The prologue to part one is an incredibly critical part of the entire series. Not only because it introduces the reader to the two main characters, but it also comes into play in many ways later in the series. It’s also (IMHO) a bit gut wrenching, and with good reason. As with so many other parts of the book, I have no idea how I would react in the same situation. I hope I never have to find out.
Nevertheless, enjoy! Dissident is only a buck from now through March 31. Grab it at the reduced price while you can!
They had been dragging themselves through the woods for hours, with him holding the flashlight and leading the way, and her faltering through the ice and snow trying to keep his pace. They moved slowly, their injuries hindering their flight. The forest was thick and foreboding and the biting winter wind whistled through the branches in the trees, cutting them to the core. They listened for the sound of flowing water in the hope that the Allegheny River was no longer frozen over and they could follow it up to New York.
They knew their odds were long but held out faith that despite the blustering wind and bitter cold, they could somehow find a way to Buffalo. The Canadian border. Their last, best chance at safety.
The flashlight began to flicker and the man knew that the batteries would only last them so much longer. It had been snowing earlier in the night, but the clouds had been carried away by the wind and the flashlight was supplemented by the glow of the winter moon. He turned the flashlight off and his wife tumbled into him.
“Jack, why did you do that?” It was hard for her to stay upright without her momentum to keep her going, and even harder to follow him without the artificial light.
“The flashlight’s getting low and the moon is relatively bright. We should conserve the batteries. Do you need to rest?” he asked, knowing the answer was yes.
“No,” she lied. “Let’s keep going.”
He put the flashlight in his coat pocket, feeling it bump up against the gun he had concealed there. He put his arm around her waist and hoisted her up.
“Let’s go,” he said, as he kept his arm around her to steady her as she walked.
Their pace continued to slow until they were hardly moving at all. He could see her grimacing with every step, could hear her labored breathing, and he knew that she was much more seriously injured than she was letting on. Although he himself was in pain he did his best to keep them both going. His ankle was sprained and the weight of two people upon it was almost too much for him to bear. But they couldn’t stop.
He saw a clearing up ahead and knew they were nearing a road. But that wasn’t what they wanted. Roads meant people and people meant danger. Almost no one could be trusted. The soldiers who had run their car off the road were biding their time, waiting, until the moment was right to come after them again.
The two of them weren’t about to make themselves easy prey by following a path trod by others. Their footsteps were not hard to trace because of the snow, but it was better than being out in the open. No, the river was their best bet, their least dangerous path north.
He turned sharply and started to steer them both away from the road, as close to a westerly direction as he could manage. He was a suburban Philly boy and could only depend on his poor instincts to guide him.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“We need to find the river, Caroline. There’s a road up ahead and we have to avoid it.”
The woods grew hilly and she began to struggle. He was practically carrying her as they made their way up an incline and he knew he wouldn’t be able to support her much longer. Suddenly she broke free of him and lurched into a nearby tree, sinking to the ground.
She pulled off her earmuffs and loosened her scarf with difficulty, her back to the tree. He could tell she was in tremendous pain and knelt down in the snow beside her.
“Sweetheart, we have to keep going,” he said.
Her face was windswept and her eyes were red. She was sweating in spite of the cold and he could practically hear her heart beating out of her chest.
“Jack, I can’t do this. I’m too tired. I can’t breathe.”
“Yes, you can. We can keep going. I’ll help.”
“You can’t help. You can barely walk while you’re lugging me along.” She began to cry.
He wiped away some of her tears with his gloved hand. “We’ll stop for a minute, all right? Then we’ll start again.”
She closed her eyes and tried to breathe. The tears coursed silently down her face. He let her rest, hoping that she would then tell him they could move on even though they really had no time to waste. She opened her eyes a few moments later and looked at him. His breath caught in his throat. Her brown eyes, which had once been so warm, confident, and loving, were now laced with a fear he’d never seen before.
“You have to go,” she said. “Now.”
“We have to go,” he corrected her.
“No.” He looked at her incredulously. “We.”
“You have to go, Jack. It’s the only way.”
His mind started racing. He couldn’t wrap his head around what she was suggesting.
“No. I’m not leaving you here.”
She closed her eyes again. The wetness on her face was beginning to freeze in place. Her voice broke.
“Tell my girls how much I love them.” She stifled a sob. “Tell them I’m sorry.”
Her children. Their children. Who were hopefully already in Canada.
“This is absurd, Caroline. I’m not leaving you here alone. Are you insane? We’re wasting time.”
“You can move ten times faster without me. You know I’m right.”
Hot, angry tears pricked his eyes. “I’m not leaving you, sweetheart. There has to be another way.”
“This is the only way and you know it.” She took her left glove off and traced his lips with her bare fingers. “My darling. My Monty. I love you so.”
He kissed her fingers and wrapped them in his, trying to warm them. “I’m not leaving you,” he repeated.
Her voice was weak, but firm. “This is bigger than us. You have to go. Get to Canada. Share that information. Stop Santos. Don’t let all our sacrifices be for nothing.”
“I love you.” He took off his gloves and began to caress her face with his bare hands. “I’m not leaving you.”
“Listen to me. You are going to go. You are going to get to Canada. You are going to get this flash drive to people who can do something with it. Please, Jack. Please do this for me.”
He was adamant. “I am not leaving you here!”
“You are. You need to go. They will find us soon and they’ll find us even sooner if we’re moving together.” She tried to straighten up, using the tree for support. “If you don’t leave, I swear to God I will never forgive you. I mean it. There is no point in both of us getting captured or worse. Please. Do this for me.”
He kissed her forehead, still cradling her face in his hands, and the tears in his eyes spilled over. “Don’t make me do this. I can’t. I won’t leave you.”
“Go,” she whispered. “Go before they catch up with us.”
She removed the glove from her right hand and began to slip her wedding rings off her left ring finger. Her large diamond and sapphire engagement ring glistened in the moonlight. She’d thought it was gaudy when he’d first given it to her, and the media had loved speculating about how much it must have cost. But she’d grown accustomed to it. Aside from its sentimental value, it was now almost worthless in the fragile American economy.
She fumbled through the simple task, her hands numbed by the cold. She placed the rings in Jack’s hand and wiped the tears from his face. He searched her eyes for an explanation.
“They’re no good to me out here,” she said. “Take them. They belong to you. I don’t want those bastards to have them.” She closed her eyes and began to nod off.
Jack grabbed her chin, desperate to keep her awake. “Stay with me, Caroline. We can do this.”
“Go now.” Her voice was fading. “Be safe. Be strong.”
Jack brought his lips to hers and kissed her hard, wanting it to last, wanting to breathe life into her, to give her the strength to keep going. He gripped her rings tightly in his fist. The prongs from the engagement ring were prodding into his ice cold palm, but he was oblivious to the pain they caused. He didn’t want to break the connection between them. Caroline brought her hands up to his stocking cap, drew it off, and ran her fingers through his hair. He pulled back, his lips close to hers.
They heard a rustling in the distance and Jack turned his head, not sure of what he would find. He half hoped that a deer would come gliding through the trees but he knew that would be too good to be true. Their luck had run out too many times. Caroline squeezed his hand, the one with the rings in it.
“Go, Jack. They’re coming. Go.”
He pressed his lips to hers again, a long, frantic kiss. She pushed him away and reached into her coat pocket, pulling out her Glock and an extra magazine. “Take these. You might need them.”
Jack dropped the rings into one of the interior pockets of his coat, and heard them clink against the box containing the flash drive he was hiding. He put the gun and magazine in his outer coat pocket and leaned down to kiss her cheek. She very clumsily put his stocking cap back on his head and stroked his face, wiping away the wetness there.
“I will always be with you,” she whispered, so softly he could barely hear her.
He took in a sharp, painful breath and put his gloves back on. The night air was freezing. “I will come back for you, Caroline. Understand? I promise I will come back. I’m not giving up. I will find someone we can trust and I will come back.”
She smiled and closed her eyes.
He heard the rustling getting closer. There was almost no way that noise was an animal. And he knew he had only one choice.