Straining to hear any sound that would betray the stillness of the hot Florida night, all he could detect was his heart beating and the occasional rush of cool air from the AC.
Then, while sitting at the bar in his pilot’s lounge, he heard a sound that did not belong. Certain someone was out there watching, he felt helpless and frustrated.
The smooth granite slab of the bar was cool to his fingertips as he pressed down hard in an attempt to suppress the trembling in his hands.
Suddenly startled by his Orange Tabby cat jumping onto the bar, nuzzling and demanding attention, it took all his control not to let out a yell in surprise.
Maybe it was only the cat, he thought.
Doctor Henry Rison tried to calm himself as he reflected on another sleepless night. Supposedly safe in his own house, he did not feel a sense of security. It was difficult to escape the irony. After achieving everything of a material sense in life, he was convinced it was now all at risk. Parked in the hangar below were his prize possessions, among them, two planes and a helicopter. They, along with all the other toys, were now just things that meant nothing. He was disturbed by how the simple act of his cat jumping on the counter could rattle him so. Involuntarily, he reached down to reassure himself the Glock was still there. His hand touched the butt of the gun, only serving to confirm his nervousness. It was upsetting that he needed the weapon to provide even a limited feeling of safety. He knew they were coming for him; it was only a question of when. He had to do something and soon.
Rising slowly, he stretched to relieve the stiffness from sitting and started across the kitchen in his pilot’s lounge towards the main house with the cat trailing behind, meowing for attention.
Pausing, he reached down and scooped up the cat, scratching his ears. “What do you think?” he asked Sam.
Sam began to purr.
“Am I going crazy?”
Sam gazed up at Hank, purring loudly, happy to have his ears scratched.
“Well something is working right. At least I’m in great shape.”
Hank was referring to his lean and athletic look, good enough to pass for a man in his forties despite being in his sixties.
Cradling the cat in his arms, he walked across the second story bridge connecting the hangar to the main house while deciding he might as well get dressed for the day since sleep was no longer an option.
Passing through the master bedroom, Hank deposited Sam on the bed, pausing to admire the furniture and artwork adorning the room.
“She was really something special wasn’t she Sam?”
The memories of his late wife and her flair for life came flooding back. Hank’s wife Sarah had a true aptitude for identifying the next rising star and many of her discoveries’ works of art were displayed throughout the house.
“You know, we promised her we would not let it happen to anyone else.”
A commitment made to his dying wife that he would not rest until he was successful in ensuring no other spouse or loved one would suffer her fate.
“Do you think we can say we succeeded?”
Sam continued to purr.
Clearing his thoughts and with a long sigh, Hank entered the walk-in closet, pausing to review the day’s clothing options.
“Help me out Sam. What do you think about sandals, cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt sound? They should be good for flying on a hot Florida day.”
Sam continued to purr as Hank gently placed him on the carpeted floor so he could put on his clothes.
Hank reconsidered. “You’re right Sam, I should wear shoes if I’m going flying.”
Dressed and ready to go, Hank continued to the rear of the closet. Pushing on a spot on the wall instantly caused one of the shelf systems to swing silently forward on its hinges, revealing a concealed office. The room, originally designed as a panic room and shelter from the hurricanes that often plagued coastal Florida, now served as a base of operations for the clandestine part of his research.
A work desk, accompanied only by a computer, swivel chair and two large flat screen displays greeted him as he sat and pushed the ‘On’ button, bringing the machine to life; first entering his password and then opening a spreadsheet. Reviewing the latest trial results, he wondered what his small army of scientists and technicians working in the lab at the University would think if they could see the numbers before him, the real data regarding his research.
In spite of himself, he was in awe of the encouraging statistics displayed on the screen, he could not help but wonder how someone like Jonas Salk must have felt when he realized that he had found a way to prevent polio; or how Alexander Fleming came to the realization that the mold growing in his petri dish had anti-bacterial properties. One had been the result of intensive research by a large team and the other a serendipitous accident. Did he dare count himself as part of this fraternity?
The results were incontrovertible. Despite some minor documented side effects, test after test affirmed the fact he had truly managed to arrest the aging process as a by-product of being able to cure, or more accurately prevent, almost any disease known to man. He could only marvel at the latest results from the small trial group of which he was the primary participant. Each member of the group was exhibiting the same beneficial effects.
Preventing any kind of inflammation by keeping the acid/alkaline balance in the body in perfect harmony had been the last piece of the puzzle; coupled with a constantly introduced renewal process for all the cells in the body which served to arrest the aging process.
Now, if he could just conclude the study and bring the results to light before something or someone prevented it.
Turning in his chair, Hank saw that Sam had found his way into the office through the slightly open door. Once again he voiced his concerns to the cat.
“Sammy, do you think I should tell our friend Stone about what is going on and ask him for help?”
Hank knew the possible consequences of allowing anyone outside the trial group to know the truth about his research and he had long ago made a decision not to reveal the private side of his work to anyone else. This decision, for personal reasons, had included his best friend, Franklin Stone. Not telling Stone about what he was doing appeared to be the right choice when it all began.
“Well, talk to me Sam. Considering what is happening, maybe I need to admit to someone that I am in over my head. At this point, Stone might be our only hope. What do you think?”
With that, Sam looked at Hank with what he took as a look of understanding and uttered a long meow as if an answer to his question. Hank made his decision.
Stepping from the shower, Franklin Stone began wiping the mist from the mirror to prepare for his morning shave. As the glass began to clear, he found it hard to resist reflecting on the face staring back at him. In light of the recent news from his doctor, he could not help dwelling for a moment, on his mortality, especially the end game. It was one of those subjects normally pushed to the back of your mind, something you refused to deal with it until it slapped you up side of the head. Like now.
Forcing himself to concentrate on the wrinkled mug in the mirror, Stone knew his friends would say the lines he saw were caused by years of being a jovial guy, the life of the party. His wife Claire on the other hand, would say the lines were from squinting, likely caused by too much Florida sun and not wearing sunglasses when he was flying.
Stone tried to tell himself he was still relatively good looking and fit for his age; the problem was he no longer believed it. Pausing to say good morning to his dogs patiently waiting at his feet, he promised them their walk shortly.
Turning back to the mirror, he tried to push back a shock of unruly gray hair and was interrupted by the phone. The Caller ID informed him it was Hank Rison. Smiling, he pushed the button and spoke.
“What are you doing up so early?”
There was a pause at the other end. “Why, did I wake you?”
“Naw, but it’s early for you.”
Hank chose to ignore the comment. Instead, he pressed on, “I thought it would be a good day to fly up to Jekyll Island for lunch and I need a co-pilot. Interested?”
“Does a bear shit in the woods? Of course I’m interested.”
“Thought you might be. How soon can you be at my place?”
It was Stone’s turn to pause. It wasn’t even 8 AM. On a day like today, it wouldn’t take more than an hour and a half to get to Jekyll. That would make for a very early lunch.
“Well, there’s no rush is there? I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet and I have to walk the dogs. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Punching the ‘end’ button on phone, Stone took a moment to consider how to approach his wife, Claire. After promising her he’d take the morning to catch up on unfinished business, now he had committed to go flying and would be leaving her to handle things, again. He knew it was not likely she would be happy with the change of plans.
Shaving done, he slipped into the bedroom to put on some shorts, a golf shirt and running shoes, leaving the shirt hanging out so his gun and holster wouldn’t show. Then he made sure to stop in the kitchen where he knew he would find Claire reading the morning paper.
Preparing himself to break the news about taking the morning off, he took a deep breath and entered the room. Before she could say a word, he briskly walked to the table, leaned over and kissed the top of her head. Claire meanwhile was frowning over something in the paper. Trying to be offhanded, he spoke quickly.
“Hey Hon, something just came up, Hank called and asked me to go flying. I’ll be back after lunch, if that’s okay with you of course.
“Hey, wait one minute hot shot,” she said giving him a mock look of disapproval, “You promised you’d get some work done this morning.”
“I know, I know, but Hank says he needs a co-pilot. He also mentioned something about lunch at Jekyll Island.” Stone hesitated. “I think something’s up. Could be nothing or it could be important, maybe even business related.”
Claire pulled off her glasses and tilted her head. “What do you mean you think something’s up? Like what?”
He shrugged. “Not sure. Just a feeling. He didn’t sound like his normal self.”
Watching carefully for any sign while she considered his request for a long moment, he just knew she was going to give him a hard time. Then he saw the corner of her mouth start to form a smile and he realized he was home free. Maybe she decided he needed a break. Whatever the reason, he was just glad to be released from a morning of drudgery.
Claire said, “Well, there is no need to rush off is there? Take your time, sit down for a minute. I’ve made a fresh pot of coffee. Hank will wait. I hope you’re wrong about your feeling, but you do have a way of being right about these things.”
Claire walked to her desk, picked up a sheaf of papers and waved it at him. “This is not going away you know, it will all be here when you get back; I’m not bailing you out this time.”
Relieved, Stone could see she was looking at his wardrobe with a critical eye. Finally, she smiled spoke to him. “By the way, you look nice. Your gun hardly shows when you wear that shirt.”
Ignoring the sarcasm and declining her invitation to sit, he poured a mug of coffee for the road, saluted her and headed out into the warm Florida morning with the dogs in tow.
The back yard of the house overlooked the 12th green of The Spruce Creek Country Club where an early morning foursome was lining up putts, laughing and joking. Being used to people, the dogs ignored the revelry and concentrated on the task at hand. Stone patiently waited so they could complete their morning routine and then spoke to them.
“Sorry guys, no time for a long walk this morning. You’ll have to wait til later.” Neither Ritz nor Hershey seemed to care and Stone returned them to the courtyard adjoining the house, took off their leashes, said he would be back soon and continued on to the garage where he backed the golf cart out of its bay for the trip to Hank’s house.
Driving to Hank’s required Stone to travel from one side of The Spruce Creek Fly-In to the other. This meant going around the airport, the country club and the golf course which took a good ten minutes at twenty miles an hour, maximum speed for the golf cart.
The Fly-In was a collection of houses, condos and hangar homes, built around a World War II Navy training field near Daytona Beach. All that remained from the military days were two runways, one of which had been converted to a wide taxiway, lined with commercial hangars and businesses. Along the way neighbors waved and shouted greetings to Stone. At Spruce Creek, everyone waved and they all knew Franklin Stone.
Pulling up from the taxiway at the back of Hank’s house, Stone turned the cart onto the apron and saw Hank standing in the hangar waving him into where he stood waiting.
“Hey man, thanks for the invite, this sure beats working.”
Hank nodded in response, not smiling. "I need to get in the air for a while."
"Absolutely, but I want the left seat on the way back. You can’t hog it both ways."
“Okay, you do the pre-flight, I’ll check the fuel.”
The large air conditioned hangar housing Hank’s toys provided plenty of room to walk around and admire them. In addition to the Cirrus SR-22 they would be flying, there was also a Pitts S2C aerobatic bi-plane, a 32 foot Wellcraft boat and two Harleys. Normal toys found in many of the hangar homes at Spruce Creek.
Slowly making his way around the plane, Stone checked the oil, tires, flaps and ailerons to be sure they were safe and ready to go. Meanwhile, Hank busied himself making sure they had enough fuel.
The Cirrus was Hank’s pride and joy and had served as a substitute family since his wife died and his daughters had grown and moved away.
Hank’s wife passed away before he and Stone had reconnected many years after losing track of each other. From what Stone understood, she had died from a rare form of cancer. Hank never discussed the details voluntarily, so Stone never pressed it.
As soon as the pre-flight inspection was complete, Hank used a small electric tug to tow the plane out of the hangar and they both climbed into the cockpit.
As soon as he started the engine, Hank turned on the avionics system allowing to them communicate through their headsets.
Looking over at his friend, Stone was slightly taken aback. He could not help but notice Hank looked great for his age. Seeing Hank in this light took Stone back in time for a moment.
Growing up, friends described Stone as the jock and Hank as a nerd. Today, maybe because of his musings in the mirror earlier in the day, some early memories came rushing back to him.
Stone had grown up on a dairy farm and Hank’s father was the veterinarian who looked after the animals. The two had become friends when Hank’s father dragged him along on visits to tend to the Stone family’s herd of registered Holsteins. Their bond grew stronger as they discovered a shared love of hunting and guns. They imagined themselves as soldiers on patrol while wandering the farm looking for squirrels and rabbits. Early on, they agreed both of them would join the military as soon as they were old enough. They always assumed they would join up together, but as often happens to childhood plans, circumstances intervened.
After graduating high school, scholarships took them in different directions. Stone went on to the Naval Academy and Hank to Stanford. Stone ended up an Officer in the Navy and after graduating medical school with honors, Hank joined the Army as a Doctor. Over the years, travel and assignments all over the world caused them to drift apart and lose touch. By coincidence they discovered they were neighbors again after many years, when their mutual love of flying landed them at Spruce creek, one of the premier fly-in communities anywhere in the country.
Jerked back to the present by his role as co-pilot, Stone realized Hank was speaking.
"… let’s go out under Daytona airspace and keep it Visual Flight Rules."
“Works for me,” Stone responded quickly, attempting to recover from his daydream.
After a quick run-up of the engine, they were ready for takeoff and Stone made the radio call announcing they would take runway zero five and make a straight out departure over the Atlantic. Carefully guiding the Cirrus to the centerline of the runway, Hank pushed the throttle to bring on full power. The plane responded by leaping forward as if eager to get into the sky. At takeoff speed, Hank eased back on the stick and the nose gear lifted from the pavement. Rising from the four thousand foot runway, they could feel the rushing air lift them gently into the clear blue Florida sky. Stone contacted Air Traffic Control and requested clearance to pass through the Daytona airspace after climb out so they could turn to the North. Flying parallel to the shore, below they could clearly see the world’s most famous beach and beyond it, Ormond Beach. Soon they were at 5,500 feet, cruising towards Jekyll Island. Stone observed as Hank scanned the instrument panel and set the autopilot to the proper GPS coordinates.
Deciding it was time to cut to the chase, Stone spoke first. "OK, now tell me what’s really going on? Why did you want to get me up here this morning?"
Hank's face didn't change as he stared out the window through his sunglasses. "What do you mean, get you up here?"
"This so called “go to lunch” flight at nine in the morning."
Hank's expression still didn't change, but Stone could see he took a deep breath.
“Stone, I’ve got a problem and I need a favor.”
Stone quickly scanned the instrument panel one more time to be sure the auto-pilot had engaged before turning towards his friend.
"OK, what do you need?"
“It’s a long story. Just hear me out. When all this started, I decided not to tell you much about this project. I should have clued you in, but I can’t change that now. Something bad is about to happen to me and I’m afraid I don’t have much time.”
“Something is about to happen?" Stone asked, now feeling a twinge of alarm. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Like I said, it's a long story."
"Well, we've got time since we’re up here on auto pilot. Spill it."
Hank paused for several seconds as if weighing his words. “I think someone has been watching me and maybe even bugging my house. That’s why I wanted to come up here, so we could talk."
"Bugged? You? What the hell are you up to?" Stone’s voice now had a noticeable edge.
"Hear me out. Let me tell you what’s going on before you get ticked off.”
Taking a deep breath, Stone sighed and looked out of the cockpit at the perfect blue sky. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
Hank continued. "Over the past several years I have been doing a lot of research which meant getting a lot of taxpayer money as well as private funding."
"You mean the work you’re doing on diseases and stuff?"
Hank nodded. "Lately, Uncle Sam has been asking a lot of questions about the progress."
"You're worried the government is bugging your house because they don’t trust you?"
"It could be Stavros Costas and not the government."
Stone recognized the name. Stavros Costas, sole owner of Costas International, one of the largest privately owned pharmaceutical companies in the world. Based on some of the things he had heard about Stavros, Stone had doubts about him being completely above-board, but then again, men like him often had a shady side.
"Costas has been financially involved in my work from the early stages. We both believe in the theory that the aging process can be halted, given enough time and money.”
Stone shook his head and looked at Hank with more than a little skepticism, “Are you telling me you’ve been looking for the fountain of youth? I knew what you were working on was out there, but you aren’t really serious? Are you?”
“There’s a lot I haven’t told you. I’m under strict non-disclosure rules. I could lose all my funding if I say anything to anyone. I have some theories, but the reason we are here is I want to be sure I’m going to wake up in my own bed tomorrow. That’s partly why I asked you to come up here with me.”
Hank wrapped his hand around the side stick that controlled the plane as if he were trying to get a grip on what to say next.
He slowly rubbed his chin and exhaled. “I had a theory. It started out as a way I thought could cure cancer when my wife was sick. I was too late for her but when I started testing; the results showed one of the side effects seemed to arrest the aging process, at least in lab rats. As things progressed it became more and more clear I was on to something. Now I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to do both, prevent disease and stop aging. One takes care of the other."
He paused. "Listen, if you don’t mind, we’ll keep flying and bag the lunch.”
Stone looked at him with a measure of disbelief and questioning. "Think I’ve lost my appetite anyway."
Hank disengaged the autopilot, banked and turned the airplane to a new heading. “Let’s turn around. There are some things I want to show you back at the house. In case anything happens to me, you need to know more about what I’ve been doing. I’ve got an office near my bedroom and a lab you haven’t seen. I’ll show you everything when you come and check it out.”
"Check out your house? Are you really serious about this?"
“I’m not positive, just an impression. It’s a feeling someone is watching me. You know what that’s like. My guess is Stavros, the government or maybe both of them, thinks I’m holding back on the official results of my research and the simple truth is they are right, I am. I’m afraid they have figured out I’m holding out on them and one or the other is planning to make me disappear so they can put a stop to my work.”
“So you really think someone is after you?”
“I don’t know for sure. That’s what I want you to find out.”
“You think they may be working together?”
“No. Maybe. I just don’t know.”
Stone held up his hand in a gesture to get Hank to pause for a moment while he took time to absorb what he just heard.
Hank gave him a moment and then continued. “I don’t know who I should be more worried about. You know more about this stuff than I do, so that’s why I decided to tell you and the hell with the non-disclosures. I need you to buy me enough time to finish what I’m working on. Once I’m finished, it’ll be too late for them to do anything about it. Look, that’s the biggest chunk, but there’s more. You’ve gotta trust me. I’ve got good reason to be worried. I need you to keep me breathing. Are you okay with that?”
“Yeah, I’ll trust you but you gotta trust me too. Okay?”
“Okay.” Hank said the word, but Stone was not sure he believed him.
Stone continued. "I know more about your friends in the government than I want to. If it’s either them or this Stavros, you could really be screwed. But I guess you already know that. He paused for a moment. "But the National Institute of Health? They're not exactly in the business of making people disappear."
Hank looked at him with a pained expression. “Nobody has come right out and threatened me, but it’s the NIH that doles out the government money. They award the grants and monitor the work. I even have a personal auditor to be sure the money is spent according to the rules. Trust me, after working with people for a while, you can tell when something isn’t right. When they began to realize this was not just another anti-aging cream, their behavior changed.”
Stone looked quizzical. “You haven’t done anything wrong have you? Nothing illegal?"
Hank sighed again. “They keep a tight leash on me, financially anyway. I get the feeling my watchdog is there to do more than see how I spend the money. He mentioned to me that you guys have run across one another in the past. Gene Richland, he used to be with the CIA. I guess you could say he’s semi-retired now.”
Stone raised an eyebrow and stretched in his seat. "Gene Richland, yeah, that takes me back a ways. I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. I would have thought they'd want you healthy and happy. You’re the Golden Goose, no? "
Hank looked at him with a conflicted expression and Stone got the feeling maybe Hank was having second thoughts about telling him more.
“Okay,” Hank sighed. “Without getting too complicated, my guess is someone with clout is concerned about the potential outcome of my research and they have decided it may have more potential than they planned for.
Think for a minute. What if everyone could live to be a hundred and fifty; or who knows how old? Not only that, but if they could be healthy the entire time. You know it’s always about money and power. Think about what has happened in the last fifty years with big government and the big drug companies. Here we are getting fatter and sicker every day and most drugs don’t cure anything. The companies just make more drugs to treat symptoms and make lots of money in the process and the government controls what drugs are allowed on the market.”
“My formula has the potential to eliminate all disease and extend life in the process. Don’t you think that might threaten some big players who have big financial stakes in the status quo?"
Hell, Stone thought, everything really would change. One thing the rich and powerful did not want: The possibility of not being rich and powerful.
“So despite the fact everyone thinks they want to live forever, when you get to it, they see a downside. Is that it?”
Hank nodded. “Yeah, the closer I get to a clinical trial, both Costas and the government seem to get more and more nervous.
To begin with everyone is excited by the prospect of living longer; then, when they consider the actual consequences, it’s one of those things that may be okay for them but not anyone else. I think they have caught on to the fact I’m doing the real work off line at my house. Of course the public part of the work is done at the lab at the University; the team works on the pieces and then I put them together. No one but me knows the true results until I decide to share them. Up to now I have led everyone to believe what I have is a drug that will help extend life. In reality it does a lot more. The results are way beyond what I had hoped for, but not without a few glitches. I think I can overcome them, but it's pushed back my projected completion date. Also, the closer I get, the more certain I become it’s a bad idea to reveal the true potential to the Government.”
“Stavros is another story. The only thing he gives a shit about is a formula that works. For him it’s strictly personal. He doesn’t care about the rest of the world. If he could take a pill or a shot to make him live forever, he would do it, destroy the formula and screw the rest of mankind. So far I have kept him in the loop because he is always there with money. It takes time to get funds from the government and when I need something, without all the red tape, he writes me a check.”
"Frankly, I’m more concerned about Gene Richland. You know the stories about the car that got a hundred miles to the gallon, and what happened to the technology. I’m scared I’ll end up nothing but vapor in a box somewhere in the Nevada desert."
Stone rubbed his forehead as something occurred to him. “Hold on a minute . . . You said 'results.' Are you saying you’ve tested it?”
Hank paused a long time, as if deciding what he should say. “Yes I have tested it. The problem is I’m not sure if it’s completely safe. I started a trial to prove it works beyond any doubts. So far, I’ve kept it off the books.”
“The body cannot naturally produce what I make, so it’s more like a treatment. It’s something anyone can be given on a regular basis. It’s a way to turn off aging and prevent disease, but it needs to be continually re-introduced. For a drug company, it would be the perfect product. You have to take it forever. It’s like Rogaine, if you stop, the effects begin to reverse. With this, you start aging again. As long as you keep taking it you don’t age and you don’t get sick. You even start to feel younger. Based on some recent experiences, I need to do more testing to be sure it’s safe over the long term. That’s why I need more time. Both Stavros and the government have really begun to press me about when I’ll be ready to start a public clinical trial. I think they just want to be sure it’s ready and then take it away from me."
Stone knew Hank to be one of those highly technical types who practically got a woody talking about labs and experiments. Knowing Hank for all these years, he was sure his friend really believed he had succeeded.
“So, what you’re telling me is you have found a way to eliminate aging and prevent disease. That’ll make for a world full of happy, healthy people. Won’t it?”
“Yeah, full all right,” said Hank nodding. “Think about what happens to the world population. Also, guess who else will not be so excited about having people live longer and be healthier?”
Stone began to see the light. “No old age, no retirement, nobody dies. The population will skyrocket. No way to predict all the consequences.”
“You’re beginning to see the problem. All they want is a drug to make people live longer but still be able to get cancer or need a hip replacement; another aspirin or Viagra, not a magic bullet. I assume you won’t be surprised to learn our government is in bed with big Pharma and the health industry. Now, I’m afraid they at least suspect I have something that works better than they were prepared for. I own the rights and if I were to get a patent, most drug companies would disappear. Or, the government could declare it a matter of National Security and dole it out through the healthcare system. Think about what China or Russia or India would do if the U.S. controlled that kind of power.”
“If anything happens to me, technically the United States Government becomes the owner since they paid for most of it. That would really piss off Stavros.”
“I’m not sure what they want to do with the formula, maybe they want to lock it away in a vault somewhere, maybe keep it a secret and reserve it for the rich and powerful. No matter what the plan, I’m pretty sure they don’t want me in the way.”
Stone took a deep breath, looked around the cockpit and tried to come back to reality. He did his best to control his response. “First of all, I’d kinda like to know why I’m finding out about this now and why you didn’t tell me a long time ago.”
Hank could see his friend was not happy and chose his words carefully. “I didn’t tell you because I was afraid it might put you in harm’s way.”
“Bullshit! My business is harm’s way. It’s what I do. That’s not a fucking reason.” Stone was almost yelling into his microphone. “We’ve been friends all our lives and now you come to me and tell me you’ve been keeping a secret from me, you need my help and you didn’t tell me because it was dangerous. Why now? You knew this could happen. Looks like you got this far, why shouldn’t I just tell you to go screw yourself.”
Hank looked like he had been expecting this reaction. “Stone, I understand you’re pissed. Shit happened. I wanted to be sure I really had something. Look, I’m sorry. If you only knew how I wanted to say something.”
Stone’s face began to redden and he could see Hank was conflicted. Before Stone could say any more, Hank spoke.
“Okay, straight up between us, I was afraid you might let it slip. You know why. We both know you have nights when you drink too much and you don’t remember what you say or who you say it to. It was really hard not to tell you, but I felt like I couldn’t take the chance you might let something slip. I’m sorry.”
Stone’s face reddened from embarrassment because he knew his friend was right. It would not have been the first time his drinking got him in trouble. It had caused him to lose his first wife after his bad DUI accident and almost lost him his company.
Hank was still speaking. “Look, I need your help. You’ve got every right to tell me to screw off, but I’m out of options!”
Stone looked at his friend, weighed all the angles and decided he could not blame him for making the right decision. Reluctantly, he had to admit it was the same one he would have made, had he been in Hank’s position. Hurt and pissed off as he was, his curiosity was trumping the anger and shame. Hank was right about not being able to trust him no matter how he wanted to rationalize it. For what was at least the millionth time, he vowed to himself the booze would not screw this up.
“Okay, I understand and I’ll help. I promise you don’t need to worry about me telling anyone. As of now, not a drop for as long as this takes.”
Stone could see the sadness in Hank’s eyes. Hank knew the man sitting next to him was his friend and would do anything for him, but he also knew he was human and therefore when it came to booze, no promise he made to anyone could be counted on.
Watching for any sign of hesitation on Hank’s face, Stone pressed on. “First thing I will need to know is everything about what is going on and who else knows what you have been up to.”
Hank gave him a quizzical look, but before he could reply, the GPS beeped, warning them to start descending for landing. They were getting close to Daytona and needed to contact Air Traffic Control or else duck under the 1200-foot ceiling of controlled airspace. Stone got busy on the radio and conversation was limited to contact with the Daytona ATC.
When the Cirrus’ wheels touched the runway, Hank resumed talking. “Look, I’m afraid to say too much around here. Suppose you just come by the house and check things out? Can you do that for me? I know I sound paranoid, but…”
Stone looked at his friend and felt the concern in his voice. “Hey, no problem, at least you finally got smart enough to trust your best friend. You are now in my capable hands and you will do exactly what I tell you. Right?” He continued without waiting for an answer. “I’ll get hold of Larry and have him send over a couple of our best guys to watch the house and I’ll personally come over and check on things later.”
* * *
On the way back to Hank’s house, Stone had a million questions, not the least of which was: Could all this possibly be for real?
Thinking for a minute, Stone spoke up again, “We can’t assume the most likely suspects are behind this. Make me a list as soon as you have time of anyone, and I mean anyone, who might know what you are doing.”
"Okay, I'll get you a list and you'll tell me about whatever you find. Right?"
“Of course. No secrets. I’ll give Larry a call right now and let him know what we need. As soon as I talk to him, I’ll let you know when to expect the men. They’ll be here today. Meanwhile, why don’t you come over to the house while I get the stuff I need? If this is what you say it is, you probably shouldn’t stay alone. I’m sure Claire would love to see you.”
“Thanks, I’ll be okay till you get back here. There are a few things I need to take care of.”
After returning the Cirrus to its place in the hangar, Stone assured Hank he would be back shortly and headed home to get what he would need to sweep the house.