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Prologue


Cascade, June 2010

The lecture hall could hold a thousand people; it wasn't that full, but the lecturer had a respectable audience. The lecturer's voice was animated and enthusiastic as he spoke. At the back of the hall, a young man stood in the shadows near the door, leaning against the wall and listening intently to every word. No one took special note of the young man; he was thirty years old at most, more likely twenty five, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim and handsome. To a casual glance he was most likely a student who had wandered into this open talk and found the subject of interest. The only thing that detracted from this impression was the expensive handheld computer he carried, and it would take more than a casual glance to notice how very advanced the model was.

But the young man was no student. He was Julian Sark, international terrorist, purveyor of secrets and high-tech weaponry and general all-round bad guy; a title in which he took considerable pride. On this particular day, however, he was merely there to observe.

The lecturer - a Doctor Sandburg - paused in his presentation to take a few questions. Sark used the opportunity to open his PDA and tapped in a search, all the while keeping most of his attention on the lecture.

When the lecture came to an end, the young man blended easily with the crowd leaving the hall. From the inner pocket of his casual jacket he withdrew a wireless earpiece, sliding it over his ear. He tapped the screen of the PDA again and waited. After a moment, a woman's face appeared on the PDA's display. Sark stood to one side, allowing the crowd could move past him.

Sark spoke without giving his name, or any customary greeting. "I have some encouraging news," he reported. His words were precisely formed, the kind of English accent a man acquires from an Oxford education. "The late Mr Brackett was better informed than we thought. Sandburg's knowledge is too detailed to be conjecture."

He was quiet, listening, then said, "Yes, I have, but it may not be useful. Brackett and Sandburg have only one acquaintance in common and it's a man I don't believe we can use." He glanced back over his shoulder. "He's a convicted serial killer." His voice hushed as he spoke the name.

Behind him, Doctor Sandburg was just leaving the hall, surrounded by a small group of students like a gaggle of goslings.

Sark watched the professor surreptitiously. "I'll attempt to confirm the intel. Let me know how you want to proceed." He terminated the call without saying goodbye. From a careful, unobtrusive distance, he followed Sandburg.

***

Chapter 1


Cascade, August 2011

There was a Cascade Police Department patrol car parked across from the driveway of the house. Blair frowned, wondering which of his neighbours was in trouble. He doubted it was anything serious; this was a quiet neighbourhood. The most exciting thing to happen around here since he moved in two years earlier was the time Malcolm's barbeque set fire to the marquee during his daughter's birthday party. Blair liked the quiet; it was good to come home to...well, to nothing. The rest of his life provided plenty of stress. Home was his haven, his escape.

Blair turned into the driveway and parked the car. Checking the rearview mirror automatically before he turned off the ignition, Blair noticed a man getting out of the patrol car behind him. An instant later, he recognised the tall, dark figure of Captain Banks.

Banks was only halfway across the road when he started shouting. "Where the hell have you been, Sandburg? I've been calling your cell for hours!"

Confused, Blair reached into his pocket for his cellphone. "No, you haven't..." he began and then saw that the display was blank. Sheepishly he thumbed the power button. Nothing happened. Oh. "Sorry, man, my battery's dead. What's up?"

Jim. It had to be about Jim. Blair knew today was the day Jim was being moved from the asylum back to prison. He had done everything possible to avoid thinking about it all day. A few years earlier a political pressure group that claimed to represent victims of violent crime in Cascade started campaigning for tougher sentences and harsher penalties. For some reason, a year ago they began to campaign against Jim Ellison specifically. He was an easy target, Blair supposed, a confessed serial killer. He was, the group claimed, living a life of luxury in hospital when he should have been executed years before. The campaign reached some powerful ears and it was true that Jim no longer needed hospital care. It was suggested that perhaps Jim should be transferred back to prison where he belonged.

Blair was worried about what could happen to Jim in prison. Jim worked so hard to get healthy and stable again. There was also the selfish objection: Blair would be unable to visit Jim as freely in prison as he could at the asylum. At the asylum Blair's status was almost that of a doctor. To the prison he was just another visitor and could visit only on designated days, and only in rooms where they would be physically separated at all times. All of that was normal for prison life and Blair knew it was appropriate punishment for Jim's crimes but he feared Jim needed him more than Jim thought.

Blair made his opinion about the move clear, but though he'd been willing to fight for Jim all the way to the state supreme court if he had to it was Jim who eventually overruled him and agreed to the move. So Blair kept his misgivings quiet and did his best to support Jim's choice.

He'd made it to the front door before Simon reached him.

"You haven't seen the news yet, I take it?" Simon said.

He seemed very grim and Blair shrugged. "No, I've been in a seminar all afternoon. What can I do for you, Captain?"

"We need to talk, Sandburg. Inside, please."

Blair didn't like the sound of that. He looked up, tempted to ask if Banks had a warrant for this intrusion, but something in the man's eyes stopped him. "Okay," he agreed.

Banks was wearing a grey trenchcoat over lighter grey pants and a casual shirt. As Blair unlocked the front door he noticed Banks draw the trenchcoat back a little, revealing the gun holstered at his belt. Banks opened the holster and let the coat fall back, but his hand hovered there, as if ready to draw. It made Blair extremely nervous. He opened the door and stepped back, making Banks enter first.

Blair followed him in and closed the door. "Enough is enough. What's going on?"

Banks turned to face him, fixing Blair with steely eyes. "Ellison escaped from prison today."

"No way!" Blair answered instantly. "Jim wouldn't..."

"I'm afraid it's true, Sandburg. The police escort failed to report any trouble, but they never reached the prison. We found both the prison bus and the police out on the road. We found the bodies. All of them, except Ellison."

"That doesn't make any sense," Blair objected.

"Right now we're assuming there were others involved."

"You mean someone attacked the convoy? Jim was kidnapped?"

Banks shook his head. "Let's sit down, Sandburg."

I don't want to sit down, I want to know what the fuck happened to Jim! Blair swallowed the words with difficulty and pointed toward the living room. He stripped off his denim jacket, tossed it over a chair, and followed Banks. "Have a seat, he offered grudgingly.

Banks sat down on Blair's couch. "I don't know everything about what was found at the scene. It's not my case. I'll tell you what I can."

"You're wrong about Jim," Blair said stubbornly. "He wasn't happy about returning to prison but he agreed to this because he believed it was right."

"We know the bus went off the road. We know at least one other person was involved because the bus tyres were shot out. Our working theory is Ellison somehow got hold of a gun during the crash."

"You think Jim killed the guards," Blair said flatly. He knew that Jim would forever be judged a killer. Few people would believe he could change, but Blair knew better. Jim didn't kill those guards. Which meant someone else had. Which meant...

"We believe this was a planned attack on the prison convoy," Banks confirmed, "and we believe Jim knew about the plan."

"No way, man. I know him, and I don't believe it."

Banks shook his head. "I know him too, Sandburg."

Blair tried to see it from the cop's point of view. If Jim was planning an escape it made sense of his willingness to be transferred to the prison. The transfer provided the perfect opportunity. But it couldn't be true!

Banks went on, "Let's say you're right, and Jim didn't know the transport was going to be hijacked. It's still likely that when it was, he saw an opportunity and took it. You know how badly he wanted freedom."

"Jim didn't kill people," Blair insisted, but he could see Banks didn't believe him.

"Sandburg, I'm here because we believe Ellison might try to contact you. I want your permission to station an officer outside - for your protection - and to monitor your phone."

The suggestion made Blair leap out of his chair. "Jim isn't going to contact me. I have no idea what happened but he didn't leave willingly." He started pacing.

"Then you've got nothing to hide. Listen, Sandburg, I can get a warrant, but I'd rather do it this way. I think you're wrong about him, but if you're right then anyone associated with Ellison may be in danger. Either way, your cooperation will be appreciated. We need to find him, Sandburg. Ellison belongs in prison."

Blair nodded. "I know he does," he answered unhappily. "Alright, I'll agree to this for a few days. No longer, understood?"

Banks nodded. "Understood. May I look around the house, Sandburg? Just in case."

Blair rolled his eyes at Banks’ paranoia, but agreed to let him search.

***

It was nearly midnight when Blair finally went to bed. He watched the news reports for as long as he could stand the endless repetitions. Newscasters gave dire warnings about the escape of a serial killer, emphasising the great danger to the public. They broadcast aerial images of the crashed bus and police escort vehicle, camera zooming in on a pool of blood on the road while the anchor described the scene of horror with poorly-concealed relish. Then there was the "informative" rehash of Jim's crimes, with that stock photograph of Tania's beautiful smile flashed on the screen over and over.

Eventually, Blair called Stephen Ellison and learned he was under the same police "protection" Blair was. Stephen agreed with Captain Banks' theory, that it was possible Jim took advantage of a chance when it came. Blair, knowing the call was being recorded, didn't argue.

He considered calling Matt, but with Tania's face once more all over the news Blair thought he might be the last person Matt would want to talk to. If Matt wanted him, he knew Blair's number.

From the window, Blair saw the patrol car still sitting outside. He wondered what his neighbours thought of it. Maybe nothing. He shrugged and headed into the shower.

As hot water beat against his skin, Blair thought back to his last conversation with Jim. They talked in the small inner courtyard of the asylum where Jim was allowed to walk. Even here, he wore restraints: his wrists and ankles were chained, but not so much as to impede his movement. But here they could be alone and speak privately. The guards were there, but stayed at the doorway, always watching but not interfering. Jim had seemed a bit depressed, not very conversational, responding to Blair's careful questions with one-word answers. After a few attempts, Blair asked him outright what was wrong.

"Just this move, I think," Jim told him. "I'm not really looking forward to it."

Blair gave him a sympathetic look. "I think it's too late to change it, Jim. David and I would both have fought for you to stay..."

"No," Jim interrupted. "Chief, I didn't want that. I'm supposed to be in prison." But there was a deep line etched between his brows as he spoke, something dark hovering behind his eyes. Something Blair knew Jim would not explain.

Remembering that moment as he showered, Blair forced himself to face the possibility that what he'd seen was a plan to escape, that Simon Banks was right about Jim.

No. Just assume for a moment that Jim did plan this escape. The convoy was attacked by at least one other person, more likely a team. That meant that Jim would have needed help from outside the asylum. But the only way Jim could have found such help was through Blair, or perhaps through Stephen. Well, Blair knew he wasn't involved, and he quickly dismissed the thought that Stephen might be. Stephen loved his brother, but he believed he should be behind bars, believed it more strongly than Blair did, perhaps.

So scratch that theory. Someone else planned this. Someone abducted Jim from the prison transport. But why? Blair couldn't understand what anyone would have to gain from this. None of it made sense. Blair knew only that he was scared. Scared for Jim...wherever he was.

***

The morning news revealed that Cascade authorities now believed that an armed force attacked the prison convoy taking James Ellison back to prison. Everyone on the convoy: driver, prison guards and police escort, was dead. The newscaster made it clear that this prison break was planned and executed by a ruthless and dangerous man. Blair shut off the television in disgust.

After a night's sleep Blair was thinking clearly. Despite his apparent concern, Blair knew that Captain Banks was not interested in protecting him. He offered “protection” because he wanted to keep Blair under surveillance. Blair understood that he was the logical prime suspect in this crime: he was the person closest to Jim. It meant that anything he said to the police was going to be viewed with suspicion. It meant that Blair was in danger...but not from Jim Ellison.

Jim himself was in worse danger. The media coverage would whip up a public hysteria and if Jim were seen, the cops would shoot to kill. That was assuming Jim could get away from whomever had abducted him. The abduction still made no sense to Blair.

Blair would fight for Jim. He decided to fight before he even got out of bed that morning. But the battle would not be an easy one.

Before leaving the house, Blair took the precaution of sending two e-mails. Since he began working on a book about Jim, Blair employed a heavy-duty encryption program on his computer. It allowed him to send the e-mails without the cops being able to eavesdrop. The first he sent to a friend in the law department at Rainier. The second he sent to his mother. Then, feeling a little paranoid, Blair wiped all traces of the two e-mails from his computer, turned it off and headed out as if it were a normal day. Blair drove out to Rainier first, intending to arrange a few days' leave before trying to see Simon at the Police Department. He wanted to make sure at least someone believed that Jim didn't kill all those people, because if they all believed he did, the manhunt would end in Jim's death...if they found him at all.

Blair never reached the university.

There was a stretch of road on the way to Rainier that was wooded on both sides. Blair loved that short distance. The woods reminded him of the wilderness. It was his habit to drive just a little slowly along that part of the road. That morning, he automatically slowed down in the usual place. There were no other cars in sight in that moment so he slowed more, enjoying the peace of the morning. It was likely to be the last peace he would get for a while.

The four-by-four that hit him came out of nowhere. By the time Blair saw it, it was too late to avoid the collision. By reflex, Blair slammed on his breaks. Tyres squealed and he jerked the wheel to the side, forcing the car onto the verge. The car bounced as it left the road and ploughed into the grass. The impact threw Blair forward into the steering wheel and the airbag exploded into his face. Pain shot through his neck and back as he slammed back into the seat.

Blair stayed there, trapped between the airbag and seat while his heart thumped in his throat. He concentrated on breathing, just breathing, until his heart began to slow down.

Only then did he think about the other vehicle. Where was it? Was anyone hurt? He struggled to reach the door handle past the airbag.

As his fingers reached the handle, his car door opened. Blair looked up into the barrel of a gun.

The man holding the gun said, "Get out of the car, Doctor Sandburg. Very slowly."

***

Simon peered into Blair’s car, careful not to touch anything. The driver’s airbag had opened, presumably when the car went off the road. The car keys were still in the ignition.

"What have you found?" Simon asked as one of the crime scene team approached.

"As far as we can tell, Captain, the driver walked away from the vehicle unharmed. There's no broken glass, no sign of blood."

"There's a cellphone on the dashboard, and the keys are still in the ignition." Simon looked up and down the road. "Where could he have gone? Why leave the car without even taking his phone?"

Simon walked away from the car. The black tyre marks on the road showed the tracks of two vehicles. Perhaps the other driver had given Sandburg a ride and he simply forgot about the phone.

He shook his head. This was too much of a coincidence. The bus transporting Ellison to prison went off the road and Ellison went missing. Now the man closest to Ellison had been forced off the road and was missing. Simon recalled Sandburg's insistence the Ellison would never have planned to escape. He wondered if the professor could be right...or was this accident Ellison's work? The Jim Ellison he knew wouldn't have done this...

A decision made, Simon walked back to his car.

***

It was almost midnight when Naomi Sandburg reached her son's home. She did not ring the bell: he would be asleep, she hoped. She let herself into the house.

Immediately she knew the house was empty. An empty house has a distinctly different ambience from one which is occupied.

Her dear boy's message troubled her greatly. It sounded as if he were in some kind of trouble.

Though she knew she was alone, Naomi went through the house, checking every room. No one was there.

She hesitated at the bedroom door.

Blair asked her to do something for him, the thing that worried her so much. Naomi trusted her son, so even though she did not understand the request, she would do as he asked.