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Authors: Patrick Freivald, Phil Freivald

Blood list

Blood List

 

 

 

 

By

Patrick & Philip Freivald

 

 

 

 

 

JournalStone

San Francisco

 

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by Patrick & Philip Freivald

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

JournalStone books may be ordered through booksellers or by contacting:

 

JournalStone

www.journalstone.com

www.journal-store.com

 

The views expressed in this work are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

 

ISBN:978-1-936564-91-0(sc)

ISBN:978-1-936564-96-5(ebook)

 

Library of Congress Control Number:2013947662

 

Printed in the United States of America

JournalStone rev. date:  November 15, 2013

 

Cover Design and ArtworkJeff Miller

Edited by: Dr. Michael R. Collings

 

 

 

To The Redhead™. You're why I write.

Patrick Freivald

 

To the other three Horsemen.  Thanks for the camaraderie.

Phil Freivald

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

 

We'd like to thank our brothers Mark and Jake, for their enormous help on our first trip around the block.Blood Listwouldn't be the book it is without you. We'd also like to thank all our beta readers, typo-hunters, fact-checkers (dad for guns, Betsy Hutchison for virology, and so many others), and the wonderful staff at JournalStone – Christopher Payne, Joel Kirkpatrick, Norm Rubenstein, our editor Dr. Michael R. Collings and our proofreader Amy Eye. Finally, we'd like to thank Jeff Miller for an awesome cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blood List

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

June 22nd, 4:48 PM PST; Café Molto Espresso; Los Angeles, California.

 

Paul Renner looked across the street at the woman he'd come to Beverly Hills to kill. He blended in with the throng of thirtysomethings crowding up Rodeo Drive: six feet tall, short black hair, a decent tan, and a business suit that cost more than his first car. He pretended to people-watch, his soft brown eyes scanning the crowd sweating in the summer heat, debutantes and nouveau riche Hollywooders spending thousands of dollars on outfits they'd wear once and never think about again.

The blaring TV behind him was difficult to ignore. Some talking-head CNN anchor blathered on about a mass shooting in Des Moines.Who kills a bunch of people at the mall? What a waste of life.

He took a sip of his caramel macchiato. Across the street, Jenny Sykes screamed at a shoe-store employee. Paul typed a text message while the beleaguered clerk rang up the purchase and bustled Ms. Sykes out the door. He held his thumb over the "send" button.

Ms. Sykes lugged two full bags of Guccis and Manolo Blahniks to her car. Her body was tight and firm, thanks to Botox and a personal trainer, and she walked like a high school cheerleader.Her shoe collection probably cost more than my house. He looked up from the phone and caught her eye. She smiled tightly, averted her gaze, and headed to her car.

Jenny Sykes was too old to be called Jenny and wasn't remotely hip in spite of the hundreds of thousands of dollars she spent to appear to be.She probably thinks her daughter's ten-thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habit is her biggest problem.

Jenny slid behind the wheel of her chrome-silver Mercedes Benz, flashing far too much leg for her age. Paul stood, dropped a ten-dollar bill on the table, and walked away. When she closed the car door, Paul pressed "send" on his pre-paid NetPhone I-590 cellular phone. No annual contract, WiFi digital compatible, and, best of all, paid with cash. Totally anonymous.

Two things happened simultaneously. First, the text message fired off to a familiar number. It read,Jenny Sykes, Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, California. Second, the phone sent another text to an identical phone in the trunk of Jenny Sykes' Mercedes.

The Benz erupted into a fireball, sending Jenny Sykes to whatever heaven or hell shallow socialites go. Shattered glass fell from storefront windows, but most of the shrapnel blew straight up, just as Paul had intended. Like cattle, the herd of shoppers screamed and cried as they stampeded away from the carnage. Paul joined them.

Hurrying along with the crowd, he felt none of the feigned panic he projected for the inevitable YouTube videos.Some people are too dumb to run. Several blocks away, he ducked into an alley between a Thai tapas restaurant and a place called Tie World.

He tossed the phone into the restaurant's dumpster. His fingerprints weren't on record, so the G-men who'd been trying to catch him for the past decade would know it was the D Street Killer, but not his identity. Leaving little clues for Special Agent Gene Palomini and his boys was part of what made these operations fun.

*   *   *

 

June 22nd, 5:16 PM PST; Jenny Sykes murder scene; Los Angeles, California.

 

Special Agent in Charge Giancarlo "Gene" Palomini held on as the two black SUVs screamed onto the sidewalk across the street from the smoking mess of what was left of the silver Mercedes Benz. The red-and-blue police lights flickered off the yellow CRIME SCENE:  DO NOT CROSS tape that two uniformed locals wrapped around a hundred yards of Rodeo Drive.

Gene looked at the damage as he hopped out of the driver's seat of the front vehicle. Just over six feet tall, in his early forties, with a medium, muscular frame and thinning, military-short blond hair, he exuded confidence and frustration in equal measure as he surveyed the wreckage scattered across the street. His older brother Marty got out behind him.

"Whoa," said his technical specialist as he emerged from the second car. "A car bomb? Are you kidding me, Gene?" Agent Carl Brent was short, black, in his mid-thirties, and looked like a kid playing dress-up. The hair was pure businessman, but his navy suit was a little too big, and Gene was sure he didn't have to shave more than twice a week. Carl was never one to avoid pointing out the obvious.

The last thing Gene's smog-choked sinuses needed was a Carl-induced headache. "Stow it, Carl. Let's make nice with the locals."

Agent Doug Goldman took point, blazing the way with his fierce gray eyes. Barrel-chested and bald, Doug was so tall that his FBI badge was at eye level for Gene. Doug was a wall with a badge and a gun, and Gene used that fact to their advantage. Gene walked at his heels, eclipsed by the large man's presence.

Gene's brother walked next to him. They looked like twins except for Marty's full head of hair and the ridiculous porn-star moustache he grew in the Navy and had refused to shave since. Behind them came Carl Brent, with Jerri Bates to his left. Agent Bates was a small, pretty woman in her early thirties with an angular face, short red hair, green eyes, and curves in places that Marty said made her standard, uptight FBI suit look naughty. Gene had never seen the appeal, no matter what she wore.

A Hispanic LAPD detective saw them coming and avoided eye contact. He whistled to a uniformed officer who was trying to figure out how to attach a pink marker-flag to a square of sidewalk concrete and jerked his head toward their group. "Hey, Jimmy! Bureau's here. Show them around, and don't let them muck up my crime scene."

Jimmy dropped the marker on the sidewalk, pulled off his latex gloves, and trotted over to Gene's group. His smile was too enthusiastic for someone who had just been tagging vaguely-identifiable body parts.

Gene watched as the uniformed officer—J. Anderson by his name tag—walked straight to Doug and stuck out his hand. It never failed. Hidden in the human psyche lurks a primitive instinct that makes people assume the biggest guy is the man-in-charge. It helped the team put people off-balance without seeming to be deliberate.

"Special Agent?" Officer Anderson asked. He looked confident, but his inflection betrayed a touch of apprehension at presenting a part of his body anywhere near the massive, scowling man in the middle.

"That's Agent Goldman," Gene said as he reached out to complete the handshake. "I'm Special Agent in Charge Palomini, call me Gene, and these are my associates, Agents Bates, Brent, and Martin Palomini." The officer's grip was far too strong, carrying on the pointless tradition of local cops trying to prove that they're just as good as the FBI. Demonstrating that it's the cop who makes the badge only tended to make them grumpy, so Gene gave the hand a good squeeze.

"I'm Officer Anderson, Jimmy Anderson. You guys sure got here quick."

"Well, we were in the neighborhood," Gene answered.

Gene held Anderson just long enough for his crew to get past. Jimmy raised his eyebrows. "Um…if you guys want to stick with me, I'll show you what we know so far…." His voice trailed off as the agents ignored him.

Gene noted with pride how his team knew exactly what needed to be done. Jerri Bates approached the witnesses and singled out a crying cashier from the shoe store. She used her disarming looks and personality to pull out details other interrogators might miss. Doug Goldman and Marty Palomini made a beeline for the uniformed PD to make some needed friends, and Carl Brent honed in on the forensics crew to add his expertise to the decades of experience already present.Meanwhile, I get to play politics. Yippee.

Gene turned Officer Anderson toward the group of sport-coated detectives next to the wreckage and unveiled his best diplomatic smile. "Why don't you take me to the detective in charge? It's going to be a long night, so let's work together to make it shorter, okay?"

Anderson followed Gene, muttering a barely-heard mantra over and over to himself. "Mustache Martin, the other one's Gene. Mustache Martin, the other one's Gene."

 

*   *   *

 

June 23rd, 1:23 AM PST; FBI Headquarters, Wilshire Boulevard; Los Angeles, California.

 

The computer screen shuddered rhythmically, no doubt caused by something electronic in the rooms near Gene's makeshift office. His head throbbed in time to the pulses. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples for the hundredth time. It eased the pain only so long as he kept doing it and felt that much worse when he stopped.


Page 2

Coffee,he thought. He grabbed his official Department of Justice mug, proudly emblazoned with the red, white, and blue shield with the bald eagle in flight on the front, and pushed his chair back from the desk.When we find this guy I'm going to beat him to a pulp with that olive branch.He shuffled down the hall toward the break room.

"You shouldn't drink that piss this late," Marty said from the hallway. He scowled in disapproval. "You won't sleep for shit tonight."

With a dismissive flick of his hand to stave off any more sage advice, Gene stepped around him. Marty seemed to think that once a man's ex-girlfriend could no longer nag him into a pounding headache, it became the sacred duty of the elder brother. Marty spoke behind him. "They found the phone, got prints. We forwarded them to Sam."

Samantha Greene was the invisible sixth member of the team. Two hundred and twenty pounds and five-foot-two, she hadn't passed the FBI's physical for field work in five years. Gene doubted she could walk a mile without dying, much less run three in thirty minutes. She was an expert marksman who practiced at the shooting range three times a week but had never worn a weapon on duty. It didn't matter.

Sam was the best field coordinator in the Bureau. She tracked the team with GPS, listened to and recorded their conversations over the COM, used gadgets and programs with other mysterious acronyms to perform astounding feats of technical magic, and crunched dizzying amounts of data for use in real time. She did all this from in front of a dozen computer monitors, safely ensconced behind a desk in the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.

Privacy didn't exist in the field anymore. Everything was recorded, flagged for important words by massive supercomputers, and analyzed by the intel weenies back at HQ.

Marty continued, "The prints matched. We know it's him for sure now."

Gene turned around. "We knew for sure a week ago, Marty. We just didn't know who the victim was. Just like Denver. And D.C. And…."

"Yeah," Marty agreed. "Hell of a job we've got here, ain't it? Almost makes me wish I'd dropped out of school."

"Mama would have killed you, Marty."

"True," Marty said. "But then I wouldn't be working for a pencil-neck like you."

Gene grinned and turned back down the hall. "I should be so lucky."

Gene walked into the break room and glared at the half-empty coffee pot. The little red light stared back at him. The stale, bitter smell in the room indicated that this pot was probably brewed during the Rodney King riots, from stale beans.

"Gene, you've got a meeting with the Chief of Police at oh-seven hundred. Get some fucking sleep, boss." Gene nodded as he emptied the pot into the sink, clicked off the machine, and headed back to the couch in his office. He didn't need to see the smirk on Marty's face to know it was there.

He only calls me "boss" when he's telling me what to do.With an exhausted grin of his own, Gene lay down on the lumpy couch to catch as much sleep as his aching head would allow.

 

*   *   *

 

June 23rd, 6:57 AM PST; LAPD Headquarters, Parker Center; Los Angeles, California.

 

Gene had done his research. By all accounts, Police Chief Logan Stukly was an ambitious and intelligent man. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he was as comfortable in the barrios and ghettos as he was in the mansions of the Hollywood elite. A third-generation police officer and a twenty-two-year veteran of the L.A.P.D., he hadn't just been around the block; he lived there. Add a fierce charisma and a pack of weasels willing to get dirty behind the scenes, and it all added up to a major appointment that had transformed a career cop into a budding politician.

Explosions on Rodeo Drive made the local PD look bad. Given Stukly's mayoral ambitions, Gene could guess his mood. Gene's head throbbed in time with his footsteps as he approached the door.

The man glanced up when Gene walked in. He waved Gene to a chair and kept typing. Twenty seconds later, he clicked his mouse and looked up.

"You Palomini?"

"Yes," Gene said.

Chief Stukly sneered through his teeth and looked across the massive oak table that served as his desk.

"Tell me, how long were you planning on letting a serial killer rampage through my city before you deigned to inform my men of his presence?"

Gene suppressed a groan. He'd hoped for some level of cooperation. "You understand that all of this has to be kept confidential?"

"Yes," Stukly said.

"He's known as the 'D Street Killer' after the location of his first murder. He likes to toy with the FBI, give us clues. We got the city location four days ago, when—" He jumped as Stukly slammed his meaty palms on the table.

"FOUR DAYS?" Stukly roared, spittle flying everywhere. Gene held up his hands and winced at the volume. The chief's face was flushed with rage, but his voice calmed. "I'm sorry, Agent, please go on."

Temper versus ambition,Gene thought.This man is dangerous, but mostly to himself.

He licked his lips and continued. "Yeah, well, this guy likes to taunt us. He gives us a state six days before a kill, always by pre-paid cellular, voice-over-IP, or text message. We get a city two days after that. Neighborhood the morning of the kill, almost always with the first and last initials of the victim. Within seconds of the kill, we get a victim ID and a street." He snarled. "Never enough time to catch the perp, though."

Stukly's frown deepened. "And you couldn't tell LAPD that he was in Los Angeles because?"

"Because we already had. Two of your sections were notified and had classified it as low priority, partly because the Bureau was already on it and partly because your homicide guys are already swamped. Until we found out the neighborhood, of course."

Stukly raised his eyebrows. "What about the neighborhood?"

"Rodeo Drive is not South Central," Gene said.

The chief raised his bushy eyebrows and shuffled the papers in front of him. Instead of answering the charge, he changed the subject. "Why this vic? Why Jenny Sykes? Why Rodeo Drive?"

"I wish we could tell you, sir," Gene said. "This guy's one of the slipperiest the Bureau's ever encountered." He told the man what precious little they knew and was asked the same old questions. M.O.? Usually a gun, but no consistent model or caliber. Knives on a couple of vics, but different kinds, usually taken from the area of the kill and always left behind, just like the guns. On top of that, they had a baseball bat, a lamp, a steel-toed boot, a television in a bathtub, and a ten-story drop to pavement. And now a car bomb.

It took Gene an hour and a half to explain everything they didn't know. The victims didn't correlate at all: old, young, male, female, pretty, ugly, rich, poor. The killer's profile was limited to Male, Caucasian, twenty-four to fifty years old, and a childhood history of arson, bed-wetting, and cruelty to animals, just like almost every other organized serial profiled by the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.

Forensic linguistics on early phone calls indicated the killer grew up in the Plains, 65% probability. All they really had were anonymous fingerprints on murder weapons and cellular phones, black hair, and some skin cells from many of the crime scenes. They knew he was Caucasian and male from DNA, and that was about it.

By the end of the meeting, Gene felt like he needed a shower. Captain Stukly obviously didn't care much about the poor woman blown to pieces only sixteen blocks away, except insofar as it affected his bid for mayor. Gene left the office with Stukly staring holes into the back of his head.

He made it down the hall, past rows of cubicles, barnyard pens for human cattle with crummy jobs, and saw a lean, young man in an LAPD uniform hurrying toward him. He looked familiar.Right. The guy from the crime scene yesterday. Anderson.

The smiling young man had his hand out and an expectant look on his face. Gene took his hand and shook it.Too hard again. He probably wants a job with the FBI."You here to keep me out of trouble, Officer?" Gene asked, his attempt at levity murdered by his scowl.

Officer Anderson's smile faded to a constipated grimace. "Wasn't very good at it yesterday, Agent Palomini. Not sure what good it'd do today." He looked even more chagrined as the implications of his statement caught up to him. Gene didn't give him the chance to back out.

"It didn't do any 'good' yesterday, and it wouldn't do any 'good' today, because we're the 'good' guys, and getting the 'bad' guys is our job. Why is it your job to get in our way, Officer? Aren't you supposed to be catching the bad guys, too?" He jerked a hand up to stifle a reply and added, "What can I do for you, Officer Anderson?"

Anderson flushed and looked out the window. "Detective Rodriguez told me you were with Stukly. I thought you'd want to know we've got preliminary analysis on the explosive back from the lab. Ammonium nitrate. Fertilizer. We're working on a source now, but that could take weeks."

Gene softened his tone, embarrassed. "Sorry, you didn't deserve that. Thanks for the info. Let me know if…. Let me know when you get the results back." He took out a business card and handed it to the policeman. "My cell's the second number. Call any time, day or night, if something breaks." Officer Anderson took the card, and it disappeared into a pocket.

Inwardly, Gene sighed. Timothy McVeigh used ammonium nitrate to blow up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was as common as anything and could have come from anywhere. In a month anyone could buy enough of the stuff from a garden supply store to make a car bomb without tripping a Department of Homeland Security threshold on dangerous substances.That's if you didn't just pay a farmer for a truckload of pig crap and make it yourself.

Anderson's irrepressible smile reappeared. "No problemo. You just let me know if there's anything else we can do. I don't have much pull around here, but I'm well-liked, and Marco—that's Detective Rodriguez, homicide—might be able to help you cut through any bullshit Stukly throws in your face. And call me Jimmy."

Maybe this cop was one of the good guys. "I'll do that, Jimmy. I'll do that." His mood lightened ever so slightly, Gene headed to his car.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

July 17th, 2:25 PM EST; Wegmans Supermarket; Fairfax, Virginia.

 

Three weeks later, Gene pushed his cart up and down the aisles of the supermarket, trying to stick to his list as much as possible in light of all the temptations offered. He caught a whiff of the in-store Chinese buffet and his stomach growled.Why do I always come here hungry?

Every other weekend he drove to Fairfax to get "the good stuff" from Wegmans grocery store.More like the Taj Mahal of eats.He wandered aisles packed with everything he could ever want for his kitchen, whether he felt like cooking or just wanted something to take out. Even if it wasn't crowded, it took at least an hour to get out of there, and he always spent more than he meant to.Why do I come here, again?By way of reply, his stomach tried to convince his brain that, yes, he did need a two-pound bag of jumbo shrimp to go with the cocktail sauce already in his cart.

His FBI-issued cell phone rang and jolted him out of his reverie. He looked at the caller ID.Unknown name, Unknown number.And on a Saturday. He frowned and hit the green "talk" button.

"Hello, this is Gene."

"Hello, Special Agent." The voice on the other end was filtered through a computer scrambler, with no discernible accent. He hoped it wasn't Marty. His childish older brother hadn't met a practical joke he didn't like.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Scrambled-Voice Guy?" He cradled the phone on his right shoulder, grabbed the shrimp, and tossed it into his cart.

"Missouri," the voice said.

"Missouri?" Gene asked. The only reply was a dial tone.

He hung up and moved to dial just as it rang again. It was Samantha Greene's desk.

"Sam, I just got a call…." He didn't know why he bothered. All of their work phones were tapped. Their home phones probably were, too, even though that wouldn't be legal. And Sam was always listening. Even at two-thirty on a Saturday.

"Yeah, got it," she interrupted. "NetPhone. New account. This is the first time it's been used. Um, hold on."

Gene pushed his cart toward the front of the store, his mood obliterated along with his free weekend.So soon after the Sykes murder, and that case dead in the water.The explosives hadn't panned out to anything. The ammonium nitrate came from a Home Depot in Fresno that sold thousands of pounds of fertilizer a week. The case was idle, Officers Rodriguez and Anderson had been tasked to other investigations, and Chief Stukly was making "the incompetent feds" a campaign point in his bid for mayor. Sam spoke up as he reached the checkout.

"The account is tied to a new phone purchase with prepaid minutes, activated 2:18 PM July 3rd. Bought at, let's see…."

He loaded the heavy stuff onto the belt as Sam pulled up the information. The cashier started scanning his items.

"Yeah, okay. Maybe an hour out of town. The Wegmans Supermarket in Fairfax, Virginia."

Gene went cold. He looked around. No one seemed to be paying him any particular attention. He stepped out of the line and scanned the crowd. There were hundreds of people in the store. At least twenty blabbed away into handheld and Bluetooth phones.

The cashier gave him a concerned look. "You lose something, sir?" Gene looked through the cashier, not seeing her.

"Um, no, I—" He held up a finger. "Hold on a minute." She rolled her eyes.

"Crap, Sam, that's where I am now. I mean, crap. I washereon the third, in the afternoon! CRAP!" He slammed his hand down on the conveyor. The woman in line behind him glared and pointed at the toddler in her cart.


Page 3

 

*   *   *

 

July 17th, 8:48 PM EST; Wheelan Air Services Flight 827; somewhere over the Eastern United States.

 

Gene grinned and looked out the window. Everyone laughed over the droning roar of the twin-engine airplane. Marty clapped him on the shoulder while talking both into the COM and to the rest of the team.

"Yelling 'crap' in public…. Would it kill you to just say 'shit' like a normal person?"

Gene's glare focused on nothing.Thanks, Sam. How do you glare at someone who isn't there?"I was freaked out. You would have been, too. I thought the guy was right there. I mean, like right next to me or something." The team sobered and got down to business.

Gene briefed them on what little they knew. Missouri. A phone call instead of a text message. The D Street Killer hadn't done that in years. Sam had accessed the security tape of register three, from which the I-590 NetPhone was purchased on July 3rd. Some guy had paid an eighty-nine-year-old World War Two veteran twenty dollars to buy it for him. A store regular, he couldn't describe the guy. Of the hundreds of people who entered and exited the building about the same time, none triggered as suspicious on the video feeds. Many were store regulars or townies, identified by employees and the local police, but many were strangers. Parking lot cameras didn't catch the exchange. Interviews had gone nowhere. They had nothing, again.

And yet, here they were at fifteen thousand feet and heading to Missouri at over three hundred miles an hour to try to catch the D Street Killer before he killed again. The problem was, as usual, that states are awfully big.

 

*   *   *

 

July 17th, 9:12 PM CST; Terminal G, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport; St. Louis, Missouri.

 

Gene grabbed his bag and looked out the window. A hodgepodge of suits, uniforms, and five-o'clock shadows waited for them on the tarmac. The men stood in a half-circle at the bottom of the retractable stairs, sheltered under umbrellas from the thunderstorm.

First were two Missouri state troopers, two St. Louis County deputies, and a member of airport security, all of whom looked nervous. Lurking behind the uniformed men stood a sandy-haired man in his early thirties wearing a tailored business suit. Next to him stood a short, black-haired man in a fed-issue suit whom Gene recognized as Special Agent Robert Barnhoorn. Barnhoorn was the local FBI liaison, one of Doug's former classmates from the academy, and the brother of Doug's long-time girlfriend.

Gene half-stumbled down the stairs, legs stiff from hours of sitting. Doug's face was green. He sighed when his feet touched the asphalt and he looked ready to kiss the ground.

They shook hands and introduced themselves. Mr. Tailored-Suit, an attaché to the mayor's office, was concerned about a potential killing in his city. Gene forgot his name the instant he'd heard it, then blew him off as diplomatically as possible to talk to the policemen.

 

Twenty minutes later, Gene found himself in a private suite reserved for airline executives. It had a fully stocked bar that no one was allowed to touch while on-duty. Marty sauntered over and poured himself a Glenlivet on the rocks, then got trapped in the role of bartender. Everyone but Gene and the mayoral suit ordered a stiff one.

Once comfortable, Gene got started. "Thanks, everybody, for coming down, but I'm sure Agent Greene has already briefed you." Sam chirped a "yup" into his earpiece. "The D Street Killer is going to kill someone in Missouri this week unless we stop him." He held up his hand to prevent the suit from interrupting. When the man closed his mouth, Gene continued. "What we don't know is who, or where in Missouri. Or why. Or by what method. Basically, all we know is that we're in the right state."

Robbie Barnhoorn let out a low whistle. "Y'all have your work cut out for you, that's for sure." He handed Gene a folder. "We're getting you set up with a full suite down at the Marriott. Computers, beds, doughnuts, coffee. The works. The place is booked up with the big tech conference this week, but we managed to squeeze you in." He inclined his head toward the sandy-haired gentleman. "The mayor's office is covering food and coffee as a gesture of good faith, as well as Mr. Gardner here, to help cut through any red tape. You tell him anything you need that I can't get you, he'll make sure to get it done."

Sam spoke in Gene's ear. "Tell them we need access to the hotel's security tapes for the past week and a direct feed ongoing while you're there. We can try to face-match anyone from the store camera back here. He knew where you were shopping, so he might know where you're staying."

Gene looked up to see the others staring at him. He smiled apologetically. "Sorry, that was Sam Greene on the COM. She wants security tapes from the hotel, dating back at least a week, and their video feed ongoing."

The mayoral attaché patted his briefcase. "I can pressure them to release the tapes and patch you in without letting them know why you're there. Hotels are pretty cooperative with open investigations."

Gene nodded, grateful for the assistance. Political appointees to investigations were usually more of a pain in the butt than a help. He opened his mouth to reply when his phone rang. The caller ID saidD Street Killer. Unknown Number.

"It's him." The background chatter in the room came to an immediate halt. "He's spoofed caller ID, identified himself as the D Street Killer." He put his hand on the button and spoke into the air. "Sam?"

"Tracing," Sam said. "Keep him on as long as you can."

Gene hit "speaker." "Hello?" 

The voice was the same, mechanical and without inflection or accent. "Did you have a nice trip, Agent Palomini? I've always hated those tiny little planes. They suck in this kind of weather. Is Agent Goldman keeping his supper down okay?" Everyone looked at Doug, who flushed with anger.

"I—" Gene began. D Street cut him off.

"I can't have you tracing this call past Singapore, so I'll keep this short. I'm feeling feisty and wanted to give you a bit of a head start. J.Z.B." The phone went dead.

Sam's voice spilled out of it. "DAMN IT! I had him in Singapore, where I hit one hell of a glitch. The trace went in eight directions at once. Not sure if it's hardware or what, but we'll see if it's physically there, then call their government. I bet I could have cracked it with a few more seconds."

Carl frowned. "This guy knows too much, Gene. Way too much."

Jerri pursed her lips, pensive. "What I don't get is, why is this one different? The call instead of the text, the two calls in one day. He’s even changed his M.O. on timing."

Marty looked annoyed. "Yup. Gave us the state, and now the initials. He didn't give us the city."

"I think he did," Doug said. "Maybe." He pointed at the TV, where a meteorologist droned on about the weather. A little dot of dark green surrounded by a larger wash of lighter green covered the St. Louis area. The rest of the Doppler screen showed nothing. "He said 'this weather.' He's in St. Louis, right under our noses." He sighed. "Maybe."

"Fuckin' A," Marty interjected. "Good catch."

Gardner swore under his breath. "I have to tell the mayor." He stood to leave and dropped a business card on the table.

In response, Agent Barnhoorn yelled, "NO PRESS LEAKS!" Gardner waved him down as he headed for the door.

"Got it, got it. Secrecy's the game, even though this guy already knows you're here. Whatever. You need something, you call me." He walked out.

Gene put his head in his hands, rubbed his temples, and spoke. "Sam?"

She already knew the question and had an answer. "There are only six J.Z.B.s in St. Louis on public record. There are another nine statewide. I'm sending the addresses to your phone right now."

Gene smiled. "You know I love you, don't you, Sam?"

"Who wouldn't, babe?"

Jerri raised her hand, like a teenager in high school. "Hey, Gene?"

Gene smiled. "Don't worry; I love you, too, Jerri."

She frowned and looked at the floor. "That's not it, Gene." She paused.

Never a patient man, Marty glared at her. "What?"

"My middle name is Zoe."

 

*   *   *

 

July 23rd, 7:58 AM CST; The Hotel Marriott Pheasant Room; St. Louis, Missouri.

 

Gene's heart pounded as he stared at the phone. This could be the day. The loud mid-morning traffic had a hard time competing with the noise coming from the lobby. The Innovators of Tomorrow technology conference, sponsored by the State of Missouri, had the whole city jammed to peak capacity, and the Airport Marriott was no exception. Gene blocked out the noise. This just had to be the day.

With help from the Mayor's office, they were staking out every J.Z.B. in the greater St. Louis area. The state police covered the rest of Missouri. It was a huge expenditure of police power dedicated to one and only one goal—catching the D Street Killer before he killed again.

Special Agent Jerri Zoe Bates bided her time in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover building back in D.C., surrounded by the best security in the world. Gene couldn't think of a safer place. Even though she was out of the state, and thus shouldn't be the D Street Killer's target, she'd been closed in for six days, under constant guard like a prisoner, and she was suffering for it.

Jerri had begged Gene to allow her to do something, anything, useful. Gene hadn't budged, so there she sat. Gene knew he'd catch holy heck for it later, but it beat getting her killed. Even if he could forgive himself, Marty never would.

Gene paced back and forth in the Marriott conference room that served as their headquarters. His cell phone sat idle in his hand. He checked his watch. 7:58 AM, day six. The D Street Killer always took his victim within six days of calling the FBI. Always. It was day six. So today had to be the day. But then again, he always gave them a city after two days and initials the morning of the kill, before 8:00 AM. The call with the full name and street always came too late.

This time was different. He hadn't called the second time with the city, and they'd already known the initials. Gene looked at his watch again. One minute to go.

The phone rang.D Street Killer. Unknown Number, taunted him on the Caller-ID. Gene hit "talk."

"Hello?"

The mechanical voice greeted him. "Hello, Agent Palomini. I'm just calling to say that you missed one. You have a good morning." The phone went dead.

Gene hit autodial and spoke, his message patched through to the unit commanders in charge of surveillance. "This is Special Agent Gene Palomini. We got the call, I repeat, we got the call. Look sharp." He hung up and spoke into the air. "Sam?"

She replied immediately, an edge of hurried panic in her voice. "I know, I know. If I knew about it, we wouldn't have missed it. Let's hope it's him missing a surveillance team and not us dropping the ball."

He speed-dialed his team. "Go, Gene," his brother said, echoed by the others.

"D Street said we quote-unquote 'missed one.' Sam's looking into possibilities." Marty swore. "Ideas?"

Nobody said anything.

Gene walked to the door. "I'm going to check and see if the front desk—"

The caller ID beeped in Gene's hand.D Street Killer. Unknown Number. Gene stopped dead in his tracks.Oh, no,he thought. He pressed "talk" to jump lines. "Jui Zhou Bai, Airport Marriott, lobby. Better luck next time, Agent Palomini."

His phone forgotten, Gene ran to the end of the hall. He took the stairs three at a time, flew down two flights, and slammed into the crash bar on the door with both hands. As it flew open, a crack of thunder and the sound of shattering glass cut through the din of traffic and babble of people. A woman shrieked. Gene pushed through into the lobby and entered complete chaos. Panicked people screamed and trampled one another. The revolving doors stuck in place, jammed with a tide of flesh. He dodged to the side as part of the crowd rushed his position to escape up the stairwell.

Near the front window, a dead man in a crisp tweed suit sat on a sofa. Most of his head was missing, the newspaper in front of him splattered with blood and brains. He still held a large Starbucks and had a brochure for the tech conference tucked under the briefcase in his lap. Blood fountained from the remains of his head, splattering the area with gore. Gene's eyes followed the coffee as it fell to the floor, the brown liquid staining the cream rug already awash in red. An Asian woman in a grey skirt-suit kneeled next to him, screaming.

Gene pushed the victim from his mind. The bullet had exited into the lobby, and blood, bones, and brains were spread in a tight pattern on the coffee table and floor. That meant the shot came from outside, at a high angle. A thirteen-story apartment building towered across the street. It had hundreds of windows, most of which were open to take advantage of the cooler morning air. The shooter could be anywhere inside.

Gene scanned the facade and tried to process the ocean of reflective panes, window air conditioners, and balconies.There. Seventh floor.A small black tube protruded from a window, well hidden by the shadow of an air-conditioning unit. Gene took off at a run, calling into his headset. "Shooter used the seventh floor across the street! I'm going in!"

In his heart, he knew he was too late. The D Street Killer had killed again, and this time less than fifty feet from him while most of the police presence was spread elsewhere in the city, watching other J.Z.B's. Gene knew they'd find the gun and little else.

 

In an anonymous panel van four miles away, outside the apartment of Jason Zimmer Bogandovich, Marty couldn't breathe. The D Street Killer had just murdered someone, an innocent victim's life snuffed out for no good reason, but he only felt relief. Jerri was safe.

 

Back in Washington, Gene stared at his report. Jui Zhou Bai, a Chinese diplomat sent by his government to scope useful technologies, had been killed on American soil right in front of his personal assistant. The FBI had information on the victim but nothing new on the killer.


Page 4

Bai's itinerary had been public for weeks, but the guest roster had misspelled his name "Jui Pai." He wasn't a high-profile target, didn't have bodyguards or any serious party or industry connections. He was a non-entity, a nobody. They had no clues on why D Street chose him, except perhaps the similarity in initials to Jerri Bates. Even that was a guess.

They'd found the bolt-action .50-caliber sniper rifle in the apartment, set up on a robotic tripod with a high-quality digital video scope. The tenant was at work at the time of the shooting and seemed to be an upstanding citizen. The lock had been forced earlier that morning, and the killer had left the crowbar at the scene. There were fingerprints everywhere that matched D Street, but no phone.

A diplomat killed on American soil. The FBI had known that there was a killer loose and the initials of the intended target. The political firestorm had kept Gene and his team occupied for the next several weeks.

Gene clicked "Send."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

 

August 14th, 3:52 AM EST; Gene Palomini's Apartment; Washington, D.C.

 

Nothing moved. Not even rats scurried about, in spite of the stink of rotting food coming from the dumpster behind the Chinese joint. Gene crept up the alley, pistol ready, and froze in the shadows. The break had come suddenly, a thunderbolt from a clear sky, and he'd be damned if he was going to mess this one up. The Voice of Reason killer had been haunting Richmond for two months and was a tabloid celebrity. The press fed into the man's megalomania, but at least they could be used to flush him out. The bait was out; the trap set.

Gene smiled in the shadows. His first major case as a Special Agent, his first big payoff after all his training. He took another careful step and checked the safety on his service pistol. Marty appeared from nowhere, and looked ready for anything. Gene's phone rang.

Gene snapped awake. His phone rang again. He licked his upper teeth and cringed at the slimy, cottony feeling left by too many gin-and-tonics the night before. He fumbled for the phone.Stupid retirement parties. Everyone always drinks too much.He blinked away the fog of ninety minutes' sleep, then lifted the receiver to his ear. He responded with his first semi-coherent thought. "What?" His voice groaned out, thick and sloppy.

Sam sounded wide-awake and cheerful, as always. He held the phone away from his ear, just close enough to hear. "Would you be interested to know that forty black NetPhones were mail-ordered to a P.O. Box in SoHo almost a year ago?" He squinted at the clock and lamented his coordinator's ability to work at all hours.

His brain spun as it tried to process human speech through a haze of sheer hell. "Did you say forty?" His head throbbed with every syllable.

"Yeah, like days and nights in the desert, Gene. Forty. Know anyone who might have need of forty NetPhone I-590s, paid for with a credit card linked to a fake Social Security number?"

Gene sat up. This killer, this dead-end, this invisible man who followed no patterns and killed without conscience, this monster who taunted his team for fun, had just made a mistake. "Do we know who picked them up and when?"

"The bad news is that the post office won't release that information. Right to Privacy and all that."

He hated it when Sam played with him. Why couldn't she just spit it out? Why hadn't he become a dentist, or a hula dancer—something, anything, other than an FBI agent? On the other end of the phone, Sam said nothing. She always made him ask. "What's the good news?" He stumbled into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of water, and drank it as she replied.

"The good news is that they were picked up by one Bradley Jones. Bradley is a small-time hood with a long rap sheet of minor consequence—possession with intent to distribute, stuff like that. He just got busted on federal weapons charges and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and trying to plea he copped to a whole lot of weird stuff both legal and not, including this delivery. Thought it was a mob thing, phones fell off a truck or something. Anyway, he delivered them to a warehouse in Queens for a hundred bucks.

"I asked the super to check his records. He said the warehouse was rented by some guy who paid in cash, dropped his lease right after the delivery, just ate the security deposit. They're faxing over the lease so we can get the handwriting analysis guys on it. The local office is already fingerprinting everything they could find. If it was him, we'll know by noon or so."

"Great. What's the name on the lease, Sam?" Gene said.

"Um, here it is, Paul Renner," she said. "Guy's a ghost. He's got no record, no known place of employment, no known address. Social security number's fake."

Sacred Mother,Gene thought, not sure if it was sacrilege or prayer,let this be the guy's big screw-up.

"What do we know about these phones?"

Sam replied, "Well, that depends on how much you love me."

"Right," Gene said. "I love you very much. Now spit it out or I'll have you fired, then set on fire for messing with me at four in the morning."

Gene could hear the smile through the phone. "Well, we know that one of them came online last week."

"Great. So how do we find him?" Gene asked.

"Well," Sam said, "we don't. Not really."

"What does 'not really' mean?"

"It means that what we've got is a phone that's currently active, somewhere on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That's all we can get tracing through cell towers. It's not nearly granular enough to be able to find him, but at least we can track his movements."

"All right," Gene said. "Do it."

 

*   *   *

 

October 5th, 2:30 PM PST; Los Angeles Public Library; Los Angeles, California.

 

Paul Renner sat in the public library disguised as a homeless man, his body tight with anticipation underneath filthy clothes. He looked at the text message again, then at the computer screen.Larry Johnson, Jr., 8473 Eagle Crest Drive, Salt Lake City, Utah.It was downright scary what you could find on the Internet these days.

Mr. Johnson was in his mid-sixties and had found God more than thirty years before when he'd met Mormon missionaries in a NYC park, who saved him from a life of addiction. He went from junky to janitor to union garbage man to shift supervisor in that time, had a lovely wife and seven children, and had retired two years ago. His rambling blog spelled out his typical day in far too much detail.

He spent most mornings doing the crossword and Sudoku in the paper, afternoons sitting in his front lawn sipping coffee—decaffeinated, of course—and waiting for his first grandchild to be dropped off after daycare. He spent his evenings babysitting until his eldest daughter got home, usually just in time to make him missFinal Jeopardy, then updated his blog from eight to ten.

It amazed Paul that anyone would write such shit and that anyone else would read it. Well, anyone who wasn't studying Larry Johnson, Jr.'s routine to find the best way to kill him, of course. Whistling, Paul committed most of the blog to memory, booked an American Airlines business-class ticket to Salt Lake City for "Scott Gleichauf," hacked through to gain administrative privileges, and formatted the hard drive.

He swore under his breath and pounded the keyboard, earning a look of reproach from the elderly woman next to him. He stood and flagged down a librarian. "Hey, that computer's broke. Just, like, turned off and shit, man."

Without waiting for a reply, he stumbled out into the afternoon.

 

*   *   *

 

October 18th, 11:27 AM EST; Deck of theMaryAnne; off the coast of Virginia.

 

This stinks,Gene thought as he looked into the choppy water. The boat rocked under his feet. He reeled in and inspected his hook. The four-pound jackfish stared at him with dead eyes, still perfectly intact. He sipped his beer and cast an accusatory glance at his sunbathing brother.

"Marty, I thought you said sharks love these things."

Marty shielded his eyes from the sun and squinted at Gene. "They do. Maybe they're not hungry. Just wait." He closed his eyes.

"Sharks are always hungry," Gene said. "They seem more interested in the mackerel than the jackfish." He cast the line back into the water.

Marty smiled and pulled his hat down over his face, muffling his voice through the fabric. "Give it time, bro. There's like four big makos down there, and the chum's got them all riled up. They'll bite."

Gene took one last look in the water, then sat. "Fair enough." He looked out across the ocean at a massive cargo ship passing in the distance. "You ever think about changing the name of your boat?"

Marty shook his head, making the hat jiggle on his face. "Nope. That's bad luck."

"You don't believe in luck," he replied.

"True," Marty said. "But that doesn't mean boats don't. You don't fucking mess with maritime tradition."

"But isn't having a boat named after your ex-wife a little weird?"

"Not as weird as it could be. She's hard to steer, stubborn, built like a brick shithouse, and just about perfect…." He trailed off.

Gene smiled. "Which MaryAnne are we talking about, here?"

Marty chuckled. "Not sure, bro. I love them both, and never spent enough time with either one."

"This job's hard on relationships," Gene said. "Maybe not as hard as the Navy, but the long hours, unexpected travel, the danger…I don't know how the two of you lasted as long as you did." The left pole dipped. "Hey, we've got a bite!"

Marty flipped to his feet in one fluid motion, an impressive feat on the rocking boat, and grabbed the pole with both hands. Eyes sparkling, he gave it a heave. His muscles strained as he dug in his feet. "That's a big one!"

Gene's phone beeped.Oh, great,he thought. He pulled it from his belt and cupped his hand over the screen to block the glare. It said,Utah. The caller ID readD Street.

"If that's work, tell them we're fucking busy," Marty said, giving another pull and reeling in a few feet of line.

Gene sighed. "It's work, but it's not Sam. It's D Street."

Marty snarled. "I'm on vacation."

"Not anymore," Gene said. He grabbed the other pole and started reeling. "We need to get these lines in and get to port, ASAP." He hit his speed dial as Marty dragged the shark closer to the boat. The phone rang once.

"On it, Gene," Sam said in his ear. "He's in Salt Lake. Flew there from Des Moines three days ago. I'm putting calls out to Carl and Jerri as we speak. Doug's in California, might be a little harder to track down. You'll have a plane waiting. SLC?"

"Yeah, that's fine. There's no point in trying to be sneaky about it. It might tip him off that we know something. Notify the SLC field office that we're coming."

"Will do. I'll have Doug meet you there. What's your ETA to Dulles?"

"Um…." Gene looked around at the open water. "Give us two hours."

"You got it, Gene." Sam hung up.

Gene patted Marty on the back. "You've got ten minutes to land that shark or let it go."

"Yes, sir."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

 

 

October 18th, 12:43 PM PST; San Jacinto Mountain; San Jacinto State Park, California.

 

Doug smiled sadly at the love of his life. Maureen Barnhoorn was a classic beauty, a tiny little thing with raven-black hair, high cheek bones, smooth skin tanned to milk chocolate, and soft brown eyes. They lay naked under the sleeping bag, bundled against the cold.

Doug watched the tears form in Maureen's eyes and stifled a flash of hatred for Gene Palomini. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I have to go." It was one thing to be on call. It was another to break her heart. To be fair, it wasn't Gene's fault. "This guy's going to kill someone else if we don't stop him. Something might break this time. We might get him." He brushed his fingers down her back.

"I know, baby," she said. "Robbie tells me you've got the FBI dream-job, the one everyone shoots for. Special Operations Units get the big guns, the big budgets, the big toys, and only the best get in. He's jealous, you know."

 Doug nodded but didn't interrupt.

"But Robbie doesn't have to be on call 24/7. His office is ten minutes from his house. He works forty hours a week and gets two weeks a year. Twouninterruptedweeks. He gets to spend evenings with his family. Every night." She rolled over and bit his shoulder. "While you, Mister Glamorous-Too-Good-for-a-Desk-Job-Superman, disappear for weeks at a time, following Palomini around, trying to catch this guy, leaving me at home with the kids. When was the last time we had two weeks off together?"

Doug grinned at her. "Last year. We went camping in the mountains. Sound familiar?" She widened her eyes and shook her head in false denial. "And we don't have kids, Maureen."

She grinned back. "Seven months."

"What?" he asked.

"Seven months. You. Me. Babies. Seven months."

He pulled back and searched her face with his eyes. She was beautiful, and ten times more so when she smiled. "You're serious."

She beamed. "Ultrasound confirmed it two days ago. I'm nine weeks along."

"We're having a baby—wait, babies?"

"Twins." She giggled.

Doug beamed. "Really? Boys or girls?"

"Too early to tell." She rolled off him, took his palm, and slid it down to her belly. "Two little peanuts, right here, just growing away."

He kissed her, long and slow. Pulling back, he looked into her eyes. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

She looked outside. "I wanted to be sure. After trying for so long, and nothing. I didn't want you to be disappointed."


Page 5

He enveloped her with his arms, careful not to crush her tiny form. She smelled like butterscotch. "You'll never disappoint me, Mo. Never. You're my rock."

"I love you, too, Doug."

They lay together a while, listening to the sounds of nature. An owl hooted in the distance. Some critter foraged in the brush. Song birds chattered in the trees.

Doug realized he'd been dozing, Maureen draped across him like the world's loveliest blanket, her head on his chest. He squeezed her, gently. "You awake?"

"Yeah," she said, but didn't look up. "I'm telling Branson when I get back next week. The firm has a great maternity leave program, and they'll cover my clients while I'm gone."

He chuckled. "Right. As if they could stop you from working at home. You'll go nuts in two weeks without badgering some bank or another into a multimillion-dollar deal." He moved his hands down her body and gave her a playful double-squeeze.

"Quit," she said.

He jerked his hands up to her lower back. "Sorry."

"Not that." She paused. He waited. "I want you to quit. Transfer. Something, anything, as long as it's safer and doesn't take you away from me. From us. I make enough money to support a family. You could do anything you want."

He opened his mouth but nothing came out.

"Not now. After. Catch this guy first. You don't have it in you to leave in the middle of a job. I know that. But nail this guy, then quit. Transfer to another department, leave altogether, whatever. We can move anywhere you want. I don't care. But quit. Be a dad to our babies."

Doug tried again. "I'll talk to Gene," he said. "But right now I need to go."

She squeezed him. "I know. Come home safe, or I'll kill you."

"Love you, too, babe," he said.

She let him go.

 

*   *   *

 

October 20th, 8:04 AM MST; FBI Field Offices; Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

"Here we go, people," Gene said as he flipped open his phone. He read the message.Salt Lake City. "Go figure. We're already in the right city."

"Great," Marty said. "Now all we need to do is interview everybody in the city and see who's feeling homicidal." Jerri rolled her eyes and looked at Carl. Doug waited for Gene to continue.

Gene gave his brother a grim smile. "Well, we can do a little better than that. Sam, tell them what you've got."

"Well, kids," Sam said through the speaker phone, "one of the new toys we've been working on for some years is face-matching software. DHS first field-tested it at an Oakland Raiders game back in '01, comparing football fans with mug shots."

"I remember that," Jerri said. "Almost a quarter of the Raiders fans were ex-cons, but only five percent of the 49ers. It was totally a Big Brother play. Really irked the civil libertarians."

"That's the one," Sam said. "It was pretty accurate, and they've been refining it since. We've got the traffic camera data and several phone shots from the Jenny Sykes murder, which we can compare to the security tapes from both SLC and Des Moines airport terminals. We got great shots of everyone as they boarded and exited the plane, and we know that D Street's phone was on that plane.

"DHS has some guys vetting the passengers as we speak. Once we know what he looks like, we can search for him on Salt Lake traffic cameras and maybe pin him down. It's needle-in-a-haystack work, but we might get lucky."

Marty grunted.

"We've been through this before," Gene said. "A city simply isn't enough to go on. We give the face-matching program a chance to work, and, failing that, we work like the dickens when we get the neighborhood and the initials. Any other ideas?" Nobody replied. "Questions?"

After a moment, they all shook their heads.

"All right," Gene said. "Keep your thinking caps on. Marty, Jerri, you're on liaison work with the Municipal PD. Carl, Doug, you're with the local Feds. I'll cover the State Police. Go."

He closed his notebook and left the room.

 

*   *   *

 

October 22nd, 10:20 AM MST; FBI Field Offices Training Facility; Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

Gene grunted in pain as Jerri ducked the jab and delivered a solid kick to his ribs. He grabbed her ankle and twisted, hard. She dropped to the ground and spun free, sweeping his legs out from under him in the process. He hit the mat and rolled left as she flipped to her feet. She hit him four more times when he tried to stand. In theory she was pulling punches, but her fists felt like cast iron. He stumbled to his feet and backed up.

He blocked an open-hand slap and threw himself at her, trying to wrap her in a bear hug. She dropped to her knees and delivered a one-two punch right to his groin. The cup absorbed most of the damage, but the impact knocked him off-balance. He stumbled sideways, twisted, and fell on his rear. Jerri stood and leaned casually against the post on the side of the ring.

"That wasn't right, Jerri!" Marty said from the other side of the ropes.

She smiled, took out her mouth guard, and put out a hand to Gene. "We done?"

He removed his own guard. "I think that's enough getting my butt kicked by a girl for today." She helped him up. "That last move wasn't very sporting."

"Jujitsu isn't sporting. It's about putting the hurt on people."

"That would've done it." 

"My turn! My turn!" Marty cried from the sidelines, hopping up and down to get his adrenaline flowing. On the floor next to him, the phone in Gene's duffel bag rang.

"Give me that, would you?" Gene asked Marty.

Marty dug into Gene's duffel, peeked at the phone, and walked over. "It's Sam." He handed it to Gene.

He hit "talk."

"Gene."

"Hey. We got a hit."

"What kind of hit?" 

"Traffic camera, last night. Seven-thousand block of Eagle Crest Drive. Physical description looks right, and it matches a face ID'd on both the airport cameras and two of the crowd shots from the Sykes murder at ninety-two and eighty-six percent probabilities. Statistics says it's the same guy. Here are the pictures." Gene's phone beeped and an image appeared. Marty stopped hopping and peered over his shoulder.

The first black and white photograph showed a Caucasian male with dark hair driving a dark Nissan Sentra. The next was a full-color shot of the same man boarding the plane in Des Moines. The third showed him dressed in a nice suit, hurrying away from the Rodeo Drive car bombing. The fourth was the same scene shot at a different angle.

"Tags?" Gene asked.

"Rental," Sam said. "Rented ten days ago by a Paul Renner, paid with cash but with a credit card on file. Hertz doesn't have a security camera at their counter, but the name's too much of a coincidence to think it's not our guy. I can't find a good reason for the alias. The only vaguely famous 'Paul Renner' was a twentieth century German typographer. Nice fonts. Anyway, his social security number belongs to an eighty-three-year-old named Bruce Hutchinson, who lives in a nursing home in Houston. I haven't notified them of the identity theft yet, and I've got a passive credit alert on the card. If he uses it, we'll get him."

"Sweet," Marty said, eavesdropping.

"Great, Sam," Gene said. "Put out an APB on that Sentra and on 'Paul Renner,' but under no circumstances should law enforcement apprehend. If they see it, tail him, but only if they can do it covertly, and notify me. And get a warrant for that rental paperwork. We might be able to confirm prints off it."

"Got it," Sam said.

"Look into that typographer. The alias might not be a coincidence. It might tell us something about him."

"Sure thing."

"And Sam?"

"Yeah?"

"Tell Carl and Doug to be ready to move at a moment's notice."

"Will do."

He hung up the phone and looked at Jerri. "Shower up. If they find him, we go get him."

Jerri sized up Marty. "Next time, Marty."

Marty grinned. "It'll be my pleasure."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

 

 

October 24th, 8:08 AM MST; Sheila Jones' Apartment; Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

Sheila smiled and stretched languorously on the bed, listening to the shower as last night's e-date got ready for the day. Some kind of business meeting or something. She ran her hands down her naked body and shuddered in remembered pleasure. She fought back the cloud of Ecstasy and alcohol of the previous night to grasp at his name.Pete? Pat? Something like that.

Good fuck, whatever his name was.She'd have to ask for his number. She got up and strolled to the kitchen to rummage through the fridge for some milk. As she reached in, she noticed a small scratch on her wrist.Now where did I get that?she thought, mentally reminding herself to get some Neosporin once the guy got out of the shower.Or maybe I should join him?She frowned.Maybe I won't ask for his number, she thought, glaring at the half-gallon as if it were the milk's fault that she had bad taste in men.

She chugged a couple of gulps from the carton and was putting it back when the front window shattered. Her mouth open in an "O" of shock, she stared at the little hockey-puck-like object that skittered across the floor. Her brain had just enough time to register that she should probably duck or hide or at least close the fridge door or something when the flash-bang grenade went off.

Sheila found herself sprawled naked in a widening pool of milk, staring at the ceiling. Her head felt like a popped balloon, and she tasted blood. The milk felt cold on her back and soaked her hair. She hadn't realized there were so many cobwebs in the corners of her kitchen.Maybe I ought to dust more.

She tried to clear her thoughts as sound rushed back in. Boots thumped everywhere, and she heard a man shout, "CLEAR!" Only then did she realize that a short black kid stood over her with some kind of machine gun. He hadF.B.I.emblazoned on his bulletproof vest and jacket.

"Can you hear me?" His eyes were cold. She nodded. "Sheila Jones?" he asked again, wasting no time on superfluous talk. She nodded again. She felt like a marching band was drumming its way around her skull. "Where's Paul Renner?"Fuck, that was his name. Paul.

"Um. Shower." She pointed toward the bathroom. He took off at a dead run. Sheila fainted.

 

The bathroom door was ajar. Carl pushed it open with his left hand while Jerri covered him. Fog billowed from the muggy room. Condensation covered both the tiny window and the large mirror. Hot water streamed down in the shower. Carl crept forward, both hands tight on the fully automatic MP5. The safety was off. He inched forward. One hand on the trigger, he reached with the other and yanked back the shower curtain. The water sprayed on empty porcelain.

Carl stepped back. "Master bath's clear," he said over the COM. "Jerri, check the bedroom closet."

"Got it," she said from behind.

Carl took a doubtful look at the window, cracked to let in a breeze.No way a guy could fit through there, even if it were wide open.He peered out, his weapon raised and ready to fire.

The burst of pain as his elbow dislocated was the first indication that he wasn't alone. Carl tried to cry out, but a strike to the throat silenced him. His mouth worked like a fish’s, gasping for breath that wouldn't come. D Street wrenched his arm behind his back. Carl felt ligaments tear and tendons rupture even as the killer plucked the MP5 from his hand.

Ah, shit, this guy's fast,was the last thing Carl had a chance to think before another blow dropped him like a sack of meat. He squirmed on the ground but couldn't summon the mental energy to do anything else. His eyes rolled into the back of his head.

 

Paul Renner inspected the submachine gun while Special Agent Carl Brent twitched at his feet. There was a round in the chamber, a fully loaded magazine, and the safety was off. He kicked the downed man in the temple, hard, with his steel-toed boot.Should have looked up,he thought. With an amused smile, he stepped through the doorway and into the bedroom.

Special Agent Jerri Bates had a fantastic ass. Paul took a moment to admire it as she rifled through the closet, pounding on the walls with the heel of her hand. His grin got bigger as she called out to her partner, her voice muffled by the clothes.

 

The closet was a dead end. There weren't any secret hidey-holes, nowhere for the perp to go, nowhere to hide.I hope Marty and Gene are having more luck in the front.Jerri banged around a bit more just to be sure, then called out, "Carl, he's not in the closet. There's no escape route here!"

"I know," said a man's voice. It wasn't Carl. "Nice guns, these HKs."

Jerri's fingers twitched on her weapon, and she readied herself to turn and fire.

"Don't," the killer said, his voice full of contempt. She froze. "Slowly, drop the gun and put your hands in the air." In spite of herself, she did so.Oh, God, who's going to tell my mom that I'm dead?

She turned around, a tear forming in her eye, and looked at the killer. The D Street Killer was so ordinary that he would blend into any crowd. Almost six feet tall, black hair, brown eyes, handsome but not enough to stand out in any given company.Jesus,she thought,I could walk right by him a thousand times and never recognize him.Even so, she scanned him for anything that might be useful later. A tiny scar on his right eyebrow. A slight asymmetry to his smile.Not that it matters. I'm already dead.She glanced at the boots protruding from the bathroom door.Poor Carl.

Images flashed through her head. Her mother, laughing as she tried to blow out the five candles on her first real birthday cake. Her friend Angela pushing her on the swing set in third grade. Her first kiss. Her last kiss, only two weeks before. She closed her eyes, filled only with regret. The killer's voice was as soft as silk. "There's no money in this," he said, almost sadly, and her world went black.


Page 6

 

*   *   *

 

October 24th, 8:31 AM MST; Sheila Jones' Apartment; Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

Gene looked around the apartment, his head throbbing in spite of the cocktail of Benadryl, Advil, and Sudafed he'd downed an hour before. Between a brutal sinus infection and being the Special Agent-in-Charge of this botch-job of an operation, he had good reason for misery. He glared at Marty with unbridled anger, his red face turning redder with the exertion. "How can a guy just disappear out a window barely big enough for a cat?"

"Don't know, Gene," Marty said. "I don't think he ever got in the fucking shower in the first place. Probably wasn't even in the bathroom when Carl went in there." Marty sneered and held up his thumb and index finger. "We werethis fucking closeto nabbing that motherfucker, Gene.This close." He dropped his hand. "Still, we didn't come away entirely empty-handed. Whoever LRJ is, he's safe. For now." With a glance at Carl he continued. "Hey, Carl, show him what we got."

Carl limped over with two sealed plastic bags, the latex gloves a sharp contrast to his dark brown skin. He held up the bags with the arm not in a sling and winced at the effort. The left side of his face was a swollen, purple bruise. Gene almost felt bad for whining to himself about his own head. Almost.

Carl sounded confident, though he looked ready to collapse. "Two wallets, four IDs, six credit cards, two debit cards—both local—and a cell phone, prepaid I-590, same one Sam was tracking, and the same one that sent the text this morning.LRJ, Poplar Grove. We're monitoring the account—these things have 'net-accessible mailboxes—even though we know he's too smart to use it again. Sam's checking the balances on the bank accounts so we can seize them."

Sam broke in. "Yeah, not much. A couple grand in each account. The credit cards are all identity-theft. The aliases are all bunk. We're sending some people to check on the addresses, though."

Darn it,Gene thought.The addresses never check out.

Carl continued. "I think the woman's worthless, met him through one of those online dating services. Last night was their first date. Jerri and Doug are interrogating her now."

Carl inclined his head toward the bedroom where Sheila Jones sat in a flimsy nightgown, flanked by Doug and Jerri.

Gene's headache was relentless. "Yeah, okay, Carl. Let me know what Sam turns up. In the meantime, get some rest." He turned to his brother. "Marty, talk to local and have them set up interviews with all our LRJs. How many of them do we have?"

"Eighteen," Marty said. "I'm on it." He walked out of the apartment and down the steps to the car.

Gene entered the bedroom and glowered at the woman they'd found in the kitchen. Doug spoke while Jerri stared at the wall. Gene motioned to her, and they stepped into the hallway for privacy.

"Sorry, boss," she said.

"Not your fault, Jerri. It was a clean Op. We were just outsmarted." They'd been outsmarted for three years, and the team before them for another seven.

Jerri sighed, her face doubtful. "If you say so." 

Gene's expression, already worried, became downright grave. "What exactly does that mean, Agent Bates?"

She snarled. "Guy had me cold, Gene. I was dead. Dead." She frowned at the tile floor where they had found Carl. "He didn't do me, didn't do Carl. Hell, he barely even touched me." She gave an apologetic look through the doorway. Gene followed her gaze to Carl, leaning against the wall in the next room. Carl might never regain the use of his arm. "It doesn't make any goddamn sense. Why let us live, especially now that he knows that we know what he looks like?" Her eyes shone with such ferocity that for a moment Gene could see what Marty saw in her.

"Shouldn't surprise us, Jerri. The only M.O. this guy's got is that there isn't any M.O. No serial in the books would have let you or Carl live."

Jerri looked at the floor and said, "There's no money in it."

"What?" Gene asked, confused.

She repeated herself with more certainty, looking him dead in the eyes. "'There's no money in it.' That's what D Street said just before he took me down. What's it mean?"

Gene grimaced. "I don't know, Jerri. But I think we ought to find out."

 

Over the next three days, two text messages were sent to the phone recovered in Sheila Jones' apartment. They were encrypted, and both a single line in length. Sam knew they were gibberish code-phrases. Phrases that, even if they hacked the encryption, wouldn't mean anything unless she knew what each word represented. "Blue moon sits on the hen's egg" or some crap like that. Even if they weren't gibberish, they were too short to bust open. She'd sent them to cryptanalysis anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

 

 

November 14th, 5:18 PM EST; J. Edgar Hoover Building; Washington, D.C.

 

Gene sat at his desk, working on the Salt Lake City report. He'd been staring at a computer monitor for six hours straight and felt like it. His team, along with countless behind-the-scenes forensics experts, had been working sixteen-hour days for two weeks straight. His phone chirped, and he hit "speaker."

"Palomini." 

"Hey," Sam said. "We have our LRJ."

"Fantastic. Who is it?"

"Lawrence Reginald Johnson, Jr., retired garbage man and grandfather."

Gene put his head in his hands and rubbed his temples. "Any pattern matches?" 

"None so far. No correlation between Mr. Johnson and any of the other victims."

"No surprise there," Gene said. "Why do we think it's him?"

"Weknowit's him," Sam said, "because Larry has a blog that almost nobody reads. But he was logged six times in the past three months through municipal firewalls. Once from Los Angeles; once from Syracuse, New York; once from Rochester, Minnesota; again from Los Angeles; and twice from Des Moines. In that order. Do those locations sound familiar?"

Gene played dumb. "Gee, Sam, they almost sound like D Street's travel patterns. I assume the dates match what we have from the phone?"

"Yup. Sure do!" Sam's enthusiasm matched his own.

"Awesome work, Sam. Double-check the rest of our LRJs, and let PC know they'll be able to let them go soon."

"Will do. FYI, I'm still trying to crack the encryption on those text messages, but I'm not hopeful. Chad DelGatto from crypto has an idea about using area-code iterations and an Apex-Lucinda approach to break the—"

Gene cut her off. "Sounds good, Sam. Let me know how it goes." He'd never studied cryptography, and she'd never stop explaining once she got rolling.

"Right." She hung up.

Gene turned back to his paperwork. Another hour or two, and he'd be done for the week. But first, he had to figure out what to do with Larry Johnson, Jr. An idea came to him, and he picked up the phone.

 

*   *   *

 

November 16th, 8:20 AM CST; Home of Agent Robert Barnhoorn; St. Louis, Missouri.

 

Doug walked up the sidewalk, hand in hand with Maureen, to the yellow, two-story colonial. Maureen opened the door and called out, "Hi, Robbie!" A cute little projectile in the form of Evan Barnhoorn flew across the living room and leapt into the air with a gleeful cry. Doug intercepted the squirming child and flipped him upside-down. Holding him up so that they were face-to-inverted-face, Doug gave his best bad-cop face.

"Who are you?" Doug asked, digging his fingers in just enough to tickle with every word.

Evan squirmed and giggled. "Uncle Doug!" he said reproachfully. "I'm Evan!"

Doug gave him a thoughtful stare while Maureen suppressed a smile. "Can't be. Evan is a little tiny thing. You're all grown up!" Evan giggled again. "How old are you now?" Doug asked.

"Six!"

"Six? That's impossible. You can't be six yet."

"Can, too!" Evan said. "Someday I'll be as old as you! As old as Aunt Maureen!" Marcy Barnhoorn stepped into the living room, smiling. A plump woman in her mid-forties with disheveled strawberry blonde hair framing her face, she had a vitality about her that outshone her appearance, even through her flour-dusted hands and apron. She raised her eyebrows and mouthed the wordcoffee?

Doug flashed her a smile and a quick nod, then flipped Evan right-side up. Maureen stepped around him to greet her sister-in-law.

"And how old is your Aunt Maureen, little man?" Doug asked.

"Old!" Evan said.

Doug set him down and tousled his hair. "Brave little guy, aren't you? Now where's your dad?"

"Robbie's out by the garage," Marcy said. "Why don't you go find him, and I'll brew the coffee and catch up with my favorite girl?"

"Sounds like a plan, ma'am," Doug said. He gave Maureen a quick kiss and headed for the back door.

 

"For how long?" Robbie asked as he flipped the steaks on the grill.

"We're not sure," Doug said. "We're assuming he's in danger until we catch D Street, so think of it like witness protection." The steaks smelled fantastic, but Robbie always overcooked them.

"And this guy is how old?"

"Sixties. Retired. Wants to get back to his grandchildren. Wants to not get murdered even more."

"Good plan," Robbie said. "It'd probably ruin his year."

"Yeah. Can you do it?"

"Yeah," Robbie said. "We've got a couple of apartments we use as safe houses. There's no reason we couldn't put him up for the foreseeable future. I'll make it happen."

"Great," Doug said. "I'll let Gene know."

"Speaking of Gene, how did he take the news?"

Doug froze. "I haven't said anything yet."

Robbie held up a finger. "Wait a minute. You haven't said anything to him about leaving the team, or you haven't told Mo you aren't?"

Doug looked uncomfortable. "I haven't decided yet." He turned to face Robbie directly. "I'm kind of hoping I can talk her out of it. I can't imagine doing anything else."

Robbie let out a low whistle. "I'll pretend we didn't have this conversation then. Let you deal with Big Sis."

"Good idea," Doug said. "Because if I have to hear it from her that she heard something from you, I'll have to kill you. And then Marcy will kill me. And then Mo will kill her."

Robbie smiled. "So are you excited?"

"Thrilled," Doug said, taking a sip of beer. "Terrified. She's an amazing woman. I can't imagine the forces of nature her kids will be."

Robbie rolled his eyes. "With your luck they'll have her temperament and your size."

 

*   *   *

 

November 16th, 9:55 AM CST; Glenview Manor Apartments; St. Louis, Missouri.

 

Robbie Barnhoorn parked the car in the back lot of a gargantuan white building, one of ten just like it scattered across the landscape. He killed the engine and looked at his passenger. Larry Johnson was bald, heavily wrinkled, and grotesquely tan. He looked like a shriveled apple in a heavy sweater. "Well, Larry, we're 'home.' Apartment 4B is yours. We've got guys in 4A, and the rest of the floor we keep empty in case we need them."

Larry looked out the window and sighed.

Robbie patted him on the shoulder. "It's just until they catch this guy."

He sighed again. "I know. Let's take a look."

Upstairs, Robbie knocked on the door to 4A. After a few seconds it opened, revealing a stocky man with a bristly gray beard, wearing nothing but green boxer shorts. The man's eyes widened, and he stepped back. "Sorry, Robbie, I didn't realize we had company."

Smirking, Robbie stepped into the apartment, revealing a kitchen to the left and a small living area straight ahead. "Larry, this disgrace to the Bureau is Josh Santee. Josh is an undercover who needs to lay low for a while. If you need anything, just ask. He looks like a wild boar even with clothes on, but he's a pushover. Josh Santee, Larry Johnson. Larry is staying across the hall for a while."

Josh stuck out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Larry shook his hand. "Likewise."

"Put some pants on," Robbie said. "It's almost ten in the morning." As Josh ducked into a bedroom, Robbie called out, "Hey, where's Nick?"

"Shopping. He'll be back in a while."

"Nick Faughn is Josh's roommate," Robbie said to Larry. "He's a VICAP guy in town to help us with a case." Larry raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, similar job description as Palomini's team, but he does kidnapping, not mass killers." Robbie helped himself to a cup of coffee. "Coffee?"

"Herbal tea if you've got it," Larry said. "Or just water."

Robbie rummaged through the cupboard and emerged victorious with a box of Chamomile. He put a cup of water in the microwave and started it.

Josh emerged from the bedroom in jeans and an Arizona Cardinals T-shirt. "Better?"

"Much," Robbie said.

Josh raised his chin at Larry. "You from Jersey?"

Larry smiled. "Orange. Way back. How'd you know?"

"Newark." He thumbed his chest. "I could hear it in your voice. Not much, but there's a little in there, hiding under all that Southwest."

"Huh," Larry said. "You'd think a couple decades in Utah'd take care of that." He shrugged. "You're good."

"I can mimic most accents pretty good, and hear them better than just about anybody in the Bureau. When I'm not undercover, I do some forensic linguistics stuff."

"Wow," Larry said.

"Don't let him fool you," Robbie said. "He's every bit as dumb as he looks."

"Thanks, Rob," Josh said. He knocked on the counter twice. "You guys want some breakfast? I'm starving."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

 

 

May 17th, 12:28 PM EST; Kendall Memorial Park; Washington, D.C.


Page 7

 

Gene rolled his eyes and shoved Marty left-handed, careful not to burn him with the cigar. His brother pinwheeled his arms, lost his balance, and fell off the picnic table. He landed on his back in a spray of scotch and ice, his red plastic cup tumbling out of his hand on impact. Carl stopped the music, laughing. While Marty dusted himself off, Gene puffed on the cigar and stepped down. He walked up to Doug and wrapped him in a hug.

"I love you, man," Gene said. He pulled back and clapped Doug on the shoulders.

"You're drunk," Doug replied, the barest trace of a smirk tugging at his mouth.

Gene nodded and took another puff. "You're a dad."

Doug grinned. "I am."

Gene looked at Maureen and the girls, who sat under the giant parasol that Sam had brought. Jerri and Sam fawned over the pink bassinettes. "Those are some beautiful girls you've got there. And Maureen looks great." Doug caught her eye, and she waved. Her eyes were all for the father of her children, but flickered to Gene and away before she turned her attention back to the babies.

"Yeah." Doug's tone turned serious. "Can we talk?"

"Sure, Doug. What about?"

They walked toward the swing sets as Carl re-started the music. Marty had poured himself another Glenmorangie and was back on the table, dancing badly. Doug looked out across the city. "It's been six months, Gene. No sign."

Gene groaned. "This is about work?" He looked wistfully back at the picnic.

Doug stopped in his tracks and looked Gene in the eye, forcing him to shift his attention back to the conversation. "No. This is about me. I'm quitting the team."

Gene blinked. "What?"

"After we nail D Street. Maureen wants me out, and I want…." He trailed off. He looked up at the sky, thinking. Gene waited. "I want her. And she can't handle this. It rips her up every time I leave, because she doesn't know if I'll be coming back."

Gene stared off into the distance. "What are you going to do?"

"Not sure. Maybe I'll be a stay-at-home dad."

Gene smiled. "You wouldn't last a week. Those girls will eat you alive."

Doug replied softly, "So you're okay with this?"

Gene puffed on his cigar. "I'm not going to try to talk you out of it. You've got different priorities now. Good for you. And if you want it, your job will always be here."

"Thanks, Gene."

They walked back to the group in silence.

 

*   *   *

 

June 22nd, 12:59 PM PST; Paul Renner's Apartment; Los Angeles, California.

 

Paul was at his computer when the phone rang. He put on his headphones and clicked "answer."

"Hello?" he said.

"Paul Renner?" asked a digitally scrambled voice.

The trace program confirmed the encrypted call came from a recently activated, prepaid cellular phone.

"Yes." 

"Your standard fee is fifty thousand dollars American?" The fake Russian accent was pretty good. The way this client said "fifty thousand" never quite changed enough to disguise his identity.

Paul grunted in surprise. Business had dried up after the Larry Johnson fiasco. He never expected another contract from the same employer.Might as well play dumb,he thought.Fifty grand is fifty grand.

"Plus expenses," he said.

"And to where do I send the information?" He said it like "'info-mission."Definitely the same man.

"I'll send you a phone," Paul said, playing along. "You'll get a text with an e-mail account. You reply to that address, which will report that the message bounced. I'll retrieve it from there. I need an address."

The man gave him a P.O. Box at the main Postal hub in Baltimore, Maryland.

"One week."

Paul hung up the phone, frowning. In the past two years, this client had paid fifty large a pop to have seven people killed. He used different phones, different accents, and different accounts, but it was the same man. There were a lot of reasons why any given person would be willing to pay fifty grand to see another person dead. Jealousy, blackmail, cheating, irrational hatred. They all made sense, and Paul was happy to provide the service if the price was right. But so many people hated by one man?

A retired policeman, a nursing assistant, a second grade teacher, an unemployed derelict in public housing, the mother of a celebutante known for getting drunk and screaming at her entourage, a community college ombudsman, and a retired garbage man.

Weird.Paul took out a brand-new NetPhone I-590, fresh out of the box. He went online, activated it, and packaged it for shipping.

 

A week later, Paul stared at his phone in utter disbelief. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the screen. His mind wouldn't accept what he saw.

Kevin Parsons

271 Hawkes Drive

Lincoln, NE 68508

He read it again, for the hundredth time.

This can't be a test. They don't know who I am.

Research time gave him a few months to figure this out. He could invent a delay if he needed to. He read the name again.

This can't be a coincidence.

He read it again.

If I turn it down, they'll send somebody else.

He read it again.

This can't be a trap. It can't be a test.

The phone shattered against the wall. Paul closed his eyes tight and took several deep breaths. His heart rate slowed. His mind went through the litany.

Kevin Parsons. Age 66. Retired. Widower, lives alone. One child, 36. No grandchildren. No security on the house, no guards, no dog, no frequent visitors. Clockwork schedule:  goes to service on Sundays, then out to breakfast at the Easy Peasy; bowls on Tuesdays, 7:30 PM; jogs every morning at 6:15 AM. An easy kill.But why would anyone want him dead?

 

*   *   *

 

June 26th, 10:45 AM CST; Home of Kevin Parsons; Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

Paul Renner pulled the rental car up to the driveway of a quaint, 1950s-style split-level, painted a generic off-white with a gray-shingled roof. A plastic trout served as the mailbox, emblazonedParsonsin bold white on the side. He gathered his thoughts, suppressing the façade of Paul Renner into background noise.

He got out of the car, patted the fish-box on the head, walked up to the door, and rang the bell. A familiar chime sounded inside the house, followed by his father's gruff voice. "Just a minute!"

The door opened to reveal a man in his mid-sixties. He held a cup of coffee in one hand, a newspaper in the other, and had an enormous grin on his face. His dad had long ago lost the battle to a receding hairline and had only wisps of white above his ears. Despite the hour, he wore white boxer shorts and an undershirt stretched comfortably over a bit of a gut.

"Steve!" his dad cried out and wrapped him in a giant hug, almost spilling his coffee in the process.

"Hi, Dad," Paul said, his voice sounding chagrined.

His father pulled back, his face sly. "What're you doing here, after so long with no visits? Need money?"

It was a long-standing joke. Whenever he visited, Paul tried to give his dad money, or a car, or a new TV, or tickets to the theater. Every time, Dad turned him down. His dad had taken to asking him if he needed money before he could offer anything.

"No, Dad. I'm set for cash."

"Have you talked to your cousin Ryan lately?" his dad asked, leading him to the kitchen.

"Not in a few months. We're both busy, I guess." Paul helped himself to a cup of coffee and pointed at the old, battered toaster oven next to the pot. "Hey, where's the one I got you?"

His dad smiled. "That one works just fine. Pastor Jenkins needed a new one for the hospitality room. Theirs died."

"Huh," Paul said. He took a tentative sip. "Sheesh, Dad, you could strip paint with this." He set the cup on the counter and opened the cupboard, looking for some sugar.

His dad chuckled and took a swallow of his own. "Does the body good." He paused. "You should call Ryan, though. Family's important. The most important thing you've got."

Paul smiled, blanking his thoughts. "I will, Dad, I will. I met his new girl, what's-her-name, not too long ago. We saw a show and caught up a little. She seems nice."

"Sheisnice, Steve. So's that Courtney you brought around that time. I wouldn't mind seeing her around a bit more."

Paul frowned.That timewas three years ago. Long-term attachments didn't mesh well with his line of work.

His dad hadn't noticed. "You could use a lady in your life, you know? Your mother…."

Paul looked at his dad, startled. Dad never talked about Mom. Never.

"Your mother…." He smiled sadly. "She was the best thing that ever happened to me. The best."

"I know, Pop," Paul said. He blinked.A blonde woman lay on beige carpet stained red with blood. He pressed his palms into her neck. His hands were too small; he couldn't stop the bleeding. Hot and red, it filled his nostrils, metallic and cloying. Rough hands on his shoulders dragged him to a navy-blue van emblazoned with three yellow letters:  FBI. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't stop screaming.He blinked again. "I wish I'd known her."

 They drank their coffee in silence. After a few minutes, his dad clapped once. "Well, enough moping about the past. What say we go work on that crawl space?"

"Ooh, goody." 

They put their dishes away and headed to the back of the house.

 

That evening Paul sat at the kitchen table, a cup of rotgut coffee in one hand and a powdered doughnut in the other, and stared at his father's incredulous face. It felt discordant looking at his dad with the façade of Renner in place, but this wasn't a job for the real him.Man up, he thought.A little cognitive dissonance never hurt anybody.

"You want me to do what?" Kevin Parsons asked.

"I need you to hide for a while," Paul said. "I have a cabin, fully stocked, isolated. Nobody knows it's mine. Nobody could trace you there. I need you to get in the car I've got outside, go there, and not tell anybody. Anybody. And don't use any credit cards along the way."

"But…. Why? For how long?" 

"I don't know. Probably a few months, maybe longer. I can't tell you why, but it's very important."

Kevin frowned out the window, then at his son. "This is ridiculous. Are you in danger?" 

Paul shook his head.

"Am I?"

Paul took a sip of coffee, stalling. He looked at the ceiling, then at Kevin. "Yes."

"From who?"

"I don't know, Dad," Paul said. "But they're going to kill you, and I need time to figure out who they are and how to stop them."

Kevin blinked several times, then pinched his own arm. "Am I dreaming?"

"No," Paul said. Kevin paced in front of the window.

"Steve, this is ridiculous. People are trying to kill me, but you don't know who they are, or how long I'll be hiding, or why they—" He stopped dead, then approached the table. A giant grin split his face as he leaned on the back of a chair. "And where is this cabin?"

Paul didn't like the look of that grin. "Near Lake Tahoe."

His dad flopped into the chair. "Jesus, Son, you really had me there. If you want to buy me a vacation, you don't need to scare me to death. The answer's still no, though. We've been through this, and it's not like I don't appreciate the thought." One look at his son's face and his smile faded.

Paul leaned across the table and grabbed his father's hand. He looked him in the eyes and willed him to understand. "Dad. I'm not kidding. This isn't a vacation. This is hiding, from very bad people."

Come on,Paul thought.Just believe it.

"You're serious," his dad said.

Paul squeezed Kevin's hand, then let go. "Yeah, I'm serious." He picked up the doughnut and took a bite.

"But…who on Earth would want me dead?"

"My thoughts exactly," Paul said, leaning back in his chair. "It doesn't make any sense."

His dad frowned. "And how do you know? How are you mixed up in all this, Steve?"

Paul looked into his cup. "You trust me, don't you, Dad?"

"Yeah, of course I do. But this. This is nuts."

"Yes, it is," Paul replied. "Will you do it?"

"Do I have a choice?"

Paul folded his hands over his head and looked at the ceiling. "Yeah, Dad, of course you have a choice. You can stay here until they get you, or you can run somewhere else while I sort this out. Or you could go to the cops, but they won't believe you." He looked at Kevin. "They'll just think you're crazy."

Kevin stared at him across the table. "Son, you have a lot of money, more than a mid-level programmer should have. I've known that for a long time. I raised you better than to be a crook, so I always figured you have to work for the government. CIA or something."

Paul kept his face blank.

"Anyway," Kevin continued, "I know you've been protecting your innocent old dad from it for a long time. Thank you. I've never asked before, but I need to know. Are you a criminal?"

"No," he lied. "I do what I'm paid to do. It's…complicated, and classified, but it's on the up-and-up." Paul kept his eyes locked on Kevin's. Finally, Kevin looked down.

"Okay, son. Okay. I believe you."

"But?" Paul asked.

"But can't you do something about this guy? Like, I stay here, and, when he comes to get me, you and your buddies get him instead?"

Paul sighed. "They'd just hire somebody else. Whoever 'they' are."

"So I go hide in a hole somewhere, and you find out."

"Yup," Paul said. "But it's a nice cabin, Dad. You'll like it. You can hunt and fish, and there's plenty of food, satellite TV and radio, a small library. It'll be nice. I'll give you a cell. I'll call every week, and, once I figure this thing out, I'll come get you."

"So be it. When do we leave?"

Paul picked up the keys. "Right now."

 

 


Page 8

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

 

 

September 19th, 8:19 PM EST; J. Edgar Hoover Building; Washington, D.C.

 

Sam's phone rang. She touched the "answer" icon on her computer screen. "Sam Greene, hold please," she said without taking her eyes from the monitor. She pressed "hold." The satellite video feed showed a truck pulling into a warehouse. She relayed this information to Team Bravo, then hit the "hold" button again.

"Yes?" she asked.

"Would you be interested in a lead on the D Street case?" Chad DelGatto asked.

Sam smiled. Almost a year had passed since the near-miss in Salt Lake, and D Street had gone gun-shy. Palomini's team had been tasked to "supplementary investigations support." They were desperate for a break. "Very," she said.

"Well, then, look what I've found, Sammy," Chad said. A ten-digit number popped up on the screen.

"That is?" 

"That's the phone number of the guy who sent those text messages to your I-590 last October. We still can't break the messages themselves, but we managed to crunch through the numerical with Apex-Lucinda and an area code regression Jim wrote. A-L is hot shit, Sam. You should see it in action. Beautiful."

"Chad, I could kiss you," she said.

 

"Happy hunting." 

The line went dead.

The area code was D.C., the exchange Georgetown. She searched for details on the number. Beaming, Sam hit the COM button for Gene Palomini.

 

*   *   *

 

September 19th, 10:38 PM EST; Georgetown; Washington, D.C.

 

Jerri surveyed the complex. It was brick, one of a million just like it in cities all over America. According to Sam it contained nine small apartments, three per floor, each over two thousand dollars a month, plus utilities. They were considered cheap for the area.

Remind me not to move to Georgetown,Jerri thought as she crept up the stairs toward the door labeled 3A. A typical American pre-fab panel, all it would take would be a good kick from a trained martial artist to open it, deadbolt or no. Doug stood behind her, service 9mm pointed at the door. Carl whispered through the COM. "Fire escape clear. Back entrance clear."

"Approaching entrance," she whispered back, her senses at maximum alert.

With grim determination, she motioned to Doug. Infrared surveillance showed one person, awake and in the kitchen, with a stove burner on.

"Entrance in three, two, one!" Doug Goldman body-slammed the door. The flimsy wood shattered against not one but two deadbolts and a security chain. Doug smashed right through the cheap door and into the room, rolling left to give Jerri a clear field of fire.

"FBI, FREEZE!" she yelled, stepping through and panning her sub-machinegun toward the kitchen. The place reeked of sautéed garlic and unchanged litter box. An unattended pan crackled on the stove, the source of the more pleasant of the two smells.Where is he?she thought. Paul Renner had gotten the jump on her once, and she swore to herself it wouldn't happen again. Carl still didn't know where the hell he'd come from in that bathroom.

She covered Doug as he moved into the kitchen. Staccato gunfire rang out from the fire escape, the high-pitched ricochets louder than the muffled shots of Carl's automatic. "He's got a gun!" cried Carl over the COM as Gene eased up behind her. Jerri tracked her weapon left and right. Nothing moved.

"You're surrounded," Gene yelled. "Come out with your hands up!" His voice filled the small apartment, making the following silence that much more silent. Five seconds passed. Then ten.

A shape emerged from the bedroom on the right, hands folded on top of his head like a good little criminal.Great, career perp,thought Jerri. Keeping his assault rifle trained, Gene ordered him into the living room. The man did as he was told and stepped into the light. About 5' 10", he was in his mid-twenties, with brown hair and eyes to match. His stupid grin made Jerri regret not shooting him the moment he came into view. He wore a wife-beater and plaid boxers, with black socks that matched the spit-shined dress shoes by the door.

"Sit on the couch and keep your hands where we can see them," Gene said. The man complied. Jerri wanted to bash the grin off his face with the butt of her gun.

Instead she asked, "ID?" The man reached slowly toward the wallet on the end table. He seemed oblivious to the danger posed by three high-strung and heavily armed FBI agents.Cool cucumber,Jerri thought.

"CLEAR!" sounded from the bedroom, and a few seconds later from the bathroom. Gene still stood in the doorway, weapon pointed at the man's head, finger on the trigger, a bead of sweat trickling down his temple. The suspect tossed the wallet to Jerri. She found a D.C. driver's license for Brian LaMonte, whose picture matched the man in front of her, sleazy grin and all.

"Do you know why we're here, Mr. LaMonte?" Jerri said. She kept her voice calm in spite of the adrenaline pumping through her system.

LaMonte shook his head and didn't even look around as Doug came back into the room behind him. Doug held up a small pistol. "This was on the bed," he said.

Jerri sneered at LaMonte. "Can you guess?"

He shook his head again.

With a sigh, Gene began the Miranda litany. "You have the right to remain silent…."

LaMonte's voice shook, but not as much as it should have. "Don't bother. You're in over your head, agent whoever-you-are, and you're not getting a life preserver from me." A nervous giggle punctuated the remark.

Gene's jaw clenched tight as he spat the rest of the words through his teeth. "Does 'don't bother' mean you are waiving your rights?"

Jerri glanced at her boss with serious concern.Just don't kill him, Gene.

LaMonte looked from Gene back to Jerri. "Nah, not waiving. I just think you should talk to my boss instead of me."

Gene waited, but LaMonte just let him wait. "And who might that be, Mr. LaMonte?"

"I'm not at liberty to say." 

Jerri put her hand on Gene's shoulder and thanked God that Marty was with Carl. Gene held his temper in check, one of several reasons he had "In Charge" after "Special Agent" on his title, while Marty didn't.

Jerri broke in, holding a slip of paper in front of LaMonte's eyes. "What does this phone number mean to you?" She ignored Gene's annoyed look.

The man said, "You'll have to ask my boss."

Time for bad cop, she thought. LaMonte gasped in pain as Jerri grabbed his hair and wrenched his head back.

"I SAID WHAT THE FUCK DOES IT MEAN TO YOU, ASSHOLE?"

LaMonte's grin returned. "Get your hands off me or I'll have you up on charges."

"Well then," Jerri said, "we might as well get our money's worth." Her hand tightened on his hair and bent his head back farther. LaMonte looked desperately past her. Gene left the room. Doug cracked his knuckles and formed a pair of ham-sized fists. It was time for "bad cop, worse cop."

Brian LaMonte broke immediately. "Don't. Please. I work for Central Intelligence."

 

*   *   *

 

October 2nd, 7:53 PM EST; J. Edgar Hoover Building; Washington, D.C.

 

Marty pulled off 9th Street toward 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, the J. Edgar Hoover Building. He eased the government-owned Ford Taurus four-door through the tourist-choked traffic, cursing the existence of every car in his way. The building ahead of him was awe-inspiring, both in size and in modern hideousness. It was everything that the White House was not.

The squat edifice covered a city block and comprised 2.8 million square feet of cubicles, offices, training grounds, and even a gun range. It housed more than six thousand employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover himself was rumored to have called it "the ugliest building I've ever seen." Rumor or no, Marty agreed. The thing was grotesque. He waved his pass at the security guard, parked, and went inside.

Brian LaMonte was in FBI custody at an undisclosed location, and once he realized that, no, he wouldn't be given a phone call, and, no, he had no rights except what they chose to give him, and, no, it didn't matter that he was a CIA spook, he'd finally given them the name of his boss and a promise that he'd "clear everything up."

LaMonte's boss, Ernest MacGowan, was in a conference room in the Hoover building, waiting for Marty and the rest of his brother's team to show up. He'd already told Gene by phone that there was nothing he could do for them. He'd also agreed to meet with them, if only for the sake of professional courtesy, and on the condition that they released Brian LaMonte into his custody. According to Sam, Mr. MacGowan had been stalling, hedging, and hiding behind the "classified nature of the subject." Marty couldn't wait to shatter his illusions.

Marty lumbered down the hall to Conference Room Magnolia. Why the FBI would name their rooms after flowers of all things he'd never know.Fucking flowers.He opened the door without knocking, the sneer on his face unrelenting. The rest of the team sat at the table, and every one of them looked annoyed as hell.

MacGowan was a short, fat dude, obviously of Scottish descent, with a mop of curly red hair and pasty white skin that would rival that of any vampire.If Moby Dick got drunk enough to fuck Carrot Top…,Marty thought. He hated him on sight.

Carl and Doug glared at MacGowan with naked hostility. Carl's bad arm rested on the table.Poor bastard will never heal completely.The thought infuriated Marty. Jerri lounged against the wall while Gene frowned across the table at the pasty, fat little man.

With a momentary glance at Marty, whale-boy continued talking. "Like I said, Agent LaMonte is on special assignment, and his involvement with Mr. Renner is classified." He crossed his arms in a matter-of-fact, "so that's that" sort of way.

Gene opened his mouth to speak, but Marty never gave him a chance. He lunged, grabbed the fat little puke by the chin, and hefted him to his feet. The CIA-man's pale face flushed with anger, and he blustered in protest. Marty slammed him against the wall one-handed, adrenaline cooperating with corded muscle in one fluid motion.

He leaned to within inches of MacGowan's stinking little freckled face and spat out in barely-controlled rage, "You realize we have a fucking serial killer on our hands? You realize this guy's killed at least two dozen people over the past ten years?"

Pointing at Carl's wounded arm with his free hand, he seethed through clenched teeth, "You realize he crippled my fucking partner, you fat fuck? If you think you're getting your man back without some kind of cooperation—"

Gene laid a hand on his brother's arm. Marty's eyes flashed in anger. "Let him go, bro."

Marty shook with rage, ready to pull MacGowan’s head off with his bare hands. After a long moment, he dropped him with a shove into the wall. The recoil propelled Marty backward and into the table. With a sneer he spat, "Okay, then, CIA-man, what the fuck is the problem? You going to tell us to just walk away from this?"

To Marty's surprise, Ernest MacGowan calmly straightened his clothes, even though his hands were shaking. "That's exactly what I'm telling you to do. This man isn't a common criminal. He isn't even an uncommon criminal." He sat down, picked up a powdered doughnut, and added, "In fact, you might not be able to call him a criminal at all." He took a small bite, white powder coating his double chin.

His eyes narrowed to dangerous slits, and Doug blurted, "What does that mean, Agent MacGowan?" Doug's face was blotchy from the effort of remaining civil under the circumstances. Marty was right there with him. "I may be just a dense G-man, but how is a serial killer not a criminal, exactly?"

MacGowan sucked powdered sugar from his fingers and looked up at the ceiling while he formulated his reply. "What I'm about to tell you can't leave this room." He looked at Gene, eyebrows raised in question. Gene looked at Jerri, Marty, Doug, and finally at Carl. Carl gave a quick nod. Gene looked back at the CIA agent.

"Okay, shoot."

"Over the past ten years, the CIA has employed Paul Renner as a part-time employee. He's useful when certain elements need to be removed in a permanent manner."

Gene snorted. "You mean the CIA paid him to kill people."

MacGowan idly scratched his forehead. "Who do you think we use, Boy Scouts?" Gene and Jerri shared a knowing look. Carl clenched his fists.

Marty interrupted, shaking his head in anger. "Now wait just one goddamn fucking minute here. You're telling me that the guy we've been chasing for the past three years, this motherfucker who crippled my fucking partner is a motherfucking CIAAgent?" A gentle hand on his arm—Jerri's—calmed him down just a little. He shook his head in disbelief and added, "No fucking way." He sat down, deflated.

For the first time, MacGowan looked uncomfortable. "Not exactly. He's more of an…entrepreneur. A, shall we say, contractor. Part-time." Marty wanted nothing more than to wring the neck holding up his flabby head.

Gene fingered the file in front of him. "What reason would the CIA have to kill Jenny Sykes? Eugenia Klammen? Darrell Eaton? What reason would they have to kill half of these people? They're nobodies. There's no correlation between any of them."

MacGowan shrugged, then jerked his hands up defensively when Marty lunged toward him. "Wait!" Marty stopped short, inches from crippling the man with his bare hands. "I don't mean that I won't say. That's not it. Several of these people weren't CIA targets."

"So he's a professional and a hobbyist?" Carl asked.

"No," MacGowan said. "I don't think so. I think he does a lot of freelance work."

Carl looked at the victim file. "That explains why we couldn't figure out the M.O. or how he chooses his victims. Or why his psyche profile didn't make any sense."

Marty scowled. "If he's not a serial killer, why does he taunt us?"


Page 9

"We don't know," MacGowan said. "I don't know what this current killing spree is about. We haven't even tried to contact him since last October."

"How do we contact him?" Gene asked.

MacGowan shook his head. "'We' don't, Special Agent Palomini. I do. If we have a job, I have Brian call a number. It gets forwarded through an online messaging service. A few days or weeks later, we get a cell phone through the United States Post Office. We get a text message within forty-eight hours that tells us where to send a name and address. It's always some kind of Internet relay, totally untraceable. You cannot find this man."

You've got to be kidding me,Marty thought.We have a lead we can't use.

 

Jerri interrupted his thought. "Yeah, but we don't have to find him."

Every eye turned to her. "We use you to set some bait, then you get your agent back." She raised her eyebrows at Gene.

"I'm game," Gene said.

MacGowan took another bite of doughnut. "Done."

Marty smiled ear-to-ear.Here we come, motherfucker.

 

*   *   *

 

October 24th, 11:28 AM EST; J. Edgar Hoover Building; Washington, D.C.

 

This second meeting was almost too much, even for Gene. The wry smirks on MacGowan and his toady LaMonte's faces were enough to drive the most stable of men right over the edge. From the look of Marty and Doug, they weren't feeling too stable. If it weren't for the black I-590 NetPhone that sat on the table in front of them, Gene would have happily let them beat both men into unconsciousness.

Gene unlocked LaMonte's handcuffs and shoved him toward the table, just as Jerri picked up the phone and hit the "messages" button.

She found a single text message, a Gmail address of random letters and symbols. She typed in the name and address of Mr. Mark Burton.

Staff Sergeant Mark Burton was a former Marine sniper from Camp Pendleton, California, who had volunteered to be bait, no questions asked. They needed a real person for a decoy, not someone connected in any way to Gene's team or the FBI. It had to be someone whom Paul Renner wouldn't suspect and a man whom someone in the CIA might want dead.

Ten years prior, Burton had destroyed the drug empire of a rogue agent. He'd come clean on some unauthorized black ops, testifying before Congress at the cost of his own job. None of it hit the media, but the agent went down, and so did Burton's career. Those in the know described it as "taking a lot of balls." Almost as much as it took to be bait for an assassin the FBI hadn't been able to catch for ten years.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

 

 

December 2nd, 1:42 AM EST; Times Square; New York City, New York.

 

Under an orange night sky devoid of stars, Paul Renner walked along Times Square like a tourist. He wore aRenthoodie and blue jeans, and took his time. He gawked at the billboards. He wasn't acting. He'd never paid much attention to the new, commercialized New York created by Mayor Giuliani. Sure, his time had passed, but the changes wrought by his predecessor had endured.

Gone were the titty bars and porno theaters. Walt Disney had replaced Peekaboo Theater, the world's largest Toys 'R Us instead of the Bunny Hop Lounge. Even at this hour, tourists lined the streets instead of the winos and drunkards Paul was accustomed to. He was so used to the run-down Manhattan of earlier days he couldn't quite believe the pleasant environment that awaited the modern New Yorker.

He ambled south toward downtown. He took his time and enjoyed the sights. Art galleries, upscale eateries, trendy cafés. Throw in a couple Starbucks to supply the city with five-dollar coffee and you get a New York Paul could just about live in full-time.

He wandered through the half-empty streets, marveling at the lack of horn-honking and general litter. Bored, he wasn't sure what he was looking for, and was leery of using Internet dating sites since the near-miss with the Feds in Salt Lake. He wasn't sure how they'd found him, so he needed to be careful.

He caught a midnight showing of some action flick, a spy thriller starring Matt Damon. It was grotesquely unbelievable but fun nonetheless. He left the theater and was buying a Pop Tart from a news stand when he noticed a man following him. He turned north, toward Central Park, and picked up his pace. It was never truly dark in New York, but the park was as close as it got.

The guy was a good tail. He changed his appearance every few blocks with different hats and a reversible jacket. Paul kept track of him by the length of his stride and pattern of his gait.Goddamn Feds,he thought.

Walking north past Central Park, Paul cut east. He found the perfect observation post, a below-ground entrance to an ugly cinderblock apartment building. The stairs went down a full story to a lime-green door and were shielded on both sides with short concrete walls.

Crouched a third of the way down, he waited to see if his quarry would walk past. He made no sound that wouldn't be masked by the slight breeze through the streets and the general noise of the city. Paul wasn't used to being stalked and found the sensation uncomfortable.At least I have the courtesy of killing my prey while they're clueless,he thought. He waited five minutes, then peeked out from his hiding place.

A blinding flash of pain screamed through his head and spun him to his knees on the stairs. Hot, wet blood streamed down his scalp in a river, the pain a burning reminder that he was both alive and lucky to be so. The concrete battered his body as he rolled to the bottom of the stairs. He accepted the bruises as payment for his continued life. He hadn't heard a gunshot.No Miranda rights. No warning shot. This asshole's trying to kill me.Survival instinct was no stranger to Paul. The righteous anger that accompanied it was.

Paul pulled the snub-nosed .38 revolver from his ankle holster and wished he had something with more punch on hand. He wiped at the blood that flowed down his face and into his eyes.I've got to be able to see. He knew it was a losing battle; head wounds bled too much to control without a serious bandage. Without taking his eyes from the street, he backed into the door of the basement apartment and tried the doorknob.

A slow but frantic turn to the left met resistance, and a turn to the right verified the fact.Shit. Trapped.The safety-glass window was imbedded with chicken wire.

He ducked into the corner, his eyes closed tight to adjust them to the new level of darkness as quickly as possible. He then stood to his full height and snapped his eyes wide open. He scanned the street, just barely visible above the top of the steps, and looked for any sign of movement. He grunted at a sudden impact to his right shoulder. The revolver fell from his hand, clattering to the pavement at his feet. The wound didn't hurt, per se. Not yet. He knew it would later, though, when the adrenaline wore off.If there was a later.

The little .38 was no good outside of ten feet. Paul fell on the pistol and played dead to bait the man closer. A red blackness threatened to consume his vision, and he fought against the shock that pulled him down into a sleep from which he would never wake. He gripped the gun left-handed, willed himself to alert stillness and waited for his killer to approach.Hopefully, I can kill this bastard before I pass out.

Twenty seconds later, the silhouette of a man appeared at the top of the stairs. The silenced pistol in his right hand was blackened to avoid any unwanted reflection from the streetlights or the moon. The man didn't waste any time trying to explain, to ask questions, or to get him to beg for mercy. He raised the pistol in one smooth motion.

Paul gritted his teeth against the agony in his arm and squeezed the trigger.

Two shots shattered the relative silence of the deserted street with the double-tap all too common in neighborhoods farther north. A small hole appeared in the assassin's left eye. Paul knew there wouldn't be an exit wound from the tiny, low-power round. The second shot followed right behind, blazing through the hole bored by the first bullet. The man collapsed in a heap as Paul crawled up the stairs, scanning the street for any backup as he did so.

Aside from the wind, nothing stirred. A car passed by on the cross-street, followed by another. With a grimace of pain, Paul pulled his emergency oxycodone out of his pocket. He couldn't open the cap; his right hand wasn't responding properly.

He used his teeth to hold the bottle and cranked off the cap with his left hand. He chewed up three of the narcotics dry. His face contorted against the harsh taste. He slapped the lid back on, then stood. He swooned but caught himself on the wall. He stumbled toward the street and dropped to his knees in front of the corpse.

Paul winced at the pain in his shoulder.That's going to bruise.Feeling slowly returned to his right hand as the narcotics kicked in. He looked down at the small hole in his hoodie.This is why we wear our bulletproof vests, kiddies, he thought. As far as he was concerned, "unhealthy paranoia" was an oxymoron.

Paul tore the man's shirt in half and yanked it off the body. He twisted it into a makeshift bandana and used it to bandage his torn scalp. He pulled it tight, then put up the hood to cover the bandage.

A quick search of the body revealed a backup 9mm, which he ignored, and a complete lack of identification. Whoever he was, Paul didn't recognize him. He left the silenced pistol on the sidewalk and rose, steadying himself against the light pole.

Paul stumbled off toward the lighted street to the east, his thoughts ablaze.

 

*   *   *

 

December 12th, 6:18 PM CST; Glenview Manor Apartments, Apartment 4A; St. Louis, Missouri.

 

Larry Johnson stood in the neighbor's apartment, cutting tomatoes on the tiny kitchen counter. Every night he'd cook, Josh would clean up, and they'd commiserate about the "joys" of being confined to witness protection for over a year.At least Josh gets paid for it.He chided himself for the un-Christian thought. He didn't need the money, anyway. What he needed was for Palomini's team to do their jobs so he could go home. Smuggled, middle-of-the-night visits from his loved ones weren't enough.

Agent Barnhoorn was coming over to check in and inform him of the lack of progress, just as he did every couple of weeks, so sausage-stuffed tomatoes were on the menu. "Hey, Josh!" he called.

"Yeah," Josh replied from in front of the television.

"Can you come in here and get me down the bread crumbs?"

"No problem," Josh said. He came into the kitchen and opened the cupboard, took down the can of crumbs, and set it on the counter. Larry looked at Josh's neck. Something was wrong, something missing. Something out of place. He looked harder, searching.

"What?" Josh asked.

Larry thrust the seven-inch knife into the side of Josh's neck.That's better.Josh stumbled backward, his eyes open wide in shock. Larry kept a firm grip on the knife, and it came free with a wet rip. Bright red blood spurted from the wound, splattering the kitchen in a shower of gore. Josh pressed both hands to his neck. He tried to speak, an inarticulate, wet, burbling sound.That doesn't sound good.Larry stabbed him in the chest and the sound stopped.That's better.He pulled the knife free, and Josh Santee's body dropped to the floor.

The apartment was quiet. Something was missing. Larry stepped to the door and opened it, searching the hallway. There was nobody there. Downstairs, a TV blared. He walked down the stairs to the third floor and knocked on the door to apartment 3A. There was something out of place.Why is my hand wet?He absentmindedly wiped his hand on the front of his shirt, then knocked again.

A woman's voice responded. He didn't understand what she said. The door opened a crack, revealing a wide-eyed woman in jeans and a tank top. She looked familiar. She babbled something. There was something wrong with her. He thrust through the crack in the door, burying the knife in her abdomen.That's better.

He threw his weight against the door, shredding the security-chain housing and forcing his way into the apartment. A fat man sat on the couch, holding a beer, his eyes wide with shock. There was something wrong with him.

 

Robbie pulled into the parking lot, grabbed the Italian rolls off the front seat, and headed for the back door. A woman shrieked. He took the stairs two at a time, his service revolver drawn. The screaming stopped as he reached the third-floor landing.

He listened at the fire door. Behind it, he heard panting. He grabbed the handle with his left hand and pulled. He rolled his body around the door, weapon-hand leading. At the end of the hall, Larry Johnson sat on the floor with a young woman. She lay on her stomach, but her head rested face-up in his lap, her eyes wide open. They were both covered in blood, as were the walls and floor. Naked feet stuck out from the doorway to 3B. A pool of blood spread into the hall.

"Jesus Christ, Larry," Robbie said. "What happened?"

Larry looked up at the sound of his voice, a puzzled look on his face. He staggered to his feet, dropping the woman to the floor, then bent over and picked up a kitchen knife.

"Larry?"

No response.

Larry walked toward him, holding the knife with white knuckles.

"Larry?" Robbie choked up the revolver. Larry took another step. "Put the knife down, Larry." He took another step. He was ten feet away.

Robbie aimed the revolver at Larry's right thigh. "One more step and I'll have to shoot you, Larry." Larry took another step. Robbie pulled the trigger. The bullet entered and exited the leg in the blink of an eye, a clean shot straight through the muscle. Without reaction, Larry Johnson took another step.Oh, shit,Robbie thought.


Page 10

Robbie shot him in the other leg. Larry fell to the ground without so much as a whimper. He stabbed the knife into the floor and used it to pull himself forward an arm's length, dragging his face across the floor without bothering to lift his head. He did it again. Robbie got out his handcuffs and stepped on Larry's wrist to pin the knife in place.

Larry grabbed Robbie's ankle with his other hand and yanked him off his feet. Robbie hit the ground hard; the handcuffs clattered across the floor, but he managed to keep hold of the gun. Kicking frantically, he tried to dislodge Larry's hand. Larry didn't react, as if he didn't even feel it. His scratched face still looked befuddled as he yanked the knife from the floor and looked from Robbie's face to the ankle he still held.

"Don't," Robbie said. He aimed the pistol down the length of his body, right at the top of Larry's head. "Please." Larry raised the knife. Robbie shot him through the cranium at point-blank range. Larry's head dropped to the ground, and his body relaxed. The knife clattered to the floor. Blood gushed from the wound, thick and red.

Robbie scrambled to his feet and took out his phone. He stared at the body as he auto-dialed his office. A pleasant male voice answered the phone, "FBI St. Louis, Agent Barnhoorn's office."

"Chet, we have multiple civilians and maybe some officers down. I need an ambulance, police, and forensics at the Glenview safe house. Send a team, maybe two. I'm not sure this is over." The calm of his own voice surprised him. He couldn't stop shaking.

"Got it, Robert," Chet replied.

"And Chet? Contact Gene Palomini and Doug Goldman."

 

*   *   *

 

December 24th, 6:28pm CST; Home of Agent Robert Barnhoorn; St. Louis, Missouri.

 

Doug wiped up the juices from the Christmas ham with a piece of bread and shoved it whole into his mouth. He dumped his plate in the sink and returned to the living room.

Robbie's house was an explosion of holiday cheer. Wreaths hung from every wall, electric candles sparkled in every window, and the Christmas tree dominated the living room. A mound of presents spilled out from beneath it in perfectly orchestrated chaos. Seven-year-old Evan Barnhoorn lurked nearby, never too far from the tree.

Maureen sat with Marcy, nursing little Christine while Grace squirmed in her bassinette. Doug scooped her up one-handed and tickled her belly. She giggled.

He sat on the couch and grinned at Robbie. "I can't believe it's their first Christmas already."

Robbie grinned back. "I can't believe it's Evan's seventh. They get so big so fast." Marcy beamed at him from across the room. He leaned in and frowned. "Marcy wants to try for more."

Doug avoided looking at Maureen. "Mo's exhausted all the time. I don't know how she does it, between the kids and her clients. But she's already said she wants more. We'll have to see."

The phone rang. Robbie hopped up and grabbed the phone from the cradle. He looked at the caller ID, frowned, and walked out of the room. Marcy looked at Doug. He shrugged, then rubbed noses with his daughter, cooing.

Robbie walked back into the room and put the phone back on the charger. "Work," he said. "Nothing that can't wait." He nudged Doug with his foot. "Help me with these dishes, will you?"

Subtle,Doug thought. He stood and followed Robbie into the kitchen. "What's up?"

"Larry's toxicology came back negative."

Doug frowned. "That's impossible."

Robbie grabbed a sponge and turned on the sink. "Maybe, but it's true. Clean as clean. He had some needle scars, but they were old. Very old." He washed a plate and handed it to Doug, who grabbed the dish towel off the stove handle and dried it. He put it in the drainer.

"No brain tumor, no chemical imbalance, no drugs. How the hell did Renner do it?"

"I don't know," Robbie said. "I don't know."

 

Marcy let Evan open one present, an Optimus Prime action figure the size of Doug's arm, then put him to bed. Marcy and Maureen headed upstairs to tuck in the girls while Doug and Robbie stuffed stockings. The house smelled of cinnamon.

Robbie looked pointedly toward the stairs. "Does she know?"

Doug shoved a handful of Tootsie Rolls into a red-and-green sock. "No, not yet."

Robbie sucked air through his teeth. "What are you going to tell her?"

"I don't know. The truth. We have to catch this bastard. We have to."

"Right. But she already knows that. What about after?"

Doug leaned his head against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut. "After that, there are ten thousand more just like him." He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. "The world is full of monsters, and if men like us don't catch them, what happens to our children?"

"Men like you," Robbie said.

"What?"

"Men likeyoucatch monsters. I push pencils. I'd never fired my weapon, never even drawn it, on duty. It's…." He looked at Doug, stricken.

"It's not what you think," Doug finished for him.

Robbie shook his head. "It's the most terrible thing I've ever done. And God help me for saying it, that's why we need men like you. To do what the rest of us can't."

Doug said nothing. He picked up another handful of candy and shoved it into a stocking.

"Hey, Doug?" Robbie asked.

"Yeah?"

"You need to tell her soon." 

"I know," Doug said. "I'll get to it. Just as soon as I know what I'm going to do."

 

On the staircase, Maureen listened silently and wept.

 

*   *   *

 

January 1st, 7:02 AM EST; Gene Palomini's Apartment; Washington, D.C.

 

The ring of Gene's cell phone shattered through the bars ofAuld Lang Synethat ran through his dream. He sat up with a start, spilling leftover popcorn all over the floor. He lay on the couch in his boxer shorts, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and an enormous pile of beer bottles. He'd shut the TV off six hours earlier, ten minutes after the last guest had left. The phone rang again. He knocked over several empties and fumbled for the phone he knew was somewhere on the coffee table.

What kind of monster calls at 7 AM on New Year's Day?He found the phone and managed to pick it up. He stared at the tiny screen with sleep-bleary eyes and tried to read the caller ID. It snapped into focus, and he smiled.Finally!It had been almost two months since they'd sent the fake job to Paul Renner.

The entire team feared for Burton's life. Paul might not alert them to every job that he did, and Gene feared he would try to kill the man without ever calling. That thought had occurred to Mark Burton, but he'd signed up anyway. Gene worried that six undercover bodyguards might not be enough.

Gene had no idea where he'd put his micro-bead. He cleared his throat and hit "send."

"Hello?"

The voice wasn't even disguised. "Hello, Special Agent Palomini. How's Carl's arm?"

"Go screw yourself," Gene replied.

"California," was all he said. And then the line went dead.

Gene smiled to himself.Hook, line, and sinker. Got him.

Gene stumbled to the shower.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 10

 

 

 

 

January 6th, 3:12 PM PST; Shady Grove retirement community; San Diego, California.

 

Gene savored the salty air of a beautiful winter's day in southern California. The temperature was seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity near zero, and twenty-eight FBI agents had staked out the entire area surrounding Shady Grove senior living facility, Mark Burton's home just outside of San Diego.

Shady Grove wasn't shady, and it wasn't a grove. It was a gated community complete with every luxury a retired person might want. It had its own tennis and squash courts, an eighteen-hole golf course, a gym complete with a massage service and personal trainers, four fine-dining restaurants, and even its own yacht club. It housed almost eight hundred men and women over the age of sixty-two, and was much like a town in its own right. Gene didn't want to know how a former Marine sergeant could afford the twelve thousand dollars a month it cost to live there.

Renner's timeline put the hit on Thursday, when Mark went golfing with some of the other residents, so they found themselves staked out around the course while Mark and his friends worked their way down the back nine.

Agent Atkinson's team was disguised as a group of Pacific Gas and Electric employees working on the power line, complete with an authentic PG&E truck. Their best sniper stood in the cherry-picker with a good view of the surrounding area. Doug was in the club house basement, watching everything on the security feeds and relaying information to the team.

Go time, Gene thought.

 

Man, it's nice around here, Paul thought as he hefted his golf bag. He'd hooked up with a couple of proctologists who'd been drinking in the club house. Today he was Dan McLawry, a psychologist from Connecticut in town on business. He'd chatted about problematic patients and let the doctors reminisce about their worst problems.

Like any good kill, the plan today was simple; play a few holes of golf, slip away with a medical emergency, remove the rifle from the golf bag, and shoot Mark Burton through the head. "One shot, one kill" was the marine sniper saying.Today, this guy's going to learn what it really means, up close and personal, Paul thought. He chuckled, coinciding with the punch line of Dr. Odan's dirty golf joke. The doctors laughed along with him, but at the wrong joke.

"Nine holes. Nice," Dr. Ryan said. They all laughed again, and with more horseplay than was seemly for their professions, headed out to the links.

"Cart or hoof it?" Paul asked.

Their replies were incredulous; of course they would walk. Paul sighed.These Californians are a little too gung-ho about exercise. He endured some good-natured ribbing about "lazy east-coasters," hefted his bag and followed the doctors onto the first hole.

He sliced the first ball hard and landed it in a bunker. He was off the lead by twelve at the fourth hole, his mind more on the job ahead than on the game. The doctors bemoaned his bad luck and offered their sympathies. Behind his back they bemoaned Stein's bad luck for finding such a bad partner, and Paul pretended not to hear them. He put his hand in his pocket and pressed a button. His phone rang.

Paul stepped aside and answered it with a curt "Hello." Keeping his voice low, he argued with the dial tone. Amid tepid protests, he begged off the rest of the game, and headed for the clubhouse. The doctors watched him go with a mixture of annoyance and relief.

 

Doug sat in the clubhouse basement, basking in the light of a bank of black-and-white monitors. He was grumpy about being stuck in the basement doing Sam's job, especially on a day this beautiful, just because the filthy rich owners of this "resort retirement community" didn't want to pony up the bucks to update their security system. He comforted himself in the knowledge that he wasn't stuck in a hot, sticky van like Gene. He scanned the images again.Man, there's a lot of people out there today.

His eyes flicked across the screens. He'd taped a picture of Paul Renner to the desk, courtesy of MacGowan at the CIA. He sipped his coffee and watched as Sergeant Burton finished his bogie on the sixteenth.They're not bad, but I think I could take them, he thought. Motion on the fourth hole caught his eye.

A man left a foursome, hefting a bulky bag of golf clubs, and headed to the clubhouse. He was of average height, average build, and walked with the confident grace of a martial artist. Doug looked at the picture of Paul Renner, then zoomed in, leaning toward the screen. He set down his coffee and fingered his COM ear-bead.

After a moment it was clear.This isn't our guy. Right height, right hair color, but the face is all wrong.The guy had an aquiline nose, like the pictures of Caesar on old Roman coins. Doug took a sip of his coffee and sighed. Mark Burton teed off on the last hole. If the hit was going to happen here, it would have to happen soon.

 

Once in the bathroom, Paul took a handicapped stall. He stripped off the ridiculous golf outfit, stuffed it into his golf bag's front pocket, then changed into the khaki shorts and green polo shirt of a Shady Grove groundskeeper’s uniform. He tore off the prosthetic nose and dropped it into the toilet, rubbed his face to remove the remainder of the latex adhesive, then slid the disassembled rifle out of the bag. Within forty seconds it was complete, except for the barrel attachment. That he would save for the roof.

Paul stuffed the mostly assembled rifle back into the bag, flushed the toilet, and exited the bathroom. A quick sidestep brought him into the kitchen, where an access door led to the roof. He opened it and recoiled, squinting.

The terra-cotta tiles blazed orange in the sunlight. Heat radiated off them in waves. Pausing to let his eyes adjust, Paul crouched and waited at the open door. He used the time to attach the barrel to the 30.06, which he did by touch. He clucked peevishly and thought for a moment that not bringing a scope was a mistake, but once he attached it, he didn't have a way to calibrate it anyway, so he let the thought go. He could shoot well enough without one.

 

"One, this is three."

"Go ahead, three," Gene said into the COM. He couldn't see anything from the back of the panel van and relied on Adkinson's team for recon.

"Someone just opened the access door on the roof of the clubhouse. Whoever it is, he's crouching down."

Gene triggered the COM to hit all frequencies. "This isgo, people. Stay sharp. Possible shooter on the roof of the clubhouse."

Sergeant Mark Burton's gravelly voice rasped over the COM, "Just get him before he gets me. I don't want to miss meatloaf night."


Page 11

I knew we shouldn't have wired him for COM,thought Gene. "Do you have visual confirmation of the target, three?"

"No, one. Someone's up there, but we can't tell who."

 

Something glinted in the sunlight in Paul's peripheral vision. A lens flashed from the bucket of the PG&E cherry-picker. Binoculars! Looking right at him.

Ah, shit. Setup.

Paul dropped the rifle and rolled off the roof. His body tensed as he fell to the wooden deck twelve feet below. A pair of servers on their cigarette break jumped in alarm when he landed in front of them. They were still gawking when he disabled their voice boxes with a pair of stiff-fingered strikes to the throat.

 

Marty heard Adkinson's sniper curse through the COM. "Gig's up! He made me!"

Marty bolted from the van, running for all he was worth toward the clubhouse. "DOUG! HE'S ALL YOURS!" he heard Gene scream into the COM, all sense of stealth obliterated. Two cars full of well-armed and highly trained FBI agents screeched onto the curb behind him. Men spilled out and broke into a run, rapidly catching up to the larger but slower Palomini.

The sound of assault rifles cocking was music to Marty's ears.Maybe we'll get to kill this motherfucker instead of arresting him,he thought with grim anticipation. Senior citizens cowered on the sidewalk. They dove to the ground from their café tables as fast as their old bodies would propel them.

The older Palomini slammed through the front door while Mathis' assault squad surrounded the building. Shouts of "Clear!" rang over the COM as they searched the rooms. Two civilians—service staff—were reported down but conscious. They couldn't speak yet, but both pointed into the clubhouse.

Within two minutes they'd searched every room but the pantry. Marty, machine gun held ready, sidled up to the door as Doug reached a massive hand toward the brass knob. Marty listened at the door and heard nothing. He stepped back, re-readied his weapon in both hands, then nodded. Doug opened the door and Marty charged in, Doug right behind him.

Shelves filled the room, packed with every non-perishable foodstuff imaginable: canned vegetables and soup starters, bags of flour and sugar, boxes of pasta, bags of potatoes, and a complete lack of killers that needed killing. "FUCKING CLEAR, GODDAMN IT!" Marty bellowed into the COM. He barely restrained himself from upending a shelf of canned goods. He took a deep breath, then said in a calmer voice, "He ain't in here, Gene."

 

*   *   *

 

January 6th, 3:32 PM PST; Shady Grove retirement community; San Diego, California.

 

Gene exhaled for the first time in forever. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath, and his lungs hurt. He got out of the van. He scanned the area for anyone, anything out of the ordinary, anything that might indicate where Paul Renner had gone. His eyes caught the shed on the edge of the golf course where two of Miller's squad guarded the service tunnel that led from the clubhouse. The door stood ajar.

He jogged in that direction and spoke into his COM. "Five, one, what's your twenty, over?" In civilian speak: Hey, guys in the shack, this is Gene. What's going on?

No response. He tried again, speaking clearly in case of interference.

"Five, this is one. What's your status, over?"

Nothing.

"FIVE, REPORT!"

Nothing.

He broke into a run and heard Sam in his ear. "No response on five, Gene. They last checked in four minutes ago, just after Renner was spotted by three."

Agent Mathis chimed in, "We just got confirmation from the service guys. The guy on the roof matches Renner's description. Suspect is wearing a groundskeeper's uniform, khaki shorts, and a green polo. Repeat, suspect's outfit is khaki shorts and a green, short-sleeved, collared shirt withShady Groveembroidered on the front."

Gene stopped and looked around. Just across the property, not two hundred feet away, a man of average build and average height walked unhurriedly toward the yacht club and the beach, directly away from the maintenance shack. He had short-cropped black hair and wore khaki shorts and a green polo. Gene broke into a run. "Got him, got him, got him, headed west! Backup!" He kept his voice low and tried to maneuver behind the man to keep from being spotted.

Paul Renner broke into a run. Gene's pistol cleared its holster as he sprinted after him. His COM sprang to life.

Sam's voice was crisp and clear in his ear. "We have a foot pursuit moving down the boardwalk toward the Shady Grove Yacht Club. Request immediate helicopter assist."

A deep male voice Gene didn't recognize responded. "Air support is inbound." Gene hit the boardwalk and slid on the sandy wood, almost crashing into an elderly couple enjoying their ice-cream cones. He closed on Renner, but not fast enough. The boardwalk stretched a half mile along the ocean, and it looked like the assassin knew where he was going.

Sam continued in his ear, "All units respond to the Shady Grove boardwalk. Agent in pursuit of suspect considered armed and extremely dangerous." A gray-bearded man in a loud Hawaiian shirt noticed the foot-chase and tackled Renner as he went past. They went down with a crash onto the boards and slid a good eight feet before Renner regained his feet, scrambling away. Now he was less than fifty feet ahead, and Gene saw where he was going.

Agent Miller's voice rang out in his ear. "Jesus. Agents down! Get an ambulance up here, now! Agents down!"

Gene replied breathlessly, "Pier! Pier! Maybe a boat!" Sure enough, just ahead Paul Renner broke right and ran down the pier. Gene lost sight of him amid the crab-shacks and tourist-trap souvenir stands but heard the heavy footsteps as they reverberated on the boards.

Sam replied in his ear, "This is the FBI requesting immediate Coast Guard support. Suspect is a white male, thirties, bl–" Gene slammed full-force into a white-haired woman with a walker. The aluminum frame tangled in his feet and sent him sprawling to the ground. His pistol scattered across the pier and into the water. The boards dug slivers deep into his palms. He scrambled to his feet and took off down the pier.

The crowd was thicker here. Renner pushed people out of the way and shouldered his way to the end of the pier. This partially cleared the crowd for Gene, so the FBI agent had the advantage. Twenty feet away. Fifteen. Ten. A burst of adrenaline brought Gene forward just as Paul Renner dove toward the water fifteen feet below. As Paul cleared the wooden planking, he hooked a rope to the safety fencing, then held on with both hands.

In mid-dive, Gene slammed into him. Gene's Kevlar vest took the bulk of the impact, and Paul Renner grunted in pain as they sailed out over the water. Renner held onto the rope, and they switched direction, swinging in under the pier, where he let go. They fell. Gene saw the deck of a speedboat rushing toward their entangled bodies.

The impact blasted the air from his lungs, but Renner took the worst of it. All two-hundred-twenty pounds of agent and gear slammed Renner into the deck. Even so, the man recovered quickly and rolled to his feet. The killer had apparently avoided breaking anything. Gene wasn't sure he was so lucky, given the sudden, sharp pain in his right ankle.

Gene stood and lifted his fists. Renner kicked him in the chest. He stumbled backward, favoring his good leg and trying not to pitch overboard. Renner moved with blinding speed and danced on his feet in the rocking boat. Gene knew he was in deep trouble, with the Kevlar vest hindering his mobility. But he'd fought small, good guys before; he could take one hell of a beating and dish out a lot more. He kept his head and spoke into the COM. "Under the pier, two-thirds down."

Paul Renner smiled and circled, looking for an opening against the injured agent. His voice was calm, his breathing steady. He tapped his ear and his grin widened. "Who you talking to, Agent Palomini?"

Gene reached up and touched his ear. His ear bead wasn't there.That's not g–Renner's knuckles crashed into his nose. Blood sprayed across his face, but he took the punch and wrapped with his arms, crushing Paul Renner in a vise-like bear hug. Renner punched at his abdomen viciously, hitting the areas that were least protected by the Kevlar vest. Gene ignored the pain and squeezed harder. He felt rather than heard a rib shift, then crack. Fists rained down like a rockslide, and his entire body burned. He squeezed harder, trying to crush the life out of the killer. Another rib cracked. Renner gasped in pain.

Renner stomped on Gene's injured foot. The FBI agent's strength left him as pain shot up his leg. He stumbled to one knee and was rewarded with a snap-kick to the face. He rolled with it, and through bloody eyes saw a harpoon gun on the deck just a few feet away. He scrambled across the deck and almost had it when Renner stomped on his fingers. He barely managed to flatten his hand before the shoe slammed down. The agony threatened to overwhelm him. He pulled his hand in, and suffered another kick to the face for his efforts. This time his nose broke, and he saw stars.

Gene tried to shake off a delirious haze.Get up or get beaten to death. He could barely see. He tried to stumble to his feet, and Renner clubbed him across the back with something heavy and wooden. He fell back to his knees. Another swing clipped him across the back of the head, but he managed to turn the blow with the meat of his wrist. He stumbled to the side of the boat, trying to get overboard.

Renner smashed the stock of the harpoon gun into Gene's ankles. Gene went down again, hitting his head on the aluminum railing on the side of the boat. He fought to stay conscious. The world blurred. He wasn't sure where he was. Sound distorted, as if he were under water. He had to get up, had to move, but his body wouldn't respond. He wanted to fight but mumbled instead.

Something dragged him, half-crawling, to the stern of the boat. He tried to swat at whatever had him, but his arms wouldn't respond. Knees on his back forced him to his belly, and his head went under water.

He tried not to breathe; he tried to roll over. His fingernails scrabbled across the wooden deck for support, but found nothing to hold on to. He tore into the hands that held him, trying to detach the insane grip. There was no mercy in them, and they didn't move. Blood streaked through the water. Knees dug into his back, and his legs wouldn't respond. At last his body could take no more.

He breathed in.

 

Paul Renner frowned at the body beneath him. He'd never drowned anyone before. It was just a mean thing to do, but he couldn't trust that he could take a man as big as Gene Palomini in anything approaching a fair fight. Every breath brought searing agony and if Palomini didn't bite his nails, Paul's hands would be tatters. He didn't let the pain touch him. He drifted to that blank place where his mind lived at the moment of a kill and held Gene's head down with both hands.

He shook his head as the big man's struggle faded. After a few more seconds, Gene's pathetic struggles weakened further. A few more and they stopped altogether.

 

Twenty seconds later a maroon speedboat shot from under the dock and into open water. In seconds it skimmed the water at close to one hundred nautical miles per hour. Behind it a helicopter closed in, screaming out to sea from several miles inland. Ahead of the boat, the Coast Guard cut it off.

The cutter hailed the boat, but got no response. Faced with no real choice, Captain John Ash ordered the ship to fire. The tripod-mounted heavy machine gun obliterated the boat's engine, bringing it to rest almost two miles out. The FBI helicopter caught up and circled overhead. Before agents could rappel down and search the boat, it exploded.

The chopper veered left to avoid the rising fireball. Shrapnel pinged off the fuselage. Captain Ash ordered lifeboats deployed, though he knew no one could survive a blast of that magnitude.

 

Marty heard the blast from the country club. He stared numbly at the rising fireball. He spoke into his COM. "Gene?" Gene didn't reply.

He tried again. "Sam? What the fuck was that?"

Her voice was soft. "Marty, that was Renner's getaway boat. We had him surrounded. It almost took out the helicopter."

His voice was thick as he replied. "Gene?"

Sam replied. "Witnesses saw him tackle Renner onto the boat."

Marty forced out the words. "But where is he now?"

"Dive teams are en route, Marty."

 

Under the dock, Paul Renner tossed the remote control and the detonator overboard. He paddled the small sailboat into the harbor, ignoring the pain in his chest as he unfurled the sail. The beach was crowded, both in and out of the water, and despite the odd excitement, people were enjoying the beautiful southern California weather.

Paul lay back and let the sun warm his face and chest. Every breath hurt, but it was tolerable. A new wig crowned his head with long, blond, surfer-dude hair, and light blue contacts changed his eye color. A few hours sunbathing while the feds combed the area, and then he'd be headed home, or what passed as home these days.Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, given the way the day almost went. Not bad at all.He closed his eyes and smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

 

 

 

January 6th, 5:53 PM PST; Unknown location; San Diego, California.

 

Gene knew he was conscious by the dim haze of red-filtered light. He sucked air into his lungs, then performed a mental checklist of body parts.No torso wounds, right ankle hurts, not broken. Left foot hurts like heck, might be broken. Nose feels as big as a grapefruit. Hands tied, feet tied, and there's something over my head.A quick strain at his bonds brought pain.Wire.

He explored his options. His chair wouldn't budge. Any serious struggling would cause the wire to slice into his flesh. He didn't know how long he'd been under, and he didn't know where he was. It was deathly quiet. His heart hammered in his chest as claustrophobia crept in.


Page 12

Calm down, Gene.A few deep breaths got him started, then he relaxed his hands.Breathe in.Then feet.Now out.Then arms.Breathe in.Then legs.Now out.He soon had control of his heart rate. His mind cleared while his chin sank to his chest.

"Okay. I give up," Gene said to the room in a voice more calm than he felt. "I'm not gagged, so I assume screaming isn't going to do me any good. What do you want? Why am I here?"

In response, Gene heard a soft ring, like a wet finger running along the top of a wine glass. It was the unmistakable sound of a blade sliding across metal. He clenched his teeth as renewed fear clawed into his gut. He wouldn't show a reaction.

Gene jumped as Paul Renner spoke from the darkness less than a foot in front of him. "I haven't decided yet, Palomini." Cold fear like he'd never known threatened to throw him into panic.

Marty's voice spoke in his head.Don't you give that motherfucker the satisfaction, boss.

Paul yanked the hood off his head. He sat at a dining room table in what looked like a typical, middle-class, American house. Gene looked into the eyes of the man he'd been hunting and realized he wasn't a predator anymore; he was prey. Renner held a large hunting knife in his left hand and scraped the blade up and down his blue jeans.

"Any idea when you're going to decide?" Gene said.Atta-boy, boss.Even though he knew it wasn't there, he took comfort in Marty's voice.

"You see…." Paul cleaned his fingernails with the knife. "I've got a bit of a problem to deal with. You've devoted most of the past few years to bringing me to justice, which is just cop talk for throwing my ass in prison. I've spent a lot of time spitting in your face and laughing at your efforts."

Gene didn't comment. It was better to let someone ramble rather than to interrupt. This was especially true if you're the one who's tied to a chair, and he's the one with the big knife.

"That's got to piss a guy like you right off, huh, Palomini?" Paul pointed at him with the knife, then went back to his nails. For all his cool, Paul didn't extend his arm all the way. Renner was hurt.

"Anyway, the reason that's a problem is that I need your help." Paul winced a little every time he breathed in.

I definitely cracked a couple of his ribs.

Gene coughed, incredulous. "I would never help a killer like you."

Paul's eyes brightened. He slid the knife back into its sheath and grinned. "I think you're going to take some convincing. My motives are pretty simple, Gene-o. Clients give me money, and I kill who they want dead. I think you figured that much out. What you don't know, though, is that more often than not I'm working for the same U.S. government you are. I've got way less rules tying me down, and I get my hands a lot dirtier than you're allowed to, but that's just the nature of the beast.

"Just like a Navy SEAL, for example, might have a different set of rules than a common soldier. When a SEAL kills for his government on a black op, it isn't always strictly legal, is it, Lieutenant-turned-Special-Agent in Charge Palomini?" Paul let the question hang in the air.

Gene kept his voice carefully controlled. "I wouldn't make that comparison, Mr. Renner."

"At what point does a paid government killer become a criminal? Just because the illegal work he does for the government is now illegal work he's doing for somebody else? You've killed people for a paycheck. You've ordered it done." He looked Gene in the eyes. "A job's a job, and this is mine. I'm not some crazy psycho. I even work hard to minimize collateral damage, especially when I'm using something flashy like a car bomb. You and I are not so different."

"Wonderful story," Gene said. "Do you have a point?"

"Gene," Paul said with a raised eyebrow, "you're tied to a chair, so hush up a second, and you'll hear the point." Paul groaned slightly as he stood. He paced while he talked. "Where was I? Oh yeah.

"After a point I started to recognize patterns, to see the reasons behind the hits. This guy's cheating on his wife, that guy's a commie spy, this lady slept with the Secretary of State, whatever. Every now and then, not knowing is no big deal.

"When your superiors ordered your unit to fly to God-knows-where on a black op, did you ask questions? Of course not." Paul took a step toward Gene, his eyes wide.

Gene started to think that Paul really wanted to be believed.That's not the same as telling the truth."Umm. Sure. I'm not saying I agree, but I see where you're coming from."

"Okay, good," Paul said. "So over the past couple years the same guy contacted me for multiple jobs. I don't know who he is, but I'm pretty sure he's a private citizen. But here's the fucked up part. He doesn't have me kill some cheating wife, or a businessman he's in competition with, or a bookie. There wasn't any obvious motive behind the job.

"For one hit, it's no big deal. If I can't figure out why, whatever. It happens sometimes, like I said. So anyway, he calls me up again pretending to be someone else, and offers me another job. And then he does it again." Paul waggled his finger at Gene, hissed in pain, and pulled his arm back. "Now that's fucked up. If someone wants multiple people snuffed and you can't find the pattern, it gets your brain churning, and you can't help but get curious, you know?"

Gene almost suppressed a snort. Pain shot through his broken nose. "I know all about victim patterns not making sense, Mister Renner."

"Touché," Paul said. "So I end up with a series of targets, all from the same guy, in all different parts of the country with no rhyme or reason. To make a long story short, I call this one off. Tell him I'm done, give him his money back. No big deal, I've done it before." He spun around, both fingers pointed like kids' guns at Gene. "And then, you know what?"

Gene didn't reply.

"The next thing I know someone tries to kill me."

Paul knelt inches from Gene's face and pushed his hair back with his palm. A mostly-healed scab adorned his scalp, the scar pink and glossy. All of the enthusiasm leached out of Paul's voice. "He shot me in the head, Gene, but I got him before he could finish the job."

Gene looked at the scar and said nothing.

"Look, I know you cops cut deals with the little guys if it'll help you catch a big guy. All the time. What I want is a deal. You use your resources to help me find the bastard who put the hit out on me, and I give you the information I have on the victims. You bust the real bad guy, the guy who hired out at least seven killings. This fish is bigger than me. Way bigger."

Gene laughed harshly. "You've been messing with the FBI for a decade. Why would I possibly believe you now?"

Paul took a step back, frowning. "I've never lied to you, Agent Palomini. Never once."

Gene raised his eyebrows. "Perhaps not, but you toyed with me. With us."

"That's true," Paul said. "But I've never killed anyone who someone else wasn't going to kill if I didn't. I'm not a random murderer. I'm a weapon. What I'm offering you is the chance to catch the killer."

Gene tugged at the wire on his wrists and ankles. "Mr. Renner, you're crazy if you think I'm going to negotiate while tied to a chair."

With an exaggerated roll of his eyes, Paul moved behind Gene and out of sight. He heard the knife clear the sheath. At the metallic ring of wire being cut, Gene felt immediate relief from the pressure in his feet. A spike of pain followed as blood flowed to the battered bones in his left foot.That's got to be broken.

"You fucked up my chest," Paul said from behind him. More faintly he continued, "I'm going to let you out of the chair now. If you attack me this go around, one of us isn't walking out of this room alive. I can guarantee that that person will be you. Got it?"

"Got it, Mr. Renner." 

"Good. And call me Paul."

Another quick snip and the wire pressure relaxed on Gene's wrists. He flexed his hands to restore circulation, staying seated as Paul moved back in front of him. He wasn't sure he could stand yet anyway. Paul grabbed a chair, dragged it across the room one-handed, and set it so the back faced Gene. He let his arms take the brunt of the effort as he lowered himself into a sitting position. "I think you cracked some ribs."

Gene chuckled. "I think you broke my foot, and I know you broke my nose." He continued flexing his hands, wrists, ankles, and toes. The pins and needles were almost unbearable. "Paul, you know I can't trust you."

With a flick of his wrist, Paul tossed a cell phone to Gene. "Call your team and tell them you're not dead. They think we both are, so I could kill you and walk away now and the case would be closed. So as a gesture of good faith, call your brother and tell him you're alive, but keep it under ten seconds." A compact pistol appeared in Renner's hand, then disappeared. The man moved so fast it might as well have been magic.

Gene's eyebrows rose.

"And," Paul added, "even if you say 'no' to the deal, I'll let you go. Safe and sound, with no more injury than you've already got."

Gene dialed. Marty picked up with a string of expletives and threats he couldn't quite decipher. "It's me, Marty. Not him. I'm alive, he's alive, and I'll call you later. Got to go." He pressed the "end" button. The sound of his brother's voice being cut off made Gene's chest tighten. He wanted to redial, but instead he tossed the phone back to Renner.

With a quick look at the phone, Paul put it back in his pocket. "How's that? You're untied, your brother and your team know you're alive, and they can hunt me until the end of my days if something happens to you."

Gene sighed. "There's just no way I can offer you a deal. You're a serial killer, for crying out loud."

"I don't need a long-term deal, and I won't ask for immunity," Paul said flatly. "I just want help finding who's behind this, who's trying to kill me." Paul leaned forward. "I'll put myself in your custody."

Gene wanted to spit in Renner's face. He wanted revenge for Carl's arm and Jerri's concussion. Still, while Renner was an awfully big fish, whoever this other man was, he was bigger. "No immunity, no pardons, and we keep you on averyshort leash," Gene began.

"No arrests, no kicking the shit out of me."

"And when it's done?" Gene asked. "What?"

"I walk away," Paul said.

"We just let you go?" Gene asked.

"That's right," Paul answered. "I walk off into the sunset a free man. Chase me down all over again if that's what it's got to be. Just give me a day to lose your team; something tells me they're going to want blood."

Gene looked the killer in the eyes as the sayingthere's no honor among thievespopped into his head.I'm sure the same applies to paid killers. Sometimes, it applies to the FBI.

"So you'll let me go, and if I want to deal I can, what, call you?"

"Drive away. In five minutes, when it's obvious you're free, come back and pick me up. Just you, though."

"So what do you want from me? Something in writing?"

"Nah," Paul said. He pulled out a set of car keys. "If your word's no good I'm screwed either way."

"I'll have to clear it with the Assistant Director." Gene couldn't believe he'd just said it.

Paul held out the keys. "Car's in the driveway."

 

*   *   *

 

January 6th, 6:27 PM PST; FBI Building, 880 Front St; San Diego, California.

 

"He hasn't called back." Marty's eyes were still red. His voice was hoarse from screaming.

"But we know he's alive," Jerri said, putting a tentative hand on his shoulder.

Marty jerked away from her touch like it burned him. "That's bullshit and you know it. All we know is that hewasalive half an hour ago. I swear to fucking God I'll kill that motherfucker with my bare fucking hands…." He turned away from her, his hands clenching and unclenching with hopelessness and rage as he hid his tears from the rest of the team.

Jerri turned to Carl. She didn't know what to do with rejected offers of comfort. She worried about Gene as well but still rode the high that came from his call. She had always considered her relationship with her co-workers to be clinical. They were teammates, not friends or family. Carl's sheepish grin told her he didn't know how to handle Marty either. Doug stared out the window.

Today's events put something in perspective. She didn't just respect her co-workers. She loved them. They were her family, every bit as much as her real family. She couldn't love Marty the way he loved her, but she did love him.

Carl's nerdiness, Marty's brutal honesty, Gene's obsessive determination, Doug's quiet intelligence, and even Sam's stupid sense of humor were all a part of her now. Two and a half hours of knowing that Gene was dead had hurt her more than she thought possible, and his call had filled her with so much joy she couldn't imagine slipping into Marty-esque defeatism.

He'll call, Carl mouthed to her, his confidence cementing the certainty in her head.

"I know," she whispered back as she came close. "But waiting for it sure does suck."

As if on cue, Marty's phone rang. The caller ID glared "D Street Killer." He snatched it from the desktop. He didn't have a chance to hit "send."

"I got it," Sam piped over the COM. "Team broadcast."

"This is Sam Greene," the team heard in their ear-beads, "please identify yourself."

"Hi, team, it's me again." Gene's voice sounded nasal and tired but relaxed. "I'm bringing him in. ETA twenty minutes. I want an interrogation room set up for non-hostile debrief of Paul Renner and a conference room for the crew to meet."

The relief on Marty's face was palpable. "Gene. I—We thought you were gone."

"So did I, bro. I'll be there soon. I lost my COM bead on the dock. Carl, get me a replacement."

Carl piped in with an unsure tone to his voice. "Will do. Um, what do you mean, a non-hostile setup for debrief?"

"Exactly what it sounds like. I'll explain when I get there. See you soon. Bye."


Page 13

The phone clicked off.

"Back to work!" Doug said, grinning. He clapped his hands together and stood.

Jerri winked at him, beaming a smile of her own.

"We got the son of a bitch!" Marty said.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12

 

 

 

 

January 6th, 6:48 PM PST; Front Street FBI Building; San Diego, California.

 

Oh, hell, yeah!Marty thought as the car pulled into the parking garage twenty minutes later. He couldn't keep still.

His forehead creased with confusion as the car got close. There was no one in the back, but someone sat shotgun. Gene pulled into a space about eight car-lengths away and killed the engine.

Marty shared confused looks with the rest of the team as Gene got out of the driver's side and the D Street Killer stepped out of the passenger side. No handcuffs. No restraints of any kind. The car door wasn't even locked.What the fuck?

A firm look from Gene stopped him from stepping forward, but his hands clenched into fists. "What the fuck are you up to, Gene?" he said into the COM.

Carl held up an ear-bead. "He can't hear you, Marty."

Marty's chin jutted out as they limped closer. Gene leaned on Renner for support.Like they're best goddamn friends, just helping each other along.

Marty noted how little Renner moved his arms and how carefully he walked. The killer obviously had some significant pain in his chest. Gene looked worse. His nose was crooked, dark purple, and twice its normal size. Black bruises crept under each eye, and he walked like he didn't know which foot to limp with more.

Gene looked like shit, but the killer's injuries were more limiting. He made a mental note to take advantage of the damaged ribs when the opportunity arose.But if he's the one who got the beat-down, why the fuck isn't he in handcuffs?

"Paul Renner," Gene said by way of introduction, "this is Marty Palomini, Doug Goldman, Jerri Bates, and Carl Brent. Team"—the trepidation in his voice was slight but perceptible—"this is the D Street Killer." Gene wore his don't-fuck-this-up face.

Gene motioned to Doug. "Agent Goldman, please escort Mr. Renner to the debriefing area. Gently. Agent Brent." Gene mouthedThank Youas he took the replacement ear-bead and inserted it. "Get another ear-bead for Mr. Renner, then have Sam queue him up. Everyone else, come with me to the conference area." Marty helped Gene limp across the parking lot as Doug shadowed Renner.

As the group moved off toward the building, Gene stopped at the metal detector and weapons-check. "Hang on a second," he said to Doug. "Lock this tray up," he said, placing the car keys into a dark-gray screening tray, the kind found at any airport security station. Wordlessly, the guard slapped a lid and padlock on the tray, attached a two-part ticket to the lock with a zip-strip, and handed the ticket stub to Gene. Renner reached for the stub. Gene put it in his front pocket.

Well, that's a good sign, Marty thought.

After a trip through the metal detector and a thorough pat-down, the guard let Paul through. As they stepped past the security station, Marty muttered under his breath. "We've got you now, asshole." He wasn't quiet enough.

Without turning, Renner replied, "I'm here because I want to be, Agent Palomini. Your brother and I have an understanding."

Marty took a menacing step forward, and Paul turned in a defensive stance. Gene jerked up his hand. "STOP IT." He gave his brother a withering look. "This will be hard enough without the two of you at each other's throats."

"Oh, so we're not supposed to be wringing his fucking neck right now?" Marty said.

"Doug, Carl, get going. We'll meet you in the conference room." He looked at his brother.

"What?" Marty said.

 

*   *   *

 

January 6th, 6:57 PM PST; Conference Room 4, Front Street FBI Building; San Diego, California.

 

In the conference room, Jerri leaned against the wall as Marty and Gene had it out. Gene leaned on the table while Marty sneered in his face. Gene's eye was swollen half-shut, and the EMT had finished re-setting his nose only minutes ago.

"You're out of your fucking mind!" Marty yelled for the half-dozenth time. "Work with him?With that murdering piece of shit? I won't do it. Fuck you! Fuck him! Fuck this! No!" Spittle flew from Marty's mouth.

"Marty, calm down, sit down, and listen," Gene said. "That's an order." Jerri smiled. The word "order" transformed Gene from a misguided younger brother into Special Agent in Charge, whether he was holding an ice pack on his face or not.

Marty leaned back into the wall but kept his mouth shut. He moved to the conference table and pulled out a chair, then eased himself into it. He glanced at Jerri, his blush showing how little he appreciated being humbled in front of her.

"Carl and Doug will be here in a few minutes," Gene said. "When they get here, after I explain to them what I've been trying to explain to you, you may be part of the discussion if, and only if, you keep your temper in check. Are we clear?"

"Yeah," Marty said as the raging anger in his eyes faded to a slow burn. "I'm sorry I blew up, bro. I think you're making a big fucking mistake, though."

"We'll find out, Marty. After we've gotten what intel we can get out of Paul Renner. Do you want some coffee?" Marty shook his head. "Get me some, please, would you?" Marty sneered and opened his mouth to reply, something insubordinate and inappropriate, Jerri was sure, but his face softened as Gene limped on both legs to a chair and sat down. The sneer disappeared, and Marty went to the urn to pour him a cup.

Doug and Carl arrived as Gene stirred in his half-and-half. "Is Mr. Renner situated?"

"Yes, sir," Doug said. "The prisoner is in Interrogation One with a non-hostile setup, as ordered, with four guards posted outside." His face was a mask of wrath. "I never thought I'd have to get that son of a bitch a sandwich and coffee, Gene. We should be cracking his other ribs, not bandaging up the ones he's got. What's going on?"

Gene ignored the question and turned to Carl. "Ear-bead set up?"

Sam answered over the COM. "Yeah, boss. Let me know when you want him piped in."

"Good," Gene said, glad the team followed his orders. "Let's get down to business." He told his story.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

 

 

 

January 6th, 7:12 PM PST; Conference Room 4, Front Street FBI Building; San Diego, California.

 

Gene sat at the head of the conference room table, flanked by Marty and Doug. Carl leaned his good shoulder against the wall, and Jerri stood next to him. Gene felt like they were interrogatinghim.

"I agree with Marty," Doug said. "That man should never draw another breath of free air."

"Or any air," Marty chimed in. "He's a ruthless killer, and this is going to bite us in the ass."

Doug folded his arms. "I know we cut deals with little fish all the time, but this is a really big fish, Gene. I say we get what information we can out of him by playing nice, then classify him as hostile, squeeze some more info that way, then put him away for good."

"I talked it over with A.D. Adams, Doug—" Gene began.

"So fucking what?" Marty interjected. "We lie to perps all the time. You were under duress, and, in case you've forgotten, your new buddy is the goddamn D Street Killer."

Gene's face turned red. "He's not my buddy, Marty, and he let me go. We can use him to find the manbehindthe killings. As I was saying, I talked it over with A.D. Adams, and he agreed that this was the right move."

"Well, fuck him, too, Gene," Marty said. "Canisn't the same asshould."

Doug took over the tag-team. "For Christ's sake, you've been to the crime scenes. You've interviewed the orphans and widows. We can't just let him wander around. We can't."

"Carl, help us out here," Marty said. "Are you going to work with the ruthless fuck who crippled your arm?"

Carl looked uncomfortable as all of the room's attention turned his way. "He's not ruthless," he said quietly. "He had the jump on me, Marty. I was holding a submachine gun, and he knew I'd kill him if I saw him coming at me. If I were in his shoes, I would have killed me. And Jerri. Especially Jerri. As far as he knew, she's the first person to ever get a good look at his face, and helet her go.I don't know if it was compassion or what, but I know it wasn't ruthlessness." Carl's face looked pained as he rubbed at his still-damaged arm. "There are plenty of reasons to hate that man. Don't pick sparing my life as yours."

Marty didn't respond. Doug did.

"This could just be another way to screw with us, Gene. Taking it to the next level."

Jerri threw in her two cents. "I agree with Marty and Doug," she said. "At best this guy is a brutal killer. One of his victims wasstrangled. You've got to be one sick, nasty person to strangle someone. Best case, this guy's a loose cannon that you're putting right in the middle of us. I don't want to be around when he goes off."

Gene looked to Carl, the only person who said anything close to supporting the boss's case. "What's your opinion, Carl? Cut the deal or bust him?"

"Bust him," Carl said without hesitation. "He may not be the worst of the worst, and the guy hiring him may be a hundred times more evil that he ever was, but he's got to pay for what he's done. No question, Gene. Bust him. We'll get the other guy some other way."

"Sam?" Gene asked.

"Opinions aren't my job, boss."

Gene swiveled his chair away from the group and looked up to the heavens. If the drop-ceiling tiles had any wisdom to share, they kept it to themselves.Lord, forgive me for what I'm about to do.He doubted God granted forgiveness-in-advance, and as he spun back and faced his crew, he knew that they wouldn't be forgiving him either. "I'm keeping the deal."

He held up a hand to forestall objections even before they spewed from the lips of his team. "I know you don't like it. I know you don't think it's the right thing to do. I have misgivings myself. But unless and until I say otherwise, this team is going to workwithPaul Renner to find the mastermind behind the pattern-killings. He didn't have to let me go, much less come here. He'll stick around as long as we've got something he wants."

"What does he want, Gene?" Doug asked.

"Well," Gene said, "he says he wants to find the man who tried to kill him, but I'm not sure I believe him. I think it's true as far as it goes, but it's not enough for him to take a risk of this magnitude. There's something else here, and until he gets it, he'll stick around. We need to find it first, then take him down."

"You can't seriously be thinking about letting him walk around free," Jerri said.

"He'll be on a short leash, unarmed, with a locator ankle bracelet. When we're done, assuming he's cooperated fully, the deal is that we're letting him walk away." Marty opened his mouth and Gene shot him down with a look. Carl scowled. Doug looked at the floor. Gene continued. "That's not going to happen. We'll take him down when the time is right." Marty gave his brother a satisfied smile. "In the meantime, we'll work with him. This is an order. Understood?"

Each team member sounded off in the affirmative, but Gene saw not only distaste but distrust.

He pulled out his boss-voice and gave them orders. "Doug and Jerri, report to Interrogation One for the debrief. Carl, run the recording and the voice analysis. Marty, you're with me behind the glass. Sam, do your thing. Move out."

Marty lagged behind as the team filed out. Gene let the rest of the team put distance between them. With his limp, it wasn't hard. "Say what you need to, Marty, but don't you dare throw another tantrum."

Marty ran his tongue along his teeth. He breathed in, held it, then spoke. "I know you're not going to change your mind. But when that sick fucker kills or cripples somebody, you just remember that every last fucking bit of it is your doing. And when this is all said and done, if Paul-fucking-Renner gets away, every new widow and orphan he makes is because of what you're doing today. You're my brother, and you know I love you, but today you just make me sick."

Gene let Marty shoulder past him on his way out.I know. God help me, I know.

 

*   *   *

 

January 6th, 7:22 PM PST; Interrogation Room A, Front Street FBI Building; San Diego, California.

 

Jerri waited while Carl finished his work. Doug stood at the door.

"So if I stay super-calm, I can fool this thing, right?" Paul asked as Carl attached electrodes to his arms and chest.

"This isn't a polygraph," Carl said. "And besides, even if it was, despite what you see in Steven Seagal movies, you can't fool them. They're highly accurate, and the vast majority of false positives and negatives are a result of user error. I've personally run a number of…." He continued to ramble despite the fact no one seemed to be listening to him.

I wonder what all that stuff is, Jerri thought. Interrogation One was packed with recording devices and sensors, some sort of medical monitoring device, and Carl's ubiquitous Black Box; a battered black briefcase that contained a variety of devices Jerri didn't think she could pronounce much less understand.

Carl left and closed the door behind him.

 

Gene watched through the glass as Carl exited the interrogation room and stepped into the viewing room. "No video?" Marty asked.

"Don't need it," Carl responded. "First of all, he won't consent to being video-recorded, and as a non-hostile, we have to respect his wishes." His eyes flicked toward Gene, then back. "Second, you can catch all the visual cues you want through the glass, but if he lies, I'll know it." He flipped open his laptop and scanned the displays.


Page 14

The three of them watched Jerri smooth her skirt and sit across from Paul Renner. After a few calculated moments arranging her notepad and pens, she looked up at Paul. "Mr. Renner, this isn't a standard interrogation, as it's at your request. You claim to have information to provide. Please begin."

Doug Goldman stood near the door. A practiced look of complete boredom as he leaned into the wall typically had even experienced perps assuming he was there for muscle or intimidation. In truth, Doug did provide bulk when necessary, but his keen mind had already begun examining Paul's body language and mannerisms.

"Seven people," Paul said. "A man hired me to assassinate seven different people. He's hired at least one other person to kill two more. He made efforts to conceal his identity, and I don't think that he knows that I know it was the same guy each time, and there is, as far as I can tell, no rhyme or reason to the targets.

"I'm going to give you the targets' names." He paused for a drink of water. Unless Renner was stupid, and Gene had no reason to believe he was, he knew full well that once he gave them names they might change their minds and put him away forever.

Jerri interjected. "How do you know he hired another killer for these other two jobs?"

"That, I'm not going to tell you. If it makes less paperwork for you, pretend I did them," Renner said. Jerri motioned for him to continue. Behind the glass, Marty sneered. Gene put his finger to his lips and kept watching.

"And?" she asked.

"And I need you to use your fancy databases to find the link," Paul said.

"Mr. Renner," Jerri began with her first scripted question. "Sometimes the insane will pick targets at random. What makes you so sure there's a pattern here?"

"No one, not even the richest of the filthy stinking rich, spends fifty-thousand dollars a pop killing people at random. There's no such thing as a psychotic who hires out his killings. That means there's a pattern, and I just don't see it. The only thing I know that they all have in common is that they're all over forty."

Marty, Gene, and Carl shared knowing glances, having plenty of first-hand experience with how difficult it was to find a pattern to Paul's kills. "Let's start with the most recent contract," Jerri's voice came through the glass.

"The most recent contract, or the most recent completed contract?"

"Part of the pattern may be the timeline itself, so let's start with the most recent event and move backward." Gene knew that Jerri deliberately avoided words like "murder"' and "killing."Let him use them all he wants,he thought.But there's no sense putting him on the defensive. Not yet, anyway.

"The last time I was called I turned down the job. It was for a retired guy in Lincoln, Nebraska," Paul began. He fingered one of the electrodes stuck to his chest and frowned at the mirror. "His name is Kevin Parsons."

Sam broke in through their ear-beads. "Paul, do you know his street address?"

"271 Hawkes Drive," he said with annoyance, though Gene couldn't tell what annoyed him.

"One moment," Sam said. After a brief pause, she rattled off information into their ears. "Okay, got him. Kevin Sean Parsons. Born May 17th, 1945…." Her voice trailed off. "A missing persons report was filed on him seven months ago. He never showed up for church. His house was destroyed. Arson. Is Mr. Renner sure he turned that job down?"

Renner looked even more annoyed. "I'm sure."

Sam was obviously lost in thought, so Jerri jumped back in. "What date were you contacted for this contract?"

"This past June. I think the 22nd or 23rd."

"Do you remember the time of day?"

"Not really," Paul said. "It's just a text to a cell phone. I don't even check it every day."

Jerri continued with question after question. Even though they recorded all interrogations, she wrote down every detail in stenographer's shorthand. "The contract that preceded Kevin Parsons involved whom?" 

"Larry Johnson." 

It was as if the temperature had dropped by fifteen degrees. "Here we go," Carl whispered to Marty as Gene looked through the glass.

"And how did you eliminate Mr. Johnson?" Jerri asked.

"You know damn well I didn't get him. You interrupted me."

"But…." Jerri hesitated. "What about the psychotic break?"

Paul leaned forward, his eyebrows raised. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Jerri looked at the mirror, then back at Paul. "You're telling me that you didn't kill him while he was in custody?"

Paul's eyes widened. "No, I didn't even know he was dead. My employer must have found someone else."

Jerri fiddled with her notes for a moment, then changed the subject. "Very well. Who preceded Larry Johnson?"

"Jenny Sykes." 

Jenny Sykes wasn't just some victim in a case file. Memories of a charred corpse and scattered body parts still haunted Gene's dreams, as did the text-messaged taunt that erased Jenny Sykes from the earth. Paul Renner had just admitted to first-degree murder. On tape.

"What date were you contacted for this contract?" It was a credit to Jerri's professionalism that she sounded exactly the same as when she had asked about Kevin Parsons.

The debrief took less than forty minutes. At its completion, Sam had starts on dossiers for nine victims; seven, if you didn't count Larry Johnson and Kevin Parsons.

"What about…?" Jerri paused and leafed through her notebook. "Daniel Burnhardt. He matches the age pattern."

Paul's brow crinkled with distaste. "That was a CIA job." His voice went flat. "That contract isn't relevant to this investigation."

Behind the glass, Gene shared a look with Carl. "Why is she bringing up Burnhardt?" His throbbing foot and nose made it difficult to concentrate, and he was afraid he'd missed something.

Carl shrugged.

Through the glass, Paul looked angry. "What's your game, Agent Bates?" Doug shifted his weight against the wall to draw Paul's attention.

"I'm just validating some assumptions, Mr. Renner," she said.

"Well, I'm not here to validate your assumptions." Doug stepped forward as Paul stood. "You have the information you need. So," he said in a raised voice as he faced the one-way mirror, "Agent Palomini. Time to prove you're a man of your word." Paul walked toward the door and stopped, eye level with Doug's chest. Without lifting his head, he looked up into Doug's eyes and waited.

"Don't do it, Gene," said Marty.

"Let him out, Doug," Gene said through the COM. Paul's lack of reaction showed that Sam had turned off his ear-bead. After a blatantly antagonistic size-up, Doug stepped aside.

A guard opened the door to let Paul out. "Okay, we're done for the day. Everyone check out. We'll see you in the morning. Renner, you're with me. Your security detail will follow us to the hotel."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14

 

 

 

 

January 7th, 8:00 AM PST; Conference Room 4, Front Street FBI Building; San Diego, California.

 

Carl spent the next day directing the team as they compiled massive amounts of information:  birth and death certificates, driver's licenses, passports, and medical and dental records. The organizations that required subpoenas to release information were hacked by Sam. They could get warrants later if they needed them. With Renner's confession to murder one on tape, no one cared if they invalidated some of this evidence.

Newspaper articles, alumni lists, high school and college transcripts. Fingerprints, military service records, library cards, credit records, and business records. Resumes, online forum posts, blogs. All of these things were found, copied, scanned, collated, annotated, and packed into tidy electronic files for each victim.

By midday, Paul was pitching in, feeding file after file into the insatiable scanner. He looked bored out of his mind. Carl walked by him and chuckled. "Lucky you, Renner. Now you get to see how glamorous and exciting real police work is."

Paul returned Carl's grin. "I hope this isn't the fun part."

"Not even close," Carl said. "Next we set up bulk classifications to assign each piece of data to, then spend hour after hour doing the assignments. The computers can do some of it for us, and they'll be instrumental once it's all scanned in, but this sort of thing comes down to a person seeing something that makes a connection. That's the only reason you're here. Something might jog in your memory when you see the data classified and organized properly."

"Great," Paul said without enthusiasm.

By six-thirty that evening, every possible document for each victim had been scanned. Sophisticated optical-character-recognition software went to work converting pictures of documents and hand-written letters into computer-readable text.

"Everyone take your gear with you tonight," Gene announced. He stood and grabbed his brand-new pair of crutches. "Our plane leaves at oh-nine-forty. Get there early. We have to pass through normal airport security. This is a commercial flight, not Bureau."

A chorus of groans answered. Airport security in San Diego was bad enough for civilians. Gone were the good old days when an agent could flash his badge and walk around the detectors. Now there was paperwork, lots and lots of paperwork, and all of it had to be perfect to allow weapons through security.

Marty gave Paul a smug look, which Renner seemed not to notice.

Despite Paul Renner's unwelcome presence, Carl felt pretty good. They had a massive amount of data, and it felt like they were glutted with clues and leads. It was a pleasant change of pace.

At dinnertime most of the team called it a day. While the others went out to eat or to their hotel rooms for some shuteye, Carl stayed behind. He worked with Sam to create bulk classifications for the data. After ninety minutes, Carl yawned and looked at the clock. He hadn't done anything productive in two minutes.

"Hey, Sam?"

"Yeah, babe?" 

"I think I'm going to cut out, grab a bite, call my wife, and get some sleep. It's been a long day."

"No worries. We're about past where I need you anyway. I'll wrap the rest of this up in the next couple of hours. Should give you a lot more to do on the plane tomorrow."

"Sounds good. Goodnight, Sam."

Sam giggled. "Goodnight, Ralph."

Ralph?Carl thought.Whatever.He shut down his computer and headed out in search of food.

 

*   *   *

 

January 8th, 10:20 AM CST; Central Air Flight 1551; Somewhere over the continental United States.

 

For all the whining, Paul thought they'd made it through security in no time. The small jet was neither crowded nor cramped and had reasonable legroom even for people using laptop computers. Gene sat in the front, with the most legroom possible to accommodate his swollen feet, the seat next to him empty except for his crutches. Paul found it a little strange how none of the paper files followed the team to D.C. The entire kit and caboodle was now digital.Soon everything everyone has ever known will fit in a wristwatch,he thought.

Not a fan of plane travel even without cracked ribs, Paul had dressed for comfort—elastic-banded jogging pants, an overlarge T-shirt in nondescript gray, and a comfortable pair of tattered Reeboks. He looked more like someone out for a morning run than traveling across the country on a plane stuffed with federal agents.

The team spent their time doing data classification, which to Paul seemed a lot like turning a needle in a haystack into thirty needles in thirty haystacks.Only in this case haystacks are called"bulk classifications."Apparently there were computers in D.C. that automated much of the process, but it still looked like a never-ending pile to Paul. The manual boredom of the previous day became digital boredom.

After an hour of click-drag-dropad nauseum,Paul stood to stretch his legs and rest his eyes, if only for a moment. A mini-fridge sat at the front of First Class, right next to the cockpit door, so he grabbed himself a can of Coke, flashing his eyebrows at Gene as he slid past. Jerri looked up when he popped the tab, and, as Paul slurped his first taste, she signaled for him to bring her one.

He grabbed a second can, ignored the look of reproach from the stewardess, shut the fridge with his foot, and walked to the back of the cabin. "Thanks," Jerri said as she took the offered beverage. Paul noted that she didn't look at him with the disgust or disdain of the past few days. At least for this fleeting moment, he had evolved in her mind from pond scum to guy-who-grabbed-her-a-Coke.Looks like I'm moving up in the world.

He sat next to her and looked at her screen. She was working on the same thing they all were, sorting data and shoving it into piles. Click-drag-drop.More as a reason to forestall a retreat back to his own private click-drag-drop hell than to start a conversation, he said, "How long is this step supposed to take?"

"Oh, I don't know," Jerri said. "As long as it does. I hope we're done before we land, but probably not. Not too long after, anyway."

"What was that?" 

Jerri looked from her screen to Paul's face. "What was what?"

"You just looked at my hands, shuddered, and looked away. Why?"

"I—" She paused. "I probably shouldn't get into it."

"Does it have something to do with why you asked me about the Burnhardt job?" Paul could tell he had hit a nerve.

"Mr. Renner—"

"Call me Paul."

"Mr. Renner, you strangled a man to death with your bare hands." Her shudder was more pronounced this time. "Frankly, I find your hands to be positively creepy."

"Why?" Paul asked, holding them up for examination. "They're just hands. Just like yours, or Gene's, or anyone else's."

"Look, even if I found myself in a position where I was going to kill someone, I could never choke the life out of them. It's too…personal."


Page 15

Paul grunted as his ribs shifted. "I told you yesterday that was a CIA job." He leaned in a little, almost too close to her. "Let me educate you a little about my industry." He tried not to sound patronizing. "There are three types of contracts. Dead, looks-like-an-accident dead, and CIA dead. Most CIA jobs are just another version of the first two types, but sometimes they insist on a certain method. Daniel Burnhardt was one of those cases." Jerri opened her mouth to ask a question, but he kept talking. "I don't know why, I don't ask why, and Langley doesn't tell why.

"Besides," he said, standing, "I didn't choke the life out him with my bare hands. If it makes you feel better, I wore gloves. It doesn't make me feel any better about it, but if it helps you at all, more power to you. I'll let you get back to your work."

Paul headed back up to his seat. He noted with passing interest the look of pure venom on Martin Palomini's face.What did I do now?Paul wondered.

He sat back down, picked up the laptop he'd been assigned, and went back to work. Click-drag-drop, click-drag-drop.

 

*   *   *

 

January 8th, 5:52 PM EST; Dulles International Airport; Washington, D.C.

 

Just short of six PM Eastern Standard Time, the plane landed at Dulles International Airport. The team exited down a portable flight of stairs to twin government sedans waiting on the tarmac. The vehicles were stereotypically black, with tinted windows and "US GOV" on the license plates.

Gene, Doug, and Paul loaded into one while Marty, Jerri, and Carl took the other. They were awash with new car smell and looked to Doug like they had never been ridden in. The drivers were non-descript Bureau employees, paid to drive safely, observe and react to everything going on outside the vehicle, and ignore everything inside.

Doug continued to click-drag-drop from the passenger seat as the cars started rolling. Even after hours of nausea on a plane, somehow when he worked in a car it didn't bother his stomach. Carl had confiscated Paul's laptop before they left the plane, and Paul looked down at Gene's laptop sitting at his feet. "Not going to work on the way?" Paul asked.

"No," Gene said. "I'm fine in a plane. In a car it just gives me a headache." He favored Paul with a puzzled look. "Why didn't you pack a bag?"

"I'm not going to reveal where I have bags to pack, Gene. I'll buy what I need here or have one of your guys do it," Paul said. "Speaking of which, it's probably not a good idea for security at the FBI building to find this." A small pistol appeared in his hand from out of nowhere.

Gene had frisked Paul before they'd entered the airport and was positive he was clean. Paul held the gun out to him.

Gene took the pistol while Doug stared with his mouth open.

"Paul, this is completely unacceptable. Surrender all other weapons on your person, immediately, or the deal is off and we're remanding you to custody. Now." Unseen by the others, Doug slid his pistol out of his holster and fingered the safety.

Paul smiled sheepishly. "That was it. Frisk me. I have no other weapons." They pulled over the car and Doug frisked him, with as much attention to detail as he'd ever put into a search. He was rougher this time and took his embarrassment out on Renner.

"One more stunt," Gene said, "and you're done. One. Got it?"

"I got it," Paul said. Doug gave Gene an I-told-you-so look. They got back into the car.

"How did you get this through airport security?" Gene asked.

"Lots of Special Forces troops are trained to do it. Sometimes with much bigger guns."

"Is that where you learned to do it?" Doug asked.

Paul looked out the window and smiled. "Something like that."

"Your prints don't match any military records," Gene said.

Paul's smile widened. "True."

 

Forty-five minutes later at the J. Edgar Hoover building, Paul Renner experienced the single most thorough frisking he'd ever been through. It didn't include a cavity search, but he still felt that the guard owed him dinner and flowers by the time he finished. He was then subjected to a metal detector and an X-ray. "I suppose I have you to thank for the extra attention," he said as he walked up to Gene.

"Absolutely." Gene's tone was businesslike, a Special Agent in Charge at the FBI Headquarters sort of voice. He gestured for Paul to follow him down one of the warrens leading into the massive complex and started off on his crutches. "The Assistant Deputy Director who approved our arrangement wants to make sure a confirmed freelance assassin isn't roaming his halls armed. That's what the ankle bracelet is for.

"In addition, the guards have all been issued your photo, and the badge you're wearing gives people permission to shoot first and ask questions later. It's equipped with RFID and a tiny heart rate monitor, just to make sure you keep it exactly where it's supposed to be, so we know where you are at all times. Removing either it or the ankle bracelet will trigger an immediate manhunt, and security won't be concerned with sparing your life.

 "You will be escorted by a member of my team at all times, though you shouldn't have any reason to leave our section. As long as you're in this building, the only thing you're free to do is exactly what you're told. Anything else will be viewed as a hostile action and will be responded to in kind." Gene stopped and looked him in the eyes. "Have I made myself perfectly clear?"

"Crystal," Paul said. He wasn't sure he believed all that, but he didn't want to test it.

"Good, because I meant every word," Gene said. He gestured forward, then started off on his crutches. "Let's go find the man who hired you, shall we?"

By the time they reached Gene's section, Paul felt like a tiny mouse in a gigantic maze. There were no colored lines on the wall, no friendly and well-lit directories with "You Are Here" printed on them. On this level there weren't even exit signs. Paul knew that wasn't legal and was sure it was intentional.

Gene's section consisted of a large meeting room, three offices, a single-seat unisex bathroom, and a small kitchen complete with a full-sized fridge, coffee pot, and microwave. A short, fat girl in neon-green stretch pants and an oversized Toby Keith T-shirt walked out of the kitchen nook, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She carried a freshly opened pint of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream, the first spoonful already in her mouth. She stopped and looked Paul over from top to bottom. "I thought you'd be taller," said Sam Greene's familiar voice as she waddled her way to a doorway, swiped a key-card, and disappeared into the darkened room beyond. The door shut behind her.

Paul raised an eyebrow at Gene, who motioned him to the large meeting room. A huge, dark-stained table dominated the room. A single desktop computer sat in the middle with adjustable wheeled office chairs around the outside. Circling the table were nine individual desks against the walls. On each desk sat a large stack of papers, a computer monitor and keyboard, and a folded-paper plaque, each with a separate victim's name.

"Listen up," Sam chirped over the COM. A large projector in the middle of the ceiling lit a wall nearly the size of a movie screen. "Data classification will be complete within the hour and we'll start matching. Each station has physical and digital copies of all data compiled for each victim listed. When you're done with your last bit of data, feel free to start rooting. It goes without saying that all files on a desk stay on that desk. PPD has been combing through this data and will add their findings in real-time.

"Keep an eye on the match lists. The converters won't be done until morning, so you can force priority if you want. There's a link in all this data somewhere. Go find it." Sam's voice cut off.

"Does anyone want to translate that into English for me?" Paul asked no one in particular.

"I will." Carl motioned Paul closer so as not to disturb the rest of the team. "PPD is the VICAP Psychological Profiling Department. They've gone over most of this with a fine-toothed comb, and they'll help us create data matches with what they can figure out about victim correlations and a profile on the guy who hired you.

"As the computer finds information that's the same for other victims, it creates a match which it will display on that projection there. We're looking for high-numbered, irreconcilable matches. That is, matches that aren't automatically explained by another factor.

"For example, we're going to get a Match-7 on males, but that's automatically reconcilable because the other two are by default females. So we know these victims weren't killed because of their sex. Hence, sex will be discarded and will come off the screen. Sam will be poring over matches as the data shows up, flagging them as reconcilable or irreconcilable.

"The converters change non-computer-recognized text into computer-recognized text. That's just a fancy way of saying it turns handwriting into computer-readable text. A separate but similar program converts photos of text. That is, everything we could only get paper copies of and some of the file-types for the electronic stuff doesn't show up like a web page or a word processor document. Imagine having to re-type every one of the documents we scanned yesterday. Yeeesh."

Paul shuddered at the thought. Scanning alone had taken hours. Carl was way too excited about the process.

"Yep," Carl continued. "It's a lot of boring work, but because we did it, what would take weeks or months will be done tomorrow. Thereallycool thing is that Sam wrote both converters. I don't think your buddies at Langley have anything anywhere near as good. Commercial OCR's have come a long way in the past decade, but they still haven't caught up to her stuff. The reallyun-cool thing is that she wrote the code on Bureau time, so instead of being able to patent it and sell it, it's proprietary to the FBI.

"Anyway…," Carl moved back to the topic at hand, "forcing priority means you can put something in front of the others for the computer to dig for matches on. So, if we see that five of the nine people went to Rutgers University, we can tell the computer to complete all of the alumni-record conversions first to see if that's our link. It'll drop everything and try that, then go back to what it was doing before.

"Ideally, when it's all said and done, we'll have one and only one irreconcilable Match-9."

"And that means?" Paul asked with raised eyebrows.

Carl stopped his lecture to explain the term. "Irreconcilable Match-9 would mean that all nine people have something in common, a perfect coincidence. It's doubtful we'll get one, but if we do, we have a massively high chance that that's our link, odds at least in the high 90th percentile. Does that all make sense?" The little man was actually smiling.

"It does," Paul said. "You're an extraordinarily nerdy man, you know that?"

"All I'm missing is the pocket protector," Carl said. He turned back to his computer. Paul noted that although Carl didn't have full range-of-motion with his injured arm, he could type with blinding speed.

"How's your arm?" Paul asked.

"Not so bad anymore," Carl said and rotated his shoulder in a practiced stretch. "I had to have a couple surgeries to repair some tendons, but with a few more months of physical therapy, it should be good as new." He grinned. "Fuck you very much."

Paul chuckled. "I'm glad it's healing okay," he said and turned back to his work. He started looking for matches as the grin faded from Carl's face. Carl rubbed his arm self-consciously and turned back to his computer.Poor guy, Paul thought.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 15

 

 

 

 

January 9th, 8:12 AM EST; J. Edgar Hoover building; Washington, D.C.

 

After another pornographic frisking and an escort through the endless hallways, Paul found himself back in the same conference room with the same piles of papers, the same nine computers, and the same large display on the wall. The team was busy rooting through documents. "Why does everybody look so pissed off?" Paul asked.

Carl jerked his head toward the wall display, and Paul had his answer. A list was projected on the wall in digital clarity:

 

Match-2 (276) Rotator cuff surgery, lived in CA, allergic to penicillin, etc.

Match-3 (92) Alumni SUNY school, owned a Hyundai, glasses required for driving, etc.

Match-4 (17) MasterCard, patient at South Manhattan Municipal, etc.

Match-5 (3) Lived in NY, Lived in NJ, two children

Match-6 (0) No matches

Match-7 (1) Owned a cat

Match-8 (0) No matches

Match-9 (0) No matches.

 

Paul looked at Carl. "So what do the numbers in parentheses mean?" Paul asked.

Sam replied in his ear. "Number of matches in that category. Now shush."

He had no experience with this sort of thing but was pretty sure that even though the team wasn't expecting Carl's ideal Match-9, they expected something higher than a Match-5 that was more significant than cat ownership.

They spent the next few hours digging through files. Again. Looking for missed clues. Again.I'm glad I never wanted to be a cop,Paul thought.

Every now and then they found something that the computer hadn't recognized. Paul didn't see why upgrading "Owned a Hyundai" from Match-3 to Match-4 was important or relevant, but Carl seemed pleased when he found the typo that threw the computer off track. He supposed that if there was one error, there must be more. They spent the next several hours looking.

"I think…," Doug started to say, then stopped and studied the paper in his hand. The rest of the team exchanged hopeful looks. Doug slid himself over to the next desk and jumped to the medical files. He muttered to himself as he read. "Knee surgery. There it is again. Toradol, followed by Ultram." After a quick scan, he moved to the next victim's information. At each terminal he made a small entry.

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