“Trust my folly then, since it is best
for a man truly wise to be thought a fool.”
– Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
The bore of a .40-calibre semi-automatic pistol is not, in absolute terms, all that large. Just four-tenths of an inch in diameter, almost exactly that of the garden-variety e-stylus hundreds of millions of people use every day; not much larger than the width of a shirt button, a AAA battery, or the head of a common thumb tack; smaller actually, than the iris of a human eye. So that while like any firearm, it is inherently dangerous if properly used – or worse, abused – all in all, in regard to the matter of size, it normally appears to be rather small.
Seen muzzle-on, however, that selfsame .40-calibre bore can suddenly take on cavern-like proportions, becoming a yawning maw ready to inflict excruciating physical pain and mayhem on anyone unfortunate enough to be staring into it. From that perspective, it is a gaping pit filled with a promise of near-instant oblivion for the individual at which it is aimed, should the person holding said semi-automatic so desire. To call the level of intimidation felt by anyone caught in such circumstances “considerable” would be an understatement of masterly proportions.
The intimidation quotient rises even further when the semi-automatic in question is an ugly gun. The Walther PPQ unquestionably fell into that category. Bulky, squarish, it lacked the lean grace of its predecessors in the venerable PP line of pistols produced by Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen for more than a century. One of the characteristics of the PPQ was that its trigger was not overly-sensitive, the application of a bit more than five pounds of pressure on it being required for the pistol to fire. At the same time, however, the trigger only needed to be squeezed back a mere four-tenths of an inch – the distance of movement coincidentally matching the weapon’s bore – for the sear to trip, the striker fall, and the gun to discharge. The combination of moderate trigger pressure and short trigger travel allows, under most circumstances, the person holding a Walther PPQ to maintain a steady and predictable grip, minimizing the likelihood of an accidental discharge.
This last bit was, at the moment, in the forefront of Trish Crabtree’s mind, as the hand holding the .40-calibre Walther PPQ which triggered this particular train of thought was anything but steady. The mid-afternoon winter sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling window threw the harsh lines of the pistol into stark relief, and there was no mistaking how it trembled heavily from side to side, causing the muzzle to wobble erratically, though it remained pointed in the general direction of her belt buckle, at a range of no more than eight feet. More than once Trish had seen someone with a poor grip on their handgun convulsively tighten their grasp – and squeeze the trigger as they did so. She had no desire to provoke such a reaction, being well aware of the now-venerable .40 S&W cartridge’s enviable reputation for inflicting severe tissue and shock damage when its bullet struck a human torso: a single such hit, even if it missed a vital organ or major artery, could still prove quickly fatal if the victim didn’t receive immediate medical attention.
Ironically, the woman holding the Walther desperately needed that sort of medical attention – there was no mistaking the pair of entrance wounds oozing blood across her chest. She was sprawled on the kitchen floor of the modest flat, lying apart from the bodies of two men and a woman, all three of them unmistakably dead. The smell of burnt propellant hung heavily in the air – whatever had transpired in this room had taken place only moments before Trish arrived. The gravely-injured woman was doing her best to keep her weapon trained on this newcomer, her breath coming in short, panting gasps as she struggled to sit upright. Trish instantly recognized her, though the woman’s face was a mask of mingled fear, desperation, and pain: Sharon Gellar, one-time Master Sergeant in the US Air Force’s 1024th Composite Squadron, now retired.
Doing her best to appear as non-threatening as possible, Trish held her hands away from her sides, palms forward, and announced, “Sharon, Sharon, it’s me, Trish! You know, ‘Radome.’ We talked on the commlink, remember? Let me help you – please! Otherwise you don’t have much time!” As she spoke, Trish stepped gingerly toward the stricken woman, who in turn tried to track Radome’s movement with the Walther, but the effort was too great and her hand fell to one side, the pistol hitting the floor with a thud.
Trish dropped to her knees, pulling dishcloths and hand towels off the counter as she did so, using them in a desperate effort to staunch the blood flowing from Sharon Gellar’s chest. It was a futile effort, Radome knew, for the bloodstained, pock-marked wall behind Gellar was mute testimony that both gunshots had gone through Sharon’s body, leaving gaping wounds in her back: Trish had only two hands but four wounds to compress. A jagged fragment of memory flashed before her eyes as she recalled a similar struggle with Gerry Hone little more than three months earlier – that one, too, had been a bitter defeat.
Gellar coughed, spitting up a froth of blood that ran down her chin and spread over her throat. From somewhere an instant of clarity asserted itself and she looked directly at Radome, fixing her with a fierce gaze. Gellar struggled to rise, failed, slumped back to the floor, her eyes never leaving Trish’s as her lips worked, trying to form words that wouldn’t come. Summoning a final reserve of strength, she cleared her throat as best she could and said simply, “Knocks.”
“What?” Trish asked, leaning in close to Gellar. “What did you say? C’mon, Sharon, keep looking at me, talk to me, stay with me! Keep looking at me, dammit! Keep talking! What did you say? What did you say? Tell me again!” Her blood-slick hands fumbled to pull her commlink from her jacket pocket. “I’m gonna get help, just stay with me, OK?”
“Knocks,” Sharon gasped again, then she shuddered, her eyes lost their focus, her head fell back to the floor, and with a gurgling sigh she stopped breathing.
Trish slumped back in defeat, shoulders sagging. She was no stranger to violence or death – anyone who, like her, made their living in the world as a grey-hat techie had more than a nodding acquaintance with both – but this encounter, arriving just too late to keep Sharon Gellar alive but just in time to watch her die, cut deep into her soul. Looking across the room at the other three bodies, Radome felt a wave of fury sweep over her, and she began to slam her fist on the floor, pounding out in cadence as she cursed at them. “Damn you! Damn you all to hell! You didn’t have to kill her, you bastards! Whatever it was you came here for, you didn’t have to kill her over it!”
Much of Radome’s fury sprang from knowing that Gellar was genuinely looking forward to their meeting. When Trish commed her from Phoenixville three days earlier, Gellar had been brusque, trying to discourage her without crossing over into open rudeness. Trish had been careful not to mention anything of the series of “accidents” that had overtaken some of Gellar’s former squadron mates in the 1024th over the last few months, or if she knew of anything that might be a common thread among them. She had not even mentioned the unit by name, instead she’d told Gellar that she wanted to talk about Gerry Hone. That had broken the ice, as Sharon came to understand what had transpired between Radome and her old squadron mate. Radome had last spoken with Gellar not twenty minutes earlier, letting Sharon know that she was on her way to the apartment. Now Geller’s lifeless body was sprawled on the floor beside her, with whatever knowledge Trish might have been able to acquire from her about the 1024th lost forever.
Looking about, Radome tried to piece together what had transpired in this room just moments before she arrived, only to be baffled by what she saw – or rather, didn’t see. The front door had been standing open when she arrived, but there was no sign of a forced entry. When she’d passed through the living room, everything was neat and tidy, nothing – furniture, furnishings, bookshelves – appeared disturbed, out of place. Whatever the identities of those three people – already Radome was thinking of them as John, Jim, and Jane Doe – from all appearances Sharon Gellar had willingly let them into her home, a conclusion reinforced by the presence of an open box of coffee packets on the kitchen counter, the coffee maker’s carafe brim-full with water, sitting next to a box of shortbread.
A single drawer sitting half-open in one of the kitchen’s cabinets caught Radome’s eye. She rose to peer inside it, and when she did, her eyes narrowed in understanding. Maybe Sharon wasn’t giving these people such a cordial reception after all. Or else she was lulling them into a sense of false security. In the drawer was a felt-lined compartment divided into sections for the Walther PPQ – the impression left on the felt by the semi-auto was unmistakable – along with two extra magazines and a full box of .40-calibre ammunition. Either Geller had suspicions about her visitors from the time they arrived and she’d lured them into what was meant to be a trap, or else something was said in this kitchen that had triggered a mental alarm for her, and she’d drawn down on them. Whichever it was, her aim had been good and she’d been fast – just not fast enough, as at least one of the trio had lived long enough to return fire, mortally wounding Sharon….
A muted brrrrrt from across the room snapped Radome out of her reverie and her eyes grew wide as she recognized the chirp of a commlink alert for an incoming call. The alert sounded twice more before she realized that it was a one of the Does that was calling for attention, the one she’d christened “John.” By this time, the ‘link on Jane’s wrist was buzzing as well. Four quick strides took Trish to the body, where she knelt, plucked the ‘bud from the dead woman’s ear and held it her own. Lifting Jane’s wrist, Trish placed her thumb over the visual pickup before touching the “Accept” stud on the ‘link face, then took a deep breath she said quietly, “Go.”
“Martha, you are late checking in,” came an answering voice, clipped and carrying more than a hint of an accent. “Is it done, both of them?”
A chill ran down Radome’s spine that had nothing to do with the weather as a sensation akin to standing on thin, crackling ice overcame her. Cautiously, she replied, “Say again?”
“Have both sanctions been carried out?” the disembodied voice said, with an unmistakable overtone of impatience. “The cleaners are on the way.”
Apparently, Trish’s voice had enough resemblance to that of the late Martha that whomever was on the other end of the comm didn’t immediately realize he was talking to an imposter, but there was no point in trying to prolong the charade: Trish had heard enough. Muttering “Boring conversation anyway,” she broke the connection, then quickly pulled the commlink from Martha’s wrist and stuffed it in her shoulder bag. Seconds later, the commlinks and earbuds of the woman’s companions joined it.
As she worked, her mind raced. “Both sanctions”? And “the cleaners” were coming? Trish had spent enough of the last six years working in the shadows that she didn’t need to have someone draw her a picture, complete with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back, to make it clear what that meant. Martha and her two companions had come to Sharon Gellar’s apartment intent on killing two people, and Radome was instantly certain that she had been the second target. Meanwhile, there was no way to know how close to hand “the cleaners” – the term was self-explanatory – might be at the moment: if they found her still in the apartment, it would be problematical for Trish at best. As her friend MacLaren had once advised her, the wise person knows when to get the hell out of Dodge, and for Radome, “when” was now.
She was suddenly acutely conscious that she was unarmed, but a solution to that was readily to hand. With a silent apology that mingled equal measures of gratitude and regret, Trish reached down and plucked the PPQ from Sharon’s unresisting hand, then snatched the two spare mags and the box of ammo from the open drawer. The pistol went into her waistband at the small of her back, neatly covered by the jacket she wore, the magazines into the jacket’s side pockets, and box of extra rounds into her shoulder bag; with that, she headed for the front door, still standing half-open. She was about to flee the apartment when, on impulse, she stopped, returned to the kitchen, and swiftly rifled through the clothing of the three Does.
Uh-oh. Whoever these gomers really are, this ain’t good. In addition to the wallets, car keys, and other expected accoutrements, the pockets of Martha and her two associates yielded up three identical small leather folders, much like glorified wallets, in each of which Trish found the very official-looking credentials for agents of the US Air Force’s Office of Asset Management. Trish didn’t know much about the OAM – as a rule, no one did, a state of general ignorance which the OAM preferred and worked hard to perpetuate – but she had it on good authority that its purpose was to “spook” on the “spooks,” a role seemingly confirmed by the agency’s motto, Vigilantes custodes. Still, that hardly explained what interest the OAM would have in a retired Air Force Master Sergeant, or why three OAM Special Agents had intended to kill her.
Then again, it was possible that OAM never had any interest in Sharon Gellar at all. Even to a highly-trained eye, the ID’s would have passed a “sniff test” in the field, but that sixth sense which had earned her the call sign “Radome” warned Trish that the credentials were bogus. I wonder if those ID’s are what twigged Sharon to these three buttholes? Or maybe after she let them in, something gave them away – something in what they said or did, or maybe it was something she knew that they didn’t….
Whatever the case may have been, Trish would have to think about it some other time and in some other place. She chucked the three ID folders into her shoulder bag, then followed up with the phony OAM agents’ wallets – after she’d relieved them of whatever cash they contained. After all, she told herself, they can’t use it where they’ve gone, so it would be a shame to let it go to waste. I can put it to better use now than they can. Satisfied that she had everything that could be of use to her, she stood, slid her sunglasses onto her face, then hefted the bag onto her right shoulder and walked out of the apartment, not once bothering to look back. She fell into the quick, deliberate pace of someone with someplace to be, determined to put as much distance between her and the apartment as possible before the “cleaners” arrived. She didn’t run, though, because Trish knew that a person who is running attracts attention, and at the moment, attention, of any type from anyone, was the very last thing she wanted.
She couldn’t know, of course, that only seconds after she turned the corner at the south end of the apartment block, a dark blue Chevrolet panel van emblazoned with the livery of “Caplan Carpet Cleaning” swung into a right-hand turn at the north end, and rolled to a stop in front of Sharon Gellar’s apartment. Had she been able to witness it, Radome would have positively reveled in the reactions of the four men who exited the van expecting to find two bodies and found four instead, only one of whom had been a designated target.
As it was, long before the cleaners finished their work, Trish was sitting in a window seat aboard the Route 621 city bus headed into downtown San Antonio. While a corner of her brain maintained her situational awareness, keeping tabs on her fellow passengers and their actions, most of her focus was on working the problem at hand, to wit – what to do now? She recalled a conversation she’d had with David MacLaren just before Thanksgiving, when she was vetting a job offer and sought out his opinion. Their conversation had wandered back and forth, as such things were wont to do, but at one point MacLaren reminded her that “getting the hell out of Dodge” was a three-part exercise.
“Most people ken pretty quickly to the notion that they need to know when to get the hell out of Dodge,” he’d said in his distinctive Scott burr, “and that’s the first – and easiest – part of the exercise. The second part is a wee bit harder: knowing how to get the hell out of Dodge. But yer biggest challenge is always the third part, the ‘prestige’ of the act, ye might say. And that’s knowing where to go once ye’ve gotten the hell out of Dodge.”
“What do you – oh, wait, you mean ‘don’t get into a worse tactical situation while I’m exiting a bad one’.”
“Or, as ye Yanks put it, ‘jump from the frying pan to the fire.’ Work yer tactical balance sheet, play to yer strengths, draw on yer assets – and make damned certain ye know what those assets are! Above all, remember this: semi-professionals are predictable, real professionals never are, and amateurs think as if they’re in old action movies.”
That’s all well and good when it’s theoretical, Radome mused, a sudden frown tracing lines of perplexity across her face, but it’s more complicated when I have to do it in real life. Strengths? I’m a damn good techie, I know how to keep my eyes open, and I know how to take care of myself. Nobody knows me in San Antonio, so nobody is going to give me away by accident. I’ve got firepower and I know how to use it. I’ve got money, so finding a bolt-hole won’t be a problem, as long as I don’t make a splash doing it. Weaknesses? I don’t have a car, which restricts my mobility, and I don’t like that one damned bit. Buying a car in San Antonio isn’t an option, because that puts me on the Grid here, and I’m not about to steal one. Grand theft auto is about the best way to announce ‘Here I am!’ as I can think of, bar shouting. Assets? Those are pretty stinking thin on the ground right how. If I’ve stepped into something as big and smelly as I think it is, I need reinforcements, and the nearest people who can help are a couple of thousand miles away….
Hardly had that last thought crossed Trish’s mind than she found herself backpedaling it. A cheeky grin replaced the frown as she activated her commlink, called up the internal directory, and entered a number. Switching to text mode, she typed a single word before tapping the “send” key.
“You have an unscheduled incoming comm, Madam Director,” a disembodied voice announced without preamble.
The Director sighed, pulled the old-fashioned eye-glasses from her face and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Who is it this time, Evie?”
“Section Chief Shidehara, Ma’am.”
“Voice only or voice and visual?”
“Voice and visual.”
The Director sighed again. “All right, put him through.”
She pushed back from her desk, swung her chair slightly to the right and seemed to gaze off into empty space: she was actually looking at the focus point for the holographic projection of the incoming comm. In less than a second, the 3-D projection of the head and shoulders of a sharply-featured man of indeterminate age appeared and seemed to solidify, suspended in mid-air.
“Hello, Tommy.” Despite the strict formality invariably employed by her executive assistant, the Director was perfectly comfortable with familiarity, at least with her colleagues and immediate subordinates.
“Barbara,” the man replied with a collegial nod of his head. “I know I’m interrupting your work on the budget requests, and I apologize for that. Still, something has come up that I felt you needed to know about soonest.”
The Director frowned, which only made her sharp, angular features appear even more forbidding than usual. “If it was good news we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so just how bad is it?”
“That remains to be seen. It’s certainly not catastrophic, if that’s what you’re worried about, but it does complicate things a bit. You see, the site mitigation team encountered a… well, an irregularity at the home of retired Master Sergeant Gellar.”
“Oh?” The upward inflection of the single syllable was matched by the rise of the Director’s right eyebrow. “You’d better explain what you mean by ‘an irregularity.'”
“The site mitigation people found four bodies, not two. One of them was Gellar, the other three were our agents: Harding, Rosen, and Hornberg.”
“Oh, shit. Who killed our people?”
“Initially, at least, it looks as if Gellar got the drop on them. We recovered two shell casings with extractor marks that match Rosen’s weapon, but neither Hornberg nor Harden got a shot off.”
“And what about the Crabtree woman?”
“Absent, although there’s some evidence that she had been there after Gellar and our people had their confrontation.”
“Two things. First, Gellar had two gunshot wounds to the torso, and someone had tried to improvise some field dressings. The mediation team think it was Crabtree. She couldn’t stop the bleeding, though, and Gellar died from blood loss. Second, seven .40-calibre shell casings were found on the floor, and as you know, none of our people carry weapons that chamber that round – but we’ve confirmed that Gellar owned a .40-calibre Walther. The gun itself is missing, and the only realistic conclusion is that the Crabtree woman took it when she left the apartment.”
The Director’s frown morphed into a scowl. “So how did she get away in the first place? How did our people get Gellar and not her?”
“It looks like bad timing. Either Rosen and her two backups arrived early, which, knowing Rosen’s fetish for exact timing, isn’t likely, or else Crabtree was running late.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then… I don’t know. I doubt we ever will, except in the most general way.”
“Did Crabtree shoot our people?”
Shidehara shook his head. “I don’t think so. From what the mitigation team has told me so far, it looks as though that was Gellar. Something – something one of our people said or did, probably, something they were supposed to know but didn’t, or vice versa – whatever it was, something gave them away and she started shooting. She put three into Harding, and two each into Hornberg and Rosen – in that order, it seems. Rosen was the only one who was able to draw her weapon, and she got the two hits on Gellar before she went down. They probably took each other out simultaneously.”
“Damn.” The Director plucked a stylus from her desk and began absently toying with it while she digested Shidehara’s news. “Is there a chance this Crabtree woman learned what Gellar knew?”
“With respect, Barbara, do I have to remind you again that we still aren’t certain that Gellar actually knew anything? The uncertainty over who knew what has been the biggest complication to this entire op.”
“All right, let me rephrase that: assuming Gellar had the information we wanted, could she have passed it on to Crabtree?”
It was Shidehara’s turn to frown. “Unlikely, although it’s not entirely impossible. The two hits Gellar took to the chest were through-and-throughs that tore up both of her lungs. If she wasn’t killed instantly, she might have remained conscious for two, maybe three minutes, but that wouldn’t have been enough time to tell Crabtree anything, assuming Gellar could still talk.”
The Director tossed the stylus back onto her desk, then, resting her elbows on the arms of her chair, steepled her fingers beneath her chin. “I really don’t like this, Tommy. Do you have any idea what alerted Gellar? Because whatever it was, it may wind up biting more of our people on the ass. Rosen was too good to simply fuck up by the numbers, so it had to be something that completely blindsided her.”
“I agree with you about Rosen, and no, I have no idea how it could have happened. Oh, and there’s one more thing: the ID’s and commlinks of all three of our people are missing, and they’ve stopped tracking as well. We have to assume that Crabtree took them and somehow shut them down.”
“Shit. This just gets worse by the minute.”
“I know, but sugar-coating it won’t make the problem go away. And saw no point in trying to bury the news of this development.”
“I won’t pretend that I’m anything less than completely pissed off by this news, but I respect the integrity you’ve shown in making it known to me personally. This agency isn’t completely immune to CYA-itis; it’s nice to know you haven’t been infected.”
“I didn’t exactly expect you to break into a song and dance, but I figured you needed to hear it directly from me rather than through some mid-level flunky trying to score brownie points with the boss, no matter how angry it made you.”
The Director managed a thin smile at that. “Well, I have given up shooting messengers bearing bad news, at least for the holidays. It’s momentarily satisfying, I’ll admit, but sooner or later, you run out of messengers.” Her face went blank and she lapsed into a silence that stretched out for some seconds; Shidehara held his peace, having become well familiar with the look his superior took on when she was deep in thought. Finally she returned her gaze to him – or at least at his projection – with an expression of fierce determination.
“All right, this is what I want: find the Crabtree woman, recover the ID’s and comm links she took off our agents, and then eliminate her. She’s an annoying loose end that really needs to be tied off ASAP. Is this going to present a problem for you in any way?”
“No, not at all,” Shidehara replied, shaking his head. “She’s far from home, in an unfamiliar city where, so far as we know, she has no friends. So there’s no place where she can go to ground long-term, eventually she’s going to have to come out in the open, even if it’s only to run. We can monitor the bus terminals, the train station, and the airport easily enough. Car rentals as well, for that matter. It may take a few days, but sooner or later, we’ll isolate her and correct this current failure.”
The Director nodded her satisfaction. “Make it so.”
“Dammit, Elliot, are you still in this hand or not?”
“Gimme a minute, Benson, I’m thinkin’ about it.”
“Well, you can stare at those cards all day and they aren’t gonna change into something better than what you’ve already got. C’mon, time’s a’wasting.”
“What’s your hurry, you got a date tonight?” The corners of the mouth under the bushy grey mustache quirked upward and Elliot Ross lifted his equally bushy eyebrows enquiringly.
Mike Benson gave a snort. “Maybe not tonight, but I do have one with Terri on Wednesday, and at the rate you’re playing, I’m still likely t’be late.”
“Must be a peach of a hand,” another voice chimed in.
“Shut up, Halliday, you’re breakin’ my concentration.”
“Poker, my good man, does not require concentration, it requires determination,” Halliday, the only other man at the table – there were five all told – still in this hand, announced pontifically. “However, hesitation masquerading as determination is another matter entirely.”
“There you go, usin’ them ten-cent words again.” The glare Ross gave Halliday was only half-feigned. Halliday responded with a ghost of a smile.
“Elliot, the limits of your vocabulary do not give you carte blanch to cast aspersions on my personal degree of erudition,” he replied smoothly, only slightly exaggerating his native Atlanta drawl.
“Halliday, why’d you have to become a fancy-talkin’ lawyer?” Ross growled. “Why couldn’t you have done somethin’ respectable with your life, like goin’ to dental school?”
Benson let out a sigh of exasperation. “Dammit, Ross, are you gonna wait for your Social Security checks to start arriving so’s you can cover your losses before you make up your mind?”
“Well, since you’re bein’ so goddamned insistent, Mike, I have made up my mind. I’ll see your twenty and call.” Elliot tossed a pair of blue chips into the pot, and turned to Halliday, who grimaced, muttered something about the hand being too rich for his blood, and folded. Elliot then looked expectantly to Benson.
The venue was Club Luck, a private establishment in Luckenbach, Texas, the game was Texas Hold-’em, and face-up on the table were the Five, Eight, and Nine of Hearts which had been dealt in the flop; the turn had been the Nine of Clubs, and the Jack of Diamonds came up on the river. Now it was time for the showdown. Mike turned over the Five of Diamonds and the Eight of Spades, then sat back and grinned at Elliot.
Ross gave out a low whistle when he saw Benson’s two pair. “Now I understand why you were in such a tearin’ hurry,” he murmured.
“I’d like to thank all of you gentlemen for your contributions to my forthcoming evening with Tessa – and making it so much easier on my wallet,” Mike announced, reaching for the pot.
“Hold on there, youngster,” Ross said, raising his left hand, palm outward in a restraining gesture while with his right he turned over his two hole cards. “Best not be gettin’ ahead of yourself.”
Benson looked down to where Ross was gently tapping his forefinger on the Eight of Diamonds and the Jack of Spades, and his jaw dropped. “I will be dipped in shit,” he croaked.
Ross grinned. “Son, you’re a pretty good poker player, but if’n you’re gonna keep that cigar in your mouth when you’re bluffin’, you need to learn t’stop chewin’ on it when you do.”
“I did not chew on my cigar!” Mike protested. “I didn’t!”
“Yes, you did.”
“Did not.” Benson turned to Halliday. “John, did I chew my cigar?”
Halliday nodded. “I am afraid you did, Mike,” he said reluctantly.
Benson looked to the other two men at the table, who also nodded in confirmation. “Well… damn. Guess that’s what I get for playing poker on a Monday.”
Ross knocked back the last of the Buffalo Trace in his glass, then stretched out his arm and began raking the piled chips toward him. “Easiest two hunnert and forty dollars I’ve made this week,” he said with smirk. “Next time y’all might want – ” Whatever he was about to say next was cut off by the soft, insistent text-message buzz of his commlink. Pulling it from the pocket of his black leather waistcoat, he recognized the ID, then did a double-take at the single word message. He hastily rose from his chair, saying, “Deal me out of this hand, fellas, I gotta make a comm call.”
“Miss Radome, I’ll take your word for it that you’re in trouble. After all, you’re not the sort t’ panic at the drop of an old slouch hat. But t’tell the truth, I’m not all that sure I can be of much use t’you. You say you’re in San Antone, which means that at the moment I’m the best part of sixty miles north of you, and, well, you haven’t given me much to go on, ‘ceptin’ your say-so.”
“Then try this on for size, cowboy,” Trish said tartly. “Less than an hour ago, not five miles from where I’m standing right now, I pulled three phony Air Force OAM ID’s off of an equal number of dead bodies. The three bogus agents were in an apartment near the Kelly Field Annex, and they’d been in a shoot-out with a retired Air Force Master Sergeant. She didn’t survive, either. And, Houston, I have very good reason to believe those three were also expecting to find me there and take me out at the same time.”
At that, Elliot Ross – better known to Radome by his operating name of “Houston” – gave a low whistle and looked about the bar. Reassured that there was no one who could overhear his part of this conversation – he was alone, save for Charlie, the ever-reliable and discrete bartender, who just now was very much minding his own business on the other side of the room – he said, “OK, that changes things a bit. You are in trouble. The problem is, though, I’m not sure what I can do about it.”
“You can help me get out of Texas, Houston!” she exclaimed. “Look, I don’t know anybody else in the whole damn state! I took Amtrak to get here, so I don’t have wheels of my own – I can’t just drive off into the sunset. And if I’m right and these people are looking for me, they’ll be watching the train station, the bus terminals, and the airport like hawks.”
“Yeah, they would be watchin’, wouldn’t they? ‘Course, that also means they’ll be actively lookin’ for you, too – y’all can’t expect ’em t’just sit around with their thumbs up their keisters, hopin’ they’ll get lucky,” he drawled. “Whatever ‘zactly it is that you been doin’, Radome, you’ve done pissed off the wrong people, and did a bang-up job at it in the process. All right, I’ll saddle up and get a move on.” He glanced at his wristwatch; it was just past 11:00 AM. “Traffic shouldn’t be bad this time of day. I should be there in, oh, less than an hour – maybe forty-five minutes, maybe a little more. What’s your 20 actual?”
“I’m in downtown San Antonio at the moment, but I’ve got to keep moving, Houston, in case I’m being followed. Staying in one place too long will make it too easy to get me isolated. Comm me when you’re, say, ten minutes out and I’ll give you a location where we can meet.”
“All right, darlin’, that works for me. Houston clear.” Ross broke the connection, stepped up to the bar, and gestured to Charlie for one last shot of whiskey. Lifting his glass to the portrait of the grizzled old man that hung in the place of honour over the rows of bottles, he muttered, “Wish me luck, Waylon,” downed the bourbon in one go, and slapped the glass, upside down, on the bartop. He crossed back to the table he’d left just a few minutes earlier, and all four players looked up at him expectantly.
“I’m outta the game, fellas, and I won’t be able to stay for lunch,” Houston announced without preamble. “Have Charlie cash me out – I’ll be back later this week t’pick up my winnin’s.” Something in his voice caught the attention of both Benson and Halliday, as both men regarded him with sudden curiosity. He nodded in confirmation. “There’s a… situation came up in San Antone and I gotta hit the road right quick. Mike, I’m givin’ you notice you’re on back-up. If’n I call, you drop ever’thin’ and come runnin’, got it?” Benson nodded. “Halliday, you’re on stand by.”
“How serious is it, Elliot?” Halliday asked.
“Don’t know yet, John, but don’t go gettin’ too comfortable. If I do need you, I’ll be needin’ you pronto.”
Everyone at Portanus Laboratories’ New York headquarters on 41st Street knew the explosion was coming. The only uncertainties were when it would happen, how devastating it would be, and just who would be its target, so for days they had been walking on those famously figurative eggshells, anxiously searching for plausible excuses that would allow them to be elsewhere when the inevitable occurred. Simon Orlov was a firm believer in “effective management through effective intimidation.” His temper tantrums – always abrasive, frequently vulgar, sometimes abusive – were the stuff of corporate legend, the bludgeon-like “stick” half of his “carrot-and-stick”-style of management. Only the startling size of the “carrot” in the form of remarkably generous salary, bonus, and benefits packages ensured that Portanus Laboratories had a management staff. And to be fair, only management-level staff were ever the targets of Orlov’s petulant wrath: secretaries, administrative assistants, IT and research personnel, file clerks, and custodians all knew they were immune to his tirades.
The explosion came in the middle of his weekly staff meeting, held in the Executive Conference Room, a darkly-paneled, grey-carpeted, neutrally-lit chamber furnished in black leather, polished walnut, and brushed stainless steel, adjacent to Orlov’s similarly appointed office. Known somewhat less than affectionately by his division chiefs as “Orlov’s staff infection,” this meeting was a post-luncheon ritual held every Monday, beginning precisely at 1:00 PM – Orlov’s fetish for punctuality was near-legendary. Its purpose was to allow those same division chiefs, who had spent the morning generating summaries of what their respective departments had accomplished in the previous seven days, to verbally deliver those summaries to him. Once these recitals were completed, Orlov – co-founder, President and CEO of Portanus Laboratories, and the owner of forty-five percent of the company – would then inform each of his subordinates as to what was expected of them and their staffs in the next seven days. It wasn’t quite micro-management, but the difference was so minute it could have only been perceived by the most determined of hair-splitting pedants.
The detonation was, as everyone had expected, spectacular. It was triggered when Otto Krecht, the fussy, meticulous, pompous, and sometimes overbearing Managing Director of Security at Portanus, was concluding a review of the latest developments in his department’s investigation of the murder of Dr. Morgen Bredell and the theft of her comp-deck.
“… are the major hindrance in the efforts of the Landespolezeikommando Steiermark. At the same time, there is a considerable volume of traffic on the Backchannel about the incident, which I have been following closely – a lot of chatter, but very little substance.” Pudgy, jowly, with watery blue eyes made to appear larger than life by the wire-rimmed glasses he affected, Krecht was in his finest pontificating, university-lecturer mode. Wrapping his sausage-like fingers around the lapels of his suit coat, he glanced down at the display terminal set into the tabletop before him, nodded at what he saw, then went on. “I am inclined to accept the Austrian’s theory that Doctor Bredell’s murder was a case of industrial espionage that went very, very wrong. The real target was her comp-deck, but it is suggested that she said or did something that provoked the would-be thief to violence. She may have actually recognized him or her and had to be silenced.”
Orlov’s habitual frown took on a skeptical cast as Krecht continued, a detail that escaped the security chief’s attention. “If that is the case, as I believe it to be, the ‘deck, or at least the contents of its various drives, will soon appear on the shadow market. This will allow Portanus Labs the opportunity to reacquire it – at quite a substantial price, of course – before it was sold to the highest-bidding competitor. At the same time, it will also bring us directly to the person or persons who absconded with the compdeck and, sadly, took the good Doctor’s life as they did so. Whatever the case may be, what is truly baffling is how the security surveillance of not only the Medical Tower but that of the Graz Stadtspolizei were rendered ineffective simultaneously. In both systems, there is a twenty-minute span, with time-stamps that coincide to the millisecond, for which there is no audio or video record of activity in or around the Tower for a three block radius. The Austrian authorities are focusing on this anomaly, as a substantive lead could be developed by determining who might possess the capability to execute such precise bypass of the two systems. From there they intend to –”
“Wait!” Orlov’s monosyllabic bark cut straight across the flow of Krecht’s verbiage, halting it entirely. “What did you say? What was that?”
“Er – ehm, ah, I said, Mr. Orlov, that the Austrian authorities are closely looking at – “
“Excuse me, Otto, but are you my chief security officer or just a messenger boy for the Austrian police?”
“Did I somehow give you instructions to simply report to me as to what the Bundespolezei were doing?” Of medium height and build, balding, his granite-grey eyes peering myopically through the pair of horn-rimmed spectacles that dominated an unremarkable ovoid face, Orlov’s bland appearance gave no hint of his vulpine nature. Now, however, he suddenly bared his teeth in a parody of a smile, his eyes all but sparking with anger, while the nasal vowels and clipped consonants of his Ivy League accent only sharpened. “I thought I had directed you to conduct an investigation of the Bredell incident, not to merely solicit the cooperation of the local constabulary. Did I do that – or am I not the person who gives the orders in my own company?”
“Mister Orlov, you issue the orders. Of course you do. It is then my responsibility, however, to interpret and implement those orders, and to do so in such a way that my people fulfill the correct intent of those orders. I mean no disrespect when I say that there are times when your instructions are vague or somewhat contradictory or simply difficult to parse: you are a businessman, not a security expert. In such an instance I must make something comprehensible out of them. In the case of Doctor Bredell and her comp-deck, the sensible procedure is to follow close behind the Austrians, note what leads they are following, as well as those they aren’t, and see what new information we can uncover that they mi –”
“Shut the hell up, you fat German turd!” Orlov, his face suffused with anger and frustration, bellowed at the top of his lungs. Without warning, he snatched a heavy water-glass from his desktop and heaved it at Krecht’s head. The security chief ducked just in time and the glass shattered on the wall behind him. The other assembled division chiefs stared in horror at Orlov’s manifest fury: it was no secret that the man possessed a vicious temper and was hardly adverse to displaying it, but, as befitted his role as Portanus Labs’ founder and top executive, he rarely did it so violently. “You’ve had four whole days to begin unraveling this mess, and all you can tell me what the Austrians are doing? What the hell do I pay you for, you corpulent fuck? I told you – I ordered you! – to find out who killed Bredell and made off with her ‘deck! That was an order! An order! Not a request that you regurgitate the information you get from your bumbling contacts in the in the Landespolizei! I’m not interested in what the Austrian police are doing – I want to know what are we – no, make that ‘what are you’ – doing about it? Do you have anything to tell me that you haven’t simply cribbed from a document generated by some third- or fourth-tier civil servant in Vienna?”
“Sir, I just thought –”
“Leave the thinking to people who are capable of such difficult feats!” Orlov snapped viciously. “What right do you have to ‘interpret’ my instructions or ‘parse’ my intent? You deserve to be crucified for that sort of presumptive arrogance!” Orlov let his gaze sweep across the dozen or so other division chiefs seated around the conference table. “And don’t any of you imagine for a moment that I’m unaware of others among you who do the same thing. For months now, at every Monday meeting, I’ve been listening to most of you make excuses and shift blame and find reasons why your people can’t keep to simple schedules. You all think you run your own private little empires inside Portanus, but you don’t – Portanus is my company, I founded it, I run it and you answer to me! You are not in my employ to do what you want to do, your sole purpose in this company is to carry out my will and achieve my goals for me!”
Krecht sprang to his feet, trembling with outrage, his chair toppling over behind him. “Director Orlov, I will not allow myself to be abused like this for one more minute! I’ve been far too loyal for far too long to you, your company, and your goals to deserve that, let alone accept it!”
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re a failure, Krecht.” The dripping venom vanished had from Orlov’s voice, its place taken by a disdain made all the more biting by his now flat, matter-of-fact tone. “The death of Doctor Bredell is proof of that: you and your people couldn’t protect her or her work – while she was inside one of our own facilities! You natter about talk on the Backchannel, but why, I ask you, are you merely listening to it and not putting to use those people who are doing the talking? Do you really expect me to believe that none of them know anything?” He paused, then went on before Krecht could frame a response. “At least tell me that you had the good sense to ask Ivanova herself what she knew, or thought she knew, or whom else she thought might know something.”
“Sir, I didn’t –”
“Oh, shut up! I’ve had enough of your bullshit! I’m done screwing around.” His left arm shot out, indicating the door to his office. “Get out of my sight, Krecht. In fact, get out, the lot of you! Go, before I decide that you can all be replaced by trained chimpanzees!”
“What on earth brought that on, Otto?” a voice murmured in Krecht’s ear as he was beating a determined retreat down the corridor, away from Orlov’s conference room. The question came from Janelle Mersereau, a golden-haired, hazel-eyed, inordinately thin woman with sharp, almost pinched features that gave her an overall lean and hungry look, as might befit a female Cassius. Like Krecht, she was one of Portanus Laboratories’ Managing Directors; in her case, of the IT Department. “I’ve seen him angry before,” she went on, “everyone has – but never like that, and with such a hair-trigger!”
Krecht shook his head. “As to what it was, Janelle, I have no idea. You and I know perfectly well – as does Orlov – that expecting some kind of major breakthrough in Bredell’s murder this soon isn’t even remotely realistic.” He stopped so suddenly that Mersereau was two strides past him before she could halt her own forward progress. Turning back to look at him, she saw Krecht glance up and down the hallway, clearly making certain they were alone, at least for the moment. “He’s always been a prickly, demanding bastard, of course, but this time, I think he’s as much frightened as he is genuinely angry. What happened to Bredell has him spooked for some reason, and rightly so, I think.”
“Especially when whomever was responsible went to such lengths to cover his or her tracks,” Mersereau affirmed. “I’ve got my own people working on how the video coverage – ours and the Austrians’ – was so precisely blacked out, but so far they’ve found nothing. What really worries me is that we can’t find a trace of how the person who managed to penetrate the safeguards on our own video network did so, let alone who did it. And despite all of Simon’s obvious contempt for them, the Landespolezei’s security is one tough nut to crack.”
“I know. Believe me, I know – my own people have been trying to get inside it.” Admitting, however indirectly, to his department’s failure, even to a colleague, made Krecht look even unhappier. “But there’s one more thing in play here, Janelle, in case you missed it: Simon is every bit as worried – or maybe even more so – about the loss of Bredell’s comp-‘deck as he is about who killed Bredell. Which makes me wonder just what’s on that ‘deck.”
“I got the same impression,” she agreed, nodding emphatically. “And I think you’re right, Otto: he is frightened. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that he’s feeling the pressure from the people he has to answer to.”
“No, people more important than that.”
As soon as the last of the assembled department heads had shuffled out of the conference room, Simon Orlov returned to his office and lowered himself into the leather-covered chair behind his desk. Knuckling the fingers of one hand under his chin, he swung back and forth in short arcs for a few moments, lost in thought.
You really shouldn’t have lost it like that, you fucking moron. It was a moment of self-rebuke that Orlov’s monumental ego rarely allowed. It’s one thing to make certain that your minions are so terrified of your temper that they willingly stop thinking for themselves lest they provoke a tantrum. The fools are so cowed that none of them have a clue that you plan and manage your “outbursts” as carefully as you do everything else. But what you did to Krecht just now – that wasn’t planned at all, and you came too damned close to letting those flunkies see fear in your eyes. Once that happens, they’ll stop being afraid of you, and start wondering who it is you’re afraid of. That’s a question you definitely don’t want any of them asking.
At last his thumb jammed down hard on the call button that activated his intercom link to his executive assistant.
“Yes, Mr. Orlov?” came the near-instantaneous response.
“Cecilia, I think it best if you started drafting a letter of resignation for Mister Krecht. While you’re at it, draft a letter from me accepting it – regretfully, of course. Oh, and find Spears. Tell him I need to see him. I’ve had enough of dealing with fucking amateurs.”
Radome was making her way south along the San Antonio Riverwalk, having a few moments before succumbed to the temptation of a single-scoop chocolate waffle cone at Lick Honest Ice Creams. She had crunched her way through nearly a third of the cone and was almost beneath the I-35 overpass when her commlink chirped; a glance at the caller ID window showed it was Houston.
“This is Radome, whatcha got, cowboy?”
“Trish, I’m on Highway 281, headin’ south, just about t’ pass that Bible-thumper university. Where’re you at?”
Crunch. “I’m down on the Riverwalk, west side, close to the 35.”
“‘Kay, where should I be lookin’ for ya?”
“I’m keeping to public places, and I’m close to the San Antonio Museum of Art.” Crunch. “That seems like a good place to meet. The map on my ‘deck says it’s on Jones Avenue between Camden –”
“This may come as a shock to y’all, but I do know where the Art Museum is. What the hell’s that noise?”
“Ice cream cone.” Crunch.
“Riiight. If’n I recall correctly, there’s an Eye-talian restaurant behind the museum and the Riverwalk leads right to it. We can meet there. Whichever one of us gets there first’ll just sit tight ’til the other shows up, OK? There’s no point in tryin’ to chase each other ’round.”
“Works for me.” Crunch. “See you soon.”
A few hundred yards beyond the overpass the walkway ended in a flight of broad, wide steps that did indeed, as Houston had said, bring her up to “Tre Trattoria at the Museum,” as the restaurant somewhat grandly styled itself. No doubt the menu was every bit as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as the staff believed it to be, but the ice cream cone had, for the time being, taken the edge off Radome’s appetite, and of more immediate interest to her was the collection of tables, chairs, and umbrella-like awnings set out on the patio at the southeast end of the building. She smiled inwardly. Perfect! I can get off my feet for a few minutes while I use the rear wall of the museum itself to cover my back, and still keep an eye on everything going on around me. She pulled a chair over to the spot she selected and sat down to wait for Houston.
She didn’t have to wait long. She’d just settled into her seat and was beginning to allow her body – but not her mind – to relax slightly when Houston emerged from the rear entrance to the museum proper. He took in the whole of the patio in one sweeping glance, then began sauntering – there was no other way to describe his gait – his way toward Trish. With long white hair, bushy black eyebrows, and a rather impressive mustache adding extra character to a lean and well-worn face – a countenance which women seemed to find all but irresistible – he was tall and wiry, and moved with the unmistakable air of someone who could take care of himself. Even had he been wearing a Saville Row suit, waistcoat, and tie, rather than the denim jeans, chambray shirt and dove-grey Stetson he was sporting, he would have been instantly tagged as a cowboy. Strolling up to Radome, he stopped about six feet shy of where she sat, gave her a wry grin, and in a deep-voiced drawl said, “Just how much trouble’ve you gotten yourself into this time, young lady?”
Trish returned the grin measure for measure and said, “Enough to know that San Antonio isn’t the healthiest place on earth for me right now. It’s good to see you again, Elliot – under the circumstances, I’m downright overjoyed.”
“I’m glad I was close enough – by Texas, standards, of course – to be able to help out,” Houston replied agreeably. “If’n I’d been out El Paso-way, things might have been a mite more problematic. As it is, if San Antone is as unhealthy for you as you say it is, we’d best get movin’.” He jerked his head toward the museum. “I’m parked across the street.”
“Then let’s saddle up, pardner!”
Houston groaned theatrically. “Are you fixin’ to make cowboy jokes at my expense the whole time it takes to get you wherever it is you’re gonna go?”
“Maybe. Possibly. Probably. Or not.” Trish smiled impishly. “I guess you’ll just have to find out.” Houston just shook his head in resignation, then gestured at Radome’s backpack.
“Is that all you got with you?”
She nodded. “This is it. I wasn’t planning on staying long, even before my little misadventure this morning.”
“Let’s get a move on, then.” Houston guided her into and through the museum, and once they exited the front doors, gestured to the parking lot on the other side of Jones Avenue. After waiting a moment for traffic to clear, they trotted across, and Houston reached into his pocket to produce an electronic key fob, of a type Trish knew was a fingerprint-ID sensor. Given how thoroughly Houston cultivated his persona of a guitar-pickin’ cowboy most at home astride a horse on the open range – an image which, she admitted, he seemed to come by naturally – she was fully prepared to find he’d arrived in an old, slightly battered pick-up truck, quite likely with said guitar stashed somewhere in the back. Despite her best efforts to stop it, her jaw dropped when Ross pressed a button on the key fob and a cheerful blert! accompanied by a flash of head- and side- lights emanated from an immaculate, four year-old, bronze-on-ivory Buick Belvedere drop-head coupe. She looked up at him, her expression curious, her eyes full of mischief, the demand for an explanation unspoken but unmistakable; he had the good grace to look at least mildly embarrassed.
“Waaall…,” he drawled, “the ladies seem to like it.”