A MAN WITH THE HEAD OF A HAWK slid an AK-47 barrel over the trembling woman’s face. He was broad and dark, with all the terror of a mythological creature. Most of his harsh features were hidden behind the black mask of feathers, but she could see murder in his icy, pale eyes.
She was tied to a straight, wooden chair in the middle of a bare room. Thin shafts of brown light filtered through the cracked concrete walls. The stench of blood and bloated carcasses filled her nostrils. She swallowed the urge to vomit. The dusty air of Boquerón hung over the room like a thick spider web.
Boquerón was a tiny fishing settlement just outside the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Over the years it had become barely inhabited, serving now as a hideout for criminals and dissidents. The village was so dangerous that the Cuban government had been forced to close it to all visitors. Unfortunately, the woman wasn’t a tourist, and the law was far away.
The hawk man lowered the rifle and leaned over his prisoner. His sharp, hooked bill pressed against the woman’s nose. A soft whimper squeaked from her lips. He paused, as if waiting to speak, but instead held a small, wooden shape up to her face. It was a chess pawn. He twisted it slowly, revealing her name carved into the piece.
Catherine Molena wanted to scream, but fear had paralyzed her. It wouldn’t have made a difference. Screams and gunshots were ignored in Boquerón. No one was going to save her.
“I need answers,” the man finally said.
Catherine shook her head weakly. “I don’t know what you want.”
“I want a name.”
“You already have my name.”
“Catherine,” the man whispered as he grabbed her hair, “you’re an FBI agent on assignment in Cuba. Who are you investigating?”
Her chin fell against her chest. She seemed on the brink of unconsciousness.
The hawk man pulled some photographs from a burlap bag. He held up a picture of a military official with thick eyebrows.
“General Yeager?” the strange man taunted.
Catherine didn’t want to answer. She hadn’t even filed her report yet. No one in the FBI knew exactly what she had uncovered, and all the equipment had just been moved to back to the United States.
Her captor flipped through more photographs — a young, black girl followed by an elderly man with glasses.
“Alysson Cromwell? Benjamin Walters?” He cocked his bird head. “Any of these names ring a bell?”
She refused to respond.
“How about this gentleman?”
Catherine lifted her head. A thin man with dark hair smiled at her from the photograph.
She gasped, “Martin Keller. How did you…?”
“Martin Keller,” he echoed. He stared at the image for a long time, allowing the face to burn itself into his brain.
Catherine’s entire body began to shake. “You have no idea what you’re up against.”
“I’m sure you could tell me all about Swansong.”
Catherine was shocked. She didn’t know what to say.
“That’s all I know,” she cried. “Please don’t torture me.”
“We don’t torture! Your government tortures!”
Catherine looked up at the dingy ceiling, weary from the interrogation.
The man added, “La Cortina simply kills.”
He shot her in the eye. Her head flopped over the back of the chair, and her body went limp. The heavy air settled around the dead body in silence.
The man removed the mask and dropped it into the burlap sack. He lit a cigarette and took a long drag. The smoke swirled around his head, clinging to his shockingly red hair. He turned the pawn in his fingers, admiring the tiny spots of blood that covered it. It was the first move. The game had begun.
He put the pawn in its place and stepped outside. Nothing moved throughout the village. Over the Sierra Maestra mountains, a cloud sank over the setting sun. The young leader nodded. A dark curtain was about to descend on America. This woman’s body was the first of many. La Cortina was going to turn Washington, DC upside down.
THE FIRST STREAMS OF DAWN filtered through the tall white spruce trees. Swallows awakened in the boughs overhead with shrill chirps and playful leaps. Martin Keller ran over the dark path, soaking in the crisp morning scenery. He loved to run at sunrise, especially in the summer, before the day became too hot.
Marty was a two-time All-American runner in college and, even at forty-three, had retained the physique. Graying hair now matched his sweat-soaked t-shirt, but he could still keep pace with much younger men. He ran five miles every morning, rain or shine, but this morning was special, a run through his favorite spot in the whole world.
Turning off the trail, he padded over the wet sand of Terrapin Beach. Tall grasses dotted salt marshes off the shore. Pink and orange waves rushed over the golden beach from the dark silhouette of twin bridges. In the distance, an egret soared quietly over the bay under an odd pattern of swirling gulls.
It was like a dream, but Kent Island always seemed so for him. He curled his toes into the dark sand, and gazed at his own reflection in the breaking waves. Years of memories flooded his mind. He could see a much younger version of himself proposing to his wife on the very same beach. He could see the gleeful face of his baby girl chasing tiny frogs into the pond. He could see his son and daughter, buried up to their waists, while he and his wife molded mermaid tails in the sand around them.
Back on the path, he wove through more spruces under a bright sky that was cooling from fiery red to a gentle blue. He could see their favorite picnic spot where the family had enjoyed dozens of cold chicken and pasta salad feasts. He could see the old, weathered benches where he had first considered the social patterns of fox squirrels. He could see the historic inn where they always stayed.
The faint smell of salt still lingered in the air as he sprinted up the stone walk to the inn. Built in 1820, the old house had survived the Civil War and four hurricanes, and even with the harsh sea climate it still retained its original charm and color. A gorgeous Victorian blend of whites and reds set quietly in the tall evergreens, it overlooked the most scenic section of the island. He walked around the porch, cooling down from his run, and admired the repeating sections of white railing that encircled the inn. The beauty of the entire island spread out before him. There was nowhere on earth he loved more.
Six a.m., and Sarah Thompson was already behind the front desk. She giggled to herself as he entered the lobby, and offered a towel.
“Good morning, Dr. Keller.”
Dripping with sweat, and still not completely recovered, he gladly accepted.
“Thank you, Sarah,” he huffed. “You’re up early.”
Another giggle. “Not as early as you. All that running must keep you young.”
“Not as young as you,” he said with a smile.
Sarah blushed. “I’m 75 years old. I certainly don’t need compliments from young men anymore.”
She leaned forward, placed her hand on his, and added, “But I still like them.”
He kissed her hand before bounding up the broad, curved staircase. Sarah and her husband, Samuel, had operated the inn for almost forty years. Samuel had died three years ago, but Sarah continued to manage everything with the same sweet charm. She was just one more reason the Kellers continued to return to the same place for vacation every year.
The hallway was silent, everyone still apparently asleep. He quietly opened the door to number 12, and slipped inside. The shades were drawn and the room was dark. Two double beds set against the wall held the sleepy sighs of his family. Jenny and Matt shared one bed, the brother and sister tucked as far away as possible from one another. It was hard to believe they were thirteen and nine. Where had all the years gone? He fumbled through the bureau drawers in the dark for fresh clothes.
“Back from your run?” his wife asked softly.
Laura rolled over, and brushed her long, brown hair from her face. It fell in matted strands over the shoulders of her oversized t-shirt.
“You’re so pretty in the morning,” Marty whispered.
Laura snorted, “You’re delirious. I’m a mess.”
“Nobody’s prettier than you.” Marty gave her a quick peck on her forehead. “I’m going to jump in the shower. Maybe the kids will be awake when I get out.”
“I doubt I’ll be awake when you get out,” she mumbled, and turned back onto her large, down pillow.
He flipped on the shower and peeled the clothes from his body. His aging, reddened face stared from the mirror as the room began to fill with steam. Martin Keller, he thought, you deserve a vacation. Ten years of difficult research followed by a year of endless accolades and interviews had nearly drained him. Then there were the mysterious emails; he didn’t even want to think about them. He needed some time to simply relax and not think about anything for a while.
The image of his face wavered, and he caught the edges of the marble vanity. Odd, he thought, I’ve never felt light-headed after a run. He steadied himself for a moment, and watched the final fragments of his reflection disappear under the foggy haze.
The warm water pounded his face like a hard rain. He turned and allowed the shower to massage his shoulders and back. All sense and sound were swallowed in the soothing monotony of falling water and relaxing steam. He closed his eyes and drifted off.
A flash shuddered through his mind. Something’s wrong, he thought. Another spark, and a sharp pain in his head. He gripped his forehead, but his fingers felt strangely foreign against his hot flesh.
What’s happening to me? He opened his eyes and blinked, struggling to focus his surroundings. The water filling the bottom of the shower was stained red.
He held his hands before his face. They were covered with blood.
MARTY FELL AGAINST THE WALL of the shower. Spots of blood painted his entire body. His heart and his mind were racing. Am I seeing things?
He quickly washed the blood from his body and jumped out of the shower. His running clothes lay in a hasty pile, surrounded by a red pool. There’s blood everywhere, he thought. He threw on a white polo shirt and khaki shorts, and rushed out of the bathroom.
The room was still dark and silent. He scrambled through the room, tripping over a suitcase, and flung open the curtains that covered the French doors.
Red blotches stained the walls and the carpet of a room that had been tossed into shambles. Both beds were violently ripped apart, and draped over the blood-soaked sheets were the murdered bodies of his wife and children.
He covered his face and collapsed in the corner. Oh shit, oh shit, he repeated. Peeking again, he found the same gory scene.
A sharp knock at the door startled him.
“Dr. Keller, are you all right?” called a deep voice.
Marty panicked. He leaped to his feet and peered wildly around the room.
The door burst open, and several figures entered the room. Dressed completely in black with dark visored helmets, they waved assault rifles toward him.
“Relax, Dr. Keller. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Marty tried to focus all the ideas whirling in his head. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t think. Helplessly, he held his hands over his head and pleaded, “I don’t know how this happened, but I swear I didn’t do it!”
“Just calm down.”
“I’m innocent!” Marty screamed.
He glanced frantically from the bodies on the bed to the bodies blocking the door. His butchered family, his bloody clothes — all the evidence pointed to him as the killer. The armed force was nearing the edge of the first bed. Once they saw the carnage there would be no chance to explain.
Marty rushed the group. He rammed his shoulder into the first body, knocking the entire crowd together. The lead officer grabbed him.
“Dr. Keller, I need you to calm down. We’re not going to hurt you.”
Marty answered with an elbow to the face. Arms snatched at him from every direction. He became wild with fear, kicking and clawing at the men with a ferocity that terrified everyone in the room.
“Someone restrain him!” the lead officer cried.
Marty dropped another officer. Forcing his arm between two more guards, he growled and thrust his body from the fray. He spun and fell into the middle of the room. The guards lunged at him. He kicked at their helmets, and rolled toward the back wall. Jumping up, he forced the glass door open and sprinted onto the balcony.
“What do you see?” a voice demanded from room number 12.
The answer hung like a haunting dream.
“His whole family, murdered.”
Footsteps followed closely, but Marty didn’t look back. He flipped over the railing and dropped two stories into the flower gardens. Voices shouted overhead and a few gunshots whistled through the morning air. He leaped over the shrubs, crossed a small arched bridge, and ducked into the forest.
Marty ran like a rabid animal. Shots rang over his head, and splinters rained over his shoulders as he darted between the trees. He cut behind larger spruces, needles pelting him in the face, running hard enough to burst his heart. Throwing his back against a large tree, he fought to still his breathing and his thoughts. He had to find a way to escape. He could feel the sweat running down his back. His hands were trembling. He was beginning to believe that he was going to die in his favorite place, just like his family.
A flash of white caught his eye through the trunks. He squinted. Again, in the distance, something was moving through the trees. It looked strangely like a woman. He heaved as quietly as he could, torn between desperately wanting to gulp air and not wanting to breathe at all. For minutes that seemed like hours, he listened for the attackers, and searched for the lady in white. He found neither.
Marty waited for hours before breathing a sigh of relief. Apparently he was safe for now, but he was still a wanted man. He tried to analyze his situation, but he couldn’t escape the grisly images of his family. Someone had killed them and tried to frame him, but who, and why, and how? He wrestled with a hundred different scenarios for the rest of the day, never finding peace, and as the sun began to set and the shadows stretched across the forest, he finally surrendered to exhaustion.