Last Chance to Die
Author:Noah Boyd

Last Chance to Die - By Noah Boyd




BEFORE



Kate Bannon thought she was having a nightmare, but actually she was dying.

Only her nagging self-awareness, even in this somnolent state, was forcing her to remember that she didn’t have nightmares. The frightening images had always been there—people shooting at her, falling endlessly from towering buildings, running through thicker and thicker sand to escape something unknown—but her reaction to them had always been as an indifferent observer, curious and analytical. If the “danger” persisted, she would simply tell herself it was a dream and wake up. And that’s what she had to do now, wake up and find out what was causing the chaotic images in her head.

She sat up and felt dizzy, the blood pounding in the top of her head. It hurt too much to be a dream. She felt nauseous and remembered driving home after the Thanksgiving Eve get-together at one of the local FBI watering holes with a large group of people from headquarters. She remembered having a glass of wine, and then a good-looking guy she didn’t know brought her a small glass of—what did he say it was?—Drambuie. She had never tasted it before and took a mouthful. Finding it too bitter for her liking, she set it down and didn’t touch it again. It must have been strong, because she soon started feeling woozy and decided to leave.

Throwing her legs over the side of the bed, she worked her feet into slippers and stood up. As soon as she was fully upright, she felt light-headed and had trouble balancing herself. With a hand on the wall, she started toward the kitchen. Walking left her short of breath. That couldn’t be from alcohol. That’s when she heard the low rumbling. She continued to the kitchen and saw that the door to the garage was open. Now she could clearly hear her car running.

Without warning, her knees started to buckle, and she realized that she was not suffering from what she had drunk but from carbon monoxide poisoning. Carefully, she stepped down the three stairs into the garage, which was filled with the haze of exhaust fumes. The car door was locked, and she could see the keys in the ignition.

The garage’s outside door was only a few feet away, and she lurched to it. Taking hold of the knob, she tried to turn it, but her grip failed her. She pushed on the door clumsily with her body weight but couldn’t rotate the knob far enough to open it. Even using both hands, she couldn’t get it to release. Next to the door, in a holder fastened to the wall, was a remote-control unit for the overhead door. She pressed the button, but nothing happened.

Beginning to panic now, she pressed it repeatedly, but still the door didn’t rise. She tried to remember the last time she had changed the battery, but her mind refused to focus on anything requiring memory. All at once she crashed to the floor, knocking over her small gardening caddy and scattering tools in every direction.

She tried to get up but could only manage to roll over on her back. Is this it? she asked herself. After all she’d been through as an agent, this was how she was going to die? Then she saw a white light coming from the six-inch-square window in the door and wondered if it was what so many people who approached death had reported. She fell back and let her eyes slide shut. Even with her mouth closed, she could taste the thick fumes in her throat.

The actual source of the light was a small flashlight held by a man standing outside, dressed in black. When she collapsed, he turned it off and pulled the two wedges from under the door that had jammed it closed against her efforts. Then he went to the front door of the residence and removed two more. Calmly, he put his hands in his pockets and walked back to a waiting SUV.

Lying there felt pleasant, euphoric, but then it occurred to Kate that the light was gone. Shouldn’t it be inside her head, too? She opened her eyes, and it was still gone. Did that mean the death sentence had been revoked, or at least delayed? Whatever it meant, she decided that she was going down swinging.

Next to her was a rake, its wooden handle thick and straight. Pushing up on all fours, she crawled to the rear of the car, dragging the rake behind her. The fumes were completely suffocating. She peeled off one of her slippers with its thin rubber sole and crammed it into the tailpipe. She was familiar enough with cars to know that the obstruction alone wouldn’t stop the engine as the movies depicted but would eventually be blown out by mounting pressure. So she stuck the rake’s handle into the tailpipe, forcing the slipper even farther into the exhaust.

Then she maneuvered the wooden shaft, finally wedging the steel raking tines against one of the patterned grooves in the overhead garage door, which was a foot and a half away. One of two things would happen now: Either the pressure would build up and kill the engine or the rake would blow a hole in the door and provide fresh air. One or the other could save her. Of course, it was more likely that the handle of the rake would simply snap. She reached up and held the rake in place before crumpling to the floor to wait.

Something with a sharp edge was underneath her. She realized it was a gardening trowel that had been knocked across the floor when she first fell. Inching closer to the garage door, she shoved it under the rubber cleat that sealed the entire length of the door and, using both hands, turned it up on edge to make a small triangular opening. Placing her mouth as close to it as possible, she breathed in the sweet, cold, late-autumn air.

Just before she passed out, her hand slipped off the rake and she thought she heard the car’s engine sputter and die.

After climbing into the backseat of the SUV, the man in black nodded to the two men in the front that it was done.

The driver, in his early fifties, was tall and slender, his suit expensive and American. His hair was full and carefully cut. His face might have been described as elegant if it weren’t for the splayed, crooked nose, which gave his appearance a vague warning of violence. He looked over at the man sitting next to him to see if he was satisfied.

The passenger reached over and turned off the radio-signal device that had jammed Kate’s remote-control door opener, the limited markings on it written in Cyrillic. He, too, was tall but powerfully built, and his age was difficult to estimate; he could have been in his fifties or in his sixties. His hands were thick and crisscrossed with dozens of thin white scars. His face was drawn and slightly exhausted, his eyes irreparably sad. Although his skin appeared a permanent gray, his lips were thick and an unusual shade of dark red. He looked back at the driver with eyes that never seemed to move from side to side. It was as if they were frozen in their sockets, making whomever he was talking to feel that turning away would be perceived as evasive, even when telling the truth. He searched the driver’s face for any indication that he and his man hadn’t been successful and then leaned his head back on the headrest and closed his eyes. The SUV pulled away from the curb.

Kate Bannon opened her eyes and wondered if she was dreaming again. Bob Lasker, the director of the FBI, sat next to her hospital bed. Struggling to recall what had happened, she wasn’t sure she really could. “Am I dreaming?” she asked loudly, almost as if trying to determine if she was actually awake. She went to scratch her nose but then realized that an oxygen tube was pinching her nostrils.

“This is real, Kate.” The director smiled warmly. “You gave us a scare, though. But you’re going to be all right.”

“I remember being in the garage and not being able to get out.”

“One of your neighbors was taking his dog for a late-night walk, and I guess in the cool air he smelled the exhaust from the opening you made. He dragged his owner closer, and then the guy broke in, dragged you out, and called 911. Any idea how you left your car on?”

She told him about being bought a drink and not feeling well, then waking up to find her car running and not being able to get out of the garage. “I can’t imagine doing that. And then locking the car door with the keys in the ignition? Who locks a car that’s in a locked garage?”

“And this guy who bought you the drink, you never saw him before.”

“Not that I remember. I would have remembered him from headquarters. He was nice-looking.”

“Maybe he was just someone at the bar and saw a pretty girl.”

“Maybe,” she said vaguely, her mind searching for other possibilities.

Lasker stared at her as though there were some question he wasn’t asking.

“What?” she demanded.

“Kate, don’t take this the wrong way, but have you been feeling okay lately?”

She gave a short laugh. “Wait a minute—are you asking me if I’ve been depressed?”

“Yes.”

She thought for a moment. “You think I tried to kill myself?”

The question was asked with such self-assurance that Lasker couldn’t help but say, “No, I don’t.”

“But others do?”

“A deputy assistant director almost dies, there are questions that have to be considered.”

“Meaning what?”

“OPR is going to look into it. Very routine, very low-key.”

“I didn’t try to commit suicide.”

“You know I can’t call off procedure. I wouldn’t for any other agent, and since everyone knows how much I think of you, I can’t in this instance either.” He smiled. “Please cooperate and try not to shoot any of them. As soon as you feel well enough to get out of here, you’ll be returned to full duty while they conduct their investigation.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“I know it is. If it does get to be too much, come and see me.” Lasker patted her on the arm. “For now, get well. Everything else will take care of itself.”

She was staring down at her hands but finally looked at him. “I guess I should be thanking you instead of arguing.”

“Just get better, Kate.”

Soon after the director left the room, an agent whom Kate recognized as being from the Office of Professional Responsibility came in. “Hi, Kate. I’m Roger Daniels from OPR. How are you feeling?”

“Nonsuicidal.”

He laughed. “I know this is a lot coming at you all at once. I can wait to take your statement.”

Kate sat up and took a sip of water from a cup on the table next to her bed. “Don’t be too offended, but the sooner we get started, the sooner I’ll have OPR out of my life.”

The agent chuckled. “Well, that carbon monoxide didn’t damage your sense of humor.”

“Who said I was trying to be funny? Roger, I’m sure you’re a very capable agent, and maybe even a nice guy, but I did a stint at OPR, so please don’t waste any of the artificial sweeteners on me. Just ask me your questions, and I’ll give you my best answers.”

“Fair enough, Kate.” He opened his notebook. “Did you attempt suicide?” His tone was noticeably less friendly.

“I’m the one who stopped the car engine and wedged a trowel under the door to save myself. Does that sound like I was trying to commit suicide?”

“It’s not uncommon during a suicide attempt for people to have a change of heart. They take pills and then call 911. Move the gun at the last moment and just wound themselves. It happens more frequently than you think.”

“Yeah, well, I happen to like my life quite a bit.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but some people do it for attention.”

“How could I possibly take that the wrong way?” she said, sounding more than a little sarcastic. She took a moment and then said, “If you knew me, you’d know I really don’t care what people think. Why would I want to get their attention?”

“Not people—person,” he said.

“Person? Who?”

The agent flipped back to another page in his notes. “Steve Vail?”

“Where did you get that?”

“Answers, Kate, remember?”

“Okay, what do you know about him? And me?”

“We know that he was fired as an agent more than five years ago. That the director brought him back to work on the Rubaco Pentad case in Los Angeles—with you—and that you guys have dated. Recently it ended abruptly.”

“Sounds like you got a running start on this while I was still unconscious. Okay, I’ll tell you about Vail on one condition—that you don’t contact him.”

“If you’re forthcoming, there’ll be no need to.”

“One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life was tell him I didn’t want him in it. If you’ve read the Pentad file, you know he was responsible for solving that case almost single-handedly. He would be an incredible agent, but he cannot conform to anything, and that includes a relationship with me. We’ve seen each other three times since L.A. The first time was—I hate to use the word, but it was—pretty much perfect. The last two were absolutely awful. So I told him it would be best if we didn’t see each other again. And that was a week ago. So no, I wasn’t trying to get his attention.”

“Trying to find out exactly who he was, I ran his name through some of our contacts at other agencies and got a hit with the State Department. Seems you and he are going to the Irish ambassador’s reception on New Year’s Eve.”

“Boy, you have been busy. But you’d better check with them again. It should show that my escort is now Eamon Walsh.”

“So you changed it.”

“What’s today?”

“Wednesday.”

“I spoke with him Monday. He’s with the Irish embassy and was the one who called me originally with the invitation. When I phoned him back to tell him Vail wasn’t coming, he asked if I’d do him the honor. I didn’t want to go alone, so I said yes. Maybe he hasn’t gotten around to changing it officially yet. You can call him.”

Daniels was making notes. “So it’s definitely over between you and Vail. You told him not to come for New Year’s Eve.”

“Not in so many words, but I think ‘We shouldn’t see each other again’ carries that assumption.”

“That’s helpful about Vail. It gives you one less reason to . . . you know.”

“Off myself.”

“Tell me what you remember about the night that this happened to you,” Daniels said.

She repeated what she’d told the director about the stranger’s buying her a drink that didn’t settle well with her, then her coming home and going to bed. Then waking up and trying to get out of the garage.

He asked, “You said he told you it was Drambuie?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm,” Daniels said more to himself than to her.

“What?”

“I’ve had Drambuie, and it has a definite strong sweetness to it.”

The OPR agent started making additional notes that she guessed were more than just about Kate’s response. As she watched him, she remembered her time in OPR, how investigations were not about the incident but about the employee’s involvement in it. They weren’t criminal investigators, they were personnel investigators. As Daniels looked up from his pad ready to ask the next question, she knew that he was not going to get to the bottom of this. If anyone was going to find out what had happened, it would have to be her. “If that guy did put something in the drink, maybe he had some other intentions, and when he saw I drank only one sip of it, he got scared and took off.”

“Your blood didn’t show any kind of drug in it, but if you didn’t drink much, maybe it dissipated before you got here.”

“Are you going to try to track him down?” she asked, trying to judge just how far he was going to pursue what had happened to her.

“I’ll have to see where everything takes me.”

Right, she said to herself, becoming lost in thought. There was just something about a near-death experience that brought Vail to mind. And she couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. She knew that he would never just “see where everything takes me.” A small smile creased her lips.

“What is it, Kate?”

“Oh, no, nothing. Did you need anything else?”

“That’s enough for now.” Daniels stood up. “Take care.”

He closed the door, and after a moment her smile disappeared.

She was sure she was never going to see Vail again.