Brandt pivoted on her heel and followed Kramer’s gaze. A group of four FBI agents, two of them bomb disposal technicians judging by their bulky gear, walked toward them but turned when they reached 10th Street and headed for the parked vehicles. Kramer surmised they were some of the agents the SWAT chief had ordered to check for the bogus van.
He glanced back at Harper and her sister. The two women still argued, albeit quietly. Dressed in uniforms emblazoned with FBI Bomb Technician, they had yet to draw any suspicion from the dozens of agents milling about them.
“Damn, we may have just given the game away,” he muttered.
“Eh? What do you mean?”
Kramer gestured at a couple of agents who had been watching them surveilling the street from the corner. The men looked around attempting to determine who, or what, Kramer and Brandt were so interested in to warrant using binoculars. They zeroed in on the truck and the sisters at the same time the approaching bomb techs and their backups noticed the vehicle.
The agents drew their weapons. They advanced through the crowd, warning everyone of the possible truck bomb. In seconds weapons were visible everywhere and men and women closed in.
They fell back when gunfire suddenly erupted.
It took seconds before Kramer realized the shooting came from the direction of Pennsylvania Avenue. The crescendo of gunfire increased to deafening levels. Many of the agents on the outer edges of the crowd dashed off toward the shooting. He looked back at the truck then at Shadow. Kramer was convinced the action happening was nothing but a diversion. His eyes darted to Brandt and received a signal from her she had the same thought. He motioned that he was moving in on the truck.
The scene turned into pandemonium. More and more agents felt compelled to rush to the defense of their colleagues leaving fewer to cope with the supposed bomb situation.
Shadow moved out first. He bound across the street and straight into the turmoil. Those who took notice of the intensity in the huge dog’s eyes jumped out of his way as he barreled through their midst. He was intent on something and none were about to bar his way.
Kramer shrugged at Brandt. He left the sidewalk and, holding his Glock ready, strode after Shadow.
The gunfight and the immediate chaos made so much noise that it was impossible for Kramer to hear anything above a shout. He searched for sight of Shadow among the smaller crowd. The image of the truck exploding seeped into mind and he shoved it viciously away. If there was a bomb onboard and it was detonated, he wouldn’t feel a thing anyway. He’d be instantly vaporized, along with Shadow. Well, this is why you’re paid the big bucks, mate, he could hear Darci quip. A bitter smile curled a corner of his mouth. But the image of Shadow dying caused him to choke back a tear.
Sweat beaded in his hair and dribbled down his face. He swiped at it roughly with his sleeve before it reached his eyes. Not the most opportune time to be half blinded. He checked back with Brandt and saw her waving frantically at him. He stopped. She shouted something but he couldn’t make sense of it.
She broke into a run. He craned his neck, trying to see where she was going but too many people and vehicles blocked his view. He shouldered his way past confused agents till he could spot Brandt. She held a red head at gunpoint. His partner signaled for him to join her at the corner. Kramer glanced back, trying once again to locate Shadow, but still couldn’t see him among the agents now crowded around the suspect truck. Neither could he see any sign of the other red head. Within moments he stood beside Brandt.
“Nice going, Charlie. I’ll take it from here. See if you can find Shadow, and then both of you get your butts back here.” He nodded back over his shoulder. “I don’t suppose we know which one we have here, but my guess is that the other sister is in the hands of the FBI.”
Brandt put a hand on his shoulder. “No worries, boss. I’ll find Shadow and send him back. I have to see the other sister for myself before she’s hauled away.”
Kramer trained his gun on the red head and watched as his partner sprinted off. Just before she reached the crowd, Shadow emerged from the press of bodies. Brandt knelt and hugged him then pointed back at Kramer. The dog began trotting toward his friend. The gathered agents fell way back from the truck as the two bomb techs approached it and Kramer caught a glimpse of Brandt walking up to the other redhead being held by two men in suits.
He turned his attention back to the sister in hand. The woman certainly looked like Harper. Her electric green eyes took in his Glock pointed at her center mass then locked onto his face. They stayed like that for a long moment; glaring at each other.
The last image Kramer had of those eyes was in Belize; from the water as the boat carrying Harper pulled away, leaving him to slip beneath its wake. His expression hardened as he gave her the once-over. The woman was still as beautiful as ever; six feet two inches tall, her body sculptured to that of an athlete; flawless features and that magnificent fiery red mane The woman was nothing short of stunning. But Kramer reminded himself just how deadly the bitch was.
She gave him a lopsided smile then flinched. She became aware of Shadow standing at Kramer’s side uttering a low guttural growl and baring his massive fangs. She put out a tremulous hand to stay him and inched backwards.
Kramer’s immediate reaction was to simply pull the trigger and blow her away to Hell and gone, Harper or not. It was all he could do to stop himself. When she turned those green eyes back on him they conjured up visions of Valdiron, her partner-in-crime and lover; the horrific murder scene of Kramer’s elderly parents; and that infamous day when he’d witnessed his fiancé vaporized by an explosion from a rocket fired by Valdiron. It all came flooding back and he shook his head savagely to rid himself of the ghosts drifting in as she stood there smirking at him.
He took a step toward her, hell-bent on knocking that smile clean off that beautiful face of hers. Instead, he waved her back against the coarse concrete wall with his Glock. The realization he finally had his nemesis within reach dawned on him.
Sweat ran down his face. He swiped it away with a hand and became aware of his shirt sticking uncomfortably to his body. His pulse pounded in his ears like a village of jungle drums and he breathed deeply and slowly a few times to slow it.
“Creepy, isn’t it, Marine?” It was more a statement than a question and her voice was teasingly silky and, as far as he could tell, identical to Harper’s.
A shout drew his attention from the woman.
Brandt walked toward him, followed by the two agents gripping the other sister tightly by the arms. Charlie grinned from ear to ear.
“Hey boss, guess which sister I have here.”
The explosion was horrendous.
The blast lifted Kramer, Shadow, and the redhead off their feet and hurled them almost eighty feet away. Kramer felt the concussion slam into him like a wrecking ball, driving the breath from his lungs. He struck the ground face down and felt bones break and clothes and skin flayed from his body. The excruciating ringing in his ears disorientated him and he tried desperately to push himself to his hands and knees. After several attempts he realized his left arm was broken.
Tears streamed down his face. His eyes stung and felt as if they were filled with gravel and sunscreen oil. Concrete dust and smoke created an atmosphere almost unbreathable. He hunched against debris raining down from the darkness.
He felt around among the rubble and touched on a length of metal that he used to haul himself to his feet. His shirt was in tatters. Tearing a patch off, he clutched it over his mouth and nose and reeled drunkenly into the roiling toxic clouds.
Chunks of concrete and stone, of every size, jammed the length of the block. He clambered blindly up a craggy pile and fell and tumbled down the other side slicing his hands and legs on shards of glass and razor sharp twisted metal.
He teetered on top of another higher pile and tried to make sense of the devastation illuminated by flickering pockets of pale light. The images that surfaced in his jangling mind were of videos showing the demolition of huge Las Vegas hotels. He was looking out over much the same destruction, except that this scene included bodies and parts of bodies.
Gradually he regained a partial sense of hearing and his mind began to function a little clearer. Shadow. He jerked ‘round. Where was his closest friend? Stumbling back the way he’d come, Kramer fell over a body grey with dust. He felt compelled to pause to turn it over. It was a woman. Her face was plastered with a thick paste of blood and dust. At first he tackled wiping it gingerly then more feverishly as recognition dawned. Charlie.
Kramer pressed his ear hard to her chest. Nothing. That is not acceptable. The thought came to mind, irrational and demanding. Thinking that normal CPR might bring more abrasive grit into her lungs he made a fist, took a deep breath and, after a long moment of hacking, struck Charlie’s chest over her heart. He hit her again. Then a third time. Still nothing. He raised his fist and paused to fight back a sob.
“Damn you, Charlie. Don’t you dare leave me. Don’t you da…Don’t y…” He pounded her chest. No response. He collapsed and hugged his partner’s body tight to his own. The former Marine began to cry. His own life wounds were still too raw, too deep, and this caused all that to come surging back and overwhelm him. Also, he didn’t realize until that instant just how much this Aussie gal had grown on him. They had shared so much in so little time and he didn’t want to lose her.
A weak cough…another, but stronger…a gulp for air that brought on a coughing spasm.
“Charlie? Charlie.” Kramer studied her face closely then his face split with the widest smile when her eyes fluttered open. She opened her mouth to speak but he placed a finger gently to her lips and shushed her. He cradled her, whispering encouragement and continued as time seeped away.
Beams of watercolor light swept back and forth through the settling dust as people made their way carefully in search of survivors. A breeze had risen sometime during the night and began lifting the smoke into the darkness. Then there were voices talking among themselves, some calling out then waiting hopefully for responses.
“Hey, here—over here. We’re here. We need a corpsman—and fast.” Kramer kept shouting until his raw throat gave out and he went into a savage coughing spasm.
The closest flashlights crisscrossed, trying to pinpoint his location amid the chaos. It wasn’t long before one of the rescuers stumbled upon the couple and called to the others. Moments later they surrounded Brandt and Kramer and began fussing over their injuries. A radio call went out for medical assistance and seconds later a number of sirens could be heard rushing to the scene.
They tried to convince him he needed medical attention at the nearest hospital as well but Kramer would have nothing to do with it. Instead he badgered the rescuers into letting him stay long enough to find Shadow and a red headed woman. Until he had definitive proof of the woman’s true identity he couldn’t bring himself to refer to her any other way. It galled him no end that he had had his hands on her, literally, only to lose her again. He forced himself to believe she was still alive but as the minutes turned into hours his hope faded for the woman, but especially for his beloved dog.
It took them nearly four hours before one of the search party came upon the woman. She was unconscious and gravely injured having lost her left arm and right hand. They quickly whisked her off to hospital, but not before Kramer insisted that she be guarded around the clock; that she was a suspected terrorist.
Half an hour later they found Shadow. The poor dog was clinging tenaciously to life. He whimpered softly when he recognized Kramer and tried to crawl to him but it was instantly obvious he was suffering intense pain, and Kramer rushed to his side. He sat beside Shadow and took him carefully into his arms and held him so the dog wouldn’t cause himself any more distress.
Their reunion brought tears to everyone on the scene and when Kramer insisted that his best friend, who happened to be a highly decorated Marine retired, be given immediate medical attention the two found themselves placed aboard a Blackhawk helicopter that flew them directly to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
It wasn’t as if the nurses hadn’t seen a dog in Walter Reed before. In fact, the renowned medical center had established its own trauma recovery program utilizing service dogs trained from puppies to adults to help wounded warriors suffering from PTSD recover sufficiently to reconnect with their families, communities, and life. But Shadow had the distinction of being the first animal ever to undergo surgery at Walter Reed.
Kramer squirmed in his large chair and, out of the corner of his eye, noticed a small group of nurses gathered at the door of the private room. He rose to stretch his legs and wandered over.
“How’s Shadow doing?” the group asked as one.
“Just fine. The doc was here a while ago to report that the surgery was a complete success and that they were able to save his leg.” The good news solicited a round of congratulatory comments to which Kramer nodded his appreciation. “He’ll be kept here another few weeks for observation then all being well he’ll be allowed to leave.”
“We’ll miss him,” the cutest nurse said softly.
“Yeah, well, he’s going to miss you all, too. Shadow’s always been a sucker for attention. In fact, all of you nurses here are probably responsible for him doing so well. I’ve been around animals most of my life and I’m a firm believer in the power of love.”
“Well, we were just on our rounds and thought we’d drop by to see how he’s doing,” a tall gangly male nurse said.
“He’s become quite a celebrity around the wards,” the cute nurse added. Just then Shadow whimpered in his sleep. “We’d best be going. Besides, he needs his rest.”
The group said their farewells and drifted off down the hall. The cute nurse lingered a moment. She peered up at Kramer with the bluest eyes he’d ever seen.
“And how are you doing, Captain?”
Kramer had finally given up hope of persuading everyone to drop the rank and just call him Kramer. Walter Reed was a military hospital after all and the staff was hard-pressed to ignore that aspect of their patients.
“Me? I’m doing just fine. Thanks for asking. But I have to admit that hospitals aren’t my favorite hang outs, so I’m looking forward to the day when I can leave here with my two teammates.”
“I can understand that but I, for one, will be very sorry to see you go.” Before Kramer could conjure up a response the nurse batted her lashes at him and scurried off to join her group.
He shook his head and a corner of his mouth quirked up. Closing the door quietly, he moved to Shadow’s bedside and soothed him until he dropped back into a deep sleep. After a few moments of hovering over his best friend, Kramer eased back into his chair to continue his vigil.
Tomorrow it would be Charlie’s turn again to have Kramer at her bedside. He vowed to himself that he wouldn’t leave Walter Reed until he could do so with both his friends. So, while he watched over his friends he had to consider where he stood now that Harper’s plan was over.
Despite the media reporting that Shelley Harper, the mastermind and perpetrator of the J. Edgar Hoover Building bombing, had died carrying out her horrendous plan, the real truth was still debatable.
Without question, one of the sisters had died in the explosion—but which one? Surveillance images obtained by Global Security Corporation, of which Kramer was a senior partner and field operative, prove that Shelley Harper and her sister, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Diana Corbett, were identical twins.
Unfortunately, there were no remains found of the sister killed at the scene, forensic scientists saying that she was very likely vaporized. The same was said of the bogus FBI van thereby dispelling any chance of recovering traces of DNA from either or both sisters. Other factors hampering the FBI in identifying the surviving sister were that, despite being listed on every major international wanted list, not one agency had Shelley Harper’s fingerprints on record; and another being that having lost both hands, the FBI had no means of checking the survivor’s fingerprints against those on record with the Bureau.
The CEO of Global Security Corporation even suggested that the FBI have Harper’s residence in South Africa checked for her fingerprints but when they arrived the agents found the building had been entirely consumed by a massive explosion and fire. There was nothing left that could be tested.
All of that evidence, or lack thereof, left Kramer in a quandary. He had allowed himself to indulge in years of vengeful hunting of Harper following the wanton killings of his parents and fiancé. Regardless of the fact that Harper’s lover, Valdiron had been directly responsible in all cases, Kramer deemed Shelley Harper guilty by association.
At the outset of his pursuit of the woman, all he demanded was her death—preferably at Kramer’s own hands. But as time passed, the vengeful heat consuming him dwindled from a furnace-like intensity to one of mere scalding pain. His mind began to focus more on the positive; the memories of good times shared with his lost ones rather than the way they were taken from him. In the end he merely wanted to bring Harper to justice; to have her incarcerated for what remained of her sorry life, totally cut off from the world she insisted on ruining for others who couldn’t stand up against her.
Even that morsel of vengeance was snatched from him. Until the surviving sister regained consciousness there was no way her real identity could be established without her undergoing exhaustive questioning. Kramer was left with two choices; to believe Harper actually blew herself up or she lay unconscious under guard in a hospital nearby, either was dependent on the woman being identified—if she lived.
All Kramer wanted was closure; to finally be able to put his pain and anger behind him; to be able hold on to the good memories of his loved ones and to look to the future with a positive attitude—to begin anew. Was that too much to ask for?
When bombarded by the media, Kramer stated he had nothing but high praise for the medical staff at Walter Reed for the attention his two friends were receiving and had been assured that they would fully recover from their injuries though they faced a long rehabilitation.
One evening he returned from visiting Shadow to encounter staff clustered before a TV. He edged his way through ‘til he could hear the newscaster’s voice.
“The FBI, DEA, CIA, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have confirmed ISIS has claimed full responsibility for the string of coordinated attacks carried out on America soil and directed at several major shopping malls across the country. The same agencies have also confirmed the terrorists gained entry into America with assistance from drug cartels out of Mexico. Rumors link Harper with the ISIS operation but these have yet to be substantiated. It is known a number of homegrown sympathizers were involved in the attacks and may even have personally participated.
“Reports from the White House claim the President has been in close contact with the President of Mexico since the attacks. These same unconfirmed reports also claim both presidents are seriously considering a joint venture in strengthening the border between the United States and Mexico although no decision has been made what form any operation may take though speculation among many experts claim there are already plans underway for a huge fortified wall.”
The screen filled with horrific scenes shot live at the time of the attacks. Kramer felt the group’s animosity build. The newscaster continued.
“Although the mall attacks took place almost three months ago the death toll continues to climb. Latest figures place the number of those killed at 4,876. This includes those who have died since that horrendous day. Reports still have nearly 2,000 victims listed as critical and 1,500 as serious. A large percentage of all victims involved were children.
“An FBI spokesperson stated only two of the twenty terrorists were captured alive. Their identities have yet to be established, although the spokesperson did confirm they originated from an undetermined location in Libya. It has been confirmed however, they were members of the same terrorist unit with the name of Alif that had the Galleria in Houston, TX as they designated target.”
The newscaster appeared, seated behind her desk.
“Rumors out of the White House claim the President has approved the use of waterboarding in the interrogation of these ‘thugs.’ When questioned about the rumors, those representing the government departments and agencies involved have only stated ‘no comment.’
“Anonymous sources within the White House report an incident took place at John F. Kennedy International Airport the day of the ISIS attacks. Agents from the FBI escorted Peter Halsted, Deputy Assistant Director, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Department of Homeland Security, off an Air France flight to Paris.
“The sources said the arrest of Halstead might be connected to the brutal killing of two Secret Service agents at his Virginia address days before the mall incidents. Halstead was said to have one-way air tickets to Libya. The FBI is also investigating the possibility Halstead might have some connection with ISIS.”
* * * * * *
Darci discovered he had no option but to be present throughout the exhaustive inquiry following the devastating attack carried out in Washington D.C. The invitation from the investigating Senate committee stated as much in no uncertain terms.
After grueling months of intense forensic research, it was the collective opinion of the many architectural designers and engineers called before the committee the overall deteriorated condition of the J. Edgar Hoover Building contributed to the extensive damage done to the Federal Bureau of Investigations headquarters by the truck bomb.
The state of the building was something Darci hadn’t known about but it made perfect sense him. He also gave kudos, albeit reluctantly, to Harper or whoever of her cronies discovered that during its initial design and planning, dating back to 1962, the Bureau had insisted the final monolithic structure, better known for its ‘brutalism’ style of design, must have the first few stories bomb-proof and the entire building be surrounded by special blast-proof paving to protect the three floors below-ground.
He was astounded no one could testify definitively as to what size of explosion these measures were intended to withstand. Suffice it to say the sixteen thousand pounds of explosives deemed by experts to have been comprised of HMX proved more than efficient in demolishing almost two-thirds of the fortress-like building.
His military background had introduced Darci to HMX and its horrific power. Also known as octogen or cyclotetramethylene-tetranitramine, the powerful and relatively insensitive nitroamine high explosive, was currently considered the state-of-the-art military explosive and one of the most powerful chemical explosives manufactured.
Despite his experience with the substance, he was surprised when experts testified HMX was not only used as an explosive by itself, but its high energy out put was being employed as a detonator in nuclear weapons and as a solid rocket propellant.
Darci’s involvement in the Senate enquiry came to the fore when he had to provide detailed testimony to the committee concerning the role played by Global Security Corporation. It took him two twelve-hour sittings.
The Australian went on in his inimitable easygoing fashion to explain how his business partner and in-field operative, former U.S. Marine, Major Kramer had concluded Shelley Harper, wife of the notorious criminal, Valdiron, and who was suspected of dying in the bomb explosion was responsible for the truck bomb attack and how it may have been carried out in revenge for the death of her husband at the hands of the FBI. Darci then tabled proof linking her closely with the terrorist organization, ISIS.
He concluded by ratifying the statement given by the head of the Department of Homeland Security who claimed his organization, working closely with the FBI, DEA, CIA and numerous other agencies, had yet to identify the source of the explosive and how those responsible for the bombing were able to obtain such a large quantity without raising any red flags.
Darci was present when the Senate committee, and everyone at the inquiry, was given the final estimates of those killed in the bombing of the FBI headquarters. The figures topped out at 3,118, with another 557 seriously injured.
He burst with pride when the committee chairman paid special recognition to three persons, employees of the California company, Global Security Corporation, who tried valiantly to forewarn the FBI of the attack and who very nearly lost their own lives in the process. The three were identified as Charise “Charlie” Brandt, a former Australian Special Forces member, Captain Kramer, USMC ret., and his canine partner with whom he had served in Afghanistan, Sgt. Shadow, USMC ret.
Weeks later a joyful reunion on the grounds of GSC headquarters in California occurred. Darci and Maria wanted to celebrate the return of their three most valuable people. Another one overjoyed to see Kramer and Shadow again was Spirit. The black Pit Bull bowled them both over as they set foot in the house and lavished them with sloppy wet doggy kisses until Kramer called for a towel.
Darci and Kramer sat, drinks in hand, watching Maria and Brandt play with the two dogs. Darci glanced aside at his partner and noticed the warm smile and glimmer in his eyes.
“You know, mate, this party is for you and your team making it back alive. There’s no way in hell this operation can be called a success, not after those bloody ISIS attacks and then the FBI HQ being almost flattened.”
Kramer heard the anger in his Aussie friend’s voice. “There’s no need to beat yourself up because the good guys didn’t come out on top this time. We can’t win every engagement. Reality can be more brutal and uncompromising than most people can begin to imagine.”
“Yeah, I know you’re right, mate, but it doesn’t stop me from being just plain pissed off, nonetheless.”
Kramer clapped his friend on the shoulder. “You and me both, Darci.”
He rose from his chair and knelt to welcome Shadow as the huge dog padded towards him across the lawn. Though the doctors were able to save his leg, they forewarned Kramer that Shadow might not regain the full strength in it or the endurance he once had. He gave his mate a massive hug, going cheek to cheek and whispering his love into the furry ear.
He heard a phone ring close by and heard Darci take the call. After tussling with Shadow for a few minutes, Kramer sent him off to play with Spirit. Kramer picked himself off the grass and noticed the stormy scowl on Darci’s face. When the Aussie turned, the anger blazing in his eyes was unmistakable.
“Oh shit, don’t tell me that Harper, Diana, or whoever it is we caught, has died before she could be questioned,” Kramer said as he dropped into his chair and grabbed his drink.
Darci threw down the last of his drink and stared at the empty glass, toying with it for a long moment and then placed it slowly on the table between their chairs. He leaned back and gazed up at the star-studded evening sky.
“The sheila’s gone,” he said matter-of-factly.
“She did die, then.”
“Nope, but it may have been better for everyone if she had.”
“Late this afternoon four men masquerading as U.S. Marshals turned up at the hospital informing doctors and staff they were there to escort the prisoner away for questioning. They had the credentials and necessary paperwork, so they were allowed to leave with our red head.”
“So? It sounds as if someone thought her recovered enough to be—”
Darci shook his head and refilled his glass. He held it up to the patio light and studied the liquid inside. “Only, the Marshal’s office denies ever sending officers to the hospital.”
Kramer could tell from his friend’s tone that he was holding back more detail and pressed him on it.
“The FBI were informed of the incident and jumped to it right away. They checked into the hospital’s security video and have determined that the four men are all members of the Cali Cartel.”
“What would a drug cartel want with our redhead?”
“Think about it for a tic,” Darci said. “Maria and I have been thinking about those stolen diamonds that we—rather you and your team—traced to Harper in South Africa. Now think about her tie-in with ISIS and the intel about how the terrorists gained entry across the border.” Recognition dawned on Kramer’s face.
“Right,” Darci continued. “We believe the diamonds were going to be used to pay the cartel for their part in smuggling the ISIS soldiers across the border.”
“Except that we intercepted Harper in Belize,” Kramer interjected.
“Right on, mate. What you busted up was Harper’s hook-up with the cartel. She was to hand over the diamonds as payment. We guess her being boated across to the cruise liner was part of the deal, as well.”
“So…the four cartel guys who snatched the surviving sister?”
Darci swigged down his drink and rolled the drained glass between his fingers. “The cartel probably thinks that Harper skipped out on their arrangement, keeping the diamonds for herself. My guess is they’ve been waiting on the sideline all this time waiting to see how all this business with ISIS and the FBI bombing turned out. They’re running with the idea that our surviving red head is Harper. The four men sent to grab her merely came to collect.”
Kramer was well aware of what the drug cartels were capable of when dealing with anyone who failed to uphold his or her end of a deal. He scrutinized the play of torchlight on the whiskey in his heavy crystal tumbler.
“It couldn’t happen to a person more deserving of the cartel’s attention.” He drained his whiskey and whistled Shadow over to love on him some more.
“If you have enjoyed this serialization please check out Books 1 (The Pits) and 2 (You Can Run) of this series by Greg Smith “