Authors: John Gilstrap
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #American Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Fiction, #Suspense Fiction, #Adventure fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Crime & Thriller, #General, #Thriller
"Shit!" he spat. Heart racing, Felix slapped the panic button to take the entire system offline and stanch the flow of data. Christ Almighty, this was exactly the kind of stuff that pushed Mr. Warren over the edge--the kind of thing that ended careers in a heartbeat. Hands trembling, he started right into his forensic work.
It would only be a few minutes before Mr. Warren responded to the identical alert he would have received on his pager. When he called, Felix's only chance of continued employment would lie in his ability to trace down the origin of the attempt.
It took him two minutes to trace the hit back to the National Archives in Washington, DC. His heart sank. Using public facilities like that made it living would need to keep the fact of a kidnapping secret."
The phone rang for a third time, and she picked it up. "Sheriff Bonneville, hold on a second, please." She put the call on hold. To Jesse, she continued, "If word leaked out that someone had been nabbed, somebody would call the police, and then the contractor would lose control of his operation."
Jesse's defenses started to fall as he saw it, too. "And the real reason to use an independent contractor in the first place would be because the kidnappers warned not to involve the police."
Gail smiled and winked. "Bingo." She pushed the hold button again and brought the phone to her ear. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting. This is Sheriff Bonneville."
"Medina." The special agent in charge of the Chicago Field Office announced his name as if it were an accusation, but the sound of his voice brought pleasant memories to Gail's mind. "You ready to have your world rocked?"
"I'm going to put you on speaker," Gail said as she pressed the button. "I'm here with Jesse Collier."
"Hey, Jess," Medina said. "This kid you're looking for, Thomas Hughes? Son of Stephenson and Julie Hughes?"
Gail glanced, and Jesse nodded. "That's him," she said.
"Well, when you find him, hold him, will you? His folks are murderers."
Gail startled visibly. "
"Yep, how's that for a kick in the head? Looks like they murdered a woman, her two children, and their nanny in Muncie. Ugly scene, too. Early reports say torture."
"Oh, my God," she breathed. "What the hell is going on, Vince?"
"Soon as I know, you'll know. Just thought I'd share. It came up on ICIS if you want to track it. Gotta go."
With the line silent, she felt pale.
"Love to hear a hypothesis on this one, Boss," Jesse said.
The security breach while surfing through the Carlyle site had shaken Venice. She'd wasted no time getting out of the Archives and back to the safety of Fisherman's Cove. Safely back in her office now, she held her breath as she logged into the Interstate Crime Information System for an update on the Indiana investigation. Her stomach fell. By far the most critical investigation in the country--the one that was garnering the most bulletins and alerts--was Jonathan's triple shooting in Samson, Indiana. Since the last time she'd signed in, authorities had figured out that the incident had involved a kidnapping, but it wasn't obvious whether they thought the shooter was a rescuer or a kidnapper.
Even more startling was the fact that Indiana investigators had tied the name Thomas Hughes to the location of the shootings. They had him identified as a twenty-two-year-old college student from Ball State University, and he was currently being sought as a "person of interest," which Venice knew from past experience was a label that spanned everything from potential witness to primary suspect. Whatever it meant in this case, it was not good news.
Thomas Hughes's name on the screen was highlighted as a hyperlink, which usually foretold involvement in a second or related criminal investigation. When Venice clicked it, she gasped and brought her hand to her mouth after reading only the first two sentencepossible.
With her hands trembling from the sudden shot of adrenaline, she logged out of ICIS and pulled up the link for a super-encrypted telephone site. She donned her headset as her fingers flew across the keyboard to pull up Jonathan's secure satellite phone.
The Hummer was a ridiculous waste of natural resources, Jonathan knew, but given the specific demands of his business and his addiction to high-tech toys, it was the only vehicle that would suffice. In addition to the armored doors and windows, he'd also equipped it with the latest in communication technology. He'd even thought to include a cipher-activated vault below the center console, in which he kept a supply of cash in case of emergencies. Right now, the vault held $25,000 in hundred-dollar bills. Boxers called it the Batmobile.
The hard-lined telephone mounted on the dash was an encrypted satellite phone that allowed him to freely discuss anything with anyone who had similar technology on the other end. Predictably, Boxers called it the Batphone.
And it was ringing.
A wrong number was impossible, but Jonathan nonetheless answered it on speakerphone with a noncommittal, "Yes."
"Digger, it's Venice. We've got a problem."
He waited for it.
"The Hugheses are a family of murderers."
As she drove toward Muncie, Gail Bonneville wasn't sure what she expected to glean from the scene of the quadruple murder there, but when so many people were dead, and the single name of Hughes was tied to their murders, it was a lead that needed following.
This latest twist was a stunner. What had seemed so clearly to be an altruistic act of bravery on the part of her shooter in Samson suddenly looked like something else entirely. Three people murdered in the rescue of the son of murderers. What could that possibly mean? Every one of the conclusions she'd prematurely drawn to this point was now in question.
The trill of her cell phone annoyed her. One of the good things about long drives was the time it afforded for quiet thought. The caller ID showed her it was her office, but that somehow only heightened her sense of annoyance.
"Collier." Jesse matched her tone exactly, making her smile. "You in the mood for entertaining news?"
"I'd prefer 'good' to 'entertaining,'" she said, "but I'll take whatever you've got."
"When were tracking down all that flight information a while ago, I made some good contacts," Jesse explained. "One of them just called to tell me that the Perseus Foods jet has filed a flight plan for a return trip to Indianapolis."
The murder scene on Detweiler Avenue in Muncie was as gruesome as faux FBI Agent Jonathan Grave had ever seen. The bodies were gone--shipped off to the morgue hours ago to be split open and rummaged through--leaving behind the dried pools, smears, and spatters of gore that were somehow more awful by themselves than they would have been with the corpses still presenters' affections. At about 2,300 square feet on two levels, it was exactly the kind of house that middle-class Americans think of when they think suburbia. Outside, the place was likewise well kept, even if the grass was a little long--the fact that prompted a neighbor to realize that something might be wrong in the first place. In the eighteen hours since that poor Samaritan had peeked in the window and called the police, thousands of footsteps by dozens of police officers and emergency workers had destroyed the lawn, and the dozens of feet of crime scene tape had ruined the innocence.
Stan Hastings of the Muncie Police Department was lead detective on the case. Five-eleven and trim, with signs of gray in what was left of his elaborate comb-over, he looked to be about forty-five, and seemed none too pleased to be walking through the scene yet again. He'd asked the usual jurisdictional questions when Jonathan arrived with his FBI credentials, but was easily convinced that he was investigating a link between the Caldwells and the theft of classified information.
As he conducted the tour, Hastings clearly avoided looking at the gore. "Angela Caldwell and her two children, one six and the other three, and their nanny, Felicia Bourdain, a French citizen, all murdered," Hastings explained. "The nanny was killed right here in the foyer," he said, indicating the lake of dried blood on the tiled floor and the spray that reached all the way to the ceiling in spots. "We figure she was killed answering the door. One slash across her throat, and she just dropped."
They moved through the living room into the tiny dining room with its hideously stained blue-and pink-flowered wall paper. "We found Angela, the mom, tied to that chair there at the head of the table. She was the worst one, by far. From what we can tell, she was tortured pretty brutally. Lots of deep cuts, and signs of beating, but only one fatal wound--another slashed throat."
Jonathan saw the picture in his mind, and wished that he could make it go away. "What about the children?" he asked. Even as he spoke, he regretted asking. That he
to know didn't mean he
Hastings's eyes reddened, and he cleared his throat. "It looks like the baby was killed right away, too. But the little boy, well, we think the killer was hurting him to get information out of the mother." He fell silent after that, and Jonathan could see his jaw muscles working hard. "Jesus, let's get out of here, okay?"
He didn't wait for an answer before he made a beeline for the back door and the rear deck. Jonathan followed closely behind. By the time he caught up, Hastings had his hands shoved deeply into his pants pockets and he was looking very sheepish.
"You okay, Detective?" Jonathan asked.
He laughed and rolled his eyes. "Sorry about that," he said. "It's been a long time since I've been bit by a case."
Jonathan smiled and shrugged. "It happens."
He snorted. "Yeah, well, people see you being soft, and they'll expect you to start being human and shit. God only knows what would happen then."
Jonathan gave the cop a few seconds. A barking dog next door filled the silence. "So, how do you tie Stephenson Hughes to this murder? Just the fingerprints?"
"Him and his wife both," Hastings corrected. "Neighbors saw their car parof business."
Bunting's eyes hardened. He had famously low tolerance for empty words.
"He's at his headquarters--"
"His cult commune?" Bunting interrupted.
"Exactly." Again Charlie opted not to sniff the bait. "He's assembled a team, on his own dime, I might add. As soon as he knows where Hughes is, he's going to move. Stephenson got the drop on him by surprise the first time. There's no way Ivan will let that happen again."
Bunting was shaking his head. Clearly, he had less confidence in their contractor's abilities.
Charlie went on, "At least the police have connected the Hugheses to Angela's murder. That'll keep them from seeking help from the law. That'll buy us some time. We just have to hope they don't act against their own best interests and call them anyway."
Bunting scowled and shook off the possibility. "That won't happen," he said. "Or if it does, he'll wish he didn't."
Charlie waited for the elaboration.
"Turns out we're not alone in this," Bunting said. "I spoke with a friend of mine on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I explained in general terms what we were facing, and he understood the political fallout if details of PATRIOT were to leak out. He spent the day making calls of his own, and it turns out that the Justice Department is on our side, too. If Hughes surfaces, he'll be disappeared before he can say a word."
Charlie realized that his mouth was open, and he hurried to close it. When the word
is used that way in a sentence, it only means one thing. The image of Guantanamo materialized in his head. "My," he said. "How...fortunate."
"What's the plan if Hughes never gets stupid?" Bunting asked. "What's Ivan's plan then?"
Again, Charlie knew the answer. "Depends on how long it takes," he said. "If it goes on for more than a week or two, I'm guessing he goes on the run himself."
Bunting raised an eyebrow, confused.
"Seems he already accepted payment from someone who wants to buy
"--Charlie used finger quotes--"GVX. All I know is it's a
"--more finger quotes--"client who is quick to think he's been double-crossed. If Ivan doesn't deliver what he's already been paid for, it's likely to get ugly."
Bunting smiled. He clearly liked the idea of Ivan Patrick getting a taste of his own medicine. Then the smile went away. "So, what's
meeting about? What's this new complication?"
Charlie steeled himself with a deep breath. "The sphere of knowledgeable people has expanded."
"What the hell does that mean?"
A beat. "It means that a private investigator from a place called Fisherman's Cove, Virginia, hacked into our e-mail server this afternoon and downloaded the precise e-mails that detail our initial conversations with Ivan. The security office was able to shut them out before they got everything, but they got enough to worry me."
The redness in Bunting's ears deepened, but his demeanor remained calm. "Do you have a name and an address about Digger," she said.
"Don't we all."
"No, I mean I
worry about him. I think he's gotten himself in over his head." She relayed the results of her search at the Archives. "That's
murders, all related," she finished. She went on to explain Jonathan's confrontation with the sheriff who most wanted to see her boss put in jail. "He just scares me to death."
Dom considered the details. "He's always been a daredevil, Ven. Ever since college. In his mind, if he's not pushing the envelope, he's standing still."
She gave him a look. "You sound like you admire him."
He shrugged. "Of course I admire him. He's the closest friend I've ever had."
"Then you should talk some sense into him."
Dom laughed. "Yeah, right after I cure world hunger, and figure out how to keep the tide from coming in, I'll get right to talking sense into Digger Grave." A beat. "So, when does he get in?"
"His flight arrives at ten-something at Dulles."
Dom laughed again. "Digger flying commercial. I wonder if he even knows how it works."
Venice allowed herself a laugh as well. "What about Box? How'd you like to be in the center seat next to him?" As if Boxers would dream of traveling in coach.
They walked for the better part of a block in silence, ascending the gentle slope away from the river before finally turning onto Pine Avenue, the world becoming a dark tree-formed tunnel where the only illumination came from porch lights receded in the blackness on either side.
"How comfortable are you with this notion that the Hugheses are a family of killers?" Dom asked.
"Not even a little," Venice answered. "Intuitively, I can't make it work in my mind. People who care that much about their child aren't going to murder two children. It just doesn't make sense to me."
"Maybe it didn't happen that way," Dom offered.
"You know what Digger says about coincidences," Venice said. "They don't exist. All events are linked all the time."
Dom nodded. He could hear Jonathan's voice saying it. "Okay," he said. "Let's accept that as gospel. There are no coincidences. Let's also agree that the Hugheses would never kill two children. That means that the coincidence is linked, but we just don't know how."
Venice stopped. Her eyes had grown huge as Dom's logic hit home.
The wideness of her eyes made him laugh. "Would you mind terribly if I helped?" he asked.
Fifteen minutes later, they were in the third floor of the firehouse, Dom perched in a chair behind Venice, watching over her shoulder. They worked without a break for three hours, uncovering exactly the kind of details they were hoping for. When Jonathan arrived from the airport, they'd blow him clear out of his shoes with the tidbits they'd been able to find. Dom had never seen Venice so animated.
Then Mama Alexander called from the mansion, and everything changed.
All things considered, the flight to Dulles passed quickly. For good or ill, Jonathan and Boxers both ended up on the same flight out of Chicago, direct into Washington Dulles International Airport. They both sat in coach, hesitated. It wasn't until he saw Dom there with her that his blood turned to ice. Never in all the years that he'd been running missions--whether for Uncle or for himself--had Dom D'Angelo shown up to greet him at the airport. There was no waving, no smiles. Venice looked as if she might have been crying. Dom looked as if he were about to. The priest stepped ahead to get to Jonathan first.
"What is it?" Jonathan asked, knowing the answer already.
Behind Dom, Venice started to cry in earnest. "Let's sit down," Dom said quietly.
"Nope, right here," Jonathan said.
Dom reached out for Jonathan's elbow, urging him toward the chairs. "Sitting is better," he said.
"Is it Ellen?" Jonathan asked. It was written all over their faces, but he had to hear it. Even better, he had to hear that he was wrong.
Dom cast a look to Venice, and then locked his gaze with Jonathan. "She died at 9:30 this evening, Dig. She never regained consciousness. I'm so sorry."
Jonathan stared, unblinking, as the words moved in slow motion. It was exactly as he had feared, but expecting and realizing were nowhere near the same shade on the emotional color chart. One did not prepare you for the other. As the frigid fist clutched more tightly at his guts, he locked his jaw and forced his emotions back into the depths where they belonged.
Dom cocked his head. "Dig?"
Venice moved closer, her arms outstretched to offer a hug. "Digger, I'm so, so sorry."
Jonathan stopped her with a raised palm. "I'm okay," he said. "It's not exactly a surprise." Something caught in his voice, but he was able to speak past it. He turned and started walking toward the exit. "Let's go. We've got work to do."
"Dig?" Dom called.
He kept walking. He didn't want to talk to people right now. He didn't want to be anywhere near people right now. Well, maybe one person. Come to think of it, he couldn't wait to be
close to Ivan Patrick.
"Jon!" When Jonathan didn't slow, the priest trotted to catch up. "Look, Dig, I really think we need to talk."
Jonathan forced a smile. "Is that your priest hat or your shrink hat talking?"
"It's my friend hat. And I'm tired of you walking away from me when I'm trying to help."
Jonathan turned on the priest. "Gonna analyze me, Father? Gonna take my confession? Gonna hold my hand, kiss my boo-boo, and make it all better?"
Dom's eyes reflected the anger projected toward them. "Yeah," he said. "A little of all of the above."
"Well don't bother. I've seen death before. Hell, I've wallowed in it."
"A superhero," Dom mocked.
"A realist. Ellen's dead. I got it. And she'll still be dead tomorrow and a year from now. If I need a psychiatric couch along the way, I'll look you up." In his peripheral vision, he could see Boxers arriving and pulling up short next to Venice.
"Jon, for God's sake--" All around them, other passengers swerved to avoid them, a human current flexing to avoid rocks in the stream. Those who were observant enough responded to the obvious tension with a concerned second look.
"Do you want me to walk you through all the stages of grief, Dom? I know about the anger and the guilt and the denial. I've lived 'em all before, and I'm sure I'll live them all again. would just be stuck with the awkwardness of it all.
"You okay, Boss?" the big man asked.
Jonathan pivoted his head to look at him, but he said nothing.
Boxers sighed. "I'm sorry you're hurting like this."
"You didn't even like her," Jonathan said. He could hear the whininess in his own voice and it embarrassed him.
"No, I never did," Boxers confessed. "I never came close to liking her. And the way she treated you when she left, well, that didn't help. But that don't mean I don't hurt when you hurt."
This time, when Jonathan turned to face the big man, he allowed himself a gentle smile.
"You're my friend, Dig. That makes you a rare friggin' breed. I hate seein' you in pain."
A feeling of warmth washed over Jonathan. He didn't think he'd ever heard a more heartfelt expression of empathy.
"There's somethin' else you should know," Boxers continued. "Time comes you want to get revenge on the asshole who killed her, you know I'm there."