ONE WEEK AGO
Otto Wirths was the second worst mass murderer in the history of the world. Compared to him Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun and even Alexander the Great were amateurs, poseurs who could not hold a candle to Otto and his body count.
Only one person was worse.
That wasn’t his real name, and in a way he had no real name. Like Otto, Cyrus was a freak. Like Otto, Cyrus was a monster.
A week ago I’d never even heard of them. Almost no one had. A week ago they were on no watch lists, they were not sought by any world governments, their names were not muttered in hateful curses or angry prayers by a single person on planet earth.
Yet together they had done more harm than anyone. Together they had very quietly slaughtered tens of millions.
Tens of millions.
At night, when they sat down to their dinner they did not dwell on past accomplishments. A champion athlete doesn’t dwell on the preliminaries. To them it was always what was coming next. What was coming soon.
One week ago, seven days before I even heard of them, Otto Wirths placed a large digital clock on the wall above the elaborate workstation where he and Cyrus spent much of their waking hours. The clock was set to tick off seconds and minutes. Otto adjusted it to read 10,080. Ten thousand and eighty minutes.
One hundred and sixty eight hours.
After he pressed the start button, Otto and Cyrus clinked glasses of Perrier-Jouet, which--at over six thousand dollars a bottle--was the world's most expensive champagne.
They sipped the bubbles and smiled and watched the first sixty seconds tick away, and then the next sixty.
The Extinction Clock had begun.
I crouched in the dark. I was bleeding and something inside was broken. Maybe something inside my head, too.
The door was barred. I had three bullets left. Three bullets and a knife.
The pounding on the door was like thunder. I knew the door wouldn’t hold.
They would get in.
Somewhere the Extinction Clock was ticking down. If I was still in this room when it hit zero more people would die than perished during the Black Death and all of the pandemics put together.
I thought I could stop them.
I had to stop them. It was down to me or no one.
It wasn’t my fault I came into this so late. They chased us and messed with our heads and ran us around and by the time we knew what we were up against the clock had already nearly run its course.
We tried. Over the last week I’d left a trail of bodies behind me from Denver to Costa Rica to the Bahamas. Some of those bodies were human. Some…well, I don’t know what the hell you’d call them.
The pounding was louder. The door was buckling, the crossbar bending. It was only seconds before the lock or the hinges gave out, and then they’d come howling in here. Then it would be them against me.
I was hurt. I was bleeding.
I had three bullets and a knife.
I got to my feet and faced the door, my gun in my left hand, the knife in my right.
Let them come.
“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”
"On the Blue Water," Esquire, April 1936
Holy Redeemer Cemetery, Baltimore, MD
Saturday, August 28; 8:04 am /Time Remaining on the Extinction Clock: 97 hours; 56 minutes
“Detective Ledger?” he said and held out an ID case. “NSA.”
“How do you spell that?”
Not a flicker of a smile touched the concrete slab of his face. He was as big as me and the three goons with him were even bigger. All of them in sunglasses with American flags pinned on their chests. Why does this stuff always seem to happen to me?
“We’d like you to come with us,” said the guy with the flat face.
“Why?” We were in the parking lot of Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore. I had a mixed bunch of bright yellow daffodils in one hand and a bottle of spring water in the other. I had a pistol tucked into the back of my jeans under an Orioles away-game shirt. I never used to bring a piece to Helen’s grave, but over the last few months things have changed. Life’s become more complicated, and the gun was a habit 24/7. Even here.
The Goon Squad was definitely packing. Three right-handers and one lefty. I could see the faint bulges even under the tailored suits. The lefty was the biggest of the bunch, a moose with steroid shoulders and a nose that looked like it had been punched at least once from every possible angle. If things got weird he’d be the grabby type. The guys on either side of him were pretty-boys; they’d keep their distance and draw on me. Right now they were about fourteen feet out and their sports coats were unbuttoned. Smooth.
“We’d like you to come with us,” Slab-face said again.
“I heard you. I asked ‘why?’”
“It’s Captain Ledger, actually.” I put a bit of frost in it even though I kept a smile on my face.
He said nothing.
“Have a nice day,” I said and started to turn. The guy next to Slab-face—the one with the crooked nose--put his hand on my shoulder.
I stopped and looked down at his big hand and then up at his face. I didn’t say a word and he didn’t move his hand. There were four of them and one of me. The Nose probably thought that gave them a clean edge, and since NSA guys are pretty tough he was probably right. On the other hand these guys tend to believe their own hype, and that can come back to bite you. I don’t know how much they knew about me, but if this clown had his hand on me then they didn’t know enough.
I tapped his wrist with the bunch of daffodils. “You mind?”
He removed his hand, but he stepped closer. “Don’t make this complicated.”
“’Why’,’” I said, “is not a complicated question.”
He gave me a millimeter of a smile. “National security.”
“Bullshit. I’m in national security. Go through channels.”
Slab-face touched the Nose’s shoulder and moved him aside so he could look me in the eyes. “We were told to bring you in.”
“Who signed the order?”
“There you go again,”
Slab-face took a breath through his nose. “Captain Ledger.” He poured enough acid in it to melt through battleship armor.
“What’s your name?” I asked. He hadn’t held the ID up long enough for me to read it.
He paused. “Special Agent John Andrews.”
“Tell you what, Andrews, this is how we’re going to play it. I’m going to go over there and put flowers on the grave of my oldest and dearest friend–a woman who suffered horribly and died badly. I plan to sit with her for a while and I hope you have enough class and manners to allow me my privacy. Watch if you want to, but don’t get in my face. If you’re still here when I’m done then we can take another swing at the ‘why’ question and I’ll decide whether I go with you.”
“What’s this bullshit,” snapped the Nose.
Andrews just looked at me.
“That’s the agenda, Andrews,” I said. “Take it or leave it.”
Despite his orders and his professional cool he was a little off-balance. The very fact that he was hesitating meant that there was something hinky about thism, and my guess was that he didn’t know what it was--so he wasn’t ready to try and strongarm me. I was a federal agent tied to Homeland–or close enough for his purposes—and I held military rank on top of it. He couldn’t be sure that a misstep here wouldn’t do him some career harm. I watched his eyes as he sorted through his playbook.
“Ten minutes,” he said.
I should have just nodded and went to visit Helen’s grave, but the fact that they were accosting me here of all places really pissed me off. “Tell you what,” I said, stepping back but still smiling, “when it gets to ten minutes start holding your breath.”
I gave him a cheery wink and used the index finger of the hand holding the bottle to point at the Nose. Then I turned and headed through the tombstones, feeling the heat of their stares on my back like laser sites.