The spiderweb cracks in the windshield made it easy to spot the old Chevy SUV in the parking lot. Jon Dowland stood next to the car and examined the black duct tape that covered a hole the size of his fist on the passenger side. One of the shots he’d fired last night had obviously connected, but it hadn’t stopped the driver from disappearing once again. Even though the Chevy looked abandoned, Dowland knew the man wasn’t likely to be far away.
The morning sun began to leak out over the Indiana countryside. Dowland had forgotten how bleak the Midwest could be in winter. The wind was cold and cut through him as he walked toward the motel sitting right next to the gas station and former truck stop in the middle of nowhere. In one of those dingy rooms, the man he’d been hunting was probably wide awake, wasting his time by praying. This little game had been interesting for the last few months, but Dowland was done with it now. Nearly getting run down on an Indiana highway by some lunatic calling himself the Reckoner had used up what little patience he had.
It took only two hundred dollars to bribe the bored and pimply-faced kid behind the front desk to give him a room number. A simple direct exchange, or DE, that took two seconds. Dowland could have shown his FBI credentials, but he never did that. If anybody came around asking, which wasn’t likely here of all places, he didn’t want the FBI to be a part of any conversation. Only a few people knew what Dowland was doing, and nobody knew his present location. If he was arrested or shot dead for some reason, no one could find anything on his SYNAPSYS. It’d be blank, requiring official approval to exorcise the personal data.
He found the door on the second story, stood there for a moment to look and listen for anybody nearby or in the parking lot below, then took out his customized Beretta just before kicking down the door. They no longer made doors with locks that got old and could be so easily broken, but in this run-down motel built decades ago, Dowland felt like the star of an eighties action movie. Sure enough, nobody was in bed asleep. The covers looked untouched, with an assortment of files and papers spread out on them. The man traveling under a handful of aliases was sitting in a chair next to the table with a laptop computer open beside another set of file folders. It had been a while since Dowland had seen anybody working on one of those archaic devices.
Aiming the firearm directly at the man, Dowland nudged the door back to close it, and when it wouldn’t stay put, he took the other chair and propped it against the door. The man in the motel room held his hands up, his fingers outstretched and his eyes open wide. One corner of the glasses he wore was held together with masking tape.
“No, no, no. Hold on, just wait, just wait a minute!” he shouted to Dowland.
The target was out of breath and looked as if he hadn’t slept in a week. He started to stand up, but Dowland shook his head to make the man stay put.
“Please, I’m not armed. I can’t do anything,” he said.
“You can mow a man down on the side of the road, can’t you?”
Along with his black eye, bruised jaw, and cut lip, Dowland nursed a shoulder injury from diving for cover to avoid the car yesterday. Good thing the mostly useless arm was his left arm, the one he didn’t need to shoot his gun.
A quick scan of all the papers confirmed what Dowland already knew. This was indeed the man he’d been hunting all this time.
“Clemente on,” Dowland said, stating the name to turn on the man’s SYNAPSYS as he held the barrels of the Beretta against his head. “Contact info.”
The customized box the size of his hand appeared to his right. The information on the augmented interface was further proof.
Robert Vasquez. I’ve finally found you.
The SYNAPSYS showed the various code names this nutjob had used during the last few years. Dowland knew the background on Vasquez—from his resignation three years ago as an Arizona senator amid allegations of sexual misconduct and fraud to his incarceration last year for vandalizing a town hall with graffiti. The latter offense had been Vasquez’s own doing, but the controversy that had ended his career in Congress was orchestrated by the same group paying Dowland’s salary. Vasquez had never shied away from his personal faith, and after years of being told to remain quiet, he eventually had pushed things too far.
No one could have imagined that he was the Reckoner, the one responsible for creating a group to deliver lies and spin stories and incite trouble in the name of Christianity. Dowland had been tracking down members of this group for the last two years and had been ordered a few months ago to take out their leader. Finally, two days ago he got a golden tip about where the man was hiding.
“You don’t have to point that at me,” Vasquez said. “I’m not dangerous.”
“So why are you calling yourself the Reckoner?” Dowland asked.
Vasquez didn’t flinch at the mention of the name. He merely shook his head. “That’s not me.”
“Of course not. And you don’t have any connections to all these operations in your files, right? Like Operation Bulls on Parade, where you created chaos in downtown Chicago by unleashing those cows. Or Operation Panic. Or how about Operation Black Waters?”
“I didn’t say I had nothing to do with those,” Vasquez stated. “But I’m not the Reckoner.”
Robert Vasquez was a typical fifty-two-year-old man in every way. He was one of the last guys anybody could imagine suddenly abandoning a successful career in politics to start being vocal about his views on Christianity.
Nobody rises from the dead, buddy. You’re going to learn that soon enough.
“Who knows you’re here?” Dowland’s eyes scanned the walls and the contents of the room.
“Nobody. Not a single soul.”
“None of your little frat brothers and sisters? Nobody in your playgroup?”
“It was better for no one to know I’m here.”
For the first time since Dowland had stepped over the state line into Indiana, something didn’t seem quite right. The way Vasquez was claiming he wasn’t the Reckoner and the few items he had in the room with him…
“I’ve been trying to find you for months,” Dowland said, the gun now at his side but still ready for any surprise. “How’d you elude me in Philadelphia?”
“That wasn’t me.”
Once again Vasquez’s demeanor made him seem believable.
This man has made telling lies a life mission. He’s mastered it.
“You’ve been waiting for someone,” Dowland said. “Who?”
Vasquez gave him a solemn smile. “You, Mr. Dowland. I knew you’d find me eventually.”
Staying in this motel so close to where Dowland had found him last night… His SYNAPSYS still on and easily accessed… Nothing in his files with more information on the Reckoner…
For a second Dowland caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the wall facing the bed. He resembled a boxer after a fight.
“Just tell me,” Dowland said as he let out a tired sigh. “Are you the one behind everything? We’re going to find out soon enough after we scour all your data.”
“I just told you I’m not.”
“Okay, fine. Get your science project together and come with me.” Dowland aimed the gun at him again. “We’re heading back to Chicago.”
“You’re being controlled. And you’re as expendable to them as the rest of us are.”
“Nobody controls me.”
“There is freedom in letting go,” Vasquez said, “in finally admitting you can’t do everything on your own.”
“You guys never turn off the switch, do you? Meeting in secret and delivering your clandestine messages.”
“We’re not the only ones who meet in secret, Mr. Dowland.”
He didn’t like hearing this guy mutter his name. Dowland stepped closer to the man, close enough to press the Beretta to his temple again.
“I know one thing about control in this world,” Dowland said. “I have it in my hand right now.”
“The Lord’s prophet is warning the rest of us. There is still time but not much. You must listen to me. Hear me out—”
“I had a grandmother who talked crazy just like you. Nobody could tell whether it was the religion or the senility talking. I think it was the vodka she had stashed away.”
Sweat covered Vasquez’s forehead, and his body odor was strong from spending a week running and hiding.
“I know you think I’m crazy, and that’s fine, but you’re holding a gun to the head of a normal, decent American who’s done nothing wrong. Do you think that maybe—possibly—you didn’t happen to find me, but rather you were led out here for a reason?”
“And what reason is that?”
“The Reckoner wants you. You have a specific purpose. That’s what he’s been told.”
Dowland gritted his teeth, then chuckled the same way he might curse. “I want you to tell me right now, this very instant. What are you doing all the way out here? And where’s the Reckoner?”
“We’ve done this to ourselves,” the shaky voice said. “We’ve turned our backs on God, and He’s had enough.”
Dowland jammed the gun even harder against the idiot’s skull. “There’s only one god in your life, and he’s standing right in front of you. But you’re right about one thing. He has had enough.”
Dowland fired the shot without further thought. This was going to be done either on the side of an Indiana country road or in this room. It didn’t matter. He’d heard enough from this guy. Now it was done. Two more shots made sure of that.
With the body crumpled on the floor beside him, Dowland leaned over and picked up a series of large photographs. After looking at half a dozen, he felt his stomach twist.
There’s no way they know all this.
He knew he couldn’t leave anything behind in this room. He also knew that things were much worse than any of them had imagined.
Apparently the Reckoner hadn’t been lying at his last public announcement when he declared, “All will be revealed soon.” The faces of the men and women in those pictures were the revelations he was talking about. Dowland needed to know how much proof they had.
And whether or not this corpse was indeed the Reckoner.
While he was piling the belongings onto the bed, a handwritten note slipped out of a stack of papers. Dowland scanned it.
Abraham approached him and said, “Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked?” —Genesis 18:23
He let the piece of paper gently drop down onto the dead man. Dowland could only shake his head and curse as he thought about his father. Vasquez had been as deluded as his grandmother, thinking this world still contained both the righteous and the wicked.
The only righteous thing left in this world was being honest about its absence.