Chapter 1 // Monday, July 11 2:00 p.m.

Chapter 1 // Monday, July 11 2:00 p.m.

Would you like a bloody thumbprint...
— Jake

The scorching sun shows no pity to a hump like me, laid out in the open on the high desert terrain. Bugs try to seek shelter in my clothing, but they crawl along my bare skin until they become trapped within a fold of fabric or drown in a drop of my sweat. The dryness of the air would shrivel me like a discarded orange peel but for the large quantity of water that I consume. Just an average day on recon. First, I surreptitiously move to a location with a clear view of my target’s haunt. Then, I wait long days that progress hour upon monotonous hour. I try to avoid all movement while constantly searching for my prey. I remain hidden under natural and man-made camouflage for days, hoping for a brief window of opportunity to open. And when it does, I shoot. My weapon might be a sniper rifle with high-velocity bullets or a camera with heat-sensitive imaging and facial-recognition capabilities, or it might be a laser that provides a target for a smart bomb. Whatever the mission, it always comes down to the brief moment when I focus my vision on a precise image and gently squeeze a trigger...The image fades and reforms as a conference room.

As much as I hated those times in the wild, they were a cake walk compared to this. Sitting in a twentieth-floor conference room with a view of East Portland, and snow-clad Mount Hood piercing a deep-blue, cloudless sky, I press my palms against the long table made from a single slab of old-growth fir. Its gnarled grain and occasional knots provide a welcome diversion from the conversation circling me like a hungry vulture. My chair is more comfortable than my bed—that’s a blessing. And the room is stocked with coffee, water, tea, and soft drinks. Nobody would want me to not be able to dig my own grave because of a dry throat. But if they really wanted me to spill the beans, they’d have some whiskey on hand. To my right sits Peter Jennings, my attorney. Directly across from me sits my wife, Sue Brand. Next to her sits her attorney, the evil stepmom from every Disney movie, Sally Crenshaw, or Sal, as she is apt to remind me.

The two attorneys are charging ten bucks a word, triple for words with four or more syllables, and must be keeping score as they compete for the title of Most Verbose. I glance at my wife, the love of my life. Her short brown hair frames her normally smiling face. Today that face is tense, uncertain. She can’t, or won’t, return my gaze; I think she’s ready for us to finally end. What happened? How could the overwhelming passion and need for each other when we married have turned into her overwhelming need to run? She says I’ve changed, that I’m more serious with bouts of melancholy mixed in. I’m sure I have changed—isn’t that part of life? How could I not? She’s changed as well. But a marriage is forever, and change is going to happen. Shouldn’t we be working through this? Not according to her mom. Sue’s mom says marriage is forever or until her little baby is unhappy, whichever occurs first.

“Jake? Are you going to answer the question?” Sue asks.

I break free of my thoughts and focus on the room. “What question?” I ask. I feel everyone staring at me, trying to decipher the nature of my mental disability.

“Do you affirm that all assets have been accurately listed on the inventory sitting in front of you?” Attila the Sal asks. I look at Pete, who nods toward the sheet of paper sitting in front of me. All of our worldly possessions are individually listed. Each item is assigned to the person who will take full ownership in a few moments. This treasure chest of riches is to be split four ways, one share to Sue, one to me, and one to each of our attorneys.

“Yes, it looks correct. Oh, wait a sec, Pete, it doesn’t show the bottle return deposits. I’ll bet I have twenty bucks’ worth, easy.” I smile at the Sal-inater, trying my damnedest to annoy her. But she just smiles back at me while she twirls her black designer readers. Does this woman ever get angry? I’ve tried awfully hard to rile her and am saddened by my lack of success.

“Please sign where indicated,” Sal-cula orders.

I look at her and imagine the crosshairs of my scope on her forehead. I narrow an eye to focus my aim. She winks at me, causing me to freeze as if my imaginary gun is pointed at me instead of her. Inside my brain, my little devil screams, “Pull the trigger!” Nearly simultaneously, my little angel urges me to ask her out. Out of the corner of my open eye, I see Sue frowning and shifting her gaze between me and her attorney. She sees the odd looks we’re giving each other. I break free of my daydream, pick up a pen, and quickly scribble my name somewhat across the line provided.

“What now? Would you like a bloody thumbprint?” I ask the room. Nobody laughs but my little devil and Godz-Sal-A. The attorneys begin to gather documents and stuff them into file folders and briefcases.

“Pete, it was good working with you on this. Here’s your set of the signed documents; I’ll have everything recorded today. Sue and Jake, you are officially single,” Son of Sal says.

I look at Sue and see the tear that I feel. I want to hug her and promise her it was all a bad dream—we’ll be okay. I want to promise that I’ll change back to the man she loved. We can still be we. I want to smell the freshness of her hair, the sweet aroma of her perfume. I want to feel her body per- fectly contoured to mine. But I don’t even get a handshake. Sue stands, walks out of the conference room, and heads to the elevators, leaving Pete, Sal-itosis, and me to shake hands and bid adieu like civilized humans who have successfully completed the normal, everyday task of dismantling husband and wife.

When I shake hands with Sal the butcher, she squeezes a bit tighter than I expect, causing me to focus on her face, a surprisingly pretty face. An assertive “used to getting what it wants or destroying somebody” face. She mouths the words, Call me. Before I can turn and run, she turns and waves to Pete. I stand anchored to the floor, until Pete grabs my arm and pulls me toward the elevator.

“Drink?” I ask.

“Seems kind of early for that, don’t you think?” Pete asks.

I give Pete my best “you ain’t my mom” look. “I don’t end my marriage very often, Pete. Are you in or are you out?”

He nods and says, “You’re right. It’s been a tough day. Sure, one drink isn’t the end of the world.”