Authors: Stuart Woods
Stone and Holly were having breakfast when Bill Wright came into the residence. “You folks ready?”
“As soon as we’ve finished breakfast,” Holly said.
“The Lincoln is waiting for you. I’ll get your luggage. Don’t forget your disguise. And the walker.”
Holly sighed. “You haven’t convinced me about the disguise. After all, they found me.”
“They found a dummy, ma’am. They don’t know where you are.”
They took off shortly after eleven. Bill came and sat down with them. “I want to bring you up to date.”
“Thank you,” Holly said. “I’d like that.”
“We think we know who did this, but we can’t prove it,
I’m sorry to say. We have a mole in their camp, but they don’t trust her enough to tell her these things in advance.”
“It’s a woman?” Stone asked.
“It is. She’s an FBI agent who’s been assigned to the Justice Department for several weeks. There’s no cell service at the colonel’s compound, but she managed to get a garbled message out about the attack.”
“And who are the group?”
“The top man is a retired Army colonel named Wade Sykes.”
“I’ve heard that name before,” Holly said. “He left under some sort of cloud, didn’t he?”
“Yes. He was charged with distributing white-supremacy materials on several Army bases, but he agreed to resign if they didn’t prosecute him. He’s quite well connected in Washington, especially among the right-wingers in Congress.”
“Will he keep trying?” Stone asked.
“I will be surprised if he doesn’t,” Bill replied. “Pretty soon he’ll find out that his attempt failed, and I expect that will humiliate him.”
“I think you’d better stay at my house,” Stone said.
“No,” Holly replied. “I’m not going to run from this bastard.”
“We’re working with the FBI on this,” Bill said, “and they’re going to set up surveillance on Sykes’s compound. If he or anyone else leaves the place, he’ll be followed. I’m working with Tom Blake, the assistant director, and he’s
setting up the surveillance. He’ll also have some people on the street for you.”
They began the descent into Teterboro, and Bill went back to his seat.
They met at a restaurant in Georgetown. “When are you going back out there?” Tom asked Elizabeth.
“Tomorrow,” she said.
“Has he asked you to be there at that time?”
“No, he just asked if I’d be back for the weekend, and I said I would, if he wanted me to be. We didn’t mention a time.”
“How many vehicles live at the place?”
“Sykes drives a silver Ford Explorer, pretty new. There’s a van, and Eugene seems to drive that more than anyone else. The cook, Elroy Hubbard, drives a Toyota station wagon, but I don’t think he’s really a part of the group. Sykes won’t talk about anything when he’s in the room.”
“All right,” Bill said, placing a leatherette pouch on the table. “There are two trackers in this package. I want you to place them on Sykes’s Explorer and the van.”
“They have lithium ion batteries and only operate when they detect movement. Don’t place them in the wheel wells; they’re too easy to find there. Wait until dark, then crawl under each vehicle and place the trackers where they can’t be seen by just bending over and looking underneath.
Somewhere around the gas tank might work; it’s up to you. They’re marked number one and two, and there is an on-off switch on each. So turn them on; they’ll stay dark until there’s movement.”
“Do you still have your burner phone?”
“I hid it on the hilltop when I tried to call you from there.”
“Here’s another one,” Tom said, handing it to her.
“Okay. Sykes turns on his Wi-Fi a couple of times a day, so if you send me a message, I’ll get it eventually. I like the way you did it the last one; keep being Dad.”
“If there’s an emergency, I’ll use the word ‘may’ in a message, meaning ‘mayday.’ If you get one like that, get out, and do whatever you have to do to protect yourself. You still have a gun?”
“If you have to think about whether to shoot somebody, shoot him. Thinking time is dangerous. If somebody is a threat, shoot him in the head. You don’t want him to get up and start shooting at you.”
“I wasn’t trained to shoot people in the head,” she said.
“It’s just common sense. You’re still using the .380, aren’t you?”
“It doesn’t carry the kind of punch that a .40 or .45 caliber would, so if you have to shoot, shoot to kill.”
She nodded, but she didn’t mean it.
Eugene left the table, got into the van, and went to retrieve his rifle case, which was hidden at a rest stop a mile or so from the turnoff to the compound. He took it back to his room, assembled the rifle, and slung it over his shoulder. “I’m going to do a little shooting,” he said to his roommate.
Eugene went outside and began the climb to his perch on the hilltop. After resting for a couple of minutes, he set down the rifle and began his search for a cell phone. He walked in a circle around the hilltop, widening his path on each circuit, kicking at rocks and other debris as he went, looking into nooks and crannies. He sat down on a boulder and rested again before walking back down the path.
As he got up, he noticed that the boulder was loose. He pushed it over with a foot, and there, dug into the dirt, was a cheap cell phone. Sykes would be pleased.
Bess was driving down to Virginia when she passed a liquor store and remembered that Sykes’s bar was out of Knob Creek. They had all been drinking it. She parked, went inside, and bought three bottles of the bourbon.
At the compound she took her suitcase in one hand and the shopping bag from the liquor store in the other and went inside. She left her suitcase on the stairs, then knocked on the door of Sykes’s study. No answer. She knocked again, then went in and left a bottle of Knob Creek on the butler’s tray that he used for a bar, then took the other two into the dining room and put them with the rest of the booze.
“That’s very generous of you,” a voice said from behind her. She turned and saw Sykes standing in the doorway.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve been drinking a lot of it, so I thought I’d return some to the fold.”
“Thank you. I’m sure we’ll all appreciate it.” He beckoned her into the study. “Sit down.”
“I put a bottle with your stock, too,” she said, nodding at the butler’s tray. Then she sat down. “What’s up?”
He set her burner phone on the table between them. “What’s this?”
She picked it up, opened it, tried to turn it on, and failed. “It’s a throwaway cell phone,” she said. “The old-fashioned kind, not a smartphone. Dead.”
“We found it at the top of the hill, where Eugene does his target practice.”
“And . . . ?”
“And, I wondered if it was yours,” he said, his gaze steady.
“No, mine is an iPhone, remember?”
“Maybe we should charge the throwaway.”
“I don’t have a charger for something that old, just for my iPhone.”
“Well, I couldn’t find one in your room. Everybody else has denied ownership of the throwaway. That leaves you.”
“No,” she said. “More likely it leaves one of them who’s lying. The phone is not mine.”
“You mind if we fingerprint you and make comparisons?”
“Go right ahead. You fingerprinted me when I first came here, remember? All you need is a print from the phone.” She was sure she had wiped it down, and she hoped she had done so thoroughly.
“Only Eugene’s prints are on it,” Sykes said.
“Perhaps Eugene found his own phone,” she said.
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
“Because you know it’s not yours. I know it’s not mine. And Eugene’s prints are on it. Were his the only ones?”
“There was one other,” Sykes said. “It doesn’t match anyone here. We’re running it through the national register.”
“Wow! How do you get access to that?”
“We have friends everywhere.”
“You certainly do. What will you do if the odd print belongs to one of the other men?”
“Take him out and shoot him, I suppose.”
“Well, that’s decisive.”
“I’m a decisive man; when I find that I’ve been betrayed, I act decisively.”
“I admire that in a man.”
“I thought you preferred women.”
“I prefer decisiveness in men. I prefer fucking women.”
“Is that what, ah, you girls call it?”
“We look at fucking as an act of sex in general, not one in particular.”
“I read that in a novel once,” Sykes said.
“Perhaps we read the same fiction.”
“I doubt it.”
“I doubt it, too.”
Sykes stood up. “Thanks for the bourbon,” he said, then left the room.
Bess thought about which of the men she had seen on the hilltop. Just two: Eugene and his friend Earl. Then she had
a thought. She went into the kitchen where Elroy was making biscuits. “I’m a little peckish, Elroy,” she said. “May I have a biscuit?”
Elroy flipped one from a hot pan onto a saucer, opened it with his knife, and buttered it. “There you go,” he said, handing her the saucer.
She bit into it and burned her tongue a little. “Fresh from the oven,” she said, fanning her mouth.
“Sorry about that,” Elroy said. “They’re best hot.”
She blew on the biscuit and attempted another bite. “Better,” she said.
“Elroy, may I ask you a question?”
“As long as you don’t expect an honest answer,” he replied.
“It’s not all that personal. Have you ever been to the top of the hill out there?” She pointed her chin at the outside.
“Sure. I go up there and set a spell now and then.”
“Have you ever taken a cell phone up there?”
Elroy looked at her appraisingly. “Why do you ask?”
“Because Eugene found one up there, and Sykes is pissed off about it. He says he found a fingerprint on it that isn’t Eugene’s or the rest of his guys’ or mine. He also says that if he finds out who it is, he’s going to take him out and shoot him.”
Elroy looked at her curiously, but didn’t reply immediately. “Do you think he would do that?” he asked, finally.
“I think he might. You must know that there’s something going on around here.”
“Generally,” he said, “I keep my ass in the kitchen.”
“A wise decision. I just wanted you to know, just in case it’s your print.”
Now he looked at her more curiously. “Who do you work for?” he asked.
“I work for a guy at the Justice Department. What about you?”
“I’m self-employed,” Elroy replied. “I do contract work for Sykes.”
“Fine by me,” she said.
“Thanks for thinking of me,” he replied, then went back to making biscuits.
Bess took her biscuit off the saucer and put that in the sink, then she walked outside, munching. She was safe, she was sure about that. She wasn’t sure about Elroy.
Elroy was taking his biscuits out of the oven when Sykes walked into the room.
“Got a minute, Elroy?”
Sykes held up the cell phone. “Is this yours?”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Elroy said. “Where did you find that? I’ve been looking for it for a week, maybe longer.”
“It was found at the top of the hill out there.”
“Well, I guess that’s where I left it.”
“Would you like it back?” Sykes held out the phone.
“I guess so, but I’ve already replaced it with an iPhone.” Elroy pressed the on button. “It’s still dead.”
“It was dead when you left it there?”
“Yeah, and it wouldn’t take a charge. That’s why I got a new one.”
“Can I see the new one?”
“I didn’t bring it today. What’s the point? You’ve got no reception out here, anyway.” He dropped the cell phone into his garbage can. “There’s where it belongs,” he said.
Sykes shrugged and left the room.
Bess passed through the kitchen.
“Don’t worry about your phone. It’s in the garbage can.”
She shrugged. “It’s not mine,” she said, then went on her way.
Bess sat in the living room, reading a book. Sykes usually turned in earlier than she, so she waited him out.
Sykes came in from his study. “You ready for bed?”
She ignored the double entendre. “Not yet. I’m into my book.”
“Turn the lights off when you come up,” he said, then went on his way.
She waited for another hour or so, and when no noises of movement came from upstairs, she got up, turned off all the lights, and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She set her handbag near the bottom of the stairs, then removed a very small flashlight, the two trackers Tom had given her, and a folded piece of plastic sheeting from the bag. She listened for a moment, heard no more noises, then walked outside onto the porch. There was a
clear sky and a quarter moon, enough to let her see the parked cars.
She waited a couple more minutes, then stepped off the porch, slipped out of her shoes, and walked over to where Sykes’s Explorer was parked. She checked the upstairs windows for a light and found none, then listened again for noise and heard none. She walked to the rear of the Explorer, unfolded the plastic sheeting, hung one end around her shoulders, and fastened it into place with a snap. She lay down on the ground, maneuvered until her head was under the car, then held the little flashlight in her mouth and illuminated the underside of the car. She began moving backward, farther under the vehicle.
When the gas tank came into sight, she found a niche between that and the chassis and ripped the plastic tape off the tracker, marked number one, leaving an adhesive surface. She slipped the tracker into the niche and pressed it firmly in place for at least a minute, then she worked her way sideways from under the SUV.
She got up, walked over to the van, and repeated her actions with the second tracker, marked number two, then wriggled out from underneath. She stood up, then brushed the dirt off the plastic sheet and off the seat and legs of her jeans. She was almost back to the porch when she heard footsteps from inside. She stepped into her shoes and quickly sat down in a rocking chair on the porch.
The door to the house opened and she turned her head to find Sykes standing there.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Enjoying the night air.”
“You’ll freeze your ass off out here.”
“When I get cold, I’ll come inside. What are you doing up?”
“I felt like one of Elroy’s biscuits,” he said. “I’ll sleep better now.”
“Good night, then.”
“Good night.” He went back inside and closed the door behind him.
She waited ten minutes, shivering in the dark, before she went up the hill to see if she’d had any e-mails. She had none, but she typed out one to the e-mail address with her father’s name in it.
Thank you for your kind gifts of the beautiful china pieces. I’ve put them in just the right spot in my living room. Love, Bess.
If anybody cared to look, there was a pair of china pieces on a bookcase in her apartment’s living room.
Tom Blake sat down at his office desk and checked his iPhone for messages. The one from Bess stood out, and he was relieved to receive it. He switched on his computer and loaded the new tracking software, typing in the serial numbers of each of the trackers.
The map on the screen was of the continental forty-eight states, and at the press of a button, the software zoomed in closer, first to the state of Virginia, then to the location of the two trackers. He keyed in tight on the vehicles until he could see the symbols for the trackers. “Good,” he said aloud to himself.
Then, as he watched, the SUV image began to move. He zoomed out half a mile or so and watched the car’s progress as it drove toward the main road, then made a left turn toward the village a couple of miles away. He watched as the car drove into town and parked. He consulted a map to see that it was in front of a little grocery store. It stayed there for ten minutes or so, then began to move again.
The symbol for the SUV suddenly disappeared from the screen. Something was wrong. He zoomed out to a one-mile scale but could not recover the image. He superimposed the map of the village onto the tracking software and searched the main streets for the tracking symbol. Then, suddenly, it appeared in the lower, left-hand corner of the screen. It seemed to be leaving a gas station. That was it: he had stopped for gas and had been under a canopy for several minutes while he filled his tank.
Tom breathed a sigh of relief and went on with his work, but he left the tracking software on-screen until the vehicle was back in its usual parking spot at Sykes’s compound.
Bess slept fairly late for her, making up the time lost in last evening’s excursion. She missed breakfast, then after lunch climbed the hill again and perched on her favorite rock. Sykes came out of the house once with a pair of binoculars and trained them on her. She smiled and waved at him, then he went back inside.
At dinner, she was alone with Sykes; the others were apparently away from the compound. He turned on the TV for
the evening news, and they both watched a story from the network’s White House correspondent.
“The kerfuffle over the broken window at the White House is apparently over. The window has been replaced, and the staffer, who had minor cuts from the glass, is back at work.” She returned the audience to the anchorwoman in the studio.
The anchorwoman continued, “President-elect Holly Barker has been spotted shopping on Madison Avenue in New York. A reporter who caught up with her got this comment.”
They switched to a medium shot of Holly carrying shopping bags, and someone shouted a question at her from off camera.
“It’s hard to campaign and shop at the same time, so I’m making it up today,” Holly said, smiling at the camera.
Sykes switched off the television. He seemed annoyed.
“Had enough of the president-elect?” she asked Sykes.
“Not nearly enough,” Sykes replied grumpily, and then changed the subject.