Editor of Kindle Nation Daily ©Kindle Nation Daily 2011
There are a number of different approaches we can take here, but they all come out the same way.
You could listen to what I have to say about the very talented novelist behind the Nick Bracco series, and I would tell you that Gary Ponzo is the real thing, a suspense novelist with full command of the tools of the trade.
You could listen to the literary gatekeepers who have honored this author’s work by twice nominating him for the prestigious Pushcart Prize for short fiction and showering him with other awards,
You could listen to your fellow Amazon readers, and the verdict there is the most stellar that I have seen for any fiction writer yet to participate in the Free Kindle Nation Shorts program. 31 readers have reviewed A Touch of Deceit. 25 have rated the novel with 5 stars and six with 4 stars. That is a pretty amazing testimonial.
But the good news is that you do not have to listen to anyone else, because Gary Ponzo has provided us with a generous 11,500-word excerpt. If you are a fan of suspense fiction, I will be surprised if he does not grab you like he grabbed me with the first few paragraphs. Clear out a few hours this weekend and budget two bucks for the download, because you’re not likely to stop reading until you’ve read the whole thing.
Here’s the set-up:
FBI agent Nick Bracco can’t stop a Kurdish terrorist from firing missiles at random homes across the country. The police can’t stand watch over every household, so Bracco recruits his cousin Tommy to help track down this terrorist. Tommy is in the Mafia. Oh yeah, it gets messy fast. As fast as you can turn the pages.
Winner of the Southwest Writers Award, Thriller category.
A Touch of Deceit
by Gary Ponzo
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There was a time when Nick Bracco would walk down Gold Street late at night and young vandals would scatter. The law was present and the guilty took cover. West Baltimore was alive with crime, but Gold Street remained quarantined, reserved for the dirtiest of the dirty. That’s how Nick remembered it anyway. Before he left for the Bureau to fight terrorists. Now, the narrow corridor of row houses felt closer to him and the slender strip of buckled sidewalk echoed his footsteps like a sentry announcing his presence. It wasn’t his turf anymore. He was a foreigner.
Nick scrutinized the landscape and searched for something out of place. The battered cars seemed right, the graffiti, even the shadows seemed to darken the proper corners. But something was missing. There were no lookouts on the concrete stairwells. The ubiquitous bass line of hip-hop was absent. The stillness reminded him of jungle birds falling silent in the prelude to danger. The only comfort came from the matching footsteps beside him. As usual, Matt McColm was by his side. They’d been partners for ten years and were approaching the point of finishing each other’s sentences.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Matt said.
“Did I mention that I don’t have a good feeling about this?”
“Uh, huh.” Matt tightened his collar against the autumn chill and worked a piece of gum with his jaw. “That’s your theme song.”
“Really? Don’t you ever get a bad feeling about a call?”
“All the time.”
“How come you never tell me?”
“I’m going to feed the flames of paranoia?”
They walked a little further in silence. It got darker with every step. The number of working streetlights dwindled.
“Did you just call me paranoid?” Nick said.
Matt looked straight ahead as he walked; his casual demeanor caused him to appear aloof, but Nick knew better. Even at half-mast, Matt’s eyes were alert and aware.
“Maybe paranoid is too strong of a word,” Matt said.
“I would hope so.”
“More like Mother-henish.”
“That’s better,” Nick said. “By the way, did you eat your broccoli tonight?”
They strode further; low-lying clouds gave the night a claustrophobic feel.
“This guy asked for you specifically?” Matt said.
“That bother you a little?” Matt asked.
“No,” Nick said. “That bothers me a lot.”
Up ahead, a parked car jostled. They both stopped. Neither of them spoke. They split up. By the book. Years of working together coming into play. Matt crouched and crept into the street. Nick stayed on the sidewalk and gave the car a wide berth. In seconds Matt became invisible. The car maintained a spastic rhythm. It was subtle, but Nick understood the familiar motion even before he flashed his penlight into the back seat and saw a pair of young eyes pop up through the grimy window. They were wide open and reacted like a jewel thief caught with a handful of pearls. The kid’s hair was disheveled and his shirt was half-off. His panting breath caused the inside of the window to fog up. He wasn’t alone. A pair of bare legs straddled his torso.
From the other side of the vehicle, Matt emerged from the shadows and charged the car with his pistol out front. He was just a few yards away when Nick held up his hand and said, “No.”
Matt stopped dead. He must’ve seen the grin on Nick’s face and realized the situation. He slowly holstered his Glock and took time to catch his breath.
Nick heard the kid’s voice through the closed window. “I ain’t doing nuthin’, man.”
Nick clicked off his penlight and slipped it back into his jacket. He smiled. “It may be nothing, but you sure worked up a sweat doing it.”
When Matt fell back into step next to his partner, Nick said, “You seemed a little . . . uh, paranoid?”
Matt returned to nonchalant mode. “Kids that young shouldn’t be doing the nasty out in the street.”
“Consider their role models,” Nick said. “You can’t change the tide with an oar.”
“Pardon me, Professor Bracco. Who said that one-Nietzsche?”
“I just made it up.”
“It sounded like it.”
They slowed their pace until Nick stopped in front of an old brick building with a worn, green awning above the entrance. Nick gestured down a dark flight of stairs where a giant steel door stood menacingly secure. “There it is.”
Matt nodded. “You bring me to all the best spots.”
When he was certain of their solitude, Nick descended the stairs. Matt followed, keeping an eye on their rear. In the darkness, Nick barely made out Matt’s silhouette.
“Listen,” Nick said, “it’ll be easier if we don’t have to use our creds, but let’s see how it goes. I don’t want to say any more than I have to, and you say nothing at all. Just be the silent brute that you are. Capisce?”
“If we get lucky, I’ll see a familiar face.” Nick raised his fist, hovered it in front of the door, then stopped to sniff the air. “You wearing aftershave?”
“You have a date after this?”
“Who makes a date with you at midnight?”
“She’s a waitress. She doesn’t get off until then.”
In the murky darkness, Nick sighed. He turned to face the door and, just like a thousand times before, he said, “Ready?”
He couldn’t see the response, but he heard Matt unfasten the flap to his holster. Matt was ready.
Nick used his wedding band hand to pound on the metal door. He shifted his weight as they waited. Nick heard Matt chewing his gum.
Nick said, “Midnight, huh?”
A rectangular peephole slid open allowing just enough light through to see a dark face peering out. The face was so large the opening supported only enough room for one of his eyes.
“Yeah?” the man grunted.
Nick leaned close to the opening so the man could see his face. The opening quickly slid shut.
They stood in the silence while Nick thought of his next move.
“He seems like a nice fellow,” Matt said.
The clang of locks unbolting was followed by the door squeaking open. It reminded Nick of an old horror movie.
The large black man wore a large black shirt that hung over his jeans and covered enough space to hide a rocket launcher. The man ignored Nick and gave Matt the once over.
Matt gave him the stone cold glare of a pissed-off FBI agent. No one did it better.
Then the man turned his attention to Nick. His head was round and clean-shaven. His expressionless face seemed to be set in cement.
Nick spread open his hands and raised his eyebrows. “Well?”
The man’s face slowly softened, then worked its way into a full out smile. “Where the fuck you been, Bracco?” He engulfed Nick into a giant bear hug, momentarily lifting him off of his feet.
Nick patted the beast a couple of times on the back and slid down to face him. “I can’t believe you still work here.” He gestured to Matt, “This here is Matt McColm. Matt, this is Truth.”
Truth nodded to Matt, then slapped Nick on the shoulder. “Last time I saw you, you were still with the Western.”
“It’s been a decade.”
“Wow, seems like just yesterday you’d come in and drag Woody to G.A. meetings.”
Nick grinned. He looked over the big man’s shoulder to the solid green door that Truth guarded. Beyond the fireproof frame was a large, unfinished basement filled with poker tables. This time of night the tables would be surrounded by chiropractors, strippers, tax accountants, firefighters and probably even a couple of cops from Nick’s old beat. A mixture of cigar and cigarette smoke would be lingering just below the fluorescents.
“How’s the crowd?” Nick asked.
“Not too bad. You want a seat?”
Nick shook his head. “I’d scare them all off. You know I’m with the feds now?”
Truth frowned. “You don’t come around for ten years and the first thing you think to do is insult me?”
Nick stood silent and waited.
“We may be compulsive gamblers,” Truth explained, “but we’re not illiterates. I read the story. Local boy makes good.”
Nick held up a hand. “Hold on. Don’t believe everything you read in the rags.”
“Since when is Newsweek a rag?”
Nick shrugged. “Sometimes the legend exceeds the facts.”
Truth waved a thick finger back and forth between the two agents. “He’s the partner. They called you two the Dynamic Duo or the A-Team or some shit.”
Nick said nothing.
Truth snapped his large fingers. “Dream Team. That’s it. I knew it was something like that. You two dug up some kind of terrorist cell planning to waste the Washington Monument. Isn’t that right?”
He pointed to Nick. “According to the article, you the brains and he’s the muscle.”
Matt stood stone-faced.
“The way you say it,” Nick said. “It makes my partner here sound like a bimbo with large biceps. Look at him. Does he look like he pumps iron?”
Truth examined Matt’s long, thin frame and shook his head. “Nope. So he must be good with a 9.”
“Precisely. He’s the FBI’s sharp-shooting champ three years running.”
Truth smiled. “You two aren’t here to raid the place, I know that much. They wouldn’t send that much talent for this old joint.”
“Come on, Truth.” Nick said. “This is a landmark. My father used to play here. I’d rather see it turned into a museum first.”
Truth’s smile transformed into something approaching concern. “And you’re not here to play poker either?”
Nick shook his head.
“Then it must be business.”
Nick stood motionless and let the big man put it all together.
Truth looked at Nick, but nodded toward Matt. “You wouldn’t bring the cowboy unless you felt a need for backup. Something I should know?”
Nick thought about how much he should tell him. He trusted Truth as much as any civilian.
“I’m not sure,” Nick said. “I need to see Ray Seville. Is he still playing?”
“Seville? Yeah, he’s back there making his usual donations. What do you want with a weasel like him?”
“He called the field office and left a message for me to meet him here.”
Truth smiled. “The snitch strikes again.”
“Maybe,” Nick said.
Matt cleared his throat in a forced fashion.
“Oh, yeah,” Nick said. “Matt’s in a bit of a hurry. He’s got a date tonight.”
Truth engaged Matt’s hardened face again, only this time Matt threw in a wink.
Truth smiled and held out his hand, “All right then, gents. Hand them over and I’ll get Ray for you.”
Matt glared at his partner. “You can’t be serious?”
Truth didn’t budge. His palm remained open while his fingertips flexed impatiently.
“Truth,” Nick said. “Is that really necessary?”
Truth looked at Matt this time. In a tone that denoted overuse, he said, “A long time ago there was a shootout in the parlor. A couple of drunks got carried away during a tight hand. The drunks were Baltimore PD. Fortunately, they were more drunk than cops that night and neither one got hurt too bad. When one of their fellow officers was called to the scene, he came down hard. Even though the two drunk cops were his senior, he was someone everyone respected and they obeyed his commands. Back then he made a rule: if Lloyd’s was going to stay open it had to be firearm free. No exceptions. The Mayor, the Governor. No one.”
Truth took his time to look back at Nick. “Do you remember who that cop was?”
Nick nodded, reluctantly. “Me.”
“Bingo,” Truth smiled.
Nick fished the 9MM from his holster and handed it to Truth. He looked at Matt and said, “Sorry, I forgot.”
Truth took Nick’s gun and shoved it into the abyss under his oversized tee shirt. He looked at Matt and kept his hand out. “It’s only out of respect that I don’t pat you down,” Truth said. “I trust Nick.”
Matt moaned while removing his Glock. “Forgot, my ass.”
“Relax, Truth has our back until we’re done here. Right Truth?”
“Fifteen years,” Truth said. “No one’s got by me yet.” He gestured for them to follow and he stopped after only a few steps. He pointed to an open door and said, “Wait in there and I’ll get him for you.”
Before entering the room, they watched Truth walk down the hall and open the green door. As he pulled the door shut behind him, a burst of cigar smoke escaped along the ceiling and crept toward the front door. Nick followed Matt into the small sitting room and remained standing. Matt eased onto a dingy green sofa, rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together.
The room was a windowless twelve by twelve with two corduroy sofas facing each other. Between the sofas was a carved up oak coffee table that wobbled without ever being touched. The only light came from a pair of bare fluorescent bulbs that hung from a cracked ceiling.
“I’m just glad you didn’t agree to wear a blindfold,” Matt said. “We would have missed this beautiful decor.”
“Calm down,” Nick said. “I wouldn’t want you to be uptight for Valerie.”
Nick paced while Matt tapped his fingertips.
Nick heard the green door open. Truth was followed by a wiry man with deep pockets under his eyes. He wore a baseball cap with the brim twisted to the side.
Nick gestured for him to sit down.
Truth said, “I’ll be right outside if you need me,” then pulled the door shut behind him.
Ray Seville sank into the couch across from Matt and pulled a mangled pack of cigarettes from his jeans pocket. He flipped open a pack of matches and flicked one against the striker. He sucked the cigarette to life, then shook the match and pointed the extinguished stick at Matt. “Who’s he?”
“He’s my partner,” Nick said.
“I thought I left a message for you to come alone.”
“He’s my partner. He goes where I go.”
“Yeah, well, how do I know I can trust him?”
“How do you know you can trust me?”
Seville managed a meager grin. “Aw, come on. Me and you, we have history.”
“History?” Nick said. “I arrested you half a dozen times working Gold Street.”
Seville waved the back of his hand. “Yeah, but you was always straight with me. A lot of other cops were pure bullshit. Tell me one thing, then come at me from a different angle two minutes later.”
Nick sighed. “Listen, Ray, I’m not with the Western anymore. You want to roll over on one of your buddies, I’ll call a shoe and get him to meet you somewhere safe. Not down here in the basement of Lloyd’s poker house.”
Seville took another drag of his cigarette and looked past Nick at Matt still leaning forward, elbows on his knees, “What’s his problem?”
“I told you, he’s my partner.”
“Doesn’t he know how to speak?”
“He’s just here to intimidate.”
“Intimidate? Intimidate who?”
The guy was a pure idiot. Nick wondered how Ray survived among the predators that prowled West Baltimore on a nightly basis. Nick glanced at his watch and said, “Ray, where are we going here?”
Seville stared at the hardwood floor while the flimsy ash danced between his feet. “A couple of weeks ago I get a call from this guy asking me for a phony drivers license.”
“How did he know to call you?” Nick asked.
“I dunno. Maybe somebody told him. Stop being a cop for a second and listen.”
Nick folded his arms.
“Well, anyway, I meet him and get the info he wants me to use on the license. I usually ask some questions to see what I’m getting myself into, but this guy cuts me off before I can even start. I never been eye-fucked like that before.”
Seville took another drag of his cigarette and pointed to Matt. “Is he like your trained monkey or what?”
Nick stretched out his arm and held Matt back as he came out of his seat, then he admonished Ray with a stare that forced his attention back to the floorboards.
Ray’s cigarette slowly shrank between his index and middle finger. “Shit, the guy was talking to me like I was a moron, telling me over and over where to make the drop. How long to wait. I look like I just fell off the turnip truck?”
Nick let that one go.
“He asked me everything under the sun, except if I know how to make a good dupe. I mean shit, the guy didn’t even haggle with my rate.” Ray dropped the cigarette stub to the floor and twisted it with his shoe. He blew out a lungful of smoke and seemed to be looking at something off in the distance. “He’s not from around here, I’d know. He’s a foreigner. He’s got some kind of accent, like one of those Iraqis you used to see interviewed on the news during the war. You know, one of those guys you always knew was lying just by his accent.”
Nick massaged his forehead. He could feel his arteries begin to constrict. “Let me get this straight,” Nick said. “You called for a meeting with the FBI because you forged a fake ID for someone with a Middle-Eastern accent? Is that right?”
Ray seemed to absorb what had just happened. “When you say it like that it makes me sound like I’m wasting your time or something.”
Nick waited and watched Ray shift around on the sofa. Finally, Nick said, “What are you not telling me?”
Ray looked up at Nick with a wrinkled forehead. It seemed as if he was trying to decipher the genetic code to the double helix.
“Isn’t that enough?” Ray said. “I mean, I already told you he’s a foreigner with an illegal drivers license. Shit, what else does a guy have to do to get arrested?”
Nick tried to figure out why someone like Ray would rat on anyone without motivation.
“You’re just being a good citizen, is that it?” Nick said.
“That too hard to believe?”
“Look, Ray,” Nick said, “Do you know why you’re a lousy poker player?”
“Because you have a tell. Every time you’re bluffing you look to your right.” Nick pointed over his shoulder, “The guys inside don’t know why you do it, they just know it’s a tell. You look to your right, you’re bluffing. Me, I know why you do it. It’s because you’re using the right side of your brain to think. The creative side. Like right now you’re looking over my left shoulder. You’re getting creative with your memory. Don’t do it, Ray. For once in your life, tell me the truth.”
Ray stared blankly at Nick. “Are you shittin’ me? All this time I got a tell and nobody says nothing?”
“Are you going to tell me what really happened, Ray?”
Nick waited while Ray grappled with the chore ahead of him. Possibly dealing with the truth. Ray nodded to himself. With his head still hung low, he said, “I lent my car to my buddy Skeeter yesterday. It was the last time I saw him.”
Ray shook his head. “Gone.”
“He was blown to smithereens trying to start my car.”
Nick and Matt exchanged glances.
“The guy warned me about following him and I didn’t exactly listen. I was curious. I thought maybe I could scam some juice from him if I told him I knew who he was.”
Nick let out a breath. “Now we’re getting to it, aren’t we? You tried to shakedown someone out of your league and you want us to save your greedy ass.”
Ray looked bewildered. “No, no, it’s not like that.”
Nick slid a hand over his face and squeezed his eyelids until he saw stars; then he focused on the wiry mess sitting in front of him. “All right, Ray, who is he?”
“That’s just it, I don’t know exactly.”
“But you were going to try and extort money from him.”
“Now you got it,” Ray said. “Guy like that’s got to have a big identity.” He looked around the room for support, back and forth between stone-faced Matt and Nick. “Doesn’t he?” Ray finished.
The room was silent for a moment, allowing the slower brain cells to catch up. Finally, Nick said, “All right, Ray. Why don’t we start with what he looks like.”
“Pretty average I’d say.”
Nick blinked. “Ray.”
“All right, all right. He was a little taller than me, about five-eleven, dark hair . . . shit, what am I doing?” Ray shoved his bony fingers into his jeans pockets and yanked out a folded piece of paper and handed it to Nick. “There he is. I made a copy of the photo before I gave it back to him.”
Nick slowly unfolded the paper, hoping for a lucky break. He didn’t get one.
Nick tossed the paper into Matt’s lap and watched his partner’s eyes go dark with anger.
“Who is it?” Ray said.
Nick said nothing. He had too many neurons firing all at once. The last time he saw Rashid Baser was eight months ago in a small village just outside of Istanbul. Rashid was lying on the ground with his hand pressed to his ear to stop the bleeding. Matt had fired a remarkable shot from 150 yards, allowing them to escape one of Rashid’s ambushes.
It was Nick’s job to expect the unexpected, but Rashid Baser in Baltimore was pushing the limits. Even for someone as brash as Rashid.
Nick looked down at Ray and thought he saw fear in his ignorant eyes. “How did he get in touch with you?”
“I told you, he called me.”
“Where? At home?”
“No, on my cell.”
“How did he get the number?”
“Shit, I don’t know,” Ray said, “I couldn’t get the guy to tell me nothing, man.” Ray looked up at Nick again and said, “Who is he?”
Nick let out a deep breath. “His name is Rashid Baser.”
Ray sank lower into the couch, getting swallowed up by the worn out cushions. In a small voice, he said, “He dangerous?”
Nick frowned. He thought about telling Ray that Rashid was the world’s greatest explosives expert. That he could turn a wristwatch into a bomb with little more than what you’d find in a typical shed. That he was an assassin. Maybe the purest human hunter on the planet. Instead, he said, “Yes, Ray, he dangerous.”
“He . . .uh . . .Al-Qaeda?” Ray asked.
Nick rolled his eyes. He wished he was a mindless Al Qaeda pawn. Someone who was just smart enough to take orders and just dumb enough to follow them. No, this was a real, shrewd threat. A bonafide hands-on terrorist who would manage to slip a snake into your pants pocket and then ask you for change.
“No,” Nick said. “He’s Kurdish. He’s not one of these guys that hides out in a cave and draws plans in the dirt. He does everything himself. And he’s good at what he does. Maybe the best.”
“What does he do?”
Nick was deep in thought. Rashid Baser. What would Rashid be doing here? He looked over at Matt and saw the same question going across his face.
“You think he came all the way here just for revenge?” Matt asked.
Nick shook his head. Partly because he didn’t believe it. Partly because he didn’t want to believe it.
“You said he’s the best,” Ray said. “The best what?”
“He kills people,” Nick said. “He’s good with a gun, but prefers to work with blades.”
Ray involuntarily rubbed his neck.
Nick was pacing now, gathering speed as he went. “Do you want to know the most dangerous thing about Rashid Baser? He’s Kemel Kharrazi’s best friend. They grew up together in Southeastern Turkey.”
“That’s right, that Kemel Kharrazi. The one whose name makes serial killers sleep with the light on. So let’s cut the crap, Ray. Are you positive this is the guy you saw?”
“What do you want from me?” Ray pleaded. “I swear I’m not lying to you.”
Nick nodded. He grabbed the copy of the photo from Matt and examined it closely. The image was grainy, but it certainly appeared to be Rashid. Nick thought it looked to be taken about five years ago. Rashid was still wearing a mustache. He thought of something.
“Ray,” Nick said, “What did he look like when you met with him? Any different than this photo?”
Ray appeared serious, as if he were adding numbers in his head. “Yeah, he wasn’t wearing no mustache when I saw him.”
“Is that all?”
“And . . . and . . .he was missing part of his left ear. Looked like he lost it in a fight or something. Pretty ugly.”
“Great,” Nick said, now certain that Rashid Baser was actually on American soil. He turned to see Matt sitting there feeling his empty holster, looking like a boy who’d left his fly open.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Matt said, looking at the four cement walls that contained them.
“No shit,” Nick said.
Ray looked lost.
Nick crouched down and pulled up on Ray’s chin until their eyes were inches apart. “What did you do, Ray? Did he pay you to set us up?”
“Look, Ray, I know you’re stupid, but you don’t have to overdo it.”
Seville’s face tightened with confusion.
“Ray. He tried to kill you. He knows you made him. You don’t think he’s going to finish the job? You think he forgot about you? What if he followed you here and saw two FBI agents waltz in behind you? Especially agents who specialize in counterterrorism. Faces he knows.”
Seville’s eyes widened with recognition, like someone who just remembered he’d left the stove on.
“You think you were tagged, Ray?”
Seville just stared. Until the explosion broke the silence.
The sound came from the outer hallway. It wasn’t the searing blast of a bomb destroying the building, but the muted pop of Semtex ripping apart the hinges of a steel door. Nick knew that the next thing he’d hear would be the thump of that big piece of steel slamming into the corridor. He also knew that Truth would be hustling furiously toward his demise. Which was exactly how it happened. Nick heard a couple of coughs from a silencer, then all three hundred pounds of Truth hit the floor heavy.
By now the red light in the poker room would be flashing, signaling a breach in the entrance. Everyone would scurry out the back exit for fear of being caught in a raid.
Nick searched for a way out, but saw nothing. He knew what it felt like to be trapped inside of a coffin. Nick glanced down at his cell phone. No reception. He looked at Matt and saw him examining his phone. He shook his head. Their service was being jammed.
Matt stood up and grasped his holster as if it could grow another gun. He stared at the solitary exit from the basement room. A rickety oak door that hung there more from habit than sound construction.
There was a tap on the door. It sounded exactly what the muzzle of a gun would sound like against brittle oak. A man’s voice came from the other side. It was soft, but firm, with a hint of an accent. “Raymond.”
The only noise was the hum of the fluorescent lights.
“Raymond, it’s not you I want. Just tell me if they’re armed and I’ll let you go untouched. It’s the only way you’ll leave here alive.”
“It’s him,” Ray murmured.
Nick put his fingers to his lips. Matt was on his knees quietly twisting off the leg of the coffee table.
“Raymond,” the voice said. “Don’t be a fool. These are not men worth dying for.”
Nick watched Seville carefully. The guy was actually thinking about it. He saw it in his eyes. Seville blurted, “They’re un-”
Matt reached him first. His uppercut smacked Ray hard under the chin. Seville’s head jerked back and his body instantly became a rag doll against the pillow of the sofa.
“Raymond?” came the voice on the other side of the door.
There was silence while Matt went back to work on the leg of the table. Nick saw him twisting the wooden dowel, but it was like watching from an out of body experience. A silent vacuum seemed to suck all of the oxygen from the room. Anxiety tightened its grip around Nick’s neck and forced him to remain still for fear of falling down. He was slipping away again.
A vision flashed across Nick’s mind. It was the image of a lipstick kiss his wife left for him on the mirror that morning. It hung there like the single digit sum to the chalkboard-crammed equation of his life. The kiss said everything that needed to be said. Suddenly, the floor seemed to be moving and he realized it was his legs wobbling beneath him.
“Nicholas,” the assassin said, breaking into Nick’s death dream. “I found two guns on the black man’s corpse. We both know who they belong to.”
Matt freed the wooden leg and motioned with his hand encouraging Nick to engage the killer in some dialog. The lipstick kiss evaporated.
“Nicholas,” Rashid said. “Is that your partner with you? Mathew?”
Rashid’s voice jarred him back to consciousness. The evil seeped through the door like toxic waste.
Nick’s heart felt as if it would burst through his chest. He forced himself to concentrate. He wasn’t about to accommodate his assassin with any concessions.
“Nicholas, you may as well speak. They will most certainly be your last words.”
Nick instantly went from resignation to anger. Fury built up inside of him like a bolt of adrenalin. He could practically see Rashid’s teeth showing through his shark-like grin.
“Rashid,” Nick said, “wipe that smile off your face.”
A small chuckle from behind the door. “Nicholas, I should have killed you in Istanbul.”
“You didn’t kill me in Istanbul because you couldn’t,” Nick said. “Just like now.”
A pop. The silenced bullet shot through the door and buzzed past Nick’s ear. Both agents hit the floor, their heads only a couple of feet apart. They scurried behind the sofa across from Ray.
“He’s being cautious,” Matt whispered. “We got lucky once. He won’t make that mistake again.”
“Or he’s relishing the moment,” Nick said. “Prolonging the pleasure.”
“Whatever he’s doing, we’ve got thirty seconds, maybe sixty if he’s in a sporting mood.”
Nick nodded. He pointed to the door. “How does he come in? Heavy, or slow?”
“He busts through, dives right and shoots around the room starting from his right.”
Another pop. This time the sound was louder. He was alternating guns. The bullet passed through the dilapidated sofa with little resistance. Rashid had them. Without return fire he would be on top of them in a matter of moments.
Matt gripped the table leg and got to a knee. He pointed at the door. “I’ll wait for him to barge through. He’ll see me first and fire, but I might get one swing in. It’s our only chance.”
Nick shook his head. “No. It’s suicide.”
“Of course it’s suicide. What, you think I was going to beat Rashid with a stick against his two guns.”
Nick thought a moment. Two guns. “You’re right. He’s got a gun in each hand.”
“Now you’re catching on. That’s why you’re the brains of the team.”
“How’s he going to turn the doorknob with a gun in each hand?”
Matt blinked. “What the fuck difference does that make? You see that thing, it’s barely hanging on its hinges.”
“Exactly,” Nick said, his voice growing stronger with each cogent thought. “He rams into that door with any momentum at all and it will give way.”
The both of them stared at the door.
“Nicholas,” Rashid’s voice sounded impatient.
“Okay,” Matt whispered. “What if I remove the hinges?”
“Yes,” Nick said. “He leans into it and it comes straight down. Rashid won’t expect it and for a moment, he’ll be exposed. Just a moment.”
Again a bullet spit through the flimsy door and this one plunged into Ray Seville’s chest. By the amount of blood hemorrhaging through his shirt, Nick could tell that the bullet had found his heart. The poor bastard never saw it coming.
Nick turned to Matt. “That’s precisely how much time you get. One moment. Don’t miss.”
Matt’s eyes had a glimmer of hope. As he crawled to the door with the table leg, he looked back and said, “Keep his attention toward you.”
Great, Nick thought. Just what he wanted to do. He shimmied to the left and cupped his hand over his mouth, aiming his voice to the left. “Rashid, where’s your friend, Kharrazi?”
As he’d hoped, the bullet missed to his left this time. It cracked through the frail sofa like it was made out of balsa wood. He rose up to see Matt working on the bolt in the top hinge of the door. He couldn’t tell what he was using. A pen? It appeared to be moving.
“Nicholas,” Rashid said. “Let’s be reasonable men. Open the door and I will make it quick. You and your partner will never feel a thing. You have my word.”
Matt had the first bolt in his hand now and was working on the middle one.
“That’s a fascinating offer,” Nick said. “Can I get that in writing?”
There was silence. Nick cursed his use of sarcasm. He took short, quick breaths and waited for the worst. Matt pried loose the middle hinge and Nick watched him apply pressure on the door to keep it upright.
An onslaught of bullets blitzed into the small room forcing Nick to cover his head and duck below the sofa. He squeezed his eyes shut as he got peppered with shards of splintered wood and fabric. The spray of debris was so dense, it actually heated up the room. He knew that the barrage was tantamount to the finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display. Rashid was simply clearing the way for his grand entrance. It would be all over very soon now.
There was a pause. In the silence, the room seemed to creak from duress. When Nick opened his eyes, it was dark. For a split second he thought he’d finally caught a fatal shot. Then he realized that one of the bullets had popped the fluorescents and left them in complete blackness. It was something Nick would have done himself had he been thinking clearly. Which he wasn’t.
He couldn’t see Matt, just the filtered light that outlined the doorframe and two tight circles created by the bullet holes. Nick had to make sure Rashid burst through the door with his shoulder. He couldn’t afford to have the terrorist become cautious and test the doorknob. He wanted to give his partner a signal and let him know Rashid was coming, but in the darkness it had to be verbal. He prayed that Matt was finished with the hinges.
Nick took a deep breath and shouted. “Hey, Rashid. How’s that ear of yours doing?”
It was the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a snorting bull; and it worked. An instant later the door toppled straight down with a thud and the assassin stood frozen in the doorway. He was leaning backward and off-balance. It was human nature to recoil from the unexpected. But Rashid Baser was more animal than human, so when Matt came out of the dark with the table leg, he was a step too late. Rashid caught the dowel with his forearm and deflected the blow.
Rashid and Matt were clutched in a fierce embrace. Matt had done the smart thing and wrapped himself around Rashid before the assassin could fire either gun.
Nick needed to get to Rashid, but his legs were lead weights. He lurched forward and focused on the only thing his eyes could see-Rashid’s silencer. It was loosely aimed at Nick, but Rashid was too busy dancing the violent shuffle with Matt. Both of them were up against the wall, head-butting each other back and forth.
Just as Nick was about to reach out for the gun, Rashid found him and aimed at his head. Nick was no more than three feet away, but he might as well have been on the moon. He wasn’t going to reach the gun in time.
Rashid’s lip curled upward and his face glowed with anticipation. His arm was fully extended now and marksman straight.
Nick sucked a quick breath.
Rashid pulled the trigger.
Nick’s legs faltered as his entire body seemed to spasm.
Rashid pulled the trigger again and again.
The lipstick kiss flashed across Nick’s mind as he waited to collapse. Only he couldn’t feel the shot. Was this how it happened? Was his body protecting him from the pain and sending him into shock?
When he looked up, he realized that Rashid’s silencer wasn’t spitting out bullets. There was just the small click of the hammer behind an empty chamber. Rashid had committed the killer’s mortal sin. He’d lost count of his rounds. Maybe he thought he didn’t need to know. He’d had two guns and plenty of time to reload. Maybe Nick had infuriated him enough to hasten his entry into the room.
Either way, Nick was still breathing. While he murmured words of gratitude, his partner kneed Rashid in the groin. The terrorist grunted like a prizefighter and hunched over. Matt used his height advantage to stay on top of him. They seemed to merge into one entity as they took short, quick steps to support their upright wrestling match. Neither could afford to be the one who fell first.
Nick saw Matt’s gun on the floor behind Rashid. The assassin must have dropped it in the struggle. Nick was about to scramble for it when he heard a wild shriek.
It was Matt.
Rashid had clenched Matt’s ear between his teeth. He twisted and pulled on the cartilage until Matt’s ear looked like tan silly putty. Rashid was about to pull it completely off when Nick reached down and picked up the wooden table leg. He had a clear shot at Rashid’s head and he swung hard. The thick wooden dowel reverberated back in Nick’s hands as he connected across the back of Rashid’s head.
Rashid dropped to the floor. Nick grabbed the gun and placed his foot on Rashid’s neck. He heard Matt behind him gasping and muttering curses.
Nick pointed the 9mm at Rashid’s nose, only a couple of feet below him. “Just give me a reason,” he said. “I misinterpret one of your blinks and it’s goodnight, Rashid.”
Matt came around Nick with a pair of handcuffs. He rolled Rashid on his side and yanked the handcuffs onto the assassin’s wrists until Rashid’s face couldn’t hide the pain.
“You fight like a fucking girl,” Matt huffed, bringing his blood-spotted hand down from his ear.
Rashid glared up at Nick with rattlesnake eyes. “You think this is it? You think this is the end?”
Nick didn’t speak. He felt an anxiety attack tightening his chest. Shit, not another episode. Not now. He didn’t dare give away his condition, though. He handed Matt his gun back and said, “Here, I’m afraid I’ll shoot the bastard.”
“You think he won’t come after you?” Rashid spat, saliva spewing from tight lips.
“I don’t know,” Nick said, trying to appear nonchalant even though his entire body trembled. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
In a deliberately soft tone, Rashid said, “There is no one bigger than Kemel Kharrazi. And that is who you just brought upon yourself. You are now the target, Nicholas. No one else, just you. Are you prepared for that?”
But Nick barely heard him. He stepped around the shell casings and headed outside to slip away on his own. Maybe weather the panic attack before the place was swarming with FBI agents. Nick already knew the questions that would be asked and he was already tired of answering them.
As he approached the open doorway, Nick saw Truth’s body flat on his back, eyes shocked open. There were three bullet holes in his chest directly over his heart. Nick was relieved to know he went fast. He knelt down and touched Truth’s face with his fingertips. There was nothing to say. He could not have felt any more helpless than he did at that moment.
Sirens closed fast from two separate directions. The press would have a great time portraying America as a safer place because of Rashid’s capture. But Nick knew better. There was something much more malicious going on. Rashid Baser didn’t go through all the trouble to sneak into the United States to exact revenge on a single FBI agent. It wouldn’t stop the press though. At least in the short term. They’ll raise the freedom flag high and swagger with delight. In the world of terrorism there was no one bigger than Rashid Baser. No one.
Except Kemel Kharrazi.
Nick left Dr. Alan Morgan’s office on Pratt Street just after noon. It was three days since the shootout and regulation mandated a session with a professional counselor whenever bullets left a chamber. The affected had seventy-two hours to complete the session. Matt went first, then waited in the car for his partner. Nick’s session took longer than Matt’s. There was too much psychological damage to go over in just one visit, so Nick agreed to return when the time was right. Which meant never.
Nick got in the car and started the engine. He drove a gray Ford sedan with soot clinging so masterfully to its exterior it appeared to create a designer pattern. This was not born out of neglect as much as an attempt to blend in.
He drove west on Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Baltimore field office. Matt sat in the passenger seat with an open lunch box on his lap. He held up an apple and inspected it like he was about to dust it for prints.
“What kind of apple is this?” Matt asked.
“How am I supposed to know?” Nick said.
“You do talk to your wife at night don’t you?”
“Well, don’t you tell her what I like and don’t like?”
“Listen, do you know why she makes you lunch whenever I have any kind of doctors appointment?”
“Because, she thinks you’ll sit in that waiting area eating lunch, while I’m getting my teeth cleaned and you’ll protect me from terrorists that might barge in and try to kill me.”
“Are you serious?” Matt chuckled.
Nick nodded. “However, what she doesn’t know is that you sit in the car and read Playboy, so if a terrorist ever did come in you’d have a hard-on so big you’d probably sit there with a smirk on your face and point directly to the office I was in.”
Matt took a bite from the apple and chewed slowly. “Playboy has excellent interviews.”
Nick rolled his eyes. He stopped the car at a light and hung his elbow out the window.
“What’s this meeting about?” Nick asked.
“All I know is, it’s a Red Ball special, and nothing good ever comes out of a Red Ball.”
A young black kid wearing a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap approached the car holding a stack of newspapers. “Wanna paper, Mister?”
Nick reached for his wallet, pulled out a five-dollar bill and handed it to the kid. “Are you an Orioles fan?”
The kid handed him a copy of the Baltimore Sun, “You bet.” He dug his hands into his pocket for change.
“That’s okay, keep it,” Nick said.
“Thanks, Officer,” the kid smiled, then wandered toward the next car in line.
Matt laughed. “We may as well have a siren on the roof.”
Nick glanced at the front page. A soldier poked his head out from a U.S. tank surrounded by a mob of angry Turkish civilians. Their faces were twisted into sinister shapes. Their mouths open, assaulting the soldier with venomous emissions, while a U.S. flag burned in the background. Nick dropped the newspaper onto Matt’s lap and accelerated through the intersection. “Looks like the boys are getting a warm welcome in Turkey.”
Matt gripped the paper and shook his head. “They don’t belong there in the first place.”
“You know that and I know that, but try telling that to the President’s pollsters.”
“The Kurds have every right to fight back. Just because Turkey is part of NATO, doesn’t mean we should always side with them.”
“It’s all politics,” Nick said. “The Turks slaughter thousands of innocent Kurds and when the Kurds retaliate, we show up and claim that innocent Turks are being killed. Shit, everyone’s innocent.” He turned to Matt, “Except you.”
Matt gave him an aw-shucks grin. It reminded Nick of the night they’d met nine years earlier when Matt was still a sharpshooter with the FBI’s SWAT team. Matt chose to purchase a 10-millimeter semiautomatic pistol with his own funds and had an opportunity to use it that night while leaving a bar in West Baltimore. He saw a man in a blue FBI windbreaker crouched behind a Volkswagen dodging shots from another man crouched three cars ahead of him. The man in the FBI windbreaker was Nick. It was his first year with the Bureau and he found himself chasing down a wily gun smuggler by himself.
Across the street Matt had acquired a perfect angle. From thirty yards away he blew out the right kneecap of the assailant, sending him to the ground immobile and wailing with pain. Nick swiftly took advantage of his good fortune and cuffed his prisoner. When Matt approached, Nick asked him for identification. “They never asked Superman for any ID when he saved the day,” Matt quipped, holding up his credentials. It was Nick’s introduction to the aw-shucks grin.
A few months later Nick’s partner retired and he needed a replacement. Matt was the first phone call he made.
Now, Nick glanced over at Matt who was slowly working his way through the newspaper. “Anything about Rashid, yet?”
“That’s what I’m looking for.”
“If it was there it would be on the front page.”
“You would think,” Matt said. He folded the paper and reached back to drop it on the back seat. “How does Walt keep that stuff locked up so well?”
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen at controlling the flow of information.”
Matt pulled a baggie of assorted cheese cubes from the lunch pail and held up a cube to Nick.
Matt popped a cube in his mouth and began a slow chew. “So, what did Dr. Morgan have to say?”
“He said I don’t see the birds and the trees.”
“He says I don’t spend enough time noticing the world of nature around me.” Nick shrugged. “Go figure.”
“Did you tell him that staring at sparrows while doing our line of work could get you killed?”
“He wouldn’t understand.”
Matt ate another cheese cube. “Did you go into your dysfunctional family?”
Nick glanced at his partner. “What dysfunctional family?”
“Oh, come on. Your cousin is connected to the Capelli’s and your brother is a compulsive gambler out in Vegas.”
Nick frowned. “Phil’s not a compulsive gambler. He’s just on a prolonged losing streak.”
“Yeah, a twelve year losing streak.”
Nick smiled. “That’s about right. He’ll spin out of it eventually.”
Matt examined the contents of a power bar he took from the lunch box. He appeared dissatisfied and returned it to the box. “Too many carbs,” he said.
“I’ll mention it to Julie.”
“So if you didn’t talk about your family, what else did you discuss?”
“Well, he says I should avoid stress.”
“Uh, huh. Did he tell you anything of practical value?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes even common sense needs to come from a different voice before you recognize it. Besides, I was thinking about taking some time off anyway. Julie deserves a vacation. We haven’t been anywhere that wasn’t job related in . . . shit, probably five years.”
“How long have I been telling you the same thing? You’re burning out. Take some time and recharge your batteries. What else did the good doctor have to say? Maybe I can offer some insight.”
Nick sighed. “I’m going to get advice from you?”
“Hey, we’re coming up on our ten year anniversary together. Why wouldn’t you listen to me?”
“Pardon me, sir, aren’t you the guy who parked his car in the fast lane of the interstate at three in the morning to have sex with a stripper?
“A stripper you’d met that night at a bachelor party?”
“Okay, so I’m a little impulsive. That doesn’t mean I’m not trustworthy.”
“It was your bachelor party.”
“All right, so I realized I was too young to be married and I subconsciously sabotaged my engagement. I was just a kid. That was before I even met you. Besides, I only told you that story so you could see how far I’ve come.”
Nick laughed. But when he looked back at Matt he knew he’d exposed an old wound. Matt’s fiancée was a fellow FBI agent he’d met at Quantico. They were both young, but beneath the smug veneer, Matt always lamented the loss of Jennifer Steele.
“How long did you guys date?”
“Three and a half years. She hated the city. Any city. She was a country girl at heart.”
“Where did she end up?” Nick asked.
“Somewhere out west. New Mexico, something like that.”
“All that time you were together she never mentioned the fact that she wanted to live in the country?”
“I see,” Nick said. “You didn’t think she’d be able to resist your charm. You thought she’d be a city girl for the great Matt McColm.”
When Matt didn’t respond, Nick decided to let it go. They drove with the windows open, just the noise of the busy streets passing between them. After a while Matt took a bite of his apple and pointed to a cruddy white spot on Nick’s windshield. “You may not see the birds, partner, but they sure see you.”
Just outside the Beltway, amidst the undistinguished block structures of an industrial
park, a lone brick building sat quietly behind an American flag and the shade of a royal oak. The Baltimore field office afforded the FBI quick access to the highway, yet was unobtrusive enough to be mistaken for a post office. Nick parked in the lot behind the building. It wasn’t a coincidence that the building itself prevented a clear view of the agents’ cars. Very few things the FBI did were by chance.
Matt gripped the doorknob to the employee entrance and waited for Nick to swipe a security pass through the receptor. A small black box blinked green and Matt yanked open the steel door to the administrative wing. They entered the building and nodded to secretaries who were busy talking into headsets and tapping keyboards. They made their way down a corridor with illuminated portraits of past FBI directors surrounded by ridged wallpaper with somber geometric patterns. The corridor emptied into the center of the building; an open space whose perimeter was comprised of mismatched fabric chairs. The bullpen. A waiting area for visitors who were summoned to the office by one or more of the agents. In the center of the bullpen sat a wooden table with magazines sprawled across the top.
When Nick and Matt saw who sat in the worn-out chairs, they both stopped. Ed Tolliver, Carl Rutherford, Mel Downing and Dave Tanner sat at the far end of the bullpen in deep conversation. They were known simply as “The Team.” The four of them with Nick and Matt made up an elite counterterrorism squad of agents who specialized in significant foreign threats to the United States. The three two-man teams circled the globe in pursuit of foiling terrorist activity with American targets. The best of the best.
J. Edgar himself began the specialist trend in 1934 when he authorized a special squad of agents to capture John Dillinger. It was this philosophy that produced the group of specialists now gathered in the bullpen of the Baltimore field office. It also meant that each team was rarely on the same continent, never mind the same building. You didn’t have to be a seasoned veteran to know that something was amiss.
As Nick and Matt approached, Dave Tanner stood and extended his arm. He tapped fists with Nick, then Matt. A tacit congratulation for capturing someone on the top-ten list. Then he got a close look at Matt’s left ear.
“What happened, Deadeye?” Tanner smiled. “You finally hook a woman with too much spunk for you?”
Matt gingerly touched his taped earlobe. “Gee, Dave, that’s uncanny. I’m beginning to think you’re some kind of investigator or something.”
Tanner didn’t seem to hear him. He reexamined Matt’s ear. “Rashid didn’t go down without a fight, did he?”
“Would you expect him to?” Matt said, not answering the question directly, but close enough for two spies who understood the language.
“Probably not,” Tanner said. “Let’s just hope it sticks.”
Nick picked up on Tanner’s tone. Next to Nick, Tanner was the Team’s senior agent and he always had his ear to the ground whenever a big prisoner was being interrogated.
“What do we know, Dave?” Nick asked.
Nick looked at the elite group. Before he could ask the question, Matt beat him to the punch.
“What are we all doing here, Dave? I mean the last time we were all in the same room together . . .” he raised his eyebrows.
Tanner seemed to recognize the reference to a false intelligence report of a dirty bomb in Manhattan three years back. “I don’t know,” he said. “But Walt doesn’t call us all in without good cause.”
“The safe money is on Rashid” Matt said. “What else could it be? I’m sure he hasn’t flipped, but I’ll bet we got something. Something that nets us Kharrazi, maybe?”
Tanner nodded vacantly, but if he knew something he wasn’t giving it away.
There was an edginess to the banter now in the bullpen as the bureau’s finest minds spun their wheels in anticipation. A red ball meeting was urgent, so the hurry up and wait routine added to the anxiety.
Nick nodded toward the closed door at the end of the hallway. “Who’s he with?”
“No one” Tanner said. “He’s on the phone. We’re waiting for him to call us in.”
From his chair, Ed Tolliver called out, “Hey, Matt, I hear that was the first time you were caught without your Glock since you were in the crib.”
This provoked a round of laughter that caused a few secretaries to look up and smile.
Matt gave a tight-lipped scowl and saluted Tolliver with his middle finger.
Another boisterous roar lit up the room.
“Knock it off,” a voice boomed from the end of the hallway. A broad-shouldered man with dark chocolate skin leaned out of his office with the door half-open.
“Bracco,” Walt Jackson said. “Get in here.”
Nick felt his stomach tighten as Jackson shut the door behind him. The big man disappeared and left an overt silence in his wake. Nick looked back at the team and saw something approaching compassion in their eyes. Matt seemed confused. He’d never been apart from his partner in a meeting before. Nick looked at Tanner and got an open-palmed shrug.
Finally, after a long moment, Matt said, “Better get in there and find out what’s going on.”
Nick moved toward Jackson’s office like he was walking to the gas chamber. It had to be Rashid, he thought. Maybe some attorney found a loophole in their arrest. Shit, they were being shot at like fish in a barrel. How do you squirm out of that? Never mind the other eighteen charges that were awaiting his apprehension.
Nick opened Jackson’s door and saw the immaculate desk he’d come to expect. What he didn’t expect was a chair in front of his desk. A lone chair that he’d never seen before. Not even for meetings about nuclear threats or assassination attempts. Jackson always preferred people use the sofa against the wall.
Jackson gestured toward the chair. “Sit.”
Walter Jackson was the Special Agent in Charge of the Baltimore field office. As SAC’s go, Jackson was regarded as a prince. He was a laconic man who asked only for competence and loyalty. In return he provided unending support and sanctuary from the brass at FBI headquarters just down the road in D.C. Baltimore was far enough away to stand on its own, yet close enough to draw comparisons. It was the main reason the Team was harbored there. Besides being Baltimore’s SAC, Jackson was also the Team leader and Nick was his point man.
Jackson sat behind his desk and leaned back to open a miniature refrigerator behind him. He pulled out a bottled water and tossed it to Nick.
Nick studied Jackson’s solemn expression as he took his seat and twisted open the water. “What’s going on, Walt?”
Jackson clicked his laser mouse and examined the flat screen computer monitor to his left. He tapped a couple of keys on his keypad and swiveled the screen around so Nick could see its content. At first the image was fuzzy, but Nick was familiar with the program. As the solid completion bar at the bottom of the screen moved to the right, the clarity sharpened. By the time it reached seventy per cent Nick could tell that the image came from a surveillance camera. Two men sat side-by- side at a green-felt table. At eighty per cent he knew it was a black jack table. When it was complete, Nick felt the room get warm. The man on the left side of the screen was his brother. The man on the right he couldn’t identify.
“Phil,” Nick muttered.
Jackson nodded. “Yes.”
Nick pointed to the man next to him. “Who . . .”
“Don’t recognize him yet?”
Nick shook his head.
Nick studied the man’s face. He wore a beard, sunglasses and a wide brim hat you might see on tourist, yet there was something familiar about his mannerisms. The way he carried himself, full of confidence and bravado.
Jackson punched a couple of keys on his keyboard and the figures came to life.
“This is seven hours ago,” Jackson said. “About two-thirty in the morning, Vegas time. It’s a surveillance recording from the Rio. I understand Phil frequents the place quite a bit.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed as he struggled to make the man next to his brother. There was no audio, but it was obvious the two men were having fun. Phil’s normally bloodshot eyes were in full bloom. The man elbowed his brother as if they were old buddies while Phil tossed back the last of his rum and coke with a flip of his wrist. The drink was so fresh it still had a full complement of ice cubes. It was his brother all right, Nick thought. He’d never seen Phil allow a drink to linger.
Now, Phil raised his hand to a cocktail waitress. The tourist pulled Phil’s arm down and raised his own hand, waving a wad of folded bills. Phil made a half-hearted attempt to decline the offer, but the tourist seemed determined to buy Phil a drink. By the way Phil swayed, it wasn’t the first drink he’d accepted.
Nick breathed a sigh of relief. Phil must have gotten swindled by a pro and Walt was offering to keep it confidential. Let the FBI handle it in house. It was something Walt would do. It made sense now why Nick was called in alone.
Except he was wrong. Dead wrong.
“There,” Jackson said, stopping the playback. In the frozen image the tourist had lowered his sunglasses and seemed to be looking directly at the camera. His expression transformed into a sinister glare. His eyes were like black holes and his smile was pure acid.
Nick’s tongue instantly dried up.
“Recognize him now?” Jackson said.
Water spewed from Nick’s plastic bottle as he clenched his fists. Sitting next to his brother was the face of death. Kemel Kharrazi. Nick stared so intently at the image that he tried to will himself into the scene, or better yet, suck Kharrazi out of the image and pummel him from head to toe.
“Nick, what exactly did Rashid say to you during the arrest?”
Nick noticed that Phil was wearing his lucky shirt. The Preakness Stakes shirt that he wore the day he hit the pick-six for fifty thousand. Nick never had the heart to remind him that he wore the same damn shirt every day for the next three months until he relinquished every last penny back to Pimlico.
Nick looked at up at Jackson and said, “He’s got four kids.”
Jackson nodded. “I know.”
The silence was filled with a heavy sigh from Jackson and the crumpling and uncrumpling of Nick’s water bottle.
“Rashid asked me if I knew who would come after me?” Nick finally answered.
Nick stared at the image. It was the most incongruous pairing he’d ever seen. Like Hitler next to a ballerina.
Nick tried to remove emotion from the equation and mine the analytical side of his brain. He sensed Jackson watching him and he was careful not to overreact. He didn’t want to give Jackson an excuse to keep him off the case. “Tell me about it, Walt. What does he want?”
“He wants to trade your brother for Rashid.”
Nick kept his voice even. “We’re going to trade an alcoholic gambler for a known assassin? That’s the deal?”
Jackson nodded deliberately, as if he were measuring Nick’s reaction before continuing the discussion.
“All right,” Nick said. “Exactly how many nanoseconds did you wait before you said no?”
Jackson frowned. “He’s still your brother, Nick.”
“He’s dead already and you know it.”
Jackson squeezed the back of his neck like he was juicing a grapefruit. “Lets not get ahead of ourselves. We just received the fax an hour ago. I’m still trying to assemble a strategy.”
Nick placed the deformed, half-empty water bottle on the corner of Jackson’s desk, leaned forward, and stared hard at his boss. “Now tell me what’s really going on here, Walt.”
Jackson stood and began a slow pace. He carried his large frame smoothly, like a cougar on the prowl. Back and forth he strode. Nick’s eyes followed him like match point at Wimbledon.
Jackson flipped off the overhead lights and pulled a remote control device from his pants pocket. When he clicked a button on the remote, an illuminated image was projected onto the white wall behind his desk. The faces of more than twenty Kurdish terrorists came to life. Some were grainy surveillance shots, while others were clear mug shots. Although their names were unknown to the American public, they were as familiar to Nick as Babe Ruth was to a Yankees fan. They belonged to a militant faction of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as the Kurdish Security Force. The name was a direct response to the Turkish Security Force, which had been tormenting the Kurds for more than two decades. They were better known as Kharrazi’s death squad. When President Merrick ordered troops to the area, his intention was to prevent Kharrazi and the KSF from dividing Turkey along ethnic lines.
Jackson passed a laser pointer over the medley of terrorists. “Langley has reported these soldiers missing from Kurdistan. More importantly, three of them have been sighted illegally entering the country. One was detained in a Miami airport; one spotted departing a cruise ship in San Diego. Plus, we already know about Rashid and Kharrazi. I suspect the cockroach theory might be applicable here. For every one we know about there are probably twenty more that have evaded our intelligence.”
Jackson clicked off the projector and turned on the lights. He sat down and kept a careful eye on Nick.
“I’m okay,” Nick said, clenching every muscle that was undetectable. “I need to know everything. Don’t skip a comma.”
Jackson hesitated, then lowered tired eyes. “The CIA had an agent infiltrate the KSF in Kurdistan a couple of months back. Ten days ago he arrived in Toronto with two groups of soldiers, including Kharrazi. He was with the lead group as they were about to enter the United States on horseback. Somewhere in the Canadian Rockies. The agent was with them up until 2 AM Tuesday morning. At that time they were five miles from the border. That’s when Langley lost communications. Kharrazi discovered the plant.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because Thursday morning the agent’s family received a package. The agent’s six-year-old daughter anxiously opened the box she thought was a present from her daddy in Turkey.”
Nick held up his hand to prevent Jackson from finishing the story. He already knew the ending.
Jackson nodded. “That’s right. The agent’s severed head stared back at his little girl.”
Nick covered his face with his hands and took deep breaths. He imagined the look on his niece’s face as his brother’s head was delivered to their home.
“I’ve been going to too many funerals, Walt.”
“Let’s not bury Phil just yet. There’s still reason for hope.”
Nick looked up to catch Jackson’s expression. It was sincere, without pity.
“Because,” Jackson said, “we’ve got explicit directions. There are timetables to be met and corroborating evidence of his health included in the demands. Kharrazi wouldn’t throw those in if he were going to bluff us into believing Phil’s alive.”
“Okay,” Nick said. “Now tell me why we’re just hearing about this plant. Kemel Kharrazi is in Canada with a couple of dozen KSF soldiers-the best trained infantry in the world, and Langley waits until they’ve breached our border before we’re notified?”
Jackson leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. “That’s the big question isn’t it? Apparently, Langley felt they deserved an opportunity to bag Kharrazi as he crossed over the border. It’s a gigantic political mess that I’m not willing to navigate right now. Suffice it to say, they gambled and lost. They knew where he was with five miles to go, but Kharrazi is shrewd. He must have taken a more circuitous route. They simply waited too long. Morris admitted as much to me just before you came in. That’s who I was on the phone with.”
“You’re kidding. That asshole actually admitted he was wrong about something?”
Jackson grinned. “You know, I thought the same thing myself.” Then the smile faded and his eyes locked on Nick. “What do you want to do about Phil?”
Nick took a breath and let it out slowly. “Where are they?”
“We don’t know for sure. Surveillance shows them leaving by way of a limousine. Phil seemed to be going under his own will. I’m sure Kharrazi knew just what to offer him. We’ve leaned on every limo company in the city and came up empty.”
“Kharrazi is worth what? Ten billion? He’s got plenty of hush money to spread around.”
Jackson nodded. “Still, we have every runway, train station and interstate covered. The analysts say they’re still in Vegas somewhere.”
“What’s our timetable?”
“Nine AM Eastern time. Rashid needs to be completely free. No tails. No bugs.”
Nick didn’t need to ask what happened if Rashid wasn’t out. He lowered his head and massaged his temple with his fingertips. It seemed like he’d been chasing terrorists forever. Now it felt different. It wasn’t a job anymore; it was personal.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Jackson said. “What do you want to do about Phil?”
Nick looked up. “What about regulations?”
Jackson grimaced. “I’m going to sit here and tell you the details of Phil’s capture, then preclude you from getting involved because of regulations?” He leaned back and folded his arms across his large chest. “I can take the heat. It’s what I do. But I need to know if you’re prepared to deal with what you might find.”
Nick understood. Identifying Phil’s body would not be easy. He nodded. “I have to try and get him back, Walt.”
Jackson reached into a desk drawer and came out with a pair of airline tickets. He slid them across the desk. “The flight leaves at seven. Take Matt with you. I have every available agent in Nevada waiting for you. Meanwhile the rest of the Team will stay here and browbeat every informant we have. Something’s happening out there. Something bigger than Phil and Rashid.”
Nick reached for the tickets and stood to leave.
“Keep in mind,” Jackson said. “There’s a possibility that this is a-”
“Trap?” Nick said. “Yes, I know. Kharrazi’s too sharp to think we’ll release Rashid. He wants me. That’s what the glare into the camera was all about. Phil is just bait. Kharrazi intends to honor Rashid’s threat.”
A modest grin tightened the corner of Jackson’s mouth. He had the satisfied look of a teacher appraising his star pupil.
Nick put the tickets in his jacket pocket and turned toward the door.
“One other thing,” Jackson said behind him.
Jackson’s grin mutated into something wicked. “Tell Matt, if he gets a clear shot at Kharrazi . . . make it a head shot.”
Nick could already see the smile on Matt’s face, and he hadn’t even left the room.
… continued …
* * *
A Touch of Deceit
by Gary Ponzo
4.8 out of 5 stars – 24 Reviews
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