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Step down from the bench in seventy-two hours or the little girl dies.
U.S. Marshal Gideon Brand ran his hands over the rough stubble of his face. It had already been twelve hours since a federal judge's six-year-old granddaughter had been discovered missing. She'd disappeared on Gideon's watch.
The threatening message had arrived in the judge's inbox an hour later, time stamped 7:21 a.m. Eastern Standard, and all the forces of federal law enforcement were hard at work attempting to unscramble its path. They would fail. The nascent technology of the heavily encrypted e-mail bypassed central servers and would automatically erase itself in a matter of hours—destroying along with it all evidence of its origin. It was as close to foolproof as had ever been seen.
"You're supposed to be out of here already."
Gideon pivoted in his seat to find the head of the West Virginia judicial security division watching him with expressionless eyes honed from his military special ops background. A look that caused Gideon to believe, far too often, that he was still in special ops.
"Go home," Darren Tucker said. "Some rest will do you a world of good."
"I'm not tired."
"This isn't your case anymore. I know that's hard to accept, but that's the way it is."
Tucker was now assuming direct supervision of the operation.
Gideon was tempted to tell him where he could stick his case, and his pseudosympathy. Molly was more than a case. She was a human being and he had come to care for her more than he'd ever expected. Maybe she reminded him too much of what he'd lost, but this wasn't about him. It was about Molly.
Unleashing his anger on Tucker for his insensi-tivityand authoritarianism would do nothing to save her life. But the statement Judge Alcee Reinhold was in the process of preparing likely wouldn't save her either. Kidnappers rarely returned their victims, and the judge had a recent history of deadly intimidations against him that was believed to include the bombing of a small plane and the death of a federal agent.
"Go home," Tucker repeated.
"Seventy-two hours," Gideon said harshly as he stood. His chest hurt and his hands fisted at his sides.
Go home? Do nothing?
On any given day, he was responsible for investigating, analyzing and assessing threats and other inappropriate communications to sitting judges, as well as supervising protective detail, round the clock if necessary. He had a record of apprehensions and successful cases longer than his arm and he was being dismissed like a child who needed a nap.
Did they actually think he could just go home and suck his thumb while Molly's life hung in the balance?
"And there are only sixty of them left," Gideon added pointedly.
Darren Tucker knew when to keep his mouth shut. There were no platitudes to ease the awful fact that a man who may have killed a planeload of thirty-four innocent people in one fell swoop wouldn't hesitate to slaughter one more.
"We're doing everything we can," Gideon said, speaking the platitude for the commander. He heard the emotion he'd sworn to control come out in his voice. "Except not."
Bitterness stung deeply. He didn't agree with the media blackout on information regarding Molly's kidnapping.
"Go home and go to bed," Tucker said flatly. "You have five minutes, then I'll have you escorted from the building."
The commander left the room. Tough love, that's what he'd said to Gideon when he told him he was dismissed from the case. More than dismissed from the case. Sent on forced leave. He'd taken the case too personally, become too emotionally involved. According to Tucker, this made him a danger to himself, other agents, even to Molly. He didn't agree, but he didn't get to choose.
Gideon left the building with nothing. The truth was he had no personal belongings at the office.
And the same was true of his apartment, he thought wryly as he parked his car and got out. His apartment was cold, with an overhanging sense of emptiness despite being marginally furnished. He looked at a photo of a smiling, bubble-blowing five-year-old Lizzie on the mantel over the fireplace where he'd never burned a log. Frozen in time, weeks before his daughter had died. Innocent, her life shining ahead of her, then gone in a blink.
Six months later, his marriage had fallen in line as if her murderer's second victim.
He pushed away the feelings that photo always inspired, the guilt and loss so deep, they couldn't be borne, and focused on the reason he kept it there, to remind himself of his purpose in life. Without that purpose, he'd have given up long ago.
Even with it, he swirled the sink drain a lot of days. He hadn't been able to save Lizzie. He hadn't even had a chance.
He had a chance to save her. It wasn't too late. Not yet. And there was no way he was walking away.
No one knew for sure why someone wanted Judge Alcee Reinhold off the bench. It could be revenge for a case on which the judge had already ruled or preparation for a case yet to come before the court. A case someone didn't want to have come before Judge Reinhold. Specifically, it was possible the intimidation against the judge was related to the Pittsburgh mafia infiltration of West Virginia and attempts to nail the ringleaders. The judge dealt with search warrants, wiretaps, secret grand jury testimony. Bribery for tip-offs was mafia stock in trade.
If the judge wasn't cooperating, they'd want him replaced. It was Gideon's current working theory, though no direct link between the attacks and the mafia had been made.
Stacks of files staggered in piles on the kitchen table. None of the materials were classified. They were mostly notes in his own hand, ideas, questions, scraps of random ideas and newspaper clippings about the Pittsburgh mafia.
He got a glass of water from the kitchen, sat down at the table and stared at the folders. He made himself feel nothing as he pored over his notes and every article, again. He could let emotion drive him, but he couldn't let it stand in his way.
The pile on the bottom contained clippings and notes from the plane explosion. It had been a dramatically deadly act. Suspicion from the beginning had centered on threats to Alcee Reinhold, who hadn't made the flight. Unfortunately, Robbie Buchanan, the federal agent assigned to escort him, had already been on board. If the bombing had indeed been intended for the judge, the Marshals couldn't prove it. They only knew how the perpetrator had gotten access to the plane to plant the bomb. The perpetrator had most likely masqueraded as a member of the construction staff and gotten through using a stolen ID. The bomb had been planted in the twin-propeller passenger plane's cargo hold.
But the investigation into the explosion had long ago grown cold, as had any clues to the identity of its mastermind. Agents had pored over security tapes, looking for the face of a killer, attempting to identify each person.
Gideon sat in the growing dusk of his apartment staring at the pile of clippings related to the attack on Flight 498. He read through them, one by one, for the four-thousandth time.
There was nothing new.
Except his level of desperation. Something wasn't right. He just didn't know what it was.
He grabbed the phone off an end table in the small living room and phoned Tucker.
"Brand here. I want to know what came out in that interview with the psychic," he clipped out. Impatient? Hell, yeah.
"That psychic from Haven who called the airport, said Flight 498 was going to explode. There was a tracking ID for an interview outcome report, but I never received the file."
"Get some sleep, Brand."
"Did anyone actually talk to Marysia O'Hurley?"
"Yes, we talked to her. Dammit, Brand. Do you not see—"
"What was the outcome?"
"—you are obsessed! And you aren't thinking clearly!"
"What was the outcome?"
"She was an hysterical wife! Get a grip. Her husband was taking that flight. She admitted she was afraid of flying herself. Do you know how many crank calls they get at the airport every day? She's a whack job, and she didn't have anything to do with the bombing. She was thoroughly checked out. Get some sleep!"
The grainy photo in the newspaper clipping showed a slender, dark-haired woman with grieving eyes. She looked lost, even in the crowd of mourners photographed that day at the airport. Her eyes hit the camera dead-on, and there was nothing hysterical about them, even in the midst of shock.
"You remember what they said about Haven after that quake," Gideon said, and even as he spoke the words, he felt foolish. The tiny town of Haven, West Virginia, had been hit by an earthquake the year before and the aftermath had included a cable media circus of claims about "positive ions" triggering paranormal activity.
Earthquakes were uncommon in West Virginia, but the event itself wasn't all that had been strange about the four-point-three shock. The news had been full of panicked homeowners reporting bursts of horizontal light and a reddish haze in the air. Fire trucks had responded to a variety of locations, but had found no flames to douse. One resident had called in a paranormal detective after a young boy was found, scratched and confused, along a roadside claiming to have been trapped inside a red ball of light.
A spokesperson from the Paranormal Activity Institute had called the quake, in combination with existing atmospheric conditions of low pressure and dense moisture at the time, the "perfect storm," labeling the bursts of reddish light "foundational movement" for oncoming supernatural incidents.
Anything can happen in Haven now, the PAI spokesperson had stated.
It had been quite an eye-rolling interview, and it had played over and over in news reports. Even Gideon hadn't missed it, despite the small amount of television he watched. The furor of the story had eventually died down, and if anything genuinely paranormal had ever happened in Haven, Gideon didn't know about it. He certainly hadn't taken any of it seriously.
Following the kidnapping, he'd returned to headquarters and requested the files on all the interview outcomes going back to the plane bombing. He'd gotten every file, immediately, except the one on Marysia O'Hurley, the supposed psychic from Haven.
This evening, he'd made a specific request for her file alone.
Twenty minutes later, he'd been suspended.
"Do you hear yourself talking, Brand?" Tucker asked simply.
"Yeah. I do." Gideon was silent for a heavy beat. The something-wasn't-right feeling in his gut itched at him.
He heard a very subtle click on the line. Suspended and wiretapped?
His pulse went dead still.
Slowly, he held the phone away from his ear. He could hear Tucker, distantly now, asking him if he'd lost his mind. He used his pocketknife to quickly take apart the bottom of the receiver and found the tiny listening device nestled inside.
Putting the phone back to his ear, he snapped, "Did you wire my phone?"
"What the hell are you talking about now? Of course we didn't wire your phone."
Gideon punched the Off button.
Either the commander was lying—in which case, he was done talking to him—or someone else had wired his phone.
A perpetrator who was an expert at bombs and security infiltration and high-tech communication.
As he raced out of the apartment, Gideon wondered why it had never occurred to him before that the same perpetrator who could be behind both a bombing and a kidnapping could be one of his own.
Gideon was in and out of the southern district office in under seven minutes, breaking all the rules, bypassing all security except at the gate. Security was sometimes not much more than a facade when you knew your way around. It was late, and the guard at the post didn't realize Brand had been put on leave. Maybe he didn't get the memo.
The door to his office was closed and locked, though the lock had not been changed. He powered on the desktop unit, found he still had access to the databank on the network.
He typed in Marysia O'Hurley's name, did a search. There was nothing there. No interview outcome report file tracking ID. An ID had been in the system mere hours earlier. He'd used the number to request the file from the secure records room.
The computer screen went sharply black, then a white screen with black letters appeared: You are attempting to access an unapproved area.
The hair prickled at the nape of his neck. Network usage was tracked and his access had just been cut off from somewhere inside the building.
He scraped back his chair, headed for the empty, night-lit hallway. Someone opened fire and he heard the audible rush of a bullet past his ear. Blood pounded in his veins as he evaded and struck back. He fired in the direction of the blast in the same second he leaped for the door to the stairs, took them in flying bounds to the underground parking.
The guard at the gate reached for the phone inside his booth.
Reaching the gate, he had his window down and his gun out, and before the guard could speak or attempt to draw, Gideon pointed his GLOCK.
"Open the gate."
He was through.
Posted June 19, 2011
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Posted July 11, 2011
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