in love with the house at 1120 Dunham Drive. While touring the upstairs bedrooms, a series of movies had been playing out in Jennifer’s imagination: She saw them moving in just in time for the new school year. Then she saw the house as the scene for key life events: their tenth wedding anniversary, Connor’s first day of high school—maybe even their retirement. Why not? The house gave them room to grow. This would, she believed, be the home into which Connor’s younger siblings would be born.

“I don’t know, Jen,” Clint said. “This dirt floor.”

“You heard what Tom said. This floor has been here since 1940 and the house’s foundation hasn’t washed away in the rain. I’m sure that the basement will still be dry in 2040.”

“Mrs. Huber,” Jarvis said with a laugh. “With your ability to see the possibilities in a house, you really ought to consider a career in real estate.”

“I see the possibilities in this house, anyway.”

“Well, let’s give the basement a good amateur inspection, anyway,” Jarvis suggested. “I don’t see you using this area for much more than storage—at least not in the short run. You could eventually put a concrete floor in, if you wanted. That wouldn’t be cheap, but it could be done.”

Jarvis gave them an unexciting tour of the basement. Jennifer noted that Clint was inspecting the walls for water damage. She was delighted to see that he found none. There were not even any damp spots on the dirt floor. As Jarvis had put it, the floor was “dry as a bone”. 

The only odd or unexpected sight in the basement was the little room in the rear corner—the corner farthest away from the stairs. It was not really a separate room, strictly speaking, but a makeshift enclosure of wood paneling. The room was about the size of a large walk-in closet.

“What’s this?” Clint asked, heading toward the little room.

“Oh, that’s a little storage space that Mr. Vennekamp built at some point. Wait a moment, let me go with you. I’ve got a penlight.”

Jennifer followed Jarvis over to the storage room. Clint was already standing in the room’s darkened doorway. 

Clint stepped aside so that Jarvis could enter with the penlight. What the penlight revealed was a mostly empty storage room. The tiny beam of light shone on a small pile of bricks, some boards leant up against the room’s single brick wall, and some old cans of paint. The floor was mostly covered by several decaying pallets. 

“Not much to look at in here,” Jarvis said. “It might come in handy for storage purposes, though. Or you might want to tear it down. Either way.” 

They also examined the water heater, and Jennifer was relieved to find that it had been installed a mere three years ago. The house was certainly old, but most of its key elements were either in good shape or recently updated. 

“Well,” Jarvis said, as he led them back upstairs, “what do you think?”

This time Clint preempted Jennifer. “I think we need to talk between ourselves—the two of us—and get back to you.”

Chapter 4

Table of contents

Our House: Chapter 2

Tom Jarvis guided Jennifer and Clint into the main area of the first floor, where the living room, the kitchen, and the dining room all intersected. Every room on the first floor had cathedral ceilings; and the kitchen looked to have been updated within the last ten years. 

Whereas Jennifer was transfixed by the interior details of the home, Clint gravitated immediately to the sliding glass double doors at the rear of the kitchen.

Mildly disappointed, Jennifer briefly studied Clint’s tall, lanky frame. His body was silhouetted against the sunlit glare as he cast aimless glances around the shrubs, the trees, and the ivy garden that dominated the back yard. 

Her husband—the son of a union machinist—had spent his entire childhood in the same postwar-era tract home. Since their marriage, the two of them had lived in one rented condo and two apartments. Clint knew next to nothing about real estate. That much she could have lived with. What bothered her was that he did not seem very interested in learning. They had toured more than a dozen houses so far, and Clint had yet to ask what her attorney father would call, “a reasonably intelligent question”. 

Jennifer ran her hand across the marble countertop in the kitchen. “The first floor, at least, is awesome,” she announced, mildly embarrassed for inadvertently reverting to a childhood word. The present owners of the house, the Vennekamps, were tasteful decorators. And of course, the house had been immaculately cleaned for showings. 

“Want to take a look at the fireplace?” Tom Jarvis asked from the living room. Jennifer nodded, then walked past her husband and tapped him on the back. Clint turned around suddenly, giving her a blank expression that made her think of their six-year-old son, Connor. But he dutifully followed her.

Jarvis flipped a switch on the wall, and a little artificial flame shot up within the fake logs inside the fireplace. “Gas burning,” Jarvis said. “It can get a little expensive if you use it a lot, but it’s a lot cleaner than the original wood-burning setup. And what’s more, you don’t have to chop any firewood.”

Jennifer nodded, her attention drawn away from the fireplace to the pictures and knickknacks on the adjacent shelves. During the touring of prospective houses, she had often found herself inexplicably curious about the little details of the resident families’ lives. There was something vaguely improper and voyeuristic about this impulse, of course; but it was probably harmless. It wasn’t like she was opening people’s private closets and drawers; she was only noticing what they had displayed in the open for the house showings.

Her gaze fell upon a framed photograph: a family of four posing for a studio portrait. This was Jennifer Huber’s first look at the Vennekamps.

“That would be them,” Tom Jarvis said in response to the unspoken question, “the current owners. Richard and Deborah Vennekamp. And their children, David and Marcia.”

“You were saying during the ride over,” Jennifer said, continuing to study the portrait, “that there was some disagreement between the couple about selling the home. At least that’s what I understood you to say. But the house is very clearly on the market. So what’s the story there?”

“The story,” said Tom Jarvis, “is that Richard Vennekamp is too sick to maintain the yard and he wants to move into someplace smaller.” 

“What’s wrong with him?” Clint asked.

“Pancreatic cancer,” Jarvis said. “And no, I’m not sure if it’s the kind that can be cured. What I do know is that Richard Vennekamp is no longer the man you see in that picture.”

The Richard Vennekamp in the portrait was, indeed, the picture of early middle-age male vitality. He was stocky with blond hair. His tight smile asserted a kind of quiet, calm masculinity. 

“Richard Vennekamp had his own contracting business,” Jarvis went on. “He made out well during the construction boom, before the big real estate crash a few years back. But that all ended when he got sick. He had to sell off what was left of his business; and now he’s got to sell off this house, too.”

“That’s horrible,” Clint said.

“It is,” Jennifer agreed. Her enthusiasm for the house was now tempered by a vague sense of guilt. This nice home inside the Mydale school district was such a bargain because Richard Vennekamp was a sick—possibly dying—man, and the house was priced to sell. 

Still, if the house had to be sold, then somebody had to buy it. And why shouldn’t that somebody be Clint and Jennifer Huber?

“Plus there’s the fact that the Vennekamps’ children have long since moved out,” Jarvis continued. “The empty nest thing. David and Marcia would be well into their thirties by now. Possibly older.”

If that was the case, then this portrait of the Vennekamps was rather old. The David and Marcia Vennekamp in the portrait were both teenagers. 

David Vennekamp was a moderately overweight, awkward-looking youth with thick-rimmed glasses. He must have combed his hair for the picture; but he still looked like he had just gotten out of bed. David seemed sullen, and his smile for the camera looked both coached and forced. 

Marcia, meanwhile, was a mousy, diminutive teenage girl whose shyness was unmistakable, even in this old family portrait. She stared wide-eyed at the camera through glasses that were thankfully not as thick as her brother’s. Her smile was tight-lipped, as if she did not want to reveal her teeth. Jennifer wondered if the girl had been wearing braces.

Two teenage misfits, Jennifer thought, not uncharitably. She had thankfully never had to worry about “fitting in” during her high school or college years. But nor had she ever been one of the “mean girl” types who take a perverse delight in tormenting the David and Marcia Vennekamps of the world. 

“That doesn’t explain the conflict,” Jennifer said. “I mean, we’re both very sorry to hear about Richard Vennekamp, but—”

“The problem,” Jarvis said, “is that Deborah Vennekamp doesn’t want to sell the house. Don’t ask me to explain exactly why. It seems that Mrs. Vennekamp has a sentimental attachment to this house. An excessive attachment, you might say.”

Jennifer could understand a sentimental attachment to a place where one had raised children, lived as a married couple, and passed through other milestone stages. She could understand it to a point. 

However, the fact was that it made sense for the Vennekamps to downsize now, for all the reasons that Jarvis had enumerated. This was a big sprawling house that had been built for a growing family—not a pair of older empty-nesters. Deborah Vennekamp would surely get over her attachment to the house, once she and Mr. Vennekamp had relocated to a place that was more manageable and better suited to their needs. 

“But the house is for sale,” Jennifer said. “Just like every other house that we’ve looked at.”

“Yes it is,” Jarvis replied. “But I can’t promise for how long that will be the case. Deborah Vennekamp is very strong-willed.”

Jennifer looked at the Deborah Vennekamp in the portrait. A thin woman with conservatively styled light-brown hair, she didn’t look very strong-willed. In fact, Jennifer rather suspected that Marcia had acquired her obvious timidity from her mother.  

“Then we’ll need to make an offer on the house as soon as possible.” She noted the immediately raised eyebrows of both Clint and Jarvis. “Provided that everything else checks out, of course. Come on, let’s take a look at the rest of the house.”

Chapter 3

Table of contents

Our House: Chapter 1

To thirty-four-year-old Jennifer Huber, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive seemed pretty close to perfect. If only, she would later think, there had been something wrong with it—something that would have sent her and her husband Clint running, never to return. 

That wasn’t the way things worked out, though. On a sun-scorched Saturday afternoon in mid-July, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive drew the Hubers in. Or at least the house drew Jennifer in.

The seduction began in earnest in the realtor’s car, as Jennifer, Clint, and Tom Jarvis (the realtor) pulled into the driveway.

“It’s a Tudor!” Jennifer exclaimed.

“And what would that be?” Clint asked.

“This style of home,” Jennifer replied. “This is what they call a Tudor style home.”

Jennifer had a fairly extensive knowledge of residential architecture, and she had studied the house’s spec sheet on the Internet the previous night. So she already knew that this would be a Tudor-style home. Her surprise had been feigned: It had simply been a gambit to prod Clint into showing some more enthusiasm about what they were doing today.

“You’ve got to admit, hon: It looks good from the road.”

“It’s a good-looking house,” Clint allowed.

Built in 1940, the house had a look that was simultaneously homey and classic: It had steeply pitched gables (a prerequisite of the neo-Tudor style), decorative half-timbering on the exterior walls, and brick inlays around the ground-floor windows. 

“Let’s have a look-see,” Tom Jarvis said, turning off the engine of his Lexus and opening the front driver’s side door. Jennifer didn’t wait for either Jarvis or Clint.  As soon as the vehicle was parked, she was out of the overly air-conditioned back seat and racing ahead of the two men.

“It looks like somebody really wants a house,” she heard Jarvis say conspiratorially to Clint. 

Who wouldn’t want a new house? Jennifer thought. That’s the sort of thing we work for, after all.

That thought reminded her of the job she hated and the secret that kept her bound there. She pushed these thoughts away. Today was a happy occasion. She wasn’t going to think about her job at Ohio Excel Logistics. Not on a Saturday afternoon like this.

“Check this out,” Jennifer said, pulling her husband Clint by the hand. “Japanese maples.”

The front garden did indeed have three Japanese maples, plus several small pine trees and a whole lot of ivy. It was the sort of landscaping that took years to develop—either that, or a whole lot of money. 

“Connor would like the yard,” Jennifer observed as Tom Jarvis bent down and retrieved the key from the lockbox on the front door.

“He probably would,” Clint replied.

“And best of all, it’s in the Mydale school district.”

Their son, Connor, was going to be a first-grader in a mere two months. The public schools in Mydale were regarded as the best in the Cincinnati area.

And then there was the most important thing about the house—the factor that made this a real possibility: The asking price of the home at 1120 Dunham Drive was within the Hubers’ range. Most of the homes in Mydale were a lot pricier. 

By now Jarvis had unlocked the door. He smiled and held the door open for them.

Jarvis smiled again as Jennifer walked by and looked down. He wasn’t overly obvious about it, but the realtor had clearly taken the opportunity to check her body out. 

It wasn’t the first such glance that she had noticed from the real estate agent. Nor was it all in her imagination. Clint had remarked the other day that Jarvis had taken so many liberties with his eyes during their real estate office meetings and home viewing excursions, that he owed them an additional ten percent off the asking price of whatever house they eventually settled on.  

She asked Clint if it made him jealous—Jarvis looking at her that way. Clint had scoffed in reply: Jarvis was an old guy, basically harmless.

Jarvis was indeed older than them, maybe in his mid- to late-forties. He was balding and could have dropped ten pounds; but he still carried himself with the swagger of an ex-jock. Jarvis had probably been a “hound” back in the day; and his manner strongly suggested that he still considered himself a claimant to that title.

As Jennifer walked into the cool house and out of the midsummer heat, Jarvis closed the door and briefly loomed over her. He finally looked away, but not before allowing himself a furtive glance down her blouse. 

Okay, that one was a bit much, she thought, but did not say.

Since roughly the age of thirteen, Jennifer had noticed that a large number of men noticed her. That seemed to go along with being thin, blonde, and reasonably pretty. Most of the time it wasn’t a big deal; and for a period of her life it had been undeniably flattering.

But she had been married for most of a decade. She was a mom now; and she was devoted to Clint. 

Or at least she thought she was. Would a woman who was totally devoted to her husband and son get herself into the jam she was in at work? 

Is there something wrong with me? she wondered. Do I give off the wrong signals?

Her unpleasant thoughts were pushed aside by the interior of the house. The front hall was high-ceilinged and spacious. Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor. Unlike many older houses, this house wasn’t dark and dingy. Quite the opposite, in fact, the windows of the downstairs flooded the first floor with natural light. 

“I think I love this house.” Jennifer declared, setting aside what she knew to be her habitual skepticism about being sold anything at all. Clint, who was standing beside her, gave her a curious look. 

Then the realtor said what Clint must have been thinking:

“Well, Mrs. Huber, you’ve only just seen the front yard and the front hallway. But that’s a good start.”   

It’s like he doesn’t want me to get my hopes up, she thought. They had toured numerous homes with Tom Jarvis—most of them homes that Jennifer and Clint had preselected through exhaustive, late-night Internet searches. Practically none of those homes had given her instantly warm and fuzzy feelings. 

But this one did. And Jarvis wasn’t exactly right about her having seen only the front yard and the front hallway. Having spotted this house online and grasped its potential, Jennifer had poured over the available photographs of its interior and landscaping. Jennifer had bookmarked the home’s portfolio in Internet Explorer, and had returned to it numerous times, in fact.

On the drive over from the realty office, Tom Jarvis had said that the situation surrounding this house was “complicated”. He had started to explain; but apparently the act of giving an explanation was complicated, too.

“For now lets just keep our options open,” he’d said. But what exactly did that mean? Was Tom Jarvis planning to ultimately steer them toward another house? Maybe a turkey of a house that could only be unloaded on a naïve young couple making their first home purchase?

Well, she thought, the unknown motives of a self-serving and mildly lecherous real estate agent were not going to dissuade her if this house turned out to be as perfect as it seemed. Real estate agents were always working their angles, she’d heard. None of them, she had been warned by friends, were to be trusted. 

She didn’t want to make a negative generalization about an entire profession. Still, she and Clint would have to be careful. The Internet was filled with horror stories about dishonest and prevaricating real estate agents. Tom Jarvis knew they were first-time homebuyers. That might lead him to the conclusion that they could be easily led.

One thing was undeniable: For some reason, Tom Jarvis didn’t want them to purchase this house.

Chapter 2

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 52

Jung-Ho was surprised when his father summoned him for another meeting at the tea house, barely a week after their previous meeting. 

“The time is near,” Colonel Tak said, pouring tea for his son. “Within a matter of weeks—days, perhaps—our faction will be ready to make its decisive move.”

Seated on the floor. Jung-Ho bowed his head to his father and accepted the tea. 

He knew that the implementation the plan would require him to take immense personal risks. There was no such thing as a coup without risks—to everyone involved, at every level.

He had thought that he would have more time. 

“There have already been casualties on our side,” Colonel Tak said. “Three generals—all good men—were arrested just last week. They were charged with treason against that waddling pig who calls himself the Supreme Leader. All three of them were killed.”

“Really?” Jung-Ho said. He tried to control the sudden shaking in his hands as he sipped his tea. “I hadn’t heard—there was nothing about it in the state-run media.”

“No,” Colonel Tak agreed. “There won’t be anything about it in the imperialist media, either…at least for a while. The government is quashing the story.”

“Why?” Jung-Ho asked.

The government had rarely made a secret of executing top officials for treason. About five years ago, shortly after Kim Jong-un took power, a senior general named Jang Song-thaek had been publicly arrested a politburo meeting. Jang was subsequently executed. The state media had declared that Jang was “human scum” and “worse than a dog.”

Jang Song-thaek, moreover, had not been just any high-ranking general. He had been the uncle of Kim Jong-un. Jang had been married to Kim Il-sung’s only daughter, Kim Kyong-hui.

“Because they are afraid, obviously,” Colonel Tak said. “They don’t want to allow rumors to circulate, rumors that could potentially add fuel to the rebellion.”

“Who knows about it, then?” Jung-Ho asked.

Colonel Tak paused to ponder the question. Then he said: “A small number would know. Like that Commander Cho, for example. He is highly thought of in Pyongyang. He has a reputation of being a blind toady of the Kim Jong-un. Word is, Commander Cho will be a general before much longer.”

Unless my father’s plan succeeds, Jung-Ho thought. 

“What will happen?” Jung-Ho asked, “After the plan is put in place?”

“There will be an inevitable bloodletting,” Tak said. “Supporters of the fat whelp presently control many branches of the government. They will have to be neutralized. Eliminated. They must be rooted out like the cancer that they are.”

“Of course,” Jung-Ho said. He imagined Commander Cho, an ardent supporter of the Supreme Leader, with his back against a brick wall, preparing to meet his death by firing squad.

Yes, Commander, Jung Ho thought. You’ll be among the first to die, if I have any say in the matter. Maybe you’ll even meet that long-dead father of yours, whom you constantly prattle about. 

“Will you be prepared for this?” Colonel Tak asked.

“Without reservation,” Jung-Ho said, imagining the fear in Commander Cho’s face when he stared into the muzzles of the firing squad. “It is unfortunate, but there is no way around it. Not if the fatherland is to be reformed and revitalized.”

In addition to the tea, Colonel Tak had also prepared a bottle of yakju rice wine for today’s meeting. He poured two small cups, one for Jung-Ho, and one for himself. 

“To the fatherland!” Colonel Tak said.

“To the fatherland!” Jung-Ho agreed, raising his glass of yakju.

Chapter 53

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The Consultant: Chapter 51

Sonny Kim, aka Se-jun the fishmonger, stood up from the platform that overlooked the slow-moving stream of muddy water. He knew that the stream eventually emptied into the mighty Taedong River, which flowed through the heart of Pyongyang. 

There were plenty of fish in the Taedong. But the only thing this muddy tributary was really good for was carp, and the occasional catfish. 

He turned around and passed through the doorway of his dwelling. As he looked around the interior of the ramshackle hut, Sonny allowed himself a rare and brief flight of fancy: What would his high school classmates back in Pittsburgh think, if they knew where he was and what he was doing? 

Some of them, no doubt, would be surprised…Others, maybe not so much. Sonny had stood out as a bit of a maverick, even then. 

Sonny Kim was a first-generation American. His parents had emigrated from Seoul to Pittsburgh, two years before Sonny was born. From his earliest days of childhood, Sonny had sensed that he belonged in the culture of his adopted homeland, rather than the culture of his parents.

Sonny’s parents had insisted that he attend Saturday Korean language school. For the purposes of his speaking and oral comprehension skills, at least, this would have been unnecessary. His parents always spoke Korean at home. But the Korean Saturday school also required work in Korean writing and reading comprehension.

The Saturday Korean school required a lot of homework. And this was homework in addition to the homework he received at his American public school. It was almost like going to school in the United States and South Korea at the same time.

Sonny hated it. He repeatedly begged his parents to allow him to drop out of the Korean school. They repeatedly refused his requests.

The next series of conflicts arose after Sonny began to distinguish himself as an athlete, during his junior high years.

South Korean culture was not exactly opposed to physical fitness and athletic prowess. There was, however, a definite priority placed on school work over athletics. Excitement over football, basketball, and baseball was for frivolous Americans. But Sonny considered himself more of a frivolous American than a proper Korean.

“Mom,” Sonny had said, “I don’t want to play piano. I want to play football.”

They had fought about the piano lessons and football, and plenty of other things, too. Sonny further horrified his mother a few years later, when he dropped out of college during his freshman year at Penn State to join the U.S. Army. 

They were pleased when he later obtained his college degree on the Army’s dime. They grudgingly acknowledged his accomplishment of earning a spot in the elite United States Army Special Forces. 

They would have much preferred, though, that he had become a doctor or an engineer instead.  

Sonny had been a disappointment to his parents in many ways. Although his relations with them had since recovered, he suspected that they still resented his youthful recalcitrance. He couldn’t entirely blame them.

Putting the past aside, Sonny turned his attention to matters of the more immediate present and future. There was plenty to think about.

Especially after yesterday. 

The message about the American being held captive in the Yang Suk Foreign Friends Camp.

Wal-Mart.com USA, LLC

As the fishmonger Se-jun, he had few personal possessions. He had as many clothes as could be placed in a single small laundry bag. He had some old fishing tackle. A knife and a mess kit. 

He had some other miscellaneous possessions, most of which no one would ever want—even in North Korea. 

One of these possessions was a device that looked like a wind-up music box. The technology whizzes back in the States had designed the music box to look like something made in North Korea, a long time ago, circa 1980. The music box bore the portrait of Kim Il-sung, this country’s Eternal Leader, on its face. On the lid was the reproduction of a painting of North Korean peasants laboring happily in fields that overflowed with grain (all thanks to the munificence and wise leadership of Kim Il-sung, of course). 

When you wound up the music box, it even played the melody of a revolutionary song that had been popular during the 1970s. The lyrics went something like, “Comrade Kim Il-sung is our blessed leader, blah, blah…”

But the music box was actually a device that Sonny used to send and receive coded messages between himself and the United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The DIA operated out of a building located on the banks of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, just outside Washington, D.C. 

And just yesterday, he had a received a doozy of a message. A sudden and impromptu assignment. It reeked of high-level Congressional involvement, something that the DIA resented, but was powerless to resist. 

Sonny still wasn’t sure how he was going to accomplish what they wanted him to do. 

They had given him a nearly impossible mission. He was to make contact with an American locked away in the Yang-Suk Foreign Friends Camp. He was to bring about this American’s escape. 

Somehow…

And he was to do so without further exacerbating the already tense relations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

The DIA didn’t stipulate, however, that he would have to preserve his cover until the very end of this assignment. That might prove impossible, anyway. 

He sensed that his days as Se-jun, eccentric fishmonger of the Tae-Tal village, were limited.

Chapter 52

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The Maze: Chapter 9

“That concludes our presentation,” Amanda said to the room full of lawyers, and to Hugh, of course. “Are there any questions?”

Hugh was certain that there would be questions, and he would make sure to field these unless Amanda intervened. With Evan leading off and Amanda finishing the presentation, he had been little more than ornamentation thus far today.

Hugh had offered to take over when Evan unexpectedly left the room; but Amanda had insisted on taking over herself. This was her way of demonstrating that she could come through in a crisis, and indeed she had. Hugh had to hand it to her: She had done an admirable job of recovering the big pitch from the very jaws of disaster, speaking extemporaneously based on the PowerPoint slides that Evan had prepared. 

One of the lawyers—or rather, the accountant who worked for the lawyers—raised his hand.

“Could you explain again about how the outstanding accounts receivables will be updated?” he asked.

Hugh grunted discreetly to let Amanda know that he would take the question. “Certainly,” he said. “When you go to the main screen, you’ll find a little icon with an image of a dollar sign and a left-facing arrow. All you have to do is double-click that, and you’ll see a complete list of all the outstanding accounts receivables. You can print out the report, of course; and you can narrow your parameters using the drop-down fields at the top of that screen—based on date, vendor, or the amount of the invoice.”

“And this is updated regularly, I take it?” the accountant asked.

“The user interface report updates against the database every eight hours,” Hugh replied. “So yes, we can say that it’s updated regularly.”

The accountant nodded thoughtfully, apparently satisfied with Hugh’s explanation. Hugh was happy to see that the meeting was going well, after all. But the other half of his mind was focused on Evan, who had been gone from the meeting for far too long. He thought about going after the younger man, who had no doubt forgotten the warnings issued to him earlier this morning. 

Hugh felt an undeniable weight of responsibility here: If Evan had failed to take the warnings seriously, then he was at least partially at fault, wasn’t he? He had not given Evan much to go on. 

Hugh realized that he had been extremely vague about the potential dangers lurking in this building. But on the other hand, he could not really be certain about what he had seen during his previous visit to Lakeview Towers. The memory still gave him an uneasy, insecure feeling, as if the ground had shifted beneath him.

It might have been an optical illusion, a trick of the light—that security guard who was not quite a security guard, the one who had approached him in the corridor just outside the suite rented by Rich, Litchfield, and Baker. At first Hugh had thought nothing of the security guard’s presence, until he had taken a close look at the guard’s face: Then he had seen that it wasn’t a person at all, but some sort of a mannequin—a robot, in fact. 

And then one of the lawyers had suddenly stepped out of the firm’s suite. Opening the door and standing in the doorway, he said that he wanted to catch Hugh to ask one final question.

Hugh had turned to talk to the lawyer. When he’d turned back around, after answering the lawyer’s question, the creepy security guard had been gone. 

So maybe it had been nothing. Maybe. Nevertheless, Lakeview Towers made him feel uneasy. There was something odd about this building—some quality that didn’t belong in a modern office complex. Lakeview Towers had been built no more than ten years ago. Yet there was something much older here—a presence that Hugh could sense, but could not articulate. It might have been nothing more than his imagination, he told himself. Still, there were too many vast, open spaces here, and too few people. Something simply wasn’t right. Hugh just didn’t know what that something was.

If my heart were better, Hugh thought. If my heart were better I would come here one day—perhaps even on my own time—and walk the halls of Lakeview Towers. (A fifteen-year employee of Merlesoft, Hugh had plenty of vacation time, and too little to do on his vacation days.) I would get to the bottom of whatever is here. Or I would satisfy myself that nothing was here; I would be able to say with confidence that the mannequin-like security guard had been a trick of the light, a rare but harmless illusion of some sort.

If not for my heart… That was exactly the excuse that he had been using ever since his twenty-first birthday, after his father had died at the age of fifty-two, from what Hugh now thought of as “the family heart condition”. The cardiologist had informed Hugh that he had inherited the same life-limiting cardiac defect. 

“Your odds of suffering a fatal myocardial infarction will increase by a certain percentage each year after the age of thirty-five,” the physician had told him. Naturally, the doctor had been unable to give Hugh any more specific indication of the odds. But his paternal grandfather had lived until the age of fifty-four—two years longer than his father had lived—so it seemed that the family medical curse was shortening their lives progressively with each generation. 

In an attempt to end on a positive note, the physician had told Hugh that with the proper diet and light, controlled exercise, he might be able to live a “reasonably long” life. But what did that mean? Fifty-three? Forty-nine? Hugh was already forty-five years old, and he knew that he would almost certainly be dead within the next decade. 

The attorneys had a few more questions, which he again answered, and then finally the meeting was over. Evan had still not returned to the meeting. 

During the post-meeting banter with the Rich, Litchfield, and Baker folks, Hugh was distant, lost in his own speculations: Had Evan encountered that security guard—the mannequin or the robot, or whatever it was?

And he reminded himself that “it” might have been nothing more than a normal security guard, who had appeared to be something abnormal due to a trick of the light. What was that old rule he had learned years ago—the one known as Occam’s razor? “The simplest hypothesis is most likely to be the true one.” Or something like that. The simplest explanation was that his eyes had played a trick on him that day. Without incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, there was no reason to let his imagination take off on a flight of fancy.

Hugh and Amanda gathered up the equipment that they had brought in with them, including Evan’s laptop and the projector, both of which Evan had transported in. Amanda offered to carry both of these additional items; but Hugh insisted that they divide the extra load between them. He made a point of carrying the projector himself, which was heavier and bulkier than the laptop.

Amanda knew the basic story regarding his heart condition, and she had always gone out of her way to be deferential about it. But sometimes this embarrassed Hugh, her kind intentions notwithstanding. I’m not that fragile, he thought. And even if I am—well, I’d rather go down fighting, carrying my share, versus allowing someone else to shoulder my burdens for me.

On the way out, Hugh made a final visual sweep of the table and noted the key fob for the pool car Camry. Prior to beginning the meeting, Evan had removed it from his pocket and had nervously passed it from one hand to the other. He had set it down on the tabletop just before starting his presentation. Hugh snatched up the key fob: they wouldn’t get far without it.

At the doorway between the law firm’s suite and the hallway, Barry Litchfield was waiting for them. “Give us a few days to discuss this internally,” he said. “We’ll be in touch by the middle of next week.” Hugh perceived this as normal: Even when sales presentations went well, even when all of the i’s were dotted and all of the t’s were crossed, clients still needed time to arrive at a decision. That was the way bureaucratic organizations worked. Some salespersons allowed themselves to be driven batty over this; but Hugh had always regarded the waiting game as just another inescapable step of the sales process.

“I hope your colleague is all right,” Barry said. This was the first explicit reference that anyone had made to Evan’s sudden departure since he had left the room. “It would be a shame if he were sick—or anything.”

Hugh thought he detected a subtle shift in Barry’s facial expression when he uttered that last word, although it might have been nothing more than his imagination. Does Barry believe that there is something wrong with this office complex? he wondered. Does this lawyer know more than he is letting on? Barry was, by Hugh’s estimate, an intelligent, perceptive man. If there was something amiss at Lakeview Towers, it wouldn’t escape the lawyer’s notice.

“I’m sure he’ll be okay,” Amanda said. “Thank you again for your time. Thanks to all of you. It was a pleasure.”

Barry Litchfield held the door open for them. “Of course. Thank you again for coming.”

With that Hugh and Amanda found themselves alone in the deserted hallway. Amanda turned to Hugh.

“Do you think Evan is okay?” She looked up and down the length of the deserted corridor. “Or did a lion get him?”

Hugh reflected that this was an odd remark from the hardboiled, all-business Amanda. She and Evan weren’t exactly on the best of terms; but her remark reflected genuine concern about the younger man’s safety. Does Amanda sense something odd about this place, or is that just my imagination, too?

She gave Hugh a quick, terse laugh when he failed to respond. “Hey, Hugh, I was just kidding.” She started walking toward the lobby. “Come on. Let’s get this stuff to the car.”

“Of course,” Hugh recovered, following her. “And I’m sure Evan is fine. He probably just decided that for him to make a second entry into the meeting would be more disruptive than simply staying away; and he was probably right. After all, you and I did fine. I’m sure we’ll find him waiting for us in the lobby.”

Chapter 10

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