Saturday, January 23

7:53 PM


            A dark blue haze engulfs me. I’m vaguely aware that I’m horizontal but can’t guess why. It feels as if someone is knocking a bowling ball repeatedly against the side of my head when I realize that the pain is coming from within. The room sways as if we’re on a ship in rough seas. I try to focus and feel the pressure of needles stabbing at the back of my eye sockets. Everything aches. My lower half is totally immobilized. The strength in the rest of my body has been completely drained; it takes enormous effort just to wiggle a finger. Something is terribly wrong with me.
            My eyes wander downwards to find a needle taped to the back of my hand. To my right, a metal bar rises from the floor where a clear plastic bag hangs above me leaking fluids into my system.
            So I’m in a hospital. But why? I struggle to remember, but it’s hopeless. The mere effort fatigues me and I give up.
            With my poor eyesight and the lack of light, I can only make out shapes and shadows. I scan from right to left, and then I spot something odd: a figure sitting in the darkness. I part my lips to speak, feeling the skin crack and tear at the corners of my mouth. My throat and tongue are parched to the point of excruciation, the skin inside like sandpaper. I can only utter a dry, hoarse moan.
            The figure rises anxiously, and I can see now by the long straight hair and slender shape that it’s a woman. She moves silently to the door and is gone. I keep watching the door waiting for the figure’s return, but the longer I stare the more convinced I become that I’ve simply imagined it. My head is still spinning and nothing makes sense.
            I shut my eyes and feel the weariness pull me back into the darkness.

8:09 PM


            Walter’s hushed conversation with his son seems to go on for an eternity. It doesn’t look good; Walter’s got a hand over his face and appears to be shaking. I realize that nothing good can come from my being here and so I grab my jacket from the back of the chair and go for a walk to clear my head.
            I peek into Amy’s room; nothing’s changed. There’s an odd smell in the air though, a light women’s perfume. I attribute it to one of the night shift orderlies and withdraw to the hallway. I roam around aimlessly for a few minutes, nodding to the orderlies and nurses I pass. Most of them know my face by now and shoot me brief glances of recognition.
            A young receptionist behind the counter is staring bug eyed at her computer screen. From the audio, it seems to be a homemade video from one of the recent riots. People are shouting and guns are going off in the distance. The noises rattle from the speakers and tumble through the stark, sterile halls.
            There are rapid footsteps behind me, and I step to the side of the corridor to let them pass, expecting a nurse with armfuls of medical supplies. Instead, it’s a woman in civilian clothes. Her long bangs cover her eyes and she stares at the floor as she walks. She’s gone a moment later, but as I turn to head back to Amy’s room, there’s the sound of crunching paper beneath my shoe.
            When I inspect it, I find that someone has scribbled the following message:
            Luke, meet me in 10 minutes. Level C. White Tacoma.

            I hurry to the walkway from the west ward and ride the elevator down to the carport. I get off at the third level and meander through the mostly empty lot. I find the Tacoma at the far back behind a green concrete wall. With a glance over my shoulder I realize that it’s one of the few spots hidden from the domed security camera overhead and I’m guessing this isn’t a coincidence.
            I approach the vehicle cautiously from the rear, my academy training kicking in on instinct. I briefly consider returning with my squad car and firearm, but decide against it. I can see through the rear window that there’s only one person inside–the driver. I approach the passenger’s side door and hear it unlock with a thunk. I reach for the handle and slide inside.
            The woman with the long bangs from the hallway sits in the driver seat and says nothing. She won’t even turn to look at me, but it doesn’t matter. I’d recognize those eyes anywhere.
It’s Eva Richards.
She’s dyed her hair black and let it grow out a little and seems to have lost a lot of weight, but it’s definitely her.
“You’re alive,” I say dumbly as the shock subsides.
            “It wasn’t easy, finding the time and place to talk to you. Cameras just about everywhere. When I found your wife was in the hospital, I figured this would be the safest place to meet. I waited in the room for an hour, but you were nowhere to be found.”
            “That was clever, with the note.”
            “It was the only way I could think of where we wouldn’t be seen talking to each other. And I couldn’t text you, of course. They’re monitoring everything,” she explains, her head still facing forward as her eyes dart from mirror to mirror. “I’m taking a huge risk meeting you like this, but I felt that I had to do something. You helped me before, and now I’m returning the favor. But just this once. It’ll be too dangerous to try again.”
            “What’s going on?” I ask.
            “You’re working with a federal agent on a case, right?” she asks quickly. I’m not supposed to talk about it, but my silence is as much confirmation as she needs. “The guy you’re in contact with. He’s tall, jet black hair, creepy eyes, right?”
            “Agent Meade,” I mumble.
            Eva scoffs. “He’s dangerous, Luke.” I’m not surprised to hear this, but I wonder at the effort she’s gone through to pass this message along.
            “I did a lot of digging when I was still at The Herald. He’s almost impossible to track down. There’re so many contradicting reports about his past, and I think it’s been done purposely to muddy the waters. But what I do know is that he goes way up the chain of command.”
            “Funny, he told me he was a nobody.”
            “I’m sure he’s told you a lot of things. Good luck separating fact from fiction.”
“I thought he might’ve been the one that killed you, actually,” I add.
“I’m sure it would’ve crossed his mind if I hadn’t beat him to the punch. The wreck and fire were staged, of course.”
            “Not incredibly difficult, but the planning was pretty meticulous.”
            “I can only imagine. So you’d been planning it for a while, then,” I say, feeling a mix of irritation and amusement. “You could’ve told me first, Eva. I was worried sick. I thought I was partly to blame.”
            “I’m sorry, but it was the only way. Trust me, I considered every possibility, but it was too dangerous. I couldn’t risk telling anyone. If the feds suspected anything they would’ve just kept looking until they’d found me. As it is, my skin is crawling half the time. I constantly feel eyes watching my back. I can barely sleep or eat.”
            “But if you knew you were going to run off why did you call me the night before?”
            “I just wanted to be sure you were on my side. Originally I planned to keep working on the story, once I could stop running from them. I thought you might be able to help me. But then… It just got too crazy.”
            “So how’d you do it?” I ask. Eva smirks slightly, though her eyes are still glued to the mirrors.
            “The first thing was setting myself up financially. I had to slowly siphon enough out of my bank account to set up a second life. It was done over a period of months. I wasn’t sure if they were watching my bank account, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past them. Anything sudden and they would’ve known what I was up to.
            “Then I had to get myself a new driver’s license. That part was surprisingly easy. I met up with a kid I found online and he had one for me in a few days. Then I set the day for the wreck. I knew, when I met you at the motel that night, that it would have to be soon. The feds had ransacked my place and it was just a matter of time before I was in custody or dead. And with all the latitude the feds have been given regarding interrogation practices, I would’ve preferred the latter.
            “I had the spot picked out for the crash in advance. I purchased an electric scooter and parked it under the bridge as a getaway the day prior. I loaded the backseat of my car with a few milk jugs of lighter fluid and lit the upholstery on fire. Then I tied the gas pedal down and let it crash over the embankment.”
            “And the body?”
            “A cadaver. I had a friend at the morgue. I paid her well and she didn’t ask questions.” A few moments of silence pass as I mull over all she’s telling me.
“Sounds like you thought of everything. So why are you back?”
            “To tell you that whatever deal you have going with that agent, get out of it. Cut your ties. Run away if you have to.”
            “Run away? My wife’s in a coma fighting for her life. How am I just supposed to up and run?”
            “I don’t know, but you have to think of something. Whatever promises he’s made you, he’s lying. There’s a pattern with him, where he makes these deals with people, and then in the end, once he’s got what he wants, he burns them to cover his trail. He’s ruthless, Luke.”
            I mull over this for a moment, hearing echoes in Eva’s words of what Walter told me just a minutes ago.
“And what about you?” I ask.
            “I’ve made some contacts who own a small compound upstate. They’re stocked up with weapons and plenty of resources and I convinced them that with my knowledge of government and politics, I have something to offer. They’re willing to take me in.”
            “A compound?” I ask warily.
           “They’re preppers. Survivalists. They’ve been working on this camp for years and covertly recruiting online.” I close my eyes and shake my head silently. For the first time, Eva turns to stare at me, a scalding look in her eyes. “What?” she asks, her voice on edge.
            “It’s just all this talk about the end of the world… Do you really believe it?”
            Eva pauses long enough for me to see just how much the last few weeks in hiding have aged her. Long creases line her face and eyes. Gaunt cheekbones jut from her features and cast deep shadows over her cheeks. “I don’t know, Luke, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m terrified.”
            We gaze out the windshield at the still parking deck for a few moments without speaking. “Well, I appreciate the warning,” I say softly.
            “I had to come back. I know you risked a lot, helping me like you did.”
            I nod. Eva glances at her watch. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. The longer I stay here…”
            “No, no, it’s fine,” I say. “I understand. Thanks again.”
            Eva gives me a somber look. “Take care of yourself, Luke.”
            “You too.”
            I exit the car and watch her drive off and I know it’s the last time I’ll ever see Eva Richards.


Friday, January 22

7:35 PM


            Sleep is impossible. I miss Amy’s voice. I miss reaching over and feeling her in the bed beside me. In the last few days I feel as if I’ve lost everything. Visiting Jesse was a stupid move. All it’d take is a phone call to his Dad and I’d lose them, too. And what would Meade do if he found out I was carrying out a personal investigation? What is there to stop him from ruining my name at the department? I don’t doubt for a moment that he’d do it. There’s a vindictive streak in him, and maybe that’s not all.
            I’m back at the hospital the next day. I check up on Amy, but there’s nothing to report. She’s stable, the doctors say. She could wake up any day but it’s unwise to get my hopes up.
            I wander across the ward to Chelsea’s room. She’s conscious, though she doesn’t seem to recognize me when I enter. A young man is sitting at her side, and he turns to greet me. One look at his clothes and his haircut and I know he must be a Witness. I wonder if this is one of their rules, too–always be clean cut, clean shaven, and well-dressed. Chelsea gives the man’s arm a gentle shake as I enter.
            “Chad, can you remind me who this young man is?” she asks him.
            “Sorry, I don’t know him either,” Chad replies sheepishly.
            “Ah, that’s ok then. Can I help you, sir?” Chelsea asks. It pains me to see that blankness in her stare, but maybe it’s for the best, in the end. If only they could all forget me and what I’m about to do.
            “Hi, I’m actually looking for your husband, Walter. Is he here?” I ask.
            “He’s in the cafeteria,” Chad says with a worried look at my uniform. I thank him and head for the elevators.
            I find Walter huddled over a wilted club salad stuffed into a flimsy plastic container. His eyes are closed and I figure he must be praying. For his wife, no doubt. I can barely stand myself as I take the empty seat beside him and wait for him to finish. He smiles at me but I catch the deep lines in his face and wonder if perhaps he’s been sleeping even worse than myself.
            “So, how’s Chelsea?” I ask.
            “She’s recovering. It’ll be a long road yet, but I have hope. The doctors have given me some exercises to perform with her. With time, perhaps the memory gaps will begin to fill in.”
            “Well, at least she’s up,” I say hopefully. Walter turns to me with a look of sympathy.
            “Amy will wake up, Luke,” he says.
            “How can you be so sure?”
            “Because I believe what the Bible says. There is a bright future waiting for us.”
            “No. Right here on the Earth. God intends to undo all the wickedness we’re seeing.”
            Walter takes a bite from his salad before answering. When he does, he leans in closely and speaks softly. “With a war.”
            My blood turns to ice. This is it, I realize. He’s about to tell me what I’ve been after–what the feds have been after–all this time. The Witnesses are preparing for war. The realization turns to sad dread in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want it to come to this. I’d hoped that Meade and the FBI had been wrong about these people. They had seemed so different, so sincere. The disappointment weighs heavily on my shoulders as I slide a finger into my pocket and flick the switch on the WIRM recorder.
            “A war?” I ask, knowing that Walter’s next words will incriminate both him and his wife. I hope that one day I’ll be able to forgive myself for doing this to Amy’s friends.
            “Yes. A war that will be fought once and never repeated. It’ll crush the tyranny we see going on in every country around us. It’ll bring an end to corruption and injustice and usher in a new era of rule.”
            “A war for peace,” I say with a nod. “And you’re preparing for this war?” I ask sadly.
            Walter’s smile shifts slightly as he gazes into my eyes. “Why, yes. But not to fight in it.” The conversation halts as I struggle to process this.
            “The war will be fought directly by God’s heavenly armies and Earthly governments that oppose his people. We will not need to fight.”
            “You’re telling me that as a veteran from the Gulf War, you’re going to stand by and watch from the sidelines when you could be involved?” I ask.
            “This won’t be like any war before it, Luke. This will be the one to end them all.” Walter pauses as an older couple wobbles past. He turns back to me when they’re out of earshot. It’s clear this is not a conversation he wishes to be overheard.
            “You said something about governments opposing God’s people,” I say.
          “Well, yes, it’s happening right now. Our work is being banned across the globe, our people have been harassed. Many have been arrested, and some killed.”
            “How do you know?” I ask.
            “We’re a brotherhood, Luke. We keep tabs on our family.”
            I want to press the matter, but something stops me. Meade will have a fit when he hears this conversation. He’ll wonder why I missed a perfect opportunity to ask how the Witnesses are communicating. But I can’t. In spite of all the leverage the FBI has against me, something deep within me stirs, warding me off my questions and this investigation as a whole.
            I can’t go on. I’m now convinced that Walter and Chelsea and the others I’ve met–from the grateful Mr. Harris to the kind friends who brought cards and flowers–are no threat. When I first donned my officer’s uniform six years ago, these were the kinds of people I swore to protect. They’re not extremists or vigilantes. They simply want to serve their God and live out their lives quietly. What kind of government would want to stop them? The thoughts in my head come like a deluge, and as they’ve washed over me, I’m left with the beginnings of a new resolve.
            I look back at Walter, who’s been watching me thoughtfully this whole time. He takes a deep breath before speaking.
            “Do you know why I have so much faith that God’s war will be the war to end them all?”
            I shake my head.
            “In every war mankind has ever fought, there were always those who slipped through the cracks. After World War II, thousands of Nazi war criminals fled Germany. Some retreated to the shadows, but others rose to very prominent and prosperous positions. And I can assure you, there were other men, just as evil as those Nazis, who were never forced to flee at all, simply because they were on the winning side.
            “Man can’t really win wars. It’s never just the good guys versus the bad. It’s much more complicated than that. To really end war, you need to be able to read hearts. Each and every one. And then you need to eliminate the bad ones, regardless of where they live or what they look like on the outside. This is beyond the ability of humans.”
            “But not beyond the ability of God…” I conclude softly. Walter gives a slow nod.
            “You have a lot of faith,” I say.
            “I do. Jehovah has helped me many times personally, and he’s always been the Protector of his people. He’s very real to me, and he’s very real to your wife. Do you know what she told me, the last time we spoke?” I shake my head slowly.
            “Her greatest wish was that Jehovah would become real to you, too. She loves you so much, Luke. Every time she’d come to our house, she’d talk about you and how good you were to her. Chelsea and I felt like we knew you long before we’d actually met you. More than anything, Amy wanted the two of you to come out of this together.”
            “Out of what?”
            “The end of the world,” Walter says seriously.
            “The end of the world?”
            Walter nods somberly and pulls his phone from a jacket pocket. He gestures for me to take his earbuds and plays me a video. The beginning is a newsreel mash up of everything’s that’s unfolded in the last few decades. The atomic bomb. Vietnam. Bloody riots. The cold war. 9/11. Ebola-N. The bovine flu. Earthquakes and tsunamis and landslides. Famine in Africa. Fade to black, and then a soaring vista above a windswept beach. Perfect crystal water, children playing in the sand. Deer running through mountains. People singing around a campfire, a vast web of stars stretched far above.
But how will it all be possible?” asks a voice. “The wicked must be destroyed!” Grey images flashing, politicians washing blood off their hands, grinning. Obese businessmen swimming in piles of cash while explosions erupt outside their glass towers. Tanks funneling endlessly out of factories, bombs falling from the sky, soldiers screaming and firing. A glowing sword descends from the sky and the screen fills with fire.
            Only Jesus Christ, supported by an angelic army, can bring this about, and he will, in the coming War of Armageddon. The question is, ‘Where will you stand?’”
            I can hardly breathe as the video fades to a close.
            “Surely you don’t think what we’re seeing in the world is normal, do you?” Walter asks as I remove the earbuds. I have no response.
            “Open your eyes, son. The economy is in a meltdown. The richest people on the planet have vanished, supposedly to wait out the coming storm. This flu is wiping people out left and right. We’ve had more earthquakes and hurricanes in this year alone than the last five combined. Mankind is in panic mode.”
            My eyes wander to a TV monitor hanging from a pillar in the cafeteria, where a scrolling marquee reports on a media blackout that’s plunged parts of Asia and all of the Middle East into virtual oblivion. The closed caption links this to the uprisings on the Chinese-Pakistan border and the subsequent Internet takeover by the Chinese government.
            “It’s easy to think things are always worse overseas, that they won’t catch up to us here in the US, but that’s an illusion, Luke. You said it yourself: the government has cut spending to almost every department in order to bolster law enforcement and the military. That’s a sure sign of a scared government. Americans are the most armed populace on the planet. When the panic hits…”
            “Ok, enough, I get it,” I say, the fear stirring in my veins.
            “I’m sorry, Luke. I’m not trying to scare you. I just want you to pay attention to the bigger picture.”
            “And then what? And what for? To live in paranoia? Build a bomb shelter under my house and hunker down for the apocalypse? What am I supposed to do?”
            Walter takes another deep breath. He appears anxious about what he’s about to say.
            “Quit the force, Luke.”
            “Quit? My job? Are you serious?” I say, scoffing.
            “Hear me out. You don’t want to be one of the ones in uniform in the coming days. Trust me on this, Luke. Get out while there’s a chance.”
            “And then what? The economy’s a mess–you said so yourself. How would we survive? And with all these hospital bills!”
            “I talked with Chelsea before the accident. She agreed that you two could live with us. Money would be tight, but we’d get by. Many of our friends have had to do the same. We have to stick together to weather this storm. We can help you.”
            “But… It’s… There’s just no way.”
            “Luke, listen to me,” Walter says gravely. “There’s going to come a time when the police won’t be able to do a thing to maintain the peace. Even the military won’t be able to stop it. It’s already happening around the world. And it’s even worse than what we’re seeing on the news.”
            “Worse? How do you know? How much worse?”
            “Like I said, we keep in contact with our brothers around the world. I can’t say much more, but it’s bad. Several governments have already been toppled. It’s a mess.”
            I look back to the screen and wonder over the media blackouts. Walter is still looking at me when I bring my gaze back. There’s an expectant intensity in his eyes. I know he’s waiting for a response.
           “Let me at least think it over, ok?” I mumble numbly. He doesn’t relax much. There’s a vibrating noise, and Walter reaches into his pocket for his phone. He glances at the screen, his expression immediately melting away.
            “I­–I’m sorry, Luke… I… I have to take this,” he says, nearly overturning the table as he stumbles out of the chair. He retreats quickly to a far corner of the cafeteria, but I can still make out the first words he speaks as he scrambles to take the call.
            “Son? Is that you?”

Finished book here!

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ek+jonathan+critical+timesAfter well over a year of research, writing, and editing, I'm happy to announce that Critical Times is finally finished. You can get it on Amazon or by downloading directly here. Enjoy!


Wednesday, January 20

10:19 AM


            The next few days are a blur. I’m in and out of the office, keeping my head down as much as possible as I churn through reports and file paperwork. Our station is still on an aggressive hiring campaign, and I’m assigned a handful of interviews with potential recruits. What used to be our parking lot is now occupied by a cluster of trailer offices set up to house everyone.
            Frankly, some of these new guys scare me. I can’t be sure of their motives, but I doubt they’re here to serve the public. I suppose the promise of job security is what brings most of them around. A few are war vets. These men show up knowing how to run the guns and the vehicles, and their attitude suggests that our training and operational protocols are beneath them. They pass all the tests, of course, but the realization that they will soon be armed officers patrolling the streets under my watch is unsettling to say the least.
            With the first new wave of recruits, Captain Pryce and some of the senior officers shared my concerns. Now they’re too preoccupied with getting everyone organized and trained and tending to the rigors that come with the badge. If anything, they seem grateful for the extra help. The fact of the matter is, the push to hire more officers goes past our rank. It’s nation-wide. More spending to local law enforcement is a federal mandate. From Honolulu to Anchorage to New York City, police departments everywhere are bulking up on manpower and firepower.
            I still patrol from time to time, but with the workload around here I’m mostly at my desk. This is a good thing; I’m more than willing to leave the heroic fire rescues and pharmacy shootouts to other officers. Not that I mind the occasional patrol shift. Getting out of the pen clears my mind. And with all that’s gone on recently, this is one thing I badly need.
            As usual, my thoughts drift to Amy. I wonder if she’ll ever open her eyes again, or if I’ll simply have to accept this as my new reality. She’s finally off of the ventilator, but the doctors cautiously warned that it’s no sure sign of recovery. It’s terrifying to think I may have to watch the woman I love grow old in an eternal sleep.
            Chelsea’s a little better off. She’s in and out of consciousness, but it’ll be some time before she can return home. She still hasn’t spoken, and the doctors are unclear if there’s been any permanent brain damage. This is perhaps the only possibility more frightening to me than never seeing Amy wake up: having her wake up as a different person. I try to shake the disquiet from my mind but it’s impossible. The anxiety weighs me down like an anchor.
            At half past ten, dispatch reports a domestic disturbance in the Pylons. It’s only a mile from my present location and I respond. When I arrive, an adult male and female are shoving each other on the front lawn of a dilapidated apartment block. A couple of onlookers take swigs from beer bottles and chuckle to themselves, welcoming the entertainment. My flashing lights and siren send them reluctantly back to the shadows, but the couple seem not to notice.
            My backup arrives within a few minutes of my arrival and we’re able to separate the two. The male suspect is bleeding from what looks like fingernail scratches to his face and there’s a fresh bruise on the woman’s neck, but otherwise the two are unharmed. We separate them and take their accounts of what happened before booking them. The other two officers place them in the back of their squad cars and haul them off to the station. They’ll be released tomorrow and I try to ignore the nagging suspicion that we’ll be back soon.
            In my car, I jot some notes for the report I’ll have to write back at my desk. It’s still well before noon. I think back to last October, when I was called out to this very neighborhood to respond to a fire and wonder what the lot looks like now. I decide to drive by.
            It’s all pretty much as I’d expected. The lot has been bulldozed over and is surrounded by a chain link fence topped in loops of barbed wire like a giant, menacing slinky. A plastic sign has been zip-tied to the fence explaining that the property has been reclaimed by the city. A phone number is posted for potential buyers. I highly doubt that they’ll get any bites, not in this neighborhood with its houses of boarded windows and sidewalks sprouting more vegetation than the front lawns.
            I wonder if our neighborhood will look like this one day, too. The demographic is about the same, as is the crime rate; we hear our neighbors fighting and crying and screaming all the time. We know they’re using, too. Most mornings we have to step around shards of shattered beer bottles and other paraphernalia just to leave our apartment.
            My mind jumps to Walter. Despite his wife’s injuries, he manages to keep his hope for a better future, just like the little boy with that card. Are they all just ignorant? Have they just chosen not to see how bad things are becoming? The more I learn about these people, the more I wonder. Could the Witnesses really have some master scheme in place?
            Still, despite my growing doubts, there’s one issue that sticks in my mind: Walter and Chelsea’s estranged son. I recall what Meade mentioned, that he wasn’t worth pursuing, that he didn’t know anything. But whether that was regarding his parents’ faith or the Witnesses secret activities, I can’t be sure. In a way, I realize, I’ve embarked on my own investigation, and while its subject is the same as the FBI’s, my motivation is different. For me, it’s personal; I’m not out to hurt anyone.
             I boot up the Toshiba on my dash and do a quick name search. Jesse Novak. A loading bar slides across the screen as the databases of nearby precincts are scoured for any relevant information. There’s a direct hit.
And a mugshot.
           From the long hair and scraggly beard it’s impossible to tell if the face is the same one I saw in the photos at Walter’s home, but the birthdate seems to fit. He’s only a month younger than myself. The rap sheet is short but telling. He’s had a couple DUIs in the last five years and was once hit with possession of narcotics. He’s no career criminal and I’d be surprised if half the adults his age in this county are any cleaner. Still, given his family background, it’s odd.
            The most recent address on record is just east of the Pylons in Almead County. It’s not in our jurisdiction, but I’ll chalk up my visit to a personal matter if it ever comes to light. The GPS software leads me to a trailer park full of campers and doublewides. A handful of kids in puffy jackets and rollerblades swat at a tennis ball with chipped hockey sticks and barely notice the squad car as I slip past. I weave in and out of cramped alleys and finally track down the unit. I wedge my car between two trailers and rap my knuckles against a flimsy aluminum door at the warped landing of some wooden stairs.
            A young woman with greasy blonde hair and facial piercings opens up and looks me over before speaking. “Yeah? What’s up?” she asks.
            “Hi. My name is Luke. I’m looking for a man named Jesse Novak. You know him?”
            “Maybe. What do you want him for?” she asks, pulling the door close to her side.
            “He’s not in trouble or anything,” I say quickly as she eyes my uniform. “I’m here on personal business. Just want to ask him a few questions.”
            The woman studies me carefully and swigs from a soda can, in no rush to comply. She turns her head and calls over her shoulder. A few moments pass and a man appears in the doorway. His appearance has changed little since the mugshot. Except now the eyes are set deeper, perhaps, and there seems to be a new tattoo creeping up from beneath the collar of his shirt.
            “Yeah? What do you want?” he grumbles wearily.
            “Hey,” I say in my least antagonizing voice. “I just wanted to ask you a few things. You got a minute?”
            “What about?”
            “Your parents.”
            A puzzled look comes over his face briefly, then disappears with a shrug. The door gapes open with a squeal and he gestures in the direction of a small dining table and folding chairs. The woman has retreated to the corner of their double wide, where’s she’s curled up under a blanket and jamming her fingers into an Xbox controller. The clatter of machine gun fire ricochets into the kitchenette until Jesse shouts at her to turn it down. He sits across from me at the table and rubs his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.
            “My parents, huh? They in trouble or something?” he asks.
            “Actually, your mom was in a car accident,” I say.
            “An accident… She ok?”
            “She will be. She’s recovering in the hospital now.” I let this sink in as Jesse rubs circles into his temples with his thumbs.
            “So, you guys don’t talk much, huh?” I say delicately.
            Jesse shrugs. “They call from time to time to check up.”
            “You see them often?”
            “Nah. It’s been years.” I nod. This confirms what they told me, at least.
            “So you know them? Personally?” Jesse asks.
            “They’re friends of my wife,” I say.
            Jesse’s eyes narrow as he mulls this over. “Friends, huh?”
            “Actually, your mother is studying the Bible with my wife, Amy.”
            There’s no reaction to this at first, but then Jesse smiles. “So that explains it, then.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “Why you came looking for me. You want to know about the Witnesses.”
            I consider ways to dodge the question, but can’t see a reason to. “Yeah, that’s it, more or less,” I admit.
            Jesse shakes his head and looks up at the ceiling. “I can’t believe this,” he says with a scornful laugh.
            “So what can you tell me? Why did you guys drift apart?”
            “I just ended up… Going my own way.”
            “Why? Are the Witnesses… You know, hiding something?”
            “Nah, man, they’re exactly what they seem.”
            “They seem like good people,” I say, challenging him to refute me.
            “They are. They’re… They’ve just got rules about stuff.”
            “Rules? What kind of rules?”
            Jesse avoids my gaze and nods to the center of the table, where an ashtray lies full of cigarette butts.
            “No smoking? Is that one of their rules?” I ask.
            “Yeah, that’s one. No smoking, no…” he pauses, looking over my uniform carefully. “No other stuff.”
            “Drugs,” I say, like it’s no big deal. “You can’t do drugs if you’re a Witness.”
            Jesse gives me a harsh look and I raise my hands with a look of innocence. “I’m not here to investigate you, man. I just want to know about these people my wife spends so much time with.”
            “So is that why you left the church? Because you couldn’t do… the stuff you wanted?”
            “It’s not a church, but yeah, that’s it, pretty much.”
            “And you were a member before, then you left?”
            “Nah, that’s not how it works. First you have to be a publisher. It means you have to go out in the ministry, going door to door, preaching to people and stuff. I got that far. I used to go out when I was just a little kid. But then, when I hit my teens, I just… I just didn’t take it any farther.” I note the change in Jesse’s expression, as if a shadow has fallen across his face, and I catch him glance momentarily at the girl on the couch.
            “You ever think about going back?”
            Jesse looks at me. There’s a long pause before he answers with a shrug. “Yeah, man. I’ve thought about it,” he says softly. “They used to come around, too. Back in the day.”
            “The Witnesses. They didn’t know who I was, but they’d come knocking from time to time. Used to hand out invitations to conventions every summer.”
            “Yeah, big meetings. Thousands of Witnesses from all over the place. They have them every year. Or, they used to. Who knows what they’re doing now, with the ban and everything.” Jesse bites his lip at hearing himself say this and makes an expression I can’t decipher.
            “That’s actually one of the things I’m trying to find out,” I say cautiously.
            “What do you mean?”
“I’m curious if they’re still having meetings, how they’re organized, and all that.”
            “I just want to know. For my wife’s sake. To make sure she’s safe, you know?”
            Jesse peers carefully into my eyes as a smirk creeps onto his face. He’s shaking his head as he looks at me now. “Nah, man. That’s not it. You’re on an investigation. Aren’t you? You’re trying to figure out how to nab them.”
            I try to brush it off with a laugh, but Jesse won’t let it go.
            “That’s it exactly, isn’t it? You’ve been sent to spy on them, and you thought I’d give them up. Well, you can forget it. I may not be a Witness now, and I may never become one, but I’d never sell them out.”
            “Now listen, Jesse,” I say, trying to calm him.
            “No, you listen. I may have drifted far from the person my parents thought I’d become, but I never forgot the things I learned when I was a kid, man. I’m no Judas. And if that’s the game you’re playing, you’d better get ready for what’s coming.” Jesse stands suddenly from the chair and pulls the door open, making it clear that our visit is over. I try to find words, only to come up empty. I give a defeated nod and slide back out into the cold air to begin the drive back.