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By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2010 John Gilstrap, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Harvey Rodriguez waited till daybreak before he ventured out to look at the body. He wanted to make sure that the men with the guns were long gone before he turned himself into a target, so he'd spent most of the night lying still in his tent among the trees, trying his best to remain invisible.
If he'd had a brain in his head, he'd have used the cover of darkness to scoot out of here, but every time he'd flexed his legs to move, he'd talked himself out of it. He'd used the time to plot his strategy.
On the one hand, he'd been living out here long enough to be running pretty low on everything, and even if the killer had stripped the dead man's pockets clean, the corpse was likely to have something of value, if only a pair of socks that actually covered his whole foot. Or maybe a watch. Harvey's ten-year-old Timex had crapped out a month ago.
On the other hand, when you've got no home and you make your living — such as it is — off the sometimes unwilling largesse of others, the last thing you need is to get yourself wrapped up in a murder case. It wasn't as if he had people who could vouch for his alibi, you know? He could almost hear the interrogation in his head:
Where were you last night?
I was at home.
And where's that?
Wherever I make it. Last night, it was in the woods out by Kinsale.
Right where a murder happened?
Yes, sir. That's a hell of a coincidence, ain't it? I was just lying there in my tent, and I heard somebody in the woods. I started to peek out, and then I heard a gunshot, and I ducked the hell back in.
Who would believe that? But running away would make it sound even worse. Harvey didn't know many people, but nobody's completely invisible. Sooner or later, somebody would find the body, and the homeless drifter would be the first suspect. Especially if the drifter was wearing the dead guy's socks and watch.
Okay, stealing from the body was a bad idea. He wouldn't do that.
If he were a better citizen, he'd have called for help, but in all fairness, he thought he deserved a break there. He'd chosen this spot as his camp precisely because it was in the middle of nowhere, which meant that "calling for help" had to be taken literally — as in, cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling, "Help!" Hardly compatible with his plan to remain invisible.
Bottom line, he was screwed no matter how it turned out, but after all this time, he was by God going to take a peek at the body. He owed himself that much. Hell, the dead guy owed him that much after costing him a whole night's sleep.
Finally, it was time. Taking care to keep quiet, Harvey crawled out of his last-legs Coleman camping tent and scanned the scenery. It had been a cool night compared to some of the sweltering nightmares of the past couple of weeks, but even now, he could feel the sun doing its duty to deliver a blistering day. It's the way it was in this part of the world. At least winter was long behind and long ahead.
Winter was the hardest part of being Harvey Rodriguez. People asked why he didn't spend his summers walking to someplace where they didn't have winters, but the truth was that he was now a Virginian through and through. In this part of the Commonwealth — along the Northern Neck on the Potomac River — winters were pretty mild. It rarely snowed, and nighttime ice almost always melted by midday. It was the rare day when he couldn't pull something edible out of the river and rarer still when he couldn't snare a squirrel or possum.
As he stretched to his full five feet eight inches, Harvey eyed his peeling Adidas but decided to leave them where they were. The rubber sole on the left shoe was about to give way to a hole, and he wanted it to last for at least one more rainy day. His eyes scanned the horizon as he adjusted the pull cord on the swim trunks he wore as shorts, hoping in vain to make them tighter. One thing about the hot weather: it was hard to keep weight on.
Making no sudden movements, Harvey turned a full 360 degrees, watching and listening for signs of danger. Satisfied that it was safe to move, he plucked his prized FBI T-shirt off the branch where he'd left it to air out overnight, and slipped it on.
Harvey walked carefully through the tall grass and scrubby bushes toward the water — toward the spot where he presumed the body to be. He watched his feet. Poking a bare toe into somebody's guts would be a disgusting way to start the day.
Something caught his eye, off at his eleven o'clock. He stopped in midstep and squinted. Had something moved? He didn't think so. It was one of those intuitive things that hit him from time to time, and he knew to wait it out until his brain could unscramble it. All around him, nothing stirred but the breeze, gently waving the top of the tall seed-tipped grasses in an undulating ripple that made land look like water.
So what was it?
A phrase popped into his head: background anomaly.
When someone's lying in wait — or lying dead — they think they're concealed by the tall grass that surrounds them, and they'd be right if it weren't for the background anomaly. When everything is waving in the breeze, the anomaly is the patch of vegetation that stands still. In this case, it was far more obvious than that. Harvey saw a very definite hole in the rolling surface of the grass — exactly the kind of hole that a body would leave after it had been dumped.
As he closed the distance, he thought briefly about the footprints and other damning evidence he was leaving behind, but if it came to that, at least he could show that the path of footprints led directly to his tent. Plus, if footprints were an issue, there should be at least one other pair that would implicate the real killer.
He was still ten feet away when he caught the first glimpse of blue fabric through the moving blades of grass.
It was definitely a body.
He slowed as he approached the last couple of yards. "Hello?" he said. "Hey, are you okay?"
The dead guy didn't move. If he had, Harvey may well have shit all over himself.
Nearly on top of it now, he could just make out the whole form. He gasped and clamped his hands over his mouth. Horror washed over him out of nowhere, gripping his insides and twisting them.
Without any thought or warning, Harvey Rodriguez did something he hadn't done in too many years for him to remember. He started to cry.CHAPTER 2
July in Virginia.
Though the sun had set, the weather still hung like wet wool as the two men climbed out of their rented Chevrolet Caprice and closed the doors. They wore the standard uniforms of the FBI agents they pretended to be — white shirts and rep ties under unimaginative pinstriped suits. Blue for the smaller of the two, and gray for his massive companion.
The big man — Brian Van de Meulebroeke by birth, but Boxers to his friends — pulled at his collar like a boy in church. "I swear to god, Panama was cooler," he grumbled.
Jonathan Grave smiled. "At least we've got autumn on the other end of it," he said. Back in the day when discomfort was part of their patriotic sacrifice to God and country, the two men had logged dozens of months in fetid tropics, but today's Brooks Brothers uniforms made Virginia way less comfortable. The latex facial prostheses didn't help.
Their destination lay half a block away, remarkable for its ordinariness. Low rise, and constructed of red brick trimmed in white stone, the Basin Jail looked like the result of a student architectural lesson gone bad. It might have been mistaken for a small elementary school or even a recreation center.
"That's the stupidest looking jail I've ever seen," Boxers said, nailing Jonathan's thoughts.
"Here's to thin walls and lax security," Jonathan quipped.
Despite their FBI cover, they parked in the pay lot, just like everybody else. Boxers seemed annoyed as Jonathan waited for him to fish through his pockets for three quarters to feed the meter. "The hell am I paying for?" Boxers grumped. "You're the bajillionaire."
Jonathan said nothing. As the man who signed Boxers' paychecks, his heart did not bleed for the big guy. He also knew that he'd see these six bits on Boxers' expense report.
"Any questions on the plan?" Jonathan asked as they closed to within fifty yards of the target.
"Not a one," Boxers replied. His role was anything but complicated. He was to walk around the facility to identify the strengths and weaknesses of its physical security, and to plot the most effective escape route. Lethal force was not an option in this first phase, but if the therapeutic application of high explosives proved to be necessary, that would be Boxers' responsibility as well.
"Are you with us, Mother Hen?" Jonathan asked, seemingly to the air.
The voice in their earbuds responded with crystal clarity. "Always." The voice belonged to Venice Alexander (Ven-EE-chay, and don't screw it up), the woman who kept Jonathan's life afloat administratively, and whose special gift was to make the electrons of cyberspace dance to music of her choosing. She had left countless IT and security managers around the world wondering how their "unbreakable" databases had in fact been broken.
Venice continued, "I've got the entire camera grid on my screens, and I've been recording for nearly an hour. As soon as you step through the front door, I'll be able to wave hello."
Approaching the main entrance, Boxers held back to remain outside the viewing perimeter of the exterior cameras. "Good luck, Boss," he said. "And nice nose." He split off and began his stroll around the perimeter.
Jonathan gave a wry smile. His disguise was a good one, filling his cheeks and expanding his nose to the point where facial recognition software would be stymied; but it wasn't the kind of thing he normally used. As close as they were to their own backyard, this mission required him to take extraordinary precautions. He'd even donned contact lenses to turn his normally blue eyes brown.
He pulled open the right-hand panel of the double glass doors and stepped into a public reception area that had the feel of a seventies-era ski lodge. Rough-finished beige bricks dominated the walls, arranged edgewise in horizontal courses that rose from the brown tiled floor to the acoustic tiled ceiling.
The admissions officer — it was the only title Jonathan could think of for the guy — sat at the long end of the rectangular room, and as his guest entered, his expression showed annoyance. "Visiting hours are over," the officer announced.
"Of course they are," Jonathan said. As he reached into his pocket for his occasionally legitimate Bureau credentials, he got the sense that the desk officer had been expecting him. "Agent Harris, FBI."
"Just what I need," the officer said.
"Care to guess who I'm here to see?"
The officer twitched a shoulder. "Only federal rap we got is Jimmy Henry. Kidnapping and attempted murder."
"That's the one," Jonathan said. He was close enough now to see his tag: DIANE. He hoped it was his last name, not his first.
The officer followed his gaze. "If you're gonna make a crack, get it over with now," he said. "That way, I don't have to get out of my chair."
"My name's Leon," Jonathan lied. "With a name like that, you don't make fun of others."
Male bonding. A beautiful thing.
"Go to the door," Diane said, pointing with his forehead to a heavy steel security door. "I'll buzz you in."
Jonathan walked the path he already recognized from Venice's research. Just two hours ago, he'd been watching this very space from their offices in Fisherman's Cove. The first door led to a security air lock dominated by a chest-high counter. In a different context, it would have looked like a bar.
"Can't help but think you're wasting your time," Diane said as he entered the air lock from a door on the other side of the counter. He reached underneath and produced a long rectangular box. "I need your firearm and any other weapons. Jimmy Henry lawyered up first thing. Ben Johnson's representing him. You know him?"
"Never heard of him," Jonathan said. He drew a fifteen-shot 9millimeter Glock from its holster on his belt, dropped out the magazine, and locked open the slide before placing the weapon and its ammo in the box. He noted the wall-mounted cameras near the ceiling, but saw no metal detectors.
"Well, Ben's good at what he does. After he told that kid to keep his mouth shut, that's exactly what he's been doin'."
"Hmm," Jonathan said. "Can I speak with him now?"
"You sure you want to? Nothin' he says can be used in court after he's lawyered up."
"Then I'll just have to be careful what I ask, won't I?" Jonathan mimicked the condescending tone he'd heard from dozens of federal agents over the years.
Diane raised a section of the deck and opened a door underneath to let Jonathan pass through. On the far side, he faced another heavy steel door. Diane plucked a phone from the wall and dialed an extension: 4272, Jonathan noted, though he didn't know how the number could possibly help him.
"Hey Chase, this is Bill. I'm letting an FBI agent in. He wants to talk to the Henry kid." A pause. "What, you think I don't have a clock up here? I didn't call him; he just showed up. Yeah, well, aren't they all?"
He hung up the phone and then pushed and held a button under the counter. The lock buzzed, and Jonathan pulled the door open to reveal the fluorescent hell of the cell block. As he stepped across the threshold, he could feel the years of institutionalized fear and misery exuding from the reinforced concrete walls. Whether they were built by the Commonwealth of Virginia or by Saddam Hussein, pervasive misery was the common denominator of all prisons.
Another guard stood just a few feet away. His name tag read BATTLES. "You're up late," he said. "I thought you Fibbies only worked the day shift."
Jonathan shunned the small talk. "I need to speak to Jimmy Henry," he said. "Do you have an interrogation room?" It was a question to which he already knew the answer.
Battles's demeanor darkened with the seriousness of the visitor's tone. He pointed to a secured lockdown about a quarter of the way down the center aisle of the cell block.
"I'd appreciate you bringing him to me," Jonathan said, and he started down the hall.
Battles trotted to catch up. "What's the urgency?" he asked. "You guys usually call ahead."
Jonathan ignored his question and walked to the door. "I want the recording devices turned off in the room while he's with me."
Battles pulled short. "That's not how we do things."
"Tonight's different. Now how about we get done what needs to be done?"
Battles didn't like this. It showed on his face. But he nonetheless unlocked the door and let Jonathan enter. "Sit here, and I'll bring him to you."
As Jonathan stepped inside, the door closed behind him, and the guard locked it. As if reading his mind — as she often did — Venice spoke in his ear: "Don't worry about them recording you. I have their soundtrack control on my screen. Even if they leave everything on, I'll be able to zero out all sound once Henry arrives."
Knowing that she could see him, he acknowledged her with a subtle nod. Jonathan helped himself to the one bolted-down metal chair that was not equipped with a ring to secure prisoners' shackles.
Battles made Jonathan cool his heels for ten minutes or more. Jonathan noted the video camera high in the corner, and despite his makeup did his best to avoid looking at it.
The lock turned, and Battles escorted Jimmy Henry into the room. The nineteen-year-old prisoner stood around six feet and appeared beneath the orange jumpsuit to possess the build of someone who worked hard during the day. His dark brown hair was a sleep-twisted mess, and his eyes seemed sunken into his skull. Clearly pissed at being rousted from his bed, he knew better than to voice his objection.
"Sit down," Battles said, pointing to the available chair.
Jimmy gave a sullen nod and shuffled his slippered, shackled feet over to the chair and sat. With arms pinioned to the waist belt of his shackle rig, he settled himself carefully. When you can't catch yourself in a fall, you become supremely aware of how fragile your nose and teeth are. Once the kid was settled in, Battles attached the chain to the chair.
"I don't think that's necessary," Jonathan said.
Battles glared, but continued with what he was doing. When all was secure, he said, "Pound on the door when you're ready to send him back." He locked the door behind him as he left.
Jonathan leaned back and crossed his arms and legs. "So, you're Jimmy Henry," he said.
Excerpted from Hostage Zero by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 2010 John Gilstrap, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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