Art Adkins
Author & Leadership Instructor
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Mind Walkers - Chapter One

Chapter One

The outdoor coffee shop had been carved out of the façade of a turn-of-the-century brick building on the corner of the busiest intersection in downtown St. Augustine, Florida.  With the move for more pedestrians to visit the center of the historic city and stop at one of the many shops, vehicular traffic had been minimized, forcing people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.  A decorative wrought-iron fence separated the patrons from the throng of tourists rushing past, allowing the waitresses to deposit steaming mugs of java and crumb cakes onto tables in front of their customers. 

The small store was a mom and pop affair situated directly in the middle of the oldest part of St. Augustine.  The original settlers had laid this part of the city out in a grid fashion, with neatly intersecting streets and small alleyways, originally more suited for horse and buggies, but still accommodating to foot traffic.  What used to be houses had been turned into art shops and restaurants.  Judging by the streams of people passing by, it appeared that St. Augustine had become a cosmopolitan city with almost every race on the planet represented.

The noise from the early morning horde was a low roar, punctuated by occasional laughter and the excited utterances of an early rising crowd.  The congestion in and around the entrance showed the shop’s popularity. Slade let his eyes dart across the faces before moving on; he was not here for sightseeing.  He found a table next to the side of the building, adjacent to one of the windows with an unobstructed view of the interior of the small shop.

Inside the quaint store, several tables sat near a low counter where a glass display case housed desserts and early morning surprises masquerading as crumb cakes or muffins.  An array of coffee machines lined the wall behind the cash register, and two employees hustled to fill the orders of customers spilling through the door.  Another clerk selected delectable treats as patrons pointed to the decadent dessert of their choice. 

At his table outside, nestled in the shade from the canopy overhanging the glass pane, Slade knew he could expect about an hour of comfort before the sun ascended into the early morning sky and cast its fiery glare on the shop.  For now it was pleasant, and Slade sipped a cup of coffee and nibbled the half-eaten muffin in front of him.  A folded newspaper lay on the table, but he had only scanned its pages, not bothering to read the articles.  He was there on business.

Looking past the other tables, he could see Castillo De San Marcos, looming near the water.  The fort’s massive walls had been constructed from coquina shells and were as stout today as when the first block was set in place.  Built by the Spanish hundreds of years ago, the stone stronghold was a major attraction in the seaside town.  Tourists regularly stampeded the front entrance to visit one of the oldest buildings from the earliest settlement in America. Slade had visited the fortress several times and was always in awe of the structure.  He reluctantly tore his gaze from the monument.  History was something he enjoyed, but he did not have time to dabble in the lore of the city this morning.

The young man who called him had seemed on the edge of a nervous breakdown.  It had taken Slade several minutes to calm him down so he could be understood.  Alarm loomed in each syllable, each word fraught with hesitancy and fear.  At first Slade thought it was a prank call, but the more the man spoke, the more he realized fear was catapulting this man into a state of hysteria.  He agreed to a meeting at the stranger’s request.  Twenty hours ago they chose this mutually familiar location to meet.  The stranger said he would arrive at exactly eight thirty a.m.  Slade glanced at his watch.  If the man proved punctual, he was due to make an appearance.

My how life had changed, reflected Slade.  Smiling to himself, he sipped from his cup of coffee again.  If only his friends in California could see him now.  Tanned, relaxed, and doing what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it.  It was incredible.

Slade Lockwood was a retired Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief who had settled in Cedar Key, Florida.  The idyllic seaside community, complete with artists and weekend anglers had been appealing to him.  Unlike the stress of LAPD and the politics of the force, Cedar Key soothed his nerves.  Selecting an early retirement, Slade had made Cedar Key his home and had fallen in love with an artist, the most wonderful woman he had ever met.  The thought of her caused him to blush and he smiled to himself.

It had been fortune that had thrown him into his current occupation, if you could call it that.  Slade had decided that fate dictated he helped the wayward soul needing his expertise and guidance.  Never accepting payment and only agreeing to help those in need, Slade had found rewards LAPD had been unable to give.  His life, for the first time, had meaning.  That was reward enough.

Turning his attention back to the task at hand, Slade immediately picked his caller out of the crowd walking toward him. The young man had the appearance of being hunted written all over him.  He moved cautiously, nervously, constantly looking about him for telltale clues only he could see or understand.  His actions were jerky, uncontrolled, and he moved with the furtiveness of a nocturnal wild animal.  As if agitated by daylight, he slipped into the shadows of buildings as he approached the coffee shop, paused at the gate to the entrance and scanned the patrons.  It would take the slightest event to send him careening down the sidewalk in a headlong rush to escape dangers only he could sense. 

Once he stepped past the wrought-iron opening, the man stole quick glances across the tables, not making eye contact or allowing his gaze to linger for more than a fraction of a second.  He was looking for a navy blue shirt with a white pocket on the right breast.  Slade had described the shirt to him twice.  He located Slade in the corner, just out of the sunlight.  He moved toward Slade, pausing several times before covering the final distance in a rush.  Standing by the empty seat across from Slade, he looked at the man seated in front of him.

“Are…are you Slade Lockwood?” asked the young man, his voice almost breaking.

“Yes, I am.  Please sit down.  Would you like a cup of coffee?” asked Slade, shoving an empty porcelain mug in front of the stranger.  The man’s hands shook uncontrollably, and the stench of body odor rolled off him.  Sweat had soaked his shirt and left salt rings under his arm pits.  He was obviously scared, despite an awkward effort to feign normalcy.  When the young man did not answer, Slade picked up a glass carafe and poured him a cup.  Sliding the cup toward him, Slade watched him pick it up and begin to drink.

“Thank you for coming to meet me.”  The young man said a moment later.  He lifted his head to make eye contact with Slade, who reassured him with a comforting smile.  “I didn’t think…didn’t think you would come…”  His voice trailed off.  He wrung his hands nervously then seized the coffee mug again, raised it to his lips and drained the last of it.  He nodded gratefully as Slade refilled the cup and passed it across the table into his waiting grasp. 

“Why didn’t you think I would come?”  Slade placed an uneaten muffin from his plate in front of the man and watched as he tore small pieces off and popped them into his mouth, more out of nervousness than hunger. 

“I don’t know,” responded the young man, shrugging his shoulders.  Using the back of his left hand, he wiped at the muffin crumbs which stuck to a three-day growth of stubble on his chin.  Several crumbs stayed put.

“How did you find out about me?” asked Slade, taking in details while trying not to stare.  He estimated the young man was about twenty seven or twenty eight years old.  He spoke with a slight northern accent, with a distinctive New England tone.  His words were properly enunciated and his grammar perfect, indicating a high degree of education.  His clothes, though in dire need of a washing machine, were expensive, well-made, and fit his frame well.  The young man had come from money. 

“A friend knew of you.  Said you helped a young woman find the person who killed her family.  Said you might be able to help me.”  The young man looked pleadingly at Slade, the thought he might not help him registering for the first time.  “You will help me, won’t you?  Please.  I have nowhere else to turn.”  The young man’s eyes clouded, and several tears escaped down his cheeks.  Using his shirt sleeve, he wiped them away and looked earnestly at Slade.

“I need to know what kind of help you need.  What kind of trouble are you in and what do you expect me to do?  But you are correct.  I did help a young woman find the person who murdered her family.”

 While the young man visibly relaxed a little for the first time, the tenseness leaving his shoulders, Slade silently recalled that case.  He had helped Shirley Waterbury track down the businessman who had murdered her family to steal the invention her brother Billy had created: a water desalination machine called Oasis.  That invention had made Shirley the richest woman in the world.  Her wealth was growing exponentially as she transformed deserts into bread baskets.  Shirley had formed Waterbury Enterprises in Cedar Key, Florida.  Ranked in the elite on the Fortune 500, the future for Waterbury Enterprises was bright.

The young man’s words brought Slade back to the present.  “They are murdering them…all of them.  They call them Mind Walkers.  Some of them…some die peacefully, but not all, not all of them.  They need help…they…” Sobs racked his shoulders and he placed his hand to his mouth to cut off the sound.  Trying to regain control, he looked at Slade.  “I didn’t believe it, didn’t want to acknowledge the preposterous acts they were committing in the name of science.  But then I found out why they were doing it and I couldn’t go on.  Couldn’t bear to see it anymore.”  His voice first faded to a whisper then died on his lips, as he stared vacantly at the coffee cup in his hands.

“What’s your name?” asked Slade, trying to bring the young man back.  Whatever secret he had was consuming him and paralyzing him at the same time.  Slade needed him there, able to answer questions, not retreating into a frozen, uncommunicative shell.

“Stanley.  Stanley Watchman.  I graduated from Johns Hopkins University at the top of my class.  Number one in my medical class.”  Stanley’s eyes took on a faraway look as his mind retreated to years past.  “That’s why they approached me—because of my grades.  And my chosen field of study.”  The young doctor lapsed into silence.

“What was your field of study?” asked Slade.

“Study?...Uh…let me tell you about someone…a person…a maniac…someone you need to know about.  Someone dangerous.”  Stanley started to fidget, his fingers tapping noisily on the wooden table, as his left foot involuntarily kept rhythm on the stone floor.  “He is powerful—and hungry for more—he will not stop.  He will stop at nothing…”  Those cryptic words were Stanley Watchman’s last.

Slade would later say what happened next was a blur, but in the micro-seconds it took to develop it seemed as if time stood still.  Out of the corner of his eye, Slade saw a tiny red dot appear on Stanley’s left temple.  Before he could shout a warning, the young doctor’s head exploded as a bullet passed through his skull and out the right side above his ear.  The impact hurled his now lifeless body out of the chair and into the exterior wall of the shop. 

Survival instincts took over.  Kicking his chair, Slade propelled himself backwards and crashed to the floor, flipping the table over in front of him.  Two holes appeared in the top of the table where he had been seated seconds before.  A third round from the sniper smashed a window pane above his head, raining shards of glass down around his shoulders. 

When the shop’s indoor customers realized shots had been fired, pandemonium reigned.  In the midst of screaming, they poured out of the door and joined people on the sidewalk in a headlong rush to escape.  Slade used the crowd’s confusion to find better cover.

The gunman fired twice more, kicking up fragments of concrete as Slade rounded the corner of the building.  Just as he escaped immediate danger, he heard a series of gunshots and knew that his friends June and Bubba had come to his rescue.  Bubba and June had agreed to provide back-up for Slade when he met with the young man at the coffee shop.  In hindsight, Slade thought, it had been a great idea.

Slade doubled back and approached the coffee shop.  Peering tentatively around the corner, he saw Bubba running toward the entrance of the hotel across the street.  Slade watched Bubba rush inside and then turned to scan the streets a second time, looking for a layoff man.  Slade waited to see if a second sniper revealed a hidden location.

Slade estimated the gunman had positioned himself on the second floor of the hotel to make the shot.  Elevation was necessary to get the bullet over the heads of tourists on the sidewalk and into his target.  Bubba, a retired Chief of Police from Cedar Key and now head of security at Waterbury Enterprises, must have surmised the same thing.  He had entered the hotel and was moving past a window on the second floor searching for the room and the gunman in it. 

Slade did not dare move into the open.  It was too much real estate to cover before he could find concealment.  Instead, he flattened his back against the wall and stared at the window panes of the coffee shop.  Using the glass as a mirror, he started to systematically examine each second-story window on the hotel that was reflected in the glass.  Movement!  Fourth window from the ocean side.  A brief fluttering of curtains indicated the window was open.  All the others were closed.  The gunman would need an open window for the shot.

Sirens in the distance.  Police rushing to the scene.  In seconds the gunman would disappear unless they could flush him out.  Where was June Stenger?  So far he had seen Bubba but not June.  Slade turned and started to run back down the sidewalk.

A delivery van approached, and Slade paused long enough for the van to draw abreast. He jumped onto the back bumper.  When the driver yelled at him out the window, Slade waved his pistol at him.  Seeing the gun had the desired effect and the driver shot through the intersection approaching the hotel across from the coffee shop.  As the driver slowed for the traffic light, Slade jumped off and moved quickly toward the entrance, sliding his gun into its holster beneath his shirt so as not to alarm tourists.

As he walked to the hotel entrance, he scanned the crowd gathering to stare at the dead body of Stanley Watchman.  Slade searched for the anomaly, the person who was moving with the quiet purpose of escape.  The shots from June and Bubba had probably placed the gunman on the run; he now knew Slade had assistance.  The odds were not in the sniper’s favor; he would be searching for a tactical retreat. 

Looking through the entrance doors, Slade saw Bubba come back down the stairs and enter the lobby.  Bubba made eye contact with Slade and shook his head.  The sniper was apparently no longer on the second floor.  Glancing over his shoulder, Slade saw June Stenger coming down the sidewalk.  June silently indicated he had not seen anyone suspicious.  A retired Navy fighter pilot, June walked with the ease and confidence of a combat veteran, his gaze penetrating the crowd.

Slade hurried into the street, slowed his pace and headed toward the intra-coastal waterway.  All the shops faced the water, and the only thing between the buildings and the water was the fort.  Bubba had joined June and they walked quickly down the sidewalk, passing tourists and staying parallel to Slade.  Purposefully, the three men covered the distance to the main street, ever vigilant for the assassin.

The calmness is what alerted Slade.  He saw a man, dressed like a tourist, but walking with the confidence of a predator, on the back side of the throng of curiosity seekers.  The crowd wanted to see the scene of the homicide and tell their families they had been there.  The killer wanted to escape, but not before he identified the men who had shot at him.  His professional pride would not let him just walk away.

Slade triangulated his path to intercept him and Bubba and June did the same, picking up on Slade’s change of direction.  The killer instinctively knew something was wrong and paused, his head turning to pick up the unseen danger, his latent animal instincts activated to the threat.  Within seconds he located Slade and the two men coming down the sidewalk. When he looked back at the ex-cop, their eyes briefly locked.  Both men reacted simultaneously.  The killer grabbed for his weapon which was hidden by an oversized flowery print shirt.  Drawing the gun, he dropped into a combat stance to fire on Slade.

The ex-LAPD Deputy Chief was faster.  Slade had anticipated the sniper’s move and his Beretta 92F was already coming up on target as the assassin reached for his gun.  Squeezing off two quick rounds, Slade saw the man fall as one round caught him in the left shoulder.  The gunman wildly fired off two rounds at Slade that careened off the concrete without striking anyone.  Gaining his feet, the sniper ran around the corner with Slade giving chase. 

Bubba and June had to fight through the tourists now running from this second round of gunfire.  When they cleared the mass stampede, they saw Slade rounding the building in pursuit of the fleeing suspect.  Both men drew their weapons and tore off after their friend.

Blood on the sidewalk.  Slade saw tiny drops on the concrete.  Another shot and the bullet whistled past his head.  Slade could not return fire for fear of striking an innocent bystander.  The gunman, like a wounded, cornered animal, would do whatever it took to survive.  The game had just gotten deadlier, and the man would go to any lengths to live, even if it meant killing people around him merely to cover his escape.

Pausing before rounding the corner of the nearest building, Slade peeked around the support pillar.  The killer had waited, hoping Slade would run headlong into the open.  A single bullet struck the pillar and sent chips of flying stucco toward Slade’s face.  He still could not get a shot off.  He watched as the killer ran to the entrance of a historic grain mill.  The site housed a souvenir shop on the first floor and a restaurant on the second.  Windows had been installed on the second floor so patrons could have lunch overlooking the operational water wheel that crested just beneath the window frame.

Bubba and June came to a stop alongside Slade. 

“Where is he?” asked Bubba, puffing from the early morning exercise.

“Inside the mill on the second floor.  I need you guys to cover each side.”  Without another word Slade ran to the mill entrance.  Bubba and June both turned and sprinted toward opposite sides of the building.

Slade had seen the man run to the stairs leading to the upper floor.  If he followed through the tiny door, it could be a death trap.  The killer could get him when he entered the narrow corridor to the restaurant.  There was no cover for Slade, but a great firing lane for the sniper.

Not pausing to think about his actions, Slade leaped to the water wheel, jumped the chain designed to keep visitors back and grabbed one of the water troughs, that when full, would turn the wheel.  There was a brief pause from his added weight, and then the wheel resumed its cycle, pulling Slade off the ground and hoisting him to the second floor.  Removing his gun from its holster, Slade waited until he was opposite the pane of glass at the top of the wheel’s turn before he smashed the window with his gun.  Once the glass had been broken, Slade leapt through amid screams and shouts.

Three quick shots.  Wood splintered around him and Slade dove for cover behind the bar.  Patrons jumped out of their chairs and hit the floor.  Screams added to the chaos.  A man running toward the rear!  Slade saw blood on his shirt and fired twice.  The man jumped from the outside balcony to the ground.  Regaining his feet, Slade covered the distance in the briefest of steps.  Reaching the railing, he saw the man weaving across the road to the fort, waving his gun at motorists as he ran in a frantic attempt to escape.

Taking the stairs two and three at a time, Slade catapulted down and sprinted after the suspect.  He knew June and Bubba would see him and follow.

The killer ran up the concrete ramp leading to the fort where a uniformed security guard was standing.  Without slowing his pace, the assassin shot the guard in the face at point-blank range and stepped over the body.  Clutching his gun in a menacing gesture to anyone in his path, he ran inside the honeycombed corridors of the fort.

Slade heard the gunshot and was the first to find the dead guard.  He entered the interior of the fort with his gun at the combat position, every sense alert.  Tourists came his way; their frightened eyes told a story as they glanced over their shoulders.  Not wanting to frighten them further, Slade slipped his weapon beneath his shirt and moved into the shadows along the wall.  A dozen men and women ran past, all bordering on hysteria.  When they encountered the dead body of the guard, more panic swept over them. 

Stepping out of the shadows, Slade pulled out his weapon and started forward.  Crossing the draw bridge that spanned the moat, Slade entered the front of Castillo De San Marcos.  A souvenir shop was located directly in his path; the main corridor branched to the right and left.  Low lighting helped to recreate the scene of hundreds of years ago.  Looking past the empty tourist shop, Slade could see the large courtyard.

  Sounds behind him!  Spinning around Slade saw five people approaching him, three women, a man and a little boy.  They were walking rapidly toward the door.  Slade started to turn back to resume his search but hesitated. Why was his sixth sense causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end?  Something was amiss, but what?

Slade pivoted and confronted the small group.  They all looked terrified.  The small boy was crying and so were the three women.  The man.  The man!  He had the arm of one of the women in a tight grip, holding her close.  The only reason he would do that is if he needed her as a shield to make his escape.  Plus he was avoiding Slade’s stare.  The shirt was different, but the build was the same.

Confronting them, Slade called out.  “Hey!  Hold it!”

The man turned quickly, keeping the woman between Slade and himself, and fired at Slade who dove for an open door.  He felt the bullet burn through his shirt but miss flesh and bone.  The first shot was followed by three more in quick succession.  Seconds later he heard a familiar voice.

June and Bubba had made it to the entrance and were moving inside when they saw Slade confront the group.  When Slade called out, they saw the man raise his gun.  As he loosened his grip on his hostage to fire on Slade, they both shot him.  The would-be killer dropped his gun as he hit the ground.

“You okay?” yelled June, stepping forward and kicking the killer’s gun further away from him.

“Yeah.  Is he alive?” Slade joined his two friends standing above the killer.  Three crimson stains appeared on the front of the man’s shirt and began to spread.  The man’s head lolled from side to side as he stared at them.

Slade knelt down by him.  “Why did you kill Dr. Stanley Watchman?”  When Slade asked the question, a small smile flitted across the rough features of the dying man.

Bubba dropped to his knees, but not before grabbing some tee shirts from a display rack.  Using them as a compress, he tried to stem the flow of blood.  The man’s eyes rolled back and blood started to seep from his mouth.  His breathing was labored.  June was on the phone requesting police and an ambulance.  The man had only minutes—or seconds—before death.

“Who contracted the killing?” asked Slade, holding the man’s head so he could look at him.  A flash of recognition in the dimming eyes.

“He…he…will…wi…kill you…”  The killer smiled one last time and went limp, his lungs expelling his final breath.

Bubba and Slade leaned back and looked at each other. 

“Sorry.  I know you would’ve preferred him alive, but we didn’t know if you had cover.  Plus he may have killed those women.”  Bubba looked at his friend. 

“Not your fault.  I appreciate you being there.”  Slade stared at the dead killer.  Obviously European by his accent and demeanor. 

“The authorities will be here in a moment and then we’ll not be able to learn anything,” said June as he moved past them to kneel beside the body.  Smiling at his friends, he started to search the clothes of the dead sniper.  Bubba and Slade joined him.  They found two pieces of paper in his right front pants pocket with four different phone numbers on them.  There was nothing to identify the man.

“He traveled light,” remarked Bubba, regaining his feet.

“Maybe these numbers will give us a clue as to who his contacts were.”  June stuffed them in his shirt pocket.

“What do we do now?” asked Bubba.

“Find out who ordered the contract and ask him why he had Dr. Stanley Watchman killed.  He must have left his sniper rifle in the upstairs hotel room.  There might be additional information there.”  Slade cast one last glance at the dead man.  How many people had the assassin murdered?  Who was he?  Those answers would come.

The three men walked to the entrance as they heard the police sirens outside the fort’s walls.  Time to tell the authorities why there had been a shooting spree in their normally quiet city.

Read Chapter Two

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