It was early afternoon when they crossed the state line. Old Town, Alexandria lay a mile due east across the Potomac and the parks, marinas, restaurants, historic and contemporary buildings comprising its waterfront were preparing to welcome the host of visitors and locals looking to relax after a long day of sightseeing or office work despite the horrendous events of the day
As they crossed over Oxon Bay, the air was still and tinged with a pale pinkish gold with downtown Washington D.C. an indistinct shape on the horizon marked only by the upper heights of the Washington Monument visible six miles to the north.
Traffic on the 295, the Anacostia Freeway, began to slow. Neither Kramer nor Brandt was familiar with D.C. afternoon traffic conditions so assumed it normal like so many large metropolises. Speed was reduced further to that of a power walker and some drivers began the inevitable lane swapping in the hope of eking out an additional car length or two.
The gray Chevy, by now, had dropped further behind; the gap between it and the bogus FBI van taken up by a couple dozen or so cars. Kramer sensed the tension welling inside and did his darnedest to dampen it. The muscles in his neck and shoulders tightened and the itch to accelerate, to forge ahead despite the traffic, became almost physically irritating. Sweat beaded his hairline. He shifted constantly in his seat, and gradually leaned forward until he was almost hunched over the wheel.
They had passed half of the four-mile-long stretch of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the consolidated military installation of Naval Support Facility Anacostia (NSF) and Bolling Air Force Base (BAFB), when Harper made her move.
The black van cut across to the outside shoulder. Motorists slammed on brakes and yanked their vehicles viciously left or right to avoid the antics of the driver in front. The air resounded with crunching fenders and busted lights forcing miles of following traffic to a standstill.
Kramer swung hard left onto the narrower inside shoulder and floored the accelerator. When vehicles blocked his way he veered into the landscaped median strip bursting through shrubs and trees. Minutes later he reached the frontline of stalled traffic and shot across the two lanes onto the outside shoulder
The Chevy howled as Kramer redlined the engine. It tore past traffic crawling agonizingly forward. Kramer snatched glimpses of people leaning out following the strange pursuit with their smartphones. The van, being larger, was having trouble keeping to the shoulder. It lurched back and forth between the safety rail and vehicles.
“We’re coming up on a bloody cloverleaf,” Brandt yelled over the roaring engine. She stared intently at her phone, tracking their progress on Google Maps. “If downtown D.C. is Harper’s target she has three bridges to choose from to cross the Anacostia River.”
They were closing in on the van, now three hundred feet ahead, and Kramer, hunched over the wheel, was too focused to answer.
“The first bridge is the Frederick Douglass Memorial,” Brandt continued. “A mile further on is the 11th Street Bridge, and the John Phillip Sousa another mile past that.”
“The consensus here is she’ll take the first bridge.” Darci’s voice buzzed through their earbuds.
“What? Darci, what—” His Aussie friend’s input surprised Kramer.
“We’re doing our best to follow you guys on traffic cameras. By the way, mate, it’s gonna cost us a pretty penny to pay for the damage you did to the median strip back there.”
“Take it out of Harper’s hide,” Kramer growled. “So, if you have hold of traffic cameras, what’s causing this holdup or is this normal here?”
“Nope, not normal going into D.C. at this hour, mate. It’s the MPD; they’re redirecting traffic away from the White House. Looks like they’re creating a two mile no-go zone around the President’s hangout.”
“That could prove awkward for us.” Kramer veered around a stupid idiot who suddenly stepped out from between two cars to video the car chase. He judged the gap to the van was just over two hundred feet now.
“Whoa, that was close, mate.” Darci’s reaction confirmed he was indeed watching the pursuit. “Keep driving like that and we’ll have to up your public indemnity coverage. And we’re working on the MPD issue, mate. We’ve put a call through to its chief but it might take a while to get hold of him. He has a lot on his plate right now.”
“Roger that,” Kramer grunted, dodging another social media nut. “Do what you can, Darci, but try to make it fast. We don’t have any choice but to keep on Harper’s tail.”
“Doing our best, mate. Oh, and I’m also trying to get clearance to send the X3 in to support you but I’m not holding my breath on that.”
“Brandt here, Darci. Gotta cut this jabber short. We need to concentrate. It’s getting a bit dicey now. Appreciate all you and Maria are doing. Shit…gotta go.”
“Catchyalatta.” Darci signed off.
“What’s our LOC, Charlie?” Kramer shouted.
“We’re coming up on that cloverleaf. It’s—hey, there she goes.” Brandt pointed excitedly at the van. It cut in front of a service truck. “Harper’s taking the off ramp. She’s heading for the Suitland Parkway.”
“Hold on everyone.”
Kramer shot down the shoulder. Other cars moved across to take the same exit. Kramer chewed his lower lip at the hair-raising screech of metal on concrete as he rammed the gray Chevy between the line of cars and the side barrier. Brandt cringed away from her door, as the side mirror broke loose. She peered across the exit’s sweeping turn at the black van and caught the woman passenger gawking back at her.
Nine vehicles separated the Chevy from its quarry as they swung round the single lane exit ramp. Kramer hammered out a tattoo on the horn and startled drivers swerved out of his way, plowing into the grassy verge either side of the road. A chorus of blaring horns and angry shouts chased after the Chevy as it joined the parkway. There were only four cars between it and the van.
They passed under the freeway and Kramer bored past the outside lane, past startled motorists, the Chevy fishtailing on the grassy verge spraying clumps of muddy sod everywhere. He fought the Chevy to straighten then floored it. In moments he was alongside the bogus FBI van. Drivers were mortified when the Chevy rammed into the side of the black van.
Harper retaliated, wrenching the wheel hard right. The van shoved against the side of Kramer’s car, ripping his side mirror loose. It flipped over the Chevy’s roof into some trees. Both vehicles diverged from the main stream of traffic into an exit lane. Ahead lay a T intersection with an elongated triangular island in its center. Onlookers gaped at the two vehicles battling it out. None had ever witnessed a private citizen taking on the FBI, let alone trying to force a Bureau vehicle off the road. Smartphones videoed the wild encounter and uploads went instantly viral.
Kramer broke away from the van and managed to get ahead of it. The Chevy bounced across the island, rocketed into a lane that merged with the Suitland Parkway several yards further on. Kramer then slewed the Chevy sideways effectively blocking Harper. So he thought.
Drivers and their passengers literally jumped in their seats when a sudden blast of sound pounded the air. Even Kramer and his team jumped at the nerve shattering noise. Harper had activated her van’s air horn and Rumbler siren, a revolutionary new intersection-clearing warning system that uses low frequency tones that penetrate solid materials allowing motorists and nearby pedestrians to actually feel the sound waves.
In this instance it sounded and felt as if an ocean liner had suddenly materialized on land and wanted desperately back in the water.
The large open area of lawn bordering the parkway’s inside lane sudden became a psychotic parking lot as drivers frantically emptied three lanes of roadway to clear a path for the FBI unit.
It roared past Kramer’s Chevy, the siren buffeting the car and its occupants and causing Shadow to howl and snarl in protest at the painful noise.
The wailing siren had galvanized drivers on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge to begin vacating the outside lane so that when the van stormed up onto the Anacostia River overpass Harper discovered the way ahead already clear. She hunched grimly over the wheel and redlined the van past Nationals Park.
Diana leaned precariously out the passenger door peering through slitted eyes back at the bridge. “The bastard’s still behind us. Quite a ways back, but coming fast. Can you push this bucket any faster?” She had to shout over the siren.
“I’ve got my foot through the floor as it is,” Harper screamed back. Cars scurried out of her way as she tore into the intersection with N Street. Cops directing traffic leapt aside and waved her through. At the end of the block where M Street crossed over her road, S Capitol Street, she spied an imposing roadblock of several police units sealing off access to the cross street. They can hear us coming. There was a sudden flurry of activity, men dashing to their units, and a wide gap opened as if by magic in the roadblock.
“He’s half a block behind and closing. That Marine is driving like a maniac.” Diana, her red hair windblown and tousled, dodged back inside the van. She gripped the handholds white knuckled. “One of these days—if we should live that long—you’ll have to tell me what you and Val did to piss Kramer off so much.”
“Okay, but right now hold your crotch ‘cause here we go.”
There was barely space enough for the large van to race through the roadblock. As it screamed under M Street, Harper killed the siren and ventured a quick glance in her side mirror. She grinned viciously as the police units rolled forward to close the gap they’d created for her.
“Of all the— Hold on,” Kramer shouted. The Chevy almost upended as he hit the brakes; its nose touched the ground and its rear lifted high then slammed back to earth. The stench of burnt rubber wafted into the evening air on a plume of white smoke that gradually fell and enveloped the intersection.
The car had barely stopped when Kramer leaped out and stormed forward.
“STOP. Police. Hold it right there, mister—hands away from your body and reach for the sky. On your knees, mister, hands behind your head, fingers locked. Stop right there or we open fire.”
The yelled commands came at him fast and furious from every which way. Kramer stopped dead in his tracks and dropped to his knees, his arms stretched out to the sides. Through half closed eyes, he could see a couple of dozen uniformed cops, all wild-eyed and aiming their weapons at him. Red laser dots twitched and danced all over him until they nestled on his chest.
“I need to speak to the officer in command. It’s a matter of life or death,” he called out. “Charlie, stay inside the car. Watch Shadow that he doesn’t try to get out. Try to contact Darci.”
Brandt heard him and caught Shadow just as he tried to squeeze through one of the back windows. She ordered him to sit while she raised Darci on her radio earbuds. The dog filled the whole car as he stood between the front seats and peered through the windshield at Kramer. A deep growl rumbled as his eyes scanned the weapons trained on his best friend.
“We’re here Charlie. We saw what happened and right now we’re waiting for the Chief of the MPD to come online.”
“Can you speed things up any before one of these eager beavers gets a real itchy trigger finger?”
“Try to hold on. We’re trying our best to— Wait one. We have the Chief online. Give us a sec.”
Kramer felt as if the air had become hot and clammy, and sweat broke out on his forehead and dribbled down to his chin. He couldn’t swipe them away for fear of being shot as soon as he moved. In the distance he could see Harper’s van drawing further away as each second ticked past. We almost had the bitch. He was well and truly ticked off. C’mon, Darci.
There was movement among the cops. A beefy uniformed figure stepped between a couple of units parked nose to nose and walked a few steps forward then turned back to the other cops. He gestured for them to lower their weapons.
“Do it. That’s an order.” Kramer, as a former officer, knew the senior cop needed to reinforce his silent command when several of his men seemed reluctant to obey. “And that comes from the Chief. If you have any beef with that, take it up with him. And make a hole in the roadblock for this vehicle—fast.” When the last handgun disappeared back into its holster, the senior cop took his hands off his hips and turned and faced Kramer.
“Sorry for that, sir. Oh, you can get to your feet.” the man approached Kramer with hand outstretched. “Sergeant Fullerton.” The men shook hands briefly. “It appears the Chief already knew of you and your team,” he peered past Kramer at Brandt staring at him with smoldering fiery eyes. Something about those eyes caused a shiver to trickle down his spine.
“Er, you’re clear to go, Captain Kramer. Sorry, but I can’t spare any units to assist you in chasing down your suspect. Right now the MPD has its hands full clearing—” He found himself talking to the Marine’s back.
Kramer jumped behind the wheel. The Chevy roared to life and leaped past Fullerton. He sprang back, almost falling over, as a huge hairy head pushed through an open window and leveled a monstrous bark at him. As the car sped off after the FBI van, Fullerton swore he heard laughing.
With the police roadblock a quarter mile behind them, Kramer and Brandt had the distinct sensation they’d wandered onto a post-apocalyptic movie set. They’d lost sight of Harper and her fake FBI van so Kramer cruised at a brisk walking speed along S Capitol Street so that he and Brandt could scan the streets either side.
As far as they could tell, Homeland Security and law enforcement reaction to the ISIS attacks had virtually emptied the nation’s capitol of all but essential movement. The people they did see looked to be tardy office workers scurrying to their cars or whatever other transport was available in order to clear the city.
The no-go zone initiative was proving very effective in deterring any traffic from entering the area, as the roadblock had demonstrated, and the departure of the vast majority of all other vehicles from within the zone left streets eerily quiet and near deserted.
“This is so bloody weird.” Brandt sounded awed.
They caught occasional glimpses of emergency and police units speeding through long city blocks. The canyons of glass and brick and stone resounded with the wail of their sirens and rippled with colors from their light bars.
Kramer pulled over a couple of hundred yards from where the multilane Southeast Freeway flowed above S Capitol Street. He unconsciously drummed the wheel softly; his face hard and eyes intent on an invisible point.
As seconds stretched into minutes, Brandt began to fidget. She knew Kramer was deep in thought and nibbled on her lower lip to keep herself quiet. She heard Shadow squirming in the back seat and jumped with surprise when his huge paws flopped onto Kramer’s shoulders followed by the dog’s large head. Kramer merely took a hand from the wheel and kneaded Shadow’s thick neck.
“You keep saying that I know Harper better than anyone.”
Kramer didn’t move, but kept staring ahead. “You keep telling everyone I know Harper better than anyone.”
“Well, yeah,” Brandt answered hesitantly, “that’s because it’s the truth.” She twisted in her seat to regard Kramer. “You’ve only just realized that?” Her brow furrowed. “What brought that on?”
Instead of answering, Kramer produced his field iPad and worked the keyboard. A moment later he held the device so both could see the screen clearly. Shadow removed his paws but continued looking over his friend’s shoulder.
“This is where we are right now.” Kramer rested a fingertip on the lower right corner. “So, what do you see?”
Brandt’s brows came together. She sucked in her lower lip and scrutinized the digital image. It was a live version of Google Earth’s view of the administrative heart of the United States, stretching from Capitol Hill in the east to the Potomac River to the west, and Logan Circle in the north to the Navy Yard on the Anacostia River in the south.
Her eyes flicked over the network of city blocks and parklands, the long green stretch of the Mall, the shimmering length of the Reflecting Pool, the crisscrossing roadways radiating from the White House, the Capitol Building and other notable points of interest.
“Pretty much the no-go zone the cops have set up?” she said tentatively.
“Yep, pretty much,” Kramer agreed. “But what falls within the zone?”
“Oh hell, that goes without saying, doesn’t it? All the major government buildings that are considered prime targets of every terrorist organization on the planet.”
“Right. Including this one?” Kramer typed a location into the Google Earth search window. A yellow placemark pin popped up on the screen. Attached to it was the location’s name.
Brandt’s eyes widened. Her mouth dropped open then snapped shut and she slapped her forehead. “Of course it would.” She turned to Kramer. “You don’t think Harper is planning to—”
He nodded slowly and shrugged. The glint in his eyes answered her unfinished question. Before she could add anything, Kramer reached out to their wizards in California. He posed his theory and a question to Darci and Maria.
“It’s so bloody obvious, mate,” Darci exclaimed. “Why we didn’t think of it before now is beyond me. Hang on a sec. Maria has something for you. While you’re chin wagging I’ll make some calls and give people the heads up.”
“Kramer, Maria here. I looked into Harper’s background years ago but never found anything of substance. But we were working with different search parameters back then. While Darci was chatting I followed up on that question of yours.”
Kramer and Brandt picked up on the excitement in Maria’s voice. “Sounds like you found something, Maria,” Kramer said.
“You could say that, and I’ll never debunk your hunches ever again. That little side trip and car switch Harper pulled has a high probability of involving her sister.”
Kramer and Brandt looked at each other stunned at the unexpected news.
“Shelley Harper has a sister?” Kramer asked.
“Sure has, and that’s not all. Wait ‘til you hear this.” Maria seemed to relish spoon-feeding her findings to her field agents.
“The sister’s name is Diana Strong…she’s a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI’s National Security Branch.”
“What?” The news jolted everyone in the Chevy. All, that is, except for Shadow, who was busy glaring at a passerby attempting to give the car’s monstrous occupant a wide berth.
“I thought that would shake you up,” Darci cut in. “We haven’t time to go into any more details right now. Suffice it to say, Strong’s position can give Harper access to a boatload of targets. I just got off the phone with an agent who works in the Immediate Office of the Director, and she agrees with Kramer’s theory regarding the potential target, taking into consideration your familiarity with the suspect, and the Intel we’ve been able to put together linking her with ISIS.”
“So?” Kramer was anxious to get back to the task of hunting down Harper…and now her sister, as well.
“The agent had to point out the agency is strung mighty thin at the moment trying to stay on top of the ISIS situation. The shopping center attacks have been put down but no one can say if there are any more in the works. The terrorists taken alive aren’t talking. But she’ll contact the Secret Service, Homeland Security and the Metro Police immediately and pass along our Intel. I told her of Harper’s phony FBI van but we all know it’ll be like finding a specific needle in a pile of needles.”
“Okay then,” Kramer said. “Hopefully they’ll be able to head off the sisters before they do anything serious.” He went on to explain they had lost contact with the van and when and where. “So Darci, any chance you can use traffic cameras to get eyes on Harper again for us?”
“One step ahead of you mate. I was able to get clearance for Major Cummins to fly the X3 into the no-go zone. The crew has eyes on a half dozen FBI vans as we speak. They’ve just left the I-395 and approaching the intersection with 7th Street SW.”
“Fan-bloody-tastic as you Aussies say,” shouted Kramer. “We’re on our way.”
“Roger that. Maria will patch you in with the X3 crew again. From this point on the show is in your hands. We’ll keep eyes on and jump in if need be. Good luck, you two… and please stay safe.”
Kramer had floored the Chevy and his team was nearing the I-395 even as Darci signed off.
“That was too fuckin’ close, sis.” Diana checked the side mirror again, saw no vehicle following, and sank back into her seat. “Did you have any clue the feds might try shutting down the city?” She noticed the smirk on Harper’s face. “Oh, I see—very clever. All those years of living and working alongside a major crime boss has made you smarter than I ever gave you credit for.” The dark scowl her sister leveled at her made Diana hold her hands up. “Sorry…just joking. Really.”
Harper drove up onto the I-395 west and found herself following a small group of FBI vans. Moments later two more dropped in behind her. Her sister gave her a worried look but held her tongue. In less than a half-mile signs indicated the exit to Frontage Road and the entire convoy took it. The line of vans arrived at the intersection with 7th Street, waited for a couple of MPD units to pass then turned onto 7Th and fell in behind the cops.
Diana began to sweat. “I know the old adage of hiding right under the enemy’s nose, but isn’t this carrying that a bit too far? I realize our radio is tuned into the feds’ frequency and we can hear everything going on between their units, but riding along with them this close—even if we heard we’d been spotted we couldn’t do a damn thing about it. We’d be trapped.”
Harper heaved a sigh and turned a smile on her sister. “Ever been told that you worry too much, Di? You always did when we were kids and even after all these years you haven’t changed.” She waved at the driver of the FBI van driving alongside. “I know it’s hard to relax when I tell you everything is under control but try… please?”
Diana replied with an anxious smile but did as she was asked and settled back. But her hand slid to her pistol and rested there—just in case.
The convoy continued up 7th making for the National Mall. The majority of buildings they passed were home to various government departments and agencies, all currently guarded by heavily armed law enforcement officers who scrutinized them as they drove by. Overhead, the air hummed with military and police helicopters enforcing the DC FRZ—Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Flight Restricted Zone.
An ambulance and accompanying police units sped along Jefferson Drive, the arterial that bordered the southern edge of the Mall, causing the FBI vans and their police escorts to stop as the emergency vehicles tore through the intersection with 7th. Harper took a cursory glance around the immediate area, her eyes pausing on the three story cylindrical building that stood in stark contrast to the otherwise angular architecture of the city center.
Something in the sky glinted in the waning sunlight and caught her attention for a split second. Then the convoy began to roll again.
“We may have something.” Captain Theya’s voice buzzed in her fellow pilot’s headset.
“At our two o’clock.” Theya pointed at movement on the ground a half-mile away.
Major Cummins swiveled the X3 round for a better view and squinted as the afternoon sun flashed across the front of the silvery aircraft. It took a moment for his vision to clear.
“Where did you say?”
“There—see those vehicles entering the Mall? Those are police in the lead, but the others fit the description of the fake FBI van we’re looking for.”
“Notify Kramer while I take us down for a closer look,” Cummins said.
The call from Theya caught Kramer as he hurtled past the Frontage Road exit. Brandt and Shadow held on for dear life as he threw the Chevy into a tight one-eighty, roared back to the exit, executed a savage left-hand turn and fishtailed down the ramp. The deserted streets echoed with the teeth-clenching sound of squealing tires as the Chevy whipped into 7th Street.
Kramer and Brandt leaned forward peering down the half-mile canyon of stone and glass for any sign of the line of black vans. Shadow shoved himself between the front seats adding his keen vision to the hunt. His sudden bark exploded inside the car making his companions cringe.
“Bloody hell, Shadow. Use your inside voice,” Brandt complained, massaging her left ear.
“Shadow’s spotted them,” Kramer said.
“No shit.” Brandt shook her head in a vain attempt to offset the ringing in her ears. She squinted. “Yeah, I can see them. The two rear vans, at least.” A bright flash startled her. “What the hell was that?”
“Sunlight off the X3,” Kramer answered. “Cummins just dropped in front of the vehicles. My guess is he hopes to flush out Harper and her van—if she’s part of that group at all.”
“Well, it looks to me like he’s certainly stirred things up all right.” Brandt pointed at the commotion ahead.
Kramer and his team were less than two hundred yards from catching up with the file of vehicles as it began to cross the Mall. He wasn’t sure that the X3 pilots expected the reaction their maneuver created among the police and FBI units. They scattered in all directions.
A police cruiser and two of the vans immediately left the roadway and sped onto the large expanse of lawn. They drove in a ragged line, three abreast, tearing a zigzag course across the western half of the national parkland. The area reverberated with the crack of gunshots as passengers aboard the vehicles fired back at the unmarked helicopter.
The other police escort swerved off 7th and, accompanied by a pair of black FBI vans, made a beeline down the center of the park in the direction of the Washington Monument. Gunfire erupted from them as well.
The two remaining vans hesitated a fraction longer then swerved around the X3 and raced north up the wide avenue. One of the vans’ passengers got off a few shots as it tore past the hovering aircraft.
Those guarding the government buildings surrounding the park sprang into action. Many sprinted across the boulevards while others jumped into black government vehicles to give chase. The airwaves filled with frantic calls and within minutes a horde of law enforcement units converged on the National Mall. Vigilant news media teams monitoring the police bands picked up on the emergency and breached the no-go zone to join the chaos.
The Chevy arrived at the fringe of the vast swath of open ground and stopped. Kramer commanded Shadow to stay as he and Brandt leaped from the car and stared in amazement at the rabid scene unfolding along almost the entire length and breadth of the Mall. It looked like a scene straight from the pages of a movie script.
Adding to the frenzy were long dense swirling clouds of dirty smoke that belched from the back of the black FBI vans and hung like a heavy mantle that gradually spread throughout the Mall obscuring the hunted from the hunters. Countless flashes could be seen amid the smoke as gunfire was exchanged. And above it all a veritable swarm of helicopters zipped back and forth as law enforcers and media fought to cover the action on the ground.
Brandt stood shaking her head in dismay. “This is nothing short of a bloody crazy mess. Now we’ve got cops, FBI and who knows whom else taking shots at each other. If they can’t tell the good guys from the bad, how the hell are we supposed to spot Harper? Take a look—as far as I can tell, all those vans are identical to Harper’s.”
“Exactly. It’s all a ploy by her to throw us off.”
Kramer was studying the action with a critical eye trying to decipher some sense from the chaos. A rush of wind pummeled them as a police chopper swooped low over 7th Street then disappeared as it swung east towards the United States Capitol building. Smoke cleared in its wake revealing the X3 grounded in the middle of the broad avenue. It struck Kramer that something didn’t appear quite right.
He broke into a run toward the futuristic-looking craft. Brandt took after him and caught up in moments. Together they reached the machine and dashed to either side of the cockpit. As Kramer flung the forward door open he noticed a couple of bullet holes in the window.
“Captain Theya has been shot,” croaked a voice. Cummins was struggling to free his co-pilot from her flight harness with his good hand; the other looked like a blood-covered claw. Theya was unconscious and slumped slightly forward in her seat.
“So have you, Major,” Kramer said. “Here, why don’t you let Charlie do that? You sit back and take it easy.”
Brandt glanced across the cockpit at Kramer as he checked Theya for a pulse. He nodded, but looked overly concerned. He chucked his chin at her. “Go easy with the Major. That hand of his has taken a beating…and there’s a fracture in his helmet on this side—possibly from a bullet.”
The chief pilot’s head rested on his chest and as Brandt cautiously eased it upright she noticed a trickle of blood coming from under his helmet. She undid the chinstrap and lifted the helmet off, examining it as she did so and found where a bullet had entered high up on the side. Putting it to one side, Brandt leaned across Cummins’ body and checked for the wound. She located it and gave a sigh of relief.
“He lucked out. The helmet looks to have deflected the bullet. All he has is a scalp wound. Nasty, but not serious.” She felt his carotid. “Pulse is strong. He’s going be okay but his hand is busted. What about her?”
“Weak pulse. She’s lost a lot of blood. The bullet hit her in the side.” Kramer reached a hand around inside Theya’s flight jacket. “No through and through. The bullet’s still inside. We have to—”
He was interrupted by an EMT tech jumping from his vehicle even as it pulled alongside the X3.
“I’ll take it from here, sir.” He edged Kramer aside and took a quick look at Theya and then Cummins. He called over his shoulder to his partner. “Hey, Randy, call in another bus. This one needs to get to the OR stat. The other pilot looks like he can hold on.”
The young EMT tech glanced at Brandt who smiled back and nodded. “Superficial head wound.”
She and Kramer stepped clear of the scene, allowing room for the medical techs to do their work on the victims. Assured that their friends were in good hands, the two turned to hurry back to the Chevy even as the siren of another ambulance could be heard approaching.
“Hey, hold on. The pilot here has something he wants to tell you,” the tech attending to Cummins called after them.
Kramer and Brandt dashed back and helped with easing the injured pilot from the cockpit and over to the ambulance. They sat him down and looked on as his damaged hand was worked on.
Cummins winced and his face closed with pain. His eyes opened after a moment then he motioned Kramer and Brandt closer.
“Harper and her sister escaped,” he rasped through gritted teeth. “Theirs was one of the two vans that ran past us and headed that way.” He pointed north with his chin.
“That’s fantastic, Major.” Kramer rested a hand on the pilot’s shoulder. “You’ve just saved us a whole lot of time. Up till now we didn’t have a clue which one of the vans was Harper’s.”
Cummins waved a hand dismissively. “This cluster fuck—excuse my French—looks to be nothing but a diversion so she could get away and get on with her mission—whatever that is.”
“The bitch is always a step ahead of us,” snarled Brandt. “It’s as if she half expected to be intercepted on the way to her target.”
“Well, this time her luck is about to run out.” Kramer looked skyward as a flight of Blackhawks passed overhead. “In fact, those guys could have something to do with Darci making some calls and giving certain people the heads up. This time we could be ahead of Harper for a change.”
“How’s that?” Cummins asked.
“Everyone now agrees with my theory that her target is the J. Edgar Hoover Building.”
“FBI headquarters?” Cummins burst out.
His exclamation caused the EMT tech to look up. “That’s only three blocks from here,” the young man gasped.
Kramer’s expression hardened. “Then we’d best get moving.” He squeezed Cummins’ shoulder. “Thanks for all your assistance, Major, it’s been invaluable. And as soon as the dust settles we’ll be checking in on you and Captain Theya. I know from experience that you flyboys are damn tough, so just hang in there.”
Another ambulance screeched to a stop and its crew ran straight for the X3. The man attending to Cummins’ injuries finished up and his eyes darted to his partner and the new arrivals.
“The Major is going to be fine,” he said. “As for the other pilot, I promise we’ll do everything in our power to see that she gets the best treatment. Excuse me, gotta run.” He left the others and dashed for the X3.
“You two get going.” Cummins got to his feet and grimaced. “Go . . . I’ll be just fine. Besides, I need to ride along with Theya, so I’ll be outta here any second myself.”
“Take care, Major. We’ll catch up with you later,” Brandt said. She and Kramer left at a run as Cummins strode towards his damaged aircraft and wounded crewman.
The instant they regained the Chevy, Kramer gunned the car and took off down 7th. At the same time he contacted Darci and Maria and brought them up to speed. Meanwhile, Brandt worked at calming Shadow down. She knew all too well that war dogs could suffer from PTSD like any soldier and because he could sense blood and violence in the night air he was very likely wrestling with his own demons from Afghanistan as well as his and Kramer’s past operations with the FBI.
The central area of the park was mostly clear of smoke, an evening breeze having sprung up and wafted the dirty clouds off among the city blocks. The running battles on the Mall had drifted to its far ends and sounded strangely muted. The smoke enveloping the gun fighting soaked up the last rays of the setting sun and turned a sickly oily yellow.
As he signed off from his colleagues in California, Kramer could barely make out in the growing gloom a number of black vehicles tearing across the Mall. FBI agents racing to defend their headquarters.
Brandt looked questioningly at Kramer when he slowed and then brought the car to a stop at the corner of 7th and Pennsylvania. She leaned forward and followed his gaze. A block away to their left stood the imposing structure that stoically bore the name of J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
On any given night, light from the streetlamps bathed the building and its exceptionally wide sidewalk with a sodium white glow. They beautified a building now suffering from deterioration due to deferred maintenance and mediocre design.
But this night was no ordinary night. The headquarters of the FBI looked more a formidable fortress than an office building in its decline. It was prepared to defend itself against the first physical threat to it in its long controversial history.
Their eyes narrowed at the intense glare from a hundred floodlights that whitewashed the entire vicinity encompassing the Bureau’s home base. Added to the artificial daylight were a dozen or more spotlights that probed distant shadows with their blinding beams while scores of silhouettes and ghostly figures, all heavily armed and alert, moved purposefully among vehicular shapes. Crowning the feverish scene were eight stories of windows aglow with a bronze-colored tint behind which Kramer and Brandt assumed was a hive of activity.
“Darci’s call sure lit a fire under the feds,” Brandt observed. “I can’t see any from here, but I’m betting that the roof is crawling with snipers. And all this for just two women.”
“Don’t forget Harper is very resourceful. If she had a hand in setting up those ISIS attacks as we suspect, then she’s capable of just about anything. What really concerns me is if we regard her whole vendetta operation as an iceberg, for sake of argument, then the ISIS element might be just the tip—all we can see at the moment.”
“Shit,” Brandt exclaimed. “If your analogy is only half right that means she still has about eighty percent still remaining of her plan to activate. And you’re thinking that the Hoover Building is her main target?”
“Yep. I’ll bet my pension on it.” Kramer’s words carried a dire tone.
“What’s our next move then, boss? I can’t see for the life of me what we can possibly add to what the feds already have in place there.”
Moments passed before Kramer spoke. He was intent on the activity unfolding up the street. “Okay. We know from what Cummins told us back at the Mall that two bogus FBI vans got past him and headed in this direction.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said. So?”
“That means Harper and her sister, Diana, and whoever is in the other van arrived here ahead of us. The FBI was forewarned before the action in the Mall happened. If Harper and her people approached the HQ they should have been identified and stopped. If that were the case, then what we’re looking at should be an entirely different scene.”
“You’re right.” Brandt suddenly caught his meaning. “No one would be milling around like they are. Every single person, every spotlight would be focused on the two vans. They would’ve been stopped yards from the building. So where are they? Where are Harper and the others?”
“They either saw the feds’ preparedness and realized their plan wasn’t going to work and left to regroup and come up with a new strategy or . . .”
“Or . . . what?” Brandt asked breathless.
“They somehow found a way to get through the FBI cordon and are, right this minute, about to execute Harper’s plan.”
“Holy beejeezus, Kramer, surely you’re—I mean, they couldn’t possibly have gotten through all that.” Brandt gestured at the commotion a block away. She looked at him, her eyes wide with terror. “Could they?”
Kramer’s expression closed up. Memory had transported him back to that harrowing day in Florida, years ago, when his life had been irrevocably ripped apart.
An FBI building had been the target then, as well. His senses filled with the smell of oily smoke and burning flesh, and he saw himself standing at the edge of a bomb crater staring down into its fiery depth at the remains of the vehicle that had carried his fiancé only seconds earlier.
The urgency in Brandt’s voice snatched him away from his pain. He blinked rapidly for a moment then became conscious of Shadow licking his face. His arms encircled his friend’s thick neck and hugged him tight. The moment passed and Kramer settled back and Shadow withdrew to the back seat but kept a concerned watch on his companion.
Brandt kept her silence. She knew the details of that horrendous attack that had killed Special Agent Ashley Hunter minutes after Kramer had proposed to her. It suddenly struck her how the current situation must have dredged up those memories for Kramer and her heart went out to him. She saw resolve return to his expression and the familiar fire reappear in those eyes that were too damn attractive.
“Er…what now, boss?” she asked cautiously.
“Now?” Kramer put the car into gear and swung onto Pennsylvania Avenue. He kept a steady speed, well below the regulated limit, switched on the car’s hazard lights and steered directly for the Bureau’s headquarters.
“Now we try to convince the FBI we’re the good guys and if that works, we put Shadow to work.” He winked at Brandt.
They were forced to stop adjacent the U.S. Navy Memorial—one hundred twenty yards from the Hoover Building. Kramer thought he heard someone shout out. A second later the Chevy was pinned by shafts of brilliant light from a half dozen spotlights. Two helicopters appeared from the inky night and added their powerful Nightsun searchlights to the scene from overhead.
Brandt and Kramer threw their arms up to shield their eyes and Shadow hunkered in the back. They became aware of movement and knew FBI agents, their weapons trained on the car, were cautiously surrounding them. Gradually Kramer and Brandt placed their hands on their heads and waited. They didn’t have to wait long.
“Step out of the vehicle, hands high and away from your bodies.” The brassy command blared from a megaphone.
They eased from the car and followed commands to step clear of it and lay face down on the ground. Shadows darted back and forth and boots shuffled as the agents moved in quickly. As soon as they were handcuffed, Kramer and Brandt were hauled to their feet and found themselves the center of an aggressive ring of FBI SWAT.
A figure dressed head to toe in black tactical gear, only his glowering eyes visible, approached the couple and patted them down then took their identification. While this was happening, two of his team checked the car. They backed off several paces when they saw Shadow.
“There’s a monster dog in the back seat, chief.”
“It’s okay.” The chief signaled his men to lower their weapons. “Release them. These are the people we were directed to watch for. They’re on our side.” He turned and waved an all clear back at those watching closely from the cordon.
A SWAT agent stepped forward and quickly removed the handcuffs and then rejoined his team members. The tension in the air evaporated as everyone relaxed and the chief handed Kramer and Brandt their IDs.
“When we saw your vehicle approaching we were fairly certain it was safe but had to make sure all the same.”
“No harm done, chief,” Kramer said with a smile. “You did what you had to do given the situation. That’s why I drove slowly. We appreciate that everyone is wired at the moment; we didn’t want to do anything stupid that might draw fire.”
The chief nodded. “Good thing, too. I admit, we’re all so hyped on adrenaline with this ISIS business that, even though I trust my men, it would have needed only a twitchy trigger finger and you would’ve been blown away in seconds.”
“Sounds reassuring,” mumbled Brandt.
The chief glared at her then his expression softened when he understood her tone. His team was already drifting back to their posts at the cordon so he suggested the Chevy be left where it stood and Brandt and Kramer return with him. When Shadow was allowed out from his confines the chief caught his breath.
“My men were right. That’s quite a dog you have there. What breed is he? I’ve never seen it before.”
While the group hustled back to the Hoover Building, Kramer described his rescue of an Anatolian Shepherd pup from an Afghani village; how it was welcomed into Kramer’s Marine Company and how the pup earned his name of Shadow. By the time they reached the cordon the SWAT chief was fully briefed on Kramer and Shadow’s history up to and including their ongoing hunt for Shelley Harper.
“WHAT?” The chief pulled up short when Kramer broke the news that the woman and her cohorts may have already penetrated the FBI cordon and be close by at that very moment.
“That…that’s impossible.” The words came out as a harsh whisper. The chief glanced about, his brow heavily furrowed and eyes sharpened with suspicion. “Every person and every vehicle was verified and cleared before they were allowed anywhere near here.” There was the slightest uncertainty in his voice. All around them were over a hundred personnel, all with eyes focused outward when, all the while, the suspects could be standing in their midst or behind them.
Kramer recognized the fear creeping behind the SWAT leader’s eyes. Until that moment the man felt confident he had the situation in hand; that every precaution had been taken to insure the protection of the Bureau’s headquarters and all it represented. Now Kramer’s revelation brought all that into question—if it was true, that is. But there wasn’t time to debate its veracity. The chief had no option but to assume there could be enough truth to it to warrant immediate action.
He spun round and signaled several of his senior men over. The group moved into the building’s foyer where the chief informed his men of the possible threat. After a few moments they calmed down enough to begin planning their next move. It was obvious to the SWAT agents that they needed to circulate among those assembled outside and begin the process of verifying each individual again. Once that was done, they then needed to carry out the laborious task of searching the entire building floor by floor.
Kramer raised a hand. “There’s nothing wrong with any aspect of your plan. But if you’ll allow myself and my partner here, and my dog, to join you we may be able to hasten the whole operation.”
“How so?” one of the SWAT asked. He sounded dubious.
“They have been after the suspect for years and recently had some close run ins with her. Needless to say they know what she looks like,” the chief cut in.
“That we do,” Brandt spoke up. “But we don’t know exactly how many others she has with her other than her sister, and those others we have no clue as to their identity.”
“Okay. But we have copies of Harper’s description,” another agent interjected. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t your boss in California send that Intel to us this morning?” Brandt nodded and the agent held his hands out as if to say so?
Kramer sensed what was happening and stepped in. “Hey, I get it—really I do. You don’t know us from Adam other than what you’ve been told. But we’re not here to tell you how to run your own ops . . . and we certainly do not want to take over.” He noticed most shoulders relax. His voice softened and dropped an octave.
“All I’m suggesting is that while you conduct your search for her other people that we concentrate on Harper. More important than us knowing what she looks like is our dog, Shadow. He knows what she smells like.” Backs stiffened. The last had caught their full attention.
The chief exchanged looks with his men then turned to Kramer. “Well, that throws a whole new light on the subject. As far as I’m concerned, and I speak for the Bureau when I say, we can do with whatever assistance we can get right now so welcome aboard.” He regarded each of his men. “Right?” They all nodded. “Then let’s get out there and find these bastards before it’s too late.”
The SWAT agents hurried outside and their chief paused long enough to lay a hand on Kramer’s shoulder. The two men exchanged looks and nodded. Words of encouragement were not necessary. The chief disappeared after his team and Kramer’s team followed on his heels.
“Where the hell do we start looking—and for what exactly?”
Brandt, Kramer and Shadow stood in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue facing the Hoover fortress. They weren’t concerned with the commotion rippling through the ranks of FBI agents across the road as much as the building itself.
“Why would Harper and her sister be using a van?” Kramer said quietly, as if posing the question to himself.
“A van? Umm, I’ve been thinking about that as well . . . to cram a pile of terrorists into it?”
“But that’s not what you’re thinking.”
“No. Maybe for the other van as another diversion or as support for Harper.”
“Okay, that sounds feasible to me.” Brandt took a knee and massaged Shadow’s head. “So if Harper isn’t using her van for fire power then—” Her eyes snapped to Kramer standing the other side of Shadow. He looked down and their eyes locked. Her eyes flew wide open. Kramer merely nodded in agreement.
Brandt stood slowly and studied the building for a long while in silence. When she finally spoke, her voice was matter-of-fact.
“The FBI bomb technicians are generally outfitted with Freightliner Model MS 106 diesel trucks. Those beasts are capable of a seven ton, or sixteen thousand pounds, payload. We know that Harper is driving the same or very similar vehicle. If we assume that her van is packed with explosives, and I’m talking about sixteen thousand pounds, then let me put that into perspective.
“The explosive charge used in the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995 was estimated to have been equivalent to four thousand pounds of TNT.” Brandt held up four fingers to emphasize her point. “The damage caused that day was far more extensive than the media reported. The bomb, for all intent and purposes, destroyed the nine-story building.” She gestured at the structure across the road. “My time in special forces had me dealing with explosives a lot. Need I say more?”
Her succinct observation sobered Kramer. He’d seen photos of the Oklahoma bombing at the time of the incident and he tried to visualize the same damaged inflicted on the Hoover Building and it made the hairs on his neck stand up. He sucked in air and let it out slowly.
“You’re more familiar with explosives, so if you were Harper where would you be wanting to position your truck bomb?”
Without hesitation Brandt pointed directly at the 10th Street NW side of the FBI headquarters. “Directly under those overhanging floors and as close to the building as possible.”
“Right. Then we’ll begin our search along there.” Kramer pulled a Ziploc plastic bag from a pocket. Inside it was a scrap of material. He removed the fabric and held it under Shadow’s nose. The dog sniffed and inhaled, almost sucking the scrap out of Kramer’s fingers. He saw the look on Brandt’s face and smiled broadly. “Remember? You found this on the wharf in Belize when I almost got my hands on Harper. It was caught on a large splinter of one of the pilings where she had a boat waiting for her. I’m banking on Harper making a recon of the area on foot before moving the truck into place.”
Shadow completed his analysis and indicated he recognized the scent and was raring to go. His teammates checked their weapons then Kramer knelt beside the dog.
“Go locate, Marine.” Kramer unhooked Shadow’s lead and the dog took off.
The three pelted across the avenue. The moment they reached the broad sidewalk Shadow stopped abruptly then he bowed his head and began sniffing the ground. People moved aside as the huge dog plowed his way through them. Kramer told Brandt to stay with Shadow while he sought out the SWAT chief. The man needed to know Brandt’s observation concerning the possible truck bomb.
The information all but floored the senior agent. It was plausible enough to warrant immediate attention and, as Kramer dashed off to rejoin Brandt and Shadow, the chief directed his bomb technicians to begin searching the perimeter of the building. He also ordered all the technicians’ vehicles to be searched by other agents to ensure they were legit.
There was one flaw in Brandt’s supposition, however, that gave the chief pause before calling for a total evacuation of the building and its vicinity. The re-verification of his personnel had yet to uncover any of Harper’s insurgents and until that happened he had to consider another scenario that could prove just as catastrophic as Brandt’s. If Harper and her people were, in fact, still outside the cordon then they could take advantage of an evacuation to gain access to the building during the resulting commotion.
He had to stand his ground and hope—no, pray—the bogus van would be discovered and fast.
Kramer caught up with the others as Shadow led Brandt on a zigzag path north along Pennsylvania, away from the FBI site. It puzzled Kramer at first, but he had total confidence in Shadow and tagged along. The trail kept the dog close to the next office block along from the Hoover Building. Every now then he stopped, sniffed around and then moved on a few paces, then stop again and repeat the whole process. At times he retraced his steps to revisit a certain spot but would turn and continue along the avenue.
The trio passed through one pool of streetlight after another, like wraiths wandering the night. However, judging by his determined gait, it certainly appeared that Shadow had detected a bona fide scent. It has to be Harper.
The city block proved narrower than that occupied by the Hoover Building and Kramer and Brandt were surprised when they came to the next corner. But Shadow didn’t pause. He turned right onto 11th Street and, if anything, his pace quickened. Before long they arrived at the end of the block and again Shadow turned right. Kramer realized they were approaching the northwest corner of the FBI building. A few minutes later Shadow stopped at the corner of E Street and 10th. Diagonally opposite the Hoover Building loomed over them like a brutal impenetrable fortress. The part of the structure fronting Pennsylvania was eight stories high, but here it was eleven, including the massive three-story overhanging roof deck.
“Looks like your hunch paid off, boss. Harper must have been reconnoitering the area on foot,” Brandt’s voice was low.
Instinctively, Kramer rechecked his weapon. Brandt did likewise. They both scanned the area in an attempt to foresee where the scent trail might be leading Shadow. A large number of Bureau vehicles, including quite a few bomb technician trucks, lined the street making it extremely difficult for them to determine one that seemed more suspicious than the others.
It wasn’t until Shadow had led them almost halfway across the intersection that Brandt saw it. A truck curiously parked closer to the building than the others and partly hidden behind a huge concrete column.
Brandt tapped Kramer on the shoulder and gestured at the vehicle. Just then Shadow left the sidewalk and began heading directly towards the suspect truck. That sealed it for his companions.
Kramer called Shadow to heel and the trio retreated to the sidewalk. Kramer and Brandt took a knee and Shadow sat, his nose twitching, continuously analyzing the air, his eyes staring across the street at the parked vehicles.
There were dozens of FBI agents milling about trying to release some of the tension from hours of guarding—something Kramer was very familiar with. Many agents were closely regarding the huge dog and his two companions but none made a move toward them.
Despite the mere sixty yards separating them from the suspicious truck, Kramer removed a pair of small binoculars from his tactical pants. He trained them on the truck and a good portion of its rear doors came into focus.
A woman stood there seemingly arguing with someone obscured by the concrete column. Judging by her gesturing and aggressive posture, it appeared to be quite a heated exchange. The woman moved enough so that she stepped into the glow from one of the building’s light fixtures. Kramer caught his breath. He increased the magnification to confirm the woman’s identity. After a moment he passed the binoculars to Brandt to look for herself.
“Bloody hell… Harper,” she hissed. “She’s having a blue with someone—could be her sister.”
“A fight or argument.”
Kramer shook his head. Aussie idioms always baffled him. One day he’d have to get himself an Australian to English dictionary.
“Hang on,” Brandt breathed. “The other person…I think I can—” Her head jerked back from the binoculars. She scrubbed her face then stared through the binoculars again.
“What is it, Charlie? What do you see?”
Kramer’s eyes darted between Brandt and the two women at the truck. Brandt handed him the binoculars. Her look of consternation changed to a deep frown.
“We know Harper and Diana are sisters…” Kramer peered at the magnified women. “They’re friggin’ twins.” He lowered the glasses. “Identical twins.”
Brandt stared at him. “Kramer, how in the hell are we going to be able to tell them apart?”
“First we put the bitches in chains…the rest you leave to me. I’ll be able to tell the difference—one way or the other.”
The pure vitriol in his response startled Brandt; worried her. Now that Kramer literally had Harper in his sights she sensed the mission had gone from objective to extremely subjective. He might suddenly charge across the street, gun blazing, and she wouldn’t be able to stop him. She wasn’t even sure that she would blame him, either.
“Kramer.” She implored his better judgment. “Neutralizing the truck bomb is our first priority.” She grabbed his arm. “Kramer, listen to me. To do that we have to secure the sisters—but they have to be taken alive. One of them might have the trigger device to the bomb and—”
“Then tell that to the feds.”