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Authors: William R. Vitanyi Jr.

Tags: #Thrillers, #Espionage, #Fiction

Palm Sunday

BOOK: Palm Sunday
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PALM SUNDAY

 

William R. Vitanyi, Jr.
Dedication

To my wife, Kay, my eternal thanks for your patience, and for dealing with all that stuff so I had time to write.

To my kids, thank you for your inspiration and feedback.

To Carla, Jan, and Suzanne — thanks for reading the manuscript and telling me what you didn’t like about it.  It really helped.  And thanks for telling me what you liked about it.  It really helped.

Most of all, to the reader — it’s all about you.  Without readers, the rest is irrelevant.  To you, I bow deeply.

Chapter One

Robert Slocum casually tossed down a shot of whiskey, pursed his lips at the bite, and followed it with a swallow of cold beer. He didn’t drink much, and he hadn’t today. The single shot with its beer chaser was simply part of a routine he always followed before meeting a client. Throwing a few bills on the counter, he nodded at the bartender and walked towards the exit.

It was late, well after midnight, and a mix of drizzle and sleet had just started to fall. No matter, his car was only half a block away. He stepped onto the poorly lit sidewalk, and had gone no more than ten paces when something struck him a savage blow to the back of the head.

He felt himself falling, slowly corkscrewing towards the concrete walkway, as if in slow motion. Powerless to stop himself, he crashed to the ground as darkness slowly engulfed him. The faint perception of something tugging at his clothes, and distant voices, were among his last memories as he slowly lapsed into unconsciousness. Two pairs of practiced hands went through his pockets.

One of the two muggers stood up and beckoned for his partner to follow. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

“Wait a minute, there’s something else here. Got it!” He tightly gripped a flat, rectangular object as he dashed towards their car, jumping in the passenger side as his partner slid behind the wheel. The doors slammed and the beat-up Buick pulled away from the curb with a roar. Five minutes later they were well away from the scene of the crime.

“How much we get?” The driver alternated between watching the road and glancing at his partner.

“Mucho. Looks like over seven hundred. And this thing.” The Latino sitting in the passenger seat examined the device he had taken off their victim.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. Something electronic. A calculator.” The Buick hit a pothole as they passed a local strip mall. “You’re gonna bust your car. Hey, Chico, we got credit cards, too!”

“Bueno. Let’s head over to the projects and hook up with the guys. With that much cash we can all get off.”

“What about the rest of the stuff?”

“Keep the credit cards. Dump the calculator. We won’t be doing no math.”

The two laughed hilariously as the electronic device was tossed from the car. It flipped end over end, described an arc through the night sky, and buried itself in a snow bank on the side of the road. The car disappeared into the night.

***

It sat there for a whole day, covered by dirty gray snow, until finally the temperature hit the mid-fifties. As the day warmed, the corner of the dull black device was slowly revealed. Cars raced past on the nearby highway, oblivious to the electronic marvel slowly emerging from the dingy ice. But the marvel was less in the electronics than in the information contained in the unit. To the boy who reached down and plucked it from its frozen grave it was simply a treasure, and he ran gleefully home with his new toy.

***

Stanley Whipple was perched in front of his computer screen watching lines of code scroll past when his rosy-cheeked son darted through the back door.

“Wait just a minute,” Stanley yelled, his eyes never leaving the screen. “Get your boots off.”

The boy fidgeted for a moment in the doorway, kicking his boots off so hard that they flew against the wall. He didn't wait for a second reprimand. He was up the stairs in a flash, slamming his bedroom door and sitting on his bed. He reached for his bathrobe and used it to dry off his newfound toy.

Once it was wiped off the device was even more appealing, though the silver lettering on the front was partially scraped off, and the sturdy black unit was scratched and marred. The boy turned it over in his hands, examining it from every angle, and it wasn’t long before he noticed the small lever on the front edge. He worked it with his thumb, gently pressing it until the lid popped open, revealing a slate-gray menu screen. A flashing icon invited the user to make a selection, but the boy ignored this, not knowing what it wanted. He was attracted by the shininess though, and continued to turn it this way and that, admiring the reflection of light from various angles. After several minutes of this he put it aside and went to wash up, knowing that his father would soon call him for dinner. As if on cue, his father’s voice echoed up the narrow staircase.

“Bobby, dinner’s ready. Make sure you wash your hands good.”

“Okay, Dad. Be right down.”

Bobby walked down the hall to the second floor bathroom and quickly ran some water over his grimy hands, wiping most of the dirt off on a clean towel. As he started to leave, he noticed the filthy gray stains he had left on the white fabric. A twinge of guilt plucked at his conscience, so he carefully removed the towel, folded it so the dirt wasn’t showing, and replaced it on the rack. He pulled the hanging ends even, centered it, and with his conscience clear, ran downstairs to eat.

Stanley Whipple was not a complicated man; at least, not on the surface. He had two priorities in life—his son and his work. Both demanded his full attention, and both got it. It was a tough balancing act, with his wife dead for two years now, and the computer firm that relied on him always pressing for him to work more hours. Deadlines for software fixes always loomed, and conscientious man that he was, Stanley never disappointed. But the time at work was beginning to have an impact on the boy, and Stanley knew something had to be done to even things out.

As he placed a set of dishes on the table, Stanley eyed his ten-year-old son.

“Hey Bobby, how’d you like to go up to the lake and do some fishing this year?”

“Sure Dad; sounds great. What’s for dinner?”

“Well, we’ve got chicken–a roaster from the market–mashed potatoes, peas…”

“Yuck.”

“Peas are good. We like to eat our peas.”

“Dad…”

“Okay, okay. You don’t like peas. But you will eat them. They’re good for you.”

Stanley finished placing the plates and food on the table, and gestured for Bobby to sit down at his place across from him. The boy closed his eyes, clasped his hands together, and lowered his head.

“God, we thank you for the food, for our house, and for Dad’s job. Thank you for taking care of Mommy up in Heaven, and God bless all our stuff. Amen. Oh yeah, and thanks for the neat electronic thing. Amen.”

“Amen.” Stanley looked up at his son. “Bobby, what was that about an ‘electronic thing’?”

The boy was already reaching for the chicken.

“Oh, I found it in the snow.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “near the parking lot.”

“You’re sure it wasn’t near the road? You know what I told you about that.”

Bobby shook his head, but continued to look down, chewing on a piece of bread. Stanley decided not to press the road issue.

“So what was it you found?”

“I don’t know. It has buttons, and a screen.”

“You can show me after dinner.”

Bobby nodded and gulped down some milk. After this brief exchange, the two ate largely in silence. Stanley wanted the boy to open up more, to let out some of the hurt that he knew must be smoldering inside. The suddenness of his mother’s death had been a shock, but Bobby had taken it like a man. The problem was, he wasn’t a man. Two years was a long time, but the healing really hadn’t started yet. Stanley, too, had issues–mainly with how his wife’s murder investigation had been handled. His own incarceration for three days had left him with a deep bitterness towards the police, especially since they never caught the real killer.

“You can have more chicken if you want.”

“No thanks,” said Bobby. “May I be excused?”

“Sure. Put your dish in the sink. Got much homework?”

“Nah–just some math. I did most of it in school.”

“Then why do they call it homework?”

“You bring work home.” Bobby smiled at his own cleverness.

“Good one. You better get to it before it gets late. Oh, why don’t you show me what you found?”

“I’ll go get it.” Bobby ran to his room to retrieve the device, and Stanley started putting the leftovers away. The boy returned within thirty seconds.

“That was quick. Let’s see what you’ve got.” Stanley took the proffered black unit. “Well, how about that. It’s a palmtop.”

“What’s that?”

“A palm-sized computer. People use them for storing addresses, phone numbers, even computer programs, depending on how sophisticated the model is. You can even use them to get on the Internet.”

“What about this one? Can I play games on it?”

“I don’t know what it can do, but Bobby, I’m afraid you can’t keep this.”

“Why not?” The expression of pain on the boy’s face was genuine.

“It belongs to someone, and it probably has information in it that’s very important to its owner. If you lost something important to you, you’d want it returned if someone found it, wouldn’t you?”

Bobby stared at the floor, not wanting to acknowledge the truth in his father’s words, but knowing he was right. His new toy was history. “I guess so.”

“Well then, don’t be sad about it. Think of it as a mystery. There are probably lots of great clues in here.” Stanley held up the device. “It will be our job to find out who the owner is and to return this to him. It will be our quest.” He was hoping for a hint of enthusiasm, but was disappointed by the sullen ‘okay’ that followed. “Do you want to start the search after you finish your homework?”

“All right.” Bobby had started to leave the kitchen, and now slowly turned back. “Actually, you can just do it.”

“If that’s what you want, son. I just thought it would be fun to do together.”

“I don’t feel like it.” He slowly walked up the steps to his room. Stanley let him go, quickly finished cleaning up the kitchen, and turned his attention to the palmtop.

“Well, now. Let’s see who you belong to.”

***

It was dark, and the room was spinning. No, that wasn’t it–his eyes were closed. He slowly opened them, light flooded in, and the spinning gradually subsided. The bed he was in was not what he expected, nor were the smells familiar. Lifting his head to look around, he realized that he was in a hospital, but the effort set the room spinning again, and with a grimace of pain he put his head back down. A nurse walked into the room.

“Morning, sir. Good to see you’re awake.”

“Ah…where am I?”

“This is Saint John’s Hospital. I’m nurse Shaddock. And who might you be?”

Robert Slocum looked at the large black woman standing over him. For some reason, he didn’t think he should tell her his name. He couldn’t remember why.

“I don’t remember. Why am I here?”

“You took quite a blow to the head. We don’t know, really. Probably you were mugged. You’ve been unconscious for over twenty hours, you know. Can’t you remember anything?”

“No, it just hurts. I’d like to sleep some more.” He watched as the corpulent nurse wrote something on his chart.

“Okay, sir. You get some rest. The doctor will be in shortly.” With a smile, she put his chart back and left the room.

When she had gone, Slocum checked out his surroundings more carefully, noting that no one was in the bed next to him. Carefully, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, the pounding in his head still present, but tolerable. There was a stand next to his bed with some drawers in it, and he opened one. His clothes were inside, so he pulled everything out and laid it on the bed, dressing quickly while he considered how he might get out of the hospital without attracting attention. As his mind started working out the details of what he would have to do, the events of the previous evening slowly came back to him.

He remembered finishing his drink at the bar, and leaving, and then there was the awful crack to the back of his head. He stood looking at the garment in his hands as he recalled what had happened. Slowly, methodically, he put his sports coat on and by instinct reached for the inside pocket. It was empty. That wasn’t right, something should be there. A puzzled look crossed his face. What was it? His wallet? No, that was missing, but there was something else, more important. He looked down as he tried to remember. If only the pounding in his head would stop. Then it hit him; his handheld computer was gone.

He frantically searched through the pockets of all his clothes, twice, but there was nothing. The palmtop had been in the inside pocket of his sports coat, he was sure, but it wasn’t there now. After he left the bar, someone had hit him on the back of the head. They must have taken his wallet and the palm unit. This was bad. He realized then that he had missed his appointment as well. The agency was not going to be pleased.

BOOK: Palm Sunday
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