“Where’s Shadow? Where’s my Marine buddy?” Kramer’s voice was gravelly.
“Here, he’s here, Kramer.”
He craned his neck in search of his partner among the crowd of state troopers and police officers. Brandt shouldered her way through the ordered chaos and emerged close by. Her cheeks glistened with tears. When her eyes flicked away he swiveled his head and saw a large group of uniforms standing about, every one with a concerned face. A few shifted, boots scuffing the blacktop, and a gap appeared in the crowd.
Several feet away a tan blob came into focus. Shadow. As Kramer watched, Shadow limped forward. Kramer took a knee and welcomed the huge dog with a powerful hug that Shadow returned by licking Kramer’s face over and over. Choked sobs rippled through the crowd.
“He’s one tough Marine, that’s all I can say.”
Kramer looked past Brandt. An EMT stood close by, hands on hips, slowly shaking her head. The young hazel eyes were filled with admiration for her patient. It wasn’t ‘til then Kramer became aware of the bandages wrapped round his dog.
“I saw the whole thing happen and, except for a few abrasions and contusions—and a possible cracked rib—he’s okay, thanks to the armored vest he’s wearing. Looks to me like it stopped more than one bullet. He’s gonna hurt something awful for quite a while, but I’ve given your friend here,” the young EMT indicated Brandt, “enough painkillers to see him through. Make sure he takes it easy for a spell.” She beamed a smile at Kramer, rubbed Shadow’s head, and then left to join her fellow EMTs still attending dazed and injured motorists.
“Okay, people, let’s give these folks some room,” a voice boomed. “Me and my men will take it from here.” Immediately the group dispersed.
Gravel crunched beneath dozens of boots as state troopers hurried off to lend aid to firemen and EMTs. Moments later all that remained in the near vicinity of the ravaged convertible were the X3, its crew, Kramer, Shadow, Brandt, a dozen or so police officers, plainclothes processing the crime scene, and their cluster of units parked haphazardly. The wounded trooper had already been transported off to hospital.
Kramer gazed about until his eyes came to rest on a face that instantly called the singer/actor Burl Ives to mind.
The man’s eyes fairly twinkled with shrewdness mixed equally with effervescence. The quirky smile half hidden behind a bushy mustache and the cocked eyebrow lent the whole countenance a Santa Claus-ish look, sans beard.
“Glad to have you with us, Captain Kramer.” The man enveloped Kramer’s hand in both his and shook it gently. “Senior Detective O’Connor, Dumfries Police Department.” He held up a hand as Kramer made to speak. “I know you prefer just Kramer, but I go by the adage ‘once a Marine, always a Marine,’ so you’ll just have to forgive an old man his idiosyncrasy toward former Marines.” He winked at Brandt. Kramer instantly liked the man.
O’Connor rested a meaty hand on Kramer’s shoulder. “Let’s step over here out of the way and let these people do their job.” He guided Kramer and Brandt through the cordoned off area and over to the X3 where the pilots were anxiously waiting. Seeing their concerned expressions, Kramer indicated he and Shadow were okay. A small group of detectives tagged along.
They all waited patiently while Kramer and Brandt accepted bottles of water from the pilots. There were smiles all around as Shadow slurped noisily at a bowl of water an officer had brought over from his unit. Content his buddy was looked after, Kramer turned to O’Connor.
“What the hell happened back there?” He gestured at the Dodge and noticed a vehicle pull up—the words ‘City of Dumfries Coroner’ clearly visible on its side.
“We lost it,” O’Connor admitted. The twinkle in his eyes all but faded. “Before I could get a word in, the suspect fired through the windshield at one of my units. Everyone was already strung tighter than a bowstring, seeing as how we were alerted to the suspect being associated with terrorists ‘n’ all. I guess a young state trooper just plain snapped and returned fire. The rest that happened after I put down to a case of contagious shooting.”
“What in blue blazes is contagious shooting?” Brandt interjected. “If you don’t mind me asking, detective?”
O’Connor smiled sadly at her and shook his head. “I don’t mind at all, young lady.” He looked around the semi-circle of faces while he stroked his chin. It was evident he was searching for the right words to convey his thoughts.
“First of all, to my knowledge there isn’t any scientific evidence to date to support or prove the existence of anything such as a contagious shooting dynamic. And that’s despite it being commonly accepted in police jargon and popular culture.
“It’s been observed in military and police personnel here in the United States and regarded as a sociological phenomenon. It basically refers to an incident when one person firing on a target can induce others to begin shooting. Quite often, when asked, the subsequent shooters don’t know why they were firing. And who can blame them considering what’s going on right now.”
Kramer nodded, but his mind was churning crazily. He couldn’t forget the look in Harper’s eyes. It happened quickly but the pure anger and hatred, the utter loathing, had been so strong it struck him like a sharp stinging slap.
“I’ve seen it for myself,” he said quietly. “During boot camp, and even in Afghanistan, whenever it happened it was always a case of men would shoot at their target as soon as they heard others shoot. I put it down to muscle memory. A target pops up and all the men shoot together until a cease-fire command is given. A hard reaction to train out of some guys.”
Gradually the import and tone of the detective’s last words reached him and Kramer looked up into a semi-circle of grim faces. A heaviness of agitated fear and anger emanated from the group. Even Shadow sensed it. His ears pricked and he drew closer to Kramer.
“There’s something else,” Kramer said.
“Someone has let loose the dogs of war.” Cummins’ eyes pierced Kramer to his core. “Word came through from your boss, Darci, during the gunfight.”
“Fifteen minutes ago, major shopping plazas across the country were attacked.” O’Connor’s voice rumbled from deep within his barrel chest—like a dire message from the grave. “The FBI and multiple other agencies have confirmed the attacks are being carried out by ISIS.”
Kramer’s incredulous look shifted between his partner and the detective. “You said ‘are being carried out by ISIS,’ does that mean—”
The detective nodded solemnly. “Yes, I’m afraid so, son. The attacks are still in progress.” O’Connor’s reply couldn’t sound any bleaker.
“How many…” Kramer’s voice broke.
“Eight shopping plazas in total,” Cummins answered.
Kramer shook his head in disbelief. His mind reeled from the news. “What? And casualties?”
“Kramer…the situation is still extremely fluid. Reports are still flooding in from first responders—”
O’Connor cut in. “Hundreds—if not thousands. Many are women and children.” His anger was palpable. A murmur rose from the group, murderous. The lawmen were frustrated—they wanted nothing right now but to be on scene; to have the opportunity—no matter how slight or dangerous—to be part of putting the terrorists down. They wanted to strike back—and hard.
Kramer felt it too—the call to arms. It was intrinsic to his former career as a United States Marine; the need to rush into the fight; to protect and save his fellow countrymen. Battlefields, more often than not, happen in someone else’s backyard, but 9/11 dispensed a new reality to Americans. And since then so had the subsequent numerous attacks wrought by ISIS around the globe. No one, no country was immune to the terrorists’ diabolical campaign.
He knew Shadow sensed the fierceness and anger, as well. He felt his canine comrade nudge him, anticipating his signal they were going off to another fight. He strongly believed dogs had memories too. He thought Shadow’s must be of a distant battlefield, of the sights and sounds and smells, of death and the dying. Surely they must worry him, but not enough to keep him from Kramer’s side.
All this Kramer could see in his fellow Marine’s eyes as they stared up at him. “We have our own fight to finish, Marine.” Kramer tousled the dog’s ears.
“Eight plazas?” This was directed at O’Connor.
The detective consulted his notebook. “The Galleria in Houston, Mall of America, Jordan Landing Shopping Center in Utah, Gravios Bluffs Plaza in Fenton, Missouri.” He flipped the page over. “Scottsdale Fashion Square in Arizona, Eastwood Mall in Ohio, Norman’s University Town Center in Oklahoma, and Larkridge, Thornton, Colorado.”
Silence. Kramer’s eyes narrowed in thought. He looked up.
“None of those included California.”
“What?” A frown creased O’Connor’s brow.
“Yeah, you’re right,” commented Brandt.
“That incident in Costa Mesa,” Kramer said. “I might be wrong, but I’m thinking that terrorist cell was discovered before they had a chance to hit their target somewhere there—in Costa Mesa.”
“I got sent a report about that,” O’Connor murmured. He cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t think you’re wrong at all, son. I’ll bet my pension they constitute the Californian team. I’ll also wager the feds have most likely woken up to that fact by now.”
Kramer drew in his lower lip while his mind’s eye focused somewhere deep. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute, two minutes. When he refocused, everyone was regarding him closely. He addressed Brandt well aware the group listened in.
“The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Harper is, er, was involved in everything going down right now. It all has her smell on it.” He held up a hand and countered off the fingers with the other.
“One, she has motive to hit back at America. Two, her criminal activities worldwide most certainly provided her with more than enough means to bankroll a huge operation. Three, we have eyes-on confirmation in South Africa of her involvement with ISIS. Four, it’s far too coincidental for these ISIS attacks to occur so soon after Harper sets foot back in America after being absent for years. And I don’t believe in coincidences. Five, the pieces are beginning to fit together to make me feel that she somehow orchestrated everything that’s happening across the country to divert us from her own agenda.”
“That’s an awful lot to load onto the shoulders of just one person—and a woman to boot, son,” O’Connor said.
“Believe me, detective,” Brandt spoke up. “Kramer has reason enough to know Harper better than anyone. If he believes she was capable of setting all this up with ISIS, then I go along with him. I’ve personally seen her handiwork and she’s one nasty bitch with a vengeful streak a mile wide down her back.”
A call from across the road interrupted them. The coroner stood waving and pointing at O’Connor.
“Looks like I’m wanted over there.” The stout detective turned back to Kramer and Brandt. “Walk with me. Seeing as you’re both here and know the suspect so well, you may as well identify the body.”
Leaving the two pilots to safeguard their precious craft, the rest of the group made their way across the swale and back through the police cordon and to where the coroner and his assistant stood over a shape lying inside a heavy black body bag.
“We’re done here,” the elderly coroner announced. He peered at the group over the top of his glasses perched precariously at the end of his nose. “Just wanted to let you know before we wrap up and head back to the morgue with our lady friend here.”
“Thanks, doc. But before you go, I’d like these two folks to officially identify the deceased.”
“Certainly, by all means.” The coroner turned to his assistant. “John, care to do the honors?”
The young man nodded and knelt by the body bag and slowly drew the zipper down.
It was plain to everyone that the woman had once been extremely attractive. Despite the heavy spattering of blood and torn and peppered flesh, the flawless features and beautiful classic lines were still discernible—barely. The fiery red mane of hair, once full and flowing, was now straw-like, thick and matted with blood and plastered over half the woman’s face—or what was left of it.
Kramer and Brandt took a knee either side of the body bag and looked closely at the ravaged face. Finally Kramer reached out and, with some difficulty, managed to move the hair aside. Seconds turned to minutes. After five minutes Kramer closed the bag and he and Brandt stared at each other.
“Well?” asked O’Connor. “It’s never a pleasant task but—”
“It’s not Harper.”
It took quite a while for the truth to sink in, but gradually Kramer and Brandt reluctantly admitted that somehow Harper had lucked out and evaded them again. The former Marine fought hard to quell the gorge boiling in his guts and threatening to choke him. To those standing close by he appeared outwardly calm, albeit a trifle tense, and resigned to the fact that his quarry had eluded him and was once again on the loose. Inside however, he seethed with suppressed fury, ready to explode at any second.
He could tell from her eyes that Brandt shared some of his frustration and anger. But something else hovered behind her glacial blue gaze and for some inexplicable reason he thought it might be deep disappointment. In me?
From his Marine K9 training, Kramer remembered that animals are able to sense emotions emanating from humans. He regarded Shadow and saw the uneasiness in his posture and in his large golden brown eyes. He hugged his furry friend tightly and wondered if Shadow might have known from the start that the shooter hadn’t been Harper. When are you going to learn to talk, ol’ friend?
O’Connor fingered his mustache and studied Kramer and Brandt. Kramer knew the man was weighing up everything he and Brandt had said about Harper. The Marine had plenty of experience with law enforcers to know the detective looked to have nearly a lifetime of dealing with society’s scum and surviving it all mostly on hunches, hard police work, and damn good luck. Right now his instincts would be telling him Kramer’s deductions were mighty close to fact.
“Okay, son. Believe me when I say I know how you feel to discover the deceased isn’t who you hoped it to be. A whole lot of us here have been in that very same spot. So I’m going along with the young lady here; that you know this Harper woman better than anyone…better than anyone alive, is my guessing. My officers and me will be your hound dogs. If you can put us on the scent I guarantee we’ll hunt down and tree that woman for you—just so long as she’s still in our jurisdiction, that is. After that she’s all yours to do with how you please.” O’Connor turned and scanned his fellow detectives and officers and turned back to Kramer.
“We—and I’m talking lawmen and military now—we operate under a whole different moral code to the general public. Our code falls way short for what we come face-to-face with everyday in the streets or, for you, on the frontline. For us the lines are blurred. Bad guys don’t walk around carrying signs marking them.” He laid a heavy hand on Kramer’s shoulder. Pushed his face close to the Marine’s.
“I did my time in ‘Nam; saw way too many of my buddies vanish in a bloody mist right beside me. I can see in your eyes, captain, that you’ve seen it all, too. You know where I’m coming from when I say that morality is something wholly different in war. Well, we’re right this minute at war with this ISIS bunch, which goes to show that war isn’t always restricted to a battlefield somewhere beyond the horizon. If this Harper is part of all this shit happening at the moment as you say, then by hell she’s on our shit list and we’ll do everything we can to help you bring her down.”
Having said his piece, the detective fell to issuing orders to his people after Kramer provided them with a detailed description of the real Shelley Harper.
They were primed to go. The instant the signal came in, the Alif Team sprang into action. The route to their target proved easy going despite the hour. Parking their van was always the unknown factor in their plan. They didn’t know if they would be able to park close to their FFP, sniper term for final firing position, or not on the day. It turned out easier and more fortuitous than expected.
Dressed in nondescript work clothes, the driver and co-driver, together with one of the ISIS soldiers, made their way to the top of the building adjacent the northern entrances of the complex. Unbeknown to the customers of the businesses below, the three-man sniper team manned their predetermined positions.
Their target covered 2.4 million square feet of retail space with over four hundred stores and restaurants, a full-size ice rink, two swimming pools, and much more. It was the largest shopping mall in Texas and one of the largest in the United States. Houston’s The Galleria was also the perfect killing ground.
While his comrades readied themselves, the remaining ISIS soldier passed through the teeming shoppers. Disguised as a maintenance worker he was invisible to those around him as he went one-by-one to each of the west, south and east entrances. Nor was he paid any attention when he stepped into a utility alcove on the upper level. There he unpacked the large toolbox he carried.
He checked his watch. Thirty seconds passed. Sixty. Ninety seconds. Muffled explosions from the smoke grenades he’d planted at the entrances echoed up to where he waited patiently. Then chaos erupted throughout the mall.
He stepped from the alcove with Heckler and Koch’s MP5N in hand and began firing into the mass of people as they streamed past, terrified, in full panic mode.
The compact submachine gun, specifically developed for the U.S. SEALs and rated by them as a superb option for CQB, close quarter battle operations, was also perfect for the terrorist. Over thirty people lay dead or dying within the first few minutes.
The bursting grenades sent plumes of smoke billowing into the main thoroughfares causing mass hysteria that effectively closed three avenues of escape to shoppers and herded them towards the northern access points. The gunman moved patiently along his elevated vantage point and aimed bursts of fire into the rear ranks of milling people. As figures dropped around them, others fled as fast as they could away from them; any who went to their aid were summarily gunned down adding further to the hysteria. In an agonizingly short period thousands of people jammed into the northern part of the huge complex. The gunman paused only long enough to reload.
The innocent fared no better outside. Avenues of escape proved to be choke points to a killing field. Doors burst open and shoppers tore from the mall directly into a merciless hail of gunfire. The terrorists atop the building adjacent to the northern exits raked the crowds relentlessly with their automatic weapons. Bodies littered the pavement and parking areas and began piling up in front of the mall.
Occasionally there would be shots from the crush as those in the crowd carrying concealed weapons returned fire. The terrorists zeroed in on these few quickly cutting them down and many of those around them.
Minutes dragged by before sirens joined the horrific symphony of gunshots and heart-rending screams. The moment first responders appeared on scene, one of the terrorists immediately shifted his fire to them. The attack on Houston’s The Galleria very quickly became a war zone.
Elsewhere across the country, similar scenes were playing out at the other mall targets. The ISIS soldiers and their homegrown supporters had come prepared to extend the engagements for as long as possible. Their sole aim; to make the body count as high as they could until they themselves were killed.
The gunmen had been told millions worldwide would be watching, in fascinated horror, as the atrocities unfolded live on every media and social media platform imaginable. No age group would be immune to the news blasts from media networks scrambling to cover every bloody second. The soldiers knew American censorship had no chance of coping with social media posts and even played second fiddle to the media’s orchestration that the public had the right to know what was happening.
The ISIS soldiers reveled in the knowledge the day was fast becoming one of unimaginable infamy for Americans.
* * * * * *
Nationwide, law enforcement departments and agencies threw all their resources into the fray. When news reached them of a ninth assault, this one on the King of Prussia Plaza in Pennsylvania—a mere one hundred forty miles away—Kramer and those around him felt even more impelled to intensify their hunt for Shelley Harper.
Brandt recognized the frustration and guilt gnawing at Kramer. She willed the operation to move faster, all the while knowing each and every person involved was doing his or her utmost in the search. And she had been around Shadow long enough to know Kramer’s inner turmoil was infecting the dog. Brandt saw it, but knew that anything she might say in an effort to alleviate the pressure Kramer was putting himself under could well exacerbate the situation.
She saw it in the tightness of Kramer’s eyes and mouth, even the tone of his voice at times; the guilt he had taken upon himself for allowing Harper to escape during their encounter in Belize. The fact that the woman had almost killed him was inconsequential to the former Marine. The man was laboring under the weight of an ever-increasing body count.
Brandt grew more concerned with every passing moment that Kramer might succumb to his perverted guilt. She said as much during an aside call to Darci and Maria but apart from a few encouraging words there was nothing else that they could do to help her dilemma. They had their own hands full in monitoring the vast network of traffic and security cameras between the scene of the shootout and the nation’s capitol in the hope they might detect Harper’s whereabouts. Brandt was left to her own devices to stop Kramer from self-destructing.
Kramer assumed the manhunt fell under the jurisdiction of the Alexandria Police Department when the diligent work by O’Connor’s people in following up on leads zeroed in on the two square miles of that part of the city known as Old Town.
Bordered by the Capitol Beltway on the south side, by Northeast Alexandria and Old Town North on the north side, the Potomac River waterfront in the east, and Amtrak and Metro railroads running the length of the western side, the area was renowned for its beautifully-preserved historic district. Cobblestone streets and red brick sidewalks hummed with an energy that attracted everyone to some of the best restaurants, arts, shopping, and historic attractions located only minutes from Washington D.C.
At the operation center, Kramer listened as Senior Detective Jayne Feather of the Alexandria Police Department immediately sought the services of Alexandria’s Water Police to cover the eastern shoreline. Soon the Potomac teemed with police launches scouring for anyone attempting to escape via the waterway.
The detective also designated persons to oversee the search operations in each sector utilizing SWAT, K9 and air units, supported by patrol officers.
She solicited cooperation from the Amtrak and Metrorail police departments to augment the city’s police to cover the rail lines.
As everyone knuckled down to their tasks, Kramer had to contend with the added emotional stress from the incessant flood of images and reports from the mall attacks. He knew the reports affected Brandt and everyone, but assumed for himself the bulk of responsibility for it all. Aghast, horrified and stunned at first, he soon became incensed—wanted nothing but revenge. When word began spreading of their suspect’s ties with ISIS; that Harper may even have had a hand in the mall arracks, Feather confessed to him she had never seen her people so intense in their job.
Not one for sitting idly on the sidelines, Kramer itched to be personally involved, to get into the thick of it. He strode over to the large wall map of the city and studied the Old Town sector. The fact that the police headquarters was almost two miles from the search activity didn’t improve his demeanor.
When he’d thanked Major Cummins and Captain Theya for piloting the X3 for them and explained that it seemed their services would no longer be needed, both had replied they’d sooner stick around another twenty-four hours just in case. Kramer couldn’t fault them for their decision.
“I hate sitting here thumb wrestling with myself while others are out there beating the bushes for Harper. There must be something we can do, eh, boss?”
Kramer was so intent on the map he didn’t sense Brandt’s approach. It made him feel angry with himself for some strange reason he couldn’t fathom.
“Say again?” he snapped.
Brandt let his abruptness slide. “Just saying I wish we could be out there helping with the search. Sitting around in offices doing nothing makes me edgy.”
“I was just thinking the exact same thing.”
“Fancy that.” The words were out before Brandt knew it. Her shoulders hunched expecting an explosion. When it didn’t come she braved a glance at Kramer. He merely stood there looking at her with one eyebrow cocked, thin lipped. They stood like that for several moments, and then Kramer turned and scanned the room. It buzzed with action–a hive on full production mode. He caught Feather’s eye and the detective came over to join them.
“What’s up, captain?” She held up a hand. “No, don’t tell me, let me guess. This waiting around isn’t for you. You both need to be out there involved in the search. Right?” Kramer and Brandt nodded. “Can’t say I blame you. If I had a choice, I’d be out there myself. But I drew the short straw and have to be here coordinating everything.”
The detective moved to the map, looked it over for a moment, and jabbed a thick finger to point a few blocks from the river. “It’s going to take my people a while to get anywhere close to this area. Why don’t you two take your dog and cover that for me? It’ll certainly help speed things up having some extra boots on the ground.”
Shadow was curled up in a corner nearby, his eyes the only part of him moving as he tracked the activity around him. His ears pricked up at the mention of dog and he was already up and waiting at the door raring to go.
Feather fished in her pocket, pulled out a set of keys and tossed them to Kramer. “You can use my car. It’s the only 2000 gray Chevy Cruze parked out back. Try not to scratch it.”
Kramer and Brandt turned for the door and caught themselves when they saw Shadow waiting for them. They both broke into broad smiles and Kramer shook his head as they approached the door. He tousled Shadow’s ears.
“C’mon, Marine. We have a mission.”
They had no trouble locating Feather’s gray Chevy, but Kramer was damned if he could find any area on the older car that wasn’t scratched or marked in some way. Minutes later they were pulling out of the police compound with Kramer at the wheel.
“Earbuds,” he said. Kramer always insisted they be worn whenever he and Brandt needed to be hands-free. A simple tap activated the in-built microphone and negated them having to fish around for their phones.
Shadow sat high in the rear gazing forward between Kramer and Brandt as they headed toward Alexandria’s Old Town.
Forty-some miles northwest of the feverish activity sweeping through Alexandria’s historic district, a certain log cabin reverberated with an occasional whoop of jubilation.
As he went about packing his bags in preparation to leave his secluded hideout, Halstead paused now and then to catch the latest news coverage of each of the fire fights. The results were surpassing his wildest dreams.
He took full credit for being the mastermind behind the series of attacks, but that was as far as his involvement went…oh, that and synchronizing the attacks, of course. Apart from that, all else—reconnoitering the targets, devising the detailed plans of attack, setting up lines of fire—all that he left in the capable hands of his ISIS soldiers. They had the experience. They were the professionals.
They also accepted the fact their chances of surviving their mission were extremely slim—virtually zero. The only way Halstead could conceive of any actually coming out of all this alive would be solely due to the fact they might be too badly wounded to be able to commit suicide. If any chose to wear suicide belts or vests Halstead was unaware of it.
He closed his suitcase and looked about the cabin in case he’d missed anything. Satisfied with his efforts, he slipped his one-way air tickets into his jacket and locked the front door behind him. The disguise he wore, the same he’d had on when he arrived, would suffice until he reached the Continent. Once there, the disguise would be discarded for a new one to see him through to his final destination. Libya.
A trail of dust hugged the ground and followed him as he drove away from the cabin. As the hideout disappeared from view behind a dense line of tall, majestic pines, Halstead glanced at his watch. In eight hours the several incendiary bombs he’d placed about the structure would explode and utterly destroy it and any evidence of him having ever been there along with it.
* * * * * *
Harper slowed as she approached the intersection with the abandoned gas station occupying one corner. As soon as traffic allowed, she drove the Subaru up to the roller door and pulled a remote opener from her bag. At the touch of a button, the door clanked and rattled upward. The moment the car was inside, she pushed the same button again and the door dropped slowly close.
Diana peered around the shabby interior, unable to make out much due to the poor lighting. Harper strolled across the room and flicked a switch.
Throughout their younger years the sisters always maintained a friendly competitive rivalry. Diana was considered the more levelheaded, and Harper’s rebellious outlook on life and her decision to hook up with a known crime boss had driven the point home. The girls’ foster parents had summarily disowned Harper and instructed Diana never to have any contact with her.
However, over the years, and with hundreds—sometimes thousands—of miles separating them, Harper always managed to stay in touch, to keep track of her sibling’s life. Despite their differences, the two girls loved each other dearly and supported each other’s life choices although not always fully understanding the other’s decisions at the time.
Harper acknowledged a certain amount of jealousy when Diana qualified for and then graduated from Princeton, but was totally surprised when she turned her focus on law enforcement and joined the FBI. Nevertheless, she showed her support by showering Diana with expensive gifts using money from her lover, Valdiron. Despite being diametrically opposed, living either side of the law, the sisters’ relationship grew stronger. On occasion Diana even forewarned Harper of those FBI investigations that might prove threatening to her and Valdiron.
When the crime boss was killed, Diana was one of the FBI agents on scene, and had immediately contacted her sister. She had to contend herself with consoling Harper long distance. It reinforced their bond. Once she had formalized her plan for retribution, Harper shared some of it with Diana. During their formative years both girls had been instilled with the age-old belief of an eye for an eye, and Diana saw her sister’s desire for revenge as being totally justified. She agreed to help.
Harper emerged from the office carrying a couple of large packages wrapped with brown paper. She tossed one to her sister. “I know what you’re thinking sis, that this is quite a dump, but neither of us will be staying long.” She gestured to the van standing in a far corner. “The place has served its purpose though and that is what we came for. The sooner we can change clothes the sooner we can get out of here.”
When they’d finished changing, Harper pulled out her S&W 500 revolver and checked it.
“Geez, sis, you expecting to run into a herd of elephants? Isn’t that a little over-kill for our plan—excuse the pun?”
“There’s little likelihood of it being needed, but it’s always wise to be prepared for anything, don’t you agree?” Harper hefted her handgun and then holstered it.
Minutes later, a large black van emerged from the old gas station and drove off down the street without so much as a blink from the locals. On both sides of the vehicle, emblazoned in large gold letters, was ‘FBI Bomb Technicians’ while the cab and rear doors featured the Federal Bureau of Investigation logo. The driver and passenger both wore crisp black uniforms emblazoned with the same words in bold yellow.
The gray Chevy glided through an intersection on its way to where Kramer decided they’d begin their search of this part of Old Town.
“I thought Feather told us the FBI had pulled all its people out of the search because they were needed at the mall attack in Pennsylvania,” Brandt said.
“That’s what the lady said. Why?” Kramer answered.
“As we passed through that last intersection I caught sight of an FBI van down the street.”
“Oh? Where exactly?”
“Two blocks south of here. It looked to be heading west—away from where we’re going.”
“Humph. Could be the last of the FBI units leaving.” Kramer slowed the Chevy. “Two blocks from here, you said? Let’s see if we can catch ‘em. No use wasting our time going over the same ground they may have already searched and cleared.” He executed a quick three-point turn and followed Brandt’s directions to where she’d seen the FBI van. They arrived at the cross streets in moments.
“There it is.”
Kramer leaned forward and peered past his partner who pointed at a large black van cruising away to their right along a heavily treed residential street. Kramer swung their car around the corner after the van. The FBI logo was clearly visible on the van’s rear doors.
Traffic stalled the van’s progress and the Chevy closed to within a half block before the van turned another corner. Kramer and his team arrived at the intersection and spotted the van held up by a street sweeper negotiating a row of randomly parked vehicles.
“Great. Now we have a chance of catching up with the feds,” Kramer said.
Harper noticed her sister fidgeting in her seat and bobbing her head to check the side mirror. “Something wrong, sis?”
“I’m not sure. It’s just that…” Diana peered closer at the mirror.
“There’s a car behind us.”
“So?” Harper thumped the wheel and yelled at the city vehicle in front. “C’mon guys, let’s get that sweep moving. We haven’t got all day.” She glanced across at Diana who now looked distinctly worried. “Car? What about the damn car?”
“I saw it trying to catch up with us back there. When we made the last turn it did the same. Now it’s right behind us. I could be wrong, but I think it might be following us.”
“What? Where is it?” Harper checked her side mirror but could only get a partial view of a gray car. “The gray one right behind us?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“Okay, but I can only see the edge of it. Can’t see who is inside. What about you?”
Diana squinted at her mirror. “I see a young woman. Can’t make her features out too well. She’s wearing a ball cap, looks to have blonde hair.
“What are they doing back there, just sitting?”
“Yes, that’s what it— Wait. The woman looks to be talking to the driver.”
Harper’s eyes darted to her mirror in time to see the other car’s door open and its driver step out. Her mouth dropped open. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
Diana’s head snapped around. “What? Did I hear you right? Kramer—the same guy who has been hunting you all these years? The one with that hellish big dog? I thought you said you killed the guy back in Belize?”
“Yeah. The very same.”
“How on earth—”
Harper didn’t answer. She was too busy wrenching the wheel sharply and accelerating the van past the street sweeper.
Kramer stopped short. The FBI van’s sudden maneuver caught him totally off-guard. For a split second he stood staring at the agency’s golden logo as the van skirted the city sweep and tore away down the road.
He spun round and leaped back behind the wheel of the Chevy.
“What in the blue blazers was that all about?” Brandt almost yelled.
“Damned if I know,” Kramer replied through gritted teeth. “What say we find out.”
The Chevy squealed around the street sweeper, leaving its driver gawking at them as they raced after the government vehicle.
Thankfully the black van left a somewhat clear path in its wake. Kramer deftly avoided the odd driver who drifted back onto the road after the FBI had past. They were jostled and bounced about inside the Chevy, but they were steadily closing in on the van.
Kramer spied an intersection ahead. The traffic signals turned amber then red. The van propped and jinked round a car in front.
“WATCH OUT,” Brandt screamed.
She felt Shadow’s weight jam into her seat as Kramer stamped on the brakes. The Chevy skittered to a stop inches from the other car’s rear bumper. The FBI vehicle swerved left, fishtailed through the intersection, and then roared up the ramp onto the Capitol Beltway. For a split second, at the start of the ramp, the driver twisted her head to glare at the Chevy.
Kramer and Brandt gasped. They recognized the face and brilliant red hair.
Kramer rammed the gears into reverse. The Chevy recoiled. A following car swerved to avoid a collision, the driver pounding the horn angrily.
Brandt snatched up her smartphone and speed dialed Feather informing her they’d just encountered Harper and were pursuing her vehicle. She was giving its description and direction when she had to break off.
“You can’t, Kramer, it’s—” Brandt exclaimed horrified.
Cross-traffic had already begun moving but Kramer forged ahead hell-bent. Brandt seized the dash with both hands and squeezed her eyes shut expecting a crash at any second. Nothing happened.
They all lurched side-to-side violently as the Chevy zigzagged its way through astonished and terrified motorists. Brandt ventured an eye open and saw they were tearing up the ramp. A cacophony of blaring horns chased after them. She looked in back and caught Shadow struggling up from behind the front seats. He didn’t appear any worse for wear from Kramer’s maniacal driving so she twisted back around. The rear of a semi filled the entire windshield.
Brandt squealed. When she opened her eyes the semi was gone. She fought to keep her heart from choking her. Suddenly she exploded and lashed out at Kramer.
“What the fucking hell are you trying to pull, Kramer—kill the bloody lot of us? Is Harper worth that much to you—to risk your life? And Shadow—what about him, eh? After all the two of you have been through together, do you want to throw your lives away just to catch that damn bitch? Answer me, dammit.”
Kramer stared ahead stone-faced, resolute, his jaw set. He weaved their car back and forth, from one lane to another, but despite all his efforts the FBI van continued to draw ahead. Ironically, motorists were making way for the government vehicle.
“She can’t get away—not this time. Not again.”
Kramer spoke so softly that Brandt couldn’t be certain if he was talking to himself or responding to her tirade. He dropped back to the legal speed limit and eased in behind a towncar, straining to keep the van in sight.
“Listen, Kramer, I know how you feel.”
His head whipped around. “Do you? Do you really?” It was almost a snarl. The intensity startled Brandt for a second and she recoiled in her seat. Then her Aussie character bristled.
“Okay, not exactly—but bloody damn close. You’re not the only person ever to lose someone close, you know. That’s something that you can’t claim all to yourself.” Kramer refocused on the surrounding traffic and Brandt paused to reel her emotions back in. When she felt more composed she continued, her tone softer, tempered.
“I may not look the type, or old enough, but I put in time with the SASR, Australia’s Special Air Services Regiment.” Kramer shot her a look that Brandt had seen more times than she dare count. “Yeah, me…in Special Forces. As hard as it may seem I even put time in the Sandbox.” That last earned her wide-open eyes from Kramer.
“I had no clue. Those details weren’t included in your packet that Darci gave me to read.”
“There’s a whole lot you don’t know about me, boss, stuff I asked Darci and Maria not to share with you right up front.” Brandt stared ahead at some point thousands of miles and years distant.
They both fell quiet. A silence filled with stories and experiences best left for survivors to share during those dark hours when ghosts eavesdrop, whether invited or not.
Their reverie was shattered when their earbuds jangled aloud with incoming calls. Kramer took his call from Darci while Brandt took Feather’s.
The Aussie CEO was eager to update Kramer on the latest developments concerning the nation-wide ISIS attacks; that all cells or teams had been neutralized; that of the forty suspects involved thirty-two had been killed and of the eight taken alive, two were seriously wounded and six were in critical condition and not expected to survive.
“The bastards wore suicide belts and tried to blow themselves up, along with anyone within fifty feet. The blokes taken alive survived because their belts either didn’t work at all or only partially. Needless to say then why those six are critical. I pray the bastards live and suffer.”
When Kramer pressed his mate for details of American casualties, Darci couldn’t provide him with a definitive number other than it was in the low thousands and expected to increase. Kramer then updated the Aussie about their run in with Harper, vowing he and Brandt would do whatever it took to bring her in alive—maybe. Then he ended the call.
Feather, in the meantime, reported to Brandt that Major Cummins had received clearance from his commander to remain on scene until his and Captain Theya’s services were no longer required.
The detective went on to confirm that should Harper’s chase enter the District of Columbia then the case would fall under the jurisdiction of the MPD, the Metropolitan Police Department being the primary law enforcement agency for Washington D.C. Anticipating this would happen, Feather had already forewarned the MPD and made them aware of Kramer and Brandt’s involvement…and that they were driving her private vehicle. Brandt smiled at the last and promised to keep Feather in the loop. She ended the call by updating the detective on the chase and thanking her for all her department’s help in flushing out Harper.
As Kramer and Brandt swapped details of each of their calls they noticed the FBI van change lanes and take the exit leading to the Anacostia Freeway. In a few minutes they would cross over into the District of Columbia. It was now obvious to her pursuers Harper had her eyes set on the nation’s capitol.