Activity at the old corner gas station in Alexandria was wrapping up when the phone call the boss man had been expecting finally came. He hoisted himself to his feet.
“Wassup?” The dozing driver looked at him from under deeply hooded eyes.
The boss pulled his cellphone from his pocket and held it up. “It’s her,” he answered. He left the office, glanced over at the corner of the garage where his painters were wrapping up their spray-painting, then stepped out of the old building to take the call.
“About fuckin’ time,” the van driver mumbled to himself, and then returned his sleepy attention to the sports program on the TV.
“Hello,” the boss spoke into his cellphone.
“I’m almost there. Is everything on schedule at your end?” Harper asked.
“The paint guys are finishing up as we speak.”
“Good to hear. Pay them off when they’re done, then you know what to do—stay there and watch the place until my magician turns up to carry out the final touch.”
“That’s just my name for him, don’t worry.”
“I don’t know anything about this guy, how will I recognize him?”
“Oh, believe me, you’ll recognize him.” There was the hint of a smile in Harper’s comment.
“Okay, if you say so, but I don’t like the idea of a stranger turning up at this stage of the operation.”
“I’m not paying you a small fortune to like or dislike any part of this. Just watch for him and do whatever he tells you to do. Okay?” Harper snapped.
“Uh . . . yes, ma’am,” the boss stammered.
“Good. I should be there in about three hours.” Harper hung up.
The boss chewed on his bottom lip for a moment as he stared blindly at the passing parade of workers. As he turned to reenter the old garage he bumped into one of the painters.
“I was told you were out here.” The painter wiped his hands on a color-spattered cloth. “We’re finished. Want to come see before we split?”
The boss approached the corner work area with the painter in tow as the second painter bunched up the plastic sheeting and stuffed it into a large industrial plastic garbage bag. Both painters looked on as the boss walked around the newly painted van.
“Looks fine to me,” he said. “You boys know your stuff. The van can pass close inspection as far as I can see. Gonna take long for the paint to dry? Someone’s coming by to pick it up in about three hours or so.”
The head painter smiled at his partner then looked back at the boss. “No worries there. We mixed in a special drying agent to speed up the process. This here baby will be touch-dry in an hour.”
The boss delved inside his jacket and pulled out a thick envelope. He handed it to the head painter. “Here’s your final payment. The client authorized me to include a bonus at my discretion depending on the final inspection. It’s in there too.” He gestured at the fat envelope.
“Why, thank you kindly,” the painter beamed. “If ever you need our services again you know where to reach me.”
“Yeah, sure thing. Just make sure you clean up real good before you leave. I want no trace of your work left lying around—like we agreed.”
“No worries there, either,” the head painter grinned. He swept his hand around. “As you can see, we covered the whole work area before we started—floor, walls, ceiling. We’ll have all this sheeting bundled up and bagged so you won’t be able to tell we were ever here.”
“Great. Just get on with it. I’m expecting someone else to swing by soon to finish up with the van, and I’d prefer it if you two weren’t here.”
“You got it.” The paint team hustled to clean up and clear out as quickly as possible while the boss walked back into the office.
“I guess I may as well pay you off so that you don’t have to hang around any longer than you have to,” he said to the driver as he dropped a thick envelope into his lap. “And by the way, thanks for your help with the boxes.”
The driver opened the envelope and riffled through the bank notes. “No worries. I’ll be glad to get away from this place before any cops arrive.” He rose out of his chair and beat it out of the office.
No sooner had the boss dropped onto the broken-down sofa than he heard a truck start followed by a roller door rattling open, then close after the truck’s departure.
Peace at last. He sighed. Seconds after closing his eyes he heard someone knocking on the front door. He dragged himself off the sofa, muttered, and cursed with every step to the main entrance. The fuckin’ driver’s gone and forgotten something, I bet. He unlocked the door and threw it open.
“What in the hell have you—?”
The man standing before him certainly wasn’t the van driver; in fact, he was the exact opposite in every way.
Where the driver was tall and thin as a rake, this guy was medium height and built like that actor called The Rock. But he didn’t wear a smile like The Rock. Beneath his cap, the face was utterly expressionless, the eyes hazel and dead. A thin pale line marked the track of a scar that ran from the outside edge of the left eye, down the smooth shaven face and heavily muscled neck where it disappeared inside the collar of a black Tee. A bear paw-sized hand gripped the strap of a small backpack slung over one shoulder.
“I’m guessing you’re the magician guy I was warned—I mean, told to expect.”
The man merely narrowed those dead eyes. The boss took that as his answer. He stepped aside and, once the man brushed past, made a quick check outside before closing and locking the door.
Without any guidance from him, the magician went straight to the stack in the middle of the floor and examined the contents of the top boxes. He pursed his lips, satisfied with what he found, and motioned the boss to help him load the newly painted van.
It took them forty minutes to pack the vehicle in a specific manner, with the magician directing every step of the process. Thirty-nine minutes without a word passing between the two men. After the first minute the boss quickly realize he need only work and not speak.
It might have been that he was over-tired, or still riding the little meth he’d dropped early that morning, but it wasn’t until the magician produced items from his backpack and began attaching them to the contents of some of the boxes that the boss realized he’d just helped put a car bomb together. He turned to leave.
The magician’s voice sounded so uncharacteristically soft it stopped the boss dead in his tracks. There was no mistaking the deadly menace in the simple question.
“Uh…no, nothing wrong—nothing at all. Why?”
The magician leaned against a weathered metal post, his arms casually folded. He tilted his head slightly. “Just wondering where you’re going, that’s all.”
“Oh, I…uh…I thought we were finished here.”
“Not quite.” The magician reached into the backpack lying at his feet.
Sweat broke out along the boss’s hairline as he half expected the magician to pull out a gun. It wouldn’t be the first time for a guy to be paid off with a bullet between the eyes. He almost buckled at the knees when the magician’s hand reappeared clasping a couple of envelopes.
“I was asked to pay you once I’d finished my work here. Once I give you these, then we’re done.”
The boss managed to catch one of the envelopes tossed at him but dropped the other. As he rose after scooping the envelope off the floor, he frowned. The envelopes looked familiar, except for the spatters of red that smeared under his fingers.
“Hey, these look like the ones I gave the other—”
The bullet struck him squarely between the eyes.
The magician walked over, picked up the money-filled envelopes with one hand as he speed-dialed a number on his cellphone with the other. His call was answered on the second ring.
“It’s done,” he said quietly. “The van is ready for you when you arrive…Yes, everyone has been paid in full…Why thank you, Shelley, you don’t have to do that… Yes, a little extra money is always welcome…Okay. Thanks again for the job, and don’t worry, I’ll make the bodies disappear like I always do. I’m not called the magician for nothing.”
The call ended. He pocketed the money, collected his backpack and prepared to work his magic.
Kramer paced back and forth, his cellphone clamped to his ear. Occasionally he shot a frustrated look at the X3 and the base personnel buzzing around it while they refueled and double-checked everything they could lay their hands on.
Not long after leaving the site of the highway shooting, Major Cummins had informed Kramer and Brandt the X3 needed refueling. As it turned out, the airport they’d originally flown out of was the closest.
“So here we are, mate,” Kramer uttered. “And I’ve just been told we’ll be able to lift off in a few more minutes.”
That’s great news,” acknowledged Darci on the other end of the call. “Because of the NCSP’s help in identifying the poor bastard Harper shot, Maria claims she’s got a hit on the car Harper stole.”
Kramer stopped pacing and called Brandt over. He asked Darci to repeat what he’d just said, and added that Brandt was now listening in on the call. Darci did so then continued to update his agents-in-field.
“Maria had her team of computer geeks, based in Australia, log into the live traffic camera networks of North Carolina and Virginia’s Department of Transport. Their orders? To scan every camera feed along the I-95 from Nashville, North Carolina north for a hundred miles.
“She deduced that because Harper had stayed on that highway since leaving Florida it was logical she would keep to the I-95 after the shooting. A hundred-mile-long search should more than cover the distance Harper had time to travel since leaving the crime scene. And Maria’s thinking had proven right.
“One of her Aussie team members thought she caught Harper’s car on a camera about ten miles south of a place called Roanoke Rapids in North Carolina. The tech’s supervisor immediately had a few others focus on that section of highway and they spotted Harper leaving the I-95 in that town and pulling into a gas station. Maria says it looked as if Harper might have made a call from a pay phone outside the station.”
“Then what?” Kramer asked.
“Harper joined the I-95 again and continued north.”
“Are you able to keep eyes on her?”
“Pretty much…if she sticks to the highway,” Darci replied. “We can monitor cameras ahead of her and wait for her to pass one—that way we can track her, hopefully all the way to wherever her destination is. And if she leaves the highway we should have eyes on that exit. Unfortunately, there are no toll gates along there that stretch of the I-95 for us to hack into.” Darci paused for a moment as if to take a deep breath.
“I think we may finally have our hooks into the bitch, Kramer.” Darci’s comment was filled with emotion.
“I certainly hope so,” Kramer added. “It’s about time all Maria’s and your hard work paid off, mate.” Kramer used the Aussie’s friendly idiom.
“Thanks for that, mate,” Darci replied softly.
“Listen, we need to end this. The X3 is refueled and ready to go,” Kramer stated as he and Brandt sprinted for the aircraft. Shadow was already aboard and waiting for them. “Keep us updated on Harper.”
“No worries mate. You can count on us.”
Kramer buckled in then signaled the pilots to lift off. He updated them on Harper’s stop-off at Roanoke Rapids and after a quick check of their onboard map the pilots informed Kramer that it was a fifteen-minute flight away.
The X3 shot northeast at top speed.
* * * * * *
Harper began to relax a little believing she had thrown the police off her trail long enough for her to make a clear run to her final destination. If she was able to achieve that then she felt confident she would lose them for good, or at least until she completed her plan—either one would work.
There was still that part of her brain, however, that cautioned against being cocky and overconfident, and it exercised its influence every time a police vehicle came into view or raced past her with sirens blaring causing her to jump in her seat.
She crossed the state line into Virginia and paid scant attention to the welcome sign featuring some kind of bird. This venture back into America was never conceived to be a sightseeing trip. She had no time for the scenery offered her along the way–for the gentle rolling piedmont, the wide variety of rural and major urban areas, or the heavily forested areas north out of Richmond, the state capitol. None of nature’s beauty touched her soul or heart.
As she left the metropolis of Richmond behind and found the volume of traffic increasing the further she drove north, it began to dawn on her that she might have neglected to make sufficient allowances for prolonged traffic delays when formulating her plan. She checked the time and calculated she was still on schedule to collect her van.
The morning closed in on midday, and the heat and humidity rose with each hour. Harper was tempted to lay the convertible’s roof down but elected to crank the air up instead as the Dodge weaved through the thickening I-95 artery.
* * * * * *
Debbie and Cori, eleven and twelve respectively, best friends since kindergarten, were always inclined to mischief, much to the chagrin of both sets of parents—especially the mothers. Today was proving no different. Debbie decided to play hooky and convinced her older friend to join her. They watched from behind a row of thick bushes, waiting for their parents to leave for work. Debbie’s mother worked as a receptionist for a law office, Cori’s mother as a biller at a nearby hospital, while both fathers worked for the same body shop near the airport.
As soon as the family cars disappeared down the quiet suburban street Debbie left the hiding place and dashed back into one of the homes with Cori close on her heels. Debbie planned a day of binge watching the sci-fi series Westworld that was on her parents’ prohibited list. She’d overheard boys at school raving about it, and her interest had been piqued.
While Cori readied the TV, Debbie rustled up drinks and nibbles in the kitchen when a clacking noise caught her attention. Something about it sounded metallic and strangely familiar. It drew her out of the kitchen and into the backyard.
She approached the back fence cautiously. She cringed when Cori suddenly appeared at her side. “Shush.” Debbie held a finger to her lips when her friend looked about to ask what the heck was going on. Then she heard the clacking again.
They reached the weathered panels and peered through a couple of empty knotholes into the backyard of the neighboring house. The girls’ eyes widened at the sight.
Neither girl recognized the young man. And though they had seen images of his kind on the news, they had never seen an Arab in person—especially one handling some sort of automatic rifle. Clack, clack—the sound came from him working the weapon.
Debbie jerked her face from the fence when a wild-eyed man appeared at the backdoor looking exceptionally angry and called the gunman into the house. She grabbed Cori’s shoulder and hauled her back from the fence. They gawked at each other for several moments trying to digest what they had just observed. Debbie raced her friend back to the kitchen.
See something, say something—the mantra had been drilled into them at school and on the TV. Debbie snatched up her cellphone and punched 911 while Cori stared fixated at the back fence.
The clock hanging on the cabin wall showed it was just after noon. Just after nine in California, thought Halstead as he prepared a sandwich in the small one-butt kitchen. He carried his lunch and beer over to his workstation and sat and studied the map on his computer.
His plan allowed for only one team out on the west coast, the Thaal Team—the ninth team. He zoomed in on their location using a live-feed version of Google Earth and a block of suburban streets filled the screen.
Like the majority of Californian middle-income neighborhoods, the streets were lined with average-sized homes, all with lush green lawns front and back, some with pools or the occasional Jacuzzi, all with several well-established trees. As far as the satellite image depicted, everything was calm, cool, and collected in typical sunny California style.
Halstead selected the ruler tool and dragged a straight line from the team’s house to its target. According to Google Earth it was 0.86 miles to the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa as the crow flies. It would be the ninth target to be attacked in the next thirty hours.
* * * * * *
The headphone crackled in Kramer’s ear and Maria came online. He could tell straight away something was up, and when he glanced over the dozing Shadow at Brandt he could see she was listening as well. Her dazzling eyes were locked on him.
“What’s going on, Maria?” Kramer found himself dreading her reply.
“Our fears of the cartels working with ISIS may have been verified.”
“What? How?” Kramer and Brandt asked together.
“A couple of girls playing hooky called 911 this morning claiming to have seen two strangers in the house in back of them.”
Darci’s urgent voice broke in. “According to the girls, the two men were of the Arab persuasion…and one reportedly had an automatic rifle of some kind.”
“When you add—” Kramer began.
“That’s exactly what we think,” Maria jumped in. “Homeland Security and the FBI must believe there’s a connection with the intel we passed along to them and their own coming out of Mexico—now this 911 call.”
“Where?” Kramer asked.
“California—Costa Mesa to be exact,” Maria replied.
“And right in the heart of suburbia,” Darci added. “Right now the area is crawling with cops, SWAT, and counter terrorist units. They’ve evacuated the streets for a mile around the suspect house.”
“I suppose it’s too early to know if there are any other active cells,” Brandt wondered.
“Far too early,” Maria replied. “They’re not even positive this is a terrorist cell to begin with.”
“I’m guessing they’ll discover that real soon,” Kramer broke in.
“What about you…what’s your sitrep?” Darci asked.
Kramer peered down at the highway snaking below and its shifting vehicular scales. “We’re coming up on Fredericksburg. Traffic is building up. We’re banking on your Aussie people to pinpoint Harper’s car as best they can for us. Once we have eyes on we can stay on top of her.”
“I’ll check in with them right now,” Maria responded. “If I can set up a direct link for you it’ll save a lot of time.”
Three minutes later another woman’s voice sounded in Kramer’s ear. She had the distinctive ‘Down Under’ accent. He leaned forward and tapped the pilots’ shoulders. When they glanced back and he gestured at his headphone they indicated they were already listening.
Following directions fed to them from Australia, Cummins and Theya piloted the X3 north along the I-95. Five miles south of downtown Fredericksburg the arterial began a long flat curve that bypassed the city center by some two miles.
Federal aviation regulations permit helicopters to fly at a minimum altitude of five hundred feet over congested areas. However, everyone onboard the X3 felt more comfortable maintaining a slightly higher altitude unless something happened to necessitate dropping lower. Major Cummins decided eight hundred was a suitable height for two reasons–it reduced the chances of drawing attention to them by the target and, with the use of the high-powered binoculars onboard, Kramer and Brandt should have no trouble identifying the target’s license plates and tracking the vehicle.
At a major cloverleaf intersection almost due west of the city’s downtown they located the convertible.
* * * * * *
According to the car’s maps system, her long drive should end in fifty miles—about an hour, give or take any traffic delays. After she picked up her contact along the way.
Harper took a deep breath and let the air out in a long tired sigh. She had no illusion the police were scouring the region for her; that her decision to stick to the highway heightened her chances of capture. Her plan, however, was set to a prescribed timetable negotiated between herself and ISIS. It limited her drive time once she set foot in America. And for her plan to work, ISIS needed to be successful if only in the beginning.
She allowed herself the luxury of relaxing a little, confident the motorists surrounding her formed a fluid protective barrier for the remainder of her drive.
It was totally uncharacteristic for him to lose his temper, so when Halstead slammed his fist on the table he surprised even himself.
Damn, damn, damn. He stormed round the main room of the cabin then stopped and leaned heavily against the front door. He had planned for every possible contingency, yet something had fouled things up. He glared at the TV on the other side of the room.
Breaking News. The bold red lettering ran across the bottom of the screen filled with an aerial image showing a horde of heavily-armed figures, all dressed in black, disgorging from numerous armored vehicles, and racing through a Californian residential area.
Even with the volume off, he’d watched so many similar broadcasts he could imagine the excited voice of the reporter trying to describe a hundred things at once. He scrubbed his head roughly; his agitation needed release. Eventually he pulled himself together and sat at his computer. He’d wasted precious time venting his anger.
Once they had arrived at their prearranged location, each team had access to TV. It was one aspect of his plan that he hadn’t had any issue with—until now. His eyes shifted to the TV overlooking his workstation. The black figures were closing on Thaal team’s hideout.
The only means of contact he had with his teams was via the burner cellphone each team member possessed solely for that purpose. He texted the Thaal team, reasoning they were most likely watching the same news broadcast, and instructed them to destroy their burner phones—really burn them.
He then added a personal message extolling them and finished with:
1. Make an oath to die and renew your intentions
2. Read al-Tawba and Anfal (traditional war chapters from the Qur’an) and reflect on their meanings and remember all of the things God has promised for you, His martyrs.
Moments later he received a succinct text reply. “Allahu Akbar.”
Halstead imagined his other teams sitting, glued to their TVs, watching the possible glorification of their comrades. He texted a slightly modified message, extolling them as well, but warning them to be even more vigilant in these last hours if they wanted to succeed in their mission.
He slumped back in his chair. He had no choice but to believe in the fanaticism of his men—that it would be strong enough to drive them to carrying out their missions. But this new development created a dilemma for him. According to his schedule there were still twenty-four hours remaining before he signaled his other teams to commence their attacks. Should he wait, or should he have them strike now? Either way there would be a heightened terrorist alert nationwide within the next few hours.
He began to pray quietly.
* * * * * *
Twelve hundred miles away the Alif Team stared grimly at the scene unfolding on the TV. As all soldiers knew worldwide, no matter how well an operation is planned, there is always the chance for the unexpected. Invariably it meant something going wrong, something that could jeopardize the mission. Rarely, if ever, could it mean something advantageous for the mission.
The two terrorists sat with their two drivers. The four men listened intently as the on-air journalist verbalized the images being captured by various cameramen. The journalist introduced retired law enforcement and military personalities, drawing on their years of experience to explain to the viewers exactly what was playing out minute by minute.
Throughout the live broadcast the leader of the Alif Team stole an occasional glance at his cellphone. Both he and his comrade had earlier received a message commending their strength of faith, hailing them as heroes and blessed warriors of Allah, priming them for their mission.
He and his comrade had prepared themselves with the ritual of cleansing and shaving all excess hair from their bodies. Their weapons were ready. The men were more than ready. This waiting was gnawing at their insides and psyches. All they needed now was the GO text.
He frowned at his blank phone and clutched it tightly so he would feel it vibrate with the incoming message. His eyes welled up as he continued to watch the live broadcast.
To everyone’s surprise aboard the X3, Harper’s convertible suddenly exited the main arterial, choosing instead the exit that looped round onto the 610 into Garrison Woods.
“What the hell?” exclaimed Kramer. “Here I was expecting the bitch to go straight into D.C.” Suddenly conscious of his angry outburst, he mumbled an apology. Having his nemesis in sight, yet beyond his grasp, was causing a torrent of emotion to flood his senses—almost to breaking point. He quickly consulted his phone’s Google Maps.
It showed the 610 winding through Garrison Woods then heading off on a westerly course. He scratched his chin while trying to make sense of this sudden change. He couldn’t discern any notable point on the map. That is unless Harper is meeting up with someone.
In the meantime, Major Cummins swung the X3 on to a new course to maintain a visual on the convertible. The vehicle passed through the town’s business center then suddenly made a right onto 641 headed north into suburbia.
Kramer happened to be seated on the starboard side of the X3, and due to its altitude was able to see almost half the length of the Potomac to the east as it snaked its way to the Chesapeake Bay some seventy miles away. He shifted in his seat and peered ahead between the pilots. Laid out before him was an undulating sea of green—miles of pine, oak, Cyprus, and ironwood interspersed with a lake, reservoir, and a small number of cleared patches of land.
“Isn’t that TBS ahead?” Kramer pointed at a large collection of various sized buildings regimentally laid out and numerous vehicles.
“Yes, sir, that’s affirmative,” replied Captain Theya.
“What’s TBS?” asked Brandt, looking ahead over Cummins’ shoulder.
“It’s The Basic School,” Kramer answered. “ Camp Barrett, where Marine Corps officers are taught the basics.”
“And what about that place over there? Those belong to the Marine Corps, too?” Brandt gestured at another building complex about five miles beyond Camp Barrett.
“No, that’s the FBI Academy,” Kramer said. “Nearly all the wooded area you can see is called MCB Quantico, that’s Marine Corps Base Quantico to civvies. The installation covers a little over eighty-six square miles, and is used primarily for training purposes. Some call it ‘the Crossroads of the Marine Corps’.
“And they rent or lease some of the land to the FBI for their academy?” asked Brandt.
“I guess you could say that,” chuckled Kramer. “In actual fact, the Academy is the FBI’s principal research and training facility. The DEA or Drug Enforcement Administration also has its training facility there.”
“Captain Kramer.” Major Cummins, being active military, was reluctant to forego addressing Kramer by his former ranking with the Corps. “I have to request clearance from MCB Quantico to proceed. The base will have gone to lockdown the moment official word of the suspected ISIS incident went out. If we just fly onto the base we’re likely to be shot down with no questions asked.”
“Do what you need to do, major. Make sure to stress that we’re operating with the FBI and Homeland Security surveilling a suspect vehicle, and it’s imperative we do not lose contact with it.” Kramer paused a moment. “In fact, give them a description of the convertible, and ask them to detain it and the driver until we arrive.”
“What in blazes is Harper doing here?” Brandt asked.
“Well, I don’t think she plans running amok gunning people down,” Kramer said. “My best guess is she’s here to meet up with someone who could be part of her end game, whatever that may be.”
“We’ve received clearance from MCB Quantico and I’m told they’ll watch for our suspect,” Cummins stated.
All eyes followed the convertible as it traveled along the 641 toward The Basic School. A quarter mile short of the base’s security checkpoint Harper turned off the main road and entered a small housing development, past a few houses, then into the driveway of a two-story colonial. One of its two garages opened, and the convertible disappeared inside and the door closed.
“It looks like you’re right, boss,” Brandt said. “About Harper meeting someone.” She stared below for a few moments at the neighborhood they were hovering above. “Those reports we’re getting from California, what’s your impression?”
“The Costa Mesa situation should provide us with definitive proof whether or not we’re dealing with an active ISIS cell or homegrown violent extremists. One way or the other Darci or Maria will alert us to an NTAS, National Terrorism Advisory System, bulletin the instant it’s released.”
“I take it by your tone that your money is on ISIS.”
“It’s what my gut is telling me,” Kramer answered. “And I’ve come to rely on my gut.”
“Captain, we have our own action going down,” Cummins cut in. He directed everyone’s attention earthward.
* * * * * *
Soon after leaving the interstate Harper had received a text from her sister, Diana, a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI’s National Security Branch, warning her she had a tail—a helicopter with people on board working with the Bureau and DHS.
Instead of meeting at the FBI Academy as planned, Diana suggested a private residence just short of the security gate leading onto Camp Barrett.
A short time later Harper turned into a small neighborhood, located the address, and turned into the garage. Her sister was waiting inside and closed the door behind the convertible.
Harper stopped alongside her sister’s Subaru and climbed out of the Dodge convertible. The sisters hugged and gave each other a quick look up and down.
“Geez sis, it’s been years since I last set eyes on you in person. You haven’t changed.” Diana positively beamed. “But right now we haven’t time for any chit chat. Let’s get out of here.”
* * * * * *
Kramer and Brandt shifted in their seats. The convertible was reversing out of the garage. It backed out into the street, rejoined the 641 and headed back toward Garrison Woods. Cummins rotated the X3 and began tracking the vehicle below.
With its observers in tow, it retraced its route through Garrison Woods and minutes later took the ramp back onto the I-95 and resumed its trip north.
A hint of suspicion tickled Kramer so he asked Cummins to slip the X3 a little more to the driver’s side of the convertible. He trained his binoculars on the open side window and caught a glimpse of fiery red hair wafting about in the car’s slipstream.
“Anything wrong?” Brandt had released her seat belt to enable her to peer over Kramer’s shoulder.
He lowered the binoculars but kept his eyes fixed on the convertible. “I just wanted to make sure—”
“That Harper hadn’t given us the slip again?”
“As far as I can tell, that’s her behind the wheel.”
Kramer traded places with Brandt, both having to negotiate Shadow, who sat upright in the middle seat. On Kramer’s order, Cummins then slid the X3 sideways to provide a view of the passenger riding with Harper. Even with his binoculars all he could confirm was the figure looked like a female.
They tailed the convertible north along the interstate for about five miles when, just at the outskirts of a place called Triangle, and directly opposite the striking architecture of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, they observed a state patrol car drive up behind the convertible and signal for it to pull over onto the shoulder.
“Looks to me as if the North Carolina State Police put out a BOLO for Harper’s vehicle,” Brandt commented.
“Considering we’re well into Virginia, it took the state troopers here long enough to spot it.” The harshness of Kramer’s tone startled everyone.
As all eyes watched the trooper leave his unit and approach the convertible, Cummins informed Kramer and Brandt he’d just received a relayed message from Camp Barrett to say no one had as yet set eyes on the suspect vehicle they had been asked to watch for. Cummins took the liberty to update the Marines that the suspect had, in fact, bypassed their base and was now on the I-95 several miles north.
“Thanks for looking after that,” Kramer acknowledged.
“Uh oh, we have a situation.” The co-pilot sounded concerned.
As all aboard the X3 looked on, the trooper took a step back from the convertible at the same time drawing his sidearm. He tilted his head to his shoulder and they knew he was calling for backup. The driver threw her door open and fired at the trooper who staggered back a step, dropped to one knee, and returned fire. The passenger, meanwhile, exited the convertible and edged toward the wounded trooper.
Kramer leaned forward between the pilots and pointed. “Take us down, take us down now.”
Both pilots nodded and the X3 began a nosedive.
The scene unfolding on the ground was one of terror and chaos. The interstate consisted of eight traffic lanes–three southbound, three northbound, and two northbound express lanes in the center separated either side from the outside lanes by areas of open ground.
As the X3 plummeted from the sky, smoke blossomed from vehicles in the two outside north lanes as drivers jumped on their brakes. It took scant moments for a chain reaction of accidents to happen.
Kramer shook his head, his expression grim. “When will people ever learn?” he murmured. “Motorists on these major highways travel too fast and follow too close and never allow themselves enough room to react in an emergency situation.”
He watched appalled as drivers in the express lanes slowed to rubberneck at the sudden chaos, and then became acutely aware of the shootout between the trooper and the occupants of a convertible. He cringed when many hit the accelerator to escape potential stray bullets only to crash into those still stunned by the unbelievable events occurring mere yards away. The interstate fast became a scene of mayhem worthy of a Hollywood action film.
The X3 landed in the swale closest to the gunfight. Kramer realized, to those staggering among the wrecks littering the highway, the helicopter must look like a silvery futuristic machine—something way out of context. He saw many gasp as he and Brandt leapt from it, weapons in hand, with a huge tan dog close behind.
Spouts of dust erupted around them as Kramer, Brandt, and Shadow dashed across the narrow, shallow trough-like depression. Occasionally a bullet whined close overhead.
“Umm, I think we’ve stirred the natives up.” Brandt puffed as her legs pumped hard.
They reached the edge of the northbound lanes and dropped to the ground. Across a sixty-foot expanse of blacktop littered with debris from nearby crashed vehicles they saw the trooper lying on his side, his back hard against the left front tire of his unit. He was bleeding from his left shoulder, a dark glistening patch marring his sharply creased jacket.
“Our trooper looks a little worse for wear, but seems to be holding his own.” Kramer’s admiration of the officer was clear.
From their ground level viewpoint, Kramer and Brandt could see the prone figure of Harper’s passenger. The dark spot leaking blood above his right eye marked him dead.
Distant sirens heralded the approach of first responders and police backup.
Kramer heard Brandt edge away to his right. He caught her using a wrecked car for cover as she crawled from their position and made for a handful of dazed and terrified motorists hunkered behind another wreck. Kramer turned his attention back to the convertible. His eyes locked on the redheaded driver. She was partially hidden in deep shadows, but he knew she was staring back at him—two hunters gauging the caliber of the other. He laid a hand atop Shadow’s head.
He felt the dog’s coiled tension through his fingers. Kramer tried to ignore the fist clenching his guts. He held his pistol with both hands and used the blacktop to help steady his aim. Even in the car’s dim interior he could see Harper hunkered behind the wheel through the partly open door. He kept his eyes riveted to the shadowy figure.
“Shadow, left flank.”
At the command, Shadow instantly began crawling off to Kramer’s left. Out of the corner of his eye, Kramer could see the huge dog edging along the highway, keeping below the level of the blacktop and out of sight of the convertible. While Kramer provided cover, the command he’d issued Shadow would have the dog approach Harper on her blind side, and from there he could assist Kramer when he chose to close in on the convertible.
“Harper, don’t you think it’s time to end all this? Even you have to recognize the untenable position you’re in right now,” Kramer called out. “Those sirens you hear aren’t just EMTs or fire trucks to clean up all this mess you’ve caused, they also include more state police coming to backup their wounded buddy there. Needless to say, when they get here they’re going to be pissed at you.”
Shadow reached a point several yards away, and paused a moment to glance back at Kramer. He received a subtle signal from his partner and edged slowly up onto the blacktop. He hesitated a split second then began crawling toward the front of the convertible.
A flash lit up the interior of the car as a shot rang out. Kramer flinched as the bullet ripped into the blacktop a few inches from his face. Chunks of asphalt peppered him. He rolled a couple of feet to his right.
Shadow heard the shot and saw the road explode close to Kramer. He rose to his feet and, staying low, scampered to the convertible where he lay down beneath the Dodge’s long narrow grill. He waited for Kramer’s signal to attack.
“I take it that means you intend to make this hard on everyone, especially yourself.” No reply came from Harper.
“Boss, we have company.” Brandt’s voice crackled in Kramer’s earbud.
The air filled with whooping and warbling sirens, the jaw-clenching screech of tires, and the unmistakable stench of burnt rubber. The cavalry had arrived.
Kramer rolled onto his back and stared down through his feet at ambulances and fire trucks pulling up on express lanes on the far side of the ground he and his team had crossed. Men and women leapt from their emergency vehicles, glanced curiously at the X3 and then began aiding the injured they could see, looking for others among the numerous wrecked cars cluttering the highway.
He looked to his left and right and spotted highway patrol and police units arriving on scene, quickly establishing a wide cordon around the suspect’s vehicle and their fellow officer still lying wounded beside his unit. He then noticed the trooper acknowledge frantic calls on his portable police radio with a feeble wave indicating that he was still alive but fading fast.
Kramer had lost the initiative. The cops had arrived before he had the chance to collar Harper for himself. Now that they were here and eager to rescue their downed comrade, Kramer knew all too well the retribution they wanted to exact on the shooter—namely, Harper.
His first thought was to make Brandt’s and his presence known, that they were here representing the FBI in the capture and apprehension of the suspect—that it was a case for national security. The thought was fleeting. There was nothing about Brandt and himself to verify them as law enforcers, let alone as FBI affiliates—pseudo or otherwise.
The supposed ISIS situation had law enforcement officers across the nation so hyped up that even opening his mouth might set off a trigger-happy cop. The tension electrifying the scene was palpable. It would take only one inadvertent shot to start a full barrage. Kramer and his team had survived plenty of overseas action to date. He wasn’t about to do anything stupid to have them killed by friendly fire on home soil.
He whispered into his radio. “Brandt, place your weapon on the ground and raise your hands real slow.” He moved his head imperceptibly so he could see that his partner had heard his order and was carrying it out. He smiled as she did exactly as told. The girl certainly has a brain in that cute head of hers.
Still lying on his back, Kramer took his pistol in one hand, holding it between finger and thumb, and with extreme care stretched his arm out and placed the weapon on the ground away from him. He then raised both hands in the air.
A shot punched a star in the convertible’s windshield. Kramer gasped. The realization of what just happened felt as if he’d been punched hard in the chest. He flipped onto his stomach and stared wide-eyed across the blacktop at the Dodge. Whether Harper had intentionally fired at the police or him, Kramer couldn’t guess. The woman was hunkered behind the wheel staring back at him, her face suffused with anger. She pointed her handgun at him and opened her mouth as if to say something.
Then hell unleashed its fury.
“NO!” Kramer’s desperate cry was lost in the crash of gunfire. “Shado—”
The roar of shotguns and banging of semi-automatic handguns and rifles deafened everyone in the vicinity. People unfamiliar with a full-on fusillade screamed their lungs out and clamped their hands over their ears against the infernal racket. An errant breeze wafted over the scene dragging with it clouds of white smoke, and the unmistakable pungent smell of gunpowder.
Even where he was lying, Kramer felt the skin-slapping explosions, and gritted his teeth against the torturous pounding on his eardrums. He knew from experience that without protective earplugs he would be hearing the eeeeeeEEEEEeeeeee ringing in his head for hours, even days.
He stared grimly at the convertible being punctured and destroyed by the ferocious hail of bullets. Windows shattered into a cosmos of glassy stars, tires puffed air and sagged and side mirrors disintegrated. The vehicle was buffeted as bullets punched holes the entire length of the body, some the size of a ring finger, others fist sized.
The gunfire seemed to last ages then suddenly an ear-ringing silence settled over the highway. Gradually, sobbing and children crying were discernible. Then the cautious shuffle of dozens of tactical boots on the blacktop seeped into the lifting stillness as law enforcers approached.
Kramer jerked at the touch of something warm and steely hard on his back. He glanced up and found himself looking at the business end of a tactical shotgun. It gestured for him to stand and he did so, slowly and carefully, his fingers interlocked and clasped behind his head.
Through the growing crowd of tan and dark blue uniforms he caught a glimpse of a limp body, the bloodied upper torso hanging partway out of the driver’s door. A long tanned arm dangled with fingertips brushing the blacktop. A mane of long red hair concealed the woman’s pulverized head.
* * * * * *
A little over a hundred miles to the north, Halstead looked at the confrontation between his Thaal team and the California law enforcers playing out silently on his TV. He had prayed fervently for an answer to his dilemma, and had received what he believed to be Allah’s wish.
He reached out to his keyboard and punched in a command. Within seconds each of his other nine soldier teams received the GO signal. They were to launch their attacks immediately.