The cell phone rang.
Hamm jumped as if struck. It rang a second time, a third, a fourth.
He picked it up.
“Hello?” Almost a whisper.
“Do you like the pictures, Mr. Hamm?” a voice asked. It sounded raspy, distorted.
“How’d you get hold a’ them?!” Hamm demanded. “And how’d you get into my house?!”
“There is nothing on this earth that cannot be achieved with wealth,” the voice said. “Nothing that cannot be bought. But you know this very well, don’t you, Mr. Hamm?”
Hamm jerked his neck to the left and right, looking around the apartment. “Can you see me right now?!” he said.
“Perhaps there are hidden cameras,” the voice said. “Or perhaps someone informed me when you arrived home. Does it matter?”
“I know what this is!” Hamm said. “I know what this is! It’s blackmail! You want money, right?!”
“It is a good arrangement you have,” the voice said. “Your job sends you around the world, to all the poorest countries, to all the places where people are most willing to sell their children. Or perhaps I should say ‘rent’ them?”
“How much?” Hamm asked.
“It is then unnecessary for you to risk violating the law while on America soil,” the voice said. “Or to risk apprehension and prosecution.”
“I said how much?!” Hamm demanded.
“No one sees what you do while outside the country. Or so you believed.”
“Just tell me how much!”
“Think, Mr. Hamm. Did I not just mention wealth? If I have enough to accomplish this thing that I have accomplished, why then would I need to extort money from one as trivial as yourself?”
“What, what do you want, then?!”
“Your servitude,” the voice replied.
“You will provide me with certain services, and in exchange I will not forward copies of these photographs to your employers, to Interpol, or to the FBI.”
“Whatta you want me to do?!” A tear slid down Hamm’s cheek. Crying. Like a baby. It angered him. A big baby, helpless and afraid.
“Simple enough,” the voice said. “I want the lion-man, the hybrid. And I want him alive.”
“Say what?! But I can’t!”
“You can and you will,” the voice said. “You can conceive well enough the consequences of your failure to comply.”
“Whatta you expect me to do?!” Hamm said. “They got the freak locked up tigher’n Queen Victoria’s girdle!”
“You are a resourceful man, Mr. Hamm,” the voice said. “You will manage.” A pause. “You have three days to think on these things. I will be in touch.”
“Wait! Wait a minute! I don’t even know who you are!”
“It is not necessary that you know,” the voice said. The line went dead.
Hamm dropped the phone. He doubled over, his face against the carpet, surrounded by his children, and he sobbed. *This ain’t happenin’! This ain’t happenin’!* His stomach seized up and he retched, vomiting all over the photographs and the plush carpeting. He spat to clear his mouth. “I’m dead! I’m so dead!”
*And nobody deserves it more, old boy.*
“Shut up!” Hamm muttered.
Okay. Okay. There was still hope, right? He just had to do what this bastard said. That’s all. “You are a resourceful man, Mr. Hamm.” *Damn right I am!* Phil Hamm would do what he had to do, whatever he had to do. No way in hell was he going to prison. *You know what happens to guys like you in prison, don’t you, old boy?* *I know! I know!*
Phil Hamm also knew he’d do anything to keep that from happening. If they wanted the Blackmane’s head—whoever “they” were—he’d deliver it, custom wrapped. *On a silver fuckin’ platter!*
The telephone rang.