Digger — excerpt

Chapter 1

The church was dark until John Fortunato struck the match. The point of light revealed rows of votive candles in red glass sleeves. John touched the match to a wick.

“God keep you, Jamie Doolan,” he murmured.

He blew out the match, and watched its wisp of blue smoke curl upward. The vast blackness of the church seemed to swallow the flicker of light from the candle. But as a cloud passed away from the moon, the stained glass figure of a resurrected Christ was illuminated high above him.

John had intended to light the candle and go. Now, cradling the camera he’d brought with him, he took a seat in a pew and regarded the image of the risen Savior. He never tired of looking at it. The mosaic of leaded glass was what he held onto: his image of God.

Of redemption.

His grandfather, Michelangelo Fortunato, had created the window. Had built the Church of the Resurrection. Then the immigrant artisan had gone on to construct a fair part of the town of Elk River around the limestone church. John had likewise left his mark — not upon the town, where all could see, but somewhere none would ever know.

John stepped out of the church.

Another cloud bank rolled in, drawing a curtain across the moon. The loss of its light didn’t bother him. Darkness was an old friend. But he felt a sudden chill, a sense of menace, in this night that made his heart beat faster. To his surprise, long-dormant combat instincts came bristling back, and he wished he had his M16 in his hands again instead of the Nikon around his neck.

John knew his home town as well as he knew the lines in his face and the scars on his soul, and every instinct he had told him that something was very wrong that Sunday night.

He began to walk east from the church. He stayed on the park side of Riverfront Drive. The expanse of Riverfront Park on his right was dark and peaceful: a chorus of cicadas provided the respiratory buzz of a landscape at rest.

But to his left, toward town, something was definitely wrong. A predator was waiting out there . . . waiting to spring. As he drew even with Lincoln Avenue, the town’s main commercial street, John stepped behind the statue of the Great Emancipator that dominated the park.

From behind its pedestal, he let his eyes follow Lincoln’s bronze gaze out over the sleeping town. He didn’t see a soul on the street, but still his uneasiness grew. In any normal time, he would have felt foolish, peeking out from shelter as if he expected to be attacked. Elk River, Illinois was Heartland America, the kind of picture postcard small town where you could walk the streets at night and not be afraid. Or it had been until just last week.

Now, the town was entering the second week of a strike against its major employer, Pentronics Systems. Over 3,500 workers, 95% of the company’s workforce and a fifth of Elk River’s population, were off the job and on the picket line. Negotiations had broken off the first day of the walkout and showed no signs of resuming. If anything, the dispute promised to become uglier. The possibility of violence was on everyone’s mind, had people on edge, watching their backs.

Staying in the shadows, John continued on to the next street, Washington, then turned north, quickly crossing Riverfront Drive. His destination was the storefront office of the Brotherhood of Manufacturing Workers, Local 274, at the corner of Washington and First, and the closer John came to the union office, the stronger his feeling of foreboding became.

The Pentronics walkout was being led by Tommy Boyle, the president of Local 274, and John’s closest relative. John was on his way to talk with Tommy about creating a photographic record of the strike. Even though it was late, he knew Tommy would still be on the job.

He was edging up to the corner of Washington and First when he heard a voice curse.

“Fuck.” A male voice. Angry. Maybe anxious, too.

John stopped dead in his tracks.

He heard a door being rattled forcefully, and another curse. Then soft footsteps moved off to the west along First Street. John stole a look around the corner. A large man dressed in dark clothes was moving toward Lincoln Avenue. The man walked swiftly and silently, turning his head from side to side as if looking to see if he was being followed. John was sure that the man had been trying to get into the darkened office of Local 274, but he didn’t know why. Or which side he was on.

John ducked back around the corner just before the man turned to look behind him.

Tommy would want to know what he’d seen, John knew. So he turned and made his way back toward Riverfront Drive. Since Tommy wasn’t at the deserted union office, John thought he’d have to be with his picketers on the line outside Pentronics Systems.

The plant was a half mile west of the Church of the Resurrection. He’d have to retrace his steps. But just as he’d turned onto Riverfront, John heard the sudden mechanical roar of an engine. He knew it was a car, but the image that immediately came to mind was a Cobra attack helicopter coming in for a strafing run.

Ahead of him, the man he’d seen walking away from Local 274 came running out of Lincoln Avenue, turned the corner onto Riverfront and headed straight for John. Just behind the man, like some dark, snarling monster torn from a nightmare, a lights-out black sedan raced out of the soft April night.

John did the only thing he could: He flicked on his flash unit and its battery pack, and heard the capacitator whine as it powered up the unit. He pulled off his lens cap and raised his motor-driven Nikon to his eye.

The car overtook the runner with predatory ease, veering up onto the sidewalk to block his path. The runner desperately reversed his direction, dashing back the way he’d come. The car slammed to a stop with an assist from the brick wall of Riverman Savings. Before it stopped rocking, the back door flew open and two hulks pounded after the runner.

No one had yet noticed John. If he went now, he could slip away unseen. Except he’d never be able to explain flaking out to Doolan.

He tripped the shutter. To his ear, the Nikon on full automatic screamed as it drove the 1000 ASA film through the camera. A fusillade of searing white light erupted from his flash unit. He caught one of the hulks cutting the chase short with a silenced handgun. The weapon’s noiseless flash left the runner writhing on the ground.

John snapped frame after frame, wondering if he’d capture the moment when a man was murdered. A movement at the edge of his lens drew his attention back to the black sedan.

The front window on the passenger side was sliding down, and the first — thing the only thing — John saw was the barrel of the gun pointed at him. He aimed the Nikon at the car, keeping the camera stationary while he ducked down and to the left. His flash unit popped off another series of electronic firecrackers.

The idea was to draw the gunfire to the light and blind the shooter at the same time.

Some idea. The SOB shot the flash unit off his camera. The Nikon spun from John’s grip, but the strap looped around his arm and he pinned it at his elbow.

The next two shots missed. Badly. The shooter had caught the glare from the strobe. John sprinted across the street toward Riverfront Park. Behind him, he heard heavy footsteps followed seconds later by a car door slamming, the snarl of an engine and screeching tires.

Now, he’d become the runner.

But he was into the trees — and the sheltering darkness — before the car could catch him. He heard footsteps crashing through the bushes behind him, and shots were fired blindly, some of them coming chillingly close.

He needed a hole in the ground, and he had one. He raced down a path to a shadowy stand of trees and shrubs where he bent down. Even in the dark his fingers quickly found the release that secured the camouflaged lid to the tunnel entrance. He lifted it, slithered into the hole he’d dug years before, and lowered the lid from below.

He was safe — as long as his tunnels stayed secret.