When the meeting finally adjourned at five after nine on a Thursday night, Neal Ballard had twenty-two minutes to live.

Throughout the meeting, he’d had trouble concentrating. The project under discussion was basically a pro bono job, and Ballard and his company would make almost nothing above and beyond their expenses. Neal could live with that, given the good will that would be generated by the firm’s contribution to the effort. What discouraged him, though, was the fact that the architect the committee had selected over Neal’s objections possessed about half the imagination of the average Cub Scout. The design was boring as hell; its implementation wouldn’t challenge the abilities of a high school shop class, and the project would be no damn fun at all.

So he’d had trouble staying focused. Not like he didn’t have other things on his mind and other challenges infinitely more interesting to contemplate than a routine construction job. Getting into his car after the meeting, Neal was already thinking two weeks ahead, wondering how he’d ever manage to wait that long.


The Corvette’s engine roared to life, then settled into a low, steady rumble. Neal shifted into first gear and eased his way out of the parking lot, waving goodbye to a couple of the other committee members who were standing by their cars, still talking. The city streets were wide, straight, and relatively quiet for this time of night, so Neal moved into the middle lane, goosed the throttle, and set his own personal speed limit while keeping a wary eye out for any cruising police cars. He made relatively good time, and fifteen minutes after getting into the car, he pulled up the drive and into the service bay of the workshop adjacent to his home.

The shop was Neal’s refuge. Theoretically it provided a place where he could work on his cars and on the occasional household project. But more practically it offered a haven to which he could escape when he occasionally needed some quiet time to himself, apart from Nancy and the kids and the never-ending distractions of family life.

His mind was still racing two weeks into the future as he pulled into the service bay and killed his headlights. Only when the shop was plunged into total darkness did he suddenly realize that the light in the door opener had failed to come on.


Neal made a mental note to set out a fresh one hundred watt bulb, then stepped out of the car and closed the door behind him. He was cautiously feeling his way toward the light switch on the wall ahead of him when the first blow caught him from behind.