By James W. Hall
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 James W. Hall
All rights reserved.
There were no windows in room 2307 of the FBI office building at 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan. An interior room, plain white walls, naked except for an FBI seal and a TV screen flush-mounted beside it. Gray carpet, and a long cherry table with fifteen green leather chairs. Five of them occupied today. A couple of minutes earlier the small talk had died away, now everyone was quiet, eyes down, sipping their coffee, waiting for Special Agent Helen Shane to arrive.
One look around the conference table and Frank Sheffield knew a serious mistake had been made. He didn't belong here. Not with these people. Unless maybe he'd been ordered to New York on a Saturday morning to face a reprimand for his total and unwavering lack of distinction. Twenty-one years with the Bureau without a single commendation. A record so undistinguished it had given Frank Sheffield a kind of reverse fame.
He worked out of the Miami field office, one of the busiest in the country, over seven thousand cases last year, six hundred-fifty agents and support personnel responsible for FBI activity from Vero Beach all the way to Antarctica. Frank hadn't heard of any major crime outbreaks in Antarctica, then again, you could never be sure when the penguin population might start acting up.
It wasn't that Frank was a screw-off. He did his job as well as the next guy. But he wasn't at the head of the line volunteering for extra duty, and he sure as hell didn't have that spit-shined gung-ho bearing that bumped you steadily up the ladder. He served warrants, sat in surveillance vans, carried crates of subpoenaed documents from banks and boiler room operations. He sat in meetings half of every day, adding to his collection of doodles. Mostly he kept his head down, went home at five, took his kayak out on the bay, paddled ten miles around Key Biscayne, good weather or foul, and by the time he got back to his little stretch of beach, all the day's aggravations were magically erased.
Any way you looked at it, Sheffield didn't belong in this room with this bunch of fired-up overachievers who spent all their waking hours keeping America safe and their careers revving in high gear.
Across the table was Deputy Assistant Director Charlie Pettigrew who ten years ago was Special Agent in Charge of the Miami field office, Frank's boss. Somehow Charlie had parlayed one minor talent into major career advancement. Not exactly a yes-man, still Charlie was a guy who could sing harmony to any tune. Great at meetings, aligning himself with the right position. These days Pettigrew was fourth down the chain of command from Director Robert Kelly. Charlie was looking slim and spiffy, sharply creased white shirt, jeans. But Frank detected a little upper-echelon worry in his old buddy's eyes. Bigger concerns, more shades of gray than the old days in Miami, gunning for dopers, tearing holes in the cocaine pipeline.
On the other side of the table, slouching in his seat, was a kid named Andy Barth, twenty-something, with die long stringy blond hair and wolfish face of an undercover dope cop. Frank had seen the kid's picture a lot lately in internal press releases. The Bureau's computer guru, headed the cyber-crime division, fastest growing section in the FBI. Andy wore ratty blue jeans and a fresh white T-shirt. He was helping himself to the basket of Danish in the middle of the table. Taking one, offering them around, taking another. A boy with serious cravings.
At the head of the table was Abraham Ackerman, senior United States senator from New York, and Chair of the Armed Services Committee. For a man in his early fifties he obviously kept himself gym-pumped. His dark wavy hair was swept back on the sides, and he was wearing a blue baseball hat with the FBI logo embroidered in gold on the front. Probably a gift from Director Kelly. Ackerman wore a yellow golf shirt, faded jeans, and running shoes. Very casual on this Saturday morning, just one of the guys. Former college quarterback, Penn State, missed the national championship by a field goal. Two feet wide right. Frank remembered it because he'd won two hundred bucks on the game. With a mediocre team around him, Ackerman had thrown for over three hundred yards, run for a hundred more, almost won the championship single-handedly. A man who could carry ten guys on his back, haul them to the mountaintop. He'd done it then, been doing it ever since. Maybe not an astronaut, never walked on the moon, but the next best thing.
As Chair of the Armed Services Committee, the guy was used to five-star generals kowtowing to him, sitting there in a row, chests dripping with medals and ribbons while the senior senator from New York chewed them out or blasted holes in their latest budget requests.
That morning there was a hum rising from Ackerman's flesh like the tick of radioactivity. Not exactly the look of a grieving father. Frank had seen the story on the evening news a few weeks back, Ackerman, wiping tears from his eyes, had taken questions from reporters. Joanie, his only daughter, a teenager, had been killed in a skiing accident in Aspen. Took a wrong trail in the tricky light of dusk, and smashed into a tree. Tragic mess.
But this morning the man looked like he was totally back to business. The way he lifted his eyes and measured each person in the room, his gaze swinging sharply to the doorway as Helen Shane made her entrance.
"Good news," she said, shutting the door behind her, moving breezily to a chair two down from Sheffield, giving him a quick once-over as she eased into the seat. She set a file folder on the table in front of her, brushed a strand of hair from her face. "I just got off the phone with Director Kelly. And I'm happy to report that we're fully green-lighted. It's a go."
"All right!" said Andy Barth. And took a celebratory bite from a cherry Danish.
Helen was wearing black linen slacks and a clingy white blouse. She had straight shoulder-length red hair and her tense green eyes looked out from under long bangs. The rest of her face was an odd mix of slightly oversized features that somehow looked good in photographs but seemed a little out of whack in real life. He'd heard she was a fashion model in high school, on the covers of Seventeen, and even Glamour. Graduated Columbia, then joined the G-men. God knew why. Maybe Frank would ask her about it later, take her out to lunch, maybe some of her ambition would rub off. This was, after all, the lady they said was destined to be the first female director of the FBI.
Thirty-two, worked out of the D.C. field office, and even Frank Sheffield, who didn't ordinarily pay attention to such matters, was fully aware of her recent successes. The latest one had gone down last August when Helen spearheaded the biohazard unit that thwarted a major smallpox virus attack. It was Helen's team that took down the high-tech plague lab operating inside a condo only a canister toss from the White House.
Ackerman was staring at Helen Shane. His eyes jacked up to full voltage.
Somewhere down the hall a phone rang, and that seemed to wake him from his fierce appraisal. He leaned to the side and scooped up a slim leather briefcase and slapped it down on the conference table. He unzipped it slowly and withdrew a handful of eight-by-ten glossies. Ackerman stared down at the top photograph for a moment, his face going slack, the color draining.
He pushed the stack to his right, directly in front of Charlie Pettigrew.
Charlie tried to nudge the stack on to Andy Barth, but the senator shot out his hand and took hold of Charlie's wrist.
"Look at them," he said.
"I've already seen them, sir."
"Look at them again. I want you to keep these images in your mind. I want you to remember them every second of every day from now until you catch this fucking animal. Look at them, Mr. Pettigrew."
Charlie stared at the photographs. He went through the stack slowly. There were five. He lingered on the last one, then slid them to Andy Barth.
Barth had a piece of Danish in his mouth when he peered at the top photograph. He flinched, didn't swallow and didn't chew as he suffered through the rest.
"I'm sure you've all witnessed autopsies as a part of your training," the senator said. "And you have strong stomachs for this sort of thing. But you should remember as you look at these photographs that this girl, my daughter, was alive only seconds before this was done to her. This carnage. She was laughing. She was red-cheeked and brimming with life."
Impassive, Helen Shane took her look and passed the photos on to Frank.
The girl was sixteen. Though if Frank hadn't known her age already, he wouldn't have been able to tell from the photos. She had dark curly hair and plump cheeks with a short upturned nose. But her face was spattered with gore and whatever her final expression might have been was now concealed by the mask of blood.
Her head was tilted back into a depression of snow. Around the rest of her body the snow was shadowed with blood. In the second and third photographs, the injuries were visible. The fourth and last were close- ups of the gaping wounds in her chest.
"This wasn't any skiing accident," said Sheffield.
"That's right, Frank," said Pettigrew. "That was only the cover story."
"Tell him," Ackerman said. "Tell him what this animal did."
The light was buzzing in the senator's eyes.
Helen Shane leaned forward in her chair, rested her forearms on the edge of the table.
"He was hiding in the trees on the edge of the ski slope. As Joanie passed by, he stepped out, clotheslined her, dragged her ten yards into the underbrush."
"My forensics are a little weak," Frank said. "What're these wounds?"
"After he strangled her," said Helen with the lilt of a schoolroom recitation, "Joanie was alive but unconscious. That's when he tore open her parka and made a crude incision directly below the xiphoid, a triangular cartilaginous mass at the base of the sternum. Once he'd broken through the skin, he apparently widened the laceration with his fingers, and when the breach was large enough, he inserted his hand into Joanie's chest cavity, took her heart in his fist, and crushed it."
Sheffield felt a light-headed swirl begin to form behind his eyes. The silence thickened, a breathless interlude.
"This is why we're here," the senator said, staring at Sheffield. "Because some man in his jungle mansion was unhappy with Joanie's father. Unhappy that I ordered a napalm strike on his coca fields. Unhappy that I approved a half-dozen separate guerrilla operations that caused him great financial losses. This unhappy man in his jungle mansion hired a monster that you people refer to as Hal to retaliate for his losses.
"Until my daughter was slaughtered, I was not aware that such a monster existed. Nor did I know that your Bureau has been pursuing this beast for the last ten years without success. But now that I do know, now that I've seen what complete incompetence has been operating here, an incompetence which has led to this, this atrocity, I have made it my mission to change that. And I will not rest until this mission is complete."
Out in the hallway, a man laughed, and a woman's high cackle answered back. The intrusion seemed to push Ackerman deeper into his rage.
He raised his huge fist and hammered it against the table, then pushed his chair back a few inches from the table as if he meant to hurl himself at the whole incompetent group of them.
Helen lifted her eyes and gave the senator a serene half smile as if the two of them shared some secret.
"His name is Hal Bonner," Helen announced. Then she was quiet for a moment, letting the silence dance around her.
Frank watched as she sat, eyes lowered, running a slender finger around the rim of her mug. Then touching the edge of a black TV channel changer.
Eyes still down, Helen said, "Bonner is twenty-nine years old, a white male. He's approximately six feet tall. Born in Indiana, raised in foster care, no juvenile record. He was fifteen years old when he first came to the attention of the police in Indianapolis. Fourteen years ago, during a two-week period in the middle of July, Hal Bonner wiped out his former foster parents. Four women and three men ranging in age from thirty-six to sixty-seven. By the time the connection to Bonner was made, he'd vanished."
Helen looked up, glanced around the table. Letting a few more seconds tick off her theatrical clock. Frank was watching her. Everyone else was too.
"He started out with simple strangulation," she said. "The first four were killed that way. But by the time he got to number five, Hal was tearing them open, crushing their hearts. Like he did to Joanie. That's been his MO ever since. Only for the last ten years he's been getting paid."
"Not your average hitman," Andy said.
The senator cut his eyes to Andy, scowled, and looked back at Helen.
"And that's all, Mr. Sheffield. Ten years, that's all your people have."
"Now he's a hired gun for the Cali cartel," Andy said. "They use Hal for special occasions, when they want to inspire the serious heebie-jeebies. Make an example of someone."
Andy looked around at the silent group, took another bite from the remaining Danish.
"Senator Ackerman is correct," Helen said. "Hal's extremely slippery. Apparently he's spotted every sting we've thrown at him. For ten years we've had him as a level-one priority and we've consistently bombed. Even using our best undercover people, Oscar winners, Hal saw through them every time. Got a whiff of something wrong, stepped back into the shadows, and was gone. But we think we have a winner this time. Something Hal won't be able to resist."
"All right," Ackerman said, rapping his knuckles impatiently against the table. "Show him the photograph."
Helen reached below the table and came up with a file folder. She laid it on the table next to her coffee.
"Fourteen years ago when Hal murdered his foster parents, he also was quite thorough about destroying any sign of his presence in those homes. Photo albums, schoolwork, drawings, everything. Very meticulous for a young man of only fifteen. As if he already had a life plan and knew exactly what he needed to do, obliterate any trace of his past life. But we did manage to locate one photo from a school in Evansville. A junior high school he attended for a few months."
She took a thumbnail photograph from the folder and slid it across the table to Frank. He picked it up, studied it for several moments.
The boy was wearing a madras shirt buttoned to the top, and he stared grimly into the lens. A crudely handsome young man with heavy eyebrows and coarse, dark hair which was chopped and mangled as though he had been barbered by someone with failing eyesight and a palsied hand. His eyes were gray and widely spaced and protruded slightly. Already at thirteen or fourteen his cheeks were shadowed by a thick beard. As though he were cursed by a heavy flow of testosterone, launched into manhood years before he was ready.
"We've aged him," Helen Shane said. "Brought him up to date. Agent Barth directed the work, using the TS-38 software system he designed."
Andy showed them a gloating smile.
Helen picked up the TV remote and aimed it at the set and it crackled to life. Slowly she clicked through four different renderings, leaving each one on the screen for half a minute. Hal Bonner as a twenty-nine-year-old, side view and front. Hal with long hair. Hal with a trimmed beard. Hal with a shaggy beard and short hair. Hal Bonner clean-shaven and bald. She left the last one on the screen.
It was excellent work, but like every computer enhancement he'd seen, something was lost from the original photograph. Some spark in the eyes. While everyone stared at the television screen and murmured, Frank took another look at the small class photo.
He'd never believed in reading things into people's eyes. All that windows-of-the-soul bullshit. But Hal Bonner's eyes were tempting. In the class photo there was a brooding defiance in them that Sheffield had seen once or twice in the eyes of torture victims. Soldiers who'd suffered excruciating ordeals in POW camps, and because they'd managed to survive the worst their captors could inflict, they no longer knew real fear or cared quite as much as they once had about the suffering of others. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Rough Draft by James W. Hall. Copyright © 2000 James W. Hall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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