A Wire Act
The interrogation room surprised me. For one, it was well lit. I’d expected some dark basement chamber with a single light bulb and shadowy figures taking turns to punch me in the jaw. Instead it looked more like Farnsworth’s office if all his furniture had been replaced with a single bare table and a handful of chairs. Hell, there was even a window with a view across E Street.
My hands were cuffed, and the agent on guard kindly suggested I keep them on the table. When they’d processed me, the FBI took my hat and coat, along with my wallet, that money order from Burke, Hugo’s tape, the Whisper’s gun, and for some damn reason my wristwatch. The chill in the room kept me from sweating, but it made it hard not to shiver.
I couldn’t help wonder what they would charge me with first. I hadn’t exactly done anything wrong and I didn’t plan to lie when they questioned me, but I wasn’t sure how much truth it was safe to spill. Not enough: they’d hold me forever. Too much: it might get me killed. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth would get me shipped off to a state psychiatric ward in a tight white jacket.
Special Agent Powell opened the door and relieved the agent on duty, but two other men followed him inside and took positions along the far wall. He didn’t introduce them. Agent Powell sat down.
“I’d like to help you, Mr. Jones. You’re in kind of a tough situation.”
“Did you listen to the tape?” I said.
“I did. It clarifies your relationship with the deceased. But I have to ask why you didn’t take this matter to the police.”
I would have thought that a black man in America, even one in Powell’s position, should understand why someone wouldn’t trust the cops. Did I really have to spell it out?
“We… I received this tape moments after the NSA raided my workplace, in particular my desk. They were asking about Harvey before I even knew what was going on. This after I’d just been shot at while trying to meet with him, and somehow these NSA goons already knew that Hugo was dead. Are you getting the picture?”
“I’m getting a picture. Are you accusing the NSA of murder?” He sounded amused. That was too strong a connection to draw, and it wouldn’t help my case if I lead with wild speculations and conspiracies.
“No. It just seemed suspicious. I decided to investigate on my own for a few days. We still have time to protect Aranjuez.”
“Your concern is noted,” said Powell. “Let’s talk about Hugo Harvey.”
“Where did you find him?”
“Mr. Jones,” said Powell, irritation creeping in. “This might be hard for a reporter to accept, but in this interview I’ll be asking the questions.”
“For the record, please describe your relationship with Mr. Harvey.”
I did. This was safe ground, if sordid and paved with tabloid headlines. I described Harvey’s work as a lawyer for Hollywood starlets and his knack for passing along dirt to scandal mongers like myself. I described my phone calls with Harvey on Friday and our arrangement for a rendezvous in the suburbs.
“Did you meet with Mr. Harvey as planned?”
Here it goes. “No.”
“I was walking toward the bar where we were supposed to meet and someone started shooting at me.”
“Really?” said Powell.
“Yeah. Take a look at my car if you don’t believe me. If you can find out where the NSA has it impounded.”
“So you’re shot at, you lead these assailants on a chase, and then you end up back at your office building where the NSA is waiting for you. Is that correct?”
“That’s the short version.”
“So tell me this, Mr. Jones. When you arrived at your office and spoke with the NSA, how did you know that Mr. Harvey was dead?”
Uh. Oops. I took too long to answer. It was obvious that I was taking too long to answer. Even the goddamn chair could probably tell I was taking too long to answer. Finally I mumbled my way off the deep end.
“I was told.”
Powell waited long enough to make me squirm.
“By whom?” he asked.
“By the person who warned me I was about to get shot.”
Powell leaned forward, again waiting before asking the question.
“And this person is… who?”
“I don’t know, okay. This person comes out of nowhere, saves my ass from getting plugged, jumps in the car with me, and shoots up the bad guys while I drive back to D.C.”
“And you don’t feel you should have mentioned this earlier.”
No, not really. “Look, I don’t know this person. They just helped me out a couple times.”
“A couple times? You’d seen them before?”
“No, after. When my apartment got shot up.”
“So you’ve got a guardian angel now.”
“See? This is why I didn’t mention it. Because you’d think I’m lying.”
“I didn’t say you were lying.” He pulled a scratch pad out of his pocket and a pen. “If you don’t have a name, what does this person look like?”
Once again, I took too long to answer. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? C’mon, help me out. Short, tall, light, dark, young, old, blond, brunette. What?”
I shrugged. “About my height, maybe? Wears a white suit, black gloves. Kind of a bandolier thing across his chest. Nice hat.”
“Okay. And his face?”
Just go ahead and call the looney wagon. “He wore a mask.”
Powell looked dead in my eye. “A mask.”
The pause stretched out. At last Powell spoke.
One of the other men in the room snickered. What the hell. I was committed.
“No, it was over the whole face. Big goggles over the eyes, and he had some kind of breather thing over his mouth.”
“Like a gasmask, then.”
“No. Well, yes. But no.”
Powell pushed away his notepad. “Jones, are you fucking with me or what?”
“I’m serious. I wouldn’t make this shit up. If I was making it up, I’d make up something better. People have tried to kill me twice in three days. That’s a fact. Look at my car. Look at my apartment. Each time, this guy in a mask jumps out and rescues me. And I don’t have the first idea why, except that it’s got something to do with Hugo and this Aranjuez thing.”
“Do your coworkers know about the man in the mask?”
“Why didn’t you tell them?”
“Why do you think?”
I could hear the nervous scrape in my voice. I needed to calm down. I needed some water. I needed a smoke. Powell let me settle for a moment before pressing on.
“Let’s talk about some of the stuff you had on your person when you came in. How about this money order?”
“A payoff from Bordani’s men.”
“He’s one of the men on the tape.”
“What is he paying you to do?”
“You didn’t leave town.”
“I didn’t cash the check.”
“What about the gun?”
“The Whisper gave it to me.”
“The Whisper?” His face broke into a grin and I sank further down in my chair.
“That’s what the mystery man told me to call him.”
“What kind of gun is that, exactly?”
“He called it a Glock. I don’t know where it came from.”
“Neither do I, and I know my guns. Makes me almost want to believe half of what you’re telling me. No way someone as broke as you should be carrying hardware like that.”
“Look, do you seriously believe I had something to do with Harvey’s death?”
“With killing him? No. But are you involved somehow? You’ve already admitted that. Withholding information? I’ll have your ass in jail in five minutes, you give me half an excuse.”
“Is that what you want?”
“What I want is to find out who’s going around murdering people and burning down apartment buildings. And yes, if I can prevent the assassination of a foreign dignitary on American soil, I’ll take that too. What about you, Mr. Jones? You’re running around like a half-assed Sam Spade. What’s in it for you? What do you want?”
“Me? Simple.” I sat up, inched forward, and laid my hands on the table. “I want the story.”
Powell sized me up one last time. “You willing to play ball?”
I smiled. “As long as I get my byline.”
“It’ll be dangerous,” he said. “You know where we found your friend Harvey?”
“No, that’s why I asked.”
“He was in the trunk of a car that ran off the road on U.S. 29 in Arlington. Everyone in the car had been shot to death. This is real, Jones.”
“I know. I’m already in it up to the neck.”
He nodded. “I’ll be right back. You take it easy for a minute.”
He stood and motioned for the other two men to follow. No one bothered to uncuff me. When they closed the door, leaving me alone for the first time, I got ready for a long wait.
“About damn time,” said the Whisper. “I didn’t think they were ever going to leave.”
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“Jesus Harold Christ,” I said. “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough.” His voice floated across the room, but he didn’t show himself. “I had to grab your gun first. It’s a really bad idea to leave off-era tech lying around. Are you ready to go?”
“God, you’re dense. I’m springin’ you, baby. This is a jail break.” With that, a black glove materialized for just long enough to grab the chain between my cuffs, pull them through my wrists, and drop them on the table.
I rubbed my wrists. I could just slip away; with the Whisper’s help it would be easy. If we could pass between the floors of my apartment, we could waltz out the front door of the FBI and no one would know the difference until they came looking for me.
And that’s when things would fall apart.
“Thanks, but no. I think I’ll stick around.”
“You’ll what? Are you crazy?”
No, for once I was thinking straight. “I haven’t done anything seriously wrong. If I cooperate, the FBI can save Aranjuez and I can write my story in peace. If I run away in the middle of an interrogation, I’ll be number one on the Most Wanted list. I don’t see any advantage in that.”
“How about staying alive?” An empty chair shifted back from the table and creaked with invisible weight. “Bordani has to know you’re spilling your guts. JANUS definitely knows. They’ve already shown they’re willing to stick their necks out to stop you, and there’s no protection the FBI can offer that JANUS can’t break.”
“You make it out like they’re invincible.”
“From your point of view, they may as well be.”
“I don’t buy it,” I said. “They’re rich, they’re powerful, they’ve got all kind of fancy science, but they’re just a conspiracy. A conspiracy needs to be secret or it loses its power, and that secrecy is what I can take away. But this is the way to do it – working with the Feds, putting a story in the Street, even letting Young take top billing because of her credibility. That’s why they’re scared of me.”
“You’re so fucking full of yourself.” The Whisper drummed invisible fingers on the table. “Look, you’ve scared them a little. You’ve squirreled up one of their schemes, and that doesn’t happen often. But they’ve already taken steps to erase you and you can’t even see it.”
There was silence for a moment.
“I can’t say.”
“God damn it!”
“I’m serious, Allan. There are secrets I can’t tell you. If I did, it would shatter everything you believe about the world.”
“Now who’s full of themselves?” I thought hard for a moment, then said, “Get out.”
“Get out. Thanks for saving my life, but if you’re not going to expose your JANUS friends then this is where we split.”
“You’re making a mistake.”
“Maybe so, but if I was interested in going on the run, I’d already have taken Bordani’s money. Now get out. You’ll spook the Feds.”
The room was quiet for long moment.
“Take care of yourself, Allan. I hope you’re right and I’m not.”
I almost responded, but Agent Powell came back in.
“Okay, Jones, we’ve worked out how we want to handle this. If you’re being straight with us, we’ve got a little mission for you tomorrow at the… Who the hell let you out of your cuffs?”
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The Feds put me up for the night in a safe house, prepped me for the day’s assignment, gave me a halfway nice suit, and delivered me to the sidewalk in front of the Street on Tuesday morning like my mom dropping me off at school.
Tim Leslie had also dressed up, though not to the nines. The camera hanging around his neck and the satchel full of film would have ruined his look anyway. Our new boss Marlston had arranged a driver to take us to Friendship International. “Arranged a driver” is rich person talk for “called a cab.” Tim let me get in first before folding his long legs beside me.
“You know,” he said, “instead of staying at whatever flop house you’re at now, I’m sure Uncle Pepe could find you a spare room.”
I shook my head and put a finger to my lips. Now was not a good time for Leslie to blab about his questionable connections. I pointed to my watch, then stretched my arm so he could see the wire going up my sleeve. Tim made an ‘O’ with his mouth, then shut it.
“So,” he said at last, “how about them Redskins?”
The wire went up my arm, across my shoulders, and down to a small case in my coat. The case held a miniature tape recorder which I could start with the press of a button and a short-range radio transmitter that would broadcast as long as it had power.
The Feds turned the radio on before dropping me off. I was to turn the recorder on the moment there was anything of note. If necessary, I could alert the FBI by speaking to the watch. Powell assured me there would be agents at the airport, though I wouldn’t see them. Should someone make a move on Aranjuez, however, they would be on the scene in seconds. Until then, I was to serve as their undercover lightning rod.
The cabbie jabbered with Leslie about the Redskins all the way to Baltimore. I watched trees, billboards, and tidy new subdivisions fly by. The ride took about an hour. At the airport we bypassed the public terminal and took a dirt road around the airfield to a private hangar.
When we arrived, Canton and Lane were already there, dressed as if for a luncheon at a country club. The Post had sent a couple of reporters, as had the Baltimore press, but they all looked like they’d pulled the short straw for this assignment. Among the attendees I counted eight well-dressed security men, their profession evidenced by the size of their necks and the bulges of guns holstered under their shoulders. I wondered whose payroll they were on – the airport’s, the State Department’s, or Marlston’s.
I turned on the recorder as I got out of the cab.
“Jones,” said Marlston. “I hope you slept well?”
“Like a kitten.” Did he know I’d been a guest of the FBI? I couldn’t imagine that my absence yesterday had gone unnoticed.
“We’re expecting two congressmen from the Foreign Relations Subcommittee in a few minutes. Abberline and Crawthorn. I think you know Mr. Crawthorn, is that right?”
Now how in the Sam Hill would he have heard about that? “By reputation only.”
“Well, let’s not get distracted, shall we? Aranjuez is the focus here, not anyone else.”
Yes, Mom. Marlston was talking like he, and not Farnsworth, was editor now, and it pissed me the hell off.
“There’s no story on Crawthorn I’m interested in writing.”
Marlston nodded his approval, then moved on to flog someone else with his arrogance. Lane grimaced at him behind his back, then whispered in my ear.
“Don’t let him get to you, sweetie. It’s just that when he’s excited he likes to feel in charge.”
“Sounds like he needs to get a job.”
Lane laughed out loud. “Wouldn’t that be a hoot.”
Leslie unscrewed his lenscap. “Here we go, ladies and gents. V.I.P.s at twelve o’clock.”
Three black sedans pulled up to the curb. The first two flew the Stars and Stripes from flag poles on the hood. The third car flew red, yellow, and green, the colors of San Magin. Secret Service men with matching dark suits stepped out of each vehicle and held doors for the congressmen.
Politicians have never impressed me, especially those who were old, vacuous, and twenty years behind the times. Abberline wore his three-piece as if he’d been born in it, and his hands looked empty without a cigar and a roll of bank notes. Crawthorn, on the other hand, wore a brown suit, red tie, and walked with a stoop like a farmer all dressed up for church. A scowl of denied entitlement never left his face; it was part of his Southern charm.
Click click click went Leslie’s camera as he took his first shots of the day. The crowd pulled back to make a path for the officials and their contingent of bodyguards. The mysterious security men from earlier melted into the background but not out of sight. I suppressed the urge to give the Feds a running commentary through my watch like Dick Tracy.
The congressmen walked around and shook hands. If I had to guess, I’d say most of those present were from the business community: bankers, investors, maybe some real estate developers looking to stake a claim on fresh Caribbean turf. Out of habit I kept an eye on Crawthorn to see who he was gladhanding.
One of the men I recognized: Burke, the guy from Kestrel Security who’d tried to pay me to leave town..
I pretended to cough into my palm. “Kestrel’s here,” I whispered into the microphone. “If you can see me, keep an eye on me.” I waded through the throng and tapped Mr. Burke on the shoulder.
“Hey, friend,” I said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
He smiled like my gym teacher when he caught me cutting class for a smoke.
“You should have taken my offer, Jones. You would have enjoyed living in some other city.”
“I don’t know. I think I might like Baltimore.”
He shook his head. “You really won’t. Doesn’t matter now. You’re a problem who’s out of my hands.”
“Meaning I’m someone else’s?” I steered us toward the edge of the crowd. “Like whose?”
“Like the people who are going to make your final twenty-four hours a living hell before dumping your body in Chesapeake Bay.”
“Ooh, that sounds like a threat.”
“We’re done threatening you. The other day I made the only fair offer you’re going to get. Now Mr. Bordani is going to punish you for being such a pain in his ass.”
Agent Powell cleared his throat and tugged on Burke’s sleeve. “Excuse me, sir, could you step this way please?”
Burke glared at him. “Wasn’t there a ‘No Coloreds’ sign around here?”
Powell flashed his badge. “I’ve got a pass.”
Burke’s face twisted into that of a trapped rat. Powell winked at me, but Burke growled. “You made a mistake, Jones. You’re finished and you don’t even know it.”
“Now, now, Mr. Burke,” said Powell. “You’d best keep those comments to yourself. In fact, you might want to think hard about everything you say, though I do strongly advise you to cooperate.”
Two other men had moved in as well; one did something with Burke’s hands behind his back while the other held on to his elbow. As they led him away, Powell looked up at the sky and acted as if we were discussing the weather.
“I’d say we’ve got enough to bring Bordani in.”
“He’s not the only game in town.” I was thinking of JANUS.
“Keep a lookout, then. We found a few of your buddy’s associates lurking around when we swept the place, so hopefully Aranjuez is in the clear.”
“It’ll be a nice little coup if you just did the Secret Service’s job for them.”
“Don’t you know it. Enjoy the rest of the day, Allan. I’ll be in touch once everything’s over.”
I nodded and Powell hurried off. Leslie walked over, a curious look on his face, and poised his camera for a shot of Powell and Burke leaving the reception area.
“Don’t,” I said.
“What was that about?”
I sighed. “Just squashing a bug.”
“Was it a pleasant bug squashing?”
Canton Marlston’s voice rang over the crowd. “Gentlemen! Gentlemen, if I may have your attention.” It took the assembly a moment to settle, but they deferred to Marlston, even the big-wigs.
“I’ve been informed that President Aranjuez will be landing in a few minutes. He has a very busy schedule for the next few days, but my secretary will make sure that each of you has a chance to speak with him. When he arrives we will have some words of greeting from our esteemed representatives and a few comments by Mr. Aranjuez himself. There will be time for a few questions from the press, but I encourage you to keep them brief. I invite you all to the black tie reception tonight at my estate in Washington. My staff will ensure that you all have the details. Are there any questions?”
Someone from the Post raised his hand and asked something inane, but I didn’t hear it. I’d just seen something impossible out of the corner of my eye.
“Leslie,” I whispered. “There was a blond security goon, not Secret Service, over to the right a minute ago. Do you see where he went?”
Leslie scanned the crowd with a steadier gaze than mine and nodded toward a man in a gray coat. “That him?”
I stared. Maybe it was. “Let me have your camera.”
“Just for a minute. I’ll give it back.”
I wrested it out of his hand, but with the strap was still around his neck I almost yanked him over. I rotated the lens to bring my target into focus.
It was him. The man in the gray suit, standing calmly with his arms crossed, was the man who’d tried to kill me in my home, the man who should have died when my apartment building exploded.
I let go of Leslie’s camera and moved to speak into my watch. But what was I going to say? That there was a dead man the FBI should bring in for questioning? I could have been wrong. I’d only seen his face for a moment, but things like the appearance of someone who tries to kill you tend to stick in the mind.
What the hell.
“Powell. Listen. There’s a guy, blond hair, gray suit, arms crossed. Kind of a flat nose. He’s standing about three paces behind Crawthorn. I swear he’s the guy who shot up my apartment. Over.”
I don’t know why I said ‘Over.’ It’s not like Powell was going to respond.
“Gentlemen,” said Marlston, “I’m told that Mr. Aranjuez is landing now. If you will follow me to the airfield?”
We filed through a tiny waiting room, then through the private hangar, and finally onto the edge of the tarmac. Friendship International’s main concourse sat like a pile of matchboxes on the far side of the airfield. To the east, a three-prop Howard 500 touched down.
It took ten minutes for the plane to taxi to the hangar. In the meantime I floated through the crowd, searching for my phantom attacker and accidentally bumping into Representative Crawthorn. He scowled at me with, I’m sure, no idea how much time I’d spent digging up his dirt. I tipped my hat and smiled.
Speech became impossible as the airplane approached. Its propellers didn’t spin down until the aircraft came to a halt about fifty feet away. It was large enough to accommodate perhaps a dozen passengers. A hatch cracked open just behind the wing and a short stepladder unfolded from within.
Without any sense of decorum, the crowd surged forward. The Secret Service formed a cordon to prevent us from actually mobbing Aranjuez. Two dark-skinned young men in military dress descended from the airplane, and Marlston led the congressmen through the crowd to welcome the visiting dignitary.
Leslie and I were in the front of the pack. A Secret Service agent stared at us without a glimmer of emotion. Maybe he’d sold his soul for that perfect physique and square jaw. Leslie elbowed into a better position for a shot and I stood on tiptoe for a glimpse over the Service man’s shoulder.
Aranjuez was a small man in light gray pinstripes. He inched his way down the steps with a wooden cane. He was balding on top, and his caramel skin made a sharp contrast with his stark white hair. He smiled and waved at the crowd, and his smile looked real, not the practiced stage grin of an American politico.
A bright red dot danced on the shoulder of the Service man in front of me.
Crap. There were seconds to act. I shouted at my watch and prayed the FBI would hear.
“It’s now! They’re going to kill him now! Now, now, now!”
The Secret Service agent heard and grabbed my shirt. “What did you say?” By moving, the dot was now on his head.
It was the last thing he did.
His skull exploded the instant I heard the shot. Quick bursts like a drum cadence peppered in the distance, and within the crowd, red began to fly.
People screamed. Aranjuez collapsed on the runway beneath one of his attendants. Marlston pulled the congressmen to cover under the plane. Federal agents yanked handguns from their holsters, but another one hit the ground brains-first.
Leslie spun around. “What the hell?”
Three rounds tore out his throat. His head rolled back and his body went down. The crowd blew to the winds, making everyone an easy target. I fell to my knees and shook Leslie’s body.
But his eyes were already glassy. The bullets had nearly decapitated him.
A form took shape beside him. I looked up to see the shadow of the Whisper appear between me and the clouds. Screams and gunshots filled the air like fog.
“Hey,” I said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
The Whisper’s black gloves grew solid and real. He held my own Glock and aimed with both hands.
I had nowhere to run.
The Whisper pulled the trigger and something punched through my chest. Somehow I kept my balance. The next blast ripped through my sternum. I looked down to see blood pour out of me like water. I could feel the heat from the gun’s muzzle as the Whisper held it close to my head.
Blackness ended my world.
To Be Continued?
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