Thomas H. Cook

Taken

A novelization by Thomas H. Cook

Based on the series created by Leslie Bohem

To Nick Taylor and Barbara Nevins Taylor, friends to the end



Acknowledgments

I wish to thank Irwyn Applebaum and Kate Miciak for entrusting Taken to my care; Juliet Ulman for her gentle stewardship and extraordinary editorial guidance; and Kristy Cox and Corinne Antoniades from DreamWorks for their generosity and cheerful dispositions during the making of this work.


PART ONE. Beyond the Sky


Chapter One

THE SKIES OVER GERMANY, 1945

Captain Russell Keys peered out into the expansive blue, his hands on the wheel of the B-17 that shook and rattled around him, bearing its heavy load of ordnance. To his left and right, he could see other planes, a squadron of Flying Fortresses in box formation, his own plane distinguished from the others only by the red devil painted on its nose, along with the words “Where Angels Fear to Tread.”

“Navigator,” Russell said crisply, “how’s our time?”

“We’ve regained the two minutes, sir,” the navigator answered.

“Good work.” Russell glanced at his copilot, Lieutenant Lou Johnson. “Welcome to Germany, Johnson,” he said.

Johnson patted the Rita Hayworth pinup he’d taped to the metal frame of the otherwise unadorned cockpit. “You hear that, honey?” he said with a broad smile. “We’re in Germany.”

Russell looked at the altimeter, then lowered the nose and began his descent to ten thousand feet. “There it is,” he said after a moment, his gaze now fixed on a large factory thousands of feet below. “Pilot to bombardier, the plane is yours.”

The bomb-bay doors opened and the bombardier began his count.

“Five.”

“Four.”

“Three.”

“Two.”

“One.”

The plane grew eerily light as the heavy bombs filled the empty air beneath it, falling to the ground, where Russell could see them exploding in silent flashes far below.

Johnson let out a loud whoop, but Russell paid no attention. His focus was on the war-torn earth, swept with flame and smoke.

“Load delivered,” he said quietly when the last of the bombs had fallen. “Let’s go home.”

He nosed the plane upward into what seemed a perfect, tranquil sky, so different from the ravaged earth, the wars of man. Up here it was calm and quiet and serene, and if you closed your eyes you could almost make yourself believe that the earth’s ancient conflicts and rivalries might one day come to an end.

“Lights!”

Russell recognized the voice of his top gunner.

“What’s that, Toland?” he asked.

“Lights, sir. Blue ones.”

Russell looked at Johnson quizzically.

“They’re following the plane,” Toland said. “They just flew up and started tailing us.”

Russell saw Johnson’s face tighten. “Navigator,” he said. “You see any lights?”

“No, sir,” the navigator responded immediately.

Johnson released a quick sigh.

“Wait,” the navigator burst in suddenly. “Now I see them. Three. Four. Right in front of us. Not in range yet, but…”

Russell felt a curious urge seize him. “Let’s get a look at these lights.”

He banked the plane slowly and the lights swam into view outside the cockpit window, blue globes about six feet in diameter that hovered without motion. They appeared both dense and airy, heavy and at the same time weightless, and in this physical contradiction, Russell sensed that nothing he’d ever known or read about could explain them.

Johnson’s eyes widened in wonder. “What the hell are they?”

“I don’t know,” Russell answered. His voice filled with awe. “But they’re beautiful.”

For a brief moment, the crew peered at the hanging lights, unable to speak, or to turn their gaze away. A strange hypnotic glow filled the interior of the plane, and Russell felt his mind turn from war and peril as an inexplicable serenity settled over him.

Suddenly the radio operator’s voice slashed through the prevailing silence.

“We got MEs at twelve o’clock. A whole mess of them, sir.”

Russell’s mind snapped into focus. “Roger, that,” he said. “Gunners, give them short bursts when they’re in range.” He quickly checked his instruments, steadied himself, drew up the courage needed to steady his men as well. Beyond the cockpit, he glimpsed the glowing blue lights a final time, soft and oddly mesmerizing, but finally driven away, or so it seemed, by the frantic movement of the crew, the noise of the plane, the whole monstrous din of war.

A burst of machine-gun fire raked the side of the plane. The air filled with black puffs of flak. Russell’s body tensed, all his attention given over to the battle ahead, the fight to survive and to make sure his men survived.

An explosion rocked the plane, filling its cramped interior with fire and smoke.

“We just took a direct hit, sir,” the top gunner cried.

The nose of the plane sank, and Russell knew that it had finally happened, the moment he’d dreaded for so long. He and his crew were all going to die. Even so, he worked frantically to keep control of the plane while the cries of his men grew more desperate and the plane shook madly and the dull green eye of the earth came hurtling upward like a huge ball. In brief glimpses, he saw the MEs in their lethal dance, a swarm of angry bees that dove and climbed and circled, angry bursts of fire spitting from their guns.

Instantly a volley tore through the cockpit window, shattering it entirely and ripping into Russell’s abdomen.

“Oh, Christ, Russ,” Johnson cried.

Russell felt the steamy warmth of his blood as it poured out from the ripped flesh of his gut. “Copilot, take the plane,” he said.

Johnson grabbed the controls. “Hang on, Russ.”

Russell leaned back and drew in a quick desperate breath, his eyes now fixed on the empty sky beyond the shattered cockpit window, where, in the distance, the blue lights hung again, calm, soothing, a promise of peace. “Beautiful,” he said. He knew that the dogfight still raged around him, MEs firing and being fired upon. He could see them diving helplessly toward the ground and hear the noise of the battle and the screams of his men, but it was as if all of this were happening in some distant, tortured world from which the blue lights had summoned him and now held him in their silent grasp.

“We’ve got to bail out now,” Johnson cried.

Russell heard, but did not respond. He was not in the plane anymore. He was not crashing to earth. There was no fire and smoke, no fear or desperation. There were only the blue lights and they were coming toward him, their glow ever more intense as they drew in upon each other and finally melded into a single radiant light.

“Beautiful,” Russell said again. The blue light expanded, filling the sky and engulfing him, embracing him. He smiled. “Trust me, Johnson. We won’t die.”

The light was now so intense Russell could see nothing else, feel nothing else. Time stopped. Movement ceased. Russell felt nothing but the warm, soothing light until, second by second, the light faded, and he felt the earth beneath him, heard the sound of wind rippling through a field of wheat.

He opened his eyes, and realized that he was lying in that very field. In the distance, four American soldiers warily approached him. He glanced about, trying to regain his ground. The wheat lay flattened all around him, and he could see the members of his crew slowly rising from the ground, staring at themselves and each other, astonished by the nakedness that greeted them. Russell glanced down and saw that he was naked too, and that the soft flesh of his abdomen was utterly unharmed.


BEMENT, ILLINOIS, JUNE 25, 1945

Nothing has changed much, Russell thought as the cab cruised down the streets of his hometown. The stores were the same, as well as the people, kids running along the sidewalks, old people in the park, the postman making his rounds. So why, he wondered, did he not feel at home here in Bement anymore? Why did he not feel a part of this small American town, one of its simple, ordinary citizens?

“The Bulldogs are last in their division,” the cabby said. He laughed. “Some things never change.”

But some things do, Russell said to himself, though he didn’t know how he’d changed. He knew only that Bement, Illinois, was no longer the whole world to him. Once, he could not have imagined leaving it. Now he could not imagine returning to it. Once it had comprised his universe. Now it seemed so small he had to squint to see it.

The cab pulled over to the curb, and Russell reached for his wallet.

“This one’s on me, Russell,” the cabby said. He smiled admiringly. “We’re all real proud of you.”

The cab pulled away and Russell stared at the house he’d lived in all his life. It was a plain, wood-frame house with a broad porch and a well-tended lawn. A 1931 Model A Ford rested in the driveway, recently washed and polished, made ready for his return.

He walked over to the car and touched it softly, as if its metal frame were flesh.

A dog rushed toward him, wagging its long, bushy tail. He knelt down and drew it roughly into his arms. “Hello, Champ.”

Then she was suddenly there, his mother, her gray hair shining in the bright sunlight. He saw that worry had done more than time to age her.

“Mom,” he said, taking her into his arms.

“Russell,” she said in a tone of wonder, as if still unable to convince herself that what she saw was true, that her son had actually returned to Bement safe and sound.

He glanced toward the porch where his father stood, peering down at him, still a big man, though he seemed smaller than before.

“You’re still in one piece, I see,” Mr. Keys said.

Russell stiffened slightly, like a boy called to attention. “Yes, sir, I am.”

They stared at each other briefly. Russell could see a surge of feeling in his father’s eyes, along with how very hard it was for him to control it.

“How do you like her?” his father said, nodding to the car as he came down the steps.

“She looks beautiful.”

“Had to hide her from a couple of scrap drives,” Mr. Keys added. “Kind of unpatriotic, I guess, but we did our bit in… other ways.”

The “other way” was himself, Russell knew, and in that instant he grasped the terrible toll the war had taken on his parents, their long nights of worry, of not knowing where their son was, or even if he were still alive.

“Your father spent the last four days washing that old heap,” his mother said.

Russell wanted to draw his father into his arms, wanted to hold him tight and sob like a little boy, release all the fear and dread that had accumulated within him during the war, simply let it flow out of him and pool at his feet and finally seep into the ground like a wash of black bile.

Instead he said, “Thanks, Pop.”

“We did it like you asked, Russ,” his mother told him. “We didn’t say a word to Kate.”

Kate.

Russell imagined her as he’d last seen her, a young woman with a bright, happy face, proof positive of love at first sight.

“Where is she?” he asked.

“At the bank,” his mother answered. She seemed to see the longing in his eyes. “Go,” she said, with a gentle push. “She can’t wait to see you.”

Kate was busy at her desk when Russell entered the bank, her back to him as she spoke into the phone.

“Miss,” Russell began, making only a slight attempt to disguise his voice.

She wagged her finger for him to wait a moment.

“Miss,” Russell repeated insistently. “Who do I see about getting one of those GI loans?”

She froze, and he knew that she’d recognized his voice. She whirled around and pulled him into her arms.

“Oh, Russell,” she said. Her eyes glistened and her voice broke, and she squeezed him with such force that for a moment he thought he might lose his breath.

That night, as they sat together on the front porch, he gave her the ring he’d bought on the Champs-Elysees.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

He knew that this was true, that the ring really was the most beautiful thing Kate had ever seen. He could still see the shine in her eyes later that night as he unpacked his duffel bag and made ready for bed. He peered around his old room, trying to reacquaint himself with the model cars he’d built as a boy, the Bulldogs pennant, all the things that had meant so much to him before he’d left for war, but which now, despite all his effort to reclaim them, seemed little more than artifacts of a vanished life.

He went to bed a few minutes later, still trying to snuggle into his old life, but the war returned to him in all its dreadful fury. He heard the roar of the planes, exploding bombs, the screams of the wounded, saw the earth torn and gashed, bleeding like a man. Each time he closed his eyes, some new vision returned to him, so that after a time he walked out of the house, down the porch steps and out into the yard. The night was clear and crisp, but it did not soothe him. He could feel nothing but the fever of war. He was like a piece of tangled steel, he thought, like a gutted plane-something torn away that could never be replaced.

The model A beckoned to him, reminding him of his days before the war, how proud he’d been of his small achievements, his victories on the ball field, feats that now seemed small, himself curiously incomplete, like a man who’d been given a mission he had not yet accomplished, a man waiting to be summoned, commanded… taken.

He walked to the car and got in. This had been his vehicle, he thought. He gripped the wheel and pressed his foot down on the accelerator. This had been his vehicle, but he no longer had the key to it, a way to make it go. He looked out into the night, the surrounding darkness, and felt utterly lost to his next move.

Then, without willing it, he screamed.


Chapter Two

509TH BOMBER GROUP, ROSWELL ARMY AIRFIELD, ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO, JULY 1, 1947

Captain Owen Crawford stood in the vast gray hangar, his body dwarfed by the huge B-29 that loomed behind him. He was surrounded by various personnel, all of them young and eager. He knew with customary self-confidence that they hung on his every word, but there were two young officers who’d particularly caught his notice. Howard Bowen and Marty Erickson were clearly the most impressed with him. They were eager to please, and because of that they would be easy to mold. Perfect, Owen thought, sizing them up instantly, two young men who’d carry out his orders without a moment’s hesitation.

“The war was not won by superior manpower,” he began. “It wasn’t won by strategy.” He waited a beat, aware that this only heightened the anticipation of the people he addressed. “It was won by secrets.” He lifted his head slightly, his chin thrust out boldly. “When the Enola Gay dropped its payload on Hiroshima, only one hundred and seven men in the entire world knew what that specific payload was.” The assembled officers remained utterly silent. He’d focused them on the matter at hand instantly, and in doing that, he felt the power of his own voice and manner, the effortless way he gave off an authority and sense of command that was far beyond his actual rank. “That is the secret that won the war.” He settled his gaze on the two young intelligence officers he’d already noticed. They were staring at him with rapt attention. “As members of the Army Intelligence Corps, your job is to keep secrets. Doing that job well is what determines the course of history.” He let these last words sink in, then glanced at his watch and smiled. “And now, gentlemen, I must leave you. Dismissed.”